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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

How He Saved St. Michael’s

By Mary Anna Phinney Stansbury (b. 1842)

[Born in Vernon, N. Y., 1842. Contributed to The Aldine, N. Y., May, 1873.]

SO you beg for a story, my darling—my brown-eyed Leopold—

And you, Alice, with face like morning, and curling locks of gold;

Then come, if you will, and listen—stand close beside my knee—

To a tale of the Southern city, proud Charleston by the sea.

It was long ago, my children, ere ever the signal gun

That blazed above Fort Sumter had wakened the North as one;

Long ere the wondrous pillar of battle-cloud and fire

Had marked where the unchained millions marched on to their hearts’ desire.

On the roofs and the glittering turrets, that night, as the sun went down,

The mellow glow of the twilight shone like a jewelled crown,

And, bathed in the living glory, as the people lifted their eyes,

They saw the pride of the city, the spire of St. Michael’s, rise

High over the lesser steeples, tipped with a golden ball,

That hung like a radiant planet caught in its earthward fall;

First glimpse of home to the sailor who made the harbor-round,

The last slow-fading vision dear to the outward-bound.

The gently gathering shadows shut out the waning light;

The children prayed at their bedsides, as you will pray to-night;

The noise of buyer and seller from the busy mart was gone,

And in dreams of a peaceful morrow the city slumbered on.

But another light than sunrise aroused the sleeping street,

For a cry was heard at midnight, and the rush of trampling feet;

Men stared in each other’s faces through mingled fire and smoke,

While the frantic bells went clashing clamorous stroke on stroke!

By the glare of her blazing roof-tree the houseless mother fled,

With the babe she pressed to her bosom shrieking in nameless dread,

While the fire-king’s wild battalions scaled wall and cap-stone high,

And planted their flaring banners against an inky sky.

From the death that raged behind them and the crash of ruin loud,

To the great square of the city, were driven the surging crowd,

Where yet firm in all the tumult, unscathed by the fiery flood,

With its heavenward-pointing finger the church of St. Michael’s stood.

But e’en as they gazed upon it there rose a sudden wail,

A cry of horror blended with the roaring of the gale,

On whose scorching wings updriven single flaming brand

Aloft on the towering steeple clung like a bloody hand.

“Will it fade?” The whisper trembled from a thousand whitening lips;

Far out on the lurid harbor they watched it from the ships—

A baleful gleam that brighter and ever brighter shone,

Like a flickering, trembling will-o’-wisp to a steady beacon grown.

“Uncounted gold shall be given to the man whose brave right hand,

For the love of the perilled city, plucks down yon burning brand!”

So cried the Mayor of Charleston, that all the people heard,

But they looked each one at his fellow, and no man spoke a word.

Who is it leans from the belfry, with face upturned to the sky?

Clings to a column and measures the dizzy spire with his eye?

Will he dare it, the hero undaunted, that terrible, sickening height?

Or will the hot blood of his courage freeze in his veins at the sight?

But see! he has stepped on the railing, he climbs with his feet and his hands,

And firm on a narrow projection with the belfry beneath him he stands!

Now once, and once only, they cheer him—a single, tempestuous breath—

And there falls on the multitude gazing a hush like the stillness of death.

Slow, steadily mounting, unheeding aught save the goal of the fire,

Still higher and higher, an atom, he moves on the face of the spire;

He stops! Will he fall? Lo! for answer, a gleam like a meteor’s track,

And, hurled on the stones of the pavement, the red brand lies shattered and black!

Once more the shouts of the people have rent the quivering air,

At the church-door Mayor and Council wait with their feet on the stair,

And the eager throng behind them press for a touch of his hand—

The unknown savior whose daring could compass a deed so grand.

But why does a sudden tremor seize on them while they gaze?

And what means that stifled murmur of wonder and amaze?

He stood in the gate of the temple he had perilled his life to save,

And the face of the hero, my children, was the sable face of a slave!

With folded arms he was speaking, in tones that were clear, not loud,

And his eyes ablaze in their sockets burnt into the eyes of the crowd:

“You may keep your gold,—I scorn it!—but answer me, ye who can,

If the deed I have done before you be not the deed of a man?”

He stepped but a short space backward, and from all the women and men

There were only sobs for answer, and the Mayor called for a pen

And the great seal of the city, that he might read who ran;

And the slave who saved St. Michael’s went out from the door, a man.