St. Christopher of the Gael by Fiona Macleod
Behind the wattle-woven house
Nial the Mighty gently crept
From out a screen of ashtree boughs
To where a captive white-robe slept.
Lightly he moved, as though ashamed;
To right and left he glanced his fears.
Nial the Mighty was he named
Though but an untried youth in years—
But tall he was, as tall as he,
White Dermid of the magic sword,
Or Torcall of the Hebrid Sea
Or great Cuhoolin of the Ford;
Strong as the strongest, too, he was:
As Balor of the Evil Eye;
As Fionn who kept the Ulster Pass
From dawn till blood-flusht sunset sky.
Much had he pondered all that day
The mystery of the men who died
On crosses raised along the way,
And perished singing side by side.
Modred the chief had sailed the Moyle,
Had reached Iona's guardless-shore,
Had seized the monks when at their toil
And carried northward, bound, a score.
Some he had thrust into the deep,
To see if magic fins would rise:
Some from high rocks he forced to leap,
To see wings fall from out the skies:
Some he had pinned upon tall spears,
Some tossed on shields with brazen clang,
To see if through their blood and tears
Their god would hear the hymns they sang.
But when his oarsmen flung their oars,
And laughed to see across the foam
The glimmer of the highland shores
And smoke-wreaths of the hidden home,
Modred was weary of his sport.
All day he brooded as he strode
Betwixt the reef-encircled port
And the oak-grove of the Sacred Road.
At night he bade his warriors raise
Seven crosses where the foamswept strand
Lay still and white beyond the blaze
Of the hundred camp-fires of the land.
The women milked the late-come kye,
The children raced in laughing glee;
Like sheep from out the fold of the sky
Stars leapt and stared at earth and sea.
At times a wild and plaintive air
Made delicate music far away:
A hill-fox barked before its lair:
The white owl hawked its shadowy prey.
But at the rising of the moon
The druids came from grove and glen,
And to the chanting of a rune
Crucified St. Columba's men.
They died in silence side by side,
But first they sang the evening hymn:
By midnight all but one had died,
At dawn he too was grey and grim.
One monk alone had Modred kept,
A youth with hair of golden-red,
Who never once had sighed or wept,
Not once had bowed his proud young head.
Broken he lay, and bound with thongs.
Thus had he seen his brothers toss
Like crows transfixed upon great prongs,
Till death crept up each silent cross.
Night grew to dawn, to scarlet morn;
Day waned to firelit, star-lit night:
But still with eyes of passionate scorn
He dared the worst of Modred's might.
When from the wattle-woven house
Nial the Mighty softly stepped,
And peered beneath the ashtree boughs
To where he thought the white-robe slept,
He heard the monk's words rise in prayer.
He heard a hymn's ascending breath—
"Christ, Son of God, to Thee I fare
This night upon the wings of death."
Nial the Mighty crossed the space,
He waited till the monk had ceased;
Then, leaning o'er the foam-white face,
He stared upon the dauntless priest.
"Speak low," he said, "and tell me this:
Who is the king you hold so great?—
Your eyes are dauntless flames of bliss
Though Modred taunts you with his hate:—
"This god or king, is He more strong
Than Modred is? And does He sleep
That thus your death-in-life is long,
And bonds your aching body keep?"
The monk's eyes stared in Nial's eyes:
"Young giant with a child's white heart,
I see a cross take shape and rise,
And thou upon it nailèd art!"
Nial looked back: no cross he saw
Looming from out the dreadful night:
Yet all his soul was filled with awe,
A thundercloud with heart of light.
"Tell me thy name," he said, "and why
Thou waitest thus the druid knife,
And carest not to live or die?
Monk, hast thou little care of life?"
"Great care of that I have," he said,
And looked at Nial with eyes of fire:
"My life begins when I am dead,
There only is my heart's desire."
Nial the Mighty sighed. "Thy words
Are as the idle froth of foam,
Or clashing of triumphant swords
When Modred brings the foray home.
"My name is Nial: Nial the Strong:
A lad in years, but as you see
More great than heroes of old song
Or any lordly men that be.
"To Modred have I come from far,
O'er many a hill and strath and stream.
To be a mighty sword in war,
And this because I dreamed a dream:
"My dream was that my strength so great
Should serve the greatest king there is:
Modred the Pict thus all men rate,
And so I sought this far-off Liss.
"But if there be a greater yet,
A king or god whom he doth fear,
My service he shall no more get,
My strength shall rust no longer here."
The monk's face gladdened. "Go, now, go;
To Modred go: he sitteth dumb,
And broods on what he fain would know:
And say, 'O King, the Cross is come!'
"Then shall the king arise in wrath,
And bid you go from out his sight,
For if he meet you on his path
He'll leave you stark and still and white.
"Thus shall he show, great king and all,
He fears the glorious Cross of Christ,
And dreads to hear slain voices call
For vengeance on the sacrificed.
"But, Nial, come not here again:
Long before dawn my soul shall be
Beyond the reach of any pain
That Modred dreams to prove on me.
"Go forth thyself at dawn, and say
'This is Christ's holy natal morn,
My king is He from forth this day
When He to save mankind was born':
"Go forth and seek a lonely place
Where a great river fills the wild;
There bide, and let thy strength be grace,
And wait the Coming of a Child.
"A wondrous thing shall then befall:
And when thou seek'st if it be true,
Green leaves along thy staff shall crawl,
With, flowers of every lovely hue."
The monk's face whitened, like sea-foam:
Seaward he stared, and sighed "I go—
Farewell—my Lord Christ calls me home!"
Nial stooped and saw death's final throe.
An hour before the dawn he rose
And sought out Modred, brooding, dumb;
"O King," he said, "my bond I close,
King Christ I seek: the Cross is come!"
Swift as a stag's leap from a height
King Modred drew his dreadful sword:
Then as a snow-wraith, silent, white,
He stared and passed without a word.
Before the flush of dawn was red
A druid came to Nial the Great:
"The doom of death hath Modred said,
Yet fears this Christ's mysterious hate:
"So get you hence, you giant-thewed man:
Go your own way: come not again:
No more are you of Modred's clan:
Go now, forthwith, lest you be slain."
Nial went forth with gladsome face;
No more of Modred's clan he was:
"Now, now," he cried, "Christ's trail I'll trace,
And nowhere turn, and nowhere pause."
He laughed to think how Modred feared
The wrath of Christ, the monk's white king:
"A greater than Modred hath appeared,
To Him my sword and strength I bring."
All day, all night, he walked afar:
He saw the moon rise white and still:
The evening and the morning star:
The sunrise burn upon the hill.
He heard the moaning of the seas,
The vast sigh of the sunswept plain,
The myriad surge of forest-trees;
Saw dusk and night return again.
At falling of the dusk he stood
Upon a wild and desert land:
Dark fruit he gathered for his food,
Drank water from his hollowed hand,
Cut from an ash a mighty bough
And trimmed and shaped it to the half:
"Safe in the desert am I now,
With sword," he said, "and with this staff."
The stars came out: Arcturus hung
His ice-blue fire far down the sky:
The Great Bear through the darkness swung:
The Seven Watchers rose on high.
A great moon flooded all the west.
Silence came out of earth and sea
And lay upon the husht world's breast,
And breathed mysteriously.
Three hours Nial walked, three hours and more:
Then halted when beyond the plain
He stood upon that river's shore
The dying monk had bid him gain.
A little house he saw: clay-wrought,
Of wattle woven through and through:
Then, all his weariness forgot,
The joy of drowning-sleep he knew.
Three hours he slept, and then he heard
A voice—and yet a voice so low
It might have been a dreaming bird
Safe-nested by the rushing flow.
Almost he slept once more: then, Hush!
Once more he heard above the noise
And tempest of the river's rush
The thin faint words of a child's voice.
"Good Sir, awake from sleep and dream,
Good Sir, come out and carry me
Across this dark and raging stream
Till safe on the other side I be."
Great Nial shivered on his bed:
"No human creature calls this night,
It is a wild fetch of the dead,"
He thought, and shrunk, and shook with fright.
Once more he heard that infant-cry:
"Come out, Good Sir, or else I drown—
Come out, Good Sir, or else I die
And you, too, lose a golden crown."
"A golden crown"—so Nial thought—
"No—no—not thus shall I be ta'en!
Keep, ghost-of-the-night, your crown gold-wrought—
Of sleep and peace I am full fain!"
Once more the windy dark was filled
With lonely cry, with sobbing plaint:
Nial's heart grew sore, its fear was stilled,
King Christ, he knew, would scorn him faint.
"Up, up thou coward, thou sluggard, thou,"
He cried, and sprang from off his bed—
"No crown thou seekest for thy brow,
But help for one in pain and dread!"
Out in the wide and lonely dark
No fetch he saw, no shape, no child:
Almost he turned again—but hark!
A song rose o'er the waters wild:
A king am I
Tho' a little Child,
Son of God am I,
Meek and mild,
Because God hath said
Let my cup be full
Of wine and bread.
Come to me
I will not flee.
Is thy heart
O shaken heart!
Stoop to my Cup,
Drink of the wine:
The wine and the bread,
My Flesh and my Blood!
Throw thy sword in the flood:
Come, shaken heart:
Fearful thou art!
Have no more fear—
Lo, I am here,
The little One,
Thy Lord and thy King.
It is I who sing:
Christ, your King….
Be not afraid:
Look, I am Light,
A great star
Seen from afar
In the darkness of night:
I am Light,
Be not afraid …
Into the deep flood!
Think of the Bread,
The Wine and the Bread
That are my Flesh and Blood,
Cross, cross the Flood,
Sure is the goal …
Be not afraid
Be not afraid!
Nial's heart was filled with joy and pain:
"This is my king, my king indeed:
To think that drown'd in sleep I've lain
When Christ the Child-God crieth in need!"
Swift from his wattled hut he strode,
Stumbling among the grass and bent,
And, seeking where the river flowed,
Far o'er the dark flood peered and leant:
Then suddenly beside him saw
A little Child all clad in white:
He bowed his head in love and awe,
Then lifted high his burthen light.
High on his shoulders sat the Child,
While with strong limbs he fared among
The rushing waters black and wild
And where the fiercest currents swung.
The waters rose more high, more high,
Higher and higher every yard …
Nial stumbled on with sob and sigh,
Christ heard him panting sore and hard.
"O Child," Nial cried, "forbear, forbear!
Hark you not how these waters whirled!
The weight of all the earth I bear,
The weary weight of all the world!"
"Christopher!" … low above the noise,
The rush, the darkness, Nial heard
The far-off music of a Voice
That said all things in saying one word—
"Christopher … this thy name shall be!
Christ-bearer is thy name, even so
Because of service done to me
Heavy with weight of the world's woe."
With breaking sobs, with panting breath
Christopher grasped a bent-held dune,
Then with flung staff and as in death
Forward he fell in a heavy swoon.
All night he lay in silence there,
But safe from reach of surging tide:
White angels had him in their care,
Christ healed and watched him side by side.
When all the silver wings of dawn
Had waved above the rose-flusht east,
Christopher woke … his dream was gone.
The angelic songs had ceased.
Was it a dream in very deed,
He wondered, broken, trembling, dazed?
His staff he lifted from the mead
And as an upright sapling raised.
Lo, it was as the monk had said—
If he would prove the vision true,
His staff would blossom to its head
With flowers of every lovely hue.
Christopher bowed: before his eyes
Christ's love fulfilled the holy hour….
A south-wind blew, green leaves did rise
And the staff bloomed a myriad flower!
Christopher bowed in holy prayer,
While Christ's love fell like healing dew:
God's father-hand was on him there:
The peace of perfect peace he knew.