Among the many places of magic visited by Pantagruel and his company during the progress of their famous voyage, few surpass that island whose roads did literally “go” to places — “ou les chemins cheminent, comme animaulx”: and would-be travellers, having inquired of the road as to its destination, and received satisfactory reply, “se guindans ”(as the old book hath it — hoisting themselves up on) “au chemin opportun, sans aultrement se poiner ou fatiguer, se trouvoyent au lieu destiné.”
The best example I know of an approach to this excellent sort of vitality in roads is the Ridgeway of the North Berkshire Downs. Join it at Streatley, the point where it crosses the Thames; at once it strikes you out and away from the habitable world in a splendid, purposeful manner, running along the highest ridge of the Downs a broad green ribbon of turf, with but a shade of difference from the neighbouring grass, yet distinct for all that. No villages nor homesteads tempt it aside or modify its course for a yard; should you lose the track where it is blent with the bordering turf or merged in and obliterated by criss-cross paths, you have only to walk straight on, taking heed of no alternative to right or left; and in a minute ‘tis with you again — arisen out of the earth as it were. Or, if still not quite assured, lift you your eyes, and there it runs over the brow of the fronting hill. Where a railway crosses it, it disappears indeed — hiding Alpheus-like, from the ignominy of rubble and brick-work; but a little way on it takes up the running again with the same quiet persistence. Out on that almost trackless expanse of billowy Downs such a track is in some sort humanly companionable: it really seems to lead you by the hand.
The “Rudge” is of course an exceptional instance; but indeed this pleasant personality in roads is not entirely fanciful. It exists as a characteristic of the old country road, evolved out of the primitive prehistoric track, developing according to the needs of the land it passes through and serves: with a language, accordingly, and a meaning of its own. Its special services are often told clearly enough; but much else too of the quiet story of the country-side: something of the old tale whereof you learn so little from the printed page. Each is instinct, perhaps, with a separate suggestion. Some are martial and historic, and by your side the hurrying feet of the dead raise a ghostly dust. The name of yon town — with its Roman or Saxon suffix to British root — hints at much. Many a strong man, wanting his vates sacer, passed silently to Hades for that suffix to obtain. The little rise up yonder on the Downs that breaks their straight green line against the sky showed another sight when the sea of battle surged and beat on its trampled sides; and the Roman, sore beset, may have gazed down this very road for relief, praying for night or the succouring legion. This child that swings on a gate and peeps at you from under her sun-bonnet — so may some girl-ancestress of hers have watched with beating heart the Wessex levies hurry along to clash with the heathen and break them on the down where the ash trees grew. And yonder, where the road swings round under gloomy overgrowth of drooping boughs — is that gleam of water or glitter of lurking spears?
Some sing you pastorals, fluting low in the hot sun between dusty hedges overlooked by contented cows; past farmsteads where man and beast, living in frank fellowship, learn pleasant and serviceable lessons each of the other; over the full-fed river, lipping the meadow-sweet, and thence on either side through leagues of hay. Or through bending corn they chant the mystical wonderful song of the reaper when the harvest is white to the sickle. But most of them, avoiding classification, keep each his several tender significance; as with one I know, not so far from town, which woos you from the valley by gentle ascent between nut-laden hedges, and ever by some touch of keen fragrance in the air, by some mystery of added softness under foot — ever a promise of something to come, unguessed, delighting. Till suddenly you are among the pines, their keen scent strikes you through and through, their needles carpet the ground, and in their swaying tops moans the unappeasable wind — sad, ceaseless, as the cry of a warped humanity. Some paces more, and the promise is fulfilled, the hints and whisperings become fruition: the ground breaks steeply away, and you look over a great inland sea of fields, homesteads, rolling woodland, and — bounding all, blent with the horizon, a greyness, a gleam — the English Channel. A road of promises, of hinted surprises, following each other with the inevitable sequence in a melody.
But we are now in another and stricter sense an island of chemins qui cheminent: dominated, indeed, by them. By these the traveller, veritably se guindans, may reach his destination “sans se poiner ou se fatiguer ”(with large qualifications); but sans very much else whereof he were none the worse. The gain seems so obvious that you forget to miss all that lay between the springing stride of the early start and the pleasant weariness of the end approached, when the limbs lag a little as the lights of your destination begin to glimmer through the dusk. All that lay between! “A Day’s Ride a Life’s Romance” was the excellent title of an unsuccessful book; and indeed the journey should march with the day, beginning and ending with its sun, to be the complete thing, the golden round, required of it. This makes that mind and body fare together, hand in hand, sharing the hope, the action, the fruition; finding equal sweetness in the languor of aching limbs at eve and in the first god-like intoxication of motion with braced muscle in the sun. For walk or ride take the mind over greater distances than a throbbing whirl with stiffening joints and cramped limbs through a dozen counties. Surely you seem to cover vaster spaces with Lavengro, footing it with gipsies or driving his tinker’s cart across lonely commons, than with many a globe-trotter or steam-yachtsman with diary or log? And even that dividing line — strictly marked and rarely overstepped — between the man who bicycles and the man who walks, is less due to a prudent regard for personal safety of the one part than to an essential difference in minds.
There is a certain supernal, a deific, state of mind which may indeed be experienced in a minor degree, by any one, in the siesta part of a Turkish bath. But this particular golden glow of the faculties is only felt at its fulness after severe and prolonged exertion in the open air. “A man ought to be seen by the gods,” says Marcus Aurelius, “neither dissatisfied with anything, nor complaining.” Though this does not sound at first hearing an excessive demand to make of humanity, yet the gods, I fancy, look long and often for such a sight in these unblest days of hurry. If ever seen at all, ‘tis when after many a mile in sun and wind — maybe rain — you reach at last, with the folding star, your destined rustic inn. There, in its homely, comfortable strangeness, after unnumbered chops with country ale, the hard facts of life begin to swim in a golden mist. You are isled from accustomed cares and worries — you are set in a peculiar nook of rest. Then old failures seem partial successes, then old loves come back in their fairest form, but this time with never a shadow of regret, then old jokes renew their youth and flavour. You ask nothing of the gods above, nothing of men below — not even their company. To-morrow you shall begin life again: shall write your book, make your fortune, do anything; meanwhile you sit, and the jolly world swings round, and you seem to hear it circle to the music of the spheres. What pipe was ever thus beatifying in effect? You are aching all over, and enjoying it; and the scent of the limes drifts in through the window. This is undoubtedly the best and greatest country in the world; and none but good fellows abide in it.
Laud we the Gods,
And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils
From our blest altars.
In these iron days of the dominance of steam, the crowning wrong that is wrought us of furnace and piston-rod lies in their annihilation of the steadfast mystery of the horizon, so that the imagination no longer begins to work at the point where vision ceases. In happier times, three hundred years ago, the seafarers from Bristol City looked out from the prows of their vessels in the grey of the morning, and wot not rightly whether the land they saw might be Jerusalem or Madagascar, or if it were not North and South America. “And there be certaine flitting islands,” says one, “which have been oftentimes seene, and when men approached near them they vanished.” “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,” said Ulysses (thinking of what Americans call the “getting-off place”); “it may be we shall touch the Happy Isles.” And so on, and so on; each with his special hope or “wild surmise.” There was always a chance of touching the Happy Isles. And in that first fair world whose men and manners we knew through story-books, before experience taught us far other, the Prince mounts his horse one fine morning, and rides all day, and sleeps in a forest; and next morning, lo! a new country: and he rides by fields and granges never visited before, through faces strange to him, to where an unknown King steps down to welcome the mysterious stranger. And he marries the Princess, and dwells content for many a year; till one day he thinks “I will look upon my father’s face again, though the leagues be long to my own land.” And he rides all day, and sleeps in a forest; and next morning he is made welcome at home, where his name has become a dim memory. Which is all as it should be; for, annihilate time and space as you may, a man’s stride remains the true standard of distance; an eternal and unalterable scale. The severe horizon, too, repels the thoughts as you gaze to the infinite considerations that lie about, within touch and hail; and the night cometh, when no man can work.
To all these natural bounds and limitations it is good to get back now and again, from a life assisted and smooth by artificialities. Where iron has superseded muscle, the kindly life-blood is apt to throb dull as the measured beat of the steam-engine. But the getting back to them is now a matter of effort, of set purpose, a stepping aside out of our ordinary course; they are no longer unsought influences towards the making of character. So perhaps the time of them has gone by, here in this second generation of steam. Pereunt et imputantur; they pass away, and are scored against not us but our guilty fathers. For ourselves, our peculiar slate is probably filling fast. The romance of the steam-engine is yet to be captured and expressed — not fully nor worthily, perhaps, until it too is a vanished regret; though Emerson for one will not have it so, and maintains and justifies its right to immediate recognition as poetic material. “For as it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to Nature and the whole — re-attaching even artificial things and violations of Nature to Nature by a deeper insight — disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts”; so that he looks upon “the factory village and the railway” and “sees them fall within the great Order not less than the bee-hive or the spider’s geometrical web.” The poet, however, seems hard to convince hereof. Emerson will have it that “Nature loves the gliding train of cars”; “instead of which” the poet still goes about the country singing purling brooks. Painters have been more flexible and liberal. Turner saw and did his best to seize the spirit of the thing, its kinship with the elements, and to blend furnace-glare and rush of iron with the storm-shower, the wind and the thwart-flashing sun-rays, and to make the whole a single expression of irresoluble force. And even in a certain work by another and a very different painter — though I willingly acquit Mr Frith of any deliberate romantic intention — you shall find the element of romance in the vestiges of the old order still lingering in the first transition period: the coach-shaped railway carriages with luggage piled and corded on top, the red-coated guard, the little engine tethered well ahead as if between traces. To those bred within sight of the sea, steamers will always partake in somewhat of the “beauty and mystery of the ships”; above all, if their happy childhood have lain among the gleaming lochs and sinuous firths of the Western Highlands, where, twice a week maybe, the strange visitant crept by headland and bay, a piece of the busy, mysterious outer world. For myself, I probably stand alone in owning to a sentimental weakness for the night-piercing whistle — judiciously remote, as some men love the skirl of the pipes. In the days when streets were less wearily familiar than now, or ever the golden cord was quite loosed that led back to relinquished fields and wider skies, I have lain awake on stifling summer nights, thinking of luckier friends by moor and stream, and listening for the whistles from certain railway stations, veritable “horns of Elf-land, faintly blowing.” Then, a ghostly passenger, I have taken my seat in a phantom train, and sped up, up, through the map, rehearsing the journey bit by bit: through the furnace-lit Midlands, and on till the grey glimmer of dawn showed stone walls in place of hedges, and masses looming up on either side; till the bright sun shone upon brown leaping streams and purple heather, and the clear, sharp northern air streamed in through the windows. Return, indeed, was bitter; Endymion-like, “my first touch of the earth went nigh to kill”: but it was only to hurry northwards again on the wings of imagination, from dust and heat to the dear mountain air. “We are only the children who might have been,” murmured Lamb’s dream babes to him; and for the sake of those dream-journeys, the journeys that might have been, I still hail with a certain affection the call of the engine in the night: even as I love sometimes to turn the enchanted pages of the railway a b c, and pass from one to the other name reminiscent or suggestive of joy and freedom, Devonian maybe, or savouring of Wessex, or bearing me away to some sequestered reach of the quiet Thames.
It will never be clear to the lay mind why the book-buyer buys books. That it is not to read them is certain: the closest inspection always fails to find him thus engaged. He will talk about them — all night if you let him — wave his hand to them, shake his fist at them, shed tears over them (in the small hours of the morning); but he will not read them. Yet it would be rash to infer that he buys his books without a remote intention of ever reading them. Most book lovers start with the honest resolution that some day they will “shut down on” this fatal practice. Then they purpose to themselves to enter into their charmed circle, and close the gates of Paradise behind them. Then will they read out of nothing but first editions; every day shall be a debauch in large paper and tall copies; and crushed morocco shall be familiar to their touch as buckram. Meanwhile, though, books continue to flaunt their venal charms; it would be cowardice to shun the fray. In fine, one buys and continues to buy; and the promised Sabbath never comes.
The process of the purchase is always much the same, therein resembling the familiar but inferior passion of love. There is the first sight of the Object, accompanied of a catching of the breath, a trembling in the limbs, loss of appetite, ungovernable desire, and a habit of melancholy in secret places. But once possessed, once toyed with amorously for an hour or two, the Object (as in the inferior passion aforesaid) takes its destined place on the shelf — where it stays. And this saith the scoffer, is all; but even he does not fail to remark with a certain awe that the owner goeth thereafter as one possessing a happy secret and radiating an inner glow. Moreover, he is insufferably conceited, and his conceit waxeth as his coat, now condemned to a fresh term of servitude, groweth shabbier. And shabby though his coat may be, yet will he never stoop to renew its pristine youth and gloss by the price of any book. No man — no human, masculine, natural man — ever sells a book. Men have been known in moments of thoughtlessness, or compelled by temporary necessity, to rob, to equivocate, to do murder, to commit what they should not, to “wince and relent and refrain” from what they should: these things, howbeit regrettable, are common to humanity, and may happen to any of us. But amateur bookselling is foul and unnatural; and it is noteworthy that our language, so capable of particularity, contains no distinctive name for the crime. Fortunately it is hardly known to exist: the face of the public being set against it as a flint — and the trade giving such wretched prices.