A Fragment of Life – 2c

Darnell stopped suddenly and looked up at his wife. She was watching him with parted lips, with eager, wondering eyes.

‘I hope I’m not tiring you, dear, with all this story about nothing. You have had a worrying day with that stupid girl; hadn’t you better go to bed?’

‘Oh, no, please, Edward. I’m not a bit tired now. I love to hear you talk like that. Please go on.’

‘Well, after I had walked a bit further, that queer sort of feeling seemed to fade away. I said a bit further, and I really thought I had been walking about five minutes, but I had looked at my watch just before I got into that little street, and when I looked at it again it was eleven o’clock. I must have done about eight miles. I could scarcely believe my own eyes, and I thought my watch must have gone mad; but I found out afterwards it was perfectly right. I couldn’t make it out, and I can’t now; I assure you the time passed as if I walked up one side of Edna Road and down the other. But there I was, right in the open country, with a cool wind blowing on me from a wood, and the air full of soft rustling sounds, and notes of birds from the bushes, and the singing noise of a little brook that ran under the road. I was standing on the bridge when I took out my watch and struck a wax light to see the time; and it came upon me suddenly what a strange evening it had been. It was all so different, you see, to what I had been doing all my life, particularly for the year before, and it almost seemed as if I couldn’t be the man who had been going into the City every day in the morning and coming back from it every evening after writing a lot of uninteresting letters. It was like being pitched all of a sudden from one world into another. Well, I found my way back somehow or other, and as I went along I made up my mind how I’d spend my holiday. I said to myself, “I’ll have a walking tour as well as Ferrars, only mine is to be a tour of London and its environs,” and I had got it all settled when I let myself into the house about four o’clock in the morning, and the sun was shining, and the street almost as still as the wood at midnight!’

‘I think that was a capital idea of yours. Did you have your tour? Did you buy a map of London?’

‘I had the tour all right. I didn’t buy a map; that would have spoilt it, somehow; to see everything plotted out, and named, and measured. What I wanted was to feel that I was going where nobody had been before. That’s nonsense, isn’t it? as if there could be any such places in London, or England either, for the matter of that.’

‘I know what you mean; you wanted to feel as if you were going on a sort of voyage of discovery. Isn’t that it?’

‘Exactly, that’s what I was trying to tell you. Besides, I didn’t want to buy a map. I made a map.’

‘How do you mean? Did you make a map out of your head?’

‘I’ll tell you about it afterwards. But do you really want to hear about my grand tour?’

‘Of course I do; it must have been delightful. I call it a most original idea.’

‘Well, I was quite full of it, and what you said just now about a voyage of discovery reminds me of how I felt then. When I was a boy I was awfully fond of reading of great travellers–I suppose all boys are–and of sailors who were driven out of their course and found themselves in latitudes where no ship had ever sailed before, and of people who discovered wonderful cities in strange countries; and all the second day of my holidays I was feeling just as I used to when I read these books. I didn’t get up till pretty late. I was tired to death after all those miles I had walked; but when I had finished my breakfast and filled my pipe, I had a grand time of it. It was such nonsense, you know; as if there could be anything strange or wonderful in London.’

‘Why shouldn’t there be?’

‘Well, I don’t know; but I have thought afterwards what a silly lad I must have been. Anyhow, I had a great day of it, planning what I would do, half making-believe–just like a kid–that I didn’t know where I might find myself, or what might happen to me. And I was enormously pleased to think it was all my secret, that nobody else knew anything about it, and that, whatever I might see, I would keep to myself. I had always felt like that about the books. Of course, I loved reading them, but it seemed to me that, if I had been a discoverer, I would have kept my discoveries a secret. If I had been Columbus, and, if it could possibly have been managed, I would have found America all by myself, and never have said a word about it to anybody. Fancy! how beautiful it would be to be walking about in one’s own town, and talking to people, and all the while to have the thought that one knew of a great world beyond the seas, that nobody else dreamed of. I should have loved that!

‘And that is exactly what I felt about the tour I was going to make. I made up my mind that nobody should know; and so, from that day to this, nobody has heard a word of it.’

‘But you are going to tell me?’

‘You are different. But I don’t think even you will hear everything; not because I won’t, but because I can’t tell many of the things I saw.’

‘Things you saw? Then you really did see wonderful, strange things in London?’

‘Well, I did and I didn’t. Everything, or pretty nearly everything, that I saw is standing still, and hundreds of thousands of people have looked at the same sights–there were many places that the fellows in the office knew quite well, I found out afterwards. And then I read a book called “London and its Surroundings.” But (I don’t know how it is) neither the men at the office nor the writers of the book seem to have seen the things that I did. That’s why I stopped reading the book; it seemed to take the life, the real heart, out of everything, making it as dry and stupid as the stuffed birds in a museum.

‘I thought about what I was going to do all that day, and went to bed early, so as to be fresh. I knew wonderfully little about London, really; though, except for an odd week now and then, I had spent all my life in town. Of course I knew the main streets–the Strand, Regent Street, Oxford Street, and so on–and I knew the way to the school I used to go to when I was a boy, and the way into the City. But I had just kept to a few tracks, as they say the sheep do on the mountains; and that made it all the easier for me to imagine that I was going to discover a new world.’

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