THE STORY OF A SAXON POET
A FAIR broad tract of land on the coast of Whitby, pastures farms, and cornfields ruddy and ripe in the glow of tie sunset; behind them high dark woods, and before them the open sea.
And this was the land that Oswio, the seventh and last of the Saxon Bredwaldas, gave to the monastery of Hartlepool, when he had overthrown Penda, and won the kingdom for his own. And he gave his little daughter, Elfleda, only a year old, to the care of the Abbess Hilda, that the child might be brought up in the service of God, and be a sister in the convent all the days of her life. For so Oswio had vowed to do with her on the night before the battle of Win-wid, if God should give him the victory; and now that he was king he kept his word royally, as a king should. And the monks and nuns came down from Hartlepool and built their abbey at Whitby, on the land that Oswio gave them, and sang masses for the pious king day by day, and sowed their meadows and tended their kine, and there they laboured and prayed in peace for many a long year.
Hut that everybody in the convent lived in peace I cannot promise you, for though men may shut out the world from them, the flesh and the devil are not so easily got rid of; and especially the last of the three, for he, being a spirit, can make his way everywhere, even if people wall themselves up never so fast. And so, somehow, he got into the monastery at Whitby, as you shall presently see.
Now there lived at one of the farm-houses of the monastery, a poor lay-brother named Cædmon, who had charge of the cattle upon the lands. Tall and straight and fair to look upon was this Cædmon, with long bright curls rippling upon his shoulders after the manner of the Saxons, and clear eyes of blue that were full of melancholy. And his face was the face of an angel in its nobleness and beauty, but for the shadow of discontent that rested always upon it, saddening his lips and his eyes, and making a cloud of his very smile.
Not that Cædmon was unhappy or restless in his vocation, for he loved well the life he had chosen, but that he bore about in his heart a great unspeakable regret. For, like all men who love heaven and beautiful things, this poor cattle-drover had a soul full of music, and his sorrow was this, that though almost all the brotherhood could both play and sing, his fingers only had no skill upon the harp, nor his voice a note of melody.
And there was at the monastery a young man of his own age, Aldulf, who had once been like him, a labourer at the farm-work; but Aldulf had a sweet voice and a cunning ear for harmony, so that the monks had noticed his talent, and had taken him in hand. So now he wore a white surplice and sang in the choir of the monastery chapel, and looked down vastly upon all Who had been his fellows at the farm. But yet he envied Cædmon and hated him, because of his fair face and bright hair, and because he himself was ill-favoured. And many times Aldulf heard the monks, Who happened to know of Cædmon’s deficiency, say to each other When they saw him, “This youth is full of grace, what a pity that God has not given him a voice, for we have not one among the choristers to compare with him!”
So Aldulf’s heart was bitter and evil towards Cædmon, because of his envy. And whenever he met him it was Aldulf’s delight to taunt Cædmon with his defect and insignificance, and to boast of his own skill and his importance, and of how the monks applauded him. And he would end his unsavoury speeches with a sneer, – “But as for thee, Cædmon, thou seest thou art fit for nothing but to drive cattle, for thou hast no more voice than the frog that croaks in the marshes!”
But Cædmon was never angry at this, and seldom answered him again, for he knew Aldulf spoke the truth, though he spoke it harshly enough; only he took all these sayings to heart, and pondered and sorrowed over them in silence. And by-and-by he grew moody and discontented with longing after the gift he had not, and he went about the farm-lands with his eyes on the ground, and oftentimes tears in them, so that all the brotherhood wondered at him.
But Cædmon had an only sister, Wulfrith, who was a portress at the convent of the Abbess Hilda, and the Abbess’s lands lay side by side with the lands of the monastery, so that he and Wulfrith often met, and indeed spent much of their time together. For when Cædmon’s work was over, and the cattle driven home to their stalls, Wulfrith used to give her keys to her fellow-portress and slip out for an hour or two’s stroll with her brother in the pleasant pastures; and there they would sit together upon some knoll of smooth turf in the light of the sunset, and talk. And Cædmon told
Wulfrith all his grief and despair, and many times wept I n the telling of it; and the little portress did her utmost to act the part of consoler, but always in vain, for Wulfrith was the only one, besides his spiritual director, to whom Cædmon ever confided his sorrow.
But one evening when the cattle were safely housed, and Cædmon was on his way towards the sister hood in quest of Wulfrith, he came by the porch of the monastery chapel, and the door was open, for the monks were within chanting Vespers. And the deep, sweet sound of the music fell upon the ears of Cædmon, and sank down into his heart, so that he could not but stay and hear more. And he knelt in the porch reverently, with his head bared, listening and praying with all his soul, and his thoughts grew big with grief, and his eyes dim with heavy fears.
For he said to himself, “I never may join with these in singing God’s praises, I never may touch the strings of a harp; but while all the brotherhood are rejoicing together and making sweet melodies with the angels in heaven, I alone must be dumb and silent as the cattle I tend in the meadows.” And at the thought his soul died in his breast, and he leant his fair head against a pillar of the doorway and wept sore.
But across the pathway of the field came little Wulfrith seeking her brother, and when she saw him kneeling in the chapel porch, she ran to him and laid her hand on his shoulder lightly and tenderly. And she looked in his face with soft eyes that love made misty, and spoke in low sweet tones: “Cædmon, what aileth thee that thou art so sad?”
And he made answer, weeping, “O Wulfrith, that I cannot sing!”
Then said Wulfrith, “Brother, be of good cheer, for if that be au, it is nothing to weep for. It is sin only that should make us weep, and it is no sin of thine that thou canst not sing, since God hath withheld the gift from thee. Wherefore leave grieving, dear Cædmon, and be not cast down nor faint-hearted, but pray more; for our blessed Lord hath bidden us to pray without ceasing, seeing that the things we ask-shall surely be given us, if we be not weary in the asking.”
But Cædmon: said, “To what end shall I; pray, Wulfrith, when God hath denied me this precious gift from my birth? Can I think He will now work a miracle for me, and loosen my tongue, or give my fingers skill?”
“Who can tell?” cried the little woman, hopefully; “but at least, brother, if thou prayest for, ‘nothing else, pray for patience. Maybe the good God even intends to do thee a greater grace than He gives to those who can make earthly
music to His honour, for thou canst offer Him the spiritual. melody of penance. I remember how our Venerable mother, only the other night, told us that the greatest saints have always suffered hardest denial, and who knows but our Lord would make a saint of thee; and school thee into holiness with this very discipline? And think when thou feelest it sharpest to bear, how that thy silence here will be more than recompensed when thou art made one of the choir in heaven! O Cædmon, it will be all the sweeter to thee to join in the minstrelsy there, for that thou hat burned so long and so ardently to sing upon this earth. I wish we were both singing with the angels in heaven now, brother. It must be sweeter to hear them than the chapel choir!”
She turned her head westward, and looked far away across the meadows” into the broad daffodil pastures of the sunset, and the glory smote upon her white floating amice and on her uplifted face. And her thoughts went to the sweet mea-sure of the choristers’ chanting: “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall lead them unto living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” And then the notes died away and Vespers were ended, and the monks came streaming out of the chapel two and two, with heads bent, and pious hands folded palm to palm.
But Aldulf’s bench in the choir -was close by the porch, and Aldulf had sharp ears when his envy was concerned, so that for all his singing he had managed. To catch a great deal of what Wulfrith had been saying to Cædmon. So he fell to thinking about the matter while he sang, and came to the conclusion, that unless something were done to correct Cædmon’s conceit, Wulfrith’s argument would surely minister to his vanity. “For,” said Aldulf to himself, “this cattle-driver will presently take into his head that he is a great saint, whom God specially favours with mortification and trial, to make a sort of Lazarus of him, while I, Like another Dives, am perchance to be shut out of Paradise! I shall take this unholy pride of his down a few pegs, and teach him not to set himself up above his betters.” So with this pious resolve, Aldulf knelt for the priest’s blessing, and came out of chapel.
But Cædmon had already gone on a few paces before Aldulf “could leave his place, for the choristers came out in procession and his turn was not till near the last; But he beckoned to Wulfrith as she turned away to follow her brother, and called her by name. So she came back not very well pleased, because, though Cædmon did not tell her all the ill things Aldulf said of him, still she knew they were not friends, and she did not care to talk with the choristers.
But Aldulf smiled, and said very mildly, “Has not Cædmon been without in the porch listening to our chanting?”
And when she answered “yes” – “I did not know he loved music so dearly,” said he. “Go then, Wulfrith, and tell him that if he minds to come to our choir supper in the lower refectory tonight, he shall be right welcome, and shall hear some goodly minstrels sing. Bid him not forget to come, for we shall all expect him. No thanks, sister, – I wish you good night, for I cannot stay. For,” said Aldulf, as he turned on his heel to go, “thou, mistress, who hast ministered to his conceit, shalt minister also to his humiliation.”
But Wulfrith ran after her brother and cried, “Cædmon, dear, I am sure Aldulf is sorry for hi ill words and careth for thee at heart after all, for he did not know the greatness of thy love for music until now, when he saw thee weeping in the porch. And hear what he says, brother, for there is a treat in store for thee tonight, and thou must thank him for it.” So she gave him Aldulf’s message. And they stood awhile talking about it, till the sun dropped behind the black western woods, and the bell at the refectory rang for the supper hour. Then Cædmon bade his sister good-bye, and went up the avenued path to the monastery. And the little portress tripped away merrily through the meadows homewards, singing as she went, in the joy of her stainless soul.
HOW ALDULF HINDERED CÆDMON’S VANITY, AND
HOW CÆDMON DREAMT A WONDERFUL DREAM
NOW it was a fashion with the Saxons in those old days, that after supper was ended, those at the tables who knew minstrelsy, should take the harp each in turn, and sing to it some improvisatore ballad. And because those who met at the choir supper were all musicians, it became a custom among them to pass the harp round the board to every one, as a matter of course, without so much as asking if he could handle it. And Aldulf knew that the lot to sing and play would f all to Cædmon in his turn as a guest at the table. So he contrived to sit next him that he might have the plea-sure of passing the harp to him, and pressing him to sing, and so make his disgrace and incapacity more keenly bitter to him, and more apparent to others.
And this was the generous thought that had come into his heart as he sang God’s praises that night in the chapel!
And when Cædmon came in and sat down among the rest
with Aldulf beside him, many of the choristers fixed their eyes upon him and whispered one to another, – “Surely we have an angel among us tonight; didst ever see such a fair face, or such a sweet smile?” And some said, “This is either Cædmon, the cattle-drover, or the angel Gabriel; for Father Cynewulf says the two are alike.” But Aldulf heard them, and his brow grew all the darker, and his heart all the harder, and more envious. And when the meal was at an end, Redwald, the choir-master, took the psaltery as usual from its place in the corner of the hall, and, bidding the rest be silent, he lifted it upon his knee and tuned the strings to his voice. Then he ran his practised fingers through the chords, and sang a sweet melody to the Giver of all good, and Cædmon listened, happy and delighted.
And when he had finished, the rest applauded, and the chorister who sat next took the harp in his’ turn and sang, and then another, and another, – this one a ballad, and that one a psalm, – until it came to the lot of Aldulf. And Aldulf’s voice was in fair time that night, and he was impatient besides to shew off his skill and talent before Cædmon, who, for all his beauty, must needs be dumb; so he tossed his head, and threw back his lank colourless hair with an air of superior mind, and plumed himself like any parrot, till those who sat by and watched him began to titter outright. And when he had done his part, and acknowledged the applause accorded him with a gracious smile, he turned to his victim, and, giving him the harp – “It is thy turn now, brother,” said he. But Cædmon would have passed the harp on to the next, only Aldulf laid his hand on his arm to hinder him, and spoke again: – “Not so, fair guest, but thou also must play to us; no one passes by the harp who sits at our table.” Then Cædmon looked up surprised.
“Nay, Aldulf,” he answered, “but thou knowest I cannot tell a note of music.” But Aldulf went on in his malice, smiling, and loud enough for all the hall to hear.
“Thou art over modest, Cædmon; surely thou canst make us some sort of minstrelsy, for there is none so ignorant and rude of touch, but that he can handle a psaltery at a pinch.”
But Cædmon blushed all over, through his white trans-parent skin, for shame, and answered not a word, so sharp to him was Aldulf’s reproach. Then said one of the choristers who sat opposite and watched him, – “Take courage, brother, and be not fearful, for with those sweet looks and soft eyes of thine I know thou canst sing, and I doubt not but thy voice is as pleasant as thy face.” And Cædmon looked at him who spoke those gentle words, and made reply with tears, – “Brother, indeed if I could play to you, I would at once, and gladly, but my fingers have no skill
upon the strings, and I cannot strike a note. And ever since I could speak I have loved music, and longed to play, but God hath kept the blessing from me.”
Then all the choristers looked at each other surprised, and Redwald said: – “Let him be, brother Aldulf, for this is not mannerly, and one can see he speaks the truth, – pass the harp on to the next.”
But Aldulf’s malice was not yet run out.
“Bear with me, father, a moment more,” he cried, “I think our fair friend does himself a wrong. For at least, Cædmon, “he said, turning to him again, –– “thou canst sing something, even if thou canst not play, and I will accompany thee.”
But Cædmon looked at him piteously. “Do not mock me, Aldulf,” he pleaded, “thou knowest well that I have no voice, and cannot sing.” Yet Aldulf would have made even more ado, but that Redwald angrily bade him hold his peace, and pass the harp on. So he lifted his eyebrows, and drew up his shoulders to his ears, but dared say nothing more to vex Cædmon.
But all the choristers wondered at their guest, and began to whisper among themselves. And one said, – “This fellow is but an idiot for all his fair face.”
And another, – “What wouldst thou have of a cow-keeper? let him be, to drive his cattle, for he is fit for nothing better.”
And a third, – “I had rather have an ill countenance and be worth somewhat, than possess the beauty of Absalom and be a dolt withal.”
And Aldulf heard them, and it gladdened his heart, and he thought he had gained his end and made Cædmon mean in the eyes of the brotherhood, despite his fair looks. For he hoped that on the morrow the whole monastery would hear of the matter. But Cædmon’s ears also had caught the gossip of the choristers, and his heart grew so big with its burden of shame and sorrow, that he could not bear to stay in his place any longer. And so, or ever the next minstrel began his theme, Cædmon rose from his seat, and slipped out of the hall into the garden.
And there he leant against a tall beech-tree, and hid his fair face in his hands, and wept bitterly and wildly, as though his very soul would burst with grief. Then he remembered Wulfrith’s words and her sweet counsel, and, folding his palms together, he strove in the midst of his weeping to pray for patience, like the saints. And after awhile he felt more at peace, and the stillness of the garden sank into his senses like sweet wine, healing and comforting him with its fragrance.
So he went on his way down the avenue, and over the pastures, to his own chamber at the farm.
HOW CÆDMON DREAMT A WONDERFUL DREAM, AND
HOW HE SANG TO THE MONKS IN THE REFECTORY
AND there he bethought him of the words of one of the monks, – his confessor; – “My son, if our Lord had a cross to bear, His mother a sword through her heard and St. Paul a thorn in the flesh, dost thou expect to be exempt from penance? Pray rather with holy Jesus and Mary – ‘Not my will, but Thine be done; be it unto me according to Thy word; ‘and thou shalt surely hear the King of Martyrs answering thee as He answered the Apostle,’ – My grace is sufficient for thee.”
So Cædmon knelt down by his bedside and prayed our Lord, with tears, to give him patience and strength according to the pattern of His own, that he might bear his cross after Him bravely, however hard and heavy it might be. And half the night through he prayed, and wept, and pondered, by turns, until he fell asleep through weariness; and while he slept God sent him a wondrous dream.
For in the midst of the darkness and the stillness of the long night, Cædmon heard a sweet voice calling him by name. And the voice said: – “Cædmon, sing Me something.” But he answered, – “I cannot sing; and for that very cause I Left the monastery hall tonight, because all the choristers mocked at me, and wondered how I could be so foolish and unskilled.”
“Yet thou must sing, to Me,” said the voice; and it was so sweet that Cædmon’ thought it must needs be the voice of the Lord Jesus Himself.
So he spoke again meekly and patiently: – “O Lord, what shall I sing?”
Then the voice answered him: – “Sing Me the origin of things.”
And suddenly there came, as it were, a great flood of light into the soul of Cædmon, and his tongue was loosed, and he knew that the gift he had longed for was given him at last.
And the Lord put sweet thoughts and tender rhythm into his mind, and taught him in his dream how to handle the lyre, and to set his measure to the music of the strings. and he sang as the voice had bidden him, of the beginning of all things, and of the infinite wonders that God the Maker had brought forth out of chaos.
And when he had made an end of his song he awoke, and Io, he remembered it every whit. So Cædmon lay and pondered over this strange dream in an ecstasy of sweet delight,
until the morning came, and then he rose and gave great thanks to God, rejoicing with all his soul for the blessing that had come to him. Then he went forth from his chamber joyfully, to hear mass, and to sing the praise of our dear Lord for the first time in his life, at the chapel of the farm.
And when mass was over, Cædmon went to his confessor, and told him of all that had befallen the night before, and of the wonderful vision he had had, and the miracle God had wrought in him.
But when the good father had heard, him, he said, “My son, be not lifted up with pride at what the Lord hath done for thee, neither go about telling every one of thy vision, lest thou fall into sin through thy conceit; but go to thy work humbly, and be patient, waiting for what shall come upon thee; for God, Who hath already so highly favoured thee, will presently also open a way to faring thy graces to light Himself, without thy boasting of them, or going hither and thither to make them known.”
So he gave Cædmon his blessing, and sent him away to his labour in the meadows for the day.
But at noon, just as the refectory bell began to ring for dinner, Cædmon spied Aldulf coming up to the monastery a long the pathway of the hill. And when the chorister saw Cædmon at his work, he cried, – “Good morrow, fair cow-herd! wilt come to supper again with us tonight?”
Then Cædmon bethought himself a moment and answered gently, “Ay, good Aldulf, that will I, readily, and thanks for thy kindness.”
But Aldulf stopped short and stared at him doubtfully, for he thought Cædmon must be bantering, or else distraught.
“How now?” said he, “thou wilt come? I counsel thee rather to keep away, lest Father Redwald censure thee for thy presumption. And, indeed, I dare not ask thee tonight, for thou knowest it is the Feast of the Holy Name, and the fathers are going to sup with us in the long refectory. For all of us are to sing an anthem there in honour of the feast, and if thou dost not sing with the rest the monks will notice thee, and want to know who thou art, and how thou earnest among us. And when our master, Redwald, sees thee again, he will certainly ask who brought thee in, and be angry with me when he finds out what I have done.”
But Cædmon only answered him with a mild voice, “So be it, then, Aldulf, but yet I will come.”
“Then take the consequences on thine own head, dolt,” cried the chorister, pale with choler; “for I wash mine hands of thee, thou art no guest of mine.” And Aldulf turned away, and went up towards the monastery without another word.
But when the supper hour was come, and the long, deep woods behind the abbey lands were red with autumn sunset, Cædmon made himself ready to go to the refectory.
And first; he went into the Farm chapel and knelt awhile before the altar, praying that our dear Lord would give him grace, and I bless the thing lie was going to; do. Then he arose, and signed himself with the sign of the holy cross, and went upon his way silent and hopeful.
But when he came into the upper hall he found all the brotherhood assembled, and the choristers, and Father Redwald. And they all wondered at him, and whispered together as he took his place at the long board, but yet none spoke a word of rebuke to him, so fair and saintly he was to look upon.
But Aldulf sat sullenly in his place and would not see him, for he was angry at. his boldness, and marvelled what possessed him to come. And when grace was said and supper ended, Father Hereward stood up to give a discourse. And he spoke of the Feast that they were met to celebrate, and of the holy Name of Jesus, and the wonders it had wrought among men. And he told how that He who bore that Name was the wisdom and the power of God, by whom the whole earth was made. “Wherefore,” said he, “ ‘hath God highly exalted Him, and hath given Him a Name that is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.’ For from the beginning of eternity was the Word dwelling within the unspeakable light and clear shining of the Father, and by His Voice were all things made out of darkness and silence and void. And by this Word of God was the whole world created, and by this Word of God was the whole world saved. So that the Wisdom of the Father, which is the holy Name of His Son, is the Alpha and Omega of all things, First and Last, Beginning and End.”
And much more than this the good priest said, and all the brotherhood kept silence and listened reverently. And when he had finished talking, he took from beside him the harp, and he said, – “Who of you, my brothers, will sing to us of this great mystery of the wisdom and the love of God, that we may meditate thereon to our soul’s comfort?”
Then there was silence in all the hall for a little space, and the monks looked at one another doubtingly, none liking to answer. Then said Father Hereward again, “Is there no poet among you, brethren, who will take this harp and play us some sweet minstrelsy of praise to Him who made us all?”
And in the middle of the long hall, before all those watchful monks, Cædmon stood up, tall and beautiful, the crimson
blood glowing like flame down his fair face, and neck. And he put forth his hand to take the harp, and spoke in sweet clear tones that rang through the silent: hall like the sound of silver rain, “Father, by; God’s grace, I will sing.”
Then they all wondered at him for his tall; stature and for, his noble bearing and loveliness; and many of the brothers who did not; know him, said, “Who is this fair stranger, and whence comes he for we have not seen him at our feasts before?’’
But Redwald and the choristers: were astonished, for they knew him to be the cowherd who the fast night had: refused to sing to them, and I they whispered among themselves. Yet they held their tongues, and none of them rebuked him, because they would see the end. Only Aldulf looked across the table at him, from under his hard, dark brows, and said hoarsely, “Art thou mad, Cædmon? or hast a devil?”
Then Father Hereward bade Cædmon come and fetch the harp, and he put it into his hands and said, “Sing on, my son.”
So Cædmon sat down on a stool beside the Father at the top of the long board, and took the harp upon his knee. And he laid his cunning hand across the strings and played a soft, low prelude, like the sound of the wind in summer. And straightway a great hush and stillness fell upon all the monks, for they perceived that their strange guest was a poet indeed.
Then the Spirit of God came upon Cædmon like a whirl-wind, and he lifted his voice and sang the song that our Lord had taught him in his dream. And he sang of the wisdom and the Word of God, and of the origin of all living things, and of the making of the world.
And still he sang, with eyes and voice full of heaven, while all that heard him listened breathless, all d drank in the sweet words with rapture, longing to hear more and more for ever. And when he made an end of his song, every man sat silent in his place and spoke no word, for very wonder and ecstasy of delight. But Redwald and his choir fastened their eyes upon him with one accord, amazed at his exceeding grace and skill.
And when Cædmon lifted his eyes and looked about him for Aldulf, behold his place was empty, for Aldulf had gone forth from the hall in a fit of sickness, through rage and envy and astonishment. But none besides Cædmon missed him, for all the brothers were intent in thought upon the words of that wondrous poem they had heard. Then said Father Hereward, “Who art thou, my son? and who taught thee to sing so marvellously?”
And he made answer, sweetly, “Father, I am a lay brother,
Cædmon the cowherd, and our Lord taught me to sing only last night; for until then I knew nothing of minstrelsy, and my hand was stiff and untrained, and my voice hard and cracked as a toad’s. But from my childhood I loved music and all musical things, and longed with all my soul’s longing to be a minstrel, and I prayed the dear God night and day for the gift.”
Then, while all the monks sat and listened to him, he told them of his vision, and how the Lord had wrought a miracle for him, out of His exceeding compassion and grace.
And when Cædmon had ceased speaking, every one sat yet for a little while silently, and gave thanks to God in his heart. Then Father Hereward said, “Children, let us praise the Lord for this wonderful and precious benison wherewith He hath blessed our brother. For sith this is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, we have an anthem to sing to the glory of Him who bare it for us men upon earth amid all manner of pain and reproach, and who bears it now in heaven through all eternity, praised alike of angels and men. And we know that the same word which in the beginning brought light out of darkness, and sweet sounds out of stillness, hath today spoken unto our brother Cædmon, and taught him who was silent to sing His praise.”
And when Hereward had said this, all the brotherhood rose to their feet with one accord, and sang together the glories of that blessed Name, and Cædmon sang with them, full of gratitude and joy.”
And the sound of their singing came through the opened doors and casements, and across into the meadow beyond. And there stood in the meadow, listening, a little lay sister in a black dress and white veil. For Wulfrith had come out to look for her brother, as was her wont, but Cædmon had already gone into the farm-house chapel before she could find him. So she went into the fields, and wandered up and down, fancying he must be yet busy, and hoping he would come by-and-by. And while she watched and waited, the sun went down, and presently she heard the monks chanting in the long refectory.
Then, being fearful of being late at the convent if she waited longer, she turned to go down the hill again home-wards, and met Father Cynewulf, Cædmon’s confessor, toiling up the hill on his staff.
“Daughter, daughter,” said he, shaking his white head gravely, and trying to look stern, “make haste, and get thee in to supper; it is time for all good Christian maids to be in fold.”
“True, dear father,” she answered him, with a sly glance
out of the corners of her round blue eyes, “and time also for thee to be at the refectory. Hark! they are chanting even now.”
“Ay, my child,” said the old man, leaning on his staff, and panting, “but I have already supped at the farm, having much work to do, and these hills are hard to climb when one grows old. For little feet like thine they are easy enough. Hast thou seen thy brother today, Wulfrith?”
“Nay, father,” she answered, sorrowfully; “I have waited here this hour and have seen nothing of him; methinks he must have gone up again to the refectory. For brother Aldulf, the chorister, father, –”
“I know, I know all about it, my child, thy brother told me this morning. And I may tell thee, Wulfrith, what as yet thou knowest not, but soon all the abbey must know of it, even this, – that the Lord hath wrought a miracle for thy brother, and hath given him skill upon the harp, and a voice to sing His praise.” And he told Wulfrithall that Cædmon had related to him of his dream.
Then the little portress clapped her hands above her head and danced for pure joy. And she cried out, with tears in her glistening eyes, “Oh father! father! is it true? quite true? Ah, I know it is true, because the dear Lord always hears us when we pray to Him, does He not, father? And I told Cædmon so only yesterday. Oh, I am so very, very glad! and now he will be made a chorister, and sing in the chapel choir with Aldulf! And may I go home and tell the sisters all about it, and our mother the abbess?”
“By all means, my child,” quoth the old monk, laying his hand lovingly upon her veiled head, “and bid them all from me give thanks to God for His great grace. And now get thee gone, little woman, for the twilight is begun and it is very late. Even now I am afraid thou wilt have to eat thy supper alone. God bless thee, Wulfrith!”
So they parted, and Father Cynewulf said to himself as he went on his way, “But I am afraid Cædmon will not sing in the choir with brother Aldulf yet awhile, for I shall have a word or two to say to Aldulf’s director on this matter before tomorrow.”
HOW CÆDMON AND ALDULF WERE MADE FRIENDS
NOW when it came to the ears of the Abbess Hilda that Wulfrith’s brother had seen a vision and was inspired, she sent a messenger to the farm on the morrow to bid the young
man come to the convent and speak with her. So Cædmon went up with the messenger, and he brought him into the hall of the sisterhood, and the Abbess came out to him there, holding the little Princess Elfleda by the hand. She brought out a roll of parchment, wherein were copied some verses from the books of the holy prophets, which she gave to Cædmon, that he might measure the words into sweet rhythm, and set them to music, for the nuns to sing in their chapel. For the Abbess would try Cædmon to know whether or not he really had this gift of song. But or ever the hour for vespers came, Cædmon went up to the convent again with the anthem written in his hand. Wulfrith opened the outer gate to him, and when she saw it was her brother who stood there, she laid her arms about his throat and kissed him for joy and delight. So he told her of his dream, and how he had sung to the monks in the refectory; and how he hoped soon to be a chorister in the chapel. She prated to him, in her turn, about her meeting with Father Cynewulf, and of the things he told her, and her being first to tell the Abbess what had befallen. Then they kissed again, weeping for very happiness, and went up to the sisterhood together. And Cædmon gave his anthem to the Abbess Hilda; and when she had read it, she fixed her great mild eyes upon him, saying, “My son, God hath indeed given thee a grand and noble gift, for He hath made thee such a poet as our land hath few to match. See that thou use this. great grace in His service always, without wearying or conceit, lest thy Lord, when He cometh, find thee sleeping like a faithless and unwise steward. And now follow me into the chapel, my son; there are those waiting for us there whom you know.”
So she went out down the long corridor towards the chapel, and Cædmon followed her, with little Wulfrith beside him, brimful of delight and wonderment. At the door of the chapel they found the good Father Cynewulf and Redwald the choirmaster at the monastery; and Father Cynewulf held out his hand to Cædmon, smiling, and drew him aside gently into the niche of the doorway, letting the Abbess and Wulfrith pass by into the chapel. Presently vespers began, and the soft low chanting of the nuns; and the incense rose up to the carved roof overhead, and brake in soft clouds, rolling to and fro, until it lost itself among the long arches and the mellow glories of the western windows, like a holy mist of prayer.
After that, Cædmon’s anthem was sung, and Cædmon stood and listened blushing, while the white-haired priest Cynewulf clasped his hand in his own all the faster and more tenderly, and Father Redwald beat time to the measure
with regular-waving arm. When the last notes were sung, and they all knelt for benediction, Cædmon’s tears dropped on the marble pavement like rain, for his soul overflowed with love and great thanks, and he thought that after all earth must be very nigh to heaven, since men could be so happy upon it and God so near them.
Then Father Redwald called Cædmon and brought him to the Abbess, saying, “Venerable Mother, I shall take this young man to the monastery this very hour, to do with him as I told thee, knowing that our Lord hath highly blessed him, and that all the brotherhood will make him welcome, because the Spirit of God is upon him.”
At that the Abbess smiled and took Cædmon by the hand, and kissing him on either cheek, ‘‘Therefore God be gracious unto thee, my son,” said she.
Then she put the copy of Cædmon’s anthem into Redwald’s hand, and he bade the young man take his leave of the Abbess and come with him, for that he and Father Cynewulf had been bidden to bring him to the monastery.
So Cædmon knelt a moment for the mother’s blessing, and kissed his sister Wulfrith, who bade him God speed, and then the chapel door closed after them and they were gone.
But the Fathers Redwald and Cynewulf took Cædmon with them to the monastery and went into the upper hall, where they found all the brotherhood gathered together awaiting their coming. And when Cædmon came in, Father Hereward stood forth from among the monks, and taking his hand in his own, he looked full in his fair face and asked him: “Brother Cædmon, what sayest thou, – wilt thou be one of us, and leave thy herds and kine, and thy farmhouse, to live in the monastery among us, to be a priest of God, and a father to others who are poorer and weaker than thou? For the Lord hath plainly shewed us how that He singularly loveth thee, and hath chosen thee to be His, by pouring out His Spirit upon thine head, and by giving thee this great and wonderful gift. Wherefore, brother, we are met here together to entreat thee earnestly in His most holy Name, that thou refuse not to join us, and to edify us by thy genius, thy sweet doctrine, and power of song.”
Then Cædmon made the sign of the cross upon his fore-head and breast, and answered with great joy in his soul: “Father, in the name of the blessed Trinity I will take upon me this high estate, and dwell among you all the days of my life, that I may be a priest at the altar to sing God’s praises, and to be a father to those who are poor and sorrowful, as I have been. So may God send me His sweet grace.” Then all the monks answered and said, “Amen.”
And now I am glad that my story ends pleasantly, as all
stories ought to do. But as all things do not come smooth and even at once in most people’s histories, so neither did they in the case of the poet-monk. For though Cædmon had won himself the love and reverence of all the fathers, and though the Abbess Hilda and her min s took him for nothing less than a prophet, yet there was one in the abbey who envied and hated him with a great spite, and longed to do him a mischief: that one was Aldulf the chorister.
And when it was told Aldulf that evening what the monks had done for Cædmon; how he was to become a member of their confraternity, and be a priest instead of a cowherd, he was like to burst with madness of rage and jealousy. But he dared not open his lips to say a word against Cædmon, because all in the monastery admired and loved him, and he knew that if he maligned him he should only bring a curse upon his own head. So he swallowed his anger as best he might, and turned sullen and morose over his fancied wrong, petting it like a cherished serpent, that in return poisoned all the joy of his heart with its baneful breath.
But the next day was not over before his companions of the choir, and the monks who saw Aldulf, had noticed his silent mood and bent brows, and they wondered among themselves what ailed him. When it was the time for vespers, and the choristers were ready in the choir waiting for the beginning of service, came Father Redwald and brought them Cædmon’s anthem, and would have them sing it in the chapel for the fathers to hear.
And all the choristers were glad, and they sang with good heart and clear loud voices – all of them save Aldulf, who stood still in his place frowning, and would not utter a word. For he said to himself, “l will sing no anthem of this cattle-drover’s.”
After the service, when the choristers were gone out of the chapel, Father Redwald followed Aldulf as he went towards the hill, walking moodily apart from the rest. And he touched him upon the shoulder, saying, “What ailed thee, Aldulf, that thou wouldst not sing the anthem tonight with the others?” But Aldulf gave him no answer.
Now Father Redwald was Aldulf’s director as well as his master, and Aldulf had kept all this hatred and spite of his a secret even from him, because he was ashamed of it, and knew the good monk would blame him. But Father Cynewulf had told Redwald of the matter, having heard it from Cædmon, and perceiving how wretched poor Aldulf was making himself through his own ill-humour and bitterness.
So when Father Redwald saw that Aldulf was silent, he drew him aside to a bench that was beside the pathway, beneath the shadow of a tall cedar, and bade him sit there with
him. Then he said: “My son, I know that thy thoughts are full of unchristian fancies and dreams that the evil one hath put into thine head, and hath kept thee back from telling me, to make thee miserable and to vex thine heart withal. Wherefore now, my son, hide nothing from me, but open unto me this sin and grief of thine, that I may appoint thee some wholesome penance, and give thee the consolation of God’s sweet peace.” But yet Aldulf held his tongue, and turned away his head proudly, for he was angry and full of scorn.
Then Father Redwald caught him by the hand and spoke very earnestly: “O child, child, why wilt thou be so foolish and wayward against thine own comfort? Have I any cause to entreat thee except it be for thy blessing and the glory of God? How is it thou lovest this festering plague-spot of sin better than the sweet odour of heavenly grace? Dost thou not know, my son, that every one who wilfully abides in sin, is before God as a corpse that hath been long dead, savouring of corruption and all manner of foulness? But he who does penance and returns to the service of the Lord, becomes like an offering of incense, sweetening his own soul and the souls of others with the fragrant odour of his good example. Wilt thou not, Aldulf, be rather found a clean offering in God’s sight than a putrid corpse of unholiness? Son, a son, I entreat thee as thy spiritual father, be reconciled to our dear Lord in the sacrament I offer thee. See how He looks at thee from the cross hanging at thy girdle, with His loving hands spread’ wide to receive thee, and all his immaculate body pitifully torn and wounded for thy sake! Wilt thou let Him suffer yet more pain, Aldulf, by rejecting and contemning His compassionate love and His embraces, when He hath borne all this agony of penance for thee?”
Then Aldulf turned his head, looking into Father Redwald’s face, and saw that his grey eyes were filled with tears. And the chorister’s hard soul melted within him as snow melts in the sunlight, and he fell on his knees before the good priest and confessed every whit of his sin, weeping sore.
When he had ended, Father Redwald laid his hand on his head and said, “My son, the things thou hast told me are very sad to hear, and thou hast done foolishly, but even so God gives more grace. For there is more rejoicing among the angels over the soul that hath sinned and is forgiven, than over the saint who went not astray; and I have heard some of the fathers say they almost envy their penitents, so great a grace is it to have true compunction for one’s ill doings. But for all thou art forgiven, I must set thee a penance to do, that thou mayest not forget how thou hast grieved the dear Lord and wounded thine own soul. Neither
shall thy penance be an idle one, Aldulf, for thou must leave the choir for awhile and tend Cædmon’s kine in his place, until one be found among the lay brothers to take the charge from thee. Now go and find him whom thou hast so grievously ill-treated, and ask his pardon for thine evil deeds, and the pardon of his sister Wulfrith, whom thou hast also wronged.”
So he gave Aldulf absolution and his blessing, then left him and went upon his way to the monastery, and Aldulf upon his to find Cædmon. Presently he saw Cædmon walking in the garden among the flowers, and Wulfrith was with him. And when Aldulf saw them he stood still for a moment, praying for courage and grace to confess his fault like a man. And our Lord heard him, and sent a great strength into his soul, so that he came forth bravely and went to meet Cædmon, saying, “Brother Cædmon, I am come to ask pardon of thee and of Wulfrith for all the evil I have wrought you, and the sharp words I have spoken. I have confessed all to Father Redwald, and am absolved from my sin, but now I am come to ask forgiveness also of thee.”
Then Cædmon put out both his hands, and caught him round the neck, kissing him with all his heart. And when he could speak for joy he forgave him gladly and freely; and as for Wulfrith, her cup of happiness so overflowed at the sight of Aldulf’s penitence that she could not say a word for weeping.
And then they all three wandered about in the garden together, plucking the sweet flowers and talking, until the refectory bell rang for supper. Then Wulfrith bade them good-bye and ran off to her convent, and Cædmon and Aldulf went into the monastery hall side by side.
But Aldulf told his friend nothing about his penance, for lie thought it would make Cædmon sorry.
On the morrow Aldulf put on the habit of a cowherd, and went down to the farm to take care of Cædmon’s kine; all day long he tended them in the pastures, and at night he slept in the farm-house, until Father Redwald found another among the peasants on the abbey lands to take Cædmon’s work, and sent Aldulf back to his choir.
After that, all things went well and pleasantly in the monastery, and the days were full of peace, and Aldulf wore his white robes again, and sang in the chapel better than ever he sang before; but every one noticed that when Cædmon’s anthems were sung it was Aldulf’s voice that was highest and clearest of all.
In due time Cædmon was made a priest, and took the holy vows at God’s altar, and became a father in the abbey, beloved and revered of all the brotherhood. The Spirit of
God rested upon Cædmon and upon all his labours; and many a long year he dwelt there in peace, a holy man, teaching, and singing the praises of our Lord, until he died in the year of grace 680.
And because he was the first poet of our country whose name has found a place in its records, we have given him a title of great honour which will carry his memory on to all ages of English literature, making him in some sort the patron of our national psalmody, and enshrining the legend of his life among the many beautiful stories which belong exclusively to the Age of Saints. For Cædmon is called to this day, “The Father of English Song.”
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Printed by James Parker and Co., Crown-yard. Oxford.