THE STORY OF ST. VESPALUUS

“Tell me a story,” said the Baroness, staring out

despairingly at the rain; it was that light, apologetic sort

of rain that looks as if it was going to leave off every

minute and goes on for the greater part of the afternoon.

“What sort of story?” asked Clovis, giving his croquet

mallet a valedictory shove into retirement.

“One just true enough to be interesting and not true

enough to be tiresome,” said the Baroness.

Clovis rearranged several cushions to his personal solace

and satisfaction; he knew that the Baroness liked her guests

to be comfortable, and he thought it right to respect her

wishes in that particular.

“Have I ever told you the story of St. Vespaluus?” he

asked.

“You’ve told me stories about grand-dukes and lion-tamers

and financiers’ widows and a postmaster in Herzegovina,”

said the Baroness, “and about an Italian jockey and an

amateur governess who went to Warsaw, and several about your

mother, but certainly never anything about a saint.”

“This story happened a long while ago,” he said, “in

those uncomfortable piebald times when a third of the people

were Pagan, and a third Christian, and the biggest third of

all just followed whichever religion the Court happened to

profess. There was a certain king called Hkrikros, who had

a fearful temper and no immediate successor in his own

family; his married sister, however, had provided him with a

large stock of nephews from which to select his heir. And

the most eligible and royally-approved of all these nephews

was the sixteen-year-old Vespaluus. He was the best

looking, and the best horseman and javelin-thrower, and had

that priceless princely gift of being able to walk past a

supplicant with an air of not having seen him, but would

certainly have given something if he had. My mother has

that gift to a certain extent; she can go smilingly and

financially unscathed through a charity bazaar, and meet the

organizers next day with a solicitous `had I but known you

were in need of funds’ air that is really rather a triumph

in audacity. Now Hkrikros was a Pagan of the first water,

and kept the worship of the sacred serpents, who lived in a

hallowed grove on a hill near the royal palace, up to a high

pitch of enthusiasm. The common people were allowed to

please themselves, within certain discreet limits, in the

matter of private religion, but any official in the service

of the Court who went over to the new cult was looked down

on, literally as well as metaphorically, the looking down

being done from the gallery that ran round the royal

bear-pit. Consequently there was considerable scandal and

consternation when the youthful Vespaluus appeared one day

at a Court function with a rosary tucked into his belt, and

announced in reply to angry questionings that he had decided

to adopt Christianity, or at any rate to give it a trial.

If it had been any of the other nephews the king would

possibly have ordered something drastic in the way of

scourging and banishment, but in the case of the favoured

Vespaluus he determined to look on the whole thing much as a

modern father might regard the announced intention of his

son to adopt the stage as a profession. He sent accordingly

for the Royal Librarian. The royal library in those days

was not a very extensive affair, and the keeper of the

king’s books had a great deal of leisure on his hands.

Consequently he was in frequent demand for the settlement of

other people’s affairs when these strayed beyond normal

limits and got temporarily unmanageable.

“ `You must reason with Prince Vespaluus,’ said the king,

`and impress on him the error of his ways. We cannot have

the heir to the throne setting such a dangerous example.’

“ `But where shall I find the necessary arguments?’ asked

the Librarian.

“ `I give you free leave to pick and choose your

arguments in the royal woods and coppices,’ said the king;

`if you cannot get together some cutting observations and

stinging retorts suitable to the occasion you are a person

of very poor resource.’

“So the Librarian went into the woods and gathered a

goodly selection of highly argumentative rods and switches,

and then proceeded to reason with Vespaluus on the folly and

iniquity and above all the unseemliness of his conduct. His

reasoning left a deep impression on the young prince, an

impression which lasted for many weeks, during which time

nothing more was heard about the unfortunate lapse into

Christianity. Then a further scandal of the same nature

agitated the Court. At a time when he should have been

engaged in audibly invoking the gracious protection and

patronage of the holy serpents, Vespaluus was heard singing

a chant in honour of St. Odilo of Cluny. The king was

furious at this new outbreak, and began to take a gloomy

view of the situation; Vespaluus was evidently going to show

a dangerous obstinacy in persisting in his heresy. And yet

there was nothing in his appearance to justify such

perverseness; he had not the pale eye of the fanatic or the

mystic look of the dreamer. On the contrary, he was quite

the best-looking boy at Court; he had an elegant, well-knit

figure, a healthy complexion, eyes the colour of very ripe

mulberries, and dark hair, smooth and very well cared for.”

“It sounds like a description of what you imagine

yourself to have been like at the age of sixteen,” said the

Baroness.

“My mother has probably been showing you some of my early

photographs,” said Clovis. Having turned the sarcasm into

a compliment, he resumed his story.

“The king had Vespaluus shut up in a dark tower for three

days, with nothing but bread and water to live on, the

squealing and fluttering of bats to listen to, and drifting

clouds to watch through one little window slit. The

anti-Pagan section of the community began to talk

portentously of the boy-martyr. The martyrdom was

mitigated, as far as the food was concerned, by the

carelessness of the tower warden, who once or twice left a

portion of his own supper of broiled meat and fruit and wine

by mistake in the prince’s cell. After the punishment was

over, Vespaluus was closely watched for any further symptom

of religious perversity, for the king was determined to

stand no more opposition on so important a matter, even from

a favourite nephew. If there was any more of this nonsense,

he said, the succession to the throne would have to be

altered.

“For a time all went well; the festival of summer sports

was approaching, and the young Vespaluus was too engrossed

in wrestling and foot-running and javelin-throwing

competitions to bother himself with the strife of

conflicting religious systems. Then, however, came the

great culminating feature of the summer festival, the

ceremonial dance round the grove of the sacred serpents, and

Vespaluus, as we should say, `sat it out.’ The affront to

the State religion was too public and ostentatious to be

overlooked, even if the king had been so minded, and he was

not in the least so minded. For a day and a half he sat

apart and brooded, and every one thought he was debating

within himself the question of the young prince’s death or

pardon; as a matter of fact he was merely thinking out the

manner of the boys death. As the thing had to be done, and

was bound to attract an enormous amount of public attention

in any case, it was as well to make it as spectacular and

impressive as possible.

“ `Apart from his unfortunate taste in religions,’ said

the king, `and his obstinacy in adhering to it, he is a

sweet and pleasant youth, therefore it is meet and fitting

that he should be done to death by the winged envoys of

sweetness.’

“ `Your Majesty means—?’ said the Royal Librarian.

“ `I mean,’ said the king, `that he shall be stung to

death by bees. By the royal bees, of course.’

“ `A most elegant death,’ said the Librarian.

“ `Elegant and spectacular, and decidedly painful,’ said

the king; `it fulfills all the conditions that could be

wished for.’

“The king himself thought out all the details of the

execution ceremony. Vespaluus was to be stripped of his

clothes, his hands were to be bound behind him, and he was

then to be slung in a recumbent position immediately above

three of the largest of the royal beehives, so that the

least movement of his body would bring him in jarring

contact with them. The rest could be safely left to the

bees. The death throes, the king computed, might last

anything from fifteen to forty minutes, though there was

division of opinion and considerable wagering among the

other nephews as to whether death might not be almost

instantaneous, or, on the other hand, whether it might not

be deferred for a couple of hours. Anyway, they all agreed,

it was vastly preferable to being thrown down into an evil

smelling bear-pit and being clawed and mauled to death by

imperfectly carnivorous animals.

“It so happened, however, that the keeper of the royal

hives had leanings towards Christianity himself, and

moreover, like most of the Court officials, he was very much

attached to Vespaluus. On the eve of the execution,

therefore, he busied himself with removing the stings from

all the royal bees; it was a long and delicate operation,

but he was an expert beemaster, and by working hard nearly

all night he succeeded in disarming all, or almost all, of

the hive inmates.”

“I didn’t know you could take the sting from a live

bee,” said the Baroness incredulously.

“Every profession has its secrets,” replied Clovis; “if

it hadn’t it wouldn’t be a profession. Well, the moment for

the execution arrived; the king and Court took their places,

and accommodation was found for as many of the populace as

wished to witness the unusual spectacle. Fortunately the

royal bee-yard was of considerable dimensions, and was

commanded, moreover, by the terraces that ran round the

royal gardens; with a little squeezing and the erection of a

few platforms room was found for everybody. Vespaluus was

carried into the open space in front of the hives, blushing

and slightly embarrassed, but not at all displeased at the

attention which was being centred on him.”

“He seems to have resembled you in more things than in

appearance,” said the Baroness.

“Don’t interrupt at a critical point in the story,” said

Clovis. “As soon as he had been carefully adjusted in the

prescribed position over the hives, and almost before the

gaolers had time to retire to a safe distance, Vespaluus

gave a lusty and well-aimed kick, which sent all three hives

toppling one over another. The next moment he was wrapped

from head to foot in bees; each individual insect nursed the

dreadful and humiliating knowledge that in this supreme hour

of catastrophe it could not sting, but each felt that it

ought to pretend to. Vespaluus squealed and wriggled with

laughter, for he was being tickled nearly to death, and now

and again he gave a furious kick and used a bad word as one

of the few bees that had escaped disarmament got its protest

home. But the spectators saw with amazement that he showed

no signs of approaching death agony, and as the bees dropped

wearily away in clusters from his body his flesh was seen to

be as white and smooth as before the ordeal, with a shiny

glaze from the honey-smear of innumerable bee-feet, and here

and there a small red spot where one of the rare stings had

left its mark. It was obvious that a miracle had been

performed in his favour, and one loud murmur, of

astonishment or exultation, rose from the onlooking crowd.

The king gave orders for Vespaluus to be taken down to await

further orders, and stalked silently back to his midday

meal, at which he was careful to eat heartily and drink

copiously as though nothing unusual had happened. After

dinner he sent for the Royal Librarian.

“ `What is the meaning of this fiasco?’ he demanded.

“ `Your Majesty,’ said that official, `either there is

something radically wrong with the bees—‘

“ `There is nothing wrong with my bees,’ said the king

haughtily, `they are the best bees.’

“ `Or else,’ said the Librarian, `there is something

irremediably right about Prince Vespaluus.’

“ `If Vespaluus is right I must be wrong,’ said the king.

“The Librarian was silent for a moment. Hasty speech has

been the downfall of many; ill-considered silence was the

undoing of the luckless Court functionary.

“Forgetting the restraint due to his dignity, and the

golden rule which imposes repose of mind and body after a

heavy meal, the king rushed upon the keeper of the royal

books and hit him repeatedly and promiscuously over the head

with an ivory chess-board, a pewter wine-flagon, and a brass

candlestick; he knocked him violently and often against an

iron torch sconce, and kicked him thrice round the

banqueting chamber with rapid, energetic kicks. Finally, he

dragged him down a long passage by the hair of his head and

flung him out of a window into the courtyard below.”

“Was he much hurt?” asked the Baroness.

“More hurt than surprised,” said Clovis. “You see, the

king was notorious for his violent temper. However, this

was the first time he had let himself go so unrestrainedly

on the top of a heavy meal. The Librarian lingered for many

days—in fact, for all I know, he may have ultimately

recovered, but Hkrikros died that same evening. Vespaluus

had hardly finished getting the honey stains off his body

before a hurried deputation came to put the coronation oil

on his head. And what with the publicly-witnessed miracle

and the accession of a Christian sovereign, it was not

surprising that there was a general scramble of converts to

the new religion. A hastily consecrated bishop was

overworked with a rush of baptisms in the hastily improvised

Cathedral of St. Odilo. And the

boy-martyr-that-might-have-been was transposed in the

popular imagination into a royal boy-saint, whose fame

attracted throngs of curious and devout sightseers to the

capital. Vespaluus, who was busily engaged in organizing

the games and athletic contests that were to mark the

commencement of his reign, had no time to give heed to the

religious fervour which was effervescing round his

personality; the first indication he had of the existing

state of affairs was when the Court Chamberlain (a recent

and very ardent addition to the Christian community) brought

for his approval the outlines of a projected ceremonial

cutting-down of the idolatrous serpent-grove.

“ `Your Majesty will be graciously pleased to cut down

the first tree with a specially consecrated axe,’ said the

obsequious official.

“ `I’ll cut off your head first, with any axe that comes

handy,’ said Vespaluus indignantly; `do you suppose that I’m

going to begin my reign by mortally affronting the sacred

serpents? It would be most unlucky.’

“ `But your Majesty’s Christian principles?’ exclaimed

the bewildered Chamberlain.

“ `I never had any,’ said Vespaluus; `I used to pretend

to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used

to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun

being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for

nothing. But as to turning Christian in real earnest, like

you people seem to do, I couldn’t think of such a thing.

And the holy and esteemed serpents have always helped me

when I’ve prayed to them for success in my running and

wrestling and hunting, and it was through their

distinguished intercession that the bees were not able to

hurt me with their stings. It would be black ingratitude to

turn against their worship at the very outset of my reign.

I hate you for suggesting it.’

“The Chamberlain wrung his hands despairingly.

“ `But, your Majesty,’ he wailed, `the people are

reverencing you as a saint, and the nobles are being

Christianized in batches, and neighbouring potentates of

that Faith are sending special envoys to welcome you as a

brother. There is some talk of making you the patron saint

of beehives, and a certain shade of honey-yellow has been

christened Vespalussian gold at the Emperor’s Court. You

can’t surely go back on all this.’

“ `I don’t mind being reverenced and greeted and

honoured,’ said Vespaluus; `I don’t even mind being sainted

in moderation, as long as I’m not expected to be saintly as

well. But I wish you clearly and finally to understand that

I will not give up the worship of the august and auspicious

serpents.’

“There was a world of unspoken bear-pit in the way he

uttered those last words, and the mulberry-dark eyes flashed

dangerously.

“ `A new reign,’ said the Chamberlain to himself, `but

the same old temper.’

“Finally, as a State necessity, the matter of the

religions was compromised. At stated intervals the king

appeared before his subjects in the national cathedral in

the character of St. Vespaluus, and the idolatrous grove was

gradually pruned and lopped away till nothing remained of

it. But the sacred and esteemed serpents were removed to a

private shrubbery in the royal gardens, where Vespaluus the

Pagan and certain members of his household devoutly and

decently worshipped them. That possibly is the reason why

the boy-king’s success in sports and hunting never deserted

him to the end of his days, and that is also the reason why,

in spite of the popular veneration for his sanctity, he

never received official canonization.”

“It has stopped raining,” said the Baroness.