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Still her faith and hope did not desert her, she leant only on her God, and had so long bowed her will to His, that she felt the calm confidence that He was overruling all things right, and would in His own time, and . His own way vouchsafe an answer to her prayers that those who sinned against Him might be brought to see the error of their ways; she wished to do His will, and cast on Him all her care, and she felt that, if anguish of mind were added to her other trials, (there was One Who had borne all the sins of the whole world, and had seen in calm perspective how many would neglect the salvation which He offered them, and again she fulfilled all her duties with the same alacrity, with the same spirit of peace and resignation, as before. She numbered over the blessings which she had left, and her heart would overflow with thankfulness, as she thought how great her mercies were, compared to those vouchsafed to some in the world.
Her thankfulness was that deep gratitude which in joy is seldom felt; that overflowing love of the heart to God, which they only can feel who know that the more of earthly things He removes, the nearer does He Himself come to them, the closer does He knit Himself in that deep bond of inward peace and consolation nich words cannot express.
Though many Priests had left the land, though the Churches were no longer permitted to be open, though the holy sacraments were not administered, the holy Father Ambrose, who had been for years their comfort and their guide, did not desert them.
He felt, indeed, that God's judgment was upon the land, and he knew well how deep were the crimes which had provoked that wrath. But he remembered that, when all Israel was cursed for the sin of Ahab, the LORD remembered and delivered those who were still faithful to Him. And the thought of His might in delivering came like a polar star to guide them through the sea of trouble that lay before them.
Holy father," said the lady,“ you will not desert us. While you remain, the curse of God will not light with its full force upon our house."
"Lady, while I can succour and counsel you, here I will remain, but dangers are multiplying thick around us, and if it should please Him Who rules all, that in the course of my ministrations to comfort those around, I should be called from His service on earth to do His will in heaven, you will, lady, still have Him to Whom you may confidently look for aid.”
“ You say true, holy father," said the lady," and yet if you were withdrawn, if I could no longer join in those holy prayers which have been offered up here in secret, I feel as if I should be indeed forsaken." Lady,"
,” said the priest,“ suffer not your faith to fail in this most bitter trial; His hand is not shortened that it cannot save,
He knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation, and He can supply the inward grace to your soul, should you be cut off from the outward means which He has appointed; and, lady, though here you offer alone the prayers of the Church, they will not ascend alone to heaven, but join, as they upward fly, all those which ascend from all parts of the world, and in praise you join the heavenly host."
“I know it, I feel it,” said the lady. “Oh, were I sure that He would be my stay; that I might still consider myself one of His holy Church, I would not shrink from suffering or from sorrow."
Lady, He knows every heart, and every thought of every heart, and He will still look on you, and on those who do His will as His children, and will preserve you, I say, not from adversities which may happen to the body, but from all that will hurt the soul; but, lady, the times of trial must not pass unregarded by us, we must improve them to His honour and glory Who has permitted them.”
“ Under your guidance, holy father," she replied, “ pose so to do, and I, with the ladies Rhoda and Mary, will above all be instant in prayers for the removal of this curse.
“Search, lady, first,” replied the holy priest, “if there be no point wherein you may have contributed to swell this tide of wickedness which desolates this land ; see if there be no one duty in which you have failed,” and then he proceeded to recall to her recollection things mentioned to him, or which had occurred to him after he had heard her frequent confessions; "it may be that your repentance has not been as deep as your sin. Seek first earnestly for pardon for yourself and those dear to you, and then pray that He Who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men would curb the evil passions which have produced so much misery.'
Guided thus by the holy priest, the ladies of Severnside continued to practise their duties as faithfully and unflinchingly as before; they were cut off from the sacraments of the holy Church, but the priest did not scruple still to permit all within the castle walls to approach the chapel for prayers public and private, though the hymns of joy and praise were no longer suffered to ascend; and in prayer for themselves and those around them they found a peace and calm which seemed an assurance that they were not forsaken.
The miseries which England was called to endure during the reign of King John are such as we in these days, when war is conducted on principles so much more humane, can scarcely conceive. The rapacious John not only made war against his barons, but when he took a castle, he usually put all the inhabitants to the sword, and devastated whole tracts of land that refused submission to him. Louis, the son of Philip, king of France, instigated at
first by the pope, and afterwards, from motives of his own ambition, had laid siege to several castles on the sea-coast. Those which held out for John were attacked by the barons, while John was incessantly seeking to destroy the lands of his adversaries. At length, reduced to the greatest extremity, John had submitted himself
to Pandulf, the pope's legate, and was received as a vassal of the Holy See, and his barons forbidden, as well as Philip, to contend against him; but when they had gained great advantages, it was not to be expected that they would suddenly stop in the midst of success, and resign those privileges for which they had been contending; the bishops refused to attend to the dictates of the Holy See, the land was again declared under an interdict; but this time it was disregarded, and the Churches were opened, and the festivities of Christmas and Easter celebrated with unusual gaiety.
Inflamed by resistance, and enraged by his own passions, John determined to take a bloody vengeance on all who still opposed his will. Bands of foreign mercenaries were got together, small numbers were incessantly coming over from the coast of Flanders, without creating suspicion, and, when the eyes of the people were opened to see the force which he had collected, he was strong enough to act.
Advancing with one body of troops towards the north, he continued his course as far as Edinburgh, burning and destroying all the towns and villages he passed through, and compelling the King of Scotland to take refuge in his capital; meantime, another band of foreign troops desolated the southern coasts and Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and the lands on the banks of the Severn were compelled to feel his vengeance.
It was not likely that the estates of a knight who had taken an active part in the rebellion would escape, and the king knew, moreover, that the Lord of Severnside was at that time in London, and his castle, probably, but imperfectly guarded. His troops, under the command of Folco, surnamed the Inhuman, attempted at first to take it by a coup de main in the night, and advanced stealthily along the river's brink till a weak place could be found; but he was surprised to perceive how strongly it was guarded at all points. Their first efforts were repulsed with vigour, and they soon learnt that, unless taken by vigorous assault, they should be compelled to resort to the more sure but more tedious process of blockade. The lady was not, meantime, idle. As soon as the news of the approach of the king's troops was conveyed to her, she gave orders that the castle should be put into a state of complete defence. The battlements were guarded and manned night and day, the walls were repaired where breaches had accidentally occurred, nor did she neglect that most necessary precaution of increasing the store of provisions, that a supply might not be wanting in case
they should be reduced to great extremities. Her measures were not in vain ; true, Folco did not at this time do much, and retired after a few warlike attempts. The lady hastened to send a trusty and well-appointed messenger to warn her lord of the danger with which they were threatened, and to entreat him to come to their aid ; but the way was long and difficult, and the country so infested by various troops that travelling was beyond measure precarious, and she felt the greatest apprehension that her missive would never reach him. Early in the spring Folco's band, having gone into quarters during the severe winter months, again approached, determined not to be baffled, and that nothing should prevent their taking it. His troops surrounded it on all sides, and maintained so strict a blockade that for months no one was able to enter or depart from the gates. No means were neglected to drive away the assailants, and all attacks were repulsed with success. The females of the household were active in bringing weapons, food, missiles, and whatever might be needed, to the protectors of the castle, and did not even themselves disdain to pour down boiling pitch water on the assailants, or to annoy them with arrows. The Lady Rhoda distinguished herself by her activity; she personally directed many of the defences; she encouraged the troops, and her fearless contempt of danger made ber an invaluable assistant. For many months the resistance was brave and bold, but provisions began at length to fail, and the heart of the ladies to sink within them, as no intelligence reached them from the baron, and the king's troops were continually increasing by foreign bands, who ran their boats up the river at night, where there was little to impede their course.
The autumn was far advanced, when one day the sentinels on the walls informed her of a movement in the enemy's host, and an appearance of troops on a hill at some distance. The heart of the lady beat high, as she hoped that succour was now near, and she lifted up her soul in secret thankfulness to God Who had vouchsafed her aid. It was indeed the troop of her lord, and soon were they engaged in fierce conflict with the king's army. The troops within the castle were not slow to profit by the diversion, and to aid those who came to their rescue by sallies in the rear of the besiegers, and missiles, arrows, &c. to annoy them from the walls of the castle. The servants of the household were all on the battlements, some to watch the conflict and report its progress to the lady, some more actively engaged; everywhere appeared the Lady Rhoda, showing a fearless contempt of danger, and animating the soldiers by her presence and example. The soldiers from below marked her white veil, and deemed her some spirit sent to oppose them. The Lord of Severnside descried it in the distance, and it animated his courage, and inspired him again and again to lead on his troops to the rescue. Fiercely
did the battle rage that day, and often did the anxious inhabitants of the castle think that they should have been delivered. Men marvelled as they viewed the calmness and the peace which marked the countenances of the Lady Mary and her mother during that dreadful day. No restless anxiety, no impatient longing, no sign of fear was there ; they did all they could for the benefit of those who defended them, carried food to them on the walls, and prepared what was necessary, tended and removed the wounded, and calmly and quietly committing themselves and all around them to God in prayer: they prayed for all who, in the hurry of that day might be called to their last account, as well as for all who should from the issue of the battle have suffering or sorrow to endure, and their prayers were heard, and an answer of peace was given, though they were not delivered from the vengeance of their enemies.
The troops of the baron were few compared to the immense host of mercenaries who were besieging the castle; but they were well trained and disciplined, and fighting under the command of their chief, and for a cause that was dear to them; long did the conflict seem doubtful, but while the baron's band waxed more and more feeble, fresh troops were drawn from the rear to supply the deficiencies of those of the king. These, too, were animated by desperation, for they knew that, if they fell not in battle, few could escape from the hands of the knight, who would undoubtedly be irritated by hearing of the cruelties they had exercised on every member of the garrison who had fallen into their hands.
Boldly did both hosts fight, but as evening drew on, a bright light was seen to glare through the loopholes of the castle. For an instant the knight thought it but the reflection of the sun which was now shining warm and bright. A moment, and he was undeceived ; the keep was on fire; whence the flames had proceeded none knew, soon they raged with a fury which nothing could quell, and mounting to the sky, illuminated the valley for miles. " It was an awful sight, no means of escape appeared ; they must either perish in the flames, or yield to their enemies. The knight wrung his hands in rage and despair, and calling to his now diminished band, he bade them follow him : on they went, dealing death and destruction around them, sword met sword, and hand to hand they fought like enraged lions, their power could not be resisted, each scattered those on either side, but few were those who thus broke through, and alas! they could bring nothing to those within the castle walls. The crush of towers was awful, they burnt till the whole keep, the chapel-all was one mass of smoking ruins and bare walls. In the court stood the helpless lady surrounded by the few whom famine, war, and flames had yet spared to them. Her cheek was pale, her eye sparkled, her lip quivered; yet was there holy resignation, there was calmness