Long ago in a far distant land there lived a boy called Offero. He was taller and stronger and braver than any of his companions, and he was called Offero, which means bearer, because he could carry the heaviest burdens on his broad shoulders, without stooping under their weight. His was the grandest kind of strength too, for it was not only strength of body, but strength of heart and soul besides.
As Offero grew into manhood he began to tire of being first only in games and play, and he longed to use his strength for some real end, feeling sure there was work in the world waiting for his hand.
Sometimes as he strode across the olive-clad hills, and felt the wind in his hair, and drew in great breaths of life and strength, he would see before him a dim vision of some great purpose, ever beckoning him on, and in his ear a voice would sound, that bade him use his strength only for the highest.
Night and day Offero thought upon the vision, and it seemed to him that its meaning was that he should go out into the world and do a man's work. And, since for him the highest meant strength and fearlessness, he vowed that he would search until he found the bravest and strongest king and would take service only with him.
So Offero set out and, after many weary wanderings, he came to the gates of a great city. Here, in a palace built of alabaster, lived one whom the people called the greatest king on earth. He had more soldiers and horsemen and chariots than any other monarch, and the banner of crimson and gold that floated over the palace roof, had never been lowered in the face of any foe.
But Offero scarcely noticed all the glitter and splendour of the palace, or the crowd of waiting men. He was only eager to see the king, whom every one said was as brave and strong as a lion. No one stopped him as he strode on. Even the royal guards at the palace door stood back to let him pass. He was dusty and travel-stained, and his armour was dull and dinted by many a hard blow, but there was that in his walk and in his eyes, and the grasp of his great hand upon his sword, that made every one fall back to let him pass.
The king was seated upon his throne making wise laws for his people, when Offero entered the audience hall. Straight to the steps of the throne he went, and kneeling there placed his sword at the king's feet and offered to be his true servant. For a moment the king looked in wonder and astonishment at this giant, and the great sword that stretched along the widest step of his ivory throne. Then with a look of pride at the strength of the man kneeling at his feet, he bade Offero rise and use his sword henceforth only in the king's service.
So Offero became the king's servant, and not one of the king's enemies could stand against him. Wherever there was danger to be met or fighting to be done, there he was ever to be found, and he made his master's name more feared and honoured than that of any other monarch in the world. His work filled all his time and thoughts, and the vision he had seen grew so dim that it had nearly faded from his memory, when one night a minstrel came to the court.
This minstrel had a harp of gold and his fingers woke the sweetest music from the golden strings, but sweeter than all was his voice as he sang of brave deeds and mighty battles, the wisdom of the wise and the courage of the strong.
The heart of Offero was charmed by the music as he sat idly among the rest of the courtiers, listening in the great audience chamber.
But as the minstrel sang, Offero noticed that the king looked disturbed and once or twice made a strange sign with his hand when a certain evil name was repeated in the song. It almost seemed to Offero as if at such times a look of fear came into his eyes.
Waiting behind the rest when the minstrel was gone, Offero looked gravely into the king's eyes and said:
"My liege, wilt thou tell thy servant, why thou didst make that sign upon thy forehead and what the look that came into thine eyes may mean—thou who fearest no man?"
Then the king answered Offero saying:
"That sign is the sign of the cross, and I make it upon my brow whenever I hear the name of Satan, the Evil Spirit, because I fear him, and because that sign alone can protect me from him."
And Offero bowed his head, and standing there before the king he answered sadly:
"Fare thee well, O my king, for I may not serve thee longer. I have promised only to serve the greatest and one who feared nothing, so I must e'en seek this Evil Spirit. If thou fearest him, must he not be more powerful than thou?"
So Offero went sorrowfully out of the king's presence, and away from the splendid court and the fair city. And as he went the vision which of late had faded from him grew clearer, and seemed to beckon him on and on. And the voice that of old sounded in his ears spoke to him once more, so that his heart became light and his purpose grew strong.
Now after many days of toilsome wanderings, Offero came at last to the skirt of a great dark wood. The pines were so thick that never a sunbeam could pierce through their tops, and the trunks of the trees could only just be seen ghostly grey in the everlasting twilight that reigned there.
Deeper and darker grew the wood as Offero went on, until he came to the darkest part of all, and there he found the Evil Spirit and his court.
Offero could see nothing clearly in the gloom, but one great shadow stood out, bigger and stronger than any of the other shadows that flitted about, and on its brow was the outline of a kingly crown.
"What seekest thou here?" asked the Evil One, in a deep strong voice, like the roar of distant thunder.
"I seek to serve the greatest and strongest king on earth, and one who knows no fear," answered Offero.
"Then is thy quest ended," said the shadowy king, with uplifted head and proud gesture, "for I indeed am the greatest king of all, and I know not what that word fear meaneth."
So Offero became one of the servants of the King of Evil, and his work was heavy and his wages light. But that seemed but a small matter to him, if only he had indeed found the highest.
Time passed on until there came a day when the Evil One rode out with all his servants and Offero at their head. And as they passed out of the wood they came to a cross set up by the wayside. It was only a rough cross of wood, standing out clear against the sky, the grass beneath worn by those who had knelt before it, and a bunch of wild flowers laid at its foot by some grateful hand. But when the eye of the Evil One fell upon it, he shuddered and, turning quickly round, plunged back into the wood, followed by all his servants. And Offero saw he was trembling from head to foot.
"Stop," cried Offero, barring his way, for he was not afraid even of the great Shadow upon the fierce black horse. "I would fain know what this meaneth, ere we go further. Didst thou not say thou wert stronger than all and feared nothing? and lo! thou tremblest like a child before a piece of crossed wood."
"It is not the cross I fear," answered the Evil One, "but Him who once hung upon it."
"And who is He that you should tremble at the very thought of Him?" asked Offero. "Is He a greater and stronger king than thou?"
"He is greater, and He is stronger," answered Satan, "and He is the only one I fear."
Then Offero rode away from the dark wood and the evil company, out into the sunshine and light. And as he looked at the blue sky, and felt the warmth of the blessed sunshine once more, the vision seemed to rise again before his eyes, ever beckoning him onward, and in his ear the same voice sounded, bidding him seek on, until he should indeed find the highest.
Far and near did Offero wander, asking all he met if they could tell him where he might find the Christ—this man who once hung upon a cross and who was greater and more powerful even than Satan, the King of Evil. And some said one thing and some another, but no one could aid him in his quest, until at last in his wanderings he came to a little hut in the midst of a desert.
Here a holy man dwelt, with no living soul near him, serving God day and night.
Most gladly did he welcome Offero, but gladder still was he when Offero eagerly asked him the question that had been upon his lips so long:
"Good hermit, canst thou tell me where I may find the King called Christ, He who once hung upon a cross, and who is stronger even than the King of Evil?"
"That can I," answered the hermit, "for He is the Master whom I serve, and in His name thou art welcome indeed."
And taking Offero into his hut, the hermit gave him food and made him rest. Then in the cool of the evening, when the red sun was sinking behind the belt of distant palm-trees, and a mellow glow turned the sands of the desert into grains of gold, the hermit sat without the hut and told the wonderful Christ story to the listening ears of the giant who lay upon the ground at his feet.
Never had Offero heard words like these before. Even the vision had not prepared him for this. With all his soul in his eyes he listened. Filled with wonder was he at the thought that the King of all heaven should have deigned to come to earth in the form of a little helpless child. But as the hermit went on and told of His power and majesty, His infinite compassion for the weak and helpless, His courage and fearlessness in the face of His foes, ending with the great sacrifice of the cross, Offero sprang to his feet, and grasping his sword in his hand, he raised it to heaven and vowed he would be Christ's faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end, and would fight under no other banner but His, the King of Heaven and Earth.
The hermit was startled as he looked at the gleaming sword, upheld by that strong arm, and in his calm, kind voice, he said:
"My son, the Lord Christ seeketh not to be served as an earthly king. His soldiers fight not with earthly swords, but with the weapons of prayer and fasting."
"But, father," said Offero, "how can I fight with weapons I know nothing of? If He has given me this great strength, surely there must be a way that He would have me use it in His service."
Then the hermit was troubled, for he saw that Offero must needs serve Christ in some other way.
All night he pondered, and in the morning he bade Offero come with him, and together they journeyed forth for many days until they came to the banks of a river. There the hermit stayed his steps.
It was a very deep and dangerous river and, because there was no bridge across it and the current was strong, many travellers lost their lives in trying to ford it.
This the hermit told Offero, and bade him stay and watch there, so that he might help those who wished to cross, and save the lives of those who might otherwise perish without his aid.
"And in helping others," said the hermit, "thou wilt be helping Christ, and it may be He will accept thy service, and will one day come unto thee and take thee for His servant."
So Offero built a hut on the river bank, and pulling up a palm-tree that was growing there, he used it as a staff to lean upon when he waded through the deep water. He was so tall and strong that no matter how high the river rose he could always wade across it. He was ever ready to help the weary footsore travellers, and often when they were too weak to stand against the current, even with the support of his strong arm, he would take them up upon his broad shoulders and carry them safely across.
For a long time did Offero live in his little hut on the river-bank, doing his work well, in the hope that his Master might come to him as the hermit had promised. But weeks and months went by, and still the King did not come, and Offero began to fear that He never would pass that way.
Then one night a terrible storm began to rage. The wind howled round the lonely little hut, and the waters roared as they rushed past in the darkness.
"I need not watch to-night," thought Offero, "for no one will seek to cross the river in such a storm as this."
But as he sat listening to the roll of the thunder and the clashing of the hail on the roof, he fancied he heard, above the noise of the storm, a little voice crying outside and a faint knocking at the door.
It sounded like the cry of a child, and Offero hastily rose up and, unbarring the door, looked out. For a moment he could see nothing in the thick darkness and blinding rain, but presently he heard the cry again, sounding quite close to where he stood, and looking down he saw something small and white, and heard the little voice sounding clear above the storm:
"Kind Offero, wilt thou carry me across the river to-night?"
Then Offero saw it was a little child who was standing out there upon the threshold—a child who looked up at him with pleading eyes, his golden curls lying wet against his cheek, and his little white robe drenched with the driving rain.
Very tenderly Offero stooped down and lifted the little one in his kind, strong arms, and asked him how it came that he was out alone on such a stormy night.
"I must cross the river to-night," said the child in his soft, clear voice, "and the water is deep and I am afraid. I saw thy hut and thought perchance one might dwell here who would help me."
"That will I gladly do," said Offero, as he felt the little arms clinging round his neck. "The night is dark, and the river runs high indeed, but thou art such a tiny child, I shall scarcely feel thy weight. I will place thee high upon my shoulder, so that the water may not reach even thy feet."
So Offero took his great staff in his hand, and placed the child upon his shoulder and stepped down into the roaring flood.
Higher and higher rose the water, stronger and stronger grew the current, as Offero waded on. Never before had his strength been put to such a test. And not only did the torrent threaten to sweep him off his feet, but the child upon his shoulder seemed to grow heavier and heavier with every step, until he could scarcely stagger on under the tremendous weight. But on he went, fighting for each step. And now he was past the worst and into the shallower water beyond. Putting forth all his remaining strength, with one last great effort he struggled up the farther side and with a sigh of relief he climbed upon the bank, and gently set the little child upon the grass.
THE CHILD UPON HIS SHOULDER SEEMED TO GROW HEAVIER.
Then Offero stood looking at him in great wonder and astonishment and said:
"How is it that thou, who seemest but a feather-weight, hast yet become heavier than any burden I ever bore in all my life before?"
And as Offero spoke, the child looked up into his face, and lo! a strange light seemed to shine round the golden head, and his white robe became bright and glistening as the light. And the wonderful look of majesty in those eyes drew Offero down to his knees. And as he knelt there, scarce daring to lift his eyes before that wonderful gaze, he heard the sweet, clear voice of the little child again, and knew it for the same that had guided him since the vision of his boyhood.
"No wonder that I seemed to thee a heavy burden, for I bear upon my shoulders the sins and sorrows of the whole world. I am Christ, whom thou hast sought to serve. I came to thee in the form of a little helpless child, that I might prove thee, if thou wert indeed my faithful servant. And because thou hast been faithful in helping others, thou shalt be counted worthy to enter my service, and I will give thee the new name of Christopher, because thou hast borne Christ upon thy shoulders. Take now thy staff and strike it into the earth, and thou shalt know by a sign that I am indeed thy King."
Then the light faded away, and the child was gone. But where Christopher struck his staff, behold, it took root and budded out into leaves of tender green.
And Christopher knelt on there in the darkness with a great joy in his heart, for he had seen the face of his King, and had found his Master at last. He knew that his search was ended, and that henceforth he would serve only the highest. And all the trouble and perplexity had vanished away, for he understood now that in ministering to others he would always be serving his King, even if the work seemed but small and mean.
So Christopher learned to be Christ's true soldier and servant even unto death, and because he fought manfully under His banner unto his life's end, he is called a saint. His old name of Offero has been long forgotten, and we know him only by that new name which the Christ-child gave him that stormy night, and call him Saint Christopher.