O the poor, little, motherless waif lived among the old monks at the White Cross on the hill, thriving and growing apace until he had reached eleven or twelve years of age; a slender, fair- haired little fellow, with a strange, quiet, serious manner.
"Poor little child!" Old Brother Benedict would sometimes say to the others, "poor little child! The troubles
in which he was born must have broken his wits like a glass
cup. What think ye he said to me
When such talk came to the good Father Abbot's ears, he smiled quietly to himself. "It may be," said he, "that the wisdom of little children flies higher than our heavy wits can follow."
At least Otto was not slow with his studies, and Brother Emmanuel, who taught him his lessons, said more than once that, if his wits were cracked in other ways, they were sound enough in Latin.
Otto, in a quaint, simple way which belonged to him, was gentle and obedient to all. But there was one among the Brethren of St. Michaelsburg whom he loved far above all the rest—Brother John, a poor half-witted fellow, of some twenty-five or thirty years of age. When a very little child, he had fallen from his nurse's arms and hurt his head, and as he grew up into boyhood, and showed that his wits had been addled by his fall, his family knew not what else to do with him, and so sent him off to the Monastery of St. Michaelsburg, where he lived his simple, witless life upon a sort of sufferance, as though he were a tame, harmless animal.
While Otto was still a little baby, he had been given into Brother John's care. Thereafter, and until Otto had grown old enough to care for himself, poor Brother John never left his little charge, night or day. Oftentimes the good Father Abbot, coming into the garden, where he loved to walk alone in his meditations, would find the poor, simple Brother sitting under the shade of the pear-tree, close to the bee-hives, rocking the little baby in his arms, singing strange, crazy songs to it, and gazing far away into the blue, empty sky with his curious, pale eyes.
Although, as Otto grew up into boyhood, his lessons and his tasks separated him from Brother John, the bond between them seemed to grow stronger rather than weaker. During the hours that Otto had for his own they were scarcely ever apart. Down in the vineyard, where the monks were gathering the grapes for the vintage, in the garden, or in the fields, the two were always seen together, either wandering hand in hand, or seated in some shady nook or corner.
But most of all they loved to lie up in the airy wooden belfry; the great gaping bell hanging darkly above them, the mouldering cross-beams glimmering far up under the dim shadows of the roof, where dwelt a great brown owl that, unfrightened at their familiar presence, stared down at them with his round, solemn eyes. Below them stretched the white walls of the garden, beyond them the vineyard, and beyond that again the far shining river, that seemed to Otto's mind to lead into wonder-land. There the two would lie upon the belfry floor by the hour, talking together of the strangest things.
The poor, simple brother sitting under the pear-tree, close to the bee-hives, rocking the little baby in his arms.
"I saw the dear Angel Gabriel again yester morn," said Brother John.
"So!" says Otto, seriously; "and where was that?"
"It was out in the garden, in the old apple-tree," said Brother John. "I was walking there, and my wits were running around in the grass like a mouse. What heard I but a wonderful sound of singing, and it was like the hum of a great bee, only sweeter than honey. So I looked up into the tree, and there I saw two sparks. I thought at first that they were two stars that had fallen out of heaven; but what think you they were, little child?"
"I do not know," said Otto, breathlessly.
"They were angel's eyes," said Brother John; and he smiled in the strangest way, as he gazed up into the blue sky. "So I looked at the two sparks and felt happy, as one does in spring time when the cold weather is gone, and the warm sun shines, and the cuckoo sings again. Then, by-and-by, I saw the face to which the eyes belonged. First, it shone white and thin like the moon in the daylight; but it grew brighter and brighter, until it hurt one's eyes to look at it, as though it had been the blessed sun itself. Angel Gabriel's hand was as white as silver, and in it he held a green bough with blossoms, like those that grow on the thorn bush. As for his robe, it was all of one piece, and finer than the Father Abbot's linen, and shone beside like the sunlight on pure snow. So I knew from all these things that it was the blessed Angel Gabriel."
" 'What do they say about this tree, Brother John?' said he to me.
" 'They say it is dying, my Lord Angel,' said I, 'and that the gardener will bring a sharp axe and cut it down.'
" 'And what dost thou say about it, Brother John?' said he.
" 'I also say yes, and that it is dying,' said I.
"At that he smiled until his face shone so bright that I had to shut my eyes."
" 'Now I begin to believe, Brother John, that thou art as foolish as men say,' said he. 'Look, till I show thee.' And thereat I opened mine eyes again.
"Then Angel Gabriel touched the dead branches with the flowery twig that he held in his hand, and there was the dead wood all covered with green leaves, and fair blossoms and beautiful apples as yellow as gold. Each smelling more sweetly than a garden of flowers, and better to the taste than white bread and honey.
" 'They are souls of the apples,' said the good Angel, 'and they can never wither and die.'
" 'Then I'll tell the gardener that he shall not cut the tree down,' said I.
" 'No, no,' said the dear Gabriel, 'that will never do, for if the tree is not cut down here on the earth, it can never be planted in paradise.' "
Here Brother John stopped short in his story, and began singing one of his crazy songs, as he gazed with his pale eyes far away into nothing at all.
"But tell me, Brother John," said little Otto, in a hushed voice, "what else did the good Angel say to thee?"
Brother John stopped short in his song and began looking from right to left, and up and down, as though to gather his wits.
"So!" said he, "there was something else that he told me. Tschk! If I could but think now. Yes, good! This is it—'Nothing that has lived,' said he, 'shall ever die, and nothing that has died shall ever live.' "
Otto drew a deep breath. "I would that I might see the beautiful Angel Gabriel sometime," said he; but Brother John was singing again and did not seem to hear what he said.
Next to Brother John, the nearest one to the little child was the good Abbot Otto, for though he had never seen wonderful things with the eyes of his soul, such as Brother John's had beheld, and so could not tell of them, he was yet able to give little Otto another pleasure that no one else could give.
He was a great lover of books, the old Abbot, and had under lock and key wonderful and beautiful volumes, bound in hog-skin and metal, and with covers inlaid with carved ivory, or studded with precious stones. But within these covers, beautiful as they were, lay the real wonder of the books, like the soul in the body; for there, beside the black letters and initials, gay with red and blue and gold, were beautiful pictures painted upon the creamy parchment. Saints and Angels, the Blessed Virgin with the golden oriole about her head, good St. Joseph, the three Kings; the simple Shepherds kneeling in the fields, while Angels with glories about their brow called to the poor Peasants from the blue sky above. But, most beautiful of all was the picture of the Christ Child lying in the manger, with the mild-eyed Kine gazing at him.
Sometimes the old Abbot would unlock the iron-bound chest where these treasures lay hidden, and carefully and lovingly brushing the few grains of dust from them, would lay them upon the table beside the oriel window in front of his little namesake, allowing the little boy freedom to turn the leaves as he chose.
Always it was one picture that little Otto sought; the Christ Child in the manger, with the Virgin, St. Joseph, the Shepherds, and the Kine. And as he would hang breathlessly gazing and gazing upon it, the old Abbot would sit watching him with a faint, half-sad smile flickering around his thin lips and his pale, narrow face.
It was a pleasant, peaceful life, but by-and-by the end came.
Otto was now nearly twelve years old.
Always it was one picture that little Otto sought.
One bright, clear day, near the hour of noon, little Otto heard the porter's bell sounding below in the court-yard—dong! dong! Brother Emmanuel had been appointed as the boy's instructor, and just then Otto was conning his lessons in the good monk's cell. Nevertheless, at the sound of the bell he pricked up his ears and listened, for a visitor was a strange matter in that out-ofthe-way place, and he wondered who it could be. So, while his wits wandered his lessons lagged.
"Postera Phœba lustrabat lampade terras," continued Brother Emmanuel, inexorably running his horny finger-nail beneath the line, "humentemque Aurora polo dimoverat umbram—" the lesson dragged along.
Just then a sandaled footstep sounded without, in the stone corridor, and a light tap fell upon Brother Emmanuel's door. It was Brother Ignatius, and the Abbot wished little Otto to come to the refectory.
As they crossed the court-yard Otto stared to see a group of mail-clad men-at-arms, some sitting upon their horses, some standing by the saddle-bow. "Yonder is the young baron," he heard one of them say in a gruff voice, and thereupon all turned and stared at him.
A stranger was in the refectory, standing beside the good old Abbot, while food and wine were being brought and set upon the table for his refreshment; a great, tall, broad-shouldered man, beside whom the Abbot looked thinner and slighter than ever.
The stranger was clad all in polished and gleaming armor, of plate and chain, over which was drawn a loose robe of gray woollen stuff, reaching to the knees and bound about the waist by a broad leathern sword-belt. Upon his arm he carried a great helmet which he had just removed from his head. His face was weather-beaten and rugged, and on lip and chin was a wiry, bristling beard; once red, now frosted with white.
Brother Ignatius had bidden Otto to enter, and had then closed the door behind him; and now, as the lad walked slowly up the long room, he gazed with round, wondering blue eyes at the stranger.
"Dost know who I am, Otto?" said the mail-clad knight, in a deep, growling voice.
"Methinks you are my father, sir," said Otto.
"Aye, thou art right," said Baron Conrad, "and I am glad to see that these milk-churning monks have not allowed thee to forget me, and who thou art thyself."
"An' it please you," said Otto, "no one churneth milk here but Brother Fritz; we be makers of wine and not makers of butter, at St. Michaelsburg."
Baron Conrad broke into a great, loud laugh, but Abbot Otto's sad and thoughtful face lit up with no shadow of an answering smile.
"Conrad," said he, turning to the other, "again let me urge thee; do not take the child hence, his life can never be your life, for he is not fitted for it. I had thought," said he, after a moment's pause, "I had thought that thou hadst meant to consecrate him—this motherless one—to the care of the Universal Mother Church."
"So!" said the Baron, "thou hadst thought that, hadst thou? Thou hadst thought that I had intended to deliver over this boy, the last of the Vuelphs, to the arms of the Church? What then was to become of our name and the glory of our race if it was to end with him in a monastery? No, Drachenhausen is the home of the Vuelphs, and there the last of the race shall live as his sires have lived before him, holding to his rights by the power and the might of his right hand."
The Abbot turned and looked at the boy, who was gaping in simple wide-eyed wonderment from one to the other as they spoke.
"And dost thou think, Conrad," said the old man, in his gentle, patient voice, "that that poor child can maintain his rights by the strength of his right hand?"
The Baron's look followed the Abbot's, and he said nothing.
In the few seconds of silence that followed, little Otto, in his simple mind, was wondering what all this talk portended. Why had his father come hither to St. Michaelsburg, lighting up the dim silence of the monastery with the flash and ring of his polished armor? Why had he talked about churning butter but now, when all the world knew that the monks of St. Michaelsburg made wine.
It was Baron Conrad's deep voice that broke the little pause of silence.
"If you have made a milkmaid of the boy," he burst out at last, "I thank the dear heaven that there is yet time to undo your work and to make a man of him."
The Abbot sighed. "The child is yours, Conrad," said he, "the will of the blessed saints be done. Mayhap if he goes to dwell at Drachenhausen he may make you the better instead of you making him the worse."
Then light came to the darkness of little Otto's wonderment; he saw what all this talk meant and why his father had come hither. He was to leave the happy, sunny silence of the dear White Cross, and to go out into that great world that he had so often looked down upon from the high windy belfry on the steep hillside.