In the days when Venerable Bede was a monk at Jarrow, there was nowhere else in England such a realm of song as the North Countrie. It was "like land, like people;" for moor and forest and fertile vale were at one time grim in wintry dourness, at another winsome in wild summer beauty. Life was hard, the age rude and turbulent; but over the length and breadth of Northumbria might be heard at fall of night the voice of the singer; and the music of bagpipe and reed-flute and harp was as familiar in fishing cotes and upland thorps as in the manors of ealdormen.
There was one wayfarer who was ever welcome whithersoever he went, and that was the Gleeman; and of all the gleemen in the North Countrie Kynewulf was in his day the foremost. Young and handsome, gay and gallant, he was widely a favourite among the great nobles, for he was of their own etheling blood, and the hand which woke the magic of the harp-strings was as deft with the sea-rovers' helm and as deadly with the sword in fight.
More than one powerful chief had tried to retain him as the singer of his house, but in vain. All the world was too full of wonder and freshness for him to rest long in any place. His heart was hot within him for joy and adventure, and in the jocund recklessness of youth he roamed from burg to burg and from manor to manor, suiting his songs to his hearers and "winning renown and glittering gold." One night he might make mirth for the peasant folk of some hedge-girt village; the next he might be a guest at one of those worldly convents in which the abbess was still a great lady, and the nuns, with their hair curled and crinkled about their brows, went in violet linen and crimson tunics with fur-trimmed sleeves and white veils fastened with rosettes of bright ribbon.
At intervals he felt the vague longing for more than even the kindly companionship of men and women can give, and the spirit of dreams led him into lonely places, where he watched with keen eyes and pure delight the wild creatures of heath and wood and sea-shore. To many of these he gave a second life in song, as gladsome to-day as it was over eleven hundred years ago; ay, and there still play in his verse some which have long vanished from the land, like the beaver of the nut-brown streams and the wild swan whose humming feathers—
There was one pleasant spot among the hills on the northern side of the Great Wall where he had long been received like a truant son of the house who had come home again; and if folk seldom spoke there of his fame as a gleeman he was all the better pleased on that account. In this old manor of Flanging Shaw—the green wood clinging to the hillside—he had watched the thegn's little daughter Mildryth grow up from her prattling childhood. At each return from his wanderings it was still, "Why, elfkin, how you have sprung; and flowered too!" and at each departure there was the same laughing farewell, "Kiss me ere you go, and I will kiss you when you come back!" so that as time went on apace the blithe elf became to him more and more a companion when he was with her, and a sweet little soul to call to remembrance when he was far away.
It was for her that he made many of his riddle-songs, and they were called riddles because in each there was a picture of something and she had to guess what it was; and Kynewulf had a delightful way of putting all manner of pretty everyday things into these songs. There were the five sisters who lived all through the summer out in the sunshine and the rain; but when the cold weather came they had a warm house in which there was a large room and a little closet, and four of them played in the room, but the fifth, who was very masterful and often went against the others, had the closet to herself. And all of them wore little half-moons on their foreheads, and if they did not keep their moons white and clear the winter-elves tried to nip them with frost for their naughtiness. Mildryth hugged herself with glee when she found that this was a riddle-song of her fingers and her winter-mittens.
There were riddles of beasts and birds which pleased her much. The white-muzzled brock, or badger, sang to her out of his burrow, telling her how he ran through the grass on his sharp pointed toes, and how, when his enemies came digging at the entrance of his earth, he had to tunnel a street through the hillside for his dear little folk to win their way out to safety. Once too when Mildryth looked up at the branching antlers of the stag at the end of the roof-beam, Kynewulf made the great creature speak to her of his swift springing flights to the sunny hilltops, of his raids on the green meadows, and of the hard winters when he shook the hoar-frost from his head and dug down through the frozen snow for food. How often, too, had the old forest trees shrouded him and his comrade on stormy nights! Then his voice rose, belling in sorrow—
"Oh, poor stag!" cried Mildryth. "Let me repeat it thrice, and I shall have it without book."
Then there was the riddle of the swifts on a summer evening—
These things had begun in the early days when Kynewulf used to remind her at table that "little wights took little bites; "but now the tricksy elf had grown into the little Lady Mildryth; and in these last months of the gleeman's wandering life it happened more than once that after he had turned his horse's head towards Hanging Shaw and galloped forward a mile or two, he suddenly drew rein and took another track. But call her what they might, the little Lady Mildryth was still very much the same sprightly elfkin; and that Kynewulf would have guessed, if he had seen her gazing eagerly across the meadows and wondering what it was that kept her merry friend so long away.
Now it chanced in the autumn that Kynewulf was present at a high feast in one of the gay houses where a jovial warrior was lay abbot, and during the merry-making that night it seemed to him three times as though some one had plucked his sleeve, and he was somehow aware that the elfkin stood invisibly beside him. A strange lightness of heart came over him, so that folk wondered at the wild spirit of mirth which laughed in his eyes and rang out in his voice. He rose early in the same happy mood and rode away northward, thinking to himself, "To-night I sleep in Hanging Shaw even if I borrow an hour of the starlight. I have been too long away, and with a fool's reason."
Companions fared with him some distance on the way, then parted east and west, while he went on alone, humming snatches of song and taking pure joy in the colour of the world. There was a mist on the far hillsides; dew sparkled on the gossamer; in a meadow shone a birch-tree, a silvery trunk with a cloud of orange gold against the blue sky. In a high rounded field churls were ploughing, and the teams of oxen went over the swell of the land like great ships sailing slowly; and one side of the furrow was black, and one was green with the growth of heart's ease in the stubble, which the ploughshare had not yet turned over and buried.
In the afternoon the road ran through tracts of heather. Near the wayside a shepherd lad sat piping on a grey moor-stone, and a cross of green rushes lay upon the stone, and beside the cross were scrawled in chalk three runic letters— F, B, and P.
"Hail, aged sire!" cried Kynewulf as he approached him, "How many sheep hast thou to thy charge?"
"Two score and five, lord." answered the lad.
"Dost thou know every one of them?"
"Ay, lord; and they know me, and my pipe and my horn."
"That is as it should be with true shepherds. I see thou hast the cross with thee."
"Ay, lord; for here be moor-pools, haunted by water-elves."
"And what signs are these thou hast written in chalk?"
"That, lord, methinks thou knowest," answered the lad with a smile. "These be 'Oak' and 'Birch' and 'Thorn'; and in oak and birch and thorn is strong magic against sprites and dwarfs and dwimers and fierce witch-wives."
"But these are not the things themselves, only signs of them," said Kynewulf.
"Nay, this is 'Oak' and this is 'Thorn,' and this oak and this thorn is as mighty as any that ever grew in ground. Folk do say they be even mightier than the living trees, and this oak and thorn and others of their kind have such craft that they can stay ships upon the sea, and win love and hate, and cast folk into slumber, and raise up them that are dead. I know not. Canst thou believe it, lord?"
"Ay, can I, and do," replied Kynewulf laughing, "though perchance not quite in the way thou thinkest. Here, wise man of the moor, is a fee to thee"—dropping some coins into the lad's hand. "Fair fortune and long life!"
"And better still to thee, lord!" said the shepherd lad.
It was wearing towards evensong when man and beast stayed awhile for their last rest at Hagulstad, the fair town which is now called Hexham; and when Kynewulf rode on again, the low red light of the west was beginning to dwindle in the woods which overhung the way to the Great Wall.
Grey moths fluttered out of the shadows. Bats flitted noiselessly by in freakish swervings. Trees and rocks lost their outlines in the uncertain twilight. Kynewulf was wishing that he were at large again under the open sky when a faint sound of chanting reached his ears, and a few moments later the dusky road flickered with the flames of far-off torches. "It is some procession of monks," he thought, "making their way homeward to the Abbey at Hagulstad."
As the distance lessened, the flare of the moving lights revealed a company of darkly-hooded figures, and in the mournful chant he recognised the supplication of the Penitential Psalms; but it was not until he had reined his horse aside to let the procession pass that he perceived how in the midst of them four of the brethren carried a bier shoulder-high, and over the bier lay a white pall.
Behind the smoky blaze of the torches came a train of mourners, but so startling had been the discovery that this was a pageant of the grave, that Kynewulf scarce noticed the solitary man who rode in front of them with bowed head. After him rode other horsemen, and then the road was black with a great company on foot.
Dimly visible the crowd moved by with a strange sound of trampling in the dark, and that muffled beat of footsteps passing away was more lamentable to hear than the dirge of the hooded men.
A white pall and but four bearers! Suddenly Kynewulf became aware that some little maid had gone down the dusty way into the stillness beyond the world. He leaned from his saddle and spoke to one of the mourners.
"Tell me, good friend, who is dead?"
"The sweetest maiden under heaven, God rest her soul! It is the little Lady Mildryth of Hanging Shaw."
"No, no, man, no! That cannot be. Tell me thou art not sure."
"Ah, sure as the good thegn, who rides yonder with never a word to say."
"O God in the high heavens! When did this happen?"
"This is the fourth day; she was ailing but a little while; we bear her to her rest in the abbey."
"I thank thee. There is no more to say. Go, man, go!"
Cold and motionless as stone, Kynewulf sat gazing, long after the torch-light had flickered away; but still he saw the bier and the white pall, faring onward and onward into the darkness but never disappearing, and still he heard the trampling of feet, the muffled sound of generations passing for ever from fire and the light of the sun and the homes of men.
And Mildryth was dead—dead! Never more would her bright face be turned up to him; never more would he hear her merry laughter. With the wailing "Ea-la! Ea-la!" of a woman, he plunged through the darkness, heedless what became of him or whither he went. The little elf of sweetness and joy! lost, blown out like a light in the wind; ea-la!
Out upon the cold waste beyond the Wall a deep gloom fell upon his mind, and the sins and follies of his reckless life crowded into memory. He felt himself outcast and accursed. The very runes of his name changed into living things and fluttered duskily round him in care and anguish. "K and Y and N are we, and into what trouble hast thou brought us!" Then he was seized with an unspeakable horror of he knew not what, and a shrieking fear made him leap from his saddle and cling screaming to his dumb companion. The horse rubbed its head against him, and when the wild fit passed he walked for a long way beside it with his hand twisted in its mane.
For many days reason and memory failed him. Whither he wandered, how he found food, where he slept, by what good guidance he escaped the perils of the waste he never knew. When at length the cloud lifted from his brain, he was standing, grey-haired and ragged, in the sunlight before a tall cross of stone. It was carved all over, here with runes and there with vine-leaves, and little creatures among them; but the man's gaze was fixed on the runes, which were the voice of the cross speaking. As Kynewulf read, it told how it had lifted on high the mighty King, the Lord of the heavens; how it was drenched with His blood; how folk came from afar to look upon Him, and it was overwhelmed with sore sorrow.
Weeping bitterly, Kynewulf fell upon his knees and laid his head on the step of the cross. While he lay there an aged priest came by, and after watching him some time he drew near and touched him.
"Rise, son; it may be that I can help thee."
Kynewulf arose, and looked at the priest with piteous eyes, but spoke no word. The priest saw that his face was noble, his hair grizzled before its time, and his garb rich despite its disarray. Putting his arm within Kynewulf's, "Tell me," he said, "how thou hast come hither, for thou art not of these parts."
"It were long to tell," replied Kynewulf, pressing his hand on his brow, "and I have forgotten many things."
"Come with me then, for thou art in need of repose," and the priest led him to a little thorp enclosed within its dyke of stakes and quick-set thorn, and so to his home in the church. He laid food before him, and when Kynewulf had eaten and drunk, he told who he was and whence he came and all that had befallen him.
"Be of good cheer, son," said the old priest, "for assuredly thy angel has been with thee. Now take thy rest, and fear no evil."
All that day from noon until sunset and far into the darkness Kynewulf lay dreamless in the heavy sleep of the sorrowful. But at the dead hour of the night, when his outworn spirit had been made new, he beheld once more the cross, in a vision. It was not now a carved stone, but a great rood of wood, wonderful, wreathed with light, and casting aloft bright beams into the heavens. All the wood of the forest was glazed over with gold; the foot of it was crusted with gems and gems were on the shoulder-span.
While he gazed upon it, he saw that this tree of glory was ever changing in its colour and clothing; now it was wet and crimson with blood, and now again dazzling with gold and jewels; and out of the vision, as it thus came and went, a wind of song told its story, from the ancient days when it was felled at the end of the weald, and reared up on a hill, and swung on high men outlawed—wolf-heads; from those ancient days unto that eventide when the Lord of Victory, lifted down from His pain, was laid in a grave of clean stone, and the poor folk sang a lay of sorrow over Him, and wending away out-wearied, left Him at rest with a little company.
Long afterwards Kynewulf wrought that dream into a noble Song of the Rood, but now, lying on the sheer brink of perdition, he was overjoyed to hear the voice calling to him: "Loved listener of mine, bid all men to this beacon; on me the Son of God hung in anguish, and they may each one be healed who with awe behold me, for I have opened the true way of refuge."
Kynewulf awoke, praying earnestly to the cross, and eager to die; but the morning brought another day and a new life.
When he had regained his strength and clothed himself anew, he bade the good priest farewell. The old man held his hand for a little while, looking with much love into his face.
"I am glad to have known thee, son, though I think not ever to see thee again. But good things abide for thee in thy east country, and not the least of them is to have the counsel and solace of my brother Beda. Do not fail to take my greeting to him."
So it fell out that Kynewulf came to Jarrow. It was in the winter, and the low green hill was drifted with snow, and Tyne Water and the great pool where the king's ships lay were covered with ice; but Father Beda was as friendly as fire in the ingle nook, and for all his fame gracious and lowly, and despite his busy life at leisure to speak with him. He heard all his confession and counselled him on the ordering of his life.
"The cowl does not make the monk, nor the tarred rope the sea-rover. Think many times ere betaking thee to the cloister. Thy gifts are of the age, and such evil as thou hast done was in the age. I would have thee remain there and be God's Gleeman. Was not blessed Aldhelm wont to stand on the bridge and in the market-place singing English songs, so that he might draw folk to him to hear the Lord's Word?"
"Ea-la!" sighed Kynewulf, "I sing no more. My gift has been taken from me."
"So it is with the birds when the old feathers fall. Let thy new feathers be grown, white and clean, and thou wilt sing again."
"Nay, the wells are dry and all the blossom of the world is withered."
"Never think it," said Beda cheerily. "The wells and the flower of the world are in each man's heart. Now listen to me, for though it seldom happens that any one can give to another such vision of things as he himself hath, I will tell thee of matters that folk talk of, but that a gleeman might better sing of, and so save them for the years that are to come. Didst thou ever hear the legend of Thomas Didymus—how when the Lord would have him carry His Gospel unto Ind and Taprobane he was a slow-heart and loath to go; and the Lord said, 'Nay, but go thou shalt,' and casting a rope about his neck, He hailed Thomas to the haven where the Eastern ship folk trafficked, and sold him for a slave. But the chapman, somewhat in doubt; took Thomas aside, and questioned him, 'Art thou indeed this man's slave?' and Thomas answered eagerly, 'Yea, yea, truly He is my Master though I be the basest of His bondsmen.'"
The light kindled in the gleeman's eyes, but Beda raised his hand and went on: "Here is a thing, as it were but of yesterday. Thou knowest how the holy Augustine came to Canterbury. He that consecrated him was Virgilius, Bishop of Arles; and before he was bishop he was abbot in Lerins Isle. As he walked of a night round that island, like a faithful shepherd round the wattled fold, he came upon a strange ship lying close against the shore, and upon the deck he saw mariners in the starlight. Two came down the gangway and greeted him. They were bound, they said, to the Holy Places, and they had put in to the island hoping that they might win him to sail with them, for they had heard of his holiness and his austerity, and no truer pilot might they have to that sacred land. Virgilius smiled grimly as he heard their praise, and he lifted up his hand and made the sign of the cross. Ship and mariners vanished, and in the dark waves he saw but the glimmering of the stars."
And Kynewulf's eyes shone like stars. "Tell me more," he cried; "the thought of these things is new to me."
"What a lay too mightest thou make," said Beda, "of the holy Guthlac in his isle among the black waters of the bright-flowering Fens! Or if thou shouldst wish for a loftier theme, hast thou not: In exitu Israel de Egypto? Or, now that I think of thy dream, what dost thou say to the quest of Elene the Empress who found the blessed wood on which the Lord died? Then, high over all—when thou hast won to the strength and happy peace of thy manhood—wilt thou not sing of the Lord Himself, thy Christ and mine, who came to us a naked babe, and who will come yet again in the clouds on that day when the dead shall be as glass, showing within them all the hidden things of life, and thy rood-tree of light shall take the place of the fallen stars and the darkened sun?"
"Who shall be equal to such mighty minstrelsy?" asked Kynewulf.
"That, I said, was for the day of thy strength and tranquillity," replied Beda. Then turning over the smooth vellum leaves of a Greek book, and reading a little here and there, "When Matthew was a captive among the Mermedonians," he continued, "the Lord appeared to Andrew in a dream, and bade him hasten to the deliverance of his brother. But Andrew shrank aghast from the perils of the deep and the terror of waters and the naked earls of man-eating folk. The Lord's sorrowful rebuke brought him to a stouter heart; and early in the morning he went down with his disciples to the sea-shore. There he beheld a white ship with sun-browned mariners three, and these were the Lord Himself and two of His angels in the guise of foreign ship-folk. Andrew hailed them, 'Ho! ye bold sea-roamers, whither are ye bound?' The master-shipman answered, 'To Mermedonia.' 'Thither, too, would we,' said Andrew. ''Tis a wicked coast,' said the Lord, 'and ill fare strangers landing there.' 'None the worse should we fare, if we might sail with you in this white ship with the green wales. Wilt thou take us?' 'Right willingly,' he answered, 'when ye have paid fee and charge, as we shall bargain.' 'No charge can we pay,' said Andrew, 'for we carry nor scrip nor purse; nay, nor bread nor shoes, but God will provide for thy payment.' Then laughed the shipman, sitting high on the bulwark, 'What manner of folk are ye that would wander far on the heaving street of ocean, having not imaged gold, nor yet arm-rings, nor any sort of treasure?' 'We are God's men,' said Andrew, 'wending whither He bids us.' 'Ah,' said the Lord, the mariner, 'if you be God's men, I must needs take you freely'." And looking up from the book, "Does it weary you?" asked Beda.
"No, no; say on," replied Kynewulf.
"When the white ship was far away from the pleasant land, storm-winds rose, the seas cried out to each other, and the Terror of Waters came upon them, so that the disciples were afraid. Andrew strove to comfort them: 'Take courage! It was on such an evening as this, long ago, that the great storm broke upon us from the hills, so that the waves beat into our ship, and our Master, as you know, was sleeping. Now He sleeps not nor slumbers, and leaves unhelped no man on earth whose courage does not fail him.' The storm died down, and in the stillness of the night Andrew and the Lord, the helmsman, talked together: 'In my youth I was a fisher, like Simon my brother, and through many gales have we run in our sea-boat, but never have I seen mariner like thee to steer through wet wind and sea-smoke. I would I had thy art.' 'That I might perchance teach thee,' said the Lord, the steersman; 'but what was that I heard thee say of one who slept in a great storm?' And Andrew told Him of the quelling of the winds and the stilling of the sea. 'What more dost thou remember of thy Master?' asked the Lord. 'Many a day it would take to tell thee all,' said Andrew, and as the ship bore on in the starlight he recalled the days of the Lord's companionship, until his eyes grew heavy. When he awoke it was morning, he was on the shore of Mermedonia, and he roused his companions, crying, 'Awake, arise; it was Christ who was our steersman.'"
Beda was still speaking when the bells rang for vespers, and he broke off and quickly closed the book. "Come," he said; "the angels, I know, visit the canonical hours and gatherings of the brethren. If they found me not there, would they not say, 'Where is Beda that he does not come with the brethren to the prescribed prayers?'"
Thus in the cloister on the low green hill of Jarrow Beda sought to school Kynewulf to his new life as God's Gleeman.
When Easter had gone by and birch-tree and rowan were in tender leaf, Kynewulf set out to the home of dear memories at Hanging Shaw. There he abode awhile, taking and giving such solace as he might. In the midst of May he received tidings of the death of Beda on the eve of Ascension. "Why was I not there?" he said; and thinking how that holy man lay alone in his cell, with but one scholar writing by his side, while the brethren were abroad with the cross, making the circuit of the fields and beseeching a blessing on the fruits of the earth, he marvelled at the strange endings of the lives of men.
Thereafter he fared south to Hagulstad for the feast of Pentecost. On that day of the rushing wind and the tongues of fire, as he stood by the little elf's place of rest, the Lord and Light-bearer gave him back his gift of song, made pure in the fire and free from shame.
When he returned once more to his wandering life, folk scarcely knew again the gay singer in the man who had shrieked on the waste and whose young hair was dashed with grey.
Some of the themes that Beda taught him he wrought into noble verse, and men listened to them with quickened pulses. He won to his day of strength and tranquillity, and sang the Dream of the Rood which he had seen long ago in sleep. He was then an old man, with very few friends left on the earth. They had fared hence and had their abiding in heaven.
When he too passed away from this fleeting life, I do not know. Best pleased am I to think of him as a shadowy gleeman, untouched by time, and flitting about the Northumbrian moors continually.