Our Island Saints  by Amy Steedman

Saint Margaret of Scotland

Part 1 of 2

A GREY sky overhead; a cold bitter wind sweeping the spray from off the crests of the great grey waves; a grey inhospitable-looking land stretching north and south. This was what the dim morning light showed to the eyes of the anxious watchers in the little boat which was battling its way along the shores of the Firth of Forth. Truly it was but a dark outlook, and the hearts of the little company on board were as heavily overshadowed by the clouds of misfortune, doubt, and foreboding, as the gloomy shores were wrapped in their folds of rolling mist.

It was a royal burden that the little boat bore up the waters of the Firth that wintry day of wind and mist. Edgar the Etheling, grandson of Edmond Ironside, driven from his kingdom by the all-conquering William, had fled northwards with his mother and two sisters, Margaret and Christina. Some faithful followers had thrown in their lot with the royal fugitives, but it was but a small company all told. No wonder that their hearts were heavy that wintry morning. Obliged to flee from their own country, driven out of their course by the raging tempest, what welcome awaited them in this bleak land, of which they had heard many a savage tale? Would they be treated as friends or looked upon as enemies? The royal family had meant to return to Hungary, where Edgar and his sisters had spent the days of their happy childhood, but the winds and waves had proved as furious and unkind as those subjects from whom they had fled, and there seemed nothing to do now but to seek some landing-place along the rocky shore, some shelter from the pitiless storm.

Among the weary, spent travellers there was one who was calm and untroubled, whose face reflected none of the gloom of the skies overhead, on whom the dreary foreboding of the future cast no shadow. Fair and stately as a lily the Princess Margaret stood gazing across the angry waters, marking the desolate rocky shores, watching the white sea-birds as they swooped and rose again, as confident and unruffled as one of those white birds herself. For Margaret knew that a greater than an earthly king was with her, and that He, her Lord and Master, held the grey waters and their uncertain fortunes in the hollow of His hand, able as ever to calm the winds and waves of this troublesome world with that comforting command, "Peace, be still."

"To the right, to the right," shouted a sailor on the look-out; "yonder is a little bay where methinks we should find shelter and means to land."

"Ay, if there be no rocks to guard the way," said the captain cautiously. But nevertheless he turned the boat landwards, and eager eyes scanned the shore as they approached. It seemed indeed a haven of refuge, a peaceful little bay, gathered in from the angry waters by a little wooded arm of land that guarded it so securely that the rough breakers went sweeping past, and the sandy beach sloped gently down to meet the little dancing waves, while the wet sand reflected the swooping white wings of the sea-birds that hovered about the shore.

The little company were thankful indeed to land at last, and to feel the firm earth under their feet once more. The mist too had begun to roll away, and a gleam of sunshine touched into warmer colour the bare hills around. Surely this was a good omen, and they might hope that the clouds of their evil fortune were also about to break. It is more than eight hundred years since that little company landed at the sheltered cove, and it might seem as if their very names were long since forgotten, but a faint memory of far-off romance is still linked to the place by the name it bears, Saint Margaret's Hope.

With weary steps the travellers began to journey inland, where they hoped to find some town or village close by. The few country people they met stared at them with round eyes of wonder. Who could these people be? They were without doubt of high rank. Even the King did not wear such fine garments. The beautiful ladies did not look fit to walk such rough roads. They must have landed from yon boat which lay in the cove beneath. The one thing to be done was certainly to hasten to the court and tell of the arrival of the strangers.

Up hill and down dale the little company journeyed on, until at last even Margaret's brave spirit grew weary, and she begged them to rest awhile in one of the green fields, where there was a great stone that would make a comfortable seat for the tired ladies. "Saint Margaret's Stone" the people call it still, and many a poor wayfarer, tired out with the tramp along dusty roads, sits and rests there now, as did the Princess Margaret long ago.

Perhaps in happier days afterwards, Margaret, looking back, may have often thought of that stone when she read the old story of Jacob and his stony pillow. Had not she, like him a weary fugitive driven from home, chosen a stone to rest upon? Had not a golden link with heaven been formed there too, and had not God's kind angels spread around her their tender care, leading her into the peaceful paths of light and happiness?

It was as they sat resting there that they were startled by the sound of many feet approaching, and a company of horsemen were seen coming towards them. Did they come as friends or enemies, was the swift thought that passed through each anxious mind. But fears were soon dispelled by the words of welcome that greeted them, and the rough men behaved themselves most reverently and courteously. They were come in the name of their King, Malcolm of Scotland, to bid the travellers welcome, they said. The royal palace close by at Dunfermline was at their disposal. Their lord himself was far away in England fighting against the usurper, but he would ere long be back to give them his own royal welcome.

So with lightened hearts and less weary feet the travellers went on, and soon caught sight of the town, built like an eagle's nest upon the steep hillside.

Now the King, Malcolm Canmore or Great Head, had made up his mind to befriend the fugitive Prince, and to uphold his cause against the usurping Norman. He himself knew what it meant to be a homeless wanderer, for when but a boy, the treacherous Macbeth had seized his kingdom, and it was by the strength of his own right arm and dauntless courage that he had won back his crown. He had never forgotten the kindness he had received at the Saxon court at the hands of Edward the Confessor, and perhaps there too he had seen the boy Edgar and his beautiful sister Margaret. Margaret's beauty was not a thing to be lightly forgotten, and the Scottish King, with his lionlike head and lionlike nature, had a large heart which was very easily touched by beauty of any kind.

It was soon seen, after the King's return to his palace at Dunfermline, that he loved the gentle Margaret with all the devotion of his great heart. She seemed to him something so precious, so delicately fair, that he hardly dared dream of winning her. It was like roughly plucking a harebell which had bravely lifted its head among the stones on his mountain path, linked to earth only by that slender stem which one rough touch might break. But he did most truly love her, and as his Queen he would be able to shield and guard from any harm the flower of his heart.

Margaret, however, was sorely troubled. This was not the life she had planned. She had thought to leave behind her the cares and troubles of a court, and to find peace and quietness in a convent home, where she might serve God. Far away in Hungary, where she had spent her childhood, and in the peaceful old home in England, she had loved to listen to stories of the lives of the saints, and especially had she pondered over the life of Saint Margaret, and longed to follow in her namesake's steps.

But there are more ways than one of serving God, and Margaret dimly saw that perhaps the path beset with most difficulties might be the one that her Master would have chosen. It would be sweet to serve Him in the peaceful shelter of a convent cell, but faithful and brave soldiers do not seek the safest posts, where duties are easy and dangers few. They seek to endure hardness and not ease. To be a good Queen might be a higher and more difficult task than to be a devout nun.

So Margaret at last consented to be wed, and when the first primroses were beginning to star the woods, and spring hastened to breathe a softer welcome to the English bride, the royal marriage took place at Dunfermline in the happy Eastertide.

But although the King had now attained the wish of his heart, he did not yet fully understand how pure and precious a gift had been bestowed upon him. Not very long after his marriage with Margaret, evil tongues began to whisper secret tales to which the King should never have given heed. They told how the Queen, when he was absent, stole out from the palace to meet his enemies in a certain cave not very far off in the woods.

Angry and suspicious, the King determined to find out the truth of the story, and one day, pretending to go out to the hunt, he returned secretly to the palace. With a heavy heart he watched his fair Queen quietly slip through the postern gate, and make her way through the woods to the fatal cave. He followed her silently, and when she disappeared, crept close to the opening and listened. Yes, it was true! A great wave of fury surged up in his heart as he heard the voice he loved so well speaking to some one inside the cave. Too angry to stir for a moment, he stood there listening to the words she spoke; but as he listened a look of bewilderment flashed across his face, the red flush of anger faded, and he hung his head as if ashamed. For the voice he heard was indeed Margaret's, but it was to God she spoke. "King and Lord of all," she prayed, "teach my dear King to serve Thee truly, to love Thee perfectly, and to walk in Thy light."

There were no more suspicious thoughts, no more listening to evil gossip after this, but the heart of Malcolm was bound more closely by the golden thread of love to his dear Queen, and thus through her was linked to God.

The news of the King's marriage with the beautiful English Princess was carried far and near, and the people wondered greatly what manner of Queen she would make. They watched her narrowly, and at first were not quite sure if her manners and customs were to their liking. Was it pride that made this great lady dress herself in such fair robes—kirtles of rainbow hue that hung in graceful folds, mantles all broidered with gay devices in colours borrowed from the peacock's plumes? Yet as they looked at their own strong useful garments, grey and dun-coloured as the wintry skies, they allowed that perhaps a little cheerful touch of colour might not come amiss.

Margaret's speech too was soft and courteous, and they were fain to confess that her graciousness won their hearts, almost in spite of themselves. But they were suspicious at first of all the changes at the court. Why, even the King himself began to show more kingly manners and to live in greater state. The servants no longer did their work in a slovenly way; the common drinking-cups and platters were replaced by silver goblets and golden dishes. The palace was royally furnished; all was fitly set out and well ordered. And yet the people very clearly saw that it could not be pride that made the gentle Queen insist on all this state. They soon found that a self-denying pitiful heart dwelt under her magnificent robes, that she was ready to give even her own garments to clothe the poor, and if she fed off a golden platter, the food was as simple as that of the humblest of the land. But she was a Queen, and the simple rule of her life was that all things should be fitly ordered. Neither in this did she stop at her own palace gates. The whole kingdom soon felt the influence of the hand that could guide even the great-headed Malcolm.

Many abuses had crept into the ancient Church, and Margaret longed to set these right. It must have been a strange sight to see the Queen in her beautiful robes, seated in the midst of all the clever men when they were gathered together to talk the matter over. If she was in earnest, so were they. Many a frowning black look was cast at the maiden who dared single-handed to do battle for the right. But Margaret loved her Church, and like Sir Galahad "her strength was as the strength of ten, because her heart was pure," and in the end she triumphed. Little by little, too, she taught her people that Sunday was a holy day, a day of rest for man and beast—a lesson sorely needed then, and never since forgotten.

So it seemed as if the love of God which dwelt in Margaret's heart was already bringing light into the dark places, and making the crooked ways straight, and she rejoiced to find that she could serve Him in the world as well as in the cloister.

It soon became known that any one in want or in trouble would find a friend in the new Queen. Her pitiful heart was linked to a helpful hand, and no one was ever turned empty away. Many were the ransoms she paid for poor English prisoners carried off captive in the fierce raids of the Scots. Widows and orphans flocked to the court, sure that the Queen would always befriend them in their distress.

Sometimes the King would laugh, and say that none of his possessions were safe from those hands that were so ready to give. When her purse was empty, the Queen would take off one of her own garments to clothe some shivering beggar, and when money was needed she would dip her hands into the King's private store of gold, well knowing that he grudged her nothing.

"Aha! I have caught thee now," he cried one day as he found her hurrying from his treasure-chest with well-filled hands. "What and if I have thee arrested, tried, and found guilty of robbery?"

Margaret smiled as she looked up into those kind laughing eyes.

"I plead guilty at once," she said, holding out the gold.

"Nay, dear heart," said the King, closing her fingers over the golden pieces. "Thou canst not steal what is already thine own. All that I have, thou knowest, is thine."

How truly the great rough King loved this gentle maiden! Everything she touched, everything she loved, was sacred to him. Often he would lift the books she had been using, and although he could not read the words she loved, he would hold the volumes lovingly in his great strong hands, and, half ashamed, would bend to kiss the covers which her hands had touched. Nothing, he thought, was quite good enough for his Queen. He could not bear that even the bindings of her books should be only of rough leather, and when he found a cunning worker in metals, he would have the covers overlaid with gold and precious stones, and with many a round white pearl, fit emblem of his Margaret, the Pearl of Queens.

It was one of these precious books, a book of the gospels, which Margaret loved above all the rest. Not only was its jewelled cover a token of the King's love, but the precious words inside were fitly illuminated with golden letters, and there were pictures of the four Evangelists most fair to look upon.

Now it happened that one day when Margaret was journeying from Dunfermline, a careless servant, who carried the book, let it slip from its wrappings into the midst of a river which they were fording. The man did not perceive that the book was lost, and thought no more of it until called upon by the Queen to deliver his precious burden. Long and sorrowfully he sought for it, retracing carefully each step he had come until at last he reached the river. Then he grew hopeless indeed. If it should have fallen into the stream, it would mean the end of the Queen's precious book. Ah! it was too true; there, in a clear stretch of water, where the ripples scarcely stirred the surface, he saw the gleam of white parchment as the leaves were gently stirred to and fro by the moving water. He bent down and lifted it carefully, and holding it safe in his hands, he gazed with wonder at the open leaves. The little coverings of silk which protected the golden letters had been loosened and swept away, but upon the pages themselves there was not a stain or blur. Not a single letter was washed out; the fair illuminated pictures were as clear and unspoiled as ever; the gold shone undimmed upon the pure white parchment leaves; the water had not injured one of the precious words of the Queen's book.