The Scholar's Story

Household Words, Extra Christmas Number, 1853


Elizabeth Gaskell

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“The Scholar’s Story”

The same 1853 Extra Christmas Number of Household Words contained ‘The Scholar’s Story’, a translation into octosyllabic couplets of some of the Breton ballads collected by the Vicomte de la Villemarqué. Possibly William Gaskell, as a linguist, produced the initial rendering, this being subsequently versified with the help of his wife, who probably supplied the brief prose introduction. The narrative tells of a priest’s treachery towards his cousin — a knight who, as a result of the clerk’s deceit, kills his lady, believing she has played him false and, by her neglect, caused the death of their child. Perhaps this contribution was submitted together with ‘The Squire’s Story’, and Dickens thought it would do well enough for the same number.

(Sharps, Mrs. Gaskell’s Observation and Invention, 191)

“The Scholar’s Story”

I PERCEIVE a general fear on the part of this pleasant company, that I am going to burst into black-letter, and beguile the time by being as dry as ashes. No, there is no such fear, you can assure me? I am glad to hear it; but I thought there was. At any rate, both to relieve your minds and to place myself beyond suspicion, I will say at once that my story is a ballad. It was taken down, as I am going to repeat it, seventy-one years ago, by the mother of the person who communicated it to M. Ville-marqué when he was making his collection of Breton Ballads. It is slightly confirmed by the chronicles and Ecclesiastical Acts of the time; but no more of them or you really will suspect me. It runs, according to my version, thus.

I.

SOLE child of her house, a lovely maid,

In the lordly balls of Rohan played.

Played till thirteen, when her sire was bent

To see her wed; and she gave consent.

And many a lord of high degree

Came suing, her chosen knight to be;

But amongst them all there pleased her none

Save the noble Count Mathieu alone;

Lord of the Castle of Trongoli,

A princely knight of Italy.

To him so courteous, true, and brave,

Her heart the maiden freely gave.

Three years since the day they first were wed

In peace and in bliss away had sped,

When tidings came on the winds abroad

That all were to take the cross of God.

Then spake the Count like a noble knight:

“Aye first in birth should be first in fight!

“And, since to this Paynim war I must,

Dear cousin, I leave thee here in trust.

“My wife and my child I leave to thee;

Guard them, good clerk, as thy life for me!”

Early next morn, from his castle gate,

As rode forth the knight in bannered state,

Down the marble steps, all full of fears,

The lady hied her, with moans and tears —

“The loving, sweet lady, sobbing wild —

And, laid on her breast, her baby child.

She ran to her lord with breathless speed,

As backward he reined his fiery steed;

She caught and she clasped him round the knee;

She wept, and she prayed him piteously:

“Oh stay with me, stay! my lord, my love!

Go not, I beg, by the saints above;

“Leave me not here alone, I pray,

To weep on your baby’s face alway!”

The knight was touched with her sad despair,

And fondly gazed on her face so fair;

And stretched out his hand, and stooping low,

Raised her up straight to his saddle-bow;

And held her pressed to his bosom then,

And kissed her o’er and o’er agen.

“Come, dry these tears, my little Joan;

A single year, it will soon be flown!”

His baby dear in his arms he took,

And looked on him with a proud, fond look:

“My boy, when thou’rt a man,” said he,

Wilt ride to the wars along with me?”

Then away he spurred across the plain,

And old and young they wept amain;

Both rich and poor, wept every one;

But that same clerk — ah! he wept none.

II.

The treacherous clerk, one morning-tide,

With artful speeches the lady plied:

“Lo! ended now is that single year,

And ended too is the war, I hear;

“But yet, thy lord to return to thee,

Would seem in no haste at all to be.

“Now, ask of your heart, my lady dear,

Is there no other might please it here?

“Need wives still keep themselves unwed,

E’en though their husbands should not be dead?”

“Silence! thou wretched clerk!” cried she,

“Thy heart is filled full of sin, I see.

“When my lord returns, if I whisper him,

Thou knows’t he’ll tear thee limb from limb!”

As soon as the clerk thus answered she

He stole to the kennel secretly.

He coiled to the hound so swift and true,

The hound that his lord loved best, he knew.

It came to his call — leapt up in play;

One gash in the throat, and dead it lay.

As trickled the blood from out the throat,

He dipped in that red ink and wrote:

A letter he wrote, with a liar’s heed,

And sent it straight to the camp with speed.

And these were the words the letter bore:

“Dear lord, your wife she is fretting sore;

“Fretting and grieving, your wife so dear,

For a sad mischance befallen here.

“Chasing the doe on the mountain-side,

Thy beautiful greyhound burst and died.”

The Count so guileless then answer made,

And thus to his faithless cousin said:

“Now, bid my own little wife, I pray,

To fret not for this mischance one day.

“My hound is dead — well! money have I

Another, when I come back, to buy.

“Yet say she’d better not hunt agen,

For hunters are oft but wildish men.”

III.

The miscreant clerk once more he came,

As she wept in her bower, to the peerless dame,

“O lady, with weeping night and day,

Your beauty is fading fast away.”

“And what care I though it fading be,

When my own dear lord comes not to me!

“Thy own dear lord has, I fancy, wed

Another era this, or else he’s dead.

“The Moorish maidens though dark are fair,

And gold in plenty have got to spare;

“The Moorish chiefs on the battle plain

Thousands of valiant as he have slain.

“If he’s wed another — Oh curse, not fret;

Or, if he’s dead — why, straight forget!”

“If he’s wed another I’ll die,” she said;

“And I’ll die likewise, if he be dead!”

“In case one chances to lose the key,

No need for burning the box, I see.

“’Twere wiser, if I might speak my mind,

A new and a better key to find.”

“Now hold, thou wretched clerk, thy tongue,

’Tis foul with lewdness — more rotten than dung.”

As soon as the clerk thus answered she,

He stole to the stable secretly.

He looked at the lord’s own favourite steed,

Unmatched for beauty, for strength and speed;

White as an egg, and more smooth to touch,

Light as a bird, and for fire none such;

On nought had she fed, since she was born,

Save fine chopped heath and the best of corn,

Awhile the bonny white mare he eyed,

Then struck his dirk in her velvet side;

And when the bonny white mare lay dead,

Again to the Count he wrote and said:

“Of a fresh mischance I now send word,

But let it not vex thee much, dear lord

“Hasting back from a revel last night,

My lady rode on thy favourite white —

“So hotly rode, it stumbled and fell,

And broke both legs, as I grieve to tell.”

The Count then answered, “Ah! woe is me

My bonny white mare no more to see?

“My mare she has killed; my hound killed too

Good cousin, now give her counsel true.

“Yet scold her not either; but, say from me,

To no more revels at night must she.

“Not horses’ legs alone, I fear,

But wifely vows may be broken there!”

IV.

The clerk a few days let pass, and then

Back to the charge returned agen.

“Lady, now yield, or yon die!” said he;

“Choose which you will — choose speedily!”

“Ten thousand deaths would I rather die,

Than shame upon me my God should cry!”

The clerk, when he saw he nought might gain,

No more could his smothered wrath contain;

So soon as those words had left her tongue,

His dagger right at her head he flung.

But swift her white angel, hovering nigh,

Turned it aside as it flashed her by.

The lady straight to her chamber flew,

And bolt and bar behind her drew.

The clerk his dagger snatched up and shook,

And grinned with an angry ban-dog’s look.

Down the broad stairs in his rage came he,

Two steps at a time, two steps and three.

Then on to the nurse’s room he crept,

Where softly the winsome baby slept —

Softly, and sweetly, and all alone;

One arm from the silken cradle thrown —

One little round arm just o’er it laid,

Folded the other beneath his head;

His little white breast — ah! hush” be still!

Poor mother, go now and weep your fill!

Away to his room the clerk then sped,

And wrote a letter in black and red;

In haste, post haste, to the Count wrote he:

“There is need, dear lord, sore need of thee

“Oh speed now, speed, to thy castle back,

For all runs riot, and runs to wrack.

“Thy hound is killed, and thy mare is killed,

But not for these with such grief I’m filled.

“Nor is it for these thou now wilt care;

Thy darling is dead! thy son, thy heir!

“The sow she seized and devoured him all,

While thy wife was dancing at the ball;

“Dancing there with time miller gay,

Her young gallant, as the people say.”

V.

That letter came to the valiant knight,

Hastening home from the Paynim fight;

With trumpet sound, front that Eastern strand

Hastening home to his own dear land.

So soon as he read the missive through,

Fearful to see his anger grew.

The scroll in his mailed hand he took,

And crumpled it up with furious look;

To bits with his teeth lie tore the sheet,

And spat them out at his horse’s feet.

“Now quick to Brittany, quick, my men,

The homes that you love to see agen!

“Thou loitering squire! ride yet more quick,

Or my lance shall teach thee how to prick!”

But when he stood at his castle gate,

Three lordly blows he struck it straight;

Three angry blows he struck thereon,

Which made them tremble every one.

The clerk he heard, and down he hied,

And opened at once the portal wide.

“Oh cursed cousin, that this should be!

Did I not trust my wife to thee?”

His spear down the traitor’s throat he drove,

Till out at his back the red point clove.

Then up he rushed to the bridal bower,

Where drooped his lady like some pale flower.

And ere she could speak a single word,

She fell at his feet beneath his sword.

VI.

“O holy priest! now tell to me

What didst thou up at the castle see?”

“I saw a grief and a terror more

Than ever I saw on earth before.

“I saw a martyr give up her breath,

And her slayer sorrowing e’en to death.”

“O holy priest! now tell to me

What didst thou down at the crossway see?”

“I saw a corpse that all mangled lay,

And the dogs and ravens made their prey.”

“Oh holy priest! now tell to me

What didst thou next in the churchyard see?”

“By a new-made grave, in soft moonlight,

I saw a fair lady clothed its white;

“Nursing a little child on her knee —

A dark red wound on his breast had he,

“A noble hound lay couched at her right,

A steed at her left of bonniest white;

“The first a gash in its throat bad wide,

And this as deep a stab in its side.

“They raised their heads to the lady’s knee,

And they licked her soft hands tenderly.

“She gently patted their necks, the while

Smiling, though stilly, a fair sweet smile.

“The child, as it fain its love would speak,

Caressed and fondled its mother’s cheek.

“But down went the moon then silently,

And my eyes no more their forms could see;

“But I heard a bird from out the skies

Warbling a song of Paradise!”

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eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005