Copyright
Michael Fairless.

The Roadmender online

. (page 4 of 6)
Online LibraryMichael FairlessThe Roadmender → online text (page 4 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


north, the moon streamed in to paint the trees in inky wavering
shadows, and the stars flashed their glory to me across the years.
But now sun and moon greet me only indirectly, and under the red
roses hang pictures, some of them the dear companions of my days.
Opposite me is the Arundel print of the Presentation, painted by
the gentle "Brother of the Angels." Priest Simeon, a stately
figure in green and gold, great with prophecy, gazes adoringly at
the Bambino he holds with fatherly care. Our Lady, in robe of red
and veil of shadowed purple, is instinct with light despite the
sombre colouring, as she stretches out hungering, awe-struck hands
for her soul's delight. St Joseph, dignified guardian and
servitor, stands behind, holding the Sacrifice of the Poor to
redeem the First-begotten.

St Peter Martyr and the Dominican nun, gazing in rapt contemplation
at the scene, are not one whit surprised to find themselves in the
presence of eternal mysteries. In the Entombment, which hangs on
the opposite wall, St Dominic comes round the corner full of
grievous amaze and tenderest sympathy, but with no sense of shock
or intrusion, for was he not "famigliar di Cristo"? And so he
takes it all in; the stone bed empty and waiting; the Beloved
cradled for the last time on His mother's knees to be washed,
lapped round, and laid to rest as if He were again the Babe of
Bethlehem. He sees the Magdalen anointing the Sacred Feet; Blessed
John caring for the living and the Dead; and he, Dominic - hound of
the Lord - having his real, living share in the anguish and hope,
the bedding of the dearest Dead, who did but leave this earth that
He might manifest Himself more completely.

Underneath, with a leap across the centuries, is Rossetti's
picture; Dante this time the onlooker, Beatrice, in her pale
beauty, the death-kissed one. The same idea under different
representations; the one conceived in childlike simplicity, the
other recalling, even in the photograph, its wealth of colour and
imagining; the one a world-wide ideal, the other an individual
expression of it.

Beatrice was to Dante the inclusion of belief. She was more to him
than he himself knew, far more to him after her death than before.
And, therefore, the analogy between the pictures has at core a
common reality. "It is expedient for you that I go away," is
constantly being said to us as we cling earthlike to the outward
expression, rather than to the inward manifestation - and blessed
are those who hear and understand, for it is spoken only to such as
have been with Him from the beginning. The eternal mysteries come
into time for us individually under widely differing forms. The
tiny child mothers its doll, croons to it, spends herself upon it,
why she cannot tell you; and we who are here in our extreme youth,
never to be men and women grown in this world, nurse our ideal,
exchange it, refashion it, call it by many names; and at last in
here or hereafter we find in its naked truth the Child in the
manger, even as the Wise Men found Him when they came from the East
to seek a great King. There is but one necessary condition of this
finding; we must follow the particular manifestation of light given
us, never resting until it rests - over the place of the Child. And
there is but one insurmountable hindrance, the extinction of or
drawing back from the light truly apprehended by us. We forget
this, and judge other men by the light of our own soul.

I think the old bishop must have understood it. He is my friend of
friends as he lies opposite my window in his alabaster sleep, clad
in pontifical robes, with unshod feet, a little island of white
peace in a many-coloured marble sea. The faithful sculptor has
given every line and wrinkle, the heavy eyelids and sunken face of
tired old age, but withal the smile of a contented child.

I do not even know my bishop's name, only that the work is of the
thirteenth century; but he is good to company with through the day,
for he has known darkness and light and the minds of many men; most
surely, too, he has known that God fulfils Himself in strange ways,
so with the shadow of his feet upon the polished floor he rests in
peace.


CHAPTER IV


On Sunday my little tree was limned in white and the sparrows were
craving shelter at my window from the blizzard. Now the mild thin
air brings a breath of spring in its wake and the daffodils in the
garden wait the kisses of the sun. Hand-in-hand with memory I slip
away down the years, and remember a day when I awoke at earliest
dawn, for across my sleep I had heard the lusty golden-throated
trumpeters heralding the spring.

The air was sharp-set; a delicate rime frosted roof and road; the
sea lay hazy and still like a great pearl. Then as the sky stirred
with flush upon flush of warm rosy light, it passed from misty
pearl to opal with heart of flame, from opal to gleaming sapphire.
The earth called, the fields called, the river called - that pied
piper to whose music a man cannot stop his ears. It was with me as
with the Canterbury pilgrims:-


"So priketh hem nature in hir corages;
Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages."


Half an hour later I was away by the early train that carries the
branch mails and a few workmen, and was delivered at the little
wayside station with the letters. The kind air went singing past
as I swung along the reverberating road between the high tree-
crowned banks which we call hedges in merry Devon, with all the
world to myself and the Brethren. A great blackbird flew out with
a loud "chook, chook," and the red of the haw on his yellow bill.
A robin trilled from a low rose-bush; two wrens searched diligently
on a fallen tree for breakfast, quite unconcerned when I rested a
moment beside them; and a shrewmouse slipped across the road
followed directly by its mate. March violets bloomed under the
sheltered hedge with here and there a pale primrose; a frosted
bramble spray still held its autumn tints clinging to the semblance
of the past; and great branches of snowy blackthorn broke the
barren hedgeway as if spring made a mock of winter's snows.

Light of heart and foot with the new wine of the year I sped on
again, stray daffodils lighting the wayside, until I heard the
voice of the stream and reached the field gate which leads to the
lower meadows. There before me lay spring's pageant; green pennons
waving, dainty maids curtseying, and a host of joyous yellow
trumpeters proclaiming 'Victory' to an awakened earth. They range
in serried ranks right down to the river, so that a man must walk
warily to reach the water's edge where they stand gazing down at
themselves in fairest semblance like their most tragic progenitor,
and, rising from the bright grass in their thousands, stretch away
until they melt in a golden cloud at the far end of the misty mead.
Through the field gate and across the road I see them, starring the
steep earth bank that leads to the upper copse, gleaming like pale
flames against the dark tree-boles. There they have but frail
tenure; here, in the meadows, they reign supreme.

At the upper end of the field the river provides yet closer
sanctuary for these children of the spring. Held in its embracing
arms lies an island long and narrow, some thirty feet by twelve, a
veritable untrod Eldorado, glorious in gold from end to end, a
fringe of reeds by the water's edge, and save for that - daffodils.
A great oak stands at the meadow's neck, an oak with gnarled and
wandering roots where a man may rest, for it is bare of daffodils
save for a group of three, and a solitary one apart growing close
to the old tree's side. I sat down by my lonely little sister,
blue sky overhead, green grass at my feet decked, like the pastures
of the Blessed, in glorious sheen; a sea of triumphant, golden
heads tossing blithely back as the wind swept down to play with
them at his pleasure.

It was all mine to have and to hold without severing a single
slender stem or harbouring a thought of covetousness; mine, as the
whole earth was mine, to appropriate to myself without the burden
and bane of worldly possession. "Thou sayest that I am - a King,"
said the Lord before Pilate, and "My kingdom is not of this world."
We who are made kings after His likeness possess all things, not
after this world's fashion but in proportion to our poverty; and
when we cease to toil and spin, are arrayed as the lilies, in a
glory transcending Solomon's. Bride Poverty - she who climbed the
Cross with Christ - stretched out eager hands to free us from our
chains, but we flee from her, and lay up treasure against her
importunity, while Amytas on his seaweed bed weeps tears of pure
pity for crave-mouth Caesar of great possessions.

Presently another of spring's lovers cried across the water
"Cuckoo, cuckoo," and the voice of the stream sang joyously in
unison. It is free from burden, this merry little river, and
neither weir nor mill bars its quick way to the sea as it completes
the eternal circle, lavishing gifts of coolness and refreshment on
the children of the meadows.

It has its birth on the great lone moor, cradled in a wonderful
peat-smelling bog, with a many-hued coverlet of soft mosses - pale
gold, orange, emerald, tawny, olive and white, with the red stain
of sun-dew and tufted cotton-grass. Under the old grey rocks which
watch it rise, yellow-eyed tormantil stars the turf, and bids
"Godspeed" to the little child of earth and sky. Thus the journey
begins; and with ever-increasing strength the stream carves a way
through the dear brown peat, wears a fresh wrinkle on the patient
stones, and patters merrily under a clapper bridge which spanned
its breadth when the mistletoe reigned and Bottor, the grim rock
idol, exacted the toll of human life that made him great. On and
on goes the stream, for it may not stay; leaving of its freshness
with the great osmunda that stretches eager roots towards the
running water; flowing awhile with a brother stream, to part again
east and west as each takes up his separate burden of service - my
friend to cherish the lower meadows in their flowery joyance - and
so by the great sea-gate back to sky and earth again.

The river of God is full of water. The streets of the City are
pure gold. Verily, here also having nothing we possess all things.


The air was keen and still as I walked back in the early evening,
and a daffodil light was in the sky as if Heaven mirrored back
earth's radiance. Near the station some children flitted past,
like little white miller moths homing through the dusk. As I
climbed the hill the moon rode high in a golden field - it was
daffodils to the last.


CHAPTER V


The seagulls from the upper reaches pass down the river in sober
steady flight seeking the open sea. I shall miss the swoop and
circle of silver wings in the sunlight and the plaintive call which
sounds so strangely away from rock and shore, but it is good to
know that they have gone from mudbank and murky town back to the
free airs of their inheritance, to the shadow of sun-swept cliffs
and the curling crest of the wind-beaten waves, to brood again over
the great ocean of a world's tears.

My little tree is gemmed with buds, shy, immature, but full of
promise. The sparrows busied with nest-building in the
neighbouring pipes and gutters use it for a vantage ground, and
crowd there in numbers, each little beak sealed with long golden
straw or downy feather.

The river is heavy with hay barges, the last fruits of winter's
storehouse; the lengthening days slowly and steadily oust the dark;
the air is loud with a growing clamour of life: spring is not only
proclaimed, but on this Feast she is crowned, and despite the
warring wind the days bring their meed of sunshine. We stand for a
moment at the meeting of the ways, the handclasp of Winter and
Spring, of Sleep and Wakening, of Life and Death; and there is
between them not even the thin line which Rabbi Jochanan on his
death-bed beheld as all that divided hell from heaven.

"Sphaera cujus centrum ubique, circumferentia nullibus," was said
of Mercury, that messenger of the gods who marshalled reluctant
spirits to the Underworld; and for Mercury we may write Life with
Death as its great sacrament of brotherhood and release, to be
dreaded only as we dread to partake unworthily of great benefits.
Like all sacraments it has its rightful time and due solemnities;
the horror and sin of suicide lie in the presumption of free will,
the forestalling of a gift, - the sin of Eve in Paradise, who took
that which might only be given at the hand of the Lord. It has too
its physical pains, but they are those of a woman in travail, and
we remember them no more for joy that a child-man is born into the
world naked and not ashamed: beholding ourselves as we are we
shall see also the leaves of the Tree of Life set for the healing
of the nations.

We are slowly, very slowly, abandoning our belief in sudden and
violent transitions for a surer and fuller acceptance of the
doctrine of evolution; but most of us still draw a sharp line of
demarcation between this world and the next, and expect a radical
change in ourselves and our surroundings, a break in the chain of
continuity entirely contrary to the teaching of nature and
experience. In the same way we cling to the specious untruth that
we can begin over and over again in this world, forgetting that
while our sorrow and repentance bring sacramental gifts of grace
and strength, God Himself cannot, by His own limitation, rewrite
the Past. We are in our sorrow that which we have made ourselves
in our sin; our temptations are there as well as the way of escape.
We are in the image of God. We create our world, our undying
selves, our heaven, or our hell. "Qui creavit te sine te non
salvabit te sine te." It is stupendous, magnificent, and most
appalling. A man does not change as he crosses the threshold of
the larger room. His personality remains the same, although the
expression of it may be altered. Here we have material bodies in a
material world - there, perhaps, ether bodies in an ether world.
There is no indecency in reasonable speculation and curiosity about
the life to come. One end of the thread is between our fingers,
but we are haunted for the most part by the snap of Atropos'
shears.

Socrates faced death with the magnificent calm bred of dignified
familiarity. He had built for himself a desired heaven of colour,
light, and precious stones - the philosophic formula of those who
set the spiritual above the material, and worship truth in the
beauty of holiness. He is not troubled by doubts or regrets, for
the path of the just lies plain before his face. He forbids
mourning and lamentations as out of place, obeys minutely and
cheerily the directions of his executioner, and passes with
unaffected dignity to the apprehension of that larger truth for
which he had constantly prepared himself. His friends may bury him
provided they will remember they are not burying Socrates; and that
all things may be done decently and in order, a cock must go to
AEsculapius.

Long before, in the days of the Captivity, there lived in godless,
blood-shedding Nineveh an exiled Jew whose father had fallen from
the faith. He was a simple man, child-like and direct; living the
careful, kindly life of an orthodox Jew, suffering many
persecutions for conscience' sake, and in constant danger of death.
He narrates the story of his life and of the blindness which fell
on him, with gentle placidity, and checks the exuberance of his
more emotional wife with the assurance of untroubled faith.
Finally, when his pious expectations are fulfilled, his sight
restored, and his son prosperously established beside him, he
breaks into a prayer of rejoicing which reveals the secret of his
confident content. He made use of two great faculties: the sense
of proportion, which enabled him to apprise life and its accidents
justly, and the gift of in-seeing, which led Socrates after him,
and Blessed John in lonely exile on Patmos, to look through the
things temporal to the hidden meanings of eternity.

"Let my soul bless God the great King," he cries; and looks away
past the present distress; past the Restoration which was to end in
fresh scattering and confusion; past the dream of gold, and
porphyry, and marble defaced by the eagles and emblems of the
conqueror; until his eyes are held by the Jerusalem of God, "built
up with sapphires, and emeralds, and precious stones," with
battlements of pure gold, and the cry of 'Alleluia' in her streets.

Many years later, when he was very aged, he called his son to him
and gave him as heritage his own simple rule of life, adding but
one request: "Keep thou the law and the commandments, and shew
thyself merciful and just, that it may go well with thee. . . .
Consider what alms doeth, and how righteousness doth deliver. . . .
And bury me decently, and thy mother with me." Having so said, he
went his way quietly and contentedly to the Jerusalem of his heart.

It is the simple note of familiarity that is wanting in us; that by
which we link world with world. Once, years ago, I sat by the
bedside of a dying man in a wretched garret in the East End. He
was entirely ignorant, entirely quiescent, and entirely
uninterested. The minister of a neighbouring chapel came to see
him and spoke to him at some length of the need for repentance and
the joys of heaven. After he had gone my friend lay staring
restlessly at the mass of decrepit broken chimney pots which made
his horizon. At last he spoke, and there was a new note in his
voice:-

"Ee said as 'ow there were golding streets in them parts. I ain't
no ways particler wot they're made of, but it'll feel natral like
if there's chimleys too."

The sun stretched a sudden finger and painted the chimney pots red
and gold against the smoke-dimmed sky, and with his face alight
with surprised relief my friend died.

We are one with the earth, one in sin, one in redemption. It is
the fringe of the garment of God. "If I may but touch the hem,"
said a certain woman.

On the great Death-day which shadows the early spring with a shadow
of which it may be said Umbra Dei est Lux, the earth brought gifts
of grief, the fruit of the curse, barren thorns, hollow reed, and
the wood of the cross; the sea made offering of Tyrian purple; the
sky veiled her face in great darkness, while the nation of priests
crucified for the last time their Paschal lamb. "I will hear,
saith the Lord; I will hear the heavens, and they shall hear the
earth, and the earth shall hear the corn and wine and oil, and they
shall hear Jezreel, and I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I
will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy, and I will
say unto them which were not my people, 'Thou art my people,' and
they shall say 'Thou art my God.'"

The second Adam stood in the garden with quickening feet, and all
the earth pulsed and sang for joy of the new hope and the new life
quickening within her, to be hers through the pains of travail, the
pangs of dissolution. The Tree of Life bears Bread and Wine - food
of the wayfaring man. The day of divisions is past, the day of
unity has dawned. One has risen from the dead, and in the Valley
of Achor stands wide the Door of Hope - the Sacrament of Death.


Scio Domine, et vere scio . . . quia non sum dignus accedere ad
tantum mysterium propter nimia peccata mea et infinitas
negligentias meas. Sed scio . . . quia tu potes me facere dignum.


CHAPTER VI


"Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot hurt me," said
Socrates; and Governor Sancho, with all the itch of newly-acquired
authority, could not make the young weaver of steel-heads for
lances sleep in prison. In the Vision of Er the souls passed
straight forward under the throne of necessity, and out into the
plains of forgetfulness, where they must severally drink of the
river of unmindfulness whose waters cannot be held in any vessel.
The throne, the plain, and the river are still here, but in the
distance rise the great lone heavenward hills, and the wise among
us no longer ask of the gods Lethe, but rather remembrance.
Necessity can set me helpless on my back, but she cannot keep me
there; nor can four walls limit my vision. I pass out from under
her throne into the garden of God a free man, to my ultimate
beatitude or my exceeding shame. All day long this world lies open
to me; ay, and other worlds also, if I will but have it so; and
when night comes I pass into the kingdom and power of the dark.

I lie through the long hours and watch my bridge, which is set with
lights across the gloom; watch the traffic which is for me but so
many passing lamps telling their tale by varying height and
brightness. I hear under my window the sprint of over-tired
horses, the rattle of uncertain wheels as the street-sellers hasten
south; the jangle of cab bells as the theatre-goers take their
homeward way; the gruff altercation of weary men, the unmelodious
song and clamorous laugh of women whose merriment is wearier still.
Then comes a time of stillness when the light in the sky waxes and
wanes, when the cloud-drifts obscure the stars, and I gaze out into
blackness set with watching eyes. No sound comes from without but
the voice of the night-wind and the cry of the hour. The clock on
the mantelpiece ticks imperatively, for a check has fallen on the
familiarity which breeds a disregard of common things, and a reason
has to be sought for each sound which claims a hearing. The pause
is wonderful while it lasts, but it is not for long. The working
world awakes, the poorer brethren take up the burden of service;
the dawn lights the sky; remembrance cries an end to forgetting.

Sometimes in the country on a night in early summer you may shut
the cottage door to step out into an immense darkness which palls
heaven and earth. Going forward into the embrace of the great
gloom, you are as a babe swaddled by the hands of night into
helpless quiescence. Your feet tread an unseen path, your hands
grasp at a void, or shrink from the contact they cannot realise;
your eyes are holden; your voice would die in your throat did you
seek to rend the veil of that impenetrable silence.

Shut in by the intangible dark, we are brought up against those
worlds within worlds blotted out by our concrete daily life. The
working of the great microcosm at which we peer dimly through the
little window of science; the wonderful, breathing earth; the
pulsing, throbbing sap; the growing fragrance shut in the calyx of
to-morrow's flower; the heart-beat of a sleeping world that we
dream that we know; and around, above, and interpenetrating all,
the world of dreams, of angels and of spirits.

It was this world which Jacob saw on the first night of his exile,
and again when he wrestled in Peniel until the break of day. It
was this world which Elisha saw with open eyes; which Job knew when
darkness fell on him; which Ezekiel gazed into from his place among
the captives; which Daniel beheld as he stood alone by the great
river, the river Hiddekel.

For the moment we have left behind the realm of question and
explanation, of power over matter and the exercise of bodily
faculties; and passed into darkness alight with visions we cannot
see, into silence alive with voices we cannot hear. Like helpless
men we set our all on the one thing left us, and lift up our
hearts, knowing that we are but a mere speck among a myriad worlds,
yet greater than the sum of them; having our roots in the dark
places of the earth, but our branches in the sweet airs of heaven.

It is the material counterpart of the 'Night of the Soul.' We have
left our house and set forth in the darkness which paralyses those
faculties that make us men in the world of men. But surely the
great mystics, with all their insight and heavenly love, fell short
when they sought freedom in complete separateness from creation
instead of in perfect unity with it. The Greeks knew better when
they flung Ariadne's crown among the stars, and wrote Demeter's
grief on a barren earth, and Persephone's joy in the fruitful
field. For the earth is gathered up in man; he is the whole which
is greater than the sum of its parts. Standing in the image of
God, and clothed in the garment of God, he lifts up priestly hands
and presents the sacrifice of redeemed earth before the throne of
the All-Father. "Dust and ashes and a house of devils," he cries;
and there comes back for answer, "Rex concupiscet decorem tuam."

The Angel of Death has broad wings of silence and mystery with


1 2 4 6

Online LibraryMichael FairlessThe Roadmender → online text (page 4 of 6)