THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
IN old literature life is compared to a journey, and wise men rejoice to question old men because, like travelers, they know the sloughs and roughnesses of the long road. Men arose with the sun, and toddled forth as children on the day’s journey of their lives, and became strong to endure the heaviness of noonday. They strived forward during the hours of early afternoon while their sun’s ambition was hot, and now as the heat is cooling they have reached the crest of the last hill, and their road dips gently to the valley where all roads end. And on into the quiet evening, until, at last, they lie down in that shadowed valley, and await the long night.
This figure has lost its meaning, for we now travel by rail, and life is now expressed in terms of the railway timetable. As has been said, we leave and arrive at places, but we no longer travel. Consequently, we cannot understand the hubbub that Marco Polo must have caused among his townsmen when he swaggered home. He and his crew were bronzed by the sun, were dressed as Tartars, and could speak their native Italian with great difficulty. To convince the Venetians of their identity Marco gave a magnificent entertainment, at which he and his officers received, clad in gorgeous Oriental dresses of red satin. Three times during the banquet they changed their dresses, distributing the discarded garments among the guests. At last, the rough Tartar clothing worn on their travels was displayed and then ripped open. Within was a profusion of priceless jewels of the Orient, the gifts of Kublai Khan of Cathay. The proof was regarded as perfect, and from that time Marco was acknowledged by his countrymen, and loaded with distinction. And it is neither the first time, nor the last, that the flash of wealth has served as a letter of introduction. When Drake returned from the Strait of Magellan, and, powdered, wigged, and beflunkied, told his lies at fashionable London dinners, no doubt he was believed. And his crew, let loose on the beer-shops, gathered each his circle of listeners, drank at his admirers’ expense, and yarned far into the night. It was worth one’s while to be a traveler in those times.
But traveling has fallen on evil days. The greatest traveler now is the brakeman. Next is he who sells colored cotton. A poor third pursues health and flees from restlessness. Wise men have ceased to question travelers, except to inquire of the arrival of trains and of the comfort of hotels.
To-day I am one thousand miles from home. From my window the world stretches massive, homewards. Even though I stood on the most distant range of mountains and looked west, still I would look on a world that contained no suggestion of home ; and if I leaped to that horizon and to the next, the result would be the same, — so insignificant would be the relative distance accomplished. And here I am set down with no knowledge of how I came. There was a continuous jar and the noise of motion. We passed a barn or two, I believe, and on one hillside animals were frightened from their grazing as we passed. There were cluttered streets of several cities and villages. There was a prodigious number of telegraph poles going in the opposite direction, hell-bent as fast as we, which poles considerately went at half-speed through towns, for fear of hitting children. The United States was once an immense country, and extended quite to the sunset. For convenience we have reduced its size, and made it but a map of its former self. Any section of this map can be unrolled and inspected in a day’s time.
In the books the children read is the story of the seven-league boots, wonderful boots, worth a cobbler’s fortune. If a prince is escaping from an ogre, if he is eloping with a princess, if he has an engagement at the realm’s frontier and the wires are down, he straps these boots to his feet, and strides the mountains and spans the valleys. For with the clicking of the silver buckles he has destroyed the dimensions of space. Length, breadth, and depth are measured for him but in wishes. One wish and perhaps a theatrical snap of the fingers, or an invocation to the devil of locomotion, and he stands on a mountain top, the next range of hills blue in the distance; another wish and another snap and he has leaped the valley. Wonderful boots, these! Worth a king’s ransom. And this prince, too, as he travels thus dizzily may remember one or two barns, animals frightened from their grazing, and the cluttered street of cities nested in the valley. When he reaches his journey’s end he will be just as wise and just as ignorant as we who now travel by rail in magic, seven-league fashion. For here I am set down, and all save the last half-mile of my path is lost in the curve of the mountains. From my window I see the green-covered mountains, new to me this morning, so different from city streets with their horizon of buildings.
I fancy that, on that memorable morning when Aladdin’s Palace was set down in Africa after its magic night’s ride from the Chinese capital, a house-maid must have gone to the window, thrown back the hangings and looked out, astounded, on the barren mountains, when she expected to see only the courtyard of the palace and its swarm of Chinese life. She then recalled that the building rocked gently in the night, and that she heard a whirling sound as of wind. These were the only evidences of the devil-guided flight. Now she looked on a new world, and the familiar pagodas lay far to the east within the eye of the rising sun.
There are summer evenings in my recollection when I have traveled the skies. I and my pipe, and quiet companionship which does not intrude on my fancies, have landed from the sky’s blue sea upon the cloud continent, and traversed its mountain ranges, its inland lakes, harbors, and valleys. Over their wind-swept ridges we have gone, like gods watching the world-change, seeing
Advantage on the Kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store.”
The greatest traveler that I know is a little man, slightly bent, who walks with a stick in his garden or sits passive in his library. Other friends have boasted of travels in the Orient, of mornings spent on the Athenian Acropolis, of visiting the Theatre of Dionysius, and of hallooing to the empty seats that reëchoed. They warn me of this and that hotel, and advise me concerning the journey from London. The usual tale of travelers is that Athens is a ruin. I have heard it rumored, for instance, that the Parthenon marbles are in London, and that the Parthenon itself has suffered from the “ wreckful siege of battering days; ” that the walls to the Piræus contain hardly one stone left upon another.
And this sets me to thinking, for my friend denies all this with such an air of sincerity that I am almost inclined to believe his word against all the rest. The Athens he pictures is not ruinous, the Parthenon stands before him as it left the hand of its sculptor Phidias. The walls to the Piræus stand high as on that morning, now almost forgotten, when Athens awaited the Spartan attack. Men, women, and children have wiped the sweat from their faces, as they lay down their motley tools and surveyed their work complacent. For him the Dionysian Theatre does not echo with tourists’ shouts, but gives forth the sound of many-voiced Greek life. He knows, too, the people of Athens. He walked one day with Socrates along the banks of the Ilissus, and afterward visited him in his prison when about to drink the Hemlock. It is of the grandeur of Athens and her sons that he speaks, not of her ruins. The best of his travels is that he buys no ticket of Cook, nor, indeed, of any one, and when he has seen the cities’ sights, his wife enters and says, “Is n’t it time for the bookworm to eat ? ” So he has his American supper in the next room overlooking Attica, so to speak. Ob, there are many ways of traveling, and my brakeman’s view from his box-car is not the only view.