THE SILVER CHALICE.
Fields briar-tangled; woods without a leaf,
Where great boughs crash'd when autumn's unseen hands
Touch'd them; low hillocks rounding to the sky;
A sea forever tempest; a low shore
Forever drown'd in surf and margin'd with
Black sedge; where shone not sun or moon at full, -
The old, half-mythic land of Lyonnesse:
Whose king, Meliodas, had wed with Beth,
Mark's sister, of Cornwall; she at love's first bloom
Had fallen in death, bearing him one fair son,
Call'd Tristram, for full sorrowful was his birth.
He being unmother'd thus, came wedding-feast
For the King and Isador of Brittany;
And she was second mother to the boy,
Who grew to love her; and she cherisht him
Till her own children stole from him her heart.
But when the long halls and slope-walk'd gardens wide
Sounded with children's voices, Tristram grown
To vigorous youth, the others prattlers mere,
One shadow - in the firelight of her eyes
Never illum'd, so dark her inmost thoughts
Stumbled against and knew each other not -
Lay o'er her heart: that he, the son of Beth,
Was kingdom's heir, and hers in second place
Must fall, who now was queen. The spark o' desire
Blacken'd thro' her scruples, till it flasht out hot
And quiver'd in a passionate fire of hate.
What way but thro' his death lay open to her?
How reach it, seeing hers was a woman's foot?
. . . I' the great hall of the castle, arch'd aside
With fretted marble - feet of gold, rare wrought
Mosaic, a table stood, whereon was set
A silver chalice and a flagon of wine;
And from the cup the court were wont to drink
In the hot noon. And seeing it one day,
An evil thought slipt thro' the Queen's mad brain, -
To drug the cup, ere Tristram drank thereout,
That with the red wine he might drink white death.
She made a shift to lull suspicious thoughts.
One evening, before the King, she lifted
The boy to her lap and strokt his yellow hair,
And when the blue Saxon eyes were clos'd in sleep
Kist the shut lashes and her purfled robe
About him threw, and laid across his brow,
Damp with the dews of sleep, a smooth white hand.
"Would he were mine, my lord," she said, and sigh'd.
"Thou could'st not love him better, Isador,"
The father answered, smiling in his heart,
That Tristram's life lackt not a mother's love.
But on the morrow from its place she took
The chalice, curiously worked: without
A kneeling Hebe and a bending Jove
To take the drink; and beaten gold within, -
A relic of the days of Roman rule:
And from the flagon she poured the ruby wine
To the brim, and from her delicate fingers dropt
An evanescent dust that sifted thro'
The bubbling wine, and made it no less sweet.
"There let death cool his thirst!" she cried, and past.
And one came, but not Tristram; from a head
Of six short summers hung the dark moist curls,
Lookt forth in glee the innocent hazel eyes
Of Berta, the Queen's daughter. Hot with play,
Breathing short sighs, on tireless little feet
Down the long sounding hall she came, and saw
The chalice, and, on tiptoe rais'd, to touch
Her nose to the slab, and tiny hand uprear'd,
She pull'd near, overspilt half, and half drank
O' the blood-red venom, and past out again.
But flitting thro' shady paths - now plucking flowers,
Now trying to grasp a branch, and grasping air,
Dabbling a chubby hand i' the fount, to lose
Her blossoms - sudden stricken, she swooned and fell.
They found and bare her home: and in whose arms
Had given her life and ta'en it from her, she died.
Might not this grief have soften'd Isador?
Might not she shudder at the blank abyss
New-yawn'd beneath her over-slipping feet?
Rather her sorrow in her so much wrought,
That more, for Berta's death, should Tristram die.
She took the goblet, red with liquid death,
And set it as before; but lest mischance
Should foil the deed, behind an arras hid.
"There let him drink, and trouble me no more!"
And one came, but not Tristram; 't was the King,
Who took the chalice, rais'd it to his lips,
And thus had died, had not a white hand flasht
Before him, swiftly stricken death's hand away, -
Had not a white face fallen before his feet.
He raised her up: their eyes met: on him swept
A mad suspicion: for his daughter's death,
Like a forgotten voice stirring thro' a dream,
Rang in his ears: "Woman, what hast thou done?"
"Alas, my lord, I know not; but my dream -"
"Your dream? Nay, mine! I dreamt of Berta dead, -
The wine was spilt like blood and she was dead!
Thou art my wife; and thou . . . hast slain my child!"
"My love for thee betray'd me - or my fears;
And for my love -"
"I must condemn thee. Go.
O Isador, as true as God's high sun
I deem'd thee . . . Speak not to me, lest my wrath
Take hands and strike thee down. Berta is dead.
Her life lay in the hollow of thy hand, -
Poor flower, that wither'd at the feverous touch!"
Prone at his feet she fell, and, speaking, hid
Her eyes: "I would have died to save her, tho'
She died thro' me . . . I will confess. My lord,
Beth's son is prince, mine subject, and you love
Hers most. Forgive me! - Oh, you do not know
The weary days, the passionate, restless nights,
The violent throbbing of a jealous heart, -
I fell for my child's sake. I set the cup
For Tristram . . . Grant thou the last boon I crave!
When I am dead - or banisht - and forgotten,
Hate not the children for the mother's crime:
Let all things be as I had never lived."
"Good mother, I blame thee not. Thy child is dead,
And that has punisht thee. It is the last
Child thou shalt poison - or king. I do not know
What tempted thee? The devil tempted thee
And found thee apt - to play the cat, and toy
With the victim first . . . I will not speak with thee!
To-morrow shalt thou die. - I will not listen
To womanish supplication. - Bear her hence
To the donjon! - I'll not hear thee! - Bear her hence!"
Hot breath blew thro' the summer's fever lips;
Dried was the dew from drooping-petall'd flower,
Sharp grass; nor ever leaf stirr'd; ceaseless plied
His loom the locust shrill; the far sky smokt.
. . . Drap'd in black samite was the chair of state
And the high dais whereon was set the King
And knights and Tristram; a multitude below
Swarm'd thro' the court like August flies, till prest
Them buzzing back the guard, that led in one
Pale as the sea beneath the noonday sun.
She lookt and saw the King: he, statue-like,
A dull dead ashen-gray to the very lips,
Rose, stretching forth one hand, the carven arm
O' the seat, as he would crush it into dust,
Clutching with the other; she beheld his eyes
Dim on the sudden, thro' her tears or his,
And thought, "He loves me still, and let me die;
Knowing he loves me, I am glad to die!"
Then that one spake the irrevocable doom:
"The Queen hath plotted death for the kingdom's heir,
Hence ruin to the land; for whoso aims
At crown is foe to people: both are one.
So let her die the death!"
She bow'd her head;
And all the sudden tremor of death came on her,
That she should die, and unforgiven by him.
But, weeping, she glanc'd sidewise at the king,
And saw his white lips - thro' her tears or his -
Quiver in the mortal agony of despair.
Then from his seat spake Tristram: "Father, thou said'st
That for my sake the Queen is put to death.
My life lay in the course of her revenge,
That did not reach 't; therefore her life is mine.
I pray thee give it me."
The mute King bow'd
A stern gray head; but veil'd his eyes for tears.
With light foot beating down the dusty grass,
A color, the shame of youth at act, his face
Ruddy o'erspread, he crost the open space,
And stood beside the woman, and whisper'd, "I
For that one crime forgive thee."
With a loud cry and mournful as the wind's
When shatter its long columns thro' the woods
Of ocean pine, fell down and claspt his feet:
"'T is better that I die; living I shall vex
His life who sees me and can never trust me.
In your love's music I shall be the broken
Chord that must jar the rest. No, it is better
To die, and be forgotten, than live unresting
I' the parried motion of his indignation.
For thy forgiveness, blessings; but, beseech you,
Let it extend to granting me my death."
With tears he knelt to clasp her trembling hand
And kiss it in all humbleness of service.
"This day shall be forgotten hereafter - now
Let be a happy one."
Arose the king, -
All anger melted in him to compassion,
All love, unheard thro' the tumult hitherto
Of love and duty battling, and the last
Victorious first, again calling loud in 's heart, -
And came down from his state and said: "Dear love,
My heart forgave thee when it first condemned.
For Beth's sake, and for thine, son, who hast shown
That magnanimity of highest knighthood
Fitting a noble prince, I here restore
To former dignity and grace my Queen,
Who penitently hath won mine unfeign'd pardon.
Arise, my Queen."
Thereat the murmurous voice
Of those who heard became a broadening cry
That shook the very walls and echoed back.
Thence past they homeward each. But King and Queen
And Tristram kept heart holiday the while
The palace feasted.
And the silver chalice,
Grown hateful to the Queen, no more in hall
Was set, nor ever held it wine again.
For that sweet innocence whose dead smile crept
Athwart her slumbers could not Isador
Let be all blameless, who had wrought her death.
For by no mortal sorrow can be hid
That past whose face disfigur'd looks on us
From the dim frame that shuts around our years.