Augusta Davies Webster
The Manuscript Of Saint Alexius - Poem by Augusta Davies Webster
There came a child into the solemn hall
where great Pope Innocent sat throned and heard
angry disputings on Free-Will in man,
Grace, Purity, and the Pelagian creed--
an ignorantly bold poor child, who stood
shewing his rags before the Pope's own eyes,
and bade him come to shrive a beggar man
he found alone and dying in a shed,
who sent him for the Pope, "not any else
but the Pope's self." And Innocent arose
and hushed the mockers "Surely I will go:
servant of servants, I." So he went forth
to where the man lay sleeping into death,
and blessed him. Then, with a last spurt of life,
the dying man rose sitting, "Take," he said,
and placed a written scroll in the Pope's hand,
and so fell back and died. Thus said the scroll:
Alexius, meanest servant of the Lord,
son of Euphemianus, senator,
and of Aglaia, writes his history,
God willing it, which, if God so shall will,
shall be revealed when he is fallen asleep.
Spirit of Truth, Christ, and all saints of Heaven,
and Mary, perfect dove of guilelessness,
make his mind clear, that he write utter truth.
That which I was all know: that which I am
God knows, not I, if I stand near to Him
because I have not yielded, or, by curse
of recreant longings, am to Him a wretch
it needs Such grace to pardon: but I know
that one day soon I, dead, shall see His face
with that great pity on it which is ours
who love Him and have striven and then rest,
that I shall look on Him and be content.
For what I am, in my last days, to men,
'tis nothing; scarce a name, and even that
known to be not my own; a wayside wretch
battening upon a rich lord's charity
and praying, (some say like the hypocrites),
a wayside wretch who, harboured for a night,
is harboured still, and, idle on the alms,
prays day and night and night and day, and fears
lest, even praying, he should suddenly
undo his prayer and perish and be great
and rich and happy. Jesu, keep me Thine.
Father and mother, when ye hear of me,
(for I shall choose so sure a messenger
whom God will shew me), when ye hear these words,
and Claudia, whom I dead will dare count mine,
bidding her pray she be Christ's more than mine,
believe I loved you; know it; but, beloved,
you never will know how much till at length
God bids you know all things in the new life.
Alas, you have had little joy of me:
beloved, could I have given drops of blood
in place of your shed tears, the cruellest wounds
had been my perfect joys: but both my love
and your distress needs were my cross to bear.
Forgive me that you sorrowed. And be glad
because you sorrowed and your sorrow was
holy to God, a sacrifice to Him.
Know now, all men who read or hear my words,
that I, Alexius, lived in much delights
of a dear home where they who looked on me
looked with a smile, and where I did but smile
to earn sweet praises as for some good deed:
I was the sunlight to my mother's eyes,
that waked their deepest blueness and warm glow,
I was my father's joy, ambition, boast,
his hope and his fulfilment. It may be
I grew too strong a link betwixt their hearts
and this poor world whose best gifts seemed to them
destined for me, grew, when they looked on Heaven,
a blur upon their sight, too largely near,
as any trivial tiny shape held close
will make eclipse against the eye it fills:
and so, maybe. for their sake, not for mine,
God took me from them, me, their only son,
for whom they prayed, and trebled pious deeds,
and took thought in this life.
I grew by them,
learning all meet for my estate on earth,
but learning more, what they taught more, of God,
and loving most that learning. And at times,
even from childhood, would my heart grow still
and seem to feel Him, hear Him, and I knew,
but not with ears, a voice that spoke no words
yet called me. And, as ignorant children choose
"I will be emperor when I am big,"
my foolish wont was "I will be a saint:"
later, when riper sense brought humbleness,
I said "When I am grown a man, my lot
Shall be with those who vow their lives to Christ."
But, when my father thought my words took shape
of other than boy's prattle, he grew grave,
and answered me "Alexius, thou art young,
and canst not judge of duties; but know this
thine is to serve God, living in the world."
And still the days went on, and still I felt
the silent voice that called me: then I said
"My father, now I am no more a child,
and I can know my heart; give me to God:"
but he replied "God gives no son save thee
to keep our fathers' name alive, and thus
He shews thy place and duty:" and, with tears,
my mother said "God gives no child save thee;
make me not childless." And their words seemed God's
more than my heart's, theirs who had rule on me.
But still my longing grew, and still the voice:
and they both answered "Had God need of thee
to leave thy natural place none else can fill,
there would be signs which none could doubt, nor we
nor thou thyself." And I received that word;
knowing I doubted since they bade me doubt.
And still the days went on, and still the voice
and then my father said "The bride is chosen,
if thou wilt have her; if not, choose thyself."
And more and more I prayed "Give me to God:"
and more and more they urged "Whom gives He us
save thee to keep our name alive? whom else
to stay us from a desolate old age,
and give us children prattling at our knees?"
and more and more they answered "Shew to us
how He has called thee from thy certain path
where He has set thy feet?" Wherefore I said
"I will obey, and will so serve my God
as you have bidden me serve Him, honouring you:"
and they two blessed me, and we were agreed.
And afterwards Euphemianus laughed
"He asks not of the bride; but, boy, art pleased?
'tis thy fair playmate Claudia, fair and good."
I, who asked not because I nothing cared,
was glad in afterthinking: for the girl
lad been my playmate, and of later time
knew her beauty with familiar eyes
and no more feared it than I feared the grace
of useless goddesses perfect in stone,
lingering dishonoured in unholy nooks
where comes no worship more; so that I mused
"The damsel brings no perilous wedding gift
of amorous unknown fetters for my soul;
my soul shall still be spared me, consecrate,
virgin to God until the better days
when I may live the life alone with Him:"
so was I comforted.
But, in the hour
when all the rite was done and the new bride
come to her home, I sitting half apart,
my mother took her fondly by the hand
and drew her, lagging timidly, to me,
and spoke "Look up my daughter, look on him:
Alexius, shall I tell what I have guessed,
how this girl loves you?" Then she raised her head
a moment long, and looked: and I grew white,
and sank back sickly. For I suddenly
knew that I might know that which men call love.
And through the tedious feast my mind was torn
with reasonings and repentance. For I said
"But I may love her," and kept marshalling forth
such scriptures as should seem to grant it me:
then would an anguish hurl my fabric down,
while I discerned that he who has put hand
upon the plough must never turn again
to take the joyaunce granted easy lives.
And bye and bye I stole away and went,
half conscious, through the darkling garden groves,
amid the evening silence, till I came
to a small lonely chapel, little used,
left open by I know not what new chance,
where there was patterned out in polished stones
Peter denying Christ. I hastened in,
and threw me on the floor, and would have prayed;
but, in a rush of tears, I fell asleep.
And there I dreamed: meseemed the easy years
had slipped along, and I sat, pleased and proud,
among my ruddy children, and I held
my wife's smooth hand, who but so much had changed
as to grow fairer in her womanhood;
and, facing us, a carved and marble Christ
hung on a Cross and gazed with Its dumb eyes,
I looking on It: and I turned my head
to smile to Claudia, and then looked again;
behold Its right arm moved, and then was still,
And a low voice came forth "Alexius, come."
And I replied "Oh Lord I am content;
but lo my father."
Then my father stood,
meseemed, beside me, leading in his hand
a sturdy urchin, copy of himself,
and answered "Son, my ears do hear thee called;
and now I have this son of thine: go forth."
And once again the voice, "Alexius, come."
And I replied "My Lord, I am content;
but lo my mother."
Then my mother stood,
meseemed, beside me, and her arm was wound
round my wife's neck, and clinging to her skirt
a baby boy and girl that teased and played
and clamoured for her kisses: so she stood,
and answered "Son, my ears do hear thee called;
and now this daughter hast thou given me,
and now I have these babes of thine: go forth."
And louder then the voice, "Alexius, come."
And I replied "Dear Lord, I am content;
Then Claudia's hand grew tight in mine,
and I looked on her face and saw it so
as when my mother bade her look on me,
and I replied "Oh Lord I were content,
but lo my wife."
And still again the voice;
and still again her hand that drew mine back;
and I replied "My wife: I cannot come."
And still again the voice, "Alexius, come,"
loud and in wrath.
And I replied "My wife:
I will not come."
And with that word I woke.
I was in darkness, and the door was locked,
(doubtless while I, asleep or tranced, lay dumb
some one had sought me there and had not found,
and so had gone, unconscious, prisoning me);
I groped my way toward the altar steps,
and thanked my God, and prayed.
When morning broke
I heard without two voices, as it seemed
of holy pilgrims talking, and one said
"The youth Alexius surely has fled forth
to serve God safelier;" the other said
"Then doth he well; for now that better part
shall none take from him, he shall be all God's
and only God's, not father's, mother's, son's,
nor any fond fair woman's." Then they went.
But I was still there prisoned. Day moved on,
and brightened, and then waned, and darkness came,
broken by one white moonbeam, for an hour,
that seemed a promise, and, in that good hope,
I prayed, then slept.
But when morn grew again,
and no deliverance came, but frequent steps,
and voices passing, I grew scared with doubts
if, keeping silence, as from enemies,
and by my silence dying, I should be
self-murdered or God's martyr; and I thought
how, maybe, at the last my fainting voice
should vainly cry too late, and I should pass
with none to give God's comfort. But I thought
"If God wills even that, then let it be."
But when the noon sun glowed I heard a hand
touch at the door, and crouched me in a nook,
and scarce had crouched when Claudia passed by me
with slow steps to the altar: she prayed long;
praying, poor child, to have me given back,
claiming me back of Heaven, as if her right
could equal That right, crying out for me
by loving names, and weeping, that my heart
went out of me towards her, wondering,
and yearned for her. But God was pitiful,
so that I swerved not.
When I heard her vow
to pray there daily, I perceived through her
deliverance should come shortly: and I planned
to stand within the shadow the noon light
threw from a massive column by the door,
and, when she had passed in and hid her face,
get me forth softly.
But the flesh was weak,
and when I waked again the noon beams fell
full on the face of Peter where he wept
repenting; Claudia was already there.
I thought a moment should I not come forth,
and charge her let none know, and go my way;
but, did she give one startled sudden cry,
womanlike, I had been betrayed: and then
I feared her if she wept.
May God forgive
my weak heart then, my weak heart all my days,
which never has been so strong as not feel
always the fall at hand, but then so weak
that some few urgent tears and soft sad words
might, haply might, have bought me from my God.
So she went forth, unconscious: and I prayed
death should not come at night, with none at hand
to minister beside me, and in faith
I laid me down to wait what God should send.
And in a little while she came again,
and sought and found a gold and emerald pin,
(one of the gifts they made me give to her),
dropped from her loosened hair, then, kissing it,
passed out, and, for a moment long, forgot
to make the door fast, turned back to the task,
then, murmuring "Why? For it is better thus,
when whoso wills can enter in and pray,"
left it and went.
Then free, I made my vow
to live unknown, unhonoured, with no ties,
no certain home, no aims, no rights, no name,
an unregarded wanderer, whose steps,
by whichsoever road they passed, but passed
to travel nearer Heaven. And, for a sign,
I made a secret place and hid my ring
under the altar.
You will find it there:
at the right hand a cross upon an A
cut on the floor, so small you must look well,
and near it, at the altar-base, a crack
I found there in the chiselling, (just behind
a cherub's wing), is closed with dust and earth;
there lies the ring. Give it me mine again,
it and my name I take back for my grave,
as I take back my kinsfolk and my friends
to pray and mourn for me and give God thanks.
That done, I got me forth, and saw none nigh,
(the search near home being over, as it seemed),
and with my best poor speed I found a copse
whose green thick tangles hid me: there I lay
till the cool nightfall came and patient stars
watched Earth asleep, as if they prayed for her;
and other eyes saw not save theirs, and those
that look from Heaven, when I came sickly forth
and dragged my limp and failing limbs along.
I made my clothes in tatters; thus I went
and begged food at a convent for my life
that else were flickered out: so they gave food,
and they gave shelter: and at dawn I went,
while none who could have known had looked on me,
and, hastening on my journey, followed forth
my fellow-Roman Tiber's seaward strides,
and reached the port. There, as I since have learned,
Euphemianus had left men in wait
while he searched otherwhere: but God ruled all.
A little ship was just launched out to sea,
her heel still caught upon the grating beach,
the men were good and took the pilgrim in
who at the farewell moment called to them,
and, in what while I know not, but it seemed
as short as in a dream are days and years,
I saw my shores grown narrow purple clouds,
and then (for I write truth though shaming me)
I broke into such weeping that the men
felt whiteness in their cheeks, and, marvelling,
sent whispers to and fro, in doubt of me
lest witchcraft held me or my some deep crime
had set a curse demoniac; and they schemed
if they should put back to be rid of me,
but one said "Tush! the youth weeps for his home;
at his age, maybe, some of us could weep;
let him alone."
A rough and grizzled man,
who after, at the haven, came and clapped
a great hand on my shoulder, "Look, my boy,
you keep your secrets safer: for I heard
of a hot hunt after a great man's son,
and when I saw you weep ...... Well go your way,
my tongue shall earn no wages by its blab.
Maybe at your age I should have fled too,
if yoked against my will; but I am old
and preach go home again. Some say she's fair;
and a fair woman, love her or not love,
is a fair woman: but, or fair or foul,
be wise, young sir, be wise; never go starve
because your cake's not candied to your taste."
I said "Kind friend, I have no home to seek;
God gives me not a home till bye and bye,"
and left him. So my pilgrimage began.
But, oh vain heart of man! can this be true
which I remember, that I, plodding on,
whither I did not ask me, as God willed,
undoubting and ungrieving, yea, puffed up
to feel my heart was numb of all regret,
carrying upon my lips (as men will burr
a day long some persistent measured strain)
for refrain-catch "Now all and only God's,"
drew from my bosom, with my crucifix,
a withered crumpled weed, a clinging thing
that, green and dainty, new brushed from its root,
with one white flower-speck on it, trailed its sprays
athwart the purple hem of Claudia's veil
the last time in the chapel while she prayed;
it lay upon the floor when she was gone.
A worthless grass, what good was it to me?
and, lo, made fellow with my crucifix!
yet surely I had done it scarce aware,
for now I gazed on it so stupidly
as though a secret hand had placed it there
to set a riddle so, nor could recall
what thought I took it with. But see what snares
I fled from, flying Claudia; suddenly
the thing was at my lips, in such a kiss
as, maybe, lovers kiss on women's mouths,
in such a kiss howbeit as brought forth shame
almost in its own birth. I hurled the weed,
the viperous thing, into the battling surf
that dragged and sucked the booming shingles down,
lashing the beach before a coming storm;
I hurled it forth and went.
It seems to me,
looking back now, as if that made an end.
I think I had no temptings afterwards.
Natheless my grief was bitter many times
remembering home: but that I felt not sin,
because 'twas as a soul among the dead
might sorrow, never wishing to come back.
And Claudia was not of my memories:
scarcely at all: a stray bad dream at night
would bring her to me, make me dream I wept
because I might not love her, but not dream
that I did love; in daytime she came not.
Ten years I wandered: who cares know the whither?
a pilgrim and alone I trod my way,
no man regarding me. Alone with God:
whether in deserts or the throng of towns;
whether upon the mountain-tops, whence earth
shows sometimes so too exquisite for man
as though the devil had leave to fashion it
and cozen us with its beauty; or below,
where in the valleys one beholds the hills
grow nearer Heaven at sunset; or my ears
full of the hymn of waters, where the sea
breaks at one's feet among the rough brown rocks;
whether in pain, in weariness, in fear,
or, thankful, taking comfortable rest;
always alone with God.
So for ten years:
and in the later of them I had peace:
so for ten years, and then, by what degrees
I know not, (for the stupor crept like sleep,
slowly yet sudden on one at the last),
my peace became a blankness. And one day
I sought to rouse me, questioning "Where is God?"
and could not weep because I found him not,
yea, could not rouse me. And my prayers were words,
like trite goodmorrows when two gossips meet
and never look for answers; and my praise
was rounded like the song the poet makes
to one who never lived for him to love.
I was my Pharisee to cheat myself
and make myself believe me that God's friend
I had forgotten what it felt to be.
So, when I saw this plainly, I took thought,
pondering how it should be that when I pined
for thirst of human love I loved God more
and felt His love more near me than when now
my heart was swept and garnished, void for Him:
at last I saw my need of quickening pain
to stir the sluggish soul awake in me,
and knew I offered nothing to my Lord,
offering Him that it cost me nought to give;
what good to turn to Him, "Lord I leave all,"
if all be noway precious?
and set my face to Rome, making all haste.
On the forty-seventh day I saw the sun
droop to the hills behind my father's house,
and lo, while I toiled up the rude ascent,
our last slope of the Aventine, there came,
riding apart and grave, from the far side,
Euphemianus. When he reached the gate
he entered not, but seemed to point me out
to the servitors that followed with his hawks,
and watched me coming upwards painfully.
And when he saw me footsore and so spent
he had compassion: ere my prayer was done,
"Food, my good lord, and rest, for charity,"
he bade them take me in.
Six years ago:
and now I die here. No one bade depart;
they gave me daily scraps, and let me live
in the shed for harbouring squalid wanderers
that sleep a night, and take their alms, and go.
None knew me; who should know me? Gone away,
past ten years since, a comely petted boy,
and now a half decrepit sickly wretch,
a lean and shrivelled carcase, the ten years
writ twenty on my leathery wrinkled face,
how was I their Alexius? Nay, they looked
and saw the stranger in the beggar's shed
they called, for want of name, Old Lazarus.
In the beggar's shed with God: with God again!
Oh exquisite pain that brought so exquisite joy!
even by instant peril to be lost
lo I was saved. Oh blessed exquisite pain!
my heart awoke, for anguish, and felt God.
I saw my father pass out and pass in;
sometimes he noted me and spoke a word
or looked a careless greeting, oftenest not;
I saw him daily, and I learned his face
how stern long sorrow made it and how still,
and, when some days he could not make a smile,
I heard the servants whisper "Do you see?
this is his lost son's birthday," or "the day
his son fled forth," or else "his baptism,"
"confirming," "going to school," all such home dates
as parents count who watch their children grow:
and he was changed, they said, cared not to see
friends' faces greeting him, nor join in talk,
but would be solitary; changed, they said,
since that strange losing of his only child.
My mother I saw not in the first days,
for she came never forth, but sat and slept,
and wakened querulous, and slept again.
And Claudia tended her: I had not thought
to find her here; I looked she'd count me dead
and marry her, ('tis known what women are),
and was all startled when I saw her first:
but only for the strangeness, after that
she was no more to me than I to her,
she might have smiled to me, or in my sight,
that dangerous smile and I be no more moved
than if a babe had laughed as I passed by.
Then a day came, a still and sultry day
when one might take count of each leaf that stirred
and think the one shrill grasshopper too loud,
my mother waked and heard a hymn I sang,
and took a whim to have the singer brought:
only a whim, belike, for could my voice
bring back the stripling's voice she had thought sweet?
they fetched me, I stood by her: ah my mother!
and she so changed! nothing of her old self;
the goodliness, the sweetness, the delight,
gone, waned out from her, as the light of day
was waning from her eyes long dulled by tears.
Ah, could I but have clung about her feet,
crying out "Mother, take thy son again!"
But yet for her it would have been too late.
She talked to me, inconsequent grave talk
like children's, whispered after when I prayed,
and made me sing her hymns, so was content
longer than was her wont, then bade me go
and come again to-morrow: ever since
she calls me every day.
And every day
is Claudia there. More than two thousand days,
and every day I look on Claudia's face
grown wistful and more sweet, and every day
behold her patience, hear her wise grave words,
and better know her all she is.
Have I not striven? have I not prevailed?
And now death is at hand: some few days more
and I shall lay me down and be at rest.
There will be no farewell at last, I think;'
they will not know of me that I lie sick
and pass away; and, even if they knew,
why should they come to close my dying eyes?
the beggar Lazarus can die alone,
as he has lived alone. My mother, though,
will lack me, ask for me, Claudia will send
to bid me hasten, then the word will come
"He died this morning," and she will not weep
but say "Poor wretch: God rest the parted soul,"
and turn to soothe my mother with some wile
to make her never miss me: and may be
Euphemianus will not hear the news,
or will not note it if he ever hears.
So I shall lie in the grave and they not care,
but wait for lost Alexius to come home,
and mourn for him, half hating him for their grief.
Give me fruit, give me fruit, oh Christ give my earned fruit,
for all my sufferings: I have mine for me,
but I claim theirs, give fruit for them I smote.
Have I written wildly? I will cancel nought.
for I have written looking death in face,
thinking God bade me write: and words come so
must stand untouched. But surely this much grace
my Lord hath given me, that they shall know.
Behold, I make this paper, being forced
as by the Spirit, and it comes on me
that God doth choose his highest in the world
to be the beggar's messenger: he first,
and I the last, so thereto he is called;
servant of servants. This, which I have witten,
do I entrust to him, my testament:
some shall learn patience from it and to do
what God bids and not doubt; for all is good,
all happy, if it be to do His will,
the suffering ye may guess, but not the bliss
till ye have tasted it.
And I desire
that, having scanned the scroll, he shall, or then
or later, as seems to his wisdom wise,
deliver all its words to them and her,
my father and my mother and my wife,
(lo, this once in my life I call her so).
I pray Thee, Lord, give the poor words the power
to comfort them and strengthen; and, I pray,
give the words power to strengthen and stir souls
which hear Thee call and pause to count with Thee.
And now, oh Lord, let earth be dim to me,
and Heaven come near mine eyes: the time is short,
and I am fain for thee. Lord Jesus come.
Now, when Pope Innocent had read the scroll,
he bade one with him enter in the house
and call the lord Euphemianus thither,
and Claudia, and Aglaia. So they came,
Aglaia feebly leaning on the two,
and questioning them who knew not; so they came;
and the Pope pointed them to the dead man,
"Behold, for this is one whom you should know."
Euphemianus gazed and was perplexed:
and the poor purblind mother gazed and peered,
"Old Lazarus? no, yes, old Lazarus;
asleep or dead? Why is it? is he dead?"
but Claudia answered softly "Yes I know;
I knew it;" and then, suddenly, borne down
by one strong gust of passion, flung herself
beside the corpse, her head upon its breast,
her arms clasped straining round it, weeping out.
And Innocent answered the father's eyes,
"This was Alexius, thy long lost son."
But yet the father, stricken dumb, looked doubt:
Aglaia cried "My boy, where is he then?"
and fretfully "This is old Lazarus:
where is my boy? show me Alexius."
Then Innocent bade peace, and read the scroll:
Euphemianus, with his face hid down
between his hands, listened and never stirred;
and Claudia listened, weeping silently;
but Aglaia whispered always "Is it true?
is the tale of Lazarus or of my boy?
I cannot understand." And, when 'twas read,
Euphemianus gazed upon his son,
"Yet did he well?" he said "he was our son,
he was her husband: how could it be well?
for look upon his mother, what she is."
But Claudia rose up tearless, and replied
"Alexius did all well: he knew God called:"
and Innocent, not tearless, raised his hand
and spoke "She answers wisely: he obeyed;
he knew, being a very saint of God:
let us bless God for him." And they all knelt.
But still Aglaia could not understand.
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