Lighting the Lamps
N ow that it was the cool of the day (when God walked in Paradise), and the straggling leaves of the limes were swaying in the fresh stream of the breeze, and the book was finished—this very book—and at last, after many busy evenings I was free to do as I pleased, W.V. and I slipped away on a quiet stroll before bedtime.
It was really very late for a little girl—nearly nine o'clock; but when one is a little girl a walk between sunset and dark is like a ramble in fairyland; and after the heat of the day the air was sweet and pleasant, and in the west there still lingered a beautiful afterglow.
We went a little way in the direction of the high trees of Caen Wood, where, you know, William the Conqueror had a hunting lodge; and as we passed under the green fringes of the rowans and the birches which overhung the pathway, it was delightful to think that perchance over this very ground on which we were walking the burly Master of England may have galloped in chase of the tall deer.
"He loved them as if he were their father," said W.V., glancing up at me with a laugh. "My history book says that. But it wasn't very nice to kill them if he loved them, was it, father?"
We turned down the new road they are making. It runs quite into the fields for some distance, and then goes sharp to the right. A pleasant smell of hay was blowing up the road, and when we reached the angle we saw two old stacks and the beginning of a new one; and the next field had been mown and was dotted with haycocks.
On the half-finished road a steam roller stood, with its tarpaulin drawn over it for the night. In the field, along the wooden fence, some loads of dross had been shot between the haycocks; lengths of sod had been stripped off the soil and thrown in a heap, and planks had been laid down for the wheelbarrows. A rake, which some haymaker had left, stood planted in the ground, teeth uppermost; beside it a labourer's barrow lay overturned. A few yards away a thick elderberry bush was growing dim in the twilight, and its bunches of blossom looked curiously white and spectral.
I think even W.V. felt it strange to see this new road so brusquely invading the ancient fields. I looked across the frank natural acres (as if they were a sort of wild creature), stretching away with their hedgerows and old trees to the blue outline of the hills on the horizon, and wondered how much longer one might see the rose-red of sunset showing through interlaced branches, or dark knots of coppice silhouetted against the grey-green breadths of tranquil twilight.
When we went a little further we caught sight among the trees of some out-buildings of the farm. What a lost, pathetic look they had!
Thinking of the stories in my book, it seemed to me that the scene before me was a figure of the change which took place when the life we know invaded and absorbed the strange mediaeval life which we know no longer, and which it is now so difficult to realise.
Slowly the afterglow faded; when you looked carefully for a star, here and there a little speck of gold could be found in the heavens; the birds were all in their nests, head under wing; white and grey moths were beginning to flutter to and fro.
Suddenly over the fields the sound of church-bells floated to us.
"Is that the Angelus, father?" asked W.V.
"No, dear; I think it must be the ringers practising."
"If it had been the Angelus, would St. Francis have stood still to say the prayer?"
"I think he would have knelt down to say it. That would be more like St. Francis."
"And would William the Conqueror?"
"Why, no; I fancy he would have taken it for the curfew bell."
"They do still ring the curfew bell in some places, don't they, father?"
"Oh yes; in several places; but, of course, they don't cover up their fires."
"I like to hear of those old bells; don't you, father?"
As we reached the end of the new road we saw the man lighting the lamp there; and we watched him going quickly from one post to another, leaving a little flower of fire wherever he stopped. All was very quiet, and, as he went down the street, we could hear the sound of his footsteps growing fainter and fainter in the distance. All our streets, you must know, are lined with trees, trees both in the gardens and on the side-walks, and the lamps glittered among the leaves and branches like so many stars. When we passed under them we noticed how the light tinged the foliage that was nearest with a greenish ash-colour, almost like the undersides of aspen-leaves.
"Isn't it just like a fairy village?" asked W.V.
On our way down our own street I pointed silently to the Forest. High over the billowy outline of the darkened tree-tops the church of the Oak-men was clear against the weather-gleam. W.V. nodded: "I expect all the Oak boys and girls have said, 'God bless this house from thatch to floor,' and gone to bed long ago." Since she heard the story of the Guardians of the Door, that has been her own favourite prayer at bed-time.
Thinking of the lighting of the lamps after she had been safely tucked in, I tried to make her a little song about it. I don't think she will like it as much as she liked the actual lighting of the lamps, but in years to come it may remind her of that delightful spectacle.
From Lamp to lamp, from street to street,
He speeds with faintlier echoing feet.
A pause—a glint of light!
And, lamp by lamp, with stars he marks his round.
So Love, when least of Love we dream,
Comes in the dusk with magic gleam.
A pause—a touch—so slight!
And life with clear celestial lights is crowned.