T his is the story written in the chronicle of the Priory of Kilgrimol, which is in Amounderness. It tells of the ancient years before that great inroad of the sea which broke down the high firs of the western forest of Amounderness, and left behind it those tracts of sand and shingle that are now called the Blowing Sands. In those days Oswald the Gentle was Prior of Kilgrimol, and he beheld the inroad of the sea; and afterwards he lived through the suffering and sorrow of the great plague of which people now speak as the Black Death.
Of all monks and men he was the sweetest and gentlest, and long before he was chosen Prior, when he had charge of the youths who wished to be monks, he never wearied of teaching them to feel and care for all God's creatures, from the greatest to the least, and to love all God's works, and to take a great joy even in stones and rocks, and water and earth, and the clouds and the blue air. "For," said he, "according to the flesh all these are in some degree our kinsfolk, and like us they come from the hands of God. Does not Mother Church teach us this, speaking in her prayers of God's creature of fire, and His creature of salt, and His creature of flowers?"
When some of the brotherhood would smile at his gentle sayings, he would answer: "Are these things, then, so strange and childish? Rather, was not this the way of the Lord Jesus? You have read how He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan, and how He was with the wild beasts? All that those words may mean we have not been taught; but well I believe that the wild things came to Him, even as very little children will run to a good man without any doubt of his goodness; and that they recognised His pitifulness and His power to help them; and that He read in their dumb pleading eyes the pain and the travail under which the whole creation groaneth; and that He blessed them, and gave them solace, and told them in some mysterious way of the day of sacrifice and redemption which was drawing near."
Once when the brethren spoke of clearing out the nests from the church tower, because of the clamour of the daws in the morning and evening twilight, the Novice-master—for this was Oswald's title—besought them to remember the words of the Psalmist, King David: "The sparrow hath found an house and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of Hosts."
As for the novices, many a legend he told them of the Saints and holy hermits who had loved the wild creatures, and had made them companions or had been served by them in the lonely places of the hills and wildwood. And in this, he taught them, there was nothing strange, for in the book of Hosea, it was written that God would make, for those who served Him, a treaty of peace and a league of love with the beasts and the birds of heaven and the creeping things of the earth, and in the book of Job it was said that even the stones of the field should be in friendship with them.
"And this we see," he would say, "in the life of the blessed Bishop Kieran of Saighir, who was the first Saint born in green Erinn. For he wandered away through the land seeking the little well where he was to found his monastery. That well was in the depths of a hoary wood, and when he drew near it the holy bell which he carried rang clear and bright, as it had been foretold him. So he sat down to rest under a tree, when suddenly a wild boar rushed out of its lair against him; but the breath of God tamed it, and the savage creature became his first disciple, and helped him to fell small trees and to cut reeds and willows so that he might build him a cell. After that there came from brake and copse and dingle and earth and burrow all manner of wild creatures; and a fox, a badger, a wolf, and a doe were among Kieran's first brotherhood. We read, too, that for all his vows the fox made but a crafty and gluttonous monk, and stole the Saint's leather shoes, and fled with them to his old earth. Wherefore Kieran called the religious together with his bell, and sent the badger to bring back the fugitive, and when this was done the Saint rebuked the fox for an unworthy and sinful monk, and laid penance upon him."
When the novices laughed at this adventure, Father Oswald said:
"These things are not matters of faith; you may believe them or not as you will. Perhaps they did not happen in the way in which they are now told, but if they are not altogether true, they are at least images and symbols of truth. But this I have no doubt is true—that when the blessed Columba was Abbot in Iona, he called one of the brethren to him and bade him go on the third day to the western side of the island, and sit on the sea shore, and watch for a guest who would arrive, weary and hungry, in the afternoon. And the guest would be a crane, beaten by the stormy winds, and it would fall on the beach, unable to fly further. 'And do thou,' said Columba, 'take it up with gentle hands and carry it to the house of the guests, and tend it for three days and three nights, and when it is refreshed it will fly up into the air, and after scanning its path through the clouds it will return to its old sweet home in Erinn; and if I charge thee so earnestly with this service, it is because the guest comes from our dear land.' And the Brother obeyed; and on the third day the crane arrived, storm-beaten and weary, and three days later it departed. Have you not also heard or read how our own St. Godrich at Whitby protected the four-footed foresters, and how a great stag, which had been saved by him from the hunters, came year after year at a certain season to visit him?"
Many legends too he told them of birds as well as beasts, and three of these I will mention here because they are very pleasant to listen to. One was of St. Malo and the wren. The wren, the smallest of all birds, laid an egg in the hood which St. Malo had hung up on a branch while he was working in the field, and the blessed man was so gentle and loving that he would not disturb the bird, but left his hood hanging on the tree till the wren's brood was hatched.
Then there was the legend of St. Meinrad, who lived in a hut made of boughs on Mount Etzel, and had two ravens for his companions. Now it happened that two robbers wandered near the hermitage, and foolishly thinking that some treasure might be hidden there, they slew the Saint. After a long search, in which they found nothing, they went down the mountain to Zurich; but the holy man's ravens followed them with fierce cries, whirling about their heads and dashing at their faces, so that the people in the valley wondered at the sight. But one of the dalesmen who knew the ravens sent his son to the hermitage to see if all was well, and followed the fellows to the town. There they took refuge in a tavern, but the ravens flew round and round the house, screaming and pecking at the window near which the robbers had seated themselves. Speedily the lad came down with the news of the cruel murder; the robbers were seized, and, having confessed their crime, they suffered the torture of death on the wheel.
And lastly there was the legend of St. Servan, who had a robin which perched on his shoulder, and fed from his hand, and joined in with joyful twittering when the Saint sang his hymns and psalms. Now the lads in the abbey-school were jealous of the Saint's favourite pupil, Kentigern, and out of malice they killed the robin and threw the blame on Kentigern. Bitterly the innocent child wept and prayed over the dead bird; and behold! when the Saint came from singing pones in the minster, the robin fluttered up and flew away to meet him, chirruping merrily.
"A thoughtless thing of little blame," said the Novice-master, "was the wickedness of these boys compared with that of the monks of the Abbot Eutychus. The Abbot had a bear to tend his sheep while he was absent and to shut them in their fold at sunset, and when the monks saw that marvel, instead of praising God they were burned up with envy and ill-will, and they killed the bear. Ah, children, it is still possible for us, even in these days, to kill a Saint's robin and an abbot's bear. Let us beware of envy and jealousy and uncharitableness."
In those years when Father Oswald was thus teaching his novices gentleness and compassion, he had but one trouble in his life, and that was the remembrance of a companion of his youth, who had fled from the Priory and disappeared in the noise and tumult of the world's life. As scholars they had been classmates, and as novices they had been so closely drawn together that each had pledged to the other that whoever died first should, under God's permission, appear to the one still left alive, and reveal to his friend all that may be told of the state of the departed. Now hardly had they been professed monks more than a year when this brother broke his vows and deserted his habit, and fled away under cloud of night. Oswald had never forgotten his friend, and had never ceased to grieve and pray for him. It was the great hope and desire of his heart that, having at last proved the vanity of all that the world can give, this Lost Brother would one day return, like the Prodigal Son, to the house of his boyhood.
As the years went by Prior Anselm grew old and sickened, and at length what was mortal of him fell as the leaf that falls and is trodden in the clay; and the Novice-master was elected Prior in his stead.
Now one of the first great works which the new Prior set his hand to was the making of two large fish-ponds for the monastery. "And so," said he, "not only shall we have other than sea-fish for our table, but in case of fire we shall have store of water at hand. Then, too, it is a pleasant thing to look on sweet water among trees, and to watch the many sorts of silvery fish playing in their clear and silent world. And well it becomes our state of life that we should have this, for of our Lord's Disciples many were fishermen, and fish and bread were the last earthly food our dear Master ate. Now of these ponds let the larger be our Lake of Gennesaret, and surely it shall some time happen to us that we shall see the Lord when the bright morning has come, and that our hearts shall be as a fire of coals upon the shore."
Of the earth dug out of the fish pools he piled up a high mound or barrow, and stocked it well with saplings of oak and beech, ash and pine, and flowering bushes; and about the mound a spiral way wound to the top, and from the top one saw to the four winds over the high woods of Amounderness, and on the west, beyond the forest, the white sands of the shore and the fresh sea. When the saplings grew tall and stout, the green leaves shut out all sight of the Priory; even the tower of the church; and above the trees in the bright air it was as though one had got half-way to heaven.
Now after a little while the Prior reared on the high summit a vast cross of oak, rooted firmly amid huge boulders, and the face of our Lord crucified was turned to the west, and His arms were opened wide to the sea and to the passing ships. And beneath the flying sails, far away, the mariners and fisher-folk could see the cross in the sky, and they bared their heads to the calvary of Kilgrimol. So the name of our house and our Christ was known in strange waters and in distant havens.
All that climbing greenwood of the mound was alive with wild creatures, winged and four-footed, and no one was suffered to disquiet or annoy them. To us it seemed that the Prior was as well known to all the wild things far and near as he was to us, for the little birds fluttered about him, and the squirrels leaped from tree to tree along the way he went, and the fawns ran from the covert to thrust their noses into his hand. And in the winter time, if the snow lay deep and there was any dearth, food was made ready for them and they came in flocks and troops to the Priory, knowing well, one would think, that the Prior would be their loving almoner.
Bee-hives, too, he set up, and grew all manner of flowers, both for the use of the little brown toilers and for the joyance of the brethren; and of the flowers he spoke deep and beautiful parables too many to be told of in this book.
Now in the third year of his rule the Prior heard tidings of the companion he had never forgotten, and he took into his confidence one of the religious named Bede, in whom he had great trust, and he told him the story of their friendship. "And now, Bede," he said, "I would have thee go on a long journey, even to the golden city of London, and seek out my friend. He will easily be found, for men know his name, and he hath grown to some repute, and the good things of this world have not been denied him. And in this I rejoice, for when he hath won all his heart may desire, he will the sooner discover how little is the joy and how fleeting the content. And tell him that so long as I am Prior of this house, so long shall this house be a home waiting for his home-coming. Bid him come to me—if but for a little while, then for a little while be it; but if he longs for rest, this shall be the place of his rest until the end. And if these things cannot be now, then let them be when they may be."
And Bede went on his long wayfaring and found the Lost Brother, a man happy and of fair fame, and blessed with wife and child. And the monk sat with the little maid on his knee, and even while he prayed for her and her father, he understood how it might be that the man was well content, and how that neither to-day nor to-morrow could he return to that old life of the Priory in the forest.
"Yet," said he, "tell the Prior that surely some day I shall see his face again, if it be but for mere love of him; for well I know there be among the monks those who would more joyfully rend me or burn me at the stake than give the hand of fellowship to one who has cast aside the cowl."
When he heard of these things the Prior only prayed the more earnestly for the home-coming of his friend.
Now it was in the autumn of that year, at the season when the days and nights are of one length, that the great inroad of the sea befell. The day had been stormy, with a brackish wind clamouring out of the sea, and as the darkness closed in it was with us as it is with blind men, who hear and feel the more keenly because of their blindness; and all that we heard was the boom of billows breaking on the long shore and the crying and groaning of the old oaks and high firs in the forest. Then in the midmost of the night we were aroused by so terrible a noise, mingled with shrieking and wailing, that we crowded to the Prior's door. Speedily he rose, and we followed him out of doors, wondering what disaster had happened. The moon was shining brightly; shreds of cloud were flying across the cold sky; the air was full of the taste of salt.
As we gazed about us we saw that the cloisters and the garth and all the space within the walls were crowded with wild birds—sea-fowl and crows, pheasant and blackcock, starlings and thrushes, stonechats and yellow-hammers, and hundreds of small winged creatures cowering for shelter. And when the Prior bade us throw open the monastery gates, out of the sombre gloom of the forest the scared woodlanders came crowding, tame and panting. No one had ever realised that so many strange creatures, in fur and pelt, housed in the green ways. Even the names of many of them we did not know, for we had never set eyes on them before; but among those that were within our knowledge were coneys and hares, stoats and weasels, foxes and badgers, many deer with their does and fawns, and one huge grey creature of savage aspect which we took to be an old wolf.
The Prior ordered that the gates should be left open for any fugitives that might seek refuge, and he went among the wild beasts, calming them with a touch of his hand and blessing them. Then there came a woman, with a child at her bosom and a little lad clinging to her dress, but she was so distracted with fright that she was unable to say what had happened.
When he had given directions for the care of all these strange guests, the Prior climbed up the mound through the tossing trees, and when he had reached the summit he saw to his amazement that the sea had risen in a mighty flood and poured for miles into the forest. The huge oaks and pines of centuries had gone down in thousands, and over their fallen trunks and broken branches the white billows were tumbling and leaping in clouds of spray in the moon-light. Happily the land sloped away to the north, so that unless the wind changed and blew against us the Priory seemed to be in no present danger. Overhead the great cross vibrated in the storm, and the face of the Christ gazed seaward, and the holy arms were opened wide. The sight of that divine figure filled the Prior's heart with peace and confidence. "Whether to live or to die," he murmured, "in Thee, O Lord, have we placed our trust."
Such was the terrible inroad of the sea which broke the western forest of Amounderness. For many a day the land lay in salt swamp till the sands were blown over it and buried the fallen timber; and afterwards the very name of Forest was forgotten, and the people called all that part the Field-lands.
Now it was in this same year that the grievous pestilence named the Black Death raged in England; but it was not till the winter had gone by that it reached Amounderness. Then were seen those terrible days when ships sailed the seas with crews of dead men, and when on land there was burying without sorrow and flight without safety, for though many fled they could not escape the evil, and so many died that the wells of sorrow ran dry. And because of the horror of so many deaths, it was forbidden to toll the bells any longer lest men should go mad. Often no hand could be got for love or for gold to touch the sick or to carry the departed to their graves. When the grave-yards were filled, thousands were buried, without a prayer or a last look, in deep trenches salted with quicklime, on the commons or in an open field. Many a street in many a town fell suddenly silent and deserted, and grass grew between the stones of the causeway. Here and there fires were kept burning night and day to purify the air, but this availed little. In many a thorpe and village all the inhabitants were swept away and even robbers and desperate vagrants were too greatly in fear of infection to enter the ownerless houses. Sometimes in the fields one saw little children, and perchance an aged woman, trying to manage a plough or to lead a waggon.
When this trouble fell upon the people the Prior sent out various of the brethren to aid the suffering and to comfort the bereaved; but when many of the monks themselves were stricken down and died within the hour, a great dread took hold of the others, so that they were unwilling to expose themselves to danger.
The Prior rebuked them for their lack of faith and the coldness of their charity. "When the beasts and wild creatures suffered we had compassion on them," he said; "what folly is this that we shall have care for them and yet feel no pity for men and women in their misery! Do you fear that you too may be taken off by this pestilence? Who, then, has told you that you shall not die if only you can escape the pestilence? Daily you pray, 'Thy kingdom come,' and daily you seek that it shall not come to-day."
The sight of that divine figure filled the Prior's heart with peace and confidence.
He went abroad himself unweariedly with one or other of the brethren, doing such good as he was able, and when he had returned home and taken a little rest he set out once more. Now one night as he and Brother Bede returned belated through the forest, they were startled as they approached the gate to hear the weeping and moaning of one who lay forsaken on the cold earth; and when the Prior called out through the darkness, "Be of good cheer, Christian soul, we are coming to your aid," the sufferer replied by rattling the lid of his clap-dish, and at once they knew it was some poor leper who had fallen helpless by the way.
"Patience, brother," said the Prior; and bidding his companion open the wicket, he lifted the wretched outcast from the ground and carried him in his arms into the great hall. "Rest here a little," he said, "till we can bring you light and fire and food."
The Prior and Bede hastened to call the brethren who had charge of these matters, but when they returned with the other monks they found the great hall shining with a wonderful light and filled with a marvellous fragrance of flowers, and on the seat where the leper had been placed there lay a golden rose, but the leper himself had vanished.
Then a great joy cast fear out of the hearts of the brotherhood, and they laboured without ceasing in the stricken villages. Many of them died, but it was without sorrow or repining, and the face of each was touched with the golden rose ere he was laid to his rest.
Now the pestilence of that year was stayed by a bitter winter, and snow lay deep even in the forest, and great blocks of ice littered the shore of the bleak sea. And in the depth of the winter, when it drew near the Nativity, there came riding to the monastery a stranger, who asked to see the Prior. When the Prior looked into the man's face the tears started and ran down his own, and he opened his arms to him, and drew him to his breast and kissed him. For this was indeed the Lost Brother. And when he had thus given him welcome, the Prior said: "I ask no questions; what you can tell me you shall tell when the fitting time comes. But this is your home to have or to leave, for you are as free as the winds of heaven."
And the Lost Brother replied: "Wise are you no less than good. The plague has bereft me of the child, and of the mother of the child. More I cannot tell you now."
Thus to the Prior's great happiness the companion of his youth returned from wandering the ways of the world.
When the weeks passed, and still he remained a silent and solitary stranger, the religious spoke sharply among themselves of the presence of one who had broken vows and reveled in the joys of life, and had been received without censure or reproof. Then the Prior, wrathful now even on account of his gentleness, rebuked them once again: "O eyes of stone and hearts of water, are you so slow to learn? Have you who sheltered the wild creatures no thought for this man of much sorrow? Have you who buried the dead no prayer and no tenderness for this soul of the living?"
More than once the Lost Brother seemed to awake from a dream, and spoke of going forth again from this home of quiet, saying: "Truly this is great peace and solace to me, but I am not of you; my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor is yours my way of life. Indeed, though I were to will it never so, I could not repent of what I have done. Let me go; why should I be an offence and a stone of stumbling to those who are righteous among you?"
But the Prior silenced him, asking gently: "Do we distress you with any of these things? God has His times and seasons, and will not be hastened. At least so long as you find peace and rest here, remain with us."
"You are strangely wise and gentle," the Lost Brother answered. "God, I doubt it not, has His times and seasons; but with me I know not at all what He will do."
It was no long while after this that the Prior fell into a grievous illness; and when he knew that his hour was drawing nigh, he besought the monks to bear him up to the foot of the cross on the mound. There, as he looked far abroad into the earth over the tree-tops, he smiled with lightness of heart and said: "If the earth be so beautiful and so sweet, what must the delight of Paradise be?"
And behold! a small brown squirrel came down a tree, and ran across and nestled in the holy man's bosom, and its eyes ere full of tears. The Prior stroked and caressed it, and said: "God bless thee, little woodlander, and may the nuts never fail thee!"
Then, gazing up into the blue sky and the deep spaces of air above, he murmured in a low voice, "It is a very awful and lonely way to go!"
"Not so awful for you," replied the companion of his youth. "That blue way has been beaten plain by the Lord Christ, and the Apostles, and many holy men from the beginning."
A long while the Prior lay musing before he spoke again, and then he said: "I remember me of an ancient saying which I had long forgotten. A year for the life of a—nay, I know not what any longer. But after that it runs, and three for the life of a field; and thrice the life of a field for the life of a hound; and thrice the life of a hound for the life of a horse; and thrice the life of a horse for the life of a man; and thrice the life of a man for the life of a stag; and thrice the life of a stag for the life of an ouzel; and thrice the life of an ouzel for the life of an eagle; and thrice the life of an eagle for the life of a salmon; and thrice the life of a salmon for the life of a yew; but the Lord God liveth for ever—the Lord God liveth for ever!"
That same night the alabaster box was broken and the precious ointment poured out. And on the Prior's breast they placed the golden rose, and under the great red hawthorn in the midst of the cloister-garth they laid him, O Lord, beneath the earth which is Thy footstool.
At the same hour in which he was taken from us there was a great crying and lamentation of the wild creatures in the forest, and the tall stags bellowed and clashed their antlers against the gates of the monastery.
In the place of Prior Oswald, Father Bede was made Prior.
Whether the spirit of Prior Oswald ever returned to earth the book does not tell, but the Lost Brother, the companion of his youth, lived in the house of Kilgrimol to old age, and in the days of Bede's rule he made a good end.