Running water has a charm all its own; it proffers companionship of which one never tires; it adapts itself to moods; it is the guardian of secrets. It has cool draughts for the thirsty soul as well as for drooping flowers; and they who wander in the garden of God with listening ears learn of its many voices.
When the strain of a working day has left me weary, perhaps troubled and perplexed, I find my way to the river. I step into a boat and pull up stream until the exertion has refreshed me; and then I make fast to the old alder-stump where last year the reed- piper nested, and lie back in the stern and think.
The water laps against the keel as the boat rocks gently in the current; the river flows past, strong and quiet. There are side eddies, of course, and little disturbing whirlpools near the big stones, but they are all gathered into the broad sweep of the stream, carried down to the great catholic sea. And while I listen to the murmur of the water and watch its quiet strength the day's wrinkles are smoothed out of my face; and at last the river bears me homeward rested and at peace.
There are long stretches of time for me when I must remain apart from the world of work, often unwilling, sometimes with a very sore heart. Then I turn my steps towards my friend and wander along the banks, a solitary not alone. In the quiet evening light I watch the stream 'never hasting, never resting': the grass that grows beside it is always green, the flowers are fresh; it makes long embracing curves--I could cross from point to point in a minute, but to follow takes five. The ways of the water are ways of healing; I have a companion who makes no mistakes, touches none of my tender spots.
Presently I reach the silent pool, where the stream takes a wide sweep. Here the fair white water-lilies lie on their broad green leaves and wait for their lover the moon; for then they open their silvery leaves and bloom in the soft light fairer far than beneath the hot rays of the sun. Then, too, the buds rise out of the water and the moon kisses them into bloom and fragrance. Near by are the little yellow water-lilies, set for beauty against a background of great blue-eyed forget-me-nots and tall feathery meadowsweet. The river still sweeps on its way, but the pool is undisturbed; it lies out of the current. They say it is very deep--no one knows quite how deep--and it has its hidden tragedy. I gaze down through the clear water, following the thick lily-stalks--a forest where solemn carp sail in and out and perch chase each other through the maze-- and beyond them I cannot see the bottom, the secret of its stillness; but I may watch the clouds mirrored on its surface, and the evening glow lying at my feet.
I think of the fathomless depths of the peace of God, fair with flowers of hope; of still places wrought in man; of mirrors that reflect, in light uncomprehended, the Image of the Holy Face.
I go home across the common, comforted, towards the little town where the red roofs lie glimmering in the evening shadows, and the old grey church stands out clear and distinct against the fading sky.
* * * * *
One of the happiest memories of my childhood is the little brook in the home field. I know it was not a very clean little brook--it passed through an industrious manufacturing world--but to me then this mattered not at all.
Where it had its source I never found out; it came from a little cave in the side of the hill, and I remember that one of its banks was always higher than the other. I once sought to penetrate the cave, but with sad results in the shape of bed before dinner and no pudding, such small sympathy have one's elders with the spirit of research. Just beyond the cave the brook was quite a respectable width,--even my big boy cousin fell into mud and disgrace when he tried to jump it--and there was a gravelly beach, at least several inches square, where we launched our boats of hollowed elder-wood. Soon, however, it narrowed, it could even be stepped over; but it was still exciting and delightful, with two perilous rapids over which the boats had to be guided, and many boulders--for the brook was a brave stream, and had fashioned its bed in rocky soil. Further down was our bridge, one flat stone dragged thither by really herculean efforts. It was unnecessary, but a triumph. A little below this outcome of our engineering skill the brook widened again before disappearing under a flagged tunnel into the neighbouring field. Here, in the shallows, we built an aquarium. It was not altogether successful, because whenever it rained at all hard the beasts were washed out; but there was always joy in restocking it. Under one of the banks close by lived a fat frog for whom I felt great respect. We used to sit and gaze at each other in silent intercourse, until he became bored--I think I never did--and flopped into the water with a splash.
But it was the brook itself that was my chief and dearest companion. It chattered and sang to me, and told me of the goblins who lived under the hill, of fairies dancing on the grass on moonlight nights, and scolding the pale lilac milk-maids on the banks; and of a sad little old man dressed in brown, always sad because his dear water-children ran away from him when they heard the voice of the great river telling them of the calling of the sea.
It spoke to me of other more wonderful things, not even now to be put into words, things of the mysteries of a child's imagination; and these linger still in my life, and will linger, I think, until they are fulfilled.
* * * * *
I have another friend--a Devonshire stream. I found it in spring when the fields along its banks were golden with Lent-lilies. I do not even know its name; it has its source up among the old grey tors, and doubtless in its beginning had a hard fight for existence. When it reaches the plain it is a good-sized stream, although nowhere navigable. I do not think it even turns a mill; it just flows along and waters the flowers. I have seen it with my bodily eyes only once; but it has left in my life a blessing, a picture of blue sky, yellow bells, and clear rippling water--and whispered secrets not forgotten.
All the Devonshire streams are full of life and strength. They chatter cheerily over stones, they toil bravely to shape out their bed. Some of them might tell horrible tales of the far-away past, of the worship of the false god when blood stained the clear waters; tales, too, of feud and warfare, of grave council and martial gathering; and happy stories of fairy and pixy our eyes are too dull to see, and of queer little hillmen with foreign ways and terror of all human beings. Their banks are bright with tormentil, blue with forget-me-not, rich in treasures of starry moss; the water is clear, cool in the hottest summer--they rise under the shadow of the everlasting hills, and their goal is the sea.
* * * * *
There are other times when I must leave the clean waters and the good brown earth, to live, for a while, in London: and there I go on pilgrimage that I may listen to the river's voice.
I stand sometimes at a wharf where the ships are being unloaded of the riches of every country, of fruits of labour by my unknown brothers in strange lands; and the river speaks of citizenship in the great world of God, wherein all men have place, each man have his own place, and every one should be neighbour to him who may have need.
I pass on to London Bridge, our Bridge of Sighs. How many of these my brethren have sought refuge in the cold grey arms of the river from something worse than death? What drove them to this dreadful resting-place? What spectre hurried them to the leap? These things, too, are my concern, the river says.
Life is very grim in London: it is not painted in the fair, glowing colours of grass and sky and trees, and shining streams that bring peace. It is drawn in hard black and white; but the voice of its dark waters must be heard all the same.
* * * * *
I would not leave my rivers in the shadow. After all, this life is only a prelude, a beginning: we pass on to where "the rivers and streams make glad the city of God." But if we will not listen here how shall we understand hereafter.