10. A Halt -

by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

In divers ways which vary it,
Stones mention find in hallowed Writ:
Stones rolled from well-mouths, altar stones,
Idols of stone, memorial ones,
Sling-stones, stone tables; Bethel high
Saw Jacob, under starry sky,
On stones his head lay — desert bones;
Stones sealed the sepulchres — huge cones
Heaved there in bulk; death too by stones
The law decreed for crime; in spite
As well, for taunt, or type of ban,
The same at place were cast, or man;
Or piled upon the pits of fight
Reproached or even denounced the slain:
So in the wood of Ephraim, some
Laid the great heap over Absalom.
Convenient too at wilful need,
Stones prompted many a ruffian deed
And ending oft in parting groans:
By stones died Naboth; stoned to death
Was Stephen meek: and Scripture saith,
Against even Christ they took up stones.
Moreover, as a thing profuse,
Suggestive still in every use,
On stones, still stones, the Gospels dwell
In lesson meet or happier parable.
Attesting here the Holy Writ —
In brook, in glen, by tomb and town
In natural way avouching it —
Behold the stones! And never one
A lichen greens; and, turn them o'er —
No worm — no life: but, all the more,
Good witnesses.
The way now led
Where shoals of flints and stones lay dead.
The obstructed horses tripped and stumbled,
The Thessalonian groaned and grumbled.
But Glaucon cried: " Alack the stones!
Or be they pilgrims' broken bones
Wherewith they pave the turnpikes here?
Is this your sort of world, Mynheer?

" Not on your knee — no no, no no;
But sit you so: verily and verily,
Paris, are you true or no?
I 'll look down your eyes and see.

" Helen, look — and look and look;
Look me, Helen, through and through;
Make me out the only rake:
Set down one and carry two." —

" Have done, sir," roared the Elder out;
" Have done with this lewd balladry." —
Amazed the singer turned about;
But when he saw that, past all doubt,
The Scot was in dead earnest, he,
" Oh now, monsieur — monsieur, monsieur!"
Appealing there so winningly —
Conceding, as it were, his age,
Station, and moral gravity,
And right to be morose indeed,
Nor less endeavouring to assuage
At least. But scarce did he succeed.

Rolfe likewise, if in other style,
Here sought that hard road to beguile:
" The stone was man's first missile; yes,
Cain hurled it, or his sullen hand
Therewith made heavy. Cain, confess,
A savage was, although he planned
His altar. Altars such as Cain's
Still find we on far island-chains
Deep mid the woods and hollows dark,
And set off like the shittim Ark
Refrain from trespass; with black frown
Each votary straight takes up his stone —
As once against even me indeed:
I see them now start from their rocks
In malediction"
" Yet concede,
They were but touchy in their creed,"
Said Derwent; " but did you succumb?
These irritable orthodox!" —
Thereat the Elder waxed more glum.

A halt being called now with design
Biscuit to bite and sip the wine,
The student saw the turbaned Druze
A courtesy peculiar use
In act of his accosting Vine,
Tho' but in trifle — as to how
The saddle suited. And before,
In little things, he 'd marked the show
Of like observance. How explore
The cause of this, and understand?
The pilgrims were an equal band:
Why this preferring way toward one?
But Rolfe explained in undertone:
" But few, believe, have nicer eye
For the cast of aristocracy
Than Orientals. Well now, own,
Despite at times a manner shy,
Shows not our countryman in mould
Of a romanced nobility?
His chary speech, his rich still air
Confirm them in conjecture there.
I make slim doubt these people hold
Vine for some lord who fain would go,
For delicate cause, incognito —
What means Sir Crab?" —
In smouldering ire
The Elder, not dismounting, views
The nearer prospect; ill content,
The distance next his glance pursues,
A land of Eblis burned with fire;
Recoils; then, with big eyebrows bent,
Lowers on the comrades — Derwent most,
With luncheon now and flask engrossed;
His bridle turns, adjusts his seat
And holsters where the pistols be,
Nor taking leave like Christian sweet
(Quite mindless of Paul's courtesy),
With dumb indomitable chin
Straight back he aims thro' Adommin,
Alone, nor blandly self-sustained —
Robber and robber-glen disdained
As stiff he went, his humour dark
From Vine provoked a vivid spark —
Derisive comment, part restrained.
He passes. Well, peace with him go.
If truth have painted heart but grim,
None here hard measure meant for him;
Nay, Haytian airs around him blow,
And woo and win to cast behind
The harsher and inclement mind.
But needs narrate what followed now.
" Part from us," Derwent cried, " that way?
I fear we have offended. Nay,
What other cause?" —
" The desert, see:
He and the desert don't agree,"
Said Rolfe; " or rather, let me say
He can't provoke a quarrel here
With blank indifference so drear:
Ever the desert waives dispute,
Cares not to argue, bides but mute.
Besides, no topographic cheer:
Surveyor's tape don't come in play;
The same with which upon a day
He upon all fours soused did roam
Measuring the sub-ducts of Siloam
Late asking him in casual way
Something about the Tomb's old fane,
These words I got: " Sir, I don't know;
But once I dropped in — not again;
'Tis monkish, 'tis a raree-show —
A raree-show. Saints, sites, and stuff.
Had I my will I 'd strip it, strip! "
I knew 'twere vain to try rebuff;
But asked, " Did Paul, embarked in ship
With Castor and Pollux for a sign,
Deem it incumbent there to rip
From stern and prow the name and shrine? "
" Saint Paul, sir, had not zeal enough;
I always thought so " ; and went on:
" Where stands this fane, this Calvary one
Alleged? why, sir, within the site
Of Herod's wall? Can that be right? "
But why detail. Suffice, in few,
Even Zion's hill, he doubts that too;
Nay, Sinai in his dry purview
He 's dubious if, as placed, it meet
Requirements."
" Why then do his feet
Tread Judah? no good end is won,"
Said Derwent.
" Curs need have a bone
To mumble, though but dry nor sweet.
Nay, that 's too harsh and overdone.
'Tis still a vice these carpers brew —
They try us — us set carping too."
" Ah well, quick then in thought we 'll shun him,
And so foreclose all strictures on him.
Howbeit, this confess off-hand:
Amiss is robed in gown and band
A disenchanter. — Friend, the wine!"
The banker passed it without word.
Sad looked he: Why, these fools are stirred
About a nothing! — Plain to see
Such comradeship did ill agree:
Pedants, and poor! nor used to dine
In ease of table-talk benign —
Steeds, pictures, ladies, gold, Tokay,
Gardens and baths, the English news,
Stamboul, the market — gain or lose?
He turned to where young Glaucon lay,
Who now to startled speech was won:
" Look, is he crazy? see him there!"
The saint it was with busy care
Flinging aside stone after stone,
Yet feebly, nathless, as he wrought
In charge imposed though not unloved;
While every stone that he removed
Laid bare but more. The student sighed,
So well he kenned his ways distraught
At influx of his eldritch tide.
But Derwent, hastening to the spot,
Exclaimed, " How now? surely 'tis not
To mend the way?"
With patient look,
Poising a stone as 'twere a clod:
" All things are possible with God;
The humblest helper will He brook."
Derwent stood dumb; but quick in heart
Conjecturing how it was, addressed
Some friendly words, and slid apart;
And, yet while by that scene impressed,
Came, as it chanced, where unbecalmed
Mortmain aloof sat all disarmed —
Legs lengthwise crossed, head hanging low,
The skull-cap pulled upon the brow,
Hands groping toward the knees: " Then where?
A Thug, the swordfish roams the sea —
The falcon 's pirate in the air;
Betwixt the twain, where shalt thou flee,
Poor flying-fish? whither repair?
What other element for thee?
Whales, mighty whales have felt the wound —
Plunged bleeding thro' the blue profound;
But where their fangs the sand-sharks keep
Be shallows worse than any deep." —
Hardly that chimed with Derwent's bell:
Him too he left.
When it befell
That new they started on their way;
To turn the current or allay,
He talked with Clarel, and first knew
Nehemiah's conceit about the Jew:
The ways prepared, the tilth restored
For the second coming of Our Lord.
Rolfe overheard: " And shall we say
That this is craze? or but, in brief,
Simplicity of plain belief?
The early Christians, how did they?
For His return looked any day."

From dwelling on Rolfe's thought, ere long
On Rolfe himself the student broods:
Surely I would not think a wrong;
Nor less I 've shrunk from him in moods.
A bluntness is about him set:
Truth's is it? But he winneth yet
Through taking qualities which join.
Make these the character? the rest
But rim? On Syracusan coin
The barbarous letters shall invest
The relievo's infinite of charm. —
I know not. Does he help, or harm?





Last updated January 14, 2019