Tent On The Beach: The Brother Of Mercy by John Greenleaf Whittier
Piero Luca, known of all the town
As the gray porter by the Pitti wall
Where the noon shadows of the gardens fall,
Sick and in dolor, waited to lay down
His last sad burden, and beside his mat
The barefoot monk of La Certosa sat.
Unseen, in square and blossoming garden drifted,
Soft sunset lights through green Val d’Arno sifted;
Unheard, below the living shuttles shifted
Backward and forth, and wove, in love or strife,
In mirth or pain, the mottled web of life
But when at last came upward from the street
Tinkle of bell and tread of measured feet,
The sick man started, strove to rise in vain,
Sinking back heavily with a moan of pain.
And the monk said, “‘T is but the Brotherhood
Of Mercy going on some errand good
Their black masks by the palace-wall I see.”
Piero answered faintly, “Woe is me!
This day for the first time in forty years
In vain the bell hath sounded in my ears,
Calling me with my brethren of the mask,
Beggar and prince alike, to some new task
Of love or pity,–haply from the street
To bear a wretch plague-stricken, or, with feet
Hushed to the quickened ear and feverish brain,
To tread the crowded lazaretto’s floors,
Down the long twilight of the corridors,
Midst tossing arms and faces full of pain.
I loved the work: it was its own reward.
I never counted on it to offset
My sins, which are many, or make less my debt
To the free grace and mercy of our Lord;
But somehow, father, it has come to be
In these long years so much a part of me,
I should not know myself, if lacking it,
But with the work the worker too would die,
And in my place some other self would sit
Joyful or sad,–what matters, if not I?
And now all’s over. Woe is me!”–“My son,”
The monk said soothingly, “thy work is done;
And no more as a servant, but the guest
Of God thou enterest thy eternal rest.
No toil, no tears, no sorrow for the lost,
Shall mar thy perfect bliss. Thou shalt sit down
Clad in white robes, and wear a golden crown
Forever and forever.”–Piero tossed
On his sick-pillow: “Miserable me!
I am too poor for such grand company;
The crown would be too heavy for this gray
Old head; and God forgive me if I say
It would be hard to sit there night and day,
Like an image in the Tribune, doing naught
With these hard hands, that all my life have wrought,
Not for bread only, but for pity’s sake.
I’m dull at prayers: I could not keep awake,
Counting my beads. Mine’s but a crazy head,
Scarce worth the saving, if all else be dead.
And if one goes to heaven without a heart,
God knows he leaves behind his better part.
I love my fellow-men: the worst I know
I would do good to. Will death change me so
That I shall sit among the lazy saints,
Turning a deaf ear to the sore complaints
Of souls that suffer? Why, I never yet
Left a poor dog in the strada hard beset,
Or ass o’erladen! Must I rate man less
Than dog or ass, in holy selfishness?
Methinks (Lord, pardon, if the thought be sin!)
The world of pain were better, if therein
One’s heart might still be human, and desires
Of natural pity drop upon its fires
Some cooling tears.”
Thereat the pale monk crossed
His brow, and, muttering, “Madman! thou art lost!”
Took up his pyx and fled; and, left alone,
The sick man closed his eyes with a great groan
That sank into a prayer, “Thy will be done!”
Then was he made aware, by soul or ear,
Of somewhat pure and holy bending o’er him,
And of a voice like that of her who bore him,
Tender and most compassionate: “Never fear!
For heaven is love, as God himself is love;
Thy work below shall be thy work above.”
And when he looked, lo! in the stern monk’s place
He saw the shining of an angel’s face!
. . . . .
The Traveller broke the pause. “I’ve seen
The Brothers down the long street steal,
Black, silent, masked, the crowd between,
And felt to doff my hat and kneel
With heart, if not with knee, in prayer,
For blessings on their pious care.”
Reader wiped his glasses: “Friends of mine,
I’ll try our home-brewed next, instead of foreign wine.”