It was at Lille that—–But the train is slowing down. There is the slope of the hillside, black against the night sky, and among the trees I see the glimmer of a light beckoning me as the lonely lamp in Greenhead Ghyll used to beckon Wordsworth’s Michael. The night is full of stars, the landscape glistens with a late frost: it will be a jolly two miles’ tramp to that beacon on the hill.
I sometimes think that growing old must be like the end of a tiring day. You have worked hard, or played hard, toiled over the mountain under the burning sun, and now the evening has come and you sit at ease at the inn and ask for nothing but a pipe, a quiet talk, and so to bed. “And the morrow’s uprising to deeds shall be sweet.” You have had your fill of adventure for the day. The morning’s passion for experience and possession is satisfied, and your ambitions have shrunk to the dimensions of an easy chair.
And so I think it is with that other evening when the late blackbird is fluting its last vesper song and the toys of the long day are put aside, and the plans of new conquests are waste-paper. I remember hearing Sir Edward Grey saying once how he looked forward to the time when he would burn all his Blue-books and mulch his rose-trees with the ashes. And Mr. Belloc has given us a very jolly picture of the way in which he is going to spend his evening:
If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.
I will hold my house in the high woods
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.
There is Mr. Birrell, too, who, as I have remarked elsewhere, once said that when he retired he would take his modest savings into the country “and really read Boswell.”
These are typical, I suppose, of the dreams that most of us cultivate about old age. I, too, look forward to a cottage under the high beech woods, to a well-thumbed Boswell, and to a garden where I shall mulch my rose-trees and watch the buds coming with as rich a satisfaction as any that the hot battle of the day has given me. But there is another thing I shall ask for. On the lower shelf of the bookcase, close to the Boswell, there will have to be a box of chessmen and a chessboard, and the men who were boys when I was a boy, and who come and sit with me, will be expected after supper to set out the chessmen as instinctively as they fill their pipes. And then for an hour, or it may be two, we shall enter into that rapturous realm where the knight prances and the bishop lurks with his shining sword and the rooks come crashing through in double file. The fire will sink and we shall not stir it, the clock will strike and we shall not hear it, the pipe will grow cold and we shall forget to relight it.