The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott




IN THE GARDEN there grew a rose bush which had never flowered. It was rooted in nourishing soil and no shadow fell upon it at any hour of the day. All around, its fellows produced blossoms of the rarest perfection, of a beauty and variety which caused the fame of the garden to spread beyond the bounds of the village so that not a few persons who had no opportunity to come that way and see with their eyes what had been declared a marvel began to see the precincts of the garden with the eye of the spirit. The garden then began to have two existences; one actual, the well-tended, fruitful space of earth covered with blossoms; the other imagined, a sort of paradise where the radiance of the flowers resembled the still light cast by gems and where everything had a faint unalterable beauty.

    In the midst of all this effort to produce beauty, effort crowned every moment with success, was rooted this unproductive rose tree, quite unregarded by those who praised her flaunting neighbours and of course unknown to those who had imagined the paradise upon which was no spot or blemish. But the rose tree was in herself beautiful without the crowning grace of bud or blossom. The leaves were dark and lustrous, the stems and branches were filled with health and shone as ruddy as burnished coral, this rosy colour appeared again in the veins of every leaf and the thorns were like little spurs of polished jasper. And when at last the end to which all this perfect organism tended should have been attained and a rose should look at the sun, what would be its form and colour?

    Agnes Lynn, who had inherited the garden and the house of her ancestor, frequently asked herself this question, and although she could not answer it, she expected that one day it would be answered and that the flower would surpass in loveliness all the other flowers of her garden by so much as the tree excelled all the others in vitality.

    Her Aunt Rachel, who was her guardian, wished her to uproot this barren plant which was taking dole of earth which might be better engaged, and in the round plot construct a fountain. It could be cunningly fed by water brought from springs in the hills, she urged, and would be very beautiful making little rainbows in the sunlight. But Agnes cherished faith. The rose tree was one of her earliest recollections. Its growth had been slow but much was implied by slow growth. She had spiritual apperceptions and saw the manifest analogies in material things. She found no difficulty, for example, in seeing, as she came up the road on a day of hazy sunshine, the perfume from the garden flow over the high red-brick wall like crystal water just lapsing from the rim of a fountain. She could see it like a body of clear amber of honey-coloured streaked with films of faintest or deepest crimson and marked how it slipped down behind the ivy and spread itself through the long grass at the roadside. She had a fancy that the rose tree bore its roses at the root and that they existed in the dark loam as ruby growths enfolded with rare gems. No, her rose tree should not be torn and destroyed.

    By the sea the village spread in the shape of a cross in one long street with a shorter intersection. One point of the cross-piece was next the sea, the other against an oak wood, very ancient, in which no trees had ever been cut. The rood-shape of the village had often been remarked, as from a high hill in the neighbourhood it looked like a large crucifix of dull weather-beaten wood encrusted with coral, verd-antique, diamonds, lapis-lazuli, and other precious things. At the heart of the cross where the arms intersected stood the church, and opposite the church was the home of Agnes Lynn, with the rare garden fronting the sea. The church and its ministering buildings were of ancient stone and of such antiquated design that they seemed to prefigure a medieval creed. The modern window spaces which for the sake of increased light and air had been almost blasted through the walls might be likened to the harmonizing and softening of the old dogmas, and a clinging vine and flowers rooted about the foundations might be compared to the sentiments and aspirations which had brought beauty into worship.

    The villagers were a careless folk finding life pleasant enough but hardly realizing it at all, taking their living from the sea and from the fruitful slopes of the uplands without great toil. Their meed of spiritual sustenance they drew from the church and gave the matter no further thought. It existed for that purpose, as the sea was eternal and the bosom of the fields for the nourishment of the body; and it was chiefly prized for its mundane offices, matrimony, the naming of infants, and the burial of the dead.

    There was but one sceptic in the place, a flagitious man who strangely enough was the sexton of the church, arranged the altar for communion, poured the wine, set the bread, tolled the bell. The state of his mind made him a living profanation of these holy things. He was not an intellectual unbeliever—all such exercise their reason and thereby prove the greatness of God. He was a sensual unbeliever, a lecherous man, a man who knew all varieties of sin, to whom nothing was sacred. He had been a sailor and no land was strange to him. He had crawled all over the globe. Of great stature, his enormous shoulders were bent, and his frame was loosely put together. He was as pale as if every drop of blood was drained from his body. On his right arm an anchor with coiled serpent was tattooed and the motto “Semper paratus.” His name was Santal. The people of the village thought him amusing; to the men he told obscene tales of an infinite variety, and the women were appalled and fascinated by his wickedness.

    Agnes Lynn loathed this man with a great dread, and the pastor, Stephen Rede, found him a terrible stumbling block. These young people, in whom mutual love was just beginning, instinctively trembled at this man from whom all purity was absent. The woman naturally felt the evil with greater repugnance; the serpent influence of all-knowledge and uncleanness—all the more because she became aware that the robust faith which only can match and overpower such influence was weakening in her lover, the robust faith which is really the unperverted earth-spirit lying at the core of all life. He felt this himself and the conflict arose within him, not a personal battle with Santal, who was merely a reminder or monitor, and who for both lovers did that service of vice in the world, but a struggle with himself for the belief necessary unto his life. But worse than this he had lost faith in life and saw nothing in it all but mockery. Even his love for Agnes Lynn did not prove a rock for his feet. All his deepest personal feelings were involved in the general mist of doubt and indifference. The state of his mind had become apparent to only two members of the community. Agnes Lynn felt his insincerity in the words he used to teach the people and in the subjects chosen for his sermons. His words were the pickings of the neutral heap, equivocal, such as conveyed mere glimmerings of meaning, innuendoes, and half-truths. His subjects were non-vital and uncomforting. A more intimate evidence was the lack of joy in his relations with herself, joy which is the very inner essence of love; and this blight, growing as their love grew, was, to Agnes, more grievous than any lack of conviction, for her, love was the very source of all faith.

    Santal felt the young man’s insincerity, because his words opposed nothing of power to the vicious activity of his own nature. His was a keen intellect and he had not wasted one grain of experience; what was at all apparent to his mind was crystal clear. He had observed the growing up of love between Agnes Lynn and Stephen Rede, and had enjoyed perverting it in his own mind and tormenting the lovers outwardly. Every Sunday Agnes placed fresh roses on the reading desk and pulpit, and whenever he could reach them Santal would touch the glass and they would become incinerated as if withered by a flame of fire. At last his only resort had been some subterfuge to reach the chancel after service had begun, for Agnes to guard against his blistering touch, had adopted the plan of sending flowers to Stephen who himself carried them into the church. Santal would wait until the pastor was at the reading desk before he would present him with some request,—a prayer for a lad at sea, or for a woman in travail; then he would sear the flowers and go out into the sunshine. The desire of his life was to surprise the lovers in some clandestine meeting and he waited for his chance with obscene patience.

    But if this opportunity was ever to be offered him the fateful chance was thrown into the future, for it became necessary for Stephen to take a year-long journey and he must depart at once. To each the separation seemed grievous, although in Agnes’s mind there was the dawning of certainty that by this separation her lover would be made one with herself, that their souls would be harmonized in a way as yet not clear.

    Upon the night before he was to leave they walked together in the garden. May had just come to the world and already upon many of the rose bushes the first signs of approaching buds had appeared. In the warm, moist air there was the tremor of expectancy. The premonition of an odour hovered everywhere. They were covered by a low mist that had crept upon the land. It was thick about them, but above their heads they could see the faint stars, their light dispersed in nebulous blurs.

    “I feel that this voyage will be of gain; it must be the beginning or end of great things for us, or it would not have happened.

    “And when I am gone—“ he sighed, thinking of her loneliness without him. Her thoughts followed his broken sentence.

    “Ah, I shall be well occupied. I will fashion a gown which I shall prepare against a certain great occasion, and it is to be so full of device that winter shall not see it finished.” His heart gave a great leap of contentment, although she could not give him the full meaning of her words, hidden as yet even from herself. At that moment they came beside the unproductive rose tree and they both paused. It was wrapped close in the mist but a change had come upon it. It seemed to be vibrating as if actuated by some inner pulsation. There was an intensity as of sentient life about the trees. The grasp of the lovers strengthened as they gazed upon it.

    “Who can tell,” said Agnes, “when you return my rose tree may welcome you with a blossom. I shall call it the Rose of Hope.”

    He was to return in a year from that month of May and the season passed without event. The church was served in his stead by one who was old and blind who remembered only three of his sermons. Santal with smouldering glee, led him about the chancel while he was ministering. There was only one circumstance worthy of record. During the winter the snow fell heavily upon the village alone until it was buried, and although the sun was bright and the weather mild it lay in full depth, glittering and crisp, and kept its virgin whiteness until the end of March. Just outside the village there were bare dun roads, and fields uncovered, and groves standing amid dead leaves, but within its boundaries there was silence and purity. It was noticeable from the hill from which the cross-shape of the village could be seen that that semblance had almost disappeared, and from the sea mariners observed with wonder and awe the sign of white upon a coast which had before been a monotonous gray.

    Agnes was intensely occupied with her task which had more the character of worship than of work. In truth with her mind fondly fixed on the traveller, she seemed to be weaving her own life into the garment as it grew beneath her fingers. If she had designed it for her wedding, no wedding gown was ever so passionately wrought; if there was a mystical purpose no fabric was ever woven with such subtle threads. When it was finished her strength seemed to have passed away and she could only bear to sit through the month of April and look out over the garden, the church, and the great gray slope of the sea.

    One evening towards the middle of May when her spirit seemed feeble and waning her Aunt suggested,

    “Let us look at the robe once more. It is now many weeks since we saw it, and it should be often shaken out lest moths should destroy it, and this is now the season of moths.”

    “Bring it then,” said Agnes, with a fluttering smile. Rachel brought the cedar box lined with satin-wood, its corners bound with brass and studded with the matrix of the turquoise. Each woman held a candle aloft and gazed at the robe. It was made of the richest silk, and over it fell a lace-like veil so delicate that it seemed part of the silk, a pattern upon it, yet it was entirely separate. Agnes alone knew the secret motive of the design but Rachel recognised its beauty. Below the waist the roots of the rose bush spread in filaments and shoots; above the girdle was the bush itself as if standing in the sunshine. The bodice was all clasped with the strong branches, and leaves, and spur-like thorns. Just over left breast and above the heart was the semblance of the precious rose of the world, so lovely and perfect that it was covered in a sheath of the most delicate and consummate workmanship.

    Suddenly as they gazed in rapture the women were aware that their candles had gone out and they were looking at the robe by a light of its own. Then they were startled by the sound of the church bell and peering across the dark interval they saw that the church was glowing as if candescent, as if composed of all precious stones each one burning an individual light. In truth Santal had thought the building was on fire and had rung the bell to alarm and assemble the people. They stood gazing when they saw the glowing mass rise in the air and ascend, leaving the cold dark shell of the church on the ground. It rose until it seemed only as a large planet but still retained its temple-shape and its wonderful colour. When it disappeared the flames came again upon the candles and Rachel devoutly replaced the robe.

    In about a week’s time, one evening when the dusk had defined the larger stars, Rachel came and told Agnes in a breathless ecstasy that there was a bud upon the rose tree.

    “The whole garden is filled with roses such as we never saw before, not even in dreams, and now this bud surpasses them all in its loveliness.”

     “The perfection of nothing is apparent if it be perfect alone, it is only by surrounding perfections that absolute perfection is proved,” Agnes murmured. “But do not,” she added, “molest it in any way. At the appointed time I will pluck it myself.”

    Not long afterward they knew that Stephen had returned. Agnes seemed so wary, as if the little flame of her life might go out if not carefully tended, that Rachel sent word to him to pray earnestly for her life, that, if she passed away in the night, she would place a candle in the window overlooking the garden, but that he was to pray with his whole being. He replied that he would not fail of prayer all night long, that he had seen the mystical jewel of the church go up into heaven when their ship was in the midst of a besetting storm, and by it, as by a star, the mariners had steered into safety.

    Agnes Lynn lay clothed in her dress covered with the spreading image of the rose-tree. But all the colour was darkened, beauty in eclipse, dark and lustrous leaves, the gem-like thorns, dark the buds and the blossoms. Her closed eyelids were still as carved ivory over the immaculate eyes; the hands quiet after inspired toil, the fingers relaxed in loveliness.

    No one else in the village knew of Stephen Rede’s return but Santal. He saw him go into the old vestry which adjoined the church, and saw the passing of the message: about midnight he looked in at the window and saw the youth deep in prayer. He could not determine to go to bed as all the other villagers had done long ago. His curiosity was quick. He went behind a buttress of the church, and waited. Soon he was aware of an apparition which came from the garden across the road. It was Agnes Lynn. She approached like a cloud of light and passed shadowless down the walk towards the vestry. She was covered with a garment that seemed to glow and envelop her in lambent fire. Between her hands, as a celebrant might bear a sacred vessel, she held a rose of beauty unimaginable. He saw her glimmer down the path and through the door of the vestry. This was his opportunity. He thought the lovers had arranged a meeting, wearied out with the burden of desire. He rang the church bell with malicious force, and the men of the village, expectant always of some new marvel since the vision of the burning church, ran swiftly together.

    “Come now,” cried Santal, and they all followed him into the vestry. Nothing that he expected was found there. Stephen Rede was alone, he had fallen face downward upon the floor his hands clasped over his heart. An ethereal perfume possessed the room. Then they were aware that although no candles were lighted it was as bright as day. They discovered that the light came from a single candle standing in a window of the house overlooking the garden.

    Whereupon came a great debate as to whether the man was dead, and they were divided in their opinion, but they were not aware, in their blindness, of the absolute certitude that he held safe-clasped to his heart The Rose of Hope.