The Island: Canto 04.
I. White as a white sail on a dusky sea, When half the horizon ‘s clouded and half free, Fluttering between the dun wave and the sky, Is Hope’s last gleam in Man’s extremity. Her anchor parts; but still her snowy sail Attracts our eye amidst the rudest gale: Though every wave she climbs divides us more, The heart still follows from the loneliest shore. II. Not distant from the isle of Toobonai, A black rock rears its bosom o’er the spray, The haunt of birds, a desert to mankind, Where the rough seal reposes from the wind, And sleeps unwieldy in his cavern dun, Or gambols with huge frolic in the sun: There shrilly to the passing oar is heard The startled echo of the Ocean bird, Who rears on its bare breast her callow brood, The feathered fishers of the solitude. A narrow segment of the yellow sand On one side forms the outline of a strand; Here the young turtle, crawling from his shell, Steals to the deep wherein his parents dwell; Chipped by the beam, a nursling of the day, But hatched for ocean by the fostering ray; The rest was one bleak precipice, as e’er Gave mariners a shelter and despair; A spot to make the saved regret the deck Which late went down, and envy the lost wreck. Such was the stern asylum Neuha chose To shield her lover from his following foes; But all its secret was not told; she knew In this a treasure hidden from the view. III. Ere the canoes divided, near the spot, The men that manned what held her Torquil’s lot, By her command removed, to strengthen more The skiff which wafted Christian from the shore. This he would have opposed; but with a smile She pointed calmly to the craggy isle, And bade him ‘speed and prosper.’ She would take The rest upon herself for Torquil’s sake. They parted with this added aid; afar, The Proa darted like a shooting star, And gained on the pursuers, who now steered Right on the rock which she and Torquil neared. They pulled; her arm, though delicate, was free And firm as ever grappled with the sea, And yielded scarce to Torquil’s manlier strength. The prow now almost lay within its length Of the crag’s steep inexorable face, With nought but soundless waters for its base; Within a hundred boats’ length was the foe, And now what refuge but their frail canoe? This Torquil asked with half upbraiding eye, Which said-‘Has Neuha brought me here to die? Is this a place of safety, or a grave, And yon huge rock the tombstone of the wave?’ IV. They rested on their paddles, and uprose Neuha, and pointing to the approaching foes, Cried, ‘Torquil, follow me, and fearless follow!’ Then plunged at once into the Ocean’s hollow. There was no time to pause-the foes were near- Chains in his eye, and menace in his ear; With vigour they pulled on, and as they came, Hailed him to yield, and by his forfeit name. Headlong he leapt-to him the swimmer’s skill Was native, and now all his hope from ill: But how, or where? He dived, and rose no more; The boat’s crew looked amazed o’er sea and shore. There was no landing on that precipice, Steep, harsh, and slippery as a berg of ice. They watched awhile to see him float again, But not a trace rebubbled from the main: The wave rolled on, no ripple on its face, Since their first plunge recalled a single trace; The little whirl which eddied, and slight foam, That whitened o’er what seemed their latest home, White as a sepulchre above the pair Who left no marble (mournful as an heir) The quiet Proa wavering o’er the tide Was all that told of Torquil and his bride; And but for this alone the whole might seem The vanished phantom of a seaman’s dream. They paused and searched in vain, then pulled away; Even Superstition now forbade their stay. Some said he had not plunged into the wave, But vanished like a corpse-light from a grave; Others, that something supernatural Glared in his figure, more than mortal tall; While all agreed that in his cheek and eye There was a dead hue of Eternity. Still as their oars receded from the crag, Round every weed a moment would they lag, Expectant of some token of their prey; But no-he had melted from them like the spray. V. And where was he the Pilgrim of the Deep, Following the Nereid? Had they ceased to weep For ever? or, received in coral caves, Wrung life and pity from the softening waves? Did they with Ocean’s hidden sovereigns dwell, And sound with Mermen the fantastic shell? Did Neuha with the mermaids comb her hair Flowing o’er ocean as it streamed in air? Or had they perished, and in silence slept Beneath the gulf wherein they boldly leapt? VI. Young Neuha plunged into the deep, and he Followed: her track beneath her native sea Was as a native’s of the element, So smoothly-bravely-brilliantly she went, Leaving a streak of light behind her heel, Which struck and flashed like an amphibious steel. Closely, and scarcely less expert to trace The depths where divers hold the pearl in chase, Torquil, the nursling of the northern seas, Pursued her liquid steps with heart and ease. Deep-deeper for an instant Neuha led The way-then upward soared-and as she spread Her arms, and flung the foam from off her locks, Laughed, and the sound was answered by the rocks. They had gained a central realm of earth again, But looked for tree, and field, and sky, in vain. Around she pointed to a spacious cave, Whose only portal was the keyless wave, (A hollow archway by the sun unseen, Save through the billows’ glassy veil of green, In some transparent ocean holiday, When all the finny people are at play,) Wiped with her hair the brine from Torquil’s eyes, And clapped her hands with joy at his surprise; Led him to where the rock appeared to jut, And form a something like a Triton’s hut; For all was darkness for a space, till day, Through clefts above let in a sobered ray; As in some old cathedral’s glimmering aisle The dusty monuments from light recoil, Thus sadly in their refuge submarine The vault drew half her shadow from the scene. VII. Forth from her bosom the young savage drew A pine torch, strongly girded with gnatoo; A plantain-leaf o’er all, the more to keep Its latent sparkle from the sapping deep. This mantle kept it dry; then from a nook Of the same plantain-leaf a flint she took, A few shrunk withered twigs, and from the blade Of Torquil’s knife struck fire, and thus arrayed The grot with torchlight. Wide it was and high, And showed a self-born Gothic canopy; The arch upreared by Nature’s architect, The architrave some Earthquake might erect; The buttress from some mountain’s bosom hurled, When the Poles crashed, and water was the world; Or hardened from some earth-absorbing fire, While yet the globe reeked from its funeral pyre; The fretted pinnacle, the aisle, the nave, Were there, all scooped by Darkness from her cave. There, with a little tinge of phantasy, Fantastic faces moped and mowed on high, And then a mitre or a shrine would fix The eye upon its seeming crucifix, Thus Nature played with the stalactites And built herself a Chapel of the Seas. VIII. And Neuha took her Torquil by the hand, And waved along the vault her kindled brand, And led him into each recess, and showed The secret places of their new abode, Nor these alone, for all had been prepared Before, to soothe the lover’s lot she shared: The mat for rest; for dress the fresh gnatoo, And sandal oil to fence against the dew; For food the cocoa-nut, the yarn, the bread Born of the fruit; for board the plantain spread With its broad leaf, or turtle-shell which bore A banquet in the flesh it covered o’er; The gourd with water recent from the rill, The ripe banana from the mellow hill; A pine-torch pile to keep undying light, And she herself, as beautiful as night, To fling her shadowy spirit o’er the scene, And make their subterranean world serene. She had foreseen, since first the stranger’s sail Drew to their isle, that force or flight might fail, And formed a refuge of the rocky den For Torquil’s safety from his countrymen. Each dawn had wafted there her light canoe, Laden with all the golden fruits that grew; Each eve had seen her gliding through the hour With all could cheer or deck their sparry bower; And now she spread her little store with smiles, The happiest daughter of the loving isles. IX. She, as he gazed with gratefal wonder, pressed Her sheltered love to her impassioned breast; And suited to her soft caresses, told An olden tale of Love,-for Love is old, Old as eternity, but not outworn With each new being born or to be born: How a young Chief, a thousand moons ago, Diving for turtle in the depths below, Had risen, in tracking fast his ocean prey, Into the cave which round and o’er them lay; How, in some desperate feud of after-time, He sheltered there a daughter of the clime, A foe beloved, and offspring of a foe, Saved by his tribe but for a captive’s woe; How, when the storm of war was stilled, he led His island clan to where the waters spread Their deep-green shadow o’er the rocky door, Then dived-it seemed as if to rise no more: His wondering mates, amazed within their bark, Or deemed him mad, or prey to the blue shark; Rowed round in sorrow the sea-girded rock, Then paused upon their paddles from the shock; When, fresh and springing from the deep, they saw A Goddess rise-so deemed they in their awe; And their companion, glorious by her side, Proud and exulting in his Mermaid bride; And how, when undeceived, the pair they bore With sounding conchs and joyous shouts to shore; How they had gladly lived and calmly died,- And why not also Torquil and his bride? Not mine to tell the rapturous caress Which followed wildly in that wild recess This tale; enough that all within that cave Was love, though buried strong as in the grave, Where Abelard, through twenty years of death, When Eloisa’s form was lowered beneath Their nuptial vault, his arms outstretched, and pressed The kindling ashes to his kindled breast. The waves without sang round their couch, their roar As much unheeded as if life were o’er; Within, their hearts made all their harmony, Love’s broken murmur and more broken sigh. X. And they, the cause and sharers of the shock Which left them exiles of the hollow rock, Where were they? O’er the sea for life they plied, To seek from Heaven the shelter men denied. Another course had been their choice-but where? The wave which bore them still their foes would bear, Who, disappointed of their former chase, In search of Christian now renewed their race. Eager with anger, their strong arms made way, Like vultures baffled of thir previous prey. They gained upon them, all whose safety lay In some bleak crag or deeply-hidden bay: No further chance or choice remained; and right For the first further rock which met their sight They steered, to take their latest view of land, And yield as victims, or die sword in hand; Dismissed the natives and their shallop, who Would still have battled for that scanty crew; But Christian bade them seek their shore again, Nor add a sacrifice which were in vain; For what were simple bow and savage spear Against the arms which must be wielded here? XI. They landed on a wild but narrow scene, Where few but Nature’s footsteps yet had been; Prepared their arms, and with that gloomy eye, Stern and sustained, of man’s extremity, When Hope is gone, nor Glory’s self remains To cheer resistance against death or chains,- They stood, the three, as the three hundred stood Who dyed Thermopylae with holy blood. But, ah! how different! ’tis the cause makes all, Degrades or hallows courage in its fall. O’er them no fame, eternal and intense, Blazed through the clouds of Death and beckoned hence; No grateful country, smiling through her tears, Begun the praises of a thousand years; No nation’s eyes would on their tomb be bent, No heroes envy them their monument; However boldly their warm blood was spilt, Their Life was shame, their Epitaph was guilt. And this they knew and felt, at least the one, The leader of the band he had undone; Who, born perchance for better things, had set His life upon a cast which lingered yet: But now the die was to be thrown, and all The chances were in favour of his fall: And such a fall! But still he faced the shock, Obdurate as a portion of the rock Whereon he stood, and fixed his levelled gun, Dark as a sullen cloud before the sun. XII. The boat drew nigh, well armed, and firm the crew To act whatever Duty bade them do Careless of danger, as the onward wind Is of the leaves it strews, nor looks behind. And, yet, perhaps, they rather wished to go Against a nation’s than a native foe, And felt that this poor victim of self-will, Briton no more, had once been Britain’s still. They hailed him to surrender-no reply; Their arms were poised, and glittered in the sky. They hailed again-no answer; yet once more They offered quarter louder than before. The echoes only, from the rock’s rebound, Took their last farewell of the dying sound. Then flashed the flint, and blazed the volleying flame, And the smoke rose between them and their aim, While the rock rattled with the bullets’ knell, Which pealed in vain, and flattened as they fell; Then flew the only answer to be given By those who had lost all hope in earth or heaven. After the first fierce peal as they pulled nigher, They heard the voice of Christian shout, ‘Now, fire!’ And ere the word upon the echo died, Two fell; the rest assailed the rock’s rough side, And, furious at the madness of their foes, Disdained all further efforts, save to close. But steep the crag, and all without a path, Each step opposed a bastion to their wrath, While, placed ‘midst clefts the least accessible, Which Christian’s eye was trained to mark full well, The three maintained a strife which must not yield, In spots where eagles might have chosen to build. Their every shot told; while the assailant fell, Dashed on the shingles like the limpet shell; But still enough survived, and mounted still, Scattering their numbers here and there, until Surrounded and commanded, though not nigh Enough for seizure, near enough to die, The desperate trio held aloof their fate But by a thread, like sharks who have gorged the bait; Yet to the very last they battled well, And not a groan informed their foes who fell. Christian died last-twice wounded; and once more Mercy was offered when they saw his gore; Too late for life, but not too late to die, With, though a hostile band, to close his eye. A limb was broken, and he drooped along The crag, as doth a falcon reft of young. The sound revived him, or appeared to wake Some passion which a weakly gesture spake: He beckoned to the foremost, who drew nigh, But, as they neared, he reared his weapon high- His last ball had been aimed, but from his breast He tore the topmost button from his vest, Down the tube dashed it-levelled-fired, and smiled As his foe fell; then, like a serpent, coiled His wounded, weary form, to where the steep Looked desperate as himself along the deep; Cast one glance back, and clenched his hand, and shook His last rage ‘gainst the earth which he forsook; Then plunged: the rock below received like glass His body crushed into one gory mass, With scarce a shred to tell of human form, Or fragment for the sea-bird or the worm; A fair-haired scalp, besmeared with blood and weeds, Yet reeked, the remnant of himself and deeds; Some splinters of his weapons (to the last, As long as hand could hold, he held them fast) Yet glittered, but at distance-hurled away To rust beneath the dew and dashing spray. The rest was nothing-save a life mis-spent, And soul-but who shall answer where it went? ‘Tis ours to bear, not judge the dead; and they Who doom to Hell, themselves are on the way, Unless these bullies of eternal pains Are pardoned their bad hearts for their worse brains. XIII. The deed was over! All were gone or ta’en, The fugitive, the captive, or the slain. Chained on the deck, where once, a gallant crew, They stood with honour, were the wretched few Survivors of the skirmish on the isle; But the last rock left no surviving spoil. Cold lay they where they fell, and weltering, While o’er them flapped the sea-birds’ dewy wing, Now wheeling nearer from the neighbouring surge, And screaming high their harsh and hungry dirge: But calm and careless heaved the wave below, Eternal with unsympathetic flow; Far o’er its face the Dolphins sported on, And sprung the flying fish against the sun, Till its dried wing relapsed from its brief height, To gather moisture for another flight. XIV. ‘Twas morn; and Neuha, who by dawn of day Swam smoothly forth to catch the rising ray, And watch if aught approached the amphibious lair Where lay her lover, saw a sail in air: It flapped, it filled, and to the growing gale Bent its broad arch: her breath began to fail With fluttering fear, her heart beat thick and high, While yet a doubt sprung where its course might lie. But no! it came not; fast and far away The shadow lessened as it cleared the bay. She gazed, and flung the sea-foam from her eyes, To watch as for a rainbow in the skies. On the horizon verged the distant deck, Diminished, dwindled to a very speck- Then vanished. All was Ocean, all was Joy! Down plunged she through the cave to rouse her boy; Told all she had seen, and all she hoped, and all That happy love could augur or recall; Sprung forth again, with Torquil following free His bounding Nereid over the broad sea; Swam round the rock, to where a shallow cleft Hid the canoe that Neuha there had left Drifting along the tide, without an oar, That eve the strangers chased them from the shore; But when these vanished, she pursued her prow, Regained, and urged to where they found it now: Nor ever did more love and joy embark, Than now were wafted in that slender ark. XV. Again their own shore rises on the view, No more polluted with a hostile hue; No sullen ship lay bristling o’er the foam, A floating dungeon:-all was Hope and Home! A thousand Proas darted o’er the bay, With sounding shells, and heralded their way; The chiefs came down, around the people poured, And welcomed Torquil as a son restored; The women thronged, embracing and embraced By Neuha, asking where they had been chased, And how escaped? The tale was told; and then One acclamation rent the sky again; And from that hour a new tradition gave Their sanctuary the name of ‘Neuha’s Cave.’ A hundred fires, far flickering from the height, Blazed o’er the general revel of the night, The feast in honour of the guest, returned To Peace and Pleasure, perilously earned; A night succeeded by such happy days As only the yet infant world displays.