Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, MARK ATHERTON, by FREDERICK GODDARD TUCKERMAN



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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

MARK ATHERTON, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Of one who went to do deliberate wrong
Last Line: And treachery answered so with treachery.
Subject(s): Kidnapping; Betrayal; Vengeance; Native Americans


Of one who went to do deliberate wrong,
Not driven by want, nor hard necessity,
Nor seemingly impelled by hidden hands
As some have said, nor hounded on by hate,
Imperious anger, nor the lust of gold,
This story tells. Yet all of these colleagued
To drive him at the last, who in young life,
Ere the bone hardens, or the blood grows cold,
When youth is prompt to change, even momently,
With every whiff of wind or word of chance;--
Through heat and cold for many a month and day
Went calmly to his purpose with still feet;
No breakneck speed, but fearfully, and as one
Who holds his horse together down a hill.

Bethiah, or, as those who loved her loved
To call her, Bertha, for her beauty's sake,--
Bethiah Westbrooke was a forest-flower
That trembled forth on the waste woods and swamps
Of wild New England, in the wild dark days
Of witchcraft, and of Indian wiles and war.
Yet something after this; for oft at night,
When Westbrooke's cottage was a beacon star
To many a beating heart, and suitors came
From far with gifts and game, then the old man
Who felt the fire, and had a gust to talk,
Would tell of Philip's war and Sassacus;
And how De Rouville crossed the crusted snow
Towards doomed Deerfield in the winter's morn,
With a quick rush and halt alternately,
As 'twere the empty rushing of the wind,
So to delude the outposts; how by night,
About the lonely blockhouse and the mount,
The scouting Indian hovered like a wolf,
Seeking a crevice to thrust in the fire;
Till the dumb creatures of the barn and field
Would give swift notice of the stealing foe;
Cows, horses, snuffed the warpaint, and, in the house,
How the dog whimpered with erected hair,
And, like the wind in a window, wawled the cat.
Of these and personal scapes would Westbrooke speak
As of the past: "For now," he said, :the tribes,
Shot, scalped, and scattered, flee on every side;
Their bark-boats staved and sunk, their lodges burned,
And plantings, and even the lands that grew them, seized;
They scarce can draw to head: the Indian war
Was ended, save that, perhaps, in the long nights,
From some lone farm outlying, a fire might rise,
Set on by the wild savage with a shriek!
For squads were here and there, and still 'twas said
That in the North some stragglers held together;
But mainly broken now; nor seemed it best
To mull and grind them into very dust."

And then the old man, turning as he talked
Towards his daughter, bitterly would speak
Of that most hateful sin of treachery:
False friendliness, and that domestic treason
Wherein the red man, trustless, merciless,
Is better than the white; then, pausing long,
Would gaze upon Bethiah where she sat,
Till the girl winced, and on her forehead stood
The impatient color; and Mark, Mark Atherton,
Into his dark avoiding eye would seem
To call a clear look, till the old man's fell.
Not lovers these, though long-accounted friends;
And, though the voice went that they two would wed,
Not lovers sure; yet the youth had her ear
And ready laughter, for he well could speak
Smooth words, but with an edge of meaning in them,
Like a sharp acid sheathed in milk or oil.
Others too held aloof, but still the maid
Heard not, or, hearing, heard with a half-heart;
For still another stood between the two,--
Companion of the twilights and the dawns
Of parted days, one who had loved her then
With true-intending love,--his hope, his star,
And almost mistress; and so the maiden looked
On this and this, with a divided eye.

Into the forest rode Mark Atherton.
Leaving the settlement at the river-side,
By felling and burnt-over land he passed, and plunged
Through towering fern and thickset, till he reached
The open pines; and onward still he rode,
Climbing the slippery slope, and clattering down
The stony hollow: from his horse's hoof
The shy frog flew, and, like a streak of light,
The squirrel darted up the mossy bole,
Where, glancing upward, downward, and across,
Hammered and hung the crested popinjay.

So sharply on he rode; now brooding on
His purpose, which was in truth to win the maid,
Wrong her rich love, and sell her to the chiefs
That lurked with their red warriors in the shade;
Now on her beauty with a grain of ruth,
Their long-time friendship, and that marriage vow
Which his heart hated: for he thought of one,
Once the heart's idol of his boyish dream,
That hardly heaven seemed fitted to enshrine;
Now pent within a house just bigger than
A martin-box, that seemed, and scarce as clean:--
The fair slight girl that was,--and see her now!
A dozen children at her gowntail pull,
As so a slut as ere went down at heel!

So, hardening his heart, he drew his rein
Against the bank, and sought the waterside;
Parting the laurel to behold thy face,
New England's stream, dark River of the Pines!
There lay and listened till the twilight fell;
When, weary of the flutter of the leaf,
The dipping of the ripple on the rock,
And plaintive calling of the phoebe-bird,
He chanted, half in fear, half-mockingly:--

"The river sides are high, the night is dark,
And fair white hands are drawing at our bark;
Tonight, tonight, the winds obey our call,
And the still dark river sucks like a waterfall,
As downstream in the dugout on we fare;
For the minister's daughter and deacon's wife are there,
Paddle away!

On either bank, as softly down she plies,
Remember, remember, that many a landing lies:
Then fear not the Friend with whom we have our part;
Nor shame to own the love that hideth in the heart;
Nor grudge our chiefest chamber to afford,
When the house is his from sill to saddle-board;
Paddle away!"

And with the cadence came
The quick replying plunge of a broad blade;
And, hideous in his paint and peag, with face
Inflexible of mournful gravity,
An Indian chieftain, leaping from his boat,

Stood like the fiend evoked. But Atherton,
Whose cheek had whitened like the winter leaf
That flickers all day in the whistling beech,
Held down his head as for a moment, so
Recovering his face; then steadfastly
Exchanged due greeting with the forest king,
And passed they into parley by the stream.

Red light had parted from the westward verge,
And night lay black, ere back again and fast
The horseman fled, a shadow through the shade.
And now indeed, as if in very truth,
The river-demons gathered on his track;
For, ever as he rode, a woman's shriek
Seemed to pursue him through the sounding pines!
And where he looked there was a woman's face,
With the frothed lip, and nostril edged with blood,
Relentlessly appealing, as it seemed;
And ever as he rode a ceaseless sound
Went ringing at his ear like jingling gold;
And, like the innumerable chink and chime
Of the night crickets hidden in the grass,
Not to be lost or left; he gnashed his teeth:
But even there the forest fell away,
And on, by burned and blackened stumps and shells
That mimicked all things horrible and vague
In the dim glimmer insecure, he sped,
And gained the pickets of the palisades.

Another night, and later in the year,
A youth and maid, in the first edge of dark,
Stood by the haunted stream, or wandered on,
Insensibly approaching in their talk
A bushy point that jutted from the wood:
Alley and ambuscade of black pitch pine.
Various their look: he, lowering in his mood,
Baffled and broken where his heart was high,
Strode sullenly; she, sad but resolute,
And pale with her determination, yet
As one who strives to soothe a cureless harm,
Spoke tenderly, as to an angry friend,
Remembering old affection ere he go.
"Partings must be," she said, "but is not this
A sorrowful leavetaking to our love?
To all our friendliness an ill farewell?"
A moment more, and while the words were warm,
Torn from her feet, arms bound, and gagged with grass,
They trailed her through the thickets of the wood.
And all alone stood Atherton with him,
The sachem of the riverside and stream,
Receiving now what he had had in part,
All the bad wage of his iniquity.
Then, as if all things now were at an end,
Released from gift of faith, and entergage,
They parted silent: one took up the trail,
The other slowly to the village passed,
And raised the alarm, and blew the gathering horn,
And headed the wild search.
With trampling feet
He led them to the River, where, he said,
They dragged her through the stream and up the bank,
He following on into its very flow;
But his foot slipping in the anchor-ice,
With wetted gun, and bruised among the stones,
He saw her, for whose life he risked his own,
Snatched from his sight; but darker now the night,
They far before, the trail unsure by day:
What more could be, but gather arms and men?
And scout abroad, and watch till morning light?

And Westbrooke, the old man without a child,
Now raging, now in blank and mute despair,
Ran forth, or stood in helplessness of grief:
Not now as when he marched with Mosely's men
Against the savage seated in his strength:
When, like a sword of fire, with twenty more,
He fell upon their necks and drove them in;
Or under Winslow, in that desperate day,
When, beaten off by the red foe intrenched,
Through battle smoke he found himself alone
O'er breastwork and abbatis charging back.
Gone was his strength, and, as the days went by,
Gone seemed his heart. He sought his bed, and there,
Seeing but one face as the days went by,
Lay motionless; and like a drowning man,
Who, lying at the bottom of a brook,
Stares at the sun till, small and smaller grown,
It flickers like a lamp and then goes out:
So shrank his hope, so dropped into the dark.

And days went by, and still no tidings were.
The smouldered war broke up in fresher flame,
Killing all hope; the rangers, ranging back
Through all the Massachusetts, west and north,
Had swept the woods to farthest Canada,
And many prisoners ransomed or retook:
But she, the glory of his life, was gone.
And yet, one winter morning, ere the sun
Had crossed the River on his westward march,
Sudden as was the stroke, the mercy came;
And Westbrooke held the daughter of his heart;
Wilted and wan, yet still the Forest-Flower!
Brought by the party of a friendly tribe,
Who took her from the chiefs, sick unto death,
And nursed her long, and tenderly led her home,
Nor claimed reward.
And sudden vengeance broke
On him, the traitor; but not by those he had wronged:
Fled on the instant to the cedar swamps,
His Indian allies seized and bound him there;
And after battle, smarting for their slain,
There, in the darkness of the cedar swamp,
They slowly burned his flesh and charred his bones.

So, in the old days, God was over all,
Vengeance was full, and wrong returned to right;
Mercy replied to Love; the lost was found;
And treachery answered so with treachery.





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