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The Quest of Offero
It is said that when Offero the Canaanite walked abroad, men shook like leaves to see him. Other giants were seen in Canaan, for these were the days of men of great stature, but none was like Offero. His limbs were huge, strong as the branches of some forest tree; his back was broad, his head reared itself proudly.
When Offero put forth his strength, it was beside the strength of other men as the blaze of the sun beside the flicker of a fire. Much skill had he, and an undaunted courage; few tasks perplexed him, and none lay beyond his strength. When men spoke of Offero the giant, they spoke with admiration, yet halting over their words. Offero was indeed admired, but he was also greatly feared. Very terrible was his aspect, and few dared seek beyond it and find the man of true and simple heart.
On a day when he had performed many feats of strength, Offero took counsel with himself.
"The time is come," thought he, "when I should enter into service. And since my strength is greater than that of any man, it is but fitting that I should serve a prince greater than any other prince. Therefore I will serve only the greatest prince in the world."
Having come to this conclusion he raised himself with a great sigh, and, leaving his house and his people, set forth to seek for this greatest prince.
His quest was a difficult one. Offero travelled far and wide, the wondering glances of men ever upon him, and found no prince who fulfilled the condition of his vow. For the world is like a starlit heaven, where one may find a star and say, "This one is the brightest", and afterwards find another brighter still, and then another. Many a prince would gladly have made use of the giant's services, but each had over him one greater than he, or knew an enemy whose power was greater than his own.
Offero was weary of wandering, and sick with the sickness that springs from the splendours of palaces, when there came to his ears tidings of a prince so great that it was said none on earth was like him. Of all courts his was the most magnificent, of all armies his was the finest. He feared no other monarch, whether friend or enemy. Many a great battle had fallen to him; and it was said of him that he had never known defeat.
"Here surely is my prince!" thought the giant; and he set out to find him.
When he reached the famous court he sought, he pleaded for audience of its monarch; and because of his great stature and simple words his plea was granted.
"What wouldst of me, thou giant among men?" asked the King. His eyes, tired and sad, fell upon the form of the stranger with a wonder in them and delight.
Offero replied: "Sire, my name is Offero, and I am a Canaanite. Because of this great strength of mine which is beyond that of any man, I have made a vow that I will serve only a prince whose power is beyond that of any other prince. I have heard that of all princes thou art mightiest; if these be true tidings, I would offer thee my service, in accordance with my vow."
The King replied: "These be true tidings which have reached thee, for I am indeed the greatest of all great princes. Look about thee, Offero, and observe my court. Hast ever seen splendours like its splendours? By so much is my power greater than any power. I fear no man, and owe none allegiance. Wherefore I do accept thy service, claiming it in accordance with thy vow."
Offero bowed his head, and in his heart sprang up great gladness that he had found his mightiest prince. From that day he abode at the court, wearing, with a face awry at the fineness of them, such clothes as were provided for him, and eating delicate foods.
Great skill had Offero in many directions, and he put his vast strength into many a difficult task. His wit was fine to devise strange feats for his master's edification, and by his valour he brought him glory. Only Offero the giant could make the King's dark eyes brighten and kindle into fire, only Offero could break the melancholy that clasped in its deadly embrace the mightiest prince.
There were tongues that said ill things of the giant in their jealousy; but his simplicity passed these things by.
One stormy eve brought a minstrel to the court, a minstrel who twanged wild strings and sang in a subtle strain before the King. In many of the songs was mention of one whom the minstrel called "the devil". As he sang this name his tone grew sombre; and the King drooped his head, and with his fingers drew a cross from brow to breast.
When the minstrel was gone, and the courtiers were scattered, Offero came out from among the shadows, and dropt on his knees before the King where he sat brooding, his head upon his hand.
"Sire," said he, "as the minstrel sang his songs, he made mention of one who was named the devil. And as often as he uttered the name, didst not thou bow thy head, making a strange sign? Tell me now, I pray thee, the meaning of this thing; for because of it my heart is heavy with a burden which I do not understand."
Now the King's glance was cast down, and he uttered not one word.
"Alas," cried Offero, trembling, "now I know well that thou concealest something from me! Answer me my question, I beseech thee, lest in my doubt I leave thee without further word."
The King raised his head, and his eyes were full of gloom. "My good Offero," said he, "knowest thou not of the devil who is called Satan? He it is who works dread evil, casting his dark spells about men's souls. I am but as other men in my fear of him, for at his name the bravest hearts grow chill. When I make this sign upon my breast it is to avert from me his evil power." And with his fingers he drew again the cross.
But Offero stumbled to his feet, groping, as if he had found blindness.
The King cast sombre eyes upon him, drawing his robes tight across his knees. "The power of Satan is not of earth," he muttered, "and what man may defy it?" And he sat staring, as if he saw things that chilled his soul.
But Offero called out, in the tones of one that wept: "Alas, my Prince, who feared no man, has fear come upon thee? Who is this Satan that makes thee tremble? Since thou fearest him, he is surely greater than thou. Behold my vow, which I have broken; and now I may see thy face no more!"
And, with his head bent, he turned away. And the King was silent, for he was sorrowful that he had wronged Offero, and very loth to see his servant go.
Offero left the palace straightway. The King had clothed him in fine garments, and in these he wandered, searching in town, and hamlet, and wild, for Satan, that dread prince whose name could blanch the cheek of a valiant man.
The dust of many days' travel was upon him, when he came upon a desert so lonely that it seemed as if the silence spoke. And he set himself to traverse this vast plain.
Now he had not gone far when he heard in the distance a great rushing sound, and piercing far ahead with his eyes, beheld a vast cloud moving toward him as it were with the movement of swiftly flapping wings.
Offero had hardly perceived the cloud when it was close upon him, so rapid was its motion; and he beheld a great host of horsemen, wild and sinister fellows, their jaws peaked as it were with hunger, their eyes casting hither and thither with the keen glance of carrion birds.
At their head rode one more terrible than they: a figure in the shape of a man, whose face was hidden in so curious and close a covering that one doubted if it were the face of one who was human.
Through the folds, which concealed what one felt to be a visage most terrible, Offero could feel the glance of two burning eyes. When the masked man spoke he heard the sound of a voice that was both harsh and sweet, like some fruit that is sweet to eat yet leaves a sting upon the tongue.
"Tell me," cried the stranger harshly, "who art thou who darest to wander alone where companies are loth to travel? What is thy errand, bold fellow, that it should breed in thee a courage so great?"
The giant replied: "I am Offero, a strong man, and one who has vowed to serve only the mightiest prince of all. For as my strength is great, so must my master be, lest I should be ashamed of my service. For this reason, and for the fulfilment of my vow, I seek that mighty prince who is called Satan; for it is said by men that he is the mightiest of all princes, and owes allegiance to none."
Again Offero felt upon him those burning eyes, with their glance that turned suddenly to coldness so that he shivered under it, and back to a heat that seemed to burn his flesh.
"Seek no farther," said the stranger. "Know that I am Satan, that great and terrible prince whom all men fear. Enter into my service, for thou shalt find none higher. I am he before whom all men tremble and are afraid."
With that he wheeled him about abruptly and rode on, and into the silence there fell a laughter that was like a drop of blood.
Offero rode on with that dark host. For many long days he travelled with his master Satan, doing him service in bitter pain and travail. For the service of Satan was not as that of the King. No longer was the giant clothed in soft garments and fed with pleasant foods: he wore the dull coarse dress of his companions, and shared their bitter fire. His gracious service was at an end, for the service he rendered Satan was one of harsh and sullen deeds.
Nor was he cheered by any words from his companions: these dark horsemen spoke seldom, and what speech they uttered was of bitter lamentation over their fate, or of harsh hope that others should share it. Thus Offero performed his difficult service in loneliness, and with a troubled heart, his one consolation the knowledge that he kept his vow.
They left the desert far behind. They left, too, dark tangled woods where lost men had emerged with wild hair and sorrowful eyes to swell the ranks of Satan, and where rocks of strange shapes had frowned at the dark host as it passed by.
At length the great army came upon a space where four roads met. And in the midst of the space, lonely and weather-beaten, stood a little cross.
Offero bent his eyes upon it, he knew not why; and having gazed, he was overpowered by a great sweetness that lay about the cross.
But he who led the host, perceiving the cross through the thick covering that shrouded his face, trembled violently. And he turned his horse aside, leading his followers in a wide curve that they might avoid the cross. As he rode he bent himself, still trembling, and beneath its covering the hidden face twisted into hideous shapes.
Then Offero was troubled, asking himself why his master had trembled and had turned aside to avoid the cross.
Having asked himself this question and found no answer, he left his place and came before Satan. When he had done this, and felt upon himself the glance of those terrible eyes, he felt afraid; but because he was sorely troubled, and was a simple man, he spoke out boldly what was in his heart.
"Tell me, Satan," said he, "why dost thou tremble like a shaking leaf, and hold thyself so meanly? And why hast thou led us by a devious way that thou mightst avoid so slight a thing as this – a little twisted cross?"
Satan held out his hand, pointing it with a proud gesture that the intruder might return to his place; but, despite him, it shook and fell to his side; and he answered nothing.
"Fear comes upon my soul," said Offero in a troubled voice, "lest again I should have broken my vow. Answer my question, I pray thee, lest I depart straightway."
"Know then," said Satan, and he trembled anew with anger, "that upon that cross died One whom men call Jesus Christ. When I see it, fear and trembling seize me, for by that cross are men's souls strangely won; and it is said that He who died will return again, and will vanquish me, and will rule over the earth."
Having so spoken, anger and fear so struggled in Satan that he was like to be rent in pieces; and, urging his black horse forward, he dashed across the plain, leading his men at such a pace that they appeared as a moving cloud.
But Offero struck aside, beginning his search for this new prince, Jesus Christ, whose name held a sweet music for his ears. And he moved warily, and by byways, lest he should be found and carried away by Satan and his hosts.
He had been journeying for some days when he came upon a scattered wood, sweet with the scents of green leaves and fragrant herbs; and found in its heart a humble hut that bore a cross upon its door.
Offero knocked, and received no answer. Whereupon, setting his knee against the door, he pushed it open and entered.
This rude entrance roused the hermit who dwelt within, and who sat reading from a book upon his knees. When he beheld the giant he showed no fear, but with a quiet air closed the book and placed it upon a shelf. "Tell me, good friend," said he, turning, "what thou seekest? If it be aught of mine, ask, and it shall be given to thee."
Offero replied, in a dull tone, for he was weary of his failures, "My name is Offero, and I am a Canaanite. I seek one Jesus Christ, the mightiest prince, of whom even Satan, that dread monarch, stands in fear. Behold my great stature; hast thou ever seen the like? Neither hast thou ever known strength like mine. This is the vow I vowed, that with my great strength I would serve only the greatest prince of all. Wherefore I seek for this Jesus Christ, that I may serve him."
"He is my master," said the hermit. And he fell to pondering; for he perceived that Offero understood nothing of the service of which he spoke.
At length, having given thought to the matter, he answered further: "Knowest thou, Offero, that this great prince, Jesus Christ, is not an earthly ruler? Thou canst serve him only by fasting and by prayer.
"Then I waste my time in seeking him," said the giant; and he turned, and would have gone without further ado, had not the hermit restrained him.
"Nay, good friend," said Offero, "seek not to stay me. I desire no service of fasting. Far be it from me to weaken this great strength of mine, which is all I have to offer in my master's service."
"Then serve him by worship and by prayer," said the holy man; "for it may be that my master does not require of thee what would make thine arm weaker, thy step less sure. Rest upon this wooden bench, and I will instruct thee concerning the Lord Jesus Christ."
With that he found again his book, and, having placed a finger upon the open page, spake with a burning tongue of the holy things he loved.
But the giant waxed uneasy, turning upon his seat; and the good man perceived that he understood nothing, knowing not what prayer or worship meant.
Then the hermit prayed in his heart. And having prayed, he said: "Not a day's journey from this spot flows a little stream which at times becomes a foaming torrent. Haste thee thither, Offero, and with thy great strength assist travellers who would cross the stream. Bear those that are helpless, assist such as are weak. And it may be that thy master, Jesus Christ, will accept thy service, and will reveal Himself to thee."
"At last," said Offero, "thou speakest of a service I understand." And he rose joyfully, and went out to seek the stream.
Having found it, he built by its side a hut of rude bushes; and plucking a young palm-tree from the ground, he made use of that for a staff. Thus housed and provided, he set about his task, being at the service of any who sought him by day or by night.
Thus the days passed till there came a night of storm and rain and wind, when the stream thrust out its arms, and rushed along with a roar. The wind cried, the rain fell in angry splashes, the torrent waxed greater and greater and swirled by with a madder fury.
The giant sought the shelter of his hut. "This is no night for travellers," thought he. He threw himself upon his rude couch, and being weary with much labour, fell asleep.
But he had hardly drawn a dozen breaths when he was awakened by some sound that escaped his knowledge. For a moment he listened, raising himself upon his arm; then, upon the roar of the storm he heard a wailing cry – as it were a child's voice calling – "Offero, Offero, come and help me!"
"I am coming!" cried the giant, and he leapt from his couch with such force that the hut shook. Grasping his staff, he stepped into the storm; but, although he searched the bank high and low, calling lustily, and peering into the darkness, he could find no one, and hear no sound save the sounds of the storm.
"'Twas the end of my dream, a cry from mine own brain," muttered the giant; and he strode back to his hut.
But he had hardly thrown himself upon the couch and rested his head on the pillow, when he was again upon his feet, listening to a cry.
"Offero, Offero, come and help me!" The wailing voice lifted itself from the clamour of the waters and reached his ear.
"It is surely the voice of a child," cried the giant, perplexed. He seized his staff, and pulled open the heavy door.
Again he sought the traveller, shouting more lustily than before: "It is I – Offero. Here I am." So crying, he paced up and down.
But none answered him, and he could find no one. At last, tired and wet, he returned to the hut. "My dream hath troubled me, making me imagine strange things," he thought; and he determined to think of it no more.
It seemed to him that the storm was quietening, the wind was not so angry, the waters were less turbulent, the splash of the rain upon the hut fell less violently on his ears.
As he listened to it, the giant's face changed; he turned his head quickly, sprang to his feet.
Very clearly and insistently came the cry, "Offero, Offero, come and help me!"
The giant seized his staff, and lifting his lighted lantern, set forth.
He had not gone far when the lantern's light showed him a boy's short, slight form upon the bank. Offero caught a glimpse of wet, storm-driven hair, and clear, sad eyes that seemed to search into his soul.
"Offero, I have need of thee. Help me across the stream," said a sweet voice.
It reminded the giant of another sweetness that had drawn his heart, but he could not rightly remember when. He lifted the child upon his shoulders.
"Offero will serve thee gladly," said he; and with a strange joy at his heart he stepped into the stream.
He had not gone far when he perceived that the violence of the storm had abated less than he had thought Nay, more than that, it seemed to him that the water's fury was waxing greater, that the wind blew its breath with a new violence, that the blinding rain was thickening into a veil.
The lantern's light, which had shown the other side of the stream, showed it no longer. Its gleam fell upon inky waters that bubbled and frothed in dangerous currents, or dashed along in a mad rush.
He staggered! – What was that? Offero leant upon his staff, and great drops started upon his brow. His foot had fallen upon a huge stone which turned beneath his tread. Offero knew that stepping-stone, he had as soon expected to find the forest turn. He dashed a hand across his brow and pressed on.
Every step had to be tested. The stream, which he had known and loved even in its fury, was minded to betray him. Aids he had relied upon before, he might not rely upon to-night. He sought the less dangerous places: these appeared most dangerous of all. The stream was deep where it had been most shallow, heavy with weeds where it had been clear; its bed was fretted with hollows where it had been smooth, and it rocked beneath his feet. Offero moved uncertainly, warily, fearfully.
There was not a star in the sky, and the lantern's light was growing thinner and thinner. Very soon he must plunge with his burden into the inky darkness that lay beyond its light.
The water was rising as he pressed onward, and as it rose the burden on the giant's shoulders grew heavier. To Offero it seemed that the waters were a whirlpool into which the burden he bore sought to press him.
He had begun his journey bearing a child upon his shoulders, the child had grown to the weight of a man, had gained more than the weight of a man, was fast becoming a load that must bend him to the ground.
Offero groaned. He was stumbling, and the roar of the storm encircled him. His way was now in darkness: he could see nothing.
"Clasp me firmly," said he to the boy on his back.
Of what avail? He must surely perish, and with him the clinging child who had brought him to this pass.
Offero made another difficult step forward: and his foot sank. His next step must be his last: the waters would sweep over him. He was tired, distressed, weakened; his great strength had been wrested from him by the violence of the stream and the heaviness of his burden.
Offero grasped his staff between his numb fingers and, bending his shoulders to a last effort, moved blindly forward. Courage, Offero! For a moment he swung round helplessly in the torrents then his foot found a resting-place, the waters steadied about him. With a few short, struggling steps, Offero reached the bank of the stream.
He stood there helpless the while his burden slipped from his shoulders to the ground. He saw the waters that they suddenly stilled. And with a strange suddenness he felt his strength return, and found eyes to look upon the lad whom he had served.
"Thou art but a lad," said he in wonder, "yet it seemed to me that I bore the whole world upon my shoulders as I crossed the stream." And he raised his stiff body, and stretched out his arms.
The boy looked at him with glad eyes. "It may well be that thou hast borne the world," said he, "since thou hast carried Him who bore the sins of the whole world. Know, Offero, that thy service has been accepted by thy Lord, who hath chosen in this fashion to reveal Himself unto thee. And as a sign of it, thou shalt plant thy staff in the ground, and watch it spring forth, and bear fruit."
Whereupon Offero planted the staff which his hand gripped; and immediately it struck root, and bore leaves and fruit.
And when he turned from beholding it, he was alone.
Then a great light flashed upon Offero the giant, by which he saw and understood many things; and, falling upon his knees, he worshipped and uttered prayer.
And from that day he was called by men Christopher, because
he had borne Christ.