The Strong Spider by Henry Abbey



I was a naturalist, and had crossed the sea
And come to Theodosia, to find
A monstrous spider of which I had heard.
The people of the town wagged doubting heads,
When asked about it; but one day I met
A sturdy fisherman who once had seen
The spider, though he knew not his abode.
He said the spider was as long as he,
And that the woof whereof he wove his web,
Was thick as any cordage on his boat.
At night, belated 'mid the tumuli
That mound the hill-side and the vernal vale,
Like the raised letters of an ancient page
Made for the blind gropers of to-day to read,
He entered a dark tomb, and therein slept,
Until the world, like some round shield upraised,
Splintered the thrown spears of dawn. As he woke,
He found himself ensnared in some thick web,
Yet reached his knife, and slowly cut it through;
Then when he stood, a monstrous spider fled.
At this recital on the slanted shore,
Another joined us from the cottage near—
A vine-clad cottage, lit for love's abode.
A lily-croft, with trees, encinctured it;
Like Ahab in his house of ivory
Dining on sweets, the king bee here
Sipped in the snowy lily's palace hall;
And here were yellow lilies strewn about,
As though the place had been the banquet grove
Of Shishak, king of Egypt; for the flowers
Seemed like the cups of gold that Solomon
Wrought for the holy service of the Lord.
"This is my daughter," said the fisherman.
Her head and face were covered with a scarf,
But large dark eyes looked forth, and in their depths
I saw a soul all tenderness and truth.
(Often, in dreams, I thought it sweet to die,
And reft of this gross vision, see at last,
As the large soul, quit of the body can,
Another soul set free and purified.)
The modest maid a crimson jacket wore,
And to her knee the broidered skirt hung down;
While 'neath, the Turkish garment was confined
In plaits about the ankles; but her shoes
Revealed the naked insteps of her feet.
I bade her there adieu, upon the shore
Of the clear Bospore. As I wandered back,
I thought much of the spider that I sought;
But more of two dark eyes, that seemed two stars
Which shone down in my heart; while the far space
Behind them, pure, but unknown, was the soul.
I thought to test this maiden's charity;
And so, one friendly day, put on a robe
Tattered and soiled with use. As she went by,
I strode abruptly from behind a wall,
And faced her with a face disguised, and held
My hand out while I begged for some small alms.
She gave abundantly from her lean purse,
And with a look of tender pity, passed.
It matters little who it is that asks,
Or whether he deserves the alms or not;
That given with free heart, is given to God,
And not to him who takes.
Day after day,
Henceforth, I strode a coastward way, to meet
The dark-eyed daughter of the fisherman.
Beneath her roof she made my welcome sweet,
And yielded both her hands, and drew the scarf
That veiled the wondrous beauty of her face.
If painter, or if sculptor, in some dream,
Could mingle Faith with Love and Charity,
And give them utterance in one pure face,
I know the face would be a face like hers.
Her eyes were diamond doors of her true soul,
And with their silken latches softly closed,
When, couched beneath his poppy parachute,
Inactive Sleep came by. Her glances seemed
Like gold-winged angels sent from heavenly doors.
Yet she was often sad when I was near.
Once, tarrying late, I told her of my life,
And of the monster I had come to find;
But now, lo! she around my heart had wound
The close web of her love, and held me fast
As any fly caught in a spider's toils.
Clothed in the sackcloth of regret, she said,
She long had wept the past; but for my sake
She now would cast it off, and live for me.
I said that few could exculpate the past
From stormy doing with the ships of hope.
She said it made her sad to think upon
Their present dwindled fortune, and the yoke
Her people chafed their necks in, on the hills.
Her father was a brave Circassian chief;
But here he dwelt disguised, till once again
He could lead on his race, and wound the heel
That ground them to the dust.
Our hearts made new,
We kissed good-night, and parted. As I went,
A distant hill, all shadow, took new shape,
And seemed a sprawling spider, while two trees
That grew upon it, were his upraised arms
Clutching at two red fire-flies, that were stars.



With day-break came a knuckle at my door;
I rose, and opened, and upon the porch,
His face like strange death's, and his dark eyes wide
With some vague horror, stood the fisherman.
"Come, hasten with me," were his only words.
We ran our best along the barren shore,
And gained his silent cottage. Entering,
He led me to his daughter's vacant couch.
The room had but one window, and the sash
Was raised. I looked out to the ground beneath.
A vine crept up, and with long fingers made
Abode secure upon the cottage side,
And o'er the window threw a leafy scarf.
But what was this, that fastened to the ledge
Trailed to the ground? A glutinous rope
Twisted with five strands. This the fisherman
Saw with new horror, while between white lips
He gasped, "The Spider!"
What was best to do?
We saw strange foot-prints on the moistened beach,
But these were lost soon in a wooded dell
Where all trace had an end. The long day through
We sought among the tombs, up from the dell;
But unrewarded, when the sun was quenched,
Sat down to weep. So darkness dropped,
And like an awful spider, o'er the earth
Crawled with gaunt legs of shadow. Then our homes
We sadly sought, to meet again at morn.
The night was warm, and with my window raised,
I sat and mourned, and wrung my hopeless hands.
No light was in the house. I half reclined—
My back toward the window. Something shut
The puny sheen of starlight from the room.
The Thing, a monstrous shape, was with me there,
And two hard arms were thrown about my waist.
For very terror I was hushed, nor moved
To cast my foe off. I was in the arms
Of the strong spider. As we went, I grew
Glad, for I thought that now I should be brought
To the great spider's web, and there, mayhap,
Learn the sad fate of her I loved so well.
Up a stark cliff we went, then crossed the web
Just as the red moon bloomed upon the hills
And silvered all the Panticapean vale.
The funnel of the web was in the mouth
Of a vast tomb, whose outside, hewn on rock,
Outlined a Gorgon's face with jaws agape—
Some stern Medusa, Stheno, or Euryale,
Changed to the stone that in the elder days
She changed the sons of men who looked on her.
We passed the funnel, entering the tomb.
About my arms the spider threw his cords,
And shackled them. I dared not move, but lay
Upon the smooth stone floor, inured to fear.
I fancied now that I was safe till dawn.
If I could use my hands I then might find
Some weapon of defense, some club, or stone,
And so resist with some small chance for life.
The thought bred strength. I slowly drew my arms
Upon my sides, and, with persistence, gained
Their freedom; though about the wrists, the flesh
Was bruised and harrowed, and my blood made wet
The spider's cord wherewith I had been bound.
The night seemed endless. As it came to dawn,
A faint moan woke an echo in the tomb.
The echo seemed a cry of pity, sent
For solace to the moan. As light grew strong,
I saw, not far from where I had been laid,
A maiden sitting. All her hair set free,
She made of it a pillow as she leaned
Against the painted wall. My heart threw wide
To her my arms, his hospitable doors;
The guest within, at once the doors were shut.
The sun came up, and spread a cloth of gold
Over the sea. We saw the vale beneath,
And there the town, and fancied where, among
The trees upon the shore, her cottage stood;
Then hoped 'gainst hope to enter it again.
Two thousand years ago, this distant sea
Teemed with the thrifty commerce of the world.
When Athens was, and when her scholars cut,
With thoughts of iron, their own deathless names
Into the stone page of fame, this vale beneath
Held a great city. These, its tombs, endure.
There is no better scoff at the parade
And vanity of life, than that a tomb suggests.
While we looked forth on the historic view,
We saw the subtle spider throw his cord
Over an eagle tangled in the web.
The eagle fought, not mildly overcome,
And spread his wings, and darted his sharp beak.
At last the spider caught him by the neck,
With his serrated claws that grew like horns,
And killed him; then plucked the vanquished plumes,
And sucked the warm blood from the sundered ends.
From this we knew the monster brought us here
To serve a hideous banquet, and that one
Must need be near, and see the other slain.
The web was like the sail of some large ship,
And reached forth from the Gorgon's open mouth,
On either side, to boughs of blighted trees.
Birds were caught in it, and about the place
Wherein the spider hid to watch for prey,
Their bones lay bleaching in the sun and rain.
Upon the web the winds laid violent hands,
And tugged at it, but lacked the sinewed strength
To tear it or divorce it from its place.
The rain left on it when the sun came up,
Dyed the vast cloth with all prismatic hues,
And made it glitter like the silken sail
Of Cleopatra's barge.
We felt quite sure
The eagle's death bequeathed new lease of life.
We cast about at once, in hope to find
Some object for defense. The tomb was strange.
Alone the spider could have known of it.
A rich sarcophagus stood in the midst,
Of deftly inlaid woods, or carved, or bronzed.
Within, a skeleton, its white skull crowned
With gold bestarred with diamonds, chilled my blood.
A bronze lamp, cast to represent the beast
Slain by Bellerophon, the Chimæra,
Was on the floor; and from its lion's mouth
The flame had issued, like the flame of life
That flickered and went out with him gold-crowned.
A target stood near by, and on it clashed
Griffon and stag, adverse as right and wrong.
About, lay cups of onyx set in gold.
On conic jars were bacchanalian scenes,—
Nude chubby Bacchi, grotesque leering fauns,
All linked 'neath vines that grew important grapes;
And in the jars were rings and flowers of gold.
We found twin ear-drops cut from choicest stone,
Metallic mirrors, and a statuette
Of amorous Dido naked to the waist.
Life is a harp, and all its nervous strings,
Touched by the fingers of the fear of death,
Jar with pathetic music. Having found
No trusty implement to bar the way
Of threatening peril, we embraced,
And kissed with silent kisses mixed with tears,
And waited for the end.
When no more,
Hope, like an eagle in the mountain air,
Soars in time's future, it mounts up with wings
Toward the unmapped city walled by death.
Thither the eagle of our hope took flight.
The sun was in the zenith. His back
Toward us, crouched the spider, at the mouth
Of our strange prison on the towering cliff.
The spider's shape was full a fathom long.
Two parts it had, the fore part, head and breast;
The hinder part, the trunk. The first was black,
But all the last was covered with short hair,
Yellow and fine. Eight sprawling legs adhered
To his tough breast. Eight eyes were in his head,
Two in the front, and three on either side;
They had no eyelids, and were never closed,
Protected by a strong transparent nail.
His pincers grew between his foremost eyes—
Were toothed like saws, were venomous, and sharp,
With claws on either end. Two arms stretched out
From his mailed shoulders, and with these he caught
His tangled prey, or guided what he spun.
Slowly the monster turned, and glared at us,
Working his arms, and opening his claws,
Then moved toward us fiercely for attack.
We ran to gain the limit of the tomb
Where darkness was; there as we crouched with dread,
My foot struck some hard substance. In despair
I grasped at it, and with great joy upheld
An ancient sword!—surely, a sharp, bold tooth
To bite the spider. I would sink it deep,
Up to the gum of the crossed guard. Alert,
I sprang upon the monster as he came,
And with one blow cut off his brutish head.
He writhed awhile with pain, but in the end,
Drew up the eight long legs and two thick arms,
And rolling over on his useless back,
Died with a pang.
So we issued forth,
And the green earth seemed happy to be free,
And glad the sky cloud-frescoed 'gainst the blue.
We sought the sea-side cottage, where the chief
Clasped once again his daughter to his breast.
Down from the hill we fetched the spider slain,
And I to science gave these simple facts:
Spiders have no antennæ, therefore rank
Not with the insects. As they breathe with gills
Beneath the body, they possess a heart.
The treasure of the tomb brought wealth to us,
And we who loved were wed one golden day;
And the great Czar hearing our story told,
Sent presents to the bride of silk and pearls.