The Real Thing
January 9, 1920. There was a country town of which we heard wonderful tales as children. But it was as far as Cathay. It had many of the qualities that once made Cathay desirable and almost unbelievable We heard of it at the time when we heard of the cities of Vanity Fair and Baghdad, and all from a man with a beard, who once sat by a London fire, just before bedtime, smoking a pipe and telling those who were below him on the rug about the past, and of more fortunate times, and of cities that were fair and far. Nothing was easier for us then than to believe fair reports. Good dreams must be true, for they are good. Some day, he said, he would take us to Torhaven; but he did not, for his luck was not like that.
Nothing like that; so instead we used to look westward to where Torhaven would be, whenever the sunset appeared the right splendour for the sky that was over what was delectable and elsewhere. We made that do for years. Torhaven existed, there was no doubt, for once we made a journey to Paddington Station--a long walk--and saw the very name on a railway carriage. It was a surprising and a happy thought that that carriage would go into such a town that very day. What is more confident than the innocence of youth? Where, if not with youth, could be found such willing and generous reliance in noble legend?
And how enduring is its faith! Long after, but not too long after, for fine appearances to us still meant fine prospects, we arrived one morning bodily in the haven of good report. Its genius was as bright as we expected. It had a shining face. It was the equal of the morning. Its folk could not be the same as those who lived within dark walls under a heaven that was usually but murk. It lost nothing because we could examine its streets. We went from it with a memory even warmer and more comforting. What would happen to us if youth did not more than merely believe the pleasant tales that are told, if it did not loyally desire to believe that things are what they are said to be?
This country town is of the Southern kind which, with satisfaction, we show to strangers as something peculiarly of our country. It is ancient and luminous in an amphitheatre of hills, and schooners and barques come right among its gables. It is wealthy, but it is not of the common sort, for it never shows haste. It knows, of course, that wealth is cheap, until it has matured and has attained that dignity which only leisure and the indifference of usage can confer. The country around has a long history of well-sounding family names as native as its hills--they arrived together, or thereabouts--and the lodge gates on its highways, with their weathered and mossy heraldic devices, have a way of acquainting you with the measure of your inconsequence as you pass them when walking. Torhaven has no poverty. It tolerates some clean and obscure but very profitable manufactures. But its shipping is venerable, and is really not an industry at all, being as proper as the owning of deer-parks. On market day you would think you were in a French town, so many are the agriculturists, and so quiet and solid the evidence of their well-being. They own their farms, they love good horses, their wagons are built like ships, and their cattle, as aboriginal as the county families, might be the embodiment of the sleek genius of those hills and meadows, so famous are they for cream. The people of that country live well. They know their worth and the substance which they add to the strength of the British community. And they pride themselves on the legends, peculiarly theirs, which tell of their independence of mind, of their love of freedom, of their liberal opinions and the nonconformity of their religious views. They are stout folk, kind and companionable, and they do not love masters.
It was the summer following the end 01 the War, and we were back again in Torhaven. The recollection of its ancient peace, of its stillness and light, of the refuge it offered, had enticed us there. Its very name had been the hope of escape. Where should we find people more likely to be quick and responsive? They would be among the first to understand the nature of the calamity which had overtaken us. They would know, long before amorphous and alien London, what that new world should be like which we owed to the young, a world in which might grow a garden for the bruised souls of the disillusioned.
Its light was the same. It was not only untarnished by such knowledge as we brought with us, it was radiant. Yet it was not without its memory of the disaster. We went into the church, whose porch had been restored; symbolical, perhaps, of our entry into a world from which, happily, the old things had passed. The church was empty, for this was market day. Through its gloom, as through the penumbra of antiquity, shone faintly the pale forms of a few recumbent knights, and the permanent appeal of their upturned hands and faces kept the roof aware of human contrition. Above one of the figures was a new Union Jack, crowned with laurels. The sun made too vivid a scarlet patch of one of its folds.
Just below the church was the theatre, now a cinema hall. This was market day, and the house was full. A poster outside pictured a bridge blowing up, and a motor-car falling into space. The midday sun was looking full at Torhaven's High Street, which runs south and downhill steeply to the quay; a schooner filled the bottom of the street that day. Anything a not too unreasonable man could desire was offered in the shops of that thoroughfare. This being a time of change, when our thoughts are all unfixed and we have had rumours of the New Jerusalem, the side window of a fashionable jeweller's was devoted to tiny jade pigs, minute dolls, silver acorns, and other propitiators of luck which time and experience have tested. Next door to the jeweller's was a studio supporting the arts, with local pottery shaped as etiolated blue cats and yellow puppies; and there one could get picture postcards of the London favourites in revue, and some water-colour paintings of the local coast which an advertisement affirmed were real.
That was not all. Opposite was the one bookshop of the town. Its famous bay front and old diamond panes frankly presented the new day with ladies' handbags, ludo and other games, fountain pens, mounted texts from Ella Wilcox, local guide books, and apparently a complete series--as much as the length of the window would hold, at least--of Hall Caine's works; and in one corner prayer-books in a variety of bindings.
Down on the quay, sitting on a bollard, with one leg stretched stiffly before him, was a young native I had not met since one day on the Menin Road. I had known him, before that strange occasion, as an ardent student of life and letters. He had entered a profession in which sound learning is essential, though the reward is slight, just when the War began. Then he believed, in high seriousness, as young and enthusiastic students did, all he was told in that August; and his professional career is now over.
He pointed out to me mildly, and with a little reproach, that I was wrong in supposing Torhaven had not changed. I learned that the War had made a great change there. Motor-cars were now as commonly owned as bicycles used to be, though he admitted that it did not seem that the queue waiting to buy books, our sort of books, was in need of control by the police. But farmers who had been tenants when Germany violated the independence of Belgium were now freeholders. Men who were in essential industries, and so could not be spared for the guns, were now shipowners. We could see for ourselves how free and encouraging was the new wealth in this new world; true, the size of his pension did not fairly reflect the new and more liberal ideas of a better world, but we must admit he had no need to travel to Bond Street to spend it. "Why fear," he asked me, pointing with his crutch up the busy High Street behind us, "that what our pals in France learned was wrong with that old Europe which made the War, will not be known there? Have you seen," he said, "our bookshop, our cinema, and the new memorial porch of our church?" Near us was waiting a resplendent motorcar, in which reposed a young lady whose face decorates the covers of the popular magazines every month, and as the wounded soldier finished speaking it moved away with a raucous hoot.