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    Chapter 7

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    Chapter 7
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    Roman Calleva

    An afternoon in the late November of 1903. Frost, gales, and
    abundant rains have more than half stripped the oaks of their
    yellow leaves. But the rain is over now, the sky once more a
    pure lucid blue above me--all around me, in fact, since I am
    standing high on the top of the ancient stupendous earthwork,
    grown over with oak wood and underwood of holly and thorn and
    hazel with tangle of ivy and bramble and briar. It is
    marvellously still; no sound from the village reaches me; I
    only hear the faint rustle of the dead leaves as they fall,
    and the robin, for one spied me here and has come to keep me
    company. At intervals he spurts out his brilliant little
    fountain of sound; and that sudden bright melody and the
    bright colour of the sunlit translucent leaves seem like one
    thing. Nature is still, and I am still, standing concealed
    among trees, or moving cautiously through the dead russet
    bracken. Not that I am expecting to get a glimpse of the
    badger who has his hermitage in this solitary place, but I am
    on forbidden ground, in the heart of a sacred pheasant
    preserve, where one must do one's prowling warily. Hard by,
    almost within a stone's-throw of the wood-grown earthwork on
    which I stand, are the ruinous walls of Roman Calleva--the
    Silchester which the antiquarians have been occupied in
    uncovering these dozen years or longer. The stone walls, too,
    like the more ancient earthwork, are overgrown with trees and
    brambles and ivy. The trees have grown upon the wall, sending
    roots deep down between the stones, through the crumbling
    cement; and so fast are they anchored that never a tree falls
    but it brings down huge masses of masonry with it. This slow
    levelling process has been going on for centuries, and it was
    doubtless in this way that the buildings within the walls were
    pulled down long ages ago. Then the action of the earth-worms
    began, and floors and foundations, with fallen stones and
    tiles, were gradually buried in the soil, and what was once a
    city was a dense thicket of oak and holly and thorn. Finally
    the wood was cleared, and the city was a walled wheat field
    --so far as we know, the ground has been cultivated since the
    days of King John. But the entire history of this green
    walled space before me--less than twenty centuries in
    duration--does not seem so very long compared with that of
    the huge earthen wall I am standing on, which dates back to
    prehistoric times.

    Standing here, knee-deep in the dead ruddy bracken, in the
    "coloured shade" of the oaks, idly watching the leaves fall
    fluttering to the ground, thinking in an aimless way of the
    remains of the two ancient cities before me, the British and
    the Roman, and of their comparative antiquity, I am struck
    with the thought that the sweet sensations produced in me by
    the scene differ in character from the feeling I have had in
    other solitary places. The peculiar sense of satisfaction, of
    restfulness, of peace, experienced here is very perfect; but
    in the wilderness, where man has never been, or has at all
    events left no trace of his former presence, there is ever a
    mysterious sense of loneliness, of desolation, underlying our
    pleasure in nature. Here it seems good to know, or to
    imagine, that the men I occasionally meet in my solitary
    rambles, and those I see in the scattered rustic village hard
    by, are of the same race, and possibly the descendants, of the
    people who occupied this spot in the remote past--Iberian and
    Celt, and Roman and Saxon and Dane. If that hard-featured and
    sour-visaged old gamekeeper, with the cold blue unfriendly
    eyes, should come upon me here in my hiding-place, and scowl
    as he is accustomed to do, standing silent before me, gun in
    hand, to hear my excuses for trespassing in his preserves, I
    should say (mentally): This man is distinctly English, and
    his far-off progenitors, somewhere about sixteen hundred years
    ago, probably assisted at the massacre of the inhabitants of
    the pleasant little city at my feet. By and by, leaving the
    ruins, I may meet with other villagers of different features
    and different colour in hair, skin, and eyes, and of a
    pleasanter expression; and in them I may see the remote
    descendants of other older races of men, some who were lords
    here before the Romans came, and of others before them, even
    back to Neolithic times.

    This, I take it, is a satisfaction, a sweetness and peace to
    the soul in nature, because it carries with it a sense of the
    continuity of the human race, its undying vigour, its
    everlastingness. After all the tempests that have overcome
    it, through all mutations in such immense stretches of time,
    how stable it is!

    I recall the time when I lived on a vast vacant level green
    plain, an earth which to the eye, and to the mind which sees
    with the eye, appeared illimitable, like the ocean; where the
    house I was born in was the oldest in the district--a century
    old, it was said; where the people were the children's
    children of emigrants from Europe who had conquered and
    colonized the country, and had enjoyed but half a century of
    national life. But the people who had possessed the land
    before these emigrants--what of them? They, were but a
    memory, a tradition, a story told in books and hardly more
    to us than a fable; perhaps they had dwelt there for long
    centuries, or for thousands of years; perhaps they had come,
    a wandering horde, to pass quickly away like a flight of
    migrating locusts; for no memorial existed, no work of their
    hands, not the faintest trace of their occupancy.

    Walking one day at the side of a ditch, which had been newly
    cut through a meadow at the end of our plantation, I caught
    sight of a small black object protruding from the side of the
    cutting, which turned out to be a fragment of Indian pottery
    made of coarse clay, very black, and rudely ornamented on one
    side. On searching further a few more pieces were found. I
    took them home and preserved them carefully, experiencing a
    novel and keen sense of pleasure in their possession; for
    though worthless, they were man's handiwork, the only real
    evidence I had come upon of that vanished people who had been
    before us; and it was as if those bits of baked clay, with a
    pattern incised on them by a man's finger-nail, had in them
    some magical property which enabled me to realize the past,
    and to see that vacant plain repeopled with long dead and
    forgotten men.

    Doubtless we all possess the feeling in some degree--the sense
    of loneliness and desolation and dismay at the thought of an
    uninhabited world, and of long periods when man was not. Is
    it not the absence of human life or remains rather than the
    illimitable wastes of thick-ribbed ice and snow which daunts
    us at the thought of Arctic and Antarctic regions? Again, in
    the story of the earth, as told by geology, do we not also
    experience the same sense of dismay, and the soul shrinking
    back on itself, when we come in imagination to those deserts
    desolate in time when the continuity of the race was broken
    and the world dispeopled? The doctrine of evolution has made
    us tolerant of the thought of human animals,--our progenitors
    as we must believe--who were of brutish aspect, and whose
    period on this planet was so long that, compared with it, the
    historic and prehistoric periods are but as the life of an
    individual. A quarter of a million years has perhaps elapsed
    since the beginning of that cold period which, at all events
    in this part of the earth, killed Palaeolithic man; yet how
    small a part of his racial life even that time would seem if,
    as some believe, his remains may be traced as far back as the
    Eocene! But after this rude man of the Quaternary and
    Tertiary epochs had passed away there is a void, a period
    which to the imagination seems measureless, when sun and moon
    and stars looked on a waste and mindless world. When man once
    more reappears he seems to have been re-created on somewhat
    different lines.

    It is this break in the history of the human race which amazes
    and daunts us, which "shadows forth the heartless voids and
    immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind
    with the thought of annihilation."

    Here, in these words of Hermann Melville, we are let all at
    once into the true meaning of those disquieting and seemingly
    indefinable emotions so often experienced, even by the most
    ardent lovers of nature and of solitude, in uninhabited
    deserts, on great mountains, and on the sea. We find here the
    origin of that horror of mountains which was so common until
    recent times. A friend once confessed to me that he was
    always profoundly unhappy at sea during long voyages, and the
    reason was that his sustaining belief in a superintending
    Power and in immortality left him when he was on that waste of
    waters, which have no human associations. The feeling, so
    intense in his case, is known to most if not all of us; but we
    feel it faintly as a disquieting element in nature of which we
    may be but vaguely conscious.

    Most travelled Englishmen who have seen much of the world and
    resided for long or short periods in many widely separated
    countries would probably agree that there is a vast difference
    in the feeling of strangeness, or want of harmony with our
    surroundings, experienced in old and in new countries. It is
    a compound feeling and some of its elements are the same in
    both cases; but in one there is a disquieting element which
    the other is without. Thus, in Southern Europe, Egypt, Syria,
    and in many countries of Asia, and some portions of Africa,
    the wanderer from home might experience dissatisfaction and be
    ill at ease and wish for old familiar sights and sounds; but
    in a colony like Tasmania, and in any new country where there
    were no remains of antiquity, no links with the past, the
    feeling would be very much more poignant, and in some scenes
    and moods would be like that sense of desolation which assails
    us at the thought of the heartless voids and immensities of
    the universe.

    He recognizes that he is in a world on which we have but
    recently entered, and in which our position is not yet
    assured.

    Here, standing on this mound, as on other occasions past
    counting, I recognize and appreciate the enormous difference
    which human associations make in the effect produced on us by
    visible nature. In this silent solitary place, with the
    walled field which was once Calleva Atrebatum at my feet, I
    yet have a sense of satisfaction, of security, never felt in a
    land that had no historic past. The knowledge that my
    individual life is but a span, a breath; that in a little
    while I too must wither and mingle like one of those fallen
    yellow leaves with the mould, does not grieve me. I know it
    and yet disbelieve it; for am I not here alive, where men have
    inhabited for thousands of years, feeling what I now feel
    --their oneness with everlasting nature and the undying human
    family? The very soil and wet carpet of moss on which their
    feet were set, the standing trees and leaves, green or yellow,
    the rain-drops, the air they breathed, the sunshine in their
    eyes and hearts, was part of them, not a garment, but of their
    very substance and spirit. Feeling this, death becomes an
    illusion; and the illusion that the continuous life of the
    species (its immortality) and the individual life are one and
    the same is the reality and truth. An illusion, but, as Mill
    says, deprive us of our illusions and life would be
    intolerable. Happily we are not easily deprived of them,
    since they are of the nature of instincts and ineradicable.
    And this very one which our reason can prove to be the most
    childish, the absurdest of all, is yet the greatest, the most
    fruitful of good for the race. To those who have discarded
    supernatural religion, it may be a religion, or at all events
    the foundation to build one on. For there is no comfort to
    the healthy natural man in being told that the good he does
    will not be interred with his bones, since he does not wish to
    think, and in fact refuses to think, that his bones will ever
    be interred. Joy in the "choir invisible" is to him a mere
    poetic fancy, or at best a rarefied transcendentalism, which
    fails to sustain him. If altruism, or the religion of
    humanity, is a living vigorous plant, and as some believe
    flourishes more with the progress of the centuries, it must,
    like other "soul-growths," have a deeper, tougher woodier root
    in our soil.
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