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The Blessed Mao

Source: Breton Legends

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 cure, 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 Leon 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 Liczenn,--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
Liczenn, 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, and the 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.

The old man, happy in his deliverance from so dangerous an enemy,
fulfilled the promise he had made to Mao, and gave to him Liczenn 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 Liczenn 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 Liczenn, 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, he turned 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 Liczenn in the little yard beside the garden."

"Is she alone?"

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

"And what is Liczenn doing?"

"Liczenn 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 Liczenn. 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 Liczenn'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 Liczenn.

"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 Liczenn 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 Liczenn.

"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, Liczenn, 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, 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.

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