The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 13
Saint Comgall and the Mice
AT the place where the Irish Sea is narrowest is the town of Bangor. There the green hills of Saint Patrick's island smile over at the purple cliffs of Scotland across the lane of water where the ships pass to and fro, just as neighbors nod across a narrow street above the heads of the passers-by. And here at Bangor Saint Comgall built a monastery, thirteen hundred long years ago.
This does not sound very interesting, but it was interesting to many people in those days, and I think it will be interesting to you. For Comgall is an Irish word which means "the goodly pledge." And the man who bore this name was a goodly pledge of friendship between man and beast. Comgall had many pupils in his monastery, and many friends living near who loved and honored him. They did splendid things together, and tales of their doings were put into great books. But the most interesting stories of all are about certain friends of Saint Comgall who could not speak Irish and who did not wear clothes. Some of these friends wore feathers and some wore fur; the strangest story of all is about his friends with long tails and very sharp teeth. But you must wait for that till I have told about the swans.
One day Comgall was walking with some friends on the bank of a pond. All of a sudden, through the rushes and the tall grass some one spied six beautiful white swans floating on the water, preening their fine feathers and arching their necks proudly. For they could see in the water, just as if it were a mirror, how handsome they were, and it made them vain.
"Oh, Father," cried Comgall's pupils (they always called their teacher "Father" in those days), "see the lovely swans! May we not coax them ashore? We want to play with them."
Comgall chuckled inside, for he felt sure that the swans would not come to them, because they were strangers. But he said with a twinkle in his eye,--
"Oh, yes, boys. Call them here if you can. But you must give them something to tempt them, or I fear they will hardly come."
Then the boys tried to find a crust of bread or some crumbs in their pockets, to throw to the swans. But no one had anything, not even a peanut; for peanuts were not invented in those days. They stood on the bank whistling and calling, trying in every way to make the swans swim ashore. But the birds only cocked their red-rimmed eyes at the boys and fluttered their wings timidly.
"We don't know you," they squawked with their harsh voices. "The like of you are no friends of ours. Hurrooh! Go away and leave our pond in peace."
All this time Comgall had been standing behind them on the bank laughing at the vain attempts of his pupils. But now he walked quietly down to the pond. Making a little croony sound in his throat, he put out his hand towards the swans, but with no crumbs to tempt them.
The swans had never before seen him. But as soon as they heard his voice you should have seen the commotion! How the water did wrinkle and spatter as those dignified birds scurried headlong towards Comgall! Each one seemed trying to be the first to reach his side; and each one flapped his wings and went almost into a fit for fear another should get ahead of him. So finally they reached the bank and gathered around Comgall, talking to him all at once and telling him how much they liked the look of him. And one great white swan fluttered into the old man's lap and sat there letting himself be stroked and patted, stretching his long neck up to Comgall's face and trying to kiss him with beaky lips.
You can imagine how the pupils stared at this strange sight. For they knew that the swans were as truly strangers to Saint Comgall as to the rest of them. But the swans had guessed in some way that this was a man who loved all animals, and that is why they were not afraid, but loved him as soon as they saw him.
But this next is the stranger story. Mice are harder even than swans for most people to get acquainted with. But Comgall had also made the mice his friends, as you shall see.
There came a time of famine in Ireland, and there was not food enough to go around, as has often happened there from the earliest days until even now. Comgall and his household at Bangor were very hungry. But what made it hardest to bear was that they knew where there was plenty of food close by, if only they could get it. For Croadh was a great Prince who lived in the neighborhood, and Croadh had barns and storehouses full of grain which could be made into bread. But he was a selfish, stingy man and would not give away or even sell his stores, for he would rather see the people starve. Now Croadh had a wicked old mother living in his palace, who was even more cruel than himself. Her name was Luch, and Luch means in Irish "the Mouse." And it was her name which put an idea into Comgall's head.
After sending all sorts of messengers to beg Croadh to give them some of his grain; after trying all sorts of ways to make him sell it, Comgall went himself to the Prince's palace to see what he could do. He carried with him a beautiful silver goblet which had been given him by some one as a present, and it was worth many bushels of grain.
Comgall strode into the Prince's hall and stood before Croadh holding out the goblet in his hand. And he said,--
"Here, O Prince, is a valuable thing. We are starving in the monastery, and silver we cannot eat. Give me and my monks some of your golden grain and I will exchange for it the silver cup. Be merciful, O Croadh, and hear me."
But the Chief only laughed and said mockingly, "Not so. You keep your silver goblet and I will keep my golden grain. Your beggarly pupils shall not eat of my stores. I want all, every grain, for my old Mouse." And by that word he meant his mother, the black-eyed, wrinkled, gray old Luch, whose name meant "the Mouse." For she was the most miserly, wicked, old woman in the world, and she had made him promise not to give up any of the grain. Then Comgall was angry, because he saw that the Prince meant to see the people starve.
"Very well," he said, fixing his eyes sternly upon Croadh, "as you have said, so shall it be. The mouse shall have your grain." And drawing his robe about him he strode home with the useless silver goblet.
As I have said, the mice were Comgall's friends. He had only to call them and explain what the hard-hearted Prince had done; he had only to tell the mice what he wished them to do, and the matter was settled. The word spread through the kingdom of the mice, carried by the quickest messenger with the shortest tail. All the mice became enemies of Croadh. And there were many mice in Bangor in those days.
That very night when every one was asleep, out of every hole and corner came peeping little pointed noses and quivering whiskers. And a great procession of long-tailed tiny things formed into line and crept along, and along, up the hill, and up the walls, and into the barns of Croadh. A legion of mice, thousands upon thousands of them in a gray-uniformed army, pounced upon the Prince's precious grain and ate up every kernel.
So the next morning when Croadh went to his barns he found them empty. There was not so much as a single yellow dot of grain left anywhere. But out of every crack and crevice peeped a pair of twinkling black eyes which watched him saucily. Then Croadh began to bellow and roar with anger, and the wicked old woman Luch, his mother, came hobbling in to see what was the matter. But when the mice saw her they gave a chorus of fierce squeaks as if crying "Mouse! Mouse! Mouse!"
Then Croadh remembered what Comgall had said, that the mouse should have his grain after all. And he guessed what the Saint had meant, and knew that Comgall had taken this way to punish a selfish and cruel man.