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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Africa: Vol. XXIV. 1876–79.

Egypt, Nubia, and Abyssinia: Cairo

The Legend of St. Vitus

By Walter Thornbury (1828–1876)

TO Cairo city, one hot afternoon,

In the midsummer, came an anchorite,

Pale, shrunk as any corpse, thin, lean, and blanched,

From dwelling in the tombs deep from the light:

Tall, gaunt, and wan, across the desert sand

He strode, trampling on avarice; by his side,

Licking his hands, two dappled panthers paced,

With lolling tongues, and dark and tawny hide.

The gilded domes of Cairo blazed and shone,

The minarets arose like long keen spears

Planted around a sleeping Arab’s tent.

The saint’s attendants pricked their spotted ears

When the muezzin, with his droning cry,

Summoned to prayers, and frightened vultures screamed,

Swooping from the gilt roof that glittered in the sky,

Or the tall parapet that o’er it gleamed.

The hermit came to where the traders sat,

Grave turbaned men, weighing out heaps of pearls,

Around a splashing fountain; wafts of myrrh

Rose to the curtained roof in wreathing curls,

And Abyssinian slaves, with sword and bow,

Watched at the doorway, while a dervish danced

In giddy circles, chanting Allah’s name,

With long, lean arms outstretched and eyes entranced.

St. Vitus spurned the gold and pearls away,

And struck the dervish silent with a blow

That loosened half his teeth, (the infidel!)

And tossed the censers fiercely to and fro;

Then sang, defiant of the angry men,

“How long, O Lord, how long?” and raised his eyes

To the high heaven, praying God to send

Some proof to them from out those burning skies.

And when their knives flew out, and eunuchs ran,

With steel and bowstring, swift to choke and bleed,

The saint drew forth from underneath his robe

A Nubian flute, carved from a yellow reed;

Then put it to his lips, and music rose,

So wild and wayward that, on either hand,

Straightway perforce the turbaned men began

To whirl and circle like the wind-tossed sand.

And so the saint passed on, until he reached

A mosque, with many domes and cupolas,

And roof hung thick with lamps and ostrich-eggs,

And round the walls a belt of crescent stars.

Towards the Mecca niche the worshippers

Bent altogether in a turbaned row;

So, seeing this idolatry, the saint

Struck the chief reader twice a sturdy blow.

Then they howled all at once, and many flew,

With sabres drawn, upon the holy man,

To toss him to the dogs. The panthers still

Kept them at bay until the saint began

Upon his flute to breathe his magic tune,

Such as the serpent-charmers use to charm

The sand-asps forth, and straightway priests and flock

Began to circle round; and free from harm

He glided forth on to the caliph’s house,

Where in divan he and the vizier were,

Girt with the council of the rich and wise,

And all the Mullahs who his secrets share.

There he raised up the crucifix on high,

Spat on the Koran, cursed Mohammed’s name,

Took the proud caliph’s turban from his head,

And threw it to his panthers. Fire and flame

Broke forth around him, as when in a mine

The candle comes unguarded; swords flashed out

By twenties, and from inner court to court

Ran the alarm, the clamor, and the shout.

The saint, unmoved, drew forth his magic flute

(It was the greatest miracle of all),

And, lo! the soldiers, counsellors, and slaves

Swept dancing, fever-stricken, round the hall.

Round went the caliph with his shaven head,

Round went the vizier, raging as he danced.

Round went the archers, and the sable crew

Tore round in circles, every one entranced

By that sweet mystic music Heaven sent;

Round, round in ceaseless circles, swifter still,—

Till dropped each sword, till dropped each bow unbent.

And then the saint once more into the street

Glided unhurt, and sought the market-place,

Where dates rolled forth from baskets, and the figs

Were purple ripe, and every swarthy face

Was hot with wrangling; and he cursed Mahound

Loud in the midst, and set up there his cross,

O’er the mosque gate, and wailed aloud a psalm,—

“Let God arise, and all his foes confound.”

But the fierce rabble hissed, and throwing stones,

Shouted, “Slay, slay the wretch!” and “Kill, kill, kill!”

And some seized palm-tree staves and jagged shards;

In every eye there was a murderous will,

Until the saint drew forth again his flute,

And all the people drove to the mad dance,

With nodding heads and never-wearying feet,

And leaden eyes fixed in a magic trance.

And so he left them dancing: one by one

They fell in swoons and fevers, worn and spent.

Then the stern anchorite took his magic flute,

And broke it o’er his knee, and homeward went,

Tossing the useless tube, now split and rent,

Upon the sand; then through the desert gate

Passed, with his panthers ever him beside;

And raised his hands to heaven and shouted forth,

“Amen, amen! God’s name be glorified!”