THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
IT is hard for me to remember now that my knowledge of the Sleepy Road, gained so many years ago, came only through the chance bit of advice dropped by a wise, kind, weary old doctor as he shuffled, at midnight, down the corridor of the silent hospital. Whatever was the errand of life or death that had called him in such, haste, he had time to stop and give me a friendly word, although I, a small and incorrigibly sleepless patient, was sitting bolt upright among the pillows in defiance of all his orders, and was staring, wideeyed, into the hot, pain-haunted dark.
' You think you are never going to be able to sleep again, don’t you?’ he observed; ‘well, shut your eyes and do just what I tell you. Think of some road that you know well, a good long road that winds and turns and shows you water and woods and hills. Keep your eyes tight shut and travel along it in memory as slowly as you can; recall every sight and sound and perfume as you pass by. I have such a road of my own, the one I used to walk to school when I was eight years old; I have started out on it a hundred times, when I thought I could not sleep, but I never get very far. I come just about to the old, stone bridge over Damon’s Creek, or perhaps to the swimminghole where the willows dip into the brown water, but I never reach the end.’
On many and many a night since then I have traveled my own Sleepy Road and thanked the dear old doctor at every step of the way. When obstinate wakefulness will yield to nothing else, I have only to close my reluctant eyes firmly and set off. I go first down the street that leads from the house where I was born — an overgrown country-town street, known as The Avenue, lined with tall, lank houses of the Middle Victorian period, the broad lawns beginning to be submerged under the rising tide of aggressive bungalows.
I pass, at last, a corner where there stands, deserted and dropping to decay, an enormous dwelling whose millionaire builder, now long since dead, followed no school of architecture save the Pure Plutocratic and his own sweet will. The edge of his garden still shows a few red geraniums and purple coleus and is guarded by weather-stained iron deer: the flora and fauna of a forgotten Art. Beyond these monstrosities, the street turns abruptly, drops swiftly down-hill, and becomes a road, the Sleepy Road at last. As I hear the cool rustle of the trees on either hand and see their sharp shadows lying across the white, dusty way, the first feeling of drowsiness comes and begins to weigh down the eyelids that have, so far, been kept shut only by main strength of will.
There is another sound to be heard presently, the thin trickling of water that comes splashing out from below a great boulder, joins a tiny stream, and runs below a rude, makeshift bridge. Sometimes I have it winter when I pass across that bridge, so that the little ravine is full of drifted snow, with the black arches of bent ferns crowned with white, and tall leafless trees standing above against a blue and cloudless sky. Or sometimes it is spring, with dry leaves blowing before warm April winds, with the smell of wild crabapple in the air, and with white bloodroots starring the steep brown banks. But whatever the season, I stop to lean upon the bark-covered rail, to sniff the sweet fresh woodsy air — and to yawn for the first time.
Beyond the bridge there is another turn, where I come out at the edge of the river, the silent mile-wide stream that waking people would call our greatest inland waterway, but that, to me, stands only for the River of Sleep. It is always late daylight when I set out on my pilgrimage. It is shadowy twilight when I stand upon the bridge, with, perhaps, a little thin new moon behind the tree-tops. But it is full, flooding moonlight when I reach the river shore. The wide, quiet expanse is a sheet of polished silver, broken into bars of shattered splendor where the water comes rippling in at my feet. The road stretches away along the bank; a far-flung white ribbon, looping over hills and around the little bays, it finally slants up the wooded bluff and disappears. I follow it, more and more slowly now, past the little marshy harbor where the cat-tails rustle together in the night wind, past the neat, square fields that checkerboard the rising slope, through a tiny sleeping town where the windows are blank and blind in the white light, and where only one drowsy dog raises his head as he lies upon a doorstep and barks at me in friendly greeting as I go by his gate. All the world is asleep and so shall I soon be.
Outside the town is a high bridge spanning a tributary river, a goodsized, hasty, tumbling stream that shrinks into insignificance beside the silent, tremendous flood in which it finally loses itself. There are trees grouped at the head of the bridge — straight white ghostly sycamores; then denser woods that hide river and fields as the way goes steeply up a breath-taking hill. It was bright moonlight when I passed the town; it was deep, black shadow in the wooded hollow; but, when I come out upon the broad crowning plateau where there are neither trees nor houses nor view of the river, the moon has gone, and above the level fields I see only a wide, wide sea of stars.
Of all the miles of the Sleepy Road this is the stretch that I love the best. It is along this that I pass so slowly, — oh! so slowly, — with sleep but one turn of the road away. Whatever season I choose to have it when I pass the little bridge, or the river, or the town, whether it is winter or gay spring or glowing autumn, it is always high midsummer when I come here. The gigantic, sprawling length of the Scorpion hangs, it seems, nearly half-way round the horizon, its glowing Antares regards me with a friendly, ruddy eye. Above is clear-faced Vega, the widespread wings of the Swan, the hovering Eagle, and the broad white river of the Milky Way, with Arcturus and the Dipper swinging low before me. But I have not time to greet them all; the plateau is not, alas! so wide as that.
The way dips once more and passes down a long curving hill. There is another turn at the foot, guarded by a great round oak tree whose shadow casts a pool of blackness across the path. Beyond the turn, I know, is the broad river again, with a fringe of silver poplars along the shore. Sleep has walked close beside me for this long time, and now slips a hand into mine. I can hear the cool patter of the moving aspen leaves. I come nearer and nearer, but I do not pass the turn. I know that, beyond, the way stretches far and straight and white across more valleys and wooded hills; that, on the farthest height, the roofs and spires of a distant city stand black against the stars. But I never see them for, as the dear good doctor said, though I travel the Sleepy Road innumerable times, I can never come to its end.