THE QUEST OF THE GOLDEN GIRL
RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
TO PRIOR AND LOUISE CHRISTIAN, WITH AFFECTION.
I. AN OLD HOUSE AND ITS BACHELOR
II. IN WHICH I DECIDE TO GO ON PILGRIMAGE
III. AN INDICTMENT OF SPRING
IV. IN WHICH I EAT AND DREAM
V. CONCERNING THE PERFECT WOMAN, AND THEREFORE CONCERNING ALL FEMININE READERS
VI. IN WHICH THE AUTHOR ANTICIPATES DISCONTENT ON THE PART OF HIS READER
VIII. STILL PRANDIAL
IX. THE LEGEND OF HEBES OR THE HEAVENLY HOUSEMAID
X. AGAIN ON FOOT-THE GIRLS THAT NEVER CAN BE MINE
XI. AN OLD MAN OF THE HILLS, AND THE SCHOOLMASTER'S STORY
XII. THE TRUTH ABOUT THE GIPSIES
XIII. A STRANGE WEDDING
XIV. THE MYSTERIOUS PETTICOAT
XV. STILL OCCUPIED WITH THE PETTICOAT
XVI. CLEARS UP MY MYSTERIOUS BEHAVIOUR OF THE LAST CHAPTER
XVII. THE NAME UPON THE PETTICOAT
XVIII. IN WHICH THE NAME OF A GREAT POET IS CRIED OUT IN A SOLITARY PLACE
XIX. WHY THE STRANGER WOULD NOT LOSE HIS SHELLEY FOR THE WORLD
I. IN WHICH I DECIDE TO BE YOUNG AGAIN
II. AT THE SIGN OF THE SINGING STREAM
III. IN WHICH I SAVE A USEFUL LIFE
IV. 'T IS OF NICOLETE AND HER BOWER IN THE WILDWOOD
V. 'T IS OF AUCASSIN AND NICOLETE
VI. A FAIRY TALE AND ITS FAIRY TAILORS
VII. FROM THE MORNING STAR TO THE MOON
VIII. THE KIND OF THING THAT HAPPENS IN THE MOON
IX. WRITTEN BY MOONLIGHT
X. HOW ONE MAKES LOVE AT THIRTY
XI. HOW ONE PLAYS THE HERO AT THIRTY
XII. IN WHICH I REVIEW MY ACTIONS AND RENEW MY RESOLUTIONS
I. IN WHICH I RETURN TO MY RIGHT AGE AND ENCOUNTER A COMMON OBJECT OF THE COUNTRY
II. IN WHICH I HEAL A BICYCLE AND COME TO THE WHEEL OF PLEASURE
III. TWO TOWN MICE AT A COUNTRY INN
IV. MARRIAGE A LA MODE
V. CONCERNING THE HAVEN OF YELLOW SANDS
VI. THE MOORLAND OF THE APOCALYPSE
VII. "COME UNTO THESE YELLOW SANDS!"
VIII. THE TWELVE GOLDEN-HAIRED BAR-MAIDS
IX. SYLVIA JOY
X. IN WHICH ONCE MORE I BECOME OCCUPIED IN MY OWN AFFAIRS
XI. "THE HOUR FOR WHICH THE YEARS FOR WHICH I DID SIGH"
XII. AT THE CAFE DE LA PAIX
XIII. THE INNOCENCE OF PARIS
XIV. END OF BOOK THREE
THE POSTSCRIPT TO A PILGRIMAGE
I. SIX YEARS AFTER
II. GRACE O' GOD
III. THE GOLDEN GIRL
Gennem de Mange til En!
AN OLD HOUSE AND ITS BACHELOR
When the knell of my thirtieth birthday sounded, I suddenly realised, with a desolate feeling at the heart, that I was alone in the world. It was true I had many and good friends, and I was blessed with interests and occupations which I had often declared sufficient to satisfy any not too exacting human being. Moreover, a small but sufficient competency was mine, allowing me reasonable comforts, and the luxuries of a small but choice library, and a small but choice garden. These heavenly blessings had seemed mere than enough for nearly five years, during which the good sister and I had kept house together, leading a life of tranquil happy days. Friends and books and flowers! It was, we said, a good world, and I, simpleton,—pretty and dainty as Margaret was,—deemed it would go on forever. But, alas! one day came a Faust into our garden,—a good Faust, with no friend Mephistopheles,—and took Margaret from me. It is but a month since they were married, and the rice still lingers in the crevices of the pathway down to the quaint old iron-work gate. Yes! they have gone off to spend their honeymoon, and Margaret has written to me twice to say how happy they are together in the Hesperides. Dear happiness! Selfish, indeed, were he who would envy you one petal of that wonderful rose—Rosa Mundi—God has given you to gather.
But, all the same, the reader will admit that it must be lonely for me, and not another sister left to take pity on me, all somewhere happily settled down in the Fortunate Isles.
Poor lonely old house! do you, too, miss the light step of your mistress? No longer shall her little silken figure flit up and down your quiet staircases, no more deck out your silent rooms with flowers, humming the while some happy little song.
The little piano is dumb night after night, its candles unlighted, and there is no one to play Chopin to us now as the day dies, and the shadows stoop out of their corners to listen in vain. Old house, old house! We are alone, quite alone,—there is no mistake about that,—and the soul has gone out of both of us. And as for the garden, there is no company there; that is loneliest of all. The very sunlight looks desolation, falling through the thick-blossoming apple-trees as through the chinks and crevices of deserted Egyptian cities.
While as for the books—well, never talk to me again about the companionship of books! For just when one needs them most of all they seem suddenly to have grown dull and unsympathetic, not a word of comfort, not a charm anywhere in them to make us forget the slow-moving hours; whereas, when Margaret was here—but it is of no use to say any more! Everything was quite different when Margaret was here: that is enough. Margaret has gone away to the Fortunate Isles. Of course she'll come to see us now and again; but it won't be the same thing. Yes! old echoing silent House of Joy that is Gone, we are quite alone. Now, what is to be done?
IN WHICH I DECIDE TO GO ON PILGRIMAGE
Though I have this bad habit of soliloquising, and indeed am absurd enough to attempt conversation with a house, yet the reader must realise from the beginning that I am still quite a young man. I talked a little just now as though I were an octogenarian. Actually, as I said, I am but just gone thirty, and I may reasonably regard life, as the saying is, all before me. I was a little down-hearted when I wrote yesterday. Besides, I wrote at the end of the afternoon, a melancholy time. The morning is the time to write. We are all—that is, those of us who sleep well—optimists in the morning. And the world is sad enough without our writing books to make it sadder. The rest of this book, I promise you, shall be written of a morning. This book! oh, yes, I forgot!—I am going to write a book. A book about what? Well, that must be as God wills. But listen! As I lay in bed this morning between sleeping and waking, an idea came riding on a sunbeam into my room,—a mad, whimsical idea, but one that suits my mood; and put briefly, it is this: how is it that I, a not unpresentable young man, a man not without accomplishments or experience, should have gone all these years without finding that
"Not impossible she Who shall command my heart and me,"—
without meeting at some turning of the way the mystical Golden Girl,—without, in short, finding a wife?
"Then," suggested the idea, with a blush for its own absurdity, "why not go on pilgrimage and seek her? I don't believe you'll find her. She isn't usually found after thirty. But you'll no doubt have good fun by the way, and fall in with many pleasant adventures."
"A brave idea, indeed!" I cried. "By Heaven, I will take stick and knapsack and walk right away from my own front door, right away where the road leads, and see what happens." And now, if the reader please, we will make a start.
AN INDICTMENT OF SPRING
"Marry! an odd adventure!" I said to myself, as I stepped along in the spring morning air; for, being a pilgrim, I was involuntarily in a mediaeval frame of mind, and "Marry! an odd adventure!" came to my lips as though I had been one of that famous company that once started from the Tabard on a day in spring.
It had been the spring, it will be remembered, that had prompted them to go on pilgrimage; and me, too, the spring was filling with strange, undefinable longings, and though I flattered myself that I had set out in pursuance of a definitely taken resolve, I had really no more freedom in the matter than the children who followed at the heels of the mad piper.
A mad piper, indeed, this spring, with his wonderful lying music,—ever lying, yet ever convincing, for when was Spring known to keep his word? Yet year after year we give eager belief to his promises. He may have consistently broken them for fifty years, yet this year he will keep them. This year the dream will come true, the ship come home. This year the very dead we have loved shall come back to us again: for Spring can even lie like that. There is nothing he will not promise the poor hungry human heart, with his innocent-looking daisies and those practised liars the birds. Why, one branch of hawthorn against the sky promises more than all the summers of time can pay, and a pond ablaze with yellow lilies awakens such answering splendours and enchantments in mortal bosoms,—blazons, it would seem, so august a message from the hidden heart of the world,—that ever afterwards, for one who has looked upon it, the most fortunate human existence must seem a disappointment.
So I, too, with the rest of the world, was following in the wake of the magical music. The lie it was drawing me by is perhaps Spring's oldest, commonest lie,—the lying promise of the Perfect Woman, the Quite Impossible She. Who has not dreamed of her,—who that can dream at all? I suppose that the dreams of our modern youth are entirely commercial. In the morning of life they are rapt by intoxicating visions of some great haberdashery business, beckoned to by the voluptuous enticements of the legal profession, or maybe the Holy Grail they forswear all else to seek is a snug editorial chair. These quests and dreams were not for me. Since I was man I have had but one dream,—namely, Woman. Alas! till this my thirtieth year I have found only women. No! that is disloyal, disloyal to my First Love; for this is sadly true,—that we always find the Golden Girl in our first love, and lose her in our second.
I wonder if the reader would care to hear about my First Love, of whom I am naturally thinking a good deal this morning, under the demoralising influences of the fresh air, blue sky, and various birds and flowers. More potent intoxicants these than any that need licenses for their purveyance, responsible—see the poets—for no end of human foolishness.
I was about to tell the story of my First Love, but on second thoughts I decide not. It will keep, and I feel hungry, and yonder seems a dingle where I can lie and open my knapsack, eat, drink, and doze among the sun-flecked shadows.
IN WHICH I EAT AND DREAM
The girl we go to meet is the girl we have met before. I evolved this sage reflection, as, lost deep down in the green alleys of the dingle, having fortified the romantic side of my nature with sandwiches and sherry, I lazily put the question to myself as to what manner of girl I expected the Golden Girl to be. A man who goes seeking should have some notion of what he goes out to seek. Had I any ideal by which to test and measure the damsels of the world who were to pass before my critical choosing eye? Had I ever met any girl in the past who would serve approximately as a model,—any girl, in fact, I would very much like to meet again? I was very sleepy, and while trying to make up my mind I fell asleep; and lo! the sandwiches and sherry brought me a dream that I could not but consider of good omen. And this was the dream.
I thought my quest had brought me into a strange old haunted forest, and that I had thrown myself down to rest at the gnarled mossy root of a great oak-tree, while all about me was nought but fantastic shapes and capricious groups of gold-green bole and bough, wondrous alleys ending in mysterious coverts, and green lanes of exquisite turf that seemed to have been laid down in expectation of some milk-white queen or goddess passing that way.
And so still the forest was you could have heard an acorn drop or a bird call from one end of it to the other. The exquisite silence was evidently waiting for the exquisite voice, that presently not so much broke as mingled with it, like a swan swimming through a lake.
"Whom seek you?" said, or rather sung, a planetary voice right at my shoulder. But three short unmusical Saxon words, yet it was as though a mystical strain of music had passed through the wood.
"Whom seek you?" and again the lovely speech flowered upon the silence, as white water-lilies on the surface of some shaded pool.
"The Golden Girl," I answered simply, turning my head, and looking half sideways and half upwards; and behold! the tree at whose foot I lay had opened its rocky side, and in the cleft, like a long lily-bud sliding from its green sheath, stood a dryad, and my speech failed and my breath went as I looked upon her beauty, for which mortality has no simile. Yet was there something about her of the earth-sweetness that clings even to the loveliest, star-ambitious, earth-born thing. She was not all immortal, as man is not all mortal. She was the sweetness of the strength of the oak, the soul born of the sun kissing its green leaves in the still Memnonian mornings, of moon and stars kissing its green leaves in the still Trophonian nights.
"The maid you seek," said she, and again she broke the silence like the moon breaking through the clouds, "what manner of maid is she? For a maid abides in this wood, maybe it is she whom you seek. Is she but a lovely face you seek? Is she but a lofty mind? Is she but a beautiful soul?"
"Maybe she is all these, though no one only, and more besides," I answered.
"It is well," she replied, "but have you in your heart no image of her you seek? Else how should you know her should you some day come to meet her?"
"I have no image of her," I said. "I cannot picture her; but I shall know her, know her inerrably as these your wood children find out each other untaught, as the butterfly that has never seen his kindred knows his painted mate, passing on the wing all others by. Only when the lark shall mate with the nightingale, and the honey-bee and the clock-beetle keep house together, shall I wed another maid. Fair maybe she will not be, though fair to me. Wise maybe she will not be, though wise to me. For riches I care not, and of her kindred I have no care. All I know is that just to sit by her will be bliss, just to touch her bliss, just to hear her speak bliss beyond all mortal telling."
Thereat the Sweetness of the Strength of the Oak smiled upon me and said,—
"Follow yonder green path till it leads you into a little grassy glade, where is a crystal well and a hut of woven boughs hard by, and you shall see her whom you seek."
And as she spoke she faded suddenly, and the side of the oak was once more as the solid rock. With hot heart I took the green winding path, and presently came the little grassy glade, and the bubbling crystal well, and the hut of wattled boughs, and, looking through the open door of the hut, I saw a lovely girl lying asleep in her golden hair. She smiled sweetly in her sleep, and stretched out her arms softly, as though to enfold the dear head of her lover. And, ere I knew, I was bending over her, and as her sweet breath came and went I whispered: "Grace o' God, I am here. I have sought you through the world, and found you at last. Grace o' God, I have come."
And then I thought her great eyes opened, as when the sun sweeps clear blue spaces in the morning sky. "Flower o' Men," then said she, low and sweet,—"Flower o' Men, is it you indeed? As you have sought, so have I waited, waited..." And thereat her arms stole round my neck, and I awoke, and Grace o' God was suddenly no more than a pretty name that my dream had given me.
"A pretty dream," said my soul, "though a little boyish for thirty." "And a most excellent sherry," added my body.
CONCERNING THE PERFECT WOMAN, AND THEREFORE CONCERNING ALL FEMININE READERS
As I once more got under way, my thoughts slowly loitered back to the theme which had been occupying them before I dropped asleep. What was my working hypothesis of the Perfect Woman, towards whom I was thus leisurely strolling? She might be defined, I reflected, as The Woman Who Is Worthy Of Us; but the improbability which every healthily conceited young man must feel of ever finding such a one made the definition seem a little unserviceable. Or, if you prefer, since we seem to be dealing with impossibles, we might turn about and more truly define her as The Woman of Whom We are Worthy, for who dare say that she exists? If, again, she were defined as the Woman our More Fortunate Friend Marries, her unapproachableness would rob the definition of any practical value. Other generalisations proving equally unprofitable, I began scientifically to consider in detail the attributes of the supposititious paragon,—attributes of body and mind and heart. This was soon done; but again, as I thus conned all those virtues which I was to expect united in one unhappy woman, the result was still unsatisfying, for I began to perceive that it was really not perfection that I was in search of. As I added virtue after virtue to the female monster in my mind, and the result remained still inanimate and unalluring, I realised that the lack I was conscious of was not any new perfection, but just one or two honest human imperfections. And this, try as I would, was just what I could not imagine.
For, if you reflect a moment, you will see that, while it is easy to choose what virtues we would have our wife possess, it is all but impossible to imagine those faults we would desire in her, which I think most lovers would admit add piquancy to the loved one, that fascinating wayward imperfection which paradoxically makes her perfect.
Faults in the abstract are each and all so uninviting, not to say alarming, but, associated with certain eyes and hair and tender little gowns, it is curious how they lose their terrors; and, as with vice in the poet's image, we end by embracing what we began by dreading. You see the fault becomes a virtue when it is hers, the treason prospers; wherefore, no doubt, the impossibility of imagining it. What particular fault will suit a particular unknown girl is obviously as difficult to determine as in what colours she will look her best.
So, I say, I plied my brains in vain for that becoming fault. It was the same whether I considered her beauty, her heart, or her mind. A charming old Italian writer has laid down the canons of perfect feminine beauty with much nicety in a delicious discourse, which, as he delivered it in a sixteenth-century Florentine garden to an audience of beautiful and noble ladies, an audience not too large to be intimate and not too small to be embarrassing, it was his delightful good fortune and privilege to illustrate by pretty and sly references to the characteristic beauties of the several ladies seated like a ring of roses around him. Thus he would refer to the shape of Madonna Lampiada's sumptuous eyelids, and to her shell-like ears, to the correct length and shape of Madonna Amororrisca's nose, to the lily tower of Madonna Verdespina's throat; nor would the unabashed old Florentine shrink from calling attention to the unfairness of Madonna Selvaggia's covering up her dainty bosom, just as he was about to discourse upon "those two hills of snow and of roses with two little crowns of fine rubies on their peaks." How could a man lecture if his diagrams were going to behave like that! Then, feigning a tiff, he would close his manuscript, and all the ladies with their birdlike voices would beseech him with "Oh, no, Messer Firenzuola, please go on again; it's SO charming!" while, as if by accident, Madonna Selvaggia's moonlike bosom would once more slip out its heavenly silver, perceiving which, Messer Firenzuola would open his manuscript again and proceed with his sweet learning.
Happy Firenzuola! Oh, days that are no more!
By selecting for his illustrations one feature from one lady and another from another, Messer Firenzuola builds up an ideal of the Beautiful Woman, which, were she to be possible, would probably be as faultily faultless as the Perfect Woman, were she possible.
Moreover, much about the same time as Firenzuola was writing, Botticelli's blonde, angular, retrousse women were breaking every one of that beauty-master's canons, perfect in beauty none the less; and lovers then, and perhaps particularly now, have found the perfect beauty in faces to which Messer Firenzuola would have denied the name of face at all, by virtue of a quality which indeed he has tabulated, but which is far too elusive and undefinable, too spiritual for him truly to have understood,—a quality which nowadays we are tardily recognising as the first and last of all beauty, either of nature or art,—the supreme, truly divine, because materialistically unaccountable, quality of Charm!
"Beauty that makes holy earth and heaven May have faults from head to feet."
O loveliest and best-loved face that ever hallowed the eyes that now seek for you in vain! Such was your strange lunar magic, such the light not even death could dim. And such may be the loveliest and best-loved face for you who are reading these pages,—faces little understood on earth because they belong to heaven.
There is indeed only one law of beauty on which we may rely,—that it invariably breaks all the laws laid down for it by the professors of aesthetics. All the beauty that has ever been in the world has broken the laws of all previous beauty, and unwillingly dictated laws to the beauty that succeeded it,—laws which that beauty has no less spiritedly broken, to prove in turn dictator to its successor.
The immortal sculptors, painters, and poets have always done exactly what their critics forbade them to do. The obedient in art are always the forgotten.
Likewise beautiful women have always been a law unto themselves. Who could have prophesied in what way any of these inspired law-breakers would break the law, what new type of perfect imperfection they would create?
So we return to the Perfect Woman, having gained this much knowledge of her,—that her perfection is nothing more or less than her unique, individual, charming imperfection, and that she is simply the woman we love and who is fool enough to love us.
IN WHICH THE AUTHOR ANTICIPATES DISCONTENT ON THE PART OF HIS READER
"But come," I imagine some reader complaining, "isn't it high time for something to happen?" No doubt it is, but what am I to do? I am no less discontented. Is it not even more to my interest than to the reader's for something to happen? Here have I been tramping along since breakfast-time, and now it is late in the afternoon, but never a feather of her dove's wings, never a flutter of her angel's robes have I seen. It is disheartening, for one naturally expects to find anything we seek a few minutes after starting out to seek it, and I confess that I expected to find my golden mistress within a very few hours of leaving home. However, had that been the case, there would have been no story, as the novelists say, and I trust, as he goes on, the reader may feel with me that that would have been a pity. Besides, with that prevision given to an author, I am strongly of opinion that something will happen before long. And if the worst comes to the worst, there is always that story of my First Love wherewith to fill the time. Meanwhile I am approaching a decorative old Surrey town, little more than a cluster of ripe old inns, to one of which I have much pleasure in inviting the reader to dinner.
Is there a more beautiful word in the language?
Let the beautiful word come as a refrain to and fro this chapter.
Just eating and drinking, nothing more, but so much!
Drinking, indeed, has had its laureates. Yet would I offer my mite of prose in its honour. And when I say "drinking," I speak not of smuggled gin or of brandy bottles held fiercely by the neck till they are empty.
Nay, but of that lonely glass in the social solitude of the tavern,—alone, but not alone, for the glass is sure to bring a dream to bear it company, and it is a poor dream that cannot raise a song. And what greater felicity than to be alone in a tavern with your last new song, just born and yet still a tingling part of you.
Drinking has indeed been sung, but why, I have heard it asked, have we no "Eating Songs?"—for eating is, surely, a fine pleasure. Many practise it already, and it is becoming more general every day.
I speak not of the finicking joy of the gourmet, but the joy of an honest appetite in ecstasy, the elemental joy of absorbing quantities of fresh simple food,—mere roast lamb, new potatoes, and peas of living green.
It is, indeed, an absorbing pleasure. It needs all our attention. You must eat as you kiss, so exacting are the joys of the mouth,—talking, for example. The quiet eye may be allowed to participate, and sometimes the ear, where the music is played upon a violin, and that a Stradivarius. A well-kept lawn, with six-hundred-years-old cedars and a twenty-feet yew hedge, will add distinction to the meal. Nor should one ever eat without a seventeenth-century poet in an old yellow-leaved edition upon the table, not to be read, of course, any more than the flowers are to be eaten, but just to make music of association very softly to our thoughts.
Some diners have wine too upon the table, and in the pauses of thinking what a divine mystery dinner is, they eat.
For dinner IS a mystery,—a mystery of which even the greatest chef knows but little, as a poet knows not,
"with all his lore, Wherefore he sang, or whence the mandate sped."
"Even our digestion is governed by angels," said Blake; and if you will resist the trivial inclination to substitute "bad angels," is there really any greater mystery than the process by which beef is turned into brains, and beer into beauty? Every beautiful woman we see has been made out of beefsteaks. It is a solemn thought,—and the finest poem that was ever written came out of a grey pulpy mass such as we make brain sauce of.
And with these grave thoughts for grace let us sit down to dinner.
What wine shall we have? I confess I am no judge of wines, except when they are bad. To-night I feel inclined to allow my choice to be directed by sentiment; and as we are on so pretty a pilgrimage, would it not be appropriate to drink Liebfraumilch?
Hock is full of fancy, and all wines are by their very nature full of reminiscence, the golden tears and red blood of summers that are gone.
Forgive me, therefore, if I grow reminiscent. Indeed, I fear that the hour for the story of my First Love has come. But first, notice the waitress. I confess, whether beautiful or plain,—not too plain,—women who earn their own living have a peculiar attraction for me.
I hope the Golden Girl will not turn out to be a duchess. As old Campion sings,—
"I care not for those ladies Who must be wooed and prayed; Give me kind Amaryllis, The wanton country-maid."
Town-maids too of the same pattern. Whether in town or country, give me the girls that work. The Girls That Work! But evidently it is high time woe began a new chapter.
THE LEGEND OF HEBE, OR THE HEAVENLY HOUSEMAID
Yes, I blush to admit it, my First Love was a housemaid. So was she known on this dull earth of ours, but in heaven—in the heaven of my imagination, at all events—she was, of course, a goddess. How she managed to keep her disguise I never could understand. To me she was so obviously dea certe. The nimbus was so apparent. Yet no one seemed to see it but me. I have heard her scolded as though she were any ordinary earthly housemaid, and I have seen the butcher's boy trying to flirt with her without a touch of reverence.
Maybe I understood because I saw her in that early hour of the morning when even the stony Memnon sings, in that mystical light of the young day when divine exiled things, condemned to rough bondage through the noon, are for a short magical hour their own celestial selves, their unearthly glory as yet unhidden by any earthly disguise.
Neither fairies nor fauns, dryads nor nymphs of the forest pools, have really passed away from the world. You have only to get up early enough to meet them in the meadows. They rarely venture abroad after six. All day long they hide in uncouth enchanted forms. They change maybe to a field of turnips, and I have seen a farmer priding himself on a flock of sheep that I knew were really a most merry company of dryads and fauns in disguise. I had but to make the sign of the cross, sprinkle some holy water upon them, and call them by their sweet secret names, and the whole rout had been off to the woods, with mad gambol and song, before the eyes of the astonished farmer.
It was so with Hebe. She was really a little gold-haired blue-eyed dryad, whose true home was a wild white cherry-tree that grew in some scattered woodland behind the old country-house of my boyhood. In spring-time how that naughty tree used to flash its silver nakedness of blossom for miles across the furze and scattered birches!
I might have known it was Hebe.
Alas! it no longer bares its bosom with so dazzling a prodigality, for it is many a day since it was uprooted. The little dryad long since fled away weeping,—fled away, said evil tongues, fled away to the town.
Well do I remember our last meeting. Returning home one evening, I met her at the lodge-gate hurrying away. Our loves had been discovered, and my mother had shuddered to think that so pagan a thing had lived so long in a Christian house. I vowed—ah! what did I not vow?—and then we stole sadly together to comfort our aching hearts under cover of the woodland. For the last time the wild cherry-tree bloomed,—wonderful blossom, glittering with tears, and gloriously radiant with stormy lights of wild passion and wilder hopes.
My faith lived valiantly till the next spring. It was Hebe who was faithless. The cherry-tree was dead, for its dryad had gone,—fled, said evil tongues, fled away to the town!
But as yet, in the time to which my thoughts return, our sweet secret mornings were known only to ourselves. It was my custom then to rise early, to read Latin authors,—thanks to Hebe, still unread. I used to light my fire and make tea for myself, till one rapturous morning I discovered that Hebe was fond of rising early too, and that she would like to light my fire and make my tea. After a time she began to sweeten it for me. And then she would sit on my knee, and we would translate Catullus together,—into English kisses; for she was curiously interested in the learned tongue.
How lovely she used to look with the morning sun turning her hair to golden mist, and dancing in the blue deeps of her eyes; and once when by chance she had forgotten to fasten her gown, I caught glimpses of a bosom that was like two happy handfuls of wonderful white cherries...
She wore a marvellous little printed gown. And here I may say that I have never to this day understood objections which were afterwards raised against my early attachment to print. The only legitimate attachment to print stuff, I was told, was to print stuff in the form of blouse, tennis, or boating costume. Yet, thought I, I would rather smuggle one of those little print gowns into my berth than all the silks a sea-faring friend of mine takes the trouble to smuggle from far Cathay. However, every one to his taste; for me,
No silken madam, by your leave, Though wondrous, wondrous she be, Can lure this heart—upon my sleeve— From little pink-print Hebe.
For I found beneath that pretty print such a heart as seldom beats beneath your satin, warm and wild as a bird's. I used to put my ear to it sometimes to listen if it beat right. Ah, reader, it was like putting your ear to the gate of heaven.
And once I made a song for her, which ran like this:—
There grew twin apples high on a bough Within an orchard fair; The tree was all of gold, I vow, And the apples of silver were.
And whoso kisseth those apples high, Who kisseth once is a king, Who kisseth twice shall never die, Who kisseth thrice—oh, were it I!— May ask for anything.
Hebe blushed, and for answer whispered something too sweet to tell.
"Dear little head sunning over with curls," were I to meet you now, what would happen? Ah! to meet you now were too painfully to measure the remnant of my youth.
AGAIN ON FOOT—THE GIRLS THAT NEVER CAN BE MINE
Next morning I was afoot early, bent on my quest in right good earnest; for I had a remorseful feeling that I had not been sufficiently diligent the day before, had spent too much time in dreaming and moralising, in which opinion I am afraid the reader will agree.
So I was up and out of the town while as yet most of the inhabitants were in the throes of getting up. Somewhere too SHE, the Golden One, the White Woman, was drowsily tossing the night-clothes from her limbs and rubbing her sleepy eyes. William Morris's lovely song came into my mind,—
'And midst them all, perchance, my love Is waking, and doth gently move And stretch her soft arms out to me, Forgetting thousand leagues of sea."
Perhaps she was in the very town I was leaving behind. Perhaps we had slept within a few houses of each other. Who could tell?
Looking back at the old town, with its one steep street climbing the white face of the chalk hill, I remembered what wonderful exotic women Thomas Hardy had found eating their hearts out behind the windows of dull country high streets, through which hung waving no banners of romance, outwardly as unpromising of adventure as the windows of the town I had left. And then turning my steps across a wide common, which ran with gorse and whortleberry bushes away on every side to distant hilly horizons, swarthy with pines, and dotted here and there with stone granges and white villages, I thought of all the women within that circle, any one of whom might prove the woman I sought,—from milkmaids crossing the meadows, their strong shoulders straining with the weight of heavy pails, to fine ladies dying of ennui in their country-houses; pretty farmers' daughters surreptitiously reading novels, and longing for London and "life;" passionate young farmers' wives already weary of their doltish lords; bright-eyed bar-maids buried alive in country inns, and wondering "whatever possessed them" to leave Manchester,—for bar-maids seem always to come from Manchester,—all longing modestly, said I, to set eyes on a man like me, a man of romance, a man of feeling, a man, if you like, to run away with.
My heart flooded over with tender pity for these poor sweet women—though perhaps chiefly for my own sad lot in not encountering them,—and I conceived a great comprehensive love-poem to be entitled "The Girls that never can be Mine." Perhaps before the end of our tramp together, I shall have a few verses of it to submit to the elegant taste of the reader, but at present I have not advanced beyond the title.
AN OLD MAN OF THE HILLS, AND THE SCHOOLMASTER'S STORY
While occupying myself with these no doubt wanton reflections on the unfair division of opportunities in human life, I was leisurely crossing the common, and presently I came up with a pedestrian who, though I had little suspected it as I caught sight of him ahead, was destined by a kind providence to make more entertaining talk for me in half an hour than most people provide in a lifetime.
He was an oldish man, turned sixty, one would say, and belonging, to judge from his dress and general appearance, to what one might call the upper labouring class. He wore a decent square felt hat, a shabby respectable overcoat, a workman's knitted waistcoat, and workman's corduroys, and he carried an umbrella. His upper part might have belonged to a small well-to-do tradesman, while his lower bore marks of recent bricklaying. Without its being remarkable, he had what one calls a good face, somewhat aquiline in character, with a refined forehead and nose.
His cheeks were shaved, and his whitening beard and moustache were worn somewhat after the fashion of Charles Dickens. This gave a slight touch of severity to a face that was full of quiet strength.
Passing the time of day to each other, we were soon in conversation, I asking him this and that question about the neighbouring country-side, of which I gathered he was an old inhabitant.
"Yes," he said presently, "I was the first to put stick or stone on Whortleberry Common yonder. Fifteen years ago I built my own wood cottage there, and now I'm rebuilding it of good Surrey stone."
"Do you mean that you are building it yourself, with your own hands, no one to help you?" I asked.
"Not so much as to carry a pail of water," he replied. "I'm my own contractor, my own carpenter, and my own bricklayer, and I shall be sixty-seven come Michaelmas," he added, by no means irrelevantly.
There was pride in his voice,—pardonable pride, I thought, for who of us would not be proud to be able to build his own house from floor to chimney?
"Sixty-seven,—a man can see and do a good deal in that time," I said, not flattering myself on the originality of the remark, but desiring to set him talking. In the country, as elsewhere, we must forego profundity if we wish to be understood.
"Yes, sir," he said, "I have been about a good deal in my time. I have seen pretty well all of the world there is to see, and sailed as far as ship could take me."
"Indeed, you have been a sailor too?"
"Twenty-two thousand miles of sea," he continued, without directly answering my remark. "Yes, Vancouver's about as far as any vessel need want to go; and then I have caught seals off the coast of Labrador, and walked my way through the raspberry plains at the back of the White Mountains."
"Vancouver," "Labrador," "The White Mountains," the very names, thus casually mentioned on a Surrey heath, seemed full of the sounding sea. Like talismans they whisked one away to strange lands, across vast distances of space imagination refused to span. Strange to think that the shabby little man at my side had them all fast locked, pictures upon pictures, in his brain, and as we were talking was back again in goodness knows what remote latitude.
I kept looking at him and saying, "Twenty-two thousand miles of sea! sixty-seven! and builds his own cottage!"
In addition to all this he had found time to be twenty-one years a policeman, and to beget and rear successfully twelve children. He was now, I gathered, living partly on his pension, and spoke of this daughter married, this daughter in service here, and that daughter in service there, one son settled in London and another in the States, with something of a patriarchal pride, with the independent air too of a man who could honestly say to himself that, with few advantages from fortune, having had, so to say, to work his passage, every foot and hour of it, across those twenty-two thousand miles and those sixty-seven years, he had made a thoroughly creditable job of his life.
As we walked along I caught glimpses in his vivid and ever-varying talk of the qualities that had made his success possible. They are always the same qualities!
A little pile of half-hewn stones, the remains of a ruined wall, scattered by the roadside caught his eye.
"I've seen the time when I wouldn't have left them stones lying out there," he said, and presently, "Why, God bless you, I've made my own boots before to-day. Give me the tops and I'll soon rig up a pair still."
And with all his success, and his evident satisfaction with his lot, the man was neither a prig nor a teetotaller. He had probably seen too much of the world to be either. Yet he had, he said, been too busy all his life to spend much time in public-houses, as we drank a pint of ale together in the inn which stood at the end of the common.
"No, it's all well enough in its way, but it swallows time," he remarked. "You see, my wife and I have our own pin at home, and when I'm a bit tired, I just draw a glass for myself, and smoke a pipe, and there's no time wasted coming and going, and drinking first with this and then with the other."
A little way past the inn we came upon a notice-board whereon the lord of the manor warned all wayfarers against trespassing on the common by making encampments, lighting fires or cutting firewood thereon, and to this fortunate circumstance I owe the most interesting story my companion had to tell.
We had mentioned the lord of the manor as we crossed the common, and the notice-board brought him once more to the old man's mind.
"Poor gentleman!" he said, pointing to the board as though it was the lord of the manor himself standing there, "I shouldn't like to have had the trouble he's had on my shoulders."
"Indeed?" I said interrogatively.
"Well, you see, sir," he continued, instinctively lowering his voice to a confidential impressiveness, "he married an actress; a noble lady too she was, a fine dashing merry lady as ever you saw. All went well for a time, and then it suddenly got whispered about that she and the village schoolmaster were meeting each other at nights, in the meadow-bottom at the end of her own park. It lies over that way,—I could take you to the very place. The schoolmaster was a noble-looking young man too, a devil-me-care blade of a fellow, with a turn for poetry, they said, and a merry man too, and much in request for a song at The Moonrakers of an evening. Many 's the night I've heard the windows rattling with the good company gathered round him. Yes, he was a noble-looking man, a noble-looking man," he repeated wistfully, and with an evident sympathy for the lovers which, I need hardly say, won my heart.
"But how, I wonder, did they come to know each other?" I interrupted, anxious to learn all I could, even if I had to ask stupid questions to learn it.
"Well, of course, no one can say how these things come about. She was the lady of the manor and the patroness of his school; and then, as I say, he was a very noble-looking man, and probably took her fancy; and, sir, whenever some women set their hearts on a man there's no stopping them. Have him they will, whatever happens. They can't help it, poor things! It's just a freak of nature."
"Well, and how was it found out?" I again jogged him.
"One of Sir William's keepers played the spy on them. He spread it all over the place how he had seen them on moonlight nights sitting together in the dingle, drinking champagne, and laughing and talking as merry as you please; and, of course, it came in time to Sir William—"
"You see that green lane there," he broke off, pointing to a romantic path winding along the heath side; "it was along there he used to go of a night to meet her after every one was in bed; and when it all came out there was a regular cartload of bottles found there. The squire had them all broken up, but the pieces are there to this day.
"Yes," he again proceeded, "it hit Sir William very hard. He's never been the same man since."
I am afraid that my sympathies were less with Sir William than better regulated sympathies would have been. I confess that my imagination was more occupied with that picture of the two lovers making merry together in the moonlit dingle.
Is it not, indeed, a fascinating little story, with its piquant contrasts and its wild love-at-all-costs? And how many such stories are hidden about the country, lying carelessly in rustic memories, if one only knew where to find them!
At this point my companion left me, and I—well, I confess that I retraced my steps to the common and rambled up that green lane, along which the romantic schoolmaster used to steal in the moonlight to the warm arms of his love. How eagerly he had trodden the very turf I was treading,—we never know at what moment we are treading sacred earth! But for that old man, I had passed along this path without a thrill. Had I not but an hour ago stood upon this very common, vainly, so it seemed, invoking the spirits of passion and romance, and the grim old common had never made a sign. And now I stood in the very dingle where they had so often and so wildly met; and it was all gone, quite gone away for ever. The hours that had seemed so real, the kisses that had seemed like to last for ever, the vows, the tears, all now as if they had never been, gone on the four winds, lost in the abysses of time and space.
And to think of all the thousands and thousands of lovers who had loved no less wildly and tenderly, made sweet these lanes with their vows, made green these meadows with their feet; and they, too, all gone, their bright eyes fallen to dust, their sweet voices for ever put to silence.
To which I would add, for the benefit of the profane, that I sought in vain for those broken bottles.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE GIPSIES
I felt lonely after losing my companion, and I met nobody to take his place. In fact, for a couple of hours I met nothing worth mentioning, male or female, with the exception of a gipsy caravan, which I suppose was both; but it was a poor show. Borrow would have blushed for it. In fact, it is my humble opinion that the gipsies have been overdone, just as the Alps have been over-climbed. I have no great desire to see Switzerland, for I am sure the Alps must be greasy with being climbed.
Besides, the Alps and the gipsies, in common with waterfalls and ruined castles, belong to the ready-made operatic poetry of the world, from which the last thrill has long since departed. They are, so to say, public poetry, the public property of the emotions, and no longer touch the private heart or stir the private imagination. Our fathers felt so much about them that there is nothing left for us to feel. They are as a rose whose fragrance has been exhausted by greedy and indiscriminate smelling. I would rather find a little Surrey common for myself and idle about it a summer day, with the other geese and donkeys, than climb the tallest Alp.
Most gipsies are merely tenth-rate provincial companies, travelling with and villainously travestying Borrow's great pieces of "Lavengro" and "Romany Rye." Dirty, ill-looking, scowling men; dirty, slovenly, and wickedly ugly women; children to match, snarling, filthy little curs, with a ready beggar's whine on occasion. A gipsy encampment to-day is little more than a moving slum, a scab of squalor on the fair face of the countryside.
But there was one little trifle of an incident that touched me as I passed this particular caravan. Evidently one of the vans had come to grief, and several men of the party were making a great show of repairing it. After I had run the gauntlet of the begging children, and was just out of ear-shot of the group, I turned round to survey it from a distance. It was encamped on a slight rise of the undulating road, and from where I stood tents and vans and men were clearly silhouetted against the sky. The road ran through and a little higher than the encampment, which occupied both sides of it. Presently the figure of a young man separated itself from the rest, stept up on to the smooth road, and standing in the middle of it, in an absorbed attitude, began to make a movement with his hands as though winding string round a top. That in fact was his occupation, and for the next five minutes he kept thus winding the cord, flinging the top to the ground, and intently bending down to catch it on his hand, none of the others, not even the children, taking the slightest notice of him,—he entirely alone there with his poor little pleasure. There seemed to me pathos in his loneliness. Had some one spun the top with him, it would have vanished; and presently, no doubt at the bidding of an oath I could not hear, he hurriedly thrust the top into his pocket, and once more joined the straining group of men. The snatched pleasure must be put by at the call of reality; the world and its work must rush in upon his dream. I have often thought about the top and its spinner, as I have noted the absorbed faces of other people's pleasures in the streets,—two lovers passing along the crowded Strand with eyes only for each other; a student deep in his book in the corner of an omnibus; a young mother glowing over the child in her arms; the wild-eyed musician dreamily treading on everybody's toes, and begging nobody's pardon; the pretty little Gaiety Girl hurrying to rehearsal with no thought but of her own sweet self and whether there will be a letter from Harry at the stage-door,—yes, if we are alone in our griefs, we are no less alone in our pleasures. We spin our tops as in an enchanted circle, and no one sees or heeds save ourselves,—as how should they with their own tops to spin? Happy indeed is he, who has his top and cares still to spin it; for to be tired of our tops is to be tired of life, saith the preacher.
As the young gipsy's little holiday came to an end, I turned with a sigh upon my way; and here, while still on the subject, may I remark on the curious fact that probably Borrow has lived and died without a single gipsy having heard of him, just as the expertest anglers know nothing of Izaak Walton.
Has the British soldier, one wonders, yet discovered Rudyard Kipling, or is the Wessex peasant aware of Thomas Hardy? It is odd to think that the last people to read such authors are the very people they most concern. For you might spend your life, say, in studying the London street boy, and write never so movingly and humourously about him, yet would he never know your name; and though Whitechapel makes novelists, it does so without knowing it,—makes them to be read in Mayfair,—just as it never wears the dainty hats and gowns its weary little milliners and seamstresses make through the day and night. It is Capital and Labour over again, for in literature also we reap in gladness what others have sown in tears.
And now, after these admirable reflections, I am about to make such "art" as I can of another man's tragedy, as will appear in the next chapter.
A STRANGE WEDDING
My moralisings were cut short by my entering a village, and, it being about the hour of noon, finding myself in the thick of a village wedding.
Undoubtedly the nicest way to get married is on the sly, and indeed it is at present becoming quite fashionable. Many young couples of my acquaintance, who have had no other reason for concealing the fact beyond their own whim, have thus slipped off without saying a word to anybody, and returned full-blown housekeepers, with "at home" days of their own, and everything else like real married people,—for, as said an old lady to me, "one can never be sure of married people nowadays unless you have been at the wedding."
My friend George Muncaster, who does everything charmingly different from any one else, hit upon one of the quaintest plans for his marriage. It was simple, and some may say prosaic enough. His days being spent at a great office in the city, he got leave of absence for a couple of hours, met his wife, went with her to the registrar's, returned to his office, worked the rest of the day as usual, and then went to his new home to find his wife and dinner awaiting him,—all just as it was going to be every night for so many happy years. Prosaic, you say! Not your idea of poetry, perhaps, but, after a new and growing fashion in poetry, truly poetic. George Muncaster's marriage is a type of the new poetry, the poetry of essentials. The old poetry, as exemplified in the old-fashioned marriage, is a poetry of externals, and certainly it has the advantage of picturesqueness.
There is perhaps more to be said for it than that. Indeed, if I were ever to get married, I am at a loss to know which way I should choose,—George Muncaster's way or the old merry fashion, with the rice and the old shoes and the orange-blossom. No doubt the old cheery publicity is a little embarrassing to the two most concerned, and the old marriage customs, the singing of the bride and bridegroom to their nuptial couch, the frank jests, the country horse-play, must have fretted the souls of many a lover before Shelley, who, it will be remembered, resented the choral celebrations of his Scotch landlord and friends by appearing at his bedroom door with a brace of pistols.
How like Shelley! The Scotch landlord meant well, we may be sure, and a very small pinch of humour, or even mere ordinary humanity, as distinct from humanitarianism, would have taken in the situation. Of course Shelley's mind was full of the sanctity of the moment, and indignant that "the hour for which the years did sigh" should thus be broken in upon by vulgar revelry; but while we may sympathise with his view, and admit to the full the sacredness, not to say the solemnity, of the marriage ceremony, yet it is to be hoped that it still retains a naturally mirthful side, of which such public merriment is but the crude expression.
With all its sweet and mystical significance, surely the prevailing feeling in the hearts of bride and bridegroom is, or should be, that of happiness,—happiness bubbling and dancing, all sunny ripples from heart to heart.
Surely they can spare a little of it, just one day's sight of it, to a less happy world,—a world long since married and done for, and with little happiness in it save the spectacle of other people's happiness. It is good for us to see happy people, good for the symbols of happiness to be carried high amidst us on occasion; for if they serve no other purpose, they inspire in us the hope that we too may some day be happy, or remind our discontented hearts that we have been.
If it were only for the sake of those quaint old women for whom life would be entirely robbed of interest were it not for other people's weddings and funerals, one feels the public ceremony of marriage a sort of public duty, the happiness tax, so to say, due to the somewhat impoverished revenues of public happiness. Other forms of happiness are taxed; why not marriage?
In a village, particularly, two people who robbed the community of its perquisites in this respect would be looked upon as "enemies of the people," and their joint life would begin under a social ban which it would cost much subsequent hospitality to remove. The dramatic instinct to which the life of towns is necessarily unfavourable, is kept alive in the country by the smallness of the stage and the fewness of the actors. A village is an organism, conscious of its several parts, as a town is not.
In a village everybody is a public man. The great events of his life are of public as well as private significance, appropriately, therefore, invested with public ceremonial. Thus used to living in the public eye, the actors carry off their parts at weddings and other dramatic ceremonials, with more spirit than is easy to a townsman, who is naturally made self-conscious by being suddenly called upon to fill for a day a public position for which he has had no training. That no doubt is the real reason for the growth of quiet marriages; and the desire for them, I suspect, comes first from the man, for there are few women who at heart do not prefer the old histrionic display.
However, the village wedding at which I suddenly found myself a spectator was, for a village, a singularly quiet one. There was no bell-ringing, and there were no bridesmaids. The bride drove up quietly with her father, and there was a subdued note even in the murmur of recognition which ran along the villagers as they stood in groups near the church porch. There was an absence of the usual hilarity which struck me. One might almost have said that there was a quite ominous silence.
Seating myself in a corner of the transept where I could see all and be little seen, I with the rest awaited the coming of the overdue bridegroom. Meanwhile the usual buzzing and bobbing of heads went on amongst the usual little group near the foot of the altar. Now and then one caught a glisten of tears through a widow's veil, and the little bride, dressed quietly in grey, talked with the usual nervous gaiety to her girl friends, and made the usual whispered confidences about her trousseau. The father, in occasional conversation with one and another, appeared to be avoiding the subject with the usual self-conscious solemnity, and occasionally he looked, somewhat anxiously, I thought, towards the church door. The bridegroom did not keep us waiting long,—I noticed that he had a rather delicate sad face,—and presently the service began.
I don't know myself what getting married must feel like, but it cannot be much more exciting than watching other people getting married. Probably the spectators are more conscious of the impressive meaning of it all than the brave young people themselves. I say brave, for I am always struck by the courage of the two who thus gaily leap into the gulf of the unknown together, thus join hands over the inevitable, and put their signatures to the irrevocable. Indeed, I always get something like a palpitation of the heart just before the priest utters those final fateful words, "I declare you man and—wife." Half a second before you were still free, half a second after you are bound for the term of your natural life. Half a second before you had only to dash the book from the priest's hands, and put your hand over his mouth, and though thus giddily swinging on the brink of the precipice, you are saved. Half a second after
Not all the king's horses and all the king's men Can make you a bachelor ever again.
It is the knife-edge moment 'twixt time and eternity.
And, curiously enough, while my thoughts were thus running on towards the rapids of that swirling moment, the very thing happened which I had often imagined might happen to myself. Suddenly, with a sob, the bridegroom covered his face with his hands, and crying, "I cannot! I cannot!" hurriedly left the church, tears streaming down his cheeks, to the complete dismay of the sad little group at the altar, and the consternation of all present.
"Poor young man! I thought he would never go through with it," said an old woman half to herself, who was sitting near me. I involuntarily looked my desire of explanation.
"Well, you see," she said, "he had been married before. His first wife died four years ago, and he loved her beyond all heaven and earth."
That evening, I afterwards heard, the young bridegroom's body was found by some boys as they went to bathe in the river. As I recalled once more that sad yearning face, and heard again that terrible "I cannot! I cannot!" I thought of Heine's son of Asra, who loved the Sultan's daughter.
"What is thy name, slave?" asked the princess, "and what thy race and birthplace?"
"My name," the young slave answered, "is Mahomet. I come from Yemen. My race is that of Asra, and when we love, we die."
And likewise a voice kept saying in my heart, "If ever you find your Golden Bride, be sure she will die."
THE MYSTERIOUS PETTICOAT
The sad thoughts with which this incident naturally left me were at length and suddenly dispersed, as sad thoughts not infrequently are, by a petticoat. When I say petticoat, I use the word in its literal sense, not colloquially as a metaphor for its usual wearer, meaning thereby a dainty feminine undergarment seen only by men on rainy days, and one might add washing-days. It was indeed to the fortunate accident of its being washing-day at the pretty cottage near which in the course of my morning wanderings I had set me down to rest, that I owed the sight of the petticoat in question.
But first allow me to describe a little more fully my surroundings at the moment. Not indeed that I can hope to put into words the charm of those embowered cottages, like nests in the armpits of great trees, tucked snugly in the hollows of those narrow, winding, almost subterranean lanes which burrow their way beneath the warm-hearted Surrey woodlands.
Nothing can be straighter and smoother than a Surrey road—when it is on the king's business; then it is a high-road and behaves accordingly: but a Surrey bye-road is the most whimsical companion in the world. It is like a sheep-dog, always running backwards and forwards, poking into the most out-of-the-way corners, now climbing at a run some steep hummock of the down, and now leisurely going miles about to escape an ant-hill; and all the time (here, by the way, ends the sheep-dog) it is stopping to gossip with rillets vagabond as itself, or loitering to bedeck itself with flowers. It seems as innocent of a destination as a boy on an errand; but, after taking at least six times as long as any other road in the kingdom for its amount of work, you usually find it dip down of a sudden into some lovely natural cul-de-sac, a meadow-bottom surrounded by trees, with a stream spreading itself in fantastic silver shallows through its midst, and a cottage half hidden at the end. Had the lane been going to some great house, it would have made more haste, we may be sure.
The lane I had been following had finally dropped me down at something of a run upon just such a scene. The cottage, built substantially of grey stone, stood upon the side of the slope, and a broad strip of garden, half cultivated and half wild, began near the house with cabbages, and ended in a jungle of giant bulrushes as it touched the stream. Golden patches of ragwort blazed here and there among a tangled mass of no doubt worthier herbage,—such even in nature is the power of gold,—and there were the usual birds.
However, my business is with the week's washing, which in various shades of white, with occasional patches of scarlet, fluttered fantastically across a space of the garden, thereby giving unmistakable witness to human inhabitants, male and female.
As I lounged upon the green bank, I lazily watched these parodies of humanity as they were tossed hither and thither with humourous indignity by the breeze, remarking to myself on the quaint shamelessness with which we thus expose to the public view garments which at other times we are at such bashful pains to conceal. And thus philosophising, like a much greater philosopher, upon clothes, I found myself involuntarily deducing the cottage family from the family washing. I soon decided that there must be at least one woman say of the age of fifty, one young woman, one little child, sex doubtful, and one man probably young. Further than this it was impossible to conjecture. Thus I made the rough guess that a young man and his wife, a child, and a mother-in-law were among the inhabitants of this idyllic cottage.
But the clothes-line presented charming evidence of still another occupant; and here, though so far easy to read, came in something of a puzzle. Who in this humble out-of-the-way cottage could afford to wear that exquisite cambric petticoat edged with a fine and very expensive lace? And surely it was on no country legs that those delicately clocked and open-worked silk stockings walked invisible through the world.
Nor was the lace any ordinary expensive English lace, such as any good shop can supply. Indeed, I recognised it as being of a Parisian design as yet little known in England; while on the tops of the stockings I laughingly suspected a border designed by a certain eccentric artist, who devotes his strange gifts to decorating with fascinating miniatures the under-world of woman. I have seen corsets thus made beautiful by him valued at five hundred pounds, and he never paints a pair of garters for less than a hundred. His name is not yet a famous one, as, for obvious reasons, his works are not exhibited at public galleries, though they are occasionally to be seen at private views.
I am far from despising an honest red-flannel country petticoat. There is no warmer kinder-looking garment in the world. It suggests country laps and country breasts, with sturdy country babes greedy for the warm white milk, and it seems dyed in country blushes. Yet, for all that, one could not be insensible to the exotic race and distinction of that frivolous town petticoat, daintily disporting itself there among its country cousins, like a queen among milkmaids.
What numberless suggestions of romance it awoke! What strange perfumes seemed to waft across from it, perfumes laden with associations of a world so different from the green world where it now was, a charming world of gay intrigue and wanton pleasure. No wonder the wind chose it so often for its partner as it danced through the garden, scorning to notice the heavy homespun things about it. It was not every day that that washing-day wind met so fine a lady, and it was charming to see how gently he played about her stockings. "Ah, wind," I said, "evidently you are a gallant born; but tell us the name of the lady. It is somewhere on that pretty petticoat, I'll be bound."
Is she some little danseuse with the whim to be romantically rustic for a week? or is she somebody else's pretty wife run away with somebody else's man? or is she some naughty little grisette with an extravagant lover? or is she just the usual lady landscape artist, with a more than usual taste in lingerie?
At all events, it was fairly obvious that, for one reason or another, the wearer of the petticoat and stockings which have now occupied us for perhaps a sufficient number of pages, was a visitor at the cottage.
The next thing was to get a look at her. So, remembering how fond I was of milk from the cow, I pushed open the gate and advanced to the cottage door.
STILL OCCUPIED WITH THE PETTICOAT
The door was opened by a comely young woman, with ruddy cheeks and a bright kind eye that promised conversation. But "H'm," said I to myself, as she went to fetch my milk, "evidently not yours, my dear."
"A nice drying day for your washing," I said, as I slowly sipped my milk, with a half-inclination of my head towards the clothes-line.
"Very fine, indeed, sir," she returned, with something of a blush, and a shy deprecating look that seemed to beg me not to notice the peculiarly quaint antics which the wind, evidently a humourist, chose at that moment to execute with the female garments upon the line. However, I was for once cased in triple brass and inexorable.
"And who," I ventured, smiling, "may be the owner of those fine things?"
"Not those," I continued, pointing to an odd garment which the wind was wantonly puffing out in the quaintest way, "but that pretty petticoat and those silk stockings?"
The poor girl had gone scarlet, scarlet as the petticoat which I was sure WAS hers, with probably a fellow at the moment keeping warm her buxom figure.
"You are very bold, sir," she stammered through her blushes, but I could see that she was not ill-pleased that the finery should attract attention.
"But won't you tell me?" I urged; "I have a reason for asking."
And here I had better warn the reader that, as the result of a whim that presently seized me, I must be content to appear mad in his eyes for the next few pages, till I get an opportunity of explanation.
"Well, what if they should be mine?" at length I persuaded her into saying.
I made the obvious gallant reply, but, "All the same," I added, "you know they are not yours. They belong to some lady visitor, who, I'll be bound, isn't half so pretty; now, don't they?"
"Well, they just don't then. They're mine, as I tell you."
"H'm," I continued, a little nonplussed, "but do you really mean there is no lady staying with you?"
"Certainly," she replied, evidently enjoying my bewilderment.
"Well, then, some lady must have stayed here once," I retorted, with a sudden inspiration, "and left them behind—"
"You might be a detective after stolen goods," she interrupted.
"I tell you the things are mine; and what I should like to know does a gentleman want bothering himself about a lady's petticoat! No wonder you blush," for, in fact, as was easy to foresee, the situation was becoming a little ridiculous for me.
"Now, look here," I said with an affectation of gravity, "if you'll tell me how you came by those things, I'll make it worth your while. They were given to you by a lady who stayed here not so long ago, now, weren't they?"
"Well, then, they were."
"The lady stayed here with a gentleman?"
"Yes, she did."
"H'm! I thought so," I said. "Yes! that lady, it pains me to say, was my wife!"
This unblushing statement was not, I could see, without its effect upon the present owner of the petticoat.
"But she said they were brother and sister," she replied.
"Of course she did," I returned, with a fine assumption of scorn,—"of course she did. They always do."
"Dear young woman," I continued, when I was able to control my emotion, "you are happily remote from the sin and wickedness of the town, and I am sorry to speak of such things in so peaceful a spot—but as a strange chance has led me here, I must speak, must tell you that all wives are not so virtuous and faithful as you, I am sure, are. There are wives who forsake their husbands and—and go off with a handsomer man, as the poet says; and mine, mine, alas! was one of them. It is now some months ago that my wife left me in this way, and since then I have spent every day in searching for her; but never till this moment have I come upon the least trace of her. Strange, is it not? that here, in this peaceful out-of-the-way garden, I should come upon her very petticoat, her very stockings—"
By this my grief had become such that the kind girl put her hand on my arm. "Don't take on so," she said kindly, and then remembering her treasured property, and probably fearing a counterclaim on my part to its possession, "But how can you be sure she was here? There are lots of petticoats like that—"
"What was she like?" I asked through my agitation.
"Middle height, slim and fair, with red goldy hair and big blue eyes; about thirty, I should say."
"The very same," I groaned, "there is no mistake; and now," I continued, "I want you to sell me that petticoat and those stockings," and I took a couple of sovereigns from my purse. "I want to have them to confront her with, when I do find her. Perhaps it will touch her heart to think of the strange way in which I came by them; and you can buy just as pretty ones again with the money," I added, as I noticed the disappointment on her face at the prospect of thus losing her finery.
"Well, it's a funny business, to be sure," she said, as still half reluctantly she unpegged the coveted garments from the line; "but if what you say 's true, I suppose you must have them."
The wanton wind had been so busily kissing them all the morning that they were quite dry, so I was able to find room for them in my knapsack without danger to the other contents; and, with a hasty good-day to their recent possessor, I set off at full speed to find a secure nook where I could throw myself down on the grass, and let loose the absurd laughter that was dangerously bottled up within me; but even before I do that it behoves me if possible to vindicate my sanity to the reader.
CLEARS UP MY MYSTERIOUS BEHAVIOUR OF THE LAST CHAPTER
What a sane man should be doing carrying about with him a woman's petticoat and silk stockings, may well be a puzzle to the most intelligent reader.
Whim, sir, whim! and few human actions admit of more satisfactory solution. Like Shylock, I'll say "It is my humour." But no! I'll be more explanatory. This madcap quest of mine, was it not understood between us from the beginning to be a fantastic whim, a poetical wild-goose chase, conceived entirely as an excuse for being some time in each other's company? To be whimsical, therefore, in pursuit of a whim, fanciful in the chase of a fancy, is surely but to maintain the spirit of the game. Now, for the purpose, therefore, of a romance that makes no pretence to reasonableness, I had very good reasons for buying that petticoat, which (the reasons, not the petticoat) I will now lay before you.
I have been conscious all the way along through this pilgrimage of its inevitable vagueness of direction, of my need of something definite, some place, some name, anything at all, however slight, which I might associate, if only for a time, with the object of my quest, a definite something to seek, a definite goal for my feet.
Now, when I saw that mysterious petticoat, and realised that its wearer would probably be pretty and young and generally charming, and that probably her name was somewhere on the waistband, the spirit of whim rejoiced within me. "Why not," it said, "buy the petticoat, find out the name of its owner, and, instead of seeking a vague Golden Girl, make up your mind doggedly to find and marry her, or, failing that, carry the petticoat with you, as a sort of Cinderella's slipper, try it on any girl you happen to fancy, and marry her it exactly fits?"
Now, I confess, that seemed to me quite a pretty idea, and I hope the reader will think so too. If not, I'm afraid I can offer him no better explanation; and in fact I am all impatience to open my knapsack, and inform myself of the name of her to the discovery of whom my wanderings are henceforth to be devoted.
THE NAME UPON THE PETTICOAT
So imagine me seated in a grassy corner, with my knapsack open on the ground and my petticoat and silk stockings spread out in front of me,—an odd picture, to be sure, for any passer by to come upon. I suppose I could have passed for a pedlar, but undoubtedly it would have been very embarrassing. However, as it happened, I remained undisturbed, and was able to examine my purchases at leisure. I had never seen a petticoat so near before,—at all events I had never given one such close attention. What delicious dainty things they are! How essentially womanly—as I hope no one would call a pair of trousers essentially manly.
How pretty it looked spread out on the grass in front of me! How soft! how wondrously dainty the finish of every little seam! And the lace! It almost tempts one to change one's sex to wear such things. There was a time indeed, and not so long ago, when brave men wore garments no less dainty.
Rupert's Cavaliers were every bit as particular about their lace collars and frills as the lady whose pretty limbs once warmed this cambric.
But where is the name? Ah! here it is! What sweet writing! "Sylvia Joy, No. 6."
Sylvia Joy! What a perfectly enchanting name! and as I repeated it enthusiastically, it seemed to have a certain familiarity for my ear,—as though it were the name of some famous beauty or some popular actress,—yet the exact association eluded me, and obviously it was better it should remain a name of mystery. Sylvia Joy! Who could have hoped for such a pretty name! Indeed, to tell the truth, I had dreaded to find a "Mary Jones" or an "Ann Williams"—but Sylvia Joy! The name was a romance in itself. I already felt myself falling in love with its unseen owner. With such a petticoat and such a name, Sylvia herself could not be otherwise than delightful too. Already, you see, I was calling her by her Christian name! And the more I thought of her, the stronger grew the conviction—which has no doubt already forced itself upon the romantic reader—that we were born for each other.
But who is Sylvia, who is she? and likewise where is Sylvia, where is she? Obviously they were questions not to be answered off-hand. Was not my future—at all events my immediate future—to be spent in answering them?
Indeed, curiously enough, my recent haste to have them answered had suddenly died down. A sort of matrimonial security possessed me. I felt as I imagine a husband may feel on a solitary holiday—if there are husbands unnatural enough to go holidaying without their wives—pleasantly conscious of a home tucked somewhere beneath the distant sunset, yet in no precipitate hurry to return there before the appointed day.
In fact, a chill tremor went through me as I realised that, to all intent, I was at length respectably settled down, with quite a considerable retrospect of happy married life. To come to a decision is always to bring something to an end. And, with something of a pang, resolutely stifled, I realised for a moment the true blessedness of the single state I was so soon to leave behind. At all events, a little golden fragment of bachelorhood remained. There was yet a fertile strip of time wherein to sow my last handful of the wild oats of youth. So festina lente, my destined Sylvia, festina lente!
IN WHICH THE NAME OF A GREAT POET IS CRIED OUT IN A SOLITARY PLACE
As I once more shouldered my pack and went my way, the character of the country side began to change, and, from a semi-pastoral heathiness and furziness, took on a wildness of aspect, which if indeed melodramatic was melodrama carried to the point of genius.
It was a scene for which the nineteenth century has no worthy use. It finds ignoble occupation as a gaping-ground for the vacuous tourist,—somewhat as Heine might have imagined Pan carrying the gentleman's luggage from the coach to the hotel. It suffers teetotal picnic-parties to encamp amid its savage hollows, and it humbly allows itself to be painted by the worst artists. Like a lion in a menagerie, it is a survival of the extinct chaos entrapped and exhibited amid the smug parks and well-rolled downs of England.
I came upon it by a winding ledge of road, which clung to the bare side of the hill like the battlements of some huge castle. Some two hundred feet below, a brawling upland stream stood for the moat, and for the enemy there was on the opposite side of the valley a great green company of trees, settled like a cloud slope upon slope, making all haste to cross the river and ascend the heights where I stood. Some intrepid larches waved green pennons in the very midst of the turbulent water, here and there a veteran lay with his many-summered head abased in the rocky course of the stream, and here was a young foolhardy beech that had climbed within a dozen yards of the rampart. All was wild and solitary, and one might have declared it a scene untrodden by the foot of man, but for the telegraph posts and small piles of broken "macadam" at punctual intervals, and the ginger-beer bottles and paper bags of local confectioners that lent an air of civilisation to the road.
It was a place to quote Alastor in, and nothing but a bad memory prevented my affrighting the oaks and rills with declamation. As it was, I could only recall the lines
"The Poet wandering on, through Arabie And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste, And o'er the aerial mountains which pour down Indus and Oxus from their icy caves—"
and that other passage beginning
"At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore He paused—"
This last I mouthed, loving the taste of its thunder; mouthed thrice, as though it were an incantation,—and, indeed, from what immediately followed, it might reasonably have seemed so.
"At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore He paused—"
I mouthed for the fourth time. And lo! advancing to me eagerly along the causeway seemed the very sprite of Alastor himself! There was a star upon his forehead, and around his young face there glowed an aureole of gold and roses—to speak figuratively, for the star upon his brow was hope, and the gold and roses encircling his head, a miniature rainbow, were youth and health. His longish golden hair had no doubt its share in the effect, as likewise the soft yellow silk tie that fluttered like a flame in the speed of his going. His blue eyes were tragically fresh and clear,—as though they had as yet been little used. There were little wings of haste upon his feet, and he came straight to me, with the air of the Angel Gabriel about to make his divine announcement. For a moment I thought that he was an apparition of prophecy charged to announce the maiden of the Lord for whom I was seeking. However, his brief flushed question was not of these things. He desired first to ask the time of day, and next—here, after a bump to the earth, one's thoughts ballooned again heavenwards—"had I seen a green copy of Shelley lying anywhere along the road?"
Nothing so good had happened to me, I replied—but I believed that I had seen a copy of Alastor! For a moment my meaning was lost on him; then he flushed and smiled, thanked me and was off again, saying that he must find his Shelley, as he wouldn't lose it for the world!
He had presently disappeared as suddenly as he had come, but he had left me a companion, a radiant reverberant name; and for some little space the name of Shelley clashed silvery music among the hills.
Its seven letters seemed to hang right across the clouds like the Seven Stars, an apocalyptic constellation, a veritable sky sign; and again the name was an angel standing with a silver trumpet, and again it was a song. The heavens opened, and across the blue rift it hung in a glory of celestial fire, while from behind and above the clouds came a warbling as of innumerable larks.
How strange was this miracle of fame, I pondered, this strange apotheosis by which a mere private name becomes a public symbol! Shelley was once a private person whose name had no more universal meaning than my own, and so were Byron and Cromwell and Shakespeare; yet now their names are facts as stubborn as the Rocky Mountains, or the National Gallery, or the circulation of the blood. From their original inch or so of private handwriting they have spread and spread out across the world, and now whole generations of men find intellectual accommodation within them,—drinking fountains and other public institutions are erected upon them; yea, Carlyle has become a Chelsea swimming-bath, and "Highland Mary" is sold for whiskey, while Mr. Gladstone is to be met everywhere in the form of a bag.
Does Mr. Gladstone, I wonder, instruct his valet "to pack his Gladstone"? How strange it must seem! Try it yourself some day and its effect on your servant. Ask him, for example, to "pack your ——" and see how he'll stare.
Coming nearer and nearer to earth, I wondered if Colonel Boycott ever uses the word "boycott," and how strange it must have seemed to the late MacAdam to walk for miles and miles upon his own name, like a carpet spread out before him.
Then I once more rebounded heavenwards, at the vision of the eager dreamy lad whose question had set going all this odd clockwork of association. He wouldn't lose his Shelley for the world! How like twenty! And how many things that he wouldn't lose for the world will he have to give up before he is thirty, I reflected sententiously,—give up at last, maybe, with a stony indifference, as men on a sinking ship take no thought of the gold and specie in the hold.
And then, all of a sudden, a little way up the ferny grassy hillside, I caught sight of the end of a book half hidden among the ferns. I climbed up to it. Of course it was that very green Shelley which the young stranger wouldn't lose for the world.
WHY THE STRANGER WOULD NOT LOSE HIS SHELLEY FOR THE WORLD
Picking up the book, I opened it involuntarily at the titlepage, and then—I resisted a great temptation! I shut it again. A little flowery plot of girl's handwriting had caught my eye, and a girl's pretty name. When Love and Beauty meet, it is hard not to play the eavesdropper, and it was easy to guess that Love and Beauty met upon that page. St. Anthony had no harder fight with the ladies he was unpolite enough to call demons, than I in resisting the temptation to take another look at that pen-and-ink love making. Now, as I look back, I think it was sheer priggishness to resist so human and yet so reverent an impulse. There is nothing sacred from reverence, and love's lovers have a right to regard themselves as the confidants of lovers, whenever they may chance to surprise either them or their letters.
While I was still hesitating, and wondering how I could get the book conveyed to its romantic owner, suddenly a figure turned the corner of the road, and there was Alastor coming back again. I slipped the book, in distracted search for which he was evidently still engaged, under the ferns, and, leisurely lighting a pipe, prepared to tease him. He was presently within hail, and, looking up, caught sight of me.
"Have you found your Shelley yet?" I called down to him, as he stood a moment in the road.
He shook his head. No! But he meant to find it, if he had to hunt every square foot of the valley inch by inch.
Wouldn't any other book do, I asked him. Would he take a Boccaccio, or a "Golden Ass," or a "Tom Jones," in exchange?—for of such consisted my knapsack library. He laughed a negative, and it seemed a shame to tease him.
"It is not so much the book itself," he said.
"But the giver?" I suggested.
"Of course," he blushingly replied.
"Well, suppose I have found it?" I continued.
"You don't mean it—"
"But suppose I have—I'm only supposing—will you give me the pleasure of your company at dinner at the next inn and tell me its story?"
"Indeed I will, gladly," he replied.
"Well, then," I said, "catch, for here it is!"
The joy with which he recovered it was pretty to behold, and the eagerness with which he ran through the leaves, to see that the violets and the primroses and a spray of meadowsweet, young love's bookmarkers, were all in their right places, touched my heart.
He could not thank me enough; and as we stepped out to the inn, some three or four miles on the road, I elicited something of his story.
He was a clerk in a city office, he said, but his dreams were not commercial. His one dream was to be a great poet, or a great writer of some sort, and this was one of his holidays. As I looked at his sensitive young face, unmarred by pleasure and unscathed by sorrow, bathed daily, I surmised, in the may-dew of high philosophies—ah, so high! washed from within by a constant radiancy of pure thoughts, and from without by a constant basking in the shine of every beautiful and noble and tender thing,—I thought it not unlikely that he might fulfil his dream.
But, alas! as he talked on, with lighted face and chin in the air, how cruelly I realised how little I had fulfilled mine.
And how hard it was to talk to him, without crushing some flower of his fancy or casting doubt upon his dreams. Oh, the gulf between twenty and thirty! I had never quite comprehended it before. And how inexpressibly sad it was to hear him prattling on of the ideal life, of socialism, of Walt Whitman and what not,—all the dear old quackeries,—while I was already settling down comfortably to a conservative middle age. He had no hope that had not long been my despair, no aversion that I had not accepted among the more or less comfortable conditions of the universe. He was all for nature and liberty, whereas I had now come to realise the charm of the artificial, and the social value of constraint.
"Young man," I cried in my heart, "what shall I do to inherit Eternal Youth?"
The gulf between us was further revealed when, at length coming to our inn, we sat down to dinner. To me it seemed the most natural thing in the world to call for the wine-list and consult his choice of wine; but, will you believe me, he asked to be allowed to drink water! And when he quoted the dear old stock nonsense out of Thoreau about being able to get intoxicated on a glass of water, I could have laughed and cried at the same time.
"Happy Boy!" I cried, "still able to turn water into wine by the divine power of your youth"; and then, turning to the waiter, I ordered a bottle of No. 37.
"Wine is the only youth granted to middle age," I continued,—"in vino juventus, one might say; and may you, my dear young friend, long remain so proudly independent of that great Elixir—though I confess that I have met no few young men under thirty who have been excellent critics of the wine-list."
As the water warmed him, he began to expand into further confidence, and then he told me the story of his Shelley, if a story it can be called. For, of course, it was simple enough, and the reader has long since guessed that the reason why he wouldn't lose his Shelley for the world was the usual simple reason.
I listened to his rhapsodies of HER and HER and HER with an aching heart. How good it was to be young! No wonder men had so desperately sought the secret of Eternal Youth! Who would not be young for ever, for such dreams and such an appetite?
Here of course was the very heaven-sent confidant for such an enterprise as mine. I told him all about my whim, just for the pleasure of watching his face light up with youth's generous worship of all such fantastic nonsense. You should have seen his enthusiasm and heard all the things he said. Why, to encounter such a whimsical fellow as myself in this unimaginative age was like meeting a fairy prince, or coming unexpectedly upon Don Quixote attacking the windmill. I offered him the post of Sancho Panza; and indeed what would he not give, he said, to leave all and follow me! But then I reminded him that he had already found his Golden Girl.
"Of course, I forgot," he said, with I'm afraid something of a sigh. For you see he was barely twenty, and to have met your ideal so early in life is apt to rob the remainder of the journey of something of its zest.
I asked him to give me his idea of what the Blessed Maid should be, to which he replied, with a smile, that he could not do better than describe Her, which he did for the sixth time. It was, as I had foreseen, the picture of a Saint, a Goddess, a Dream, very lovely and pure and touching; but it was not a woman, and it was a woman I was in search of, with all her imperfections on her head. I suppose no boy of twenty really loves a WOMEN, but loves only his etherealised extract of woman, entirely free from earthy adulteration. I noticed the words "pure" and "natural" in constant use by my young friend. Some lines went through my head, but I forbore to quote them:—
Alas I your so called purity Is merely immaturity, And woman's nature plays its part Sincerely but in woman's art.
But I couldn't resist asking him, out of sheer waggery, whether he didn't think a touch of powder, and even, very judiciously applied, a touch of rouge, was an improvement to woman. His answer went to my heart.