The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 14
The Wonders of Saint Berach
THE life of Saint Berach was full of wonders from the very first. For when he was a boy at home in the house of his father, Nemnald, he had a vision. An angel appeared to him and beckoned him to follow. So he went, and the angel led him straight to the monastery at Glendalough where holy Saint Coemgen lived with his friend the white doe, and taught boys to be wise. And Berach joined the other boys to be taught all that Saint Coemgen knew, and to learn other things beside.
Ireland was a wild country in those days, for this was only six hundred years after Christ's birth and the little towns had hardly begun to grow. The huts which men had made in the wilderness--calling them houses and schools and churches--were not close together but far, far apart. Wild beasts prowled everywhere, and there were no policemen.
Close by the monastery were the broad green meadows where the monks pastured the herds of cows which gave them milk. From the windows of his cell the young monk loved to watch the cows and their calves browsing the juicy grass and wading in the brooks which ran under the rows of willows. He especially loved Bel, the sleekest, most beautiful of them all, a proud mother cow who had a new little red calf.
One day as he was watching Bel and her baby who had strayed a little distance from the rest of the herd, he saw something which frightened him. A great gray wolf was hiding in the shadow of a hedge, creeping nearer and nearer to the peaceful pair. But Bel did not guess that an enemy was so near. Berach hurried down the turret stair and out of the gate, hardly pausing to tell the brother porter whither he was going. For he knew there was no time to lose.
He ran to the meadow, and pushed through the blooming hedge of hawthorne. But alas! he had come too late. The great gaunt wolf, who was very hungry, had pounced upon the little red calf, and had eaten it up. Poor Bel, wild with grief, ran lowing about the pasture as if seeking for her little one. But the wolf was slinking out of sight.
When Berach saw what had been done, at first he was very angry with the wolf, for he loved Bel dearly, and it troubled him to see her sad. He thought how lonely the poor cow would be without her calf, and when she came pitifully lowing up to him as if asking him to help her, the tears stood in his kind eyes. But then he thought how hungry the wolf must have been. Poor thing, how thin and hollow he had looked,--perhaps he was not so much to blame after all. Probably he had never been taught any better.
And then a strange idea came to Berach. He was a wonderful man, and he must have had great power over animals. For he called to the wolf, who was already some distance away; he called loudly and in a stern voice. You will hardly believe it, but the wolf came slinking back, frightened and whining like a naughty puppy, and crouched at Berach's feet. Then the Saint spoke kindly to the wolf, no longer treating him like a murderer and a thief. He called the cow also, and taking her by the horns led her gently to the wolf, soothing her so that she was not afraid of the great gray beast.
And Berach said to the cow, "See, Mother Bel, this shall be your child now, in place of the little one which is gone. He will be a kind and gentle son to you, I promise." And to the wolf he said, "Here, Wolf, is the mother whom you need to make you gentle and good. You shall be kind to her, and make her forget the wrong you have done by being a loving and dutiful son, ever doing her bidding." So after that the cow and the meek wolf dwelt peacefully together in the meadows of the monastery, and he shielded her from danger, and like a huge watchdog kept away the other wild beasts from the herd.
After that came a winter when for weeks the ground was white with snow, and the laughing mouths of the brooks were sealed with ice. Duke Colman's little son had been sent to school at the monastery, and the boy was very ill. He was hot and thirsty, and his throat was parched with fever. So little Edward begged for juicy apples, and for salad of fresh sorrel leaves,--things which were not to be found in all the land in the dead of winter. But Coemgen the Abbot trusted in the power of his young friend who could tame wolves. "Go forth, my son," he said to Berach, "take my staff and bring what the boy needs."
Then Berach retired to his cell and prayed that he might be blessed to save the dear child's life. After that with faith and courage he went out into the white meadows, using the Abbot's staff to help him over the great drifts of snow. He came to the row of willows by the frozen brook where the cows had loved to wade. And here he paused. Lifting the staff, he touched the bare brown branches of the willow on which the snow clung like shreds of cotton wool, and he pronounced a blessing. Instantly the snow began to melt as it does before the sun in April. The stiff brown twigs turned green and became tender and full of life. Then gray willow buds put forth woolly little pussy-willows, which seemed fairly bursting, like fat round kittens. They grew bigger and bigger, rounder and rounder, till at last they really did burst, and plumped great rosy-cheeked apples into the lap of the Saint, who held up the skirt of his gray gown to catch them as they fell. Lo, under the trees meanwhile the snowdrifts had melted, and little green leaves were poking up through the frozen ground. And Berach gathered there a great bunch of juicy, tart sorrel which makes such good salad. Then with his arms full,--what with this and his apples and the blessed staff,--he floundered back through the snowdrifts to the monastery. They received him eagerly and there was great rejoicing. Little Edward was revived by the out-of-season dainties thus miraculously provided for him, and soon became quite well again.
It was many years after this, again a hard and cruel winter, when Saint Berach made another wonder come to pass. Meantime he had grown older and even wiser. He had himself been made Abbot and had built a monastery of his own in a lonely place far away from Glendalough. But he had an enemy. There was a rich man who wanted the land which Berach had chosen, and who was so envious that he tried to do him spite in every way he could. He even sought to destroy the monastery. Then Berach appealed to the King for protection, and both men were summoned to the court.
The rich man went in a chariot, splendid in his fine robes of fur, with a gold chain about his neck. And the guards hurried to let down the portcullis for him, and with low bows bade him enter. But when Saint Berach came he wore only his gray monk's robe, all torn and tattered. He was shivering with cold, and weak from having walked so far. So they thought him a mere beggar and would not let him in. As he stood outside the gate, friendless and alone, some rude boys who had gathered there began to laugh and jeer at his bare sandaled feet and the rents in his robe through which the cold winds blew. They made snowballs and rushed upon him in a crowd, like the cowards they were, pelting the poor man most cruelly. But suddenly, what do you think? Their arms stiffened as they raised them to throw the balls; their legs stuck fast in the snow; the grins froze on their faces; and they were almost choked by the shouts which turned to ice in their throats. What had happened? Well, Saint Berach had merely breathed upon them, and they were as if turned into ice, so that they could not stir. Br-r-r! How cold they were!
Then the Saint made ready to warm himself. A drift of snow had fallen from the palace gate when it opened to let in the rich man. And going up to this he blew upon it. He blew a warm breath this time. Instantly the whole heap burst into flame, and snapped and crackled like the fire in the chimney-place of the dining-hall at home. In front of this merry blaze the good Saint stood, warming his hands and thawing out his poor frozen feet. But the group of boys stood like statues of snow; so cold, so cold, but unable to come nearer to the fire; so frightened, so frightened, but unable to run away.
This is what the King's guards saw when, terrified by the crackling of the fire and the great light which shone through the chinks of the gate, they came to see what it all meant. They ran to the King and told him of the strange sight. And he himself with a crowd of courtiers came out to look. When he saw the ragged beggar who had done all this he was filled with amazement. He immediately suspected that this must be a holy man and powerful. So he invited Berach into the palace hall, and there listened to his story.
Now when all was done the rich man was bundled away in disgrace, for daring to meddle with the good works of so wonderful a Saint. But Berach was honored and admired.
Before he went back to his monastery they begged him to restore the naughty boys to life and motion. Now Berach had wanted only to teach them a lesson, not to punish them too severely; for he was too kind-hearted to injure any living creature. So going out into the courtyard he blew upon the snow figures, and once more they became live boys. You can imagine how glad they were when they found they were able to move their legs and arms again.
Now Berach went back to his monastery in one of the King's chariots, with a robe of fur and a gold chain about his neck. And you may be sure he carried with him many other gifts and precious things from the King, who never thereafter suffered him to be troubled in his far-off retreat.