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The Hermit's Vigil by Margaret J. Presttox


Here is the ancient legend I was reading
From the black-letter vellum page last night:
Its yellow husk holds lessons worth the heeding,
If we unfold it right.

The tome is musty with dank superstition
From which we shrink recoiling, to th' extreme
Of an unfaith that with material vision,
Accounts as myth or dream
Problems too subtle for our clumsy fingers—
High truths that stretch beyond our reach as far
As o'er the fire-fly in the grass that lingers
Stretches yon quenchless star.
Give rather back the old hallucinations—
The visible spirits—the rapture, terror, grief
Of faith so human, than the drear negations
Of dumb, dead unbelief!
—But will you hear the story?
—In a forest,
Girt round by blacken'd tarns, a hermit dwelt:
And as one midnight, when the storm raged sorest,
Within his hut he knelt
In ghostly penance, sounds of fiendish laughter
Smote on the tempest's lull with sudden jar,
That sent the gibbering echoes shrilling after,
O'er weir and wold afar.
"Christ ban ye now!"—he cried, the door wide flinging,
"Fare ye some whither with perdition's dole?"
—"We go"—out from the wrack a shriek came ringing—
"To seize the emperor's soul,
"Who lies this hour death-smitten." Execration
Thereat still fouler filled the sulphurous air:
Before the rood the hermit sank:—"Salvation
Grant, Lord! in his despair!"
And agonizing thus, with lips all ashen,
He prayed—till back, with ghastlier rage and roar,
The demon rout rushed, strung to fiercer passion,
And crashed his osier door.
"Speak, fiend!—I do adjure thee!—Came repentance
Too late?"—With wrathful curse was answer made:
—"Heaped high within the Judgment Scales for sentence,
The emperor's sins were laid;
"And downward, downward, with a plunge descended
Our scale, till we exulted!—when a moan,
—'Save, Christ, O save me!'—from his lips was rended
Out with his dying groan.
"Quick in the other scale did Mercy lay it,
Lo! it outweighed his guilt—"
—"Ha,—baffled! braved!"—
The hermit cried;—"Hence, fiends! nor dare gainsay it,
The emperor's soul is saved!"

Margaret J. Prestox.