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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Holland: Vols. XIV–XV. 1876–79.

Holland: Stavoren

The Lady Riberta’s Harvest

By Margaret J. Preston (1820–1897)

IN the days of eld there was wont to be,

On the jagged coast of the Zuyder-Zee,

A city from whence broad galleons went

To distant island and continent,

To lands that under the tropics lay,

Ind and the fabled far Cathay,

To gather from earth and sea and air

All that was beautiful, rich, and rare.

And back they voyaged so laden full

With fairy fabrics from old Stamboul,

With pungent woods that breathed out balms,

With broidered stuffs from the realm of palms,

With shawls from the marts of Ispahan,

With marvellous lacquers from strange Japan,

That through this traffic on many a sea

So grand did its merchants grow to be,

That even Venetian lords became

Half covetous of the city’s fame.

The Lady Riberta’s fleet was great,

And year by year it had brought such store

Of treasures, until in her queenly state

There scarcely sufficed her room for more.

Her feasts—no prince in the realms around

Had service so rich or food so fine,

As daily her carven tables crowned;

And proud she was of her luscious cates,

And her rare conserves, and her priceless wine,

And her golden salvers and golden plates:

For all that the sea or shore could bring

Was hers for the fairest furnishing.

It fell one day, that a stranger came

In garb of an Eastern sage arrayed,

Commended by one of noble name:

He had traversed many a clime, he said,

And, whithersoever he went, had heard

Of the Lady Riberta’s state, that so

In his heart a secret yearning stirred

To find if the tale were true or no.

At once the Lady Riberta’s pride

Upsprang, and into her lordly hall

She led the stranger, and at her side

She bade him be seated in sight of all.

Silver and gold around him gleamed,

The daintiest dishes before him steamed;

The rarest of fish and flesh and bird,

Fruits all flushed with the tropic sun,

Nuts whose names he had never heard,

Were offered: the stranger would have none;

Nor spake he in praise a single word.

“Doth anything lack?” with chafe, at last,

The hostess queried, “from the repast?”

Gravely the guest then gave reply:

“Lady, since thou dost question, I,

Daring to speak the truth alway,

Even in such a presence, say

Something is wanting: I have sate

Oft at the tables of rich and great,

Nor seen such viands as these; but yet,

I marvel me much thou shouldst forget

The world’s one best thing; for ’t is clear,

Whatever beside, it is not here.”

“Name it,” the lady flashed, “and naught

Will I grudge of search till the best is brought.”

But never another word the guest

Uttered, as soothly he waived aside

Her question, that in the heat of pride,

Mindless of courtesy, still she pressed.

And when from her grand refection hall

They fared from their feasting, one and all,

Again with a heightened tone and air

To the guest she turned, but no guest was there.

“I ’ll have it,” she stamped, “whatever it be;

I ’ll scour the land, and I ’ll sweep the sea,

Nor ever the tireless quest resign

Till I know the world’s one best thing mine!”

Once more were the white-sailed galleons sent

To far-off island and continent,

In search of the most delicious things

That ever had whetted the greed of kings:

But none of the luxuries that they brought,

Seemed quite the marvel the Lady sought.

At length from his latest voyage back

Sailed one of her captains: he told her how

Wild weather had driven him from his track,

And his vessel had sprung aleak, till bow

And stern were merged, and a rime of mould

Had mossed the flour within the hold,

And nothing was left but wine and meat,

Through weary weeks, for the crew to eat,

“Then the words of the stranger rose,” he said,

“And I felt that the one best thing was bread:

And so, for a cargo, I was fain

Thereafter to load my ships with grain.”

The Lady Riberta’s wrath outsprang

Like a sword from its sheath, and her keen voice rang

Sharp as a lance-thrust: “Get thee back

To the vessels, and have forth every sack,

And spill in the sea thy curséd store,

Nor ever sail with my galleons more!”

The people who hungered for daily bread

Prayed that to them in their need, instead,

The grain might be dealt; but she heeded none,

Nor rested until the deed was done.

The months passed on, and the harvest sown

In the furrows of deep sea-fields had grown

To a forest of slender stalks,—a wide

Strong net to trap whatever the tide

Drew on in its wake,—the drift and wreck

Of many a shattered mast and deck,

And all the tangle of weeds there be

Afloat in the trough of the plunging sea.

Until, as the years went by, a shoal

Of sand had tided a sunken mole

Across the mouth of the port, that so

The galleys were foundered; and to and fro

No longer went forth: and merchants sought

Harbors elsewhere for the stores they brought.

The Lady Riberta’s ships went down

In the offing; the city’s old renown

Faded and fled with its commerce dead,

And the Lady Riberta begged for bread.

The hungry billows with rage and roar

Have broken the ancient barriers o’er,

And bitten their way into the shore,

And where such traffic was wont to be

The voyager now can only see

The spume and fret of the Zuyder-Zee.