Read THE HOLY CHILD of Recreations of Christopher North‚ Volume I, free online book, by John Wilson, on

This house of ours is a prison this Study of ours a cell. Time has laid his fetters on our feet fetters fine as the gossamer, but strong as Samson’s ribs, silken-soft to wise submission, but to vain impatience galling as cankered wound that keeps ceaselessly eating into the bone. But while our bodily feet are thus bound by an inevitable and inexorable law, our mental wings are free as those of the lark, the dove, or the eagle and they shall be expanded as of yore, in calm or tempest, now touching with their tips the bosom of this dearly-beloved earth, and now aspiring heavenwards, beyond the realms of mist and cloud, even unto the very core of the still heart of that otherwise unapproachable sky which graciously opens to receive us on our flight, when, disencumbered of the burden of all grovelling thoughts, and strong in spirituality, we exult to soar

“Beyond this visible diurnal sphere,”

nearing and nearing the native region of its own incomprehensible being.

Now touching, we said, with their tips the bosom of this dearly-beloved earth! How sweet that attraction to imagination’s wings! How delightful in that lower flight to skim along the green ground, or as now along the soft-bosomed beauty of the virgin snow! We were asleep all night long sound asleep as children while the flakes were falling, “and soft as snow on snow” were all the descendings of our untroubled dreams. The moon and all her stars were willing that their lustre should be veiled by that peaceful shower; and now the sun, pleased with the purity of the morning earth, all white as innocence, looks down from heaven with a meek unmelting light, and still leaves undissolved the stainless splendour. There is Frost in the air but he “does his spiriting gently,” studding the ground-snow thickly with diamonds, and shaping the tree-snow according to the peculiar and characteristic beauty of the leaves and sprays, on which it has alighted almost as gently as the dews of spring. You know every kind of tree still by its own spirit showing itself through that fairy veil momentarily disguised from recognition but admired the more in the sweet surprise with which again your heart salutes its familiar branches, all fancifully ornamented with their snow-foliage, that murmurs not like the green leaves of summer, that like the yellow leaves of autumn strews not the earth with decay, but often melts away into changes so invisible and inaudible, that you wonder to find that it is all vanished, and to see the old tree again standing in its own faint-green glossy bark, with its many million buds, which perhaps fancy suddenly expands into a power of umbrage impenetrable to the sun in Scorpio.

A sudden burst of sunshine! bringing back the pensive spirit from the past to the present, and kindling it, till it dances like light reflected from a burning mirror. A cheerful Sun-scene, though almost destitute of life. An undulating Landscape, hillocky and hilly, but not mountainous, and buried under the weight of a day and night’s incessant and continuous snow-fall. The weather has not been windy and now that the flakes have ceased falling, there is not a cloud to be seen, except some delicate braidings here and there along the calm of the Great Blue Sea of Heaven. Most luminous is the sun, yet you can look straight on his face, almost with unwinking eyes, so mild and mellow is his large light as it overflows the day. All enclosures have disappeared, and you indistinctly ken the greater landmarks, such as a grove, a wood, a hall, a castle, a spire, a village, a town the faint haze of a far-off and smokeless city. Most intense is the silence; for all the streams are dumb, and the great river lies like a dead serpent in the strath. Not dead for, lo! yonder one of his folds glitters and in the glitter you see him moving while all the rest of his sullen length is palsied by frost, and looks livid and more livid at every distant and more distant winding. What blackens on that tower of snow? Crows roosting innumerous on a huge tree but they caw not in their hunger. Neither sheep nor cattle are to be seen or heard but they are cared for; the folds and the farmyards are all full of life and the ungathered stragglers are safe in their instincts. There has been a deep fall but no storm and the silence, though partly that of suffering, is not that of death. Therefore, to the imagination, unsaddened by the heart, the repose is beautiful. The almost unbroken uniformity of the scene its simple and grand monotony lulls all the thoughts and feelings into a calm, over which is breathed the gentle excitation of a novel charm, inspiring many fancies, all of a quiet character. Their range, perhaps, is not very extensive, but they all regard the home-felt and domestic charities of life. And the heart burns as here and there some human dwelling discovers itself by a wreath of smoke up the air, or as the robin-redbreast, a creature that is ever at hand, comes flitting before your path with an almost pert flutter of his feathers, bold from the acquaintanceship he has formed with you in severer weather at the threshold or window of the tenement, which for years may have been the winter sanctuary of the “bird whom man loves best,” and who bears a Christian name in every clime he inhabits. Meanwhile the sun waxes brighter and warmer in heaven some insects are in the air, as if that moment called to life and the mosses that may yet be visible here and there along the ridge of a wall or on the stem of a tree, in variegated lustre frost-brightened, seem to delight in the snow, and in no other season of the year to be so happy as in winter. Such gentle touches of pleasure animate one’s whole being, and connect, by many a fine association, the emotions inspired by the objects of animate and of inanimate nature.

Ponder on the idea the emotion of purity and how finely soul-blent is the delight imagination feels in a bright hush of new-fallen snow! Some speck or stain however slight there always seems to be on the most perfect whiteness of any other substance or “dim suffusion veils” it with some faint discolour witness even the leaf of the lily or the rose. Heaven forbid that we should ever breathe aught but love and delight in the beauty of these consummate flowers! But feels not the heart, even when the midsummer morning sunshine is melting the dews on their fragrant bosoms, that their loveliness is “of the earth earthy” faintly tinged or streaked, when at the very fairest, with a hue foreboding languishment and decay? Not the less for its sake are those soulless flowers dear to us thus owning kindred with them whose beauty is all soul enshrined for a short while on that perishable face. Do we not still regard the insensate flowers so emblematical of what, in human life, we do most passionately love and profoundly pity with a pensive emotion, often deepening into melancholy that sometimes, ere the strong fit subsides, blackens into despair! What pain doubtless was in the heart of the Elegiac Poet of old, when he sighed over the transitory beauty of flowers

“Conquerimur natura brevis quam gratia Florum!”

But over a perfectly pure expanse of night-fallen snow, when unaffected by the gentle sun, the first fine frost has encrusted it with small sparkling diamonds, the prevalent emotion is Joy. There is a charm in the sudden and total disappearance even of the grassy green. All the “old familiar faces” of nature are for a while out of sight, and out of mind. That white silence shed by heaven over earth carries with it, far and wide, the pure peace of another region almost another life. No image is there to tell of this restless and noisy world. The cheerfulness of reality kindles up our reverie ere it becomes a dream; and we are glad to feel our whole being complexioned by the passionless repose. If we think at all of human life, it is only of the young, the fair, and the innocent. “Pure as snow,” are words then felt to be most holy, as the image of some beautiful and beloved being comes and goes before our eyes brought from a far distance in this our living world, or from a distance further still in a world beyond the grave the image of virgin growing up sinlessly to womanhood among her parents’ prayers, or of some spiritual creature who expired long ago, and carried with her her native innocence unstained to heaven.

Such Spiritual Creature too spiritual long to sojourn below the skies wert Thou whose rising and whose setting both most starlike brightened at once all thy native vale, and at once left it in darkness. Thy name has long slept in our heart and there let it sleep unbreathed even as, when we are dreaming our way through some solitary place, without naming it we bless the beauty of some sweet wildflower, pensively smiling to us through the snow.

The Sabbath returns on which, in the little kirk among the hills, we saw thee baptised. Then comes a wavering glimmer of five sweet years, that to Thee, in all their varieties, were but as one delightful season, one blessed life and, finally, that other Sabbath, on which, at thy own dying request between services thou wert buried.

How mysterious are all thy ways and workings, O gracious Nature! Thou who art but a name given by us to the Being in whom all things are and have life. Ere three years old, she, whose image is now with us, all over the small sylvan world that beheld the evanescent revelation of her pure existence, was called the “Holy Child!” The taint of Sin inherited from those who disobeyed in Paradise seemed from her fair clay to have been washed out at the baptismal font, and by her first infantine tears. So pious people almost believed, looking on her so unlike all other children, in the serenity of that habitual smile that clothed the creature’s countenance with a wondrous beauty, at an age when on other infants is but faintly seen the dawn of reason, and their eyes look happy just like the thoughtless flowers. So unlike all other children but unlike only because sooner than they she seemed to have had given to her, even in the communion of the cradle, an intimation of the being and the providence of God. Sooner, surely, than through any other clay that ever enshrouded immortal spirit, dawned the light of religion on the face of the “Holy Child.”

Her lisping language was sprinkled with words alien from common childhood’s uncertain speech, that murmurs only when indigent nature prompts; and her own parents wondered whence they came, when first they looked upon her kneeling in an unbidden prayer. As one mild week of vernal sunshine covers the braes with primroses, so shone with fair and fragrant feelings unfolded, ere they knew, before her parents’ eyes the divine nature of her who for a season was lent to them from the skies. She learned to read out of the Bible almost without any teaching they knew not how just by looking gladly on the words, even as she looked on the pretty daisies on the green till their meanings stole insensibly into her soul, and the sweet syllables, succeeding each other on the blessed page, were all united by the memories her heart had been treasuring every hour that her father or her mother had read aloud in her hearing from the Book of Life. “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” how wept her parents, as these the most affecting of our Saviour’s words dropt silver-sweet from her lips, and continued in her upward eyes among the swimming tears!

Be not incredulous of this dawn of reason, wonderful as it may seem to you, so soon becoming morn almost perfect daylight with the “Holy Child.” Many such miracles are set before us but we recognise them not, or pass them by with a word or a smile of short surprise. How leaps the baby in its mother’s arms, when the mysterious charm of music thrills through its little brain! And how learns it to modulate its feeble voice, unable yet to articulate, to the melodies that bring forth all round its eyes a delighted smile! Who knows what then may be the thoughts and feelings of the infant awakened to the sense of a new world, alive through all its being to sounds that haply glide past our ears unmeaning as the breath of the common air! Thus have mere infants sometimes been seen inspired by music, till, like small genii, they warbled spell-strains of their own, powerful to sadden and subdue our hearts. So, too, have infant eyes been so charmed by the rainbow irradiating the earth, that almost infant hands have been taught, as if by inspiration, the power to paint in finest colours, and to imitate with a wondrous art, the skies so beautiful to the quick-awakened spirit of delight. What knowledge have not some children acquired, and gone down scholars to their small untimely graves! Knowing that such things have been are and will be why art thou incredulous of the divine expansion of soul, so soon understanding the things that are divine in the “Holy Child?”

Thus grew she in the eye of God, day by day waxing wiser and wiser in the knowledge that tends towards the skies; and, as if some angel visitant were nightly with her in her dreams, awakening every morn with a new dream of thought, that brought with it a gift of more comprehensive speech. Yet merry she was at times with her companions among the woods and braes, though while they all were laughing, she only smiled; and the passing traveller, who might pause for a moment to bless the sweet creatures in their play, could not but single out one face among the many fair, so pensive in its paleness, a face to be remembered, coming from afar, like a mournful thought upon the hour of joy.

Sister or brother of her own had she none and often both her parents who lived in a hut by itself up among the mossy stumps of the old decayed forest had to leave her alone sometimes even all the day long from morning till night. But she no more wearied in her solitariness than does the wren in the wood. All the flowers were her friends all the birds. The linnet ceased not his song for her, though her footsteps wandered into the green glade among the yellow broom, almost within reach of the spray from which he poured his melody the quiet eyes of his mate feared her not when her garments almost touched the bush where she brooded on her young. Shyest of the winged sylvans, the cushat clapped not her wings away on the soft approach of such harmless footsteps to the pine that concealed her slender nest. As if blown from heaven, descended round her path the showers of the painted butterflies, to feed, sleep, or die undisturbed by her upon the wildflowers with wings, when motionless, undistinguishable from the blossoms. And well she loved the brown, busy, blameless bees, come thither for the honey-dews from a hundred cots sprinkled all over the parish, and all high overhead sailing away at evening, laden and wearied, to their straw-roofed steps in many a hamlet garden. The leaf of every tree, shrub, and plant, she knew familiarly and lovingly in its own characteristic beauty; and she was loth to shake one dewdrop from the sweetbrier rose. And well she knew that all nature loved in return that they were dear to each other in their innocence and that the very sunshine, in motion or in rest, was ready to come at the bidding of her smiles. Skilful those small white hands of hers among the reeds and rushes and osiers and many a pretty flower-basket grew beneath their touch, her parents wondering on their return home to see the handiwork of one who was never idle in her happiness. Thus early ere yet but five years old did she earn her mite for the sustenance of her own beautiful life. The russet garb she wore she herself had won and thus Poverty, at the door of that hut, became even like a Guardian Angel, with the linéaments of heaven on her brow, and the quietude of heaven beneath her feet.

But these were but her lonely pastimes, or gentle taskwork self-imposed among her pastimes, and itself the sweetest of them all, inspired by a sense of duty that still brings with it its own delight, and hallowed by religion, that even in the most adverse lot changes slavery into freedom till the heart, insensible to the bonds of necessity, sings aloud for joy. The life within the life of the “Holy Child,” apart from even such innocent employments as these, and from such recreations as innocent, among the shadows and the sunshine of those sylvan haunts, was passed let us fear not to say the truth, wondrous as such worship was in one so very young was passed in the worship of God; and her parents though sometimes even saddened to see such piety in a small creature like her, and afraid, in their exceeding love, that it betokened an early removal from this world of one too perfectly pure ever to be touched by its sins and sorrows forbore, in an awful pity, ever to remove the Bible from her knees, as she would sit with it there, not at morning and at evening only, or all the Sabbath long, as soon as they returned from the kirk, but often through all the hours of the longest and sunniest weekdays, when, had she chosen to do so, there was nothing to hinder her from going up the hill-side, or down to the little village, to play with the other children, always too happy when she appeared nothing to hinder her but the voice she heard speaking in that Book, and the hallelujahs that, at the turning over of each blessed page, came upon the ear of the “Holy Child” from white-robed saints all kneeling before His throne in heaven.

Her life seemed to be the same in sleep. Often at midnight, by the light of the moon shining in upon her little bed beside theirs, her parents leant over her face, diviner in dreams, and wept as she wept, her lips all the while murmuring, in broken sentences of prayer, the name of Him who died for us all. But plenteous as were her penitential tears penitential in the holy humbleness of her stainless spirit, over thoughts that had never left a dimming breath on its purity, yet that seemed in those strange visitings to be haunting her as the shadows of sins soon were they all dried up in the lustre of her returning smiles. Waking, her voice in the kirk was the sweetest among many sweet, as all the young singers, and she the youngest far, sat together by themselves, and within the congregational music of the psalm uplifted a silvery strain that sounded like the very spirit of the whole, even like angelic harmony blent with a mortal song. But sleeping, still more sweetly sang the “Holy Child;” and then, too, in some diviner inspiration than ever was granted to it while awake, her soul composed its own hymns, and set the simple scriptural words to its own mysterious music the tunes she loved best gliding into one another, without once ever marring the melody, with pathetic touches interposed never heard before, and never more to be renewed! For each dream had its own breathing, and many-visioned did then seem to be the sinless creature’s sleep.

The love that was borne for her all over the hill-region, and beyond its circling clouds, was almost such as mortal creatures might be thought to feel for some existence that had visibly come from heaven. Yet all who looked on her, saw that she, like themselves, was mortal, and many an eye was wet, the heart wist not why, to hear such wisdom falling from such lips; for dimly did it prognosticate, that as short as bright would be her walk from the cradle to the grave. And thus for the “Holy Child” was their love elevated by awe, and saddened by pity and as by herself she passed pensively by their dwellings, the same eyes that smiled on her presence, on her disappearance wept.

Not in vain for others and for herself, oh! what great gain! for those few years on earth did that pure spirit ponder on the word of God! Other children became pious from their delight in her piety for she was simple as the simplest among them all, and walked with them hand in hand, nor declined companionship with any one that was good. But all grew good by being with her and parents had but to whisper her name, and in a moment the passionate sob was hushed the lowering brow lighted and the household in peace. Older hearts owned the power of the piety so far surpassing their thoughts; and time-hardened sinners, it is said, when looking and listening to the “Holy Child,” knew the error of their ways, and returned to the right path as at a voice from heaven.

Bright was her seventh summer the brightest, so the aged said, that had ever, in man’s memory, shone over Scotland. One long, still, sunny, blue day followed another, and in the rainless weather, though the dews kept green the hills, the song of the streams was low. But paler and paler, in sunlight and moonlight, became the sweet face that had been always pale; and the voice that had been always something mournful, breathed lower and sadder still from the too perfect whiteness of her breast. No need no fear to tell her that she was about to die. Sweet whispers had sung it to her in her sleep and waking she knew it in the look of the piteous skies. But she spoke not to her parents of death more than she had often done and never of her own. Only she seemed to love them with a more exceeding love and was readier, even sometimes when no one was speaking, with a few drops of tears. Sometimes she disappeared nor, when sought for, was found in the woods about the hut. And one day that mystery was cleared; for a shepherd saw her sitting by herself on a grassy mound in a nook of the small solitary kirkyard, a long mile off among the hills, so lost in reading the Bible, that shadow or sound of his feet awoke her not; and, ignorant of his presence, she knelt down and prayed for a while weeping bitterly but soon comforted by a heavenly calm that her sins might be forgiven her!

One Sabbath evening, soon after, as she was sitting beside her parents at the door of their hut, looking first for a long while on their faces, and then for a long while on the sky, though it was not yet the stated hour of worship, she suddenly knelt down, and leaning on their knees, with hands clasped more fervently than her wont, she broke forth into tremulous singing of that hymn which from her lips they never heard without unendurable tears:

“The hour of my departure’s come,
I hear the voice that calls me home;
At last, O Lord, let trouble cease,
And let thy servant die in peace!”

They carried her fainting to her little bed, and uttered not a word to one another till she revived. The shock was sudden, but not unexpected, and they knew now that the hand of death was upon her, although her eyes soon became brighter and brighter, they thought, than they had ever been before. But forehead, cheeks, lips, neck, and breast, were all as white, and, to the quivering hands that touched them, almost as cold, as snow. Ineffable was the bliss in those radiant eyes; but the breath of words was frozen, and that hymn was almost her last farewell. Some few words she spake and named the hour and day she wished to be buried. Her lips could then just faintly return the kiss, and no more a film came over the now dim blue of her eyes the father listened for her breath and then the mother took his place, and leaned her ear to the unbreathing mouth, long deluding herself with its lifelike smile; but a sudden darkness in the room, and a sudden stillness, most dreadful both, convinced their unbelieving hearts at last, that it was death.

All the parish, it may be said, attended her funeral for none stayed away from the kirk that Sabbath though many a voice was unable to join in the Psalm. The little grave was soon filled up and you hardly knew that the turf had been disturbed beneath which she lay. The afternoon service consisted but of a prayer for he who ministered had loved her with love unspeakable and, though an old grey-haired man, all the time he prayed he wept. In the sobbing kirk her parents were sitting, but no one looked at them and when the congregation rose to go, there they remained sitting and an hour afterwards, came out again into the open air, and parting with their pastor at the gate, walked away to their hut, overshadowed with the blessing of a thousand prayers.

And did her parents, soon after she was buried, die of broken hearts, or pine away disconsolately to their graves? Think not that they, who were Christians indeed, could be guilty of such ingratitude. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away blessed be the name of the Lord!” were the first words they had spoke by that bedside; during many, many long years of weal or woe, duly every morning and night, these same blessed words did they utter when on their knees together in prayer and many a thousand times besides, when they were apart, she in her silent hut, and he on the hill neither of them unhappy in their solitude, though never again, perhaps, was his countenance so cheerful as of yore and though often suddenly amidst mirth or sunshine their eyes were seen to overflow. Happy had they been as we mortal beings ever can be happy during many pleasant years of wedded life before she had been born. And happy were they on to the verge of old age long after she had here ceased to be. Their Bible had indeed been an idle Book the Bible that belonged to “the Holy Child,” and idle all their kirk-goings with “the Holy Child,” through the Sabbath-calm had those intermediate years not left a power of bliss behind them triumphant over death and the grave.