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Northward he turneth through a little door,
And scarce three steps, ere music's golden tongue
Flatter'd to tears this aged man and poor :5
But no; already had his death-bell rung:
The joys of all his life were said and sung:
His was harsh penance on St. Agnes' Eve:
Another way he went, and soon among
Rough ashes sat he, for his soul's reprieve;
And all night kept awake, for sinners' sake to grieve.
That ancient beadsman heard the prelude soft;
And so it chanc'd (for many a door was wide,
From hurry to and fro) soon up aloft
The silver-snarling trumpets 'gan to chide;
The level chambers ready with their pride,
Were glowing to receive a thousand guests:
And carved angels, 'ever eager-eyed,
Stared, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.
At length burst in the argent revelry
With plume, tiara, and all rich array,
Numerous as shadows haunting fairily
The brain, new stuff'd, in youth, with triumphs gay
Of old romance. These let us wish away,
And turn, sole-thoughted, to one lady there,
Whose heart had brooded all that wintry day
On love, and wing'd St. Agnes' saintly care,
As she had heard old dames full many times declare
They told her how, upon St. Agnes' Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight;
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey'd middle of the night
If ceremonies due they did aright;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white:
Nor look behind or sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
Full of this whim was youthful Madeline;
The music, yearning, like a god in pain,
She scarcely heard; her maiden eyes divine,
Fix'd on the floor, saw many a sweeping train
Pass by, she heeded not at all; in vain
Came many a tip-toe amorous cavalier,
And back retired, not cool'd by high disdain,
But she saw not; her heart was otherwhere;
She sigh'd for Agnes' dreams, the sweetest of the year.
She danc'd along with vague, regardless eyes,
Anxious her lips, her breathing quick and short;
The hallow'd hour was near at hand: she sighs
Amid the timbrels and the throng'd resort
Of whisperers in anger or in sport;
'Mid looks of love, defiance, hate, and scorn;
Hoodwink'd with faery fancy; all amort,
Save to St. Agnes and her lambs unshorn,
And all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.
So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger'd still. Meantime across the moors,
Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire
For Madeline. Beside the portal doors
Buttress'd from moonlight, stands he, and implores
All saints to give him sight of Madeline,
But for one moment in the tedious hours,
That he might gaze and worship all unseen,
Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss ;-in sooth such things have been
He ventures in, let no buzz'd whisper tell;
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, Love's feverous citadel.
For him those chambers had barbarian hordes,
Hyæna foemen, and hot-blooded lords,
Whose very dogs would execrations howl
Against his lineage. Not one breast affords
Him any mercy, in that mansion foul,
Save one old beldame, weak in body and in soul.
Ah! happy chance! the aged creature came
Shuffling along with ivory-headed wand,
To where he stood, hid from the torches' light,
Behind a broad hall pillar, far beyond
The sound of merriment and chorus bland.
He startled her; but soon she knew his face,
And grasp'd his fingers in her palsied hand:
Saying, "Mercy, Porphyro! hie thee from this place. They are all here to-night, the whole blood-thirsty race.
"Get hence! get hence! there's dwarfish Hildebrand, He had a fever late, and in the fit
He cursed thee and thine, both house and land:
Then there's that old Lord Maurice, not a whit
More tame for his grey hairs-Alas, me! flit;
Flit like a ghost away."-" Ah, gossip dear,
We're safe enough; here in this arm-chair sit,
And tell me how-"-" Good Saints! not here! not here' Follow me, child, or else these stones will be thy bier!"
He follow'd through a lowly, arched way,
Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume;
And as she mutter'd, "Well-a-well-a-day!"
He found him in a little moonlight room,
Pale, latticed, chill, and silent as a tomb
"Now tell me where is Madeline," said he;
"Oh, tell me, Angela, by the holy loom
Which none but secret sisterhood may see,
When they St. Agnes' wool are weaving piously."
"St. Agnes! Ah! it is St. Agnes' Eve-
Yet men will murder upon holidays;
Thou must hold water in a witch's sieve,
And be the liege lord of all elves and fays,
To venture so: it fills me with amaze
To see thee, Porphyro !-St. Agnes' Eve!
God's help! my lady fair the conjuror plays
This very night: good angels her deceive!
But let me laugh awhile; I've mickle time to grieve
Feebly she laugheth in the languid moon,
While Porphyro upon her face doth look,
Like puzzled urchin on an aged crone,
Who keepeth clos'd a wondrous riddle-book,
As spectacled she sits in chimney nook;
But soon his eyes grow brilliant, when she told
His lady's purpose; and he scarce could brook
Tears, at the thought of those enchantments cold,"
And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old.
Sudden a thought came, like a full-blown rose,
Flushing his brow, and in his painèd heart
Made purple riot; then doth he propose
A stratagem, that makes the beldame start.
"A cruel man and impious thou art;
Sweet lady! let her pray, and sleep and dream,
Alone with her good angels far apart
From wicked men like thee. Go! go! I deem
Thou canst not, surely, be the same that thou dost seem."
"I will not harm her, by all saints, I swear!" Quoth Porphyro; "Oh, may I ne'er find grace, When my weak voice shall whisper its last prayer,
If one of her soft ringlets I displace,
Or look with ruffian passion in her face!
Good Angela, believe me, by these tears,
Or I will, even in a moment's space,
Awake with horrid shout my foemen's ears,
And beard them, though they be more fang'd than wolves and bears.”
"Ah! why wilt thou affright a feeble soul?
A poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing,
Whose passing bell may ere the midnight toll;
Whose prayers for thee, each morn and evening,
Were never miss'd?" Thus plaining, doth she bring
A gentler speech from burning Porphyro,
So woful and of such deep sorrowing,
That Angela gives promise she will do
Whatever he shall wish, betide or weal or wo:
Which was to lead him in close secrecy
Even to Madeline's chamber, and there hide
Him in a closet, of such privacy
That he might see her beauty unespied.
And win perhaps that night a peerless bride,
While legion'd fairies paced the coverlet,
And pale enchantment held her sleepy-eyed.
Never on such a night have lovers met,
Since Merlin paid his demon all the monstrous debt.8
"It shall be as thou wishest," said the dame;
"All cates and dainties shall be stored there,
Quickly on this feast-night; by the tambour frame
Her own lute thou wilt see: no time to spare,
For I am slow and feeble, and scarce dare,
On such a catering, trust my dizzy head.
Wait here, my child, with patience; kneel in prayer
The while; ah! thou must needs the lady wed;
Or may I never leave my grave among the dead!"
So saying, she hobbled off with busy fear;
The lover's endless minute slowly pass'd,
The dame return'd, and whisper'd in his ear
To follow her, with aged eyes aghast
From fright of dim espial. Safe at last
Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
The maiden's chamber, silken, hush'd and chaste,
Where Porphyro took covert, pleas'd amain:
His poor guide hurried back with agues in her brain
Her faltering hand upon the balustrade, Old Angela was feeling for the stair, When Madeline, St. Agnes' charmed maid, Rose, like a mission'd spirit, unaware; With silver taper-light, and pious care She turn'd, and down the aged gossip led To a safe level matting. Now prepare, Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed; She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove fray'd and fled.