St Gonsalvo's Bridge
Gonsalvo of Portugal was surely a saintly being from the very cradle, for is it not told of him as an infant, that when nothing else could appease his apparently unaccountable cries, if he were carried into a church he became immediately quiet, while he gazed with entranced eyes on the statues of Saints, and images of the Holy Virgin, and at sight of the figure of Our Lord upon the Cross he stretched out confiding baby arms?
Toward the end of an eventful life, it happened that he retired to a wild place near the river Tamego, where, not far from the ruins of what had once been the town of Amarante, he built a cell for himself and a chapel in honour of the Blessed Mother of God. Here he lived and prayed, and here he taught and preached to the peasants of the surrounding region.
Close by his cabin was a ford in the river over which many travellers were obliged to pass, as it lay directly in the course between two towns, but it was a most dangerous crossing, and Gonsalvo was constantly torn with grief at the number of lives that were lost in the attempt to traverse the Tamego at seasons when the stream was swollen with spring floods or autumn rains. So it was that it became his dream to see a bridge span the river; it was, however, difficult to arouse interest in the people who could have furnished means for the undertaking, and Gonsalvo, becoming more and more penetrated with a sense of the necessity for the realization of his desire, ended by going about the country on foot begging from door to door for money to build his bridge.
His petitions were greeted coldly. By all he was regarded as a visionary, and his quest made so little progress that one with less constancy might eventually have renounced it.
It chanced one day that in his wanderings he came upon a rich nobleman who was travelling far from home; to him Gonsalvo made his customary plea.
"A bridge, sayst thou, to span the Tamego, where there is now a ford, near what was once Amarante? But wherefore a bridge in that remote and outlandish spot?"
"Because the ford is treacherous and unsafe," answered Gonsalvo.
"Surely what has answered the needs of men so long will continue to do so?"
"Yea—with a yearly toll of many innocent lives," granted Gonsalvo.
"But bridges are not built in the wilderness," argued the man, "nor are they built in a place where though once there was a town there is now a desert! Bridges are built in cities, or at least near villages and hamlets."
"Bridges are built where bridges are needed," insisted Gonsalvo.
The nobleman, seeing that he could not by arguing rid himself of the quietly obstinate mendicant monk, took from his pouch a scrap of paper and on it wrote with an air of covert irony a few words, then handed the note to Gonsalvo, saying:
"Take this to my castle, my good man, deliver it to my wife, and she shall give thee what I have bidden her."
Filled with gratitude and hope, Gonsalvo blessed the giver, who with a knowing smile rode away, while Gonsalvo hastened in the direction of the nobleman's domain.
The way was long; he arrived hungry and fatigued, and was, after much questioning and delay, admitted to the presence of the lady of the castle. When he had stated his errand and delivered the note from her spouse, he waited while the lady perused it. Having first read it to herself, she read it aloud to him:
"The bearer is a poor mad fool who insists that he must build a bridge. Give him the weight of this paper in coin."
The lady looked up with ill-disguised mirth: "My husband was ever of a merry temper, yet I confess this is a somewhat bitter jest. You have come far to very little purpose, my poor friend."
"So be it," answered Gonsalvo, unperturbed; "but, gracious lady, give me what you are directed, give me at least the weight of that paper in money."
With a shrug the lady called for a pair of scales, and when these had been brought her, placed the note in one balance while she delicately laid the smallest of bronze coins in the other. As the scales did not move, she set down another and a larger silver coin; still no quiver of a downward motion in the balance; then more and yet more coins, now large and golden, she poured into it . . . but to her bewilderment and dismay it did not move until the great sum necessary for the building of the bridge had been counted out.
"A bitter jest, indeed," sighed Gonsalvo, as he gathered up his alms and bore them away.
Expressions of gratitude he thought it unnecessary to give, until he found himself alone in the forest outside of the castle walls. Then falling on his knees he thanked and praised God, Who had perhaps heaped in the scales, adding it to that of the tatter of paper the weight of the bodies of all the unfortunates who had lost their lives for lack of a bridge to carry them across the Tamego.
After his death Gonsalvo was buried in the rebuilt town of Amarante of which he is patron Saint, and in picture and statue he is represented holding in his hand a little model of the bridge he built.