THE DREAM OF THE WHITE LARK




This was a thing that happened long and long ago, in the glimmering morning of the Christian time in Erin. And it may have happened to the holy Maedog of Ferns, or to Enan the Angelic, or it may have been Molasius of Devenish—I cannot say. But over the windy sea in his small curragh of bull's hide the Saint sailed far away to the southern land; and for many a month he traveled afoot through the dark forests, and the sunny cornlands, and over the snowy mountain horns, and along the low shores between the olivegray hills and the blue sea, till at last he came in sight of a great and beautiful city glittering on the slopes and ridges of seven hills. " What golden city may this be' " he asked of the dark-eyed market folk whom he met on the long straight road which led across the open country. " It is the city of Rome," they answered him, wondering at his ignorance. But the Saint, when he heard those words, fell on his knees and kissed the ground. " Hail to thee, most holy city! " he cried; " hail, thou queen of the world, red with the roses of the martyrs and white with the lilies of the virgins; hail, blessed goal of my long wandering! " And as he entered the city his eyes were bright with joy, and his heart seemed to lift his weary feet on wings of gladness. There he sojourned through the autumn and the winter' visiting all the great churches and the burial places of the early Christians in the Catacombs, and communing with the good and wise men in many houses of religion. Once he conversed with the great Pope whose name was Gregory, and told him of his brethren in the beloved isle in the western waters. When once more the leaf of the figtree opened its five fingers, and the silvery bud of the vine began to unfurl, the Saint prepared to return home. And once more he went to the mighty Pope, to take his leave and to ask a blessing for himself and his brethren, and to beg that he might bear away with him to the brotherhood some precious relic of those who had shed their blood for the Cross. As he made that request in the green shadowy garden on the Hill C`elian, the Pope smiled, and, taking a clod of common earth from the soil, gave it to the Saint, saying, " Then take this with thee," and when the Saint expressed his surprise at so strange a relic, the Servant of the Servants of God took back the earth and crushed it in his hand, and with amazement the Saint saw that blood began to trickle from it between the fingers of the Pope. Marvelling greatly, the Saint kissed the holy pontiff's hand, and bade him farewell; and going to and fro among those he knew, he collected money, and, hiring a ship, he filled it with the earth of Rome, and sailed westward through the Midland Sea, and bent his course towards the steadfast star in the north, and so at last reached the beloved green island of his home. In the little graveyard about the fair church of his brotherhood he spread the earth which had drunk the blood of the martyrs, so that the bodies of those who died in the Lord might await His coming in a blessed peace. . Now it happened that but a few days after his return the friend of his boyhood, a holy brother who had long shared with him the companionship of the cloister, migrated from this light, and when the last requiem had been sung and the sacred earth had covered in the dead, the Saint wept bitterly for the sake of the lost love and the unforgotten years. And at night he fell asleep, still weeping for sorrow. And in his sleep he saw, as in a dream, the grey stone church with its round tower and the graveyard sheltered by the woody hills; but behold! in the graveyard tall trees sprang in lofty spires from the earth of Rome, and reached into the highest heavens; and these trees were like trees of green and golden and ruddy fire, for they were red with the blossoms of life, and every green leaf quivered with bliss, like a green flame; and among the trees, on a grassy sod at their feet, sat a white lark, singing clear and loud, and he knew that the lark was the soul of the friend of his boyhood. As he listened to its song, he understood its unearthly music; and these were the words of its singing: " Do not weep any more for me; it is pity for thy sorrow which keeps me here on the grass. If thou were not so unhappy I should fly." And when the Saint awoke his grief had fallen from him, and he wept no more for the dead man whom he loved. though it had been a semblance of the starry night, came to him, and said: " Give me thy hand; " and Basil touched the hand celestial, and the Angel drew him from his pillar, and placed him on the ground, and said: " This is that land of the west in which thou art to learn what is for thy good. Take for staff this piece of tree, and follow this road till thou reaches" the third mile­ stone; and there, in the early light, thou shall meet him who can instruct thee. For a sign, thou shall know the man by the little maid of seven years who help him to drive the geese. But the man, though young, may teach one who is older than he, and he is one who is greatly pleasing in God's eyes." The clear light was glittering on the dewy grass and the wet bushes when Basil reached the third milestone. He heard the distant sound as of a shepherd piping, and he saw that the road in front of him was crowded for near upon a quarter of a mile with a great gathering of geese—fully two thousand they numbered—feeding in the grass and rushes, and cackling, and hustling each other aside, and clacking their big orange colored bills, as they waddled slowly onward towards the city. Among them walked a nut brown little maiden of seven, clad in a green woolen tunic, with bright flaxen hair and innocent blue eyes, and bare brown legs, and feet shod in shoes of hide. In her hand she carried a long hazel wand, with which she kept in rule the large gray and white geese. As the flock came up to the Hermit, she gazed at him with her sweet wondering eyes, for never had she seen so strange and awful a man as this, with his sheepskin dress and iron chain and crown of thorns, and skin burnt black, and bleached hair and dark brows stained with blood. For a moment she stood still in awe and fear, but the Hermit raised his hand, and blessed her, and smiled upon her; and even in that worn and disfigured face the light in the Hermit's eyes as he smiled was tender and beautiful; and the child ceased to fear, and passed slowly along, still gazing at him and smiling in return. In the rear of the great multitude of geese came a churl, tall and young, and comely enough for all his embrowning in the sun and wind, and his unkempt hair and rude dress. It was he who made the music, playing on pan'spipes to lighten the way, and quickening with his staff the loiterers of his flock. When he perceived the Hermit he stayed his playing, for he bethought him, Is not this the saintly man of whose strange penance and miracles of healing the folk talk in rustic huts and hamlets far scattered? But when they drew nigh to each other, the Hermit bowed low to the Gooseherd, and addressed him: " Give me leave to speak a little with thee, good brother; for an Angel of heaven hath told me of thee, and fain would I converse with thee. Twenty years and three have I served the King of Glory in supplication and fasting and tribulation of spirit, and yet I lack that which thou canst teach me. Now tell me, I beseech thee, what works, what austerities, what prayers have made thee so acceptable to God." A dark flush rose on the Gooseherd's cheeks as he listened, but when he answered it was in a grave and quiet voice: " It ill becomes an aged man to mock and jeer at the young; nor is it more seemly that the holy should gibe at the poor." " Dear son in Christ," said the Hermit, " I do not gib or mock at thee. By the truth of the blessed tree, I was told of thee by an Angel in the very night which is not over and gone, and was bidden to question thee. Where fore be not wrathful, but answer me truly, I beg of thee. The Gooseherd shook his head. " This is a matter beyond me," he replied. " All my work, since thou ask of my work, hath been the tending and rearing of geese and driving them to market. From the good marsh lands at the foot of the hills out west I drive them, and the distance is not small, for, sleeping and resting by boulder and tree, for five days are we on the way. Slow of foot goes your goose when he goes not by water, and it profits neither master nor herd to stint them of their green food. And all my prayer hath been that I might get them safe to market, none missing or fallen dead by the way, and that I might sell them speedily and at good price, and so back to the fens again. What more is there to say ? " " In thy humility thou hidest something from me," said the Hermit, and he fixed his eyes thoughtfully on the young man's face. " Nay, I have told thee all that is worth the telling." " Then hast thou always lived this life ? " the Hermit asked. " Ever since I was a small lad—such a one as the little maid in front, and she will be in her seventh year, or it may be a little older. Before me was my father goose tender and pitiful to thee as thou hast been tender and pitiful to the little child." " Farewell, holy man! " replied the Herd, regarding him with a perplexed look, for the life and austerities of the Hermit were a mystery he could not understand. Then going on his way, he laid the pan's pipes to his lips and whistled a pleasant music as he strode after his geese.