In Pursuit of Spring written by Edward Thomas who was a British poet, essayist, and novelist. This book was published in 1885. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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In Pursuit of Spring
Illustrator: Ernest Hazelhurst
I. IN SEARCH OF SPRING.
II. THE START: LONDON TO GUILDFORD.
III. GUILDFORD TO DUNBRIDGE.
IV. FROM DUNBRIDGE OVER SALISBURY PLAIN.
V. THREE WESSEX POETS.
VI. THE AVON, THE BISS, THE FROME.
VII. TROWBRIDGE TO SHEPTON MALLET.
VIII. SHEPTON MALLET TO BRIDGWATER.
IX. BRIDGWATER TO THE SEA.
X. THE GRAVE OF WINTER.
“So far the life of men moving to and fro across the bridges was like the old life that I knew, though down below upon the sparkling waters many birds were alighting, or were already seated like wondrous blossoms upon the bulwarks of a barge painted in parrot colours red and green.”
This is the record of a journey from London to the Quantock Hills—to Nether Stowey, Kilve, Crowcombe, and West Bagborough, to the high point where the Taunton-Bridgwater road tops the hills and shows all Exmoor behind, all the Mendips before, and upon the left the sea, and Wales very far off. It was a journey on or with a bicycle. The season was Easter, a March Easter. “A North-Easter, probably?” No. Nor did much north-east go to the making of it. I will give its pedigree briefly, going back only a month—that is, to the days when I began to calculate, or guess methodically, what the weather would be like at Easter.
Perhaps it was rather more than a month before Easter that a false Spring visited London. But I will go back first a little earlier, to one of those great and notable days after the turn of the year that win the heart so, without deceiving it.
The wind blew from the north-west with such peace and energy together as to call up the image of a good giant striding along with superb gestures—like those of a sower sowing. The wind blew and the sun shone over London. A myriad roofs laughed together in the light. The smoke and the flags, yellow and blue and white, waved tumultuously, straining for joy to leave the chimneys and the flagstaffs, like hounds sighting their quarry. The ranges of cloud bathing their lower slopes in the brown mist of the horizon had the majesty of great hills, the coolness and sweetness and whiteness of the foam on the crests of the crystal fountains, and they were burning with light. The clouds did honour to the city, which they encircled as with heavenly ramparts. The stone towers and spires were soft, and luminous as old porcelain. There was no substance to be seen that was not made precious by the strong wind and the light divine. All was newly built to a great idea. The flags were waving to salute the festal opening of the gates in those white walls to a people that should presently surge in and onward to take possession. Princely was to be the life that hadthis amphitheatre of clouds and palaces for its display.
Of human things, only music—if human it can be called—was fit to match this joyousness and this stateliness. What, I thought, if the pomp of river and roof and cloudy mountain walls of the world be made ready, as so often they had been before, only for the joy of the invisible gods? For who has not known a day when some notable festival is manifestly celebrated by a most rare nobleness in the ways of the clouds, the colours of the woods, the glitter of the waters, yet on earth all has been as it was wont to be?
So far, the life of men moving to and fro across the bridges was like the old life that I knew, though, down below, upon the sparkling waters many birds were alighting, or were already seated like wondrous blossoms upon the bulwarks of a barge painted in parrot colours—red and green. When would the entry begin?
In the streets, for the present, the roar continued of the inhuman masses of humanity, amidst which a child’s crying for a toy was an impertinence, a terrible pretty interruption of the violent moving swoon. Between the millions and the one no agreement was visible. The wind summoned the colour in a girl’s cheeks. There, one smiled with inward bliss. Another talked serenely with lovely soft mouth and wide eyes that saw only one other pair as the man next her bent his head nearer. The wind wagged the tails of blue or brown fur about the forms of luxurious tall women, and poured wine into their bodies, so that their complexions glowed under their violet hats. But in one moment the passing loveliness of spirit, or form, or gesture, sank and was drowned in the oceanic multitude. A boy had just met his father at a railway station, and was glad; he held the man’s hand, and was trotting gently, trying to get him to run—he failed: then in delight put his arm to his father’s waist and was carried along thus, half lifted from the ground, for several yards, smiling and chattering like a bird on a waving branch. The two obstructed others, who took a step to left or right in disdain or impatience. Only a child at an alley entrance saw and laughed, wishing she were his sister, and had his father. A moment, and these also were swallowed up.
I came to broader pavements. Here was less haste; and women went in and out of the crowd, not only parallel to the street, but crosswise here and there; and a man could go at any pace, not of necessity the crowd’s. Some of the most beautiful civilized women of the world moved slowly and musically in an intricate pattern, which any one could watch freely; they had a background of lustrous jewellery, metal-work and glass, gorgeous cloths and silks, and many had a foil in the stiff black and white male figures beside them. They moved without fear. Stately, costly, tender, beautiful, nevertheless, though so near, they were seen as in a magic crystal that enshrines the remote and the long dead. They walked as in dream, regardlessly smiling. They cast their proud or kind eyes hither and thither. Once in the intense light of a jeweller’s shop, spangled with pearls, diamonds, and gold, a large red hand, cold and not quite clean, appeared from within, holding in three fearful, careful fingers a brooch of gold and diamonds, which it placed among the others, and then withdrew itself slowly, tremulously, lest it should work harm to those dazzling cressets. The eyes of the women watched the brooch: the red hand need not have been so fearful; it was unseen—the soul was hid. Straight through the women, in the middle of the broad pavement, and very slowly, went an old man. He was short, and his patched overcoat fell in a parallelogram from his shoulders almost to the pavement. From underneath his little cap massive gray curls sprouted and spread over his upturned collar. Just below the fringe of his coat his bare heels glowed red. His hands rested deep in his pockets. His face was almost concealed by curls and collar: all that showed itself was the glazed cold red of his cheeks and large, straight nose, and the glitter of gray eyes that looked neither to left nor to right, but ahead and somewhat down. Not a sound did he make, save the flap of rotten leather against feet which he scarcely raised lest the shoes should fall off. Doubtless the composer of the harmonies of this day could have made use of the old man—doubtless he did; but as it was a feast day of the gods, not of men, I did not understand. Around this figure, clad in complete hue of poverty, the dance of women in violet and black, cinnamon and green, tawny and gray, scarlet and slate, and the browns and golden browns of animals’ fur, wove itself fantastically. The dance heeded him not, nor he the dance. The sun shone bright. The wind blew and waved the smoke and the flags wildly against the sky. The horses curved their stout necks, showing their teeth, trampling, massing head by head in rank and cluster, a frieze as magnificent as the procession of white clouds gilded, rolling along the horizon.
That evening, without thought of Spring, I began to look at my maps. Spring would come, of course—nothing, I supposed, could prevent it—and I should have to make up my mind how to go westward. Whatever I did, Salisbury Plain was to be crossed, not of necessity but of choice; it was, however, hard to decide whether to go reasonably diagonally in accordance with my western purpose, or to meander up the Avon, now on one side now on the other, by one of the parallel river-side roads, as far as Amesbury. Having got to Amesbury, there would be much provocation to continue up the river among those thatched villages to Upavon and to Stephen Duck’s village, Charlton, and the Pewsey valley, and so, turning again westward, in sight of that very tame White Horse above Alton Priors, to include Urchfont and Devizes.
Or, again, I might follow up the Wylye westward from Salisbury, and have always below me the river and its hamlets and churches, the wall of the Plain always above me on the right. Thus I should come to Warminster and to the grand west wall of the Plain which overhangs the town.
The obvious way was to strike north-west over the Plain from Stapleford up the Winterbourne, through cornland and sheepland, by Shrewton and Tilshead, and down again to other waters at West Lavington. Or at Shrewton I could turn sharp to the west, and so visit solitary Chitterne and solitary Imber.
I could not decide. If I went on foot, I could do as I liked on the Plain. There are green roads leading from everywhere to everywhere. But, on the other hand, it might be necessary at that time of year to keep walking all day, which would mean at least thirty miles a day, which was more than I was inclined for. The false Spring, the weather that really deluded me to think it shameful not to trust it, came a month later, and one of its best days was in London.
Many days in London have no weather. We are aware only that it is hot or cold, dry or wet; that we are in or out of doors; that we are at ease or not. This was not one of them. Rain lashed and wind roared in the night, enveloping my room in a turbulent embrace as if it had been a tiny ship in a great sea, instead of one pigeon-hole in a thousand-fold columbarium deep in London. Dawn awakened me with its tranquillity. The air was sombrely sweet; there was a lucidity under the gloom of the clouds; the air barely heaved with the ebb of storm; and even when the sun was risen it seemed still twilight. The jangle of the traffic made a wall round about the quiet in which I lay embedded. I scarcely heard the sound of it; but I could not forget the wall. Within the circle of quiet a parrot sang the street songs of twenty years ago very clearly, over and over again, almost as sweetly as a blackbird. I had heard him many times before, but now he sang differently—I did not know or consider how or why. The song was different as the air was. Yet I could not directly feel the air, because the windows were tightly shut against the soot of four neighbouring chimney-stacks.
Out of doors the business and pleasure of the day kept me a close though a moving prisoner. All the morning and afternoon I was glad to see only one thing that was not a human face. It was a portico of high fluted columns rising in a cliff above an expanse of gravel walks and turf. The gray columns were blackened with soot splashes. The grass and the stone were touched with the sweetness that was in the early air and in the bird’s song before the rain had dried and the wind quite departed. Both were blessed with the same pure and lovely union of humid coldness, gloom, and lucidity, so that the portico appeared for a moment to be the entrance to halls of unimagined beauty and holiness, as if I should be admitted through them into the cloud-ramparted city of that earlier day. Nevertheless, I found all inside exactly as it had always been; not only the expectation but even the memory of what had fostered it was wiped out without one pause of disappointment. The sunlight, now and then flooding and astonishing the interior, fell through windows that shut out both sky and earth, into an atmosphere incapable of acknowledging the divinity of the rays; they were alien, disturbing, hostile. There was something childish in these displays, so wasteful and passionate, before the spectacled eyes of a number of people reading books in the mummied air of a library.
Once more on this February day, at four in the afternoon, my eyes were unsealed and awakened. The air in the streets of big dark houses was still and hazy, but overhead hung the loftiest sky I had ever seen, and the finest of fine-spun clouds stretched across the pale blue in long white reefs. In a few moments I was again under a roof. This time it was the house of a friend, removed from busy thoroughfares, very silent within. As the old country servant, faintly dingy and sinister, led me up to the usual room, the staircase, and both the shut and the half-seen apartments on either hand, were mysterious and depressing, with something massive and yet temporary, as if in a dream mansion of shadows. Nothing definite was suggested by these doors; anything was possible behind them. Right up to the familiar dark room I always felt the same dull trouble. Then the dim room opened before me: I heard the masterly, kind voice.
It was a high, large room with many corners that I had never explored. The furniture gloomed vaguely above and around the little space that was crossed by our two voices. The long windows were some yards away, and between them and us stood a heavy table, a heavy cabinet, and several chairs. Never had I been to the window and looked out, nor did I today. No lamp was lit. We talked, we were silent, and I was content. Now and then I looked towards the window, which framed only the corner of a house near by, the chimneys of farther houses, and a pallor of sky between and above them. I was aware of the slow stealing away of day. I knew it was slow, and twice I looked at a clock to make sure that I was not being deceived. I was aware also of the beauty of this slow fading. No wind moved, nor was any movement anywhere heard or seen. The stillness and silence were great; the tranquillity was even greater: I dipped into it and shared it while I listened and talked. Several times two or three children passed beneath the window and chattered in loud, shrill voices, but they were unseen. Far from disturbing the tranquillity, the sounds were steeped in it; the silence and stillness of the twilight saturated and embalmed them. But pleasant as in themselves they were entirely, they were far more so by reason of what they suggested.
These voices and this tranquillity spoke of Spring. They told me what an evening it was at home. I knew how the first blackbird was whistling in the broad oak, and, farther away—some very far away—many thrushes were singing in the chill, under the pale light fitly reflected by the faces of earliest primroses. The sound of lambs and of a rookery more distant blended in soft roaring. Underfoot everything was soaked—soaked clay, soaked dead grass; and the land was agleam with silver rain pools and channels. I foresaw tempest of rain and wind on the next day. Perhaps imagination of dark, withered, and sodden land, and the change threatening, helped to perfect that sweetness which was not wholly of earth. The songs of the birds were to cease, and, in their place, blackbirds would be clinking nervously in impenetrable thickets long after sundown, when only a narrowing pane of almost lightless light divided a black mass of cloud from a black horizon. As in the morning streets the essence of the beauty was lucidity in the arms of gloom, so it was now in the clear twilight fields gliding towards black night, tempest, and perhaps a renewal of Winter.... Then a lamp was carried in. The children’s voices had gone. In a little while I rose, and, going out, saw precisely that long pane of light that I should have seen low in the west, had I been standing fifty miles off, looking towards Winchester.
Another evening like this one followed. To the south and west of me the Downs were spread out beyond eyesight. Their flowing and quiet lines were an invitation, a temptation. I should have liked to set forth immediately, to travel day and night with that flow and quiet until I reached the nightingale’s song, the apple blossom, the perfume of sunny earth. But nothing was more impossible. The next day was sleet. The most I could do was to plan so that perhaps I should find myself travelling in one of those preludes to Summer which are less false than this one. The beautiful Easters I had known came back to me: Easters of five years, twenty years ago; early Easters when the chiffchaff was singing on March 20 in a soft wind; later Easters, when Good Friday brought the swallow, Saturday the cuckoo, Sunday the nightingale. I did not forget Easters of snow and of north wind. In the end I decided to trust to luck—to start on Good Friday on the chance that I should meet fine weather at once or in a day or two. I would go out in that safe, tame fashion, looking for Spring. The date of Easter made nightingales and cuckoos improbable; but I might hope for the chiffchaff, an early martin, some stitchwort blossoms, cuckoo flowers, some larch green, some blackthorn white. I began to think of what the days would be like. Would there be an invisible sky and a coldish wind, yet some ground for hoping, because the blackbirds would be content in their singing at evening, and the dead leaves that trundle in the road would have decreased to a handful? Perhaps there would be another of these dimly promising days. On the third, would the misty morning clear slowly, the Downs barely visible under the low drift, behind which the sky is caked in cloud, with a dirty silver light from the interstices? And would there be one place in this sky which it would be impossible to gaze at, and would this at last become dazzling, would the drift vanish, and the Downs and half the valley be hid in the foundations of a stationary mass of sunlit white cloud? Would the earth begin to crumble in the warm breeze? Would the bees be heard instead of the wind? Would the jackdaws play and cry far up in the pale vault? Would the low east become a region of cumulus clouds, old-ivory-coloured, receding with sunny edges one behind the other infinitely? Would the evening sky be downy-white and clouded softly over the dark copses and the many songs interwoven at seven? Would a clear still night follow, with Lyra and a multitude of stars? So I questioned. But I will relate something of what happened in the month of waiting and preparation.
Next day the north-east wind began to prevail, making a noise as if the earth were hollow and rumbling all through the bright night, and all day a rhythmless and steady roar. The earth was being scoured like a pot. If snow fell, there was no more of it in the valleys than if a white bird had been plucked by a sparrow-hawk: on the hills it lasted longer, but as thin as rice the day after a wedding. The wind was eager enough to scour me. Doubtless, an old man or two, and an infant or two, it both scoured and killed. The yellow celandine flowers were bright but shrivelled; the ivy gleamed blackly on the banks beside the white roads. These were days of great rather than of little things; the north-east wind that was cleaning, and the world that was being cleaned. The old man, the child, and the celandine, mattered little. Such days are good to live in, better to remember.
Very meekly, and in the night, the north-east wind gave up its power to the south. Mild, sweet, and soft days followed, when the earth was an invalid certain of recovery, with many delicate smiles and languors and fatigues, and little vain fears or recollections. By St. David’s Day violets began to disclose themselves to children and some lovers.... Copses, hedges, roadsides, and brooksides were taken possession of by millions of primroses in thick, long-stemmed clusters; their green, only just flowerlike, scent was suited perfectly to the invalid but strengthening earth.
Then for most of a day it rained, and what was done under cover of that deliberate, irresistible rain, only a poet can tell. There are more trees than men on the earth, more flowers than children, and on that day the earth was such as I can imagine it before man or god had been invented. It was an earlier than prehistoric day. The sun rose glimmeringly in mist, as yet not strongly, but sure of victory over chaos. What will happen? What shall come of it? What will be the new thing? On such a day the song of birds was first heard upon the earth.... As I went along I found myself repeating with an inexplicable and novel fervour the words, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.” No possible supplication to “Earth, Ocean, Air—Eternal Brotherhood,” could have been more satisfying. From time to time other incantations also seemed appropriate, as, for example,—
“Oh, Santiana’s won the day—
Santiana’s won the day
Along the plains of Mexico.”
There followed an ordinary fine day, warm but fresh, with more than one light shower out of the south-west during the afternoon; after that a cloudy, rainless day, which people did not call fine, though the chaffinches and thrushes enjoyed it wholly; and after that, rain again, and the elms standing about like conspirators in the mist of the rain, preparing something; then a day, warm and bright, of a heavenly and yet also a spirited loveliness—the best day of the year, when the larks’ notes were far beyond counting; and after that wind and rain again; a day of great wind and no rain; then two days of mild, quick air, both glooming into black nights of tumult, with frosty, penitent-looking dawns. Snow succeeded, darkening the air, whitening the sky, on the wings of a strong wind from the north of north-west, for a minute only, but again and again, until by five o’clock the sky was all blue except at the horizon, where stood a cluster of white mountains, massive and almost motionless, in the south above the Downs, and round about them some dusky fragments not fit to be used in the composition of such mountains. They looked as if they were going to last for ever. Yet by six o’clock the horizon was dim, and the clouds all but passed away, the Downs clear and extended; the blackbird singing as if the world were his nest, the wind cold and light, but dying utterly to make way for a beautiful evening of one star and many owls hooting.
The next day was the missel-thrush’s and the north-west wind’s. The missel-thrush sat well up in a beech at the wood edge and hailed the rain with his rolling, brief song: so rapidly and oft was it repeated that it was almost one long, continuous song. But as the wind snatched away the notes again and again, or the bird changed his perch, or another answered him or took his place, the music was roving like a hunter’s.... I looked at my maps. Should I go through Swindon, or Andover, or Winchester, or Southampton? I had a mind to compass all four; but the objection was that the kinks thus to be made would destroy any feeling of advance in the journey....
The night was wild, and on the morrow the earth lay sleeping a sweet, quiet sleep of recovery from the wind’s rage. The robin could be heard as often as the missel-thrush. The sleep lasted through a morning of frost and haze into a clear day, gentle but bright, and another and another of cloudy brightness, brightened cloudiness, rounded off between half-past five and half-past six by blackbirds singing. The nights were strange children for such days, nights of frantic wind and rain, threatening to undo all the sweet work in a swift, howling revolution. Trees were thrown down, branches broken, but the buds remained.
The north wind made an invasion with horizontal arrows of pricking hail in the day, and twice in the night a blue lightning, that long stood brandished within the room until thunder fell, disembowelling the universe, with no rolling sound, but a single plunge and rebound as of an enormous weight. With the day came snow, hail, and rain, each impotent to silence the larks for one minute after it had ceased. The half-moon at the zenith of a serene, frosty night led in a morning of mist that filled upall the hollows of the valley as with snow: each current of smoke from locomotive or cottage lay in solid and enduring vertebræ above the mist: the sun shone upon black rooks cawing moodily, upon snow and freshest green intermingled: the larks soared into the light white cloud; the bullfinch whispered a sweet, cracked melody, almost hid now in hawthorn leaves.
These things in their turn availed nothing against a wind swooping violently all night, sometimes with rain, sometimes without. Neither west wind nor rain respected daybreak: only at half-past one could the sun put his head out to see if the two had done quarrelling with the earth or with one another. The rain gave up, and the loose clouds strewn over the sky had no more order than the linen which was now hurriedly spread on the blossoming gorse-bushes to flatter the sun. In response, the sun poured out light on flooded waters, on purple brook-side thickets of alder, and celandines under them, and on solitary greening chestnuts, as if all was now to be well. The clouds massed themselves together in larger and whiter continents, the blue spaces widened. Yet though the sun went down in peace, what of the morrow?
Whatever happened, I was to start on Good Friday. I was now deciding that I would go through Salisbury, and over the Plain to West Lavington, and thence either through Devizes or through Trowbridge and Bradford. Salisbury was to be reached by Guildford, Farnham, Alton, Alresford, but perhaps not Winchester—for I could follow down the Itchen to King’s Worthy, and then cross those twenty miles of railwayless country by way of Stockbridge, visiting thus Hazlitt’s Winterslow. To Guildford there were several possible ways. The ordinary Portsmouth road, smooth enough for roller-skating, and passing through unenclosed piny and ferny commons one after another, did not overmuch attract me. Also, I wanted to see Ewell again, and Epsom, and Leatherhead, and to turn round between hill and water under Leatherhead Church and Mickleham Church to Dorking. Thus my ways out of London were reduced. I could, of course, reach Ewell by way of Kingston, Surbiton, and Tolworth, traversing some of Jefferies’ second country, and crossing the home of his “London trout.” But this was too much of a digression for the first day.
At any rate the Quantocks were to be my goal. I had a wish of a mildly imperative nature that Spring would be arriving among the Quantocks at the same time as myself—that “the one red leaf the last of its clan,” that danced on March 7, 1798, would have danced itself into the grave: that since my journey was to be in “a month before the month of May,” Spring would come fast, not slowly, up that way. Yes, I would see Nether Stowey, the native soil of “Kubla Khan,” “Christabel,” and “The Ancient Mariner,” where Coleridge fed on honey-dew and drank the milk of Paradise.
If I was to get beyond the Quantocks, it would only be for the sake of looking at Taunton or Minehead or Exmoor. Those hills were a distinct and sufficient goal, because they form the boundary between the south-west and the west. Beyond them lie Exmoor, Dartmoor, the Bodmin Moor, and Land’s End, a rocky and wilder land, though with many a delicate or bounteous interspace. On this side is the main tract of the south and the south-west, and the Quantocks themselves are the last great strongholds of that sweetness. Thither I planned to go, under the North Downs to Guildford, along the Hog’s Back to Farnham, down the Itchen towards Winchester, over the high lands of the Test to Salisbury; across the Plain to Bradford, over the Mendips to Shepton Mallet, and then under the Mendips to Wells and Glastonbury, along the ridge of the Polden Hills to Bridgwater, and so up to the Quantocks and down to the sea.
I was to start on roads leading into the Epsom road. Some regret I felt that I could not contrive to leave by the Brighton road. For I should thus again have enjoyed passing the green dome of Streatham Common, the rookery at Norbury, the goose-pond by the “Wheatsheaf” and “Horse-shoe,” and threading the unbroken lines of Croydon shops until Haling Park begins on the right hand, opposite the “Red Deer.” The long, low, green slope of the Park, the rookery elms on it, the chestnuts above the roadside fence, are among the pleasantest things which the besieging streets have made pleasanter. Haling Down, a straight-ridged and treeless long hill parallel to the road, is a continuation of that slope. In the midst it is broken by a huge chalk-pit, bushy and weathered, and its whole length is carved by an old road, always clearly marked either by the bare chalk of its banks or the stout thorn-bushes attending its course. Blocks of shops between the grass and the road, a street or two running up into it, as at the chalk-pit, and the announcement of building sites, have not spoiled this little Down, which London has virtually imprisoned. Anywhere in the chalk country its distinct individuality, the long, straight ridge and even flank, would gain it honour, but here it is a pure pastoral. It is good enough to create a poem at least equal (in everything but length) to “Windsor Forest” or “Cooper’s Hill,” if we had a local poet to-day. Beyond it, enclosed by the Eastbourne and Brighton roads, is a perfect small region of low downs, some bare, some wooded, some bushy, having Coulsdon in the centre.... But that was not to be my way.
Next day new dust was blowing over still wet mud, but the stainless blue of eight o’clock was veiled at nine. A thin gleam now and then illuminated the oaks, the fagots piled among primroses, and the copser himself. Half leaning against an oak, half reclining on his bed between two hurdles, he smoked and saw steadily and whole the train that rushed past the wood’s edge, the immense white cloud that pushed up slowly above the horizon, and the man following the roller down stripe after stripe of the next meadow, his head bent, his hand in his pocket. What sun there was, and perhaps more, had entered the rook’s cawing and the passages from “Madame Angot” tripping out of the barrel-organ. One isolated bent larch in a dark wood was green all over, a spirit of acrid green challenging the darkness. An angry little shower made my hope sputter, but the gleam—while the rain, white with light, was still falling—the soft bright gleam with which the worn flagstones answered the returning sun seemed to me pure Spring. If the rain fell again soon afterwards it only enriched the deep, after-rainy blue of evening, and made whiter the one planet that shone at half-past six upon the mud, the straight lines of traffic, and the parallels of white and yellow lamps. As deeply as one pearl dropped in mid-Atlantic was that planet lost in the storms of the night, when the rain and the south-west wind raved together. Yet I had planned to start on the next day.
I had planned to start on March 21, and rather late than early, to give the road time for drying. The light arrived bravely and innocently enough at sunrise; too bravely, for by eight o’clock it was already abashed by a shower. There could be no doubt that either I must wait for a better day, or at the next convenient fine interval I must pretend to be deceived and set out prepared for all things. So at ten I started, with maps and sufficient clothes to replace what my waterproof could not protect from rain.
The suburban by-streets already looked rideable; but they were false prophets: the main roads were very different. For example, the surface between the west end of Nightingale Lane and the top of Burntwood Lane was fit only for fancy cycling—in and out among a thousand lakes a yard wide and three inches deep. These should either have been stocked with gold-fish and aquatic plants or drained, but some time had been allowed to pass without either course being adopted. It may be that all the draining forces of the neighbourhood had been directed to emptying the ornamental pond on Wandsworth Common. Empty it was, and the sodden bed did not improve the look of the common—flat by nature, flatter by recent art. The gorse was in bloom amidst a patchwork of turf, gravel, and puddle. Terriers raced about or trifled. A flock of starlings bathed together in a puddle until scared by the dogs. A tall, stern, bald man without a hat strode earnestly in a straight line across the grass and water, as if pleasure had become a duty. He was alone on the common. In all the other residences, that form walls round the common almost on every side, hot-cross buns had proved more alluring than the rain and the south-west wind. The scene was, in fact, one more likely to be pleasing in a picture than in itself. It was tame: it was at once artificial and artless, and touched with beauty only by the strong wind and by the subdued brightness due to the rain. Its breadth and variety were sufficient for it to respond—something as Exmoor or Mousehold Heath or Cefn Bryn in Gower would have responded—to the cloudily shattered light, the threats and the deceptions, and the great sweep of the wind. But there was no one painting those cold expanses of not quite lusty grass, the hard, dull gravel, the shining puddles, the dark gold-flecked gorse, the stiff, scanty trees with black bark and sharp green buds, the comparatively venerable elms of Bolingbroke Grove, the backs and fronts of houses of no value save to their owners, and the tall chimney-stacks northwards. Perhaps only a solitary artist, or some coldish sort of gnome or angel, could have thoroughly enjoyed this moment. That it was waiting for such a one I am certain; I am almost equally certain that he could create a vogue in scenes like this one, which are only about a thousandth part as unpleasant as a cold bath, and possess, furthermore, elements of divinity lacking both to the cold bath and to the ensuing bun.
It is easier to like the blackbird’s shrubbery, the lawn, the big elm, or oak, and the few dozen fruit trees, of the one or two larger and older houses surviving—for example, at the top of Burntwood Lane. The almond, the mulberry, the apple trees in these gardens have a menaced or actually caged loveliness, as of a creature detained from some world far from ours, if they are not, as in some cases they are, the lost angels of ruined paradises.
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