Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BOTHWELL: PART 3, by WILLIAM EDMONSTOUNE AYTOUN



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BOTHWELL: PART 3, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: That gaoler hath a savage look
Last Line: The felon now for evermore!'
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

THAT gaoler hath a savage look --
Methinks I spy a change;
For three long years, within this room,
That man has been my only groom,
And yet his voice is strange.
He brings me food, he smoothes my bed,
Obedient to my sign;
But still his moody eye falls down,
And will not answer mine.
I had the art, in former days,
To win, by short familiar phrase,
The rudest hearts alive, --
To bring the wildest to my side,
And force them in the battle-tide
Like thorough fiends to strive.
When Warden, I have rode alone,
Without a single spear to back,
The Marches through, although I knew
That spies were hovering on my track;
I've passed into the midst of clans
So fierce and wild, that undismayed
They would have risen, sword in hand,
Had the Queen's standard been displayed;
But never did I meet with one,
Trooper or jackman, groom or knave,
But to the ready fearless call
A frank and fearless answer gave.

II

This fellow scowls as if in hate.
I've marked upon his brow a scar,
More like the hideous galley-brand
Than any wound from broil or war.
Either he is, in mind and sense,
Far duller than a Lothian boor,
Or there's a plot against my life,
And he's the man to make it sure!
I never hear him at the door,
When fumbling with his heavy keys,
But something warns me to beware,
Reminding me that sounds like these
Were heard by Rothsay, Scotland's heir,
In Falkland's dungeon deep;
When, mad with famine and despair,
He started from his sleep,
To see the butchers usher in
That terrible repast,
The black bull's head, the awful sign
Of death to follow fast!
Slave that he is! I've strength enough
To brain him at a blow:
But Danish laws, they say, are hard;
And scarcely might a man in ward
Deal with his gaoler so.
And yet, if treason dares to come
And bare the murderous knife,
Not craven-like nor unavenged
Shall Bothwell yield his life!

III

Is this indeed a warning voice
That croaks within my ear?
Or is it guilt that frames the thought,
And fashions it to fear?
I'd have it so -- I'll so believe!
These terrors are no more
Than the wild blasts that conscience drives;
And though they shake me sore,
I'll hold them empty, vain, and false,
Nor so demean my place
As tremble at a clown's approach,
Or deign to watch his face!

IV

Come -- I will far away from hence --
I cannot tarry here:
Whate'er the penance, I must forth,
And quit this dungeon drear!
Man lives not for the single point
That marks the passing time;
He lives in thoughts and memories
Of glory or of crime.
And I will back -- and bravely back,
To that tremendous night
When the whole state of Scotland reeled,
And Darnley took his flight,
Borne on the wings of that red blast,
Whose fell volcano-roar
Shook the dark city to its base,
And bade it sleep no more.
That which I did, nor shrunk to do,
I may at least recall;
If spectres rise from out the grave,
I dare to face them all!

V

High mirth there was in Holyrood,
As fitted nuptial scene,
For on that day Sebastian wed
The favourite of the Queen.
All Scotland's nobles graced the feast,
And merrily went round the jest,
Though some had secrets in their breast
Enough to mar their sport.
But in a time when all men lied.
Nor trusted neighbour by their side,
Deceit was more than justified;
And, truly, of that Court,
I doubt if there was any there
Who showed in face or mien a care,
Save Mary. But her cheek was pale,
Sad was her smile at jest or tale;
And though she strove to bear her part.
She could not so devise,
But that the anguish of her heart
Came glistening to her eyes.

VI

Yes, when she looked upon the pair
So fondly placed together there,
Loving and loved, without a thought
Beyond their present bliss and joy,
All hope, all trust, all happiness,
All faith without alloy,
I saw her strive to hide her tears --
I am not gentler than my peers;
Nor could I, in the general case,
Divine why women weep and wail,
But gazing on Queen Mary's face,
I saw the cause, and could not fail.
She thought her of the marriage-feast
When Darnley was the chosen groom,
When, trusting to his vows and faith,
She gave herself, in beauty's bloom.
When she was radiant as the bride,
And he was, as the lover, gay;
Alas! there rolled an awful tide
Between that time and this to-day!
Short interval; yet where was he,
The partner of her bed and throne,
The chief of all her chivalry?
A wretched leper, and alone!
Stricken, and sick, and ill at ease,
Worn out with base debaucheries,
Her lord once more was nigh;
Broken in body and in mind --
A wretch, who paradise resigned,
To wallow in a sty!

VII

How she endured him, after all
His foulness and his insolence,
Puzzles my mind -- but let it fall!
God gave to woman gentler sense
And sweeter temper than to man;
And she will bear, like penitence,
A load that makes the other ban.
Saint-like she tarried by his side,
And soothed his torment day by day;
And though her grief she could not hide,
No anger did her look betray.
Now, in the midst of mirth and song,
Her loving nature did not yield,
And every moment seemed too long
That kept her from the Kirk-of-Field.
Early she gave the wonted sign
In token that the feast was done;
Her place was then by Darnley's bed,
Till the late revelry begun.
And I, like her, had counted time,
And might not longer tarry there;
For the wild impulse to a crime
Hath all the urgence of despair.
I knew her errand, and my own!
I knew them both but far too well --
Hers was the thorny path to heaven,
And mine the road that leads to hell!

VIII

Well I remember how my heart
Beat as I oped the postern-door;
My foot upon the threshold stayed,
I scarce had power to venture o'er!
The night was dark; a heavy mist
Came creeping upward from the sea, --
'Who waits there? Bolton -- Talla -- hist!'
And straight they glided up to me.
'Is all prepared? -- speak soft and low.'
'All's done; beyond the walls they wait.'
'And Ormiston, where lingers he?
He was not wont to be so late.'
'He tarries for you. But, my Lord,
Some hidden treachery we dread;
Two muffled men are on the watch,
They passed us by with stealthy tread.
No aid has come from Morton yet,
Despite the promise that he gave;
I searched the fields and orchard round,
But all was silent as the grave.'
'Why then, our secret is our own:
Far better that they are not there.
As for the twain you speak of -- tush!
Maskers or galliards -- never care!
Give me your hand. Why, Hay, 'tis cold!
No flinching now; the die is cast.
Nay, man! be resolute and bold;
To-morrow, and the danger's past.
What brave young heart but would be fain
To share in such a venturous deed?
Away then; let's to Ormiston:
Tread softly as you go -- take heed!'

IX

We found him graithed in steel array --
O, often yet I think of him!
The strongest warrior of his day,
A giant both in thews and limb.
He was my friend, my father's too;
But he is dead -- nor only he,
For the black gibbet was the doom
Of every man who stood by me!
Well, well! God sain them -- sain them all!
If what they died for was a crime,
Death was atonement: for the rest
I'll answer in the coming time,
As I must answer.
'Ormiston!'
'Welcome, Lord Earl, but not too soon;
I've waited here an hour and more,
And cursed the coming of the moon.
Thanks to the mist, the Borderer's friend,
We shall not see her face to-night;
I never rode a foray yet
When I had comfort from her light.
So Morton has not sent his men?
I'm glad on't, Earl! 'Twere shame, I swear,
That fifty jackmen should be brought
To see one stripling vault in air.

X

I stood that night in Darnley's room,
Above the chamber charged with death;
At every sound that rose below
There was a catching in my breath.
The aspect of the boy was sad,
For he was weak, and wrung with pain;
Weary he lay upon the bed,
From which he never rose again.
I saw his brow so pale and damp,
I saw his cheek so thin and spare --
I've seen it often since in dreams --
O wherefore did I seek him there?
He lay, indeed, a dying man,
His minutes numbered, marked, and spanned;
With every ticking of the clock
There fell a priceless grain of sand.
Yet over him an angel bent,
And soothed his pain, and wiped his brow --
So fair, so kind, so innocent,
That all hell's tortures to me now
Could scarce be worse than what I felt
Within that thrice-accursed room!
No heart so hard that will not melt
When love stands weeping o'er the tomb.
O had I hellebore for that --
That one damn'd hour! -- I'd count me blest;
So would I banish from my couch
The direst phantom of unrest!

XI

Time trickled on. I knew 'twas done,
When Paris entered with the key --
I'd listened for his foot, as one
Upon the rack might hail the tread
Of the grim gaoler of the dead,
Yet loathsome was his face to me!
He looked a murderer; not for hate,
Malice, or wrong, or other cause,
By which the devil, or his mate,
Tempt man to spurn his Maker's laws --
But from that hideous appetite,
That lust for blood, that joy in sin,
That shames the instinct of the wolf,
So hellish is the heart within.
Let no man seek to gain his end
By felon means! I never felt
So like a slave, as when he passed,
And touched the key beneath his belt!
For in his glance I read the thought --
'Lord Bothwell! ever from this hour,
Though you be great, and I am nought,
Your life and fame are in my power!'
Ah! shame, that I should now recall
The meaner feelings of that time,
The splinters and the accidents
That flash from every deed of crime!
Shame, that a face like his should rise
To gibber at me even now,
To scare me with his hateful eyes,
And beckon from the gulf below!
What recks it how a caitiff ends?
If Murray paid him with a cord,
Why, let his spectre haunt the friends
Who did not deem him worth the sword!
No more of that! -- The Queen arose,
And we, her nobles, stood aloof
Until she parted from her spouse,
And then we left the fated roof.

XII

'Back, back to Holyrood! away!'
Then torches flashed, and yeomen came,
And round the royal litter closed
A gleaming zone of ruddy flame.
I have slight memory of that walk --
Argyle, I think, spoke earnestly
On state affairs, but of his talk
Not any word remains with me.
We came to Holyrood; and soon
A gush of music filled the hall:
The dance was set; the long saloon
Glowed as in time of carnival.
O hateful to me was the sound.
And doubly hateful was the light!
I could not bear to look around,
I longed to plunge into the night.
A low dull boom was in mine ear,
A surging as of waters pent;
And the strained sense refused to hear
The words of passing merriment.
What if that Babel should be stilled,
Smote dumb, by one tremendous knell?
What if the air above were filled
With clanging from the clocks of hell?
Yet waited I till all was o'er;
The bride withdrew, the masque was done:
And as I left the postern-door,
Dully the palace bell struck, One!

XIII

I heard a sermon long ago,
Wherein the preacher strove to show
That guiltiness in high or low
Hath the like touch of fear;
And that the knight who sallies forth,
Bent on an action of unworth,
Though he be duke or belted earl,
Feels the same tremor as the churl
Who steals his neighbour's gear.
I held his words for idle talk,
And cast them from my view;
But, in that awful midnight walk,
I felt the man spake true.

XIV

I heard the echo of my foot,
As up the Canongate I sped,
Distinct, as though in close pursuit
Some spy kept even with my tread.
Or did I run, or did I pause,
That sound was ever bickering near;
And though I guessed full well the cause,
I could not free myself from fear.
I almost stumbled in the dark
Upon a houseless, vagrant hound,
And his sharp snarl, and sudden bark,
Made my heart leap, and pulses bound.
Wherever there were lights on high,
Methought there stood some watcher pale --
Thin shadows seemed to flitter by,
I heard low voices mourn and wail.
And I could swear that once I saw
A phantom gliding by the place
Where then I stood. I shook with awe --
The face was like my mother's face,
When last I saw her on her bier!
Are there such things? or does the dread
Of coming evil craze our fear,
And so bring up the sheeted dead?
I cannot tell. But this I know,
That rather than endure again
Such hideous thoughts, I'd fight the foe,
And reckon with them, blow for blow,
Though I were one, and they were ten!

XV

I passed beyond the city wall;
No light there was in hut or bield,
I scarce could find the narrow lane
That led me to the Kirk-of-Field.
Three men were speeding from the door;
They ran against me in the way --
'Who's that?' ''Tis I!' 'Lord Bothwell? Back,
Back, back -- my Lord! make no delay!
The doors are locked, the match is lit --
A moment more, and all is done --
Let's 'void the ground!' 'He sleeps then sound?'
'Within that house shall waken none!'
Shortly we paused. I strained my sight
To trace the outline of the pile;
But neither moon nor stars gave light,
And so we waited for a while.

XVI

Down came the rain with steady pour,
It splashed the pools among our feet;
Each minute seemed in length an hour,
As each went by, yet uncomplete.
'Hell! should it fail, our plot is vain!
Bolton -- you have mislaid the light!
Give me the key -- I'll fire the train,
Though I be partner of his flight!'
'Stay, stay, my Lord! you shall not go!
'Twere madness now to near the place;
The soldiers' fuses burn but slow;
Abide, abide a little space!
There's time enough' --

XVII

He said no more,
For at the instant flashed the glare,
And with a hoarse infernal roar
A blaze went up and filled the air!
Rafters, and stones, and bodies rose
In one quick gush of blinding flame,
And down, and down, amidst the dark,
Hurtling on every side they came.
Surely the devil tarried near,
To make the blast more fierce and fell,
For never pealed on human ear
So dreadful and so dire a knell.
The heavens took up the earth's dismay,
The thunder bellowed overhead;
Steep called to steep. Away, away! --
Then fear fell on me, and I fled;
For I was dazzled and amazed --
A fire was flashing in my brain --
I hasted like a creature crazed,
Who strives to overrun his pain.
I took the least-frequented road,
But even there arose a hum;
Lights showed in every vile abode,
And far away I heard the drum.
Roused was the city, late so still;
Burghers, half clad, ran hurrying by,
Old crones came forth, and scolded shrill,
Men shouted challenge and reply.
Yet no one dared to cross my path,
My hand was on my dagger's hilt;
Fear is as terrible as wrath,
And vengeance not more fierce than guilt.
I would have stricken to the heart
Whoever should have stopped me then;
None saw me from the palace part,
None saw me enter it again.
Ah! but I heard a whisper pass,
It thrilled me as I reached the door --
'Welcome to thee, the knight that was,
The felon now for evermore!'





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