An Arthurian Miscellany at sacred-texts.com
GEORGE BIDDER PREFACE
The name Yberha is pronounced nearly to
rhyme with the Italian word guerra .
G. P. B.
A lad I was, dark-haired and dark of eye,
Ever the first to court a danger shown,
Ever the last to lay my courage down
In face of man or sprite. Strife then ran high
Betwixt us and the strangers; and the land
Stirred with a thrill it could not understand.
For 'twas the tie that bound mother and child,
And strangers would possess her bosom bare,
And strangers batten on our woodland air,
And strangers trample on our mountains wild;
And so the earth stirred in stern motherhood,
And all her children knew in their blood.
Slight-limbed was I, nor challenged feats of strength:
My great-thewed cousins hurled the massy rock,
And flung the fir-tree that ten winters' shock
Had left unharmed. Thick shoulders, thighs of length,
Flat hips, stout buttocks; -- they could throw a steer,
Or drink their shallow wits away the livelong year.
Yberha was her name. Across the flood,
Where then a mounded tower in stoutness stood,
There lived her father; -- silent, moody man,
Caring not who was kind nor who was proud,
Nor what more than aught else men cried aloud,
Nor where his neighbour's power stretched its span.
One moonlight night I swam the tide across,
Met the great wave in the middle, saw it toss,
Tossed a long bowshot in its boiling surge,
Fought till the flood could know its master there,
Swam, bold, to the further bank, for earth and air,
And saw her standing silent on the verge.
The moon played on her head, and yellow hair
Flowed to her waist with never let or care;
White dress, white arms, shone in the mystic light,
Pale cheeks, and lips compressed, were desolate:
She seemed a spirit wandered forth by fate,
To give a pallid soul to the dead night.
She looked toward the moon; and, stooping down,
Reached backward without gazing, from the sward
Plucking three strange leaves, and with a careful ward
Knotted them fast enfolded in her gown;
Nor ever looked but straitly at the moon,
And murmured weary words to strange sad tune: --
"Listen maid, listen man,
Catch bubble who catch can,
Surge tide, river glide;
Merge bush, shiver rush:
Watch, fair lady of the skies!
Look me, look me in the eyes;
You shall not see me pick your prize."
I knew not if she were of fairy birth,
But knew that she was fair, as never yet
Has man known and been able to forget.
I knew not were she slight or honest worth;
But knew that how so e'er I lived on earth,
For how so many years, without her it was dearth.
And stepping forth beside her on the dew,
I said, "The night is lonely in this place,
The moon is poor protection for your grace;
The wolves are fierce, and those that dare them few:
Till you find safer guardian I will stand
Beside you; strong or weak, to your command."
And so I turned, proud of my youth and might,
Of skill and courage -- for, whate'er the fight,
The swift eye and the swiftly-reasoning brain,
Knowing when best to give, and when to take,
And vantage out of direst chance to make,
Laughs at the strength that rives an oak in twain; --
Proud of my power, shamed of my nakedness;
Nor caring what this maid with golden tress
Thought of my sudden speech. For she was mine,
I cared not how so great her pride or power,
Nor did her lips smile or her forehead lower,
Or tears or fire beneath her eyelids shine.
Proud of my power, I knew her ever mine,
Willing or unwilling; so the sun should shine
The morrow, or the winter bring us snow.
Strength must bow down to greater strength; and none,
My proud youth told me, breathed our Western sun
Woman or man, my subtle force could know.
Turned she, a-rustle in the dewy grass: --
"Strange things, methinks, are come abroad to-night,
When a poor stripling deems my heart in fright
For wolves, that every woodland hind would pass
And send them snarling back. Yet wolves, fair boy,
Perchance the more than you such meeting would enjoy!"
With that she raised her white arms in the wind,
And waving cried aloud. By lonely mere,
When the night sleep is deep, somewhiles a sound,
Unearthly and unheavenly, fills the round
Of the starred sky, and earth is filled with fear:
Such sounds she sent through moonlight and through shade,
Waving her white arms toward the forest glade;
And my heart beat beside her, fragrant-skinned.
Three times she called, once to the moony South,
Once to the mountain woods; and once she turned,
And where the North Star by his chariot burned,
Once more that strange wail came from that curved mouth:
And my arms ached her filmy weight to bear,
And in my blood was tangling all her golden hair.
But from the South there came an answering cry
I knew ere yet it ceased. For that reply
I heard when with my cousins we had found
A she-wolf in her lair, and on a fire
Had tied the dam to burn out her desire
For human flesh, and on the gory ground
Had killed her cubs before her. Then that sound
Had answered the last cry of that sad mother bound;
And cousins stout cared not to stay and see
What cheer her spouse should give them; so they ran
To where were fire and walls and home of man --
I last -- and to my home his foot-tracks followed me.
And from the West there came the fearful wail,
That ever made men's faces change and pale,
Of the old were-wolf of the woods; that through the dark
Howled when a man should die. And North again
A she-wolf screamed like a dead soul in pain: --
They cried there was a man soon to lie stiff and stark.
Once, twice, and thrice they cried; and every cry
Nearer and nearer; and with moonlit eye
She smiled upon me, mocking. I knew well
That all in arms I could not fight these foes;
High to the danger still my courage rose,
Nor, naked, owned their cries my funeral knell.
I seized her swiftly up from where she stood,
To bear her with me to the angry flood,
There swim for life or death; face to my face,
Heart to my heart, breath panting with my breath;
To live if I could live, die with my death,
And rot with me in one last long embrace.
"Boy," she laughed, "art afraid of these my friends?
The river but some cowardly mankin sends,
Who dares not face the forest! Stand your ground:
I promise you shall have no cause for fear!
These are my friends whom I have summoned here,
To do my pleasure fond, to do my bidding bound."
"Seal thou thy promise with a kiss!" I cried.
She kissed; -- and in my ears murmured the tide,
And in her eyes the moon and stars were pent,
And in her lips were past and future bliss,
All life, all thought, sunk in one burning kiss:
Stars, earth and heaven, in her eyes were blent --
And round the wolves were seated. Panting tongue,
Sharp teeth in cruel jaw, that hungry hung
Under the gleaming eyes; and all the air
Was noisome with their scent. The three that cried
Were foremost; and sat watching, side by side,
Where first from my young limbs the flesh to tear.
Dark shadows stretched behind them with strange stars
That came and went, as o'er the harbour bars
The shipman sees the lantern on the shore.
Dark shadows clustered round upon the grass,
And backward, forward, would a shadow pass;
And ever drew they nearer, ever more.
We stood, and I stood foremost; till the breath
Of him from the South whose vixen I had slain,
Fanned warm on my cold limbs, and a thick rain
Slavered from both those jaws of fearsome death;
And his coat bristled o'er in lustful hate,
Big with revenge, and hunger, and my fate.
Yet she behind me gave a silvery laugh,
Like streamlet on the mountain, rippling clear,
When first it strikes the tired hunter's ear,
Who turns from summer's hear its rill to quaff.
Low answered from the pack in fear and dread
A whine of horror; and uneasy stirred each shadowy head.
She struck her little hand across his ears --
"Down, rascal! hast no manners for my friend?
Kiss, dog, where I have kissed." -- I saw him bend,
I felt his mouth drip hot and hungry tears
Over my feet; and then from foot to head
He slavered me -- whose cubs I had laid dead --
With teeth, and shining eyes, and hair bristling in hate and dread.
Ever there rang the silvery laugh behind,
And the eyes of the shadows moved; a single mind
Seemed to grow into the twining shapeless crowd,
As they closed together, and closer; poised on their feet,
As those who wait to know the moment is meet --
On a sudden the were-wolf rose and howled aloud --
And away to the South were a cloud of galloping backs,
Old dog, were-wolf, and the vixen leading the packs;
And up the stars rose laughter, awful and shrill:
She and I were alone. Her parted mouth
Shrilled, mocking, to the skies; and away to the South
I saw a rushlight burn in the village under the hill.
O then I turned to her, and I held my eyes
Proud, gazing where I saw her eyelids rise:
"Now, know you; wolves or fiends, I fear them nought;
But I will take what heart is in your breast,
And I will make you follow my behest,
Natheless for all the spells that e'er were wrought!"
Her white hands touched my face. "Poor, gentle boy,
And have you not enough of Yberha's grace?
Were you not sated with the wolf's embrace,
That you would know my lips as little coy?
Would you court a bride who can cast a shade on the sun,
And will watch the soul in its flight when the rushlight yonder is done?
"I love not ever my father; who reads strange scrolls
Of how the world shall be happy, and men be kind,
And great ones from their slaves their chains unbind,
And lowly men be great. I take his rolls
And read on the other side, of power and pride;
Who weds must win them for me, whatsoe'er betide.
"Swim home and dream in peace. Not yours to turn
The forces of the stars out from the sky,
And wield them; while the men fall down and die
Where'er your finger points, and the worlds burn,
And horror fills your soul with horror's depth and height,
And round about you press the forces of the night.
"Boy, dare you hold unceasing, endless pain
Thralled in your hand? when a shiver or a stain
Of fear across your mind would loose it there,
And in one flood would roll over your brain
One blank of that unceasing endless pain,
And agony relentless, and unperishing despair.
"Dare you walk forth on lone eternal hills,
And know beside you lone eternal wills,
Bend them, unwilling, to tear up the earth,
To whirl the heavens backward, heap the sea,
Cast night on noonday, set the Zodiac free.
And curse a newborn life before its birth?
"Swim home and dream in peace: and woo some girl
Whose charms are blush of cheek, and waft of curl;
And give her then this kiss." I clasped her form,
White-robed and slim: "I woo no other maid;
I fear not death or pain, nor the cold shade
Of loneliness. Rage all your fiery storm.
"Thus I will hold you! And in death or pain,
Victor or vanquished, till your bosom's snow
Melt in my heart, I will not let you go:
I will not live away from you again;
I am more strong than you with all your might,
And all your beauty is my proper right!"
Still there she stood, clasped closely, dreamingly,
With moonlit eyes and dewy marble cheek,
Lips moving not to kiss me or to speak;
Still there she stood, clasped closely, dreamingly.
Her eyes shone in the darkness, as the light
That leads forth wanderers, far, far into the night.
Rested her white hand on my hungry arm:
"And I have been alone; alone," she said;
"I thought to go alone among the dead,
And lonely guide them with an awful charm.
I thought alone to turn the weak world's length;
I knew not that a man had such a strength.
"Fold round your arms more closely. How your lip
Is cold, and night-dews from your eyelids drip!
Fold closely. Now I know that life can give
Something more sweet than power, yet more sweet
Than cruelty. Do our hearts together beat?
To be in lonely strength is not to live.
"Kiss not so close, for I would speak awhile:
Know, love, that I must wander many a mile
'Twixt now and day. Know, I can never wed,
Save with death to my lover, but a man
Who knows my every spell to bless or ban;
Unless I lay all down beside my marriage bed.
"Which will you: wed me as a powerless maid,
Of night, and wolves, and warlock word afraid;
Or wait till my high art yourself have learned?"
I cried -- "I wed no weakling for my bride!
Ride we this rotten world, whate'er betide:
I kiss you on it." -- And her lips like fire burned.
S o three long years I toiled by night and day
To learn her spells. The meteors at play
Cried round us as we sat upon the hills,
The lightning flowed in lucid gentle rills
To bathe her feet; and strange tongues spake anon
Thundering, and red streamers through the welkin shone.
Sometime we pored o'er mystic written signs
Tangled with pictured horrors, wrapt designs
That first were stains of blood upon the page,
And then were men, writhing in pain and rage,
And then shone forth a face in hate and fear,
And grew, until the eyeballs stared as near
As beat her heart to mine. And as we gazed
Sense became dim, and sight and thought amazed:
The walls fell back from out that narrow room,
The world lay wide before us in its gloom,
Strange swift things sped on wings of livid light,
And round about us closed the forces of the night.
Sometime from out the shadows of the grave
We called the old Fenickian; who, when wave
Curled o'er his ship to sink it in the deep,
Bade there its mountainous waters hang, asleep
(And still men show it, from the quiet sea
A long white rock, o'erhanging treacherously):
And he would teach us how in Orient land
Great toiling sprites weave cables from the sand;
And he that holds them may chain back the hours
Till his proud life, in ever-waxing powers,
Stretch on a thousand years, and time is tired,
And all lies in his hand that ever he desired:
And how within the bowels of the earth
A fiery race awaits its coming birth,
And they that master mighty spells have care
To say nought that shall break their fetters there;
Else all our world should vanish in a breath,
One fierce and fearsome flame, and long eternal death.
And sometime we would pass into the skies
Till the near stars gleamed hotly in her eyes;
And we would look behind the Milky Veil
Where watch the drowsy fates, weary and pale,
Till planets cease to rule. And we would fall
Downward to the abyss from whence the thunders call;
And there were monstrous, mountainous, cloudy forms,
Whose eyes were lightnings, and whose breaths were storms;
Writhing and twisting through the unbounded deep,
Now strove they at their chains, and now would sleep:
When they be loosed the mountains pass to air,
And all the solid earth to windy, dark despair.
And sometime would we sit beneath the trees;
And I would kiss the blushes to her face,
And wind her hair in many a wandering grace,
And set it flowing to the evening breeze;
And bury her with flowers, scenting of spring,
And hear the white-barred winter-finch his love-bell ring.
A nd so there went three years: and I was grown
Stronger than she, more daring in my spells,
Calling the spirits of the rugged fells
As shepherd calls his dogs. Our troth was known;
Merlin would wed Yberha of the Mount,
Child of the silent man men held of small account.
Yet never had he yielded to our troth,
Nor ever took her dower at my hand;
But called me wastrel of an ill-lived land,
Profitless in labour, diligent in sloth,
No husband for his daughter; but a curse
To make good bad in her, and make bad worse.
That time the foe came on us. Fiery light
Shone forth from every hill-top, and all day
Men drove their women and their herds away,
And digged to wall about them all the night.
About Yberha's tower they digged the wall;
Yon moody man was leader of them all.
And from the sacred places came a chant
From daybreak to nightfall; and fierce-eyed priests
Tore from the rout the best of all the beasts,
Made ox and sheep up the long stoneway pant,
Till all the altars, set in crimson mire,
Clouded the sky with smoke and marred the night with fire.
THE PRAYER OF THE PRIESTS
Great mountains, hear us!
Hear us, who deck in flowers your granite brows
And fill your cups with blood.
Great river, hear us!
Hear us, who pour our offerings on the wave,
Whose fairest in thy bosom have their grave.
Sun, hear us!
We give the best our bitter life allows
To thee, giver of good.
Gods of the forest, hear us!
Red drip the branches of your sacred trees:
What other gods there be, O hear us!
And scent our offerings on the evening breeze.
We march in mystic rite;
The trumpets to the Night:
She is coming from the east,
And the sacrifice, O priest,
Priest of the dawn,
Is there help?
Priest of the rocks,
Is there help?
Priest of the flood,
Priest of the wood,
Is there help?
We march in mystic rite;
The trumpets to the Night:
Take our foes, dying deep;
But we worship thee --
Let us sleep.
Priest of the Night,
Is there help?
Yet nearer closed the foe: the holy seers
Had fled to the holy woods, to pray anew
In secret caverns where they held the clew;
Our tower rang with lowings, moans, and cheers;
The strangers were encamped against the wall;
That, and the moody man, became the hope of all.
Three days they sieged about us; till at length
We penned the cattle and women in the tower,
Massed to their weaker wing in all our power,
And rushed to measure with the foe our strength:
Foremost of all Yberha's father there;
An axe made like a cross he brandished in the air.
Bloodily waged the battle. I was light
Of spear and swift of foot, and through the fight
Passed like a wandering death. With heavy blows
Of axe on target, edgéd stone on hide,
My cousins fought in phalanx, side by side;
And over all the voice of Yberha's father rose:
"Strike for your children! Strike for love and wife!
Strike for the kindly land that gave you life!
-- O Thou that rulest lives and ways of men,
Save this poor ignorant people to new days
That thus a thankful land thy grace repays."
And he struck with the two-edged axe, and cried, "Amen."
But we were few, and I saw Yberha's head at the tower,
And I drew forth, to weave a spell of power
With her for conquest. Waving hand with hand,
She on the tower, I back from out the fight,
We read a twisted spell of potent might
Pointing to where the crossed axe made a stand; --
When all of a sudden the cross flew back as he smote,
Slipping his grasp, and struck me down in the moat,
I rose with courage strangely faint, a cry
Rang from the foe; my cousins side by side
Took blows of axe and spear on the stout bull-hide:
Yberha's father was down, and our men began to fly.
From out the tower whispered a light footfall,
Where shone my beauty, cold, and white, and tall;
I leapt quick-hearted o'er our fenceless bank,
Crying, "Come, sweetheart! speed we to the wood;
Thy sire is dead: none other ever stood
To foil our marriage; foiléd spells we well may thank!"
Cold stood she, white and tall. From out the fight
Our men were rallying back upon the right.
She spake: "Take up thy spear and lead the men,
Nor think of spells or love. Sweep back yon foe,
Or never word thine ear from me shall know:
When they are conquered, ask me further then."
Dizzy I turned me, and with waving spear
Called on my men and fell into the press;
Naught knew I but to long for her caress,
And for her safety to be sick with fear:
Still with skilled arm I thrust, and thrust again,
And into the hot foe we fought out way amain.
And as the sun was setting, down the hill
We pressed them; and my wing the more and more
Forced them, retreating, to the river shore,
Until they turned to flee, and we to kill:
But where my cousins stood, stubborn and loud,
The battle waged like thunder in a thundercloud.
At length there too the foe broke; turned and fled,
Scattering toward the river, and we ran
To slay; but my huge cousin, once began
The cloud to break, turned back among the dead,
And I cried wrathful words; but there they stood,
While half stricken foe escaped into the flood.
We slew till all were fled, or bound, or slain,
Then turned triumphing to the tower again.
The women busily sped to and fro
Helping the wounded; or with bitter wail
Pressed lip to cheek that sundown-light left pale;
Or vainly, sadly, searched their dead to know.
I was unwounded. Youth, and skill of fence,
And fearless coolness, and a delicate sense
Of where a man was weakest, kept my head;
And so, afront of all my lagging men,
I mounted lightly from the bloody glen,
And walked to meet my love among the dead.
A dark group stood within our earthen mound;
A body, and my cousins pressing round;
And she, white-robed, the nearest. Lightly treading,
As one that walks from waiting unto wedding,
I came behind her; and, ere I could speak,
Had touched her glossy hair, and kissed her cheek.
Like adder coiled about her threatened young,
With head thrown back, and swift death-dealing tongue,
Turning, she spake: -- "Smooth coward! whole of skin,
You have come well forth from all this bitter strife,
And saved, at least, one traitorous, worthless life --
Maid's body, with a weasel's heart within!
"There lies my father, stricken by your guile.
You faced him not to kill him; but, with wile
Evil and secret, struck him out of sight,
Spelling I know not what of fatal ban.
You could lay low a fearless, trustful man,
Foremost and strongest in his people's fight
"I wed you? Wed me rather to the raven,
Gorged with yon bravest blood, than to a craven."
With that she faced the rest, and, bowing head --
"I have been wild and foolish as a maid,
And tried to learn strange arts, proud not to be afraid:
For ever now I lay them by," she said.
"Worthless they were, worthless I know are those
Who seek out all the thorns whereon the rose
Of our fair life, by sun and showers fed,
Blossoms in love and truth. Crook'd thorns there be;
And strange imaginings those that seek them see:
Methinks the most of them are false," she said.
"An honest man, with strong and brave right arm
To keep a loving woman from all harm,
Seeing at night a glowing ingle-bed
With laughing, dark-haired children, clear of eye,
Fearlessly helpless, smiling trustfully; --
Stronger are these than charms or spells," she said.
"Friends, I was wrong; this day I have seen clear
That such things are but vain; be witness here;
I tell, who know. My days that be unsped
Henceforth I strive -- and what I strive I can --
To live a woman, as my sire a man,
Worthy of love from man and child," she said.
"This thing that fed my follies, in my blindness
I thought to marry; but my father wise,
Seeing my madness with a father's eyes,
Dissuaded, vainly, gently, with a father's kindness.
-- Foolish or false, my strange arts this man shared:
Traitor in them, his black heart he has bared;
"I leave him, and for ever." Such mad words --
More mad, more fierce than memory affords
To utter rightly, -- with proud head back thrown,
She uttered; in some glamour, as I thought,
That made her to the bold day I had fought
Blind, and forgetful of our magic throne;
I deemed that it would pass. And cousin stout
Stood forth and said, "Fair lady, in yon rout
Young Merlin led the van, no traitor he.
Of star-work tricks I know not; but you twain
Foolish and young, grow not so young again:
Marry him, maid! he made our foes to flee."
So his two brothers dropped axe-handle down
Upon the ground; and, nodding with wise frown,
Said, "Aye, the chief is right; he led the van:
Marry him, lady, 'tis a fightsome lad!"
And one said, "Lady, be not all so sad;
Your father breathes, perchance not sped his span."
But she looked on the corse despairingly:
And one said to me, "Lad, 'twere better see
This is no time for wooing. On the morrow
She will forget these strange things she has said
Of all your love-games. Leave her with her dead;
You must not woo a maiden in her sorrow."
Then looked she on my cousin. Big and tired
He stood, his eye no more with battle fired,
His face astreak with blood. One ugly gash
Left half his forehead hanging; his right hand
Swung powerless, broke at the elbow. Brown and tanned,
You saw him pale in the lips, and all his eyes with blood asplash.
"Friend, you bestrode, untrod, my father's corse
From afternoon till evening. Brave in fight
I knew you; true to what you know is right
I find you: strong and true. For better or worse
I here do vow me yours. So you me wed
I will be faithful wife, or know no marriage-bed."
Silence held us, all still. She knelt aground,
And took his miry, bloodstained hand, and raised
That ox-hoof to her honeyed lips. Amazed,
I poised my spear; but the brothers held me round.
Stupid, but not unkindly louts, they bore
Me, mad with rage, to a coracle on the shore.
And one came with me, sculling where we knew
Safe cave of refuge. There he stayed with me,
Lying to watch the water from the sea
Behind the islet where the willow grew;
And there we stayed a week beside the shore,
And to this day I never saw her more.
For he sailed me down the river, and set me forth
With the fisher-folk that knew us not of the North;
And I flung a stone on his boat as he sailed away
That sank him there, and the tide swept into the bay;
And none knew ever a man had come with me,
Nor boat, nor whence I came, of earth or sky or sea.
I chose me a cave where a wolf had made his den,
And drave them forth with a stick: the people feared me then.
I lived as the wise men live in Orient lands;
I made strange spells in the night, and spell on spell
I learned, till all the world obeyed me well;
And one, with weaving paces and with waving hands,
You wot of, I made then; and spelled those twain,
Her and her sotted lover, that again
They ne'er should love, but see me ever there --
But see me ever betwixt closéd walls,
Whether, without, sun rises or dew falls,
Ever in hate, and ever in despair.
And I live on in power, power of men,
To wield their kings and councils, and to wield
Their herd-like armies on the battle field,
And power o'er all that is beyond their ken.
And yet, sometimes, when I see the moon in the south,
Methinks I feel warm lips upon my mouth.
Next: Prince Arthur. An Heroick Poem in Ten Books: Part I, by Richard Blackmore