The Prophecy Of St. Oran: Part Iii
'A CURSE is on this work!' Columba cried;
And with their dark robes flapping in the gale,
The frightened monks came hurrying to his side,
And looked at one another turning pale;
For every night the work done in the day
Strewn on the ground in wild confusion lay.
'A curse is on this work!' he cried again
As his keen glances swept each face in turn:
'Behold, God smites us in the hurricane,
And in the lightning doth His anger burn.
Brethren, some secret deadly sin there is
Known to the Lord for which we suffer this.
'Why is it that the elements combine
Against us, raging in relentless ire
Against our humble wave-encircled shrine?
That air, that water, that consuming fire
Inveterately war against this fane
Which we would build, but ever build in vain?
'Why is it that the billows of the deep
Rise in revolt against the rock-bound shore,
Lashing themselves to fury on each steep,
Till inland lakes, awakening at the roar,
Now roar in mad response, and swell amain,
Till broadening waters hide the drowning plain?
'One night, ye know, from out the imminent gloom,
Shrouding the firmament as in a pall,
The levin, like a spirit from the tomb,
Leaped with a ghastly glare, and in its fall
Struck the new roof-tree with reverberate crash,
And left a little heap of shrivelled ash.
'Another night--why need I tell the tale?--
The winds in legions thundered through the air,
Battering the walls with sudden gusts of hail,
They rushed with piercing shrieks and strident blare
Athwart the cloisters and the roofless hall,
Till stone by stone fell from the rocking wall.
'And then the very water turned our foe,
For in the dead of night it slowly crept,
Soft wave on wave, till in its overflow
It deluged all the basement while we slept;
And where the convent yesterday did stand,
There spreads the lake as level as my hand.
'And then, when slowly after many days
The waters had subsided to the main,
And through the toilsome hours we sought to raise
Our ever-shattered structure once again,
Behold! the earth herself with stone and block
Shudders convulsive and begins to rock.
'For lo, the fiends let loose at God's command
Burrow and delve in subterranean gloom,
Till like the troubled ocean all the land
Heaves to and fro as tottering to its doom:
The quiet graves themselves now bursting yawn,
God's holy house once more lies overthrown!
'And now hath come the hour of darkest need--
The people have abandoned us! They wail
That their dead fathers rage against our creed,
That in dark rushing cloud and roaring gale
The houseless spirits ride and fill the air
With lamentations for the gods that were!
'The Lord rebukes us in His wrath! I ask,
Again I ask, what man among you all
Living in deadly sin, yet wears the mask
Of sanctity? Yea, let him cleanse his soul,
Confessing all the crying guilt of it,
Or go for ever to the burning pit!'
Again his eagle glances swept each face,
While the assembled monks, with anxious sigh,
Asked with a thrill of horror and amaze,
'Was it indeed a judgment from on high?'
As with one voice then cried the saintly throng,
'Not I--not I--know of that hidden wrong.'
And with uplifted arms they loudly prayed,
'Oh Lord, if in our midst the traitor bides
Who breaks the sacramental vow he made,
And takes Thy name in vain, and basely hides
His wicked ways from every eye save Thine--
Let his dark sin stand forth, and make a sign.'
All day expectant, waiting on His will,
The monks in reverential silence stand
Beneath the rustling pine-trees of the hill,
Whence their eyes sweep across the level land:
Lo, from afar the vision of a maid
Comes o'er the shining pools the flood has made.
Swiftly she came across the devious track,
With glimmering waterways on either hand;
Against the luminous vapour at her back
Her dusky form looms mystically grand;
While in the liquid crystal by her side
The phantom of herself seems still to glide.
Was she a spirit risen from the grave
When its foul depths lay open to the sky,
Or ghost of Druid priestess wont to rave
Her blasphemous oracles in times gone by,
Who ventured thus upon the sacred isle
For ever barred against a woman's wile?
But no! as nearer and more near she draws,
They see a maiden with the wild deer's grace
Bounding from stone to stone, whose beauty awes
These Christian fathers, riveting their gaze;
For like the full moon framed in amber air
Her face shone mid the glory of her hair.
Then in their midst all breathless did she stand,
But paused bewildered and as one affrayed,--
Even as a swift wave making for the strand
With all its waters gathering to a head
Delays, suspended with back-fluttering locks,
Then breaks in showers of brine upon the rocks.
So for a moment motionless she stood,
From monk to monk her wildered glances stray;
Immovable, like figures carved in wood,
These waited what their master's lips would say,
But ever and anon, in mute appeal,
Her piteous eyes to Oran's face would steal.
Only for one brief moment she delayed,
Struck speechless at his cold averted mien,
Then with a long low moan she blindly swayed
With her fair arms towards him, and in keen
Unutterable anguish cried aghast--
'Is this a dream, or am I mad at last?
'Dost thou not know me, Oran--Oran mine?
Look on me; I am Mona, I am she
For whom thy soul so thirstily did pine!
Nay, turn not from me! Say, art thou not he
Whose mouth to my mouth yearningly was pressed,
Whose dearest head lay pillowed on my breast?
'Dear, be not wroth with me in that I came;
For our love's sake look not so stern and grave;
Ah, surely thou wilt think me free from blame
For having dared to break the word I gave,
When I have told thee what has brought me here,
How sore distraught I was with grief and fear.
Oh love, when night came swooping o'er the sea,
And on the poor folk's tired eyelids sleep
Fell like a seabird's feather, stealthily
I climbed the jagged overhanging steep
Whose giddy summit looks towards thy home,
Wondering if haply I might see thee come.
When, lo! the solid cliff began to shake
As in an ague fit, and while I stood
Trembling, methought the maddening sea would break
Its everlasting limits, for the flood
Came crashing in loud thunder o'er the land,
And swept our huts like seaweed from the sand.
Then a great horror seized me, and I reeled
And fell upon my face, and knew no more.
When from that trance I woke, the sun had wheeled
Far up the sky and shone upon the shore,
And there beneath the bright and cloudless sky
I saw a heap of mangled corpses lie.
Shrieking I fled, and paused not in my fright
Fleeing I knew not whither, but my feet
Flew swift as ever arrow in its flight
To thee, my love! Hast thou no smile to greet
Thy Mona with,--no kiss? For pity's sake,
Speak to me, Oran, or my heart will break.'
All held their breath when she had made her moan:
All eyes were fixed on that pale monk, who stood
Unnaturally quiet--like a stone
Whose flinty sides are fretted by the flood--
When St. Columba turned on him, and said,
'I bid thee speak,--man, knowest thou this maid?'
Then answered him the other, but his words
Rang hollow like the toll of funeral bell,
And on his humid brows like knotted cords
The livid veins and arteries seemed to swell,
Facing the accusation of his eyes,
'Master, I know her not--the woman lies!'
A hum of indignation, doubt, alarm,
Ran through their circle, but none durst to speak
Before the Master, who with lifted arm
And eyes whence fiery flashes seemed to break,
Cried very loudly, 'Is it even so,--
Then help me God but I will rout this foe!
'Look, brethren, on this lovely maiden, fair
As virginal white lilies newly blown,
Fresh as the first breath of the vernal air,
Pure as an incarnation of the dawn;
Look on that golden glory of her hair,--
It is a man-trap, Satan's deadliest snare.
'Brethren, let the two eldest of you seize
This fiend in angel's garb, this beast of prey
Which lies in wait behind that snowy fleece
Lusting to take our brother's name away,
And blast his fame for purest sanctity
With lies forged by our common enemy!
'Seize her, and bear her to that frightful steep
Where, bristling with huge pier and jagged spire,
The spectre rock which overhangs the deep
Pierces the ghastly clouds like frozen fire;
There standing, fling her from its giddiest cone--
Into the ocean fling her, like a stone.'
The sentence had gone forth; the monks obeyed;
Two venerable brothers, deep in years,
First crossed themselves, then seized the struggling maid
In their stout arms; despite her prayers and tears,
And wild appears on him she called her love,
They with their burden now began to move.
But he, whose human flesh seemed petrified
To marble, started from that rigid mood,
And blindly running after them, he cried,
'Hold! hold! stain not your hands with innocent blood;
I broke my vow, I am the sinner, I
Seduced the maid,--spare her, and let me die.'
They halted midway, marvelling, aghast,
When St. Columba thundered to them 'Stay!'
His voice was like a dreadful battle-blast,
And startled coveys rose and whirred away:
'He broke his vow, he is the sinner; aye
Do as he says--spare her, and let him die!
'Yea, well I saw the gnawing worm within,
But wished to tear the mask from off his soul,
That in the naked hideousness of sin
He might stand pilloried before you all:
This is a judgment on me from above
For loving him with more than woman's love.'
His voice here failed him and he hid his face;
And as before some imminent storm all sound
In earth, air, ocean ceases for a space,
There fell a breathless silence on that mound;
But when Columba raised his voice once more,
It seemed the muffled thunder's boding roar.
'Oh perjured one! oh breaker of thy vow!
Oh base, apostate monk, whose guilt abhorred
Weighed down our walls and laid our chapel low!
Thy life shall be an offering to the Lord,
And with thy blood we will cement the fane
Which for thy sin's sake still was built in vain.
'Seize him, and bear him to that dolorous site
Where mid our ruined cells the chapel stands
Whose holy walls and columns every night
Have fallen beneath the blow of dæmon hands;
There, living, bury him beneath its sod,
And so propitiate the Lord our God.'
The Prophecy Of St. Oran: Part Ii
THERE was a windless mere, on whose smooth breast
A little island, flushed with purple bloom,
Lay gently cradled like a moorhen's nest:
It glowed like some rich jewel 'mid the gloom
Of sluggish leagues of peat and black morass,
Without or shrub or tree or blade of grass.
But on the isle itself the birch was seen
With its ethereal foliage, like some haze
Floating among the rowan's vivid green;
The ground with fern all feathered, and ablaze
With heath's and harebell's hyacinthine hue,
Was mirrored in the wave's intenser blue.
This was the immemorial isle of graves,
Here, under nameless mound and dateless stone,
The generations, like successive waves,
Had rolled one o'er the other, and had gone
As these go, indistinguishably fused
Their separate lives in common death confused.
And here amid the dead Columba chose
To found God's holy house and sow His word;
Already here and there the walls arose,
Built from the stones imbedded in the sward;
These did the natives without mortar pile,
As was the ancient custom of their isle.
For many of them to the work were won
By reverence for the saint, and thus apace
The chapel grew which they had first begun
As dedicate to God's perpetual praise;
So many of the monks again were free
To give thought wholly to their ministry.
And ever first in hastening to his task
St. Oran was, though last to seek repose;
Columba's best beloved, he still would ask
For heaviest share of duty, while he chose
Rude penances, till shadow-like he grew
With fasts and vigils that the flesh subdue.
Yet there was that which would not be subdued--
A shape, a presence haunting every dream;
Fair as the moon that shines above a flood,
And ever trembles on the trembling stream;
Sweet as some gust of fragrance, unaware
Stealing upon us on the summer air.
Even so it stole upon his ravished heart,
Suffusing every fibre with delight,
Till from his troubled slumber he would start,
And, as with ague shivering and affright,
Catch broken speech low murmuring in his ears,
And feel his eyelids ache with unshed tears.
But it befell one windy afternoon,
While monks and men were busied with the roof,
Laying the beams through which the sun and moon
Might shed their light as yet without reproof,
That there came one across the lonely waste
Toward these men of God, crying in haste,--
'Ye say ye came to save us, save us then!
Save us if ye spake truth, and not a lie!
Famine and fever stalk among us,--men,
Women, and children are struck down and die!
For lo, the murrain smites our cowering sheep,
The fishers haul no fish from out the deep.
'Ye tell us that your God did multiply
A few small fishes, wherewithal He fed
A multitude; in sooth, if 'tis no lie,
Then come, ye holy men, and give us bread!
For they are starving by the waterside,--
Come then, and give us bread,' he loudly cried.
He was a man inspiring dread surprise,
Half-naked, with long glibs of bristling hair
In fiery meshes tumbling o'er his eyes,
Which, like a famished wolf's from out its lair,
Glanced restlessly; his dog behind him came,
Whose lolling tongue hung down like scarlet flame.
'Let me arise, and go to them withal!'
Cried Oran, flinging down his implement:
'This heavy tribulation is a call
From the Most High; a blessed instrument
To compass their salvation: let me go
Teach them what mercy worketh in their woe.'
'Go then, my son, and God go with thee still,
While I abide to speed His temple here,'
Said St. Columba; 'and thy basket fill
With herbs and cordials, also wine to cheer
And bread to feed the poor, so that their days
May still endure to God's eternal praise.'
Then Oran and that wild man forth did fare,
And o'er the little lake they rowed in haste,
And mounting each a small and shaggy mare,
They ambled o'er that solitary waste,
Then through a sterile glen their road did lie
Whose shrouded peaks loomed awfully on high.
When for a mile or two they thus had gone,
The mountains opened wide on either hand,
And lo, amid those labyrinths of stone
The sea had got entangled in the land,
And turned and twisted, struggling to get free,
And be once more the immeasurable sea.
It was a sorcerous, elemental place,
O'er which there now came rushing from the plain--
Like some dark host whom yelling victors chase--
A moving pillar of resistless rain
Shivering the gleaming lances in its flight
Against the bastions of each monstrous height.
Fast, fast it raced before the roaring gale,
With shrieks and frenzied howlings that did shake
The very stones with long-resounding wail,
And in outlying gorges would it wake
The startled echo's sympathetic scream,
Then whirling on would vanish like a dream,--
Would vanish dream-like, whither no man knows,
Fading afar in vaporous gulfs of light,
While the wet mountain-tops flushed like a rose,
And following the spent tempest in its flight
Its hues ethereal mantling o'er the gloom,
There glowed the rainbow's evanescent bloom.
And while that rain still drenched him to the skin,
St. Oran, unappalled, intoned a psalm,
And lifting up his voice amidst the din,
He sang, 'We laud Thee, Lord, through storm and calm,
In the revolving stars we see Thine hand,
The sun and moon rise as Thou dost command.
'We laud Thee for the evening and the morn,
And the prolific seasons' changing boon,
For singing-birds, and flowers, and ripening corn,
For tides that rise and fall beneath the moon;
As in a mirror darkling do we see
The shadow that Thou castest on the sea.'
Up many a wild ascent, down many a steep
Clothed with scant herbage, rode that battered pair,
Where lay the bleaching bones of mangled sheep,
And carrion crows wheeled hoarsely in the air;
At last through mist and darkness they espied
Small lights that twinkled by the waterside.
There in dark turf-built hovels close to earth
Lay the poor sufferers on their beds of heath,
Gnawed to the very bone by cruel dearth,
Cold to the marrow with approaching death;
Thither came Oran like some vision bright,
And ministered to each one through the night.
And so dispensing alms he went and came,
Stooping to enter the last house of all;
There, by the peat-fire's orange-coloured flame,
Whose flashes fitfully did rise and fall
On the smoke-blackened rafters--sat a crone
Ancient it might be as the lichened stone.
Fast through her bony fingers flies the thread,
And as her foot still turns the whirring wheel,
She seems to spin the yarn of quick and dead!
But oh, what makes St. Oran's senses reel?
Whose is the shape clad in its golden hair
That turns and tosses on the pallet there?
Like some wan water lily veiled in mist
When puffs of wind its tender petals shake,
Whose chalice by the shining moonbeams kissed
Sways to and fro upon the swelling lake,
So white--so wan--so wonderfully fair,
Showed Mona tossing mid her golden hair.
What should he do? Ah, whither should he turn?
Why had God let this trial come again?
Her beauty, half-revealed, did straightly burn
Through his hot eyeballs to his kindling brain.
Was it his duty to go hence or stay?
He wavered--gazed on her--then turned away.
But that old woman tottered to the door
And clutched his cassock with a shaking hand,
And mumbled, 'Priest, ah! dost thou shun the poor?
They say that ye go bragging through the land
Of some new God called Christian Charity;
But in our need ye turn from us and fly.'
So spake the crone, but Oran bowed his head
And murmured, 'If thou bid'st me, I abide.'
With downcast eyes he turned towards the bed
In fervent prayer low kneeling by its side:
At last he rose, pale, cold, and deadly still,
With heart subdued to his stern Maker's will.
Thus through her fever did he tend the maid,
Who babbled wildly in delirious trance
Of her lost home, and her loved kindred laid
In alien earth--and of a countenance
Fair as a spirit's comforting her pain,
But soon withdrawn to its own heaven again.
All this unflinching would the monk endure,
And having cured her body's sickness, strove
With double zeal her sicker soul to cure:
But when he told her of the Saviour's love,
Of sin, and its atonement, and free grace,
She looked in puzzled wonder on his face.
She could not understand his mournful creed,
Nor knew, poor child, of what she should repent,
Nor why her heart was wicked, and had need
That some poor pitying God should once have spent
His blood for her five hundred years ago--
Ancestral voices never told her so!
She could not understand, but she could feel!
And while she sat before him by the flame
The pathos of his pleading voice would steal
Sweeter than sweetest music through her frame,
And as the ocean murmur in a shell
Through her dim soul his solemn accents swell.
He was the air she breathed--all living things
Were pale reflections of him--as the hart
In desert places thirsts for water-springs,
Even thus for him she thirsted in her heart;
To her it seemed as if life's aim and end
Were just to lay her hand within his hand.
Her eyes were full of love as stars of light,
And pierced the cold obstructive atmosphere
Of his joy-killing creed, and did ignite
His inmost spirit of sense with fire as clear
And radiant as their own--their beaming looks
Mingled as flames of fire or meeting brooks.
Was he not young and beautiful?--in face
Like to that radiant god whose flame divine
The Druid worshipped in those younger days
Ere sin had stamped the green earth with its sign,
Had made the loveliness of flowers a snare,
And bid frail man of woman's love beware.
Oh, not for him, through all the lonely years
Never for him a woman's love might bloom;
Her smiles would never cheer him, nor her tears
Fall softly on his unlamented tomb;
Never till quenched in death's supreme eclipse
His lips would know the sweetness of her lips.
Oh God! would nothing quench that secret fire,
Nor yet assuage that hunger of the heart?
To feel this flagellation of desire,
To be so near, yet evermore apart,
Never to clasp this woman as a wife--
This was the crowning penance of his life.
But lo! one day at dusk they were alone,
The rain was beating down on roof and wall,
The round of earth with solid rock and stone
Had turned phantasmal in its misty pall:
They were alone, but neither spake a word--
Only their hearts in throbbing might be heard.
Whose is that low involuntary cry
That like a flash of lightning shook each frame
With thrill electric? Simultaneously
Their yearning lips had sobbed each other's name!
With swift instinctive dread they move apart
While magnet-like each draws the other's heart.
What boots it thus to struggle with his sin,
So much more sweet than all his virtues were?
Like a great flood let all her love roll in
And his soul stifle mid her golden hair!
And so he barters his eternal bliss
For the divine delirium of her kiss!
What cares he for his soul's salvation now?
Let it go to perdition evermore
For breaking that accursed monastic vow
Which cankers a man's nature to the core;
For he had striven as never mortal strove,
But than his Lord a mightier lord was Love.