IN the golden reign of Charlemaign the king,
The three-and-thirtieth year, or thereabout,
Young Eginardus, bred about the court,
(Left mother-naked at a postern-door,)
Had thence by slow degrees ascended up,—
First page, then pensioner, lastly the king’s knight And secretary; yet held these steps for nought,
Save as they led him to the Princess’ feet,
Eldest and loveliest of the regal three,
Most gracious, too, and liable to love:
For Bertha was betrothed ; and she, the third,
Giselia, would not look upon a man.
So, bending his whole heart unto this end,
He watched and waited, trusting to stir to fire
The indolent interest in those large eyes,
And feel the languid hands beat in his own,
Ere the new spring. And well he played his part, — Slipping no chance to bribe or brush aside
All that would stand between him and the light :
Making fast foes in sooth, but feeble friends.
But what cared he, who had read of ladies’ love,
And how young Launcelot gained his Guenovere,— A foundling, too, or of uncertain strain ?
And when one morning, coming from the bath, He crossed the Princess on the palace-stair,
And kissed her there in her sweet disarray,
Nor met the death he dreamed of in her eyes,
He knew himself a hero of old romance, —
Not seconding, but surpassing, what had been.
And so they loved ; if that tumultuous pain
Be love, — disquietude of deep delight,
And sharpest sadness : nor, though he knew her heart
His very own, — gained on the instant, too,
And like a waterfall that at one leap
Plunges from pines to palms, shattered at once
To wreaths of mist and broken spray-bows bright,—
He loved not less, nor wearied of her smile;
But through the daytime held aloof and strange
His walk ; mingling with knightly mirth and game;
Solicitous but to avoid alone
Aught that might make against him in her mind ;
Yet strong in this, — that, let the world have end,
He had pledged his own, and held Rhotruda’s troth.
But Love, who had led these lovers thus along,
Played them a trick one windy night and cold :
For Eginardus, as his wont had been,
Crossing the quadrangle, and under dark,—
No faint moonshine, nor sign of any star,—
Seeking the Princess’ door, such welcome found,
The knight forgot his prudence in his love;
For lying at her feet, her hands in his,
And telling tales of knightship and emprise
And ringing war, while up the smooth white arm
His fingers slid insatiable of touch,
The night grew old : still of the hero-deeds
That he had seen he spoke, and bitter blows
Where all the land seemed driven into dust,
Beneath fair Pavia’s wall, where Loup beat down
The Longobard, and Cliarlemaign laid on,
Cleaving horse and rider; then, for dusty drought
Of the fierce tale, he drew her lips to his,
And silence locked the lovers fast and long,
Till the great bell crashed One into their dream.
The castle-bell! and Eglnard not away ! With tremulous haste she led him to the door,
When, lo! the courtyard white with fallen snow,
While clear the night hung over it with stars !
A dozen steps, scarce that, to his own door:
A dozen steps ? a gulf impassable !
What to be done ? Their secret must not lie
Bare to the sneering eye with the first light;
She could not have his footsteps at her door!
Discovery and destruction were at hand :
And, with the thought, they kissed, and kissed again
When suddenly the lady, bending, drew
Her lover towards her half-unwillingly,
And on her shoulders fairly took him there, —
Who held his breath to lighten all his weight,—
And lightly carried him the courtyard’s length
To his own door; then, like a frightened hare,
Fled back in her own tracks unto her bower,
To pant awhile, and rest that all was safe.
But Charlemaign the king, who had risen by night To look upon memorials, Or at ease
To read and sign an ordinance of the realm,—
The Fanolehen or Cunigosteura
For tithing corn, so to confirm the same
And stamp it with the pommel of his sword, —
Hearing their voices in the court below,
Looked from his window, and beheld the pair.
Angry the king, — yet laughing-half to view
The strangeness and vagary of the feat:
Laughing indeed ! with twenty minds to call
From his inner bed-chamber the Forty forth,
Who watched all night beside their monarch’s bed,
With naked swords and torches in their hands,
And test this lover’s-knot with steel and fire ;
But with a thought, “ To-morrow yet will serve
To greet these mummers,” softly the window closed,
And so went back to his corn-tax again.
But, with the morn, the king a meeting called
Of all his lords, courtiers and kindred too,
And squire and dame, — in the great Audience Hall
Gathered; where sat the king, with the high crown
Upon his brow, beneath a drapery
That fell around him like a cataract,
With flecks of color crossed and cancellate ;
And over this, like trees about a stream,
Rich carven-work, heavy with wreath and rose, palm and palmirah, fruit and frondage, hung.
And more the high hall held of rare and strange:
For on the king’s right hand Leœna bowed
In cloudlike marble, and beside her crouched
The tongueless lioness; on the other side,
And poising this, the second Sappho stood,—
Young Erexcéa, with her head discrowned,
The anadema on the horn of her lyre:
And by the walls there hung in sequence long
Merlin himself, and Uterpendragon,
With all their mighty deeds, down to the day
When all the world seemed lost in wreck and rout, A wrath of crashing steeds and men ; and, in
The broken battle fighting hopelessly,
King Arthur, with the ten wounds on his head.
But not to gaze on these appeared the peers.
Stern looked the king, and, when the court was met,—
The lady and her lover in the midst, —
Spoke to his lords, demanding them of this:
“ What merits he, the servant of the king,
Forgetful of his place, his trust, his oath,
Who, for his own bad end, to hide his fault,
Makes use of her, a Princess of the realm,
As of a mule, — a beast of burden ! — borne
Upon her shoulders through the winter’s night
And wind and snow ?” “ Death ! ” said the angry lords ;
And knight and squire and minion murmured, “ Death ! ”
Not one discordant voice. But Charlemaign —
Though to his foes a circulating sword,
Yet, as a king, mild, gracious, exorable,
Blest in his children too, with but one born
To vex his flesh like an ingrowing nail —
Looked kindly on the trembling pair, and said :
“ Yes, Eginardus, well hast thou deserved
Death for this thing; for, hadst thou loved her so,
Thou shouldst have sought her Father’s will in this,—
Protector and disposer of his child,—
And asked her hand of him, her lord and thine.
Thy life is forfeit here ; but take it, thou ! —
Take even two lives for this forfeit one;
And thy fair portress — wed her; honor God,
Love one another, and obey the king.”
Thus far the legend ; but of Rhotrude’s smile,
Or of the lords’ applause, as truly they
Would have applauded their first judgment too,
We nothing learn: yet still the story lives,
Shines like a light across those dark old days,
Wonderful glimpse of woman’s wit and love,
And worthy to be chronicled with hers
Who to her lover dear threw down her hair,
When all the garden glanced with angry blades;
Or like a picture framed in battle-pikes
And bristling swords, it hangs before our view, —
The palace-court white with the fallen snow,
The good king leaning out into the night,
And Rhotrude bearing Eginard on her back.