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Chapter II 


AT THE SIGN OF THE SINGING STREAM

Apuleius and Fielding and Boccaccio, bad companions for a petticoat, I'm afraid, bad companions too for so young a man as I had now become. However, as I say, I had for the time forgotten that pagan company, or, in my puritanic zeal, I might have thrown them all to be washed clean in the upland stream, whose pure waters one might fancy were fragrant from their sunny day among the ferns and the heather, fragrant to the eye, indeed, if one may so speak, with the shaken meal of the meadowsweet. This stream had been the good angel of my thoughts all the day, keeping them ever moving and ever fresh, cleansing and burnishing them, quite an open-air laundry of the mind.

We were both making for the same little town, it appeared, and as the sun was setting we reached it together. I entered the town over the bridge, and the stream under it, washing the walls of the high-piled, many-gabled old inn where I proposed to pass the night. I should hear it still rippling on with its gentle harpsichord tinkle, as I stretched myself down among the cool lavendered sheets, and little by little let slip the multifarious world.

The inn windows beamed cheerily, a home of ruddy rest. Having ordered my dinner and found my room, I threw down my knapsack and then came out again to smoke an ante-prandial pipe, listen to the evensong of the stream, and think great thoughts. The stream was still there, and singing the same sweet old song. You could hear it long after it was out of sight, in the gathering darkness, like an old nurse humming lullabies in the twilight.

The dinner was good, the wine was old, and oh! the rest was sweet! Nothing fills one with so exquisite a weariness as a day spent in good resolutions and great thoughts. There is something perilously sensuous in the relaxation of one's muscles, both of mind and body, after a day thus well spent.

Lighting up my pipe once more, and drawing to the fire, I suddenly realised a sense of loneliness. Of course, I was lonely for a book,--Apuleius or Fielding or Boccaccio!

An hour ago they had seemed dangerous companions for so lofty a mood; but now, under the gentle influences of dinner, the mood had not indeed changed--but mellowed. So to say, we would split the difference between the ideal and the human, and be, say, twenty-five.

It was in this genial attitude of mind that I strode up the quaint circular staircase to fetch Fielding from my room, and, shade of Tom Jones! what should be leaving my room, as I advanced to enter it, but--well, it's no use, resolutions are all very well, but facts are facts, especially when they're natural, and here was I face to face with the most natural little natural fact, and withal the most charming and merry-eyed, that-- well, in short, as I came to enter my room I was confronted by the roundest, ruddiest little chambermaid ever created for the trial of mortal frailty.

And the worst of it was that her merry eye was in partnership with a merry tongue. Indeed, for some unexplained reason, she was bubbling over with congested laughter, the reason for which mere embarrassment set one inquiring. At last, between little gushes of laughter which shook her plump shoulders in a way that aroused wistful memories of Hebe, she archly asked me, with mock solemnity, if I should need a lady's maid.

"Certainly," I replied with inane promptitude, for I had no notion of her drift; but then she ran off in a scurry of laughter, and still puzzled I turned into my room, TO FIND, neatly hung over the end of the bed, nothing less than the dainty petticoat and silk stockings of Sylvia Joy.

You can imagine the colour of my cheeks at the discovery. No doubt I was already the laughing-stock of the whole inn. What folly! What a young vixen! Oh, what's to be done? Pay my bill and sneak off at once to the next town; but how pass through the grinning line of boots, and waiter, and chambermaid, and ironically respectful landlord and landlady, in the hall . . .

But while I thus deliberated, something soft pressed in at the door; and, making a sudden dart, I had the little baggage who had brought about my dilemma a prisoner in my arms.

I stayed some days at this charming old inn, for Amaryllis--oh, yes, you may be sure her name was Amaryllis--had not betrayed me; and indeed she may have some share in my retrospect of the inn as one of the most delightful which I encountered anywhere in my journeying. Would you like to know its name? Well, I know it as The Singing Stream. If you can find it under that name, you are welcome. And should you chance to be put into bedroom No. 26, you can think of me, and how I used to lie awake, listening to the stream rippling beneath the window, with its gentle harpsichord tinkle, and little by little letting slip the multifarious world.

And if anything about this chapter should seem to contradict the high ideals of the chapter preceding it, I can only say that, though the episode should not rigidly fulfil the conditions of the transcendental, nothing could have been more characteristic of that early youth to which I had vowed myself. Indeed, I congratulated myself, as I looked my last at the sign of The Singing Stream, that this had been quite in my early manner.

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