In the Hills and the Sea (Marlboro Press, 1906), Belloc tells of being high in the Pyrenees, in a place recalled as "Los Altos", which I cannot tell whether it is a specific area or merely that it is in a very high part of these very high mountains. The essay in which he tells us this is entitled "On 'Mails'". He begins right away to tell us what "Mails" are. They turn out to be in fact "malls". Belloc describes a "mail" as a "place set with trees in regular order so as to form alleys, sand and gravel are laid on the earth beneath the trees, masonry of great solidity, grey, and exquisitely worked, surrounds the whole, except on one side, where strong stone pillars carry heavy chains across the entrance." The spelling "Mails" confused me.
Belloc did consistently put the term "mails" in quotation marks to indicate, I take it, an obsolete or foreign usage. I tried to find a dictionary or a reference book, a topic that shall come up shortly, to explain this usage. Finally, I found it in that microscopic version of the Oxford English Dictionary, after almost going blind with the magnifying glass. Evidently, it refers to a game, pall mall, or to a place where the game was played in Paris. I do not know this game, but the term Pall Mall is also a street in London where stylish folks once were said to live.
"Mails", Belloc tells us, take about two hundred years to perfect themselves and last in good condition for another hundred. They were popular during the time of Charles II of England and Scotland and Louis XIV in France. This essay is really about Belloc's "little pen" which has led him from one thing to another so much so that, at this point, he entirely forgets "The 'Mails'" until he realizes at the end of the essay that he has wandered into different intellectual and sentimental alleys.
At the mention of Louis XIV and Charles II, Belloc first begins to wonder which of these monarchs was older. He calculates this comparative age according to certain dates he does remember, the fact that Charles came back to England in 1660 and that Mazarin signed a Treaty with Spain in 1659. With such figuring, he finally decides that Charles is about thirty years older than Louis. At this point, of course, I eagerly wanted to look up the facts, which I did. It seems that Charles II was 1630-85, while Louis XIV lived from 1638-1715. So Belloc's memory was right on the money.
But this memory exercise was a literary trap for the reader, of course. Belloc himself could not look up the fact but had to recall it from his own memory because he was up in the Pyrenees at the time with no luxuries of civilization around him. "How dependent is mortal man on those Books of Reference," he sighs. At this point in my reading of this charming essay, I begin to wonder if I should have looked up the facts. Anyone with a few Books of Reference at his desk, Belloc observed, can seem more learned than Erasmus. There was the trap! Vanity! Belloc suggests in fact that "five out of six men who read this" essay will have such reference books at hand. I certainly did, which was why I could look up the dates and seem as wise as Erasmus.
But Belloc has another point to make, much more philosophical: "Let any man who reads this ask himself whether he would rather be where he is in London on this August day (for it is August), or where I am, which is up in Los Altos, the very high Pyrenees, very far from every sort of derivative and secondary thing and close to all the things primary?" This obviously rhetorical question -- I know there are some dull souls who would still rather be in London even in August -- forces us to ask ourselves about things secondary and things primary.
At this point, Belloc decides to describe what this rocky place in the high Pyrenees looks like. Beech and pine cling to the steep sides of the mountains, limestone precipices jut out. The going from camp site to camp site is very slow, dangerous. "It seems dead silent. There are few birds, and even at dawn one only hears a twittering here and there." The silence at first makes it seem as if nothing at all is being heard. Then he reflects that if he were suddenly to pick this Pyrenees place up and put it down in London, it would not be a silent place at all. What he hears at all times, day and night in Los Altos, is the roar of the torrent crashing down the steep mountainsides into the valley below. This noise has become so "continuous, so sedulous, that it has become part of oneself."
After several days, Belloc decides that he must begin to descend. Gradually, he notices signs of human life, an abandoned cabin, a path, "and thence to the high road and so to men." After he is among men for a while, he begins to think of where he has been. "I shall miss the torrent and feel ill at ease," he tells us, "hardly knowing what I miss, and I shall recall Los Altos, the high places, and remember nothing but their loneliness and silence" -- a silence and loneliness that has become "part" of himself.
When he gets to the valley, Belloc will saunter into a town, "St. Girons or another, along the riverside and under the lime trees...." And it was with this word "trees" that Belloc suddenly remembered "The 'Mails'", the very topic about which he had begun to write. At this sudden ending, he addresses, with mock seriousness, his little fountain pen with which he is writing these reflections of his stay in the Los Altos, his "companion and friend." He asks it "whither have you led me, and why cannot you learn the plodding of your trade?" Of course, we are most grateful that this little pen did not learn the "plodding" if its trade. We are delighted that, with its user in charge, it rather wandered from place to place, from topic to topic, beyond the Books of Reference and the relative dates of Charles II and Louis XIV, but, all the while, still remembering in mountains and, yes, in the "Mails" that take two hundred years to mature, "nothing but loneliness and silence." Here at last, we are again reminded to distinguish in our lives the things of "secondary" and "primary" importance, the great task of our existence.
From Schall on Belloc, Generally Speaking, March, 1997.