The Cursing of Stephen


I turned the pages of the baby's book,
I hung with children on the rocking-horse, 
And shook the rattle till it rang again;
And, while I gambolled 'mid these buds of youth, 
I shaped the nursery legend into this:

King Stephen, o'er the castled battlement
That frowned above the fir-copse and the lake, 
Looked downward on his people and beheld 
The many-mouthèd nation call on him
Who was a worthy peer. The pine-woods rang, 
In slumb'rous thunder to the girdling sea,
With 'Worthy peer'; and, down the long white street, 
Green-shuttered cots re-echoed ; 'Worthy peer .'
But in the great king's bosom pain was lord, 
And 'neath his brows the royal eyeball burnt, 
As dying brands burn on the wasted hearth
When those that tend them slumber. Slowly first 
The hot words brake beneath the bearded lips, 
And the mailed hand slid backward to the throne 
Whereon the king was seated. As some dam
In spring bursts down the wall and whelms the vale,
So broke the king's 'Damn' o'er the silent Court, 
And stilled the Jester into utter peace,
And all the courtiers wondered where they sate
'What ails King Stephen!' Then the great king spoke,
As Saul had spoken in the shrouded tent,
Before the Son of Jesse  soothed his soul 
With sackbut and with psaltery:  'Woe is me! 
Sin creeps upon our servants at the board, 
And in my royal palace find we sin—
At first among the lowest; being low, 
They sin as brutes, in brutal, bestial wise. 
But ever upward curls the flame of sin, 
Infecting e'en the highest. Lust of gain, 
That spareth not the person of the king, 
Hath fallen upon us, and behold I go
To fight corruption, though I lose my life; 
Not loving life, but rather fearing death 
With life s corruption on my parting soul.
Pray for me, O my courtiers!' And they wailed, 
Those bearded rulers of the fosse and field, 
Great princes of the Plough-tail, for the king; 
And sorrow hung about the sobbing Court, 
And that great charger squealed like any she. 
So, in the twilight, passed the king away
Adown the long white street, all armed and mailed, 
Past dune and wind-swept hedgerow, till he reached 
A low-built cottage by the roaring sea,
Wherein one sat for ever at a board,
Cross-legged, and drave the needle to and fro, 
Through silk and samite, minever and lawn, 
As swine in autumn pierce the fallen mast
For forage with their keen, white, curved tusks; 
And evermore the singer sang his song,
And through the windows Stephen heard the strain:

'A Devil and a Tailor, fiend and man,
That were at strife since first the world began—
Read me my riddle's reading an you can.

A Tailor and a Devil-man and sprite.
Black as black thread was one—the other white
As cloth that clothes the great king's limbs at night.
The Devil and the Tailor. Silk and thread, 
O primrose minever! O samite red,
That drapes the curtains of the great king's bed!
For men must clothe their nakedness, and I, 
For credit or for cash, give swift supply
Of woven gauds and broidered bravery.'

And then the voice ceased suddenly within, 
Because the charger whinnied through the dusk, 
And shook the windows of the crazy cot.
Whereon, with eyelids shaded, and huge shears 
Slung swordwise at his side, the churl advanced, 
And saw the great king's shadow on the door, 
But made no reverence, as befit  a churl
In royal presence, only, from his breast,
Dragged forth a store of papers, tape, and thread, 
And murmured: 'Credit is the thief of time!
My gold, King Stephen, for the doublet gay,
For hose and baldric, now some three months old, 
And for the broidered cloak upon thy back—
My gold, King Stephen!' But the blameless king 
Drew swiftly from his scabbard that which pays 
All debts in one; and at the great blade's light 
The churl fled backward to the cottage door, 
And Stephen spake in this wise to the churl:
'I, being king, an I had cleft thy form
From chin to chine, had sullied my good sword 
With useless slaughter of a ninth-part man; 
And I am come in sorrow, not in wrath,
To judge thee for thy treason 'gainst the king; 
Our noble order ha  no thought of guile
To me or mine-my menials know no sin, 
And all my people are a sinless folk, 
Content with little save the gifts of God 
And my exceeding glory. Only thou, 
Misled by lust of gold, hast fallen in sin— 
The deadlier, being self-conceived: for sin
Caught by contagion (as the dove's red foot 
I  soiled by mire) is a lesser fault
Than crime self-centred in a single breast
And bred in isolation. I, thy king,
Have worn the garments of a spotless life,
And also (since the world desires more
For human limbs) some garments made by thee; 
And these were hose and doublet, as thou sayest, 
And also breeches for my lower limbs,
And in these breeches lieth all thy sin:
Rapine and greed, and interest sought on bills, 
And monthly increment of silver coin
Charged for the lapse of time-which is God's act, 
Nor any handiwork of thine, O churl;
And thou, being void of shame, hast written down 
The cost of these same breeches that I wear
At usury and interest, sinful churl,
 And I adjudge the cost exorbitant
By six round pence. Behold!' and here his hand 
Slid backward to the cantle of his selle,
And grasped the spacious garment that he wore 
In kingly wrath. 'Behold the size of it!
The airy effluence of fold on fold, 
And mazy complications of the seat,
Between the saddle and my royal flesh, 
Chafed to a gall thereby. This is thy work—
Large and ill-fitting as the wrinkled buds 
That hide the larches' children in the spring.
Thank, therefore, such vile stars as saw thy birth 
That silver and not steel discharge the debt. . . 
Yet Lancelot falls to his own love again,
And tailors reel into the ninth-part beast 
And wholly vermin—and my speech, I fear, 
Falls deadly on dull ears that can but catch
The clink of shears and silver. Wherefore, churl, 
I am resolved to curse thee—not in wrath,
For wrath is alien to the minds of kings, 
But for remembrance' sake, and, ere I go, 
I call thee—out of sorrow, not in wrath— 
I, Stephen, call thee Lown.' And all the weald 
Shuddered at Stephen's curse, and far at sea 
The fishes shivered, though they knew not why; 
And homeward-flying crows forgot to call
At sound of the king's curse. And he, the churl, 
Shrank as the beetle shrinks beneath the pin 
When village children stab him in their sport, 
And, log-wise, rolled before the charger's feet; 
And Stephen came to his own Court again.

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