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    Chapter 21

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    Chapter 21
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    Stonehenge

    That American from Indiana! As it was market day at Salisbury
    I asked him before we parted if he had seen the market, also
    if they had market days in the country towns in his State? He
    said he had looked in at the market on his way back from the
    cathedral. No, they had nothing of the kind in his State.
    Indiana was covered with a network of railroads and electric
    tram lines, and all country produce, down to the last new-laid
    egg, was collected and sent off and conveyed each morning to
    the towns, where it was always market day.

    How sad! thought I. Poor Indiana, that once had wildness and
    romance and memories of a vanished race, and has now only its
    pretty meaningless name!

    "I suppose," he said, before getting on his bicycle, "there's
    nothing beside the cathedral and Stonehenge to see in
    Wiltshire?"

    "No, nothing," I returned, "and you'll think the time wasted
    in seeing Stonehenge."

    "Why?"

    "Only a few old stones to see."

    But he went, and I have no doubt did think the time wasted,
    but it would be some consolation to him, on the other side, to
    be able to say that he had seen it with his own eyes.

    How did these same "few old stones" strike me on a first
    visit? It was one of the greatest disillusionments I ever
    experienced. Stonehenge looked small--pitiably small! For it
    is a fact that mere size is very much to us, in spite of all
    the teachings of science. We have heard of Stonehenge in our
    childhood or boyhood--that great building of unknown origin
    and antiquity, its circles of stones, some still standing,
    others lying prostrate, like the stupendous half-shattered
    skeleton of a giant or monster whose stature reached to the
    clouds. It stands, we read or were told, on Salisbury Plain.
    To my uninformed, childish mind a plain anywhere was like the
    plain on which I was born--an absolutely level area stretching
    away on all sides into infinitude; and although the effect is
    of a great extent of earth, we know that we actually see very
    little of it, that standing on a level plain we have a very
    near horizon. On this account any large object appearing on
    it, such as a horse or tree or a big animal, looks very much
    bigger than it would on land with a broken surface.

    Oddly enough, my impossible Stonehenge was derived from a
    sober description and an accompanying plate in a sober work
    --a gigantic folio in two volumes entitled "A New System of
    Geography", dated some time in the eighteenth century. How
    this ponderous work ever came to be out on the pampas, over
    six thousand miles from the land of its origin, is a thing to
    wonder at. I remember that the Stonehenge plate greatly
    impressed me and that I sacrilegiously cut it out of the book
    so as to have it!

    Now we know, our reason tells us continually, that the mental
    pictures formed in childhood are false because the child and
    man have different standards, and furthermore the child mind
    exaggerates everything; nevertheless, such pictures persist
    until the scene or object so visualized is actually looked
    upon and the old image shattered. This refers to scenes
    visualized with the inner eye, but the disillusion is almost
    as great when we return to a home left in childhood or boyhood
    and look on it once more with the man's eyes. How small it
    is! How diminished the hills, and the trees that grew to such
    a vast height, whose tops once seemed "so close against the
    sky"--what poor little trees they now are! And the house
    itself, how low it is; and the rooms that seemed so wide and
    lofty, where our footfalls and childish voices sounded as in
    some vast hall, how little and how mean they look!

    Children, they are very little,

    the poet says, and they measure things by their size; but it
    seems odd that unless we grow up amid the scenes where our
    first impressions were received they should remain unaltered
    in the adult mind. The most amusing instance of a false
    picture of something seen in childhood and continuing through
    life I have met was that of an Italian peasant I knew in South
    America. He liked to talk to me about the cranes, those great
    and wonderful birds he had become acquainted with in childhood
    in his home on the plains of Lombardy. The birds, of course,
    only appeared in autumn and spring when migrating, and passed
    over at a vast height above the earth. These birds, he said,
    were so big and had such great wings that if they came down on
    the flat earth they would be incapable of rising, hence they
    only alighted on the tops of high mountains, and as there was
    nothing for them to eat in such places, it being naked rock
    and ice, they were compelled to subsist on each other's
    droppings. Now it came to pass that one year during his
    childhood a crane, owing to some accident, came down to the
    ground near his home. The whole population of the village
    turned out to see so wonderful a bird, and were amazed at its
    size; it was, he said, the strangest sight he had ever looked
    on. How big was it? I asked him; was it as big as an
    ostrich? An ostrich, he said, was nothing to it; I might as
    well ask him how it compared with a lapwing. He could give me
    no measurements: it happened when he was a child; he had
    forgotten the exact size, but he had seen it with his own eyes
    and he could see it now in his mind--the biggest bird in the
    world. Very well, I said, if he could see it plainly in his
    mind he could give some rough idea of the wing-spread--how
    much would it measure from tip to tip? He said it was perhaps
    fifty yards--perhaps a good deal more!

    A similar trick was played by my mind about Stonehenge. As
    a child I had stood in imagination before it, gazing up
    awestruck on those stupendous stones or climbing and crawling
    like a small beetle on them. And what at last did I see with
    my physical eyes? Walking over the downs, miscalled a plain,
    anticipating something tremendous, I finally got away from the
    woods at Amesbury and spied the thing I sought before me far
    away on the slope of a green down, and stood still and then
    sat down in pure astonishment. Was this Stonehenge--this
    cluster of poor little grey stones, looking in the distance
    like a small flock of sheep or goats grazing on that immense
    down! How incredibly insignificant it appeared to me, dwarfed
    by its surroundings--woods and groves and farmhouses, and by
    the vast extent of rolling down country visible at that point.
    It was only when I had recovered from the first shock, when I
    had got to the very place and stood among the stones, that I
    began to experience something of the feeling appropriate to
    the occasion.

    The feeling, however, must have been very slight, since it
    permitted me to become interested in the appearance and
    actions of a few sparrows inhabiting the temple. The common
    sparrow is parasitical on man, consequently but rarely found
    at any distance from human habitations, and it seemed a little
    strange to find them at home at Stonehenge on the open plain.
    They were very active carrying up straws and feathers to the
    crevices on the trioliths where the massive imposts rest on
    the upright stones. I noticed the birds because of their
    bright appearance: they were lighter coloured than any
    sparrows I have ever seen, and one cock bird when flying to
    and fro in the sunlight looked almost white. I formed the
    idea that this small colony of about a dozen birds had been
    long established at that place, and that the change in their
    colouring was a direct result of the unusual conditions in
    which they existed, where there was no shade and shelter of
    trees and bushes, and they were perpetually exposed for
    generations to the full light of the wide open sky.

    On revisiting Stonehenge after an interval of some years I
    looked for my sparrows and failed to find them. It was at the
    breeding-season, when they would have been there had they
    still existed. No doubt the little colony had been extirpated
    by a sparrow-hawk or by the human guardians of "The Stones,"
    as the temple is called by the natives.

    It remains to tell of my latest visit to "The Stones." I had
    resolved to go once in my life with the current or crowd to
    see the sun rise on the morning of the longest day at that
    place. This custom or fashion is a declining one: ten or
    twelve years ago, as many as one or two thousand persons would
    assemble during the night to wait the great event, but the
    watchers have now diminished to a few hundreds, and on some
    years to a few scores. The fashion, no doubt, had its origin
    when Sir Norman Lockyer's theories, about Stonehenge as a Sun
    Temple placed so that the first rays of sun on the longest day
    of the year should fall on the centre of the so-called altar
    or sacrificial stone placed in the middle of the circle, began
    to be noised about the country, and accepted by every one as
    the true reading of an ancient riddle. But I gather from
    natives in the district that it is an old custom for people to
    go and watch for sunrise on the morning of June 21. A dozen
    or a score of natives, mostly old shepherds and labourers who
    lived near, would go and sit there for a few hours and after
    sunrise would trudge home, but whether or not there is any
    tradition or belief associated with the custom I have not
    ascertained. "How long has the custom existed?" I asked a
    field labourer. "From the time of the old people--the
    Druids," he answered, and I gave it up.

    To be near the spot I went to stay at Shrewton, a downland
    village four miles from "The Stones"; or rather a group of
    five pretty little villages, almost touching but distinct,
    like five flowers or five berries on a single stem, each with
    its own old church and individual or parish life. It is a
    pretty tree-shaded place, full of the crooning sound of
    turtle-doves, hidden among the wide silent open downs and
    watered by a clear swift stream, or winter bourne, which dries
    up during the heats of late summer, and flows again after the
    autumn rains, "when the springs rise" in the chalk hills.
    While here, I rambled on the downs and haunted "The Stones."
    The road from Shrewton to Amesbury, a straight white band
    lying across a green country, passes within a few yards of
    Stonehenge: on the right side of this narrow line the land is
    all private property, but on the left side and as far as one
    can see it mostly belongs to the War Office and is dotted over
    with camps. I roamed about freely enough on both sides,
    sometimes spending hours at a stretch, not only on Government
    land but "within bounds," for the pleasure of spying on the
    military from a hiding-place in some pine grove or furze
    patch. I was seldom challenged, and the sentinels I came
    across were very mild-mannered men; they never ordered me
    away; they only said, or hinted, that the place I was in was
    not supposed to be free to the public.

    I come across many persons who lament the recent great change
    on Salisbury Plain. It is hateful to them; the sight of the
    camp and troops marching and drilling, of men in khaki
    scattered about everywhere over a hundred square leagues of
    plain; the smoke of firing and everlasting booming of guns.
    It is a desecration; the wild ancient charm of the land has
    been destroyed in their case, and it saddens and angers them.
    I was pretty free from these uncomfortable feelings.

    It is said that one of the notions the Japanese have about the
    fox--a semi-sacred animal with them--is that, if you chance
    to see one crossing your path in the morning, all that comes
    before your vision on that day will be illusion. As an
    illustration of this belief it is related that a Japanese who
    witnessed the eruption of Krakatoa, when the heavens were
    covered with blackness and kindled with intermitting flashes
    and the earth shaken by the detonations, and when all others,
    thinking the end of the world had come, were swooning with
    extreme fear, veiwed it without a tremor as a very sublime but
    illusory spectacle. For on that very morning he had seen a
    fox cross his path.

    A somewhat similar effect is produced on our minds if we have
    what may be called a sense of historical time--a consciousness
    of the transitoriness of most things human--if we see
    institutions and works as the branches on a pine or larch,
    which fail and die and fall away successively while the tree
    itself lives for ever, and if we measure their duration not by
    our own few swift years, but by the life of nations and races
    of men. It is, I imagine, a sense capable of cultivation, and
    enables us to look upon many of man's doings that would
    otherwise vex and pain us, and, as some say, destroy all the
    pleasure of our lives, not exactly as an illusion, as if we
    were Japanese and had seen a fox in the morning, but at all
    events in what we call a philosophic spirit.

    What troubled me most was the consideration of the effect of
    the new conditions on the wild life of the plain--or of a very
    large portion of it. I knew of this before, but it was
    nevertheless exceedingly unpleasant when I came to witness it
    myself when I took to spying on the military as an amusement
    during my idle time. Here we have tens of thousands of very
    young men, boys in mind, the best fed, healthiest, happiest
    crowd of boys in all the land, living in a pure bracing
    atmosphere, far removed from towns, and their amusements and
    temptations, all mad for pleasure and excitement of some kind
    to fill their vacant hours each day and their holidays.
    Naturally they take to birds'-nesting and to hunting every
    living thing they encounter during their walks on the downs.
    Every wild thing runs and flies from them, and is chased or
    stoned, the weak-winged young are captured, and the nests
    picked or kicked up out of the turf. In this way the
    creatures are being extirpated, and one can foresee that when
    hares and rabbits are no more, and even the small birds of the
    plain, larks, pipits, wheatears, stonechats, and whincats,
    have vanished, the hunters in khaki will take to the chase
    of yet smaller creatures--crane-flies and butterflies and
    dragon-flies, and even the fantastic, elusive hover-flies
    which the hunters of little game will perhaps think the most
    entertaining fly of all.

    But it would be idle to grieve much at this small incidental
    and inevitable result of making use of the plain as a military
    camp and training-ground. The old god of war is not yet dead
    and rotting on his iron hills; he is on the chalk hills with
    us just now, walking on the elastic turf, and one is glad to
    mark in his brown skin and sparkling eyes how thoroughly alive
    he is.

    A little after midnight on the morning of June 21, 1908, a
    Shrewton cock began to crow, and that trumpet sound, which I
    never hear without a stirring of the blood, on account of old
    associations, informed me that the late moon had risen or was
    about to rise, linking the midsummer evening and morning
    twilights, and I set off to Stonehenge. It was a fine still
    night, without a cloud in the pale, dusky blue sky, thinly
    sprinkled with stars, and the crescent moon coming up above
    the horizon. After the cock ceased crowing a tawny owl began
    to hoot, and the long tremulous mellow sound followed me for
    some distance from the village, and then there was perfect
    silence, broken occasionally by the tinkling bells of a little
    company of cyclists speeding past towards "The Stones." I was
    in no hurry: I only wished I had started sooner to enjoy
    Salisbury Plain at its best time, when all the things which
    offend the lover of nature are invisible and nonexistent.
    Later, when the first light began to appear in the east before
    two o'clock, it was no false dawn, but insensibly grew
    brighter and spread further, until touches of colour, very
    delicate, palest amber, then tender yellow and rose and
    purple, began to show. I felt then as we invariably feel
    on such occasions, when some special motive has called us
    forth in time to witness this heavenly change, as of a new
    creation--

    The miracle of diuturnity
    Whose instancy unbeds the lark,

    that all the days of my life on which I had not witnessed it
    were wasted days!

    O that unbedding of the lark! The world that was so still
    before now all at once had a sound; not a single song and not
    in one place, but a sound composed of a thousand individual
    sounds, rising out of the dark earth at a distance on my right
    hand and up into the dusky sky, spreading far and wide even as
    the light was spreading on the opposite side of the heavens--a
    sound as of multitudinous twanging, girding, and clashing
    instruments, mingled with shrill piercing voices that were not
    like the voices of earthly beings. They were not human nor
    angelic, but passionless, and it was as if the whole visible
    world, the dim grassy plain and the vast pale sky sprinkled
    with paling stars, moonlit and dawnlit, had found a voice to
    express the mystery and glory of the morning.

    It was but eight minutes past two o'clock when this "unbedding
    of the lark" began, and the heavenly music lasted about
    fourteen minutes, then died down to silence, to recommence
    about half an hour later. At first I wondered why the sound
    was at a distance from the road on my right hand and not on my
    left hand as well. Then I remembered what I had seen on that
    side, how the "boys" at play on Sundays and in fact every day
    hunt the birds and pull their nests out, and I could only
    conclude that the lark has been pretty well wiped out from all
    that part of the plain over which the soldiers range.

    At Stonehenge I found a good number of watchers, about a
    couple of hundred, already assembled, but more were coming in
    continually, and a mile or so of the road to Amesbury visible
    from "The Stones" had at times the appearance of a ribbon of
    fire from the lamps of this continuous stream of coming
    cyclists. Altogether about five to six hundred persons
    gathered at "The Stones," mostly young men on bicycles who
    came from all the Wiltshire towns within easy distance, from
    Salisbury to Bath. I had a few good minutes at the ancient
    temple when the sight of the rude upright stones looking black
    against the moonlit and star-sprinkled sky produced an
    unexpected feeling in me: but the mood could not last; the
    crowd was too big and noisy, and the noises they made too
    suggestive of a Bank Holiday crowd at the Crystal Palace.

    At three o'clock a ribbon of slate-grey cloud appeared above
    the eastern horizon, and broadened by degrees, and pretty soon
    made it evident that the sun would be hidden at its rising at
    a quarter to four. The crowd, however, was not down-hearted;
    it sang and shouted; and by and by, just outside the
    barbed-wire enclosure a rabbit was unearthed, and about three
    hundred young men with shrieks of excitement set about its
    capture. It was a lively scene, a general scrimmage, in which
    everyone was trying to capture an elusive football with ears
    and legs to it, which went darting and spinning about hither
    and thither among the multitudinous legs, until earth
    compassionately opened and swallowed poor distracted bunny up.
    It was but little better inside the enclosure, where the big
    fallen stones behind the altar-stone, in the middle, on which
    the first rays of sun would fall, were taken possession of by
    a crowd of young men who sat and stood packed together like
    guillemots on a rock. These too, cheated by that rising cloud
    of the spectacle they had come so far to see, wanted to have a
    little fun, and began to be very obstreperous. By and by they
    found out an amusement very much to their taste.

    Motor-cars were now arriving every minute, bringing important-
    looking persons who had timed their journeys so as to come
    upon the scene a little before 3:45, when the sun would show
    on the horizon; and whenever one of these big gentlemen
    appeared within the circle of stones, especially if he was big
    physically and grotesque-looking in his motorist get-up, he
    was greeted with a tremendous shout. In most cases he would
    start back and stand still, astonished at such an outburst,
    and then, concluding that the only way to save his dignity was
    to face the music, he would step hurriedly across the green
    space to hide himself behind the crowd.

    The most amusing case was that of a very tall person adorned
    with an exceedingly long, bright red beard, who had on a
    Glengarry cap and a great shawl over his overcoat. The
    instant this unfortunate person stepped into the arena a
    general wild cry of "Scotland for ever!" was raised, followed
    by such cheers and yells that the poor man actually staggered
    back as if he had received a blow, then seeing there was no
    other way out of it, he too rushed across the open space to
    lose himself among the others.

    All this proved very entertaining, and I was glad to laugh
    with the crowd, thinking that after all we were taking a very
    mild revenge on our hated enemies, the tyrants of the roads.

    The fun over, I went soberly back to my village, and finding
    it impossible to get to sleep I went to Sunday-morning service
    at Shrewton Church. It was strangely restful there after that
    noisy morning crowd at Stonehenge. The church is white stone
    with Norman pillars and old oak beams laid over the roof
    painted or distempered blue--a quiet, peaceful blue. There
    was also a good deal of pleasing blue colour in the glass of
    the east window. The service was, as I almost invariably find
    it in a village church, beautiful and impressive. Listening
    to the music of prayer and praise, with some natural outdoor
    sound to fill up the pauses--the distant crow of a cock or
    the song of some bird close by--a corn-bunting or wren or
    hedge-sparrow--and the bright sunlight filling the interior, I
    felt as much refreshed as if kind nature's sweet restorer,
    balmy sleep, had visited me that morning. The sermon was
    nothing to me; I scarcely heard it, but understood that it was
    about the Incarnation and the perfection of the plan of
    salvation and the unreasonableness of the Higher Criticism and
    of all who doubt because they do not understand. I remembered
    vaguely that on three successive Sundays in three village
    churches in the wilds of Wiltshire I had heard sermons
    preached on and against the Higher Criticism. I thought it
    would have been better in this case if the priest had chosen
    to preach on Stonehenge and had said that he devoutly wished
    we were sun-worshippers, like the Persians, as well as
    Christians; also that we were Buddhists, and worshippers of
    our dead ancestors like the Chinese, and that we were pagans
    and idolaters who bow down to sticks and stones, if all these
    added cults would serve to make us more reverent. And I wish
    he could have said that it was as irreligious to go to
    Stonehenge, that ancient temple which man raised to the
    unknown god thousands of years ago, to indulge in noise and
    horseplay at the hour of sunrise, as it would be to go to
    Salisbury Cathedral for such a purpose.
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