THE AGE OF DISCOVERY
ADVENTURE and the salt edges of the sea beat against the window clamorous through the rain.
Nancy was sitting in a box at the edge of the nursery table, listening to the Swiss Family Robinson being read to her aloud. The box was really a boat, and by the exercise of some imagination, the uncompromising squareness of its edges rounded into a tub, and helped by the noisy swirl of raindrops against the glass, there was no difficulty in believing that the distant chair (which was land) could scarcely be attained. The wind caught words and drowned them in ts vehemence. Outside was hurricane.
It was fun to play; it was fun to hear of strange islands, buffaloes, boys slashing a path through sugar-canes; but the morning was wistful with the half-expressed desire, "If only I could have lived in an age when something happened."
Her rightful inheritance, the world of venturing story-books, was dead. Her days passed unpleasantly free from danger. True, when she was fourteen she would run away and be a sailor, but that was ten years distant; it was so long to wait that sailing ships might be then, as she had heard them say, "extinct."
She could never remember a time she had not wanted to go to sea. Waves, dented blue or curved racing green, the fishing ships that moved bird-like across the water, seemed all that was left of a time when stowaways went to sea, climbed masts, rode through forests and tramped over the mountains in far places, or hunted for seals and whales. She grew tired of play, tired of listening to mere words. Would nothing ever happen any more?
The door flung open. Amid quick sentences and ensuing tumult Nancy was thrust into her outdoor clothes, into an old cap worn only on wet days, and taken, bewildered, breathless, to the actual edge of the sea.
" Wreck." Lip to lip against the masterful wind scattered the alarm. Already the lifeboat waited to be launched; crowds filled the desolation of the beach. The blue asphalt of the front was flooded with puddles, but for once all were too excited to blame Nancy if she splashed in them. The sea was a wide mass of luminous metal, faint silver here and there where a flickering light caught it, or a grey hollow revealing the tumult underneath; and beyond the clamorous horizon, sailors, actual sailors, even now prepared to launch their boats, and were in real danger of never reaching shore.
It seemed a page from a story-book that Nancy watched instead of read. That with her own eyes she could see peril and preparations for rescue had all the texture of an imaginary dream. Hail and spray rapidly beat a sense of salt reality into her thought till, exultant with discovery that wildness was yet alive and might be hers, she hurried joyously along the beach to be lifted up to see the men in cork belts and sou'westers ready to begin their voyage. A parting of the waves, a vivid shout, and the lifeboat slid into the water, vanishing in the hollows, or flung, a struggling fish, upright against a roll of wave. Gusts of wind caught Nancy as they turned towards home, lifting her till she wondered if she would blow away, like the toy vessels children sailed and lost in summer-time. The savage rain stung her eye-lids and blent with wind and sea and sky in an immense and thundering force, but she did not care, roughness was beauty to her, adventure had returned.
Next morning oranges heaped gold among the rank sea-grass or rolled from broken barrels on the wreckage in the sand.
Storm ever remained a profound association of infancy, storm and a longing to run away. There were days when she desired utter uncontrollable freedom so much that she had to escape from sight, were it but to hide at the bottom of the garden till the fit had passed, days she longed to be a boy and go to sea. This was not to be traced to any strictness, she had more liberty than most children; it was simply a touch of natural wildness the restraint of later years was never to eradicate.
Her one regret was that she was a girl. Never having played with any boys, she imagined them wonderful creatures, welded of her favourite heroes and her own fancy, ever seeking adventures, making them, if they were not ready to their hand, and, of course, wiser than any grown-up people. She tried to forget, to escape any reference to being a girl, her knowledge of them being confined to one book read by accident, an impression they liked clothes and were afraid of getting dirty. She was sure if she hoped enough she would turn into a boy.
Her days were spent in the garden, on the beach, or in the lanes, picking wild flowers or blackberries, or playing at "exploration," her favourite game. Before she was five she taught herself to read, picking it up as she turned the pages; weaving her own romances round each picture, till the reins of the real stuffed donkey mounted on rockers threatened to hang in idleness, forgotten.
Fairy tales delighted her but little. Unconsciously she cared for nothing but what had actually happened, or what was possible to happen. The long walks, when, to make up for play, her father told her of foreign places with magical names, outrivalled in enchantment any legendary fables. Best of all she loved the hours when, ranging the contents of her Noah's ark carefully, two by two, upon the floor, her mother spoke of gondolas and palaces and streets where girls let down a basket from the upper windows to draw up lettuces or carrots, of a city ruined by molten lava ages and ages ago, and of a museum there where lay the bread baked, the lamp used, the day of its destruction, now crusted to hard metal with the volcanic liquid, which Nancy herself would see some day, when she was just a little bigger. Spring evenings when she came in with spoil of early primroses, she would hear of sharp snowy peaks above the resinous pine forests, gentian, and wild Alpine roses. Thus, to Nancy travel grew wonderful as a book, an inevitable thing, her proper heritage.
Infancy is the real period of exploration, but discoveries crowded so thickly upon Nancy that she ceased to think of them as such; in fact, when in years to come she remembered childhood, unconsciousness was the only word that was any adequate picture of the first fourteen years of her life. Yet the white and tenuous roots, desire of expression, love of freedom, a wish to go to sea, forming the base of her individuality, were already very deep. The days, the little days before they changed to the larger radiance of childhood, passed in happiness, complete with a peace that held no restlessness while month by month flung to her, basketwise, impressions and fresh beauties, sea flowers, the roseal flush clouding the August peaches, a lane heavy with nut or blackberry, March, when the spirit of childhood seemed itself enshrined in the primroses-colour of moonlight--and the soft warm feel of sand, the transparency of seaweed under her bare feet. Her one unrealised desire was possession--like a boy--of a pocket-knife, her one disappointment was the refusal of a live pet monkey; yet there was ever a poignant sadness about these little days, when years later she remembered them, of something for ever lost, of a promise never to be fulfilled.
But always truant among her dreams even of ships and sailors was the thought, "When I am older I will write a book." With years curious things seemed to happen, but there was the ring of a boast about this desire, something of the impossibility of a fairy tale, remote in its chance of ever coming true.
"Please may she come and play with me?" The speaker pointed a jam-stained finger at Nancy, peeping in half-frightened amazement between the bars of the gate. Nancy had played but seldom with other children, she was not sure that she wanted to go with the stranger. She heard a whispered consultation, while the child from next door regarded them with impudent eyes.
"Nancy, run along and play with the little girl, she wants to show you her garden"
A little unwillingly she trotted off.
"What's your name?" asked her companion, licking the jam from her fingers.
She was a strong assertive child, half a head taller than Nancy and bigger in proportion.
"I've been wanting to play with you for a week. Didn't you hear me call through the hedge yesterday?"
Nancy shook her head. Unafraid of any one grown up, she was a bit shy of this infant with her queer rough speech.
The friendship lasted a few brief weeks. At first the novelty of a playmate who, unlike a toy elephant, could argue, quarrel, and on occasion fight, prevented much resentment at the way Nancy's carefully cherished animals were scratched and broken. The end came on a summer evening after tea. Nancy possessed a tricycle which she was wont to ride about the garden, but since Sylvia had come, fear the garden beds might be destroyed had forbidden its use. That evening, on promise of behaving quietly, they were allowed to take it up and down the quiet road outside.
Sylvia snatched the handle at once.
"You ride it up and I'll ride it down," suggested Nancy.
"Right," nodded Sylvia, racing off. Nancy ran behind her to the top of the road, watched her sweep round a little clumsily, up and back a second time.
"It's my turn now," Nancy interrupted, as Sylvia moved to ride down the road again. Sylvia laughed defiantly.
"I've got it and I'm going to keep it."
It was the injustice that stung Nancy. It was her turn and her tricycle. Furiously she snatched at the handle, at the seat. The tricycle fell over, Sylvia caught at Nancy's hair, blow followed blow, there were yells of anger, both were lost in a whirlwind of waving arms. Soon a crowd collected; the grocer's boy, leaving his parcels, urged them on. Small, but quick and reckless, Nancy danced round her opponent in circles, uttering shouts of triumph, about to knock Sylvia to the ground when some one gripped her collar, gripped Sylvia likewise, and led them both, howling and incoherent, up the road. Nancy's mother, hearing a noise, had feared an accident, had arrived in time to see the ending of the fight. Twenty minutes later Nancy lay dejectedly in a dull and darkened room, a full hour before her proper bedtime, meditating on the injustice of the world. It was not that she minded being led up the road in disgrace so much, she knew she was never punished at home unless she deserved it, but that Sylvia, to whom she had surrendered toys and leadership for all these weeks, should dare to ride away with her tricycle, in defiance of all justice, and that their fight should be stopped just as she would have knocked her down, perplexed her unshaped ideas of morality. She hoped, kicking the bed savagely, that Sylvia also was in a darkened room; there was a savage joy in desiring that Sylvia got no supper. Henceforth, her games should be shared with her toy elephant, a safer and a quieter companion.
With seven the age of discovery deepened into childhood. Rumour hinted at a possible journey that winter to Milan and Venice, perhaps the Italian Lakes. Toys grew more and more neglected; even her stuffed animals were laid aside for books. On her birthday she was given a volume of tales from Shakespeare, not Lamb's, but a more elementary picture-book that disputed the right even of the Swiss Family Robinson for chief place in her affections. The elemental tales of the plays, growing even as she grew, passed so utterly within her nature that it was hard to realise, after a few months, there was a time when Viola and Imogen had been unknown. The mere fact of the frequent assuming by the Elizabethan maiden of "the lovely garnish of a boy" captured an imagination eager enough to copy; she was ever impatient of the end where they changed to a girl's attire. Odd bits of the stories would attract her--Pericles finding his armour, smelling of brine and sand; the journey of Imogen to Milford Haven; Caliban snaring sea-mells among the wilder parts of the island. Perhaps a sense of the eternal beauty of the mere names moved her even in infancy; disdaining the other literature of childhood she lived in Illyria, fanciful, yet so vivid, an unimagined reality. Near Christmas-time they went away.
From a train brilliant with light they huddled into a gondola, into the violet denseness of a stormy night. A peculiar state of wind and tide had combined that year to flood the great square; St. Mark's shivered with the touch of water, and the wind had a northern keenness about it as they left the station. Nancy's first impression of Venice was that gondolas were uncomfortable things; she could see nothing in the blackness, only the unrestful water stirred in miniature splashes against the bow. Up a canal, through a door, right into the flooded hall of the hotel, and amid a chatter of vivid Italian Nancy was lifted on to dry land, half-way up a staircase piled, as far as the steps were dry, with rescued furniture.
Much of this first Italian visit passed into vague remembrance obscured by later and more vivid hours at Naples or at Rome, but the outlines of Venice, boldly carven, never quite passed from thought. St. Mark's was perhaps her first conscious impression of richness. St. Mark's contrasted with Milan, that colder city, seen on the way home. Child-like, it was neither the pictures nor the quaint drawings, the moulded lions nor the gondolas with their long clumsy oars, that attracted Nancy's eyes but the fluttering mass of pigeons in the centre of the square. Every afternoon she would climb the Campanile, making it a game to see how fast she could run up; then, her hands
brimming with grain, she lured a flight of metallic wings across to the far edge of the square, watching the soft and eager heads as three or four birds perched on her arms or sought the spilt gold on the pavement. It was a sad day when she turned from this, from the sunshine and the water to the coldness of the North.
It was not until the following year she became really intimate with Italy, coming to Rome, to the Forum, where she gathered an antique bit of marble, to Naples crowded with the open life she loved, the aquarium where whole hours were spent watching the sleepy sea-anemones, sea horses, crested as a wave, the feeding of the octopus, and the strange southern iridescent fish darting and shifting in the bubbling water. From this, from days at Capri or at Baia, some weeks at Florence, with enforced confinement to the museum, came near to being an irksome end to her second winter spent abroad.
"I HATE Michel Angelo." The custodian looked shocked, a passing visitor smiled. Nancy stared at the head of the faun with more than a little fear she would surrender to some compelling power in the rough marble, gazing up at her with such inscrutable eyes, but she was tired of Michel Angelo, the name followed them everywhere, besides nobody could explain to her what a faun was. Outside in the sunshine there was a puppy playing, a brown puppy chasing its tail, and though she was aware it must long ago have strayed into one of the dark Florentine streets, an unconquerable hope that it lingered on the steps prompted her to be impatient of each delay. A live puppy held a vastly greater interest for her than a cold statue. "I hate him," she repeated, looking for sympathy to her mother who had delivered her from the tyranny of museums on more than one memorable occasion.
"We shall only be another half-hour now, and if you are good you shall have a new book this afternoon."
Contented with the promise, Nancy was silent. A book was far more exciting than a puppy she could not touch.
Museums were cold places, there could be no playing in them. There were statues, many of them broken, all with long uncomprehended names. The shelves were lined with pottery, red or black, and curiously fashioned green bronze lustred with age. Always in answer to her persistent inquiries she was told they were "vases" or "lamps." Even to herself she lacked power to put into words her desire, impetuous to escape into speech, to know who had used these vessels, when and where the shields, the breastplates hanging on the wall, had been worn. What did they eat, what did they wear, how did they live? Childhood is not articulate, so she thought instead of the brown puppy playing in the sunshine, the soft flickering movement of a donkey's ears. To her eyes these carvings were relics of a dead, uninteresting world, yet there existed an imperious sensation of a domain passed, as one
might pass a garden, ignorant that behind the stone hedges bees swarmed in velvet murmur amid hives, whence the blood of the sun trickled in stalactites of honey and stung the delicate powder silvering the bloom of the violet grapes. Chance put into her hands a key.
Among the two or three English books a child might care to have, Nancy chose that afternoon one, by no noted name, that retold to infancy such portion of the Iliad as could be understood by it, with the addition of many earlier and later stories, the fall of Troy, the Amazons, myths of the Greek Gods. She was attracted by the picture on the cover, struggling men in armour resembling that abounding in Italian museums, and carried the book triumphantly away.
Ever a quick reader, picture after picture shaped in her mind, never to fade; interest quickened till it flamed, ardent, invincible. Lovelier than the opening petals of the almond, richer than a southern morning, impressions poured into the white and rounded vase of her imagination, clamorous and hot with sweetness. It was her first revelation of the power of literature, of her own power and desire of a richness that could never be satisfied, a new world, or an older one understood at last. She read of Greek children, of their games, their days passed in enviable wildness; of the strengthening of young Achilles on the hearts of lions, the marrow of bears; of fauns and satyrs, music and the Nereids of the sea. Troy pictured itself to her, the ships, the tents on the shore, full of the little details children love, the woollen cloths, the carven bowls, the unyoked horses. She delighted in the combats, the funeral games, especially the wrestling and the chariot race, the burning of the ships, and, supreme moment, the fight over the body of Patroklos. She could see it, feel it, till her days passed in a crashing of bronze, a clatter of sandals, till to have seen the sun-browned body of a warrior catch the light at the corner beneath the heavy perfection of his harness would have surprised her less than the group of guide-equipped tourists plaintively wondering what they ought to admire.
Parts there were that appealed to her less strongly than others, the loveliness of Helen, for instance, boys and warriors alone reigning in her fancy, and Paris, whom she heartily despised, but it was the foundation of a knowledge of antiquity never again to be ignored. Marred but by a need of constant reassurance, it was more or less a truthful picture of a distant age, it awoke a dormant interest in history, which became the engrossing passion of her days; history, only another fashion of desiring a complete knowledge of life. Actual existence is too complicated to do more than puzzle a child of eight. Nancy, in fact, was not consciously aware it existed. It is too full of shades and tones; a child desires the crude outline, the hard curve there can be no mistaking, and this history, with store of vivid narrative, epic of flight and battle, offers in abundance to a childhood unconcerned as to why an event happened, which cause was right, content to look merely on a broad whole, or take a side perhaps and follow the conflict with an eager interest.
Perfectly willing now to spend the entire day in a museum, provided she could pillage its contents to fit and fill her own imagination, with this book and a companion volume in which she learnt of Odysseus and his travellings, the whole of antiquity seemed to draw aside its veil of years with slow and unreserving movement, and taking its place, with sun and wind and grasses, among the natural emotions of childhood, she herself played in a primitive world.
Two books, however rich in impressions, could not content her long. There were gaps in the story, the perpetual and dreaded threat, "Wait till you are older and you will read things for yourself," etc., combined with the incompleteness of her knowledge to keep her in a state of literal hunger for information, until, just following her ninth birthday, she saw in a window Pope's translation of the Iliad. After some stormy minutes, with the derision of several grown-up people ringing in her ears, Nancy having found an unspent shilling in her pocket, bought and carried the book away.
Children are ever the best judges of what in literature is most suitable for them, what they can understand. The appeal of much written for infancy is really to adult sensation, while most of Shakespeare, an epic such as the Iliad, the imagination of a child in a radiant and pristine sense no scholar can recapture. Vividness, both in narrative and detail, that is what a child desires. It must be able to see pictures.
The heroic couplet does not jar the insensitive ears of a child of nine. Nancy read Pope's translation all day, dreamt of it at night. Troy, represented by a large mud pie, occasionally was taken in the garden, usually on an autumn morning when the gardener made a bonfire, because the smoke was the burning city, and the sparks looked like falling towers from the two steps at the end of the lawn which were the Greek ships putting out to sea. On wet afternoons the chariot of an arm-chair whirled madly to battle, Nancy crouching beneath a picture-book held for buckler that sheltered her from a rain of imaginary arrows. Compelled at last to acknowledge that she had read and re-read the book till she could absorb it no more, another chance discovery taught her Greece and Troy were not the only nations of the ancient world.
It was really a boy's book of adventure that drew her enthusiasm to a fresh direction, a tale of the second Punic war and Hannibal's advance on Rome. The fascination of this modern-hearted figure, set, strange contrast to his nobleness, amid the most savage race of a savage antiquity, early eclipsed her delight in even Achilles himself. Achilles was a visionary figure, but Hannibal, he was known to have existed, at nine he had marched on his first campaign. (A hastily procured history-book assured her this was correct.) That at her own actual age had begun a career which, but for the cupidity of an effeminate Carthage, might have changed the story of the world,
the audacity of that march through an undiscovered country, across the Alps--the stumbling, dying elephants, a memorial of their passage--almost to the gates of Rome, quickened and ripened a love of history, ever to be of her elemental roots of life.
The stories of the Punic wars, of Carthage, were in themselves picturesque. There was a richness in the word mercenaries which appealed to her imagination as she watched in thought Numidian cavalry, wrapt in lion skins and quick as a southern lizard; that primitive artillery, the Iberian slingers; the carved shields of the Carthaginian horse waiting their turn to embark on that voyage whence four years later the remnant returning, exhausted with victories, were to lose their greatest battle beneath the walls that had betrayed them to hunger.
Beside Hannibal, fiction or fairy tale was dull as an etching to an eye avid of colour; still, books that treat of Carthaginian life being inaccessible to childhood, to assuage a hunger for literature that should bear at least the name of Hamilkar or of Hanno in its pages the inspiration came to Nancy to write a story for herself.
She was balanced on the edge of a sofa that was an elephant advancing with a swaying dignity toward the Alps when the thought took form, but the whole campaign was forgotten while she pondered over the hero's name. A boy must occupy the centre. of the story. To her, Carthaginian girls existed merely in a fabulous way. She would have liked the boy to belong to the Numidian horse, her woolly shawl would have made a magnificent lion-skin, but she did not know a Numidian name. Finally she decided on the Carthaginian cavalry. This took the whole afternoon.
Tea was devoted to a meditation as to the accessibility of paper; finally, a new exercise book, intended for her French dictation, appropriated, she began:
"Hanno was a Carthaginian boy. He was nine years old. He was very glad because he was going on his first campaign. He had a breastplate and a helmet with plumes and a buckler covered with silver plates. He rolled up a lion-skin and put it behind him on his saddle. He belonged to the Carthaginian horse." This, in Nancy's scrawled handwriting, covered two pages, and was finished just as bedtime came. She felt very proud of herself, though it was slow work and she wanted to get to the Alps. When the light was turned out she began wondering how many days it would take her to get to the battle of Cannae. It had not occurred to her then that a book could be written otherwise than straight through from beginning to end. She remembered suddenly she had forgotten to mention the city in her story. Every one was downstairs, so, with great precaution not to be heard, she crept out of bed and added to her tale in pencil, " Carthage was a great city." Then she jumped quickly into her bed again, into the warm softness of the sheets, and closed her eyes, dreaming.
HURRIED days in Naples, a sudden decision, watching for the ship in the rifts of sea between the crimson roses, going on board, coming up the first morning to see Stromboli volcanic blue within the distance; storm, leaning on the rail to watch an Arab in scarlet fez spring on deck, first hint of Egypt, these and a confused impression of hieroglyphics, Bedouins, Thotmes, and the desert merged in a vague expectancy as the train left Alexandria. Nancy was bitterly ashamed of herself. She had disgraced her first voyage by seasickness; part of the journey, in fact, she had not enjoyed at all. Her most tolerable hours had been those spent lying on deck, wrapt in a rug, dreaming, with shut eyes, of the adventure and the mystery enshrined for a child in the story of the early Egyptian vessels that rowed tropic seas to Punt.
They had wandered out to Italy in early December with the possibility of further voyage before them, Egypt or Sicily. Nancy had hoped for Egypt; Italy was wonderful, but Naples was still Europe, and Egypt meant Africa, crowded, if rumours could be trusted, with camels, vultures, scorpions, and even jackals, up the Nile. To a child the mere word desert was full of fascination. To-day she had landed in this new continent for the first time.
Annoyingly oblivious of the importance of the moment, every one brought out papers, went to sleep. The train, reeking of Europe, rattled on. Nancy was thinking of the Zoo, the solemn keeper leading a dromedary with a look of infinite dreariness in its eyes. The guide-book spoke of pelicans--it was hardly to be believed these birds existed wild and uncaged where she, Nancy, might see them. Was it possible the whole country was a myth?
Tired of waiting for something to happen, Nancy stared at the plain wishing she had a book to read. The carriage was full of glaring stillness, papers rustled. Another two hours to Cairo. Probably Luxor would turn out to be just the same as Europe she thought impatiently, till out of the midst of the plain of green corn and cotton plant a mud village full of an unmistakable Eastern silence, sprawled by a clump of date palms. A figure or two in fez or turban moved among the doorways. Along the wide road a man, vestured in indigo, preceded a shaggy camel, marching no longer drearily, but with the insolent pride of his position as chief of the desert beasts stamped in the uneven pace. Nancy stared, pressed to the dusty windows, excited, happy, till they passed from sight. Africa, she was in Africa. How difficult to realise she had left Europe at last.
As they drove to the hotel a water-carrier, bent beneath the weight of his goatskin, shouted in guttural Arabic among the crowd; veiled women passed, and men with lemon slippers dangling from a pole. Too late to go out that night, she longed impatiently for morning, for the first day of a wonderful three months to which she was to owe the broad foundations of an education few children have the opportunity to obtain.
Cairo was stranger than she dared imagine. At first the usual winter rains made the roads impassable with mud; later they dried to a dust of ground ivory. Nancy poured over hieroglyphics and Egyptian history, explored an
ostrich farm, went to Heliopolis; most of all she loved it when they walked or drove through the bazaars.
Poem of a city, the East is silence, there is no youth, only age and antiquity.
The dreams of the city are the stuffs of the merchants, indigo, almond and cinnamon. There is gold for remembrance of Antar, Antar, fingering his weapons, brushing aside the rough camel-skin to gaze at the dust of the desert. Ivory and tulip red, as songs murmured to a lute of ebony when Mamum ruled in Damascus.
The speech of the city is colour. In the dusk of the palace of the vendors of carpets, over a screen of ebony, mother o' pearl and ebony, trail of turquoise, trail of silver, a scimitar snaps the darkness. Cordoba to Damascus bent once to the might of the moon-curved steel.
The East is silence.
Silence of eyes that are impalpable black almonds, silence of silk of cream and of cinnamon, silence of turbans folded, lustrous and heavy as the bloom on white roses. Garrulous and guttural, the water-carriers with their goatskins, rough with hair, bloated with water, the grunt of a camel, shrillness of a seller of scarlet slippers, these are only the ripple and promise of a wind that is asleep for ever. The East is silence.
Spoils of Ethiopia, Numidia, Assyria, were heaped, were wasted in the Memphis markets. Now nothing is left of Antar, of Mamum, the marches by night, the defiance, the victories, but crumbling moonlight over the sheath of the scimitar.
Rumple the stuffs, there is emptiness, colour, but no singing, only terror crouching by the silence, the inscrutable silence. Thebes and Memphis and Carthage crumbled to a colour, a savour of mightiness, essence of parchment, of amber and cinnamon.
The opaque pearl of stillness is shattered by clumsy-vowelled Arabic A sais passes, bronze figure escaped into life, racing in white and impetuous scarlet. Heavily the air re-gathers to a stillness.
The East is silence, fear and antiquity.
. . . .
They had been in Egypt a week. To-day was their first morning in the desert, their first day of real adventure. It was cold driving out to the pyramids, where the donkeys awaited them, but once free from the crowd of begging Egyptians they would ride across the wastes of golden dust to Sakhara, the Step Pyramid, to the ruins of fallen Memphis, and back by train from the neighbouring station. Twenty miles In the saddle--the poetry of the thought of it. Nancy shook the reins of her donkey, quite as big an animal as the pony she was accustomed to ride, with a string of blue and vivid beads round the shaggy white neck. Behind her trotted a young Arab, in an indigo shirt, bare-
footed. Now and again the donkey twitched its muscular ears softly, when a fly worried it. A boy's story-book and a couple of histories had filled Nancy with pictures of a world that had been a centre of wisdom and civilisation four thousand years before. Antiquity held no terror for her, only interest; in imagination she lived within it oftener than in this modernity of railway trains and formalities. To her it was a period of unrestrained freedom, a life of riding forth, a lion-skin on the saddle, the picturesqueness of single combat. Half the morning Nancy alternated between a tale of ancient Egypt, in which she was a warrior marching into Asia, under Thotmes, and a struggle to ride her donkey as she would her English pony. She wearied out the young Arab assigned as her attendant by a series of mad gallops. She led the entire party.
The desert was so unlike the plain her imagination had pictured. It was not flat, but a sequence of delicate and sloping ridges, and the sand soft and pliable as gold dust slipped from sharp and scattered flints. Four hours after they had passed the Sphinx, the excavations of Sakhara came in sight.
Nancy was sorry to dismount. She wanted to ride on and farther till sunset-time, then to sleep in a tent, roughly, to set out again with morning on their journey till, as their dragoman told them, after four months they would come to Tunis or Tripoli. Once in the tomb of Ti, her momentary disappointment vanished. With the ardour of a child for animals, it was the hunt of a herd of gazelles, the return of the quaint Egyptian craft from fowling, the sheep, the geese, and the oxen that attracted her. She explored the tombs, would hardly be prevented from plunging, if only for a few steps, into the subterranean passage, now blocked with shifted sand.
They came back by Memphis as the sky flushed red behind the date palms. She would have retarded every minute which drew their ride nearer to a close. Perhaps it was this, or was it simply the desolation of that immense and lonely figure, prone in the deserted grass, with vegetation springing in tropical neglect between the scattered stones? For the first time something of the desolation of antiquity, the actual coldness of ruins, something that was not quite sadness, a feeling alien, fingered her heart. Here had been a centre of wisdom, the regal end of royal Egypt; the spoils, the wealth from Numidia to Circassia had spilt, had wasted on those pavements, and now, she
was sitting on a white donkey staring at a wilderness of stones. Donkey boys and dragoman jabbered in unison. There was no vivid freshness of paint, homeliness of Ti among his oxen, nor the impenetrable dignity of the pyramids: it was desolate, an aspect of antiquity, a deadness she could not understand. In the sharp flame of the short dying of the sunlight a train brought them back to the modern city.
A fortnight later they left for Luxor by train. Nancy was disappointed at first she was not to go all the way by boat, but the prospect of reaching Thebes in a night's journey consoled her. Thebes--of all Egyptian history nothing had impressed her sailor mind so much as the expedition to Punt, and was not the tomb of Hatasu herself on the other side of the river? Then there was Rameses, the epic of Pentaur, on the great Karnak wall.
Her first impression of Luxor was a long line of donkeys ranged at the corner of the ruins, dust and flies. From her point of view the afternoon was wasted seeing the Luxor temple, when she desired to cross the Nile, and reaching the hollows of that ridge of hills, full of strangeness and the dignity of the pyramids, to come at last to Thebes. Luxor
temple was dull; she could not love all ruins indiscriminately; and she spent much of the time watching an Arab boy suck length after length of sugar cane--it reminded her of the Swiss Family Robinson, a book now relegated to the forgotten days of babyhood.
It might have been an Egyptian boat, relaunched from the museum that morning, in which they crossed the Nile. Half-way, they disembarked, to hurry across an islet of sand. Another row, a scrambling into rough saddles and ahead as usual, Nancy turned for Thebes. Along a path too narrow for galloping, trenches for irrigation on either hand, she came at last to one of the few survivals of the Seven Wonders, the Colossi of Memnon. Emblems in their mystery and in their sadness of the whole realm of Upper and Lower Egypt, life seemed almost to breathe from the stone as it caught hues and diverse lights. What had made the sound, Nancy wondered, the sound at sunrise and at nightfall? Watching them, she had a sense of intrusion, almost of fear.
"The Tombs of the Kings." It needed no dragoman to point to the temple of Hatasu to assure Nancy they were in ancient Egypt at last; with a turn of the valley they stepped straight into a living antiquity. They ventured into passages heavy with the smell of bats. They explored temples, multitudinous tombs. They passed a curved basin where in summer the natives sleep to avoid scorpions, and an Egyptian brought a scorpion for them to see, heavy-looking but venomous, on a bit of broken pottery. Little naked children, balls of chocolate brown, with white and dirty skull-caps, played about a fallen statue. Nancy deciphered one or two of the commonest hieroglyphics, picked up a few words of Arabic. She rebelled when they turned to go back.
Days passed quickly in Egypt. As a final pleasure before they left Luxor, Nancy was permitted to ride to Karnak one evening at full moon. The others followed in a carriage a pace or two behind, giving her a sensation of delightful loneliness, almost of danger, as she trotted off through a blackness powdered with moonlight. The moulded figures loomed strangely out of the dark. Karnak had never seemed so immense; never before had she known so much of the age, the peace, the mystery of this land that had lived on the memory of a former greatness when Carthage was a young city and Rome a waste of marshes. They passed the great wall, Rameses in his
chariot, on till they could look across the isles of shadowy ruins up to the moon, full and lovely in an inscrutable sky. There was a howling of wild dogs in the distance as they turned away.
It was not until the following year Nancy had more than a hurried glimpse of Nubia. They came at once to Cairo, from there direct to Assuan, spending a month on this border of a harder, more barbaric land. Here was none of the soft richness that linked Cairo to the days when the scimitar of a Saracen held dominion from Bagdad to Cordoba, nor the sense of age which placed even modern Luxor back in the beginning of history; but adventure, rides into a desert where the tossed sand was stamped by the footprints of hyaenas, sails along the golden water of the Nile. Perched high above them were great white pelicans, with bills a brighter orange than the rocks, and amid the incessant murmur of the Arab rowers, children, grave as an old temple, gazed at Nancy without a movement in the myriad tiny plaits of their black hair, shining, Nubian-wise, with castor oil. Even the stillness had a new air about it; the mute uneasiness of the bazaars had gone; nor was there a trace of the sleepful heaviness of Thebes. This was the silence of the wilder spaces, Bedouin in its pride.
"Fire!" They turned hastily half-way to the native town. Had the whole world blown into flame? The opaque river was a hot goldness, the sky blazed with flame, the land was land no longer, but burnt, visibly. Shrill and husky, Arabic and English voices mixed. Children ran, policemen ran, the crowd ran; and over the Roman ruins, the hotel, a mile away, was cut into towers and pinnacles of an ominous red.
Nancy had never seen a building burn before. Assuan had assembled in the square in front of the hotel. People whispered and rumoured of the accident. The electric light dynamo had blown up. It was a corner building, and as yet the hotel was untouched. Should a puff of wind arise as sunset came--men shrugged their shoulders, spoke of sleeping in boats upon the Nile, of hiring an Arab house. Nancy watched the violent flames leap from the holes where windows had been. There was no beauty in them, only terror. She was not afraid, but they sullied the spirit of the land--an intrusion, undesired, too cruel to own adventure. The natives chattered helplessly; precious water kindled the burning, rather than assuaged it; in a swift silence flickers crept nearer and nearer the roof of the hotel.
"Sand!" A rush of white-robed Arabs to the desert; expectancy. With the first bucketful the red sparks were not so vehement; trembling invalids pressed back to the shelter of their rooms, as the immediate danger passed. An even tramp, and a company of soldiers formed a barrier round the enclosure. "Why," Nancy questioned, "are they stationed here?" "To prevent the Nubians from looting the hotel." By the light of a candle in a bottle, with the challenge of the sentries breaking the air beneath her window, Nancy was put to bed.
They turned away from the Nile, into the Libyan waste, in the cold air of the early morning. Nancy ever felt speech to be an intrusion when she rode. The even motion, the wide spaces, made her desirous of dream. Refusing to remember this was their last day, she galloped on, always a little in front, the blue beads round her donkey's neck glittering with movement. Three hours passed, and four. They had ridden up a valley, dismounted to see some caves, ovals of dark amid the gold, and were come now to the regular track, marked, half-buried with sand, with camels dead on the march, rigid in a sullen exhaustion that had wrestled with death and expired in victory.
Under a high mound of rock and sand they halted to rest the animals. They could ride no farther and return that day. Nancy pleaded to ride just a few feet farther alone, to a clump of camel's food, with rough and tenuous branches. A wild sense of liberty, unfelt before in so intensified a form, filled her heart. Thus had the youth of the world ridden forth. She wished she could gallop away into the waste of gold, away into the strangeness of that mud-built town, a week's journey distant, beyond it till she came at last to an Abyssinian sea. As if in answer to some part of her desire, a dozen Bedouins, tangled black hair streaming to the date-brown fingers pressed firmly on their sword hilts, heavy matchlocks slung upon their camels, moved from without a whirlwind of dust. They surrounded them, yelling in hoarse Arabic; thrusting their hands out for money, the fierceness of the desert in their eyes. A moment or two, and they had turned the corner, bearing their produce up to Assuan, one, lagging a pace behind, matchlock in hand.
Adventure is the poetry of life, the richest treasure of childhood. Stirred with the invincible spirit that made Cortez and made Roger, that sent the low Egyptian boats to dare the voyage to Punt, the spirit that has made the sailor and the artist, Nancy moved regretfully away, filled with dream.
Beyond the low cave on the horizon a jackal waited, immobile, for the sun to set as they returned. Nancy turned her head to watch it, wistfully conscious of a sense of farewell, in a measure right, for only as an unconscious child was peace for her in the East.
In the dust-storm, whirl of flying grit, they turned next day to Cairo, towards home.
TRUANT WITH ADVENTURE
THE brown ears of Nancy's mule twitched in a slow rhythm. She was jolted upwards at an aggravatingly even pace, ahead, as usual, by some hundred yards. Light was regal about the fretted ridges, the luminous air lived; morning, jocund and defiant, leapt on the snowy points of Monte Rosa. The mountains sloped in vivid line against a gentian sky. It was no hour to waste upon a saddle; sun caught her to a hot rebellion: it was a day of movement--wild, imperious.
Zermatt was hidden by the pines. The slowness grew unbearable; the minutes should not waste in unprotesting acquiescence to a dull command "sit still." Not wilfully, but impelled by a touch of immortal madness, desire of liberty too large for childish passion, Nancy slipped from off her mule and raced, unheeding, up the hills.
Pursuit was impossible. It was hard enough to move even slowly over the stones. Only the agility of ten, seeing no danger, careless of the way, clambered in natural recklessness up the short grass slope, vanished beyond a corner, running, scrambling, climbing towards the far horizon. People called her, spoke to her. She was unafraid, but held her way in silence, up and on towards the orient ridge.
A calmer day she would have stayed to pluck the mountain pansies or gather the rich bell gentian, blue as an Arab tile; this hour even the rarer Alpine roses, colour of sunrise breathed on the snows of the Dent Blanche, tempted her in vain. Preedom: she wanted freedom. Alone, truant with adventure she ran on, seeking an immortality for which she would never know a name.
Terror a time might ever come when liberty would cease forbade her to return. Before a savage wildness the mountains had unloosed, unconscious childhood bowed assenting head. Exultant-hearted, a full hour before the rest could come, the Schwartz See with its purple blackness, its daisies and its gentian, spread before her eager feet.
Nancy burst on, past the lake, past the hotel, past the staring people, beyond the mountain pinks, till lion-wise, in crevice of sharp blue and splintered violet, the "Glacier of the Lion" sprang upon her startled sight.
Nancy stopped, ashamed, bewildered, by the inscrutable ice. Two men had climbed it once--climbed it, losing an ice axe on the way. Dazed by the impenetrable pinnacles, dumbly she told herself the story, twice and then again. Courage, of which a child has daily need, is ever the virtue dearest to its heart. Her own impetuous morning became but mockery beside the huge boulders, the smooth ledges; her path to an immortal freedom was barred by the crystal snow.
Never had the edges of the Matterhorn curved so sharply in a noon all blue and gold. The hour of her recapture was at hand. Not yet had come the time when she might put forth strength in conflict with the mountain. Not yet, but it would come. One day should hold adventure captive within her hands.
Worn steel--dull indeed beside the damascened gold and silver mail of the
Spanish kings, but conqueror was written on the blade, and Cortez himself had swung it, the very night, perchance, when, Aztec grappling Spaniard on the dark and turbulent causeway, a trembling civilisation slipped from victory through the endurance of his will. Truly by that sword had Mexico been won.
All the enthusiasm of her eleven years Nancy lavished on the weapon. The treasuries of Spain were as dust beside its glory; old and unread books beside that conquest, perilous, 1mpossible, the seizing of a land, if ever one were seized, by one sword, one brain: the treachery, the sieges, the defiance. Hernando Cortez, "El Conquistador," and the sea breathed through his spirit.
The wildness of his youth answered her impatience of authority. With Agathokles he linked himself in the burning of the ships, with Hannibal in the audacity of his marches, with Roger in his daring. That his expedition meant the ruin of an empire, the destruction of a wealth of learning, was not for a child's vision. For Nancy Cortez spelt Spain; he was another in the long line of leaders who, raising their land to history, were rewarded with dishonour.
Nancy looked round the armoury, perhaps the richest in the world, wishing she could have borne mail. Her ears were alert for the rustle of steel; she longed to feel the weight of a sword, to wield the curious battle-axe hanging so near her head, to fasten a hauberk about her of linked and twisting metal. Spanish sunlight smote the dark aside and flickered, rapier-pointed, the blazoned breast-plates to a golden iridescence. In that one room was shut the Middle Age.
Egypt had served as preparation for the study of the Saracens; it seemed a natural sequence the following winter should be spent in Spain. But Madrid was dark with a repression that was one side of the mediaeval centuries, and cold with biting wind. The insistent note of tragedy in the story of the land even a child found it difficult to escape. Could anything be gloomier than the Escurial, repellent lines set in a savage plain? Interest apart, the day there had been one trenchant dreariness, an explanation of the destruction of wealth and knowledge, the ruin of Mexico, Peru and Granada, by the rigid might of this Iberian power. Toledo, bright as were its streets, held much of the temper of its own weapons, thrust in a sheath and uneasy in captivity. Even the sword of Cortez, as she looked at it, seemed to point away from the North, harsh with gold and sand, to the clearer cities of an Andalusian South.
A single lamp swung windily amid a desolate platform. The train which had left them at Cordoba at half-past four on a December morning, jolted on. Into a blackness broken but by rain, Nancy gazed sleepily through the window of the cab. It seemed hours before they arrived at the hotel.
Their footsteps sounded harshly in the silence, as they followed the one attendant along the stone corridors into a large room, cold and lit by just a charcoal pan, three-legged and mediaeval. Nancy sat in the biggest chair in a state of delightful sleepiness that rejected sleep for dream. They might have been sitting in some old Spanish palace with a slit for window and the steel cap of a man-at-arms glittering in the shadows of the door. The hours were passing when to pretend to be of the bodyguard of Hannibal contented her; she wished she could have followed Cortez but she needed to be herself a leader; she wanted to know and feel the actual deeds. Somehow it seemed impossible that she could ever grow up like the ordinary people she saw in England, afraid of storm, with repressed voices, such restricted lives. No; when she was older, according to her childish phrase, something would happen, something must happen, that would make these present days but a promise of adventure beside its wonder and its wildness.
Names--Toledo, Seville, Cordoba, each a mediaeval parchment--trailed dreams across her mind. In her imagination she donned mail; she could almost feel the weight of her sword; the dead embers in the charcoal pan became a beacon; she was tramping towards it through unexplored regions as she dropped asleep.
A space of elfin arches, leaf-bent, curving flower-wise, or moulded in crescent upon crescent of Arabian richness, pure in colour as the bloom of coral or a drifted shell, the Mosque at Cordoba, born of six centuries of Moorish rule beneath a softer sky, held an indefinite trace of the desert, of the date palms, foreign to Cordoban eyes. Not beggars, but some Arab scribe, royal in vesture of amber or of indigo, should have kept the outer steps. The absent lances, palm leaves in a golden air, of the Saracenic warriors, made poor the stone-paved streets.
The day was history. The fascination of all foreign places, elusive and impalpable, that drove a thousand Spaniards to dare a western sea, was heavy in the orange trees, splintered with crystal rain. The drifting tangerines mocked with a light derision trailing lemons carved of an early moon.
Unwillingly they took the southern train. For all its fretted glory the Alhambra was so desolate, beside Seville, flaming with orange and with scarlet. There was a sensation, almost of terror, of a pitiful appeal in the Court of the Lions, in the thin columns straight as tulip stems, its sculptured fountain, with no peace, only a hard expectancy of tragic event to be, even the gipsies dwelling Neolithic-wise in caves could not eradicate. Algeciras brought a welcome wildness with its herds of palmetto, of narcissus, and the dark cork forests that sloped towards the sea. Unshaken from her Italian allegiance, Nancy left, one January morning, for Algiers.
Water swirled beneath the train, ominous cracks threatened the embankment. On either hand were no longer the desert spaces, but a pressure of floods, here smooth, here twisted to a whirlpool of no definite colour, and crashing like a battle-axe towards the perilous rails. "C'est dangereux, mais c'est dangereux." Up and down the crowded corridor rushed an anxious French attendant. "We're likely to be stranded here all night," a man was heard to mutter, and the two old ladies in the next compartment dropped their knitting and sat rigid with a terror they were half ashamed to show. Every one collected at the windows. Nancy turned with contemptuous voice and excited eyes: "It's the funniest desert I've ever seen; it's flooded."
Algeria had been one long disappointment. Algiers had greeted them with snow. Nancy hated cold. It was appalling in its newness, its air of French formality. Nothing had happened; there had been nothing to see; only the amusement of watching the anchored ships lined along an entirely modern harbour; the glimpse of savage monkeys along a Barbary gorge.
El Kantara had been passed, and in place of Libyan mystery they had steamed into this avalanche of water, exciting, yes, but never the Sahara. From an earthen bank a waterfall beat the window with a shower of crystal spikes.
"We shall be the last lot through for a week," echoed down the corridor. The floods died in a rushing turbulence three feet deep as they jolted into the station.
Biskra looked annoyingly European. Out of the night and raging wind a crowd of negroes burst upon the luggage. The carriages swayed in the uneven mud as they drove to the hotel. "The wall has been blown in; the wall has been blown in," every one was shouting, and residents and newcomers filled the passage and gazed at the heaped debris of what had been a bedroom, the unstable eastern architecture cracked and shattered by the storm.
Biskra was just a parody of Egypt. Nothing could change the palms, but the streets held an air of French intrusion, the East had lost its dignity, camels stepped sullenly and not with a Libyan pride. Nancy was glad when, by way of Constantine and Bone, they came to Orient Tunis.
Slanting trails of rain blurred the windows, but Nancy's eyes, eager for Carthage, would not be reconciled to the limits of the carriage. For three years--a whole age in childhood--she had hungered for sight of the city, she had
sworn allegiance to Hannibal in her thought. Iberian slingers had kept her from her play, Numidian cavalry, rough with gold-dust and a doubled lion-skin, had galloped across her dreams. Period after period from Phoenician settlement to Roman burning passed through her mind, too young to read aught but the strength and splendour of the story. The mercenaries, Hanno the voyager, the last siege, were too epic not to impress their wonder on any childhood happy with knowledge not only of history but of the actual South. She stared out of the window, hopeful that the impossible might happen, that antiquity would return. She wanted the war elephants to sway over the rough stones, to see the spears of heavily armed Gauls, steel leaves erect in a thicket of branches, to watch and watch till the mist broke and out of it moved the dark horses, the purple and the silver of the Carthaginian horse.
The carriage stopped.
They scrambled out, not into a noon of amber warmth with the sea, the Carthaginian sea, a space of hyacinth at the horizon, but into a darkness of mud, a greyishness that held no violet about it, set with a few bleak stones. Nancy looked about her for the city. Not even the name of Hannibal met her eyes.
Rain fell, a quiverful of silver arrows shot by a damp wind. Guides spoke, proffering their services. "Carthage, the ruins of Carthage!" And the sea crashed and the storm with the clanging of heavy bronze.
This was the end of the conquest of the Alps, Trebia, Lake Trasimene. Clay lamps in a cold museum, and the voyage of Hanno forgotten. Coins, fragments of stone, scattered as the mercenaries, and no Hamilcar to rally them. A hunched Tunisian in alien clothing and Punic cruelty, Punic greatness, hidden with earth, colder than the sea.
The wind, insolent conqueror, whirled over desolate Carthage. Remembering the glory of Hannibal, the beauty of the city he spent himself to save, Nancy was caught by a strange desire to cry.
Nancy opened joyously the pages of the Shakespeare she had just been given and wondered where to begin. Troilus and Cressida sounded exciting; Achilles, Ajax, Hector, these were familiar names. But who was Pandarus? and why did Troilus come so eagerly from war? Cressida was a girl, no fighter, and therefore unimportant, but the
strange guise of her favourite Greeks was too hard for infancy, and she missed the swirl and vigour of the Iliad battle-scenes. After a hasty glance she turned to another play. Perhaps because of Egypt, perhaps because of the chance music of a single line, she began the final acts of Antony and Cleopatra.
Here was real fighting. Cleopatra's spirit was worthy of a boy; Antony, who threatened disappointment, died in armour. She read on eagerly; this was an adventure.
Even thus early her ears were alive to the keen beauty of word and thought. The pages seemed to burn with colour before her eyes. Lifted above all that, by her very immaturity she could but crudely understand, she was conscious of an exultation felt but once or twice before only, the knowledge these pages guarded an immortality as strong as the rich antiquity she knew; an explanation of greatness that effaced the desolate memory of the few stones left of the city that had nurtured Hannibal and betrayed him.
Give me my robe, put on my crown! I have
Immortal longings in me: Now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:--
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. --Methinks I hear
Antony call: I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act: I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: Husband, I come;
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.
These thoughts were powerful as a sea-wind; here was the flame, here was the wildness of the desert, keen as ever she had known it on those venturing Egyptian mornings, alive, calling her in words. This was the spirit that had taught Hannibal to conquer; in this spirit he had accepted death. But more than the fierceness of it, it held loveliness.
O eastern star!
All of Egypt, sombre, beautiful Egypt, was in that line. Here was adventure safe from scorn and from desolation.
She need not sorrow for Carthage any more.
A DELICATE foam of almond-blossom shimmered the naked earth, fell lightly on Nancy's hair, was blown, with what wind there was, to make of ruined Naxos a newer city of living petals. A herd of brown and shaggy goats passed under a geranium hedge, a spear's length high. A sea of lazuli beat in from Greece below the arching boughs.
Nancy watched the water, watched the almond trees, wishing she might wait, here in Sicily, for Spring. The influence of the past Italy and Egypt had embedded so deeply in her nature, had grown with these months spent in Palermo, Akragas, Syracuse. Here was antiquity; here was also the Middle Age. It was not only the fantastic carts, gaudy with saint or armoured knight, that held an air about the rude drawing as of a land emerging from the ages of barbarism, nor the peasant, brigand- eyed, his rough sheepskin trousers shaggier than the Sardinian donkey he crouched on; but the whole atmosphere, under the outer skin of railway and tramcar' was vivid with the days of both Dionysius and Roger, the cultivation of olive tree or almond that had proceeded undisturbed amid the clashing of aliens, Greek and Carthaginian, Saracen and Norman, fighting for the dominion of a land yielding alone to the Greek islands in richness or in beauty. The place slept. At Solunto, at Syracuse, antiquity could claim pre-eminence, but at Monreale the spirit of the Middle Age was enshrined in blurred line and magnificence of mosaic. Here, in this land of wild geranium and growth of fennel, of temples fashioned of the spirit that led Agathokles to Carthage, palace of moulded pillar, lazuli and marble, she could swing at will from a confused mediaevalism to the clearer beauty of an earlier but not so primitive age.
Her companion had been Freeman's own abridged version of his larger history, and much of the magical enthusiasm poetry was afterwards to kindle lived for her now in mere words, with association of loveliness or heroic deed, the Carthaginian war, Agathokles and the burning of the ships, the quarries of Syracuse; or the name alone of a place, Concha del Oro, shell of gold, that brought the sea to mingle with almond and with lemon blossom, Palermo or Euryalus, now vivid with anemones.
From earliest remembrance certain phrases, names especially of places or of persons, were never free from an association of colour, fashioned of a tone, written in it; and as she grew, this feeling developed, unconsciously expanding until her whole vocabulary became a palette of colours, luminous gold, a flushed rose, tones neither sapphire nor violet, but the shade of southern water; Ionian-blue she called it, coming later to Greece, and white, with all the delicacy and fragileness of thin foam, or a heavier shimmer merging to the cream bloom of a rose petal. This, to her, was perfectly natural. She marvelled no one ever exclaimed, "I love the gold of magical!" or "What a wonderful white Sicily is!" just as so many murmured "What a magnificent crimson the painter has caught in that fold of drapery!" but with the capacity of a child for silence, spoke of it but once or twice, and the incredulous glances taking it for play, passed unnoticed. She assumed it was common to every one, if she wondered at all that it was never mentioned; supposed it was too ordinary, too usual though to her it was an added interest, an added beauty in her life.
Travelling has much in common with adventure, and all these days of surely an epic childhood seemed immortal to Nancy, even the hours spent moving from place to place. Her imagination, sensitive to all impressions of the 1oveliness and the legends ready to her hand, found time to ponder as the train jerked on, to assimilate what crowded street and ruined building had heaped there in profusion, effacing all that held no importance from her memory, in preparation for the new atmosphere of another city. Besides, in Sicily, as in Spain, trains are not obsessed by any desire of speed, and in the long hours as they passed through brigand-rumoured mountains or above a sea of dark green foliage lit with sun-round oranges or the paler moon-lemons, or as they moved along a coast of waves blue as dark hyacinths, something of the spirit of the land unconsciously became absorbed within her thought.
All this tranquil winter spent so near the olive trees she had turned more and more from tales to accredited history, and her first conscious inspiration had taken shape. With the impetuousness, the ignorance, perhaps, of twelve, accepting no impossibilities, she fashioned, vaguely, it was true, but decisively the vision of an immense history of Sicily, which would become almost the history of the Mediterranean, from the beginnings of Egypt, through Phoenicia, Greece and Carthage, to the end of Saracen and Norman, the gradual dying of the Middle Age. It was not alone to be a history. All the life of the time, the customs, the armour, especially the trade, would be depicted, the tiny details she missed in the longest histories, all that she wanted to know and was told she was "too young to understand." She would labour to make it perfect, to make it beautiful, till it became the very epic of the South, till all could read in one volume the knowledge she was seeking in books, in fragments, in pictures, in stones, in the whole of the land itself. At this time a historian usurped, to her, the place that excavators and Egyptologists formerly had held. It seemed a way to keep, to touch the immortality of a greatness impossible to escape, in the ruins of Akragas or at Naxos, that heap of fallen stones, beautiful yet in its loveliness as the light caught the snows of Etna, burning behind it. In sleep she could have traced the map of Sicily. All imaginary things, memory of the Iliad, even, faded before the audacity of Agathokles, leading his defeated troops across the stretch of water, perilous with storm, up to the very walls of almost victorious Carthage, setting the sand aflame with firing of the ships, missing by how little the conquest of Northern Africa itself.
As for Duke Roger, better than any romance were the fragments she could collect of his story: the castle, perched among the roughness of the hills, the almost careless seizing of an island, where all the Southern nations in turn disputed for mastery. Undisturbed by the complexities of history, her imagination was free to absorb the entire force of the direct narrative, unfettered by moralities, by any weighing of issues. The subtler shades of the hesitation of the Athenians had as yet no meaning for her. With a natural intolerance of indecision Nikias was pitilessly condemned.
Besides this growing consciousness of the power of history, the actual poetry of the island; the tenderness of the colours, so unlike Egypt or the hard glare of light and shadow in Spain, exerted its influence in a way unfelt before. A conscious perception of loveliness possessed her imagination for the first time. Natural surroundings are the greater part of the moulding of childhood, and when the sun is the sun of Naples or Girgenti, when the seas are hot with thought of Greece, with echo of Africa, when instead of bleak wind and barren marsh there is lemon flower and almond-blossom, something of the clamorous richness of the South must pass into one's very being never to be eradicated.
The ruins on the opposite hill, grey and arrogant as rain, held Nancy's eyes. The sky, transparent as an almond petal, flushed with night. Wind stirred; the spirit of antiquity, strong with loveliness, lived, touched her in its breath. The immortality of the land spoke. Naxos was immortal, so were the almond petals, and it was these she wanted, these--Greek Sicily, an old beautiful freedom, not the Sicily of the Normans, not the Middle Age.
The sharp colours softened; she grew afraid for them, angered the wild darkness should rob from her the day. It was unbearable the passion and the triumph of this moment should perish with the sun, dreams might tremble in their transience but not reality, not life. And desperately, as she fought for it, as the hills turned ominous with greyness, remembrance of the book she was to fashion drove fear back. To be wise was to possess Sicily for ever.
Childhood had spoken farewell to the South.
"WHAT is a pterodactyl?" The family sighed. Unexpected questions in an imperious voice were ever an ominous sign. Nancy's habit of reading anything from a time-table to a dictionary was
responsible for a great deal of miscellaneous knowledge, but nobody knew where her interest would lead her next. A visitor, unwitting of the consequences, had left on the table a magazine
containing some account of a recent discovery of prehistoric animals. This Nancy had found and read.A mere explanation that a pterodactyl was a kind of flying reptile belonging to the Jurassic
and Cretaceous periods was insufficient. Nancy wanted to know what it ate, what it looked like, when the Jurassic period was. The article presupposed a certain knowledge, could only be a hint to
her of an unexpected world, made more delightful by its very difficulties, possible of reach but through some volume of research. Admitting no impossibilities, the undaunted enthusiasm of
thirteen spoke firmly: "There must be something written on the subject, and I am going to read it."
A couple of elementary text-books appeared within a few days and were rapidly learnt by heart; the real authorities followed. For almost a year and a half she pored over skeletons, ranging from dinosaur to man, from the gigantic tree ferns to the chipped and polished flints of the Neolithic Age. That the volumes she desired were so expensive it took months of waiting and persistent appeal before they were given her, merely quickened her enthusiasm. Hitherto, the beginnings of history had been dulled by obscurity; Carthage, Phoenicia, had risen from a myth. Palaeontology offered her a firm foundation; it completed history. Besides, were not the stories of many of the discoveries a romance in themselves? She wrote a tale, nine pages long, of a boy of the Palaeolithic period; she copied drawings of mastodon and dinosaur; she wished, secretly, she could have had an iguanodon as a pet.
Interest lost much of its unconsciousness. For the first time it demanded expression; into her rough drawings she poured crudely of the spirit that she felt' Once or twice that mythical time "when I'm big" had seemed a little nearer, or rather another period was in sight when she would start her work, whatever it might be. A palaeontologist, perhaps; and yet, interesting as fossils were, there was something about them, a slight and cramping aridness, as though her imagination was being squeezed into a dark hole, too small for its bursting wings. There was something in her that could not be poured into the minutest tracing of a browsing triceratops. At this psychological moment her father gave her a volume of tales of the great artists, their real lives.
It had never occurred to Nancy that art had an actual existence. She had touched statues, she had seen pictures, she had no idea how they were made; like books, they were fashioned of mystery. She had supposed the artist a child; then, with a single day, a painter. The intervening period of apprenticeship she had ignored. Much more than the actual pictures, the lives of these men appealed to her, how they learnt and fought and conquered. As history had made her in some sort a historian, palaeontology a palaeontologist, so with this book came the thought, "If those men could paint such pictures, why could not you?" Nancy seized a pencil, swift as a tide between a narrow strait the passion seized her; from that hour she splashed everywhere with paint. Pictures flung themselves in headlong riot through her mind; straightway from a few words she could see the little street crowded with water-sellers and their lemons, the painted carts, all the South she knew. There was nothing she saw but she wanted to draw it; nothing she knew but she wished to form it to a painting. It seemed so wonderful that the most irksome detail could be made living, that there was no need to seek adventures; the most trivial incidents of her own ordinary life could be a treasury richer than any guessed at in her dreams. She wished to live in the past no longer. Before a week had gone she decided she would be a great artist. True, there were difficulties. She could not draw a straight line, but in her mind she could see wonderful pictures complete to the tiniest detail. All the artists she read about overcame obstacles, so why could not she? And of each story Nancy felt a picture might be made; she longed to pour her own enthusiasm into line of head or body, to create the world of her dreams. But her faces looked mere lumps of paint, and she could not capture even an illusion of movement in the limbs of animal or warrior. Most of the artists had started by learning to draw. Coming to London that winter, Nancy was granted after much entreaty a course of lessons.
The South of France had spoilt travelling for her, with two winters of Nice and the monotonous dullness of Paris. Paris meant long walks looking at the shops. She hated shops; and Nice, though they moved from snowstorms into sunshine, meant restrictions, no excitement, nothing to do. It was a land of formalities, and rather than face a third winter there Nancy had enjoyed the novelty of staying at home, too absorbed in drawing to miss even Naples or Syracuse. On a March morning, a bundle of paints under her arm, she came for her first lesson.
It was the usual art class; casts hung round the wall, plaster crumbling to the floor in a white dust from some of them, a sick-looking greyhound lay on the platform, and six or seven girls sat talking in front of easels. As the door opened they all bent to their work in seeming enthusiasm, though the one or two farthest away managed to glance up to see the cause of the interruption. Nancy was given a stool and an easel in front of a cast of the head of a bloodhound and told to make a quick drawing of its outline.
As soon as Mr. Baker left the room she started drawing. To her amazement most of the others stopped and began chattering on any subject but art. Nobody took any notice of her, for which she was grateful, and after her first hurried glance round she never raised her head until Mr. Baker came up later. He looked at her drawing, pointed out the worst faults, then tore it in two and told her to start afresh. Nancy was there for six weeks. The smell of the place, the daubs of paint scattered everywhere, the brushes on the floor, the broken bits of charcoal were joys to her, for she felt among them as though she were beginning at last. The other pupils surprised her; except when Mr. Baker was in the room they never worked. Her imagination had pictured them far too intent to utter a sound, except a few words of grateful thanks to their teacher occasionally, or perhaps criticism of each other's work, yet she heard them discuss art but once.
All the time that Nancy sat drawing outlines of a greyhound her head was filled with dreams of the time when she would be a great artist, the time when she would know other artists, have utter freedom and be able to talk about art all day long if she wished. Going home along the grey streets she would smile at the people she passed and think, "You cannot love the sun as much as I do."
Proud as she was of studying at a real Art School, she looked on the other students in a pitying way, firmly convinced painting meant more to her than to any one.
To crown her joy an artist whom her parents knew was asked to tea. Nancy had heard of his pictures, but had hardly dared hope to meet him. To her delight he sat down near her and began talking to the others of the early Italian painters. Nancy listened eagerly; she felt he was wise and very kind. Presently he went upstairs, was taken to the schoolroom, where Nancy had put out her masterpiece, a large canvas of a basset hound, hoping it would attract his attention. Afraid he would not notice, and again afraid he would, Nancy waited by the door. He came in, walked round, and said, "What a nice airy room this is." Her father pointed out the basset hound, saying Nancy had painted it, so he walked round the table. "Yes, you can see it has got a head from here; she has not got a bad sense of colour, but the drawing is all wrong."
Nancy was far too disappointed to say anything, and all the way downstairs he would talk about some book of travel he happened to see in her bookshelf. As soon as he had gone she rushed upstairs to examine her treasure. He might be a great artist, but she was sure he had not bothered to look at it properly just because she was young. There was hidden genius in it. The legs were unsteady but the head was beautiful. Many painters had not encouraged beginners, whose work had later been recognised as great. Nancy felt this must be one of the discouragements to be faced at the start. Perhaps the background was a trifle dark; out came her paints, and she set to work again, more convinced than ever that she had in her the making of a great artist.
Fourteen is old to retain the fancies of childhood, but Nancy had no schoolfellows to laugh them away. Yet a change was stealing over her; she began to know she saw only the outside of things, to weary of it, and wonder what lay beyond. Childhood was ready to slip from her for ever, had she but known it, waiting just a touch to lift its wings. However she loved painting, books, her constant companions, would not be denied. History lessened in interest as desire for expression increased; instead, it was natural to turn to poetry. Sheer enthusiasm for anything rhymed carried her through the Dunciad, though the heroic couplet was but harsh music even to her inexperienced ears. Tennyson she tried and hated, Keats was too weak to satisfy her. Art had lit her imagination but not filled it, she could not mould the fancies that panted to escape. Lonely, not for playfellows, but for some one to share her dreams, a wet April morning sent her to search the library, sent her to a worn book on the middle shelf: The Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, by William Hazlitt. Was it the hint of history which made her take it down, some innate interest in the old cover which made her carry it upstairs? There was a sense of richness in the paper as she turned the leaves, as lines obscure in meaning, strong in music, ebbed into her head. Nancy had come to her own land at last.
She had wanted to find the world. It opened to her in the Illyrian loveliness of the great Elizabethans, teaching her with one hour what life could mean, her own power. Bellario
was not raised so "high in thought" as she, meeting with Orlando Friscobaldo, the Duchess of Malfi, Endimion for the first time. The stories conquered her imagination as their music captured her thought. To read some scenes was to taste immortality; to watch the death of Vittoria Corombona, the meeting of Hippolito with "old, mad Orlando," or to listen to the mockery of Bosola until all pride, all courage broke in the one reply,
"I am Duchess of Malfi still."
Palamon and Arcite made "almost wanton" with their captivity because they were together; Caesar bending towards the body of his enemy to call him "conqueror"; the strong, true phrase of Hazlitt, "It is something worth living for to write or even read such poetry as this is or to know that it has been written, or that there have been subjects on which to write it"; this made adventure, this was life. She was to be loyal to drawing yet a few days longer, but in her mind she knew books were stronger than paint. Into the intimate presence of poetry she passed, mute with delight, offering with her opening youth of the same love Endimion swore to Cynthia, "Whom have I wondered at but thee?"
As she walked down the grey street that evening a professed knight of literature, two passing muttered, "How ugly the roads are." Ugly, could anything be ugly? Nancy wondered. And as if in answer to her challenge the street put forth new beauty, an April sunset fringed the edges of the roofs with gold, transforming them into towers, turrets, and a thousand fanciful shapes; the lamps just lit glimmered like a line of newly blossomed daffodils; the distance was dark with night, an intense blue, full of mysteries. Midway an insolent scarlet pillar-box flung its colour through the blackness, answering Nancy's spirit,--she felt she could dare the world.
As soon as the light was put out and she was alone she travelled each night to a new land. It was more magical than riding with Roger, or sailing with Cortez, because there was mingled with it the slightest touch of reality. She could never be a sailor, she could never be a boy, but she could be an artist, she could be a writer. It was a strange exultant region; she feared if she breathed it might vanish, if she moved she might wake and find it gone, yet every morning she woke to a fresh treasury of knowledge, of things to do and to learn. True, there were inexplicable mysteries, truths that seemed covered with a haze of carnation and faint gold, delicate as a moth's wing when she approached them; but she was content to lie there dreaming, knowing now and then the haze would lift and something more would be added to her knowledge. She was full of an overwhelming gratitude that such a gift was allowed her. All life seemed hers to do what she would with it; obstacles were as nothing if she could express something of what she saw, something of what she felt. The equal of all workers, for had she not begun her work, these few exultant hours were to be a beacon in the bitter days that followed; vision of a loveliness never quite to pass.
People marvelled at her strange silence. "What is the matter with you?" they would ask, smiling. Inarticulate, Nancy desired more and more to be left alone with her dreams. Although in actual knowledge ahead of most girls of her age, possessing at fifteen the intellect of a woman of twenty, her feelings were those of a child of seven, truant with imagination, unmingled with reality.
"We are going back to the country and on Saturday you are going to Downwood School, as a day girl. You shall go and see Miss Sampson to-morrow. She will be very kind
to you, and you are sure to enjoy school very much."
Nancy could not realise at first what the words meant. Something in the tone of the voice made her uneasy. "But I want to go back to the Art School," she faltered.
"Not just for the present, perhaps you can go when you are a bit older."
An ominous fear was stealing over her; still her head, full of plans and hope, could not understand. At last the truth in all its shattering agony burst upon her.
The nightmare of the following days drew to a close. She waited in sickening dread the beginning of the term. She had desired reality--it came, in a numbing, tragic blankness. From the delicate bloom of peach the spirit of childhood flushed to the tenderness of a wild rose, it was ready to be one with dream. Unconsciously she clung to its wings, but the hurricane of life was abroad with desolation, trenchant with destruction that a later June might blossom. April, April, no use to call April; at the first touch of sordidness the spirit of childhood, amorous of dream, passed, in a flight away.