The Journey of Rheinfrid
I n the green skirts of the Forest of Arden there was a spot which the windings of the Avon stream had almost made into an island, and here in the olden time the half-savage herdsmen of King Ethelred kept vast droves of the royal swine. The sunny loops of the river cut clearings on the east and south and west, but on the north the Forest lay dense and dark and perilous. For in those ancient days wolves still prowled about the wattled folds of the little settlement of Wolverhampton, and Birmingham was only the rude homestead of the Beormingas, a cluster of beehive huts fenced round with a stockade in the depths of the woods.
Among the swineherds of the King there was one named Eoves, and one day, while wandering through the glades of great oaks on this edge of the Forest, he saw three beautiful women who came towards him singing a song more strange and sweet than he had ever heard. He told his fellows, and the story spread far and wide. Some said that the three beautiful women were three goddesses of the old pagan world, and thought Eoves had acted very foolishly in not speaking to them. Others said they might have been the Three Fates, in whose hands are the lives of men, and the joy of their lives, and the sorrow they must endure, and the death which is the end of their days; and they thought that perhaps Eoves had been wise to keep silence.
But when the holy Bishop Egwin heard the tale, he visited the place alone, and in the first glimmer of the sunrise, when all wild creatures are tame and the earth is most lovely to look upon, he beheld the three beautiful women, and he saw in a moment that they were the Virgin Mother Mary and two heavenly handmaidens. "And our Lady," he used afterwards to say, "was more white-shining than lilies and more freshly sprung than roses, and the savage forest was filled with the fragrance of Paradise."
Straightway the Bishop sent his woodmen and had the aged oaks felled and the underwood cleared away; and on the spot where the beautiful women had stood a fair church was built for the worship of the true God, and around it clustered the cells of an abbey of Black Monks. In a little while people no longer spoke of the place by its old name, but called it Eovesholme, because of the vision of Eoves.
Now when more than three and a half centuries had gone by, and Agelwyn the Great-hearted was Abbot, there was a Saxon noble, young and dissolute, who had been stricken by the Yellow Plague, and, after three days' sickness, had been abandoned by his friends and followers in what seemed to be his last agony. For the Yellow Plague was a sickness so ghastly and dreadful that men called it the Yellow Death, and fled from it as swiftly as they might. But in the dead and dark of the third night a beautiful Child, crowned with roses and bearing in his hand a rose, had come to the dying thane and said: "Now mayest thou see that the best the world can give—call it by what name thou wilt and prize it at its utmost worth—is nothing more than these: wind and smoke and a dream and a flower. But though all have fled from thee and left thee to die alone in grievous plight, this night thou shalt not die."
Then he was bidden to rise on the morrow—"for strength shall be given thee," said the Child—and travel with the sun westward till he came to the Abbey of Egwin, and there he must tell the Abbot all that had befallen him.
"And the good Abbot will receive thee among his sons," said the Child; "and after that, in a little while, thou shalt go on a journey, and then again in a little while shalt come to me."
On the morrow Rheinfrid the thane rose from his bed hale and strong, but his whole nature was changed; and he made no more account of life and of all that makes life sweet—as honour and wealth and joy and use and the love of man and woman—than one makes of wind and smoke and a dream and a flower; and all that he greatly desired was to undertake the journey which had been foretold, and to see once more the Child of the Roses.
Westward he rode with the sun and came at nightfall to the Abbey of Eovesholme; and there he told Agelwyn the Abbot the story of his wild life and his sickness and the service that had been laid upon him.
The Abbot embraced him, saying, "Son, welcome art thou to our house, and thy home shall it be till the time comes for thy journey."
For a whole year Rheinfrid was a novice in the house, and when the year had gone by he took the vows. In the presence of the brotherhood he cast himself on the pavement before the high altar, and the pall of the dead was laid over him, and the monks sang the dirge of the dead, for now he was indeed dying to this world. And from his head they cut the long hair, and clothed him in the habit of a monk, and henceforth he was done with all earthly things and was one of themselves.
"Surely, now," he thought, "the time of my journey draws near." But one year and a second and yet a third passed away, and there came to him no call, and he grew wearied with waiting, and weariness begot sullenness and discontent, and he questioned himself: "Was it not a dream of sickness which deceived me? An illusion of pain and darkness? Why should I waste my life within these walls?" But immediately afterwards he was filled with remorse, and confessed his thoughts to the Abbot.
"Have faith and patience, my son," said Agelwyn. "Consider the many years God waited for thee, and grew not impatient with thy delay. When His good time comes thou shalt of a certainty set out on thy journey."
So for a while Rheinfrid ceased to repine, and served faithfully in the Abbey.
In the years which followed, William the Norman came into these parts and harried whole shires on account of the rebels and broken men who haunted the great roads which ran through the Forest. Cheshire and Shropshire, Stafford and Warwick were wasted with fire and sword. And crowds naked and starving—townsmen and churls, men young and old, maidens and aged crones, women with babes in their arms and little ones at their knees—came straggling into Eovesholme, fleeing most sorrowfully from the misery of want.
In the little town they lay, indoors and out, and it was now that the Abbot got himself the name of the Great-hearted. For he gave his monks orders that all should be fed and cared for; and daily from his own table he sent food for thirty wanderers whom he named his guests, and daily in memory of the love of Christ he washed the feet of twelve others, and never rank from the unhappy lepers among them. But for all his care the people died lamentably from grief and sickness—on no day fewer than five or six between prime and compline; and these poor souls were buried by the brethren. Of the little children that were left to the mothering of the east wind, some were adopted by the canons and priests of the Abbey church, and others by the monks.
In his eagerness to help and solace, the Abbot even sent forth messengers to bring in the fugitives to refuge. Now on a day that Rheinfrid went out on this work of mercy, he met at a crossway a number of peasants fleeing before a dozen Norman men-at-arms. He raised his arm and called to them to make a stand, but they were too much terrified to heed him. Then he saw that one of the soldiers had seized by the hair a fair Saxon woman with a babe at her bosom, and with a great cry he bade him let her go, for his blood was hot within him as he thought of the Saxon woman who had carried him in her arms and suckled him when he was but such a little child. But the Norman only laughed and turned the point of his sword against the monk.
Then awoke the long line of thanes slumbering in wild caves and dark ways of his soul, and with a mighty drive of his fist he struck the man-at-arms between the eyes, so that he fell like a stone. With savage curses the knave's comrades rushed in against the monk, but Rheinfrid caught up the Norman's sword, and with his grip on the hilt of it his old skill in war-craft came back to him, and he carried himself like a thane of the old Sea-wolves, and the joy of battle danced in his eyes.
Ill was it then for those marauders. One of them he clove through the iron cap; the neck of another he severed with a sweep of the bitter blade.
And now that he was fighting he remembered his calling, and with a clear voice he chanted the great psalm of the man who has sinned: "Miserere mei Deus—Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy loving-kindness; according unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions."
The strength of ten was in his body, and verse by verse he laid the Normans low, till of the troop no more than two, were left. These were falling back before him as he pressed onward chanting his Miserere, when a body of horsemen rode up and drew rein to watch the issue.
"By the Splendour of God!" cried the leader, as he glanced at the woman and scanned the number of the dead tumbled across the road, "it is a Man!"
Rheinfrid looked up at the new corner, and saw a gigantic, ruddy-faced man of forty, clad in chain mail and wearing a circlet of gold about his massive head. At once he felt sure that he was face to face with the Master of England. Still he kept his sword's point raised for another attack, and with a quiet frankness met the Conqueror's imperious gaze.
"Ha, monk! hast thou no fear of me?" cried William, frowning.
"Lord King, hast thou no fear of God?" Rheinfrid retorted.
For a moment the King's haughty eyes blazed with wrath, but William ever loved a strong man and dauntless, and he laughed gaily: "Nay, thou hast slain enough for one day; let us cry truce, and tell me of what house thou comest."
So Rheinfrid spoke to the King about Eovesholme, and the Abbot, and the harbouring of the miserable fugitives, and told the tale of his own fighting that day. And the great Norman was well pleased, and afterwards he gave Agelwyn the custody of Winchcombe Abbey when the abbot of that house fell under his displeasure. As for Rheinfrid he took the woman and her babe into the town; and many others he rescued and succoured, but he neither slew nor smote any man thereafter.
Now for eight long years Rheinfrid lived in the quiet of the cloister, striving to be patient and to await God's own time; and his daily prayer was that of the Psalmist: "How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord? For ever? How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?"
In the ninth year, after long sickness, the soul of Agelwyn passed out of the shadow of this flesh unto the clemency of God, and shortly after his death a weariness of well-doing and a loathing of the dull days of prayer beset Rheinfrid; and voices of the joy of life called to him to strip off his cowl and flee from his living tomb.
As he knelt struggling with the temptation the little Child crowned with roses stood beside him, looking at him with sad reproachful eyes. "Couldst thou not be patient a little while?" he asked.
"A little while!" exclaimed Rheinfrid; "see! twelve, thirteen, long years have gone by, and is that a little while?"
But the Child answered gravely: "An evil thing is impatience with the delays of God, to whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."
And Rheinfrid knew not what reply to make, and as he hesitated the Child began to fade away. "Do not go, do not go yet," he cried; "grant me at least one prayer—that I shall see thee again at the time I shall have most need of thee."
And the Child smiled and answered: "Thou shalt see me."
And the vision disappeared, but the fragrance of the roses lingered long in the little cell.
Then was Walter the Norman made Abbot, and forthwith he began to build a vast and beautiful minster, the fame of which should be rumoured through all the land. Speedily he emptied the five great chests filled with silver which Agelwyn had left, and then there set in a dearth of limber and stone and money, but the Abbot bethought him of a device for escaping from his difficulties. He took into his counsel the wise monks Hereman and Rheinfrid, because they had both travelled through many shires, and he entrusted to them the shrine containing the relics of St. Egwin, and bade them go on a pilgrimage from one rich city to another, making known their need, exhorting the people to charity, and gathering gifts of all kinds for the building of the minster. So with lay-brothers to serve them and a horse to carry the holy shrine, the monks began their journey, and, singing joyful canticles, the brotherhood accompanied them with cross and banners and burning tapers, and set them well on their way beyond the river.
Now think of Rheinfrid and Hereman traversing the wild England of those olden times. One day they were wandering in the depths of the woods; on another they were moving along some neglected Roman road, through swamps and quagmires. Now they were passing hastily through the ruins of some Saxon thorpe which had been burned by the Normans, or lodging for the night as guests at some convent or priory, or crossing a dangerous river-ford, or making a brief stay in a busy town to preach and exhibit the shrine of the saint, so that the diseased and suffering might be touched by the miraculous relics. And all along their journey they gathered the offerings which the people brought them.
"This, surely," thought Rheinfrid, "is the journey appointed me; "and his spirit was at last peaceful and contented.
Now in the third week of their pilgrimage they came to a wide moor which they had to cross. A heavy white mist lay on the lonely waste, and they had not gone far among the heath and grey boulders before Rheinfrid, absorbed in prayer, found himself separated from his companions. He called aloud to them by their names, but no one answered him. This way and that he wandered, still crying aloud, and hoping to discover some trace of the faint path which led over the moor. Suddenly he came to the brink of a vast chasm; the depth of which was hidden by the mist. It was a terrible place and he thanked God that he had not come thither in the darkness of the night. As he gazed anxiously on all sides, wondering what he should do next, he perceived through the vapour a tall dark figure. Approaching it, he saw that it was a high stone cross, and he murmured gratefully, "Here I am safe. The foot of Thy cross is an ever-lasting refuge." As he ascended the rough granite steps, he noticed how wonderfully the cross was sculptured, with a vine running up the shaft, and birds and small wild creatures among the vine-leaves, and he was able to read, in the centre, words from a famous old poem which he knew:
trembling, dripping with blood.
As he read them he became aware that some one had come out of the mist and was standing near him. "In the darkness the danger is great," said the stranger; "another step would have carried thee over the brink; and none who have fallen therein have ever returned. But the wind is rising, and this mist will speedily be lifted."
While he was yet speaking a great draught of air drove the mist before it, and shifted and lifted it, and rolled it like carded wool, and in front all was clear, but the light was of an iron-grey transparency, and Rheinfrid saw into the depths of the chasm into which he had well-nigh fallen.
Far down below lay the jagged ridges and ghastly abysses of a gigantic crater, the black walls of which were so steep that it was impossible to climb them. Smoke and steam rose in incessant puffs from the innermost pit of the crater and trailed along the floor and about the rocky spikes and jagged ridges.
Then, as Rheinfrid gazed, his face grew pale, and he turned to the stranger.
"What are these," he asked, "men, or little statues of men, or strangely shaped rocks?"
"They are living men and women," said the stranger.
"They seem as small as images," said Rheinfrid.
"They are very far distant from us," replied the stranger, "although we see them so clearly."
"There seem to be hundreds of them standing in crowds," said Rheinfrid.
"There are thousands and hundreds of thousands," said the stranger.
"And they do not move; they are motionless as stone; they do not even seem to breathe."
"They are waiting," said the stranger.
"Their faces are all turned upward; they are all staring in one way."
"They are watching," said the stranger.
"Why are they watching?" asked Rheinfrid; then looking up into the iron-grey air in the same direction as the faces of the people in the crater; "What huge ball is that hanging in the sky above them?"
"It is a globe of polished stone—the stone adamant, which of all stones is the hardest."
"Why do they gaze at it so steadfastly?"
"Not hard to say," replied the stranger. "Every hundred years a little blue bird passes by, flying between them and the globe, and as it passes it touches the stone with the tip of its wing. On the last day of the hundredth year the people gather and watch with eager eyes all day for the passing of the bird, and while they watch they do not suffer. Now this is the last hour of the last day of the hundredth year, and you see how they gaze."
"But why do they watch to see the bird?"
"Each time the bird passes it touches the stone, and every hundred years it will thus touch it, till the stone be utterly worn away."
"Ten thousand ages, and yet again ten thousand, and it will not have been worn away," said Rheinfrid. "But when it has been worn away, what then?"
"Why, then," said the stranger, "Eternity will be no nearer to its end than it is now. But see! see!"
Rheinfrid looked, and beheld a little blue bird flash across the huge ball of glimmering adamant, brush it with the tip of a single feather, and dart onward.
And down in the crater all the faces were turned away again, and the crowd fell into such confusion as an autumn gale makes among the fallen leaves in a spinney; and out of the innermost pit the smoke and steam rose in clouds, till only the jagged ridges were visible; and a long cry of a myriad voices deadened by the deep distance rose like the terrible ghost of a cry from the abyss.
And this was one of the Seven Cries of the World.
For the Seven Cries of the World are these: the Cry of the Blood of Abel, and the Cry of the Deluge of Waters, and the Cry for the First-born of Egypt, and the Cry of the Cities of the Plain, and the Cry of Rachel in Ramah, and the Cry in the darkness of the ninth hour, and, more grievous than any of these, the Cry of the Doom of the Pit.
"Truly," said Rheinfrid, shivering, "one day is as a thousand years in the sight of the Lord."
"Come with me, and I will guide thee from this place," said the stranger. And he led the way along the brink of the gulf till they came to a bridge, high and narrow and fragile, glittering like glass; but when Rheinfrid touched it he perceived it was built of ice, and beneath it ran a fierce river of fire, and they felt the heat of the river on their faces, and the ice of the bridge was dissolving away.
"How shall I pass this without falling?" asked Rheinfrid.
"Follow in my steps," said the stranger, "and all will be well."
He led the way on the slippery ice-work of the bridge, and in great fear and doubt Rheinfrid followed; but when they reached the crown of the arch the stranger threw aside his cloak and spread six mighty wings, and sprang from the bridge to the peak of a high mountain far beyond the burning river. The bridge cracked and swayed, and pieces broke away from the icy parapet.
With a shriek of terror Rheinfrid sank down, and called upon God to help him. Then as he prayed he felt wings growing on his shoulders, and a terrible eager joy and dread possessed him, for he felt the ice of the bridge melting away, and the water of the melting ice was splashing like rain on the river of fire, and as each drop fell a little puff of white steam arose from the place where it fell. So, unable to wait till the wings had grown full, he rose to his feet, and attempted to follow the Angel. But his wings were too weak to bear him, and he fell clinging to the bridge, which shook beneath him.
Once more he prayed; once more his impatience urged him to rise; and once more he fell. And the melted ice rained hissing into the river of fire, and the quick whiffs of white vapour came up from the surface.
Then he committed himself to God's keeping, and waited in meekness and fortitude, saying, "Whether we live or we die we are in Thy charge," and it seemed to him that, so long as it was God's will, it mattered not at all what happened—whether the bridge crumbled away, dissolving like a rainbow in the clouds, or whether his body were engulfed in the torrent of burning.
Then straightway, as he submitted himself thus, his wings grew large and strong, and he felt the power of them lifting him to his feet, and with what seemed no more than the effort of a wish he sprang from narrow way of ice and stood beside the Angel on the mountain.
"Hadst thou not been twice impatient in the cloister," said the Angel, "thy wings would not have twice failed thee on the bridge. Now, look around and see!"
Who shall tell the loveliness of the land on which Rheinfrid now gazed from the mountain? To breathe the clear shining air was in itself beatitude. He saw angelic figures and heard the singing of angels in the heavenly gardens glittering far below, and he longed to fly down to their blessed companionship. Suddenly over the tree-tops of a golden glade he descried a starry globe which shone like chrysoprase, and round and round it a little blue bird flew joyously. And so swiftly it flew that hardly had it gone before it had returned again.
Rheinfrid turned to the Angel to question him, but the Angel, who was aware of his thoughts, said, "Yes, it is the same globe, only we see it now from the other side. Each circle that the bird makes is a hundred years; for five hundred already have you been here, but you must now return."
Then the Angel touched the monk's head, and Rheinfrid closed his eyes, and in an instant it seemed to him as though he were awaking from a long sleep. Cold and rigid were his limbs, and as he tried to sit up each movement made them ache. He found that he had been lying under an aged oak. He rubbed his hands together for warmth, and a white lichen which had overgrown them peeled off in long threads. A heavy white beard, tangled with grey moss, covered his breast, and the hair of his head, white and matted with green tendrils, had grown about his body.
Slowly and painfully he moved from tree to tree till he reached a broad road, and saw before him a bridge, and beyond the river a fair town clustered on the higher ground. So strange a town he had never beheld before—such a town as one sees in a foreign land, built with quaint roofs and gables and curiously coloured. As he crossed the bridge he met a woman who stared at him in amazement. He raised his head to speak, but he had lost the power of utterance. The woman waited; and at last with a feeble stammering speech he asked her the name of the place. She shook her head and said she did not understand his words, and with a look of pity she went on her way.
Then down to the bridge came an urchin, and Rheinfrid repeated his question.
"This is Eovesholme," said the lad.
"That cannot be," said Rheinfrid, "for it is little more than twice seven days since I left Eovesholme, and this place is noway like the place you name."
"Nay, but it is Eovesholme," replied the lad, "and you are one of the monks who used to be here before the King pulled down the Abbey."
"Pulled down the Abbey! Hath King William pulled down the Abbey?" Rheinfrid asked in bewilderment.
"Nay, it is bluff King Hal who has pulled the Abbey down. Come, and you shall see."
The lad took Rheinfrid by the hand and led him through the streets till they came to the ruins. Only one beautiful sculptured arch was left standing, but Rheinfrid had never seen it before. They passed through and stood among a litter of stones, tumbled drums of pillars and fragments of carved mouldings and capitals. Rheinfrid recognised the spot. The land was the same, and the river, and the far hills, but nearly all the forest had been cleared, and the Abbey had vanished. What had happened to him and to them?
"Hast thou where to pass the night, old father?" the lad asked.
Rheinfrid shook his head sorrowfully.
"Then I will show thee a place," he said
And again he took Rheinfrid by the hand, and let him among the ruins till they came to a flight of stone steps which led down into the crypt of the minster. These they descended, and there was a dim light in the place, and Rheinfrid's heart beat quickly, for he knew the pillars and vaulted roofs and walls of this undercroft.
"Here you may rest peacefully and sleep well," said the urchin; "no one will venture here to disturb your slumber."
"Sorrow be far from thee, little son," said Rheinfrid, looking gratefully at his guide; and lo! while he was speaking he perceived that it was the Child, and that the Child's head was crowned with roses and that he carried a rose in his hand.
Then the aged monk sank on the cold stones of his old minster, faint and happy, for he knew now that he had finished his journey. But the Child touched Rheinfrid's brow with the rose he carried, and the old man fell asleep, and all the crypt was dark.