Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BLANCHE LISLE: 3. THE OLD YEAR'S LAST MIDNIGHT, by AUGUSTA DAVIES WEBSTER



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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

BLANCHE LISLE: 3. THE OLD YEAR'S LAST MIDNIGHT, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: There stood a ruined chapel all alone
Last Line: And met her love's fond eyes, and lost in them her pain.
Alternate Author Name(s): Home, Cecil; Webster, Mrs. Julia Augusta


THERE stood a ruined chapel all alone
In a far corner of the ill-kept park,
Almost forgotten now, though long agone
It was a building of some name and mark,
For here were sculptured warriors grim and stark,
The buried heroes of the race of Lisle,
And proud inscriptions, time-defaced and dark,
Lettered the pavement of the damp cold aisle,
Vaunting the quiet dead, who fell to dust the while.

Green slimy patches festered on the wall,
The ivy crept in through the broken pane,
And let his sharp-notched leaves in wreathings fall
O'er the rich blazoning's enamelled stain
That flaming gules and or did still remain
Forcing the light that from the heavens came,
To story, as it passed through symbols vain,
The earthly glories-of an earthly name,
And in the house of God, man's honours to proclaim.

Chill murky vapour deepened the deep gloom,
The quaint carved woodwork rotted in decay,
The falling rain would trickle on the tomb
Where fair dame Maude in chiselled slumber lay,
Her once white marble now all stained and gray;
Piecemeal the gilding from the roof had gone,
The mouldered tapestries had dropped away,
All was in ruins, all was drear and lone,
The tomb of a proud race, whose day of pride was done.

Here, though thus wasted, was the burying-place
Of all the Lisles; here was her uncle's pride,
That he, though the last lord of all his race,
Blighted with poverty, yet when he died,
Should rest in peace his father's grave beside;
This was his grief and shame, that peevish fate
The power to shew due reverence denied,
To raise it once again to fitting state,
As house of prayer to God, and rest-place of the great.

Old legends ran, that whoso, having claim
To count the sleepers there his ancestry,
In the night's shadow hither lonely came,
When the old wearied year began to die,
And waited till he gasped his last, long sigh,
Should see some presagings of coming fate,
Should learn in some prophetic mystery
What change of good or ill for him did wait,
Ere the advancing year passed through December's gate.

And when the year's last sun sank lustreless,
She, these wild stories running in her head,
And being wilful with much happiness,
Decreed within her, ere that night had fled,
To seek the dusky precincts of the dead,
And kneeling patient by the crumbling shrine,
Where her forefathers all had worshipped,
Seek to discern some vision or some sign,
Whereby the sweet, hope-laden future to divine.

For in the lightness of her heart she said,
"There was a time when I, poor trembling fool,
Had shrunk from such a quest with palsied dread,
But I have gathered courage in Love's school,
And all my soul through love has waxen bold,
And, though my faith in these old tales is small,
And as a fair fantastic myth I hold,
This power the happy future to forestall,
Yet will I test its truth and see what may befall."

Then did she count the hours impatiently,
Deeming the round-faced clock a world too slow,
And when the yellow moon had mounted high,
Slanting pale silver on the sparkling snow,
She hasted o'er her young lithe form to throw
The full-spread mantle's comfortable weight,
Speeding through corridors long, dark and low,
Till moaned at her soft touch the creaking gate,
Passed out in the cold night, to ask the dead of fate.

There was strange stillness in the wintry night,
The old familiar path she daily paced
Seemed all mysterious in its shimmering white,
The leafless boughs in frosted mail encased,
Strange phantasies in their thick network traced,
The wild snow wilderness that round her lay,
Seemed to her fancy some enchanted waste,
Where she was bound to hold her even way,
Through a long pale-lit night and never know the day.

For there is weird enchantment in the gleam
Of vague moon-radiance on the peaceful snow;
As one were hero of some ghost-stirred dream
Or mystic legend from the long ago,
Doomed in atonement for some sinful woe
Or rash upbraiding of Heaven's tutelage,
Ever through faint illumined gloom to go
On some unvarying goal-less pilgrimage,
By time and death forgotten from long age to age.

Or wanderer in some world not yet awake,
But slumbering beneath a sunless sky,
While yet nor flower nor green-speared blade can break
Through the still weight of its dead purity,
Where never touch of spring-time dancing by,
Has hung the waving leaves upon the tree,
But all things in dim lifelessness still lie,
Not being yet but waiting time to be;
So in such night has earth, snow-shrouded, seemed to me.

She paused one moment by a lonely pine
That stood where the small curving path, that led
Down to the chapel, broke from the straight line
Of the wide walk; then faster onward sped,
(The crisp snow crackling 'neath her buoyant tread,)
On, through the sloping pathway's gloomy shade
Whose leafless branches met above her head,
Brushing white showers from the thorns decayed,
Until she came at length into the quiet glade.

The huge door, groaning heavily, gave way,
She passed and was alone in that strange place;
All was not darkness, one wide silver ray
Fell full on sleeping Maude's cold, changeless face,
Fell colourless, and slanted whitely down
On the tombed floor, but on her folded vest,
Through rich-hued panes, were deeper tintings thrown,
Deep solemn violet upon her breast,
And dark blue shadows on her marble form did rest.

A sanguine stream as though of crimson blood,
Stole to the tomb where the crusader lay,--
A stormy knight of myth-decked hardihood.--
Mailed as though only resting from a fray,
His stiff palms pressed together as to pray;
Prayer not unneeded, since his fiery life,
If all be true that ancient legends say,
Left, with wild enterprise and warfare rife,
Small time for thought of prayer, or shriving ere the strife.

One fleck of amber kissed the sacred rood,
All other things were indistinct in gloom,
And over all the chapel seemed to brood
The stillness and the strangeness of the tomb:
Trembling she stole along the vaulted aisle--
She could not choose but tremble now--and heard
The fevered beating of her heart the while,
But, passing to the altar undeterred,
Knelt, and pure orisons for grace and strength preferred.

Yet could not hinder thoughts of other things
The oneness of her heavenward thoughts to mar,
Nor crush the host of quick imaginings
That with her complines in her soul waged war,
Nor from her mind the memory wholly bar
Of those old tales and legendary rhymes:
Three times she heard the village church from far,
Ring out the quarters in its cadenced chimes,
And an expectant dread crept o'er her at such times.

But when the third had ceased, that was the last
Before the long, loud midnight strokes should clang,
There seemed a sudden tempest to o'ercast
The night, and with a funeral pall to hang
The hidden sky; then in mad tumult rang
Wild shrieks of moaning wind, as though in vain
Howling for freedom from some frantic pang;
The ivy flapped across the darkened pane,
And gurgled boisterous the plash of falling rain.

The stillness of the night had passed away,
And all was turmoil and fierce hurricane;
Louder still louder roared the storm's hoarse fray,
Still did she kneeling at the shrine remain,
Till, anguished by her heart's too throbbing pain,
She sank beneath her terrified distress;
Her wearied senses left their lawful reign,
And she in a deep languor, motionless,
Lay for a while the prey of dull unconsciousness.

And when she wakened there was calm again,
Yet all was darkness in the sacred pile,
Save where with torches came a dark-robed train,
Noiselessly gliding up the central aisle,
Till, one by one, the solemn funeral file
Passed where she knelt, and looked with stony glare,
And face cadaverous and ghastly smile,
Drew slowly o'er her their pale torches' flare,
Then passed beyond the shrine and waited silent there.

It seemed to her that she had often seen
Among the ancient portraits of her race,
Some such as these in life had surely been:
Lo, thus perchance was Maude's angelic face,
Not in cold death departed all its grace;
Thus her stern brother scowling might have died;
The huge crusader's bulk next could she trace;
This was the proud "Hard ladye's" stately glide,--
Yes these were they, whose lineage was her house's pride.

Slowly and mournful at the last there came,
Some bearing a white-draped covered bier,
Then, following, a stately widowed dame,
Oh, horror! as the spectre group came near,
She saw his face, though never known, held dear,
The sire who had not seen her when he fell,
Like Bayard knight without reproach or fear,
And left the young bride whom he loved so well,
In rosaries of tears her few lone years to tell.

But the tall lady looked upon the ground
And so unrecognized passed sadly by,
To where they stood the shrouded bier around,
Wringing their hands as in mute agony,
At that which hidden underneath did lie,
Till the tall phantom lady raised her head,
And, beckoning, turned on Blanche a rayless eye
Whence all the light of life and love had fled--
It was her mother's face, as she had seen it dead.

She could not choose but come, she could not choose,
Though but to think of it was half despair,
And made her forehead chill with clammy dews,--
Drawn by the terror of that cold, still glare,
But raise the pall to learn what rested there:
It slumbered very beautiful and white,
A pallid face like a carved angel's fair,
Framed in rich chestnut tresses soft and bright,
Lovely in the deep calm of death's undreaming night.

She saw it, saw her face as it should be
In the unconsciousness of that last sleep,
She had no power from that dread sight to flee,
She had no power to stir, no power to weep,
A silent horror seemed through her to creep,
And held her in a marble agony:
Till, thinking of her love so glad and deep,
She burst into a sudden anguished cry--
Not this, not Death! O God! so young, so loved to die!

And with that cry the phantoms ceased to be,
And a swift rushing sound of surging waves
Rose through the chapel, as when the wild sea
Hoarse clamouring for yet more victims raves,
A sound of surging waves that seemed to rise
And whelm the spectre-train beneath their spray;
And then a purple vapour dimmed her eyes,
Wherein the chapel faded quite away,
She as in conscious trance borne on still waters lay.

The sound of surging waves more far did grow,
And on a quiet stream she seemed to lie,
While the smooth current passed on calm and slow,
With a light ripple as she floated by,
And he stood watching her with troubled eye,
Yet seemed to deem the effort hard and vain
To stay her course, and she must pass and die,
Stood gazing with a frightened look of pain,
Yet holding out no hand to bring her back again.

The bitterness of death was in her heart,
The bitterness of grief too great to bear;
With a keen sudden pang from her did part
Knowledge of life and knowledge of despair
In death-like rest. Next morn they found her there,
And bore her homeward through the tearful rain,
And brought back life with much long patient care,
And she had comfort when she woke again,
And met her love's fond eyes, and lost in them her pain.





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