CHANGE IN THE VILLAGE
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY 1912
Printed in Great Britain by Billing & Sons, Ltd., Guildford, England
I PAGE I. THE VILLAGE 3
THE PRESENT TIME
II. SELF-RELIANCE 21 III. MAN AND WIFE 38 IV. MANIFOLD TROUBLES 50 V. DRINK 65 VI. WAYS AND MEANS 79 VII. GOOD TEMPER 97
THE ALTERED CIRCUMSTANCES
VIII. THE PEASANT SYSTEM 115 IX. THE NEW THRIFT 127 X. COMPETITION 143 XI. HUMILIATION 151 XII. THE HUMILIATED 167 XIII. NOTICE TO QUIT 180
THE RESULTING NEEDS
XIV. THE INITIAL DEFECT 193 XV. THE OPPORTUNITY 200 XVI. THE OBSTACLES 217 XVII. THE WOMEN'S NEED 229 XVIII. THE WANT OF BOOK-LEARNING 244 XIX. EMOTIONAL STARVATION 260 XX. THE CHILDREN'S NEED 272
XXI. THE FORWARD MOVEMENT 289
If one were to be very strict, I suppose it would be wrong to give the name of "village" to the parish dealt with in these chapters, because your true village should have a sort of corporate history of its own, and this one can boast nothing of the kind. It clusters round no central green; no squire ever lived in it; until some thirty years ago it was without a resident parson; its church is not half a century old. Nor are there here, in the shape of patriarchal fields, or shady lanes, or venerable homesteads, any of those features that testify to the immemorial antiquity of real villages as the homes of men; and this for a very simple reason. In the days when real villages were growing, our valley could not have supported a quite self-contained community: it was, in fact, nothing but a part of the wide rolling heath-country—the "common," or "waste," belonging to the town which lies northwards, in a more fertile valley of its own. Here, there was no fertility. Deep down in the hollow a stream, which runs dry every summer, had prepared a strip of soil just worth reclaiming as coarse meadow or tillage; but the strip was narrow—a man might throw a stone across it at some points—and on either side the heath and gorse and fern held their own on the dry sand. Such a place afforded no room for an English village of the true manorial kind; and I surmise that it lay all but uninhabited until perhaps the middle of the eighteenth century, by which time a few "squatters" from neighbouring parishes had probably settled here, to make what living they might beside the stream-bed. At no time, therefore, did the people form a group of genuinely agricultural rustics. Up to a period within living memory, they were an almost independent folk, leading a sort of "crofter," or (as I have preferred to call it) a "peasant" life; while to-day the majority of the men, no longer independent, go out to work as railway navvies, builders' labourers, drivers of vans and carts in the town; or are more casually employed at digging gravel, or road-mending, or harvesting and hay-making, or attending people's gardens, or laying sewers, or in fact at any job they can find. At a low estimate nine out of every ten of them get their living outside the parish boundaries; and this fact by itself would rob the place of its title to be thought a village, in the strict sense.
In appearance, too, it is abnormal. As you look down upon the valley from its high sides, hardly anywhere are there to be seen three cottages in a row, but all about the steep slopes the little mean dwelling-places are scattered in disorder. So it extends east and west for perhaps a mile and a half—a surprisingly populous hollow now, wanting in restfulness to the eyes and much disfigured by shabby detail, as it winds away into homelier and softer country at either end. The high-road out of the town, stretching away for Hindhead and the South Coast, comes slanting down athwart the valley, cutting it into "Upper" and "Lower" halves or ends; and just in the bottom, where there is a bridge over the stream, the appearances might deceive a stranger into thinking that he had come to the nucleus of an old village, since a dilapidated farmstead and a number of cottages line the sides of the road at that point. The appearances, however, are deceptive. I doubt if the cottages are more than a century old; and even if any of them have a greater antiquity, still it is not as the last relics of an earlier village that they are to be regarded. On the contrary, they indicate the beginnings of the present village. Before them, their place was unoccupied, and they do but commemorate the first of that series of changes by which the valley has been turned from a desolate wrinkle in the heaths into the anomalous suburb it has become to-day.
Of the period and manner of that first change I have already given a hint, attributing it indefinitely to a slow immigration of squatters somewhere in the eighteenth century. Neither the manner of it, however, nor the period is material here. Let it suffice that, a hundred years ago or so, the valley had become inhabited by people living in the "peasant" way presently to be described more fully. The subject of this book begins with the next change, which by and by overtook these same people, and dates from the enclosure of the common, no longer ago than 1861. The enclosure was effected in the usual fashion: a few adjacent landowners obtained the lion's share, while the cottagers came in for small allotments. These allotments, of little use to their owners, and in many cases soon sold for a few pounds apiece, became the sites of the first few cottages for a newer population, who slowly drifted in and settled down, as far as might be, to the habits and outlook of their predecessors. This second period continued until about 1900. And now, during the last ten years, a yet greater change has been going on. The valley has been "discovered" as a "residential centre." A water-company gave the signal for development. No sooner was a good water-supply available than speculating architects and builders began to buy up vacant plots of land, or even cottages—it mattered little which—and what never was strictly speaking a village is at last ceasing even to think itself one. The population of some five hundred twenty years ago has increased to over two thousand; the final shabby patches of the old heath are disappearing; on all hands glimpses of new building and raw new roads defy you to persuade yourself that you are in a country place. In fact, the place is a suburb of the town in the next valley, and the once quiet high-road is noisy with the motor-cars of the richer residents and all the town traffic that waits upon the less wealthy.
But although in the exactest sense the parish was never a village, its inhabitants, as lately as twenty years ago (when I came to live here) had after all a great many of the old English country characteristics. Dependent on the town for their living the most of them may have been by that time; yet they had derived their outlook and their habits from the earlier half-squatting, half-yeoman people; so that I found myself amongst neighbours rustic enough to justify me in speaking of them as villagers. I have come across their like elsewhere, and I am not deceived. They had the country touch. They were a survival of the England that is dying out now; and I grieve that I did not realize it sooner. As it was, some years had passed by, and the movement by which I find myself living to-day in a "residential centre" was already faintly stirring before I began to discern properly that the earlier circumstances would repay closer attention.
They were not all agreeable circumstances; some of them, indeed, were so much the reverse of agreeable that I hardly see now how I could ever have found them even tolerable. The want of proper sanitation, for instance; the ever-recurring scarcity of water; the plentiful signs of squalid and disordered living—how unpleasant they all must have been! On the other hand, some of the circumstances were so acceptable that, to recover them, I could at times almost be willing to go back and endure the others. It were worth something to renew the old lost sense of quiet; worth something to be on such genial terms with one's neighbours; worth very much to become acquainted again at first hand with the customs and modes of thought that prevailed in those days. Here at my door people were living, in many respects, by primitive codes which have now all but disappeared from England, and things must have been frequently happening such as, henceforth, will necessitate journeys into other countries if one would see them.
I remember yet how subtly the intimations of a primitive mode of living used to reach me before I had learnt to appreciate their meaning. Unawares an impression of antiquity would come stealing over the senses, on a November evening, say, when the blue wood-smoke mounted from a cottage chimney and went drifting slowly down the valley in level layers; or on still summer afternoons, when there came up from the hollow the sounds of hay-making—the scythe shearing through the grass, the clatter of the whetstone, the occasional country voices. The dialect, and the odd ideas expressed in it, worked their elusive magic over and over again. To hear a man commend the weather, rolling out his "Nice moarnin'" with the fat Surrey "R," or to be wished "Good-day, sir," in the high twanging voice of some cottage-woman or other, was to be reminded in one's senses, without thinking about it at all, that one was amongst people not of the town, and hardly of one's own era. The queer things, too, which one happened to hear of, the simple ideas which seemed so much at home in the valley, though they would have been so much to be deprecated in the town, all contributed to produce the same old-world impression. Where the moon's changes were discussed so solemnly, and people numbered the "mistis in March" in expectation of corresponding "frostis in May"; where, if a pig fell sick, public opinion counselled killing it betimes, lest it should die and be considered unfit for food; where the most time-honoured saying was counted the best wit, so that you raised a friendly smile by murmuring "Good for young ducks" when it rained; where the names of famous sorts of potatoes—red-nosed kidneys, magnum bonums, and so on—were better known than the names of politicians or of newspapers; where spades and reap-hooks of well-proved quality were treasured as friends by their owners and coveted by other connoisseurs—it was impossible that one should not be frequently visited by the feeling of something very old-fashioned in the human life surrounding one.
More pointed in their suggestion of a rustic tradition were the various customs and pursuits proper to given seasons. The customs, it is true, were preserved only by the children; but they had their acceptable effect. It might have been foolish and out-of-date, yet it was undeniably pleasant to know on May Day that the youngsters were making holiday from school, and to have them come to the door with their morning faces, bringing their buttercup garlands and droning out the appropriate folk ditty. At Christmastime, too, it was pleasant when they came singing carols after dark. This, indeed, they still do; but either I am harder to please or the performance has actually degenerated, for I can no longer discover in it the simple childish spirit that made it gratifying years ago.
Meanwhile, quite apart from such celebrations, the times and seasons observed by the people in following their work gave a flavour of folk manners which dignified the life of the parish, by associating it with the doings of the countryside for many generations. In August, though one did not see, one heard about, the gangs of men trudging off at night for the Sussex harvest. In September the days went very silently in the valley, because the cottages were shut up and the people were all away at the hop-picking; and then, in the gathering dusk, one heard the buzz and rumour of manifold homecomings—tired children squalling, women talking and perhaps scolding, as the little chattering groups came near and passed out of earshot to their several cottages; while, down the hollows, hovering in the crisp night air, drifted a most appetizing smell of herrings being fried for a late meal. Earlier in the year there was hay-making in the valley itself. All the warm night was sometimes fragrant with the scent of the cut grass; and about this season, too, the pungent odour of shallots lying out in the gardens to ripen off would come in soft whiffs across the hedges. Always, at all times, the people were glad to gossip about their gardens, bringing vividly into one's thoughts the homely importance of the month, nay, the very week, that was passing. Now, around Good Friday, the talk would be of potato-planting; and again, in proper order, one heard of peas and runner-beans, and so through the summer fruits and plants, to the ripening of plums and apples, and the lifting of potatoes and carrots and parsnips.
In all these ways the parish, if not a true village, seemed quite a country place twenty years ago, and its people were country people. Yet there was another side to the picture. The charm of it was a generalized one—I think an impersonal one; for with the thought of individual persons who might illustrate it there comes too often into my memory a touch of sordidness, if not in one connection then in another; so that I suspect myself, not for the first time, of sentimentality. Was the social atmosphere after all anything but a creation of my own dreams? Was the village life really idyllic?
Not for a moment can I pretend that it was. Patience and industry dignified it; a certain rough jollity, a large amount of good temper and natural kindness, kept it from being foul; but of the namby-pamby or soft-headed sentiment which many writers have persuaded us to attribute to old-English cottage life I think I have not in twenty years met with a single trace. In fact, there are no people so likely to make ridicule of that sort of thing as my labouring-class neighbours have always been. They do not, like the middle classes, enjoy it. It is a commodity for which they have no use, as may appear in the following pages.
To say this, however, is to say too little. I do not mean that the prevailing temper in the village was sordid, bitter, cruel, like that, say, of the Norman peasantry in De Maupassant's short stories. In by far the greater majority the people have usually seemed to me at the worst a little suspicious, a little callous, a little undemonstrative, and at the best generous and happy-go-lucky to a fault. Nevertheless, tales as repulsive as any that the French writer has told of his country-people could have been collected here by anyone with a taste for that sort of thing. Circumstantial narratives have reached me of savage, or, say, brutish, doings: of sons ill-treating their mothers, and husbands their wives of fights, and cruelties, and sometimes—not often—of infamous vice. The likelihood of these tales, which there was no reason to doubt, was strengthened by what I saw and heard for myself. Drunkenness corrupted and disgraced the village life, so that good men went wrong and their families suffered miserably. I have helped more than one drunkard home at night, and seen a wretched woman or a frightened child come to the door to receive him. Even in the seclusion of my own garden I could not escape the evidences of mischief going on. For sounds echo up and down the valley as clearly as across the water of a lake; and sometimes a quiet evening would grow suddenly horrid with distracted noises of family quarrel in some distant cottage, when women shrilled and clamoured and men cursed, and all the dogs in the parish fell a-barking furiously. Even in bed one could not be secure. Once or twice some wild cry in the night—a woman's scream, a man's volley of oaths—has drawn me hurrying to my window in dread that outrage was afoot; and often the sounds of obscene singing from the road, where men were blundering homewards late from the public-houses in the town, have startled me out of my first sleep. Then, besides the distresses brought upon the people by their own folly, there were others thrust upon them by their economic condition. Of poverty, with its attendant sicknesses and neglects, there has never been any end to the tales, while the desolations due to accidents in the day's work, on the railway, or with horses, or upon scaffoldings of buildings, or in collapsing gravel-quarries, have become almost a commonplace. In short, there is no room for sentimentality about the village life. Could its annals be written they would make no idyll; they would be too much stained by tragedy and vice and misery.
Yet the knowledge of all this—and it was not possible to live here long without such knowledge—left the other impressions I have spoken of quite unimpaired. Disorders were the exception, after all. As a general rule the village character was genial, steadfast, self-respecting; one could not but recognize in it a great fund of strength, a great stability; nor could one help feeling that its main features—the limitations and the grimness, as well as the surprising virtues—were somehow closely related to that pleasant order of things suggested by the hay-making sounds, by the smell of the wood-smoke, by the children's May-day garlands. And, in fact, the relationship was essential. The temper and manners of the older people turned out to have been actually moulded by conditions of a true village kind, so that the same folk-quality that sounded in the little garland song reappeared more sternly in my neighbours' attitude towards their fate. Into this valley, it is true, much had never come that had flourished and been forgotten in English villages elsewhere. At no time had there been any of the more graceful folk arts here; at no time any comely social life, such as one reads of in Goldsmith's Deserted Village or Gray's Elegy; but, as I gradually learnt, the impoverished labouring people I talked to had been, in many cases, born in the more prosperous conditions of a self-supporting peasantry.
Bit by bit the truth come home to me, in the course of unconcerned gossip, when my informants had no idea of the significance of those stray scraps of information which they let fall. I was not alive to it myself for a long time. But when I had heard of the village cows, which used to be turned out to graze on the heaths, and had been told how fir-timber fit for cottage roof-joists could be cut on the common, as well as heath good enough for thatching and turf excellent for firing; and when to this was added the talk of bread-ovens at half the old cottages, and of little corn-crops in the gardens, and of brewing and wine-making and bee-keeping; I understood at last that my elderly neighbours had seen with their own eyes what I should never see—namely, the old rustic economy of the English peasantry. In that light all sorts of things showed a new meaning. I looked with rather changed sentiments, for example, upon the noisome pigsties—for were they not a survival of a venerable thrift? I viewed the old tools—hoes and spades and scythes and fag-hooks—with quickened interest; and I speculated with more intelligence upon those aged people of the parish whose curious habits were described to me with so much respect. But of all the details that now gained significance, most to be noted were the hints of the comparative prosperity of that earlier time. For now some old woman, half starving on her parish pay, would indicate this or that little cottage, and remark that her grandfather had built it for her mother to go into when she married. Or now, a decrepit man would explain that in such and such a puzzling nook in the hillside had once stood his father's cow-stall. Here, at the edge of the arable strip, a building divided into two poor cottages proved to have been originally somebody's little hop-kiln; there, on a warm slope given over to the pleasure-garden of some "resident" like myself, a former villager used to grow enough wheat to keep him in flour half the winter; and there again, down a narrow by-way gone ruinous from long neglect, Master So-and-so, whose children to-day go in fear of the workhouse, was wont to drive his little waggon and pair of horses.
Particulars like these, pointing to a lost state of well-being, accounted very well for the attraction which, in spite of individual faults, I had felt towards the village folk in general. The people stood for something more than merely themselves. In their odd ways and talk and character I was affected, albeit unawares, by a robust tradition of the English countryside, surviving here when the circumstances which would have explained it had already largely disappeared. After too many years of undiscernment that truth was apparent to me. And even so, it was but a gradual enlightenment; even now it is unlikely that I appreciate the facts in their deepest significance. For the "robust" tradition, as I have just called it, was something more than simply robust. It was older, by far, than this anomalous village. Imported into the valley—if my surmise is correct—by squatters two centuries ago, it was already old even then; it already had centuries of experience behind it; and though it very likely had lost much in that removal, still it was a genuine off-shoot of the home-made or "folk" civilization of the South of England. No wonder that its survivals had struck me as venerable and pleasant, when there was so much vigorous English life behind them, derived perhaps from so many fair English counties.
The perception came to me only just in time, for to-day the opportunities of further observation occur but rarely. The old life is being swiftly obliterated. The valley is passing out of the hands of its former inhabitants. They are being crowded into corners, and are becoming as aliens in their own home; they are receding before newcomers with new ideas, and, greatest change of all, they are yielding to the dominion of new ideas themselves. At present, therefore, the cottagers are a most heterogeneous population, presenting all sorts of baffling problems to those who have to deal with them, as the schoolmaster and the sanitary officer and others find. In no two families—hardly in two members of the same family—do the old traditions survive in equal degree. A lath-and-plaster partition may separate people who are half a century asunder in civilization, and on the same bench at school may be found side by side two children who come from homes, the one worthy of King George III.'s time, the other not unworthy of King George V.'s. But the changes which will remove the greatest of these discrepancies are proceeding very fast; in another ten years' time there will be not much left of the traditional life whose crumbling away I have been witnessing during the twenty years that are gone.
Some grounds of hope—great hope, too—which begin at last to appear, and are treated of in the final chapter of this book, save the tale of Change in the Village from being quite a tragedy, yet still it is a melancholy tale. I have dealt with it in the two sections called respectively "The Altered Circumstances" and "The Resulting Needs." The earlier chapters, which immediately follow this one under the heading "The Present Time," are merely descriptive of the people and their conditions as I know them now, and aim at nothing more than to pave the way for a clearer understanding of the main subject.
THE PRESENT TIME
There is a chapter in Dickens's Hard Times which tells how it was discovered that somebody had fallen down a disused mine-shaft, and how the rescue was valiantly effected by a few men who had to be awakened for that end from their drunken Sunday afternoon sleep. Sobered by the dangers they foresaw, these men ran to the pit-mouth, pushed straight to the centre of the crowd there, and fell to work quietly with their ropes and winches. As you read, you seem to see them, spitting on their great hands while they knot the ropes, listening attentively to the doctor as to an equal, and speaking in undertones to one another, but regardless of the remarks of the bystanders. The best man amongst them, says Dickens—and you know it to be true: Dickens could have told you the men's names and life-history had he chosen—the best man amongst them was the greatest drunkard of the lot; and when his heroic work was done, nobody seems to have taken any farther notice of him.
These were Northcountrymen; but there was a quality about them of which I have often been reminded, in watching or hearing tell of the men in this Surrey village. It is the thing that most impresses all who come into any sympathetic contact with my neighbours their readiness to make a start at the dangerous or disagreeable task when others would be still talking, and their apparent expectation that they will succeed. In this spirit they occasionally do things quite as well worthy of mention as the incident described by Dickens. I remember looking on myself at just such another piece of work, in the town a mile away from here, one winter day. The sluggish "river," as we call it, which flows amongst meadows on the south of the town, is usually fordable beside one of the bridges, and men with horses and carts as often as not drive through the ford, instead of going over the bridge. But on the day I am recalling floods had so swollen the stream that a horse and cart were swept down under the narrow bridge, and had got jammed there, the driver having escaped over the iron railings of the bridge as the cart went under. I don't know what became of him then—he was but a lad, I was told. When I came on the scene, a number of people were on the bridge, while many more were down on the river banks, whence they could see the horse and cart under the arch. A few were bawling out unheeded advice as to what should be done; in fact, a heated altercation had arisen between the two loudest—a chimney-sweep and a medical man—whose theories disagreed; but it was plain to everybody that it would be a risky thing to venture under the bridge into that swirling stream. For ten minutes or more, while the horse remained invisible to us on the bridge, and likely to drown, the dispute snapped angrily from bank to bank, punctuated occasionally by excited cries, such as "He's gettin' lower!" "He's sinkin' down!" Then, unobserved, a bricklayer's labourer came running with a rope, which he hurriedly made into a noose and tightened under his armpits. None of the shouters, by the way, had suggested such a plan. The man was helped over the railings and swiftly lowered—Heaven knows who took a hand at that—and so he disappeared for five minutes. Then a shout: the horse came into view, staggering downstream with harness cut, and scrambled up into the meadow; and the man, drenched and deadly white, and too benumbed to help himself, was hauled up on to the bridge, and carried to the nearest inn. I never heard his name—people of his sort, as Dickens knew, are generally anonymous—but he was one of the labourers of the locality, and only last winter I saw him shivering at the street corners amongst other out-o'-works.
Behaviour like this is so characteristic of labouring men that we others expect it of them as if it were especially their duty. Again and again I have noticed it. If a horse falls in the street, ten chances to one it is some obscure labouring fellow who gets him up again. Whether there is danger or no, in emergencies which demand readiness and disregard of comfort, the common unskilled labourer is always to the fore. One summer night I had strolled out to the top of the road here which slants down, over-arched by tall trees, past the Vicarage. At some distance down, where there should have been such a depth of darkness under the trees, I was surprised to see a little core of light, where five or six people stood around a bright lamp, which one of them was holding. The scene looked so theatrical, glowing under the trees with the summer night all round it, that, of course, I had to go down the hill and investigate it. The group I joined was, it turned out, watching a bicyclist who lay unconscious in somebody's arms, while a doctor fingered at a streaming wound in the man's forehead, and washed it, and finally stitched it up. The bicycle—its front wheel buckled by collision with the Vicarage gatepost—stood against the gate, and two or three cushions lay in the hedge; for the Vicar had come out to the man's assistance, and had sent for the doctor, and it was the Vicar himself, old and grey, but steady, who now held his library lamp for the doctor's use. The rest of us stood looking on, one of us at least feeling rather sick at the sight, and all of us as useless as the night-moths which came out from the trees and fluttered round the lamp. At last, when all was done, and the injured man could be moved, there rose up a hitherto unnoticed fellow who had been supporting him, and I recognized one of our village labourers. He looked faint, and tottered to a chair which the Vicar had ready, and gulped at some brandy, for he, too, had been overcome by sight of the surgery. But it was to him that the task of sitting in the dusty road and being smeared with blood had fallen.
And this quiet acceptance of the situation, recognizing that he if anyone must suffer, and take the hard place which soils the clothes and shocks the feelings, gives the clue to the average labourer's temper. It is really very curious to think of. Rarely can a labourer afford the luxury of a "change." Wet through though his clothes may be, or blood-stained, or smothered with mud or dust, he must wear them until he goes to bed, and must put them on again as he finds them in the morning; but this does not excuse him in our eyes from taking the disagreeable place. Still less does it excuse him in his own eyes. If you offer to help, men of this kind will probably dissuade you. "It'll make yer clothes all dirty," they say; "you'll get in such a mess." So they assume the burden, sometimes surly and swearing, oftener with a good-tempered jest.
To anything with a touch of humour in it they will leap forward like schoolboys. I am reminded of a funny incident one frosty morning, when patches of the highway were slippery as glass. Preceding me along the road was a horse and cart, driven by a boy who stood upright in the cart, and seemed not to notice how the horse's hoofs were skidding; and some distance ahead three railway navvies were approaching, just off their night's work, and carrying their picks and shovels. I had left the cart behind, and was near these three, when suddenly they burst into a laugh, exclaiming to one another, "Look at that old 'oss!" I turned. There sat the horse on his tail between the shafts, pawing with his forefeet at the road, but unable to get a grip at its slippery surface. It was impossible not to smile; he had such an absurd look. The navvies, however, did more than smile. They broke into a run; they saw immediately what to do. In thirty seconds they were shovelling earth out from the hedgerow under the horse's feet, and in two minutes more he had scrambled up, unhurt.
In such behaviour, I say, we have a clue to the labouring-man's temper. The courage, the carelessness of discomfort, the swiftness to see what should be done, and to do it, are not inspired by any tradition of chivalry, any consciously elaborated cult. It is habitual with these men to be ready, and those fine actions which win our admiration are but chance disclosures in public of a self-reliance constantly practised by the people amongst themselves—by the women quite as much as by the men—under stress of necessity, one would say at first sight. Take another example of the same willing efficiency applied in rather a different way. In a cottage near to where I am writing a young labourer died last summer—a young unmarried man, whose mother was living with him, and had long depended on his support. Eighteen months earlier he had been disabled for a week or two by the kick of a horse, and a heart-disease of long standing was so aggravated by the accident that he was never again able to do much work. There came months of unemployment, and as a consequence he was in extreme poverty when he died. His mother was already reduced to parish relief; it was only by the help of his two sisters—young women out at service, who managed to pay for a coffin for him—that a pauper's funeral was avoided. A labourer's wife, the mother of four or five young children, took upon herself the duty of washing and laying out the corpse, but there remained still the funeral to be managed. An undertaker to conduct it could not be engaged; there was no money to pay him. Then, however, neighbours took the matter up, not as an unwonted thing, I may say—it is usual with them to help bury a "mate"—only, as a rule, there is the undertaker too. In this case they did without him—six poor men losing half a day's work, and giving their services. The coffin was too big to be carried down the crooked staircase; too big also to be got out of the bedroom window until the window-sashes had been taken out. But these men managed it all, borrowing tools and a couple of ladders and some ropes; and then, in the black clothes which they keep for such occasions, they carried the coffin to the churchyard. That same evening two of them went to work at cleaning out a cess-pit, two others spent the evening in their gardens, another had cows to milk, and the sixth, being out of work and restless, had no occupation to go home to so far as I know.
Of course this, too, was a piece of voluntary service, resembling in that respect those more striking examples of self-reliance which are brought out by sudden emergencies. But it points, more directly than they do, to the sphere in which that virtue is practised until it becomes a habit. For if you follow the clue on, it leads very quickly to the scene where self-reliance is so to speak at home, where it seems the natural product of the people's circumstances—the scene, namely, of their daily work. For there, not only in the employment by which the men earn their wages, but in the household and garden work of the women as well as the men, there is nothing to support them save their own readiness, their own personal force.
It sounds a truism, but it is worth attention. Unlike the rest of us, labouring people are unable to shirk any of life's discomforts by "getting a man" or "a woman," as we say, to do the disagreeable or risky jobs which continually need to be done. If a cottager in this village wants his chimney swept, or his pigstye cleaned out, or his firewood chopped, the only "man" he can get to do it for him is himself. Similarly with his wife. She may not call in "a woman" to scrub her floor, or to wash and mend, or to skin a rabbit for dinner, or to make up the fire for cooking it. It is necessary for her to be ready to turn from one task to another without squeamishness, and without pausing to think how she shall do it. In short, she and her husband alike must practise, in their daily doings, a sort of intrepidity which grows customary with them; and this habit is the parent of much of that fine conduct which they exhibit so carelessly in moments of emergency.
Until this fact is appreciated there is no such thing as understanding the people's disposition. It is the principal gateway that lets you in to their character. Nevertheless the subject needs no further illustration here. Anyone personally acquainted with the villagers knows how their life is one continuous act of unconscious self-reliance, and those who have not seen it for themselves will surely discover plentiful evidences of it in the following pages, if they read between the lines.
But I must digress to remark upon one aspect of the matter. In view of the subject of this book—namely, the transition from an old social order to present times—it should be considered whether the handiness of the villagers is after all quite so natural a thing as is commonly supposed. For a long time I took it for granted. The people's accomplishments were rough, I admit, and not knowing how much "knack" or experience was involved in the dozens of odd jobs that they did, I assumed that they did them by the light of Nature. Yet if we reflect how little we learn from Nature, and how helpless people grow after two or three generations of life in slums, or in libraries and drawing-rooms, it would seem probable that there is more than appears on the surface in the labourer's versatility of usefulness. After all, who would know by the light of Nature how to go about sweeping a chimney, as they used to do it here, with rope and furzebush dragged down? or how to scour out a watertank effectively? or where to begin upon cleaning a pigstye? Easy though it looks, the closer you get down to this kind of work as the cottager does it the more surprisedly do you discover that he recognizes right and wrong methods of doing it; and my own belief is that the necessity which compels the people to be their own servants would not make them so adaptable as they are, were there not, at the back of them, a time-honoured tradition teaching them how to go on.
Returning from this digression, and speaking, too, rather of a period from ten to twenty years ago than of the present time, it would be foolish to pretend that the people's good qualities were unattended by defects. The men had a very rough exterior, so rough that I have known them to inspire timidity in the respectable who met them on the road, and especially at night, when, truth to tell, those of them who were out were not always too sober. After you got to know them, so as to understand the shut of their mouths and the look of their eyes—usually very steadfast and quiet—you knew that there was rarely any harm in them; but I admit that their aspect was unpromising enough at first sight. A stranger might have been forgiven for thinking them coarse, ignorant, stupid, beery, unclean. And yet there was excuse for much of it, while much more of it was sheer ill-fortune, and needed no excuse. Though many of the men were physically powerful, few of them could boast of any physical comeliness. Their strength had been bought dear, at the cost of heavy labour begun too early in life, so that before middle-age they were bent in the back, or gone wrong at the knees, and their walk (some of them walked miles every day to their work) was a long shambling stride, fast enough, but badly wanting in suggestiveness of personal pride. Seeing them casually in their heavy and uncleanly clothes, no one would have dreamed of the great qualities in them—the kindliness and courage and humour, the readiness to help, the self-control, the patience. It was all there, but they took no pains to look the part; they did not show off.
In fact, their tendency was rather in the contrary direction. They cared too little what was thought of them to be at the pains of shocking one's delicacy intentionally; but they were by no means displeased to be thought "rough." It made them laugh; it was a tribute to their stout-heartedness. Nor was there anything necessarily braggart in this attitude of theirs. As they realized that work would not be readily offered to a man who might quail before its unpleasantness, so it was a matter of bread-and-cheese to them to cultivate "roughness." I need not, indeed, be writing in the past tense here. It is still bad policy for a workman to be nice in his feelings, and several times I have had men excuse themselves for a weakness which they knew me to share, but which they seemed to think needed apology when they, too, exhibited it. Only a few weeks ago a neighbour's cat, affected with mange, was haunting my garden, and had become a nuisance. Upon my asking the owner—a labourer who had worked up to be something of a bricklayer—to get rid of it, he said he would get a certain old-fashioned neighbour to kill it, and then he plunged into sheepish explanations why he would rather not do the deed himself. "Anybody else's cat," he urged, "he wouldn't mind so much," but he had a touch of softness towards his own. It was plain that in reality he was a man of tender feelings, yet it was no less plain that he was unwilling to be thought too tender. The curious thing was that neither of us considered for a moment the possibility of any reluctance staying the hand of the older neighbour. Him we both knew fairly well as a man of that earlier period with which I am concerned just now. At that period the village in general had a lofty contempt for the "meek-hearted" man capable of flinching. An employer might have qualms, though the men thought no better of him for that possession, but amongst themselves flinching was not much other than a vice. In fact, they dared not be delicate. Hence through all their demeanour they displayed a hardness which in some cases went far below the surface, and approached real brutality.
Leaving out the brutality, the women were not very different from the men. It might have been supposed that their domestic work—the cooking and cleaning and sewing from which middle-class women seem often to derive so comely a manner—would have done something to soften these cottage women. But it rarely worked out so. The women shared the men's carelessness and roughness. That tenderness which an emergency discovered in them was hidden in everyday life under manners indicative of an unfeigned contempt for what was gentle, what was soft.
And this, too, was reasonable. In theory, perhaps, the women should have been refined by their housekeeping work; in practice that work necessitated their being very tough. Cook, scullery-maid, bed-maker, charwoman, laundress, children's nurse—it fell to every mother of a family to play all the parts in turn every day, and if that were all, there was opportunity enough for her to excel. But the conveniences which make such work tolerable in other households were not to be found in the cottage. Everything had to be done practically in one room—which was sometimes a sleeping-room too, or say in one room and a wash-house. The preparation and serving of meals, the airing of clothes and the ironing of them, the washing of the children, the mending and making—how could a woman do any of it with comfort in the cramped apartment, into which, moreover, a tired and dirty man came home in the evening to eat and wash and rest, or if not to rest, then to potter in and out from garden or pig-stye, "treading in dirt" as he came? Then, too, many cottages had not so much as a sink where work with water could be done; many had no water save in wet weather; there was not one cottage in which it could be drawn from a tap, but it all had to be fetched from well or tank. And in the husband's absence at work, it was the woman's duty—one more added to so many others—to bring water indoors. In times of drought water had often to be carried long distances in pails, and it may be imagined how the housework would go in such circumstances. For my part I have never wondered at roughness or squalor in the village since that parching summer when I learnt that in one cottage at least the people were saving up the cooking water of one day to be used over again on the day following. Where such things can happen the domestic arts are simplified to nothing, and it would be madness in women to cultivate refinement or niceness.
And my neighbours appeared not to wish to cultivate them. It may be added that many of the women—the numbers are diminishing rapidly—were field-workers who had never been brought up to much domesticity. Far beyond the valley they had to go to earn money at hop-tying, haymaking, harvesting, potato-picking, swede-trimming, and at such work they came immediately, just as the men did, under conditions which made it a vice to flinch. As a rule they would leave work in the afternoon in time to get home and cook a meal in readiness for their husbands later, and at that hour one saw them on the roads trudging along, under the burden of coats, dinner-baskets, tools, and so on, very dishevelled—for at field-work there is no such thing as care for the toilet—but often chatting not unhappily.
On the roads, too, women were, and still are, frequently noticeable, bringing home on their backs faggots of dead wood, or sacks of fir-cones, picked up in the fir-woods a mile away or more. Prodigious and unwieldy loads these were. I have often met women bent nearly double under them, toiling painfully along, with hats or bonnets pushed awry and skirts draggling. Occasionally tiny urchins, too small to be left at home alone, would be clinging to their mothers' frocks.
In the scanty leisure that the women might enjoy—say now and then of an afternoon—there were not many circumstances to counteract the hardness contracted at their work. These off times were opportunities for social intercourse between them. They did not leave home, however, and go out "paying calls." Unless on Sunday evenings visiting one another's cottages was not desirable. But there were other resources. I have mentioned how sounds will travel across the valley, and I have known women come to their cottage doors high up on this side to carry on a shouting conversation with neighbours opposite, four hundred yards away. You see, they were under no constraint of propriety in its accepted forms, nor did they care greatly who heard what they had to say. I have sometimes wished that they did care. But, of course, the more comfortable way of intercourse was to talk across the quickset hedge between two gardens. Sometimes one would hear—all an afternoon it seemed—the long drone of one of these confabulations going on in unbroken flow, with little variation of cadence, save for a moaning rise and fall, like the wind through a keyhole. I have a suspicion that the shortcomings of neighbours often made the staple of such conversations, but that is only a surmise. I remember the strange conclusion of one of them which reached my ears. For, as the women reluctantly parted, they raised their voices, and one said piously, "Wal, they'll git paid for 't, one o' these days. Gawd A'mighty's above the Devil"; to which the other, with loud conviction: "Yes, and always will be, thank Gawd!" This ended the talk. But the last speaker, turning round, saw her two-year-old daughter asprawl in the garden, and with sudden change from satisfied drawl to shrill exasperation, "Git up out of all that muck, you dirty little devil," she said. For she was a cleanly woman, proud of her children, and disliking to see them untidy.
MAN AND WIFE
For general social intercourse the labouring people do not meet at one another's cottages, going out by invitation, or dropping in to tea in the casual way of friendship; they have to be content with "passing the time of day" when they come together by chance. Thus two families may mingle happily as they stroll homewards after the Saturday night's shopping in the town, or on a fine Sunday evening they may make up little parties to go and inspect one another's gardens.
Until recently—so recently that the slight change may be ignored at least for the present—the prevailing note of this so restricted intercourse was a sort of bonhomie, or good temper and good sense. With this for a guide, the people had no need of the etiquette called "good manners," but were at liberty to behave as they liked, and talk as they liked, within the bounds of neighbourliness and civility. This has always been one of the most conspicuous things about the people—this independence of conventions. In few other grades of society could men and women dare to be so outspoken together, so much at ease, as these villagers still often are. Their talk grows Chaucerian at times. Merrily, or seriously, as the case may be, subjects are spoken of which are never alluded to between men and women who respect our ordinary conventions.
Let it be admitted—if anybody wishes to feel superior—that the women must be wanting in "delicacy" to countenance such things. There are other aspects of the matter which are better worth considering. Approaching it, for instance, from an opposite point of view, one perceives that the average country labourer can talk with less restraint because he has really less to conceal than many men who look down upon him. He may use coarse words, but his thoughts are wont to be cleanly, so that there is no suspicion of foulness behind his conversation, rank though it sound. A woman consequently may hear what he says, and not be offended by suggestion of something left unsaid. On these terms the jolly tale is a jolly tale, and ends at that. It does not linger to corrupt the mind with an unsavoury after-flavour.
But more than this is indicated by the want of conventional manners in the village. The main fact is that the two sexes, each engaged daily upon essential duties, stand on a surprising equality the one to the other. And where the men are so well aware of the women's experienced outlook, and the women so well aware of the men's, the affectation of ignorance might almost be construed as a form of immodesty, or at any rate as an imprudence. It would, indeed, be too absurd to pretend that these wives and mothers, who have to face every trial of life and death for themselves, do not know the things which obviously they cannot help knowing; too absurd to treat them as though they were all innocence, and timidity, and daintiness. No labouring man would esteem a woman for delicacy of that kind, and the women certainly would not like to be esteemed for it. Hence the sexes habitually meet on almost level terms. And the absence of convention extends to a neglect—nay, to a dislike—of ordinary graceful courtesies between them. So far as I have seen they observe no ceremonial. The men are considerate to spare women the more exhausting or arduous kinds of work; but they will let a woman open the door for herself, and will be careless when they are together who stands or who sits, or which of them walks on the inside of the path, or goes first into a gateway. And the women look for nothing different. They expect to be treated as equals. If a cottage woman found that a cottage man was raising his hat to her, she would be aflame with indignation, and would let him know very plainly indeed that she was not that sort of fine lady.
In general, the relations between the sexes are too matter-of-fact to permit of any refinement of feeling about them, and it is not surprising that illegitimacy has been very common in the village. But once a man and a woman are married, they settle down into a sober pair of comrades, and instead of the looseness which might be looked for there is on the whole a remarkable fidelity between the married couples. I have no distinct memory of having heard during twenty years of any certain case of intrigue or conjugal misbehaviour amongst the cottage folk. The people seem to leave that sort of thing to the employing classes. It scandalizes them to hear of it. They despise it. Oddly enough, this may be partly due to the want of a feminine ideal, such as is developed by help of our middle-class arts and recognized in our conventions. True, the business of making both ends meet provides the labourer and his wife with enough to think about, especially when the children begin to come. Then, too, they have no luxuries to pamper their flesh, no lazy hours in which to grow wanton. The severity of the man's daily labour keeps him quiet; the woman, drudge that she is, soon loses the surface charm that would excite admirers. But when all this is said, it remains probable that a lowliness in their ideal preserves the villagers from temptation. They do not put woman on a pedestal to be worshipped; they are unacquainted with the finer, more sensitive, more high-strung possibilities of her nature. People who have been affected by long traditions of chivalry, or by the rich influences of art, are in another case; but here amongst the labouring folk a woman is not seen through the medium of any cherished theories; she is merely an individual woman, a man's comrade and helper, and the mother of his family. It is a fine thing, though, about the unions effected on these unromantic terms, that they usually last long, the man and wife growing more affectionate, more tender, more trustful, as they advance in years.
Of course, the marriages are not invariably comfortable or even tolerable. One hears sometimes of men callously disappearing—deserting their wives for a period, and going off, as if for peace, to distant parts wherever there is work to be picked up. One man, I remember, was reported to have said, when he ultimately reappeared, that he had gone away because "he thought it would do his wife good." Another, who had openly quarrelled with his wife and departed, was discovered months afterwards working in a Sussex harvest-field. He came back by-and-by, and now for years the couple have been living together, not without occasional brawls, it's true, but in the main good comrades, certainly helpful to one another, and very fond of their two or three children. A bad case was that of a bullying railway navvy, who, having knocked his wife about and upset his old father, went off ostensibly to work. In reality he made his way by train to a town some ten miles distant, and from there, in a drunken frolic, sent a telegram home to his wife announcing that he was dead. He had given no particulars: a long search for him followed, and he was found some days later in a public-house of that town vaingloriously drinking. I remember that Bettesworth, who told me this tale, was full of indignation. "Shouldn't you think he could be punished for that?" he asked. "There, if I had my way he should have twelve months reg'lar hard labour, and see if that wouldn't dummer a little sense into 'n." There was no suggestion, however, of "a woman in the case," to explain this man's ill-treatment of his wife; it appears to have been simply a piece of freakish brutality.
When disagreements occur, it is likely that the men are oftener to blame than their wives. Too often I have seen some woman or other of the village getting her drunken and abusive husband home, and never once have I seen it the other way about. Nevertheless, in some luckless households the faults are on the woman's side, and it is the man who has the heartache. I knew one man—a most steady and industrious fellow, in constant work which kept him from home all day—whose wife became a sort of parasite on him in the interest of her own thriftless relatives. In his absence her brothers and sisters were at his table eating at his expense; food and coals bought with his earnings found their way to her mother's cottage; in short, he had "married the family," as they say. He knew it, too. In its trumpery way the affair was an open scandal, and the neighbours dearly wished to see him put a stop to it. Yet, though he would have had public opinion to support him in taking strong measures, his own good nature deterred him from doing so. Probably, too, his own course was the happier one. Thrive he never could, and gloomy enough and dispirited enough he used to look at times; yet to see him with his children on Sundays—two or three squalid, laughing urchins—was to see a very acceptable sight.
Returning to the main point, if anyone has a taste for ugly behaviour, and thinks nothing "real" but what is uncomfortable too, he may find plenty of subjects for study in the married life of this parish; but he will be ridiculously mistaken if he supposes the ugliness to be normal. A kind of dogged comradeship—I can find no better word for it—is what commonly unites the labouring man and his wife; they are partners and equals running their impecunious affairs by mutual help. I was lately able to observe a man and woman after a removal settling down into their new quarters. It was the most ordinary, matter-of-fact affair in the world. The man, uncouth and strong, like a big dog or an amiable big boy, moved about willingly under his wife's direction, doing the various jobs that required strength. One evening, in rain, his wife stood watching while he chopped away the wet summer grass that had grown tall under the garden hedge; then she pointed out four or five spots against the hedge, where he proceeded to put in wooden posts. Early the next morning there was a clothes-line between the posts, and the household washing was hanging from it. Nothing could have been more commonplace than the whole incident, but the commonness was the beauty of it. And it was done somehow in a way that warmed one to a feeling of great liking for those two people.
Very often it seems to be the woman who supplies the brains, and does the scheming, for the partnership. When old Bettesworth was on his last legs, as many as half a dozen different men applied to me for his job, of whom one, I very well remember, apologized for troubling me, but said his "missus" told him to come. Poor chap! it was his idea of courtesy to offer an apology, and it was the Old Adam in him that laid the blame on his wife, for really he desired very much to escape from his arduous night-work on the railway. At the same time there is not the least doubt that what he said was true; that he and his wife had talked the matter over, and that, when he proved timid of interviewing me, she forced him to come. Again, two or three winters ago, a man despairing of work in England got in touch with some agency to assist him in emigrating to Canada. It was his wife then who went round the parish trying to raise the few extra pounds that he was to contribute. That was a case to fill comfortable people with uncomfortable shame. The woman, not more than five-and-twenty, would have been strikingly handsome if she had ever in her life had a fair chance; but as it was she looked half-starved, and she had a cough which made it doubtful if she would ever live to follow her husband to Canada. Still, she was playing her part as the man's comrade. As soon as he could save enough money he was to send for her and her baby, she said; in the meantime she would have to earn her own living by going out to day-work.
During the South African War there was many a woman in the village keeping things together at home while the men were at the front. They had to work and earn money just as they do when their men are beaten down at home. There was one woman who received from her husband a copy of verses composed by him and his companions during their occupation of a block-house on the veldt. Very proud of him, she took the verses to a printer, had them printed—just one single copy—and then had the printed copy framed to hang on the bedroom wall in her cottage. Her husband showed it to me there one day, mightily pleased with it and her.
Probably the people behind the counters at the provision shops in the town could tell many interesting things about the relations between married people of this class, for it is quite the common thing in the villages for a man and wife to lock up their cottage on a Saturday evening, and go off with the children to do the week's shopping together. On a nice night the town becomes thronged with them, and so do the shops, outside which, now and then, a passer-by may notice little consultations going on, and husband or wife—sometimes one, sometimes the other—handing over precious money to the other to be spent. And if it is rather painful to see the faces grow so strained and anxious over such trifling sums, on the other hand the signs of mutual confidence and support are comforting. Besides, anxiety is not the commonest note. The majority of the people make a little weekly festivity of this Saturday night's outing; they meet their friends in the street, have a chat, wind up with a visit to the public-house, and so homewards at any time between seven and ten o'clock, trooping up the hill happily enough as a rule. Now and then one comes across solitary couples making one another miserable. Thus one night I heard a woman's voice in the dark, very tired and faint, say, "It's a long hill!" to which the surly tones of a man replied: "'Ten't no longer than 'twas, is it?" Brutishness like this, however, is quite the exception.
As a sample of what is normal, take the following scraps of talk overheard one summer night some years ago. The people were late that night, and indeed, it was pleasant to be out. Not as yet were there any of those street lamps along the road which now make all nights alike dingy; but one felt as if walking into the unspoiled country. For though it was after ten, and the sky overcast, still one could see very clearly the glimmering road and the hedgerows in the soft midsummer twilight. Enjoying this tranquillity, I passed by a man and woman with two children, and heard the man say invitingly: "Shall I carry the basket?" The wife answered: "'E en't 'eavy, Bill, thanks.... Only I got this 'ere little Rosy to git along."
Her voice sounded gentle and cheerful, and I tried to hear more, checking my pace. But the children were walking too slowly. I was getting out of earshot, missing the drift of the peaceful-sounding chatter, when presently the woman, as if turning to the other child, said more loudly: "Come along, Sonny!" The man added: "Hullo, old man! Come along! You'll be left behind!"
The children began prattling; their father and mother laughed; but I was leaving them farther and farther behind. Then, however, some other homeward-goer overtook the little family. For the talk grew suddenly louder, the woman beginning cheerily: "Hullo, Mr. Weatherall! 'Ow's your poor wife?... I didn't see as 'twas you, 'till this here little Rosy said...."
What Rosy had said I failed to catch. I missed also what followed, leading up to the woman's endearing remark: "This 'ere little Rosy, she's a reg'lar gal for cherries!" The neighbour seemed to say something; then the husband; then the neighbour again. And at that there came a burst of laughter, loudest from the woman, and Mr. Weatherall asked: "Didn't you never hear that afore?"
The woman, laughing still, was emphatic: "No; I'll take my oath as I never knowed that."
"Well, you knows it now, don't ye?"
"I ain't sure yet. I ain't had time to consider."
After that the subject changed. I heard the woman say: "I've had six gals an' only one boy—one out o' seven. Alice is out courtin'"; and then they seemed to get on to the question of ways and means. The last words that reached me were "Fivepence ... tuppence-ha'penny;" but still, when I could no longer catch any details at all, the voices continued to sound pleasantly good-tempered.
Besides the unrelieved hardness of daily life—the need, which never lifts from them, of making shift and doing all things for themselves—there has always been another influence at work upon my neighbours, leaving its indelible mark on them. Almost from infancy onwards, in a most personal and intimate way, they are familiar with harrowing experiences of calamity such as people who employ them are largely able to escape. The little children are not exempt. There being no nursemaids to take care of the children while fathers and mothers are busy, the tiniest are often entrusted to the perilous charge of others not quite so tiny, and occasionally they come to grief. Then too often the older children, who are themselves more secure for a few years, are eyewitnesses of occurrences such as more fortunate boys and girls are hardly allowed even to hear of. Nor is it only with the gory or horrible disaster that the people thus become too early acquainted. The nauseating details of sickness are better known and more openly discussed in the cottage than in comfortable middle-class homes. For it is all such a crowded business—that of living in these cramped dwellings. Besides, the injured and the sick, absorbed in the interest of their ailments, are amiably willing to give others an opportunity of sharing it. The disorder or the disablement is thus almost a family possession. An elderly man, who had offered to show me a terrible ulcer on his leg, smiled at my squeamishness, as if he pitied me, when I declined the privilege. "Why, the little un," he said, pointing to a four-year-old girl on the floor, "the little un rolls the bandage for me every evening, because I dresses'n here before the fire." That is the way in the labourer's cottage. Even where privacy is attempted for the sufferer's sake there is no refuge for the family from the evidence of suffering. The young people in one room may hardly avoid knowing and hearing where a man is dying, or a woman giving birth to a child, just the other side of a latched deal door.
In this connection it should be remembered how much more than their share of the afflictions of the community falls to the labouring people. The men's work naturally takes them where accidents happen, where disease is contracted. And then, from ignorance or the want of conveniences, from the need to continue wage-earning as long as endurance will hold out, and also from the sheer carelessness which is a part of their necessary habit, both the men and the women not seldom allow themselves to fall into sickness which a little self-indulgence, if only they dared yield to it, would enable them to avoid. I should not know how to begin counting the numbers I have personally known enfeebled for life in this way. Things are better now than they were twenty years ago; there are many more opportunities than there used to be of obtaining rest or nursing, but still the evil is widespread. Without going out of my way at all, during the last fortnight I have heard of—have almost stumbled across—three cases of the sort. The first was that of a woman who had been taking in washing during her husband's long illness. Meeting the man, who was beginning to creep about again, I happened to ask how his wife was; and he said that she was just able to keep going, but hardly knew how to stand because of varicose veins in both legs. The second case, too, was a woman's. She met me on the road, and on the off chance asked if I could give her a letter of admission to the County Hospital, and so save her the pain of going down to the Vicarage to beg for a letter there. What was the matter? "I give birth to twins five months ago," she said, "and since then dropsy have set in. I gets heavier every day. The doctor wants me to go to the hospital, and I was goin' to the Vicar to ask for a letter, but I dreads comin' back up that hill." As it was she had already walked half a mile. In the third case a man's indifference to his own suffering was to blame for the plight in which he found himself. Driving a van, he had barked his shin against the iron step on the front of the van. Just as the skin had begun to heal over he knocked it again, severely, in exactly the same way, and he described to me the immense size of the aggravated wound. But, as he said, he had supposed it would get well, and, beyond tying his leg up with a rag, he took no further trouble about it, until it grew so bad that he was obliged to see a doctor. His account of the interview went in this way: "'How long since you done this?' the doctor says. 'A month,' I says. 'Then you must be a damn fool not to 'ave come to me afore,' the doctor says." The man, indeed, looked just as likely as not to be laid up for six months, if not permanently crippled, as a result of his carelessness.
Yet, common as such cases are now, they were commoner when I first knew the village—when there was no cottage hospital, no proper accommodation at the workhouse infirmary, no parish nurse, and when the parish contained few people of means to help those who were in distress. I remember once looking round in that early period, and noting how there was hardly a cottage to be seen which had not, to my own knowledge, been recently visited by trouble of some sort or another. True, the troubles were not all of them of a kind that could be avoided by any precaution, for some of them arose from the death of old people. Yet in a little cottage held on a weekly tenancy death often involves the survivors of the family in more disturbance, more privation too, than it does elsewhere. Putting these cases aside, however, I could still see where, within two hundred yards of me, there had been four other deaths—one being that of an infant, and one that of a woman in child-birth. In the other two cases the victims were strong men—one, a railway worker, who was killed on the line; the other a carter, who died of injuries received in an accident with his horse. The list of lesser misfortunes included the illness of a man who broke down while at work, with haemorrhage of the stomach, and the bad case of a bricklayer's labourer, who lay for days raving from the effects of a sunstroke. In pre-Christian times it might have been argued that the gods were offended with the people, so thickly did disasters fall upon them, but my neighbours seemed unaware of anything abnormal in the circumstances. By lifelong experience they had learned to take calamity almost as a matter of course.
For, as I said, the experience begins early. The children, the young girls, have their share of it. During those earlier years I am recalling, a little girl of the village, who was just beginning domestic service in my household, was, within the space of six months, personally concerned in two accidents to little children. She came from one of half-a-dozen families whose cottages, for a wonder in this village, stood in a row; and amongst scraps of her talk which were repeated to me I heard how her little brother—only five years old, but strong at throwing stones—threw at a girl playmate and knocked out one of her eyes. That happened in the springtime. In the autumn of the same year a mishap, if possible more shocking at the moment, befell another child in that row of cottages. A man there one evening was trimming a low hedge. His tool was a fag-hook—well sharpened, for he was one of the ablest men in the village. And near by where he worked his children were at play, the youngest of them being between three and four years old.
As he reached over the hedge, to chop downwards at the farther side, this little one suddenly came running dangerously near. "Take care, ducky!" he cried. "Don't come so close, 'r else perhaps father'll cut ye."
He gave three more strokes, and again the child ran in. The hook fell, right across the neck. I had these particulars from a neighbour. "If 't had bin another half inch round, the doctor said, 'twould have bin instant death.... The man was covered with blood, and all the ground, too. I was at work when I heared of it, but I couldn't go on after that, it upset me so.... And all this mornin' I can't get it out o' my mind. There's a shiver all up that row. They be all talkin' of it. The poor little thing en't dead this mornin', and that's all's you can say. They bin up all night. Ne'er a one of 'em didn't go to bed."
So far the neighbour. Later the little maidservant, who had gone home that evening, told me: "We was passin' by at the time—me and my older sister.... She run in and wrapped a towel round its neck."
"Where, then, was the mother?"
"She was with its father. He'd fainted. So we went in. We thought p'raps we could run for the doctor. But she went herself, jest as she was," carrying the child down to the town.
As for the girl's sister, who had behaved with some aplomb, "It made her feel rather bad afterwards. She felt sick. All the floor was covered with blood." The little maidservant had a curious look, half horror, half importance, as she said this. She herself was not more than fifteen at the time.
But sickness is commoner by far than accident, and owing to the necessity the cottagers are under of doing everything for themselves they often get into dire straits. Of some of the things that go on one cannot hear with equanimity. The people are English; bone of our bone. But we shut our eyes. I have heard of well-to-do folk in the parish who, giving of their abundance to foreign missions, deny that there is distress here at home. The most charitable explanation of that falsehood is to suppose that across their secluded gardens and into their luxurious rooms, or even to their back-doors, an average English cottager is too proud to go. Yet it is hard to understand how all signs of what is so constantly happening can be shut out. For myself, I have never gone out of my way to look for what I see. I have never invited confidences. The facts that come to my knowledge seem to be merely the commonplaces of the village life. If examples of the people's troubles were wanted, they could be provided almost endlessly, and in almost endless diversity. But there is one feature that never varies. Year after year it is still the same tale; all the extra toil, all the discomfort, or horror, or difficulty, of dealing with sickness falls immediately on the persons of the family where the sickness occurs; and it sets its cruel mark upon them, so that the signs can be seen as one goes about, in the faces of people one does not know. And the women suffer most.
One winter evening a woman came to my door to see if she could borrow a bed-rest. Her sister, she said, had been ill with pleurisy and bronchitis for a week or more, and for the last two days had been spitting a great deal of blood. The woman looked very poor; she might have been judged needlessly shabby. A needle and thread would so soon have remedied sundry defects in her jacket, which was gaping open at the seams. But her face suggested that there were excuses for her.
I have never forgotten her face, as it showed that evening, although I have since seen it looking happier. It was dull of colour—the face of an overworked and over-burdened soul; and it had a sullen expression of helplessness and resentment. The eyes were weary and pale—I fancied that trouble had faded the colour out of them. But with all this I got an impression of something dogged and unbeaten in the woman's temper. She went away with the bed-rest, apologizing for coming to borrow it. "'Tis so bad"—those were her words—"'tis so bad to see 'em layin' there like that, sufferin' so much pain."
I had never seen her before—for it was years ago; and, knowing no better then, I supposed her to be between forty and fifty years old. In reality, she can hardly have been thirty. It was the stress of personal service that had marred her so young. Did her jacket need mending? As I have since learnt, at that period the youngest of her family was unborn, and the oldest cannot have been more than eight or nine. Besides nursing her sister, therefore, she had several children to wait upon, as well as her husband—a man often ailing in health. For all I know she was even then, as certainly she has been since, obliged to go out working for money, so as to keep the family going; and, seeing that she was a mother, it is probable that she herself had already known the extremity of hardship.
Because, as scarcely needs saying, the principle of self-help is strained to the uttermost at time of child-birth. Then, the other members of the family have to shift for themselves as best they can, with what little aid neighbours can find time to give; and where there are young children in the cottage, it is much if they are sufficiently fed and washed. But it is the situation of the mother herself that most needs to be considered. Let me give an illustration of how she fares.
Several years ago there was a birth in a cottage very near to me. Only a few hours before it happened the woman had walked into the town to do her shopping for herself and carry home her purchases. As soon as the birth was known, a younger sister, out at service, got a week's holiday, so that she might be at hand to help, though there was no spare room in the cottage where she could sleep. During that week, also, the parish nurse came in daily, until more urgent cases occupied all her time. After that the young mother was left to her own resources. According to someone I know, who looked in from time to time, she lay in bed with her new-born baby, utterly alone in the cottage, her husband being away at work all day for twelve hours, while the elder children were at school. She made no complaint, however, of being lonely; she thought the solitude good for her. But she was worried by thinking of the fire in the next room—the living-room, which had the only fireplace in the house, there being none in her bedroom—lest it should set fire to the cottage while she lay helpless. It seems that the hearth was so narrow and the grate so high that coals were a little apt to fall out on to the floor. Once, she said, there had almost been "a flare-up." It was when she was still getting about, and she had gone no farther away than into her garden to feed the fowls; but in that interval a coal fell beyond the fender, and she, returning, found the place full of smoke and the old hearthrug afire. The dread that this might happen again distressed her now as she lay alone, unable to move.
I could furnish more pitiful tales than this, if need were—tales of women in child-bed tormented with anxiety because their husbands are out of work, and there is no money in the cottage, and no prospect of any; or harassed by the distress of little children who miss the help which the mother cannot give, and so on. But this case illustrates the normal situation. Here there was no actual destitution, nor any fear of it, and the other children were being cared for. The husband was earning a pound a week at constant work, and the circumstances of the family were on the whole quite prosperous. But one of the conditions of prosperity was that the father of the family should be away all day, leaving the mother and infant unattended.
From whatever sickness the woman suffers, there is always the same piteous story to be told—she is destitute of help. The household drudge herself, she has no drudges to wait upon her. The other day I was told of a woman suffering from pleurisy. Her husband had left home at six o'clock for his work; a neighbour-woman came in to put on a poultice and make things comfortable; then she, too, had to go to her work. In the afternoon a visitor, looking in by chance, found that the sick woman had been alone for five hours; she was parched with thirst, and her poultice had gone cold. For yet one more example. I mentioned just now a man who was killed on the railway. His widow, quite a young woman then, reared her three or four children, earning some eight or nine shillings a week at charing or washing for people in the town; and still she keeps herself, pluckily industrious. There is one son living with her—an errand-boy—and there are two daughters both in service at a large new house in the village. During last spring the woman had influenza, and had to take to her bed, her girls being permitted to take turns in coming home to care for her. Just as she, fortunately, began to recover, this permission was withdrawn: both girls were wanted in "their place," because a young lady there had taken influenza. So they had to forsake their mother. But by-and-by one of these girls took the infection. Her "place," then, was thought to be—at home. She was sent back promptly to her mother, and it was not long before the mother herself broke down again, not being yet strong enough to do sick-nursing in addition to her daily work.
It must be borne in mind that these acute and definite troubles spring up from the surface of an ill-defined but chronic anxiety, from which very few of the cottagers are free for any length of time. For though there is not much extreme destitution, a large number of the villagers live always on the brink of it; they have the fear of it always in sight. In a later chapter I shall give some particulars as to their ways and means; in this, I only wish it to be remembered that the question of ways and means is a life-and-death one for the labourer and his wife, and leaves them little peace and little hope of it. During the trade depression which culminated in 1908-09 I was frequently made aware of the disquiet of their minds by the scraps of talk which reached me as I passed along the road, and were not meant for my hearing. From women who were comparing notes with one another, this was the sort of thing one would hear: "'En't had nothin' to do this six weeks; and don't sim no likelihoods of it." "I s'pose we shall get through, somehow." "I'm sure I dunno what 'tis a-comin' to." "'Tis bad 'nough now, in the summer; what it'll be like in the winter, Gawd only knows." Again and again I heard talk like this.
And all this was only an accentuation or a slight increase in volume of a note of apprehension which in better times still runs less audibly as a kind of undertone to the people's thought. I had stopped one day to say good-morning to an old widow-woman outside her cottage. She was the mother of that young man whose funeral was mentioned two chapters back; but this was before his death, and while, in fact, he was still doing a little occasional work. She spoke cheerfully, smiled even, until some chance word of mine (I have forgotten what it was) went through the armour of her fortitude, and she began to cry. Then she told me of the position she was in, and the hopelessness of it, and her determination to hold out. Some charitable lady had called upon her. "Mrs. Curtis," the lady had said, "if ever you are ill, I hope you'll be sure and send to me." And Mrs. Curtis had replied: "Well, ma'am, if ever I sends, you may be sure I am ill." "But," she added, "they don't understand. 'Tis when you're on yer feet that help's wanted—not wait till 'tis too late." With regard to her present circumstances—she "didn't mind saying it to me—sometimes she didn't hardly know how they was goin' on," for she hadn't a penny except what her son could earn. And "people seemed to think it didn't matter for a single chap to be out o' work. They didn't think he might have a mother to keep, or, if he was in lodgin's, he couldn't live there for nothin'.... Sometimes we seems to be gettin' on a little, and then you has bad luck, and there you are again where you was before. It's like gettin' part way up a hill and fallin' down to the bottom again, and you got it all to begin over again."