The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 12
The Blind Singer, Saint Hervé
ONCE upon a time when Childebert was King of France, a thousand years ago, there lived a young man named Hyvarnion who was very handsome and had the sweetest voice. Hyvarnion was the King's minstrel; he lived at the palace and it was his business to make music for the King to keep him in a good temper. For he wrote the most beautiful songs and sang them to the accompaniment of a golden harp which he carried with him everywhere he went. And besides all this Hyvarnion was very wise; so wise that when he was a boy at school he was called the Little Sage, for Saint Cadoc had been his master and had taught him many things that even the King, who was a heathen, did not know.
Now Hyvarnion had lived four years with the King when one night he had a wonderful dream. He dreamed that he saw a beautiful maiden picking flowers in a meadow, and that she smiled at him and gave him a blossom, saying, "This is for my King." And Hyvarnion woke up longing to see the maiden more than anything else in the world.
For three nights he dreamed the same dream, of the singing maiden and the meadow and the flowers; and each time she seemed more beautiful than on the last. So on the fourth day he woke up and said, "I must find that maiden. I must find her and hear her call me her King."
So, taking his golden harp on his back, he went out from the palace and struck into the deep black forest. By and by he came to an open place, like a meadow, where the grass grew tall and thick, and where in the midst was a spring like a bit of mirror set in a green frame. And Hyvarnion's heart beat fast with joy when he saw on the border of the spring the very maiden about whom he had dreamed, but much more beautiful than any dream. She was bending over, picking something from the grass, and she seemed like a wonderful pink-and-white flower set among the other flowers of yellow and red and blue.
For a moment Hyvarnion stood and gazed with open mouth and happy eyes. Then he took his harp and began to sing a song which he had just that minute made. For because he was a minstrel it was easier for him to sing than to talk. And in the song he called her Queen Iris gathering flowers for her crown. Then the maiden raised her head and she turned pinker and whiter, and looked even more like a fair flower than before. For she too had had a dream, three times. And it was of golden-haired Hyvarnion that she had dreamed, whom she now saw looking at her and singing so sweetly with his silver voice.
But she also answered him in a song, for she was a singer, too. "I am no Queen Iris," she sang, "I am only the little maiden Rivanone, though they call me Queen of this Fountain. And I am not gathering flowers as you say, fair Sir, but I am seeking simple herbs such as wise men use to cure pain and trouble."
Hyvarnion and Rivanone
"What are the herbs you seek, Rivanone?" asked Hyvarnion, coming nearer. She held up a sprig of green in her white hand. "See, this is the vervain," she answered in song; "this brings happiness and heart's ease. But I seek two others which I have not found. The second opens the eyes of the blind. And the third,--few may ever find that precious herb,--the third is the root of life, and at its touch death flees away. Alas! Fair Sir, I cannot find those two, though some day I feel that I shall need them both most sorely." Rivanone sighed and two tears stood like dewdrops in her flower eyes.
But Hyvarnion had now come very close. "Still, you have found the first, which gives happiness, little Queen," he sang tenderly. "Have you not happiness to share with me, Rivanone?" Then the maiden looked up in his eyes and smiled, and held out to him a sprig of the green vervain.
"For my King," she sang, just as he had dreamed. And then he did just what she had dreamed he would do; but that is a secret which I cannot tell. For no one knows all that a maiden dreams.
And after this and that they came back to the King's palace hand in hand, singing a beautiful song which together they had made about Happiness. So they were married at the court, and the King did them great honor and made them King and Queen of music and of song.
So, happily they lived and happily they sang in their little Kingdom of Poesie,--for did they not possess the herb of joy which Rivanone had found and shared with Hyvarnion, her King?
BUT it was a pity that Rivanone had not also found those other plants for which she had been seeking, the root which brings light to the blind, and the root which gives life to the dying. Because Rivanone had foreseen only too well the need of them which would come to her. For when, after a year or two, their little son was born, his blue eyes were sightless and all the colored wonders of the world were secrets which he could never know. So they named him Hervé, which means Bitterness,--the first bitterness which had come into their lives of joy. But it was not the last. Not long after the little Hervé came, golden-haired Hyvarnion lay ill and dying. And because on that spring morning, Rivanone had not found the herb of life, she could not keep him from going away to find it for himself in that fair country where it is the only plant that grows, with wonderful blossoms which no living man has ever seen.
So Hyvarnion passed away from his kingdom of music and song, which he left to be shared by dear Rivanone and Hervé his little son. Thus Hervé became a Prince, heir to all the gifts of that royal pair. And of these there were in particular four of the best: a beautiful face, the sweetest voice that ever thrilled in Brittany, the golden harp of Hyvarnion his father, and many a lovely song made by those two, which Rivanone taught him. What a wonderful Kingdom that was to be his! What beautiful gifts for a little boy to own!
But even in a kingdom of this sort one has to bear sorrows and discomforts, just as folk do in other kingdoms which are less fair. Hervé's name meant bitterness, and there was much bitterness in his little life before he learned what a Prince he really was. For he was blind and could not play with the other children. Rivanone was a poor widow and there was no one to earn bread for the two. Sometimes the carols which they sang together were the only breakfast to begin the day. Sometimes the songs Rivanone made beside his bed at night were the only food Hervé had tasted since sunrise. Sometimes they were both so hungry that they could not sing at all; and those were sad times indeed.
But when Hervé was seven years old a great idea came to him. Rivanone lay ill and miserable, and there was nothing to eat in the house. Hervé sat by her side holding her hand, and wishing there was something he could do about it. Blind as he was he had never been out of the house alone. But suddenly courage came to him and hope, through his great idea.
"I will save you, dear mother!" he cried, throwing his arms about her neck. "I will take father's golden harp and go out upon the highway and sing your beautiful songs. People will give me pennies, and I shall buy you food."
So, carrying the golden harp on his back, in his ragged clothes and bare feet the little fellow went out stumbling and feeling his way along the hard road. Now almost at the first corner he met a white dog, who seemed to have no master. This creature came sniffing and whining up to Hervé and licked his hand. And when the boy went on the dog followed close at his side as if to guide and protect him. Hervé asked every one he met whose dog it was; but they all said it was a strange dog come from No-where, and belonged to No-one. It seemed almost as if the beast had been sent especially for Hervé. So at last he said, "You shall be my dog," and at that the great white beast jumped up and barked for joy. Hervé fastened a rope about the dog's neck and kept one end in his hand. So now he had some one to guide and guard him, for the dog was very careful and kind and took care that Hervé never stumbled nor went astray into the ditch by the side of the road.
It must have been a hard-hearted man indeed who had no pennies to spare for the blind boy led by the big white dog. With his bare feet blue with cold, his teeth chattering, and his eyes turned wistfully up to the sky which he could not see, he was a sad little figure to meet on the lonely Brittany roads. And he sang so sweetly, too! No one had ever heard such a voice as that, nor such beautiful songs. Every one who heard gave him money. So he was helping his mother, getting her food and medicine and clothes to keep her warm. And this thought comforted him when he was shivering with cold, his rags blown about by the wind and soaked in the rain.
Day after day, week after week, Hervé trudged along the flinty roads. Often he limped with cold, bleeding feet which the faithful dog would try to lick warm again. Often he was very tired, and sometimes he was sad, when people were not kind. But this seldom happened. Once Hervé was passing through a strange village where all the folk were heathen. And a band of naughty children began to dance about him and tease him, pulling his hair and twitching his cloak. And they mocked his music, singing, "Blind boy, blind boy! Where are you going, blind boy!" Then it is said that a wonderful thing happened. Hervé was sorry because they were so cruel and unkind, and he struck a strange chord of music on his harp and sang in a low, clear voice,--
"Dance on, bright eyes who can see. Dance on, children who mock a poor blind boy. Dance on,--and never stop so long as the world wags." And it is said that the wicked children are still dancing, over the world and back, around and around, tired though they must be. And they will be still more tired before all is done. For they must whirl and pirouette until the end of the world; and that is a long time even for children who love to dance.
At a different time another unkind thing happened to Saint Hervé. But this time it was a beast who hurt his feelings. And this was strange; for usually the beasts loved him and tried to help him as the white dog had done. But after all this was only a mistake; yet it was a sad mistake, for it cost Hervé the life of his faithful guide. This is how it happened.
As Hervé and his dog were passing along a lonely road, a black wolf sprang out upon them. He mistook the dog for an ancient enemy of his, another wolf. For indeed Blanco looked like a white wolf,--a wolf such as Saint Bridget gave the King of Ireland. And without stopping to find out who he really was, which would have saved all the trouble, they had a terrible fight, and poor Blanco was killed by the huge black wolf.
Then Hervé was sad indeed. He cried and sobbed and was so wretched that the wolf was sorry. Besides, as soon as the fight was over the wolf had found out his mistake, and saw that it was a strange dog whom he had killed, no wolf-enemy at all. He was very much ashamed. He came up to Hervé and fawned at his feet, trying to tell that he was sorry, and asking what he should do about it. So Hervé told him that if he would be his dog now instead of Blanco he would try to forgive the wolf; though he was, oh, so sorry to lose his faithful dog.
After that Hervé went on his wanderings led by a big black wolf whom he held in a strong leather leash. And the wolf became as dear to him as Blanco had been. He slept in the barn with the oxen when he was at home, and never snapped nor bit at them as most wolves would do. But he kept sharp watch over his little master, and saw that no one hurt or cheated him. I should be sorry to think what would have happened to any one who had dared to touch Hervé while the wolf was near. And he was always near, with his sharp teeth and watchful eyes.
So they wandered and wandered together, Hervé and the wolf, carrying music from town to town, the songs of Hyvarnion and Rivanone. But Hervé had not yet learned to make songs of his own.
NOW after seven years of wandering, Hervé had earned money enough to keep his mother in comfort. He longed to go to school and be taught things, to grow wise like his father, who had been called the Little Sage, and to learn how to make songs for himself. For he felt that it was time for him to come into the kingdom of Hyvarnion and Rivanone; and the songs shut in his heart were bursting to come out.
Gourvoyed, the brother of Rivanone, was a holy hermit who lived alone in the forest, and he would teach Hervé, his nephew, for love of him. For Gourvoyed was a wise man, skilled in all things, but especially in the making of songs.
It was a blessed morning when Hervé started for his school in the woods; he was going to his kingdom! The sunlight framed his fair curls in a halo of light, as if giving him a blessing. Birds sang all along the way as if telling him that with Gourvoyed he would learn to make music even sweeter than theirs. The wolf led him eagerly, bounding with joy; for he shared in all the hopes of Hervé's life. And all the creatures knew that he would become a great poet. And so indeed it was.
For Hervé soon learned all that Gourvoyed could teach, and in his turn he became a master. Many pupils came to the hut in the forest which the hermit gave up to him, and begged Hervé to make them singer-poets like himself. But he could not do that. He could teach them to sing and to play the harp; but no one could sing as well as he sang, or play as well as he played. And no one can ever be taught to make poetry unless he has it in his soul, as Hervé had. For that is a royal gift, and it came to Hervé from Hyvarnion and Rivanone, the King and Queen of music and of song. It was Hervé's kingdom, and it was given him to take away the bitterness from his name, to make it remembered as sweet, sweet, sweet.
And now on his wanderings from town to town Hervé was received like a prince. He sat at great lords' tables, and sang in ladies' bowers. He had golden goblets as his gifts, and shining gems to wear if he chose. But he was so generous that he gave them all away. Never was there heard music so sweet as his; never were there songs so beautiful as he sang to the rippling of his father's golden harp. For Hervé was even a greater minstrel than Hyvarnion or Rivanone had been.
In his wanderings all about the country Hervé came to many strange places and met with many strange adventures. Once he spent the night at the castle of a great lord who made Hervé sit on his right hand at table and honored him above all his guests. When the banquet was over, at the Count's request a page brought to Hervé his golden harp, and they all shouted for "A song! a song!" Every one pushed back his stool to listen, and Hervé took the harp and ran his finger over the golden strings with a sound like drops of rain upon the flowers.
Now outside the castle, beyond the moat, was a pond. And in the pond lived a whole colony of great green bullfrogs, whose voices were gruffer and grummer than the lowest twanging note on Hervé's harp. And as soon as Hervé began to sing these rude frogs began to bellow and growl as if trying to drown his music. Perhaps they were jealous; for Hervé's voice was sweeter than a silver bell. But all they could sing was "Ker-chog! Ker-r-kity-chog, Ker-chog!" which is neither very musical nor very original, being the same tune which all the frog-people have sung from the earliest days.
Now Hervé was displeased by their disagreeable noise. He could not sing nor play, nor think of the words which belonged with his music: only the "Ker-chog! Ker-r-kity-chog! Ker-chog!" sounded in his ears. And it grew louder and louder every moment as one by one all the frogs joined in the chorus.
Hervé waited for them to stop. But when he found that they did not mean to do this, but were really trying to drown his voice, he was very angry. He strode to the window holding his harp in his hand. And leaning far out he struck another of his wonderful chords of music, such as had charmed the mocking children once before, as you remember.
"Sing your last song, O Frogs," he said. "Sing your last Ker-chog, for henceforth you will be silent. I command you from this night never to open your mouths again. All save one, the littlest of you all. And he shall sing forever, without cease, to remind you of your rudeness to me." And no sooner had he ceased speaking when there came a great silence outside the window, broken only by one wee piping tadpole voice. "Ker-chog! Ker-r-kity-chog! Ker-chog!" he chanted his sad little solo. And all alone he had to sing and sing this same tune forever. I dare say one can hear him yet in the greeny pond outside that old French castle.
NOW after many years of wandering, of singing, of making beautiful songs, of teaching and wandering again, Hervé's dear mother Rivanone died. But he still had some one to love and look for him and the wolf when he came home from his travels. For Rivanone had adopted a dear little girl named Christine, beautiful as sunshine and sweet as a flower. She called Hervé "Uncle" and loved him dearly, and the wolf was a great friend of hers.
So at last he thought to settle down and make music about him in his own home, letting people come there to hear it, instead of carrying it to them by road and river. For he was growing an old man, and it was not so easy to travel in his blindness as it used to be. Besides, the black wolf was also growing gray, and needed rest after these long years of faithful work.
Hervé resolved to build a church, and to live there with Christine near him in a little house of her own. He had grown to be an important personage in the world, and had many friends, pupils, and followers who wanted to live near him. So forth they set to find a place for their church, Hervé and his troop of black-robed monks. And before them, like a little white dove among the ravens, ran Christine holding her uncle's hand in one of hers, and in the other grasping the leash at which tugged the grizzled old wolf, who was guiding them. Over many a hill and dale and bloomy meadow he had led Hervé before now, down many a lane and village street, but never upon so important a journey as this. For this was to be the old wolf's last long tramp with his master. And the wolf was to choose the spot where the church should stand. Where he stopped to rest, there would they lay the first stone.
So he led them on and on. And at last he lay down in a green spot by a river, just the place for a beautiful church to grow up. And thenceforth Hervé the minstrel would wander no more, but bide and rest and be happy with the wolf and Christine.
They built her an arbor near the church, in a clump of willows on the border of a spring. It was cone-shaped and covered with straw like a huge beehive. And Christine herself seemed like a busy bee gathering honey as she buzzed in and out among the roses, humming little tunes below her breath. For she was always among the flowers, as Rivanone had been. Every Saturday morning she would rise early, and with her little basket on her arm would go out to pick the blossoms with the dew still on them. And every Saturday evening she came to the church with her arms full of flowers till she looked like a bouquet of sweetness. And going into the empty church she would busy herself with arranging the flowers for the next morning's service. For it was her duty to see that Uncle Hervé's church was kept clean and sweet and beautiful.
And while Christine stood there putting the flowers into tall golden vases, singing softly the songs which Rivanone had taught her, her Uncle Hervé would come creeping up the steps of the church, his hand on the head of the wolf, who always led him to the place where he heard her voice. Softly, very softly, as if he were doing something naughty, Hervé would pull open the heavy door, just a crack, the better to hear her sing. Then he would put his ear to the opening; while the wolf would thrust his nose in below, and wag his tail eagerly. But Christine's keen ears always heard them, no matter how slyly the good blind man crept up to that door. And it became part of the game that she should cry out suddenly,--
"I see you, Uncle! I see you!" And though he could not see her at all, he would start and pop back, pulling the wolf with him as though he had done something wrong. Then without making any noise they would tiptoe away to Hervé's house, their hearts beating with love for the dear little maiden who would soon come to bid them good-night on her way home to her bower.
So they lived happily all the rest of their days, these three among the flowers. And in spite of his name Hervé's life was not one of bitterness, but of joy. The kingdom which had come to him from Hyvarnion and Rivanone was his all his life long; and though he no longer wandered painfully from town to town, the songs which he made wandered still from heart to heart. And long, long afterwards their echo made music through the land of Brittany, as the fragrance of a flower lasts long after the flower has passed on its way elsewhere.
Dear Saint Hervé!