The Sexton's Tale
by Theodore Tilton
Scene. -- An old English Churchyard.
Persons. -- An aged Sexton (formerly a Duke's henchman) pointing out graves to a Stranger.
Time. -- Thirteenth Century.
Knight, sir, from the Holy Land
Came back to claim my Lady's hand.
[This grave is his where now we stand.]
My Lady's sire, the Duke, had said
The Knight and she should never wed.
[How thick the leaves are where we tread!]
A maid who knows her father's will,
And weds against it, comes to ill.
[Stand here -- the winter wind is chill.]
Now I, for one, am bold to say
A maid should have her will and way
In what concerns her wedding-day.
So when the Duke took helm and lance,
And went to tournaments in France,
My Lady saw her golden chance.
If once the holy knot were tied,
The Duke, nor all the world beside,
Could part the bridegroom from his bride.
Along the wedding-path were strown
So many buds and roses blown,
Their happy feet touched not a stone.
Now how it came, I cannot tell,
But never such ill-hap befell
The ringing of a wedding-bell.
For while the priest was at the prayer,
The Duke -- the devil knows from where! --
Uprose behind the married pair!
One faces winter, though it blows
And frosts one's breath, -- and so we rose
And faced him, though our pulses froze!
The Duke had sword, and shield, and squire;
The Knight was in his wedding-tire;
They fronted, and their eyes flashed fire!
Then turned the father toward his child,
And touched her wedding-ring, and smiled.
The Duke (we thought) was reconciled.
My daughter and my son,
Against my will the deed is done;
But twain, whom God hath joined, are one.
Now follow to my castle-hall!
Come, old and young! come, great and small!
A feast awaiteth one and all!
It was a lie the villain told!
His soul was to the devil sold!
[His jacet -- here's his rotten mould!]
Thus cheated forward to their fate,
The lovers reached the castle-gate,
Where, hid behind it, lay in wait
Five henchmen, who -- like hounds in check,
Yet daring, at their master's beck,
To grip a lion by the neck --
Sprang at the Knight, and girt him round,
And hurled him headlong to the ground,
And held him like a lion bound!
Then cried the Duke -- the double-faced --
Thy wife shall be a virgin chaste,
And never in thine arms embraced!
This wall shall thee and thine divide,
And make thee bridegroom to a bride
Who shall not slumber at thy side!
The Knight, unhanded, never spoke,
But stood as dumb as when an oak
Replies not to the thunder-stroke.
I watched my Lady's color fade;
She fainted to a ghostly shade,
And lay as if her grave were made.
Whereat the Duke to me made sign
To lift her with these arms of mine,
And bear her in, and give her wine.
I raised my Lady, all aghast,
And loud behind me, as I passed,
The gate was slammed, and bolted fast.
The groom without, the bride within! --
To sunder whom was mortal sin --For wedded hearts are more than kin.
[This gust blows through and through one's cloak:
Just step in shelter of this oak.]
Well, when at last my Lady spoke,
She gave a look so full of fright,
And wept in such a widowed plight,
My soul was melted at the sight.
But woman's love is wondrous strong;
I helped to right my Lady's wrong;
I shall not make the story long.
On Christmas night, the castle-wall
Was hung with holly, and the hall
Was thronged with guests: she fled them all,
And, mutely as a mouse could stir,
To me came down in hood and fur,
And asked, Was I a friend to her?
I made obeisance on my knee.
May Heaven be thy reward! said she
Unlock the gate, and set me free!
O, when is ever seen or heard
Such majesty of look or word
As when a woman's soul is stirred!
While there she stood to plead her case,
She bore so high and grand a grace,
I grew abashed before her face.
I durst have swung that castle-gate
Wide open then, had Death and Fate
Made groans if any hinge should grate!
I slid the bolt at her command,
And she -- the Lady of the Land! --
Caught up and kissed this rough old hand!
I heard a champing horse outside:
The bridegroom waited for his bride:
God speed, I cried,
A single thing I hate to say:
It pricks me to this very day:
The Knight threw back his purse for pay.
It lies there yet, for aught I know!
The hand my Lady honored so
Disdained to lift a bribe so low.
The Duke was wroth, but never knew
Who drew the bolt to let her through,
[There, that's my Lady's, next to you!]
Ah, well! the ways of God are right:
My Lady's babe was born at night:
My Lady died at morning-light.
Sweet, fragile stalk! that grew too rare
The burden of its bud to bear,
And broke while blossoming so fair!
In one white sheet they both were dressed;
The babe was placed upon her breast;
And so we laid the twain to rest.
The Knight, heart-broken, hardly stayed
Until my Lady's mound was made,
But joined King Richard's great crusade.
Three summers afterward, one morn,
A pilgrim, pale and travel-worn, --
And in his hand a palm-branch borne, --
Walked in the churchyard here alone,
And at my Lady's grave, moss-grown,
Threw down the trophy on the stone;
Then crossed himself, and walked away;
And just a month from that same day,
I wrapped a shroud about his clay.
So here's the bride, and there's the groom:
But come and see my Lady's tomb
When summer roses are in bloom:
For now the winter wrongs the dead,
To plant the pillow of her bed
With only thorns about her head.
The groom lies parted from the bride;
But Life and Love, that here divide,
Are joined upon the other side!
Source:The Sexton's Tale, And Other Poems.
Sheldon And Company, New York.