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HILLS AND THE SEA
BY H. BELLOC
METHUEN & CO. LTD. 36 ESSEX STREET W.C. LONDON
* * * * *
TO THE OTHER MAN
MR PHILIP KERSHAW
_There were once two men. They were men of might and breeding. They were
young, they were intolerant, they were hale. Were there for humans as
there is for dogs a tribunal to determine excellence; were there judges
of anthropoidal points and juries to, give prizes for manly race,
vigour, and the rest, undoubtedly these two men would have gained the
gold and the pewter medals. They were men absolute._
_They loved each other like brothers, yet they quarrelled like
Socialists. They loved each other because they had in common the bond of
mankind; they quarrelled because they differed upon nearly all other
things. The one was of the Faith, the other most certainly was not. The
one sang loudly, the other sweetly. The one was stronger, the other more
cunning. The one rode horses with a long stirrup, the other with a
short. The one was indifferent to danger, the other forced himself at
it. The one could write verse, the other was quite incapable thereof.
The one could read and quote Theocritus, the other read and quoted
himself alone. The high gods had given to one judgment, to the other
valour; but to both that measure of misfortune which is their Gift to
those whom they cherish._
_From this last proceeded in them both a great knowledge of truth and a
defence of it, to the tedium of their friends: a demotion to the beauty
of women and of this world; an outspoken hatred of certain things and
men, and, alas! a permanent sadness also. All these things the gods
gave them in the day when the decision was taken upon Olympus that these
two men should not profit by any great good except Friendship, and that
all their lives through Necessity should jerk her bit between their
teeth, and even at moments goad their honour._
_The high gods, which are names only to the multitude, visited these
men. Dionysus came to them with all his company once, at dawn, upon the
Surrey hills, and drove them in his car from a suburb whose name I
forget right out into the Weald. Pallas Athene taught them by word of
mouth, and the Cytherean was their rosy, warm, unfailing friend. Apollo
loved them. He bestowed upon them, under his own hand the power not only
of remembering all songs, but even of composing light airs of their own;
and Pan, who is hairy by nature and a lurking fellow afraid of others,
was reconciled to their easy comradeship, and would accompany them into
the mountains when they were remote from mankind. Upon these occasions
he revealed to them the life of trees and the spirits that haunt the
cataracts, so that they heard voices calling where no one else had ever
heard them, and that they saw stones turned into animals and men._
_Many things came to them in common. Once in the Hills, a thousand miles
from home, when they had not seen men for a very long time, Dalua
touched them with his wing, and they went mad for the space of thirty
hours. It was by a stream in a profound gorge at evening and under a
fretful moon. The next morning they lustrated themselves with water, and
immediately they were healed._
_At another time they took a rotten old leaky boat they were poor and
could afford no other--they took, I say, a rotten old leaky boat whose
tiller was loose and whose sails mouldy, and whose blocks were jammed
and creaking, and whose rigging frayed, and they boldly set out together
into the great North Sea._
_It blew a capful, it blew half a gale, it blew a gale: little they
cared, these sons of Ares, these cousins of the broad daylight! There
mere no men on earth save these two who would not have got her under a
trysail and a rag of a storm-jib with fifteen reefs and another: not so
the heroes. Not a stitch would they take in. They carried all her
canvas, and cried out to the north-east wind: "We know her better than
you! She'll carry away before she capsizes, and she'll burst long before
she'll carry away." So they ran before it largely till the bows were
pressed right under, and it was no human poser that saved the gybe. They
went tearing and foaming before it, singing a Saga as befitted the place
and time. For it was their habit to sing in every place its proper
song--in Italy a Ritornella, in Spain a Segeduilla, in Provence a
Pastourou, in Sussex a Glee, but an the great North Sea a Saga. And they
rolled at last into Orford Haven on the very tiptop of the highest tide
that ever has run since the Noachic Deluge; and even so, as they crossed
the bar they heard the grating of the keel. That night they sacrificed
oysters to Poseidon._
_And when they slept the Sea Lady, the silver-footed one, came up
through the waves and kissed them in their sleep; for she had seen no
such men since Achilles. Then she went back through the waves with all
her Nereids around her to where her throne is, beside her old father in
the depths of the sea._
_In their errantry they did great good. It was they that rescued
Andromeda, though she lied, as a woman will, and gave the praise to her
lover. It was they, also, who slew the Tarasque on his second
appearance, when he came in a thunderstorm across the broad bridge of
Beaucaire, all scaled in crimson and gold, forty foot long and twenty
foot high, galloping like an angry dog and belching forth flames and
smoke. They also hunted down the Bactrian Bear, who had claws like the
horns of a cow, and of whom it is written in the Sacred Books of the
_A Bear out of Bactria came,
And he wandered all over the world,
And his eyes were aglint and aflame,
And the tip of his caudal was curled._
_Oh! they hunted him down and they cut him up, and they cured one of his
hams and ate it, thereby acquiring something of his mighty spirit....
And they it was who caught the great Devil of Dax and tied him up and
swinged him with an ash-plant till he swore that he would haunt the
woods no more._
_And here it is that you ask me for their names. Their names! Their
names? Why, they gave themselves a hundred names: now this, now that,
but always names of power. Thus upon that great march of theirs from
Gascony into Navarre, one, on the crest of the mountains, cut himself a
huge staff and cried loudly:_
_"My name is URSUS, and this is my staff DREADNOUGHT: let the people in
the Valley be afraid!"_
_Whereat the other cut himself a yet huger staff, and cried out in a yet
_"My name is TAURUS, and this is my staff CRACK-SKULL: let them tremble
who live in the Dales!"_
_And when they had said this they strode shouting down the
mountain-side and conquered the town of Elizondo, where they are
worshipped as gods to this day. Their names? They gave themselves a
_"Well, well," you say to me then, "no matter about the names: what are
names? The men themselves concern me!... Tell me," you go on, "tell me
where I am to find them in the flesh, and converse with them. I am in
haste to see them with my own eyes."_
_It is useless to ask. They are dead. They will never again be heard
upon the heaths at morning singing their happy songs: they will never
more drink with their peers in the deep ingle-nooks of home. They are
perished. They have disappeared. Alas! The valiant fellows!_
_But lest some list of their proud deeds and notable excursions should
be lost on earth, and turn perhaps into legend, or what is worse, fade
away unrecorded, this book has been got together; in which will be found
now a sight they saw together, and now a sight one saw by himself, and
now a sight seen only by the other. As also certain thoughts and
admirations which the second or the first enjoyed, or both together: and
indeed many other towns, seas, places, mountains, rivers, and
men--whatever could be crammed between the covers._
_And there is an end of it._
* * * * *
Many of these pages have appeared in the "Speaker,"
the "Pilot," the "Morning Post," the "Daily News."
the "Pall Mall Magazine," the "Evening Standard,"
the "Morning Leader," and the "Westminster Gazette."
* * * * *
THE NORTH SEA
It was on or about a Tuesday (I speak without boasting) that my
companion and I crept in by darkness to the unpleasant harbour of
Lowestoft. And I say "unpleasant" because, however charming for the
large Colonial yacht, it is the very devil for the little English craft
that tries to lie there. Great boats are moored in the Southern Basin,
each with two head ropes to a buoy, so that the front of them makes a
kind of entanglement such as is used to defend the front of a position
in warfare. Through this entanglement you are told to creep as best you
can, and if you cannot (who could?) a man comes off in a boat and moors
you, not head and stern, but, as it were, criss-cross, or slant-ways, so
that you are really foul of the next berth alongside, and that in our
case was a little steamer.
Then when you protest that there may be a collision at midnight, the man
in the boat says merrily, "Oh, the wind will keep you off," as though
winds never changed or dropped.
I should like to see moorings done that way, at Cowes, say, or in
Southampton Water. I should like to see a lot of craft laid head and
tail to the wind with a yard between each, and, when Lord Isaacs
protested, I should like to hear the harbour man say in a distant voice,
"_Sic volo, sic jubeo_" (a classical quotation misquoted, as in the
South-country way), "the wind never changes here."
Such as it was, there it was, and trusting in the wind and God's
providence we lay criss-cross in Lowestoft South Basin. The Great Bear
shuffled round the pole and streaks of wispy clouds lay out in heaven.
The next morning there was a jolly great breeze from the East, and my
companion said, "Let us put out to sea." But before I go further, let me
explain to you and to the whole world what vast courage and meaning
underlay these simple words. In what were we to put to sea?
This little boat was but twenty-five feet over all. She had lived since
1864 in inland waters, mousing about rivers, and lying comfortably in
mudbanks. She had a sprit seventeen foot outboard, and I appeal to the
Trinity Brothers to explain what that means; a sprit dangerous and
horrible where there are waves; a sprit that will catch every sea and
wet the foot of your jib in the best of weathers; a sprit that weighs
down already overweighted bows and buries them with every plunge. _Quid
dicam?_ A Sprit of Erebus. And why had the boat such a sprit? Because
her mast was so far aft, her forefoot so deep and narrow, her helm so
insufficient, that but for this gigantic sprit she would never come
round, and even as it was she hung in stays and had to have her weather
jib-sheet hauled in for about five minutes before she would come round.
So much for the sprit.
This is not all, nor nearly all. She had about six inches of free-board.
She did not rise at the bows: not she! Her mast was dependent upon a
forestay (spliced) and was not stepped, but worked in a tabernacle. She
was a hundred and two years old. Her counter was all but awash. Her
helm--I will describe her helm. It waggled back and forth without effect
unless you jerked it suddenly over. Then it "bit," as it were, into the
rudder post, and she just felt it--but only just--the ronyon!
She did not reef as you and I do by sane reefing points, but in a
gimcrack fashion with a long lace, so that it took half an hour to take
in sail. She had not a jib and foresail, but just one big headsail as
high as the peak, and if one wanted to shorten sail after the enormous
labour of reefing the mainsail (which no man could do alone) one had to
change jibs forward and put up a storm sail--under which (by the way)
she was harder to put round than ever.
Did she leak? No, I think not. It is a pious opinion. I think she was
tight under the composition, but above that and between wind and water
she positively showed daylight. She was a basket. Glory be to God that
such a boat should swim at all!
But she drew little water? The devil she did! There was a legend in the
yard where she was built that she drew five feet four, but on a close
examination of her (on the third time she was wrecked), I calculated
with my companion that she drew little if anything under six feet. All
this I say knowing well that I shall soon put her up for sale; but that
is neither here nor there. I shall not divulge her name.
So we put to sea, intending to run to Harwich. There was a strong flood
down the coast, and the wind was to the north of north-east. But the
wind was with the tide--to that you owe the lives of the two men and the
lection of this delightful story; for had the tide been against the wind
and the water steep and mutinous, you would never have seen either of us
again: indeed we should have trembled out of sight for ever.
The wind was with the tide, and in a following lump of a sea, without
combers and with a rising glass, we valorously set out, and, missing the
South Pier by four inches, we occupied the deep.
For one short half-hour things went more or less well. I noted a white
horse or two to windward, but my companion said it was only the sea
breaking over the outer sands. She plunged a lot, but I flattered myself
she was carrying Caesar, and thought it no great harm. We had started
without food, meaning to cook a breakfast when we were well outside: but
men's plans are on the knees of the gods. The god called AEolus, that
blows from the north-east of the world (you may see him on old maps--it
is a pity they don't put him on the modern), said to his friends: "I see
a little boat. It is long since I sank one"; and altogether they gave
chase, like Imperialists, to destroy what was infinitely weak.
I looked to windward and saw the sea tumbling, and a great number of
white waves. My heart was still so high that I gave them the names of
the waves in the eighteenth _Iliad_: The long-haired wave, the graceful
wave, the wave that breaks on an island a long way off, the sandy wave,
the wave before us, the wave that brings good tidings. But they were in
no mood for poetry. They began to be great, angry, roaring waves, like
the chiefs of charging clans, and though I tried to keep up my courage
with an excellent song by Mr. Newbolt, "Slung between the round shot in
Nombre Dios Bay," I soon found it useless, and pinned my soul to the
tiller. Every sea following caught my helm and battered it. I hung on
like a stout gentleman, and prayed to the seven gods of the land. My
companion said things were no worse than when we started. God forgive
him the courageous lie. The wind and the sea rose.
It was about opposite Southwold that the danger became intolerable, and
that I thought it could only end one way. Which way? The way out, my
honest Jingoes, which you are more afraid of than of anything else in
the world. We ran before it; we were already over-canvased, and she
buried her nose every time, so that I feared I should next be cold in
the water, seeing England from the top of a wave. Every time she rose
the jib let out a hundredweight of sea-water; the sprit buckled and
cracked, and I looked at the splice in the forestay to see if it yet
held. I looked a thousand times, and a thousand times the honest splice
that I had poked together in a pleasant shelter under Bungay Woods (in
the old times of peace, before ever the sons of the Achaians came to the
land) stood the strain. The sea roared over the fore-peak, and gurgled
out of the scuppers, and still we held on. Till (AEolus blowing much more
loudly, and, what you may think a lie, singing through the rigging,
though we were before the wind) opposite Aldeburgh I thought she could
not bear it any more.
I turned to my companion and said: "Let us drive her for the shore and
have done with it; she cannot live in this. We will jump when she
touches." But he, having a chest of oak, and being bound three times
with brass, said: "Drive her through it. _It is not often we have such a
fair-wind_." With these words he went below; I hung on for Orfordness.
The people on the strand at Aldeburgh saw us. An old man desired to put
out in a boat to our aid. He danced with fear. The scene still stands in
their hollow minds.
As Orfordness came near, the seas that had hitherto followed like giants
in battle now took to a mad scrimmage. They leapt pyramidically, they
heaved up horribly under her; she hardly obeyed her helm, and even in
that gale her canvas flapped in the troughs. Then in despair I prayed to
the boat itself (since nothing else could hear me), "Oh, Boat," for so I
was taught the vocative, "bear me safe round this corner, and I will
scatter wine over your decks." She heard me and rounded the point, and
so terrified was I that (believe me if you will) I had not even the soul
to remember how ridiculous and laughable it was that sailors should call
this Cape of Storms "the Onion."
Once round it, for some reason I will not explain, but that I believe
connected with my prayer, the sea grew tolerable. It still came on to
the land (we could sail with the wind starboard), and the wind blew
harder yet; but we ran before it more easily, because the water was less
steep. We were racing down the long drear shingle bank of Oxford, past
what they call "the life-boat house" on the chart (there is no life-boat
there, nor ever was), past the look-out of the coastguard, till we saw
white water breaking on the bar of the Alde.
Then I said to my companion, "There are, I know, two mouths to this
harbour, a northern and a southern; which shall we take?" But he said,
"Take the nearest."
I then, reciting my firm beliefs and remembering my religion, ran for
the white water. Before I knew well that she was round, the sea was
yellow like a pond, the waves no longer heaved, but raced and broke as
they do upon a beach. One greener, kindly and roaring, a messenger of
the gale grown friendly after its play with us, took us up on its crest
and ran us into the deep and calm beyond the bar, but as we crossed, the
gravel ground beneath our keel. So the boat made harbour. Then, without
hesitation, she cast herself upon the mud, and I, sitting at the tiller,
my companion ashore, and pushing at her inordinate sprit, but both
revelling in safety, we gave thanks and praise. That night we scattered
her decks with wine as I had promised, and lay easy in deep water
But which of you who talk so loudly about the island race and the
command of the sea have had such a day? I say to you all it does not
make one boastful, but fills one with humility and right vision. Go out
some day and run before it in a gale. You will talk less and think more;
I dislike the memory of your faces. I have written for your correction.
Read less, good people, and sail more; and, above all, leave us in
The other day as I was taking my pleasure along a river called "The
River of Gold," from which one can faintly see the enormous mountains
which shut off Spain from Europe, as I walked, I say, along the Mail, or
ordered and planted quay of the town, I heard, a long way off, a man
singing. His singing was of that very deep and vibrating kind which
Gascons take for natural singing, and which makes one think of hollow
metal and of well-tuned bells, for it sounds through the air in waves;
the further it is the more it booms, and it occupies the whole place in
which it rises. There is no other singing like it in the world. He was
too far off for any words to be heard, and I confess I was too occupied
in listening to the sound of the music to turn round at first and notice
who it was that sang; but as he gradually approached between the houses
towards the river upon that happy summer morning, I left the sight of
the houses, and myself sauntered nearer to him to learn more about him
and his song.
I saw a man of fifty or thereabouts, not a mountaineer, but a man of the
plains--tall and square, large and full of travel. His face was brown
like chestnut wood, his eyes were grey but ardent; his brows were
fierce, strong, and of the colour of shining metal, half-way between
iron and silver. He bore himself as though he were still well able to
wrestle with younger men in the fairs, and his step, though extremely
slow (for he was intent upon his song), was determined as it was
deliberate. I came yet nearer and saw that he carried a few pots and
pans and also a kind of kit in a bag: in his right hand was a long and
polished staff of ashwood, shod with iron; and still as he went he
sang. The song now rose nearer me and more loud, and at last I could
distinguish the words, which, were, in English, these:
"Men that cook in copper know well how difficult is the cleaning of
copper. All cooking is a double labour unless the copper is properly
This couplet rhymed well in the tongue he used, which was not Languedoc
nor even Bearnais, but ordinary French of the north, well chosen,
rhythmical, and sure. When he had sung this couplet once, glancing, as
he sang it, nobly upwards to the left and the right at the people in
their houses, he paused a little, set down his kit and his pots and his
pans, and leant upon his stick to rest. A man in white clothes with a
white square cap on his head ran out of a neighbouring door and gave him
a saucepan, which he accepted with a solemn salute, and then, as though
invigorated by such good fortune, he lifted his burdens again and made a
dignified progress of some few steps forward, nearer to the place in
which I stood. He halted again and resumed his song.
It had a quality in it which savoured at once of the pathetic and of the
steadfast: its few notes recalled to me those classical themes which
conceal something of dreadful fate and of necessity, but are yet
instinct with dignity and with the majestic purpose of the human will,
and Athens would have envied such a song. The words were these:
"All kinds of game, Izard, Quails, and Wild Pigeon, are best roasted
upon a spit; but what spit is so clean and fresh as a spit that has been
When he had sung this verse by way of challenge to the world, he halted
once more and mopped his face with a great handkerchief, waiting,
perhaps, for a spit to be brought; but none came. The spits of the town
were new, and though the people loved his singing, yet they were of too
active and sensible a kind to waste pence for nothing. When he saw that
spits were not forthcoming he lifted up his kit again and changed his
subject just by so pinch as might attract another sort of need. He
sang--but now more violently, and as though with a worthy protest:
Le lievre et le lapin,
Quand c'est bien cuit, ca fait du bien.
That is: "Hare and rabbit, properly cooked, do one great good," and then
added after the necessary pause and with a gesture half of offering and
half of disdain: "But who can call them well cooked if the tinning of
the pot has been neglected?" And into this last phrase he added notes
which hinted of sadness and of disillusion. It was very fine.
As he was now quite near me and ready, through the slackness of trade,
to enter into a conversation, I came quite close and said to him, "I
wish you good day," to which he answered, "And I to you and the
company," though there was no company.
Then I said, "You sing and so advertise your trade?"
He answered, "I do. It lifts the heart, it shortens the way, it attracts
the attention of the citizens, it guarantees good work."
"In what way," said I, "does it guarantee good work?"
"The man," he answered, "who sings loudly, clearly, and well, is a man
in good health. He is master of himself. He is strict and well-managed.
When people hear him they say, 'Here is a prompt, ready, and serviceable
man. He is not afraid. There is no rudeness in him. He is urbane, swift,
and to the point. There is method in this fellow.' All these things may
be in the man who does not sing, but singing makes them apparent.
Therefore in our trade we sing."
"But there must be some," I said, "who do not sing and who yet are good
At this he gave a little shrug of his shoulders and spread down his
hands slightly but imperatively. "There are such," said he. "They are
even numerous. But while they get less trade they are also less happy
men. For I would have you note (saving your respect and that of the
company) that this singing has a quality. It does good within as well
as without. It pleases the singer in his very self as well as brings him
work and clients."
Then I said, "You are right, and I wish to God I had something to tin;
let me however tell you something in place of the trade I cannot offer
you. All things are trine, as you have heard" (here he nodded), "and
your singing does, therefore, not a double but a triple good. For it
gives you pleasure within, it brings in trade and content from others,
and it delights the world around you. It is an admirable thing."
When he heard this he was very pleased. He took off his enormous hat,
which was of straw and as big as a wheel, and said, "Sir, to the next
meeting!" and went off singing with a happier and more triumphant note,
"Carrots, onions, lentils, and beans, depend upon the tinner for their
worth to mankind."
A "Mail" is a place set with trees in regular order so as to form
alleys; sand and gravel are laid on the earth beneath the trees; masonry
of great solidity, grey, and exquisitely worked, surrounds the whole
except on one side, where strong stone pillars carry heavy chains across
the entrance. A "Mail" takes about two hundred years to mature, remains
in perfection for about a hundred more, and then, for all I know, begins
to go off. But neither the exact moment at which it fails nor the length
of its decline is yet fixed, for all "Mails" date from the seventeenth
century at earliest, and the time when most were constructed was that of
Charles II's youth and Louis XIV's maturity--or am I wrong? Were these
two men not much of an age?
I am far from books; I am up in the Pyrenees. Let me consider dates and
reconstruct my formula. I take it that Charles II was more than a boy
when Worcester was fought and when he drank that glass of ale at
Hotighton, at the "George and Dragon" there, and crept along tinder the
Downs to Bramber and so to Shoreham, where he took ship and was free. I
take it, therefore, that when he came back in 1660 he must have been in
the thirties, more or less, but how far in the thirties I dare not
Now, in 1659, the year before Charles II came back, Mazarin signed the
treaty with Spain. At that time Louis XIV must have been quite a young
man. Again, he died about thirty years after Charles II, and he was
seventy something when he died.
I am increasingly certain that Charles II was older than Louis XIV.... I
affirm it. I feel no hesitation....
Lord! How dependent is mortal man upon books of reference! An editor or
a minister of the Crown with books of reference at his elbow will seem
more learned than Erasmus himself in the wilds. But let any man who
reads this (and I am certain five out of six have books of reference by
them as they read), I say, let any man who reads this ask himself
whether he would rather be where he is, in London, on this August day
(for it is August), or where I am, which is up in Los Altos, the very
high Pyrenees, far from every sort of derivative and secondary thing and
close to all things primary?
I will describe this place. It is a forest of beech and pine; it grows
upon a mountain-side so steep that only here and there is there a ledge
on which to camp. Great precipices of limestone diversify the wood and
show through the trees, tall and white beyond them. One has to pick
one's way very carefully along the steep from one night's camp to
another, and often one spends whole hours seeking up and down to turn a
face of rock one cannot cross.
It seems dead silent. There are few birds, and even at dawn one only
hears a twittering here and there. Swirls of cloud form and pass beneath
one in the gorge and hurry up the opposing face of the ravine; they add
to this impression of silence: and the awful height of the pines and the
utter remoteness from men in some way enhance it. Yet, though it seems
dead silent, it is not really so, and if you were suddenly put here from
the midst of London, you would be confused by the noise which we who
know the place continually forget--and that is the waterfalls.
All the way down the gorge for miles, sawing its cut in sheer surfaces
through the rock, crashes a violent stream, and all the valley is full
of its thunder. But it is so continuous, so sedulous, that it becomes
part of oneself. One does not lose it at night as one falls asleep, nor
does one recover it in the morning, when dreams are disturbed by a
little stir of life in the undergrowth and one opens one's eyes to see
above one the bronze of the dawn.
It possesses one, does this noise of the torrent, and when, after many
days in such a wood, I pick my way back by marks I know to a ford, and
thence to an old shelter long abandoned, and thence to the faint
beginnings of a path, and thence to the high road and so to men; when I
come down into the plains I shall miss the torrent and feel ill at ease,
hardly knowing what I miss, and I shall recall Los Altos, the high
places, and remember nothing but their loneliness and silence.
I shall saunter in one of the towns of the plain, St. Girons or another,
along the riverside and under the lime trees ... which reminds me of
"Mails"! Little pen, little fountain pen, little vagulous, blandulous
pen, companion and friend, whither have you led me, and why cannot you
learn the plodding of your trade?
THE PYRENEAN HIVE
Shut in between two of the greatest hills in Europe--hills almost as
high as Etna, and covering with their huge bases half a county of
land--there lies, in the Spanish Pyrenees, a little town. It has been
mentioned in books very rarely, and visited perhaps more rarely. Of
three men whom in my life I have heard speak its name, two only had
written of it, and but one had seen it. Yet to see it is to learn a
There is no road to it. No wheeled thing has ever been seen in its
streets. The crest of the Pyrenees (which are here both precipitous and
extremely high) is not a ridge nor an edge, but a great wall of slabs,
as it were, leaning up against the sky. Through a crack in this wall,
between two of these huge slabs, the mountaineers for many thousand
years have wormed their way across the hills, but the height and the
extreme steepness of the last four thousand feet have kept that passage
isolated and ill-known. Upon the French side the path has recently been
renewed; within a few yards upon the southern slope it dwindles and
As one so passes from the one country to the other, it is for all the
world like the shutting of a door between oneself and the world. For
some reason or other the impression of a civilisation active to the
point of distress follows one all up the pass from the French railway to
the summit of the range; but when that summit is passed the new and
brilliant sun upon the enormous glaciers before one, the absence of
human signs and of water, impress one suddenly with silence.
From that point one scrambles down and down for hours into a deserted
valley--all noon and afternoon and evening: on the first flats a rude
path, at last appears. A river begins to flow; great waterfalls pour
across one's way, and for miles upon miles one limps along and down the
valley across sharp boulders such as mules go best on, and often along
the bed of a stream, until at nightfall--if one has started early and
has put energy into one's going, and if it is a long summer day--then at
nightfall one first sees cultivated fields--patches of oats not half an
acre large hanging upon the sides of the ravine wherever a little shelf
of soil has formed.
So went the Two Men upon an August evening, till they came in the
half-light upon something which might have been rocks or might have been
ruins--grey lumps against the moon: they were the houses of a little
town. A sort of gulf, winding like a river gorge, and narrower than a
column of men, was the street that brought us in. But just as we feared
that we should have to grope our way to find companionship we saw that
great surprise of modern mountain villages (but not of our own
England)--a little row of electric lamps hanging from walls of an
Here, in this heap of mountain stones, and led by this last of
inventions, we heard at last the sound of music, and knew that we were
near an inn. The Moors called (and call) an inn Fundouk; the Spaniards
call it Fonda. To this Fonda, therefore, we went, and as we went the
sound of music grew louder, till we came to a door of oak studded with
gigantic nails and swung upon hinges which, by their careful workmanship
and the nature of their grotesques, were certainly of the Renaissance.
Indeed, the whole of this strange hive of mountain men was a
mixture--ignorance, sharp modernity, utter reclusion: barbaric,
Christian; ruinous and enduring things. The more recent houses had for
the most part their dates marked above their doors. There were some of
the sixteenth century, and many of the seventeenth, but the rest were
far older, and bore no marks at all. There was but one house of our own
time, and as for the church, it was fortified with narrow windows made
Not only did the Moors call an inn a Fundouk, but also they lived (and
live) not on the ground floor, but on the first floor of their houses:
so after them the Spaniards. We came in from the street through those
great oaken doors, not into a room, but into a sort of barn, with a
floor of beaten earth; from this a stair (every banister of which was
separately carved in a dark-wood) led up to the storey upon which the
inn was held. There was no hour for the meal. Some were beginning to
eat, some had ended. When we asked for food it was prepared, but an hour
was taken to prepare it, and it was very vile; the wine also was a wine
that tasted as much of leather as of grapes, and reminded a man more of
an old saddle than of vineyards.
The people who put this before us had in their faces courage, complete
innocence, carelessness, and sleep. They spoke to us in their language
(I understood it very ill) of far countries, which they did not clearly
know--they hardly knew the French beyond the hills. As no road led into
their ageless village, so did no road lead out of it. To reach the great
cities in the plain, and the railway eighty miles away, why, there was
the telephone. They slept at such late hours as they chose; by midnight
many were still clattering through the lane below. No order and no law
compelled them in anything.
The Two Men were asleep after this first astonishing glimpse of
forgotten men and of a strange country. In the stifling air outside
there was a clattering of the hoofs of mules and an argument of drivers.
A long way off a man was playing a little stringed instrument, and there
was also in the air a noise of insects buzzing in the night heat; when
all of a sudden the whole place awoke to the noise of a piercing cry
which but for its exquisite tone might have been the cry of pain, so
shrill was it and so coercing to the ear. It was maintained, and before
it fell was followed by a succession of those quarter-tones which only
the Arabs have, and which I had thought finally banished from Europe. To
this inhuman and appalling song were set loud open vowels rather than
Of the Two Men, one leapt at once from his bed crying out, "This is the
music! This is what I have desired to hear!" For this is what he had
once been told could be heard in the desert, when first he looked out
over the sand from Atlas: but though he had travelled far, he had never
heard it, and now he heard it here, in the very root of these European
hills. It was on this account that he cried out, "This is the music!"
And when he had said this he put on a great rough cloak and ran to the
room from which the song or cry proceeded, and after him ran his
The Two Men stood at the door behind a great mass of muleteers, who all
craned forward to where, upon a dais at the end of the room, sat a
Jewess who still continued for some five minutes this intense and
terrible effort of the voice. Beside her a man who was not of her race
urged her on as one urges an animal to further effort, crying out, "Hap!
Hap!" and beating his palms together rhythmically and driving and
goading her to the full limit of her power.
The sound ceased suddenly as though it had been stabbed and killed, and
the woman whose eyes had been strained and lifted throughout as in a
trance, and whose body had been rigid and quivering, sank down upon
herself and let her eyelids fall, and her head bent forward.
There was complete silence from that moment till the dawn, and the
second of the Two Men said to the first that they had had an experience
not so much of music as of fire.
Delft is the most charming town in the world. It is one of the neat
cities: trim, small, packed, self-contained. A good woman in early
middle age, careful of her dress, combined, orderly, not without a sober
beauty--such a woman on her way to church of a Sunday morning is not
more pleasing than Delft. It is on the verge of monotony, yet still
individual; in one style, yet suggesting many centuries of activity.
There is a full harmony of many colours, yet the memory the place leaves
is of a united, warm, and generous tone. Were you suddenly put down in
Delft you would know very well that the vast and luxuriant meadows of
Holland surrounded it, so much are its air, houses, and habits those of
men inspired by the fields.
Delft is very quiet, as befits a town so many of whose streets are
ordered lanes of water, yet one is inspired all the while by the voices
of children, and the place is strongly alive. Over its sky there follow
in stately order the great white clouds of summer, and at evening the
haze is lit just barely from below with that transforming level light
which is the joy and inspiration of the Netherlands. Against such an
expanse stands up for ever one of the gigantic but delicate belfries,
round which these towns are gathered. For Holland, it seems, is not a
country of villages, but of compact, clean towns, standing scattered
over a great waste of grass like the sea.
This belfrey of Delft is a thing by itself in Europe, and all these
truths can be said of it by a man who sees it for the first time: first,
that its enormous height is drawn up, as it were, and enhanced by every
chance stroke that the instinct of its slow builders lit upon; for
these men of the infinite flats love the contrast of such pinnacles, and
they have made in the labour of about a thousand years a landscape of
their own by building, just as they have made by ceaseless labour a rich
pasture and home out of those solitary marshes of the delta.
Secondly, that height is inhanced by something which you will not see,
save in the low countries between the hills of Ardennes and the yellow
seas--I mean brick Gothic; for the Gothic which you and I know is built
up of stone, and, even so, produces every effect of depth and distance;
but the Gothic of the Netherlands is often built curiously of bricks,
and the bricks are so thin that it needs a whole host of them in an
infinity of fine lines to cover a hundred feet of wall. They fill the
blank spaces with their repeated detail; they make the style (which even
in stone is full of chances and particular corners) most intricate,
and--if one may use so exaggerated a metaphor--"populous." Above all,
they lead the eye up and up, making a comparison and measure of their
tiny bands until the domination of a buttress or a tower is exaggerated
to the enormous. Now the belfry of Delft, though all the upper part is
of stone, yet it stands on a great pedestal (as it were) of brick--a
pedestal higher than the houses, and in this base are pierced two
towering, broad, and single ogives, empty and wonderful and full of that
untragic sadness which you may find also in the drooping and wide eyes
of extreme old age.
Thirdly, the very structure of the thing is bells. Here the bells are
more than the soul of a Christian spire; they are its body too, its
whole self. An army of them fills up all the space between the delicate
supports and framework of the upper parts; for I know not how many feet,
in order, diminishing in actual size and in the perspective also of that
triumphant elevation, stand ranks on ranks of bells from the solemn to
the wild, from the large to the small; a hundred or two hundred or a
thousand. There is here the prodigality of Brabant and Hainaut and the
Batavian blood, a generosity and a productivity in bells without stint,
the man who designed it saying: "Since we are to have bells, let us
have bells: not measured out, calculated, expensive, and prudent bells,
but careless bells, self-answering multitudinous bells; bells without
fear, bells excessive and bells innumerable; bells worthy of the
ecstasies that are best thrown out and published in the clashing of
bells. For bells are single, like real pleasures, and we will combine
such a great number that they shall be like the happy and complex life
of a man. In a word, let us be noble and scatter our bells and reap a
harvest till our town is famous for its bells." So now all the spire is
more than clothed with them; they are more than stuff or ornament; they
are an outer and yet sensitive armour, all of bells.
Nor is the wealth of these bells in their number only, but also in their
use; for they are not reserved in any way, but ring tunes and add
harmonies at every half and quarter and at all the hours both by night
and by day. Nor must you imagine that there is any obsession of noise
through this; they are far too high and melodious, and, what is more,
too thoroughly a part of all the spirit of Delft to be more than a
perpetual and half-forgotten impression of continual music; they render
its air sacred and fill it with something so akin to an uplifted silence
as to leave one--when one has passed from their influence--asking what
balm that was which soothed all the harshness of sound about one.
Round that tower and that voice the town hangs industrious and
subdued--a family. Its waters, its intimate canals, its boats for
travel, and its slight plashing of bows in the place of wheels, entered
the spirit of the traveller and gave him for one long day the Right of
Burgess. In autumn, in the early afternoon--the very season for those
walls--it was easy for him to be filled with a restrained but united
chorus, the under-voices of the city, droning and murmuring perpetually
of Peace and of Labour and of the wild rose--Content....
Peace, labour, and content--three very good words, and summing up,
perhaps, the goal of all mankind. Of course, there is a problem
everywhere, and it would be heresy to say that the people of Delft have
solved it. It is Matter of Breviary that the progress of our lives is
but asymptotic to true joy; we can approach it nearer and nearer, but we
can never reach it.
Nevertheless, I say that in this excellent city, though it is outside
Eden, you may, when the wind is in the right quarter, receive in distant
and rare appeals the scent and air of Paradise; the soul is filled.
To this emotion there corresponds and shall here be quoted a very noble
verse, which runs--or rather glides--as follows:--
Satiety, that momentary flower
Stretched to an hour--
These are her gifts which all mankind may use,
And all refuse.
Or words to that effect. And to think that you can get to a place like
that for less than a pound!
THE WING OF DALUA
Time was, and that not so long ago, when the Two Men had revealed to
them by their Genius a corner of Europe wherein they were promised more
surprises and delights than in any other.
It was secretly made known to them that in this place there were no
pictures, and no one had praised its people, and further that no Saint
had ever troubled it; and the rich and all their evils (so the Two Men
were assured) had never known the place at all.
It was under the influence of such a message that they at once began
walking at a great speed for the river which is called the River of
Gold, and for the valleys of Andorra; and since it seemed that other men
had dared to cross the Pyrenees and to see the Republic, and since it
seemed also, according to books, records, and what not, that may have
been truth or may have been lies, that common men so doing went always
by one way, called the Way of Hospitalet, the Two Men determined to go
by no such common path, but to march, all clothed with power, in a
straight line, and to take the main range of the mountains just where
they chose, and to come down upon the Andorrans unexpectedly and to
deserve their admiration and perhaps their fear.
They chose, therefore, upon the map the valley of that torrent called
the Aston, and before it was evening, but at an hour when the light of
the sun was already very ripe and low, they stood under a great rock
called Guie, which was all of bare limestone with facades as bare as the
Yosemite, and almost as clean. They looked up at this great rock of Guie
and made it the terminal of their attempt. I was one and my companion
was the other: these were the Two Men who started out before a sunset
in August to conquer the high Pyrenees. Before me was a very deep valley
full of woods, and reaching higher and higher perpetually so that it
reminded me of Hyperion, but as for my companion, it reminded him of
nothing, for he said loudly that he had never seen any such things
before and had never believed that summits of so astonishing a height
were to be found on earth. Not even at night had he imagined such
appalling upward and upward into the sky, and this he said though he had
seen the Alps, of which it is true that when you are close to them they
are very middling affairs; but not so the Pyrenees, which are not only
great but also terrible, for they are haunted, as you shall hear. But
before I begin to write of the spirits that inhabit the deserts of the
Aston, I must first explain, for the sake of those who have not seen
them, how the awful valleys of the Pyrenees are made.
All the high valleys of mountains go in steps, but those of the Pyrenees
in a manner more regular even than those of the Sierra Nevada out in
California, which the Pyrenees so greatly resemble. For the steps here
are nearly always three in number between the plain and the main chain,
and each is entered by a regular gate of rock. So it is in the valley of
the Ariege, and so it is in that of the Aston, and so it is in every
other valley until you get to the far end where live the cleanly but
incomprehensible Basques. Each of these steps is perfectly level,
somewhat oval in shape, a mile or two or sometimes five miles long, but
not often a mile broad. Through each will run the river of the valley,
and upon either side of it there will be rich pastures, and a high plain
of this sort is called a _jasse_, the same as in California is called a
"flat": as "Dutch Flat," "Poverty Flat," and other famous flats.
First, then, will come a great gorge through which one marches up from
the plain, and then at the head of it very often a waterfall of some
kind, along the side of which one forces one's way up painfully through
a narrow chasm of rock and finds above one The great green level of the
first jasse with the mountains standing solemnly around it. And then
when one has marched all along this level one will come to another gorge
and another chasm, and when one has climbed over the barrier of rock and
risen up another 2000 feet or so, one comes to a second jasse, smaller
as a rule than the lower one; but so high are the mountains that all
this climbing into the heart of them does not seem to have reduced their
height at all. And then one marches along this second jasse and one
comes to yet another gorge and climbs up just as one did the two others,
through a chasm where there will be a little waterfall or a large one,
and one finds at the top the smallest and most lonely of the jasses.
This often has a lake in it. The mountains round it will usually be
cliffs, forming sometimes a perfect ring, and so called cirques, or, by
the Spaniards, cooking-pots; and as one stands on the level floor of one
such last highest jasse and looks up at the summit of the cliffs, one
knows that one is looking at the ridge of the main chain. Then it is
one's business, if one desires to conquer the high Pyrenees, to find a
sloping place up the cliffs to reach their summits and to go down into
the further Spanish valleys. This is the order of the Pyrenean dale, and
this was the order of that of the Aston.
Up the gorge then we went, my companion and I; the day fell as we
marched, and there was a great moon out, filling the still air, when we
came to the first chasm, and climbing through it saw before us, spread
with a light mist over its pastures, the first jasse under the
moonlight. And up we went, and up again, to the end of the second jasse,
having before us the vast wall of the main range, and in our hearts a
fear that there was something unblessed in the sight of it. For though
neither I told it to my companion nor he to me, we had both begun to
feel a fear which the shepherds of these mountains know very well. It
was perhaps midnight or a little more when we made our camp, after
looking in vain for a hut which may once have stood there, but now stood
no longer. We lit a fire, but did not overcome the cold, which tormented
us throughout the night, for the wind blew off the summits; and at last
we woke from our half-sleep and spent the miserable hours in watching
the Great Bear creeping round the pole, and in trying to feed the dying
embers with damp fuel. And there it was that I discovered what I now
make known to the world, namely, that gorse and holly will burn of
themselves, even while they are yet rooted in the ground. So we sat
sleepless and exhausted, and not without misgiving, for we had meant
that night before camping to be right under the foot of the last cliffs,
and we were yet many miles away. We were glad to see the river at last
in the meadows show plainly under the growing light, the rocks turning
red upon the sky-line, and the extinction of the stars. As we so looked
north and eastward the great rock of Guie stood up all its thousands of
feet enormous against the rising of the sun.
We were very weary, and invigorated by nothing but the light, but,
having that at least to strengthen us, we made at once for the main
range, knowing very well that, once we were over it, it would be
downhill all the way, and seeing upon our maps that there were houses
and living men high in the further Andorran valley, which was not
deserted like this vale of the Aston, but inhabited: full, that is, of
Catalans, who would soon make us forget the inhuman loneliness of the
heights, for by this time we were both convinced, though still neither
of us said it to the other, that there was an evil brooding over all
It was noon when, after many hours of broken marching and stumbling,
which betrayed our weakness, we stood at last beside the tarn in which
the last cliffs of the ridge are reflected, and here was a steep slope
up which a man could scramble. We drank at the foot of it the last of
our wine and ate the last of our bread, promising ourselves refreshment,
light, and peace immediately upon the further side, and thus lightened
of our provisions, and with more heart in us, we assaulted the final
hill; but just at the summit, where there should have greeted us a great
view over Spain, there lowered upon us the angry folds of a black cloud,
and the first of the accidents that were set in order by some enemy to
ruin us fell upon my companion and me.
For a storm broke, and that with such violence that we thought it would
have shattered the bare hills, for an infernal thunder crashed from one
precipice to another, and there flashed, now close to us, now vividly
but far off, in the thickness of the cloud, great useless and blinding
glares of lightning, and hailstones of great size fell about us also,
leaping from the bare rocks like marbles. And when the rain fell it was
just as though it had been from a hose, forced at one by a pressure
instead of falling, and we two on that height were the sole objects of
so much fury, until at last my companion cried out from the rock beneath
which he was cowering, "This is intolerable!" And I answered him, from
the rock which barely covered me, "It is not to be borne!" So in the
midst of the storm we groped our way down into the valley beneath, and
got below the cloud; and when we were there we thought we had saved the
day, for surely we were upon the southern side of the hills, and in a
very little while we should see the first roofs of the Andorrans.
For two doubtful hours we trudged down that higher valley, but there
were no men, nor any trace of men except this, that here and there the
semblance of a path appeared, especially where the valley fell rapidly
from one stage to another over smooth rocks, which, in their least
dangerous descent, showed by smooth scratches the passage of some lost
animal. For the rest, nothing human nor the memory of it was there to
comfort us, though in one place we found a group of cattle browsing
alone without a master. There we sat down in our exhaustion and
confessed at last what every hour had inwardly convinced us of with
greater strength, that we were not our own masters, that there was
trouble and fate all round us, that we did not know what valley this
might be, and that the storm had been but the beginning of an unholy
adventure. We had been snared into Fairyland.
We did not speak much together, for fear of lowering our hearts yet more
by the confession one to the other of the things we knew to be true. We
did not tell each other what reserve of courage remained to us, or of
strength. We sat and looked at the peaks immeasurably above us, and at
the veils of rain between them, and at the black background of the sky.
Nor was there anything in the landscape which did not seem to us
unearthly and forlorn.
It was, in a manner, more lonely than had been the very silence of the
further slope: there was less to comfort and support the soul of a man;
but with every step downward we were penetrated more and more with the
presence of things not mortal and of influences to which any desolation
is preferable. At one moment voices called to us from the water, at
another we heard our names, but pronounced in a whisper so slight and so
exact that the more certain we were of hearing them the less did we dare
to admit the reality of what we had heard. In a third place we saw twice
in succession, though we were still going forward, the same tree
standing by the same stone: for neither tree nor stone were natural to
the good world, but each had been put there by whatever was mocking us
and drawing us on.
Already had we stumbled twice and thrice the distance that should have
separated us from the first Andorran village, but we had seen nothing,
not a wall, nor smoke from a fire, let alone the tower of a Christian
church, or the houses of men. Nor did any length of the way now make us
wonder more than we had already wondered, nor did we hope, however far
we might proceed, that we should be saved unless some other influence
could be found to save us from the unseen masters of this place. For by
this time we had need of mutual comfort, and openly said it to one
another--but in low tones--that the valley was Faery. The river went on
calling to us all the while. In places it was full of distant cheering,
in others crowded with the laughter of a present multitude of tiny
things, and always mocking us with innumerable tenuous voices. It grew
to be evening. It was nearly two days since we had seen a man.
There stood in the broader and lower part of the valley to which we had
now come, numerous rocks and boulders; for our deception some one of
them or another would seem to be a man. I heard my companion call
suddenly, as though to a stranger, and as he called I thought that he
had indeed perceived the face of a human being, and I felt a sort of
sudden health in me when I heard the tone of his voice; and when I
looked up I also saw a man. We came towards him and he did not move.
Close up beside his form we put out our hands: but what we touched was a
rough and silent stone.
After that we spoke no more. We went on through the gathering twilight,
determined to march downwards to the end, but knowing pretty well what
the end would be. Once only did we again fall into the traps that were
laid about us, when we went and knocked at the hillside where we thought
we had seen a cottage and its oaken door, and after the mockery of that
disappointment we would not be deceived again, nor make ourselves again
the victims of the laughter that perpetually proceeded from the torrent.
The path led us onwards in a manner that was all one with the plot now
woven round our feet. We could but follow the path, though we knew with
what an evil purpose it was made: that it was as phantom as the rest. At
one place it invited us to cross, upon two shaking pine trunks, the
abyss of a cataract; in another it invited us to climb, in spite of our
final weariness, a great barrier of rock that lay between an upper and a
lower jasse. We continued upon it determinedly, with heads bent, barely
hoping that perhaps at last we should emerge from this haunted ground,
but the illusions which had first mocked us we resolutely refused. So
much so, that where at one place there stood plainly before us in the
gathering darkness a farm-house with its trees and its close, its
orchard and its garden gate, I said to my companion, "All this place is
cursed, and I will not go near." And he applauded me, for he knew as
well as I that if we had gone a few steps towards that orchard and that
garden close, they would have turned into the bracken of the hillside,
bare granite and unfruitful scree.
The main range, where it appeared in revelations behind us through the
clouds, was far higher than mountains ever seem to waking men, and it
stood quite sheer as might a precipice in a dream. The forests upon
either side ran up until they were lost miles and miles above us in the
Night fell and we still went onward, the one never daring to fall far
behind the other, and once or twice in an hour calling to each other to
make sure that another man was near; but this we did not continue,
because as we went on each of us became aware under the midnight of the
presence of a Third.
There was a place where the path, now broad and plain, approached a sort
of little sandy bay going down towards the stream, and there I saw, by a
sudden glimpse of the moon through the clouds, a large cave standing
wide. We went down to it in silence, we gathered brushwood, we lit a
fire, and we lay down in the cave. But before we lay down I said to my
companion: "I have seen the moon--she is in the _north_. Into what place
have we come?" He said to me in answer, "Nothing here is earthly," and
after he had said this we both fell into a profound sleep in which we
forgot not only cold, great hunger, and fatigue, but our own names and
our very souls, and passed, as it were, into a deep bath of
When we woke at the same moment, it was dawn.
We stood up in the clear and happy light and found that everything was
changed. We poured water upon our faces and our hands, strode out a
hundred yards and saw again the features of a man. He had a kind face of
some age, and eyes such as are the eyes of mountaineers, which seem to
have constantly contemplated the distant horizons and wide plains
beneath their homes. We heard as he came up the sound of a bell in a
Christian church below, and we exchanged with him the salutations of
living men. Then I said to him: "What day is this?" He said "Sunday,"
and a sort of memory of our fear came on us, for we had lost a day.
Then I said to him: "What river are we upon, and what valley is this?"
He answered: "The river and the valley of the Aston." And what he said
was true, for as we rounded a corner we perceived right before us a
barrier, that rock of Guie from which we had set out. We had come down
again into France, and into the very dale by which we had begun our
But what that valley was which had led us from the summits round
backward to our starting-place, forcing upon us the refusal of whatever
powers protect this passage of the chain, I have never been able to
tell. It is not upon the maps; by our description the peasants knew
nothing of it. No book tells of it. No men except ourselves have seen
it, and I am willing to believe that it is not of this world.
There are two ways by which a man may acquire any kind of learning or
profit, and this is especially true of travel.
Everybody knows that one can increase what one has of knowledge or of
any other possession by going outwards and outwards; but what is also
true, and what people know less, is that one can increase it by going
inwards and inwards. There is no goal to either of these directions, nor
any term to your advantage as you travel in them.
If you will be extensive, take it easy; the infinite is always well
ahead of you, and its symbol is the sky.
If you will be intensive, hurry as much as you like you will never
exhaust the complexity of things; and the truth of this is very evident
in a garden, or even more in the nature of insects; of which beasts I
have heard it said that the most stolid man in the longest of lives
would acquire only a cursory knowledge of even one kind, as, for
instance, of the horned beetle, which sings so angrily at evening.
You may travel for the sake of great horizons, and travel all your life,
and fill your memory with nothing but views from mountain-tops, and yet
not have seen a tenth of the world. Or you may spend your life upon the
religious history of East Rutland, and plan the most enormous book upon
it, and yet find that you have continually to excise and select from the
growing mass of your material.
* * * * *
A wise man having told me this some days before (and I having believed
it), it seemed to me as though a new entertainment had been invented for
me, or rather as though I had found a bottomless purse; since by this
doctrine there was manifestly no end to the number of my pleasures, and
to each of this infinite number no possibility of exhaustion; but I
thought I would put it to the test in this way: putting aside but three
days, I determined in that space to explore a little corner of this
Now, although I saw not one-hundredth of the buildings or the people in
this very small space, and though I knew nothing of the birds or the
beasts or the method of tillage, or of anything of all that makes up a
land, yet I saw enough to fill a book. And the pleasure of my thoughts
was so great that I determined to pick out a bit here and a bit there,
and to put down the notes almost without arrangement, in order that
those who cannot do these things (whether from lack of leisure or for
some other reason) may get some part of my pleasure without loss to me
(on the contrary, with profit); and in order that every one may be
convinced of what this little journey finally taught me, and which I
repeat--that there is an inexhaustible treasure everywhere, not only
outwards, but inwards.
I had known the Ouse--(how many years ago!)--had looked up at those
towers of Ely from my boat; but a town from a river and a town from the
street are two different things. Moreover, in that time I speak of, the
day years ago, it was blowing very hard from the south, and I was
anxious to be away before it, and away I went down to Lynn at one
stretch; for in those days the wind and the water seemed of more moment
than old stones. Now (after how many years!) it was my business to go up
by land, and as I went, the weight of the Cathedral filled the sky
Impressions of this sort are explained by every man in his own way--for
my part I felt the Norman.
I know not by what accident it was, but never had I come so nearly into
the presence of the men who founded England. The isolation of the hill,
the absence of clamour and false noise and everything modern, the
smallness of the village, the solidity and amplitude of the homes and
their security, all recalled an origin.
I went into the door of the Cathedral under the high tower. I noted the
ponderous simplicity of the great squat pillars, the rough
capitals--plain bulges of stone without so much as a pattern cut upon
them--the round arch and the low aisles; but in one corner remaining
near the door--a baptistery, I suppose--was a crowd of ornament which
(like everything of that age) bore the mark of simplicity, for it was an
endless heap of the arch and the column and the zigzag ornament--the
broken line. Its richness was due to nothing but the repetition of
similar forms, and everywhere the low stature, the muscles, the broad
shoulders of the thing, proved and reawoke the memory of the Norman
They have been written of enough to-day, but who has seen them from
close by or understood that brilliant interlude of power?
The little bullet-headed men, vivacious, and splendidly brave, we know
that they awoke all Europe, that the first provided settled financial
systems and settled governments of land, and that everywhere, from the
Grampians to Mesopotamia, they were like steel when all other Christians
were like wood or like lead.
We know that they were a flash. They were not formed or definable at all
before the year 1000; by the year 1200 they were gone. Some odd
transitory phenomenon of cross-breeding, a very lucky freak in the
history of the European family, produced the only body of men who all
were lords and who in their collective action showed continually nothing
We know that they were the spear-head, as it were, of the Gallic spirit:
the vanguard of that one of the Gallic expansions which we associate
with the opening of the Middle Ages and with the crusades. ... We know
all this and write about it; nevertheless, we do not make enough of the
Normans in England.
Here and there a man who really knows his subject and who disdains the
market of the school books, puts as it should be put their conquest of
this island and their bringing into our blood whatever is still
strongest in it. Many (descended from their leaders) have remarked
their magical ride through South Italy, their ordering of Sicily, their
hand in Palestine. As for the Normans in Normandy, of their exchequer
there, of what Rouen was--all that has never been properly written down
at all. Their great adventure here in England has been most written of
by far; but I say again no one has made enough of them; no one has
brought them back out of their graves. The character of what they did
has been lost in these silly little modern quarrels about races, which
are but the unscholarly expression of a deeper hypocritical quarrel
Yet it is in England that the Norman can be studied as he can be studied
nowhere else. He did not write here (as in Sicily) upon a palimpsest. He
was not merged here (as in the Orient) with the rest of the French. He
was segregated here; he can be studied in isolation; for though so many
that crossed the sea on that September night with William, the big
leader of them, held no Norman tenure, yet the spirit of the whole thing
was Norman: the regularity the suddenness, the achievement, and, when
the short fighting was over the creation of a new society. It was the
Norman who began everything over again--the first fresh influence since
The riot of building has not been seized. The island was conquered in
1070. It was a place of heavy foolish men with random laws, pale eyes,
and a slow manner; their houses were of wood: sometimes they built (but
how painfully, and how childishly!) with stone. There was no height,
there was no dignity, there was no sense of permanence. The Norman
Government was established. At once rapidity, energy, the clear object
of a united and organised power followed. And see what followed in
architecture alone, and in what a little space of the earth, and in what
a little stretch of time--less than the time that separates us to-day
from the year of Disraeli's death or the occupation of Egypt.
The Conquest was achieved in 1070. In that same year they pulled down
the wooden shed at Bury St Edmunds, "unworthy," they said, "of a great
saint," and began the great shrine of stone. Next year it was the
castle at Oxford, in 1075 Monkswearmouth, Jarrow, and the church at
Chester; in 1077 Rochester and St Albans; in 1079 Winchester. Ely,
Worcester, Thorney, Hurley, Lincoln, followed with the next years; by
1089 they had tackled Gloucester, by 1092 Carlisle, by 1093 Lindisfarne,
Christchurch, tall Durham.... And this is but a short and random list of
some of their greatest works in the space of one boyhood. Hundreds of
castles, houses, village churches are unrecorded.
Were they not indeed a people?... And all that effort realised itself
before Pope Urban had made the speech which launched the armies against
the Holy Land. The Norman had created and founded all this before the
Mass of Europe was urged against the flame of the Arab, to grow fruitful
and to be transformed.
One may say of the Norman preceding the Gothic what Dante said of Virgil
preceding the Faith: Would that they had been born in a time when they
could have known it! But the East was not yet open. The mind of Europe
had not yet received the great experience of the Crusades; the Normans
had no medium wherein to express their mighty soul, save the round arch
and the straight line, the capital barbaric or naked, the sullen round
shaft of the pillar--more like a drum than like a column. They could
build, as it-were, with nothing but the last ruins of Rome. They were
given no forms but the forms which the fatigue and lethargy of the Dark
Ages had repeated for six hundred years. They were capable, even in the
north, of impressing even these forms with a superhuman majesty.
* * * * *
Was I not right in saying that everywhere in the world one can look in
and in and never find an end to one's delight? I began to explore but a
tiny corner of England, and here in one corner of that corner, and in
but one thought arising from this corner of a corner, I have found these
* * * * *
But England is especially a garden of this sort, or a storehouse; and
in nothing more than in this matter of the old architecture which
perpetuates the barbaric grandeur of the eleventh century--the time
before it was full day.
When the Gothic came the whole of northern Europe was so enamoured of it
that common men, bishops, and kings pulled down and rebuilt everywhere.
Old crumbling walls of the Romanesque fell at Amiens; you can still see
them cowering at Beauvais; only an accident of fire destroyed them in
Notre Dame. In England the transition survived; nowhere save in England
is the Northern Romanesque triumphant, not even at Caen. Elsewhere the
Gothic has conquered. Only here in England can you see the Romanesque
facing, like an equal, newer things, because here only was there a great
outburst of building--a kind of false spring before the Gothic came,
because here only in Europe had a great political change and a great
flood of wealth come in before the expansion of the twelfth century
There is one little corner of England; here is another.
The Isle of Ely lying on the fens is like a starfish lying on a flat
shore at low tide. Southward, westward, and northward from the head or
centre of the clump (which is where the Cathedral stands) it throws out
arms every way, and these arms have each short tentacles of their own.
In between the spurs runs the even fen like a calm sea, and on the crest
of the spurs, radiating also from Ely, run the roads. Long ago there was
but one road of these that linked up the Isle with the rest of England.
It was the road from the south, and there the Romans had a station; the
others led only to the farms and villages dependent upon the city. Now
they are prolonged by artifice into the modern causeways which run over
the lower and new-made land.
The Isle has always stood like a fortress, and has always had a title
and commandership, which once were very real things; the people told me
that the King of England's third title was Marquis of Ely, and I knew of
myself that just before the civil wars the commandership of the Isle
gave the power of raising men.
The ends of many wars drifted to this place to die. Here was the last
turn of the Saxon lords, and the last rally of the feudal rebellions of
the thirteenth century.
Not that the fens were impassable or homeless, but they were difficult
in patches; their paths were rare and laid upon no general system. Their
inhabited fields were isolated, their waters tidal, with great banks of
treacherous mud, intricate and unbridged; such conditions are amply
sufficient for a defensive war. The flight of a small body in such a
land can always baffle an army until that small body is thrust into some
one refuge so well defended by marsh or river that the very defence cuts
off retreat: and a small body so brought to bay in such a place has this
further advantage, that from the bits of higher land, the "Islands," one
of the first requirements of defence is afforded--an unbroken view of
every avenue by which attack can come. There is no surprising such
So much is in Ely to-day and a great deal more. For instance (a third
and last idea out of the thousand that Ely arouses), Ely is dumb and yet
oracular. The town and the hill tell you nothing till you have studied
them in silence and for some considerable time. This boast is made by
many towns, that they hold a secret. But Ely, which is rather a village
than a town, has alone a true claim, the proof of which is this, that no
one comes to Ely for a few hours and carries anything away, whereas no
man lives in Ely for a year without beginning to write a book. I do not
say that all are published, but I swear that all are begun.
THE INN OF THE MARGERIDE
Whatever, keeping its proportion and form, is designed upon a scale much
greater or much less than that of our general experience, produces upon
the mind an effect of phantasy.
A little perfect model of an engine or a ship does not only amuse or
surprise; it rather casts over the imagination something of that veil
through which the world is transfigured, and which I have called "the
wing of Dalua"; the medium of appreciations beyond experience; the
medium of vision, of original passion and of dreams. The principal spell
of childhood returns as we bend over the astonishing details. We are
giants--or there is no secure standard left in our intelligence.
So it is with the common thing built much larger than the million
examples upon which we had based our petty security. It has been always
in the nature of worship that heroes, or the gods made manifest, should
be men, but larger than men. Not tall men or men grander, but men
transcendent: men only in their form; in their dimension so much
superior as to be lifted out of our world. An arch as old as Rome but
not yet ruined, found on the sands of Africa, arrests the traveller in
this fashion. In his modern cities he has seen greater things; but here
in Africa, where men build so squat and punily, cowering under the heat
upon the parched ground, so noble and so considerable a span, carved as
men can carve under sober and temperate skies, catches the mind and
clothes it with a sense of the strange. And of these emotions the
strongest, perhaps, is that which most of those who travel to-day go
seeking; the enchantment of mountains; the air by which we know them
for something utterly different from high hills. Accustomed to the
contour of downs and tors, or to the valleys and long slopes that
introduce a range, we come to some wider horizon and see, far off, a
further line of hills. To hills all the mind is attuned: a moderate
ecstasy. The clouds are above the hills, lying level in the empty sky;
men and their ploughs have visited, it seems, all the land about us;
till, suddenly, faint but hard, a cloud less varied, a greyer portion of
the infinite sky itself, is seen to be permanent above the world. Then
all our grasp of the wide view breaks down. We change. The valleys and
the tiny towns, the unseen mites of men, the gleams or thread of roads,
are prostrate, covering a little watching space before the shrine of
this dominant and towering presence.
It is as though humanity were permitted to break through the vulgar
illusion of daily sense, and to learn in a physical experience how
unreal are all the absolute standards by which we build. It is as though
the vast and the unexpected had a purpose, and that purpose were the
showing to mankind in rare glimpses what places are designed for the
soul--those ultimate places where things common become shadows and fail,
and the divine part in us, which adores and desires, breathes its own
air, and is at last alive.
* * * * *
This awful charm which attaches to the enormous envelops the Causse of
Mende; for its attributes are all of them pushed beyond the ordinary
Each of the four Causses is a waste; but the Causse of Mende is utterly
bereft of men. Each is a high plateau; but this, I believe, the highest
in feet, and certainly in impression. You stand there as it were upon
the summit of a lonely pedestal, with nothing but a rocky edge around
you. Each is dried up; but the Catisse of Mende is without so much as a
dew-pan or a well; it is wrinkled, horny, and cauterised under the
alternate frost and flame of its fierce open sky, as are the deserts of
the moon. Each of the Causses is silent; but the silence of the Causse
of Mende is scorched and frozen into its stones, and is as old as they:
all around, the torrents which have sawn their black canons upon every
side of the block frame this silence with their rumble. Each of the
Causses casts up above its plain fantastic heaps of rock consonant to
the wild spirit of its isolation; but the Causse of Mende holds a kind
of fortress--a medley so like the ghost of a dead town that, even in
full daylight, you expect the footsteps of men; and by night, as you go
gently, in fear of waking the sleepers, you tread quite certainly among
built houses and spires. This place the peasants of the canons have
called "The Old City"; and no one living will go near it who knows it
The Causses have also this peculiar to them: that the ravines by which
each is cut off are steep and sudden. But the cliffs of the Causse of
Mende are walls. That the chief of these walls may seem the more
terrible, it is turned northwards, so that by day and night it is in
shadow, and falls sheer.
* * * * *
It was when I had abandoned this desolate wonder (but with its influence
strong upon me) that I left the town of Mende, down on the noise of its
river, and began to climb the opposing mountain of the Margeride.
It was already evening, though as yet there were no stars. The air was
fresh, because the year was at that season when it is summer in the
vineyard plains, but winter in the hills. A twilight so coloured and
translucent as to suggest cold spanned like an Aurora the western mouth
of the gully. Upon my eastward and upward way the full moon, not yet
risen, began to throw an uncertain glory over the sky.
This road was made by the French kings when their influence had crept so
far south as to control these mountains. They became despots, and their
despotism, which was everywhere magnificent, engraved itself upon these
untenanted bare rocks. They strengthened and fortified the road. Its
grandeur in so empty and impoverished a land was a boast or a threat of
their power. The Republic succeeded the kings, the Armies succeeded the
Republic, and every experiment succeeded the victories and the breakdown
of the Armies. The road grew stronger all the while, bridging this
desert, and giving pledge that the brain of Paris was able, and more
able, to order the whole of the soil. So then, as I followed it, it
seemed to me to bear in itself, and in its contrast with untamed
surroundings, the history and the character of this one nation out of
the many which live by the tradition of Europe. As I followed it and saw
its exact gradient, its hard and even surface, its square border stones,
and, every hundred yards, its carved mark of the distance done, these
elaborations, standing quite new among the tumbled rocks of a vague
upland, made one certain that Paris had been at work. Very far back (how
far was marked on the milestone) the road had left the swarming gate of
Toulouse. Very far on (how far was marked on the milestone) it was to
cross the Saone by its own bridge, and feed the life of Lyons. In
between it met and surmounted (still civilised, easy, complete) this
barbaric watershed of the Margeride.
As I followed it, law--good law and evil--seemed to go with me up the
There was more sound than on the arid wastes of the Causse. There were
trees, and birds in the trees, moving faintly. The great moon, which had
now risen, shone also upon scanty grass and (from time to time) upon the
trickle of water passing in runnels beneath the road.
The torrent in the depth below roared openly and strong, and, beyond it,
the black wall of the Causse, immense and battlemented above me under
the moon, made what poor life this mountain supported seem for a moment
gracious by comparison. I remembered that sheep and goats and men could
live on the Margeride.
But the Margeride has rightly compelled its 'very few historians to
melancholy or fear.
It is a district, or a mountain range, or a single summit, which cuts
off the east from the west, the Loire from the Gironde: a long, even
barrow of dark stone. Its people are one, suspicious of the plains. Its
line against the sky is also one: no critical height in Europe is so
strict and unbroken. You may see it from a long way east--from the
Velay, or even from the last of the Forez, and wonder whether it is a
land or a sullen bar of black cloud.
All the world knows how snow, even in mere gullies and streaks, uplifts
a mountain. Well, I have seen the dull roof-tile of the Margeride from
above Puy in spring, when patches of snow still clung to it, and the
snow did no more than it would have done to a plain. It neither raised
nor distinguished this brooding thing.
But it is indeed a barrier. Its rounded top is more formidable than if
it were a ridge of rock; its saddle, broad and indeterminate, deceives
the traveller, with new slight slopes following one upon the other when
the sharp first of the ascent is done.
Already the last edge of the Causse beyond the valley had disappeared,
and already had the great road taken me higher than the buttress which
holds up that table-land, when, thinking I had gained the summit, I
turned a corner in the way and found a vague roll of rising land before
me. Upon this also, under the strong moonlight, I saw the ruin of a
mill. Water, therefore, must have risen behind it. I expected and found
yet another uncertain height, and beyond it a third, and, a mile beyond,
another. This summit was like those random marshy steps which rise
continually and wearily between the sluggish rivers of the prairies.
I passed the fields that gave his title to La Peyrouse. The cold, which
with every hundred feet had increased unnoticed, now first disturbed me.
The wind had risen (for I had come to that last stretch of the glacis,
over which, from beyond the final height, an eastern wind can blow), and
this wind carried I know not what dust of ice, that did not make a
perceptible fall, yet in an hour covered my clothes with tiny spangles,
and stung upon the face like Highland snow in a gale. With that wind and
that fine, powdery frost went no apparent clouds. The sky was still
clear above me. Such rare stars as can conquer the full moon shone
palely; but round the moon herself bent an evanescent halo, like those
one sees over the Channel upon clear nights before a stormy morning. The
spindrift of fine ice had, I think, defined this halo.
How long I climbed through the night I do not know. The summit was but a
slight accident upon a tumbled plain. The ponds stood thick with ice,
the sound of running water had ceased, when the slight downward of the
road through a barren moor and past broad undrained films of frozen bog,
told me that I was on the further northern slope. The wind also was now
roaring over the platform of the watershed, and great patches of
whirling snow lay to the right and left like sand upon the grassy dunes
of a coast.
Through all this loneliness and cold I went down, with the great road
for a companion. Majesty and power were imposed by it upon these savage
wilds. The hours uncalculated, and the long arrears of the night, had
confused my attention; the wind, the little arrows of the ice, the
absence of ploughlands and of men. Those standards of measure which (I
have said) the Causses so easily disturb would not return to me. I took
mile after mile almost unheeding, numbed with cold, demanding sleep, but
ignorant of where might be found the next habitation.
It was in this mood that I noticed on a distant swirl of rocks before me
what might have been roofs and walls; but in that haunted country the
rocks play such tricks as I have told. The moonlight also, which seems
so much too bright upon a lonely heath, fails one altogether when
distinction must be made between distant things, and when men are near.
I did not know that these rocks (or houses) were the high group of
Chateauneuf till I came suddenly upon the long and low house which
stands below it on the road, and is the highway inn for the mountain
I halted for a moment, because no light came from the windows. Just
opposite the house a great tomb marked the fall of some hero. The wind
seemed less violent. The waters of the marshy plain had gathered. They
were no longer frozen, and a little brook ran by. As I waited there,
hesitating, my fatigue came upon me, and I knocked at their great door.
They opened, and light poured upon the road, and the noise of peasants
talking loudly, and the roaring welcome of a fire. In this way I ended
my crossing of these sombre and unrecorded hills.
* * * * *
I that had lost count of hours and of heights in the glamour of the
midnight and of the huge abandoned places of my climb, stepped now into
a hall where the centuries also mingled and lost their order. The
dancing fire filled one of those great pent-house chimneys that witness
to the communal life of the Middle Ages. Around and above it, ironwork
of a hundred years branched from the ingle-nooks to support the drying
meats of the winter provision. A wide board, rude, over-massive, and
shining with long usage, reflected the stone ware and the wine. Chairs,
carved grotesquely, and as old almost as the walls about me, stood round
the comfort of the fire. I saw that the windows were deeper than a man's
arms could reach, and wedge-shaped--made for fighting. I saw that the
beams of the high roof, which the firelight hardly caught, were black
oak and squared enormously, like the ribs of a master-galley, and in the
leaves and garden things that hung from them, in the mighty stones of
the wall, and the beaten earth of the floor, the strong simplicity of
our past, and the promise of our endurance, came upon me.
The peasants sitting about the board and fire had risen, looking at the
door; for strangers were rare, and it was very late as I came out of the
empty cold into that human room. Their dress was ancestral; the master,
as he spoke to me, mixed new words with old. He had phrases that the
Black Prince used when he went riding at arms across the Margeride. He
spoke also of modern things, of the news in the valley from which I had
come, and the railway and Puy below us. They put before me bread and
wine, which I most needed. I sat right up against the blaze. We all
talked high together of the things we knew. For when I had told them
what news there was in the valley, they also answered my questions, into
which I wove as best I could those still living ancient words I had
caught from their mouths. I asked them whose was that great tomb under
the moonlight, at which I had shuddered as I entered their doors. They
told me it was Duguesclin's tomb; for he got his death-wound here under
the walls of the town above them five hundred years ago, and in this
house he had died. Then I asked what stream that was which trickled from
the half-frozen moss, and led down the valley of my next day's journey.
They told me it was called the River Red-cap, and they said that it was
Faery. I asked them also what was the name of the height over which I
had come; they answered, that the shepherds called it "The King's
House," and that hence, in clear weather, under an eastern wind, one
could see far off, beyond the Velay, that lonely height which is called
"The Chair of God."
So we talked together, drinking wine and telling each other of many
things, I of the world to which I was compelled to return, and they of
the pastures and the streams, and all the story of Lozere. And, all the
while, not the antiquity alone, but the endurance of Christendom poured
into me from every influence around.
They rose to go to the homes which were their own, without a lord. We
exchanged the last salutations. The wooden soles of their shoes
clattered upon the stone threshold of the door.
The master also rose and left me. I sat there for perhaps an hour,
alone, with the falling fire before me and a vision in my heart.
Though I was here on the very roof and centre of the western land, I
heard the surge of the inner and the roll of the outer sea; the foam
broke against the Hebrides, and made a white margin to the cliffs of
Holy Ireland. The tide poured up beyond our islands to the darkness in
the north. I saw the German towns, and Lombardy, and the light on Rome.
And the great landscape I saw from the summit to which I was exalted was
not of to-day only, but also of yesterday, and perhaps of to-morrow.
Our Europe cannot perish. Her religion--which is also mine--has in it
those victorious energies of defence which neither merchants nor
philosophers can understand, and which are yet the prime condition of
establishment. Europe, though she must always repel attacks from within
and from without, is always secure; the soul of her is a certain spirit,
at once reasonable and chivalric. And the gates of Hell shall not
prevail against it.
She will not dissolve by expansion, nor be broken by internal strains.
She will not suffer that loss of unity which would be for all her
members death, and for her history and meaning and self an utter
oblivion. She will certainly remain.
Her component peoples have merged and have remerged. Her particular,
famous cities have fallen down. Her soldiers have believed the world to
have lost all, because a battle turned against them, Hittin or Leipsic.
Her best has at times grown poor, and her worst rich. Her colonies have
seemed dangerous for a moment from the insolence of their power, and
then again (for a moment) from the contamination of their decline. She
has suffered invasion of every sort; the East has wounded her in arms
and has corrupted her with ideas; her vigorous blood has healed the
wounds at once, and her permanent sanity has turned such corruptions
into innocuous follies. She will certainly remain.
* * * * *
So that old room, by its very age, reminded me, not of decay, but of
All this came to me out of the fire; and upon such a scene passed the
pageantry of our astounding history. The armies marching perpetually,
the guns and ring of bronze; I heard the chant of our prayers; and,
though so great a host went by from the Baltic to the passes of the
Pyrenees, the myriads were contained in one figure common to them all.
I was refreshed, as though by the resurrection of something loved and
thought dead. I was no longer afraid of Time.
That night I slept ten hours. Next day, as I swung out into the air, I
knew that whatever Power comforts men had thrown wide open the gates of
morning; and a gale sang strong and clean across that pale blue sky
which mountains have for a neighbour.
I could see the further valley broadening among woods, to the warmer
places; and I went down beside the River Red-cap onwards, whither it
pleased me to go.
A FAMILY OF THE FENS
Upon the very limit of the Fens, not a hundred feet in height, but very
sharp against the level, there is a lonely little hill. From the edge of
that hill the land seems very vague; the flat line of the horizon is the
only boundary, and that horizon mixes into watery clouds. No countryside
is so formless until one has seen the plan of it set down in a map, but
on studying such a map one understands the scheme of the Fens.
The Wash is in the shape of a keystone with the narrow side towards the
sea and the broad side towards the land. Imagine the Wash prolonged for
twenty or thirty miles inland and broadened considerably as it proceeded
as would a curving fan, or better still, a horseshoe, and you have the
Fens: a horseshoe whose points, as Dugdale says, are the corners of
Lincolnshire and Norfolk.
All around them is land of some little height, and quite dry. It is
ooelitic on the east, chalky on the south, and the old towns and the old
roads look from all round this amphitheatre of dry land down upon the
alluvial flats beneath. Peterboro', Cambridge, Lynn, are all just off
the Fens, and the Ermine street runs on the bank which forms their
This plain has suffered very various fortunes. How good the land was and
how well inhabited before the ruin of the monasteries is not yet
completely grasped, even by these who love these marshes and who have
written their history. Yet there is physical evidence of what was once
here: masses of trees but just buried, grass lying mown in swathes
beneath the moss-land, the implements of men where now no men can live,
the great buried causeway running right across from east to west.
Beyond such proofs there are the writers who, rare as are the
descriptions of medieval scenery, manage to speak of this. For Henry of
Huntingdon it was a kind of garden. There were many meres in it, but
there were also islands and woods and orchards. William of Malmesbury
writes of it with delight, and mentions even its vines. The meres were
not impassable marshes; for instance, in _Domesday_ you find the Abbot
of Ramsay owning a vessel upon Whittlesea Mere. The whole impression one
gets from the earlier time is that of something like the upper waters of
the rivers in the Broads: much draining and a good many ponds, but most
of the land firm with good deep pastures and a great diversity of woods.
Great catastrophes have certainly overcome this countryside. The
greatest was the anarchy of the sixteenth century; but it is probable
that, coincidently with every grave lesion in the continuity of our
civilisation, the Fens suffered, for they always needed the perpetual
attention of man to keep them (as they so long were, and may be again if
ever our people get back their land and restore a communal life) fully
inhabited, afforested, and cultured.
It is probable that the break-up of the ninth century saw the Fens
partly drowned, and that after the Black Death something of the same
sort happened again, for it is in the latter fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries that you begin to hear of a necessity for reclaiming them.
John of Gaunt had a scheme, and Morton dug a ditch which is still called
"Morton's Leam." I say, every defeat of our civilisation was inflicted
here in the Fens, but it is certain that the principal disaster followed
the suppression of the monasteries.
These great foundations--nourishing hundreds and governing thousands,
based upon the populace, drawn from the populace, and living by the
common life--were scattered throughout the Fens. They were founded on
the "islands" nearest the good land: Thorney, Ramsay, Croyland, Ely--the
nuns of Chatteris.
They dated from the very beginning. Ely was founded within sight of our
conversion, 672. Croyland came even before that, before civilisation and
religion were truly re-established in Britain; Penda's great-nephew gave
it its charter; St Augustine had been dead for little more than a
century when the charter was signed. Even as the monks came to claim
their land they discovered hermits long settled there. Thorney--Ancarig
it was then--was even fifty years older than Croyland. The roots of all
these go back to the beginning of the nation.
Ramsay and Charteris cannot be traced beyond the gulf of the Danish
invasion, but they are members of the group or ring of houses which
clustered round the edge of the dry land and sent out its industry
towards the Wash, making new land; for this ring sent out feelers
eastward, draining the land and recovering it every way, founding cells,
establishing villages. Holbeach, Spalding, Freiston, Holland, and I know
not how much more was their land.
When the monasteries were destroyed their lordship fell into the hands
of that high class--now old, then new--the Cromwells and Russells and
the rest, upon whom has since depended the greatness of the country. The
intensive spirit proper to a teeming but humble population was
forgotten. The extensive economics of the great owners, their love of
distances and of isolation took the place of the old agriculture. Within
a generation the whole land was drowned.
The isolated villages forgot the general civilisation of England; they
came to depend for their living upon the wildfowl of the marshes; here
and there was a little summer pasturing, more rarely a little ploughing
of the rare patches of dry land; but the whole place soon ran wild, and
there Englishmen soon grew to cause an endless trouble to the new
landlords. These, all the while on from the death of Henry to that of
Elizabeth, pursued their vigilance and their accumulations. Their power
rose above the marshes like a slow sun and dried them up at last.
In every inch of England you can find the history of England. You find
it very typically here. The growth of that leisured class which we still
enjoy--the class that in the seventeenth century destroyed the central
government of the Crown, penetrated and refreshed the universities,
acquired for its use and reformed the endowed primary education of the
English, and began a thorough occupation of our public land--the growth
of that leisured class is nowhere more clearly to be seen than in the
history of the Fens, since the Fens had their faith removed from them.
Here is the story of one such family, a family without whose privileges
and public services it would be difficult to conceive modern England.
Their wealth is rooted in the Fens; the growth of that wealth is
parallel to the growth of every fortune by which we are governed.
When the monasteries were despoiled and their farms thrown open to a
gamble, when the water ran in again, the countryside and all its
generations of human effort were drowned, there was raised up for the
restoration of this land the family of Russell.
The Abbey of Thorney had been given to these little squires. They were
in possession when, towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, in 1600, was
passed the General Draining Act. It was a generous and a broad Act: it
was to apply not only to the Great Level, but to all the marshes of the
realm. It was soon bent to apply to the family.
Seven years later a Dutchman of the name of Cornelius Vermuyden was sent
for, that the work might be begun. For fifty years this man dug and
intrigued. He was called in to be the engineer; he had the temerity to
compete with the new landlords; he boasted a desire--less legitimate in
an alien than in a courtier--to make a great fortune rapidly. He was
All the adventurers who first attempted the draining of the Fens were
ruined--but not that permanent Russell-Francis, the Earl of Bedford,
surnamed "the Incomparable."
The story of Vermuyden by him is intricate, but every Englishman now
living on another man's land should study it. Vermuyden was to drain the
Great Level and to have 95,000 acres for his pains. These acres were in
the occupation--for the matter of that, in great part the ownership--of
a number of English families. It is true the land had lain derelict for
seventy years, bereft of capital since the Reformation, and swamped. It
is true that the occupiers (and owners) were very poor. It is true,
therefore, that they could not properly comprehend a policy that was
designed for the general advantage of the country. They only understood
that the hunting and fishing by which they lived were to stop; that
their land was to be very considerably improved and taken from them. In
their ignorance of ultimate political good they began to show some
The cry of the multitude has a way of taking on the forms of stupidity.
The multitude in this case cried out against Vermuyden. They objected to
a foreigner being given so much freehold. "In an anguish of despair"--to
use one chronicler's words--they threw themselves under the protection
of a leader. "That leader was, of course, Francis, Earl of Bedford,
surnamed 'the Incomparable.' He could not hear unmoved the cry of his
fellow-citizens. He yielded to their petition, took means to oust the
Dutchmen, and immediately obtained for himself the grant of the 95,000
acres, by a royal order of 13 January, 1630/1, known as 'the Lynn Law.'"
When he saw the extent of the land and of the water upon it, even his
tenacious spirit was alarmed. He therefore associated with himself in
the expenses thirteen others, all persons of rank and fortune, as was
fitting: alone of the fourteen he preserved his fortune.
The fourteen, then, began the digging of nine drains (if we include the
repair of Morton's Leam); the largest was that fine twenty-one miles
called the old Bedford River, and Charles I, though all in favour of so
great a work, was all in dread of the power it might give to the class
which--as his prophetic conscience told him--was destined to be his
There was a contract that the work should be finished in six years: when
the six years were ended it was very far from finished. The King
grumbled; but Francis, Earl of Bedford, belonged to a clique already
half as powerful as the Crown. He threatened, and a new royal order gave
him an extension of time. It was the second of his many victories.
The King refused to forget his defeat, and Francis, Earl of Bedford,
began to show that hatred of absolute government which has made of his
kind the leaders of a happy England. The King did a Stuart thing--he
lost his temper. He said, "You may keep your 95,000 acres, but I shall
tax them"; and he did. Francis, Earl of Bedford, felt in him a growing
passion for just government. He already spoke of freedom; but he had no
leisure wherein to enjoy it, for within two years he departed this life,
of the smallpox, leaving to his son William the legacy of the great
battle for liberty and for the public land.
This change in the Bedford dynasty coincided with the Civil Wars.
William Russell, having led some of the Parliamentary forces at Edge
Hill, was so uncertain which side might ultimately be victorious as to
open secret negotiations with the King. Nothing happened to him, nor
even to his brother, who intrigued later against Cromwell's life. He was
at liberty to return once more and to survey from the walls of the old
abbey the drowned land upon which he had set his heart.
The work of digging could not be carried on during the turmoil of the
time; William, Earl of Bedford, filled his leisure in the framing of an
elaborate bill of costs. It was dated 20 May, 1646, and showed the sums
which he had spent and which had been wasted in the failure to reclaim
the Fens. He stated them at over L90,000, and to this he added, like a
good business man, interest at the rate of 8 per cent, for so many years
as to amount to more than another L30,000.
As against the King, the trick was a good one; but, like many another
financier, William, Earl of Bedford, was shortsighted. The more anxious
the King grew to pay out public money to the Russells, the less able he
grew to do so, till at last he lost not only the shadow of power over
the treasury, but life itself; and William, Earl of Bedford, brought in
his bill to the Commonwealth.
Cromwell was of the same class, and knew the trick too well. He gave
the family leave to prosecute their digging to forget their demand for
money. The Act was passed at noon. Bedford was sent for at seven o'clock
the next morning and ordered to attend upon Cromwell, "and make thankful
acknowledgments." He did so.
The works began once more. The common people, in their simplicity, rose
as they had so often risen before, against a benefit they could not
comprehend; but they no longer had a Stuart to deal with. To their
extreme surprise they were put down "with the aid of the military."
Then, for all the world as in the promotion of a modern company, the
consulting engineer of the original promotors reappears. The Russells
had patched it up with Vermuyden, and the work was resumed a third time.
There was, however, this difficulty, that though Englishmen might
properly be constrained at this moment to love an orderly and godly
life, and to relinquish their property when it was to the public good
that they should do so, yet it would have been abhorrent to the whole
spirit of the Commonwealth to enslave them even for a work of national
advantage. A labour difficulty arose, and the works were in grave peril.
Those whose petty envy may be pleased at the entanglement of William,
Earl of Bedford, have forgotten the destiny which maintains our great
families. In the worst of the crisis the battle of Dunbar was fought;
166 Scotch prisoners (and later 500 more) were indentured out to dig the
ditches, and it was printed and posted in the end of 1651 that it was
"death without mercy" for any to attempt to escape.
The respite was not for long. Heaven, as though to try the patience of
its chosen agent, raised up a new obstacle before the great patriot.
Peace was made, and the Scotch prisoners were sent home. It was but the
passing frown which makes the succeeding smiles of the Deity more
gracious. At that very moment Blake was defeating the Dutch upon the
seas, and these excellent prisoners, laborious, and (by an accident
which clearly shows the finger of Divine providence) especially
acquainted with the digging of ditches, arrived in considerable
numbers, chained, and were handed over to the Premier House. At the same
time it was ordered by the Lord Protector that when the 95,000 acres
should at last be dry, any Protestant, even though he were a foreigner,
might buy. Two years later an unfortunate peace compelled the return of
the Dutch prisoners; but the work was done, and the Earl of Bedford
returned thanks in his cathedral.
Restored to the leisure which is necessary for political action, the
Russells actively intrigued for the return of the Stuarts, and pointed
out (when Charles II was well upon his throne) how necessary it was for
the Fens that their old, if irregular, privileges should be confirmed.
It was argued for the Crown that 10,000 acres of land had been quietly
absorbed by the Family while there was no king in England: but there
happened in this case what happened in every other since the upper
class, the natural leaders of the people, had curbed the tyranny of the
King--Charles capitulated. Then followed (of course) popular rising; it
was quelled. Before their long struggle for freedom against the Stuart
dynasty was ended, the peasants had been taught their place, Vermuyden
was out of the way, the ditches were all dug, the land acquired.
All the world knows the great part played by the House in the
emancipation of England from the yoke of James II. The martyrdom of Lord
William may have cast upon the Family a passing cloud; but whatever
compensation the perishable things of this world can afford, they
received and accepted. In 1694, having assisted at the destruction of
yet another form of government, the Earl of Bedford was made Duke, and
on 7 September, 1700, his great work now entirely accomplished, he
departed this life peacefully in his eighty-seventh year. It was once
more in their cathedral that the funeral service was preached by a Dr.
Freeman, chaplain of no less than the King himself. I have read the
sermon in its entirety. It closes with the fine phrase that William the
fifth Earl and the first Duke of Bedford had sought throughout the whole
of a laborious and patriotic life a crown not corruptible but
It was precisely a century since the Family had set out in its quest
for that hundred square miles of land. Through four reigns, a bloody
civil war, three revolutions and innumerable treasons, it had maintained
its purpose, and at last it reached its goal.
"_Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem_."
The other day as I was going out upon my travels, I came upon a plain so
broad that it greatly wearied me. This plain was grown in parts with
barley, but as it stood high in foreign mountains and was arid, very
little was grown. Small runnels, long run dry under the heat, made the
place look like a desert--almost like Africa; nor was there anything to
relieve my gaze except a huddle of small grey houses far away; but when
I reached them I found, to my inexpressible joy, a railway running by
and a station to receive me.
For those who complain of railways talk folly, and prove themselves
either rich or, more probably, the hangers-on of the rich. A railway is
an excellent thing; it takes one quickly through the world for next to
nothing, and if in many countries the people it takes are brutes, and
disfigure all they visit, that is not the fault of the railway, but of
the Government and religion of these people, which, between them, have