Cicely Fox Smith
The King's Shame - Poem by Cicely Fox Smith
Near now the tale of Rodolf, and the grief
Of Osric, and the sorrow of the isles.
Osric the bold, a prince of the far North,
Long-limbed, and brown with buffeting salt-sea winds,
Once trod the busy streets of Istamboul;
And there black hair and eyes and ruddy lips
And slim sweet limbs took hold of his soul
And led his fierce heart captive. So it chanced
That, steering Northward from his voyaging,
He carried to his stormy realm a bride,
And set a slave upon the throne of queens,
And all his wild sea-captains drank to her.
But when the wind was high on winter eves,
And surges boomed all night along the shore,
Ever her heart went pining to the South
From the high chamber where she sat alone
Hearing the shouting revel of the King,
And clung and cried above her crying babe
Till the wild night was waning; and the light
Passed from her eyes, the roses from her mouth,
And left her but a pining, palefaced thing,
White with dark hair about her, like a ghost.
Yet her sad heart took solace in her boy,
The grim King's darling, Rodolf. Strong and straight
He grew up like his sire, but lithe and slim,
The mirror of his mother, when she glowed
With all the fiery beauty of the South.
Light on his feet and nimble as the deer,
Often the grey old King would watch with pride
The heir the heavens had granted. And at last,
When autumn hills were purple, in the morn
The courtyard rang with armed men and steeds;
And trembling, half in fear and half in joy,
The fierce old warrior buckled on the sword
At his son's side, and, standing by the door,
His brave blue eyes a mist of rising tears,
Sent out the pride and pillar of his house
To win his spurs in battle. And he stood
Gazing, until the last glint of their arms
Flashed farewell from the skyline: while above
A white face from the window saw them go
With sad eyes red with tears: then the old King
Went in unto his seat beside the hearth,
And sat all day there, gnawing at his beard
And eating out his proud heart silently.
. . . . . . .
The hall grew dark, and red across the floor
Lay the last streak of sunset, where the King
Dozed in his seat besides the fading fire,
And dreamed like an old hound of chases done
And fights long faught and ended. All at once
There came a hurrying and a rush of tongues
Out of the silent court, and cries of grief
Sounded about the gateway; and there broke
Before the startled King a wild-eyed man
Splashed head to heel with battle and with mire,
Crying: 'O King, thine army is no more -
Thy men are slain and scattered in the fight!'
Then the old warrior, rising to his feet,
Shrunk not nor wavered at the bitter tale,
Saying: 'Speak on.' And faltering in his speech
Spoke on the courier: 'In the woods it chanced
That as we rode on straggling carelessly
The foemen fell upon us unawares.'
Still the old warrior said: 'Speak on, nor fear!
How died the flower of Norway?' And the man
Looked up and down the chamber restlessly,
Ere yet he spake: 'Red lie the ranked dead
Beside the fallen banner of the King.'
Then fiercely rang the question: 'Once and for all,
How died my son?' Unwilling came the truth:
'Fled at first shock of battle for his life,
And none was there could stay him.'
Reeled and shook
The old King, as a lordly stag might reel
Struck in the chase: then cried to those around
With grey-fringed lips twitching in gasps of rage:
'Fools we ha' bred, good lack, and knaves a few,
But never was there reared a coward yet
To shame the throne we fought for. Bring my horse,
Bring me my sword and shield: tho' I be old,
I am not yet too old to rid my realm
Of such a ruler.' So with quivering hands
He girded on his sword, and took his way
To where his old charger stamped and pawed
And neighed to hear his footstep. But a cry
Rang shivering thro' the chamber as he went,
And that wan woman, calling on his name,
Ran to him, pleading for the son she bore
By all the love he ever vowed to her
Beside blue Southern waters. Blind with rage
He heeded not at all her misery:
He felt her drenching tears about his feet,
He heard her wild voice crying out to him,
But nothing said he save one bitter curse:
'Slave, - mother of slaves, let go!' So, spurning her
He went, and heeded not her last wild cry,
And all her fading beauty lying there,
And the scared crowd of frightened serving-maids
Crying and wailing that the Queen was dead.
All the long night hot-foot he rode and spurred
Across the ridges, thro' complaining woods
And blown pines black against the stormy sky
Low-streaked with dead-gold levels, - till he spied
Far on before a dark form on the road
And felt his fierce heart flame again, to know
That there his son fled in vile panic dread
From battle, death and honour. And he spurred
More fiercely, and more fierce was his resolve
For vengeance for his shame. The night was spent,
The dawn came up forlornly from the east
And glimmered on a lone lake of the hills,
When that wild fugitive heard fast and close
The drum of hoofs along the frosty road
And turning saw the fierce face at his back,
And pitiless arm and keen avenging sword,
And knew his life was ended.
And the sword
Drove past the outstretched hands, and the wild cry
Died on the parted lips, and the eyes closed,
And the small graceful head drooped like a flower
Even as he fell and lay. And his lorn sire
Dismounted and stood by him where he lay,
And spoke aloud his sorrow and his scorn:
'Blind fool that I have been, ever to dream
There could come aught but shame, or hope to see
The fire of princes in the souls of slaves!
When was there ever any good of it?
Did e'er the wild bull seek the fields of men,
The eagle leave his eyrie for the plain?
Had I so shamed the beast that nourished me,
Would she, mine own stern mother, so have sought
To save the coward from his fate? Nay, more!
She would have struck me down with her own hand
If none beside would do it - never wept
And prayed so for a craven.' His voice broke,
For, on a sudden, something in the pose
Of the dead boy, and something in the face
Caught at his heart and sent it aching back
To memories of his youthful voyaging,
And joys and dear dead loves of long ago
Under the orange groves of Istamboul.
And like a sudden fire his fury died,
So that the red sword left his nerveless hand,
And, bowing down besides the son he slew,
He clasped and chafed and kissed the loose white hands
And the cold brow whereon remorseful tears
Fell slow and sorrowful. And he broke out,
Forgetting all his rage and bitterness,
And the lost honour of his royal line,
At the sight of the dark hair and ruddy lips
So like to those whereon his kisses burned
When first he loved the slave-girl, long ago:
'Heart of my heart, my white dove from the south,
Mine, mine, alone the blame! Forgive, forgive!
O ere I go back to my lonely hall,
Let me but dream again a little while
Of old unclouded days of long ago,
And call back all the treasured tenderness
Forgotten with your beauty.' So awhile
He sat there with his head upon his hands,
And in an hour rose up, and mounting rode
Back to the stricken stronghold of his sires,
Slowly, and no man knew that he had wept.
And never gave he utterance to his grief
Save to send spearmen forth along the way,
Bidding them bring the body of the Prince
And give him burial worthy of a King.
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