Dora Sigerson Shorter.

The Story and Song of Black Roderick online

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Dora Sigerson


This is the story of Black Earl Roderick, the story and the song of his
pride and of his humbling; of the bitterness of his heart, and of the love
that came to it at last; of his threatened destruction, and the strange
and wonderful way of his salvation.

So shall I begin and tell.

He left his gray castle at the dawn of the morning, and with many a knight
to bear him company rode, not eager and swift, like a prince who went to
find a treasure, but steady and slow, as we should go to meet sorrow. Not
one of the hundred men who followed dared to lilt a lay or fling a
laughing jest from his mouth. All rode silent among their gay trappings,
for so saith a song:

_It was the Black Earl Roderick
Who rode towards the south;
The frown was heavy on his brow,
The sneer upon his mouth._

_Behind him rode a hundred men
All gay with plume and spear;
But not a one did lilt a song
His weary way to cheer._

_So stern was Black Earl Roderick
Upon his wedding-day,
To none he spake a single word
Who met him on his way._

And of those that passed him as he went there were none who dared to bid
him God-speed, and only one whispered at all; she was Mora of the
Knowledge, who was picking herbs in a lonely place and saw him ride.

"There goeth the hunter," said she; "'tis a white doe that thou wouldst
kill. High hanging to thee, my lord, upon a windy day!"

And of all the flying things he met in his going, one only dared to put
pain upon him, and she was a honeybee who stabbed his cheek with her

"Would I could slay thee," she cried, "ere thou rob the hive of its

And of all the creeping things that passed him on his way, only one tried
to stay him; she was the bramble who cast her thorn across his path so his
steed wellnigh stumbled.

"Would I could make thee fall, Black Earl, who now art so high, ere thou
rob fruit from the branch!"

Only one living thing upon the mountains saw him go without mourning, and
he was the red weasel who took the world as he found it.

"Tears will not heal a wound," saith he, "but they will quench a fire. Thy
hive is in danger, bee," quoth he. "Bramble, thy flowers are scattered and
thy fruit lost."

But the Black Earl did not heed or hear anything outside his own thoughts.
They were sharper than the bee's sword and less easy to cast aside than
the entrapping bramble.

When he reached the castle wherein his bride did dwell, he blew three
blasts upon the horn that hung beside the gate, and in answer to his call
a voice cried out to him. But what it said I shall sing thee, lest thou
grow weary of my prose:

_"Come in, come in, Earl Roderick,
Come in or you be late;
The priest is ready in his stole.
The wedding guests await."_

_And then the stern Earl Roderick
From his fierce steed came down;
The sneer still curled upon his lip,
His eyes still held the frown._

_He strode right haughtily and quick
Into the banquet-hall,
And stood among the wedding guests,
The greatest of them all._

_He gave scant greeting to the throng,
He waved the guests aside:
"Now haste! for I, Earl Roderick,
Will wait long for no bride!_

_"And I must in the saddle be
Before the night is gray;
So quickly with the marriage lines,
And let us ride away."_

And now shall I tell thee how, as he spoke thus proud and heartlessly, his
little bride came into the hall? So white was she, and so trembled she,
that many wondered she did not sink upon the marble floor and die.

Her mother held her snow-white hand, weeping bitterly the while.

"If I had my will," thought she, "this thing should never be. Oh, sharp
sorrow," sobbed she, "this for a woman: my trouble thou art, and my
thousand treasures."

Her father, seeing the frowning Earl, muttered in his beard:

"Would there were some other way. Stern is he and hard, to wear a young
maid's heart." And then aloud he spoke, laying his hands upon the yellow
curls of his child: "This is the golden link that binds the clans. God's
sweet love be upon her head, for she hath healed a cruel and evil quarrel
between the two houses. Lift up your voices, my comrades, and make ye
merry; it is a good deed you have helped in to-day."

Now, when the guests turned with their laughter and gentle jesting to the
newly married pair, the Black Earl relented not his frown. With scant
courtesy and brief good-bye he mounted upon his fretting steed, vowing he
could no longer stay. Up before him they lifted the young bride.

"'Tis a rough place to carry the child," wept the sad mother.

But her father smiled upon the Black Earl.

"Where but upon his heart should she rest? Is that not so, my son?"

"If it be not cold," muttered the sullen bridegroom, drawing his rein.

"Wrap thy cloak about her," cried the father, waving farewell.

"Wrap thy love about her," wept the mother, hiding her face.

So rode the Black Earl and his bride, followed by his sullen men-at-arms,
gay with their wedding favors.

To his weary little bride he spoke no gentle word, though she fluttered
weeping upon his breast like to some wounded thing.

For in his heart the gloomy Earl spake bitterly, and said he:

"Not upon thy hand did I hope to place my golden ring; I have put my own
true love aside, to keep the clans together, and wedding thee thus have I
been false to the desires of my heart, so do I turn from thee who art my

Thus did he take her to his castle in silence, and, lifting her from his
steed, bid her enter the strong gates before him.

So shut they with a clang upon her youth and her merry heart, and she
became the neglected mistress of the gray towers she had looked on from
afar, and bride of the great Earl she had dreamed of so long.

But to the Black Roderick she was as nothing; he sought her not, neither
did he speak of her; she was but the cruel small hand that closed upon his
heart and drew it from its love, claiming him in honor her own. And to her
claim was he faithful, turning even his thoughts away, lest he should be
false to his vow. But no more than this did he give her.

So was she left alone, the young bride who did not understand a man's
ways, and, fearing where she loved, hid from his presence lest he should
look upon her in hate. Oft had she dreamed of the wonder of being the wife
of this proud Earl, in trembling desire and hope, hearing her parents
speak of him and of the troth. Oft had she listened to their murmured
words, as they spoke of the clans and the peace these two could bring.

"Stern he is, and black for the young child," said her mother, "and I am
afraid"; but the child stole away to the hill behind her father's castle,
and there looked into the valley of Baile-ata-Cliat to watch the white
towers of the Black Earl glistening in the sun, to dream and to tremble.

And as she gazed a honey-bee hummed in her ear, "Go not to the great

And as she smiled she raised her hand between her eyes and the far-off
towers so she could not see.

"Nay," quoth she, "it is a small place; my hand can cover it."

"Ring a chime," saith she to the heather shaking its bells in the wind,
"ring for me a wedding chime, for I am to be the bride of the Earl

She kissed the wild bramble lifting its petals in the sun.

"I shall return to thee soon."

And so, springing to her feet, she ran laughing down the hill, and as she
ran the spirit of the hills was with her, blowing in her eyes and lifting
her soft hair.

"I shall return to thee soon," she said again, and so entered her father's
house and prepared herself for her betrothed.

What of her dream was there now? She was indeed the Earl's bride, but,
alack! she was divorced from his heart and was naught to his days.

Never did she sit by his knee when he drew his chair by the fire, weary
from the chase, nor lean beside him while he slept, to wonder at her
happiness. Down the great halls she went, looking through the narrow
windows on the outside world, as a brown moth flutters at the pane, weary
of an imprisonment that had in its hold the breath of death.

Weary and pale grew she, and more morose and stern the Black Earl, and of
their tragedy there seemed no end. But when a year had nigh passed, one
rosy morning a servant-lass met Black Roderick as he came from his
chamber, her eyes heavy with tears.

And of what she said I shall sing, lest thou grow weary of my prose:

_"Alas!" she said, "Earl Roderick,
'Tis well that you should know
That each gray eve, lone wandering,
My mistress dear doth go._

_"She comes with sorrow in her eyes
Home in the dawning light;
My lord, she is so weak and young
To travel in the night."_

_Now stern grew Black Earl Roderick,
But answered not at all;
He took his hunting harness down
That hung upon the wall._

_Then quickly went he to the chase,
And slowly came he back,
And there he met his old sweetheart,
Who stood across his track._

So shall I tell how she, sighing and white of face, laid her soft hand
upon his bridle-rein so he could not go from her. Her breath came out of
her like the hissing of a trodden snake, poisoning the ear of the

"Bend to me thy proud head, Black Earl," quoth she, "for it shall be low
enough soon. This is a tale I bring to thee of sorrow and shame. Bend me
thy proud neck, Black Roderick, for the burden I must lay upon it shall
bow thee as the snow does the mountain pine. Bend to me thine ear."

To him then she said:

"Where goeth your mistress?"

"What care I?" said the Black Earl, "since she be not thou."

"If she were I," said his lost love, "she would seek no other save thee

"What sayest thou?" said the Black Earl, pale as death.

"Each night she goeth through the woods of Glenasmole to the hill of brown
Kippure, and there lingereth until the dawn be chill."

"Who hath her love?" saith the Black Earl.

"A shepherd, or mayhap a swineherd - who knoweth?" quoth the serpent voice.
"By no brave prince art thou supplanted."

At this the Black Earl struck his hand upon his breast.

"Lord pity me," quoth he, "that in my time should come the stain upon our
honored house! My name, that was so white, shall now blush red. My proud
ancestors will curse me from their tomb. Let thou go my rein, that I may
seek this wanton and give her ready punishment."

So quick he drew the rein from her hand that she wellnigh stumbled. And
like one bereft of mind he rode through the woods and up the hill seeking
his false bride. High and low he searched, but no sign of his lost
mistress did he discover. Out in the distance he saw the shining city of
Baile-ata-Cliat, on the near wood side of which his gray towers stood. He
could see the flag on its topmost turret waving in the breeze like a
beckoning finger calling him back from his futile search. He turned him
about, and on every side of him were the shadowy mountains watching him
and appalling him with their mystery. Impatient he turned his eyes upon
the ground; a bramble moving in the wind cast itself about his feet. He
crushed it under his heel. A bee darting from one of the trodden flowers
made a battle-cry, and bared her sting for his neck. He struck it down
among the leaves; following its fall, his eyes, drawn by some other eyes,
rested on a hollow by a stone. There he saw gazing at him the whiskered
face of a red weasel, looking without pity, without fear.

"Evil beast!" said the Black Earl, glad to speak, for the silence of all
the listening things who watched him made his heart beat with unwonted
quickness, and he knew they were so many silent judges reading the evil of
his soul. "Get thee gone," quoth the Black Earl. "Darest thou gaze upon me
without fear?"

But the red weasel, resting at the doorway of his hole, did not blink a
lid of his sharp eyes.

"Who art thou that evil should droop ashamed before thee?" said a voice,
and the Black Earl turned as though a stone had struck him.

Now, when he looked east and west, no one could he see, but when he turned
him south, there among the trees he saw an old, bent woman gathering
herbs. He turned his horse and, full of rage, drove it towards her.

"Was it not thy voice that hurt my ears as I stood upon the hill?" quoth
the Black Earl, his tongue silken in his rage.

"Nay," said the ancient crone; "I heard but the linnet's song upon the
tree, and the sound of running water that is murmuring in the grove.
Listen, and thou, too, shalt hear."

"Nay," quoth she again, for the Black Earl scowled so at her that she
feared to be silent. "If I said this thing, why should it vex the ear of
so proud a knight? Yonder black rook did look into my face with an
inquisitive eye as I plucked my herbs and harmed no man, so I, angry at
the wicked one, cursed him begone. As he flew affrighted at my hand, I
turned my eyes into my own heart. The birds and I, do we not both root in
the cold earth, seeking to draw from it our desires? Black and ill-looking,
we dig all day. 'Who art thou,' quoth I to myself, 'that evil should fly
before thee?' Wicked that I am," cried the witch, "and sorrow upon me that
my words have vexed thine ears!"

Now the Black Earl did look upon her in anger, and but half believed her
tale. His trouble being heavy upon him, he bade her leave her lamenting
and answer his question.

"There is one," quoth he, "who doth wander upon the hill-side, far from
her home, a lady of high degree; sawest thou any such," saith he, "for I
have sought her long?"

Now will I sing thee what was said and what happened, lest thou grow weary
of my prose:

_"I have not seen your lady here,"
The withered dame replied;
"But I have met a little lass
Who wrung her hands and cried._

_"She was not clad in silken robe,
Nor rode a palfrey white,
She had no maidens in her train,
Behind her rode no knight._

_"But she crept weary up yon hill
And crouched upon the sward;
I dare not think that she could be
Spouse to so great a lord."_

_Now darkly frowned Earl Roderick,
He turned his face away;
And shame and anger in his heart
Disturbed him with their sway._

_For he had never cared to know
What his young bride would wear;
He gave her neither horse nor hound,
Nor jewels for her hair._

Now shall I tell how the Black Earl clapped his hand upon his dagger, and
said in a great rage: "Where went this little lass, and whom hath she by
her side? for whoever he be, I shall show to him no pity. Neither shall
her tears save her. Nor shall thy age serve thee, witch, if thou hast
spoken not the truth. Whither went they, so I may follow, as the hound
goes on the trail of the deer?"

"Oh, sharp sorrow thy anger is!" cried the old crone; "what can I say,
save what my eye hath seen and my ear hath heard? The little lass passed
me as I gathered my herbs under the dew. She hath by her side no lord nor
lover. She went sad and alone. Here climbed she the height of the hill,
and there sat she making her lament."

"And what lament made she?" said the Black Earl, putting his dagger into
its sheath.

"Once called she on her father, as one who drowns in deep waters would
call upon a passing ship. Twice called she upon her mother, as one would
call upon a house of rest or of hospitality. Thrice called she upon Earl
Roderick, as one would call at the gates of paradise, there to find rescue
and love."

"And said she naught else?" said the Black Earl, his head upon his breast.

"Yea," quoth the crone, "when she called upon her father, she smiled
through her tears. 'Didst thou know I perish,' quoth she, 'thy arms would
reach to save me!'

"And when she called twice upon her mother, her mouth smiled even the
same, 'for didst thou learn my hunger, thy heart would warm me to life
again'; but when she called three times upon Earl Roderick, she paused as
though for an answer, and smiled no more. 'Thee,' quoth she, 'I perish
for, I hunger for. Thou lovest me not at all.'

"So did she sit and make her moan upon the hill, and here watched she the
lights in the far windows of her lost home quench themselves one by one.
'Now,' quoth she, 'my mother sleepeth, and now my father. And now by all
am I forgotten.' Then did she steal, in the dim light, down from the hill,
and I saw her no more."

"What didst thou tell to her, old witch?" quoth the Black Earl, "as she
passed weeping? Didst thou speak to her no word?"

"I stopped her as she passed me, proud Earl," quoth the crone, "for she
was gentle, and held her head not too high to look upon one old and near
unto death.

"'Weep not,' said I, 'but spread to me thy fingers, so I may read what
fate thou holdest in thy palm.' And like a child she smiled between her

"'Look only on luck,' quoth she, 'oh, ancient one, lest my heart break
even now.' I spread her pink fingertips out as one would unruffle a rose,
and read therein her fate."

"And what read you there?" said the Black Earl, impatient with her delay.

"I read," quoth the crone, "and if I say, thou must keep thy anger from
me, for what I read I had not written:

_"I traced upon her slender palm
That luck was changing soon;
I swore that peace would come to her
Before another moon._

_"I said that he who loved her well
Would robe her all in silk,
And bear her in a coach of gold,
With palfreys white as milk._

_"I told, before three suns had set
He'd kneel down by her side;
That he she loved would love her well,
And she would be his bride._

"'This before three suns have set,' so read I," quoth the crone.

Now, when the Black Earl heard so much, he would hear no more. Pallid grew
his angry cheek, and his eyes were full of fire; he flung himself upon his
horse, and, sparing not the beast, galloped home.

"In the highest tower shall I lock the jade," quoth he, "lest she bring me
shame; for what her palm had writ upon it one must believe, and who dare
love her, save I who will not? And should I die, wherefore should she not
be another's? And should I not die - but this no man dare, for I shall tear
his tongue from his mouth, his ear from his cheek, his heart from his
body, ere he speak or listen to a word to my dishonor."

Now, when he reached his castle, no man ventured to speak to him, or look
upon him with too inquisitive an eye, for his anger was such that one
trembled to approach him.

And at the gate of his castle sat his old love upon her palfrey, with a
stern face and grim; behind her, resting upon their way, came her
followers, knight and lady, gay with banner and spear, whispering in their
telling of the story.

"A curse upon the wandering feet that have brought disgrace upon thy
house," quoth his old love, her hand so tight upon the rein that the two
pages could hardly keep the horse from rearing.

But the proud Earl to her made no answer, neither to bid her welcome, nor
to bid her go, nor to speak of his fears. Into his breast he locked his
grief so that none might know the strain wellnigh broke the stony casket
of his heart.

When he leaped from his horse there came to him his little brother.

"My grief!" said the boy, "what has happened in the night, for I heard the
banshee sobbing so bitterly through the dark?"

No answer made the Black Earl to the boy, neither did he lift him in his
arms nor chide him for his weeping, but passed silent into his own
chamber, and crouched within his chair. When after a time he raised his
eyes, he seemed to see his young bride gazing upon him from the open door.
And in his anger he sprang to seize her, but only the empty air came to
his hands.

He mounted the marble stairs to her chamber to seek her there, but only
found a sewing-maid, pale and deadly faint.

"Oh, sharp sorrow," quoth she, "from what I have seen this night, Mary
protect me! A white ghost have I seen - evil it may bring to me - a white
ghost with dim eyes of the dead!"

"Whither went she?" said the Black Earl, angry in his need.

"Into thy chamber, great Earl!" cried the maid; "I saw her at thy bed-head
weeping piteously."

"It was thy lady," quoth the Earl; "lead me her way, and stop thy

"My grief!" the girl said, "her way I know not; when I, deeming her my
mistress, reached her side, she was no more. It is an evil day that cometh
upon us."

Now, when the proud Roderick saw the girl so full of fear, he chid her
cruelly and bade her go. Yet when she had left him he felt a strange and
unwonted coldness settle upon his heart.

The anger against his young bride was quenched, and a dewlike fear grew
upon him. But of what befell him I shall now sing to thee, lest thou grow
weary of my prose:

_All silent Black Earl Roderick
Went to his room away,
Full angry, with his throbbing heart
And fitful fancy's play._

_He sat him by the bright hearth-side,
And turned towards the door;
And there upon the threshold stood
His lady, weeping sore._

_He chased her down the winding stair,
And out into the night,
But only found a withered crone,
With long hair, loose and white._

_"Come hither now, you sly-faced witch;
Come hither now to me.
Say if a lady all so pale
Your evil eyes did see?"_

_"Oh, true, I saw a little lass,
She went all white as snow;
She crossed my hands with silver crown
Just two short hours ago."_

_"What did you tell the foolish wench,
Who must my lady be?
The false tale you did tell to her
You now must tell to me."_

_"I hate you, Black Earl Roderick,
You're cruel, hard, and cold;
Yet you shall grieve like a young child
Before the moon is cold._

_"This did I tell her, like a queen
She'd ride into the town;
And every man who met her there
Would on his knees go down._

_"I said that he who followed none
Would walk behind her now,
And in his trembling hand the helm
From his uncovered brow._

_"Then he should walk, while she would ride,
Through all the town away;
And greater than Earl Roderick
She would become that day."_

And now shall I tell how laughed the Black Earl aloud and scornful at the
witch's tale.

"No lady in the land," quoth he, "could so enslave me, and no woman yet
was born who hath my honor and glory."

So spoke Earl Roderick, and by these words shalt thou hold him, heart-whole
and vain withal, for the hour of his sorrow had not yet struck.

Now turned he to the dame, and, chiding her, bade her begone.

"Thy tale," saith he, "is full of weariness. It hath neither wisdom nor

Turning from her in anger, home went he, and flung himself before the
dying fire in his chamber, a frown between his brows. And again a cold
fear turned closely about his heart. Raising his eyes, he saw no more
terrible a thing than his young bride, with a face of grievous pain,
looking upon him from the door. Then he spoke her gently.

"Come," quoth he, "sad-faced one, why dost thou torment me? One question
only shall I ask thee, and this must thou answer. Whom hast thou met upon
the hill? For the witch woman hath told me a wearisome tale, which I shall
not lend my ear to."

Now, when he spoke, his young bride neither answered nor came, but gazed
from the threshold upon him in silence. So he got up in anger and went her
way. Through the chamber strode he, and she was yet before him, and
without sound went she down the hall and stair. So out through the open
door, and the men-at-arms let her pass, though the Black Earl bid them
stay her feet, and gazed bewildered, seeing only their stern master
running alone, with fierce eyes, such as a hound doth cast upon a young
hare. Quick as the Black Earl ran, the little bride was before.

Through sleepy woods and honey-perfumed plains, all through the night did
he chase her, but never once did he reach her, nor ever once did she pause
to rest.

When the morning sun was high, she led him up to the lights of Brown
Kippure, and there vanished from his sight.

Now, when the Black Earl perceived this wondrous thing, he felt his heart

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Online LibraryDora Sigerson ShorterThe Story and Song of Black Roderick → online text (page 1 of 4)