"At the Sign of the Lion" by Hilaire Belloc

January 3, 2020
11 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from At the Sign of the Lion and Other Essays, by Hilaire Belloc (published 1916).

It was late, and the day was already falling when I came, sitting my horse Monster, to a rise of land. We were at a walk, for we had gone very far since early morning, and were now off the turf upon the hard road; moreover, the hill, though gentle, had been prolonged. From its summit I saw before me, as I had seen it a hundred times, the whole of the weald.

But now that landscape was transfigured, because many influences had met to make it, for the moment, an enchanted land. The autumn, coming late, had crowded it with colours; a slight mist drew out the distances, and along the horizon stood out, quite even and grey like mountains, the solemn presence of the Downs. Over all this the sky was full of storm.

In some manner which language cannot express, and hardly music, the vision was unearthly. All the lesser heights of the plain ministered to one effect, a picture which was to other pictures what the marvellous is to the experience of common things. The distant mills, the edges of heath and the pine trees, were as though they had not before been caught by the eyes of travellers, and would not, after the brief space of their apparition, be seen again. Here was a countryside whose every outline was familiar; and yet it was pervaded by a general quality of the uplifted and the strange. And for that one hour under the sunset the county did not seem to me a thing well known, but rather adored.

The glow of evening, which had seemed to put this horizon into another place and time than ours, warned me of darkness; and I made off the road to the right for an inn I knew of, that stands close to the upper Arun and is very good. Here an old man and his wife live easily, and have so lived for at least thirty years, proving how accessible is content. Their children are in service beyond the boundaries of the county, and are thus provided with sufficiency; and they themselves, the old people, enjoy a small possession which at least does not diminish, for, thank God, their land is free. It is a square of pasture bordered by great elms upon three sides of it, but on the fourth, towards the water, a line of pollard willows; and off a little way before the house runs Arun, sliding as smooth as Mincius, and still so young that he can remember the lake in the forest where he rose.

On such ancestral land these two people await without anxiety what they believe will be a kindly death. Nor is their piety of that violent and tortured kind which is associated with fear and with distress of earlier life; but they remain peasants, drawing from the earth they have always known as much sustenance for the soul as even their religion can afford them, and mixing that religion so intimately with their experience of the soil that, were they not isolated in an evil time, they would have set up some shrine about the place to sanctify it.

The passion and the strain which must accompany (even in the happiest and most secluded) the working years of life, have so far disappeared from them, that now they can no longer recall any circumstances other than those which they enjoy; so that their presence in a room about one, as they set food before one or meet one at the door, is in itself an influence of peace.

In such a place, and with such hosts to serve him, the wears of the world retire for a little time, from an evening to a morning; and a man can enjoy a great refreshment. In such a place he will eat strongly and drink largely, and sleep well and deeply, and, when he saddles again for his journey, he will take the whole world new; nor are those intervals without their future value, for the memory of a complete repose is a sort of sacrament, and a viaticum for the weary lengths of the way.

The stable of this place is made of oak entirely, and, after more than a hundred years, the woodwork is still sound, save that the roof now falls in waves where the great beams have sagged a little under the pressure of the tiles. And these tiles are of that old hand made kind which, whenever you find them, you will do well to buy; for they have a slight downward curve to them, and so they fit closer and shed the rain better than if they were flat. Also they do not slip, and thus they put less strain upon the timber. This excellent stable has no flooring but a packed layer of chalk laid on the ground; and the wooden manger is all polished and shining, where it has been rubbed by the noses of ten thousand horses since the great war. That polishing was helped, perhaps, by the nose of Percy’s horse, and perhaps by the nose of some wheeler who in his time had dragged the guns back aboard, retreating through the night after Corunna. It is in every way a stable that a small peasant should ,put up for himself, without seeking money from other men. It is, therefore, a stable which your gaping scientists would condemn; and though as yet they have not got their ugly hands upon the dwellings of beasts as they have upon those of men, yet I often fear for this stable, and am always glad when I come back and find it there. For the men who make our laws are the same as those that sell us our bricks and our land and our metals; and they make the laws so that rebuilding shall go on: and vile rebuilding too.

Anyhow, this stable yet stands; and in none does the horse, Monster, take a greater delight, for he also is open to the influence of holiness. So I led him in, and tied him by the ancient headstall, and I rubbed him down, and I washed his feet and covered him with the rough rug that lay there. And when I had done all that, I got him oats from the neighbouring bin; for the place knew me well, and I could always tend to my own beast when I came there. And as he ate his oats, I said to him: “Monster, my horse, is there any place on earth where a man, even for a little time, can be as happy as the brutes? If there is, it is here at the Sign of The Lion.” And Monster answered: “There is a tradition among us that, of all creatures that creep upon the earth, man is the fullest of sorrow.”

I left him then, and went towards the house. It was quite dark, and the windows, with their square, large panes and true proportions, shone out and made it home. The room within received me like a friend. The open chimney at its end, round which the house is built, was filled with beech logs burning; and the candles, which were set in brass, mixed their yellow light with that of the fire. The long ceiling was low, as are the ceilings of Heaven. And oak was here everywhere also: in the beams and the shelves and the mighty table. For oak was, and will be again, the chief wood of the weald.

When they put food and ale before me, it was of the kind which has been English ever since England began, and which perhaps good fortune will preserve over the breakdown of our generation, until we have England back again. One could see the hops in the tankard, and one could taste the barley, until, more and more sunk into the plenitude of this good house, one could dare to contemplate, as though from a distant standpoint, the corruption and the imminent danger of the time through which we must lead our lives. And, as I so considered the ruin of the great cities and their slime, I felt as though I were in a fortress of virtue and of health, which could hold out through the pressure of the war. And I thought to myself: “Perhaps even before our children are men, these parts which survive from a better order will be accepted as models, and England will be built again.”

This fantasy had not time, tenuous as it was, to disappear, before there came into that room a man whose gesture and bearing promised him to be an excellent companion, but in whose eyes I also perceived some light not ordinary. He was of middle age, fifty or more; his hair was crisp and grey, his face brown, as though he had been much upon the sea. He was tall in stature, and of some strength. He saluted me, and, when he had eaten, asked me if I also were familiar with this inn.

“Very familiar,” I said; “and since I can enter it at any hour freely, it is now more familiar to me even than the houses that were once my homes. For nowadays we, who work in the State and are not idle, must be driven from one place to another; and only the very rich have certitude and continuity. But to them it is of no service; for they are too idle to take root in the soil.”

“Yet I was of their blood,” he said; “and there is in this county a home which should be mine. But nothing to-day is capable of endurance. I have not seen my home (though it is but ten miles from here) since I left it in my thirtieth year; and I too would rather come to this inn, which I know as you know it, than to any house in England; because I am certain of entry, and because I know what I shall find, and because what I find is what any man of this county should find, if the soul of it is not to disappear.”

“You, then,” I answered (we were now seated side by side before the fire with but one flickering candle behind us, and on the floor between us a port just younger than the host), “you, then, come here for much the same reason as do I?”

“And what is that? ” said he.

“Why,” said I, “to enjoy the illusion that Change can somewhere be arrested, and that, in some shape, a part at least of the things we love remains. For, since I was a boy and almost since I can remember, every thing in this house has been the same; and here I escape from the threats of the society we know.”

When I had said this, he was grave and silent for a little while; and then he answered:

“It is impossible, I think, after many years to recover any such illusion. Just as a young man can no longer think himself (as children do) the actor in any drama of his own choosing, so a man growing old (as am I) can no longer expect of any society—and least of all of his own —the gladness that comes from an illusion of permanence.”

“For my part,” I answered in turn, “ I know very well, though I can conjure up this feeling of security, that it is very flimsy stuff; and I take it rather as men take symbols. For though these good people will at last perish, and some brewer — a Colonel of Volunteers as like as not — will buy this little field, and though for the port we are drinking there will be imperial port, and for the beer we have just drunk something as noisome as that port, and though thistles will grow up in the good pasture ground, and though, in a word, this inn will become a hotel and will perish, nevertheless I cannot but believe that England remains, and I do not think it the taking of a drug or a deliberate cheating of oneself to come and steep one’s soul in what has already endured so long because it was proper to our country.”

“All that you say,” he answered, “is but part of the attempt to escape Necessity. Your very frame is of that substance for which permanence means death; and every one of all the emotions that you know is of its nature momentary, and must be so if it is to be alive.”

“Yet there is a divine thirst,” I said, “for something that will not so perish. If there were no such thirst, why should you and I debate such things, or come here to The Lion either of us, to taste antiquity? And if that thirst is there, it is a proof that there is for us some End and some such satisfaction. For my part, as I know of nothing else, I cannot but seek it in this visible good world. I seek it in Sussex, in the nature of my home, and in the tradition of my blood.”

But he answered: “No; it is not thus to be attained, the end of which you speak. And that thirst, which surely is divine, is to be quenched in no stream that we can find by journeying, not even in the little rivers that run here under the combes of home.”

MYSELF: “Well, then, what is the End?”

HE: “I have sometimes seen it clearly, that when the disappointed quest was over, all this journeying would turn out to be but the beginning of a much greater adventure, and that I should set out towards another place where every sense should be fulfilled, and where the fear of mutation should be set at rest.”

MYSELF: “No one denies that such a picture in the mind haunts men their whole lives through, though, after they have once experienced loss and incompletion, and especially when they have caught sight a long way off of the Barrier which ends all our experience, they recognise that picture for a cheat; and surely nothing can save it? That which reasons in us may be absolute and undying; for it is outside Time. It escapes the gropings of the learned, and it has nothing to do with material things. But as for all those functions which we but half fulfil in life, surely elsewhere they cannot be fulfilled at all? Colour is for the eyes and music is for the ears; and all that we love so much comes in by channels that do not remain.”

HE: “Yet the Desire can only be for things that we have known; and the Desire, as you have said, is a proof of the thing desired, and, but for these things which we know, the words ‘joy’ and ‘contentment’ and ‘fulfilment’ would have no meaning.”

MYSELF: “Why yes; but, though desires are the strongest evidence of truth, yet there is also desire for illusions, as there is a waking demand for things attainable, and a demand in dreams for things fantastic and unreal. Every analogy increasingly persuades us, and so does the whole scheme of things as we learn it, that, with our passing, there shall also pass speech and comfortable fires and fields and the voices of our children, and that, when they pass, we lose them for ever.”

HE: “Yet these things would not be, but for the mind which receives them; and how can we make sure what channels are necessary for the mind? And may not the mind stretch on? And you, since you reject my guess at what may be reserved for us, tell me, what is the End which we shall attain?”

MYSELF: “Salva fide, I cannot tell.”

Then he continued and said: “I have too long considered these matters for any opposition between one experience and another to affect my spirit, and I know that a long and careful inquiry into any matter must lead the same man to opposing conclusions; but, for my part, I shall confidently expect throughout that old age, which is not far from me, that, when it ceases, I shall find beyond it things similar to those which I have known. For all I here enjoy is of one nature; and if the life of a man be bereft of them at last, then it is falsehood or metaphor to use the word ‘eternal.’”

“You think, then,” said I, “that some immortal part in us is concerned not only with our knowledge, but with our every feeling, and that our final satisfaction will include a sensual pleasure: fragrance, and landscape, and a visible home that shall be clearer even than these dear hills?”

“Something of the sort,” he said, and slightly shrugged his shoulders. They were broad, as he sat beside me staring at the fire. They conveyed in their attitude that effect of mingled strength and weariness which is common to all who have travelled far and with great purpose, perpetually seeking some worthy thing which they could never find.

The fire had fallen. Flames no longer leapt from the beech logs; but on their under side, where a glow still lingered, embers fell.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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