by Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833 – 1870)
Rixa super mero
They sat by their wine in the tavern that night,
But not in good fellowship true:
The Rhenish was strong and the Burgundy bright,
And hotter the argument grew.
‘I asked your consent when I first sought her hand,
Nor did you refuse to agree,
Tho’ her father declared that the half of his land
Her dower at our wedding should be.’
‘No dower shall be given (the brother replied)
With a maiden of beauty so rare,
Nor yet shall my father my birthright divide,
Our lands with a foeman to share.’
The knight stood erect in the midst of the hall,
And sterner his visage became,
‘Now, shame and dishonour my ‘scutcheon befall
If thus I relinquish my claim.’
The brother then drained a tall goblet of wine,
And fiercely this answer he made —
‘Before like a coward my rights I resign
I’ll claim an appeal to the blade.
‘The passes at Yarrow are rugged and wide,
There meet me to-morrow alone;
This quarrel we two with our swords will decide,
And one shall this folly atone.’
They’ve settled the time and they’ve settled the place,
They’ve paid for the wine and the ale,
They’ve bitten their gloves, and their steps they retrace
To their castles in Ettrick’s Vale.
Morituri (te) salutant
Now, buckle my broadsword at my side
And saddle my trusty steed;
And bid me adieu, my bonnie bride,
To Yarrow I go with speed.
‘I’ve passed through many a bloody fray,
Unharmed in health or limb;
Then why’s your brow so sad this day
And your dark eye so dim?’
‘Oh, belt not on your broadsword bright,
Oh! leave your steed in the stall,
For I dreamt last night of a stubborn fight,
And I dreamt I saw you fall.’
‘On Yarrow’s braes there will be strife,
Yet I am safe from ill;
And if I thought it would cost my life
I must take this journey still.’
He turned his charger to depart
In the misty morning air,
But he stood and pressed her to his heart
And smoothed her glossy hair.
And her red lips he fondly kissed
Beside the castle door,
And he rode away in the morning mist,
And he never saw her more!
Heu! deserta domus
She sits by the eastern casement now,
And the sunlight enters there,
And settles on her ivory brow
And gleams in her golden hair.
On the deerskin rug the staghound lies
And dozes dreamily,
And the quaint carved oak reflects the dyes
Of the curtain’s canopy.
The lark has sprung from the new-mown hay,
And the plover’s note is shrill
And the song of the mavis far away
Comes from the distant hill;
And in the wide courtyard below
She heard the horses neigh,
The men-at-arms pass to and fro
The scraps of border-lay.
She heard each boisterous oath and jest
The rough moss-troopers made,
Who scoured the rust from spur or crest,
Or polished bit or blade.
They loved her well, those rugged men —
How could they be so gay
When he perchance in some lone glen
Lay dying far away?
She was a fearless Border girl,
Who from her earliest days
Had seen the banners oft unfurl
And the war-beacons blaze —
Had seen her father’s men march out,
Roused by the trumpet’s call,
And heard the foeman’s savage shout
Close to their fortress wall.
And when her kin were arming fast,
Had belted many a brand —
Why was her spirit now o’ercast?
Where was her self-command?
She strove to quell those childish fears,
Unworthy of her name;
She dashed away the rising tears,
And, flushed with pride and shame,
She rose and hurried down the stair,
The castle yard to roam;
And she met her elder sister there,
Come from their father’s home,
‘Sister, I’ve ridden here alone,
Your lord and you to greet.’
‘Sister, to Yarrow he has gone
Our brother there to meet;
I dreamt last night of a stubborn fray
Where I saw him fall and bleed,
And he rode away at break of day
With his broadsword and his steed.’
‘Oh! sister dear, there will be strife:
Our brother likes him ill,
And one or both must forfeit life
On Yarrow’s lonely hill.’
A stout moss-trooper, standing near,
Spoke with a careless smile:
‘Now, have no fear for my master dear —
He may travel many a mile,
And those who ride on the Border side,
Albeit they like him not,
They know his mettle has oft been tried
Where blows were thick and hot.
He left command that none should go
From hence till home he came;
But, lady, the truth you soon shall know
If you will bear the blame.
Your palfrey fair I’ll saddle with care,
Your sister shall ride the grey,
And I’ll mount myself on the sorrel mare,
And to Yarrow we’ll haste away.’
The sun was low in the western sky,
And steep was the mountain track,
But they rode from the castle rapidly —
Oh! how will they travel back?
He came to the spot where his foe had agreed
To meet him in Yarrow’s dark glade,
And there he drew rein amd dismounted his steed,
And fastened him under the shade.
Close by in the greenwood the ambush was set,
And scarce had he entered the glen
When, armed for the combat, the brother he met,
And with him were eight of his men.
‘Now, swear to relinquish all claim to our land,
Or to give as a hostage your bride!
Or fly if you’re able, or yield where you stand,
Or die as your betters have died!’
His doublet and hat on the greensward he threw,
He wrapt round the left arm his cloak;
And out of its scabbard his broadsword he drew,
And stood with his back to an oak.
‘My claim to your land I refuse to deny,
Nor will I restore you my bride,
Now will I surrender, nor yet will I fly:
Come on, and the steel shall decide!’
Oh! sudden and sure were the blows that he dealt!
Like lightning the sweep of his blade!
Cut and thrust, point and edge, all around him they fell,
They fell one by one in the glade!
And pierced in the gullet their leader goes down!
And sinks with a curse on the plain;
And his squire falls dead! cut through headpiece and crown!
And his groom by a back stroke is slain.
Now five are stretched lifeless; disabled are three!
Hard pressed, see the last caitiff reel!
The brother behind struggles up on one knee,
And drives through his body the steel.
Non habeo mihi facta adhuc cur Herculis uxor
Credar coniugii mors mihi pignus erit.
The traitor’s father heard the tale,
In haste he mounted then,
And spurred his horse from Ettrick Vale
To Yarrow’s lonely glen,
Some troopers followed in his track —
For them he tarried not,
He neither halted nor looked back
Until he found the spot.
The earth was trod and trampled bare,
And stained with dark red dew,
A broken blade lay here, and there
A bonnet cut in two;
And stretched in ghastly shapes around
The lifeless corpses lie,
Some with their faces to the ground,
And some towards the sky.
And there the ancient Border chief
Stood silent and alone —
Too stubborn to give way to grief,
Too stern remorse to own.
A soldier in the midst of strife
Since he had first drawn breath,
He’d grown to undervalue life
And feel at home with death.
And yet he shuddered when he saw
The work that had been done;
He knew his fearless son-in-law,
He knew his dastard son.
Despite the failings of his race
A brave old man was he,
Who would not stoop to actions base,
And hated treachery.
He loved his younger daughter well,
And though severe and rude,
For her sake he had tried to quell
That foolish Border feud.
Her brother all his schemes had marred,
And given his pledge the lie,
And sense of justice struggled hard
With nature’s stronger tie.
He knew his son had richly earned
The stroke that laid him low,
Yet had not quite forgiveness learned
For him that dealt the blow.
There came a tramp of horses’ feet:
He raised his startled eyes,
And felt his pulses throb and beat
With sorrow and surprise.
He saw his daughter riding fast,
And from her steed she sprung,
And on her lover’s corpse she cast
Herself, and round him clung.
Her head she pillowed on his waist,
And all her clustering hair
Hung down, disordered by her haste
In silken masses there.
Her sister and their sturdy guide
Dismounted and drew nigh,
The elder daughter stood aside —
Her tears fell silently.
The stout moss-trooper glanced around
But not a word he said;
He knelt upon the battered ground
And raised his master’s head.
The face had set serene and sad,
Nor was there on the clay
The stamp of that fierce soul which had
In anger passed away.
With dagger blade he ripped the skirt,
The fatal wound to show,
And wiped the stains of blood and dirt
From throat and cheek and brow.
And all the while she did not stir,
She lay there calm and still,
Nor could he hope to comfort her —
Her case was past his skill.
The father first that silence broke;
His voice was firm and clear,
And every accent that he spoke
Fell on the listener’s ear.
‘Daughter, this quarrel to forgo,
I offered half our land
A dower to him — a feudal foe —
When first he sought your hand.
I only asked for some brief while,
Some few short weeks’ delay,
Till I my son could reconcile;
For this he would not stay.
He was your husband, so I’m told;
But you yourself must own
He took you to his fortress-hold
With your consent alone.
Of late the strife broke out anew;
They blame your brother there;
But he was hot and headstrong, too —
He doubtless did his share.
Oh! stout of heart, and strong of hand,
With all his faults was he,
The champion of his Border land;
I ne’er his judge will be!
Now, grieve no more for what is done;
Alike we share the cost;
For, girl, I too have lost a son,
If you your love have lost.
Forget the deed! and learn to call
A worthier man your lord
Than he whose arm has vexed us all;
Here lies his fatal sword.
Think, when you seek his guilt to cloak,
Whose blood has dyed it red.
Who fell beneath its deadly stroke,
Whose life is forfeited.’
The old man paused, for while he spoke
The girl had raised her head.
Her silken hair she proudly dashed
Back from her crimson face!
And in her bright eyes once more flashed
The spirit of her race!
He beauty made her stand abashed!
Her voice rang thro’ the place!
‘Who held the treacherous dagger’s hilt
When against odds he fought?
My brother’s blood was fairly spilt!
But his was basely sought!
Now, Christ absolve his soul from guilt;
He sinned as he was taught!
‘His next of kin by blood and birth
May claim his house and land!
His groom may slack his saddle-girth,
Or bid his charger stand!
But never a man on God’s wide earth
Shall touch his darling’s hand!’
The colour faded from her cheek,
Her eyelids drooped and fell,
And when again she sought to speak
Her accents came so low and weak
Her words they scarce could tell.
‘Oh! father, all I ask is rest —
Here let me once more lie!’
She stretched upon the dead man’s breast
With one long weary sigh;
And the old man bowed his lofty crest
And hid his troubled eye!
They called her, but she spoke no more,
And when they raised her head
She seemed as lovely as before,
Though all her bloom had fled;
But they grew pale at that they saw —
They knew that she was dead!
Dies irae: dies illa
The requiem breaks the midnight air, the funeral bell they toll —
A mass or prayer we well may spare, for a brave moss-trooper’s soul;
And the fairest bride on the Border side, may she too be forgiven!
The dirge we ring, the chant we sing, the rest we leave to Heaven!
About the Author
See our page on Adam Lindsay Gordon. Includes a linked list of all his writing available on our website.