Earl Sigurd's Christmas Eve

by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen

Earl Sigurd, he rides o'er the foam-crested brine,
  And he heeds not the billowy brawl,
For he yearns to behold gentle Swanwhite, the maid
  Who abides in Sir Burislav's hall.

"Earl Sigurd, the viking, he comes, he is near!
  Earl Sigurd, the scourge of the sea;
Among the wild rovers who dwell on the deep,
  There is none that is dreaded as he.

"Oh, hie ye, ye maidens, and hide where ye can,
  Ere the clang of his war-ax ye hear,
For the wolf of the woods has more pity than he,
  And his heart is as grim as his spear."

Thus rang the dread tidings, from castle to hut,
  Through the length of Sir Burislav's land,
As they spied the red pennon unfurled to the breeze,
  And the galleys that steered for the strand.

But with menacing brow, looming high in his prow
  Stood Earl Sigurd, and fair to behold
Was his bright, yellow hair, as it waved in the air,
  'Neath the glittering helmet of gold.

"Up, my comrades, and stand with your broadswords in hand,
  For the war is great Odin's delight;
And the Thunderer proud, how he laughs in his cloud
  When the Norsemen prepare for the fight!"

And the light galleys bore the fierce crew to the shore,
  And naught good did their coming forebode,
And a wail rose on high to the storm-riven sky
  As to Burislav's castle they strode.

Then the stout-hearted men of Sir Burislav's train
  To the gate-way came thronging full fast
And the battle-blade rang with a murderous clang,
  Borne aloft on the wings of the blast.

And they hewed and they thrust, till each man bit the dust,
  Their fierce valor availing them naught.
But the Thunderer proud, how he laughed in his cloud,
  When he saw how the Norsemen had fought!

Then came Burislav forth; to the men of the North
  Thus in quivering accents spake he:
"O, ye warriors, name me the ransom ye claim,
  Or in gold, or in robes, or in fee."

"Oh, what reck I thy gold?" quoth Earl Sigurd, the bold;
  "Has not Thor laid it all in my hand?
Give me Swanwhite, the fair, and by Balder I swear
  I shall never revisit thy land.

"For my vengeance speeds fast, and I come like the blast
  Of the night o'er the billowy brine;
I forget not thy scorn and thy laugh on that morn
  When I wooed me the maid that was mine."

Then the chief, sore afraid, brought the lily-white maid
  To the edge of the blood-sprinkled field,
And they bore her aloft o'er the sward of the croft
  On the vault of the glittering shield.

But amain in their path, in a whirlwind of wrath
  Came young Harold, Sir Burislav's son;
With a great voice he cried, while the echoes replied:
  "Lo, my vengeance, it cometh anon!"

Hark ye, Norsemen, hear great tidings:
  Odin, Thor, and Frey are dead,
And white Christ, the strong and gentle,
  standeth peace-crowned in their stead.

Lo, the blood-stained day of vengeance to the
  ancient night is hurled,
And the dawn of Christ is beaming blessings
  o'er the new-born world.

"See the Cross in splendor gleaming far and
  wide o'er pine-clad heath,
While the flaming blade of battle slumbers in
  its golden sheath.
And before the lowly Savior, e'en the rider of
  the sea,
Sigurd, tamer of the billow, he hath bent the
  stubborn knee."

Now at Yule-tide sat he feasting on the shore
  of Drontheim fiord,
And his stalwart swains about him watched
  the bidding of their lord.
Huge his strength was, but his visage, it was
  mild and fair to see;
Ne'er old Norway, heroes' mother, bore a
  mightier son than he.

With her maids sat gentle Swanwhite 'neath a
  roof of gleaming shields,
As the rarer lily blossoms 'mid the green herbs
  of the fields;

To and fro their merry words flew lightly
  through the torch-lit room,
Like a shuttle deftly skipping through the
  mazes of the loom.

And the scalds with nimble fingers o'er the
  sounding harp-strings swept;
Now the strain in laughter rippled, now with
  hidden woe it wept,
For they sang of Time's beginning, ere the sun
  the day brought forth—
Sang as sing the ocean breezes through the
  pine-woods of the North.

Bolder beat the breasts of Norsemen—when
  amid the tuneful din
Open sprang the heavy hall-doors, and a
  stranger entered in.
Tall his growth, though low he bended o'er a
  twisted staff of oak,
And his stalwart shape was folded in a dun,
  unseemly cloak.

Straight the Earl his voice uplifted: "Hail to thee, my guest austere! Drain with me this cup of welcome: thou shalt share our Yule-tide cheer. Thou shalt sit next to my high-seat e'en though lowly be thy birth, For to-night our Lord, the Savior, came a stranger to his earth."

Up then rose the gentle Swanwhite, and her
  eyes with fear grew bright;
Down the dusky hall she drifted, as a shadow
  drifts by night.
"If my lord would hold me worthy," low she
  spake, "then grant me leave
To abide between the stranger and my lord,
  this Christmas eve."

"Strange, O guest, is women's counsel, still
  their folly is the staff
Upon which our wisdom leaneth," and he
  laughed a burly laugh;
Lifted up her lissome body with a husband's
  tender pride,
Kissed her brow, and placed her gently in the
  high-seat at his side.

But the guest stood pale and quivered, where
  the red flames roofward rose,
And he clenched the brimming goblet in his
  fingers, fierce and close,

Then he spake: "All hail, Earl Sigurd,
  mightiest of the Norsemen, hail!
Ere I name to thee my tidings, I will taste thy
  flesh and ale."

Quoth the merry Earl with fervor: "Courteous
  is thy speech and free:
While thy worn soul thou refreshest, I will
  sing a song to thee;
For beneath that dusky garment thou mayst
  hide a hero's heart,
And my hand, though stiff, hath scarcely yet
  unlearned the singer's art."

Then the arms so tightly folded round his neck
  the Earl unclasped,
And his heart was stirred within him as the
  silvern strings he grasped,
But with eyes of meek entreaty, closely to his
  side she clung,
While his mighty soul rose upward on the
  billows of the song.

For he sang, in tones impassioned, of the death
  of Aesir bright,
Sang the song of Christ the glorious, who was
  born a babe to-night,

How the hosts of heaven victorious joined the
  anthem of his birth,
Of the kings the starlight guided from the far
  lands of the earth.

And anon, with bodeful glamour fraught, the
  hurrying strain sped on,
As he sang the law of vengeance and the wrath
  forever gone,
Sang of gods with murder sated, who had laid
  the fair earth waste,
Who had whetted swords of Norsemen,
  plunged them into Norsemen's breast.

But he shook a shower of music, rippling from
  the silver strings,
And bright visions rose of angels and of fair
  and shining things
As he sang of heaven's rejoicing at the mild
  and bloodless reign
Of the gentle Christ who bringeth peace and
  good-will unto men!

But the guest sat dumb and hearkened, staring
  at the brimming bowl,
While the lay with mighty wing-beats swept
  the darkness of his soul.

For the Christ who worketh wonders as of old,
  so e'en to-day
Sent his angel downward gliding on the ladder
  of the lay.

As the host his song had ended with a last
  resounding twang,
And within the harp's dumb chambers
  murmurous echoes faintly rang,
Up then sprang the guest, and straightway
  downward rolled his garment dun—
There stood Harold, the avenger, Burislav's
  undaunted son.

High he loomed above the feasters in the
  torchlight dim and weird,
From his eyes hot tears were streaming,
  sparkling in his tawny beard;
Shining in his sea-blue mantle stood he, 'mid
  that wondering throng,
And each maiden thought him fairest, and each
  warrior vowed him strong.

Swift he bared his blade of battle, flung it
  quivering on the board:
"Lo!" he cried, "I came to bid thee baleful
  greeting with my sword;
Thou hast dulled the edge that never shrank
  from battle's fiercest test—
Now I come, as comes a brother, swordless unto
 brother's breast.

"With three hundred men I landed in the
  gloaming at thy shore—
Dost thou hear their axes clanking on their
  shields without thy door?
But a yearning woke within me my sweet sister's
  voice to hear,
To behold her face and whisper words of
  warning in her ear.

"But I knew not of the new-born king, who
  holds the earth in sway,
And whose voice like fragrance blended in the
  soarings of thy lay.
This my vengeance now, O brother: foes as
  friends shall hands unite;
Teach me, thou, the wondrous tidings, and the
  law of Christ the white."

Touched as by an angel's glory, strangely
  shone Earl Sigurd's face,
As he locked his foe, his brother, in a brotherly
  embrace;

And each warrior upward leaping, swung his
  horn with gold bedight:
"Hail to Sigurd, hail to Harold, three times
  hail to Christ the white!"