The Queen's Crags

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The Queen's Crags

from: Borderlands and Thoroughfares (Pp. 277 - 290)  1914

SCENE. – The Queen's Crags, a fantastic group of rocks and boulders on the fells. MICHAEL CROZIER, a young hind, lies in the evening glow at the foot of the tallest crag, with a far-away look in his eyes. Presently GEORGE DODD, an old hind, enters and stops on seeing MICHAEL.

   GEORGE.   Of all the lazy louts!
It's here, then, that you moon away the evenings,
Stretched like a collie basking in the sun,
Your noble self for company?
At your age, Michael lad,
I'd have thought shame to find myself alone
A night like this,
And such a lass as Peggy lonesome too.
I wasted little time when I was young,
And lost no summer evenings by myself:
I always was a lad among the lasses,
And not a moony, moping gowk like you:
Sunlight, moonlight, starlight, dark,
I never missed the screeching of the owls,
Nor listened to it lonesome.
But you, I've never seen you with a lass,
Though Peggy Haliburton, she . . .
Lad, take your pleasure while you're young
And summer nights be fine.
Though youth and summer nights seem long enough –
Long enough to last for ever,
For ever and a day,
Before you've looked about a bit
Old age and winter are upon you:
To-day you're lithe and lusty,
And to-morrow
A grizzled, pithless, aching bag-of-bones.
And Peggy Haliburton too,
The lass was made for love and summer nights;
Yet she's out walking with herself,
And no one by to see her but the peewits
Or maybe a cock grouse or so –
A bonnie young thing wasting.
      (He pauses, looking at MICHAEL who pays little heed, but still lies with a far-away look in his eyes.)
But happen, Michael, you're like me
And can't abide red hair?
I never liked a red-haired wench
If there were any other by.
Red – it's the colour of the fox and kestrel
And stoat and weasel and such thieves and vermin.
And as for stock, if I could have my way
I shouldn't have a red beast on the farm:
I'd never let a chestnut stallion whinny
Within a mile of Skarlindyke:
I'd sell all chestnut colts and fillies:
The red bull too should go;
And no red heifer should come nigh the byres.
I'd have all black, coal-black –
Black stallions and black mares,
Black bulls, black stirks and heifers;
All black, save tups and ewes –
I'm somehow not so partial to black sheep.
But in this world we cannot all be farmers
And lords of all creation:
Still even hinds may have their fancies,
And you and I, lad, can't abide red hair:
And so red Peggy walks alone?
Ay! and it seems that hinds can hold their tongues –
At least the youngsters can;
For my old tongue keeps wagging,
And wags to little purpose, seemingly.
It must have lost its sting,
Or Peggy's not in favour.
      (A pause.)
Well, Mister Mum, you've chosen a snug corner
To stretch your lazy bones in.
      (Sitting down by MICHAEL with his back against the rock.)
I think I'll bear you company awhile,
If you can call a hedgehog company,
Tight-curled and bristles prickling!
Still, though you mayn't be over-lively,
You're livelier than Myself:
I find him but glum company –
A grumpy, sulky beggar
Who keeps on telling me I'm getting old
And 'minding me of happiness gone by.
Myself and I were never fellows –
But ill-yoked at the best of times,
We seldom pulled together,
And Lord! the times that we've upset the cart!
So you must serve to keep the peace between us
By listening to my chatter.
I'm always happiest talking,
For then I needn't listen to Myself:
Though I, when I was your age, Michael,
I should have scorned an old man's company
While any lass –
And on Midsummer Eve!
     (He pauses again, then resumes, pointing to a pillared rock standing apart from the others.)
So yon's the tooth, chipped out of the Queen's comb
When Arthur pitched a rock at her
While she was combing out her yellow hair,
And he, at his own Crags a mile away!
It must have been a spanker of a comb
To bear so brave a tooth!
I wonder what she'd said, to make him pitch it –
Though likely she'd said nothing,
But just sat combing out her yellow hair,
And combing, combing, combing.
A woman with a devil in her tongue
When she plays mum is far more aggravating.
Sometimes when Susan sits and combs her hair
At night like Arthur's queen,
And combs, and combs,
Till I'm half-mad with watching from the bed,
I only stop Myself –
The surly chap who wants the light out,
Just in the nick of time
To loose the pillow from his clutch.
King Arthur must have been a handsome lad
To chuck a pebble that size near a mile:
But there were giants in those days,
And he . . .
   MICHAEL.  A lie!
   GEORGE.   A lie? Of course it's all a lie,
But it's a brave lie, Michael.
I doubt if there were ever king and queen
In these outlandish parts.
   MICHAEL.  There was a queen,
Though she was not a giant:
She was no bigger than . . .
Than you or me . . .
Or Peggy – she was nearer Peggy's height.
   GEORGE.   You seem to know a deal about her, Michael:
Just Peggy's height?
And red-haired too, I'll warrant?
You've found your tongue,
And got it pat –
And all the gospel-truth!
How do you come by so much truth, I wonder?
Scarcely by honest means I doubt:
And how do you know . . .
   MICHAEL.  Because I've seen her.
   GEORGE.   Who?
   MICHAEL.  The Queen.
   GEORGE.   You've seen the Queen?
Well, that's a brave one, Michael!
Myself can sometimes tell a little one,
But he was ever but a craven liar –
His were but cheepy bantams barely hatched,
While yours, why it's a strutting cock, and crowing,
Comb pricked and hackles quivering!
There's nothing like a big bold brazen lie
To warm the blood . . .
   MICHAEL.  I'm telling truth:
I've seen her twice.
   GEORGE.   Nay, stop before you spoil it all:
A lie blown out too big will burst.
   MICHAEL.  It is no lie:
I saw the Queen herself.
   GEORGE.   You saw her – where?
   MICHAEL.  I saw her here.
   GEORGE.   Here – in the Crags?
I trust she's not here now,
And listening down behind the rock –
Lord, if she'd heard Myself about the combing!
But queens should be above eavesdropping,
And know the luck of listeners.
Though how d'you know her, lad, for Arthur's Queen?
Did she sing out –
Hi, lad! I'm Arthur's Queen!
   MICHAEL.  She wore a crown –
A golden crown . . .
   GEORGE.   I saw a Queen once with a golden crown,
And sitting on a golden throne
Set high on a monster golden ball,
Drawn in a golden chariot through the streets
By four-and-twenty little piebald ponies,
At Hexham on a fairday long ago –
Ay, long ago in my young days
When circuses were circuses.
They made a brave procession through the town
To draw the folk in after them –
Though outside shows are usually the bravest . . .
But not that time . . .
She was a Queen, a black-eyed gipsy Queen . . .
Black eyes that sparked . . .
And tilted chin . . .
You never saw . . .
   MICHAEL.  Mine was no circus-queen.
I saw her first when I was but a boy,
Six years ago to-day – Midsummer Eve.
I'd spent the whole day playing round the Crags
At kings and castles,
Crowning or killing
Or conquering myself,
Or putting black-faced bands
Of robber-sheep to rout,
Or seeking to take unawares
Some traitor stoat or weasel
That spied on my dominions:
When ere I knew,
The sky was black,
And broke in flame,
And burst in thunder . . .
And rain, such rain . . .
Lightning, flash on flash . . .
Thunder, brattle after brattle . . .
Rain and rain . . .
You never saw such rain –
One pelting, crashing, teeming, drenching downpour.
Soaked to the skin in no time
And scared out of my senses,
I crept into a hole among the rocks –
A hole I'd never spied before,
No bigger than a fox's earth.
I had to wriggle on my belly
To squeeze myself in head-first,
And half-expecting every moment
To feel a vixen's teeth,
Though more I feared the lightning at my heels:
When all at once my arms were free,
And, lifting up my head, I found
I'd almost crawled into a chamber –
A big square chamber in the rock
That I had ne'er heard tell of –
Four blue and shiny walls that soared
Sheer to the sky, a still and starry sky,
Though in the world without black storm was raging.
But I'd no eyes for stars,
Nor even wits to wonder at the quiet:
My eyes were on the Queen
Who sat beside a hearth of burning peats,
Right in the middle of the chamber,
A golden crown upon her golden head:
And she was spinning golden wool
That flickered in the firelight
Until it seemed that she was spinning flame
Or her own fire-bright hair.
   GEORGE.   Red hair! And she'd red hair?
Then you had only snoozed
And dreamt of Peggy.
I saw my Queen by daylight.
   MICHAEL.  Peggy!
I tell you 'twas the Queen:
I saw her plainly as I see yon rabbit.
She wore a furry cloak of weasel skins,
Or something like,
Though round the neck 'twas white –
White as yon rabbit's scut,
For it was mortal cold in that stone chamber.
   GEORGE.   Was anybody with her?
   MICHAEL.  I only saw the Queen,
And her but for a moment.
She lifted up her eyes,
And I was frightened
And wriggled backwards like an adder
Till I was in the storm again;
And then I scuttled home,
A rabbit to its warren,
Across the splashy heather –
The lightning playing round my heels,
The thunder rattling round my head,
Though it was not the lightning or the thunder
That scared me now . . .
I'd not a thought for them . . .
My heart was flying from that quiet chamber,
That stone-cold chamber roofed with quiet stars . . .
And from the eyes . . .
The eyes I had not seen.
   GEORGE.   And where's this stony chamber, then?
   MICHAEL.  I never found the way to it again,
Though I've ransacked the Crags for it
Since I grew big and bolder.
   GEORGE.   A vixen in her den,
For she'd be red enough –
Yet, you'd have felt her teeth for certain!
It must have been a dream.
   MICHAEL.  I might have thought so too,
Had I not seen the Queen again.
   GEORGE.   Again? . . .
I saw my Queen again too,
But what was your Queen's name?
   MICHAEL.  Queen Guinevere.
   GEORGE.   Mine had a braver name:
They called her Donna Bella di Braganza,
Castilian Queen of the Equestrian World.
I spelled it out upon the rainbow bills
The clown who wagged the tail of the procession
Was scattering from his donkey-cart.
I saw my Queen again –
My gipsy Queen,
My black-haired, black-eyed gipsy!
You and your red-haired Queens!
I'd give a world of red-haired Guineveres
To see those gipsy eyes again . . .
I smell the sawdust now . . .
And oranges . . .
'Twas in the tent . . .
She'd doffed her robes and crown . . .
I knew her by the flashing of her eyes,
Tripping nimbly into the ring,
So brave in yellow silk, skin-fitting silk
Yellow as dandelions,
And sprinkled all with spangles;
And yellow ribbons in her hair,
Her jet-black hair that hung about her shoulders.
I see her tripping now into the ring
With flashing eyes and teeth,
Clean-limbed and mettlesome as the coal-black mare,
Coal-black from mane to fetlocks,
That pawed and champed to greet her –
And there's naught bonnier than a bonnie mare . . .
She clapped its glossy neck;
It nuzzled her:
Then ere I knew
She'd lighted on its flanks,
Nimble and springy as a thistledown,
And they were racing round the ring together,
She, standing tiptoe
And with ne'er a rein,
A straw between her teeth,
Her flashing teeth . . .
And tilted chin . . .
And flashing eyes . . .
Her beautiful long hair, as black and silky,
As black and silky as the mare's long mane,
Was streaming out behind . . .
And ribbons streaming . . .
Spangles sparkling . . .
Sawdust flying,
Whips a-cracking,
Music playing . . .
And now she sprang
Through flaming hoops,
And my heart through the fire with her,
And lighted on the steamy flanks,
And on and on
And round and round the ring
Till I was dazzled dizzy
And out of breath, but watching her.
And what with crack of whips . . .
Thudding thresh of hoofs . . .
Smell of spurting sawdust . . .
Crash of drums and trumpets . . .
Flaming hoops of fire . . .
Flying hair,
Yellow ribbons,
Flashing teeth,
And flashing eyes –
My blood was mad, was mad for her:
I wanted to be flying round,
For ever flying round with her,
For ever and for ever . . .
I wanted her
As I have never wanted woman
Before or since . . .
     (A pause.)
And yet I've little doubt
That she'd have been a poor hand with the porridge,
And poorer at the milking,
Though she could manage horses;
And happen 'twas as well
That I walked home that night with Susan.
Within nine months we'd wedded.
There's naught amiss with Susan's porridge,
And she could milk a stone.
She's been a good and careful wife enough:
She never spares herself – nor me.
Though I dare say I'm even more a trial
To her than to myself;
And though I'm often harking back
And sometimes hanker . . .
Somehow I cannot see the Donna Bella
In yellow skin-tights cleaning out the byre.
And yet!
   MICHAEL.  I saw Queen Guinevere again
Three years ago upon Midsummer Eve.
She sat upon a little hill and sang
And combed her long red hair beside the lough –
Just sitting like a leveret in the sun
To sleek its fur –
And all about her grey snipe darted drumming.
She combed her long red hair
That tumbled down her shoulders,
Her long hair red as bracken,
As bracken in October,
And with a gleam of wind in it,
A light of running water.
Her crown was in the heather at her feet,
And now and then a snipe would perch upon it
And with his long neb preen his gleaming feathers
As if to mock the Queen,
Queen Guinevere a-combing her long hair
That tumbled over a gown of blue –
As blue and shimmery as a kingfisher . . .
And with a light of running water:
And as she sang 'twas like the curlew calling,
And rippled through my heart like curlew calling,
Like curlew calling in the month of April,
And with a clear cool noise of running water.
I dropped upon my belly in the bracken,
And lay and watched her, combing her red hair,
And hearkened to her singing . . .
And I was sorry when she'd done at last
And took her long red hair and twisted it
And fixed it with a golden pin.
Though she'd but little need of crown
Whose hair was golden crown enough,
She stooped to take her gold crown from the heather
And set it on her brow,
Then stood upright,
Stood like a birch-tree in the wind,
A silver birch-tree in the sunset wind
That ripples through its leaves like running water –
The little snipe about her drumming . . .
And then I looked into her eyes,
Looked into golden pools,
Pools golden 'neath October bracken –
And into the heart of fire . . .
     (A pause.)
A shrew's cold muzzle touched my hand
Among the bracken, startling me . . .
And she was gone . . .
   GEORGE (after a pause). And so the leveret bolted!
You never saw her more?
So all tales end –
At least the true tales told by life itself.
Though I . . . I saw my Queen again . . .
Yet . . . with a difference . . .
'Twas at the next fair after we were married:
I thought I'd like a glimpse of her again,
Though I had much ado persuading Susan;
She'd never been inside a circus,
And thought it sorry waste of silver:
But once inside the tent
She liked it well enough,
And gaped and grinned her money's worth.
And I – I sat and waited,
And waited for my gipsy . . .
And snuffed the smell of sawdust,
While Susan giggled at the clown –
A yellow-legged old corncrake –
And nudged me with her elbow,
And asked me if I'd ever heard the like.
But I'd no ears or eyes
For any save my gipsy . . .
And she . . . she never came.
Another woman rode the coal-black mare –
A red-haired jumping-jenny:
And there was cracking whips,
And sawdust flying,
Drums and trumpets,
Flaming hoops
And all the razzle-dazzle . . .
But not my black-eyed gipsy.
And I sat waiting still when all was over
Until the tent was empty . . .
Sat waiting for my Donna Bella . . .
Till Susan tugged me by the jacket
And asked if I'd sit gaping there all night.
She got me out at last –
And then . . . I met her . . .
Met her face to face,
My gipsy Queen!
But oh! . . . how changed . . .
Except her eyes . . .
I knew her by her eyes,
For they still flashed and sparkled,
Though she was bent and hunched
And hobbled with a crutch.
She'd had a tumble since I'd seen her flying
Around the ring as light as thistledown.
She clutched me with a skinny hand,
Wanting to tell my fortune,
But Susan wouldn't let her,
And said a married man had got his fortune,
So needn't waste his earnings.
The gipsy bit the straw between her teeth,
Her flashing teeth,
And, tilting her proud chin,
She laughed at that with merry eyes
Twinkling 'neath her yellow kerchief –
Dandelion yellow,
Bound about her jet-black hair,
The hair that I'd seen flying free . . .
And when she laughed
And looked into my eyes
The heather was afire!
I could have caught her to me
There and then –
Whipped her up and run with her
To the world's end – and over! . . .
But Susan . . . dragging on my arm . . .
Ay! broken as she was
And hunched and hobbling,
I would have wedded her outright
Had it not been for Susan . . .
I lost her in the crowd . . .
And never saw her more . . .
     (A pause.)
And so went home to decent porridge.
And 'twas as well maybe.
A man must have his meat if he's to work,
And victuals count for much:
And Susan's ever been a careful wife,
And had no easy time of it.
     (A pause.)
But love's a queer thing, Michael –
It comes to you . . . like that!   (striking his hands sharply together)
I've known a man walk seven miles each night
To see a woman's shadow on the blind:
And in the end
It's one, and one alone, that holds you,
Be it Donna Bella, Guinevere, or Peggy.
     (A pause.)
But you – you never saw your carroty Queen
Combing her long red hair again, I'll warrant.
   MICHAEL (speaking slowly as in a trance).
I saw her once, upon Midsummer Eve,
Six years ago . . .
I saw her twice, upon Midsummer Eve,
Three years ago . . .
I'll see her thrice . . .
   GEORGE.   And it's Midsummer Eve!
   MICHAEL (listening). And nigh the hour . . .
And hark, the snipe a-drumming!
   GEORGE.   You cannot think . . .
It's all a pack of lies . . .
Or else you're daft, clean daft!
Your eyes are queer and wild . . .
You do not see her now?
No! No! I thought not:
It's all stuff and nonsense
Your silly tale about a red-haired Queen
Who's been dead dust a thousand years or more.
   MICHAEL (leaping to his feet). She's coming . . . coming now . . .
   GEORGE (leaping up too, and gripping MICHAEL'S arm). No! No!
You're crazy surely . . .
Yet . . . queer things happen on the fells at times –
And on Midsummer Eve . . .
   MICHAEL (listening more intently). She's drawing slowly nearer . . .
I hear her silks arustling through the grass . . .
   GEORGE (listening). I seem to hear . . .
What are you gaping at?
   MICHAEL (looking up). The Queen! The Queen!
     (They both stand spellbound, gazing at a woman standing the crest of a boulder, burning like a golden flame in the last rays of the setting sun. Presently, looking down and seeing them, she laughs.)
   GEORGE (shaking himself, while MICHAEL still stands spellbound).
It's Peggy Haliburton after all!
(To PEGGY) Why, Michael said 'twas Arthur's Queen –
He called her some outlandish name,
And said she'd long red foxy hair,
And eyes like pools,
And sang just like the curlew.
But he'll be telling you himself –
For all along I knew 'twas you he meant.
Men's tongues wag madly on Midsummer Eve,
And I've been talking too,
A pack of nonsense,
As Michael here could tell you
If he'd not too much sense to heed
An old man's witless blethering.
Well, I had best be going
And getting home to Susan:
She doesn't hold with owls and such-like.

  1912.