Ballads of Lost Haven: A Book of the Sea

by Bliss Carman


 

THE KELPIE RIDERS


 

I

BURIED alive in calm Rochelle,
Six in a row by a crystal well,

All summer long on Bareau Fen
Slumber and sleep the Kelpie men;

By the side of each to cheer his ghost,

5

A flagon of foam with a crumpet of frost.

Hear me, friends, for the years are fleet;
Soon I leave the noise and the street

For the silent uncompanioned way
Where the inn is cold and the night is gray.

10


But noon is warm and the world is still
Where the Kelpie riders have their will.

For never a wind dare stir or stray
Over those marshes salt and gray;

No bit of shade as big as your hand

15

To traverse or trammel the sleeping land,

Save where a dozen poplars fleck
The long gray grass and the well’s blue beck.

Yet you mark their leaves are blanched and sear,
Whispering daft at a nameless fear.

20


While round the bole of one is a rune,
Black in the wash of the bleaching noon.

"Ride, for the wind is awake and away.
Sleep, for the harvest grain is gray."

No word more. And many a mile,

25

A ghostly bivouac rank and file,

They sleep to-day on the marshes wide;
Some far night they will wake and ride.

Once they were riders hot with speed,
"Kelpie, Kelpie, gallop at need!"

30


With hills of the barren sea to roam,
Housing their horses on the foam.

But earth is cool and the hush is long
Beneath the lull of the slumber song

The crickets falter and strive to tell

35

To the dragon-fly of the crystal well;

And love is a forgotten jest,
Where the Kelpie riders take their rest,

And blossoming grasses hour by hour
Burn in the bud and freeze in the flower.

40


But never again shall their roving be
On the shifting hills of the tumbling sea,

With the salt, and the rain, and the glad desire
Strong as the wind and pure as fire.

II

One doomful night in the April tide

45

With riot of brooks on the mountain side,

The goblin maidens of the hills
Went forth to the revel-call of the rills.

Many as leaves of the falling year,
To the swing of a ballad wild and clear

50


They held the plain and uplands high;
And the merry-dancers held the sky.

The Kelpie riders abroad on the sea
Caught sound of that call of eerie glee,

Over their prairie waste and wan;

55

And the goblin maidens tolled them on.

The yellow eyes and the raven hair
And the tawny arms blown fresh and bare,

Were more than a mortal might behold
And live with the saints for a crown of gold.

60


The Kelpie riders were stricken sore;
They wavered, and wheeled, and rode for the shore.

"Kelpie, Kelpie, treble your stride!
Never again on the sea we ride.

"Kelpie, Kelpie, out of the storm;

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On, for the fields of earth are warm!"

Knee to knee they are riding in:
"Brother, brother,—the goblin kin!"

The meadows rocked as they clomb the scaur;
The pines re-echo for evermore

70


The sound of the host of Kelpie men;
But he windflowers died on Bareau Fen.

Over the marshes all night long
The stars went round to a riding song:

"Kelpie, Kelpie, carry us through!"

75

And the goblin maidens danced thereto.

Till dawn,—and the revel died with a shout,
For the ocean riders were wearied out.

They looked, and the grass was warm and soft;
The dreamy clouds went over aloft;

80


A gloom of pines on the weather verge
Had the lulling sound of their own white surge;

A whip-poor-will, far from their din,
Was saying his litanies therein.

Then voices neither loud nor deep:

85

"Tired, so tired; sleep! ah, sleep!

"The stars are calm, and the earth is warm,
But the sea for an earldom is given to storm.

"Come now, inherit the houses of doom;
Your fields of the sun shall be harried of gloom."

90


They laid them down; but over long
They rest,—for the goblin maids are strong.

The sun goes round; and Bareau Fen
Is a door of earth on the Kelpie men,—

Buried at dawn, asleep, unslain,

95

With not a mound on the sunny plain,

Hard by the walls of calm Rochelle,
Row on row by the crystal well.

And never again they are free to ride
Through all the years on the tossing tide,

100


Barred from the breast of the barren foam,
Where the heart within them is yearning home,—

For one long drench of the surf to quell
The cursing doom of the goblin spell.

Only, when bugling snows alight

105

To smother the marshes stark and white,

Or a low red moon peers over the rim
Of a winter twilight crisp and dim,

With a sound of drift on the buried lands,
The goblin maidens loose their hands;

110


A wind comes down from the sheer blue North;
And the Kelpie riders get them forth.

III

Twice have I been on Bareau Fen,
But the son of my son is a man since then.

Once as a lad I used to bear

115

St. Louis’ cross through the chapel square,

Leading the choristers’ surpliced file
Slow up the dusk Cathedral aisle.

I was the boy of all Rochelle
The pure old father trusted well.

120


But one clear night in the winter’s heart,
I wandered out to that place apart.

The shafts of smoke went up to the stars,
Straight as the Northern Streamer spars,

From the town’s white roofs, so still it was.

125

The night in her dream let no word pass,

Nor ever a breath that one could feel;
Only the snow shrieked under my heel.

Yet it seemed when I reached the poplar bole,
The ghost of a voice was crying, "Skoal!

130


"Rouse thee and drink, for the well is sweet,
And the crystal snow is good to eat!"

I heeded little, but stooped on my knee,
And ate of a handful dreamily.

’Twas cool to the mouth and slaking at first,

135

But the lure of it was ill for thirst.

The voice cried, "Soul of the mortal span,
Art thou not of the Kelpie clan?"

"What are you doing there in the ground,
Kelpie rider, and never a sound

140


"To roam the night but the ghost of a cry?"
Ringing and swift there came reply,

"He is asleep where thou art afraid,
In the tawny arms of a goblin maid!"

Then I knew the voice was the voice of a girl,

145

And I marvelled much (while a little swirl

Of snow leaped up far off on the plain
Of sparkling dust and died again),

For what do the cloisters know, think ye,
Of women’s ways? They be hard to see.

150


Again the voice cried, "Kin of my kin,
The child of the Sun shall win, shall win!"

’Twas an evil weird that so befell;
Yet I leaned and drank of the bubbling well.

I looked for my face in the crystal spring,

155

But the face that flickered there was a thing

To make the nape of your neck grow chill,
And every vein surge back and thrill

With a passion for something not their own—
In a life their life has never known.

160


For raven hair and eyes like the sun
Are merry but dour to look upon.

She smiled through her lashes under the wave,
And my soul went forth her bartered slave.

I swore, "By St. Louis, I’ll come to thee,

165

Though I ride to my doom in the gulfs of the sea!

"Thy Kelpie rider shall wake and rue
His ruined life in the loss of you."

Then I fled in the start of a terror of joy,
O’er leagues where a legion might deploy;

170


For the acres of snow were level and hard,
Every flake like a crystal shard.

I was the runner of all Rochelle,
Could run with the hounds on Haric Fell;

And something stark as a gust of the sea

175

Had a grip of the whimsy boy in me.

I ran like the drift on the ice low curled
When the winds of the Yule are abroad on the world.

Sudden, the beat of a throbbing sound
Lost in the core of the blue profound:

180


"Kelpie, Kelpie, Kelpie, come!"
Was it my heart?—But my heart was numb.

"Kelpie, Kelpie!" Was it the sea?
Far on, at the verge of Bareau lea,

I saw like an army, shield and casque,

185

The breakers roll in the Roads of Basque.

"Kelpie, Kelpie!" Was it the wolves?
In the dusk of pines where night dissolves

To streamers and stars through the mountain gorge,
I heard the blast of a giant forge.

190


Then I knew the wind was awake from the North,
And the ocean riders were freed and forth.

Time, there is time (now gallop, my heart!)
Ere the black riders disperse and depart.

The dawn is late, but the dawn comes round,

195

And Fleetfoot Jean has the wind of a hound.

The hue and cry of the Kelpie horde
Was growing and grim on that white seaboard.

It rolled and gathered and died and grew
Far off to the rear; a smile thereto

200


I turned; a fathom behind my ear
A rider rode with a shadowy leer.

I sickened and sped. He laughed aloud,
"Wind for a mourner, snow for a shroud!"

On and on, half blown, half blind,

205

Shadow and self, and the wind behind!

I slackened, he slackened; I fled, he flew;
In a swirl of snow-drift all night through

I scoured along the gusty fen,
A quarry for hunting Kelpie men.

210


But only one could hold at my side:
"Brother, brother, I love thy stride.

"Wilt thou follow thy whim to win
My merry maid of the goblin kin?"

I swerved from my trail, for he haunted my ear

215

With his moaning jibe and his shadowy leer.

So by good hap as we sped it fell,
I fetched a circuit back for the well.

Like a spilth of spume on the crest of the bore
When the combing tides make in for shore,

220


That runner ran whose love was a wraith;
But the rider rode with revenge in his teeth.

Another league, and I touch the goal,—
The mystic rune on the poplar bole,—

When the dusky eyes and the raven hair

225

And the lithe brown arms shall greet me there.

I ran like a harrier on the trace
In the leash of that ghoul, and the wind gave chase.

A furlong now; I caught the gleam
Of the bubbling well with its tiny stream;

230


An arrowy burst; I cleared the beck;
And—the Kelpie rider bestrode my neck.

Dawn, the still red winter dawn;
I awoke on the plain; the wind was gone;—

All gracious and good as when God made

235

The living creatures, and none was afraid.

I stooped to drink of the wholesome spring
Under the poplars whispering:

Face to my face in that water clear—
The Kelpie rider’s jabbering leer!

240


Ah, God! not me: I was never so!
Sainted Louis, who can know

The lords of life from the slaves of death?
What help avail the speeding breath

Of the spirit that knows not self’s abode,—

245

When the soul is lost that knows not God?

I turned me home by St. Louis’ Hall,
Where the red sun burns on the windows tall.

And I thought the world was strange and wild,
And God with his altar only a child.

250



IV

Again one year in the prime of June,
I came to the well in the heated noon,

Leaving Rochelle with its red roof tiles
By the Pottery Gate before St. Giles,—

There where the flower market is,

255

Where every morning up from Duprisse

The flower girls come by the long white lane
That skirts the edge of Bareau plain;—

To the North, the city wall in the sun,
To the left, the fen where the eye may run

260


And have its will of the blazing blue.
The while I loitered the market through,

Halting a moment to converse
With old Babette who had been my nurse,

There passed through the stalls a woman, bright

265

With a kirtle of cinnabar and white

Among the kerseys blue; and I said,
"Who is it, Babette, with lifted head,

"And the startled look, possessed and strange,
Under the paint—secure from change?"

270


"Ah, ’Sieur Jean, do ye not ken
Of the eerie folk of Bareau Fen?"

I blenched, and she knew too well I wist
The fearsome fate of the goblin tryst.

"The street is a cruel home, ’Sieur Jean,

275

But a weird uncanny drives her on.

"’Tis a bitter tale for Christian folk,
How once she dreamed, and how she woke."

"Ay, ay!" I passed and reached the spring
Where the poplars kept their whispering,

280


Hid for an hour in the shade,
In the rank marsh grass of a tiny glade.

There crossed the moor from the town afar,
In kirtle of white and cinnabar,

A wanderer on that plain of tears,

285

Bowed with a burden not of the years,

As one that goeth sorrowing
For many an unforgotten thing.

To the crystal well as the sun drew low
There came that harridan of woe.

290


She stooped to drink; I heard her cry:
"Ah, God, how tired out am I!

"I called him by the dearest name
A girl may call; I have my shame.

"‘Yet death is crueller than life,’

295

Once they said, ‘for all the strife.’

"And so I lived; but the wild will,
Broken and bitter, drives to ill.

"And now I know, what no one saith,
That love is crueller than death.

300


"How I did love him! Is love too high,
My God, for such lost folk as I?"

Her tears went down to the grass by the well,
In that passion of grief, and where they fell

Windflowers trembled pale and white.

305

A craven I crept away from the sight;

And turned my home to St. Louis’ Hall,
Where the sunflowers burn by the eastern wall.

The vesper frankincense that day
Rose to the rafters and melted away,

310


And was no more than a cloud that stirs
Among the spires of Norway firs.

And I said, "The holy solitude
Of the hoary crypt and the wild green wood

"Are one to the God I have never known,

315

Whose kingdom has neither bourn nor throne."

V

Now I am old, and the years delay;
But I know, I know, there will come a day,—

When April is over the Norland town,
And the loosened brooks from the hills go down,

320


When tears have quenched the sorrow of time,—
Wherein the earth shall rebuild her prime,

And the houses of dark be overthrown;
When the goblin maids shall love their own,—

Their arms forever unlaced from their hold

325

Of the earls of the sea on that alien wold,—

And the feckless light of their golden eyes
Shall forget the desire that made them wise;

When the hands of the foam shall beckon and flee,
And the Kelpie riders ride for the sea;

330


And the whip-poor-will the whole night long
Repeat his litanies of song,

Till morning whiten the world again,
And the flowers revive on Bareau Fen,

Over the acres of calm Rochelle

335
Fresh by the stream of the crystal well.