Cicely Fox Smith
The Rhyme Of The Four Strong Men - Poem by Cicely Fox Smith
In lands that are now forgotten,
In the old wild days of yore,
The Four Strong Men made compact
That they should fight no more.
They fashioned their swords into ploughshares,
Their spears into pruning-hooks;
And to make the compact stronger
They wrote it in parchment books.
And two should sit at the judgment
When two fell out in speech;
To hold them from bloody warfare
And to do the right to each.
And no man should wrong his neighbour,
And each should have his own,
And the clash and clamour of fighting
Should never again be known.
Now one was a breeder of oxen;
And one had fields of wheat;
And one he owned rich vineyards
Where grapes grew large and sweet.
And one had pastures and meadows
Stretching o'er leagues of plain,
Where fed his wild fierce horses
That none but he could rein.
Now two of the Strong Men quarreled
With word that were far from sweet;
For one said his neighbour's oxen
Had trampled his growing wheat.
And they took the strife to their brothers,
That they might set it straight,
And healed be the wounds of warfare,
And bridged the gulf of hate.
But the lord of the peerless horses
Held back from the wordy fray;
For he asked: 'What need of my judgment?
Here have I nought to say.'
'What know I of your quarrel,
And the truth of its right and wrong?
Leave I all to your neighbour,
Him who hath watched you long.'
Their neighbour he heard them witness,
And set them a day apart;
And for hours he sat in silence
To ponder it in his heart.
And as he was musing and brooding,
Came a knock at his outer door,
And his neighbour the owner of oxen
Entered and stood before.
He stood for a minute in silence,
Crimson of cheek and mute,
Twisting his fingers together,
Shifting from foot to foot.
Then spoke: 'O judge, on the morrow
Thou wilt give us thy verdict true:
Great is the trust thou holdest:
See thou give each his due.'
'Neighbour,' he said, 'thou knowest
How fair are my herds of kine.
So ponder thy verdict a little;
And - the half of a herd is thine!'
And he whose crops had been trampled
Mourned o'er his bitter fate:
And the victor, the owner of oxen,
Went on and waxed more great.
While the judge he sat in his vineyard,
Watching his wealth increase;
And folk said to one another:
'Great is the boon of peace.'
Now the judge and the owner of oxen
Had trouble upon a day:
For the second laid claim to the oxen
His word had given away.
'Lo,' he said, 'it is falsehood;
By the mark on their foreheads fine, -
By their horns with the golden circlets,
Of a truth they are surely mine.'
They went at last to the neighbour
They had robbed of his right before:
Once he was strong and wealthy,
Now he was weak and poor.
He thought on his fallen fortunes;
He thought on his neighbour's might;
He weighed their power in the balance,
And gave no thought to the right.
And he said: 'Full strange is thy story:
Lacking of truth i'wis;
Give back the kine to thy brother:
Of a truth they are surely his.'
And the two that were kept from combat
Met daily with looks askance:
And the bystanders nudged and whispered,
At the sight of their vengeful glance.
While the time grew longer and longer
Since they vowed that wars should cease;
But the cry of the crowd grew fainter:
'Great is the boon of peace!'
Now the three were sorrowful-minded,
Because he grew so strong
Who ruled the windy pastures,
Where the sun shone all day long.
His horses grazed in the pastures;
His horses fed in the hay:
Strong and slender and willful,
White and sable and gray.
Fain were his kin to harm him,
Fain from their heart and soul:
Severed in purpose and nature;
Only in hatred whole.
Yet they would not strive by the judgment
To drag his pride in the dust:
For each had bartered his honour;
None could his brethren trust.
This one thro' greed of riches,
That one thro' fear of pain:
And as it had been aforetime,
They knew it might chance again.
So they gathered in secret council,
Far from people's sight,
Planning and plotting together
To steal his steeds by night.
But as they counseled in secret,
They lifted their voices high,
And he whom they sought to ruin
Came riding unnoticed by.
He heard them speak of his horses,
He heard them name his name;
And the warm swift blood in his pulses
Leapt to his cheek like flame.
With a heart quick throbbing in anger
Swiftly he lighted down,
And he stood in the midst of his rivals,
With a smile that was half a frown.
'Well is it done, my masters,'
(High was his scorn and great,)
'That, ev'n as the stinging serpents,
By stealth would ye wreak your hate.'
'Enough of this unseen warfare,
Folly and lies and spite,
Anger that fears the trial,
Envy that dares not smite.'
'Have done with your secret scheming,
Cunning and plot and plan;
Come forth - to a fair-fought combat;
Stand up - as man with man!'
And the peaceful vineyards and meadows
Woke from their slumbers sweet
To the rush of the reeling foray,
The stamp of the straining feet.
The strong men warring together,
They fought with their naked hands,
For the weapons they once had wielded
Were taken to till their lands.
Long was the fight and mighty,
For their pride was galled with sores,
With the smart of unvenged insults,
The hate of the unfought wars.
And at last when the victor and vanquished
Went on their ways again,
Gone was the hidden hatred,
Healed the old wounds and pain.
And the mists of secret and falsehood
Parted, that each might know
Who was his friend and ally,
And who his lifelong foe.
And the village rang with the clangour
Of hammers that strike on steel,
Forging new weapons of warfare
For the strong men to guard their weal.
And one kept watch o'er his oxen;
One o'er his fields of wheat;
One o'er the fertile vineyards
Where grapes grow large and sweet;
One o'er his proud wild horses,
His horses strong and fleet,
All day long by his pastures
Pacing his sleepless beat.
And truth was greater than falsehood,
And right was right once more;
In the lands that are lost and forgotten,
In the old wild days of yore.
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