On Something/The Death of Wandering Peter

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
The Death of Wandering Peter

"I will confess and I will not deny," said Wandering Peter (of whom you have heard little but of whom in God's good time you shall hear more). "I will confess and I will not deny that the chief pleasure I know is the contemplation of my fellow beings."

He spoke thus in his bed in the inn of a village upon the River Yonne beyond Auxerre, in which bed he lay a-dying; but though he was dying he was full of words.

"What energy! What cunning! What desire! I have often been upon the edge of a steep place, such as a chalk pit or a cliff above a plain, and watched them down below, hurrying around, turning about, laying down, putting up, leading, making, organizing, driving, considering, directing, exceeding, and restraining; upon my soul I was proud to be one of them! I have said to myself," said Wandering Peter, "lift up your heart; you also are one of these! For though I am," he continued, "a wandering man and lonely, given to the hills and to empty places, yet I glory in the workers on the plain, as might a poor man in his noble lineage. From these I came; to these in my old age I would have returned."

At these words the people about his bed fell to sobbing when they thought how he would never wander more, but Peter Wanderwide continued with a high heart:

"How pleasant it is to see them plough! First they cunningly contrive an arrangement that throws the earth aside and tosses it to the air, and then, since they are too weak to pull the same, they use great beasts, oxen or horses or even elephants, and impose them with their will, so that they patiently haul this contrivance through the thick clods; they tear up and they put into furrows, and they transform the earth. Nothing can withstand them. Birds you will think could escape them by flying up into the air. It is an error. Upon birds also my people impose their view. They spread nets, food, bait, trap, and lime. They hail stones and shot and arrows at them. They cause some by a perpetual discipline to live near them, to lay eggs and to be killed at will; of this sort are hens, geese, turkeys, ducks, and guinea-fowls. Nothing eludes the careful planning of man.

"Moreover, they can build. They do not build this way or that, as a dull necessity forces them, not they! They build as they feel inclined. They hew down, they saw through (and how marvellous is a saw!), they trim timber, they mix lime and sand, they excavate the recesses of the hills. Oh! the fine fellows! They can at whim make your chambers or the Tower prison, or my aunt's new villa at Wimbledon (which is a joke of theirs), or St. Pancras Station, or the Crystal Palace, or Westminster Abbey, or St. Paul's, or Bon Secours. They are agreeable to every change in the wind that blows about the world. It blows Gothic, and they say 'By all means' - and there is your Gothic - a thing dreamt of and done! It suddenly veers south again and blows from the Mediterranean. The jolly little fellows are equal to the strain, and up goes Amboise, and Anet, and the Louvre, and all the Renaissance. It blows everyhow and at random as though in anger at seeing them so ready. They care not at all! They build the Eiffel Tower, the Queen Anne house, the Mary Jane house, the Modern-Style house, the Carlton, the Ritz, the Grand Palais, the Trocadero, Olympia, Euston, the Midhurst Sanatorium, and old Beit's Palace in Park Lane. They are not to be defeated, they have immortal certitudes.

"Have you considered their lines and their drawings and their cunning plans?" said Wandering Peter. "They are astonishing there! Put a bit of charcoal into my dog's mouth or my pet monkey's paw - would he copy the world? Not he! But men - my brothers - they take it in hand and make war against the unspeaking forces; the trees and the hills are of their own showing, and the places in which they dwell, by their own power, become full of their own spirit. Nature is made more by being their model, for in all they draw, paint, or chisel they are in touch with heaven and with hell.... They write (Lord! the intelligence of their men, and Lord! the beauty of their women). They write unimaginable things!

"They write epics, they write lyrics, they write riddles and marching songs and drinking songs and rhetoric, and chronicles, and elegies, and pathetic memories; and in everything that they write they reveal things greater than they know. They are capable," said Peter Wanderwide, in his dying enthusiasm, "of so writing that the thought enlarges upon the writing and becomes far more than what they have written. They write that sort of verse called 'Stop-Short,' which when it is written makes one think more violently than ever, as though it were an introduction to the realms of the soul. And then again they write things which gently mock themselves and are a consolation for themselves against the doom of death."

But when Peter Wanderwide said that word "death," the howling and the boo-hooing of the company assembled about his bed grew so loud that he could hardly hear himself think. For there was present the Mayor of the village, and the Priest of the village, and the Mayor's wife, and the Adjutant Mayor or Deputy Mayor, and the village Councillor, and the Road-mender, and the Schoolmaster, and the Cobbler, and all the notabilities, as many as could crush into the room, and none but the Doctor was missing.

And outside the house was a great crowd of the village folk, weeping bitterly and begging for news of him, and mourning that so great and so good a man should find his death in so small a place.

Peter Wanderwide was sinking very fast, and his life was going out with his breath, but his heart was still so high that he continued although his voice was failing:

"Look you, good people all, in your little passage through the daylight, get to see as many hills and buildings and rivers, fields, books, men, horses, ships, and precious stones as you can possibly manage to do. Or else stay in one village and marry in it and die there. For one of these two fates is the best fate for every man. Either to be what I have been, a wanderer with all the bitterness of it, or to stay at home and hear in one's garden the voice of God.

"For my part I have followed out my fate. And I propose in spite of my numerous iniquities, by the recollection of my many joys in the glories of this earth, as by corks, to float myself in the sea of nothingness until I reach the regions of the Blessed and the pure in heart.

"For I think when I am dead Almighty God will single me out on account of my accoutrement, my stirrup leathers, and the things that I shall be talking of concerning Ireland and the Perigord, and my boat upon the narrow seas; and I think He will ask St. Michael, who is the Clerk and Registrar of battling men, who it is that stands thus ready to speak (unless his eyes betray him) of so many things? Then St. Michael will forget my name although he will know my face; he will forget my name because I never stayed long enough in one place for him to remember it.

"But St. Peter, because he is my Patron Saint and because I have always had a special devotion to him, will answer for me and will have no argument, for he holds the keys. And he will open the door and I will come in. And when I am inside the door of Heaven I shall freely grow those wings, the pushing and nascence of which have bothered my shoulder blades with birth pains all my life long, and more especially since my thirtieth year. I say, friends and companions all, that I shall grow a very satisfying and supporting pair of wings, and once I am so furnished I shall be received among the Blessed, and I shall at once begin to tell them, as I told you on earth, all sorts of things, both false and true, with regard to the countries through which I carried forward my homeless feet, and in which I have been given such fulfilment for my eyes."

When Peter Wanderwide had delivered himself of these remarks, which he did with great dignity and fire for one in such extremity, he gasped a little, coughed, and died.

I need not tell you what solemnities attended his burial, nor with what fervour the people flocked to pray at his tomb; but it is worth knowing that the poet of that place, who was rival to the chief poet in Auxerre itself, gathered up the story of his death into a rhyme, written in the dialect of that valley, of which rhyme this is an English translation:

When Peter Wanderwide was young
He wandered everywhere he would;
And all that he approved was sung,
And most of what he saw was good.
When Peter Wanderwide was thrown
By Death himself beyond Auxerre,
He chanted in heroic tone
To Priest and people gathered there:
"If all that I have loved and seen
Be with me on the Judgment Day,
I shall be saved the crowd between
From Satan and his foul array.
"Almighty God will surely cry
'St. Michael! Who is this that stands
With Ireland in his dubious eye,
And Perigord between his hands,
"'And on his arm the stirrup thongs,
And in his gait the narrow seas,
And in his mouth Burgundian songs,
But in his heart the Pyrenees?'
"St. Michael then will answer right
(But not without angelic shame):
'I seem to know his face by sight;
I cannot recollect his name....'
"St. Peter will befriend me then,
Because my name is Peter too;
'I know him for the best of men
That ever wallopped barley brew.
"'And though I did not know him well,
And though his soul were clogged with sin,
I hold the keys of Heaven and Hell.
Be welcome, noble Peterkin.'
"Then shall I spread my native wings
And tread secure the heavenly floor,
And tell the Blessed doubtful things
Of Val d'Aran and Perigord."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
This was the last and solemn jest
Of weary Peter Wanderwide,
He spoke it with a failing zest,
And having spoken it, he died.