"Bones and I"/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII.

RUS IN URBE.

ROMÆ Tibur Amem, ventosus. Tibure Romam! quoth the Latin satirist, ridiculing his own foibles, like his neighbour's, with the laughing, half-indulgent banter that makes him the pleasantest, the chattiest, and the most companionable of classic writers. How he loved the cool retirement of his Sabine home, its grassy glades, its hanging woodlands, its fragrant breezes wandering and whispering through those summer slopes, rich in the countless allurements of a landscape that—


"Like Albunea's echoing fountain.
All my inmost heart hath ta'en;
Give me Anio's headlong torrent,
And Tiburniis' grove and hills,
And its orchards sparkling devey,
With a thousand wimpling rills,"


as Theodore Martin translates his Horace, or thus, according to Lord Ravensworth—


"Like fair Albunea's sybil-haunted hall,
By rocky Anio's echoing waterfall,
And Tibur's orchards and high-hanging wood,
Reflected graceful in the whirling flood."


His lordship, you observe, who can himself write Latin lyrics as though he had drunk with Augustus, and capped verses with Ovid, makes the second syllable of Albunea long, and a very diffuse argument might be held on this disputed quantity. Compare these with the original, and say which you like best—

 

"Quam domus Albunese resonantis,
Et præceps Anio ac Tiburni luciis et uda
Mobilibus pomaria rivis."


By the way, nobody who has not endeavoured to render Latin poetry into English can appreciate the vigour and terseness of the older language. Here are six lines in the one version and four in the other, required to translate three of the original, perhaps without producing after all so full a meaning or so complete a picture.

Nevertheless and notwithstanding his poetical predilections for the country, Horace, like many other people, seems of his two homes to have always preferred the one at which he was not. An unhappy prejudice little calculated to enhance the comfort and content of daily life.

Had he settled anywhere in the neighbourhood of our hermitage here, he need not have accused himself of this fickle longing, which he denounces by the somewhat ludicrous epithet of "ventose." He might have combined the advantages of town and country, alternating the solitude of the desert with the society of his fellow-men, blowing the smoke out of his lungs while inhaling the fresh breezes off the Serpentine, stretching his own limbs and his horses' by walks and rides round Battersea, Victoria, and Hyde Parks.

If you look for rus in urbe, where will you find it in such perfection as within a mile of the Wellington Statue in almost any direction you please to take? If you choose to saunter on a hot June day towards the Ranger's Lodge or the powder magazine, I could show you a spot from which I defy you to see houses, spires, gas-towers, or chimneys, anything, indeed, but green grass and blue sky, and towering elms motionless, in black massive shade, or quivering in golden gleams of light. A spot where you might lie and dream of nymph and faun, woodgod and satyr, Daphne pursued by Phœbus, Actaeon flying before Diana, of Pan and Syrinx and Echo, and all the rustic joys of peaceful Arcady—or of elves and brownies, fair princesses and cruel monsters, Launcelot, Mordred, and Carodac, Sir Gawain the courteous with his "lothely ladye," the compromising cup, the misfitting mantle, all the bright pageantry, quaint device, and deep, tender romance that groups itself round good King Arthur and the Knights of his Pound Table—or of Thomas the Rhymer as he lay at length under the "linden tree," and espied, riding towards him on a milk-white palfrey, a dame so beautiful, that he could not but believe she was the mother of his lord, till undeceived by her own confession, he won from her the fatal gift of an unearthly love. And here, perhaps, you branch off into some more recent vision, some dream of an elfin queen of your own, who also showed you the path to heaven, and gave you an insight into the ways of purgatory, ere she beckoned you down the road to Fairyland, that leads—ah! who knows where? From this sequestered nook you need not walk a bowshot to arrive at the seaboard of the Serpentine; and here, should there be a breath of air, if you have any taste for yachting, you may indulge it to your heart's content. The glittering water is dotted with craft of every rig and, under a certain standard, of almost every size. Yawls, cutters, schooners, barques, brigs, with here and there a three-masted ship. On a wind and off a wind, close-hauled and free, rolling, pitching, going about, occasionally missing stays, and only to be extricated from the "doldrums" by a blundering, over-eager water-dog, the mimic fleet, on its mimic ocean, carries out its illusion so completely that you can almost fancy the air off the water feels damp to your forehead, and tastes salt upon your lips.

An ancient mariner who frequents the beach below the boat-house feels, I am convinced, thoroughly persuaded that his occupation is strictly professional, that he is himself a necessity, not of amusement, but business. He will tell you that when the wind veers round like that, "suddenways, off Kensington Gardens, you may look out for squalls;" that "last Toosday was an awful wild night, and some on 'em broke from their moorings afore he could turn out. The 'Bellerophon,' bless ye, was as nigh lost as could be, and that there 'Water Lily,' the sweetest thing as ever swam—she sprang her boom, damaged her bowsprit, and broke her nose. He was refitting all Wens'day, he was, up to two o'clock, and a precious job he had!"

Every one who constantly "takes his walks ahroad," in the Great City, becomes a philosopher in spite of himself, of the Peripatetic School, no doubt, but still a philosopher; so you sympathise mildly with the mariner's troubles; for to you no human interests are either great or small, nor does one pursuit nor person bore you more than another. You hazard an opinion, therefore, that the "Water Lily" is somewhat too delicate and fragile a craft to encounter boisterous weather, even on such an inland sea as this, and find, to your dismay, that so innocent an observation stamps you in his opinion as not only ignorant, but presumptuous. He considers her both "wholesome," as he calls it, and "weatherly," urging on you many considerations of sea- worthiness, such as her false keel, her bulwarks, her breadth of beam, and general calibre. "Why, she's seven-and-twenty," says he, rolling a peppermint lozenge round his tongue, just as a real seaman turns a quid; "now look at the 'Sea-sarpent' lying away to the eastward yonder, just beyond the point where the gravel's been washed adrift. She's fifty-two, she is, but I wouldn't trust her, not in lumpy water, you know, like the schooner. No. If I was a building of one now, what I call, for all work and all weathers, thirty would be my mark, or from that to thirty-five at the outside!"

"Thirty-five what? Tons?" you ask, a little abashed, and feeling you have committed yourself.

"Tons!" he repeats, in a tone of intense dissrust—"tons be blowed! h'inches! I should have thought any landsman might ha' knowed that—h'inches!" and lurching sulkily into his cabin under the willow-tree, disappears to be seen no more.

Later, when September has begun to tinge the topmost twigs with gold, and autumn, like a beautiful woman, then indeed at her loveliest, who is just upon the wane, dresses in her deepest colours, and her richest garments, go roaming about in Kensington Gardens, and say whether you might not fancy yourself a hundred miles from any such evidences of civilization pillar-post or a cab-stand.

It was but the other day, I sauntered through the grove that stands nearest the Uxbridge Eoad, and while an afternoon mist limited my range of vision and deadened the sounds of traffic on my ears, I could hardly persuade myself that in less than five minutes I might if I liked make the thirteenth in an omnibus.

Alone? you ask—of course I was. Yet, stay, not quite alone, for with me walked the shadow, that, when we have learned to prefer solitude to society, accompanies us in all our wanderings, teaching us, I humbly hope, the inevitable lesson, permanent and precious in proportion to the pain with which the poor scholar gets his task by heart.

Well—I give you my word, the endless stems, the noiseless solitude, the circumscribed horizon, reminded me of those forest ranges in North America that stretch interminable from the waters of the St. Ann's and the Batsicon, to the wild waves breaking dark and sullen on the desert seaboard of Labrador.

I am not joking. I declare to you I was once more in mocassins, blanket-coat and bonnet-rouge, with an axe in my belt, a pack on my shoulders, and a rifle in my hand, following the track of the treborgons[1] on snow-shoes, in company with Thomas, the French Canadian, and François, the Half-breed, and the Huron Chief with a name I could never pronounce, that neither I nor any man alive can spell. Ah! it was a merry life we led on those moose-hunting expeditions, in spite of hard work, hard fare, and, on occasion, more than a sufficiency of the discomfort our retainers called expressively misère. There was a strange charm in the marches through those silent forests, across those frozen lakes, all clothed alike in their winter robe of white and diamonds. There was a bold, free, joyous comfort in the hole we dug through a yard and a half of snow, wherein to build our fire, boil our kettle, fry our pork (it is no use talking of such things to you, but I was going to say, never forget a frying-pan on these expeditions; it is worth all the kitchen-ranges in Belgravia), to smoke our tobacco, ay, and to take our rest.

There was something of sweet adventurous romance in waking at midnight to see the stars flash like brilliants through the snow-encrusted branches overhead, wondering vaguely where and why and what were all those countless worlds of flame. Perhaps to turn round again and dream of starry eyes in the settlements, then closed in sleep, or winking drowsily at a night-light, while the pretty watcher pondered, not unmindful of ourselves, pitying us, it may be, couching here in the bush, and thinking in her ignorance how cold we were!

Then when we reached our hunting-ground and came up with our game at last, though, truth to tell, the sport as sport was poor enough, there was yet a wild delightful triumph in overtaking and slaying a gigantic animal that had never seen the face of man. The chase was exciting, invigorating, bracing; the idea grand, heroic, Scandinavian.

 

"An elk came out of the pine-forest;
He snuffed up east, he snuffed up west,
Stealthy and still;
His mane and his horns were shaggy with snow,
I laid my arrow across my bow,
Stealthily and still;
The bowstring rattled—the arrow flew,
And it pierced his blade-bone through and through.
Hurrah!
I sprang at his throat like a wolf of the wood,
And I dipped my hands in the smoking blood.
Hurrah!"


Kingsley had not written "Hypatia" then. Kingsley never went moose-hunting in his life. How could he so vividly describe the gait and bearing of a forest-elk stalking warily, doubtfully, yet with a kingly pride through his wintry haunts? Probably from the instinctive sense of fitness, the intuition peculiar to poets, that enabled him to feel alike with a fierce Goth sheltering in his snow-trench, and a soft, seductive southern beauty, languishing, lovely and beloved, in spite of dangerous impulses and tarnished fame, in spite of wilful heart, reckless self-abandonment, woman weakness, and the fatal saffron shawl.

I tell you that I could not have been more completely alone in Robinson Crusoe's island than I found myself here within a rifle-shot of Kensington Palace, during a twenty minutes' walk, to and fro, up and down, threading the stems of those tall, metropolitan trees; nor when my solitude was at last disturbed could I find it in me to grudge the intruders their share of my retreat. More especially as they were themselves thoroughly unconscious of everything but their own companionship, sauntering on, side by side, with murmured words, and loving looks, and steps that dwelt and lingered on the path, because that impossible roses seemed springing into bloom beneath their very feet, and that for them Kensington Gardens were indeed as the gardens of Paradise.

I knew right well for me the mist was gathering round, ghostly and damp and chill. It struck through my garments, it crept about my heart, but for these, thank God! the sky was bright as a Midsummer noon. They were basking in the warmth and light of those gleams that come once or twice in a life-time to remind us of what we might be, to reproach us, perhaps, gently for what we are. They did not speak much, they laughed not at all. Their conversation seemed a little dull, trite, and commonplace, yet I doubt if either of them has forgotten a word of it yet. It was pleasant to observe how happy they were, and I am sure they thought it was to last for ever. Indeed I wish it may!

But the reflections of a man on foot are to those of a man on horseback as the tortoise to the hare, the mouse to the lion, tobacco to opium, chalk to cheese, prose to poetry.


"As moonshine is to sunshine, and as water is to wine."

 

Get into the saddle, leap on a thorough-bred horse, if you have got one. Never mind his spoiling you for every other animal of meaner race, and come for a "spin" up the Ride from Hyde Park Corner to Kensington Gate, careful only to steady him sufficiently for the safety of Her Majesty's subjects, and the inquisition, not very rigorous, of the policemen on duty. For seven months in the year at least this is perhaps the only mile and a half in England over which you may gallop without remorse for battering legs and feet to pieces on the hard ground. Away you go, the breeze lifting your whiskers from the very roots (I forgot, you have no whiskers, nor indeed would such superfluities be in character with the severe style of your immortal beauty). Never mind, the faster you gallop the keener and cooler comes the air. Sit well down, just feel him on the curb, let him shake his pretty head and play with his bridle, sailing away with his hind legs under your stirrup-irons, free, yet collected, so that you could let him out at speed, or have him back in a canter within half a dozen strides; pat him lovingly just where the hair turns on his glossy neck like a knot in polished wood-work, and while he bends to meet the caress, and bounds to acknowledge it, tell me that dancing is the poetry of motion if you dare!

Should it not be the London season—and I am of opinion that the rus in urbe is more enjoyable to both of us at the "dead time of year" than during the three fashionable months—do not, therefore, feel alarmed that you will have the ride to yourself, or that if you come to grief there will be nobody to pick you up! Here you will meet some Life-Guardsman "taking the nonsense" out of a charger he hates; there some fair girl, trim, of waist, blue of habit, and golden of chignon, giving her favourite "a breather," ready and willing to acknowledge that she is happier, thus, speeding along in her side-saddle, than floating round a ball-room to Coote and Tinney's softest strains with the best waltzer in London for a partner.

But your horse has got his blood up, and you yourself feel that rising within, which reminds you of the merry youthful days, when everything in life was done, so to speak, at a gallop. You long to have a lark—you cannot settle down without a jump or two at least. You look wistfully at the single iron rail that guards the footway, but refrain: and herein you are wise. Nevertheless, you shall not be disappointed; you have but to jog quietly out of the Park, through Queen's Gate, turning thereafter to your right, and within a quarter of a mile you shall find what you require. Yes, in good truth, our rus in urbe, to be the more complete, is not without a little hunting-ground of its own. Mr. Blackman has laid out a snug enclosure, walled in on all sides and remote from observation, where man and horse may disport themselves with no more fear of being crowded and jostled than in Launde Woods or Rockingham Forest during the autumnal months. Here you will find every description of fence in miniature, neat and new and complete, like the furniture in a doll's baby-house—a little hedge, a little ditch, a little double, and a very little gate, cunningly constructed on mechanical principles so as to let you off easily should you tamper with its top bar, the whole admirably adapted to encourage a timid horse or steady a bold one.

All this is child's-play, no doubt—the merest child's-play, compared with the real thing. Yet there is much in the association of ideas, and a round or two over this mimic country cannot but bring back to you the memory of the merriest, ay, and the happiest, if not the sweetest moments of your life. Mounted, with a good start, in a grass-country, after a pack of foxhounds, there is no discord in the melody, no bitter in the cup—your keenest anxiety the soundness of the level water-meadow, your worst misgiving the strength of the farther rail, the width of the second ditch. The goddess of your worship bids your pulses leap and your blood thrill, but never makes your heart ache, and the thorns that hedge the roses of Diana can only pierce skin-deep.

Wasn't it glorious, though you rode much heavier then than you do now,'—wasn't it glorious, I say, to view a gallant fox going straight away from Lilburne, Loatland Wood, Shankton Holt, John-o'-Gaunt, or any covert you please to name that lies in the heart of a good- scenting, fair-fenced, galloping-country? Yourself, sheltered and unseen, what keen excitement to mark his stealing, easy action, gliding across the middle of the fields, nose, back, and brush carried in what geometricians call a "right" line, to lead you over what many people would call a "serious" one! A chorus ringing from some twenty couple of tongues becomes suddenly mute, and the good horse beneath you trembles with delight while the hounds pour over the fence that bounds the covert, scattering like a conjuror's pack of cards, ere they converge in the form of an arrow, heads and sterns down, racing each other for a lead, and lengthening out from the sheer pace at which a burning scent enables them to drive along!

They have settled to it now. You may set to and ride without compunction or remorse. A dozen fields, as many fences, a friendly gate, and they have thrown their heads up in a lane. Half-a-score of sportsmen, one plastered with mud, and the huntsman now come up; you feel conscious, though you know you are innocent, that he thinks you have been driving them! You remark, also, that there is more red than common in the men's faces and the horses' nostrils; both seem to be much excited and a little blown.

The check, however, is not of long duration. Fortunately, the hounds have taken the matter in hand for themselves, ere the only person qualified to do so has had time to interfere. Rarpsody, as he calls her, puts her nose down and goes off again at score. You scramble out of the lane, post-haste, narrowly escaping a fall. Your horse has caught his wind with that timely pull. He is going as bold as a lion, as easy as a bird, as steady as a rock. You seem to have grown together, and move like one creature to that long swinging stride, untiring and regular as clock-work. A line of grass is before you, a light east wind in your face, two years' condition and the best blood of Newmarket in his veins render you confident of your steed's enduring powers, while every field as he swoops over it, every fence as he throws it lightly behind him, convinces you more and more of his speed, mettle, and activity. What will you have? The pleasures of imagination, at least, are unlimited. Shall it be two-and-twenty minutes up wind and to ground as hard as they can go? Shall it be thirty-five without another check, crossing the best of the Vale, and indulging the good horse with never a pull till you laud in the field where old Rhapsody, with flashing eyes and bristles all on end, runs into her quarry, rolling him over and herself with him, to be buried in the rush of her eager worrying followers? Would you prefer twelve miles from point to point, accomplished in an hour and a half, comprising every variety of country, every vicissitude of the chase, and ending only when the crows are hovering and swooping over a staunch, courageous, travel-wearied fox, holding on with failing strength but all-undaunted spirit for the forest that another mile would reach but that he is never to see again. You may take your choice. Holloa! he has disappeared!—he has taken refuge in his cupboard. Not even such a skeleton as mine can sustain the exorcism of so powerful a spell as fox-hunting! So be it! Who-whoop! Gone to ground? I think we will leave him there for the present. It is better not to dig him out!


  1. A narrow "board, on which provisions, &c., are packed, to be dragged through the woods on these expeditions in the snow.