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V. A Handful of Heather Henry van Dyke


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Some of my happiest meanderings in Scotland have been taken under the lead of a book. Indeed, for travel in a strange country there can be no better courier. Not a guide-book, I mean, but a real book, and, by preference, a novel.

Fiction, like wine, tastes best in the place where it was grown. And the scenery of a foreign land (including architecture, which is artificial landscape) grows less dreamlike and unreal to our perception when we people it with familiar characters from our favourite novels. Even on a first journey we feel ourselves among old friends. Thus to read Romola in Florence, and Les Miserables in Paris, and Lorna Doone on Exmoor, and The Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh, and David Balfour in the Pass of Glencoe, and The Pirate in the Shetland Isles, is to get a new sense of the possibilities of life. All these things have I done with much inward contentment; and other things of like quality have I yet in store; as, for example, the conjunction of The Bonnie Brier-Bush with Drumtochty, and The Little Minister with Thrums, and The Raiders with Galloway. But I never expect to pass pleasanter days than those I spent with A Princess of Thule among the Hebrides.

For then, to begin with, I was young; which is an unearned increment of delight sure to be confiscated by the envious years and never regained. But even youth itself was not to be compared with the exquisite felicity of being deeply and desperately in love with Sheila, the clear-eyed heroine of that charming book. In this innocent passion my gray-haired comrades, Howard Crosby, the Chancellor of the University of New York, and my father, an ex-Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, were ardent but generous rivals.

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How great is the joy and how fascinating the pursuit of such an ethereal affection! It enlarges the heart without embarrassing the conscience. It is a cup of pure gladness with no bitterness in its dregs. It spends the present moment with a free hand, and yet leaves no undesirable mortgage upon the future. King Arthur, the founder of the Round Table, expressed a conviction, according to Tennyson, that the most important element in a young knight's education is "the maiden passion for a maid." Surely the safest form in which this course in the curriculum may be taken is by falling in love with a girl in a book. It is the only affair of the kind into which a young fellow can enter without responsibility, and out of which he can always emerge, when necessary, without discredit. And as for the old fellow who still keeps up this education of the heart, and worships his heroine with the ardour of a John Ridd and the fidelity of a Henry Esmond, I maintain that he is exempt from all the penalties of declining years. The man who can love a girl in a book may be old, but never aged.

So we sailed, lovers all three, among the Western Isles, and whatever ship it was that carried us, her figurehead was always the Princess Sheila. Along the ruffled blue waters of the sounds and lochs that wind among the roots of unpronounceable mountains, and past the dark hills of Skye, and through the unnumbered flocks of craggy islets where the sea-birds nest, the spell of the sweet Highland maid drew us, and we were pilgrims to the Ultima Thule where she lived and reigned.

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Little Rivers
Henry van Dyke

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