Men I Have Painted/Canon Armour
AS I sat one Sunday morning on one of the front side benches of the English Church in that little citta of the Italian Riviera whose name sounds like a joyous sigh—Alassio!—there kneeled in front of me a surpliced clergyman, so unusual a presence that it was with a mind turned to various reflections that I heard him reading the service, which he did in a rich and expressive voice.
He personified, as few men do, the majesty of manhood, and that thought inspired me with another which seemed to be its corollary, the majesty of England. For what other land could have produced so noble a son? Had he been a youth, the echo of Pope Gregory the Great's exclamation, "Non Angli sed angeli," would have reached me, but he was a man on the verge of seventy years, as powerful and robust as in his prime, untouched by Father Time or the finger of Care. And then my mind began to wander away from the church to take a general survey of the race from which this stalwart giant had sprung, and I could see his forefathers battling against the Saracens; on the fields of Flanders with Marlborough, on English soil when Cavalier and Roundhead struggled for supremacy, or in distant lands across the seas seeking fortune and, while in the search, unwittingly building up the foundations of the Empire. And then I saw them again spreading themselves over the earth seeking rest and pleasure and health in all the beauty spots where the orange blossomed, and the palm threw out its arched fronds, and the sun blazed kindly on their red bronze cheeks.
And wherever I saw them they were a race apart from all the others; almost as distinct from the Latin or the Slav or the Teuton in bearing and dress, as they were from the Oriental who knows them as the British Sahibs. On the Riviera from Hyères to Capri they have built their villas and their churches; on the Nile and in the Desert, in Ceylon, and in far-away Hong Kong, and by the shores of the Pacific, from San Diego to Vancouver, these cool-headed and warm-blooded islanders seek a climate that stirs a blood too often chilled by the fogs of their own land.
This is a race of men that stands alone among other peoples, isolated in a throng of twenty different nationalities whose chief characteristic is their resemblance one to another. What is the secret of this individuality? When was it brought about, and how?
In the enchanting garden of Costa Lupara, more beautiful, I thought, than La Mortala, Canon Armour often walked with me on the terraces, where through the gray-green olive-leaves the silver-blue sea sparkled like flashes of light from the facets of millions of gems, telling me of the glories of his own dear England, of its loyal and faithful sons and daughters. He, who had seen generation after generation of boys grow to manhood under his guidance at the Merchant Taylors' School in Liverpool, where he had been head master for forty years, could testify with pride, almost paternal, to the nobility of the youths he had had such a large part in training to be worthy of an Empire whose history was emblazoned as brilliantly by conquests in science in times of peace as by feats of arms in war.
And when war came, this confidence in the manhood of the Empire was gloriously justified; and my aged friend, not to be outdone by younger men, resolved to do his part. In his seventy-sixth year he undertook the duties and burdens of the parish of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, one among the very large parishes of England, of which his son was the Vicar, in order that the son might be free to serve as a Chaplain at the front. Canon Armour continued his ministrations until his son's return at the end of the war, resigning them in the eightieth year of his age.
Among the many men I have known, Canon Armour possesses in a remarkable degree what a writer has attributed to La Fontaine, "that gracious common-sense, founded on a courageous acceptance of the realities of life, and at the same time inspired and lightened by imagination and poesy." The true mystic is often a very efficient and practical man of affairs; and in Canon Armour the spiritual side of life is closely interwoven with the fabric of the material. In homely phrase, "he is a man first, and a parson afterwards." If I were to express truthfully his thought, I am persuaded it would be that true spirituality finds its roots in the necessities of our material nature, and blossoms more gracefully where these necessities are naturally and legitimately gratified.