Michael Fairless.

The Roadmender online

. (page 2 of 6)
Online LibraryMichael FairlessThe Roadmender → online text (page 2 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and friend, lord of this mansion of life. Strange how men shun him
as he waits in the shadow, watching our puny straining after
immortality, sending his comrade sleep to prepare us for himself.
When the hour strikes he comes - very gently, very tenderly, if we
will but have it so - folds the tired hands together, takes the way-
worn feet in his broad strong palm; and lifting us in his wonderful
arms he bears us swiftly down the valley and across the waters of

Very pleasant art thou, O Brother Death, thy love is wonderful,
passing the love of women.

* * * * * *

To-day I have lived in a whirl of dust. To-morrow is the great
annual Cattle Fair at E-, and through the long hot hours the beasts
from all the district round have streamed in broken procession
along my road, to change hands or to die. Surely the lordship over
creation implies wise and gentle rule for intelligent use, not the
pursuit of a mere immediate end, without any thought of community
in the great sacrament of life.

For the most part mystery has ceased for this working Western
world, and with it reverence. Coventry Patmore says: "God clothes
Himself actually and literally with His whole creation. Herbs take
up and assimilate minerals, beasts assimilate herbs, and God, in
the Incarnation and its proper Sacrament, assimilates us, who, says
St Augustine, 'are God's beasts.'" It is man in his blind self-
seeking who separates woof from weft in the living garment of God,
and loses the more as he neglects the outward and visible signs of
a world-wide grace.

In olden days the herd led his flock, going first in the post of
danger to defend the creatures he had weaned from their natural
habits for his various uses. Now that good relationship has ceased
for us to exist, man drives the beasts before him, means to his
end, but with no harmony between end and means. All day long the
droves of sheep pass me on their lame and patient way, no longer
freely and instinctively following a protector and forerunner, but
DRIVEN, impelled by force and resistless will - the same will which
once went before without force. They are all trimmed as much as
possible to one pattern, and all make the same sad plaint. It is a
day on which to thank God for the unknown tongue. The drover and
his lad in dusty blue coats plod along stolidly, deaf and blind to
all but the way before them; no longer wielding the crook,
instrument of deliverance, or at most of gentle compulsion, but
armed with a heavy stick and mechanically dealing blows on the
short thick fleeces; without evil intent because without thought -
it is the ritual of the trade.

Of all the poor dumb pilgrims of the road the bullocks are the most
terrible to see. They are not patient, but go most unwillingly
with lowered head and furtive sideways motion, in their eyes a
horror of great fear. The sleek cattle, knee deep in pasture,
massed at the gate, and stared mild-eyed and with inquiring bellow
at the retreating drove; but these passed without answer on to the
Unknown, and for them it spelt death.

Behind a squadron of sleek, well-fed cart-horses, formed in fours,
with straw braid in mane and tail, came the ponies, for the most
part a merry company. Long strings of rusty, shaggy two-year-olds,
unbroken, unkempt, the short Down grass still sweet on their
tongues; full of fun, frolic, and wickedness, biting and pulling,
casting longing eyes at the hedgerows. The boys appear to
recognise them as kindred spirits, and are curiously forbearing and
patient. Soon both ponies and boys vanish in a white whirl, and a
long line of carts, which had evidently waited for the dust to
subside, comes slowly up the incline. For the most part they carry
the pigs and fowls, carriage folk of the road. The latter are hot,
crowded, and dusty under the open netting; the former for the most
part cheerfully remonstrative.

I drew a breath of relief as the noise of wheels died away and my
road sank into silence. The hedgerows are no longer green but
white and choked with dust, a sight to move good sister Rain to
welcome tears. The birds seem to have fled before the noisy
confusion. I wonder whether my snake has seen and smiled at the
clumsy ruling of the lord he so little heeds? I turned aside
through the gate to plunge face and hands into the cool of the
sheltered grass that side the hedge, and then rested my eyes on the
stretch of green I had lacked all day. The rabbits had apparently
played and browsed unmindful of the stir, and were still flirting
their white tails along the hedgerows; a lark rose, another and
another, and I went back to my road. Peace still reigned, for the
shadows were lengthening, and there would be little more traffic
for the fair. I turned to my work, grateful for the stillness, and
saw on the white stretch of road a lone old man and a pig. Surely
I knew that tall figure in the quaint grey smock, surely I knew the
face, furrowed like nature's face in springtime, and crowned by a
round, soft hat? And the pig, the black pig walking decorously
free? Ay, I knew them.

In the early spring I took a whole holiday and a long tramp; and
towards afternoon, tired and thirsty, sought water at a little
lonely cottage whose windows peered and blinked under overhanging
brows of thatch. I had, not the water I asked for, but milk and a
bowl of sweet porridge for which I paid only thanks; and stayed for
a chat with my kindly hosts. They were a quaint old couple of the
kind rarely met with nowadays. They enjoyed a little pension from
the Squire and a garden in which vegetables and flowers lived side
by side in friendliest fashion. Bees worked and sang over the
thyme and marjoram, blooming early in a sunny nook; and in a homely
sty lived a solemn black pig, a pig with a history.

It was no common utilitarian pig, but the honoured guest of the old
couple, and it knew it. A year before, their youngest and only
surviving child, then a man of five-and-twenty, had brought his
mother the result of his savings in the shape of a fine young pig:
a week later he lay dead of the typhoid that scourged Maidstone.
Hence the pig was sacred, cared for and loved by this Darby and

"Ee be mos' like a child to me and the mother, an' mos' as sensible
as a Christian, ee be," the old man had said; and I could hardly
credit my eyes when I saw the tall bent figure side by side with
the black pig, coming along my road on such a day.

I hailed the old man, and both turned aside; but he gazed at me
without remembrance.

I spoke of the pig and its history. He nodded wearily. "Ay, ay,
lad, you've got it; 'tis poor Dick's pig right enow."

"But you're never going to take it to E - ?"

"Ay, but I be, and comin' back alone, if the Lord be marciful. The
missus has been terrible bad this two mouths and more; Squire's in
foreign parts; and food-stuffs such as the old woman wants is hard
buying for poor folks. The stocking's empty, now 'tis the pig must
go, and I believe he'd be glad for to do the missus a turn; she
were terrible good to him, were the missus, and fond, too. I
dursn't tell her he was to go; she'd sooner starve than lose poor
Dick's pig. Well, we'd best be movin'; 'tis a fairish step."

The pig followed comprehending and docile, and as the quaint couple
passed from sight I thought I heard Brother Death stir in the
shadow. He is a strong angel and of great pity.


There is always a little fire of wood on the open hearth in the
kitchen when I get home at night; the old lady says it is "company"
for her, and sits in the lonely twilight, her knotted hands lying
quiet on her lap, her listening eyes fixed on the burning sticks.

I wonder sometimes whether she hears music in the leap and lick of
the fiery tongues, music such as he of Bayreuth draws from the
violins till the hot energy of the fire spirit is on us, embodied
in sound.

Surely she hears some voice, that lonely old woman on whom is set
the seal of great silence?

It is a great truth tenderly said that God builds the nest for the
blind bird; and may it not be that He opens closed eyes and unstops
deaf ears to sights and sounds from which others by these very
senses are debarred?

Here the best of us see through a mist of tears men as trees
walking; it is only in the land which is very far off and yet very
near that we shall have fulness of sight and see the King in His
beauty; and I cannot think that any listening ears listen in vain.

The coppice at our back is full of birds, for it is far from the
road and they nest there undisturbed year after year. Through the
still night I heard the nightingales calling, calling, until I
could bear it no longer and went softly out into the luminous dark.

The little wood was manifold with sound, I heard my little brothers
who move by night rustling in grass and tree. A hedgehog crossed
my path with a dull squeak, the bats shrilled high to the stars, a
white owl swept past me crying his hunting note, a beetle boomed
suddenly in my face; and above and through it all the nightingales
sang - and sang!

The night wind bent the listening trees, and the stars yearned
earthward to hear the song of deathless love. Louder and louder
the wonderful notes rose and fell in a passion of melody; and then
sank to rest on that low thrilling call which it is said Death once
heard, and stayed his hand.

They will scarcely sing again this year, these nightingales, for
they are late on the wing as it is. It seems as if on such nights
they sang as the swan sings, knowing it to be the last time - with
the lavish note of one who bids an eternal farewell.

At last there was silence. Sitting under the big beech tree, the
giant of the coppice, I rested my tired self in the lap of mother
earth, breathed of her breath and listened to her voice in the
quickening silence until my flesh came again as the flesh of a
little child, for it is true recreation to sit at the footstool of
God wrapped in a fold of His living robe, the while night smoothes
our tired face with her healing hands.

The grey dawn awoke and stole with trailing robes across earth's
floor. At her footsteps the birds roused from sleep and cried a
greeting; the sky flushed and paled conscious of coming splendour;
and overhead a file of swans passed with broad strong flight to the
reeded waters of the sequestered pool.

Another hour of silence while the light throbbed and flamed in the
east; then the larks rose harmonious from a neighbouring field, the
rabbits scurried with ears alert to their morning meal, the day had

I passed through the coppice and out into the fields beyond. The
dew lay heavy on leaf and blade and gossamer, a cool fresh wind
swept clear over dale and down from the sea, and the clover field
rippled like a silvery lake in the breeze.

There is something inexpressibly beautiful in the unused day,
something beautiful in the fact that it is still untouched,
unsoiled; and town and country share alike in this loveliness. At
half-past three on a June morning even London has not assumed her
responsibilities, but smiles and glows lighthearted and smokeless
under the caresses of the morning sun.

Five o'clock. The bell rings out crisp and clear from the
monastery where the Bedesmen of St Hugh watch and pray for the
souls on this labouring forgetful earth. Every hour the note of
comfort and warning cries across the land, tells the Sanctus, the
Angelus, and the Hours of the Passion, and calls to remembrance and

When the wind is north, the sound carries as far as my road, and
companies me through the day; and if to His dumb children God in
His mercy reckons work as prayer, most certainly those who have
forged through the ages an unbroken chain of supplication and
thanksgiving will be counted among the stalwart labourers of the
house of the Lord.

Sun and bell together are my only clock: it is time for my water
drawing; and gathering a pile of mushrooms, children of the night,
I hasten home.

The cottage is dear to me in its quaint untidiness and want of
rectitude, dear because we are to be its last denizens, last of the
long line of toilers who have sweated and sown that others might
reap, and have passed away leaving no trace.

I once saw a tall cross in a seaboard churchyard, inscribed, "To
the memory of the unknown dead who have perished in these waters."
There might be one in every village sleeping-place to the
unhonoured many who made fruitful the land with sweat and tears.
It is a consolation to think that when we look back on this stretch
of life's road from beyond the first milestone, which, it is
instructive to remember, is always a grave, we may hope to see the
work of this world with open eyes, and to judge of it with a due
sense of proportion.

A bee with laden honey-bag hummed and buzzed in the hedge as I got
ready for work, importuning the flowers for that which he could not
carry, and finally giving up the attempt in despair fell asleep on
a buttercup, the best place for his weary little velvet body. In
five minutes - they may have been five hours to him - he awoke a new
bee, sensible and clear-sighted, and flew blithely away to the hive
with his sufficiency - an example this weary world would be wise to

My road has been lonely to-day. A parson came by in the afternoon,
a stranger in the neighbourhood, for he asked his way. He talked
awhile, and with kindly rebuke said it was sad to see a man of my
education brought so low, which shows how the outside appearance
may mislead the prejudiced observer. "Was it misfortune?" "Nay,
the best of good luck," I answered, gaily.

The good man with beautiful readiness sat down on a heap of stones
and bade me say on. "Read me a sermon in stone," he said, simply;
and I stayed my hand to read.

He listened with courteous intelligence.

"You hold a roadmender has a vocation?" he asked.

"As the monk or the artist, for, like both, he is universal. The
world is his home; he serves all men alike, ay, and for him the
beasts have equal honour with the men. His soul is 'bound up in
the bundle of life' with all other souls, he sees his father, his
mother, his brethren in the children of the road. For him there is
nothing unclean, nothing common; the very stones cry out that they

Parson nodded his head.

"It is all true," he said; "beautifully true. But need such a view
of life necessitate the work of roadmending? Surely all men should
be roadmenders."

O wise parson, so to read the lesson of the road!

"It is true," I answered; "but some of us find our salvation in the
actual work, and earn our bread better in this than in any other
way. No man is dependent on our earning, all men on our work. We
are 'rich beyond the dreams of avarice' because we have all that we
need, and yet we taste the life and poverty of the very poor. We
are, if you will, uncloistered monks, preaching friars who speak
not with the tongue, disciples who hear the wise words of a silent

"Robert Louis Stevenson was a roadmender," said the wise parson.

"Ay, and with more than his pen," I answered. "I wonder was he
ever so truly great, so entirely the man we know and love, as when
he inspired the chiefs to make a highway in the wilderness. Surely
no more fitting monument could exist to his memory than the Road of
Gratitude, cut, laid, and kept by the pure-blooded tribe kings of

Parson nodded.

"He knew that the people who make no roads are ruled out from
intelligent participation in the world's brotherhood." He filled
his pipe, thinking the while, then he held out his pouch to me.

"Try some of this baccy," he said; "Sherwood of Magdalen sent it me
from some outlandish place."

I accepted gratefully. It was such tobacco as falls to the lot of
few roadmenders.

He rose to go.

"I wish I could come and break stones," he said, a little

"Nay," said I, "few men have such weary roadmending as yours, and
perhaps you need my road less than most men, and less than most

We shook hands, and he went down the road and out of my life.

He little guessed that I knew Sherwood, ay, and knew him too, for
had not Sherwood told me of the man he delighted to honour.

Ah, well! I am no Browning Junior, and Sherwood's name is not


A while ago I took a holiday; mouched, played truant from my road.
Jem the waggoner hailed me as he passed - he was going to the mill -
would I ride with him and come back atop of the full sacks?

I hid my hammer in the hedge, climbed into the great waggon white
and fragrant with the clean sweet meal, and flung myself down on
the empty flour bags. The looped-back tarpaulin framed the long
vista of my road with the downs beyond; and I lay in the cool dark,
caressed by the fresh breeze in its thoroughfare, soothed by the
strong monotonous tramp of the great grey team and the music of the
jangling harness.

Jem walked at the leaders' heads; it is his rule when the waggon is
empty, a rule no "company" will make him break. At first I
regretted it, but soon discovered I learnt to know him better so,
as he plodded along, his thickset figure slightly bent, his hands
in his pockets, his whip under one arm, whistling hymn tunes in a
low minor, while the great horses answered to his voice without
touch of lash or guiding rein.

I lay as in a blissful dream and watched my road unfold. The sun
set the pine-boles aflare where the hedge is sparse, and stretched
the long shadows of the besom poplars in slanting bars across the
white highway; the roadside gardens smiled friendly with their
trim-cut laurels and rows of stately sunflowers - a seemly proximity
this, Daphne and Clytie, sisters in experience, wrapped in the warm
caress of the god whose wooing they need no longer fear. Here and
there we passed little groups of women and children off to work in
the early cornfields, and Jem paused in his fond repetition of "The
Lord my pasture shall prepare" to give them good-day.

It is like Life, this travelling backwards - that which has been,
alone visible - like Life, which is after all, retrospective with a
steady moving on into the Unknown, Unseen, until Faith is lost in
Sight and experience is no longer the touchstone of humanity. The
face of the son of Adam is set on the road his brothers have
travelled, marking their landmarks, tracing their journeyings; but
with the eyes of a child of God he looks forward, straining to
catch a glimpse of the jewelled walls of his future home, the city
"Eternal in the Heavens."

Presently we left my road for the deep shade of a narrow country
way where the great oaks and beeches meet overhead and no hedge-
clipper sets his hand to stay nature's profusion; and so by
pleasant lanes scarce the waggon's width across, now shady, now
sunny, here bordered by thickset coverts, there giving on fruitful
fields, we came at length to the mill.

I left Jem to his business with the miller and wandered down the
flowery meadow to listen to the merry clack of the stream and the
voice of the waters on the weir. The great wheel was at rest, as I
love best to see it in the later afternoon; the splash and churn of
the water belong rather to the morning hours. It is the chief
mistake we make in portioning out our day that we banish rest to
the night-time, which is for sleep and recreating, instead of
setting apart the later afternoon and quiet twilight hours for the
stretching of weary limbs and repose of tired mind after a day's
toil that should begin and end at five.

The little stone bridge over the mill-stream is almost on a level
with the clear running water, and I lay there and gazed at the huge
wheel which, under multitudinous forms and uses, is one of the
world's wonders, because one of the few things we imitative
children have not learnt from nature. Is it perchance a memory out
of that past when Adam walked clear-eyed in Paradise and talked
with the Lord in the cool of the day? Did he see then the flaming
wheels instinct with service, wondrous messengers of the Most High
vouchsafed in vision to the later prophets?

Maybe he did, and going forth from before the avenging sword of his
own forging to the bitterness of an accursed earth, took with him
this bright memory of perfect, ceaseless service, and so fashioned
our labouring wheel - pathetic link with the time of his innocency.
It is one of many unanswered questions, good to ask because it has
no answer, only the suggestion of a train of thought: perhaps we
are never so receptive as when with folded hands we say simply,
"This is a great mystery." I watched and wondered until Jem
called, and I had to leave the rippling weir and the water's side,
and the wheel with its untold secret.

The miller's wife gave me tea and a crust of home-made bread, and
the miller's little maid sat on my knee while I told the sad tale
of a little pink cloud separated from its parents and teazed and
hunted by mischievous little airs. To-morrow, if I mistake not,
her garden will be wet with its tears, and, let us hope, point a
moral; for the tale had its origin in a frenzied chicken driven
from the side of an anxious mother, and pursued by a sturdy,
relentless figure in a white sun-bonnet.

The little maid trotted off, greatly sobered, to look somewhat
prematurely for the cloud's tears; and I climbed to my place at the
top of the piled-up sacks, and thence watched twilight pass to
starlight through my narrow peep, and, so watching, slept until
Jem's voice hailed me from Dreamland, and I went, only half awake,
across the dark fields home.

Autumn is here and it is already late. He has painted the hedges
russet and gold, scarlet and black, and a tangle of grey; now he
has damp brown leaves in his hair and frost in his finger-tips.

It is a season of contrasts; at first all is stir and bustle, the
ingathering of man and beast; barn and rickyard stand filled with
golden treasure; at the farm the sound of threshing; in wood and
copse the squirrels busied 'twixt tree and storehouse, while the
ripe nuts fall with thud of thunder rain. When the harvesting is
over, the fruit gathered, the last rick thatched, there comes a
pause. Earth strips off her bright colours and shows a bare and
furrowed face; the dead leaves fall gently and sadly through the
calm, sweet air; grey mists drape the fields and hedges. The
migratory birds have left, save a few late swallows; and as I sit
at work in the soft, still rain, I can hear the blackbird's
melancholy trill and the thin pipe of the redbreast's winter song -
the air is full of the sound of farewell.

Forethought and preparation for the Future which shall be;
farewell, because of the Future which may never be - for us; "Man,
thou hast goods laid up for many years, and it is well; but,
remember, this night THY soul may be required"; is the unvoiced
lesson of autumn. There is growing up among us a great fear; it
stares at us white, wide-eyed, from the faces of men and women
alike - the fear of pain, mental and bodily pain. For the last
twenty years we have waged war with suffering - a noble war when
fought in the interest of the many, but fraught with great danger
to each individual man. It is the fear which should not be, rather
than the 'hope which is in us,' that leads men in these days to
drape Death in a flowery mantle, to lay stress on the shortness of
parting, the speedy reunion, to postpone their good-byes until the
last moment, or avoid saying them altogether; and this fear is a
poor, ignoble thing, unworthy of those who are as gods, knowing
good and evil. We are still paying the price of that knowledge;
suffering in both kinds is a substantial part of it, and brings its
own healing. Let us pay like men, our face to the open heaven,
neither whimpering like children in the dark, nor lulled to
unnecessary oblivion by some lethal drug; for it is manly, not
morbid, to dare to taste the pungent savour of pain, the lingering
sadness of farewell which emphasises the aftermath of life; it
should have its place in all our preparation as a part of our
inheritance we dare not be without.

There is an old couple in our village who are past work. The
married daughter has made shift to take her mother and the parish
half-crown, but there is neither room nor food for the father, and
he must go to N-. If husband and wife went together, they would be
separated at the workhouse door. The parting had to come; it came
yesterday. I saw them stumbling lamely down the road on their last

2 4 5 6

Online LibraryMichael FairlessThe Roadmender → online text (page 2 of 6)