Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie and Other Poems

by Isabella Valancy Crawford


 

CURTIUS.


 

How spake the Oracle, my Curtius, how?
Methought, while on the shadow’d terraces
I walked and looked towards Rome, an echo came,
Of legion wails, blent into one deep cry.
“O, Jove!” I thought, “the Oracles have said;
5
And saying, touched some swiftly answering chord,
Gen’ral to ev’ry soul.” And then my heart
(I being here alone) beat strangely loud;
Responsive to the cry—and my still soul,
Inform’d me thus: “Not such a harmony
10
Could spring from aught within the souls of men,”
But that which is most common to all souls.
Lo! that is sorrow!” “Nay, Curtius, I could smile,
To tell thee as I listen’d to the cry,
How on the silver flax which blew about
15
The ivory distaff in my languid hand,
I found large tears; such big and rounded drops
As gather thro’ dark nights on cypress boughs,
And I was sudden anger’d, for I thought:
“Why should a gen’ral wail come home to me
20
With such vibration in my trembling heart,
That such great tears should rise and overflow?”
Then shook them on the marble where I pac’d;
Where instantly they vanished in the sun,
As di’monds fade in flames, ’twas foolish, Curtius!
25
And then methought how strange and lone it seem’d,
For till thou cam’st I seem’d to be alone, [Page 166]
On the vin’d terrace, prison’d in the gold
Of that still noontide hour. No widows stole
Up the snow-glimmering marble of the steps
30
To take my alms and bless the Gods and me;
No orphans touched the fringes of my robe
With innocent babe-fingers, nor dropped the gold
I laid in their soft palms, to laugh, and stroke
The jewels on my neck, or touch the rose
35
Thou sayest, Curtius, lives upon my cheek.
Perchance all lingered in the Roman streets
To catch first tiding from the Oracles.
The very peacocks drows’d in distant shades,
Nor sought my hand for honey’d cake; and high
40
A hawk sailed blackly in the clear blue sky,
And kept my doves from cooing at my feet.
My lute lay there, bound with the small white buds,
Which, laughing this bright morn, thou brought and wreath’d
Around it as I sang—but with that wail
45
Dying across the vines and purple slopes,
And breaking on its strings, I did not care
To waken music, nor in truth could force
My voice or fingers to it, so I stray’d
Where hangs thy best loved armour on the wall,
50
And pleased myself by filling it with thee!
’Tis yet the goodliest armour in proud Rome,
Say all the armourers; all Rome and I
Know thee, the lordliest bearer of a sword
Yet, Curtius, stay, there is a rivet lost
55
From out the helmet, and a ruby gone
From the short sword hilt—trifles both which can
Be righted by to-morrow’s noon—“to-morrow’s noon!” [Page 167]
Was there a change, my Curtius, in my voice
When spake I those three words: “to-morrow’s noon?”
60
O, I am full of dreams—methought there was.
“Why, love, how darkly gaze thine eyes in mine!
If lov’d I dismal thoughts I well could deem
Thou saw’st not the blue of my fond eyes,
But look’d between the lips of that dread pit—
65
O, Jove! to name it seems to curse the air
With chills of death—we’ll not speak of it, Curtius.
When I had dimm’d thy shield with kissing it,
I went between the olives to the stalls;
White Audax neigh’d out to me as I came,
70
As I had been Hippona to his eyes;
New dazzling from the one, small, mystic cloud
That like a silver chariot floated low
In the ripe blue of noon, and seem’d to pause,
Stay’d by the hilly round of yon aged tree.
75
He stretch’d the ivory arch of his vast neck,
Smiting sharp thunders from the marble floor
With hoofs impatient of a peaceful earth;
Shook the long silver of his burnish’d mane,
Until the sunbeams smote it into light,
80
Such as a comet trails across the sky.
I love him, Curtius! Such magnanimous fires
Leap from his eyes. I do truly think
That with thee seated on him, thy strong knees
Against his sides—the bridle in his jaws
85
In thy lov’d hand, to pleasure thee he’d spring
Sheer from the verge of Earth into the breast
Of Death and Chaos—of Death and Chaos!—
What omens seem to strike my soul to-day? [Page 168]

What is there in this blossom-hour should knit
90
An omen in with ev’ry simple word?
Should make yon willows with their hanging locks
Dusk sybils, mutt’ring sorrows to the air?
The roses clamb’ring round yon marble Pan,
Wave like red banners floating o’er the dead?
95
The dead—there ’tis again. My Curtius, come
And thou shalt tell me of the Oracles
And what sent hither that long cry of woe.
Yet wait, yet wait, I care not much to hear.
While on thy charger’s throbbing neck I lean’d
100
Romeward there pass’d across the violet slopes,
Five sacrificial bulls, with silver hides,
And horns as cusp’d and white as Dian’s bow,
And lordly breasts which laid the honey’d thyme
Into long swarths, whence smoke of yellow bees
105
Rose up in puffs, dispersing as it rose,
For the great temple they; and as they pass’d
With quiet gait, I heard their drivers say:
The bulls were for the Altars, when should come
Word from the Oracles, as to the Pit,
110
O, Curtius, Curtius, in my soul I see
How black and fearful is its glutton throat;
I will not look!
O, Soul, be blind and see not! Then the men
Wav’d their long goads, still juicy from the vine,
115
And plum’d with bronzy leaves, and each to each,
Showed the sleek beauty of the rounded sides,
The mighty curving of the lordly breasts,
The level lines of backs, the small, fine heads.
And laugh’d and said, “The Gods will have it thus, [Page 169]
120
The choicest of the earth for sacrifice;
Let it be man, or maid, or lowing bull!”
Where lay the witchcraft in their clownish words,
To shake my heart? I know not; but it thrill’d,
As Daphne’s leaves, thrill to a wind so soft,
125
One might not feel it on the open palm;
I cannot choose but laugh—for what have I
To do with altars and with sacrifice? [Page 170]