A Ballad

Original Text: 
Poems, ed. Robert A. Thompson (London and Melbourne: A. H. Massina, 1920). Sydney Electronic Text and Image Service (SETIS), digital text sponsored by AustLit: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit
1To fetch clear water out of the spring
2    The little maid Margaret ran,
3From the stream to the castle's western wing
4    It was but a bowshot span;
6    Lay a dead man, pallid and wan.
7The lady Mabel rose from her bed,
8    And walked in the castle hall,
9Where the porch through the western turret led
10    She met with her handmaid small.
11'What aileth thee, Margaret?' the lady said,
12    'Hast let thy pitcher fall?
13'Say, what hast thou seen by the streamlet side --
15That thou comest with eyes so wild and wide,
16    And with cheeks so ghostly white?'
17'Nor nymph nor sprite,' the maiden cried,
18    'But the corpse of a slaughtered knight.'
19The lady Mabel summon'd straight
20    To her presence Sir Hugh de Vere,
21Of the guests who tarried within the gate
22    Of Fauconshawe, most dear
23Was he to that lady; betrothed in state
24    They had been since many a year.
25'Little Margaret sayeth a dead man lies
26    By the western spring, Sir Hugh;
27I can scarce believe that the maiden lies --
28    Yet scarce can believe her true.'
29And the knight replies, 'Till we test her eyes
30    Let her words gain credence due.'
31Down the rocky path knight and lady led,
32    While guests and retainers bold
33Followed in haste, for like wildfire spread
34    The news by the maiden told.
35They found 'twas even as she had said --
36    The corpse had some while been cold.
37How the spirit had pass'd in the moments last
38    There was little trace to reveal;
40    Save the angel's solemn seal,
41Yet the hands were clench'd in a death-grip fast,
42    And the sods stamp'd down by the heel.
43Sir Hugh by the side of the dead man knelt,
44    Said, 'Full well these features I know,
45We have faced each other where blows were dealt,
46    And he was a stalwart foe;
47I had rather met him hilt to hilt,
48    Than have found him lying low.'
49He turned the body up on its face,
50    And never a word was spoken,
52    And tugg'd -- by the self-same token, --
53And strain'd, till he wrench'd it out of its place,
54    The dagger-blade that was broken.
55Then he turned the body over again,
56    And said, while he rose upright,
58    On the murderer's forehead light,
59For he never was slain on the open plain,
60    Nor yet in the open fight.'
61Solemn and stern were the words he spoke,
62    And he look'd at his lady's men,
63But his speech no answering echoes woke,
64    All were silent there and then,
65Till a clear, cold voice the silence broke: --
66    Lady Mabel cried, 'Amen.'
67His glance met hers, the twain stood hush'd,
68    With the dead between them there;
69But the blood to her snowy temples rush'd
70    Till it tinged the roots of her hair,
71Then paled, but a thin red streak still flush'd
72    In the midst of her forehead fair.
74    At a sign from Sir Hugh de Vere,
75It was borne to the western turret round,
76    And laid on a knightly bier,
77With never a sob nor a mourning sound, --
78    No friend to the dead was near.
79Yet that night was neither revel nor dance
80    In the halls of Fauconshawe;
81Men looked askance with a doubtful glance
82    At Sir Hugh, for they stood in awe
83Of his prowess, but he, like one in a trance,
84    Regarded naught that he saw.
85      * * * * *
86Night black and chill, wind gathering still,
87    With its wail in the turret tall,
88And its headlong blast like a catapult cast
89    On the crest of the outer wall,
90And its hail and rain on the crashing pane,
91    Till the glassy splinters fall.
92A moody knight by the fitful light
93    Of the great hall fire below;
94A corpse upstairs, and a woman at prayers,
95    Will they profit her, aye or no?
97    There is comfort for us also.
98The guests were gone, save Sir Hugh alone,
99    And he watched the gleams that broke
100On the pale hearth-stone, and flickered and shone
101    On the panels of polish'd oak;
102He was 'ware of no presence except his own,
103    Till the voice of young Margaret spoke:
105    I cannot sleep in my bed,
106Now, unless my tale can be told aright,
108It lies, the blood of yon northern knight,
109    On my lady's hand and head.'
110'Oh! the wild wind raves and rushes along,
111    But thy ravings seem more wild --
112She never could do so foul a wrong --
113    Yet I blame thee not, my child,
114For the fever'd dreams on thy rest that throng!' --
115    He frown'd through his speech was mild.
116'Let storm winds eddy, and scream, and hurl
117    Their wrath, they disturb me naught;
118The daughter she of a high-born earl,
119    No secret of hers I've sought;
121    Yet look to the proofs I've brought;
122'This dagger snapp'd so close to the hilt --
123    Dost remember thy token well?
124Will it match with the broken blade that spilt
126Nay! read her handwriting, an thou wilt,
128The knight in silence the letter read,
129    Oh! the characters well he knew!
130And his face might have match'd the face of the dead,
131    So ashen white was its hue!
132Then he tore the parchment shred by shred,
133    And the strips in the flames he threw.
134And he muttered, 'Densely those shadows fall
136There she bade him come to her, once for all, --
137    Now, I well may shudder and sicken; --
139    How strongly it must have stricken.'
140      * * * * *
141At midnight hour, in the western tower,
142    Alone with the dead man there,
143Lady Mabel kneels, nor heeds nor feels
144    The shock of the rushing air,
146    Have scattered her raven hair.
147Across the floor, through the open door,
148    Where standeth a stately knight,
149The lamplight streams, and flickers and gleams,
150    On his features stern and white --
151'Tis Sir Hugh de Vere, and he cometh more near,
152    And the lady standeth upright.
153'Tis little,' he said, 'that I know or care
154    Of the guilt (if guilt there be)
155That lies 'twixt thee and yon dead man there,
156    Nor matters it now to me;
157I thought thee pure, thou art only fair,
158    And to-morrow I cross the sea.
159'He perish'd! I ask not why or how:
161Take back, my lady, thy broken vow,
162    Give back my allegiance oath;
163Let the past be buried between us now
164    For ever -- 'tis best for both.
165'Yet, Mabel, I could ask, dost thou dare
166    Lay hand on that corpse's heart,
167And call on thy Maker, and boldly swear
168    That thou hadst in his death no part?
169I ask not, while threescore proofs I share
170    With one doubt -- uncondemn'd thou art.'
171Oh! cold and bleak upon Mabel's cheek
172    Came the blast of the storm-wind keen,
173And her tresses black as the glossy back
174    Of the raven, glanced between
175Her fingers slight, like the ivory white,
177Yet with steady lip, and with fearless eye,
178    And with cheek like the flush of dawn,
179Unflinchingly she spoke in reply --
180    'Go hence with the break of morn,
181I will neither confess, nor yet deny,
182    I will return thee scorn for scorn.'
183The knight bow'd low as he turn'd to go;
184    He travell'd by land and sea,
185But naught of his future fate I know,
186    And naught of his fair ladye; --
187My story is told as, long ago,
188    My story was told to me.


5] sedgy: wet ground heavily grown with grasslike sedges.
osiers: small willow that grows mostly in wet habitats. Back to Line
14] nymph: a mythological spirit of nature imagined as a beautiful maiden inhabiting rivers, woods or other locations. Back to Line
39] ghast: horror or fear. Back to Line
51] doublet: a man's short, close-fitting padded jacket, with or without sleeves. Back to Line
57] brand of Cain: mark of disgrace or infamy, originating in the Biblical story of Cain, who slew his elder brother Abel, whom he felt was favored by God. God placed a mark on Cain's forehead to protect him in his wandering, but which also identified him as a murderer in other people's eyes. Back to Line
73] yeomen: servants in a royal or noble household. Back to Line
96] fain: with pleasure; gladly. Back to Line
104] mirk: darkness or thick mist that makes it difficult to see. Back to Line
107] wot: have knowledge, know. Back to Line
120] churl: person of low birth; peasant. Back to Line
125] dell: a small valley, usually among trees. Back to Line
127] paramour: a lover, especially the illicit partner of a married person. Back to Line
135] copse: a small group of trees. Back to Line
138] gramercy: Literally 'grand thanks,' an expression usually used to express surprise. Back to Line
145] riven: split or tear apart violently. Back to Line
160] troth: solemn pledge of commitment or loyalty, especially in marriage. Back to Line
176] sable: black. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
Sea Spray and Smoke Drift (1867)
RPO poem Editors: 
Cameron La Follette
RPO Edition: