The Golden Cockerel
With age, he grew less keen to fight, Desiring his deserved peace: Struggle should stop; war's clamour cease. His down-trod neighbours saw their chance, And armed with dagger, sword and lance, Attacked his frontiers at will, Making the old Tsar maintain still An army of twelve thousand men, With horses, weaponry, and then Appoint highly-paid generals To guard the kingdom's threatened walls. But, when they watched the west, 'twas sure The eastern border, less secure Would be where hostile troops appeared,The danger greatest where least feared. Eastward the generals sally forth, Only to find that now the north Border is where the danger lies. Tormented thus, Tsar Dadon cries Hot tears of rage. He cannot sleep. O'er land foes stream; then from the deep. What is life worth, when so assailed? In country far, and days long gone, There lived a famous Tsar -- Dadon. When young, his strength was held in awe By all his neighbours: he made war Whenever he declared it right. So, desperate, Dadon availed Himself of magic, turning to A sorcerer (and eunuch, too), Interpreter of omens, stars, Bird-flights, and such particulars. The courtier, sent to call the sage, Implied there'd be a handsome wage. Arrived at court, the wise old man Disclosed with confidence his plan: The golden cockerel he drew Out from his bag by magic knew Who would attack, and when, and where, Enabling generals to prepare. «Just watch and listen», said the sage. Dadon responded: «I engage, «If this be so, to grant as fee «Whatever you request of me.» «So, set the cock, as weather-vane «Upon the highest spire. Remain «Watchful, attentive; he will show «You when to arm, and where to go. «Superior intelligence «Will always be the best defence.» And so it proves: whenever threats Appear, the faithful sentry sets His crimson crest in that direction Whence comes th'incipient insurrection. «Kiri-ku-ku», he cries, «Hear me, «And rule long years, from worry free.» Discovered once, and caused to flee, Then thrice more routed, th'enemy Lose heart, respect again the will Of Tsar Dadon, their master still. And so it proves: whenever threats Appear, the faithful sentry sets His crimson crest in that direction Whence comes th'incipient insurrection. «Kiri-ku-ku», he cries, «Hear me, «And rule long years, from worry free.» Discovered once, and caused to flee, Then thrice more routed, th'enemy Lose heart, respect again the will Of Tsar Dadon, their master still. Rousing himself, old Tsar Dadon Declares he'll send his elder son Southward, whose army shall repel The foe which that true cockerel Has there disclosed. «Now back to bed| «The enemy's as good as dead.» The Tsar proclaims, «I too retire. «Fear not. My spy's still on his spire.» Wars oft entail a news black-out: Was there a victory? Or rout? Who has prevailed? How stands the score Of dead? And were ours less or more Than theirs? No word for seven days The Court's disquietude allays.Then, on the eighth, the cockerel's Loud cry the peace again dispels. This time his crimson comb points north. Dadon ordains to sally forth His younger son, leading a force, So rich in armour, men and horse, That no known foe could fail to yield, Such weapons Dadon's troops now wield. They march; are gone. Silence profound Envelops them, as though the ground Had opened, as it did in truth, To swallow up all Hamlin's youth When its authorities displayed Indiff'rence to a promise made. Ill omen! For another week The golden cock's sharp close-clamped beak Swings slowly round, clock-wise; and then Swings just as slowly back again. But, when the eighth day dawns, the bird Crows the alarm. Grim-faced, a third Army the Tsar himself leads out. Ahead, a solitary scout, Follows the blood-red setting sun. Dadon's last campaign has begun. Long nights and days the soldiers march: Frost cramps their feet; then hot winds parch Their throats. They seek, but find no trace Of battles, of the bloody chase Of fugitives, of funeral mounds. No rallying cries, no trumpet's sounds Waft to the ears of Tsar Dadon, As puzzled, tired, he trudges on. Just when he's topped a mountain pass, Descending valley-ward,... alas! What frightful vision lies before Him: scattered round a silken tent Lie those two armies Dadon sent In his defence. Now all are dead; And his two sons, unhelmeted, Hold swords plunged in each other's breast, Hatred in four glazed eyes expressed. Oh, my dear children! Who has snared My falcons? What magician dared Villainy in their hearts to stir, To make of each a murderer? His soldiers raise such grievous groan It seems the very mountains moan. But then the curtains of the tent Are flung aside. The hands that rent Them, diamond-ringed and braceleted, The stately figure, noble head, Royalty's redolence express.. A Shamakhanskaya Princess She is, who sees Dadon, and smiles. Her beck'ning finger so beguiles Him that, bewitched, his sons forgot The Tsar accepts his destined lot: Her rule, indeed her domination.He walks, surrendering his nation, Into the silken-wall'ed tent, Wherein his next eight nights are spent In (who can doubt?) those rites of passion To detail which is out of fashion, Feasting 'tween-times on everything Our chefs declare «fit for a king». At last begins the homeward course. The maiden, mounted on his horse, Caresses the still-love-sick Tsar. The soldiers grumble; yet they are Eager to tell their waiting friends (With what imagination lends Their memories) fantastic stuff And nonsense. Sure, they've seen enough! Rumours have reached the capital Before them. At its drawbridge, all The people wait in trepidation To see the ruler of the nation Approaching with his new consort, Of whom men variously report She is a witch, a whore, a queen. Never before have such things been. They greet their Tsar. His grave salute Befits his rank; but his acute Eye has detected in the crowd That eunuch-sage whose cockerel's loud Uproar had saved the threatened state. «Approach, old man,» Dadon invites, «I grant whatever gift requites «You for your golden cockerel «Whose sentry-duty served so well.» «I just desire», the wizard says, «The Shamakhanskaya Princess. «Come now, my lady, we must leave». Th'astonished Tsar cannot believe His ears. «What? what? Take my princess? «And you a eunuch! I confess «I never heard a better joke. «But seriously, when I spoke «Of paying you right handsomely «I also meant in reason. See, «I'll give you half my treasury; «A lordship; and, if lechery «Indeed attracts you, all the whores «Whom you can satisfy». With force The wizard answers: «Satisfied «I'll be only with her as bride. «Give me the Shamakhan Princess. «I'll be content with nothing less.»«Take nothing then,» Tsar Dadon said. His sword-swipe smote the old man dead.The crowd was dumbstruck; but the maid, By this aggression undismayed, Burst out in laughter, peal on peal, As though by laughing to reveal Her full involvement in the plan To trick and then destroy a man. The Tsar, though startled, deigns to smile. Then on, along the Royal Mile.The crowd begins a careful cheer, Until a whir of wings they hear And see a bird with lance-like beak, A golden bird, with feathers sleek, Dive at the Tsar, piercing his head. Dadon groans once, falls, and is dead.Where's she who was to be his queen? Vanished, as though she'd never been.The story's false; but in it lies Some truth, seen but by inward eyes.