A True Incident of Pre-Revolutionary French History.
by Amy Levy
Now the lovely autumn morning breathes its freshness in earth's face,
In the crowned castle courtyard the blithe horn proclaims the chase;
And the ladies on the terrace smile adieux with rosy lips
To the huntsmen disappearing down the cedar-shaded groves,
Wafting delicate aromas from their scented finger tips,
And the gallants wave in answer, with their gold-embroidered gloves.
On they rode, past bush and bramble, on they rode, past elm and oak;
And the hounds, with anxious nostril, sniffed the heather-scented air,
Till at last, within his stirrups, up Lord Gaston rose, and spoke--
He, the boldest and the bravest of the wealthy nobles there :
'Friends,' quoth he, 'the time hangs heavy, for it is not as we thought,
And these woods, tho' fair and shady, will afford, I fear, no sport.
Shall we hence, then, worthy kinsmen, and desert the hunter's track
For the chateau, where the wine cup and the dice cup tempt us back?'
'Ay,' the nobles shout in chorus ; 'Ay,' the powder'd lacquey cries;
Then they stop with eager movement, reining in quite suddenly;
Peering down with half contemptuous, half with wonder-opened eyes
At a 'something' which is crawling, with slow step, from tree to tree.
Is't some shadow phantom ghastly ? No, a woman and a child,
Swarthy woman, with the 'gipsy' written clear upon her face;
Gazing round her with her wide eyes dark, and shadow-fringed, and wild,
With the cowed suspicious glances of a persecuted race.
Then they all, with unasked question, in each other's faces peer,
For a common thought has struck them, one their lips dare scarcely say,--
Till Lord Gaston cries, impatient, 'Why regret the stately deer
When such sport as yonder offers? quick ! unleash the dogs--away!'
Then they breath'd a shout of cheering, grey-haired man and stripling boy,
And the gipsy, roused to terror, stayed her step, and turned her head--
Saw the faces of those huntsmen, lit with keenest cruel joy--
Sent a cry of grief to Heaven, closer clasped her child, and fled!
* * * * * * *
O ye nobles of the palace! O ye gallant-hearted lords!
Who would stoop for Leila's kerchief, or for Clementina's gloves,
Who would rise up all indignant, with your shining sheathless swords,
At the breathing of dishonour to your languid lady loves!
O, I tell you, daring nobles, with your beauty-loving stare,
Who ne'er long the coy coquetting of the courtly dames withstood,
Tho' a woman be the lowest, and the basest, and least fair,
In your manliness forget not to respect her womanhood,
And thou, gipsy, that hast often the pursuer fled before,
That hast felt ere this the shadow of dark death upon thy brow,
That hast hid among the mountains, that hast roamed the forest o'er,
Bred to hiding, watching, fleeing, may thy speed avail thee now!
* * * * * * *
Still she flees, and ever fiercer tear the hungry hounds behind,
Still she flees, and ever faster follow there the huntsmen on,
Still she flees, her black hair streaming in a fury to the wind,
Still she flees, tho' all the glimmer of a happy hope is gone.
'Eh? what? baffled by a woman! Ah, sapristi! she can run!
Should she 'scape us, it would crown us with dishonour and disgrace;
It is time' (Lord Gaston shouted) 'such a paltry chase were done!'
And the fleeter grew her footsteps, so the hotter grew the chase--
Ha! at last! the dogs are on her! will she struggle ere she dies?
See! she holds her child above her, all forgetful of her pain,
While a hundred thousand curses shoot out darkly from her eyes,
And a hundred thousand glances of the bitterest disdain.
Ha! the dogs are pressing closer! they have flung her to the ground;
Yet her proud lips never open with the dying sinner's cry--
Till at last, unto the Heavens, just two fearful shrieks resound,
When the soul is all forgotten in the body's agony!
Let them rest there, child and mother, in the shadow of the oak,
On the tender mother-bosom of that earth from which they came.
As they slow rode back those huntsmen neither laughed, nor sang, nor spoke,
Hap, there lurked unowned within them throbbings of a secret shame.
But before the flow'ry terrace, where the ladies smiling sat,
With their graceful nothings trifling all the weary time away,
Low Lord Gaston bowed, and raising high his richly 'broider'd hat,
'Fairest ladies, give us welcome! 'Twas a famous hunt to-day.'