"Saint Cristopher." by Lilian Gask (1865-)
HERE was once a man named Offero, so tall and strong that he stood among his fellows as a sturdy oak in a grove of saplings. His eyes were keen and clear as some great eagle's, his lips spoke nothing but gentle words, and his heart was as pure and tender as a little child's. His spirit was brave and fearless, and while he was yet in the prime of his strength he resolved to devote it to some good purpose.
"My friends," he said, when he had called together his companions, "I must leave you now, for something within me whispers that I was born to serve a king so great that fear is unknown to him; a king to whom all men bow."
Then he strode away into the forest and was seen of them no more.
For many a day he traversed valley and mountain, inquiring of all he met who was the greatest king. At last he came to a splendid country, where reigned a monarch of high renown. His armies were vast and powerful, and his fleet of warships was like a flock of birds bearing death on their grim brown wings. When he was told that Offero desired to serve him, he welcomed him gladly, and liked the young man so well that he soon made him his trusted counsellor and friend.
It was Offero's pride to see how all men trembled at his master's frown, and he could not believe that there lived a monarch greater than he. One day, however, when the king was present, a courtier made some remark about "the Evil One"; his Majesty's august brow grew pale, and Offero could have sworn he saw his stern lips quiver. Pained and surprised, he humbly asked the king why he was troubled.
"I am afraid of the Devil," said that monarch, "although I fear no mortal man. He is the King of Hades, and more powerful even than I."
"Then I must leave you, O King!" cried Offero with haste, "since I have vowed to serve none other than the most powerful monarch in existence." And sorrowfully he turned away.
HERE is the Devil?" he asked the first man he met.
"He is everywhere," returned the traveller, looking round uneasily; and this was the usual answer that Offero received to his inquiry. Wherever he went men looked uneasy at the Devil's name, but would not say where Offero was most likely to meet with him.
He found him at last among a group of idle men and maidens on the village green, and hailed him as his master. The Devil was glad to have so strong a follower, and amused himself by showing the astonished giant his power over rich and poor. There seemed to be no limit to his might; he swayed the nobles in their velvet robes, and the peasants in their tattered garments.
"He is indeed master of the world," sighed Offero, and though he liked not the Devil's ways, he stifled his distaste that he might keep his word.
One day his master led him through the outskirts of the town into the open country.
"We are going to visit a hermit," he said with a burst of laughter. "He has left the town to be quit of me, but he will find me in his cave!"
Before Offero could ask of him what he meant to do with the good hermit, they came to a turn where four roads met. A rough wind swayed the branches of the trees, and a peal of thunder echoed among the lofty hills. It was neither wind nor thunder, however, that made the Devil tremble, but the sight of a wooden cross which some pious folk had erected here. With gaunt arms pointing east and west it stood immovable; the rain beat down on it mercilessly, as if to cleanse it from the roadside dust; and turning his head away that he might not see it, the Devil hastened past. Not until it was far behind them had Offero an opportunity of asking why he had trembled.
"I was afraid," answered his grim companion, with another shudder.
"Afraid?" repeated Offero in puzzled tones. "Why, what was there to be afraid of?"
"Did you not see the crucifix?" cried the Devil impatiently. "The figure on it is that of the Christ, and this is why I trembled."
The giant had never heard that Holy Name before, and felt more perplexed than ever as he demanded: "Who is this Christ whom you so fear?"
"He is the King of Heaven," was the reluctant reply.
S He more powerful, then, than you?" persisted Offero, planting himself in the centre of the pathway so that his master could not pass on.
"He is more powerful even than I!" admitted the Devil, his eyes becoming points of fire.
"Then I shall serve Him, and Him only," the giant cried, and, turning on his heel, he left the Devil to go on his way alone.
When Offero reached the cross once more, a man was kneeling before it in prayer. As he rose from his knees, Offero asked him the way to Heaven.
"I cannot tell you," said the man. "The way is long, and hard to find. 'Tis well that Christ is merciful."
Offero met with like answers from many wayfarers whom he questioned, but at last came one who advised him to consult the hermit.
"He is a holy man," he assured him earnestly, "and has retired from the world that he may give his time to prayer and fasting. He thinks he can serve Christ this way better than any other."
So Offero sought the hermit, and learnt from him many things. He heard of the grandeur and goodness of Christ, and of the greatness of His Kingdom. All that he said made Offero more eager to serve Him than ever, and when the hermit explained that no one could enter the Heavenly Kingdom until he was summoned there by Christ Himself, he bowed his head in disappointment.
"How then can I serve this new Master?" he said, "unless I can see Him and hear His commands?"
"Do as I do," replied the hermit. "Give up the world, and fast and pray."
"If I were to fast," said Offero shrewdly, "I should lose my strength, and then, when He called me to work for Him, I should be useless." And although the hermit tried to persuade him, he would not stay, but set off again on his journey, determined to find the way to Heaven.
Presently he met a company of pilgrims. They were dusty and travel-stained, and very footsore, but their faces shone with joy. There were men and women and little children; some came from distant lands, and some from near, but one and all they were filled with a deep content.
"Who are you, and whence do you travel?" Offero asked them wonderingly.
"We are the servants of Christ," they answered, "and we are marching towards Heaven. The path is rough, and the way is long, but His many mansions await us."
"I will come with you, and be His servant too!" said Offero, and they welcomed him gladly.
The way was long, as they had said, but to the giant the days passed quickly. He was learning so much that he could scarcely sleep for the wonder of it, and his face also shone with happiness. He grew very grave when he heard of the swift-flowing river that all must cross before they could hope to reach the Kingdom of Heaven.
"There is no bridge to span it," said an aged pilgrim, whose tottering limbs were now so feeble that but for Offero's support they would hardly have borne him along. "The trembling woman, the little child, must cross it alone in the gloom and darkness, for though they call, no friendly boatman appears in sight. When Christ has need of us, His messenger will appear; he is clothed in raiment white as snow, and although his voice is always gentle, it is clearly heard in the rush and roar of the tempest as on a summer's day."
At length the pilgrims came to the river-bank, and as the giant gazed at the foaming current, and saw the waves dashing against the shore, he marvelled greatly at what he had been told. Surely, he thought, no feeble woman or little child could breast its waters and reach the other side.
Even as he mused on this the white-robed messenger called to an ailing girl who was almost too weak to move. Her Master had need of her, he said, and in the fair courts of Heaven she would be strong again.
What joy was hers when she heard his voice! But alas! when she crept to the edge of the bank, and saw the river that swept beneath it, her heart grew sick with fear. She quivered and shook from head to foot, and moaned that she dare not venture. An exceeding pity moved Offero to go to her help.
"Do not weep," he said, "but trust to me." And taking her tenderly in his arms, he lifted her on to his shoulder, and bore her tenderly across. In spite of all his strength, the pitiless current nearly swept him off his feet, and he fought with the icy waters as he had fought no mortal foe. The girl tried in vain to thank him as he placed her on the bank in safety; he would not let her speak.
"Tell Christ," he said, "that I am His servant, and that until He shall summon me to His side I will help His pilgrims to cross the River of Death."
ROM henceforth this was his work. He had no time to wonder when his own call would come, for day and night there arrived at the banks of the river pilgrims from every clime, and, since few had courage to face the dark waters alone, he crossed and recrossed it continually. In order that he might be always at hand, he built himself a rough log-hut by the waterside, and here he made his home.
One night when the waves rolled fiercely and the wind blew high, Offero laid him down to sleep. Surely, he thought, no one would dare to cross in such a storm. His eyes had scarcely closed, however, when he heard a knocking at the door.
"HE PLACED THE BOY ON HIS SHOULDER"
"Who are you?" he cried as he threw it open. There was no answer, and by the light of his lantern he saw a wistful child on the river-bank. He was staring at the rushing waters with piteous dread, but the tone of his voice was clear and firm as he turned and spoke to Offero.
"I must cross to-night," he said. Offero looked at him with deep compassion.
"Poor child!" he murmured, "I am glad I heard you. With a tide like this it will be difficult even for me, giant as I am, but you would be swept away."
With gentle hands he placed the boy on his shoulder, and bidding him not to fear, set out for the opposite shore.
He had not over-estimated the difficulties he had to face. Time after time he was beaten backward, and the icy waters nearly engulfed them both. It took all his strength to bear up against them, and the weight of the child seemed greater than that of the heaviest man he had ever borne. When at last he climbed the steep, high bank, he was bruised as well as breathless, for the hidden rocks had worked him grievous harm.
"Tell Christ–" he panted. And then he saw that the figure beside him was not that of a little child, but of a radiant Being of kingly mien, with a crown of glory on His brow. The giant knelt before Him, and the vision smiled.
"I am the Christ," He said, "whom thou hast served so long. This night thou hast borne Me across the River of Death.... Thou didst find Me a heavy burden, for I bore the sins of the world."
Then He named Giant Offero "Cristopher," meaning "He who hath carried Christ," and took him to dwell with Him in His Heavenly Kingdom.