Part 4 out of 4
pushed the golden hair from her forehead with one hand. The
other dragged at the silver chain about her neck until the
rough links pierced her flesh, and the red drops fell unheeded
on her breast.
A sigh passed through the crowd, like the murmur of the
forest before the storm breaks. Yet no one spoke save Hunrad:
"Yes, my Prince, both bow and spear shalt thou have, for
the way is long, and thou art a brave huntsman. But in
darkness thou must journey for a little space, and with eyes
blindfolded. Fearest thou?"
"Naught fear I," said the boy, "neither darkness, nor the
great bear, nor the were-wolf. For I am Gundhar's son, and the
defender of my folk."
Then the priest led the child in his raiment of
lamb's-wool to a broad stone in front of the fire. He gave
him his little bow tipped with silver, and his spear with
shining head of steel. He bound the child's eyes with a white
cloth, and bade him kneel beside the stone with his face to
the cast. Unconsciously the wide arc of spectators drew
inward toward the centre, as the ends of the bow draw together
when the cord is stretched. Winfried moved noiselessly until
he stood close behind the priest.
The old man stooped to lift a black hammer of stone from
the ground,--the sacred hammer of the god Thor. Summoning all
the strength of his withered arms, he swung it high in the
air. It poised for an instant above the child's fair
head--then turned to fall.
One keen cry shrilled out from where the women stood:
"Me! take me! not Bernhard!"
The flight of the mother toward her child was swift as the
falcon's swoop. But swifter still was the hand of the
Winfried's heavy staff thrust mightily against the hammer's
handle as it fell. Sideways it glanced from the old man's grasp,
and the black stone, striking on the altar's edge, split in
twain. A shout of awe and joy rolled along the living circle.
The branches of the oak shivered. The flames leaped higher. As
the shout died away the people saw the lady Irma, with her arms
clasped round her child, and above them, on the altar-stone,
Winfried, his face shining like the face of an angel.
A swift mountain-flood rolling down its channel; a huge rock
tumbling from the hill-side and falling in mid-stream: the
baffled waters broken and confused, pausing in their flow,
dash high against the rock, foaming and murmuring, with
divided impulse, uncertain whether to turn to the right or the
Even so Winfried's bold deed fell into the midst of the
thoughts and passions of the council. They were at a
standstill. Anger and wonder, reverence and joy and confusion
surged through the crowd. They knew not which way to move: to
resent the intrusion of the stranger as an insult to their gods,
or to welcome him as the rescuer of their prince.
The old priest crouched by the altar, silent. Conflicting
counsels troubled the air. Let the sacrifice go forward; the
gods must be appeased. Nay, the boy must not die; bring the
chieftain's best horse and slay it in his stead; it will be
enough; the holy tree loves the blood of horses. Not so,
there is a better counsel yet; seize the stranger whom the
gods have led hither as a victim and make his life pay the
forfeit of his daring.
The withered leaves on the oak rustled and whispered
overhead. The fire flared and sank again. The angry voices
clashed against each other and fell like opposing waves. Then
the chieftain Gundhar struck the earth with his spear and gave
"All have spoken, but none are agreed. There is no voice
of the council. Keep silence now, and let the stranger speak.
His words shall give us judgment, whether he is to live or to
Winfried lifted himself high upon the altar, drew a roll
of parchment from his bosom, and began to read.
"A letter from the great Bishop of Rome, who sits on a
golden throne, to the people of the forest, Hessians and
Thuringians, Franks and Saxons. In nomin Domini, sanctae et
individuae Trinitatis, amen!"
A murmur of awe ran through the crowd. "It is the sacred
tongue of the Romans; the tongue that is heard and understood
by the wise men of every land. There is magic in it.
Winfried went on to read the letter, translating it into
the speech of the people.
"We have sent unto you our Brother Boniface, and appointed
him your bishop, that he may teach you the only true faith,
and baptise you, and lead you back from the ways of error to
the path of salvation. Hearken to him in all things like a
father. Bow your hearts to his teaching. He comes not for
earthly gain, but for the gain of your souls. Depart from
evil works. Worship not the false gods, for they are devils.
Offer no more bloody sacrifices, nor eat the flesh of horses, but
do as our Brother Boniface commands you. Build a house for him
that he may dwell among you, and a church where you may offer
your prayers to the only living God, the Almighty King of
It was a splendid message: proud, strong, peaceful,
loving. The dignity of the words imposed mightily upon the
hearts of the people. They were quieted as men who have
listened to a lofty strain of music.
"Tell us, then," said Gundhar, "what is the word that thou
bringest to us from the Almighty? What is thy counsel for the
tribes of the woodland on this night of sacrifice?"
"This is the word, and this is the counsel," answered
Winfried. "Not a drop of blood shall fall to-night, save that
which pity has drawn from the breast of your princess, in love
for her child. Not a life shall be blotted out in the
darkness to-night; but the great shadow of the tree which
hides you from the light of heaven shall be swept away. For
this is the birth-night of the white Christ, son of the
All-Father, and Saviour of mankind. Fairer is He than Baldur
the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wise, kinder than Freya
the Good. Since He has come to earth the bloody sacrifice
must cease. The dark Thor, on whom you vainly call, is dead.
Deep in the shades of Niffelheim he is lost forever. His
power in the world is broken. Will you serve a helpless god?
See, my brothers, you call this tree his oak. Does he dwell
here? Does he protect it?"
A troubled voice of assent rose from the throng. The
people stirred uneasily. Women covered their eyes. Hunrad
lifted his head and muttered hoarsely, "Thor! take vengeance!
Winfried beckoned to Gregor. "Bring the axes, thine and
one for me. Now, young woodsman, show thy craft! The
king-tree of the forest must fall, and swiftly, or all is
The two men took their places facing each other, one on
each side of the oak. Their cloaks were flung aside, their
heads bare. Carefully they felt the ground with their feet,
seeking a firm grip of the earth. Firmly they grasped the
axe-helves and swung the shining blades.
"Tree-god!" cried Winfried, "art thou angry? Thus we
"Tree-god!" answered Gregor, "art thou mighty? Thus we
Clang! clang! the alternate strokes beat time upon the
hard, ringing wood. The axe-heads glittered in their rhythmic
flight, like fierce eagles circling about their quarry.
The broad flakes of wood flew from the deepening gashes in
the sides of the oak. The huge trunk quivered. There was a
shuddering in the branches. Then the great wonder of
Winfried's life came to pass.
Out of the stillness of the winter night, a mighty rushing
noise sounded overhead.
Was it the ancient gods on their white battlesteeds, with
their black hounds of wrath and their arrows of lightning,
sweeping through the air to destroy their foes?
A strong, whirling wind passed over the treetops. It
gripped the oak by its branches and tore it from the roots.
Backward it fell, like a ruined tower, groaning and crashing as
it split asunder in four great pieces.
Winfried let his axe drop, and bowed his head for a moment
in the presence of almighty power.
Then he turned to the people, "Here is the timber," he
cried, "already felled and split for your new building. On
this spot shall rise a chapel to the true God and his servant
"And here," said he, as his eyes fell on a young fir-tree,
standing straight and green, with its top pointing toward the
stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak, "here is the
living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the
sign of your new worship. See how it points to the sky. Call
it the tree of the Christ-child. Take it up and carry it to
the chieftain's hall. You shall go no more into the shadows
of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame.
You shall keep them at home, with laughter and songs and rites
of love. The thunder-oak has fallen, and I think the day is
coming when there shall not be a home in all Germany where the
children are not gathered around the green fir-tree to rejoice in
the birth-night of Christ."
So they took the little fir from its place, and carried it
in joyous procession to the edge of the glade, and laid it on
the sledge. The horses tossed their heads and drew their load
bravely, as if the new burden had made it lighter.
When they came to the house of Gundhar, he bade them throw
open the doors of the hall and set the tree in the midst of
it. They kindled lights among the branches until it seemed to
be tangled full of fire-flies. The children encircled it,
wondering, and the sweet odour of the balsam filled the house.
Then Winfried stood beside the chair of Gundhar, on the
dais at the end of the hall, and told the story of Bethlehem;
of the babe in the manger, of the shepherds on the hills, of
the host of angels and their midnight song. All the people
listened, charmed into stillness.
But the boy Bernhard, on Irma's knee, folded in her soft
arms, grew restless as the story lengthened, and began to prattle
softly at his mother's ear.
"Mother," whispered the child, "why did you cry out so
loud, when the priest was going to send me to Valhalla?"
"Oh, hush, my child," answered the mother, and pressed him
closer to her side.
"Mother," whispered the boy again, laying his finger on
the stains upon her breast, "see, your dress is red! What are
these stains? Did some one hurt you?"
The mother closed his mouth with a kiss. "Dear, be still,
The boy obeyed. His eyes were heavy with sleep. But he
heard the last words of Winfried as he spoke of the angelic
messengers, flying over the hills of Judea and singing as they
flew. The child wondered and dreamed and listened. Suddenly
his face grew bright. He put his lips close to Irma's cheek
"Oh, mother!" he whispered very low, "do not speak. Do
you hear them? Those angels have come back again. They are
singing now behind the tree."
And some say that it was true; but others say that it was
only Gregor and his companions at the lower end of the hall,
chanting their Christmas hymn:
All glory be to God on high,
And on the earth be peace!
Good-will, henceforth, from heaven to man,
Begin and never cease.