Thomas Aird

Nebuchadnezzar: Canto IV: Nebuchadnezzar's Cave

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I

The moon full-orbed came up the east, and shone
Sweetly above the hills of Babylon:
Forth went the virgin Cyra by her light,
And wet her sandals in the dews of night,
Oft pausing she to strike her harp's clear string,
Through the still vales to lure the homeward King.
Long hours she roamed, but ne'er her wild lord came;
The keener heavens breathed chilly through her frame;
Then back she slowly went, and, to divide
The lonely hours, her scented fire supplied.
Nor yet, her hope though fainting, did she leave
Undone the filial duty of each eve;
But mixed his bowls of milk and tempered wine,
With drops infused, the pith of flowers divine,
In gentle wisdom that their healing dew
In nightly sleep his spirit might renew.


II

A foot, a shadow came; uprose the maid;
'Tis he!—forward she springs—is she afraid?—
Awed she draws back, she stands in mute surprise,
To see that solemn light within his eyes—
The strict concentred check—the lucid reins
Of reason, ruler o'er ecstatic pains.
With silent love on Cyra long he gazed,
Till came some quick sense of his life abased;
Gleamed his proud tears; into his cave's recess
He turned away in his sublime distress,
As in pale Hades, 'midst dim-visioned things,
Stalk the proud shadows of forgotten kings.


III

Her lamp the maid replenished with the oil
Of fragrant trees, to work a pleasing toil
Of needlework. Too glad for this, she stood
Entranced, till startled by a groan subdued.
Noiseless her footsteps as the falling snows,
With shaded lamp unto the King she goes;
Lets fall the shifting light by mild degrees,
Till now the features of her lord she sees.
He sleeps, yet brokenly; those sultry gleams
Betray a spirit toiling in his dreams.
Forth Cyra hastes, but soon she reappears
With mingled balms; with these, and with her tears
That dropped the while, she washed those dews away
From off his forehead, till refreshed he lay;
And kissed his cheek, and with a daughter's care
Arranged the masses of his raven hair.


IV

Then sate the maid, unrolling, white as milk,
4Down from her knee a web of Persian silk,
Flowered by her needle, as her shaping mind
Thereon the King's young conquests had designed,—
From Nile victorious to the glimmering North,
Whose pictured form with keys of ice came forth;
O'er Tyre triumphant, o'er Damascus, o'er
Great kingdoms eastward to the Indian shore:
All here portrayed in glory and in gloom,
Rich as the work of an enchanted loom.
Her heart a silent covenant had made,
The finished gift before him should be laid
That solemn day, when he should leave that den,
Raised up by God again to govern men;
That to his heart, his humbled sense, his awe
Of Him who ruled him with a wondrous law—
His fear from this—his joy, redeemed—his thought
Of her who loved him, and that picture wrought,
A lasting great memorial it might be,
That Zion's captives he was bound to free.
His reason comes, her half-wrought cloth demands
The sleepless haste of her unwearied hands.


V

Forth came the King; his worn and awful face,
On Cyra bent, began to melt apace
To gleams—how tender! farther still subdued
To mingled tears of more than gratitude.

Stung by some fierce remembrance, fiercely changed,
With sudden strides throughout the cave he ranged;
Like toil-caught lion of his prey bereaved,
7The mighty hinges of his bosom heaved;
Wild flew his locks; and darkness o'er his face
Settled, like night upon the desert place.
But trembling came: he knelt with humbled brow,
Solemn as when the ancient forests bow,
Smote by the cardinal winds:—“I know Thee well,”
Uprising, said he, “God of Israel!
The bright stars are the dust beneath Thy feet!
Vast ages dim not Thine essential seat!
Yet these permitted eyes, did they not see
Thy Glory in the furnace with the Three?
An effluence, like a globe of crystal air,
Was round about them: scathless was their hair.
Beyond, the red and roaring haze but showed
More beautiful these children of their God.
A Fourth was with them: glowing were His feet
As iron drawn from out the boiling heat!
Was it not Thou? Brightness was Thy attire,
Mild walking with them on the stones of fire!
Under Thy dread permission, in Thy sight
I rise a King; but I will reign aright.
Though greatly wronged, to-day though galled my pride,
Yet to my heart shall vengeance be denied.
Yea, by their insults of this day extreme,
My foes have chased my madness like a dream.
Theirs no excuse; yet, by Thy grace upraised,
To me Thy mercy shall by mine be praised:
For I am humbled; ne'er shall be forgot
Thy power which curbed me down to such a lot.
Oh hear me now for her, this precious child,
More than my daughter on the mountains wild!

For me her dear eyes faint: Great God of Heaven,
Be health, be gladness to my Cyra given!
Let her but live, that I to her may prove
At least a father for her boundless love!”
He ceased. Young reverence her eyes abased;
With trembling joy a cup to him she raised.
He took the cup, with murmured love he blessed
The virgin, drank, retired, and lay at rest;
For she had spiced it with the sovereign flowers
Of sleep, to soothe him through the midnight hours.


VI

There sits young Cyra! As her work is sped,
Waves the redundant glory of her head,
Her dark and heavy locks. Oh, more than wife!
Oh, bold and lavish of thy generous life
For him thy lord! What though, by cares subdued,
Pale is thy cheek, O virgin greatly good,
All fair art thou as the accomplished eve,
Whose finished glories not a wish can leave;
Yea, more than eve consummate, as her skies
Where lurk the cognate morrow's glorious dyes:
So wears thy youth still promise, still when won
The perfect grace of every duty done!
Yea, who can see thee in this holy hour,
Nor deem thee guarded by supernal power?
Nor deem he sees, of Watchers here divine,
Incessant gleams around this cavern shine?
Light speed thy task, young Cyra; happy be;
Here angel wings are visitant for thee!
But hush! but hark! ha! see—a stealthy shape!
A second, third!—oh, how may she escape?

She starts—she's seized—she struggles—shrieks for aid,
In vain; the King in charmèd sleep is laid.
Masked forms around her throng, with many a foot
The emblazoned web of beauty they pollute.
Even Zublon's help she craves in her dismay;
But yielding, fainting, she is borne away.

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Thomas Aird