by D. L. Pughe
In Chapter 14 of Howard’s End, the lovely novel by E. M. Forster, the young clerk named Mr. Bast reveals that he has walked all night through forests in a feverish state to comprehend nature, humanity, all of life.
He confesses this to his new acquaintances, the Schlegel sisters, and a rapid literary conversation ensues in which George Meredith’s – The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Robert Louis Stevenson’s – Prince Otto, and Richard Jefferies – The Story of My Heart are among the books mentioned as testaments to nature writing and the meaning of life.
So begins Mr. Bast’s account of his night walking:
“I took the Underground to Wimbledon. As I came out of the office I said to myself, ‘I must have a walk once in a way. If I don’t take this walk now, I shall never take it.’ I had a bit of dinner at Wimbledon, and then–”
“But not good country there, is it?”
“It was gas-lamps for hours. Still, I had all the night, and being out was the great thing. I did get into woods, too, presently.”
“Yes, go on,” said Helen.
“You’ve no idea how difficult uneven ground is when it’s dark.”
“Did you actually go off the roads?”
“Oh yes. I always meant to go off the roads, but the worst of it is that it’s more difficult to find one’s way.
“Mr. Bast, you’re a born adventurer,” laughed Margaret. “No professional athlete would have attempted what you’ve done. It’s a wonder your walk didn’t end in a broken neck. Whatever did your wife say?”
“Professional athletes never move without lanterns and compasses,” said Helen. “Besides, they can’t walk. It tires them. Go on.”
“I felt like R. L. S. You probably remember how in Virginibus.”
“Yes, but the wood. This ‘ere wood. How did you get out of it?”
“I managed one wood, and found a road the other side which went a good bit uphill. I rather fancy it was those North Downs, for the road went off into grass, and I got into another wood. That was awful, with gorse bushes. I did wish I’d never come, but suddenly it got light–just while I seemed going under one tree. Then I found a road down to a station, and took the first train I could back to London.”
“But was the dawn wonderful?” asked Helen.
With unforgettable sincerity he replied, “No.” The word flew again like a pebble from the sling. Down toppled all that had seemed ignoble or literary in his talk, down toppled tiresome R. L. S. and the “love of the earth” and his silk top-hat. In the presence of these women Leonard had arrived, and he spoke with a flow, an exultation, that he had seldom known.
“The dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention.”
“Just a grey evening turned upside down. I know.”
“–and I was too tired to lift up my head to look at it, and so cold too. I’m glad I did it, and yet at the time it bored me more than I can say. And besides–you can believe me or not as you choose–I was very hungry. That dinner at Wimbledon–I meant it to last me all night like other dinners. I never thought that walking would make such a difference. Why, when you’re walking you want, as it were, a breakfast and luncheon and tea during the night as well, and I’d nothing but a packet of Woodbines. Lord, I did feel bad! Looking back, it wasn’t what you may call enjoyment. It was more a case of sticking to it. I did stick. I–I was determined. Oh, hang it all! what’s the good–I mean, the good of living in a room for ever? There one goes on day after day, same old game, same up and down to town, until you forget there is any other game. You ought to see once in a way what’s going on outside, if it’s only nothing particular after all.”
“I should just think you ought,” said Helen, sitting–on the edge of the table.
The sound of a lady’s voice recalled him from sincerity, and he said: “Curious it should all come about from reading something of Richard Jefferies.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Bast, but you’re wrong there. It didn’t. It came from something far greater.”
But she could not stop him. Borrow was imminent after Jefferies– Borrow, Thoreau, and sorrow. R. L. S. brought up the rear, and the outburst ended in a swamp of books. No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs. They mean us to use them for sign-posts we mistake the sign-post for the destination. And Leonard had reached the destination. He had visited the county of Surrey when darkness covered its amenities, and its cosy villas had re-entered ancient night. Every twelve hours this miracle happens, but he had troubled to go and see for himself. Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies’ books–the spirit that led Jefferies to write them; and his dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.
“Then you don’t think I was foolish?” he asked becoming again the naive and sweet-tempered boy for whom Nature intended him.
“Heavens, no!” replied Margaret.
“Heaven help us if we do!” replied Helen.
“I’m very glad you say that. Now, my wife would never understand –not if I explained for days.”
“No, it wasn’t foolish!” cried Helen, her eyes aflame. “You’ve pushed back the boundaries; I think it splendid of you.”
“You’ve not been content to dream as we have–”