Sir Henry Taylor

The Eve Of The Conquest

A cloudy night descended on the slopes
Of Mountfield, and the scatter'd woods beyond,
Where lay the Saxon force; and now the wind,
Till sunset that had seem'd to hold its breath,
Burst forth in gusts and flaws, the sea far off
Sounding a dirge a day before the time.
A flush of light was in the Southern sky,
Cast from the Norman camp, and more remote
At intervals around, from Lunsford-heath
To Broad-oak-cross, and Udimore to Hooe,
The frequent watchfire glimmer'd, where the boors,
Though scared yet greedy, grimly lurk'd aloof,
Expecting plunder when to-morrow's storm
Should leave the wreck of battle on the plain.
So fell the night.

Upon the Saxon flank
A forest stood, within whose wavering skirt
Was scoop'd a shelter for King Harold's tent;
And thither, when the fitful wind was lull'd,
Came sounds of jollity and boisterous songs,
Which did not please the King.--"Leofwyn, Brand,
Go bid the chiefs abate this barbarous mirth,
And counsel them that cannot sleep to pray."
They went, and shortly there was silence. Then
The King composed himself as seeking rest:
But though his limbs were motionless, the Page
Who watch'd him, noted that his eyes were closed
More fast than if in sleep, and that his lips
Were ever and anon compress'd to curb
A quivering movement. Suddenly he rose,
And shouted for the Page--but he was there.
"Go, Ina, ere the night waste further, go,
And bring me from the Convent where she sleeps
Edith, my daughter; I would hold discourse
With her of former days; and wanting this
My soul is not consenting to repose."

So Ina through the tangled thickets ran,
Much carping at the absence of the Moon,
And doubting in the darkness lest his speed
Through misdirection should induce delay.
But soon he reach'd the Convent in the groves
Of Penshurst, now the shield of Harold's house,
Long after to be otherwise renown'd.
"Sleeps she, the Lady Edith?" "No," they said,
"Nor will she be persuaded; she is now
At nocturns in the Chapel." Thither he:
But ere his entrance had the service ceased.
She knelt upon the altar steps alone
In mourning loosely clad, with naked arms
That made an ivory cross upon her breast.
She mourn'd and pray'd for that revolted Earl,
Her uncle Tostig, he that fell at York
A month before, in arms with aliens join'd,
In overthrow with that Norwegian King
Who gat from Harold what, when terms were named,
The Saxon proffer'd with abrupt disdain--
"Six feet of ground,--or seven, for he was tall."
She mourn'd her uncle, spite of his revolt,
Because she loved the stock whereof she came,
And knew them noble even when most misled.
"The King would see you, Princess, ere he sleeps,
For he is troubled in his mind." She rose,
And rising seem'd the vision of a Saint,
Awaiting her assumption. In her mien
Celestial beauty reign'd with sovran grace
And holy peace which holier raptures left,
Not colourless, but like a sunset sky,
Partaking of their glories. So she rose;
And bending as once more she cross'd herself,
Went forth in haste though calm.

By shorter paths,
For they were known to her, she led the way,
By garth and croft, and through the ferny brake,
And o'er the stepping-stones that spann'd the stream,
And where the deer-browsed elms in Penshurst Park
Spread o'er the sward their level circular roofs:
And nimbly now, and with less doubtful speed
Than Ina's by the parting ways perplex'd,
They reach the forest in whose wavering skirt
Was scoop'd a shelter for King Harold's tent.

Meanwhile the King sate brooding, deep in thought;
Nor, save for mandates needful to be given
As notices were brought from spies and scouts,
Had raised his forehead from his folded hands:
The time was tedious to the troubled King.
At length the imbedded floor of tough beech leaves,
Slow to rejoin the dust from which they came,
Return'd the tremulous pressure of a foot
So light and soft the Woodland Genius
Mistook it for an echo of the steps
By Oreads planted there in days of old.
Then Harold, rising as the Princess knelt,
Threw off the cloud that veil'd him, and appear'd
His very self, a man of godlike mould,
Radiant, but grave.--The greeting o'er, he sat
Upon a rough-hewn couch with rushes strown;
And she upon a mantle at his feet
Half sat, half lay, her face upturn'd to his,
Hands clasp'd across his knee.

Then spake the King:--
"Since sunset, when the marshalling of the force
Was ended, in this dark nocturnal void
The Past has come upon me. Should I fall
To-morrow, I shall leave behind me few,--
It may be none,--to tell with friendly truth
My tale to after-times. Of those that now
Surround me, and have battled by my side
In former fields, too many are estranged
Through love of lucre, seeing I withheld
The spoil of that rich victory in the North,
To spare my people, ravaged by the wars:
These, if surviving me, shall bear me hard.
The many, for whose dear behoof I lose
The suffrage of the few, are slow to praise
A fallen friend, or vindicate defeat.
To-day the idol am I of their loves;
But should I be to-morrow a dead man,
My memory, were it spotless as the robes
That wrapp'd the Angels in the Sepulchre,
Should see corruption. Therefore in the ear
Of one whom Nature destines to outlive,
If God should so see good, my mortal term
Arriving soon or late, I fain would leave
Some notice of those things wherein I err'd,
And those wherein they err that taint my fame.
Thy brethren tend their charges or repair
Their strength in sleep; but thou art wise to know,
And lov'st to hearken. So long as thou liv'st,
Of what I tell do thou thy memory make
A living record; and before thou diest,
Unmix'd with lies and flatteries, in the book
Wherein the Saxon Kings are chronicled,
See it be written."

With a wistful gaze
The Princess waited while her sire revolved
The matters he would speak of. More than once
She press'd her lips upon the massive hand
That lay beside her, rough and weather-stain'd;
Then gazed again. He knew not what she did:
His thoughts were travelling into distant times.
At length they wrought to utterance:--

"In my youth
How gaily deck'd, how fortunately fair,
My life before me lay! My father then
Had graciously and of his bounty given
The crown to Edward, his obsequious King.
I ruled in Kent, and held through him such power,
That justice, which the people long had ceased
To dream of and forgotten to be due,
Was feasible; and mercy, which had seem'd
A gift reserved to God, was mine to grant.
So love flow'd on me from a thousand springs
And pour'd itself around me like a flood.
I flourish'd as a bay tree. By my side
A noble brotherhood of six fair youths
Grew lustily, my father's younger sons;
Of whom, with loyal and fraternal faith,
Four have still follow'd me through chance and change
Inalterable; two have pass'd from earth
And stand before their Judge: I judge them not.
Last of the six in order, first in love,
Was Ulnoth, in the beauty of his prime,
Who seem'd a creature sent by God to fill
The world with love. A goodlier sight this earth
Beheld not in its goodliest golden days.
A frank and friendly joy adorn'd his face,
Exuberant, but in its wildest mood
Forgetful of no courtesy nor grace
Of generous kindness, dealt to high and low
Like rain and sunshine, profluent from the heart,
With no respect of persons, a good-will
That could not be contain'd. Ulnoth I loved
Next to thy mother, Edith, while she lived;
And when her spirit, purified by pain
Whilst here abiding, was translated hence,
I loved him of the living best. That love
I to this hour rejoice in and retain,
Not deeming what it cost me worth a sigh.
Thus in the earlier years of Edward's reign
Well fared my father's house.

But joy is short;
And soon upon our glorious break of day,
So rich in sunshine and so fresh with dew,
We saw the darkness gather on that side
Whence now the storm assails us. Normans soon
Began to flock to impotent Edward's court;
Who, in his wily weakness, whilst he shower'd
His favours on our house, yet hated most
(A customary baseness in the weak)
Him to whom most he owed, and sought to sap
My father's fortunes when he seem'd to build.
The Norman courtiers, who could dance and sing
Or fast and pray at pleasure, worm'd their way,
And quickening the dull hatreds that they found,
Pour'd very poison in King Edward's ears.
By falsehood they prevail'd; nor less by truth.
They told him, which was true, that we despised
His person and his power: they said besides
We practised to overturn the tottering throne
That now we overshadow'd; which was false.
But whatsoe'er shall furnish pleas for fear
Finds credit with a coward, and the King,
Believing all they bid him, strove to bate
Our formidable fortunes, and to lift
His foreign minions into power. They thence
Took courage whom they injured to insult;
And Eustace Count of Boulogne, on his way
To France by Dover, with such desperate pride
Demean'd himself, the townsmen rose in arms,
And I, who ruled the seaboard, was constrain'd
To drive him back. The King's accustom'd fear
Was startled into anger, and he bade
My father and myself appear forthwith
Before the Witena. We raised a force:
But then my father falter'd, and the King
Propounding terms, a compact, to my heart
Most grievous, was concluded; from which seed
Sprang mostly my misfortunes and my faults.
For Ulnoth as a hostage was consign'd
For surer custody to William's hands,
This Norman Duke.

Ere long my father died;
And Edward's dread and hatred of our house
Relenting, for 'twas he had scared him most,
I grew in greatness; and the wars in Wales--
Which country 'twas my fortune to reduce
To unaccustom'd tameness--and with these,
Earl Alfgar's insurrection--which, though fierce,
I quell'd by force and heal'd by clemency--
Exalted my renown, and to my zeal
Experience added; and as Edward's health
Went yearly more to waste, the people's voice
Design'd me for the throne.

My path seem'd straight
At home, but I foresaw that foreign leagues,
And strife and envy, should confront my steps
When once afoot; and knowing this I knew
What dangers should arise to Ulnoth then,
If he were then still caged in William's court.
For though the Norman had not yet divulged
His own preposterous claims, yet him I knew
With all my foreign foes confederate.
Wherefore, or e'er the stirring time should come,
'Twas my first care to compass the release
Of Ulnoth. To my instances the King
Made answer still that William, and not he,
Detain'd him; but in truth he greatly grudged
This mainprize of my loyalty to let loose.
To William thus remitted, I resolved
To him to go; which doubtless pleased the King,
As privy to the Duke's audacious schemes,
Nor loth that I should stumble on his toils.

"Through divers dangers, shipwreck first, and next
Captivity, I reach'd the Norman court.
Right joyful was that day. The politic Duke
Received me with all honours short of those
To sovereign Princes paid. Procession, game,
Banquet and dance, with songs of every strain,
Lays, virelays, delays, and roundelays,
A fortnight of festivities fill'd out.
But festive beyond all that song or dance
Could publish of festivity, to me
Was Ulnoth's face,--fulfill'd of all delight,
That seem'd to lavish like a miser's heir
Its hoard of joy. The meanest of the train
That follow'd at my father's heels or mine
In former days, appearing to him now,
Even as a brother would have welcomed been:
What welcome then was mine!--of all his race
The one who loved him best, whom best he loved,
Through dangers to his house of bondage come,
And haply his deliverance to achieve.
From treating with the Duke I held aloof
Till I should see and learn: with Ulnoth still
Delighting to consume the livelong day,
Associate in the chase, or as he list,
In groves and gardens, regally adorn'd
With fountains and with daintiest flowers, nor less
With frequent gleam of damsels, thither brought
By choice or chance, or choice attending chance,
In throngs or sole, that many a chaplet twined,
And chaunted many a lay.

Of these the first
In station and most eminently fair,
Was Adeliza, daughter of the Duke.
A woman-child she was: but womanhood
By gradual afflux on her childhood gain'd,
And like a tide that up a river steals
And reaches to a lilied bank, began
To lift up life beneath her. As a child
She still was simple,--rather, shall I say,
More simple than a child, as being lost
In deeper admirations and desires.
The roseate richness of her childish bloom
Remain'd, but by inconstancies and change
Referr'd itself to sources passion-swept.
Such had I seen her as I pass'd the gates
Of Rouen, in procession, on the day
I landed, when a shower of roses fell
Upon my head, and looking up I saw
The fingers which had scatter'd them half spread
Forgetful, and the forward-leaning face
Intently fix'd and glowing, but methought
More serious than it ought to be, so young
And midmost in a show. From time to time
Thenceforth I felt, although I met them not,
The visitation of those serious eyes,
The ardours of that face toward me turn'd.
These long I understood not; for I knew
That she in fast companionship had lived
With Ulnoth; and albeit his joy and pride
Had been in eloquent speech to magnify
My deeds, insomuch that the twain had lived
And revell'd in my story, yet I deem'd
That she must needs have prized beyond the theme
The voice that graced it: and contrasting now
My darkening days with Ulnoth's gracious prime,
I scarce could bring myself to think that eyes,
Howe'er by fancy misinform'd, could err
From him to me. But Ulnoth was a boy
When first she knew him, nor was yet renown'd:
And woman's fancy is more quick to read
In furrow'd faces histories of wars
And tales of wonders by the lamp of fame,
Than in the cursive characters of youth,
How fair soever written, to descry
A glorious promise. Thus betwixt these twain
A bud that might have blossom'd into love
Was sever'd ere it set. For Ulnoth's part,
He, in his nature buoyant, lightly held
By all his loves save that he bare to me;
And lightly, with a joyful pride, he saw
Her heart to me surrender'd, and himself
Of some unsettled moiety disseised.
Such shape to him the matter took. For me,
Her excellence of beauty, and regards
Rapt oftentimes, forgetful of the earth,
Of earthly attributions unaware
In him her fancy glorified,--regards
That seem'd of power to make the Heaven they sought,--
Did doubtless touch what time, and public cares,
And household griefs, had left me of a heart.
I loved the lady with a grateful love,
Tender and pure, not passionate.

I search'd the Duke, and saw myself by him
With subtlest inquisition search'd in turn.
His eye was cold and cruel, yet at times
It flash'd with merriment; his bearing bold,
And save when he had purposes in hand,
Reckless of those around him, insomuch
He scarce would seem to know that they were there:
Yet was he not devoid of courtly arts;
And when he wish'd to win, or if it chanced
Some humour of amenity came o'er him,
He could be bland, attractive, frankly gay,
Insidiously soft; but aye beneath
Was fire which, whether by cold ashes screen'd,
Or lambent flames that lick'd whom at a word
They might devour, was unextinguish'd still.

"It chanced he had a quarrel now afoot
With Conan, Count of Bretagne, against whom
He took the field. I gladly with him went
For exercise in arms, and gave what aid
I could in council. But the more he found
In me of succour and resource, the more
A jealous care possess'd him. Not the less
He courted and cajoled me, costliest gifts
Conferring with a light and lavish hand.
My suit for Ulnoth's liberty at once
He granted; and, of all he had to give
The prime of gifts most precious in his eyes,
His daughter Adeliza, in his heart
He plainly purposed then, if all went well,
To proffer. Her from cradled infancy
He carried with him wheresoe'er he went
By land or sea, in peace or war, and now
In camp or town, in tent or citadel,
She ever was at hand to share the joy
When we return'd successful from assault
Or deed of arms.

One evening in the dusk,
The sunset red confronting the pale Moon,
Returning I alighted at her tent,
But not successful. Barely and with blows
And desperate riding for full many a mile
Had I that day escaped an ambuscade:
My horse, as I dismounted, fell down dead,
(Which grieved me to the heart, for we were friends,)
And I was pale with sorrow and fatigue
And somewhat by mishap discountenanced.
She met me at the door, and in my face
Read more than what was true; and presently
Espying as I laid my casque aside
Some streaks of blood that she mistook for mine,
She fainted. In my then disconsolate mood
A softness such as hers distill'd itself
Like balm upon my being; and when at length
Her spirit was rekindled from its trance
And reassured, I told her my life's blood
Should thenceforth vaunt a value not its own
As flowing from a consecrated fount,
A heart thenceforward hers. She hid her face
An instant in her hands, then flung them forth,
Revealing all the passion of her joy,
That neither smiled nor laugh'd, but mantled high
Effulgent and ineffably divine.
A moment more and she was gone; her soul
Demanding solitude and secret haunts
To put away its treasure.

I forthwith,
As honour now enjoin'd me, sought the Duke,
And craved her hand in marriage. William smiled;
And there was satisfaction in his smile;
But simple satisfaction was not all.
An exultation temper'd by a doubt
Was in it, and a joy with fear commix'd,
And tainted by a secret self-rebuke
For odious aims and treacherous intents.
In simulated frankness he bestow'd
The priceless boon, with only this reserve,--
That seeing she was yet of age unripe,
The nuptials should not now be solemnized,
But wait his time; which, softly he subjoin'd,
His heart should hasten. But, ere many days,
The portent that perplex'd me in his smile
I well could construe. By uneasy hints
And intimations sounding me, the Duke
Unfolded soon his lust to be a King,
And seize on England. He essay'd to gild
This thunder-cloud of dark design to me
With promise of a station next himself,
Earldoms and honours, all the crown could give.
Earldoms and honours! Had my fallen estate
Been lowlier than the lowliest Saxon serf's,
And hopeless, not of crowns alone, but bread,
The Tempter, though the same that tempted Eve,
Could not in all his devilry have devised
The bribe that would have bribed me to betray
My country to a foreign yoke. I felt
As worse than wrong or rapine, blows or death,
The insult of the overture. Withal,
Knowing my danger should I once disclose
My anger and my just resolves, or wake
Suspicion, I descended to defeat
Like arts with like, dissembling with fair shows
My inward indignation, although clear
In blank refusal of my fealty.

"With anxious outlook sought I next to know
If yet the road to England open lay
For me and Ulnoth; nor had far to seek:
Advices soon were brought me, as by friends
Betraying for my sake the Duke's behests,
But verily by instruction from himself,
That all the ways were guarded: we were watch'd;
And, for a further menace, hints were dropp'd
Of dungeons, gyves, and tortures,--things too vile
For William, in whose eyes the world's esteem
Went not for nothing, truly to perpend,
But such as it was infamous to name.

"As calmly as I might I now survey'd
The state in which I stood. I call'd to mind
With what a cordial confidence at first
I sought his hospitality; how since
We side by side had fought; how schemes of mine
Had borne him fairest fruit; and twice mine arm
Had saved him when in peril of his life.
I thought of these things, and mine inmost soul
Revolting from his perfidy, resolved
It should not prosper. Edith! shall I dare
In presence of thy purity to speak
Of what I bent my nature to sustain!
I sware with purposed falsehood to uphold
The Duke's pretension. Then the way was free;
And hastily as flying from my shame,
To England I return'd.

The rest thou know'st.
Ambition, and my country's love for me,
And mine for her, with hatred of that foe
Whose dangerous dealings had ensnared my soul,
Engross'd me; I address'd my every thought
To fortify the league of Saxon Earls,
And, other recollections dash'd to earth,
I married Morcar's sister; by that tie,
Though death dissolved it in a short three months,
Making the North mine own. A few months more
And Edward's death ensued. The Witena
Had counsell'd him to leave the crown to me
By testament: but he had dreamed a dream
How a pale comet in the Northern sky,
That then was nightly visible, shook its head,
And the Seven Sleepers turn'd themselves in sleep.
He made no will. But not the less the cry
Rang out in one concent from North to South,
From East to West, 'Earl Harold shall be King!'
My marriage had forewarn'd the Duke, whose ships,
Full fledged, were waiting till the wind was fair,
When Tostig and Hardrada's wild descent
And transient triumph summon'd me to York.
A bloody day determined in the dust
Their pride and prowess. Scarcely were they cold
When posts from Pevensey at speed despatch'd
Announced the Duke's approach. At double speed
I march'd to meet him. Here we stand opposed;
And here to-morrow's sun, which even now,
If mine eyes err not, wakes the Eastern sky,
Shall see the mortal issue. Should I fall,
Be thou my witness that I nothing doubt
The justness of my doom: but add thou this,--
The justness lies betwixt my God and me.
'Twixt me and William . . . ."

Then uprose the King:
His daughter's hands half startled from his knee
Dropt loosely, but her eye caught fire from his:
He snatch'd his truncheon and the hollow earth
Smote strongly that it throbb'd: he cried aloud--
"'Twixt me and William, say that never doom
Save that which sunders sheep from goats, and parts
'Twixt Heaven and Hell, can righteously pronounce."
--He sate again, and with an eye still stern
But temperate and untroubled, he pursued:
"'Twixt me and England, should some senseless swain
Ask of my title, say I wear the crown
Because it fits my head."

King Harold paused:
And resting for a moment's space his brow
Upon his hands, revolved a different theme.

--"Oh, Edith," he resumed, "of one thing more
I fain would speak, if but the words will come:
My vow to Adeliza rankles here
As though my heart were broken in its breach;
For she was faithfuller than her sire was false.
To her, if I be slain, do thou repair,
(For in the Norman camp or in the fleet
She surely shall be found,) and bid her know
I swerved not from her in my heart, but Fate,
Ruled by her father's mandate, had decreed
We could not meet in marriage: Say beside
I make not this the scapegoat of my guilt,
Which amply and in anguish I avow;
Nor make I it a pretext to implore
Her prayers and her forgiveness; seeing these
Would be, though faithlessness were loveless too,
Assured me by her nature's sweet constraint:
But I bequeath this message of my love,
That, knowing thus it died not with my death,
Her sorrow, by a soft remembrance soothed,
May sleep and dream and dreaming things divine
Be gloriously transfigured by a hope.
For love that dies not till the body dies
Shall with the soul survive."

King Harold ceased:
For now a phantom of a sound, that seem'd
Blown by a distant trumpet from the South,
Caught his quick ear: He sprang upon his feet:
Then cheerfully the Saxon trumpets blew
Their prompt reply: The leaders from their tents
Came trooping, jocund, with a nimble tread,
Their helmets glancing in the early sun;
And as they gain'd the forest's edge, the cry
Of "Harold" rose. Him Edith help'd to arm;
Which ended, and a brief embrace exchanged,
Upborne upon the blessing he bestow'd
She with a lofty courage went her way.

Long was the day and terrible. The cries
Of "God to aid!" "The Cross!" "The Holy Cross!"
With songs of Roland and of Roncesvalles,
Were heard, then lost in dumbness and dismay.
A mighty roar ensued, pierced through and through
By shrillest shrieks incessant, or of man
Or madden'd horse that scream'd with fear and pain--
Death agonies. The battle, like a ship
Then when the whirlwind hath it, torn and tost,
Stagger'd from side to side. The day was long;
By dreadful change of onset or feign'd flight,
And rout and rally, direfully drawn out,
Disastrous, dismal. Night was near, and still
The victory undetermined, when a shaft
Pierced Harold in the throat. He fell and died.
Then panic seized the Saxon host, pursued
With hideous rage, till dropp'd the pall of night,
And darkness hid the horrors of the field.

In Waltham Abbey on St. Agnes' Eve
A stately corpse lay stretch'd upon a bier.
The arms were cross'd upon the breast; the face,
Uncover'd, by the taper's trembling light
Show'd dimly the pale majesty severe
Of him whom Death, and not the Norman Duke,
Had conquer'd; him the noblest and the last
Of Saxon Kings; save one the noblest he;
The last of all. Hard by the bier were seen
Two women, weeping side by side, whose arms
Clasp'd each the other. Edith was the one.
With Edith Adeliza wept and pray'd.

 Back to
Sir Henry Taylor