THE ROAD TO ROUNDABOUT
PATRICK DALROY looked at the invader with a heavy and yet humorous expression, and merely said, “I didn’t steal your car; really, I didn’t.”
“Oh, no,” answered Dorian, “I’ve heard all about it since, and as you’re rather the persecuted party, so to speak, it wouldn’t be fair not to tell you that I don’t agree much with Ivywood about all this. I disagree with him; or rather, to speak medically, he disagrees with me. He has, ever since I woke up after an oyster supper and found myself in the House of Commons with policemen calling out, ‘Who goes home?’”
“Indeed,” inquired Dalroy, drawing his red bushy eyebrows together. “Do the officials in Parliament say, ‘Who goes home?’”
“Yes,” answered Wimpole, indifferently, “it’s a part of some old custom in the days when Members of Parliament might be attacked in the street.”
“Well,” inquired Patrick, in a rational tone, “why aren’t they attacked in the street?”
There was a silence. “It is a holy mystery,” said the Captain at last. “But, ‘Who goes home?’–that is uncommonly good.”
The Captain had received the poet into the car with all possible expressions of affability and satisfaction, but the poet, who was keen-sighted enough about people of his own sort, could not help thinking that the Captain was a little absent-minded. As they flew thundering through the mazes of South London (for Pump had crossed Westminster Bridge and was making for the Surrey hills), the big blue eyes of the big red-haired man rolled perpetually up and down the streets; and, after longer and longer silences, he found expression for his thoughts.
“Doesn’t it strike you that there are a very large number of chemists in London nowadays?”
“Are there?” asked Wimpole, carelessly. “Well, there certainly are two very close to each other just over there.”
“Yes, and both the same name,” replied Dalroy, “Crooke. And I saw the same Mr. Crooke chemicalizing round the corner. He seems to be a highly omnipresent deity.”
“A large business, I suppose,” observed Dorian Wimpole.
“Too large for its profits, I should say,” said Dalroy. “What can people want with two chemists of the same sort within a few yards of each other? Do they put one leg into one shop and one into the other and have their corns done in both at once? Or, do they take an acid in one shop and an alkali in the next, and wait for the fizz? Or, do they take the poison in the first shop and the emetic in the second shop? It seems like carrying delicacy too far. It almost amounts to living a double life.”
“But, perhaps,” said Dorian, “he is an uproariously popular chemist, this Mr. Crooke. Perhaps there’s a rush on some specialty of his.”
“It seems to me,” said the Captain, “that there are certain limitations to such popularity in the case of a chemist. If a man sells very good tobacco, people may smoke more and more of it from sheer self-indulgence. But I never heard of anybody exceeding in cod-liver oil. Even castor-oil, I should say, is regarded with respect rather than true affection.”
After a few minutes of silence, he said, “Is it safe to stop here for an instant, Pump?”
“I think so,” replied Humphrey, “if you’ll promise me not to have any adventures in the shop.”
The motor car stopped before yet a fourth arsenal of Mr. Crooke and his pharmacy, and Dalroy went in. Before Pump and his companion could exchange a word, the Captain came out again, with a curious expression on his countenance, especially round the mouth.
“Mr. Wimpole,” said Dalroy, “will you give us the pleasure of dining with us this evening? Many would consider it an unceremonious invitation to an unconventional meal; and it may be necessary to eat it under a hedge or even up a tree; but you are a man of taste, and one does not apologise for Hump’s rum or Hump’s cheese to persons of taste. We will eat and drink of our best tonight. It is a banquet. I am not very certain whether you and I are friends or enemies, but at least there shall be peace tonight.”
“Friends, I hope,” said the poet, smiling, “but why peace especially tonight?”
“Because there will be war tomorrow,” answered Patrick Dalroy, “whichever side of it you may be on. I have just made a singular discovery.”
And he relapsed into his silence as they flew out of the fringe of London into the woods and hills beyond Croydon. Dalroy remained in the same mood of brooding, Dorian was brushed by the butterfly wing of that fleeting slumber that will come on a man hurried, through the air, after long lounging in hot drawing rooms; even the dog Quoodle was asleep at the bottom of the car. As for Humphrey Pump, he very seldom talked when he had anything else to do. Thus it happened that long landscapes and perspectives were shot past them like suddenly shifted slides, and long stretches of time elapsed before any of them spoke again. The sky was changing from the pale golds and greens of evening to the burning blue of a strong summer night, a night of strong stars. The walls of woodland that flew past them like long assegais, were mostly, at first, of the fenced and park-like sort; endless oblong blocks of black pinewood shut in by boxes of thin grey wood. But soon fences began to sink, and pinewoods to straggle, and roads to split and even to sprawl. Half an hour later Dalroy had begun to realise something romantic and even faintly reminiscent in the roll of the country, and Humphrey Pump had long known he was on the marches of his native land.
So far as the difference could be defined by a detail, it seemed to consist not so much in the road rising as in the road perpetually winding. It was more like a path; and even where it was abrupt or aimless, it seemed the more alive. They appeared to be ascending a big, dim hill that was built of a crowd of little hills with rounded tops; it was like a cluster of domes. Among these domes the road climbed and curled in multitudinous curves and angles. It was almost impossible to believe that it could turn itself and round on itself so often without tying itself in a knot and choking.
“I say,” said Dalroy, breaking the silence suddenly, “this car will get giddy and fall down.”
“Perhaps,” said Dorian, beaming at him, “my car, as you may have noticed, was much steadier.”
Patrick laughed, but not without a shade of confusion. “I hope you got back your car all right,” he said. “This is really nothing for speed; but it’s an uncommonly good little climber, and it seems to have some climbing to do just now. And even more wandering.”
“The roads certainly seem to be very irregular,” said Dorian, reflectively.
“Well,” cried Patrick, with a queer kind of impatience, “you’re English and I’m not. You ought to know why the road winds about like this. Why, the Saints deliver us!” he cried, “it’s one of the wrongs of Ireland that she can’t understand England. England won’t understand herself, England won’t tell us why these roads go wriggling about. Englishmen won’t tell us! You won’t tell us!”
“Don’t be too sure,” said Dorian, with a quiet irony.
Dalroy, with an irony far from quiet emitted a loud yell of victory.
“Right,” he shouted. “More songs of the car club! We’re all poets here, I hope. Each shall write something about why the road jerks about so much. So much as this, for example,” he added, as the whole vehicle nearly rolled over in a ditch.
For, indeed, Pump appeared to be attacking such inclines as are more suitable for a goat than a small motor car. This may have been exaggerated in the emotions of his companions, who had both, for different reasons, seen much of mere flat country lately. The sensation was like a combination of trying to get into the middle of the maze at Hampton Court, and climbing the spiral staircase to the Belfry at Bruges.
“This is the right way to Roundabout,” said Dalroy, cheerfully, “charming place; salubrious spot. You can’t miss it. First to the left and right and straight on round the corner and back again. That’ll do for my poem. Get on, you slackers; why aren’t you writing your poems?”
“I’ll try one if you like,” said Dorian, treating his flattered egotism lightly. “But it’s too dark to write; and getting darker.”
Indeed they had come under a shadow between them and the stars, like the brim of a giant’s hat; only through the holes and rents in which the summer stars could now look down on them. The hill, like a cluster of domes, though smooth and even bare in its lower contours was topped with a tangle of spanning trees that sat above them like a bird brooding over its nest. The wood was larger and vaguer than the clump that is the crown of the hill at Chanctonbury, but was rather like it and held much the same high and romantic position. The next moment they were in the wood itself, and winding in and out among the trees by a ribbon of paths. The emerald twilight between the stems, combined with the dragon-like contortions of the great grey roots of the beeches, had a suggestion of monsters and the deep sea; especially as a long litter of crimson and copper-coloured fungi, which might well have been the more gorgeous types of anemone or jelly-fish, reddened the ground like a sunset dropped from the sky. And yet, contradictorily enough, they had also a strong sense of being high up; and even near to heaven; and the brilliant summer stars that stared through the chinks of the leafy roof might almost have been white starry blossoms on the trees of the wood.
But though they had entered the wood as if it were a house, their strongest sensation still was the rotatory; it seemed as if that high green house went round and round like a revolving lighthouse or the whiz-gig temple in the old pantomimes. The stars seemed, to circle over their heads; and Dorian felt almost certain he had seen the same beech-tree twice.
At length they came to a central place where the hill rose in a sort of cone in the thick of its trees, lifting its trees with it. Here Pump stopped the car, and clambering up the slope, came to the crawling colossal roots of a very large but very low beech-tree. It spread out to the four quarters of heaven more in the manner of an octopus than a tree, and within its low crown of branches there was a kind of hollow, like a cup, into which Mr. Humphrey Pump, of “The Old Ship,” Pebblewick, suddenly and entirely disappeared.
When he appeared it was with a kind of rope ladder, which he politely hung over the side for his companions to ascend by, but the Captain preferred to swing himself onto one of the octopine branches with a whirl of large wild legs worthy of a chimpanzee. When they were established there, each propped in the hollow against a branch, almost as comfortably as in an arm chair, Humphrey himself descended once more and began to take out their simple stores. The dog was still asleep in the car.
“An old haunt of yours, Hump, I suppose,” said the Captain. “You seem quite at home.”
“I am at home,” answered Pump, with gravity, “at the sign of ‘The Old Ship.’” And he stuck the old blue and red sign-board erect among the toadstools, as if inviting the passer-by to climb the trees for a drink.
The tree just topped the mound or clump of trees, and from it they could see the whole champaign of the country they had passed, with the silver roads roaming about in it like rivers. They were so exalted they could almost fancy the stars would burn them.
“Those roads remind me of the songs you’ve all promised,” said Dalroy at last. “Let’s have some supper, Hump, and then recite.”
Humphrey had hung one of the motor lanterns onto a branch above him, and proceeded by the light of it to tap the keg of rum and hand round the cheese.
“What an extraordinary thing,” exclaimed Dorian Wimpole, suddenly. “Why, I’m quite comfortable! Such a thing has never happened before, I should imagine. And how holy this cheese tastes.”
“It has gone on a pilgrimage,” answered Dalroy, “or rather a Crusade. It’s a heroic, a fighting cheese. ‘Cheese of all Cheeses, Cheeses of all the world,’ as my compatriot, Mr. Yeats, says to the Something-or-other of Battle. It’s almost impossible that this cheese can have come out of such a coward as a cow. I suppose,” he added, wistfully, “I suppose it wouldn’t do to explain that in this case Hump had milked the bull. That would be classed by scientists among Irish legends–those that have the Celtic glamour and all that. No, I think this cheese must have come from that Dun Cow of Dunsmore Heath, who had horns bigger than elephant’s tusks, and who was so ferocious that one of the greatest of the old heroes of chivalry was required to do battle with it. The rum’s good, too. I’ve earned this glass of rum–earned it by Christian humility. For nearly a month I’ve lowered myself to the beasts of the field, and gone about on all fours like a teetotaller. Hump, circulate the bottle–I mean the cask–and let us have some of this poetry you’re so keen about. Each poem must have the same title, you know; it’s a rattling good title. It’s called ‘An Inquiry into the Causes geological, historical, agricultural, psychological, psychical, moral, spiritual and theological of the alleged cases of double, treble, quadruple and other curvature in the English Road, conducted by a specially appointed secret commission in a hole in a tree, by admittedly judicious and academic authorities specially appointed by themselves to report to the Dog Quoodle, having power to add to their number and also to take away the number they first thought of; God save the King.’” Having delivered this formula with blinding rapidity, he added rather breathlessly, “that’s the note to strike, the lyric note.”
For all his rather formless hilarity, Dalroy still impressed the poet as being more distrait than the others, as if his mind were labouring with some bigger thing in the background. He was in a sort of creative trance; and Humphrey Pump, who knew him like his own soul, knew well that it was not mere literary creation. Rather it was a kind of creation which many modern moralists would call destruction. For Patrick Dalroy was, not a little to his misfortune, what is called a man of action; as Captain Dawson realised when he found his entire person a bright pea-green. Fond as he was of jokes and rhymes, nothing he could write or even sing ever satisfied him like something he could do.
Thus it happened that his contribution to the metrical inquiry into the crooked roads was avowedly hasty and flippant. While Dorian who was of the opposite temper, the temper that receives impressions instead of pushing out to make them, found his artist’s love of beauty fulfilled as it had never been before in that noble nest; and was far more serious and human than usual. Patrick’s verses ran:
“Some say that Guy of Warwick,
The man that killed the Cow,
And brake the mighty Boar alive,
Beyond the Bridge at Slough,
Went up against a Loathly Worm
That wasted all the Downs,
And so the roads they twist and squirm
(If I may be allowed the term)
From the writhing of the stricken Worm
That died in seven towns.
I see no scientific proof
That this idea is sound,
And I should say they wound about
To find the town of Roundabout,
The merry town of Roundabout
That makes the world go round.
“Some say that Robin Goodfellow,
Whose lantern lights the meads,
(To steal a phrase Sir Walter Scott
In heaven no longer needs)
Such dance around the trysting-place
The moonstruck lover leads;
Which superstition I should scout;
There is more faith in honest doubt,
(As Tennyson has pointed out)
Than in those nasty creeds.
But peace and righteousness (St. John)
In Roundabout can kiss,
And since that’s all that’s found about
The pleasant town of Roundabout,
The roads they simply bound about
To find out where it is.
“Some say that when Sir Lancelot
Went forth to find the Grail,
Grey Merlin wrinkled up the roads
For hope that he should fail;
All roads led back to Lyonesse
And Camelot in the Vale;
I cannot yield assent to this
The plain, shrewd Briton will dismiss
Such rumours (Daily Mail).
But in the streets of Roundabout
Are no such factions found,
Or theories to expound about
Or roll upon the ground about,
In the happy town of Roundabout
That makes the world go round.”
Patrick Dalroy relieved his feelings by finishing with a shout, draining a stiff glass of his sailor’s wine, turning restlessly on his elbow and looking across the landscape toward London.
Dorian Wimpole had been drinking golden rum and strong starlight and the fragrance of forests; and, though his verses, too, were burlesque, he read them more emotionally than was his wont.
“Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire.
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
That night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
“I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchmen I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.
“His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.
“My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”
“Have you written one, Hump?” asked Dalroy. Humphrey, who had been scribbling hard under the lamp, looked up with a dismal face.
“Yes,” he said. “But I write under a great disadvantage. You see, I know why the road curves about.” And he read very rapidly, all on one note:
“The road turned first toward the left
Where Pinker’s quarry made the cleft;
The path turned next toward the right
Because the mastiff used to bite;
Then left, because of Slippery Height,
And then again toward the right.
We could not take the left because
It would have been against the laws;
Squire closed it in King William’s day
Because it was a Right of Way.
Still right; to dodge the ridge of chalk
Where Parson’s Ghost it used to walk,
Till someone Parson used to know
Met him blind drunk in Callao.
Then left, a long way round, to skirt
The good land where old Doggy Burt
Was owner of the Crown and Cup,
And would not give his freehold up;
Right, missing the old river-bed,
They tried to make him take instead
Right, since they say Sir Gregory
Went mad and let the Gypsies be,
And so they have their camp secure.
And, though not honest, they are poor,
And that is something; then along
And first to right–no, I am wrong!
Second to right, of course; the first
Is what the holy sisters cursed,
And none defy their awful oaths
Since the policeman lost his clothes
Because of fairies; right again,
What used to be High Toby Lane,
Left by the double larch and right
Until the milestone is in sight,
Because the road is firm and good
From past the milestone to the wood;
And I was told by Dr. Lowe
Whom Mr. Wimpole’s aunt would know,
Who lives at Oxford writing books,
And ain’t so silly as he looks;
The Romans did that little bit
And we’ve done all the rest of it;
By which we hardly seem to score;
Left, and then forward as before
To where they nearly hanged Miss Browne,
Who told them not to cut her down,
But loose the rope or let her swing,
Because it was a waste of string;
Left once again by Hunker’s Cleft,
And right beyond the elm, and left,
By Pill’s right by Nineteen Nicks
“No! No! No’! Hump! Hump! Hump!” cried Dalroy in a sort of terror. “Don’t be exhaustive! Don’t be a scientist, Hump, and lay waste fairyland! How long does it go on? Is there a lot more of it?”
“Yes,” said Pump, in a stony manner. “There is a lot more of it.”
“And it’s all true?” inquired Dorian Wimpole, with interest.
“Yes,” replied Pump with a smile, “it’s all true.”
“My complaint, exactly,” said the Captain. “What you want is legends. What you want is lies, especially at this time of night, and on rum like this, and on our first and our last holiday. What do you think about rum?” he asked Wimpole.
“About this particular rum, in this particular tree, at this particular moment,” answered Wimpole, “I think it is the nectar of the younger gods. If you ask me in a general, synthetic sense what I think of rum–well, I think it’s rather rum.”
“You find it a trifle sweet, I suppose,” said Dalroy, with some bitterness. “Sybarite! By the way,” he said abruptly, “what a silly word that word ‘Hedonist’ is! The really self-indulgent people generally like sour things and not sweet; bitter things like caviar and curries or what not. It’s the Saints who like the sweets. At least I’ve known at least five women who were practically saints, and they all preferred sweet champagne. Look here, Wimpole! Shall I tell you the ancient oral legend about the origin of rum? I told you what you wanted was legends. Be careful to preserve this one, and hand it on to your children; for, unfortunately, my parents carelessly neglected the duty of handing it on to me. After the words ‘A Farmer had three sons …’ all that I owe to tradition ceases. But when the three boys last met in the village market-place, they were all sucking sugar-sticks. Nevertheless, they were all discontented, and, on that day parted for ever. One remained on his father’s farm, hungering for his inheritance. One went up to London to seek his fortune, as fortunes are found today in that town forgotten of God. The third ran away to sea. And the first two flung away their sugar-sticks in shame; and he on the farm was always drinking smaller and sourer beer for the love of money; and he that was in town was always drinking richer and richer wines, that men might see that he was rich. But he who ran away to sea actually ran on board with the sugar-stick in his mouth; and St. Peter or St. Andrew, or whoever is the patron of men in boats, touched it and turned it into a fountain for the comfort of men upon the sea. That is the sailor’s theory of the origin of rum. Inquiry addressed to any busy Captain with a new crew in the act of shipping an unprecedented cargo, will elicit a sympathetic agreement.”
“Your rum at least,” said Dorian, good-humouredly, “may well produce a fairy-tale. But, indeed, I think all this would have been a fairy-tale without it.”
Patrick raised himself from his arboreal throne, and leaned against his branch with a curious and sincere sense of being rebuked.
“Yours was a good poem,” he said, with seeming irrelevance, “and mine was a bad one. Mine was bad, partly because I’m not a poet as you are; but almost as much because I was trying to make up another song at the same time. And it went to another tune, you see.”
He looked out over the rolling roads and said almost to himself:
“In the city set upon slime and loam
They cry in their parliament ‘Who goes home?’
And there is no answer in arch or dome,
For none in the city of graves goes home.
Yet these shall perish and understand,
For God has pity on this great land.
Men that are men again; who goes home?
Tocsin and trumpeter! Who goes home?
For there’s blood on the field and blood on the foam,
And blood on the body when man goes home.
And a voice valedictory–Who is for Victory?
Who is for Liberty? Who goes home?”
Softly and idly as he had said this second rhyme, there were circumstances about his attitude that must have troubled or interested anyone who did not know him well.
“May I ask,” asked Dorian, laughing, “why it is necessary to draw your sword at this stage of the affair?”
“Because we have left the place called Roundabout,” answered Patrick, “and we have come to a place called Rightabout.”
And he lifted his sword toward London, and the grey glint upon it came from a low, grey light in the east.