Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BOTHWELL: PART 2, by WILLIAM EDMONSTOUNE AYTOUN



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BOTHWELL: PART 2, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The sun is bright, the day is warm
Last Line: Above the kirk-of-field.
Alternate Author Name(s): Bon Gaultier (with Theodore Martin)
Subject(s): Bothwell, Scotland; Courts & Courtiers; Death; Prisons & Prisoners; Royal Court Life; Royalty; Kings; Queens; Dead, The; Convicts


I

THE sun is bright, the day is warm,
The breeze is blowing free --
Come, I will rouse me from my lair,
And look upon the sea.
'Tis clear and blue, with here and there
A little fleck of foam;
And yonder glides a stately ship,
Bound on her voyage home.
The fishers, on the scanty sward,
Spread out their nets to dry,
And whistle o'er their lazy task
In happy vacancy.
Swift by the window skims the tern,
On light and glancing wing,
And every sound that rises up
Gives token of the spring.
Fair is the sight, yet strange to me;
No memories I recall,
While gazing on the headland cliffs,
And waves that leap and fall;
No visions of my boyish days,
Or manhood's sterner prime,
Arise from yonder watery waste,
To cheer me for a time.

II

For I was reared among the hills,
Within a Border home,
Where, brawling down their narrow glens,
The mountain torrents come;
And well I know the bonny braes
Where the first primrose blows,
And shrinking tufts of violets
Rise from the melting snows,
Ere yet the hazel leaf is out,
Or birches show their green,
Or, on the sad and sullen ash,
A kindling bud is seen.
O Hermitage, by Liddel's side,
My old ancestral tower!
Were I again but lord of thee --
Not owning half the power
That in my days of reckless pride
I held, but cast away --
I would not leave thee, Border keep,
Until my dying day!
Wise was Buccleuch, and Cessford too,
Who stoutly held their own,
And little cared, amidst their clans,
For threat from either throne.
They range at will the mountain paths,
They hear the falcon cry;
And here, within a loathly cell,
A fettered slave am I.

III

Who owns thee now, fair Hermitage?
Who sits within my hall?
What banner flutters in the breeze
Above that stately wall?
Does yet the court-yard ring with tramp
Of horses and of men;
Do bay of hounds and bugle-note
Sound merry from the glen?
Or art thou, as thy master is,
A rent and ruined pile,
Once noble, but deserted now
By all that is not vile?
What matters it? These eyes of mine
Shall never see thee more;
Still in my thought must thou abide
As stately as of yore,
When, Warden of the Marches three,
In Mary's right I came
To still the rugged Border feuds,
And trample out the flame.

IV

Good faith! I had but little zeal
To meddle with the knaves,
Who simply kept their fathers' rule,
And fought for bloody graves.
No war was then between the lands,
Else swift and sure, I ween,
Each Border clan, on Scottish soil,
Had mustered for their Queen;
The tidings of an English raid
Had joined them, heart and hand;
For well the jackmen knew the wealth
Of canny Cumberland.
One note of war -- and all our feuds
Had vanished like the snow
From off the fells by Teviot-side,
When the warm May winds blow.
But peace abroad breeds strife at home;
Old cause of quarrel rose;
Clan fought with clan, and name with name,
As fierce and deadly foes.
To them came I in evil hour --
Most perilous the tide;
For he who seeks to part a fray,
Wins strokes from either side.
Saint Andrew! 'twas no easy task
To hunt an Armstrong down,
Or make a Johnstone yield his sword
At summons from the Crown:
Yet, ere a week had passed away,
One half my work was done,
And safe within my castle lay
Whitehaugh and Mangerton.
I had them all, but only one,
John Elliot of the Park,
As stalwart and as bold a man
As ever rode by dark.
I sought him far, I sought him near,
He baffled all my men;
At last I met him, face to face,
Within the Billhope glen.

V

Short parley passed between us twain --
'Thou art the Warden?' 'Ay!
Thou Elliot of the Park?' 'I am.'
'Wilt yield thee?' 'Come and try!'
We lighted down from off our steeds,
We tied them to a tree;
The sun was sinking in the west,
And all alone were we.
Out flew the steel, and then began
A sharp and desperate strife;
For Elliot fought to 'scape the cord,
I fought for fame and life.
Ha, ha! were he alive again,
And on this dungeon floor,
What joy, with such a man as that,
To cross the sword once more!
The blows he fetched were stark and strong,
And so were mine, I ween,
Until I cleft his head-piece through,
And stretched him on the green.
'Wilt yield thee now?' 'I will not yield,
But an ye promise grace.'
'That must you ask upon your knee,
Before our Sovereign's face.'
Blinded with blood, he struggled up --
'Lord Earl!' he said, 'beware!
No man shall take me living yet;
Now follow, if you dare!'
I slipped upon the broken moss;
And in the sheugh we rolled,
Death-grappling, silent, heaving each
Within the other's hold.
He passed above me, and I felt --
Once -- twice -- his dagger drive;
But mine went deeper through his breast --
I rose, but half alive!
All spun around me -- trees and hills --
A mist appeared to rise;
Yet one thing saw I clearly yet
Before my fading eyes:
Not half a rood beyond the burn,
A man lay stiff and stark;
I knew it was my stubborn foe,
John Elliot of the Park.
I strove in vain to sound my horn,
No further strength had I;
And reeling in that lonely glen,
I fell -- but not to die.

VI

I wakened in the Hermitage
From out my heavy swound,
Thanks to the leech, who would not cease
From probing of my wound:
And there I lay, for many a day,
Weak, weary, dull, and wan,
With little blood within my veins,
To make me feel like man.
In sooth, it was a heavy time --
I heard the bugles blow,
The horses neigh, the bridles ring,
The soldiers come and go.
I heard the voice of Ormiston,
In short and gruff command,
As outwards from the castle-gate
He led his trooper band.
Then silence; and that hateful sound,
The leech's stealthy tread --
Aha! when I had strength to stir,
How swift the villain fled!
Then the long shades of afternoon --
The twilight fastening in --
The night, when still I heard the brook
Come roaring down the linn.
Strange! that my memory should recall
Those distant things to view --
That every sound, and sight, and thought,
Should visit me anew!
Have I not heard a hundred times
The winter tempests roar,
Since first they spread that wretched couch
Here, on the dungeon floor?
Have I not heard the ocean-surge
Come bellowing to the strand,
When peals of thunder shook the heaven,
When flashed the levin brand?
The hurleys that might wake the dead,
Pass from me with their rage;
Not so the sounds that reached my bed
In lonely Hermitage.

VII

But O, that day, when first I rose,
A cripple, from my lair --
Threw wide the casement, breathed my fill,
Of fresh and wholesome air,
Drank in new life, and felt once more
The pulse's stirring play --
O, madly in my heart I keep
The memory of that day!
I thought to hear the gorcock crow,
Or ouzel whistle shrill,
When, lo! a gallant company
Came riding up the hill:
No banner was displayed on high,
No sign of war was seen,
No armed band, with spear and brand,
Encompassed Scotland's Queen.
She came, on gentle errand bound --
The generous and the free --
She came to cheer her wounded knight,
She came to comfort me.

VIII

She waited not for guard or groom,
But passed into the hall;
Around her were the four Maries,
Herself the rose of all.
I never thought that woman's voice
Could thrill my being so,
As when she thanked me for my zeal
In accents soft and low.
I saw the tear within her eye,
When, bending down to me,
She placed her lily hand in mine,
And bade me quit my knee.
'Dear lord,' she said, ''tis woman's right
To comfort when she may;
Then chafe not, if we take by storm
Your Border-keep to-day.
We come not to invade your hall,
Or rudely mar your rest;
Though well I know, at fitter time,
I were a welcome guest.
But could I quit the Border-side
Without my thanks to him
Who paid his service far too well,
At risk of life and limb?
Ah, Bothwell! you have bravely done,
And all my thanks are poor;
Would God that more were bent like you
To make my throne secure!
True heart! strong arm! I cannot place
A chaplet on your brow,
For the old rites of chivalry
Are lost or banished now;
But, trust me, never was a Queen
More debtor to a peer,
Than I, brave Earl, am proud to own,
Before the presence here!
How say you, brother?'

IX

At the word,
I felt a sudden chill;
I knew not Murray as he rode
Beside her up the hill.
I marked him not within my hall --
No wonder, for my eye
Was fixed on one bright form alone
Of all that company!
But there he stood, the pulseless man,
The calculating lord,
Swart in the Congregation's garb,
And leaning on his sword.
Upon his lip there was a smile
That almost seemed a sneer;
Softly he spoke, but what he said
Dwelt not within mine ear.
Some phrase it was of mild assent,
Framed in that glossy strain
That statesmen use to hide their thoughts
When honest words were vain;
Some staid and studied compliment,
As soft and cold as snow --
I would not, after desperate fight,
Have thanked a trooper so!
And then he paused, and glancing round
Upon the royal train,
Began to falter forth excuse,
Like one who spoke in pain,
Why Darnley came not with the Queen --
How could the fool be there?
Had he not left his Sovereign's Court,
Despite her tears and prayer? --
Left her, with base unmanly threat,
Alone to weep and pine;
That he might lie in harlots' laps,
And hiccup o'er his wine?

X

Well know I now what Murray meant,
But then I did not care --
The sight of Darnley in my hall
Had darkened all the air.
In sooth, I wished them far away,
The Maries, and the rest,
That I might throw me at her feet,
Might ease my bursting breast, --
Might tell her how I dared to love,
And how I hid my flame,
Till he, the wretched, perjured boy,
Had filled his cup with shame --
Might ask her, of her sovran grace,
To take and keep my vow,
To rule James Hepburn's heart and hand,
Not give him promise now --
One word, one little word of hope
Was all that he would crave, --
Hope? Never hope could rise for me,
Till Darnley filled his grave!

XI

For then indeed I felt the spell
That turned weak Arran's brain,
That drove the luckless Chastellar
To love and die in vain.
With tenfold power that magic charm
Was stirring in my soul;
Though she had spurned me from her feet,
I must have spoke the whole.
Far better to have told her all,
And waked at once her scorn,
Than brood o'er passions ill-concealed,
And wait for crimes unborn.
Unborn, but yet, alas! conceived --
Well -- well! what recks it now?
A child might weep, and moan, and fret,
That yonder glorious bow,
Which right before me spans the seas,
Should melt in mist and rain:
What is it but a pageantry
That will not come again?
Yea, let it pass with other things,
Old hope, remorse, and fear;
All these are phantoms, dead and gone --
They shall not force a tear!

XII

Bright was the morn, and fresh the wind,
And clear the trumpet's call,
As, strong once more in heart and limb,
I issued from my hall.
A hundred troopers, cased in mail,
Were mounted on the sward;
Men who would ride through steel and flame
At signal of their lord.
The knaves! I know they loved me well;
And what a wild acclaim
Rang through the valley, up the glen,
To greet me as I came!
Then spears were raised, and swords were swung,
And banners tossed on high,
In such a storm of wild delight,
As drives men onward to the fight,
For death or victory!
The blood was warm within me then,
And proudly did it bound,
As, clad again in knightly garb,
I wheeled my charger round;
O'er moss and moor, o'er hill and heath,
Right gallantly we sped,
Until we paused, and drew the rein
Hard by the river's head.
Backward on Castle Hermitage
One lingering look I cast;
I saw it in its strength and pride --
That look, it was the last!

XIII

Men say that in those northern seas,
Far out from human view,
There lies a huge and whirling pit,
As deep as though the globe were split,
To let the waters through;
All round and round for many a mile
Spreads the strong tide's resistless coil;
And if a ship should chance to pass
Within the Maelstrom's sweep,
Nor helm nor sail will then avail
To drive her through the deep.
Headlong she rolls on racing waves,
Still narrowing in her round,
Still drawn towards the awful brim
Of that abyss profound.
Then one sharp whirl, one giant surge,
A lurch, a plunge, a yell, --
And down for ever goes the ship
Into the raging hell!
God wot, I am not fanciful;
But from that fatal day,
When first I leagued with other men,
And left my open way,
No power had I to check my course,
No will to pause or stay.
They knew that I was proud and bold,
And foremost still would go,
Where danger waited in the path,
Nor ever count the foe.
And they had read my secret heart,
And set their cunning snare;
O, had my only thought been love,
They'd not have bound me there!

XIV

But there was hatred in my soul;
And more, that glorious sin,
Ambition, cursed by all who lose,
No crime for those who win.
What sceptre ever yet was gained
Without the reddened hand?
Light penance serves to cleanse the stain
From those who rule a land.
Hero, and king, and conqueror --
So ring the changes here,
For those who rise by any art,
No matter what they were!
Wretch, villain, traitor, regicide --
These are the counter-names
For men whom fortune thrusts aside,
However bold their aims.
I would not care for vulgar speech;
But, O, it drives me wild
To think that cold and reckoning knaves
Could sway me like a child!
Tell me no more of guilt and shame!
'Tis worse to be a fool,
To play the subtler traitors' game,
Their partner and their tool!

XV

'Twas in Craigmillar's dusky hall
That first I lent my ear
To that deep tempter, Lethington,
With Murray bending near.
The theme was Darnley and his deeds,
His vain capricious mind,
That neither counsel could control,
Nor sense of honour bind;
His wild outrageous insolence
To men of high degree,
Who, but for Mary's love and grace,
Were better far than he.
All this I heard, and answered not;
But when he came to speak
Of Mary's wrongs, and Mary's woes,
The blood was in my cheek.
He told me of her breaking heart,
Of bitter tears she shed,
Of the sad cry she raised to heaven,
'O God! that I were dead!' --
Of that dull grief which, more than pain,
Has power to waste and kill;
Yet in her secret heart, he said,
Queen Mary loved him still.

XVI

'Loves him?' 'Why, ay! Our thought was bent,
At first, on Darnley's banishment;
On loosing of the nuptial tie,
As holy Church allows --
An easy thing, for never yet
Was such a faithless spouse!
But when we broke it to the Queen,
She would not deign to hear;
He was the father of her child,
And so to her was dear.
What then is left? While Darnley lives,
He's nothing less than King;
An insect monarch, if you will,
But yet with power to sting.
Why, even you, brave Earl, so high
In honour and in place,
You -- Warden -- Admiral -- must bend
Before his Royal Grace!
Nay, chafe not at my open speech,
For others feel the wrong:
Great God! to think that one so weak
Should thus defy the strong!
I speak not only for myself --
I speak Lord Murray's mind;
Your brother Huntley, and Argyle,
They will not lag behind.
You know their strength. Yet more remains;
The banished lords are ours --
Lindsay and Morton, were they here,
Would help us with their powers.
In evil hour, in evil cause,
They lent weak Darnley aid;
They trusted to his lying tongue,
And therefore were betrayed.

XVII

'Surely 'tis time to stanch the wounds
That vex the land so sore,
To knit the noble brotherhood
More closely than of yore;
To curb the wild fanatic mood
That waxes day by day,
And make the surly preachers know
Their duty, to obey!
But for this brainless, frantic fool,
Our course were plain and clear;
If Scotland's nobles back their Queen,
What danger need they fear?
No more will we of foreign league,
Or foreign wedlock hear!
A better husband for the Queen
We'll find among our own;
As fit a champion as the Bruce,
To fill the Scottish throne!
More might I say -- but, valiant Earl,
On you our fate depends;
Speak but the word, give but the sign,
I'll answer for our friends!
Scotland is weary of the load
That lies upon her now,
And Death is breathing, cold and damp,
Upon our Sovereign's brow.
Here is the stalwart arm we need
To save the State and Queen;
Your own brave blood was freely shed
For Mary, on the green --
But Darnley's! -- for one drop of yours
His life were all too mean.'

XVIII

I've heard that poison-sprinkled flowers
Are sweeter in perfume
Than when, untouched by deadly dew,
They opened in their bloom;
I've heard that men, condemned to die,
Have quaffed the seasoned wine
With keener relish than the juice
Of the untampered vine;
I've heard that with the witches' song,
Though harsh and rude it be,
There blends a wild mysterious strain
Of weirdest harmony,
So that the listener far away
Must needs approach the ring,
Where, on the savage Lapland moors,
The demon chorus sing;
And I believe the devil's voice
Sinks deeper in the ear,
Than any whispers sent from heaven,
However soft and clear.
Yes! I was cozened, cheated, led --
No beast more blindly goes
Towards the shambles, than I went
When flattered by my foes!
Flattered -- and bribed! Ay, that's the word --
No need to hide it now --
Bribed by the proffer of a crown
To glitter on my brow!
O never let the man of deeds,
Though strong, and bold, and brave,
Though he has shaken thrones like reeds,
Try issue with a knave!
Might is no match for studied craft,
Which makes the best its thrall:
When earth is mined beneath his feet,
The champion needs must fall.

XIX

Now, were a reverend father here --
For such there are, I know,
Good men and true, who preach the word,
Without invoking fire and sword
To lay the temples low --
Men who proclaim their mission, peace;
And count it worse than shame
To shed their doctrines forth like oil
Upon a land in flame --
Had I such ghostly counsellor,
He'd tell me straight to throw
All rancorous feelings from my breast;
To bless my deadliest foe;
To pray for that same Lethington;
To raise my heart to heaven,
And supplicate that Murray's soul
May not depart unshriven!
Nay -- more than that -- for Morton's weal
My prayer must also rise:
A proper instrument were I
To lift him to the skies!
The older faith enjoined a mass,
A requiem to be said
Above the bier, or for the soul
Of any foeman dead.
That may be priestcraft -- idle sound,
As modern preachers say --
A lie, that neither saint in heaven,
Nor guard on hell, obey:
But to forgive them, while they live;
To breathe a prayer for them,
The traitors who have robbed their Queen
Of state and diadem --
Have shut her in a lonely isle,
To pine, and waste, and die --
A prayer for villains such as these
Were insult to the sky!

XX

I yielded; for the deed proposed
Was nothing new or strange.
Though ne'er a Lord in Scotland stirred,
My purpose, oath, and secret word
Had known nor check nor change.
Men feel by instinct, swift as light,
The presence of the foe,
Whom God has marked, in after years,
To strike the mortal blow;
The other, though his brand be sheathed
At banquet or in hall,
Hath a forebodement of the time
When one or both must fall.
That bodement darkened on my soul
When first I set my eye
On Darnley in his trim attire,
All youth, and mirth, and hope, and fire,
A blazoned butterfly.
Methought I saw, like northern seers
When shadowed by the cloud,
Around his pomp and bravery
The phantom of a shroud!
It chilled me then, it haunts me now --
Let this at least be said,
No thought of slaughter crossed my mind
Till David Riccio bled.
Then both my heart and hand were freed;
And often in a dream,
When, through the corridors of sleep,
Rang Mary's piercing scream,
The scene would change from Holyrood
To some sequestered glen,
Where I and Darnley met alone,
Apart from other men.
How often have we twain been thrown
In death-lock on the sand,
Eye fixed on eye, breath meeting breath,
And steel in either hand!
And I have wakened, panting sore,
My forehead wet with dew,
More shaken by the phantom strife
Than any that was true!

XXI

They prate of murder -- 'tis a word
Most odious to the ear,
Condemned alike by God and man:
But peer may meet with peer.
If laggard laws delay redress
For insult or for wrong,
There is no arbiter like steel
So ready and so strong.
Then they contend on equal ground,
And equal arms they wield;
What does the knight or captain more
Who strikes in tented field?
And -- by the sun that shines above! --
Had fate ordained it so,
That I and Darnley might have met,
As foeman meets his foe,
One half my life, when life was prized,
Were ransom all too poor
For one bare hour, 'twixt dawn and mirk,
Of grappling on the moor!

XXII

But kings -- forsooth, they called him King! --
Are cravens now. They claim
Exemption from the knightly rule,
And skulk behind their name.
They dare not, as in Arthur's days,
When chivalry began,
Tell their accuser that he lies,
And meet him, man to man.
They are not dauntless, like the Bruce,
All Europe's foremost knight,
Aye ready with his stalwart hand
To justify his right --
Not valiant, as was royal James,
Who died on Flodden field,
The best and bravest of his race,
Unknowing how to yield.
They sit behind their silken screens,
Fenced closely by their guard,
Their archers and their bandoleers,
Like women kept in ward.
No reckoning give they for their deeds,
Whatever those may be --
Too high was Darnley in his place
To measure swords with me.
I hold the creed that earthly wrong
On earth must be repaid;
And, if the battle be denied,
And law is drugged, and stupefied,
Why -- vengeance comes in aid!

XXIII

'Tis strange what freaks the fancy plays,
When sense is shut by sleep;
How a vague horror thrills the frame,
And awful sounds and deep
Boom on the ear, as if the earth
Moaned in her central caves
Beneath the weight of buried men,
And stirred them in their graves!
That night as on my bed I lay,
The terror passed on me;
It wrung my heart, it froze my blood,
It forced my eyes to see
The spectral fire upon the hearth,
The arras' stiffened fold,
The gaunt, mute figures on its web,
In tarnished silk and gold, --
All there -- no motion -- but a step
Was creaking on the stair;
It made me pant, it made me gasp --
Who was it sought me there?
I saw my sword beside the bed,
I could not stretch my arm --
I could not stir, I could not cry,
I lay beneath a charm.
The door swung slowly on its hinge,
And in a figure came,
In form and face like Lethington,
Most like, yet not the same.
Those were his eyes that glared on mine,
But in them was a gleam
That burned like fire into my brain;
I felt them in my dream.
And thus he spoke, in Maitland's voice,
But deeper far than he: --
'Rise up, Lord Bothwell, from thy bed --
Rise up, and follow me!'

XXIV

I rose, but not as men arise
At hasty call or loud;
I rose as rigid as a corpse
Swathed in its burial-shroud.
Spellbound I stood upon the floor,
Bereft of power or will,
For well I knew, where'er he went,
That I must follow still.
Then up the stair he led the way,
By winding steps and steep,
Out to the topmost battlement
Of old Craigmillar's keep.
The moon was down, but myriad stars
Were sparkling in the sky --
'Behold!' he said, and raised his hand --
They seemed to wane and die.
They passed from out the firmament,
Deep darkness fell around --
Darkness, and horror as of hell,
And silence most profound.
No wind, no murmur, breath, nor stir,
'Twas utter blankness all,
As though the face of God were hid,
And heaven were wrapped in pall.

XXV

'Behold again!' the deep voice said,
And straight arose a spire
Of lurid, red, and dismal light,
Between me and the mountain height,
A peak of wavering fire:
Above it was a kingly crown --
Then sounded in my ear,
'That glorious prize may be thine own!
Nor only that, but honour, power,
Beauty, and love -- a matchless dower --
Dominion far and near!
All these await thee, if thy heart
Is tempered like thy steel,
Keen, sharp, and strong, and prompt to strike --
To strike, but not to feel!
That crown was won by valiant Bruce,
He gained it by the blow
That on the slippery altar-steps
Laid the Red Comyn low;
He won and wore it as a king,
And thou may'st win it now!'

XXVI

I spoke not, but he heard my thought: --
'Well done, thou dauntless peer!
I love the brave and venturous will
That knows nor ruth nor fear!
Come, then, I swear by yonder fire --
A sacred oath to me --
That thou shalt sit in Darnley's place
When Darnley dies by thee!
Away that pageant!' -- Spire and crown
Shut, like the lightning's leap;
But overhead a meteor came,
Slow-moving, tinging with its flame
The murky clouds and deep;
It shed a glare on Arthur's Seat,
It widened like a shield,
And burst, in thunder and in fire,
Above the Kirk-of-Field.





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