Thomas Bailey Aldrich
This etext was prepared by Donald Lainson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
TO EDWIN BOOTH.
MY DEAR BOOTH:
In offering these verses to you, I beg you to treat them (as you
have many a time advised a certain lord chamberlain to treat the
players) not according to their desert. "Use them after your own
honor and dignity; the less they deserve, the more merit is in your
These many years your friend and comrade,
T. B. ALDRICH.
The motif of the story embodied in the following poem was crudely
outlined in a brief sketch printed in an early collection of the
authors verse, and subsequently cancelled for a purpose not until
now accomplished. Wyndham Towers is not to be confused with this
discarded sketch, the text of which has furnished only a phrase, or
an indirect suggestion, here and there. That the writer's method,
when recasting the poem, was more or less influenced by the poets
he had been studying--chiefly the dramatists of the Elizabethan
era--will, he hopes, be obvious. It was part of his design,
however far he may have fallen from it, to give his narrative
something of the atmosphere and color of the period in which the
action takes place, though the story is supposed to be told at a
Before you reach the slender, high-arched bridge,
Like to a heron with one foot in stream,
The hamlet breaks upon you through green boughs--
A square stone church within a place of graves
Upon the slope; gray houses oddly grouped,
With plastered gables set with crossed oak-beams,
And roofs of yellow tile and purplish slate.
That is The Falcon, with the swinging sign
And rustic bench, an ancient hostelry;
Those leaden lattices were hung on hinge
In good Queen Bess's time, so old it is.
On ridge-piece, gable-end, or dove-cot vane,
A gilded weathercock at intervals
Glimmers--an angel on the wing, most like,
Of local workmanship; for since the reign
Of pious Edward here have carvers thrived,
In saints'-heads skillful and winged cherubim
Meet for rich abbeys. From yon crumbling tower,
Whose brickwork base the cunning Romans laid--
And now of no use else except to train
The ivy of an idle legend on--
You see, such lens is this thin Devon air,
If it so chance no fog comes rolling in,
The Torridge where its branching crystal spreads
To join the Taw. Hard by from a chalk cliff
A torrent leaps: not lovelier Sappho was
Giving herself all silvery to the sea
From that Leucadian rock. Beneath your feet
Lie sand and surf in curving parallels.
Off shore, a buoy gleams like a dolphin's back
Dripping with brine, and guards a sunken reef
Whose sharp incisors have gnawed many a keel;
There frets the sea and turns white at the lip,
And in ill-weather lets the ledge show fang.
A very pleasant nook in Devon, this,
Upon the height of old was Wyndham Towers,
Clinging to rock there, like an eagle's nest,
With moat and drawbridge once, and good for siege;
Four towers it had to front the diverse winds:
Built God knows when, all record being lost,
Locked in the memories of forgotten men.
In Caesar's day, a pagan temple; next
A monastery; then a feudal hold;
Later a manor, and at last a ruin.
Such knowledge have we of it, vaguely caught
Through whispers fallen from tradition's lip.
This shattered tower, with crenellated top
And loops for archers, alone marks the spot,
Looming forlornly--a gigantic harp
Whereon the invisible fingers of the wind
Its fitful and mysterious dirges play.
Here dwelt, in the last Tudor's virgin reign,
One Richard Wyndham, Knight and Gentleman,
(The son of Rawdon, slain near Calais wall
When Bloody Mary lost her grip on France,)
A lonely wight that no kith had nor kin
Save one, a brother--by ill-fortune's spite
A brother, since 't were better to have none--
Of late not often seen at Wyndham Towers,
Where he in sooth but lenten welcome got
When to that gate his errant footstep strayed.
Yet held he dear those gray majestic walls,
Time-stained and crusted with the sea's salt breath;
There first his eyes took color of the sea,
There did his heart stay when fate drove him thence,
And there at last--but that we tell anon.
Darrell they named him, for an ancestor
Whose bones were whitening in Holy Land,
The other Richard; a crusader name,
Yet it was Darrell had the lion-heart.
No love and little liking served this pair,
In look and word unpaired as white and black--
Of once rich bough the last unlucky fruit.
The one, for straightness like a Norland pine
Set on some precipice's perilous edge,
Intrepid, handsome, little past blown youth,
Of all pure thought and brave deed amorous,
Moulded the court's high atmosphere to breathe,
Yet liking well the camp's more liberal air--
Poet, soldier, courtier, 't was the mode;
The other--as a glow-worm to a star--
Suspicious, morbid, passionate, self-involved,
The soul half eaten out with solitude,
Corroded, like a sword-blade left in sheath
Asleep and lost to action--in a word,
A misanthrope, a miser, a soured man,
One fortune loved not and looked at askance.
Yet he a pleasant outward semblance had.
Say what you will, and paint things as you may,
The devil is not black, with horn and hoof,
As gossips picture him: he is a person
Quite scrupulous of doublet and demeanor,
As was this Master Wyndham of The Towers,
Now latterly in most unhappy case,
Because of matters to be here set forth.
A thing of not much moment, as life goes,
A thing a man with some philosophy
Had idly brushed aside, as 't were a gnat
That winged itself between him and the light,
Had, through the crooked working of his mind,
Brought Wyndham to a very grievous pass.
Yet 't was a grapestone choked Anacreon
And hushed his song. There is no little thing
In nature: in a raindrop's compass lie
A planet's elements. This Wyndham's woe
Was one Griselda, daughter to a man
Of Bideford, a shipman once, but since
Turned soldier; now in white-haired, wrinkled age
Sitting beneath the olive, valiant still,
With sword on nail above the chimney-shelf
In case the Queen should need its edge again.
An officer he was, though lowly born.
The man aforetime, in the Netherlands
And through those ever-famous French campaigns
(Marry, in what wars bore he not a hand?)
In Rawdon Wyndham's troop of horse had served,
And when he fell that day by Calais wall
Had from the Frenchmen's pikes his body snatched,
And so much saved of him, which was not much,
The good knight being dead. For this deed's sake,
That did enlarge itself in sorrow's eye,
The widow deemed all guerdon all too small,
And held her dear lord's servant and his girl,
Born later, when that clash of steel was done,
As her own kin, till she herself was laid
I' the earth and sainted elsewhere. The two sons
Let cool the friendship: one in foreign parts
Did gold and honor seek; at hall stayed one,
The heir, and now of old friends negligent:
Thus fortune hardens the ignoble heart.
Griselda even as a little maid,
Demure, but with more crotchets in the brain,
I warrant ye, than minutes to the hour,
Had this one much misliked; in her child-thought
Confused him somehow with those cruel shapes
Of iron men that up there at The Towers
Quickened her pulse. For he was gaunt, his face,
Mature beyond the logic of his years,
Had in it something sinister and grim,
Like to the visage pregnant fancy saw
Behind the bars of each disused casque
In that east chamber where the harness hung
And dinted shields of Wyndhams gone to grace--
At Poitiers this one, this at Agincourt,
That other on the sands of Palestine:
A breed of fierce man-slayers, sire and son.
Of these seemed Richard, with his steel cross-bow
Killing the doves in very wantonness--
The gentle doves that to the ramparts came
For scattered crumbs, undreamful of all ill.
Each well-sent dart that stained a snowy breast
Straight to her own white-budding bosom went.
Fled were those summers now, and she had passed
Out of the child-world of vain fantasy
Where many a rainbow castle lay in ruin;
But to her mind, like wine-stain to a flask,
The old distrust still clung, indelible,
Holding her in her maidhood's serious prime
Well pleased from his cold eyes to move apart,
And in her humble fortunes dwell secure.
Indeed, what was she?--a poor soldier's girl,
Merely a tenant's daughter. Times were changed,
And life's bright web had sadder colors in 't:
That most sweet gentle lady--rest her soul!--
Shrunk to an epitaph beside her lord's,
And six lines shorter, which was all a shame;
Gaunt Richard heir; that other at earth's end,
(The younger son that was her sweetheart once,)
Fighting the Spaniards, getting slain perchance;
And all dear old-time uses quite forgot.
Slowly, unnoted, like the creeping rust
That spreads insidious, had estrangement come,
Until at last, one knew not how it fell,
And little cared, if sober truth were said,
She and the father no more climbed the hill
To Twelfth Night festival or May-day dance,
Nor commerce had with any at The Towers.
Yet in a formless, misty sort of way
The girl had place in Wyndham's mind--the girl,
Why, yes, beshrew him! it was even she
Whom his soft mother had made favorite of,
And well-nigh spoiled, some dozen summers gone.
Perhaps because dull custom made her tame,
Or that she was not comely in the bud,
Her sweetness halting like a tardy May
That wraps itself in mist, and seems not fair,
For this or finer reason undivined,
His thought she touched not, and was glad withal
When she did note how others took his eye
And wore rue after. Thus was her white peace
Undarkened till, it so befell, these two
Meeting as they a hundred times had met
On hill-path or at crossing of the weir,
Her beauty broke on him like some rare flower
That was not yesterday. Ev'n so the Spring
Unclasps the girdle of its loveliness
Abruptly, in the North here: long the drifts
Linger in hollows, long on bough and briar
No slight leaf ventures, lest the frost's keen tooth
Nip it, and then all suddenly the earth
Is nought but scent and bloom. So unto him
Griselda's grace unclosed. Where lagged his wit
That guessed not of the bud that slept in stem,
Nor hint had of the flower within the bud?
If so much beauty had a tiger been,
'T had eaten him! In all the wave-washed length
Of rocky Devon where was found her like
For excellence of wedded red and white?
Here on that smooth and sunny field, her cheek,
The hostile hues of Lancaster and York
Did meet, and, blending, make a heavenly truce,
This were indeed a rose a king might wear
Upon his bosom. By St. Dunstan, now,
Himself would wear it. Then by seeming chance
Crossed he her walks, and stayed her with discourse
Devised adroitly; spoke of common things
At first--of days when his good mother lived,
If 't were to live, to pass long dolorous hours
Before his father's effigy in church;
Of one who then used often come to hall,
Ever at Yule-tide, when the great log flamed
In chimney-place, and laugh and jest went round,
And maidens strayed beneath the mistletoe,
Making believe not see it, so got kissed--
Of one that joined not in the morrice-dance,
But in her sea-green kirtle stood at gaze,
A timid little creature that was scared
By dead men's armor. Nought there suffered change,
Those empty shells of valor grew not old,
Though something rusty. Would they fright her now
Looked she upon them? Held she in her mind--
'T was Spring and loud the mavis piped outside--
The day the Turkish helmet slipped from peg,
And clashing on the floor, congealed her blood
And sent both hands to terror-smitten eyes,
She trembling, ready to yield up the ghost?
Right merry was it! Finally he touched
On matters nearer, things she had foreboded
And this one time must needs lend hearing to,
And end so sorry business ere woe came,
Like a true maid and honest, as she was.
So, tutoring the tremble on her lip
And holding back hot tears, she gave reply
With such discretion as straight tied his tongue,
Albeit he lacked not boldness in discourse:
"Indeed, indeed, sir, you speak but in jest!
Lightly, not meaning it, in courtier-way.
I have heard said that ladies at the Court--
I judge them not!--have most forgiving ears,
And list right willingly to idle words,
Listen and smile and never stain a cheek.
Yet not such words your father's son should use
With me, my father's daughter. You forget
What should most precious be to memory's heart,
Love that dared death; and so, farewell." Farewell
It was in sooth; for after that one time,
Though he had fain with passion-breathed vows
Besieged that marble citadel her breast,
He got no speech of her: she chose her walks;
Let only moon and star look on the face
That could well risk the candor of the sun;
Ran not to lattice at each sound of hoof;
By stream or hedge-row plucked no pansies more,
Mistrusting Proserpina's cruel fate,
Herself up-gathered in Sicilian fields;
At chapel--for one needs to chapel go
A-Sunday--glanced not either right or left,
But with black eyelash wedded to white cheek
Knelt there impassive, like the marble girl
That at the foot-end of his father's tomb,
Inside the chancel where the Wyndhams lay,
Through the long years her icy vigil kept.
As leaves turn into flame at the frost's touch,
So Richard's heart on coldness fed its fire,
And burned with surfeit of indifference.
All flavor and complexion of content
Went out of life; what served once served no more.
His hound and falcon ceased to pleasure him;
He read--some musty folios there were
On shelf--but even in brave Froissart's page,
Where, God knows, there be wounds enough, no herb
Nor potion found he to purge sadness with.
The gray dust gathered on the leaf unturned,
And then the spider drew his thread across.
Certain bright coins that he was used to count
With thrill at fingers' ends uncounted lay,
Suddenly worthless, like the conjurer's gold
That midst the jeers and laughter of the crowd
Turns into ashes in the rustic's hand.
Soft idleness itself bore now a thorn
Two-pronged with meditation and desire.
The cold Griselda that would none of him!
The fair Griselda! Not alone by day,
With this most solid earth beneath his feet,
But in the weird and unsubstantial sphere
Of slumber did her beauty hold him thrall.
Herself of late he saw not; 't was a wraith
He worshipped, a vain shadow. Thus he pined
From dawn to dusk, and then from dusk to dawn,
Of that miraculous infection caught
From any-colored eyes, so they be sweet.
Strange that a man should let a maid's slim foot
Stamp on his happiness and quench it quite!
With what snail-pace the traitor time creeps by
When one is out with fortune and undone!
how tauntingly upon the dial's plate
The shadow's finger points the dismal hour!
Thus Wyndham, with hands clasped behind his back,
Watching the languid and reluctant sun
Fade from the metal disk beside the door.
The hours hung heavy up there on the hill,
Where life was little various at best
And merriment had long since ta'en its flight.
Sometimes he sat and conned the flying clouds
Till on dusk's bosom nestled her one star,
And spoke no word, nor seemed alive at all,
But a mere shape and counterfeit of life;
Or, urged by some swift hunger for green boughs,
Would bid the hound to heel, and disappear
Into the forest, with himself communing
For lack of gossip. So do lonely men
Make themselves tedious to their tedious selves.
Thus passed he once in a white blaze of noon
Under his oaks, and muttered as he went:
"'My father's daughter' and 'your father's son'!
Faith, but it was a shrewd and nimble phrase,
And left me with no fitting word at tongue.
The wench hath wit and matter of her own,
And beauty, that doth seldom mate with wit,
Nature hath painted her a proper brown--
A russet-colored wench that knows her worth.
And mincing, too--should have her ruff propt up
With supertasses, like a dame at Court,
And go in cloth-of-gold. I'll get a suit
Of Genoa velvet, and so take her eye.
Has she a heart? The ladies of Whitehall
Are not so skittish, else does Darrell lie
Most villainously. Often hath he said
The art of blushing 's a lost art at Court.
If so, good riddance! This one here lets love
Play beggar to her prudery, and starve,
Feeding him ever on looks turned aside.
To be so young, so fair, and wise withal!
Lets love starve? Nay, I think starves merely me.
For when was ever woman logical
Both day and night-time? Not since Adam fell!
I doubt a lover somewhere. What shrewd bee
Hath buzzed betimes about this clover-top?
Belike some scrivener's clerk at Bideford,
With long goose-quill and inkhorn at his thigh--
Methinks I see the parchment face of him;
Or one of those swashbuckler Devon lads
That haunt the inn there, with red Spanish gold,
Rank scurvy knaves, ripe fruit for gallows-tree;
Or else the sexton's son"--here Wyndham laughed,
Though not a man of mirth--indeed, a man
Of niggard humor; but that sexton's son--
Lean as the shadow cast by a church spire,
Eyes deep in the sockets, noseless, high cheek-boned,
Like nothing in the circle of this earth
But a death's-head that from a mural slab
Within the chancel leers through sermon-time,
Making a mock of poor mortality.
The fancy touched him, and he laughed a laugh
That from his noonday slumber roused an owl
Snug in his oaken hermitage hard by.
A very rare conceit--the sexton's son!
Not he, forsooth; he smacked of churchyard mould
And musty odors of moth-eaten palls--
A living death, a walking epitaph!
No lover that for tingling flesh and blood
To rest soft cheek on and change kisses with.
Yet lover somewhere; from his sly cocoon
Time would unshell him. In the interim
What was to do but wait, and mark who strolled
Of evenings up the hill-path and made halt
This side the coppice at a certain gate?
For by that chance which ever serves ill ends,
Within the slanted shadow of The Towers
The maid Griselda dwelt. Her gray scarred sire
Had for cloth doublet changed the steel cuirass,
The sword for gardener's fork, and so henceforth
In the mild autumn and sundown of life,
Moving erect among his curves and squares
Of lily, rose, and purple flower-de-luce,
Set none but harmless squadrons in the field--
Save now and then at tavern, where he posed,
Tankard in hand and prattling of old days,
A white-mustached epitome of wars.
How runs the proverb touching him who waits?
Who waits shall have the world. Time's heir is he,
Be he but patient. Thus the thing befell
Wherefrom grew all this history of woe:
Haunting the grounds one night, as his use was
Who loved the dark as bats and owlets do,
Wyndham got sound of voices in the air
That did such strange and goblin changes ring
As left him doubtful whence the murmurs came,
Now here, now there, as they were winged things--
Such trick plays Echo upon hapless wight
Chance-caught in lonely places where she dwells,
Anon a laugh rang out, melodious,
Like the merle's note when its ecstatic heart
Is packed with summer-time; then all was still--
So still the soul of silence seemed to grieve
The loss of that sweet laughter. In his tracks
The man stopped short, and listened. As he leaned
And craned his neck, and peered into the gloom,
And would the fabulous hundred eyes were his
That Argus in the Grecian legend had,
He saw two figures moving through a drift
Of moonlight that lay stretched across the lawn:
A man's tall shape, a slim shape close at side,
Her palm in tender fashion pressed to his,
The woven snood about her shoulders fallen,
And from the sombre midnight of her hair
An ardent face out-looking like a star--
As in a vision saw he this, for straight
They vanished. Where those silvery shadows were
Was nothing. Had he dreamed it? Had he gone
Mad with much thinking on her, and so made
Ghosts of his own sick fancies? Like a man
Carved out of alabaster and set up
Within a woodland, he stood rooted there,
Glimmering wanly under pendent boughs.
Spell-bound he stood, in very woeful plight,
Bewildered; and then presently with shock
Of rapid pulses hammering at heart,
As mad besiegers hammer at a gate,
To life came back, and turned on heel to fly
From that accursed spot and all that was,
When once more the girl's laugh made rich the night,
And melted, and the silence grieved anew.
Like lead his feet were, and he needs must halt.
Close upon this, but further off, a voice
From somewhere--Echo at her trick again!--
Took up the rhyme of Sweetheart, sigh no more.
It was with doubt and trembling
I whispered in her ear.
Go, take her answer, bird-on-bough,
That all the world may hear--
Sweetheart, sigh no more!
Sing it, sing it, tawny throat,
Upon the wayside tree,
How fair she is, how true she is,
How dear she is to me--
Sweetheart sigh no more!
Sing it, sing it, tawny throat,
And through the summer long
The winds among the clover-tops,
And brooks, for all their silvery stops,
Shall envy you the song--
Sweetheart, sigh no more.
'T is said the Malays have an arrow steeped
In some strange drug whose subtile properties
Are such that if the point but prick the skin
Death stays there. Like to that fell cruel shaft
This slender rhyme was. Through the purple dark
Straight home it sped, and into Wyndham's veins
Its drop of sudden poison did distill.
Now no sound was, save when a dry twig snapped
And rustled softly down from branch to branch,
Or on its pebbly shoals the meagre brook
Made intermittent murmur. "So, 't is he!"
Thus Wyndham breathing thickly, with his eyes
Dilating in the darkness, "Darrell--he!
I set my springe for other game than this;
Of hare or rabbit dreamed I, not of wolf.
His frequent visitations have of late
Perplexed me; now the riddle reads itself.
A proper man, a very proper man!
A fellow that burns Trinidado leaf
And sends smoke through his nostril like a flue!
A fop, a hanger-on of willing skirts--
A murrain on him! Would Elizabeth
In some mad freak had clapped him in the Tower--
Ay, through the Traitor's Gate. Would he were dead.
Within the year what worthy men have died,
Persons of substance, civic ornaments,
And here 's this gilt court-butterfly on wing!
O thou most potent lightning in the cloud,
Prick me this fellow from the face of earth!
I would the Moors had got him in Algiers
What time he harried them on land and sea,
And done their will with scimitar or cord
Or flame of fagot, and so made an end;
Or that some shot from petronel or bow
Had winged him in the folly of his flight.
Well had it been if the Inquisitors,
With rack and screw, had laid black claw on him!"
In days whose chronicle is writ in blood
The richest ever flowed in English veins
Some foul mischance in this sort might have been;
For at dark Fortune's feet had Darrell flung
In his youth's flower a daring gauntlet down.
A beardless stripling, at that solemn hour
When, breaking its frail filaments of clay,
The mother's spirit soared invisible,
The younger son, unhoused as well he knew,
Had taken horse by night to London town,
With right sore heart and nought else in his scrip
But boyish hope to footing find at Court--
A page's place, belike, with some great lord,
Or some small lord, that other proving shy
Of merit that had not yet clipt its shell.
Day after day, in weather foul or fair,
With lackeys, hucksters, and the commoner sort,
At Whitehall and Westminster he stood guard,
Reading men's faces with most anxious eye.
There the lords swarmed, some waspish and some bland,
But none would pause at plucking of the sleeve
To hearken to him, and the lad had died
On London stones for lack of crust to gnaw
But that he caught the age's malady,
The something magical that was in air,
And made men poets, heroes, demi-gods--
Made Shakespeare, Rawleigh, Grenvile, Oxenham,
And set them stars in the fore-front of Time.
In fine, young Darrell drew of that same air
A valiant breath, and shipped with Francis Drake,
Of Tavistock, to sail the Spanish seas
And teach the heathen manners, with God's aid;
And so, among lean Papists and black Moors,
He, with the din of battle in his ears,
Struck fortune. Who would tamely bide at home
At beck and call of some proud swollen lord
Not worth his biscuit, or at Beauty's feet
Sit making sonnets, when was work to do
Out yonder, sinking Philip's caravels
At sea, and then by way of episode
Setting quick torch* to pirate-nests ashore?
* Sir Francis Drake called this "singeing the King of Spayne's
Brave sport to singe the beard o' the King of Spain!
Brave sport, but in the end dreamed he of home--
Of where the trout-brook lisped among the reeds,
Of great chalk cliffs and leagues of yellow gorse,
Of peaceful lanes, of London's roaring streets,
The crowds, the shops, the pageants in Cheapside,
And heard the trumpets blaring for the Queen
When 't was the wind that whistled in the shrouds
Off Cadiz. Ah, and softer dreams he had
Of an unnamed and sweetest mystery,
And from the marble of his soul's desire
Hewed out the white ideal of his love--
A new Pygmalion! All things drew him home,
This mainly. Foot on English earth once more,
Dear earth of England his propitious fame
A thorn in none but crooked Envy's side,
He went cross-gartered, with a silken rose
At golden lovelock, diamond brooch at hat
Looping one side up very gallantly,
And changed his doublet's color twice a day.
Ill fare had given his softer senses edge;
Good fortune, later, bade him come to dine,
Mild Spenser's scholar, Philip Sidney's friend.
So took he now his ease; in Devonshire,
When Town was dull, or he had need at heart
For sight of Wyndham Towers against the sky;
But chiefly did he bask him by the Thames,
For there 't was that Young England froze and thawed
By turns in GLORIANA'S frown and smile.
As some wild animal that gets a wound,
And prescience hath of death, will drag itself
Back to its cavern sullenly to die,
And would not have heaven's airs for witnesses,
So Wyndham, shrinking from the very stars
And tell-tale places where the moonlight fell,
Crept through the huddled shadows back to hall,
And in a lonely room where no light was,
Save what the moon made at the casement there,
Sat pondering his hurt, and in the dark
Gave audience to a host of grievances.
For never comes reflection, gay or grave,
But it brings with it comrades of its hue.
So did he fall to thinking how his day
Declined, and how his narrow life had run
Obscurely through an age of great events
Such as men never saw, nor will again
Until the globe be riven by God's fire.
Others had ventured for the Golden Fleece,
Knaves of no parts at all, and got renown,
(By force of circumstance and not desert,)
While he up there on that rock-bastioned coast
Had rotted like some old hulk's skeleton,
Whose naked and bleached ribs the lazy tide
Laps day by day, and no man thinks of more.
Then was jade Fortune in her lavish mood.
Why had he not for distant Colchis sailed
And been the Jason of these Argonauts?
True, some had come to block on Tower Hill,
Or quittance made in a less noble sort;
Still they had lived, from life's high-mantling cup
Had blown the bead. In such case, if one's head
Be of its momentary laurel stripped
And made a show of stuck on Temple Bar
Or at the Southwark end of London Bridge,
What mattered it? At worst man dies but once--
So far as known. One may not master death,
But life should be one's lackey. He had been
Time's dupe and bondsman; ever since his birth
Had walked this planet with his eye oblique,
Grasped what was worthless, what were most dear missed;
Missed love and fame, and all the sum of things
Fame gets a man in England--the Queen's smile,
Which means, when she 's in humor, abbey-lands,
Appointments, stars and ribbons for the breast,
And that sleek adulation that takes shape
I' the down-drooping of obsequious lids
When one ascends a stair or walks the pave.
Good Lord! but it was excellent to see
How Expectation in the ante-room
Crooks back to Greatness passing to the Queen--
"Kind sir!" "Sweet sir!" "I prithee speed my suit!"
'T was somewhat to be flattered, though by fools,
For even a fool's coin hath a kind of ring.
Yet after all--thus did the grapes turn sour
To master Fox, in fable--who would care
To moil and toil to gain a little fame,
And have each rascal that prowls under heaven
Stab one for getting it? Had he wished power,
The thing was in the market-place for sale
At stated rates--so much for a man's soul!
His was a haughty spirit that bent not,
And one to rise had need to cringe and creep.
So had his brother into favor crawled,
Like slug into the bosom of a rose,
And battened in the sun. At thought of him,
Forgotten for a moment, Wyndham winced,
And felt his wound. "Why bides he not in Town
With his blond lovelock and wench-luring ways--
There runs his fox! What foul fiend sends him here
To Wyndham Towers? Is there not space enough
In this our England he needs crowd me so?
Has London sack upon his palate staled,
That he must come to sip my Devon cream?
Are all maids shut in nunneries save this one?
What magic philtre hath he given her
To thaw the ice that melted not for me?
Rich is he now that at his setting forth
Had not two silver pieces to his purse.
It is his brave apparel dazzles her.
Thus puts he bound and barrier to my love.
Another man were he abused as I . . .
I'll have no more of him! If I but dared--
Nay, I dare not. I have fawn's blood, I think;
I would, and dare not!" Thrice the hooded clock
Solemnly, like some old Carthusian monk
With meagre face half seen beneath his cowl,
Intoned the quarter. Memory went not back
When this was not a most familiar sound,
Yet as each stroke on the dead silence fell
Wyndham turned, startled. Now the sanguine moon,
To clouded opal changing momently,
Rose sheer above the pine-trees' ragged edge,
And through the wide-flung casement reaching hand
With cold and spectral finger touched the plates
Of his dead father's armor till it gleamed
One mass of silver. There it stood complete,
That august panoply which once struck dread
To foemen on the sunny plains of France,
Menacing, terrible, this instant stood,
With vizard down and jousting-lance at charge
As if that crumbled knight were quick within.
A footfall on the shingle walk below
Grated, a footfall light as Mercury's
Disdaining earth, and Wyndham in the dark,
Half crouched upon the settle with his nails
Indenting the soft wood-work, held his breath.
Then suddenly a blind rage like a flame
Swept over him and hurled him to his feet--
Such rage as must have seized the soul of Cain
Meeting his brother in the stubble-field.
Anon came one that hummed a blithe sea-song,
As he were fresh from tavern and brave cheer,
And held the stars that blinked there in the blue
Boon comrades. Singing in high-hearted way,
His true-love's kiss a memory on his lip,
Straight on he came to unrenowned end
Whose dream had been in good chain-mail to die
On some well-foughten field, at set of sun,
With glorious peal of trumpets on his ear
Proclaiming victory. So had he dreamed.
And there, within an arch at the stair-top
And screened behind a painted hanging-cloth
Of coiled gold serpents ready to make spring,
Ignoble Death stood, his convulsive hand
Grasping a rapier part-way down the blade
To deal the blow with deadly-jewelled hilt--
Black Death, turned white with horror of himself.
Straight on came he that sang the blithe sea-song;
And now his step was on the stair, and now
He neared the blazoned hanging-cloth, and now . . .
The lights were out, and all life lay in trance
On floor or pallet, blanketed to chin,
Each in his mask of sullen-seeming death--
Fond souls that recked not what was in the air,
Else had the dead man's scabbard as it clashed
Against the balustrade, then on the tiles,
Brought awkward witness. One base hind there was
Had stolen a venison-pasty on the shelf,
And now did penance; him the fall half roused
From dreadful nightmare; once he turned and gasped,
Then straightway snored again. No other sound
Within the dream-enchanted house was heard,
Save that the mastiff, lying at the gate
With visionary bone, snarled in his sleep.
Secret as bridal-kiss may murder be,
Done was the deed that could not be undone
Throughout eternity. O silent tongue
That would blab all with silence! What to do?
How hide this speechless witness from men's gaze?
Living, that body vexed us; being dead
'T is like to give us trouble and to spare.
O for a cavern in deep-bowelled earth!
Quick, ere the dusky petals of the night
Unclosing bare the fiery heart of dawn
And thus undo us with its garish light,
Let us this mute and pale accusing clay
In some undreamed-of sepulchre bestow,
But where? Hold back thy fleet-wing'd coursers, Time,
Whilst we bethink us! Ah--such place there is!
Close, too, at hand--a place wherein a man
Might lie till doomsday safer from the touch
Of prying clown than is the spiced dust
Of an Egyptian in his pyramid.
At a dark alcove's end of that long hall,
The ancient armor-room in the east wing,
A certain door (whereof no mortal knew
save Wyndham, now that other lay a-cold)
Was to the panels of the wall so set,
And with such devilish shrewdness overlaid
By carvings of wild-flower and curled grape-leaf,
That one not in the favor of the trick,
Albeit he knew such mechanism was,
Ere he put finger on the secret spring
Had need of Job for ancestor, in faith!
You pressed a rose, a least suspected rose,
And two doors turned on hinge, the inner door
Closing a space of say some six feet square,
Unlighted, sheathed with iron. Doubtless here
The mediaeval Wyndhams hid their plate
When things looked wicked from the outer wall,
Or, on occasion, a grim ruthless lord
Immured some inconvenient two-faced friend--
To banquet bidden, and kept over night.
Such pranks were played in Merrie England then.
Sealed in the narrow compass of that cell,
Shut from God's light and his most precious air,
A man might have of life a half-hour's lease
If he were hale and well-breathed at the start.
Hither did Richard bear his brother's corse
And fling it down. Upon the stone-paved floor
In a thin strip of moonlight flung it down,
And then drew breath. Perhaps he paused to glance
At the white face there, with the strange half-smile
Out-living death, the brightness of the hair
Lying in loops and tangles round the brow--
A seraph's face of silver set in gold,
Such as the deft Italians know to carve;
Perhaps his tiger's blood cooled then, perhaps
Swift pity at his very heart-strings tugged,
And he in that black moment of remorse,
Seeing how there his nobler self lay slain,
Had bartered all this jewel-studded earth
To win life's color back to that wan cheek.
Ah, let us hope it, and some mercy feel,
Since each at compt shall need of mercy have.
Now how it happened, whether 't was the wind,
Or whether 't was some incorporeal hand
That reached down through the dark and did the thing,
Man knoweth not, but suddenly both doors,
Ere one could utter cry or put forth arm,
Closed with dull clang, and there in his own trap
Incontinent was red-stained Richard caught,
And as by flash of lightning saw his doom.
Call, an thou wilt, but every ear is stuffed
With slumber! Shriek, and run quick frenzied hands
Along the iron sheathing of thy grave--
For 't is thy grave--no egress shalt thou find,
No lock to break, no subtile-sliding bolt,
No careless rivet, no half loosened plate
For dagger's point to fret at and pry off
And let a stifling mortal get to air!
Angels of Light! what were a thousand years
Of rankling envy and contemned love
And all the bitter draughts a man may drink
To that half hour of Richard's with his Dead?
Through silence, gloom, and star-strown paths of Night
The breathless hours like phantoms stole away.
Black lay the earth, in primal blackness wrapt
Ere the great miracle once more was wrought.
A chill wind freshened in the pallid East
And brought sea-smell of newly blossomed foam,
And stirred the leaves and branch-hung nests of birds.
Fainter the glow-worm's lantern glimmered now
In the marsh land and on the forest's hem,
And the slow dawn with purple laced the sky
Where sky and sea lay sharply edge to edge.
The purple melted, changed to violet,
And that to every delicate sea-shell tinge,
Blush-pink, deep cinnabar; then no change was,
Save that the air had in it sense of wings,
Till suddenly the heavens were all aflame,
And it was morning. O great miracle!
O radiance and splendor of the Throne,
Daily vouchsafed to us! Yet saith the fool,
"There is no God!" And now a level gleam,
Thrust like a spear-head through the tangled boughs,
Smote Wyndham's turrets, and the spell was broke.
And one by one, on pallet stretched or floor,
The sleepers wakened; each took up afresh
His load of life; but two there were woke not,
Nor knew 't was daybreak. From the rusty nail
The gateman snatched his bunch of ancient keys,
And, yawning, vowed the sun an hour too soon;
The scullion, with face shining like his pans,
Hose down at heel and jerkin half unlaced,
On hearthstone knelt to coax the smouldering log;
The keeper fetched the yelping hounds their meat;
The hostler whistled in the stalls; anon,
With rustling skirt and slumber-freshened cheek,
The kerchief'd housemaid tripped from room to room
(Sweet Gillian, she that broke the groom his heart),
While, wroth within, behind a high-backed chair
The withered butler for his master waited,
Cursing the cook. That day the brewis spoiled.
That day came neither kinsman to break bread.
When it was seen that both had lain abroad,
The wolf-skins of their couches made that plain
As pike-staff, or the mole on Gillian's cheek,
The servants stared. Some journey called them hence;
At dead of night some messenger had come
Of secret import, may be from the Queen,
And they paused not for change of raiment even.
And yet, in faith, that were but little like;
Sir Richard had scant dealings with the Court.
Still--if Northumberland were in arms again.
'T was passing strange. No beast had gone from rack.
How had they gone, then? Who looked on them last?
Up rose the withered butler, he it was:
They supped together, of no journey spoke,
Spoke little, 't was their custom; after meal
The master's brother sallied forth alone,
The master stayed within. "That did he not,"
Quoth one, "I saw Sir Richard in the close
I' the moonrise." "'T was eleven on the stroke,"
Said Gillian softly, "he, or 't was his ghost--
Methought his face was whiter than my smock--
Passed through the courtyard, and so into house.
Yet slept he not there!" And that other one,
The guest unwelcome, kinsman little loved
(How these shrewd varlets turn us inside out
At kitchen-conclaves, over our own wine!)
Him had no eye seen since he issued forth
As curfew sounded. "Call me lying knave"--
He of the venison-pasty had the word--
"And let me nevermore dip beak in ale
Or sit at trencher with good smoking meat,
If I heard not, in middle of the night,
The cock crow thrice, and took it for a sign."
"So, marry, 't was--that thou wert drunk again."
But no one laughed save he that made the jest,
Which often happens. The long hours wore on,
And gloaming fell. Then came another day,
And then another, until seven dawns
In Time's slow crucible ran ruddy gold
And overflowed the gray horizon's edge;
And yet no hosts at table--an ill thing!
And now 't was on the eve of Michaelmas.
What could it mean? From out their lethargy
At last awaking, searchers in hot haste,
Some in the saddle, some afoot with hounds,
Scoured moor and woodland, dragged the neighboring weirs
And salmon-streams, and watched the wily hawk
Slip from his azure ambush overhead,
With ever a keen eye for carrion:
But no man found, nor aught that once was man.
By land they went not; went they water-ways?
Might be, from Bideford or Ilfracombe.
Mayhap they were in London, who could tell?
God help us! do men melt into the air?
Yet one there was whose dumb unlanguaged love
Had all revealed, had they but given heed.
Across the threshold of the armor-room
The savage mastiff stretched himself, and starved.
Now where lags he, upon what alehouse bench
'Twixt here and London, who shall lift this weight?
Were he not slain upon the Queen's highway
Ere he reached Town, or tumbled into ford
With too much sack-and-sugar under belt,
Then was his face set homeward this same hour,
Why lingers he? Ill news, 't is said, flies fast,
And good news creeps; then his must needs be good
That lets the tortoise pass him on the road.
Ride, Dawkins, ride! by flashing tarn and fen
And haunted hollow! Look not where in chains
On Hounslow heath the malefactor hangs,
A lasting terror! Give thy roan jade spur,
And spare her not! All Devon waits for thee,
Thou, for the moment, most important man!
A sevennight later, when the rider sent
To Town drew rein before The Falcon inn
Under the creaking of the windy sign,
And slipped from saddle with most valorous call
For beer to wash his throat out, then confessed
He brought no scrap of any honest news,
The last hope died, and so the quest was done.
"They far'd afoot," quoth one, "but where God wot."
The blackthorn bloomed anew, and the long grass
Was starred with flowers that once Griselda prized,
But plucked not. She, poor wench, from moon to moon
Waxed pale and paler: of no known disease,
The village-leech averred, with lips pursed out
And cane at chin; some inward fire, he thought,
Consumed. A dark inexplicable blight
Had touched her, thinned her, till of that sweet earth
Scarce more was left than would have served to grow
A lily. Later, at a fresh-turned grave,
From out the maiden strewments, as it were,
A whisper rose, of most pathetic breath,
Of how one maid had been by two men loved--
No names, God's mercy!--and that neither man
Would wed her: why?--conjecture faltered there,
For whiter was she than new-drifted snow,
Or bleached lamb's wool, or any purest thing,
Such stuff in sooth as Heaven shapes angels of;
And how from their warm, comfortable beds
These two men wandered out into the night,
Sore stricken and distempered in their mind,
And being by Satan blinded and urged on
Did fling them headlong from a certain crag
That up Clovelly way o'erhangs the sea--
O'erhangs the sea to tempt unhappy folk.
From door to door the piteous legend passed,
And like a thrifty beggar took from each.
And when the long autumnal season came
To that bleak, bitter coast, and when at night
The deep was shaken, and the pent cloud broke
Crashing among the lurid hills of heaven,
And in brief sudden swoonings of the gale
Contentious voices rose from the sand-dunes,
Then to low sobs and murmurs died away,
The fishwives, with their lean and sallow cheeks
Lit by the flickering driftwood's ruddy glow,
Drew closer to the crane, and under breath
To awestruck maidens told the fearful tale.
The red leaf withered and the green leaf grew.
'T was said that once the Queen reached out her hand--
This was at Richmond in her palace there--
And let it rest on Burleigh's velvet sleeve,
And spoke--right stately was she in her rouge:
"Prithee, good Master Cecil, tell us now
Was 't ever known what ill befell those men,
Those Wyndhams? Were they never, never found?
Look you, 't will be three years come Michaelmas:
'T were well to have at least the bones of them.
'Fore God, sir! this is something should be seen!
When the Armada, which God smote and sunk,
Threatened our Realm, our buckler and our shield
Were such stout hearts as that young Wyndham was.
The elder brother--well, Heaven fashioned him.
Our subjects are our subjects, mark you that.
Not found, forsooth! Why, then, they should be found!"
Fain had my good Lord Burleigh solved the thing,
And smoothed that ominous wrinkle on the brow
Of her Most Sweet Imperious Majesty.
Full many a problem his statecraft had solved--
How strangle treason, how soothe turbulent peers,
How foil the Pope and Spain, how pay the Fleet--
Mere temporal matters; but this business smelt
Strongly of brimstone. Bring back vanished folk!
That could not Master Cecil an he would.
The red leaf withered and the green leaf grew.
Dark were the days that came to Wyndham Towers
With that grim secret rusting in its heart.
On the sea's side along the fissured wall
The lichen spread in patches of dull gold
Up to the battlements, at times assailed
By sheeted ghosts of mist blown from the sea,
Now by the whistling arrows of the sleet
Pelted, and thrice of lightning scorched and seamed,
But stoutly held from dreary year to year
By legions of most venerable rooks,
Shrill black-robed prelates of the fighting sort.
In the wide moat, run dry with summer droughts
Great scarlet poppies lay in drifts and heaps,
Like bodies fall'n there in some vain assault.
Within, decay and dolor had their court--
Dolor, decay, and silence, lords of all.
From room to room the wind went shuddering
On some vague endless quest; now pausing here
To lift an arras, and then hurrying on,
To some fresh clue, belike! The sharp-nosed mouse
Through joist and floor discreetly gnawed her way,
And for her glossy young a lodging made
In a cracked corselet that once held a heart.
The meditative spider undisturbed
Wove his gray tapestry from sill to sill.
Over the transom the stone eagle drooped,
With one wing gone, in most dejected state
Moulting his feathers. A blue poisonous vine,
Whose lucent berry, hard as Indian jade,
No squirrel tried his tooth on, June by June
On the south hill-slope festered in the sun.
Man's foot came not there. It was haunted ground.
The red leaf withered and the green leaf grew.
An oak stood where an acorn tumbled once,
Ages ago, and all the world was strange.
Now, in that year King Charles the Second left
Forever the soft arms of Mistress Gwynn
And wrapt him in that marble where he lies,
The moulder'd pile with its entombed Crime
Passed to the keep of a brave new-fledged lord,
Who, liking much the sane and wholesome air
That bent the boughs and fanned the turret's top,
Cried, "Here dwell I!" So fell it on a day
The stroke of mallets and the screech of saws
In those bleak chambers made such din as stopped
The careful spider half-way up his thread,
And panic sent to myriad furtive things
That dwelt in wainscots and loved not the sun.
Vainly in broken phalanx clamorous
Did the scared rooks protest, and all in vain
The moths on indolent white damask wings
At door and casement rallied. Wyndham Towers
Should have a bride, and ghosts had word to quit.
And now, behold what strange thing came to pass.
A certain workman, in the eastern wing
Plying his craft alone as the day waned--
One Gregory Nokes, a very honest soul,
By trade wood-carver--stumbled on a door
Leading to nowhere at an alcove's end,
A double door that of itself swung back
In such strange way as no man ever saw;
And there, within a closet, on the flags
Were two grim shapes which, vaguely seen at first
In the half light, grew presently distinct--
Two gnomes or vampires seemed they, or dire imps
Straight from the Pit, in guise fantastical
Of hose and doublet: one stretched out full length
Supine, and one in terror-stricken sort
Half toppled forward on the bended knee,
Grasping with vise-like grip the other's wrist,
As who should say, Arouse thee, sleep no more!
But said it not. If they were quick or dead,
No sign they gave beyond this sad dumb show.
Blurred one face was, yet luminous, like the moon
Caught in the fleecy network of a cloud,
Or seen glassed on the surface of a tarn
When the wind crinkles it and makes all dim;
The other, drawn and wrenched by mortal throes,
And in the aspect such beseeching look
As might befall some poor wretch called to compt
On the sudden, even as he kneels at prayer,
With Mercy! turned to frost upon the lip.
Thus much saw Nokes within the closet there
Ere he drew breath; then backing step by step,
The chisel clutched in still uplifted hand,
His eyes still fixed upon the ghosts, he reached
An open window giving on the court
Where the stone-cutters were; to them he called
Softly, in whispers under his curved palm,
Lest peradventure a loud word should rouse
The phantoms; but ere foot could climb the stair,
Or the heart's pulses count the sum of ten,
Through both dread shapes, as at God's finger-touch,
A shiver ran, the wavering outlines broke,
And suddenly a chill and mist-like breath
Touched Nokes's cheek as he at casement leaned,
And nought was left of that most piteous pair
Save two long rapiers of some foreign make
Lying there crossed, a mass of flaky rust.
O luckless carver of dead images,
Saint's-head or gargoyle, thou hast seen a sight
Shall last thee to the confines of the grave!
Ill were thy stars or ever thou wert born
That thou shouldst look upon a thing forbid!
Now in thine eye shall it forever live,
And the waste solitudes of night inhabit
With direful shadows of the nether world,
Yet leave thee lonely in the throng of men--
Not of them, thou, but creature set apart
Under a ban, and doomed henceforth to know
The wise man's scorn, the dull man's sorry jest.
For who could credence give to that mad tale
Of churchyard folk appearing in broad day,
And drifting out at casement like a mist?
Marry, not they who crowded up the stair
In haste, and peered into that empty cell,
And had half mind to buffet Master Nokes,
Standing with finger laid across his palm
In argumentative, appealing way,
Distraught, of countenance most woe-begone.
"See!--the two swords. As I 'm a Christian soul!"
"Odds, man!" cried one, "thou 'st been a-dreamin', man.
Cleave to thy beer, an' let strong drink alone!"
So runs the legend. So from their long sleep
Those ghosts arose and fled into the night.
But never bride came to that dark abode,
For wild flames swept it ere a month was gone,
And nothing spared but that forlorn old tower
Whereon the invisible fingers of the wind
Its fitful and mysterious dirges play.
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