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THE STORY OF THIS BOOK
In my rovings ard ramblings as a boy I had often skirted the old stone house in the hollow. But my first clear remembrance of it is of a hot summer's day. I had climbed to the crest of a hill till then unknown to me, and stood there, hot and breathless in the bright slippery grass, looking down on its grey walls and chimneys as if out of a dream. And as if out of a dream already familiar to me.
My real intention in setting out from home that morning had been to get to a place called East Dene. My mother had often spoken to me of East Dene—of its trees and waters and green pastures, and the rare birds and flowers to be found there. Ages ago, she had told me, an ancestor of our family had dwelt in this place. But she smiled a little strangely when I asked her to take me there. “All in good time, my dear," she whispered into my ear, "all in very good time! Just follow your small nose." What kind of time, I wondered, was very good time. And follow my nose—how far? Such reflections indeed only made me the more anxious to be gone.
Early that morning, then, I had started out when the dew was still sparkling, and the night mists had but just lifted. But my young legs soon tired of the steep, boulder-strown hills, the chalky ravines, and burning sun, and having, as I say, come into view of the house in the valley, I went no further. Instead, I sat down on the hot turf—the sweet smell of thyme in the air, a few harebells nodding around me—and stared, down and down.
After that first visit, scarcely a week passed but that I found myself on this hill again. The remembrance of the house stayed in my mind; would keep returning to me, like a bird to its nest. Sometimes even in the middle of the night I would wake up and lie unable to sleep again for thinking of it-seeing it in my head; solemn, secret, strange.
There is a little flickering lizard called the Chameleon which, they say, changes its colour according to the place where it happens to be. So with this house. It was never the same for two hours together. I have seen it gathered close up in its hollow in the livid and coppery gloom of storm; crouched like a hare in winter under a mask of snow; dark and silent beneath the changing sparkle of the stars; and like a palace out of an Arabian tale in the milky radiance of the moon. Thrae was the name inscribed on its gateway, but in letters so faint and faded as to be almost illegible.
In a sense I was, I suppose, a trespasser in this Thrae; until at least I became acquainted with Miss Taroone, the lady who lived in it. For I made pretty free with her valley, paddled and fished in its stream, and now and then helped myself to a windfall in her green bird-haunted orchards, where grew a particularly sharp and bright-rinded apple of which I have never heard the name. As custom gave me confidence, I ventured nearer and nearer to the house and would sometimes take a rest squatting on a manger in the big empty barn, looking out into the sunshine. The wings of the flies shone like glass in its shafts of light, and the robins whistled under its timber roof so shrill as almost to deafen one's ears.
Few strangers passed that way. Now and then I saw in the distance what might have been a beggar. To judge from his bundle he must have done pretty well at the house. Once, as I turned out of a little wood of birches, I met a dreadful-faced man in the lane who lifted up his hand at sight of me, and with white glaring eyes, uttered a horrible imprecation. He was chewing some fruit stolen out of the orchard, and at the very sight of him I ran like Wat himself.
Once, too, as my head looked over the hill-crest, there stood an old carriage and a drowsy horse drawn up beside the porch—with its slender wooden pillars and a kind of tray above, on which rambled winter jasmine, tufts of self-sown weeds and Traveller's Joy. I edged near enough to see there was a crown emblazoned on the panel of the carriage door. Nobody sat inside, and the coachman asleep on the box made me feel more solitary and inquisitive than ever.
Yet in its time the old house must have seen plenty of company. Friends of later years have spoken to me of it. Indeed, not far distant from Thrae as the crow flies, there was a crossing of high roads, so that any traveller from elsewhere not in haste could turn aside iind examine the place if he cared for its looks and was in need of a night's lodging. Yet I do not think many such travellers—if they were men merely of the Towncan have chosen to lift that knocker or to set ringing that bell. To any one already lost and benighted its looks must have been forbidding.
Well, as I say, again and again, my lessons done, morning or evening would find me either on the grass slopes above Thrae, or actually in its valley. If I was tired, I would watch from a good distance off its small dark windows in their stone embrasures, and up above them the round greenish tower or turret over which a winged weather-vane twirled with the wind. I might watch: but the only person that I ever actually observed at the windows was an old maid with flaps to her cap, who would sometimes shake a duster out into the air as if for a signal to someone up in the hills.