In the Forest of Stone
L ooking down the vista of trees and houses from the slope of our garden, W.V. saw the roof and spire of the church of the Oak-men showing well above the green huddle of the Forest.
"It is a pretty big church, isn't it, father?" she asked, as she pointed it out to me.
It was a most picturesque old-fashioned church, though in my thoughtlessness I had mistaken it for a beech and a tall poplar growing apparently side by side; but the moment she spoke I perceived my illusion.
"I expect, if we were anywhere about on a Sunday morning," she surmised, with a laugh, "we should see hundreds and hundreds of Oak-girls and Oak-boys going in schools to service."
"Dressed in green silk, with bronze boots and pink feathers—the colours of the new oak-leaves, eh?"
"Oh, father, it would be lovely!" in a burst of ecstasy. "Oughtn't we to go and find the way to their church?"
We might do something much less amusing. Accordingly we took the bearings of the green spire with the skill of veteran explorers. It lay due north, so that if we travelled by the way of the North Star we should be certain to find it. Wheeling the Man before us, we made a North Star track for ourselves through the underwood and over last year's rustling beech-leaves, till Guy ceased babbling and crooning, and dropped into a slumber, as he soon does in the fresh of the morning. Then we had to go slowly for fear he should be wakened by the noise of the dead wood underfoot, for, as we passed over it with wheels and boots, it snapped and crackled like a freshly-kindled fire. It was a relief to get at last to the soft matting of brown needles and cones under the Needle-trees, for there we could go pretty quickly without either jolting him or making a racket.
We went as far as we were able that day, and we searched in glade and lawn, in coppice and dingle, but never a trace could we find of the sylvan minster where the Oak-people worship. As we wandered through the Forest we came upon a number of notice boards nailed high up on the trunks of various trees, but when W.V. discovered that these only repeated the same stern legend: "Caution. Persons breaking, climbing upon, or otherwise damaging," she indignantly resented this incessant intrusion on the innocent enjoyment of free foresters. How much nicer it would have been if there had been a hand on one of these repressive boards, with the inscription: "This way to the North Star Church;" or, if a caution was really necessary for some of the people who entered the Forest, to say: "The public are requested not to disturb the Elves, Birch-ladies, and Oak-men;" but of course the most delightful thing would be to have a different fairy-tale written up in clear letters on each of the boards, and a seat close by where one could rest and read it comfortably.
I told her there were several forests I had explored, in which something like that was really done; only the stories were not fairy-tales, but legends of holy men and women; and among the branches of the trees were fixed most beautifully coloured glass pictures of those holy people, who had all lived and died, and some of whom had been buried, in those forests, hundreds of years ago. Most of the forests were very ancient—older than the thrones of many kingdoms; and men lived and delighted in them long before Columbus sailed into unknown seas to discover America. Many, indeed, had been blown down and destroyed by a terrible storm which swept over the world when Henry VIII. ruled in England, and only wrecks of them now remained for any one to see; but others, which had survived the wild weather of those days, were as wonderful and as lovely as a dream. The tall trees in them sent out curving branches which interlaced high overhead, shutting out the blue sky and making a sweet and solemn dimness, and nearly all the light that streamed in between the fair round trunks and the arching boughs was like that of a splendid sunset, only it was there all day long and never faded out till night fell. And in some of the forests there were great magical roses, of a hundred brilliant colours crowded together, and as big as the biggest cart-wheel, or bigger.
These woods were places of happy quietude and comfort and gladness of heart; but, instead of Oak-men, there were many Angels.
Here and there, too, in the silent avenues, mighty warriors and saintly abbots, and statesmen bishops, and it might be even a king or a queen, had been buried; and over their graves there were sometimes images of them lying carved in marble or alabaster, and sometimes there had been built the loveliest little chapels all sculptured over with tracery of flowers and foliage.
"True as true, dear. Some day I shall take you to see for yourself."
We know a dip in a dingle where the woodcutters have left a log among the hazels, and here, having wheeled Guy into a dappling of sunny discs and leaf-shadows in a grassy bay, we sat down on the log, and talked in an undertone. Our failure to find the Oak-men's church reminded me of the old legends of lost and invisible churches, the bells of which are heard ringing under the snow, or in the depths of the woods, or far away in burning deserts, or fathom-deep beneath the blue sea; but the pilgrim or the chance way-farer who has heard the music of the bells has never succeeded in discovering the way that leads to the lost church. It is on the clear night of St. John's Day, the longest day of the year, or on the last hour of Christmas Eve, that these bells are heard pealing most sweet and clear.
It was in this way that we came to tell Christian legends and to talk of saints and hermits, of old abbeys and minsters, of visions and miracles and the ministry of Angels. Guy, W.V. thought, might be able, if only he could speak, to tell us much about heaven and the Angels; it was so short a time since he left them. She herself had quite forgotten, but, then—deprecatingly—it was so long and long and long ago; "eight years, a long time for me."
The faith and the strange vivid daydreams of the Middle Ages were a new world into which she was being led along enchanted footpaths; quite different from the worldly world of the "Old Romans," and of English history; more real it seemed and more credible, for all its wonders, than the world of elves and water-maidens. Delightful as it was, it was scarce believable that fairies ever carried a little girl up above the tree-tops and swung her in the air from one to another; but when St. Catherine of Siena was a little child, and went to be a hermit in the woods, and got terribly frightened, and lost her way, and sat down to cry, the Angels, you know, did really and truly waft her up on their wings and carried her to the valley of Fontebranda, which was very near home. And when she was quite a little thing and used to say her prayers going up to bed, the Angels would come to her and just "whip" her right up the stairs in an instant!
Occasionally these legends brought us to the awful brink of religious controversies and insoluble mysteries, but, like those gentle savages who honour the water-spirits by hanging garlands from tree to tree across the river, W.V. could always fling a bridge of flowers over our abysses. "Our sense," she would declare, "is nothing to God's; and though big people have more sense than children, the sense of all the big people in the world put together would be no sense to His." "We are only little babies to Him; we do not understand Him at all." Nothing seemed clearer to her than the reasonableness of one legend which taught that though God always answers our prayers, He does not always answer in the way we would like, but in some, better way than we know. "Yes," she observed, "He is just a dear old Father."
Anything about our Lord engrossed her imagination; and it was a frequent wish of hers that He would come again. "Then,"—poor perplexed little mortal! whose difficulties one could not even guess at—"we should be quite sure of things. Miss Catherine tells us from books: He would tell us from His memory. People would not be so cruel to Him now. Queen Victoria would not allow any one to crucify Him."
I don't think that W.V., in spite of her confidence in my good faith, was quite convinced of the existence of those old forests of which I had told her, until I explained that they were forests of stone, which, if men did not mar them, would blossom for centuries unchanged, though the hands that planted them had long been blown in dust about the world. She understood all that I meant when we visited York and Westminster, and walked through the long avenues of stone palms and pines, with their overarching boughs, and gazed at the marvellous rose-windows in which all the jewels of the world seemed to have been set, and saw the colours streaming through the gorgeous lancets and high many-lighted casements. After that it was delightful to turn over engravings and photographs of ruined abbeys and famous old churches at home and abroad, and to anticipate the good time when we should visit them together, and perhaps not only descend into the crypts but go through the curious galleries which extend over the pillars of the nave, and even climb up to the leaded roof of the tower, or dare the long windy staircases and ladders which mount into the spire, and so look down on the quaint map of streets, and houses, and gardens, and squares, hundreds of feet below.
She liked to hear how some of those miracles of stone had been fashioned and completed—how monks in the days of old had travelled over the land with the relics of saints, collecting treasure of all sorts for the expense of the work; how sometimes the people came in hundreds dragging great oaks and loads of quarried stone, and bringing fat hogs, beans, corn, and beer for the builders and their workmen; how even queens carried block or beam to the masons, so that with their own hands they might help in the glorious labour; and poor old women gave assistance by cooking food and washing and spinning and weaving and making and mending; how when the foundations were blessed kings and princes and powerful barons laid each a stone, and when the choir sang the antiphon, "And the foundations of the wall were garnished with all manner of precious stones," they threw costly rings and jewels and chains of gold into the trench; and how years and generations passed away, and abbots and bishops and architects and masons and sculptors and labourers died, but new men took their places, and still the vast work went on, and the beautiful pile rose higher and higher into the everlasting heavens.
Then, too, we looked back at the vanished times when the world was all so different from our world of to-day; and in green and fruitful spots among the hills and on warm river-lawns and in olden cities of narrow streets and over-hanging roofs, there were countless abbeys and priories and convents; and thousands of men and women lived the life of prayer and praise and austerity and miracle and vision which is described in the legends of the Saints. We lingered in the pillared cloisters where the black-letter chronicles were written in Latin, and music was scored and hymns were composed, and many a rare manuscript was illuminated in crimson and blue and emerald and gold; and we looked through the fair arches into the cloister-garth where in the green sward a grave lay ever ready to receive the remains of the next brother who should pass away from this little earth to the glory of Paradise. What struck W.V. perhaps most of all was, that in some leafy places these holy houses were so ancient that even the blackbirds and throstles had learned to repeat some of the cadences of the church music, and in those places the birds still continue to pipe them, though nothing now remains of church or monastery except the name of some field or street or well, which people continue to use out of old habit and custom.
It was with the thought of helping the busy little brain to realise something of that bygone existence, with its strange modes of thought, its unquestioning faith in the unseen and eternal, its vivid consciousness of the veiled but constant presence of the holy and omnipotent God, its stern self-repression and its tender charity, its lovely ideals and haunting legends, that I told W.V. the stories in this little book. It mattered little to her or to me that that existence had its dark shadows contrasting with its celestial light: it was the light that concerned us, not the shadows.
Some of the stories were told on the log, while Guy slept in his mail-cart in the dappled shelter of the dingle; others by a winter fire when the days were short, and the cry of the wind in the dark made it easy for one to believe in wolves; others in the Surrey hills, a year ago, in a sandy hollow crowned with bloom of the ling, and famous for a little pool where the martins alight to drink and star the mud with a maze of claw-tracks; and yet again, others, this year, under the dry roof of the pines of Anstiebury, when the fosse of the old Briton settlement was dripping with wet, and the woods were dim with the smoke of rain, and the paths were red with the fallen bloom of the red chestnuts and white with the flourish of May and brown with the catkins of the oak, and the cuckoo, calling in Mosses Wood, was answered from Redlands and the Warren, and the pines where we sat (snug and dry) looked so solemn and dark that, with a little fancy, it was easy to change the living greenwood into the forest of stone.
As they were told, under the pressure of an insatiable listener, so have they been written, save for such a phrase, here and there, as slips more readily from the pen than from the tongue.
Of the stories which were told, but which have not been written for this book, if W.V. should question me, I shall answer in the wise words of the Greybeard of Broce-Liande: "However hot thy thirst, and however pleasant to assuage it, leave clear water in the well."