The Guardians of the Door
T here was once an orphan girl, far away in a little village on the edge of the moors. She lived in a hovel thatched with reeds, and this was the poorest and the last of all the houses, and stood quite by itself among broom and whins by the wayside.
From the doorway the girl could look across the wild stretches of the moorland; and that was pleasant enough on a summer day, for then the air is clear and golden, and the moor is purple with the bloom of the ling, and there are red and yellow patches of bracken, and here and there a rowan tree grows among the big grey boulders with clusters of reddening berries. But at night, and especially on a winter night, the darkness was so wide and so lonely that it was hard not to feel afraid sometimes. The wind, when it blew in the dark, was full of strange and mournful voices; and when there was no wind, Mary could hear the cries and calls of the wild creatures on the moor.
Mary was fourteen when she lost her father. He was a rough idle good-for-nothing, and one stormy night on his way home from the tavern he went astray and was found dead in the snow. Her mother had died when she was so small a child that Mary could scarcely remember her face. So it happened that she was left alone in the world, and all she possessed was a dog, some fowls, and her mother's spinning wheel.
But she was a bright, cheerful, courageous child, and soon she got from the people of the village sufficient work to keep her wheel always busy, for no one could look into her face without liking her. People often wondered how so rude and worthless a fellow could have had such a child; she was as sweet and unexpected as the white flowers on the bare and rugged branches of the blackthorn.
Her hens laid well, and she sold all the eggs she could spare; and her dog, which had been trained in all sorts of cunning by her father, often brought her from the moors some wild thing in fur or feathers which Mary thought there was no harm in cooking.
Her father had been too idle and careless to teach her anything, and all that she could recollect of her mother's instruction was a little rhyme which she used to repeat on her knees beside the bed every night before she went to sleep.
And this was the rhyme:
Though she was all alone in the world, and had no girl of her own age to make friends with, she was happy and contented, for she was busy from morning till night.
And yet in spite of all this, strange stories began to be whispered about the village. People who happened to pass by the old hut late at night declared that they had seen light shining through the chinks in the window-shutter when all honest people should have been asleep. There were others who said they had noticed strange men standing in the shadows of the eaves; they might have been highwaymen, they might have been smugglers—they could not tell, for no one had cared to run the risk of going too near—but it was quite certain that there were strange things going on at the hut, and that the girl who seemed so simple and innocent was not quite so good as the neighbours had imagined.
When the village gossip had reached the ears of the white-headed old Vicar, he sent for the girl and questioned her closely. Mary was grieved to learn that such untrue and unkind stories were told about her. She knew nothing, she said, of any lights or of any men. As soon as it was too dusky to see to work she always fastened her door, and after she had had her supper, she covered the fire and blew out the rushlight and went to bed.
"And you say your prayers, my daughter, I hope?" said the Vicar kindly.
Mary hung down her head and answered in a low voice, "I do not know any proper prayers, but I always say the words my mother taught me."
And Mary repeated the rhyme:
"There could not be a better prayer, dear child!" rejoined the Vicar, with a smile. "Go home now, and do not be troubled by what idle tongues may say. Every night repeat your little prayer, and God will take care of you."
Late that night, however, the Vicar lit his lantern and went out of doors, without a word to any one. All the village was still and dark as he walked slowly up the road towards the moor.
"She is a good girl," he said to himself, "but people may have observed something which has given rise to these stories. I will go and see with my own eyes."
The stars were shining far away in the dark sky, and the green plovers were crying mournfully on the dark moor. As he passed along the lantern swung out a dim light across the road, which had neither walls nor hedges.
"It is a lonely place for a child to live in by herself," he thought.
At last he perceived the outline of the old hovel, among the gorse and broom, and the next moment he stopped suddenly, for there, as he had been told, a thread of bright light came streaming through the shutters of the small window. He drew his lantern under his cloak, and approached cautiously. The road where he stood was now dim, but by the faint glimmer of the stars he was able to make out that there were several persons standing under the eaves, and apparently whispering together.
The Vicar's good old heart was filled with surprise and sorrow. Then it suddenly grew hot with anger, and throwing aside his cloak and lifting up the lantern he advanced boldly to confront the intruders. But they were not at all alarmed, and they did not make any attempt to escape him. Then, as the light fell upon their forms and faces, who but the Vicar was struck with awe and amazement, and stood gazing as still as a stone!
The people under the eaves were men of another age and another world, strangely clothed in long garments, and majestic in appearance. One carried a lance, and another a pilgrim's staff, and a third a battle-axe; but the most imposing stood near the door of the hut, and in his hand he held two large keys.
In an instant the Vicar had guessed who they were, and had uncovered his head and fallen on his knees; but the strangers melted slowly away into the darkness, as if they had been no more than the images of a dream. And indeed the Vicar might have thought that he really had been dreaming but for the light which continued to stream through the chink in the shutter.
He arose from his knees and moved towards the window to peep into the hut. Instantly an invisible hand stretched a naked sword across his path, and a low deep voice spoke to him in solemn warning:
"It is the light of Angels. Do not look, or blindness will fall upon you, even as it fell upon me on the Damascus road."
But the aged Vicar laid his hand on the sword, and tried to move it away.
"Let me look, let me look!" he said; "better one glimpse of the Angels than a thousand years of earthly sight."
Then the sword yielded to his touch and vanished into air, and the old priest leaned forward on the window-sill and gazed through the chink. And with a cry of joy he saw a corner of the rude bed, and beside the corner, one above the other, three great dazzling wings; they were the left-hand side wings of one of the Angels at the foot of the bed.
Then all was deep darkness.
The Vicar thought that it was the blindness that had fallen upon him, but the only regret he felt was that the vision had vanished so quickly. Then, as he turned away, he found that not only had he not lost his sight, but that he could now see with a marvellous clearness. He saw the road, and even the footprints and grains of sand on the road; the hut, and the reeds on the but; the moor, and the boulders and the rowan-trees on the moor. Everything was as distinct as if it had been—not daylight, but as if the air were of the clear colour of a nut-brown brook in summer.
Praising God for all His goodness he returned home, and as he went he looked back once and again and yet again, and each time he saw the twelve awful figures in strange clothing, guarding the lonely thatched hovel on the edge of the moor.
After this there were no more stories told of Mary, and no one even dared speak to her of the wonderful manner in which her prayer was answered, so that she never knew what the old Vicar had seen. But late at night people would rather go a great way round than take the road which passed by her poor hut.