The Cross of the Dumb by Fiona Macleod

A Christmas on Iona, Long, Long Ago

One eve, when St. Columba strode
In solemn mood along the shore,
He met an angel on the road
Who but a poor man's semblance bore.

He wondered much, the holy saint,
What stranger sought the lonely isle,
But seeing him weary and wan and faint
St. Colum hailed him with a smile.

"Remote our lone Iona lies
Here in the grey and windswept sea,
And few are they whom my old eyes
Behold as pilgrims bowing the knee….

"But welcome … welcome … stranger-guest,
And come with me and you shall find
A warm and deer-skinn'd cell for rest
And at our board a welcome kind….

"Yet tell me ere the dune we cross
How came you to this lonely land?
No curraghs in the tideway toss
And none is beached upon the strand!"

The weary pilgrim raised his head
And looked and smiled and said, "From far,
My wandering feet have here been led
By the glory of a shining star…."

St. Colum gravely bowed, and said,
"Enough, my friend, I ask no more;
Doubtless some silence-vow was laid
Upon thee, ere thou sought'st this shore:

"Now, come: and doff this raiment sad
And those rough sandals from thy feet:
The holy brethren will be glad
To haven thee in our retreat."

Together past the praying cells
And past the wattle-woven dome
Whence rang the tremulous vesper bells
St. Colum brought the stranger home.

From thyme-sweet pastures grey with dews
The milch-cows came with swinging tails:
And whirling high the wailing mews
Screamed o'er the brothers at their pails.

A single spire of smoke arose,
And hung, a phantom, in the cold:
Three younger monks set forth to close
The ewes and lambs within the fold.

The purple twilight stole above
The grey-green dunes, the furrowed leas:
And Dusk, with breast as of a dove,
Brooded: and everywhere was peace.

Within the low refectory sate
The little clan of holy folk:
Then, while the brothers mused and ate,
The wayfarer arose and spoke….

"O Colum of Iona-Isle,
And ye who dwell in God's quiet place,
Before I crossed your narrow kyle
I looked in Heaven upon Christ's face."

Thereat St. Colum's startled glance
Swept o'er the man so poorly clad,
And all the brethren looked askance
In fear the pilgrim-guest was mad.

"And, Colum of God's Church i' the sea
And all ye Brothers of the Rood,
The Lord Christ gave a dream to me
And bade me bring it ye as food.

"Lift to the wandering cloud your eyes
And let them scan the wandering Deep….
Hark ye not there the wandering sighs
Of brethren ye as outcasts keep?"

Thereat the stranger bowed, and blessed;
Then, grave and silent, sought his cell:
St. Colum mused upon his guest,
Dumb wonder on the others fell.

At dead of night the Abbot came
To where the weary wayfarer slept:
"Tell me," he said, "thy holy name…"
—No more, for on bowed knees he wept….

Great awe and wonder fell on him;
His mind was like a lonely wild
When suddenly is heard a hymn
Sung by a little innocent child.

For now he knew their guest to be
No man as he and his, but one
Who in the Courts of Ecstasy
Worships, flame-winged, the Eternal Son.

The poor bare cell was filled with light,
That came from the swung moons the Seven
Seraphim swing day and night
Adown the infinite walls of Heaven.

But on the fern-wove mattress lay
No weary guest. St. Colum kneeled,
And found no trace; but, ashen-grey,
Far off he heard glad anthems pealed.

At sunrise when the matins-bell
Made a cold silvery music fall
Through silence of each lonely cell
And over every fold and stall,

St. Colum called his monks to come
And follow him to where his hands
Would raise the Great Cross of the Dumb
Upon the Holy Island's sands….

"For I shall call from out the Deep
And from the grey fields of the skies,
The brethren we as outcasts keep,
Our kindred of the dumb wild eyes….

"Behold, on this Christ's natal morn,
God wills the widening of His laws,
Another miracle to be born—
For lo, our guest an Angel was!…

"His Dream the Lord Christ gave to him
To bring to us as Christ-Day food,
That Dream shall rise a holy hymn
And hang like a flower upon the Rood!…"

Thereat, while all with wonder stared
St. Colum raised the Holy Tree:
Then all with Christ-Day singing fared
To where the last sands lipped the sea.

St. Colum raised his arms on high …
"O ye, all creatures of the wing,
Come here from out the fields o' the sky,
Come, here and learn a wondrous thing!"

At that the wild clans of the air
Came sweeping in a mist of wings—
Ospreys and fierce solanders there,
Sea-swallows wheeling mazy rings,

The foam-white mew, the green-black scart,
The famishing hawk, the wailing tern,
All birds from the sand-building mart
To lonely bittern and heron….

St. Colum raised beseeching hands
And blessed the pastures of the sea:
"Come, all ye creatures, to the sands,
Come and behold the Sacred Tree!"

At that the cold clans of the wave
With spray and surge and splash appeared:
Up from each wrack-strewn, lightless cave
Dim day-struck eyes affrighted peered.

The pollacks came with rushing haste,
The great sea-cod, the speckled bass;
Along the foaming tideway raced
The herring-tribes like shimmering glass:

The mackerel and the dog-fish ran,
The whiting, haddock, in their wake:
The great sea-flounders upward span,
The fierce-eyed conger and the hake:

The greatest and the least of these
From hidden pools and tidal ways
Surged in their myriads from the seas
And stared at St. Columba's face.

"Hearken," he cried, with solemn voice—
"Hearken! ye people of the Deep,
Ye people of the skies, Rejoice!
No more your soulless terror keep!

"For lo, an Angel from the Lord
Hath shown us that wherein we sin—
But now we humbly do His Word
And call you, Brothers, kith and kin….

"No more we claim the world as ours
And everything that therein is—
To-day, Christ's Day, the infinite powers
Decree a common share of bliss.

"I know not if the new-waked soul
That stirs in every heart I see
Has yet to reach the far-off goal
Whose symbol is this Cross-shaped Tree….

"But, O dumb kindred of the skies,
O kinsfolk of the pathless seas,
All scorn and hate I exorcise,
And wish you nought but Love and Peace!"

* * * * *

Thus, on that Christmas-day of old
St. Colum broke the ancient spell.
A thousand years away have rolled,
'Tis now … "a baseless miracle."

O fellow-kinsmen of the Deep,
O kindred of the wind and cloud,
God's children too … how He must weep
Who on that day was glad and proud!