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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 16
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 16 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :977

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 16


I have been thinking all to-day, for no particular reason that I can discover, of a house where I spent many of the happiest days of my life. It belonged for some years to an old friend of mine a bachelor, a professional man, who used to go there for his holidays, and delighted to gather round him a few familiar friends. Year after year I used to go there, sometimes twice in the year, for long periods together. The house was in North Wales: it stood somewhat above the plain on a terrace among woods, at the base of a long line of dark crags, which showed their scarped fronts, with worn fantastic outlines, above the trees that clustered at their feet and straggled high up among the shoots of stone. The view from the house was of extraordinary beauty. There was a flat rich plain below, dotted with clumps of trees; a mountain rose at one side, a rocky ridge. Through the plain a slow river broadened to the sea, and at the mouth stood a little town, the smoke of which went up peacefully on still days. Across the sea, shadowy headlands of remote bays stood out one after another to the south. The house had a few sloping fields below it; a lawn embowered in trees, and a pretty old walled garden, where the sun-warmed air was redolent with the homely scent of old-fashioned herbs and flowers. Several little steep paths meandered through the wood, crossing and recrossing tiny leaping streams, and came out on a great tract of tumbled moorland above, with huge broad-backed mountains couched about it.

The house itself was full of low, pleasant rooms, looking out on to a wide verandah. It was almost austerely furnished, and the life was simple and serene. We used to go for vague walks on the moor or by the sea, and sometimes took long driving and walking expeditions among the hills. It was a rainy region, and we were often confined to the house, except for a brisk walk in the soft rain. The climate never suited me; I was always languid in body there, greedy of sleep and food. There was no great brilliance of talk, only a quiet ease of communication such as takes place among people of the same interests. I was ill there, more than once, and often anxious and perplexed. And yet, for all that, my memory persists in investing it all with a singular radiance, and tells me over and over again that I was never so happy in any place in my life. I must say that my friend was an ideal host, quiet, benevolent, anxious that people should enjoy themselves in their own way, and yet with a genial firmness of administration which is the greatest of all luxuries if it co-exists with much liberty. He was not a great talker, though he occasionally uttered a witty epigram, often of a somewhat caustic kind; but the air of serene benevolence with which he used to preside always set people at their ease. There was, too, another friend, who was there less often, but who shared the expense of the house, who was a singularly charming and stimulating talker, full of acute observation and emotional appreciation of character. The combination of the two was perfection.

It is pleasant to recollect the long, vague summer days there, the mornings spent in reading in the verandah, the afternoons in a quiet ramble; not less delightful were the short winter days, when the twilight set in early, and the house was warm and softly lit. One agreeable rule was that after dinner anyone who felt inclined should read rather than talk; and we have often sate in an amiable silence, with the fire rustling in the grate, and the leaves of books being softly turned. The charm was the absence of constraint, and the feeling that one could say exactly what came into one's mind without any danger of being misunderstood. But for all that I cannot quite explain the golden content that seems in retrospect to have overspread the whole house. We were often frankly critical. We did not spare each other's weaknesses; but no resentment, no dissatisfaction, no strife seems to me ever to have clouded the sunny atmosphere.

It all came to an end some years ago; circumstances made it necessary for my friends to give up the house; and one of the most beautiful instances of the spirit of the place was on the occasion of our last visit. We knew that the good days were over, and that our lives could never be quite so pleasantly united again; but the place held us under its spell; and I remember as I drove away through the woods, in a soft moist dawn, I felt nothing but a deep and uncomplaining gratitude for all the happiness that I had enjoyed there; the trees, the crags, the embowered lawn with its smiling flowers, the verandah with its chairs piled up for departure, the dismantled library, all seemed to say farewell with the same tenderness with which they had always welcomed us. It seemed impossible to regret or repine. The house would receive and guard and comfort other pilgrims in their turn. I felt that any sense of sorrowful loss would be somehow like a kind of treachery, a peevish ingratitude, not even to be entertained in thought, much less expressed; to have yielded to any form of repining would have been, it seemed to me, like spending the last few minutes of a visit, where one had been received with a cordial and simple hospitality, in pointing out to one's host the inconvenience of his house.

I think that where one so often makes a mistake in life is in thinking of the beautiful past as over and done with. One ought to think of it rather as existing. It can no more be lost than any other beautiful thing or fine feeling can be lost. The flower may fade, the tree may shed its leaf, the work of art may perish, the great poem may be forgotten; the lovely ancient building, with all the grace of tradition and memory, all the sweet mellowing of outline and detail, may be dismantled or restored; yet the beauty is not in the passing form, but in the spirit that expresses itself in the form on the one hand--the great, subtle, tender, powerful spirit that is for ever working and creating and producing--and, on the other hand, it lies no less in the desire and worship that thrills and beats, deep in the spirit, leaning out like one who gazes upon the sunset from the window of a tower, listening to the appeal of beauty, looking out for it, welcoming it, thirsting for it. Both these powers are there, the spirit that calls and the spirit that answers the call. The mistake we make is to anchor ourselves timidly and persistently to one set of beautiful forms, and if they are destroyed, to feel that the world is made desolate for us. We are apt to think that there is a sort of loyalty about this, and that an ineffectual repining for the beautiful thing that has passed proves the intensity of our regard and love. It is not so; we might as well repine if we have loved a child, to find it growing up to strength and manhood. Because we have loved the rosebud, we need not despise the rose, and when the child loses its tender charm, when the rose drops her loosened petals on the grass, our love is a mere sentiment, an aesthetic appreciation, if we can only regret what is past. It is the fragrant charm, the echoing harmony of the spirit that matters; and if the charm passes out of our ken, if the song dies upon the air, if the sunset hue fades, it is all there none the less, both the beauty and the love we bore it. I do not mean that the conquest is an easy one, because our perceptions are so narrow and so finite that when the sweet sound or the delicate light passes out of our horizon, it is hard to feel that it is not dead. But we ought, I am sure, to remind ourselves more constantly that both the quality of beauty itself and the desirous love that it evokes are the unchangeable things; and that though they shift and fuse, ebb and flow, they are assuredly there. "When they persecute you in one city, flee into another," said the Saviour of men in a dim allegory. It is true of all things; and the secret is to realise that we have no continuing city. Of course there sometimes fall shattering blows upon us, when someone who was half the world to us, on whom we have leant and depended, whose mind and heart have cast a glow of hope and comfort upon every detail of life, steps past the veil into the unseen. Then comes the darkest hour of struggling bewilderment; but even then we make a miserable mistake, if we withdraw into the silence of our own hearts and refuse to be comforted, priding ourselves, it may be, upon the abiding faithfulness of our love. But to yield to that is treachery; and then, most of all, we ought to stretch out our hands to all about us and welcome every gift of love. It is impossible not to suffer, yet we are perhaps but tenderly punished for having loved the image better than the thing it signified. We are punished because our idolising love has rested content with the form that it has borne, and has not gone further and deeper into the love which it typified.

What we have to beware of is a timid and cautious loitering in the little experience we have ourselves selected, in the little garden we have fenced off from the plain and the wood. And thus the old house that I loved in my pleasant youth, the good days that I spent there year by year, are an earnest of the tender care that surrounds me. I will not regard them as past and gone; I will rather regard them as the slow sweet prelude of the great symphony; if I am now tossed upon the melancholy and broken waves of some vehement scherzo of life, the subject is but working itself out, and I will strive to apprehend it even here. There are other movements that await me, as wonderful, as sweet.

"And now that it is all over," said an old, wearied, and dying statesman, after a day of sad farewells, "it is not so bad after all." The terror, the disquietude, is not in the thing suffered, but in our own faithless hearts. But if we look back at the past and see how portion after portion has become dear and beautiful, can we not look forward with a more steadfast tranquillity and believe that the love and beauty are all there waiting for us, though the old light seems to have been withdrawn?

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