The Wolf-Mother of Saint Ailbe (cont.)
It was almost night, and the people of Emly were out watching for the hunters to return. The Bishop was coming down the village street on his way from church, when the sound of horns came over the hills close by, and he knew the chase was nearing home.
Louder and louder came the "tantara-tara!" of the horns, and then he could hear the gallopy thud of the horses' hoofs and the yelp of the hounds. But suddenly the Bishop's heart stood still. Among all the other noises of the chase he heard a sound which made him think—think—think. It was the long-drawn howl of a wolf, a sad howl of fear and weariness and pain. It spoke a language which he had almost forgotten. But hardly had he time to think again and to remember, before down the village street came a great gaunt figure, flying in long leaps from the foremost dogs who were snapping at her heels. It was Ailbe's wolf-mother.
He recognized her as soon as he saw her green eyes and the patch of white on her right foreleg. And she recognized him, too — how I cannot say, for he had changed greatly since she last saw him, a naked little sunbrowned boy. But at any rate, in his fine robes of purple and linen and rich lace, with the mitre on his head and the crozier in his hand, the wolf-mother knew her dear son. With a cry of joy she bounded up to him and laid her head on his breast, as if she knew he would protect her from the growling dogs and the fierce-eyed hunters. And the good Bishop was true to her. For he drew his beautiful velvet cloak about her tired, panting body, and laid his hand lovingly on her head. Then in the other he held up his crook warningly to keep back the ferocious dogs.
"I will protect thee, old mother," he said tenderly. "When I was little and young and feeble, thou didst nourish and cherish and protect me; and now that thou art old and gray and weak, shall I not render the same love and care to thee? None shall injure thee."
Then the hunters came tearing up on their foaming horses and stopped short to find what the matter was. Some of them were angry and wanted even now to kill the poor wolf, just as the dogs did who were prowling about snarling with disappointment. But Ailbe would have none of it. He forbade them to touch the wolf. And he was so powerful and wise and holy that they dared not disobey him, but had to be content with seeing their hunt spoiled and their prey taken out of their clutches.
But before the hunters and their dogs rode away, Saint Ailbe had something more to say to them. And he bade all the curious townsfolk who had gathered about him and the wolf to listen also. He repeated the promise which he had made to the wolf, and warned every one thenceforth not to hurt her or her children, either in the village, or in the woods, or on the mountain. And turning to her once more he said: "See, mother, you need not fear. They dare not hurt you now you have found your son to protect you. Come every day with my brothers to my table, and you and yours shall share my food, as once I so often shared yours."
And so it was. Every day after that so long as she lived the old wolf-mother brought her four children to the Bishop's palace and howled at the gate for the porter to let them in.
And every day he opened to them, and the steward showed the five into the great dining hall where Ailbe sat at the head of the table, with five places set for the rest of the family. And there with her five dear children about her in a happy circle the kind wolf-mother sat and ate the good things which the Bishop's friends had sent him. But the child she loved best was none of those in furry coats and fine whiskers who looked like her; it was the blue-eyed Saint at the top of the table in his robes of purple and white.
But Saint Ailbe would look about him at his mother and his brothers and would laugh contentedly.
"What a handsome family we are!" he would say. And it was true.