The Seven Years of Seeking
H ere begins the chapter of the Seven Years of Seeking.
For, trying greatly to win sight of that blessed isle, the Earthly Paradise, the monk Serapion and his eleven companions hoisted sail; and for seven years they continued in that seeking, wandering with little respite under cloud and star, in all the ways of the sea of ocean which goeth round the world.
[Now this chapter was read of evenings in the refectory at supper, in the winter of the Great Snow. While the drifts without lay fathom-deep in sheltered places, and the snow was settling on the weather-side of things in long slopes like white pent-houses, the community listened with rapt attention, picturing to themselves the slanting ship and the red sail of skins with its yellow cross in the midst, and the marvellous vision of vast waters, and the strange islands. Then suddenly the Prior would strike the table, and according to the custom the reader would close his book with the words, "Tu autem, Domine—But do Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us!" and the monks rise, with interest still keen in the wanderings of the Seafarers.
Seeing that it would be of little profit to break up the reading as the Prior was wont to break it up, I will give the story here without pause or hindrance, as though it had all been read in a single evening at supper, and keep my "Tu autem" for the end of all. And truly it is at the end of all that most there is need of that prayer. So without more ado.]
Serapion and his companions were, all save one, monks of the Abbey of the Holy Face. Not the first Abbey of that name, in the warm green woods in the western creek of Broce-Liande, but the second, which is nearer to the sunrise. For the site of the first Abbey was most delightful, and so sheltered from the weary wind of the west, and so open to the radiance of the morning, that, save it were Paradise, no man could come at a place so gracious and delectable. There earliest broke the land into leaf and blossom; and there the leaf was last to fall; and there one could not die, not even the very aged. Wherefore, in order that the long years of their pilgrimage might be shortened, the brethren prevailed on the Abbot to remove to another site, nearer the spring of the day; and in this new house, one by one in due season, they were caught up to the repose of the heavens, the aged fathers dying first, as is seemly.
This then was the second Abbey of the Holy Face, and its pleasant woods ran down to the shore of the sea. And going east or going west, where the green billow shades into blue water, the ships of the mariners kept passing and repassing day after day; and their sails seemed to cast an enchanted shadow across the cloister; and the monks, as they watched them leaning over to the breeze, dreamed of the wondrous Garden of Eden, which had not been swallowed up by the Deluge, but had been saved as an isle inviolate amid the fountains of the great deep; and they asked each other whether not one of all these sea-farers would ever bring back a fruit or a flower or a leaf from the arbours of delight in which our first parents had dwelt. They spoke of the voyage of Brendan the Saint, and of the exceeding loveliness of the Earthly Paradise, and of the deep bliss of breathing its air celestial, till it needed little to set many of them off on a like perilous adventure.
Of all the brethren Serapion was the most eager to begin that seeking. And this was what brought him to it at last.
There came to the Abbey on a day in spring that youthful Bishop of Arimathea who in after time made such great fame in the world. Tall and stately was he, and black-bearded; a guest pleasant and wise, and ripe with the experience of distant travel and converse with many chief men. Now he was on his way to the great house of Glastonbury oversea, to bring back with him, if he might be so fortunate, the body of the saint of his city who had helped our Lord to bear His cross on the Way Dolorous; or, if that were an issue beyond his skill, at least some precious memorial of that saint.
Many things worthy of remembrance he told of what he had seen and heard; and no small marvel did it seem to speak with one who had stood on Mount Sinai in the wilderness. From the top of that mountain, he said, one looked down on a region stretching to the Red Sea, and in the midst of the plain there is a monastery of saintly recluses, but no man can discover any track that leads to it. Faint and far away the bells are heard tolling for prime, it may be, or vespers, and it is believed that now and again some weary traveller has reached it, but no one has ever returned. The Ishmaelites, who dwell in the wilderness, have ridden long in search of it, guided by the sound of the bells, but never have they succeeded in catching a gleam of its white walls among the palm-trees, nor yet of the green palms. The Abbot of that house, it is said, is none other than the little child whom our Lord set in the midst of His Disciples, saying, "Except ye become as little children," and he will abide on the earth till our Lord's return, and then shall he enter into the kingdom with Him, without tasting death.
Speaking of the holy places, Calvary, it might be, or the Garden of Olives and the sepulchre of the Lord, and of the pilgrims who visited these, he repeated to us the saying of the saintly Father Hieronymus: "To live in Jerusalem is not a very holy thing, but to live a holy life in Jerusalem." And walking with many of our brethren on the shore of the sea and seeing the sails of the ships as they went by, he questioned us of the wonders of the great waters, and of sea-faring, and of the last edge of the living earth, and he said: "Tell me, you who abide within sight of so many ships, and who hear continually the song of the great creature Sea, how would it fare with one who should sail westward and keep that one course constantly?"
We said that we knew not; it were like he would perish of famine or thirst, or be whelmed in the deep. "Ay," he said, "but if he were well provisioned, with no lack of food and water, and the weather held fair?"
That we could not answer, for it seemed to us that such a one would lose heart and hope in the roofless waste, with never a stone or tree, nor any shadow save a cloud's, and turn back dismayed; but Serapion replied: "To me it appears, your Discretion, that so bold a mariner, if years failed him not, might win to the Earthly Paradise."
"So have I heard," said the Bishop. "Yet here would you be sailing into the west, and for a certainty the Paradise of God was in the east. How would you give a reasonable account of this?"
But we could make no reply, for we knew not; nor Serapion more than we.
"Now, watching the sea," said the Bishop, "you have marked the ships, how they go. When they come to you, they first show the mast-top, then the sail, and last the body of the ship, and perchance the sweep of the oars; reverse-wise when they depart from you, you first fail to see the body of the ship, and then the sail, but longest you hold in sight the mast-top, or it may be a bright streamer flying therefrom, or a cross glittering in the light—though these be but small things compared with the body of the ship. Is it not so?"
We answered, readily enough, that so it was.
"Is it not then even as though one were to watch a wayfarer on horse-back, going or coming over the green bulge of a low hill? Were he coming to you, you would first see the head of the rider, and last the legs of the horse, and were he riding away the horse would first go down over the hill, but still, for a little, you would see the man waving his hand in farewell as he sank lower and lower."
Such indeed, we said, was the fashion of a ship's coming and going.
"Does it not then seem a likely thing," said his Discretion, "that the sea is in the nature of a long low hill, down which the ships go? So have I heard it surmised by wise men, sages and scholars of the lights of heaven, in the cities of Greece and Egypt. For the earth and the ocean-sea, they teach, is fashioned as a vast globe in the heights of heaven. And truly, if indeed it be the shadow of the world which darkens the face of the moon in time of eclipse, the earth may well be round, for that shadow is round. Thus, then, one holding ever a westward course might sail down the bulge of the sea, and under the world, and round about even unto the east, if there be sea-way all along that course."
Silently we listened to so strange a matter, but the Bishop traced for us on the sand a figure of the earth. "And here," said he, "is this land of ours, and here the sea, and here the bulge of ocean, and here a ship sailing westward; and here in the east is the Earthly Paradise; and mark now how the ship fareth onward ever on the one course unchanged, till it cometh to that blessed place."
Truly this was a wondrous teaching; and when we questioned how they who sailed could escape falling out and perishing, they and indeed their ship, when they came so far down the round sea that they hung heads nethermost, his Discretion laughed: "Nay, if the sea, which the wind breaketh and lifteth and bloweth about in grey showers, fall not out, neither will the ship, nor yet the mariners; for the Lord God hath so ordered it that wheresoever mariners be, there the sea shall seem to them no less flat than a great grass-meadow when the wind swings the grass; and if they hang head downward they know not of it; but rather, seeing over them the sun and the clouds, they might well pity our evil case, deeming it was we who were hanging heads nethermost."
Now this and suchlike converse with the Bishop so moved Serapion that he lost the quietude of soul and the deep gladness of heart which are the portion of the cloister. Day and night his thought was flying under sail across the sea towards the Earthly Paradise, and others there were who were of one longing with him. Wherefore at last they prayed leave of the Abbot to build a ship and to try the venture.
The Abbot consented, but when they besought him to go with them and to lead them, he shook his head smiling, and answered: "Nay, children, I am an aged man, little fitted for such a labour. Wiser is it for me to lean my staff against my fig-tree, and have in mind the eternal years. Moreover, as you know, many are the sons in this house who look to me for fatherly care. But if it be your wish, one shall go with you to be the twelfth of your company. In hours of peril and perplexity and need, if such should befall you, you shall bid him pray earnestly, and after he has prayed, heed what he shall say, even as you would heed the words of your Abbot. No better Abbot and counsellor could you have, for he hath still preserved his baptismal innocence. It is Ambrose, the little chorister."
Serapion and the others wondered at this, but readily they accepted the Abbot's choice of a companion.
Think now of the ship as built—a goodly ship of stout timber frame covered two-ply with hides seasoned and sea-worthy, well found in provisions against a long voyage, fitted with sturdy mast of pine and broad sail. And think of the Mass as sung, with special prayer to Him who is the confidence of them that are afar off upon the sea. And think of the leave-taking and blessing as over and done, and of the Sea-farers as all aboard, eleven brethren and Ambrose the chorister, a little lad of nine summers.
Now all is cast loose, and the red sail is drawn up the mast and set puffing, and the ship goes out, dipping and springing, into the deep. On the shore the religious stand watching; and Serapion is at the rudder, steering and glancing back; and the others aboard are waving hands landward; and on a thwart beside the mast stands the little lad, and at a sign from Serapion he lifts up his clear sweet voice, singing joyfully the Kyrie eleison of the Litany. The eleven join in the glad song, and it is caught up by the voices of those on shore, as though it were by an organ; and as he sings the lad Ambrose watches the white ruffled wake-water of the ship, how it streams between the unbroken green sea on either hand, and it seems to him most like the running of a shallow brook when it goes ruffling over the pebbles in the greenwood.
To those on ship and to those on shore the song of each grew a fainter hearing as the distance widened; and the magnitude of the ship lessened; and first the hull went down the bulge of the ocean, and next the sail; and long ere it was sunset all trace of the Sea-farers had vanished away.
Now is this company of twelve gone forth into the great waters; far from the beloved house of the Holy Face are they gone, and far from the blithesome green aspect of the good earth; and no man of them knoweth what bane or blessing is in store for him, or whether he shall ever again tread on grass or ground. A little tearfully they think of their dear cloister-mates, but they are high of heart nothing the less. Their ship is their garth, and cloister, and choir, wherein they praise God with full voices through all the hours from matins to compline.
Of the bright weather and fresh wind which carried them westward many days it would be tedious to tell, and indeed little that was strange did they see at that time, save it were a small bird flying high athwart their course, and a tree, with its branches and green leaves unlopped, which lay in the swing of the wave; but whither and whence the bird was flying, or where that tree grew in soil, they could not guess.
Of what happened to them in the course of their seeking, even of that the telling must be brief, flitting from one event to another, even as the small Peter-bird flits from the top of one wave to the top of another, nor wets foot or feather in the marbled sea between; else would the story of the seeking linger out the full seven years of the seeking.
The first trial that befell them was dense wintry fog, in the dusk of which they lay with lowered sail on a sullen sea for a day and a night. When the change came, it brought with it the blowing of a fierce gale with a plague of sleet and hail-stones, and they were chased out of the fog, and driven far into the south.
Great billows followed them as they ran, and broke about the stern of the ship in fountains of freezing spray which drenched them to the skin. Little ease had they in their sea-faring in that long race with the north wind, for every moment they looked to have the mast torn up by the root and the frame-work of the ship broken asunder. The salt surf quenched their fire and mingled their bread with bitterness.
Aching they were and weary, and sorrowful enough to sleep, when the tempest abated, and the sun returned, and the sea rolled in long glassy swells.
As the sun blazed out, and the sea glittered over all his trackless ways, Serapion said to the chorister: "Ha, little brother, 'tis good, is it not? to see the bright sun once more. His face is as the face of an Angel to us."
The lad looked at him curiously, but made no answer. "Art thou ailing, or sad, or home-sick, little one, that thou hast nought to say?" asked Serapion.
"Nay, father, I was but thinking of thy words, that the face of the sun is as the face of an Angel."
"Ay! And is it not so?"
"Nay, father. When I have seen the sun at sunrise and at sunset I have ever seen a ring of splendid Angels, and in the midst of the ring the snow-white Lamb with his red cross, and the Angels were moving constantly around the Lamb, joyfully glittering; and that was the sun. But as it rose into the heavens the Angels dazzled mine eyes so that I could see them no more, nor yet the Lamb, for very brightness. Is the sun then otherwise than what I see?"
Then was it Serapion's turn to muse, and he answered: "To thy young eyes which be clear and strong—yet try them not overmuch—it is doubtless as thou sayest; but we who are older have lost the piercing sight, and to us the sun is but a great and wonderful splendour which dazzles us before we can descry either the Angels or the Lamb."
Meanwhile the Sea-farers ate and drank and spread their raiment to dry, and some were oppressed by the memory of the hardships they had endured; but Serapion, going among them, cheered them with talk of the Earthly Paradise, and of the joy it would be, when they had won thither, to think of the evil chances through which they had passed. In a low tone he also spoke to them of their small companion and his vision of the sun.
"Truly," he said, "it is as our Father Abbot told us—he has not lost his baptismal innocence, nor hath he lost all knowledge of the heaven from which he came."
As he was speaking thus, one of the brethren rose up with a cry, and, shading his eyes with his hand, pointed into the west. Far away in the shimmer of the sea and the clouds they perceived an outline of land, and they changed their course a little to come to it. The wind carried them bravely on, and they began to distinguish blue rounded hills and ridges, and a little later green woodland, and still later, on the edge of twilight, the white gleam of waters, and glimpses of open lawns tinged with the colour of grasses in flower. With beating hearts they leaned on the low bulwark of the ship, drinking in the beauty of the island.
Then out of a leafy creek shot a boat of white and gold; and though it was far off, the air was so crystalline that they saw it was garlanded with fresh leaves, and red and yellow and blue blossoms; and in it there were many lovely forms, clothed in white and crowned with wreaths rose-coloured and golden.
When the Sea-farers perceived that the boat glided towards them without sail or oar, they said among them-selves, "These are assuredly the spirits of the Blessed;" and when suddenly the boat paused in its course, and the islanders began a sweet song, and the brethren caught the words and knew them for Latin, they were fain to believe that they had, by special grace and after brief tribulations, got within sight of the shore they sought.
The song was one of a longing for peace and deep sleep and dreamful joy and love in the valleys of the isle; and it bade the Sea-farers come to them, and take repose after cold and hunger and toil on the sea. Tears of gladness ran down the cheeks of several of the Seekers as they listened, and one of them cried aloud: "O brothers, we have come far, but it is worth the danger and the suffering to hear this welcome of the Blessed."
Now the small chorister, who was standing by Serapion at the helm, touched the father's sleeve, and asked in a low voice: "Have I leave to sing in answer?"
"Sing, little son," Serapion replied.
Then, ringing the blessed bell of the Sea-farers, the child intoned the evening hymn:
Before the waning of the light.
The instant his fresh young voice was heard singing that holy hymn, the flower-garlands about the boat broke into ghastly flames, and wreathed it with a dreadful burning; and the radiant figures were changed into dark shapes crowned with fire; and the song of longing and love became a wailing and gnashing of teeth. The island vanished away in rolling smoke; and the boat burned down like a darkening ember; and the Sea-farers in their ship were once more alone in the wilderness of waters.
Long they prayed that night, praising God that they had escaped the snares and enchantments of the fiends. And Serapion, drawing the lad to him, kissed him, saying: "God be with thee, little brother, in thy uprising and thy down-lying! God be with thee, little son!"
After this they were again driven into the south for many a day, and saw no earthly shore, but everywhere unending waters. A great wonderment to them was this immensity of the sea of ocean, wherein the land seemed a little thing lost for ever. And ever as they drove onward, the pilot star of the north was steadfast no longer, but sank lower and still lower in the heavens, and many of the everlasting lights, which at home they had seen swing round it through the livelong night, were now sunken, as it were, in the billows.
"Truly," said Serapion, "it is even as his Discretion the Bishop told us; whether east we sail or west, or cross-wise north and south, the earth is of the figure of a ball. In a little while it may be that we shall see the pilot star no more;" and he was sorely troubled in his mind as to how they should steer thereafter with no beacon in heaven to guide them, and how they would make their way back to the Abbey of the Holy Face.
In their wandering they set eyes on a thing well-nigh incredible—nothing less than fishes rising from the depths of the sea, and flying like birds over the ship, and diving into the sea again, and yet again rising into the air and disporting themselves in the sun. At night, too, they beheld about the ship trails of fire in the sea, crossing and re-crossing each other, and the fire marked the ways of huge blue fishes, swift and terrible; and the Sea-farers prayed that these malignant searchers of the deep might not rise into the air and fall ravening upon them while they slept. In the darkness strange patches and tangles of light, blue and golden and emerald, floated past them, and these they discovered were living creatures to which they could give no names. Often also the sea was alive with fire, which flashed and ran along the ridges of the waves when they curled and broke, and many a night the sides of the ship were washed with flame, but this fire was wet and cold, and nowise hurt a hand of those who touched it.
At last on a clear morning the little chorister came hastily to Serapion and said: "Look, father, is not yon a glimmer of the heavenly land we seek?"
"Nay, little son, it is but grey cloud that has not yet caught the sun," replied Serapion.
"That, indeed, is cloud; but look higher, father. See how white and sharp it shines!"
Then Serapion lifted up his eyes above the cloud, and in mid heaven there floated as it were a great rock of pointed crystal, white and unearthly. Serapion's eyes brightened with eagerness, and the Sea-farers gazed long at the peak, which rather seemed a star, or a headland on some celestial shore, so bright and dreamlike was it and so magically poised in the high air.
All day they sailed towards it, and sometimes it vanished from their view, but it returned constantly. On the third day they came to that land. Bright and beautiful it was to their sea-wearied eyes; and of a surety no land is there that goes so nearly to heaven. For it rose in green and flowery heights till it was lost in a ring of dusky sea-cloud; and through this vast ring of cloud it pierced its way, and the Sea-farers saw it emerge and stand clear above the cloud, bluish with the distance. And higher still it rose, and entered a second great cloud-ring, but this ring was white; and once more it emerged from the cloud-ring, and high over all towered the pyramid of shining stone.
"Well might it be that Angels often alight on this soaring mountain," said Serapion, "and leave it glittering with their footprints. If life and strength be given us, thither we also shall climb, and praise God in the lofty places of the earth which He has made."
They steered the ship into a sunny bay, and Serapion having blessed the sea and the shore, they landed right joyfully. Drawing the ship high on the beach, they chose a little grove of palm-trees beside a shallow stream for their church and cloister; but they had not been long in that spot before they saw the islanders gliding through the wood and peering out at them in great amaze. Serapion went forth to them, smiling and beckoning them to approach, but they fled and would not abide his coming. So Serapion returned, and the Sea-farers made themselves such a home as they might, and rested a little from their toiling.
When the day had come to evening, and the brethren were chanting vespers, the islanders returned, many hundreds of them, men and women, dusky of skin but comely and bright-eyed, and for all their raiment they wore garlands of blossoms and girdles of woven leaves. Close they came to the Sea-farers, and gazed at them, and the boldest touched them, as though to assure themselves that these were living mortals like unto themselves. But when they saw the little chorister, with his fair white face and childish blue eyes and sunny hair, they turned to each other with exclamations and uncouth gestures of pleasure and wonderment. Then they hurried away and brought strange and delightful fruit—berries, and fruit in a skin yellow and curved like a sickle moon, and big nuts full of water sweet and cool, and these they laid before the lad. Wreaths of flowers, too, they wove for him, and put them on his head and about his neck, as though they were rejoiced to see him and could not make too much of him. The brethren were light of heart that they had come to an isle so gracious and a folk so simple and loving.
Sleep, sweet as dews of Paradise, fell upon their weariness that night, and they rose refreshed and glad for matins, which they chanted by the light of large and radiant stars flashing down through the palms. What happened that day, however, the Sea-farers did not wholly understand till long afterwards, when they had learned the speech of the people; but out of their later knowledge I shall here make it plain.
Now in the olden time the mighty mountain of this island had been a burning mountain, and even now, in a huge craggy cup beneath the glittering peak, there was a vast well of fire and molten rock; and the peak and well were the lair of an evil spirit so strong and terrible that each year the island folk gave him a child to appease him, lest in his malignant mood he should let the well overflow and consume them with its waters of fire.
Wherefore, as this was the season of the sacrifice, the islanders seeing the little chorister, how fair and beautiful he was, deemed he would be a more acceptable offering to the spirit of evil than one of their children, whom they were heart-sick of slaying. On this day, therefore, they came at dawn, and with many gestures and much strange speech led away the lad, and with gentle force kept the brethren apart from him, though they suffered them to follow.
In a little while the child was clothed with flowers and leaves like one of themselves, and in the midst of a great crowd singing a barbarous strain, he was borne on a litter of boughs up the ascent of the mountain. Many times they paused and rested in the heat, and the day was far spent when they reached the foot of the lofty peak. There they passed the night, but though the brethren strove to force their way to the lad, they were restrained by the strength of the multitude, and they knew that violence was useless. Again in the twilight before dawn the islanders resumed the journey and came to the edge of the craggy cup, in the depths of which bubbled the well of fire.
Silently they stood on the brink, looking towards the east; but the Sea-farers, who now deemed only too well that their little brother was about to be sacrificed to Moloch, cast themselves on their knees, and with tears running down their faces, raised their hands in supplication to heaven. But with a loud voice Serapion cried: "Fear not, dear son; for the Lord can save thee from the mouth of the lion, and hear thee from the horns of the unicorns." The little chorister answered: "Pray for my soul, Father Serapion; for my body I have no fear, even though they cast me into the pit."
In the streaming east the rays of light were springing ever more brilliantly over the clear sea; two strong men held the lad and lifted him from the ground; an aged islander—a priest, it seemed, of that evil spirit—white-haired and crowned with flowers, watched the sky with dull eyes; and as the sun came up with a rush of splendour, he called aloud: "God of the mountain-fire, take this life we give thee, and be good and friendly to us."
Then was little Ambrose the chorister swung twice to and fro, and hurled far out into the rocky cup of the well or fire. And a wild cry arose from the crowd: "Take this life, take this life!"—but even as that cry was being uttered the lad was stayed in his fall, and he stood on the air over the fiery well, as though the air had been turned to solid crystal, and he ran on the air across the abyss to the brethren, and Serapion caught him in his arms and folded him to his breast.
Then fell a deep stillness and dread upon the people, and what to do they knew not; but the aged priest and the strong men who had flung the boy into the gulf came to the brethren, and casting themselves on their faces before the chorister, placed his foot on their heads. Wherefore Serapion surmised that they now took him for a youthful god or spirit more powerful than the evil spirit of the fire. Touching them, he signed to them to arise, and when they stood erect he pointed to the abyss, and gathering a handful of dust he threw it despitefully into the well of fire, and afterwards spat into the depths. This show of scorn and contumely greatly overawed the people, and (as was made known afterwards) they looked on the Sea-farers as strong gods, merciful and much to be loved.
Thrice did the Sea-farers hold Easter in that island, for there they resolved to stay till they had learned the island speech, and freed the people from the bondage of demons, and taught them the worship of the one God who is in the heavens.
Now though the wind blew with an icy mouth on that high peak, in the rocks of the crater it was sheltered, and warm because of the inner fires of the mountain. So it was ordered that in turn one brother should abide on the peak, and one in a cave midway down the mountain, and one on the slopes where the palms and orange-trees are rooted among the white-flowered sweet-scented broom. And each of these had a great trumpet of bark, and when the first ray of light streamed out of the east in the new day, the brother of the peak cried through his trumpet with a mighty voice:
And the brother of the cave, having responded,
cried mightily to the brother of the palms, "May Christ Jesus be praised!"—and thus from the heights in the heavens to the shore of the sea. So, too, when the last light of the setting sun burned out on the western billows.
Thus was the reign of the spirit of evil abolished, and the mountain consecrated to the praise of Him who made the hills and the isles of the sea.
In the strong light of the morning sun the shadow of that mountain is cast over the great sea of ocean further than a swift ship may sail with a fair wind in two days and two nights; and a man placed on the peak shall see that shadow suddenly rise up from the sea and stand over against the mountain, dark and menaceful, like the lost soul of a mountain bearing testimony against its body before the judgment-seat of God; and this is a very awful sight.
Now, having preached the Gospel, the Sea-farers strengthened their ship and launched into the deep after the third Eastertide, and having comforted the people, because they were grieved and mournful at their departure, they left them in the keeping of the risen Lord, and continued their seeking.
After this Brother Benedict, the oldest monk of their company, fell ill with grievous sickness, and sorely the Sea-farers longed for some shore where he might feel the good earth solid and at rest beneath him, and see the green of growing things, and have the comfort of stillness and silence.
With astonishing patience he bore his malady, at no time repining, and speaking never a word of complaint. When he was asked if he repented him of the adventure, he smiled gently. "Fain, indeed," he said, "would I be laid to rest beneath the grass of our own garth, where the dear brethren, passing and repassing in the cloister, might look where I lay and say an 'Our Father' for my soul. Yet in no way do I repent of our sailing, for we have seen the marvellous works of God; and if the Lord vouchsafe to be merciful to me, it may be that I shall see the Heavenly Paradise before you find the Earthly." "God grant it, dear brother," said Serapion.
On an afternoon they came to a small island walled about with high cliffs, red and brown, and at the foot of the cliffs a narrow beach of ruddy sand; but on the rocks grew no green thing, lichen or moss or grass or shrub, and no sweet water came bickering down into the sea.
On landing they discovered a gully in the cliffs which led inland, and straightway explorers were sent to spy what manner of land it was whereon they had fallen. Within the very mouth of the narrow pass they came upon a small ship hollowed out of a tree gigantic, but it was rotten and dry as touchwood, and wasting into dust. Within the ship lay the bones of a man, stretched out as though he had died in sleep. Outside the ship lay the bones of two others. The faces of these were turned downward to the stones whereon they lay, but the man in the ship had perished with his eyes fixed on the heavens. The oars and sails and ropes were all dry and crumbling, and the raiment of the men had mouldered away.
In the length of that narrow pass between the lofty cliff walls the Sea-farers found no vestige of grass or weed, either on the cliff-sides or on the stones and shingle. Neither was there any water, save where in the hollows of some of the boulders rain had lodged and had not yet been drunk up by the sun. No living creature, great or small, lived in that ghyll.
Within the round of the sea-walls the island lay flat and low, and it was one bleak waste of boulder and shingle, lifeless and waterless save for the rain in the pitted surfaces of the stones; but in the midst of the waste there stood, dead and leafless, a vast gaunt tree, which at one time must have been a goodly show. When the Sea-farers reached it, they found lying on the dead turf about its roots the white bones of yet four other men.
Much they questioned and conjectured whence these ill-starred wanderers had come to lay their bones on so uncharitable a soil, and whether they had perished in seeking, like themselves, for the Earthly Paradise. "What," sighed one, "if this were the Earthly Paradise, and yon the Tree of Life!" But the others murmured and would not have it so.
Yet to the sick man even this Isle of the Stones of Emptiness was a place of rest and respite from the sea,—"It is still mother-earth," he said, "though the mother be grown very old and there be no flesh left on her bones"—and at first it seemed as though he was recovering in the motionless stillness and in the great shadow of the cliffs. Something of this Serapion said to the little chorister, but the lad answered: "Nay, father, do you not see how the man that used to look out of his eyes has become a very little child—and of such is the kingdom of heaven?"
"Explain, little brother," said Serapion.
"Why," said the lad, "is it not thus with men when they grow so old or sick that they be like to die—does one not see that the real selves within them look out of window with faces grown younger and smaller and more joyous, till it may be that what was once a strong man, wise and great, is but a babbling babe which can scarce walk at all?"
"Who told thee these things?" asked Serapion.
"No one has told me," replied the lad, "but seeing the little children thus gazing out, and knowing that all who would enter into heaven must become as they are, I thought it must needs be in this manner that people change and pass away to God when the ending of life is come."
On this isle the Sea-farers kept a Christmas, and they made such cheer as they might at that blessed time, speaking of the stony fields wherein the Shepherds lay about their flocks, but no fields were ever so stony as these which were littered with stones fathom-deep, with never a grain of earth or blade of grass between. And in this isle it was that Brother Benedict died, very peaceful, and without pain at the close. On the feast of the Three Kings that poor monk was privileged even more than those Kings had been, for not only was the Babe of Heaven made manifest to him, but his soul, a little child, went forth from him to be with that benign Babe for evermore. Under the dead tree the Sea-farers buried him, and on the trunk of the tree they fastened a crucifix on the side on which he reposed.
The bones, too, of the dead men they gathered together and covered with stones in a hollow which they made.
So they left the island, marvelling whence all those stones had come, and how they had been rained many and deep on that one place. Said one, "It may be that these are the stones wherewith our Lord and the prophets and the blessed martyrs were stoned, laid up as in a treasury to bear witness on the day of doom." "It may be," said another, "that these are the stones which Satan, tempting the Lord, bade Him turn into bread, and therefore are they kept for an evidence against the tempter." "Peradventure these be the stony places," said another, "whereon the good seed fell and perished in its first upspringing, and so they be kept for the admonishment of rash Sea-farers and such as have no long continuance in well-doing." But no man among them was satisfied as to the mystery of that strange isle.
On many other shores they set foot. Most were fruitful and friendly; and they rested from their seeking, and repaired the ship, and took in such stores as they might gather during their sojourn. Though often it befell that while they were still afar the wind wafted them the fragrance of rare spices so that their eyes brightened and their faces reddened with joyful anticipation, yet ever when they landed they found that not yet, not yet had they reached the island garden of their quest. Men, too, of the same fashion as themselves they met with on shores far apart, but strange were these of aspect and speech and manner of life. With them they tarried as long as they might, gaining some knowledge of their tongue, and revealing to them the true God and the Lord crucified.
In the latter time of their sea-faring they were blown far over the northern side of the great sea, in such wise that the pilot star burned well-nigh overhead in the heavens. Here they descried tall islands of glittering rock, white and blue, crowned with minsters and castles and abbeys of glass, but they heard no sound of bells or of men's voices or of the stir of life.
Once as they were swept along in near peril of wreck, through flying sea-smoke and plagues of hail, they heard a strange unearthly music rising and falling in the blast. Some said it was Angels sent to strengthen them; others said it was wild birds which they had seen flying past in flocks; but Serapion said, "If it be Angels, blessed be God; if it be birds, yet even they are God's Angels, lessoning us how we shall praise Him, and sing Him a new song from the ends of the earth." Then he raised his voice, singing the psalm
Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise Him in the heights,
and the Sea-farers sang it with earnest voices and with hearts lifted up, and they were greatly encouraged.
It was in these latitudes stormy and cold that, to their thinking, the Sea-farers won nearest to the Earthly Paradise. For, far in the sides of the north as, in the red sunlight, they coasted a lofty land white with snow-fields and blue with glacier ice, they entered a winding fjord, and found themselves in glassy water slumbering between green slopes of summer.
Down to the water's edge the shores were wooded with copses of dwarf birch and willow, and the slopes were radiant with wild flowers—harebell and yellow crowfoot, purple heath and pink azalea and starry saxifrage. A rosy light tinged the snow on the wintry heights; and over the edge of a cliff, far up the fjord, a glacier hung, and from beneath the ice a jet of water burst forth and fell foaming down the precipice to the shore. When they landed they found the ground covered thick with berries dark and luscious, and while they gathered these, a black and white snow-bunting flitted about them on its long wings.
A miraculous thing was this garden of summer in the icy bosom of winter, but a greater marvel still was the undying sunshine on sea and shore.
"In very truth," said Serapion, "of all places we have yet seen is not this most like to have been the blessed land, for is not even 'the night light about us,' and is it not with us as it is written of the Heavenly Jerusalem, 'there shall be no night there'?"
The Sea-farers took away with them many of the leaves and flowers of this country, and afterwards the scribes in the Scriptorium copied them in beautiful colours in the Golden Missal of the Abbey.
This was the last of the unknown shores visited by the Sea-farers. Seven years had they pursued their seeking, and there now grew on them so strong a craving for home that they could gainsay it no longer. Wherefore it fell out that in the autumn-tide, when the stubble is brown in the fields and the apple red on the bough; on the last day of the week, when toil comes to end; in the last light of the day, when the smoke curls up from the roof, they won their long sea-way home.
O beloved Abbey of the Holy Face, through tears they beheld thy walls, with rapture they kissed thy threshold!
"In all the great sea of ocean," said Serapion, when he had told the story of their wandering, "no such Earthly Paradise have we seen as this dear Abbey of our own!"
"Dear brethren," said the Abbot, "the seven years of your seeking have not been wasted if you have truly learned so much. Far from home have I never gone, but many things have come to me. To be ever, and to be tranquilly, and to be joyously, and to be strenuously, and to be thankfully and humbly at one with the blessed will of God—that is the Heavenly Paradise; and each of us, by God's grace, may have that within him. And whoso hath within him the Heavenly Paradise, hath here and now, and at all times and in every place, the true Earthly Paradise round about him."
Here ends the chapter of the Seven Years of Seeking.
["But do Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us," chanted the Lector, as he closed the book. And the Prior struck the board, and the brethren arose and returned God thanks for the creatures of food and drink, and for that Earthly Paradise, ever at their door, of tranquil and joyous and strenuous and thankful and humble acceptance of God's will.]