Men Like Gods
Chapter 2: the Wonderful Road
For a time Mr. Barnstaple's attention was very unequally divided between the Limousine, whose passengers were now descending, and the scenery about him. This latter was indeed so strange and beautiful that it was only as people who must be sharing his admiration and amazement and who therefore might conceivably help to elucidate and relieve his growing and quite overwhelming perplexity, that the little group ahead presently arose to any importance in his consciousness.
The road itself instead of being the packed together pebbles and dirt smeared with tar with a surface of grit, dust, and animal excrement, of a normal English high road, was apparently made of glass, clear in places as still water and in places milky or opalescent, shot with streaks of soft colour or glittering richly with clouds of embedded golden flakes. It was perhaps twelve or fifteen yards wide. On either side was a band of greensward, of a finer grass than Mr. Barnstaple had ever seen before--and he was an expert and observant mower of lawns--and beyond this a wide border of flowers. Where Mr. Barnstaple sat agape in his car and perhaps for thirty yards in either direction this border was a mass of some unfamiliar blossom of forget-me-not blue. Then the colour was broken by an increasing number of tall, pure white spikes that finally ousted the blue altogether from the bed. On the opposite side of the way these same spikes were mingled with masses of plants bearing seed-pods equally strange to Mr. Barnstaple, which varied through a series of blues and mauves and purples to an intense crimson. Beyond this gloriously coloured foam of flowers spread flat meadows on which creamy cattle were grazing. Three close at hand, a little startled perhaps by Mr. Barnstaple's sudden apparition, chewed the cud and regarded him with benevolently speculative eyes. They had long horns and dewlaps like the cattle of South Europe and India.
From these benign creatures Mr. Barnstaple's eyes went to a long line of flame-shaped trees, to a colonnade of white and gold, and to a background of snow-clad mountains. A few tall, white clouds were sailing across a sky of dazzling blue. The air impressed Mr.
Barnstaple as being astonishingly clear and sweet.
Except for the cows and the little group of people standing by the
Limousine Mr. Barnstaple could see no other living creature. The motorists were standing still and staring about them. A sound of querulous voices came to him.
A sharp crepitation at his back turned Mr. Barnstaple's attention round. By the side of the road in the direction from which conceivably he had come were the ruins of what appeared to be a very recently demolished stone house. Beside it were two large apple trees freshly twisted and riven, as if by some explosion, and out of the centre of it came a column of smoke and this sound of things catching fire. And the contorted lines of these shattered apple trees helped Mr. Barnstaple to realize that some of the flowers by the wayside near at hand were also bent down to one side as if by the passage of a recent violent gust of wind. Yet he had heard no explosion nor felt any wind.
He stared for a time and then turned as if for an explanation to the Limousine. Three of these people were now coming along the road towards him, led by a tall, slender, grey-headed gentleman in a felt hat and a long motoring dust-coat. He had a small upturned face with a little nose that scarce sufficed for the springs of his gilt glasses. Mr. Barnstaple restarted his engine and drove slowly to meet them.
As soon as he judged himself within hearing distance he stopped and put his head over the side of the Yellow Peril with a question. At the same moment the tall, grey-headed gentleman asked practically the same question: "Can you tell me at all, sir, where we are?"
"Five minutes ago," said Mr. Barnstaple, "I should have said we were on the Maidenhead Road. Near Slough."
"Exactly!" said the tall gentleman in earnest, argumentative tones.
"Exactly! And I maintain that there is not the slightest reason for supposing that we are not still on the Maidenhead Road."
The challenge of the dialectician rang in his voice.
"It doesn't look like the Maidenhead Road," said Mr. Barnstaple.
"Agreed! But are we to judge by appearances or are we to judge by the direct continuity of our experience? The Maidenhead Road led to this, was in continuity with this, and therefore I hold that this is the Maidenhead Road."
"Those mountains?" considered Mr. Barnstaple.
"Windsor Castle ought to be there," said the tall gentleman brightly as if he gave a point in a gambit.
"Was there five minutes ago," said Mr. Barnstaple.
"Then obviously those mountains are some sort of a camouflage," said the tall gentleman triumphantly, "and the whole of this business is, as they say nowadays, a put-up thing."
"It seems to be remarkably well put up," said Mr. Barnstaple.
Came a pause during which Mr. Barnstaple surveyed the tall gentleman's companions. The tall gentleman he knew perfectly well.
He had seen him a score of times at public meetings and public dinners. He was Mr. Cecil Burleigh, the great Conservative leader.
He was not only distinguished as a politician; he was eminent as a private gentleman, a philosopher and a man of universal intelligence. Behind him stood a short, thick-set, middle-aged young man, unknown to Mr. Barnstaple, the natural hostility of whose appearance was greatly enhanced by an eye-glass. The third member of the little group was also a familiar form, but for a time
Mr. Barnstaple could not place him. He had a clean-shaven, round, plump face and a well-nourished person and his costume suggested either a High Church clergyman or a prosperous Roman Catholic priest.
The young man with the eye-glass now spoke in a kind of impotent falsetto. "I came down to Taplow Court by road not a month ago and there was certainly nothing of this sort on the way then."
"I admit there are difficulties," said Mr. Burleigh with gusto.
"I admit there are considerable difficulties. Still, I venture to think my main proposition holds."
"You don't think this is the Maidenhead Road?" said the gentleman with the eye-glass flatly to Mr. Barnstaple.
"It seems too perfect for a put-up thing," said Mr. Barnstaple with a mild obstinacy.
"But, my dear Sir!" protested Mr. Burleigh, "this road is notorious for nursery seedsmen and sometimes they arrange the most astonishing displays. As an advertisement."
"Then why don't we go straight on to Taplow Court now?" asked the gentleman with the eye-glass.
"Because," said Mr. Burleigh, with the touch of asperity natural when one has to insist on a fact already clearly known, and obstinately overlooked, "Rupert insists that we are in some other world. And won't go on. That is why. He has always had too much imagination. He thinks that things that don't exist can exist.