The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 09
Saint Cuthbert's Peace
SAINT CUTHBERT was a Scotch shepherd boy who tended his flocks along the river Tweed near Melrose. Night and day he lived in the open air, drinking in the sunshine and sleeping on the heather. And he grew up big and strong and handsome,—the finest lad in all that part of the country. He could run faster than any one, and was always the champion in the wrestling matches to which he challenged the village boys for miles around. And you should have seen him turn somersaults and walk on his hands! No one in all the world could beat him at that. Saint Cuthbert lived more than a thousand years ago, and yet the people of Scotland still tell tales of his strength and agility and grace in games with the other boys. He was their leader and chief, and every one was sure that he would grow up to be a famous man.
But he tended his sheep faithfully until the time came. For he was growing and learning all the while. In his happy outdoor life he became wise in many things which other people never know. He found the secret of the whispering wind, and the song of the brook. He knew what the chatter of the squirrels meant, and the caw of the crows. He learned the ways of all the little bright-eyed animals whom he met in his walks over the hills of heather; and he grew to love every creature which has fur or feathers and goes upon four legs or on two. Especially he loved the birds. He used to watch them for hours together, the little larks gurgling up and trilling down again; the great gulls swooping and curling and sailing like white ships in the blue sea of sky. And he longed, oh! how he longed to have wings and to flutter and float away like the birds.
One night while he lay watching his sheep upon the pink heather which bears you up like a springy cushion, he saw a strange thing in the sky. There seemed a great pathway of light, and down it a band of angels came from heaven, clothed all in rainbow glory. And in a little while he saw them mounting back again, bearing a beautiful blossom among them. And he guessed that it was the soul of some holy man, being carried to Paradise.
Saint Cuthbert's Vision
Sure enough, the next day the news went abroad that Aidan, the holy Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died that very night. Then Cuthbert knew that he, a little shepherd boy, had been blessed to see a holy vision. He wondered why; but he felt sure that it meant some special grace to him. Day after day, night after night, he thought about it, wondering and wondering. And at last he made up his mind that he, too, would become a holy man, and then perhaps he should find out all about it.
He was fifteen years old when he came to Melrose Abbey to be made a monk. And there he lived and grew rich with the wisdom of books; which, added to the wisdom of the woods and hills and streams which he already possessed, made him a very wise man indeed.
He had not been there long before every one, even the Abbot himself, saw that this glorious young monk was the most powerful of them all. Every one obeyed and reverenced him. Every one came to ask his advice and help. Every one sent for him in time of trouble. With his beautiful face and strong body, his kind eyes and great hands tender as a woman's to touch a little sick child, he was loved by the people in all the country around. For he had the great gift of sympathy. In those years while he had lived under the kind, hot sun his heart had grown mellow and soft like a ripe apple.
Many of the people in the far-off hills and lonely Scotch moorlands were like savages, wild and timid, hating every stranger. But the hearts of these poor children of the heather warmed to the big brother who came among them with love shining in his eyes and a desire to help them. He used to trudge into the wildest, most distant places to reach them, to teach and comfort them. He was always carrying food and clothing to the poor and medicine to the sick, for he could not bear to see others suffer. But he was not afraid of suffering himself.
One thing Cuthbert used to do which showed how strong and healthy he was. Even until he grew to be quite an old man he used to take a bath in the sea every day of his life. No matter how cold it was he would plunge into the waves and come out all dripping upon the frozen beach, where he would always kneel and say a little prayer before going home.
One bitter night in winter as Cuthbert knelt thus in the snow after his plunge, blue with cold, two brown otters came up out of the sea and stole to Cuthbert's side. And as he prayed, not noticing them at all, they licked his poor frozen feet, trying to warm them, and rubbed against him with their thick, soft fur till he was dry again. Thus the water-creatures did their little best for him who loved them and who had done so much for others.
When the Abbot Boswell died Cuthbert became head of the Abbey in his place. But after twelve years of living indoors with the other monks he could bear it no longer. For he longed to get out into the fresh air and under the sky once more. He resolved to become a hermit, and to live a wild outdoor life with the birds whom he loved.
He built his nest on a wild little island named Farne, a steep, rocky sea-mountain where ten or fifteen years before had lived that same holy Aidan whose passage to heaven he had witnessed when he was a shepherd boy at Melrose. The nest was really a hole in the ground—you know some birds build so. He dug himself a round cell in the rock, the roof having a window open to his dear sky. The walls were of turf and stone and it was thatched with straw. There were two rooms, one where he lived and slept and cooked; the other for his little chapel, where he sang praises like any bird and sat for hours thinking holy thoughts. Before the door he hung an ox-hide, and this was his only protection from the winds of the sea. He found a spring in the rock and this supplied him with water; and he planted a plot of barley which yielded him food.
Thus he lived, alone with the birds which swarmed about the rock. The winds swept over him and the waves curled and broke almost at the door of his hut, but he did not care. Indeed, the sea was a rough friend to him. Once when by mistake it came too near and washed away part of the cottage, Cuthbert sent to his brother monks on the mainland, asking them to bring him a beam to prop up the roof, for there was no wood on his rocky isle. But this the brothers forgot to do. The sea, however, seemed sorry for having been so careless, and at the next high tide it washed up at the Saint's feet the beam he wished.
He did not lack for friends. For, as soon as he made this island rock his home, it became the haunt of every kind of bird. The other animals could not reach him from the shore, poor things. But the blessed wings of the gulls and curlews, the eider-ducks and the ravens, bore them to their Master in his retreat.
"Hi!" they said to one another, "we have got him to ourselves now. Those poor, featherless creatures can't come here, neither can he get away, without wings. He is all our own now!"
This was not quite true, for they forgot that though men cannot fly they make boats with wings, and so can cross the sea. Cuthbert often went ashore to do errands of mercy, in peasants' huts and in the Queen's palace. And many people came to see him also, because his fame had spread over the kingdom. He made them welcome to the house which he had built for his guests as far as possible from his own solitary cell. He loved them, and helped them when he could. But after all, the birds were his dearest friends, and he liked best to be alone with them.
They would come and sit upon his shoulders and knees and let him take them up and caress them. They followed him in flocks when he went to walk. They watched at the door of his hut and ate breakfast, dinner, and supper with him. Many people believed that every day the birds brought him food from Paradise, but this story arose, as so many false stories do, from another thing that really happened. For once when some blackbirds thoughtlessly stole his barley and some of the straw from his roof, Cuthbert scolded them, and bade them never to do so again. It made the birds ashamed, and to show that they were sorry they brought him a great lump of suet. He did not eat it, however, as they expected he would, but used it to grease his shoes with, and it lasted a long time.
Now Cuthbert loved all these birds dearly, especially the unselfish eider-duck who picks the down from her own breast to make a softer bed for her little ones. He was kind to them and they had no fear of him. But he dreaded lest after he was gone others should be less kind to his pets. So to protect them he made a promise, and he bequeathed them a legacy, the gift of Saint Cuthbert's Peace. He promised that no one should harm or kill them on that island without being dreadfully punished. And he gave them this Peace for ever and ever. So that thenceforth ill befell whoever injured one of Saint Cuthbert's birds. There are two stories to prove this, and they both happened long after Cuthbert was gone from Farne.
Now Liveing was the servant of Ælric, the hermit who next dwelt in Cuthbert's cell. And one day while Ælric was gone away to the mainland, Liveing killed and ate one of the eider-ducks who still lived and built their nests near the hut where the Saint had lived. Liveing knew the promise of Saint Cuthbert's Peace, but he thought that no one would find out his crime. For he scattered the bones and feathers over the cliff, and saw them washed away by the waves. But after Ælric, his master, came back, he found a lump of bones and feathers rolled together and cast by the tide upon the very steps of his chapel. For even the sea was promised to Saint Cuthbert's Peace, and had to betray the guilty man. So Liveing was discovered and punished.
And this is the second story. The birds themselves were bound by the Peace to be kind to one another. The big birds were forbidden to hurt or kill a little one. And this is what happened to a great hawk who flapped over from the neighboring island of Lindisfarne and ate up the tame sparrow which belonged to Bartholomew, another hermit who lived after Ælric at Farne. For Saint Cuthbert's power made the hawk fly for days around and around the island, never able to get away, never able to stop, though he was ready to drop with weariness and hunger. He would have kept on flying until now, or until he fell into the sea and was drowned, if at last the hermit had not taken pity upon him. Bartholomew caught the tired hawk by his wings and carried him to the seashore, and there in Saint Cuthbert's name he bade him fly away, and never come back to Farne to bother him and his peaceful birds.
So Saint Cuthbert lived on his island surrounded by his feathered friends. He never grew proud, though every one loved and reverenced him and called him a Saint. He was always poor, although royal ladies, even the Queen herself, made him presents of gold and jewels,—which he gave away to the needy. He was always meek, though Egfried the King himself came all the way to Farne to make him a grand Bishop, kneeling on the ground before Cuthbert and begging him to accept the gift. His life was like a beacon to men, burning bright and clear. And after he died a lighthouse was built on his rock to be a spark of hope for the sailors at sea.
As for Saint Cuthbert's Peace, it still blesses the lonely rock of Farne. Flocks of sea-birds swarm about it, descendants of those who knew the Saint himself. They are tame and gentle and suspect no harm from any one, for have they not the promise of their Saint? Alas! Men less kindly than he have forgotten the promise and have broken the Peace. They have killed many of the trusting birds who let them come up close and take them in their hands, expecting to be petted. For the birds never even thought to run away, poor, innocent, soft-eyed creatures. And how cruelly they were deceived!
But I am sure that Saint Cuthbert's dreadful charm still binds the murderers. He will not forget his promise; and though they may not be punished immediately, as Liveing was, nor suffer like the wicked hawk, Saint Cuthbert will bring sorrow upon their heads at last and misfortune to the cruel hands which dare to hurt his birds.