WE found the little old-fashioned place all astir. It was the day of the annual flower-show, and the streets were gay with flags and noisy with the rattling of traps and wagonettes over the pebbles and the chattering of visitors from the neighboring towns and villages. There is not, as a rule, much excitement in such secluded districts, but the people somehow or other manage to make the most of life and to enjoy themselves. The “Swan” was filled with guests; the stables were crowded with horses and the tap-room was crammed with holiday-making and beer-drinking swains. Boniface good-tempered, sleek, shrewd Boniface was bustling about and making strenuous efforts to supply, and no doubt to suggest, the wants of his customers. On one side of the gateway was a little window or wicket through which the crowd who could not get indoors or who preferred the fresh air obtained a continual stream of brown mugs filled with foaming ale. Sounds of loud merriment, the scraping of a violin and fragments of a rude song came through the open casement with the red curtains and the brass bars. Here is a boy with a pint-pot in one hand and in the other a black clay pipe filled with the vilest-smelling tobacco trying to emulate the older ones around him, but the older ones say he ought to be thrashed and sent home to bed ; so that he gets but poor encouragement. There, a half-drunken fellow kicks a poor cur out of his way, and the wretched beast yelps and the jackdaw in the cage screams. All is bustle and confusion, and the signs are that both the devil and Boniface will make a successful day of it; which juxtaposition of the Prince of Darkness and a man duly licensed by law to make his living in this way by no means implies that there is a league between them or that the one is as bad as the other. As I see the people of the inn driving their business I think of that scene in Piers the Ploughman where Glutton, on the way to church, is stopped by the brewster, who upsets his good intentions with the allurements of good ale, ” hote spices” and the company of such choice spirits as Watte the warrener, Tymme the tinker and Hikke the hakeneyman.
I am shown into the parlor, my stout kindly friend having left me to my own devices. The house is old, with the yard, stables and wagonsheds usually belonging to hostelries of the kind. Inside there are narrow pas-sages, winding stairs, dark recesses and rooms with low ceilings and mysterious-looking cupboards and closets. Care is needed lest one stumble over unexpected steps or old lumber partly hid in the prevailing gloom. In the room in which I find myself are a long table, a piano and some pictures on the wall of racehorses and stiff-looking houses. I ask for dinner, and the hostess, stout and mirthful she seemed to be made of a smile from head to foot, a huge ripple skilfully navigates me through dark and devious ways to a long room up stairs. Here she explains to me that the day is a bad one for a warm dinner, but she adds, pointing to the table spread down the middle of the room, that I can make a meal out of the cricket-club supper. Possibly. At one end of the table is a massive piece of boiled beef, at the other a gigantic ham, and at respectable intervals between poultry, pies, cheese, bread, etc. My dinner will not be missed. Having seated me in a chair, she puts into my hands implements in dimensions some-thing akin to a scythe and a pitchfork and bids me help myself to the beef or the ham. Then I am left alone in that long room with that mighty dinner. Neither cat nor dog shares my solitude; I can eat and drink in peace. There is a horseshoe over the door; evidently, the people believe in witches. I proceed with my collation and at the same time picture the scene which the room will present in the course of a few hours, when the hungry cricketers come in. for their beef and beer. The twofold process refreshes me both in body and in mind. I throw myself back in the great arm-chair and half fancy I should like to be with the merry company. What speeches and what songs ! The din of applause, of thumping the table, clapping hands and stamping the floor, will be deafening. There will be jokes and stories which will bring out the side-splitting laugh and the vigorous ” Hear! hear !” And the fun will go on away into the night, till one and another will have slipped under the table or fallen over asleep or been led or wheeled off home. Then, about midnight the magistrates allowing an additional hour after the closing-time usual on ordinary occasions Boniface will turn into the street those who are left, extinguish the lights and lock the doors.
I spring up from the chair and the dream, for I have no desire to pass through a metamorphosis of that kind, and after satisfying the host’s very moderate charges I start out to see the town. There is some dispute as to the etymology of its name. Some say it was so called from its extensive market of kine ; others hold that it should be ” King,” and not ” Kine,” from the fact that here was formerly a royal palace or castle, and others, again, affirm that it was named after St. Keyne, the patron-saint of wells in general, and of one near the site of this palace in particular. These conjectures suggest curious questions of the origin and the history of the town into which one may not safely enter ; only, as I walk slowly through the unpaved street, I fancy I see here an illustration of a “road-town.” Many more such come to mind as I think of this one. The hamlets of Britain and of early England, as of all primitive countries, were mostly independent and isolated settlements in the wilderness, perhaps on the banks of a brook, perhaps in the midst of a dense forest. A clearing was made and habitations simple in structure and few in number were built. As time went on and the village grew in size and importance communication with other places beyond what a mere footpath would afford became imperative, and highways were accordingly cut through the intervening region. The town thus preceded the road, but, the road being made, other towns would spring up at desirable points along its course, a string of cottages stretching for some distance on both sides. As these, in turn, increased in numbers and in consequence, other ways from neighboring hamlets would be made through the forest directly to them, and then the village would naturally extend itself along the new way. In these instances the road would precede the town.
The church, yellow and ancient and of mingled Early English and Perpendicular work, with its ” acre ” of lichen-covered tombstones and grass-grown graves, stands in the midst of the place, and has a low square tower, a fine doorway and the effigy of a priest. There are a few stone houses, some of them of considerable age and with their moulded windows, clustered chimneys and heavy walls suggesting stories of days and people of whom one would fain know something. Farther on the way to Warwick, at the west end of the town, is the grammar-school, a modern and small institution, at the front gate of which, his arms akimbo, was whistling lazily a small boy with red-brown face and trencher-cap. He hoped to go to the flower-show by and by perhaps as soon as he got over the Pons Asinorum or the Passive Voice of rwrrw. I love boys that is to say, boys that are boys and not your precocious boy-men and this little fellow appears to be after my own heart. Play cricket, pull an oar and ramble through the woods and by the brookside, my lad, as well as pore over Euclid and AEsop, and you will make your way in the world. Boys are to be found everywhere good boys and had boys but there is no more beautiful sight under God’s sun than the face of a pure, upright, soulful lad the blush of whose cheek sin has not touched and whose eye is bright with innocence and with unconscious courage. The boy bobs his head respectfully as I pass by, and I turn back to the side street leading to the Tysoe road, and soon come to the place of the day’s festivities.
Three thousand miles away and in the depth of a Western winter, the freezing wind sweeping wildly over the fields of stainless snow and through the bare trees, making the dreary, bitterly-cold night more than ever Arctic-like, that scene, among others, presents itself to my mind clearly and pleasantly. In a large field by the side of the road and under great widespreading trees were erected several tents and booths. Beyond, a gentle-man’s house, with the rich velvety lawns set with shrubbery and flower-plots so common in England, appeared in extremely pretty form. The place was gay with flags and with brightly-dressed swains and lasses. Boys and girls were playing here and there; swings and merry-go-rounds were going ; hucksters and toy-men were crying their wares ; from the steps of his wagon-house Cheap John was holding forth upon the merits of a twenty-four-bladed knife of the best Sheffield make, all for a shilling warranted pure steel, or possibly he may have said pure of steel ; old folks were leaning against the gates or the fences gossiping, and a very good brass band discoursed pleasant music in short and suit-able fragments. The village was too small to attract a wild-beast show or even a miniature circus, and so were absent two of the greatest pleasures an English country crowd can have viz., that of seeing the lions feed, and that of listening to the stale witticisms of the clown. Even the “Punch-and-Judy” man the most popular dramatic performer in the British Isles was not there.
The people, however, were themselves an interesting study. Here was Long Tim, the sturdy wagoner, with his Sunday shoes, brown trousers, red vest and black coat the coat much too short in the sleeves and too tight in the back and with him were his good wife and seven of his boys and girls, the other three being left at home with Granny.” Never-sweat Dave strutted about with a bunch of ribbons tied in his beehive-shaped hat, and with an imitation silver chain with an imitation bunch of seals and keys adorning his once-white vest. He had a cane and kept his eye on Mollie, who in a group of giggling servant-girls was the most remark-able for the length of her nose and for the gay scarf across her shoulders. Several strangers with the grime of ” Smoky Brum ” inlaid in the lines of hands and face and under their finger-nails were entertaining Hodge and his friends with stories of the town and with jokes without any point. There was a delightful air of rustic simplicity about the whole thing, and one could well say with Thomson, “thus they rejoice, nor think That with tomorrow’s sun their annual toil Begins again the never-ceasing round.”
The local gentry and the clergy intermingled with considerable freedom among the villagers, for, though the miserable democratic spirit of the age has crept like the sin-tempting serpent of old even into such Edens as this, men have not altogether forgotten that it is equally an honor for man to respect his betters and to treat kindly his inferiors. Ruskin says somewhere I think it is in his Stones of Venice that the secret of the present social discontent lies in the workman having been reduced to a sort of machine set to reproduce a given copy exactly and without variation possibly, for instance, to do nothing but make heads of pins or to do nothing but sharpen their points and thus, all invention and consequent manliness having been destroyed, he takes no pleasure in his task, but labors mechanically and frets his soul against all who are not in the like state of slavery. Hence the centres of rebellion against society are to be found in manufacturing towns, in such as Birmingham, where both masters and men work like convicts in the galleys and drag through a monotony of existence fatal to all nobility of soul or health of mind. In the rural districts there is more variety of employment, more personal interest demanded, and therefore more pleasure in the daily toil. That red-faced, thick-set fellow leaning over the mound as they call a fence in this neighborhood and listening to a dingy Black-Country man, will take a pride and a delight in shearing the sheep, ploughing the land and clipping the hedges. Possibly agitators have persuaded him that he is an ill-used animal, oppressed and wronged by those who are over him, but there is more change in his life, more opportunity of ingenuity and invention, more enjoyment of rugged health and Nature’s gifts, than fall to the lot of most men in a higher sphere of life. If I wanted to find real happiness, I should not go to the palaces of cedar or the homes of the city-people, but to the stall of the apple-woman or the cottage of the farm-laborer. Here I should not expect to find high intelligence or extensive learning, but I should find a fuller appreciation of the joys and the pleasures of this world, few though they might be, and an inspiriting looking forward to those of the world to come. The people walking about these grounds have in their faces that which indicates the possession of a happy soul. And doubtless, when the parson comes among them, he will add to their delight by his encouraging nod, his kindly word or his cheerful smile to one and another.
In the tents are flowers worthy of this land of roses and dahlias, and vegetables vast in size and suggestive of epicurean joys. It is pleasing to see the interest every one in England takes in such things. Flowers grow there in such abundance and reach such perfection as to excite the surprise of the stranger. In the houses even of the lower classes some attempt is made at their cultivation and display, and many a woman points with pride to a scented geranium or a pot of common musk. The country-side is filled with wild flowers; the banks, with primroses and violets ; the hedges, with May-bloom and dog-roses; and the meadows, with cowslips, buttercups and daisies. The peasantry are encouraged in their love for flowers by these local shows ; and, though some may think more of the possible prize than of either Nature or the beautiful, or aught else, yet the greater number have a genuine affection for and a justifiable pride in their gardens and the fruits thereof. See how carefully they watch the pet flower, the table of cut roses and dahlias, the box of mignonette and the vase of carnations, lest any profane hand should touch them and mar their loveliness or rob them of their fragrance ! How they watch the countenance of the visitor for some sign of approval, some lighting up of the face which will show his surprise at the perfect object before him ! Its color, form, size, nature, habits and history will be spoken of and told so soon as you venture to express an interest in it. The good man will tell you from where he got the seed or the slip, what kind of soil he put it in, how many times he nearly lost the fruit of his efforts through the frost, the excessive rain or the ubiquitous and mischievous boy, and his confidence that except in London itself nothing finer could be had in the land. Why Lon-don is excepted I do not know, unless it be for its vagueness and mystery to country-people. His hope is now to get the first prize, and by and by to find a place in the squire’s garden for his eldest son, who loves flowers with all his heart and can do a good day’s work along-side of any lad of his own age in the village, and with as good a heart too. Few here have heard the legends of Narcissus and Hyacinthus as told by Ovid, or know that once the white rose tried to outrival the pure paleness of Sappho and blushed for every failure, hence the red; but their round faces broaden under the inspiration of the hour, and their affectionate interest creates a rude but genuine eloquence.
The people are evidently here for more than seeing flowers and vegetables. They move about over the sward and under the trees in a sort of rhythmical measure to the music of the band, or loll upon the grass in companies of twos and threes. Children toot with horns and play with whistles, and everybody is on pleasure bent. Fairs and wakes similar to this gathering have been held here for centuries, and ages back they who now sleep in the old churchyard up in the town took their part in them as gayly and as merrily as do the free-souled folk of today. Some of the young fellows will in the course of the afternoon handle a quoit or a bat, and later on the largest of the tents will be cleared for a dance. Possibly one reason why there is not so much heartiness in the pastimes of this generation as there was in the sports of past ages lies in the rapid increase of population. A crowd up to a certain point is necessary ; beyond that it hinders genuine fun. A great multitude uncontrollable and made up largely of strangers, as great multitudes are, can be amused only as the spectator is amused : it cannot amuse itself in any true and thorough way. In a small place such as this the old-time conditions to some extent prevail, and, as the number of people is not too great to prevent them from knowing one another or to dampen their feelings, each is necessary to the common games and sports, and each enters into them. For some time to come the effects of today will be felt in pleasant recollections, and probably, also, in unpleasant stiffnesses, bruises and headaches. But my time is short, and I am able only to take a walk and a look around, to speak to one or two and then hasten on my way.
I continued my journey along the road toward Oxhill, a tiny village four miles from Kineton. For a good part of the way the road runs across open fields, here and there passing old farmhouses. These houses are built solidly of stone, the gable-end and blind-wall mostly to the road, and with bits of garden in the unused front yard and the court at the back. In the windows are flowers, and over the doorway jasmine and honeysuckle. It was pleasant to hear the cackling of poultry and the cooing of pigeons, nor did the watchdog lying grimly near the well scarcely prick up his ears at the sound of footsteps, though doubtless the first tread off the public path would have brought forth the warning bark. Nailed to one of the barns were dead weasels, stoats, rats and owls. At one gate a women with a sun-bonnet in her hand stood watching a boy holding a guinea-pig by a string tied to one of its legs. The little animal was not very lively, and nibbled at a cabbage-leaf as though it were tired of the warm sunshine, its master and everything else. The woman courtesied as I went by possibly as much for want of knowing what else to do as for respect; the boy and the guinea-pig, not having either curiosity or reverence for the clergy, kept on with their several occupations.
Each of these solitary houses has its own history possibly only the quiet, uneventful history common to such, yet one would give much to read the past of any habitation where man has dwelt, and to learn the passions, the hopes and the achievements of those who have occupied or been associated with them. Every life is interesting, every building instructive. The strong walls, the heavy doors and the narrow mullioned windows tell of more than defence against the weather : in days not so long since a lonely farmhouse needed protection against the tramp and the robber, just as in remoter times it had to be guarded against thieves, who more by force than by subtility took possession of that which they desired. Some of these were built when the recollections were still rife of people not only spoiled of their goods, but also turned out of their houses, and frequently maltreated and brutally murdered. Now the queen’s peace is kept from one end of the land to the other, and men can lie down in confidence and sleep in safety. There are no gallows by the wayside with felons hanging thereon to intimidate the evilly disposed and to frighten the superstitious; nevertheless, the law has a strong arm stronger than the oak gate or the spiked palisade, and more to be dreaded for its moral than for its physical effects. The bushes and the flowers in the garden, and the pigs and the poultry, the calves and the ducks, in the yard, indicate restfulness and somehow or other suggest happiness. I stand and wonder if the people who live there unannoyed and unperplexed by much that worries even as a savage dog worries the sheep the souls of people in busier spheres are really content and joyful. At any rate, they have a better chance of being so ; only, such virtues depend more upon the self than upon the surroundings. I walk slowly along and think it over, at the same time regretting that the ” Elegy ” has been quoted ad nauseam and that the season of blackberries is not yet.
Many young people pass me on their way to the flower-show at Kineton, some walking and some driving. All are dressed in their best and their gayest, the taste for sober colors not having reached this neighborhood. It is a relief to see a man in something else than an undertaker’s costume, even though he approach more nearly to Nature’s tints and hues. The girls, with scarcely an exception, are fresh, rosy, plump and rugged, the pictures of sturdy health, but they are not, as a rule, more than good-looking. The refined, delicate sylph is rare in England ; the women are mostly of the traditional apple-dumpling order. Dark hair seems to be more common nowadays than formerly, but some of these have the blue eyes and the flaxen hair said to indicate Saxon lineage, and some have locks worthy of the Virgin Queen herself.
A mile and a half beyond Oxhill is Whatcote, a drowsy little place with a quaint old church. It is called ” Quatercote ” in Doomsday, and for some time owned as its lord the abbot of Westminster. In the church is a memorial to a John Davenport who died in 1668, in the one hundred and first year of his age, after having been rector of the parish for seventy years and six months. The shaft of the ancient cross in the churchyard is now surmounted with a sundial, which of itself in a twofold sense indicates a change of time. The bells in the tower are said to be ancient and worthy of notice. Most of the villages around are of Saxon-or, to speak more correctly, of Early English origin. The centuries have not disturbed them ; they slumber even in this age of rush and excitement. Once in a while a cottage is newly thatched and somebody buys a bedstead or a table, but little else occurs from one year’s end to the other to disturb the minds of the people. In a very long time a funeral or a wedding happens possibly an election or an auction ; and these are epochs from which events are dated” Six years after Luke Lemons died ” or ” Four years after the fire,” the fire having been the burning of two wheatricks and the roof of a barn. A stranger furnishes material for several hours’ wondering gossip who he is, whence he comes and whither he goes; if he has high heels to his boots or a string to his hat; what he is doing in these parts, and if he is likely to be anybody’s relation. As he passes along the road the women run to the door or to the garden gate and look wistfully after him ; the old man shelling beans on the porch steps stops, rubs his eyes, lifts his hat and wipes his brow; and the children jump up from their play in the dust, and, while some stand nibbling the corner of an apron or a pinafore, others run away and fetch mother to see the phenomenon. If you speak to any one, there is no sign in his face of the slightest interest in you ; walking on, you may see scarcely man or woman, but look back suddenly, and you catch sight of a dozen heads of all ages eagerly peeping round hedge-corners or out of doors and windows to watch you and, if possible, to solve your mystery. The children are rather shy than rude, and as likely as not are off like a shot the moment you stop to speak to them. Rosy, rough-haired, chubby youngsters, dirty, every one of them, with clean dirt, two of them with the whooping-cough and holding on to each other as they pass through one of its recurrent onsets, some making mud-pies and others with a piece of clothes line harnessing three or four together as horses, there they are; well, the same as you may see anywhere any day. A lad of ten or twelve summers holding a handful of flowers and under his arm a huge cabbage stares at me with his mouth and eyes wide open. I am not sure whether he thinks I am a Dutchman or a goblin, but he looks as I have always understood cheese and beer are supposed to look at the former and wicked people at the latter. I ask him to give me of his roses ; he turns pale either with fright or with pleasure, but he picks out one of the finest and offers it me. I give him a penny ; what have I done ? He blushes, smiles, regards me with favor and my gift with joy. Off run half a dozen boys and girls for flowers, and almost before I have gone as many yards one and another beg me to take them on the same terms, of course. They do not know the tones and the ways of the London and Liverpool urchins
” Please, sir,” ” No, no, thank you !”and I can tell by their faces that, whatever they may have thought of me before, they are now well satisfied that I am barbarous and stingy. That will not do ; a few coppers scattered amongst them, and I get three cheers.
I went into the village inn and enjoyed a glass of ginger ale and a chat with the landlady. The house is called the ” Royal Oak “why, I do not know, unless, possibly, after the famous adventure of Charles II., for the great tree in front of the door is certainly an elm. Long, long ago an oak may have grown there, and possibly a hostel has occupied the site for centuries at any rate, the building has the appearance of considerable age. The low black ceiling, the deep recesses in the windows and the fireplace, the wooden settles and the clean stone floor, create feelings almost of veneration. In old English times, as there were occasionally female sheriffs and female churchwardens, so inns were frequently perhaps mostly kept by women, and even now in many such as this a wife or a widow holds the license and acts as hostess. My hostess has little to say and does not know anything about the sign ; and when I tell her that inn-keepers used to put out of their door a bush to indicate that they had good wine though ” good wine needs no bush “she looked at me very unbelievingly. Signs are, however, curious things, and I remember one of the ” Gate” at Brailes it may be still there, for aught I know and on it were the lines,
“This gate hangs high, And hinders none; Refresh and pay, And travel on.”
Five o’clock ! I finish my ale and proceed.
Outside of Whatcote I came up to a man driving a heavy cart, laden with barrels and parcels. On my asking him the way to Honington he invited me to ride with him on his wagon. I was glad to accept and to lodge my now wearied body on the head of a beer-cask. He was very talkative and opened up a long, unceasing harangue upon the troubles of the country, which seemed to consist solely of the unwise economy of some rich people who did not buy or rent the unused land of the neighborhood. Certainly there were many fields lying fallow by the way we drove. I suggested the competition of American grain.” Not a bit of it, sir! There’s money enough to overcome that, and there’s no land in all America to beat this for growing wheat.”
There are snake-tracks across the road ; here and there is a cast-off shred of skin. We pass a man carrying wild rabbits strung on a pole across his shoulder ; and when I tell my garrulous friend of the last-century custom in Edinburgh of a man carrying a leg-of-mutton shank through the street and crying, ” Twa dips and a wallop for a bawbee !” at which the gudewives would bring their pails of boiling water and thus make broth, he laughed and said it was a better plan than that of people taking their dinner to the bake-house. The man would have given his head to have known who was the stranger by his side; but, instead of that information, when we reached Honington I gave him fourpence.
Honington is a pretty village near the Stour and a convenient distance from the Stratford and Shipston highway, hiding amongst the noblest of trees and possessing an ancient lineage and a great antiquity. It has a church about two hundred years old and a plain brick mansion of the last-century style. It can scarcely be said to have a street, though the cottages are built in rows scattered around a space undefinable, partaking, as it does, of the nature of a square or a triangle and a lane. There are pleasant bits of lawn under the oaks or the elms which grow anywhere about the place and spread their mossy boughs over road, side-path, tiled or thatched house and barn, making a refreshing and snug woodland retreat. I saw no inn or tavern in the place ; perhaps a population of not more than two hundred souls, if as many, does not need any, though a charter of the reign of Henry III. allowed it the privilege on payment of an annual fee to the lord of the manor. This same charter, according to an abstract I find in one of the local papers, compelled the tenants not only to pay rent, but also to perform sundry other duties, Thus on every alternate day between Midsummer and Michaelmas they were obliged to assist the lord on his estate, receiving as their reward one sheep, eight loaves of bread, a cheese and fourpence in money. During the harvest-time they had to bring into the manor-fields all the members of their family except their wives, and, as the place belonged to the monks of Coventry, they had to trudge at stated periods to that city, each tenant taking with him four hens, one cock and five eggs as an offering to the Fathers. There is now no mill in the parish, but in the reign of the Conqueror there were four such conveniences. Dissenters are unknown, nor has the board school invaded the land.
Farm-laborers are supposed to have risen in influence and in comfort during the past few years. They have the franchise and some of them read the weekly news-paper of the district as well as their Bibles ; indeed, many of them can discuss Mr. Gladstone as intelligently as they can discuss Nebuchadnezzar; which is not saying much, only they have a lively appreciation of the fact that, as the Babylonish king once placed a good man in the den of lions, so the great Liberal chieftain has a weakness for doing the same thing metaphorically, of course with his political opponents. Large numbers of the younger men have gone to the cities and the colonies, and throughout the agricultural Midlands there has been on the whole a decrease in the population. But, notwithstanding all that has been said and done, Hodge is badly enough off. He still thinks himself lucky if he gets a piece of bacon once or twice a week, and beef or “butcher’s meat,” as he calls it as many times a month. However, though poor, he is not miserable.
Turning into Fell Mill lane at Honington the same way by which I started for my day’s jaunt I walked for some distance with one of his kind who was slowly wending his way home after his toil. A pious, God-fearing man I found him to be after a few minutes’ conversation, a little inclined to grumble, but not more so than the average Englishman. He was turning the meridian of life a life which had been spent within a radius of a few miles, five at the outside, from where he lived. Once he had been to Stratford, nine miles off, but that was many years ago, when he was a young man and unmarried. He had heard of France, Russia and America : they were somewhere in this world, but where he did not know, for, as he put it, his ” schooling ” was neglected when he was a boy. As he passed from under the care of the ancient dame who taught the children of the village their letters and figures when he was about nine years old, it was little wonder. At that tender age he was promoted to the duty of minding the geese or the sheep in the meadow-lane, and was occasionally al-lowed to lead the first horse at the plough, so that books were beyond him and the longest thing he had ever learned was the General Confession; which he could repeat as he did repeat it twice every Sunday of his life without mistake, provided the parson had a clear voice. “As to my duty toward my neighbor,” he said, a sad smile moving awkwardly over his tanned and thick-skinned face, ” I never could manage that, My daughter Pollie can, though; she’s a fine girl and knows more than her father.” Nevertheless, he had brought up a family of seven to fear God and honor the queen, and to brighten his declining years he had the satisfaction of a prospect of getting his son into the police-force and of receiving for his own ten hours’ work the sum of one shilling and eightpence. To help his meagre income he was able once in a while to snare a rabbit perhaps some nobler game, of which he said nothing, being a prudent as well as a good man and to find some mushrooms in the meadows. His wife made wine out of elderberries and sloes, and in the winter his boys went hedging for sparrows, and frequently got enough to make a decent-sized pie or pudding. On the whole, to quote his own words, he had much to be thankful for and many a man was worse off than he. The farmers, for instance, had a hard time of it, for it was cheaper to import wheat than to grow it. I gave him double his day’s wages, and, grasping his hard, rough hand, bade him godspeed and “Good-eve. My path lay across the fields, but before I passed through the gate I watched him plodding along the road toward Barcheston. A true child of God, with more peace in his heart than even kings possess !
Country-people are not all like this man in this respect; possibly there are none who snarl and quarrel with one another as much as they. The’ women particularly give a liberty to their tongues and use language not unworthy of the traditional Billingsgate. One does not wonder that the ducking-stool was freely used. Some seem to have no control over their violent tempers, and a termagant running on day after day becomes irritating sooner or later. Poor wretches! who can tell the miseries of their past ? Now religion and law have bettered them, but the ages bequeathed to them a bur-den almost beyond the possibility of removing. Village life six hundred years ago has been described by masters of social history, and it was a widely-different thing from village life of to-day. Then murders, suicides, robberies and crimes of all sorts were rife, and the people who slept at night in the clothes worn in the day and lived in dirt were morally wretched and depraved. There was law criminals were hanged and torn to pieces by horses. ” It is impossible for us,” says a writer describing a Norfolk village in 1285, ” to realize the hideous ferocity of such a state of society as this. The women were as bad as the men furious beldames, dangerous as wild beasts, without pity, without shame, without remorse, and finding life so cheerless, so hopeless, so very, very dark and miserable, that when there was nothing to be gained by killing any one else they killed themselves.”
Thank God all this has changed ! but these same people of whom I speak, who let their passions run away with them, are their descendants, for there has been little migration in the remote country districts. Rough times and rough punishments ! The stocks are still near the church gate at Tredington. Yonder son of the soil, now nearly out of my sight, with many defects and many weaknesses, is a new creation nature brings lilies out of swamps and dunghills, and grace makes saints out of men and in the transformation of which he is a type we may see the power of a pure Christianity. The old mediaevalism could not help such as he; only a religion which brought Christ directly to him and gave to his perishing soul the sustaining knowledge of God’s love could make him happy and hopeful. There is no cross by the wayside at which he may kneel and repeat an ” Ave,” but as he turns his face toward the setting sun he will rejoice in the thought of the many mansions where he shall find a home when the tribulation of this life is overpast.
The rights of footpaths are very jealously guarded. Some of these meadow-ways such as the one I am now treading are older than the neighboring roads ; probably they are the tracks by which centuries ago the people found their way through the wilderness from settlement to settlement and from farm to farm. For any man, though he were lord of the manor, or even king of the realm, to attempt to close them from the public would be, as the old Greeks would have said, to catch the wind with a net or to write upon the surface of the sea. I have been told of a squire who tried it, and, instead of turning the people out of the paths in which their fathers had walked, by some mysterious operation or other his head was turned halfway round. When he was able to look straight behind him, he saw the evil of which he had been guilty, and, either from increased knowledge or from increased awkwardness, he repented, and the legend says he was immediately as though nothing had happened. The lesson is apparent, but possibly everybody does not know that caring for roads and paths was once regarded as a religious duty. The author of The Sick Man’s Salve, a thoroughgoing English reformer, and chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer, enumerates, among the many virtues which justified him in thinking his “sick man ” had made a Christian and godly end, that he had given freely to the repairing of highways. In one age people, when ill, vowed if they recovered to give their weight in wax to be consumed in tapers before the shrine of their patron-saint ; in an-other, they promised to give so much stone to the roads and so much wood to the foot-bridges of the parish. Too often in such cases, it is to be feared, the old adage was verified
> “The devil was sick: The devil a monk would be; The devil was well: The devil a monk was he”
Anti-climaxes and oddities are frequent and help to brighten the daily round. The other day I saw a really comical situation. A woman was standing in a cottage doorway with a boy sitting on the ground a little distance off; he was playing and she was singing the hymn; “Hark ! hark, my soul ! angelic songs are swelling.”
The boy did something just as she got to the line ” An-gels sing on.” She did not stop to finish it, but, breaking off abruptly, she caught him by the hair and gave him a rapid succession of severe cuffs. He cried and screamed at the top of his voice; she went back to her post and on with her song as though nothing had happened: “Sing us sweet fragments.” The boy did indeed sing lustily and with a good courage.
There is Shipston over the brow of the hill, the setting sun just gilding the old church-tower with the roseate glory. All is still and restful a lovely evening. No wonder men in all ages have been moved by Nature’s charms, and especially by the splendor of the sunset. The crimson on the clouds and the purple of the shadows are inimitable, more wonderful than aught that the painter’s brush can produce more wonderful, because deeper and richer in hue, and, which no artist can accomplish, moving, fading, brightening, changing and presenting shades full of living glory. How the old Greeks delighted in this calm, sweet hour in fact, in everything of nature ! There was Athena, the queen of the air. She brought to man the sweet, pure winds of heaven and ruled over the gods of the flying clouds and the demons of the storm. She was beautiful and lovely, her robe the deep blue of the sky, sometimes set with the brilliant star-gems, sometimes fringed with the saffron of the sunrise, and in a moment such as this she seems to sit enthroned in her palace of magnificence, her crown a wreath of sunbeams, her face bright with the sweetness and the purity of the calm eventide light, and her hand uplifted to still the playful noise of nature, to cheer the tired world and to bless the expectant heart of man.
What marvel if out of such scenes and times have emerged myths and legends myths that have been dear through countless ages, sung in the nursery and unfolded in the college, and legends which seem so true and so real ! We, rude Northern people, as they of the warm meridiana regard us, have our sunset story not, perhaps, so exquisite and delicate as those of Greek imaginings, for God made only one such people, but, after all, not unworthy of the common Aryan ancestry.
Let me sit in the fading sunlight on this stile and re-call the tradition of the noble Guy of Warwick. He, as all men know and have known from childhood, was a brave and renowned warrior, the hero of numberless battles and the darling knight of Christendom. With a fair maiden, Felice by name, the daughter of a great earl, he fell in love. She was, so runs the story, both beautiful and haughty-beautiful like some stately marble shaft of perfect mould, haughty as the great gerfalcon which spurns the earth and towers up into the noon to look the burning sun in the face. When he told his heart’s secret, she bade him go to the war-fields and prove there by deeds of prowess his right to be the peer of a high born-lady. So he went far away and won for himself golden fame, and at last returned to claim as his own the lovely Felice. But ere the wedding-feast had ended, Guy’s conscience was smitten with the thought that all his great achievements had been wrought to win a woman’s love and not one deed had been done for God. Then he bade farewell to his weeping bride and sped away again to fight and to work for his Lord, and while he was doing doughty deeds in far-off lands she wore her widow’s robe and wept for her brave knight. Years after he came back again to his own country, but he went not to his wife : he was content to see her as on deeds of mercy she daily passed the hermitage in the cliff where he took up his abode ; only, once, all travel-worn and with his pilgrim’s staff in his hand, he went to her house for alms, and she took him in and washed his feet and ministered to him, and asked him if in his distant journeyings he had seen her loving lord. Then many weeks went by, and he, feeling his end was near and he was about to go away for ever, sent his ring to Felice and bade her come to him. She knew the token and hastened to her long-mourned husband, but Guy could not speak ; so they wept in each other’s arms, and she kissed him, and he died. And fifteen weary days she lingered sore in grief, and then God’s angel came and gently closed her own tired eyes ; and both she and the lover of her youth were laid in the same grave severed in life, but united in death.
Perhaps the story has lost its popularity, but others have believed it besides the people of fair Warwickshire, and many still visit the cave in the rocks near the country town where the hero died. Formerly a chantry was there, and in the chapel, where priests said daily solemn, masses, was placed a statue of Sir Guy. In Chaucer’s time the legend was sung, and some have thought it had its origin in that battle of Byran-byrig mentioned toward, the end of my last chapter; but, for all that, though it may be mingled with facts, associated and colored with historical events and personages, it is a nature-myth. The brave knight Guy is none other than the sun, which rejoiceth as a giant to run its course, which in the early morn leaves his young and lovely bride amid the rose-clouds of the Orient, the beauty and hopefulness of youth and new-found happiness, and, rising in the sky, wanders through trackless wilds, doing mighty things, till at last, weary and worn, he draws toward home again and lays him down to rest and die. Then sweet Felice comes the clouds, rosy, creamy, maiden-blush and she clasps him in a last embrace ere he passes away, and still hovers over his grave until her beauty also fades into the night. Thus the weary sun dying in the bosom of the tender clouds is a figure of the parting of true husband and wife.
The twilight is coming on now, and soon the mists will creep up the meadows from the brook and the fairies begin their night revels. Cinderella belongs to hours nearer the morrow : the prince is the sun, the fairy the light, and she the dawn. The dress of ashen-gray is changed by the fairy into a robe of beautiful hues. The prince runs after her, but the beautiful maid-en leaves only one trace behind, the glass slipper the crystal dewdrops. Even the other nursery legend, beginning with ” Sing a song o’sixpence,” admits of similar explanation. The four-and-twenty blackbirds are the four-and-twenty hours, and the pie that holds them is the underlying earth covered with the overarching sky. When the pie is opened that is, when day breaks the birds begin to sing. The king is the sun, and his counting out his money is the pouring out the golden sunshine ; while the queen is the moon and her trans-parent honey the moonlight. The maid hanging out the clothes is the rosy-fingered dawn, who, rising before the sun, hangs out the clouds across the sky.
But I hasten into the quiet town, there to rest after my long journeying, and to thank God that he has given me a day of rare delight one to be remembered grate-fully and fondly for years to come.