Menella Bute Smedley

The Escape of the Empress Matilda

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Through changeful clouds of night
The winter moon was gliding,
Like a bird with wings of light
On the buoyant breezes riding;
Fair was the scene, and strangely wild,
Beneath her meek transparent ray;
For the snow, in glittering masses piled,
Gave back a light that mock'd the day.
It lay in shining heaps,
Like pearls of purest brightness;
It clothed the woods and steeps
In robes of bridal whiteness;
And high its crystal ramparts rose
Along old Thames's alter'd shore;
With one wide field of foam-like snows
The mighty stream was frozen o'er.
There Oxford Castle frown'd,
'Neath silken banners streaming,
With rebel spears around,
Between the snow-clifts gleaming.
The haughty empress weeps within—
Tears from a heart that scorns to stoop—

And the pains of famine now begin
To prey upon her loyal troop.
Full sadly spake the bands
Of yielding on the morrow;
Then wrung the queen her hands,
Crying, in wrathful sorrow,
“Ah, Gloucester! ah, my brother dear!
Thou truest and thou best of men!
'Twould not be thus if thou wert here—
Right soon should I be rescued then!”
Down gazed those valiant lords,
Their grief and shame were bitter;
Alas, ungrateful words!
Thy tears, O queen, were fitter;
For true of heart and strong of hand,
Each warrior fenced thee with his life;
But when stern Famine bares her brand,
Man can but perish in the strife!
Out spake a maiden then:
“Counsel my lady needeth;
When fails the wit of men,
Oft woman's wit succeedeth.
At Wallingford, Earl Robert bides,
To guard thy son, thine England's heir:
Can we not cross the frozen tides,
To seek for aid and safety there?”
“Not so, alas! not so!
Long is the way, and dreary;
How shall we pass the foe—
We, faint, and worn, and weary?”

“Doubt nothing,” said that damsel bold;
“But only trust thyself to me,
And thou shalt learn how fearless-soul'd
An English maiden dares to be!”
“Farewell, ye noble hearts;
God take you to his keeping!
Behold, your queen departs
From friends so loyal, weeping!”
Matilda donned a milk-white vest;
And that same damsel, fair and true,
In robes of stainless white was dress'd,
Like the cold snow's unspotted hue.
With linkèd cords they bound
The empress and her maiden;
O cords, be strong and sound,
For dearly are ye laden!
They lighted noiselessly and fair
Upon the river's glassy bed;
The silence of the midnight air
Received no echo from their tread.
They fled, like startled deer
From the eager huntsman trooping,
Beneath the ice-hills clear
Full oft for shelter stooping.
The watchmen gazed adown the stream,
As they paced around the rebel-camp:
“See how the flying snow-flakes gleam
Under the moon's resplendent lamp.”
Six weary miles they fled,
With fear and weakness striving,

Their cheeks as white with dread
As the snows against them driving.
They paused awhile at Abington,
While steeds were brought of fleetest power;
To Wallingford they hurried on,
And reach'd it ere the dawn's first hour.
Her steed the empress check'd,
Scarce could her limbs sustain her;
Little of that she reck'd,
Nought now hath power to pain her.
Widely Earl Robert flings the gates,
His sister and his queen to greet;
He leads her where prince Henry waits,
And ah, their first embrace was sweet!
Matilda wept apart,
Gentle and calm her weeping,
Softening her haughty heart,
Like dew the hard earth steeping.
Her young son in her arms she press'd:
“With thee,” she cried, “thou child most dear,
And with my brother's generous breast
To shield me, there is nought I fear.
Let honour due and fair
To this my maid be given;
Bless we with praise and prayer
The pitying God of heaven;
His hand hath saved me from my foes,
His hand shall still my friends sustain;
Thanks be to God! I am with those
Who are my heart's beloved again!”

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Menella Bute Smedley