To fetch clear water out of the spring
The little maid Margaret ran,
From the stream to the castle’s western wing
It was but a bowshot span ;
On the sedgy brink where the osiers cling
Lay a dead man, pallid and wan.
The lady Mabel rose from her bed,
And walked in the castle hall,
Where the porch through the western turret led
She met with her handmaid small.
‘What aileth thee, Margaret ?’ the lady said,
‘Hast let thy pitcher fall ?
‘Say, what hast thou seen by the streamlet side—
A nymph or a water sprite—
That thou comest with eyes so wild and wide,
And with cheeks so ghostly white ?’
‘Nor nymph nor sprite,’ the maiden cried,
‘But the corpse of a slaughtered knight.’
The lady Mabel summon’d straight
To her presence Sir Hugh de Vere,
Of the guests who tarried within the gate
Of Fauconshawe, most dear
Was he to that lady ; betrothed in state
They had been since many a year.
‘Little Margaret sayeth a dead man lies
By the western spring, Sir Hugh ;
I can scarce believe that the maiden lies—
Yet scarce can believe her true.’
And the knight replies, ‘Till we test her eyes
Let her words gain credence due.’
Down the rocky path knight and lady led,
While guests and retainers bold
Followed in haste, for like wildfire spread
The news by the maiden told.
They found ’twas even as she had said—
The corpse had some while been cold.
How the spirit had pass’d in the moments last
There was little trace to reveal ;
On the still, calm face lay no imprint ghast,
Save the angel’s solemn seal,
Yet the hands were clench’d in a death-grip fast,
And the sods stamp’d down by the heel.
Sir Hugh by the side of the dead man knelt,
Said, ‘Full well these features I know,
We have faced each other where blows were dealt,
And he was a stalwart foe ;
I had rather met him hilt to hilt,
Than have found him lying low.’
He turned the body up on its face,
And never a word was spoken,
While he ripp’d the doublet, and tore the lace,
And tugg’d—by the self-same token,—
And strain’d, till he wrench’d it out of its place,
The dagger-blade that was broken.
Then he turned the body over again,
And said, while he rose upright,
‘May the brand of Cain, with its withering stain,
On the murderer’s forehead light,
For he never was slain on the open plain,
Nor yet in the open fight.’
Solemn and stern were the words he spoke,
And he look’d at his lady’s men,
But his speech no answering echoes woke,
All were silent there and then,
Till a clear, cold voice the silence broke :—
Lady Mabel cried, ‘Amen.’
His glance met hers, the twain stood hush’d,
With the dead between them there ;
But the blood to her snowy temples rush’d
Till it tinged the roots of her hair,
Then paled, but a thin red streak still flush’d
In the midst of her forehead fair.
Four yeomen raised the corpse from the ground,
At a sign from Sir Hugh de Vere,
It was borne to the western turret round,
And laid on a knightly bier,
With never a sob nor a mourning sound,—
No friend to the dead was near.
Yet that night was neither revel nor dance
In the halls of Fauconshawe ;
Men looked askance with a doubtful glance
At Sir Hugh, for they stood in awe
Of his prowess, but he, like one in a trance,
Regarded naught that he saw.
. . . . . . .
Night black and chill, wind gathering still,
With its wail in the turret tall,
And its headlong blast like a catapult cast
On the crest of the outer wall,
And its hail and rain on the crashing pane,
Till the glassy splinters fall.
A moody knight by the fitful light
Of the great hall fire below ;
A corpse upstairs, and a woman at prayers,
Will they profit her, aye or no ?
By’r lady fain, an she comfort gain,
There is comfort for us also.
The guests were gone, save Sir Hugh alone,
And he watched the gleams that broke
On the pale hearth-stone, and flickered and shone
On the panels of polish’d oak ;
He was ‘ware of no presence except his own,
Till the voice of young Margaret spoke :
‘I’ve risen, Sir Hugh, at the mirk midnight,
I cannot sleep in my bed,
Now, unless my tale can be told aright,
I wot it were best unsaid ;
It lies, the blood of yon northern knight,
On my lady’s hand and head.’
‘Oh ! the wild wind raves and rushes along,
But thy ravings seem more wild—
She never could do so foul a wrong—
Yet I blame thee not, my child,
For the fever’d dreams on thy rest that throng !’—
He frown’d through his speech was mild.
‘Let storm winds eddy, and scream, and hurl
Their wrath, they disturb me naught ;
The daughter she of a high-born earl,
No secret of hers I’ve sought ;
I am but the child of a peasant churl,
Yet look to the proofs I’ve brought ;
‘This dagger snapp’d so close to the hilt—
Dost remember thy token well ?
Will it match with the broken blade that spilt
His life in the western dell ?
Nay ! read her handwriting, an thou wilt,
From her paramour’s breast it fell.’
The knight in silence the letter read,
Oh ! the characters well he knew !
And his face might have match’d the face of the dead,
So ashen white was its hue !
Then he tore the parchment shred by shred,
And the strips in the flames he threw.
And he muttered, ‘Densely those shadows fall
In the copse where the alders thicken ;
There she bade him come to her, once for all,—
Now, I well may shudder and sicken ;—
Gramercy ! that hand so white and small,
How strongly it must have stricken.’
. . . . . . .
At midnight hour, in the western tower,
Alone with the dead man there,
Lady Mabel kneels, nor heeds nor feels
The shock of the rushing air,
Though the gusts that pass through the riven glass
Have scattered her raven hair.
Across the floor, through the open door,
Where standeth a stately knight,
The lamplight streams, and flickers and gleams,
On his features stern and white—
‘Tis Sir Hugh de Vere, and he cometh more near,
And the lady standeth upright.
‘ ‘Tis little,’ he said, ‘that I know or care
Of the guilt (if guilt there be)
That lies ‘twixt thee and yon dead man there,
Nor matters it now to me ;
I thought thee pure, thou art only fair,
And to-morrow I cross the sea.
‘He perish’d ! I ask not why or how :
I come to recall my troth ;
Take back, my lady, thy broken vow,
Give back my allegiance oath ;
Let the past be buried between us now
For ever—’tis best for both.
‘Yet, Mabel, I could ask, dost thou dare
Lay hand on that corpse’s heart,
And call on thy Maker, and boldly swear
That thou hadst in his death no part ?
I ask not, while threescore proofs I share
With one doubt—uncondemn’d thou art.’
Oh ! cold and bleak upon Mabel’s cheek
Came the blast of the storm-wind keen,
And her tresses black as the glossy back
Of the raven, glanced between
Her fingers slight, like the ivory white,
As she parted their sable sheen.
Yet with steady lip, and with fearless eye,
And with cheek like the flush of dawn,
Unflinchingly she spoke in reply—
‘Go hence with the break of morn,
I will neither confess, nor yet deny,
I will return thee scorn for scorn.’
The knight bow’d low as he turn’d to go ;
He travell’d by land and sea,
But naught of his future fate I know,
And naught of his fair ladye ;—
My story is told as, long ago,
My story was told to me.
Published in ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’ (1867).