To the Ice Mountains


IT was one of the most vivid and memorable journeys I have ever made into the land of dreams. As a matter of fact, I am not sure that it was wholly a dream journey, for now and then, in mid-course of it, I remembered, dimly, that I was lying on a sofa, and also the reason why I was lying there. Perhaps I was neither awake nor asleep, but in a kind of trance during which time fever served to unlock the storehouse of subconscious memory which contains so vast an accumulation of forgotten or half-forgotten possessions. Shortly before entering upon my adventures I had been going through some old copy books in which for a number of years I have kept record of various things: of conversations with friends, of stray thoughts and fancies, of reflections upon books, together with quoted passages from books which had particularly appealed to me; and these notebook jottings were woven into my dream precisely as I bad set them down.

Upon waking I seemed to have the clearest recollection of everything that had happened, and lest the memory should quickly fade I took paper and pencil and outlined my experiences from beginning to end. Meagre as it was, the outline covered many pages, and it will be clear from this that my narrative must be considerably shortened. Furthermore, I shall have to depart somewhat from the order — or, better, disorder — of events, stressing some, slighting or omitting others; but, as Mr. Santayana has said, ‘to embroider upon experience is not to bear false witness against one’s neighbor but to bear true witness to oneself.’ This is particularly the case when one is writing of dream experience rather than of the events of waking life. But before proceeding further it may be well to explain what gave rise to the dream.

Several weeks ago I traveled by trading schooner to the Austral Islands, which lie some three hundred miles south of Tahiti, the island where I make my home. This lonely group of mountain peaks are as beautifully named as they are beautiful to see. Rimitara is the most primitive, Rurutu the boldest in outline, Tubuai the largest, and Raivavai the most enchanting as a picture, seen from the deck of a small vessel coasling the barrier reef. While the schooner was assembling her cargo of copra and pia, coffee, vanilla beans, and pandanus mats, I wandered about on shore, climbing the hills for distant views of land and sea, or lying in the shade on sandy beaches, watching the cloud shadows passing over the surface of t he lagoon and the surf piling up on the reef.

On the island of Tubuai, inland toward the bases of the hills, there are wide stretches of swampy land, and in my excursions across them I was badly bitten by mosquitoes. One of the stings, having been scratched, became infected. In the tropics quite serious infections often have such small beginnings; one should immediately sterilize the tiniest abrasion; but long immunity had made me careless, and as a result, shortly after my return to Tahiti — we were three days in making the homeward voyage — I found myself laid up with a badly swollen leg.

‘A beautiful infection’ the doctor called it, as he gazed, with the air of a connoisseur examining an old master, at my angry-looking knee.

‘That’s what comes of carelessness,’ he said. ‘Well, we must try to draw all this poison to one spot. When that is done I ’ll lance it and you’ll feel better. Meanwhile, stay where you are and don’t move your leg any more than you can help.’

’For how long?’ I asked.

‘For three weeks at least.’

‘ What! ’ I said. ‘ Three weeks on this sofa, in this one little room?’

‘You may consider yourself lucky if you can use your leg at the end of a month. Now, then: for to-day and tomorrow, hot dressings — wet, of course — every hour or so. After that I ’ll see what is best to be done.’ Whereupon he left me, the hot dressings were applied as he had ordered, and between times I lay staring out of the window, lamenting the fact that through sheer neglect I had let this ill wind be fanned upon me by a mosquito’s wings.

But as I turned my eyes from the window to gaze round the walls of the little room, twelve feet by fourteen, that I call my library, my misgivings subsided somewhat. Ranged on open shelves around the walls were my books, and over and around the bookshelves were pictures of various sorts: crayon sketches, water colors, prints, framed photographs of old friends, of places where I had lived in former days all or most of them so many windows looking out on the road I had traveled from the threshold of boyhood to the present moment. I saw, with the eyes of the spirit, that the one little room, small as it was, enclosed a parklike expanse of leisure, three weeks wide at the least, a pleasure ground as ample in time as Kublai Khan’s was in space. Once my leg had been lanced I could lie on my sofa and wander in this garden as I chose, reading old books, or merely thinking about them, looking at my pictures, sorting over memories, or letting my mind lie fallow to the gossamerlike daydreams and fancies which blow so delightfully from nowhere. Doubtless my temperature was rising, for I became excited and light-headed in contemplating the pleasant prospect before me.

On the wall facing me was a photograph of Walt Whitman as he appeared in his vigorous maturity. I looked at that for a time, thinking of the pleasure he had given me in youth, when I could open Leaves of Grass at random, and before I had read ten lines he would strike fire from my spirit and set it in a blaze of enthusiasm and delight.

‘I wish I might have known him,’ I mused. ‘What was it Emerson said of him? “One must thank Walt Whitman for service to American literature in the Appalachian enlargement of his outline and treatment.” Appalachian? Andean, rather. Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson — what giants they were, compared to the most eminent of their contemporaries in America. Lord, I wish I had a glass of water with ice in it!’


In my desire for a drink of cold water I quite forgot Walt Whitman. I called out, but no one came. ‘I must get it for myself,’ I thought. So I rose, despite my sore leg, and was surprised to find that I was no longer in my room but in what appeared to be a splendid park whose lawn was shaded by a great variety of trees of both tropical and temperate climates; and sitting at a table close by was Walt Whitman himself. The sunlight of late afternoon cast long shadows on the grass, and far in the distance was a range of mountains whose peaks rose to incalculable heights. Walt Whit man nodded affably. ‘ Those are the Andes, the Ice Mountains,’ he said, pointing toward the horizon. ‘Yes, I know,’ I replied. ‘I’m going there. I want a drink of cold water. I’ve got a sore leg. Dr. Emerson told me that it would have to get worse before it gets better.’

‘That won’t prevent your saying a few words, I hope?’

This seemed to me a perfectly natural question. I was not in the least surprised or perturbed.

‘Oh no, not at all,’ I replied. ‘Shall I begin at once?’

‘You may as well,’ Mr. Whitman answered. ‘As you see, they’re all waiting.’

I then observed a large gathering, several hundred men and women, sitting on the grass around us. They were cooling themselves with little Japanese fans, and looking toward me expectantly.

‘Would you like a fan?’ Mr. Whitman asked. ‘I expect you’re rather warm, are n’t you?’

I said that I preferred a drink of ice water.

‘Oh, there’s no ice here; you’ll have to go to the mountains for that. But take this fan; that will cool you off beautifully while you’re speaking.’

I did n’t know what I was going to say, and yet I felt quite at ease, and after fanning myself for a moment I began, without any preliminary remarks : —

‘I am one of those men who think “yesterday” a beautiful word; who love change only in its aspect of slow and imperceptible decay. To me the present and the future are but raw material for the making of the past, and I measure experience largely in terms of its value as the stuff for memories.

‘Such a complexion of mind and temperament is, I suppose, an unfortunate possession in these swiftly moving times; nevertheless, it must be accepted along with the shape of one’s nose, the color of one’s eyes. It is an inherited characteristic as unalterable as stature or the composition of the blood. Lacking it, an octogenarian will march eagerly in the front rank of the wildest revolutionaries. Having it to excess, a child of five falls into a brown study in his high chair, musing sadly over “the good old days” of babyhood. If this fact were more widely recognized, pastminded and future-minded men would,

I believe, make greater allowances for each other and live together more amicably.’

At this point I was interrupted by a murmur of approval from my audience. Several voices said, ‘Hear! Hear!’ and men and women looked at each other, nodding their heads very slowly and solemnly, as though they would say, ‘That is precisely my opinion, too.’ I was elated at the favorable impression I seemed to have made, and was about to continue, when panic seized me. I could think of nothing more to say. I was in the most exquisite agony, and my whole body seemed to be afire with the shame and mortification I felt. Then, to my immense relief, I saw that my audience had vanished. Walt Whitman, too, had disappeared, together with the shaded lawn and the distant mountains. I was now standing on a hilltop, looking down upon a city that lay on either bank of a river far below. Scattered over the floor of the valley were other towns and villages, embowered in trees, with little fields around them making a patchwork of vivid coloring, green and gold and blue and crimson. The beauty of the landscape filled me with inexpressible joy. Not a sound came up to me from the valley. Indeed, so still it was that I became aware of a slight scratching noise, and was puzzled to account for it. Then I saw a man seated in the shadow of a rock with a pad of paper on his knee. He was writing, with his face held so close to the pad that his nose seemed to be touching it. The scratching noise I had heard was made by his pencil moving over the paper.

Presently he spied me and hastily thrust pad and pencil into his pocket. I recognized him at once. It was Lafcadio Hearn.

‘You were asking,’ he began, ‘what the secret is of the art of writing.’

I did n’t remember having spoken, but waited deferentially.

‘It is n’t what you think,’ he went on. ‘It isn’t what any American thinks, or any Englishman, or Frenchman, or German, or Scandinavian. The Chinese alone arc masters of the secret, and they discovered it centuries ago.’

As he said this he looked at me accusingly, and I felt somehow to blame for the fact that Americans had not forestalled the Chinese in this discovery. Again I blushed hotly; my face seemed scorched with shame, and I wondered what I had done with the little fan I had had only a moment ago. As he observed my discomfiture, the expression on Mr. Hearn’s face softened and he regarded me with a faint smile.

‘Here’s your fan,’ he said. ‘I had it all the time. But we were speaking of the Chinese; among them even the children know how to write. Shall I tell you something of my experiences here?’

‘ Please do! ’ I replied eagerly. * Nothing could interest me more!’

‘The city you see below us,’ he went on, ‘is called Ta-ning, or An-yo, I’m not quite sure which; but it doesn’t matter. I am a teacher there in one of the government schools. The students are all boys in their teens, the sons of shopkeepers, well-to-do farmers, and the like, and they go to school for the same reason other boys do — because they must.

‘I lecture sometimes in Chinese, sometimes in English, and in my composition classes my aim has always been to call forth and develop their native genius. Sometimes I give them subjects for compositions. I have them write about a snowstorm, or a cherry tree, or the beauty of cloud formations on a summer afternoon; the subject doesn’t matter, for they can write beautifully about everything or anything. They have half an hour to prepare their compositions, and when they have finished we read them aloud and discuss them.

‘This morning I decided to give them a subject somewhat more difficult than usual. I explained that I wanted them to write an essay, or a story, or a poem, — they could put it in whatever form they chose, — and the idea was to be this: Misery. It was to be a story about a man at the last extremity of want — so utterly poor and wretched that whatever Fate might do she could not drive him farther down. They grasped the idea at once and set to work.

‘At the end of half an hour all had finished except one boy of fifteen, the son of a basket maker. The papers were collected and brought to my desk, and still this boy sat with his chin on his hands, deep in thought. I did n’t disturb him, knowing that the best thoughts are often the latest to come. While glancing through the papers before me I saw this boy seize his brush, cross out what he had already written, and substitute something else. He then brought his composition to my desk. This is what I read there: “Heavily falls the rain on the hat I stole from a scarecrow. ” ’

Mr. Hearn glanced at me inquiringly.

‘What do you think?’ he asked. ‘Is it a masterpiece or not? And the brevity!’ he went on, without waiting for a reply. ‘The beautiful economy of words! There, if you ask me, is one, at least, of the secrets of the art of writing; and in China even the children know it.’

I was deeply impressed and enormously grateful to Mr. Hearn for having related this incident. I wanted to tell him that my enthusiasm for the little poem was equal to his. I also wanted to tell him of the pleasure his own writings had given me; how, when I went for an afternoon ramble in the hills at Tahiti, I often carried one of his volumes of Japanese sketches to read by the way; and how my copy of his Two Years in the French West Indies had become so worn with much handling that I had had it rebound in shark skin while sojourning in Iceland. But when I started to speak, to my great chagrin I could not remember what I was about to say. My throat was parched and dry, and I could think of nothing but my thirst.

‘Could you tell me, please,’ I asked, ‘where the Ice Mountains are? I want a glass of cold water.’

He sprang to his feet.

‘Let’s go to my house,’ he replied. ‘I have something very interesting to show you.’

‘Don’t walk too fast. I have a very sore leg. I was bitten by a mosquito in the Austral Islands, and the place got infected.’

‘That’s what comes of carelessness,’ he replied; whereupon he set out at so rapid a pace that his coat tails flapped behind him. His figure dwindled and dwindled, and soon he was a mere speck far below me.


I now saw that we had been sitting on the top of a mountain rather than a hill. The path descended in innumerable loops and turns, and although I followed as fast as I could I seemed to be making no progress. The road was deep in sand, which reflected back the intense heat of the sun. My infected leg was throbbing violently, and I knew that I ought to be in bed rather than making this hard journey. Then I realized vaguely that I was again lying on the sofa in the little book-lined room. Mynah birds were chattering in the mango tree at the back of the house, and through the open window I saw the broad leaf of a banana plant swaying gently in the breeze. I heard a clear, childish, compassionate voice saying; ‘Aué! Mauiui te avané au papa!’ (‘Too bad! Papa has a sore leg!’); and another voice replied: ‘Come, Conrad. You must n’t disturb Papa. He’s sleeping.’ ‘That’s curious!’ I thought. ‘How does it happen that my little son speaks Tahitian ? Here am I, an American born and bred, and yet my child talks this strange lingo! But of course! That’s because he was born at Tahiti; he’s picked it up from the native children and his maternal grandmother. And when he grows up — what then? Of what use will Tahitian be to him when he leaves the islands? There are only thirty thousand people in the whole world who speak this Maori dialect, and all of them live in the South Seas. I must give him another English lesson at once.’

I called him, I called his mother, but there was no answer. Then I smiled, a bit sheepishly, remembering that I was not at home, but in China, on the way to Lafcadio Hearn’s house. I could see him a long way below me, and shouted once more at the top of my voice. To my great relief he turned and came running back, so fast that it made me dizzy to watch him threading the winding road up the mountain side. He reached me in no time, and despite his exertions was not at all fatigued.

‘Are you sure this is China?’ I asked. ‘I thought you lived in Japan! One of your books that I like best is called Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation.’

‘Names are quite immaterial,’he replied. ‘But let’s go in and have some tea. You’d like some, would n’t you?’

‘Could I have iced tea?’ I asked eagerly. ‘I’m very hot.'

‘We shall see,’ he said, smiling mysteriously.

We entered a carved stone gateway leading to a garden so enchantingly beautiful that I stopped to feast my eyes on the scene before us, but Mr. Hearn seized my arm and hurried me along. A graveled path followed the windings of a miniature valley, and mossgrown steps led down at intervals to a stream of clear water. I wanted to stop for a cooling drink, but my companion would not permit this. We crossed a lawn so smooth and soft that it was a delight to walk on it. Shadows of trees made a lacy pattern on the grass, where the air was cool and fresh, but in the sunny spaces the heat was stifling. Most of the flowers and plants were strange to me, but I recognized some hibiscus and flamboyant trees and bougainvillaea vines of the same varieties to be found on the islands of the South Seas.

We came within view of a lake whose placid surface reflected perfectly the blue sky and a few fleecy clouds. Near the water’s edge, in an arbor of cherry trees in full blossom, was a tiny pavilion with a roof of green tiles supported by slender stone pillars fantastically carved and inlaid with precious stones. On the lawn close by, three venerable Chinamen were seated at a table, drinking tea. They were dressed in long embroidered coats, one blue, one green, and one crimson, and they wore tasseled skullcaps of the same colors. They had black goatees and drooping moustaches that reached almost to their waists.

‘Mr. Hearn!’ I exclaimed. ‘I know this place! I have a picture of the very spot! I got it from a Chinaman who keeps a restaurant at Papeete!’

‘This is Kublai Khan’s pleasure garden,’ he replied.

A Chinese girl, beautifully dressed, with cherry blossoms in her hair, brought two stools wonderfully carved and decorated, placed them at the table, and motioned us to be seated. The three old men rose, bowed, and we all sat down together. Mr. Hearn immediately entered into an animated conversation with them, in Chinese; I regretted exceedingly that I could not follow them. Presently the Chinaman in the green coat turned to me and said, in English: —

‘ You are aware that during the nineteenth century the essay and the sketch have been much less cultivated in England than in France; and the reason is that writers of essays and sketches could not possibly compete with the writers of novels. The novel practically crushed the essay. It was as if an immense mass of rocks had been thrown down upon a grassy field; in order that the grass and flowers could bloom again it was necessary that the pressure should be removed. And it is likely to be removed very soon. The more speedily the novel decays, the more the essay and the sketch will again come into blossom and favor. Slight as such literature may seem to the superficial eye, it is really far more durable and much more valuable than fiction, in the majority of cases.

‘As for the sketch, I think it has a great future; even now it is able to struggle a little against the novel. By the word “sketch” 1 mean any brief study in prose which is either an actual picture of life as seen with the eyes or a picture of life as felt with the mind. You know that the word strictly means a picture lightly and quickly drawn. A sketch may be a little story, provided that it keeps within the world of fact and sincere feeling. It may take the form of a dialogue between two persons; it may be only a record of something seen, but so well seen that, when recorded, it is like a water color. In short, the sketch may take a hundred forms, and it offers the widest possible range for the expression of every literary faculty.’

‘That is exactly what I think!’ I replied eagerly. ‘But I see small reason to hope that the sketch will soon blossom into favor. The novel has crushed it utterly, particularly in America. In England, it is true, there are two or three exceptionally gifted writers of sketches, but they themselves seem to have no very high opinion of the art and practise it in the most desultory fashion. Do you know Mr. Tomlinson’s work? How perfect some of it is! Pictures, fragments of experience, gems of sincere feeling in settings of words chosen with the most exquisite taste. Do you remember his sketch called “The Derelict”? And the one about the sand dunes? I read them over and over with never-failing delight. Max Beerbohm is the only writer in English I know to be compared with him. His is a different but by no means an inferior method. You must have read his “Number 2, the Pines,” in which he tells of his visit to Swinburne at Putney. There, in a mere handful of pages, he gives a picture of Swinburne and his friend Watts-Dunton that can never fade from the memory. One gazes, smiling, with tears in the eyes, at those two old friends sitting in their dingy suburban mansion with their memories of the past, the dusty years creeping upon them and over them unnoticed, a dying western light illumining their faces. And “William and Mary” — do you remember that? And “The Golden Drugget,” which is nothing more than a description of a strip of yellow lamplight from the doorway of a mountain inn, lying across the roadway on a dark night. In my opinion sketches of this sort are worth more than a hundred novels that might be named.’


Of a sudden I noticed, without surprise, that Lafcadio Hearn had disappeared. The three old Chinamen listened gravely, sipping their lea and nodding their heads now and then. I felt wonderfully carefree and happy. It seemed to me that we were outside of time; it would always be afternoon, and we would sit under the cherry tree discussing matters that had nothing to do with a workaday world. I had found at last, I felt, what I had been searching for my life long — the three wise men of my dreams, wise, tolerant, compassionate. They would instruct me not only in the art of writing but in the art of living, so that I need never have any more doubts or despairs. I wanted to give some expression to my happiness and gratitude, but as I was about to do so the little waitress appeared with an enormous pot of fresh tea, which she placed on the table. The heat from the pot was unbearable to me, although my companions seemed not to notice it. On the table before me were a thick block of writing paper, a pen, and a bottle of ink that I had not observed before.

‘These must be for me,’ 1 thought. ‘I suppose I must write something, but I don’t see how I can with this teapot so close at hand.’ The intense heat seemed to be scorching my very brain. I moved my stool back from the table, and in doing so discovered that the cause of my distress was not a pot of tea but a ray of sunlight streaming directly upon me through a window high in the wall of a large room. It appeared to be the reading room of a public library, and was furnished with long tables where many people sat, busily writing, with books piled round them. A man whose face was puzzlingly familiar sat opposite me; I tried vainly to place him. He had a knitted muffler wrapped several times around his throat, with the ends hanging down on his chest. He had long bony hands, pale and freckled; his face, too, was bony, and his melancholy blue eyes sunk deep in cavernous hollows.

‘You’re a writer, are you not?’ he asked, regarding me with an air of mournful disapproval.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But I can’t work in such a hot room. How do you endure it?’

‘It’s not at all warm here. As you see, the rest of us are working. You must waste no more time. No work, no wage.’ And with that he resumed his own task.

I felt terribly depressed. I realized that I had no money and no way of earning any except by my pen. I must somehow blacken the pages of my block of writing paper. So I took up my pen and began wearily to write.

Someone touched my arm. It was the man who had spoken to me. He had come round to my side of the table and was now standing at my shoulder.

‘Let me see what you have done,’ he said.

I was conscious of a feeling of profound despair. ‘I’ve only just started,’ I replied. ‘I’m merely practising now, setting down words haphazardly. This is n’t at all what I mean to write.’

He held out his hand. ‘ Let — me — see — what — you — have — done,’ he repeated severely, and before I could prevent him he took my manuscript, adjusted a pair of spectacles to his nose, and, to my horror, began to read aloud: —

‘A self-appointed wanderer for others is under so many conflicting obligations to his travelers by proxy that the task of filling all of them passably, or any of them adequately, seems next to impossible. He combines in his office the threefold function of dietitian, cook, and serving man, and he must be careful how he goes about his duties if he is to retain his self-appointment with the consent of anyone but himself.

‘Some of his patrons will dine agreeably upon indifferent food, but the service must be beyond praise. There are his dainty eaters who will rise, nourished and content, from the least substantial of repasts if he has not offended them in any particular of seasoning. Others, of greater weight of bone and muscle, demand a deal of solid food, although they have no objection to hors d’oeuvres and something light and tasty by way of dessert. And there are the really heavy feeders who care nothing about service, sauces, or savories. “Away with the knickknacks!” they say. “Bring on the dinner!” For them he must load the board till it groans, heap high the plates with ungarnished fact, mound up the platters with solid information. It matters not whether it be well cooked or nicely served, so long as there is no stint of helpings. They will crowd round tables of raw statistics, their eyes glistening with anticipation; and later, when he emerges apologetically from the kitchen to clear away the broken meats, he finds to his surprise that there are none — not so much as a crumb to brush from the cloth. Plates and platters have been scoured clean, and the diners are sitting back in their chairs with looks of placid satisfaction on their faces. How is the writer of a travel book to cater for such a variety of tastes, to appease such a variety of appetites, to avoid upsetting such a variety of digestive processes?’

His mournful voice echoed and reechoed against the walls and lofty ceilings of the reading room as he read my manuscript, but no one paid the least attention to him. Only, when he reached the words, ‘Away with the knickknacks! Bring on the dinner!’ he shouted them in a deep, peremptory voice, whereupon several people glanced up, frowning slightly. They at once resumed their work, however, as if nothing had happened.

I observed that, despite the oppressive heat, all of them were muffled in heavy winter clothing, and that their breath came out in clouds of steam. ‘I must be in Iceland,’ I thought. ‘Yes, this is certainly Iceland — the reading room of the public library in Reykjavik.’ Then I turned to the man sitting on my right hand.

‘It’s useless trying to deceive me,’ I said to him. ‘I know quite well where I am.’

‘I have been reading Miss Amy Lowell’s poems,’ he replied. ‘Her “Lilacs” is a fine thing, but with this and a few other exceptions all of her verse smells of indoors even when she is writing on outdoor subjects. Her manner is studied, her style artificial, and not one of her poems would leave one in doubt as to whether a man or a woman had written it. Her free-verse forms have little or no excuse for being. Consider for a moment her “Venus Transiens”; this is how she has written it: —

‘Tell me,
Was Venus more beautiful
Than you are,
When she topped
The crinkled waves,
Drifting shoreward
On her plaited shell?
Was Botticelli’s vision
Fairer than mine;
And were the painted rosebuds
He tossed his lady
Of better worth
Than the words I blow about you
To cover your too great loveliness
As with a gauze
Of misted silver?’

He paused at the end of each line to accentuate its choppiness.

‘You sec how mannered the form is? When she might have written, in graceful prose: “Tell me, was Venus more beautiful than you are, when she topped the crinkled waves, drifting shoreward on her plaited shell?”

‘You are doubtless aware that she has a high opinion of her own place among contemporary poets. In that part of her Critical Fable in which she speaks of herself, she says: —

‘The future’s her goose and I dare say she’ll wing it,
Though the triumph will need her own power to sing it.
Although I’m no prophet, I’ll hazard a guess
She’ll be rated by time as more rather than less.

‘I think she’s much too sanguine. I’ll hazard another guess that twentyfive years hence her poetry will be as dead and forgotten as that of James Russell Lowell, her once illustrious kinsman, is to-day.’

He went on to enumerate his reasons for so thinking, and while talking laid his hot heavy hand on my infected knee. The pain was excruciating, and I groaned aloud.

‘Don’t touch my knee!’ I said. ‘Can’t you see how swollen it is?’

‘It’s time for your hot dressings,’ he replied, firmly — and a clear, childish, compassionate voice again exclaimed, in Tahitian: ‘Poor Papa! He has a sore leg!’