Menella Bute Smedley

The Death of James I

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Past was the day of festal mirth;
The monarch stood beside the hearth,
Whose flickering brands cast changeful glow
On his bright eye and stately brow;
Upon that calm and noble face
Deep thoughts had left their living trace,—
Thoughts, such as press, with giant power,
A common life into an hour;
Each line of lofty meaning there
Was graven by the hand of care,
And the flash of that triumphant eye,
That arching lip's stern majesty,
Told of full many a foe withstood,—
Without, disdain'd—within, subdued!

But gentler thoughts arise—and well
That smile's subduing light may tell
(Like gleams that break the thunder-cloud,
Speaking of heaven behind its shroud)
How 'neath that haughty aspect lies
A heart of kindliest sympathies.
Oh, still that smile must shine most bright
On her who lives but in its light,
His queen, his lady—born to share
His fleeting joy, his ceaseless care;
Watching his fame with pride, as prone
To think his greatest deeds her own,
Yet with deep love, that strives to make
Herself as nothing for his sake.

Now at his feet she sits,—how fair
That spacious brow and shining hair,
Those lips no painter's art could reach,
Those glistening eyes whose light is speech,
That slender form of stately mien,
That softest cheek, as crystal sheen,
Whose hue was of such tender rose
As sunset flings on fallen snows;
No marvel that the monarch's eye
Dwells on her face delightedly,
No marvel that he loves to meet
A gaze so fond, so full, so sweet!

Around, apart, a graceful band,
The maidens of her service stand,
With snooded brow, and plaided breast,
And bearing modest, but serene.
First 'mid the fairest and the best
Have Scotia's daughters ever been;
They pass the tale, the song, the jest—
A blither group was never seen.
Oh, pause a while, brief hours of bliss!
Upon a scene so sweet as this
Oh, ruthless night, forbear to close,
With thy grim train of ghastly woes!
In vain! It comes, the hour of doom;
These joys but herald deeper gloom,
They are as flowers that hide a tomb!

What sound was that? The clash of mail?
Why turns each lovely cheek so pale?
Why start they from their seats, and stand
Each clasping quick her neighbour's hand?
Again!—and nearer!—hark, a cry
As of a brave heart's agony;
A shriek that rends the quivering air,
The very cadence of despair!
Oh, save the king! No thought has power
But this in such a fearful hour;
Oh, save the king! Too well we know
They come, they come, the traitor foe!
All hope is vain, the guards are slain,
Each faithful to his care,
The gates are past, and clattering fast,
With a sound like a rushing thunder-blast,
Their tramp is on the stair!
Not to yon casement fly—beneath
Stand the grim messengers of death,
Their dull blades in the moonshine gleaming,
With the blood of loyal hearts all steaming!
There is a cell beneath the floor,
Oh, seek it ere they burst the door!
One effort more,—they lift the board,—
By eager hands impell'd, implored,
Even in that hour of agony
Disdaining from his foes to fly,
The king descends—too late, too late!
His strife is vain who strives with fate;
They come—each step resounding near
Strikes like a stab upon the ear!

Shall Scotland's prince thus aidless die
And with a Douglas standing by?
Forbid it years of faith and fame,
Clothing in light that ancient name!
Barr'd is that quivering door,—but how?
'Tis by a slender arm of snow!
A girl hath darted from the band,
And, where the weighty bar should stand,
She thrusts her soft, slight arm, and cries,
With whitening lips and gleaming eyes,
“'Tis fast—a woman's arm is there;
Now, men, come on ward if ye dare!”
Without a sound or start
Breathless she stood—the first fell stroke
That fragile barrier crush'd and broke,
But not one cry of terror woke
From that undaunted heart!
Till, as they dropp'd the sheltering plank,
Loosing her desperate hold, she sank
(For then the iron hand of pain
Closed on her heart and chill'd each vein);
She sank, but ere her senses fled,
“Thank God! he's saved!” she faintly said.
Such deeds can woman's spirit do—
O Catharine Douglas, fair and true,
Let Scotland keep thy holy name
Still first upon her ranks of fame!

Kind was that swoon! Thou didst not see
What deeds of horror then befell;
Well may thy comrades envy thee,
Blind to that piteous spectacle!
Those sounds of woe thou didst not hear,
Thou didst not see that sight of fear
When banded traitors slew their king;
When, weeping, with dishevell'd hair,

In pale but beautiful despair,
A queen, a wife, a woman, there
Did kneel to men who scorn'd her prayer,
Her husband and their prince to spare!
Ah, hapless queen! As hopeful 'twere
Round the roused tiger in his lair
For mercy and for aid to cling!
All bleeding sinks she in the dust,
Pierced by some stern and savage hand—
Let shame's irreparable rust
For ever stain that ruthless brand!
Let that foul deed recorded be,
A warning to futurity,
What fiends in man's dark breast awaken
When loyal faith is once forsaken!

Like a chased lion, wounded, worn,
But still terrifie in his fall,
With ebbing strength and eyes of scorn
The king confronts those traitors all;
Outnumber'd soon, but unsubdued,
He sinks before them in his blood—
No victors they,—the hero dies
Worn out with useless victories!

Weep, Scotland, weep, that tameless soul,
That heart, great, generous, warm, and true;
As countless ages onward roll
Such spirits come but far and few.
Weep, Scotland, weep, and not in vain;
Thy tears have wash'd away the stain,
An hundred deeds of after-time
Have well redeem'd that hour of crime;
Though darkening shame defile the name
And scutcheon of the traitor Grahame,
How Scotsmen for their king can die
Let Cameron and Montrose reply!

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Menella Bute Smedley