My grandfather says he remembers he saw, when a youngster long ago,
On a bright May day, a strange old man, with a beard as white as snow,
Stand on the hill outside our town like a monument of woe,
And, striking his bare bald head the while, sob out the reason—so!
If I last as long as Methuselah I shall never forgive myself:
But—God forgive me, that I pray, unhappy Martin Relph,
As coward, coward I call him—him, yes, him! Away from me!
Get you behind the man I am now, you man that I used to be!
What can have sewed my mouth up, set me a-stare, all eyes, no tongue?
People have urged, "You visit a scare too hard on a lad so young!
You were taken aback, poor boy," they urge, "no time to regain your wits:
Besides it had maybe cost you life." Ay, there is the cap which fits!
So, cap me, the coward,—thus! No fear! A cuff on the brow does good:
The feel of it hinders a worm inside which bores at the brain for food.
See now, there certainly seems excuse: for a moment, I trust, dear friends,
The fault was but folly, no fault of mine, or if mine, I have made amends!
For, every day that is first of May, on the hill-top, here stand I,
Martin Relph, and I strike my brow, and publish the reason why,
When there gathers a crowd to mock the fool. No fool, friends, since the bite
Of a worm inside is worse to bear: pray God I have baulked him quite!
I'll tell you. Certainly much excuse! It came of the way they cooped
Us peasantry up in a ring just here, close huddling because tight-hooped
By the red-coats round us villagers all: they meant we should see the sight
And take the example,—see, not speak, for speech was the Captain's right.
"You clowns on the slope, beware!" cried he: "This woman about to die
Gives by her fate fair warning to such acquaintance as play the spy.
Henceforth who meddle with matters of state above them perhaps will learn
That peasants should stick to their plough-tail, leave to the King the King's concern.
"Here's a quarrel that sets the land on fire, between King George and his foes:
What call has a man of your kind—much less, a woman—to interpose?
Yet you needs must be meddling, folks like you, not foes—so much the worse!
The many and loyal should keep themselves unmixed with the few perverse.
"Is the counsel hard to follow? I gave it you plainly a month ago,
And where was the good? The rebels have learned just all that they need to know.
Not a month since in we quietly marched: a week, and they had the news,
From a list complete of our rank and file to a note of our caps and shoes.
"All about all we did, and all we were doing and like to do!
Only, I catch a letter by luck, and capture who wrote it, too.
Some of you men look black enough, but the milk-white face demure
Betokens the finger foul with ink: 't is a woman who writes, be sure!
"Is it 'Dearie, how much I miss your mouth!'—good natural stuff, she pens?
Some sprinkle of that, for a blind, of course: with talk about cocks and hens,
How 'robin has built on the apple-tree, and our creeper which came to grief
Through the frost, we feared, is twining afresh round casement in famous leaf.'
"But all for a blind! She soon glides frank into 'Horrid the place is grown
With Officers here and Privates there, no nook we may call our own:
And Farmer Giles has a tribe to house, and lodging will be to seek
For the second Company sure to come ('t is whispered) on Monday week.'
"And so to the end of the chapter! There! The murder, you see, was out:
Easy to guess how the change of mind in the rebels was brought about!
Safe in the trap would they now lie snug, had treachery made no sign;
But treachery meets a just reward, no matter if fools malign!
"That traitors had played us false, was proved—sent news which fell so pat:
And the murder was out—this letter of love, the sender of this sent that!
'T is an ugly job, though, all the same—a hateful, to have to deal
With a case of the kind, when a woman's in fault: we soldiers need nerves of steel!
"So, I gave her a chance, dispatched post-haste a message to Vincent Parkes
Whom she wrote to; easy to find he was, since one of the King's own clerks,
Ay, kept by the King's own gold in the town close by where the rebels camp:
A sort of a lawyer, just the man to betray our sort—the scamp!
" 'If her writing is simple and honest and only the lover-like stuff it looks,
And if you yourself are a loyalist, nor down in the rebels' books,
Come quick,' said I, 'and in person prove you are each of you clear of crime,
Or martial law must take its course: this day next week's the time!'
"Next week is now: does he come? Not he! Clean gone, our clerk, in a trice!
He has left his sweetheart here in the lurch: no need of a warning twice!
His own neck free, but his partner's fast in the noose still, here she stands
To pay for her fault. 'T is an ugly job: but soldiers obey commands.
"And hearken wherefore I make a speech! Should any acquaintance share
The folly that led to the fault that is now to be punished, let fools beware!
Look black, if you please, but keep hands white: and, above all else, keep wives—
Or sweethearts or what they may be—from ink! Not a word now, on your lives!"
Black? but the Pit's own pitch was white to the Captain's face—the brute
With the bloated cheeks and the bulgy nose and the blood-shot eyes to suit!
He was muddled with wine, they say: more like, he was out of his wits with fear;
He had but a handful of men, that's true,—a riot might cost him dear.
And all that time stood Rosamund Page, with pinioned arms and face
Bandaged about, on the turf marked out for the party's firing-place.
I hope she was wholly with God: I hope 't was His angel stretched a hand
To steady her so, like the shape of stone you see in our church-aisle stand.
I hope there was no vain fancy pierced the bandage to vex her eyes,
No face within which she missed without, no questions and no replies—
"Why did you leave me to die?"—"Because . . ." Oh, fiends, too soon you grin
At merely a moment of hell, like that—such heaven as hell ended in!
Let mine end too! He gave the word, up went the guns in a line.
Those heaped on the hill were blind as dumb,—for, of all eyes, only mine
Looked over the heads of the foremost rank. Some fell on their knees in prayer,
Some sank to the earth, but all shut eyes, with a sole exception there.
That was myself, who had stolen up last, had sidled behind the group:
I am highest of all on the hill-top, there stand fixed while the others stoop
From head to foot in a serpent's twine am I tightened: I touch ground?
No more than a gibbet's rigid corpse which the fetters rust around!
Can I speak, can I breathe, can I burst—aught else but see, see, only see?
And see I do—for there comes in sight—a man, it sure must be!—
Who staggeringly, stumblingly, rises, falls, rises, at random flings his weight
On and on, anyhow onward—a man that's mad he arrives too late!
Else why does he wave a something white high-flourished above his head?
Why does not he call, cry,—curse the fool!—why throw up his arms instead?
O take this fist in your own face, fool! Why does not yourself shout "Stay!
Here's a man comes rushing, might and main, with something he's mad to say"?
And a minute, only a moment, to have hell-fire boil up in your brain,
And ere you can judge things right, choose heaven,—time's over, repentance vain!
They level: a volley, a smoke and the clearing of smoke: I see no more
Of the man smoke hid, nor his frantic arms, nor the something white he bore.
But stretched on the field, some half-mile off, is an object. Surely dumb,
Deaf, blind were we struck, that nobody heard, not one of us saw him come!
Has he fainted through fright? One may well believe! What is it he holds so fast?
Turn him over, examine the face! Heyday! What, Vincent Parkes at last?
Dead! dead as she, by the self-same shot: one bullet has ended both,
Her in the body and him in the soul. They laugh at our plighted troth.
"Till death us do part?" Till death us do join past parting—that sounds like
Betrothal indeed! O Vincent Parkes, what need has my fist to strike?
I helped you: thus were you dead and wed: one bound, and your soul reached hers!
There is clenched in your hand the thing, signed, sealed, the paper which plain avers
She is innocent, innocent, plain as print, with the King's Arms broad engraved:
No one can hear, but if anyone high on the hill can see, she's saved!
And torn his garb and bloody his lips with heart-break—plain it grew
How the week's delay had been brought about: each guess at the end proved true.
It was hard to get at the folks in power: such waste of time! and then
Such pleading and praying, with, all the while, his lamb in the lions' den!
And at length when he wrung their pardon out, no end to the stupid forms—
The license and leave: I make no doubt—what wonder if passion warms
The pulse in a man if you play with his heart?—he was something hasty in speech;
Anyhow, none would quicken the work: he had to beseech, beseech!
And the thing once signed, sealed, safe in his grasp,—what followed but fresh delays?
For the floods were out, he was forced to take such a roundabout of ways!
And 't was "Halt there!" at every turn of the road, since he had to cross the thick
Of the red-coats: what did they care for him and his "Quick, for God's sake, quick!"
Horse? but he had one: had it how long? till the first knave smirked "You brag
Yourself a friend of the King's? then lend to a King's friend here your nag!"
Money to buy another? Why, piece by piece they plundered him still,
With their "Wait you must,—no help: if aught can help you, a guinea will!"
And a borough there was—I forget the name—whose Mayor must have the bench
Of Justices ranged to clear a doubt: for "Vincent," thinks he, sounds French!
It well may have driven him daft, God knows! all man can certainly know
Is—rushing and fallir-r and rising, at last he arrived in a horror—so!
When a word, cry, gasp, would have rescued both! Ay, bite me! The worm begins
At his work once more. Had cowardice proved—that only—my sin of sins!
Friends, look you here! Suppose . . . suppose . . . But mad I am, needs must be!
Judas the Damned would never have dared such a sin as I dream! For, see!
Suppose I had sneakingly loved her myself, my wretched self, and dreamed
In the heart of me "She were better dead than happy and his!"—while gleamed
A light from hell as I spied the pair in a perfectest embrace,
He the saviour and she the saved,—bliss born of the very murder-place!
No! Say I was scared, friends! Call me fool and coward, but nothing worse!
Jeer at the fool and gibe at the coward! 'T was ever the coward's curse
That fear breeds fancies in such: such take their shadow for substance still,
—A fiend at their back. I liked poor Parkes,—loved Vincent, if you will!
And her why, I said "Good morrow" to her, "Good even," and nothing more:
The neighbourly way! She was just to me as fifty had been before.
So, coward it is and coward shall be! There's a friend, now! Thanks! A drink
Of water I wanted: and now I can walk, get home by myself, I think.