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The Faithful of the Gonzaga

  I.


  Federigo, the son of the Marquis,
    Downcast, through the garden goes:
  He is hurt with the grace of the lily,
    And the beauty of the rose.


  For what is the grace of the lily
    But her own slender grace?
  And what is the rose's beauty
    But the beauty of her face?--


  Who sits beside her window
    Waiting to welcome him,
  That comes so lothly toward her
    With his visage sick and dim.


  "Ah! lily, I come to break thee!
    Ah! rose, a bitter rain
  Of tears shall beat thy light out
    That thou never burn again!"


  II.


  Federigo, the son of the Marquis,
    Takes the lady by the hand:
  "Thou must bid me God-speed on a journey,
    For I leave my native land.


  "From Mantua to-morrow
    I go, a banished man;
  Make me glad for truth and love's sake
    Of my father's curse and ban.


  "Our quarrel has left my mother
    Like death upon the floor;
  And I come from a furious presence
    I never shall enter more.


  "I would not wed the woman
    He had chosen for my bride,
  For my heart had been before him,
    With his statecraft and his pride.


  "I swore to him by my princehood
    In my love I would be free;
  And I swear to thee by my manhood,
    I love no one but thee.


  "Let the Duke of Bavaria marry
    His daughter to whom he will:
  There where my love was given
    My word shall be faithful still.


  "There are six true hearts will follow
    My truth wherever I go,
  And thou equal truth wilt keep me
    In welfare and in woe."


  The maiden answered him nothing
    Of herself, but his words again
  Came back through her lips like an echo
    From an abyss of pain;


  And vacantly repeating
    "In welfare and in woe,"
  Like a dream from the heart of fever
    From her arms she felt him go.


  III.


  Out of Mantua's gate at daybreak
    Seven comrades wander forth
  On a path that leads at their humor,
    East, west, or south, or north.


  The prince's laugh rings lightly,
    "What road shall we take from home?"
  And they answer, "We never shall lose it
    If we take the road to Rome."


  And with many a jest and banter
    The comrades keep their way,
  Journeying out of the twilight
    Forward into the day,


  When they are aware beside them
    Goes a pretty minstrel lad,
  With a shy and downward aspect,
    That is neither sad nor glad.


  Over his slender shoulder,
    His mandolin was slung,
  And around its chords the treasure
    Of his golden tresses hung.


  Spoke one of the seven companions,
    "Little minstrel, whither away?"--
  "With seven true-hearted comrades
    On their journey, if I may."


  Spoke one of the seven companions,
    "If our way be hard and long?"--
  "I will lighten it with my music
    And shorten it with my song."


  Spoke one of the seven companions,
    "But what are the songs thou know'st?"--
  "O, I know many a ditty,
    But this I sing the most:


  "How once was an humble maiden
    Beloved of a great lord's son,
  That for her sake and his troth's sake
    Was banished and undone.


  "And forth of his father's city
    He went at break of day,
  And the maiden softly followed
    Behind him on the way


  "In the figure of a minstrel,
    And prayed him of his love,
  'Let me go with thee and serve thee
    Wherever thou may'st rove.


  "'For if thou goest in exile
    I rest banished at home,
  And where thou wanderest with thee
    My fears in anguish roam,


  "'Besetting thy path with perils,
    Making thee hungry and cold,
  Filling thy heart with trouble
    And heaviness untold.


  "'But let me go beside thee,
    And banishment shall be
  Honor, and riches, and country,
    And home to thee and me!'"


  Down falls the minstrel-maiden
    Before the Marquis' son,
  And the six true-hearted comrades
    Bow round them every one.


  Federigo, the son of the Marquis,
    From its scabbard draws his sword:
  "Now swear by the honor and fealty
    Ye bear your friend and lord,


  "That whenever, and wherever,
    As long as ye have life,
  Ye will honor and serve this lady
    As ye would your prince's wife!"


  IV.


  Over the broad expanses
    Of garlanded Lombardy,
  Where the gentle vines are swinging
    In the orchards from tree to tree;


  Through Padua from Verona,
    From the sculptured gothic town,
  Carved from ruin upon ruin,
    And ancienter than renown;


  Through Padua from Verona
    To fair Venice, where she stands
  With her feet on subject waters,
    Lady of many lands;


  From Venice by sea to Ancona;
    From Ancona to the west;
  Climbing many a gardened hillside
    And many a castled crest;


  Through valleys dim with the twilight
    Of their gray olive trees;
  Over plains that swim with harvests
    Like golden noonday seas;


  Whence the lofty campanili
    Like the masts of ships arise,
  And like a fleet at anchor
    Under them, the village lies;


  To Florence beside her Arno,
    In her many-marbled pride,
  Crowned with infamy and glory
    By the sons she has denied;


  To pitiless Pisa, where never
    Since the anguish of Ugolin
  The moon in the Tower of Famine[3]
    Fate so dread as his hath seen;


  Out through the gates of Pisa
    To Livorno on her bay,
  To Genoa and to Naples
    The comrades hold their way,


  Past the Guelph in his town beleaguered,
    Past the fortressed Ghibelline,
  Through lands that reek with slaughter,
    Treason, and shame, and sin;


  By desert, by sea, by city,
    High hill-cope and temple-dome,
  Through pestilence, hunger, and horror,
    Upon the road to Rome;


  While every land behind them
    Forgets them as they go,
  And in Mantua they are remembered
    As is the last year's snow;


  But the Marchioness goes to her chamber
    Day after day to weep,--
  For the changeless heart of a mother
    The love of a son must keep.


  The Marchioness weeps in her chamber
    Over tidings that come to her
  Of the exiles she seeks, by letter
    And by lips of messenger,


  Broken hints of their sojourn and absence,
    Comfortless, vague, and slight,--
  Like feathers wafted backwards
    From passage birds in flight.[4]


  The tale of a drunken sailor,
    In whose ship they went to sea;
  A traveller's evening story
    At a village hostelry,


  Of certain comrades sent him
    By our Lady, of her grace,
  To save his life from robbers
    In a lonely desert place;


  Word from the monks of a convent
    Of gentle comrades that lay
  One stormy night at their convent,
    And passed with the storm at day;


  The long parley of a peasant
    That sold them wine and food,
  The gossip of a shepherd
    That guided them through a wood;


  A boatman's talk at the ferry
    Of a river where they crossed,
  And as if they had sunk in the current
    All trace of them was lost;


  And so is an end of tidings
    But never an end of tears,
  Of secret and friendless sorrow
    Through blank and silent years.


  V.


  To the Marchioness in her chamber
    Sends word a messenger,
  Newly come from the land of Naples,
    Praying for speech with her.


  The messenger stands before her,
    A minstrel slender and wan:
  "In a village of my country
    Lies a Mantuan gentleman,


  "Sick of a smouldering fever,
    Of sorrow and poverty;
  And no one in all that country
    Knows his title or degree.


  "But six true Mantuan peasants,
    Or nobles, as some men say,
  Watch by the sick man's bedside,
    And toil for him, night and day,


  "Hewing, digging, reaping, sowing,
    Bearing burdens, and far and nigh
  Begging for him on the highway
    Of the strangers that pass by;


  "And they look whenever you meet them
    Like broken-hearted men,
  And I heard that the sick man would not
    If he could, be well again;


  "For they say that he for love's sake
    Was gladly banish├Ęd,
  But she for whom he was banished
    Is worse to him, now, than dead,--


  "A recreant to his sorrow,
    A traitress to his woe."
  From her place the Marchioness rises,
    The minstrel turns to go.


  But fast by the hand she takes him,--
    His hand in her clasp is cold,--
  "If gold may be thy guerdon
    Thou shalt not lack for gold;


  "And if the love of a mother
    Can bless thee for that thou hast done,
  Thou shalt stay and be his brother,
    Thou shalt stay and be my son."


  "Nay, my lady," answered the minstrel,
    And his face is deadly pale,
  "Nay, this must not be, sweet lady,
    But let my words prevail.


  "Let me go now from your presence,
    And I will come again,
  When you stand with your son beside you,
    And be your servant then."


  VI.


  At the feet of the Marquis Gonzaga
    Kneels his lady on the floor;
  "Lord, grant me before I ask it
    The thing that I implore."


  "So it be not of that ingrate."--
    "Nay, lord, it is of him."
  'Neath the stormy brows of the Marquis
    His eyes are tender and dim.


  "He lies sick of a fever in Naples,
    Near unto death, as they tell,
  In his need and pain forsaken
    By the wanton he loved so well.


  "Now send for him and forgive him,
    If ever thou loved'st me,
  Now send for him and forgive him
    As God shall be good to thee."


  "Well so,--if he turn in repentance
    And bow himself to my will;
  That the high-born lady I chose him
    May be my daughter still."


  VII.


  In Mantua there is feasting
    For the Marquis' grace to his son;
  In Mantua there is rejoicing
    For the prince come back to his own.


  The pomp of a wedding procession
    Pauses under the pillared porch,
  With silken rustle and whisper,
    Before the door of the church.


  In the midst, Federigo the bridegroom
    Stands with his high-born bride;
  The six true-hearted comrades
    Are three on either side.


  The bridegroom is gray as his father,
    Where they stand face to face,
  And the six true-hearted comrades
    Are like old men in their place.


  The Marquis takes the comrades
    And kisses them one by one:
  "That ye were fast and faithful
    And better than I to my son,


  "Ye shall be called forever,
    In the sign that ye were so true,
  The Faithful of the Gonzaga,
    And your sons after you."


  VIII.


  To the Marchioness comes a courtier:
    "I am prayed to bring you word
  That the minstrel keeps his promise
    Who brought you news of my lord;


  "And he waits without the circle
    To kiss your highness' hand;
  And he asks no gold for guerdon,
    But before he leaves the land


  "He craves of your love once proffered
    That you suffer him for reward,
  In this crowning hour of his glory,
    To look on your son, my lord."


  Through the silken press of the courtiers
    The minstrel faltered in.
  His clasp├Ęd hands were bloodless,
    His face was white and thin;


  And he bent his knee to the lady,
    But of her love and grace
  To her heart she raised him and kissed him
    Upon his gentle face.


  Turned to her son the bridegroom,
    Turned to his high-born wife,
  "I give you here for your brother
    Who gave back my son to life.


  "For this youth brought me news from Naples
    How thou layest sick and poor,
  By true comrades kept, and forsaken
    By a false paramour.


  "Wherefore I charge you love him
    For a brother that is my son."
  The comrades turned to the bridegroom
    In silence every one.


  But the bridegroom looked on the minstrel
    With a visage blank and changed,
  As his whom the sight of a spectre
    From his reason hath estranged;


  And the smiling courtiers near them
    On a sudden were still as death;
  And, subtly-stricken, the people
    Hearkened and held their breath


  With an awe uncomprehended
    For an unseen agony:--
  Who is this that lies a-dying,
    With her head on the prince's knee?


  A light of anguish and wonder
    Is in the prince's eye,
  "O, speak, sweet saint, and forgive me,
    Or I cannot let thee die!


  "For now I see thy hardness
    Was softer than mortal ruth,
  And thy heavenly guile was whiter,
    My saint, than martyr's truth."


  She speaks not and she moves not,
    But a blessed brightness lies
  On her lips in their silent rapture
    And her tender clos├Ęd eyes.


  Federigo, the son of the Marquis,
    He rises from his knee:
  "Aye, you have been good, my father,
    To them that were good to me.


  "You have given them honors and titles,
    But here lies one unknown--
  Ah, God reward her in heaven
    With the peace he gives his own!"



FOOTNOTES:


  [2] The author of this ballad has added a thread of evident love-story
      to a most romantic incident of the history of Mantua, which
      occurred in the fifteenth century. He relates the incident so
      nearly as he found it in the _Cronache Montovane_, that he is
      ashamed to say how little his invention has been employed in it.
      The hero of the story, Federigo, became the third Marquis of
      Mantua, and was a prince greatly beloved and honored by his
      subjects.


  [3] "Breve pertugio dentro dalla Muda,
        La qual per me ha il titol della fame
        E in che conviene ancor ch'altri si chiuda,
      M'avea mostrato per lo suo forame
        Piu lune gia."


      DANTE, _L'Inferno_.


  [4] "As a feather is wafted downward
        From an eagle in its flight."

William Dean Howells