Mirèio/Canto V

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CANTO V.

 

THE BATTLE.

 

COOL with the coming eve the wind was blowing,
The shadows of the poplars longer growing;
Yet still the westering sun was two hours high,
As the tired ploughman noted wistfully,—
Two hours of toil ere the fresh twilight come,
And wifely greeting by the door at home.

But Ourrias the brander left the spring,
The insult he had suffered pondering.
So moved to wrath was he, so stung with shame,
The blood into his very forehead came;
And, muttering deadly spite beneath his teeth,
He drave at headlong gallop o'er the heath.

Ah damsons in a bush, the stones of Crau
Are plentiful; and Ourrias, fuming so,
Would gladly with the senseless flints have striven,
Or through the sun itself his lance have driven.
A wild boar from his lair forced to decamp,
And scour the desert slopes of black Oulympe,1

Ere turning on the dogs upon his track,
Erects the rugged bristles of his back,
And whets his tusks upon the mountain oaks.
And now young Vincen with his comely looks
Must needs have chosen the herdsman's very path,
And meets him full face, boiling o'er with wrath.

Whereas the simple dreamer wandered smiling,
His memory with a sweet tale beguiling,
That he had heard a fond girl whispering
Beneath a mulberry-tree one morn in spring.
Straight is he as a cane from the Durance;
And love, peace, joy, beam from his countenance.

The soft air swells his loose, unbuttoned shirt:
His firm, bare feet are by the stones unhurt,
And light as lizard slips he o'er the way.
Oh! many a time, when eve was cool and gray,
And all the land in shadow lay concealed,
He used to roam about the darkling field,

Where the chill airs had shut the tender clover;
Or, like a butterfly, descend and hover
About the homestead of Mirèio;
Or, hidden cleverly, his hiding show,
Like a gold-crested or an ivy wren,
By a soft chirrup uttered now and then.

And she would know who called her, and would fly
Swift, silent, to the mulberry-tree hard by,
With quickened pulses. Fair is the moonlight
Upon narcissus-buds in summer night,
And sweet the rustle of the zephyr borne
In summer eve over the ripening corn,

Until the whole, in infinite undulation,
Seems like a great heart palpitant with passion.
Also the chamois hath a joy most keen
When through the savage Queiras2 ravine
All day before the huntsman he hath flown,
And stands at length upon a peak, alone

With larches and with ice fields, looking forth.
But all these joys and charms are little worth,
With the brief rapture of the hours compared—
Ah, brief!—that Vincen and Mirèio shared,
When, by the friendly shadows favorèd,
(Speak low, my lips, for trees can hear, 'tis said,)

Their hands would seek each other and would meet,
And silence fall upon them, while their feet
Played idly with the pebbles in their way.
Until, not knowing better what to say,
The tyro-lover laughingly would tell
Of all the small mishaps that him befell;

Of nights he passed beneath the open heaven;
Of bites the farmers' dogs his legs had given,
And show his soars. And then the maid told o'er
Her tasks of that day and the day before;
And what her parents said; and how the goat
With trellis-flowers had filled his greedy throat.

Once only—Vincen knew not what he did;
But, stealthy as a wild-cat, he had slid
Along the grasses of the barren moor,
And prostrate lay his darling's feet before.
Then—soft, my lips, because the trees can hear—
He said, "Give me one kiss, Mirèio dear!

"I cannot eat nor drink," he made his moan,
"For the great love I bear you! Yes, mine own,
Your breath the life out of my blood has taken.
Go not, Mirèio! Leave me not forsaken!
From dawn to dawn, at least, let a true lover
Kneel, and your garment's hem with kisses cover!"

"Why, Vincen," said Mirèio, "that were sin!
Then would the black-cap and the penduline3
Tell everywhere the secret they had heard!"
"No fear of that! for every tell-tale bird
I 'd banish from La Crau to Arles," said he;
"For you, Mirèio, are as heaven to me!

"Now list! There grows a plant in river Rhone,
Eel-grass4 by name," and Master Ambroi's son:
"Two flowers it beareth, each on its own stem,
And a great space of water severs them,
For the plant groweth in the river's bed;
But when the time for wooing comes," he said,

"One flower comes to the surface of the flood,
And in the genial sunshine open its bud.
Whereon the other, seeing this so fair,
Swims eagerly to seize and kiss her there;
But, for the tangled weeds, can she not gain
Her love, till her frail stem breaks with the strain.

"Now free at last, but dying, she doth raise
Her pale lips for her sister's last embrace.
So I! One kiss, and I will die to-night!
We are all alone!" Mirèio's cheek grew white.
Then sprang he, wild-eyed as a lissome beast,
And clasped her. Hurriedly the maid released

Herself from his too daring touch. Once more
He strove to seize,—but ah! my lips, speak lower,
For the trees hear,—"Give over!" cried the girl,
And all her slender frame did writhe and curl.
Yet would he frantic cling; but straight thereafter
She pinched him, bent, slipped, and, with ringing laughter,

The saucy little damsel sped away,
And lifted up her voice in mocking lay.
Thus sowed these two upon the twilight heath
Their pretty moon-wheat,5 as the proverb saith.
Flowery the moments were, and fleet with pleasure:
Of such our Lord giveth abundant measure

To peasants and to kings alike. And so
I come to what befell that eve on Crau.
Ourrias and Vincen met. As lightning cleaves
The first tall tree, Ourrias his wrath relieves.
"'Tis you son of a hag, for aught I know,
Who have bewitched her,—this Mirèio;

"And, since your path would seem to lie her way,
Tell her, tatterdemalion, what I say!
No more for her nor for her weasel face
Care I than for the ancient clout," he says,
"That from your shoulders fluttering I see.
Go, pretty coxcomb, tell her this from me!"

Stopped Vincen thunderstruck. His wrath leaped high
As leaps a fiery rocket to the sky.
"Is it your pleasure that I strangle you,
Base churl," he said, "or double you in two?"
And faced him with a look he well might dread,
As when a starving leopard turns her head.

His face was purple, quivered all his frame.
"Oh, better try!" the mocking answer came.
"You 'll roll headfirst upon the gravel, neighbor!
Bah, puny hands! meet for no better labor
Than to twist osiers when they 're supple made;
Or to rob hen-roosts, lurking in the shade!"

Stung by the insult, "Yes, I can twist osier,
And I can twist your neck with nil composure,"
Said Vincen, "Fly me, coward, while you may!
Or, by St. Jacques of Gallicia,
You 'll never see your tamarisks any more!
This iron first shall bray your limbs before!"

Wondering, and charmed to find by such quick chance
A man whereon to wreak his vengeance,
"Wait!" said the herdsman: "be not over-hot!
First let me have a pipe, young idiot!"
And brought to light a buckskin pouch, and set
Between his teeth a broken calumet.

Then scornfully, "While rocking you, my lamb,
Under the goose-foot,6 did your gypsy-dam
Ne'er tell the tale of Jan de l'Ourse,7 pray?—
Two men in one, who, having gone one day,
By orders, to plough stubble with two yoke,
Seized plough and teams, as shepherds do a crook,

"And hurled them o'er a poplar-tree hard by?
Well for you, urchin, there 's no poplar nigh!
You couldn't lead a stray ass whence it came!"
But Vincen stood like pointer to the game.
"I say," he roared in tones stentorian,
"Will you come down, or must I fetch you, man

"Or hog? Come! Brag no more upon your beast:
You flinch now we are coming to the test.
Which sucked the better milk, or you or I?
Was it you, bearded scoundrel? We will try!
Why, I will tread you like a sheaf of wheat,
If you dare flout yon maiden true and sweet.

"No fairer flower in this land blossomed ever;
And I who am called Vincen, basket-weaver,
Yea, I—her suitor, be it understood—
Will wash your slanders out in your own blood,
If such you have!" Quoth Ourrias, "I am ready,
My gypsy-suitor to a cupboard! Steady!"

Therewith alights. They fling their coats away,
Fists fly, and pebbles roll before the fray.
They fall upon each other in the manner
Of two young bulls who, in the vast savannah,
Where the great sun glares in the tropic sky,
The sleek sides of a dark young heifer spy

In the tall grasses, lowing amorous.
The thunder bursts within them, challenged thus.
Mad, blind with love, they paw, they stare, they spring;
And furious charges, their muzzles lowering;
Retire, and charge again. The ominous sound
Of crashing horns fills all the spaces round.

And long, I ween, the battle is, and dire.
The combatants are maddened by desire.
Puissant Love urges and goads them on.
So here, with either doughty champion.
'Twas Ourrias who received the first hard touch;
And, being threatened with another such,

Lifts his huge fist and lays young Vincen flat
As with a club. "There, urchin, parry that!"
"See if I have a scratch, man!" cried the lad.
The other, "Bastard, count the knocks you've had!"
"Count you the ounces of hot blood," he shouted,
"Monster, that from year flattened nose have spouted!"

And then they grapple; bend and stretch their best,
With foot to foot, shoulder to shoulder, prest.
Their arms are wreathed and coiled like supple snakes,
The veins are swelled to bursting in their necks,
The muscles of their calves tense with the strain.
Long time they stiff and motionless remain,

With pulsing flanks, like flap of bastard's wing.
And, one against the other steadying,
Bear up like the abutments huge and wide
Of that great bridge the Gardoun8 doth bestride.
Anon they part: their doubled fists upraise,
Once more the pestle in the mortar brays,

And in their fury ply they tooth or nail.
Good God! the blows of Vincen fall like hail.
Yet ah! what club-like hits the herdsman deals!
And, as their crushing weight the weaver feels,
He whirls as whirls a sling about his foe,
And backward bends to deal his fiercest blow.

"Look your last, villain!" Ere the word said he,
The mighty herdsman seized him bodily,
And flung him o'er his shoulder far away,
As a Provençal shovels wheat. He lay
A moment on his side, not sorely hurt.
"Pick up, O worm!" cried Ourrias,—"pick the dirt

"You have displaced, and eat it, if you will!"
"Enough of that! Brute who was broken ill,
We 'll have three rounds before this game is over!"
With bitter hate retorts the poor boy-lover;
And, reddening to his very hair for shame,
Rears like a dragon to retrieve his fame.

And, daring death, he on the brute hath flown,
And dealt a blow marvellous in such an one
Straight from the shoulder to the other's breast,
Who reeled and groped for that whereon to rest,
With darkening eyes and brow cold-beaded, till
He crushed to earth, and all La Crau was still.

Its misty limit blent with the far sea;
The sea's with the blue ether, dreamily.
Still in mid-air there floated shining things,
Swans, and flamingoes on their rosy wings,
Come to salute the last of the sunset
Along the desert meres that glimmered yet.

The white mare of the herdsman lazily
Pulled at the dwarf-oak leaves that grew thereby:
The iron stirrups of the creature jangled,
As loose and heavy at her sides they dangled.
"Stir, and I crush you, ruffian!" Vincen said:
"'Tis not by feet that men are measurèd!"

Then in the silent wold the victor pressed
His heel upon the brander's prostrate breast,
Who writhed beneath it vainly, while the blood
Sluggish and dark from lips and nostrils flowed.
Thrice did he strive the horny foot to move,
And thrice the basket-weaver from above

Dealt him a blow that levelled him once more,
Until he haggard lay, and gasping sore
Like some sea-monster. "So your mother, then,
Was not, it seems, the only mould of men,"
Said Vincen, jeeringly. "Go tell the tale
Of my fist's weight to bulls in Sylvarèal.

"Go to the waste of the Camargan isle,
And hide your bruises and your shame awhile
Among your beasts!" So saying, he loosed this one,
As shearer in the fold a ram full-grown
Pins with his knees till shorn; then, with a blow
Upon the crupper, bids him freely go.

Bursting with rage and all defiled with dust,
The herdsman went his ways. But wherefore must
He linger ferreting about the heath,
Amid the oaks and broom, under his breath
Muttering curses? until suddenly
He stoops, then swings his savage trident high,

And darts on Vincen. For him all is done.
Vain were the hope that murderous lance to shun,
And the boy paled as on the day he died;
Not fearing death, but that he could not bide
The treachery. A felon's prey to be!
That stung the manly soul to agony.

"Traitor, you dare not!" But the lad restrains
The word, firm as a martyr in his pains;
For yon 's the farmstead hidden by the trees.
Tenderly, wistfully, he turns to these.
"O my Mirèio!" said the eager eye,
"Loot hither, darling,—'tis for you I die!"

Great heart, intent as ever on his love!
"Say your prayers!" thundered Ourrias from above
In a hoarse voice, and pitiless to hear,
And pierced the victim with his iron spear.
Then, with a heavy groan, the fated lover
Rolled upon the green-sward, and all was over.

The beaten grass is dark with human gore,
And the field-ants already coursing o'er
The prostrate limbs ere Ourrias mounts, and flies
Under the rising moon in frantic wise;
Muttering, as the flints beneath him fly,
"To-night the Crau wolves will feast merrily."

Deep stillness reigned in Crau. Its limit dim
Blent with the sea's on the horizon's rim,
The sea's with the blue ether. Gleaming things,
Swans, and flamingoes on their ruddy wings,
Came to salute the last declining light
Along the desert meres that glimmered white.

Away, Ourrias, away! Draw not the rein,
Urge thy unresting gallop o'er the plain,
White the green heron9 shout their fearsome cries
In thy mare's ear, as the good creature flies,
Till her ear trembles, and her nostrils quiver,
And eyes dilate. That night the great Rhone River

Slept on his stony bed beneath the moon,
As pilgrim of Sainte Baume10 may lay him down,
Fevered and weary, in a deep ravine.
"Ho!" cries the ruffian to three boatmen seen,
"Ho! Boat ahoy! We must cross, hark ye there!
On board or in the hold, I and my mare!"

"On board, my hearty, then, without delay!
There shines the night-lamp! And lured by its ray,"
Answered a cheery voice, "about our prow
And oars the fish frisk playfully enow.
It is good fishing, and the hour is fair.
On board at once! We have no time to spare."

Therewith upon the poop the villain clomb.
While, tethered to the stern, amid the foam
Swam the white mare. Now fishes huge and scaly
Forsook their grottoes, and leaped upward gayly,
And flashed on the smooth surface of the stream.
"Have a care, pilot! For this craft I deem

"Nowise too sound." And he who spake once more
Lay foot to stretcher, bent the supple oar.
"So I perceive. Ah!" was the pilot's word,
"I tell thee we've an evil freight on board."
No more. And all the while the vessel old
Staggered and pitched and like a drunkard rolled.

A crazy craft! Rotten its timbers all.
"Thunder of God!" Ourrias began to call,
Seizing the helm his tottering feet to stay.
Whereon the boat in some mysterious way
Seemed moved to writhing, as a wounded snake
Whose back a shepherd with a stone doth break.

"Doth all this tumult, comrades, bode disaster?"
Appealed the brander, growing pale as plaster.
"And will you drown me?" Brake the pilot out,
"I cannot hold the craft! She springs about
And wriggler like a carp. Villain, I know
You 've murdered some one, and not long ago!"

"Who told you that? May Satan if I have
Thrust me with his pitch-fork beneath the wave."
"Ah!" said the livid pilot, "then I err!
I had forgot the cause of all this stir.
'Tis Saint Medard's to-night, when poor drowned men
Come from their dismal pits to land again,

"How deep and dark soe'er their watery prison.
Look! Even now hath from the wave arisen
The long procession of the weeping dead!
Barefoot, poor things! the shingly shore they tread,
The turbid water dripping, dripping, see,
From matted hair and stained clothes heavily.

"See them defile under the poplars tall,
Carrying lighted tapers, one and all.
While up the river's bank, now and anon,
Eagerly clambereth another one.
'Tis they who toss our wretched craft about
So like a raging storm, I make do doubt.

"Their cramped legs and their mottled arms—ah, see!—
And heavy heads they from the weeds would free.
Oh, how they watch the stars as on they go,
Quaff the fresh air and thrill at sight of Crau,
And scent the harvest odors the winds bring,
In their brief hour of motion reveling!

"And still the water from their garments raineth,
And still another and another gaineth
The river-bank. And there," the boatman moans,
"Are the old men, women, and little ones:
They spurn the clinging mud. Ah me!" he said,
"Yon ghastly things abhor the fisher's trade.

"The lamprey and the perch they made their game,
And now are they become food for the same.
But what is this? Another piteous band,
Travelling in a line along the sand?
Ah, yes! the poor deserted maids," quoth he,
"Who asked the Rhone for hospitality,

"And sought to hide their grief in the great river.
Alas! alas! They seem to moan for ever.
And, oh, how painfully, fond hearts, ill fated,
Labor the bosoms by the dank weeds weighted!
Is it the water dripping that one hears
From their long veils of hair, or is it tears?"

He ceased. The wending souls bare each a light,
Intently following in the silent night
The river-shore. And those two listening
Might even have heard the whirr of a moth's wing.
"Are they not, pilot," asked the awe-struck brander,
"Seeking somewhat in the gloom where they wander?"

"Ah, yes, poor things!" the master-boatman said.
"See how from side to side is turned each head.
'Tis their good works they seek,—their acts of faith
Sown upon earth ere their untimely death.
And when they spy the same, 'tis said moreover,
They haste thereto, as haste the sheep to clover,

"The good work or the act of faith to cull.
And when of such as these their hands are full,
Lo, they all turn to flowers"! And they who gather
Go tender them with joy to God the Father,
Being by the flowers to Peter's gate conveyed.
Thus those who find a watery grave," he said,

"The gracious God granteth a respite to,
That they may save themselves. But some enew
Ere the day dawn will bury their good deeds
Deep underneath the surging river-weeds.
And some," the pilot whispered,—"some are worse,
Devourers of the needy, murderers,

"Atheists, traitors, that worm-eaten kind.
These hunt the river-shore, but only find
Their sins and crimes like great stones in the gravel
Whereon their bare feet stumble as they travel.
The mule when dead is beaten never more;
But these God's mercy shall in vain implore

"Under the roaring wave." Here, sore afraid,
Ourrias a hand upon the pilot laid,
Like robber at a turning. "Look!" he cries,
"There 's water in the hold!" Whereon replies
The pliot, coolly, "And the bucket's there!"
The herdsman bales for life in his despair.

Ay, bale, brave Ourrias! But there danced that night,
On Trincataio11 bridge, the water-sprite.12
Madly the white mare strove to break her halter.
"What ails you, Blanco?" Ourrias 'gan falter.
"Fear you the dead yonder upon the verge?"
Over the gunnel plashed the rising surge.

"Captain, the craft sinks, and I cannot swim!"
"I know no help," the pilot answered him.
"We must go down. But, presently," he said,
"A cable will be heaved us by the dead,—
The dead you fear so,—on the river-bank."
And even as he spake the vessel sank.

The tapers gleaming far and fitfully
In the poor ghostly hands flared forth so high,
They sent a shaft of vivid brilliance
Across the murky river's broad expanse;
Then, as a spider in the morn you see
Glide o'er his late-spun thread, the boatmen three,

Being all spirits, leaped out of the stream,
And caught and swooped along the dazzling beam.
And Ourrias, too, the cable sought to seize
Amid the gurgling waters, even as these;
But sought it vainly, And the water-sprite
Danced upon Trincataio bridge that night.

 

See Notes.