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The Felling Of The Tree






A swift mountain-flood rolling down its channel; a huge rock
tumbling from the hill-side and falling in mid-stream; the baffled
waters broken and confused, pausing in their flow, dash high
against the rock, foaming and murmuring, with divided impulse,
uncertain whether to turn to the right or the left.

Even so Winfried's bold deed fell into the midst of the thoughts
and passions of the council. They were at a standstill. Anger and
wonder, reverence and joy and confusion surged through the crowd.
They knew not which way to move: to resent the intrusion of the
stranger as an insult to their gods, or to welcome him as the
rescuer of their darling prince.

The old priest crouched by the altar, silent. Conflicting counsels
troubled the air. Let the sacrifice go forward; the gods must be
appeased. Nay, the boy must not die; bring the chieftain's best
horse and slay it in his stead; it will be enough; the holy tree
loves the blood of horses. Not so, there is a better counsel yet;
seize the stranger whom the gods have led hither as a victim and
make his life pay the forfeit of his daring.

The withered leaves on the oak rustled and whispered overhead. The
fire flared and sank again. The angry voices clashed against each
other and fell like opposing waves. Then the chieftain Gundhar
struck the earth with his spear and gave his decision.

"All have spoken, but none are agreed. There is no voice of the
council. Keep silence now, and let the stranger speak. His words
shall give us judgment, whether he is to live or to die."

Winfried lifted himself high upon the altar, drew a roll of
parchment from his bosom, and began to read.

"A letter from the great Bishop of Rome, who sits on a golden
throne, to the people of the forest, Hessians and Thuringians,
Franks and Saxons. In nomine Domini, sanctae et individuae
trinitatis, amen!"

A murmur of awe ran through the crowd. "It is the sacred tongue of
the Romans: the tongue that is heard and understood by the wise
men of every land. There is magic in it. Listen!"

Winfried went on to read the letter, translating it into the
speech of the people.

"'We have sent unto you our Brother Boniface, and appointed him
your bishop, that he may teach you the only true faith, and
baptize you, and lead you back from the ways of error to the path
of salvation. Hearken to him in all things like a father. Bow your
hearts to his teaching. He comes not for earthly gain, but for the
gain of your souls. Depart from evil works. Worship not the false
gods, for they are devils. Offer no more bloody sacrifices, nor
eat the flesh of horses, but do as our Brother Boniface commands
you. Build a house for him that he may dwell among you, and a
church where you may offer your prayers to the only living God,
the Almighty King of Heaven.'"

It was a splendid message: proud, strong, peaceful, loving. The
dignity of the words imposed mightily upon the hearts of the
people. They were quieted as men who have listened to a lofty
strain of music.

"Tell us, then," said Gundhar, "what is the word that thou
bringest to us from the Almighty. What is thy counsel for the
tribes of the woodland on this night of sacrifice?"

"This is the word, and this is the counsel," answered Winfried.
"Not a drop of blood shall fall to-night, save that which pity has
drawn from the breast of your princess, in love for her child. Not
a life shall be blotted out in the darkness tonight; but the great
shadow of the tree which hides you from the light of heaven shall
be swept away. For this is the birth-night of the white Christ,
son of the All-Father, and Saviour of mankind. Fairer is He than
Baldur the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wise, kinder than
Freya the Good. Since He has come to earth the bloody sacrifices
must cease. The dark Thor, on whom you vainly call, is dead. Deep
in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. His power in the
world is broken. Will you serve a helpless god? See, my brothers,
you call this tree his oak. Does he dwell here? Does he protect
it?"

A troubled voice of assent rose from the throng. The people
stirred uneasily. Women covered their eyes. Hunrad lifted his head
and muttered hoarsely, "Thor! take vengeance! Thor!"

Winfried beckoned to Gregor. "Bring the axes, thine and one for
me. Now, young woodsman, show thy craft! The king-tree of the
forest must fall, and swiftly, or all is lost!"

The two men took their places facing each other, one on each side
of the oak. Their cloaks were flung aside, their heads bare.
Carefully they felt the ground with their feet, seeking a firm
grip of the earth. Firmly they grasped the axe-helves and swung
the shining blades.

"Tree-god!" cried Winfried, "art thou angry? Thus we smite thee!"

"Tree-god!" answered Gregor, "art thou mighty? Thus we fight
thee!"

Clang! clang! the alternate strokes beat time upon the hard,
ringing wood. The axe-heads glittered in their rhythmic flight,
like fierce eagles circling about their quarry.

The broad flakes of wood flew from the deepening gashes in the
sides of the oak. The huge trunk quivered. There was a shuddering
in the branches. Then the great wonder of Winfried's life came to
pass.

Out of the stillness of the winter night, a mighty rushing noise
sounded overhead.

Was it the ancient gods on their white battle-steeds, with their
black hounds of wrath and their arrows of lightning, sweeping
through the air to destroy their foes?

A strong, whirling wind passed over the tree-tops. It gripped the
oak by its branches and tore it from its roots. Backward it fell,
like a ruined tower, groaning and crashing as it split asunder in
four great pieces.

Winfried let his axe drop, and bowed his head for a moment in the
presence of almighty power.

Then he turned to the people, "Here is the timber," he cried,
"already felled and split for your new building. On this spot
shall rise a chapel to the true God and his servant St. Peter.

"And here," said he, as his eyes fell on a young fir-tree,
standing straight and green, with its top pointing towards the
stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak, "here is the
living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the
sign of your new worship. See how it points to the sky. Let us
call it the tree of the Christ-child. Take it up and carry it to
the chieftain's hall. You shall go no more into the shadows of the
forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame. You shall
keep them at home, with laughter and song and rites of love. The
thunder-oak has fallen, and I think the day is coming when there
shall not be a home in all Germany where the children are not
gathered around the green fir-tree to rejoice in the birth-night
of Christ."

So they took the little fir from its place, and carried it in
joyous procession to the edge of the glade, and laid it on the
sledge. The horses tossed their heads and drew their load bravely,
as if the new burden had made it lighter.

When they came to the house of Gundhar, he bade them throw open
the doors of the hall and set the tree in the midst of it. They
kindled lights among the branches until it seemed to be tangled
full of fire-flies. The children encircled it, wondering, and the
sweet odour of the balsam filled the house.

Then Winfried stood beside the chair of Gundhar, on the dais at
the end of the hall, and told the story of Bethlehem; of the babe
in the manger, of the shepherds on the hills, of the host of
angels and their midnight song. All the people listened, charmed
into stillness. But the boy Bernhard, on Irma's knee, folded by
her soft arm, grew restless as the story lengthened, and began to
prattle softly at his mother's ear.

"Mother," whispered the child, "why did you cry out so loud, when
the priest was going to send me to Valhalla?"

"Oh, hush, my child," answered the mother, and pressed him closer
to her side.

"Mother," whispered the boy again, laying his finger on the stains
upon her breast, "see, your dress is red! What are these stains?
Did some one hurt you?"

The mother closed his mouth with a kiss. "Dear, be still, and
listen!"

The boy obeyed. His eyes were heavy with sleep. But he heard the
last words of Winfried as he spoke of the angelic messengers,
flying over the hills of Judea and singing as they flew. The child
wondered and dreamed and listened. Suddenly his face grew bright.
He put his lips close to Irma's cheek again.

"Oh, mother!" he whispered very low, "do not speak. Do you hear
them? Those angels have come back again. They are singing now
behind the tree."

And some say that it was true; but others say that it was only
Gregor and his companions at the lower end of the hall, chanting
their Christmas hymn:

All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace!
Good-will, henceforth, from heaven to men
Begin, and never cease.






Previous: The Shadow Of The Thunder-oak



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