When one has seen Spring’s blossom fall in London, and Summer appear and ripen and decay, as it does early in cities, and one is in London still, then, at some moment or another, the country places lift their flowery heads and call to one with an urgent, masterful clearness, upland behind upland in the twilight like to some heavenly choir arising rank on rank to call a drunkard from his gambling-hell. No volume of traffic can drown the sound of it, no lure of London can weaken its appeal. Having heard it one’s fancy is gone, and evermore departed, to some coloured pebble agleam in a rural brook, and all that London can offer is swept from one’s mind like some suddenly smitten metropolitan Goliath.
The call is from afar both in leagues and years, for the hills that call one are the hills that were, and their voices are the voices of long ago, when the elf-kings still had horns.
I see them now, those hills of my infancy (for it is they that call), with their faces upturned to the purple twilight, and the faint diaphanous figures of the fairies peering out from under the bracken to see if evening is come. I do not see upon their regal summits those desirable mansions, and highly desirable residences, which have lately been built for gentlemen who would exchange customers for tenants.
When the hills called I used to go to them by road, riding a bicycle. If you go by train you miss the gradual approach, you do not cast off London like an old forgiven sin, nor pass by little villages on the way that must have some rumour of the hills; nor, wondering if they are still the same, come at last upon the edge of their far-spread robes, and so on to their feet, and see far off their holy, welcoming faces. In the train you see them suddenly round a curve, and there they all are sitting in the sun.
I imagine that as one penetrated out from some enormous forest of the tropics, the wild beasts would become fewer, the gloom would lighten, and the horror of the place would slowly lift. Yet as one emerges nearer to the edge of London, and nearer to the beautiful influence of the hills, the houses become uglier, the streets viler, the gloom deepens, the errors of civilisation stand bare to the scorn of the fields.
Where ugliness reaches the height of its luxuriance, in the dense misery of the place, where one imagines the builder saying, “Here I culminate. Let us give thanks to Satan,” there is a bridge of yellow brick, and through it, as through some gate of filigree silver opening on fairyland, one passes into the country.
To left and right, as far as one can see, stretches that monstrous city; before one are the fields like an old, old song.
There is a field there that is full of king-cups. A stream runs through it, and along the stream is a little wood of osiers. There I used often to rest at the streams edge before my long journey to the hills.
There I used to forget London, street by street. Sometimes I picked a bunch of king-cups to show them to the hills.
I often came there. At first I noticed nothing about the field except its beauty and its peacefulness.
But the second time that I came I thought there was something ominous about the field.
Down there among the king-cups by the little shallow stream I felt that something terrible might happen in just such a place.
I did not stay long there, because I thought that too much time spent in London had brought on these morbid fancies and I went on to the hills as fast as I could.
I stayed for some days in the country air, and when I came back I went to the field again to enjoy that peaceful spot before entering London. But there was still something ominous among the osiers.
A year elapsed before I went there again. I emerged from the shadow of London into the gleaming sun; the bright green grass and the king-cups were flaming in the light, and the little stream was singing a happy song. But the moment I stepped into the field my old uneasiness returned, and worse than before. It was as though the shadow was brooding there of some dreadful future thing and a year had brought it nearer.
I reasoned that the exertion of bicycling might be bad for one, and that the moment one rested this uneasiness might result.
A little later I came back past the field by night, and the song of the stream in the hush attracted me down to it. And there the fancy came to me that it would be a terribly cold place to be in the starlight, if for some reason one was hurt and could not get away.
I knew a man who was minutely acquainted with the past history of that locality, and him I asked if anything historical had ever happened in that field. When he pressed me for my reason in asking him this, I said that the field had seemed to me such a good place to hold a pageant in. But he said that nothing of any interest had ever occurred there, nothing at all.
So it was from the future that the field’s terrible trouble came.
For three years off and on I made visits to the field, and every time more clearly it boded evil things, and my uneasiness grew more acute every time that I was lured to go and rest among the cool green grass under the beautiful osiers. Once to distract my thoughts I tried to gauge how fast the stream was trickling, but I found myself wondering if it flowed faster than blood.
I felt that it would be a terrible place to go mad in, one would hear voices.
At last I went to a poet whom I knew, and woke him from huge dreams, and put before him the whole case of the field. He had not been out of London all that year, and he promised to come with me and look at the field, and tell me what was going to happen there. It was late in July when we went. The pavement, the air, the houses and the dirt had been all baked dry by the summer, the weary traffic dragged on, and on, and on, and Sleep spreading her wings soared up and floated from London and went to walk beautifully in rural places.
When the poet saw the field he was delighted, the flowers were out in masses all along the stream, he went down to the little wood rejoicing. By the side of the stream he stood and seemed very sad. Once or twice he looked up and down it mournfully, then he bent and looked at the king-cups, first one and then another, very closely, and shaking his head.
For a long while he stood in silence, and all my old uneasiness returned, and my bodings for the future.
And then I said, “What manner of field is it?”
And he shook his head sorrowfully.
“It is a battlefield,” he said.