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The Royal Portraits



  Confronting each other the pictures stare
    Into each other's sleepless eyes;
    And the daylight into the darkness dies,
  From year to year in the palace there:
    But they watch and guard that no device
  Take either one of them unaware.

  Their majesties the king and the queen,
    The parents of the reigning prince:
    Both put off royalty many years since,
  With life and the gifts that have always been
    Given to kings from God, to evince
  His sense of the mighty over the mean.

  I cannot say that I like the face
    Of the king; it is something fat and red;
    And the neck that lifts the royal head
  Is thick and coarse; and a scanty grace
    Dwells in the dull blue eyes that are laid
  Sullenly on the queen in her place.

  He must have been a king in his day
    'Twere well to pleasure in work and sport:
    One of the heaven-anointed sort
  Who ruled his people with iron sway,
    And knew that, through good and evil report,
  God meant him to rule and them to obey.

  There are many other likenesses
    Of the king in his royal palace there;
    You find him depicted everywhere,--
  In his robes of state, in his hunting-dress,
    In his flowing wig, in his powdered hair,--
  A king in all of them, none the less;

  But most himself in this on the wall
    Over against his consort, whose
    Laces, and hoops, and high-heeled shoes
  Make her the finest lady of all
    The queens or courtly dames you choose,
  In the ancestral portrait hall.

  A glorious blonde: a luxury
    Of luring blue and wanton gold,
    Of blanch├ęd rose and crimson bold,
  Of lines that flow voluptuously
    In tender, languorous curves to fold
  Her form in perfect symmetry.

  She might have been false. Of her withered dust
    There scarcely would be enough to write
    Her guilt in now; and the dead have a right
  To our lenient doubt if not to our trust:
    So if the truth cannot make her white,
  Let us be as merciful as we--must.


  The queen died first, the queen died young,
    But the king was very old when he died,
    Rotten with license, and lust, and pride;
  And the usual Virtues came and hung
    Their cypress wreaths on his tomb, and wide
  Throughout his kingdom his praise was sung.

  How the queen died is not certainly known,
    And faithful subjects are all forbid
    To speak of the murder which some one did
  One night while she slept in the dark alone:
    History keeps the story hid,
  And Fear only tells it in undertone.

  Up from your startled feet aloof,
    In the famous Echo-Room, with a bound
    Leaps the echo, and round and round
  Beating itself against the roof,--
    A horrible, gasping, shuddering sound,--
  Dies ere its terror can utter proof

  Of that it knows. A door is fast,
    And none is suffered to enter there.
    His sacred majesty could not bear
  To look at it toward the last,
    As he grew very old. It opened where
  The queen died young so many years past.


  How the queen died is not certainly known;
    But in the palace's solitude
    A harking dread and horror brood,
  And a silence, as if a mortal groan
    Had been hushed the moment before, and would
  Break forth again when you were gone.

  The present king has never dwelt
    In the desolate palace. From year to year
    In the wide and stately garden drear
  The snows and the snowy blossoms melt
    Unheeded, and a ghastly fear
  Through all the shivering leaves is felt.

  By night the gathering shadows creep
    Along the dusk and hollow halls,
    And the slumber-broken palace calls
  With stifled moans from its nightmare sleep;
    And then the ghostly moonlight falls
  Athwart the darkness brown and deep.

  At early dawn the light wind sighs,
    And through the desert garden blows
    The wasted sweetness of the rose;
  At noon the feverish sunshine lies
    Sick in the walks. But at evening's close,
  When the last, long rays to the windows rise,

  And with many a blood-red, wrathful streak
    Pierce through the twilight glooms that blur
    His cruel vigilance and her
  Regard, they light fierce looks that wreak
    A hopeless hate that cannot stir,
  A voiceless hate that cannot speak

  In the awful calm of the sleepless eyes;
    And as if she saw her murderer glare
    On her face, and he the white despair
  Of his victim kindle in wild surmise,
    Confronted the conscious pictures stare,--
  And their secret back into darkness dies.


William Dean Howells