Sher Afzul

A poem by Laurence Hope (Adela Florence Cory Nicolson)

This was the tale Sher Afzul told to me,
While the spent camels bubbled on their knees,
And ruddy camp-fires twinkled through the gloom
Sweet with the fragrance from the Sinjib trees.

I had a friend who lay, condemned to death
In gaol for murder, wholly innocent,
Yet caught in webs of luckless circumstance; -
Thou know'st how lies, of good and ill intent,

Cluster like flies around a justice-court,
Wheel within wheel, revolving screw on screw; -
But from his prison he escaped and fled,
Keeping his liberty a night or two

Among the lonely hills, where, shackled still,
He braved a village, seeking for a file
To loose his irons; alas! he lost his life
Through the base sweetness of a woman's smile.

Lovely she was, and young, who gave the youth
Kind words, and promised succor and repose,
Till on the quilt of false security
He found exhausted sleep; but, ere he rose,

Entered the guards, brought by her messenger.
Thus was he captured, slain, and on her breast
Soon shone the guerdon of her treachery,
The price of blood; in gold made manifest.

I might have killed her? Brave men have died thus.
Revenge demanded keener punishment.
So I walked softly on those lilac hills,
Touching my rhibab lightly as I went.

I found her fair: 't was no unpleasant task
In the young spring-time when the fruit-trees flower,
To pass her door, and pause, and pass again,
Shading mine eyes against her beauty's power.

Warmly I wooed her, while the almond trees
Broke into fragile clouds of rosy snow.
Her dawning passion feared her lord's return,
Ever she pleaded softly, "Let us go."

But I spoke tenderly, and said, "Beloved,
Shall not thy lips give orders to my heart?
Yet there is one small matter in these hills
Claiming attention ere I can depart.

"Let us not waste these days; thine absent lord
Cannot return, thou know'st, before the snow
Has melted, and the almond fruits appear."
This time she answered, "Naught but thee I know!"

I too was young; I could have loved her well
When her soft eyes across the twilight burned;
But suddenly, around her amber neck,
The golden beads would sparkle as she turned.

And I remembered; swift mine eyelids fell
To hide the hate that festered in my soul,
Ever more deeply, with the rising fear
That Love might wrench Revenge from my control.

But when at last she, acquiescent, lay
In the sweet-scented shadow of the firs,
Lovely and broken, granting - asking - all,
It was his eyes I met: not hers - not hers!

* * *

Three months I waited: all the village talked,
And ever anxiously she urged our flight.
Yet still I lingered, till her beauty paled,
And wearily she came to me at night.

Then, seeing Love, subservient to Revenge,
Had well achieved his own creative end,
And in his work must soon be manifest,
Compassing thus my duty to my friend,

One tranquil, sultry night I rode away
Till far behind the purple hills were dim,
Exulting in my spirit, "Thus I leave
Her to her fate, and my revenge to him!"

Swiftly he struck, her lord; the body lay
With hacked-off breasts, dishonoured, in the Pass.
Months later, riding lonely through the gorge,
I saw it still, among the long-grown grass.

It was well done; my soul is satisfied.
Friendship is sweet, and Love is sweeter still,
But Vengeance has a savour all its own -
A strange delight - well known to those who kill.

Such was the story Afzul told to me,
While wood-fires crackled in the evening breeze,
And blows on hammered tent-pegs stirred the air
Sweet with the fragrance from the Sinjib trees.

Tent-like, above, up-held by jagged peaks,
The heavy purple of the tranquil sky
Shed its oft-broken promises of peace,
While twinkling stars bemocked the worn-out lie!

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