— Unless one has the good fortune to be linguistically learned one must go to Alnwick to find out what a “pant” is. There the smallest urchin who plays in the crooked, steep gray streets can inform one unerringly. There is danger, indeed, of his being reduced, by shyness and amazement at his questioner’s ignorance, to the expedient of merely pointing one out with a short and sturdy forefinger. Not to know what a pant is, is quite as bewildering a peculiarity as it would be to pronounce the name of his native town with the sound of its letters in full. For is there not St. Michael’s Pant in the market place, with the patron saint of “ A’n’ick ” himself on the top of the column, as well as Pottergate Pant on the way to lovely St. Michael’s parish church, and Clayport Low Pant in Bondgate Within ? And are there not seven others beside, more lowly in stature, but still doing cleansing and refreshing service in the face of modern waterworks ? The ancient town under the Percies’ castle walls drew bountiful supplies of water from these wells of enigmatical name long before the luxury of having it brought into their grimly solid, dark stone houses was ever dreamed of by Alnwick housewives.
The strange term these wells are known by is by no means all the traveler will find unique in the speech of the kindly, comfortable people of this delightful corner of north Northumberland. If he has no acquaintance among them, he will be likely to invent reasons for asking questions of the chance passer-by, just to have the pleasure of hearing the softly spoken tones of the answer. What curious transmutation of sound it is the letter r goes through on Northumbrian lips in being fashioned to the proper degree of North Country richness of tone, it needs a quick ear to determine. But its winning quality, coupled with the indescribably ingenuous and confiding effect of the rising inflection of voice that accompanies it, no ear will easily be able to resist.
Their Speech is not necessarily the only surprise the people of Alnwick may have for the stranger who comes unprepared into their midst. Their town, over which Hotspur’s massive gateway, stanch in scarred and blackened age, still keeps watch and ward, is one of ancient dignity, as its market cross alone might prove to any one who realizes all that the right to set up such a cross once implied of civic freedom and independence. Let no one fancy, therefore, that he will here meet with a race of subservient tradespeople, like the softer folk of southern blood, or that he will find man or woman ready to efface individuality in the presence of the person he or she may happen to be serving across a counter. How should this be expected in a community where one may buy cakes and tarts off fine old Delft platters which “ were my grandmother’s,” and where his landlady, still “ mistress ” on the lips of those who use her name familiarly, may very well give him napkins with the date 1814 printed by her provident ancestress in their well-woven corners ? It is not likely, indeed, that the kith and kin of townsmen who sit as jurors in the leet-court of the lord of the manor, and who kneel face to face with duke and duchess, earl and countess, in their parish church, should abate any of their proper importance before a new comer, even when engaged in transferring as many pounds, shillings, and pence as are their just right and due from his pocket to theirs. English though they are in blood and name, they nevertheless live near enough the Border to have acquired not a little of the unbending temper which the keen atmosphere of hill and moor has bred in their non-conforming neighbors just across it.
If, however, any one is in the unfortunate condition of delighting neither in man nor woman, Alnwick may still perhaps meet his case, since there yet remain for his entertainment the multitude of stone men-at-arms peopling the battlements of the giant castle that rises so finely above the soft banks of its little sponsor in baptism, the Aln. There are no less than five of these blackened stony warriors over the barbican, others still on the frowning gateway behind it, while yet innumerable others, on the keep and on the vast circuit of surrounding towers, are in untiring act of hurling destruction on invaders from below. If one will take the time to grow intimate with them, they also will be found to have their distinct individuality. Worn and battered by time and weather, they stand out weirdly and grimly against the wonderfully low northern clouds, which now and then vouchsafe a blue background to their granite outlines, but more often shed soft shadows, or even pelting showers, on their stern shoulders. One may speculate at will upon their date and history, — so far, at least, as information obtainable at Alnwick is concerned. No place under the sun better illustrates the wise saying that the traveler in foreign parts will only be able to find there what he takes with him in his own eyes and mind. The several guidebooks that hold out false promises on their covers prove to have been specially planned to give no information whatever worth having, and their tantalized buyer has over and over again to repent that he has left unlearned so many of the things he ought to have learned, to make the records of mediæval architecture an open page to his eye.
The venerable porter, whose hale and well-fed old age would seem to insure him for some time to come as the traveler’s guide around the inner and outer baileys of this feudal pile of the Dukes of Northumberland (Percies now only through maternal descent, and unforgiven by Freeman for having renounced the paternal Smithson), is entirely of one mind with the guidebooks. “ The ’orse-block, to get on ’orseback,” although it be to ordinary eyes but a wooden step-ladder, he may be relied on to point out, for some occult reason of his own, with pride and affection ; so, too, one after another, the small lights set in the turf to illuminate on its subterranean passage the thrice wondrous car of hot steel that carries its culinary burden from kitchen to dining-hall. But if steel car, steam heat, and even electric - light apparatus are not to the sight-seer’s taste, he must be ready to spy out for himself the fine Norman doorway under the keep, the rougher bits of the old masonry in the much-restored “ curtain ” wall, and silently to note the immensity of proportion of this often assaulted and raided but bravely impregnable border fortress. By all means entreat the porter gently, however, and in spite of cockaded hat, shoulder straps, and impeccable broadcloth, he will lay aside authority sufficiently to allow one to climb into Hotspur’s Seat, most picturesque of “ garrets ” or watchtowers in the outer wall, and to look at leisure through loophole and embrasure upon the serene beauty of the parks beyond.
It is after all the parks — the peaceful home park close under the walls, and the lordly deer and driving park beyond the graceful stone bridge where the Percy lion mounts guard — that keep the beholder in perpetual delight in Alnwick. As if the brimming Aln that winds through them, the wide-horned cattle wandering on its banks, the flock of Danubian geese that make sinuous lines of feathery white along the faultless turf, — which slopes first softly, then abruptly, up to the base of the gray commanding castle, — and the aged, noble trees were not enough to satisfy an omnivorous craving for beauty, nature has added as a background to the whole a moor. Beyond the green hills and the stately tall church tower embowered in foliage, it lifts its purple side high into the clouds, surpassingly lovely in a scene where all is loveliness. And if it is an object of beauty from a distance, it is equally a source of delight when approached. No tremendous pedestrian effort is needed to reach it, and no ungenerous keeper patrols it to say one nay. The exhilarating fragrance of its heather may be breathed, and the feathery pink spikes plucked without rebuke. More, too, than this is in store for the wayfarer who reaches its height. As if to reprove him for undue rapture over what he has been telling himself is the most perfect of scenery, it discloses at his feet a vast field of vision, in which are the Cheviot Hills, stretching out into the still wilder magnificence of Scotland.