Issue > Poetry
R. T. Smith

R. T. Smith

R. T. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University. His In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems has just appeared. Two earlier books received the Library of Virginia Poetry Prize, and he has received the Carole Weinstein Prize for Poetry.

The Alteration Of Mistress Alyce, And Joseph

Lord Robert Chambers' Book of Days, once popular
throughout Scotland, reports a prevalent notion
amongst the rude and ignorant folk of England
that a man displeased in wedlock might by setting
his wife upon the auction block dissolve all bonds
and obligations of the union. Under just such
misapprehension did one Joseph Thompson come
into Carlisle leading his wife by the neck on a yoke
of twisted straw and to the bellman did propose,
setting the minimum at fifty shillings, to yield her
to the boldest bidder. It being a bleak day, weather
threatening (for it was full April and the hard
showers not ready for surrender), the best offer
Thompson tendered was twenty, plus a terrier
bitch gone in one eye, all shouted out by a barber
in need of a sweeper not averse to blood or leeches.
(Chambers records his name as one Hamish Bruce.)
The men spat their hands and struck the bargain.

Called Alyce from birth, the chattel christened herself
anew—Martha—and set to her chores with broom
and razor by light and, legend says, with more relish
in darkness than befits a modest servant. The tale,
of course, goes on to mark the fate of said Joseph,
who soon discovered the magistrate disallowed
his bailiwick to behave in any manner English,
therefore arrested the spouse broker and set him
in the stocks with a dozen falcon's bells to measure
his every movement. She brought him soup, his
"Alyce," the three days of his sentence and undid
his trousers that he might achieve relief. Regret
must have been his whetstone then and the hope
she might forgive him, but scoundrels, cadgers
and cheapjacks desperate to turn a profit seldom
meet with mercy, and when the pins were slipped
and timbers lifted, the curved moon was bright
as a surgeon's blade in the eastern heavens.
While the soundly chidden man (not yet missing
his shillings or considering the fate of the dog)
paced the alleys crying her name—"Alyce, Alyce,
my Alyce"—what he heard in return from behind
every latched shutter was a baritone chorus—
"Martha, oh Martha," then, "Harder," in a voice
he almost knew, "Harder now, Hamish, oh, yes,"
and laughter, nor any whisper of "Joseph," who
found his yoke upon the road fit for a purpose
more durable than any vow spoken over a Bible—
the sly loop and knot just right for a rustic noose.
From a limb he swung like the tongue of a bell,
as ravens from afar perched on his chastened
person and by dawn commenced the auction.
As for Alyce-Martha, she prospered at barbering,
lived to bear two loving sons and, as Dame Rumor
conveys it, to both shave and counsel two kings.


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