The Eve of Battle

'Twas midnight, on St. Andrew's eve,
The stars were shining chilly down
On Narva's old beleaguer'd town,
Where, glittering in their wintry ray,
The mighty Russian's army lay.
Long, long, at tale of that fell fray
The haughty Muscovite shall grieve;
Long, long, the Russian maid shall tear
The ringlets of her flaxen hair;
And Russian matron weep their fall,
Who sleep by Narva's gory wall.
To-night upon that frozen plain
Their thousand banners gaily fly,
And sword and buckler give again
The lustre of that starry sky:
To-morrow, and their blood shall dew
The white snow with a crimson hue,
While the boy Swede triumphant waves
His flag o'er thrice ten thousand graves.

The Czar's pavilion stands alone,
Some twenty paces from the camp;
No light within of torch or lamp,
Only the flickering embers lent
A twilight radiance to the tent;
On helm, and spear, and buckler shone,
And there, an ancient Cossack sate,
And there, a Councillor of State;
And there, the wondrous Chief, who plann'd
To civilize a barbarous land;
The high of soul, yet wild of heart,
Who bade the generous light of art
Throughout his mighty realm be known,
And tamed all natures but his own.
In musing mood he silent sits,
And quaffs the half-drain'd cup by fits,
Or marks the firewood wane and die.
Sudden, before the Monarch's eye,
The lofty tent grew dark and dim,
And, 'twixt the entrance way and him,
There rose a savage form and grim,
With swarthy brow, and scatter'd hair:
His body wrapt in Swedish vest,
And a Turkish sabre at his breast;
With foot unshod, and ankle bare;
And the glance of his eye was stony and chill,
As the beams that play on a frozen rill.
The red blood left the Monarch's cheek,
And thrice he rose, and strove to speak,
And thrice did the falt'ring accents die
Beneath the spectre's glassy eye.
If all the snow on Russia's plains
Melted in one ice draught had been,
And pour'd that instant through his veins,
He had not felt so cold, I ween,
As when that form, or man, or sprite,
Lifted a finger, long and white,
And silent beckon'd him away;
He would have given his throne to stay,
But such a spell was in that glance,
He dared not pause, but must advance.

Forth from the Imperial tent they hied,
The Monarch, and his ghostly guide,
Behind the Czar, before the ghost,
There's not a sentry at his post,
There's not a sign, or sound of war,
Only the banners drowsily wave;
Inly mutter'd the furious Czar,
And he ground his teeth for very spite,
“Beshrew the heart of each sleeping knave,
I'll chop off their heads with the morning light.”
Still on, and on, the spectre speeds,
The Monarch following where he leads,
Thro' the silent camp they go,
And he leaves no footprint on the snow,
But onward he goes and no word lets fall,
Straight to the city's hostile wall.
He made no sign, and he breathed no name,
But the drawbridge fell as he onward came,
And in the unwilling Monarch went.
He's far from all that fear or love him,
Within a hostile battlement,
And Sweden's banner waves above him.
Still rapidly on doth the spectre glide,
There's not a soul in the silent streets,
Save the guards that stand on either side,
As still as ghosts in their winding sheets:
Thus on they sped for one weary hour,
Till they paused by an ancient chapel tower,
And there there rose on the Monarch's ear
Mingled voices of mirth and fear,
For there came a voice from each hollow grave,
Like the far-off roar of the Baltic wave,
And each grey pillar, and antique rafter,
Rang with wild shouts of savage laughter.
The trembling Emperor felt for his sword,
But he had forgotten to buckle it on,
And he strove to speak his 'larum word,
But his tongue was as stiff as a ridge of stone,
The hairs were bristling on his head,
When the pavement yawn'd beneath his tread,
And a gleam of lurid light came forth,
Like the meteor fires that dance in the north.
Into the gulf stepp'd the spectral elf,
And the Emperor follow'd, in spite of himself.

Loud, and more loud, grew the frantic din,
And wondrous the scene he saw within,
By the firelight red, by the torches' glare,
There were thirty figures standing there.
Each was clad like his ghostly guide,
In garments rough of the wild wolf's hide,
Savage of mien, and ghastly all,
And they seem'd to the Czar to be playing at ball.
Thirty figures, and all the same,
With terrible voice, and with noiseless tread,
They hurried on with their wondrous game,
And each ball that they play'd was a Sovereign's head.
There was William of England, with princely glance,
And they play'd with him against Louis of France;
They gave the Emperor's head a fling,
And bowl'd it right at the Spanish King;
They dash'd the Saxon against the Pole,
They bade the Dane with the Dutchman roll,
They flung the Pope and the Prussian down,
With many a lubberly German clown;
The Grand Signior roll'd here and there,
And the warrior Charles with his martial air:
Quoth one of the mummers, “Much we need,
A ball to play against Charles the Swede.”
Said another spectre, “We only wait
For the head of the Emperor, Peter the Great.”
The silent guide with a ghastly grin,
Raised his finger, long and thin,
He raised his hand and pointed right
At the Imperial Muscovite.
Instantly, with a wild halloo,
The thirty drew each a scimitar,
Aside their reeking balls they threw,
And furiously rush'd at the trembling Czar.
It's ill to deal with a desperate man,
Hotly the Muscovite's high blood ran,
Strongly he seized, and down he threw
The first that sprang of that savage crew,
Another came on, and to earth is roll'd:—
When loudly cried that Cossack old,
“Awaken, awaken, Imperial Sire,
Your Highness has tumbled me into the fire.”
Louder yet the minister said,
“Awaken, your Majesty's broken my head.”
Up starts the Czar, right well content,
To find him in his own good tent,
His own broad banner waving o'er him,
And Cossack and Councillor lying before him.

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