Rhyme of the Duchess May

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Broad the forests stood (I read) on the hills of Linteged— Toll slowly. And three hundred years had stood mute adown each hoary wood, Like a full heart having prayed.
And the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west,— Toll slowly. And but little thought was theirs of the silent antique years, In the building of their nest.
Down the sun dropt large and red, on the towers of Linteged,— Toll slowly. Lance and spear upon the height, bristling strange in fiery light, While the castle stood in shade.
There, the castle stood up black, with the red sun at its back,— Toll slowly. Like a sullen smouldering pyre, with a top that flickers fire, When the wind is on its track.
And five hundred archers tall did besiege the castle wall,— Toll slowly. And the castle seethed in blood, fourteen days and nights had stood, And to-night, was near its fall.
Yet thereunto, blind to doom, three months since, a bride did come,— Toll slowly. One who proudly trod the floors, and softly whispered in the doors, "May good angels bless our home."
Oh, a bride of queenly eyes, with a front of constancies,— Toll slowly. Oh, a bride of cordial mouth,—where the untired smile of youth Did light outward its own sighs.
'Twas a Duke's fair orphan-girl, and her uncle's ward, the Earl, Toll slowly. Who betrothed her, twelve years old, for the sake of dowry gold, To his son Lord Leigh, the churl.
But what time she had made good all her years of womanhood, Toll slowly. Unto both those Lords of Leigh, spake she out right sovranly, "My will runneth as my blood.
"And while this same blood makes red this same right hand's veins," she said,— Toll slowly. "'Tis my will as lady free, not to wed a Lord of Leigh, But Sir Guy of Linteged."
The old Earl he smiled smooth, then he sighed for willful youth,— Toll slowly. "Good my niece, that hand withal looketh somewhat soft and small For so large a will, in sooth."
She, too, smiled by that same sign,—but her smile was cold and fine,— Toll slowly. "Little hand clasps muckle gold, or it were not worth the hold Of thy son, good uncle mine!"
Then the young lord jerked his breath, and sware thickly in his teeth,— Toll slowly. "He would wed his own betrothed, an she loved him an she loathed, Let the life come or the death."
Up she rose with scornful eyes, as her father's child might rise,— Toll slowly. "Thy hound's blood, my Lord of Leigh, stains thy knightly heel," quoth she, "And he moans not where he lies.
"But a woman's will dies hard, in the hall or on the sward!"— Toll slowly. "By that grave, my lords, which made me orphaned girl and dowered lady, I deny you wife and ward."
Unto each she bowed her head, and swept past with lofty tread. Toll slowly. Ere the midnight-bell had ceased, in the chapel had the priest Blessed her, bride of Linteged.
Fast and fain the bridal train along the night-storm rode amain:— Toll slowly. Hard the steeds of lord and serf struck their hoofs out on the turf, In the pauses of the rain.
Fast and fain the kinsmen's train along the storm pursued amain— Toll slowly. Steed on steed-track, dashing off—thickening, doubling, hoof on hoof, In the pauses of the rain.
And the bridegroom led the flight on his red-roan steed of might,— Toll slowly. And the bride lay on his arm, still, as if she feared no harm, Smiling out into the night.
"Dost thou fear?" he said at last;—"Nay!" she answered him in haste,— Toll slowly. "Not such death as we could find—only life with one behind— Ride on fast as fear—ride fast!"
Up the mountain wheeled the steed—girth to ground, and fetlocks spread,— Toll slowly. Headlong bounds, and rocking flanks,—down he staggered—down the banks, To the towers of Linteged.
High and low the serfs looked out, red the flambeaus tossed about,— Toll slowly. In the courtyard rose the cry—"Live the Duchess and Sir Guy!" But she never heard them shout.
On the steed she dropt her cheek, kissed his mane and kissed his neck,— Toll slowly. "I had happier died by thee, than lived on a Lady Leigh," Were the first words she did speak.
But a three months' joyaunce lay 'twixt that moment and to-day,— Toll slowly. When five hundred archers tall stand beside the castle wall, To recapture Duchess May.
And the castle standeth black, with the red sun at its back,— Toll slowly. And a fortnight's siege is done—and, except the Duchess, none Can misdoubt the coming wrack.
*....*....*....*
Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west,— Toll slowly. On the tower the castle's lord leant in silence on his sword, With an anguish in his breast.
With a spirit-laden weight, did he lean down passionate.— Toll slowly. They have almost sapped the wall,—they will enter therewithal, With no knocking at the gate.
Then the sword he leant upon, shivered—snapped upon the stone,— Toll slowly. "Sword," he thought, with inward laugh, "ill thou servest for a staff When thy nobler use is done!
"Sword, thy nobler use is done!—tower is lost, and shame begun"— Toll slowly. "If we met them in the breach, hilt to hilt or speech to speech, We should die there, each for one.
"If we met them at the wall, we should singly, vainly fall,"— Toll slowly. "But if I die here alone,—then I die, who am but one, And die nobly for them all.
"Five true friends lie for my sake,—in the moat and in the brake,"— Toll slowly. "Thirteen warriors lie at rest, with a black wound in the breast, And not one of these will wake.
"And no more of this shall be!—heart-blood weighs too heavily,"— Toll slowly. "And I could not sleep in grave, with the faithful and the brave Heaped around and over me.
"Since young Clare a mother hath, and young Ralph a plighted faith,"— Toll slowly. "Since my pale young sister's cheeks blush like rose when Ronald speaks, Albeit never a word she saith—
"These shall never die for me—life-blood falls too heavily."— Toll slowly. "And if I die here apart,—o'er my dead and silent heart They shall pass out safe and free.
"When the foe hath heard it said—'Death holds Guy of Linteged,'"— Toll slowly. "That new corse new peace shall bring, and a blessed, blessed thing Shall the stone be at its head.
"Then my friends shall pass out free, and shall bear my memory,"— Toll slowly. "Then my foes shall sleek their pride, soothing fair my widowed bride Whose sole sin was love of me.
"With their words all smooth and sweet, they will front her and entreat,"— Toll slowly. "And their purple pall will spread underneath her fainting head While her tears drop over it.
"She will weep her woman's tears, she will pray her woman's prayers,"— Toll slowly. "But her heart is young in pain, and her hopes will spring again By the suntime of her years.
"Ah, sweet May—ah, sweetest grief!—once I vowed thee my belief,"— Toll slowly. "That thy name expressed thy sweetness,—May of poets, in completeness! Now my May-day seemeth brief."
All these silent thoughts did swim o'er his eyes grown strange and dim,— Toll slowly. Till his true men in the place wished they stood there face to face With the foe instead of him.
"One last oath, my friends that wear faithful hearts to do and dare!" Toll slowly. "Tower must fall, and bride be lost!—swear me service worth the cost!" —Bold they stood around to swear.
"Each man clasp my hand and swear, by the deed we failed in there,"— Toll slowly. "Not for vengeance, not for right, will ye strike one blow to-night!"— Pale they stood around—to swear.
"One last boon, young Ralph and Clare! faithful hearts to do and dare!"— Toll slowly. "Bring that steed up from his stall, which she kissed before you all,— Guide him up the turret-stair.
"Ye shall harness him aright, and lead upward to this height!"— Toll slowly. "Once in love and twice in war, hath he borne me strong and far, He shall bear me far to-night."
Then his men looked to and fro, when they heard him speaking so.— Toll slowly. —"'Las! the noble heart," they thought,—"he in sooth is grief-distraught. Would, we stood here with the foe!"
But a fire flashed from his eye, 'twixt their thought and their reply,— Toll slowly. "Have ye so much time to waste? We who ride here, must ride fast, As we wish our foes to fly."
They have fetched the steed with care, in the harness he did wear,— Toll slowly. Past the court and through the doors, across the rushes of the floors, But they goad him up the stair.
Then from out her bower chambčre, did the Duchess May repair.— Toll slowly. "Tell me now what is your need," said the lady, "of this steed, That ye goad him up the stair?"
Calm she stood; unbodkined through, fell her dark hair to her shoe,— Toll slowly. And the smile upon her face, ere she left the tiring-glass, Had not time enough to go.
"Get thee back, sweet Duchess May! hope is gone like yesterday,"— Toll slowly. "One half-hour completes the breach; and thy lord grows wild of speech,— Get thee in, sweet lady, and pray.
"In the east tower, high'st of all,—loud he cries for steed from stall."— Toll slowly. "He would ride as far," quoth he, "as for love and victory, Though he rides the castle-wall.
"And we fetch the steed from stall, up where never a hoof did fall."— Toll slowly. "Wifely prayer meets deathly need! may the sweet Heavens hear thee plead If he rides the castle-wall."
Low she dropt her head, and lower, till her hair coiled on the floor,— Toll slowly. And tear after tear you heard, fall distinct as any word Which you might be listening for.
"Get thee in, thou soft ladye!—here, is never a place for thee!"— Toll slowly. "Braid thine hair and clasp thy gown, that thy beauty in its moan May find grace with Leigh of Leigh."
She stood up in bitter case, with a pale yet steady face, Toll slowly. Like a statue thunderstruck, which, though quivering, seems to look Right against the thunder-place.
And her foot trod in, with pride, her own tears i' the stone beside,— Toll slowly. "Go to, faithful friends, go to!—Judge no more what ladies do,— No, nor how their lords may ride!"
Then the good steed's rein she took, and his neck did kiss and stroke:— Toll slowly. Soft he neighed to answer her, and then followed up the stair, For the love of her sweet look.
Oh, and steeply, steeply wound up the narrow stair around,— Toll slowly. Oh, and closely, closely speeding, step by step beside her treading,— Did he follow, meek as hound.
On the east tower, high'st of all,—there, where never a hoof did fall,— Toll slowly. Out they swept, a vision steady,—noble steed and lovely lady, Calm as if in bower or stall.
Down she knelt at her lord's knee, and she looked up silently,— Toll slowly. And he kissed her twice and thrice, for that look within her eyes Which he could not bear to see.
Quoth he, "Get thee from this strife,—and the sweet saints bless thy life!"— Toll slowly. "In this hour, I stand in need of my noble red-roan steed— But no more of my noble wife."
Quoth she, "Meekly have I done all thy biddings under sun:"— Toll slowly. "But by all my womanhood, which is proved so true and good, I will never do this one.
"Now by womanhood's degree, and by wifehood's verity,"— Toll slowly. "In this hour if thou hast need of thy noble red-roan steed, Thou hast also need of me.
"By this golden ring ye see on this lifted hand pardič,"— Toll slowly. "If, this hour, on castle-wall, can be room for steed from stall, Shall be also room for me.
"So the sweet saints with me be" (did she utter solemnly),— Toll slowly. "If a man, this eventide, on this castle wall will ride, He shall ride the same with me."
Oh, he sprang up in the selle, and he laughed out bitter-well,— Toll slowly. "Wouldst thou ride among the leaves, as we used on other eves, To hear chime a vesper-bell?"
She clang closer to his knee—"Ay, beneath the cypress-tree!"— Toll slowly. "Mock me not, for otherwhere than along the greenwood fair, Have I ridden fast with thee!
"Fast I rode with new-made vows, from my angry kinsman's house!" Toll slowly. "What! and would you men should reck that I dared more for love's sake As a bride than as a spouse?
"What, and would you it should fall, as a proverb, before all,"— Toll slowly. "That a bride may keep your side while through castle-gate you ride, Yet eschew the castle-wall?"
Ho! the breach yawns into ruin, and roars up against her suing,— Toll slowly. With the inarticulate din, and the dreadful falling in— Shrieks of doing and undoing!
Twice he wrung her hands in twain, but the small hands closed again,— Toll slowly. Back he reined the steed—back, back! but she trailed along his track With a frantic clasp and strain.
Evermore the foemen pour through the crash of window and door,— Toll slowly. And the shouts of Leigh and Leigh, and the shrieks of "kill!" and "flee!" Strike up clear amid the roar.
Thrice he wrung her hands in twain,—but they closed and clung again,— Toll slowly. Wild she clung, as one, withstood, clasps a Christ upon the rood, In a spasm of deathly pain.
She clung wild and she clung mute,—with her shuddering lips half-shut,— Toll slowly. Her head fallen as half in swound,—hair and knee swept on the ground,— She clung wild to stirrup and foot.
Back he reined his steed back-thrown on the slippery coping-stone,— Toll slowly. Back the iron hoofs did grind on the battlement behind, Whence a hundred feet went down.
And his heel did press and goad on the quivering flank bestrode, Toll slowly. "Friends, and brothers! save my wife!—Pardon, sweet, in change for life,— But I ride alone to God."
Straight as if the Holy name had upbreathed her like a flame,— Toll slowly. She upsprang, she rose upright,—in his selle she sate in sight, By her love she overcame.
And her head was on his breast, where she smiled as one at rest,— Toll slowly. "Ring," she cried, "O vesper-bell, in the beechwood's old chapelle! But the passing-bell rings best."
They have caught out at the rein, which Sir Guy threw loose—in vain,— Toll slowly. For the horse in stark despair, with his front hoofs poised in air, On the last verge rears amain.
Now he hangs, the rocks between—and his nostrils curdle in,— Toll slowly. Now he shivers head and hoof—and the flakes of foam fall off; And his face grows fierce and thin!
And a look of human woe from his staring eyes did go,— Toll slowly. And a sharp cry uttered he, in a foretold agony Of the headlong death below,——
And, "Ring, ring, thou passing-bell," still she cried, "i' the old chapelle!"— Toll slowly. Then back-toppling, crashing back,—a dead weight flung out to wrack, Horse and riders overfell.