Demetrius by Henry Abbey

I.

THE SUCCESS OF THE BEGGAR.

In my life I have had two idols, one my country, one my wife,
And I know I loved them faithfully, and both with one accord;
But the day came, beaded falsely on my brittle leash of life,
When perforce I chose between them, through the wisdom of the Lord.
High upon the rocky summit of a cliff in red Algiers,
Raised against the sky of sunset, like a beaker filled with wine,
While each dome is like a bubble that above the brim appears,
Stands the city I was born in, my belovèd Constantine.
Nobly rise the brick-roofed houses with their heavy gray stone walls,
While here and there, above them all, the mosque and minaret;
Like the voice of some enchanter sounds the bearded muezzin's calls,
And the rustle of the cypress seems a murmur of regret.
Round the ancient Cintran city runs a dark wall broad and strong,
Like the mailed belt of a warrior, and the gate the buckle seems;
While a tower toward the sunset is a dagger hilted long;
Whose blade is bid in foldings of a circling sash of streams.
Far away the Atlas mountains rear their heads of lasting snow,
And seem like old men grouped around in high-backed chairs of space;
And they bathe their feet like children in the brooks that run below,
Or smoke their pipes in silence till the clouds obscure each face.
I was poor: they say they found me lying naked in the street,
And a beggar so befriended me and brought me to his door,
And cared for me and tended me, until my growing feet
Could patter through the market-place and there increase our store.
I never knew the tenderness of father or of mother;
My tatters scarcely covered me; my hunger made me thin;
I never knew of sympathy or kindness from another;
I drank the cup of bitterness that comes to want and sin.
All my early youth was squandered, when there came across my thought
A passionate intolerance of the course my life had run;
And I went out to the venders and some meagre fruitage bought,
Till with selling and with buying, lo, a new life was begun.
Soon I found myself the owner of vast houses, wares, and sails,
A very prince of traffic, with my slaves beyond the line,
Where they sold my costly merchandise of cloth and cotton bales,
Of many colored leathers, ostrich feathers, dates, and wine.

 II.

THE MAIDEN OF THE GOLDEN KIOSK.

In the days when I, a beggar, wandered idly through the street,
Past the palace, through the vineyards where the scented fountains play,
Standing near the golden kiosk, it befell my lot to meet
One for whom my heart grew larger, and I could not turn away.
Long my eyes upon the banquet of her beauty freely fed;
How could I help but love her, whom the angels might adore!
But at last, tired of my staring, she turned away her head;
Yet I saw the large pearls tremble that about her neck she wore.
Either cheek was sea-shell tinted, and around her dewy lips
Played a smile that lingered lovingly, like star gleam on the sea;
Thus emboldened, on my knees I fell, and kissed her finger tips,
And begged of her, and prayed of her that I her slave might be.
 
I was dark and swarthy featured, comely still in form and face;
My long black hair hung glossily about my neck and head;
My large jet eyes were lustrous, and I had an easy grace
That almost made a kingly robe my ragged garb of red.
I chained the maiden with my arm, I would not let her go;
She said she was Eudocia, that Yorghi was her sire;
I said I was Demetrius, a beggar vile and low,
But 'neath my heart's one crucible love lit its fusing fire.
Her sensuous long dark lashes hung above her dreamy eyes,
Like twin clouds of stormy portent balanced over limpid deeps;
Like the wings of birds of passage seen against the hazy skies;
Like the petal o'er the pollen of the flow'ret when it sleeps.
All her vesture was embroidered with the finest lace of gold;
A diamond in her turban with its eye-like glitter shone;
The white dress more than half revealed a form of perfect mould,
And her cincture, dagger-fastened, shaped the garment to her zone.
To my eyes she gave her dark eyes, down to gaze into and dream;
And I seemed like one who leans above a bridge's slender rail,
And thinks, and gazes wistfully deep down into the stream,
While the twilight gathers round him, and the gleam-winged stars prevail.
After this I met her daily in the palace-garden ways,
And she always came to meet me, and opened wide the gate,
Often chiding, often smiling at my minute-long delays,
And bringing dainty viands in a golden cup and plate.
I, her lover, was a beggar, but she loved me all the same;
Had I been Haroun Alraschid she could not have loved me more;
While she whispered, on my lips and on my eyes she kissed my name,
And vined her arms about my neck; how could I but adore?
 
But all pleasure cloys or ceases; if the cup is stricken down,
All its contents are like acid, burning deep a long regret;
If it cloys, we calmly leave it, with perhaps a careless frown,
Or may be a pleasant memory that is easy to forget.
Once when in the golden kiosk, with Eudocia's hand in mine,
Came old Yorghi frowning darkly with the storm upon his face;
Would she bring disgrace upon him? Would she break his noble line?
He stamped his fierce invective, and he drove me from the place.
Ere I went I turned upon him, and I boldly claimed her hand,
And vowed that I would have her, though the city barred my way;
But he scoffed at me, a beggar, and repeated his command,
Never more to meet his daughter, for my life's sake, from that day.

 III.

THE VISIT OF DEMETRIUS AND HIS TEN FRIENDS.

So two lives, like confluent rivers, were unkindly torn apart;
One to slide through fruited gardens, longing vainly for the sea,
One to purl 'neath ample bridges, bearing cargoes to the mart,
But ever dreaming fondly of a meeting yet to be.
And I labored; and my gains accrued and doubled in my hand,
For Fortune having given once will give us more and more;
I was like a stranger passing through some long neglected land,
Who finds beneath each stone he turns a wedge of golden ore.
And I studied, learned all secrets that the wisest books can teach;
Gained the Greek verb's long persistent root at last by prying hard;
Found a natural foreknowledge of the rules and forms of speech,
And drank the fountain water from the words of Scio's bard.
 
All my ships had favoring breezes, not one sank or went ashore;
The very fat of commerce oozed between their pitchy seams;
And a block of serried buildings did not half contain my store,
While my lavish, thrifty bargains would have dimmed Aladdin's dreams.
Still I changed not my apparel, still I wore my bezan robe,
Still I donned the self-same turban with its frayed and faded red;
I would have no other garb then had I owned the whirling globe;
Better rich to wear a tatter, than poor, wear silk, I said.
Daily from my mullioned window flew a pigeon in the air,
And beneath its wing lay folded lines for her I loved the best;
Daily from her palace window it returned and brought me there,
Rhymeless idyls full of heart-speech, faithful ardors of her breast.
Ah, dear love, she waited patiently with mournful, longing eyes,
Like the moon she waited nightly for the cloud to pass her brow;
Like the birds she waited daily for the coming in the skies
Of the other bringing succor to the hunger on the bough.
And all wealth was lost upon her, for she had to look upon
Art's own pictures, Spring-time raptures, Autumn clad in ballet mist;
And she dined on sweets and spices, coffee, bread and cinnamon,
While they shook perfumes about her, or her cushioned slippers kissed.
Down her back her hair, unfastened from its jeweled comb of gold,
Wasted fragrance, seemed a cascade plunging down a deep ravine;
Seemed the black wing of a raven who had ventured overbold,
And was perched upon her forehead that its beauty might be seen.
Every day in milk she bathed her, till at last she was as white;
Dyed with almond kohl her eyelids, and her nails with henna tinged;
Supped on amber wine and honey; but she tasted no delight.
She slept 'neath silken curtains with musk-scented laces fringed.
 
But at last the ready day came, that my hopes had longed to meet,
When I cast aside the tatters I had worn for many years,
And arrayed my perfect person from my head down to my feet,
With the garments that became me, with the velvet of my peers.
Then I bought me restless chargers, Ukraine steeds, five white, six black;
The eleventh was the noblest, yet the gentlest of all;
And a friend I had who loved me to bestride each horse's back—
Ten friends of handsome presence, smooth demeanor, strong, and tall.
Every friend I gave a cloak to, purple velvet ermine-bound;
Every charger was caparisoned—the harness wrought with gold.
At high noon we started gayly, and the palace entrance found;
And I sought the statesman Yorghi with a purpose to unfold.
I had come to wed his daughter; all her heart had long been mine;
I had won her when a beggar, but I loved her more and more
Now that my wealth was boundless—it but strengthened my design;
If he gave her I would cede him half my fortune, store on store.
In my face he laughed, me scorning, and despised me and my part—
Called me still a beggar wealthy, and bade me turn away;
Said Eudocia was his daughter—he knew nothing of her heart;
He had pledged her hand and fortune to my ruler, Ahmed Bey.
There are times when our resentment centres solely in a glance,
When our feelings burn too deeply for effectiveness in speech;
Such a look I gave to Yorghi as I led out in advance,
While my ten friends followed after with brave consolation each.

IV.

DEMETRIUS FOR EUDOCIA BETRAYS CONSTANTINE.

Now a war like distant thunder muttered in the darkened air;
In the sky a fowl of omen hovered o'er to rob our graves;
 And men, like birds affrighted, hurried homeward in despair.
We heard the tramp of armies like the far-off march of waves.
War a pestilent disease is on the body of the world—
A disease that sometimes purges, but still leaves the victim sore;
And no potent drug will cure it until Liberty has furled
All the standards of the nations, and shall rule for evermore.
What availed my marble buildings where I bartered for my gold?
All my gains were vainly gotten, for Eudocia was not mine.
Then my goods I turned to money, all my ships and houses sold,
And sent the glittering product far away from Constantine.
On us like a wild hawk swooping came Damrémont with his men;
But we saw his wing-like banners and we closed and barred the gates;
All the women urged to battle; every man a hero then;
And the Kabyles based reliance on the friendship of the Fates.
 
I held that love of country was a higher love of self,
With generous ends, but selfish still, whatever might be said;
I forgot my boasted honor; I had garnered all my pelf;
I became a hissing traitor to the land I owed my bread.
All was plain; if I was faithful, then Eudocia was lost;
Recreant, and gaining victory, I could claim her as my right.
I scarcely weighed the balance, and I dared not count the cost;
I stole out from the city to the alien camp that night.
I was loyal to the purpose that within my heart was shrined;
Another might have coped with it, and triumphed o'er its fall.
So men are, they do not vary much, the level of mankind,
What one lacks the next possesses; there are faults enough in all.
Down the cliff I slipped in silence; and the troubled cypress leaves
Quivered like sweet lips in anguish, while the star eyes wept with dew;
And I sought the French commander, where, amid his musket sheaves,
He sat and planned new reaping in a field that Azrael knew.
"I have come to bring assistance, if you take my terms," I said,
"For I know the weakest portion of the city's scowling wall.
There's a maiden named Eudocia I would sell my soul to wed;
Give me the right to have her, and I freely tell you all."
Then he smiled across his table as he granted my desire—
Smile of memory begotten, some remembrance of delight—
And he heard my story quietly, but said he would require
Me to go into the city as a spy the coming night.

V.

THE MASKED SPY IN THE PALACE.

Years before, a secret entrance 'neath the wall I ordered made;
And they were dead who built it, so none knew of it but me.
When the darkness came I gained it, and softly in the shade,
Passed through lone streets of the city where the battle was to be.
A purse of gold and rubies bought the whispered countersign,
And with its aid I noted place and number of the troops.
I chalked upon a building: Lo, the doom of Constantine!
There's a traitor in the city, and the populace are dupes.
In the street I met a masker hurrying onward through the night,
And something in his bearing told of one I called a friend.
"Sir," I said, and on his shoulder I had laid my finger quite,
"Tell me why you mask your visage, and whereto your footsteps tend."
By my voice he knew me quickly, and removed his mask to say:
"My footsteps seek the palace; have you heard not of the fête?
In three days old Yorghi's daughter is to wed with Ahmed Bey;
To-night the plighting party; I must hasten; it is late."
 
"Hold," I said, "you care but little for the pleasure that you seek;
Give to me your mask and vesture, and so let me take your place;
I shall not hold the favor lightly, but shall pay you in a week
With a sapphire for each moment; and they will not see my face."
Then we found his wide apartments, where we changed the robes we wore.
I put on the half fantastic silken garments and the mask,
Then sallied down the stair-way till I gained the street once more;
Dreaming only of Eudocia, in whose presence I should bask.
From foundation to entablature the palace shone with light,
And I fancied it a genii with a hundred fiery eyes;
His mouth the yawning door-way, and a cloud across the night
Seemed the hair upon his forehead, blowing in the windy skies.
Quick he gorged me, for I entered, and heard at once the swell
Of the music—heard the dancing girls with bells about their feet;
The odor of a hundred blooms upon my senses fell;
The magnolia seemed the husband, and the rest his consorts sweet.
To a splendid hall a eunuch led me down a damask floor,
And the guests were all assembled in their beauty and their pride.
With standards and with banners the walls were garnished o'er.
The Bey among the maskers led the lily by his side.
Round a fountain, in the centre of the golden burnished room,
Danced the dancers, played the players, to the cadence of its fall,
While out upon the balcony, amid the vernal gloom,
A nightingale was singing, and with sadness mocked us all.

VI.

THE MEETING IN THE GARDEN, AND THE FLIGHT OF THE SPY.

When the Bey passed by me graciously, I whispered in the ear
Of the one he led beside him (should I fail to win her yet!)
"Our day is at its dawning; I, Demetrius, am here;
Meet me yonder in the garden, at the place where once we met."
There she followed very quickly, and I held her to my heart,
And kissed with fervid kisses all her lips and throat and chin.
Here she longed to dwell forever so that we might never part,
And be fed with many kisses my enfolding arms within.
There the amorous stars out-twinkled; and anear, a sordid lake,
Like a miser, hugged the silver of their glitter to its breast;
And it stayed within the closet of the trees and tangled brake,
Lest some fortunate bold robber should steal from it in its rest.
Now the years had changed Eudocia from the rosebud to the rose,
Made more perfect every feature, added many a gentle grace,
And she made my heart her garden, there to dwell and find repose:
Neither time, nor change, nor absence, could her love for me efface.
 
She said she too would be a lakelet, 'neath the starlight of my eyes;
And when my lips bent downward she would catch their spicy dew;
My face, low bending over, should become her tender skies,
And my arms the goodly verdure that about the margin grew.
I dared not risk to tell her of the traitor she was near;
I said the Bey would tremble when I came to claim her hand;
I said that she must wait me, and despair not; but have cheer,
For my triumph would be public in the corners of the land.
While we spoke we heard commotion in the palace down the hill;
Gay lights swung in the distance, like red fire-flies in a glen;
Call by call was heard and answered with a herd of echoes shrill,
And we saw a score of torches, and the issuing forth of men.
"Love, they seek you," cried Eudocia; "you must go or you must die."
But sad, O, sad the sundering of two hearts who long and weep;
Rent the oak's tough, knitted fibre by the lightning from on high;
But the hearts will cling the closer that apart they strive to keep.
On her lips I kissed my tears in, on her lips and on her eyes
Which she opened only languidly to show her answering tears,
And I kissed the diamond crescent that I saw sink down and rise,
While it flashed upon the torches with a hundred silver spears.
Swooning, on a seat I laid her, then sped quickly through the gloom,
While a torchman passed so near me that I fancied I was seen;
But I hid me for a moment 'neath a bush of liberal bloom,
Then fled onward to my entrance through the streets that intervene.
Above, an imminent meteor flashed westward 'gainst the night,—
A full moon with a bluer glow, and trailed with ruby shine;
It seemed a blazing torch to me, borne onward with the flight
Of a spirit, that beneath it, brought defeat to Constantine.

 VII.

THE BATTLE.

To the town outspoke the cannon, ere the dawn charged on the night,
Not of peace and joy and amity, but of hatred and despair,
And a thousand blatant bugles proved it waiting for their spite;
And we heard the rasp of bullets in the dark astonished air.
When the sun rose, hot and bloody, all the fight had well begun;
The artillery were pounding at the weak place in the wall;
While the smoke, from vale and city, seemed the melancholy, dun
Robes of spirits hovering over for the fated ones to fall.
Like a strong Numidian lion, on her rock the city lay,
Nothing daunted though surrounded, and with scanty store of bread;
Her fierce eyes, two flags of crimson, stared through battle all the day,
One on Babel Wad's high key-stone, and one on Babel Djed.
 
Round these gates they set their sworders, hoping thence to drive us back
When we followed up their sallies, which were baits to make us come;
But in vain, our works were safer, though we longed for the attack,
And eagerly awaited for the summons of the drum.
Stone by stone a breach was opened in the thin place in the wall,
Till at last we sent a truce flag to the gate of Babel Djed,
Saying to the town, "Surrender, Constantine must surely fall;
If you fail, no soul remaining shall be left to count your dead."
Like a sword-thrust was the answer, "There is plenty in the place
Both of food and ammunition; if 'tis these the French desire,
We can furnish them abundance; but surrender means disgrace,
And our homes shall be defended while one soldier stands to fire."
Should not this town be captured, every man must bear the fault,
And many a one bethought him of his own in sunny France.
Down our line there ran the murmur, "We must take it by assault,"
And we heard the bugles playing for the stormers to advance.
Like great billows never breaking were the rocks of Constantine,
And a cargoed ship the city with its keel in every one;
She was sailing for the future with the barter of the line,
And her mast-like towers were gaudy with the pennons of the sun.
But now a storm had struck her, and a hole was in her side,
And the waters rushed in wildly while she paused upon the brink.
All in vain each brave endeavor; for all on board her tried
To close the leak with fury, that the vessel might not sink.
Our men the angry waters that could not be turned nor checked,
And they bore all straws before them in their mad impetuous way.
So the town, betrayed, was captured; so the great ship had been wrecked;
And with the troops in triumph I rode in upon that day.

 VIII.

THE WEDDING AND THE FALSE FRIEND.

When the night fell, in the palace all the lights were lit again.
In the hall of silken standards and of Persia-woven mats
There were women fair as houris, there were brave and handsome men;
And the fish leaped up to see them from the fountain's silver vats.
Never yet so fair Eudocia, and she won the wisest praise
From the aliens there assembled to behold our marriage rite;
Not alone her queenly beauty; but the grace of all her ways,
Drew all hearts and eyes toward her, filled like cups with pure delight.
But while yet they said the service, and ere yet I placed the ring
On her tapering heart finger, all the crowd was parted wide,
And I saw my friend the masker his unasked-for presence bring
To the pollen of the wedding, lady-petaled on each side.
 
"Thus shall die the thankless traitor, whether king or beggar he!"
And a dagger gleamed above us with a fierce glare at the light,
Then was struck upon my bosom near the place the heart might be,
And my false friend, through the people, hastened wildly in his flight.
But the mad bee gained no honey in his hurry to depart;
His sting had been well pointed, but his villainy was loss,
For I wore, with faith, a secret, o'er the throbbing of my heart,
The symbol of a higher life, a simple silver Cross.
This had turned aside the weapon and spared me many years
For one whose heart has been to me a holy pilgrim shrine,
For one for whom I gave away with bitterness and tears
The city of Jugurtha, my own mother Constantine.
We dwell now in a palace near the white surge of a bay;
But at times my good steed wanders, and in the twilight late,
I find me near my city, while the muezzin in the gray,
Shouts, "To prayer, to prayer, ye people, only God is good and great!"