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THE FALSEHOOD OF EXTREMES;
or, The Story of the Monk Ernestus.
CHAPTER 1.-His ILLUMINATING.
“How sweet the air is! How fair the scene !
I wish I had as lovely a green
Earth's ever-changing Drama has but one and the same background. The Actors come and go, but the Scenery remains the same. And the meditations and the acts of men, hundreds of years ago, were set in the amphitheatre of the same calm hills, and took place among the same winding rivers as those, which, at the present day, last unmoved and unchanged throughout those changes and chances of this mortal life that alternate so wildly among them.
The West of England, in the Middle Ages, looked, accordingly, much the same with the West of England at the present day. And though our characters be the men of long ago, our bills and villages and valleys will be little different from those which now make that region almost the loveliest in our island.
On the slope of one of the hills which draw off from the Wye there stood a Monastery. No traces now remain of its site, and but little record of its existence. One among the many religious houses which the zeal or rather the avarice of bluff Hal-lately discovered by Mr. Froude to have been rather an exemplary character-despoiled, or allowed to be despoiled, it passed away from the face of the land, perhaps, and probably, by degrees, and much as the snow melts away. Its marble pavement is, by some, thought to lie in the aisles, and within the chancel of the church hard by its supposed site; whose heavy carved oak railings are supposed to have formed the balustrades of part of an old staircase. Several of the cottages have, at their doorsteps, and in the gardens, ancient old writhing bits of sculpture or huge goggling heads, and bits of rude Norman work. Indeed, a very old wall of an ancient farm-house in the village is built almost mainly of such zig-zagged, dog-toothed, billeted fragments.
Great elms and stately oaks and hoary poplars now gather or straggle about the slope on which those ancient walls once probably stood. The cloud of caws that rise above them in the morning, and settle above them against the yellow evening sky, are now the matin and vesper bell of that quiet valley. And, for compline, the mellow muffled fluting of the brown owls, or the shriller cry of their white brother as he flits, soft and silent as a huge moth, through the night ; these, together with the nightingale's song, are the night call to prayer, now that the Monastery bell is rusted and dumb.
All was far otherwise at the time of which I write. Not but that stately trees, and melodious notes, and sobbing of doves, and the owl's cry, and the wood-lark's singing, were then as rife as, nay more rife than, now. But, where the cattle graze and the sheep-bell tinkles, that old massive gray building made itself the centre of the landscape ; the centre and keynote of sight and sound. The monotony of the bell, recurring for its brief period, at certain definite hours, seemed to give the time to the careless ordered minstrelsy of the woods and vale. And the chant of the bare-headed monks brake at times through their chapel windows, to supplement or interpret the ceaseless song without words that came from earth, and air, ard trees, and river.
With them as a whole we shall have little to do. Most of our time will be spent in the cell, or as he himself called it, “ Scriptoriolum,” of the Monk Ernestus. “Nearly every monastery was provided with its Scriptorium.” There the monks sat in silent society, busied with copying books or illuminating Missals. But the Monk Ernestus, we learn, had sought and obtained the favour of leave to make a little peculiar Scriptorium of his own little cell.
We read of the gloom or the conviviality of some monastic life. Neither of these characters would justly apply to the days of the Monk Ernestus. There was nothing of gloom in his life, in which there was yet no glare. It seemed lit, as it were, by the softest glow of a June evening—that most delicious time of the year—and it could thus afford to miss the broad radiance of the mid-day sun. No sudden or excessive shocks of joy or sorrow brought any day into violent relief. No household ties chequered the days with anxiety or delight. The strong light and shadow of life were, I repeat, wanting; but the Monk scarce knew of these, and was content with the peaceful, even half-tint which dwelt on his days, each of which was so like another.
He passionately loved his Art; and he would sit and design and paint sometimes from the early morning until the last rose flush of the sky passed off into gray. He would never copy and glorify any
classic or profane book. Only the Holy Scriptures, and the Service books, Missals, Lectionaries, Psalters, the Hymnarium, or the Antiphonarium, and the book of Hours for Private Devotion, and the Breviary Book. He would also admit a treatise of an early father to his catalogue; or some ancient single hymn-some watchword of the Faith. And, imperceptibly, this constant study of the Bible and of the ancients, with
INTERIOR OF THE
him, and with others thus employed, infused into his faith more of the early purity and less of the modern corruption. And these books only would he set in those rich and luminous Border settings; work thought out and finished with such care and pains, that a Gospel took him a year, where another would hasten through it in a month. And the works of the Monk Ernestus were famous, not only in England and in France, but even at Rome. In taste and execution they were, as near as could be, perfect.
I must introduce you now into his cell or miniature Scriptorium.
It was nothing at all like what you would imagine a monk's cell to be. No bare stone walls, and atmosphere of gloom; no dungeon-like sternness. True, all the furniture was of the plainest quality, rude deal ; and but little in quantity. Yet the little cell looked bright and pleasant.
It faced the west ; and, as it is now evening, a golden glow comes in through the window bars, and is cut by their broad shadow into warm squares on the opposite wall. The room, for it could hardly be called more than one room, was divided by a semi-partition, and the one window gave light to both compartments. On one side was a low hard bed—there being no general dormitory in this Monastery; in the other compartment, or sitting room, were strewed or arranged the materials for the Chrysographer. These alone made the room look bright; work in different stages of progress lay on shelves provided for the purpose ; a gorgeous Missal or two-purchased or exchanged by the Monk himself, or taken from the Library common to the monks -lay on the little table ; on a desk or easel shone a half-finished page that seemed lit with a visible glory of inspiration. Some sketches of birds, insects, flowers, lay also on the table, evidently taken from nature during the monk's meditative rambles. And the simple inmate thought it not an unbecoming luxury to adorn even the walls with the products of his pencil. From aught of profane adornment he would have shrunk, but these were but holy meditations fixed and glorified, that he placed before his eyes for their constant refreshment, and, he hoped, for edification too. There
The Maid-Mother, by a crucifix,
In tracts of pasture sunny-warm,
Sat smiling, babe in arm.
Or in a clear walled city on the sea,
Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
An angel looked at her.
Even the grim window bars were made somewhat beautiful with emblems, monograms, and twisted work of gold, and blue, and scarlet. The Monk's mind, fertile to excess in colour and form, multiplied its offspring of richness and beauty everywhere thronghout the narrow compass of his cell.
We may fancy a picture, beautiful, characteristic, and complete, if we summon up before our mind the cell, with its jewel richness of colour, and the inmate at his work : his gray garb, and the broad light and shadow of the thick folds and deep hood; the bald head, with the dark fringe surrounding it, and just lit by the warm flood that pours in through the window, by which he is sitting, in order to pick up
the last shafts from the sun's quiver; these sort well with the high forehead, the pale face, and somewhat sunken eyes, with their bright light and thoughtful look. See, he pauses and looks up from his work, and turns towards the window, facing the sunset, in a dreamy conscious unconsciousness; he is not exactly looking at it, but the satisfaction of it is present to his mind. The sun sinks lower; he rises and goes to the window, leaning against the wall, and looking out.
He may well linger there often, as he does, looking on that land. scape. The window is set in a corner turret, and looks full towards the Wye, which sleeps beneath the sloping hill on which the building stands, and passes on a mile into the distance. Then it is lost behind a lofty wood, that steps down to the very water's edge. Near the river, and just seen amid trees, rises the tall spire of the village church; and on the opposite bank the water is edged by cottages which dot the slope upwards as it ascends into another hill, leaving the broad river in the valley between.
The valley widens on each side of the river towards the distance, into an undulation of meadow land, dotted with sheep. Belts of wood close these in, and here and there a cottage, with its orchard, varies the quiet fields. Hill overlaps hill in the distance until the black mountains close all in on the far horizon. Dimly distinct they appear against the warm rose sky, in which one bright star trembles.
It is a summer evening; and peaceful exceedingly. The leaves of an ash near the Monastery are cut out clear and dark against the sky; and overhead creaking flocks of wild ducks pass against the dusking gray blue, which the sun has left quite; now and then a sharp wild cry from some one of their array gives a strange sudden break to the intense quiet of the scene, enhancing it by that momentary interruption.
The day has been exceedingly sultry, and now that it falls, something of a shiver rather arises in, than comes to, the heavy leafage around. It is a sort of audible satisfaction among the boughs as the cool evening gathers on their greenery.
The Monk Ernestus leaves the cell, and passes through the long staircase, across the quadrangle, out at the little side door into the wood.