England – To Glastonbury

THE next morning, as we were strapping the last bag a few moments before leaving, an extraordinary bustle and noise came up the street and into the open windows. There was a great clattering of horses’ hoofs, a clanking of heavy chains, and the rumble of stout wheels over the cobble-paved streets.

We looked out. It was to look down on a brilliant spectacle. An artillery company — guns, troopers, and officers whose sabres flashed in the morning sun — were clashing along the narrow thoroughfare. The town was in the streets ; at least that portion of it which was not craning its feminine neck out of the windows was gathered in awed, admiring groups on the sidewalk. The groups scattered now and then, only to re-form, as the four or five young officers in charge of the company plunged their horses into the midst of the crowd to ring out the orders along the line. The troops, though evidently weary and whitened by the dust of prolonged travel, had that dashing, well-set-up air of the best military discipline characteristic of English soldiery. They were only travellers passing through a little provincial town en route for a northern city ; but they entered the narrow street as if they were an army come to take possession of an enemy’s country. Their entry was made in such form that it seemed only part of a well-arranged series of attack.

From the picturesque point of view, this peaceable invasion proved as good as a veritable assault. These scarlet coats lit up the dull gray streets into flashing brilliancy. The troopers’ backs made a long line of flame across the low leaden-hued houses. The noise and the bustle in the streets made a bristling accompaniment to the clanking of the chains and the heavy thunder of the gun-carriages. The town, which had been asleep ac-cording to its custom of centuries, had suddenly waked up. Its slow pulse had been galvanized into a new life. A part, at least, of the active forces of the nineteenth century was sweeping along its sluggish stream, and the tidal wave was stirring the slow current. It was curious to note the contrast between the gaping townspeople and these alert-looking soldiers. The people looked on in woodenish wonder, with becalmed eyes as they stood about in motionless attitudes. They might have been a fourteenth-century instead of a nineteenth-century provincial crowd, so alien and re-mote did they seem to the stir and the modern vigor these fine-looking artillerymen brought with them. It is only, we said to each other, as we leaned on our elbows, looking down upon the stirring little scene, — it is only by some such sudden and vivid contrasts as these, — by the introduction in sharp juxtapositions of these two periods, the period of the present projected into the midst of this fossilized past, that one can be made to realize fully the antique spirit that still inhabits these mediaeval towns. Their real existence appears to have stopped three or four hundred years ago. They have lived on in calm, pulseless inactivity, virile only in the sense of being representative of some of the still surviving features of feudalism. Their real life is in-rooted in the past. They are as unmodern and as unprogressive as if they had been bottled in the Middle Ages, and had been preserved as specimens of the mediaeval in the Museum of the Picturesque. Yet who would have it otherwise ? These little towns are the nests which all the ages have been busy making for the immortal mating of those fugitive birds, Art and Poetry. Without them man would be as sterile, from the imaginative point of view, as a North American Indian. Their lifeless unmodern spirit helps to create and sustain the charming illusion of their remoteness, and the sense of their historic isolation. Their dulness seems only a part of their Quaker grayness. It is a calm which is in keeping with the twilight hush that broods under their cathedral aisles. Thus they charm into drowsy luxury of enjoyment the tourist’s senses and faculties, as they continue to live on contentedly in the torpor of retrospection, by the fine subtle opiates of their matchless beauty.

These and other profound and philosophic reflections were brought to an abrupt close, — for the troops had been ordered to halt. The first four or five gun-carriages and two of the younger officers were to be quartered on our inn. In the twinkling of an eye the troopers were off their horses, the carriages had been quickly and dexterously wheeled into the courtyard, and a moment later the officers’ swords were heard clanking along the wooden stairway.

The excitement which had pervaded the town now took possession of our little inn. It was thrown into convulsive throes of energy. The energy, however, appeared, by auricular evidence, to be concentrated in the male element of the establishment. The hostlers and waiters appeared to be in lively response to the sudden call of the emergency. But the women had evidently quite lost their heads. The maids stood about in conscious pairs, smiling vacuously at the troopers, twiddling their apron-strings. It was painful to learn, on Boston’s going down to order Ballad to be brought round, that the appearance of the two young officers had even had the power to put the handsome landlady in a flutter. The rule that temporary paralysis invariably sets in among women at the sight of a few brass buttons and a uniform, was apparently to find no exception in this instance.

We were soon in need of other consolation than a talent for making light of a disagreeable situation. We waited a long half-hour, and still no Ballad. As the sun was meanwhile mounting high, and noon was approaching, there was a better reason than mere irritation for our impatience.

” Confound the women ! I wish they could do anything, even to answering a bell-rope, as well as a man,” cried Boston, in his disgust and vexation.

” As the men of the establishment appear to have kept their heads, I’ll go and see if I can’t impress a hostler,” I said. “There’s nothing like carrying a war into an enemy’s camp.” And I determinedly opened the door.

It was to stumble on a bit of genteel comedy. In the door directly opposite was framed the figure of one of the young officers. He was in jaunty déshabille, and was holding in charmed dialogue one of the pretty chambermaids. Some point in his gay discourse appeared to render a pinching of the latter’s rosy cheek necessarily explanatory. The girl was responding by a dazed little courtesy. My appearance was the signal for a hasty dropping of the curtain. The door was shut to with a bang ; and the girl, in a cloud of blushes, disappeared round an angle of the hallway.

It was our fate to witness still another encounter of this young gallant, which, however, did not have quite so brilliant a finish. Ballad had been at last brought to the door. There was the usual delay in the courtyard before the trap was entirely packed and loaded. Then, when the last hostler had strapped the last strap and had pocketed the last shilling, we issued forth to drive slowly and lingeringly out of the little town. We had turned, as was our wont, to take a farewell glimpse of the cathedral, at the first corner which was to hide the great structure behind a wall of house-fronts. As our eyes gradually descended from the glittering tower-tops, swimming in noon-light, into the glare of the streets, with a black shadow cut here and there by an eave or a window-ledge, three figures stood out in brilliant contrast against the whitened house façades. Two of the figures were those of the two young officers. They were resplendent in scarlet coats and gold lace. The third was that of a young lady, tall and gracefully slender. She was walking along close beneath the wide window-ledges, to catch what shade their broad shelter might afford. She was carrying, as is the custom of English ladies in rural cities, a small wicker basket filled with odds and ends of shopping. A carriage followed slowly behind. As the three figures advanced, there was a little well-bred start of surprise on the part of the young officers ; their hats were raised, and mutual greetings were interchanged ; but beneath the young lady’s richly feathered Gainsborough, a frigid distant smile met the eyes bent upon her. Two languid finger-tips were extended, a monosyllable or two were uttered, and she passed on.

“I’m glad they were snubbed, — and she was pretty too,” I said to Boston, as we turned a corner.

“Why were you glad? They were perfectly civil, apparently, and they were rather fine-looking too, in their way,” answered Boston, in the tone men use when they feel it necessary to defend one another.

” Oh, they were good-looking enough, but they had such a London swagger, and such a Londoner’s talent for losing no time in sowing a wild oat or two. The modern man—”

” The modern man sows fewer than his grand-fathers did.”

” That’s only a relative progress. Society will never be on a truly right basis until — ”

” My dear, I’ll grant anything. It ‘s getting too hot for temperate argument or even for sane talk of any sort. Would you mind holding your parasol out of my eyes, please ? ”

The heat was, in truth, tropical. It was as hot as Naples or New York. Besides the heat to endure, there was a sirocco of dust. Why, of all days, had we chosen this one for a noon drive ? Why had we not kept to our lately discovered plan of starting at sundown and arriving in the small hours, in the cool of the night, at our destination ? We kept repeating this question — asked unwisely all too late, else there would be no errors in life to regret — most of the way along our torrid high-road to Glastonbury. The road, the views, the landscape, were spoiled for us. The sun beat his fierce light on a road as destitute of shade as a plain. The dust was as a wall between us and the out-lying country. This drive from Wells to Glastonbury may be the most beautiful in England ; for us it proved only an eight-mile journey of torture. The sole point of interest, as we neared the low-lying hills about Glastonbury was centred for us in the All-Weary Hill, where in the dim early centuries Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to have finally rested after his long brave pilgrimage. With that ardent disciple we felt now a new bond of sympathy. Our belief in the reality of his presence here was strengthened by the need of the proof that so reliable a fellow-traveller had survived the journey. After all, much perhaps of our fine incredulity regarding certain mythical statements might be changed into quickened belief were more of us, in these more comfortable days, subjected to the commoner hardships of life. We are out of touch with the old martyr’s hardships and the toil of the early disciple’s daily life ; we no longer live in conditions which make the Apostle’s simple faith or the propagandist’s fervent undismayed audacity realizable. From the purely physical standpoint we are removed from them by far more than mere centuries of time. We are too well fed, too warm, too rested to believe very acutely in willing ascetics, in voluntary nakedness, or in gladly self-enforced labor and toil. Physically, our conditions are as changed as morally we stand far removed from the early primitive conditions under which great spiritual deeds were possible and almost easy. If Boston and I, for instance, had arrived here in Glastonbury by train, unwearied, unheated, unvexed by dust and the discomfort of enduring a broiling sun for nearly two hours, our interest hi Joseph of Arimathea and the story of his resting on yonder hill would have fallen, without doubt, on dull, incredulous ears ; but a little dust, heat, and fatigue made him and his journey seem entirely real. As a traveller, his experiences over-topped ours, it is true ; but had he suddenly appeared among us, we should have sat down at the common board, — there must have been tavern-boards even in his time, — we should have interchanged experiences and clasped the hand of fellowship and rejoicing.

Had neither history nor guide-books been written to establish the authentic antiquity of Glastonbury, its age would have written itself. The town, as we drove into it, had the unmistakable mouldiness which centuries of life and bygone careers leave as a part of historic deposit. The church towers looked more like fortresses than belfries ; and the narrow streets had the richness of gray coloring which old stones yield. The bits of moss, of lichens, the tufts of foliage here and there in the chinks of the old houses and in the cracks of the old walls, were like the gray, stumpy bits of beard old men grow, too thoroughly inrooted in unyielding soil to obey the razor or the scythe.

Chiefest and most beautiful of the old houses in this still ancient Glastonbury is the George Inn. The architectural authorities who tell you so much of its beauty do not tell you enough of its charm. The beauty lies in the unity and grace of its façade ; but the charm is to be found in its having preserved so astonishingly the old methods of living. The walls are thicker, for instance; than many of the rooms are wide. The light which came through the picturesque mullioned windows was scanty and treacherous. The little sitting-room, which was coffee-room, inn-parlor, and commercial room in one, was as darkly lighted as a dungeon, and not much more commodious. It would have been impossible, in a word, on a hot noonday to have been more antiquely uncomfortable. Our ancestors presumably considered the compensations of safety as a happy exchange for larger comfort or freedom. But the nineteenth century, which has no use for walled towns or narrow streets or thick walls, prefers, on the whole, rather to play at medievalism than to live it. This was our own first experience of a genuine fifteenth-century luncheon in a fifteenth-century inn. The comely serving-maid who brought in yesterday’s shoulder of lamb, a huge cheese, and tankards of beer of the size and quantity accredited in fiction to the heroes of that strong age, made the fitting human completion to the rest of the picture, — to the little dark room, with its low ceilings, its fortress-like walls, and its rough deal furniture. There was nothing to mar the unity of the whole as a masterly” bit of mediaeval reproduction. As a final touch, there were the grunting of pigs and the cackling of hens in the courtyard, added to which was the pervasive odor of manure and hay from the stables, which, for convenience doubtless, had been built directly beneath the inn’s sitting-room windows.

The innkeeper appeared to be enough of a connoisseur in architecture to prefer a prolonged contemplation of the unequalled beauties of the exterior of this famous little inn, to subjecting himself to any reminders of its internal deficiencies. On our arrival we had found him planted, with legs wide apart, at a comfortable angle for a protracted survey, beneath one of the lower windows. He was still there when, after luncheon, we had come to the point of asking our way to the abbey. He was again at his post when we returned some two hours later.

Our way, he told us, was not far. We were to cross the street, turn under yonder old archway, take a little alley to our right, follow between the two high walls till we reached a small green door which would open at the touch of a bell. All this sounded very mysterious and inviting ; for ruins in these old countries have come to be as guarded and as ingeniously tucked away as bits of hidden treasure. To the stranger, part of their charms perhaps lies in these quaint and curiously unexpected methods of approach. The homeliness of this path along which we were proceeding, for in-stance, made our first sight of the great abbey’s ruins doubly impressive. We passed through a courtyard filled with farm-wagons, rakes, and scythes. The long wall closed about rows of straggling, weary-looking old houses ; and the little green door seemed not unlike those mysteriously commonplace doors in fairy-land which, once opened, usher in paradise itself.

This particular paradise was a paradise of ruins. Glastonbury Abbey lies mostly on the ground.

Such portions of it as are still standing are the débris of a colossus. No one thing so strikes upon the eye at a first glance as does the immensity of it all, – the tremendous sweep of lawn, once entirely covered with the old conventual buildings ; the grandeur of the still remaining walls, whose fitting roof seems heaven’s vast vault ; and the still standing glory of the great trees, whose tops overhang the nave aisles. It would be impossible, I think, for a magnificent building in ruins and Nature, grandly, nobly alive, to form a more deeply and profoundly impressive union than do these Glastonbury enclosures. Nature has supplemented what time and the desecration of man have attempted to destroy. These great lawns and giant trees have preserved at least something of that grandeur which must have been, even during its greatest day of glory, the noblest feature of this abbey.

That the abbey and its dependencies once covered sixty acres of ground seems entirely realizable, with this splendid sweep of velvet before one. The branches of the trees, as they play beneath the touch of the light winds, are Nature’s gracious substitute for the lofty vaulting which once covered the long stretch from yonder distant nave to this crumbling, aerially roofed St. Joseph’s Chapel. The latter, even in its decay, is still one of the most perfect examples of the transitional period. The Norman windows, with their rich embroidery of tooth-work and of embattled mouldings ; the slender nave aisles, with their semicircular arches covered with roses, crescents, and stars in the spandrels ; the noble doors, massive in their structural solidity, — make such a fusion of the best later Norman features and the Early English nascent forms as is unmatched for harmonious unity. As one deciphers the half-obliterated features of this once supremely lovely little building, one is lost in a rapture of wonderment as to what its perfect and completed whole must have been. What a miracle of luxuriance in ornament, what a harmony of flowing lines, and what an infinity of device in it all Such portions of the great abbey as are still standing —the tall side walls, the few bits of sculpture still traceable in St. Mary’s Chapel, the pier-arches, and the short, broken bits of vaulting here and there—everywhere repeat these notes of affluent richness in design, and the superabundance of ornamental wealth, which St. Joseph’s Chapel first reveals. The abbey was built, in a word, before the sculptor’s chisel or the architect’s inventiveness had begun to tire. Both here rioted in the sense of an almost reckless fertility of invention. The Norman died here in a blaze of glory. The truer, more native Early English was cradled into birth by a parent whose own life was ending in the midst of a transfigured glory.

That the abbey was as rich in worldly possessions as it was glorious in architectural splendor, is a part of that history which made these great mediaeval monasteries such a wondrous paradox. Within these sixty acres reigned for centuries a stupendous conventual hierarchy. These Benedictine monks had foresworn the world, only to re-possess its luxuries under more assured conditions. When Henry VIII. came, they had become so drugged with the rich poisoned wines of enjoyment, that not only the monks but the abbot himself turned thief and common pilferer. The abbey treasures were deliberately stolen, hidden away, or sold by the pious ascetics who had voluntarily taken the vows of poverty and sanctity. Torre Hill, on which now bristles a sturdy tower, commemorates Henry’s view of the situation. The abbot who refused to yield up his abbey into his king’s hands, and then began a deliberate system of thieving to insure at least the possession of the abbey’s treasures, paid for his short-sighted political sagacity and impiety with his life. With Whiting’s execution, the monastery was confiscated to the use of the more powerful king. It was abandoned, and finally crumbled into ruin ; but in its decay its utility may be said, perhaps, to have begun. The magnificent pile, as have so many of the great buildings at Rome, served as a quarry for desecrating builders. Half of Glastonbury town, as well as the long causeway across the Sedgemoor, has been constructed out of its fallen mass of ruins.

There are two incidents in the history of Glastonbury which stand out in luminous relief against the background of its later monkish luxury and its earlier days of ascetic piety. The one is the story of the life and career of Abbot Dunstan. The record of his brilliant achievements reads all the better in the pages of serious history, as a welcome relief to the interminable chronicle of the wars with the Danes, the chief political and military events of his day. But there is a tender episode in his career which has always seemed to me to throw a flood of light on the customs and manners of a period we are wont to liken to Cimmerian darkness. In his earlier days Dunstan, like Abelard, as well versed as he in the learning, philosophy, and poetry of his day, was followed by a train of pupils. The versatility of his gifts is proved by the statement that a lady summons him to her house to design a robe she is embroidering. He and her maidens bend together over their task ; and a harp, which he has strung on the wall, ” sounds without mortal touch in dulcet tones.” The monk had anticipated the modern a aesthete, you see, by just a thousand years ; but he was a better lover than the emasculated specimens which hyperculture breeds in our day. As monk at Glastonbury, Dunstan became the spiritual guide of a woman of high rank, whose virtues were as great as her beauty was rare. In the simple, fervid English of those days the chronicler says, ” and he ever clave to her, and loved her in wondrous fashion.” It was only at her death that he became abbot.

The other incident in the history of Glastonbury is the one, above all others, which aureoles it with the halo of poetic associations.

The picture glows with the color of tradition. Two monks go forth into the morning to dig, in the now untraceable cemetery, the grave of one of the brothers. As the earth yields to their labor, their tools strike hard against a stone. Beneath the stone rests a stout oaken coffin. They wrench the coffin open, and behold, within lies the figure of a kingly, stalwart man, on whose breast rests the head of a yellow-haired woman. The figures are none other than those of the stainless king and his erring and beautiful Guinevere. A leaden cross beneath the stone bears the inscription, ” Hic jacet sepultus inclytus Rex Arthurus in insula Avallonia.” The story appears almost too obviously in consonance with the demands of historic justice to be taken for historic truth. Launcelot and the poets having done their uttermost to perpetuate Guinevere’s perfidy during her husband’s lifetime, the historians have felt it, perhaps, to be but the barest justice to place them, indisputably, side by side in death.

Legend and poetry seem far more fitting notes to issue forth from these “ruined choirs” than the reminders of the monks’ fat living and their deep wassailing, which the massive square kitchen recalls. The building stands almost intact, beyond the main ruins. The cowled brethren of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with such a capacious little fortress as their cuisine, were assuredly not starved. What a refinement of aesthetic and religious epicureanism is suggested by such a chapel as St. Joseph’s, in which to worship of a morning, and the sitting down after Mass to such a dinner as these huge spits and yawning ovens must have furnished ! One must be brought face to face with such a spectacle as Glastonbury presents even in its ruins, to have some of the great pictures of the past thrilled with a new life and meaning. To read of such a monastery as this and the history of its career, from its establishment sixty years after Christ to the dramatic finale on Torre Hill, can scarcely fail to interest the least imaginative reader ; but to stand here within sight of these giant walls, before these vast perspectives and their crumbling glories, is to have the shadowy aisles filled with the pomp and splendor of those bygone ceremonials, with the long procession of the Benedictine Brothers, with the kingly abbot, who, as he swept in state from his monastery along the cloistered walk, could rest his eye on a fair and smiling country, which, far as he could see, was all his own. As the choir-boys’ chorals smote his ear, heaven and earth must in-deed have seemed to clap their hands- for joy aver so royal a possession. Perhaps, if the sons of heaven had not attempted to appropriate so much of earth, the swift-footed Nemesis of the Reformation might have stayed its speed. It is a pity that these brethren could not have gone out in a greater blaze of spiritual glory. One would like to cover the abbey ruins with at least a sentimental tissue of regret born of wholesome admiration ; but the monks were such a poor hybrid of man and beast that Henry VIII. for once at least poses as a righteous executioner.