The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 4/The Birth-Mark
A. D. 12—
See, here it is, upon my breast,—
The bloody image of a hand!
On her white bosom it was pressed,
Who should have nursed—you understand;—
I never yet have named her name,
Nor will I, till 'tis free from shame.
The good old crone that tended me
Through sickly childhood, lonely youth,
Told me the story: so, you see,
I know it is God's sacred truth,
That holy lips and holy hands
In secrecy had blessed the bands.
And well he knew it, too,—the accursed!—
To whom my grandsire gave his child
With dying breath;—for from the first
He saw, and tried to snare the wild
And frightened love that thought to rest
Its wings upon my father's breast.
You may have seen him riding by,—
This same Count Bernard, stern and cold;
You know, then, how his creeping eye
One's very soul in charm will hold.
Snow-locks he wears, and gracious art;
But hell is whiter than his heart.
Well, as I said, the secret rite
Had joined them, and the two were one;
And so it chanced, one summer night,
When the half-moon had set, and none
But faint star-shadows on the grass
Lay watching for his feet to pass,
Led by the waiting light that gleamed
From out one chamber-window, came
The husband-lover;—soon they dreamed,—
Her lips still murmuring his name
In sleep,—while, as to guard her, fell
His arm across her bosom's swell.
The low wind shook the darkened pane,
The far clock chimed along the hall,
There came a moment's gust of rain,
The swallow chirped a single call
From his eaves'-nest, the elm-bough swayed
Moaning;—they slumbered unafraid.
Without a creak the chamber-door
Crept open!—with a cat-like tread,
Shading his lamp with hand that bore
A dagger, came beside their bed
The Count. His hair was tinged with gray:
Gold locks brown-mixed before him lay.
A thrust,—a groan,—a fearful scream,
As from the peace of love's sweet rest
She starts!—O God! what horrid dream
Swells her bound eyeballs? From her breast
Fall off the garments of the night,—
A red hand strikes her bosom's white!
She knew no more that passed; her ear
Caught not the hurried cries,—the rush
Of the scared household,—nor could hear
The voice that broke the after-hush:—
"There with her paramour she lay!
He lies here!—carry her away!"
The evening after I was born
No roses on the bier were spread,
As when for maids or mothers mourn
Pure-hearted ones who love the dead;
They buried her, so young, so fair,
With hasty hands and scarce a prayer.
Count Bernard gained the lands, while I,
Cast forth, forgotten, thus have grown
To manhood; for I could not die—
I cannot die—till I atone
For her great shame; and so you see
I track him, and he flies from me.
And one day soon my hand I'll lay
Upon his arm, with lighter touch
Than ladies use when in their play
They tap you with their fans; yet such
A thrill will freeze his every limb
As if the dead were clutching him!
I think that it would make you smile
To see him kneel and hear him plead,—
I leaning on my sword the while,
With a half-laugh, to watch his need:—
At last my good blade finds his heart,
And then this red stain will depart.