Alexander Pushkin

Ruslan and Ludmila: Part II

A grassy helm – yet not unmanned, an old skull mouldering there inside

‘A grassy helm – yet not unmanned, an old skull mouldering there inside’
Ivan Bilibin (Russian, 1876 - 1942)

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2021 All Rights Reserved

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Canto II: The Sorcerer

YOU, rivals in destruction’s story,

Among yourselves know naught of peace,

Pay tribute to a sombre glory,

And revel in your foe’s decease!

Let all folk turn to ice before you,

By gazing on your dreadful feast,

For none will heave a sigh for you,

Nor folk regret you in the least.

And you, the knights of Parnassus,

Bring not scorn on your profession,

With all your quarrels, all your fuss;

Swear away, but with discretion,

Bold foes, but of a different kind.

Rivals in love, you too, remain

At ease together, should you find

You can so do! Fair peace, maintain.

Trust me, my friends; whom fate may deign

To grant a girl’s heart as his prize,

Should smile, amidst a world of pain:

He’s foolish, sinful, otherwise.

Now Rogdai the Bold, in torment,

Chilled by an ill presentiment,

Who, into the wastes, had ridden,

Far from the other three, intent

On solitary thought, went, hidden

Amid the woods, in discontent.

The Evil Spirit gave him pain,

Brought dark confusion to his soul,

He muttered, ever and again:

‘To slay, despite all, is my goal!...

Ruslan! Beware, for you shall die…

Your bride will shed a bitter tear…’

Then, suddenly, he gave a cry,

And back upon his tracks did steer.

All this while Farlaf the valiant

Had spent his time deep in pleasant

Slumber, that whole morn till noon;

Then, by a stream, sat in the shade,

To calm his spirit, and in tune,

With silence, dined there in the glade.

Suddenly he saw a rider,

Towards the spot the horseman made,

And Farlaf a moment later

Leaping to the saddle swiftly

Abandoning his meal, his spear,

His helm, his chain-mail, all his gear,

Fled without a glance, abruptly.

‘Halt, you coward!’ the unknown knight,

Cried out to Farlaf, now in flight,

‘Come, your fine head I’ll sever, sir!

Let me but meet with you, you cur!’

Farlaf who’d recognised the voice

Of his bold rival Rogdai, fled

All the faster, such was his choice,

Fearing the man would strike him dead.

So, will the hare run, in its haste,

Laying its ears back in the chase,

Over the fields, in leaps and bounds,

Flying in terror from the hounds.

Where this fell pursuit now passed

The winter snows, melted at last,

Had caused a muddy stream to flow,

That gnawed at the earth’s depths below.

Farlaf’s steed rushed at the torrent,

With flying tail and mane, intent

On leaping the moat before it,

Biting down harder on the bit:

But its timid rider now fell,

Head over heels, into the mud,

Unable sky from earth to tell,

Ready to die there in the flood.

Rogdai flew towards the ravine;

His cruel blade in his fell hand.

‘Die, coward! Die!’… And then his keen

Blade he stayed for, you understand,

He saw it was Farlaf there; anger,

Amazement, and sheer vexation,

Showed in his face; thereafter,

Grinding his teeth, in frustration,

He hastened swiftly from the place,

Fuming, his head now lowered… though

Barely able to hide a trace

Of laughter at himself, also.

As, on a mountain track, he rode,

An old woman, beside the way,

Humpbacked, her hair completely grey,

With her staff showed him the road,

Pointing northwards: ‘You’ll find him there!’

Rogdai, feeling elation flare,

Flew on, his speed unabated,

To where certain death awaited.

And our Farlaf? In the ditch he lay,

Not daring to breathe, wondering

If he was dead, or still living,

Hoping his rival was far away.

The old woman’s voice, suddenly,

Rang out above him: ‘Come,’ said she,

‘Stand up, well done, all’s quiet now,

You’ll meet no other foe, I vow.

A steed I’ve brought for you to ride;

On your feet; hear what I confide.’

The knight, embarrassed I’ll allow,

Now crawled from out the muddy moat.

He looked around, and sighed: ‘At least

No bones, are broken!’ as the yeast

Of life returned; and cleared his throat.

‘Believe me!’ the old woman said,

Ludmila will prove hard to find,

She’s far away, as good as dead;

You’ll not attain her, to my mind.

It’s dangerous to roam the earth,

Nor will it bring you happiness,

So, follow my advice, seek mirth

And comfort back at home; success

Would be to live near Kiev quietly,

Free, there, from all anxiety;

Toward your native village wend.

Ludmila won’t escape us, friend!

With this the crone vanished, swiftly.

Impatient to be gone, our hero

Now chose upon his way to go.

Forgetting the princess, and glory,

He headed home; though you may know

Deep among the oak woods every

Slightest sound, a bird in flight,

A tinkling stream, gave him a fright.

Meanwhile Ruslan rides far afield;

The forest wilds, the empty places,

But one habitual thought they yield,

Of Ludmila, her sweet embraces.

He murmurs ‘Will I find you, true

Bride of my soul? Oh, where are you?

To view your gaze, so bright and clear;

And, your sweet conversation, hear?

Were you destined for this sorcerer?

For his foul prison, dark and cold,

Your bloom lost, as his prisoner,

A mournful virgin, faded, old?

Or shall some bold rival of mine,

Succeed? …. Why no, you are too fine:

My head is on my shoulders still,

My faithful sword yet serves my will.’

One evening, Ruslan was riding

Along a steep and rugged shore,

The waters, below him, gleaming,

As if at peace for evermore.

When, suddenly, an arrow whirred

Above his head; close by, he heard

The clang of chain-mail, and the pound

Of horse’s hooves across the ground,

‘Halt! Halt’ There came a thunderous shout.

He turned then, as the cry rang out.

A fierce rider, shrilly whistling,

Over the open field there flew,

With his lance raised high; and, bristling,

Ruslan turned, to meet him. Nearing,

The other cried: ‘Friend, I’ll slay you;

Come, my sharp blade you shall meet;

Look for your bride beneath my feet.’

His anger saw Ruslan redden,

He’d recognised that strident voice…

But my friends…What of our maiden?

To leave the knights must be our choice,

For a while; we’ll find them later.

For, surely, it’s high time we sought

The fair princess, and gave a thought,

To Chernomor, the sorcerer.

A confidante of errant fancy,

Immodest too, occasionally,

I’ve told how that gentle beauty,

Ludmila, vanished so swiftly,

Snatched away from poor Ruslan,

Amidst the fog on either hand.

Unhappy bride! When newly-wed,

Torn thus from out the marriage bed.

That villain soared with you on high,

Fled in a whirlwind through the air,

Through clouds of smoke, the gloomy sky,

Sped with you to his mountain lair.

There, you found yourself, now voiceless,

Your senses lost, your memory,

Trembling, immured in misery,

In that sorcerer’s dread fortress.

So, in high summer, frequently,

From my threshold, I would see

The rooster, the henhouse sultan,

Chase some fearful mate. He ran

Through the yard, in his passion,  

With his wings embraced the hen,

While on high, in ruthless fashion,

The grey kite circled slyly; then

That ancient thief of the poultry,

Would fall like sudden lightning,

All the yard’s inmates frightening,

And swoop on them, disastrously.

To the heavens the villain soars,

Grasping the prey in savage claws,

Bearing it to some dark crevasse.

In vain the rooster sees them pass,

He whom fear and sorrow freeze;

The bird cries out to his mistress;

Only a few feathers, weightless,

Drift downwards, slowly, on the breeze.

Until the morn, the young princess

Lay lost in deep oblivion,

As by some dreadful nightmare stunned,

Until, at last, from sleep’s excess

She woke, but not to see the sun,

Possessed by fear and restlessness,

Her spirit seeking for someone

Most dear, now that the night is done.

‘Where are you, love?’ she softly cries,

Calls louder, but her question dies,

About the room she casts her eyes:

‘Ludmila, whose is this chamber?’

Amidst the pillows set about her,

She lies beneath the downy covers,

A canopy high overhead;

Fine curtains veil the feather bed,

Tasselled, woven in rich colours;

Bright brocades are everywhere,

And precious gems, winking, blazing;

Fragrant perfumes fill the air,

That golden censers are raising.

Enough…I need not tell you more;

Scheherazade, long before,

Has forestalled me, in describing

A house of magic; though, I’m sure,

However fair the house we sing,

Without true love, naught’s in the thing.

Three maidens of wondrous beauty,

In garments both fine and lovely,

Now glided in, with scarce a sound,

And all bowed deeply to the ground.

One maid came closer, silently,

Then, with ethereal fingers,

Plaited the princess’ braids, for she

Knew that fair art which yet lingers.

A diadem of pearls she set

Upon that brow, pallid as yet.

A second maid approached and hers

Was a face blowed low, in modesty;

Now she clothed Ludmila, swiftly,

In an azure silk gown that fell

Over her slender form; as well

As a veil, fair and fine as mist,

That the shoulders barely kissed,

Crowning the gold hair of that belle;

Envious the soft veil that kisses

Charms worthy of heaven above;

Then shod her feet, the princess’s,

In dainty shoes all might approve.

The third maid brings the princess

A sash encrusted o’er with pearls,

The while a singer for the guest

Many a pleasant song unfurls.

But neither her bright jewellery,

Her gown, nor the pearls about her,

Nor those songs of sweet flattery

Can raise her spirits, or amuse her;

To view her beauty, and attire,

In vain, the mirror draws her eye;

Her fixed gaze, with ne’er a sigh,

To silent longing does aspire.

Those, to whom the truth is dear,

That read the secrets of the heart,

Are – when a maid neglects to peer

Into her glass, sits sad, apart,

Not even glancing, on occasion,

In spite of habit, and of reason,

At her own image – soon agreed,

Her sorrow must be great indeed.

Now Ludmila, alone once more,

Uncertain what to do, I’m sure,

Wandered to a trellised window,

Gazing down at the scene below,

On empty fields, and clouds anew,

Where all seemed dead, and snow lay deep,

And softly carpeting the view,

Clothing every mountain steep

Above white silent plains, the sombre

Land wrapped in eternal slumber.

No smoke trail from a chimney there,

No snow-bound traveller to be seen,

None blew a sounding horn, to share

Their joy with all that barren scene.

Only, with a low dull whistling,

A fierce blast of wind, went whirling,

Making the cold bare forest sway,

Etched, far, against the sky’s chill grey.

With tears of despair, Ludmila

Covers all her face in horror.

Ah! What awaits her, heaven knows!

Now, through a silver door she goes,

Sweet music sounding as she enters,

She finds herself among the splendours,

Of gardens, bounded, captivating,

Finer than those owned by Armida,

Those Solomon had in his keeping,

Or our great Prince of Taurida.

Before her, they sway and rustle,

Magnificent in all their beauty,

Palm trees, laurels moving gently,

And a row of fragrant myrtle,

Proud crowns of cedars, tall and fine,

And golden orange trees in line,

Reflected where the waters shine;

The hills, the groves, the forest pine,

Revivified by spring’s new wine.

The winds of May blow cool and fresh,

Across the bright enchanted vale,

As in the branches’ trembling mesh,

There sings a Chinese nightingale;

And diamantine fountains play,

With pleasing sounds amid the grass,  

Rare statues glistening in the spray,

As if they breathe; were Phidias,

Graced by Pallas and Apollo,

To gaze upon them it must follow

His chisel would fall from his hand,

Consumed with envy he would stand.

Hemmed in by marble barriers,

Pure waterfalls descend as planned,

In pearly arcs, like crystal tears,

While some sweet plashing stream appears,

From forest shade, to soothe the land.

Shelters of peace and coolness, fair,

The brave pavilions flicker brightly,

Through the green leaves, here and there,

As blossoms fall on pathways lightly.

Yet, inconsolably, Ludmila,

Walks on and on, sees not a thing,

This conjured luxury glides by her,

She’s saddened now by everything,

Wandering the paths unknowing,

About the magic gardens going,

Such bitter tears weeping freely,  

On unforgiving skies now gazing,

With gloomy eyes. Then, suddenly,

Her gaze grows sharper; less forlorn,

To her lips she brings a finger;

It seems a dread intent is born,

The fatal path lies open to her:

Between two cliffs, both tall and sheer,

There hangs a bridge, tis set on high;

With heavy sadness she draws near;

She views the torrent flowing by,

The sounding water, cold and deep;

She sobs aloud, she beats her breast,

For death alone might bring her rest,

And yet she shrinks back from the steep,

And wanders on, her thoughts oppressed.

Soon, my beautiful Ludmila,

Longing to rest her weary feet,

Dries her tears, and looks about her,

Her heartfelt thought, a wish: to eat!

She sits upon the grass beneath her,

And suddenly, above her seat,

A canopy’s rustling shelter

Spreads a coolness and, in a trice,

Before her is a sumptuous dinner,

The gleam of crystal; some device

Brings a harp’s tones to her arbour;

The captive princess wonders greatly,

Yet all the while thinks, secretly,

‘Far from my love, a prisoner I,

Why not escape this fate, and die?

Villain, whose disastrous passion

Serves to torment, yet seeks to please,

I fear not your power, your mission;

Ludmila’s suffering she may ease!

I need no tent, no wondrous feat,

No tedious music, wine nor meat –

I shall not dine; naught shall I hear,

I’ll die, at once, without a tear!’

She thought – and then began to eat.  

The princess rose and, in a trice,

The tent, and every strange device…

Was gone; she heard the harping cease,

And, as before, all was at peace.

Ludmila, now alone once more,

Wandered on from grove to grove,

While floating in the deep azure,

The moon, the queen of night, did rove,

Below her, mist the hills did keep

The far slopes quietly covering.

The princess was inclined to sleep,

And some sudden power, arising,

Gentler than a breeze in spring,

Raised her tenderly in the air,

And to the palace then did bring

Her, laying her on her bed there.

Midst the scent of evening roses,

On that sad couch she reposes.

The three fair maids appear once more,

And fuss around her as before,

Undressing her, with movements sure.

And yet they leave a faint impression

Of a quiet reproach to fate,

That might some true heart agitate,

That’s filled with secret compassion.

But let us hasten on; the princess

Is tended to with gentle care,

Delightful in her sweet undress,

Robed in a snow-white silk affair,

She lies down, to rest her there.

Then with a sigh the maidens bow,

Wishing to leave the princess now;

Thus, they quietly close the door,

What does our captive? As before!

She trembles like a leaf, in fear;

Dares not breathe, lest ghouls appear;

Her limbs grow cold, and dim her eyes,

Sleep flies at once beyond her sight,

Yet, straining, with her gaze she tries

To pierce the darkness of the night…

She hears her heart fluttering quite…

And hesitates…the silence murmurs,

A sound of footsteps approaching,

She hides her face beneath the covers –

And instantly – what fear encroaching! –

A flare of light illuminates

The gloom with its sudden brightness,

The door flies open, there she waits;

The sound of marching feet abates;

Proud, silent Moors then, in a line,

With glittering sabres, pair by pair,

Enter decorously; they bear

A long grey beard upon the fine

Pillows that they hold; while, proudly,

A hump-backed dwarf enters, gravely,

To whom the beard’s attached; a tall

Cap clothes his head, and covers all

His shaven pate in house and hall.

The fellow now draws near the bed,

And, as he does so, lowers his head.

With this, the princess leaps at him,

Snatches the hat as he draws near,

Catches it, falling, by the rim,

And, as she does so, shrieks with fear,

Raising her hand close to his ear,

While, stunned, the Moors stir not a limb.

The dwarf he writhed, her cries to hear,

The princess turned even paler;

He raised both his hands to cover

His two ears, and turned to run,

But fell, entangled in his beard,

Rose, and then fell again; not one

Of the Moors in his wits appeared,

But running to him, where he sat,

Each gripped the sorcerer by the arm,

And, failing to retrieve the hat,

Bore him off, to seek peace and calm.

But what of our knight; our hero?

Do you, dear friends, recall the fight?

Quick, dear Orlovsky, go borrow

A pencil, sketch their duel by night!

Neath the moon’s shimmering glow,

The two fight fiercely, I may say,

Hearts full of anger, blow on blow,

Their lances now hurled far away;

Their swords are splintered from the fray;

With blood their chain-mail is spattered

Both their shields are pierced and shattered….

The brave knights grapple, by and by,

Black dust thrown high into the sky,

As their steeds themselves engage,

The combatants, twined, motionless,

Clasp each other; tis war they wage,

Yet glued to their saddles, no less,

Their limbs squeezed near to excess.

Rigid now, locked tight together,

Swift fiery blood runs through each vein,

Yet breast to breast, they toil in vain…

But both weaken now, and waver,

One soon must fall – and, suddenly,

With iron hand, our knight, tears free,

Ousts from the saddle his tired foe,

In his arms he lifts him, wholly,

And hurls him to the waves below,

‘Die then, my envious rival, go,

Drown deep!’ he cries maliciously.

You dear reader, recalled aright,

The foe brave Ruslan sought to conquer;

Twas Rogdai, eager for the fight,

The hope of Kiev, fierce admirer

Of Ludmila; that valiant knight,

Following Ruslan’s tracks before,

Had found him by the Dnieper’s shore;

Overtook him, yet his strength,

In the fight, had waned at length,

Deserted him, and midst the wave

He met his end, though bold and brave.

A beguiling mermaid grasped him;

To her chilly breast she clasped him,

While, greedily, she kissed the knight;

Downwards, laughingly, she drew him,

Then, gripping him, sank out of sight.

Yet, often, in the night, thereafter,

His vast ghost, wandering inland,

Or silent, rising from the water,

Appalled some lonely fisherman.

Canto III: The Sword

MY verse, you’ve sought still to abide

Midst shadow, for my friends’ delight!

And yet, it seems, you could not hide

Your peaceful lines from envy’s sight.

A pallid critic has already

Asked why, as if to mock Ruslan,

I have called his lovely lady

A ‘maiden’ and a ‘princess’; surely

There is but malice in the man?

My kind readers, mark, tis true,

There’s envy in the fellow’s eye!

Come Zoilus, Homer’s critic, you,

Come, tell me what I should reply?

Blush, wretch; may God defend your wit!

Blush, for I’d seek not to quarrel;

Content with being right in spirit,

I’ll stay silent, meek, and humble.

You’ll understand me Clymene,

Lowering now your languid gaze,

Dull Hymen’s victim; yes, I see…

A secret tear, you’ll shed always,

Upon my verse, the heart may know;

You blush now, and your eyes grow dim;

A muted sigh, yet even so

Well understood! Fear life and limb,

Oh, Jealous One, for with Anger

A wilful Cupid shall conspire,

And Revenge’s hour brings closer

The crown to which such heads aspire.

A cold dawn’s light already shone

On the tall mountain peaks around

Yet in that wondrous palace none

Was moving; there was not a sound.

Hiding his chagrin, Chernomor,

Hatless, and angered to the core,

Sat, in his robe, upon the bed,

His servants crowding round, all there

Busied about his beard and head,

Combing the tangles from his hair.

While, for the benefit and beauty

Of his long whiskers, their duty

Was to ensure pure balm’s outflow

Scented the curls they were tending,

When, in a trice, there came flying

A winged serpent, through the window;

Its iron scales rattling loudly,

The serpent shook and closed its wings,

Before their eyes, it coiled in rings;

And there stood Naina; swiftly,

‘Greetings!’ she cried, ‘dear brother,

One long held in honour by me,

Ere now Chernomor by rumour

Alone I knew, yet covertly

Fate has sent us a common foe,

And we are joined in enmity;

There’s threat of danger to follow,

Its cloud hangs over you, I see;

While the call of slighted honour

To vengeance, now summons me.’

The dwarf, full of cunning, he

Gave her his hand, unctuously:

‘All-seeing, wondrous, Naina!

Most precious is our alliance,

We will shame the Finn, together;

I fear not his dark connivance.

Know then my beard’s wondrous power:

It gracefully adorns my face,

And while its beauty is in place,

Then, not even for an hour,

Despite his hostile sword, shall man,

The merest mortal, here, impair

Aught of mine, not my least plan;

For she’s mine, Ludmila the Fair,

And to the grave he’s doomed, Ruslan!’

‘He’s doomed, he’s doomed,’ spitefully,

The witch repeated, dark her gaze,

‘Weak is our every enemy,

And fated to defeat always!

Then she hissed, with hisses three,

Thrice she stamped and, black wings raised,

Once more a serpent, fled swiftly.

In a glistening robe of brocade,

The dwarf, cheered by the sorceress,

Thought a journey he should make,

His whiskers too, to his fair maid;

To her fair chamber he would take,

Straight to the feet of the princess,

His humble love, his beard’s excess.

Room to room he passes through,

No princess offered to his view,

Into the park, far, he wanders,

Past laurels, trellises, meanders,

The lake, gazebo, waterfall!

Is there a trace of her – why no!

Who could express the taste of gall,

The passion raging in him so?

So, angered he could barely see.

The dwarf cries out: ‘Hasten, swiftly,

You servants, all my hope’s in you!

Go seek Ludmila, do you hear!

Find the maid now, and see you do!

You’ll rue the day if she’s not here!

Don’t toy with me; come to my call –

Or with my beard I’ll choke you all!’

Now, Reader, I shall speak, once more,

Of our fair princess; all that night,

Pondering her fate, tears she bore,

Yet smiling at the dwarf’s sad plight.

Though fearful of that strange figure,

The dwarf now seemed ridiculous,

A clown of sorts; and fear can never

Survive true laughter long in us.

When the sun’s bold rays reached her,

She left her bed; unconsciously,

Glancing at the tall bright mirrors,

Lifting from her pure white shoulders

Those golden curls, unwittingly.

Her hair’s unconscionably matted,

Her garments are all scattered round;

Carelessly, her braids were plaited,

In one corner her robe she found,

And, sighing, plucked it from the ground,

Then dressed, yet still she kept an eye

On the mirrors, though tearfully;

And a whim seized her, by and by;

She’d try his hat on, just to see;

All’s silent, none can see her there,

And none’s concerned in the matter…

At seventeen, with golden hair,

No hat exists that will not flatter!

Adornment is no idle thing!

She twirls the hat, tis straight, askew,

All on one side, and thus, playing,

Quite back to front she sets it, too.

And so? A wonder of days past!

Her bright reflection disappeared.

She turned it round, the spell it cast

Had ceased, Ludmila re-appeared;

Replaced the hat – no image there;

Removed it, there she stood, again!

‘Good, I’m safe from you! I dare

The vilest dwarf to give me pain.

All my troubles shall be banished!

And flushed with joy, as before,

She set the sorcerer’s hat once more,

Backwards on her head, and vanished!

Let us return, if rather late,

To our brave hero; shame on us,

For leaving Ruslan to his fate,

While hats and beards surrounded us!

For, after conquering, Rogdai, he

Rides through a forest, dark and deep,

Until he comes to a broad valley,

Beneath the sky, where dead men sleep.

He trembles then, against his will,

Scattered bones lie yellowing still.

The ancient battlefield, stripped bare,

Stretches to barren distance there.

A sword clasped in a bony hand,

Arrows, armour, lie unconcealed,

Dull harness, and a rusted shield,

A grassy helm – yet not unmanned,

An old skull mouldering there inside;

Here some hero’s skeleton, whole,

Beside his steed, on his last ride,

Spears, lances, unattained their goal,

Their points now buried in the ground,

With tangled ivy wrapped about…

The waste gives birth to ne’er a sound,

Unheard now is the warrior’s shout,

While the dark vale of death is crowned

By that high sun that lights the rout.

The knight he gazed about, sad-eyed:

‘O vale, what field of war were you?’

Now, sighing to the wastes, he cried:

‘Your victims scattered o’er the view?

By whose swift stallions trampled down,

In that last, savage, blood-stained hour?

Who, dying here, gained true renown?

Whose final prayer won Heaven’s dower?

Why overgrown? And doomed to fight

With the grasses of oblivion? …

Perhaps, in Time’s eternal night,

I, too, shall win not salvation!

Perhaps on some silent hill I’ll lie,

There they’ll inter the brave Ruslan,

Unpraised, unsung by our Bayan,

No longer granted word, or sigh!’

Yet swiftly he composed his thought,

Knowing a hero needs a sword,

And armour, and both these he sought,

Deprived of both by past discord.

He slowly walked about the field,

Amidst the piles of mouldering bone,

Seeking a sword, a helm, a shield,

And armour for himself alone.

He woke the mute plain, frequently,

With many a clank and ringing sound,

He chose a shield quite randomly;

A helm and sonorous horn he found,

But yet he lacked the blade he sought.

Many a sword, but all too short,

He saw abandoned on the ground,

Yet none that he might take away,

Naught that would suit of all he saw,

For he was a prince of days of yore,

And not some frail knight of our day;

So, a lance he grasped, in his hand,

Good steel it was, you understand,

To stave off boredom, all in play,

And then went swiftly on his way.

The glow of sunset slowly pales,

Above the fields that sleeping lie;

From mist that all the heaven veils,

A golden moon ascends the sky;

The steppe grows dim, Ruslan rides by,

Upon a darkening path, and sees,

Ahead, a black mound, if you please;

A snoring sound his ears assails,

Piercing the mist, most dreadfully.

Slowly he nears the thing he’s found:

It seems to breathe, this wondrous mound;

Ruslan rides closer, fearlessly,

Listening, gazing, as he draws near,

But now his horse balks, pricks an ear,

Not a single step more, clearly,

Will it take, for it shakes its head,

Stubbornly, its mane is bristling.

And suddenly, the moon, unclouded,

From the mist, palely issuing,

Illuminates the mound, revealing –

A sight of wonder, and of dread.

What form of words might realise

The living Head before his eyes?

The vast brow is relaxed in sleep,

Each snore that rises from the deep

Shakes the feathers on the helmet,

Sets them fluttering in the darkness.

It towers there in the gloom and yet,

With dreadful beauty, as the nameless

Guardian of the silent wasteland,

There amidst the boundless plain,

Appearing to the brave Ruslan,

Formidable; he stirs again,  

Perplexed he would arouse the thing,

Wake this object from its dreaming.

Inspecting the Head more closely,

Around its bulk he takes a ride,

Before its nose, halts silently,

And prods at that great nose, inside,

With his lance, till, grimacing,

The Head yawns, its eyes opening,

And sneezes at this sharp tickling…

A whirlwind rose, the plain shook too;

From whiskers and eyelashes flew

A parliament of owls; the sneeze

Echoed midst groves of silent trees;

The horse it neighed and sprang away,

Ruslan could scarce make it obey;

A voice cried, loudly, at the sight:

‘Where goes thou, O foolish knight?

Back, for I jest not, back you go!

Such impudent clowns, I swallow!’

Ruslan looked round, contemptuously,

While reining in his horse once more.

‘What is it that you want of me?’

The Head cried, loudly, as before,

‘Fate, is it, sent you as my guest –

Well go, it’s night, I wish to rest!

Be off with you, begone, I say!

Farewell, goodbye, be on your way!’

But faced with rudeness, our brave knight,

Exclaimed in anger, now, instead

Of fleeing, bristling for a fight:

‘Silence now, you, empty head!’

All that is said, is proved again:

A great skull hides a tiny brain!

I ride my road, no grudge I bear,

Yet when I strike, none do I spare!’

Then, dumbfounded, filled with ire,

Constrained, its eyes alight with fire,

The swollen Head, alive with malice,

Its dry and pallid lips trembling,

Sent vapour from its mouth, at this,

And from its ears, hotly rising –

It suddenly began to blow

That burning steam towards the knight;

His steed, its eyes dim, bowing low

Its head, chest straining, at the sight,  

Tried, in vain, the path to follow,

Through the gloomy, rain-filled night;

Fearful and near-blinded, suffering,

It turned, and well-nigh staggering,

Into the peaceful waste, took flight.

Ruslan wished to return once more –

But saw no hope, the prospect grim;

The Head’s voice followed after him,

And thundering madly, gave a roar:

‘O knight, O hero where go you?

Stop, stop, sir knight, come, turn anew!

You’ll only break your neck for naught;

Rider, fear nothing; favour me

With a blow, from that lance you’ve brought;

You’ll kill your steed, most certainly.’

And of its tongue the Head made free,

Taunting our hero, till it brought

Tears of hot anger, all unsought,

To Ruslan’s eyes, and, silently,

Our knight replied, cold steel he flung,

Transfixing that insolent tongue,

With his quivering lance; then blood

Ran from the frenzied mouth, the flow

At once a river in full flood;

And with the pain, surprise and woe,

In a trice, its impudence spent,

Gnawing the steel, and turning pale,

It turned to him, its gaze intent.

Just so, some actor’s voice will fail,

Some lesser scion of the Muse,

Who, deafened by the crowd’s abuse,

No longer sees aught before him,

Turns pale, forgets the part he read,

Forsakes thus the role assigned him,

Trembles and then bows his head,

Stammers, cogent speech denied him,

While the audience strikes him dead.

Now, like a hawk, our hero flies,

Seeing where the advantage lies,

Towards the Head all confounded.

Then on the cheek with heavy hand,

Encased in steel, a blow doth land.

The very plain itself resounded;

A bloody foam now stained the grass,

And painted red the dewy ground,

While, reeling from the blow, the mass

Swayed and toppled, rolled around,

Helm clanging, o’er the earth did pass,

Leaving an empty space behind.

Not empty! For a hero’s blade

Brave Ruslan in its place did find.

Elated, one swift move he made,

Seized the sword, and ran with speed

Intent upon that bloody deed,

Across the stretch of blood-stained ground,

To lop away the nose and ears;

Ready to smite, quenched now his fears,

The sword he lifts, fresh strength he’s found –

When suddenly, he hears, amazed,

A groan, a plea, his arm still raised…

And quietly he lowers the blade,

His anger gone; the blow unmade.

Desire for vengeance dies away,

His soul is softened by that plea,

So, ice and snow will melt by day,

Struck by the noon rays, rapidly.

‘Hero, you’ve made me see the light’ –

The Head now offered, with a sigh –

Your blow has shamed me so, sir knight,

Indeed, my guilt I can’t deny;

From this time on I’ll obey you,

But, sir knight, prove generous!

I was a knight, and valiant too,

And yet my fate’s inglorious!

In bloody battle with the foe,

No man could ever equal me;

Happy was I, and were still so,

If not for my brother’s rivalry!

Oh, evil, hunch-backed Chernomor,

For all my woe you are to blame!

Malformed, bearded, running sore,

A blot upon the family name!

My handsome form, from my first youth,

He could not view without dismay,

And so, within his soul, in truth,

He hated me, both night and day.

For I was ever tall and straight,

While he, a wretch of little height,

The younger, was so made by fate,

A cunning demon, filled with spite.

Moreover, know, to my distress,

His beard a magic does possess

A fatal power that lurks therein,

He scorns the world, for there, within

That beard, as long as it’s unharmed,

Lies his defence – his life is charmed.

One morning, with a friendly air,

Slyly, he said: ‘Your help I need,

And on a most crucial affair.’ –

One can’t refuse such pleas, indeed:

‘In a book of magic,’ so he said,

‘On a far, silent seashore, there

Beyond the eastern peaks, I’ve read,

A mute stone vault has in its care

A charmed sword, a sword to fear!

A blade that’s fated, it seems clear,

To someday harm the two of us –

To trim my beard, and take your head,

So that dark text claimed as I read:

We must gather that sword to us,

Before some evil spirit claims it,

Judge for yourself in the matter!’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘tis as you see fit,

How hard can that be, my brother?

To the world’s end, I’ll dare to go.’

I lifted a pine tree on my shoulder,

And my brother on the other, so

That he his wise advice might offer;

Then off we set, upon our journey;

At first, to spite all prophecy,

Thank God we met with no distress,

No trouble marred our happiness.

Beyond the far-off mountain range,

We found that silent cave of stone;

I entered in, though all seemed strange,

And took the sword there, for our own.

Fate wished it not, I must suppose:

Since a fierce quarrel soon arose –

Of little substance, I’m afraid!

The question: who should bear the blade?

I reasoned, while my brother raged,

We argued, until, finally –

A clever ruse – he quietly,

Gazed at me, and seemed assuaged.

‘We’ll dispute in vain no more –

Tis foolishness,’ cried Chernomor:

‘Our kinship we’ll thus dishonour,

Reason decrees we cease debate;

Whether tis this one or the other

Bears the sword, we’ll leave to fate.

‘Let each place an ear to the ground,’

(Such tricks, has malice ever found!)

‘And let him bear the sword forever,

Who first shall hear a ringing sound.’

Then to the earth dropped my brother.

I also lay down, foolishly;

Though hearing naught, I thought to lie,

And so, deceive him, and yet I

It was who was deceived, you see!

Without a sound the villain rose,

Behind my back, and on tiptoes,

He came behind me, swung the blade;

The sharp sword whistled in the air,

I scarcely heard the noise it made,

Ere of my head my neck was bare –

Though, by some supernatural power,

That head lives on, to this sad hour.

The briars clothe my skeleton,

In that far place, a land forgot;

He left my body there to rot,

This head he carried here, anon;

To guard the sword was then my lot,

Alone, in this deserted place,

And yet, by some eternal grace,

You win the blade, sir knight, this day;

Take it, God be with you alway!

If you should meet the dwarf, sir knight,

Athwart your path, that sorcerer,

Then upon him slake my anger,

Slay that serpent, at first sight!

And, so revenged, I’ll, finally,

Depart this world without a sigh –

And, in my gratitude, will I

Forgive the blow you gifted me.’

The End of Part II of ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’