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THE CONISTON CURSE: A YORKSHIRE LEGEND, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: They knelt upon the altar steps, but other looks were there
Last Line: And touches all, -- no master yet has ever left an heir.
Alternate Author Name(s): L. E. L.; Maclean, Letitia
Subject(s): Curses; Yorkshire, England

THEY knelt upon the altar steps, but other looks were there
Than the calm and inward looks which suit the evening hour of prayer;
Many a cheek was deadly pale, while some were flush'd with red,
And hurriedly and falteringly the holy words were said.

They knelt their last, they sang their last; for deep the
king hath sworn,
The silent cells should strangely change before the coming morn:
The cloister'd votary henceforth is free from vow or veil,
Her grey robes she may doff, and give her bright hair to the gale.

And pardon be to them, if some, in their first hour of bloom,
Thought all too lightly in their hearts 'twas not so hard a doom;
For they were young, and they were fair, and little in their shade
Knew they of what harsh elements the jarring world was made.

There knelt one young, there knelt one fair, but, unlike those around,
No change upon her steady mien or on her brow was found,
Save haughtier even than its wont now seem'd that lady's face,
And never yet was brow more proud among her haughty race.

Betroth'd to one who fell in war, the last of all her name,
In her first youth and loveliness the noble maiden came;
Vigil and prayer, and tears perchance, had worn her bloom away,
When held that youthful prioress in St. Edith's shrine her sway.

She gave her broad lands to its use, she gave her golden dower, --
Marvel ye that ill she brook'd the chance that ruled the hour?
And it may be more fiercely grew her pious zeal allied
To this her all of earthly power -- her all of earthly pride.

Comes from the isle a heavy sound, such steps as tread in steel,
The clash of sword, the ring of shield, the tramp of armed heel.
The prioress bade her nuns upraise the vesper's sacred tone,
She led the hymn, but mute the rest -- no voice rose but her own:

For open now the gates were flung, in pour'd the soldier train,
And shout and shriek, and oath and prayer, rang through the holy fane.
Then forth the prioress stepp'd, and raised the red cross
in her hand --
No warrior of her race e'er held more fearless battle brand.

"Now turn, SIR JOHN DE CONISTON, I bid thee turn and flee,
Nor wait till Heaven, by my sworn lips, lay its dread curse on thee!
Turn back, SIR JOHN DE CONISTON, turn from our sainted shrine,
And years of penance may efface this godless deed of thine."

Rough was SIR JOHN DE CONISTON, and hasty in his mood,
And, soldier-like, then answer'd he, in angry speech and rude:
"I would not back although my path were lined with hostile swords,
And deem'st thou I will turn aside for only woman's words?"

She raised her voice, the curse was pass'd; and to their dying day
The sound, like thunder in their ears, will never pass away;
Still haunted them those flashing eyes, that brow of funeral stone.
When the words were said, she veil'd her face -- the
prioress was gone.

No more in that calm sanctuary its vestal maids abide,
Save one, SIR JOHN DE CONISTON, and that one is thy bride;
The sister band to other homes at will might wander free,
And their lonely prioress had fled a pilgrim o'er the sea.

Seven years St. Edith's votary had wander'd far and near,
Barefoot and fasting, she has call'd on every saint to hear:
Seven years of joy and festival have pass'd away like hours,
Since that priory had changed its state to a baron's lordly towers.

There was revelling in that stately hall, and in his seat of pride
The Lord of Coniston was placed, with his lady by his side;
And four fair children there were ranged beside their parents' knee,
All glad and beautiful -- a sight for weary eyes to see.

Rang the old turrets with the pledge -- "Now health to thee and thine;
And long and prosperous may thy name last in thy gallant line!"
When a voice rose up above them all, and that voice was
strange and shrill,
Like autumn's wind when it has caught winter's first shriek and chill;

And forth a veiled figure stepp'd, but back she flung her veil,
And they knew St. Edith's prioress by her brow so deadly pale;
No sickly paleness of the cheek whence health and hope have fled,
But that deadly hue, so wan, so cold, which only suits the dead.

"The prey of the ungodly is taken by God's hand --
I lay the endless curse of change upon this doomed land:
They may come and possession take, even as thou hast done,
But the father never, never shall transmit it to his son.

"Yet I grieve for the fair branches, though of such evil tree;
But the weird is laid, and the curse is said, and it rests
on thine and thee."
Away she pass'd; though many thought to stay her in the hall,
She glided from them, and not one had heard her footstep fall.

And one by one those children in their earliest youth declined,
Like sickening flowers that fade and fall before the blighting wind;
And their mother she too pined away, stricken by the same blast,
Till SIR JOHN DE CONISTON was left, the lonely and the last.

He sat one evening in his hall, still pride was on his brow,
And the fierce spirit lingering there nor time nor grief could bow;
Yet something that told failing strength was now upon his face,
When entered that dark prioress, and fronted him in place.

"SIR JOHN, thy days are numbered, and never more we meet
Till we yield our last dread reckoning before God's judgment-seat!
My words they are the latest sounds thine ear shall ever take --
Then hear me curse again the land which is cursed for thy sake.

"Oh, Coniston! thy lands are broad, thy stately towers are fair,
Yet woe and desolation are for aye the tenants there;
For Death shall be thy keeper, and two of the same race
Shall ne'er succeed each other in thy fatal dwelling-place!"

The curse is on it to this day: now others hold the land;
But be they childless, or begirt with a fair infant band,
Some sudden death, some wasting ill, some sickness taints the air,
And touches all, -- no master yet has ever left an heir.

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