Michael Fairless.

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I have attained my ideal: I am a roadmender, some say
stonebreaker. Both titles are correct, but the one is more
pregnant than the other. All day I sit by the roadside on a
stretch of grass under a high hedge of saplings and a tangle of
traveller's joy, woodbine, sweetbrier, and late roses. Opposite me
is a white gate, seldom used, if one may judge from the trail of
honeysuckle growing tranquilly along it: I know now that whenever
and wherever I die my soul will pass out through this white gate;
and then, thank God, I shall not have need to undo that trail.

In our youth we discussed our ideals freely: I wonder how many
beside myself have attained, or would understand my attaining.
After all, what do we ask of life, here or indeed hereafter, but
leave to serve, to live, to commune with our fellowmen and with
ourselves; and from the lap of earth to look up into the face of
God? All these gifts are mine as I sit by the winding white road
and serve the footsteps of my fellows. There is no room in my life
for avarice or anxiety; I who serve at the altar live of the altar:
I lack nothing but have nothing over; and when the winter of life
comes I shall join the company of weary old men who sit on the
sunny side of the workhouse wall and wait for the tender mercies of

Just now it is the summer of things; there is life and music
everywhere - in the stones themselves, and I live to-day beating out
the rhythmical hammer-song of The Ring. There is real physical joy
in the rise and swing of the arm, in the jar of a fair stroke, the
split and scatter of the quartz: I am learning to be ambidextrous,
for why should Esau sell his birthright when there is enough for
both? Then the rest-hour comes, bringing the luxurious ache of
tired but not weary limbs; and I lie outstretched and renew my
strength, sometimes with my face deep-nestled in the cool green
grass, sometimes on my back looking up into the blue sky which no
wise man would wish to fathom.

The birds have no fear of me; am I not also of the brown brethren
in my sober fustian livery? They share my meals - at least the
little dun-coated Franciscans do; the blackbirds and thrushes care
not a whit for such simple food as crumbs, but with legs well apart
and claws tense with purchase they disinter poor brother worm,
having first mocked him with sound of rain. The robin that lives
by the gate regards my heap of stones as subject to his special
inspection. He sits atop and practises the trill of his summer
song until it shrills above and through the metallic clang of my
strokes; and when I pause he cocks his tail, with a humorous
twinkle of his round eye which means - "What! shirking, big
brother?" - and I fall, ashamed, to my mending of roads.

The other day, as I lay with my face in the grass, I heard a gentle
rustle, and raised my head to find a hedge-snake watching me
fearless, unwinking. I stretched out my hand, picked it up
unresisting, and put it in my coat like the husbandman of old. Was
he so ill-rewarded, I wonder, with the kiss that reveals secrets?
My snake slept in peace while I hammered away with an odd
quickening of heart as I thought how to me, as to Melampus, had
come the messenger - had come, but to ears deafened by centuries of
misrule, blindness, and oppression; so that, with all my longing, I
am shut out of the wondrous world where walked Melampus and the
Saint. To me there is no suggestion of evil in the little silent
creatures, harmless, or deadly only with the Death which is Life.
The beasts who turn upon us, as a rule maul and tear
unreflectingly; with the snake there is the swift, silent strike,
the tiny, tiny wound, then sleep and a forgetting.

My brown friend, with its message unspoken, slid away into the
grass at sundown to tell its tale in unstopped ears; and I, my task
done, went home across the fields to the solitary cottage where I
lodge. It is old and decrepit - two rooms, with a quasi-attic over
them reached by a ladder from the kitchen and reached only by me.
It is furnished with the luxuries of life, a truckle bed, table,
chair, and huge earthenware pan which I fill from the ice-cold well
at the back of the cottage. Morning and night I serve with the
Gibeonites, their curse my blessing, as no doubt it was theirs when
their hearts were purged by service. Morning and night I send down
the moss-grown bucket with its urgent message from a dry and dusty
world; the chain tightens through my hand as the liquid treasure
responds to the messenger, and then with creak and jangle - the
welcome of labouring earth - the bucket slowly nears the top and
disperses the treasure in the waiting vessels. The Gibeonites were
servants in the house of God, ministers of the sacrament of service
even as the High Priest himself; and I, sharing their high office
of servitude, thank God that the ground was accursed for my sake,
for surely that curse was the womb of all unborn blessing.

The old widow with whom I lodge has been deaf for the last twenty
years. She speaks in the strained high voice which protests
against her own infirmity, and her eyes have the pathetic look of
those who search in silence. For many years she lived alone with
her son, who laboured on the farm two miles away. He met his death
rescuing a carthorse from its burning stable; and the farmer gave
the cottage rent free and a weekly half-crown for life to the poor
old woman whose dearest terror was the workhouse. With my shilling
a week rent, and sharing of supplies, we live in the lines of
comfort. Of death she has no fears, for in the long chest in the
kitchen lie a web of coarse white linen, two pennies covered with
the same to keep down tired eyelids, decent white stockings, and a
white cotton sun-bonnet - a decorous death-suit truly - and enough
money in the little bag for self-respecting burial. The farmer
buried his servant handsomely - good man, he knew the love of
reticent grief for a 'kind' burial - and one day Harry's mother is
to lie beside him in the little churchyard which has been a
cornfield, and may some day be one again.


On Sundays my feet take ever the same way. First my temple
service, and then five miles tramp over the tender, dewy fields,
with their ineffable earthy smell, until I reach the little church
at the foot of the grey-green down. Here, every Sunday, a young
priest from a neighbouring village says Mass for the tiny hamlet,
where all are very old or very young - for the heyday of life has no
part under the long shadow of the hills, but is away at sea or in
service. There is a beautiful seemliness in the extreme youth of
the priest who serves these aged children of God. He bends to
communicate them with the reverent tenderness of a son, and reads
with the careful intonation of far-seeing love. To the old people
he is the son of their old age, God-sent to guide their tottering
footsteps along the highway of foolish wayfarers; and he, with his
youth and strength, wishes no better task. Service ended, we greet
each other friendly - for men should not be strange in the acre of
God; and I pass through the little hamlet and out and up on the
grey down beyond. Here, at the last gate, I pause for breakfast;
and then up and on with quickening pulse, and evergreen memory of
the weary war-worn Greeks who broke rank to greet the great blue
Mother-way that led to home. I stand on the summit hatless, the
wind in my hair, the smack of salt on my cheek, all round me
rolling stretches of cloud-shadowed down, no sound but the shrill
mourn of the peewit and the gathering of the sea.

The hours pass, the shadows lengthen, the sheep-bells clang; and I
lie in my niche under the stunted hawthorn watching the to and fro
of the sea, and AEolus shepherding his white sheep across the blue.
I love the sea with its impenetrable fathoms, its wash and
undertow, and rasp of shingle sucked anew. I love it for its
secret dead in the Caverns of Peace, of which account must be given
when the books are opened and earth and heaven have fled away. Yet
in my love there is a paradox, for as I watch the restless,
ineffective waves I think of the measureless, reflective depths of
the still and silent Sea of Glass, of the dead, small and great,
rich or poor, with the works which follow them, and of the Voice as
the voice of many waters, when the multitude of one mind rends
heaven with alleluia: and I lie so still that I almost feel the
kiss of White Peace on my mouth. Later still, when the flare of
the sinking sun has died away and the stars rise out of a veil of
purple cloud, I take my way home, down the slopes, through the
hamlet, and across miles of sleeping fields; over which night has
thrown her shifting web of mist - home to the little attic, the
deep, cool well, the kindly wrinkled face with its listening eyes -
peace in my heart and thankfulness for the rhythm of the road.

Monday brings the joy of work, second only to the Sabbath of rest,
and I settle to my heap by the white gate. Soon I hear the distant
stamp of horsehoofs, heralding the grind and roll of the wheels
which reaches me later - a heavy flour-waggon with a team of four
great gentle horses, gay with brass trappings and scarlet ear-caps.
On the top of the craftily piled sacks lies the white-clad
waggoner, a pink in his mouth which he mumbles meditatively, and
the reins looped over the inactive whip - why should he drive a
willing team that knows the journey and responds as strenuously to
a cheery chirrup as to the well-directed lash? We greet and pass
the time of day, and as he mounts the rise he calls back a warning
of coming rain. I am already white with dust as he with flour,
sacramental dust, the outward and visible sign of the stir and beat
of the heart of labouring life.

Next to pass down the road is an anxious ruffled hen, her speckled
breast astir with maternal troubles. She walks delicately, lifting
her feet high and glancing furtively from side to side with comb
low dressed. The sight of man, the heartless egg-collector, from
whose haunts she has fled, wrings from her a startled cluck, and
she makes for the white gate, climbs through, and disappears. I
know her feelings too well to intrude. Many times already has she
hidden herself, amassed four or five precious treasures, brooding
over them with anxious hope; and then, after a brief desertion to
seek the necessary food, she has returned to find her efforts at
concealment vain, her treasures gone. At last, with the courage of
despair she has resolved to brave the terrors of the unknown and
seek a haunt beyond the tyranny of man. I will watch over her from
afar, and when her mother-hope is fulfilled I will marshal her and
her brood back to the farm where she belongs; for what end I care
not to think, it is of the mystery which lies at the heart of
things; and we are all God's beasts, says St Augustine.

Here is my stone-song, a paraphrase of the Treasure Motif.

[Music score which cannot be reproduced. It is F# dotted crotchet,
F# quaver, F# quaver, F# dotted crotchet, D crotchet, E crotchet.
This bar is then repeated once more.]

What a wonderful work Wagner has done for humanity in translating
the toil of life into the readable script of music! For those who
seek the tale of other worlds his magic is silent; but earth-
travail under his wand becomes instinct with rhythmic song to an
accompaniment of the elements, and the blare and crash of the
bottomless pit itself. The Pilgrim's March is the sad sound of
footsore men; the San Graal the tremulous yearning of servitude for
richer, deeper bondage. The yellow, thirsty flames lick up the
willing sacrifice, the water wails the secret of the river and the
sea; the birds and beasts, the shepherd with his pipe, the
underground life in rocks and caverns, all cry their message to
this nineteenth-century toiling, labouring world - and to me as I
mend my road.

Two tramps come and fling themselves by me as I eat my noonday
meal. The one, red-eyed, furtive, lies on his side with restless,
clutching hands that tear and twist and torture the living grass,
while his lips mutter incoherently. The other sits stooped, bare-
footed, legs wide apart, his face grey, almost as grey as his
stubbly beard; and it is not long since Death looked him in the
eyes. He tells me querulously of a two hundred miles tramp since
early spring, of search for work, casual jobs with more kicks than
halfpence, and a brief but blissful sojourn in a hospital bed, from
which he was dismissed with sentence passed upon him. For himself,
he is determined to die on the road under a hedge, where a man can
see and breathe. His anxiety is all for his fellow; HE has said he
will "do for a man"; he wants to "swing," to get out of his "dog's
life." I watch him as he lies, this Ishmael and would-be Lamech.
Ignorance, hunger, terror, the exhaustion of past generations, have
done their work. The man is mad, and would kill his fellowman.

Presently we part, and the two go, dogged and footsore, down the
road which is to lead them into the great silence.


Yesterday was a day of encounters.

First, early in the morning, a young girl came down the road on a
bicycle. Her dressguard was loose, and she stopped to ask for a
piece of string. When I had tied it for her she looked at me, at
my worn dusty clothes and burnt face; and then she took a Niphetos
rose from her belt and laid it shyly in my dirty disfigured palm.
I bared my head, and stood hat in hand looking after her as she
rode away up the hill. Then I took my treasure and put it in a
nest of cool dewy grass under the hedge. Ecce ancilla Domini.

My next visitor was a fellow-worker on his way to a job at the
cross-roads. He stood gazing meditatively at my heap of stones.

"Ow long 'ave yer bin at this job that y'ere in such a hurry?"

I stayed my hammer to answer - "Four months."

"Seen better days?"

"Never," I said emphatically, and punctuated the remark with a
stone split neatly in four.

The man surveyed me in silence for a moment; then he said slowly,
"Mean ter say yer like crackin' these blamed stones to fill 'oles
some other fool's made?"

I nodded.

"Well, that beats everything. Now, I 'AVE seen better days; worked
in a big brewery over near Maidstone - a town that, and something
doing; and now, 'ere I am, 'ammering me 'eart out on these blasted
stones for a bit o' bread and a pipe o' baccy once a week - it ain't
good enough." He pulled a blackened clay from his pocket and began
slowly filling it with rank tobacco; then he lit it carefully
behind his battered hat, put the spent match back in his pocket,
rose to his feet, hitched his braces, and, with a silent nod to me,
went on to his job.

Why do we give these tired children, whose minds move slowly, whose
eyes are holden that they cannot read the Book, whose hearts are
full of sore resentment against they know not what, such work as
this to do - hammering their hearts out for a bit of bread? All the
pathos of unreasoning labour rings in these few words. We fit the
collar on unwilling necks; and when their service is over we bid
them go out free; but we break the good Mosaic law and send them
away empty. What wonder there is so little willing service, so few
ears ready to be thrust through against the master's door.

The swift stride of civilisation is leaving behind individual
effort, and turning man into the Daemon of a machine. To and fro
in front of the long loom, lifting a lever at either end, paces he
who once with painstaking intelligence drove the shuttle. THEN he
tasted the joy of completed work, that which his eye had looked
upon, and his hands had handled; now his work is as little finished
as the web of Penelope. Once the reaper grasped the golden corn
stems, and with dexterous sweep of sickle set free the treasure of
the earth. Once the creatures of the field were known to him, and
his eye caught the flare of scarlet and blue as the frail poppies
and sturdy corn-cockles laid down their beauty at his feet; now he
sits serene on Juggernaut's car, its guiding Daemon, and the field
is silent to him.

As with the web and the grain so with the wood and stone in the
treasure-house of our needs. The ground was accursed FOR OUR SAKE
that in the sweat of our brow we might eat bread. Now the many
live in the brain-sweat of the few; and it must be so, for as
little as great King Cnut could stay the sea until it had reached
the appointed place, so little can we raise a barrier to the wave
of progress, and say, "Thus far and no further shalt thou come."

What then? This at least; if we live in an age of mechanism let us
see to it that we are a race of intelligent mechanics; and if man
is to be the Daemon of a machine let him know the setting of the
knives, the rise of the piston, the part that each wheel and rod
plays in the economy of the whole, the part that he himself plays,
co-operating with it. Then, when he has lived and served
intelligently, let us give him of our flocks and of our floor that
he may learn to rest in the lengthening shadows until he is called
to his work above.

So I sat, hammering out my thoughts, and with them the conviction
that stonebreaking should be allotted to minor poets or vagrant
children of nature like myself, never to such tired folk as my poor
mate at the cross-roads and his fellows.

At noon, when I stopped for my meal, the sun was baking the hard
white road in a pitiless glare. Several waggons and carts passed,
the horses sweating and straining, with drooping, fly-tormented
ears. The men for the most part nodded slumberously on the shaft,
seeking the little shelter the cart afforded; but one shuffled in
the white dust, with an occasional chirrup and friendly pressure on
the tired horse's neck.

Then an old woman and a small child appeared in sight, both with
enormous sun-bonnets and carrying baskets. As they came up with me
the woman stopped and swept her face with her hand, while the
child, depositing the basket in the dust with great care, wiped her
little sticky fingers on her pinafore. Then the shady hedge
beckoned them and they came and sat down near me. The woman looked
about seventy, tall, angular, dauntless, good for another ten years
of hard work. The little maid - her only grandchild, she told me -
was just four, her father away soldiering, and the mother died in
childbed, so for four years the child had known no other guardian
or playmate than the old woman. She was not the least shy, but had
the strange self-possession which comes from associating with one
who has travelled far on life's journey.

"I couldn't leave her alone in the house," said her grandmother,
"and she wouldn't leave the kitten for fear it should be lonesome"-
-with a humorous, tender glance at the child - "but it's a long
tramp in the heat for the little one, and we've another mile to

"Will you let her bide here till you come back?" I said. "She'll
be all right by me."

The old lady hesitated.

"Will 'ee stay by him, dearie?" she said.

The small child nodded, drew from her miniature pocket a piece of
sweetstuff, extracted from the basket a small black cat, and
settled in for the afternoon. Her grandmother rose, took her
basket, and, with a nod and "Thank 'ee kindly, mister," went off
down the road.

I went back to my work a little depressed - why had I not white
hair? - for a few minutes had shown me that I was not old enough for
the child despite my forty years. She was quite happy with the
little black cat, which lay in the small lap blinking its yellow
eyes at the sun; and presently an old man came by, lame and bent,
with gnarled twisted hands, leaning heavily on his stick.

He greeted me in a high, piping voice, limped across to the child,
and sat down. "Your little maid, mister?" he said.

I explained.

"Ah," he said, "I've left a little darlin' like this at 'ome. It's
'ard on us old folks when we're one too many; but the little mouths
must be filled, and my son, 'e said 'e didn't see they could keep
me on the arf-crown, with another child on the way; so I'm tramping
to N-, to the House; but it's a 'ard pinch, leavin' the little

I looked at him - a typical countryman, with white hair, mild blue
eyes, and a rosy, childish, unwrinkled face.

"I'm eighty-four," he went on, "and terrible bad with the
rheumatics and my chest. Maybe it'll not be long before the Lord
remembers me."

The child crept close and put a sticky little hand confidingly into
the tired old palm. The two looked strangely alike, for the world
seems much the same to those who leave it behind as to those who
have but taken the first step on its circular pathway.

"'Ook at my kitty," she said, pointing to the small creature in her
lap. Then, as the old man touched it with trembling fingers she
went on - "'Oo isn't my grandad; he's away in the sky, but I'll kiss

I worked on, hearing at intervals the old piping voice and the
child-treble, much of a note; and thinking of the blessings
vouchsafed to the simple old age which crowns a harmless working-
life spent in the fields. The two under the hedge had everything
in common and were boundlessly content together, the sting of the
knowledge of good and evil past for the one, and for the other
still to come; while I stood on the battlefield of the world, the
flesh, and the devil, though, thank God, with my face to the foe.

The old man sat resting: I had promised him a lift with my friend
the driver of the flour-cart, and he was almost due when the
child's grandmother came down the road.

When she saw my other visitor she stood amazed.

"What, Richard Hunton, that worked with my old man years ago up at
Ditton, whatever are you doin' all these miles from your own

"Is it Eliza Jakes?"

He looked at her dazed, doubtful.

"An' who else should it be? Where's your memory gone, Richard
Hunton, and you not such a great age either? Where are you

Shame overcame him; his lips trembled, his mild blue eyes filled
with tears. I told the tale as I had heard it, and Mrs Jakes's
indignation was good to see.

"Not keep you on 'alf a crown! Send you to the House! May the
Lord forgive them! You wouldn't eat no more than a fair-sized cat,
and not long for this world either, that's plain to see. No,
Richard Hunton, you don't go to the House while I'm above ground;
it'd make my good man turn to think of it. You'll come 'ome with
me and the little 'un there. I've my washin', and a bit put by for
a rainy day, and a bed to spare, and the Lord and the parson will
see I don't come to want."

She stopped breathless, her defensive motherhood in arms.

The old man said quaveringly, in the pathetic, grudging phrase of
the poor, which veils their gratitude while it testifies their
independence, "Maybe I might as well." He rose with difficulty,
picked up his bundle and stick, the small child replaced the kitten
in its basket, and thrust her hand in her new friend's.

"Then 'oo IS grandad tum back," she said.

Mrs Jakes had been fumbling in her pocket, and extracted a penny,
which she pressed on me.

"It's little enough, mister," she said.

Then, as I tried to return it: "Nay, I've enough, and yours is
poor paid work."

I hope I shall always be able to keep that penny; and as I watched
the three going down the dusty white road, with the child in the
middle, I thanked God for the Brotherhood of the Poor.


Yesterday a funeral passed, from the work-house at N-, a quaint
sepulture without solemnities. The rough, ungarnished coffin of
stained deal lay bare and unsightly on the floor of an old market-
cart; a woman sat beside, steadying it with her feet. The husband
drove; and the most depressed of the three was the horse, a broken-
kneed, flea-bitten grey. It was pathetic, this bringing home in
death of the old father whom, while he lived, they had been too
poor to house; it was at no small sacrifice that they had spared
him that terror of old age, a pauper's grave, and brought him to
lie by his wife in our quiet churchyard. They felt no emotion,
this husband and wife, only a dull sense of filial duty done,
respectability preserved; and above and through all, the bitter but
necessary counting the cost of this last bed.

It is strange how pagan many of us are in our beliefs. True, the
funeral libations have made way for the comfortable bake-meats;
still, to the large majority Death is Pluto, king of the dark
Unknown whence no traveller returns, rather than Azrael, brother

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Online LibraryMichael FairlessThe Roadmender → online text (page 1 of 6)