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Heritage

(AN IMPRESSION)


From that garden seat one could see the old low house of pinkish brick, with a path of queer-shaped flagstones running its length, and the tall grey chapel from which came the humming and chanting and organ drone of the Confirmation Service. But for that, and the voices of two gardeners working below us among the fruits and flowers, the July hush was complete. And suddenly one became aware of being watched.

That thin white windmill on the hill!

Away past the house, perhaps six hundred yards, it stood, ghostly, with a face like that of a dark-eyed white owl, made by the crossing of its narrow sails. With a black companion—a yew-tree cut to pyramid form, on the central point of Sussex—it was watching us, for though one must presume it built of old time by man, it looked up there against the sky, with its owl's face and its cross, like a Christo-Pagan presence.

What exactly Paganism was we shall never know; what exactly Christianism is, we are as little likely to discover; but here and there the two principles seem to dwell together in amity. For Paganism believed in the healthy and joyful body; and Christianism in the soul superior thereto. And, where we were sitting that summer day, was the home of bodies wrecked yet learning to be joyful, and of souls not above the process.

We moved from the grey-wood seat, and came on tiptoe to where house and chapel formed a courtyard. The doors were open, and we stood unseen, listening. From the centre of a square stone fountain a little bubble of water came up, and niched along one high wall a number of white pigeons were preening their feathers, silent, and almost motionless, as though attending to the Service.

The sheer emotion of church sounds will now and then steal away reason from the unbeliever, and take him drugged and dreaming. "Defend, O Lord, this Thy child!...." So it came out to us in the dream and drowse of summer, which the little bubble of water cooled.

In his robes—cardinal, and white, and violet—the good Bishop stood in full sunlight, speaking to the crippled and the air-raid children in their drilled rows under the shade of the doves' wall; and one felt far from this age, as if one had strayed back into that time when the builders of the old house laid slow brick on brick, wetting their whistles on mead, and knowing not tobacco.

And then, out by the chapel porch moved three forms in blue, with red neckties, and we were again in this new age, watching the faces of those listening children. The good Bishop was making them feel that he was happy in their presence, and that made them happy in his. For the great thing about life is the going-out of friendliness from being to being. And if a place be beautiful, and friendliness ever on the peace-path there, what more can we desire? And yet—how ironical this place of healing, this beautiful "Heritage!" Verily a heritage of our modern civilisation which makes all this healing necessary! If life were the offspring of friendliness and beauty's long companionship, there would be no crippled children, no air-raid children, none of those good fellows in blue with red ties and maimed limbs; and the colony to which the Bishop spoke, standing grey-headed in the sun, would be dissolved. Friendliness seems so natural, beauty so appropriate to this earth! But in this torn world they are as fugitives who nest together here and there. Yet stumbling by chance on their dove-cotes and fluttering happiness, one makes a little golden note, which does not fade off the tablet.


How entrancing it is to look at a number of faces never seen before—and how exasperating!—stamped coins of lives quite separate, quite different from every other; masks pallid, sunburned, smooth, or crumpled, to peep behind which one longs, as a lover looking for his lady at carnival, or a man aching at summer beauty which he cannot quite fathom and possess. If one had a thousand lives, and time to know and sympathy to understand the heart of every creature met with, one would want—a million! May life make us all intuitive, strip away self-consciousness, and give us sunshine and unknown faces!

What were they all feeling and thinking—those little cripples doing their drill on crutches; those air-raid waifs swelling their Cockney chests, rising on their toes, puffing their cheeks out in anxiety to do their best; those soldiers in their blue "slops," with a hand gone there and a leg gone here, and this and that grievous disability, all carrying on so cheerfully?

Values are queer in this world. We are accustomed to exalt those who can say "bo" to a goose; but that gift of expression which twines a halo round a lofty brow is no guarantee of goodness in the wearer. The really good are those plucky folk who plod their silent, often suffering, generally exploited ways, from birth to death, out of reach of the music of man's praise.

The first thing each child cripple makes here is a little symbolic ladder. In making it he climbs a rung on the way to his sky of self-support; and when at last he leaves this home, he steps off the top of it into the blue, and—so they say—walks there upright and undismayed, as if he had never suffered at Fate's hands. But what do he and she—for many are of the pleasant sex—think of the sky when they get there; that dusty and smoke-laden sky of the industrialism which begat them? How can they breathe in it, coming from this place of flowers and fresh air, of clean bright workshops and elegant huts, which they on crutches built for themselves?

Masters of British industry, and leaders of the men and women who slave to make its wheels go round, make a pilgrimage to this spot, and learn what foul disfigurement you have brought on the land of England these last five generations! The natural loveliness in this Heritage is no greater than the loveliness that used to be in a thousand places which you have blotted out of the book of beauty, with your smuts and wheels, your wires and welter. And to what end? To manufacture crippled children, and pale, peaky little Cockneys whose nerves are gone; (and, to be sure, the railways and motor cars which will bring you here to see them coming to life once more in sane and natural surroundings!) Blind and deaf and dumb industrialism is the accursed thing in this land and in all others.

If only we could send all our crippled soldiers to relearn life, in places such as this; if, instead of some forty or fifty, forty or fifty thousand could begin again, under the gaze of that white windmill! If they could slough off here not only those last horrors, but the dinge and drang of their upbringing in towns, where wheels go round, lights flare, streets reek, and no larks sing, save some little blinded victim in a cage. Poor William Blake:


"I will not cease from fighting, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land!"


A long vigil his sword is keeping, while the clock strikes every hour of the twenty-four. We have not yet even laid Jerusalem's foundation stone. Ask one of those maimed soldier boys. "I like it here. Oh, yes, it's very pleasant for a change." But he hastens to tell you that he goes in to Brighton every day to his training school, as if that saved the situation; almost surprised he seems that beauty and peace and good air are not intolerable to his town-bred soul. The towns have got us—nearly all. Not until we let beauty and the quiet voice of the fields, and the scent of clover creep again into our nerves, shall we begin to build Jerusalem and learn peacefulness once more. The countryman hates strife; it breaks his dream. And life should have its covering of dream—bird's flight, bird's song, wind in the ash-trees and the corn, tall lilies glistening, the evening shadows slanting out, the night murmuring of waters. There is no other genuine dream; without it to sweeten all, life is harsh and shrill and east-wind dry, and evil overruns her more quickly than blight be-gums the rose-tree or frost blackens fern of a cold June night. We elders are past re-making England, but our children, even these crippled children here, may yet take a hand....

We left the tinies to the last—all Montessorians, and some of them little cripples, too, but with cheeks so red that they looked as if the colour must come off. They lived in a house past the white mill, across the common; and they led us by the hand down spotless corridors into white dormitories. The smile of the prettiest little maid of them all was the last thing one saw, leaving that "Heritage" of print frocks and children's faces, of flowers and nightingales, under the lee of a group of pines, the only dark beauty in the long sunlight.

John Galsworthy

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