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.





The Cratchits' Christmas Dinner The Festival Of St Nicholas facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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