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The Romance of Britomarte

As Related by Sergeant Leigh on the Night he got his Captaincy at the Restoration

 

I'LL tell you a story ; but pass the 'jack',

And let us make merry to-night, my men.

Aye, those were the days when my beard was black—

I like to remember them now and then—

Then Miles was living, and Cuthbert there,

On his lip was never a sign of down ;

But I carry about some braided hair,

That has not yet changed from the glossy brown

That it show'd the day when I broke the heart

Of that bravest of destriers, 'Britomarte.'

 

Sir Hugh was slain (may his soul find grace !)

In the fray that was neither lost nor won

At Edgehill—then to St. Hubert's Chase

Lord Goring despatch'd a garrison—

But men and horses were ill to spare,

And ere long the soldiers were shifted fast.

As for me, I never was quartered there

Till Marston Moor had been lost ; at last,

As luck would have it, alone, and late

In the night, I rode to the northern gate.

 

I thought, as I pass'd through the moonlit park,

On the boyish days I used to spend

In the halls of the knight lying stiff and stark—

Thought on his lady, my father's friend

(Mine, too, in spite of my sinister bar,

But with that my story has naught to do)—

She died the winter before the war—

Died giving birth to the baby Hugh.

He pass'd ere the green leaves clothed the bough,

And the orphan girl was the heiress now.

 

When I was a rude and a reckless boy,

And she a brave and a beautiful child,

I was her page, her playmate, her toy—

I have crown'd her hair with the field-flowers wild

Cowslip and crowfoot and colt's-foot bright—

I have carried her miles when the woods were wet,

I have read her romances of dame and knight ;

She was my princess, my pride, my pet.

There was then this proverb us twain between,

For the glory of God and of Gwendoline.

 

She had grown to a maiden wonderful fair,

But for years I had scarcely seen her face.

Now, with troopers Holdsworth, Huntly, and Clare,

Old Miles kept guard at St. Hubert's Chase,

And the chatelaine was a Mistress Ruth,

Sir Hugh's half-sister, an ancient dame,

But a mettlesome soul had she forsooth,

As she show'd when the time of her trial came.

I bore despatches to Miles and to her

To warn them against the bands of Kerr.

 

And mine would have been a perilous ride

With the rebel horsemen—we knew not where

They were scattered over that country side,—

If it had not been for my brave brown mare.

She was iron-sinew'd and satin-skinn'd,

Ribb'd like a drum and limb'd like a deer,

Fierce as the fire and fleet as the wind—

There was nothing she couldn't climb or clear—

Rich lords had vex'd me, in vain, to part

For their gold and silver, with Britomarte.

 

Next morn we muster'd scarce half a score

With the serving men, who were poorly arm'd

Five soldiers, counting myself, no more,

And a culverin, which might well have harm'd

Us, had we used it, but not our foes,

When, with horses and foot, to our doors they came,

And a psalm-singer summon'd us (through his nose),

And deliver'd—'This, in the people's name,

Unto whoso holdeth this fortress here,

Surrender ! or bide the siege—John Kerr.'

 

'Twas a mansion built in a style too new,

A castle by courtesy, he lied

Who called it a fortress—yet, 'tis true,

It had been indifferently fortified—

We were well provided with bolt and bar—

And while I hurried to place our men,

Old Miles was call'd to a council of war

With Mistress Ruth and with her, and when

They had argued loudly and long, those three,

They sent, as a last resource, for me.

 

In the chair of state sat erect Dame Ruth ;

She had cast aside her embroidery ;

She had been a beauty, they say, in her youth,

There was much fierce fire in her bold black eye.

'Am I deceived in you both ?' quoth she.

'If one spark of her father's spirit lives

In this girl here—so, this Leigh, Ralph Leigh,

Let us hear what counsel the springald gives.'

Then I stammer'd, somewhat taken aback—

(Simon, you ale-swiller, pass the 'jack').

 

The dame wax'd hotter—'Speak out, lad, say,

Must we fall in that canting caitiff's power ?

Shall we yield to a knave and a turncoat ? Nay,

I had liever leap from our topmost tower.

For a while we can surely await relief ;

Our walls are high and our doors are strong.'

This Kerr was indeed a canting thief—

I know not rightly, some private wrong

He had done Sir Hugh, but I know this much,

Traitor or turncoat he suffer'd as such.

 

Quoth Miles—'Enough ! your will shall be done ;

Relief may arrive by the merest chance,

But your house ere dusk will be lost and won ;

They have got three pieces of ordnance.'

Then I cried, 'Lord Guy, with four troops of horse,

Even now is biding at Westbrooke town ;

If a rider could break through the rebel force

He would bring relief ere the sun goes down

Through the postern door could I make one dart

I could baffle them all upon Britomarte.'

 

Miles mutter'd 'Madness !' Dame Ruth look'd grave,

Said, 'True, though we cannot keep one hour

The courtyard, no, nor the stables save,

They will have to batter piecemeal the tower,

And thus——' But suddenly she halted there.

With a shining hand on my shoulder laid,

Stood Gwendoline.  She had left her chair,

And, 'Nay, if it needs must be done,' she said,

'Ralph Leigh will gladly do it, I ween,

For the glory of God and of Gwendoline.'

 

I had undertaken a heavier task

For a lighter word.  I saddled with care,

Nor cumber'd myself with corselet nor casque

(Being loth to burden the brave brown mare).

Young Clare kept watch on the wall—he cried,

'Now, haste, Ralph ! this is the time to seize ;

The rebels are round us on every side,

But here they straggle by twos and threes.'

Then out I led her, and up I sprung,

And the postern door on its hinges swung.

 

I had drawn this sword—you may draw it and feel,

For this is the blade that I bore that day—

There's a notch even now on the long grey steel,

A nick that has never been rasp'd away.

I bow'd my head and I buried my spurs,

One bound brought the gliding green beneath ;

I could tell by her back-flung, flatten'd ears

She had fairly taken the bit in her teeth—

(What, Jack, have you drain'd your namesake dry,

Left nothing to quench the thirst of a fly ?)

 

These things are done, and are done with, lad,

In far less time than your talker tells;

The sward with their hoof-strokes shook like mad,

And rang with their carbines and petronels ;

And they shouted, 'Cross him and cut him off,'

'Surround him,' 'Seize him,' 'Capture the clown,

Or kill him,' 'Shall he escape to scoff

In your faces ?' 'Shoot him or cut him down.'

And their bullets whistled on every side :

Many were near us and more were wide.

 

Not a bullet told upon Britomarte ;

Suddenly snorting, she launched along ;

So the osprey dives where the seagulls dart,

So the falcon swoops where the kestrels throng ;

And full in my front one pistol flash'd,

And right in my path their sergeant got.

How are jack-boots jarr'd, how are stirrups clash'd,

While the mare like a meteor past him shot ;

But I clove his skull with a backstroke clean,

For the glory of God and of Gwendoline.

 

And as one whom the fierce wind storms in the face

With spikes of hail and with splinters of rain,

I, while we fled through St. Hubert's Chase,

Bent till my cheek was amongst her mane.

To the north full a league of the deer-park lay,

Smooth, springy turf, and she fairly flew,

And the sound of their hoof-strokes died away,

And their far shots faint in the distance grew.

Loudly I laughed, having won the start,

At the folly of following Britomarte.

 

They had posted a guard at the northern gate—

Some dozen of pikemen and musketeers.

To the tall park palings I turn'd her straight ;

She veer'd in her flight as the swallow veers.

And some blew matches and some drew swords,

And one of them wildly hurl'd his pike,

But she clear'd by inches the oaken boards,

And she carried me yards beyond the dyke ;

Then gaily over the long green down

We gallop'd, heading for Westbrooke town.

 

The green down slopes to the great grey moor,

The grey moor sinks to the gleaming Skelt—

Sudden and sullen, and swift and sure,

The whirling water was round my belt.

She breasted the bank with a savage snort,

And a backward glance of her bloodshot eye,

And 'Our Lady of Andover's' flash'd like thought,

And flitted St. Agatha's nunnery,

And the firs at The Ferngrove fled on the right,

And 'Falconer's Tower' on the left took flight.

 

And over 'The Ravenswold' we raced—

We rounded the hill by 'The Hermit's Well'—

We burst on the Westbrooke Bridge—'What haste ?

What errand ?' shouted the sentinel.

'To Beelzebub with the Brewer's knave !'

'Carolus Rex and he of the Rhine !'

Galloping past him, I got and gave

In the gallop password and countersign,

All soak'd with water and soil'd with mud,

With the sleeve of my jerkin half drench'd in blood.

 

Now, Heaven be praised that I found him there—

Lord Guy.  He said, having heard my tale,

'Leigh, let my own man look to your mare,

Rest and recruit with our wine and ale ;

But first must our surgeon attend to you ;

You are somewhat shrewdly stricken, no doubt.'

Then he snatched a horn from the wall and blew,

Making 'Boot and Saddle' ring sharply out.

'Have I done good service this day ?' quoth I.

'Then I will ride back in your troop, Lord Guy.'

 

In the street I heard how the trumpets peal'd,

And I caught the gleam of a morion

From the window—then to the door I reel'd ;

I had lost more blood than I reckon'd upon ;

He eyed me calmly with keen grey eyes—

Stern grey eyes of a steel-blue grey—

Said, 'The wilful man can never be wise,

Nathless the wilful must have his way,'

And he pour'd from a flagon some fiery wine ;

I drain'd it, and straightway strength was mine.

 

.   .   .   .   .   .   .

 

I was with them all the way on the brown—

'Guy to the rescue !'  'God and the king !'

We were just in time, for the doors were down ;

And didn't our sword-blades rasp and ring,

And didn't we hew and didn't we hack ?

The sport scarce lasted minutes ten—

(Aye, those were the days when my beard was black ;

I like to remember them now and then).

Though they fought like fiends, we were four to one,

And we captured those that refused to run.

 

We have not forgotten it, Cuthbert, boy !

That supper scene when the lamps were lit ;

How the women (some of them) sobb'd for joy ;

How the soldiers drank the deeper for it;

How the dame did honours, and Gwendoline,

How grandly she glided into the hall,

How she stoop'd with the grace of a girlish queen,

And kiss'd me gravely before them all ;

And the stern Lord Guy, how gaily he laugh'd,

Till more of his cup was spilt than quaff'd.

 

Brown Britomarte lay dead in her straw

Next morn—we buried her—brave old girl !

John Kerr, we tried him by martial law,

And we twisted some hemp for the trait'rous churl ;

And she—I met her alone—said she,

'You have risk'd your life, you have lost your mare,

And what can I give in return, Ralph Leigh ?'

I replied, 'One braid of that bright brown hair.'

And with that she bow'd her beautiful head,

'You can take as much as you choose,' she said.

 

And I took it—it may be, more than enough—

And I shore it rudely, close to the roots.

The wine or wounds may have made me rough,

And men at the bottom are merely brutes.

Three weeks I slept at St. Hubert's Chase ;

When I woke from the fever of wounds and wine

I could scarce believe that the ghastly face

That the glass reflected was really mine.

I sought the hall—where a wedding had been

The wedding of Guy and of Gwendoline.

 

The romance of a grizzled old trooper's life

May make you laugh in your sleeves : laugh out,

Lads ; we have most of us seen some strife ;

We have all of us had some sport, no doubt.

I have won some honour and gain'd some gold,

Now that our king returns to his own ;

If the pulses beat slow, if the blood runs cold,

And if friends have faded and loves have flown,

Then the greater reason is ours to drink,

And the more we swallow the less we shall think.

 

At the battle of Naseby, Miles was slain,

And Huntly sank from his wounds that week ;

We left young Clare upon Worcester plain—

How the 'Ironside' gash'd his girlish cheek.

Aye, strut, and swagger, and ruffle anew,

Gay gallants, now that the war is done !

They fought like fiends (give the fiend his due)—

We fought like fops, it was thus they won.

Holdsworth is living for aught I know,

At least he was living two years ago,

 

And Guy—Lord Guy—so stately and stern,

He is changed, I met him at Winchester ;

He has grown quite gloomy and taciturn.

Gwendoline !—why do you ask for her ?

Died ! as her mother had died before—

Died giving birth to the baby Guy !

Did my voice shake ? Then am I fool the more.

Sooner or later we all must die ;

But, at least, let us live while we live to-night.

The days may be dark, but the lamps are bright.

 

For to me the sunlight seems worn and wan :

The sun, he is losing his splendour now—

He can never shine as of old he shone

On her glorious hair and glittering brow.

Ah ! those days that were, when my beard was black,

Now I have only the nights that are.

What, landlord, ho ! bring in haste burnt sack,

And a flask of your fiercest usquebaugh.

You, Cuthbert ! surely you know by heart

The story of her and of Britomarte.

 

Published in 'Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes' (1870).