A Quaternion of the Seraglio
by Aloysius Coll
This four-part piece was published in 1904 as part of
"The harem and other poems".
I: The Chief Black Eunuch
Master, I kiss thy feet! Thy will is done,
And fuller than thy wish. The circling realms
Are stripped of beauty, wit and youth for thy
Seraglio. Were the Holy Prophet come
Bride-seeking in this land of women fair,
And, finding none in wayside, market-place
And harem, did he ask: "Pray, tell me where
Assyria's beauties be," all men would say:
"Go beg from Ubsek out of Ishpahan!"
Within the triple walls of thy domain
The jetty hair of Egypt waits the stroke
Of thy indulgent hand. The full, red lips
Of Persia purse in liquid mockery
Of nightingales, sweet singing in the court.
A maiden from Morocco, strong and lithe,
Dances beneath a whirling scimiter
The while a shower of sunlight on the blade
Hallows her with a crown of golden flashes.
One, with her zither free upon her lap,
The twilight gives a voice melodious.
Another, Bacchus-tutored, shall delight
Thine eyes and palate in a mazy dance,
With grace the brimful goblets offering
Out of the swell and ebb of billowy silks.
But these are puppets in the arts of love
Matched with the witching twain that wait this night
Thy godly face - their Mecca of Desire.
Either has woman's fairy power to mold
Thy every wish a sweet reality.
One is a maid Circassian, so young
And timorous that when the auctioneer,
To show her beauty in the market-place,
Unzoned the moving marble of her breast,
She swooned for modesty; whereat the cries
Of bidding eunuchs trebled and waxed wild
In golden competition. Hamid Bey,
Chief Eunuch for a Prince of Dehbala,
His shrill bids shouted over mine, until
I faltered 'tween the dizzy price that grew
And the despairing loss of such a prize -
I bid her in; I folded her away
From envious eyes; nor, Master, shall I fear
The koorbash when thou measurest the loss
Of all the gold I squandered with the gain
Of all the joys it purchased. - She is called
Roxana. She can sing and dance and play;
The nightingale is not more sweet of song,
And not so light of foot the butterfly.
If all the dreams of women fair were mixed
In earth's divinest countenance, some aid
From star and sun the picture would require
Ere it eclipse Roxana's loveliness;
But chiefest of her charms her willowy wit,
And wisdom trite. The Talmud is engraved
Deep on her mind's entablature. The songs
Of Sappho are as little links of gold
Binding her learning to her grace. She knows
The symbols of the mystical Kaballah.
She gives the Koran daily audience,
And chanting birds, and music of the brook.
Into her heart's affections shall she draw
Thy heart till thou art but her tenantry -
A wish dissolving in the wine of love!
Or, wouldst thou smother thought in revelry? -
Wouldst thou surrender Sultanship of soul
For passion's flying dervishry - Then let
That woman be thy minister who makes
Thy glance her soul, thy wish her only creed -
Zachi, thy wife, the full of breast and red
Of lip - the shepherdess of gamboling joys
On sunny quests outstraying - she that sleeps
The moments of thy absences away
That separation from thy side beseem
The shorter - she that rent thy house with moans
And slew a harmless slave the night I slipped
Thy new-bought bride from Persia to thy arms!
Zachi, who blushing hears with parted lips
And dreamy eyes, thy message: "Come, I wait!"
With golden languor so enrapt that once,
When I beheld thee in a dawn which broke
Alike the clasp of night, of her and thee,
I saw the smile of midnight lingering
Upon thy face, and, like a sun, upon
The plash of thy ablutions in the morning!
Which bride shall bear thy wooing, Master, - which
When incense smokes the damask of thy chamber;
When window lattice trembles with the breath
Of jasmin and the soft-sung dreams of birds;
When ruby lamp burns low, and higher burns
The hidden torches of desire? Which,
Roxana, stout defender of her heart;
Or Zachi shall the night give up to thee
To win thee by persuasion and the soft
Witcheries of a woman's full-blown love?
Thou sayest Roxana is in learning first
Of all my brides, and young and beautiful;
That she will fend her graces with her wit.
'Tis well; the key of knowledge shall I try
Her heart to open. Once within the high
Thick outer walls of her serene resolve,
I'll breach the frailer gateways of her heart,
And sue before the inner courts of love.
I'll move her lips to secrets of the stars,
Then kiss them into central suns of fire.
I'll point her eyes to visions erudite,
Then close them in the dreamy lapse of love.
I'll whet her mind with wordy tournaments,
And every word shall be a sword to pierce
Her heart with mystic wounds, as deep as death,
As sweet as honey-bleeding clover-throats
The bee has lanced. - So shall I strive with her,
My shaft the study of the stars, my shield
The language of the mountain wind and storm
And eloquence of mating nightingale.
But when her eyes have turned from wandering
Among the random stars, and fixed their light
On mine; when song of Talmud and Kaballah
Have melted on her tongue into one word
Of protest so serenely soft and low
I'll take it for submission; when her mind
Has closed the shutters down on truth, and gropes
And falters through the darkened cells of dreams
And love's hallucinations, - then I'll turn
Back from the delicate brink of my desire,
Bid her a chaste good-night - and let her go!
Into the love-warm goblet of my heart
Let Zachi come, then, - Zachi, full of breast
And red of lip; and let her pour the wine
Of full-blown roses where the bud has formed.
Hence! master-slave, and see thou bringst the both -
Roxana when the crescent cuts the trees
Of yonder hill, and Zachi when the night
Is luminant with the full, free-risen moon.
And harken! Have a care thou tend them so
That fair Roxana, leaving, have no thought
She goes on Zachi's coming, who, when come,
Shall never know my arms that wait her ache
With the embraces of her sister-bride!
Accursed the fickle sweets of night! Accursed
The double faces of the moon! Accursed
This remnant of her glory! With my tears
I dew the dying comet-tail of night,
Receding and down dashing into dawn.
Oh eyes, what floods of tears for my first storm!
What tempests for a maiden-love! What winds,
By tropic summers tempered, sweep me now
Into the lonely winter of my exile!
Lonely! - this night I saw him first; this night
My trembling hand unclasped the virgin veil,
And turned my loveliness to him - my lord!
Silent he sat. No word of flattery
He ventured. Of my golden hair he made
No wonder. Phrases of endearment men
Have bandied down the ages had he lack,
Even to silences unbroken. Love
Was in his face; I blushed to see it there,
Reflecting it, rose-tinted in my own.
But when he spoke, the poets of the past
Sang in his words, till, mounting line by line,
From woodland lyrics unto the ascent
Of clarion battle calls and thunderbursts
Of odes immortal, epics as sublime
As impulse of devotion, love and war,
At last he reached the pinnacle of song -
The sweet, spontaneous poem of his heart!
He bade me sing an ancient versicle,
And when he sang it after me, the strain
With his own feeling throbbed. An open book
He offered me, and when I read for him
The passage purple-scored - the mysteries
Of worlds contracted into diamond points;
Of stars downtrodden into solar fire;
Wee throats of birds uplifted into song;
Glimpse of the morning; even's fading out;
Mountain hearts melted into gold; design
Of daisy; pattern of the scalloped fern;
Birth of the blossom from a memory
Of autumn; art and sculpture of the hills,
Green-veiled and valley-carven; - when I read
This passage purple-scored unto my lord,
He set his knowledge 'gainst the holy book,
And burying the truth of ages deep
In his romantic superstition, held
That all the planets and revolving spheres
Are skied in heaven's blue, that blooms are set
In fields of grass and bubbles on the river
That love, the only worthy loveliness,
Might have material comparison -
Some splendor wooing words might liken to
Love's fire invisible; some perfumed dew
Love's lips unto her kisses might compare!
Out-womaned by my lord, at last - at last
I solved his creed: The world and all her sweet
Indulgences to him were but a cloak
About my heart; the chaos of the stars,
The harvest of forget-me-nots - he set
Them glimmering at my feet to blow and burn
Like candles at the altar of his love!
While yet I held my finger on the page -
The passage purple-scored, - he left his couch.
And like a cloud, above me hovered. Fell
His shadow on my blushes. Sharp and bright
Out of his shadow flashed his royal wit,
Like lightning through the blackness of the storm;
And in each fitful flame I seemed to see
The heavens open. Flash on flash did Joy,
The sunny limner, tinge with golden light
The gathering cloudburst of my youth. Then blew
My master's breath upon me, like a wind
Warming the sand before a hot monsoon.
Then, on my desert lips there fell a rain -
The fragrant tempest of his lips! In vain
The flowering bough-roof of my girlhood strove
To hide my fire with protests maidenly.
Blind with a new-born intimacy, blind
With love, I saw - 'twas passion's second sight -
Or seemed to see the guards of girlhood fade
Far back across the desert; back, on back
And out of calling! Crowned with orange blooms,
I seemed to walk a rosy way - up - up
Into joy-ridden realms. Birds set the trees
Aquivering with song. A golden gate
Sprang open at my coming. Sentinels
Of Peace and Joy and Beauty and Content
Conducted me into a castle court,
Whence came my bridegroom forth. And when he smiled,
His radiance was like a rainbow arch
Set over him. "My queen," he said ; "my love,
Enter my house, my heart, and rest thee here
Eternally!" "Ah, not a queen," I cried,
"A woman in the household of thy love -
A bride-wife in the bondage of her vows!"
And then - the woman of my lovely dream,
The substance, too, of yearning flesh and blood,
Faint with the first pure vintage of desire,
I cast myself into my master's arms!
And then - Oh, trusting heart of easy wax,
That, warming, took his shape indelibly, -
Now that my lord had wooed me from the height
Of modesty into the lap of love,
He kissed me on the burning lips no more,
But lightly on the forehead and the hair;
And with the grace of power o'er himself,
Resigned me to the eunuch at his door,
And taking Darkness for his sweeter bride,
Slept in her rival arms until the dawn!
Hush! Nightingale - my lord is sleeping now,
Dreaming the weariness of love away -
But jealousy has wormed into mine eyes,
And fixes them in open wakefulness.
Jealousy, aye, the nettlewort of love,
So twined about my heart that every throb
Is vexed and poisoned by the angry stings!
Here, in the stillness of my master's room, -
The midnight audience of the nightingale, -
Before me pass the ghosts of the delights
And disappointments of this bridal tryst!
This night the eunuch said: "Prepare for him!"
Decked by the moon-rise, long I waited - long
Even for me, who weep at dalliance.
The scarlet on my lips was rubbed away
By fret and vexing, and my braided hair,
Sweet with its costly essences, hung loose
For ravings on my couch, whereon, at last,
I threw my burning temples in despair,
To sleep - the mateless bride of solitude!
* * * * * * *
I dreamed a touch was on me! I awoke!
The eunuch - rigid messenger of the night, -
Stood over me, with words of greatest joy:
"Thy master waits thee - come!" I went to him,
All rosy with the first sweet sleep of night.
Dimly his lamp was burning, as a wick
Grown pauper in a foolish waste of oil.
I slipped into his arms, and wept, - aye, wept
For gladness. Soothing me, he stroked; my hair -
Ah, touch of treason! Hot his hand, as hot
As lover's hand might be, when, in the last
Embraces of a tryst he wrings the pain
Of parting in his touch; and when I wept
The more for knowledge of this thing, he set
His lips upon my tears - whereat the more
I knew from his warm breath and hurried heart
The treason of his love. As well I knew
The golden halo of Roxana's hair
Had mingled with the moonbeams on his breast!
I saw the rugs whereon her feet had danced;
A book upon the shelf, and of its leaves
A page was turned and marked to set her wits
Aright with the authorities of ages;
I saw a lute that she had played upon;
I saw the love-light in my master's eye,
Shining to hold Roxana in his sight,
Though she were gone - and understanding all
With woman's eyes when woman's love is new,
Jealousy slipt into the reign of sleep,
Dethroned her sovereignty and crowned as queen
Her rival - Wakefulness. Ah, what were sleep
To me, who fold my idol to my breast?
To me, possessing him, knowing that when
His ear had tired of music, when his eye
Had wearied of the dancing, when his tongue
Had jaded in the flavors of old wine,
When poetry had lost its subtle art
To please him, when his lips were very near
The kiss he would not rob from girlish bloom,
His arms about the prize he would not claim
From youth - then, then, and only then he thought
Of me, the full of breast and red of lip -
The star of golden languor, and the heart
Of warm, wild wine; because he had drained dry
The current of all little joys that lead,
Delicate step by step, to ecstasy:
Because, - Oh, bitter lack! - I could not bring
Him any gift of music, song or wealth
Of grace upon the rugs, my only gift
The fickle oriflamme of woman's love!