I crossed the plain of Esdraelon and entered amongst the hills of beautiful Galilee. It was at sunset that my path brought me sharply round into the gorge of a little valley, and close upon a grey mass of dwellings that lay happily nestled in the lap of the mountain. There was one only shining point still touched with the light of the sun, who had set for all besides; a brave sign this to "holy" Shereef and the rest of my Moslem men, for the one glittering summit was the head of a minaret, and the rest of the seeming village that had veiled itself so meekly under the shades of evening was Christian Nazareth!
Within the precincts of the Latin convent in which I was quartered there stands the great Catholic church which encloses the sanctuary, the dwelling of the blessed Virgin. This is a grotto of about ten feet either way, forming a little chapel or recess, to which you descend by steps. It is decorated with splendour. On the left hand a column of granite hangs from the top of the grotto to within a few feet of the ground; immediately beneath it is another column of the same size, which rises from the ground as if to meet the one above; but between this and the suspended pillar there is an interval of more than a foot; these fragments once formed a single column, against which the angel leant when he spoke and told to Mary the mystery of her awful blessedness. Hard by, near the altar, the holy Virgin was kneeling.
I had been journeying (cheerily indeed, for the voices of my followers were ever within my hearing, but yet), as it were, in solitude, for I had no comrade to whet the edge of my reason, or wake me from my noonday dreams. I was left all alone to be taught and swayed by the beautiful circumstances of Palestine travelling—by the clime, and the land, and the name of the land, with all its mighty import; by the glittering freshness of the sward, and the abounding masses of flowers that furnished my sumptuous pathway; by the bracing and fragrant air that seemed to poise me in my saddle, and to lift me along as a planet appointed to glide through space.
And the end of my journey was Nazareth, the home of the blessed Virgin! In the first dawn of my manhood the old painters of Italy had taught me their dangerous worship of the beauty that is more than mortal, but those images all seemed shadowy now, and floated before me so dimly, the one overcasting the other, that they left me no one sweet idol on which I could look and look again and say, "Maria mia!" Yet they left me more than an idol; they left me (for to them I am wont to trace it) a faint apprehension of beauty not compassed with lines and shadows; they touched me (forgive, proud Marie of Anjou!)—they touched me with a faith in loveliness transcending mortal shapes.
I came to Nazareth, and was led from the convent to the sanctuary. Long fasting will sometimes heat my brain and draw me away out of the world—will disturb my judgment, confuse my notions of right and wrong, and weaken my power of choosing the right: I had fasted perhaps too long, for I was fevered with the zeal of an insane devotion to the heavenly queen of Christendom. But I knew the feebleness of this gentle malady, and knew how easily my watchful reason, if ever so slightly provoked, would drag me back to life. Let there but come one chilling breath of the outer world, and all this loving piety would cower and fly before the sound of my own bitter laugh. And so as I went I trod tenderly, not looking to the right nor to the left, but bending my eyes to the ground.
The attending friar served me well; he led me down quietly and all but silently to the Virgin's home. The mystic air was so burnt with the consuming flames of the altar, and so laden with incense, that my chest laboured strongly, and heaved with luscious pain. There—there with beating heart the Virgin knelt and listened. I strived to grasp and hold with my riveted eyes some one of the feigned Madonnas, but of all the heaven-lit faces imagined by men there was none that would abide with me in this the very sanctuary. Impatient of vacancy, I grew madly strong against Nature, and if by some awful spell—some impious rite—I could—Oh most sweet Religion, that bid me fear God, and be pious, and yet not cease from loving! Religion and gracious custom commanded me that I fall down loyally and kiss the rock that blessed Mary pressed. With a half consciousness—with the semblance of a thrilling hope that I was plunging deep, deep into my first knowledge of some most holy mystery, or of some new rapturous and daring sin, I knelt, and bowed down my face till I met the smooth rock with my lips. One moment—one moment my heart, or some old pagan demon within me, woke up, and fiercely bounded; my bosom was lifted, and swung, as though I had touched her warm robe. One moment, one more, and then the fever had left me. I rose from my knees. I felt hopelessly sane. The mere world reappeared. My good old monk was there, dangling his key with listless patience, and as he guided me from the church, and talked of the refectory and the coming repast, I listened to his words with some attention and pleasure.