Queen Hilda rode along the lines,
And she was young and fair;
And forward on her shoulders fell
The heavy braids of hair:
No gold was ever dug from earth
Like that burnished there –
No sky so blue as were her eyes
Had man seen anywhere.
'Twas so her gay court poets sang,
And we believed it true.
But men must fight for golden hair
And die for eyes of blue!
Cheer after cheer, the long half mile
(It has been ever thus),
And evermore her winsome smile
She turned and turned on us.
The Spring-burst over wood and sea,
The day was warm and bright –
Young Clarence stood on my left hand,
Old Withen on the right.
With fifteen thousand men, or more,
With plumes and banners gay,
To sail that day to foreign war,
And our ships swarmed on the bay.
Old Withen muttered in his beard I listened with a sigh –
"Good Faith! for such a chit as that
Strong men must kill and die.
She'll back to her embroideree,
And fools that bow and smirk,
And we must sail across the sea
And go to other work.
"And wherefore? Wherefore," Withen said,
"Is this red quarrel sought?
Because of clacking painted hags
And foreign fops at Court!
Because 'tis said a drunken king,
In lands we've never seen,
Said something foolish in his cups
Of our young silly queen!
"Good faith! in her old great-aunt's time
'Twere different, I vow:
If old Dame Ruth were here, she'd get
Some sharp advising now!"
(At this a grim smile went about
For men could say in sooth
That none who'd seen her face could doubt
The fair fame of Dame Ruth.)
If Clarence heard, he said no word;
His soul was fresh and clean;
The glory in his boyish eyes
Was shining for his Queen!
And as she passed, he gazed as one
An angel might regard.
(Old Withen looked as if he'd like
To take and smack her hard.)
We only smiled at anything
That good old Withen said,
For he, half blind, through smoke and flame
Had borne her grandsire dead;
And he, in Virland's danger time,
Where both her brothers died,
Had ridden to red victory
By her brave father's side.
Queen Hilda rode along the lines
'Mid thundering cheers the while,
And each man sought – and seemed to get –
Her proud and happy smile.
Queen Hilda little dreamed – Ah, me! –
On what dark miry plain,
And what blood-blinded eyes would see
Her girlish smile again!
Queen Hilda rode on through the crowd,
We heard the distant roar;
We heard the clack of gear and plank,
The sailors on the shore.
Queen Hilda sought her "bower" to rest,
(For her day's work was done),
We kissed our wives – or others' wives –
And sailed ere set of sun.
(Some sail because they're married men,
And some because they're free –
To come or not come back agen,
And such of old were we.
Some sail for fame and some for loot
And some for love – or lust –
And some to fish and some to shoot
And some because they must.
(Some sail who know not why they roam
When they are come aboard,
And some for wives and loves at home,
And some for those abroad.
Some sail because the path is plain,
And some because they choose,
And some with nothing left to gain
And nothing left to lose.
(And we have sailed from Virland, we,
For a woman's right or wrong,
And we are One, and One, and Three,
And Fifteen Thousand strong.
For Right or Wrong and Virland's fame –
You dared us and we come
To write in blood a woman's name
And take a letter home.)
King Death came riding down the lines
And broken lines were they,
With scarce a soldier who could tell
Where friend or foeman lay:
The storm cloud looming over all,
Save where the west was red,
And on the field, of friend and foe,
Ten thousand men lay dead.
Boy Clarence lay in slush and blood
With his face deathly white;
Old Withen lay by his left side
And I knelt at his right.
And Clarence ever whispered,
Though with dying eyes serene:
"I loved her for her girlhood,.
Will someone tell the Queen?"
And this old Withen's message,
When his time shortly came:
"I loved her for her father's sake
But I fought for Virland's fame:
Go, take you this, a message
From me," Old Withen said,
"Who knelt beside her father,
And his when they were dead:
"I who in sport or council,
I who as boy and man,
Would aye speak plainly to them
Were it Court, or battle's van –
(Nay! fear not, she will listen
And my words be understood,
And she will heed my message,
For I know her father's blood.)
"If shame there was – (I judge not
As I'd not be judged above:
The Royal blood of Virland
Was ever hot to love,
Or fight.) – the slander's wiped out,
As witness here the slain:
But, if shame there was, then tell her
Let it not be again."
At home once more in Virland
The glorious Spring-burst shines:
Queen Hilda rides right proudly
Down our victorious lines.
The gaps were filled with striplings,
And Hilda wears a rose:
And what the wrong or right of it
Queen Hilda only knows.
But, be it state or nation
Or castle, town, or shed,
Or be she wife or monarch
Or widowed or unwed –
Now this is for your comfort,
And it has ever been:
That, wrong or right, a man must fight
For his country and his queen.