City Walks

ON a wet November afternoon, at about five o’clock, I once found myself too tired to be at all good company for myself or for anybody else; and I went out into the misty streets to walk for half an hour.

The lamps were lighting. Yellow patches here and there, past lifted curtains, checkered the black walls of tall apartment buildings. The road-bed, marked off with crossed planks and hanging lanterns for repairs, had been closed that night to motor travel. It lay at this hour comparatively still; so still, at least, that one could hear against the far-off clang and beat of the trolley-cars and railroads the fugitive and rhythmic footfalls of chance passers-by, quite few and far between, returning early.

Perhaps it was the silences. Perhaps it was the twilight. Who can say what breath makes music of one air and not another? From that time on, all my city scene has looked upon me as it never glanced before this one vagrant evening passed me with its keen, swift winds and ragged mists. An arrowglinted slant of rain dropped past the lamp-posts on the shimmered sidewalk; and the black-shadowed vista of the street stretched past me to the spindrift, — limitless, quick-silvered, quiet, close-at-hand and far-away, mysterious as one’s own mortal fate, or all existence.

I had never known before concerning walking in the city what I had always known of walking in the country. Like almost all other people who have ever been there in their childhood, I had understood instinctively that to know the genius of a place, not made by man, you must hark in perfect quietness, without any clear or definite demanding. In that way the whole melody and harmony and gesture of the place will breathe its intimate charm upon you, and will fall in love with you, so to speak, and you will fall in love with it, and be extremely happy. In the country I had learned to listen. Every one who likes it knows that if you call the naiads they will never come. They are not so many cows or sheep to be brought home to your confined domestic soul by urgency and barkings. If any one goes out in a dull, determined manner to the sea, or the plains or the mountains or canyons, to summon to him this or that free grace of nature which someone else has met with there in fresh communion, the free grace will never answer to her name, but flee its sound.

At Niagara, indeed, you can almost measure the distance of a goddess’s flight from the sound of her name. You see many people who have come to be awed feeling quite cheated and jaded. But you see, also, the travelers who seem to have arrived with no forethought except in acquiring a large provision of peanuts, clutching the rails beside the cataract in a kind of ecstasy. Apparently the goddess has freakishly revealed herself to them in her passing, as the Venus visited the hairdresser, in the fascinating Anstey tale, which is so true to life.

In the country, those who care about it walk with ‘the eye clear’: not calling out for any set scene heard of somewhere else; not blurring the great tones of common chance and charm by vulgar whisperings and longings for ‘the picturesque’; but looking and harking clearly to the verities. ‘ Henceforth, I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing. Strong and content I travel the open road.’

This, too, is of course the way to walk in the city. Since that one still-stepping and mist-mantled twilight that I have mentioned passed my doorstep, to walk, harking by the curbs and roofs and crimson heights, the gray and blue and yellow vistas and sharpcornered by-ways of any great and many-peopled town, has become one of the most seizing of my enjoyments. The pleasure seems to me one not ordinarily appreciated, nor even admitted. Though it will be remembered that Antony urges it as an excuse for the dismissal of affairs of state.

To-night we’ll wander through the streets, and note
The qualities of people.

No lesser tone or touch in all the magnificence of the play lends to it for me a richer glow and repose than these sympathetic words. It is not however to the abiding, many-colored interest of ‘the qualities of people ’ that I referred in this tribute to cities, so much as to the special magnetism of the mute scenes they have made, and to their inarticulate tale of ‘the ways and farings of men.’

Sometimes, of course, their tale is of something quite different. But, whatever it may be, you will never hear it if you talk about anything else while its music is playing; or, unless you have learned to listen in perfect quietness.