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The Iron Gates: A Legend of Alderley

The writhing mists of autumn's sky
Still hid the heights of Alderley,
And scarlet leaves fell thick and fast,
In dragon forms the dim clouds past,
And scarce the sun, in feeble ray,
Broke through the gloom with tardy day;
Bowed to the breeze the pine-tree swung,
And dewdrops on each blackthorn hung:
Just such a scene as those appalling
Who (ventured in some homebred calling),
Some chance hath brought to heath and plains,
And splashing moors and falling rains;
Then memory turns to smoke and strife,
And screaming bairns and scolding wife,
And noise and strife seem fair and good
Compared with such wild solitude.
But other thoughts employed the mind
Of yon rough-coated Cestrian hind;
He, bred in scenes where winter's cold
Has early made each urchin bold,
Heeds not the blast, the miry way,
The falling leaf, the sullen day,
But eager posting to the fair,
With armèd heel spurred on his mare.
A flowing mane, his favourite steed
(Pride of his grandsire's fav'rite breed)
Graced the smooth neck and ample chest,
And this his early care had drest;
For 'tis the pride, the Cestrian's brag,
The bone and breeding of his nag:
He loved his nag, yet sighed for gold,
He wished her kept, he wished her sold.
So have I seen temptation even
Within my chapel wall, St. Stephen!
Where some great patriot would retain
The mob's loud plaudit but for gain;
Now much in doubt for glory burns,
And now towards the Premier turns;
Conquered at last by love of gold,
And, like the farmer's nag, is sold.

Strong blew the breeze with whistling rain,
His hat fell flapping o'er his face,
A moment checked the farmer's pace,
When right before his horse's head
A dark huge figure seemed to spread.
The startled mare pricked up each ear,
The farmer's hair stood up for fear,
As straight before his purposed road
A huge black monster's vast form strode.
Above the human height it seemed,
Bright lightning from his eyeballs gleamed,
And from beneath the shadowy brow
A solemn voice spoke deep and low:—
'Stranger, attend! And traveller, hear!
I know what business brought you here;
I know they errand, and full well
Thy sordid purpose can I tell—
Thou'dst give they favourite mare for pelf,
And sell for little more thyself;
But know, they horse is doomed to be
Heir to a nobler destiny:
Sell as thou wilt that steed of thine,
'Tis fated that the steed be mine.
Yet go; though I can ne'er deceive,
Thy stubbornness will ne'er believe;
Mix with the chapmen all, and try
Who chaffers for her, who will buy:—
A vain attempt, but be it so,
And to the purposed market go.
But mark me well; 'tis my behest
That when the sun sinks in the West,
And e'er the moon with silver light
Shall make yon waving pine-tree bright,
Return thou here, and bring thy steed:
Fear not if here, else fear indeed.
Go ponder on my firm behest,
But mark the hour, and watch the West.'
The warning ceased; the Cestrian's eye
Gazed,—but it gazed on vacancy!
For man nor seeming man was there—
All was dissolved, and nought but air,
And sky, and hill, and heath, and wood,
Where late the wizard form had stood.
He gasped for breath, with terror cold,
But soon aroused, for he was bold
By nature—and to such is light
The strongest image of affright.
To his good steed he gave the rein,
And swiftly scudded o'er the plain,
Reached in an hour the busy scene
Where the crowd thickened on the green—
The village green. The gathering crowd,
In festive mirth, or bickerings loud,
The tempting baits in order spread:
The husband gilt in gingerbread.
The lowing calf in crowded pen,
The tiger roaring in his den.
All that can please, amuse, amaze,
Broke on the Cestrian's gladdened gaze.
The swinging bush, high hung in air,
Proclaimed good ale was selling there;
High on booth, with clattering din,
Stood grinning clown and harlequin;
And cunning men of fate full sure,
And quacks infallible to cure.
Pleased, though not wildered with the scene,
Thrift and pleasure placed between,
The Cestrian, though he liked it well,
Was come for profit, and to sell.

Up through the street the snow-white mare
Sped her best pace—a trotter rare;
Beneath her feet the pavement burned
As in a gallop she returned;
Then, standing up on rising ground,
Swift and sure he warrants sound.
Some praised, and some found fault; the same,
For still no real bidder came.
'For guineas! Pounds! I'll give one back.
For road, for harness, such a hack!'
Yet still no buyer came. The sun
Proclaimed his daily race was run;
And now he thought of the behest
By the gay gilding in the west.
He must not pause, for now full soon
Will rise and shine the silver moon.
He must obey. Bound by that spell,
He bade the noisy crowd farewell;
Returning with less eager pace,
(Not without fear) regained the place—
The place where late the phantom stood,
Half way between the hill and wood.
Oft his mind turned upon the cause,
Why Nature broke her common laws;
Why she allowed, by day or night,
To wander thus th'imprisoned sprite.
His cheek now flushed, now icy cold
Turnèd by chance, by nature bold.
Seven lofty firs had marked the spot,
Which Cestrians since have ne'er forgot,
And there, upon the thymy green
Reclined, the wizard form was seen,
Beneath a rock of summit steep
Lay the wrapped warner as in sleep.
The rider paused with tightened rein,
Viewed the strange sleeper o'er again,
Taxed his own timid heart, and said,
'I have no sense of guilt; and dread
To guilt belongs. My arm is strong;
Then to the base such fears belong.
Up and be bold! and fairly boast
Thy first encounter with a ghost.'
He spurred his steed, and nearer drew,
But as he came more near in view
Of that same form of unknown evil,
(That unsubstantial, might-be devil),
His shivering fit returned, and charms
He thought on for all magic harms:
Beads had he none, and little skill
To muster up a prayer at will;
And once a sense of deep affright
To ebbing courage counselled flight.
But to cut short his meditation,
The phantom took his former station,
And right before his horse's head
The giant form again was spread.
''Tis well,' he said, 'good man and true;
Now follow me, and take thy due.'
And down the sable phantom strode,
With noiseless step, the northern road;
The leafless wood they passed beneath,
And crossed upon the dreary heath;
By Stormy Point where tempests roll,
They pass, and next by Saddle Boll.
The horseman paused, and seemed to say,
Here stand!—no further will I stray!
E'en at this instant, from the ground
Forth issuing, came a hollow sound.
Now sank indeed the Cestrian's soul,
Back on his heart the pulses roll,
For now appeared his sable guide
In all the stern magician's pride,
And to the farmer's startled sight
He seemed to swell in form and height.
Loose from his form his vesture flowed,
His piercing eye with fury glowed,
And when he muttering breathed a spell,
Each trembling yawned, and seeming hell,
With all the very worst of fates,
Stood opening by two IRON GATES!
He waved his hand, and as he spake,
Earth to its centre 'gan to quake.
Now plunged the steed, and on the ground
Soon was th' affrighted rider found,
Who, kneeling at th' enchanter's feet,
In piteous tones did thus entreat:—
'Oh, mighty chief of magic spell!
Art thou not pledged to treat me well?
Didst thou not promise my return
My safety from thy charms should earn?'
'It shall do so;— be bold, proceed,
I'll stay thee at thy utmost need.
Be bold, and enter; feast thy eye
With more than mortal scrutiny.'
E'en at the word a spreading cave
(Such as the Alpine hermits have)
Sudden appeared with opening wide.
Bright from the roof on every side
Hang pendent crystals, icy, bright,
Reflecting back phosphoric light;
Unsteady vapours seemed to play
A sort of intermitting day.
Entered yet deeper, to the walls
Were fixed innumerable stalls,
Where milk-white coursers, side by side,
(Just like his own) were careful tied,
And close by every steed was found
An armèd man, in slumber bound;
And more and more the numbers seemed,
As up the vault the vapours gleamed.
Bright was each steed from heel to hoof,
Bright was each blade of temper proof,
And Mars himself, with prideful eye,
Had viewed such host of cavalry.
Further they passed; in clefts of rock
Was stored bright gold, a plenteous stock,
But deeper hid within the gloom
There stood in this sepulchral room
A mighty chest of ponderous size,
Bolted with bands of many dies.
Up to this chest th' enchanter came,
And brighter burned his magic flame;
And as he turned the massive lock,
The echo rang from rock to rock.
Then from the chest with care he told
To the bold Cestrian counted gold.
'The steed is mine; bid wonder cease;
Receive thy gold, depart in peace.'
'Nay; tell me more!' the Cestrian cried;
'Why are these steeds in order tied?
Why sleep those men all bright in arms?
And why prepared for war's alarms?
Say, are the doomed to moral toil,
Or destined to unearthly broil?'
On this the wizard changed his face,
Assumed a mild and brighter grace,
And to his tone was something given
As from a messenger from heaven.
'These are the Caverned Troops—by fate
Foredoomed the guardians of our state.
England's good genius here detains
These armèd defenders of her plains;
Doomed to remain till that dread day
When foemen, marshalled in array,
And fiends intestine shall combine
To seal the ruin of our line.
Thrice lost shall England be, thrice won,
'Twixt dawn of day and setting sun;
Then we, the wondrous CAVERNED BAND!
These mailèd martyrs for the land,
Shall rush resistless on the foe,
And they the power of Cestrians know;
And thus all-glorious day be won
By royal George, great George's son.
Then bootless groans shall travellers hear,
Who pass thy forest, Delamere!
Their dabbled wings shall ravens toss,
Croaking o'er bloodstained Headless Cross.
But peace!—May be another age
Shall write these records on her page.
Begone!—Nor dared the farmer wait;
In haste he past the IRON GATES.
He heard the bolts descend and clash,
And the hills echoed to the crash.
He turned to gaze;—his searching eye
Found nothing round save earth and sky.
Wondering he stands, but fears to stay,
Homeward in haste pursues his way.
Soon was the strange adventure told
To what high fate his horse was sold;
The neighbours hasten to the spot,
Vainly they search, they find it not.
No trace remained; nor since that night
Hath mortal eye beheld the sight,
And till the hour decreed by fate
None shall e'er see the IRON GATE.