The Ballad of the Diamonds
The ashes in the grate blew to the floor
and caught some twists of paper lying near.
The cook had curled her hair; it cost her dear.
She died ablaze, still groping for the door.
And so the house burned; the young kitchen maid
raised the alarm, and got the twins outside.
Their governess was drunk on gin; she died
because she would not jump, was too afraid.
She helped the mistress get her lapdogs out
although they bit in panic, soiled her dress.
By now the smoke was thick; she had to guess
which way to go. She heard the butler shout
and pulled him by his coat. He had the plate
was weighed down by it, so she shared the load
and piled the silver out there in the road.
She went back for the footmen, was too late.
The master came home drunk to find a shell
where there had been a mansion fine and tall.
His wife and children, nothing else at all,
except the dogs. He damned the maid to hell
for trying to save servants. ‘Where’s my gold?’
he shouted. Thieves had taken all the plate.
Perhaps the butler. So she met her fate.
In three weeks she was chained up in the hold
of a three master, bound for Diemens Land;
lucky she was not hanged, the judge had said.
Her master raved in court, wanted her dead,
wanted her whipped or branded in the hand.
She’d saved his family – he did not care.
He never liked his wife – if she had burned
there was a rich heiress for whom he yearned.
If the twins died, he’d sire another heir.
He locked his wife up; kept her from the court
because she would have spoken for the maid.
He cut the dogs’ long tails off with a blade.
To show his wife how lives could be cut short.
And might still hang them. She just sat and wept.
The maid’s thin wrists slipped easy from her chains
with spit and soup-grease. Stretching felt the pains
of long confinement. Quietly she crept
out of the hold and out onto the deck
un-noticed. To the east, she saw some land
and clambered down a rope, hand over hand.
Later that week, the ship became a wreck
and all hands drowned. She made her way ashore.
And found small brown men sitting at a fire.
One of them seized her wrist, but his desire
soon died. She twisted, held the young man’s paw
and her right arm direct into the flame
and held it for a moment. Won respect
for fierceness. Found that these things will protect
you always – wit, and anger, and good name.
These she had. And her dress, salt-stained and torn,
the wooden box she kept her bible in
that went to pulp. She learned it was no sin
to strut round naked as when she was born.
They taught their language, though the sort of click
they made she could not learn. She walked their way
helped carry children, gather up the clay
they baked for pots, cut food up, nurse the sick.
And in the clay she found some little rocks.
The stones were hard as anything to touch.
When her companions took her to the Dutch,
she took lots with her in the little box
A Dutchman hired her. She would sweep his floor
and cook his meals and scrub his clothes with soap.
For ten months she endured the aching hope
that he’d not try and turn her to his whore.
Instead, an honest courtship from the man.
This was not what she wanted from her life
to be some boring merchant’s servant wife
was not at all convenient to her plan.
She thanked him, claimed a husband in her past,
that she’d return to when she earned her fare.
He blushed and said that he would help her there
the least that he could do. He found a fast
tea-cutter racing past put her aboard
and said farewell. Ashore in Amsterdam
she bought the local pea soup made with ham
and took the stones that others had ignored
into the ghetto where she said she knew
what she did not, but nonetheless had guessed.
She showed them ten small stones, and hid the rest.
The jeweller hemmed and hawed, but told her true.
He cut one stone with facets – it shone clear
No flaw at all. She learned to trust the man
He cut more stones. She told him of her plan.
He liked her justice. Loved her lack of fear.
Priests burned his wife in Spain, and stole his son
to geld to sing the high notes in their choir.
He’d had the judges killed. ‘There’s men for hire’
He told her. ‘They will slaughter anyone
And won’t cost more than you can now afford.’
She laughed and said, my own small vicious hand
will kill. The jeweller did not understand
but helped her plan the murder of the Lord.
She learned to be a lady, a Countess,
from Italy. She learned to use a fan,
learned swordplay, pistols. And she killed the man.
Accomplished all she’d planned. Well, more or less.
She spent the diamonds each one, stone by stone.
Bought entry to his club, and with one card
beggared the man. Unmasked, and slapped him hard.
Duelled with him, stuck him, left the field alone.
She’d thought to kill, then hang. Her master’s wife
swore it was self-defense against a rape.
‘We’re even now, for when you helped me ‘scape
the fire and I betrayed you. Life for life.
My home is yours. This kindness comes quite late,
I know; the offer does include myself.
It doesn’t matter that you’ve spent your wealth
On vengeance – for ’twas me who stole the plate’