Verse > Anthologies > Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. > An American Anthology, 1787–1900
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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908).  An American Anthology, 1787–1900.  1900.
 
1562. The Last Bowstrings
 
By Edward Lucas White
 
 
THEY had brought in such sheafs of hair,
And flung them all about us there
In the loud noonday’s heat and glare:
Gold tresses, far too fine to wind,
And brown, with copper curls entwined,        5
And black coils, black as all my mind.
 
In the low, stifling armory,
Whence we could hear, but might not flee,
The roar of that engirdling sea,
Whose waves were helmet-crests of foes,        10
Winding the cords we sat, in rows,
Beside a mound of stringless bows.
 
Since the first hill-scouts panted in,
Before siege-fires and battle din
Filled night and day, and filled within        15
Our hearts and brains with flame and sound,
We had sat, huddled on the ground,
Our tears hot on the cords we wound.
 
We knew, when the first tidings came,
That not the gods from death or shame        20
Could save us, fighting clothed in flame.
The mid-sea’s marshalled waves are few
Beside the warriors, girt with blue,
The gorged hill-passes then let through.
 
Their spears shook like ripe, standing corn,        25
Gold lakes that on the plains are born,
And nod to greet the golden morn;
After these years the earth yet reels,
And after snows and showers feels
The deluge of their chariot wheels.        30
 
Against our walls their flood was dammed,
Within which, till each porch was jammed,
Farm-folk and fisher-folk were crammed;
Heaped stones inside the gates were piled,
While all above us, calm and mild,        35
In bitter scorn the heavens smiled.
 
Our men dwelt on the walls and towers,
From over which, for endless hours,
The hissing arrows flew in showers;
The sing-stones, too, came crashing down,        40
As though the gods of far renown
Hurled thunderbolts into the town.
 
Where the hung temples showed their lights,
Some women prayed upon the heights;
Some stole about throughout the nights,—        45
Who bore the warriors food by day,—
Gleaning the arrows as they lay
That they might hurtle back to slay.
 
And where the rooms were heaped with stores,
Because the stringless bows were scores,        50
We were shut in with guarded doors;
All day at hurried toil we kept,
And when the darkness on us crept
We lay, each in her place, and slept.
 
Quick as we worked, we could not make        55
Strings fast as bowmen came to take
Fresh bows; and oh, the grinding ache
Of hearts and fingers: maid and slave
And princess, we toiled on to save
Home that already was our grave.        60
 
Six days we wound the cords with speed;
Naught else from us had any heed,
For bitter was our rage and need.
At last, upon the seventh day,
Into the fury of the fray        65
They called our very guard away.
 
No food was brough us. Faint with thirst,
What wonder was it if, at first,
Some wailed that the town gates were burst?
If, later, to the last embraces        70
Of child or mother, from their places
Some slunk away with ashen faces?
 
I cursed them through the door unbarred;
I vowed I would not move a yard,
Lest some one man of ours, pressed hard,        75
Might be left weaponless alone.
Until I died or turned to stone,
I would wind, were the hair mine own.
 
A sudden shiver shook my frame,
I looked up with my face aflame;        80
But oh, no tongue has any name
For the despair I saw enthroned
In my love’s eyes, all purple-zoned!
I smiled to greet him, and I groaned.
 
He buckled on a fresh cuirass,—        85
His own was but a tattered mass
Of gory thongs. I saw him pass
Out of the portal; with good-byes
And blessings filled, and yearning sighs,
For the last time I saw his eyes.        90
 
Each moment, all my blood areel,
I felt the thrust of deadly steel
I knew his body soon must feel.
My heart was choked with prayerful speech;
The high, deaf gods were out of reach,        95
My eyes dry as a noonday beach.
 
More cowards left. Few now remained.
Still at our task we strove and strained
With bleeding hands, and iron-brained;
And still my fingers all were fleet,        100
Though in my temples burned and beat
The murmur of the stunning heat.
 
There rushed in for fresh arms just then
Some of our allied,—small, dark men;
It slowly dawned upon my ken        105
That one, who by a spear-heap kneeled,
Fierce-browed and grimy from the field,
Carried my brother’s painted shield.
 
My heart beat in long, tearing throbs;
Sharp torch-lights stormed my eyes in mobs,        110
And my breath came in rasping sobs;
The tears from both my cheeks I wrung;
So wet my hands were that they clung
Slipping along the cord I strung.
 
Mutely we toiled until my maid,        115
Her lips tense as the strands she laid,
Grew wan; her deft, quick fingers strayed:
Then she pitched forward with a groan,
And lay, white, motionless, and prone.
I wound on hastily, alone.        120
 
Harsh and unevenly outside
Shields clanged. Men called, and cursed, and cried;
And when again the latch was tried
My knife lay somewhere on the floor.
Alas! I found it not before        125
Three armored foemen burst the door.
 

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