Blue and still lie the waters of the Bay of Naples, blue as the sky above, with only a dainty ripple on their surface, where the summer wind comes wooing from the land and the water trembles at its kiss. The little fishing-boats that busily flit to and fro look like gay butterflies enjoying life in the sunshine and warmth. But the waters are not always quiet and blue. Sudden storms sweep down and change the smiling bay into a black swirl of angry waves, rising mountains high, and hissing under the lash of the furious wind. Alas for the little fishing-boats then when night comes on, and there is no friendly light to guide them to home and shelter, nothing but the angry glow of the fiery mountain, shining red against the stormy sky.
Then it is that the fishermen, huddled together in fear, and driven before the lashing wind, send up a prayer to their Madonna Stella Maris, star of the sea. Her picture it is which hangs in the convent church high on the hill above, and they feel sure she will protect them in their danger and guide them safely home. Has she not always been their friend? How could one doubt that, knowing the old story of her wonderful appearing?
Long years ago, before the monastery was built, the hillside was a waste and desolate place. It was said that evil spirits had their dwelling there, dwarfs and mountain gnomes, and imps that worked mischief to peaceable folk. No one dared pass by that way, especially after dark, and yet, strange to say, night after night a beacon fire was lighted on that wild hillside.
It could not be the work of evil spirits, neither could it have been lighted by human hands, but every night the light shone up, and shot steadily over the bay, warning the boats to steer clear of the peril of the rocks below.
The grateful sailors, steering their course by the friendly light, thanked heaven for the kindly aid, but no one dared go near the spot to see what the light might be.
Then it happened that one dark night, when a company of fishermen were drawing in their nets, full of the silvery fish which shone in the light of the friendly beacon, one of the men, looking up, gave a great cry of fear and astonishment.
There, upon the path of light which shone from the hill over the dark waters of the bay, came a wondrous vision. It was the Madonna herself, clothed in shining garments of light, coming towards their little boat. Her eyes looked kindly upon them with the mother-love that ever fills her heart, and she smiled as she drew near.
"My children," she said, "you knew not that the guiding light from yonder hill was lighted by me. A mother must always care for her children in peril. But to-night I come to bid you do me a service. Where that light burns nightly on the wild hillside there is an old well, and there hidden away is an image of myself. Go, therefore, to the bishop and bid him search, and place it in a safe spot where my children may do it honour."
Then the light faded, and the Madonna vanished from their sight.
The fishermen gazed at one another in trembling fear.
"Has the spell been cast upon us?" they asked. "What can this vision of the night mean?" and they were too frightened to speak of it to any one, and never once thought of going to the bishop, as the Madonna had directed.
But the next night again the vision came to them, and again they were told what they must do, but still they doubted and did nothing.
Then on the third night the Madonna appeared, not as the gentle mother, but as the Queen of Heaven, sternly reproving them for their disobedience.
This time they did not dare to disobey the vision, but when morning broke they left the boat and journeyed with all speed to the good bishop.
"But who will believe our story?" asked one, as they climbed the steep road and pushed on their way. "Even if the bishop receives us he will think we are mad when we tell our tale."
"Better that than risk once more the frown of the Madonna," said another.
"We have only to do as she bade us, and leave the rest," said a third.
But when they reached the bishop's house it almost seemed as if they had been expected. No one asked what was their business there, but they were treated with great courtesy and taken at once into the good bishop's presence.
"Ye are welcome," said the bishop, when the three rough, poorly clad fishermen had knelt to receive his blessing. "Tell me your errand quickly. It has been shown to me in a dream that ye would come as bearers of a heavenly message, so speak without fear."
Then the fishermen, one by one, took up the tale and told of the lonely watch on the dark waters, of the friendly beacon which shone from the deserted hill, and of the wondrous vision that had come to them over the silent sea.
"Never before have our eyes beheld such beauty," they said. "Her garments were of woven light and her eyes like the stars. Her voice sounded in our ears as the music of the distant church bells whispering over the sea to welcome us home when our nightly toil is o'er. At first we thought it must only be a dream, but for three nights now we have seen the vision, and dare no longer disobey her command."
The bishop asked no more, but at once made ready to set out. He bade his priests robe themselves, and with the fishermen as guides the procession started. Chanting the psalms as they went, they wended their way over the rough road and climbed the wild, deserted hill, until they came to the spot from whence the beacon had shone, night after night. There, as the Madonna had said, they found an old ruined well, and hidden away at the bottom was the beautiful picture of the Madonna, which now hangs in the convent chapel.
This is the tale of long, long ago which the fishermen repeat to each other to-day. Never again has the Madonna been seen in the lonely night watches, coming upon the golden path across the dark waters. But the fishermen look up to the light shining from the monastery on the hill, where her picture still hangs, and the thought of her beautiful face comforts and cheers them in their peril. "Our lady, Star of the Sea," they still call her, in memory of the friendly beacon that was once lighted there to guide poor mariners home.