Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The Agreeable Monk

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My Agreeable Monk is no mediæval monastic, with serge gown and knotted cord; and the nearest approach that he ever makes to such a costume is when he takes his ease in his rich figured dressing-gown tied about with a bell-pull. And yet, in his aptitude for hilarity and good living, is he like to those monks of old, who sang, and laughed, and the rich wine quaffed, and lived on the daintiest fare. But my Agreeable Monk has not yet reached to his mediæval age, not having been born until this present century had quite run out of its teens; and though, like the gentlemen just alluded to, he very frequently laughs ha! ha! with a heartiness that is infectious, yet I may venture to say, that he so far comes short of his models in that he has never quaffed ha! ha! the recipe for that peculiar beverage having been lost in the mediæval mists.

My Agreeable Monk, too, has no circular spot shaven upon the top of his crown, a veritable crown-piece gleaming like silver from its dark boundary of hair; neither has he smoothly-shaven Jesuitical cheeks, such as we meet with on the countenances of theatrical gentlemen, Popish priests, and other actors, where the blueness of the mown surface interposes with marked effect between the red and white of cheek and choker. On the contrary, my Agreeable Monk can boast a capillary development of hyacinthine locks, and whiskers that are only tamed down from a militant air, by being trimmed and curled to the meekness of the lady-killer. No recluse, or ascetic is he, but a “muscular Christian;” still able, if need be, to use his fists in self-defence; still vigorous to pull an oar; still ready to ride across country whenever he can frame an excuse for “a short cut;” and with his lungs still in a highly healthy condition to bear their part in secular glees or to chant the service in —— Cathedral. For, in a Minor degree, he is one of its dignitaries; and, within its timeworn precincts, possesses a snug monastic retreat, admirably adapted to modern tastes and ideas.

It lies hard by the sacred building. The giant shadow of the great central tower steals over it in the summer’s sunset; and the prebendal rooks and jackdaws take it under their protection as an important portion of ecclesiastical property. We go round by the Lady Chapel, by a broad walk between level plots of turf, and passing under a low, dark, groined archway, find ourselves in cool grey cloisters, enclosing a square green lawn bright with flower-knots, on which we gaze through the unglazed windows. Pleasant is it on a July day to struggle out of the glaring sunshine into the refreshing retreat of these cool cloisters,—to pace their paved walks on their northern and western sides, and watch the golden light glowing on the other sides of the square, bringing out into all the sharpness of shine and shade the bright flower-knots, the creeping masses of ivy, the mullioned windows, and buttresses, and battlements, and warming up the queer old Gargoyles into fresh leers and laughter.

Along a shady side, and then we step into patches of sunlight; and, after passing some half-dozen doors (but no windows), we come to a portal whose formidable look of united oak and iron is considerably enlivened by a door-plate and letter-box in the newest style of mediæval enrichment. Fascinated by the gay colours, we peruse the rubric legends, and, trout-like, swallow the bait. A tug, and we are hauled within, and in a trice are landed in the domains of our Agreeable Monk.

An oak-panelled hall, matted under foot. On one wall the Oxford Almanack, mediævally framed; on the other side, over a Gothic oak hall-table, a framed and emblazoned list of anthems and cathedral-services for the week. Hard by, over-coats, boating-hats, chimney-pot-hats, and college-caps; then surplices and hoods, pendant from the wall, where at night, as I walk by them, they look like the ghosts of murdered minor-canons. And (Nota Bene!) not far from them, a cupboard lurking beneath the stairs; and, within it, a goodly store of pipes and tobacco. Down the hall, and to the further end of a passage, and we pass through a door.

A tolerably large and lofty room, of collegiate character, luxurious, and comfortable. The doors are of panelled oak, with ecclesiastical handles and hinges; there are two tall mullioned windows, filled with sheets of plate-glass; and there is an enormous fire-place, with steel dogs, and shining encaustic tiles, and a black oak chimney-piece nearly touching the ceiling, rich in carved work, relieved with gilding, and gay with a double row of emblazoned coats-of-arms. The walls are papered with a light sea-green, diapered with dark green fleur-de-lys; the window-curtains are now a thin white muslin, but in colder weather marone, with a broad gold border of a Greek pattern; the carpet a soft Turkey, on which the footfalls die a Desdemona death. Thickly hung upon the walls are proof-prints from world-famed pictures by Raffaelle and Ary Scheffer, interspersed with large photographs of English and Continental Cathedrals, and with a few masterly water-colours. They are hung in frames of gold, and velvet, and carved oak; and, as they all have wide white margins, they show out with telling effect from the sea-green walls. The book-cases are of light polished woods, carved in places with open work, behind which dark green cloth has been introduced; green leather, stamped with a gold pattern, is hung from the shelves, which are laden with richly-bound books, redolent of russia, and magnificent with morocco. In one corner is a stand for portfolios and prints; opposite to it is a Collard’s semi-grand, on which the Agreeable Monk will by-and-by discourse most excellent music. Dotted about everywhere are various species of the genus chair—Glastonbury chairs, lounging chairs, easy chairs that do not belie their name, and stiff-backed chairs, for ornament (it is to be presumed) and not for penance. Then, there are two or three tables, where are newspapers, and some of the latest periodicals and reviews, and a miscellaneous oddment of the current sacred and profane literature, stacked for convenience of reference (with a Peerage, and a Clergyman’s Almanac, and a Gardening Calendar, and a Book of Anthems, and a Clergy List, and Army List, and Navy List, and other handy books) in oak book-stands with carved ends of shields and fleur-de-lys. And, in a well-lighted corner, is a writing-table,—so well appointed that it is a pleasure to sit down to it, and scribble off a whole week’s arrears of correspondence. From the cushioned recesses of the two windows, we can look out on the flower-pots of a trimly-kept garden, shaded by venerable limes and cedars. Those sweet blossomy limes are a very store-house of enjoyment for the Agreeable Monk’s bees, who are grandly lodged in yonder ecclesiastical summer-house, the Gothic carvings of which were constructed “out of his own head,” as was once observed by a jocose prebendary, adopting the witty saying of another jocose prebendary, in order to make mild fun out of the Agreeable Monk’s amateur carpenterings. And there, against the south wall of the garden, with the Cathedral towers o’ertopping the elms for a background to the view, there is a conservatory filled with floral beauties, to whom the Agreeable Monk makes himself as benevolently amiable as though he were the Lady of the Sensitive Plant.

An Agreeable Monk.png

What a charming snuggery it is, lacking nothing but a wife to make it perfect; though, if the hundred tongues of Rumour speak the truth (and, for a wonder, they are unanimous on this point), an Eve is soon to appear in this Paradise, and the Monk will have to break his celibate vow. There is room for her at any rate; for are there not two sitting-rooms downstairs, and two bed-rooms with dressing-rooms upstairs? so let her come, and welcome; and as for the future, (as Horace says) don’t ask what fate is going to bestow upon you. At present, the Agreeable Monk’s nursery is in his garden.

As for domestic arrangements,—besides a boy in buttons, of preternatural sharpness, who is his own peculiar slavey,—there are male and female servants to obey his wants, in common with those of his five other companions who may happen to be “in residence.” Their homes all lie in these cloistered courts, and they form a corporation of their own, as the aforesaid jocose prebendary observed, when he directed attention to the increasing rotundity in the form of one of the reverend gentlemen; and they have their own lands and properties, and are mighty big folk accordingly.

My Agreeable Monk—in anticipation, I suppose, of the coming change in his condition,—has thought fit to convert a room, on the opposite side of the cloistered quad, into a kitchen, that is as unlike to an ordinary kitchen as the Agreeable Monk is to an anchorite of old. For, besides its mullioned windows and carved stone fire-place, its walls are curiously ornamented like a parquetted floor, while the floor itself is laid with encaustic tiles. Not that there is any urgent need for this glorified kitchen; for is there not the great kitchen common to the six cloistered monks, from whence, at the word of command, as with the waving of a magic wand, all the wonders of cookery will arise. But my Agreeable Monk likes to do things on the grand seigneur scale; and, I daresay, when dinner-time comes, instead of letting us enjoy our tête-a-tête in that snug dining-room of his (whose only offensive decoration is that too-popular print of the Three Impossible Choristers—their appearance here to be excused on the ground of association and sublimation of ideas), he will haul me up to the other end of the cloisters, up the grand staircase, and into the great dining-hall (in which, to quote the jocose prebendary, he and his corporation have a vested interest), where I shall not be surprised to find covers laid for a score. Nor shall I wonder if, later in the evening, we adjourn to the music-room, where, arrayed in awful state in the orchestra, he and his confrères will fiddle me either into Elysium or into the land of Nod.

How, as I lounge in a luxurious chair in that light, and pleasant, and thoroughly liveable room of his—how I marvel at the Agreeable Monk, as he roves from sweet to sweet of his charming home,—now mounting his music-stool to play ponderous Gregorians, or heathenish waltzes,—now exhibiting, with a collector’s gusto, a rare black-letter, or choice Caxton,—now darting into his garden to remove a snail from the Duchess of Sutherland, or some withered leaves from the Souvenir de Malmaison,—now taking me up-stairs to his workshop, amid the big beams of the high-pitched roof, where he has a lathe and all other carpenter’s tools, and where he saws me out a shield, and turns me a tobacco-stopper, while I note the Rembrandt effect of the sunbeams streaming through the narrow mullions of the dormer windows, and barely lighting the odd lumber of the quaint room.

By-and-by I am carried off to the coach-houses and stables, where an episcopal-looking cob whinnies a How-d’ye-do, and a Dandie Dinmont rushes at us with frantic caresses. Then, Dandie Dinmont leading the way, we pass on to the fruit and kitchen-garden, sloping down to the river’s edge, where the centre walk terminates in a flight of steps descending to the water. Moored close beside the steps is what is called by the poets “a light shallop,” but by mortals a pleasure boat, into which Dandie jumps and we step; and, presently, cool and comfortable in his shirt sleeves, the Agreeable Monk is pulling me up the stream,—I steering, and Dandie keeping a sharp look-out a-head. So, up the river for a mile or so, and then turn, dropping quietly down with the stream,—the rich meadows on either hand, with cattle, and clumps of trees,—and before us the quaint old city, with its bridges and cathedral towers. And while we gaze, the bells begin to softly chime for afternoon prayer; and so, we moor the boat, and stable Dandie.

Ere the last vibrations of the chimes have quivered upon the ripples of the air, the surplice of the Agreeable Monk has fluttered through the private cloister that connects his own quad with the southern transept of the cathedral, and he is in his own proper stall, and I not far distant. Then I hear once more that grand Service, that, daily for centuries, has led the worship of God in one long song of most triumphant praise. Then we return through the private cloister, and linger in its cool precincts to note its old oak roof, whose beams are so curiously carved with birds, and beasts, and fishes, and Noah going into the ark, and Joseph’s dream of the sheaves, and the spies bearing the fruit of the Promised Land. The next morning I hear the cathedral service again, but from a novel quarter—the room over the north transept.

It is a large and lofty room; so large, that it covers the whole of the spacious transept; so lofty, that its groined roof is high enough for a church. It has but two windows at its north end; it is true that they are very large windows, but their glass quarries are encrusted with a century’s accumulation of dirt and cobwebs; and, therefore the light that struggles through them is certainly dim, and may possibly be religious also.

Scattered around the room, are cases and chests, clamped and bound with iron, and profusely padlocked: they are outwardly covered with dust, and inwardly crammed with ancient deeds and registers, and nobody knows what. Standing about on the dark oak floor—tall, attenuated, and gaunt, the very ghosts of woe-begone bookcases—are numerous old presses, containing more numerous, and still older, books. The presses are very shabby in their outward seeming; the books still more so. Yet, as in life, those squalid, shabby-looking cases have bright and good contents, that can make sunshine in many a dark spot, and cheer many a sad hour. These gaunt and shabby presses are so many armouries for books; for every book within them has its sides protected by plates of metal—breastplates that have guarded them from the onslaught of damp, and have warded off many a piercing thrust from grub and worm. They are also a very Tyburn for books; for every book is hung in chains, like culprit volumes that have been gibbeted for their evil deeds; and it is far from impossible but what they may, in their time, have murdered many a fact and reputation. These chains are long and rusty, and are made to slide upon iron rods that run the whole length of the presses, and are then fastened with a padlock; and at the end of each press is a book-desk.

Even now, as I gaze upon my friend’s Library, I can fancy that I see the old monks taking down their Chrysostom, or Cyprian, or the “Canones Apostolici,” or the “Liber Sacerdotalis,” or the “Corpus Juris Canonici,” or the “Codex Canonum Ecclesiæ Universæ,” or the “Hesychii Lexicon Græcè,” or the “Summa Summæ” of Thomas Aquinas, or any other book of reference, or history, or devotional exercise, and laying it upon the book-shelf within length of the chain, the while they turned to some passages, and perhaps made a mark for future reference, by picking up one of the reeds from the rush-strewn floor and placing it between the leaves: and lo, to make my fancy more life-like, as I turn over the leaves of the chained books, I come upon many of these monkish markers—dry reeds that, as I touch them, crumble into the dust, to which they who placed them there have long since turned. And I can fancy those old monks, wishful to read further in their own cloistered cell, their “Polycarpi Epistola,” or “Bedæ Opera,” or “Bibliotheca Patrum,” and applying for a loan of the volume to the Librarian, who would slide the chain to the end of the bar, unlock the padlock, lift up the bar, slip the chain from offf it, and deliver over the book to the applicant.

I can fancy all this. In my imagination, I can see those monks of old thus reading, and thus taking down, those gibbeted books. But the Agreeable Monks I see doing it in reality: and, while I look over some rare manuscripts, and marvel at the wonderful labour bestowed upon them, with their brilliant illuminations as clear and vivid as though painted yesterday, and their grotesque biblical illustrations (yet withal so valuable to the archæologist and artist), in which King Pharaoh, in an embroidered surcoat and Milan suit of armour of the time of Richard the Second, is pursuing Israelites, who wear tabards, with hats, and scrips, and staves, like Chaucer’s poor ploughman—and who are embossed and touched up with gold, in a manner we wot not of,—while I look at these glorified manuscripts, and speculate against the probabilities of the amateur artists, their authors, producing more than one such work in an average lifetime, the Agreeable Monk, my friend, takes off his coat, and pursues his beloved (and gratuitous) work of arranging, and preserving, and collating, and mending, and patching, and binding, and, in short, rescuing from general oblivion and destruction these marvellous volumes which were once so deservedly prized, and have for so many years been wantonly neglected. Already has he discovered more than one volume that is supposed to be unique; and has brought to light others that the British Museum would willingly purchase for a very large sum.

As we pursue our respective occupations—he, blowing clouds of dust, and rusting his hands, and rattling his chains, like a very Bibliomaniac as he is,—I, poring over a very fleshy Moses being taken out of very verdant bulrushes by a doll-faced lady attired in the horned head-dress of Henry the Fifth,—while we are thus buried in meditation and clouds of dust, the cathedral service is going on down below, and the waves of sound float into our dim old chamber, and waft our thoughts to the haven where they would be.

And thus, amid these sights and sounds, I sit, and gaze, and listen, and dream,—dreams that are only interrupted by the rattling of the old rusty chains, when my companion bestows his duteous care on another gibbeted volume. May that, his labour of love, be his least worthy monument!

But whenever I see his name in print, and, affixed thereto, those mystic letters that signify his University rank, I take those two simple letters, A.M., to stand not for plain “Master of Arts,” but for “Agreeable Monk.”

Cuthbert Bede.