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The Wife of Brittany

*  We are to suppose that Aurelian had seen Iolene previous to her marriage, and that circumstances had prevented his becoming intimate with her, or in any way prosecuting his suit honestly and frankly.



TRUTH wed to beauty in an antique tale,
Sweet-voiced like some immortal nightingale,
Trills the clear burden of her passionate lay,
As fresh, as fair, as wonderful to-day,
As when the music of her balmy tongue
Ravished the first warm hearts for whom she sung.
Thus, when the early spring-dawn buds are green,
Glistening beneath the sudden silvery sheen
Of glancing showers; while heaven with bridegroom-kiss
Wakens the virgin earth to bloom and bliss,
Enamored breathing, and soft raptures born
About the roseate footsteps of the morn,—
An old-world song, whose breezy music pours
Through limpid channels ‘twixt enchanted shores,
Steals on me wooingly from that far time
When tuneful Chaucer wrought his lusty rhyme
Into rare shapes of fancy and delight,
For May winds blithely blew, and hawthorn flowers were bright.
O brave old poet! genius frank and bold!
Sustain me, cherish, and around me fold
Thine own hale, sun-warm atmosphere of song,
Lest I, who touch thy numbers, do thee wrong;
Speed the deep measure, make the meaning shine
Ruddy and high with healthful spirit-wine,
Till to attempered sense and quickening ears
My strain some faint harmonious echo bears
From that rich realm wherein thy cordial art
Throbbed with its pulse of fire ‘gainst youthful England’s heart.
Where the hoarse billows of the Northland Sea
Sweep the rude coast of rock-bound Brittany,
Dwelt, ages since, a knight, whose warrior-fame
Might well have struck all carpet-knights with shame;
Vowed to great deeds and princely manhood, he
Burgeoned the topmost flower of chivalry;
Yet gentle-hearted, nursed one delicate thought
Fixed firm in love: with anxious pain he sought
To serve his lady in the noblest wise,
And many a labor, many a grand emprise
He wrought ere that sweet lady could be won.
She was a maiden bright-aired as the sun,
And graceful as the tall lake-lilies are
Flushed ‘twixt the twilight and the vesper-star;
But born to such rare state and sovereignty,
He hardly durst before her bend the knee
In passion’s ardor and keen heart-distress;
Still, at the last, his loyal worthiness
And mild obeisance, his observance high
Of manly faith, firm will, and constancy,
Aroused an answering pity to his sighs,
Till pity, grown to love, beamed forth from genial eyes.
Thus with pure trust, and cheerful calm accord,
She made this gentle suitor her soul’s lord;
And he, that thence their happy fates should stray
Through pastures beauteous as the fields of May,
Swore of his own free mind to use the right
Her mercy gave him, with no churlish might,
Nor e’er in wanton freaks of mastery,
Ire-bred perverseness, or sharp jealousy,
Vex the clear-flowing current of her days.
She thanked him in a hundred winning ways:
"And I," she said, "will be thy loyal wife;
Take here my vows, my solemn troth for life."
On a June morning, when the verdurous woods
Flushed to the core of dew-lit solitudes,
Murmured almost as with a human feeling,
Tenderly low, to frolic breezes stealing
Through dappled shades and depths of dainty fern,
Crossed here and there by some low-whimpering burn,
These twain were wedded at a forest shrine.
O saffron-vested Hymen the divine!
Did aught of gloom or boding shadow weigh
Upon thy blushing consciousness that day?
No! thy frank face breathed only hope and love;
Earth laughed in wave and leaf, all heaven was fair above.
Home to the land wherein the knight was born
Blithely they rode upon the morrow-morn,
Not far from Penmark; there they lived in ease
And solace of matured felicities,
Until Arviragus whose soul of fire
Not even fruition of his love’s desire
Could fill with languorous idlesse, cut the tie
Which bound to silken dalliance suddenly,
Sailing the straits for England’s war-torn strand,
There ampler bays to pluck from victory’s "red right hand."
But Iolene, fond Iolene, whose heart
Can beat no longer, lonely and apart
From him she loves, save with a sickening stress
Of fear o’erwrought and brooding tenderness,
Mourns for his absence with soul-wearying plaint,
Slow, pitiful tears and midnight murmurings faint,
And thus the whole world sadly sets at naught.
Meanwhile her friends, who guess what canker-thought
Preys on her quiet, with a mild essay
Strive to subdue her passion’s torturing sway:
“Beware! beware, sweet lady, thou wilt slay
Thy reason! nay, thy very life’s at stake!
By love, and love’s dear pleadings, for his sake
Who yearns to clasp thee scathless to his breast,
We pray thee, soothe these maddening cares to rest!"
Even as the patient graver on a stone,
Laboring with tireless fingers, sees anon
The shape embodying his rare fancies grow
And lighten, thus upon her stubborn woe
Their tireless comforts wrought, until a Trust,
Clear-eyed and constant, raised her from the dust
And ashy shroud of sorrow; her despair
Gave place to twilight gladness and soft cheer,
Confirmed ere long by letters from her love:
"Dear Iolene!" he wrote, "thou tender dove
That tremblest in thy chilly nest at home,
Prithee embrace meek patience till I come.
Lo, the swift winds blow freshening o’er the sea,
From out the sunset isles I speed to rest with thee!"
The knight’s ancestral home stood grim and tall
Beyond its shadowy moat and frowning wall;
It topped a gradual summit crowned with fir,
Green murmurous myrtle, and wild juniper,
Fronting a long, rude, solitary strand,
Whereon the earliest sunbeam, like a hand
Of tremulous benediction, rested bland,
And warmly quivering; o’er the wave-worn lea
Gleamed the broad spaces of the open sea.
Now often, with her pitying friends beside,
She walked the desolate beach and watched the tide,
Forth looking through unconscious tears to view
Sail after sail pass shimmering o’er the blue;
And to herself, ofttimes, "Alas!" said she,
"Is there no ship, of all these ships I see,
Will bring me home my lord? Woe, woe is me!
Though winds blow fresh, and sea-birds skim the main,
Thou still delay’st, my liege! Ah, wilt thou come again?"
Sometimes would she, half-dreaming, sit and think,
Casting her dark eyes downward from the brink;
And when she saw those grisly rocks beneath,
Round which the pallid foam, in many a wreath
White as the lips of passion, faintly curled,
Her thoughts would pierce to the drear under-world,
‘Mid shipwrecks wandering, and bleached bones of those
O’er whom the unresting ocean ebbs and flows;
And though the shining waters hushed and deep,
Might slumber like an innocent child asleep,
From out the North her prescient fancy raised
Huge ghostlike clouds, and spectral lightnings blazed
I’ th’ van of phantom thunder, and the roar
Of multitudinous waters on the shore,
Heard as in dreadful trance its billowy swells
Blent with the mournful tone of far funereal bells!
Her friends perceiving that this seaside walk,
Though gay and jovial their unstudied talk,
But dashed her dubious spirits, kindly took
And led her where the blossom-bordered brook
Babbled through woodlands, and the limpid pool
Lay couched like some shy Naiad in the cool
Of mossy glades; or when a tedious hour
Pressed on her with its dim, lethargic power,
They wooed her with glad games or jocund song,
Till the dull demon ceased to do her wrong.
So, on a pleasant May morn, while the dew
Sparkled on tiny hedgerow-flowers of blue,
Passing through many a sun-brown orchard-field,
They reach a fairy plesaunce, which revealed
Such prospects into breezy inland vales,
The natural haunt of plaining nightingales,
Such verdant, grassy plots, through which there rolled
A gleeful rivulet glimpsing sands of gold,
And winding slow by clumps of plumèd pines,
Rich realms of bay, and gorgeous jasmine-vines,
That none who strayed to that fair flowery place
Had paused in wonder if its sylvan Grace,
Embodied, beauteous, with an arch embrace
Had stopped, and smiling, kissed them face to face.
A buoyant, blithesome company were they,
Grouped round the plesaunce on that morn of May;
Wit, song, and rippling laughter, and arch looks
That might have lured the wood-gods from their nooks,
Echoed and flashed like dazzling arrows tipped
With amorous heat; and now and then there slipped
From out the whirling ring of jocund girls,
Wreathing white arms and tossing wanton curls,
Some maiden who with momentary mien
Of coy demureness bent o’er Iolene,
And whispered sunniest nothings in her ear.
First ‘mid the brave gallants assembling there
Aurelian came, a squire of fair degree,
Tall, vigorous, handsome, his whole air so free,
Yet courteous, and such princely sweetness blent
With every well-timed, graceful compliment,
That sooth to speak, where’er Aurelian went,
To turbulent tilt-yard and baronial hall,
Sporting a-field or at high festival,
Favor, like sunshine, filled his heart and eyes.

Thus nobly gifted, high-born, opulent, wise,
One hidden curse was his: for troublous years,*
Secretly, swayed in turn by hopes and fears,
And all unknown to her, his heart’s desire,
This youth had loved with wild, delirious fire,
The lonely, sad, unconscious Iolene.
He durst not show how love had brought him teen,
Nor prove how deep his passion’s inward might;
Thinking, half maddened, on her absent knight;
Save that the burden of a love-lorn lay
Would somewhat of his stifled flame betray,
But in those vague complainings poets use,
When charging Love with outrage and abuse
Of his all-potent witchery. "Ah," said he,
"I love, but ever love despondently;
For though one vision haunts me, and I burn
To hold that dream incarnated, I yearn
In vain, in vain; love breathes no bland return!"
Thus only did Aurelian strive to show
What pangs of hidden passion worked below
The surface calmness of his front serene;
Unless perhaps he met his beauteous Queen,
Scarce brightening at the banquet or the dance;
When, with a piercing yet half-piteous glance,
His eyes would search, then strangely shun her face,
As one condemned, who fears to sue for grace.
But on this self-same day, when, homeward bound,
Her footsteps sought the loneliest path that wound
Through tangled copses to the upland ground
And orchard close,—her fair companions kissed
With tearful thanks, and all kind friends dismissed,—
Aurelian, who the secret pathway knew,
Through the dense growth and shrouded foliage drew
Near the pale Queen, the lady of his dreams:
The evening’s soft pathetic splendor streams
O’er her clear forehead and her chestnut hair,
All glorified as in celestial air;
But the dark eyes a wistful light confessed,
And some soft murmuring fancies heaved her breast
Benignly, like enamored tides that rise
And sink melodious to the West wind’s sighs.
He gazed, and the long passion he had nursed,
Impetuous, sudden, unrestrained, o’erburst
All bounds of custom and enforced restraint:
"O lady, hear me: I am deadly faint,
Yet wild with love! such love as forces man
To beard conventions, trample on the ban
Of partial laws, spurn with contemptuous hate
Whate’er would bar or blight his blissful fate,
And in the feverous frenzy of his zeal,
Even from the shrinking flower he dotes on, steal
Blush, fragrance, and heart-dew! Forgive! forgive!
What! have I dared to tell thee this, to live
For aye hereafter in thy cold regard?
Yet veil thy scorn; nor make more cold and hard
The anguished life now cowering at thy feet."
As o’er a billowy field of ripened wheat
One sees perchance the spectral shadows meet,
Cast by a darkened heaven, whose lowering hush
Broods, thunder-charged, above its golden flush,—
So, a dark wonder, a sublime suspense,
Of gathering wrath at this wild insolence,
Dimmed the mild glory of her brow and lips;
Her beauty, more majestic in eclipse,
Shone with that awful lustre which of old,
In the god’s temples and the fanes of gold,
Blazed in the Pythia’s face, and shook her form
With throes of baleful prophecy; a storm
She stood incarnate, in whose ominous gloom
Throbbed the red lightning on the verge of doom.
But as a current of soft air, unfelt
On the lower earth, is seen ere long to melt
The up-piled surge of tempests slowly driven
In scattered vapors through the deeps of heaven,
Thus a serener thought tenderly played
Across her spirit; its portentous shade,
Big with unuttered wrath and meanings dire,
Began with slow, wan pulsings to expire;
A far ethereal voice she seemed to hear
Luting its merciful accents in her ear,
Subtly harmonious: "Yea," she thought, "in truth,
A rage, a madness holds him, the poor youth
Is drunk with passion! Shall I, deeply blessed
By all love’s sweets, its balm and trustful rest,
Crush the less fortunate spirit? utterly
Blight and destroy him, all for love of me?
His hopes, if hopes he hath, must surely die;
Still would I nip their blossoms tenderly,
With a slight, airy frost-bite of contempt.
God’s mercy, good Sir Squire! art thou exempt
Of courtesy as of reason? What weird spell
Doth work this madness in thee, and compel
Thy nobler nature to such base despites?
Forsooth, thou’lt blush some day the flower of knights,
Should this thy budding virtue wax and grow
To natural consummation! Come! thy flow
Of weak self-ruth might shame the veriest child,
A six years’ peevish urchin, whimpering wild,
And scattering his torn locks, because afar
He sees and yearns to clasp, but cannot clasp, a star!"
She ceased, with shame and pity weighing down
Her dovelike lids demurely, and a frown
Just struggling faintly with as faint a smile
(For the mute, trembling squire still knelt the while)
Round the arch dimples of her rosy mouth;
Whereon, in fitful fashion, like the South
Which sweeps with petulant wing a field of blooms,
Then dies a heedless death ‘mong golden brooms
And lavish shrubbery, briefly she resumes,
With quick-drawn breath, the courses of her speech:
"Aurelian, rise! Behold’st thou yonder beach,
And the blue waves beyond? those bristling rocks,
O’er which the chafed sea, in quick thunder-shocks,
Leaps passionate, panting through the showery spray,
Roaring defiance to the calm-eyed day?
Ah, well, fantastic boy! I blithely swear
When yon rude coast beneath us rises clear
(Down to the farthest bounds of wild Bretaigne),
Of that black rampart darkening sky and main,
I’ll pay thy vows with answering vows again,
And be—God save the mark!—thy paramour."
Her words struck keen and deep, even to the core
Of the rash listener’s soul; they seemed to be
More fatal in their careless irony
Than if the levin bolt, hurled from above,
Had slain at once his manhood and his love.
What more he felt in sooth ‘twere vain to tell;
He only heard her whispering, "Fare-thee-well,
And Heaven assoil thee of all sinful sorrow!"
Then, with a grace and majesty which borrow
Fresh lustrous sweetness from an inward stress
And hidden motion of chaste gentleness,
She glideth like some beauteous cloud apart:
Aurelian saw her pass with yearning pangs at heart.
Soul-epochs are there, when Grief’s pitiless storm
O’erwhelms the amazèd spirit; when the warm
Exultant heart, whose hopes were brave and high,
Shrinks in the darkness, withering all its sky:
Then, like a wounded bird by the rude wind
Clutched and borne onward, tortured, reckless, blind,
Too frail to struggle with that passionate blast,
We take wild, wavering courses, and at last
Are dashed, it may be, on the rocky verge,
Or hurled o’er the unknown and perilous surge
Of some dark doom, when, bruised and tempest-tost,
We sink in turbulent eddies, and are lost.
Urged by a mood thus desperate, careless what
Thenceforth befell him, from that hateful spot,
The scene of such stern anguish and despair,
Aurelian rushed, he knew not, recked not, where.
All night he wandered in the forest drear,
Till on the pale phantasmal front of morn
The first thin flickering day-gleam glanced forlorn,
Wan as the wraith of perished hopes, the ghost
Of wishes long sustained and fostered most,
Now gone for evermore. "O Christ! that I,"
He muttered hoarsely, "might unsought for lie
Here, in the dismal shadows and dank grass,
And close my heavy eyelids, and so pass
With one brief struggle from the world of men,
Never to grieve or languish,—never again!
Never to sow live seeds of expectation
And joyous promise, to reap desolation;
But as the seasons fly, snow-wreathed, or crowned
With odorous garlands, rest in the mute ground,
Peaceful, oblivious,—a Lethéan cloud
Wrapped round my faded senses like a shroud,
And all earth’s turmoil and its juggling show
Dead as a dream dissolved ten thousand years ago!"
Long, long revolving his sad thoughts he stood,
When gleefully from out the lightening wood
Came the sharp ring of horn and echoing steed;
A score of huntsmen, scouring at full speed,
Flashed like a brilliant meteor o’er the scene,
In royal pomp of glimmering gold and green;
Whereat, with wrathful gestures, ‘neath the dome
Of the old wood he hastened towards his home,
Where day by day he grew more woeful-pale,
Calling on Heaven unheard to ease his bale.
Among his kinfolk, many in hot haste,
To salve an unknown wound with balms misplaced,
Came the Squire’s brother, Curio,—a wise scribe,
Modest withal, and nobler than his tribe;
With heart as loving as his brain was wise:
He could not see with cold, indifferent eyes
Aurelian pass to madness or the grave,
While care and wit of man perchance might save;
So, pondering o’er what seemed a desperate case,
At length there leapt into his kindling face
The flush of a bright thought. "By Heaven!" cried he,
"O brother, there may still be hope for thee;
Therefore, take heart of grace, for what I tell
Doubtless preludes a health-inspiring spell;
And thou, released from this long, sorrowful blight,
Shalt feel the stir of joy, and bless the morning light.
"Ten years—ten centuries sometimes they would seem—
Passed idly o’er me like a mystic’s dream;
Ten years agone, when these dull locks of mine
Flowed round broad shoulders with a perfumed shine,
And life’s clear glass o’erbrimmed with purpling wine,
I met in Orleans a shrewd clerk-at-law,
One all his comrades loved, yet viewed with awe,
To whom the deepest lore of antique ages,
The storèd secrets of old seers and sages
In Greece, or Ind, or Araby, lay bare:
From out the vacant kingdoms of the air,
He could at will call forth an hundred forms,
Hideous or lovely: the wild wrath of storms;
The zephyr’s sweetness; bird, beast, wave, obeyed
The luminous signs his slender wand conveyed,
At whose weird touch men sick in flesh or brain
Became their old, bright, hopeful selves again.
Aurelian, rise! shake off this vile disease,
And ride with me to Orleans; an’ it please
God and our Lady, we may chance to meet
Mine ancient comrade, who with deftest feat
Of magic skill may cut the Gordian knot
That long hath bound, and darkly binds thy lot."
"But," said Aurelian, with a listless turn
Of his drooped head, and wandering eyes that burn
With a quick feverish brilliance, "dost thou speak
Of thine own knowledge, when thou bid’st me seek
This rare magician? Hast thou looked on aught
Of all the mighty marvels he hath wrought?"
"Yea! I bethink me how, one summer’s day,
He led me through the city gates, away
To the dark hollows ‘neath a lonely hill:
So hushed the noontide, and so breathless-still
The drowsy air, the voice of one far stream
Came like thin whispers murmuring in a dream;
The blithesome grasshopper, his sense half closed
To all his verdurous luxury, reposed
Pendent upon the quivering, spearlike grain;
Steeped in the mellow sunshine’s noiseless rain,
All Nature slept; alone the matron wren,
From the thick coverts of her thorny den,
Teased the hot silence with her twittering low:
My inmost soul accordant, seemed to grow
Languid and dumb within that mystic place.
At length the Wizard’s hand across my face
Was waved with gentle motion; a vague mist
Flickered before me, on a sudden kissed
To warmth and glory by an influence bright;
The strangest glamour hovered o’er my sight,
Wherethrough I saw, methought, a palace proud,
Crowned by a lightning-veinèd thunder-cloud,
Whose wreaths of vapory darkness gleamed with eyes
Of multitudinous shifting phantasies;
Its pinnacles like diamond spars outshone
The starry splendors of an Orient zone;
And, leading towards its lordly entrance, rose
Through slow gradations to its marbled close,
White terraces where golden sunflowers bloomed;
Above, a ponderous portal archway loomed,
High-columned, quaint, majestical: we passed
Within that palace, gorgeous, wild, and vast.
Ah, blessed saints! what wonders weirdly blent
Did smite me with a hushed astonishment!
A troop of monsters couchant lined our path,
Their tawny manes and eyes of fiery wrath
Erect and blazing; an unearthly roar
Of fury, shaking vaulted roof and floor,
Burst from each savage, inarticulate throat,
In sullen echoings lost through halls and courts remote.
"At the far end of glimmering colonnades
That gleamed gigantic through the dusky shades,
Two mighty doors swept backward noiselessly;
There heaved beyond us a vast laboring sea;
Not vacant, for a stately vessel bore
Swift down the threatening tides that flashed before,
Thronged with black-bearded Titans, such as moved
In far-off times heroic, well-beloved
Of the old gods; there at his stalwart ease,
Shouldering his knotted club, great Hercules
Towered, his fierce eyes touched to dewy light,
And rapt on Hylas, who, serenely bright,
With intense gaze uplifted, tranced and mute,
Heard, in ecstatic reverie, the lute
Of Orpheus plaining to the waves that bow
And dance subsiding round the blazoned prow;
Till the rude winds blew meekly, and caressed
The mimic golden fleeces o’er the crest
Of bard and warrior, on their secret quest
Bound to the groves of Colchis; and the bark,
Round which had frowned a threatening shade and dark,
Now seemed to thrill, like some proud sentient thing
That glories in the prowess of its wing.
The gusty billows of that turbulent sea
Their wild crests smoothed, and slowly, pantingly,
Sunk to the quiet of a charmèd calm;
What odors Hesperéan, what rich balm
Freight the fair zephyrs, as they shyly run
O’er the lulled waters dimpling in the sun!
And murmurings, hark! soft as the long-drawn kiss
Pressed by a young god-lover in his bliss
On lips immortal, when the world was new;
And, lo! across the pure, pellucid blue,
A barge, with silken sails, whose beauteous crew,
Winged Fays and Cupids, curl their sportive arms
O’er one, more lovely in her noontide charms
Than youngest nymphs of Paphos; fragrant showers
Of freshening roses, all luxuriant flowers
That feed on Eastern dews, their fairy bands
Scatter about her from white liberal hands;
While o’er the surface of the dazzling water,
Dark-eyed, mysterious, many an ocean daughter
Flashes a vanishing brightness on her way,
Half seen through tiny twinklings of the spray;
And music its full heart in airy falls
Outpours, like silvery cascades down the walls
Of haunted rocks, and golden cymbals ring,
And lutelike measures on voluptuous wing
Rise gently to the trancèd heavens, replying
From azure-tinted deeps in a low passionate sighing.
"Then were all climes, all ages, wildly blended
On blood-red fields, wherefrom shrill shouts ascended,
Of naked warriors, huge and swart of limb,
Mixed with the mailèd Grecians’ ominous hymn,
Where mighty banners starlike waved and shone
‘Mid cloven bucklers grandly; and anon
Marched the stern Roman phalanx, with a ring
And clash of spears, and lusty trumpeting,
And steeds that neighed defiance unto death,
And all war’s dreadful pomp and hot devouring breath.
Last, on a sudden, the whole tumult died,
The vision disappeared; pale, leaden-eyed,
Bewildered, on the enchanted floor I sank;
When next my wakening spirit faintly drank
Life’s consciousness, within my lonely room
I sat, and round me drooped the dreary twilight gloom."
"Enough, good brother! By the Holy Rood
Thy tale is medicínal! the black mood,
Which like a spiritual vulture seized and tore
My heart-strings, and imbued its beak in gore
Hot from the soul, beneath the golden spell
Of sovereign hope hath sought its native hell.
Then, ho! for Orleans!" At the word he sprung
Light to his feet; it seemed there scarcely hung
One trace of his long madness round him now,
So blithe his smile, so bright his kindling brow.
All day they rode till waning afternoon,
Through breezy copses, and the shadowy boon
Of mightier woods, when, as the latest glance
Of sunset, like a level burnished lance,
Smote their steel morions, sauntering near the town,
With thoughtful mien, robed in his scholar’s gown,
They met a keen-eyed man, ruddy and tall;
O’er his grave vest a beard of wavy fall
Flowed like a rushing streamlet, rippling down:
"Welcome!" he cried in mellow accents deep;
"The stars have warned me, and my visioned sleep
Foretold your mission, gentles. Curio, what!
Thine ancient, loving comrade quite forgot?
Spur thy dull memory, gossip!"
                                                        "By St. Paul!
The learned clerk, the gracious Artevall,
Or glamour’s in it," shouted Curio; "yet
Thou look’st as hale, as young, as firmly set
In face and form, as if for thee old Time
Had stopped his flight." A lofty glance, sublime
And swift as lightning, from the Magian’s eye
Darted some latent meaning grave and high.
He spake not, but the twain he gently led
Where grassy pathways and fair meads were spread,
Skirting the city walls, till near them stood,
Fronting the gloomy boskage of a wood,
The Wizard’s lonely home. I need not pause
To tell how magic and the occult laws
Of sciences long dead that sage’s lore
Did in the spectral, midnight hours explore.
Enough, that his strange spells a marvel wrought
Beyond the utmost reach of credulous thought.
At last he said, "Sir Squire, my task is o’er;
Go when thou wilt, and view the Breton shore,
And thou shalt see a wide unwrinkled strand,
Smooth as thy lovely lady’s delicate hand,
Washed by a sea o’er which the halcyon West
Broods like a happy heart whose dreams are dreams of rest."
Meanwhile, Arviragus, a year before
Returned in honor from the English shore,
Led with his faithful Iolene that life
Harmonious, justly balanced, free from strife,
Which crowns our hopes with a true-hearted wife.
Ne’er dreamed he, as she laid her happy head
Close to his heart, what cloud of shame and dread
Gloomed o’er his placid roof-tree; but content
To think how nobly his late toils had spent
Their force beneath Death’s gory-dripping brow
Through shocks of battle, a fresh laurel bough
Plucking therefrom, to flourish green and high
About his war-worn temples’ majesty,
Gladly from bloodshed, conflicts, and alarms
He rested in those white, encircling arms,
And oft his strong heart thrilled, his eyes grew dim,
To know, kind Heaven! how deep her love for him.
Thus month on month the cheerful days went by,
Like caroling birds across an April sky,
A fairy sky, undimmed by clouds or showers.
But on a morning, while her favorite flowers
Iolene tended, in the garden-walks
Pausing to clip dead leaves, and prop the stalks
Of drooping plants, herself more sweet and fair
Than any flower, the brightest that blushed there,
Her lord stole gently on her unaware;
His haughty grace all softened, he bowed down
To kiss the stray curls of her locks of brown,
Thick-sown with threads of tangled, glimmering gold:
"At need," he said, "thou canst be calm and bold;
Therefore, thou wilt not yield to foolish woe
If duty parts us briefly. Wife, I go
To scourge some banded ruffians who of late
Assailed our peaceful serfs, and our estate—
Thou knowest it well—northwest of Penmark town,
Ravished with sword and fire. Thy lord’s renown,
Yea, and thy lord, were soon the scoff of all,
If in his own fair fief such crimes befall
Unscourged of justice; so, dear love, adieu!
Nor fear the end of that I have to do."
Thus spake the knight, who forthwith raised a shout,
And bade them bring his stalwart war-horse out;
When, on the sudden, a steed, tall, jet-black,
Led by a groom, came whinnying down the track,
‘Twixt the green myrtle hedges; at a bound
He vaulted in the selle; smilingly round
He turned to wave "farewell" with mailèd hand,
And then rode blithely down the sunlit land.
That evening, at the close of vesper-prayer,
Wandering along through the still twilight air,
Iolene, somewhat sad and sick in mind,
Met in her homeward pathway, low-reclined
Beneath the blasted branches of an oak,
Aurelian, her wild lover of old days:
She started backward in a wan amaze.
But he, uprising calmly, bowed and spoke:
"Ha! thou recall’st me, lady? I had deemed
These bitter years which have so scarred and seamed
Whate’er of grace I owned in youthful prime,
Had razed me from thy memory. See! a rime
Like that of age hath touched my locks to white;
Yet never once,—so help me Heaven!—by night
Or day, in storm or brightness, hath my soul
Veered but a point from thee, its starry goal.
A mighty purpose doth itself fulfill,
Wise men have said. Lady! I love thee still,
And Love works marvels. Prithee come with me,
Ay, quickly come, and thou thyself shalt see
I am no falsehood-monger. Yea, come, come!"
His words, his sudden passion, smote her dumb,
And from her cheeks, those delicate gardens, wane
The rare twin roses, as when autumn rain,
Fatally sharp, sweeps o’er some doomed domain
Of matron blooms, and their rich colors fade
Like rainbows slowly dying, shade by shade,
Unto wan spectres of the flowers that were.
With languid head and thoughts of prescient fear,
Passively following where Aurelian guides,
She hears anon the surge and rush of tides
On the seashore, and feels the freshening spray
Bedew her brow. "Lady, look forth, and say
If to a love unquenched, unquenchable,
Eternal Nature yields not; its strong spell
Hath toiled for me, till the rocks rooted under
Those heaving waters have been rent asunder,
And the wide spaces of the ocean plain,
Down to the farthest bounds of wild Bretaigne,
Rise calmly glorious in the day-god’s beam.
Look, look thy fill! it is no vanishing dream:
Lo! now I claim thy promise!”
                                                     A keen gleam
Shot its victorious radiance o’er his brow.
But she, bewildered, tremulous, shrinking low,
Her clinched hands pale even to the finger-tips,
Pressed on her blinded eyes and faltering lips,
Sued in a voice like wailing wind that breaks
From aspen coverts over lonely lakes,
In the shut heart of immemorial dells,—
A fitful, sobbing voice, whose anguish swells,
Burdened with deep upyearning supplication,
Coldly across his evil exultation.
She pleads for brief delay, with frenzied pain
Grasping at some dim phantom of the brain,
Shadowing a vague deliverance. "As thou wilt,"
He answered, slowly. "Well I know the guilt
Of broken vows can never rest on thee!
Pass by unhurt!" Mutely she turned to flee,
Nor paused until her chambered privacy
She reached with panting sides, pallid as death,
And gasping with short, anguished sobs for breath.
"Caught am I, trapped like a poor fluttering bird,
Or dappled youngling from the innocent herd
Lured to a pitfall! Yet such oath as this
Were surely void? If not, he still shall miss—
Whate’er betide—his long-expected bliss!
Better pure-folded arms, and stainless sleep
Where the gray-drooping willow-branches weep,
Than meet a fate so hideous! Let me think!
Others,—pure wives, brave virgins, on the brink
Of shame and ruin, have struck home and fled,
To find unending quiet with the dead."
Borne down as by a demon’s hand which pressed
Invisible, but stifling, on her breast,
With brain benumbed, yet burning, and a sense
Of utter, wearied, desperate impotence,—
Her forlorn glance around the darkening room
Roving in helpless search, from out the gloom
Caught the blue glitter of a half-sheathed blade,
A small but trenchant steel, whose lustre played
Balefully bright, and like a serpent’s eye
Fixed on her with malign expectancy,
Drew her perforce towards Death,—that death which seemed
The sole, stern means through which her fame, redeemed,
Should soar in spiritual beauty o’er the tomb
Wherein might rest her body’s mouldering bloom.
Ah, me! the looks distraught, the passionate care,
The whole wild scene, its misery and despair,
Come back like scenes of yesterday. Half bowed
Her queenly form, and the pent grief allowed
A moment’s freedom, shakes her to the core,
The inmost seat of reason. "All is o’er,"
She murmurs, as her slender fingers feel
The deadly edge of the cold shimmering steel.
At once her swift arm flashes to its height,
While the poised death hangs quivering, and her sight
Grows dazed and giddy: when from far, so far
It sounded like the weird voice of a star,
Muffled by distance, yet distinct and deep,
About her in the terrible silence creep
Accents that seize as with a bodily force
On her white arm suspended, and its course
To fatal issues, with arresting will
Hold rigid, till supine it drops and still,
Back to its drooping level, and a clang
Of the freed steel through all the chamber rang
Sharply, and something shuddered down the air
Like wings of baffled fiends passing in fierce despair.
A warning blent of prescient wrath and prayer
Those accents seemed, wherethrough a palpable dread
Ran coldly shivering. "Pause, pause, pause!” they said;
"Bar not thy hopes ‘gainst chance of happier fate!
The circuit vast which rounds life’s dial-plate
Hath many lights and shades; its hand which lowers
So threatening now, may move to golden hours,
And thou on this sad time may’st look like one
Smiling on mortal woes from some unsetting sun."
Motionless, overcome by hushing awe,
She heard the mystic voice, and dreamed she saw,
Just o’er the dubious borders of the light,
A wavering apparition, scarce more bright
Than one faint moon-ray, through the misty tears
Of clouded evenings seen on breezeless mountain meres.
Mistlike it waned; but in her heart of hearts
The solemn counsel sank: with guilty starts,
She thought how near, through Grief’s bewildering blight,
How near to death, to death and shame, this night
Her reckless soul had strayed. Yet short-lived hope
Moved hour by hour through paths of narrowing scope,
As, day by day, her term of grace passed by,
Like phantom birds across a phantom sky:
Her lord still absent, and Aurelian bound
(For thus he wrote her) to one weary round,
Morn after morn, of pacings to and fro,
Within the wooded garden-walks below
The city’s southward portals. "There," said he,
"Each day, and all day long, impatiently
I wait thy will."
                         As when in dewy spring,
‘Mid the moist herbage closely nestling,
Ofttimes we see the hunted partridge cling,
Panting and scared, to the thick-covering grass,
The while above her couch doth darkly pass
What seemeth the shadow of a giant wing,
And she, more lowly, with a cowering stoop,
Shivers, expecting the fell, fiery swoop
Of the gaunt hawk, that corsair of the breeze,
And feels beforehand his sharp talons seize
And rend her tender vitals; so at home,
Iolene, trembling at the stroke to come,
Touched by the lurid shadow of her doom,
Lingered; until, upon a sunny dawn,
Her lord returning, gayly up the lawn
Urged his blithe courser, and, dismounting, came
Upon her, warmly glowing, all aflame
With hope and love. But as her dreary eyes
Were turned on his, a quick, disturbed surprise,
And then a terror, smote him, and the voice
All jubilant, full-breathed to say, "Rejoice,
Our foes are slain!" clave stammering in his throat.
But she, her loose, disheveled locks afloat
Round the fair-sloping shoulders, her hands clasped
About his mailèd knees, brokenly gasped
Her anguish forth, and told her sorrowful tale.
Dizzy and mute, and as the marble pale
Whereon he leaned, unto the desperate close
The knight heard all, locked in a cold repose
More dread than stormiest passion; life and strength
Seemed slowly ebbing from him, till at length
His soul, like one that walks the fatal sand
(Whose treacherous smoothness looks a solid strand,
But tempts to ruin), felt all earth grow dim,
And round him saw, as in a chaos, swim
Joy’s fair horizon melting in the cloud.
But soon his stalwart will, rugged and proud,
Woke lionlike to action; a swift flush
Rushed like a sunset river’s reddening glow
O’er the tempestuous blackness of his brow,
Pregnant with thunder; through the dismal hush,
His pitiless voice, sharp-echoing round about
The clanging court, leaped like a falchion out.
"Thou hast played with honor as a juggler’s ball;
God strikes thee from thy balance, and the thrall
Art thou, henceforth, of one vainglorious deed.
What! shall we plant with rash caprice the seed
Of bitterness, nor look for some harsh fruit
To spring untimely from its poisonous root?
What! a lewd spark, a perfumed popinjay,
Dares in the broad-browed honest gaze of day,
To dash a foul thought, like the hideous spray
Of Hell, right in thy forehead,—and thy hand,
Which should have towered as if the levin-brand
Of scorn and judgment armed it, but a bland
Dismissal signs him! not one hint which tells
Thy lord, meantime, what loathsome secret dwells
Here, by his hearthstone, muffled up, concealed,
And like a corse corrupting, till, revealed
By vengeful doom, its pestilent odor steals
Outward, while all the wholesome blood congeals
To a chill horror, and the air grows vile,
And even the blessed sun a death’s-head smile
Assumes in our distempered fantasy?
By Heaven! this withering curse which hangs o’er thee,
O Iolene!"—but here his angry voice
Broke short,—"There is no choice," he moaned, "no choice.
Yea, wife! may Christ adjudge me if I lie,
To endless, as now keen calamity,
But through this troublous gloom my mind discerns
One lonely light to guide us; lo, it burns
Lurid, yet clear, by whose fierce flame I see—
Ah, grief malign! ah, bitter destiny!—
As if God’s own right hand the blazing pain
And fiery bale did stamp on soul and brain,
These terms of doom:
                                        Shame and despair for both,
Sorrow and heartbreak! Through all, keep thine oath,
Thou woman, self-involved, self-lost; and so
Face the black front of this tremendous woe!”
She bowed as if a blast of sudden wind,
Breathing full winter, smote her cold and blind;
Then as one wandering in a soul-eclipse,
Feebly she rose, and with her quivering lips
Kissed her pale lord, stifling one desolate cry.
Anon she moved around him noiselessly,
Bent on the small, sweet offices of love;
And sometimes pausing, she would glance above
With tearless eyes, for solemn griefs like this,
Blighting at once both root and flowers of bliss,
Are arid as the desert, and in vain
Thirst for the cooling freshness of the rain.
Fitfully led from treasured nook to nook
Of her dear home, she walked with far-off look,
And absent fingers, plying household tasks;
Bravely her sunless wretchedness she masks
Through moments deemed unending while they passed -
When passed, a flickering point! Hark! The doomed hour at last!
*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *          *          *
An afternoon it was, stirless and calm;
From field and garden-close rare breaths of balm
Made the air moist and odorous. Nature lay
Divinely peaceful; only far away
In the broad zenith, a strange cloud unfurled
Its boding banner weirdly o’er the world;
Whilst Iolene, her veiled head sadly bowed,
Passed through the gay thorpe and its motley crowd,
To where a great wall towered this side a wood.
All things her mazed, chaotic fancy viewed
Looked dreamlike; even Aurelian lingering there,
To meet her in the shadiest forest-lair,
Gleamed ghostly dim, a dreadful ghost in sooth,—
For still a hideous trance appeared to press
Upon her, and a nightmare helplessness,—
To whom she knelt in sad mechanic guise,
Pleading for mercy with such piteous eyes,
And such soft flow of self-bewailing ruth,
Aurelian felt his passion’s quivering chords
Stilled at the touch of those pathetic words,
That glance of wild, appealing agonies.
Stirred by his nobler nature’s grave command
(That fair, indwelling angel sweet and grand,
Born to transmute the worn and blasted soil
Of sinful hearts by his celestial toil
To Eden places and the haunts of God),
He stooped, and, courteous, raised her from the sod,
And whispered closely in her eager ear
Words which his guardian genius smiled to hear;
Words of release, and balmy-breathing cheer.
And while his softening gaze a grateful mist
Feelingly dimmed, with knightly grace he kissed
Her drooping forehead, and loose tresses thrown
In rippling waves adown the heaving zone;
Once, twice, he kissed her thus, with reverence meek;
But when her brimming eyes uplifted, seek
Aurelian now, with eloquent looks to tell
What tenderest words could not convey so well,
She only sees the tree-stems tall and brown,
The golden leaves come faintly fluttering down,
And only hears the wind of sunset moan:
Midmost the twilight wood the lady stands alone.
Stung by his misery into frenzied motion,
Her lord meantime beside the restless ocean
Roamed, hearkening to the mournful undertone
Of the sea’s mighty heart, which touched his own,
O God, how sadly! when abruptly lifting
His furrowed brow long fixed upon the shifting
And mimic whirlwinds of loose sand that flew
Hither and thither, as the brief winds blew
At fitful whiles from o’er the watery waste,
He saw, as if she spurned the earth in haste,
His gentle wife returning, with a face
Whereon there dwelt no shadow of disgrace;
A face that seemed transfigured in the light
Of Paradise, it shone so softly bright.
Beautiful ever, round her now there hovered
A subtle, new-born glory, which discovered
A shape so dazzling, you had thought the plume
Of some archangel’s pinion cast its bloom
About her, and the veil of heaven withdrawn,
She viewed the mystic streams, the sapphire dawn,
And heard the choirs celestial, tier on tier
Uptowering to the uttermost golden sphere,
Sing of a vanquished dread, a blest release,
The effluence and the solemn charm of peace.
Evening closed round them; o’er the placid reach
Stretching far northward of the sea-girt beach,
They passed, while night’s first planet in the sky
Faltered from out the stillness timidly,
And perfumed breezes rustled murmuring by,
‘Twixt the grim headlands up the glens to die,
And white-winged sea-birds, with a long-drawn cry
Which spake of homeward flight and billowy nest,
Glanced through the sunset down the wavering West.
Evening closed o’er them, mellowing into dark;
Along the horizon’s edge, a tiny spark,
Dull-red at first, but broadening to a white
And tranquil orb of silvery-streaming light,
Slowly the Night Queen fair her heaven ascends:
The outlines of those loving forms she blends
Into one luminous shade, which seems to float,
Mingle and melt in shining mists remote;
Type of two perfect lives whose single soul
Outbreathes a cordial music, sweet and whole,
One will, one mind, one joy-encircled fate,
And one winged faith that soars beyond the heavenly gate.
My song which now hath long flowed unperplexed
Through scenes so various, calm as heaven, or vexed
By gusty passion, reaches the lone shore,
Ghostlike and strange, of silence and old dreams;
Far-off its weird and wandering whisper seems
Like airs that faint o’er untracked oceans hoar
On haunted midnights, when the moon is low.
And now ‘tis ended: long, yea, long ago,
Lost on the wings of all the winds that blow,
The dust of these dead loves hath passed away;
Still, still, methinks, a soft ethereal ray
Illumes the tender record, and makes bright
Its heart-deep pathos with a marvelous light,
So that whate’er of frenzied grief and pain
Marred the pure currents of the crystal strain,
Transfigured shines through fancy’s mellowing trance,
Touching with golden haze the quaint old-world romance.
     NOTE.—Of "The Frankleines Tale," the plot of which has been followed in "The Wife of Brittany," Richard Henry Horne, the author of "Orion," says: "It is a noble story, perfect in its moral purpose, and chivalrous self-devotion to a feeling of truth and honor; but it would have been more satisfactory in an intellectual sense had a distinction been made between a sincere pledge of faith and a ‘merry bond’!"
     This may at first seem incontrovertible, but we should remember that Chaucer, who, without pretension, and through the medium of his humor, satire, and pathos, was the great moralist and preacher of his time, desired in "The Frankleines Tale" to show the danger of too lightly treating, from whatever motive, such solemn obligations as those connected with a wife’s chastity and honor.
     Moreover, in the mediæval age, a superstitious sanctity was often made to attach to one’s word, no matter how unthinkingly it may have been given; nay, it was maintained by certain strict formalists, that even an extorted oath was, under some conditions, binding! It will, therefore, be perceived, that in allowing so much importance to a "merry bond," and associating with it such grave trials, the poet was true both to the time depicted and to human nature, as influenced by morbid and conventional ideas of duty.