Menu Close


The Roman Road

ALL the roads of our neighbourhood were cheerful and friendly,
having each of them pleasant qualities of its own ; but this
one seemed different from the others in its masterful sugges-
tion of a serious purpose, speeding you along with a strange up-
lifting of the heart. The others tempted chiefly with their
treasures of hedge and ditch ; the rapt surprise of the first lords-
and-ladies, the rustle of a field-mouse, splash of a frog ; while cool
noses of brother-beasts were pushed at you through gate or gap.
A loiterer you had need to be, did you choose one of them ; so
many were the tiny hands thrust out to detain you, from this side
and that. But this other was of a sterner sort, and even in its
shedding off of bank and hedgerow as it marched straight and full
for the open downs, it seemed to declare its contempt for adventi-
tious trappings to catch the shallow-pated. When the sense of
injustice or disappointment was heavy on me, and things were very
black within, as on this particular day, the road of character was
my choice for that solitary ramble when I turned my back for an
afternoon on a world that had unaccountably declared itself against

“The Knight’s Road” we children had named it, from a sort
of feeling that, if from any quarter at all, it would be down this


                        212 The Roman Road

track we might some day see Lancelot and his peers come pacing
on their great war-horses ; supposing that any of the stout band
still survived, in nooks and unexplored places. Grown-up people
sometimes spoke of it as the ” Pilgrim’s Way ” ; but I didn’t know
much about pilgrims— except Walter in the Horselburg story.
Him I sometimes saw, breaking with haggard eyes out of yonder
copse, and calling to the pilgrims as they hurried along on their
desperate march to the Holy City, where peace and pardon were
awaiting them. ” All roads lead to Rome,” I had once heard
somebody say ; and I had taken the remark very seriously, of
course, and puzzled over it many days. There must have been
some mistake, I concluded at last ; but of one road at least I
intuitively felt it to be true. And my belief was clinched by
something that fell from Miss Smedley during a history-lesson,
about a strange road that ran right down the middle of England
till it reached the coast, and then began again in France, just
opposite, and so on undeviating, through city and vineyard, right
from the misty Highlands to the Eternal City. Uncorroborated,
any statement of Miss Smedley’s usually fell on incredulous ears ;
but here, with the road itself in evidence, she seemed, once in a
way, to have strayed into truth.

Rome ! It was fascinating to think that it lay at the other end
of this white ribbon that rolled itself off from my feet over the
distant downs. I was not quite so uninstructed as to imagine I
could reach it that afternoon ; but some day, I thought, if things
went on being as unpleasant as they were now — some day, when
Aunt Eliza had gone on a visit— we would see.

I tried to imagine what it would be like when I got there.
The Coliseum I knew, of course, from a woodcut in the history-
book : so to begin with I plumped that down in the middle. The
rest had to be patched up from the little grey market-town where


                        By Kenneth Grahame 213

twice a year we went to have our hair cut ; hence, in the result,
Vespasian’s amphitheatre was approached by muddy little streets,
wherein the Red Lion and the Blue Boar, with Somebody’s Entire
along their front, and ” Commercial Room ” on their windows ;
the doctor’s house, of substantial red-brick ; and the façade of the
new Wesleyan chapel, which we thought very fine, were the
chief architectual ornaments : while the Roman populace pottered
about in smocks and corduroys, twisting the tails of Roman calves
and inviting each other to beer in musical Wessex. From Rome
I drifted on to other cities, dimly heard of Damascus, Brighton,
(Aunt Eliza s ideal), Athens, and Glasgow, whose glories the
gardener sang ; but there was a certain sameness in my conception
of all of them : that Wesleyan chapel would keep cropping up
everywhere. It was easier to go a-building among those dream-
cities where no limitations were imposed, and one was sole
architect, with a free hand. Down a delectable street of cloud-
built palaces I was mentally pacing, when I happened upon
the Artist.

He was seated at work by the roadside, at a point whence the
cool large spaces of the downs, juniper-studded, swept grandly west-
wards. His attributes proclaimed him of the artist tribe : besides,
he wore knickerbockers like myself. I knew I was not to bother
him with questions, nor look over his shoulder and breathe in his
ear— they didn’t like it, this genus irritabile , but there was nothing
about staring in my code of instructions, the point having somehow
been overlooked : so, squatting down on the grass, I devoted myself
to a passionate absorbing of every detail. At the end of five
minutes there was not a button on him that I could not have
passed an examination in ; and the wearer himself of that home-
spun suit was probably less familiar with its pattern and texture
than I was. Once he looked up, nodded, half held out his tobacco


                        214 The Roman Road

pouch, mechanically as it were, then, returning it to his pocket,
resumed his work, and I my mental photography.

After another five minutes or so had passed he remarked, without
looking my way: “Fine afternoon we’re having: going far to-
day ? ”

” No, I’m not going any farther than this,” I replied : ” I was
thinking of going on to Rome : but I’ve put it off.”

” Pleasant place, Rome,” he murmured: “you’ll like it.” It
was some minutes later that he added : ” But I wouldn’t go just
now, if I were you : too jolly hot.”

You haven’t been to Rome, have you ? ” I inquired.

” Rather,” he replied briefly : ” I live there.”

This was too much, and my jaw dropped as I struggled to grasp
the fact that I was sitting there talking to a fellow who lived in
Rome. Speech was out of the question : besides I had other
things to do. Ten solid minutes had I already spent in an ex-
amination of him as a mere stranger and artist ; and now the whole
thing had to be done over again, from the changed point of view.
So I began afresh, at the crown of his soft hat, and worked down
to his solid British shoes, this time investing everything with the
new Roman halo ; and at last I managed to get out : “But you
don’t really live there, do you ? ” never doubting the fact, but
wanting to hear it repeated.

” Well,” he said, good-naturedly overlooking the slight rudeness
of my query, ” I live there as much as I live anywhere. About
half the year sometimes. I’ve got a sort of a shanty there. You
must come and see it some day.”

” But do you live anywhere else as well ? ” I went on, feeling
the forbidden tide of questions surging up within me.

” O yes, all over the place,” was his vague reply. ” And I’ve
got a diggings somewhere off Piccadilly.”

                                                ” Where’s

                        By Kenneth Grahame 215

” Where’s that ? ” I inquired.

” Where’s what ? ” said he. Oh, Piccadilly ! It’s in London.”

” Have you a large garden ? ” I asked ; ” and how many pigs
have you got ? ”

“I’ve no garden at all,” he replied sadly, “and they don’t allow
me to keep pigs, though I’d like to, awfully. It’s very hard.”

” But what do you do all day, then,” I cried, ” and where do you
go and play, without any garden, or pigs, or things ?

” When I want to play,” he said gravely, ” I have to go and
play in the street ; but it’s poor fun, I grant you. There’s a
goat, though, not far off, and sometimes I talk to him when I’m
feeling lonely ; but he’s very proud.”

” Goats are proud,” I admitted. “There’s one lives near here,
and if you say anything to him at all, he hits you in the wind with
his head. You know what it feels like when a fellow hits you in
the wind ? ”

” I do, well,” he replied, in a tone of proper melancholy, and
painted on.

” And have you been to any other places,” I began again
presently, ” besides Rome and Piccy-what’s-his-name ? ”

” Heaps,” he said. ” I’m a sort of Ulysses —seen men and cities,
you know. In fact, about the only place I never got to was the
Fortunate Island.”

I began to like this man. He answered your questions briefly
and to the point, and never tried to be funny. I felt I could be
confidential with him.

” Wouldn’t you like,” I inquired, ” to find a city without any
people in it at all ?

He looked puzzled. ” I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,”
said he.

” I mean,” I went on eagerly, ” a city where you walk in at the


                        216 The Roman Road

gates, and the shops are all full of beautiful things, and the houses
furnished as grand as can be, and there isn’t anybody there what-
ever ! And you go into the shops, and take anything you want
—chocolates and magic-lanterns and injirubber balls— and there’s
nothing to pay ; and you choose your own house and live there
and do just as you like, and never go to bed unless you want

The artist laid down his brush. ” That would be a nice city,”
he said. ” Better than Rome. You can’t do that sort of thing in
Rome or in Piccadilly either. But I fear it’s one of the places
I’ve never been to.”

“And you’d ask your friends,” I went on, warming to my
subject ; ” only those who really like, of course ; and they’d each
have a house to themselves —there’d be lots of houses, and no
relations at all, unless they promised they’d be pleasant, and if they
weren’t they’d have to go.”

” So you wouldn’t have any relations ? ” said the artist. ” Well,
perhaps you’re right. We have tastes in common, I see.”

” I’d have Harold,” I said reflectively, ” and Charlotte. They’d
like it awfully. The others are getting too old. Oh ! and Martha
—I’d have Martha to cook and wash up and do things. You’d
like Martha. She’s ever so much nicer than Aunt Eliza. She’s
my idea of a real lady.”

“Then I’m sure I should like her,” he replied heartily, “and
when I come to what do you call this city of yours ? Nephelo
—something, did you say ! ”

” I— I don’t know,” I replied timidly. ” I’m afraid it hasn’t
got a name— yet.”

The artist gazed out over the downs. ” ‘The poet says dear
city of Cecrops ;'” he said softly to himself, ” ‘and wilt not thou
say, dear city of Zeus?’ That s from Marcus Aurelius,” he


                        By Kenneth Grahame 217

went on, turning again to his work. ” You don’t know him, I
suppose ; you will some day.”

Who’s he ? ” I inquired.

“Oh, just another fellow who lived in Rome,” he replied,
dabbing away.

“O dear!” I cried, disconsolately. “What a lot of people
seem to live at Rome, and I’ve never even been there ! But I
think I’d like my city best.”

“And so would I,” he replied with unction. “But Marcus
Aurelius wouldn’t, you know.”

” Then we won’t invite him,” I said : ” will we ? “

I won’t if you won’t,” said he. And that point being settled,
we were silent for a while.

“Do you know,” he said presently, “I’ve met one or two
fellows from time to time, who have been to a city like yours—
perhaps it was the same one. They won’t talk much about it—
only broken hints, now and then ; but they’ve been there sure
enough. They don’t seem to care about anything in particular—
and everything’s the same to them, rough or smooth ; and sooner
or later they slip off and disappear ; and you never see them again.
Gone back, I suppose.”

“Of course,” said I. “Don’t see what they ever came away
for ; I wouldn’t. To be told you’ve broken things when you
haven’t, and stopped having tea with the servants in the kitchen,
and not allowed to have a dog to sleep with you. But I’ve known
people, too, who’ve gone there.”

The artist stared, but without incivility.

” Well, there’s Lancelot,” I went on. ” The book says he
died, but it never seemed to read right, somehow. He just went
away, like Arthur. And Crusoe, when he got tired of wearing
clothes and being respectable. And all the nice men in the


                        218 The Roman Road

stories who don’t marry the Princess, ‘cos only one man ever gets
married in a book, you know. They’ll be there ! ”

” And the men who fail,” he said, ” who try like the rest, and
toil, and eat their hearts out, and somehow miss— or break down
or get bowled over in the mêlée— and get no Princess, nor even a
second-class kingdom —some of them’ll be there, I hope ? ”

” Yes, if you like,” I replied, not quite understanding him ;
” if they’re friends of yours, we’ll ask ’em, of course.”

” What a time we shall have ! ” said the artist reflectively ; ” and
how shocked old Marcus Aurelius will be ! ”

The shadows had lengthened uncannily, a tide of golden haze
began to flood the grey-green surface of the downs, and the artist
put his traps together, preparatory to a move. I felt very low :
we would have to part, it seemed, just as we were getting on so
well together. Then he stood up, and he was very straight and
tall, and the sunset was in his hair and beard as he stood there,
high over me. He took my hand like an equal. ” I’ve enjoyed
our conversation very much,” he said. ” That was an interesting
subject you started, and we haven’t half exhausted it. We shall
meet again, I hope ? ”

” Of course we shall,” I replied, surprised that there should be
any doubt about it.

” In Rome perhaps ? ” said he.

” Yes, in Rome,” I answered; “or Piccy-the-other-place, or

” Or else,” said he, ” in that other city —when we’ve found the
way there. And I’ll look out for you, and you’ll sing out as soon
as you see me. And we’ll go down the street arm-in-arm, and
into all the shops, and then I’ll choose my house, and you’ll
choose your house, and we’ll live there like princes and good



                        By Kenneth Grahame 219

” Oh, but you’ll stay in my house, won’t you ? ” I cried ; ” I
wouldn’t ask everybody ; but I’ll ask you.”

He affected to consider a moment ; then ” Right ! ” he said :
“I believe you mean it, and I will come and stay with you. I
won’t go to anybody else, if they ask me ever so much. And I’ll
stay quite a long time, too, and I won’t be any trouble.”

Upon this compact we parted, and I went down-heartedly from
the man who understood me, back to the house where I never
could do anything right. How was it that everything seemed
natural and sensible to him, which these uncles, vicars, and other
grown-up men took for the merest tomfoolery ? Well, he would
explain this, and many another thing, when we met again. The
Knight’s Road ! How it always brought consolation ! Was he
possibly one of those vanished knights I had been looking for so
long ? Perhaps he would be in armour next time— why not ?
He would look well in armour, I thought. And I would take
care to get there first, and see the sunlight flash and play on his
helmet and shield, as he rode up the High Street of the Golden

Meantime, there only remained the finding it,— an easy matter.

The Yellow Book— Vol. II. N

MLA citation:

Grahame, Kenneth. “The Roman Road.” The Yellow Book, vol. 2, July 1894, pp. 211-19. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.