by Edith Nesbit
IN midst of wide green pasture-lands, cut through
By lines of alders bordering deep-banked streams,
Where bulrushes and yellow iris grew,
And rest and peace, and all the flowers of dreams,
The Abbey stood--so still, it seemed a part
Of the marsh-country's almost pulseless heart.
Where grey-green willows fringed the stream and pool,
The lazy meek-faced cattle strayed to graze,
Sheep in the meadows cropped the grasses cool,
And silver fish shone through the watery ways,
And many a load of fruit and load of corn
Into the Abbey storehouses was borne.
Yet though so much they had of life's good things,
The monks but held them as a sacred trust,
Lent from the storehouse of the King of kings
Till they, His stewards, should crumble back to dust.
'Not as our own,' they said, 'but as the Lord's,
All that the stream yields, or the land affords.'
And all the villages and hamlets near
Knew the monks' wealth, and how their wealth was spent.
In tribulation, sickness, want, or fear,
First to the Abbey all the peasants went,
Certain to find a welcome, and to be
Helped in the hour of their extremity.
When plague or sickness smote the people sore,
The Brothers prayed beside the dying bed,
And nursed the sick back into health once more,
And through the horror and the danger said:
'How good is God, Who has such love for us,
He lets us tend His suffering children thus!'
They in their simple ways and works were glad:
Yet all men must have sorrows of their own.
And so a bitter grief the Brothers had,
Nor mourned for others' heaviness alone.
This was the secret of their sorrowing,
That not a monk in all the house could sing!
Was it the damp air from the lovely marsh,
Or strain of scarcely intermitted prayer,
That made their voices, when they sang, as harsh
As any frog's that croaks in evening air--
That made less music in their hymns to lie
Than in the hoarsest wild-fowl's hoarsest cry?
If love could sweeten voice to sing a song,
Theirs had been sweetest song was ever sung:
But their hearts' music reached their lips all wrong,
The soul's intent foiled by the traitorous tongue
That marred the chapel's peace, and seemed to scare
The rapt devotion lingering in the air.
The birds that in the chapel built their nests,
And in the stone-work found their small lives fair,
Flew thence with hurled wings and fluttering breasts
When rang the bell to call the monks to prayer.
'Why will they sing,' they twittered, 'why at all?
In heaven their silence must be festival!'
The brothers prayed with penance and with tears
That God would let them give some little part
Out for the solace of their own sad ears
Of all the music crowded in their heart.
Their nature and the marsh-air had their way,
And still they sang more vilely every day.
And all their prayers and fasts availing not
To give them voices sweet, their souls' desire,
The Abbot said, 'Gifts He did not allot
God at our hands will not again require;
The love He gives us He will ask again
In love to Him and to our fellow-men.
'Praise Him we must, and since we cannot praise
As we would choose, we praise Him as we can.
In heaven we shall be taught the angels' ways
Of singing--we afford to wait a span.
In singing, as in toil, do ye your best;
God will adjust the balance--do the rest!'
But one good Brother, anxious to remove
This, the reproach now laid on them so long,
Rejected counsel, and for very love
Besought a Brother, skilled in art of song,
To come to them--his cloister far to leave--
And sing Magnificat on Christmas Eve.
So when each brown monk duly sought his place,
By two and two, slow pacing to the choir,
Shrined in his dark oak stall, the strange monk's face
Shone with a light as of devotion's fire,
Good, young and fair, his seemed a form wherein
Pure beauty left no room at all for sin.
And when the time for singing it had come,
'Magnificat,' face raised, and voice, he sang:
Each in his stall the monks stood glad and dumb,
As through the chancel's dusk his voice outrang,
Pure, clear, and perfect--as the thrushes sing
Their first impulsive welcome of the spring.
At the first notes the Abbot's heart spoke low:
'Oh God, accept this singing, seeing we,
Had we the power, would ever praise Thee so--
Would ever, Lord, Thou know'st, sing thus for Thee;
Thus in our hearts Thy hymns are ever sung,
As he Thou blessest sings them with his tongue.'
But as the voice rose higher, and more sweet,
The Abbot's heart said, 'Thou hast heard us grieve,
And sent an angel from beside Thy feet,
To sing Magnificat on Christmas Eve;
To ease our ache of soul, and let us see
How we some day in heaven shall sing to Thee.'
Through the cold Christmas night the hymn rang out,
In perfect cadence, clear as sunlit rain--
Such heavenly music that the birds without
Beat their warm wings against the window pane,
Scattering the frosted crystal snow outspread
Upon the stone-lace and the window-lead.
The white moon through the window seemed to gaze
On the pure face and eyes the singer raised;
The storm-wind hushed the clamour of its ways,
God seemed to stoop to hear Himself thus praised,
And breathless all the Brothers stood, and still
Reached longing souls out to the music's thrill.
Old years came back, and half-remembered hours,
Dreams of delight that never was to be,
Mothers' remembered kiss, the funeral flowers
Laid on the grave of life's felicity;
An infinite dear passion of regret
Swept through their hearts, and left their eyelids wet.
The birds beat ever at the window, till
They broke the pane, and so could entrance win;
Their slender feet clung to the window-sill,
And though with them the bitter air came in,
The monks were glad that the birds too should hear,
Since to God's creatures all, His praise is dear.
The lovely music waxed and waned, and sank,
And brought less conscious sadness in its train,
Unrecognised despair that thinks to thank
God for a joy renounced, a chosen pain--
And deems that peace which is but stifled life
Dulled by a too-prolonged unfruitful strife.
When, service done, the Brothers gathered round
To thank the singer--modest-eyed, said he:
'Not mine the grace, if grace indeed abound;
God gave the power, if any power there be;
If I in hymn or psalm clear voice can raise,
As His the gift, so His be all the praise!'
That night--the Abbot lying on his bed--
A sudden flood of radiance on him fell,
Poured from the crucifix above his head,
And cast a stream of light across his cell--
And in the fullest fervour of the light
An Angel stood, glittering, and great, and white.
His wings of thousand rainbow clouds seemed made,
A thousand lamps of love shone in his eyes,
The light of dawn upon his brows was laid,
Odours of thousand flowers of Paradise
Filled all the cell, and through the heart there stirred
A sense of music that could not be heard.
The Angel spoke--his voice was low and sweet
As the sea's murmur on low-lying shore--
Or whisper of the wind in ripened wheat:
'Brother,' he said, 'the God we both adore
Has sent me down to ask, is all not right?--
Why was Magnificat not sung to-night?'
Tranced in the joy the Angel's presence brought,
The Abbot answered: 'All these weary years
We have sung our best--but always have we thought
Our voices were unworthy heavenly ears;
And so to-night we found a clearer tongue,
And by it the Magnificat was sung.'
The Angel answered, 'All these happy years
In heaven has your Magnificat been heard;
This night alone, the angels' listening ears
Of all its music caught no single word.
Say, who is he whose goodness is not strong
Enough to bear the burden of his song?'
The Abbot named his name. 'Ah, why,' he cried,
'Have angels heard not what we found so dear?'
'Only pure hearts,' the Angel's voice replied,
'Can carry human songs up to God's ear;
To-night in heaven was missed the sweetest praise
That ever rises from earth's mud-stained maze.
'The monk who sang Magnificat is filled
With lust of praise, and with hypocrisy;
He sings for earth--in heaven his notes are stilled
By muffling weight of deadening vanity;
His heart is chained to earth, and cannot bear
His singing higher than the listening air!
'From purest hearts most perfect music springs,
And while you mourned your voices were not sweet,
Marred by the accident of earthly things,--
In heaven, God, listening, judged your song complete.
The sweetest of earth's music came from you,
The music of a noble life and true!'