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Christmas in Legend and Story by  Elva S. Smith
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EARL SIGURD'S CHRISTMAS EVE

HJALMAR HJORTH BOYESEN

[160]

Earl Sigurd, he rides o'er the foam-crested brine,

And he heeds not the billowy brawl,

For he yearns to behold gentle Swanwhite, the maid

Who abides in Sir Burislav's hall.


"Earl Sigurd, the viking, he comes, he is near!

Earl Sigurd, the scourge of the sea;

Among the wild rovers who dwell on the deep,

There is none that is dreaded as he.


"Oh, hie ye, ye maidens, and hide where ye can,

Ere the clang of his war-ax ye hear,

For the wolf of the woods has more pity than he,

And his heart is as grim as his spear."


[161]

Thus rang the dread tidings, from castle to hut,

Through the length of Sir Burislav's land,

As they spied the red pennon unfurled to the breeze,

And the galleys that steered for the strand.


But with menacing brow, looming high in his prow

Stood Earl Sigurd, and fair to behold

Was his bright, yellow hair, as it waved in the air,

'Neath the glittering helmet of gold.


"Up, my comrades, and stand with your broadswords in hand,

For the war is great Odin's delight;

And the Thunderer proud, how he laughs in his cloud

When the Norsemen prepare for the fight!"


And the light galleys bore the fierce crew to the shore,

And naught good did their coming forebode,

And a wail rose on high to the storm-riven sky

As to Burislav's castle they strode.


[162]

Then the stout-hearted men of Sir Burislav's train

To the gate-way came thronging full fast

And the battle-blade rang with a murderous clang,

Borne aloft on the wings of the blast.


And they hewed and they thrust, till each man bit the dust,

Their fierce valor availing them naught.

But the Thunderer proud, how he laughed in his cloud,

When he saw how the Norsemen had fought!


Then came Burislav forth; to the men of the North

Thus in quivering accents spake he:

"O, ye warriors, name me the ransom ye claim,

Or in gold, or in robes, or in fee."


"Oh, what reck I thy gold?" quoth Earl Sigurd, the bold;

"Has not Thor laid it all in my hand?

Give me Swanwhite, the fair, and by Balder I swear

I shall never revisit thy land.


[163]

"For my vengeance speeds fast, and I come like the blast

Of the night o'er the billowy brine;

I forget not thy scorn and thy laugh on that morn

When I wooed me the maid that was mine."


Then the chief, sore afraid, brought the lily-white maid

To the edge of the blood-sprinkled field,

And they bore her aloft o'er the sward of the croft

On the vault of the glittering shield.


But amain in their path, in a whirlwind of wrath

Came young Harold, Sir Burislav's son;

With a great voice he cried, while the echoes replied:

"Lo, my vengeance, it cometh anon!"


Hark ye, Norsemen, hear great tidings:

Odin, Thor, and Frey are dead,

And white Christ, the strong and gentle,

standeth peace-crowned in their stead.


[164]

Lo, the blood-stained day of vengeance to the

ancient night is hurled,

And the dawn of Christ is beaming blessings

o'er the new-born world.


"See the Cross in splendor gleaming far and

wide o'er pine-clad heath,

While the flaming blade of battle slumbers in

its golden sheath.

And before the lowly Savior, e'en the rider of

the sea,

Sigurd, tamer of the billow, he hath bent the

stubborn knee."


Now at Yule-tide sat he feasting on the shore

of Drontheim fiord,

And his stalwart swains about him watched

the bidding of their lord.

Huge his strength was, but his visage, it was

mild and fair to see;

Ne'er old Norway, heroes' mother, bore a

mightier son than he.


With her maids sat gentle Swanwhite 'neath a

roof of gleaming shields,

As the rarer lily blossoms 'mid the green herbs

of the fields;

[165]

To and fro their merry words flew lightly

through the torch-lit room,

Like a shuttle deftly skipping through the

mazes of the loom.


And the scalds with nimble fingers o'er the

sounding harp-strings swept;

Now the strain in laughter rippled, now with

hidden woe it wept,

For they sang of Time's beginning, ere the sun

the day brought forth—

Sang as sing the ocean breezes through the

pine-woods of the North.


Bolder beat the breasts of Norsemen—when

amid the tuneful din

Open sprang the heavy hall-doors, and a

stranger entered in.

Tall his growth, though low he bended o'er a

twisted staff of oak,

And his stalwart shape was folded in a dun,

unseemly cloak.


Straight the Earl his voice uplifted: "Hail

to thee, my guest austere!

Drain with me this cup of welcome: thou shalt

share our Yule-tide cheer.

[166]

Thou shalt sit next to my high-seat e'en

though lowly be thy birth,

For to-night our Lord, the Savior, came a

stranger to his earth."


Up then rose the gentle Swanwhite, and her

eyes with fear grew bright;

Down the dusky hall she drifted, as a shadow

drifts by night.

"If my lord would hold me worthy," low she

spake, "then grant me leave

To abide between the stranger and my lord,

this Christmas eve."


"Strange, O guest, is women's counsel, still

their folly is the staff

Upon which our wisdom leaneth," and he

laughed a burly laugh;

Lifted up her lissome body with a husband's

tender pride,

Kissed her brow, and placed her gently in the

high-seat at his side.


But the guest stood pale and quivered, where

the red flames roofward rose,

And he clenched the brimming goblet in his

fingers, fierce and close,

[167]

Then he spake: "All hail, Earl Sigurd,

mightiest of the Norsemen, hail!

Ere I name to thee my tidings, I will taste thy

flesh and ale."


Quoth the merry Earl with fervor: "Courteous

is thy speech and free:

While thy worn soul thou refreshest, I will

sing a song to thee;

For beneath that dusky garment thou mayst

hide a hero's heart,

And my hand, though stiff, hath scarcely yet

unlearned the singer's art."


Then the arms so tightly folded round his neck

the Earl unclasped,

And his heart was stirred within him as the

silvern strings he grasped,

But with eyes of meek entreaty, closely to his

side she clung,

While his mighty soul rose upward on the

billows of the song.


For he sang, in tones impassioned, of the death

of Æsir bright,

Sang the song of Christ the glorious, who was

born a babe to-night,

[168]

How the hosts of heaven victorious joined the

anthem of his birth,

Of the kings the starlight guided from the far

lands of the earth.


And anon, with bodeful glamour fraught, the

hurrying strain sped on,

As he sang the law of vengeance and the wrath

forever gone,

Sang of gods with murder sated, who had laid

the fair earth waste,

Who had whetted swords of Norsemen,

plunged them into Norsemen's breast.


But he shook a shower of music, rippling from

the silver strings,

And bright visions rose of angels and of fair

and shining things

As he sang of heaven's rejoicing at the mild

and bloodless reign

Of the gentle Christ who bringeth peace and

good-will unto men!


But the guest sat dumb and hearkened, staring

at the brimming bowl,

While the lay with mighty wing-beats swept

the darkness of his soul.

[169]


For the Christ who worketh wonders as of old,

so e'en to-day

Sent his angel downward gliding on the ladder

of the lay.


As the host his song had ended with a last

resounding twang,

And within the harp's dumb chambers

murmurous echoes faintly rang,

Up then sprang the guest, and straightway

downward rolled his garment dun—

There stood Harold, the avenger, Burislav's

undaunted son.


High he loomed above the feasters in the

torchlight dim and weird,

From his eyes hot tears were streaming,

sparkling in his tawny beard;

Shining in his sea-blue mantle stood he, 'mid

that wondering throng,

And each maiden thought him fairest, and each

warrior vowed him strong.


Swift he bared his blade of battle, flung it

quivering on the board:

"Lo!" he cried, "I came to bid thee baleful

greeting with my sword;

[170]

Thou hast dulled the edge that never shrank

from battle's fiercest test—

Now I come, as comes a brother, swordless unto

brother's breast.


"With three hundred men I landed in the

gloaming at thy shore—

Dost thou hear their axes clanking on their

shields without thy door?

But a yearning woke within me my sweet sister's

voice to hear,

To behold her face and whisper words of

warning in her ear.


"But I knew not of the new-born king, who

holds the earth in sway,

And whose voice like fragrance blended in the

soarings of thy lay.

This my vengeance now, O brother: foes as

friends shall hands unite;

Teach me, thou, the wondrous tidings, and the

law of Christ the white."


Touched as by an angel's glory, strangely

shone Earl Sigurd's face,

As he locked his foe, his brother, in a brotherly

embrace;

[171]

And each warrior upward leaping, swung his

horn with gold bedight:

"Hail to Sigurd, hail to Harold, three times

hail to Christ the white!"


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