RECOLLECTIONS OF A LONDON CHURCH
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
"EVERY one has a romance in his own heart," says Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and as truly may we say everything has its romance too. Not alone woods and fields and valleys and old houses standing far in parks. Not alone mountains and moors and high up mountain tarns, so very lonely, so very calm, so very pure that a kind of awe comes over you on approaching them, so very near to heaven that you dare hardly think any of your accustomed thoughts--so worldly, so mean, so unworthy of that Almighty Presence in which you then visibly stand, do they now appear. Not alone in all this, but in large and dusty towns, in the midst of counting-houses and warehouses and high, dark houses--houses everywhere--may romance be found. London abounds in churches, but though their steeples are visible to everybody, few, very few, find the edifices themselves.
I once had lodgings near one of these. There was a little burial-ground in front and a long narrow strip down each side, but the houses came up close all round, and at the back joined the sacred edifice. My lodgings were at the corner of this little square, facing the front of the steeple, and close to which a covered archway opened into an innumerable labyrinth of small lanes which at length brought you into Fleet Street. My occupation--that of a poor, very poor, author--confining me to my room, I had little other companionship than that old church, and, oh, in the bright summer time how I blessed the sun for visiting me even there! The three lime trees in the burial-ground rejoiced with me too, and in the spring their green leaves, contrasting with the brown duskiness of the surrounding building, were more exceeding beautiful than I can well express. It used to be very silent there in the hot summer afternoons, for all around were offices and warehouses, and the unceasing hum from the great streets rather increased than otherwise the dreamy tendencies of the place, and save the occasional rumbling of a cart through the adjacent lanes, there was little other sound. Though I have called the church old, I do not suppose you would agree with me, for it could not have been built before the early part of Queen Anne's reign or the latter part of William and Mary's. This wras evident from its whole appearance and from the tombs in the interior, the only effigies consisting of gentlemen in wigs, and other emblems of a similar age. There were also one or two pieces of sculpture of a more aspiring character, representing female figures weeping over urns, inverted torches and such-like, which I suppose were thought much of in their days, but which I confess I never much admired. The only stone in which I took any interest was one on the outside of the church near the door; it was very small, not larger than an ordinary foot-stone, with the one word "Mary" inscribed on it, with her age, 23 years, and the date, 1734. I never saw much of the rector or his curate, but the old sexton is my firm friend, and all I ever learnt concerning the inmate of this small sepulchre I learnt from him. He had heard his father, who had preceded him in his office, say that he had heard her story in his youth: that she had been the daughter of a wealthy farmer in some far-off county in the west of England, who having lost his property by some means which the old sexton did not know, had died suddenly, leaving his daughter alone in the world; that she had come up to London, and falling perchance upon that out-of-the-way church, had lived in a house precisely opposite mine, and maintained herself by needlework; that she had been accustomed to sit all day at the window facing the church-front at her work; that there was about her something so fair and pure and good, that the people round about had been accustomed to look upon her almost in the light of a visitant from another and a higher world. But gradually, as she sat there in the sun, she had faded away, and before three years were passed was laid in that little grave beside the church door. There was nothing wonderful in all this--perhaps it was for this reason that I loved her story so very much, for it left room for the imagination to roam at will about her name, and frame a being of its own.
I have sat at my own window looking over the graveyard, till I could see her there before me, bending over her never-ending task, thinking doubtless of that happy home so far away, so very different to this,--of which the only resemblance was that pure and beautiful sky which in the summer time was spread out above her, reminding her of its greater purity elsewhere; and amid all her privations and sufferings and loneliness, praying for release. Release? Yes, it came at last, and from the smoke and noise of a city life into a country more bright and beautiful than that in which her childish days were spent, under a sky more calm and holy, she was carried away. The vicissitudes of this life over, all else was peace.
Certes, it was very strange that the story of this young girl whom I have never seen, whom I knew so little of, should haunt me thus. Yet for her sake I loved the church and the trees and even the dark and dingy houses round about; and as with the small congregation I listened to the refrain of that sublime litany which sounded forth, word for word, as she had heard it, I thought it all the more divine because I knew so certainly that in her days of trouble and affliction it had supported and comforted her:
By Thine agony and bloody sweat; by Thy cross and passion; by Thy precious death and burial; by Thy glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord deliver us.