Ballad of the Fatal Word

By George Sterling

The boulders lie along the downs;
    The turf is hard between;
The Channel waves are low this dawn,
    And turf and wave are green.

Now three come down from out the wood,
    And cross the verdant span;
And two have swords and one a rose—
    A man, a maid, a man.

Beside the sea the turf is flat,
    With space for one to spring
To right or left, and in or out,
    With steel upraised to sting.

"Have at thee, Carew!" cries the one:
    "Defend thyself!" it came.
The blades against the rising sun
    Make sudden wands of flame.

Now let the timid curlew fly
    And let the gull veer past,
For point is set to truceless point
    And doubt shall end at last.

And long below a windy sky
    The dancing rapiers blaze—
The grating edge, the slender death
    That seeks an hundred ways.

And neither hath the vantage yet,
    Nor do the Fates decide
Above those lists where pride and youth
    Encounter youth and pride.

Then sudden on the breast of one
    There lies a scarlet stain.
'Tis but a touch, yet at the sight
    The maiden cries, "Duane!"

And in that voice, for all to know,
    Are love and bitter fear;
And neither knew, until she cried,
    Which one to her was dear.

And at that voice the one she named
    Stands dazed, for instant weal,
Till in that heart where joy is crowned
    Slips the dethroning steel.

He had not struck had he but known
    How bliss strikes unawares;
Now she is on her knees at last,
    With unavailing pray'rs.

Upon the breast of him that fell
    Her red rose laid she then;
And unto him whose blade was red
    She never spoke again.

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