On Something
by H. Belloc
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I could wish, as I consider this, that the camera had played no such trick, and had not revealed in that haze of awful meaning all that lies beyond the nature of you, child. But it is a truth which is so revealed; and we may not, upon a penalty more terrible than death, neglect any ultimate truth concerning our mortal way.

Your feet, which now do not seem to press upon the lawn across which they run, have to go more miles than you can dream of, through more places than you could bear to hear, and they must be directed to a goal which will not in your very young delight be mentioned before you, or of which, if it is mentioned, you will not understand by name; and your little hands which you bear before you with the little gesture of flying things, will grasp most tightly that which can least remain and will attempt to fashion what can never be completed, and will caress that which will not respond to the caress. Your eyes, which are now so principally filled with innocence that that bright quality drowns all the rest, will look upon so much of deadly suffering and of misuse in men, that they will very early change themselves in kind; and all your face, which now vaguely remembers nothing but the early vision from which childhood proceeds, will grow drawn and self-guarded, and will suffer some agonies, a few despairs, innumerable fatigues, until it has become the face of a woman grown. Nor will this sacred doom about you, which is that of all mankind, cease or grow less or be mitigated in any way; it will increase as surely and as steadily as increase the number of the years, until at last you will lay down the daylight and the knowledge of day-lit things as gladly as now you wake from sleep to see them.

For you are sacred, and all those elders about you, whose solemn demeanour now and then startles you into a pretty perplexity which soon calls back their smiles, have hearts only quite different from your quite careless heart, because they have known the things to which, in the manner of victims, they are consecrated.

All that by which we painfully may earn rectitude and a proper balance in the conduct of our short affairs I must believe that you will practise; and I must believe, as I look here into your face, seeing your confident advance (as though you were flying out from your babyhood into young life without any fear), that the virtues which now surround you in a crowd and make a sort of court for you and are your angels every way, will go along with you and will stand by you to the end. Even so, and the more so, you will find (if you read this some years hence) how truly it is written. By contrast with your demeanour, with your immortal hopes, and with your pious efforts the world about you will seem darker and less secure with every passing harvest, and in proportion as you remember the childhood which has led me so to write of you, in proportion as you remember gladness and innocence with its completed joy, in that proportion will you find at least a breaking burden in the weight of this world.

Now you may say to me, little child (not now, but later on), to what purpose is all this complaint, and why should you tell me these things?

It is because in the portrait before me the holiness, the blessedness, and therefore the sacredness are apparent that I am writing as I do. For you must know that there is a false way out and a seeming relief for the rack of human affairs, and that this way is taken by many. Since you are sacred do not take it, but bear the burden. It is the character of whatever is sacred that it does not take that way; but, like a true victim, remains to the end, ready to complete the sacrifice.

The way out is to forget that one is sacred, and this men and women do in many ways. The most of them by way of treason. They betray. They break at first uneasily, later easily, and at last unconsciously, the word which each of us has passed before He was born in Paradise. All men and all women are conscious of that word, for though their lips cannot frame it here, and though the terms of the pledge are forgotten, the memory of its obligation fills the mind. But there comes a day, and that soon in the lives of many, when to break it once is to be much refreshed and to seem to drop the burden; and in the second and the third time it is done, and the fourth it is done more easily—until at last there is no more need for a man or a woman to break that pledged word again and once again; it is broken for good and for all. This is one most common way in which the sacred quality is lost: the way of treason. Round about such as choose this kind of relief grows a habit and an air of treason. They betray all things at last, and even common friendship is at last no longer theirs. The end of this false issue is despair.

Another way is to take refuge from ourselves in pleasures, and this is easily done, not by the worse, but by the better sort; for there are some, some few, who would never betray nor break their ancient word, but who, seeing no meaning in a sacrifice nor in a burden, escape from it through pleasure as through a drug, and this pleasure they find in all manner of things, and always that spirit near them which would destroy their sacred mark, persuades them that they are right, and that in such pursuits the sacrifice is evaded. So some will steep themselves in rhyme, some in landscapes, some in pictures, some in the watching of the complexity and change of things, some in music, some in action, some in mere ease. It seems as though the men and women who would thus forget their sacredness are better loved and better warned than those who take the other path, for they never forget certain gracious things which should be proper to the mind, nor do they lose their friends. But that they have taken a wrong path you may easily perceive from this sign: that these pleasures, like any other drug, do not feed or satisfy, but must be increased with every dose, and even so soon pall and are continued not because they are pleasures any longer, but because, dull though they have become, without them there is active pain.

Take neither the one path nor the other, but retain, I beseech you, when the time comes, that quality of sacredness of which I speak, for there is no alternative. Some trouble fell upon our race, and all of us must take upon ourselves the business and the burden. If you will attempt any way out at all it will but lead you to some worse thing. We have not all choices before us, but only one of very few, and each of those few choices is mortal, and all but one is evil.

You should remember this also, dear little child, that at the beginning— oh, only at the very beginning of life—even your reason that God gave may lead you wrong. For with those memories strong upon you of perfect will, of clear intelligence, and of harmonious beauty all about, you will believe the world in which you stand to be the world from which you have come and to which you are also destined. You have but to treat this world for but a very little while as though it were the thing you think it to find it is not so.

Do you know that that which smells most strongly in this life of immortality, and which a poet has called "the ultimate outpost of eternity," is insecure and perishes? I mean the passionate affection of early youth. If that does not remain, what then do you think can remain? I tell you that nothing which you take to be permanent round about you when you are very young is more than the symbol or clothes of permanence. Another poet has written, speaking of the chalk hills:—

Only a little while remain The Downs in their solemnity.

Nor is this saying forced. Men and women cannot attach themselves even to the hills where they first played.

Some men, wise but unillumined, and not conscious of that light which I here physically see shining all round and through you in the picture which is before my eyes as I write, have said that to die young and to end the business early was a great blessing. We do not know. But we do know that to die long after and to have gone through the business must be blessed, since blessedness and holiness and sacredness are bound together in one.

But, of these three, be certain that sacredness is your chief business, blessedness after your first childhood you will never know, and holiness you may only see as men see distant mountains lifted beyond a plain; it cannot be your habitation. Sacredness, which is the mark of that purpose whose heir is blessedness, whose end is holiness, will be upon you until you die; maintain it, and let it be your chief concern, for though you neglect it, it will remain and avenge itself.

All this I have seen in your picture as you go across the grass, and it was an accident of the camera that did it. If any one shall say these things do not attach to the portrait of a child, let him ask himself whether they do not attach to the portrait that might be drawn, did human skill suffice, of the life of a woman or a man which springs from the demeanour of childhood; or let him ask himself whether, if a face in old age and that same face in childhood were equally and as by a revelation set down each in its full truth, and the growth of the one into the other were interpreted by a profound intelligence, what I have said would not be true of all that little passage of ours through the daylight.


There are three phases in the life of man, so far as his thoughts upon his surroundings are concerned.

The first of these is the phase of youth, in which he takes certain matured things for granted, and whether he realizes his illusion or no, believes them to be eternal. This phase ends sharply with every man, by the action of one blow. Some essence is dissolved, some binding cordage snaps, or some one dies.

I say no matter how clearly the reason of a man tells him that all about him is changeable, and that perfect and matured things and characters upon whose perfection and maturity he reposes for his peace must disappear, his attitude in youth towards those things is one of a complete security as towards things eternal. For the young man, convinced as he is that his youth and he himself are there for ever, sees in one lasting framework his father's garden, his mother's face, the landscape from his windows, his friendships, and even his life; the very details of food, of clothing, and of lesser custom, all these are fixed for him. Fixed also are the mature and perfect things. This aged friend, in whose excellent humour and universal science he takes so continual a delight, is there for ever. That considered judgment of mankind upon such and such a troubling matter, of sex, of property, or of political right, is anchored or rooted in eternity. There comes a day when by some one experience he is startled out of that morning dream. It is not the first death, perhaps, that strikes him, nor the first loss—no, not even, perhaps, the first discovery that human affection also passes (though that should be for every man the deepest lesson of all). What wakes him to the reality which is for some dreadful, for others august, and for the faithful divine, is always an accident. One death, one change, one loss, among so many, unseals his judgment, and he sees thenceforward, nay, often from one particular moment upon which he can put his finger, the doom which lies upon all things whatsoever that live by a material change.

The second phase which he next enters is for a thoughtful man in a sceptical and corrupted age the crucial phase, whereby will be determined, not indeed the fate of his soul, but the justice, and therefore the advantage to others, of his philosophy.

He has done with all illusions of permanence and repose. Henceforward he sees for himself a definite end, and the road which used to lead over the hills and to be lost beyond in the haze of summer plains now leads directly to a visible place; that place is a cavern in the mountain side, dark and without issue. He must die. Henceforward he expects the passing of all to which he is attached, and he is braced against loss by something lent to him which is to despair as an angel is to a demon; something in the same category of emotion, but just and fortifying, instead of void and vain and tempting and without an end. A man sees in this second phase of his experience that he must lose. Oh, he does not lose in a gamble! It is not a question of winning a stake or forfeiting it, as the vulgar falsehood of commercial analogy would try to make our time believe. He knows henceforward that there is no success, no final attainment of desire, because there is no fixity in any material thing. As he sits at table with the wisest and keenest of his time, especially with the old, hearing true stories of the great men who came before him, looking at well-painted pictures, admiring the proper printing of collected books, and praising the just balance of some classical verse or music which time has judged and made worthy, he so admires and enjoys with a full consciousness that these things are flowing past him. He cannot rely; he attempts no foothold. The equilibrium of his soul is only to be discovered in marching and continually marching. He now knows that he must go onward, he may not stand, for if he did he would fall. He must go forward and see the river of things run by. He must go forward—but to what goal?

There is a third phase, in which (as the experience of twenty Christian centuries determines) that goal also is discovered, and for some who so discover it the experience of loss begins to possess a meaning.

What this third phase is I confess I do not know, and as I have not felt it I cannot describe it, but when that third phase is used as I have suggested a character of wisdom enters into those so using it; a character of wisdom which is the nearest thing our dull time can show to inspiration and to prophecy.

It is to be noted also that in this third phase of man's experience of doom those who are not wise are most unwise indeed; and that where the age of experience has not produced this sort of clear maturity in the spirit, then it produces either despair or folly, or an exaggerated shirking of reality, which, being a falsehood, is wickeder than despair, and far more inhuman than mere foolishness. Thus those who in the third phase of which I speak have not attained the wisdom which I here recognize will often sink into a passion of avarice, accumulating wealth which they cannot conceivably enjoy; a stupidity so manifest that every age of satire has found it the most facile of commonplaces. Or, again, those who fail to find wisdom in that last phase will constantly pretend an unreal world, making plans for a future that cannot be there. So did a man eleven years ago in the neighbourhood of Regent Street, for this man, being eighty-seven years of age, wealthy, and wholly devoid of friends, or near kindred, took a flat, but he insisted that the lease should be one of not less than sixty years. In a hundred ways this last phase if it is degraded is most degraded; and, though it is not worst, it is most sterile when it falls to a mere regret for the past.

Now it is here that the opposite, the wisdoms of old age appears; for the old, when they are wise, are able to point out to men and to women of middle age what these least suspect, and can provide them with a good medicine against the insecurity of the soul. The old in their wisdom can tell those just beneath them this: that though all things human pass, all bear their fruit. They can say: "You believe that such and such a woman, with her courtesy, her travel, her sharp edge of judgment, her large humanity, and her love of the comedy of the world, being dead can never be replaced. There are, growing up around you, characters quite insufficient, and to you, perhaps, contemptible, who will in their fruiting display all these things." There never was, nor has been, a time (say those who are acquainted with the great story of Europe) when Christendom has failed. Out of dead passages there has sprung up suddenly, and quite miraculously, whatever was thought to be lost. So it has been with our music, so with the splendour of our armies, so with the fabric of our temples, so with our deathless rhymes. The old, when they are wise, can do for men younger than they what history does for the reader; but they can do it far more poignantly, having expression in their eyes and the living tones of a voice. It is their business to console the world.


Here and there, scattered rarely among men as men are now, you will find one man who does not pursue the same ends as his fellows; but in a peculiar manner leads his life as though his eyes were fixed upon some distant goal or his appetites subjected to some constant and individual influence.

Such a man may be doing any one of many things. He may be a poet, and his occupation may be the writing of good verse, pleased at its sound and pleased as well by the reflection of the pleasure it will give to others. Or he may be devoted, and follow a creed, a single truth or a character which he loves, and whose influence and glory he makes it his business to propagate. Or he may be but a worker in some material, a carver in wood, or a manager of commercial affairs, or a governor and administrator of men, and yet so order his life that his work and his material are his object: not his gain in the end—not his appreciable and calculable gain at least—nor his immediate and ephemeral pleasures.

Such men, if you will examine them, will prove intent upon one ultimate completion of their being which is also (whether they know it or not) a reward, and those who have carefully considered the matter and give it expression say that such men are out a-hunting for Immortality.

Now what is that? There was a man, before the Normans came to England, who sailed from the highest Scandinavian mountains, I think, towards these shores, and landing, fought against men and was wounded so that he was certain to die. When they asked him why he had undertaken that adventure, he answered: "That my name might live between the lips of men."

The young, the adventurous, the admired—how eagerly and how properly do they not crave for glory. Fame has about it a divine something as it were an echo of perfect worship and of perfect praise, which, though it is itself imperfect, may well deceive the young, the adventurous, and the admired. How great to think that things well done and the enlargement of others shall call down upon our names, even when all is lost but the mere names, a continuous and an increasing benediction. Nay, more than this: how great to think of the noise only of an achievement, and to be sure that the poem written, the carving concluded, or the battle won, the achievement of itself, though the name of the achiever be perished or unknown, shall awake those tremendous echoes.

But wait a moment. What is that thing which so does and so desires? What end does it find in glory? It is not the receiver of the benefit; it will not hear that large volume of recognition and of salute. Twist it how you will no end is here, nor in such a pursuit is the pursuer satisfied.

It is true that men who love to create for themselves imaginary stuff, and to feed, their cravings, if they cannot with substance then with dreams, perpetually pretend a satisfaction in such acquirements which the years as they proceed tell them with increasing iteration that they do not feel. The young, the adventurous, the admired, may at first be deceived by such a glamour, and it is in the providential scheme of human affairs, and it is for the good of us all that the pleasing cheat should last while the good things are doing. Thus do substantial verse and noble sculpture and building whose stuff is lasting and whose beauty is almost imperishable, rise to the advantage of mankind—but oh! there is no lasting in the dream.

There comes a day of truth inwardly but ineradicably perceived, when such things, such aspirations, are clearly known for what they are. Of all the affections that pass, of all those things which being made by a power itself perishable, must be unmade again, some may be less, others more lasting, but not one remains for ever.

Nor is this all. What is it, I say, which did the thing and suffered the desire? Not the receiver, still less the work achieved, it was the man that so acted and so desired; and that part of him which was affected thus we call the Soul. Then, surely (one may reason) the soul has, apt to its own nature, a completion which is also a reward, and there is something before it which is not the symbol or the cheat of perfect praise, but is perfect praise; there is surely something before it which is not the symbol or the cheat of life, but life completed.

Now stand at night beneath a clear heaven solemn and severe with stars, comprehend (as the great achievement of our race permits us now to do) what an emptiness and what a scale are there, and you will easily discover in that one glance, or you will feel at least the appalling thing which tempts men to deny their immortality.

There is no man who has closely inquired upon this, and there is none who has troubled himself and admitted a reasonable anxiety upon it, who has not well retained the nature of despair. Those who approach their fellow-beings with assertion and with violence in such a matter, affirming their discovery, their conviction, or their acquired certitude, do an ill service to their kind. It is not thus that the last things should be approached nor the most tremendous problem which man is doomed to envisage be propounded and solved. Ah! the long business in this world! The way in which your deepest love goes up in nothingness and breaks away, and the way in which the strongest and the most continuous element of your dear self is dissipated and fails you in some moment; if I do not understand these things in a man nor comprehend how the turn of the years can obscure or obliterate a man's consciousness of what his end should be, then I act in brute ignorance, or what is much worse, in lack of charity.

How should you not be persuaded, ephemeral intelligence? Does not every matter which you have held closely enough and long enough escape you and withdraw? Is not that doom true of things which were knit into us, and were of necessity, so to speak, prime parts of our being? Is it not true of the network and the structure which supports whatever we are, and without which we cannot imagine ourselves to be? We ourselves perish. Of that there is no doubt at all. One is here talking and alive. His friends are with him: on the time when they shall meet again he is utterly not there. The motionless flesh before his mourners is nothing. It is not a simulacrum, it is not an outline, it is not a recollection of the man, but rather something wholly gone useless. As for that voice, those meanings in the eyes, and that gesture of the hand, it has suddenly and entirely ceased to be.

Then how shall we deny the dreadful conclusion (to which how many elder civilizations have not turned!) that we must seek in vain for any gift to the giver for any workers' wage, or, rather, to put it more justly, for a true end to the life we lead. Yet it is not so. The conclusion is more weighty by far that all things bear their fruit: that the comprehender and the master of so much, the very mind, suffers to no purpose and in one moment a tragic, final, and unworthy catastrophe agrees with nothing other that we know. It is not thus of the good things of the earth that turn kindly into the earth again. It cannot be thus with that which makes of all the earth a subject thing for contemplation and for description, for understanding, and, if it so choose—for sacrifice.

Those of our race who have deliberately looked upon the scroll and found there nothing to read, who have lifted the curtain and found beyond it nothing to see, have faced their conclusions with a nobility which should determine us; for that nobility does prove, or, if it does not prove, compels us to proclaim, that the soul of man which breeds it has somewhere a lasting home. The conclusion is imperative.

Let not any one pretend in his faith that his faith is immediately evident and everywhere acceptable. There is in all who pretend to judgment a sense of the doubt that lies between the one conviction and the other, and all acknowledge that the scales swing normally upon the beam for normal men. But they swing—and one is the heavier.

The poets, who are our interpreters, know well and can set forth the contrast between such intimations and such despair.

The long descent of wasted days To these at last have led me down: Remember that I filled with praise The meaningless and doubtful ways That lead to an eternal town.

Moreover, since we have spoken of the night it is only reasonable to consider the alternate dawn. The quality of light, its merry action on the mind, the daylit sky under whose benediction we repose and in which our kind has always seen the picture of its final place: are these then visions and deceits?


It is good for a man's soul to sit down in the silence by himself and to think of those things which happen by some accident to be in communion with the whole world. If he has not the faculty of remembering these things in their order and of calling them up one after another in his mind, then let him write them down as they come to him upon a piece of paper. They will comfort him; they will prove a sort of solace against the expectation of the end. To consider such things is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their power consists.

A woman smiling at a little child, not knowing that others see her, and holding out her hands towards it, and in one of her hands flowers; an old man, lean and active, with an eager face, walking at dusk upon a warm and windy evening westward towards a clear sunset below dark and flying clouds; a group of soldiers, seen suddenly in manoeuvres, each man intent upon his business, all working at the wonderful trade, taking their places with exactitude and order and yet with elasticity; a deep, strong tide running back to the sea, going noiselessly and flat and black and smooth, and heavy with purpose under an old wall; the sea smell of a Channel seaport town; a ship coming up at one out of the whole sea when one is in a little boat and is waiting for her, coming up at one with her great sails merry and every one doing its work, with the life of the wind in her, and a balance, rhythm, and give in all that she does which marries her to the sea—whether it be a fore and aft rig and one sees only great lines of the white, or a square rig and one sees what is commonly and well called a leaning tower of canvas, or that primal rig, the triangular sail, that cuts through the airs of the world and clove a way for the first adventures, whatever its rig, a ship so approaching an awaiting boat from which we watch her is one of the things I mean.

I would that the taste of my time permitted a lengthy list of such things: they are pleasant to remember! They do so nourish the mind! A glance of sudden comprehension mixed with mercy and humour from the face of a lover or a friend; the noise of wheels when the guns are going by; the clatter-clank-clank of the pieces and the shouted halt at the head of the column; the noise of many horses, the metallic but united and harmonious clamour of all those ironed hoofs, rapidly occupying the highway; chief and most persistent memory, a great hill when the morning strikes it and one sees it up before one round the turning of a rock after the long passes and despairs of the night.

When a man has journeyed and journeyed through those hours in which there is no colour or shape, all along the little hours that were made for sleep and when, therefore, the waking soul is bewildered or despairs, the morning is always a resurrection—but especially when it reveals a height in the sky.

This last picture I would particularly cherish, so great a consolation is it, and so permanent a grace does it lend later to the burdened mind of a man.

For when a man looks back upon his many journeys—so many rivers crossed, and more than one of them forded in peril; so many swinging mountain roads, so many difficult steeps and such long wastes of plains—of all the pictures that impress themselves by the art or kindness of whatever god presides over the success of journeys, no picture more remains than that picture of a great hill when the day first strikes it after the long burden of the night.

Whatever reasons a man may have for occupying the darkness with his travel and his weariness, those reasons must be out of the ordinary and must go with some bad strain upon the mind. Perhaps one undertook the march from an evil necessity under the coercion of other men, or perhaps in terror, hoping that the darkness might hide one, or perhaps for cool, dreading the unnatural heat of noon in a desert land; perhaps haste, which is in itself so wearying a thing, compelled one, or perhaps anxiety. Or perhaps, most dreadful of all, one hurried through the night afoot because one feared what otherwise the night would bring, a night empty of sleep and a night whose dreams were waking dreams and evil.

But whatever prompts the adventure or the necessity, when the long burden has been borne, and when the turn of the hours has come; when the stars have grown paler; when colour creeps back greyly and uncertainly to the earth, first into the greens of the high pastures, then here and there upon a rock or a pool with reeds, while all the air, still cold, is full of the scent of morning; while one notices the imperceptible disappearance of the severities of Heaven until at last only the morning star hangs splendid; when in the end of that miracle the landscape is fully revealed, and one finds into what country one has come; then a great hill before one, losing the forests upwards into rock and steep meadow upon its sides, and towering at last into the peaks and crests of the inaccessible places, gives a soul to the new land.... The sun, in a single moment and with the immediate summons of a trumpet-call, strikes the spear-head of the high places, and at once the valley, though still in shadow, is transfigured, and with the daylight all manner of things have come back to the world.

Hope is the word which gathers the origins of those things together, and hope is the seed of what they mean, but that new light and its new quality is more than hope. Livelihood is come back with the sunrise, and the fixed certitude of the soul; number and measure and comprehension have returned, and a just appreciation of all reality is the gift of the new day. Glory (which, if men would only know it, lies behind all true certitude) illumines and enlivens the seen world, and the living light makes of the true things now revealed something more than truth absolute; they appear as truth acting and creative.

This first shaft of the sun is to that hill and valley what a word is to a thought. It is to that hill and valley what verse is to the common story told; it is to that hill and valley what music is to verse. And there lies behind it, one is very sure, an infinite progress of such exaltations, so that one begins to understand, as the pure light shines and grows and as the limit of shadow descends the vast shoulder of the steep, what has been meant by those great phrases which still lead on, still comfort, and still make darkly wise, the uncomforted wondering of mankind. Such is the famous phrase: "Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor can it enter into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that serve Him."

So much, then, is conveyed by a hill-top at sunrise when it comes upon the traveller or the soldier after the long march of a night, the bending of the shoulders, and the emptiness of the dark.

Many other things put one into communion with the whole world.

Who does not remember coming over a lifting road to a place where the ridge is topped, and where, upon the further side, a broad landscape, novel or endeared by memory (for either is a good thing), bursts upon the seized imagination as a wave from the open sea, swelling up an inland creek, breaks and bursts upon the rocks of the shore? There is a place where a man passes from the main valley of the Rhone over into the valley of the Isre, and where the Grsivandan so suddenly comes upon him. Two gates of limestone rock, high as the first shoulders of the mountains, lead into the valley which they guard; it is a province of itself, a level floor of thirty miles, nourished by one river, and walled in up to the clouds on either side.

Or again, in the champagne country, moving between great blocks of wood in the Forest of Rheims and always going upward as the ride leads him, a man comes to a point whence he suddenly sees all that vast plain of the invasions stretching out to where, very far off against the horizon, two days away, twin summits mark the whole site sharply with a limit as a frame marks a picture or a punctuation a phrase.

There is another place more dear to me, but which I doubt whether any other but a native of that place can know. After passing through the plough lands of an empty plateau, a traveller breaks through a little fringe of chestnut hedge and perceives at once before him the wealthiest and the most historical of European things, the chief of the great capitals of Christendom and the arena in which is now debated (and has been for how long!) the Faith, the chief problem of this world.

Apart from landscape other things belong to this contemplation: Notes of music, and, stronger even than repeated and simple notes of music, a subtle scent and its association, a familiar printed page. Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past.

There is a story translated into the noblest of English writing by Dasent. It is to be found in his "Tales from the Norse." It is called the Story of the Master Maid.

A man had found in his youth a woman on the Norwegian hills: this woman was fary, and there was a spell upon her. But he won her out of it in various ways, and they crossed the sea together, and he would bring her to his father's house, but his father was a King. As they went over-sea together alone, he said and swore to her that he would never forget how they had met and loved each other without warning, but by an act of God, upon the Dovrefjeld. Come near his father's house, the ordinary influences of the ordinary day touched him; he bade her enter a hut and wait a moment until he had warned his father of so strange a marriage; she, however, gazing into his eyes, and knowing how the divine may be transformed into the earthly, quite as surely as the earthly into the divine, makes him promise that he will not eat human food. He sits at his father's table, still steeped in her and in the seas. He forgets his vow and eats human food, and at once he forgets.

Then follows much for which I have not space, but the woman in the hut by her magic causes herself to be at last sent for to the father's palace. The young man sees her, and is only slightly troubled as by a memory which he cannot grasp. They talk together as strangers; but looking out of the window by accident the King's son sees a bird and its mate; he points them out to the woman, and she says suddenly: "So was it with you and me high up upon the Dovrefjeld." Then he remembers all.

Now that story is a symbol, and tells the truth. We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; a woman and a child, a man at evening, a troop of soldiers; we hear notes of music, we smell the smell that went with a passed time, or we discover after the long night a shaft of light upon the tops of the hills at morning: there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.

But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.


There is a certain valley, or rather profound cleft, through the living rock of certain savage mountains through which there roars and tumbles in its narrow trench the Segre, here but a few miles from its rising in the upland grass.

This cleft is so disposed that the smooth limestone slabs of its western wall stand higher than the gloomy steps of cliff upon its eastern, and thus these western cliffs take the glare of the morning sunlight upon them, or the brilliance of the moon when she is full or waning in the first part of her course through the night.

The only path by which men can go down that gorge clings to the eastern face of the abyss and is for ever plunged in shadow. Down this path I went very late upon a summer night, close upon midnight, and the moon just past the full. The air was exceedingly clear even for that high place, and the moon struck upon the limestone of the sheer opposing cliffs in a manner neither natural nor pleasing, but suggesting horror, and, as it were, something absolute, too simple for mankind.

It was not cold, but there were no crickets at such a level in the mountains, nor any vegetation there except a brush here and there clinging between the rocks and finding a droughty rooting in their fissures. Though the map did not include this gorge, I could guess that it would be impossible for me, save by following that dreadful path all night, to find a village, and therefore I peered about in the dense shadow as I went for one of those overhanging rocks which are so common in that region, and soon I found one. It was a refuge better than most that I had known during a lonely travel of three days, for the whole bank was hollowed in, and there was a distinct, if shallow, cave bordering the path. Into this, therefore, I went and laid down, wrapping myself round in a blanket I had brought from the plains beyond the mountains, and, with my loaf and haversack and a wine-skin that I carried for a pillow, I was very soon asleep.

* * * * *

When I woke, which I did with suddenness, it seemed to me to have turned uncommonly cold, and when I stepped out from my blanket (for I was broad awake) the cold struck me still more nearly, and was not natural in such a place. But I knew how a mist will gather suddenly upon these hills, and I went out and stood upon the path to see what weather the hour had brought me. The sky, the narrow strip of sky above the gorge, was filled with scud flying so low that now and then bulges or trails of it would strike against that western cliff of limestone and wreath down it, and lift and disappear, but fast as the scud was moving there was no noise of wind. I seemed not to have slept long, for the moon was still riding in heaven, though her light now came in rapid waxing and waning between the shreds of the clouds. Beneath me a little angrier than before (so that I thought to myself, "Up in the hills it has been raining") roared the Segre.

As I stood thus irresolute and quite awakened from sleep, I saw to my right the figure of a little man who beckoned. No fear took me as I saw him, but a good deal of wonder, for he was oddly shaped, and in the darkness of that pathway I could not see his face. But in his presence by some accident of the mind many things changed their significance: the gorge became personal to me, the river a voice, the fitful moonlight a warning, and it seemed as though some safety was to be sought, or some certitude, upwards, whence I had come, and I felt oddly as though the little figure were a guide.

He was so short as I watched him that I thought him almost a dwarf, though I have seen men as small guiding the mules over the breaches in the ridge of the hills. He was hunchback, or the great pack he was carrying made him seem so. His thin legs were long for his body, and he walked too rapidly, with bent knees; his right hand he leant upon a great sapling; upon his head was a very wide hat, the stuff of which I could not see in the darkness. Now and again he would turn and beckon me, and he always went on a little way before. As for me, partly because he beckoned, but more because I felt prescient of a goal, I followed him.

No mountain path seems the same when you go up it and when you go down it. This it was which rendered unfamiliar to me the shapes of the rocks and the turnings of the gorge as I hurried, behind my companion. With every passing moment, moreover, the light grew less secure, the scud thickened, and as we rose towards the lower level of those clouds the mass of them grew more even, until at last the path and some few yards of the emptiness which sank away to our left was all one could discern. The mist was full of a diffused moonlight, but it was dense. I wondered when we should strike out of the gorge and begin to find the upland grasses that lead toward the highest summits of those hills, for thither I was sure were we bound.

Soon I began to recognize that easier trend in the rock wall, those increasing and flattened gullies which mark the higher slope. Here and there an unmelted patch of snow appeared, grass could be seen, and at last we were upon the roll of the high land where it runs up steeply to the ridge of the chain. Moss and the sponging of moisture in the turf were beneath our feet, the path disappeared, and our climb got steeper and steeper; and still the little man went on before, pressing eagerly and breasting the hill. I neither felt fatigue nor noticed that I did not feel it. The extreme angle of the slope suited my mood, nor was I conscious of its danger, though its fantastic steepness exhilarated me because it was so novel to be trying such things at night in such a weather. The moon, I think, must by this time have been near its sinking, for the mist grew full of darkness round about us, and at last it was altogether deep night. I could see my companion only as a blur of difference in the darkness, but even as this change came I felt the steepness relax beneath my climbing feet, the round level of the ridge was come, and soon again we were hurrying across it until there came, in a hundred yards or so, a moment in which my companion halted, as men who know the mountains halt when they reach an edge below which they know the land to break away.

He was waiting, and I waited with him: we had not long so to stand.

The mist which so often lifts as one passes the crest of the hills lifted for us also, and, below, it was broad day.

Ten thousand feet below, at the foot of forest cascading into forest, stretched out into an endless day, was the Weald. There were the places I had always known, but not as I had known them: they were in another air. There was the ridge, and the river valley far off to the eastward, and Pasham Pines, Amberley wild brooks, and Petworth the little town, and I saw the Rough clearly, and the hills out beyond the county, and beyond them farther plains, and all the fields and all the houses of the men I knew. Only it was much larger, and it was more intimate, and it was farther away, and it was certainly divine.

A broad road such as we have not here and such as they have not in those hills, a road for armies, sank back and forth in great gradients down to the plain. These and the forests were foreign; the Weald below, so many thousand feet below, was not foreign but transformed. The dwarf went down that road. I did not follow him. I saw him clearly now. His curious little coat of mountain stuff, his thin, bent legs walking rapidly, and the chestnut sapling by he walked, holding it in his hand by the middle. I could see the brown colour of it, and the shininess of the bark of it, and the ovals of white where the branchlings had been cut away. So I watched him as he went down and down the road. He never once looked back and he no longer beckoned me.

In a moment, before a word could form in the mind, the mist had closed again and it was mortally cold; and with that cold there came to me an appalling knowledge that I was alone upon such a height and knew nothing of my way. The hand which I put to my shoulder where my blanket was found it wringing wet. The mist got greyer, my mind more confused as I struggled to remember, and then I woke and found I was still in the cave. All that business had been a dream, but so vivid that I carried it all through the day, and carry it still.

* * * * *

It was the very early morning; the gorge was full of mist, the Segre made a muffled roaring through such a bank of cloud; the damp of the mist was on everything. The stones in the pathway glistened, the air was raw and fresh, awaiting the rising of the sun. I took the path and went downward.


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