Sponges for Remembrance

THE bath sponge of St. Ives is growing old. Hardened and diminished, after the fashion of sponges whose course is almost run, it lies in its nickel basket. Soon it must go; and with it will go how many delightful daily pictures of the sort that shift idly through the vacuous consciousness of the bather! For the sponge of St. Ives has been a sweet remembrancer.

I don’t know what better the tourist can do — I mean the tourist proper, who does not run across every few months, nor every year, no, nor every three years; the simple eager tourist, who does not go half languidly to buy clothes, or to see an editor, or to engage in winter sports, but with his nerves of enjoyment agog, and his ingenuous mind taut with greed for storing up impressions until the next time (while a sinister inward whisper asks, When will the next time be?) — I don’t know what better such a tourist can do than to purchase a bath sponge here and there. For the more obvious souvenirs have their drawbacks. After all, walls cannot be solidly coated with large reminiscent photographs. And by an eternal and inescapable law the mighty company of postcards, so charged with thrills for their collector, will come forth from their drawer less and less often; and in their heyday the tourist, as he knows too well, will not be given strength to refrain from displaying them to friends who are quivering with the dread of them. As for the journal, — if naïveté or hardihood has gone so far, — these trivial fond records will be found to trail away almost to nothingness toward the end of the trip, and at any moment to present blanks, or confusions past disentangling. Those four last days at Oxford, for instance — who shall resolve them into their elements? And what was the exact phrasing of that hysterically funny encounter with the police in Norwich?

Now the sponge, as a memento, is free of these limitations and disabilities. It does not, like the framed photographs, take up overmuch space; it does not, like the postcards, come forward with diminishing frequency, nor does it obtrude itself upon the caller; and while as an historian it has its lapses and omissions, in this it does not, like the journal, disappoint reasonable expectation, and in what it presents it shows a fine selectivity. And though it is true that sponges are somewhat early mortal, and that the evocations of one sponge must give place to those of its successor, yet this substitution is only for the bath hour; for the principle of repetition will have done its work, and the bather will find that he has not covered up one picture with another, but enlarged his gallery.

The sponge of Inverness, for instance, perished long ago. But not before the fugitive visions that sprang up as one laid hands upon it had become fixed: the sombre avenue of great larches on the Caledonian Canal, and, higher up, the blaze of the gorse — a thousand pardons, the whins — on the sunny banks; the little old men twittering Gaelic in the back of the shop at Thurso; the boxlike coach, plying deliberately between John o’ Groat’s and Wick, in which the passengers, as space grew scant, sat with so grave an impersonality and so high a detachment in one another’s laps; the strangeness of that evening on Duncansbay Head, with its sense of infinite remoteness and release, with the tens of thousands of sea pinks and primroses, the opal sunset over the Pentland Firth, and the lofty honeycombed cliffs where at twilight multitudes of sea gulls settled to rest, after so wild a crying.

And how many pictures — landscape, portrait, and genre—has the sponge of St. Ives hung on the line of memory! There is the sloping, cobbled street where stands the chemist’s shop that purveys sponges; and the darkfaced Celt, with sea-blue, cruel eyes, who, poised afoot in his cart, went thridding deftly, with a far-away look of purpose, among the motors and wagons of that narrow, jolting way. There is the cheerful, pony-built housemaid who from crack of dawn till night ran violently up and down staircases, and who ’Oovered and Bisselled the floors with such good will. There is the little old skipper, with face like a downy owl’s, and soft, patient voice, who on that rough day, in a crisis when everything had to be done at once, fell flat in the bottom of his boat — as how should he not, being shod in those shoes affected by the humbler Britons, shoes with soles half the thickness of a brick, and of a brick’s flexibility? And there is that other old man, the guide at Treen, who scrambled with so horrifying an agility up the vertical side of the Logan Rock, while at the foot of the long drop to the cove the pale green waters quietly licked the stones.

There is the snowstorm of gulls over the harbor of St. Ives when the fishing boats come in; and the ‘proper scamp’ — no Cornishman, but an outlander — holding an auction on the quay. There is the episode of the day when a touring car was internationally shared: the agitated shout from the tonneau, ‘Drivah! Stop the car! The blasted thing is on fiah!’ and the inimitably soft, respectful rejoinder, ‘I think it’s dust, sir. We catch at this end first.’ There is the sudden transition of Land’s End: the shock of the ugly, vulgar hotel, and then the step beyond and out into a world of wild, fantastic headland and dreaming azure sea with a violet bloom laid over it. There is the sunny green down above Gurnard’s Head, warm, and sprinkled with the clear ecstasy of skylarks. There is the pair of puffins, sitting shoulder to shoulder, connubial and quiet, close above the turbulence of Hell’s Mouth. And there is the wash of velvet air over Cornwall, smelling of multitudinous honey and the sea and mystery.

I think it is time for this sponge to go, Jetta. There’s a fresh one on the shelf at the top of the linen closet — please bring that. Bring the great, warm, rich dimness that is the interior of Exeter Cathedral; and the mellow, encompassing tide, swinging down as from interstellar spaces, that is the solemn voice of the Peter bell. Bring that other memorable voice — surely the lightest and softest in all England — belonging to the slim night porter at the Royal Clarence, who, drooping over the desk telephone, at ease though facing fearful odds in the shape of crabbed exchange operator and stubborn Cornish hotel clerk, did so flute, coo, cajole, and seduce that presently he had built up an aggressive alliance for the finding of some lost luggage. Bring Thomas Hooker, looming in effigy, so withdrawn, so æonic, before the window of the dining room where ephemeral tourists ‘doe bite their hasty supper.’ Bring the Lord Mayor’s mace bearer’s frost-delicate silver chains in the Guildhall. To-morrow all Exeter will be in this small bathroom — and a sunny road besides, and little Budleigh Salterton with its rose-red cliffs, and little Newton Poppleford with its thrice-excellent name.