Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BOTHWELL: PART 5, by WILLIAM EDMONSTOUNE AYTOUN



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BOTHWELL: PART 5, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Ascension morn! I hear the bells
Last Line: The sword that darnley wore.
Alternate Author Name(s): Bon Gaultier (with Theodore Martin)
Subject(s): Ascension Day; Bothwell, Scotland; Courts & Courtiers; Death; Prisons & Prisoners; Royal Court Life; Royalty; Kings; Queens; Dead, The; Convicts


I

ASCENSION morn! I hear the bells
Ring from the village far away:
How solemnly that music tells
The mystic story of the day!
Fainter and fainter come the chimes,
As though they melted into air,
Like voices of the ancient times,
Like echoes of ascending prayer!
So sweet and gentle sound they yet,
That I, who never bend the knee,
Can listen on, and half forget
That heaven's bright door is shut for me.
Ring on, ye bells! Let others throng
Before the blessed rood to pray;
Let them have comfort in the song
That celebrates this holy day.
Ring on for them! I hear you well,
But cannot lift my thoughts on high;
The dreary mists that rise from hell
Come thick between me and the sky!

II

O God, I wish that I were dead!
That I had died long, long ago,
With but such sin upon my head
As men of dull temptations know!
We cleave to life, yet never deem
That life may be a curse and snare --
Far better with the dead to dream,
Than wake in torture and despair.
O yes, I can be humble now!
Sometimes my mood is stern and wild,
Yet often I must stoop my brow,
And weep as weakly as a child.
Defiance burns within me yet,
But none are near me to defy;
I cannot palter or forget,
Or cheat my conscience with a lie.
I have shed blood, and rued it sore,
Because it was not knightly done;
Yet were that all my guilt -- no more --
It well might brook comparison
With deeds that, in the preachers' eyes,
Appear a righteous sacrifice.
They own no saints; else, well I ween,
A saint had Norman Leslie been:
Norman, that fiery youth and bold,
Who forced his way to Beatoun's hold,
And saw, unmoved, the murderer's knife
Let out the Primate's throbbing life.
Though private feud, not holy zeal,
Set Norman forward with his steel,
Yet his was styled a godly deed,
Because he made a bishop bleed.
Witchcraft has charms to daze the sight;
Strange glamour has religion too:
It makes the wrong appear the right,
The false as worthy as the true!
The ten commandments dwindle down,
In case of pious need, to nine;
Murder no more provokes a frown,
'Tis justified by texts divine!

III

Away, away with thoughts like these!
Take them, ye winds, and whelm them, seas!
For other memories haunt me. Yes;
As greater billows drown the less,
So one dark surge within my breast
Roars up, and overwhelms the rest.
It might be foul, it might be wrong
To slay the man I hated long;
But O, what mercy from above
Can he entreat who strikes at love?

IV

Methinks I can recall the scene,
That bright and sunny day;
The Pentlands in their early green
Like giant warders lay.
Upon the bursting woods below
The pleasant sunbeams fell;
Far off, one streak of lazy snow
Yet lingered in a dell.
The westlin' winds blew soft and sweet,
The meads were fair to see;
Yet went I not the spring to greet
Beneath the trysting-tree.

V

For blades were glistening in the light,
And morions flashing clear:
A thousand men in armour bright
Were there with sword and spear.
A thousand men as brave and stout
As ever faced a foe,
Or stemmed the roaring battle-rout
When fiercest in its flow.
But cold and cheerless was their mien,
And faint their welcome then: --
'Why, Ormiston! what sullen fiend
Hath so possessed the men?
They look like images in steel,
Not vassals prompt and true:
Think you they know or guess the work,
And will they bear us through?'

VI

'Fear not for that! No single knave
Will fail you at your need;
Were it to gallows or to grave,
They'd follow where I lead.
Give but the signal for the south,
Or 'gainst the townsmen here,
And, fast enough, from every mouth
Will burst a deafening cheer!
Nothing need they but action, sir,
To make them fierce and fain:
Last night their blood began to stir;
'Twas pity to refrain!
A blow or two on yonder crew
Right well had been bestowed!
But more anon: the day wears on;
'Tis time to take the road.
Hay, bid the trumpets sound the march;
Go, Bolton, to the van;
Young Niddrie follows with the rear;
Set forward, every man!'

VII

'But what hath chanced? The streets are clear;
I saw no gathering throng:
No sound of tumult reached my ear,
Now, as I passed along.'
'O, sir! the Edinburgh folk are wise;
They know the value of disguise!
Short warning give they of the fray,
For they are hounds that do not bay
Until they tear you down;
But better are we here to-day
Abroad, than in the town.
I knew that danger was at hand,
But deemed it not so nigh;
Your chance was lost, despite the Band,
Had this one day gone by!
Kirkaldy's friends have laid their plot:
They know our purpose well.
You start -- thank God, they ventured not
To sound St Giles's bell!
Then had the craftsmen rushed to arms;
And ill it were to strive,
With hampered men, against the swarms
Lodged in yon waspish hive!
Had Morton joined them with his might,
Or message come from Mar,
Why, you and I this self-same night
Had lodged within Dunbar;
Not, as I trust, with royal guest,
At will to entertain,
But with some score of beaten rogues,
Too scared to draw the rein.
The townsfolk can be dangerous foes,
If roused within their den;
And truly, when it comes to blows,
They bear themselves like men!

VIII

'Last night they tried our troopers' faith;
And many a can of ale
Was emptied to Queen Mary's health
By lads of Liddesdale.
Frankly the burghers played the host;
And all was merry game,
Till one gruff elder of the Kirk
Waxed wrathful at your name.
Short say was his and incomplete,
A Jardine smote him down;
Then, 'midst the brawl, arose the call
Of 'Douglas for the town!'
That cry was ready and designed,
It rung through street, and pealed through wynd,
But Morton was not there.
Yet bear it ever in your mind,
And guard against the stab behind
When Douglas speaks you fair!
Right glad was I from yonder pack
Our men unscathed to bring;
And, when we ride in triumph back,
Lord Earl, I'll hail thee King!

IX

'And, by my soul, the hour has come!
No doubt or tarrying now!
Mark yonder drifting cloud of dust
Above the orchard row.
Some thirty spears, not more, are there;
I reckon by their sheen:
And yonder rides a knight in mail --
'Tis Huntley with the Queen!
Ho, sound a halt! Go forward you;
I'll follow with my band:
Now, Bothwell, to yourself be true --
The crown is in your hand!'

X

True to myself? False -- false as hell,
And false to all beside!
Yet what I did was acted well:
The devil was my guide.
For question left I little space;
I spurred across the plain:
I met Queen Mary, face to face,
And took her palfrey's rein.

XI

'Pardon, my liege, if hot with haste
I fail in homage due!
Too precious is the time to waste;
My care is all for you.
Madam! rebellion rages wide
Within yon luckless town:
The craftsmen in tumultuous tide
To Holyrood sweep down!
"Fire, fire the chapel!" is their cry;
"No mass -- no mumbled prayer!
Hale forth the priests, and let them die:
Down, down with rank Idolatry!
Smite, burn, and do not spare!"
Nay, Madam -- never look so pale --
Your friends are safe. I did not fail
To leave a trusty band,
Who, if they cannot clear the street,
Are strong enough for safe retreat;
And this their strict command --
To make at least the passage good
Of all your train from Holyrood,
To Crichton, my ancestral home,
Where the false villains dare not come.
But you, our Lady and our Queen --
Your safety is my care:
One royal fortress yet remains,
We'll bring you bravely there.
I hold your castle of Dunbar,
The strongest keep equipped for war
Within the Lothians wide:
No other place is half so sure;
There shall you rest in peace, secure --
Say, Madam, will you ride?
Short is the space for parley now,
The road beset may be;
But though we hew our passage through,
We'll bear your Highness free!
Come, Huntley! we await your word:
What better can be done?
Far is the ride; but yet, my Lord,
There's nearer shelter none.
Safe is that hold from storm or siege,
However wide the war --
'Tis well resolved! My gracious liege,
This night we reach Dunbar.'

XII

O wretch, to fashion such a lie!
O slave, to ruin one so fair!
O false to faith and chivalry!
O villain, well may I despair!
Why live I longer, since I know
That prayer and penitence are vain;
Since hope is dead for me below,
And hell can give no ghastlier pain?
Beneath the flags that, day by day,
Return dull echoes to my tread,
A grave is hollowed in the clay;
It waits the coming of the dead
A grave apart, a grave unknown,
A grave of solitude and shame,
Whereon shall lie no sculptured stone
With legend of a warrior's name.
O would it yawn to take me in,
And bind me, soul and body, down!
O could it hide me and my sin,
When the great trumpet-blast is blown!
O might one guilty form remain
Unsummoned to that awful crowd,
When all the chiefs of Bothwell's strain
Shall rise from sepulchre and shroud!
How could I meet their stony stare --
How could I see my father's face --
I, the one tainted felon there,
The foul Iscariot of my race?

XIII

I sought her presence in the hall --
Not as a knight prepared to woo,
But like a faltering criminal
Who knows not what to say or do.
I told the story once again
Of wide rebellion in the land,
Of clamour raised against her reign,
Of treason by the preachers planned.
I told her that the English Queen
Was bent to drive her from the throne,
That still Elizabeth's aim had been
To rule in Britain's isle, alone.
'Madam,' I said, 'though great her power,
Trust me, that woman's craft is vain;
Nor any town, nor any tower,
Shall she usurp on Scottish plain.
Though knaves and hypocrites combine,
Though the old faith be trampled down,
We'll rally round our royal line,
And perish ere they wrong the Crown!

XIV

'But these are not the days of yore,
When duty was a sacred thing,
When loyal hearts the people bore,
And priests were subject to the king.
Not now, upon the Sabbath-day,
Are men exhorted to obey,
Nor do they meet to kneel and pray.
Savage and wild the preacher stands,
And imprecates with lifted hands
The wrath of Heaven upon the head
Of all who differ from his creed.
Nor only that; the pulpit rings
With lying tales of priests and kings.
Bold in his self-commissioned cause,
The railing rebel spurns the laws,
And bids his hearers bare the sword,
Against their rulers, for the Lord!
O since your father, royal James,
Sighed out his life in Falkland tower,
How many churches, wrapped in flames,
Have witnessed to the spoilers' power!
Yea, even in Iona's isle,
That early Bethlehem of the west,
Where, by Columba's stately pile,
The bones of Scotland's monarchs rest,
Such deeds were done, by christened men,
As well might shame the Saracen.
For sacrilegious hands were there
The dead from out their graves to tear,
And scatter to the winds abroad
The relics of the saints of God!

XV

'And deem not that their rage has passed --
It lives, it burns within them still;
Misrule and anarchy will last
While those wild preachers have their will.
This new rebellion shows their mood;
The throne must, like the altar, down:
The hands that tore away the hood,
Are eager to profane the Crown!

XVI

'But we can stay them in their course;
Force must be met, and fought by force!
The nobles who allowed their aid
To help the growing power,
Shrink from the monster they have made,
Insatiate to devour.
Ready are they with heart and hand
To crush rebellion in the land;
All private quarrel to forego,
And league against the common foe.
Such, Lady, is their full intent,
And this the token they have sent.
Behold their names -- recorded here
Are those of prelate, statesman, peer.
The heart of Scotland and its might
In this great bond of love unite;
And never more shall treason dare
To lift its head in open air
Against a brotherhood so fair!

XVII

'But, Madam, something they require --
O that I might from speech refrain!
Scarce can I utter their desire,
Or speak a prayer that may be vain!
Yet must I do it. Lady! see --
With throbbing heart and bended knee,
Thus low before your royal seat
I pour my homage at your feet!
O, by the heaven that spreads above,
By all that man holds fond and dear!
I had not dared to tell my love,
Or breathe that secret in your ear!
But for the urgence of the time,
When silence almost is a crime --
But for the danger to the throne,
James Hepburn to his grave had gone,
And never knelt as now!
Nay, gracious Madam -- do not rise;
Well can I fathom the surprise
That shows upon your brow!
Were I by wild ambition stirred,
Or moved by selfish aim,
Then might you spurn my suit preferred,
Bid me begone, condemned, unheard,
And ever loathe my name.
Nay more -- for frankly will I speak --
The marriage bonds I wear, though weak,
Would still have tied my tongue;
Nor from my heart had friend or priest,
While life yet ebbed within my breast,
This free confession wrung!'

XVIII

Silent and still, though pale as death,
Queen Mary kept her throne,
But for the heaving of her breath,
She seemed of marble stone.
Scarce by a gesture did she show
What thoughts were rushing by.
O noblest work of God! -- how low,
How mean I felt when grovelling so,
With every word a lie!
'And can it be,' at length she said,
'That Bothwell has his Queen betrayed?
Bothwell, my first and foremost knight --
Bothwell, whose faith I deemed more bright,
More pure than any spotless gem
That glitters in my diadem?
Great God! what guilt of me or mine
Hath thus provoked thy wrath divine?
Weary, though short, has been my life;
For dangers, sickness, murders, strife,
All the worst woes that man can fear,
Have thickened round me year by year.
The smiles of love I scarce had seen
Ere death removed them from my view;
My realm had scarce received its Queen
Ere treason's hideous trumpet blew.
They whom I sought to make my friends,
My very kin, proved false to me;
And now before me Bothwell bends
In falsehood, not in faith, the knee!
O sir! was this a knightly deed,
To wrong a woman in her need,
When neither help nor friends were nigh,
And snare her with an odious lie?
False was the tale that brought me here,
False even as the love you feign;
And doubtless now you hope, through fear,
Your Queen and Mistress to restrain!'

XIX

Stung to the quick, but bolder far,
As men detected ever are,
I answered her again --
'Madam! if I have erred through love,
I look for pardon from above,
And shall not look in vain.
True love is prompt, and will not wait
Till chance or hazard ope the gate.
Not mine the arts that gallants own
Who glide and prattle round the throne!
A soldier I, unused to sue,
Or fawn as courtly minions do.
If I am plain and blunt of mood,
My sword is sharp and keen;
And never have I spared my blood
In service of my Queen.
Why, Madam, should you speak of fear?
I used no force to bring you here.
This castle is a royal hold;
Above, upon the turret high,
The Ruddy Lion ramps in gold,
True sign of Scotland's majesty.
Safe as in Holyrood you bide
With friends around you and beside,
And here you keep your state.
What if I longed to speak my mind,
To tell you what the peers designed --
To plead my cause, however rude,
Where no rash meddler might intrude --
Was that a crime so great?
Ah, Madam, be not so unkind!
If love is hasty, it is blind.
And will not bear to wait.'

XX

Then rose she up; and on her brow
Was stamped the Stuart frown: --
'By all the saints in heaven, I trow
This man would bear me down!
He prates of love, as if my hand
Were but a sworder's prize,
That any ruffian in the land
Might challenge or despise!
What mad ambition prompts you, sir,
To utter this to me?
What word of mine has raised your hopes
In such a wild degree?
I gave you trust, because I deemed
Your honour free from stain;
I raised you to the highest place
That subject could attain,
Because I thought you brave and true,
And now, forsooth, you dare to woo!
Are these your thanks for all my grace,
Is this your knightly vow?
Fie, Bothwell! hide your perjured face --
There's falsehood on your brow!'

XXI

Swift as the adder rears its head
When trampled by the shepherd's tread,
Sprang up my pride; for word of scorn
By me was never tamely borne.
Like liquid fire through every vein
The blood rushed burning to my brain;
All the worst passions of my soul
Broke out at once beyond control.
No longer did I feign to woo;
Pity, remorse, away I threw,
And, desperate that my aim was seen,
I, as a rebel, faced my Queen!

XXII

'Madam! I sought in gentle guise
To win your royal ear;
Since humble speech will not suffice,
In words unblent with courtesies
My message shall you hear.
I speak not for myself alone;
But for the noblest near your throne.
Deeply the Lords of Scotland mourn
The cause of this your grief;
The fate which left their Queen forlorn,
And took away their chief.
But sorrow, though it wring the heart,
Has limits to its range;
And duty must resume its part,
Since even empires change.
Therefore they pray you, of your grace,
To put aside the garb of dule,
And choose some mate of Scottish race
To aid you in the sovereign rule.
You need a guardian for your son,
And they a chief to lead them on.
There's not a man but will rejoice
To hail the partner of your choice:
To him obedience will they yield,
Him will they follow to the field;
And deal so strictly with your foes,
Whether abroad or here,
That the wide land shall gain repose,
And good men cease to fear.

XXIII

'So say the Lords: and all agree
To follow and be ruled by me.
Traced on this parchment are the names
Of those who own and urge my claims.
Therefore the suit which you despise
Seems not so strange to other eyes;
Nor, Madam, were it safe or wise
To thwart their wishes now.
Alone, be sure, you cannot stand;
Gone is the sceptre's might; the brand
Must still the tumults of the land,
And lay rebellion low.
Your nobles proffer well and fair;
They wait your answer to their prayer.
And now, 'twere best I tell you plain,
Resistance to that prayer is vain.
Their will -- or, if you think the word
Too harsh -- their counsel must be heard!
Well know I, Madam, what I do,
And what awaits me if I fail:
I stand not here to fawn or sue,
I came determined to prevail!
Think not that rashly I provoke
The sentence and the headsman's stroke!
Hope not for rescue -- none will come;
As well seek answer from the dumb!

XXIV

'Nay, if you doubt me, send and try.
No harsh or timid gaoler I!
Your messengers have leave to go
Where water runs or breezes blow.
Send forth your summons -- warn them all!
Tell every noble, far and near,
That Bothwell lured you to his hall,
And holds you as a captive here.
Bid Morton come, bid Cassilis arm;
Call Errol, Caithness, and Argyle;
Give order for the wide alarm
To ring through strath and sound o'er isle.
Call Lethington, your trustiest friend;
Warn Herries of this rude surprise --
How many lances will they send!
Believe me, not a man will rise!
Bound to my cause is every peer;
With their consent I brought you here:
And here your Highness must remain,
And quell your woman's pride;
Till from Dunbar a joyous train
To Holyrood shall ride,
With Bothwell at your palfrey's rein,
And you his willing bride!'

XXV

O tiger heart! that fiercer grew
With every anguished breath she drew --
That gloated on her quivering eye,
And trance of mortal agony!
O savage beast! most justly driven
By man from home, by God from heaven!
What fitter refuge could I have
Than this neglected lair,
Where, grovelling o'er my empty grave,
I yet am free to howl and rave,
And rend my grizzly hair?
O well becomes it me to rage
At crimes of other men,
To snarl defiance from my cage,
And antic in my den --
I, than all others guiltier far,
So vile, so lost, so mean!
O fade from heaven, thou evening star,
I cannot bear thy sheen!

XXVI

Hopeless, abandoned to despair,
What else could Mary do but yield?
I took her hand -- she left it there;
'Twas cold and white as frost on field.
I tried to comfort her; a burst
Of frenzied tears was her reply:
For ever be the deed accurst
That forced such witness from her eye!
Dim as an unregarded lamp,
Her light of life was on the wane,
And on her brow was set the stamp
Of utter misery and pain.
Like some caged bird that in dismay
Has fluttered till its strength is gone,
She had no power to fly away,
Though wide the prison-door was thrown.
In vain I strove to wake a smile,
In vain protested she was free;
For bitterly she felt the while
That henceforth she was bound to me!

XXVII

Again I entered Holyrood;
Not as an unexpected guest,
But, in the pride of masterhood,
With haughty eye and princely crest.
The cannon thundered welcome out;
The magnates all were there;
And though I missed the people's shout,
For them I did not care;
More trusty than the rabble rout,
My troopers filled the square!

XXVIII

No draught from magic herb or flower
Is equal to the taste of power!
Right royally I took my stand,
With knights and squires on either hand,
And gave due audience to the ring
As though I had been born a king!
More wondrous yet -- my altered tone
Seemed strange or malapert to none.
With deep respect and visage meek,
Each civic ruler heard me speak --
Was proud my mandate to fulfil,
And bowed obedience to my will.
But when I turned me to the Peers,
Something there was that waked my fears
A guarded, cold, and formal air,
A staid retent of dignity,
A studied guise of courtesy,
Which faithful friends do never wear.
The greatest nobles did not come
To bid their Sovereign welcome home,
Or ratify with cordial hand
The weighty promise of their Band.
Why kept they from me at the time
When most I lacked their aid?
Was I, whom they had urged to crime,
Deserted and betrayed?
Did they but league to tempt me on?
Were all their vows a lure?
Even with my foot upon the throne,
I stood as insecure
As the rash huntsman on the lake
When winter slacks its spell,
Who feels the ice beneath him quake,
And dreads the treacherous well.

XXIX

Yet not by look, or word, or sign,
Did I my fears betray;
One sole desire and thought was mine,
To haste the wedding-day.
The law, though drowsy in its course,
Gave me, at length, a full divorce.
Nor did the Church refuse its aid,
Though Craig a stern remonstrance made.
He was a zealot like the rest,
But far more honest than his kind,
And would not yield, without protest,
A service hateful to his mind.
Warned by the past, I would not wait
Till Mary breathed again.
I did not ask for idle state,
For gathering of the proud and great,
Or pomp of nuptial train.
I spoke the word -- she made me Duke.
I claimed her hand the self-same day:
And though like aspen-leaf she shook,
And wan and piteous was her look,
She did not answer, Nay!

XXX

All was accomplished. By my side
The Queen of Scotland knelt, a bride.
In face of Holy Kirk, her hand
Was linked with mine in marriage band:
Her lips pronounced the solemn word;
I rose, her husband and her lord!
And now, what lacked I more?
Around me thronged the guests to pay
Their duty on the wedding-day:
Proud and elate, I smiled on all
As master in that royal hall.
Scarce had I spoke, when clashing fell
A weapon on the floor:
I trembled, for I knew it well --
The sword that Darnley wore.





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