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The Maid's Alarm


Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
      Eating her curds and whey.
There came a black spider,
Which sat down beside her,
      And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Queen Guinevere at Almesbury abode
Unknown, after her shameful flight from court,
And there the long days came and went, and found
And left her thrall to grief. One little maid
Companion'd her, a novice in that house,
To whom the Queen in lighter hours of grief--
For sorrow weighs not always equally,
Else there were none could bear--gave listless heed.
As one through blinding mists of care and dole
Might half discern a kitten at its play,
And smile, scarce comprehending why, so she,
The Queen, unto the novice's prattle turn'd
Half ear, dulling, it may be, thus the edge
Of grief, for low the maiden's voice and sweet.
"Sir Feumbras my father was," so said
The maid, "a knight of Arthur's Table Round,
A goodly man, much favor'd of his King.
To him King Arthur gave to wife the fair
Jehanne of Camelot, and I was born
Of these who in the selfsame summer died,
A lustrum since."
                            Low to herself the Queen,
"I knew them both, a simple, happy pair,
Who lov'd each other and who knew no sin."
Then spoke again the maid:

                                          Thereafter liv'd
I with the kinsfolk of my name until
A twelvemonth back I came to Almesbury.
But oft I sigh for Camelot and think
In dreams I hear my father call my name,
The name himself would give me when I pleas'd
Him well, for yet I had another name."
"Yea, and what was it?" said the sad ey'd Queen.
To whom the novice answer'd,
The name that's borne at court by Arthur's Queen."
"A luckless name," the Queen made answer here,
"A name that carries with it shame and tears."
"And think you thus?" in awe the novice said,
"Yet so it seems these latter days, if words
They say of Arthur's Queen indeed be true.
Perchance my father fear'd it when he call'd
Me Muffet in its stead. Would I might hear
Him call me Muffet now,"--and here the maid
Her sentence broke in air and mus'd a space,
And silence fell upon the twain, and roll'd
Far off the thunder while a summer storm
Drew quickly on.
                          Then guilty Guinevere
Past into sadder musings than the maid's,
And nearer crept the storm and darker grew
The cell wherein they sat. But she, the Queen,
Deep wrapt in bitter thoughts, knew not of this,
But felt at last a pulling at her gown,
And, rousing, saw no form, but heard a cry,--
"The storm! the storm." Then came a deaf'ning sound,
As if the tow'rs of all the world were thrown
To earth, and in the yellow, quiv'ring flame
She saw the novice's frighten'd face and gleam
Of holy symbols on the wall. Close clung
The maid, and when the storm grew one fierce roar,
And darting flame one baleful yellow glare,
Shudd'ring, the novice hid an awestruck face
Within the folds of samite black that clothed
The Queen. Then Guinevere the elder threw
One arm about the younger Guinevere,
And waited for the ceasing of the storm.
Guilt shielding tender Innocence,--thus ran
The bitter thought of Arthur's sinful wife.
So past an hour, until, its passion spent,
The storm rush'd angrily to other lands,
And drew with it the roar and gloom and glare;
And after, through the casement, came a shaft
Of yellow sungleam, that in sport did seem
To move and flicker o'er the rush-spread floor.
Thereat the little novice rais'd her head
From out the sable samite folds, and fell
Again to harmless prattle of herself
And of her simple life before she came
To Almesbury.
                      "Few mates I had, nor car'd,"
So went the tale, "and happier was I
To sit at home and list to tales of arms
Told by my father and his brother knights
Than roam the city streets unthrift of joy.
And when my mother prais'd my daily task
If done as she would have it, would she place
Upon the board before me curds and whey
With snowy manchet bread for well she knew
What fare of all I deem'd the best.
                                                     And once
I sat beneath a hanging vine, that made
A cool, green shadow at the farther end
Of the long garden at my father's house.
Over me sang the joyous birds full sweet,
And close beside uprose a lofty wall,
On which the golden moss and lichen slept.
A curious, carven, wooden bowl I held,
Fill'd almost to its brim with curds and whey,
And on the crimson-tufted tuffet where
I sat, with space enow for two, a loaf
Of toothsome manchet lay. No single care
Had I, the contents of the carven bowl
The limit of my childish wants; but ere
The spoon to lip was lifted, all the song
Above my head was husht and silence crept
Athwart the golden afternoon. Then I,
With boding fear, turn'd to the lichen'd wall
And on its surface saw a hideous blot
With moving legs, and horny claws, and eyes
Quick darting. Scarce my father's blazon'd shield
Might hide the creature's bulk, for surely saw
I never yet a spider huge as this
Which from the wall at last, down-dropping, came
And on the crimson-tufted tuffet sat,
And sitting, turn'd its baleful glance on me.
A moment only stay'd I there in fear,
And then the horror of it on me grew
Until I fled in haste, the carven bowl
Rolling before me, and the garden walk
Whit'ning with streaming curds and whey. And when
I told the tale indoors, Sir Feumbras,
My father, shook his head and fear'd lest this
Might be an omen of dread thing to be,
And went at last to Merlin with the tale,
Whom all men counted wisest of the time."
With mention of the wizard's name, the Queen,
Who had half heard, not wholly lost, the tale,
Rous'd to the full ear as she ask'd, "What said
The sage?"
                  "But little we might understand,"
Replied the maid, "for dark his meaning was,
And faint his words behind his winter beard,
But mostly seem'd it like to this: 'Again
In years to come a shape beside the child
Shall sit; not black, like this, but fair to look
Upon, and safer were she by the first
With bowl of curds and whey.' Thus Merlin spake,
But I,--I know not all he meant."
The Queen looked hard upon the maid, in doubt
If she were simple-seeming as her words;
And while she gazed her face grew stern and dark,
The sunshine drew itself from off the floor,
The wind swept sobbing thro' a door ajar,
And, in a sudden horror, from the room
The maid fled shuddering!