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Art thou not he? whose deeds----"[jx]
"Whate'er I be, Words wild as these, accusers like to thee, I list no further; those with whom they weigh May hear the rest, nor venture to gainsay The wondrous tale no doubt thy tongue can tell, Which thus begins so courteously and well. 460 Let Otho cherish here his polished guest, To him my thanks and thoughts shall be expressed."
And here their wondering host hath interposed-- "Whate'er there be between you undisclosed, This is no time nor fitting place to mar The mirthful meeting with a wordy war.
If thou, Sir Ezzelin, hast aught to show Which it befits Count Lara's ear to know, To-morrow, here, or elsewhere, as may best Beseem your mutual judgment, speak the rest; 470 I pledge myself for thee, as not unknown, Though, like Count Lara, now returned alone From other lands, almost a stranger grown; And if from Lara's blood and gentle birth I augur right of courage and of worth, He will not that untainted line belie, Nor aught that Knighthood may accord, deny."
"To-morrow be it," Ezzelin replied, "And here our several worth and truth be tried; I gage my life, my falchion to attest 480 My words, so may I mingle with the blest!"
What answers Lara? to its centre shrunk His soul, in deep abstraction sudden sunk; The words of many, and the eyes of all That there were gathered, seemed on him to fall; But his were silent, his appeared to stray In far forgetfulness away--away-- Alas! that heedlessness of all around Bespoke remembrance only too profound.
"To-morrow!--aye, to-morrow!" further word[jy] 490 Than those repeated none from Lara heard; Upon his brow no outward pa.s.sion spoke; From his large eye no flashing anger broke; Yet there was something fixed in that low tone, Which showed resolve, determined, though unknown.
He seized his cloak--his head he slightly bowed, And pa.s.sing Ezzelin, he left the crowd; And, as he pa.s.sed him, smiling met the frown With which that Chieftain's brow would bear him down: It was nor smile of mirth, nor struggling pride 500 That curbs to scorn the wrath it cannot hide; But that of one in his own heart secure Of all that he would do, or could endure.
Could this mean peace? the calmness of the good?
Or guilt grown old in desperate hardihood?
Alas! too like in confidence are each, For man to trust to mortal look or speech; From deeds, and deeds alone, may he discern Truths which it wrings the unpractised heart to learn.
And Lara called his page, and went his way-- 510 Well could that stripling word or sign obey: His only follower from those climes afar, Where the Soul glows beneath a brighter star: For Lara left the sh.o.r.e from whence he sprung, In duty patient, and sedate though young; Silent as him he served, his faith appears Above his station, and beyond his years.
Though not unknown the tongue of Lara's land, In such from him he rarely heard command; But fleet his step, and clear his tones would come, 520 When Lara's lip breathed forth the words of home: Those accents, as his native mountains dear, Awake their absent echoes in his ear,[jz]
Friends'--kindred's--parents'--wonted voice recall, Now lost, abjured, for one--his friend, his all: For him earth now disclosed no other guide; What marvel then he rarely left his side?
Light was his form, and darkly delicate That brow whereon his native sun had sate, But had not marred, though in his beams he grew, 530 The cheek where oft the unbidden blush shone through; Yet not such blush as mounts when health would show All the heart's hue in that delighted glow; But 'twas a hectic tint of secret care That for a burning moment fevered there; And the wild sparkle of his eye seemed caught From high, and lightened with electric thought,[ka]
Though its black orb those long low lashes' fringe Had tempered with a melancholy tinge; Yet less of sorrow than of pride was there, 540 Or, if 'twere grief, a grief that none should share: And pleased not him the sports that please his age, The tricks of Youth, the frolics of the Page; For hours on Lara he would fix his glance, As all-forgotten in that watchful trance; And from his chief withdrawn, he wandered lone, Brief were his answers, and his questions none; His walk the wood, his sport some foreign book; His resting-place the bank that curbs the brook: He seemed, like him he served, to live apart 550 From all that lures the eye, and fills the heart; To know no brotherhood, and take from earth No gift beyond that bitter boon--our birth.
If aught he loved, 'twas Lara; but was shown His faith in reverence and in deeds alone; In mute attention; and his care, which guessed Each wish, fulfilled it ere the tongue expressed.
Still there was haughtiness in all he did, A spirit deep that brooked not to be chid; His zeal, though more than that of servile hands,[kb] 560 In act alone obeys, his air commands; As if 'twas Lara's less than _his_ desire That thus he served, but surely not for hire.
Slight were the tasks enjoined him by his Lord, To hold the stirrup, or to bear the sword; To tune his lute, or, if he willed it more,[kc]
On tomes of other times and tongues to pore; But ne'er to mingle with the menial train, To whom he showed nor deference nor disdain, But that well-worn reserve which proved he knew 570 No sympathy with that familiar crew: His soul, whate'er his station or his stem, Could bow to Lara, not descend to them.
Of higher birth he seemed, and better days, Nor mark of vulgar toil that hand betrays, So femininely white it might bespeak Another s.e.x, when matched with that smooth cheek, But for his garb, and something in his gaze, More wild and high than Woman's eye betrays; A latent fierceness that far more became 580 His fiery climate than his tender frame: True, in his words it broke not from his breast, But from his aspect might be more than guessed.[kd]
Kaled his name, though rumour said he bore Another ere he left his mountain-sh.o.r.e; For sometimes he would hear, however nigh, That name repeated loud without reply, As unfamiliar--or, if roused again, Start to the sound, as but remembered then; Unless 'twas Lara's wonted voice that spake, 590 For then--ear--eyes--and heart would all awake.
He had looked down upon the festive hall, And mark'd that sudden strife so marked of all: And when the crowd around and near him told[ke]
Their wonder at the calmness of the bold, Their marvel how the high-born Lara bore Such insult from a stranger, doubly sore, The colour of young Kaled went and came, The lip of ashes, and the cheek of flame; And o'er his brow the dampening heart-drops threw 600 The sickening iciness of that cold dew, That rises as the busy bosom sinks With heavy thoughts from which Reflection shrinks.
Yes--there be things which we must dream and dare, And execute ere thought be half aware:
Whate'er might Kaled's be, it was enow To seal his lip, but agonise his brow.
He gazed on Ezzelin till Lara cast That sidelong smile upon the knight he past; When Kaled saw that smile his visage fell, 610 As if on something recognised right well: His memory read in such a meaning more Than Lara's aspect unto others wore: Forward he sprung--a moment, both were gone, And all within that hall seemed left alone; Each had so fixed his eye on Lara's mien, All had so mixed their feelings with that scene, That when his long dark shadow through the porch No more relieves the glare of yon high torch, Each pulse beats quicker, and all bosoms seem 620 To bound as doubting from too black a dream, Such as we know is false, yet dread in sooth, Because the worst is ever nearest truth.
And they are gone--but Ezzelin is there, With thoughtful visage and imperious air; But long remained not; ere an hour expired He waved his hand to Otho, and retired.
The crowd are gone, the revellers at rest; The courteous host, and all-approving guest, Again to that accustomed couch must creep 630 Where Joy subsides, and Sorrow sighs to sleep, And Man, o'erlaboured with his Being's strife, Shrinks to that sweet forgetfulness of life: There lie Love's feverish hope, and Cunning's guile,[kf]
Hate's working brain, and lulled Ambition's wile; O'er each vain eye Oblivion's pinions wave, And quenched Existence crouches in a grave.[kg]
What better name may Slumber's bed become?
Night's sepulchre, the universal home, Where Weakness--Strength--Vice--Virtue--sunk supine, 640 Alike in naked helplessness recline; Glad for a while to heave unconscious breath, Yet wake to wrestle with the dread of Death, And shun--though Day but dawn on ills increased-- That sleep,--the loveliest, since it dreams the least.
CANTO THE SECOND.
Night wanes--the vapours round the mountains curled
Melt into morn, and Light awakes the world, Man has another day to swell the past, And lead him near to little, but his last; But mighty Nature bounds as from her birth, 650 The Sun is in the heavens, and Life on earth;
Flowers in the valley, splendour in the beam, Health on the gale, and freshness in the stream.
Immortal Man! behold her glories shine, And cry, exulting inly, "They are thine!"
Gaze on, while yet thy gladdened eye may see: A morrow comes when they are not for thee: And grieve what may above thy senseless bier, Nor earth nor sky will yield a single tear; Nor cloud shall gather more, nor leaf shall fall, 660 Nor gale breathe forth one sigh for thee, for all;
But creeping things shall revel in their spoil, And fit thy clay to fertilise the soil.
'Tis morn--'tis noon--a.s.sembled in the hall, The gathered Chieftains come to Otho's call; 'Tis now the promised hour, that must proclaim The life or death of Lara's future fame; And Ezzelin his charge may here unfold,[kh]
And whatsoe'er the tale, it must be told.
His faith was pledged, and Lara's promise given, 670 To meet it in the eye of Man and Heaven.
Why comes he not? Such truths to be divulged, Methinks the accuser's rest is long indulged.
The hour is past, and Lara too is there, With self-confiding, coldly patient air; Why comes not Ezzelin? The hour is past, And murmurs rise, and Otho's brow's o'ercast.
"I know my friend! his faith I cannot fear, If yet he be on earth, expect him here; The roof that held him in the valley stands 680 Between my own and n.o.ble Lara's lands; My halls from such a guest had honour gained, Nor had Sir Ezzelin his host disdained, But that some previous proof forbade his stay, And urged him to prepare against to-day; The word I pledged for his I pledge again, Or will myself redeem his knighthood's stain."
He ceased--and Lara answered, "I am here To lend at thy demand a listening ear To tales of evil from a stranger's tongue, 690 Whose words already might my heart have wrung, But that I deemed him scarcely less than mad, Or, at the worst, a foe ign.o.bly bad.
I know him not--but me it seems he knew In lands where--but I must not trifle too: Produce this babbler--or redeem the pledge; Here in thy hold, and with thy falchion's edge."[ki]
Proud Otho on the instant, reddening, threw His glove on earth, and forth his sabre flew.
"The last alternative befits me best, 700 And thus I answer for mine absent guest."
With cheek unchanging from its sallow gloom, However near his own or other's tomb; With hand, whose almost careless coolness spoke Its grasp well-used to deal the sabre-stroke; With eye, though calm, determined not to spare, Did Lara too his willing weapon bare.
In vain the circling Chieftains round them closed, For Otho's frenzy would not be opposed; And from his lip those words of insult fell-- 710 His sword is good who can maintain them well.
Short was the conflict; furious, blindly rash, Vain Otho gave his bosom to the gash: He bled, and fell; but not with deadly wound, Stretched by a dextrous sleight along the ground.
"Demand thy life!" He answered not: and then From that red floor he ne'er had risen again, For Lara's brow upon the moment grew Almost to blackness in its demon hue;
And fiercer shook his angry falchion now 720 Than when his foe's was levelled at his brow; Then all was stern collectedness and art, Now rose the unleavened hatred of his heart; So little sparing to the foe he felled,[kj]
That when the approaching crowd his arm withheld, He almost turned the thirsty point on those Who thus for mercy dared to interpose; But to a moment's thought that purpose bent; Yet looked he on him still with eye intent, As if he loathed the ineffectual strife 730 That left a foe, howe'er o'erthrown, with life; As if to search how far the wound he gave Had sent its victim onward to his grave.
They raised the bleeding Otho, and the Leech Forbade all present question, sign, and speech; The others met within a neighbouring hall, And he, incensed, and heedless of them all,[kk]
The cause and conqueror in this sudden fray, In haughty silence slowly strode away; He backed his steed, his homeward path he took, 740 Nor cast on Otho's towers a single look.
But where was he? that meteor of a night, Who menaced but to disappear with light.