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.
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