The Longest Death-Watch

THE woman is a picture now.
The Spanish suns have touched her face;
The coil of gold upon her brow
Shines back on an imperial race
With most forlorn and bitter grace.
Old palace-lamps behind her burn,
The ermine molders on her train.
Her ever-constant eyes still yearn
For one who came not back to Spain;
And dim and hollow is her brain.
One only thing she knew in life,
Four hundred ghostly years ago —
That she was Flemish Philip’s wife:
Nor much beyond she cared to know;
Without a voice she tells me so.
Philip the Beautiful—whose eyes
Might win a woman’s heart, I fear,
E’en from his grave! “ He will arise,”
The monks had murmured by his bier,
“ And reign once more among us here.”
She heard their whisper, and forgot
Castile and Aragon, and all
Save Philip, who had loved her not;
The cruel darkness of his pall
Seemed on an empty world to fall.
She took the dead man, — to her sight
A prince in death’s disguise, as fair
As when his wayward smile could light
The throne he wedded her to share, —
And followed, hardly knowing where.
Almost as dumb as he, she fled,
Pallid and wasted, toward the place
Where he, the priestly promise said,
Must wait the hour when God’s sweet grace
Should breathe into his breathless face.
Once, when the night was weird with rain,
She sought a convent’s shelter. When
The tapers showed a veilèd train
Of nuns, instead of cowlèd men,
She stole into the night again:
“ These women, sainted though they be,”
She moaned through all her jealous mind,
“ Are women still, and shall not see
Philip the Fair — though he is blind!
Favor with him I yet shall find.”
Then, with her piteous yearning wild:
“ Unclose his coffin quick, I pray.”
Fiercely the sudden lightning smiled —
When they had laid the lid away —
Like scorn, upon the regal clay.
She kissed the dead of many days,
As though he were an hour asleep.
Dark men with swords to guard her way
Wept for her — but she did not weep;
She had her vigil left to keep.
They reached the appointed cloister. While
The heart of Philip withering lay,
She, without moan, or tear, or smile,
Watched from her window, legends say, —
Watched seven and forty years away!
Winds blew the blossoms to and fro,
Into the world and out again:
“ He will come back to me, I know ” —
Poor whisper of a wandering brain
To peerless patience, peerless pain.
Ah, longest, loneliest, saddest tryst
Was ever kept on earth! And yet
Had he arisen would he have kissed
The gray wan woman he had met,
Or —taught her how the dead forget?
Could she have won, discrowned and old,
The love she could not win, in sooth,
When queenly purple, fold on fold,
And all the subtle grace of youth,
Helped her to hide a hapless truth ?
Did she not fancy, — should she see
That coffin, watched so long, unclose, —
The royal tenant there would be
Still young, still fair, when he arose,
Beside her withered leaves and snows?
He would have laughed to breathe the tale
Of this crazed stranger’s love, I fear,
’Neath moon and rose and nightingale,
With courtly jewels glimmering near,
Into some lovely lady’s ear.
Mrs. S. M. B. Piatt.
  1. Joanna, the wife of Philip the Handsome, was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, sister of Catharine of Aragon, and mother of the Emperor Charles V.