England – Bath

FOR several miles before reaching Bath on our way out of Frome, Ballad had begun forcibly to resent the deceits practised on him by the suave hostler at Warminster. The hills, far from being trifling, might more truthfully have been described as formidable. What to Boston’s and my own enraptured sight was a landscape rich in an altogether unexpected originality of character and formation, — steep conelike hills dip-ping into slits of valleys, hamlets and villages perched on the slanting inclines like nosegays on an Alpine-peaked hat, miniature waterfalls which looked as if turned on to order, a shining river running through the sinuous valley as if it were a liquid snake, quaint little chapels hanging in mid-air, and castles over whose battlemented walls we rode serenely, — a country, in a word, strangely fantastic for orderly, sober England, — was Ballad’s weary and incompetent ankles only a land big with potentialities of suffering.

He had made a struggle, and a brave one, to put his best foot forward. He had had desperate spurts of energy going up the hills, ending in a complete collapse going down. The collapse had finally ended in rebellion. He refused even to attempt to propel his tired body an inch farther. Naturally, forcible measures were resorted to; but the strokes of the whip moved him as little as the most alluring entreaties. His feet remained rooted to the ground.

We were half-way down the long and truly magnificent descent of Coombe Down, one of the higher hills overhanging Bath. The city lay beneath us, — we could overlook its chimney-pots ; but we had still before us at least two miles of steep down-hill work, and Ballad was beginning to show determined signs of his desire to lie down and die by the roadside. Die we were resolved he should not, at least not without the formalities of an attending physician and the privacy of a stable. Some means must be found to keep him on his legs.

“I never heard of a horse dying of weak ankles, did you ?” I asked, a trifle nervously, as our poor beast again made a futile effort to take a little wayside repose.

Boston jerked the bit with such force that Ballad came very near performing a somersault in the air instead of accomplishing his own lazier intention.

” No, I never did ; but it would be just our luck to have him invent a new way out of life. Get down, can you, alone ? and can you take out a bag or two ? The carriage must be lightened, and we must walk. You had better take the whip, and I’ll lug the bags.”

Such was our entrance into Bath !— Boston leading Ballad on one side, with the bags in the other hand, as I plied the poor creature with the whip.

It would have been funny even to us, as an incident in our experience, I think, weary and annoyed as we were ; but what prevented our complete appreciation of the humorous side of the situation was the fact that the spectacle we presented evidently appealed to the humor of the passers-by. The people, indeed, as they passed, were at no pains to conceal their entire appreciation of the joke. Some inconsiderate draymen and farmers laughed outright. Children came to the gateways and snickered. The usual superfluity of street gamin shrieked and whistled in shrill glee. They attempted to form in line, as rear-guard. Ballad had to be temporarily abandoned to his fate, as Boston plied the whip lightly about more responsive legs and ankles.

It is never the mocking jeers or the derisive laughter of the class below one which really hurts. What we term our own world alone has the power to inflict the deepest pain. What was really hard to bear were the suppressed smiles of the staid dowagers and the more open mirth of the large-hatted young ladies, who were out taking their late afternoon drive ; for Bath at all seasons of the year, it appeared, is the abode of fashion. At the end of a half-hour I began to feel oppressively warm.

” Boston, would you mind holding the whip? I think he’ll go now without being scourged all the time ; the paving-stones seem to help him.”

Once free, it was the most natural thing in the world to take to the sidewalk. Once there, it was the work of an instant to open a parasol. I had a comfortable sense now of having returned to the outward decencies of life. I even looked in at the shop windows, and took a flitting review of the Bath fashions. But in a weak moment I looked back.

Boston was still leading Ballad by the bit. Both were dusty, weary, and dejectedly travel-worn. The rubber cover was white with the pulverized macadam of the roadway. The bags were lopping over, and the umbrellas were sprawling about as if just recovering from an orgie. It was, in truth, a most disreputable looking trap. In another instant I had returned to my post. One look at Boston’s face, and remorse and contrition triumphed. I flew at the bags with that ardor which is born of repentance.

” At least I can carry these ; it can’t be very far now. Do you think he will last another half-hour?”

Boston was merciful. His quiver was full, but he did not make use of even his tiniest arrow. He could not, however, wholly conceal the smile which came when I resumed my place at Ballad’s side, thus publicly acknowledging my renewal of relationship with them.

The remainder of the journey through the slippery, muddy Bath streets was accomplished under agonies of calculation. Was it best to urge Ballad on to the hotel, and would he hold together as a whole ; or would it be wiser to have him and the carriage part company, and place both under shelter at the nearest hostelry, while we proceeded on our way ? Some latent potentiality of will-force must have come to the rescue of our poor worn-out beast ; for in spite of repeated slippings and fallings, in spite of renewed expression of his overmastering desire to lie down and be at rest, Ballad did nevertheless reach the imposing façade of the Grand Pump Room Hotel. It was one of those moments when the sense of deliverance is strong enough to assume, unconsciously, the form of a vague prayerful utterance.

In entering a city we had returned to all the stirring activities of city life. Bath was so real a city that it actually possessed horse-cars. Since leaving London we had been as free from their monotonous jingling as one can hope to be in a world now bent on rapid locomotion ; but here again were these ugliest and most useful of conveyances, as crowded with citizens as is compatible with an Englishman’s sense of justice.

We decided that Bath, in spite of its English looking horsecars, was the most foreign-looking city we had seen on English soil. It had a surprisingly continental air. It had the charm of the unforeseen, the attraction of the unexpected. Who would have thought of building a city in so small a valley, — a valley so narrow that its streets must needs run up the hills, like vines along a lattice ? The least serious-minded inhabitant would have laughed such a plan to scorn. Yet here it is, — this charming, audacious lovely little city, —lying as contentedly in its valley as a rose in the hollow of a cup. The hills appear to step directly out of its streets. The streets, nothing daunted, climb diligently after them, till at a distance the landscape ends by describing those amazing perspectives so abundantly introduced by Albrecht Durer into his drawings, where hill and city seem about to overwhelm the subjects in the foreground. Here are the same quaint juxtapositions, — the carefully tilled patches of ground, interspersed with stiff façades, and a spire now and then to break the uniformity. In Bath this combination of altitudes and depressions is finely alternated with the majestic aspect of the remoter hills.

The street life of the city has a compelling magnetic attraction. One’s walks become a succession of surprises and discoveries. No one street is like another. If one thoroughfare be on a comparative level, the next will seem to run straight up into the sky, or will take an’ abrupt French leave, disappearing round a corner to plunge into some subterranean depth. The question of just how much there is of interest for the tourist in Bath comes, in the end, to depend very much on whether or not he is a good walker. One may safely intrust one’s self to the more luxurious methods of loco-motion, for a reviewing of the fine panoramic effects of the outlying hills ; but to learn all the secrets which this bewildering little city holds, one must have the strength and the ardor of the pedestrian.

We were waiting for the brake to be made, and also to see what effect a temporary rest might have upon Ballad. In the mean time our leisure was employed in making a number of interesting discoveries. Among other curiosities, we had stumbled on a nest of enticing little alley-ways in the older portion of the town. Dark, mysterious-looking passages, and queer, quaint worn steps led into still quainter streets ; a whole serial, in fact, of old-time fragments and historic suggestiveness we found could be picked up in instalments along these out-of-the-way paths. Houses and streets seemed made to order for the most lurid tragedy-novelist’s imaginative requirements. Mysterious disappearances could be effected along these murderous-looking streets with a turn of the hand, as it were, without even the usual formality of a trap-door. The houses, built on top of one another, looked as if hung out to dry on the hill-sides ; the secrets they held being doubtless in need of an airing. At twilight or in the dark of early night the most innocent shape, as it flitted through the evil-minded gloom, took on a tragic aspect ; its very shadow seemed to pursue it with fiendish intent. Such spectral charms made the more modern parts of the city — the severer façades of the Royal Crescent — seem a fable. In these dingy byways the past lost its vague dimness, and seemed alive again, as if reborn under the touch of some conjurer’s wand.

Under the glare of broad noonday still another phase of this older city’s life revealed itself. As if to keep the streets and houses in countenance, a remnant of hardier, coarser England appeared to have survived the transformations of the last few centuries. To look on the strong brutalized faces of the men who fill these streets with gossiping groups at twilight, gathering in front of the open butchers’ stalls, where the blood-flowing on warm days in no wise appears to disturb the sensibilities of the hardy stomachs ; to listen to the men’s deep rough laughter and their burly speech,—is to realize that England, like all old countries, hides in her forgotten pockets survivors still of that tough mediaeval people, the roysterers of King Henry VIlI.’s reign or the fighters of Elizabethan days, to whom contact with the more brutal sides of life presents no horrors. Nerves and sensibilities are a modern growth. We of the nineteenth century are the highly strung instruments, fitted to be played upon by steam-whistles, railways, mowing-machines, pistol-shots, and the racking noise of great cities. In our day ingenious man is the inventor of his own torture. In the Middle Ages the pleasing task of testing to what lengths human endurance could go was wisely left to the rack and to persecution-workers. Outside of dungeons and dark council-chambers, life was lived with keen animal ferocity of enjoyment. In looking on this remnant of that earlier system, in gazing on these giant frames and ox-like faces, with features and expression born of strong appetites and the latent strength that comes of surplus muscle, one is led to conjecture whether, after all, our modern diseases of exposed nerves and overactive sensibilities are not questionable gains. But the man who is great enough to turn back to form himself on these robust models, and who will contribute his experiments in primitive brutality to our inert age, is still to be born. The modern reformer is no better than the rest of us ; he persists in believing in the future, — that poor over-mortgaged country, that issues to each one of us such unlimited letters of credit.

In sharp contrast with the physical hardihood to be seen in the Bath slums is the invalidism that from time immemorial has been the raison d’être of Bath. Fashionable Bath is nothing if not the ” city of the sick man.” All the life of the little city localizes itself about the springs and the baths. The invalid’s throne is his Bath chair, and he is the most peripatetic of monarchs. In whatever part of the town one may chance to be, one meets two lines of invalids, — a slow solemn procession of believers going up in hope and faith to the Temple of Hygeia, the Grand Pump Room, and another line of pilgrims returning from the same. In the open square in the heart of the city, on which the Pump Room and the Abbey Church face, the little army of sufferers meet to saunter, lounge, and gossip. The Bath chairs are drawn up in line against the buildings facing on the square. With their hoods open, they look not unlike so many yawning graves. He who enters one, indeed, appears to have already opened tacit negotiations with the dread monster. But Englishmen would not be Britons if they failed in heroism even under the hood of one of these dismal hearses. The foxes of pain and anguish may be gnawing their vitals, but English pluck keeps bravery well up in front. To watch gouty and rheumatic England sipping relief from the steaming glasses in the Pump Room is a lesson in heroism. It is a regiment of soldiers performing a drill under orders. It is only the limp that betrays any evidence of suffering. The faces are as impassive and as immobile as so many masks.

On the faces of the wives and daughters of these heroic martyrs a fine observer might detect quite another expression. It is the look of those who also suffer and endure ; but the mingled pain and courage which compose it is of a very different character. It is one of enforced submission. Even a hero must draw his line of repression somewhere. An Englishman considerately draws it at his own family. The world must be met with a Spartan face, but the true Briton provides himself with a family pillow on which to do his private groaning. Thus gout is turned into a direct spiritualizing agency, and the submissive expression of angelic patience and sweetness which the rest of the world so admires in English wives is a product of home manufacture conducted on the strictest principles of economy.

In a circular recess of the Grand Pump Room is a statue of one of the two monarchs who have made Bath famous. This one is the statue of its last and uncrowned king, Richard Nash. In the King’s Bath yonder is the effigy of its first ruler, King Bladud. This latter is doubtless a most accurate reproduction of the original, since beneath the statue runs an inscription to the effect that “he was the founder of these baths 863 years before Christ.” The statue of one king is aureole with legend and mystery ; the effigy of the other with the halo which belongs to leadership, by what-ever name it is known. The two kings between them mark the Alpha and the Omega of Bath grandeur. The periods are nearly two thousand years apart ; yet, with the exception of a brief and temporary period of illumination, Bath may be said only truly to have lived at these two widely distant eras. Its one other period of fitful activity was during the Roman occupation.

It is impossible to resist at times the impulse to insist on the analogy existing between features and character, not alone in man, but in that more mysterious portion of the universe which we call Nature. The history of some countries seems written on their landscape. That cities should reflect the character and the lives of the men who inhabit them is scarcely to be wondered at, since, as muscle is carved by mind, so is the outward aspect of a city determined by the life that peoples its thoroughfares. Nature, at times, seems also to lend herself, to this mute handwriting. To look, for instance, on these Somersetshire hills about Bath,—at their sudden depressions and their impulsive heights of exaltation, — at the sinuous, variable, wayward little river running through its valley, at the sharp contrast existing between the richly wooded uplands and the naked barrenness of some of the hill-tops, at the mingled secrecy and abandonment of the landscape, the confidence of the forests and the betrayal of the open meadows,—is to divine that the adventures in experience of such a landscape have been a history richly di-versified by incident and romance. The prose of fact for once comes to sustain the frail poetry of intuition.

Bath owes much of its varied and extraordinary history to its exceptionable situation. Geographically, it had been gloriously endowed at its birth. Besides its beauty it has possessed an indefinable charm for mankind. Some cities possess such a magnetic potency. Man appears to divine their existence wherever lie may dwell. He can no more resist seeking them out, dwelling in them, and beautifying them, than he can escape the fated fascination of any other of the irresistible forces of the universe. Bath has been from the dawn of history such a little magnet. Men have sought her out, here in her deep hollow, begirt by her thermal springs ; they have brought their gods and their families ; they have built baths and temples ; they have lived and loved and roamed among her hills and along her lovely valleys; and then they have as incontinently deserted her. Others came to awaken the dead and forsaken beauty, to clothe her anew in loveliness, only in their turn to leave her to ruin and decay. Thus did those dwellers come, during the Stone Age, whose remains and ruins in Claverton and Lansdown Beacon prove this whole district to have been densely populated at least a thousand years before Christ. Thus came King Bladud and his train ; then the Romans ; then during the great ecclesiastical period the monks and bishops. Again came desertion ; and finally Beau Nash appeared to put the little kingdom of the springs on a sure footing of order and established sovereignty.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s monkish chronicle relates, in a bit of pleasing narration, the first known discovery of the healing properties of the Bath waters. A king’s son, Bladud by name, being afflicted with leprosy, was forced to turn vagabond. His father, Brutus, was the son of that hero whose wanderings Virgil sang, and who after the destruction of Troy came westward and conquered Albion.

But afflicted Bladud, for all he was a great king’s heir, could find no nobler occupation, cursed as he was, than swine-herding. His pigs were, however, gifted with those phenomenal qualities common to pigs tended by royalty in distress. They in their turn, catching their keeper’s terrible malady, proceeded to repair with great promptness to the hot springs in the morass in which Bath now stands. After a few baths, taken without the formality of professional consultation, the pigs became cured of their disorder. Their royal keeper, having had the benefit of a philosophic course at the schools of Athens, had acquired sufficient logic to enable him to make the following conclusion : ” If the springs have cured my pigs, why will they not cure me?” Whereupon he promptly plunged into the morass. He emerged as cured as his swine. In consequence of which happy miracle, Bladud was enabled to make his bow at court. With the virtue so freely attributed to legendary heroes, the chronicle proceeds to narrate that Bladud inaugurated his own reign by building in the morass a grand city, plentifully supplied with baths for both rich and poor.

Whether or not the ” grand city ” survived till Rome came to take possession, is not authenticated. Rome, however, was sufficiently opulent to supply her own luxuries. This invigorating mountain air once sniffed by a Roman nostril ; this lovely landscape once lit upon by the all-discerning Roman eye, — and the Roman knew a good thing when he saw it if ever a man did, — assured to Bath, for a century or two at least, the protection of its dominion. The charming hills were covered, as if by a miracle, with costly villas ; parks were laid out, and terraces constructed to delight the eye and the taste of the pedestrian ; roadways were constructed over the hills to the sea, along which Britons and American tourists still travel; the city itself was beautified with houses and temples and baths splendid enough to tempt the invalid across seas and continents, — for the distance from Rome to these hot springs of Bath was, after all, some-what of a journey for a gentleman in Trajan’s time. But then, what will not a man do if his liver be out of order ? The Roman, however, it must be remembered, above all other travellers anticipated the nineteenth century in the ease and comfort of his travelling arrangements. He carried, so to speak, all Rome with him. He had only to unpack his Saratoga to feel entirely at home. Here in Bath, for instance, he soon found himself in a miniature Rome. If he needed to pass an hour in worship, he had the beautiful Temple of Sul-Minerva round the corner. If he repaired to the baths, he found as complete and as varied a club life as at home. He would hear all the morning’s gossip in the Frigidarium, and in the Eliothesium he could be quite as certain as at Rome of being properly oiled and perfumed. Later in the day, a very fair contingent of fashionable Rome could be met taking the air along these Bath hills. Altogether, a Roman might do a worse thing than to settle here.

At a stone’s-throw from our hotel, closely wedged in among the tall modern houses of the present city, lies a mass of ruins. One looks down upon an apparently undistinguishable medley,—on broken fragments of columns, on grand bases separated from their shafts, upon bits of richly sculptured capitals, and traceried cornices. These shattered fragments are all that remain to make this lost page of Roman history a vivid reality. Archaeologists point in triumph to the unmistakenable traces of all the parts of these once great and beautiful baths, — to the leaden pipes which still exist, showing the entire plan of its heating apparatus ; to the green pools where the gold-fish still show their scaly golden armor, descendants of those finny tribes that the Romans placed here ; to the votive tablets and coins which the grateful had hung on the walls as tributes of their cure. But neither the historian nor the archaeologist can do more than does this green sluggish pool of water which washes the broad mouldy steps of the bath leading into it : this shadowy pool reflects two cities, —the one in ruins, gathered in pathetic fragments near its margin; the other erect and intact above it, towering in the majestic solidity of the present. Such is the history of nations.

When Rome fell, Roman Bath died. It came to life again under the reign of the mediaeval kings called bishops and abbots. Monks took the place of pagan epicureans. An abbey and a monastery replaced the Temple of Sul-Minerva, on that plan of economy which inspired the early Christians to make paganism serve God after its centuries of devotion to the devil. When the church became the cathedral of the diocese, John of Villula built a Norman structure befitting its dignity. In his time Bath was the bishop’s seat. With the removal of that throne to Wells in the latter part of the same century, the Abbey Church fell into ruin and decay. The present abbey was rebuilt in the fifteenth century by Bishop King. Something of the grandeur of the former edifice may be inferred from the fact that this present Perpendicular building, of very respectable size, occupies only the site of the Norman nave. From the banks of the river, the abbey’s embellished turrets, its pierced parapets and the pinnacle transepts group effectively with the surrounding plume-like trees and the city’s picturesque sky-line. But this abbey, in common with other less complete buildings, is best seen at a distance. Like certain friend-ships, its excellences are heightened when seen in perspective.

The next and last page of the history of Bath reads like a fairy tale. It is centred in the life of one man,—an ideal prince of adventurers, who, it is true, never ascended a throne, and yet ruled as autocratically as any despot ; who discovered, early in life, that in order to command men it is only necessary to guide their pleasures ; that royalty will make quite as obedient subjects as commoners if it discover a monarch strong enough to issue the fiat of Draconian laws. Never was there a sovereignty, founded on such fictitious usurpation of power, so powerful and prosperous as the fifty years’ reign of Beau Nash’s kingship in Bath. This solemn adjuster of trifles, this master of the ceremonies of polite life, this rigid arbiter of fashion, who took dandyism as seriously as statesmen take statescraft, did for Bath what neither Rome nor bishop nor kingly visitors had been able to achieve. He found Bath a city of dung-hills; he left it the beautiful and finished city which we now behold. In 1631 physicians did not dare recommend their patients to take the waters internally ; “for the streets are dung-hills, slaughter-houses, and pigsties ; . . . the baths are bear-gardens, where both sexes bathe promiscuously, while the passers-by pelt them with dead dogs, cats, and pigs,” writes a certain Dr. Jordan. Another writer adds : ” The roads are so bad it is scarce possible to get to the city in the winter. Every house is covered with thatch, and at every door hangs a manger to feed the horses, asses, etc., which bring coal and provisions into the town ; and nothing but obscenity, ribaldry, and licentiousness prevail.” Even ten years later, when Queen Anne made her famous entry into Bath, the city was still notoriously squalid, and the pleasures of the town were of the coarsest order. But Richard Nash, Esq., was a better ruler than stupid Queen Anne. When he came the face of things was changed. First he reorganized the pleasures, and then he re-constructed the city. The town, as we now know it, was either almost entirely the work of his direct energies, or the improvements were due to the impetus which the radical changes he wrought in-spired. The new and enlarged streets, the churches and chapels, the Guildhall, the Grand Pump Room, the Stall Street baths, the numerous benevolent institutions, were the direct offspring of one man’s genius for the organization of the pleasures of life. He may have been, as Goldsmith calls him in his inimitable portraiture, ” the little king of a little people ; ” but the puerilities of his aim are dignified into grandeur in view of such wide-reaching and substantial results. The lesson of Nash’s life is that it furnishes such a commentary on the relative values of human endeavor. How rarely are the noblest purposes and most heroic self-sacrifice rewarded as were the selfish petty ambitions of this man ! Such may come to be the true secret of successful sovereignty,—that a prince should descend to the human popular level of presiding over quadrilles and issuing his fiat for the height of shirt-collars and the color of waistcoats,— to lead the fashion, in a word, both in manners and in dress, and thus make existence for simpler men a less expensive outlay of mental capital.

The sky is full of signs that the world will grow in wisdom with the coming centuries ; but the world, he it ever so wise, will always have this point in sympathy with sheep, — whenever a leader arises it will be quite certain to follow.

In the mean time the brake had been finished, and Ballad, impatient of cures, having devoured all the oats within reach, had begun a species of refined cannibalism on his own person. He was eating his head off, the hostler said.