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The Call Of The Woodsman






The day before Christmas, in the year of our Lord 722.

Broad snow-meadows glistening white along the banks of the river
Moselle; pallid hill-sides blooming with mystic roses where the
glow of the setting sun still lingered upon them; an arch of
clearest, faintest azure bending overhead; in the center of the
aerial landscape of the massive walls of the cloister of Pfalzel,
gray to the east, purple to the west; silence over all,--a
gentle, eager, conscious stillness, diffused through the air like
perfume, as if earth and sky were hushing themselves to hear the
voice of the river faintly murmuring down the valley.

In the cloister, too, there was silence at the sunset hour. All
day long there had been a strange and joyful stir among the nuns.
A breeze of curiosity and excitement had swept along the
corridors and through every quiet cell.

The elder sisters,--the provost, the deaconess, the stewardess,
the portress with her huge bunch of keys jingling at her
girdle,--had been hurrying to and fro, busied with household
cares. In the huge kitchen there was a bustle of hospitable
preparation. The little bandy-legged dogs that kept the spits
turning before the fires had been trotting steadily for many an
hour, until their tongues hung out for want of breath. The big
black pots swinging from the cranes had bubbled and gurgled and
shaken and sent out puffs of appetizing steam.

St. Martha was in her element. It was a field-day for her
virtues.

The younger sisters, the pupils of the convent, had forsaken
their Latin books and their embroidery-frames, their manuscripts
and their miniatures, and fluttered through the halls in little
flocks like merry snow-birds, all in black and white, chattering
and whispering together. This was no day for tedious task-work,
no day for grammar or arithmetic, no day for picking out
illuminated letters in red and gold on stiff parchment, or
patiently chasing intricate patterns over thick cloth with the
slow needle. It was a holiday. A famous visitor had come to the
convent.

It was Winfried of England, whose name in the Roman tongue was
Boniface, and whom men called the Apostle of Germany. A great
preacher; a wonderful scholar; he had written a Latin grammar
himself,--think of it,--and he could hardly sleep without a book
under his pillow; but, more than all, a great and daring
traveller, a venturesome pilgrim, a high-priest of romance.

He had left his home and his fair estate in Wessex; he would not
stay in the rich monastery of Nutescelle, even though they had
chosen him as the abbot; he had refused a bishopric at the court
of King Karl. Nothing would content him but to go out into the
wild woods and preach to the heathen.

Up and down through the forests of Hesse and Thuringia, and along
the borders of Saxony, he had wandered for years, with a handful
of companions, sleeping under the trees, crossing mountains and
marshes, now here, now there, never satisfied with ease and
comfort, always in love with hardship and danger.

What a man he was! Fair and slight, but straight as a spear and
strong as an oaken staff. His face was still young; the smooth
skin was bronzed by wing and sun. His gray eyes, clear and kind,
flashed like fire when he spoke of his adventures, and of the evil
deeds of the false priests with whom he had contended.

What tales he had told that day! Not of miracles wrought by sacred
relics; nor of courts and councils and splendid cathedrals; though
he knew much of these things, and had been at Rome and received
the Pope's blessing. But to-day he had spoken of long journeyings
by sea and land; of perils by fire and flood; of wolves and bears
and fierce snowstorms and black nights in the lonely forest; of
dark altars of heaven gods, and weird, bloody sacrifices, and
narrow escapes from wandering savages.

The little novices had gathered around him, and their faces had
grown pale and their eyes bright as they listened with parted
lips, entranced in admiration, twining their arms about one
another's shoulders and holding closely together, half in fear,
half in delight. The older nuns had turned from their tasks and
paused, in passing by, to hear the pilgrim's story. Too well they
knew the truth of what he spoke. Many a one among them had seen
the smoke rising from the ruins of her father's roof. Many a one
had a brother far away in the wild country to whom her heart went
out night and day, wondering if he were still among the living.

But now the excitements of that wonderful day were over; the hours
of the evening meal had come; the inmates of the cloister were
assembled in the refectory.

On the dais sat the stately Abbess Addula, daughter of King
Dagobert, looking a princess indeed, in her violet tunic, with the
hood and cuffs of her long white robe trimmed with fur, and a
snowy veil resting like a crown on her snowy hair. At her right
hand was the honoured guest, and at her left hand her grandson,
the young Prince Gregor, a big, manly boy, just returned from
school.

The long, shadowy hall, with its dark-brown raters and beams; the
double rows of nuns, with their pure veils and fair faces; the
ruddy flow of the slanting sunbeams striking upwards through the
tops of the windows and painting a pink glow high up on the
walls,--it was all as beautiful as a picture, and as silent. For
this was the rule of the cloister, that at the table all should
sit in stillness for a little while, and then one should read
aloud, while the rest listened.

"It is the turn of my grandson to read to-day," said the abbess to
Winfried; "we shall see how much he has learned in the school.
Read, Gregor; the place in the book is marked."

The tall lad rose from his seat and turned the pages of the
manuscript. It was a copy of Jerome's version of the Scriptures in
Latin, and the marked place was in the letter of St. Paul to the
Ephesians,--the passage where he describes the preparation of the
Christian as the arming of a warrior for glorious battle. The
young voice rang out clearly, rolling the sonorous words, without
slip or stumbling, to the end of the chapter.

Winfried listened, smiling. "My son," said he, as the reader
paused, "that was bravely read. Understandest thou what thou
readest?"

"Surely, father," answered the boy; "it was taught me by the
masters at Treves; and we have read this epistle clear through,
from beginning to end, so that I almost know it by heart."

Then he began again to repeat the passage, turning away from the
page as if to show his skill.

But Winfried stopped him with a friendly lifting of the hand.

"No so, my son; that was not my meaning. When we pray, we speak to
God; when we read, it is God who speaks to us. I ask whether thou
hast heard what He has said to thee, in thine own words, in the
common speech. Come, give us again the message of the warrior and
his armour and his battle, in the mother-tongue, so that all can
understand it."

The boy hesitated, blushed, stammered; then he came around to
Winfried's seat, bringing the book. "Take the book, my father," he
cried, "and read it for me. I cannot see the meaning plain, though
I love the sound of the words. Religion I know, and the doctrines
of our faith, and the life of priests and nuns in the cloister,
for which my grandmother designs me, though it likes me little.
And fighting I know, and the life of warriors and heroes, for I
have read of it in Virgil and the ancients, and heard a bit from
the soldiers at Treves; and I would fain taste more of it, for it
likes me much. But how the two lives fit together, or what need
there is of armour for a clerk in holy orders, I can never see.
Tell me the meaning, for if there is a man in all the world that
knows it, I am sure it is none other than thou."

So Winfried took the book and closed it, clasping the boy's hand
with his own.

"Let us first dismiss the others to their vespers," said he, "lest
they should be weary."

A sign from the abbess; a chanted benediction; a murmuring of
sweet voices and a soft rustling of many feet over the rushes on
the floor; the gentle tide of noise flowed out through the doors
and ebbed away down the corridors; the three at the head of the
table were left alone in the darkening room.

Then Winfried began to translate the parable of the soldier into
the realities of life.

At every turn he knew how to flash a new light into the picture
out of his own experience. He spoke of the combat with self, and
of the wrestling with dark spirits in solitude. He spoke of the
demons that men had worshipped for centuries in the wilderness,
and whose malice they invoked against the stranger who ventured
into the gloomy forest. Gods, they called them, and told strange
tales of their dwelling among the impenetrable branches of the
oldest trees and in the caverns of the shaggy hills; of their
riding on the wind-horses and hurling spears of lightning against
their foes. Gods they were not, but foul spirits of the air,
rulers of the darkness. Was there not glory and honour in fighting
with them, in daring their anger under the shield of faith, in
putting them to flight with the sword of truth? What better
adventure could a brave man ask than to go forth against them, and
wrestle with them, and conquer them?

"Look you, my friends," said Winfried, "how sweet and peaceful is
this convent to-night, on the eve of the nativity of the Prince of
Peace! It is a garden full of flowers in the heart of winter; a
nest among the branches of a great tree shaken by the winds; a
still haven on the edge of a tempestuous sea. And this is what
religion means for those who are chosen and called to quietude and
prayer and meditation.

"But out yonder in the wide forest, who knows what storms are
raving to-night in the hearts of men, though all the woods are
still? who knows what haunts of wrath and cruelty and fear are
closed to-night against the advent of the Prince of Peace? And
shall I tell you what religion means to those who are called and
chosen to dare and to fight, and to conquer the world for Christ?
It means to launch out into the deep. It means to go against the
strongholds of the adversary. It means to struggle to win an
entrance for their Master everywhere. What helmet is strong enough
for this strife save the helmet of salvation? What breastplate can
guard a man against these fiery darts but the breastplate of
righteousness? What shoes can stand the wear of these journeys but
the preparation of the gospel of peace?"

"Shoes?" he cried again, and laughed as if a sudden thought had
struck him. He thrust out his foot, covered with a heavy cowhide
boot, laced high about his leg with thongs of skin.

"See here,--how a fighting man of the cross is shod! I have seen
the boots of the Bishop of Tours,--white kid, broidered with silk;
a day in the bogs would tear them to shreds. I have seen the
sandals that the monks use on the highroads,--yes, and worn them;
ten pair of them have I worn out and thrown away in a single
journey. Now I shoe my feet with the toughest hides, hard as iron;
no rock can cut them, no branches can tear them. Yet more than one
pair of these have I outworn, and many more shall I outwear ere my
journeys are ended. And I think, if God is gracious to me, that I
shall die wearing them. Better so than in a soft bed with silken
coverings. The boots of a warrior, a hunter, a woodsman,--these
are my preparation of the gospel of peace."

"Come, Gregor," he said, laying his brown hand on the youth's
shoulder, "come, wear the forester's boots with me. This is the
life to which we are called. Be strong in the Lord, a hunter of
the demons, a subduer of the wilderness, a woodsman of the faith.
Come!"

The boy's eyes sparkled. He turned to his grandmother. She shook
her head vigorously.

"Nay, father," she said, "draw not the lad away from my side with
these wild words. I need him to help me with my labours, to cheer
my old age."

"Do you need him more than the Master does?" asked Winfried; "and
will you take the wood that is fit for a bow to make a distaff?"

"But I fear for the child. Thy life is too hard for him. He will
perish with hunger in the woods."

"Once," said Winfried, smiling, "we were camped by the bank of the
river Ohru. The table was spread for the morning meal, but my
comrades cried that it was empty; the provisions were exhausted;
we must go without breakfast, and perhaps starve before we could
escape from the wilderness. While they complained, a fish-hawk
flew up from the river with flapping wings, and let fall a great
pike in the midst of the camp. There was food enough and to spare.
Never have I seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging
bread."

"But the fierce pagans of the forest," cried the abbess,--"they
may pierce the boy with their arrows, or dash out his brains with
their axes. He is but a child, too young for the dangers of
strife."

"A child in years," replied Winfried, "but a man in spirit. And if
the hero must fall early in the battle, he wears the brighter
crown, not a leaf withered, not a flower fallen."

The aged princess trembled a little. She drew Gregor close to her
side, and laid her hand gently on his brown hair.

"I am not sure that he wants to leave me yet. Besides, there is no
horse in the stable to give him, now, and he cannot go as befits
the grandson of a king."

Gregor looked straight into her eyes.

"Grandmother," said he, "dear grandmother, if thou wilt not give
me a horse to ride with this man of God, I will go with him
afoot."





Next: The Trail Through The Forest




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