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Poem by Menella Bute Smedley

The English Merchant and the Saracen Lady

           LAY THE FIRST

It was a merchant, a merchant of fame,
And he sail'd to the Holy Land;
Gilbert à Becket was his name;
And he went to trade with the Syrians rich
For velvets, and satins, and jewels, which
He might sell on the western strand.
But the luckless merchant was captive ta'en
By a Turcoman fierce and rude;
They bound his limbs with a galling chain,
And they set him to labour, early and late,
In the gardens which lay round the palace-gate
Of the terrible chief Mahmoud.
It was there he met with a Saracen maid
Of virtue and beauty rare:
And, behold, our merchant forgot his trade;
His English habits aside he flung,
And he learn'd to speak with a Saracen tongue,
For the sake of that damsel fair.
He taught Zarina the Christian's lore;
And the hours sped swiftly by,
When together they trod the lonely shore,
And she listen'd to him with a willing ear,
And he gazed in her eyes so deep and clear,
By the light of the morning sky.

They plighted their faith, and they vow'd to wed,
If Gilbert should e'er be free;
How could she doubt a word he said?
For her heart was trustful, pure, and mild,
Like the heart of a young unfearing child,
And she loved him hopefully.
But days stole on, and months stole on,
And Gilbert was captive yet;
A long, long year had come and gone,
When the maiden wander'd with earnest eye
To the shadowy walk 'neath the palm-trees high,
Where oft before they met.
I am a Christian, my Gilbert, now,
The Saracen lady said;
The tone of her voice was sweet and low,
Like the voice of the night-breeze, cool and calm,
When it sighs through the leaves of the murmuring palm,
Of its own light sounds afraid.
At eve and at morn to thy God I pray;
Oh, why should I linger here?
Let us flee to thine England, far away;
The God we serve shall guide our bark
Over the desert of waters dark;
For how can a Christian fear?
I will send to thee at the hour of eve,
When the curtains are drawn o'er heaven;
And I shall not weep for the friends I leave,
For I am an orphan, and ne'er have known
A gentle word or a kindly tone,
Save such as thou hast given.

My gems shall purchase a gallant boat,
And a crew of skilful men:
Oh, when on the fetterless waves we float,
With the wide blue sky and the wide blue sea
Stretching around us triumphantly,
Wilt thou not bless me then?
He kiss'd her hand, and he vow'd to come;
And the night was calm and fair:
Oh, how the captive thought on home,
As he gazed the dashing waters o'er,
And noiselessly paced the rugged shore;
But Zarina was not there!
He look'd to the east, he look'd to the west,
But her form he could not see;
And fear struck cold upon his breast,
For he almost fancied the stars so pale
Had watch'd their meeting, and told their tale
To some ruthless enemy.
He look'd to the south, he look'd to the north,
A light, light step he hears!
And a figure steps from the shadows forth
But, alas for Zarina, it is not she!
It is but her faithful nurse Safiè,
And her eyes are dim with tears.
Oh, listen, she cried, in bitter woe,
Zarina is captive made!
Sir Christian, Sir Christian, alone must thou go;
Thy way is still clear; but they know that she
Was wont to wander at eve with thee,
By treacherous lips betray'd.

She bids thee flee to thine own fair land,
For thou canst not aid her here.
The old nurse pointed with her hand.
Gilbert à Becket he grieved and sigh'd;
But he saw the bark on the white waves ride,
And he thought on England dear.
Adieu, my lady, at last he said,
While the nurse in silence wept;
Oh, I ne'er will forget my Saracen maid,
But I'll gather an army, firm and brave,
And come to seek thee across the wave!
He spake, and on board he leapt.
Away flies the bark o'er the billowy foam,
As though her sails were wings
She seems to know she is travelling home;
And at last good Gilbert à Becket stands
On the noblest land of all earthly lands
Oh, how his glad heart springs!

           LAY THE SECOND

Where is Zarina? A captive lone
She sits, with tearful eye;
Till two long years are come and gone,
And at last, when her ruthless gaolers slept,
One eve of beauty, forth she crept
To gaze from the lattice high.

The wall was steep, yet she dared to leap
Safe on the turf doth she stand!
'Tis pleasant to be on the green earth free;
Yet where shall the hapless maiden go,
For the English tongue she doth not know,
Though she seeks the English land?
She hath wander'd down to the shore, and there
Is a bark about to sail,
With tapering masts that seem'd to bear,
Upon their crests so slight and high,
The outspread curtains of the sky,
Hung o'er with star-lamps pale.
Oft hath the maiden her lover heard,
When he spake of his far-off home;
Back to her lip returns the word,
And London! London! in haste she cries,
With a piteous tone and with streaming eyes,
While the seamen around her come.
It is sad and strange, said the sailors then,
That the damsel weepeth thus;
But oh, let it never be said that men
Look'd on a woman in sore distress,
And gave no aid to her feebleness!
The maiden shall sail with us!
So they took her in; and Zarina smiled,
And thank'd them with her eyes;
Gentle she was as a chidden child;
But the mariners could not understand
The wondrous words of the eastern land,
So they sail'd in silent wise.

They came to shore at fair Stamboul,
And the maiden roam'd all night
Through its streets, so calm, and still, and cool;
And to every passer-by that came
She murmur'd forth the one dear name,
Clasping her hands so white.
Some turn'd aside with careless pride,
And some with angry frown;
With a curious ear some turn'd to hear;
But the word she spake each passer knew,
For London is known the wide world through,
From England's fair renown.
From place to place did the maiden stray,
And still that little word
Was her only guide on her venturous way.
Full many a pitying stranger gave
Aid to her journey by land and wave,
When her low sweet voice was heard.
And oft at eve would Zarina stand
On the edge of the darkening flood,
And sing the lays of her own far land:
So sweet was her voice when she sang of home,
That the listening peasants would round her come,
Proffering their simple food.
Thus when full many a month had pass'd
Of wearisome wanderings long,
To the wish'd-for place she was borne at last;
And the maiden gaz'd with bewilder'd eye
On each spreading roof and turret high,
Mid London's hurrying throng.

Through all that maze of square and street
With pleading looks she went;
And still her weary voice was sweet.
But now was Gilbert the name she cried:
The world of London is very wide,
And they knew not whom she meant.
Gilbert!her lover's namehow oft
Had she breath'd that sound before!
Her eye grew bright, her tone grew soft;
For she thought that life and hope must dwell
In the precious name she loved so well;
And her troubles all seem'd o'er.
Now Gilbert à Becket was dwelling there,
Like a merchant-prince was he;
His gardens were wide, and his halls were fair;
His servants flatter'd, his minstrels play'd;
He had almost forgotten his Saracen maid,
And their parting beyond the sea.
But word was brought, as he sate at meat,
Of a damsel fair and sad,
Who wander'd for ever through square and street,
With claspèd hands and strength o'erspent,
Murmuring, Gilbert! as she went,
Like one possess'd, or mad.
Gilbert à Becket, he straightway rose,
For his conscience prick'd him sore;
Forth from his splendid hall he goes
A well-known voice is in his ears,
And he sees a fair face veil'd in tears,
And he thinks on the Syrian shore.

Forth to Zarina in haste he came,
Oh, how could he ever forget?
Gilbert! she cries'tis the selfsame name,
But, ah! what a changed and joyous tone,
For the maiden's heart is no more alone,
And the lovers at last are met!
He took that happy wanderer home,
He placed her at his side;
O'er desert plain, and o'er ocean's foam,
She hath come, with her changeless love and faith;
And now there is nothing can part, save death,
The bridegroom and the bride!
The maiden was led to the holy font,
They named her Matilda there;
Yet ever was Gilbert à Becket wont,
In his joyous home, with a sweet wife blest,
To say that he loved Zarina best,
His Saracen true and fair.
Their first-born son was a priest of power,
Who ruled on English ground
His fame remaineth to this hour!
God send to every valiant knight
A lady as true, and a home as bright,
As Gilbert the merchant found!

Menella Bute Smedley

Menella Bute Smedley's other poems:
  1. What Hearest Thou?
  2. To a Little Girl
  3. The Lay of King James I in his Captivity
  4. One and Another
  5. Once upon a Time

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