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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