Page 32 of 114
The lake and the frontier villages, a white puff of steam on the distant railway to Luino, the busy boats and steamers trailing triangular wakes of foam, the long vista eastward towards battlemented Bellinzona, the vast mountain distances, now tinged with sunset light, behind this nearer landscape, and the southward waters with remote coast towns shining dimly, waters that merged at last in a luminous golden haze, made a broad panoramic spectacle. It was as if one surveyed the world,—and it was like the games I used to set out upon my nursery floor. I was exalted by it; I felt larger than men. So kings should feel.
That sense of largeness came to me then, and it has come to me since, again and again, a splendid intimation or a splendid vanity. Once, I remember, when I looked at Genoa from the mountain crest behind the town and saw that multitudinous place in all its beauty of width and abundance and clustering human effort, and once as I was steaming past the brown low hills of Staten Island towards the towering vigour and clamorous vitality of New York City, that mood rose to its quintessence. And once it came to me, as I shall tell, on Dover cliffs. And a hundred times when I have thought of England as our country might be, with no wretched poor, no wretched rich, a nation armed and ordered, trained and purposeful amidst its vales and rivers, that emotion of collective ends and collective purposes has returned to me. I felt as great as humanity. For a brief moment I was humanity, looking at the world I had made and had still to make....
And mingled with these dreams of power and patriotic service there was another series of a different quality and a different colour, like the antagonistic colour of a shot silk. The white life and the red life, contrasted and interchanged, passing swiftly at a turn from one to another, and refusing ever to mingle peacefully one with the other. I was asking myself openly and distinctly: what are you going to do for the world? What are you going to do with yourself? and with an increasing strength and persistence Nature in spite of my averted attention was asking me in penetrating undertones: what are you going to do about this other fundamental matter, the beauty of girls and women and your desire for them?
I have told of my sisterless youth and the narrow circumstances of my upbringing. It made all women-kind mysterious to me. If it had not been for my Staffordshire cousins I do not think I should have known any girls at all until I was twenty. Of Staffordshire I will tell a little later. But I can remember still how through all those ripening years, the thought of women's beauty, their magic presence in the world beside me and the unknown, untried reactions of their intercourse, grew upon me and grew, as a strange presence grows in a room when one is occupied by other things. I busied myself and pretended to be wholly occupied, and there the woman stood, full half of life neglected, and it seemed to my averted mind sometimes that she was there clad and dignified and divine, and sometimes Aphrodite shining and commanding, and sometimes that Venus who stoops and allures.
This travel abroad seemed to have released a multitude of things in my mind; the clear air, the beauty of the sunshine, the very blue of the glaciers made me feel my body and quickened all those disregarded dreams. I saw the sheathed beauty of women's forms all about me, in the cheerful waitresses at the inns, in the pedestrians one encountered in the tracks, in the chance fellow travellers at the hotel tables. “Confound it!” said I, and talked all the more zealously of that greater England that was calling us.
I remember that we passed two Germans, an old man and a tall fair girl, father and daughter, who were walking down from Saas. She came swinging and shining towards us, easy and strong. I worshipped her as she approached.
“Gut Tag!” said Willersley, removing his hat.
“Morgen!” said the old man, saluting.
I stared stockishly at the girl, who passed with an indifferent face.
That sticks in my mind as a picture remains in a room, it has kept there bright and fresh as a thing seen yesterday, for twenty years....
I flirted hesitatingly once or twice with comely serving girls, and was a little ashamed lest Willersley should detect the keen interest I took in them, and then as we came over the pass from Santa Maria Maggiore to Cannobio, my secret preoccupation took me by surprise and flooded me and broke down my pretences.
The women in that valley are very beautiful—women vary from valley to valley in the Alps and are plain and squat here and divinities five miles away—and as we came down we passed a group of five or six of them resting by the wayside. Their burthens were beside them, and one like Ceres held a reaping hook in her brown hand. She watched us approaching and smiled faintly, her eyes at mine.
There was some greeting, and two of them laughed together.
“Glorious girls they were,” said Willersley, and suddenly an immense sense of boredom enveloped me. I saw myself striding on down that winding road, talking of politics and parties and bills of parliament and all sorts of dessicated things. That road seemed to me to wind on for ever down to dust and infinite dreariness. I knew it for a way of death. Reality was behind us.
Willersley set himself to draw a sociological moral. “I'm not so sure,” he said in a voice of intense discriminations, “after all, that agricultural work isn't good for women.”
“Damn agricultural work!” I said, and broke out into a vigorous cursing of all I held dear. “Fettered things we are!” I cried. “I wonder why I stand it!”
“Why don't I go back and make love to those girls and let the world and you and everything go hang? Deep breasts and rounded limbs—and we poor emasculated devils go tramping by with the blood of youth in us!...”
“I'm not quite sure, Remington,” said Willersley, looking at me with a deliberately quaint expression over his glasses, “that picturesque scenery is altogether good for your morals.”
That fever was still in my blood when we came to Locarno.
Along the hot and dusty lower road between the Orrido of Traffiume and Cannobio Willersley had developed his first blister. And partly because of that and partly because there was a bag at the station that gave us the refreshment of clean linen and partly because of the lazy lower air into which we had come, we decided upon three or four days' sojourn in the Empress Hotel.
We dined that night at a table-d'hote, and I found myself next to an Englishwoman who began a conversation that was resumed presently in the hotel lounge. She was a woman of perhaps thirty-three or thirty-four, slenderly built, with a warm reddish skin and very abundant fair golden hair, the wife of a petulant-looking heavy-faced man of perhaps fifty-three, who smoked a cigar and dozed over his coffee and presently went to bed. “He always goes to bed like that,” she confided startlingly. “He sleeps after all his meals. I never knew such a man to sleep.”