The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

The Cursing of Stephen (Rudyard Kipling)


I turned the pages of the baby's book,
And hung with children on the rocking-horse,
And shook the rattle till it rang again;
And, while I gambolled 'mid these buds of youth,
I shaped the nursery legend into this: 

King Stephen, o'er the castled battlement
That frowned above the fir-copse and the lake, 
Looked downward on his people and beheld. 
The many-mouthed nation call on him 
Who was a worthy peer.  The pine woods rang, 
In slumb'rous thunder to the girdling sea,
With "Worthy peer" and, down the long white street, 
Green shuttered cots re-echoes: "Worthy peer."  
But in the great king's bosom pain was lord,
And, 'neath his brows the royal eye-ball burnt,
As dying brands burn on the wasted hearth
When those that tend them slumber.  Slowly first
The hot words brake beneath the bearded lips,
And the mailed hand slid backward to the throne
Whereon the king was seated.  As some dam
In Spring bursts down the wall and whelms the vale,
So broke the king's "Damn" o'er the silent Court, 
And stilled the Jester into utter peace, 
And all the courtiers wondered where they sat.
"What ails King Stepehen!" Then the great king spoke, 
As Saul had spoken in the shrouded tent, 
Before the son of Jesse soothed his soul
With sackbut and with psaltry: "Woe is me!
"Sin creeps upon our servants at the board,
"And in my royal palace find we sin,—
"At first among the lowest—being low,
"They sin as brutes, in brutal bestial wise.  
"But ever upward curls the flame of sin,
"Infecting e'en the highest.  Lust of gain
"That spareth not the person of the king
"Hath fallen upon us, and behold I go
"To fight corruption though I lose my life; 
"Not loving life but rather fearing death
"With life's corruption on my parting soul.
"Pray for me, O my courtiers!" and they wailed, 
Those bearded rulers of the fosse and field, 
Great princes of the Ploughtail, for the king; 
And sorrow hung about the sobbing Court,
And that great charger squealed like any she.
So, in the twilight, passed the king away
Adown the long white street, all armed and mailed.
Past dune and wind-swept hedgerow, till he reached
A low-built cottage by the roaring sea, 
Wherein one sat for ever at a board,
Cross-legged, and drave the needle to and fro, 
Through silk and samite, miniver and lawn, 
As swine in Autumn pierce the fallen mast
For forage with their keen, white, curvéd tusks. 
And evermore the singer sang his song.
And through the windows Stephen heard the strain:

"A devil and a tailor, fiend and man, 
"That were at strife, since first the world began—
"Read me my riddle's reading an you can.  

"A tailor and a devil—man and sprite.
"Black as black thread was one—the other white
"As cloth that clothes the great king's limbs at night."  

"The devil and the tailor.  Silk and thread,
"O primrose miniver! O samite red, 
"That drapes the curtains of the great king's bed!

"For men must clothe their nakedness, and I, 
"For credit or for cash, give swift supply
"Of woven gauds and 'broidered bravery."

And then the voice ceased suddenly within.
Because the charger winnied through the dusk, 
And shook the windows of the crazy cot.  
Whereon, with eyelids shaded, and huge shears
Slung swordwise at his side, the churl advanced, 
And saw the great king's shadow on the door,
But made no reverence, as befits a churl
In royal presence, only, from his breats,
Dragged forth a store of papers, tape and thread
And murmured: "Credit is the thief of time!
"My gold, King Stephen, for the doublet gay—
"For hose and baldric, now some three months old, 
"And for the broidered cloak upon thy back,
"My gold, King Stephen."  But the blameless king
Drew swiftly from his scabbard that which pays
ll debts in one, and, at the great blade's light
The churl fled backward to the cottage door.
And Stephen spake in this wise to the churl: 
"I, being king, an' I had cleft thy form
"From chin to chine, had sullied my good sword
"With useless slaughter of a ninth-part man; 
"And I am come in sorrow, not in wrath, 
"To judge thee for thy treason ''gainst the king; 
"Our noble order has no thought of guile
"To me or mine—my menials know no sin,
"And all my people are a sinless folk,
"Content with little save the gifts of God
"And my exceeding glory.  Only though
"Misled by lust of gold, hast fallen in sin.
"The deadlier being self conceived—for sin
"Caught by contagion (as the dove's red foot
"Is soiled by mire) is a lesser fault
"Than crime self-centred in a single breast
"And bred in isolation.  I, thy king,
"Have worn the garments of a spotless life,
"And also (since the world desires more
"for human limbs) some garments made by thee;
"And these were hose and doublet as thou sayest,
"And also breeches lieth all they sin,—
"Rapine and greed and interest sought on Bills,
"And monthly increment of silver coin
"Charged for the lapse of time, O churl—
"And I adjudge the cost exorbitant
"By six round pence.  Behold!"  and here his hand
Slid backward to the cantle of his selle,
And grasped the spacious garments that he wore,
In kingly wrath, "Behold the size of it!
"The airy effluence of fold on fold,
"And manzy complications of the seat,
"Between the saddle and my royal flesh,
"Chafed to a gall thereby.  This is thy work—
"Large and ill-fitting as the wrinkled buds
"That hide the larches' children in the spring.  
"Thank, therefore, such vile stars as saw thy birth
"That silver and not steel discharge the debt.
"Yet Lancelot falls to his own again,
"And tailors reel into the ninth-part beast
"And wholly vermin—and my speech, I fear,
"Falls deadly on dull ears that can but catch
"The clink of shears and silver.  Wherefore churl,
"I am resolved to curse thee—not in wrath,
"For wrath is alien to the minds of kings—
"But for remembrances sake and, ere I go, 
"I call thee—out of sorrow, not in wrath—
"I, Stephen, call thee Lown."  And all the weald
Shuddered at Stephen's curse, and far at sea
The fishes shivered though they know not why;
And homeward-flying crows forgot to call
At sound of the king's curse.  And he, the churl, 
Shrank as the beetle shrinks beneath the pin, 
When village children stab him in their sport,
And, logwise, rolled before the charger's feet,
And Stephen came to his own Court again.


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