Matilda Betham Poems >>
The Lay Of Marie - Canto Second

Some, fearing Marie's tale was o'er,
  Lamented that they heard no more;
  While Brehan, from her broken lay,
  Portended what she yet might say.
  As the untarrying minutes flew,
  More anxious and alarm'd he grew.
  At length he spake:--"We wait too long
  The remnant of this wilder'd song!
  And too tenaciously we press
  Upon the languor of distress!
  'Twere better, sure that hence convey'd,
  And in some noiseless chamber laid,
  Attentive care, and soothing rest,
  Appeas'd the anguish of her breast."

  Low was his voice, but Marie heard:
  He hasten'd on the thing he fear'd.
  She rais'd her head, and, with deep sighs,
  Shook the large tear-drops from her eyes;
  And, ere they dried upon her cheek,
  Before she gather'd force to speak,
  Convulsively her fingers play'd,
   While his proud heart the prelude met,
  Aiming at calmness, though dismay'd,
   A loud, high measure, like a threat;
  Soon sinking to that slower swell
  Which love and sorrow know so well.

  "How solemn is the sick man's room
   To friends or kindred lingering near!
  Poring on that uncertain gloom
   In silent heaviness and fear!

  "How sad, his feeble hand in thine,
   The start of every pulse to share!
  With painful haste each wish divine,
   Yet fed the hopelessness of care!

  "To turn aside the full-fraught eye,
   Lest those faint orbs perceive the tear!
  To bear the weight of every sigh,
   Lest it should reach that wakeful ear!

  "In the dread stillness of the night,
   To lose the faint, faint sound of breath!
  To listen in restrain'd affright,
   To deprecate each thought of death!

  "And, when a movement chas'd that fear,
   And gave thy heart-blood leave to flow,
  In thrilling awe the prayer to hear
   Through the clos'd curtain murmur'd low!

  "The prayer of him whose holy tongue
   Had never yet exceeded truth!
  Upon whose guardian care had hung
   The whole dependence of thy youth!

  "Who, noble, dauntless, frank and mild,
   Was, for his very goodness, fear'd;
  Belov'd with fondness like a child,
   And like a blessed saint rever'd!

  "I have known friends--but who can feel
   The kindness such a father knew?
  I serv'd him still with tender zeal,
   But knew not then how much was due!

  "And did not Providence ordain
   That we should soon be laid as low,
  No heart could such a stroke sustain,--
   No reason could survive the blow!

  "After that fatal trial came,
  The world no longer was the same.
  I still had pleasures:--who could live
  Without the healing aid they give?
  But, as a plant surcharg'd with rain,
  When radiant sunshine comes again,
  Just wakes from a benumbing trance,
  I caught a feverish, fitful glance.
  The dove, that for a weary time
  Had mourn'd the rigour of the clime,
  And, with its head beneath its wing,
  Awaited a more genial spring,
  Went forth again to search around,
  And some few leaves of olive found,
  But not a bower which could impart
   Its interchange of light and shade;
  Not that soft down, to warm the heart,
   Of which her former nest was made.
  Smooth were the waves, the ether clear,
  Yet all was desert, cold, and drear!

   "Affection, o'er thy clouded sky
  In flocks the birds of omen fly;
  And oft the wandering harpy, Care,
  Must thy delicious viands share:
  But all the soul's interior light,
  All that is soothing, sweet, and bright,
  All fragrance, softness, colour, glow,
  To thee, as to the sun, we owe!

   "Years past away! swift, varied years!
  I learnt the luxury of tears;
  And all the orphan's wretched lot,
  'Midst those she pleas'd and serv'd, forgot.

  "By turns applauded and despis'd,
  Till one appear'd who duly priz'd;
  Bound round my heart a welcome chain,
  And earthward lur'd its hopes again;
  When, careless of all worldly weal,
  By Fancy only taught to feel,
  My raptur'd spirit soar'd on high,
  With momentary power to fly;
  Or sang its deep, indignant moan,
  With swells of anguish, when alone.

  "Yet lovely dreams could I evoke
   Of future happiness and fame--
  I did not bow to kiss the yoke,
   But welcom'd every joy that came.

  "Often would self-complacence spread
  Harmonious halos round my head;
  And all my being own'd awhile
  The warm diffusion of her smile.

   "One morn they call'd me forth to sing
  Fore our then liege, the English king.
  Thy guest, my Lord de Semonville,
  His gracious presence was the seal
  Of favour to a servant true,
  To boasted faith and fealty due!

   "It never suits a royal ear
  Prowess of foreign lands to hear;
  And, leaving tales of Charlemagne
  For British Arthur's earlier reign,
  I, preluding with praise, began
  The feats of that diviner man;
  Let loose my soul in fairy land,
  Gave wilder licence to my hand;
  And, learn'd in chivalrous renown,
  By song and story handed down,
  Painted my knights from those around,
  But placed them on poetic ground.
  The ample brow, too smooth for guile;
  The careless, fearless, open smile;
  The shaded and yet arching eye,
  At once reflective, kind, and shy;
  The undesigning, dauntless look,--
  Became to me a living book.
  I read the character conceal'd,
   Flash'd on by chance, or never known
   Even to bosoms like its own;
   Shrinking before a step intrude;
   Touch, look, and whisper, all too rude;
  Unsunn'd and fairest when reveal'd!
  The first in every noble deed,
  Most prompt to venture and to bleed!
  Such hearts, so veil'd with angel wings,
  Such cherish'd, tender, sacred things,
  I since discover'd many a time,
  O Britain! in thy temper'd clime;
  In dew, in shade, in silence nurs'd,
  For truth and sentiment athirst.

   "As seas, with rough, surrounding wave,
  Islands of verdant freshness save
  From rash intruder's waste and spoil;--
   As mountains rear their heads on high,
   Present snow summits to the sky,
  And weary patient feet with toil,
  To screen some sweet, secluded vale,
  And warm the air its flowers inhale;--
  Reserve warns off approaching eyes
  From where her choicer Eden lies.

  "Such are the English knights, I cried,
  Who all their better feelings hide;
  Who muffle up their hearts with care,
  To hide the virtues nestling there,
  Who neither praise nor blame can bear.

  "My hearers, though completely steel'd
  For all the terrors of the field;
  Mail'd for the arrow and the lance,
  Bore not unharm'd my smiling glance;
  At other times collected, brave,
  Recoiled when I that picture gave;
  As if their inmost heart, laid bare,
  Shrank from the bleak, ungenial air.

  "Proud of such prescience, on I went;--
  The youthful monarch was content.
  'Edgar de Langton, take this ring--
  No! hither the young Minstrel bring:
  Ourself can better still dispense
  The honour and the recompence.'
  I came, and, trembling, bent my knee.
   He wonder'd that my looks were meek,
   That blushes burnt upon my cheek!
  'We would our little songstress see!
  Remove those tresses! raise thy head!
  Say, where is former courage fled,
  'That all must now thy face infold?
  At distance they were backward roll'd.
  Whence, then, this most unfounded fear?
  Are we so strange, so hateful here?'

  "I strove in vain to lift my eyes,
  And made some indistinct replies;
  When one, more courteous and more kind,
  Stepp'd forth to save my fainting mind.
  'My liege, have pity! for, in truth,
  It is too hard upon her youth.
  Though so alert and fleet in song,
  The strain was high, the race was long;
  And she before has never seen
  A monarch, save the fairy queen:
  But does the lure of thought obey
  As falcons their appointed way;
  Train'd to one end, and wild as those
  If aught they know not interpose.
  Vain then is strength, and skill is vain,
  Either to lead them or restrain.
  The eye-lid closes, and the heart,
  Low-sinking, plays a traitor's part;
  While wings, of late so firmly spread,
  Hang flagg'd and powerless as the dead!
  With courts familiar from our birth,
  Is it fit subject for our mirth,
  That thus awakening from her theme,
   Where she through air and sea pursues,
   And all things governs, all subdues,
  (Like fetter'd captive in a dream,)
  Blindly to tread on unknown land,
  Without a guide or helping hand,
  No previous usage to befriend,
  (As well we might an infant lend
  Our eyes' experience, ear, or touch!)
  Can we in reason wonder much,
  Her steps are tottering and unsure
  Where we have learnt to walk secure?
  Is it not true, what I have told?'
  Her paus'd, my features to behold--
  Earl William paus'd: across his mien
  A strong and sudden change was seen,
  The courtier bend, protecting tone.
  And smile of sympathy, were gone.
  Abrupt his native accents broke,
  And his lips trembled as he spoke.

   "'How thus can Memory, in its flight,
  On wings of gossamer alight,
   Nor showing aim, nor leaving trace,
   From a poor damsel's living face
  To features of a brave, dead knight!
  In eyes so young, and so benign,
  What is it speaks of Palestine?
  Of toils in early life I prov'd,
  And of a comrade dearly lov'd!
  'Tis true, he, like this maid, was young,
  And gifted with a tuneful tongue!
  His locks, like her's, were bright and fair,
   But light and laughing was his eye;
  The prophecy of future care
   In those thin, helmet lids we spy,
  Veiling mild orbs, of changeful hue,
  Where auburn half subsides in blue!
  Lord Fauconberg, canst thou divine
  What is the curve, or what the line,
  That makes this girl, like lightning, send
  Looks of our long lamented friend?
  If Richard liv'd, that sorcery spell
  Quickly his lion-heart would quell:
  He never could her glance descry,
  And any wish'd-for boon deny!
  She's weeping too!--most strangely wrought
  By workings of another's thought!
  She knows no English; yet I speak
  That language, and her paling cheek
  With watery floods is overcast.--
  Fair maid, we talk of times long past;
  A friend we often mourn in vain--
  A knight in distant battle slain,
  Whose bones had moulder'd in the earth
  Full many a year before thy birth.
  He fed our ears with songs of old,
  And one was of a heart of gold,--
  A native ditty I would fain,
  But never yet could hear again.
  It spoke of friendship like his own,
  Once only in existence known.
  My prime of life the blessing crost,
  And with it life's first charm I lost!'

  "'Chieftain, allow me, on my knee
  To sing that English song to thee!
   For then I never dare to stand,
   Nor take the harp within my hand;
  Sacred it also is to me!
  And it should please thy fancy well,
  Since dear the lips from whence it fell;
  'And dear the language which conveys
  The only theme of real praise!
  O! if in very truth thou art
  A mourner for that loyal heart,
  A lowly minstrel maid forgive,
  Who strives to make remembrance live!'


  "'Betimes my heritage was sold
  To buy this heart of solid gold.
  Ye all, perchance, have jewels fine,
  But what are such compar'd to mine?
  O! they are formal, poor, and cold,
  And out of fashion when they're old;--
  But this is of unchanging ore,
  And every day is valued more.
  Not all the eye could e'er behold
  Should purchase back this heart of gold.

  "'How oft its temper has been tried!
  Its noble nature purified!
  And still it from the furnace came
  Uninjur'd by the subtil flame.
  Like truth itself, pale, simple, pure,
  Yielding, yet fitted to endure,--
  No rust, no tarnish can arise,
  To hide its lustre from our eyes;
  And this world's choicest gift I hold,
  While I can keep my heart of gold.

  "'Whatever treasure may be lost,
  Whatever project may be crost,
  Whatever other boon denied,
  The amulet I long have tried
  Has still a sweet, attractive power
  To draw the confidential hour,--
  That hour for weakness and for grief,
  For true condolement, full belief!
  O! I can never feel bereft,
  While one possession shall be left;
  That which I now in triumph hold,
  This dear, this cherish'd heart of gold!

  "'Come, all who wish to be enroll'd!
  Our order is, the heart of gold.
  The vain, the artful, and the nice,
  Can never pay the weighty price;
  For they must selfishness abjure,
  Have tongue, and hand, and conscience pure;
  Suffering for friendship, never grieve,
  But, with a god-like strength, believe
  In the oft absent power of truth,
  As they have seen it in their youth.
  Ye who have grown in such a mould
  Are worthy of the heart of gold!'

  "Ceasing, and in the act to rise,
  A voice exclaim'd, 'Receive the prize!
  Earl William, let me pardon crave,
  Thus yielding what thy kindness gave!
  But with such strange, intense delight,
  This maiden fills my ear, my sight;
  I long so ardently to twine
  In her renown one gift of mine;
  That having but a die to cast,
  Lest our first meeting prove our last,
  I would ensure myself the lot
  Not to be utterly forgot!
  And this, my offering, here consign,
  Worthy, because it once was thine!
  Then, maiden, from a warrior deign
  To take this golden heart and chain!
  Thy order's emblem! and afar
  Its light shall lead me, like a star!
  If thou, its mistress, didst requite
  With guerdon meet each chosen knight;
  If from that gifted hand there came
  A badge of such excelling fame,
  The broider'd scarf might wave in vain,
  Unenvied might a rival gain,
  Amid assembled peers, the crown
  Of tournay triumph and renown;
  For me its charm would all be gone,
  E'en though a princess set it on!'

   "I bow'd my thanks, and quick withdrew,
  Glad to escape from public view;
  Laden with presents, and with praise,
  Beyond the meed of former days.
  But that on which I gaz'd with pride,
  Which I could scarcely lay aside,
  Even to close my eyes for rest;
  (I wear it now upon my breast,
  And there till death it shall remain!)
  Was this same golden heart and chain!
  The peacock crown, with all its eyes,
  Its emerald, jacinth, sapphire dyes,
  When first, irradiate o'er my brow,
  Wav'd its rich plumes in gleaming flow,
  Did not so deep a thrill impart,
  So soften, so dilate my heart!
  No praise had touch'd me, as it fell,
  Like his, because I saw full well,
  Honour and sweetness orb'd did lie
  Within the circlet of his eye!
  Integrity which could not swerve,
  A judgment of that purer nerve,
  Fearing itself, and only bound
  By truth and love to all around:
  Which dared not feign, and scorn'd to vaunt,
  Nor interest led, nor power could daunt;
  Acting as if it mov'd alone
  In sight of the Almighty's throne.

   "His graceful form my Fancy caught,--
  It was the same she always brought,
  When legends mentioned knights of old,
  The courteous, eloquent, and bold.
  The same dark locks his forehead grac'd,
  A crown by partial Nature plac'd,
  With the large hollows, and the swells,
  And short, close, tendril twine of shells.
  Though grave in aspect, when he smil'd,
  'Twas gay and artless as a child,
  With him expression seem'd a law,--
  You only Nature's dictates saw;
  But they in full perfection wrought
  Of generous feeling, varied thought,--
  All that can elevate or move,
  That we admire, esteem, and love!

   "Thus, when it pleas'd the youthful king,
  Who wish'd yet more to hear me sing,
  That I should follow o'er the main,
  In good Earl William's sober train,
  As slow we linger'd on the seas,
  I inly blest each wayward breeze;
  For still the graceful knight was near,
  Prompt to discourse, relate, and hear:
  The spirit had that exercise,
   The fine perceptions' play,
  That perish with the worldly wise,
   The torpid, and the gay.

  "In the strings of their lyres as the poets of old
   Fresh blossoms were used to entwine;
  As the shrines of their gods were enamell'd with gold,
   And sparkling with gems from the mine:

  "So, grac'd with delights that arise in the mind,
   As through flowers, the language should flow!
  While the eye, where we fancy all soul is enshrin'd,
   With divine emanations should glow!

  "The voice, or the look, gifted thus, has a charm
   Remembrance springs onward to greet;
  And thought, like an angel, flies, living and warm,
   When announcing the moment to meet!

  "And it was thus when Eustace spoke,
   Thus brightly his ideas glanc'd,
   Met mine, and smil'd as they advanc'd,
  For all his fervour I partook,--
  Pour'd out my spirit in each theme,
  And follow'd every waking dream!
  Now in Fancy's airy play,
  Near at hand, and far away,
  All that was sportive, wild, and gay!
  Now led by Pity to deplore
  Hearts that can ache and bleed no more,
  We roam'd long tales of sadness o'er!
  Now, prompted by achievements higher,
  We caught the hero's, martyr's fire!
  Who, listening to an angel choir,
  Rapt and devoted, following still
   Where duty or religion led,
  The mind prepar'd, subdued the will,
  Bent their grand purpose to fulfil:
   Conquer'd, endur'd, or meekly bled!
  Nor wonder'd we, for we were given,
  Like them, to zeal, to truth, and heaven.

  "Receding silently from view,
  Freedom, unthought of, then withdrew;
  We neither mark'd her as she flew,
  Nor ever had her absence known
  From care or question of our own.
  At court, emotion or surprize
  Reveal'd the truth to other eyes.
  The pride of England's nobles staid
  Too often near the minstrel maid;
  And many in derision smil'd,
  To see him pay a peasant's child,
  For such they deem'd me, deep respect,
  While birth and grandeur met neglect.
  Soon, sway'd by duty more than wealth,
  He listen'd and he look'd by stealth;
  And I grew careless in my lays;
  Languish'd for that exclusive praise.
  Yet, conscious of an equal claim,
  Above each base or sordid aim,
  From wounded feeling and from pride,
  My pain I coldly strove to hide:
  And when, encounter'd by surprize,
  Rapture rose flashing in his eyes,
  My formal speech and careless air
  Would call a sudden anger there.

   "Reserv'd and sullen we became,
  Tenacious both, and both to blame.
  Yet often an upbraiding look
  Controul'd the sentence as I spoke;
  Prompt and direct its flight arose,
  But sunk or waver'd at the close.
  Often, beneath his softening eye,
  I felt my resolution die;
  And, half-relentingly, forgot
  His splendid and my humble lot.

   "Sometimes a sudden fancy came,
  That he who bore my father's name,
  Broken in spirit and in health,
  Was weary of ill-gotten wealth.
  I to the cloister saw him led,
  Saw the wide cowl upon his head;
  Heard him, in his last dying hour,
  Warn others from the thirst of power;
  Adjure the orphan of his friend
  Pardon and needful aid to lend,
  If heaven vouchsaf'd her yet to live;
  For, could she pity and forgive,
  'Twould wing his penitential prayer
  With better hope of mercy there!
  Then did he rank and lands resign,
  With all that was in justice mine;
  And I, pretending to be vain,
  Return'd the world its poor disdain,
  But smil'd on Eustace once again!

   "Thus vision after vision flew,
  Leaving again before my view
  The hollow scene, the scornful crowd,
  To which that heart had never bow'd,
  Whose tenderness I hourly fed;
  While thus I to its nursling said;--

  "Be silent, _Love!_ nor from my lip
   In faint or hurried language speak!
  Be motionless within my eye,
   And never wander to my cheek!
  Retir'd and passive thou must be,
  Or truly I shall banish thee!

  "Thou art a restless, wayward sprite,
   So young, so tender, and so fair,
  I dare not trust thee from my sight,
   Nor let thee breathe the common air!
  Home to my heart, then, quickly flee,
  It is the only place for thee!

  "And hush thee, sweet one! in that cell,
   For I will whisper in thine ear
  Those tales that Hope and Fancy tell,
   Which it may please thee best to hear!
  I will not, may not, set thee free--
  I die if aught discover thee!"

   Where are the plaudits, warm and long,
  That erst have follow'd Marie's song?
  The full assenting, sudden, loud,
  The buz of pleasure in the crowd!
  The harp was still, but silence reign'd,
  Listening as if she still complain'd:
  For Pity threw her gentle yoke
  Across Impatience, ere he spoke;
  And Thought, in pondering o'er her strains,
  Had that cold state he oft maintains.
  But soon the silence seem'd to say,
  "Fair mourner, reassume thy lay!"
  And in the chords her fingers stray'd;
   For aching Memory found relief
   In mounting to the source of grief;
  A tender symphony she play'd,
  Then bow'd, and thus, unask'd, obey'd.