How spake the Oracle, my Curtius, how?
by Isabella Valancy Crawford
Methought, while on the shadowed terraces
I walked and looked toward Rome, an echo came
Of legion wails, blent into one deep cry.
'O Jove!' I thought, 'the Oracles have said,
And, saying, touched some swiftly answering chord
General to every soul.' And then my heart
(I being here alone) beat strangely loud,
Responsive to the cry, and my still soul
Informed me thus: 'Not such a harmony
Could spring from aught within the souls of men,
But that which is most common to all souls.
Lo! that is sorrow!'
Nay, Curtius, I could smile
To tell thee, as I listened to the cry,
How on the silver flax which blew about
The ivory distaff in my languid hand
I found large tears; such big and rounded drops
And gather thro' dark nights on cypress boughs.
And I was sudden angered, for I thought:
'Why should a general wail come home to me
With such vibration in my trembling heart
That such great tears should rise and overflow?'
Then shook them on the marble where I paced,
Where instantly they vanished in the sun,
As diamonds fade in flames. 'Twas foolish, Curtius!
And then methought how strange and lone it seemed,
For till thou camest I seemed to be alone
On the vined terrace, prisoned in the gold
Of that still noontide hour. No widows stole
Up the snow-glimmering marble of the steps
To take my alms and bless the gods and me;
No orphans touched the fringes of my robe
With innocent babe fingers, nor dropped the gold
I laid in their soft palms, to laugh, and stroke
The jewels on my neck, or touch the rose
Thou sayest, Curtius, lives upon my cheek.
Perchance all lingered in the Roman streets
To catch first tidings from the Oracles.
The very peacocks drowsed in distant shades,
Nor sought my hand for honeyed cake; and high
A hawk sailed blackly in the clear blue sky
And kept my doves from cooing at my feet.
My lute lay there, bound with the small white buds
Which, laughing, this bright morn thou brought and
Around it as I sang; but with that wail
Dying across the vines and purple slopes,
And breaking on its strings, I did not care
To waken music-nor in truth could force
My voice or fingers to it. So I strayed
Where hangs thy best loved armour on the wall,
And pleased myself by filling it with thee.
'Tis yet the goodliest armour in proud Rome,
Say all the armourers; all Rome and I
Know thee the lordliest bearer of a sword.
Yet, Curtius, stay, there is a rivet lost
From out the helmet, and a ruby gone
From the short sword-hilt-trifles both which can
Be righted by tomorrow's noon. Tomorrow's noon!-
Was there a change, my Curtius, in my voice
When spake I these three words, 'tomorrow's noon'?
Oh, I am full of dreams-methought there was.
Why, love, how darkly gaze thine eyes in mine!
If loved I dismal thoughts I well could deem
Thou sawest not the blue of my fond eyes,
But looked between the lips of that dread pit,-
O Jove! to name it seems to curse the air
With chills of death! We'll speak not of it, Curtius.
When I had dimmed thy shield with kissing it
I went between the olives to the stalls.
White Audax neighed out to me as I came,
As I had been Hippona to his eyes,
New dazzling from the one small mystic cloud
That, like a silver chariot, floated low
In ripe blue of noon, and seemed to pause,
Stayed by the hilly round of yon aged tree.
He stretched the ivory arch of his vast neck,
Smiting sharp thunders from the marble floor
With hoofs impatient of a peaceful earth;
Shook the long silver of his burnished mane
Until the sunbeams smote it into light
Such as a comet trails across the sky.
I love him, Curtius! Such magnanimous fires
Leap from his eyes! And I do truly think
That with thee seated on him, thy strong knees
Against his sides, the bridle in his jaws
In thy loved hand, to pleasure thee he'd spring
Sheer from the verge of Earth into the breast
Of Death and Chaos. Of Death and Chaos!-
What omens seem to strike my soul to-day!
What is there in this blossom-hour should knit
And omen in with every simple word?
Should make yon willows with their hanging locks
Dusk sybils, muttering sorrows to the air?
The roses, clamb'ring round yon marble Pan,
Wave like red banners floating o'er the dead?
The dead-there 'tis again! My Curtius, come,
And thou shalt tell me of the Oracles
And what sent hither that long cry of woe.
Yet wait, yet wait, I care not much to hear.
While on thy charger's throbbing neck I leaned,
Romeward there passed across the violet slopes
Five sacrificial bulls, with silver hides,
And horns as cusped and white as Dian's bow,
And lordly breasts which laid the honeyed thyme
Into long swarths, whence smoke of yellow bees
Rose up in puffs, dispersing as it rose.
For the great temple they. And as they passed
With quiet gait I heard their drivers say
The bulls were for the Altars, when should come
Word from the Oracles as to the Pit.
O Curtius, Curtius, in my soul I see
How black and fearful is its glutton throat!
I will not look!
O Soul, be blind and see not!
Then the men
Waved their long goads, still juicy from the vine
And plumed with bronzy leaves, and each to each
Showed the sleek beauty of the rounded sides,
The mighty curving of the lordly breasts,
The level lines of backs, the small, fine heads,
And laughed and said, 'The gods will have it thus,
The choicest of the earth for sacrifice,
Let it be man or maid, or lowing bull!'
Where lay the witchcraft in their clownish words
To shake my heart? I know not; but it thrilled
As Daphne's leaves thrill to a wind so soft
One might not feel it on the open palm.
I cannot choose but laugh, for what have I
To do with altars and with sacrifice?