Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney Poems >>
Oriska

FAR in the west, where still the red man held
His rights unrifled, dwelt an aged chief,
With his young daughter. Joyous as a bird,
She found her pastime mid the forest shades,
Or with a graceful vigour urged her skiff
O'er the bright waters. The bold warriors mark'd
Her opening charms, but deem'd her still a child,
Or fear'd from their grave kingly chief to ask
The darling of his age.

A stranger came
To traffic with the people, and amass
Those costly furs which in his native clime
Transmute so well to gold. The blood of France
Was in his veins, and on his lips the wile
That wins the guileless heart. Ofttimes at eve
He sought the chieftain's dwelling, and allured
The gentle girl to listen to his tale,
Well framed and eloquent. With practised glance
He saw the loveflush on her olive cheek
Make answer to him, though the half-hid brow
Droop'd mid its wealth of tresses.

"Ah! I know
That thou dost love to please me. Thou hast put
Thy splendid coronet of feathers on.
How its rich crimson dazzles mid thy locks,
Black as the raven's wing ! Thy bracelets, too !
Who told thee thou wert beautiful? Hast seen
Thy queenly features in you mirror'd lake?
Bird of the Sioux ! let my nest be thine,
And I will sing thee melodies that make
Midnight like morn."

With many a spell he charm'd
Her trusting innocence; the dance, the song,
The legend, and the lay of other lands;
And patient taught his pupil's lip to wind
The maze of words with which his native tongue
Refines the thought. The hoary chieftain frown'd;
But when the smooth Canadian press'd his suit
To be adopted by the tribe, and dwell
Among them, as a brother and a son,--
And when the indulgent sire observant read
The timid pleading of Oriska's eye,--
He gave her tenderly, with sacred rites,
In marriage to the stranger.

Their sweet bower
Rose like a gem amid the rural scene,
O'er-canopied with trees, where countless birds
Carol'd unwearied, the gay squirrel leap'd,
And the wildbee went singing to his work,
Satiate with luxury. Through matted grass,
With silver foot, a frolic fountain stole
Still tracked by deepening greenness, while afar
The mighty prairie met the bending skies,--
A sea at rest, whose sleeping waves were flowers.

Nor lack'd their lowly dwelling such device
Of comfort, or adornment, as the hand
Of gentle woman, sedulous to please,
Creates for him she loves. For she had hung
Attentive on his lips, while he described
The household policy of prouder climes;
And with such varied and inventive skill
Caught the suggestions of his taste refined,
That the red people, wondering as they gazed
On curtain'd window and on flower-crown'd vase,
Carpet and cushion'd chair, and board arranged
With care unwonted, call'd her home the court
Of their French princess.

A rich clustering vine
Crept o'er their porch, and 'neath its fragrant
Shade Oriska sang her evening melodies,
Tuneful and clear and deep, the echoed truth
Of her soul's happiness. Her highest care
And dearest pleasure was to make his lot
Delightful to her lord; and he, well pleased
With the simplicity of fervent love,
And the high honour paid a chieftain's son,
Roam'd with the hunters at his will, or brought
Birdlings of brilliant plume, as trophies home
To his young bride.

Months fled, and with them change
Stole o'er his love. And when Oriska mark'd
The shadow darkening on his brow, she fear'd
The rudeness of her nation, or perchance
Her ignorance had err'd, and strove to do
His will more perfectly. And though his moods
Of harshness or disdain chill'd every joy,
She blamed him not, for unto her he seem'd
A higher being of a nobler race;
And she was proud and happy, might she bathe
His temples in some fit of transient pain,
Or by a menial's toil advance the feast
Which still she shared not. When his step was heard,
She bade her beating heart be still, and smooth'd
The shining tresses he was wont to praise,
And fondly hasting, raised her babe to meet
His father's eye, contented if the smile
That once was hers might beam upon his child:--
But that last solace fail'd, and the cold glance
Contemptuously repress'd her toil of love.
And then he came no more.

But as she watch'd
Night after night, and question'd every hour,
How bitterly those weeks and years were notch'd
Upon the broken tablet of the soul,
By that forsaken wife.

Calm moonlight touch'd
A fair Canadian landscape. Roof and spire,
And broad umbrageous tree, were saturate
With liquid lustre. O'er a lordly dome,
Whose halls had late with bridal pomp been gay,
The silvery curtains of the summer night
Were folded quietly.

A music-sound
Broke forth abruptly from its threshold stone,
Shrill and unearthly-- not the serenade,
That thrills on beauty's ear, but a bold strain,
Loud even to dissonance, and oft prolonged
In low, deep cadence, wonderfully sad,--
The wild song of the Sioux. He who first
Awaking, caught that mournful melody,
Shudder'd with icy terror, as he threw
His mantle o'er him, and rush'd madly forth
Into the midnight air.

"Hence! Leave my door!
I know thee not, dark woman! Hence away !"

"Ah! let me hear that voice ! How sweet its tones
Fall on my ear, although the words are Stern.
Say ! know'st thou not this boy ? Whose eyes are these ?
Those chestnut clusters round the lifted brow,--
Said'st thou not in his cradle they were thine ?''

"How cam'st thou here, Oriska ?"

"We have trod
A weary way. My father and his men
Came on the business of their tribe, and I,
Unto whose soul the midnight and the morn
Have been alike for years, roam'd restlessly
A wanderer in their train, leading our boy.
My highest hope was but to hear, perchance,
That thou didst live; and lo! a blessed guide
Hath shown me to thy home."

"Oriska, go!
I have a bride. Thou canst not enter here--
I'll come to thee to-morrow."

"Wilt thou come?
The white-hair'd chief, I fear me, fades away
Unto the Spirit-land ! "

"I bid thee hence,
To thine abode. Have I not said to thee
I'll come to-morrow ?"

With a heavy heart,
Through silent streets, the sad-brow'd woman went,
Leading her child.

Morn came' and day declined,
Yet still he came not. By her sire she watch'd,
O'er whose dull eye a filmy shadow stole,
While to her troubled question no reply
Rose from his palsied lip. Nature and age
Slept wearily and long. The second eve
Darken'd the skies, when lo! a well-known step--
He stood before her.

"Was it kind of thee,
Oriska, thus to break my bridal hour
With thy strange, savage music?"

"Was thy wife
Angry at the poor Indian ? Not to speak
Harsh words I came: I would not think of thee
A thought of blame. But oh! mine aged sire,
Thou see'st him dying in this stranger-land,
Far from his fathers' graves. Be thou a friend
When he is gone and I am desolate.
Make me a household servant to thy wife.
I'll bring her water from the purest spring,
And plant the corn, and ply the flying oar,
And never be impatient or require
Payment from her, nor kind regard from thee.
I will not call thee husband--though thou taught'st
My stammering lip that word when love was young,--
Nor ask one pitying look or favouring tone,
Or aught, except to serve and pray for thee
To the Great Spirit. And this boy shall do
Her will, and thine."

The pale face turn'd away
With well-dissembled anger, though remorse
Gnaw'd at his callous bosom !

"Urge me not!
It cannot be !"

Even more he might have said,
Basely and bitterly, but lo! the chief
Cast off the ice of death, and on his bed,
With clenched hand and quivering lip, uprose:--

"His curse be on thee ! He, who knoweth where
The lightnings hide !"

Around the old man's neck
Fond arms were wildly thrown." Oh, curse him not!
The father of my boy." And blinding tears
Fell down so fast, she mark'd not with what haste
The white-brow'd recreant fled.

"I tell thee, child,
The cold black gall-drop in a traitor's soul
Doth make a curse. And though I curse him not,
The sun shall hate him, and the waters turn
To poison in his veins.

But light grows dim.
Go back to thine own people. Look no more
On him whom I have cursed, and lay my bones
Where my dead fathers sleep."

A hollow groan,
Wrung by extremest agony, broke forth
From the old chieftain's breast.

"Daughter, I go
To the Great Spirit."

O'er that breathless clay
Bow'd down the desolate woman. No complaint,
No sigh of grief burst forth. The tear went back
To its deep fountain. Lip and fringed lid
Trembled no more than in the statued bronze,
Nor shrank one truant nerve, as o'er her pass'd
The asphyxia of the heart.

Day after day,
O'er wild and tangled forest, moved a train,
Bearing with smitten hearts their fallen chief;
And next the bier a silent woman trod,
A child's young hand forever cIasp'd in hers,
And on her lip no sound. Long was the way,
Ere the low roof-trees of their tribe they saw
Sprinkling the green; and loud the funeral wail
Rose for the honour'd dead, who, in his youth,
Their battles led, and in his wintry ears
Had won that deeper reverence, which so well
The forest-sons might teach our wiser race
To pay to hoary age. Beneath the mounds,
Where slept his ancient sires, they laid him down;
And there the gather'd nation mourn'd their sire,
In the wild passion of untutor'd grief;
Then smoothed the pillow'd turf, and went their way.

Who is yon woman, in her dark canoe,
Who strangely towards Niagara's fearful gulf
Floats on unmoved ?

Firm and erect she stands,
Clad in such bridal costume as befits
The daughter of a king. Tall, radiant plumes
Wave o'er her forehead, and the scarlet tinge
Of her embroider'd mantle, fleck'd with gold,
Dazzles amid the flood. Scarce heaves her breast,
As though the spirit of that dread abyss,
In terrible sublimity, had quell'd
All thought of earthly things.

Fast by her side
Stands a young, wondering boy, and from his lip,
Blanching with terror, steals the frequent cry
Of " Mother ! Mother !"

But she answereth not.
She speaks no more to aught of earth, but pours
To the Great Spirit, fitfully and wild,
The deathsong of her people. High it rose
Above the tumult of the tide that bore
The victims to their doom. The boy beheld
The strange, stern beauty in his mother's eye,
And held his breath for awe.

Her song grew faint,--
And as the rapids raised their whitening heads,
Casting her light oar to the infuriate tide,
She raised him in her arms, and clasp'd him close.
Then as the boat with arrowy swiftness drove
Down toward the unfathom'd gulf, while chilling spray
Rose up in blinding showers, he hid his head
Deep in the bosom that had nurtured him,
With a low, stifled sob.

And thus they took
Their awful pathway to eternity.--
One ripple on the mighty river's brink,
Just where it, shuddering, makes its own dread plunge,
And at tho foot of that most dire abyss
One gleam of flitting robe and raven tress
And feathery coronet-- and all was o'er,
Save the deep thunder of the eternal surge
Sounding their epitaph !