England - Avoiding Stonehenge
( Originally Published 1900 )
The silence of Salisbury plain — Stonehenge for sale ! — Amesbury : Guinivere, john Gay, Sir Edmund Antrobus — An incompetent inn — Pewsey.
WHEN you leave the road and go delicately upon the velvet of the grassy wilderness, following the track of waggonette wheels over the turf, it is surprising how soon the solitude takes hold of you. A few yards back and you were talking with your kind, but already you feel as if you have been alone for a week — which, I imagine, is about as long as any natural human being out of his Byronic teens can support solitude. Nothing but grass and sky, and the cracked tinkle of sheep-bells. Yes, here and there a clump of lonely pines, and even a farmhouse strangely set in the waste. But a farmhouse without a sign of life, not a face at the windows, not, a sound in the yard. It is as though the great surrounding silence has strangled this interruption in its midst. If one went up the garden path and opened the house door, I am sure one would find its inmates sitting with finger on lip, pillars of enchanted silence. The silence of Salisbury Plain has washed over them, and drowned the living speech in their throats. All who live long with nature become more or less Trappists in time, and Salisbury Plain insists as much upon silence, as if it were the British Museum Reading Room.
For something over a mile the ground has been gradually rising. Presently, to right and left of the track, tumuli begin to hump the skyline, like backs of whales in the green sea of down ; and, if you have been to Stonehenge before, you know that very soon, directly over the mounting track, the architrave of the tallest " trilithon " there seems to be no other word —yet a mile distant, will solemnly rise against the sky. I watched for this moment with a curious suspense. Why, I cannot at all say — except that the effect is perhaps uniquely solemn. Those who have seen it for themselves will understand—unless, indeed, they went with a party. For society of any sort, except perhaps that of one very near and quiet friend, is fatal to such moments either at Stonehenge or elsewhere. Parties always beget the funny man — out of sheer cowardice. I don't mean the heaven-born droll with real comic gifts, but the funny man spontaneously generated of the occasion, probably the most serious member of the party turned buffoon from a nervous sense of social inadequacy. Waggonette parties are the bane of Stonehenge. To avoid them you must be up with the dawn, or you must wait for the evening shadows. Unfortunately, I had stumbled upon the early afternoon, and long before I reached the stones I could see that they were ringed with a cordon of waggonettes and flecked with the light foam of summer blouses. No ! I could n't see Stonehenge so ; and, therefore, I turned off just short of them, and took the steep white hill to Amesbury, once Guinivere's shelter from the wrath of Arthur, later the retreat of Gay, now the home of Sir Edmund Antrobus — who bids fair to divide the honours of iconoclasm with the Reverend Francis Gastrell, with whom I do not forget that on a previous page I acknowledged some sympathy. Gastrell, it will be remembered, razed Shakespeare's New Place to the ground because he was so pestered with pious callers. He might, one thinks, have quietly changed his residence instead, as, indeed, the proper indignation of Stratford summarily compelled him to do. Yet the truth remains that those pious callers must have proved a terrible burden, and to lease a house in the hope of a quiet life only to find that, involuntarily, one has become a hard-working custodian, expected to submit to all interruptions of domestic felicity with a smile, and to answer every stupid enquiry with eagerness, must have been a severe trial to human patience. But the honour, says some one, of living in the house where the very air seems yet to thrill with the sublime echo of immortal words ! Ah, well, Francis Gastrell did n't see the matter in that sentimental excursionist light. Perhaps, for all we know, he was longing for a quiet hour in which to study that very " bard " in whose house mistakenly enough he had made his home. Indeed, it is just possible that he had begun with sentiment too, and thought : " How charming it would be to study Hamlet' in the very house where it was written? " (for Shakespearean chronology had not advanced very far in his day)—who knows ? Then the irony of realising that he could n't find a moment to read Shakespeare — from the very fact of his living in Shakespeare's house ! The frenzy induced by this curious paradox of circumstance may well account for, though it cannot excuse, the mad act which has made his name an execration — wherever it is known.
But Sir Edmund Antrobus is not so provokingly circumstanced. He does not live in Stonehenge. His one hardship, it would appear, is to have been born to a national distinction without having been given the necessary taste to appreciate it. This is a hardship common to many of the nobility, for which insufficient sympathy has been shown. I venture to claim sympathy with a young aristocrat who wishes to convert antiquity into racehorses. In his familiar conversation Sir Edmund Antrobus probably alludes to Stonehenge with much ennui of manner. Really, it does n't interest him. He does n't know what the devil it is all about. But he does know that there may be money in it. Mysteriously enough it is an object of national sentiment, and for national sentiment a nation is usually prepared to pay. Strange as it may seem, that absurd group of weather beaten stones is worth something like its weight in gold. One has only to threaten the Government with a rich American, and the price might be raised indefinitely.
That there are some possessions that put their possessors peculiarly upon their honour, which, received by an accident of birth from dead hands that have understood reverently to guard them, to be passed on faithfully to a reverent future, are held less in absolute right than in trust for a whole people, nay, a whole world ; that it is better to face comparative indigence than to break one's faith with the past and the future in such a trust ; that one's poor little name and one's poor little life are really magnified for a moment by this fantastic possession : such considerations as these seem never to have occurred to the present possessor of Stonehenge.
As for that awful American, whom popular fancy seems to picture as a gigantic eagle circling round the sacred stones, and threatening to carry them across the Atlantic at the sound of an auctioneer's hammer, personally I have too much respect for the American amateur greatly to fear him in this matter. The American has too true a sentiment for English monuments which he rightly regards as his own, to contemplate such a desecration of one of those places of pilgrimage where his due feet never fail on his English visits. Average American sentiment and taste in these matters is, to say the least, quite the equal of ours ; and, apart from any question of desecration, the American would be dull indeed who did not see that to remove Stonehenge would be the absolute destruction of it, however carefully the stones were numbered, or placed after their original position. The moment the stones are disturbed their virtue has gone out of them. There is nothing in the antiquity of the stone itself to invite a purchaser. Stone as old can be hewn in any quarry. It is, of course, in its setting, its historical, or rather prehistorical, entourage, that the significance of Stonehenge lies. Only when an American can pick up England out of the water and set her down entire, say, in Lake Michigan, will he gain any satisfaction in having brought Stonehenge to America. Meanwhile, the American who would transplant that stone flower would find it wither in his hand. Let the case of Temple Bar be a warning to any such impossible purchaser of Stonehenge. It is true that the stones were numbered " and that the whole thing looks like Temple Bar, but does any one really feel that it is Temple Bar any longer ? For all its sense of antiquity it might as well be in Madame Tussaud's.
I had hoped that at Amesbury there might still remain some stones of the cloister where Guinivere and Arthur saw each other for the last time, as one pictures them from Tennyson's striking, but almost inhuman, idyll, or as, in some respects, one may prefer to picture them in the swift lightning flash in which a young poet of our own day has caught the gestures of their agony.
I had too a picture in my mind of the Princess Mary, daughter of Edward I., retiring into the same cloister, " carrying with her a train of thirteen noble young ladies," a picture, I will confess, derived from that fascinating book, " Kelly's Di-rectory " —in which, seriously speaking, the historical sketches of each town and village are admirably done. You can never be quite dull in an inn which sub-scribes to " Kelly's Directory."
Here again one had to reckon with Sir Edmund Antrobus — for "Amesbury Abbey " is the name of his seat, though, according to village information, nothing of the old abbey remains. The chief show-object of the place seemed to be "The Diamond Lawn " at Amesbury Abbey, in a "cave" in the centre of which Gay is said to have written "The Beggar's Opera," while on a visit to the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. As I care little for diamonds, and perhaps less for Gay, I made no attempt to see " the Diamond Lawn." It is curious to note that those poets, namely, our poets of the eighteenth century, who had least of the sacred fire, loved most to affect the divine fury, and to surround themselves with the picturesque paraphernalia of inspiration. Gay with this " cave " of his, Shenstone, with his " grottoes," naturally belonged to an age which built sham ruins in its gardens, and affected the stucco academe. No age has taken more pains to seem " poetical " and been in reality so prosaic ; and such stucco monuments of its sham romanticism as survive deject one like the rain-ruined " bowers" of its old pleasure gardens. Can one imagine anything more sillily sad than the frivolous debris of Vauxhall ? Thus there was nothing to detain one in Amesbury, though actually I found myself chafingly detained at a slovenly inn where it took half-an-hour to make a cup of tea, and where no one seemed to know anything you asked. It is remarkable how bad or good management make themselves subtly felt the moment you enter an inn. The brisk atmosphere of competence seems to brace and gladden you on the very threshold, and you are aware no less soon of the sluggardly management, with its stale, unaired, undusted rooms, and its draggle-tail attendance.
I wished to know the way to Pewsey. Though, as I afterwards found, a sign-post at the village end made it as clear as a road could be, no one in the inn seemed ever to have heard of such a place. They referred me to the saddler opposite, a large, intelligent-looking man, who seemed to be the village encyclopedia. I could see that he knew a good many other things worth knowing besides the way to Pewsey, but that was the only portion of his knowledge of which I was able to avail myself at the moment. Next time I am passing I propose calling in to make further acquaintance with that wise head.
Pewsey is one of those places in which one is interested solely on account of some other place beyond them. So we are all once or twice in our lives interested in Clapham Junction, or Rugby, or Crewe.
It is difficult to think of any one making a permanent home in places which we associate with wildly procured refreshments. One might as well live in a signal-box. To loom so large in railway guides, yet to mean so little to the human heart ; a pandemonium of porters, a mere clearing-house of humanity ! It is a contumelious dignity, an aldermanic knighthood.
Pewsey, of course, is only a very minor Crewe. Probably no one has ever thought of it before as a form of Clapham Junction. It is probably only I who so think of a remote village, remote from the shunting of engines and the visible scream of electric signals, where the brain of man is peacefully grass-grown, and his heart is wisely content with the contentments of old time. To me only, I say, it was a junction — a conjunction, no passionate verb of power like Winchester, no immortal past participle like Stratford-on-Avon. It was to lead me to Avebury in Wiltshire. That was its one and only significance. Yet, so strange are the vagaries of human destiny, that who knows but some day Pewsey may suddenly become for me the very centre of the universe, the capital of dreams. A face at a window, a voice from heaven, and how differently I had written of Pewsey. Or, some day a letter may come with the Pewsey post-mark that shall change the whole course of my life. Who knows !