The Thief and the Child
A thief, on plunder bent, was cursing Fate
For having fickle proved, and poor, of late.
“But, by my soul,” he cried, “I swear to win
A goodly guerdon ere the morning’s in!”
Across the deeps the rattling thunder leapt,
While from its bosom forkèd furies crept;
And on the roaring gale rode Pain and Grief
And thousand fiends! What cared the callous thief?
His face was like a book, for deep therein
Were graven all the characters of sin;
With lust and filth his body long had filled;
His manliness had wanton riot spilled.
And, railing at the dirty wrack that sped
Across the sky, these words in scorn he said:
“This howling tempest (cursèd truth I tell!)
Is like my heart — as black and foul as hell!”
How grateful is the calm that struggle dims —
That turns the roaring gales to vesper hymns!
Past was the storm; and peace, with brooding wing,
Had settled on the earth and every thing.
And, in a room where, trembling at the gale
That lately sped, she’d lingered faint and pale,
Now thanking God and praising all His care,
A child was kneeling pensively in prayer.
Her arms upon her breast were crossed; her eyes
Were opened, that her soul did seem to rise
Through its ethereal portals, turned to heaven —
Old Time had giv’n her golden years but seven.
She seemed a vision from those realms above —
A spirit pure of holiness and love,
A saint indeed! The moon, that rode along
In midnight majesty, looked in and hung
Its purest beams about the radiant form,
And stilled with kisses fears of that foul storm.
Its flood of silver through the casement rolled,
And filled with glory all the waving gold
That like the nimbus of a saint was spread,
In massy ringlets, round her lovely head;
And sleeping, so it seemed, within her eyes
Was all the splendour of the southern skies.
Could Guilt, before such purity arraigned
(If any such this temple then profaned),
Stand there, beholding with an even mind
What beauty is with purity combined?
And know, that callous thief was hiding there,
Within a closet dark — I well may spare
The purpose and the happenings that made
Him linger in that press, with plans delayed.
Suffice that through a niche he had espied
The sweet transfiguration — how he sighed!
Folly indeed doth speed along on wings,
Till soon her partner to such hell she brings
That heav’n, too bright, doth blind his darkened eyes
With doleful pain. Ah, Folly doth comprise
No lasting satisfaction! Cruel she!
And while this wretch did curse her company,
Through which so black his life had now become,
Lo! he was smitten with amazement dumb!
For spirits seemed to kneel about the bed,
And God such glory in that room did shed
That all the hosts of heaven seemed to bring
Their brightness, to this child an offering.
“O God!” he groaned, “this anguish in my soul!
Purge all my filth, and make my being whole!”
And beads of anguished sweat stood on his brow;
And passion tore him through as with a plough.
So, waiting till the place in slumber slept,
From out that closet and the house he crept,
His vow performed, the goodly guerdon won —
What God within his heart had even done.
And this he said — no trembling wretch defiled —
“God’s fairest kingdom is a little child!”
William Blocksidge, Songs o’ the South, London: Watts, 1908, pp. 57-59
doth = (archaic) does
ere = (archaic) before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)
espied = saw, spied, spotted, caught sight of (past tense of: espy)
ethereal = insubstantial, light, tenuous, or lacking material substance; heavenly, otherworldly, spiritual; or something very delicate or refined
giv’n = (vernacular) a contraction of “given”
graven = engraven, carved, sculptured
guerdon = reward or recompense; or to give a reward or recompense to someone
heav’n = (vernacular) a contraction of “heaven”
nimbus = a halo, a circle of light (in art, a nimbus can also refer to a round disc of light, such as may be placed behind the head of a saint); a luminous atmosphere, aura, cloud, or vapor surrounding a deity or godly presence on earth; a rain cloud, especially a large grey rain cloud
press = a linen press, a closet, a cupboard; can also refer to: a printing press, a printing machine; print-based media (such as newspapers and magazines produced on a printing press); a crowd (a press of bodies, bodies pressed together)
vesper hymns = vespers: prayers which are said or sung in the evening; evening worship (“vesper” is an archaic term for evening or eventide)
wrack = a group of wind-blown clouds (a cloud rack, or cloud-wrack)