Here to return to
MOUNTAIN–TOP AND VALLEY
NOTHING heightens appreciation like a contrast. After a week at the summit of Mount Washington, where we lived in the clouds and above them, in a world above the world, we returned to the lowlands. The afternoon was sultry, and before the descent was half accomplished — by the train — we wished ourselves back again on the heights. How can men live in such an atmosphere, we asked each other; so stifling, so depressing, so wanting in all the elements of vitality. Our condition seemed like that of fishes out of water, and we began to think of angling as a cruel sport. It grieved us to see the trees growing taller. Even the laughing young Ammonoosuc was looked upon with indifference. “I wish I were back,” said one; and the other responded, “So do I.”
At Fabyan’s the crowd surged about us like a sea. Baggage must be found and checked, our train was waiting, and the baggage-master, true railway “official “that he was, was not to be hastened. His steps were all taken by rule, and every movement of his hands was set to slow music. When he spoke, which was seldom, it was in a muffled voice and with funereal moderation. In the midst of all that bustle he was calm —
“Calm as to suit a calmer grief.”
You might say what you pleased to him, be urgently argumentative, or plaintive even to wheedling, it was all one. Your eloquence was wasted. It was like nudging a graven image, or crying haste in the ear of Death. Not a feature of his countenance altered, not a muscle quickened. Who ever knew the hands of a clock to accelerate their pace in response to human impatience? Time and tide — and a baggage-master — hurry for no man.
“Two trunks for Bethlehem,” you say. No answer. By and by, meekly insistent, and thinking that by this time your turn must surely have come, you repeat the words. No answer. But the man is taking down checks from their peg, and in due time, stepping as to the measure of a dirge, he marches with them down the platform. “These are mine,” you say, keeping an uneasy pace or two in advance and pointing to the trunks on the truck. No answer — not so much as a look. Nor is there need of any. You are silenced. That implacable manner carries all before it. You could not speak again, even to claim your soul. But finally the man himself speaks. You are relieved to know he can, He is addressing you. The minute hand is at twelve and the clock strikes. “These are yours?” he asks. You reply in the affirmative, as best you are able. “For Bethlehem?” he asks, and you answer “Yes.” And then, after one more set of machine-like motions, the mighty work is accomplished. The checks are yours. Fortunately, the train has not yet pulled away, though it is past the time, and at the last moment you see the trunks on board.
Trifles like these would have been as nothing, of course, to ordinary travelers; but to us, innocent Carthusians, fresh from the unearthly quiet of a mountain-top, they were little short of tragical. And how intolerably hot and close the car was! Things were growing worse and worse with us. Should we live to reach Bethlehem, with nothing but this blast out of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace in our nostrils? Why had we not remained where existence was not a struggle, but a dream of pleasure; where the air had not to be gasped for, but came of itself to be sweetly inhaled? Nevertheless, we survived the passage, — the conductor helping to pass the time by stopping in the aisle to make inquiries touching a little flock of puzzling birds, crossbills, perhaps, lately seen in his apple orchard, — and at Bethlehem the carriage awaited us. This was a welcome change, but even so we still found it difficult to draw breath; and when the horses started, what a dust they set flying! Truly, between the heat and the drought, this lower world was in an evil case. It was a road of sighs all the six miles to Franconia.
Once there, however, and supper eaten, I stepped out upon the piazza and looked westward. Venus was bright just above the near horizon (the near horizon!), and against the sunset sky stood a line of low woods, with detached pine trees towering over the rest. And in that sight I discovered anew, all in a moment, the charm of this valley world. I had seen nothing like this from the mountain-top. Yes, good as the summit prospect was, this was in some respects better. If that was more magnificent, more soul-expanding, this was more home-felt and beautiful. And as I looked and looked, while the light faded out of the sky, I was conscious of a new contentment. Mountain-tops for visits, I said, and may I enjoy them often; but the valley to live in.
The next morning I was no sooner abroad than this happy impression was renewed and deepened. It was a comfort to the feet to be going neither uphill nor downhill, and it rested the eyes to be looking not at remote peaks and dimly discovered sheets of water, but into green branches so near that the leaves could be seen, and the blue sky through them. How sweetly the ripple of the brook came to my ears as it ran over its stony bed just beyond the velvety, smooth meadow! And the cawing of a dozen or two of crows, who were talking politics among the pines on the hillside, affected me most agreeably. There was something of real neighborliness about it. I would gladly have taken a hand in the discussion, if they would have let me. When a song sparrow started out of the hedge at my elbow it gave me a start of surprise. I had become so unused to such movements! A robin’s sudden cackle I thought almost the sweetest of music; the careless warble of a bluebird was nothing less than a voice from heaven; and a squirrel sputtering defiance from the stone wall set me laughing with pleasure. None of these sounds, nor anything akin to them, was to be heard on the desolate, boulder-covered top of Mount Washington.
Now the trees interlaced their branches over my head. Nothing could be prettier; and the effect was so novel! I stopped short to admire it. And anon, as the road made a little ascent, scarcely noticeable to one fresh from the steepness of a mountain cone, I found myself gazing down upon one of the most engaging scenes in the world; a sequestered valley farm, thrifty-looking, snugly kept, nestled among low hills, with a mountain river winding along the farther side of it, between the meadow and the woodland, now lost to sight, now shining in the sun. I had known the place for years, as I had known the worthy man who owns it; and I had looked at it many times from this very point; but I had never seen it till this morning. A pleasant thing it is when an old picture or an old poem, or both in one, is thus made new. If our eyes could but oftener be anointed!
The softness of the meadow, freshly sprung after the summer mowing, the glistening of the corn leaves, the narrow road, — a brown ribbon laid upon the green carpet, — that runs to the door and stops (for nothing goes by — nothing but the river, the clouds, and the birds), the shade trees clustered lovingly about the house, the whole pastoral scene, I saw it all with the vision of one who had been looking at a vaguely defined, faraway world, over which the eye wandered as the dove wandered over the face of the waters, and now had come suddenly in sight of home.
Yes, distance is a good painter, but nearness is a better one. So I felt for the time being, at all events, falling in with the mood of the hour; for it is well that moods alter, as it is well that the earth goes round the sun and season gives place to season. Man was not made to see one kind of beauty, or to believe in one kind of goodness. The whole world is hid in his heart. All things are his. The small and the great, the near and the far, light and darkness, good and evil, the intimacies of home and the isolations of infinite space, all are parts of the Creator’s work, and equally parts of the creature’s inheritance.
For to-day, then, I praise the valley. I am for having the hills close about me, rather than afar off and far below. I like to see the trees, and the leaves on them, rather than leagues on leagues of barely discernible forest; and a lonely pool of still water at my feet, with alders reflected in it, is more in my eyes than Lake Umbagog itself, hardly better than a blur upon the landscape, fifty miles away. To-morrow I may feel differently, but for to-day let me listen to the breeze in the pine branches and the brook pattering over stones, rather than to the eternal silences of the bare mountain-top and the brooding sky.