Slindon And Bognor
( Originally Published 1900 )
THE exact distance between the giving of ad-vice and the possibility of following it has never, I think, been properly measured. I presume one of the reasons why the experienced only ask counsel in order to reject it is because they have tested the truth of the axiom that everything goes by contraries in this world.
How simple a matter, for instance, had it seemed to our charming friend in Kent, to say, with persuasive zeal and the assurance born of inexperience,
" The best and easiest way is for you to depend on the local traps. There will thus be no responsibility, no going lame, and you will have no worn-out beast on your hands."
How could a man, whose own stables were always full, know anything of " local traps," indeed, except from the optimist's point of view, regarding them chiefly in the light of the roadster's facile conquest, as vehicles both easy and pleasant to pass on the road ? But the driver and owner of the " local trap " naturally takes a much more serious attitude. Mankind, from his point of view, is divided into two classes, — the men who own horses, and those who don't. The latter are to be numbered among the dangerous elements of society. The logical inference deduced from the theory of the inherent total depravity of men not owning horse-flesh is so conclusive as to be irrefutable. The man who does not own a horse will quite naturally wish to hire one. He who hires, secretly hopes to steal. Every man therefore has in him the instincts of the horse-thief ; hence ceaseless watchfulness is necessary on the part of the horse-owner. This is one of those cases in which it behooves every man to be his own vigilance committee, policeman, detective, judge, and executioner. Civilization has done much, but in the matter of horse-thieving the world may be said to be still in the dark ages.
Such were the conclusions forced upon us by our brief but vigorous attack on the hostlers and stable-owners of Arundel.
Boston returned from two or three interviews with the livery-men in town with the discouraging announcement that none of them would trust him with a horse and carriage. " We never lets hout traps without drivers, sir," he reported as having been the universal but equally firm answer to his request for a trap without one. The unanimity of the response, he admitted, had alone prevented its wearing the front of a personal reflection.
Here was a difficulty no one had foreseen, yet it was one which threatened the very life and pleasure of our little trip.
Take a driver ! Why not take the train and have done with it ? With a driver, how could we be sure of having the tamest of adventures, — of losing our way, for instance, or of asking it of the people we met along the road, and hearing, instead, of the crops or the voting? Besides, the driver would do all the talking. He always does. (Both of us had secretly sworn to have a monopoly of that privilege.) A driver, in fact, represented everything from which we had fled, — the common-place, the conventional, the world, the flesh, and — that fiend called discord, that hated third in a duet of harmony.
As we were standing confronting the owner of a pony and wagonette in the open square, — one who really gave signs of distress at not being able to oblige us, but who was as firm as he was apologetically civil, — an inspiration dawned on me.
" You, of course, or your man must go as far as Chichester by train to bring home the carriage. You shall take our trunks on with you, and that will be sufficient guarantee that we have no intention of running away with your horse and trap, will it not ? "
The man laughingly confessed that it would. But before entirely committing himself, he consulted with half the town, who had come from the bridge to watch the proceedings. The town had evidently formed an estimate of our character,—to our advantage.
In less than an hour the trap stood at hand within the inn courtyard. Our luggage, a few seconds later, was comfortably packed in the rumble, and we were off. The town idlers were still on watch, as if conscious of having vouched for our honesty, and not entirely willing to lose sight of us. In view of the distribution of a few discriminating shillings, they relented their watchfulness, and melted a little later into the adjacent side-streets.
Our route lay first along the river, up into the hills at the back of the castle, then down again into the valley to Slindon, and thence toward the sea to Bognor. In all, the distance was not more than fifteen miles, and we had before us a perfect August afternoon.
After a half-hour's drive along the charming little Arun's banks, we turned with reluctance into the cool shade and greenness of the hillside road. Who ever likes to leave a river ? A river in a landscape is its pulse, its arterial throb of life, the nearest approach to that ceaseless law of motion which informs man's own body with vitality. A landscape, however glorious, without a flowing river, always seems a bit of nature morte, — a kind of still-life nature, with no real life in its veins ; it is a headless, heartless bit of creation, with no stir of pulseful energy which makes it a part of the active living forces of the universe. When a river has the order of attraction which this buoyant, coursing, turbulent little stream of Arun possessed, darting like a silver flame into the Down valleys, or leaping with the audacity of a full-fledged river into the very bosom of the ocean, it is little won-der that we stopped again and again before we parted irrevocably with its changeful aspects, its flowery banks, its castle-crowned heights, and its tall hillsides.
The instinctive reluctance with which a man exchanges even one delight for another, be it ever so lovely, argues well, I think, for the inherent constancy of human nature.
After a steep climb along the crest of a long but beautiful hillside, from which there was an en-chanting series of delightful views, we came to an iron gate. Our pony came to an iron stand-still. Neither whipping nor coaxing proved of any avail. She was a sturdy little beast, — a " wee brute, sur, but strong, strong in the legs," her owner had said at parting, when I had expressed a doubt as to her capacity for speed under the heavy load she was to carry. The " wee brute " was strong in something else besides her legs. She evidently belonged among the strong-minded of her sex. That fine decision of character possessed by the owners of horse-flesh in Arundel appeared, by some occult means, to have been communicated to the horses as well.
"Perhaps she is used to the feminine spur," I said, as Boston laid aside the whip in despair. I took the reins, and administered that form of encouragement to the bit familiarly known as " nagging." But on this self-willed little creature this usually most effective method produced no more satisfactory result than on occasions the same system has when applied to the most perverse of men.
" She has such an air of being right, it almost seems as if we must be in the wrong," I argued at last. " Suppose this gate does lead somewhere,—where we ought to be going ?"
" The gate was not in our list of directions," Boston replied.
" But since we are in search of adventures, why not see where it will lead us ? " And we did. It led us into the prettiest bit of road we had yet seen in Arundel. The road was through the upper, remoter regions of the park known as the Deer Park. This particular portion of the vast estate lay at a distance from the castle. It was a great open, formed of a series of short hills, covered with thickets and noble trees and long stretches of grazing-ground. Herds of deer, hundreds in number, stood grouped under the trees, or, startled by our voices, bounded over the grass.
Distant as were these glades and silent bits of wood from the garden loveliness of the grounds immediately about the castle, the impression which the aspect of the landscape produced was unmistakably that of its being a great nobleman's park. There was visible none of that rank and lawless wildness and disorder one sees in our own great untrimmed, untressed fields and forests. There was about us the most penetrating solitude, but there was no touch of desolation in the loneliness. There could be no sadness where on every field and bush the evidences were so obvious of man's persistent efforts. Nature, in this remote and unfrequented region, had been carefully pencilled into beauty during the long centuries. The grass was still a lawn, although the castle was a mile or two away. It was, in other words, a king's possession, where even uninhabited and disused lands were kept as trim as a garden, lest by chance the monarch's eye should light upon it, and discover it en déshabille.
The deer were the only unconscious, entirely natural element about us. These delicate creatures preserve, even in captivity, their instinct of isolation and independence. Their solitude they consider is to be respected. There were hundreds of the slim, beautiful creatures, carrying aloft their coronal of branching horns, entirely at home in the companionship of the great trees and the solitude of the wind-swept Downs.
Leaving the Duke's park was only to pass from one nobleman's estate to another. Our road to Slindon took us past a procession of great gate-ways and stone-built porters' lodges. Now and then we caught a glimpse of a Queen Anne gabled façade or a broad low Georgian mansion. So jealously does the Englishman guard his privacy, that we had to content ourselves for the most part with glimpses, through the high hedge-rows, of the lawns and the flower-beds. Nature in England has been fashioned into a mask, behind which English reserve can conceal its features. When the convent wall was pulled down, the hedge-row replaced it. The latter is quite as high, and on the whole even more impenetrable.
At last, however, we were up on the hills, with neither hedge-row nor escutcheoned gateway to bar Nature out. The turf beneath our feet was as soft as velvet. It had, we found, on trying it, — a particularly fine and open hillside having tempted us to prolong the beauty of the view by walking,—that delightful quality of elasticity peculiar to English grass. It was both soft and firm beneath the foot. In our faces such an air was blowing over the hills as only winds that pass over a hill-country ever yield. These Down breezes have a particularly high reputation for softness. But they were blowing that afternoon as if they wanted to prove to two aboriginal Americans accustomed to the brutality of transatlantic winds, — winds that stab and sting and bite, — what a really well-behaved English wind could do when it had a mind to show off its paces. It even caressed us a little, as if in pity for the beatings we had to take at home.
Who is not cheered by being petted a little ? Under the soft, caressing touch of that tender-hearted summer breeze we walked on and on. The more we walked, the better we liked it.
Nature is a coy creature. She is as hopeless a plebeian as she is difficult of approach. She insists on equality as the first essential of a true friend-ship with her. The walker, therefore, has a better chance than any one else of being, so to speak, on a footing of intimacy with her. She resents being looked down upon, from even so humble an eminence as the box-seat of a wagonette. For our pains she let us into several delightful little secrets that afternoon. She bade us stop and listen to the stillness, if one can listen to a thing which is not. How still it was ! — so still that some sheep grazing two fields away made the only sound there was. We could hear their soft nibbling, and even the 'noiseless movement of their feet against the grass. A bell, a few moments later, deep-throated and richly sonorous, pealed out a chime or two at some far distance, coming up the valley from Slindon probably. The vibrations in the air made the daisies sway anew, — tiny bells ringing in unison. The tasselled tops of the oaks above our heads made a rustle in the air that had something feminine about it. It was like the flutter of a woman's silken gown.
A brisk trot of two miles or more brought the roofs of Slindon within sight.
At Slindon we had been promised the spectacle of a model English village, with a model specimen of a Saxon-Norman church.
Slindon was even better than its promise. It was an ideal little village. It was the most beautiful collection of thatched houses, vine-covered, garden-enclosed, and dimity-curtained, we saw any-where in England. The houses were so perfect, we suspected them of being on show for purely decorative purposes rather than designed for human habitations.
" Slindon may be a rustic, but she is also a con-summate coquette," exclaimed Boston.
The thatched houses had indeed taken on end-less airs of refinement and knowing ways of adornment. The roofs were of just the right color, a warm gray turning to silver, — the color of all others to go with pink and white. The houses were built of brick, and then stuccoed a dazzling white. They had a complexion to make the eyes blink. But what with the rose-vines, the creepers, and the clematis, their white faces were as jealously guarded as a beauty's tender skin. Of pink there was abundance. Every tiny diamond pane was filled with roses and rose-geraniums, their petals all the pinker for being enclosed between spotless bits of white curtains.
Each little cottage stood, besides, in the midst of a blooming garden, a rose within a rose. What with the honeysuckle, the azaleas, the great Eastern lilies, the rose-vines, and the window-pots, the air was thick and luscious with the fragrance and perfume. Nothing at once more flowery, dainty, softly brilliant, and yet charmingly and harmoniously rustic, could be imagined than these two streets running at right angles up a hillside, which made all there was of the perfect little village of Slindon.
" If this be England, and I had been a Pilgrim Father, I don't think I should have troubled myself to move," exclaimed Boston, as he let the reins fall on the pony's motionless haunches.
"I doubt if even before they moved, the Pilgrim Fathers had a pronounced taste for gardening." Then we both laughed a little ; for instinctively we contrasted the bleak, bold, barren New England farmhouse, its slovenly vegetation, and its hideous color, with this collection before us of ideal little cottages and thatched huts, all as daintily robed as a maiden in spring. Indeed, what did become of the Englishman's instinct for beauty when he trans-planted himself across the seas ? Was it the biting frost of Puritanism that killed his native taste? Or is it that even in two centuries the struggle to subdue a great continent to his needs and necessities has not yet given him time to set out the little garden in which he can take his ease ? Together with the taste for gardening which the Pilgrim Father left behind him, we noticed other qualities which this little village possessed, it might have been wise to have exported, — its air of content, for one thing, thrift and a kind of mild-eyed prosperity seeming to look out of the window at us as we passed. This appearance of well-being may have had some indirect relation to the fact that the cattle seemed sleeker and the sheep fatter in the adjacent fields than we had noticed on the uplands.
The church we found to be less entirely satisfactory. It had certainly once been Saxon, and later on, Norman. There were two round-headed little windows a Norman would have scorned to build, and an early Norman doorway in the porch which the later early-English architects would have pronounced equally inelegant. But the entire little edifice wore a thoroughly modern and recently renovated appearance ; so that it was no surprise to come upon the disenchanting and familiar date 1866, to attest the fact of its nineteenth-century rebuilding.
As we turned from the village towards the plain, there was a meeting of four roads.
" Which road to the Royal Oaks ? " Boston asked, in. his dilemma, of a slim rustic who was leaning against a gate, with his eyes glued upon us as he feasted his curiosity.
" Straight ahead, sur, till yer come ter the mill, and then there 's sign-posts," the boy had answered, and readily enough ; but he remained motionless.
"He is n't genuine. A true rustic would have pointed," I said.
For his " straight ahead" left us bewildered as before. There were three " straight aheads." However, we plunged recklessly into the straight-est. We were rewarded by soon seeing the four great white arms of the mill waving unblushingly in the sunlight. Beneath them the sign-post, with less manners but better judgment than our rustic, pointed the direction of our destination.
For several miles now our road lay through the plains, — flat, fruitful lowlands towards the sea. There was a succession of pretty hamlets and of numberless detached farmhouses, but no sign of human life, except the farmers who were busy in the fields carting or pitching hay. The huge hay-ricks, cone-shaped and green, were the only rivals, in these flat fields, of the hills beyond, now hazy in the dimness of distance.
We were in Bognor before we knew it. The fields led us directly into rows of neat, tidy little houses, and clean, well-swept streets.
A man in knickerbockers with a tennis racket, and a lady wearing a thin white muslin gown and a thick fur cape, announced to us that the season at Bognor had already begun.
Other signs of its activity greeted us as we proceeded on our way. Tennis was being played, with a zeal that made it appear to be a serious battle rather than a harmless contest about balls, in every square inch of green large enough to hold a court. The familiar London sign, " Apartments to let," hung above the tiny, dazzlingly clean doors of the little houses. The number of these signs was conclusive proof that Bognor's season was not as yet at its height. So frequent were these modest appeals to the unlodged, as to prepare us for the comparative quiet we found brooding over the little town.
At its best, however, Bognor could never, I think, have been anything but a dull little town. It was so decorous, so painfully clean, so oppressively self-conscious a prude, that dulness must have been as much a part of its being as were its demure little airs of conventional propriety. What has the sea to do with conventionality ? Its merest ripplet is Nature's indignant protest against too clean and well-swept a beach. Here there was no beach at all. Instead there was a brick sea-wall, which kept the sea at a proper offish distance. The waves broke a hundred yards out, as an English sea should do when it is to serve as the tame and tepid bath for an Englishman's wife and children.
The houses that fronted the water might have been London houses, suburban London ; there was no holiday air pervading them. There was nothing even of the flowery, pretty picturesqueness which had charmed us in some of the country inns and taverns we had passed along our road. These dull-brown and brick façades were the epitome of British decorum. Even when off on a holiday, it appears that the Englishman feels he must build him a prison in which he can lock himself in and others out.
" The Englishman can't throw off his social straight-jacket even when he puts on his bathing-suit," I said in a fit of disgust to Boston. "Have you noticed the bath-houses ? The notices on the doors are little chapters of autobiography."
" They are of a piece with all the rest," was Boston's answer. On the doors of several of the little houses were signs in large printed letters of " Elizabeth Primrose, aged fifty, bather from Teignmouth, where she had been bather for over thirty-five years."
" Even one's bath-woman must have a pedigree ! " we said, and then we laughed.
But we were the only laughers. No one else was gay. Holidaying at the seaside, it appears, is a serious amusement over here, to be enjoyed in a measured spirit of conscientious dulness. Even the children, who with their governesses were gravely walking along the sea-wall, were evidently much too well brought up to look upon the sea in the light of a playfellow. Other promenaders there were whose expression was familiar ; it was the look we had grown to know in London, in the Row, — that of being bored according to the most correct methods of a well-bred ennui. A few very upright young ladies were sitting, alone or in . pairs, under huge white parasols, on the little iron benches. They were looking out at the sea, staring at it as if they expected, if there was to be any conversation, the ocean would begin it. The only talking there was, was being done by several stately old ladies in bath-chairs. They were each accompanied by their upright handsome husbands, — or such we took them to be, from their air of indifference to the ladies' chatter and from their general appearance of command. Why is it that in England it is only the woman who grows old hideously ? These fine old gentlemen were pictures of blooming old age, with their pink cheeks, white hair, and well-knit, erect, and graceful figures. It appears that one must cross the Channel to find the secret which woman holds there of growing old both wittily and handsomely.
It was with but little regret that we passed out of the long, stiff, straight little streets, noting, as we passed, the fact of how cheerfully many of the houses gave up half their façade to the great business of proclaiming their names. Where else except in a land of cockneys would a residence twelve by ten be dignified by a name, ostentatiously paraded, suitable only for a palatial dwelling ? "The Elms," the "Albert Villa," the " Richmond Mansion," — such were the pretentious signs painted in great flaring letters over every other house-door which we passed. For a modest people the English break out into astonishing vagaries of vanity.
It was a relief to turn away from the stiff, vain little town into the country road once more. It was a flat road. But there was no monotony in its flatness. Arms and branchlets of the sea swept up into the fields and meadows, making bright pools of light. In the air there was a delicious mingling of salty vigor and sweet earthy smells, and it was the loveliest, tenderest hour of the day. The work of the day for man and beast, and for the sun as well, was done. All three were going to their evening rest. Men with rakes over their shoulders were following wagons so plenteously laden with hay that they generously left tithes along the roadside for stray sheep. A boy with a sickle over his straight young back walked near us, whistling a gay little air. The sickle was repeated in silver in the sky, the dawning crescent of the young moon cleaving the eastern horizon. Cows in groups were moving slowly, in calm contentment with the day's bounty. Earth and sky, under the dying light, were changing from the gold of sunset to the violets and deeper purples of twilight ; it was the feet of coming Night pressing out the rich wine of color from the fruitful land.
But the gift of sensibility to the beauties of nature had not been given to all three of our party ; to our pony the charms of twilight proved no substitute for a good supper. The Chichester Cathedral spire, which had guided us inland with its tapering spiral beauty, appeared to grow no nearer for all our frequent use of the whip. Another hour of whipping, of desperate spurts of energy on the part of the worn and weary pony, of manifold losing of our way amid the tortuous streets of Chichester, which was a far larger city than we had expected to find, and behold us rattling within the brick courtyard of " The Bird and the Swallow."