Gateway to the Classics: Gabriel and the Hour Book by Evaleen Stein
Gabriel and the Hour Book by  Evaleen Stein

The Hour Book

dropcap image UT the next morning when Gabriel reached the Abbey, to his great joy he found the chain gone (for the Abbot had so ordered after his visit to the chapter-house), and Brother Stephen already hard at work, and happy as a bird. For like many other artist souls, when things went wrong, Brother Stephen suffered dreadful unhappiness; while, on the other hand, when pleased, he was full of boundless delight; and so, being relieved from the chain, he was in one of his most joyous moods.

He smiled brightly as Gabriel entered; and the April sunlight streaming in through the high narrow windows sparkled so radiantly, and so filled them with the life and energy and gladness of the spring-time, that each of them felt as though he could do no end of work, and that King Louis's book should be one of the most beautiful things in all the world!

And that morning was but the beginning of a long series of happy days that Brother Stephen and Gabriel were to spend together. At first the monk knew nothing of how it happened that he was freed from the humiliation of the chain; but one day he heard about Gabriel's talk with the Abbot from one of the brotherhood who had chanced to be in the garden that morning, and had overheard them.

At first Brother Stephen was rather displeased; for he did not like it that the little boy had begged of the Abbot something which he himself was too proud to ask. But when he thought it over, and reflected that it was out of sheer kindness that Gabriel had made the request, his heart strangely warmed toward the lad. Indeed, through all his life in the Abbey, no one had ever really cared whether he was happy or unhappy; and so poor Brother Stephen had no idea how very pleasant it would be to have even a little peasant boy take an interest in him. And as day after day went by, he began to love Gabriel, as he had never before loved any one.

Yes, those were very happy days for both of them, and very busy ones, too. Every morning Gabriel would come to the Abbey with his hands filled with the prettiest wild flowers he could find on the way; and from these Brother Stephen would select the ones that pleased him best to paint. Sometimes it would be the sweet wild hyacinths of pale blue, sometimes the yellow marsh-marigolds, and again the little deep pink field-roses, or some other of the innumerable lovely blossoms that every season brought. And with them all, as he had said, he put in the small flying creatures; butterflies and bees, scarlet ladybugs and pale green beetles, whose wings looked like scraps of rainbows; and sometimes, in his zeal, he even painted the little snails with their curled-up shells, and the fuzzy caterpillars that happened to come in on Gabriel's bouquets, and you really would never believe how very handsome even these looked in the gold borders, when Brother Stephen got through with them.

And so, day by day, the book grew in perfect beauty. And as Brother Stephen worked, there was much for Gabriel to do also. For in those days artists could not buy their ink and paints all ready for use as they do to-day, but were obliged to prepare by hand almost all their materials; and a little assistant such as Gabriel had to keep his hands busy, and his eyes open, too.

For instance, the matter of the ink alone, Gabriel had to have on his mind for weeks; for one could not then buy it ready made, in a bottle, as we do now without the least trouble, but the monks or their colour-grinders had to make it themselves.

And this is the way Gabriel had been taught to do it: morning after morning of those early spring days, as he trudged along on his way to the Abbey, he kept sharp watch on the young hawthorn-trees by the roadside; and when their first buds showed, and while they were still tiny, he gathered armfuls of the boughs, and carried them to the Abbey, where he spread them out in a sunny corner of the courtyard to stay until quite dry. Then he had to put them in a stone mortar and pound off all the bark; and this he put to steep in great earthen jars of water, until the water might draw all the sap from out the bark. All this took several weeks to do.

And then Gabriel spent a number of busy days in the great kitchen. There he had a large saucepan, and in it he placed, a little at a time, the water in which the bark was steeping; and then raking out some coals from the blazing fire of logs, he set his saucepan over them, and watched the barky water until it had boiled down very thick, much as one boils down syrup for preserves.

Then he dipped out the thick liquid into little bags of parchment, which he had spent days stitching up very tightly, so that nothing could leak out. After the little bags were filled, he hung them out-of-doors in the bright sunlight; and as the days grew warmer and warmer, the sun soon dried their contents, so that if one of the little bags were opened it would be found filled with a dark powder.

And then, last of all, when Brother Stephen wished some fresh ink for his writing, or for the delicate lines about his initial letters or borders, Gabriel would take a little of the dry powder from one of the bags, and, putting it in a small saucepan over the fire, would melt it with a little wine. And so at last it would be ready for use; a fine, beautiful black ink that hundreds of years have found hard work to fade.

Then there was the gold to grind and prepare: that was the hardest of all, and fairly made his arms ache. Many of the paints, too, had to be worked over very carefully; and the blue especially, and other brilliant colours made from vegetable dyes, must be kept in a very curious way. Brother Stephen would prepare the dyes, as he preferred to do this himself; and then Gabriel would take little pieces of linen cloth and dip a few in each of the colours until the linen would be soaked; and afterward, when they had dried in the sun, he would arrange these bits in a little booklet of cotton paper, which every night Brother Stephen, as was the custom with many of the monks, put under his pillow so that it might keep very dry and warm; for this preserved the colours in all their brightness. And then when he wanted to use some of them, he would tell Gabriel to cut off a bit of the linen of whatever colour he wished, and soak it in water, and in this way he would get a fine liquid paint.

For holding this paint, as dishes were none too plenty in those days, mussel shells were generally used; and one of Gabriel's tasks was to gather numbers of these from the banks of the little river that ran through one of the Abbey meadows. That was very pleasant work, though, and sometimes, late in the afternoons of those lovely summer days, Brother Stephen and Gabriel would walk out together to the edge of this little river; the monk to sit on the grassy bank dreaming of all the beautiful things he meant to paint, while Gabriel hunted for the pretty purple shells.


"Dreaming of all the beautiful things he meant to paint"

And oftentimes the lad would bring along a fishing-pole and try his luck at catching an eel; for even this, too, had to do with the making of the book. For Brother Stephen in putting on the gold of his borders, while he generally used white of egg, yet for certain parts preferred a glue made from the skin of an eel; and this Gabriel could make very finely.

So you see there were a great many things for a little colour-grinder to do; yet Gabriel was very industrious, and it often happened that he would finish his tasks for the day, and still have several hours to himself. And this was the best of all; for at such times Brother Stephen, who was getting along finely, would take great pleasure in teaching him to illuminate. He would let the boy take a piece of parchment, and then giving him beautiful letters and bits of borders, would show him how to copy them. Indeed, he took so much pains in his teaching, that very soon Gabriel, who loved the work, and who had a real talent for it, began to be quite skilful, and to make very good designs of his own.

Whenever he did anything especially nice, Brother Stephen would seem almost as much pleased as if Gabriel were his own boy; and hugging him affectionately, he would exclaim:

"Ah, little one, thou hast indeed the artist soul!" And, please God, I will train thy hand so that when thou art a man it shall never know the hard toil of the peasant. Thy pen and brush shall earn a livelihood for thee!" And then he would take more pains than ever to teach Gabriel all the best knowledge of his art.

Nor did Brother Stephen content himself with teaching the boy only to paint; but in his love for him, he desired to do still more. He had no wealth some day to bestow upon him, but he had something that was a very great deal better; for Brother Stephen, like many of the monks of the time, had a good education; and this he determined to share with Gabriel.

He arranged to have him stay at the Abbey for his supper as often as he could be spared from home; and hour after hour of the long summer evenings he spent teaching the lad to read and write, which was really quite a distinction; for it was an accomplishment that none of the peasants, and very few of the lords and ladies of that time possessed. Gabriel was quick and eager to learn, and Brother Stephen gradually added other things to his list of studies, and both of them took the greatest pleasure in the hours thus passed together.

Some times they would go out into the garden, and, sitting on one of the quaint stone benches, Brother Stephen would point out to Gabriel the different stars, or tell him about the fragrant growing plants around them; or, perhaps, repeat to him some dreamy legend of old, old Normandy.

And then, by and by, Gabriel would go home through the perfumed dark, feeling vaguely happy; for all the while, through those pleasant evenings with Brother Stephen, his mind and heart were opening brightly as the yellow primroses, that blossomed by moonlight over all the Abbey meadows.

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