Story type: Essay
It is not often that one is fortunate enough to see two perfectly beautiful things in one day. But such was my fortune in the late summer, on a day that was in itself perfect enough to show what September can do, if he only has a mind to plan hours of delight for man. The distance was very blue and marvellously clear. The trees had the bronzed look of the summer’s end, with deep azure shadows. The cattle moved slowly about the fields, and there was harvesting going on, so that the villages we passed seemed almost deserted. I will not say whence we started or where we went, and I shall mention no names at all, except one, which is of the nature of a symbol or incantation; for I do not desire that others should go where I went, unless I could be sure that they went with the same peace in their hearts that I bore with me that day.
One of the places we visited on purpose; the other we saw by accident. On the small map we carried was marked, at the corner of a little wood that seemed to have no way to it, a well with the name of a saint, of whom I never heard, though I doubt not she is written in the book of God.
We reached the nearest point to the well upon the road, and we struck into the fields; that was a sweet place where we found ourselves! In ancient days it had been a marsh, I think. For great ditches ran everywhere, choked with loose-strife and water-dock, and the ground quaked as we walked, a pleasant springy black mould, the dust of endless centuries of the rich water plants.
To the left, the ground ran up sharply in a minute bluff, with the soft outline of underlying chalk, covered with small thorn-thickets; and it was all encircled with small, close woods, where we heard the pheasants scamper. We found an old, slow, bovine man, with a cheerful face, who readily threw aside some fumbling work he was doing, and guided us; and we should never have found the spot without him. He led us to a stream, crossed by a single plank with a handrail, on which some children had put a trap, baited with nuts for the poor squirrels, that love to run chattering across the rail from wood to wood. Then we entered a little covert; it was very pleasant in there, all dark and green and still; and here all at once we came to the place; in the covert were half a dozen little steep pits, each a few yards across, dug out of the chalk. From each of the pits, which lay side by side, a channel ran down to the stream, and in each channel flowed a small bickering rivulet of infinite clearness. The pits themselves were a few feet deep; at the bottom of each was a shallow pool, choked with leaves; and here lay the rare beauty of the place. The water rose in each pit out of secret ways, but in no place that we could see. The first pit was still when we looked upon it; then suddenly the water rose in a tiny eddy, in one corner, among the leaves, sending a little ripple glancing across the pool. It was as though something, branch or insect, had fallen from above, the water leapt so suddenly. Then it rose again in another place, then in another; then five or six little freshets rose all at once, the rings crossing and recrossing. And it was the same in all the pits, which we visited one by one; we descended and drank, and found the water as cold as ice, and not less pure; while the old man babbled on about the waste of so much fine water, and of its virtues for weak eyes: “Ain’t it cold, now? Ain’t it, then? My God, ain’t it?”–he was a man with a rich store of simple asseverations,–“And ain’t it good for weak eyes neither! You must just come to the place the first thing in the morning, and wash your eyes in the water, and ain’t it strengthening then!” So he chirped on, saying everything over and over, like a bird among the thickets.
We paid him for his trouble, with a coin that made him so gratefully bewildered that he said to us: “Now, gentlemen, if there’s anything else that you want, give it a name; and if you meet any one as you go away, say ‘Perrett told me’ (Perrett’s my name), and then you’ll see!” What the precise virtue of this invocation was, we did not have an opportunity of testing, but that it was a talisman to unlock hidden doors, I make no doubt.
We went back silently over the fields, with the wonder of the thing still in our minds. To think of the pure wells bubbling and flashing, by day and by night, in the hot summer weather, when the smell of the wood lies warm in the sun; on cold winter nights under moon and stars, for ever casting up the bright elastic jewel, that men call water, and feeding the flowing stream that wanders to the sea. I was very full of gratitude to the pure maiden saint that lent her name to the well and I am sure she never had a more devout pair of worshippers.
So we sped on in silence, thinking–at least I thought–how the water leaped and winked in the sacred wells, and how clear showed the chalk, and the leaves that lay at the bottom: till at last we drew to our other goal. “Here is the gate,” said my companion at last.
On one side of the road stood a big substantial farm; on the other, by a gate, was a little lodge. Here a key was given us by an old hearty man, with plenty of advice of a simple and sententious kind, until I felt as though I were enacting a part in some little Pilgrim’s Progress, and as if Mr Interpreter himself, with a very grave smile, would come out and have me into a room by myself, to see some odd pleasant show that he had provided. But it was perhaps more in the manner of Evangelist, for our guide pointed with his finger across a very wide field, and showed us a wicket to enter in at.
Here was a great flat grassy pasture, the water again very near the surface, as the long-leaved water-plants, that sprawled in all the ditches, showed. But when we reached the wicket we seemed to be as far removed from humanity as dwellers in a lonely isle. A few cattle grazed drowsily, and the crisp tearing of the grass by their big lips came softly across the pasture. Inside the wicket stood a single ancient house, uninhabited, and festooned with ivy into a thing more bush than house; though a small Tudor window peeped from the leaves, like the little suspicious eye of some shaggy beast.
A stone’s throw away lay a large square moat, full of water, all fringed with ancient gnarled trees; the island which it enclosed was overgrown with tiny thickets of dishevelled box-trees, and huge sprawling laurels; we walked softly round it, and there was our goal: a small church of a whitish stone, in the middle of a little close of old sycamores in stiff summer leaf.
It stood so remote, so quietly holy, so ancient, that I could think of nothing but the “old febel chapel” of the Morte d’Arthur. It had, I know not why, the mysterious air of romance all about it. It seemed to sit, musing upon what had been and what should be, smilingly guarding some tender secret for the pure-hearted, full of the peace the world cannot give.
Within it was cool and dark, and had an ancient holy smell; it was furnished sparely with seat and screen, and held monuments of old knights and ladies, sleeping peacefully side by side, heads pillowed on hands, looking out with quiet eyes, as though content to wait.
Upon the island in the moat, we learned, had stood once a flourishing manor, but through what sad vicissitudes it had fallen into dust I care not. Enough that peaceful lives had been lived there; children had been born, had played on the moat-edge, had passed away to bear children of their own, had returned with love in their hearts for the old house. From the house to the church children had been borne for baptism; merry wedding processions had gone to and fro, happy Christmas groups had hurried backwards and forwards; and the slow funeral pomp had passed thither, under the beating of the slow bell, bearing one that should not return.
Something of the love and life and sorrow of the good days passed into my mind, and I gave a tender thought to men and women whom I had never known, who had tasted of life, and of joyful things that have an end; and who now know the secret of the dark house to which we all are bound.
When we at last rose unwillingly to go, the sun was setting, and flamed red and brave through the gnarled trunks of the little wood; the mist crept over the pasture, and far away the lights of the lonely farm began to wink through the gathering dark.
But I had seen! Something of the joy of the two sweet places had settled in my mind; and now, in fretful, weary, wakeful hours, it is good to think of the clear wells that sparkle so patiently in the dark wood; and, better still, to wander in mind about the moat and the little silent church; and to wonder what it all means; what the love is that creeps over the soul at the sight of these places, so full of a remote and delicate beauty; and whether the hunger of the heart for peace and permanence, which visits us so often in our short and difficult pilgrimage, has a counterpart in the land that is very far off.