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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Margaret Junkin Preston (1820–1897)

The Mystery of Cro-a-tàn

A.D. 1587

From ‘Colonial Ballads, Sonnets, and Other Verses’

THE HOME-BOUND ships stood out to sea,

And on the island’s marge

Sir Richard waited restlessly

To step into the barge.

“The Governor tarrieth long,” he chode,

“As he were loath to go:

With food before and want behind,

There should be haste, I trow.”

Even as he spake the Governor came:—

“Nay, fret not, for the men

Have held me back with frantic let,

To have them home again.

“The women weep:—‘Ay, ay, the ships

Will come again (he saith)

Before the May;—before the May

We shall have starved to death!’

“I’ve sworn return by God’s dear leave,

I’ve vowed by Court and Crown,

Nor yet appeased them. Comrade, thou,

Mayhap, canst soothe them down.”

Sir Richard loosed his helm, and stretched

Impatient hands abroad:—

“Have ye no trust in man?” he cried,

“Have ye no faith in God?

“Your Governor goes, as needs he must,

To bear through royal grace,

Hither, such food-supply that want

May never blench a face.

“Of freest choice ye willed to leave

Whatso ye had of ease;

For neither stress of liege nor law

Hath forced you over seas.

“Your Governor leaves fair hostages

As costliest pledge of care,—

His daughter yonder, and her child,

The child Virginia Dare.

“Come hither, little sweetheart! So!

Thou’lt be the first, I ween,

To bend the knee, and send through me

Thy birthland’s virgin fealty

Unto its Virgin Queen.

“And now, good folk, for my commands:

If ye are fain to roam

Beyond this island’s narrow bounds,

To seek elsewhere a home,—

“Upon some pine-tree’s smoothen trunk

Score deep the Indian name

Of tribe or village where ye haunt,

That we may read the same.

“And if ye leave your haven here

Through dire distress or loss,

Cut deep within the wood above

The symbol of the cross.

“And now on my good blade, I swear,

And seal it with this sign,

That if the fleet that sails to-day

Return not hither by the May,

The fault shall not be mine!”

The breath of spring was on the sea;

Anon the Governor stepped

His good ship’s deck right merrily,—

His promise had been kept.

“See, see! the coast-line comes in view!”

He heard the mariners shout,—

“We’ll drop our anchors in the Sound

Before a star is out!”

“Now God be praised!” he inly breathed,

“Who saves from all that harms:

The morrow morn my pretty ones

Will rest within my arms.”

At dawn of day they moored their ships,

And dared the breakers’ roar:

What meant it? Not a man was there

To welcome them ashore!

They sprang to find the cabins rude:

The quick green sedge had thrown

Its knotted web o’er every door,

And climbed the chimney-stone.

The spring was choked with winter’s leaves,

And feebly gurgled on;

And from the pathway, strewn with rack,

All trace of feet was gone.

Their fingers thrid the matted grass,

If there, perchance, a mound

Unseen might heave the broken turf;

But not a grave was found.

They beat the tangled cypress swamp,

If haply in despair

They might have strayed into its glade,

But found no vestige there.

“The pine! the pine!” the Governor groaned;

And there each staring man

Read in a maze, one single word,

Deep carven,—CRO-A-TÀN!

But cut above, no cross, no sign,

No symbol of distress;

Naught else beside that mystic line

Within the wilderness!

And where and what was “Cro-a-tàn?”

But not an answer came;

And none of all who read it there

Had ever heard the name.

The Governor drew his jerkin sleeve

Across his misty eyes:

“Some land, may be, of savagery

Beyond the coast that lies;

“And skulking there the wily foe

In ambush may have lain:

God’s mercy! Could such sweetest heads

Lie scalped among the slain?

“O daughter! daughter! with the thought

My harrowed brain is wild!

Up with the anchors! I must find

The mother and the child!”

They scoured the mainland near and far:

The search no tidings brought;

Till ’mid a forest’s dusky tribe

They heard the name they sought.

The kindly natives came with gifts

Of corn and slaughtered deer:

What room for savage treachery

Or foul suspicion here?

Unhindered of a chief or brave,

They searched the wigwam through;

But neither lance nor helm nor spear,

Nor shred of child’s nor woman’s gear,

Could furnish forth a clue.

How could a hundred souls be caught

Straight out of life, nor find

Device through which to mark their fate,

Or leave some hint behind?

Had winter’s ocean inland rolled

An eagre’s deadly spray,

That overwhelmed the island’s breadth,

And swept them all away?

In vain, in vain, their heart-sick search!

No tidings reached them more;

No record save that silent word

Upon that silent shore.

The mystery rests a mystery still,

Unsolved of mortal man:

Sphinx-like untold, the ages hold

The tale of CRO-A-TÀN!