“Fly to the desert, fly with me.”— LADY HESTER STANHOPE.
’Twas in the wilds of Lebanon, amongst its barren hills —
To think upon it, even now, my very blood it chills! —
My sketch-book spread before me, and my pencil in my hand,
I gazed upon the mountain range, the red tumultuous sand,
The plumy palms, the sombre firs, the cedars tall and proud —
When lo! a shadow pass’d across the paper like a cloud,
And looking up I saw a form, apt figure for the scene,
Methought I stood in presence of some oriental queen!
The turban on her head was white as any driven snow;
A purple bandalette past o’er the lofty brow below,
And thence upon her shoulders fell, by either jewell’d ear;
In yellow folds voluminous she wore her long cachemere;
Whilst underneath, with ample sleeves, a turkish robe of silk
Enveloped her in drapery the color of new milk;
Yet oft it floated wide in front, disclosing underneath
A gorgeous Persian tunic, rich with many a broider’d wreath,
Compelled by clasps of costly pearls around her neck to meet —
And yellow as the amber were the buskins on her feet!
Of course I bowed my lowest bow — of all the things on earth,
The reverence due to loveliness, to rank, or ancient birth,
To pow’r, to wealth, to genius, or to anything uncommon,
A man should bend the lowest in a Desert to a Woman!
Yet some strange influence stronger still, though vague and undefin’d,
Compell’d me, and with magic might subdued my soul and mind;
There was a something in her air that drew the spirit nigh,
Beyond the common witchery that dwells in woman’s eye!
With reverence deep, like any slave of that peculiar land,
I bowed my forehead to the earth, and kissed the arid sand;
And then I touched her garment’s hem, devoutly as a Dervise,
Predestinated (so I felt) forever to her service.
Nor was I wrong in auguring thus my fortune from her face,
She knew me, seemingly, as well as any of her race;
“Welcome!” she cried, as I uprose submissive to my feet;
“It was ordained that you and I should in this desert meet!
Aye, ages since, before thy soul had burst its prison bars,
This interview was promis’d in the language of the stars!”
Then clapping, as the Easterns wont, her all-commanding hands,
A score of mounted Arabs came fast spurring o’er the sands,
Nor rein’d they up their foaming steeds till in my very face
They blew the breath impetuous, and panting from the race.
“Fear nought,” exclaimed the radiant one, as I sprang off aloof,
“Thy precious frame need never fear a blow from horse’s hoof!
Thy natal star was fortunate as any orb of birth,
And fate hath held in store for thee the rarest gift of earth.”
Then turning to the dusky men, that humbly waited near,
She cried, “Go bring the BEAUTIFUL— for lo! the MAN is here!”
Off went th’ obsequious train as swift as Arab hoofs could flee,
But Fancy fond outraced them all, with bridle loose and free,
And brought me back, for love’s attack, some fair Circassian bride,
Or Georgian girl, the Harem’s boast, and fit for sultan’s side;
Methought I lifted up her veil, and saw dark eyes beneath,
Mild as gazelle’s, a snowy brow, ripe lips, and pearly teeth,
A swanlike neck, a shoulder round, full bosom, and a waist
Not too compact, and rounded limbs, to oriental taste.
Methought — but here, alas! alas! the airy dream to blight,
Behold the Arabs leading up a mare of milky white!
To tell the truth, without reserve, evasion, or remorse,
The last of creatures in my love or liking is a horse:
Whether in early youth some kick untimely laid me flat,
Whether from born antipathy, as some dislike a cat,
I never yet could bear the kind, from Meux’s giant steeds
Down to those little bearish cubs of Shetland’s shaggy breeds; —
As for a warhorse, he that can bestride one is a hero,
Merely to look at such a sight my courage sinks to zero.
With lightning eyes, and thunder mane, and hurricanes of legs,
Tempestuous tail — to picture him description vainly begs!
His fiery nostrils send forth clouds of smoke instead of breath —
Nay, was it not a Horse that bore the grisly Shape of Death?
Judge then how cold an ague-fit of agony was mine
To see the mistress of my fate, imperious, make a sign
To which my own foreboding soul the cruel sense supplied:
“Mount, happy man, and run away with your Arabian bride!”
Grim was the smile, and tremulous the voice with which I spoke,
Like any one’s when jesting with a subject not a joke,
So men have trifled with the axe before the fatal stroke.
“Lady, if mine had been the luck in Yorkshire to be born,
Or any of its ridings, this would be a blessed morn;
But, hapless one! I cannot ride — there’s something in a horse
That I can always honor, but I never could endorse —
To speak still more commercially, in riding I am quite
Averse to running long, and apt to be paid off at sight:
In legal phrase, for every class to understand me still,
I never was in stirrups yet a tenant but at will;
Or, if you please, in artist terms, I never went a-straddle
On any horse without ‘a want of keeping’ in the saddle.
In short,” and here I blush’d, abash’d and held my head full low,
“I’m one of those whose infant ears have heard the chimes of Bow!”
The lady smiled, as houris smile, adown from Turkish skies,
And beams of cruel kindness shone within her hazel eyes;
“Stranger,” she said, “or rather say, my nearest, dearest friend,
There’s something in your eyes, your air, and that high instep’s bend,
That tells me you’re of Arab race — whatever spot of earth,
Cheapside, or Bow, or Stepney, had the honor of your birth,
The East it is your country! Like an infant changed to nurse
By fairies, you have undergone a nurtureship perverse;
But this — these desert sands — these palms, and cedars waving wild,
All, all, adopt thee as their own — an oriental child —
The cloud may hide the sun awhile — but soon or late, no doubt,
The spirit of your ancestry will burst and sparkle out!
I read the starry characters — and lo! ’tis written there,
Thou wert foredoom’d of sons of men to ride upon this Mare,
A Mare till now was never back’d by one of mortal mould,
Hark, how she neighs, as if for thee she knew that she was foal’d!”
And truly — I devoutly wish’d a blast of the simoom
Had stifled her! — the Mare herself appeared to mock my doom;
With many a bound she caper’d round and round me like a dance,
I feared indeed some wild caress would end the fearful prance,
And felt myself, and saw myself — the phantasy was horrid! —
Like old Redgauntlet, with a shoe imprinted on my forehead!
On bended knees, with bowing head, and hands uprais’d in pray’r,
I begg’d the turban’d Sultaness the issue to forbear;
I painted weeping orphan babes, around a widow’d wife,
And drew my death as vividly as others draw from life;
“Behold,” I said, “a simple man, for such high feats unfit,
Who never yet has learn’d to know the crupper from the bit,
Whereas the boldest horsemanship, and first equestrian skill,
Would well be task’d to bend so wild a creature to the will.”
Alas! alas! ’twas all in vain, to supplicate and kneel,
The quadruped could not have been more cold to my appeal!
“Fear nothing,” said the smiling Fate, “when human help is vain,
Spirits shall by thy stirrups fly, and fairies guide the rein;
Just glance at yonder animal, her perfect shape remark,
And in thy breast at once shall glow the oriental spark!
As for thy spouse and tender babes, no Arab roams the wild
But for a mare of such descent, would barter wife and child.”
“Nay then,” cried I—(heav’n shrive the lie!) “to tell the secret truth,
’Twas my unhappy fortune once to over-ride a youth!
A playful child — so full of life! — a little fair-haired boy,
His sister’s pet, his father’s hope, his mother’s darling joy!
Ah me! the frantic shriek she gave! I hear it ringing now!
That hour, upon the bloody spot, I made a holy vow;
A solemn compact, deeply sworn, to witness my remorse,
That never more these limbs of mine should mount on living horse!”
Good Heav’n! to see the angry glance that flashed upon me now!
A chill ran all my marrow through — the drops were on my brow!
I knew my doom, and stole a glance at that accursed Mare,
And there she stood, with nostrils wide, that snuff’d the sultry air.
How lion-like she lash’d her flanks with her abundant tail;
While on her neck the stormy mane kept tossing to the gale!
How fearfully she roll’d her eyes between the earth and sky,
As if in wild uncertainty to gallop or to fly!
While with her hoof she scoop’d the sand as if before she gave
My plunge into eternity she meant to dig my grave!
And I, that ne’er could calmly hear a horse’s ears at play —
Or hear without a yard of jump his shrill and sudden neigh —
Whose foot within a stable-door had never stood an inch —
Whose hand to pat a living steed would feel an awful flinch —
I that had never thrown a leg across a pony small,
To scour the pathless desert on the tallest of the tall!
For oh! it is no fable, but at ev’ry look I cast,
Her restless legs seem’d twice as long as when I saw them last!
In agony I shook — and yet, although congealed by fears,
My blood was boiling fast, to judge from noises in my ears;
I gasp’d as if in vacuo, and thrilling with despair,
Some secret Demon seem’d to pass his fingers through my hair.
I could not stir — I could not speak — I could not even see —
A sudden mist rose up between that awful Mare and me,
I tried to pray, but found no words — tho’ ready ripe to weep,
No tear would flow — o’er ev’ry sense a swoon began to creep —
When lo! to bring my horrid fate at once unto the brunt,
Two Arabs seized me from behind, two others in the front,
And ere a muscle could be strung to try the strife forlorn,
I found myself, Mazeppa-like, upon the Desert-Born!
Terrific was the neigh she gave, the moment that my weight
Was felt upon my back, as if exulting in her freight;
Whilst dolefully I heard a voice that set each nerve ajar —
“Off with the bridle — quick! — and leave his guidance to his star!”
“Allah! il Allah!” rose the shout — and starting with a bound,
The dreadful Creature cleared at once a dozen yards of ground;
And grasping at her mane with both my cold convulsive hands,
Away we flew — away! away! across the shifting sands!
My eyes were closed in utter dread of such a fearful race,
But yet by certain signs I knew we went no earthly pace,
For turn whichever way we might, the wind with equal force
Rush’d like a horrid hurricane still adverse to our course —
One moment close at hand I heard the roaring Syrian Sea,
The next is only murmur’d like the humming of a bee!
And when I dared at last to glance across the wild immense,
Oh ne’er shall I forget the whirl that met the dizzy sense!
What seem’d a little sprig of fern, ere lips could reckon twain,
A palm of forty cubits high, we passed it on the plain!
What tongue could tell — what pencil paint — what pen describe the ride?
Now off — now on — now up — now down — and flung from side to side!
I tried to speak, but had no voice, to soothe her with its tone —
My scanty breath was jolted out with many a sudden groan —
My joints were racked — my back was strained, so firmly I had clung —
My nostrils gush’d, and thrice my teeth had bitten through my tongue —
When lo! — farewell all hope of life! — she turn’d and faced the rocks,
None but a flying horse could clear those monstrous granite blocks!
So thought I — but I little knew the desert pride and fire,
Deriv’d from a most deer-like dam, and lion-hearted sire;
Little I guess’d the energy of muscle, blood, and bone,
Bound after bound, with eager springs, she clear’d each massive stone; —
Nine mortal leaps were pass’d before a huge gray rock at length
Stood planted there as if to dare her utmost pitch of strength —
My time was come! that granite heap my monument of death!
She paused, she snorted loud and long, and drew a fuller breath;
Nine strides and then a louder beat that warn’d me of her spring,
I felt her rising in the air like eagle on the wing —
But oh! the crash! — the hideous shock! — the million sparks around!
Her hindmost hoofs had struck the crest of that prodigious mound!
Wild shriek’d the headlong Desert-Born — or else ’twas demon’s mirth,
One second more, and Man and Mare roll’d breathless on the earth!
How long it was I cannot tell ere I revived to sense,
And then but to endure the pangs of agony intense;
For over me lay powerless, and still as any stone,
The Corse that erst had so much fire, strength, spirit, of its own.
My heart was still — my pulses stopp’d — midway ’twixt life and death,
With pain unspeakable I fetch’d the fragment of a breath,
Not vital air enough to frame one short and feeble sigh,
Yet even that I loath’d because it would not let me die.
Oh! slowly, slowly, slowly on, from starry night till morn,
Time flapp’d along, with leaden wings, across that waste forlorn!
I cursed the hour that brought me first within this world of strife —
A sore and heavy sin it is to scorn the gift of life —
But who hath felt a horse’s weight oppress his laboring breast?
Why, any who has had, like me, the NIGHT MARE on his chest.
† For the purposes of his pun on “night-mare,” Hood adroitly utilizes the story of the famous Lady Hester Stanhope, whom Kinglake, in his Eothen, first made familiar to so many of us. He there speaks of the “quiet women in Somersetshire,” and their surprise when they learned that “the intrepid girl who used to break their vicious horses for them” was reigning over the wandering tribes of Western Asia!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55