The Ballad of the Duke's Mercy

The horse, the forest, the greybeard sea,
The brandy come from the apple tree,
These are the treasure of Normandy.
It is so to-day. It was even so
Nine centuries and a half ago
When Robert the Devil, son of war,
With squire and huntsman and servitor,
Rode at eve on the hard, packed sand
That lay like a piece of no man’s land
Between the forest and the white foam,
Bringing the spoils of his hunting home:
Four great herons of silver plume,
Slain by his falcon, My Joyous Doom,
Snipe and mallard and one wild swan
And a poacher with ears already gone.
The raw stumps dripped as he ran along,
Bound to a horse with a leather thong,
Three parts naked and smelling foul,
With the wild, dazed stare of a netted owl,
But he did not trip and he did not fall
Though the Duke had judged him, once for all.
His breath came easy as he ran
And he seemed more otter or stag than man
As the sea mist wrapped them closer round.
Yet he was the first to hear the sound
That was neither hoofs nor the grumbling sea
As they rounded a headland suddenly,
The jetting scream, if woman or hare,
That wailed from a clump of bushes there,
Snarling and fighting and vague to mark
By the broken planks of a viking bark,
But now closed in, like wolves on the doe.
‘By God!’ said Robert, '’t was ever so;
The best sport comes at the end of the day.
Advance Our honor and clear Our way!
’Ware steel, ’ware falcon, soho, soho!’
He had not stricken one merry blow
To mark his bounty from ear to lip,
And his hand still played with his riding whip,
When he heard from the twilight the ancient cry
That summons the justice of Normandy
By river and meadow and sea and shore,
‘Haro! Haro! On me fait tort!’
And a woman snatched at his bridle rein.
The whip swung high, but it came again,
Wailing and harsh at his saddlebow,
‘On me fait tort! Haro! Haro!
Son of Rollo, by earth and sea,
I cry on the justice of Normandy,
Having no man to cry for me,
For he lies man-slain in your lands to-night!’
‘Speak,’ said Robert. ‘We give you right.’
He looked at her now. She was tall and bold
And her colors once had been rose and gold,
But the eyes in her head were judgment old
As she told her tale with the hurried breath
Of one just come from the claws of death,
While the falcon screamed and the chase went by
And Robert the Devil, cold of eye,
Beheld the doing of his commands
And the poacher bit at his fettered hands.
‘Asker for justice, your name and sire?’
‘Ghislaine, sole daughter of Odo the Fire,
Good with the hammer, a cunning smith,
And the surly temper that goes therewith.
The hunting knife that your father had
Will show if his work was good or bad.’
‘Daughter of Odo, how know you me?’
‘By the look of the Dukes of Normandy,
The black dog carried on every back
Since the bargain made by Rollo the Black,
The hard hand and the sea-cold eye
And the justice the coward cannot buy.’
‘Norman woman, how falls it now
You come to our land in a viking prow?’
‘I walked one eve by the edge of the sand
And my heart was heavy in my white hand,
For my father was grim and my mother dead
And I had small joy of my maidenhead,
Knowing it destined for Jean the Lame.
— It was that eve that the raiders came.’
‘Were you thieved in stealth, were you won by strife?’
‘ I fought as I might with tooth and knife,
Fought as the cornered vixen can,
But at last the strength went out of me,
For his arms were the arms of a goodly man,
And his lips had the taste of the naked sea.'
‘Was he lord or churl that took you to bed?’
‘Men called him the son of Svend the Red.
He gave me honor and the white bread.
He gave me mercy and the raw gold,
But we might not go to his father’s hold,
For he had been outlaw since his youth.
It is my sorrow, it is my ruth,
That at last I sickened of ship and wave
And the sea that was our children’s grave
And wept on his breast till he promised me
To kneel to the Duke of Normandy,
Suing to be his faithful man
While the winds blew and the waters ran.
But, as we came hither, the storm wind blew
And the hungry coast ate ship and crew,
And the few strong swimmers the fishers slew.
They would not have slain him sword in hand,
Had they come against him with half the land!
But naked and swimming he fought with them
And his blood is stiff on my kirtle hem,
And now it is time that I should be slain,
But they shall not lie where he has lain
If there is justice in Normandy.
Haro, my lord! I have cried my cry.’
‘Nay,’ said Duke Robert. ‘One word more:
Are you wife or leman or outlawed whore?'
‘I am woman, my lord, and I go with child.’
Robert the Devil barely smiled
And the flame began to leap in his eye.
‘Now here is a riddle for Normandy!
Stolen daughter of Odo the Smith,
You have broken the bonds of kin and kith;
It is not well that our cousin the Dane
Should thieve our women and not be slain,
And worse that our women condone the theft
While they have honor or dagger left.
Therefore I give my fishers right
For this manslaying in your despite.
They shall not pay for the foeman dead.
They shall not lose either hand or head.
But, since they were fishers and slew a knight
Who came to serve us in this our need,
They shall be whipped till their bodies bleed.
Is it just?’
‘It is just,’ said tall Ghislaine.
‘Show me the place where I may be slain.’
‘Now, softly, softly,’ came Robert’s word,
‘ You have cried Haro to your liege lord,
But she who mates with the outlaw sea
Is neither Denmark nor Normandy,
And who shall pay the price of your head
Now Odo the Smith is a long time dead?
Neither leman nor wife nor maid,
Naked of husband and law and lord,
Outcast trull, are you not afraid?’
‘Nay,’ said the woman. ‘Show me the sword.’
Robert slapped his hand on his thigh.
‘By God, it is pity that you should die!
For I think you would bear no craven sons
And the bold were ever the fruitful ones.
Now is there any of my meinie
Who will claim this woman for Normandy?
If there be such, let him stand forth!’
There was bitter silence, south and north.
‘And yet,’ said Robert, ‘I deem you men
And you have the name.
Now I say again
If any man here have heart and pith
To claim this daughter of Odo the Smith
He shall have honor and she her life,
For I deem she will make no common wife.
The poacher lifted his wounded head.
‘I claim the woman, dread lord,’ he said,
And his voice was the sea and the marsh at eve
And the track in the reeds that the herons leave
And the rustle of the fallen leaf.
‘I claim this woman for joy or grief.’
‘So,’ quoth Robert, smiling awry,
‘There is one man left in Normandy.
Woman, how like you this son of clay?’
They stared at each other like deer at bay,
Silent and breathing and watchful-eyed
Where the sunlight dapples the dappled side
And the wild herb feeds the wilder heart.
They stared, and their glances did not part.
He snapped the leash of the bitten thong.
‘I am foul,’ he said, ‘but my hands are strong.
They cut my ears for snaring the geese,
But the hair will grow and the wound have peace.
They call me Fulke of the Secret Oar.
I thought all women were hares, before.
The child shall not find me over-rough.’
She said, ‘This man is punished enough.
I can twist his heart if he thinks I can.
I find no other fault in this man.’
‘Now,’ said Robert, ‘let none deny
The mercy and justice of Normandy.
Man and woman I set you free.
Fulke of the Snares, you are thief no more,
But Fulke of the Herons, by sea and shore,
For I make you my warden of all that flies
Where the reeds grow thick and the marshland lies,
Swan and sandpiper, great and small,
And the kingly heron, the duke of all.
You shall kill for meat, whenever you will.
But you shall see to it no others kill,

Excepting the Master of Normandy
When he flies his hawks by the narrow sea.
And, without money and without price,
He shall grant you a badge with his device
With three broad pence and a fishing spear
And a cask of cider, every year.
And, every year, he may ask of you
Five king herons of silver hue
And such other game as may offer sport
To three good hawks of the choicer sort,
— And the first-born son that your wife shall breed
To fight for his banner, if he have need.
Is it well?’ he said.

‘It is well,’ they said.
He summoned a priest with a shaven head,
The hunting priest that rode at his side,
‘See that this couple are groom and bride.’
‘Nay, first,’ said the woman, ‘I bury my dead.
Is it well?’ she said.
‘It is well,’ they said.

It is long ago since these were wed,
It is long ago since these were dead.
Their dust is little, their seeking done.

It is long since the sea rover’s son
Ran in the marshes, a stripling youth,
And tested all matters with knife and tooth
While his mother sang an outland song.
When he came to his growth, he was tall and strong,
His heart was an unquiet fire,
He served hard masters for little hire
To follow the Bastard of Normandy
When he set thin prows on a narrow sea
For William’s fortune and England’s woe.
In the beginning, these things were so.

But horse and forest and greybeard sea,
And the women who bear like the apple tree,
These are the bounty of Normandy.