Gabriel Interviews the Abbot
HE next day of Gabriel's service passed off much the same as the first, and so it went for almost a week; but the boy saw day by day that Brother Stephen's chain became more and more unbearable to him, and that he had long fits of brooding, when he looked so miserable and unhappy that Gabriel's heart fairly ached for him.
At last the lad, who was a sympathetic little fellow, felt that he could stand it no longer, but must try and help him in some way.
"If I could only speak to the Abbot himself," thought Gabriel, "surely he would see that Brother Stephen is set free!"
The Abbot, however, was a very stately and dignified person; and Gabriel did not quite see how a little peasant boy like himself could find an opportunity to speak to him, or how he would dare to say anything even if he had a chance.
Now it happened the very morning that Gabriel was thinking about all this, he was out in the Abbey kitchen beating up the white of a nice fresh egg which he had brought with him from home that day. He had the egg in an earthen bowl, and was working away with a curious wooden beater, for few people had forks in those days. And as he beat up the white froth, the Abbey cooks also were busy making pasties, and roasting huge pieces of meat before the great open fireplace, and baking loaves of sweet Normandy bread for the monks' dinner.
But Gabriel was not helping them; no, he was beating the egg for Brother Stephen to use in putting on the gold in the border he was painting. For the brothers did not have the imitation gold powders of which we see so much to-day; but instead, they used real gold, which they ground up very fine in earthen mortars, and took much trouble to properly prepare. And when they wanted to lay it on, they commonly used the white of a fresh egg to fasten it to the parchment.
So Gabriel was working as fast as he could, for Brother Stephen was waiting; when all at once he happened to look out the kitchen door, which opened on a courtyard where there was a pretty garden, and he saw the Abbot walking up and down the gravel paths, and now and then stopping to see how the tulips and daffodils were coming on.
As Gabriel looked, the Abbot seated himself on a stone bench; and then the little boy, forgetting his awe of him, and thinking only of Brother Stephen and his chain ran out as fast as he could, still holding his bowl in one hand and the wooden beater in the other.
As he came up to where the Abbot was sitting, he courtesied in such haste that he spilled out half his egg as he eagerly burst out:
"O reverend Father! Will you not command Brother Stephen to be set free from his chain?"
The Abbot at first had smiled at the droll figure made by the little boy, whom he supposed to be one of the kitchen scullions, but at this speech he stiffened up and looked very stern as Gabriel went on breathlessly:
"He is making such a beautiful book, and he works so hard; but the chain is so dreadful to him, and I was sure that if you knew they had put it on him, you would not allow it!"
Here the Abbot began to feel a trifle uncomfortable, for he saw that Gabriel did not know that he himself had ordered Brother Stephen to wear the chain. But he mentioned nothing of this as he spoke to Gabriel.
"Boy," he said, severely, "what affair of thine is this matter about Brother Stephen? Doubtless if he is chained, it is a punishment he hath merited. 'Tis scarcely becoming in a lad like thee to question these things." And then, as he looked sharply at Gabriel, he added, "Did Brother Stephen send thee hither? Who art thou?"
At this Gabriel hung his head, and, "Nay, sir," he answered, simply, "he does not know, and perhaps he will be angry with me! I am his colour-grinder, and I was in the kitchen getting the egg for his gold,"—here suddenly Gabriel remembered his bowl, and looking down in dismay, "Oh, sir," he exclaimed, "I have spilled the egg, and it was fresh-laid this morning by my white hen!" Here the boy looked so honestly distressed that the Abbot could not but believe that he spoke the truth, and so he smiled a little as he said, not unkindly:
"Well, never mind about thy hen,—go on; thou wast in the kitchen, and then what?"
"I saw you in the garden," answered Gabriel, "and—and—I thought that if you knew about the chain, you would not like it;" (here the Abbot began to look very stern again); "and," Gabriel added, "I could not bear to see Brother Stephen so unhappy. I know he is unhappy, for whenever he notices the chain, he frowns and his hand trembles so he can hardly paint!"
"Ah," said the Abbot to himself, "if his hand trembles, that is another matter." For the Abbot knew perfectly well that in order to do successfully anything so delicate as a piece of illumination, one must have a steady hand and untroubled nerves; and he began to think that perhaps he had gone a little too far in punishing Brother Stephen. So he thought a minute, and then to Gabriel, who was still standing before him, not quite knowing what to do, he merely said:
"Go back to thy work, lad, and mind thy colours; and," he added with haughty dignity, "I will do as I think best about Brother Stephen's chain."
So Gabriel went back to the kitchen feeling very uncomfortable, for he was afraid he had displeased the Abbot, and so, perhaps, done more harm than good to Brother Stephen. While he was quite sure he had displeased Brother Stephen, for he had kept him waiting a long while, and worse still, had spilled the best egg there was in the kitchen! However, the lad begged one of the cooks to let him have another egg, and, whisking it up as quickly as he could, made haste to carry it to the chapter-house.
As he pushed open the door, Brother Stephen said, sharply, "How now! I thought they had chained thee to one of the tables in the kitchen!"
"I am so sorry," said Gabriel, his face very red,—"but—I—spilled the first egg and had to make ready another."
He hoped Brother Stephen would not ask him how he happened to spill it; for by this time he began to realize that the high-spirited monk probably had reasons of his own for submitting to the punishment of the chain, and that very likely he would be displeased if he knew that his little colour-grinder had asked the Abbot to free him. So Gabriel felt much relieved when, without further questions, Brother Stephen went on with his work, in which for the moment he was greatly absorbed.
And thus the day went quietly on, till early in the afternoon; when, to the great surprise of both of them, the door slowly opened, and in walked the Abbot himself.
The Abbot was haughty, as usual, and, as Brother Stephen saw him come in, he raised his head with an involuntary look of pride and resentment; but neither spoke as the Abbot stepped over to the table, and examined the page on which the monk was working.
This particular page happened to be ornamented with a wide border of purple flag-flowers, copied from some Gabriel had gathered the day before in a swampy corner of one of the wayside meadows. Their fresh green leaves and rich purple petals shone with royal effect against the background of gold; while hovering over them, and clinging to their stems, were painted honey-bees, with gauzy wings, and soft, furry-looking bodies of black and gold.
As the Abbot saw how beautiful it all was, and how different from any other of the Abbey illuminations, he smiled to himself with pleasure. For the Abbot, though he never said a great deal, yet very well knew a good piece of artistic work when he saw it. Instead of merely smiling to himself, however, it would have made Brother Stephen much happier if he had taken the trouble to say aloud some of the nice things he was thinking about the work.
For Brother Stephen felt very bitter as he thought over all he had been made to bear; and even as the Abbot looked, he saw, sure enough, that his hand trembled as Gabriel had said; for the poor monk had hard work to control his feelings.
Now the Abbot really did not mean to be unkind. It was only that he did not quite know how to unbend; and perhaps feeling this, he soon went out.
Gabriel, who had been very much afraid he might say something to him about their conversation of the morning, felt greatly relieved when the door closed behind him; and the rest of the afternoon he and Brother Stephen worked on in silence.