AN ESSAY WHICH IS NO ESSAY
"I SHALL consider it a personal favour if you write, and so will all, I am sure." This, of course, settled the matter, and I immediately repaired to our respected friends, "White and Pike," and purchased some sheets of essay paper and a Magnum-Bonum pen. Returning home with the essay paper, and the Magnum-Bonum pen, I revolved in my mind things in general and all subjects past, present, and to come; but not one did I find but such as were unsuitable for the Essay Meeting, or had already been written to death there. In this sad condition I reached home, bearing with me as aforesaid this paper and the Magnum-Bonum. Nevertheless, though the prospect was so dismal, with a stern determination to do my duty, I unrolled the paper,' dipped my pen in the ink, and--looked out of the window. This I did, not through any hope that a subject would come in to me through the window, but from a perfect vacancy and imbecility of mind. It was a very cold afternoon, but the sun was shining brightly in the blue sky; my eye wandered over gardens and brown fields, then a belt of houses, and beyond, brown woods stretching to the horizon. In the far distance, standing up against the sky, was the spire of a church gilt and burnished by the sun's rays. Suddenly a faint hope seizes me--spire, church, shadow, old tombs. The subject of my essay has come in at the window; I reach a book down--The Beauties of England and Wales. I turn to Warwickshire, parish Solihull. My eye glances over the page; this is what I read:
"Solihull, ordinarily pronounced Silhall, contains little to attract the notice of the examiner, except the church, which is a spacious and handsome building of the cruciform description,"--and this was all! Not even a hint that there were any tombs--not a word to hang a shadow on! How long I lay in an insensible state I do not know, but when I regained my wits, I was mechanically turning over the leaves of the book which had given me such a cruel blow. I love a topographical book, and generally in proportion to its stupidity. There is a peace-fulness and quiet about all such books. I remember once, travelling by rail, by night, the engine stopped to water at a little wayside station. I had been at business all day, and my mind was full of ten, five, and two-and-a-half per \ cent, bills at three months, quotations, credit, and such glorious institutions of a great commercial people; what else may have been in my head was driven out of it by the noise of the train and the thoughts of railways and their adjuncts, which that noise suggested. Suddenly, as I said before, this noise ceased, and there was that exquisite stillness, that "silence sweet together" which every one must have noticed on the stopping of a train at a small station. The night was pitch-dark and bitterly cold, and in the midst of that sudden stillness, from some neighbouring village tower, came the ringing of the church bells. It is impossible to describe the effect that so simple an incident produced. It was the realisation of the greatest contrast in life, between activity and repose, between the present and the past, between the material and ideal. How different was the mode of life between the spruce officials of the railway and that old sexton and his assistants; how different the sphere of their daily work--these vast termini, black engine-houses, and the long lines of rail, and the mouldering tower of that village church, with a bunch of misletoe and holly (it was Christmas time) hanging down from the roof! I might follow the contrast out indefinitely, but that is not my object. What that still night and the darkness and the bells ringing in the frosty air were to the bustle of commercial and railway life, just such are topographical books to the rest of reading. Elsewhere you read of the bustle and fierce struggle of life; here you read of its repose. Elsewhere you read of mankind's hopes, fears, loves, hatreds, victories, and defeats; here you read of their close and last resting-places. Elsewhere you read of the stern realities and useful things of life; here you read that " the manor of Craythorne belonged at the Conquest to the Paynells, and from them passed, by an heiress, into the family of Craythorne, in which it continued till the Civil Wars, when, the Graythornes being ruined, it was sold to J. Pudsey, Esq., in whose family it still remains"; and that "the arms of the Craythornes--argent, on a saltier, gules, five crosses patonce, or--are still to be seen on their tombs"; and this people call stupid and won't read; and the brave and beautiful symbols on their armorial coats look dim and old-fashioned, except perhaps at rare intervals, when some simple traveller looks at them with a little kindly imagination which brightens and gilds them like the golden afternoon sunlight streaming in upon them through the stained glass. How full, too, are such books of such passages as this, which I doubt not are very unpleasant to many people: "Here lyeth in that chapelle (that of the Nevilles in Branspeth Church) a Countess of Westmoreland, sister to Bouth, Archbishop of York; also the Lord Neville, father of the Erie that now is. This Lord Neville died, his father the Erie yet living; whereupon the Erie took much thought, and died at Horneby Castelle, in Richmondshir, and there is buried in the parish church. The Erie of Westmoreland that is now, had an elder brother, and he lyeth in a little tombe of marble, by the high altar on the south side, and at the feete of hym be buried four children of the Erie's that now lyveth." This is like musing in any churchyard and looking on our latter end, and reminds you of that beautiful paper of Addison's on Westminster Abbey which no doubt you all remember, where he says: "When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I meet with the grief of parents on a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow"; and goes on, "his face" (as Mr. Thackeray kindly says) "catching quite a divine effulgence as he looks heavenward," to speak of that great day when "we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together."
While I am on these subjects, I crave your permission to say something about that old heraldry which people despise so much, without knowing that in many cases it was the symbol and emblem of very beautiful and noble things. For instance, how many who ridicule a cross "fiche"e" know what it means? It means that the Crusader had his cross sharpened at one end, that he might fix it in the earth and kneel before it to pray to God ere he went to sleep. One old family carried, for six hundred years, a "hand manacled" in their arms, through the gratitude of one of their ancestors who had been marvellously delivered from long years of captivity in the Holy Land. The family "Pringle" bore "Escalops" to show the number and devotion of their pilgrimages; and there is a story explaining the arms of Chastillion, after which, I think, any man might have been proud to wear them.
In the days of the first Crusades a young noble of this family left his wife and two little children, whom, like the Seneschal de Joinville, he " loved in his heart," and, accompanied by a numerous body of men-at-arms, went to the Crusade. He reached the Holy Land in safety and passed through many fierce battles almost without a wound. But one day, riding along the sea-coast, not far from St. Jean d'Acre, he was struck with a deadly fever and obliged to halt at a small village by the sea. That same evening, as he lay dying in one of the little houses, with the Arab women crying beside him, some fishermen who had been out at sea, came to land, and, learning of the party in the village, brought their fish to sell. Among the crowd round the house was one who seemed to be a chief, an old man with a beard, whom the rest appeared to reverence. When the fishermen brought up their fish, this man made every one leave the room except the young knight's page, who was supporting his master's head on the wide couch, and, taking a portion of the roe of several of the fish and boiling it with some herbs and liquid he had with him, he poured it into a cup and brought it to the dying man. Addressing- him in the French language, he told him that he was dying, that unless he assisted him, there was not a quarter of an hour's life in him, but that he had there a medicine of such wonderful virtue as would cure immediately; but he continued that this medicine could not be taken by a Christian, and that before he took it, he must own Mahomet and deny Christ; and as he spoke, he held the cup close to the young man's lips. The young knight was very ill, his senses were nearly gone, and he had no strength to argue with the tempter, as the latter knew very well; but, in that supreme moment, strength was given him to say one word, and that was--"No"!
"But consider, Beau Sire," said the old man, "you are so young to die, and the Souldan, our master, will advance you to high dignity and honour, and every earthly delight that you can conceive, you shall have."
The young knight had not strength to tell him that death would come sooner or later, and that then all these things would be worse than of no account; but he had just sufficient strength to say that one word again--"No"!
"But consider, Beau Sire, that you will never see your home any more, nor your lady and young children, that wait for your coming, and all the friends that love you, and the fair country from whence you came. Smell it, mon Seigneur!" and he held the cup close to the dying man. It had a cool sweet smell that seemed to promise life, and, as the young man inhaled it, it seemed to give him back a portion of his strength, and with it all the delights of existence, and a fierce longing for life came over him with resistless force. He raised himself on the couch, and taking the cup from the old man, looked at him with a faint smile, as though he thanked him; then, collecting all his remaining strength in one last effort, he flung the cup from him across the room, so that every drop of the precious elixir was lost in the sand; and sinking back upon the couch with a low murmur and a faint smile still upon his lips, he died. And the Chastillions of Chastillion bore ever afterwards in their arms azure, three fish argent, and a chalice or. This story of fish and fishermen may remind us, not I hope unbecomingly, of certain other fishermen more than 1800 years ago, who, on the day of which this is the anniversary, endured the cruel death of their Master that all the world might live; in connection with which I cannot do better than conclude with one verse of the pious muse of Keble, more especially as it carries out to the utmost degree that contrast of which I spoke before:
Then like a long-forgotten strain,
Comes sweeping o'er the heart forlorn,
What sunshine hours had taught in vain
Of Jesus suffering shame and scorn;
As in all lowly hearts He suffers still,
While we triumphant ride, and have the world at will.