Fragrance in Literature-Michael Fairless

Margaret Fairless Barber wrote under the name of Michael Fairless (1869–1901)
English essayist. The Roadmender 1902, completed on her deathbed, was very popular in the early 20th century. The best known of her other books are The Gathering of Brother Hilarius 1901 and The Grey Brethren 1905.
She was born at Castle Hill, Rastrick, Yorkshire. For some time she worked as a nurse in a London slum, but a spinal illness rendered her a semi-invalid living in a country cottage, where she occupied her time with writing reflective essays.,+Michael

Books by or about Michael Fairless

The Roadmender, by Michael Fairless

A great joy has come to me; one of those unexpected gifts which life loves to bestow after we have learnt to loose our grip of her. I am back in my own place very near my road - the white gate lies within my distant vision; near the lean grey Downs which keep watch and ward between the country and the sea; very near, nay, in the lap of Mother Earth, for as I write I am lying on a green carpet, powdered yellow and white with the sun’s own flowers; overhead a great sycamore where the bees toil and sing; and sighing shimmering poplars golden grey against the blue. The day of Persephone has dawned for me, and I, set free like Demeter’s child, gladden my eyes with this foretaste of coming radiance, and rest my tired sense with the scent and sound of home. Away down the meadow I hear the early scythe song, and the warm air is fragrant with the fallen grass. It has its own message for me as I lie here, I who have obtained yet one more mercy, and the burden of it is life, not death.

We took our places under a five o’clock morning sky, and the larks cried down to us as we stood knee-deep in the fragrant dew-steeped grass, each man with his gleaming scythe poised ready for its sweeping swing. Old Dodden led by right of age and ripe experience; bent like a sickle, brown and dry as a nut, his face a tracery of innumerable wrinkles, he has never ailed a day, and the cunning of his craft was still with him. At first we worked stiffly, unreadily, but soon the monotonous motion possessed us with its insistent rhythm, and the grass bowed to each sibilant swish and fell in sweet-smelling swathes at our feet. Now and then a startled rabbit scurried through the miniature forest to vanish with white flick of tail in the tangled hedge; here and there a mother lark was discovered sitting motionless, immovable upon her little brood; but save for these infrequent incidents we paced steadily on with no speech save the cry of the hone on the steel and the swish of the falling swathes. The sun rose high in the heaven and burnt on bent neck and bare and aching arms, the blood beat and drummed in my veins with the unwonted posture and exercise; I worked as a man who sees and hears in a mist. Once, as I paused to whet my scythe, my eye caught the line of the untroubled hills strong and still in the broad sunshine; then to work again in the labouring, fertile valley.

The evening sky was clouding fast, the sound of rain was in the air; Farmer Marler shook his head as he looked at the grass lying in ordered rows. I was the last to leave, and as I lingered at the gate drinking in the scent of the field and the cool of the coming rain, the first drops fell on my upturned face and kissed the poor dry swathes at my feet, and I was glad.

It is such a wonderful world that I cannot find it in my heart to sigh for fresh beauty amid these glories of the Lord on which I look, seeing men as trees walking, in my material impotence which awaits the final anointing. The marigolds with their orange suns, the lilies’ white flame, the corncockle’s blue crown of many flowers, the honeysuckle’s horn of fragrance - I can paraphrase them, name, class, dissect them; and then, save for the purposes of human intercourse, I stand where I stood before, my world bounded by my capacity, the secret of colour and fragrance still kept. It is difficult to believe that the second lesson will not be the sequence of the first, and death prove a “feast of opening eyes” to all these wonders, instead of the heavy-lidded slumber to which we so often liken it. “Earth to earth?” Yes, “dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return,” but what of the rest? What of the folded grave clothes, and the Forty Days? If the next state be, as it well might, space of four dimensions, and the first veil which will lift for me be the material one, then the “other” world which is hidden from our grosser material organism will lie open, and declare still further to my widening eyes and unstopped ears the glory and purpose of the manifold garment of God. Knowledge will give place to understanding in that second chamber of the House of Wisdom and Love. Revelation is always measured by capacity: “Open thy mouth wide,” and it shall be filled with a satisfaction that in itself is desire.

Looking along the roadway that we have travelled we see the landmarks, great and small, which have determined the direction of our feet. For some those of childhood stand out above all the rest; but I remember few notable ones, and those few the emphatic chord of the universe, rather than any commerce with my fellows. There was the night of my great disappointment, when I was borne from my comfortable bed to see the wonders of the moon’s eclipse. Disappointment was so great that it sealed my lips; but, once back on my pillow, I sobbed for grief that I had seen a wonder so far below my expectation. Then there was a night at Whitby, when the wind made speech impossible, and the seas rushed up and over the great lighthouse like the hungry spirits of the deep. I like better to remember the scent of the first cowslip field under the warm side of the hedge, when I sang to myself for pure joy of their colour and fragrance. Again, there were the bluebells in the deserted quarry like the backwash of a southern sea, and below them the miniature forest of sheltering bracken with its quaint conceits; and, crowned above all, the day I stood on Watcombe Down, and looked across a stretch of golden gorse and new-turned blood-red field, the green of the headland, and beyond, the sapphire sea.

While we are still here the language of worship seems far, and yet lies very nigh; for what better note can our frail tongues lisp than the voice of wind and sea, river and stream, those grateful servants giving all and asking nothing, the soft whisper of snow and rain eager to replenish, or the thunder proclaiming a majesty too great for utterance? Here, too, stands the angel with the censer gathering up the fragrance of teeming earth and forest-tree, of flower and fruit, and sweetly pungent herb distilled by sun and rain for joyful use. Here, too, come acolytes lighting the dark with tapers - sun, moon, and stars - gifts of the Lord that His sanctuary may stand ever served.

I hid my hammer in the hedge, climbed into the great waggon white and fragrant with the clean sweet meal, and flung myself down on the empty flour bags. The looped-back tarpaulin framed the long vista of my road with the downs beyond; and I lay in the cool dark, caressed by the fresh breeze in its thoroughfare, soothed by the strong monotonous tramp of the great grey team and the music of the jangling harness.

I, a shy lover of the fields and woods, longed always, should a painless passing be vouchsafed me, to make my bed on the fragrant pine needles in the aloneness of a great forest; to lie once again as I had lain many a time, bathed in the bitter sweetness of the sun-blessed pines, lapped in the manifold silence; my ear attuned to the wind of Heaven with its call from the Cities of Peace. In sterner mood, when Love’s hand held a scourge, I craved rather the stress of the moorland with its bleaker mind imperative of sacrifice. To rest again under the lee of Rippon Tor swept by the strong peat-smelling breeze; to stare untired at the long cloud-shadowed reaches, and watch the mist-wraiths huddle and shrink round the stones of blood; until my sacrifice too was accomplished, and my soul had fled. A wild waste moor; a vast void sky; and naught between heaven and earth but man, his sin-glazed eyes seeking afar the distant light of his own heart.

I have lost my voracious appetite for books; their language is less plain than scent and song and the wind in the trees; and for me the clue to the next world lies in the wisdom of earth rather than in the learning of men. “Libera me ab fuscina Hophni,” prayed the good Bishop fearful of religious greed. I know too much, not too little; it is realisation that I lack, wherefore I desire these last days to confirm in myself the sustaining goodness of God, the love which is our continuing city, the New Jerusalem whose length, breadth, and height are all one. It is a time of exceeding peace. There is a place waiting for me under the firs in the quiet churchyard; thanks to my poverty I have no worldly anxieties or personal dispositions; and I am rich in friends, many of them unknown to me, who lavishly supply my needs and make it ideal to live on the charity of one’s fellow-men. I am most gladly in debt to all the world; and to Earth, my mother, for her great beauty.

The forests, too, are ready with story hid in the fastness of their solitude, and it is a joy to think that those great pines, pointing ever upwards, go for the most part to carry the sails of great ships seeking afar under open sky. The forest holds other wonders still. It seems but last night that I wandered down the road which led to the little unheeded village where I had made my temporary home. The warm-scented breath of the pines and the stillness of the night wrapped me in great content; the summer lightning leapt in a lambent arch across the east, and the stars, seen dimly through the sombre tree crests, were outrivalled by the glow-worms which shone in countless points of light from bank and hedge; even two charcoal-burners, who passed with friendly greeting, had wreathed their hats with the living flame. The tiny shifting lamps were everywhere; pale yellow, purely white, or green as the underside of a northern wave. By day but an ugly, repellent worm; but darkness comes, and lo, a star alight. Nature is full for us of seeming inconsistencies and glad surprises. The world’s asleep, say you; on your ear falls the nightingale’s song and the stir of living creatures in bush and brake. The mantle of night falls, and all unattended the wind leaps up and scatters the clouds which veil the constant stars; or in the hour of the great dark, dawn parts the curtain with the long foregleam of the coming day. It is hard to turn one’s back on night with her kiss of peace for tired eye-lids, the kiss which is not sleep but its neglected forerunner. I made my way at last down to the vine-girt bridge asleep under the stars and up the winding stairs of the old grey tower; and a stone’s-throw away the Rhine slipped quietly past in the midsummer moonlight. Switzerland came in its turn, unearthly in its white loveliness and glory of lake and sky. But perhaps the landmark which stands out most clearly is the solitary blue gentian which I found in the short slippery grass of the Rigi, gazing up at the sky whose blue could not hope to excel it. It was my first; and what need of another, for finding one I had gazed into the mystery of all. This side the Pass, snow and the blue of heaven; later I entered Italy through fields of many-hued lilies, her past glories blazoned in the flowers of the field.

Presently another of spring’s lovers cried across the water “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” and the voice of the stream sang joyously in unison. It is free from burden, this merry little river, and neither weir nor mill bars its quick way to the sea as it completes the eternal circle, lavishing gifts of coolness and refreshment on the children of the meadows.
It has its birth on the great lone moor, cradled in a wonderful peat-smelling bog, with a many-hued coverlet of soft mosses - pale gold, orange, emerald, tawny, olive and white, with the red stain of sun-dew and tufted cotton-grass. Under the old grey rocks which watch it rise, yellow-eyed tormantil stars the turf, and bids “Godspeed” to the little child of earth and sky. Thus the journey begins; and with ever-increasing strength the stream carves a way through the dear brown peat, wears a fresh wrinkle on the patient stones, and patters merrily under a clapper bridge which spanned its breadth when the mistletoe reigned and Bottor, the grim rock idol, exacted the toll of human life that made him great. On and on goes the stream, for it may not stay; leaving of its freshness with the great osmunda that stretches eager roots towards the running water; flowing awhile with a brother stream, to part again east and west as each takes up his separate burden of service - my friend to cherish the lower meadows in their flowery joyance - and so by the great sea-gate back to sky and earth again.

On Sundays my feet take ever the same way. First my temple service, and then five miles tramp over the tender, dewy fields, with their ineffable earthy smell, until I reach the little church at the foot of the grey-green down.

While we are still here the language of worship seems far, and yet lies very nigh; for what better note can our frail tongues lisp than the voice of wind and sea, river and stream, those grateful servants giving all and asking nothing, the soft whisper of snow and rain eager to replenish, or the thunder proclaiming a majesty too great for utterance? Here, too, stands the angel with the censer gathering up the fragrance of teeming earth and forest-tree, of flower and fruit, and sweetly pungent herb distilled by sun and rain for joyful use. Here, too, come acolytes lighting the dark with tapers - sun, moon, and stars - gifts of the Lord that His sanctuary may stand ever served.