At Bethlehem upon the hill,
The day was done, the night was nigh,
The dusk was deep and had its will,
The stars were very small and still,
Like unblown tapers, faint and high.
The noises had begun to fall,
And quiet stole upon the place,
The howl of dogs along the wall,
Voices that from the houstops call
And answer, and the grace
Of some low breath of even-song
Grew faint apace: between the rocks
In misty pastures, and along
The dim hillside with crook and thong
The lonely shepherds watched their flocks.
The Inn-master within the Inn
Called loudly out after this sort,
'Draw no more water, cease the din,
Pile the loose fodder, and begin
To turn the mules out of the court.
The time has come to shut the gate,
Make way,' he cried, and then began
To sweep and set the litter straight,
And pile the saddle-bags and freight
Of some belated caravan.
The drivers whirled their beasts about,
And beat them on with shoutings great;
The nosebags slipped, the feed flew out,
The water-buckets reeled, the rout
Went jostling onward to the gate.
Came one unto the master then,
Hasting to find him through the gloom,
'Give us a place to rest;' and when
He spake, the master cried again,
'There is no room--there is no room.'
'But I have come from Nazareth,
Full three days' toil to Bethlehem'--
'What matters that,' the master saith,
'For here is hardly room for breath;
The guests curse me for crowding them.'
'Hold, Sir! leave me not so, I pray'--
He plucked him sudden by the sleeve,
'My wife is with me and doth say,
Her hour hath come, I beg you, stay,
And make some plan for her relief.'
'Two hours ago you might have had
The chamber wherein stands the loom;
But then to drive me wholly mad,
Came this great merchant from Baghdad,
And thrust himself into the room.
'There is no other shelf to call
A bed--But just beyond the gate,
You may find shelter in a stall,
If there be shelter left at all,
You may be even now too late.'
Beyond the gate within the night,
A figure rested on the ground,
About her all the rout took flight,
The dizzy noise, the flashing light,
The mules were tramping all around.
Leaning in mute expectancy,
Beneath a stunted sycamore,
She added darkness utterly,
To the dim light, the shrouded tree,
By her hands held her face before.
And yet to mock her eye's desire,
The cavern into which she stared,
Was lit with disks and lines of fire;
When triple darkness did conspire,
The secret founts of light were bared.
And all the wheeling fire was rife
With haunting fears, her broken breath
Grew short with this prophetic strife;
What was for one the dawn of life,
Would be for one the dawn of death.
Meantime the stranger with a lamp,
Which lit the darkness, small and wan,
Searched where the mules did tramp and stamp,
Amid the litter and the damp,
For some small place to rest upon.
And there against the furthest wall,
Where the black shade was dense and deep,
He found a mean and meager stall,
But there when the weak light did fall,
He found a little lad asleep.
He lifted up his childish head,
And smiled serenely at the light,
'And have you found him, then,' he said,
'My brother who I thought was dead,
I lost him in the crowd last night.
'His name is Ezra, and he is
So tall and strong that when I try,
Standing on tiptoe for a kiss
I could not reach, except for this,
He lifts me up so easily.
'I had two little doves to take
Up to the booths'--he held his breath,
'Peace, child! and for your mother's sake,
Yield me this place--nay, nay! awake!
My weary wife is sick to death.'
'I will,' the little lad replied
'I promised never to forget
My mother, years ago she died,
I will lie out on the hillside,
And I may find dear Ezra yet.'
And now she drooped her weary head,
Within that comfortless manger,
It might have been a palace bed,
With canopy of gold instead,
So little did she know or care.
_Gentle Jesus, slumber mild,
Succored by a little child,
_You of children are the king,
Sovereign to all ministering,
_Grace you bring them from above,
They give promise, lisping love,
And out upon the darkened hill,
With all the quiet-pastured sheep,
Charmed by the falling of a rill,
Where in the pool it cadenced still,
The little lad was fallen asleep.
All his young dreams were robed with power.
And glad were all his vision folk;
He wandered on from hour to hour,
With Ezra, happy as a flower
That blooms safe-shadowed by the oak.
But once before his dreams were told,
He thought he saw within the deep
Vault of the sky a rose unfold,
Made all of fire and lovely gold,
Whose petals seemed to glow and leap,
As if each dewy, crystal cell
Were a great angel live with light,
And trembling to the coronal,
Merging in sheen of pearl and shell,
With his great comrade, equal, bright,
Until the petals flashed and sprang,
And folded to the central heart:
Music there was that showered and rang,
As if each angel harped and sang,
Controlled by some celestial art.
The child saw splendor without name,
And turned and smiled, and all the noise
Of strings and singing sank; it came
Faint and dream-altered, yet the same,
Soft-tempered to his mother's voice.
_Slumber, slumber, gentle child,
Sweet as henna, dear and mild,
_You the first of all the race,
Gave your master early grace,
_Gave a shelter for his head,
Took the chilly earth instead,
_Now take comfort infant earth,
Jesus Christ is come to birth,
_For his principality,
Children cluster at his knee,
_Hail the heaven-happy age,
Love begins his pilgrimage,