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The Great Law

(From the French or Emile Souvestre).

In the time of the earliest race of Frank kings, when the greater part of their subjects were yet ignorant of the name of Christ, lived an old man named Novaire, who had received the Good News, and applied himself to understand it. Abandoning the sinful pleasures of the world, he retired to a solitary hill, near the spot now known as Lillebonne, and, having constructed a cabin of turf, dwelt there alone, with no other occupation than that of enlarging and elevating his spirit.

Now, by force of meditation and prayer, the carnal veil which hides the Invisible from man was for Novaire withdrawn, and the glories of heaven unfolded themselves before him. Yet he did not lose sight of earth, but beheld at the same time the marvels of the seen and the unseen. His eye was on the woods, the fields, the streams; while, raising it higher, he beheld the region, traversed by the Angels of God, and mounting yet higher, the entrance to the Celestial Dwelling, which the Archangels guard. He listened at the same time to the babbling of the springs, the voices of the Cherubim, and the hosannas of the blessed at the foot of the eternal throne. His food was brought to him by Angels, who discoursed with him of things ineffable. Thus his days passed in a perpetual enchantment. In this spiritual atmosphere, all earthly ambitions gradually receded, as stars pale and disappear before the presence of the sun; and, proudly conscious that his soul was uplifted above vulgar comprehension, Novaire longed to penetrate the very secrets of God.

Listening to the sweet sounds of earth, he said to himself: "Mlight I but know what the birds say in their songs, the breezes in their murmurs, the insects in their buzzings, the waves in their moanings! for in them, surely, l should find the Great Law which rules the world!"

But all Novaire's efforts to penetrate this great mystery had as yet been in vain. He had, gained nothing save hard-heartedness and. pride, for the intellect which grows to greatness alone resembles those forest trees which cannot extend their roots without spreading desolation around them; in order to remain fruitful and profitable, it must be vivified by the dews of the heart.

One day, as Novaire descended his ever-verdant hill to walk in the valley below, there passed by a troop of soldiers, conducting at criminal to the gibbet. The peasants ran to see him pass, and recounted his crimes aloud; but the condemned man only smiled as he listened, and, far from fearing or repenting, seemed to glory in the evil he had done.

As he passed the hermit, however, he suddenly stopped, and cried out: "Approach, holy man, and bestow the kiss of peace upon one about to die!"

Novaire recoiled indignantly, as he answered: "Go on to thy death, wretched man! No pure lips should touch those of a sinner!"

The criminal, in silence, resumed his walk, and the hermit, still angry, returned to his hermitage. But when he arrived thither, he was astounded, for everything was changed. The trees, to which the presence of angels had given eternal verdure, were bare as those of the valley. On the spot where, some hours before, the eglantine had flourished, now glittered the hoar-frost, and through the withered moss appeared the sterile rock.

For the explanation of this change, Novaire awaited the celestial messenger who brought him food from day to day. But the messenger came not; the door of the invisible was closed upon Novaire, and he was reentombed in the woes and ignorance of humanity. He perceived that God was punishing him, but for what fault he could not imagine. Nevertheless, he submitted without revolt. Kneeling upon the hillside, he prayed thus: "Since, O my Creator! I have offended Thee, it is my duty, in expiation thereof, to inflict chastisement upon myself. Wherefore, from this day I leave my retreat, and I vow to walk in an opposite direction, without other rest than that of the night, until Thou, by a visible sign, dost assure me that I have merited Thy pardon."

With these words, Novaire took his hermit's bell, his iron-clasped breviary, his holly staff; he encircled his waist with a leathern cord, fastened on his sandals, and, with one farewell glance around, directed his steps towards the wild peninsula which received in later times the name of Jesnétique.

Through this country, which today is covered with villages, farms, and cornfields, no road or pathway was then traceable save that opened for themselves by the fallow-deer. The traveler was compelled to cross marshes, ford rivers, and traverse wild heaths, scarcely finding, at long intervals, some poor habitation, whose inmates often repulsed him.

But Novaire calmly endured all these fatigues and privations. With no other aim than his reconciliation with God, he met sorrow with resignation, and hardships with patience. At last he reached the extremity of the peninsula, and was not far from the spot where the notable abbey of Jumiéges was shortly to arise. The forest which surrounded him was infested by pirates, who, in their rude boats of osier covered with skin, attacked the richly-laden vessels which ascended or descended the river.

One night, as the hermit bent his steps towards the shore, he came upon a glade in the wood where four of these pirates were seated around a fire.

On perceiving Novaire, they rose, rushed upon him, and having dragged him to their fire-side, proceeded to despoil him. They took his bell, book, girdle and robe; and then, seeing that he had nothing else, deliberated as to whether they should let him go. But the eldest, whose name was Toderick, cried out that he should be kept to row in the boat, and to this the others agreed. Novaire was bound with three chains—one for the feet, one for the hands, one for the body—and became the slave of the four pirates. He had to prepare their food, sharpen their weapons, and take care of the boat, receiving no other recompense than blows and curses. Toderick, especially, showed himself pitiless, joining raillery with cruelty, and inquiring incessantly of the hermit what the power of his God availed him.

One day the four pirates attacked a vessel going down the Rhine, in which they hoped to find valuable merchandise; but she chanced to be transporting a troop of archers whose shower of arrows took such good effect that three of the bandits were slain, and the fourth, Toderick, received a wound in the chest.

Novaire turned the boat towards the shore, which he succeeded in reaching. He was free now, and might easily have escaped, had he not been detained by a holy pity for those who had so cruelly oppressed him. Having buried the three dead bodies, he advanced towards Toderick.

He, judging the hermit by his own savage nature, supposed that Novaire's intention was to avenge himself, and he entreated: "Kill me quickly; do not torture me!" Novaire replied: "I have no desire to take thy life; rather would I save it at the price of my own."

The pirate was astonished and touched. "To save my life is in no man's power," said he, "for already I feel the chill of death creeping over my heart. But if it indeed be true that thou wishest me well, in spite of all that I have made thee suffer, get me a little water to quench my thirst."

Novaire ran to the nearest stream, and brought water to the wounded man. Toderick, when he had drunk, looked earnestly at the hermit. "Thou hast been good to him who hath been wicked," said he. "But wilt thou do yet more, and bestow upon a sinner the kiss of peace?" "I will!" answered Novaire, "and may it become for thee a benediction! " With these words, he bent over the pirate, who received the kiss of peace, and died. At the same instant, a voice resounded in the air. "Thy trial is ended," said the voice. "God, who punished thee for refusing pity to the guilty, now rewards thee for pardoning thine enemy; all those treasures which thou didst lose by hardness of heart, thou hast regained by charity." Lift then thine eyes, and lend thine ear, for thou shalt hear what the sounds of heaven and earth say." The hermit, who had listened in reverent silence, now raised his head. He was in his old home. And behold! the stricken trees had revived, the birds sang in the hawthorn-bushes; while high in the heavens Novaire saw the angels ascending and descending upon the ladder of Jacob, and heard the saints singing their celestial hymns.

And all the sounds of heaven and of earth formed one grand chorus, of which the only distinguishable Words were:

"Love one another!"
Then Novaire fell on his face amidst the grass, and exclaimed:—
"Thanks and praise be to Thee, my God! Today, for the first time, I have learned the Great Law!"

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C. Dyke

  • May also be "E. Dyke".

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