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A VISION OF THE FOUNTAIN


Mr. Jackson Potter halted before the little cottage, half shop,
half hostelry, opposite the great gates of Domesday Park, where
tickets of admission to that venerable domain were sold. Here Mr.
Potter revealed his nationality as a Western American, not only in
his accent, but in a certain half-humorous, half-practical
questioning of the ticket-seller--as that quasi-official stamped
his ticket--which was nevertheless delivered with such unfailing
good-humor, and such frank suggestiveness of the perfect equality
of the ticket-seller and the well-dressed stranger that, far from
producing any irritation, it attracted the pleased attention not
only of the official, but his wife and daughter and a customer.
Possibly the good looks of the stranger had something to do with
it. Jackson Potter was a singularly handsome young fellow, with
one of those ideal faces and figures sometimes seen in Western
frontier villages, attributable to no ancestor, but evolved
possibly from novels and books devoured by ancestresses in the long
solitary winter evenings of their lonely cabins on the frontier. A
beardless, classical head, covered by short flocculent blonde
curls, poised on a shapely neck and shoulders, was more Greek in
outline than suggestive of any ordinary American type. Finally,
after having thoroughly amused his small audience, he lifted his
straw hat to the "ladies," and lounged out across the road to the
gateway. Here he paused, consulting his guide-book, and read
aloud: "St. John's gateway. This massive structure, according to
Leland, was built in"--murmured--"never mind when; we'll pass St.
John," marked the page with his pencil, and tendering his ticket to
the gate-keeper, heard, with some satisfaction, that, as there were
no other visitors just then, and as the cicerone only accompanied
PARTIES, he would be left to himself, and at once plunged into a
by-path.

It was that loveliest of rare creations--a hot summer day in
England, with all the dampness of that sea-blown isle wrung out of
it, exhaled in the quivering blue vault overhead, or passing as dim
wraiths in the distant wood, and all the long-matured growth of
that great old garden vivified and made resplendent by the fervid
sun. The ashes of dead and gone harvests, even the dust of those
who had for ages wrought in it, turned again and again through
incessant cultivation, seemed to move and live once more in that
present sunshine. All color appeared to be deepened and mellowed,
until even the very shadows of the trees were as velvety as the
sward they fell upon. The prairie-bred Potter, accustomed to the
youthful caprices and extravagances of his own virgin soil, could
not help feeling the influence of the ripe restraints of this.

As he glanced through the leaves across green sunlit spaces to the
ivy-clad ruins of Domesday Abbey, which seemed itself a growth of
the very soil, he murmured to himself: "Things had been made mighty
comfortable for folks here, you bet!" Forgotten books he had read
as a boy, scraps of school histories, or rarer novels, came back to
him as he walked along, and peopled the solitude about him with
their heroes.

Nevertheless, it was unmistakably hot--a heat homelike in its
intensity, yet of a different effect, throwing him into languid
reverie rather than filling his veins with fire. Secure in his
seclusion in the leafy chase, he took off his jacket and rambled on
in his shirt sleeves. Through the opening he presently saw the
abbey again, with the restored wing where the noble owner lived for
two or three weeks in the year, but now given over to the
prevailing solitude. And then, issuing from the chase, he came
upon a broad, moss-grown terrace. Before him stretched a tangled
and luxuriant wilderness of shrubs and flowers, darkened by cypress
and cedars of Lebanon; its dun depths illuminated by dazzling white
statues, vases, trellises, and paved paths, choked and lost in the
trailing growths of years of abandonment and forgetfulness. He
consulted his guide-book again. It was the "old Italian garden,"
constructed under the design of a famous Italian gardener by the
third duke; but its studied formality being displeasing to his
successor, it was allowed to fall into picturesque decay and
negligent profusion, which were not, however, disturbed by later
descendants,--a fact deplored by the artistic writer of the guide-
book, who mournfully called attention to the rare beauty of the
marble statues, urns, and fountains, ruined by neglect, although
one or two of the rarer objects had been removed to Deep Dene
Lodge, another seat of the present duke.

It is needless to say that Mr. Potter conceived at once a humorous
opposition to the artistic enthusiasm of the critic, and, plunging
into the garden, took a mischievous delight in its wildness and the
victorious struggle of nature with the formality of art. At every
step through the tangled labyrinth he could see where precision and
order had been invaded, and even the rigid masonry broken or
upheaved by the rebellious force. Yet here and there the two
powers had combined to offer an example of beauty neither could
have effected alone. A passion vine had overrun and enclasped a
vase with a perfect symmetry no sculptor could have achieved. A
heavy balustrade was made ethereal with a delicate fretwork of
vegetation between its balusters like lace. Here, however, the lap
and gurgle of water fell gratefully upon the ear of the perspiring
and thirsty Mr. Potter, and turned his attention to more material
things. Following the sound, he presently came upon an enormous
oblong marble basin containing three time-worn fountains with
grouped figures. The pipes were empty, silent, and choked with
reeds and water plants, but the great basin itself was filled with
water from some invisible source.

A terraced walk occupied one side of the long parallelogram; at
intervals and along the opposite bank, half shadowed by willows,
tinted marble figures of tritons, fauns, and dryads arose half
hidden in the reeds. They were more or less mutilated by time, and
here and there only the empty, moss-covered plinths that had once
supported them could be seen. But they were so lifelike in their
subdued color in the shade that he was for a moment startled.

The water looked deliciously cool. An audacious thought struck
him. He was alone, and the place was a secluded one. He knew
there were no other visitors; the marble basin was quite hidden
from the rest of the garden, and approached only from the path by
which he had come, and whose entire view he commanded. He quietly
and deliberately undressed himself under the willows, and
unhesitatingly plunged into the basin. The water was four or five
feet deep, and its extreme length afforded an excellent swimming
bath, despite the water-lilies and a few aquatic plants that
mottled its clear surface, or the sedge that clung to the bases of
the statues. He disported for some moments in the delicious
element, and then seated himself upon one of the half-submerged
plinths, almost hidden by reeds, that had once upheld a river god.
Here, lazily resting himself upon his elbow, half his body still
below the water, his quick ear was suddenly startled by a rustling
noise and the sound of footsteps. For a moment he was inclined to
doubt his senses; he could see only the empty path before him and
the deserted terrace. But the sound became more distinct, and to
his great uneasiness appeared to come from the OTHER side of the
fringe of willows, where there was undoubtedly a path to the
fountain which he had overlooked. His clothes were under those
willows, but he was at least twenty yards from the bank and an
equal distance from the terrace. He was about to slip beneath the
water when, to his crowning horror, before he could do so, a young
girl slowly appeared from the hidden willow path full upon the
terrace. She was walking leisurely with a parasol over her head
and a book in her hand. Even in his intense consternation her
whole figure--a charming one in its white dress, sailor hat, and
tan shoes--was imprinted on his memory as she instinctively halted
to look upon the fountain, evidently an unexpected surprise to her.

A sudden idea flashed upon him. She was at least sixty yards away;
he was half hidden in the reeds and well in the long shadows of the
willows. If he remained perfectly motionless she might overlook
him at that distance, or take him for one of the statues. He
remembered also that as he was resting on his elbow, his half-
submerged body lying on the plinth below water, he was somewhat in
the attitude of one of the river gods. And there was no other
escape. If he dived he might not be able to keep under water as
long as she remained, and any movement he knew would betray him.
He stiffened himself and scarcely breathed. Luckily for him his
attitude had been a natural one and easy to keep. It was well,
too, for she was evidently in no hurry and walked slowly, stopping
from time to time to admire the basin and its figures. Suddenly he
was instinctively aware that she was looking towards him and even
changing her position, moving her pretty head and shading her eyes
with her hand as if for a better view. He remained motionless,
scarcely daring to breathe. Yet there was something so innocently
frank and undisturbed in her observation, that he knew as
instinctively that she suspected nothing, and took him for a half-
submerged statue. He breathed more freely. But presently she
stopped, glanced around her, and, keeping her eyes fixed in his
direction, began to walk backwards slowly until she reached a stone
balustrade behind her. On this she leaped, and, sitting down,
opened in her lap the sketch-book she was carrying, and, taking out
a pencil, to his horror began to sketch!




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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