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Chapter XVIII 


IN WHICH THE NAME OF A GREAT POET IS CRIED OUT IN A SOLITARY PLACE

As I once more shouldered my pack and went my way, the character of the country side began to change, and, from a semi- pastoral heathiness and furziness, took on a wildness of aspect, which if indeed melodramatic was melodrama carried to the point of genius.

It was a scene for which the nineteenth century has no worthy use. It finds ignoble occupation as a gaping-ground for the vacuous tourist,--somewhat as Heine might have imagined Pan carrying the gentleman's luggage from the coach to the hotel. It suffers teetotal picnic-parties to encamp amid its savage hollows, and it humbly allows itself to be painted by the worst artists. Like a lion in a menagerie, it is a survival of the extinct chaos entrapped and exhibited amid the smug parks and well-rolled downs of England.

I came upon it by a winding ledge of road, which clung to the bare side of the hill like the battlements of some huge castle. Some two hundred feet below, a brawling upland stream stood for the moat, and for the enemy there was on the opposite side of the valley a great green company of trees, settled like a cloud slope upon slope, making all haste to cross the river and ascend the heights where I stood. Some intrepid larches waved green pennons in the very midst of the turbulent water, here and there a veteran lay with his many-summered head abased in the rocky course of the stream, and here was a young foolhardy beech that had climbed within a dozen yards of the rampart. All was wild and solitary, and one might have declared it a scene untrodden by the foot of man, but for the telegraph posts and small piles of broken "macadam" at punctual intervals, and the ginger-beer bottles and paper bags of local confectioners that lent an air of civilisation to the road.

It was a place to quote Alastor in, and nothing but a bad memory prevented my affrighting the oaks and rills with declamation. As it was, I could only recall the lines

"The Poet wandering on, through Arabie And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste, And o'er the aerial mountains which pour down Indus and Oxus from their icy caves--" and that other passage beginning

"At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore He paused--"

This last I mouthed, loving the taste of its thunder; mouthed thrice, as though it were an incantation,--and, indeed, from what immediately followed, it might reasonably have seemed so.

"At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore He paused--"

I mouthed for the fourth time. And lo! advancing to me eagerly along the causeway seemed the very sprite of Alastor himself! There was a star upon his forehead, and around his young face there glowed an aureole of gold and roses--to speak figuratively, for the star upon his brow was hope, and the gold and roses encircling his head, a miniature rainbow, were youth and health. His longish golden hair had no doubt its share in the effect, as likewise the soft yellow silk tie that fluttered like a flame in the speed of his going. His blue eyes were tragically fresh and clear,--as though they had as yet been little used. There were little wings of haste upon his feet, and he came straight to me, with the air of the Angel Gabriel about to make his divine announcement. For a moment I thought that he was an apparition of prophecy charged to announce the maiden of the Lord for whom I was seeking. However, his brief flushed question was not of these things. He desired first to ask the time of day, and next--here, after a bump to the earth, one's thoughts ballooned again heavenwards--"had I seen a green copy of Shelley lying anywhere along the road?"

Nothing so good had happened to me, I replied--but I believed that I had seen a copy of Alastor! For a moment my meaning was lost on him; then he flushed and smiled, thanked me and was off again, saying that he must find his Shelley, as he wouldn't lose it for the world!

He had presently disappeared as suddenly as he had come, but he had left me a companion, a radiant reverberant name; and for some little space the name of Shelley clashed silvery music among the hills.

Its seven letters seemed to hang right across the clouds like the Seven Stars, an apocalyptic constellation, a veritable sky sign; and again the name was an angel standing with a silver trumpet, and again it was a song. The heavens opened, and across the blue rift it hung in a glory of celestial fire, while from behind and above the clouds came a warbling as of innumerable larks.

How strange was this miracle of fame, I pondered, this strange apotheosis by which a mere private name becomes a public symbol! Shelley was once a private person whose name had no more universal meaning than my own, and so were Byron and Cromwell and Shakespeare; yet now their names are facts as stubborn as the Rocky Mountains, or the National Gallery, or the circulation of the blood. From their original inch or so of private handwriting they have spread and spread out across the world, and now whole generations of men find intellectual accommodation within them,--drinking fountains and other public institutions are erected upon them; yea, Carlyle has become a Chelsea swimming-bath, and "Highland Mary" is sold for whiskey, while Mr. Gladstone is to be met everywhere in the form of a bag.

Does Mr. Gladstone, I wonder, instruct his valet "to pack his Gladstone"? How strange it must seem! Try it yourself some day and its effect on your servant. Ask him, for example, to "pack your ----" and see how he'll stare.

Coming nearer and nearer to earth, I wondered if Colonel Boycott ever uses the word "boycott," and how strange it must have seemed to the late MacAdam to walk for miles and miles upon his own name, like a carpet spread out before him.

Then I once more rebounded heavenwards, at the vision of the eager dreamy lad whose question had set going all this odd clockwork of association. He wouldn't lose his Shelley for the world! How like twenty! And how many things that he wouldn't lose for the world will he have to give up before he is thirty, I reflected sententiously,--give up at last, maybe, with a stony indifference, as men on a sinking ship take no thought of the gold and specie in the hold.

And then, all of a sudden, a little way up the ferny grassy hillside, I caught sight of the end of a book half hidden among the ferns. I climbed up to it. Of course it was that very green Shelley which the young stranger wouldn't lose for the world.

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