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Poem by Menella Bute Smedley

The Story of Queen Isabel

In the grey halls of Hugh de Lusignan
Dwelt Princess Isabel, too wild a bird
For such a cage, for she was scarce fifteen;
Life quiver'd like a rosebud in her hand,
Showing the bloom and fragrance at its heart
Through films of beauty, not as yet withdrawn,
Waiting a warmer touch. She was betroth'd
To Hugh, and by the manner of the time
Bred in his house, that she might learn his ways,
Make her smooth brow a mirror for his smile,
And practise, ere she vow'd, a wife's submission.
1Wives should have grown all perfect by such practice.
Perhaps they wearied in the exercise,

Like children only train'd by scales and chords,
Who, grown, fling by their music as a task,
The secrets of its glory still unlearn'd.

She flutter'd through the household like a breeze
That brings a blossom down at every breath,
And makes an order'd walk impossible;
The strong tree feels it stir about his heart,
And moves his stately arms to hold it fast,
But it flits on, to ruffle some lone pool
Or dust a swallow's wing.

Under the curve
Of the dark portal, on his steed, Sir Hugh
Sate like a picture, half his calm face light,
Half shadow, framed in azure sheens of steel,
And crown'd with plumes that scarcely moved, he sate
So still; but in his eyes the shadow fix'd,
And seem'd the symbol of an inward gloom;
For he had pour'd his heart in one farewell,
Going to war, and on its flood a frost
Had fallen—I know not how—a look, a tone,
A touch, a silence—life is full of such,
Full till it overflows, and drops itself

At last into the tranquil depths of death.
You would have wonder'd at his face, it seem'd
Too grand to be so troubled; but a rock,
Scorning the strokes of ocean, will grow dark
Under the passage of an April cloud,
And such a cloud was on his spirit now.
It pass'd. What wrought the change? It could not be
This spray of myrtle striking on his breast,
Blown by the wind, or toss'd from some gay hand
Which closed the lattice as the flower came down,
And, closing, hid a flash of smiles? What spell
Is in the blossom, that he takes it up,
Talks to it with the rapture of his eyes,
Kisses it like a relic, and receives
Life, grace, hope, pardon from the kiss? Ask not!
Nor let him ask! But let him ride away,
And let it lie as softly on his heart
As the first breath of some delicious hope
Long look'd for, oft refused, coming at last,
And hail'd almost with pain! Yes, let him go,
And feed and fill the passion of his soul
With thoughts which answer to his own, and eyes
Which speak his language, and dream-histories

Most strong and subtle in their linkèd proofs;
Making it clear that what he saw was false,
And what he dreams is true for evermore.

And Isabel, who threw the flower, and shut
The casement, and stood still, nor once look'd forth
To watch the parting hero, shook her curls,
And laugh'd, and told her image in the glass
It was a fault to be so beautiful.
Her maid had told her so, and, sooth to say,
If such a fault there be, she was most guilty;
For, not the glory of her face, the mould
Like some young sister of Antinous,
The deep eyes, whose capacity for tears
Life had not tested yet, the perfect lips
Made for soul-utterance, when the soul should wake,
Not these alone, but something more than these
Bewilder'd and enchain'd you when she moved,
Making you think that all things fair on earth,
All woodland vaults, and mountain solitudes,
All sunset grandeurs, and all morning blooms,
Were meant as frames and backgrounds for her form,
And, till she took her place, were not complete.

She stood and listen'd, arching one small hand

About her ear, like some most delicate shell,
And smiling, as she gather'd in the sounds
Not of those parting footsteps. “O! Isaure,
Think you he cometh?” And Isaure replied,
“How could he choose but come?” “I do not know—
Was it a fault to answer when he spoke?
I could not help it, if it was a fault.”
“Nay, sweetest lady,” quoth the false Isaure,
“'Twas simple courtesy. I never saw,
Not I, such reverence as his. He seem'd
To think you born a queen. He would not chide
The lovely starts and freedoms of your youth
With that relentless pertinacious frown
Which marks you as a slave whene'er you speak.
Did you not see his rapture when you smiled?”
Hanging her head, she answer'd, “No—I think
I should not know him—I scarce saw his face.”
“How? Not his great black eyes?” “Black eyes,” she cried,
Lifting an angry brow; “Girl, they were blue!
Blue as these sapphires on my wrist!” But here
A glance shot past her from the false Isaure,
Which clearly met its answer. Isabel,

With a faint outcry, like a frighten'd bird,
Dropp'd on her knees, dared not look round, but crouch'd
As if to hide herself beneath her hair,
And spread her hands before her face—weak fence,
Soon sever'd! One strong finger broke it down,
And, gather'd in the grasp of him who stoop'd
Above her, and uplifted her, she seem'd,
Indeed, a little fluttering frighten'd dove
In a hawk's clutch. But this triumphant hawk
Could sing as sweetly as a nightingale
To charm his willing prey.

He was a man
In the fresh noon of life, large-limb'd and tall,
Broad-brow'd and stately—with imperial eyes—
He had them from the old Plantagenets,
And had not so misused the legacy
As quite to mar it yet—though nought was left
But a king's semblance masking a churl's heart.
Poor Isabel, who worshipp'd what she saw,
Child Isabel, who saw but what she worshipp'd,
Now, trembling at his touch, but not with fear,
Murmur'd proud words, and thought she conquer'd him

When he drew back abash'd. She could not trace
The subtle smile in his accustom'd eyes,
And, in his homage, she forgave herself
For overboldness, as he knew she would.
Then came the common tale,—“I die without thee,
And death is better than to live without thee!”
“Ah go—I must not listen!” “Then farewell;
Nor sight nor hearing shall offend thee more,
But grant my grave a tear!” Fast come the tears;
So fast, he needs must stay to wipe them off.
And then strong words—“A crown is at thy feet!
Speak, and I set it on thy brow!” And then—
Why linger on the way? The end is known!
Pledged by each weak reluctance, she resists
Only to yield. “It is impossible!”
“Nay, nay, my love, the steeds are at the door.”
“I could not go alone.” “Isaure is here.”
(Fond false Isaure would guard her through the world.)
“But how disguised?” And while she speaks, the folds
Are wrapp'd around her. So a life is lost!
Her foot is on the downward slope of doom,
Exulting, weeping, confident, afraid,

She trusts—she ventures—she is at the foot!
And so Prince John of England steals his bride.
O, Isabel! one throb of that true heart
Which heaves in hope beneath thy myrtle spray
Is more than this man's life. Thou know'st it not.
We seldom know the worth of what we lose
Till we have lost it; but that man is blest
Who from the desolate caverns of the night
Looks back to the far morning, and beholds
A flower which died upon his heart, and not
A star which only pass'd before his face.
There are such things as empty lives, and these
Are drearier than full tombs.

A day and night
They rode together, each swift hour more rich
In tender thought and wonder than the last;
Her dreams had all been vague; and now she dream'd
This bright reality should teach her all.
For she knew nothing—judged not—but received.
He smiled, and “So,” she thought, “a hero smiles.”
He spoke, she listen'd greedily, to learn
The way in which a model knight made love;
He swore a little when his courser tripp'd,

And “This,” she thought, “is done by angry kings,
I must not heed it.” So she question'd not,
Miss'd not, expected not, but still received;
Till once his bold eyes burn'd upon her face
So fiercely, that she shrank and dropp'd her veil,
And trembled inwardly a little while,
Then to herself said, chiding, “This is love.
I have been told I am too young for love;
When I am older, I shall bear it better;
But I am not too young to wear a crown,
And be a prince's bride.”

So they rode on,
And came to Chaluz, to the English camp,—
A town of tents, wrapt round about a fort,
Like a white turban round a swarthy brow.
“And here,” so said the prince, “King Richard lay,
That warrior of the world, who never slept,
Sieging and storming Chaluz for his pastime.
And here the prince would bring his lovely bride,
And give her to his sister-queen, to keep
Till Chaluz fell, and they could wed in peace.”
All this was true. (When John of England spake,
Full seldom could men say, “All this is true.”)
But Isabel was royal; unbetroth'd,

He might have woo'd her in the face of day;
He dared not wrong her. His unknightly heart,
(Cold, mean, and scanty, as a pauper's dole,)
Knew one deep fire—besides the hunger-fit,
Which he call'd love till it was satisfied,
And then call'd nothing!—one deep quenchless fire,—
Hatred and scorn for noble Lusignan.
Judge no man by his love; 'tis oft a shape
So mantled in his hopes, he cannot see it
For what it is; but judge him by his hate:
If he shrink back from generous souls, and find
Specks in the sun, and stains upon the snow;
If great deeds warm him not, and stirring words,
Words that are weapons, only arm his heart
With unbelief, condemn him! He is dark,
He hates the light because his deeds are evil,
He is impure, and cannot look on God.

They came to Chaluz as the twilight fell,
And found a stir and tumult in the camp,
But not of battle, and a noise of tears,
(Strange music stealing through those banner'd lines),

such a wan array of soldier-faces,
Wide-eyed, mute, mournful, wheresoe'er they moved,
That it appall'd them like a spectral host
New-ris'n by moonlight, and the prince's voice
Stopp'd in his throat. But lo! one caught his rein
With, “Prince, the king is dying!” and another
Cried, “King that is to be, in one short hour,
Remember that I hail'd you first as king.”
He, trembling, from his horse, and scarce aware
Of the slight form that flutter'd to his side,
(His gather'd rose forgotten, when the blast
Once touch'd himself), went onward to the tent,
And in, she still beside him. Afterward
The knights remember'd they had seen her there,
And marvell'd why they marvell'd not; they felt
Such palsy of amazement and distress,
That, as a cup receives wine, milk, oil, poison,
And holds them all alike, and has no sense
Of difference among them, so their eyes
Perceived all objects, and distinguish'd none,
None save that grand still face, from which the cloud
Of life was slowly passing, to reveal
Light never seen till now.

In the tent-door
Stood Isabel, and saw the dying king.
He, on his couch, an arrow in his breast,
Kept down his pain as though it were his foe,
And gazed, unshaken, in the eyes of Death.
She heard him speak. There stood an archer bound,
At his bed-foot, defiant, in the gripe
Of men whose faces thirsted for his blood,
Scarce able to restrain themselves, and wait
His sentence; this was he who slew the king;
And the king spoke his doom. “Take him away,
And set him free, I freely pardon him.”
They dragg'd him forth. Then was the place made calm
Except for grief; and the king smiled, and waved
His strong hand feebly, and, with steady voice,
Slow dying into silence like a horn,
Said: “Farewell, England! farewell, all my knights!
Remember me in battle, as a man
Who never turn'd his back, nor broke his faith,
Nor fail'd to spare the weak. I have not shaped
A Law to keep my name for after-times,
As on a throne, above the minds of men;

But Man is more than Law, and I may leave
Some impress of myself upon the world,
One poor brief life, helping to feed the flame
Of chivalry, and keep alive the truth
That courage, honour, mercy, make a knight.”
Here paused the stately sound, and then resumed
More softly: “Do not weep. O, die with me,
But do not hold me back! I cannot die
With all this weight of tears about my heart.”
And low sobs answer'd through the stillness, yet
You could not see who wept. Then stretch'd the king
His arms, and cried: “I see, I see a Cross
Beneath the palms. O, weary waste of sand!
O, Cross, my home! let me lie down and sleep
At Thy dear foot, and dream of deeds to come,
Forgetting all the feeble, sinful past!
Father, forgive me! Is my brother there?
Let some one tell him to be true to England.
Where is my sword? This trumpet in mine ears,
So far, so faint, is yet a call to war—
To horse! To horse!” Erect he sate, and shook
His sword, cried: “God for England!” and was dead.

Then from the floor a woman rose, and stood
A moment, swaying, like a wind-swept reed,
And stared upon the corpse, and touch'd its hand
With passionate lips, and groan'd, and moved away,
While the knights murmur'd: “Passage for the queen.”
Out of the tent she pass'd, her garments brush'd
By Isabel, and, while a heart beats ten,
The two stood face to face, as if i' the west
The grief and darkness of a night of storms
Fronted the morning's joy. Another dawn
Glisten'd in Isabel's unconscious eyes,
For she had look'd upon a great man's death,
And she was changed. There is a day in Spring
When under all the earth the secret germs
Begin to stir and glow before they bud;
The wealth and festal pomps of Midsummer
Lie in the heart of that inglorious day,
Which no man names with blessing, though its work
Is blest by all the world. Such days there are
In the slow story of the growth of souls,
And such a day was this for Isabel.

Then came a time of tumult. Knight by knight

To their new lord did homage; jubilee
Blent strangely with the sights and sounds of woe,
As if some scoffer play'd a light lavolte
To mock a funeral. Not an hour stay'd John
Beside his brother's couch; with shaking hands
He took the proffer'd crown; and with white lips,
Widening in shallow laughter, mutter'd words
Of welcome to his vassals' fealty.
She who stood near him thought his heart was moved
By some strong shock of crossing waves, which meet
And shatter into trifles of mere spray.
It was not so. His was a coward soul,
Afraid of all but pleasure; shuddering
At life, or death, or greatness, or repose;
He made her sit beside him, and rejoiced
To read the wonder of her loveliness
In the first glance and start of all who came;
He made them kiss her hand, and for an hour
Revell'd in sufferance of such petty homage,
Like one who shows a priceless gem, that men
May covet it; then in a sudden wrath
He snatch'd her fingers from the lip of one
Who knelt, and toss'd them from him with an oath

Hard as a blow, and sent her to her maids.
Yet when he saw her next, he knew so well
To speak of passion and of reverence,
To turn his anger on the knight, whose lips
Were something over-busy with her hand,
That her proud heart, bewilder'd but appeased,
Misdeem'd him still her lover, and forgave
The natural, noble jealousies of love.
O, new to love and life! thine ignorance
Melts slowly into knowledge; twice perhaps
Thou mayst be cheated with a lie—aye, thrice—
Not oftener; thou shalt stretch thy hand to feel
For the quick pulses of a fellow-heart,
And find a blank, and know thyself deceived.

The Queen, a four-days wife, and panting still
Up to her neck in splendours, sate enthroned
Her lord beside her, on a gala day,
To see the people come, and go—and smile
Like a mere goddess o'er the human scene.
Her girlish thoughts were lower than her throne,
Playing, like children, on the swarded slopes,
Hiding in leafy nests, or dancing forth
Like May-flies on quick waters; but the crown

Which girt her brow, was scarce a stronger ring
Than that wherewith her pride had fenced her youth,
And she sate still, in patient stateliness.
There came a herald to the presence, sent
She knew not whence, but something in his face,
Lifted from due obeisance, as he look'd
Into her careless eyes before he spoke,
Hath made her start and blush. Yet in that look
No insult lurk'd; it seem'd a mute appeal,
Like a true hound inquiring for his master.
Three times a horn was winded, then he spoke:—
“John, King of England, listen to my voice.
The noble Marcher, Hugh de Lusignan,
Hath sent me here to challenge and defy thee,
And scorn thee for a caitiff, to the face;
For that thou didst, not openly by daylight,
But with base subterfuge and craft unknightly,
Steal a great treasure from him, which to name
He thinks unseemly; but for which he lived,
And is prepared to die. There lies his gage!
At any hour, in any place, by day
Or night, in France or England, he will meet thee,
And prove his words upon thy recreant body.”
He drew his clashing gauntlet off, and paused

As if about to hurl it at the king,
Who shrank and raised his hand. The herald laugh'd,
And flung it at his feet. King John, being safe,
Sneer'd as he answer'd,—“Go, and tell thy lord
That if he is so lavish of his blood,
I will appoint a man to fight with him,
He is too small for me. Let the glove lie.”
This to his knights, who all had drawn their swords,
And were contending which should lift the glove,
After the English manner; knowing not
The cause of strife, but eager to be in it.
Thus curb'd, they follow him with frowning eyes
And fingers restless at their hilts; but he
Cried, “Now to tennis!” and broke up the court
As lightly as a maid. The queen stood still
Like one who hath been struck, who knows not yet
Where is the blow, or what the pain, but feels
A certain chillness in the heart and brain,
As if life paused a little while and doubted
Whether it should resume its course. But then,
As a branch stoops with over-weight of snow,
Lets down its burden, and starts back again
Noiselessly and unwounded to its place,

She dropp'd the cold oppression from her heart,
And rose, and seem'd unscathed. The herald faced her,
Reading her with his eyes, they two alone,
Till, like a whirlwind, sprang the wrathful king
Back to her side, and caught her by the wrist,
With, “Madam, came this messenger for you?
What? Will you shame me here before my court?
Hence! to your chamber!” Not a step she moved,
But, when he loosed his grasp, she laid her hands
Upon his breast, and pierced him with her eyes,
And whisper'd, “Shall men say you were afraid?”
“Why, aye, my love, they must an if they list,”
He answer'd lightly, in a heartless jest
Quenching his ire. “And if you want a hero,
You should have stay'd beside the Marcher Hugh,
Who hath a gift that way. He does not risk
So great a kingdom and so fair a wife,
And can be valiant at a cheaper rate.”
Mocking, he went. Her maidens gather'd round
To lead her in, but with a cry, she cast
Her face upon the bosom of Isaure;
A cry, as of a woman robb'd and wrong'd
Who knows her rage is helpless, and consents
To her despair.

Not undeceived at once
Do hearts give up their idols; many shifts
They try to cheat themselves; and, of repulsed,
Creep back like beaten slaves. Blank wonder first,
Then unbelief and obstinate confusion;
Then, shock by shock, resisted horror came
Slowly, with many an after-thought of how
And why the vileness was not what it seem'd,
And hers the blunder, but not his the shame.
But in a year the lesson was complete;
Henceforth the lustre of her youth and crown
Shone on a widow's brow for evermore.
Yet, half a child, she found a foolish charm
In gems and unfamiliar gauds of state,
And the mere marvel of her loveliness;
Or drugg'd herself with pleasure, till she saw
Only unreal shapes and fantasies,
And, for a space, forgot the Facts of life.
In such brief intervals her anguish slept,
Then sprang on her refresh'd. Meantime, her heart
Kept still an inner chamber, whose barr'd door
She dared not open, but within there dwelt
A Memory and a Name. As piece by piece,
And hue by hue, the glories and the gifts

Wherewith her blind belief had robed the King
Were rent away, they pass'd within that door,
And gather'd round that Name and Memory,
And were in their own place. She knew them there,
But tried to keep the secret from herself,
And would not look upon them.

This dark year
Was spent in England, where the people loved
To look on her great beauty, and believed
She must be happy, being born in France,
And yet so blest as to be Queen of England.
They served her with a blunter courtesy
Than her own race, yet would have died for her
Under less challenge. Shrinkingly she felt
The keenness of their island atmosphere,
Where every deed must bear the test of scorn,
Ere it have leave to call itself a deed;
And marvell'd at achievements, where attempts
Were so discouraged. Such a discipline
Makes greatness surly, so inured to strife,
That scarcely is it capable of peace;
But such a discipline makes greatness strong.
Under its knife the weaker buds fall off
And perish, while the central stem is left
Bare, but gigantic.

When the year was gone,
The king went back to France. A blacker time
Drew nigh; we need not tell in English ears
The story of Prince Arthur. Day by day
Heard Isabel how Hugh de Lusignan
Was as a sword in royal Arthur's hand,
And in his breast a soul; the noise of fame
Filling the general ear, had still for her
His accents, and she knew his master-touch
In each great deed, each page of chivalry,—
Fresh wreaths to fling before that secret shrine,
From which she turn'd away her face. At last
One drop of old Plantagenet was found
Lurking in John's cold veins, and his heart beat,
For just a moment, with the lion-pulse
Of his dead brother. England answer'd it,
And, with a bound, brought down the foe. The queen
Heard in her bower at Rouen, and went forth
With thoughts unspoken burning on her cheeks
To greet the victor, who, exhausted, came
From his first conquest, bringing in his train
One captive, stately in his first defeat.

A three weeks' royal progress through the land
They went, with palfreys and with pursuivants;
Free banners waved, and clarions spake to lutes,
And silken splendours made the winding roads
Rivers of gems and flowers. Each morn the queen
Did poise the airy grandeur of her shape
On a new steed; the wayside seem'd all eyes,
The wind all acclamation. Proud she sate,
And with a forward gaze that never swerved,
Greeted the crowds to come, but scarcely seem'd
To see them when they pass'd. Behind her rode
A great array of cavaliers and dames,
And after them the captives, two and two,
Chain'd in vile tumbrils, twenty gallant knights
To swell the pomp, and show the doubting world
That even King John had won a battle once.
Bareheaded, in their stain'd and batter'd mail,
Ashamed, as beaten soldiers are ashamed,
Haggard with wrath, and hunger, and disdain,
Each man of them look'd twice as much a king
As their soft captor. Never saw the queen
A face among them, for she fear'd too much
To see the face of One; but evermore
A dream of pallid heroes vex'd her soul;

Till, having sigh'd through many restless nights,
She could endure no more, but suddenly
Wroth that her asking eyes had no response,
Cried, “Have you seen him?” to fond false Isaure,
Who knew her drift, but would not seem to know it,
Dreading the end, and so made doubtful answer:
“Seen whom? The king?” Girl Isabel, abash'd,
Turn'd from her and was dumb. Your foot may quench
A feeble flame; but if the flame be strong,
Trodden, it starts anew. For two days more
The trouble smoulder'd, then broke out again.
The page who led her palfrey (one more Spring
Had touch'd his brow than hers), who worshipp'd her
With tender desperation, like a boy,
Seeking no guerdon but a smile, and dying
In fancy for that guerdon thrice a day,
Mark'd every flush that cross'd her fading cheek,
And silently beset her as she went
With ceaseless proffers of himself. At last,
She bade him fetch a cup of wine, and he
Giving it, breathless, to her hand, was brought
Close to her, and could feel the faintest air

That pass'd her lips; then she, who did not know
She was about to speak till she had spoken,
Said, “Would the captive knights were so refresh'd!”
And put the goblet from her with a sigh.
Then for a week he walk'd beside her rein
With tidings in his face, but never spoke,
Until he heard her jesting with her maids,
Saying, she prized a book above a friend,
Because it talk'd to her when she was mute;
“But a queen's friend,” she said, “is ever mute
Till the queen talks.” When next he lifted her
Upon her steed, he said, “They thank your Grace
For daily benefits.” The colour rush'd
Out of her face. That white and speechless answer
Was all she gave; and through that summer's day
She look'd not on him once. Next morn, her hand
Trembled a little on his arm; he felt,
And answer'd, “Tis your mercy spares their lives;
For wounds, and weariness, and scanty food
Were slaying them before.” Too young she was
To keep her marble majesty unmoved,
And at these words she wept. 'Twas well for him
The king rode up just then. A moment more,

And his mad pity had betray'd them both.
Thenceforward, duly with the morn, he spoke.
Like a wild deer, which, being tamed, looks first
And flies, then looks and lingers, and at last
Looks and draws near, she learn'd to meet his eyes
And bear them, and at last respond to them;
A glance, a tear of thanks, a word of ruth,
No more; nor ever pass'd a name her lips
Nor his—he ignorant, and she afraid.
He, counting all for common tenderness
Of natural pity, pour'd alike on all;
She, owning nought but pity to herself,
Not owning that she pitied all for one.
And thus again to England, whose white cliffs
Seem'd once like bridal draperies, but now
Merely like shrouds of death. The captives went
To their own places; to their separate glooms,
Uncheer'd by glance, or hand, or hope; to brood
On those impossible glories of the past,
When they might touch the grass, and see the sky,
And do the work of men. But manly work
Is sometimes in a prison, where no fault
Has cast a great one, for his greatness smitten;
Where his calm eyes, not troubled by mere pain,

Look through a past so glorious and so pure,
That, crown'd by its undying light, he seems
To wear his sorrow like a monarch's robe.
There shall the love of nations cleave to him,
And men shall watch his prison as they watch
A beacon in the tempest, teaching them
By its true fire, the way that they should go.
His name shall be the trophy of his age,
When one man lived who lived not for himself,
But only for his country.

On the queen
Great darkness settled. First, the common air
Groan'd with the death of Arthur. No man told
The news before her, but it came to her
Silently, like a breath of pestilence,
Sapping her life. She ask'd not, but she knew
How it befell; and shudder'd when she took
Her place beside her lord, and ever dream'd,
Through all the senseless splendours of her court,
Of lonely cells, to which that news must come,
Breaking brave hearts. Then tardily came up
Vague notes of scatter'd sorrow from those cells,
And here and there she heard how one was dead,
Dying of grief, or want, or solitude,

Men said not which. As one who walks the shore
After a tempest, where a wreck hath been,
And knows that one he loved was in the ship,
And sees the blind sea cast her corpses up,
And dares not lift the tangle from the face
Lest he should see the face he fears to see;
But lingers near, until some passer says,
By such a sign, or such, it is not he,
Then to the next goes, trembling—so she heard
Each death; and, fearing till she heard the name,
Pass'd on to a new fear. At last her heart
Gave way within her, and she sought a place
To weep, and there she communed with herself.

“Shall this go on for ever? Can a child
(I was no more) have leave to bar itself
From all fair heritage of life? My youth
Lies spread before me like a desert. There
I must walk on until I meet with death,
And never stay my feet nor slake my thirst,
Nor look a moment in the face of hope—
And yet I had it!—Ah! woe's me, I had it,
And flung it from me! Can a worse sin be
Than scorn and loathing in the place of love?

it not sin to live so join'd to sin
You needs must drink its breath? Aye, tis pollution!
God's law not kept for fear it should be broken,
Once boldly broken, may be kept for ever;
And liberty, and love, and heavenly peace,
Make Eden in my heart. To save a life—
Why, that's plain virtue! I can save two lives;
One from the prison and the tomb, and one
From a worse prison and a deeper tomb,
And the slow shame of everlasting chains.
A name withholds me—but the name shall break,
And let me through to bliss!” Word rush'd on word,
Like troops that storm a breach. The breach was storm'd.
There is but little swiftness in the world;
A good deed lags, and loses half its grace
By being long'd for. But this sudden thought
Went like a shaft of passion to its aim,
Nor swerved nor falter'd, when the string was loosed.

Much favour'd her. The king was gone. Few guards

Cumber'd the summer palace where she dwelt,
And these loved her, loathed him, and would have kept
Her secret, had she told it. What they guess'd
They told not to each other. So she went
Unquestion'd through the twilight, and appear'd
Like a new star before that faithful page,
Who served her still; stood close, and spake to him:—
“Get me a page's dress and two good steeds;
That to my chamber, these beneath yon walls
To wait my bidding!” Speaking, she was gone.
He dazzled, but not doubting, did her hest,
And with the steeds kept watch beneath the moon,
His pacing steps as patient as his heart.

At night a boy sprang down the palace stair,
Out on the pale grass where the moonlight moves,
And shot into the darkness of the trees,
Fearing his shadow like a stranger. On
He crept, and paused beside the prison walls,
And scared the soldier with a shower of gems,
Crying, “Take these, and fly.” Among the dew
They lay, and mock'd but could not match its lustre;

Aghast, the man stoop'd down to gather them,
Nor touch'd the bounteous vision, who pass'd by,
Under the portal, up the vaulted gloom,
Even to the hopeless dungeon door, so barr'd
It scarcely seem'd to need its sentinel.
Here flash'd a ruby through the lamp's dim light;
“Take this, and fly, and leave thy keys with me.”
A pause show'd doubt—and then a diamond fell
Worth a king's ransom. “Nay, fear nothing, friend!
Go and be rich. The keys!” What sudden worlds
Of rest and splendour bribe the weary slave
From his hired faith! With weaker waves, perhaps,
He might have fought—this torrent sweeps him down—
Yet some rough conscience made him wait to lift
The massy bars; then ruefully, like one
Who never thought to come to such a pass,
But has no choice, he shakes his shaggy head,
And turns to grasp his fortune. Through the door
Went Isabel, and drew her page's cloak
Around her, and trod softly, and stood still,
Shrinking and shaking in the prison twilight;
Till, as her guarded and luxurious eyes,
686Not with such shades familiar, by degrees

Learn'd a new power of sight, she was aware
Of reeking walls unwindow'd, rusty chains
Broken, and in the grey gloom farther off
A quiet man asleep upon the floor.
How quiet! can this be death? She draws more near,
Scarce breathing. No! the slumber of a child.
She grasps her fiery heart and holds it down;
“O, couldst thou beat as softly!” On his face,
Bare to the lamp, a little worn and pale,
The habit of heroic thought was fix'd,
And could not be misread. It spake to her
With such a revelation in its speech
That she beheld herself for what she was,
And what she should have been. Ah, pity her,
Not him; shame strikes her down—she kneels—she falls—
And stifles all her sobs against the ground.
Gives but a moment to her swift remorse,
And grudges that—unworthy even to breathe
The air his presence purifies. She prays
That if he grace her with a passing thought,
He may believe her virtuous, and not dream
How base a hope beguiled her. Was it hope?

Now seems it on the other side o' the earth,
Farther and worse than death. But there is work
To do for him; that comfort she may take
To bind about the torture of her life—
A little dew upon a burning wound.
She dares not touch him: when she fits the key
Into his chain she blushes; when he wakes
She is about to fly; but stops herself,
And stands before him like a criminal
Without a voice.

He rose and stretch'd his hand
For the familiar hilt, then smiled to think
7How slow he was to learn that it was gone;
The loosen'd fetters, dropping as he rose,
Rang on the stone; below the flickering lamp
Stood a pale stripling in a page's cloak;
The door was open—with a stride that smack'd
Of freedom, he has reach'd it—then he turn'd
And his eye rested on the cowering boy,
And, half ashamed of strange discourtesy,
He said, “A captive soon forgets his manners;
Pardon, I pray you. What's your will with me?”
“Only to set you free.” The murmur came
Feebly through folded hands, and, when he moved

Nearer, the hands were raised. “Nay, fear me not,”
He said, with that majestic gentleness
Which was his way. “If you would hide your face
I will not try to see it. Let me thank you.
I think I feel a breeze upon my cheek
Not from these charnel vaults; a breeze that brings
Some message from the forests. I am free.
I never was a captive. I take up
My freedom where I left it, and efface
The fever-dream, and wake. Is it for pity
That I must thank you?” “By the western tower,”
She answer'd, seeming not to heed his words,
“Your steed awaits you.” Secretly she thought,
“O! when he finds two steeds will he discern
My purpose, and disdain me?” “Thanks again,”
He said, “but must I take no name with me
For blessing in my prayers?” At this a wish
Heaved in her troubled breast, and forced its way.
“It was the Queen,” she said, “who sent me here.”
Then such a sudden light of tenderness
Fill'd all his face, and glisten'd in his eyes,
That she, resisting this, felt she was made
More worthy of him, and was comforted.
He did not speak at first, and then she saw

A little cloud of unresented wrongs
Pass over that pure light, and then he spoke;
“My homage and deep thanks attend the Queen,
That of her mercy she remember'd me.”
He turn'd to go, and she stood still, in soul
Clasping his knees for pardon. Once again
He spoke, now trembling. “Boy, you serve the Queen;
I would,—I would I knew that she was happy.”
Here that undying woman-pride which fights
In noble natures to the last, and falls
Veiling its face from him who strikes it down,
That fault, which hath the form and force of virtue,
Sprang up in her and spoke. “She hath her choice,
She must be happy.” And they parted so.

The King came back to find his captive fled,
And his rage baffled by wild tales of ghosts
Who broke the dungeon doors, and loosed the chains,
And stood, disguised as pages, under walls
Holding swift horses. If he guess'd the truth
He show'd it not, though in his eyes there lurk'd
Strange subtle lights whene'er that trusty page
Led the Queen's steed. He kept his vengeance cold

Till it was wanted. He was busy, too,
With a new love, and hardly graced his wife
With such poor homage as concealment pays.
But into Isabel's deserted life
Had come a burst of sunshine, and the waste
Shone with a mirage. All her griefs forgot,
Her faults self-pardon'd, and her wrongs unfelt,
Watching two little tender veils lift up
From two soft violet-buds. O! new-born eyes!
Through you the mother sees awhile, and loses
Her proper vision. Vague and beautiful
The sweet world shines on her as on her babe,
And she remembers in it nothing wrong,
Sees nothing sorrowful. The day must come
When wrong and sorrow shall be multiplied
By myriad terrors; her bare heart the shield
To keep those eyes from once beholding them.

Three years she kept her treasure—a girl-babe,
Unwelcome, yet beloved—three peaceful years
Snatch'd from the course of tumult, like a nook
Of quiet water in a rushing stream,
Where foam-bells drift and cluster, while the waves
Eddy around and break below, yet leave

The little nest inviolate. Meantime
The gradual strength of England built itself
Into a tower for ever; and the day
Drew on, when feeble tyranny should fall
Against that tower and break. But this, not yet.
The King in dalliance steep'd his soul, and left
His wife and people to their separate works;
One only murmur cross'd the Queen's calm life
And touch'd her cloister'd heart with pangs of joy;
That the late captive, taking back to him
The lordship of his valour, had achieved
New greatness, and had join'd himself in peace
To England, doing service for the King.
“Was this for me?” she thought, then hid her eyes
In her babe's bosom, leaving there the thought.

Among her maids she work'd, when sudden feet
Rang all along the stairs, the doors gaped wide,
And, with a train of state, unheralded,
The King strode in. No prouder thing on earth
Was seen than her humility. She rose
For due obeisance, and her cheek was stone
When his lips laugh'd against it. There he stood,
And something in his smile was terrible,

Like slow fulfilment of a doom. The child
Slept near; she stood before it, and put back
A hurried hand, and hid it with a scarf,
As if unconscious. Smiling still, he spoke,
“Madam, your daughter is betroth'd to-day.
The Marcher, Hugh de Lusignan, hath woo'd her,
And got her for his wife, with my consent;
And, as you know of old, it is his fashion
To train his wives, he hath demanded her,
And she must go to him across the seas.
Joy to his work, and patience; he will be
A sober bridegroom, when she's fit to wed.
Will you not wish them joy? She sails to-night.”
She clung about his knees and kiss'd his feet,
Suing him like a god; his silence seem'd
Like mercy to her—it was only triumph.
This prostrate passion of her vain despair
Was what he sought. It is not good to look
Upon her anguish. When her swoon was past,
And past some weeks of fever, she rose up
To stagger faintly through the blank of life,
Blind, wistful, hopeless; ever in her heart,
A dumb reproach, and in her eyes a loss,
And in her voice a secresy of tears.

She ask'd, as once before, “Was this for me?”
And thought the vengeance hard, but had not strength
To plead against it, even with herself.
And still she sigh'd when other babes were given
To love but not to joy. They seem'd like ghosts,
And every movement scared her with remembrance.
She could not love another like the first,
Which open'd all the softness of her heart.

On stole the sombre years. The people saw
Her proud, fair face, and knew not what it mask'd;
Sometimes she graced the court beside her lord,
And sometimes dwelt in private; either way
Alike to her; she did as she was told.
One little draught of pity at her lips
She did not spurn, but drank, and was refresh'd.
The page, now grown a knight, and faithful still,
Still claiming nothing but the leave to love,
Was near her daily, and encounter'd her
With such poor comfort as his truth could give.
The King look'd on and was content. At last
There went a poisonous whisper through the land,
And dogged men, who scorn'd their caitiff lord,

Thought still his wife was bound to honour him;
And she, who guess'd not why they scowl'd at her,
Found greater comfort in the only eyes
That met her kindly; so the whisper grew;
And when the deadly fruit was ripe, it fell.

One summer's day she rode to join the King
At his new palace, where he summon'd her;
And, wearily dismounting, to resume
The chains a little while laid by, she read
Such truth and pity in those loyal eyes,
That her stray hand fell lightly on his brow
Bent to her stirrup, and she spake and sigh'd,—
“Friend, pray for me, I need it!” All in tears
He turn'd away; and she, with tears, went in;
Watch'd from a window by her lord, who show'd
The gesture to his train, and bade them mark;
Then greeted her so gaily, that she knew
He had some bitter purpose in his soul.

Beside her at the banquet, still he show'd
Unwonted homage, but her shuddering looks
Could nowhere find a substance for their fear;
(She noted not the absence of her knight.)

She waited till the long carouse was done,
Then, at his signal, rose. “Your cheeks are pale,
My queen,” he said, “sleep must their springtide prove,
To make them bloom anew. Give me your hand.
I'll see you to your chamber.” So they went
Together, with a train to marshall them.
The chamber was a blaze of light; the King
Stood still a moment by the curtain'd couch,
Holding her hand, and looking in her face,
As a wolf eyes the fawn before he springs,
Then dropp'd her hand, and drew the curtain back,
And hiss'd into her ear, “Your rest be soft!”
—This is no bed; it is an open tomb.
Upon the pillow lies the dumb despair
Of a familiar face without a soul,
A loyal breast, uncover'd and transfix'd,
And under the close dagger-hilt a stain
Slow spreading while they gazed. The Queen knelt down
Without a cry; kiss'd the wan brow, and said,
“O! my one friend, slain only for my love,
Happier than I, whom hate disdains to slay,
I will be true to thee as thou to me.

True, for thy living homage dared no more,
Than thy dead hand, to harm me. Fare thee well.
Be glad that thou hast served me in thy death,
Setting me free; for, henceforth, never more
Will I be made a pageant; never more
Shall this my spousal crown, defiled with blood,
Press my poor brows; and when my place is void,
Thy murderer shall not dare to ask the cause.
It is for me a kind of liberty
To seem henceforth the hapless thing I am,
And, in the prison of my private grief,
Weep for my child, and thee, and one besides.”

Forth with these words she went; the men stood by,
To let her pass; the women knelt and wept;
For the last act of such a tragedy
Was in her face, they could not choose but weep.
It seem'd as if the curtains of her heart
Were lifted, like the curtains of that couch,
To show a corpse. The very king himself
Trembled, and turn'd away his eyes in fear.
Henceforward, as she said, she dwelt apart;
And some believed she was a faithless wife,

Judged by her conscience, left unscathed for ruth;
Some knew her wrongs, and faintly pitied her
As men will pity woes they cannot help,
Desiring to forget them. Solitude
Gave her no comfort, only gave her time
For the slow, fruitless fever of regret
To prey upon her life; such grief as her's
Is never soften'd; flowers that grace a grave
Die in the hot air of a sick man's room,
Where fear and hope and longing banish peace.
These were the days when England built her tower,
She knowing not, nor heeding. If she heard
Aught of the tumult of the popular hope,
It seem'd to her like voices in a storm
To men whose ship is sinking, far at sea;
As they go down they hear but do not heed.
At last there came a voice which startled her,
And she stood breathless; through the land it went,
A murmur, then a trumpet, then a shout,—
“The king is dead.”

Due forms of widowhood
Fulfill'd in patience, as a debt to God,
Not man, because God's seal was on the chain
Now sever'd; she put by her royal state,

And hurried, like a pardon'd exile, home.
There did the ghost of childhood meet with her
And stretch its arms to welcome her again,
A gentle spectre, but a sorrowful
Because so joyous once. But not for that
She came—a living childhood summon'd her;
Faint with a six years' fast, the mother's heart
Hunger'd, yet fear'd to satisfy its hunger.
She sent a herald with a humble word
Might she not see her child? She did not ask
To break the treaty; this was not a claim,
It was a prayer. She would not keep her long,
Nor seek her often; for a little while
She pray'd that she might sometimes see her child,
Just long enough to clasp her, just to quench
The fever of her lips on that fresh cheek,
To know her face and shape, and mark the growth
Which happier eyes had watch'd. Unconsciously
The supplication strengthen'd to reproach
Which she drew back, and said she was content,
He must not think she murmur'd; she was glad
To know her daughter in such noble hands;
And there she ceased. But when the messenger
Was gone, she trembled, and would fetch him back

And write her embassage in softer phrase
Lest it should fail; and then she fear'd anew
And made it prouder, lest she should be shamed
By some misjudgment. While she waver'd thus
And wept, because the ruthless hours rush'd on,
And still her arms were vacant, in the room
A voice said, “Mother:” 'twas the melody
Of her own heart, grown vocal in her ears,—
Aye, and the dream was palpable! It stood
Before her, and came near, and touch'd her hand
So timidly—with moist and wistful eyes,
Not knowing why they wept, and looking at her
As if from a babe's face; remember'd eyes,
That almost seem'd—but that was fantasy—
As if they too remember'd. Love and Death
Were mingled for a moment in the cry,
The plunge, the anguish of that first embrace!
But then she lifts the sweet face from her heart,
Puts back the golden curls, and kisses them;
Reads all the features, and remembers them;
Weeps, wonders, laughs, and makes her rapture soft,
Lest it should scare the child, and turns away
To hide it, and comes back in sudden fear
Lest she should lose a moment of her bliss.

Then, with caressing hands upon her cheeks
Afraid to loose their hold, she questions her.
How came she here? “Oh, mother! I was brought.”
And was she happy? Silent wonder gave
Full answer, for she knew not what it was
Not to be happy. “Didst thou know my face?
Why seem'd I not a stranger?” Here she drew
A picture from the white deep of her breast,
And show'd it. “Long ago he gave me this,
And bade me never miss to look at it
Before my daily prayers. I never did.”
There Isabel beheld her own fair face,
Seen somewhat nearer to the dewy light
Of morn, but not more beautiful than now,
A little languid with the heats of noon.
She did not ask who gave it, but she blush'd.
Out of the same soft nest the same small hand
Drew a new treasure. “Mother, I was told
To give you this. I had well nigh forgot.”
She laid the message on her mother's knee,
A spray of wither'd myrtle, like a spell
To summon sights before the fixing eyes.

She fingers it; and how she looks at it!

And sees a castle doorway, and a face
Half light, half shadow, sorrowful, and proud,
And gentle—and a lattice—and a hand
That flings a myrtle spray, not wither'd then,
No, then a summer bud. “He went away!”
She says and weeps, “Ah me! he went away!
And I—I was not there when he came back!
O! if I had been there when he came back!”
Her thoughts destroy the Past, and grasp her life
At that far point, and mould it into bliss,
Sad still-born bliss, that might have been, and was not!
And she looks up, as if to wring from heaven
Some medicine for the weariness of hope;
Looks up, and sees a face, now all in light,
And drops herself upon a ready breast,
And feels the circle of protecting arms,
And through the dream of that delicious rest
Fearing to wake, she hears a living voice,
“Lo, now I am come back, and thou art here!”

Menella Bute Smedley

Menella Bute Smedley's other poems:
  1. What Hearest Thou?
  2. Waiting for the Tide
  3. To a Little Girl
  4. The Lay of King James I in his Captivity
  5. Odin's Sacrifice

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