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The Secret Places XIII & XIV

Two more chapters of The Secret Places (Elkin Mathews & Marrot London 1929) - a chronicle of the 'pilgrimages' of the author, Reginald Francis Foster (1896-1975), and his friend 'Longshanks' idly rambling in Sussex, Kent and Surrey. See our posting of the first chapters for more on Foster and this book, including a contemporary review in The Tablet.

XIII

THE HERMIT

A man at West Hoathley wanted me to go shares with him in a pig farm, of which the great charm was a timbered house, but despite that and Longshank’s persuasions and also my liking for pork, I resisted the inducement and bade the tempter find another partner. Thereafter Longshanks and I came silently to the Sussex Ouse at Ardingly, where we helped a man to mend his fence. For that service he gave us food and beer, and would have added money but that I made a show of my gold watch and spoke with the languor of the rich, so that he believed us needless of his coin. We left him. therefore, and just as the sun set behind the heights of land by Balcombe, we found ourselves on a lonely heath.
  I was for returning, that we might rest that night at the inn, but Longshanks reminded me that it was the eve of St. Martin, and that the Saint’s little Summer must start before the first Mass of the feast, so that we need not fear to continue our journey through the night. And in a little while the wind shifted out of the north-east–as you will remember–and veered through north and west until at last it had a little southing in it. And then, as we toiled up to Bolney Common, it began to rain.
  Hereabouts are many villages and roads, yet Longshanks and I, stumbling on through the wet, could find no trace of a house or a road that would take us to one. Instead, we found ourselves in a gloomy wood where the great trees dripped upon us and falling leaves plopped on our hats. Presently I stubbed my foot against a root and sprawled into the oozy clay. Longshanks, tumbling over on top of me, let out a gargantuan oath, wherefrom he must have gained great ease. As we scrambled to our feet we were startled by a voice.
  “That was a terrible oath,” it said mildly.
  I stood upright, too frightened to speak. And then I sensed movement just ahead.
  “Who are you?” came the gentle voice again, and before we had time to puzzle our brains as to what we should answer, the unknown went on: “Come in out of the wet.”
  The smudge of a face showed against the bole of a tree. A moment later I felt a hand on my arm. Fear went from me altogether. Somehow I knew that there was no evil in this man we could not see. I found myself walking, he guiding me surely, and I knew that on his other side was the chastened Longshanks. A few steps, and we were against a wall of blackness. The stranger murmured something; then I caught a scrape of a match, and its tiny flame made a jagged hole in the darkness. I saw that our guide was an old man. I saw, too, that what I had thought to be a wall was an enormous tree with a  gaping side like a primitive doorway. I smelt onions.
  Our host went inside the great tree and, striking another match, lit a stump of candle stuck into a bottle, which stood on a board at the back. Then he courteously invited us to enter.
  It was snug and dry inside–and the smell of onions was strong.
  “I was just finishing my supper,” he apologised, pointing to the ledge where beside the candle lay a hunk of bread and a big onion. “Perhaps you will join me?”
  I became conscious of a great hunger, and when he produced part of a loaf and broke it in two I seized on my portion thankfully. And he gave me a monstrous onion in supplement.
  Sitting on the leaves which were his carpet, the three of us ate in silence, I studying our host. The striking thing about him was his eyes. They were at once amazingly gentle yet full of fire. Presently he noticed my puzzlement and smiled.
  “Yes, I live here,” he said. “I’m––“
  A snore came from Longshanks. The old man smiled again.
  “Tired out,” he murmured. “You are, too, I can see. Snuggle down there and go to sleep.”
  “But––“ I began.
  “I also am tired,” he said gently. “I have only just come in.”
  As I lay down, heavy with sleep, he blew out the candle.
  “I may be gone when you wake up,” he said finally. “Take what food you want, won’t you?”


*               *               *               *

I awoke soon after sunrise. The old man had gone, and Longshanks still snored. I clambered stifle to my feet and went outside into the sweet morning air. Then I stopped short. Kneeling on the damp leaves was the old man, his head bent and his hands together. I crept back to the tree. When I went outside again, the old man was threading his way through the wood, and I heard the faint sound of singing. His voice quavered on the high notes, but it held joy and infinite content.




XIV

THE MAKING OF A KNIGHT

We found the Poet again at Bramber. It was towards evening, and because of the persistent rain we had taken refuge in an inn earlier than we had intended. He was in the tap-room haranguing a crowd of yokels in blank verse of his own invention, and being regarded, therefore, as clever. He stopped self-consciously when he saw us, whereat Longshanks continued where he had left off, thereby convincing his audience that he was surprisingly intelligent.
  But they loved me the most, for I paid for a round of beer and, finding myself without money, borrowed the price from the Poet. He told me that there was no hurry about paying him back, and so I wrote him an IOU and bade him be patient. I said that if I failed to repay him in this life–which would be because our paths lay apart–I would put in a good word for him in Heaven, and, if he predeceased me, I would pray for him every Friday, and on Wednesdays as well as in Advent and Lent.
  It was fortunate that he was of the Faith, or he would have thought me flippant.
  The Poet proved to be a good fellow, and when conversation flagged he offered to tell us a story, and did so without our encouraging him at all. He said that it was a true story and that, as Sussex folk, we should probably recognize of whom he spoke; but since I failed to do so, I find no reason why I should not relate it here.


*               *               *               *

Mr. Joseph Higg’s life, said the Poet, was commonplace until certain negotiations proved successful, and for a goodly sum he was to receive a knighthood. The son of a village butcher, he had learnt his trade at home, and later, when he had gone out into the world, it was to find success waiting for him. The Great War gave him his chance; he took it, and afterwards, forsaking the purveying of meat–he was “wholesale” by this time and known as a “cold storage merchant”–at his wife’s instigation he had bought a large mansion in the country and had become squire.

  And then his son, Thomas, came down from Oxford. Thomas was idealistic, but not so much so that he was averse to the idea of his father’s being honoured by the King. He understood that the honour was a reward for much-valued service to the country in time of war and for certain service to The Party. So that when, one morning at breakfast, Mrs. Higgs–for Mr. Higgs had risen early and was riding round the estate–informed her son that his father would shortly become “Sir Joseph,” Thomas was not so much surprised as gratified that the long-anticipated event was about to become real. Being an idealist he pondered on what the affair really meant. He had read that, in the old days, knighthood had been deemed of more distinction than a raising to the peerage, and his thoughts went back to the lost age of chivalry. He knew a lot about that period, had yearned after it, and wished that it had not passed. He pictured the ritual of the old ceremony of the accolade, knowing its details by heart.
  And out of his wistful musing came a great idea. The ritual of the accolade was a beautiful thing, symbolic of the meaning of knighthood. It was a pity that it had been lost, was not now performed when knights were made.
  And straightway he went to his father, who was sitting in the library mopping his brow and trying to recover from his ride round the estate. For Mr. Higgs was corpulent, and horse-riding was a thing he hated and only endured because it was consistent with his position as squire.
  Upon him, then, came Thomas, the light of idealism shining in his eyes, his pale face flushed until it was near in colour to that of his sire.
  “Father, when are you to be knighted?” he asked breathlessly.
  “Knighted! Huh!” panted Mr. Higgs, running his handkerchief between neck and collar. “So your mother’s told yer, ‘as she? It’ll be announced next’ Wednesday.”
  “Yes, but when’s the–the accolade?”
  “The what?”
  “The accolade–I mean, when does the King––?”
  “Oh, that! I dunno. Jest afterwards, I s’pose. . . . What did you call it, Tommy?”
  “Accolade.”
  “Ack-er-lade? Sounds good. Any’ow, wot d’you want to know for? You won’t be allowed to come.”
  “Of course not. But father, there are preparations, you know.”
  “Yes, yes. But that’s all finished. I tell you it’s all squared boy. Your old father’s fixed it all up. Trust him!”
  Some of Thomas’s enthusiasm ebbed. “You don’t understand, father. I mean–well, you know the King touches your shoulder with a sword and––“
  “And says, ‘Rise, Sir Joseph.’ Yes, I know,” chuckled the old man.
  “But that’s not all. In the old days when knights were made there were other rites–ceremonies. All sorts of things.”
  “But this isn’t the old days, boy. What’s that got to do with––?”
  “You ought to go through them, father. Don’t you realise what knighthood actually is? Why it’s–it’s something sacred.”
  Mr. Higgs stared at his son.
  “You’re quite right, Thomas,” said a level voice by the door.
  It was Mrs. Higgs. Evidently, from the knowledgeable look on her face, she had been there some time.
  “Your father doesn’t understand what a serious thing it is,” she went on. She folded her hands across an ample stomach and looked from father to son. “I know what Thomas is talking about,” she declared. “I’ve just been reading about it. And, Joseph, you must do it all!”
  Mr. Higgs stared at his wife in stupefaction. “What, me!” he exclaimed. “Get away with you! It ain’t necessary nowadays.”
  “It is,” affirmed Mrs. Higgs solemnly. “You don’t take the thing rightly, Joseph. And you’ve got to do it all.”
  “Let’s ‘ear what it is first,” said Mr. Higgs cautiously.
  “It’s quite simple,” put in Thomas eagerly. “You see––“
  Anyhow, Thomas told his  father as much as he thought necessary––a very little, in fact, for the old gentleman was liable to take fright. They decided that it would not matter if there were an interval between the preparatory ceremonies and the final touching with the sword and that there was no time like the present for the initiation to begin.
  “Well, wot happens first?” demanded Mr. Higgs nervously.
  “First of all is the trimming of the hair and the beard,” pronounced Thomas, his eyes shining.
  “Criptes! Anyhow, I haven’t got a beard, so you can’t do that. And I’m hanged if I’ll let you cut my hair!”
  “Come on, father, it’s only ceremonial,” said Thomas. “I mean, it’ll only be necessary to snip off a bit of hair here and there and trim your mustache–save you a bob,” laughed the young man weakly.
  Mr. Higgs gave in and permitted himself to be escorted upstairs to the conjugal bedroom. He sat himself by the window, as directed. Thomas had brought a book from the library and, before starting operations, he opened it and read hurriedly.
  “It’ll seem a bit empty,” he applogised, “without the–the pomp and–and the prayers. Still––“
  He took scissors and advanced upon his father, who watched him anxiously. Mrs. Higgs took up her station behind her lord.
  Thomas contented himself with snipping off stray hairs. He did not speak. Doubtless the emptiness of which he had complained was affecting him and he felt depressed.
  “What next?” demanded his father, when the operation was finished. His face was a little flushed as though he knew he were looking a fool.
  “The bath,” said Thomas solemnly.
  “The bath! What the hell!”
  “Of course you must,” said Mrs. Higgs.
  “I ain’t ‘having no bath to-day,” declared Mr. Higgs, with unusual firmness. “To-morrer’s my bath day. . . .You can put everything off till then if you like,” he added hopefully.
  It was evident that Thomas’s depression was growing. He looked at his mother despondently.
  “Joseph!” she said sternly.
  Mr. Higgs gave in. “All right,” he groaned. “Though I don’t see why it’s necessary.”
  “It says here,” said Thomas, referring to the book: “ ‘As a little child comes forth from the waters of baptism clean of all sin, so should you issue from this bath washed pure of all stain and villainy.’ “
  “ ‘Ere, I say!” stuttered Joseph, almost purple in the face. “What the ‘ell––!”
  “That’s only the words of the ceremony,” explained Thomas, in great haste.
  Mr. Higgs subsided, grumbling. He grumbled still more as he entered the immaculate bathroom with his son.
  “I ain’t going to get into no bloomin’ bath in front of you,” he declared. “You get outside.”
  Thomas thought it wouldn’t matter. “All right,” he agreed. “But don’t dress when you’ve finished. I’ll get you your bathgown.”
  It was not long before Mr. Higgs, very red in the face, emerged from the bathroom.
  “ ‘Ow much more o’ this tomfoolery is there?” he demanded.
  “You have now to lie on a bed,” said Thomas. “The book says ‘an untouched bed,’ but I don’t suppose it matters much.” He looksd at the big double bed doubtfully. “Perhaps you’d better lie on mine,” he added. “It doesn’t say anything about double beds in the book.”
  Mrs. Higgs was inclined to demur, but Thomas was master of ceremonies, and eventually she gave in. Mr. Higgs was taken to Thomas’s room and, grunting, he obeyed the injunction to lie down.
  “The book says that the lying on the bed ‘is a promise of that long rest in Paradise that––‘”
  Mr. Higgs snorted and sat up.
  “Go on! Cut it out!” he growled. “We don’t believe in no Paradise nowadays.”
  “ ‘––in Paradise,’ “ Thomas went on doggedly, reading from his book, “ ‘that you must gain by the toils of chivalry.’ “
  “Isn’t that beautiful!” breathed Mrs. Higgs. “Think of that, Joseph. . . chivalry!”
  “Givin’ up yer seat to a woman,” grinned Mr. Higgs, evidently not displeased. Catch me doing it!”
  “Now you have to stand up,” said Thomas, “and I’m supposed to vest you with––“ he referred to the book “ ‘––a fair white vesture of linen and silk.’ “
  “I’ll be damned first!” shouted Mr. Higgs.
  “It’s a beautiful idea,” commended Mrs. Higgs. “But we haven’t got such a thing in the house. I supposed one of father’s dress shirts wouldn’t do?”
  “It’ll have to do, if there’s nothing else,” said Thomas gloomily. “Anyhow, it’s only symbolism. . . . Now, mother, you’d better go out for this, hadn’t you?”
  “No, I’ll stay,” she decided. “Who has a better right to stay, I’d like to know?”
  “If there’s any puttin’ on a shirt, I’ll do it alone, thank you,” growled Mr. Higgs. “And the sooner this tomfoolery stops the better.”
  And he had his way. Thomas and his mother stood outside the door until the dress shirt had been pulled on. When they re-entered Mr. Higgs had the bath gown wrapped round himself again.
  “You haven’t said the words this time, Thomas,” his mother reminded him.
  He colored. “Oh, they’re not necessary,” he evaded her. “We’ll go on––“
  “Say the words, Thomas!”
  Reluctantly he looked down at the book. His mother glanced over his shoulder.
  “ ‘This spotless stole you first put on is but the symbol of a body held and guarded clean,’ “ he stammered.
  “Oh, how beautiful!” exclaimed Mrs. Higgs. Her husband’s breath came in great snores. Thomas hurried on the the next place.
  “Now the gown of scarlet silk,” he said.
  “My dressing gown’ll do for that,” exclaimed Mrs. Higgs.
  She hurried from the room as fast as her bulk would let her, returning soon afterwards with a vivid scarlet gown.
  “Go on. Hurry up and get it over,” growled the unhappy Mr. Higgs.
  The gown was put upon his shoulders.
  “It says in the book,” said Thomas doubtfully: “ ‘This vermeil robe keeps ever in your mind the blood a knight must shed in the service of his God and the defense of Holy Church.’ “
  “Don’t believe in God,” snapped Mr. Higgs.
  “Oh, Joseph, how can you say that!” exclaimed Mrs. Higgs. “And you a church-warden, too!”
  “Now we have to put on him shoes of brown leather,” Thomas put in hastily. “Mine’ll do.” He went to the wardrobe and took out a pair of Oxford brogues. “They’ll fit you all right.”
  “What does the book say?” demanded Mrs. Higgs.
  “ ‘These brown shoes,’ “ Thomas read aloud, “ ‘with which you are shod signify the colour of that earth from which you came and to which you must return; for whatever degree God permits you to attain, remember, O mortal man, you are but dust.’ “
  “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes!” said Mrs. Higgs piously.
  Mr. Higgs gulped.
  “Now we want a white baldrick,” said Thomas.
  “What the devil’s that?” demanded his sire.
  “A cincture–a girdle,” explained Thomas. He looked round dubiously. “I know. We’ll tie two towels together.”
  He brought towels from the bathroom and, knowing them together, passed them round his father’s paunch and fastened the ends together.
  Mrs. Higgs had picked up the book, and now she read–or rather chanted:
  “ ‘This white cinc–cincture I belt about your loins is the type of that chastity with which you must be girded withal. For he who would be worthy of such dignity as this must every keep his body pure as any maid.’ “
  Mr. Higgs guffawed; Thomas grinned faintly. Evidently Mrs. Higgs was not sure of the meaning of what she had read, but when intelligence came she tittered.
  “I don’t see ‘ow you can do that, Joseph.”
  “Oh, stow it, Aggie!” he grunted.
  “Now for the spurs,” said Thomas. “They should be golden, but I don’t suppose it matters much. I’ll slip down and get a pair.”
  He was back very shortly. Bidding his father sit on the bed he strapped the spurs over the brogues. Mrs. Higgs read from the book.
  “ ‘So swiftly as the destrier’–what’s a destrier, Thomas? It should be ‘destroyer,’ shouldn’t it?–‘so soon as the destroyer plunges in the fray at the prick of these spurs, so swiftly, so joyously, should you fight as a soldier of God for the defense of Holy–I mean the Church of England.’”
  Thomas looked at her quickly but said nothing.
  “I like that bit,” commented Mr. Higgs, looking over his belly in an effort to admire his spurs.
  “And now the sword,” said Thomas. “That old one hanging up in the hall will do.”
  He fetched it and thrust it into his father’s hand. Mrs. Higgs read:
  “ ‘The three lessons of the glaive’–that means ‘glove,’ doesn’t it?–‘are courage, justice, and loyalty. The cross at the hilt gives courage to the bearer, for when the brave knight girds his sword upon him he neither can, nor should, fear the strong Adversary himself’–who’s he, anyway–‘Again, the two sharp edges of the blade teach loyalty and justice, for the office of chivalry is this, to sustain the weak against the strong, the poor before the rich, uprightly and loyally.’ “
  “Well, I’m blowed!” swore Mr. Higgs. “You must ‘ave got it wrong, Aggie.”
  “And that’s the lot,” said Thomas hastily, “except that you ought to spend a night before the altar.”
  “Before the wot?”
  “In church, you know.”
  “Catch me doing it! I’ll spend the night in bed.”
  “It’s a beautiful idea,” sighed Mrs. Higgs. “I mean, spending the night in front of the altar. But there, it isn’t possible. Dear Mr. Thaddeus wouldn’t allow it.”
  “Wouldn’t he!” grunted Mr. Higgs angrily. “If I told him he’d got to–I’ve a damned good mind to do it!”
  “It’s not necessary, father,” said Thomas quickly. “It’s all finished–all the preparation, I mean. The only thing left is the accolade.”
  But the accolade was never presented. There was such a to-do in the Press about the sale of honors that promises were never fulfilled, and Mr. Higgs found himself the richer by the returned money he had paid–less agent’s fees–and the experience he had undergone at the hands of Thomas and his mother.


*               *               *               *

I think that the esoteric significance of the Poet’s story was lost on most of his audience.


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