Two more chapters of The Secret Places (Elkin Mathews & Marrot London 1929) - a chronicle of the 'pilgrimages' of the author, Reginald Francis Foster (1896-1975), and his friend 'Longshanks' idly rambling in Sussex, Kent and Surrey. See our posting of the first chapters for more on Foster and this book, including a contemporary review in The Tablet.
MY LADY OF THE MIST
To tell of the incidents of every day of our wanderings would be monotonous and wearisome, and so I make no effort to do so. Moreover, what is of interest, or gives happiness, to Longshanks and myself is not necessarily entertaining to anyone else. And because we had no aim but aimlessness–which is good for men sometimes–we wandered from county to county as the spirit moved us, having no regard for even a daily itinerary or for a settled account when our adventures should be written down.
It was at Small Dole–which is in Sussex–that we discussed, the relative merits of hot and cold shoeing with the big blacksmith, and when we had worked him to a passion of rage at our obstinacy, so that he stuck out his big fan of a beard at us and cursed us with a strange oath, we were minded to continue our journey to the Downs. It was not long after dawn, and October rime still lay where the sun had not yet thawed it.
We went strongly for three miles, Longshanks singing a lusty song which he had made in an inn at Poynings overnight, and having crossed the gap in the hills that admits sluggish Adur to the sea, we began to climb a long spur which took us high above the weald into a wonder country. In No Man's Land Longshanks began to complain of hungers and so I took him northward to the inn at Washington (which some say does not exist), where we ate dumpy bread and strong cheese and drank of a famous brew. And when we went out from that place our adventure began, for wisps of mist were stealing over the Downs, and by the feel of the air they were but the groping fingers of a giant hand that would presently envelop everything.
We had thought to climb to near the Ring at Chanctonbury and work thence along a contour through Sullington, Kithurst, and Rackham to Amberley, and braving the coming fog we went up into the hills by the steepest way, since we wanted to gain an extreme height. I do not know how near to Chanctonbury we went, for the mist soon blotted everything out, but because we were drunken of the strong sea air we went blindly on, always striving for the highest land. Perhaps our weariness made gentle slopes seem steep; moreover we were bothered by the danger of that mists for aU that we told each other that we were going rightly; but we seemed never to reach a point beyond which there was no further rise, and in three hours we confessed privately (telling each other of it later) that we were lost.
I had stumbled into a rabbit-hole and was rubbing a painful snide when Longshanks suddenly grasped my arm and hissed. I straightened myself and listened. A melancholy siren wailed out at sea, and I thought I caught the mutter of a distant train. And then I heard a voice–a girl's voice singing.
At that moment the mist eddied. I saw a sudden fold in the hill: on the further side sat the singer on a hummock. Then the mist swallowed her up again.
Longshanks shouted. The singing stopped. Not sure whether he had seen her, I seized his arm and guided him across the hollow. The girl met us half-way, a wraith in the heavy whiteness. I thought that I was dreaming, for she was so unreal with her hair floating about her and the kirtle she wore. And her legs and feet were bare. We could only gape.
"Are you lost?" she asked.
I think that it was Longshanks who answered her. The girl laughed and clapped her hands. Assuredly she was not human. She said that She would guide us; but first we must come to the cave. And to a cave in a chalk-face she took us, and there by a spluttering fire at its mouth sat an old man who was dressed quaintly and whose white beard, I swear, reached his middle.
"This is father," she told us simply; and to him: "Peter, they are lost."
He greeted us in an old-fashioned way and gave us a smile whose like for sweetness I have not known. We could only mumble in reply.
"You shall eat with us, and then Iseult shall put you on your path," he said.
I have little memory of the hour we spent with the old man and his daughter, but I know that the cave was their home and that they spoke as cultured people do, yet simply, and in tones that suggested that they had little use for the crude noise of words. It seemed indelicate to question them; almost it was a fearful thing to do so. And even more so was it when the girl, after we had eaten with them food whereof I can remember nothing, led us out from that place across the hollow and so down the hill till we came to a clear path, where with a laugh and wave of her hand she left us suddenly and disappeared in the mist.
Longshanks and I stumbled on in silence. In half an hour we came to a road, and a few minutes later a lurching motor-bus picked us up and bore us to Storrington, where we found harbourage.
Three times since then have we searched those Downs between Washington and Sullington, which is the place where we must have found the 'bus, but we have never discovered that cave, though the path where Iseult left us is there for anyone to see. And when one night we put questions to two old men at Washington Inn they frowned and bit hard on their pipes and would answer us nothing at all.
In St. Luke’s little summer Longshanks left me for a space that he might be present at his brother's marriage. And being weary because of our long travels, I lay contentedly one night on one of the lonelier deans near Brighton and gazed at a solitary ship far out at sea; white sails that hung idly, and a vague distance beyond that was not so much mist as the coming of night upon the rim of the world. As I dreamed there, someone came upon me out of the tangible world behind so that I turned, suddenly awakened, and saw a drifting mist of cigar smoke and beyond that the vision of a rich man. For that he was rich one could have no doubt, and though he was stout and his expensive clothes toned with the nature colours, he was out of harmony with the fat curves of the hill. There was no likelihood of my welcoming his coming upon my solitude.
"Good evening," he said, mouthing blue smoke and taking his cigar with his fingers.
I grunted something while he sat down, lowering a great bulk solemnly. Sighing, I looked out again to sea. The solitary ship was merging into the unreality that had been beyond. A light flickered to the eastward and was gone. A little wind drifted off the water.
My companion did not speak. When I glanced at him covertly he was watching the fading sail of my boat. The smoke of him mingled with the scent of wild thyme that he had crushed: it was a pleasant smell. But I hated him.
Then he spoke. "The ship is gone," he said.
"Yes," I agreed, still watching him. He fanned away a gnat lazily. Across the valley behind us a plover shrilled. There were more stars now.
I had to speak. It was essential that I said something.
"You live in Brighton?" I asked. With the question my world faded.
"By God, no!"
His vehemence startled me. Remember, he was a rich man. His fat and his clothes, his cigar and the way he had addressed me proved it. Only the rich and vagabonds talk to a man who lies on a hill-top and watches a ship taken into the farther distance.
I could not speak, and for a long while he was content to be silent. The glowing tip of his cigar was a point in the darkness: sometimes it lit his face; at others it showed green grass against the grey when he leant upon the hand that held it.
Then: "You know, I've seen you before," he declared. And abruptly, "What's your name? Mine's Bott–George Bott."
I know nothing of names really, but "Bott" made me sneer.
"My name? Engadine," I lied bravely. "Tristram Engadine."
It was a good name, I felt–perhaps too good. I saw him waggle his head.
"There's a lot in a name," he observed, sententiously. "Mine's common. It can't be helped, of course, but it's common. My wife wants me to change it by deed poll, but I won't. It was my father's and his father's, and likely it was ours a long way back. No; I won't change it."
I wished I had not lied. This man was rich, but . . .
He flicked the butt of his cigar over the cliff so that it somersaulted out of sight.
"My wife's maiden name was Smith, and she’s christened our boy ‘Terence Smith,’ “ he went on, his face now a faint smudge in the darkness. “Says it’ll become ‘Smith-Bott’ when he grows up. What d’you think of it?” he asked doubtfully.
“I don’t know. I’m no judge of names,” I evaded him.
“Queer what a difference a double name makes to some people,” he observed after a silence.
He was becoming different. Was his simplicity a pose? Because of my silly lie I was uncomfortable. Why had I told it? Even though he was rich I had other things to compensate me said the Pharisee in me.
“There’s not much in a name,” I ventured, after a long pause.
“There is,” he declared. “Look at Dickens’s characters.”
“We remember them by their names, and afterwards we associate them with––“
“That’s not true,” he asserted violently. “Look at Wells’s characters. He’s not dead yet–worse luck!–and so we’ve not had time to get used––“
“Why ‘worse luck’?” I asked. “D’you know him?”
“By the grace of God, no!”
By the grace of God! And he was a fat man who dressed expensively . . . prosperous . . . a stockbroker most likely!
“You don’t like his work?” I ventured.
“He’s muddled, sir. He just blathers on incoherently. He hasn’t got a straight idea . . . . I wish things wouldn’t happen; then he wouldn’t write about ‘em. Damn it! Anybody’d think he’d qualified as a soldier, politician theologian, scientist–everything. Know-all! A muddled brain behind the gift of the gab!”
I sat up. Mr. Bott used homely phrases, but he had ideas, evidently.
“You think it’s just muddle?” I prompted him.
“Sure of it. He’s honest enough. Believes in what he says, just as much as a ploughman talking politics in a pub does. Different from Belloc.”
“Belloc? You don’t mean that he ––“
“Belloc writes with his tongue in his cheek. Belloc versus Wells is make-believe versus muddled honesty. But Belloc's clever, I grant you. Dickens is great because he could write sympathetically of food and beer and punch; and Belloc could make a Catholic of any man because he makes him smell wine.
"Oh, come !" I exclaimed. "Belloc isn't like that. He’s––“
"Ever read The Path to Rome?"
“Certainly. A great book.”
“Wonderful book,” agreed Mr. Bott. “Wonderful book. Make a Roman of any Nonconformist who’s got humanity in his blood. Food and wine and pilgrimage, songs and vagabondage––“
Was this Mr. Bott, the fat man with the cigar and the expensive clothes!
“––those things make more appeal than apologias and the Catholic Truth Society.”
“You’re a Catholic, sir?”
“No,” fiercely. “I’m just a plain man. But I admire Belloc. He’s so damned artful. More French than English, too, I’ll bet. Yet he talks of Sussex as though it were holy ground– it is, but not his. I’m a Sussex man, sir.”
He was vehement now.
“What does Belloc know of Sussex except its names? I’ll bet he’s never tramped ten miles of it. Then there’s Kipling and–and all the rest of ‘em. Interlopers! That’s what they are.”
“You’re unreasonable,” I said. “After all, a man needn’t be born––“
Mr. Bott snorted. “Dunno why they all adopt Sussex,” he ignored my challenge. “Real Sussex people’ll be crowded out before they’ve finished.”
His voice trailed off. I saw that he was staring past me; as I turned my head I saw part of a yellow moon lift above the blackness. Silence then while we watched: the little wind had died, and the only sound came from the water down below. The short grass was damp under my hands.
The great stars paled over Kent as the moon lifted; then a beetle thudded against my head. Down in the valley a dog howled against the growing light: I heard the distant rumble of a train.
A movement beside me, and Mr. Bott was on his feet.
"Good night, Mr. . . . Engadine," he said.
He was gone before I could answer. His great bulk was silhouetted against the light. His feet found a path and crunched on the chalk.
"Good night," I called softly, and raised myself.
Reminiscently I looked out to sea, where the ship had lain with an idle sail. The light hdd my gaze awhile: I was conscious of chill.
The moon was smaller, whiter, and whisper of the water was harsh. There was more of the small of the sea in the air than of the crushed thyme and the land.