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THE MEASURE OF THE HOURS
SUMMER is the season of happiness. When, among the trees, in the mountains or by the sea, the fair hours of the year, the hours for which we have waited and hoped since the depths of winter, the hours which at last open to us the golden gates of leisure, return for our delight, let us learn to enjoy them fully, continuously, voluptuously. Let us have for these privileged hours a nobler measure than that into which we pour the ordinary hours. Let us gather their dazzling minutes in unaccustomed urns, glorious, transparent and made of the very light which they are to contain, even as we serve a costly wine not in the common glass of the daily table, but in the purest cup of crystal and silver locked in the sideboard of the banqueting-room.
The measuring of time! We are so constructed that we cannot be made conscious of time and impressed with its joys or sorrows unless we count and weigh it, like an invisible currency: It takes shape, acquires its substance and its value only in complicated forms of apparatus which we have contrived in order to render it apparent; and, having no existence in itself, it borrows the taste, the perfume and the shape of the instrument that rules it. For this reason, the minutes ticked off by our little watches wear a different aspect from those prolonged by the great hand of the belfry or cathedral-clock. It behoves us, therefore, not to be indifferent to the birth of the hours. Even as we have glasses whose shape, shade and brilliancy vary according as they are called upon to carry to our lips light claret or rich burgundy, cool hock or heavy port, or the gladness of champagne, why should not our minutes be numbered in ways appropriate to their melancholy, their inertness or their joy? It is fitting, for instance, that our working months and our winter days, days of bustle, business, hurry and restlessness, should be strictly, methodically, harshly divided and registered by the metal wheels and hands and the enamelled faces of our chimney-clocks, our electric or pneumatic dial-plates or our small pocket-watches. Here, majestic time; the master of gods and men, the immense human form of eternity, is no more than a stubborn insect gnawing mechanically at a life devoid of horizon, sky or rest. At most, at the warning moment that precedes the stroke, during the too-short evening snatched, under the lamp, from the cares of hunger or vanity, will the great copper pendulum of the Dutch or Norman clock be allowed to make slower and more impressive the seconds that go before the steps of grave night advancing.
On the other hand, for our hours no longer indifferent, but really sombre, for our hours of discouragement, of self-denial, of sickness and pain, for the dead minutes of our life, let us regret the time-honoured, dejected and silent hour-glass of our ancestors. It is to-day no more than an inactive symbol on our tombstones or the funeral hangings of our churches, except where, pitifully fallen, it may still be found presiding, in some country kitchen, over the fastidious cooking of our boiled eggs. It no longer continues as an instrument of time, though it still figures, in company with the scythe, on its antiquated blazon. And yet it had its merits and its reasons for existence. In the dull, sad days of human thought, in the cloisters built around the abode of the dead, in the convents that opened their doors and windows only to the wavering glimmers of another world, more awful than our own,, the sand-glass was, for the hours stripped of their joys, their smiles, their happy surprises and their ornaments, a measure whose place no other could have filled as gracefully. It did not state time with precision; it stifled it in powdery particles. It was made for counting one by one the sands of prayer and waiting, of terror and weariness. The minutes sped by in dust, isolated from the circumambient life of the sky, the garden and space, secluded in their glass phial even as the monk was secluded in his cell, marking, naming no hour, burying them all in the funeral sand, while the unoccupied thoughts that watched over their dumb and incessant fall passed away with them to be added to the ashes of the dead.
Between the glorious banks of flaming summer, it seems best to enjoy the glowing succession of the hours in the order in which they are marked by the orb itself that showers them upon our leisure. In these wider, more open, more lingering days, I believe and trust only in the great divisions of light which the sun names to me with the warm shadow of its rays on the marble dial which there, in the garden, beside the lake, reflects and records in silence, as though it were doing an insignificant thing, the course of our worlds through planetary space. By this immediate, this only authentic transcription of the wishes of time which directs the stars, our poor human hour, which rules our meals and all the little actions of our little lives, acquires a nobility, a direct and urgent fragrance of infinity that render vaster and more health-giving the dazzling, dewy mornings and almost motionless afternoons of the fair and immaculate summer.
Unfortunately, the sun-dial, which alone knew how to follow with dignity the grave and luminous march of the spotless hours, is becoming rare and is disappearing from our gardens. It is hardly anywhere to be found save in the main court, on the stone terraces, in the mall, among the quincunxes of some old town, some old castle, some ancient palace, where its gilt figures, its face and style are wearing away under the hand of the very god whose worship they should perpetuate. Nevertheless, Provence and some of the Italian market-towns have remained faithful to the celestial clock. Here we often see displayed, on the sunny gable of the brightest of old, dilapidated country-houses, the frescoed circle over which the sunbeams carefully measure their fairy progress. And mottoes, profound or artless, but always significant, because of the place which they fill and the part which they play in a vast life, strive to blend the human soul with incomprehensible phenomena. "L'heure de la justice ne sonne pas aux cadrans de ce monde: the hour of justice does not strike on the dials of this world," says the inscription on the sun-dial of the church at Tourette-sur-Loup, that extraordinary, that almost African little village, near to where I live, which, amid the crumbling rocks and clambering aloes and fig-trees, resembles a miniature Toledo reduced to a skeleton by the sun. Another radiant clock-face proudly proclaims "A lumine motus" as its motto: "I am moved by the light." "Amydst ye flovvres, I tell ye hours," says an old marble dial in an old garden. But one of the prettiest legends, surely, is that which Hazlitt discovered one day near Venice: "Horas non numero nisi serenas."
"'I count only the hours that are serene,'" he adds. "What a bland and care-dispelling feeling! How the shadows seem to' fade on the dial-plate as the sky lours and time presents only a blank, unless as its progress is marked by what is joyous and all that is not happy descends into oblivion. What a fine lesson is conveyed to the mind to take no note of time but by its benefits, to watch only for the smiles and neglect the frowns of fate, to compose our lives of bright and gentle moments, turning always to the sunny side of things and letting the rest slip from our imaginations, unheeded or forgotten!"
The clock, the hour-glass, the vanished clepsydra give abstract hours, without face or form. They are the instruments of the anaemic time of our indoor rooms, of time enslaved and captive; but the sun-dial reveals to us the real, throbbing shadow of the wing of the great god that hovers in the sky. Around the marble disk which adorns the terrace or the crossing of two wide avenues and which harmonises so well with the majestic staircases and spreading balustrades or with the green walls of the thick quickset hedges, we enjoy the fleeting but undeniable presence of the beamy hours. He who has learnt to descry them in space will see them turn by turn touching earth and leaning over the mysterious altar to offer a sacrifice to the god whom man honours, but cannot know. He will see them advancing in diverse and changing garments, crowned with fruit, flowers or dew: first, the as yet diaphanous and hardly visible hours of the dawn; next, their sisters of noon, ardent, cruel, resplendent, almost implacable; and, finally, the last hours of twilight, slow and sumptuous, delayed in their progress towards approaching night by the purpling shadow of the trees.
The sun-dial alone is worthy to measure the splendour of the months of green and gold. Like profound happiness, it speaks no word. Time marches over it in silence, As it passes in silence over the spheres of space; but the church of the neighbouring village lends it at moments its bronze voice; and nothing is so harmonious as the sound of the bell that strikes a chord with the dumb gesture of its shadow marking noon amid the sea of blue. The sun-dial gives a centre and successive names to scattered and nameless joys. All the poetry, all the delights of the country-side, all the mysteries of the firmament, all the confused thoughts of the tall trees that guard like a sacred treasure the coolness which night has entrusted to their care, all the blissful intensity of the corn-fields, plains and hills abandoned without defence to the devouring magnificence of the sunlight, all the indolence of the brook flowing between its gentle banks, the drowsiness of the pond covered with drops of sweat formed by the duck-weed, the satisfaction of the house that opens, in its white front, windows greedy to draw in the horizon, the scent of the flowers hastening to finish a day of scorching beauty, the birds singing in the order of the hours to weave garlands of gladness for them in the sky: all these, together with thousands of things and thousands of lives that escape our sight, meet and take stock of their continuance around this mirror of time on which the sun, which is but one of the wheels of the huge machine that vainly subdivides eternity, marks. with a kindly ray the daily journey which the earth, with all that it carries, performs on the road of the stars.
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