Complete Poetical Works

A Legend of Cologne

Bret Harte

                ABOVE the bones
                St. Ursula owns,
And those of the virgins she chaperons;
                Above the boats,
                And the bridge that floats,
And the Rhine and the steamers’ smoky throats;
        Above the chimneys and quaint-tiled roofs,
        Above the clatter of wheels and hoofs;
        Above Newmarket’s open space,
        Above that consecrated place
Where the genuine bones of the Magi seen are,
And the dozen shops of the real Farina;
        Higher than even old Hohestrasse,
        Whose houses threaten the timid passer,—
                Above them all,
                Through scaffolds tall,
And spires like delicate limbs in splinters,
                The great Cologne’s
                Cathedral stones
Climb through the storms of eight hundred winters.

                Unfinished there,
                In high mid-air
        The towers halt like a broken prayer;
                Through years belated,
        The hope of its architect quite frustrated.
                Its very youth
                They say, forsooth,
        With a quite improper purpose mated;
                And every stone
                With a curse of its own
        Instead of that sermon Shakespeare stated,
                Since the day its choir,
                Which all admire,
        By Cologne’s Archbishop was consecrated.

                Ah! That was a day,
                One well might say,
To be marked with the largest, whitest stone
To be found in the towers of all Cologne!
                Along the Rhine,
                From old Rheinstein,
The people flowed like their own good wine.
                From Rudesheim,
                And Geisenheim,
And every spot that is known to rhyme;
From the famed Cat’s Castle of St. Goarshausen,
To the pictured roofs of Assmannshausen,
                And down the track,
                From quaint Schwalbach
        To the clustering tiles of Bacharach;
                From Bingen, hence
                To old Coblentz:
From every castellated crag,
Where the robber chieftains kept their “swag,”
The folk flowed in, and Ober-Cassel
Shone with the pomp of knight and vassal;
        And pouring in from near and far,
        As the Rhine to its bosom draws the Ahr,
        Or takes the arm of the sober Mosel,
        So in Cologne, knight, squire, and losel,
        Choked up the city’s gates with men
        From old St. Stephen to Zint Marjen.

        What had they come to see?    Ah me!
        I fear no glitter of pageantry,
                Nor sacred zeal
                For Church’s weal,
Nor faith in the virgins’ bones to heal;
        Nor childlike trust in frank confession
        Drew these, who, dyed in deep transgression,
                Still in each nest
                On every crest
Kept stolen goods in their possession;
                But only their gout
                For something new,
More rare than the “roast” of a wandering Jew;
                Or—to be exact—
                To see—in fact—
        A Christian soul, in the very act
        Of being damned, secundum artem,
        By the devil, before a soul could part ’em.

                For a rumor had flown
                Throughout Cologne
That the church, in fact, was the devil’s own;
                That its architect
                (Being long “suspect”)
Had confessed to the Bishop that he had wrecked
        Not only his own soul, but had lost
        The very first christian soul that crossed
        The sacred threshold: and all, in fine,
        For that very beautiful design
                Of the wonderful choir
                They were pleased to admire.
        And really, he must be allowed to say—
        To speak in a purely business way—
        That, taking the ruling market prices
        Of souls and churches, in such a crisis
                It would be shown—
                And his Grace must own—
        It was really a bargain for Cologne!

                Such was the tale
                That turned cheeks pale
With the thought that the enemy might prevail,
                And the church doors snap
                With a thunderclap
On a Christian soul in that devil’s trap.
                But a wiser few,
                Who thought that they knew
Cologne’s Archbishop, replied, “Pooh, pooh!
                Just watch him and wait,
                And as sure as fate,
You’ll find that the Bishop will give checkmate.”

                One here might note
                How the popular vote,
As shown in all legends and anecdote,
                Declares that a breach
                Of trust to o’erreach
The devil is something quite proper for each.
                And, really, if you
                Give the devil his due
In spite of the proverb—it’s something you’ll rue.
                But to lie and deceive him,
                To use and to leave him,
From Job up to Faust is the way to receive him,
                Though no one has heard
                It ever averred
That the “Father of Lies” ever yet broke his word,
                But has left this position,
                In every tradition,
To be taken alone by the “truth-loving” Christian!
                Bom! from the tower!
                It is the hour!
The host pours in, in its pomp and power
                Of banners and pyx,
                And high crucifix,
And crosiers and other processional sticks,
                And no end of Marys
                In quaint reliquaries,
To gladden the souls of all true antiquaries;
                And an Osculum Pacis
                (A myth to the masses
Who trusted their bones more to mail and cuirasses)—
                All borne by the throng
                Who are marching along
To the square of the Dom with processional song,
                With the flaring of dips,
                And bending of hips,
And the chanting of hundred perfunctory lips;
                And some good little boys
                Who had come up from Neuss
And the Quirinuskirche to show off their voice:
                All march to the square
                Of the great Dom, and there
File right and left, leaving alone and quite bare
                A covered sedan,
                Containing—so ran
The rumor—the victim to take off the ban.

                They have left it alone,
                They have sprinkled each stone
Of the porch with a sanctified Eau de Cologne,
                Guaranteed in this case
                To disguise every trace
Of a sulphurous presence in that sacred place.
                Two Carmelites stand
                On the right and left hand
Of the covered sedan chair, to wait the command
                Of the prelate to throw
                Up the cover and show
The form of the victim in terror below.
                There’s a pause and a prayer,
                Then the signal, and there—
Is a woman!—by all that is good and is fair!

                A woman! and known
                To them all—one must own
Too well known to the many, to-day to be shown
                As a martyr, or e’en
                As a Christian!    A queen
Of pleasance and revel, of glitter and sheen;
                So bad that the worst
                Of Cologne spake up first,
And declared ’twas an outrage to suffer one curst,
                And already a fief
                Of the Satanic chief,
To martyr herself for the Church’s relief.
                But in vain fell their sneer
                On the mob, who I fear
On the whole felt a strong disposition to cheer.

                A woman! and there
                She stands in the glare
Of the pitiless sun and their pitying stare,—
                A woman still young,
                With garments that clung
To a figure, though wasted with passion and wrung
                With remorse and despair,
                Yet still passing fair,
With jewels and gold in her dark shining hair,
                And cheeks that are faint
                ’Neath her dyes and her paint.
A woman most surely—but hardly a saint!

                She moves.    She has gone
                From their pity and scorn;
                She has mounted alone
                The first step of stone,
And the high swinging doors she wide open has thrown,
                Then pauses and turns,
                As the altar blaze burns
On her cheeks, and with one sudden gesture she spurns
                Archbishop and Prior,
                Knight, ladye, and friar,
And her voice rings out high from the vault of the choir.

                “O men of Cologne!
                What I waS ye have known;
What I am, as I stand here, One knoweth alone.
                If it be but His will
                I shall pass from Him still,
Lost, curst, and degraded, I reckon no ill;
                If still by that sign
                Of His anger divine
One soul shall he saved, He hath blessed more than mine.
                O men of Cologne!
                Stand forth, if ye own
A faith like to this, or more fit to atone,
                And take ye my place,
                And God give you grace
To stand and confront Him, like me, face to face!”

                She paused.    Yet aloof
                They all stand.    No reproof
Breaks the silence that fills the celestial roof.
                One instant—no more—
                She halts at the door,
Then enters! . . . A flood from the roof to the floor
                Fills the church rosy red.
                She is gone!
                                            But instead,
Who is this leaning forward with glorified head
                And hands stretched to save?
                Sure this is no slave
Of the Powers of Darkness, with aspect so brave!

                They press to the door,
                But too late!    All is o’er.
Naught remains but a woman’s form prone on the floor;
                But they still see a trace
                Of that glow in her face
That they saw in the light of the altar’s high blaze
                On the image that stands
                With the babe in its hands
Enshrined in the churches of all Christian lands.

                A Te Deum sung,
                A censer high swung,
With praise, benediction, and incense wide-flung,
                Proclaim that the curse
                Is removed—and no worse
Is the Dom for the trial—in fact, the reverse;
                For instead of their losing
                A soul in abusing
The Evil One’s faith, they gained one of his choosing.

                Thus the legend is told:
                You will find in the old
Vaulted aisles of the Dom, stiff in marble or cold
                In iron and brass,
                In gown and cuirass,
The knights, priests, and bishops who came to that Mass;
                And high o’er the rest,
                With her babe at her breast,
The image of Mary Madonna the blest.
                But you look round in vain,
                On each high pictured pane,
For the woman most worthy to walk in her train.

                Yet, standing to-day
                O’er the dust and the clay,
’Midst the ghosts of a life that has long passed away,
                With the slow-sinking sun
                Looking softly upon
That stained-glass procession, I scarce miss the one
                That it does not reveal,
                For I know and I feel
That these are but shadows—the woman was real!

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