: Ancient Ballads And Legends Of Hindustan
"Shell-bracelets ho! Shell-bracelets ho!
Fair maids and matrons come and buy!"
Along the road, in morning's glow,
The pedlar raised his wonted cry.
The road ran straight, a red, red line,
To Khirogram, for cream renowned,
Through pasture-meadows where the kine,
In knee-deep grass, stood magic bound
And half awake, involved in mist,
floated in dun coils profound,
Till by the sudden sunbeams kist
Rich rainbow hues broke all around.
"Shell-bracelets ho! Shell-bracelets ho!"
The roadside trees still dripped with dew,
And hung their blossoms like a show.
Who heard the cry? 'Twas but a few,
A ragged herd-boy, here and there,
With his long stick and naked feet;
A ploughman wending to his care,
The field from which he hopes the wheat;
An early traveller, hurrying fast
To the next town; an urchin slow
Bound for the school; these heard and past,
Unheeding all,--"Shell-bracelets ho!"
Pellucid spread a lake-like tank
Beside the road now lonelier still,
High on three sides arose the bank
Which fruit-trees shadowed at their will;
Upon the fourth side was the Ghat,
With its broad stairs of marble white,
And at the entrance-arch there sat,
Full face against the morning light,
A fair young woman with large eyes,
And dark hair falling to her zone,
She heard the pedlar's cry arise,
And eager seemed his ware to own.
"Shell-bracelets ho! See, maiden see!
The rich enamel sunbeam-kist!
Happy, oh happy, shalt thou be,
Let them but clasp that slender wrist;
These bracelets are a mighty charm,
They keep a lover ever true,
And widowhood avert, and harm,
Buy them, and thou shalt never rue.
Just try them on!"--She stretched her hand,
"Oh what a nice and lovely fit!
No fairer hand, in all the land,
And lo! the bracelet matches it."
Dazzled the pedlar on her gazed
Till came the shadow of a fear,
While she the bracelet arm upraised
Against the sun to view more clear.
Oh she was lovely, but her look
Had something of a high command
That filled with awe. Aside she shook
Intruding curls by breezes fanned
And blown across her brows and face,
And asked the price, which when she heard
She nodded, and with quiet grace
For payment to her home referred.
"And where, O maiden, is thy house?
But no, that wrist-ring has a tongue,
No maiden art thou, but a spouse,
Happy, and rich, and fair, and young."
"Far otherwise, my lord is poor,
And him at home thou shalt not find;
Ask for my father; at the door
Knock loudly; he is deaf, but kind.
Seest thou that lofty gilded spire
Above these tufts of foliage green?
That is our place; its point of fire
Will guide thee o'er the tract between."
"That is the temple spire."--"Yes, there
We live; my father is the priest,
The manse is near, a building fair
But lowly, to the temple's east.
When thou hast knocked, and seen him, say,
His daughter, at Dhamaser Ghat,
Shell-bracelets bought from thee to-day,
And he must pay so much for that.
Be sure, he will not let thee pass
Without the value, and a meal,
If he demur, or cry alas!
No money hath he,--then reveal,
"Within the small box, marked with streaks
Of bright vermilion, by the shrine,
The key whereof has lain for weeks
Untouched, he'll find some coin,--'tis mine.
That will enable him to pay
The bracelet's price, now fare thee well!"
She spoke, the pedlar went away,
Charmed with her voice, as by some spell;
While she left lonely there, prepared
To plunge into the water pure,
And like a rose her beauty bared,
From all observance quite secure.
Not weak she seemed, nor delicate,
Strong was each limb of flexile grace,
And full the bust; the mien elate,
Like hers, the goddess of the chase
On Latmos hill,--and oh, the face
Framed in its cloud of floating hair,
No painter's hand might hope to trace
The beauty and the glory there!
Well might the pedlar look with awe,
For though her eyes were soft, a ray
Lit them at times, which kings who saw
Would never dare to disobey.
Onwards through groves the pedlar sped
Till full in front the sunlit spire
Arose before him. Paths which led
To gardens trim in gay attire
Lay all around. And lo! the manse,
Humble but neat with open door!
He paused, and blest the lucky chance
That brought his bark to such a shore.
Huge straw ricks, log huts full of grain,
Sleek cattle, flowers, a tinkling bell,
Spoke in a language sweet and plain,
"Here smiling Peace and Plenty dwell."
Unconsciously he raised his cry,
"Shell-bracelets ho!" And at his voice
Looked out the priest, with eager eye,
And made his heart at once rejoice.
"Ho, Sankha pedlar! Pass not by,
But step thou in, and share the food
Just offered on our altar high,
If thou art in a hungry mood.
Welcome are all to this repast!
The rich and poor, the high and low!
Come, wash thy feet, and break thy fast,
Then on thy journey strengthened go."
"Oh thanks, good priest! Observance due
And greetings! May thy name be blest!
I came on business, but I knew,
Here might be had both food and rest
Without a charge; for all the poor
Ten miles around thy sacred shrine
Know that thou keepest open door,
And praise that generous hand of thine:
But let my errand first be told,
For bracelets sold to thine this day,
So much thou owest me in gold,
Hast thou the ready cash to pay?
"The bracelets were enamelled,--so
The price is high."--"How! Sold to mine?
Who bought them, I should like to know."
"Thy daughter, with the large black eyne,
Now bathing at the marble ghat."
Loud laughed the priest at this reply,
"I shall not put up, friend, with that;
No daughter in the world have I,
An only son is all my stay;
Some minx has played a trick, no doubt,
But cheer up, let thy heart be gay.
Be sure that I shall find her out."
"Nay, nay, good father, such a face
Could not deceive, I must aver;
At all events, she knows thy place,
'And if my father should demur
To pay thee'--thus she said,--'or cry
He has no money, tell him straight
The box vermilion-streaked to try,
That's near the shrine.'" "Well, wait, friend, wait!"
The priest said thoughtful, and he ran
And with the open box came back,
"Here is the price exact, my man,
No surplus over, and no lack.
"How strange! how strange! Oh blest art thou
To have beheld her, touched her hand,
Before whom Vishnu's self must bow,
And Brahma and his heavenly band!
Here have I worshipped her for years
And never seen the vision bright;
Vigils and fasts and secret tears
Have almost quenched my outward sight;
And yet that dazzling form and face
I have not seen, and thou, dear friend,
To thee, unsought for, comes the grace,
What may its purport be, and end?
"How strange! How strange! Oh happy thou!
And couldst thou ask no other boon
Than thy poor bracelet's price? That brow
Resplendent as the autumn moon
Must have bewildered thee, I trow,
And made thee lose thy senses all."
A dim light on the pedlar now
Began to dawn; and he let fall
His bracelet basket in his haste,
And backward ran the way he came;
What meant the vision fair and chaste,
Whose eyes were they,--those eyes of flame?
Swift ran the pedlar as a hind,
The old priest followed on his trace,
They reached the Ghat but could not find
The lady of the noble face.
The birds were silent in the wood,
The lotus flowers exhaled a smell
Faint, over all the solitude,
A heron as a sentinel
Stood by the bank. They called,--in vain,
No answer came from hill or fell,
The landscape lay in slumber's chain,
E'en Echo slept within her cell.
Broad sunshine, yet a hush profound!
They turned with saddened hearts to go;
Then from afar there came a sound
Of silver bells;--the priest said low,
"O Mother, Mother, deign to hear,
The worship-hour has rung; we wait
In meek humility and fear.
Must we return home desolate?
Oh come, as late thou cam'st unsought,
Or was it but an idle dream?
Give us some sign if it was not,
A word, a breath, or passing gleam."
Sudden from out the water sprung
A rounded arm, on which they saw
As high the lotus buds among
It rose, the bracelet white, with awe.
Then a wide ripple tost and swung
The blossoms on that liquid plain,
And lo! the arm so fair and young
Sank in the waters down again.
They bowed before the mystic Power,
And as they home returned in thought,
Each took from thence a lotus flower
In memory of the day and spot.
Years, centuries, have passed away,
And still before the temple shrine
Descendants of the pedlar pay
Shell bracelets of the old design
As annual tribute. Much they own
In lands and gold,--but they confess
From that eventful day alone
Dawned on their industry,--success.
Absurd may be the tale I tell,
Ill-suited to the marching times,
I loved the lips from which it fell,
So let it stand among my rhymes.