Ancient Ballads of Hindustan - Part 4

Part IV.

As still Savitri sat beside

Her husband dying, — dying fast,

She saw a stranger slowly glide

Beneath the boughs that shrunk aghast.

Upon his head he wore a crown

That shimmered in the doubtful light;

His vestment scarlet reached low down,

His waist, a golden girdle dight.

His skin was dark as bronze; his face

Irradiate, and yet severe;

His eyes had much of love and grace,

But glowed so bright, they filled with fear.

A string was in the stranger's hand

Noosed at its end. Her terrors now

Savitri scarcely could command.

Upon the sod beneath a bough,

She gently laid her husband's head,

And in obeisance bent her brow.

" No mortal form is thine, " — she said,

" Beseech thee say what god art thou?

And what can be thine errand here? "

" Savitri, for thy prayers, thy faith,

Thy frequent vows, thy fasts severe,

I answer, — list, — my name is Death.

And I am come myself to take

Thy husband from this earth away,

And he shall cross the doleful lake

In my own charge, and let me say

To few such honours I accord,

But his pure life and thine require

No less from me. " The dreadful sword

Like lightning glanced one moment dire;

And then the inner man was tied,

The soul no bigger than the thumb,

To be borne onwards by his side: —

Savitri all the while stood dumb.

But when the god moved slowly on

To gain his own dominions dim,

Leaving the body there — anon

Savitri meekly followed him,

Hoping against all hope; he turned

And looked surprised. " Go back, my child! "

Pale, pale the stars above them burned,

More weird the scene had grown and wild;

" It is not for the living — hear!

To follow where the dead must go,

Thy duty lies before thee clear,

What thou shouldst do, the Shasters show.

The funeral rites that they ordain

And sacrifices must take up

Thy first sad moments; not in vain

Is held to thee this bitter cup;

Its lessons thou shalt learn in time!

All that thou canst do, thou hast done

For thy dear lord. Thy love sublime

My deepest sympathy hath won

Return, for thou hast come as far

As living creature may. Adieu!

Let duty be thy guiding star,

As ever. To thyself be true! "

" Where'er my husband dear is led,

Or journeys of his own free will,

I too must go, though darkness spread

Across my path, portending ill,

'Tis thus my duty I have read!

If I am wrong, oh! with me bear;

But do not bid me backward tread

My way forlorn, — for I can dare

All things but that; ah! pity me,

A woman frail, too sorely tried!

And let me, let me follow thee,

O gracious god, — whate'er betide.

By all things sacred, I entreat,

By Penitence that purifies,

By prompt Obedience, full, complete,

To spiritual masters, in the eyes

Of gods so precious, by the love

I bear my husband, by the faith

That looks from earth to heaven above,

And by thy own great name. O Death,

And all thy kindness, bid me not

To leave thee, and to go my way,

But let me follow as I ought

Thy steps and his, as best I may.

I know that in this transient world

All is delusion, — nothing true;

I know its shows are mists unfurled

To please and vanish. To renew

Its bubble joys, be magic bound

In Maya's network frail and fair,

Is not my aim! The gladsome sound

Of husband, brother, friend, is air

To such as know that all must die,

And that at last the time must come,

When eye shall speak no more to eye

And Love cry, — Lo, this is my sum.

I know in such a world as this

No one can gain his heart's desire,

Or pass the years in perfect bliss;

Like gold we must be tried by fire;

And each shall suffer as he acts

And thinks, — his own sad burden bear!

No friends can help, — his sins are facts

That nothing can annul or square,

And he must bear their consequence.

Can I my husband save by rites?

Ah, no, — that were a vain pretence,

Justice eternal strict requites.

He for his deeds shall get his due

As I for mine: thus here each soul

Is its own friend if it pursue

The right, and run straight for the goal;

But its own worst and direst foe

If it choose evil, and in tracks

Forbidden, for its pleasure go.

Who knows not this, true wisdom lacks,

Virtue should be the aim and end

Of every life, all else is vain,

Duty should be its dearest friend

If higher life, it would attain. "

" So sweet thy words ring on mine ear,

Gentle Savitri, that I fain

Would give some sign to make it clear

Thou hast not prayed to me in vain

Satyavan's life I may not grant,

Nor take before its term thy life,

But I am not all adamant,

I feel for thee, thou faithful wife!

Ask thou aught else, and let it be

Some good thing for thyself or thine,

And I shall give it, child, to thee,

If any power on earth be mine. "

" Well, be it so. My husband's sire

Hath lost his sight and fair domain,

Give to his eyes their former fire,

And place him on his throne again "

" It shall be done. Go back, my child,

The hour wears late, the wind feels cold,

The path becomes more weird and wild,

Thy feet are torn, there's blood, behold!

Thou feelest faint from weariness,

Oh try to follow me no more;

Go home, and with thy presence bless

Those who thine absence there deplore. "

" No weariness, O Death, I feel,

And how should I, when by the side

Of Satyavan? In woe and weal

To be a helpmate swears the bride.

This is my place; by solemn oath

Wherever thou conductest him

I too must go, to keep my troth;

And if the eye at times should brim,

'Tis human weakness, give me strength

My work appointed to fulfil,

That I may gain the crown at length

The gods give those who do their will

The power of goodness is so great

We pray to feel its influence

For ever on us. It is late,

And the strange landscape awes my sense;

But I would fain with thee go on,

And hear thy voice so true and kind;

The false lights that on objects shone

Have vanished, and no longer blind,

Thanks to thy simple presence. Now

I feel a fresher air around,

And see the glory of that brow

With flashing rubies fitly crowned

Men call thee Yama — conqueror,

Because it is against their will

They follow thee, — and they abhor

The Truth which thou wouldst aye instil.

If they thy nature knew aright,

O god, all other gods above!

And that thou conquerest in the fight

By patience, kindness, mercy, love,

And not by devastating wrath,

They would not shrink in childlike fright

To see thy shadow on their path,

But hail thee as sick souls the light "

" Thy words, Savitri, greet mine ear

As sweet as founts that murmur low

To one who in the deserts drear.

With parched tongue moves faint and slow,

Because thy talk is heart-sincere,

Without hypocrisy or guile;

Demand another boon, my dear,

But not of those forbad erewhile,

And I shall grant it, ere we part:

Lo, the stars pale, — the way is long,

Receive thy boon, and homewards start,

For ah, poor child, thou art not strong. "

" Another boon! My sire the king

Beside myself hath children none,

Oh grant that from his stock may spring

A hundred boughs. " " It shall be done.

He shall be blest with many a son

Who his old palace shall rejoice. "

" Each heart-wish from thy goodness won,

If I am still allowed a choice,

I fain thy voice would ever hear,

Reluctant am I still to part,

The way seems short when thou art near

And Satyavan, my heart's dear heart.

Of all the pleasures given on earth

The company of the good is best,

For weariness has never birth

In such a commerce sweet and blest;

The sun runs on its wonted course,

The earth its plenteous treasure yields,

All for their sake, and by the force

Their prayer united ever wields

Oh let me, let me ever dwell

Amidst the good, where'er it be,

Whether in lowly hermit-cell

Or in some spot beyond the sea.

The favours man accords to men

Are never fruitless, from them rise

A thousand acts beyond our ken

That float like incense to the skies;

For benefits can ne'er efface,

They multiply and widely spread,

And honour follows on their trace

Sharp penances, and vigils dread,

Austerities, and wasting fasts,

Create an empire, and the blest

Long as this spiritual empire lasts

Become the saviours of the rest. "

" O thou endowed with every grace

And every virtue, — thou whose soul

Appears upon thy lovely face,

May the great gods who all control

Send thee their peace. I too would give

One favour more before I go;

Ask something for thyself, and live

Happy, and dear to all below,

Till summoned to the bliss above

Savitri ask, and ask unblamed " —

She took the clue, felt Death was Love,

For no exceptions now he named,

And boldly said, — " Thou knowest, Lord,

The inmost hearts and thoughts of all!

There is no need to utter word,

Upon thy mercy sole, I call.

If speech be needful to obtain

Thy grace, — oh hear a wife forlorn,

Let my Satyavan live again

And children unto us be born,

Wise, brave, and valiant. " " From thy stock

A hundred families shall spring

As lasting as the solid rock,

Each son of thine shall be a king. "

As thus he spoke, he loosed the knot

The soul of Satyavan that bound,

And promised further that their lot

In pleasant places should be found

Thenceforth, and that they both should live

Four centuries, to which the name

Of fair Savitri, men would give, —

And then he vanished in a flame.

" Adieu, great god! " She took the soul,

No bigger than the human thumb,

And running swift, soon reached her goal,

Where lay the body stark and dumb.

She lifted it with eager hands,

And as before, when he expired,

She placed the head upon the bands

That bound her breast which hope newfired,

And which alternate rose and fell;

Then placed his soul upon his heart

Whence like a bee it found its cell,

And lo, he woke with sudden start!

His breath came low at first, then deep,

With an unquiet look he gazed,

As one awaking from a sleep

Wholly bewildered and amazed.

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