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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

Nauhaught, the Deacon

NAUHAUGHT, the Indian deacon, who of old

Dwelt, poor but blameless, where his narrowing Cape

Stretches its shrunk arm out to all the winds

And the relentless smiting of the waves,

Awoke one morning from a pleasant dream

Of a good angel dropping in his hand

A fair, broad gold-piece, in the name of God.

He rose and went forth with the early day

Far inland, where the voices of the waves

Mellowed and mingled with the whispering leaves,

As, through the tangle of the low, thick woods,

He searched his traps. Therein nor beast nor bird

He found; though meanwhile in the reedy pools

The otter plashed, and underneath the pines

The partridge drummed: and as his thoughts went back

To the sick wife and little child at home,

What marvel that the poor man felt his faith

Too weak to bear its burden,—like a rope

That, strand by strand uncoiling, breaks above

The hand that grasps it. “Even now, O Lord!

Send me,” he prayed, “the angel of my dream!

Nauhaught is very poor; he cannot wait.”

Even as he spake he heard at his bare feet

A low, metallic clink, and, looking down,

He saw a dainty purse with disks of gold

Crowding its silken net. Awhile he held

The treasure up before his eyes, alone

With his great need, feeling the wondrous coins

Slide through his eager fingers, one by one.

So then the dream was true. The angel brought

One broad piece only; should he take all these?

Who would be wiser, in the blind, dumb woods?

The loser, doubtless rich, would scarcely miss

This dropped crumb from a table always full.

Still, while he mused, he seemed to hear the cry

Of a starved child; the sick face of his wife

Tempted him. Heart and flesh in fierce revolt

Urged the wild license of his savage youth

Against his later scruples. Bitter toil,

Prayer, fasting, dread of blame, and pitiless eyes

To watch his halting,—had he lost for these

The freedom of the woods;—the hunting-grounds

Of happy spirits for a walled-in heaven

Of everlasting psalms? One healed the sick

Very far off thousands of moons ago:

Had he not prayed him night and day to come

And cure his bed-bound wife? Was there a hell?

Were all his fathers’ people writhing there—

Like the poor shell-fish set to boil alive—

Forever, dying never? If he kept

This gold, so needed, would the dreadful God

Torment him like a Mohawk’s captive stuck

With slow-consuming splinters? Would the saints

And the white angels dance and laugh to see him

Burn like a pitch-pine torch? His Christian garb

Seemed falling from him; with the fear and shame

Of Adam naked at the cool of day,

He gazed around. A black snake lay in coil

On the hot sand, a crow with sidelong eye

Watched from a dead bough. All his Indian lore

Of evil blending with a convert’s faith

In the supernal terrors of the Book,

He saw the Tempter in the coiling snake

And ominous, black-winged bird; and all the while

The low rebuking of the distant waves

Stole in upon him like the voice of God

Among the trees of Eden. Girding up

His soul’s loins with a resolute hand, he thrust

The base thought from him: “Nauhaught, be a man!

Starve if need be; but, while you live, look out

From honest eyes on all men, unashamed.

God help me! I am deacon of the church,

A baptized, praying Indian! Should I do

This secret meanness, even the barken knots

Of the old trees would turn to eyes to see it,

The birds would tell of it, and all the leaves

Whisper above me: ‘Nauhaught is a thief!’

The sun would know it, and the stars that hide

Behind his light would watch me, and at night

Follow me with their sharp, accusing eyes.

Yea, thou, God, seest me!” Then Nauhaught drew

Closer his belt of leather, dulling thus

The pain of hunger, and walked bravely back

To the brown fishing-hamlet by the sea;

And, pausing at the inn-door, cheerily asked:

“Who hath lost aught to-day?”
“I,” said a voice;

“Ten golden pieces, in a silken purse,

My daughter’s handiwork.” He looked, and lo!

One stood before him in a coat of frieze,

And the glazed hat of a seafaring man,

Shrewd-faced, broad-shouldered, with no trace of wings.

Marvelling, he dropped within the stranger’s hand

The silken web, and turned to go his way.

But the man said: “A tithe at least is yours;

Take it in God’s name as an honest man.”

And as the deacon’s dusky fingers closed

Over the golden gift, “Yea, in God’s name

I take it, with a poor man’s thanks,” he said.

So down the street that, like a river of sand,

Ran, white in sunshine, to the summer sea,

He sought his home, singing and praising God;

And when his neighbors in their careless way

Spoke of the owner of the silken purse—

A Wellfleet skipper, known in every port

That the Cape opens in its sandy wall—

He answered, with a wise smile, to himself:

“I saw the angel where they see a man.”