AFOOT IN ENGLAND
By W.H. Hudson
I. Guide Books: An Introduction, II. On Going Back, III. Walking and Cycling, IV. Seeking a Shelter, V. Wind, Wave, and Spirit, VI. By Swallowfield, VII. Roman Calleva, VIII. A Cold Day at Silchester, IX. Rural Rides, X. The Last of his Name, XI. Salisbury and its Doves, XII. Whitesheet Hill, XIII. Bath and Wells Revisited, XIV. The Return of the Native, XV. Summer Days on the Otter, XVI. In Praise of the Cow, XVII. An Old Road Leading Nowhere, XVIII. Branscombe, XIX. A Abbotsbury, XX. Salisbury Revisited, XXI. Stonehenge, XXII. The Tillage and "The Stones," XXIII. Following a River, XXIV. Troston, XXV. My Friend Jack,
Chapter One: Guide-Books: An Introduction
Guide-books are so many that it seems probable we have more than any other country—possibly more than all the rest of the universe together. Every county has a little library of its own—guides to its towns, churches, abbeys, castles, rivers, mountains; finally, to the county as a whole. They are of all prices and all sizes, from the diminutive paper-covered booklet, worth a penny, to the stout cloth-bound octavo volume which costs eight or ten or twelve shillings, or to the gigantic folio county history, the huge repository from which the guide-book maker gets his materials. For these great works are also guide-books, containing everything we want to learn, only made on so huge a scale as to be suited to the coat pockets of Brobdingnagians rather than of little ordinary men. The wonder of it all comes in when we find that these books, however old and comparatively worthless they may be, are practically never wholly out of date. When a new work is brought out (dozens appear annually) and, say, five thousand copies sold, it does not throw as many, or indeed any, copies of the old book out of circulation: it supersedes nothing. If any man can indulge in the luxury of a new up-to-date guide to any place, and gets rid of his old one (a rare thing to do), this will be snapped up by poorer men, who will treasure it and hand it down or on to others. Editions of 1860-50-40, and older, are still prized, not merely as keepsakes but for study or reference. Any one can prove this by going the round of a dozen second-hand booksellers in his own district in London. There will be tons of literary rubbish, and good stuff old and new, but few guidebooks—in some cases not one. If you ask your man at a venture for, say, a guide to Hampshire, he will most probably tell you that he has not one in stock; then, in his anxiety to do business, he will, perhaps, fish out a guide to Derbyshire, dated 1854—a shabby old book—and offer it for four or five shillings, the price of a Crabbe in eight volumes, or of Gibbon's Decline and Fall in six volumes, bound in calf. Talk to this man, and to the other eleven, and they will tell you that there is always a sale for guide-books—that the supply does not keep pace with the demand. It may be taken as a fact that most of the books of this kind published during the last half-century—many millions of copies in the aggregate—are still in existence and are valued possessions.
There is nothing to quarrel with in all this. As a people we run about a great deal; and having curious minds we naturally wish to know all there is to be known, or all that is interesting to know, about the places we visit. Then, again, our time as a rule being limited, we want the whole matter—history, antiquities, places of interest in the neighbourhood, etc. in a nutshell. The brief book serves its purpose well enough; but it is not thrown away like the newspaper and the magazines; however cheap and badly got up it may be, it is taken home to serve another purpose, to be a help to memory, and nobody can have it until its owner removes himself (but not his possessions) from this planet; or until the broker seizes his belongings, and guide-books, together with other books, are disposed of in packages by the auctioneer.
In all this we see that guide-books are very important to us, and that there is little or no fault to be found with them, since even the worst give some guidance and enable us in after times mentally to revisit distant places. It may then be said that there are really no bad guide-books, and that those that are good in the highest sense are beyond praise. A reverential sentiment, which is almost religious in character, connects itself in our minds with the very name of Murray. It is, however, possible to make an injudicious use of these books, and by so doing to miss the fine point of many a pleasure. The very fact that these books are guides to us and invaluable, and that we readily acquire the habit of taking them about with us and consulting them at frequent intervals, comes between us and that rarest and most exquisite enjoyment to be experienced amidst novel scenes. He that visits a place new to him for some special object rightly informs himself of all that the book can tell him. The knowledge may be useful; pleasure is with him a secondary object. But if pleasure be the main object, it will only be experienced in the highest degree by him who goes without book and discovers what old Fuller called the "observables" for himself. There will be no mental pictures previously formed; consequently what is found will not disappoint. When the mind has been permitted to dwell beforehand on any scene, then, however beautiful or grand it may be, the element of surprise is wanting and admiration is weak. The delight has been discounted.
My own plan, which may be recommended only to those who go out for pleasure—who value happiness above useless (otherwise useful) knowledge, and the pictures that live and glow in memory above albums and collections of photographs—is not to look at a guide-book until the place it treats of has been explored and left behind.
The practical person, to whom this may come as a new idea and who wishes not to waste any time in experiments, would doubtless like to hear how the plan works. He will say that he certainly wants all the happiness to be got out of his rambles, but it is clear that without the book in his pocket he would miss many interesting things: Would the greater degree of pleasure experienced in the others be a sufficient compensation? I should say that he would gain more than he would lose; that vivid interest and pleasure in a few things is preferable to that fainter, more diffused feeling experienced in the other case. Again, we have to take into account the value to us of the mental pictures gathered in our wanderings. For we know that only when a scene is viewed emotionally, when it produces in us a shock of pleasure, does it become a permanent possession of the mind; in other words, it registers an image which, when called up before the inner eye, is capable of reproducing a measure of the original delight.
In recalling those scenes which have given me the greatest happiness, the images of which are most vivid and lasting, I find that most of them are of scenes or objects which were discovered, as it were, by chance, which I had not heard of, or else had heard of and forgotten, or which I had not expected to see. They came as a surprise, and in the following instance one may see that it makes a vast difference whether we do or do not experience such a sensation.
In the course of a ramble on foot in a remote district I came to a small ancient town, set in a cuplike depression amidst high wood-grown hills. The woods were of oak in spring foliage, and against that vivid green I saw the many-gabled tiled roofs and tall chimneys of the old timbered houses, glowing red and warm brown in the brilliant sunshine—a scene of rare beauty, and yet it produced no shock of pleasure; never, in fact, had I looked on a lovely scene for the first time so unemotionally. It seemed to be no new scene, but an old familiar one; and that it had certain degrading associations which took away all delight.
The reason of this was that a great railway company had long been "booming" this romantic spot, and large photographs, plain and coloured, of the town and its quaint buildings had for years been staring at me in every station and every railway carriage which I had entered on that line. Photography degrades most things, especially open-air things; and in this case, not only had its poor presentments made the scene too familiar, but something of the degradation in the advertising pictures seemed to attach itself to the very scene. Yet even here, after some pleasureless days spent in vain endeavours to shake off these vulgar associations, I was to experience one of the sweetest surprises and delights of my life.
The church of this village-like town is one of its chief attractions; it is a very old and stately building, and its perpendicular tower, nearly a hundred feet high, is one of the noblest in England. It has a magnificent peal of bells, and on a Sunday afternoon they were ringing, filling and flooding that hollow in the hills, seeming to make the houses and trees and the very earth to tremble with the glorious storm of sound. Walking past the church, I followed the streamlet that runs through the town and out by a cleft between the hills to a narrow marshy valley, on the other side of which are precipitous hills, clothed from base to summit in oak woods. As I walked through the cleft the musical roar of the bells followed, and was like a mighty current flowing through and over me; but as I came out the sound from behind ceased suddenly and was now in front, coming back from the hills before me. A sound, but not the same—not a mere echo; and yet an echo it was, the most wonderful I had ever heard. For now that great tempest of musical noise, composed of a multitude of clanging notes with long vibrations, overlapping and mingling and clashing together, seemed at the same time one and many—that tempest from the tower which had mysteriously ceased to be audible came back in strokes or notes distinct and separate and multiplied many times. The sound, the echo, was distributed over the whole face of the steep hill before me, and was changed in character, and it was as if every one of those thousands of oak trees had a peal of bells in it, and that they were raining that far-up bright spiritual tree music down into the valley below. As I stood listening it seemed to me that I had never heard anything so beautiful, nor had any man—not the monk of Eynsham in that vision when he heard the Easter bells on the holy Saturday evening, and described the sound as "a ringing of a marvellous sweetness, as if all the bells in the world, or whatsoever is of sounding, had been rung together at once."
Here, then, I had found and had become the possessor of something priceless, since in that moment of surprise and delight the mysterious beautiful sound, with the whole scene, had registered an impression which would outlast all others received at that place, where I had viewed all things with but languid interest. Had it not come as a complete surprise, the emotion experienced and the resultant mental image would not have been so vivid; as it is, I can mentally stand in that valley when I will, seeing that green-wooded hill in front of me and listen to that unearthly music.
Naturally, after quitting the spot, I looked at the first opportunity into a guide-book of the district, only to find that it contained not one word about those wonderful illusive sounds! The book-makers had not done their work well, since it is a pleasure after having discovered something delightful for ourselves to know how others have been affected by it and how they describe it.
Of many other incidents of the kind I will, in this chapter, relate one more, which has a historical or legendary interest. I was staying with the companion of my walks at a village in Southern England in a district new to us. We arrived on a Saturday, and next morning after breakfast went out for a long walk. Turning into the first path across the fields on leaving the village, we came eventually to an oak wood, which was like an open forest, very wild and solitary. In half an hour's walk among the old oaks and underwood we saw no sign of human occupancy, and heard nothing but the woodland birds. We heard, and then saw, the cuckoo for the first time that season, though it was but April the fourth. But the cuckoo was early that spring and had been heard by some from the middle of March. At length, about half-past ten o'clock, we caught sight of a number of people walking in a kind of straggling procession by a path which crossed ours at right angles, headed by a stout old man in a black smock frock and brown leggings, who carried a big book in one hand. One of the processionists we spoke to told us they came from a hamlet a mile away on the borders of the wood and were on their way to church. We elected to follow them, thinking that the church was at some neighbouring village; to our surprise we found it was in the wood, with no other building in sight—a small ancient-looking church built on a raised mound, surrounded by a wide shallow grass-grown trench, on the border of a marshy stream. The people went in and took their seats, while we remained standing just by the door. Then the priest came from the vestry, and seizing the rope vigorously, pulled at it for five minutes, after which he showed us where to sit and the service began. It was very pleasant there, with the door open to the sunlit forest and the little green churchyard without, with a willow wren, the first I had heard, singing his delicate little strain at intervals.
The service over, we rambled an hour longer in the wood, then returned to our village, which had a church of its own, and our landlady, hearing where we had been, told us the story, or tradition, of the little church in the wood. Its origin goes very far back to early Norman times, when all the land in this part was owned by one of William's followers on whom it had been bestowed. He built himself a house or castle on the edge of the forest, where he lived with his wife and two little daughters who were his chief delight. It happened that one day when he was absent the two little girls with their female attendant went into the wood in search of flowers, and that meeting a wild boar they turned and fled, screaming for help. The savage beast pursued, and, quickly overtaking them, attacked the hindermost, the youngest of the two little girls, anal killed her, the others escaping in the meantime. On the following day the father returned, and was mad with grief and rage on hearing of the tragedy, and in his madness resolved to go alone on foot to the forest and search for the beast and taste no food or drink until he had slain it. Accordingly to the forest he went, and roamed through it by day and night, and towards the end of the following day he actually found and roused the dreadful animal, and although weakened by his long fast and fatigue, his fury gave him force to fight and conquer it, or else the powers above came to his aid; for when he stood spear in hand to wait the charge of the furious beast he vowed that if he overcame it on that spot he would build a chapel, where God would be worshipped for ever. And there it was raised and has stood to this day, its doors open every Sunday to worshippers, with but one break, some time in the sixteenth century to the third year of Elizabeth, since when there has been no suspension of the weekly service.
That the tradition is not true no one can say. We know that the memory of an action or tragedy of a character to stir the feelings and impress the imagination may live unrecorded in any locality for long centuries. And more, we know or suppose, from at least one quite familiar instance from Flintshire, that a tradition may even take us back to prehistoric times and find corroboration in our own day.
But of this story what corroboration is there, and what do the books say? I have consulted the county history, and no mention is made of such a tradition, and can only assume that the author had never heard it—that he had not the curious Aubrey mind. He only says that it is a very early church—how early he does not know—and adds that it was built "for the convenience of the inhabitants of the place." An odd statement, seeing that the place has every appearance of having always been what it is, a forest, and that the inhabitants thereof are weasels, foxes, jays and such-like, and doubtless in former days included wolves, boars, roe-deer and stags, beings which, as Walt Whitman truly remarks, do not worry themselves about their souls.
With this question, however, we need not concern ourselves. To me, after stumbling by chance on the little church in that solitary woodland place, the story of its origin was accepted as true; no doubt it had come down unaltered from generation to generation through all those centuries, and it moved my pity yet was a delight to hear, as great perhaps as it had been to listen to the beautiful chimes many times multiplied from the wooded hill. And if I have a purpose in this book, which is without a purpose, a message to deliver and a lesson to teach, it is only this—the charm of the unknown, and the infinitely greater pleasure in discovering the interesting things for ourselves than in informing ourselves of them by reading. It is like the difference in flavour in wild fruits and all wild meats found and gathered by our own hands in wild places and that of the same prepared and put on the table for us. The ever-varying aspects of nature, of earth and sea and cloud, are a perpetual joy to the artist, who waits and watches for their appearance, who knows that sun and atmosphere have for him revelations without end. They come and go and mock his best efforts; he knows that his striving is in vain—that his weak hands and earthy pigments cannot reproduce these effects or express his feeling—that, as Leighton said, "every picture is a subject thrown away." But he has his joy none the less; it is in the pursuit and in the dream of capturing something illusive, mysterious, and inexpressibly beautiful.
Chapter Two: On Going Back
In looking over the preceding chapter it occurred to me that I had omitted something, or rather that it would have been well to drop a word of warning to those who have the desire to revisit a place where they have experienced a delightful surprise. Alas! they cannot have that sensation a second time, and on this account alone the mental image must always be better than its reality. Let the image—the first sharp impression—content us. Many a beautiful picture is spoilt by the artist who cannot be satisfied that he has made the best of his subject, and retouching his canvas to bring out some subtle charm which made the work a success loses it altogether. So in going back, the result of the inevitable disillusionment is that the early mental picture loses something of its original freshness. The very fact that the delightful place or scene was discovered by us made it the shining place it is in memory. And again, the charm we found in it may have been in a measure due to the mood we were in, or to the peculiar aspect in which it came before us at the first, due to the season, to atmospheric and sunlight effects, to some human interest, or to a conjunction of several favourable circumstances; we know we can never see it again in that aspect and with that precise feeling.
On this account I am shy of revisiting the places where I have experienced the keenest delight. For example, I have no desire to revisit that small ancient town among the hills, described in the last chapter; to go on a Sunday evening through that narrow gorge, filled with the musical roar of the church bells; to leave that great sound behind and stand again listening to the marvellous echo from the wooded hill on the other side of the valley. Nor would I care to go again in search of that small ancient lost church in the forest. It would not be early April with the clear sunbeams shining through the old leafless oaks on the floor of fallen yellow leaves with the cuckoo fluting before his time; nor would that straggling procession of villagers appear, headed by an old man in a smock frock with a big book in his hand; nor would I hear for the first time the strange history of the church which so enchanted me.
I will here give an account of yet another of the many well-remembered delightful spots which I would not revisit, nor even look upon again if I could avoid doing so by going several miles out of my way.
It was green open country in the west of England—very far west, although on the east side of the Tamar—in a beautiful spot remote from railroads and large towns, and the road by which I was travelling (on this occasion on a bicycle) ran or serpentined along the foot of a range of low round hills on my right hand, while on my left I had a green valley with other low round green hills beyond it. The valley had a marshy stream with sedgy margins and occasional clumps of alder and willow trees. It was the end of a hot midsummer day; the sun went down a vast globe of crimson fire in a crystal clear sky; and as I was going east I was obliged to dismount and stand still to watch its setting. When the great red disc had gone down behind the green world I resumed my way but went slowly, then slower still, the better to enjoy the delicious coolness which came from the moist valley and the beauty of the evening in that solitary place which I had never looked on before. Nor was there any need to hurry; I had but three or four miles to go to the small old town where I intended passing the night. By and by the winding road led me down close to the stream at a point where it broadened to a large still pool. This was the ford, and on the other side was a small rustic village, consisting of a church, two or three farm-houses with their barns and outbuildings, and a few ancient-looking stone cottages with thatched roofs. But the church was the main thing; it was a noble building with a very fine tower, and from its size and beauty I concluded that it was an ancient church dating back to the time when there was a passion in the West Country and in many parts of England of building these great fanes even in the remotest and most thinly populated parishes. In this I was mistaken through having seen it at a distance from the other side of the ford after the sun had set.
Never, I thought, had I seen a lovelier village with its old picturesque cottages shaded by ancient oaks and elms, and the great church with its stately tower looking dark against the luminous western sky. Dismounting again I stood for some time admiring the scene, wishing that I could make that village my home for the rest of my life, conscious at the same time that is was the mood, the season, the magical hour which made it seem so enchanting. Presently a young man, the first human figure that presented itself to my sight, appeared, mounted on a big carthorse and leading a second horse by a halter, and rode down into the pool to bathe the animals' legs and give them a drink. He was a sturdy-looking young fellow with a sun-browned face, in earth-coloured, working clothes, with a small cap stuck on the back of his round curly head; he probably imagined himself not a bad-looking young man, for while his horses were drinking he laid over on the broad bare backs and bending down studied his own reflection in the bright water. Then an old woman came out of a cottage close by, and began talking to him in her West Country dialect in a thin high-pitched cracked voice. Their talking was the only sound in the village; so silent was it that all the rest of its inhabitants might have been in bed and fast asleep; then, the conversation ended, the young man rode out with a great splashing and the old woman turned into her cottage again, and I was left in solitude.
Still I lingered: I could not go just yet; the chances were that I should never again see that sweet village in that beautiful aspect at the twilight hour.
For now it came into my mind that I could not very well settle there for the rest of my life; I could not, in fact, tie myself to any place without sacrificing certain other advantages I possessed; and the main thing was that by taking root I should deprive myself of the chance of looking on still other beautiful scenes and experiencing other sweet surprises. I was wishing that I had come a little earlier on the scene to have had time to borrow the key of the church and get a sight of the interior, when all at once I heard a shrill voice and a boy appeared running across the wide green space of the churchyard. A second boy followed, then another, then still others, and I saw that they were going into the church by the side door. They were choir-boys going to practice. The church was open then, and late as it was I could have half an hour inside before it was dark! The stream was spanned by an old stone bridge above the ford, and going over it I at once made my way to the great building, but even before entering it I discovered that it possessed an organ of extraordinary power and that someone was performing on it with a vengeance. Inside the noise was tremendous—a bigger noise from an organ, it seemed to me, than I had ever heard before, even at the Albert Hall and the Crystal Palace, but even more astonishing than the uproar was the sight that met my eyes. The boys, nine or ten sturdy little rustics with round sunburnt West Country faces, were playing the roughest game ever witnessed in a church. Some were engaged in a sort of flying fight, madly pursuing one another up and down the aisles and over the pews, and whenever one overtook another he would seize hold of him and they would struggle together until one was thrown and received a vigorous pommelling. Those who were not fighting were dancing to the music. It was great fun to them, and they were shouting and laughing their loudest only not a sound of it all could be heard on account of the thunderous roar of the organ which filled and seemed to make the whole building tremble. The boys took no notice of me, and seeing that there was a singularly fine west window, I went to it and stood there some time with my back to the game which was going on at the other end of the building, admiring the beautiful colours and trying to make out the subjects depicted. In the centre part, lit by the after-glow in the sky to a wonderful brilliance, was the figure of a saint, a lovely young woman in a blue robe with an abundance of loose golden-red hair and an aureole about her head. Her pale face wore a sweet and placid expression, and her eyes of a pure forget-me-not blue were looking straight into mine. As I stood there the music, or noise, ceased and a very profound silence followed—not a giggle, not a whisper from the outrageous young barbarians, and not a sound of the organist or of anyone speaking to them. Presently I became conscious of some person standing almost but not quite abreast of me, and turning sharply I found a clergyman at my side. He was the vicar, the person who had been letting himself go on the organ; a slight man with a handsome, pale, ascetic face, clean-shaven, very dark-eyed, looking more like an Italian monk or priest than an English clergyman. But although rigidly ecclesiastic in his appearance and dress, there was something curiously engaging in him, along with a subtle look which it was not easy to fathom. There was a light in his dark eyes which reminded me of a flame seen through a smoked glass or a thin black veil, and a slight restless movement about the corners of his mouth as if a smile was just on the point of breaking out. But it never quite came; he kept his gravity even when he said things which would have gone very well with a smile.
"I see," he spoke, and his penetrating musical voice had, too, like his eyes and mouth, an expression of mystery in it, "that you are admiring our beautiful west window, especially the figure in the centre. It is quite new—everything is new here—the church itself was only built a few years ago. This window is its chief glory: it was done by a good artist—he has done some of the most admired windows of recent years; and the centre figure is supposed to be a portrait of our generous patroness. At all events she sat for it to him. You have probably heard of Lady Y—?"
"What!" I exclaimed. "Lady Y—: that funny old woman!"
"No—middle-aged," he corrected, a little frigidly and perhaps a little mockingly at the same time.
"Very well, middle-aged if you like; I don't know her personally. One hears about her; but I did not know she had a place in these parts."
"She owns most of this parish and has done so much for us that we can very well look leniently on a little weakness—her wish that the future inhabitants of the place shall not remember her as a middle-aged woman not remarkable for good looks—'funny,' as you just now said."
He was wonderfully candid, I thought. But what extraordinary benefits had she bestowed on them, I asked, to enable them to regard, or to say, that this picture of a very beautiful young female was her likeness!
"Why," he said, "the church would not have been built but for her. We were astonished at the sum she offered to contribute towards the work, and at once set about pulling the small old church down so as to rebuild on the exact site."
"Do you know," I returned, "I can't help saying something you will not like to hear. It is a very fine church, no doubt, but it always angers me to hear of a case like this where some ancient church is pulled down and a grand new one raised in its place to the honour and glory of some rich parvenu with or without a brand new title."
"You are not hurting me in the least," he replied, with that change which came from time to time in his eyes as if the flame behind the screen had suddenly grown brighter. "I agree with every word you say; the meanest church in the land should be cherished as long as it will hold together. But unfortunately ours had to come down. It was very old and decayed past mending. The floor was six feet below the level of the surrounding ground and frightfully damp. It had been examined over and over again by experts during the past forty or fifty years, and from the first they pronounced it a hopeless case, so that it was never restored. The interior, right down to the time of demolition, was like that of most country churches of a century ago, with the old black worm-eaten pews, in which the worshippers shut themselves up as if in their own houses or castles. On account of the damp we were haunted by toads. You smile, sir, but it was no smiling matter for me during my first year as vicar, when I discovered that it was the custom here to keep pet toads in the church. It sounds strange and funny, no doubt, but it is a fact that all the best people in the parish had one of these creatures, and it was customary for the ladies to bring it a weekly supply of provisions—bits of meat, hard-boiled eggs chopped up, and earth-worms, and whatever else they fancied it would like—in their reticules. The toads, I suppose, knew when it was Sunday—their feeding day; at all events they would crawl out of their holes in the floor under the pews to receive their rations—and caresses. The toads got on my nerves with rather unpleasant consequences. I preached in a way which my listeners did not appreciate or properly understand, particularly when I took for my subject our duty towards the lower animals, including reptiles."
"Batrachians," I interposed, echoing as well as I could the tone in which he had rebuked me before.
"Very well, batrachians—I am not a naturalist. But the impression created on their minds appeared to be that I was rather an odd person in the pulpit. When the time came to pull the old church down the toad-keepers were bidden to remove their pets, which they did with considerable reluctance. What became of them I do not know—I never inquired. I used to have a careful inspection made of the floor to make sure that these creatures were not put back in the new building, and I am happy to think it is not suited to their habits. The floors are very well cemented, and are dry and clean."
Having finished his story he invited me to go to the parsonage and get some refreshment. "I daresay you are thirsty," he said.
But it was getting late; it was almost dark in the church by now, although the figure of the golden-haired saint still glowed in the window and gazed at us out of her blue eyes. "I must not waste more of your time," I added. "There are your boys still patiently waiting to begin their practice—such nice quiet fellows!"
"Yes, they are," he returned a little bitterly, a sudden accent of weariness in his voice and no trace now of what I had seen in his countenance a little while ago—the light that shone and brightened behind the dark eye and the little play about the corners of the mouth as of dimpling motions on the surface of a pool.
And in that new guise, or disguise, I left him, the austere priest with nothing to suggest the whimsical or grotesque in his cold ascetic face. Recrossing the bridge I stood a little time and looked once more at the noble church tower standing dark against the clear amber-coloured sky, and said to myself: "Why, this is one of the oddest incidents of my life! Not that I have seen or heard anything very wonderful—just a small rustic village, one of a thousand in the land; a big new church in which some person was playing rather madly on the organ, a set of unruly choir-boys; a handsome stained-glass west window, and, finally, a nice little chat with the vicar." It was not in these things; it was a sense of something strange in the mind, of something in some way unlike all other places and people and experiences. The sensation was like that of the reader who becomes absorbed in Henry Newbolt's romance of The Old Country, who identifies himself with the hero and unconsciously, or without quite knowing how, slips back out of this modern world into that of half a thousand years ago. It is the same familiar green land in which he finds himself—the same old country and the same sort of people with feelings and habits of life and thought unchangeable as the colour of grass and flowers, the songs of birds and the smell of the earth, yet with a difference. I recognized it chiefly in the parish priest I had been conversing with; for one thing, his mediaeval mind evidently did not regard a sense of humour and of the grotesque as out of place in or on a sacred building. If it had been lighter I should have looked at the roof for an effigy of a semi-human toad-like creature smiling down mockingly at the worshippers as they came and went.
On departing it struck me that it would assuredly be a mistake to return to this village and look at it again by the common lights of day. No, it was better to keep the impressions I had gathered unspoilt; even to believe, if I could, that no such place existed, but that it had existed exactly as I had found it, even to the unruly choir-boys, the ascetic-looking priest with a strange light in his eyes, and the worshippers who kept pet toads in the church. They were not precisely like people of the twentieth century. As for the eccentric middle-aged or elderly person whose portrait adorned the west window, she was not the lady I knew something about, but another older Lady Y—, who flourished some six or seven centuries ago.
Chapter Three: Walking and Cycling
We know that there cannot be progression without retrogression, or gain with no corresponding loss; and often on my wheel, when flying along the roads at a reckless rate of very nearly nine miles an hour, I have regretted that time of limitations, galling to me then, when I was compelled to go on foot. I am a walker still, but with other means of getting about I do not feel so native to the earth as formerly. That is a loss. Yet a poorer walker it would have been hard to find, and on even my most prolonged wanderings the end of each day usually brought extreme fatigue. This, too, although my only companion was slow—slower than the poor proverbial snail or tortoise—and I would leave her half a mile or so behind to force my way through unkept hedges, climb hills, and explore woods and thickets to converse with every bird and shy little beast and scaly creature I could discover. But mark what follows. In the late afternoon I would be back in the road or footpath, satisfied to go slow, then slower still, until—the snail in woman shape would be obliged to slacken her pace to keep me company, and even to stand still at intervals to give me needful rest.
But there were compensations, and one, perhaps the best of all, was that this method of seeing the country made us more intimate with the people we met and stayed with. They were mostly poor people, cottagers in small remote villages; and we, too, were poor, often footsore, in need of their ministrations, and nearer to them on that account than if we had travelled in a more comfortable way. I can recall a hundred little adventures we met with during those wanderings, when we walked day after day, without map or guide-book as our custom was, not knowing where the evening would find us, but always confident that the people to whom it would fall in the end to shelter us would prove interesting to know and would show us a kindness that money could not pay for. Of these hundred little incidents let me relate one.
It was near the end of a long summer day when we arrived at a small hamlet of about a dozen cottages on the edge of an extensive wood—a forest it is called; and, coming to it, we said that here we must stay, even if we had to spend the night sitting in a porch. The men and women we talked to all assured us that they did not know of anyone who could take us in, but there was Mr. Brownjohn, who kept the shop, and was the right person to apply to. Accordingly we went to the little general shop and heard that Mr. Brownjohn was not at home. His housekeeper, a fat, dark, voluble woman with prominent black eyes, who minded the shop in the master's absence, told us that Mr. Brownjohn had gone to a neighbouring farm-house on important business, but was expected back shortly. We waited, and by and by he returned, a shabbily dressed, weak-looking little old man, with pale blue eyes and thin yellowish white hair. He could not put us up, he said, he had no room in his cottage; there was nothing for us but to go on to the next place, a village three miles distant, on the chance of finding a bed there. We assured him that we could go no further, and after revolving the matter a while longer he again said that we could not stay, as there was not a room to be had in the place since poor Mrs. Flowerdew had her trouble. She had a spare room and used to take in a lodger occasionally, and a good handy woman she was too; but now—no, Mrs. Flowerdew could not take us in. We questioned him, and he said that no one had died there and there had been no illness. They were all quite well at Mrs. Flowerdew's; the trouble was of another kind. There was no more to be said about it.
As nothing further could be got out of him we went in search of Mrs. Flowerdew herself, and found her in a pretty vine-clad cottage. She was a young woman, very poorly dressed, with a pleasing but careworn face, and she had four small, bright, healthy, happy-faced children. They were all grouped round her as she stood in the doorway to speak to us, and they too were poorly dressed and poorly shod. When we told our tale she appeared ready to burst into tears. Oh, how unfortunate it was that she could not take us in! It would have made her so happy, and the few shillings would have been such a blessing! But what could she do now—the landlord's agent had put in a distress and carried off and sold all her best things. Every stick out of her nice spare room had been taken from them! Oh, it was cruel!
As we wished to hear more she told us the whole story. They had got behindhand with the rent, but that had often been the case, only this time it happened that the agent wanted a cottage for a person he wished to befriend, and so gave them notice to quit. But her husband was a high-spirited man and determined to stick to his rights, so he informed the agent that he refused to move until he received compensation for his improvements.
Questioned about these improvements, she led us through to the back to show us the ground, about half an acre in extent, part of which was used as a paddock for the donkey, and on the other part there were about a dozen rather sickly-looking young fruit trees. Her husband, she said, had planted the orchard and kept the fence of the paddock in order, and they refused to compensate him! Then she took us up to the spare room, empty of furniture, the floor thick with dust. The bed, table, chairs, washhandstand, toilet service—the things she had been so long struggling to get together, saving her money for months and months, and making so many journeys to the town to buy—all, all he had taken away and sold for almost nothing!
Then, actually with tears in her eyes, she said that now we knew why she couldn't take us in—why she had to seem so unkind.
But we are going to stay, we told her. It was a very good room; she could surely get a few things to put in it, and in the meantime we would go and forage for provisions to last us till Monday.
It is odd to find how easy it is to get what one wants by simply taking it! At first she was amazed at our decision, then she was delighted and said she would go out to her neighbours and try to borrow all that was wanted in the way of furniture and bedding. Then we returned to Mr. Brownjohn's to buy bread, bacon, and groceries, and he in turn sent us to Mr. Marling for vegetables. Mr. Marling heard us, and soberly taking up a spade and other implements led us out to his garden and dug us a mess of potatoes while we waited. In the meantime good Mrs. Flowerdew had not been idle, and we formed the idea that her neighbours must have been her debtors for unnumbered little kindnesses, so eager did they now appear to do her a good turn. Out of one cottage a woman was seen coming burdened with a big roll of bedding; from others children issued bearing cane chairs, basin and ewer, and so on, and when we next looked into our room we found it swept and scrubbed, mats on the floor, and quite comfortably furnished.
After our meal in the small parlour, which had been given up to us, the family having migrated into the kitchen, we sat for an hour by the open window looking out on the dim forest and saw the moon rise—a great golden globe above the trees—and listened to the reeling of the nightjars. So many were the birds, reeling on all sides, at various distances, that the evening air seemed full of their sounds, far and near, like many low, tremulous, sustained notes blown on reeds, rising and falling, overlapping and mingling. And presently from the bushes close by, just beyond the weedy, forlorn little "orchard," sounded the rich, full, throbbing prelude to the nightingale's song, and that powerful melody that in its purity and brilliance invariably strikes us with surprise seemed to shine out, as it were, against the background of that diffused, mysterious purring of the nightjars, even as the golden disc of the moon shone against and above the darkening skies and dusky woods.
And as we sat there, gazing and listening, a human voice came out of the night—a call prolonged and modulated like the coo-ee of the Australian bush, far off and faint; but the children in the kitchen heard it at the same time, for they too had been listening, and instantly went mad with excitement.
"Father!" they all screamed together. "Father's coming!" and out they rushed and away they fled down the darkening road, exerting their full voices in shrill answering cries.
We were anxious to see this unfortunate man, who was yet happy in a loving family. He had gone early in the morning in his donkey-cart to the little market town, fourteen miles away, to get the few necessaries they could afford to buy. Doubtless they would be very few. We had not long to wait, as the white donkey that drew the cart had put on a tremendous spurt at the end, notwithstanding that the four youngsters had climbed in to add to his burden. But what was our surprise to behold in the charioteer a tall, gaunt, grey-faced old man with long white hair and beard! He must have been seventy, that old man with a young wife and four happy bright-eyed little children!
We could understand it better when he finally settled down in his corner in the kitchen and began to relate the events of the day, addressing his poor little wife, now busy darning or patching an old garment, while the children, clustered at his knee, listened as to a fairy tale. Certainly this white-haired man had not grown old in mind; he was keenly interested in all he saw and heard, and he had seen and heard much in the little market town that day. Cattle and pigs and sheep and shepherds and sheepdogs; farmers, shopkeepers, dealers, publicans, tramps, and gentlefolks in carriages and on horseback; shops, too, with beautiful new things in the windows; millinery, agricultural implements, flowers and fruit and vegetables; toys and books and sweeties of all colours. And the people he had met on the road and at market, and what they had said to him about the weather and their business and the prospects of the year, how their wives and children were, and the clever jokes they had made, and his own jokes, which were the cleverest of all. If he had just returned from Central Africa or from Thibet he could not have had more to tell them nor told it with greater zest.
We went to our room, but until the small hours the wind of the old traveller's talk could still be heard at intervals from the kitchen, mingled with occasional shrill explosions of laughter from the listening children.
It happened that on the following day, spent in idling in the forest and about the hamlet, conversing with the cottagers, we were told that our old man was a bit of a humbug; that he was a great talker, with a hundred schemes for the improvement of his fortunes, and, incidently, for the benefit of his neighbours and the world at large; but nothing came of it all and he was now fast sinking into the lowest depths of poverty. Yet who would blame him? 'Tis the nature of the gorse to be "unprofitably gay." All that, however, is a question for the moralist; the point now is that in walking, even in that poor way, when, on account of physical weakness, it was often a pain and weariness, there are alleviations which may be more to us than positive pleasures, and scenes to delight the eye that are missed by the wheelman in his haste, or but dimly seen or vaguely surmised in passing—green refreshing nooks and crystal streamlets, and shadowy woodland depths with glimpses of a blue sky beyond—all in the wilderness of the human heart.
Chapter Four: Seeking a Shelter
The "walks" already spoken of, at a time when life had little or no other pleasure for us on account of poverty and ill-health, were taken at pretty regular intervals two or three times a year. It all depended on our means; in very lean years there was but one outing. It was impossible to escape altogether from the immense unfriendly wilderness of London simply because, albeit "unfriendly," it yet appeared to be the only place in the wide world where our poor little talents could earn us a few shillings a week to live on. Music and literature! but I fancy the nearest crossing-sweeper did better, and could afford to give himself a more generous dinner every day. It occasionally happened that an article sent to some magazine was not returned, and always after so many rejections to have one accepted and paid for with a cheque worth several pounds was a cause of astonishment, and was as truly a miracle as if the angel of the sun had compassionately thrown us down a handful of gold. And out of these little handfuls enough was sometimes saved for the country rambles at Easter and Whitsuntide and in the autumn. It was during one of these Easter walks, when seeking for a resting-place for the night, that we met with another adventure worth telling.
We had got to that best part of Surrey not yet colonized by wealthy men from the City, but where all things are as they were of old, when, late in the day, we came to a pleasant straggling village with one street a mile long. Here we resolved to stay, and walked the length of the street making inquiries, but were told by every person we spoke to that the only place we could stay at was the inn—the "White Hart." When we said we preferred to stay at a cottage they smiled a pitying smile. No, there was no such place. But we were determined not to go to the inn, although it had a very inviting look, and was well placed with no other house near it, looking on the wide village green with ancient trees shading the road on either side.
Having passed it and got to the end of the village, we turned and walked back, still making vain inquiries, passing it again, and when once more at the starting-point we were in despair when we spied a man coming along the middle of the road and went out to meet him to ask the weary question for the last time. His appearance was rather odd as he came towards us on that blowy March evening with dust and straws flying past and the level sun shining full on him. He was tall and slim, with a large round smooth face and big pale-blue innocent-looking eyes, and he walked rapidly but in a peculiar jerky yet shambling manner, swinging and tossing his legs and arms about. Moving along in this disjointed manner in his loose fluttering clothes he put one in mind of a big flimsy newspaper blown along the road by the wind. This unpromising-looking person at once told us that there was a place where we could stay; he knew it well, for it happened to be his father's house and his own home. It was away at the other end of the village. His people had given accommodation to strangers before, and would be glad to receive us and make us comfortable.
Surprised, and a little doubtful of our good fortune, I asked my young man if he could explain the fact that so many of his neighbours had assured us that no accommodation was to be had in the village except at the inn. He did not make a direct reply. He said that the ways of the villagers were not the ways of his people. He and all his house cherished only kind feelings towards their neighbours; whether those feelings were returned or not, it was not for him to say. And there was something else. A small appointment which would keep a man from want for the term of his natural life, without absorbing all his time, had become vacant in the village. Several of the young men in the place were anxious to have it; then he, too, came forward as a candidate, and all the others jeered at him and tried to laugh him out of it. He cared nothing for that, and when the examination came off he proved the best man and got the place. He had fought his fight and had overcome all his enemies; if they did not like him any the better for his victory, and did and said little things to injure him, he did not mind much, he could afford to forgive them.
Having finished his story, he said good-bye, and went his way, blown, as it were, along the road by the wind.
We were now very curious to see the other members of his family; they would, we imagined, prove amusing, if nothing better. They proved a good deal better. The house we sought, for a house it was, stood a little way back from the street in a large garden. It had in former times been an inn, or farm-house, possibly a manor-house, and was large, with many small rooms, and short, narrow, crooked staircases, half-landings and narrow passages, and a few large rooms, their low ceilings resting on old oak beams, black as ebony. Outside, it was the most picturesque and doubtless the oldest house in the village; many-gabled, with very tall ancient chimneys, the roofs of red tiles mottled grey and yellow with age and lichen. It was a surprise to find a woodman—for that was what the man was—living in such a big place. The woodman himself, his appearance and character, gave us a second and greater surprise. He was a well-shaped man of medium height; although past middle life he looked young, and had no white thread in his raven-black hair and beard. His teeth were white and even, and his features as perfect as I have seen in any man. His eyes were pure dark blue, contrasting rather strangely with his pale olive skin and intense black hair. Only a woodman, but he might have come of one of the oldest and best families in the country, if there is any connection between good blood and fine features and a noble expression. Oddly enough, his surname was an uncommon and aristocratic one. His wife, on the other hand, although a very good woman as we found, had a distinctly plebeian countenance. One day she informed us that she came of a different and better class than her husband's. She was the daughter of a small tradesman, and had begun life as a lady's-maid: her husband was nothing but a labourer; his people had been labourers for generations, consequently her marriage to him had involved a considerable descent in the social scale. Hearing this, it was hard to repress a smile.
The contrast between this man and the ordinary villager of his class was as great in manners and conversation as in features and expression. His combined dignity and gentleness, and apparent unconsciousness of any caste difference between man and man, were astonishing in one who had been a simple toiler all his life.
There were some grown-up children, others growing up, with others that were still quite small. The boys, I noticed, favoured their mother, and had commonplace faces; the girls took after their father, and though their features were not so perfect they were exceptionally good-looking. The eldest son—the disjointed, fly-away-looking young man who had conquered all his enemies—had a wife and child. The eldest daughter was also married, and had one child. Altogether the three families numbered about sixteen persons, each family having its separate set of rooms, but all dining at one table. How did they do it? It seemed easy enough to them. They were serious people in a sense, although always cheerful and sometimes hilarious when together of an evening, or at their meals. But they regarded life as a serious matter, a state of probation; they were non-smokers, total abstainers, diligent at their work, united, profoundly religious. A fresh wonder came to light when I found that this poor woodman, with so large a family to support, who spent ten or twelve hours every day at his outdoor work, had yet been able out of his small earnings to buy bricks and other materials, and, assisted by his sons, to build a chapel adjoining his house. Here he held religious services on Sundays, and once or twice of an evening during the week. These services consisted of extempore prayers, a short address, and hymns accompanied by a harmonium, which they all appeared able to play.
What his particular doctrine was I did not inquire, nor did I wish for any information on that point. Doubtless he was a Dissenter of some kind living in a village where there was no chapel; the services were for the family, but were also attended by a few of the villagers and some persons from neighbouring farms who preferred a simpler form of worship to that of the Church.
It was not strange that this little community should have been regarded with something like disfavour by the other villagers. For these others, man for man, made just as much money, and paid less rent for their small cottages, and, furthermore, received doles from the vicar and his well-to-do parishioners, yet they could not better their position, much less afford the good clothing, books, music, and other pleasant things which the independent woodman bestowed on his family. And they knew why. The woodman's very presence in their midst was a continual reproach, a sermon on improvidence and intemperance, which they could not avoid hearing by thrusting their fingers into their ears.
During my stay with these people something occurred to cause them a very deep disquiet. The reader will probably smile when I tell them what it was. Awaking one night after midnight I heard the unusual sound of voices in earnest conversation in the room below; this went on until I fell asleep again. In the morning we noticed that our landlady had a somewhat haggard face, and that the daughters also had pale faces, with purple marks under the eyes, as if they had kept their mother company in some sorrowful vigil. We were not left long in ignorance of the cause of this cloud. The good woman asked if we had been much disturbed by the talking. I answered that I had heard voices and had supposed that friends from a distance had arrived overnight and that they had sat up talking to a late hour. No—that was not it, she said; but someone had arrived late, a son who was sixteen years old, and who had been absent for some days on a visit to relations in another county. When they gathered round him to hear his news he confessed that while away he had learnt to smoke, and he now wished them to know that he had well considered the matter, and was convinced that it was not wrong nor harmful to smoke, and was determined not to give up his tobacco. They had talked to him—father, mother, brothers, and sisters—using every argument they could find or invent to move him, until it was day and time for the woodman to go to his woods, and the others to their several occupations. But their "all-night sitting" had been wasted; the stubborn youth had not been convinced nor shaken. When, after morning prayers, they got up from their knees, the sunlight shining in upon them, they had made a last appeal with tears in their eyes, and he had refused to give the promise they asked. The poor woman was greatly distressed. This young fellow, I thought, favours his mother in features, but mentally he is perhaps more like his father. Being a smoker myself I ventured to put in a word for him. They were distressing themselves too much, I told her; smoking in moderation was not only harmless, especially to those who worked out of doors, but it was a well-nigh universal habit, and many leading men in the religious world, both churchmen and dissenters, were known to be smokers.
Her answer, which came quickly enough, was that they did not regard the practice of smoking as in itself bad, but they knew that in some circumstances it was inexpedient; and in the case of her son they were troubled at the thought of what smoking would ultimately lead to. People, she continued, did not care to smoke, any more than they did to eat and drink, in solitude. It was a social habit, and it was inevitable that her boy should look for others to keep him company in smoking. There would be no harm in that in the summer-time when young people like to keep out of doors until bedtime; but during the long winter evenings he would have to look for his companions in the parlour of the public-house. And it would not be easy, scarcely possible, to sit long among the others without drinking a little beer. It is really no more wrong to drink a little beer than to smoke, he would say; and it would be true. One pipe would lead to another and one glass of beer to another. The habit would be formed and at last all his evenings and all his earnings would be spent in the public-house.
She was right, and I had nothing more to say except to wish her success in her efforts.
It is curious that the strongest protests against the evils of the village pubic, which one hears from village women, come from those who are not themselves sufferers. Perhaps it is not curious. Instinctively we hide our sores, bodily and mental, from the public gaze.
Not long ago I was in a small rustic village in Wiltshire, perhaps the most charming village I have seen in that country. There was no inn or ale-house, and feeling very thirsty after my long walk I went to a cottage and asked the woman I saw there for a drink of milk. She invited me in, and spreading a clean cloth on the table, placed a jug of new milk, a loaf, and butter before me. For these good things she proudly refused to accept payment. As she was a handsome young woman, with a clear, pleasant voice, I was glad to have her sit there and talk to me while I refreshed myself. Besides, I was in search of information and got it from her during our talk. My object in going to the village was to see a woman who, I had been told, was living there. I now heard that her cottage was close by, but unfortunately, while anxious to see her, I had no excuse for calling.
"Do you think," said I to my young hostess, "that it would do to tell her that I had heard something of her strange history and misfortunes, and wished to offer her a little help? Is she very poor?"
"Oh, no," she replied. "Please do not offer her money, if you see her. She would be offended. There is no one in this village who would take a shilling as a gift from a stranger. We all have enough; there is not a poor person among us."
"What a happy village!" I exclaimed. "Perhaps you are all total abstainers."
She laughed, and said that they all brewed their own beer—there was not a total abstainer among them. Every cottager made from fifty to eighty gallons, or more, and they drank beer every day, but very moderately, while it lasted. They were all very sober; their children would have to go to some neighbouring village to see a tipsy man.
I remarked that at the next village, which had three public-houses, there were a good marry persons so poor that they would gladly at any time take a shilling from any one.
It was the same everywhere in the district, she said, except in that village which had no public-house. Not only were they better off, and independent of blanket societies and charity in all forms, but they were infinitely happier. And after the day's work the men came home to spend the evening with their wives and children.
At this stage I was surprised by a sudden burst of passion on her part. She stood up, her face flushing red, and solemnly declared that if ever a public-house was opened in that village, and if the men took to spending their evenings in it, her husband with them, she would not endure such a condition of things—she wondered that so many women endured it—but would take her little ones and go away to earn her own living under some other roof!
Chapter Five: Wind, Wave, and Spirit
The rambles I have described were mostly inland: when by chance they took us down to the sea our impressions and adventures appeared less interesting. Looking back on the holiday, it would seem to us a somewhat vacant time compared to one spent in wandering from village to village. I mean if we do not take into account that first impression which the sea invariably makes on us on returning to it after a long absence—the shock of recognition and wonder and joy as if we had been suffering from loss of memory and it had now suddenly come back to us. That brief moving experience over, there is little the sea can give us to compare with the land. How could it be otherwise in our case, seeing that we were by it in a crowd, our movements and way of life regulated for us in places which appear like overgrown and ill-organized convalescent homes? There was always a secret intense dislike of all parasitic and holiday places, an uncomfortable feeling which made the pleasure seem poor and the remembrance of days so spent hardly worth dwelling on. And as we are able to keep in or throw out of our minds whatever we please, being autocrats in our own little kingdom, I elected to cast away most of the memories of these comparatively insipid holidays. But not all, and of those I retain I will describe at least two, one in the present chapter on the East Anglian coast, the other later on.
It was cold, though the month was August; it blew and the sky was grey and rain beginning to fall when we came down about noon to a small town on the Norfolk coast, where we hoped to find lodging and such comforts as could be purchased out of a slender purse. It was a small modern pleasure town of an almost startling appearance owing to the material used in building its straight rows of cottages and its ugly square houses and villas. This was an orange-brown stone found in the neighbourhood, the roofs being all of hard, black slate. I had never seen houses of such a colour, it was stronger, more glaring and aggressive than the reddest brick, and there was not a green thing to partially screen or soften it, nor did the darkness of the wet weather have any mitigating effect on it. The town was built on high ground, with an open grassy space before it sloping down to the cliff in which steps had been cut to give access to the beach, and beyond the cliff we caught sight of the grey, desolate, wind-vexed sea. But the rain was coming down more and more heavily, turning the streets into torrents, so that we began to envy those who had found a shelter even in so ugly a place. No one would take us in. House after house, street after street, we tried, and at every door with "Apartments to Let" over it where we knocked the same hateful landlady-face appeared with the same triumphant gleam in the fish-eyes and the same smile on the mouth that opened to tell us delightedly that she and the town were "full up"; that never had there been known such a rush of visitors; applicants were being turned away every hour from every door!
After three miserable hours spent in this way we began inquiring at all the shops, and eventually at one were told of a poor woman in a small house in a street a good way back from the front who would perhaps be able to taken us in. To this place we went and knocked at a low door in a long blank wall in a narrow street; it was opened to us by a pale thin sad-looking woman in a rusty black gown, who asked us into a shabby parlour, and agreed to take us in until we could find something better. She had a gentle voice and was full of sympathy, and seeing our plight took us into the kitchen behind the parlour, which was living- and working-room as well, to dry ourselves by the fire.
"The greatest pleasure in life," said once a magnificent young athlete, a great pedestrian, to me, "is to rest when you are tired." And, I should add, to dry and warm yourself by a big fire when wet and cold, and to eat and drink when you are hungry and thirsty. All these pleasures were now ours, for very soon tea and chops were ready for us; and so strangely human, so sister-like did this quiet helpful woman seem after our harsh experiences on that rough rainy day—that we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune in having found such a haven, and soon informed her that we wanted no "better place."
She worked with her needle to support herself and her one child, a little boy of ten; and by and by when he came in pretty wet from some outdoor occupation we made his acquaintance and the discovery that he was a little boy of an original character. He was so much to his mother, who, poor soul, had nobody else in the world to love, that she was always haunted by the fear of losing him. He was her boy, the child of her body, exclusively her own, unlike all other boys, and her wise heart told her that if she put him in a school he would be changed so that she would no longer know him for her boy. For it is true that our schools are factories, with a machinery to unmake and remake, or fabricate, the souls of children much in the way in which shoddy is manufactured. You may see a thousand rags or garments of a thousand shapes and colours cast in to be boiled, bleached, pulled to pieces, combed and woven, and finally come out as a piece of cloth a thousand yards long of a uniform harmonious pattern, smooth, glossy, and respectable. His individuality gone, he would in a sense be lost to her; and although by nature a weak timid woman, though poor, and a stranger in a strange place, this thought, or feeling, or "ridiculous delusion" as most people would call it, had made her strong, and she had succeeded in keeping her boy out of school.
Hers was an interesting story. Left alone in the world she had married one in her own class, very happily as she imagined. He was in some business in a country town, well off enough to provide a comfortable home, and he was very good; in fact, his one fault was that he was too good, too open-hearted and fond of associating with other good fellows like himself, and of pledging them in the cup that cheers and at the same time inebriates. Nevertheless, things went very well for a time, until the child was born, the business declined, and they began to be a little pinched. Then it occurred to her that she, too, might be able to do something. She started dressmaking, and as she had good taste and was clever and quick, her business soon prospered. This pleased him; it relieved him from the necessity of providing for the home, and enabled him to follow his own inclination, which was to take things easily—to be an idle man, with a little ready money in his pocket for betting and other pleasures. The money was now provided out of "our business." This state of things continued without any change, except that process of degeneration which continued in him, until the child was about four years old, when all at once one day he told her they were not doing as well as they might. She was giving far too much of her time and attention to domestic matters—to the child especially. Business was business—a thing it was hard for a woman to understand—and it was impossible for her to give her mind properly to it with her thoughts occupied with the child. It couldn't be done. Let the child be put away, he said, and the receipts would probably be doubled. He had been making inquiries and found that for a modest annual payment the boy could be taken proper care of at a distance by good decent people he had heard of.
She had never suspected such a thought in his mind, and this proposal had the effect of a stunning blow. She answered not one word: he said his say and went out, and she knew she would not see him again for many hours, perhaps not for some days; she knew, too, that he would say no more to her on the subject, that it would all be arranged about the child with or without her consent. His will was law, her wishes nothing. For she was his wife and humble obedient slave; never had she pleaded with or admonished him and never complained, even when, after her long day of hard work, he came in at ten or eleven o'clock at night with several of his pals, all excited with drink and noisy as himself, to call for supper. Nevertheless she had been happy—intensely happy, because of the child. The love for the man she had married, wondering how one so bright and handsome and universally admired and liked could stoop to her, who had nothing but love and worship to give in return—that love was now gone and was not missed, so much greater and more satisfying was the love for her boy. And now she must lose him. Two or three silent miserable days passed by while she waited for the dreadful separation, until the thought of it became unendurable and she resolved to keep her child and sacrifice everything else. Secretly she prepared for flight, getting together the few necessary things she could carry; then, with the child in her arms, she stole out one evening and began her flight, which took her all across England at its widest part, and ended at this small coast town, the best hiding-place she could think of.
The boy was a queer little fellow, healthy but colourless, with strangely beautiful grey eyes which, on first seeing them, almost startled one with their intelligence. He was shy and almost obstinately silent, but when I talked to him on certain subjects the intense suppressed interest he felt would show itself in his face, and by and by it would burst out in speech—an impetuous torrent of words in a high shrill voice. He reminded me of a lark in a cage. Watch it in its prison when the sun shines forth—when, like the captive falcon in Dante, it is "cheated by a gleam"—its wing-tremblings, and all its little tentative motions, how the excitement grows and grows in it, until, although shut up and flight denied it, the passion can no longer be contained and it bursts out in a torrent of shrill and guttural sounds, which, if it were free and soaring, would be its song. His passion was all for nature, and his mother out of her small earnings had managed to get quite a number of volumes together for him. These he read and re-read until he knew them by heart; and on Sundays, or any other day they could take, those two lonely ones would take a basket containing their luncheon, her work and a book or two, and set out on a long ramble along the coast to pass the day in some solitary spot among the sandhills.
With these two, the gentle woman and her quiet boy over his book, and the kitchen fire to warm and dry us after each wetting, the bad weather became quite bearable although it lasted many days. And it was amazingly bad. The wind blew with a fury from the sea; it was hard to walk against it. The people in hundreds waited in their dull apartments for a lull, and when it came they poured out like hungry sheep from the fold, or like children from a school, swarming over the green slope down to the beach, to scatter far and wide over the sands. Then, in a little while; a new menacing blackness would come up out of the sea, and by and by a fresh storm of wind would send the people scuttling back into shelter. So it went on day after day, and when night came the sound of the ever-troubled sea grew louder, so that, shut up in our little rooms in that back street, we had it in our ears, except at intervals, when the wind howled loud enough to drown its great voice, and hurled tempests of rain and hail against the roofs and windows.
To me the most amazing thing was the spectacle of the swifts. It was late for them, near the end of August; they should now have been far away on their flight to Africa; yet here they were, delaying on that desolate east coast in wind and wet, more than a hundred of them. It was strange to see so many at one spot, and I could only suppose that they had congregated previous to migration at that unsuitable place, and were being kept back by the late breeders, who had not yet been wrought up to the point of abandoning their broods. They haunted a vast ruinous old barn-like building near the front, which was probably old a century before the town was built, and about fifteen to twenty pairs had their nests under the eaves. Over this building they hung all day in a crowd, rising high to come down again at a frantic speed, and at each descent a few birds could be seen to enter the holes, while others rushed out to join the throng, and then all rose and came down again and swept round and round in a furious chase, shrieking as if mad. At all hours they drew me to that spot, and standing there, marvelling at their swaying power and the fury that possessed them, they appeared to me like tormented beings, and were like those doomed wretches in the halls of Eblis whose hearts were in a blaze of unquenchable fire, and who, every one with hands pressed to his breast, went spinning round in an everlasting agonized dance. They were tormented and crazed by the two most powerful instincts of birds pulling in opposite directions—the parental instinct and the passion of migration which called them to the south.
In such weather, especially on that naked desolate coast, exposed to the fury of the winds, one marvels at our modern craze for the sea; not merely to come and gaze upon and listen to it, to renew our youth in its salt, exhilarating waters and to lie in delicious idleness on the warm shingle or mossy cliff; but to be always, for days and weeks and even for months, at all hours, in all weathers, close to it, with its murmur, "as of one in pain," for ever in our ears.
Undoubtedly it is an unnatural, a diseased, want in us, the result of a life too confined and artificial in close dirty overcrowded cities. It is to satisfy this craving that towns have sprung up everywhere on our coasts and extended their ugly fronts for miles and leagues, with their tens of thousands of windows from which the city-sickened wretches may gaze and gaze and listen and feed their sick souls with the ocean. That is to say, during their indoor hours; at other times they walk or sit or lie as close as they can to it, following the water as it ebbs and reluctantly retiring before it when it returns. It was not so formerly, before the discovery was made that the sea could cure us. Probably our great-grandfathers didn't even know they were sick; at all events, those who had to live in the vicinity of the sea were satisfied to be a little distance from it, out of sight of its grey desolation and, if possible, out of hearing of its "accents disconsolate." This may be seen anywhere on our coasts; excepting the seaports and fishing settlements, the towns and villages are almost always some distance from the sea, often in a hollow or at all events screened by rising ground and woods from it. The modern seaside place has, in most cases, its old town or village not far away but quite as near as the healthy ancients wished to be.
The old village nearest to our little naked and ugly modern town was discovered at a distance of about two miles, but it might have been two hundred, so great was the change to its sheltered atmosphere. Loitering in its quiet streets among the old picturesque brick houses with tiled or thatched roofs and tall chimneys—ivy and rose and creeper-covered, with a background of old oaks and elms—I had the sensation of having come back to my own home. In that still air you could hear men and women talking fifty or a hundred yards away, the cry or laugh of a child and the clear crowing of a cock, also the smaller aerial sounds of nature, the tinkling notes of tits and other birdlings in the trees, the twitter of swallows and martins, and the "lisp of leaves and ripple of rain." It was sweet and restful in that home-like place, and hard to leave it to go back to the front to face the furious blasts once more. Rut there were compensations.
The little town, we have seen, was overcrowded with late summer visitors, all eager for the sea yet compelled to waste so much precious time shut up in apartments, and at every appearance of a slight improvement in the weather they would pour out of the houses and the green slope would be covered with a crowd of many hundreds, all hurrying down to the beach. The crowd was composed mostly of women—about three to every man, I should say—and their children; and it was one of the most interesting crowds I had ever come across on account of the large number of persons in it of a peculiarly fine type, which chance had brought together at that spot. It was the large English blonde, and there were so many individuals of this type that they gave a character to the crowd so that those of a different physique and colour appeared to be fewer than they were and were almost overlooked. They came from various places about the country, in the north and the Midlands, and appeared to be of the well-to-do classes; they, or many of them, were with their families but without their lords. They were mostly tall and large in every way, very white-skinned, with light or golden hair and large light blue eyes. A common character of these women was their quiet reposeful manner; they walked and talked and rose up and sat down and did everything, in fact, with an air of deliberation; they gazed in a slow steady way at you, and were dignified, some even majestic, and were like a herd of large beautiful white cows. The children, too, especially the girls, some almost as tall as their large mothers, though still in short frocks, were very fine. The one pastime of these was paddling, and it was a delight to see their bare feet and legs. The legs of those who had been longest on the spot—probably several weeks in some instances—were of a deep nutty brown hue suffused with pink; after these a gradation of colour, light brown tinged with buff, pinkish buff and cream, like the Gloire de Dijon rose; and so on to the delicate tender pink of the clover blossom; and, finally, the purest ivory white of the latest arrivals whose skins had not yet been caressed and coloured by sun and wind.
How beautiful are the feet of these girls by the sea who bring us glad tidings of a better time to come and the day of a nobler courage, a freer larger life when garments which have long oppressed and hindered shall have been cast away! It was, as I have said, mere chance which had brought so many persons of a particular type together on this occasion, and I thought I might go there year after year and never see the like again. As a fact I did return when August came round and found a crowd of a different character. The type was there but did not predominate: it was no longer the herd of beautiful white and strawberry cows with golden horns and large placid eyes. Nothing in fact was the same, for when I looked for the swifts there were no more than about twenty birds instead of over a hundred, and although just on the eve of departure they were not behaving in the same excited manner.
Probably I should not have thought so much about that particular crowd in that tempestuous August, and remembered it so vividly, but for the presence of three persons in it and the strange contrast they made to the large white type I have described. These were a woman and her two little girls, aged about eight and ten respectively, but very small for their years. She was a little black haired and black-eyed woman with a pale sad dark face, on which some great grief or tragedy had left its shadow; very quiet and subdued in her manner; she would sit on a chair on the beach when the weather permitted, a book on her knees, while her two little ones played about, chasing and flying from the waves, or with the aid of their long poles vaulting from rock to rock. They were dressed in black frocks and scarlet blouses, which set off their beautiful small dark faces; their eyes sparkled like black diamonds, and their loose hair was a wonder to see, a black mist or cloud about their heads and necks composed of threads fine as gossamer, blacker than jet and shining like spun glass-hair that looked as if no comb or brush could ever tame its beautiful wildness. And in spirit they were what they seemed: such a wild, joyous, frolicsome spirit with such grace and fleetness one does not look for in human beings, but only in birds or in some small bird-like volatile mammal—a squirrel or a marmoset of the tropical forest, or the chinchilla of the desolate mountain slopes, the swiftest, wildest, loveliest, most airy and most vocal of small beasties. Occasionally to watch their wonderful motions more closely and have speech with them, I followed when they raced over the sands or flew about over the slippery rocks, and felt like a cochin-china fowl, or muscovy duck, or dodo, trying to keep pace with a humming-bird. Their voices were well suited to their small brilliant forms; not loud, though high-pitched and singularly musical and penetrative, like the high clear notes of a skylark at a distance. They also reminded me of certain notes, which have a human quality, in some of our songsters—the swallow, redstart, pied wagtail, whinchat, and two or three others. Such pure and beautiful sounds are sometimes heard in human voices, chiefly in children, when they are talking and laughing in joyous excitement. But for any sort of conversation they were too volatile; before I could get a dozen words from them they would be off again, flying and flitting along the margin, like sandpipers, and beating the clear-voiced sandpiper at his own aerial graceful game.
By and by I was favoured with a fine exhibition of the spirit animating these two little things. The weather had made it possible for the crowd of visitors to go down and scatter itself over the beach, when the usual black cloud sprang up and soon burst on us in a furious tempest of wind and rain, sending the people flying back to the shelter of a large structure erected for such purposes against the cliff. It was a vast barn-like place, open to the front, the roof supported by wooden columns, and here in a few minutes some three or four hundred persons were gathered, mostly women and their girls, white and blue-eyed with long wet golden hair hanging down their backs. Finding a vacant place on the bench, I sat down next to a large motherly-looking woman with a robust or dumpy blue-eyed girl about four or five years old on her lap. Most of the people were standing about in groups waiting for the storm to blow over, and presently I noticed my two wild-haired dark little girls moving about in the crowd. It was impossible not to seen them, for they could not keep still a moment. They were here, there, and everywhere, playing hide-and-seek and skipping and racing wherever they could find an opening, and by and by, taking hold of each other, they started dancing. It was a pretty spectacle, but most interesting to see was the effect produced on the other children, the hundred girls, big and little, the little ones especially, who had been standing there tired and impatient to get out to the sea, and who were now becoming more and more excited as they gazed, until, like children when listening to lively music, they began moving feet and hands and soon their whole bodies in time to the swift movements of the little dancers. At last, plucking up courage, first one, then another, joined them, and were caught as they came and whirled round and round in a manner quite new to them and which they appeared to find very delightful. By and by I observed that the little rosy-faced dumpy girl on my neighbour's knees was taking the infection; she was staring, her blue eyes opened to their widest in wonder and delight. Then suddenly she began pleading, "Oh, mummy, do let me go to the little girls—oh, do let me!" And her mother said "No," because she was so little, and could never fly round like that, and so would fall and hurt herself and cry. But she pleaded still, and was ready to cry if refused, until the good anxious mother was compelled to release her; and down she slipped, and after standing still with her little arms and closed hands held up as if to collect herself before plunging into the new tremendous adventure, she rushed out towards the dancers. One of them saw her coming, and instantly quitting the child she was waltzing with flew to meet her, and catching her round the middle began spinning her about as if the solid little thing weighed no more than a feather. But it proved too much for her; very soon she came down and broke into a loud cry, which brought her mother instantly to her, and she was picked up and taken back to the seat and held to the broad bosom and soothed with caresses and tender words until the sobs began to subside. Then, even before the tears were dry, her eyes were once more gazing at the tireless little dancers, taking on child after child as they came timidly forward to have a share in the fun, and once more she began to plead with her "mummy," and would not be denied, for she was a most determined little Saxon, until getting her way she rushed out for a second trial. Again the little dancer saw her coming and flew to her like a bird to its mate, and clasping her laughed her merry musical little laugh. It was her "sudden glory," an expression of pure delight in her power to infuse her own fire and boundless gaiety of soul into all these little blue-eyed rosy phlegmatic lumps of humanity.
What was it in these human mites, these fantastic Brownies, which, in that crowd of Rowenas and their children, made them seem like beings not only of another race, but of another species? How came they alone to be distinguished among so many by that irresponsible gaiety, as of the most volatile of wild creatures, that quickness of sense and mind and sympathy, that variety and grace and swiftness—all these brilliant exotic qualities harmoniously housed in their small beautiful elastic and vigorous frames? It was their genius, their character—something derived from their race. But what race? Looking at their mother watching her little ones at their frolics with dark shining eyes—the small oval-faced brown-skinned woman with blackest hair—I could but say that she was an Iberian, pure and simple, and that her children were like her. In Southern Europe that type abounds; it is also to be met with throughout Britain, perhaps most common in the southern counties, and it is not uncommon in East Anglia. Indeed, I think it is in Norfolk where we may best see the two most marked sub-types in which it is divided—the two extremes. The small stature, narrow head, dark skin, black hair and eyes are common to both, and in both these physical characters are correlated with certain mental traits, as, for instance, a peculiar vivacity and warmth of disposition; but they are high and low. In the latter sub-division the skin is coarse in texture, brown or old parchment in colour, with little red in it; the black hair is also coarse, the forehead small, the nose projecting, and the facial angle indicative of a more primitive race. One might imagine that these people had been interred, along with specimens of rude pottery and bone and flint implements, a long time back, about the beginning of the Bronze Age perhaps, and had now come out of their graves and put on modern clothes. At all events I don't think a resident in Norfolk would have much difficulty in picking out the portraits of some of his fellow-villagers in Mr. Reed's Prehistoric Peeps.
The mother and her little ones were of the higher sub-type: they had delicate skins, beautiful faces, clear musical voices. They were Iberians in blood, but improved; purified and refined as by fire; gentleized and spiritualized, and to the lower types down to the aboriginals, as is the bright consummate flower to leaf and stem and root.
Often and often we are teased and tantalized and mocked by that old question:
Oh! so old— Thousands of years, thousands of years, If all were told—
of black and blue eyes; blue versus black and black versus blue, to put it both ways. And by black we mean black with orange-brown lights in it—the eye called tortoise-shell; and velvety browns with other browns, also hazels. Blue includes all blues, from ultramarine, or violet, to the palest blue of a pale sky; and all greys down to the grey that is almost white. Our preference for this or that colour is supposed to depend on nothing but individual taste, or fancy, and association. I believe it is something more, but I do find that we are very apt to be swayed this way and that by the colour of the eyes of the people we meet in life, according as they (the people) attract or repel us. The eyes of the two little girls were black as polished black diamonds until looked at closely, when they appeared a beautiful deep brown on which the black pupils were seen distinctly; they were so lovely that I, predisposed to prefer dark to light, felt that this question was now definitely settled for me—that black was best. That irresistible charm, the flame-like spirit which raised these two so much above the others—how could it go with anything but the darkest eyes!
But no sooner was the question thus settled definitely and for all time, to my very great satisfaction, than it was unsettled again. I do not know how this came about; it may have been the sight of some small child's blue eyes looking up at me, like the arch blue eyes of a kitten, full of wonder at the world and everything in it;
"Where did you get those eyes so blue?" "Out of the sky as I came through";
or it may have been the sight of a harebell; and perhaps it came from nothing but the "waste shining of the sky." At all events, there they were, remembered again, looking at me from the past, blue eyes that were beautiful and dear to me, whose blue colour was associated with every sweetness and charm in child and woman and with all that is best and highest in human souls; and I could not and had no wish to resist their appeal.
Then came a new experience of the eye that is blue—a meeting with one who almost seemed to be less flesh than spirit. A middle-aged lady, frail, very frail; exceedingly pale from long ill-health, prematurely white-haired, with beautiful grey eyes, gentle but wonderfully bright. Altogether she was like a being compounded as to her grosser part of foam and mist and gossamer and thistledown, and was swayed by every breath of air, and who, should she venture abroad in rough weather, would be lifted and blown away by the gale and scattered like mist over the earth. Yet she, so frail, so timid, was the one member of the community who had set herself to do the work of a giant—that of championing all ill-used and suffering creatures, wild or tame, holding a protecting shield over them against the innate brutality of the people. She had been abused and mocked and jeered at by many, while others had regarded her action with an amused smile or else with a cold indifference. But eventually some, for very shame, had been drawn to her side, and a change in the feeling of the people had resulted; domestic animals were treated better, and it was no longer universally believed that all wild animals, especially those with wings, existed only that men might amuse themselves by killing and wounding and trapping and caging and persecuting them in various other ways.
The sight of that burning and shining spirit in its frail tenement—for did I not actually see her spirit and the very soul of her in those eyes?—was the last of the unforgotten experiences I had at that place which had startled and repelled me with its ugliness.
But, no, there was one more, marvellous as any—the experience of a day of days, one of those rare days when nature appears to us spiritualized and is no longer nature, when that which had transfigured this visible world is in us too, and it becomes possible to believe—it is almost a conviction—that the burning and shining spirit seen and recognized in one among a thousand we have known is in all of us and in all things. In such moments it is possible to go beyond even the most advanced of the modern physicists who hold that force alone exists, that matter is but a disguise, a shadow and delusion; for we may add that force itself—that which we call force or energy—is but a semblance and shadow of the universal soul.
The change in the weather was not sudden; the furious winds dropped gradually; the clouds floated higher in the heavens, and were of a lighter grey; there were wider breaks in them, showing the lucid blue beyond; and the sea grew quieter. It had raved and roared too long, beating against the iron walls that held it back, and was now spent and fallen into an uneasy sleep, but still moved uneasily and moaned a little. Then all at once summer returned, coming like a thief in the night, for when it was morning the sun rose in splendour and power in a sky without a cloud on its vast azure expanse, on a calm sea with no motion but that scarcely perceptible rise and fall as of one that sleeps. As the sun rose higher the air grew warmer until it was full summer heat, but although a "visible heat," it was never oppressive; for all that day we were abroad, and as the tide ebbed a new country that was neither earth nor sea was disclosed, an infinite expanse of pale yellow sand stretching away on either side, and further and further out until it mingled and melted into the sparkling water and faintly seen line of foam on the horizon. And over all—the distant sea, the ridge of low dunes marking where the earth ended and the flat, yellow expanse between—there brooded a soft bluish silvery haze. A haze that blotted nothing out, but blended and interfused them all until earth and air and sea and sands were scarcely distinguishable. The effect, delicate, mysterious, unearthly, cannot be described.