My Dear Sidney Colvin,
The journey which this little book is to describe was very agreeableand fortunate for me. After an uncouth beginning, I had the bestof luck to the end. But we are all travellers in what John Bunyancalls the wilderness of this world — all, too, travellers with adonkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, tofind them. They are the end and the reward of life. Theykeep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearerto the absent.
Every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friendsof him who writes it. They alone take his meaning; they find privatemessages, assurances of love, and expressions of gratitude, droppedfor them in every corner. The public is but a generous patronwho defrays the postage. Yet though the letter is directed toall, we have an old and kindly custom of addressing it on the outsideto one. Of what shall a man be proud, if he is not proud of hisfriends? And so, my dear Sidney Colvin, it is with pride thatI sign myself affectionately yours,
R. L. S.
Many are the mighty things, and nought is more mightythan man…. He masters by his devices the tenant of the fields.
Who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass?
In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valleyfifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. Monastier is notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedomof language, and for unparalleled political dissension. Thereare adherents of each of the four French parties — Legitimists,Orleanists, Imperialists, and Republicans — in this little mountain-town;and they all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other. Exceptfor business purposes, or to give each other the lie in a tavern brawl,they have laid aside even the civility of speech. ’Tis amere mountain Poland. In the midst of this Babylon I found myselfa rallying-point; every one was anxious to be kind and helpful to thestranger. This was not merely from the natural hospitality ofmountain people, nor even from the surprise with which I was regardedas a man living of his own free will in Le Monastier, when he mightjust as well have lived anywhere else in this big world; it arose agood deal from my projected excursion southward through the Cevennes. A traveller of my sort was a thing hitherto unheard of in that district. I was looked upon with contempt, like a man who should project a journeyto the moon, but yet with a respectful interest, like one setting forthfor the inclement Pole. All were ready to help in my preparations;a crowd of sympathisers supported me at the critical moment of a bargain;not a step was taken but was heralded by glasses round and celebratedby a dinner or a breakfast.
It was already hard upon October before I was ready to set forth,and at the high altitudes over which my road lay there was no Indiansummer to be looked for. I was determined, if not to camp out,at least to have the means of camping out in my possession; for thereis nothing more harassing to an easy mind than the necessity of reachingshelter by dusk, and the hospitality of a village inn is not alwaysto be reckoned sure by those who trudge on foot. A tent, aboveall for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesometo strike again; and even on the march it forms a conspicuous featurein your baggage. A sleeping-sack, on the other hand, is alwaysready — you have only to get into it; it serves a double purpose — abed by night, a portmanteau by day; and it does not advertise your intentionof camping out to every curious passer-by. This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place; you becomea public character; the convivial rustic visits your bedside after anearly supper; and you must sleep with one eye open, and be up beforethe day. I decided on a sleeping-sack; and after repeated visitsto Le Puy, and a deal of high living for myself and my advisers, a sleeping-sackwas designed, constructed, and triumphantly brought home.
This child of my invention was nearly six feet square, exclusiveof two triangular flaps to serve as a pillow by night and as the topand bottom of the sack by day. I call it ‘the sack,’but it was never a sack by more than courtesy: only a sort of long rollor sausage, green waterproof cart-cloth without and blue sheep’sfur within. It was commodious as a valise, warm and dry for abed. There was luxurious turning room for one; and at a pinchthe thing might serve for two. I could bury myself in it up tothe neck; for my head I trusted to a fur cap, with a hood to fold downover my ears and a band to pass under my nose like a respirator; andin case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet,with my waterproof coat, three stones, and a bent branch.
It will readily be conceived that I could not carry this huge packageon my own, merely human, shoulders. It remained to choose a beastof burden. Now, a horse is a fine lady among animals, flighty,timid, delicate in eating, of tender health; he is too valuable andtoo restive to be left alone, so that you are chained to your bruteas to a fellow galley-slave; a dangerous road puts him out of his wits;in short, he’s an uncertain and exacting ally, and adds thirty-foldto the troubles of the voyager. What I required was somethingcheap and small and hardy, and of a stolid and peaceful temper; andall these requisites pointed to a donkey.
There dwelt an old man in Monastier, of rather unsound intellectaccording to some, much followed by street-boys, and known to fame asFather Adam. Father Adam had a cart, and to draw the cart a diminutiveshe-ass, not much bigger than a dog, the colour of a mouse, with a kindlyeye and a determined under-jaw. There was something neat and high-bred,a quakerish elegance, about the rogue that hit my fancy on the spot. Our first interview was in Monastier market-place. To prove hergood temper, one child after another was set upon her back to ride,and one after another went head over heels into the air; until a wantof confidence began to reign in youthful bosoms, and the experimentwas discontinued from a dearth of subjects. I was already backedby a deputation of my friends; but as if this were not enough, all thebuyers and sellers came round and helped me in the bargain; and theass and I and Father Adam were the centre of a hubbub for near halfan hour. At length she passed into my service for the considerationof sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy. The sack had alreadycost eighty francs and two glasses of beer; so that Modestine, as Iinstantly baptized her, was upon all accounts the cheaper article. Indeed, that was as it should be; for she was only an appurtenance ofmy mattress, or self-acting bedstead on four castors.
I had a last interview with Father Adam in a billiard-room at thewitching hour of dawn, when I administered the brandy. He professedhimself greatly touched by the separation, and declared he had oftenbought white bread for the donkey when he had been content with blackbread for himself; but this, according to the best authorities, musthave been a flight of fancy. He had a name in the village forbrutally misusing the ass; yet it is certain that he shed a tear, andthe tear made a clean mark down one cheek.
By the advice of a fallacious local saddler, a leather pad was madefor me with rings to fasten on my bundle; and I thoughtfully completedmy kit and arranged my toilette. By way of armoury and utensils,I took a revolver, a little spirit-lamp and pan, a lantern and somehalfpenny candles, a jack-knife and a large leather flask. Themain cargo consisted of two entire changes of warm clothing — besidesmy travelling wear of country velveteen, pilot-coat, and knitted spencer — somebooks, and my railway-rug, which, being also in the form of a bag, mademe a double castle for cold nights. The permanent larder was representedby cakes of chocolate and tins of Bologna sausage. All this, exceptwhat I carried about my person, was easily stowed into the sheepskinbag; and by good fortune I threw in my empty knapsack, rather for convenienceof carriage than from any thought that I should want it on my journey. For more immediate needs I took a leg of cold mutton, a bottle of Beaujolais,an empty bottle to carry milk, an egg-beater, and a considerable quantityof black bread and white, like Father Adam, for myself and donkey, onlyin my scheme of things the destinations were reversed.