From Tales from Bective Bridge
Brother Boniface sat in the sun. The sun shone full on the monastery wall, and brightened the gold coins of its ancient lichen. It fell full on the rough stone seat where Brother Boniface sat smiling. It fell through the leaves of the elm trees and littered the grass with its yellow petals. It splattered the green and white palings that shut off the kitchen garden from the blazing flower beds on the lawn.
There was no one to be seen out under the hot midday sun but Brother Boniface and the monastery cats. There were five cats. There was a great yellow fellow, stretching his long paws up the bark of an elm. He had green eyes. There was an old white cat sitting in the grass. He kept his eyes shut tight against the piercing sun rays. There were two fat cats abask on the stone seat, one each side of Brother Boniface. And there would have been a great peace over the sunny place had it not been for the fifth cat. The fifth cat was very young. She was pretty and slender and she ran among the grasses. Her fur was grey with markings of gold. Her eyes were amber-yellow. She ran at the waving grasses. She ran at the falling leaves. She caught at the flies in the air. She ran at the splatters of sunlight and pinned them against the palings with her paw. Brother Boniface watched her for a little while, but when he saw the other cats with their great eyes closing every few minutes, blinking and narrowing and closing, his own eyelids began to grow heavy and he fell into a little sleep.
Brother Boniface was sleeping lightly, with his chin in his cowl, when a cinnamon-coloured butterfly, with black and brown spots on its wings, flew unsteadily into the sunlight and went towards the blazing flowers. At once the young grey cat sprang after it, leaping lightly through the grass and springing after the butterfly into the very centre of the laden flower bed. Under her weight the flower stems snapped and broke. The fat cats opened their eyes. The white cat sat up. Brother Boniface jerked his head upwards and looked from right to left. When he saw the bent stems of the lovely blossoms he rose up unsteadily to his feet and clapped his hands together, and shuffled the gravel with his sandalled feet and called out to the cat:
“Pussy! Pussy! Pussy! Come out of that at once!”
He waved his arms in distress.
“Pussy! Pussy! Pussy! Come out of that at once!”
The young cat started up with a pretty fright. She laid her ears back against her sleek grey head and she arched her back fantastically. She looked at Brother Boniface and forgot the cinnamon butterfly, who fluttered away through the grass. She looked at him while he waved his arms and soon she slackened the arch of her body and pricked up her ears once more, and then she leaped out of the flower plot and ran after a splatter of sun petals; capricious, giddy, but full of grace. Brother Boniface stood in the sun for a while and watched her as she went away, scrambling from shadow to shadow as the trees moved lightly in the breeze. His warm brown habit fell in heavy folds about him and seemed to tug at him with their weight. When he was a young monk he used to think that the folds of his sleeves and the folds of his cowl gave him an added speed as he strode the corridors, in the way that the sails of a ship speed it on before the wind, but at eighty he felt a weariness in the weight of the brown wool, although, in places, it was worn thin enough to be little more than a net- work of woollen threads. When the young cat disappeared around the bole of a tree. Brother Boniface went over and bent down to examine the broken flowers. He picked up three that were severed from their stems and he laid them gently on the grass border. There would be three flowers less before the great marble altar on the feast of Corpus Christi, and Brother Boniface was saddened at the thought. He was looking forward to the great feast day, when there would be a thousand candles blazing before the Host and a thousand flowers as well. Even three blossoms were a loss. He went back to his stone seat, moving slowly over the smooth pebbles that made the pathway from the rectory to the chapel.
The pebbles on this path were all very smooth and round. They were smoothed over by the soles of a thousand sandalled feet, and every day they were carefully raked by Brother Gardener. Brother Gardener had come to join the order exactly ten years after Brother Boniface, and so Brother Boniface always looked upon him as a very young man, although Brother Gardener had been now fifty years in the garb of the order. The day that Brother Gardener came up the driveway with a red carpet-bag in his hand, Brother Boniface was clipping the ivy on the chapel wall and the air was scented with the bitter green sap from its stems. The young man asked to sec the Father Abbot, and Brother Boniface got down from the ladder and went around with him to the door of the Abbot’s reception room. While they stood waiting for the Father Abbot to come out, they began to talk.
“You shouldn’t cut ivy at this time of the year,” said the young man, who had been a gardener in the world before he got the idea of entering a monastery. Just as Brother Boniface was going to answer him the old Abbot, Brother Anselm - God be good to his soul - opened the door, and hearing the last sentence, joined in the conversation as if he had known the young man all his life.
“Will it grow again?” he asked.
“Nothing will stop ivy from growing, once it has started,” said the young man, “but it looks better if it’s clipped before the new growth has started for the year.”
“I’m glad to know that,” said the Abbot. “Still, we can’t leave it the way it is now.”
He looked at the wall where there was a great grey patch of clipped twigs, and another great patch of hanging leaves that fluttered in the wind. He turned back to the young man and glanced at his red carpet-bag, and looked him straight in the eye for a minute, and then he spoke again.
“Leave your bag in the hall, young man,” he said, “and finish clipping that ivy. See that you cut it at the right time next year,” he paused, “and the year after, and every year,” he said, and he took the shears out of Brother Boniface’s hand and gave them to the new man.
“You can help Brother Sacristan to clean the brasses” he said to Boniface. That was the kind of man he was, Brother Anselm, God be good to his soul. And Brother Boniface was very fond of him. The new young man was given the name of Jennifer, but it wasn’t very long till he was known as Brother Gardener, in the same way that Brother Boas was called Brother Sacristan, and Brother Lambert was called Brother Vintner. But Brother Boniface always kept his own name because he never did anything well enough to be left at it for long. He was changed from one task to another. He cleaned the brasses and snuffed the candles. He sharpened the knives and he fed the chickens. He waxed the oak pews and he chopped pine logs for the fire. He peeled apples and turned the churn and in October every year he went out with a basket and picked the purple elderberries. Later he took the scum off the vats. He had a thousand tasks to do, and he loved doing them all. He helped with everything, and one day Father Abbot said that he should have been called Brother Jack, because he was Jack-of-all-trades.
But Father Abbot sent for Brother Boniface when he felt that his end had come, and although all the monks clustered round him, he wouldn’t let anyone minister to him but Brother Boniface. It was Brother Boniface who wet his lips. It was Brother Boniface who held the crucifix up for him to kiss, and it was he who held the candle firm in the old man’s hand when he finally freed his soul to God. And when the soul of the Abbot had fled its clay, the hands of the corpse and the hands of Brother Boniface were bound together by a twisted rope of wax that had knotted its way downward, drop by drop, from the candlewick to their clasped hands.
Every year when the ivy was cut, and its bitter scent freed upon the air. Brother Boniface thought of the past and he prayed for the old Abbot. There was very little time for thinking about the past, but it was still very vivid in Brother Boniface’s mind. Memories stay greener where memories are few. And as the old monk sat in the sun, basking in its warmth with the lovely indolent cats, he had the first hours of leisure that he ever had in his life, and he thought about the years that had fled. They had gone by swiftly one after another till it seemed now as if they had been but a flight of swallows coming out one after another from under the caves of the barn
The earliest thing that Brother Boniface could remember was standing between his father’s knees in a big wagonette with yellow leather cushions as it rolled along a road in the middle of the night. He had been on a picnic with his father and his mother, but he could only remember the ride home in the dark. The brake was rolling along the roads, under the rustling poplar trees. The songs of the picnic party volleyed through the valley. The horse-hooves rang on the road. He, Barney, had never been out so late before. His mother hadn’t wanted to bring him. She thought it would be bad for him to stay up so late. But his father had insisted on taking him. He said that he could sleep in the brake coming home. But the brake, going home, had been the real enchantment for Barney and was the only part of the picnic that he remembered clearly. The rest of the day was only a broken memory of sun and trestle tables and people laughing and swaying from side to side on benches. He remembered a tall man pouring out lemonade from foaming bottles, and he remembered a lady with a green feather in her hat who kept telling him to run away and play like a normal child. But he could remember every moment of the drive home, along the darkening roads through the valleys. He remembered looking down over the sides of the brake at the travelling road, and he remembered his mother pulling him by the sleeve.
“Look up, Barney Boy,” she said. “It will make you sick to lean down over the sides like that.”
So he looked up, and when he did the wonder of the world came upon him for the first time. As his head jerked up he saw a shower of brilliant sparks riding down through the skies, riding straight towards them it seemed, and he screamed with fear and excitement, and everyone in the party glanced their way.
“Oh, look! Look, Father,” he shouted, as the gilt stars rode downwards towards him.
“Where?” said his father, looking up in fright. What do you see?”
“Look,” shouted Barney, and he pointed at the stars.
“Is it the stars you mean?” said his father, laughing, and looking around at the rest of the party.
“Is that what you call them?” said Barney. “Why are they up in the sky?”
“They’re always in the sky” said his father. “You often saw them before.” He looked around uneasily, hoping that no one was listening.
“Were they there last night?”
“I suppose they were.”
“Why didn’t I see them?”
“You were in bed.”
“Were they there Sunday night?”
“They were. Now that’s enough about them,” said his father.
“When will I see them again?” said Barney, and his father slapped his hand on his knee.
“It will be many a long day before you see them again, if I have my way,” he said, turning around and laughing with the lady who wore the green feather in her hat; and after that everyone began to laugh and they laughed for a long time, while the brake rolled along the road under the rustling poplar trees, and Barney stared upwards until his head began to reel.
After that every night he asked to be let stay up until the stars came out. But long before they rode out into the sky Barney was in bed, and although he tried hard to remain wake he was always asleep before the first of them rode forth. And so, in time, he forgot them. And when he went to school he learned, among other things, that it was silly to get excited about common things like stars and rainbows and whirls of wind, flowers and rain and drifts of snow. They were natural phenomena, the teacher said. And she spent two days teaching Barney how to spell the word phenomena, because Barney was backward at his books.
All the way along his school career, Barney was slow and it took him all his time to avoid being made the butt of the master’s jokes. And only for one poor lad that was simple, he would have been always at the foot of his class. Of course, if he had had more time to look over his lessons he might have made more progress, but his father was a man who could not believe that any real work could be done sitting on a chair, and so Barney was more often helping in the shop than he was reading his books. His father kept him always on the move.
At nine o’clock he opened the shop, although no one ever came into it till long after ten. But between the time of taking down the lice-eaten shutters, and the entry of the first customer, there were a hundred things to be done. He had to sprinkle the floor with tea leaves to keep down the dust while he swept the floor. And often before he swept the floor he had to undo the twig of bound faggots and fasten them up tighter with a thong of leather.
One morning when he was sweeping out the dust into the gutter his father came out and saw that he had sprinkled tea leaves on the pavement as well. His father gave him a clout on the ear. “Waste not, want not,” his father said, and after that Barney had to be more attentive than ever.
Then sometimes there were large packing cases to be splintered open with a gimlet, and cups and saucers and statues and lamp globes to be taken out and counted, one by one, and the sticky tissue paper that wrapped them to be peeled off with a penknife. Then they had to be arranged on the shelves, and after that the sawdust had to be swept up, and the shavings picked out by hand from the cracks in the boards, and carried in to the kitchen fire without letting any fall. There was something to be done every minute, and on a Fair Day there was so much to be done that he had to stay at home from school.
On the morning of a Fair Day Barney had to be up at four o’clock, and out in front of the shop with a big ash plant in his hand to beat off the cattle that came too near the windows. The night before a Fair Day there were beer barrels rolled out to the front of the shop windows and boards were nailed across them to make a barrier, and to protect the plate glass; but all the same, Barney had to be there, because sometimes a beast was strong enough to break through the barrier and puck at the glass with his horns.
One terrible morning, when Barney stood with his stick in the dawn, a great red heifer gave a puck to the barrels and before Barney could raise his stick she had butted against the barrels with such force that the nails of the boards were lifted out and the boards rose up and crashed through the glass. That was the worst day in Barney’s life. He stood in the grey Street while his father roared at him and the drovers all came up and gaped at the hole in the window. The cattle themselves were excited and they butted one another, backward and forward, some of them slipping on the dirty street and falling, while the men yelled at them and kicked their rumps and caused such confusion that Barney couldn’t even hear the curses that were hurled at him.
But later in the morning when his mother stroked his head, and begged him to stop crying, and promised to ask his father to forgive him, Barney began to remember some of the things that had been shouted at him, and it seemed to him that, more than anything else his father had said, the thing that was the most terrible was the question he kept shouting: “Where are your eyes? Where are your eyes? Why weren’t you looking at what you were doing? Where were your eyes? Why didn’t you see the beast?”
And Barney was frightened because he couldn’t remember looking at anything but the big red-chalked barrels, and the dry dusty boards, and the great steaming nostrils of the cattle. He had been looking at them all the time, and if he looked away it could only have been for a minute when a wisp of scarlet cloud floated out between the chimney of the barrack and the spire of the church. The cloud had only floated there for a moment, before it was blown out of sight, but it was such a strange and beautiful colour that Barney had stared at it. And when he cried with his head in his mother’s lap it was not because he was beaten, but because he began to feel faintly that there was something odd about himself, and that ordinary successful people, people who were respected in the town, like his own father, would never be foolish enough to stand with their hands down by them, doing nothing, as he longed to do, for hours and hours, just staring at the trees or the grasses or the stars or the rains.
But if Barney himself was beginning to notice his difference from other young men of his age, his father was beginning to notice it too, and if it bewildered Barney, it had a more positive effect on his father. One night the merchant was coming back from the station late at night, where he had been lading crates of china, and he came upon Barney, who was leaning against the yard gate staring up into the sky. There was nothing in the sky but the usual display of gaudy stars and the tinsel moon, and Barney’s father was filled with rage against the stupidity of his only son.
“Are you getting soft in the head, I wonder?” he said as he pushed past him and went into the yard, and Barney could hear his voice through the kitchen window, as he told Barney’s mother: “That son of ours is abroad at the gate,” he said, “leaning up against the piers with his hands in his pockets and staring up into the sky like a half-wit. Can he never find anything to do for himself without being driven?”
“Leave him alone,” said his mother. “You drive him too much as it is. You’re always yelling at him, and sending him here and sending him there. He never gets a moment to rest his poor feet.”
“He’s not resting his feet out there, gaping up at the sky,” said his father, and then Barney heard his heavy steps on the stairs, and he knew that his mother was alone. He looked around him once more at the strange splendour of the heavens, and he looked around at the dark town where every window was shuttered and curtained and he shivered suddenly, partly because of the cold night air and partly because of the great loneliness that he felt in his heart when he thought of his difference from other men. Even from his own warm-hearted mother he felt a difference that made him dread going in to the lighted kitchen where she would be waiting for him. But he opened the door and went inside.
“Are you cold? Sit over here by the fire,” his mother said, looking at him sharply, and pulling a hard chair across the tiles with a clattering sound that jarred his nerves.
“What were you doing out there in the dark by yourself?” she said.
“Nothing,” said Barney, and he felt her glance upon him although he was staring into the flames.
“People will think you’re daft if you stand about like that gaping at the stars,” she said, and he felt that there was a questioning tone in her voice, and that she was asking for an explanation rather than giving advice. He knew that the slightest explanation would have won her over to be his champion, but the feelings that drove him out into the starlight were too vague to be expressed even in thought, much less in speech. They remained mere feelings, drawing him out of doors, drawing him into silent places, drawing him away from his fellows. His mother put her hands on her hips. She felt rebuffed.
“It’s true for your father,” she said. “You must be getting soft in the head. I don’t know what kind of a person you are at all. But I know one thing! The devil makes work for idle hands to do! That’s an old saying and it’s a true one.” She picked up a candle and went out into the hall with her head held high and her lips pursed together with annoyance, but as she went upstairs she leaned down over the banisters and watched him for a few minutes where he sat by the fire. He knew she was watching him, and his perplexity deepened and darkened his soul. He wanted to please his parents, but every hour that passed was bringing him a surer knowledge that their way of life was small and mean and that there must be a way of life that would leave time for glorying in the loveliness of field and flower and in the blazonry of stars.
After the night that his father found him gazing into vacancy, Barney was given more to do than ever he had been given before, and even at evening time, when the shop-boys were gone off to the ball-alley to play handball, or off with their girls to walk on the old town ramparts, Barney was often sent out into the country on his bicycle to deliver some parcel that might easily have been delivered the next day. They were determined to keep him from idling. They were determined to keep him moving.
But although for a long time there seems to be something vague and indecisive about our destiny, after a certain point has been reached it is often clear not only that there was a continuous progress, but that events which seemed at first to impede are later seen to have facilitated it. So, riding along the country roads on messages that were intended to keep him from strange dreaming, at every new delight of nature along the way he was forced to wonder more and more how it was that all the men he knew spent their leisure hours as drearily as their working hours, and only exchanged the stuffiness of the storehouse for the stuffiness of the billiard room.
At first when he went into the country lanes Barney was little better than a city man, exclaiming at the blatant beauties that paraded more brazenly in the hedgerows, the powdery hawthorn and the rambling honeysuckle. But after a time he grew in knowledge of the secrets and subtleties of nature, and he passed by the blossoming trees almost heedlessly and went into the deeps of the fields to seek out the secret scents that are released from the grass when the heavy cattle tread it down. And it was in the very depths of a pasture at evening, with the heavy cattle standing idle beside him in the clover, that he vowed to evade the way of life that had been destined for him by his father and his mother.
At first his pale rebellious dreams merely freed him from the dread of spreading his life behind the dusty counters of the shop; but he soon realized that he must choose an alternative way of earning his bread, and he set out to choose the one that would allow him to appreciate the qualities of the earth. From then on he began to wander around the town and take an interest, for the first time, in the rest of the townspeople. He spent many stolen hours walking around the town, in such apparent search for something that people came out into the road, after he had turned the corner, and furtively shuffled a foot in the gutter in the hope of some anonymous gain. But Barney was only looking for an idea. He stood at the great dark doorway of the smithy and watched the sparks threading up the flue. He stood at the door of the livery stable in the east side of the town and watched the horses with their trembling withers, while they were groomed and soothed by the stable-boys. There were strange dappled roans, strawberry and grey, and there were bays and chestnuts that were dappled with their own sweat. He watched the farmers bringing home the goodlihead of golden grain. He watched at the doors of shops that were bigger than his father’s, and the only real difference that he could see between them was that the big shops were nobbier than his father’s and had more spits on the floor.
One evening, just before the last of the light went out of the sky, Barney saw a man sowing seeds in the last few furrows of his field. The picture that he made against the darkening skies of evening was one that startled Barney and made him think for a moment that he had found the beautiful life at last. But as he came nearer he saw that although the tall man made a picture of great grandeur as he stood out against the skies with his raised arm flinging the unseen seed, he himself was unaware of the grandeur of the scene, because he never lifted his eyes higher than the hand he swung in the air, tossing the grain, before he groped in his bag for another fistful. And realizing this, Barney stepped back from the top of the ditch where he had been standing in a trance, and went away in sadness.
His sadness deepened as he walked along the road; for it seemed to him that whether you cobbled or whether you hammered, whether you measured up rice in a scales or whether you led a young colt round and round in a training ring, or whether you opened or closed your hand to let fall a shower of seeds, you had to keep your eyes upon what you were doing, and soon you forgot that there was a sky over you and grass under your feet, and that flowers blew for your delight and birds sang in the bushes all day long.
At last Barney settled down to follow the life his father had planned for him, and he let his mother buy him a yellow canvas coat to keep his trousers clean when he would be weighing out whiting or weed-killer that might put dust on his clothes. And everyone said that he was shaping out much better than they would have expected. The canvas coat kept the dust from getting on Barney’s trousers; but there was dust getting into his mind, and soon he would have been using half a sheet of paper instead of a whole sheet, and weighing the whiting in the bag to make weight, and it is probable that in no time at all he would have been taking down the shutters from the windows five minutes before eight in the hope of catching another penny. Just before he had relinquished the last shreds of his dream, however, a message came down from the Abbot of the monastery that was situated outside the town, to know if the monks could be supplied with a gallon of colza oil three times a week,
“There’s no need for you to go with it, Barney,” said his father, “I’ll send one of the boys” because he was anxious not to impose too much on Barney at the moment when he was beginning to show some taste for money-making.
“I think I should go myself,” said Barney. “I might arrange to supply them with candles as well.”
His father took the yellow coat out of his hand.
“I’ll hang that up for you, my boy,” he said, and he saved Barney two or three steps across the shop, calling back as he hung up the coat on a nail behind the door, “Take your tea before you go. It’s a long push on a bicycle out to that monastery, and as well as I remember there’s a rise on the road most of the way.”
There was a rise on the road, and Barney was so tired by the time he reached the monastery gate that he left the bicycle at the gate lodge and began to walk up the avenue. The night was coming down gently between the dark yews and cypress trees, and a scent of flowers rose from some hidden place behind the walls. But Barney’s mind was filled with thoughts of the interview with the monks, and he was planning what he would say to the monk who would open the door.
It was an old monk who came to the door, and he seemed to be deaf. He took the can from Barney and he looked out past him through the open door, and then he pointed to a hard oak seat in the hall, and told him to wait for the can. He went away down a corridor and left Barney sitting all alone in the bare hallway with the yellow waxed floor, and he felt very young all of a sudden. He began to look around him. There were high-pointed windows, and through them he saw the high pointed stars, and they reminded him of something far away and indistinct in his childhood but he could not know what it was exactly. It was something sad and beautiful, and it was something that he had lost a long time ago. And he began to wonder why it was that the memory came back to him now; and then he noticed that the windows were without any curtains, and his thoughts raced away on another speculation; and it seemed to him suddenly that of all the silly things in the world the silliest was hanging heavy curtains across the windows to blot out the glory of the night with its sky and its moon and its welter of stars.
The old man came back with the empty oil-can. Barney took it silently and went out into the dark. There was no sound but the closing of the door, and he thought of all the foolish words that another man would have wasted upon the simple transaction. He is a wise old man, Barney thought, and he wondered about him as he went down the driveway.
Halfway down the avenue there was a great sycamore tree, and when Barney had nearly passed by it he saw that under its great shade of leaves there was a young monk standing; and there was such a strange stillness in his standing figure that Barney turned around when he had gone a few paces farther and looked back at him. His face was turned upwards to the stars, and his hands were lifted in adoration of their Creator. Barney tilted up his head too, and it was all that he could do to keep himself from falling upon his knees.
All that night and all next day he thought about the young man with his face tilted to the stars, and at the end of the second night he knew that his own eyes had been blinded for ever to the gross glare of tawdry coins and the gaudy pattern of bank notes. The only change that others could see in him was that his yellow overall was getting a bit short in the sleeves.
One night soon afterwards Barney’s father was wakened in the night, and he thought that he heard rats down below in the shop. He came down in his nightshirt with a spluttering candle stuck in a bottleneck. The counters were piled with carefully weighed bags of whiting and weed-killer, red lead, tacks, and grass seed. There was enough weighed out to last all winter, and when his father asked Barney why he had weighed out so much he was almost relieved at hearing the answer, because he had thought, when he first looked around at the laden counters, that his son’s sudden interest in business had sent him out of his mind.
Next evening Barney took an old fibre suitcase belonging to his mother, put a few things in it, and tied it to the back of the bicycle.
“I’ll send one of the boys up to bring back the bicycle.”
“You can take back the case too,” said Barney. “I won’t need it after to-day.”
His mother wiped her eyes on the corner of the tea cloth that she held in her hand.
“Are you sure you’ll be contented, Barney, inside those big walls?”
“Remember there’s only seven acres, all told, timber and pasture, inside those walls,” said his father. “It’s a small place to pass the whole of your days.”
But Barney had a vision before his mind of the great starry expanse of sky over the walled garden, and he thought of the shivering elms, and the deep grasses where the wind raced; and it seemed that the monastery garden was as wide and spacious as the world because there men had time to meditate and dwell on the beauties the Lord had laid open to their eyes.
The evening that he arrived he found out that the monastery itself was as big as a city, and that it took five or ten minutes to go from one end of it to another, and that three lengths of the corridor were equal to half a mile. He was shown over the whole place by a young lay brother recently joined himself, and when they came back to the place where they had started out from, the arches of his instep were aching and he could hardly believe that it was nine o’clock.
Nine o’clock would have seemed a ridiculous hour to retire at, but Barney was so tired, and his feet ached so much, he was glad to lie down. He meant to get up later in the evening and look out of the thin pointed windows of his cell, at the dark garden where the birds defied the silence with their song.
In the middle of the night Barney sat up in bed when there was a knocking on the door, and he sprang to the floor when he saw the light of a licking flame through the great windy cracks in the door. He dashed to the door and he opened it wide, to rush out; but a dash of holy water, chill and sudden, cooled his fright, and he saw that the flame was from a candle in the lay brother’s hand.
The young Brother Boniface joined the thronging feet that went down the stone steps to the chapel; and the knocking of the wooden rosary beads, and the sliding of the sandals from step to step, and the jostling movement of the heavy worsted habits made him forget that it was night and gave every appearance of daytime.
When the real daytime came at last and the birds began to fly out from under the chapel eaves, Brother Boniface was set the task that always fell to the latest member of the order, and that was peeling potatoes. It took a lot of potatoes to feed seventy-two monks, specially when they didn’t eat meat with them. But it didn’t take long to eat them. Brother Boniface was used to eating quickly, and so he would have been finished as soon as anyone, but he was so interested in the gospel story that the Brother Lector was reading during the meal that he had to hurry at the end in order not to be last.
There was community prayer after the midday meal, and after that there was recreation, but on that particular day there was an important visitor coming to see the monastery, and the Abbot wanted all the community to be present in the hall to receive her. She didn’t arrive at the time she had arranged. In fact, she came so late that they had only seventeen minutes for supper; and they had a great rush to make up the time, and clear away the meal and lay the table for breakfast, before the great bell rang out the hour of evening prayers. And that night an old monk died. He had lingered longer than anyone could have imagined, and even at the end his soul lingered among the candle flames and candle shadows while the monks knelt around him in prayer. Boniface had never seen anyone dying before. Death made a great impression on him. That night he had a few minutes of freedom and he went out into the cool garden that was dampened with rain, but afterwards when he tried to remember whether the stars had come out or not, and whether the birds had been singing or not, he could not remember anything about the time he had been in the garden. He had been thinking of death, and the shadows it cast upon life.
There was a very wet week after that, and during wet weather there were a great many things to be done indoors. Corridors were waxed and passageways were distempered, and the benches and pews were carefully examined to see that they were free from wood-lice. But on the evening of the seventh day there was a bright starry sky and Brother Boniface went out for a few minutes. He walked away to the right a few paces and then he saw that he was getting near the sycamore tree that stood by the gate. He remembered the young monk he had seen standing under it with his head tilted to the stars that pricked the dark greenery with their thin light. The monk was there. Brother Boniface had not yet made his acquaintance. He stepped into the damp grass and went across to the tree. But as he drew near he saw that the young monk’s eyes were closed and that his lips were moving. And Boniface knew that he was saying his office, and not looking at the stars at all. And he remembered that he himself had not said his office yet, and he raised his eyes to heaven and began to say it, where he stood, under the sycamore tree, in the damp evening grasses, with the stars blazing brightly above all. But he soon found that he could not pray with open eyes. The stars distracted him too much. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again the curfew bell was ringing and the sky was overcast.
The year went flashing by, and Boniface did not feel it passing. When his father came up the avenue to see him he was often hoeing in a field and did not see him, so intent was he on his work. And when his father called out his name — “ Barney ! Barney ! ” — the other monks had to pluck him by the sleeve and tell him that someone was calling him, because Brother Boniface had almost forgotten that he had once answered to the name of Barney.
Life went flashing by the monastery, leaves and petals were blown past the uncurtained windows, trees tossed in the wind, and webs of rain were spun across the glass. The skies shook out their gay confetti of stars. Brother Boniface stepped into his sandals some twenty thousand mornings, and the days slipped by so fast that one fine morning he was eighty years old.
On the morning that Brother Boniface was eighty he was coming out of the bakehouse with a trough of dough that he had kneaded for Brother Breadmaker, and he met the monastery doctor in the middle of the courtyard.
“Good morning, Brother Boniface. You get younger every day,” said the young doctor, looking at him closely and watching after him when he went on his way. The doctor turned his feet and went back to the Abbot’s room.
“I met Brother Boniface in the yard,” he said, to the young monk who was Abbot, and who was a personal friend of his, “and I didn’t like the way the veins on his forehead were swollen. He was carrying a heavy tray of dough. He does too much for a man of his age.”
“He loves work,” said the Abbot.
“That is the kind of person who needs rest most. He must be forced to take life easier.”
“I will see that he is released from some of his duties,” said the Abbot.
“That is not enough,” said the doctor. “He must be freed from all of his duties. He must sit out there in the sun, and remain as quiet as possible.”
“Poor Boniface,” said the young men, both together, as they stood at the low casement window of the Abbot’s room and looked out at Brother Boniface, who was going across the grass with a saucer of milk, followed by five cats who ran in front of him and circled around him and lifted themselves up on their hind legs to caress him with the back of their necks.
“You can’t call that hard work?” said the Abbot.
“Any work that never ceases is hard work,” said the doctor.
“I’ll send him out to-morrow morning to sit in the sun and I won’t let him inside the door till night-time, except for his meals and prayers.”
Brother Boniface took the sun like the monastery cats. He sat on the sunny seat, and smoothed down the folds of his warm brown habit. He smiled and he followed the ballet of the butterflies. The cats sometimes slit open their lazy eyes and gazed into the grass, where glossy jet insects ran up the green blades and bent them with their weight. Brother Boniface sat in the sun and thanked the Lord that he had been led into the shade of life so safely. And he began to wonder how he had merited such happy anchorage. He tried to remember what it was that had first turned his mind to the cloister. He remembered the shop where he scattered tea leaves to keep down the dust. He remembered that he wore a yellow coat and that it got too short in the sleeves. He remembered stealing into the centres of the fields and breathing the fragrance of the trodden grass. He remembered riding in a black and yellow brake, under rustling poplar trees, while voices volleyed in the valley and the stars showered down through the sky. But for a long time he could not remember why he had left his home and come to the cloister. Then suddenly he slapped his hand on his knee and he laughed so loud the cats sprang up and arched their backs. When they saw they had nothing to fear they relaxed again, but they walked away to a more quiet place with disdainful hips and fastidious paws.
Brother Boniface continued to laugh, in short indolent chuckles. He realized that he had entered the monastery in order to have more time to meditate upon the glories of the earth, and that his life had circled round, from matin to lauds, from daylight to starlight, with greater speedthan it could possibly have sped by in the world. It had gone by so fast that he could hardly tell what colour the trees were and whether the stars were blue or green. And he looked up and kept looking up till his eyes ached from the brilliance of the blue sky, because he was filled with joy to think that now, at the end of his days, having earned his leisure honestly, he would at last be able to spend long hours in appreciation. He stared upwards again. The leaves of the elms spread out wide over him till he fancied the sky was green. Just then there was the sound of a snapping stem and Brother Boniface looked down. The grey cat sprang out of the flower bed when she saw him move, but a great yellow dahlia lay broken on the grass. Brother Boniface clapped his hands at the cat and went over to the flowers, but at the same time there was a light step on the gravel and the young Abbot came down the path with an agile gait and flowing sleeves and a cowl that filled up with wind as he walked and gave him the weighty appearance of an elderly man, although he was the youngest Abbot that had ever been chosen.
“Good morning, Brother Boniface,” he said, as he stooped and lifted up the broken dahlia. “What will we do with those cats? The feast of Corpus Christi is only a few days away and we must have every single flower we can get. I wish we could dispense with the cats, but there are unfortunately too many mice for that. Did you hear them behind the wainscoting in the chapel this morning?” He bent and examined the stems of one or two blossoms that seemed a little lopsided.
“What will we do?” he said, and he straightened up and looked around the garden thoughtfully. Then he snapped his fingers. “I know what we’ll do,” he said, and he ran across the grass to the low casement window of the refectory, and he brushed aside the strands of ivy and opened the window. “Brother Almoner!” he called out, in a clear gay voice. “Hand me out a paper bag.”
Brother Almoner could be heard shuffling around on the tiles, and pulling out drawers and opening cupboards, and then he came to the window and handed out a stiff tinfoil tea-bag, open at the mouth. The young Abbot came striding back across the grass, and when he reached the gravel path where the stone seat was set he bent down and gathered up a handful of pebbles. He threw them into the tinfoil tea-bag and nimbly bent to gather up another handful, and another. Then,when the bag was filled to the top with smooth grey pebbles, he set it down on the rough stone seat beside Brother Boniface. “Here is a little job for you, Brother,” he said. “You can do it without standing up, without moving an inch. Every time you see the cats going near the flowers, all you have to do it take up a little pebble and throw it at them to frighten them away. We must have a gorgeous blaze of flowers on the altar for Corpus Christi. Isn’t that right?”
Brother Boniface took up the tea-bag full of stones. “I’ll keep it in my lap,” he said.
“I’m delighted that we have you out here,” said the Abbot.
“Now I need not worry about the flowers. I know I can depend on you. Brother Boniface,” he said, and he strode away again.
Brother Boniface sat in the sun. The Abbot’s footsteps died away. There was no sound in Brother Boniface’s ears but the bells of silence ringing. A brilliant red insect crawled up a blade of grass. The blade bent. Boniface watched him. The blade was weighted down till the insect was almost on a level with the ground. He put out a feeler and caught at another blade of grass that was short and stiff and seemed to stab the air, it went up so straight. The insect began to crawl upwards. The blade began to bend. Boniface bent down. He wondered where the insect was heading for that he took such a dangerous and devious path. And he felt the full luxury of indolence in realizing the triviality of his occupation. He was excited. He clasped his hands and bent closer to the grass.
Just then there was a sound of dry stems snapping, and Brother Boniface looked up in dismay. The young grey cat was in among the blossoms once more. The blossoms were breaking and falling to the ground. Three white butterflies flew among the leaves and the young cat sprang at each of them in turn.
“Pussy! Pussy! Pussy!” shouted Brother Boniface.
“Pussy! Pussy! Pussy! Come out of that at once!” And he groped for a pebble in his tinfoil bag, and stamped his feet at the grey and gold cat.
“Pussy! Pussy! Pussy! Come out of that at once!”
And years and years after, when Brother Boniface was laid away in the close and secretive clay, the young monks who entered the monastery were told about his industry. They were told that he was never, never idle for a moment. They were very impressed, and they strove to follow his example. And they in turn told younger men when they themselves were old. And the part of the story that the old monks liked best to tell, and the young monks liked best to hear, was about the last days of Brother Boniface, when he was so old he couldn’t even hear the bells of silence in his ears. Because then he was busiest of all. Day long, and day long, his voice could be heard, as he guarded the flowers for the feast of Corpus Christi by keeping the cats from breaking their stems.
“Pussy! Pussy! Pussy! Come out of that at once!”