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THE LEGEND OF ST. JULIAN THE HOSPITALER
La Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier
Julian's father and mother lived in a castle, in the middle of a forest, on the slope of a hill.
The four towers at the corners had pointed roofs covered with scales of lead, and the base of the walls rested on shafts of rock which fell steeply to the bottom of the moat.
The pavement of the courtyard was as clean as the flagstones of a church. Long gutter-spouts, representing dragons, with their mouths hanging down, spat rainwater into the cistern; and on the window ledges, at every floor, in a pot of painted earthenware, a basil or heliotrope blossomed.
A second enclosure, made with stakes, contained first an orchard of fruit trees, then a flower-bed where flowers were patterned into the form of figures, and then a trellis with arbors where you could take a walk, and a mall where the pages could play. On the other side were the kennels, the stables, the bakery, the wine-presses and the barns. A pasture of green grass spread round about, itself enclosed by a stout thorn-hedge.
They had lived at peace for so long that the portcullis was never lowered. The moats were full of water, birds made their nests in the cracks of the battlements, and when the blaze of the sun was too strong, the archer, who all day long walked back and forth on the curtain wall, went into the watch-tower and slept like a monk.
Inside, the ironwork glistened everywhere. Tapestries in the bedrooms were protection against the cold. Cupboards overflowed with linen, casks of wine were piled up in the cellars, and oak coffers creaked with the weight of bags of money.
In the armory, between standards and heads of wild beasts, you could see weapons of every age and nation, from the slings of the Amalekites and the javelins of the Garamantes, to the short swords of the Saracens and the Norman coats-of-mail.
The large spit in the kitchen could roast an ox. The chapel was as sumptuous as the oratory of a king. There was even, in a remote corner, a Roman steam-bath; but the good lord did not use it, considering it a pagan practice.
Always wrapped in a coat lined with fox fur, he walked about his house, meting out justice to his vassals and settling the quarrels of his neighbors. During the winter, he would watch the snowflakes fall or have stories read to him. With the first fine days he went off on his mule along the small lanes, beside the wheat turning green, and chatted with the peasants, to whom he gave advice. After many adventures, he had taken as his wife a young lady of high lineage.
Her skin was very white, and she was a bit proud and serious. The horns of her coif grazed the lintel of the doors, and the train of her dress trailed three paces behind her. Her household was run like the inside of a monastery. Each morning she distributed the work to her servants, supervised the preserves and unguents, span at her distaff or embroidered altar-cloths. After much praying to God, a son was born to her.
There was great rejoicing then, and a banquet which lasted three days and four nights, on leaves strewn about, under the illumination from torches and the playing of harps. They ate the rarest spices, with chickens as fat as sheep. For amusement, a dwarf came out of a pastry-pie, and as the bowls gave out because the crowd was constantly increasing, they were obliged to drink from horns and helmets.
The new mother was not present at this festivity. She quietly stayed in her bed. One evening she awoke and saw, under a moonbeam which came through the window, something like a moving shadow. It was an old man in a frieze robe, with a rosary at his side, a wallet on his shoulder, and resembling a hermit. He came near to her bedside and said to her, without opening his lips.
"Rejoice, O mother, your son will be a saint!"
She was going to cry out, but, gliding along the moonbeam, he gently rose up into the air and disappeared. The banquet songs broke out louder. She heard the voices of angels and her head fell back on her pillow over which hung a martyr's bone in a frame of carbuncles.
The next day all the servants were questioned and declared they had seen no hermit. Dream or reality, it must have been a message from heaven, but she was careful to say nothing about it, for fear she would be accused of pride.
The guests departed at day-break, Julian's father was outside of the postern gate where he had just accompanied the last one to go, when suddenly a beggar rose up before him in the mist. He was a Gypsy with plaited beard and silver rings on his two arms, and flaming eyes. Like one inspired, he stammered these disconnected words:
"Ah, ah! your son! ... much blood! ... much glory! ... always happy! ... an emperor's family."
And bending down to pick up his alms, he was lost in the grass and disappeared.
The good castellan looked right and left, and called as loud as he could. No one! The wind whistled and the morning mist flew away.
He attributed this vision to the weariness of his head for having slept too little. "If I speak of this, they will make fun of me," he said to himself. Yet the glory destined to his son dazzled him, although the promise was not clear and he even doubted he had heard it.
The husband and wife kept their secret. But both cherished the child with an equal love, and respecting him as one marked by God, they had infinite care for his person. His crib was padded with the finest down, a lamp in the form of a dove burned over it, three nurses rocked him, and, tightly wrapped in his swaddling-clothes, with rosy face and blue eyes, dressed in a brocade mantle and a bonnet set with pearls, he looked like a little Lord Jesus. He teethed without crying once.
When he was seven, his mother taught him to sing. To make him brave, his father lifted him up on to a large horse. The child smiled with pleasure and was not long in knowing everything about chargers.
A very learned old monk taught him Holy Scripture, Arabic numerals, Latin letters, and how to make charming pictures on vellum. They worked together, high up in a turret, away from noise.
When the lesson was over, they went down into the garden where they studied flowers as they walked slowly about.
Sometimes they saw, passing below in the valley, a file of beasts of burden, led by a man walking, dressed in an Oriental fashion. The castellan, recognizing him for a merchant, would send a page to him. The stranger, when he felt confidence, turned off from his road. When led into the parlor, he would take out of his coffers strips of velvet and silk, jewelry, spices and strange things of unknown use. After this, the fellow, having suffered no violence, would go off, with a large profit. At other times, a group of pilgrims would knock at the door. Their wet clothes steamed before the hearth. When they had eaten heartily, they told the story of their travels: the courses of the ships on the foamy sea, the journeyings on foot in the burning sand, the cruelty of the pagans, the caves of Syria, the Manger and the Sepulcher. Then they would give the young lord shells from their cloaks.
Often the castellan would give a feast for his old companions-at-arms. As they drank, they recalled their wars, the storming of fortresses with the crash of war machines and huge wounds. As he listened to them, Julian uttered cries; his father then did not doubt that one day he would be a conqueror. But at evening, coming from the Angelus, when he passed among the poor, with their heads bowed, he took money from his purse with such modesty and so noble an air, that his mother was sure she would see him one day an archbishop.
His place in chapel was beside his parents, and no matter how long the services, he remained kneeling on his prayer-stool, his cap on the floor and his hands clasped.
One day, during mass, he saw, on raising his head, a small white mouse coming out of a hole in the wall. It trotted over the first step of the altar and after two or three turns to right and left, scampered back from where it had come. The next Sunday, he was disturbed by the thought that he might see it again. It came back, and each Sunday, he waited for it, was upset by it, grew to hate it and made up his mind to get rid of it.
So, having shut the door and spread on the steps some cake-crumbs, he took his place in front of the hole, with a stick in his hand.
After a long time, a pink nose appeared, and then the entire mouse. He struck a light blow, and stood lost in stupefaction before the small body that did not move again. A drop of blood spotted the pavement. He quickly wiped it with his sleeve, threw the mouse outdoors, and did not mention the matter to anyone.
All kinds of small birds were pecking at the seeds in the garden. He had the idea of putting peas in a hollow reed. When he heard the birds chirping in a tree, he came up to it quietly, then raised his pipe and blew out his cheeks. The little creatures rained down on his shoulders in such numbers that he could not keep from laughing with delight over his malice.
One morning, as he was coming back along the curtain wall, he saw on the top of the rampart a fat pigeon strutting in the sun. Julian stopped to look at it. The wall at that spot had a breach and a fragment of stone lay close to his fingers. He swung his arm and the stone struck down the bird which fell like a lump into the moat.
He rushed down after it, tearing himself on the undergrowth, ferreting about everywhere, more nimble than a young dog.
The pigeon, its wings broken, hung quivering in the branches of a privet.
Its persistence to live irritated the boy. He began to strangle it. The bird's convulsions made his heart beat and filled him with a wild tumultuous pleasure. When it stiffened for the last time, he felt himself fainting.
During the evening meal, his father declared it was time for him to learn venery, and went to look for an old copybook containing, in the form of questions and answers, the entire pastime of hunting. In it a teacher demonstrated to his pupil the art of training dogs and taming falcons, of setting traps, of how to recognize the stag by his droppings, the fox by its track, the wolf by its scratchings; the right way to make out their tracks, the way in which to start them, where their lairs are usually found, which winds are the most favorable, with a list of the calls and the rules for the quarry.
When Julian could recite all these things by heart, his father made up a pack of hounds for him.
First you could see twenty-four greyhounds from Barbary, swifter than gazelles, but subject to over-excitement; then seventeen pairs of Breton hounds, with red coats and white spots, unshakably dependable, broad-chested and great howlers. For an attack on the wild boar and for dangerous redoublings, there were forty griffons, as shaggy as bears. Mastiffs from Tartary, almost as tall as asses, flame-colored, with broad backs and straight legs, were intended to hunt aurochs. The black coats of the spaniels shone like satin. The yapping of the talbots was equal to the chanting of the beagles. In a yard by themselves, as they shook their chains and rolled their eyes, growled eight Alain bulldogs, formidable beasts which fly at the belly of a horseman and have no fear of lions.
All ate wheat bread, drank from stone troughs, and bore sonorous names.
The falconry, possibly, was better chosen than the pack. The good lord, thanks to money, had secured tercelets from the Caucasus, sakers from Babylonia, gerfalcons from Germany, and peregrines, caught on the cliffs, at the edge of cold seas, in distant countries. They were housed in a shed with a thatched roof, and attached according to size on the perching-bar. Before them was a strip of grass where from time to time they were placed to unstiffen their legs.
Rabbit-nets, hooks, wolf-traps and all kinds of snares were constructed.
They often took into the country setters which quickly came to a point. Then grooms, advancing step by step, cautiously spread over their motionless bodies an immense net. A word of command made them bark; the quail took wing; and ladies from nearby, invited with their husbands, children, handmaids,—the entire group fell on the birds and easily caught them.
On other occasions, to start the hares, they would beat drums. Foxes fell into pits, or a trap would spring and catch a wolf by its paw.
But Julian scorned these easy devices. He preferred to hunt far from the others, with his horse and falcon. It was almost always a large Scythian tartaret, white as snow. Its leather hood was topped with a plume, gold bells shook on its blue feet. It stood firm on its master's arm while the horse galloped and the plains unrolled. Julian, untying the jesses, would suddenly release it. The bold bird rose straight as an arrow into the air, and you saw two uneven specks turn, meet and disappear in the high blue of the sky. The falcon was not long in coming down, tearing apart some bird, and returned to perch on the gauntlet, its two wings quivering.
In this way, Julian flew his falcon at the heron, the kite, the crow and the vulture.
As he blew his horn, he loved to follow his dogs when they ran over the side of the hills, jumped the streams, and climbed back to the woods. When the stag began to groan under the bites of the dogs, he killed it quickly and then revelled in the fury of the mastiffs as they devoured it, cut into pieces on its steaming skin.
On foggy days he would go down into a marsh to ambush geese and otters and wild-duck.
At dawn three squires were waiting for him at the foot of the steps, and the old monk, leaning out of his dormer-window, vainly made signs to call him back. Julian would not turn. He went out in the heat of the sun, in the rain, in storms, drank the water of the springs out of his hand, ate crab-apples as he trotted, rested under an oak if he were tired; and came back in the middle of the night, covered with blood and mire, with thorns in his hair and the smell of wild beasts on him. He became one of them. When his mother kissed him, he accepted her embrace coldly and seemed to be dreaming of deep things.
He killed bears with blows of his knife, bulls with the axe, wild boars with the boar-spear, and once, even, with only a stick he defended himself against wolves which were gnawing corpses at the foot of a gibbet.
One winter morning, he left before daybreak, well equipped, with a crossbow on his shoulder and a bunch of arrows at his saddle-bow.
His Danish jennet, followed by two bassets, made the earth resound under its even tread. Drops of ice stuck to his cloak. A strong wind was blowing. One side of the horizon lighted up, and in the whiteness of the early light, he saw rabbits hopping at the edge of their burrows. Immediately the two bassets rushed on them, and quickly throwing them back and forth broke their backs.
Soon he went into a forest. At the end of a branch, a wood grouse, numbed by the cold, slept with its head under its wing. With a backstroke of his sword, Julian cut off its two feet, and without picking it up, went on his way.
Three hours later, he was on the top of a mountain, so high that the sky seemed almost black. In front of him, a rock like a long wall sloped down, hanging over a precipice. At its farther end, two wild rams were looking into the chasm. Since he did not have his arrows (his horse had stayed behind), he decided to go down to them. Barefoot and half bent-over, he finally reached the first of the rams, and plunged a dagger under its ribs. The second, terrified, jumped into the chasm. Julian jumped in order to strike it, and slipping on his right foot, fell over the body of the other one, his face over the abyss and his two arms spread out.
Coming down again onto the plain, he followed a line of willows which bordered a river. Cranes, flying very low, passed overhead from time to time. Julian killed them with his whip and did not miss one.
In the meantime the warmer air had melted the hoarfrost, broad streaks of mist floated in the air and the sun came out. At a distance he saw a still lake glistening as if it were of lead. In the middle of the lake there was an animal which Julian did not know, a beaver with a black snout. In spite of the distance, an arrow killed it, and he was disconsolate at not being able to carry off the skin.
Then he advanced along an avenue of tall trees, forming with their tops a kind of triumphal arch, at the entrance of a forest. A roebuck bounded out of a thick wood, a deer appeared at a crossing, a badger came out of a hole, a peacock spread its tail on the grass; and when he had slain them all, more roebucks appeared, more deer, more badgers, more peacocks, and blackbirds, jays, polecats, foxes, hedgehogs, lynxes, an endless number of animals, more numerous at every step. They circled around him, trembling and looking at him gently and entreatingly. But Julian did not tire of killing, by turns bending his crossbow, unsheathing his sword, thrusting with his cutlass, and having no thought, no memory of anything at all. He had been hunting in some vague country, for an indefinite time, by the sole fact of his own existence, and everything had been accomplished with the ease you experience in dreams. An extraordinary spectacle brought him to a halt. A valley in the form of an amphitheater was filled with stags crowded close together and warming one another with their breath which could be seen steaming in the fog.
Excerpted from Great French Short Stories by Paul Negri. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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