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which he shadows the valley where we need fear no evil, and where
the voice which speaks to us is as the "voice of doves, tabering
upon their breasts." It is a place of healing and preparation, of
peace and refreshing after the sharply-defined outlines of a garish
day. Walking there we learn to use those natural faculties of the
soul which are hampered by the familiarity of bodily progress, to
apprehend the truths which we have intellectually accepted. It is
the place of secrets where the humility which embraces all
attainable knowledge cries "I know not"; and while we proclaim from
the house-tops that which we have learnt, the manner of our
learning lies hid for each one of us in the sanctuary of our souls.

The Egyptians, in their ancient wisdom, act in the desert a great
androsphinx, image of mystery and silence, staring from under level
brows across the arid sands of the sea-way. The Greeks borrowed
and debased the image, turning the inscrutable into a semi-woman
who asked a foolish riddle, and hurled herself down in petulant
pride when OEdipus answered aright. So we, marring the office of
silence, question its mystery; thwart ourselves with riddles of our
own suggesting; and turn away, leaving our offering but half
consumed on the altar of the unknown god. It was not the theft of
fire that brought the vengeance of heaven upon Prometheus, but the
mocking sacrifice. Orpheus lost Eurydice because he must see her
face before the appointed time. Persephone ate of the pomegranate
and hungered in gloom for the day of light which should have been
endless.

The universe is full of miracle and mystery; the darkness and
silence are set for a sign we dare not despise. The pall of night
lifts, leaving us engulphed in the light of immensity under a
tossing heaven of stars. The dawn breaks, but it does not surprise
us, for we have watched from the valley and seen the pale twilight.
Through the wondrous Sabbath of faithful souls, the long day of
rosemary and rue, the light brightens in the East; and we pass on
towards it with quiet feet and opening eyes, bearing with us all of
the redeemed earth that we have made our own, until we are
fulfilled in the sunrise of the great Easter Day, and the peoples
come from north and south and east and west to the City which lieth
foursquare - the Beatific Vision of God.


Vere Ierusalem est illa civitas
Cuius pax iugis et summa iucunditas;
Ubi non praevenit rem desiderium,
Nec desiderio minus est praemium.


AT THE WHITE GATE


CHAPTER I


A great joy has come to me; one of those unexpected gifts which
life loves to bestow after we have learnt to loose our grip of her.
I am back in my own place very near my road - the white gate lies
within my distant vision; near the lean grey Downs which keep watch
and ward between the country and the sea; very near, nay, in the
lap of Mother Earth, for as I write I am lying on a green carpet,
powdered yellow and white with the sun's own flowers; overhead a
great sycamore where the bees toil and sing; and sighing shimmering
poplars golden grey against the blue. The day of Persephone has
dawned for me, and I, set free like Demeter's child, gladden my
eyes with this foretaste of coming radiance, and rest my tired
sense with the scent and sound of home. Away down the meadow I
hear the early scythe song, and the warm air is fragrant with the
fallen grass. It has its own message for me as I lie here, I who
have obtained yet one more mercy, and the burden of it is life, not
death.

I remember when, taking a grace from my road, I helped to mow
Farmer Marler's ten-acre field, rich in ripe upstanding grass. The
mechanism of the ancient reaper had given way under the strain of
the home meadows, and if this crop was to be saved it must be by
hand. I have kept the record of those days of joyous labour under
a June sky. Men were hard to get in our village; old Dodden, who
was over seventy, volunteered his services - he had done yeoman work
with the scythe in his youth - and two of the farm hands with their
master completed our strength.

We took our places under a five o'clock morning sky, and the larks
cried down to us as we stood knee-deep in the fragrant dew-steeped
grass, each man with his gleaming scythe poised ready for its
sweeping swing. Old Dodden led by right of age and ripe
experience; bent like a sickle, brown and dry as a nut, his face a
tracery of innumerable wrinkles, he has never ailed a day, and the
cunning of his craft was still with him. At first we worked
stiffly, unreadily, but soon the monotonous motion possessed us
with its insistent rhythm, and the grass bowed to each sibilant
swish and fell in sweet-smelling swathes at our feet. Now and then
a startled rabbit scurried through the miniature forest to vanish
with white flick of tail in the tangled hedge; here and there a
mother lark was discovered sitting motionless, immovable upon her
little brood; but save for these infrequent incidents we paced
steadily on with no speech save the cry of the hone on the steel
and the swish of the falling swathes. The sun rose high in the
heaven and burnt on bent neck and bare and aching arms, the blood
beat and drummed in my veins with the unwonted posture and
exercise; I worked as a man who sees and hears in a mist. Once, as
I paused to whet my scythe, my eye caught the line of the
untroubled hills strong and still in the broad sunshine; then to
work again in the labouring, fertile valley.

Rest time came, and wiping the sweat from brow and blade we sought
the welcome shadow of the hedge and the cool sweet oatmeal water
with which the wise reaper quenches his thirst. Farmer Marler
hastened off to see with master-eye that all went well elsewhere;
the farm men slept tranquilly, stretched at full length, clasped
hands for pillow; and old Dodden, sitting with crooked fingers
interlaced to check their trembling betrayal of old age, told how
in his youth he had "swep" a four-acre field single-handed in three
days - an almost impossible feat - and of the first reaping machine
in these parts, and how it brought, to his thinking, the ruin of
agricultural morals with it. "'Tis again nature," he said, "the
Lard gave us the land an' the seed, but 'Ee said that a man should
sweat. Where's the sweat drivin' round wi' two horses cuttin' the
straw down an' gatherin' it again, wi' scarce a hand's turn i' the
day's work?"

Old Dodden's high-pitched quavering voice rose and fell, mournful
as he surveyed the present, vehement as he recorded the heroic
past. He spoke of the rural exodus and shook his head mournfully.
"We old 'uns were content wi' earth and the open sky like our
feythers before us, but wi' the children 'tis first machines to
save doin' a hand's turn o' honest work, an' then land an' sky
ain't big enough seemin'ly, nor grand enough; it must be town an' a
paved street, an' they sweat their lives out atwixt four walls an'
call it seein' life - 'tis death an' worse comes to the most of 'em.
Ay, 'tis better to stay by the land, as the Lard said, till time
comes to lie under it." I looked away across the field where the
hot air throbbed and quivered, and the fallen grass, robbed already
of its freshness, lay prone at the feet of its upstanding fellows.
It is quite useless to argue with old Dodden; he only shakes his
head and says firmly, "An old man, seventy-five come Martinmass
knows more o' life than a young chap, stands ter reason"; besides,
his epitome of the town life he knows nothing of was a just one as
far as it went; and his own son is the sweeper of a Holborn
crossing, and many other things that he should not be; but that is
the parson's secret and mine.

We took rank again and swept steadily on through the hot still
hours into the evening shadows, until the sinking sun set a Gloria
to the psalm of another working day. Only a third of the field lay
mown, for we were not skilled labourers to cut our acre a day; I
saw it again that night under the moonlight and the starlight,
wrapped in a shroud of summer's mist.

The women joined us on the third day to begin haymaking, and the
air was fragrant of tossed and sun-dried grass. One of them walked
apart from the rest, without interest or freedom of movement; her
face, sealed and impassive, was aged beyond the vigour of her
years. I knew the woman by sight, and her history by hearsay. We
have a code of morals here - not indeed peculiar to this place or
people - that a wedding is 'respectable' if it precedes child-birth
by a bare month, tolerable, and to be recognised, should it succeed
the same by less than a year (provided the pair are not living in
the same village); but the child that has never been 'fathered' and
the wife without a ring are 'anathema,' and such in one was
Elizabeth Banks. She went away a maid and came back a year ago
with a child and without a name. Her mother was dead, her father
and the village would have none of her: the homing instinct is
very strong, or she would scarcely have returned, knowing the
traditions of the place. Old Dodden, seeing her, grumbled to me in
the rest-time. - "Can't think what the farmer wants wi' Lizzie Banks
in 'is field." "She must live," I said, "and by all showing her
life is a hard one." "She 'ad the makin' of 'er bed," he went on,
obstinately. "What for do she bring her disgrace home, wi' a
fatherless brat for all folks to see? We don't want them sort in
our village. The Lord's hand is heavy, an' a brat's a curse that
cannot be hid."

When tea-time came I crossed the field to look for a missing hone,
and saw Elizabeth Banks far from the other women, busied with a
bundle under the hedge. I passed close on my search, and lo! the
bundle was a little boy. He lay smiling and stretching, fighting
the air with his small pink fists, while the wind played with his
curls. "A curse that cannot be hid," old Dodden had said. The
mother knelt a moment, devouring him with her eyes, then snatched
him to her with aching greed and covered him with kisses. I saw
the poor, plain face illumined, transfigured, alive with a mother's
love, and remembered how the word came once to a Hebrew prophet:-


Say unto your brethren Ammi, and to your sisters Ruhamah.


The evening sky was clouding fast, the sound of rain was in the
air; Farmer Marler shook his head as he looked at the grass lying
in ordered rows. I was the last to leave, and as I lingered at the
gate drinking in the scent of the field and the cool of the coming
rain, the first drops fell on my upturned face and kissed the poor
dry swathes at my feet, and I was glad.

David, child of the fields and the sheepfolds, his kingship laid
aside, sees through the parted curtain of the years the advent of
his greater Son, and cries in his psalm of the hilltops, his last
prophetic prayer:-


He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass.


Even so He came, and shall still come. Three days ago the field,
in its pageant of fresh beauty, with shimmering blades and tossing
banners, greeted sun and shower alike with joy for the furtherance
of its life and purpose; now, laid low, it hears the young grass
whisper the splendour of its coming green; and the poor swathes are
glad at the telling, but full of grief for their own apparent
failure. Then in great pity comes the rain, the rain of summer,
gentle, refreshing, penetrating, and the swathes are comforted, for
they know that standing to greet or prostrate to suffer, the
consolations of the former and the latter rain are still their own,
with tender touch and cool caress. Then, once more parched by the
sun, they are borne away to the new service their apparent failure
has fitted them for; and perhaps as they wait in the dark for the
unknown that is still to come they hear sometimes the call of the
distant rain, and at the sound the dry sap stirs afresh - they are
not forgotten and can wait.

"Say unto your sisters Ruhamah," cries the prophet.

"He shall come down like rain on the mown grass," sang the poet of
the sheepfolds.

"My ways are not your ways, saith the Lord."


I remember how I went home along the damp sweet-scented lanes
through the grey mist of the rain, thinking of the mown field and
Elizabeth Banks and many, many more; and that night, when the sky
had cleared and the nightingale sang, I looked out at the moon
riding at anchor, a silver boat in a still blue sea ablaze with the
headlights of the stars, and the saying of the herdsman of Tekoa
came to me - as it has come oftentimes since:-


Seek Him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the
shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with
night; that calleth for the waters of the sea and poureth them out
upon the face of earth; the Lord is His name.


CHAPTER II


This garden is an epitome of peace; sun and wind, rain, flowers,
and birds gather me into the blessedness of their active harmony.
The world holds no wish for me, now that I have come home to die
with my own people, for verify I think that the sap of grass and
trees must run in my veins, so steady is their pull upon my heart-
strings. London claimed all my philosophy, but the country gives
all, and asks of me only the warm receptivity of a child in its
mother's arms.

When I lie in my cool light room on the garden level, I look across
the bright grass - il verde smalto - to a great red rose bush in
lavish disarray against the dark cypress. Near by, amid a tangle
of many-hued corn-flowers I see the promise of coming lilies, the
sudden crimson of a solitary paeony; and in lowlier state against
the poor parched earth glow the golden cups of the eschseholtzias.
Beyond the low hedge lies pasture bright with buttercups, where the
cattle feed. Farther off, where the scythe has been busy, are
sheep, clean and shorn, with merry, well-grown lambs; and in the
farthest field I can see the great horses moving in slow steady
pace as the farmer turns his furrow.

The birds are noisy comrades and old friends, from the lark which
chants the dew-steeped morning, to the nightingale that breaks the
silence of the most wonderful nights. I hear the wisdom of the
rooks in the great elms; the lifting lilt of the linnet, and the
robin's quaint little summer song. The starlings chatter
ceaselessly, their queer strident voices harsh against the
melodious gossip of the other birds; the martins shrill softly as
they swoop to and fro busied with their nesting under the caves;
thrush and blackbird vie in friendly rivalry like the Meister-
singer of old; sometimes I hear the drawling cry of a peacock
strayed from the great house, or the laugh of the woodpecker; and
at night the hunting note of the owl reaches me as he sweeps by in
search of prey.

To-day I am out again; and the great sycamore showers honey and
flowers on me as I lie beneath it. Sometimes a bee falls like an
over-ripe fruit, and waits awhile to clean his pollen-coated legs
ere he flies home to discharge his burden. He is too busy to be
friendly, but his great velvety cousin is much more sociable, and
stays for a gentle rub between his noisy shimmering wings, and a
nap in the hollow of my hand, for he is an idle friendly soul with
plenty of time at his own disposal and no responsibilities.
Looking across I can watch the martins at work; they have a
starling and a sparrow for near neighbours in the wooden gutter.
One nest is already complete all but the coping, the other two are
a-building: I wonder whether I or they will be first to go south
through the mist.

This great tree is a world in itself, and the denizens appear full
of curiosity as to the Gulliver who has taken up his abode beneath
it. Pale green caterpillars and spiders of all sizes come spinning
down to visit me, and have to be persuaded with infinite difficulty
to ascend their threads again. There are flies with beautiful
iridescent wings, beetles of all shapes, some of them like tiny
jewels in the sunlight. Their nomenclature is a sealed book to me;
of their life and habits I know nothing; yet this is but a little
corner of the cosmos I am leaving, and I feel not so much desire
for the beauty to come, as a great longing to open my eyes a little
wider during the time which remains to me in this beautiful world
of God's making, where each moment tells its own tale of active,
progressive life in which there is no undoing. Nature knows naught
of the web of Penelope, that acme of anxious pathetic waiting, but
goes steadily on in ever widening circle towards the fulfilment of
the mystery of God.

There are, I take it, two master-keys to the secrets of the
universe, viewed sub specie aeternitatis, the Incarnation of God,
and the Personality of Man; with these it is true for us as for the
pantheistic little man of contemptible speech, that "all things are
ours," yea, even unto the third heaven.

I have lost my voracious appetite for books; their language is less
plain than scent and song and the wind in the trees; and for me the
clue to the next world lies in the wisdom of earth rather than in
the learning of men. "Libera me ab fuscina Hophni," prayed the
good Bishop fearful of religious greed. I know too much, not too
little; it is realisation that I lack, wherefore I desire these
last days to confirm in myself the sustaining goodness of God, the
love which is our continuing city, the New Jerusalem whose length,
breadth, and height are all one. It is a time of exceeding peace.
There is a place waiting for me under the firs in the quiet
churchyard; thanks to my poverty I have no worldly anxieties or
personal dispositions; and I am rich in friends, many of them
unknown to me, who lavishly supply my needs and make it ideal to
live on the charity of one's fellow-men. I am most gladly in debt
to all the world; and to Earth, my mother, for her great beauty.

I can never remember the time when I did not love her, this mother
of mine with her wonderful garments and ordered loveliness, her
tender care and patient bearing of man's burden. In the earliest
days of my lonely childhood I used to lie chin on hand amid the
milkmaids, red sorrel, and heavy spear-grass listening to her many
voices, and above all to the voice of the little brook which ran
through the meadows where I used to play: I think it has run
through my whole life also, to lose itself at last, not in the
great sea but in the river that maketh glad the City of God.
Valley and plain, mountain and fruitful field; the lark's song and
the speedwell in the grass; surely a man need not sigh for greater
loveliness until he has read something more of this living letter,
and knelt before that earth of which he is the only confusion.

It is a grave matter that the word religion holds such away among
us, making the very gap seem to yawn again which the Incarnation
once and for ever filled full. We have banished the protecting
gods that ruled in river and mountain, tree and grove; we have
gainsayed for the most part folk-lore and myth, superstition and
fairy-tale, evil only in their abuse. We have done away with
mystery, or named it deceit. All this we have done in an
enlightened age, but despite this policy of destruction we have
left ourselves a belief, the grandest and most simple the world has
ever known, which sanctifies the water that is shed by every
passing cloud; and gathers up in its great central act vineyard and
cornfield, proclaiming them to be that Life of the world without
which a man is dead while he liveth. Further, it is a belief whose
foundations are the most heavenly mystery of the Trinity, but whose
centre is a little Child: it sets a price upon the head of the
sparrow, and reckons the riches of this world at their true value;
it points to a way of holiness where the fool shall not err, and
the sage may find the realisation of his far-seeking; and yet,
despite its inclusiveness, it is a belief which cannot save the
birds from destruction, the silent mountains from advertisement, or
the stream from pollution, in an avowedly Christian land. John
Ruskin scolded and fought and did yeoman service, somewhat hindered
by his over-good conceit of himself; but it is not the worship of
beauty we need so much as the beauty of holiness. Little by little
the barrier grows and 'religion' becomes a RULE of life, not life
itself, although the Bride stands ready to interpret, likened in
her loveliness to the chief treasures of her handmaid-Earth. There
is more truth in the believing cry, "Come from thy white cliffs, O
Pan!" than in the religion that measures a man's life by the letter
of the Ten Commandments, and erects itself as judge and ruler over
him, instead of throwing open the gate of the garden where God
walks with man from morning until morning.

As I write the sun is setting; in the pale radiance of the sky
above his glory there dawns the evening star; and earth like a
tired child turns her face to the bosom of the night.


CHAPTER III


Once again I have paid a rare visit to my tree to find many things
changed since my last sojourn there. The bees are silent, for the
honey-laden flowers of the sycamore are gone and in their place
hang dainty two-fold keys. The poplar has lost its metallic
shimmer, the chestnut its tall white candles; and the sound of the
wind in the fully-leaved branches is like the sighing of the sea.
The martins' nests are finished, and one is occupied by a shrill-
voiced brood; but for the most part the birds' parental cares are
over, and the nestlings in bold flight no longer flutter on
inefficient wings across the lawn with clamorous, open bill. The
robins show promise of their ruddy vests, the slim young thrush is
diligently practising maturer notes, and soon Maid June will have
fled.

It is such a wonderful world that I cannot find it in my heart to
sigh for fresh beauty amid these glories of the Lord on which I
look, seeing men as trees walking, in my material impotence which
awaits the final anointing. The marigolds with their orange suns,
the lilies' white flame, the corncockle's blue crown of many
flowers, the honeysuckle's horn of fragrance - I can paraphrase
them, name, class, dissect them; and then, save for the purposes of
human intercourse, I stand where I stood before, my world bounded
by my capacity, the secret of colour and fragrance still kept. It
is difficult to believe that the second lesson will not be the
sequence of the first, and death prove a "feast of opening eyes" to
all these wonders, instead of the heavy-lidded slumber to which we
so often liken it. "Earth to earth?" Yes, "dust thou art, and
unto dust thou shalt return," but what of the rest? What of the
folded grave clothes, and the Forty Days? If the next state be, as
it well might, space of four dimensions, and the first veil which
will lift for me be the material one, then the "other" world which
is hidden from our grosser material organism will lie open, and
declare still further to my widening eyes and unstopped ears the
glory and purpose of the manifold garment of God. Knowledge will
give place to understanding in that second chamber of the House of
Wisdom and Love. Revelation is always measured by capacity: "Open
thy mouth wide," and it shall be filled with a satisfaction that in
itself is desire.

There is a child here, a happy quiet little creature holding gently
to its two months of life. Sometimes they lay it beside me, I the
more helpless of the two - perhaps the more ignorant - and equally
dependent for the supply of my smallest need. I feel indecently
large as I survey its minute perfections and the tiny balled fist
lying in my great palm. The little creature fixes me with the wise
wide stare of a soul in advance of its medium of expression; and I,
gazing back at the mystery in those eyes, feel the thrill of
contact between my worn and sustained self and the innocence of a
little white child. It is wonderful to watch a woman's rapturous
familiarity with these newcomers. A man's love has far more awe in
it, and the passionate animal instinct of defence is wanting in
him. "A woman shall be saved through the child-bearing," said St
Paul; not necessarily her own, but by participation in the great
act of motherhood which is the crown and glory of her sex. She is
the "prisoner of love," caught in a net of her own weaving; held
fast by little hands which rule by impotence, pursued by feet the
swifter for their faltering.

It seems incredible that this is what a woman will barter for the
right to "live her own life" - surely the most empty of desires.
Man - vir, woman - femina, go to make up THE man - homo. There can be


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Online LibraryMichael FairlessThe Roadmender → online text (page 5 of 6)