The Ship of Stars/Chapter 19
Know you her secret none can utter?
Hers of the Book, the tripled Crown?
"Eight o'clock, sir!"
Taffy heard the voice speaking above a noise which his dreams confused with the rattle of yesterday's journey. He was still in the train, rushing through the rich levels of Somersetshire. He saw the broad horizon, the cattle at pasture, the bridges and flagged pools flying past the window—and sat up rubbing his eyes. Blenkiron, the scout, stood between him and the morning sunshine emptying a can of water into the tub beside his bed.
Blenkiron wore a white waistcoat and a tie of orange and blue, the colours of the College Servants' Cricket Club. These were signs of the Long Vacation. For the rest his presence would have become an archdeacon; and he guided Taffy's choice of a breakfast with an air which suggested the hand of iron beneath the glove of velvet.
"And begging your pardon, sir, but will you be lunching in?"
Taffy would consult Mr. Blenkiron's convenience.
"The fact is, sir, we've arranged to play Teddy `All this afternoon at Cowley, and the drag starts at one-thirty sharp."
"Then I'll get my lunch out of college," said Taffy, wondering who Teddy Hall might be.
"I thank you, sir. I had, indeed, took the liberty of telling the manciple that you was not a gentleman to give more trouble than you could 'elp. Fried sole, pot of tea, toast, pot of blackberry jam, commons of bread——" Mr. Blenkiron disappeared.
Taffy sprang out of bed and ran to the open window in the next room. The gardens lay below him—smooth turf flanked with a border of gay flowers, flanked on the other side with yews, and beyond the yews with an avenue of limes, and beyond these with tall elms. A straight gravelled walk divided the turf. At the end of it two yews of magnificent spread guarded a great iron gate. Beyond these the chimneys and battlements of Wadham College stood grey against the pale eastern sky, and over them the larks were singing.
So this was Oxford; more beautiful than all his dreams! And since his examination would not begin until to-morrow, he had a whole long day to make acquaintance with her. Half a dozen times he, had to interrupt his dressing to run and gaze out of the window, skipping back when he heard Blenkiron's tread on the staircase. And at breakfast again he must jump up and examine the door. Yes, there was a second door outside—a heavy oak-just as his father had described. What stories had he heard about these oaks! He was handling this one almost idolatrously when Blenkiron appeared suddenly at the head of the stairs. Blenkiron was good enough to explain at some length how the door worked, while Taffy, who did not need his instruction in the least, blushed to the roots of his hair.
For, indeed, it was like first love, this adoration of Oxford; shamefast, shy of its own raptures; so shy, indeed, that when he put on his hat and walked out into the streets he could not pluck up courage to ask his way. Some of the colleges he recognised from his father's description; of one or two he discovered the names by peeping through their gateways and reading the notices pinned up by the porters' lodges, for it never occurred to him that he was free to step inside and ramble through the quadrangles. He wondered where the river lay, and where Magdalen, and where Christ Church. He passed along the Turl and down Brasenose Lane; and at the foot of it, beyond the great chestnut-tree leaning over Exeter wall, the vision of noble square, the dome of the Radcliffe, and St. Mary's spire caught his breath and held him gasping. His feet took him by the gate of Brasenose and across the High. On the farther pavement he halted, round-eyed, held at gaze by the beauty of the Virgin's porch, with the creeper drooping like a veil over its twisted pillars.
High up, white pigeons wheeled round the spire or fluttered from niche to niche, and a queer fancy took him that they were the souls of the carved saints up there, talking to one another above the city's traffic. At length he withdrew his eyes, and reading the name "Oriel Street" on an angle of the wall above him, passed down a narrow by-lane in search of further wonders.
The clocks were striking three when, after regaining the High and lunching at a pastrycook's, Taffy turned down into St. Aldates and recognised Tom Tower ahead of him. The great gates were closed. Through the open wicket he had a glimpse of green turf and an idle fountain; and while he peered in, a jolly-looking porter stepped out of the lodge for a breath of air and nodded in the friendliest manner.
"You can walk through if you want to. Were you looking for anyone?"
"No," said Taffy, and explained proudly, "My father used to be at Christ Church."
The porter seemed interested. "What name?" he asked.
"That must have been before my time. I suppose you'll be wanting to see the Cathedral. That's the door—right opposite."
Taffy thanked him and walked across the great empty quadrangle. Within the Cathedral the organ was sounding and pausing, and from time to time a boy's voice broke in upon the music like a flute, the pure treble rising to the roof as though it were the very voice of the building, and every pillar sustained its petition, "Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law!" Neither organist nor chorister was visible, and Taffy tiptoed along the aisles in dread of disturbing them. For the moment this voice adoring in the noble building expressed to him the completest, the most perfect thing in life. All his own boyish handiwork, remember, under his father's eye had been guided toward the worship of God.
"… And incline our hearts to keep this law." The music ceased. He heard the organist speaking, up in the loft; criticising, no doubt: and it reminded him somehow of the small sounds of home and his mother moving about her housework in the hush between breakfast and noon.
He stepped out into the sunlight again, and wandering through archway and cloister found himself at length beyond the college walls and at the junction of two avenues of elms, between the trunks of which shone the acres of a noble meadow, level and green. The avenues ran at a right angle, east and south; the one old, with trees of magnificent girth, the other new and interset with poplars.
Taffy stood irresolute. One of these avenues, he felt sure, must lead to the river; but which?
Two old gentlemen stepped out from the wicket of the Meadow Buildings, and passed him, talking together. The taller—a lean man, with a stoop—was clearly a clergyman. The other wore cap and gown, and Taffy remarked, as he went by, that his cap was of velvet; and also that he walked with his arms crossed just above the wrists, his right hand clutching his left cuff, and his left hand his right cuff, his elbows hugged close to his sides.
After a few paces the clergyman paused, said something to his companion, and the two turned back towards the boy.
"Were you wanting to know your way?"
"I was looking for the river," Taffy answered. He was thinking that he had never in his life seen a face so full of goodness.
"Then this is your first visit to Oxford? Suppose, now, you come with us? and we will take you by the river and tell you the names of the barges. There is not much else to see, I'm afraid, in Vacation time."
He glanced at his companion in the velvet cap, who drew down an extraordinary bushy pair of eyebrows (yet he, too, had a beautiful face) and seemed to come out of a dream.
"So much the better, boy, if you come up to Oxford to worship false gods."
Taffy was taken aback.
"Eight false gods in little blue caps, seated in a trough and tugging at eight poles; and all to discover if they can get from Putney to Mortlake sooner than eight others in little blue caps of a lighter shade. What do they do at Mortlake when they get there in such a hurry? Eh, boy?"
"I—I'm sure I don't know," stammered Taffy.
The clergyman broke out laughing, and turned to him. "Are you going to tell us your name?"
"Raymond, sir. My father used to be at Christ Church."
"What? Are you Sam Raymond's son?"
"You knew my father?"
"A very little. I was his senior by a year or two. But I know something about him." He turned to the other. "Let me introduce the son of a man after your own heart—of a man fighting for God in the wilds, and building an altar there with his own hands and by the lamp of sacrifice."
"But how do you know all this?" cried Taffy.
"Oh," the old clergyman smiled, "we are not so ignorant up here as you suppose."
They walked by the river bank, and there Taffy saw the college barges and was told the name of each. Also he saw a racing eight go by: it belonged to the Vacation Rowing Club. From the barges they turned aside and followed the windings of the Cherwell. The clergyman did most of the talking; but now and then the old gentleman in the velvet cap interposed a question about the church at home, its architecture, the materials it was built of, and so forth; or about Taffy's own work, his carpentry, his apprenticeship with Mendarva the Smith. And to all these questions the boy found himself replying with an ease which astonished him.
Suddenly the old clergyman said, "There is your College!"
And unperceived by Taffy a pair of kindly eyes watched his own as they met the first vision of that lovely tower rising above the trees and (so like a thing of life it seemed) lifting its pinnacles exultantly into the blue heaven.
All three had come to a halt. The boy turned, blushing furiously.
"This is the best of all, sir."
"Boy," said old Velvet-cap, "do you know the meaning of 'edification'? There stands your lesson for four years to come, if you can learn it in that time. Do you think it easy? Come and see how it has been learnt by men who have spent their lives face to face with it."
They crossed the street by Magdalen bridge, and passed under Pugin's gateway, by the Chapel door and into the famous cloisters. All was quiet here; so quiet that even the voices of the sparrows chattering in the ivy seemed but a part of the silence. The shadow of the great tower fell across the grass.
"This is how one generation read the lesson. Come and see how another, and a later, read it."
A narrow passage led them out of gloom into sudden sunlight; and the sunlight spread itself on fair grass-plots and gravelled walks, flower-beds and the pale yellow facade of a block of buildings in the classical style, stately and elegant, with a colonnade which only needed a few promenading figures in laced coats and tie-wigs to complete the agreeable picture.
"What do you make of that?"
As a matter of fact Taffy's thoughts had run back to the theatre at Plymouth with its sudden changes of scenery. And he stood for a moment while he collected them.
"It's different: I mean," he added, feeling that this was intolerably lame, "it means something different; I cannot tell what."
"It means the difference between godly fear and civil ease, between a house of prayer and one of no prayer. It spells the moral change which came over this University when religion, the spring and source of collegiate life, was discarded. The cloisters behind you were built for men who walked with God."
"But why," objected Taffy, plucking up courage, "couldn't they do that in the sunlight?"
Velvet-cap opened his mouth. The boy felt he was going to be denounced; when a merry laugh from the old clergyman averted the storm.
"Be content," he said to his companion; "we are Gothic enough in Oxford nowadays. And the lad is right too. There was hope even for eighteenth-century Magdalen while its buildings looked on sunlight and on that tower. You and the rest of us lay too much stress on prayer. The lesson of that tower (with all deference to your amazing discernment and equally amazing whims) is not prayer, but praise. And when all men unite to worship God, it'll be praise, not prayer, that brings them together.
The differing world's agreeing sacrifice.
"Oh, if you're going to fling quotations from a tapster's son at my head.… Let me see … how does it go on?… Where—something or other—different faiths—
Where Heaven divided faiths united finds.…
And in a moment the pair were in hot pursuit after the quotation, tripping each other up like two schoolboys at a game. Taffy never forgot the final stanza, the last line of which they recovered exactly in the middle of the street, Velvet-cap standing between two tram-lines, right in the path of an advancing car, while he declaimed—
"By penitence when we ourselves forsake,
'Tis but in wise design on piteous Heaven;
(The gesture was magnificent)
In praise we nobly give what God may take,
And are without a beggar's blush forgiven.
—Confound these trams!
The old clergyman shook hands with Taffy in some haste. "And when you reach home give my respects to your father. Stay, you don't know my name. Here is my card, or you'll forget it."
"Mine, too," said Velvet-cap.
Taffy stood staring after them as they walked off down the lane which skirts the Botanical Gardens. The names on the two cards were famous ones, as even he knew. He walked back toward Trinity a proud and happy boy. Half-way up Queen's Lane, finding himself between blank walls, with nobody in sight, he even skipped.