Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
by Walter Horatio Pater

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Apollo in Picardy

[142] “CONSECUTIVE upon Apollo in all his solar fervour and effulgence,” says a writer of Teutonic proclivities, “we may discern even among the Greeks themselves, elusively, as would be natural with such a being, almost like a mock sun amid the mists, the northern or ultra-northern sun-god. In hints and fragments the lexicographers and others have told us something of this Hyperborean Apollo, fancies about him which evidence some knowledge of the Land of the Midnight Sun, of the sun’s ways among the Laplanders, of a hoary summer breathing very softly on the violet beds, or say, the London-pride and crab-apples, provided for those meagre people, somewhere amid the remoteness of their icy seas. In such wise Apollo had already anticipated his sad fortunes in the Middle Age as a god definitely in exile, driven north of the Alps, and even here ever in flight before the summer. Summer indeed he leaves now to the management of [143] others, finding his way from France and Germany to still paler countries, yet making or taking with him always a certain seductive summer-in-winter, though also with a divine or titanic regret, a titanic revolt in his heart, and consequent inversion at times of his old beneficent and properly solar doings. For his favours, his fallacious good-humour, which has in truth a touch of malign magic about it, he makes men pay sometimes a terrible price, and is in fact a devil!”

Devilry, devil’s work:–traces of such you might fancy were to be found in a certain manuscript volume taken from an old monastic library in France at the Revolution. It presented a strange example of a cold and very reasonable spirit disturbed suddenly, thrown off its balance, as by a violent beam, a blaze of new light, revealing, as it glanced here and there, a hundred truths unguessed at before, yet a curse, as it turned out, to its receiver, in dividing hopelessly against itself the well-ordered kingdom of his thought. Twelfth volume of a dry enough treatise on mathematics, applied, still with no relaxation of strict method, to astronomy and music, it should have concluded that work, and therewith the second period of the life of its author, by drawing tight together the threads of a long and intricate argument. In effect however, it began, or, in perturbed manner, and as [144] with throes of childbirth, seemed the preparation for, an argument of an entirely new and disparate species, such as would demand a new period of life also, if it might be, for its due expansion.

But with what confusion, what baffling inequalities! How afflicting to the mind’s eye! It was a veritable “solar storm"–this illumination, which had burst at the last moment upon the strenuous, self-possessed, much-honoured monastic student, as he sat down peacefully to write the last formal chapters of his work ere he betook himself to its well-earned practical reward as superior, with lordship and mitre and ring, of the abbey whose music and calendar his mathematical knowledge had qualified him to reform. The very shape of Volume Twelve, pieced together of quite irregularly formed pages, was a solecism. It could never be bound. In truth, the man himself, and what passed with him in one particular space of time, had invaded a matter, which is nothing if not entirely abstract and impersonal. Indirectly the volume was the record of an episode, an interlude, an interpolated page of life. And whereas in the earlier volumes you found by way of illustration no more than the simplest indispensable diagrams, the scribe’s hand had strayed here into mazy borders, long spaces of hieroglyph, and as it were veritable pictures of the theoretic elements of his subject. Soft wintry auroras seemed to play behind whole pages of crabbed textual writing, line and figure [145] bending, breathing, flaming, in, to lovely “arrangements” that were like music made visible; till writing and writer changed suddenly, “to one thing constant never,” after the known manner of madmen in such work. Finally, the whole matter broke off with an unfinished word, as a later hand testified, adding the date of the author’s death, “deliquio animi.”

He had been brought to the monastery as a little child; was bred there; had never yet left it, busy and satisfied through youth and early manhood; was grown almost as necessary a part of the community as the stones of its material abode, as a pillar of the great tower he ascended to watch the movement of the stars. The structure of a fortified medieval town barred in those who belonged to it very effectively. High monastic walls intrenched the monk still further. From the summit of the tower you looked straight down into the deep narrow streets, upon the houses (in one of which Prior Saint-Jean was born) climbing as high as they dared for breathing space within that narrow compass. But you saw also the green breadth of Normandy and Picardy, this way and that; felt on your face the free air of a still wider realm beyond what was seen. The reviving scent of it, the mere sight of the flowers brought thence, of the country produce at the convent gate, stirred the ordinary monkish soul with desires, sometimes with efforts, to be sent on duty there. Prior [146] Saint- Jean, on the other hand, shuddered at the view, at the thoughts it suggested to him; thoughts of unhallowed wild places, where the old heathen had worshipped “stocks and stones,” and where their wickedness might still survive them in something worse than mischievous tricks of nature, such as you might read of in Ovid, whose verses, however, he for his part had never so much as touched with a finger. He gave thanks rather, that his vocation to the abstract sciences had kept him far apart from the whole crew of miscreant poets–Abode of demons.

Thither nevertheless he was now to depart, sent to the Grange or Obedience of Notre-Dame De-Pratis by the aged Abbot (about to resign in his favour) for the benefit of his body’s health, a little impaired at last by long intellectual effort, yet so invaluable to the community. But let him beware! whispered his dearest friend, who shared those strange misgivings, let him “take heed to his ways” when he was come to that place. “The mere contact of one’s feet with its soil might change one.” And that same night, disturbed perhaps by thoughts of the coming journey with which his brain was full, Prior Saint-Jean himself dreamed vividly, as he had been little used to do. He saw the very place in which he lay (he knew it! his little inner cell, the brown doors, the white breadth of wall, the black crucifix upon it) alight, alight [147] softly; and looking, as he fancied, from the window, saw also a low circlet of soundless flame, waving, licking daintily up the black sky, but harmless, beautiful, closing in upon that round dark space in the midst, which was the earth. He seemed to feel upon his shoulder just then the touch of his friend beside him. “It is hell-fire!” he said.

The Prior took with him a very youthful though devoted companion– Hyacinthus, the pet of the community. They laughed admiringly at the rebellious masses of his black hair, with blue in the depths of it, like the wings of the swallow, which refused to conform to the monkish pattern. It only grew twofold, crown upon crown, after the half-yearly shaving. And he was as neat and serviceable as he was delightful to be with. Prior Saint-Jean, then, and the boy started before daybreak for the long journey; onwards, till darkness, a soft twilight rather, was around them again. How unlike a winter night it seemed, the further they went through the endless, lonely, turf-grown tracts, and along the edge of a valley, at length–vallis monachorum, monksvale–taken aback by its sudden steepness and depth, as of an immense oval cup sunken in the grassy upland, over which a golden moon now shone broadly. Ah! there it was at last, the white Grange, the white gable of the chapel apart amid a few scattered white gravestones, the white flocks crouched about on the hoar-frost, [148] like the white clouds, packed somewhat heavily on the horizon, and nacres as the clouds of June, with their own light and heat in them, in their hollows, you might fancy.

From the very first, the atmosphere, the light, the influence of things, seemed different from what they knew; and how distant already the dark buildings of their home! Was there the breath of surviving summer blossom on the air? Now and then came a gentle, comfortable bleating from the folds, and themselves slept soundly at last in the great open upper chamber of the Grange; were awakened by the sound of thunder. Strange, in the late November night! It had parted, however, with its torrid fierceness; modulated by distance, seemed to break away into musical notes. And the lightning lingered along with it, but glancing softly; was in truth an aurora, such as persisted month after month on the northern sky as they sojourned here. Like Prospero’s enchanted island, the whole place was “full of noises." The wind it might have been, passing over metallic strings, but that they were audible even when the night was breathless.

So like veritable music, however, were they on that first night that, upon reflexion, the Prior climbed softly the winding stair down which they appeared to flow, to the great solar among the beams of the roof, where the farm produce lay stored. A flood of moonlight now fell through the unshuttered dormer-windows; and, [149] under the glow of a lamp hanging from the low rafters, Prior Saint-Jean seemed to be looking for the first time on the human form, on the old Adam fresh from his Maker’s hand. A servant of the house, or farm- labourer, perhaps!–fallen asleep there by chance on the fleeces heaped like golden stuff high in all the corners of the place. A serf! But what unserflike ease, how lordly, or godlike rather, in the posture! Could one fancy a single curve bettered in the rich, warm, white limbs; in the haughty features of the face, with the golden hair, tied in a mystic knot, fallen down across the inspired brow? And yet what gentle sweetness also in the natural movement of the bosom, the throat, the lips, of the sleeper! Could that be diabolical, and really spotted with unseen evil, which was so spotless to the eye? The rude sandals of the monastic serf lay beside him apart, and all around was of the roughest, excepting only two strange objects lying within reach (even in their own renowned treasury Prior Saint-Jean had not seen the like of them), a harp, or some such instrument, of silver-gilt once, but the gold had mostly passed from it, and a bow, fashioned somehow of the same precious substance. The very form of these things filled his mind with inexplicable misgivings. He repeated a befitting collect, and trod softly away.

It was in truth but a rude place to which they were come. But, after life in the [150] monastery, the severe discipline of which the Prior himself had done much to restore, there was luxury in the free, self- chosen hours, the irregular fare, in doing pretty much as one pleased, in the sweet novelties of the country; to the boy Hyacinth especially, who forgot himself, or rather found his true self for the first time. Girding up his heavy frock, which he laid aside erelong altogether to go in his coarse linen smock only, he seemed a monastic novice no longer; yet, in his natural gladness, was found more companionable than ever by his senior, surprised, delighted, for his part, at the fresh springing of his brain, the spring of his footsteps over the close greensward, as if smoothed by the art of man. Cause of his renewed health, or concurrent with its effects, the air here might have been that of a veritable paradise, still unspoiled. “Could there be unnatural magic,” he asked himself again, “any secret evil, lurking in these tranquil vale-sides, in their sweet low pastures, in the belt of scattered woodland above them, in the rills of pure water which lisped from the open down beyond?" Making what was really a boy’s experience, he had a wholly boyish delight in his holiday, and certainly did not reflect how much we beget for ourselves in what we see and feel, nor how far a certain diffused music in the very breath of the place was the creation of his own ear or brain.

[151] That strange enigmatic owner of the harp and the bow, whom he had found sleeping so divinely, actually waited on them the next morning with all obsequiousness, stirred the great fire of peat, adjusted duly their monkish attire, laid their meal. It seemed an odd thing to be served thus, like St. Jerome by the lion, as if by some imperiously beautiful wild animal tamed. You hesitated to permit, were a little afraid of, his services. Their silent tonsured porter himself, contrast grim enough to any creature of that kind, had been so far seduced as to permit him to sleep there in the Grange, as he loved to do, instead of in ruder, rougher quarters; and, coaxed into odd garrulity on this one matter, told the new- comers the little he knew, with much also that he only suspected, about him; among other things, as to the origin of those precious objects, which might have belonged to some sanctuary or noble house, found thus in the possession of a mere labourer, who is no Frenchman, but a pagan, or gipsy, white as he looks, from far south or east, and who works or plays furtively, by night for the most part, returning to sleep awhile before daybreak. The other herdsmen of the valley are bond-servants, but he a hireling at will, though coming regularly at a certain season. He has come thus for any number of years past, though seemingly never grown older (as the speaker reflects), singing his way meagrely from farm to farm, to the sound of [152] his harp. His name?–It was scarcely a name at all, in the diffident syllables he uttered in answer to that question, on first coming there; but of names known to them it came nearest to a malignant one in Scripture, Apollyon. Apollyon had a just discernible tonsure, but probably no right to it.

Well skilled in architecture, Prior Saint-Jean was set, by way of a holiday task, to superintend the completion of the great monastic barn then in building. The visitor admires it still; perhaps supposes it, with its noble aisle, though set north and south, to be a desecrated church. If he be an expert in such matters, he will remark a sort of classical harmony in its broad, very simple proportions, with a certain suppression of Gothic emphasis, more especially in that peculiarly Gothic feature, the buttresses, scarcely marking the unbroken, windowless walls, which rise very straight, taking the sun placidly. The silver-grey stone, cut, if it came from this neighbourhood at all, from some now forgotten quarry, has the fine, close-grained texture of antique marble. The great northern gable is almost a classic pediment. The horizontal lines of plinth and ridge and cornice are kept unbroken, the roof of sea-grey slates being pitched less angularly than is usual in this rainy clime. A welcome contrast, the Prior thought it, to the sort of architectural nightmare he came from. He found the structure already more than half- [153] way up, the low squat pillars ready for their capitals.

Yes! it must have so happened often in the Middle Age, as you feel convinced, in looking sometimes at medieval building. Style must have changed under the very hands of men who were no wilful innovators. Thus it was here, in the later work of Prior Saint-Jean, all unconsciously. The mysterious harper sat there always, at the topmost point achieved; played, idly enough it might seem, on his precious instrument, but kept in fact the hard taxed workmen literally in tune, working for once with a ready will, and, so to speak, with really inventive hands–working expeditiously, in this favourable weather, till far into the night, as they joined unbidden in a chorus, which hushed, or rather turned to music, the noise of their chipping. It was hardly noise at all, even in the night-time. Now and again Brother Apollyon descended nimbly to surprise them, at an opportune moment, by the display of an immense strength. A great cheer exploded suddenly, as single-handed he heaved a massive stone into its place. He seemed to have no sense of weight: “Put there by the devil!” the modern villager assures you.

With a change then, not so much of style as of temper, of management, in the application of acknowledged rules, Prior Saint-Jean shaping only, adapting, simplifying, partly with a view [154] to economy, not the heavy stones only, but the heavy manner of using them, turned light. With no pronounced ornamentation, it is as if in the upper story ponderous root and stem blossomed gracefully, blossomed in cornice and capital and pliant arch-line, as vigorous as they were graceful, and rose on high quickly. Almost suddenly tie-beam and rafter knit themselves together into the stone, and the dark, dry, roomy place was closed in securely to this day. Mere audible music, certainly, had counted for something in the operations of an art, held at its best (as we know) to be a sort of music made visible. That idle singer, one might fancy, by an art beyond art, had attracted beams and stones into their fit places. And there, sure enough, he still sits, as a final decorative touch, by way of apex on the gable which looks northward, though much weather-worn, and with an ugly gap between the shoulder and the fingers on the harp,* as if, literally, he had cut off his right hand and put it from him:–King David, or an angel? guesses the careless tourist. The space below has been lettered. After a little puzzling you recognise there the relics of a familiar verse from a Latin psalm Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum,+ and the rest: inscribed as well as may be in Greek characters. Prior Saint-Jean caused it to be so inscribed, absurdly, during his last days there.

[155] And is not the human body, too, a building, with architectural laws, a structure, tending by the very forces which primarily held it together to drop asunder in time? Not in vain, it seemed, had Prior Saint-Jean come to this mystic place for the improvement of his body’s health. Thenceforth that fleshly tabernacle had housed him, had housed his cunning, overwrought and excitable soul, ever the better day by day, and he began to feel his bodily health to be a positive quality or force, the presence near him of that singular being having surely something to do with this result. He and his fascinations, his music, himself, might at least be taken for an embodiment of all those genial influences of earth and sky, and the easy ways of living here, which made him turn, with less of an effort than he had known for many years past, to his daily tasks, and sink so regularly, so immediately, to wholesome rest on returning from them. It was as if Brother Apollyon himself abhorred the spectacle of distress, and mainly for his own satisfaction charmed away other people’s maladies. The mere touch of that ice-cold hand, laid on the feverish brow, when the Prior lapsed from time to time into his former troubles, certainly calmed the respiration of a troubled sleeper. Was there magic in it, not wholly natural? The hand might have been a dead one. But then, was it surprising, after all, that the [156] methods of curing men’s maladies, as being in very deed the fruit of sin, should have something strange and unlooked-for about them, like some of those Old Testament healings and purifications which the Prior’s biblical lore suggested to him? Yet Brother Apollyon, if their surly Janitor, in his less kindly moments, spoke truly, himself greatly needed purification, being not only a thief, but a homicide in hiding from the law. Nay, once, on his annual return from southern or eastern lands, he had been observed on his way along the streets of the great town literally scattering the seeds of disease till his serpent-skin bag was empty. And within seven days the “black death” was there, reaping its thousands. As a wise man declared, he who can best cure disease can also most cunningly engender it.

In short, these creatures of rule, these “regulars,” the Prior and his companion, were come in contact for the first time in their lives with the power of untutored natural impulse, of natural inspiration. The boy experienced it immediately in the games which suited his years, but which he had never so much as seen before; as his superior was to undergo its influence by-and-by in serious study. By night chiefly, in its long, continuous twilights, Hyacinth became really a boy at last, with immense gaiety; eyes, hands and feet awake, expanding, as he raced his comrade over the [157] turf, with the conical Druidic stone for a goal, or wrestled lithely enough with him, though as with a rock; or, taking the silver bow in hand for a moment, transfixed a mark, next a bird, on the bough, on the wing, shedding blood for the first time, with a boy’s delight, a boy’s remorse. Friend Apollyon seemed able to draw the wild animals too, to share their sport, yet not altogether kindly. Tired, surfeited, he destroys them when his game with them is at an end; breaks the toy; deftly snaps asunder the fragile back. Though all alike would come at his call, or the sound of his harp, he had his preferences; and warred in the night-time, as if on principle, against the creatures of the day. The small furry thing he pierced with his arrow fled to him nevertheless caressingly, with broken limb, to die palpitating in his hand. In this wonderful season, the migratory birds, from Norway, from Britain beyond the seas, came there as usual on the north wind, with sudden tumult of wings; but went that year no further, and by Christmas-time had built their nests, filling that belt of woodland around the vale with the chatter of their business and love quarrels. In turn they drew after them strangers no one here had ever known before; the like of which Hyacinth, who knew his bestiary, had never seen even in a picture. The wild-cat, the wild- swan–the boy peeped on these wonders as they floated over the vale, or [158] glided with unwonted confidence over its turf, under the moonlight, or that frequent continuous aurora which was not the dawn. Even the modest rivulets of the hill-side felt that influence, and “lisped” no longer, but babbled as they leapt, like mountain streams, exposing their rocky bed. Were they angry, as they ran red sometimes with blood-drops from the stricken bird caught there by rock or bough, as it fell with rent breast among the waves?

But say, think, what you might against him, the pagan outlaw was worth his hire as a herdsman; seemingly loved his sheep; was an “affectionate shepherd"; cured their diseases; brought them easily to the birth, and if they strayed afar would bring them back tenderly upon his shoulders. Monastic persons would have seen that image many times before. Yet if Apollyon looked like the great carved figure over the low doorway of their place of penitence at home, that could be but an accident, or perhaps a deceit; so closely akin to those soulless creatures did he still seem to the wondering Prior,– immersed in, or actually a part of, that irredeemable natural world he had dreaded so greatly ere he came hither. And was he after all making terms with it now, in the seductive person of this mysterious being–man or demon–suspected of murder; who has an air of unfathomable evil about him as from a distant but ineffaceable past, and a sort of heathen [159] understanding with the dark realm of matter; who is bringing the simple people, the women and lovesick lads, back to those caves and cromlechs and blasted trees, resorts of old godless secret-telling? And still he has all his own way with beasts and man, with the Prior himself, much as all alike distrust him.

Most conspicuous in the little group of buildings, a feudal tower of goodly white stone, cylindrical and smoothly polished without to hinder the ascent of creeping things, and snugly plastered within to resist the damp, was the pigeon-house–a veritable feudal tower, a veritable feudal plaisance of birds, which the common people dared not so much as ruffle. About a thousand of them were housed there, each in its little chamber, encouraged to grow plump, and to breed, in perfect self-content. From perch to perch of the great axle-tree in the centre, monastic feet might climb, gentle monastic hands pass round to every tiny compartment in turn. The arms of the monastery were carved on the keystone of the doorway, and the tower finished in a conical roof, with becoming aerial gaillardise, with pretty dormer- windows for the inmates to pass in and out, little balconies for brooding in the sun, little awnings to protect them from rough breezes, and a great weather-vane, on which the birds crowded for the chance of a ride. If the peasants of that day, whose small fields they plundered, noting all this, perhaps [160] envied the birds dumbly, for the brethren, on the other hand, it was a constant delight to watch the feathered brotherhood, which supplied likewise their daintiest fare. Who then, what hawk, or wild-cat, or other savage beast, had ravaged it so wantonly, so very cruelly destroyed the bright creatures in a single night–broken backs, rent away limbs, pierced the wings? And what was that object there below? The silver harp surely, lying broken likewise on the sanded floor, soaking in the pale milky blood and torn plumage.

Apollyon sobbed and wept audibly as he went about his ordinary doings next day, for once fully, though very sadly, awake in it; and towards evening, when the villagers came to the Prior to confess themselves, the Feast of the Nativity being now at hand, he too came along with them in his place meekly, like any other penitent, touched the lustral water devoutly, knew all the ways, seemed to desire absolution from some guilt of blood heavier than the slaughter of beast or bird. The Prior and his attendant, on their side, are reminded that by this time they have wellnigh forgotten the monastic duties still incumbent upon them, especially in that matter of the “Offices.” On the vigil of the feast, however, Brother Apollyon himself summoned the devout to Midnight Mass with the great bell, which had hung silent for a generation, wedged in immoveably by a beam of [161] the cradle fallen out of its place. With an immense effort of strength he relieved it, hitched the bell back upon its wheel; the thick rust cracked on the hinges, and the strokes tolled forth betimes, with a hundred querulous, quaint creatures, bats and owls, circling stupidly in the waves of sound, but allowed to settle back again undisturbedly into their beds.

People and priest, the Prior, vested as well as might be, with Hyacinth as “server,” come in due course, all alike amazed to find that frozen neglected place, with its low-browed vault and narrow windows, alight, and as if warmed with flowers from a summer more radiant far than that of France, with ilex and laurel–gilt laurel– by way of holly and box. Prior Saint-Jean felt that he had never really seen flowers before. Somewhat later they and the like of them seemed to have grown into and over his brain; to have degraded the scientific and abstract outlines of things into a tangle of useless ornament. Whence were they procured? From what height, or hellish depth perhaps? Apollyon, who entered the chapel just then, as if quite naturally, though with a bleating lamb in his bosom ("dropped" thus early in that wonderful season) by way of an offering, took his place at the altar’s very foot, and drawing forth his harp, now restrung, at the right moment, turned to real silvery music the hoarse Gloria in Excelsis of those rude worshippers, still [162] shrinking from him, while they listened in a little circle, as he stood there in his outlandish attire of skins strangely spotted and striped. With that however the Mass broke off unconsummated. The Prior felt obliged to desist from the sacred office, and had left the altar hurriedly.

But Brother Apollyon put his strange attire aside next day, and in a much-worn monk’s frock, drawn forth from a dark corner, came with them, still like a Penitent, when they turned once more to their neglected studies somewhat sadly. See them then, after a collect for “Light” repeated by Hyacinth, skull-cap in hand, seated at their desks in the little scriptorium, panelled off from their living-room on the first floor, while the Prior makes an effort to recover the last thought of his long-suspended work, in the execution of which the boy is to assist with his skilful pen. The great glazed windows remain open; admit, as if already on the soft air of spring, what seems like a stream of flowery odours, the entire moonlit scene, with the thorn bushes on the vale-side prematurely bursting into blossom, and the sound of birds and flocks emphasising the deep silence of the night.

Apollyon then, as if by habit, as he had shared all their occupations of late, had taken his seat beside them, meekly enough, at first with the manner of a mere suppliant for the [163] crumbs of their high studies. But, straightway again, he surprises by more than racing forward incredibly on the road to facts, and from facts to luminous doctrine; Prior Saint-Jean himself, in comparison, seeming to lag incompetently behind. He can but wonder at this strange scholar’s knowledge of a distant past, evidenced in his familiarity (it was as if he might once have spoken them) with the dead languages in which their text-books are written. There was more surely than the utmost merely natural acuteness in his guesses as to the words intended by those crabbed contractions, of their meaning, in his sense of allusions and the like. An ineffaceable memory it might rather seem of the entire world of which those languages had been the living speech, once more vividly awake under the Prior’s cross- questioning, and now more than supplementing his own laborious search.

And at last something of the same kind happens with himself. Had he, on his way hither from the convent, passed unwittingly through some river or rivulet of Lethe, that had carried away from him all his so carefully accumulated intellectual baggage of fact and theory? The hard and abstract laws, or theory of the laws, of music, of the stars, of mechanical structure, in hard and abstract formulae, adding to the abstract austerity of the man, seemed to have deserted him; to be revived in him again [164] however, at the contact of this extraordinary pupil or fellow-inquirer, though in a very different guise or attitude towards himself, as matters no longer to be reasoned upon and understood, but to be seen rather, to be looked at and heard. Did not he see the angle of the earth’s axis with the ecliptic, the deflexions of the stars from their proper orbits with fatal results here below, and the earth–wicked, unscriptural truth!- -moving round the sun, and those flashes of the eternal and unorbed light such as bring water, flowers, living things, out of the rocks, the dust? The singing of the planets: he could hear it, and might in time effect its notation. Having seen and heard, he might erelong speak also, truly and with authority, on such matters. Could one but arrest it for one’s self, for final transference to others, on the written or printed page–this beam of insight, or of inspiration!

Alas! one result of its coming was that it encouraged delay. If he set hand to the page, the firm halo, here a moment since, was gone, had flitted capriciously to the wall; passed next through the window, to the wall of the garden; was dancing back in another moment upon the innermost walls of one’s own miserable brain, to swell there– that astounding white light!–rising steadily in the cup, the mental receptacle, till it overflowed, and he lay faint and drowning in it. Or he rose above it, as above a great liquid surface, and hung giddily over it–light, [165] simple, and absolute–ere he fell. Or there was a battle between light and darkness around him, with no way of escape from the baffling strokes, the lightning flashes; flashes of blindness one might rather call them. In truth, the intuitions of the night (for they worked still, or tried to work, by night) became the sickly nightmares of the day, in which Prior Saint-Jean slept, or tried to sleep, or lay sometimes in a trance without food for many hours, from which he would spring up suddenly to crowd, against time, as much as he could into his book with pen or brush; winged flowers, or stars with human limbs and faces, still intruding themselves, or mere notes of light and darkness from the actual horizon. There it all is still in the faded gold and colours of the ancient volume– “Prior Saint-Jean’s folly”:–till on a sudden the hand collapses, as he becomes aware of that real, prosaic, broad daylight lying harsh upon the page, making his delicately toned auroras seem but a patch of grey, and himself for a moment, with a sigh of disgust, of self- reproach, to be his old unimpassioned monastic self once more.

The boy, for his part, was grown at last full of misgiving. He ponders how he may get the Prior away, or escape by himself, find his way back to the convent and report his master’s condition, his strange loss of memory for names and the like, his illusions about himself and [166] others. And he is more than ever distrustful now of his late beloved playmate, who quietly obstructs any movement of the kind, and has undertaken, at the Prior’s entreaty, to draw down the moon from the sky, for some shameful price, known to the magicians of that day.

Yet Apollyon, at all events, would still play as gaily as ever on occasion. Hitherto they had played as young animals do; without playthings namely, applying hand or foot only to their games. But it happened about this time that a grave was dug, a grave of unusual depth, to be ready, in that fiery plaguesome weather, the first heat of veritable summer come suddenly, for the body of an ancient villager then at the point of death. In the drowsy afternoon Hyacinth awakes Apollyon, to see the strange thing he has found at the grave-side, among the gravel and yellow bones cast up there. He had wrested it with difficulty from the hands of the half-crippled gravedigger, at eighty still excitable by the mere touch of metal.

The like of it had indeed been found before, within living memory, in this place of immemorial use as a graveyard–"Devil’s penny-pieces" people called them. Five such lay hidden already in a dark corner of the chapel, to keep them from superstitious employment. To-day they came out of hiding at last. Apollyon knew the use of the thing at a glance; had put an expert hand to it forthwith; poises the [167] discus; sets it wheeling. How easily it spins round under one’s arm, in the groove of the bent fingers, slips thence smoothly like a knife flung from its sheath, as if for a course of perpetual motion! Splendescit eundo: it seems to burn as it goes. It is heavier many times than it looks, and sharp-edged. By night they have scoured and polished the corroded surfaces. Apollyon promises Hyacinth and himself rare sport in the cool of the evening–an evening however, as it turned out, not less breathless than the day.

In the great heat Apollyon had flung aside, as if for ever, the last sorry remnant of his workman’s attire, and challenged the boy to do the same. On the moonlit turf there, crouching, right foot foremost, and with face turned backwards to the disk in his right hand, his whole body, in that moment of rest, full of the circular motion he is about to commit to it, he seemed–beautiful pale spectre–to shine from within with a light of his own, like that of the glow-worm in the thicket, or the dead and rotten roots of the old trees. And as if they had a proper motion of their own in them, the disks, the quoits, ran, amid the delighted shouts and laughter of the boy, as he follows, scarcely less swift, to score the points of their contact with the grass. Again and again they recommence, forgetful of the hours; while the death-bell cries out harshly for the grave’s occupant, and [168] the corpse itself is borne along stealthily not far from them, and, unnoticed by either, the entire aspect of things has changed. Under the overcast sky it is in darkness they are playing, by guess and touch chiefly; and suddenly an icy blast of wind has lifted the roof from the old chapel, the trees are moaning in wild circular motion, and their devil’s penny-piece, when Apollyon throws it for the last time, is itself but a twirling leaf in the wind, till it sinks edgewise, sawing through the boy’s face, uplifted in the dark to trace it, crushing in the tender skull upon the brain.

His shout of laughter is turned in an instant to a cry of pain, of reproach; and in that which echoed it–an immense cry, as from the very heart of ancient tragedy, over the Picard wolds–it was as if that half-extinguished deity, its proper immensity, its old greatness and power, were restored for a moment. The villagers in their beds wondered. It was like the sound of some natural catastrophe.

The storm which followed was still in possession, still moving tearfully among the poplar groves, though it had spent its heat and thunder. The last drops of the blood of Hyacinth still trickled through the thick masses of dark hair, where the tonsure had been. An abundant rain, mingling with the copious purple stream, had coloured the grass all around where the corpse lay, stealing afar in tiny channels.

[169] So it was, when Apollyon, reduced in the morning light to his smaller self, came with the other people of the Grange to gaze, to enquire, and found the Prior already there, speechless. Clearly this was no lightning stroke; and Apollyon straightway conceives certain very human fears that, coming upon those antecedent suspicions of himself, the boy’s death may be thought the result of intention on his part. He proposes to bury the body at once, with no delay for religious rites, in that still uncovered grave, the bearers having fled from it in the tempest.

And next day, fulfilling his annual custom, he went his way northward, without a word of farewell to Prior Saint-Jean, whom he leaves in fact under suspicion of murder. From the profound slumber which had followed the excitements of yesterday, the Prior awoke amid the sound of voices, the voices of the peasants singing no Christian song, certainly, but a song which Apollyon himself had taught them, to dismiss him on his journey. For, strange or not as it might be, they loved him, perhaps in spite of themselves; would certainly protect him at any risk. Prior Saint-Jean arose, and looked forth– with wonder. A brief spell of sunshine amid the rain had clothed the vale with a marvel of blue flowers, if it were not rather with remnants of the blue sky itself, fallen among the woods there. But there too, in the little courtyard, [170] the officers of justice are already in waiting to take him, on the charge of having caused the death of his young server by violence, in a fit of mania, induced by dissolute living in that solitary place. One hitherto so prosperous in life would, of course, have his enemies.

The monastic authorities, however, claim him from the secular power, to correct his offence in their own way, and with friendly interpretation of the facts. Madness, however wicked, being still madness, Prior, now simple Brother, Saint-Jean, is detained in a sufficiently cheerful apartment, in a region of the atmosphere likely to restore lost wits, whence indeed he can still see the country– vallis monachorum. The one desire which from time to time fitfully rouses him again to animation for a few moments is to return thither. Here then he remains in peace, ostensibly for the completion of his great work. He never again set pen to it, consistent and clear now on nothing save that longing to be once more at the Grange, that he may get well, or die and be well so. He is like the damned spirit, think some of the brethren, saying “I will return to the house whence I came out.” Gazing thither daily for many hours, he would mistake mere blue distance, when that was visible, for blue flowers, for hyacinths, and wept at the sight; though blue, as he observed, was the colour of Holy Mary’s gown on the illuminated page, the colour of hope, of merciful [171] omnipresent deity. The necessary permission came with difficulty, just too late. Brother Saint-Jean died, standing upright with an effort to gaze forth once more, amid the preparations for his departure.

142. *Published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Nov. 1893, and now reprinted by the kind permission of the proprietors.

154. *Or sundial, as some maintain, though turned from the south.

154. +Latin Vulgate (ed. Saint Jerome) Psalm 126, verse 1:
“canticum graduum Salomonis nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem frustra vigilavit qui custodit.” King James Bible’s translation:
“When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream.”


Charles L. Shadwell’s Preface  •  A Chronology of Pater’s Works, 1866-1895  •  Prosper Merimee  •  Raphael  •  Pascal  •  Art Notes in North Italy  •  Notre-Dame d’Amiens  •  Vezelay  •  Apollo in Picardy  •  The Child in the House  •  Emerald Uthwart  •  Diaphaneite

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Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
By Walter Horatio Pater
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