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The Farels may have had some knowledge of the Waldenses and their doctrines, but they had reason enough to know that it was a perilous thing to renounce the traditions of the Romish church, and accept the simple truths of the gospel. Certain Waldensian teachers had dared to cross over from Piedmont into Dauphiny, and tell men the glad tidings of a Saviour, as their Lord had done among the hills of Judea. Their doctrines were taking root upon the western slopes of the Cottian Alps. Some of the people believed and longed for the Bible. Many, who had been, all their lives, deceived by the priests, became bold in faith, and stood up bravely against the superstitions of the Romish Church. The new converts to the truth were likely to speak more openly than their teachers, for good news must be told to everybody who will hear. The goat-herd could tell his neighbours how he had talked with the missionary at the hedge, the traveller how he had walked with him on the high-way, the chamois hunter how he had met on the mountain-path a man who told him of the true cross and of the good shepherd, and the young man, returning home from the town, could tell how he had heard a man, on the corner of the street, declare "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." Too good news to be kept, it began to find its way to many an ear, into many a heart, and many a home, and it may have reached the village, and the very door of the Farels. *
But the Romish priests and bishops took the alarm. They claimed the field, and if good seed was sown therein, they were the fowls of the air ready to gather it up. They were the thorns growing up to choke it. They saw that if the kind and harmless Waldenses gained ground, the priests must lose the people. If Jesus Christ should win the hearts of men by his free gospel, the pope would be forsaken, and popery renounced. They talked, they threatened, they laid their plans, and persecution arose.
"These Waldenses and their followers must be destroyed," said the priests.
"Will the pope send an army to crush them?" asked the bishops, and Innocent VIII., one of the most guilty of mortals, was pleased with the question.
"To arms!" responded the pontiff, "To arms! and trample these heretics under foot as venomous serpents."
The trumpet rang, the drum was beaten, and an army of more than eighteen thousand men, entered the valleys of Dauphiny, and drove these poor disciples of Christ into the mountains, where they took refuge in caverns and in clefts of the rocks, as birds take shelter from the gathering storm. The misnamed Innocent died, and the vicious Borgia continued the cruel work. This bad pope seemed to be more fearful of these unarmed Christians, than of the legions of the French King, Charles VIII., who was threatening to sweep Italy with war, and the persecution of a few quiet disciples seemed to please him more than the gift of the New World lately made to him by Columbus. Not a valley, nor a wood, nor a rock, was left unexplored by the persecutors. The door of the Farels was not open to these hunted Christians, yet, while they were hiding from their merciless foes, a child of that house was lying in his cradle, or in boyish rashness clambering up the rocks of the Bayard, who would one day set the Swiss Alps aflame with that fire which the Saviour kindled on earth. He should be greater than any of the nameless ones who had cast the good seed in the valleys of his native land, and been driven away before it grew to the full harvest,
and should gain for himself the title of "the Valais Luther."
The soldiers, who were ready to bind the Lord's hidden ones in their retreats, or burn them in the villages, had no cause to persecute the Farels, nor had the priests any reason to suspect them of the least departure from the Bomish faith and customs. The father and the mother believed everything taught by their church, and brought up their children in its rites and devotions. William, whose nature it was to do nothing by halves, threw his whole soul into the follies of popery. He could cross himself, go to the confessional, respond at the mass, adore the wafer, count his beads, pray to the Virgin Mary, eat no meat on Friday, and tell the Saints' days in a manner that must have delighted the parish priest. It was said of him as he grew up, that "he was more popish than the pope himself."
William was a bold boy, fond of daring exploits. Like the young David, at home among the wild hills of Bethlehem, he scarcely knew fear, and would not allow defeat where success was possible. He had the moral courage always to tell the truth. What he feared was a lie. If any one could swim the Buzon when it was high with the torrent from the melting snows, or venture to the pass of the Grlaize when the storm threw fearful risk in the path, he was likely to boast of such a daring feat. Men said that nature made him for a brave knight, or a cavalier, but the truth is, God made him for a bold, fearless, unflinching reformer. His temper needed to be curbed, his rashness to be subdued, and his lively imagination to be tamed. His parents had often to check his impetuous nature. If, however, he wTas bent upon having his own will, it was probably enough to tell him that if he had his own way, he should be kept at home the next saint's day, or he should not be taken to see "the holy cross," one of the seven wonders of Dauphiny.
"I can see crosses any day;" we fancy the lad saying, "there is one at almost every corner where two roads come together. Are they not all holy? I always bow to them and say the 'Ave Maria."'
"None is so holy as the one at Sainte Croix," his parents would answer. '' The cross in that place is made of the very wood on which Christ was crucified.''
"What is it there for?"
"It was put there by some of the saints or angels, so that good people can make pilgrimages to it, and get an indulgence for a month or two.''
'' Then I am going to the holy cross when I am old enough. Why don't you take me now?"
'You are not good enough yet, my son.''
"But if it will make me better, I ought to see it."
The wish to visit the holy cross grew stronger in the mind of the child, and his father's talk about it took the form of a promise. It was before him as an expected visit to Jerusalem was before the mind of a young Hebrew. When William was about eight years old, his parents resolved to take him on the pilgrimage. They went about nine miles to the town of Gap, ,and then twelve miles southward, to Tallard, and then walked up the hill, that rises above the roaring stream of the Durance, on which stood the cross.
When they reached the foot of the highly venerated cross, they fell down before it in adoration. They gazed intently on the sacred wood, believing that it once bore the sacred body of the dying Saviour. They looked at the copper on it, which the priest said was taken from the basin in which Christ washed the feet of his disciples. The wondering pilgrims then turned their eager eyes to a little crucifix fastened to the larger cross.
"Why is the little cross there?" they asked by their silent gaze.
"When the devils send us hail and thunder," said the priest, "this crucifix moves about so violently, that it seems to get loose from the cross, as if desirous of running at the devil, and it continues throwing out sparks of fire against the storm: if it were not for this, nothing would be left on earth."
The credulous pilgrims, with their hair almost standing on end, were deeply moved by the account of these prodigies. No doubt, the father had often argued that the cross was only the sign of the crucified Lord, and that he did not worship the sign, but the Saviour whom it represented. Even if the pilgrims intended to adore the Christ, they were not assisted in their devotions by the lying priest. They were not in a mood for even the better sort of Romish devotion.
"No one," continued the priest, "sees or knows aught of these things except myself and this man."
"What man?" thought the pilgrims, for they had been so engaged with the cross, and so startled by the prodigious stories, that they had not seen him. On turning their heads, they saw one of the strangest of mortals. William never forgot his appearance, for in old age he said that, "it was frightful to look at him. White scales covered his eyes, whether they were there in reality, or Satan only made them appear so." Those who did not credit these marvels called him "the priest's wizard." The sight of him was enough to provoke, in the minds of the visitors, a doubt of what the priest had declared.
"Is it not all true?" the priest asked of the wizard, as if no one would dare to doubt the man with the scaly eyes.
"True, all true," said the wizard, "and there's no blessing to those who do not believe it.''