Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BOTHWELL: PART 4, by WILLIAM EDMONSTOUNE AYTOUN



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BOTHWELL: PART 4, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: What is a woman's weakest mood?
Last Line: Wilt thou do this?' 'your hand -- I will!'
Alternate Author Name(s): Bon Gaultier (With Theodore Martin)
Subject(s): Prisons & Prisoners; Courts & Courtiers; Death; Bothwell, Scotland; Courts & Courtiers; Death; Prisons & Prisoners; Convicts; Royal Court Life; Royalty; Kings; Queens; Dead, The; Royal Court Life; Royalty; Kings; Queens; Dead, The; Convicts


I

QUEEN Guenever, that lady high,
Loved Lancelot of the Lake,
And sweet Isolde was fain to die
For gentle Tristram's sake:
And aye their story charms the ear,
Despite the taint of shame,
And lordlings list, and ladies hear,
Nor ever think to blame.
Yet Arthur was the goodliest knight
Of all the Table Round,
And stout King Marc, in stubborn fight,
Was ever foremost found.
Why is it that the ancient song
Should thus have power to thrill?
That sin, and faithlessness, and wrong,
Should wake emotion still?
Ah! Love, so it be passioned love,
However frail and blind,
Will yet on earth, if not above,
A gentle judgment find.

II

In the old tales of chivalry
There lies more truth than priests allow;
Valour, and strength, and courtesy,
Have power to make the haughtiest bow.
The knight who by his single arm
Could free a lady from duresse,
And break the fell magician's charm,
Had claim upon her loveliness:
Although the daughter of a king,
She might not spurn his homage fair;
And proud was she in listed ring,
To see him with her colours there.
Rare thoughts are these for one disgraced,
A slave in body, racked in soul! --
My blazon has been long erased,
My name struck off the knightly roll!
But what of that? The time has been
When I was highest of the high --
Yea, was the husband of a Queen;
And so they shall not pass me by.
Good men and brave may be forgot,
The tomb may hide their dust and fame,
But while there breathes on earth a Scot,
He'll hear, at least, of Bothwell's name!

III

Yet, when the awful deed was done,
And Mary's burst of grief was by,
Of all who stood around the throne,
Was none in closer trust than I.
My front was calm, my speech was clear,
I did not overact my part,
Nor feign a sorrow, too severe,
For one I never loved at heart:
Intent I seemed to find and trace
The bloody authors of the crime;
But rumour hath a headlong pace,
And would not tarry for my time.
Whispers arose, not loud, but strong,
That I was privy to the deed;
The rabble, when I passed along,
Regarded me with sullen heed;
A madman paced the streets by night,
Invoking vengeance from on high,
Till the scared women, in affright,
Believed they heard a spirit cry.
Each Sabbath-day the pulpits rung
With texts on murder ill-concealed,
And pictures on the Cross were hung
Of him who died at Kirk-of-Field.

IV

My name was bruited. -- Well I know
Who set the bloodhounds on my track;
But Morton, though my deadliest foe,
Dared not, as then, to cheer the pack.
Had I been such a knave as he,
I might at once have eased my breath,
And made my name for ever free,
By charging him with Darnley's death.
Ay, without falsehood in my heart!
For, when I went at break of day,
To search the ruins, far apart
The unscathed corpse of Darnley lay.
No mark of fire was on the dead,
Unsinged his cloak of velvet fine;
If he were murdered as he fled,
It was not done by me or mine!
And none save Douglas knew the hour
When the old roof should whirl in air;
He swore to aid me with his power --
It may be that his men were there.

V

But rumour is a reckless fire,
Which, kindled once, is sure to spread,
And, raging in its frantic ire,
Spares not the living or the dead.
An ember dropped upon the waste,
Swells to a blaze that wraps the hill,
And onward rush the flames in haste,
Ascending, striding, bickering still;
They reach the wood, they spare it not, --
The forest roars and crashes down, --
The red surge breaks on tower and cot,
Homestead and village, church and town.
And rumour did not spare a name
That should have been from tarnish free;
No saint in heaven was less to blame
For wretched Darnley's death than she!
Fling forth a lie amongst the crowd,
Let but the preachers vouch 'tis true --
And innocence may buy her shroud,
And guilt go forth in garments new!
They said she did not mourn him long --
What cause had she to mourn at all?
His life had been a course of wrong,
A hideous shadow on her wall.

VI

Why mourn? Because the man was dead
Who brought his ruffians to her room,
And held her struggling, while they shed
The life-blood of her favourite groom?
Who trafficked with her darkest foes,
Heaped insult on her and despite,
Fled from the Court to herd with those
Whose baseness was his foul delight?
Why, I have heard old Knox protest,
Men should not mourn for those they love,
Since earthly mourning is, at best,
Defiance to the will above.
He cited David, who arose
And washed his face and tasted bread,
Things he omitted, in his woes,
Until he knew his child was dead.
And so, because in quietness
Her secret soul she did possess,
Because she did not feign despair,
Nor beat her breast, nor rend her hair,
Nor give superfluous sorrow breath --
Because no vain and false parade,
Or frantic show of grief was made,
They taxed her with her husband's death!

VII

Ha, ha! Their rancour was my shield,
A buckler between me and shame;
For what belief could Mary yield
To miscreants who abused her name?
She, in her perfect innocence,
Despised the foul insulting lie,
That, without semblance of pretence,
Had swollen into a common cry.
They dared to charge her -- her, their Queen --
With guilt so monstrous of its kind,
That, granting she had only been
In knowledge of the deed designed,
The gates of heaven had shut for aye
Against her penitence and prayer,
Angels had loathed her in their sky,
And left her to her soul's despair!

VIII

Yea, men had loathed her! I myself --
The devil's bondsman, though alive,
Whom not for charity nor pelf
The meanest priest that crawls would shrive --
I would not, though she brought a crown,
Have ta'en a murderess to my bed;
The Borgia won such wide renown
As well might warn a pillowed head! --
But, fie on me, to mix the name
Of one so tainted and so vile,
With hers, the pure and spotless Dame
Who tarries in Lochleven's isle!
Her noble soul, that knew no taint,
Was far too trusting and sincere;
She was, in purity, the saint,
With all that makes the woman dear.
And when I pass before the Throne,
To reckon for my deeds on earth;
When every secret crime is known,
And every thought that gave them birth;
I'll answer truly for my Queen,
What she, in error, did for me;
And, though a gulf lie broad between,
I'll vouch her, as an angel, free!

IX

Yet who accused me? Not my peers;
They, one and all, were dumb as death --
'Twere shame to think that doubts or fears
Could make them draw a bated breath!
If some were mingled in the plot,
And far too well the secret knew,
Yet more there were who loved me not,
Brave lords and valiant, tried and true.
Boyd -- Seton -- Herries -- none stood forth,
Nor any knight of fame and worth;
Only old Lennox, half distraught
With sorrow for his slaughtered son,
Gave utterance to the people's thought,
And craved that justice should be done.
Ready was I to stand the test,
To bide the sentence of the law;
Its terrors did not mar my rest,
Nor make me thrill with guilty awe.
For Morton stood beside me then,
And Lethington was with me too,
And even Murray sent his men,
To witness that my cause was true.
Right hastily the ermined lords
Pronounced me innocent and free:
And well they might! Four thousand swords
Were there to make defence for me!
Then, hardier yet, I caused proclaim --
If any dared impeach my name,
Or charge me with a murder stain
Upon my hand, for Darnley slain,
So that he were of like degree,
He had my challenge, fair and free --
In guarded lists, or open heath,
I'd meet him as a knight,
And do stark battle to the death --
Might God defend the right!

X

O liar that I was, and mad,
In such wild manner to blaspheme!
Not mine the faith that Morton had,
Who held salvation but a dream.
Never I doubted, from the first,
The judgment of a God on high;
And if I be by Him accursed,
I know what waits me when I die.
I will not stupefy my soul --
Wretch as I am -- with false belief;
Or think that death must close the whole
Long weary tale of shame and grief.
How could I hope to win in fight --
The utterer of so foul a prayer?
How 'scape the overwhelming might
I had invoked to crush me there?

XI

Still, no one came to lift my gage;
The law declared me free from taint.
What cared I for the preachers' rage?
I let them chafe without restraint.
The burghers might believe their tale,
But dared not mutter it again --
Too many spears from Liddesdale
Were daily moving in my train.
On slight pretext the borderer draws,
But not so quickly sheathes his brand,
And swords can tame as well as laws,
They're ever readier to the hand.
Enough for me that I was clear;
I thought to let the storm pass by;
For railing soon fatigues the ear,
When no one will vouchsafe reply.

XII

And I had much to meditate.
Darnley no longer stopped my way;
The Queen was free to choose a mate,
I must not, like a fool, delay.
For princes, ay, and kings would come
To sue for favour from her eyes,
And all the craft of France and Rome
Would work for such a glorious prize.
Then how could I, a simple peer,
Whose name was scarce in Europe known,
Presume to mix or interfere,
With royal tenders for a throne?
Love levels all! That faith had I;
Yea, and by heaven, true love was mine,
Though it was marred by villainy,
As sullied water tainteth wine!
I knew the legend framed of old,
And ever to my heart it came --
He must be desperate and bold
Who seeks to win a royal dame!

XIII

Yet all unequal was our lot:
She was a widow, I was wed --
Poor Lady Jane! I loved her not,
Yet never wished her with the dead.
She was a vixen from her birth,
Ready with tears, of temper keen,
But though she often stirred my mirth,
She never waked a touch of spleen.
Divorce was easy. She and I,
In mutual weariness, could part,
Without a ceremonial sigh,
Or fiction of an aching heart.
But Mary -- how would she receive
A suit so strange and bold as mine?
Had I but ventured to believe
That worship at so fair a shrine,
So mutely offered and so long,
Could not, at least, unnoticed be,
My courage then had been more strong,
My speech more unrestrained and free.

XIV

Often I strove to speak my mind,
As often did I swerve aside;
For, though her eyes were ever kind,
She never lost her queenly pride.
Her nature was too great and high
To listen to a lover's vows,
Ere on her cheek the tears were dry
She gave to her departed spouse.
And therefore, in uncertain mood,
Aimless, perplext, I lingered on,
Until one day, at Holyrood,
My path was crossed by Lethington.
He met me with a meaning smile
That almost deepened to a sneer;
I knew the man was steeped in wile,
And yet I thought his words sincere.

XV

'Lord Earl,' he said, 'in days of old,
As I have heard the story told,
There reigned a king in Lydian land,
Who had a beauteous wife;
But kings right seldom understand
The worth of that which they possess,
And this weak monarch's shamelessness
Cost him his crown and life.
I need not now the tale rehearse,
For still it lives in minstrel's verse;
This only shall I say,
That he who 'venged the lady's wrong
Was far too wise to tarry long,
Before he claimed the sway.'

XVI

'You speak in riddles!' 'Surely no:
Methinks my meaning should be clear:
Look but around -- where breathes the foe
Whose malice you have cause to fear?'
'Ay, but the Queen! 'Twere doubly base
For me to press, as yet, my claim;
To urge her to her own disgrace,
And taint her honour and her fame.
I stand suspected; even here
Men deem me guilty of the sin;
And though their tongues are bound by fear,
I know what thoughts they keep within.
England abhors me. England's Queen
Detests the man she could not buy:
Yes! there had less of rancour been,
Were I a caitiff and a spy!
Now -- say that I advanced my suit,
And Mary yielded me her hand,
Would not rebellion start to foot,
And treason rage throughout the land?
Her foes could find no better proof
Of all that slander dares to say,
And honest men would stand aloof,
And friends draw from her in dismay!'

XVII

'Yea -- does your foresight reach so far?
Men deemed, Lord Bothwell, you were born
Beneath a rash and fiery star
That ever prompted you to scorn
All prudent counsel. You have worn
Right well the mask; but now I see,
You are as wise in policy
As swift in action -- list to me.
How stand you at the present hour?
The first in place, the first in power!
No other noble in the land
Hath such a wide and strong command.
Singly you might defy them all,
If they were leagued to work your fall;
And yet the first and greatest Lords
Are pledged your honour to maintain,
And they are ready with their swords
To prove they did not swear in vain.
What you have risked for them they know;
All were approvers of the deed;
Nor is there one so mean and low
As leave you in the hour of need, --
So it is now; but who dare say
To-morrow shall be like to-day?
A common danger keeps us bound,
That past, the league will sunder quite,
New foes will rise as from the ground,
New perils hover into sight.
Oh, then take heed, lest, being strong,
You count too much upon your power;
Occasion never proffers long,
It comes and passes in an hour!'

XVIII

'Truce with thy proverbs, man! they fill
With sound, and nothing else, mine ear --
Speak of the Queen, her royal will
Must surely count for something here?'
'My Lord -- this Scottish crown of ours,
August and ancient though it be,
Doth yet confer but stinted powers,
And is but royal in degree.
He whom the nobles hail as king
Becomes the foremost of them all;
He passes first in listed ring,
In battle, banquet, bower, or hall.
He leads our armies to the field,
The laws are his to guard and wield;
And yet 'tis widely known,
Without the concert of his peers,
No Scottish king, these thousand years,
Hath ever kept the throne.
Is it not time for concert now?
The crown is on a woman's brow,
The people, by the preachers led,
Heap insults on her royal head --
She stands alone without a mate
On whom her arm might lean --
Why sleep the guardians of the State?
Their voice is strong, their powers are great;
Let them direct the Queen!'

XIX

'Thanks, Maitland, thanks! I see thy aim --
By heaven, it shall be done!
If Scotland's peers support my claim,
The prize is almost won!
Ay, and who dare impeach their choice?
Let me but gain the nobles' voice!
About it straight! Let Morton sign,
Huntley and Cassilis, Crawford too --
Their fortunes are compact with mine;
When they stand forward, not a few
For love, or dread, or shame will join.
Ruthven will follow, nothing loth:
Errol, Argyle -- I have them both.
And hark'ye -- sound the bishops, man!
Each reverend name is worth a score --
Place old St. Andrews in the van,
He'll bring us Orkney, Ross, and more.
Not my advancement, friend, alone
Depends on what we do:
If Bothwell ever mounts the throne,
Why, thou shalt prosper too!'

XX

They gave it me -- that fatal Band;
I held their honour in my hand.
Lords, whose great names were widely known
Ere Malcolm Canmore filled the throne;
Chieftains, who ruled their broad domains
As freely as a monarch reigns,
Around whose banners reared on high
Would flock our Scottish chivalry;
Grave prelates, who, in former days,
Before the Church was rent in twain,
Had won the people's worthless praise,
And bore the crozier not in vain --
The great, the noble, wise, and free,
They, one and all, were bound to me!
No miser ever clutched his gold
More keenly than did I the scroll;
I conned it over, fold by fold,
I weighed each name upon the roll.

XXI

'And now,' thought I, 'though fortune change,
My place is firm, my seat secure;
Yea, let her, like a falcon, range
In wilful flight o'er moss and moor!
Nothing, I feel, can shake me now;
The strength of Scotland backs my claim.
'Tis but the loosing of a vow,
A parting from a wearied dame;
A wooing, neither hard nor long,
For Mary cannot but comply;
And then -- the child was never strong,
Sickness may smite him, and he'll die --
Infants die easy -- and I reign!
Ha, ha! Elizabeth may fret,
And Cecil vex his restless brain:
I'll make them know me better yet!
For let them dare to disallow
My claim of right -- and, by my head,
Before a year goes by, they'll trow
That Bruce has risen from the dead!'

XXII

There was a knocking. ''Sdeath! what fool
Comes here to interrupt me now?
Ha! Ormiston, my trusty friend --
Welcome, -- but why that gloomy brow?
Be joyful, man! -- all 's done, all 's sure.' --
'What's done? you're not her husband yet?'
'No -- but my claim is made secure;
This Band, to which the Lords have set
Their names and seals' -- 'Is like the rest,
Parchment and ink -- I know them well --
Good faith hath been a stranger guest
Since Scottish nobles learned to spell.
Your own brave father woo'd a Queen --
This Mary's mother. I have seen
The letters written by her hand,
Far clearer than that doubtful Band,
With promise, oath, and token too.
He deemed himself secure, like you;
Yet died he in a foreign land.
O, never rest your faith on words;
Pens are for priests; trust nought but swords!
Clerks torture language, to conceal
Their inward thoughts, and cheat the eye;
There's honesty in naked steel,
It rings too sharply for a lie!'

XXIII

'A cheerful counsellor art thou!
What next? If nothing worse portend,
Relax the rigour of thy brow,
And speak to me as friend with friend.
Why -- still thou lookest stern and strange --
What is it that thou hast to tell?'
'Listen and mark. The Laird of Grange,
Kirkaldy, whom we know full well
To be as resolute a knight
As lives within this Scottish land --
No better ever ruled a fight,
No wiser ever held command --
Accuses you in open day
Of Darnley's murder!' 'Dares he so?
And was there none his tongue to stay,
No hand to deal a dagger-blow?'

XXIV

'On even field I would not fear
To meet Kirkaldy spear to spear;
But shame it were to touch his life
Through vassal's dirk or yeoman's knife!
No idle pampered stripling he --
A man of mark and dignity!
He can array, at trumpet-call,
The Leslies and the Melvilles all;
Though but a knight of slender strain,
No Lord can summon such a train.
The burgher carles who turn aside,
Or scowl with angry brow,
When peers and bishops proudly ride,
To him will bend and bow.
Ay, and the preachers, who detest
Whatever soldiers love the best,
They, who will rail you by the hour,
Submit to him and own his power:
He guides their council, wields their will,
He bids them clamour or be still;
Of evil omen is the day
That brings Kirkaldy to the fray!'

XXV

'So then, that champion of misrule
Aspires to measure swords with me?
He comes too late! I were a fool
To match with one of his degree.
My challenge stood unanswered long,
He might have offered when 'twas new;
I'll not be baited by the throng,
And bide his knightship's leisure too!'

XXVI

'Despise him not; his plans are laid,
His friends are numbered and arrayed;
On you alone the taint they throw.
Nay, hear me out! -- 'Tis childish now
To wince at words -- You bear the charge,
Whilst saintly Morton walks at large;
He's safe, whoever may prevail,
Within the Congregation's pale.
Some scapegoat truly there must be,
To carry sin, and you are he!
They have brave watchwords! First, "The Queen" --
They're wondrous loyal now, I swear --
And next, "The Prince"; for 'tis foreseen
His babyhood may lack some care.
The sire's removed, the son survives,
You're not his foster-father yet;
There's peril, sir, for infant lives,
When crowns are on their cradles set!
So say the people.'

XXVII

'Let them prate!
The sordid knaves may hoot and groan;
Not theirs to overrule my fate,
Or bar my passage to the throne!
Let twenty knights of greater worth
Than this Kirkaldy venture forth,
Of what avail would be their stand
Against the nobles of the land?
I tell thee, man, their names are here;
They urge my marriage with the Queen.'
'Hath she consented?' 'No -- 'tis clear
Some little space must intervene:
She has not thrown her weeds aside.'
'She knows your purpose?' 'She may guess.'
'What! do you count upon a bride
Before her lips have answered, Yes?
Never spoke I with courtly dame,
But women are throughout the same;
The lowest lass in Teviotdale
That goes a-milking with her pail,
Is mistress of her heart and hand,
And will not yield them at command.
Lovers must bend, and fawn, and sue
To maids of high or low degree;
The wooing may be rough, 'tis true,
Yet, nathless, wooing there must be.
That parchment no assurance gives --
I see not how it aids your aim.
You are not free: your Countess lives;
She may refuse to waive her claim.
Come now -- be frank with me, my Lord!
Something of statesman's craft I know --
Who brought you this? for, by my word,
I hold him less your friend than foe!'

XXVIII

''Twas Lethington!' 'Why, he's in league
With Morton and Kirkaldy too!
The busiest spider of intrigue
That ever simple Scotland knew!
This web is of his weaving, then?
We'll burst it yet! The Queen's away?'
'She passed with Huntley and his men
To Stirling Castle yesterday.'
'When comes she back?' 'To-morrow.' 'Good!
Now listen -- here, in Holyrood,
You cannot gain the Queen's consent;
Within a week, the storm, now pent,
Will break in fury on your head.
The Commons, by Kirkaldy led,
Will thunder at the palace gate;
And, were you innocent as Knox,
When captured at St. Andrews rocks,
Your friends must leave you to your fate.

XXIX

'Be ruled by me -- forestall the time!
Surprise is fair in love or war;
A little urging is no crime --
Take Mary with you to Dunbar!
Thanks to the knave who brought me word,
Kirkaldy set us on our guard:
We have a thousand horsemen here,
From Crichton and from Teviotdale,
Men who were never known to fail,
All ready, armed with jack and spear.
Around Dunbar the waters sweep;
Meet place for meditation lone,
When he who owns the castle-keep
Is host and lover, both in one!
Take, too, the Band; it may suffice
To still some doubts, should such arise
'Twere pity that her Royal Grace
Saw not that dutiful demand! --
Now, I have told you all the case;
Lord Bothwell, will you grasp my hand?
Nay, never shrink -- 'tis now too late;
To-morrow must the deed be done;
You'll find me at the western gate,
With all our men equipped, by one.
I know the road; we'll meet them there,
Then hey o er meadow, heath, and hill!
Come now, be brave! -- All bids us fair --
Wilt thou do this?' 'Your hand -- I will!'





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