written by John Masefield
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LONG since, Sir Constans governed here for Rome,
Then northern pirates beat him from his home;
King Cwichelm was the captain of the horde:
He made Sir Constans fly
Into the western wastes, a broken lord.
Cwichelm succeeded to his monarchy;
His wasps made merry in the honeycomb;
He made this Britain England with the sword.
Yet, being valiant, Constans often tried
To oust King Cwichelm from the country-side,
By night-alarms and raids against his power:
All failed, King Cwichelm throve . . .
Driving him back until he had to cower
Within his moated manor in a grove
Of old dark elms, abated of his pride,
And Cwichelm's star rose higher, hour by hour.
Save that, although he was a conquering King,
He was forever troubled by this thing,
That still he had no heir who should succeed
To what his hands had won.
In all his glory, this was grief indeed,
To win a Kingdom yet to have no son,
To rule the Kingdom after him and bring
Constans to death and make the rebels bleed.
Yet still, though sonless, he had won a crown,
He and his pirates, dwellers in no town,
Sea-harriers, who harried half the year,
Had made a Kingdom his . . .
Ploughland whose corn had eighty grains an ear,
Sweet-fruited orchards growing all that is,
Green valley-grasses rich, sheep-pasturing down,
"A son," he thought, "would make me without peer."
After long years his barren wife conceived,
And he, in hope that all might be retrieved,
Yet harassed by the doubt that she might die,
Rode out, with horse and hound,
And viewed a stag away and went full cry
West over fell beyond his Kingdom's bound,
Till in the savage forest, sombre-leaved,
He found himself alone, with no friend by.
He was alone and lost in the wild woods,
Past cry of hound or horn, in solitudes
Where Constans' rebels rested from their raids,
His horse too blown to stir.
Mist that was drizzle blotted out the glades,
The darkness moaned like tempest among fir,
Then the south-easter gathered all her broods
Of rainstreaks driven and chill that cut like blades.
Leaving his horse, King Cwichelm trod the mire
Backed to the storm which seemed never to tire
But roared in tumult, stabbing as it went.
The rain flung from the trees
Followed like steps of men with fell intent.
King Cwichelm struggled on in little ease
Till in the dark he spied a light or fire
Gleam in a streak as from a shutter's rent.
And thrusting thither through the wood, he found
A manor without guard or spear or hound,
A black house among elms that the storm smote.
King Cwichelm knocked until
A man unbarred the door and peered to note
What midnight stranger stood upon the sill.
"Cwichelm," he said, "forwandered and half drowned.
Enter. O King, I shall not cut your throat,
Though I am Constans, whom you dispossest.
Come in to supper and to bed and rest,
Take them yourself, I cannot help you, I,
For even now upstairs
My wife is giving birth and like to die."
Thus saying, Constans turned him to his cares
And Cwichelm entered as his foeman's guest,
And ate and drank and warmed him and was dry;
Then, being weary, turned him to his bed,
But slept uneasily, for in his head
Voices of angels clamoured "Take, take, take . . .
A man must take or give . . .
Kill Constans' baby for your Kingdom's sake,
For he will have your Kingdom if he live."
Then others cried "O Cwichelm, give him bread,
"Give . . . give your crown." Then Cwichelm was awake.
But starting up, he found it only a dream.
The storm in its hurry made the chimneys scream,
The tossing elm-boughs hissed like sea on shingle;
He lapsed and slept again.
Then trumpets blowing made his spirit tingle,
A clear voice cried "Unless the child be slain,
Constans will beat you, he will be supreme.
Unless you kill the boy, your bloods will mingle."
Rousing at this, he started, but once more
Found it a dream, though clearer than before,
And once again he turned him to his sleep;
And in his dream a form
Whirled to him with bright fire-wings asweep,
And spoke above the tumult of the storm,
"Give, give, King Cwichelm, give the babe good store,
Give even your heart's blood, if you wish to keep."
And starting up, lo, Constans at his side
Crying "Alas, alas, my wife has died
During this dawn, in bearing of a son;
And now I have no mate.
But rise, King Cwichelm, for the storm is done,
My men have come with horses to the gate,
Eat and begone, my ranger will be guide,
Go to your happy home, from him with none."
Then Cwichelm, trembling from his visions still,
Bade Constans bow to what was Heaven's will;
But added, "In return for all you gave
Most nobly in my need,
Grant me this privilege, that I may have
Your new-born son, to rear like my own seed."
"Take him," said Constans, "for I saw him kill
My darling wife, for whom they dig the grave."
Then with a shaking voice he bade the nurse
Give up the child whose coming brought such curse;
And she, poor woman, loath to see him sent
Into the winter cold,
Took Constans' gold-embroidered cloak, and rent
Half of its blue away, and warmly rolled
The babe therein, small penny in much purse;
Poor penny hardly won to be so spent.
So Cwichelm took the child, Sir Constans' heir;
And Constans, bowed by sorrows to despair,
Buried his wife and rode into the west.
Meanwhile as Cwichelm rode
Bearing the tender infant from its nest,
He met his men with news from his abode;
His Queen had borne a little girl most fair,
During the gale, while he was Constans' guest.
Among the men was Hrut, his marshal grim;
King Cwichelm went aside and spoke with him
And bade him take the child into the wood,
To some dark thicket deep;
"Kill it and give it to the wolves for food,
This brat that Constans offered me to keep.
Go, hack the little bastard limb from limb."
"Right," said the marshal, "I will kill him. Good."
Yet being within the yew-grove with his prey,
Having his knife bare with intent to slay,
The baby smiled and put him from his deed:
He laid him down in fear.
"Lie there," he said, "God help you in your need.
May the wolf suckle you or the she-deer."
Then mounting horse he galloped fast away
And told the King, "I have ended Constans' breed."
Thereafter Cwichelm prospered, yet no son
Was born to follow when his rule was done,
But still his daughter grew like beauty's rose.
And sometimes Cwichelm mused:
"That night at Constans' house, what forms were those
That trumpeted and ordered and accused?
Dreams of the night, not real beings, none."
And Time moved by, that harvests men and sows.
Then Constans, being old, asked leave to come
To end his life beside his ancient home,
And Cwichelm, seeing him friendless, gave him place
As steward in his court.
There where he once had governed, he was base,
An old sea-battered ship come home to port;
A shadow by the fire with fingers numb
And the beauty that defeat gives in his face.
It fell that Cwichelm rode his northern leet
To watch his stallion running in a heat;
And in the finish, at the post, a lad
Riding a chestnut mare
Came like a thunderbolt with all he had
And beat the stallion by a short head, bare;
A boy like Constans, like as grains of wheat.
King Cwichelm eyed him strangely and was sad.
Then, questioning about him, he was told
That this same boy, now twenty winters old,
Was found, when newly-born, beneath a yew
Where Constans' son was laid,
Wrapt in a strip of gold-embroidered blue
Like that with which great nobles were arrayed.
"He is Constans' lamb, crept back into the fold,"
Thought Cwichelm. "Hrut has lied; he never slew.
Hrut lied and spared him: natheless I shall kill."
He called the lad and praised his riding skill
And offered him employ, to come and go
With messages of state
From court to country, riding to and fro.
This the lad gladly took. Then fear and hate
Wrought upon Cwichelm, till he bent his will
To strike that gallant lad and lay him low.
So, writing straightway to Earl Hrut, he said:
"You have both broken oath and disobeyed.
You did not kill the baby as you swore.
Being grown to man, he bears
This letter to you, bidding you, once more,
At your head's peril, kill him unawares,
Kill him at once." The boy no longer stayed,
But took the script, not knowing what it bore.
Gladly he galloped through the forest pass,
His horse's hurry kicking up the grass,
Till sunset came and all the trees stood still
Black against scarlet sky.
A planet shone: the wood began to thrill
With footsteps and with terror and with cry;
Then midnight tolled another day that was:
He beat the gate at Cwichelm's threshold sill.
It was Sir Constans' self who turned the key.
"Earl Hrut, the marshal, is abed," said he;
"See him to-morrow; come within to rest."
He led him to the fire
And brought him food and wine and watched his guest,
This lad most worthy of a Queen's desire.
"He is like my wife in face," he thought. "Let be . . .
No thought of one so beautiful is best."
"What are you, lad?" he asked. "A foundling, I.
Found in the western forest, like to die,
A new-born babe, wrapt in a strip of blue.
No more of me is known,
Save that the cloth, gold-broidered, bore a clue :--
The snakes King Constans bore upon his throne."
Then Constans thought, "The living God on high
Has given me back the child she never knew."
And in his heart the misery smote him sore
That he had given the little son she bore
There in such pain, at such a price, to one
Who left him in the hour
To die i' the forest where the wild wolves run.
He hurried to his coffer in the tower;
There lay the strip of blue the midwife tore.
"Such is the cloth that wrapt me," said his son.
Then Constans, deeply moved, withdrew to weep;
The lad curled up upon the bench to sleep
Beside the fire within King Cwichelm's hail;
Hour by hour passt:
Then Constans thought "What weighty matters fall
That Cwichelm sends this messenger so fast?"
The midnight held the castle buried deep,
The lad slept on his bench like dean in stall.
And gazing at the lad, he saw the script
Sealed by King Cwichelm, from the wallet slipt
On to the hearth whose embers eased the seal.
So Constans took and read.
"O dog, deserving death without appeal,"
He cried, on reading, "Curses on your head!
But those who trip the helpless shall be trippt;
God gives a moment for myself to deal."
Then, giving thanks that he might thwart the plan,
He forged a letter thus: "Most trusted man,
As you expect my favour, I, the King,
Command that, instantly,
You marry the young princeling that shall bring
This, to my daughter, never asking why.
This on your peril:" thus the letter ran.
"Fly, wasp," said he, "for I have drawn the sting."
What more? The lad delivered the forged screed;
The earl believed it to be Cwichelm's deed,
He caused the lad to marry the princess;
That hour it was done.
When Cwichelm came, he found his wickedness
Had linkt his daughter to his foeman's son.
"Men plot and try," he said, "but God gives heed,
And what God brings to be must surely bless."
|Works by this author are in the public domain in countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 51 years or less.|