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The Rape of the Tarts


The Queen of Hearts,

She made some tarts
      All on a summer's day;
The Knave of Hearts,
He stole those tarts
      And carried them away!
The Queen of Hearts,
She missed those tarts
      And griev'd for them full sore;
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back those tarts,
      And vow'd he'd steal no more!

Isolt, the Cornish Queen, in those dark days
When Mark, her unlov'd lord, had brought her back
From woodland lodge where Tristram bode with her
The space of one revolving moon, but now
Was past to Brittany, where the white hands
Of one with name like hers, Isolt, had snar'd
Him with their gleam, so changeful-hearted he,
Fell into bitter musings lasting long,
And vexed thereby the sullen Mark, who growl'd
His anger from behind his tangled beard,
The more resentful that she took no heed.
So months went by, until at last there dawn'd
A summer morn on wave-washt Cornwall fair
And sweet as odorous white lilies are,
And sweet indeed to Queen Isolt, who lay
With silken broider'd hangings round her bed
Facing the morn. Far off the ripple broke
Upon the beach unheard, but flasht in air
Its silver, and in palace court the birds
Of morning sang. Then to herself the Queen:

"Lo, absent Tristram is not all in all
To me, Mark's wife. There yet abides in life
Something of worth, tho' Tristram be not here."

The saying pleas'd her, and she turn'd it o'er.
"Something of worth, tho' Tristram be not here."
Then rising from the couch which Mark had left
Ere rose the sun from out the Cornish sea,
She call'd her waiting maidens to their task,
And paus'd before two gowns the damsels brought,
As doubtful how she should array herself.
One of green samite, o'er which wander'd strings
Of gleaming pearls, in mazy pattern set,
So that the eye wearied to follow, held
Her but such space while one with even breath
Might count a dozen; then her glance upon
The other fell, a silken robe of blue
Shot thro' and thro' with shimmering silver lights.
And this her choice at length for that day's wear,
Not unforgetful how Sir Tristram lov'd
To see her in it; and, when her waiting maids
Had rob'd her, slowly mov'd she down the stair,
And, after morning hunger stay'd, she past
To where the palace cooks and scullions bode,
In kitchen vast, whence royal dainties came.
All sweetness seem'd her face, and music seem'd
Her voice, when she entreated one to bring
His cook's white apron for her royal use,
And when her maids had clad her in it, none
Could think her other than a gracious Queen,
Since nothing of her royal grace was hid.
So following her fancy's lead, she bade
The men about her bring the wheaten meal
And all the kitchen tools she glibly nam'd,
And place before her on a cross-legg'd stand
Of smoke-gloom'd oak; and then her round white arms
She plung'd up to the elbows in the meal,
Her red lips murm'ring,
               It will serve."
               Then, while
The cooks and scullions stood with hands on hips
And mouths agape to watch, she deftly mov'd
About her task, and not with awkwardness,
As one unus'd to kitchen toil or cares,
But with all grace, such grace as won all hearts,
And, ere they knew her purpose, saw before
Their eyes row after row of pastry moulds,
As shapely as the hands that made, and these
The Queen herself in heated oven placed,
And, while these brown'd in torrid darkness, sang,--
For sweetly could Isolt of Ireland sing:

"Ay, ay, O ay,--the winds that fan the fire!
                  Fair tarts in prospect, tarts before me here!
Ay, ay, O ay,--and tarts were my desire,
                  And one was not enough, and one was dear:
Ay, ay, O ay,--the winds that move so fast!
                  And one was far, and one tart was nigher,
And one will never bake, and one will last.
                  Ay, ay, O ay, the winds that fan the fire!"

Far up among the oaken rafters rang
Her voice, and clear as is the tinkling fall
Of water over rocks that chafe its course,
And all within the kitchen felt such stir
Within the blood as when the joyous wine
Sweet summer music makes along the veins.
Then one, to whom she signal'd when the strain
Was ended, open threw the oven doors,
And drew from warm concealment into light
The tarts and bore them to Isolt, who straight
Within the cup-like hollow of the tarts
One after other placed with golden spoon,
On which were graven deep the Cornish arms,
The lucent jellies quivering like leaf
Of aspen when all else is still, and sound
And other motion dead within the wood.
This done she bade the cooks have careful charge
Of these, her tarts, till she should send, then past--
Her cook's white apron doft--upward to halls
Befitting her fair presence more, and, sleep
And summer both at once assailing, slept.

Now on the selfsame morning fair Etarre,
Awaking with Sir Pelleas's sword across
Her throat and Gawain's, felt her fancy turn
To him who might have slain her, sleeping, yet
Forbore because of former love, and said
To him who lay beside her, false Gawain,
"Go hence, and see me nevermore!" The Prince,
Who deem'd he knew all women's changeful ways,
Laught lightly, and essayed to kiss, as oft
Before, the warm white hollow of her throat.
But she, recoiling, flasht such sudden wrath
He, too, drew back, and slowly rose and heard
From lips grown stern, from lips his own had prest,
The sentence, "Go! and see me never more."
Then he, much marveling on women's ways,
Obey'd, and went with slow, reluctant feet
Without, and mounted horse, and past across
The courtyard and thro' postern portal, past
Down garden slopes with musky breathings fill'd,
To where the gates, wide open, led to fields
And far beyond them forest shades. Thro' these
He went and wander'd on to where the walls
Of Mark's great palace rose across his view.
Then, for the summer noon was hot, he drew
His rein beneath a giant oak that made
A welcome shadow near the gate, and mus'd
Yet more on changeful women's ways till came
On vagrant breeze a whiff of pastry thence
And woke a sudden hunger in his breast.

Meanwhile in hall Isolt of Ireland slept,
And slumb'rous summer silence crept o'er all
The serving men and maids, till one whose care
Had been the tarts to watch, a lad in years
But few and wits as scant as years, awak'd
From dream unquiet, and awaking, saw
The Prince Gawain through kitchen gliding soft,
Bearing the great, tart-laden dish. Whereat
The lad rose, terror stricken, shrieking loud,
"The tarts." Again, and like a descant, "Gone!
The tarts."
                Loud shrill'd the cry thro'out the court,
And each took up the words till rang from wall
To wall the mournful echo:
                                         "Gone, the tarts!"
Fast swell'd the cry and louder with each voice
That wail'd the theft until the Queen awak'd
And hearing what had happ'd felt her heart sink
And visions toothsome of the well-bak'd tarts
For royal supper fade to naught, and sat
To tears abandon'd and to grief a prey.

But false Gawain to saddle leaping, tarts
In dish upborne, saw all the rabble rout
Of palace kitchen fast behind pursue,
And one in saddle follow'd while the rest
The shrill cry echo'd, "O, the tarts! the tarts!"
Forth from the gates the chase was had until
The steed of Prince Gawain stumbl'd and threw
Him, bearing still the unspill'd tarts, upon
A grassy bank where those who follow'd found
And brought him, still tart-laden, to Isolt.

Naught said Gawain to temper his disgrace,
But let his eye a moment rest upon
The Queen, an eye that many maidens lov'd,
Then fall demurely on the toothsome tarts.
That she, mov'd somewhat by his grace and glance,
That admiration show'd, forgave the theft,
And thinking:
                     "Lo, a goodly man he seems
Since Tristram is not by," upon him laid
But two conditions. First that never should
He enter kitchen more in act to steal,
And on his knee, down-dropping at her feet,
With many oaths the courteous Gawain swore
To keep from deeds like this thro' all his life;
The next that he should stay and eat with her.
So, nothing loth, the Prince of Courtesy stay'd
And ate with her the savory, toothsome tarts
For all an incense-breathing afternoon,
Till one in haste appear'd when sank the sun,
Crying, "I crave thy pardon, Queen, thy lord
Is near."
               Thereat Gawain, warn'd by a look
Which ray'd from out her heavy-lidded eyes,
Departed with a word of farewell said,
And past to his own land, while she prepar'd
To meet King Mark returning from the chase.