( Originally Published 1900 )
ONE night in London, in the crowded latter end of June, a small number of us were sitting under the quiet stars, in a certain friend's charming garden, after a long evening of pleasure. There had been music and talk and laughter, into the small hours, in the great studio, from whose open windows a few of us had stepped forth, at the bidding of our host, into the coolness and fragrance of the night. We sat under the trees near a trickling fountain, whose liquid voice at first was the only one which filled the sweet night air ; but soon, through puffs of smoke, others joined in its babble. The talk drifted into that closer, more intimate form of conversation which midnight and summer in conjunction so often induce. It was an hour for confidences. Caught in this embrace of night, with London hushed and still, and only nature stirring in mysterious whispers, each of us in turn had been involuntarily betrayed into an avowal of his personal plans or desires. The talk, in a word, had come to have something of the charm and something also of the intimacy of the confessional. One had proclaimed his approaching nuptials ; another her forthcoming book, — almost as great a venture ; a third had expressed his secret desire to run away from life and hide himself behind the Rockies or under the shadow of the Pyramids; and still a fourth confessed to his having only recently signed a Mephistophelian bond to do that very thing, to go forth into the Great Desert and to bring back something of its desolation and its grandeur in verse.
Boston and I, having some years ago settled our mutual destiny, having no book in view and no tragic sense of unrest, could only add the comparatively tame and commonplace avowal of our modest purpose to run away from the world, but only so far as English lanes and by-paths. This announcement was the signal for a simultaneous attack, for an explosion of advice. If there isany one thing a friend thinks he can interfere with righteously, it is another man's plans, after they have all been settled and made.
"Of course you'll coach it," briskly said the nearest man, in a tone as if to settle the matter. " Go alone? Just two of you ! Absurd ! You'll die of ennui. Make up a party."
" Only, whoever you ask, don't make it a party of more than six, and don't take more than two ladies," — this from a deeper tone amid the shadows of the foliage.
" You are entirely right," cried a third, under one of the farther palms. "I never knew more than six to get through a trip without trouble. One can get along with two women, but more — "
Then a little laugh went round, which died into the trickle of the splashing fountain. Suddenly some one else puffed out a great volley of smoke, and began again.
" And don't take luggage. Send it on by train. It's a wretched nuisance, always slipping about, and it fags the horses."
" Why go in for England ? " broke in a new voice ; "it's beastly tame. The Tyrol 's the best driving, and you get at least a bit of drama in your scenery, —peasants in costume, and all that. England hasn't any scenery."
" It has cathedrals," I ventured to suggest.
" Oh ! cathedrals — well, so has France. Now, there's Normandy and Brittany. No one's done that yet on four wheels, and it's crammed full of architecture."
" Horrible waste of time, — England ! "
Whereupon Boston assured the little company, that, not being an Englishman, he found it impossible to agree with them ; that at least before condemning the country, he proposed to know something of its beauties and defects, and further courageously avowed our intention of " doing it" in a much humbler fashion than from the throne-like elevation of a coach. And would it be best to hire or buy our modest little trap ?
Whereupon there was a chorus of disapproving comments.
" Oh, you'll have to buy, out and out."
" Horse'll go lame, sure to, if you have only one."
"If you don't take a servant, who is to look out for you,—for your horse and your luggage ? Oh no, the thing isn't feasible. Coaching's the only safe or comfortable way. Now, I know a man— " And the voice went on, with admirable zeal and kindliness, to dilate on the advantages to be derived from an acquaintance with this latter individual.
But better even than this kindly meant zeal was an invitation from one of the older gentlemen to run down to his country-house in Kent on the coming Sunday, and talk the thing over quietly.
The subject was canvassed to such purpose that we ended by putting ourselves completely in our wise friend's hands. He decided that we were to depend on local traps, taking a horse and carriage from one town to another. The inns all along our proposed route, which was to include the southern cathedral towns, were admirable, and the roads were perfect. As for scenery, while lacking perhaps the wider horizons and the romantic character of the Northlands, Southern England was delightfully diversified along the coast by sea and land views, and the towns were charmingly picturesque. Altogether, our friend having travelled over his own country, knew it and loved it. He bade us God-speed with a smile prophetic of our coming enjoyment. We were to go by train from London to Arundel ; and thence, from that most beautiful of the Sussex towns, we were to start forth on our six weeks' driving-tour.
Inside of twenty-four hours we were on our way to the Sussex Downs.