The Friend of St Gerasimus
St Gerasimus sat with his companions at the gateway of his monastery, in the cool of the day. The pitiless sun had set, and now the weariest, most languid of breezes had arisen. The air was sweet after the heat, and twilight was grateful following upon the glitter of the yellow sands.
I know not what fatherly, brotherly converse the Saint was holding with his children and brothers, but only that this was cut short, and that with a sudden rush the Brothers fled from their places and sought shelter within.
The Saint alone remained on the spot, while, coming straight out of the heart of the dusk, a tawny lion of unusual size approached him. Not with the stealthy, sinuous tread of the feline creature, nor yet with the plunge of the wild beast upon its prey, but with a painful limp he advanced, uttering sounds impossible to mistake for any but those of distress. Observing all of which, Gerasimus, rising to his feet, hastened forward to meet the sufferer.
"How now, what ails thee, Brother?" he asked.
For all answer, with something resembling a whimper, the lion raised his right front paw, and offered it to his new acquaintance for inspection.
"Alas! but this is most grievous, my friend!" exclaimed the Saint, as with care he extracted from the soft pad a cruel thorn.
"There—is it better now?" he questioned. "It shall be bandaged with healing ointment, and soon it will be well, but until then thou shalt dwell with me and share my cell."
With signs of friendliness the lion expressed his gratitude for the release from pain afforded him, and followed Gerasimus within the walls of the monastery to receive further assistance.
Nor did the matter end there: impelled by an affection born of gratitude, the lion thereafter moved ever by the Saint's side, following at his heels like a dog.
It was, perhaps, natural that the monks of the cloister should demur at the hospitality shown the erstwhile wild beast, and it was on this account that, to give himself reason for retaining him, St Gerasimus devised for him an office of service which should win the countenance of his companions.
"Thou knowest," he said to the lion one day, "that our excellent ass, the faithful friend who brings us fire-wood from the distant forest, browses unguarded, perforce, wherever he can find food. Do thou, then, stand as his guardian. To thy charge I commit his safety. Look to it that no harm befalls him, either from thieves, wild beasts, or ought else. And remember thou fail not in thy trust," he said, raising a warning finger.
With glad assent, and pledging his faith by the holding up of his now healed paw, the lion set himself with a will to his new task. Early and late he watched over the safety of his charge, spent long, hot hours of the day with eyes blinking lovingly in the direction of the browsing ass, or yet longer cool lapses of the night, with luminous orbs turned like watchful lamps upon him.
But alas—flesh was ever weak, even that of the king among beasts, and mightiest of animals. On a night it happened that as he sat upright and proud, with head erect and eyes fixed at attention, a heaviness fell upon his lids; waves of somnolence broke over his senses, and his brain swam as in a mist. Useless to struggle against a foe so insidious and insistent as the yearning for sleep. He scanned the horizon with blurred gaze. All was well, nothing was in sight, the ass himself was sweetly dozing—he could tell it by certain sounds. With a sigh he lowered himself to the sand, and laying his muzzle upon his outstretched paws, he slept.
With the earliest dawn he awoke, raised himself slowly, shook himself, luxuriously stretched first his front legs, then the hind, yawning largely the while. Then he looked for the ass. There was no ass in sight. Slow to take alarm, he started at a moderate trot in his search; first in small circles, then in larger; finally, thoroughly aroused to the appalling nature of the situation, he ran at a gallop in this, that, and every direction.
In vain—in vain—the ass was nowhere to be found. The ass was gone. Oh, misery Oh, disgrace!
Tired and thirsty after the day's fruitless search over every hillock, behind every clump of cactus, or of grass, he turned reluctant steps homeward.
St Gerasimus stood at the gate peering out, shading his eyes with his hand, when by the last rays of the sun he perceived the lion returning, head carried low, tongue hanging, tail dragging, dejectedly in the sand. Every evidence of shame, every symptom of guilt written upon his person.
No word was uttered on either side. Having reached the Saint, the lion crouched at his feet, not daring to raise his eyes, and there lay motionless, as one who should say: "I have sinned; deal with me as thou wilt!"
The Saint called the Brothers in conclave to decide upon the fate of the culprit. "Turn him away!" said some. "Let him die of hunger," said others. "Since he hath slain and devoured our ass," cried yet others, "let him in turn be slain!"
But, "Nay," said Gerasimus, "he has devoured our poor friend, this there can be no gainsaying, but we should remember, my Brothers, that it is indeed a lion with whom we have to deal, and no dog; and nature in the heart of wild beasts is difficult to subdue. Moreover, if we slay him, then truly are we bereft of our carrier, and how shall our firewood be brought? A dead lion does not make a live ass. Since he has lost us our ass, let he himself replace him. Let him carry the fire-wood and perform all those honest tasks by which the ass was wont to assist us."
With this counsel the Brothers all acquiesced. As a result, daily the lion journeyed to the forest to fetch the faggots required for the monastery; thankfully, patiently he toiled—if by so doing he might but atone for his sin, and win back the favour of his benefactor. Yet was his heart bruised, that a fouler deed was accredited to him than that he had committed. Still—labour was good, and expiation better, and service thrice blessed.
But there dawned a day—oh, precious day!—when, as the lion came home bending under his load, he spied in the distance a caravan. It stretched in a long silhouette between him and the western sky. Camels in multitude there were, horses, men, and bulky packs of many-hued merchandise. In the van of the long procession walked an ass.
The lion halted—he stopped upon his tracks—he looked. He looked long with lambent eyes, reflecting the fire of the setting sun. Surely he knew that outline. Surely the angle of those ears, the bearing of that out-stretched neck, the delicate step of those little feet were familiar. Could it be . . . Nay—it could not. Yea—but it was! With one shake of his shaggy mane he ridded himself of his burden, and swift as the arrow from the bow darted off toward the caravan, uttering a jubilant roar.
It was then the ass's turn to stop upon his tracks, listening. Surely he knew that voice. He answered with a lusty clarion bray.
Then fell confusion upon the caravan as the lion came down upon them. After brief salutation followed by consultation between the two old comrades, the ass set out with nimble gait in the direction of the monastery, the camels following him, as was their established usage.
The merchants, herded in by the lion who followed after them, snapping and making lunges at their heels, had no choice but to go whither they were driven. And so it came about that presently the entire caravan found itself in the court of the monastery, and when St Gerasimus came forth to enquire what meant this stir and bustle, the merchants fell upon their faces before him, confessing that it was they who had stolen the ass.
What shall be said of the delight of the lion? Indeed he thought to die of joy. He went from one Brother to the next throughout the monastery, kneeling before each in turn, wagging his tail engagingly, begging to be forgiven for his past sin.
As for St Gerasimus, he ordered the camels to be unloaded, their feet bathed, and the thieves he not alone pardoned, but bade to partake of a repast which he instructed the Brothers to spread.
And who shall say that the Saint's ready forgiveness was not in some measure owing to the well-being in his heart at finding that his lion had not sinned so darkly as he had believed? For few things are more bitter than disillusion, and few more sweet than relief from it.
As long as St Gerasimus lived the lion remained his constant companion. When the Saint died and went to Heaven, the lion lay upon his grave and died of grief, and undoubtedly followed in his footsteps after death, even as he had in life.