The Midnight Mass

An incident of the French Revolution.
The light lay trembling in a silver bar
Along the western borders of the sky;
From out the shadowy dome a little star
Stole forth to keep its patient watch on high;
And night came down, with solemn, soft embrace,
On storied Brittany.

Another night lay over all the land—
The dark of hell, and lurid with its fire.
She heard the roar of fiends; she saw the brand
Flung red and hissing over roof and spire;
She saw her golden spurs and reaping-hooks
Tossed on the funeral pyre.
She stood in calm defiance, while the flood
Swept over her;—while everywhere was seen
Her dim, majestic cities drenched in blood;
Ashes and smoke where temple-walls had been;
And high on woodland knoll and market-place,
The ghastly guillotine.

'Twas hard to tear her peasant-souls apart
From priest and liege, and clinging faith of old;
'Twas hard to bend the strong and simple heart
By fear of torture or by love of gold:
For naught those gory hands could offer them
Might consciences be sold.

“No tower or belfry shall be left to stand,”
Saint André swore, and waved his cap of red;
“You shall have naught in all this cursèd land
For sign of your superstition,—it is dead!”
A peasant heard, and raised his eyes to heaven;—
“You'll leave the stars,” he said.

True were the priests and people, each to each,
And all alike to their unlettered creed;
No violent force of sophistry could reach
Their rough-hewn faith in bitter time of need.
They died with deaf ears and dumb mouths; and theirs
Was martyrdom indeed!

Night—midnight—lay beneath her silver lamps;
Her deep sleep broken by the fitful glare

Of bivouac fires in noisy village camps,
And hoarse shouts mellowed through the listening air;
Save only where the sea-waves washed the coast—
'Twas still and quiet there:

The heave and swell, and sudden, plunging dash
Against the low rocks lying in their reach;
The hissing shingle, and the sweet, free plash
Of long-drawn breakers on the open beach;
And now and then, in momentary pause,
The curlew's mournful screech:

The soft, low gurgle in the hollowed track
Through reef and boulder; and the rippling fall
Of idle wandering waters, swirling back
From secret tryst in Naiads' rocky hall;—
Only these sounds—save that deep monotone
Which held and hushed them all.

Only these sounds? Was nothing to be heard
But voice of breaker as it rose and fell,
The kelpie's song, the wailing of a bird?
Ay, far and faint amid the restless swell,
One other voice stole whispering through the air—
The chime of a silver bell.

It came from dim mid-ocean, wild and free,
To listening ears, in silence of the night;
And watchful eyes saw, out upon the sea
And 'neath the stars, a little twinkling light—
Now lost behind a waving mountain-top,
Now shining clear and bright.

Softly the fishers' boats began to glide
From shadowy rock and sheltered cave and creek;
Bronzed men and gentle maidens, side by side,
Dipped muffled oars; no woman-hand was weak.
All eyes turned, wistful, to the beacon-lamp;
But no one dared to speak.

The scattered specks, with each its little crowd,
Drew near, converging on the distant bark;
The sweet bell rang out louder and more loud,
The light shone bright and brighter in the dark;
And soon a hundred lips burst forth in praise—
For all had reach'd the ark.

There was the priest, with whom they came to sup,
White-hair'd and holy, by his humble board;
There, amid light and darkness lifted up,

The blessed rood, by simple eyes adored.
Each head was bowed, each pious knee was bent
In presence of the Lord.

Ah! 'twas a grand cathedral where they knelt!
Grand was the organ-music—vast the crypt
Wherein its wild, mysterious echoes dwelt;
And fresh and pure the incense, as it slipp'd
Down shining floor and down wide altar-steps,
With frosted silver tipp'd.

Grand was the darken'd aisles and solemn nave—
The domèd roof, magnificently high—
The airy walls and mighty architrave—
The sweet star-tapers that could never die!
And grander still its purity of peace,
Its untouched sanctity.

The worn and weary ones came there, to search
For rest and hope in holy Eucharist;
There—in the splendour of that solemn church—
They, priest and people, communed with the Christ;
Thus—with all other temples overthrown—
They kept his sacred tryst.

With calm, grave eyes and even-pulsing breath,
They dipp'd their still oars in the darken'd space.
Strong now the hands fast rowing back to death!—
And strong the simple hearts, new clothed in grace—
The hush'd and quiet souls—ere long to meet
Their Saviour face to face.

by Ada Cambridge

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