Blessed Mao

The Blessed Mao

Those Christians who stand in need of heavenly aid cannot do better than apply themselves to our Lady of All-Help near Faou. In that place has been built, expressly in her honour, the very richest chapel ever yet raised for her by human hands. The whole inside is ornamented with golden images, and the belfry-tower, which is made exactly like the one at Kreisker, is perforated like a Quimper fritter. There stands also near the church a stone fountain, famed for healing the infirmities both of body and soul.

It was at this chapel that Mao stopped on his road to pray. Mao came from Loperek, which is a pleasant little parish between Kimerc'h and Logoma. His friends and relations were all dead, and his guardian had sent him off to seek his living where he liked, with a good club-stick in his hand and three silver crowns in his purse.

After saying devoutly at the foot of the high-altar all the prayers he had ever learned from the curé, or the old woman who had nursed him, Mao went out of church to go on his way. But as he passed the palisades, he saw a crowd of people gathered around a corpse upon the grass, and learnt upon inquiry that it was the body of a poor beggar-man, who had yielded up his soul the morning before, and who could not be buried for want of the money-payment.

“Was he, then, a heathen, or a wretched reprobate who had been unfaithful to his Christian duties, that no one will do him this charitable service?” asked Mao.

“He was a sheep of the true fold,” replied one who stood by; “and however hardly he might be pressed by hunger, he would not pluck the three apples, or even ears of corn, which are permitted by old usage to be gathered by the passing stranger. But poor Stevan has not left the means of paying for his funeral, and so here he is allowed to lie. If I were not as poor myself, I would not have allowed him to lie here so long.”

“Alas,” cried Mao, “are the people so cruel in this part of the world, that they suffer the poor to enter the church-doors whilst living, but not after death? If money is all that is wanted, here are three crowns; they are all I have, but I will gladly give them to unlock holy ground to one of the faithful departed.”

The sexton and the priest were now sent for, and the body of the poor beggar was solemnly committed to the grave. As for Mao, he made a simple cross of two yew-branches, set it on the grave of the poor beggar; and after having devoutly repeated a De profundis, he set off once more upon his journey towards Camfront.

After a time, however, Mao grew both hungry and thirsty, and remembering that he had nothing left of what his guardian had bestowed, he set himself to gather blackberries, wild-sorrel, and sloes from the hedges. And whilst thus employed, he watched the birds that picked their living from the bushes, and said within himself, “After all, these birds are better off than baptised creatures. They have no need of inns, of butchers, bakers, or gardeners; God's open sky belongs to them, and His earth is stretched before them like a table always spread; the little insects are to them as game, the grass in seed their fields of corn, the fruit of the wild-rose or hawthorn their dessert; they are at liberty to gather all without payment or permission asked. No wonder that the birds are joyous, and sing from morning till night.”

Turning these thoughts in his mind, Mao slackened his pace, and at last sat himself down under the shade of an old oak-tree, where he fell asleep. But behold, in his sleep, a holy man appeared suddenly before him, clad in shining raiment, who thus spoke:

“I am the poor beggar Stevan, for whom you purchased a consecrated grave. The Blessed Virgin Mary, whom I endeavoured to serve while on earth, now reckons me amongst her court, and has vouchsafed to me the privilege of bringing you good news. Think not the birds of the air can possibly be happier than baptised creatures; for the Son of God has shed His blood for these, and they are the favourites of the Holy Trinity. And now hear what the Three Divine Persons will do to recompense your piety. There stands hereabouts, beyond the meadows, an old manor house: you will know it by its weather-vane, which is painted red and green. A man of rank dwells there; his name is Trehouar; and he has a granddaughter, lovely as the day, and gentle as a new-born child. Go you, and knock this evening at his door, saying that ‘you are come, he knows for what.' He will receive you, and you will of your own self make out the rest. Only remember, that if you are in want of help, you must say,

‘Dead beggar, make haste, make haste to me;

For I am sorely in need of thee.'”

With these words the holy man vanished, and Mao awoke. His first impulse was to thank God for vouchsafing such protection over him; and this done, he set off across the meadows to find the manor-house. As night was coming on, he had some doubts of being able to do so; but at last he observed a flight of pigeons, which he set himself to follow, feeling certain they could only lead him to the house of a noble. And, in fact, he soon perceived the red-and-green weather-vane overtopping a little orchard of black-cherry trees laden with fruit; for this was a part of the country famous for black cherries. It is from the mountain parishes that all those cherries are brought which may be seen spread out on straw at the Léon festivals, and with which the young men fill their great beaver hats for the damsels of their choice.

Mao crossed the lawn, shaded with walnut-trees, and then knocked at the most insignificant door he could find, saying, according to the directions, that “he was come for—they knew what.” The master of the house was soon fetched. He came, his head shaking, for he was old and feeble, and leaning on the arm of his fresh young granddaughter. To have seen them together, you would have thought of an old tottering wall supported by a blooming honeysuckle.

The old gentleman and his granddaughter welcomed the young man with the greatest politeness; a worked ottoman was drawn for him close beside the grandfather's arm-chair, and he was treated with sweet cider whilst they waited for supper.

Mao was much surprised to see the way in which he was received, and found great delight in watching the young girl, who prepared every thing with tripping step, singing the while like a very lark.

At last, when supper was over, and Liçzenn,—for so the old man called his grandchild,—had cleared all away, he said to Mao,

“We have treated you to the best of our ability, and according to our means, young man, though not according to our wishes; for the mansion of the Trehouars has been long afflicted by a most grievous plague. Formerly you might have counted twenty horses, and full forty cows, here; but the evil spirit has taken possession of the stalls and stables; cows and horses have disappeared one after another, and that as often as they have been replaced, until the whole of my savings have been thus consumed. All religious services to rid us of this destructive demon have hitherto failed. There has been nothing for us but to submit; and for want of cattle my whole domain now lies uncultivated. I had put some confidence in my nephew Matelinn, who is gone to the war in France; but as he does not return, I have given notice throughout the country, both from the altar and elsewhere, that the man who can deliver the manor from this curse shall both marry Liçzenn, and inherit my property after me. All those who have hitherto made the attempt, by lying in wait in the stables, have disappeared like the cows and horses. I pray God that you may be more fortunate.”

Mao, whom the remembrance of his vision secured against all fear, replied that, by the aid of the Blessed Virgin, he hoped to triumph over the hidden foe. So, begging that he might have a fire to keep him warm, he took his club-stick, and went forth.

The place to which he was conducted was a very large shed, divided in two parts for the use both of the cows and horses; but now all was empty from one end to the other, and the cobwebs hung in thick festoons from the racks.

Mao kindled a fire of broom upon the broad paving-stones, and began to pray.

The first quarter of an hour he heard nothing but the crackling of the flame; the second quarter of an hour he heard nothing but the wind that whistled mournfully through the broken door; the third quarter of an hour he heard nothing but the little death-watch tapping in the rafters overhead; but the fourth quarter of an hour, a dull sound rumbled beneath the pavement; and at the further end of the building, in the darkest corner, he saw the largest stone rise slowly up, and the head of a dragon coming from below. It was huge as a baker's kneading-trough, flattened like a viper's, and all round the forehead shone a row of eyes of different colours.

The beast raised his two great fore-feet armed with scarlet claws upon the edge of the pavement, glared upon Mao, and then crept hissing from his hole. As he came on, his scaly body could be seen unrolling from beneath the stone like a mighty cable from a ship's hold.

Courageous as was the youth, at this spectacle his blood ran cold; and just as he began to feel the dragon's breath, he cried aloud,

“Dead beggar, make haste, make haste to me;

For I am sorely in need of thee.”

In an instant the shining form he had invoked was at his side.

“Fear nothing,” said the saint; “those who are protected by the Mother of God are always victorious over the monsters of the earth. Raise your club and lay the dragon dead at your feet;” and with these words he raised his hand, pronouncing some words that can only be heard in heaven. Mao aimed a fearful blow at the dragon's head, and that very moment the huge monster sank dead upon its side.

The next morning, when the sun rose, Mao went to awaken all the people at the manor, and led them to the stables; but at sight of the dead monster even the most courageous started back at least ten paces.

“Do not be afraid,” said the young man; “the Blessed Mother came to my assistance, andthe beast that fed on cattle and their guardians is nothing now but lifeless clay. Only fetch some ropes, and let us drag it from this place to some lonely waste.”

So they did as he desired; and when the dragon was drawn forth from his den, the whole length of his body was so great that it extended twice round the black-wheat barn-floor.1

The old man, happy in his deliverance from so dangerous an enemy, fulfilled the promise he had made to Mao, and gave to him Liçzenn in marriage. She was led to church at Camfront, her left arm circled, after the custom of the country, by as many rows of silver-lace as there were thousands of francs in her dowry; and the story goes that she had eighteen.

As soon as he was married, Mao bought cattle, hired servants, and soon brought the land about the manor to a more flourishing condition than it had ever known before.

Then went the grandfather to seek his recompense from God, and left all that he possessed to the young couple.

So happy were they in each other and themselves, that no baptised creature ever felt the like,—so happy, that when they knelt in prayer, they could think of nothing to request from God that He had not already blest them with; so they had nothing to do but to thank Him. But one day, as they were sitting down to supper with their servants, one of their attendants introduced a soldier, so tall that his head reached the rafters; and Liçzenn knew him for her cousin Matelinn. He had come back from the French war to marry his cousin; and learning what had come to pass during his absence, he had felt the bitterest rage. Nevertheless, he betrayed nothing of his thoughts to Mao and his wife; for his was a deceitful heart.

Mao, who suspected nothing, received him with affectionate kindness; set before him the best of every thing in the house; had the handsomest room prepared for his reception; and went out to show him all the fields, now ripe for harvest.

But the higher Matelinn saw the flax, and the heavier the ears of corn, the more he was enraged at not being the possessor of all this; to say nothing of his cousin Liçzenn, who had grown more charming than ever. So one day he proposed to Mao that they should hunt together on the downs of Logoma, and thus contrived to lead him towards a distant heath, where he had an old deserted windmill, against which bundles of furze for the baker's oven at Daoulas had been heaped up in great piles. When they reached this place, heturned his face towards Camfront, and said suddenly to his young companion,

“Ah! I can see the manor all this way off, with its great courtyard.”

“Which way?” asked Mao.

“Behind that little beech-wood. Don't you see the great hall-windows?”

“I am too short,” said Mao.

“Ah, you are right, so you are; and it is a pity too, for I can see my cousin Liçzenn in the little yard beside the garden.”

“Is she alone?”

“No; there are some gentlemen with her whispering in her ear.”

“And what is Liçzenn doing?”

“Liçzenn is listening to them, whilst she twists her apron-string.”

Mao raised himself upon the tips of his toes. “Ah, I wish I could see,” said he.

“Oh, it is easy enough,” replied Matelinn “you have only to climb up to the top of the mill, and you will be higher than I am.”

Mao approved of this advice, and climbed up the old ladder. When he reached the top, his cousin asked him what he saw?

“I see nothing but the trees, which seem as near the ground as wheat of two months' growth,” said Mao, “and houses looking in the distance small as the sea-shells stranded on the shore.”

“Look nearer,” returned Matelinn.

“Nearer, I can only see the ocean, with its boats skimming the water like seagulls.”

“Look nearer yet,” said the soldier.

“Still nearer is the common, bright with rose-blossoms and the purple heath.”

“Look down beneath you.”

“Beneath me!” cried Mao, in terror. “Instead of the ladder to descend by, I see flames rushing upwards to devour me.”

And he saw rightly; for Matelinn had drawn away the ladder, and set fire to the surrounding fagots, so that the old mill stood as in a furnace.

Mao in vain besought the giant not to leave him there to perish in so horrible a manner. He only turned his back, and went off whistling down the moor.

Then the young man, feeling himself nearly suffocated, invoked the saint once more:

“Dead beggar, make haste, make haste to me;

For I am sorely in need of thee.”

Instantly the saint appeared, holding in his right hand a glittering rainbow, one end of which was resting on the sea, and in his left Jacob's mysterious ladder, that once led from heaven to earth. With the rainbow he put out the fire, and by the ladder's aid poor Mao reached the ground, and went safely home.

On beholding him, Matelinn was seized with surprise and consternation, sure that his cousin would hasten to denounce him before the magistrates; and rushing to fetch his arms and war-horse, was hurrying from the courtyard, when Mao came to him, and said,

“Fear nothing, cousin; for no man saw what passed upon Daoulas common. Your heart was hurt that God had given me more good things than yourself; I wish to heal its wounds. From this day forward, so long as I live, you shall share with me half of all that I possess, save and except my darling Liçzenn. So come, my cousin, harbour no more evil thoughts against me.”

The deed of this convention was drawn up by the notary in the usual form; and Matelinn received henceforward, every month, the half of all the produce of the fields, the courtyard, and the stables.

But this noble generosity of Mao served only to increase the spite and venom of his heart; for undeserved benefits are like wine drank when one is not thirsty,—they bring us neither joy nor profit. He did not wish Mao dead, because then he would have lost his share in Mao's wealth; but he hated him, even as a caged wolf hates the hand that feeds him.

What made him still more angry was, to see how every thing prospered with his cousin. To crown his felicity, he had a son born to him, both strong and beautiful, and one that wept not at his birth, the nurses said. Mao sent the news out to the first people of the neighbourhood, entreating them to come to the baptismal feast. And they came from more than six leagues round,—from Braspars, Kimerc'h, Loperek, Logoma, Faou, Irvillac, and Saint Eloi,—all mounted on handsomely-equipped horses, with their wives or daughters behind them. The baptism of a prince of Cornouaille himself could not have brought together a more goodly assembly.

When all were drawn up ready in the front of the manor-house, and Mao came to Liçzenn's chamber for the new-born babe, with those who were to hold it at the font, and his nearest friends, Matelinn presented himself also, with a traitor's joy depicted on his countenance. On seeing him, the mother uttered a cry; but he, approaching, bent over her with specious words, and thanked her for the present she had made him.

“What present?” asked the poor woman, in surprise.

“Have you not added a new-born infant to my cousin's wealth?” said the soldier.

“Certainly,” replied Liçzenn.

“A parchment deed confirms to me,” said Matelinn, “half of every thing Mao possesses, save and except yourself; and I am consequently come to claim my share of the child.”

All who were present uttered a great cry; but Matelinn repeated calmly that he would have his half of the child; adding that if they refused it to him, he would take it himself, showing as he spoke a huge knife, which he had brought with him for the purpose.

Mao and Liçzenn in vain, with bended knees and folded hands, besought him to renounce his rights; the giant only answered by the whetting of his knife against the steel which dangled at his waist; and at last he was about to snatch the infant from its poor young mother's arms, when Mao all at once recalled the invocation to the dead beggar, and repeated it aloud. Scarcely had he finished, when the room was lighted with a heavenly radiance, and the saint appeared upon a shining cloud, the Virgin Mary at his side.

“Behold me here, my friends,” said the Mother of God, “called by my faithful servant from celestial glory to come and decide between you.”

“If you are the Mother of God, save the child,” cried Liçzenn.

“If you are the Queen of Heaven, make them render me my dues,” said Matelinn audaciously.

“Listen to me,” said Mary. “You first, Mao, and you, Liçzenn, come near me with your new-born child. Till now I have given you the joys of life; I will do more, and give you for the future the delights of death. You shall follow me into the Paradise of my Son, where neither griefs, nor treachery, nor sicknesses can enter. As for you, Goliath, you have a right to share the new benefit conferred on them; and you, like them, shall die, but only to go down twelve hundred and fifty leagues below the surface of the earth,2  into the kingdom of the wicked one, whose servant you are.”

Saying these words, the Holy Mary raised her hand on high, and the giant was buried in a gulf of fire; whilst the young husband, with his wife and child, sank gently towards each other as in peaceful sleep, and disappeared, borne upwards on a cloud.

1 In many farms there is a small threshing-floor reserved especially for black wheat.

2 This is the exact distance at which the Bretons define Hell to lie.