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A short story by Arthur Shearly Cripps

As Trees Walking

Title:     As Trees Walking
Author: Arthur Shearly Cripps [More Titles by Cripps]

It was in the spring of last year that I started for a holiday journey towards some ruins about a hundred miles away. I had suffered much in the cold weather from fever and broken rest, so I longed to renew my strength before the heats of summer should be fully come.

I started on a bright and calm September morning by the main southward track, hoping to reach a friend's Mission Station on the eve of the third day.

I reached it then, but I had provoked my enemies by walking in the chilly hours, and walking to weariness. I was feverish and spent ere I reached Greenwood's Mission House.

It stood under a towering granite kopje some ten miles only from the ruins. I had never entered it before. When I last visited Greenwood, quite two years ago, he had been working on a town station. He was a dark, lean, rather ascetic-looking person, not very talkative. I remembered the days when I had fought shy of him; we had seemed to disagree on so many subjects, and he had seemed to resent disagreement so intensely. But he had written me two or three most friendly letters of late, and that nigh?, when I came to his door so sick and sorry, he seemed to be kindness itself. I soon revived by his fireside, ate my supper, and smoked and talked with him to my great content. We were speaking about roughing it, and told many camp-fire and roadside tales. As I told and listened, I seemed to be my old self of a year ago once more, tough and dogged, and rather sinfully contemptuous of mosquitoes and malaria. Yet I had but a poor night after all, and the yawning and shuddering chills came on with vigor at Church in the early morning. I went back to my blankets after an aguish breakfast, and Greenwood dosed me and told me to go to sleep. He spoke with authority, and I obeyed. I did not wake up till the early afternoon. I seemed to have lost much weight in those last steaming hours, and also, to my joy, the fever.

'I hope I'll sleep well to-night and get an early start to-morrow after all,' I said to Greenwood. He looked at me rather intently with his resolute grey eyes.

'The fever is gone for the time,' he said, 'but I don't like the look of your eyes at all. If I were you, I'd change your room to-night and sleep in the Hospital.'

'Where's that?' I asked.

'Oh, not very far; half a mile at most. It's Saint Lucy's little hospice on the hill there across the valley.'

Afterwards, when I went out and sat on the sunny stoep with him, he showed me the place. I could see a grove of trees standing up on a near ridge and two or three thatched buildings in among them; yes, and a white cross surmounting one of these.

'It looks lonely over there,' I pleaded.

'Oh, I'll come with you,' he said. 'I want to tell you the story of the place before we blow our candle out; it may help the cure.' So when sundown was near, he and three of his native retainers started with me for the Hospice of Saint Lucy, carrying goodly packs every one. I was rather dubious about that expedition.

'I hope it's warm there,' grumbled I to myself. 'If Greenwood's as strong as a horse, I am not so just now. I wish he'd camp at home in peace.'

However, I tried to look interested as they made ready for us to go and delighted, as we started away.

Just as we went across the narrow valley the sun went down behind St. Lucy's hill, and bells or gongs answered one another from either side.

'So you have a bell up there at the Hospital,' I said.

'There's more than you expect to see at the Hospital,' said Greenwood mysteriously.

So there was. It wasn't a Hospital at all in our wonted modern sense, but a rather ornate round Church. Outside, it was plain enough, but within it gave me a sense of studied charm and even costliness. No drug-covered or dispenser's table was admitted within its doors, though both were to be found in one of its neighbor buildings. The main building housed aids to recovery, but they were of another type. Over the Altar was a life-sized picture of Saint Lucy, golden-haired and blue grey-eyed, with great splendor of shapeliness and stature, and real English apple-blossom cheeks. She came along a rocky path through an African forest; she was smiling, and had a far-shining lantern in her hand. You could single out the trees in the forest, there was the crimson-flowered tree yet leafless, and the wild fig-tree in full leaf and cluster, and the wild orange-tree; the wild acacias and the cactus trees were growing among the stones above. Far off in the distance, at the back of the picture, there were dim cliffs and pale sands and waves breaking in the bright star-light.

The time was meant to be cock-crow. At least it seemed so, for a red cock was perched on a tree-pole in the foreground of the picture, crowing with a will. In the sky were many stars. The quarter over the sea whence the Saint came was of excelling brightness. There the morning star hung in a haze of glory.

The Altar itself was of granite slabs and masses. Before it burnt a purple-glass lamp, hung by chains of native smithy-work, rather incongruously heavy, I thought. But who was I to cavil at this jewel of a shrine in our wilderness?

'Where are we to sleep?' I asked.

'Here, before the Altar,' said Greenwood solemnly.

Even as he spoke his house-boy came in with hushed feet, and began to spread out our rush mats and many-colored blankets. Then we went into the dispensary hut, and had our supper and many pipes together, while the native boys chatted and chewed roasted monkey-nuts in the hut beside us. I felt very hungry and happy and healthy generally that night, and we sat at our table long, and then smoked far into the hours of darkness. But, though he told me many tales, Greenwood would not tell me the tale of the place, however much I begged him to do so. That was kept for the Shrine itself. That was not as other tales.

We kept up a good fire, for the night was a cold one.

The talk turned on pilgrimages at last; we spoke of many Shrines, of old-time ones and of others in the heyday of their youth still. Greenwood talked well on that subject. Was the aura of his own Saint in the air of that dispensary? He talked with a passionate faith about more than one Shrine, that left me almost breathless.

Then we argued about the Pilgrims' Way in Kent, as to where it was that most pilgrims forded the Medway, and about certain homely Kentish legends.

Suddenly he rose and went to the door. He looked out on the mighty vista of sable earth and spangled sky.

'The moon is just going down and you ought to be sleeping,' he said. 'And remember there is my tale still to tell.'

So we went to the Church. We had one candle between us there. Moreover, the purple lamp was burning, its quaint cup of wire-gauze averted doom from many self-immolant flies. We knelt beneath it, and he said the Prayers of the Shrine, then our own prayers followed then he began to tell:

'I was coming back from England twenty months ago and I chose to come by the East Coast. It is a beautiful way to come. I saw Zanzibar, where there are many hopes and memories. I slept two nights far out of the city there, in a grove of palm trees. Then the boat came back from the mainland and I went aboard again.

'We started for a four days' voyage or so, to Beira. She came aboard at Zanzibar, I think. Some one told me this, when I asked about her afterwards. But I was never really conscious of her presence till the second night of our voyaging. Then we met at a Concert in the Third Class, that I had strolled down the deck to patronize. To my shame I was traveling second, while she was in the crowded family of the third. I went and spoke to her.

'A child had had a bad fall from some steps, and she was mothering him. It was a lovely and pleasant thing to see how she did it.

'He should wake up without much pain,' she said, with a smile, at last. She handed the boy to his own admiring mother. Then she turned to me, for I had been asking after him.

'She began to talk about our common work. "I want to climb on a new boat at Chinde, and go the way of the Lakes," she said.

'Are you going to teach?' I asked.

'"I hope I may teach at whiles," she said, "But I am sent first of all to heal."

'She told me about her hopes for her work.

'"They tell me I have healing hands," she said. "I have a seed-grain of faith, I think, and that is the secret of them."

'I saw her only for a few moments. I will try to tell you or rather to show you what she looked like, when I have ended my story. She enlightened me not a little. I saw how lame a thing my own journey was my leisurely dawdling back to my work. This girl came as it were on wings, with power in her heart and will, that would take no denial but God's. Her few words as we walked up and down the well-deck were words that burnt and shone in the cold dark. I am talking about things as I saw them just then. As a matter of fact, I believe it was a blazing night with a moon at the full, and stars dropping over one another. I remember that I slept on deck afterwards. I had a sort of Midsummer South African Christmas picnic feeling (up till cock-crow, when the fever that had dogged me that month came again). It was really a consummate night. But as she talked, she made it seem cold and dark, her words were so radiantly kind.

'T think we talked about Saint Vincent of Paris mostly, and of men that had carried in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus; and of the imitation of Jesus in India and Africa. Then she said "Good night!" and was gone.

'Next day that return of fever blurred my new visions of the Light. Yet I was to see her again. An hour before we came off Chinde, she asked leave to come up on to our second-class deck and to bid me "Good-bye."

'I was lying in a deck-chair, my hat tilted over my eyes, under the morning sun. She was suddenly beside me and speaking to me. She gave me a watchword out of that confident ending of Saint Mark, to which, some people, who have their misgivings, attach so little credit. It was this, "They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover." Then she prayed for me, lifting up her healing hands. And she held out to me a tiny flask that I might anneal myself, "For that is your own office," she said.

'My head had defied sleep, but now sleep came apace. It seemed to me it came breathing about me with the light gusts of wind. I slept, nor did I know when she said "Good-bye."

'When I awoke the sun was westering. Some passengers had trans-shipped for Chinde four hours or more ago, a man told me. She was gone, and I was well. No, not well in one way, but mending. That is all or almost all of my tale.'

He had told it reverently. Towards the end of the telling, he himself seemed to wander as he told.

'What was she like?' I asked after a silence.

'She was much like that picture of Saint Lucy,' he said.

'I found a man in the third class, who had taken a really fine photo of her, not a little snapshot. I had helped him with a sketch of the voyage he was writing for some magazine, and he was pleased enough to print me another copy. I sent it home that month. A friend painted me that panel. I suggested that the name of the Saint should be Lucy, it was on Saint Lucy's day she had said "Good-bye." The picture came a day or two before this Midsummer. He has done wondrously well, I think, if you remember that he never saw her.'

'How do you know that he never saw her?' I asked.

'Yes, you may well say that,' he said. 'I sometimes think that he had seen her, even as I. He has painted something of her light and spirit. Look how she threads' that forest by night!' He held the candle near, then he pulled it away.

'Forgive me! How can you see her duly by this light? You must have a real session before her in the morning.'

I awoke early, but not too early, as it seemed to me. Dawn was growing very bright, and spring seemed to be in the air that came from the doorway. I sprang up and looked out. Light that was already almost flame kindled the east. The leaves of the grove about me had their spring colors on. There was quite enough illumination to show how brilliant and tender they were ruddy and green and mauve, and bronze that was almost gold. Day was coming fast and so was Spring. I turned within and lit the candles on the Altar. The purple lamp was burning low. I knelt down, and saw Dawn and Spring, aye, and Summer too, in that picture. Eastern light was streaming from that lantern Saint Lucy held. It was of coral and silver set with pearls. Eastern light was in her happy face. You could see even in that cock-crow dusk in the forest, how the fig-tree and all the trees were stirring for Spring and Summer. I took note now that Saint Lucy's wreath was of orchard leaves and blossoms. I lifted up my thanksgiving there and then, as the first sunbeams shone about me, for the rest and the light that I had found, found at last for good as I hope in sultry and weary Africa.

Soon we were kneeling at the morning Sacrifice, then we went out and broke our fast in the sunshine, sitting on rocks by the wood fire. How hungry I was in that hill's pure air!

When he had done, Greenwood showed me some of the workings of the Shrine. A young mother, filleted and stately, brought her baby to him. Almost naked but roped with beads, the boy hung in the pied sheep-skin at her back. Greenwood folded a handkerchief that he had brought from the Altar about his dusky head. It was of faded blue and silver. Then he said prayers to the Father and to Christ, and again to both of them, for the prayers of Saint Lucy and that other.

'It is not good to drug children so young, is it? He asked the question as though defending himself.

'I think this may soothe him better than a powder.'

He told me how he had found that kerchief wrapped about his own head on a certain sunny day when he lay sick aboard ship. 'It was hers,' he said, 'handkerchiefs and aprons are Bible remedies.'

Other pilgrims or patients came to him after that mother with her child. He persuaded three or four of them to carry letters to the doctor in the town. But he prayed for these too, and signed them with oil from the Shrine lamp, ere he trusted them to his friend's salves or surgery. By and by came three young men with a boy. He was stricken and mad, they said. He had come home from work in a distant town last month. Now he would stay speechless for hours. He would wander far by day, and brood over the fire by night.

'Let him stay if he will,' Greenwood said. 'Let him wait in peace here, and eat and sleep his fill, if he so desires. If he shall sleep in the Holy Place a few nights, who can say what wonder Christ may do?'

The boy seemed to be an old friend of his, and stayed quietly by him. His companions started off joyously down the hill, one of them playing on the marimba. 'This is Merrie England come again,' said I. 'Did not an unburnt Lollard upbraid the bagpipe din or other music of pilgrims long ago? Wasn't that "lewd losel" told by the Kentish Archbishop how useful such music might be say if a pilgrim struck his toe on a stone?'

'There are many pilgrims at this Shrine,' said Greenwood smiling. 'I am glad about it. I think she would be glad if she knew.'

'Where is she?' I asked. 'Doesn't she know?'

'I have tried hard to track her,' he said. 'Not a trace have I found. I have asked our missions, I have asked the White Fathers. I have asked Africans and Scots and Dutch and Portuguese. But she has gone on her way out of sight.'

'She has done some work here,' I said.

'Yes,' he said, 'Angel or Saint, Faith Healer or Revenante from Paradise, she has worked wonders here. Do you know, there is a simple native cure I have ever so much faith in? It comes from the root of a tree. Have not some men and women the same sort of virtue in their wills and hands that trees have in their roots? I seem to see men and women such as Father John of Kronstadt and this my Saint Lucy of the Ship even as trees walking.

The outstanding virtue of my patroness was surely in her blossom, and in the fruit that blossom can yet bring forth. "As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood" I found her. I sat down under her shadow for those moments of time. And now, and all my days of grace, will her fruit be sweet to my taste.'

[The end]
Arthur Shearly Cripps's short story: As Trees Walking