IT was Whitsun Eve and there was a good deal of quiet excitement in Peter's home. The servants were busy with preparations for a tea-party, Nurse was putting the finishing touches on some of the dainty lace and muslin garments that seemed so very much in evidence in the nursery nowadays, and Peter felt a little out of it all. He had been the most important person in the household all the seven years of his life, but now the centre of attraction was the little new brother who was to be baptized that afternoon, and nobody seemed to have much time to spare for him. Grannie and the Aunties and various friends were coming for the ceremony, and Mother, in common with the rest of the household, was absorbed in preparations when not busy with the baby.
Peter felt a little puzzled.
That was nothing new. He was often puzzled, and he had long ago decided that the explanations of grown-ups were more puzzling than the original puzzle, so he generally tried to worry things out for himself.
This morning he had asked: "Mummy, what is Baptism?" and she had answered, "Baptism, darling? It's the beginning of your life in the Church."
"Mummy, what is the Church?"
"What a question, sonnie! Don't you go to church every Sunday?"
"Yes, but--" But she was crooning over the baby, and Peter wandered out into the garden to "do a think," as he called it, by himself.
It wasn't a very satisfactory "think," for he had not much for his little mind to feed upon, and presently, as he lay there in the warm sun, he fell asleep.
A soft wind was ruffling his curls as he sat up and looked about him.
Surely he had gone to sleep in his own garden, under his favourite cherry-tree, with the windows of the house peeping out here and there through the foliage behind him? There was no sign of house or garden now. He scrambled to his feet and looked eagerly about him.
He was standing on a hill and great stretches of country were spread out on every side round him, as far as the eye could reach. He almost fancied he could see to the end of the world, such was the impression of space and distance. All kinds of country were there, hills and valleys, forests and plains, deserts and beautiful fertile gardens. He could see people, too, moving about in all directions.
And away in the distance, right at the edge of the world, as it seemed, he caught glimpses of a place more beautiful than anything that lay between, and. directly he saw it, he wanted to get there.
It seemed to him that many of the people about him had the same desire. The country all round was crossed and re by countless paths, and along all of them people were moving, many of whom seemed to have no particular object before them, but others, as they walked, would send a longing look towards the fair place they could just discern in the far distance, and were evidently seeking the best way of getting there. Several of the paths looked as if they might lead there, but Peter was puzzled to know which to try.
Now and then, as he looked and longed, a whiff of pure, sweet air blew round him, and his desire grew stronger every moment.
He turned with a start as a hand was laid on his shoulder, and looking round, he saw an old gentle man with a sweet, strong face and silvery hair, dressed in a long black garment. If Peter had been better acquainted with church matters, he would have known it for a cassock, but he did dimly recognize that it was a priest who stood beside him.
"Come with me, Peter," he said gently, "and I will show you the path you are seeking," and slipping his hand into his new friend's, the boy went with him gladly.
They soon came to a narrow gateway through which they passed, and then followed a track which led them down and down into what seemed to Peter very gloomy regions. Along the bottom ran a river, and through it many people were passing, a priest stand ing on the bank pouring the water over the forehead of each.
"Have I got to go through there?" asked Peter nervously, but before his new friend could answer, the other priest glanced swiftly at him, and said:
"No, you have the Sign. Pass on."
"What did he mean?" asked Peter, as, crossing the stream by a little bridge, they made their way up the broad road on the other side.
"All who have the right to walk this road have the Sign of their Lord on their forehead, put there when they passed through the waters of Baptism. You already have it." Looking up, Peter saw the cross gleaming on the old man's brow and wondered why he had not noticed it before.
The road was winding steadily uphill and it was rather stiff climbing for little feet, but, down it came such a sweet, strong, refreshing breeze, that it put new energy into him every time he lifted his head to breathe it in. He had felt touches of it out there on the hill, but now it blew steadily and softly all the time.
"What a lovely breeze!" he whispered at last after a long silence, and the old priest answered, gently:
"This is the Highway of Holy Church, dear boy, and the Wind you feel is the Holy Spirit of God, whose Royal Road it is," and for a time, Peter was awed into silence again, as they went steadily on, hand in hand. Other people were pressing up the path, too, but what took most of Peter's attention was the series of pictures all along the way. Some of them seemed very familiar. He knew the one of the Mother with her Baby--there was one hanging up in the nursery at home--and the Man with outstretched Arms on the Cross--that, too, he had seen often. Others were not so familiar, but as they went on, the old priest talked, and the story he told never grew wearisome, though he told it over and over again.
They were not ordinary pictures that kept the boy's attention riveted so closely, but the figures lived, and moved, and spoke . . . and as they pushed on, the same pictures recurred again and again, in a regular order, but there seemed always something fresh to see, and learn, and wonder at. So Peter, as he walked, watched the Baby in His Mother's arms, and learnt Who He was . . . worshipped with the shepherds and the Wise Men . . saw Him carried to the Temple, watched Him as a Child at Nazareth, and then, grown to Manhood, teaching, healing, suffering . . . stood beside the Cross . . . shared the joy of the Holy Women in the Resurrection . . . went up the Mount of Ascension with the disciples.
And all the time as he walked and learnt, straight down from the Everlasting Hills came the pure Breath of God.
Mingling with these pictures were other scenes that Peter watched with interest, and the old priest explained to him. There were buildings at intervals along the way, some big, some small, all reminding Peter more or less of the church he went to on Sun days, though he had never felt so much at home there as here.. In many of them people were gathered together round a Table, and the old priest joined them there, but when Peter would have drawn near, his friend put him gently back.
"Not yet, Peter," he said quietly, "you must pass through the ante-chamber first," and looking round, the boy saw, indeed, that others were entering through another room, where an old man sat in state, laying his hands on them one by one as they knelt before him. Peter had been to a Confirmation once, so he knew what that scene meant, and to all his eager questions, the priest, walking always hand in hand with him, gave him patient answers. But the old man's strength seemed flagging, and he was growing evidently weary, and presently, to Peter's dismay, he stopped, and said, gently:
"We must part here, dear boy, and you must go on alone, but you will soon find other friends to walk with."
"But why are you stopping here?" cried Peter. "Why, we haven't nearly got there yet! I thought you were coming all the way with me!" and there was a sound of tears in his voice.
The old man smiled.
"No one can come all the way with you, Peter. We all begin our journey at different times, and though friends may walk much of the way together, it generally happens that the end comes for each one separately, too. I am not really at my journey's end yet, but I must go on where you will not be able to see me."
Peter watched him through a mist of tears as he moved slowly away, and then as a horrible feeling of loneliness came over him, he flung himself on the ground and sobbed.
"Peter! Peter! Why, whatever is the matter? You really shouldn't go to sleep in the sun!"
Mother was kneeling beside him, and as he caught her anxious look, he laughed and put his arms round her neck, but the tears were still wet on his cheeks.
"Was I really asleep, Mummy? But it was so real--it couldn't have been just an ordinary dream! Mummy, it was so wonderful--" and nestling in her arms, he told her dl about it, while Baby, whose little feet were s soon to be set upon the Royal Way, lay quietly sleeping beside them.