Complete Poetical Works

“For the King”

(Northern Mexico, 1640)

Bret Harte

AS YOU look from the plaza at Leon west
You can see her house, but the view is best
From the porch of the church where she lies at rest;

Where much of her past still lives, I think,
In the scowling brows and sidelong blink
Of the worshiping throng that rise or sink

To the waxen saints that, yellow and lank,
Lean out from their niches, rank on rank,
With a bloodless Saviour on either flank;

In the gouty pillars, whose cracks begin
To show the adobe core within,—
A soul of earth in a whitewashed skin.

And I think that the moral of all, you’ll say,
Is the sculptured legend that moulds away
On a tomb in the choir: “Por el Rey.”

“Por el Rey! “Well, the king is gone
Ages ago, and the Hapsburg one
Shot—but the Rock of the Church lives on.

“Por el Rey!” What matters, indeed,
If king or president succeed
To a country haggard with sloth and greed,

As long as one granary is fat,
And yonder priest, in a shovel hat,
Peeps out from the bin like a sleek brown rat?

What matters? Naught, if it serves to bring
The legend nearer,—no other thing,—
We’ll spare the moral, “Live the king!”

Two hundred years ago, they say,
The Viceroy, Marquis of Monte-Rey,
Rode with his retinue that way:

Grave, as befitted Spain’s grandee;
Grave, as the substitute should be
Of His Most Catholic Majesty;

Yet, from his black plume’s curving grace
To his slim black gauntlet’s smaller space,
Exquisite as a piece of lace!

Two hundred years ago—e’en so—
The Marquis stopped where the lime-trees blow,
While Leon’s seneschal bent him low,

And begged that the Marquis would that night take
His humble roof for the royal sake,
And then, as the custom demanded, spake

The usual wish, that his guest would hold
The house, and all that it might enfold,
As his—with the bride scarce three days old.

Be sure that the Marquis, in his place,
Replied to all with the measured grace
Of chosen speech and unmoved face;

Nor raised his head till his black plume swept
The hem of the lady’s robe, who kept
Her place, as her husband backward stept.

And then (I know not how nor why)
A subtle flame in the lady’s eye—
Unseen by the courtiers standing by—

Burned through his lace and titled wreath,
Burned through his body’s jeweled sheath,
Till it touched the steel of the man beneath!

(And yet, mayhap, no more was meant
Than to point a well-worn compliment,
And the lady’s beauty, her worst intent.)

Howbeit, the Marquis bowed again:
“Who rules with awe well serveth Spain,
But best whose law is love made plain.”

Be sure that night no pillow prest
The seneschal, but with the rest
Watched, as was due a royal guest,—

Watched from the wall till he saw the square
Fill with the moonlight, white and bare,—
Watched till he saw two shadows fare

Out from his garden, where the shade
That the old church tower and belfry made
Like a benedictory hand was laid.

Few words spoke the seneschal as he turned
To his nearest sentry: “These monks have learned
That stolen fruit is sweetly earned.

“Myself shall punish yon acolyte
Who gathers my garden grapes by night;
Meanwhile, wait thou till the morning light.”

Yet not till the sun was riding high
Did the sentry meet his commander’s eye,
Nor then till the Viceroy stood by.

To the lovers of grave formalities
No greeting was ever so fine, I wis,
As this host’s and guest’s high courtesies!

The seneschal feared, as the wind was west,
A blast from Morena had chilled his rest;
The Viceroy languidly confest

That cares of state, and—he dared to say—
Some fears that the King could not repay
The thoughtful zeal of his host, some way

Had marred his rest. Yet he trusted much
None shared his wakefulness; though such
Indeed might be! If he dared to touch

A theme so fine—the bride, perchance,
Still slept! At least, they missed her glance
To give this greeting countenance.

Be sure that the seneschal, in turn,
Was deeply bowed with the grave concern
Of the painful news his guest should learn:

“Last night, to her father’s dying bed
By a priest was the lady summoned;
Nor know we yet how well she sped,

“But hope for the best.” The grave Viceroy
(Though grieved his visit had such alloy)
Must still wish the seneschal great joy

Of a bride so true to her filial trust!
Yet now, as the day waxed on, they must
To horse, if they’d ’scape the noonday dust.

“Nay,” said the seneschal, “at least,
To mend the news of this funeral priest,
Myself shall ride as your escort east.”

The Viceroy bowed. Then turned aside
To his nearest follower: “With me ride—
You and Felipe—on either side.

“And list! Should anything me befall,
Mischance of ambush or musket-ball,
Cleave to his saddle yon seneschal!

“No more.” Then gravely in accents clear
Took formal leave of his late good cheer;
Whiles the seneschal whispered a musketeer,

Carelessly stroking his pommel top:
“If from the saddle ye see me drop,
Riddle me quickly yon solemn fop!”

So these, with many a compliment,
Each on his own dark thought intent,
With grave politeness onward went,

Riding high, and in sight of all,
Viceroy, escort, and seneschal,
Under the shade of the Almandral;

Holding their secret hard and fast,
Silent and grave they ride at last
Into the dusty traveled Past.

Even like this they passed away
Two hundred years ago to-day.
What of the lady? Who shall say?

Do the souls of the dying ever yearn
To some favored spot for the dust’s return,
For the homely peace of the family urn?

I know not. Yet did the seneschal,
Chancing in after-years to fall
Pierced by a Flemish musket-ball,

Call to his side a trusty friar,
And bid him swear, as his last desire,
To bear his corse to San Pedro’s choir

At Leon, where ’neath a shield azure
Should his mortal frame find sepulture:
This much, for the pains Christ did endure.

Be sure that the friar loyally
Fulfilled his trust by land and sea,
Till the spires of Leon silently

Rose through the green of the Almandral,
As if to beckon the seneschal
To his kindred dust ’neath the choir wall.

I wot that the saints on either side
Leaned from their niches open-eyed
To see the doors of the church swing wide;

That the wounds of the Saviour on either flank
Bled fresh, as the mourners, rank by rank,
Went by with the coffin, clank on clank.

For why? When they raised the marble door
Of the tomb, untouched for years before,
The friar swooned on the choir floor;

For there, in her laces and festal dress,
Lay the dead man’s wife, her loveliness
Scarcely changed by her long duress,—

As on the night she had passed away;
Only that near her a dagger lay,
With the written legend, “Por el Rey.”

What was their greeting, the groom and bride,
They whom that steel and the years divide?
I know not. Here they lie side by side.

Side by side! Though the king has his way,
Even the dead at last have their day.
Make you the moral. “Por el Rey!”

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback