The Ballad of the White Horse, by Chesterton, G. K.

Book IV

The Woman in the Forest

Thick thunder of the snorting swine,

Enormous in the gloam,

Rending among all roots that cling,

And the wild horses whinnying,

Were the night’s noises when the King

Shouldering his harp, went home.

With eyes of owl and feet of fox,

Full of all thoughts he went;

He marked the tilt of the pagan camp,

The paling of pine, the sentries’ tramp,

And the one great stolen altar-lamp

Over Guthrum in his tent.

By scrub and thorn in Ethandune

That night the foe had lain;

Whence ran across the heather grey

The old stones of a Roman way;

And in a wood not far away

The pale road split in twain.

He marked the wood and the cloven ways

With an old captain’s eyes,

And he thought how many a time had he

Sought to see Doom he could not see;

How ruin had come and victory,

And both were a surprise.

Even so he had watched and wondered

Under Ashdown from the plains;

With Ethelred praying in his tent,

Till the white hawthorn swung and bent,

As Alfred rushed his spears and rent

The shield-wall of the Danes.

Even so he had watched and wondered,

Knowing neither less nor more,

Till all his lords lay dying,

And axes on axes plying,

Flung him, and drove him flying

Like a pirate to the shore.

Wise he had been before defeat,

And wise before success;

Wise in both hours and ignorant,

Knowing neither more nor less.

As he went down to the river-hut

He knew a night-shade scent,

Owls did as evil cherubs rise,

With little wings and lantern eyes,

As though he sank through the under-skies;

But down and down he went.

As he went down to the river-hut

He went as one that fell;

Seeing the high forest domes and spars.

Dim green or torn with golden scars,

As the proud look up at the evil stars,

In the red heavens of hell.

For he must meet by the river-hut

Them he had bidden to arm,

Mark from the towers of Italy,

And Colan of the Sacred Tree,

And Eldred who beside the sea

Held heavily his farm.

The roof leaned gaping to the grass,

As a monstrous mushroom lies;

Echoing and empty seemed the place;

But opened in a little space

A great grey woman with scarred face

And strong and humbled eyes.

King Alfred was but a meagre man,

Bright eyed, but lean and pale:

And swordless, with his harp and rags,

He seemed a beggar, such as lags

Looking for crusts and ale.

And the woman, with a woman’s eyes

Of pity at once and ire,

Said, when that she had glared a span,

“There is a cake for any man

If he will watch the fire.”

And Alfred, bowing heavily,

Sat down the fire to stir,

And even as the woman pitied him

So did he pity her.

Saying, “O great heart in the night,

O best cast forth for worst,

Twilight shall melt and morning stir,

And no kind thing shall come to her,

Till God shall turn the world over

And all the last are first.

“And well may God with the serving-folk

Cast in His dreadful lot;

Is not He too a servant,

And is not He forgot?

“For was not God my gardener

And silent like a slave;

That opened oaks on the uplands

Or thicket in graveyard gave?

“And was not God my armourer,

All patient and unpaid,

That sealed my skull as a helmet,

And ribs for hauberk made?

“Did not a great grey servant

Of all my sires and me,

Build this pavilion of the pines,

And herd the fowls and fill the vines,

And labour and pass and leave no signs

Save mercy and mystery?

“For God is a great servant,

And rose before the day,

From some primordial slumber torn;

But all we living later born

Sleep on, and rise after the morn,

And the Lord has gone away.

“On things half sprung from sleeping,

All sleepy suns have shone,

They stretch stiff arms, the yawning trees,

The beasts blink upon hands and knees,

Man is awake and does and sees —

But Heaven has done and gone.

“For who shall guess the good riddle

Or speak of the Holiest,

Save in faint figures and failing words,

Who loves, yet laughs among the swords,

Labours, and is at rest?

“But some see God like Guthrum,

Crowned, with a great beard curled,

But I see God like a good giant,

That, labouring, lifts the world.

“Wherefore was God in Golgotha,

Slain as a serf is slain;

And hate He had of prince and peer,

And love He had and made good cheer,

Of them that, like this woman here,

Go powerfully in pain.

“But in this grey morn of man’s life,

Cometh sometime to the mind

A little light that leaps and flies,

Like a star blown on the wind.

“A star of nowhere, a nameless star,

A light that spins and swirls,

And cries that even in hedge and hill,

Even on earth, it may go ill

At last with the evil earls.

“A dancing sparkle, a doubtful star,

On the waste wind whirled and driven;

But it seems to sing of a wilder worth,

A time discrowned of doom and birth,

And the kingdom of the poor on earth

Come, as it is in heaven.

“But even though such days endure,

How shall it profit her?

Who shall go groaning to the grave,

With many a meek and mighty slave,

Field-breaker and fisher on the wave,

And woodman and waggoner.

“Bake ye the big world all again

A cake with kinder leaven;

Yet these are sorry evermore —

Unless there be a little door,

A little door in heaven.”

And as he wept for the woman

He let her business be,

And like his royal oath and rash

The good food fell upon the ash

And blackened instantly.

Screaming, the woman caught a cake

Yet burning from the bar,

And struck him suddenly on the face,

Leaving a scarlet scar.

King Alfred stood up wordless,

A man dead with surprise,

And torture stood and the evil things

That are in the childish hearts of kings

An instant in his eyes.

And even as he stood and stared

Drew round him in the dusk

Those friends creeping from far-off farms,

Marcus with all his slaves in arms,

And the strange spears hung with ancient charms

Of Colan of the Usk.

With one whole farm marching afoot

The trampled road resounds,

Farm-hands and farm-beasts blundering by

And jars of mead and stores of rye,

Where Eldred strode above his high

And thunder-throated hounds.

And grey cattle and silver lowed

Against the unlifted morn,

And straw clung to the spear-shafts tall.

And a boy went before them all

Blowing a ram’s horn.

As mocking such rude revelry,

The dim clan of the Gael

Came like a bad king’s burial-end,

With dismal robes that drop and rend

And demon pipes that wail —

In long, outlandish garments,

Torn, though of antique worth,

With Druid beards and Druid spears,

As a resurrected race appears

Out of an elder earth.

And though the King had called them forth

And knew them for his own,

So still each eye stood like a gem,

So spectral hung each broidered hem,

Grey carven men he fancied them,

Hewn in an age of stone.

And the two wild peoples of the north

Stood fronting in the gloam,

And heard and knew each in its mind

The third great thunder on the wind,

The living walls that hedge mankind,

The walking walls of Rome.

Mark’s were the mixed tribes of the west,

Of many a hue and strain,

Gurth, with rank hair like yellow grass,

And the Cornish fisher, Gorlias,

And Halmer, come from his first mass,

Lately baptized, a Dane.

But like one man in armour

Those hundreds trod the field,

From red Arabia to the Tyne

The earth had heard that marching-line,

Since the cry on the hill Capitoline,

And the fall of the golden shield.

And the earth shook and the King stood still

Under the greenwood bough,

And the smoking cake lay at his feet

And the blow was on his brow.

Then Alfred laughed out suddenly,

Like thunder in the spring,

Till shook aloud the lintel-beams,

And the squirrels stirred in dusty dreams,

And the startled birds went up in streams,

For the laughter of the King.

And the beasts of the earth and the birds looked down,

In a wild solemnity,

On a stranger sight than a sylph or elf,

On one man laughing at himself

Under the greenwood tree —

The giant laughter of Christian men

That roars through a thousand tales,

Where greed is an ape and pride is an ass,

And Jack’s away with his master’s lass,

And the miser is banged with all his brass,

The farmer with all his flails;

Tales that tumble and tales that trick,

Yet end not all in scorning —

Of kings and clowns in a merry plight,

And the clock gone wrong and the world gone right,

That the mummers sing upon Christmas night

And Christmas Day in the morning.

“Now here is a good warrant,”

Cried Alfred, “by my sword;

For he that is struck for an ill servant

Should be a kind lord.

“He that has been a servant

Knows more than priests and kings,

But he that has been an ill servant,

He knows all earthly things.

“Pride flings frail palaces at the sky,

As a man flings up sand,

But the firm feet of humility

Take hold of heavy land.

“Pride juggles with her toppling towers,

They strike the sun and cease,

But the firm feet of humility

They grip the ground like trees.

“He that hath failed in a little thing

Hath a sign upon the brow;

And the Earls of the Great Army

Have no such seal to show.

“The red print on my forehead,

Small flame for a red star,

In the van of the violent marching, then

When the sky is torn of the trumpets ten,

And the hands of the happy howling men

Fling wide the gates of war.

“This blow that I return not

Ten times will I return

On kings and earls of all degree,

And armies wide as empires be

Shall slide like landslips to the sea

If the red star burn.

“One man shall drive a hundred,

As the dead kings drave;

Before me rocking hosts be riven,

And battering cohorts backwards driven,

For I am the first king known of Heaven

That has been struck like a slave.

“Up on the old white road, brothers,

Up on the Roman walls!

For this is the night of the drawing of swords,

And the tainted tower of the heathen hordes

Leans to our hammers, fires and cords,

Leans a little and falls.

“Follow the star that lives and leaps,

Follow the sword that sings,

For we go gathering heathen men,

A terrible harvest, ten by ten,

As the wrath of the last red autumn — then

When Christ reaps down the kings.

“Follow a light that leaps and spins,

Follow the fire unfurled!

For riseth up against realm and rod,

A thing forgotten, a thing downtrod,

The last lost giant, even God,

Is risen against the world.”

Roaring they went o’er the Roman wall,

And roaring up the lane,

Their torches tossed a ladder of fire,

Higher their hymn was heard and higher,

More sweet for hate and for heart’s desire,

And up in the northern scrub and brier,

They fell upon the Dane.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30