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    Chapter 22

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    Chapter 22
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    The Village and "The Stones"

    My experiences at "The Stones" had left me with the idea that
    but for the distracting company the hours I spent there would
    have been very sweet and precious in spite of the cloud in the
    east. Why then, I asked, not go back on another morning, when
    I would have the whole place to myself? If a cloud did not
    matter much it would matter still less that it was not the day
    of the year when the red disc flames on the watcher's sight
    directly over that outstanding stone and casts first a shadow
    then a ray of light on the altar. In the end I did not say
    good-bye to the village on that day, but settled down to
    listen to the tales of my landlady, or rather to another
    instalment of her life-story and to further chapters in the
    domestic history of those five small villages in one. I had
    already been listening to her every evening, and at odd times
    during the day, for over a week, at first with interest, then
    a little impatiently. I was impatient at being kept in, so to
    speak. Out-of-doors the world was full of light and heat,
    full of sounds of wild birds and fragrance of flowers and
    new-mown hay; there were also delightful children and some
    that were anything but delightful--dirty, ragged little
    urchins of the slums. For even these small rustic villages
    have their slums; and it was now the time when the young birds
    were fluttering out of their nests--their hunger cries could
    be heard everywhere; and the ragged little barbarians were
    wild with excitement, chasing and stoning the flutterers to
    slay them; or when they succeeded in capturing one without
    first having broken its wings or legs it was to put it in a
    dirty cage in a squalid cottage to see it perish miserably in
    a day or two. Perhaps I succeeded in saving two or three
    threatened lives in the lanes and secret green places by the
    stream; perhaps I didn't; but in any case it was some
    satisfaction to have made the attempt.

    Now all this made me a somewhat impatient listener to the
    village tales--the old unhappy things, for they were mostly
    old and always unhappy; yet in the end I had to listen. It
    was her eyes that did it. At times they had an intensity in
    their gaze which made them almost uncanny, something like the
    luminous eyes of an animal hungrily fixed on its prey. They
    held me, though not because they glittered: I could have gone
    away if I had thought proper, and remained to listen only
    because the meaning of that singular look in her grey-green
    eyes, which came into them whenever I grew restive, had dawned
    on my careless mind.

    She was an old woman with snow-white hair, which contrasted
    rather strangely with her hard red colour; but her skin was
    smooth, her face well shaped, with fine acquiline features.
    No doubt it had been a very handsome face though never
    beautiful, I imagine; it was too strong and firm and resolute;
    too like the face of some man we see, which, though we have
    but a momentary sight of it in a passing crowd, affects us
    like a sudden puff of icy-cold air--the revelation of a
    singular and powerful personality. Yet she was only a poor
    old broken-down woman in a Wiltshire village, held fast in her
    chair by a hopeless infirmity. With her legs paralysed she
    was like that prince in the Eastern tale on whom an evil spell
    had been cast, turning the lower half of his body into marble.
    But she did not, like the prince, shed incessant tears and
    lament her miserable destiny with a loud voice. She was
    patient and cheerful always, resigned to the will of Heaven,
    and--a strange thing this to record of an old woman in a
    village!--she would never speak of her ailments. But though
    powerless in body her mind was vigorous and active teeming
    with memories of all the vicissitudes of her exceedingly
    eventful, busy life, from the time when she left her village
    as a young girl to fight her way in the great world to her
    return to end her life in it, old and broken, her fight over,
    her children and grandchildren dead or grown up and scattered
    about the earth.

    Chance having now put me in her way, she concluded after a few
    preliminary or tentative talks that she had got hold of an
    ideal listener; but she feared to lose me--she wanted me to go
    on listening for ever. That was the reason of that painfully
    intense hungry look in her eyes; it was because she discovered
    certain signs of lassitude or impatience in me, a desire to
    get up and go away and refresh myself in the sun and wind.
    Poor old woman, she could not spring upon and hold me fast
    when I attempted to move off, or pluck me back with her claws;
    she could only gaze with fiercely pleading eyes and say
    nothing; and so, without being fascinated, I very often sat on
    listening still when I would gladly have been out-of-doors.

    She was a good fluent talker; moreover, she studied her
    listener, and finding that my interest in her own interminable
    story was becoming exhausted she sought for other subjects,
    chiefly the strange events in the lives of men and women who
    had lived in the village and who had long been turned to dust.
    They were all more or less tragical in character, and it
    astonished me to think that I had stayed in a dozen or twenty,
    perhaps forty, villages in Wiltshire, and had heard stories
    equally strange and moving in pretty well every one of them.

    If each of these small centres possessed a scribe of genius,
    or at any rate one with a capacity for taking pains, who would
    collect and print in proper form these remembered events,
    every village would in time have its own little library of
    local history, the volumes labelled respectively, "A Village
    Tragedy", "The Fields of Dulditch", "Life's Little Ironies",
    "Children's Children", and various others whose titles every
    reader will be able to supply.

    The effect of a long spell of listening to these unwritten
    tragedies was sometimes strong enough to cloud my reason, for
    on going directly forth into the bright sunshine and listening
    to the glad sounds which filled the air, it would seem that
    this earth was a paradise and that all creation rejoiced in
    everlasting happiness excepting man alone who--mysterious
    being!--was born to trouble and disaster as the sparks fly
    upwards. A pure delusion, due to our universal and
    ineradicable passion for romance and tragedy. Tell a man of a
    hundred humdrum lives which run their quiet contented course
    in this village, and the monotonous unmoving story, or hundred
    stories, will go in at one ear and out at the other. Therefore
    such stories are not told and not remembered. But that which
    stirs our pity and terror--the frustrate life, the glorious
    promise which was not fulfilled, the broken hearts and broken
    fortunes, and passion, crime, remorse, retribution--all this
    prints itself on the mind, and every such life is remembered
    for ever and passed on from generation to generation. But it
    would really form only one brief chapter in the long, long
    history of the village life with its thousand chapters.

    The truth is, if we live in fairly natural healthy condition,
    we are just as happy as the lower animals. Some philosopher
    has said that the chief pleasure in a man's life, as in that
    of a cow, consists in the processes of mastication,
    deglutition, and digestion, and I am very much inclined to
    agree with him. The thought of death troubles us very little
    --we do not believe in it. A familiar instance is that of the
    consumptive, whose doctor and friends have given him up and
    wait but to see the end, while he, deluded man, still sees
    life, an illimitable, green, sunlit prospect, stretching away
    to an infinite distance before him.

    Death is a reality only when it is very near, so close on us
    that we can actually hear its swift stoaty feet rustling over
    the dead leaves, and for a brief bitter space we actually know
    that his sharp teeth will presently be in our throat.

    Out in the blessed sunshine I listen to a blackcap warbling
    very beautifully in a thorn bush near the cottage; then to the
    great shout of excited joy of the children just released from
    school, as they rush pell-mell forth and scatter about the
    village, and it strikes me that the bird in the thorn is not
    more blithe-hearted than they. An old rook--I fancy he is
    old, a many-wintered crow--is loudly caw-cawing from the elm
    tree top; he has been abroad all day in the fields and has
    seen his young able to feed themselves; and his own crop full,
    and now he is calling to the others to come and sit there to
    enjoy the sunshine with him. I doubt if he is happier than
    the human inhabitants of the village, the field labourers and
    shepherds who have been out toiling since the early hours, and
    are now busy in their own gardens and allotments or placidly
    smoking their pipes at their cottage doors.

    But I could not stay longer in that village of old unhappy
    memories and of quiet, happy, uninteresting lives that leave
    no memory, so after waiting two more days I forced myself to
    say good-bye to my poor old landlady. Or rather to say "Good
    night," as I had to start at one o'clock in the morning so as
    to have a couple, of hours before sunrise at "The Stones"
    on my way to Salisbury. Her latest effort to detain me a day
    longer had been made and there was no more to say.

    "Do you know," she said in a low mysterious voice, "that it is
    not safe to be alone at midnight on this long lonely road--the
    loneliest place in all Salisbury Plain?" "The safest," I
    said. "Safe as the Tower of London--the protectors of all
    England are there." "Ah, there's where the danger is!" she
    returned. "If you meet some desperate man, a deserter with
    his rifle in his hand perhaps, do you think he would hesitate
    about knocking you over to save himself and at the same time
    get a little money to help him on his way?"

    I smiled at her simulated anxiety for my safety, and set forth
    when it was very dark but under a fine starry sky. The
    silence, too, was very profound: there was no good-bye from
    crowing cock or hooting owl on this occasion, nor did any
    cyclist pass me on the road with a flash of light from his
    lamp and a tinkle from his bell. The long straight road on
    the high down was a dim grey band visible but a few yards
    before me, lying across the intense blackness of the earth.
    By day I prefer as a rule walking on the turf, but this road
    had a rare and peculiar charm at this time. It was now the
    season when the bird's-foot-trefoil, one of the commonest
    plants of the downland country, was in its fullest bloom, so
    that in many places the green or grey-green turf as far as one
    could see on every side was sprinkled and splashed with
    orange-yellow. Now this creeping, spreading plant, like most
    plants that grow on the close-cropped sheep-walks, whose
    safety lies in their power to root themselves and live very
    close to the surface, yet must ever strive to lift its flowers
    into the unobstructed light and air and to overtop or get away
    from its crowding neighbours. On one side of the road, where
    the turf had been cut by the spade in a sharp line, the plant
    had found a rare opportunity to get space and light and had
    thrust out such a multitude of bowering sprays, projecting
    them beyond the turf, as to form a close band or rope of
    orange-yellow, which divided the white road from the green
    turf, and at one spot extended unbroken for upwards of a mile.
    The effect was so singular and pretty that I had haunted this
    road for days for the pleasure of seeing that flower border
    made by nature. Now all colour was extinguished: beneath and
    around me there was a dimness which at a few yards' distance
    deepened to blackness, and above me the pale dim blue sky
    sprinkled with stars; but as I walked I had the image of that
    brilliant band of yellow colour in my mind.

    By and by the late moon rose, and a little later the east
    began to grow lighter and the dark down to change
    imperceptibly to dim hoary green. Then the exquisite colours
    of the dawn once more, and the larks rising in the dim
    distance--a beautiful unearthly sound--and so in the end I
    came to "The Stones," rejoicing, in spite of a cloud which now
    appeared on the eastern horizon to prevent the coming sun from
    being seen, that I had the place to myself. The rejoicing
    came a little too soon; a very few minutes later other
    visitors on foot and on bicycles began to come in, and we all
    looked at each other a little blankly. Then a motorcar
    arrived, and two gentlemen stepped out and stared at us, and
    one suddenly burst out laughing.

    "I see nothing to laugh at!" said his companion a little
    severely.

    The other in a low voice made some apology or explanation
    which I failed to catch. It was, of course, not right; it was
    indecent to laugh on such an occasion, for we were not of the
    ebullient sort who go to "The Stones" at three o'clock in the
    morning "for a lark"; but it was very natural in the
    circumstances, and mentally I laughed myself at the absurdity
    of the situation. However, the laugher had been rebuked for
    his levity, and this incident over, there was nothing further
    to disturb me or any one in our solemn little gathering.

    It was a very sweet experience, and I cannot say that my early
    morning outing would have been equally good at any other
    lonely spot on Salisbury Plain or anywhere else with a wide
    starry sky above me, the flush of dawn in the east, and the
    larks rising heavenward out of the dim misty earth. Those
    rudely fashioned immemorial stones standing dark and large
    against the pale clear moonlit sky imparted something to the
    feeling. I sat among them alone and had them all to myself,
    as the others, fearing to tear their clothes on the barbed
    wire, had not ventured to follow me when I got through the
    fence. Outside the enclosure they were some distance from me,
    and as they talked in subdued tones, their voices reached me
    as a low murmur--a sound not out of harmony with the silent
    solitary spirit of the place; and there was now no other sound
    except that of a few larks singing fitfully a long way off.

    Just what the element was in that morning's feeling which
    Stonehenge contributed I cannot say. It was too vague and
    uncertain, too closely interwoven with the more common feeling
    for nature. No doubt it was partly due to many untraceable
    associations, and partly to a thought, scarcely definite
    enough to be called a thought, of man's life in this land from
    the time this hoary temple was raised down to the beginning of
    history. A vast span, a period of ten or more, probably of
    twenty centuries, during which great things occurred and great
    tragedies were enacted, which seem all the darker and more
    tremendous to the mind because unwritten and unknown. But
    with the mighty dead of these blank ages I could not commune.
    Doubtless they loved and hated and rose and fell, and there
    were broken hearts and broken lives; but as beings of flesh
    and blood we cannot visualize them, and are in doubt even as
    to their race. And of their minds, or their philosophy of
    life, we know absolutely nothing. We are able, as Clifford
    has said in his Cosmic Emotion, to shake hands with the
    ancient Greeks across the great desert of centuries which
    divides our day from theirs; but there is no shaking hands
    with these ancients of Britain--or Albion, seeing that we are
    on the chalk. To our souls they are as strange as the
    builders of Tiuhuanaco, or Mitla and Itzana, and the cyclopean
    ruins of Zimbabwe and the Carolines.

    It is thought by some of our modern investigators of psychic
    phenomena that apparitions result from the coming out of
    impressions left in the surrounding matter, or perhaps in the
    ether pervading it, especially in moments of supreme agitation
    or agony. The apparition is but a restored picture, and
    pictures of this sort are about us in millions; but for our
    peace they are rarely visible, as the ability to see them is
    the faculty of but a few persons in certain moods and certain
    circumstances. Here, then, if anywhere in England, we, or the
    persons who are endowed with this unpleasant gift, might look
    for visions of the time when Stonehenge was the spiritual
    capital, the Mecca of the faithful (when all were that), the
    meeting-place of all the intellect, the hoary experience, the
    power and majesty of the land.

    But no visions have been recorded. It is true that certain
    stories of alleged visions have been circulated during the
    last few years. One, very pretty and touching, is of a child
    from the London slums who saw things invisible to others.
    This was one of the children of the very poor, who are taken
    in summer and planted all about England in cottages to have a
    week or a fortnight of country air and sunshine. Taken to
    Stonehenge, she had a vision of a great gathering of people,
    and so real did they seem that she believed in the reality
    of it all, and so beautiful did they appear to her that she
    was reluctant to leave, and begged to be taken back to see
    it all again. Unfortunately it is not true. A full and
    careful inquiry has been made into the story, of which there
    are several versions, and its origin traced to a little
    story-telling Wiltshire boy who had read or heard of the
    white-robed priests of the ancient days at "The Stones," and
    who just to astonish other little boys naughtily pretended
    that he had seen it all himself!
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    Chapter 22
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