Broad the forests stood (I read) on the hills of Linteged—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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,
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,
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,—
"'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,—
"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,—
"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,—
"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,—
"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!"—
"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.
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:—
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—
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,—
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,—
"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,—
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,—
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,—
"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,—
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,—
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,—
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.—
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,—
"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"—
"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,"—
"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,"—
"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,"—
"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,"—
"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."—
"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,'"—
"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,"—
"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,"—
"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,"—
"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,"—
"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,—
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!"
"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,"—
"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!"—
"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!"—
"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.—
—"'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,—
"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,—
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.—
"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,—
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,"—
"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."—
"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."—
"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,—
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!"—
"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,
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,—
"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:—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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!"—
"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:"—
"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,"—
"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,"—
"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),—
"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,—
"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!"—
"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!"
"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,"—
"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,—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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,—
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,
"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,—
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,—
"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,—
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,—
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,—
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!"—
Then back-toppling, crashing back,—a dead weight flung out to wrack,
Horse and riders overfell.