The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 16
The Fish who helped Saint Gudwall
THE Welsh coast is famous for its beautiful scenery and its terrible storms. People who see it in the summer time think only of the beautiful scenery. But if they should happen to pass that way in midwinter they would be very apt to meet an unpleasant reminder of the terrible storms.
Saint Gudwall was born a Welshman, and he should have known all this. Perhaps he did know, but chose to run into danger just because it was dangerous, as so many saints loved to do in those years when it was thought no virtue to take care of one's life. At all events, it was summer when with one friend Gudwall moved to his new home, a tiny island off the coast of Wales, which at that time was very beautiful.
The first thing they did was to set about finding a place to live in. The island was one of those high mountains poking up out of the sea, with green grass on top, like colored frosting to a cake; and gray rocks below, all hollowed out into deep caves and crannies, as if mice had been nibbling at the cake. These caves are just the sort of places which smugglers and pirates choose to hide in with their treasures, for no one would think of hunting for any one there. And Gudwall wanted to be left alone with his pupil; so he thought there was no reason why a bad man's hiding-place should not make a good saint's retreat. So they chose the largest and deepest of all the caves, and there they put their books and their beds and their little furniture, and set up house-keeping.
Their home was one of those caves into which the sea rushes a little way and then suddenly backs out again as if it had changed its mind this time but would call again. Gudwall and his pupil loved to lie in their cave just beyond the reach of the waves and watch them dash laughingly up on the rocks, then roar and gurgle in pretended anger and creep away out into the blue basin beyond. In summer their daily games with the sea were great fun, and Gudwall was very happy. They spent some lovely months alone with the waves and the rocks and the sea-birds which now and then fluttered screaming into the dark cave, and then again dashed bashfully out when they found they had come uninvited into a stranger's home. It was all very nice and peaceful and pretty in the summer time, just as tourists find it to this day.
But oh! what a change when old Winter came roaring down over the waves from the North in his chariot of ice, drawn by fierce winds and angry storm-clouds. Then the temper of the sea was changed. It grew cruel and hungry. It left off its kindly game with the lonely dwellers on the island, and seemed instead to have become their enemy. It tried to seize and swallow them in its cruel jaws.
One morning there came a terrible storm. In the far end of the cave Gudwall and the other were nearly swept away by a huge wave which rushed in to devour them. No longer content with pausing on the threshold, the sea swept through their whole house, dashing away their little store of books and furniture, a most unneighborly thing to do. It tried to drag the two men from the corner where they clung to the rough rock. Choked and gasping they escaped this time, while the sea drew back for another plunge. But they did not wait for this, for they knew it would mean their death.
Drenched as they were and blinded by the salt spray, they scrambled out of the cave and began to climb the slippery seaweed to the rocks above. It was a hard and dangerous ascent, for the sea leaped after them to pull them back, snarling angrily at their heels like a fierce beast maddened by their escape. But it could not quite seize them, and at last they reached the top of the cliff where they were safe for the time.
But what were they to do now? There were no houses on the island, no place to go to keep warm; yet they could not live out in the open air to freeze in the snow and cold. It was no longer possible to live in the cave if the sea was to wash through it like this. But if only there were some barrier to keep out the stormy waves they could still live in their beloved cave. Saint Gudwall fell upon his knees and prayed for help,--prayed for some defense against the winter waves.
And what do you think happened? The dwellers in the sea were kinder than the sea itself. The little fish who live safely in the angriest waves were sorry for the big men who were so powerless in the face of this danger. From the sea caves far under the island's foot, from the beds of seaweed and the groves of coral, from the sandy bottom of the ocean fathoms deep below, the fish came swimming in great shoals about Gudwall's island. And each one bore in his mouth a grain of sand. They swam into the shallow water just outside the cave where Gudwall had lived, and one by one they placed their burdens on the sandy bottom. One by one they paused to see that it was well done, then swiftly swam away, to return as soon as might be with another grain of sand. All day long a procession of fish, like people in line at a ticket office, moved steadily up to the shallows and back again. So by night a little bar of sand had begun to grow gradually before the entrance to the cave.
Now Saint Gudwall and his pupil were shivering on the top of the cliff, and looking off to sea, when the pupil caught his master's arm. "What is that down there in the water?" he said, pointing to a little brown spot peering above the waves.
"I know not," answered the Saint; "what seems it to be, brother?"
"I have been watching it," said the other, "and I think it grows. Look! it is even now higher than when first you looked; is it not so?"
And sure enough, Gudwall saw that ever so little at a time the brown patch was growing and spreading from right to left. Grain by grain the sand bar rose higher and higher till it thrust bravely above the blueness a solid wall extending for some distance through the water in front of the cave. Against this new breakwater the surf roared and foamed in terrible rage, but it could not pass, it could no longer swoop down into the cavern as it had done before.
"The Lord has given us a defense," said Gudwall with a thankful heart. And then his eye caught sight of a great bluefish swimming back into the deep sea. "It is the fish who have built us the wall," he cried. "Blessed be the fish who have this day helped us in our need."
For the fish had piled up a stout and lasting barrier between Saint Gudwall and the angry sea, and thenceforth he could live in his cave safely during both summer and winter.