England – Approaching Stonehenge

THE Earls of Pembroke have well understood that the art of lordliness as expressed in one’s dwelling-place — or dwelling palace —is mainly an affair of trees. It matters little whether your house be large or small, beautiful or ugly, so long as you surround it with lofty vestibules of green leaves. The largest avenue of obsequious servants is nothing like so impressive as a hundred elms deferentially drawn up on each side of your carriage drive, and at Wilton, from whichever of the four winds you approach, you must pass through long lanes of these giant footmen. Any one who possesses a garden with a single old tree in it will know what a feeling of distinction it is in the power of one old tree to confer, and can thus form an idea how very distinguished one must feel when one possesses a whole park full, or even whole parks full, like the Earl of Pembroke for example, though, indeed, the avenues to Wilton are evidently of comparatively recent growth. Yes, it is the trees and the old Italian garden that make Wilton, even more than its history or those “art treasures,” among which the British public wanders, with all the pathos of irrelevance, on Wednesdays from ten to four. But, of course, the Van Dycks, the Holbeins, the Durers, the Poussins and the Reynoldses help—not to speak of the Greek and Roman sculptures. They help at least in lessening that saddening sense of rather foolish disproportion with which all such instances of the magnificent housing of our mortality must inspire the meditative mind. What human being is great enough to be equal to all this pomp of approach ? Avenues so stately as these must surely be leading us to some throned wonder of humanity, such as man has seldom looked upon. Wise, therefore, is the man who evades the ordeal, and sets a Van Dyck or a Reynolds in his place, feigning that this is not so much his house, as a temple of the arts in his keeping. The avenues thereupon assume a fitness ; for, while humanity itself is insignificant, its works are filled with a strange majesty.

Of course, I know that there is another view to be taken, and I myself am as likely as not to take it to-morrow. Once walking with a friend through the grandiose rooms of a certain great London house, I noticed how his form grew more erect, how his eyes brightened and his whole mien took on an added largeness and dignity. ” Ah ! ” he exclaimed, ” this is how a gentleman should live ! ” The spirit within him seemed to expand to its true proportions, — proportions usually cramped and confined within the narrow conditions of a literary life. But, then, his was a great, ambitious spirit. It had a real need of all this space and air. The human soul may sometimes be so great that its incarnation may not ridiculously inhabit rooms vast as cathedrals, and sit enthroned in the centre of avenues even more imperial than the Earl of Pembroke’s. Such human souls, however, seldom find themselves so splendidly provided for ; and, therefore, it is as well to have a few Van Dycks and Reynoldses to fill their places.

As you leave Wilton House, and come out upon the high road, you find yourself at four crossroads, or rather cross-avenues. That to your right has brought you from Salisbury. That immediately facing you, and climbing a long steep hill, will take you to Stonehenge. You have the trees with you, a charming tunnel of green, for nearly a mile, when you come to the Devizes road, which you must cross — but, meanwhile, the seats thoughtfully provided for you while you wait to see the Earl, may have tempted you to sit awhile and listen to the chatter of the leaves, and the hot singing of noon. Besides, it is a pleasant place to take one’s lunch in, though I was a little uncertain whether it was quite good manners to eat chocolate and biscuits in the antechamber of an earl. However, I was very careful with the crumbs, and I left no paper bags lying about. One other kindness to visitors I must note. To disperse the ennui of waiting, the avenue is provided with the weekly papers. At least so I assumed from the fact of a clean copy of the current Athenaeum ” lying ready for me upon one of the seats. It proved no inconsiderable kindness to me, for therein I found quoted a little poem which, indeed, I had known before, but which I was glad now to learn beyond possibility of forgetting : —

“Pale brow, still hands, and dim hair, I had a beautiful friend,

And I dreamed that the old despair Would end in love in the end. She looked in my heart today, And found your image there — She has gone weeping away.”

This was my beautiful companion, as I laid down the ” Athenaeum ” where I had found it — from the absence of papers on the other seats I feared that all the Earl of Pembroke’s visitors were not so scrupulous — and continued my way to Stonehenge. After you cross the Devizes road, your way suddenly becomes a quarter of a mile of gravelly field-track down the side of a sharp curve of down, which, if you are not careful, may, literally, precipitate you on to the main road between Salisbury and Stonehenge, thus deviously caught up at the bottom of the hill. Thence your way and the Avon’s are one for some pleasant miles, and even the great Stratford Avon itself could not be a fresher, greener companion. Charm ing, too, are the little villages that sit with their feet in the stream all the way along, their long gardens running down to the river on land which has the look of fat alluvial soil. The villagers seem to be great bee-keepers, and wherever the stream brims it nourishes an unusual plenty of water plants, and reflects uncommonly rich masses of great trees.

The trees are particularly fine as you near a little village just on the border of the Stonehenge plain, called Lake. The cyclist may know of his approaching Lake by a danger-board at the top of a steep wooded lane, — a danger-board which for once he will do well to regard, for it means a sudden right angle of stone wall, the wall dividing the road from a fine old Jacobean house hidden away at the bottom of a well of dark trees Lake House. Just past Lake House, you turn sharply to the left down a lane which begins with a cluster of farm buildings. On the door of one of the barns or stables you will notice the mouldering heads and feet of various small criminals — foxes, stoats and moles. So the head of a traitor once grinned at you from Temple Bar.

A big, black-bearded countryman, whose kind eyes relieved the sternness of his grim beard, was busy with some hay in one of the sheds, and a young man, his son, as it presently transpired, was putting his whole soul into the cleaning of some harness, which pleasantly jingled as he rubbed, purring to himself the while, after the manner of men who rub down horses. I remember an old ostler at Stratford who purred away while he cleaned my bicycle, just as though it had been a thoroughbred. So a sailor ” ye-ho’s ” as he pulls a rope, but sailors and ostlers seem to be the only workers who absolutely need a vocal accompaniment to their work. Of course, housemaids sing while they ” sweep a room as for God’s laws ; ” and many other workers whistle and sing over their work—is it, one wonders, for joy in it, or simply to keep up their sad hearts ? But, so far as I know, it is only in the case of sailors and ostlers that the work and its accompaniment are one. So some people unfamiliar with pens and ink must put out their tongues while they write. I don’t think an ostler or a sailor could do his work at all if he were forbidden to make his own peculiar noises while doing it.

Well, black-beard and his son looked up as I entered the lane, and I thought I would take the opportunity of satisfying an old curiosity about those poor mouldering heads and feet on the barn-door. No doubt anthropologists would tell us that they represent the relic of ancient sacrifices to dark earth deities, or perhaps were once offerings of ingratiation to the gods who preside over barns and stables, — the gods who keep the rats from the corn, and watch over the newborn foal. These theories I did not mention to my two friends, though I did hazard one which I had often heard, that those small offenders were thus gibbeted for the same reason that highwaymen once dangled in chains at the crossroads, — pour encourager les autres. This theory raised a smile, as at an outworn superstition, upon the faces of my countryman and his son. Yet the son was inclined to believe, he said, that if you tarred a rat and let it run loose among its friends and relations, it created an excellent effect. But, that apart, he would explain my sacrifice to dark earth deities on more immediately practical grounds. These animals were thus nailed up, not in the least as tradesmen nail bad half-crowns to their counters, or for any such monitory or symbolic reason, but entirely for the purpose of simple enumeration. As once in an earlier England a price was set upon the heads of wolves, so in present-day England a price is set upon the tails of rats. You come to the farmer and say, “I have slain so many rats, or so many stoats ” ; and the farmer says, “Where are they?” Then you proudly take him to the barn-door and point to your victims neatly nailed in rows, and making something of a grisly decorative scheme. Then the farmer pays.

Weasels and stoats bring twopence a piece, rats ” a penny a tail ” if caught up in the fields, and twopence if caught in “a gin” down in the valley, near the stacks and barns.

“A gin,” I asked, momentarily forgetting my Omar, what is that? ” and then almost immediately my mind began,

” O thou who didst with pitfall and with gin . . .” and Oh, of course, you mean a trap. I remember,” I said. A knowledge of poetry is thus occasionally elucidative of actual life.

Moles likewise bring a penny a tail, and then, in their case, there are the coats to think of, to avoid spoiling which special mole-traps are used. All this I felt was really valuable information, and I learnt, too, that the difference between a stoat and a weasel lay in a white spot upon the stoat’s tail. In another county I have found that sparrow’s eggs are a similar lucrative source of income. One farmer of my acquaintance gives a penny a dozen for them, and has paid over a pound this year to village boys for such blood-money — which means something like three thousand sparrows less in the world. If Lesbia made her little eyes so red’ over the death of one sparrow, surely he heart would have broken at such a wholesale slaughter. I have seldom seen two hap-pier, brighter people than that country-man and his son, and I should surmise that no master has two better servants. To see people doing their duty briskly, evidently loving it, and finding in its round a complete world according to their liking, is a rare sight to-day, and is perhaps likely to become rarer. The pride that lad took in making the bit he was polishing shine like silver was good to see, and as the bit brightened his intelligent face seemed to brighten too. A human being harmoniously adjusted to his place and work in the world ! Naturally he was happy, for it was impossible not to reflect that he owed no little of his happiness to having been born into one of those traditional employments which are so close to nature as almost to be counted among her operations, and are, therefore, little disturbed by the fashions of human change. There are so many modern duties that it is impossible, and would be unnatural, ven wicked, to do with gladness ; but from these your man born to the beautiful care of horses is saved, placed beyond hearing of those “storms that rage ” Outside” his “happy ground.”

When, as not always happens, a countryman is nice, he is ” very, very nice ; ” so I left my two friends — as I feel I may call them—with a warm sense of having felt at home in the world for a few moments, no doubt an illusion created by contact with their harmony. I hope I left them no disease of the soul in exchange.

On parting from them they had warned me not to make a common mistake of wayfarers, — that of continuing the road straight on ; but that, as soon as the open plain began on the right, I was to strike out boldly across the grass. Something of this I remembered from a former time — an earlier life it seemed to be ; for this was to be my third visit to Stonehenge. It is evident that I was not born to be a great traveller, for the reader of this itinerary may have observed that I have spent most of my time in the delicate pleasure of revisiting places visited before. It is to take one’s pleasures sadly, I admit ; yet the sad music that lives in the wind blowing about half-forgotten places of our pilgrimage is sweet to hear. It is like the waving of harebells in a lonely field. Besides, there are classics among places, to which we naturally return, not merely from egoistic sentiment, but to re-new our delight in them. And Stonehenge, I remembered, had given me an unforgettable thrill of mystery, though that stone writing upon the green page of Salisbury Plain was in a language I could not read. But the shape of the letters alone had fascinated me— and, indeed, it is not merely fanciful to say that at a distance Stonehenge is not unlike a Hebrew inscription written in stone.