The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, Chapter 18
The Wolf-Mother of Saint Ailbe
THIS is the story of a poor little Irish baby whose cruel father and mother did not care anything about him. But because they could not sell him nor give him away they tried to lose him. They wrapped him in a piece of cloth and took him up on the mountain side, and there they left him lying all alone on a bush of heather.
Now an old mother wolf was out taking her evening walk on the mountain after tending her babies in the den all day. And just as she was passing the heather bush she heard a faint, funny little cry. She pricked up her pointed ears and said, "What's that!" And lo and behold, when she came to sniff out the mystery with her keen nose, it led her straight to the spot where the little pink baby lay, crying with cold and hunger.
The heart of the kind mother wolf was touched, for she thought of her own little ones at home, and how sad it would be to see them so helpless and lonely and forgotten. So she picked the baby up in her mouth carefully and ran home with him to her den in the rocks at the foot of the mountain. Here the little one, whose name was Ailbe, lived with the baby wolves, sharing their breakfast and dinner and supper, playing and quarreling and growing up with them. The wolf-mother took good care of him and saw that he had the best of everything, for she loved him dearly indeed. And Ailbe grew stronger and stronger, taller and taller, handsomer and handsomer every day, living his happy life in the wild woods of green Ireland.
Now one day, a year or two after this, a hunter came riding over the mountain on his way home from the chase, and he happened to pass near the cave where Ailbe and the wolves lived. As he was riding along under the trees he saw a little white creature run across the path in front of him. At first he thought it was a rabbit; but it was too big for a rabbit, and besides it did not hop. The hunter jumped down from his horse and ran after the funny animal to find out what it was. His long legs soon overtook it in a clump of bushes where it was hiding, and imagine the hunter's surprise when he found that it had neither fur nor horns nor four feet nor a tail, but that it was a beautiful child who could not stand upright, and whose little bare body ran on all-fours like a baby wolf! It was little Ailbe, the wolf-mother's pet, who had grown so fast that he was almost able to take care of himself. But he was not quite able, the hunter thought; and he said to himself that he would carry the poor little thing home to his kind wife, that she might take care of him. So he caught Ailbe up in his arms, kicking and squealing and biting like the wild little animal he was, and wrapped him in a corner of his great cloak. Then he jumped on his horse with a chirrup and galloped away out of the woods towards his village.
But Ailbe did not want to leave his forest home, the wolf-den, and his little wolf brothers. Especially he did not want to leave his dear foster mother. So he screamed and struggled to get away from the big hunter, and he called to the wolves in their own language to come and help him. Then out of the forest came bounding the great mother wolf with her four children, now grown to be nearly as big as herself. She chased after the fleeting horse and snapped at the loose end of the huntsman's cloak, howling with grief and anger. But she could not catch the thief, nor get back her adopted son, the little smooth-skinned foundling. So after following them for miles, the five wolves gradually dropped further and further behind. And at last, as he stretched out his little arms to them over the hunter's velvet shoulder, Ailbe saw them stop in the road panting, with one last howl of farewell. They had given up the hopeless chase. And with their tails between their legs and their heads drooping low they slunk back to their lonely den where they would never see their little boy playmate any more. It was a sad day for good wolf-mother.
But the hunter carried little Ailbe home with him on the horse's back. And he found a new mother there to receive him. Ailbe never knew who his first mother was, but she must have been a bad, cruel woman. His second mother was the kind wolf. And this one, the third, was a beautiful Princess. For the hunter who had found the child was a Prince, and he lived in a grand castle by a lake near Tipperary, with hundreds of servants and horses and dogs and little pages for Ailbe to play with. And here he lived and was very happy; and here he learned all the things which in those days made a little boy grow up into a wise and great man. He grew up so wise and great that he was made a Bishop and had a palace of his own in the town of Emly. People came to see him from far and near, who made him presents, and asked him questions, and ate his dinners.
But though he had grown so great and famous Ailbe had never forgotten his second mother, the good wolf, nor his four-footed brothers, in their coats of gray fur. And sometimes when his visitors were stupid and stayed a long time, or when they asked too many questions, or when they made him presents which he did not like, Ailbe longed to be back in the forest with the good beasts. For they had much more sense, though they had never kissed the Blarney Stone, which makes one talk good Irish.
A great many years afterwards there was one day a huge hunt in Emly. All the lords for miles around were out chasing the wild beasts, and among them was the Prince, Ailbe's foster-father. But the Bishop himself was not with them. He did not see any sport in killing poor creatures. It was almost night, and the people of Emly were out watching for the hunters to return. The Bishop was coming down the village street on his way from church, when the sound of horns came over the hills close by, and he knew the chase was nearing home.
Louder and louder came the "tantaratara!" of the horns, and then he could hear the gallopy thud of the horses' hoofs and the yelp of the hounds. But suddenly the Bishop's heart stood still. Among all the other noises of the chase he heard a sound which made him think--think--think. It was the long-drawn howl of a wolf, a sad howl of fear and weariness and pain. It spoke a language which he had almost forgotten. But hardly had he time to think again and to remember, before down the village street came a great gaunt figure, flying in long leaps from the foremost dogs who were snapping at her heels. It was Ailbe's wolf-mother.
He recognized her as soon as he saw her green eyes and the patch of white on her right foreleg. And she recognized him, too,--how I cannot say, for he had changed greatly since she last saw him, a naked little sunbrowned boy. But at any rate, in his fine robes of purple and linen and rich lace, with the mitre on his head and the crozier in his hand, the wolf-mother knew her dear son. With a cry of joy she bounded up to him and laid her head on his breast, as if she knew he would protect her from the growling dogs and the fierce-eyed hunters. And the good Bishop was true to her. For he drew his beautiful velvet cloak about her tired, panting body, and laid his hand lovingly on her head. Then in the other he held up his crook warningly to keep back the ferocious dogs.
"I will protect thee, old mother," he said tenderly. "When I was little and young and feeble, thou didst nourish and cherish and protect me; and now that thou art old and gray and weak, shall I not render the same love and care to thee? None shall injure thee."
Then the hunters came tearing up on their foaming horses and stopped short to find what the matter was. Some of them were angry and wanted even now to kill the poor wolf, just as the dogs did who were prowling about snarling with disappointment. But Ailbe would have none of it. He forbade them to touch the wolf. And he was so powerful and wise and holy that they dared not disobey him, but had to be content with seeing their hunt spoiled and their prey taken out of their clutches.
But before the hunters and their dogs rode away, Saint Ailbe had something more to say to them. And he bade all the curious townsfolk who had gathered about him and the wolf to listen also. He repeated the promise which he had made to the wolf, and warned every one thenceforth not to hurt her or her children, either in the village, or in the woods, or on the mountain. And turning to her once more he said:--
"See, mother, you need not fear. They dare not hurt you now you have found your son to protect you. Come every day with my brothers to my table, and you and yours shall share my food, as once I so often shared yours."
And so it was. Every day after that so long as she lived the old wolf-mother brought her four children to the Bishop's palace and howled at the gate for the porter to let them in. And every day he opened to them, and the steward showed the five into the great dining hall where Ailbe sat at the head of the table, with five places set for the rest of the family. And there with her five dear children about her in a happy circle the kind wolf-mother sat and ate the good things which the Bishop's friends had sent him. But the child she loved best was none of those in furry coats and fine whiskers who looked like her; it was the blue-eyed Saint at the top of the table in his robes of purple and white.
But Saint Ailbe would look about him at his mother and his brothers and would laugh contentedly.
"What a handsome family we are!" he would say. And it was true.