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   English Poetry III: From Tennyson to Whitman.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
715. The King’s Tragedy
 
James I of Scots.—20th February, 1437
 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)
 
 
I CATHERINE am a Douglas born,
  A name to all Scots dear;
And Kate Barlass they’ve called me now
  Through many a waning year.
 
This old arm’s withered now. ’Twas once        5
  Most deft ’mong maidens all
To rein the steed, to wing the shaft,
  To smite the palm-play ball.
 
In hall adown the close-linked dance
  It has shone most white and fair;        10
It has been the rest for a true lord’s head,
And many a sweet babe’s nursing-bed,
  And the bar to a King’s chambère.
 
Aye, lasses, draw round Kate Barlass,
  And hark with bated breath        15
How good King James, King Robert’s son,
  Was foully done to death.
 
Through all the days of his gallant youth
  The princely James was pent,
By his friends at first and then by his foes,        20
  In long imprisonment.
 
For the elder Prince, the kingdom’s heir,
  By treason’s murderous brood
Was slain; and the father quaked for the child
  With the royal mortal blood.        25
 
I’ the Bass Rock fort, by his father’s care,
  Was his childhood’s life assured;
And Henry the subtle Bolingbroke,
Proud England’s King, ’neath the southron yoke
  His youth for long years immured.        30
 
Yet in all things meet for a kingly man
  Himself did he approve;
And the nightingale through his prison-wall
  Taught him both lore and love.
 
For once, when the bird’s song drew him close        35
  To the opened window-pane,
In her bowers beneath a lady stood,
A light of life to his sorrowful mood,
  Like a lily amid the rain.
 
And for her sake, to the sweet bird’s note,        40
  He framed a sweeter Song,
More sweet than ever a poet’s heart
  Gave yet to the English tongue.
 
She was a lady of royal blood;
  And when, past sorrow and teen,        45
He stood where still through his crownless years
  His Scottish realm had been,
At Scone were the happy lovers crowned,
  A heart-wed King and Queen.
 
But the bird may fall from the bough of youth,        50
  And song be turned to moan,
And Love’s storm-cloud be the shadow of Hate,
When the tempest-waves of a troubled State
  Are beating against a throne.
 
Yet well they loved; and the god of Love,        55
  Whom well the King had sung,
Might find on the earth no truer hearts
  His lowliest swains among.
 
From the days when first she rode abroad
  With Scottish maids in her train,        60
I Catherine Douglas won the trust
  Of my mistress, sweet Queen Jane.
 
And oft she sighed, “To be born a King!”
  And oft along the way
When she saw the homely lovers pass        65
  She has said, “Alack the day!”
 
Years waned,—the loving and toiling years:
  Till England’s wrong renewed
Drove James, by outrage cast on his crown,
  To the open field of feud.        70
 
’Twas when the King and his host were met
  At the leaguer of Roxbro’ hold,
The Queen o’ the sudden sought his camp
  With a tale of dread to be told.
 
And she showed him a secret letter writ        75
  That spoke of treasonous strife,
And how a band of his noblest lords
  Were sworn to take his life.
 
“And it may be here or it may be there,
  In the camp or the court,” she said:        80
“But for my sake come to your people’s arms
  And guard your royal head.”
 
Quoth he, “’Tis the fifteenth day of the siege,
  And the castle’s nigh to yield.”
“O face your foes on your throne,” she cried,        85
  “And show the power you wield;
And under your Scottish people’s love
  You shall sit as under your shield.”
 
At the fair Queen’s side I stood that day
  When he bade them raise the siege,        90
And back to his Court he sped to know
  How the lords would meet their Liege.
 
But when he summoned his Parliament,
  The louring brows hung round,
Like clouds that circle the mountain-head        95
  Ere the first low thunders sound.
 
For he had tamed the nobles’ lust
  And curbed their power and pride,
And reached out an arm to right the poor
  Through Scotland far and wide;        100
And many a lordly wrong-doer
  By the headsman’s axe had died.
 
’Twas then upspoke Sir Robert Græme,
  The bold o’ermastering man:—
“O King, in the name of your Three Estates        105
  I set you under their ban!
 
“For, as your lords made oath to you
  Of service and fealty,
Even in likewise you pledged your oath
  Their faithful sire to be:—        110
 
“Yet all we here that are nobly sprung
  Have mourned dear kith and kin
Since first for the Scottish Barons’ curse
  Did your bloody rule begin.”
 
With that he laid his hands on his King:—        115
  “Is this not so, my lords?”
But of all who had sworn to league with him
  Not one spake back to his words.
 
Quoth the King:—“Thou speak’st but for one Estate,
  Nor doth it avow thy gage.        120
Let my liege lords hale this traitor hence!”
  The Græme fired dark with rage:—
“Who works for lesser men than himself,
  He earns but a witless wage!”
 
But soon from the dungeon where he lay        125
  He won by privy plots,
And forth he fled with a price on his head
  To the country of the Wild Scots.
 
And word there came from Sir Robert Græme
  To the King at Edinbro’:—        130
“No Liege of mine thou art; but I see
From this day forth alone in thee
  God’s creature, my mortal foe.
 
“Through thee are my wife and children lost,
  My heritage and lands;        135
And when my God shall show me a way,
Thyself my mortal foe will I slay
  With these my proper hands.”
 
Against the coming of Christmastide
  That year the King bade call        140
I’ the Black Friars’ Charterhouse of Perth
  A solemn festival.
 
And we of his household rode with him
  In a close-ranked company;
But not till the sun had sunk from his throne        145
  Did we reach the Scottish Sea.
 
That eve was clenched for a boding storm,
  ’Neath a toilsome moon half seen;
The cloud stooped low and the surf rose high;
And where there was a line of the sky,        150
  Wild wings loomed dark between.
 
And on a rock of the black beach-side,
  By the veiled moon dimly lit,
There was something seemed to heave with life
  As the King drew nigh to it.        155
 
And was it only the tossing furze
  Or brake of the waste sea-wold?
Or was it an eagle bent to the blast?
When near we came, we knew it at last
  For a woman tattered and old.        160
 
But it seemed as though by a fire within
  Her writhen limbs were wrung;
And as soon as the King was close to her,
  She stood up gaunt and strong.
 
’Twas then the moon sailed clear of the rack        165
  On high in her hollow dome;
And still as aloft with hoary crest
  Each clamorous wave rang home,
Like fire in snow the moonlight blazed
  Amid the champing foam.        170
 
And the woman held his eyes with her eyes:—
  “O King, thou art come at last;
But thy wraith has haunted the Scottish Sea
  To my sight for four years past.
 
“Four years it is since first I met,        175
  ’Twixt the Duchray and the Dhu,
A shape whose feet clung close in a shroud,
  And that shape for thine I knew.
 
“A year again, and on Inchkeith Isle
  I saw thee pass in the breeze,        180
With the cerecloth risen above thy feet
  And wound about thy knees.
 
“And yet a year, in the Links of Forth,
  As a wanderer without rest,
Thou cam’st with both thine arms i’ the shroud        185
  That clung high up thy breast.
 
“And in this hour I find thee here,
  And well mine eyes may note
That the winding-sheet hath passed thy breast
  And risen around thy throat.        190
 
“And when I meet thee again, O King,
  That of death hast such sore drouth,—
Except thou turn again on this shore,—
The winding-sheet shall have moved once more
  And covered thine eyes and mouth.        195
 
“O King, whom poor men bless for their King,
  Of thy fate be not so fain;
But these my words for God’s message take,
And turn thy steed, O King, for her sake
  Who rides beside thy rein!”        200
 
While the woman spoke, the King’s horse reared
  As if it would breast the sea,
And the Queen turned pale as she heard on the gale
  The voice die dolorously.
 
When the woman ceased, the steed was still,        205
  But the King gazed on her yet,
And in silence save for the wail of the sea
  His eyes and her eyes met.
 
At last he said:—“God’s ways are His own;
  Man is but shadow and dust.        210
Last night I prayed by His altar-stone;
To-night I wend to the feast of His Son;
  And in Him I set my trust.
 
“I have held my people in sacred charge,
  And have not feared the sting        215
Of proud men’s hate,—to His will resign’d
Who has but one same death for a hind
  And one same death for a King.
 
“And if God in His wisdom have brought close
  The day when I must die,        220
That day by water or fire or air
My feet shall fall in the destined snare
  Wherever my road may lie.
 
“What man can say but the Fiend hath set
  Thy sorcery on my path,        225
My heart with the fear of death to fill,
And turn me against God’s very will
  To sink in His burning wrath?”
 
The woman stood as the train rode past,
  And moved nor limb nor eye;        230
And when we were shipped, we saw her there
  Still standing against the sky.
 
As the ship made way, the moon once more
  Sank slow in her rising pall;
And I thought of the shrouded wraith of the King,        235
  And I said, “The Heavens know all.”
 
And now, ye lasses, must ye hear
  How my name is Kate Barlass:—
But a little thing, when all the tale
  Is told of the weary mass        240
Of crime and woe which in Scotland’s realm
  God’s will let come to pass.
 
’Twas in the Charterhouse of Perth
  That the King and all his Court
Were met, the Christmas Feast being done,        245
  For solace and disport.
 
’Twas a wind-wild eve in February,
  And against the casement-pane
The branches smote like summoning hands
  And muttered the driving rain.        250
 
And when the wind swooped over the lift
  And made the whole heaven frown,
It seemed a grip was laid on the walls
  To tug the housetop down.
 
And the Queen was there, more stately fair        255
  Than a lily in garden set;
And the king was loth to stir from her side;
For as on the day when she was his bride,
  Even so he loved her yet.
 
And the Earl of Athole, the King’s false friend,        260
  Sat with him at the board;
And Robert Stuart the chamberlain
  Who had sold his sovereign Lord.
 
Yet the traitor Christopher Chaumber there
  Would fain have told him all,        265
And vainly four times that night he strove
  To reach the King through the hall.
 
But the wine is bright at the goblet’s brim
  Though the poison lurk beneath;
And the apples still are red on the tree        270
Within whose shade may the adder be
  That shall turn thy life to death.
 
There was a knight of the King’s fast friends
  Whom he called the King of Love;
And to such bright cheer and courtesy        275
  That name might best behove.
 
And the King and Queen both loved him well
  For his gentle knightliness;
And with him the King, as that eve wore on,
  Was playing at the chess.        280
 
And the King said, (for he thought to jest
  And soothe the Queen thereby;)—
“In a book ’tis writ that this same year
  A King shall in Scotland die.
 
“And I have pondered the matter o’er,        285
  And this have I found, Sir Hugh,—
There are but two Kings on Scottish ground,
  And those Kings are I and you.
 
“And I have a wife and a newborn heir,
  And you are yourself alone;        290
So stand you stark at my side with me
  To guard our double throne.
 
“For here sit I and my wife and child,
  As well your heart shall approve,
In full surrender and soothfastness,        295
  Beneath your Kingdom of Love.”
 
And the Knight laughed, and the Queen too smiled;
  But I knew her heavy thought,
And I strove to find in the good King’s jest
  What cheer might thence be wrought.        300
 
And I said, “My Liege, for the Queen’s dear love
  Now sing the song that of old
You made, when a captive Prince you lay,
And the nightingale sang sweet on the spray,
  In Windsor’s castle-hold.”        305
 
Then he smiled the smile I knew so well
  When he thought to please the Queen;
The smile which under all bitter frowns
  Of hate that rose between,
For ever dwelt at the poet’s heart        310
  Like the bird of love unseen.
 
And he kissed her hand and took his harp,
  And the music sweetly rang;
And when the song burst forth, it seemed
  ’Twas the nightingale that sang.        315
 
“Worship, ye lovers, on this May:
  Of bliss your kalends are begun:
Sing with us, Away, Winter, away!
  Come, Summer, the sweet season and sun!
  Awake for shame,—your heaven is won,—        320
And amorously your heads lift all:
Thank Love, that you to his grace doth call!”
 
But when he bent to the Queen, and sang
The speech whose praise was hers
It seemed his voice was the voice of the Spring        325
And the voice of the bygone years.
 
“The fairest and the freshest flower
That ever I saw before that hour,
The which o’ the sudden made to start
The blood of my body to my heart.        330
 
Ah sweet, are ye a worldly creature
Or heavenly thing in form of nature?”
 
And the song was long, and richly stored
  With wonder and beauteous things;
And the harp was tuned to every change        335
  Of minstrel ministerings;
But when he spoke of the Queen at the last,
  Its strings were his own heart-strings.
 
“Unworthy but only of her grace,
  Upon Love’s rock that’s easy and sure,        340
In guerdon of all my love’s space
  She took me her humble creäture.
  Thus fell my blissful aventure
In youth of love that from day to day
Flowereth aye new, and further I say.        345
 
“To reckon all the circumstance
  As it happed when lessen gan my sore,
Of my rancor and woful chance,
  It were too long,—I have done therefor.
  And of this flower I say no more        350
But unto my help her heart hath tended
And even from death her man defended.”
 
“Aye, even from death,” to myself I said;
  For I thought of the day when she
Had borne him the news, at Roxbro’ siege,        355
  Of the fell confederacy.
 
But Death even then took aim as he sang
  With an arrow deadly bright;
And the grinning skull lurked grimly aloof,
And the wings were spread far over the roof        360
  More dark than the winter night.
 
Yet truly along the amorous song
  Of Love’s high pomp and state,
There were words of Fortune’s trackless doom
  And the dreadful face of Fate.        365
 
And oft have I heard again in dreams
  The voice of dire appeal
In which the King then sang of the pit
  That is under Fortune’s wheel.
 
“And under the wheel beheld I there        370
  An ugly Pit as deep as hell,
That to behold I quaked for fear:
  And this I heard, that who therein fell
  Came no more up, tidings to tell:
Whereat, astound of the fearful sight,        375
I wist not what to do for fright.”
 
And oft has my thought called up again
  These words of the changeful song:—
“Wist thou thy pain and thy travàil
To come, well might’st thou weep and wail!”        380
  And our wail, O God! is long.
 
But the song’s end was all of his love;
  And well his heart was grac’d
With her smiling lips and her tear-bright eyes
  As his arm went round her waist.        385
 
And on the swell of her long fair throat
  Close clung the necklet-chain
As he bent her pearl-tir’d head aside,
And in the warmth of his love and pride
  He kissed her lips full fain.        390
 
And her true face was a rosy red,
  The very red of the rose
That, couched on the happy garden-bed,
  In the summer sunlight glows.
 
And all the wondrous things of love        395
  That sang so sweet through the song
Were in the look that met in their eyes,
  And the look was deep and long.
 
’Twas then a knock came at the outer gate,
  And the usher sought the King.        400
“The woman you met by the Scottish Sea,
  My Liege, would tell you a thing;
And she says that her present need for speech
  Will bear no gainsaying.”
 
And the King said:—“The hour is late;        405
  To-morrow will serve, I ween.”
Then he charged the usher strictly, and said:
  “No word of this to the Queen.”
 
But the usher came again to the King,
  “Shall I call her back?” quoth he:        410
“For as she went on her way, she cried,
  ‘Woe! Woe! then the thing must be!’”
 
And the King paused, but he did not speak.
  Then he called for the Voidee-cup;
And as we heard the twelfth hour strike,        415
There by true lips and false lips alike
  Was the draught of trust drained up.
 
So with reverence meet to King and Queen,
  To bed went all from the board;
And the last to leave of the courtly train        420
Was Robert Stuart the chamberlain
  Who had sold his sovereign lord.
 
And all the locks of the chamber-door
  Had the traitor riven and brast;
And that Fate might win sure way from afar,        425
He had drawn out every bolt and bar
  That made the entrance fast.
 
And now at midnight the stole his way
  To the moat of the outer wall,
And laid strong hurdles closely across        430
  Where the traitors’ tread should fall.
 
But we that were the Queen’s bower-maids
  Alone were left behind;
And with heed we drew the curtains close
  Against the winter wind.        435
 
And now that all was still through the hall,
  More clearly we heard the rain
That clamored ever against the glass
  And the boughs that beat on the pane.
 
But the fire was bright in the ingle-nook,        440
  And through empty space around
The shadows cast on the arras’d wall
’Mid the pictured kings stood sudden and tall
  Like spectres sprung from the ground.
 
And the bed was dight in a deep alcove;        445
  And as he stood by the fire
The king was still in talk with the Queen
  While he doffed his goodly attire.
 
And the song had brought the image back
  Of many a bygone year;        450
And many a loving word they said
With hand in hand and head laid to head;
  And none of us went anear.
 
But Love was weeping outside the house,
  A child in the piteous rain;        455
And as he watched the arrow of Death,
He wailed for his own shafts close in the sheath
  That never should fly again.
 
And now beneath the window arose
  A wild voice suddenly:        460
And the King reared straight, but the Queen fell back
  As for bitter dule to dree;
And all of us knew the woman’s voice
  Who spoke by the Scottish Sea.
 
“O King,” she cried, “in an evil hour        465
  They drove me from thy gate;
And yet my voice must rise to thine ears;
  But alas! it comes too late!
 
“Last night at mid-watch, by Aberdour,
  When the moon was dead in the skies        470
O King, in a death-light of thine own
  I saw thy shape arise.
 
“And in full season, as erst I said,
  The doom had gained its growth;
And the shroud had risen above thy neck        475
  And covered thine eyes and mouth.
 
“And no moon woke, but the pale dawn broke,
  And still thy soul stood there;
And I thought its silence cried to my soul
  As the first rays crowned its hair.        480
 
“Since then have I journeyed fast and fain
  In very despite of Fate,
Lest Hope might still be found in God’s will:
  But they drove me from thy gate.
 
“For every man on God’s ground, O King,        485
  His death grows up from his birth
In a shadow-plant perpetually;
And thine towers high, a black yew-tree,
  O’er the Charterhouse of Perth!”
 
That room was built far out from the house;        490
  And none but we in the room
Might hear the voice that rose beneath,
  Nor the tread of the coming doom.
 
For now there came a torchlight-glare,
  And a clang of arms there came;        495
And not a soul in that space but thought
  Of the foe Sir Robert Græme.
 
Yea, from the country of the Wild Scots,
  O’er mountain, valley, and glen,
He had brought with him in murderous league        500
  Three hundred armèd men.
 
The King knew all in an instant’s flash,
  And like a King did he stand;
But there was no armor in all the room
  Nor weapon lay to his hand.        505
 
And all we women flew to the door
  And thought to have made it fast:
But the bolts were gone and the bars were gone
  And the locks were riven and brast.
 
And he caught the pale queen in his arms        510
  As the iron footsteps fell,—
Then loosed her, standing alone, and said,
  “Our bliss was our farewell!”
 
And ’twixt his lips he murmured a prayer,
  And he crossed his brow and breast;        515
And proudly in royal hardihood
Even so with folded arms he stood,—
  The prize of the bloody quest.
 
Then on me leaped the Queen like a deer:
  “Catherine, help!” she cried.        520
And low at his feet we clasped his knees
  Together side by side.
“Oh! even a King, for his people’s sake,
  From treasonous death must hide!”
 
“For her sake most!” I cried, and I marked        525
  The pang that my words would wring.
And the iron tongs from the chimney-nook
  I snatched and held to the King:—
“Wrench up the plank! and the vault beneath
  Shall yield safe harboring.”        530
 
With brows low-bent, from my eager hand
  The heavy heft did he take;
And the plank at his feet he wrenched and tore:
And as he frowned through the open floor,
  Again I said, “For her sake!”        535
 
Then he cried to the Queen, “God’s will be done!”
  For her hands were clasped in prayer.
And down he sprang to the inner crypt;
And straight we closed the plank he had ripp’d
  And toiled to smoothe it fair.        540
 
(Alas! in that vault a gap once was
  Wherethro’ the King might have fled;
But three days since close-walled had it been
By his will; for the ball would roll therein
  When without at the palm he play’d.)        545
 
Then the Queen cried, “Catherine, keep the door,
  And I to this will suffice!”
At her word I rose all dazed to my feet,
  And my heart was fire and ice.
 
And louder ever the voices grew,        550
  And the tramp of men in mail;
Until to my brain it seemed to be
As though I tossed on a ship at sea
  In the teeth of a crashing gale.
 
Then back I flew to the rest; and hard        555
  We strove with sinews knit
To force the table against the door;
  But we might not compass it.
 
Then my wild gaze sped far down the hall
  To the place of the hearthstone-sill;        560
And the Queen bent ever above the floor,
  For the plank was rising still.
 
And now the rush was heard on the stair,
  And “God, what help?” was our cry.
And was I frenzied or was I bold?        565
I looked at each empty stanchion-hold,
  And no bar but my arm had I!
 
Like iron felt my arm, as through
  The staple I made it pass:—
Alack! it was flesh and bone—no more!        570
’Twas Catherine Douglas sprang to the door,
  But I fell back Kate Barlass.
 
With that they all thronged into the hall,
  Half dim to my failing ken;
And the space that was but a void before        575
  Was a crowd of wrathful men.
Behind the door I had fall’n and lay,
  Yet my sense was wildly aware,
And for all the pain of my shattered arm
  I never fainted there.        580
 
Even as I fell, my eyes were cast
  Where the King leaped down to the pit;
And lo! the plank was smooth in its place,
  And the Queen stood far from it.
 
And under the litters and through the bed        585
  And within the presses all
The traitors sought for the King, and pierced
  The arras around the wall.
 
And through the chamber they ramped and stormed
  Like lions loose in the lair,        590
And scarce could trust to their very eyes,—
  For behold! no King was there.
 
Then one of them seized the Queen, and cried,—
  “Now tell us, where is thy lord?”
And he held the sharp point over her heart:        595
She dropped not her eyes nor did she start,
  But she answered never a word.
 
Then the sword half pierced the true true breast:
  But it was the Græme’s own son
Cried, “This is a woman,—we seek a man!”        600
  And away from her girdle-zone
He struck the point of the murderous steel;
  And that foul deed was not done.
 
And forth flowed all the throng like a sea,
  And ’twas empty space once more;        605
And my eyes sought out the wounded Queen
  As I lay behind the door.
 
And I said: “Dear Lady, leave me here,
  For I cannot help you now;
But fly while you may, and none shall reck        610
  Of my place here lying low.”
 
And she said, “My Catherine, God help thee!”
  Then she looked to the distant floor,
And clasping her hands, “Oh God help him,”
  She sobbed, “for we can no more!”        615
 
But God He knows what help may mean,
  If it mean to live or to die;
And what sore sorrow and mighty moan
On earth it may cost ere yet a throne
  Be filled in His house on high.        620
 
And now the ladies fled with the Queen:
  And through the open door
The night-wind wailed round the empty room
  And the rushes shook on the floor.
 
And the bed drooped low in the dark recess        625
  Whence the arras was rent away;
And the firelight still shone over the space
  Where our hidden secret lay.
 
And the rain had ceased, and the moonbeams lit
  The window high in the wall,—        630
Bright beams that on the plank that I knew
  Through the painted pane did fall
And gleamed with the splendor of Scotland’s crown
  And shield armorial.
 
But then a great wind swept up the skies,        635
  And the climbing moon fell back;
And the royal blazon fled from the floor,
  And nought remained on its track;
And high in the darkened window-pane
  The shield and the crown were black.        640
 
And what I say next I partly saw
  And partly I heard in sooth,
And partly since from the murderers’ lips
  The torture wrung the truth.
 
For now again came the armèd tread        645
  And fast through the hall it fell;
But the throng was less; and ere I saw,
  By the voice without I could tell
That Robert Stuart had come with them
  Who knew that chamber well.        650
 
And over the space the Græme strode dark
  With his mantle round him flung;
And in his eye was a flaming light
  But not a word on his tongue.
 
And Stuart held a torch to the floor,        655
  And he found the thing he sought;
And they slashed the plank away with their swords;
  And O God! I fainted not!
 
And the traitor held his torch in the gap,
  All smoking and smouldering;        660
And through the vapor and fire, beneath
  In the dark crypt’s narrow ring,
With a shout that pealed to the room’s high roof
  They saw their naked King.
 
Half naked he stood, but stood as one        665
  Who yet could do and dare;
With the crown, the King was stript away,—
The Knight was reft of his battle-array,—
  But still the Man was there.
 
From the rout then stepped a villain forth,—        670
  Sir John Hall was his name;
With a knife unsheathed he leapt to the vault
  Beneath the torchlight-flame.
 
Of his person and stature was the King
  A man right manly strong,        675
And mightily by the shoulder-blades
  His foe to his feet he flung.
 
Then the traitor’s brother, Sir Thomas Hall,
  Sprang down to work his worst;
And the King caught the second man by the neck        680
  And flung him above the first.
 
And he smote and trampled them under him;
  And a long month thence they bare
All black their throats with the grip of his hands
  When the hangman’s hand came there.        685
 
And sore he strove to have had their knives,
  But the sharp blades gashed his hands.
Oh James! so armed, thou hadst battled there
  Till help had come of thy bands;
And oh! once more thou hadst held our throne        690
  And ruled thy Scottish lands!
 
But while the King o’er his foes still raged
  With a heart that nought could tame,
Another man sprang down to the crypt;
And with his sword in his hand hard-gripp’d        695
  There stood Sir Robert Græme.
 
(Now shame on the recreant traitor’s heart
  Who durst not face his King
Till the body unarmed was wearied out
  With two-fold combating!        700
 
Ah! well might the people sing and say,
  As oft ye have heard aright:—
“O Robert Græme, O Robert Græme,
Who slew our King, God give thee shame!”
  For he slew him not as a knight.)        705
 
And the naked King turned round at bay,
  But his strength had passed the goal,
And he could but gasp:—“Mine hour is come;
But oh! to succor thine own soul’s doom,
  Let a priest now shrive my soul!”        710
 
And the traitor looked on the King’s spent strength,
  And said:—“Have I kept my word?—
Yea, King, the mortal pledge that I gave?
No black friar’s shrift thy soul shall save,
  But the shrift of this red sword!”        715
 
With that he smote his King through the breast;
  And all they three in that pen
Fell on him and stabbed and stabbed him there
  Like merciless murderous men.
 
Yet seemed it now that Sir Robert Græme,        720
  Ere the King’s last breath was o’er,
Turned sick at heart with the deadly sight
  And would have done no more.
 
But a cry came from the troop above:
  “If him thou do not slay,        725
The price of his life that thou dost spare
  Thy forfeit life shall pay!”
 
O God! what more did I hear or see,
  Or how should I tell the rest?
But there at length our King lay slain        730
  With sixteen wounds in his breast.
 
O God! and now did a bell boom forth,
  And the murderers turned and fled;—
Too late, too late, O God, did it sound!—
And I heard the true men mustering round,        735
  And the cries and the coming tread.
 
But ere they came to the black death-gap
  Somewise did I creep and steal;
And lo! or ever I swooned away,
Through the dusk I saw where the white face lay        740
  In the Pit of Fortune’s Wheel.
 
And now, ye Scottish maids who have heard
  Dread things of the days grown old,—
Even at the last, of true Queen Jane
  May somewhat yet be told,        745
And how she dealt for her dear lord’s sake
  Dire vengeance manifold.
 
’Twas in the Charterhouse of Perth,
  In the fair-lit Death-chapelle,
That the slain King’s corpse on bier was lain        750
  With chant and requiem-knell.
 
And all with royal wealth of balm
  Was the body purified:
And none could trace on the brow and lips
  The death that he had died.        755
 
In his robes of state he lay asleep
  With orb and sceptre in hand;
And by the crown he wore on his throne
  Was his kingly forehead spann’d.
 
And, girls, ’twas a sweet sad thing to see        760
  How the curling golden hair,
As in the day of the poet’s youth,
  From the King’s crown clustered there.
 
And if all had come to pass in the brain
  That throbbed beneath those curls,        765
Then Scots had said in the days to come
That this their soil was a different home
  And a different Scotland, girls!
 
And the Queen sat by him night and day,
  And oft she knelt in prayer,        770
All wan and pale in the widow’s veil
  That shrouded her shining hair.
 
And I had got good help of my hurt:
  And only to me some sign
She made; and save the priests that were there        775
  No face would she see but mine.
 
And the month of March wore on apace;
  And now fresh couriers fared
Still from the country of the Wild Scots
  With news of the traitors snared.        780
 
And still as I told her day by day,
  Her pallor changed to sight,
And the frost grew to a furnace-flame
  That burnt her visage white.
 
And evermore as I brought her word,        785
  She bent to her dead King James,
And in the cold ear with fire-drawn breath
  She spoke the traitors’ names.
 
But when the name of Sir Robert Græme
  Was the one she had to give,        790
I ran to hold her up from the floor;
For the froth was on her lips, and sore
  I feared that she could not live.
 
And the month of March wore nigh to its end,
  And still was the death-pall spread;        795
For she would not bury her slaughtered lord
  Till his slayers all were dead.
 
And now of their dooms dread tidings came,
  And of torments fierce and dire;
And nought she spake,—she had ceased to speak,—        800
  But her eyes were a soul on fire.
 
But when I told her the bitter end
  Of the stern and just award,
She leaned o’er the bier, and thrice three times
  She kissed the lips of her lord.        805
 
And then she said,—“My King, they are dead!”
  And she knelt on the chapel-floor,
And whispered low with a strange proud smile,—
  “James, James, they suffered more!”
 
Last she stood up to her queenly height,        810
  But she shook like an autumn leaf,
As though the fire wherein she burned
Then left her body, and all were turned
  To winter of life-long grief.
 
And “O James!” she said,—“My James!” she said,—        815
  “Alas for the woful thing,
That a poet true and a friend of man,
In desperate days of bale and ban,
  Should needs be born a King!”
 

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