Ye maidens of Old England!
The joyous and the free,
The loving and the loved of all,
Wherever ye may be;
Who wander through the ferny dell,
And o'er the breezy hill,
And glide along the woodland path,
All at your own sweet will;
Who know the many joys of home—
The song, the smile, the mirth,
The happy things which God hath given
To brighten this our earth:—
Comes there a sigh, a longing thought,
In lonely, musing hours?
Deem ye there is a fairer realm,
A purer faith than ours?
Oh, cast away the yearning dream,
And listen, while I tell
Of one who knew no other home
Than her own convent-cell.
The rain comes down relentlessly,
The sky is robed in gray,
Oh, Paris is a dreary place
On such a dreary day!
But dreariest of the dark'ning streets,
Where the cold rain doth fall,
Is that where looms the convent-tower.
Where frowns the convent-wall.
A boyish step is passing
Beneath the dripping eaves,
With monkish lore beladen,
With musty Latin leaves.
Ah, 'tis Charles Maurice, the young abbé!
Thou art of princely birth;
For thee shall dawn a brighter day;
A strange high part be thine to play,
With wond'rous tact to guide and sway
The great ones of the earth!
But the still-increasing torrents
Will spoil the ancient tomes,
And woe betide Charles Maurice
From the wrath of cowl'd gnomes!
So he seeks a low-bent archway
Within the grim old wall,
Where never the laughing footstep
Of a sunbeam dares to fall.
Anon he wraps the volumes
In the folds of his hooded gown;
Then starts to hear, though he knows no fear,
A sound which tells him life is near—
That he is not alone. He turns—
the passage is dark as night,
He listens—but all is still,
Save the raindrops in monotonous march,
And the ceaseless drip from the mouldering arch,
On the stone so damp and chill.
"Qui vive?" he cries right gaily,
Through the cavernous entry's gloom;
But a low, faint cry is the sole reply,
As the voice of one who is come to lie
On the brink of a yawning tomb.
Oh, where is the true-hearted lad,
Who at the call of sorrow,
But in his thoughtlessness is glad
To help the weak and cheer the sad,
Aid promise a brighter morrow?
The cry was one of weakness—
Of weariness unblest;
And a pulse of gentle sympathy
Makes music in his breast.
Through the dark way he gropeth
To the iron-studded door,
Behind whose oaken grimness,
Some dwell in cloistral dimness
Who may pass out no more.
There, in the glimmering darkness,
He deems he can descry
A small and sable-robed form
On the cold doorstep lie.
The form is that of maidenhood;
And, in that boyish heart,
It wakes a helpful tenderness,
Like that which, hidden, yet doth bless
Through a lov'd brother's fond caress,
Ere childhood's hours depart.
"What is it?" said Charles Maurice,
In a softly-pitying tone;
"What dost thou fear? why art thou here?
And why that weary moan?"
Then, lifting her with gentle arm,
He bore her where the light
Fell on a girlish face so fair, It seem'd a seraph light to wear,
But for the sorrow mantling there,
And the glance of wild affright.
Why should I paint her beauty?
Have ye not often tried
To tell of rosy lip and cheek,
Of starlight eyes that shine and speak,
Of cloudlike locks that vainly seek
The snowy brow to hide? .
And feel ye not, when all is said
That words can ever say,
The fount of beauty still is seal'd—
The loveliness is not reveal'd
To those who list the lay.
Oh, words can never satisfy—
They are too hard and real;
The subtle charm they cannot shew
By which the beautiful we know—
The beautiful we feel.
Perchance they speak the form, the mind,
And draw the likeness well;
But at the closed entrance-gate
All reverently they bend and wait
Where, 'neath the marble-arching dome,
In crystal-window'd palace-home,
The soul itself doth dwell.
And who may tell how lovely
The gentle Constance seem'd,
When through such clouds of sorrow
Her meteor beauty gleam'd?
What wonder that all speechless,
As in a trance of gladness,
The young abbé stood wond'ringly
Before such radiant sadness?
For the look of hopeless terror
Was soften'd as she raised
Those orbs of strange, quick brightness,
And on Charles Maurice gazed.
She saw the pledge of kindness
Traced on that high fair brow;
"Oh, no! thou never wilt betray,
But aid thou canst not; say, oh say,
Am I not lost? There is no way
Of safe return, I know."
Then the trembling hands she folded
Over the burning cheek,
A wild and woe-born sobbing
Forbade the lips to speak.
Till quiet words of sympathy
So softly breathed and low,
And the touch of that young hand on hers,
Soon bade her story flow.
"I was a very little child,
Hot old enough to know,
Perhaps kind looks had on me smiled,
But I forget them now,
When I was brought to live so coldly here,
Where all goes on the same through weary month and year.
"I did not know how lovely all
The world without must be;
The sunbeams on the convent wall
Were quite enough for me;
But others came who knew, and then they told
Of all that I had dreamt, but never might behold.
"They told me of the mountains tall,
Where they might freely roam;
They told me of the waterfall,
With music in its foam;
They told me of wide fields and opening flowers,
Of sloping, mossy banks and glowing autumn bowers.
"Of other things they told me, too,
More beautiful to them,
Of gleaming halls where sparklets flew
From many a radiant gem;
And then they told of mirth, and dance, and song.
Would I had never heard, that
I might never long!
"They said the sky was just as blue
Above the convent towers,
As where the arching forests threw
A shade o'er summer flowers;
But I grew weary of that dazzling sky,
And long'd to wander forth, e'en if it were to die.
"I did not want to change my lot,
I knew it might not be,
I only long'd to have one spot
All bright with memory.
To gaze just once upon the world I tried,
And then I would return to be Heaven's lonely bride.
"But, oh, I heard no sounds of mirth,
No beauty I could see,
I could not find the lovely earth,
It was not made for me.
And now my punishment indeed is sore,
My only home hath closed on me its iron door."
Yes! in her fever'd restlessness
She left her unwatch'd cell,
When all around were summon'd
By the deep-voiced matin-bell.
And in the damp-stoned cloisters
To rest a while she thought,
Where cold, fresh air might round her play,
The burning fever pass away,
And coolness of the early day
To her hot brow be brought.
Strange carelessness! no massy bar
Across the gate was thrown!
She deem'd that world of beauty near;
She gazed around in haste and fear,
Oh, none were there to see and hear—
The timid bird has flown!
But the rain came down relentlessly,
The sky was robed in gray;
All dreary seem'd the narrow street,
And nothing bright or fair might meet
Her of the white and trembling feet,
No loveliness is there to greet
That wandering star to-day.
Then bow'd with shame and weakness,
And disappointed hope,
She only reach'd the heavy door
To find it firmly closed once more;
Ah, who shall help, and who restore,
And who that door shall ope?
The strong young arm of Charles Maurice
Tries once and yet again,
But the weighty portal baffles him,
Ah! is it all in vain?
But Constance darts one upward glance
Of blent despair and trust;
There is no bolt, for daylight gleams
Between the scarcely-meeting beams,
Some unknown obstacle there seems,
And conquer it he must.
He strains his utmost strength, the sweat
Is beading on his brow; It creaks—it yields!
O Constance, smile,
The door is open now!
From her cheek the flush hath faded,
As fades the evening glow,
In pristine whiteness leaving
The rosy Alpine snow.
And like a breeze of twilight
The aspen-leaves among,
A whisper falls upon his ear
From quivering lip and tongue:
"Farewell! Oh, thou hast saved me!"
And the hand so white and cold,
With lingering clasp of gratitude,
Her wordless thanks hath told.
One moment on that small, fair hand
His youthful lips are press'd;
There is a reverence in his eye,
For grief and beauty both are nigh;
She passes like a spirit by,
To seek her cheerless rest.
They are parted, like the dewdrops
That linger in the smile
Of a storm-begotten rainbow,
But for a little while.
Then one in lonely dimness
To earth may soon descend;
And one with the bright sky above,
Though all unseen, may blend.
The young abbe hath paused in vain
To hear her footstep pass;
'Twas lighter than the noiseless fall
Of rose-leaf on the grass.
No sound is heard but the pattering rain,'
And he slowly turns away,
With the brown old books beneath his gown,
To meet his abbot's gathering frown,
For loitering on the way.
Think you he conn'd the loveless lore
Without a thoughtful sigh,
For the loveliness in sorrow,
Which pass'd so trance-like by?
Among the missal borders
Was no such angel face;
And such, once seen, fade not away;
Their image shines without decay,
When on the canvas of the heart,
With untaught skill, yet mystic art,
Each line of light we trace.
The wing of Time seems broken now,
So tardy is his flight;
He deems by day that she is dead,
He dreams she lives, by night.
Till quick anxiety hath found
A messenger to bear
The tidings, that he strove to frame
From woven hope and fear.
What wonder that he heard not
Her footfall on the stone!
She sank beneath the cloister wall,
Unheeded and alone.
And ere Charles Maurice stood again
Beneath the open sky,
For ever on the things of earth
She closed her weary eye.
Constance, the beautiful, hath left
Her dismal convent cell;
She hath not known one hope fulfill'd,
One granted joy, one longing still'd.
For her the melody of life,
Was but one chord of inward strife,
Was but one ruthless knell.
Her heart bedimm'd with sameness,
Her only wish denied,
Oh, what a mockery it were,
Her lot should such a title bear,
"Heaven's own appointed bride!"
Why should her early spring-time
Be quench'd in wintry gloom?
Was it not merciful and wise
To call her spirit to the skies
From such a living tomb?
How might that gentle maiden
Have scatter'd joy around,
And made the earth a brighter place,
For all her radiance and grace!
But now, unsorrow'd and unknown,
Her only memory is a stone
Within the convent bound.
Is she the only blighted life
And frozen fount of love?
Go, ask the sigh-beladen walls,
The tear-stain'd pavements, and the halls
Of tyranny, that loudly calls
For vengeance from above!
Nay, ask them not; for ever mute,
Their secret they will keep;
Of rusted hearts they will not tell;
The sorrows of the lonely cell;
Not yet, in characters of flame
Blaze forth, and tell their legion name
Who only lived to weep.
O ye who speak of what as yet
Ye do not, will not know—
Of sacred solitude, and life
Devoted, far from worldly strife,
To saintly rest below—
Go, search the fiction-passing truths
Of history's dark page,
And mark the tides of hidden woe
That 'neath the glittering icebergs flow,
In grimly-surging rage.
Spake he in vain who said long since,
"Shew piety at home?" [1 Tim. v. 4.]
And shall the Word of God give way
To dark deceits of Rome?
Take heed ! unknowingly ye stand
Upon the flower-fringed brink
Of caves which hope and joy entomb;
Ye fathom not their depths of gloom,
Till, hopelessly, ye sink!
F. R. H.