The Drive To Wells - An Enchanted Night
( Originally Published 1900 )
THE brake worked like a charm. It worked so well that we began to feel as if we had personally invented it. We experienced something of that joy which comes to a successful patentee. Ballard trotted merrily down the steepest hills ; or rather, the merry trotting began after he had discovered the brake. At first, as a horse of en-lightened intelligence, he received the evidences of its working-power with fine incredulity. At the top of the first hill he promptly reined himself in. In any other horse this self-assertive action might have been termed balking ; but Ballad was too sensitive to outside influences to be classed among true balkers. A few caressive supplications, and he was induced to make a venture downwards. Then behold his amazement ! — half of the weight of the carriage lifted and the vehicle held back. grappled as if by a hand of iron ! He was as free from the load behind him now as if he had been on an independent flying expedition. Only the miracle, alas ! was so far behind, so altogether hopelessly in his rear, that there was no chance of his ever being able to investigate it with satisfactory thoroughness. He had no choice but to walk, or rather to run, by faith. In view of our latter-day scepticism, it was beautiful to see how admirably a blind acceptance of hidden laws may work.
To get away from Bath was almost as serious a matter, in the amount of hill-climbing to be done, as it had been to reach the low-lying city. Just how deep is the valley in which the city rests, and how steep and high are the surrounding hills, can only be justly estimated by those who drive or by the pedestrian. As usual, we had not gone far before we found ourselves belonging to the latter class of journeyers. The brake, Ballad had been quick to discover, did not help him any the more in going up the long hills. He therefore speedily gave us to understand that a closer companionship, one which brought us nearer to his heart and head, would be more to his taste.
On this occasion we had determined to try a little rebellion on our part. Only recently, just out of Longleat, we had stumbled on a way of making the slow up-hill half-hours delightful. In rummaging in one of the bags for a remote and secretive pocket-flask, on our way to Frome, we had stumbled on a pocket edition of Shakspeare instead.
" Give it to me. It is a gift from the gods. Now we have something for the up-hill work. I can read a play as we walk along, — something we both know fairly well ; then we 'll drop it at the top, when the trotting begins, and begin again at the next long hill. What a find ! " I had exclaimed.
The plan had worked as only a charm can. No more tedious dull moments, when the scenes in the landscape dragged, or the sun was too ardent a lover, or the wind too miserly to blow, or the hour just one short of starvation. Here were balm, contentment, and inspiration for the dull entr'actes.
On how many hill-tops had we not left a brace of those immortal lovers, whose woes and whose tearful joys are a part of our own intenser experiences ! Viola, gay Rosalind and her Orlando, Egypt's dark enchantress and dooméd Anthony, or Romeo and Juliet, breasting their stormy sea of love, — such was the wondrous company we have conjured up as fellow-travellers. Even when the book was laid aside, thrust in between the two carriage cushions, in readiness to be pulled out at the next ascent, it was still the echo of that melodious passion and the rhythm of that ecstatic verse that filled the trees and was wafted towards us on the light summer air. This reading of Shakspeare amid the scenes and the land that he loved so well, whose fair and finished charms seem to fill the airy atmosphere of his work as do the violet skies of Greece each line of Homer, made the great English bard and his glorious company of immortal heroes new and strangely realizable. As the eyes of the spectators at Athens could sweep past the stage out to the Piraeus, to the sea that Sophocles made his heroes apostrophize, so here the great framework was still left, — that gay and smiling background on which has figured so many a tearful comedy, so many a tender tragedy. How many forests of Arden had we not passed! Over the velvet of Longleat or under the silvery Arundel foliage, surely it must have been over such turf that tripped Titania's fantastic court. Nor do all the dramatis personae seem dead, living only in these glowing pages. Each rustic we met seemed to have in him the making of a boor or a clown. Dogberrys and Shallows we were quite certain we had seen again and again at the wayside inns and at tavern doors.
May not this, perhaps, be taken as the highest test of genius,—that it shall so transfix, on an imperishable canvas of truth, the types truest to its time and country that the portraiture shall re-main forever an immortal picture of the land and the people ? That genius which has not so painted the life about him as to make it forever true, so that so long as the, people endure as a race or a nation the world shall know the people through the work and the work through the people, has not, I think, touched the apogee of human greatness in creative power.
Ballad, being merely a horse of talent, quite naturally could see nothing in genius except that it was very much in his way. (If Ballad had been a man and an author, he would have belonged to the modern American school of realists ; he hated things he could not understand.) He soon developed very decided objections to Shakspeare. Whenever he saw that small green book come out of its hiding-place he knew his most formidable rival was about to take possession of us. He proceeded to put into practice a series of deep strategic manoeuvres. He began by suddenly developing a fancy for running up the hills. He slackened his speed, it is true, as he neared the crest, but not long enough for the hated rival to be drawn forth.
On this particular occasion chance and the loose morality that governs the inanimate world came to his rescue. " Cymbeline," the play we had nearly finished before entering Bath, had gone astray.
" Have you looked in the Amusement Bag ? " I asked of Boston, as he continued an unrewarded search through the various hand-pieces. The bags, early in the trip, we found were cryingly in need of being christened. There were five. Each one more or less resembled its fellow in size and complexion. They came, the end, quite naturally to take the name of their contents. There was the Amusement Bag, full of the books, papers, maps, and one small and as yet untouched pack of playing-cards. There were also the Medicine Chest ; the Upholstery Department, with the toilet and night-gear; the Restaurant, which ministered of temporary physical wants ; and the Wine cellar.
In no one of these over-full receptacles had. " Cymbeline " hidden itself. Ballad, therefore, had his way with us. We cheerily took to the hills.
With every upward step the prospect broadened. To look over the land was to overlook a great sea of hills. In the valleys nestled the farms and the villages ; on the hill-tops bristled a tall spire here and there, a quivering spear flashing in the sun-light. The crests of the hills were, however, for the most part unbroken surfaces of woodland or tilled meadows, so that the rhythm of their harmonious elevations was unspoiled.
The whole glorious prospect was splendidly lighted by an August sun, — a late afternoon sun.
Experience had taught us that it was greatly to our advantage to make engagements with twilight effects. To start somewhat late in the afternoon, that we might have the sunset, the long twilight hour, and later on clear moonlight, — if the lunar gentleman could be counted upon to appear, — this was the ideal driving time. Wells was at just the right distance from Bath to make this arrangement feasible.
We had started only a little after three by the Grand Pump Room's stately clock, yet here of the hills, an hour and a half later, the shadows were already lengthening.
During the days of our town life, whilst we had been gaping at shop-windows, Nature, we found, had gone on steadily perfecting her summer tasks. At the end of five short days great changes had come upon the landscape. The grain-fields, which we had left still green and only timidly yellowing, were now quite brazenly golden. The wheat had even had time to turn coquette. She was so yellow a blond she could dare to wear poppies in her hair. The trees also looked fuller and more mature, as if to prove that even in five short days a good deal may be learned in the arts of symmetry and proportion. Their trunks looked uncommonly rich and brown, as the sun, dipping westward, sent broad, strong beams of light through the woods.
There had been a good stretch of fairly level road. Soon we came to a village. It was none too soon. The timepiece of our vigorous appetites had begun to set the hour of ravenous hunger. We stopped at the first little tavern, which happened also to be the only one in the straggling village. We decided to rest for an hour, that Ballad's supper and our own might have a peaceful digestion.
The Restaurant had been plenteously filled before leaving Bath. We had no mind to trust ourselves to the problematical casualties of roadside-tavern fare. We proceeded at once to make an improvised dining-table of the box-seat of the carriage. A clean napkin gave our feast the appearance of a fashionable repast on race-day. Ham and chicken sandwiches with some crisp leaves of lettuce between, some of the famous Bath buns and the pastry puffs for which the city is noted, topped off with some foaming glasses of beer, — a delicate compliment to the tavern-keeper's vintage, although our own Wine Cellar boasted some Château Yqueur of a classic date, — made a tempting and wholesome meal.
We did not long enjoy our feast alone. At the end of five minutes most of the village were present. When we arrived the village had been as dead as only an inland rural village can be. The opening of our lunch-basket was the signal for its brisk awakening. By the time we had spread the napkin the entire village — to a man and the latest suckling infant — was presence.
Not being royalty, eating thus conspicuously in public might easily have proved embarrassing ; but the evident enjoyment of the on-lookers took off all edge of discomfort. It was a lesson in the uses of levées and of their effect on the masses. No lover watching his mistress's rosy lips sipping golden Tokay could have evinced a more vivacious delight in dainty food than did our cordon of rustics. When we broke into the crumbling feathery pastry every countenance expressed pleased approval. As we drained the beer-mugs there was an audible smacking of lips. Naturally such delicate compliments to our supper deserved their reward. When we had packed the Restaurant we had not expected to feed a village; but never did a few Bath buns and tarts prove the disputed facts in a certain great miracle to be incontestably true.
Even the infants partook. A sweet, shy-eyed woman had come out of the tavern door. She held in her arms a young babe. Her appearance was the signal for several wandering babies, old enough to toddle, to gather about her skirts, that they light with more safety direct their greedy asking little glances upward. Two Bath buns made the happiest family ever seen out of a show. The mother's portion was shared by the infant.
" Are all these children yours ? " I asked as she stood smiling in their midst.
She blushed a vivid crimson as she looked shyly askance at the row of curly heads about her knees. "Yes, mum, please, mum ; " and she dropped a courtesy. " There 's five of 'em, mum, I do believe," — as if counting them were an altogether novel experience. Then, emboldened, she came nearer, and took courage to look me full in the face. It was delightful to look down into her eyes, — the shy, soft, maternal eyes. " You see, mum, it 's a long family, mum, and they came so fast I don't remember rightly. There 's Willie, now, he 's the oldest ; he 's off mostly to the vicarage, — he sings in the choir and does chores. But won't you be feeling tired, mum, an' come in and take a seat ?"
" Thank you so very much, but we are going off presently."
" You have come a long ways, maybe, — from different parts," she still continued, as if she felt, now that the ice was broken, that talking to a stranger was after all not so terrifying an undertaking The other bystanders looked at her in undisguised admiration. Perhaps they had not suspected lier hidden talent for dialogue.
" Oh yes," I answered her, to encourage so brave a venture ; " we have come a long distance, — from London and from across the seas, — from New York."
" Yes ; I said from different parts," she replied, not to be put down with any such overwhelming distances. They evidently conveyed no meaning to her mind. Her eye did not lighten ; there was only an obstinate tightening of the facial muscles. Her geographical limits were bounded by the hills ; but she was a woman, and was outwardly not to be put in the wrong. It was very evident, however, that we had improved our position as adventurous travellers with the male members of the group. They all gathered closer, and began to take an interest in Ballad and the trap.
At the outskirts of the village, as we drove off, there stood a lovely vicarage. It had the straight parapet and the mullioned Tudor casements, with the diamond-leaded glass of the period, to proclaim its three centuries of antiquity. The moss and the ivy had had so many years to weave their mantle of green over the door-lintels and the rain-stained façade that they had ended by clothing the entire establishment. A boy's voice through the shrubbery rang out clear and sweet. It was a snatch of some old glee, with quaint old-time changes in it.
" It is the choir-boy, Boston, doing a song as he tidies up the barn. How pure his voice is, and how true ! It has the ring of a skylark. And how the song fits into the scene, does n't it ? It is .like a madrigal to that Lady of Light."
For the west was aflame. A great glory of light filled the western horizon, spreading in fainter tints up to the very zenith. The landscape lay beneath, calm, peaceful, serene, as only an English landscape lies under a tinted sky, its velvet cheek scarcely a shade deeper in tone. The sun meanwhile was rolling up his day-canvas. The scene was being set for moonlight effects. According to the most approved modern devices for stage-shifting one scene was melting imperceptibly into the next. The sun, being an older and very experienced hand, was making a series of pictures of each point of transition. We had had a blue earth and a blue sky, a paler daffodil firmament, and a darker, greener landscape ; and now there was that rich light in the west, and in the east a pale yellow moon. For one brief moment the two chief actors in the scene faced each other. The sun gave his rival a long, luminous, splendid stare ; then he dropped behind his breastwork of hills. Slowly the moon mounted to take serene possession of the night ; slowly the color faded out of the west ; slowly the earth took on her sombre evening garments ; slowly the woods thickened into darkness, the bluish greens in the meadows turning into warm browns and blackened purples. Then, as the moon rose higher in the rich, dusky summer sky, the breasts of the hills whitened to silvery grayness, the plains became a lake of misty light, and earth and sky seemed floating in a wondrous illumined halo.
For several hours we lived in this silver world. We were still toiling up the Mendip Hills, and our road took us into the fairy upper fields of light. The moonlight streamed into the depths of the forests, making the far distances as bright as day. Above us the hills towered, their heights white with light ; while the nearer hollows were as dark and deep as wells.
Then quite suddenly the descent began. The road now was as broad as a wide boulevard. It wound in beautiful, sinuous coils about the mountain-side. As we looked down into the valleys below, we saw a fantastically lighted, half-obscured landscape. The mountain-sides were swathed in mist, — a gauzy veil that coiled its light tissues about the jagged rocks. At a turn in the road, the yawning abysses were exchanged for brilliant, clearly cut bits of woodland scenery, as frankly revealing themselves as meadows at high noon. We were in the midst of all the stillness and the mystery peculiar to high altitudes. The noises of the night were hushed. In this enchanted region not even a fairy was astir.
Finally, like stars shining through a misty sky, the distant lights of Wells pierced the illumined gauze that covered the valleys. As we neared the town, there was no break in the enchanted spell of beauty. Still the moon shone clear in high heaven ; still the trees were clothed in light as in a heavenly garment ; still our broad roadway was a path of shining silver. It led us into the damp and misty valley, where the wandering night" air was fragrant with perfume ; it led us past the suburban garden and the whitened villas, and finally it ceased and became a little narrow cobble-paved street.
And this was Wells.