The Toryism of Travelers
WHEN we think of a thorough-going conservative we are likely to picture him as a stay-at-home person, a barnacle fastened to one spot. We take for granted that aversion to locomotion and aversion to change are the same thing.
But in thinking thus we leave out of account the inherent instability of human nature. Everybody likes a little change now and then. If a person cannot get it in one way, he gets it in another. The stay-at-home gratifies his wandering fancy by making little alterations in his too-familiar surroundings. Even the Vicar of Wakefield in the days of his placid prosperity would occasionally migrate from the blue bed to the brown. A life that had such vicissitudes could not be called uneventful.
When you read the weekly newspaper published in the quietest hilltown in Vermont, you become aware that a great deal is going on. Deacon Pratt shingled his barn last week. Miss Maria Jones had new shutters put on her house, and it is a great improvement. These revolutions in Goshenville are matters of keen interest to those concerned. They furnish inexhaustible material for conversation.
The true enemy to innovation is the traveler who sets out to see historic lands. His natural love of change is satiated by rapid change of locality. But his natural conservatism asserts itself in his insistence that the places which he visits shall be true to their own reputations. Having journeyed, at considerable expense, to a celebrated spot, he wants to see the thing it was celebrated for, and he will accept no substitute. From his point of view his present inhabitants are merely caretakers who should not be allowed to disturb the remains intrusted to their custody. Everything must be kept as it used to be.
The moment any one packs his trunk and puts money in his purse to visit lands old in story he becomes a hopeless reactionary. He is sallying forth to see things not as they are, but as they were ‘once upon a time.’ He is attracted to certain localities by something which happened long ago. A great many things may have happened since, but these must be put out of the way. One period of time must be preserved to satisfy his romantic imagination. He loves the good old ways, and he has a curiosity to see the bad old ways that may still be preserved. It is only the modern that offends him.
The American who, in his own country, is in feverish haste to improve conditions, when he sets foot in Europe becomes the fanatical foe to progress. The Old World, in his judgment, ought to look old. He longs to hear the clatter of wooden shoes. If he had his way he would have laws enacted forbidding peasant folk to change their ancient costumes. He would preserve every relic of feudalism. He bitterly laments the division of great estates. A nobleman’s park with its beautiful idle acres, its deer, its pheasants, and its scurrying rabbits, is so much more pleasant to look at than a succession of market - gardens. Poachers, game-keepers, and squires, are alike interesting, if only they would dress so that he could know them apart. He is enchanted with thatched cottages which look damp and picturesque. He detests the model dwellings which are built with a too obvious regard for sanitation. He seeks narrow and ill-smelling streets where the houses nod at each other, as if in the last stages of senility, muttering mysterious reminiscences of old tragedies. He frequents scenes of ancient murders, and places where bandits once did congregate. He leaves the railway carriage, to cross a heath where romantic highwaymen used to ask the traveler to stand and deliver. He is indignant to find electric lights and policemen. A heath ought to be lonely, and fens ought to be preserved from drainage.
He seeks dungeons and instruments of torture. The dungeons must be underground, and only a single ray of light must penetrate. He is much troubled to find that the dungeon in the Castle of Chillon is much more cheerful than he had supposed it was. The Bridge of Sighs in Venice disappoints him in the same way. Indeed, there are few places mentioned by Lord Byron that are as gloomy as they are in the poetical description.
The traveler is very insistent in his plea for the preservation of battlefields. Now, Europe is very rich in battlefields, many of the most fertile sections having been fought over many times. But the ravages of agriculture are everywhere seen. There is no such leveler as the ploughman. Often when one has come to refresh his mind with the events of one terrible day, he finds that there is nothing whatever to remind him of what happened. For centuries there has been ploughing and harvesting. Nature takes so kindly to these peaceful pursuits that one is tempted to think of the battle as merely an episode.
Commerce is almost as destructive. Cities that have been noted for their sieges often turn out to be surprisingly prosperous. The old walls are torn down to give way to parks and boulevards. Massacres which in their day were noted leave no trace behind. One can get more of an idea of the Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve by reading a book by one’s fireside than by going to Paris. For all one can see there, there might have been no such accident.
Moral considerations have little place in the traveler’s mind. The progressive ameliorations that have taken place tend to obscure our sense of the old conflicts. A reform once accomplished becomes a part of our ordinary consciousness. We take it for granted, and find it hard to understand what the reformer was so excited about.
As a consequence, the chief object of an historical pilgrimage is to discover some place where the old conditions have not been improved away. The religious pilgrim does not expect to find the old prophets, but he has a pious hope of finding the abuses which the prophets denounced.
I have in mind a clergyman who, in his own home, is progressive to a fault. He is impatient of any delay. He is all the time seeking out the very latest inventions in social and economic reforms. But several years ago he made a journey to the Holy Land, and when he came back he delivered a lecture on his experiences. A more reactionary attitude could not be imagined. Not a word did he say about the progress of education or civil-service reform in Palestine. There was not a sympathetic reference to sanitation or good roads. The rights of women were not mentioned. Representative government seemed to be an abomination to him. All his enthusiasm was for the other side. He was for oriental conservatism in all its forms. He was for preserving every survival of ancient custom. He told of the delight with which he watched the laborious efforts of the peasants ploughing with a forked stick. He believed that there had not been a single improvement in agriculture since the days of Abraham.
The economic condition of the people had not changed for the better since patriarchal times, and one could still have a good idea of a famine such as sent the brothers of Joseph down into Egypt. Turkish misgovernment furnished him with a much clearer idea of the publicans, and the hatred they aroused in the minds of the people, than he had ever hoped to obtain. In fact, one could hardly appreciate the term ‘publicans and sinners’ without seeing the oriental tax-gatherers. He was very fortunate in being able to visit several villages which had been impoverished by their exactions. The rate of wages throws much light on the Sunday-school lessons. A penny a day does not seem such an insufficient minimum wage to a traveler, as it does to a stay-at-home person. On going down from Jerusalem to Jericho he fell among thieves, or at least among a group of thievish-looking Bedouins who gave him a new appreciation of the parable of the Samaritan. It was a wonderful experience. And he found that the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans had not abated. To be sure, there are very few Samaritans left, and those few are thoroughly despised.
The good-roads movement has not yet invaded Palestine, and we can still experience all the discomforts of the earlier times. Many a time when he took his life in his hands and wandered across the Judæan hills, my friend repeated to himself the text, ‘In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the people walked through by-ways.’
To most people Shamgar is a mere name. But after you have walked for hours over those rocky by-ways, never knowing at what moment you may be attacked by a treacherous robber, you know how Shamgar felt. He becomes a real person. You are carried back into the days when ‘ there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.’
The railway between Joppa and Jerusalem is to be regretted, but fortunately it is a small affair. There are rumors of commercial enterprises which, if successful, would change the appearance of many of the towns. Fortunately they are not likely to be successful, at least in our day. The brooding spirit of the East can be trusted to defend itself against the innovating West. For the present, at least, Palestine is a fascinating country to travel in.
A traveler in Ceylon and India writes to a religious paper of his journey. He says, ‘Colombo has little to interest the tourist, yet it is a fine city.’ One who reads between the lines understands that the fact that it is a fine city is the cause of its uninterestingness. His impression of Madura was more satisfactory. There one can see the Juggernaut car drawn through the streets by a thousand men, though it is reluctantly admitted that the self-immolation of fanatics under the wheels is no longer allowed. ‘The Shiva temple at Madura is the more interesting as its towers are ornamented with six thousand idols.’
The writer who rejoiced at the sight of six thousand idols in Madura, would have been shocked at the exhibition of a single crucifix in his meeting-house at home.
I confess that I have not been able to overcome the Tory prejudice in favor of vested interests in historical places. If one has traveled to see ‘ the old paths which wicked men have trodden,’ it is a disappointment to find that they are not there. I had such an experience in Capri. We had wandered through the vineyards and up the steep, rocky way to the Villa of Tiberius. On the top of the cliff are the ruins of the pleasurehouse which the Emperor in his wicked old age built for himself. Was there ever a greater contrast between an earthly paradise and abounding sinfulness? Here, indeed, was ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ The marvelously blue sea, and all the glories of the Bay of Naples, ought to have made Tiberius a better man; but apparently they did n’t. We were prepared for the thrilling moment when we were led to the edge of the cliff, and told to look down. Here was the very place where Tiberius amused himself by throwing his slaves into the sea to feed the fishes. Cruel old monster! But it was a long time ago. Time had marvelously softened the atrocity of the act, and heightened its picturesque character. If Tiberius must exhibit his colossal inhumanity, could he have anywhere in all the world chosen a better spot? Just think of his coming to this island and, on this high cliff above the azure sea, building this palace! And then to think of him on a night when the moon was full, and the nightingales were singing, coming out and hurling a shuddering slave into the abyss!
When we returned to the hotel, our friend the Professor, who had made a study of the subject, informed us that it was all a mistake. The stories of the wicked doings of Tiberius in Capri were malicious slanders. The Emperor was an elderly invalid living in dignified retirement. As for the slaves, we might set our minds at rest in regard to them. If any of them fell over the cliff it was pure accident. We must give up the idea that the invalid Emperor pushed them off.
All this was reassuring to my better nature, and yet I cherished a grudge against the Professor. For it was a stiff climb to the Villa of Tiberius, and I wanted something to show for it. It was difficult to adjust one’s mind to the fact that nothing had happened there which might not have happened in any well-conducted country house.
I like to contrast this with our experience in Algiers. We knew beforehand what Algiers was like in the days of its prime. It had been the nest of as desperate pirates as ever infested the seas. For generations innocent Christians had been carried hither to pine in doleful captivity. But the French, we understood, had built a miniature Paris in the vicinity and were practicing liberty, fraternity, and equality on the spot dedicated to gloomily romantic memories. We feared the effect of this civilization. We had our misgivings. Perhaps Algiers might be no longer worth visiting.
Luckily our steamer was delayed till sunset. We were carefully shepherded, so that we hardly noticed the French city. We were hurried through the darkness into old Algiers. Everything was full of sinister suggestion. The streets were as narrow and perilous as any which Haroun-al-Rashid explored on his more perilous nights. Here one could believe the worst of his fellow men. Suspicion and revenge were in the air. We were not taking a stroll, we were escaping from something. Mysterious muffled figures glided by and disappeared through slits in the walls. There were dark corners so suggestive of homicide that one could hardly think that any one with an oriental disposition could resist the temptation. In crypt-like recesses we could see assassins sharpening their daggers or, perhaps, executioners putting the finishing touches on their scimitars. There were cavernous rooms where conspirators were crouched round a tiny charcoal fire. Groups of truculent young Arabs followed us, shouting objurgations and accepting small coins as ransom. We had glimpses of a mosque, the outside of a prison, and the inside of what once was a harem. On returning to the steamer one gentleman fell overboard and, swimming to the shore, was rescued by a swarthy ruffian who robbed him of his watch and disappeared in the darkness. When the victim of Algerian piracy stood on the deck, dripping and indignant, and told his tale of woe, we were delighted. Algiers would always be something to remember. It was one of the places that had not been spoiled.
I am afraid that the sunlight might have brought disillusion. Some of the stealthy figures which gave rise to such thrilling suspicions may have turned out to be excellent fathers and husbands returning from business. As it is, thanks to the darkness, Algiers remains a city of vague atrocities. It does not belong to the commonplace world; it is of such stuff as dreams, including nightmares, are made of.
It is not without some compunction of conscience that I recall two historical pilgrimages, one to Assisi, the other to Geneva. Assisi I found altogether rewarding, while in Geneva I was disappointed. In each case my object was purely selfish, and had nothing in common with the welfare of the present inhabitants. I wanted to see the city of St. Francis and the city of John Calvin.
In Assisi one may read again the Franciscan legends in their proper settings. I should like to think that my pleasure in Assisi arose from the fact that I saw some one there who reminded me of St. Francis. But I was not so fortunate. If one is anxious to come in contact with the spirit of St. Francis, freed from its mediæval limitations, a visit to Hull House, Chicago, would be more rewarding.
But it was not the spirit of St. Francis, but his limitations, that we were after. Assisi has preserved them all. We see the gray old town on the hillside, the narrow streets, the old walls. We are beset by swarms of beggars. They are not like the half-starved creatures one may see in the slums of northern cities. They are very likable. They are natural worshipers of my Lady Poverty. They have not been spoiled by commonplace industrialism or scientific philanthropy. One is taken back into the days when there was a natural affinity between saints and beggars. The saints would joyously give away all that they had, and the beggars would as joyously accept it. The community, you say, would be none the better. Perhaps not. But the moment you begin to talk about the community you introduce ideas that are modern and disturbing. One thing is certain, and that is that if Assisi were more thrifty, it would be less illuminating historically.
St. Francis might come back to Assisi and take up his work as he left it. But I sought in vain for John Calvin in Geneva. The city was too prosperous and gay. The cheerful houses, the streets with their cosmopolitan crowds, the parks, the schools, the university, the little boats skimming over the lake, all bore witness to the well-being of to-day. But what of yesterday? The citizens were celebrating the anniversary of Jean Jacques Rousseau. I realized that it was not yesterday but the day before yesterday that I was seeking. Where was the stern little city which Calvin taught and ruled? The place that knew him knows him no more.
Disappointed in my search for Calvin, I sought compensation in Servetus. I found the stone placed by modern Calvinists to mark the spot where the Spanish heretic was burned. On it they had carved an inscription expressing their regret for the act of intolerance on the part of the reformer, and attributing the blame to the age in which he lived. But even this did not satisfy modern Geneva. The inscription had been chipped away in order to give place to something more historically accurate.
But whether Calvin was to blame, or the sixteenth century, did not seem to matter. The spot was so beautiful that it seemed impossible that anything tragical could ever have happened here. A youth and maiden were sitting by the stone, engaged in a most absorbing conversation. Of one thing I was certain, that the theological differences between Calvin and Servetus were nothing to them. They had something more important to think about — at least for them.
After a time one comes to have a certain modesty of expectation. Time and space are different elements, and each has its own laws. At the price of a steamship ticket one may be transported to another country, but safe passage to another age is not guaranteed. It is enough if some slight suggestion is given to the imagination. A walk through a pleasant neighborhood is all the pleasanter if one knows that something memorable has happened there. If one is wise he will not attempt to realize it to the exclusion of the present scene. It is enough to have a slight flavor of historicity.
It was this pleasure which I enjoyed in a ramble with a friend through the New Forest. The day was fine, and it would have been a joy to be under the greenwood trees if no one had been before us. But the New Forest had a human interest; for on such a day as this, William Rufus rode into it to hunt the red deer, and was found with an arrow through his body. And to this day no man knows who killed William Rufus, or why.
Many other things may have happened in the New Forest in the centuries that have passed, but they have never been brought vividly to my attention. So far as I was concerned there were no confusing incidents. The Muse of History told one tragic tale and then was silent.
On the other side of the Forest was the Rufus Stone, which marks the spot where the Red King’s body was found. At Brockenhurst we inquired the way, which we carefully avoided. The road itself was an innovation, and was infested with motor-cars, machines unknown to the Normans. The Red King had plunged into the Forest and quickly lost himself; so would we. There were great oaks and wide-spreading beeches and green glades such as one finds only in England. It was pleasant to feel that it all belonged to the Crown. I could not imagine a county council allowing this great stretch of country to remain in its beauty through these centuries.
We took our frugal lunch under a tree that had looked down on many generations. Then we wandered on through a green wilderness. We saw no one but some women gathering fagots. I was glad to see that they were exercising their ancestral rights in the royal domain. They looked contented, though I should have preferred to have their dress more antique.
All day we followed William Rufus through the Forest. I began to feel that I had a real acquaintance with him, having passed through much the same experience. The forest glades have been little changed since the day when he hunted the red deer. Nature is the true conservative, and repeats herself incessantly.
Toward evening my friend pointed out the hill at the foot of which was the Rufus Stone. It was still some two miles away. Should we push on to it?
What should we see when we got there? The Stone was not much. There was a railing round it as a protection against relic-hunters. And there was an inscription which, of course, was comparatively modern. That settled it. We would not go to the Stone with its modern inscription. The ancient trees brought us much nearer to William Rufus. Besides, there was just time, if we walked briskly, to catch the train at Brockenhurst.
But, after all, there is a limit to the pursuit of antiquity. A relic may be too old to be effective. Instead of gently stimulating the imagination, it may paralyze it. What we desire is not merely the ancient but the familiar. The relic must bring with it the sense of auld lang syne. The Tory squire likes to preserve what has been a long time in his family. The traveler has the same feeling for the possessions of the family of humanity.
The family feeling does not go back of a certain point. I draw the line at the legendary period when the heroes have names, and more or less coherent stories are told of their exploits. People who had a local habitation, but not a name, seem to belong to Geology only. For all their flint arrow-heads, or bronze instruments, I cannot think of them as fellow men.
It was with this feeling that I visited one of the most ancient places of worship in Ireland, the tumulus at Newgrange. It was on a day filled with historic sight-seeing. We started from Drogheda, the great stronghold of the Pale in the Middle Ages, and the scene of Cromwell’s terrible vengeance in 1649. Three miles up the river is the site of the Battle of the Boyne. It was one of the great indecisive battles of the world, it being necessary to fight it over again every year. The Boyne had overflowed its banks, and in the fields forlorn hay-cocks stood like so many little islands. We stopped at the monument and read its inscription, which was scorned by our honest driver. We could form some idea of how the field appeared on the eventful day when King William and King James confronted each other across the narrow stream. Then the scene changed and we found ourselves in Mellefont Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, founded by St. Malachy, the friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. King William and King James were at once relegated to their proper places among the moderns, while we went back to the ages of faith.
Four miles farther we came to Monasterboice, where stood two great Celtic crosses. There are two ruined churches and a round tower. Here was an early religious establishment which existed before the times of St. Columba.
This would be enough for one day’s reminiscence, but my heart leaped up at the sight of a long green ridge. ‘There is the hill of Tara!’
Having traversed the period from King William to the dwellers in the Halls of Tara, what more natural than to take a further plunge into the past?
We drive into an open field and alight near a rock-strewn hill. Candles are given us and we grope our way through narrow passages till we come to the centre of the hill. Here is a chamber some twenty feet in height. On the great stones which support the roof are mystic emblems. On the floor is a large stone hollowed out in the shape of a bowl. It suggests human sacrifices. A gloomier chamber for weird rites could not be imagined.
Who were the worshipers? Druid or pre-Druid? The archæologists tell us that they belonged to the Early Bronze period. Now Early Bronze is a good enough term for articles in a museum, but it does not suggest a human being. We cannot get on terms of spiritual intimacy with the Early Bronze people. We may know what they did, but there is no intimation of ‘the moving why they did it.’ What spurred them on to their feats of prodigious industry? Was it fear or love? First they built their chapel of great stones and then piled a huge hill on top of it. Were they still under the influence of the Glacial period and attempting to imitate the wild doings of Nature? The passage of the ages does not make these men seem venerable, because their deeds are no longer intelligible. Mellefont Abbey is in ruins but we can easily restore it in imagination. We can picture the great buildings as they were before Henry VIII destroyed them. The prehistoric place of worship in the middle of the hill is practically unchanged. But the clue to its meaning is lost.
I could not make the ancient builders and worshipers seem real. It was a relief to come up into the sunshine where people of our own kind had walked, the Kings of Tara and their harpers, and St. Patrick and St. Malachy and Oliver Cromwell and William III. After the unintelligible symbols on the rocks, how familiar and homelike seemed the sculptures on the Celtic crosses. They were mostly about people, and people whom we had known from earliest childhood. There were Adam and Eve, and Cain slaying Abel, and the Magi. They were members of one family.
But between us and the builders of the underground chapel there was a great gulf. There was no means of spiritual communication across the abyss. A scrap of writing, a bit of poetry, a name handed down by tradition, would have been worth all the relics discovered by archæologists.
There is justification for the traveler’s preference for the things he has read about, for these are the things which resist the changes of time. Only he must remember that they are better preserved in the book than in the places where they happened. The impression which any generation makes on the surface of the earth is very slight. It cannot give the true story of the brief occupancy. That requires some more direct interpretation.
The magic carpet which carries us into any age not our own is woven by the poets and historians. Without their aid we may travel through space, but not through Time.