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A Child's Book of Warriors by  William Canton


 

 

HERVÉ AND CHRISTINA


[Illustration]

[53] IT was in the days of the Saxon conquest, and as the invaders pushed onward into the west, St. Gildas left the holy island of Avalon, and coming to Armorica he founded a monastery on the peninsula which shuts in the rock-sown waters of the Morbihan. Within his view lay the wooded isle in which his beloved Kadoc had made himself a home and had built a granite causeway to the shore, for the children who thronged to his school from the main land. It was among the oaks and pines of Rhuys that his companion Taliesin sang his mystic songs; in the sunny cloister by the blue sea he himself wrote the story of the Overthrow.

"That conquest," he would say, "was a fire which raged across Britain till it slaked its red tongue in the waters of the sunset." Swords gleamed and flames crackled. Fields and farms were wasted. Pitiful it was to see the slain lying in the streets among [54] tumbled columns and broken altars and the tops of high towers. Many hid themselves in the hills and the dark forests, until hunger drove them back, to become the serfs of the conquerors. Multitudes fled to the sea-shore. They crowded into the frail boats covered with bull's hide; their priests led them forth into the deep; they sat under the swelling of the sails and howled in misery: "Thou hast given us, O God, like sheep for meat, and hast scattered us among the heathen."

Among the fugitives in that sorrowful exodus was the young bard Huvarnion. Tall and winsome, master of many tongues, and skilled in all the craft of music and verse, he found a welcome among the famous gleemen who frequented the court of Childebert, King of the Franks. Paris he saw when it was still Lutetia, the strong little island-city of the Seine; and he passed in the king's retinue to more than one of the immense farms which the Franks liked better than any walled town. There they fleeted the time gaily in hunting and fishing and swimming. For the great feast at night the boar and fallow-deer were roasted whole, and in the oak-pillared hall saga and song and the sound of harp and rote alone checked the merriment over the beer-horns and silver wine-cups.

But the heart of Huvarnion was often far away [55] among the hills beyond Severn, and when at length tidings came of a mighty battle in which the heathen had been broken and scattered, the bread of exile became too bitter and he could remain no longer. "You have leave to go," said Childebert, "for every man loves best the dust he played in as a child;" and the king gladdened him with costly gifts, and gave him a letter to the High Chief of Armorica, to speed him overseas.

So Huvarnion reached the coast of Leon, and would indeed have sailed, but that thrice he saw in dreams a maiden more sweet and fair than awake he had ever seen. She stood singing in the glitter of the morning beside a spring on the heath, and her song was of her quest for simples—Joy-wort for the heavy-hearted, and Herb Eye-bright for the blind, and the red Cross-flower which prevents death. After his third dream Huvarnion rose from sleep. The sunny mist was drifting from the heath. Far away he heard her singing, and beside a clear spring he found her. Her name was Rivanon, and like himself she was a minstrel. After a brief wooing there was a joyful wedding.

When their little son was born and they saw that he was blind, they wept over him in his mother's arms, and called him Hervé, which is "bitterness." But love sweetened the bitterness. The child throve [56] and grew strong and bright in a home where music was never silent. He was still very young when he began to touch the harp-strings, and his father made him such an instrument as he could play. Then, as he grew bigger and little tunes came to him, "O mother," he would cry, "isn't this like wild roses on the brambles?" or "Listen, mother; would you say that was moonlight?"

He was scarcely six years old when Huvarnion died; and in the autumn after that year Rivanon fell ill and lost her strength. One day Hervé took her hands and placed them upon his shoulders: "See how big and brave I am. Now you must let me go out and beg for you." She drew him to her and cried quietly, but the lad had his way. His little white dog led him to the villages and farms, where he sang the many songs his mother had taught him. The folk were good to him, but there were cruel days in the white winter when he could hardly sing at all for the chattering of his teeth with cold, and his bare feet left red tracks in the snow; and when he reached home again, he just fell back into the little child, and Rivanon nursed him on her lap and sang and cried him to sleep.

When he was about fourteen or fifteen he spoke to her of the great longing that was in his heart. "Sometimes I think I am like one of those birds which are [57] blinded that they may sing the more constantly. And oh, mother, how happy would it be for me if a hermitage were to be my cage; and would it not make God look glad to hear me singing for Him at all times?"

"That perhaps may be God's will, dear son," said Rivanon; and she sent him to his great-uncle Gourfoed, who was a solitary in the forest of the Red Stones. The old man blessed him, and received him with joy among his disciples; but Rivanon joined a sisterhood of holy women who tended the sick and solaced the aged and sorrowful.

Oh, the blithe school-days in the forest, when one could scarce believe that Hervé was blind! For he seemed to be the very spirit of light, his face shone, and he fared as though he saw things by the brightness of his soul. He came to know the letters by shape and touch, so that he might teach others. His memory was like a wonderful book, in which the Scriptures were written day by day; and all manner of skill and deftness lived in his fingers. Out-of-doors he could tell the names of the trees by their sound in the wind; he was guided by their scent to the places where herbs and wild flowers grew; and never a bird or beast was there but came to him at call. When a wolf killed his little white dog, he put its leash on the savage creature, and bade him listen: "It is your turn now, Wolf, to lead the blind. People have [58] a saying, 'Like the wolf, which is grey before he is good,' but you must be good now and ever after." And the wolf looked up into his sightless eyes, and in them he saw something that tamed him.

One day of days, when Hervé was grown up, his mother came to visit him. Service was just beginning at the little oak chapel in the forest. There was the cross-bearer with his small acolytes in red and white; and there were the solitaries in their grey habits and hair girdles. They were chanting a psalm as they went by in procession, and her heart leaped at the sound of Hervé's voice, so that she cried out in her joy: "God's blessing be with you, my dear hermit son. I do not see you, but I would know your voice in a thousand."

It was no great time afterwards that Gourfoed called Hervé to him and said: "To-morrow we fare into the forest, the brethren and I—it may be even so far as the Red Stones, and there shall we rest until my change has come. But my work here in the school I leave to you and your angel. Oh, Hervé, it is better to teach a little child than to work miracles." And when Hervé wrung his hands and was silent for sorrow, the old man put his arms about his shoulders: "Blessed be you, my son, who have lifted my heart up many a day!"

Have you watched the martins "packing" in the [59] red autumn evenings, and seen them racing and winding and crossing in wild glee; and, when they suddenly dropped into the osiers, listened to their multitudinous twittering and chirming in the long willow-beds? That was Hervé's school at work and at play. And the blind teacher was as happy as the children. He contrived curious singing-games for them, and made many simple rhymes which they could easily remember. This was one, which he called

THE RUDDER OR THE ROCK

Little coble,

When the long brown nets are drifting,

And the green waves gently lifting,

Take your ease and have your will.

But when winds are piping shrill,

Heed the rudder!

If you won't obey the rudder,

Then the rock you shall obey.

Another ran like this, and he called it

A SONG OF THINKING

When you waken, let your heart

Of your senses get the start,

Springing up in song and prayer

Higher than the skylark dare.


"Lord, I give Thee," you shall say,

"Here a little child to-day,

Soul and body, wit and will,

Keep him safe from every ill."

[60]

See the Fire at work; behold

How he laughs in red and gold!

Think how easily you might

Be as helpful and as bright.


Oh, the heavenly morning Air!

God, like that, is everywhere.

If you rest or if you run,

Think He sees you, like the Sun.


Like the glorious Sun that makes

Roses on the bramble-brakes,

Think He made you, girl and boy,

For His love and for His joy.


When you watch the Carrion-crow

O'er the moorland croaking go,

Think how wickedness must be

Black, and more unclean than he.


And when little Doves unseen

Moan among the tree-tops green,

Think your guardian angels are

Still more sweet, and whiter far.


When the stars begin to peep,

Bless His name before you sleep.

Make a place for Him in bed

Who could nowhere lay His head.


Sign yourself from side to side

With the cross on which He died.

So shall angels' wings be drawn

Round your pillow till the dawn.

Far and wide his songs and sayings were carried, like the winged seeds which the wind sows, till his name was loved in places he would never know; and [61] solitaries came and built their cells near his chapel, that they might live under his rule. The little children grew up and others took their places, and so the years turned until it happened that Hervé was awakened by a cry in the night, and knew that it was his mother calling. He arose and ran out-of-doors, and listened. But all was still in the forest, save for the lightest little wakeful leaves, which whisper Hush, hush! all night long. While he stood in doubt what he should do, some one twitched his habit. He gave a start, but immediately laughed to himself, and, reaching down, felt the shaggy head of Wolf. "Did you too hear? Then we go."

The cocks were crowing and the dogs barking, and they felt the shiver of the new day long before they came to Rivanon. She was lying white and still, at the mercy of God; and it was a world, as they say, to see her face colour and her eyes shine as she embraced her son. Near her was a little maid of six years, and Rivanon took the child's hand and laid it in his: "This is Christina, my niece. She has been with me since her mother died. I give her to you and God." Then in a little while she said under her breath, "O my dear son!" and closed her eyes; and they heard a low sigh of heart's-ease as her angel led her forth.

And now the peace of the forest was vexed by the [62] chiefs of Leon. Ever turbulent and still pagan at heart, they came to Hervé that he might show them the secrets of the stars, and work spells to destroy their enemies; and when he denied them, they harassed him, now with fresh gifts and now with the ruffling of their wild men-at-arms. In his trouble as to whither they should go, he went to ask counsel of Gourfoed, and with him he took Christina and Wolf, for they were his eyes.

They found the great red standing-stones in a distant glade, and in the midst of them the broad slab on four rocks, whereon men had been miserably sacrificed; but all around grew weeds and briars; and half-hidden by these were the ruins of huts, and a low mound marked with a cross of stones. So Hervé knew that the old father Gourfoed was dead, and he returned home sorrowful.

Messengers awaited him from the Bishop of Leon, who would fain have made him a priest, but Hervé was abashed and would not. "Yet, if I be not all unworthy," he said, "ordain me an exorcist, that I may have power against the Evil One." And the good bishop gave him his wish, and counselled him to seek a place of peace in the wilds of Cornouaille, far to the westward.

There they found a sheltered spot, beside a spring in a coombe of the moorland. Ground was granted [63] them, and they cleared and fenced it, and tilled and planted; and built themselves cells, making for Christina a shelter thatched with broom under a cluster of willows. This was her beehive, and Wolf was her guardian and playfellow.

Upon a night when the buckwheat was sprouting, Hervé's sleep was broken with strange dreams. He heard the noise of axe and saw, fall of trees and lopping of boughs, and the sound of mallet and chisel dressing stone. Out of a mist loomed bullock-teams, with timber and grey-green blocks of stone upon the tugs. Men whom he could not see were stacking wood and piling stone in the coombe. Suddenly he was aware of two angels, shining in a great light, and at their feet lay a white scroll. It was unrolled upon the ground, and pebbles lay upon it to keep it open. One angel said to the other, "Shall not Hervé take the chain and help us?" The other answered, "Better that Hervé should first take the scroll and scan it." Then Hervé took up the scroll, and knew it for the builder's plan of a fair minster. One moment he studied the lines and figures; the next he was watching the angels as they marked and measured the ground with the silver chain. All the while the air was humming softly with numberless small voices, as though bees were singing: "Except the Lord—except the Lord shall build the house, [64] they labour in vain—in vain—in vain; except the Lord shall build the house, they labour in vain that build it."

Then out into the unknown land, to manor and farm, to village and town, fared Hervé in quest of all that was needed for the church of his vision. Never before, in the busy streets or on the misty moors, had folk stopped to gaze after such strange wanderers as the blind hermit, bare-headed and bare-footed, with the wolf by his side, and the child flitting like a gleesome elf of the apple-trees. Sometimes they met with but cold comfort, but for the most part their very strangeness won them all they asked for.

When the minster was built it was a world of wonder how anything so beautiful could have been wrought by a blind man; and long afterwards, when aged people told how Hervé used to sing and play to the workmen as they laboured, it became a legend that long ago, on a summer night, the minster had sprung up to the music of an angel.

Who so happy as Christina when Hervé gave her charge of the church, to keep it clean, and to have fair white linen and flowers on the altar? Sometimes when she was singing at her task, he would open the door softly, and stand to listen; but she would hear him, and call, "Uncle, I see you;" and he would quickly steal away, strangely light-hearted.


[Illustration]

AND TO HAVE FAIR WHITE LINEN AND FLOWERS ON THE ALTER.

[67] One stern and thrilling scene entered into Hervé's gentle life before the end. The savage chief Canao had slain his brother Hoel; and setting aside Hoel's little son Judual, had made himself High Prince instead. Treacherous and cruel, he oppressed the people, ravaging their fields and burning their homesteads. Their holy men alone could help them. But when the Bishops of the Nine Churches had warned Canao in vain, they sat in council and found there was but one way to check the tyrant.

They assembled on the solitary hill, Menez-Bré, from which one looks over leagues of country, and along the crinkled shores and the grey sea of Cornouaille. Upon that hill-top was a dolmen of ancient days, and beside it the bishops kindled a torch, and giving it to Hervé, whom they had summoned to them, they bade him utter against Canao the great curse which casts a man forth from all Christian heritage. And Hervé mounted the old stones, and cried the curse abroad, weeping; but instead of extinguishing the torch, as one who dooms a soul to the outer darkness, Hervé laid it upon the rock.

Now, far away, while these things were done upon the hill Menez-Bré, the little Prince Judual fled for safety to the monastery of Leonor. But the holy man, Leonor, knowing how little he was like to be [68] in safety there, sent him down at once to the shore with one of the brethren, and watched anxiously for a sign of their sailing.

Black with rage came Canao, riding from the forest. "Bring me the child," he cried, dismounting. "He is not here," replied Leonor. "Where then?" Leonor pointed to the sea: "Mark yon dark sail upon the waters. He is beneath it, on his way to the King of the Franks."

Canao struck the holy man in the face, and screaming, "Not yet too late!" leaped into the saddle and dashed the spurs into his stallion's flanks. The fierce horse reared with a sharp cry and bounded forward. Hand could not hold him; rein could not turn him. Stones and turf flew from his hoofs as he raced with the bit between his teeth and thundered over the brink of the sea-cliffs.

Far away, upon the hill Menez-Bré, Hervé, instead of extinguishing the torch, laid it upon the rock: "O fathers, let it burn so long as it may, in token of God's mercy!"

The little maid was in her fourteenth year, and it was late in the autumn. The birch-trees glowed in tarnished silver and orange, and berries hung red as blood on the briars. The swallows had flown, and the starlings; and in the bright blustering weather [69] thousands of crumpled leaves flocked and whirled, as if they too would fly.

Christina was singing softly at her work in the church, and Hervé opened the door; but instead of listening, he called her to him: "Christina, little sister, make my bed. Spread it here on the ground before the altar, that I may be at my Saviour's feet. Place a stone for my pillow, and let the bed be ashes, that the Dark Angel may find me lying there."

Christina gazed at him with a frightened face: "Oh, uncle, you are not well. Let me take you away."

"Nay, dear child; but do what I ask, and quickly."

Christina ran, weeping bitterly, and told the brethren; and they, gathering round Hervé, saw that his change was nigh. When the ashes were strewn before the altar, he lay down upon them and said, "Pray for me. My strength is gone; my heart fails; this is the end."

And weeping beside him, Christina prayed: "Oh, uncle, do not leave me. Beg of God to let me follow you quickly, as a little boat follows the stream."

"Beg only, little sister," Hervé answered, "that God's will may be done."

Then Christina went and lay at his feet, clasping them, for they were cold as stone. "How far have [70] I led you, holy feet," she moaned to herself; "and whither will you now go without me?"

For a little time Hervé's lips moved silently. As the Dark Angel stilled them with his touch, the child's heart broke; and turning away from Hervé, the Dark Angel laid his hand tenderly upon her bright hair.


[Illustration]


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