― 120 ―

5. A Hot Wind.

A HOT WIND—hot as a blast from the abyss the road to which is morally macadamised, the gulf anonymous to ears polite: a Sirocco, a Samiel that owns not even a sunk cellar for a Bagdad. Everywhere the same stifling flow of arid air, in which panting lungs labour like dry pumps. The mercury at 120° in the shade—wherever that may be. Down from a sky glaring, like a maniac's eye, with feverish unrest, pours blighting brilliance, in mockery of the parched and pallid earth gasping with black, cracked lips for more refreshing rain—or rather the earth seems dead—choked, like the eastern despot's victim, with a flood of molten gold. No coolness in the ocean's blazing blue, from which the rebounding sunbeams glance like brazen spears from shield of polished steel. Wreaths of white smoke rise sluggishly from the burning bush. Dogs, with lolled-out tongues, lie heaving and puffing like steam-engines in every scanty fringe of shadow cast by wall or tree. One expects every moment to frizzle up like an overdone rasher, to blush vitreous-purple like an overbaked brick. The most succulent humanity seems turning into toast. The most decently disposed individuals feel inclined to concur in Mr. Squeers's opinion that it would be “a delightful thing to be in a state of nature;” and shoeless, stockingless, cravatless, and in shirt-sleeves, make the nearest approach to it that civilisation suffers. Exertion of any kind appears ridiculous—labour sheer lunacy. A creature yonder is loading a coal-cart: is it a man or a salamander?

I, as I have hinted, retreat to the cellar; where—seeking, Antæus-like, relief from languor in the bosom of our common mother—I lay myself upon the bricks, smoke my pipe, and read my Horace; and as I listen to the tranquil dripping of the beer, I marvel at the folly of mankind who, in such weather, can do anything but—drink that or some equally mild beverage, with the accompaniments that I affect. A book, beer, and 'baccy enjoyed upon (comparatively) cool bricks, is my form of lotus-eating on a broiling Southern summer's day.

  ― 121 ―

Picking out the aqueous and umbrageous passages in my favourite bard, I leave my kiln-dried body on the cellar-floor, and wander in spirit to the

—domus Albuneæ resonantis,
Et præceps Anio ac Tiburni lucus et uda
Mobilibus pomaria rivis.

I rest beside the winding stream—

Qua pinus ingens albaque populus
Umbram hospitalem consociare amant

and hearken to the ripple of its pebble-broken flow.

I look down into the—

—fons Bandusiæ, splendidior vitro,

and see the oxen weary with the plough dipping their patient noses into the frigus amabile that even Dog-days cannot mull; gravely gazing meanwhile at their shadowed horns, and gratefully contrasting their ice-cold beverage with the brown, lukewarm puddle—brassy-bright in the hot sun—from which last they drank.

Knowing that the rogue of a poet-farmer is enjoying lady's society on the sly, I slip over to the Sabine Farm. I watch the milk-white goats speckling the dewy darkness of the grove as they stray hither and thither, cropping the arbutus, browsing on the thyme. I see the kids—fearless of prowling wolves, for Faunus guards them—frisking to the sound of the shepherd's pipe echoing from the smooth chalk-rocks of low-lying Ustica; and rambling on I discover squat, black-haired, dark-eyed, flop-eared Flaccus stretched on the grass beneath a drooping vine, and listening to the lovely Tyndaris as, with garland and garment safe from the rash hand of jealous Cyrus, and lips moistened ever and anon with harmless Lesbiar —“not a head-ache in a gallon of it,”—she sings of Ulysses true to his chaste Penelope, despite the wiles of Circe, goddess of the glassy sea. A slave is making preparations for a pic-nic banquet, and as he pries between the bushes, seeking a lingering rose to grace his master's coronal, Horace leans over on his elbow, and trolls out his own sweet little song:

Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
Displicent nexæ philyra coronæ;
Mitte sectari rosa quo locorum
Sera moretur.

Simplici myrto nihil allabores
Sedulus, curo: neque te ministrum
Dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
Vite bibentem.

  ― 122 ―

More and more pococurante each moment do I become as I watch the blue wreaths of my cutty melting in the hot air, and drink in the cooling words of the graceful, genial Epicurean. And really in this short life of ours what is there worth putting one's self very much out of the way about? Instead of pulling like furies and swearing at each other on the voyage, why shouldn't we float down with music to the dim and shoreless sea?

Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume,
Labuntur anni, nec pietas moram
Rugis et instanti senectæ
Afferet indomitqæue morti.

House and lands and winsome wife must all be left. You may plant, but of all your trees the gloomy cypress only will follow its brief owner to the tomb. Your bibulous heir, more deserving of the boon than stingy you, will tap the yellow-sealed port, and stain your Kidderminster with a wine more generous even than is drunk at the dinner-table of a dean—pontificum potiore cœnis. How easily the old, old thought, fits itself into this day's phrase.