A QUAINT and ancient town is this Watlington. Its very name carries one back to British times when the Dobuni fenced their villages with trees cut down and laid across one another. The Saxons called this mode of fortification watelar; hence the place was” the town of the wattles” or ” hurdles.” A picture of primitive life : a rude clearing in the great beech-forest, which then extended from Kent to a point far beyond this, a few sheds or huts for a simple people and their cattle, and the strange manners and trying privations which were involved in a crude civilization and an almost complete isolation. There are neither Roman nor Saxon remains about the place, so far as I know, but there is a delightful look of old times both in the narrow, winding streets and in some of the houses. In the High street is a tavern styled the ” Barley-Mow,” whose blackened timbers in the wall indicate considerable age. The town-hall, the delight of artists and the resort of hucksters, was built in 1664 by Thomas Stonor, a member of a family which from the twelfth century has lived in the place near by bearing the same name. Its gray mullions, high-pointed gables, dark arches, antique clock, nail-headed door and general appearance furnish a perfect and pleasing specimen of the architecture of the age when England was rejoicing in the restoration of its king and the passing away of Puritan gloom and rigor.
From the market-hall southward is a street called Couching to which I will return by and by and this ends in the road leading from Henley, the oldest place in the county, to Oxford, the most celebrated. A pleas-ant road it is, too, running in one direction over the hills to Nettlebed, the highest point of the Chilterns, on which a windmill spreads its sails to the breezes and thick furze-bushes dot the unenclosed common. In the other direction the road passes near the parish church. A rivulet, tiny and clear, flows playfully by the side of the way, and on a calm Sunday morning the melody of the church-bells and the music of the brook blend together in sweet, suggestive harmony. There are tall hollyhocks in the gardens and bright faces in the cottage doorways, and as one walks on one would think this was amongst the purest and the brightest spots in all England. So it may be, but a certain bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilber-force of famous memory, declared the town to be one of the worst and darkest in his whole diocese. We may not dispute His Lordship’s judgment, though his opportunities for personal observation were limited to a visit of three or four hours once in every third year, and even in his day the old church used to be well filled and the people sang lustily and with a good courage.
The place belonged to the abbey of St. Mary’s at Osney. This great house on the Ey, near the Ousenford, was founded in the reign of Henry I. by Robert d’Oily, a nephew of the knight of the same name who came over with the Conqueror, acquired large possessions in this county, became governor of Oxford, and among other things built Shirbourne Castle. His wife, Eadgyth, once a mistress of the king, was much troubled with the constant chattering of magpies in the garden of the castle at Oxford. She referred the subject to her confessor, who, knowing the language of birds, told her that the pies were none other than souls in purgatory beseeching her for prayers to release them from their bitter pains. Thus the abbey was founded and endowed with much land, Watlington being also in the gift, and in time it became magnificent for its appointments, ” the envy of all other religious houses in England and beyond the seas.” The influence in it was rather English than Norman ; at any rate, the second prior and the first abbot had the name, and probably belonged to the family, of Wiggod of Wallingford, an old Saxon noble who contrived to hold his own under William. It had a church containing many chapels and twice as many altars as there were months in the year. Further estates were bestowed upon it, kings and nobles often graced it with their presence, and when dissolved its revenue was between six and seven hundred pounds. The mercy which led to its establishment was not always exhibited within its walls. In the year 1222 there was a singular imposture at Ox-ford. A man proclaimed himself as the Messiah, and exhibited the stigmata in his body as proofs of his assertion. Another man aided him, and two women declared themselves to be the Marys. Such a story in our day would be treated with indifference, but the thirteenth century was more serious and severe. The four impostors were brought to trial in Osney Abbey; the men were sent, one to crucifixion, the other to fire, and the women were condemned to be built up alive in the walls of the abbey. The sentence of living entombment was carried into effect. We must not judge the people of bygone ages as we would judge ourselves, only it is curious that consideration for the souls in purgatory does not seem to have induced consideration for the souls in heresy, except that material fire is easier to bear than spiritual, and may, indeed, preclude it.
The good fathers of Osney, however, must not be condemned upon an event which happened incidentally in the course of their four centuries of history, and which was, indeed, brought about by a tribunal presided over by one of the greatest and best of the primates, Stephen Langton, and composed of members mostly outside of their society. They did much for the upbuilding of the people around them. In common with other monasteries, the ecclesiastical livings which were appropriated to them, and of which they became rectors, were fairly well cared for by them and served by their vicar. They received the great or rectorial tithes, and the priest who did the duty, but was not responsible for the temporalities, was supported out of them, or by what were known as “the small tithes.” When the abbey was broken up, instead of restoring the rectory to the clergyman of the parish, it, with the lands of the Church belonging to the religious house, was granted to some courtier whose interest it was to blacken the character of the monks beyond all possible recognition, and whose inheritors still retain, and unrighteously retain, that which does not belong to them. The wrong was wrought throughout the realm, and on the ruins of the monastic houses grew up a society new without nobility and powerful without rightness. Hence there are lay rectors who fill the place of the old monks, and the spiritual functions of the office are performed by a clergyman who is called, and actually is, the vicar, the substitute and deputy of the rector. Whether lay rectors are better than monastic rectors is not for me to say, nor is it possible until the problem is satisfactorily solved whether man as a squire or man as a monk is the better fitted to be the guardian of the people’s spiritual rights. Any way, the Austin canons of the abbey in the Meadow Island built the church at Watlington, and some of their work remains in the present edifice.
It is not much of a building. It was not much before its restoration, ten years since ; it is still less now. The high red-tile roof of the restored portion does not correspond with the flat lead roof of the part not touched, and there is striking incongruity inside between the new and the old. Formerly the chapel on the south side was secluded and separate. There were tombs in there, and an iron railing divided them from the body of the church. I remember, when the “forty years long ” in the Venite was reached, I used to look toward that dark corner and wonder if they who rested there were of the generation that grieved the Almighty. I did not know who were buried within the sacred precincts, but there were hatchments, dingy and dusty, hanging high up on the chancel-walls, and brasses four hundred years old. There was no chapel or transept on the north side, but the chancel was long and filled with pews arranged in the usual choir or college fashion. The pulpit was a mighty structure, standing at the east entrance of the nave, and had the appearance of being halfway down the church. A flight of steps led up into the great square reading-pew, and from that another flight led up into the pulpit, which stood upon one post, was round and had a sounding-board and a great red cushion. There was some-thing of the highest dignity in the way the venerable vicar in silken gown and white bands smoothed his sermon on this cushion and cleared his throat preparatory to his .fifty-minute delivery. The new school of divines cannot approach the old clergy in official gracefulness ; they have lost their dignity in short surplices and thin essays. Opposite the pulpit, immediately across the passage, was the little desk for the parish clerk, a precise, prompt, rotund and ruddy individual, short in stature and a carpenter by trade, who used to strut up and down the chancel before the parson, open the door of the reading-pew or pulpit, shut him in, and when it was time let him out again with a gravity and primness which astonished strangers and delighted the parishioners. He used also to make the responses in a loud tone, the only soul in the church that presumed to do, so, and he announced the hymns in a sonorous voice, absolutely inimitable, prefaced with the invariable ” Let us sing to the praise and the glory of God.” Perhaps the custom of the clerk instead of the parson giving out the hymn arose from the fact that once upon a time he was probably choirmaster, if not choir, and would therefore be best able to judge of what came within the compass of his powers. Sometimes it fell to his duty to trip down the church and up into the loft or gallery at the west end, where the singers and the poor-school children sat, and rebuke the bad boy who would not observe order during the service. Occasionally he would bring the said bad boy back with him and stand him on the pulpit steps, at once a punishment to the offender and an admonition to the offending. The restoration of the church has swept out that noble and worthy functionary ; he is no more, either in office or in person, and somehow or other, dear as he was in the eyes and the ears of the faithful, things go on without him.
Time has also removed another individual, a trim, correct bachelor who for years sat in the great square pew under the pulpit. Wet or fine this gentleman was always in his place, and wet or fine he had always a stiff high collar and a big white cravat. He was the ad-mired of all admirers, and every unmarried lady of middle or uncertain age in the church used to wonder when the eventful day of his life would arrive and if she could possibly do up his collars. When the sermon became unusually dry, people relieved the monotony by watching the flies on the bare round place at the back of his head enjoying themselves in ways congenial to their nature. He rarely interfered with them ; when he did, he lifted his hand gently, slowly, aimfully, and then at the proper moment brought it down with a smart slap upon the caputial vacancy, only to find that the offending diptera had left the infinitesimal part of a moment before. No matter how serious the sermon, this slightly upset the spectators. They neither said anything nor laughed aloud, but they turned very red and bent over, as if for private prayer. It was rumored that he was in love with a venerable maiden-lady some fifteen years his senior, a sweet and gentle creature who, though she was suspected of wearing a wig and of having lost some teeth in the conflict with time, considered it best to wait a little longer before she threw herself away, even upon a highly-respectable bachelor. She sat some distance from him inside the chancel, and, like him, was always in her place and always devout. Both are now sleeping in the graveyard outside.
The old tower remains, partly covered with ivy. On its highest ledge, on the north side, a good-sized bush has been growing for some years; probably the seed was carried up by a bird and dropped into the mortar. At the south-west corner of the tower is a yew tree, the trunk of which four feet from the ground measures ten feet eight inches in circumference. It is most likely three or four centuries old. The ancients planted the yew to protect the church from evil spirits, also to sup-ply wood for their bows. The torches of the Furies were made of yew, and on the Sunday next before Easter its boughs were used instead of palm or olive. It had a symbolism which spoke to all the dark color of the mortality of man, the seemingly unfailing trunk of immortality, and hence, perhaps, its name, ewig, ” everlasting.” Gilbert White thinks the more respect-able parishioners were buried under this tree, and that it was also designed as a shelter to the congregation assembling before the church doors were opened. Some have supposed it further served to shield the sacred edifice from the storm. Its leaves are poison and its wood was used for the instruments of death ; therefore Shakespeare calls it ” double-fated.” On Sun-days, contrary to the canon against loiterers, the idle youth used to gather at this tower corner and under this tree, much to the annoyance of passers-by, who were too often the subjects of their witticisms. The carved figures to the waterspouts are as formerly, and besides them are two heads, the one on the west and the other to the east of the south porch. These two figures are interesting. The former is looking down the main pathway to the church, with the left hand holding the robe over the breast and the right hand shading the eyes, anxiously watching for the coming worshippers ; the latter, overlooking the main portion of the grave-yard, has a mingled aspect of sorrow, sympathy and hope, as though it extended these to the weary ones who came to weep at the graves of their dead. The tombstones appear old, but are not really so. The atmosphere soon darkens them, lichen covers them, and they speedily chip and crumble away.
I named Couching street; let us return thither and pick up a few reminiscences there. Years ago I used to puzzle over its etymology. Had Osney Abbey belonged to the Crutched Friars, I should have been tempted to think it was a corruption of their name ; and once I came near fancying it might formerly have been Crouch for the Croce of Doomsday. These, how-ever, were no more satisfactory than the suggestion of one who thought it meant Sleepy street because it was so quiet. In Old English there was such a word as couchen or cowchyn, meaning ” to place or set together,” and possibly, as the houses or cottages which compose this street were built up till they became continuous, the name was thus given. Be this as it may, Couching is a narrow, still street with rough pebbles most of its length for the sidewalk, one or two inns, a few shops, some private residences and a malt-house. At the back of the houses on the south side of the street are gardens opening into a lane, beyond which lie open fields running up to the rolling hills a mile away. At one end of this lane a plank serves as a bridge into the Henley road across the babbling brooklet already mentioned; the other end leads into the highway up to the White Mark. In the street and in the lane Chanticleer and his company scratch for a living, and a pig occasionally seeks for garbage. Little occurs in this neighborhood to disturb the restful monotony. When a trap rattles over the hard road or a hen cackles, most of the old ladies run to the windows to satisfy their curiosity ; and when the con-stable succeeds in taking a drunken man to the lock-up, close by, they become so excited as to need some-thing stronger in their tea than either milk, sugar, water or the uninebriating herb itself. At the time the prince of Wales was married, and a brass band from Walling-ford played ” All among the Barley ” as it passed through the streets, the Union Jack waving in its glory and a goodly company of men and boys following and shouting with soul-stirring vigor, it is said it took so much hot water, sugar and brandy to calm the nerves of the people and to allay their heart-throbbing loyalty that the town was in danger of being left with-out a drop of distilled liquor in it. Such a crisis has never been reached since. Most of the ancient inhabitants of the place keep a little on hand against emergencies and hysterics, and before this is exhausted the new railway, which seems to have little else to do, replenishes the supply.
It matters little into which house we enter in this street; each will furnish us with a picture more or less pleasing of quiet life. Here is one, a comfortable-looking two-story brick domicile, a bay-window on each side of the front door, and, opposite, the bonnet-like chimney of the malt-house. The street door has a knocker and a bright brass handle ; it is also panelled and has sufficient projection over it in the way of a pent-house to bring the rain-drippings exactly on the middle of one’s umbrella when standing underneath. There was design in this last feature : a tramp on a stormy day would avoid getting wet through for the sake of a crust of bread or a crusty refusal. Inside is a short passageway or hall, on the right side of which a door opened into the parlor, and on the left a door into the sitting-room, through which one passed into the kitchen, and hence into one of the sweetest of gardens. At the end of the passage a flight of stairs neatly carpeted led to the three or four upper rooms. Thirty years since, for three hours in the forenoon and three hours in the afternoon, a number of respectable young ladies and gentlemen, sons and daughters of the best of the local society, met in the parlor for instruction in the rudiments of a polite education. The terms were not high one guinea a quarter, and a crown extra for French, music or good manners. A shoulder-board for the young ladies and a cane for the young gentlemen were the means of disciplining the juvenile mind and body into the ways of rectitude and industry. The former went the round of the girls every day, and their time devoted to it was in proportion to their numbers. If there were twelve of them, each spent half an hour a day standing up and holding in proper position the instrument for making square shoulders; if there were six, each had an hour a day. The girls were, therefore, interested in keeping up the numbers and attendance. At the same time the one undergoing the gentle process had to commit to memory a page or so of Mrs. Magnall’s questions or one of the psalms of David, the book being placed on a desk before her. Frequently a weaker girl could not complete her time, but it was so arranged that during school-hours the board was always in use; a stronger pupil took her place and filled up the spare minutes in addition to her own share. The good lady who managed the establishment had gone through this process her-self in the days when the French Revolution was up-setting things on the Continent, and she knew the value and the benefit of such a training. Only in this way could the backs of young ladies be fitted to the straight-backed chairs of the period. As to the young gentle-men, the discipline of the cane fell to the lot of one in turn each day. The more boys there were, the longer the interval between the individual’s portion. About eleven o’clock in the forenoon, when the potatoes were peeled and the pudding was in the pot ready for dinner, the lady of the school took the victim, for the day out into the kitchen. Everybody knew the purpose the boys by experience, the girls by information. Very little was said. The youth followed the instructions given, adjusted his clothing and extended himself full length upon a bench. All that followed was without fear or favor. The red eyes of the lad when he returned to the room showed the immediate effects ; time has made manifest the permanent results. Every lad who came under the tuition and training of this school turned out well, and some have made positions for themselves in the world.
The school was popular, for the lady at its head had been a governess in the family of a great bishop and wrote a neat Italian hand. She was a maiden of many years’ standing, short and stout, with a kindly face and a profusion of curls, dignified and exact, and, withal, humorous and lively. She wore a silk dress and a heavy gold watch-chain, and about her there was a fragrance of lavender which suggested the wardrobe and the herb-garden. It was commonly reported that once she had suffered shipwreck. This was in the Irish Sea, and was confirmed by one of the boys, who said that the paper of an old geography locked up in her book-case had the blue tinge of the sea and left the taste of salt upon the tongue. Any way, she had travelled both in Ireland and in Wales and was a well-informed and well-read woman. That she was a Tory goes for the saying: her romantic spirit led her to love the days of chivalry and the traditions of the Church. Many a tale she told of valiant knight and holy bishop, of gay tournament and adventurous voyage, while her eyes glistened with enthusiasm and her voice quivered with emotion as she spoke of the battle of Roncesvalle and the dauntless Roland, of Runnymede and the noble Langton, of Drake and of Raleigh, and, above all, of Bonnie Prince Charlie. There was not a boy who heard her that did not wish to become crusader, re-former or navigator, and to perform deeds as marvellous as those of a. Robin Hood or a Robinson Crusoe ; there was not a girl who did not wish she had been Mary queen of Scots, or at least the lord mayor’s daughter whom the apprentice saved from drowning in the Thames. They forgave her for making them recite the collect and the gospel for the week first thing on Mon-day morning, and as the girls forgot the shoulder-boards in the fairy’s wand, and the boys the cane in the knight’s lance, so all agreed that for a story of good times and of old times their mistress could not be equalled:
Occasionally the exercises of the school were varied by an afternoon’s outing. Sometimes the destination was that delightful hill known as the Cuckoo Pen. This required an early start, as it was some three miles distant. At one o’clock the school assembled about twenty, all told and gravely and demurely walked through the streets two and two, the eldest girls first, after the girls the boys, and in the rear the good old lady carrying a large parasol and reticule. Up Couching street, by the town-hall, round the butcher’s shop and up the road to the White Mark., No talking, no laughing, no breaking of the procession till the foot of the hill was reached, but then in the grass-covered road by the chalk-pits, where wicked young men used to play cricket on Sunday afternoons, the most unrestrained mirth. Gayly and lightsomely the school wended its way through that wide shady lane, past Bacon Hill, to the Cuckoo Pen. How merrily the young folks chattered and sang, now racing over the thick sward, now plucking wild flowers or blackberries from the hedges, and now jumping leapfrog, skipping or playing ball! I see them now as I saw them one bright August day a quarter of a century since. There are our three Pyrton boys, gay, lively youngsters, the eldest nearly fourteen ; there is our pretty Eva, the daintiest and sweetest of all the maidens. There are other boys, but none so noble as Arthur from Pyrton; there are other girls, but none so queenly as Eva. Through the gate at the foot of the hill they rush ; up the steep sides they clamber. There are steps cut in the steepest places, and the moss and the grass are soft and slippery. On the summit is a fine copse, another a little farther back, and behind that and stretching far away into the valley between the hills a thick greenwood. The view from the top is fine, and on the edge of the first copse there was a double-trunked tree in the deep fork of which one or two of the more venturesome boys used to sit. In front of this tree all assemble, and after a while the cake and the ginger-beer arrive. The soft winds fan the rosy cheeks and cool the tired limbs; some of the youngsters wander in twos and threes into the wood, some gather moss or catch grass-hoppers, and some roll down the hillside over thistles and through furze. There is Ben almost in the top of that big beech tree, his white trousers soiled with green off the bark, and there is Eva, the little puss, not ten years old, sitting on the ground with a boy by her side and her hand in his. “Will you marry me when you grow up, Eva?”” Yes, if you will be a doctor like papa.” Here comes George with a paper box full of grasshoppers, and Arthur with a fledgling which he has caught. Everybody runs to see the bird. ” Poor thing !”” Feathers scarcely grown !”” Cruel !”” Let it go !” and, somehow or other, there is a chilly feeling comes over all when the captive is taken back to the neighborhood of the nest and released. On the way home everybody walks slower and there is less noise.
But, though tired, each scholar owns that an afternoon on the Cuckoo Pen is about the best fun that can be in this world, and the next morning even the shoulder-board and the French verb are easy, and the boy whose turn it is to become acquainted with the cane thinks flagellation uncomfortable, to be sure, but nevertheless bearable after a day of such rare delight.
In the room on the other side, opposite to that in which the school met, might be seen at any time between seven and nine o’clock in the forenoon, and after five till a quarter-past ten in the evening, another old lady, sister to the maiden-mistress in the parlor. She was not the opposite of her sister, but the same sort of person, only on a reduced scale. Her tastes, ideas, sentences, habits and the rest were the same, only less magnificent. She could not teach French, but she could make excellent elderberry wine, and, as every one knows, elderberry wine, warmed and spiced, with biscuit or toast, is better on a wintry night before going to bed than the most correct speech of Paris. Her sister wore silk ; she, having the house to look after, used prints and stuffs. Both had spectacles the one gold rimmed, the other brass covered with flannel. She was a treasurer of antiquity. The sofa under the window at the far side of the room was made before men ceased to write ” 1700 ” at the top of their letters. Over the mantel was a picture of a Rebekah at the well, a very English scene as old as the sofa, and above it were three or four bulrush-heads which had not been removed for a generation at least. A curious portrait of an old lady who died actually one hundred and three years old traditionally, one hundred and thirty placed beside one of a rosy-cheeked boy of five, brought into contrast “crabbed age and youth.” A desk made in the year 1827 out of a yew tree reputed at the time when cut down to be at least five hundred years old was one of her greatest delights. That tree may have furnished some of the archers of Agincourt with their bows, and it may have been planted from a tree which was young when Harold sat in the throne at Westminster. Her spare time was spent in thinking over the possibilities of that tree, and doubtless many a pleasant vision passed before her. In two things she had received a fuller development than her sister : she had a belief in ghosts, and she was fond of the garden. The former she sought to propitiate by saying as little about them as possible; to the latter she gave four or five hours of every fine day. She had plum trees, apricots and vines, gooseberry- and raspberry-bushes, strawberries and clusters of carnations, roses, gillyflowers, daffodils, daisies, honeysuckle, and even potatoes and cabbages. It was a frequent observation of hers that for beauty lilies in a vase, and for usefulness parsnips in a dish, had no equals. Life flowed on easily with the sisters, and little came in to disturb their peace. Once in a very long while one of them went up to London, but there were no charms in the city for them. Now they lie side by side near the east end of the chapel at the parish church.
Before we leave this house let me take you to a room up stairs looking out toward the hills. The walls are covered with designs of roses old-fashioned, indeed, and highly colored, but the trailing vines run up from floor to ceiling, green leaves, mossy buds and brilliant blooms, with a suggestiveness as true as that the highest art could give. Everything is scrupulously clean, the carpet, of wondrous devices and faded tints, the figured dimity on the bedstead, the rush-bottom chairs, the chest of drawers with the oval looking-glass on top, the candlestick and the snuffer-tray, the black-oak coffer, all as dustless as they are homely. There is but one window in the room, for the house was built when windows were taxed. It opens after the manner of the old lattices and has the small lozenge-shaped panes. Inside, soft-shaded curtains hang on both sides of the recess,’ in which is a low seat under the casement, cushioned and fastened into the wall; outside, a grape-vine twines its tendrils and sets its leaves thick all around, hiding the wall and the woodwork, and in the autumn rich purple clusters are within reach of the hand. But it is the view from the window that is the chief delight. Whenever I see it, I am reminded of the Pilgrim at the House Beautiful : ” When the morning was up, they had him to the top of the house, and bid him look south. So he did, and behold, at a great distance, he saw a most pleasant, mountainous country, beautified with woods, vineyards, fruits of all sorts, flowers also, with springs and fountains, very delectable to behold.” I do not say that the picture is as lovely as that of the Delectable Mountains, but seen in the glow of the early sunlight it is not altogether unworthy of comparison; indeed, it is probable that from such a scene Bunyan drew his inspiration. There lie the hills graceful lines against the horizon, the green of the fields and woods making more intense the white of the chalk-pits and roads. At the foot of the Mark are the wheat- and barley-fields ; and when the July winds gently pass over the wide reaches of tall grain, sweeping it into waves like those of some sea-waters, they look like rich plush smoothed by a soft hand. What says the old song?
“Come out ! ’tis now September : The hunter’s moon’s begun, And through the wheaten stubble Is heard the frequent gun ; The leaves are paling yellow Or kindling into red, And the ripe and golden barley Is hanging down his head.
” All among the barley, Who would not be blithe When the free and happy barley Is smiling on the scythe ?
” The Spring she is a young maid That does not know her mind; The Summer is a tyrant Of most unrighteous kind; The Autumn is an old friend That loves one all he can, And that brings the happy barley To glad the heart of man.
“All among the barley, etc.
“The wheat is like a rich man That’s sleek and well-to-do; The oats are like a pack of girls Laughing and dancing too ; The rye is like a miser That’s sulky, lean and small ; But the free and bearded barley Is the monarch of them all.
” All among the barley, etc.”
Sing the good old lines to the accompaniment of the guitar in the open air of the closing summer twilight, with a ” pack of girls ” and their swains, happy-hearted and sweet-voiced, to join in the chorus, and a strange delight will be yours for the time and a pleasant memory yours for ever. Then you will enjoy with deeper zest and fuller inspiration the picture of the fields of grain. A pleasant sight it is to see the harvest-moon shining on the standing shocks of corn ; pleasanter, to see the poor and needy leasing after the reapers. How strange appears the one tree in the middle of yonder field, thick with leaves and casting a deep shadow in which the sheep rest during the noontide heat, but seemingly lost in its solitude! There are nuts in the high hedges for squirrels and truant boys, and sloes and crab-apples. In the deserted rooks’ nests among the elms far away toward the Nettlebed road the fierce and indolent sparrowhawk sometimes rears its young, and excites at once the fear of the smaller birds, the desires of the town-lads and the ire of the gamekeeper. How gently the clouds rest in the blue sky ! And the earth seems to sleep in its calm and lovely splendor no care, no sorrow, quietly doing its work and not suffering the mind to dwell upon the winter of nature nor upon the storms which try the human heart. Standing in the window there, the eye rests upon a landscape full of interest, a scene never to be forgotten, and the soul is refreshed with the vision of beauty.
But we must away to other parts of this interesting town. Once in a while a Punch-and-Judy show comes and exhibits near the town-hall. There is then much excitement even greater than that caused by the monthly visit of the ” scissor-grinder.” The latter fairly rivals the travelling tinker, who does a fair trade for two reasons first, because of his handiness at mending old pots and kettles; and secondly, being a gypsy, he is suspected of a capability of stealing fowl by way of revenge for not having work given him. If he cannot have bread honestly Well, that is what some think. The children are half afraid of him because gypsies have been known to steal boys and girls and make acrobats, and sometimes aristocrats, out of them. As to the grinder of scissors, he is commonly supposed to live somewhere in the neighborhood, though where nobody knows. He is even suspected of being an itinerant preacher, but the weight of opinion is rather in favor of regarding him as a pretty straightforward sort of man. He is quiet, low in his charges, sober and respectful. For a penny he will sharpen all the cutlery of a small establishment. He also mends umbrellas and sells paper windmills. When he comes, wheeling his little machine down the street, boys run after him with their pocket-knives and women with their scissors, and as the sparks fly from the tiny grindstone everybody looks , on with profoundest interest. But he shines only in the absence of the sun. The luminary of luminaries is the puppet-show man. Here in this open space in front of the White Hart one of the best inns, by the way, in the country he goes through the tragedy of Punchinello. Between the acts he performs on a primitive musical instrument consisting of a row of small pipes fastened in the front of his coat. This ” wind-organ,” being level with his mouth so that he can use it at his convenience, and if need be beat a drum at the same time, produces music similar to that which is obtained by blowing over the open end of a key. Occasionally he uses a jewsharp sometimes, a cornet ; less frequently, a violin. If he has – any artistic vanity, it is helped by the lusty cheers of the crowd; his pocket is filled with their pence. Only let Punch kill the devil, and every man in the company will give the “price of a pint.”
You see in the cottage doorway the housewife trundling the mop. It is skilfully done; so is the way in which she balances herself on her pattens. The cleaner she keeps her stone floor, the higher her respectability. That is one of the aims of her life. She has two others viz., to bring up her children as she thinks they ought to be brought up, and to grow the finest flowers possible. Compare the little fellow sitting on the upturned bucket by the door-scraper, munching a slice of bread covered with treacle, with the fuchsias and geraniums in the window, and you can judge of her success. Speak to her; yes, sir, independence is one of the characteristics of the English peasantry. She will answer you with respect, but not with servility. You may be richer and know more that she will admit ; but you are no better than she. Praise the boy or the flowers, and you will see the healthy blush on her cheek deepen with delight.
The curate is an important person in most country parishes. It is a mistake to suppose that he does all the work some small portion of it is undertaken by the rector but he receives most of the popularity. The people always regard him as an ill-used, under-paid and sadly-neglected individual, and not a few things of a severe and spiteful nature are said concerning the ecclesiastical superior who treats him so badly. The young ladies think constantly and kindly of him, especially if he be single. They are not turned aside from their admiration for him by anything less than a soldier, and, as a fact, the moment a red coat comes into the parish the black coat is forgotten. However, the curate’s day comes round again. He is there all the time, and can play croquet, drink tea, quote authors, shape compliments, make sonnets, explain difficulties and do all sorts of odd things, while his appearance on Sundays in a snow-white surplice with the hood of soft rabbit-fur lining is “just too lovely for anything.” To say that he flirts is going too far, but he succeeds in making every girl in the parish think her chances are the best. In many places he is the only youth a girl of taste and education would care for; and if he cannot marry all the maidens of the neighborhood, it is not his fault. As a rule, when he does take unto himself a wife, she is from another parish, and then his resignation speedily follows. Unfortunately, his chances of promotion are not invariably good. If poor and of lowly origin, he has small hope of being anything else than a curate. Talents except of the very highest and rarest order go for little: influence is every-thing. Many of the ablest workers the Church of England has remain curates all their life, and many of the most inefficient, useless, parish-killing clergy have rich livings from the outset. As a training when young nothing can be better than a position under an able and sympathetic rector. The lack of responsibility is then helpful, and none can feel that more than the man who, full of zeal and life, has from his ordination been committed to the care and management of a large parish. Young men can then make mistakes without doing any serious damage. Once upon a time a curate was called to solemnize marriage for the first time. He got confused, confounded, and opened the book at the wrong place. He did not understand why the people smiled when he began, ” Hath this child been already baptized or no ?” The clerk put him right; some of the young ladies said he was in love with the bride. It was the more provoking because, according to his own confession afterward, he had gone through the service the night before with the clerk and the rector’s cook both relics in the seventies as subjects. No ; the story is not of this young fellow talking to the butcher at the corner. He looks as though he could as easily take first oar or bowler as perform the most difficult ecclesiastical function. I fancy he would keep cool even if he had to baptize a child, as was once certainly done, by the name of “Anna Miranda Morea Maria McRunnaho Donahue Bridget Dashiell.” But why speak of curates ? Because Watlington needs something to keep it alive, and I know of nothing better than a curate. He could at least teach the people that when in mourning they are not obliged to drink black tea.
Crooked streets, old houses, shops with tiny windows and with bow-windows, residences hid away behind high walls and seen only through great iron gates, walls built of flint with brick facings and broken glass bottles along the top, cobblestones and pebbles under foot, antique taverns, a gentle, drowsy, restful, self-satisfied life, that is Watlington. The waves of Time’s sea, great and mighty as they roll in this our present, break and exhaust their strength on shores far away. Only a few spatterings of spray driven by the wind reach this place just enough to let its people know that something great and ancient has been washed away, some mighty change effected.