The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 07
Saint Kentigern and the Robin
ONCE upon a time Saint Servan kept a school near Glasgow in Scotland, and many boys, big and little, came there to study. Now of all these boys there was one who surpassed the rest in everything that makes a good scholar. Kentigern was one of the smallest boys in the school, and yet he stood at the head of all his classes. It was Kentigern who found the answer to the knottiest problem, and who read off the hardest passages of Latin when no one else was able to make sense of them. It was Kentigern who learned his lessons first and who recited them best. It was Kentigern who sang the loudest and was never off the pitch; and good Saint Servan loved him best of all his pupils.
For all these reasons, and for several more like them, the other boys were jealous of Kentigern and did everything they could to trouble him and make him unhappy. They tried to make him fail in his lessons by talking and laughing when it was his turn to recite. But this was a useless trick; his answers were always ready, so they had to give this up. They teased him and called him names, trying to make him lose his temper so that he would be punished. But he was too good-natured to be cross with them; so they had to give this up. They tried to coax him into mischief and lead him do something which would make Saint Servan angry with him. But Kentigern loved his master too well to do anything to trouble him. So the boys had finally to give this up also.
There was only one way to bring Kentigern into disgrace. They must plan a trap, and make him fall into it. For weeks they racked their brains trying to think what they should do; but at last they thought they had hit upon a plan.
It was all concerned with a fire. In those days there were no matches with which to strike a light in a second. Matches had not been invented in the year 600, nor indeed for many centuries afterwards. Their way of making a fire was by rubbing two dry sticks together until they grew hot and a spark fell out upon the wood which was to be kindled. And this was a very difficult and tiresome thing to do, especially in the winter when there were few dry sticks to be found. So the fire which was kept burning night and day in the great fireplace of Saint Servan's school was tended carefully, and it would be a very serious thing to let this go out. For how would the breakfast be cooked, and the rooms warmed, and the candles lighted for the morning service in the chapel if there were no fire on the great hearth?
So for a week at a time the boys had to take turns in tending the fire; and the boy whose turn it was had to rise at midnight and put on wood enough to keep the blaze bright until morning. And oh! how angry Saint Servan would be with any boy who was so careless as to let the fire go out in the night.
Now it was Kentigern's week to tend the fire; and for several days he did tend it faithfully. But the boys were waiting for a chance to play their mean trick. On the fourth night Kentigern rose as the chapel clock boomed "twelve!" and went down to the kitchen to give the hungry fire its midnight lunch of snappy wood. But as soon as he stepped into the great empty hall he knew something was wrong. Br-r-r! The air was damp and chilly, and there was no crimson glow on the hearthstones. Kentigern shivered and ran to the fireplace, peering into the black cavern. There was nothing but a heap of white ashes and half-burnt wood!
Then Kentigern's heart sank, for he knew he should be blamed for carelessness, although he suspected that some one had thrown water on the fire and put it out. And he guessed that it was the other boys who had done this spiteful thing to bring him into trouble. He did not know what to do. But a sudden courage came to him. He took up a log of wood from the corner and laid it on the heap of ashes. Then bending down he blew gently on the pile. And oh, wonderful to say! It was as if he had scratched a dozen cards of matches and had touched them to a pile of paper. Hardly had his breath stirred the ashes and made the moss shiver on the great log, when the whole fireplace was filled with dancing flames, and the wood began to snap and crack in the best kind of a blaze. Kentigern laughed softly to himself as he stole back to bed, and said never a word to the sleeping boys who had tried to make mischief for him.
When they woke in the morning they began to chuckle and nudge one another, expecting every moment to see Saint Servan come frowning in search of the careless Kentigern. And every boy was ready to declare that the fire was burning brightly when he went to bed, and that Kentigern had forgotten to go down and tend it at midnight. But they were prevented from telling this falsehood. For the bell rang as usual for breakfast, and down they all went to find a beautiful fire burning on the hearth, and Kentigern going with his taper to light the chapel candelabra. They did not know how it had happened till long, long afterwards when Kentigern had made many other wonders come to pass, and when he was known far and wide as a Saint even wiser than Servan his master.
But meanwhile the boys hated him more than ever, when they saw how much better Saint Servan loved him every day. And once more they planned to bring him into disgrace. But this time it was an even more cruel thing which they meant to do. For if they succeeded it would not only cause Kentigern to be punished and make Saint Servan unhappy, but it would cost the life of an innocent little creature who never had done any harm to a single one of them.
Saint Servan was a kind-hearted old man, and he had a Robin Redbreast of which he was very fond,—a black-eyed fellow who ate his breakfast out of the Saint's hand. And when the master chanted the Psalms the little chorister would perch on Servan's shoulder and flap his wings, twittering as if he were trying to join in the songs of praise.
Now one morning when the coast was clear, the boys killed the little Redbreast and pulled off his head. And then the biggest boy of them all took the dead bird in his hand, and followed by all the rest ran screaming to Saint Servan himself, pretending to feel very sorry.
"Oh Father!" cried the Big Boy, "just see what the wicked Kentigern has done! Look at your Robin whom Kentigern has killed!"
Then they all began to cry out against Kentigern, and some even declared that they had seen him do the wicked deed; which was a horrid story, and their tongues must have smarted well as they spoke it.
Of course Saint Servan was very sad and angry. He tenderly took the little limp body in his hand and went to seek Kentigern, the other boys tiptoeing after him to see the fun. And by and by they came upon him in a window bending over a big book which he was studying. Saint Servan strode up to him and laid a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
"Look at this, boy," he cried with a sad voice, "look at this cruel deed, and tell me what shall be done to punish the slayer? Did I not love the Robin, even as I loved you, ungrateful boy!"
Kentigern turned quite pale with surprise and sorrow, and the tears came into his eyes.
"Oh, the dear little bird," he said. "Did I not love him too? Who has killed him, Father?"
"You did, you did; we saw you!" cried all the boys in a chorus.
Kentigern turned and looked at them in astonishment. He did not say a word, but his cheeks grew red and his eyes flashed. This was more than even his patience could stand.
"Well, what have you to say for yourself?" queried Saint Servan sternly. Kentigern turned to him sadly.
"Oh Father!" he said, "how can you believe that I would do such a cruel thing, to hurt the bird and to make you sad? I did not do it, Father."
"Can you prove it?" asked Saint Servan still more sternly, for he thought the boy was telling a falsehood to hide his guilt.
"Give me the Robin, Father," said Kentigern, holding out his hand. "I will prove that it was not this hand which cowardly used so small a thing as a tiny bird." Then holding the limp body in one hand and the downy head in the other, he stood before them all, looking up towards heaven, and made his little prayer.
Saint Kentigern and the Robin
"O Father in heaven," he said, "prove to my dear Father on earth that I have not done this cruel thing. If I am innocent, give me power to undo the wrong and restore life to the little singer who loved to praise Thee with his sweet voice." Then gently he set the head in place where it should be and, as his tears fell upon the Robin's neck, it seemed to grow again to the body. The feathers ruffled and the limp wings fluttered feebly; the black eyes opened, and out of the bill came a little chirp. Then the Robin hopped out of Kentigern's hands and across the floor to Saint Servan's feet, and flew up on his master's shoulder. There he sat and sang such a carol of joy as made the great hall ring again. But all the guilty boys put their fingers in their ears and turned pale, as if they understood what he was saying, and as if it told the truth about their jealousy and their cruelty and their falsehood.
So Saint Servan learned that Kentigern was innocent, and saw how it had all happened. The real culprits were severely punished. But Kentigern became even dearer than before to his master, who helped him in every way to become the great and famous Saint he afterwards was. And the Robin was another fond and faithful friend. For the bird seemed never to forget that Kentigern had restored his life, and always sang his sweetest song for the boy.
You may be sure that after this the boys gave up trying to get the better of Kentigern. They had learned that lesson, and thenceforth they were more kind and respectful to a boy over whom some kind Power seemed to keep special charge.