Lambkin: a Fable

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A Lamb, that had gone much astray,
Among the mountains lost his way;
His heart, his fleece, alike were black;
He staggered on the stony track;
Grim cliffs and crags above him towered;
Below the precipices loured;
The eagles watching from the height
Observed: “He will be ours by night”,
And, as he reached the line of snow,
Night gathered in the vale below.
The cold was fierce, the barren pass
Scarce offered him one blade of grass.
Alone, unshepherded, his state
Was little less than desperate,
As down he laid his aching bones
Among the hard, unmothering stones,
And on that bleak and bitter air
Bleated a chance, belated prayer.

What was his joy—he lay in doubt—
His bleat was answered by a shout!
Feebly he rose and answered back:
A cheerful hail rang up the track,
And soon, quite safe from hurts and harms,
He lay in the Good Shepherd’s arms.

Through the long hours of dark, as they
Towards the fold retraced their way,
He wept indeed, but not for shame
To view the wicked way he came,
Nor fear to meet the master’s wrath
Threatened upon his setting forth,
Nor keen repentance at his fall,
But joy to be alive at all.

And yet his tears, as is the case
When the heart turns and cries for grace,
Availed him more than he could know
And washed his black soul white as snow.
At length the weary way was done
Just at the rising of the sun,
And, issuing from a bleak defile,
They saw the dewy pastures smile,
The sheep-cotes and the homely fold,
The crested mountains touched with gold.
And, when he was set down at last,
A sudden tremor through him passed,
For lo, his fleece, once black as night,
Was now a pure and dazzling white!

Who now so glad as Lambkin? Who
Resolved to make his life anew?
The same dull round from day to day
He trod and found it fresh and gay;
No task too hard, no toil too long:
“My pains are given to make me strong.”
Such inward, burning joy to feel
Made him the paragon of zeal;
And then the Shepherd, always near,
Would fondle him and smile to hear
His children pat and pet and praise
The Lamb who learned to mend his ways.
So Lambkin felt as good as gold.
Alas, he found within the fold,
Among his fellow tups and ewes,
Less disposition to enthuse;
For when they greeted him their eyes
Showed neither scandal nor surprise;
They did not seem impressed to learn
His perils or his safe return,
And some were even heard to say:
“Why, Lambkin, have you been away?”
His deadly sins, this new-won grace
That made his such a special case
Alike ignored, he felt his fall
Had scarcely been remarked at all.

No matter! Fire-new virtue asks
Increasing tests and heavier tasks;
The soul unproved can still invent
Worse trials than those by Heaven sent
And finds, of all, the hardest part
To humble the too-eager heart.
So Lambkin found. Though not content,
He bore his modest punishment,
Yet still contrived with Heaven’s decrees
To dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
First at the Shepherd’s call and first
Afield, he always chose the worst
And rankest pasture; at the pool
Drank last his muddy belly-full.
When other lambs were at their pranks,
He cropped beside his parents’ flanks;
Spied the wolf’s ears behind the rock
And was the first to warn the flock;
On dog-days chose the scantiest shade;
Faced drench and tailing unafraid
And for the shearing nursed his wool:
“Lord, help me make it Three Bags Full!”

Alas for virtue and for zeal!
As summer passed, he came to feel,
Compared with him, his fellow sheep
Too much inclined to sloth and sleep.
The Nine and Ninety, faithful crew,
Though they were guiltless, it was true,
Had never strayed, would not rebel,
Were somewhat slack in doing well.
Afold the wethers would complain
Of wind and dust, or mud and rain;
Afield the ewes would criticize
The sheep-dog’s temper, or the flies;
The rams were prone, in good or bad,
To take for granted what they had;
And all complained with ill-concealed
Annoyance, when he led the field:
“Go easy; do you have to trot?
Lambkin, you make the pace too hot!”

“My friends,” he answered them at last,
“The time for diffidence is past.
The crimes for which I now atone,
My shame and guilt, I freely own;
And I, the least among you here,
Would hold my peace, did I not fear
That even while I hesitate
To warn you, it may be too late.
Unworthy as I am and weak,
Hear, then, what conscience bids me speak:

“My tale, as most of you should know,
Begins one day six months ago
When, black without and foul within,
Leprous and ulcerate with sin,
The Shepherd snatched me, ere I fell,
Back from the very brink of Hell.
O for a tongue that could express
That moment of pure happiness!
Once more within the fold I stood,
Renewed by Grace, redeemed by Blood.
At first with tears I viewed the place
And every dear, familiar face;
It seemed, through dim and weeping eyes,
A little short of Paradise.
But soon, forgive if I speak plain,
My tears were dry; I looked again.
This fold, which seemed at first so fair,
Had an ill-kept, neglected air;
The troughs were split, the stalls awry,
Through crazy timbers showed the sky;
Sheep-tods and puddles on the floor
And tailings mixed with shabby straw;
The lambs unruly, and the ewes
Gossips too apt to air their views;
The wethers envious of the tups;
The rams vainglorious in their cups;
The watch-dog slack; the sheep-dog sly;
Bedraggled wool and udders dry—
Such was the picture; and—I blame
My silence—it is still the same.

“You do not see it thus, ’tis true;
You could not be expected to.
Habit is strong and makes us blind.
Indeed, though it may seem unkind
To mention this, there have been times
When I have almost blessed the crimes
Which, deadly as they are, may be
A means of Grace to make us see.

“There have been times when I have stood
Chewing my conscientious cud,
Erect, to save this spotless fleece,
While in the dust you took your ease
Careless of dirt and keds and burrs,
When I have wondered: was it worse
To stay at home or to rebel?
Or was I even—who can tell?—
Upon that dark and fatal day
Led providentially astray?

“We are but sheep, and as we can
Must strive to guess the Shepherd’s plan;
And yet, what other can it be
Than this: to touch your hearts through me?
Look, then, on me and rise and shine
And win a fleece as white as mine!”

The words were scarcely out before
First smiles, then sniggers, then a roar
Of helpless laughter shook the fold.
Again it rose; again it rolled,
While Lambkin, taken by surprise,
Stared back with grieved and puzzled eyes;
And next chagrin, and last dismay
Possessed him, and he ran away.

Away! Still followed by their rude,
Hilarious ingratitude,
He passed the mustering pens, the race,
The shearing shed, and none gave chase.
No voice behind cried: “Lambkin, wait!”
He reached the open pasture gate
And passed the empty fields, and took
A sheep-pad leading to the brook;
And, stooping to the pool, he saw
What all the merriment was for:
The face reflected in the pool
Was his, and his for sure the wool,
Except that all he viewed below
Showed black as pitch from top to toe.

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