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This is the story of Black Earl Roderick, the story and the song of his pride and of his humbling; of the bitterness of his heart, and of the love that came to it at last; of his threatened destruction, and the strange and wonderful way of his salvation.
So shall I begin and tell.
He left his gray castle at the dawn of the morning, and with many a knight to bear him company rode, not eager and swift, like a prince who went to find a treasure, but steady and slow, as we should go to meet sorrow. Not one of the hundred men who followed dared to lilt a lay or fling a laughing jest from his mouth. All rode silent among their gay trappings, for so saith a song:
It was the Black Earl Roderick
Who rode towards the south;
The frown was heavy on his brow,
The sneer upon his mouth.
Behind him rode a hundred men
All gay with plume and spear;
But not a one did lilt a song
His weary way to cheer.
So stern was Black Earl Roderick
Upon his wedding-day,
To none he spake a single word
Who met him on his way.
And of those that passed him as he went there were none who dared to bid him God-speed, and only one whispered at all; she was Mora of the Knowledge, who was picking herbs in a lonely place and saw him ride.
"There goeth the hunter," said she; "'tis a white doe that thou wouldst kill. High hanging to thee, my lord, upon a windy day!"
And of all the flying things he met in his going, one only dared to put pain upon him, and she was a honeybee who stabbed his cheek with her sword.
"Would I could slay thee," she cried, "ere thou rob the hive of its honey!"
And of all the creeping things that passed him on his way, only one tried to stay him; she was the bramble who cast her thorn across his path so his steed wellnigh stumbled.
"Would I could make thee fall, Black Earl, who now art so high, ere thou rob fruit from the branch!"
Only one living thing upon the mountains saw him go without mourning, and he was the red weasel who took the world as he found it.
"Tears will not heal a wound," saith he, "but they will quench a fire. Thy hive is in danger, bee," quoth he. "Bramble, thy flowers are scattered and thy fruit lost."
But the Black Earl did not heed or hear anything outside his own thoughts. They were sharper than the bee's sword and less easy to cast aside than the entrapping bramble.
When he reached the castle wherein his bride did dwell, he blew three blasts upon the horn that hung beside the gate, and in answer to his call a voice cried out to him. But what it said I shall sing thee, lest thou grow weary of my prose:
"Come in, come in, Earl Roderick,
Come in or you be late;
The priest is ready in his stole.
The wedding guests await."
And then the stern Earl Roderick
From his fierce steed came down;
The sneer still curled upon his lip,
His eyes still held the frown.
He strode right haughtily and quick
Into the banquet-hall,
And stood among the wedding guests,
The greatest of them all.
He gave scant greeting to the throng,
He waved the guests aside:
"Now haste! for I, Earl Roderick,
Will wait long for no bride!
"And I must in the saddle be
Before the night is gray;
So quickly with the marriage lines,
And let us ride away."
And now shall I tell thee how, as he spoke thus proud and heartlessly, his little bride came into the hall? So white was she, and so trembled she, that many wondered she did not sink upon the marble floor and die.
Her mother held her snow-white hand, weeping bitterly the while.
"If I had my will," thought she, "this thing should never be. Oh, sharp sorrow," sobbed she, "this for a woman: my trouble thou art, and my thousand treasures."
Her father, seeing the frowning Earl, muttered in his beard:
"Would there were some other way. Stern is he and hard, to wear a young maid's heart." And then aloud he spoke, laying his hands upon the yellow curls of his child: "This is the golden link that binds the clans. God's sweet love be upon her head, for she hath healed a cruel and evil quarrel between the two houses. Lift up your voices, my comrades, and make ye merry; it is a good deed you have helped in to-day."
Now, when the guests turned with their laughter and gentle jesting to the newly married pair, the Black Earl relented not his frown. With scant courtesy and brief good-bye he mounted upon his fretting steed, vowing he could no longer stay. Up before him they lifted the young bride.
"'Tis a rough place to carry the child," wept the sad mother.
But her father smiled upon the Black Earl.
"Where but upon his heart should she rest? Is that not so, my son?"
"If it be not cold," muttered the sullen bridegroom, drawing his rein.
"Wrap thy cloak about her," cried the father, waving farewell.
"Wrap thy love about her," wept the mother, hiding her face.
So rode the Black Earl and his bride, followed by his sullen men-at-arms, gay with their wedding favors.
To his weary little bride he spoke no gentle word, though she fluttered weeping upon his breast like to some wounded thing.
For in his heart the gloomy Earl spake bitterly, and said he:
"Not upon thy hand did I hope to place my golden ring; I have put my own true love aside, to keep the clans together, and wedding thee thus have I been false to the desires of my heart, so do I turn from thee who art my bride."
Thus did he take her to his castle in silence, and, lifting her from his steed, bid her enter the strong gates before him.
So shut they with a clang upon her youth and her merry heart, and she became the neglected mistress of the gray towers she had looked on from afar, and bride of the great Earl she had dreamed of so long.
But to the Black Roderick she was as nothing; he sought her not, neither did he speak of her; she was but the cruel small hand that closed upon his heart and drew it from its love, claiming him in honor her own. And to her claim was he faithful, turning even his thoughts away, lest he should be false to his vow. But no more than this did he give her.
So was she left alone, the young bride who did not understand a man's ways, and, fearing where she loved, hid from his presence lest he should look upon her in hate. Oft had she dreamed of the wonder of being the wife of this proud Earl, in trembling desire and hope, hearing her parents speak of him and of the troth. Oft had she listened to their murmured words, as they spoke of the clans and the peace these two could bring.
"Stern he is, and black for the young child," said her mother, "and I am afraid"; but the child stole away to the hill behind her father's castle, and there looked into the valley of Baile-ata-Cliat to watch the white towers of the Black Earl glistening in the sun, to dream and to tremble.
And as she gazed a honey-bee hummed in her ear, "Go not to the great city."
And as she smiled she raised her hand between her eyes and the far-off towers so she could not see.
"Nay," quoth she, "it is a small place; my hand can cover it."
"Ring a chime," saith she to the heather shaking its bells in the wind, "ring for me a wedding chime, for I am to be the bride of the Earl Roderick."
She kissed the wild bramble lifting its petals in the sun.
"I shall return to thee soon."
And so, springing to her feet, she ran laughing down the hill, and as she ran the spirit of the hills was with her, blowing in her eyes and lifting her soft hair.
"I shall return to thee soon," she said again, and so entered her father's house and prepared herself for her betrothed.
What of her dream was there now? She was indeed the Earl's bride, but, alack! she was divorced from his heart and was naught to his days.
Never did she sit by his knee when he drew his chair by the fire, weary from the chase, nor lean beside him while he slept, to wonder at her happiness. Down the great halls she went, looking through the narrow windows on the outside world, as a brown moth flutters at the pane, weary of an imprisonment that had in its hold the breath of death.
Weary and pale grew she, and more morose and stern the Black Earl, and of their tragedy there seemed no end. But when a year had nigh passed, one rosy morning a servant-lass met Black Roderick as he came from his chamber, her eyes heavy with tears.
And of what she said I shall sing, lest thou grow weary of my prose:
"Alas!" she said, "Earl Roderick,
'Tis well that you should know
That each gray eve, lone wandering,
My mistress dear doth go.
"She comes with sorrow in her eyes
Home in the dawning light;
My lord, she is so weak and young
To travel in the night."
Now stern grew Black Earl Roderick,
But answered not at all;
He took his hunting harness down
That hung upon the wall.
Then quickly went he to the chase,
And slowly came he back,
And there he met his old sweetheart,
Who stood across his track.
So shall I tell how she, sighing and white of face, laid her soft hand upon his bridle-rein so he could not go from her. Her breath came out of her like the hissing of a trodden snake, poisoning the ear of the horseman.
"Bend to me thy proud head, Black Earl," quoth she, "for it shall be low enough soon. This is a tale I bring to thee of sorrow and shame. Bend me thy proud neck, Black Roderick, for the burden I must lay upon it shall bow thee as the snow does the mountain pine. Bend to me thine ear."
To him then she said:
"Where goeth your mistress?"
"What care I?" said the Black Earl, "since she be not thou."
"If she were I," said his lost love, "she would seek no other save thee alone."
"What sayest thou?" said the Black Earl, pale as death.
"Each night she goeth through the woods of Glenasmole to the hill of brown Kippure, and there lingereth until the dawn be chill."
"Who hath her love?" saith the Black Earl.
"A shepherd, or mayhap a swineherd--who knoweth?" quoth the serpent voice. "By no brave prince art thou supplanted."
At this the Black Earl struck his hand upon his breast.
"Lord pity me," quoth he, "that in my time should come the stain upon our honored house! My name, that was so white, shall now blush red. My proud ancestors will curse me from their tomb. Let thou go my rein, that I may seek this wanton and give her ready punishment."
So quick he drew the rein from her hand that she wellnigh stumbled. And like one bereft of mind he rode through the woods and up the hill seeking his false bride. High and low he searched, but no sign of his lost mistress did he discover. Out in the distance he saw the shining city of Baile-ata-Cliat, on the near wood side of which his gray towers stood. He could see the flag on its topmost turret waving in the breeze like a beckoning finger calling him back from his futile search. He turned him about, and on every side of him were the shadowy mountains watching him and appalling him with their mystery. Impatient he turned his eyes upon the ground; a bramble moving in the wind cast itself about his feet. He crushed it under his heel. A bee darting from one of the trodden flowers made a battle-cry, and bared her sting for his neck. He struck it down among the leaves; following its fall, his eyes, drawn by some other eyes, rested on a hollow by a stone. There he saw gazing at him the whiskered face of a red weasel, looking without pity, without fear.
"Evil beast!" said the Black Earl, glad to speak, for the silence of all the listening things who watched him made his heart beat with unwonted quickness, and he knew they were so many silent judges reading the evil of his soul. "Get thee gone," quoth the Black Earl. "Darest thou gaze upon me without fear?"
But the red weasel, resting at the doorway of his hole, did not blink a lid of his sharp eyes.
"Who art thou that evil should droop ashamed before thee?" said a voice, and the Black Earl turned as though a stone had struck him.
Now, when he looked east and west, no one could he see, but when he turned him south, there among the trees he saw an old, bent woman gathering herbs. He turned his horse and, full of rage, drove it towards her.
"Was it not thy voice that hurt my ears as I stood upon the hill?" quoth the Black Earl, his tongue silken in his rage.
"Nay," said the ancient crone; "I heard but the linnet's song upon the tree, and the sound of running water that is murmuring in the grove. Listen, and thou, too, shalt hear."
"Nay," quoth she again, for the Black Earl scowled so at her that she feared to be silent. "If I said this thing, why should it vex the ear of so proud a knight? Yonder black rook did look into my face with an inquisitive eye as I plucked my herbs and harmed no man, so I, angry at the wicked one, cursed him begone. As he flew affrighted at my hand, I turned my eyes into my own heart. The birds and I, do we not both root in the cold earth, seeking to draw from it our desires? Black and ill-looking, we dig all day. 'Who art thou,' quoth I to myself, 'that evil should fly before thee?' Wicked that I am," cried the witch, "and sorrow upon me that my words have vexed thine ears!"
Now the Black Earl did look upon her in anger, and but half believed her tale. His trouble being heavy upon him, he bade her leave her lamenting and answer his question.
"There is one," quoth he, "who doth wander upon the hill-side, far from her home, a lady of high degree; sawest thou any such," saith he, "for I have sought her long?"
Now will I sing thee what was said and what happened, lest thou grow weary of my prose:
"I have not seen your lady here,"
The withered dame replied;
"But I have met a little lass
Who wrung her hands and cried.
"She was not clad in silken robe,
Nor rode a palfrey white,
She had no maidens in her train,
Behind her rode no knight.
"But she crept weary up yon hill
And crouched upon the sward;
I dare not think that she could be
Spouse to so great a lord."
Now darkly frowned Earl Roderick,
He turned his face away;
And shame and anger in his heart
Disturbed him with their sway.
For he had never cared to know
What his young bride would wear;
He gave her neither horse nor hound,
Nor jewels for her hair.
Now shall I tell how the Black Earl clapped his hand upon his dagger, and said in a great rage: "Where went this little lass, and whom hath she by her side? for whoever he be, I shall show to him no pity. Neither shall her tears save her. Nor shall thy age serve thee, witch, if thou hast spoken not the truth. Whither went they, so I may follow, as the hound goes on the trail of the deer?"
"Oh, sharp sorrow thy anger is!" cried the old crone; "what can I say, save what my eye hath seen and my ear hath heard? The little lass passed me as I gathered my herbs under the dew. She hath by her side no lord nor lover. She went sad and alone. Here climbed she the height of the hill, and there sat she making her lament."
"And what lament made she?" said the Black Earl, putting his dagger into its sheath.
"Once called she on her father, as one who drowns in deep waters would call upon a passing ship. Twice called she upon her mother, as one would call upon a house of rest or of hospitality. Thrice called she upon Earl Roderick, as one would call at the gates of paradise, there to find rescue and love."
"And said she naught else?" said the Black Earl, his head upon his breast.
"Yea," quoth the crone, "when she called upon her father, she smiled through her tears. 'Didst thou know I perish,' quoth she, 'thy arms would reach to save me!'
"And when she called twice upon her mother, her mouth smiled even the same, 'for didst thou learn my hunger, thy heart would warm me to life again'; but when she called three times upon Earl Roderick, she paused as though for an answer, and smiled no more. 'Thee,' quoth she, 'I perish for, I hunger for. Thou lovest me not at all.'
"So did she sit and make her moan upon the hill, and here watched she the lights in the far windows of her lost home quench themselves one by one. 'Now,' quoth she, 'my mother sleepeth, and now my father. And now by all am I forgotten.' Then did she steal, in the dim light, down from the hill, and I saw her no more."
"What didst thou tell to her, old witch?" quoth the Black Earl, "as she passed weeping? Didst thou speak to her no word?"
"I stopped her as she passed me, proud Earl," quoth the crone, "for she was gentle, and held her head not too high to look upon one old and near unto death.
"'Weep not,' said I, 'but spread to me thy fingers, so I may read what fate thou holdest in thy palm.' And like a child she smiled between her tears.
"'Look only on luck,' quoth she, 'oh, ancient one, lest my heart break even now.' I spread her pink fingertips out as one would unruffle a rose, and read therein her fate."
"And what read you there?" said the Black Earl, impatient with her delay.
"I read," quoth the crone, "and if I say, thou must keep thy anger from me, for what I read I had not written:
"I traced upon her slender palm
That luck was changing soon;
I swore that peace would come to her
Before another moon.
"I said that he who loved her well
Would robe her all in silk,
And bear her in a coach of gold,
With palfreys white as milk.
"I told, before three suns had set
He'd kneel down by her side;
That he she loved would love her well,
And she would be his bride.
"'This before three suns have set,' so read I," quoth the crone.
Now, when the Black Earl heard so much, he would hear no more. Pallid grew his angry cheek, and his eyes were full of fire; he flung himself upon his horse, and, sparing not the beast, galloped home.
"In the highest tower shall I lock the jade," quoth he, "lest she bring me shame; for what her palm had writ upon it one must believe, and who dare love her, save I who will not? And should I die, wherefore should she not be another's? And should I not die--but this no man dare, for I shall tear his tongue from his mouth, his ear from his cheek, his h
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"The Story and Song of Black Roderick" Poetry.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2021. Web. 22 Oct. 2021. <https://www.poetry.com/poem/54985/the-story-and-song-of-black-roderick>.