Saint Launomar had once been a shepherd boy in the meadows of sunny France, and had lived among the gentle creatures of the fold and byre. So he understood them and their ways very well, and they knew him for their friend. For this is a secret which one cannot keep from the animals whose speech is silent.
Saint Launomar had a cow of whom he was fond, a sleek black and white beauty, who pastured in the green meadows of Chartres near the monastery and came home every evening to be milked and to rub her soft nose against her master’s hand, telling him how much she loved him. Mignon was a very wise cow; you could tell that by the curve of her horns and by the wrinkles in her forehead between the eyes; and especially by the way she switched her tail. And indeed, a cow ought to be wise who has been brought up by a whole monastery of learned men, with Launomar, the wisest person in all the country, for her master and friend.
It was a dark night after milking time; Launomar had put Mignon in her stall with a supper of hay before her, and had bade her good-night and a pleasant cud-time. Then he had shut the heavy barn door and had gone back to his cell to sleep soundly till morning.
But no sooner had his lantern disappeared through the gate of the monastery, than out of the forest came five black figures, creeping, creeping along the wall and across the yard and up to the great oak door. They were all muffled in long black cloaks, and wore their caps pulled down over their faces, as if they were afraid of being recognized. They were wicked-looking men, and they had big knives stuck in their belts quite convenient to their hands. It was a band of robbers; and they had come to steal Launomar’s cow, who was known to be the handsomest in all that part of the world.
Very softly they forced open the great door, and very softly they stole across the floor to Mignon’s stall and threw a strong halter about her neck to lead her away. But first they were careful to tie up her mouth in a piece of cloth so that she could not low and tell the whole monastery what danger she was in. Mignon was angry, for that was just what she had meant to do as soon as she saw that these were no friends, but wicked men who had come for no good to her or to the monastery.
But now she had to go with them dumbly, although she struggled and kicked and made all the noise she could. But the monks were already sound asleep and snoring on their hard pallets, and never suspected what was going on so near to them. Even Launomar, who turned over in his sleep and murmured, “Ho, Mignon, stand still!” when he dimly recognized a sound of kicking, – even Launomar did not waken to rescue his dear Mignon from the hands of those villains who were taking her away.
The robbers led her hurriedly down the lane, across the familiar meadows and into the dense woods, where they could hide from any one who happened to pass by. Now it was dark and they could see but dimly where they were going. The paths crossed and crisscrossed in so many directions that they soon began to quarrel about which was the right one to take. They did not know this part of the country very well, for they were strangers from a different province, who had come to Launomar’s home because they had heard of his famous cow and were bound to have her for themselves.
Very soon the robbers were lost in the tangle of trees and bushes and did not know where they were, or in which direction they ought to go. One said, “Go that way,” pointing towards the north. And one said, “No, no! Go that way,” pointing directly south. The third grumbled and said, “Ho, fellows! Not so, but this way,” and he strode towards the east. While the fourth man cried, “You are all wrong, comrades. It is there we must go,” and he started to lead Mignon towards the west. But the fifth robber confessed that indeed he did not know.
“Let us follow the cow,” he cried; “she is the only one who can see in the dark. I have always heard that animals will lead you aright if you leave the matter to them.” Now as the other robbers really did not have the least idea in the world as to which was the right direction, this seemed to them as sensible a plan as any. So they stripped the halter from Mignon’s head and said, “Hi, there! Get along, Cow, and show us the way.”
Mignon looked at them through the dark with her big brown eyes, and laughed inside. It seemed too good to be true! They had left her free, and were bidding her to guide them on their way out of the forest back to their own country. Mignon chuckled again, so loudly that they thought she must be choking, and hastily untied the cloth from her mouth. This was just what she wanted, for she longed to chew her cud again. She tossed her head and gave a gentle “Moo!” as if to say, “Come on, simple men, and I will show you the way.” But really she was thinking to herself, “Aha! my fine fellows. Now I will lead you a pretty chase. And you shall be repaid for this night’s work, aha!”
Mignon was a very wise cow. She had not pastured in the meadows about Chartres with blind eyes. She knew the paths north and south and east and west through the forest and the fern; and even in the dark of the tangled underbrush she could feel out the way quite plainly. But she said to herself, “I must not make the way too easy for these wicked men. I must punish them all I can now that it is my turn.”
So she led them roundabout and roundabout, through mud and brambles and swamps; over little brooks and through big miry ponds where they were nearly drowned, – roundabout and roundabout all night long. They wanted to rest, but she went so fast that they could not catch her to make her stand still. And they dared not lose sight of her big whiteness through the dark, for now they were completely lost and could never find their way out of the wilderness without her. So all night long she kept them panting and puffing and wading after her, till they were all worn out, cold and shivering with wet, scratched and bleeding from the briars, and cross as ten sticks.
But when at last, an hour after sunrise, Mignon led them out into an open clearing, their faces brightened.
“Oh, I think I remember this place,” said the first man.
“Yes, it has a familiar look. We must be near home,” said the second.
“We are at least twenty-five miles from the monks of Chartres by this time,” said the third, “and I wish we had some breakfast.”
“By another hour we shall have the cow safe in our home den,” said the fourth, “and then we will have some bread and milk.”
But the fifth interrupted them saying, “Look! Who is that man in gray?”
They all looked up quickly and began to tremble; but Mignon gave a great “Moo!” and galloped forward to meet the figure who had stepped out from behind a bush. It was Saint Launomar himself!
He had been up ever since dawn looking for his precious cow; for when he went to milk her he had found the barn empty, and her footprints with those of the five robbers in the moist earth had told the story and pointed which way the company had gone. But it was not his plan to scold or frighten the robbers. He walked up to them, for they were so surprised to see him that they stood still trembling, forgetting even to run away.
“Good-morning, friends,” said Launomar kindly. “You have brought back my cow, I see, who to-night for the first time has left her stall to wander far. I thank you, good friends, for bringing Mignon to me. For she is not only a treasure in herself, but she is my dearest friend and I should be most unhappy to lose her.”
The men stood staring at Launomar in astonishment. They could hardly believe their eyes and their ears. Where did he come from? What did he mean? But when they realized how kind his voice was, and that he was not accusing them nor threatening to have them punished, they were very much ashamed. They hung their heads guiltily; and then all of a sudden they fell at his feet, the five of them, confessing how it had all come about and begging his pardon.
“We stole the cow, Master,” said the first one.
“And carried her these many miles away,” said the second.
“We are wicked robbers and deserve to be punished,” said the third.
“But we beg you to pardon us,” cried the fourth.
“Let us depart, kind Father, we pray you,” begged the fifth. “And be so good as to direct us on our way, for we are sorely puzzled.”
“Nay, nay,” answered Saint Launomar pleasantly, “the cow hath led you a long way, hath she not? You must be both tired and hungry. You cannot journey yet.” And in truth they were miserable objects to see, so that the Saint’s kind heart was filled with pity, robbers though they were. “Follow me,” he said. By this time they were too weak and weary to think of disobeying. So meekly they formed into a procession of seven, Launomar and the cow going cheerfully at the head. For these two were very glad to be together again, and his arm was thrown lovingly about her glossy neck as they went.
But what was the amazement of the five robbers when in a short minute or two they turned a corner, and there close beside them stood the monastery itself, with the very barn from which they had stolen Mignon the night before! All this time the clever cow had led them in great circles roundabout and roundabout her own home. And after all this scrambling and wading through the darkness, in the morning they were no farther on their journey than they had been at the start. What a wise cow that was! And what a good breakfast of bran porridge and hay and sweet turnips Launomar gave her to pay for her hard night’s work.
The five robbers had a good breakfast too; but perhaps they did not relish it as Mignon did hers. For their consciences were heavy; besides, they sat at the monastery table, and all the monks stood by in a row, saying nothing but pursing up their mouths and looking pious; which was trying. And when the robbers came to drink their porridge Launomar said mildly, –
“That is Mignon’s milk which you drink, Sirs. It is the best milk in France, and you are welcome to it for your breakfast to-day, since we have such reason to be grateful to you for not putting it beyond our reach forever. Ah, my friends, we could ill spare so worthy a cow, so good a friend, so faithful a guide. But I trust that you will not need her services again. Perhaps by daylight you can find your way home without her if I direct you. The highroad is plain and straight for honest men. I commend it to you.”
So, when they were refreshed and rested, Launomar led them forth and pointed out the way as he had promised. He and Mignon stood on the crest of a little hill and watched them out of sight. Then they turned and looked at one another, the wise Saint and his wise cow.
And they both chuckled inside.