Veera by Henry Abbey

I.

THE KING'S SEAL.

While yet upon his couch our father lay,
Sick unto death, my brothers, with one mind,
Plotted abrupt destruction to my life.
I did not tell the king, because I feared
To lessen by one heat the throbbing of his heart.
Beside his couch I knelt, and bowed my head—
I, his first-born, whom all the people loved.
His hot, weak hand he laid upon my hair,
And blessed me with his blessing, then said on:
"Thou hast beheld in Spring the dark green blade
That stabs up through the unresisting earth;
At last the Summer crowns it with a flower.
So thou, when I am passed away, and gone to dust,
Shalt wear a crown, but grander than the shrubs—
The symbol of a kingdom, on thy brow.
But take thee now this lesson to thy heart,
And from the grass learn wisdom; wear thy crown
As meekly, and as void of all display,
As doth the shrub half hidden under leaves."
So he bent down with pain, and kissed my cheek,
As though, having issued a great law, he
Had set his seal upon it—the king's seal.
I cared not for the crown, save as a means
To give my soul a higher and a nobler life.
This my old tutor taught me—a strange man he,
With careless garb, and heavy hairy brows
Bridged over eyes that shone like furnace fire.
My will was lost in his. I grew like him.
I only cared to study and to dream.
And he it was who, standing in the night
Between two pillars on the palace porch,
Saw my two brothers pass, and overheard
The hateful whisper of their black design.

II.

THE NIGHT OF THE ESCAPE.

The night before the murder was to be,
I drew my long, keen dagger from its sheath,
And stole on down the marble stair-way, past
The throne-room, to the curtained arch wherein
My brothers lay asleep. No dream beset
The guilty Dead-Sea of their rest. They lay
Engulfed in pillows, like two ships mid waves.
I saw their faces, and the one was fair.
Long dark brown hair fell from his noble brow,
And on the silken billow of the couch lay curled
Like spray. The other face was cold and dark
I felt no pity in my angry breast
For this, the older brother of the twain.
Yet he it was who always praised me most.
Praise is a dust of diamond that, if thrown
Well in the eyes of even noble men,
Will blind them to a host of flagrant faults.
The moon was full, and 'twixt two silvered clouds
Looked forth, like any princess from between
The tasseled curtains of her downy bed.
The vagrant wind came through the opened blind,
And whispered of the desert; with its hand
Fanning the flame that in the silver urn
Mimicked a star. Beneath the rays I wrote:
I should have slain you both for your intent
Of murder; but I spare, you, and I go.
So, take the kingdom, and ride long and well.
Between them there I laid the paper down,
Then thrust my dagger, to the golden hilt,
Through it, deep in the couch. So passing on,
I came to that high room wherein my sire,
The king, lay sick, and drifting near to death.
My tutor at his feet, and on the floor,
Embraced by needed sleep, lay like a dog.
I came to see the king's face once again,
Ere, like a maid who in her lover trusts,
I gave myself up, body and soul,
To the great desert and the world beyond.
How sweetly slept the king! His long white beard,
And venerable face, were undisturbed
By even the breezy motion of his breath.
Surely, I thought, the fever must have passed.
I bent down tenderly to kiss the cheek.
How cold! God help me, can the king be dead?
My heart gave one wild bound, driving a wave
Of grief, vast as a mountain, up the sands
Of my bleak desolation. The wave broke
Into a blinding mist of tears at last.
I longed to moan out my despair, but paused,
Checking my sobs to kiss the face once more;
Then moved from the strange room, parting with care
The massive silken curtains, fearful then
Their rustle might attract some wakeful ear.
I found the jewels of the crown, and these
With all my own I in a bag secured,
And hung about my neck, beneath my robe.
Noiseless as a ghost I passed the hall,
And down the stair-way wrought of sandal-wood
Made lightest footsteps. As I stole
Along the alcoves where the maidens slept,
A lady stood before me. She outstretched
Her white and naked arms, and round my neck
Entwined them. She was the captive, Veera,
Once held for ransom from some Bedouin tribe;
But when the coin was brought she would not go;
At this the king was pleased, for thus she made
Perpetual peace between him and her kin.
No maid in Mesched up and down, was found
To rival her for beauty. All her words
Were apt and good, and all her ways were sweet.
I, in her happy prison, ivory-barred
By her white arms, was restless for release.
She would not set me free until I told
The purport of my vigil, and revealed
The place whereat my journey would be done.
I did not wait to pay her back her kiss.
I hurried to the stables, where I found
My coal-black steed. He neighed and pawed the floor.
I bound the saddle firmly, grasped the reins,
And in a moment passed the city's gate,
And shot out on the desert, where the wind
Made race with us, but lagged behind at last.

III.

TWO PROBLEMS.

Vienna gained, I gave myself to books.
Here I had promised Veera I should be.
New paths were opened to me, and my days
Were lost in study. All my tutor knew
Seemed cramped and meagre in these wider ways
Of thought and science. Better far, I said,
To know, than be a king. There is no crown
That so becomes the brow as knowledge does.
To solve two problems, now engrossed my life.
My Bedouin tutor had spent all his days
Upon them, but without success. On me
He grafted all the purpose of his soul,
Determined, though he failed, that I might yet
Toil on when he was compassed round by death.
These sister problems were, How make pure gold?
And, How endure forever on the earth?

IV.

THE DOOR.

Among the books that I had bought myself,
I found the Bible. This to peruse
I soon essayed; but ere I had read far,
Behold! I found the door behind which lay
The answers to my problems. Locked and barred
The door was, yet I knew it was the door.
For here I read of Eden, and that in the midst
The Tree of Life stood, while through the land
A river ran which parted in four heads;
And one was Gihon, the Ethiop stream;
And one was Pison, the great crystal tide
Which floods Havilah, where fine gold is found,
And rare bdellium and the onyx stone.
So, as my tutor said, my problems were
A dual secret, and the one contained
The other. All the long night through I pored
Above the words, and kissed the unconscious page
With reverent lips. My heart was like a sponge
Soaked in the water of the mystic words.

V.

THE KEY.

As one who in the night, passing a street
Deserted, finds a lost key rusted and old,
Yet knows that it will fit some great iron door
Behind which countless treasures are concealed,
So I, when first I came to Mesmer's works,
Knew I had found the key to move the door
Of my twin problems. Then, day after day,
I made them all my study. Much I mourned
The sad disheartened life that Mesmer led.
He never knew that one good thing, success;
But yet his strong, persistent genius, to the end
Endured. Yet such the rule in every age.
The one true man appears, and gives his thought,
At which the whole world rail or basely sneer.
The next man comes and makes a thankless use
Of what the other knew, and wins the praise
The first man lost by being ripe too soon.

VI.

NEWS FROM MESCHED.

Down the long street, upon my iron-black steed,
I rode and pondered. Where shall I seek to find
A sweet soul pure as dawn, who to my will shall be
Both malleable and ductile; who can soar
Over the whole earth, or go back in the past?
While yet I mused, lo, up a garden walk,
A lady chased a bird. An empty cage
Stood in the vine-clad cottage-window near.
The bird was like some sweet elusive thought;
The maid, a Sappho, weary with pursuit.
She only glanced my way to see me pass,
Then turned and ran towards me, her large eyes
With gladness scintillant. It was the maid,
Veera. Her hand upon my shoulder, up the walk
We went, my steed following, while her bird,
Tired of his liberty, had found his cage.
Strange news had Veera. Here she lived in peace;
But through the city she had sought me long.
When I was gone from Mesched, and my brothers read
The paper I had written, their wrath rose
Against my tutor whom they deemed the spy.
He, being found asleep beside the king
Who lay dead, to his door they brought
The baseless charge of murder. Through the streets
They sent their criers to proclaim the deed.
So, clamorous for his life, the people came
And dragged him forth, and led him to the block
And slew him. On a spear they set his head,
And placed it high upon the tower above
The eastern gate. The birds pecked at the eyes,
And of the hair made comfortable nests.
The rain beat on it, and the active wind
Crowned it with desert dust. Always the sun
Made salutation to it, flushing it
Until it seemed more ghastly than before.
But after this mad crime the older brother grew
Jealous of him, the younger. One dark morn
They found the last-born lifeless in the street,
Stabbed by a long, sharp poniard in the back.
Misrule followed misrule, and justice fled.
Laws were abolished, and pleasure's lewdest voice
Hawked in the market-place, and through the streets.
Her story done, Veera entreated me
To set my face for Mesched with the dawn.
"Not yet," I said, "not yet." And then I made
Strange passes with my hands, and braced my will,
To sway her will; then with a questioning glance
She passed out to a calm Mesmeric sleep.
So, well I knew that I had found the soul
My purpose needed, and I bade her wake.

VII.

THE MIDNIGHT VISITOR.

I sat and pondered in my room that night
Until the towers and steeples, near and far,
Like sentries of the sky, issued the hour
Of midnight. Then I wrought magnetic force
With waving hands; and set my swerveless will
That Veera should approach me, and that none
Should harm or see her as she passed the streets.
At last I heard her footstep on the stair—
The patter of her feet as soft as rain,
And then she turned the hinge and entered in.
A long white wrapper made of satin, bound
With lace of gold, and fastened at the throat
With buttons of cut diamond, clad her form.
A band of opals was around her neck—
A hundred little worlds with central fires.
Her feet were naked, and her hair was down.
Her large eyes, wide and staring, took no heed
Of anything before them; thus she slept.
I bade her sit beside me, and I placed
The Bible on her knee, and laid her hand
Upon the verse that names the tree of life.
"Tell me," I said, "where may this tree be found."
"The way is long," she answered me at last,
"And I am worn and weary. I have tracked
The shore of one long river, many a mile.
The sun scorches like fire. I am athirst.
I cannot find the tree; my search is done."
"Look down the past, and find if any knew
Where grows this tree, or how it might be found."
Again her lips made answer: "One I see,
Long dead, who bends above a written scroll,
And therein makes strange characters, which hold
Some hidden sense pertaining to this tree.
In Milan, in the Ambrosian library there,
I see this scroll to-night; 'tis worn with age."
"Now seek thy home again," I said, "sweet soul.
Thou art as meek and pure as him whose hand
First wrote God's words." So she arose, and passed
Along the dark, deserted street, and I
Followed her closely, till I saw her cross
The threshold of her cottage; then I turned,
And found my home, and calmly slept till dawn.

 VIII.

THE PALIMPSEST.

In Milan, in the Ambrosian library there,
Among Pinellian writings seared with age,
I found a prophet's palimpsest—a scroll
That Angelo Maio had brought to light.
And on the margin of this scroll, I found
Mysterious signs which baffled me at first.
After a full week's search I chanced to find
The mongrel dialect of which they were.
I thus translated: Gihon is the Nile.
A perfect soul may find long life and gold.
Surely, I thought, Veera the maid is pure.
Her life's blue sky has not one cloud of sin.
If her feet press the soil where Eve first trod,
I can but follow and attain. So I
Back to Vienna came and found Veera.
To her I made my double purpose plain,
And prayed her to go with me in my search.
She smiled assent. To be near me, she said,
Had brought her to Vienna; this indeed
Detained her from her kinsmen. Her heart's book
Lay open to me, and I read her love.
So we were wed, and both lives ran to one.

 IX.

GIHON.

Now for the Nile we journeyed, gaining first
The town of Gondokoro, where the stream
Of Bahr el Abiad, or White Nile, flows.
Thence we passed on, and with the savage kings
Of Karagwe, Uganda and Ungoro, stopped,
To rest our weary feet, or in their huts
Escape the sun's fierce glare. At last we found
The sources of the Nile; two lakes that now
Are called Nyanza and Nzige. If here
I had but paused, and had retraced my steps,
The whole world would have known and praised my name,
For I was first to find the secret out.
But then I cared not for it, journeying on.
After a week, we came upon a land
All void, and barren of a single leaf.
Veera was pale and worn, although she bore
Fatigue with generous patience for my sake.
Our feet were swollen, and with the hot sand scorched,
Our garments were in tatters, and we seemed
Like beggars, in a land where there were none to give.
At night we slept beside a wide, cool stream,
Whereat we quenched our thirst, and bathed our feet.
My beard was grown, and all my hair hung down
Neglected, on my shoulders. I was weak,
And thin, and feverish, and Veera, too,
I saw was sick, and languished hour by hour.

X.

GOLD!

In the sand, lo! something to the sun
Replied with brilliant lustre; as I brushed
The dust away, I saw that it was gold!—
A solid bar of gold—and yet so weak
Was I, I could not move it from its place.
I would have given then the bar of gold
To buy a crust, but could not. So we passed,
And came where five great rivers went their ways.
Which should we follow? One I knew
Led to the tree of life, but all the rest
Went back to death. Here a dead bird we found,
And tearing off its gaudy plumage, ate.
Upon occasional trees grew strange sparse fruits,
And these sustained us as we wandered on.
Along the banks for many a mile we went
By each of these five rivers, then returned.
So all my hope was dead, and long I prayed
That I might live to see my land again.

XI.

THE MESSAGE OF THE THREE MEN.

The night came on, and unto sleep we gave
Our spirits. When the golden day was born
Veera awoke, and told me all her dream;
"Lo, in the night three men have talked with me—
Three strange good men who said the kindest words,
And said that only those who were released
From sin, could find the garden of the Lord.
And this release was bought upon a cross
By One, a Nazarene, with priceless blood.
If He would bear our sins, then we might reach
The garden; but we must not touch or eat
The tree of life that flourished in the midst."
Then I abased my soul, and prayed again,
And cast off all the burden of my sins,
Tearing my strange ambition from my heart.
And Veera, too, embraced the Christian Faith.
So we arose, and went upon our way,
And journeying eastward, Eden found at last!

XII.

THE GARDEN.

The trees were housed with nests, and every one
Was like a city of song. The streams too
Were voluble; they laughed and gurgled there
Like men who, at a banquet, sit and drink
And chatter. All the grass was like a robe
Of velvet, and there was no need of rain.
In dells roofed with green leafage, nature spread
Couches meet for a Sybarite. Sweet food
The servant trees extended us to eat
In their long, branchy arms. Even the sun
Was tempered, and the sky was always blue.
Corpulent grapes along the crystal rocks,
Made consorts of the long-robed lady leaves.
The butterfly and bee, from morn till eve,
Consulted with the roses, lip to lip,
Which grew in rank profusion. They at times
Dared to invade the empire of the grass,
And overthrew its green-robed, spear-armed hosts.
The lilies too were like an army there,
And every night they struck their snowy tents,
To please their great commander, the round moon—
God's lily in the everlasting sky.

XIII.

CAST OUT.

As to the heliotrope comes fluttering down
The peacock-butterfly, who sips and flies,
So each glad day gold-winged came to the land
And sipped its sip of time and fled away.
Now in an evil hour I hungered, and I saw
The tree of life that grew forbidden fruit.
What harm, I thought, is there to always live?
To live is happiness; but to die is pain.
The rental claimed by death falls due too soon.
So I reached forth, and took the fruit, and ate.
Then all the sky grew dark, and from the land
Malignant terrors drove me shrieking forth;
And as I fled, my youth abandoned me;
My hair turned gray, my shoulders stooped, my blood
Grew colder, and my perfect form was changed.
A weak old man with wrinkled face, I fled,
To wander in the wastes. Once I looked back
Upon the garden; over it the sky
Was soft and clear; and midway in the air
I saw Veera between two angels, borne
To heaven. So I turned again and fled.

XIV.

"LONG LIVE THE KING."

I came at last to Mesched. It was night.
The moon, half-shadowed, trailed its silver robe
Over the tower above the eastern gate,
And there revealed the outlines of a skull
Set on a spear. The portals were unbarred.
I passed the arch, but in the shadow kept,
While on the flinty wall I edged my knife.
Then I crept on until I gained the porch
Of the great palace. There I smote the guard,
And entering in, sought out the sleeping king.
Deep in his heart I plunged my thirsty knife.
All the next day I sat before the gate,
And begged, and heard the rumors of the town;
Then, standing forth, I claimed to be their king,
And told them all my story to the end.
None pitied the dead ruler, for he knew
No pity while he lived. So I was king at last;
But all my life, and all my hope to me
Are dust and ashes, knowing that God's frown
Abides upon me. Would that I could die!
There is no kindlier spirit than content.
And there is nothing better in the world
Than to do good, and trust in God for all.