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Ancient Ballads of Hindustan - Part 1

PARTI

Savitri was the only child
Of Madra's wise and mighty king;
Stern warriors, when they saw her, smiled,
As mountains smile to see the spring.
Fair as a lotus when the moon
Kisses its opening petals red,
After sweet showers in sultry June!
With happier heart, and lighter tread,
Chance strangers, having met her, past,
And often would they turn the head
A lingering second look to cast,
And bless the vision ere it fled.
What was her own peculiar charm?
The soft black eyes, the raven hair,
The curving neck, the rounded arm,
All these are common everywhere.
Her charm was this — upon her face
Childlike and innocent and fair,
No man with thought impure or base
Could ever look; — the glory there,
The sweet simplicity and grace,
Abashed the boldest; but the good
God's purity there loved to trace,
Mirrored in dawning womanhood.

In those far-off primeval days
Fair India's daughters were not pent
In closed zenanas. On her ways
Savitri at her pleasure went
Whither she chose, — and hour by hour
With young companions of her age,
She roamed the woods for fruit or flower,
Or loitered in some hermitage,
For to the Munis gray and old
Her presence was as sunshine glad,
They taught her wonders manifold
And gave her of the best they had.

Her father let her have her way
In all things, whether high or low;
He feared no harm; he knew no ill
Could touch a nature pure as snow.
Long childless, as a priceless boon
He had obtained this child at last
By prayers, made morning, night, and noon
With many a vigil, many a fast;
Would Shiva his own gift recall,
Or mar its perfect beauty ever? —
No, he had faith, — he gave her all
She wished, and feared and doubted never.

And so she wandered where she pleased
In boyish freedom. Happy time!
No small vexations ever teased,
Nor crushing sorrows dimmed her prime
One care alone, her father felt —
Where should he find a fitting mate
For one so pure? — His thoughts long dwelt
On this as with his queen he sate.
" Ah, whom, dear wife, should we select? "
" Leave it to God, " she answering cried,
" Savitri, may herself elect
Some day, her future lord and guide "

Months passed, and lo, one summer morn
As to the hermitage she went
Through smiling fields of waving corn,
She saw some youths on sport intent,
Sons of the hermits, and their peers,
And one among them tall and lithe
Royal in port, — on whom the years
Consenting, shed a grace so blithe,
So frank and noble, that the eye
Was loth to quit that sun-browned face;
She looked and looked, — then gave a sigh,
And slackened suddenly her pace.

What was the meaning — was it love?
Love at first sight, as poets sing,
Is then no fiction? Heaven above
Is witness, that the heart its king
Finds often like a lightning flash;
We play, — we jest, — we have no care, —
When hark a step, — there comes no crash, —
But life, or silent slow despair.
Their eyes just met, — Savitri past
Into the friendly Muni's hut,
Her heart-rose opened had at last —
Opened no flower can ever shut.

In converse with the gray-haired sage
She learnt the story of the youth,
His name and place and parentage —
Of royal race he was in truth.
Satyavan was he hight, — his sire
Dyoumatsen had been Salva's king,
But old and blind, opponents dire
Had gathered round him in a ring
And snatched the sceptre from his hand;
Now, — with his queen and only son
He lived a hermit in the land,
And gentler hermit was there none.

With many tears was said and heard
The story, — and with praise sincere
Of Prince Satyavan; every word
Sent up a flush on cheek and ear,
Unnoticed. Hark! The bells remind
'Tis time to go, — she went away,
Leaving her virgin heart behind,
And richer for the loss. A ray,
Shot down from heaven, appeared to tinge
All objects with supernal light,
The thatches had a rainbow fringe,
The cornfields looked more green and bright.

Savitri's first care was to tell
Her mother all her feelings new;
The queen her own fears to dispel
To the king's private chamber flew.
" Now what is it, my gentle queen,
That makes thee hurry in this wise? "
She told him, smiles and tears between,
All she had heard; the king with sighs
Sadly replied: — " I fear me much!
Whence is his race and what his creed?
Not knowing aught, can we in such
A matter delicate, proceed? "

As if the king's doubts to allay,
Came Narad Muni to the place
A few days after. Old and gray,
All loved to see the gossip's face,
Great Brahma's son, — adored of men,
Long absent, doubly welcome he
Unto the monarch, hoping then
By his assistance, clear to see.
No god in heaven, nor king on earth,
But Narad knew his history, —
The sun's, the moon's, the planets' birth
Was not to him a mystery.

" Now welcome, welcome, dear old friend,
All hail, and welcome once again! "
The greeting had not reached its end,
When glided like a music-strain
Savitri's presence through the room —
" And who is this bright creature, say,
Whose radiance lights the chamber's gloom —
Is she an Apsara or fay? "
" No son thy servant hath, alas!
This is my one, — my only child; " —
" And married? " — " No " — " The seasons pass,
Make haste, O king, " — he said, and smiled:

" That is the very theme, O sage,
In which thy wisdom ripe I need;
Seen hath she at the hermitage
A youth to whom in very deed.
Her heart inclines. " — " And who is he? "
" My daughter, tell his name and race,
Speak as to men who best love thee "
She turned to them her modest face,
And answered quietly and clear. —
" Ah, no! ah, no! — It cannot be —
Choose out another husband, dear, " —
The Muni cried, — " or woe is me! "

" And why should I? When I have given
My heart away, though but in thought,
Can I take back? Forbid it, Heaven!
It were a deadly sin, I wot
And why should I? I know no crime
In him or his. " — " Believe me, child,
My reasons shall be clear in time,
I speak not like a madman wild;
Trust me in this. " — " I cannot break
A plighted faith, — I cannot bear
A wounded conscience. " — " Oh, forsake
This fancy, hence may spring despair. " —

" It may not be. " — The father heard
By turns the speakers, and in doubt
Thus interposed a gentle word, —
" Friend should to friend his mind speak out,
Is he not worthy? tell us. " — " Nay,
All worthiness is in Satyavan,
And no one can my praise gainsay:
Of solar race — more god than man!
Great Soorasen, his ancestor,
And Dyoumatsen his father blind
Are known to fame: I can aver
No kings have been so good and kind. "

" Then where, O Muni, is the bar?
If wealth be gone, and kingdom lost,
His merit still remains a star,
Nor melts his lineage like the frost.
For riches, worldly power, or rank
I care not, — I would have my son
Pure, wise, and brave, — the Fates I thank
I see no hindrance, no, not one. "
" Since thou insistest, King, to hear
The fatal truth, — I tell you, — I,
Upon this day as rounds the year
The young Prince Satyavan shall die. "

This was enough. The monarch knew
The future was no sealed book
To Brahma's son. A clammy dew
Spread on his brow, — he gently took
Savitri's palm in his, and said:
" No child can give away her hand,
A pledge is nought unsanctioned;
And here, if right I understand,
There was no pledge at all, — a thought,
A shadow, — barely crossed the mind —
Unblamed, it may be clean forgot,
Before the gods it cannot bind.

And think upon the dreadful curse
Of widowhood; the vigils, fasts,
And penances; no life is worse
Than hopeless life, — the while it lasts
Day follows day in one long round,
Monotonous and blank and drear;
Less painful were it to be bound
On some bleak rock, for aye to hear —
Without one chance of getting free —
The ocean's melancholy voice!
Mine be the sin, — if sin there be,
But thou must make a different choice. "

In the meek grace of virginhood
Unblanched her cheek, undimmed her eye,
Savitri, like a statue, stood,
Somewhat austere was her reply.
" Once, and once only, all submit
To Destiny, — 'tis God's command;
Once, and once only, so 'tis writ,
Shall woman pledge her faith and hand;
Once, and once only, can a sire
Unto his well-loved daughter say,
In presence of the witness fire,
I give thee to this man away.

Once, and once only, have I given
My heart and faith — 'tis past recall;
With conscience none have ever striven,
And none may strive, without a fall.
Not the less solemn was my vow
Because unheard, and oh! the sin
Will not be less, if I should now
Deny the feeling felt within.
Unwedded to my dying day
I must, my father dear, remain;
'Tis well, if so thou will'st, but say
Can man balk Fate, or break its chain?

If Fate so rules, that I should feel
The miseries of a widow's life,
Can man's device the doom repeal?
Unequal seems to be a strife,
Between Humanity and Fate;
None have on earth what they desire;
Death comes to all or soon or late;
And peace is but a wandering fire;
Expediency leads wild astray;
The Right must be our guiding star;
Duty our watchword, come what may;
Judge for me, friends, — as wiser far. "
She said, and meekly looked to both
The father, though he patient heard,
To give the sanction still seemed loth,
But Narad Muni took the word
" Bless thee, my child! 'Tis not for us
To question the Almighty will,
Though cloud on cloud loom ominous,
In gentle rain they may distil "
At this, the monarch — " Be it so!
I sanction what my friend approves;
All praise to Him, whom praise we owe;
My child shall wed the youth she loves. "
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