A WARM morning. The hills lie quivering in the haze of the almost cloudless horizon, and three hours before noon the cattle in the fields seek the shadow of the beeches and the traveller moves slowly under the overspreading elms by the roadside. In the little town of Watlington the streets are mostly deserted ; a few women are marketing at the butchers’ stalls or the grocers’ shops, and here and there a schoolboy drags his weary way to the place of flies, rods and Latin declensions. By the old market-hall stands a wagon ; the busy chickens pick up the crumbs which fall from the horse’s feed-bag. Up the road toward the White Mark a team is moving slowly ; the dog paces gently on, too lazy to run after the pigeons, and the driver is lying on his back, half asleep, on the top of the load. Everything indicates a hot, quiet day one of those days when the wind is warmer than the still air. Fortunately; the roads are not dusty enough to make walking unpleasant.
Two of us set out in the road running at the foot of the Chilterns that is to say, the turnpike-road, for there is another parallel with this, higher up, grass-grown and unfrequented. The lovers of romance and of solitude may find their hearts’ delight amid chalk-pits and sheep-walks, on mossy knolls and under gnarled and twisted hawthorn-bushes. Bacon Hill, bare of trees, but bristling with furze, and the Cuckoo Pen, with its noble copses on brow and side, are on the right, Chin nor and Stokenchurch farther on, and Shirbourne and, Lewknor, already mentioned, in the way. At the cross of the Stokenchurch road one of the great highways to London is the ” Lambert Arms.” This was once a busy, well-frequented inn, a hostelry flourishing and famous in the days of yore ; now it is decayed and deserted and has been turned into a ” temperance hotel.” It is sad to look at the old house with its faded sign and dim-paned windows and recall the times when coaches and postboys gave to it life and. wealth. Horses were changed here ; belated travellers found a warm welcome and a hearty hospitality ; when the wild wintry winds swept across the country-side and deep snows lay on the ground, the open blazing hearth became a refuge worthy of a king ; and mine host held that nowhere else on the highway could hungry guest find better cheer or thirsty soul purer and stronger ale. Traditions run of poaching hereabouts, and this lone house near to the estates of gamekeeping squires, with easy means of getting rid of stray pheasants and partridges, favors the idea. No doubt Sam, the hostler, knew how to snare a hare, and also knew where to hide it under the straw.
” Did you ever hear of any highwaymen in these parts ?” I ask of my companion.
” They were common,” he replies, ” in years long ago, and some have said that Dick Turpin relieved two or three wealthy men of their purses near to the woods at the foot of the hills yonder; but I doubt if Dick Turpin was ever in this country.”
So do I, but the road is lonely enough now, not a cart, horse nor man to be seen. How exciting when the coach, mud-splashed and creaking, came up to the inn with its story of robbery ! Away ride horsemen to raise the hue and cry and, if possible, to find the thieves. The roads are bad, heavy, full of ruts and holes- in which the horses stumble and send the yellow water in all directions, and before anything can be done night sets in and the difficulties become insurmountable. Then the searchers come back again for supper and for the moon to rise, the parish constable from Lewknor in the mean time having arrived oh the scene to assume official charge of the proceedings. As his qualification for office consists in his being full of years and of rheumatism, he does very little beyond ascertaining the facts of the case and pronouncing judgment thereon. He is looked upon as an oracle by all who know him ; no pagan ever listened more reverently to the augury of his priest than the men and the boys around these parts did to the utterances of the crooked and aged Dogberry. Once a rotund and rubicund coachman strange to the road and some distance gone in his cups, and therefore scarcely responsible, declared him to be an old woman ; but some standers-by promptly beat him into grief, and would have beaten him into jelly had he not acknowledged his mistake. No more was said on that occasion, and we can imagine no more was done on this; and both constable and highwaymen remained comparatively unmolested.
Farther on is Kingston, an old-fashioned village with quaint straw-thatched cottages. There life peacefully slumbers, and the advent of a stranger in the quiet lane-like streets sets gossip and conjecture agog for a week. The blacksmith was standing, with arms folded, in the doorway of his shop talking to a woman picking currants in a garden across the way. They, a cow tethered by the roadside and some birds flitting from hedge to hedge were the only signs of a busy world; all else was still. Once a lark sang his rich sky-song in the clear sunlight, but the melody melted away in the heat, and the echoes seemed to fall wearily to the ground. Beside the way were many noble oaks and some remarkably fine clumps of giant beech trees. Wild flowers in abundance grew in the thick hedges and meadow-grass ; roses of almost every hue vied with hollyhocks and dahlias to beautify the cottage gardens. At times the fragrance of the bean-blossom was stiflingly sweet and by its all-pervading strength suggested hounds thrown off their scent.
A pleasant walk of a mile across the fields brought us to Aston. Here we visited the parish church. It is built, as are most of the churches of this neighborhood, of flint with stone ashlar facings, and has lately been restored. The exterior is not promising, a sundial dated 1772 alone attracting attention. The parish clerk, an old man nearly ninety so he told us kindly unlocked the door and showed us around the inside of the building ; a holy-water stoup at the door indicated its pre-Reformation origin. There is a number of tombs and mural tablets. Set in the wall in the north transept is an interesting monument to the memory of Lady Cicil Hobbee, who died in 1618. It is the figure of a lady, dressed in ruff and black robe, kneeling with clasped hands before a lectern on which lies an open book. On the top of the sculpture-work is an hourglass. In the opposite transept is a mural tablet, in Latin, of about the same date. In the aisles and the nave are vaults covered with inscribed stones to the memory of local celebrities, principally Coles and Thornhílls ; they are also of the early part of the seventeenth century. Going up into. the chancel, one steps upon an old stone in which a life-sized figure is deeply cut. The lettering around the outer edge is difficult to read, but I believe it is in Nor-man French ; if so, the tomb is of early Plantagenet date. Another stone tomb, partly within a low ornamented recess on the north side of the chancel, is also interesting. It must be of great age, but some worn carved work on the top alone remains. I could not ascertain anything of its history ; only, a bench for the choir now hides it from the general view, Down in the nave are two small brasses almost obliterated, but still displaying a man and a woman in long robes and with hands clasped in the attitude of prayer. There are several modern tablets on the walls in the lower part of the church, and under the belfry are plainly-painted tables of the benefactors of the parish and the nature, value and object of their benefactions. The old font remains. The ancient figures in the clerestory are characteristic; they severally express Age, Youth, Sorrow and Mirth typical of the worshippers upon whom they look. On the altar are candles and cross. In the yard rank grass hides many of the graves, and thick ivy the headstones inscription, of 1826, runs :
” Weep not, my Wife and Children dear, I am not dead, but sleeping here; My debt is paid, my grave you see Wait but awhile, and you will follow me. A sincere Friend, a Husband dear, A tender Parent, lieth here.”
Possibly neither wife nor children would feel much cheered by the fact that they would follow him ; at any rate, there is something uncomfortable in the dead man’s saying such things. That fourth line is very mean, contemptible and unworthy of a good-natured ghost.
Leaving this quiet and sacred spot, we had a delightful walk of about two miles across the fields to the ” Barley-Mow,” near Sydenham. This is the best way of seeing rural England. It is possible to walk from one end of the country to the other by footpaths, and the reward for doing so is very great. The haymakers were busy in the meadows through which we passed ; in some fields sheep were grazing and cows meditatively chewing the cud; birds were singing, hedges blooming, and by the side of the tiny brook the brightly-tinted kingfisher darted from willow to brier and tall reeds and brilliant red poppies swayed gently in the warm wind. It was amusing to watch the stately, ludicrous walk of the rooks across the grass ; as they carefully raise each foot, and give their body a slight and consequential tilt in doing so, they look absurdly grave and make one think of dignified. black-robed monks, fat and full, tenderly picking their way barefooted through thistles or fallen holly-leaves. Some of the meadows were traversed with trenches, and in the springtime or during drought the whole land is lightly flooded : an abundant hay-crop is the result. At the Barley-Mow the ancient-looking landlady gave us some very poor ginger ale and enlivened us with a few reminiscences of her sleepy road-side inn. The tap-room is quaint, with high, worn settles and well-cut deal tables; an old-fashioned fireplace with mantel-piece near the low, smoke-hued ceiling; the walls covered with prints of prize pigs and racehorses and some bills of agricultural fairs. The hostess wore a dress which had seen better days possibly when she was a gay maiden, forty years since; its color, that of an aged crow, dusky, mingled russet and gray, and its shape such as a novice had devised and constant, if not judicious, patching had perfected. Her whitened tresses were caught in the strings of an old black cap ; a yellow collar with a bit of violet ribbon adorned her neck, and her feet were not like those pretty mice of which a golden ballad sings. In the autumn and winter evenings a goodly company of villagers tests the warmth of her hearth and the strength of her ale. Then Dick the ratter tells his stories of ferrets and weasels, at which Tim and Jack open their mouths wider and wider as the interest becomes deeper and deeper, and others tap their empty mugs approvingly on the table. A song with a rousing chorus, repeated over again and again, brings under the window the policeman, who devoutly wishes he could join the merry throng and discreetly takes himself off about the time of closing up. At fair-time and on market-days, when people pass more frequently along the highway, many stop here and refresh them-selves with pure home-brewed or genuine Dublin stout from the local maltster. Close by is a large house, unoccupied; a woman hanged herself there, and her ghost now haunts the place. Our landlady had not seen the apparition herself, but, as she put it, ” there be such things, you know, and lots of folks hereabouts have seen her.” The horseshoe over the door sufficiently protected her from witches and the like though, to he sure, she had once been frightened out of her wits by a travelling fellow with an electrical machine, and went to church three or four Sundays running afterward. He showed her little fellows dancing under a glass and several strange, unearthly tricks, and finished by getting her to touch a tiny handle at the end of a wire. If she ever came near seeing stars and spirits, it was then. She jumped and screamed; then she bundled him out of the front door and knelt down and said the Lord’s Prayer three times, had a strong cup of tea, scrubbed out the tap-room, and thought more seriously of higher and better things. The man had a wife a neat, trim sort of a woman and she came afterward to get the carpet-bag which he had left in his hurry.
” I urged her to leave such a wicked man,” said the landlady, ” for he was an imp of Satan and would do her no good ; but the blinded -thing told me he was an experimenter after somebody’s heart and he had never spoken an unkind word to her. Oh, the devil snares some folks !-Now, do take another glass ; you will need it this hot day. No ?Well, she told me she was once a servant-girl in some outlandish place where they have fish pies down Cornwall, I believe and he was a mechanic with an idea, a real, good fellow, poor, and therefore obliged to travel for a living, but kind as the sun itself and bound to get out his idea. What the idea was I don’t know; it had something to do with telegraph-wires. He went exhibiting his machine in gentlefolks’ houses, and turned over many a honest penny. But I was scared, and I thought it liest to keep to my tea and say my prayers for some time. Sevenpence, sir. Thank you. That is one, two, three, four, five one shilling. Call again. Wish you a pleasant walk, but the weather is enough to roast a duck with the feathers on.”
We passed through Sydenham, another quiet, trim village, with a modern church. There is evidently no right of way through the yard, for the gate was locked. Possibly there was nothing to see there, or the people are not to be trusted with free access to the graves of their dead or the house of their God. Another walk across the fields by shady hedgerows brought us to the road running from Towersey to Thame, and in a little while we reached the old familiar town. There was the railway bridge just as it was built some twenty years ago ; there, the school-buildings in Park street, musty with age, decay, old books and pleasant and unpleasant reminiscences.
About thirteen miles from Oxford and forty-four from London is this ancient and interesting town. It is near the eastern edge of the county of Oxon, and its northern end begins -on the banks of a brook bearing the same name as itself. At this end is Old Thame, and from that the town has grown almost entirely along the main highway; so that it principally consists of one long built-up street toward the south, with a few smaller ones and some lanes branching off a little way on the eastern side. The two sides of this street are bent outward like a long-bow, gradually widening for about half a mile, and then as gradually narrowing in for another half mile. In the widest place an irregular pile of buildings, consisting of shops and the town- or market-hall, has been erected. Not far to the south of this brick island in the street is the house where John Hampden died. The extension has been longitudinal ; the growth, slow. The railway-station is at the extreme south, about a mile and a half from the ancient parts near the river, and, though thereabouts the buildings are mostly new and the town has suffered further elongation in its attempts to embrace or, at least, to touch the vein of steel which connects it with the world’s great arteries of trade and commerce, there is no remarkable increase of material prosperity or of city-like bustle. Life flows on in its calm, peaceful way ; the streets are clean and still ; the houses and the gardens seem to sleep in their quiet, antique dignity the people move leisurely about, sipping the honey from the flowers of business or of gossip and wisely taking their time, for they can live but once ; and all who go there soon feel that they have been happily left behind by the rush of time’s waters, if not, indeed, carried by a reflex tide a long way back into the ages of the past. If happiness is to be found in repose and contentment in inactivity, then the three thousand souls who dwell in this place ought to set an example to the world; and doubtless they would do so in a manner both be-coming and worthy if the world would but open its eyes and see them. But, alas ! like the traditional gems or flowers which pass their days unseen in ocean depths or bosky dells, the town which is só dear, and so justly dear, to its own inhabitants, is unknown to fame and almost to the maps; and when some stranger afar off chances to hear of it, and further and more wonderfully chances to look it up in a gazetteer, he passes it over with a sort of contemptuous sigh : ” Umph ! An old out-of-the-world, dead-and-alive place.” And that, gentle reader, may be your sentence, though, if you be gentle in the truest sense of that term and will have patience to follow me along, you may end in agreeing with me that there is much that is delightful and lovely in that same old time-stranded town.
Let us first look at the church. This is a noble and historic edifice, many parts of it of great age, cruciform, with a mighty tower rising minster-style from the interstice of the cross. It stands on a slight elevation a few hundred yards from the slowly-flowing Thame, with the vicarage a little nearer the river and the remains of the old prebendal house, now a private residence, a short distance farther along the stream. Around the sacred structure is the graveyard, filled, contrary to the usual custom, with tombs and mounds on every side. As a rule, none who died in the peace of the Church were buried in the northern part of the yard; that was the region where the sun never shone and the bleak winds of winter swept over unhallowed graves. In the brightsome east and the sunny south lay the dead who slept the peace of paradise, and there in the early spring and through the long summer and into the late autumn loving hands brought offerings of flowers and loving hearts uttered the prayer that God would give even more light to his own who rest in him. And when the snow was on the ground and the Christmas joy reigned in the land, then, too, fond ones remembered those who had gone before, and placed a wreath of evergreen holly on their graves, token of perpetual love, and dropped the rich red berries on the white winter ground, spots of blood, as it were, even like unto the stains which fell from Calvary. No doubt here the people did as elsewhere, for in the old time there was an affectionate and ever-present clinging to those who had passed beyond the veil: they were never forgotten; and there was a right of way through the churchyard, so that at any time the living might enter God’s acre and offer up a Paternoster beside the grave of their heart’s treasure. But at Thame possibly because of the buildings toward the north the general rule of not burying in that part does not obtain. The dead fill up the available space, so that a new portion has been added to the eastern end. I know other churchyards where the north is used.
The main approach to the church is from the south side through a lovely avenue of lime trees. Such avenues are common in England, and, though this is not so glorious as some say that at Stratford-on-Avon yet it has stood for many generations, and along its noble path processions have moved hither and thither, now of rejoicing and now of sorrow, at one time of high ceremony and at another of humble town-worshippers. The appearance of the church inside is of mingled satisfaction and of various periods. The building has escaped restoration, so the old pews and galleries, the three-decker pulpit with the sounding-board and the tables of the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer over the altar, remain. With the unsightliness of the last century come in bits of late medioeval belongings. Near the door is the antique alms-box, and a little farther in the old font, both probably of pre-Reformation age. There are no crosses or candles in the building, the tendency of the parish being to an extreme Protestantism, nor is the image of St. Thomas of Canterbury, which once occupied an honored place, to be seen. Ancient rood-screens separate the nave from the chancel and the transepts or chapels. The tombs are many and of extreme interest. In the centre of the chancel is a massive and exquisitely-carved monument to Lord and Lady Williams, dated, I think, 1559. It is cut in marble and alabaster, and he and she lie in full-length effigy, their feet resting against a greyhound and a horse and their bodies wearing the costume of the period. The whole is railed in and covered with a dingy red curtain, which is drawn back for the benefit of visitors. Lord Williams was a vigorous and violent mediaevalist, and had no sympathy with the reforms which had taken place under Henry VIII. and Edward. He took a prominent part in the suppression of the new practices and was a leading spirit in the martyrdom of the prelates at Oxford. No doubt, when he saw the ashes of Latimer and of Ridley, he thought the end of their work was also near; nor may we deem him and others who did as he aught but honest and earnest men more desirous, indeed, in their conversation and love to defend and maintain the ancient faith and customs than in their zeal wantonly to cause reverend prelates and tender women to suffer the pains of death. But the irony of fate is written across the times. Lord Williams rests within the sanctuary where once he heard the mass sung and beheld the glories of the worship he loved, but over his tomb an office is said and words are preached which he denounced and resisted. A bitter opponent of Protestantism rests in a Protestant place of worship ; a Protestant place of worship shelters in its most sacred precinct a bitter opponent of Protestantism. The singular thing about the tomb is that the feet are toward the west. I can find no reason for this unique position, and conjecture is useless.
Lord Williams, however, was not wholly occupied in the suppression of Protestantism. His was an active and a public life partly that of a courtier and partly that of a country gentleman and seems to have been graced with the virtues of generosity, kindliness of spirit and nobility of mind. In the reign of Henry VIII. he was keeper of the king’s jewels, and also one of the commissioners for the dissolution of the monasteries, possibly visiting the abbeys and the priories of Oxfordshire with John Tregonwell in the autumn of 1536. By his purchase, in 1539, of the ancient seat of the Quarter-mains, at Rycote, his position and authority in the county were increased, and in 1553, when Lady Jane Grey was forced by her ambitious friends to receive the crown, he gathered some seven thousand men and at Thame and elsewhere boldly proclaimed Mary to be the rightful queen. A few days later he and his Oxfordshire men accompanied the daughter of Catherine of Arragon in her triumphal progress into London, and his royal mistress recognized his fidelity by making him a peer of the realm. It was to him that Queen Mary entrusted the princess Elizabeth when she sent her as a prisoner from the Tower to the royal bowers of Woodstock. At that time the life of the future Virgin Queen was dark and doubtful. Only by the barest chance did she escape execution in the Tower ; and when the tidings came that she should be separated from her servants and go to Woodstock, she considered herself in great peril and was filled with mournful dread. But Lord Williams, while he fulfilled his trust with honesty to his sovereign, showed unusual kindness to Elizabeth. Possibly he remembered the beautiful and witty Anne Boleyn, and was moved to pity by the wrongs and sorrows of the comely daughter of his old king. When asked if treachery were purposed, he sturdily exclaimed, ” Marry, God forbid that any such wickedness should be intended ! which rather than it should be wrought, I and my men will die at her feet.” When in their progress they reached his house at Rycote, he gave her a princely and hospitable entertainment, treating her, in the presence of a noble company of knights and ladies, with the honor due to her exalted rank. Free was the mirth and loud was the song that night May 22, 1554. The lord of Rycote had converted the old manor-house into domestic offices, and close by had built a large and glorious mansion verily, a palace. In hall and in kitchen boundless hospitality was displayed. The drooping spirits of the princess revived ; and when some one warned the generous host of the possible consequences of his thus acting toward the queen’s prisoner, he warmly replied ” that, let what would befall, Her Grace might and should be merry in his house.” Nothing remains of the noble house at Rycote; the male line also ceased in the lord lying in the alabaster tomb ; and whether the zealous and loyal man at the last softened toward the professors of the new faith I know not only, in 1559, when dying, he sent for the godly John Jewel, lately returned from exile, to visit him.
In the chancel are other tombs among them, partly let into a recess in the wall, one to Sir John Clerke, dated 1539. There is also a brass to Edward Harriss, 1597, and high up, hanging from the wall, is the helmet of one of the Clerkes, with vizor and all complete. Visitors are told it is the one which Sir John Clerke wore in the ancient wars an indefinite statement, but perhaps referring to the Battle of the Spurs. In the chapels are also tombs of great age and interest. In that on the north side is one, altar-shaped, to Sir John Dormer. On the top is a brass of himself and his two wives, and at their feet are brasses, arranged in’ three groups one of which has been stolen of his twenty-five children. It is of the year 1502. In the south are even greater attractions. In one corner, high up in the wall, is carved a full-length figure of an ecclesiastic. It may possibly represent a bishop, but whether originally built in the wall or removed from some position in the floor I do not know. The robes, the features and the hands clasping a book to the breast are plain, though the stone is much worn and of great age. There is an aumbry underneath it, implying the former existence of an altar close by. Probably the tomb to the Quartermains, dated 1400, stands upon the site of this altar, if, indeed, the tomb may not have been used as the altar itself. The figures on this tomb are in good preservation. On the brass around the edge of the marble slab may be read the piteous appeal to the visitor of his charity to say a Paternoster for the repose of the souls of those who lie beneath. Near by is a similar tomb to the Greys, but some vandal long ago stole the best part of the brasses, and the date is therefore uncertain.
As one looks upon these monuments of men who lived their life centuries since, one realizes more than ever the strangeness of time. They once frequented this sacred building ; they were the great men of the neighborhood worthy, let us hope, of the distinction and to their dependants, whose names are forgotten and whose dust has long since mingled with common earth, kind and forbearing. With hawk on their fist and hound at their feet or clad in coat of mail and armed with sword and lance, they came to worship that God who is the Father of us all. List to the lordly walk along the echoing aisle, and think of the life and power, the proud authority and noble dignity, which are manifest in every step ! They once saw these same walls, rejoiced in this same sun and felt these same emotions ; now they lie in mouldering dust, and the immortality in sculptured tomb and charitable bequest which they had fondly hoped would have been theirs is fast passing away. The idle tourist reads their names, the greedy poor receive their doles, but without interest in them, and even the congregation worshipping beside them and in the sanctuary which some of them may have helped to build or to beautify forgets them in its prayers, or, if it chance to think of them, regards a petition offered up to God on their behalf as superstitious and vain. Yet once masses were offered up and prayers were said at these altar- tombs, and, rightly or wrongly, people sought to realize the communion of saints as unbroken by death.
It is worthy of remark that in old time epitaphs rarely possibly, never referred to the moral qualities of the deceased in any but a deprecatory way. Generally speaking, the name and the titles only are given ; some-times the words are added, ” miserable sinner.” It was left to the last century to indulge in rhapsodies such as the following. This paragon of perfection, by name Robert Crews, died in January, 1731, at the age of sixty years :
” He was an Humble, Obsequious Son, A Tender, Affectionate Brother, A Peaceable, Benevolent Neighbour, He kept up the good old Hospitality, His Liberal Table was spread to ye Hungry, His purse open to the Necessitous, Generous without Affectation, Just in His actions and Sincere to His Friend, A Pattern of Patience, Humility, Charity, Good Nature and Peace.”
Look up into the lofty clerestory and observe the well-preserved and admirably-carved figures; the sculptured stone speaks of many things. In the nave first comes one placed over the pulpit, as if looking to see that the people are giving all attention, and opposite to it is one with hands crossed’ on the breast, as if accepting the truth and resigning the soul to it. Then come a crowned king on one side and a mitred bishop on the other; then an angel with clasped hands in prayer, opposite to one with open hands in benediction; afterward another king and bishop as before, and next to these an angel playing a harp, and on the other side an angel playing with cymbals. In the west-end corners are, on the south side, an angel holding a pen in hand, as though to re-cord the shortcomings of the congregation, and on the north side another angel, pointing to an open book perhaps the Book in which is written the way of life and forgiveness. In the south aisles are also heads, much worn and some almost gone, but there is one denoting Mirth and another Sorrow. Doubtless Age and Youth, Wisdom and Folly, were also depicted. Many of these figures look down upon the worshippers, and here as elsewhere it must have been something, in an age of art and faith, for the people to look up from their devotions and behold these faces, so full of meaning and expression. Surely they were unto them as messengers from the King ! By the side of the door, in the old stone porch, are also heads, now barely decipherable, but no doubt once full of the expression of welcome to the incoming worshippers. There are also some at the great windows-angels peeping out of God’s blessed sanctuary to watch over the loved ones who sleep in the still yard outside. Nor is the interior alone in this respect. On the high northern wall of the nave, looking toward the north-west, is a figure in splendid preservation. It is gazing skyward eagerly and expectantly, with every feature of the face marked with sweet and longing expression. Possibly it may denote the desire for the Divine Presence to abide with the brethren who in past days lived in the religious house in that direction, or, as possibly, the looking for the procession wending its way therefrom to the holy sanctuary. As the warm rays of the July afternoon sun lighted upon it, it seemed in its grace and loveliness to breathe forth a benediction over churchyard, tree-tops and river-meadow, even such as angels breathe when from the battlemented walls of the Golden City they look down upon the distant plains of earth. There are also huge grotesque faces evil spirits fleeing from the presence of the Lord, utilized by the old builders for waterspouts, belching out of their gaping mouths the floods of ill, and in two or three instances used by the sparrows in which to build their nests. A sundial has the significant word ” Jerusalem ” across its face.
The associations of the place sacred both by time and by purpose must needs be many. It is a privilege to walk. where holy feet have trod, and to look upon things which once met the gaze of those who have long since been with God. The church is the centre of a town’s history. Here generation after generation met and worshipped. In life they worked together; in death they lie side by side. From the font to the grave each walked the same path, knew the other’s hopes and sorrows, had a common interest in the things around him. The house of God was the home of all, and rich and poor met together because the Lord was their Maker. Before the church porch they gathered as the bells chimed for service and talked over the events of the past week; within, they listened to the words that should make them wise for ever. What a blank in the old life there would have been without the church, itself the symbol, the witness, of unity the shrine to which the many feet wended their way ! Time seems nothing amid such surroundings; the past melts into the present, the mists of ages lift, and the eye beholds armored knights, cowled monks, buskined yeomen, foresters, artisans, laborers and men-at-arms as in the bygone days they thronged these consecrated walls. There were old men and women bent and gray with years; stalwart, hearty folk of middle life; lovers young and hopeful my brave Harry and my rosy-cheeked Margery; and boys and girls, thoughtful, mischievous, playful, good and bad just as we see them now. As I stand before the eastern window and the great bell in the tower utters its slow and heavy toll, heralding some one to the grave prepared beyond the lime trees, I think, though dissimilar in outward things, yet in essentials how alike the ages are ! There are few nobler or more interesting buildings than that old church of Thame.
Under the southern wall is the tomb of a good and holy man who some years since was vicar of this parish. Ere long the inscription thereon will be obliterated, for in this English atmosphere stones speedily become darkened and lichen-covered, and the new appears as the old. As we pass from the church down the narrow lane which leads into the High street of the town we may re-call the kindly clergyman whose memory is dear to many of his former parishioners. This building on the left hand is the grammar-school. It was founded and the house built in the year 1569, and might have been as great as Eton or Harrow had the Fates been in its favor. The endowment is considerable, and a quarter of a century since the school had four or five masters and one scholar. Some of the masters were very good cricketers, and, as the mind of their solitary pupil was like unto a narrow-necked bottle, they could not occupy their time in forcing into him the wine of wisdom or the syrup of knowledge. While all, therefore, received their allotted stipends, one did the duty. The ecclesiastical commissioners made a change in this happy state of affairs, and now many of the townsmen avail themselves of Lord Williams’s foundation. This was the Lord Williams already spoken of, and it is not unworthy the attention of those who profit by his beneficence that he by no means approved of the views which for three centuries have been taught in his school. His money has gone to make men after the pattern of those whom he helped to burn at Oxford. Peace to his soul, that is his punishment. And the good vicar, the Rev. Mr. Prosser, whose name I write with a tender reverence, was one who through a long and faithful ministry stood up man-fully for the Protestant character of the Church of England. It would not have daunted him if Lord Williams had come out of his marble tomb with a score of his men-at-arms and haled him to prison; he was ready to die as Cranmer had done. Not that he was a bitter controversialist.. He sought to soften men’s hearts with the doctrines of Christ rather than to inflame them with the passions of party. It was more by his gentle, Ioving example, his kind words and peaceful counsels, than by violent denunciations or pessimistic utterances, that he won souls. Yes; were those old timbered houses on the other side of the Atlantic, there would be a sign giving particulars concerning them. He visited his people and discharged his duties with a fidelity akin to that of Chaucer’s Poor Parson, and among those in paradise are doubtless many who throughout eternity shall rise up and call him blessed. I see him now, with his hand on a little curly-head, teaching the boy the words, ” God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” When the text is learned, the lad will be richer by sixpence and will have a lesson to remember for life. The wants and the cares of his flock were his own. To the troubled he gave sympathy ; to the needy, alms. It was rumored among the Baptists who were of a kind known as Particular that he believed in doctrines of grace, and would have preached them only he was afraid of being sent to prison by his bishop. Other dissenters in the town, however, used to say he had too much sense to believe anything of the sort, and the only fault they had with him was that he preached with a manuscript and took tithes. The tithes were as small as the sermons were long, so that his income was not to be compared with his outlay. Dear old man ! in the simplicity and goodness of his heart he would have preached the whole of the longest day in the year if thereby he could have saved one poor child out of heresy and schism. He has gone to his rest, and the church is as he left it, and it will be some time yet before Lord Williams will turn over in his tomb to the Introiba of the Mass or to the majesty of the Gregorian tone.
The High street is very still this warm day, and, indeed, except when the market is being held, it is seldom otherwise. There are some old houses, but not many of great age. The inns look respectable and clean, and thrive as much upon village visitors as upon the towns-people themselves. The best hostel in the place has the Transatlantic cognomen of the ” Spread Eagle,” but the sign looks as though it were painted some time before Christopher of famous memory turned his vessel’s prow toward the Western strand. They who desire English cheer good and solid, native-grown mutton and deep foaming ale, can have it here. The mahogany underneath which the traveller will rest his wearied legs is massive and suggestive of club dinners. The guests all sit down to the one table and eat and drink in silence ; John likes to do one thing at a time : ” Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn ?” An hour and a half at the Spread Eagle will make a man happy as a king and supremely indifferent to earthquakes, taxes, gnats, newspapers and policemen. There are some shops grocers, drapers, haberdashers, stationers, and the like but the front door rings a bell when it is opened, so as to bring the elsewhere-occupied shopman to the counter. This suggests small custom. The chapels belong to some of the moderately-thriving tradesmen, who attend and control them until they themselves have gained a higher social position, and then they go to the parish church.
Up an intricate back lane was once the meeting-house of the Baptists a highly-respectable folk, but, like the conies, feeble and abiding in retired places. It was not necessarily choice which drove dissenters to build their chapels in such out-of-sight holes and corners, but the unfortunate exigences of circumstances. No one would imagine there was any such place up this long, winding alley. Before an adverse force could get to the trembling worshippers warning could be given them, and they could scatter themselves in the neighboring gardens and back yards. The house was a square one, strongly built, with its roof shaped like a pyramid. Inside, it had a gallery at one end and at the other a. pulpit near the ceiling. High pews, stiff and bare, typical of the stern religious convictions of the congregation, filled the building. There was no musical instrument, not even a tuning-fork, and the hymns very long and very tedious were given out and sung two lines at a time. An old farmer fervent in piety and simple in taste for many years ministered to the flock. He needed no paper and no preparation for his sermons : all he did was to stand the big Bible up on its back and let it fall open at any place by chance; then the first passage his eye lighted on became his text, and he went on for up-ward, of an hour and a quarter. Frequently he spoke to edification ; and when he had exhausted the wiles of the devil and the wickedness of the world, he had always the enormities of the Church of England to fall back upon. It is probable that he thanked God every day of his life that Providence had created the Church for his special benefit. Certainly, had it not existed he would have been without a subject two-thirds of his time unless, to be sure, Satan had manifested himself in some similar ecclesiastical form. The farmer-preacher was popular with his people. The only time their affection for him was shaken was when an aged sister saw him speaking in the street to that man of evil the parish curate. He seemed to be on good terms with him a thing bordering dangerously upon the unpardonable sin and not to be endured for a day. But when the anxious flock knew that their pastor was only cross-examining the curate on the idolatrous and profane doctrine of baptismal regeneration with a view to exposing and refuting that abominable belief, they were satisfied and complacently quoted one to another, ” Wise as serpents !” The trouble which seemed to weigh most with the good old man was the apparent oblivion in which the vicar sank him. No matter how much he spoke against the Church, the Church went on as though he were not. This was provoking, of course, for there is little satisfaction in knocking about a man who will not strike back. At last the congregation decided to leave the house where it had met for upward of a century, if not for two centuries, and to build a chapel in the light of the sun and the town. It stands farther up the main street, and from the day it was first occupied to this the members have been unhappy. They were better off in the old place. They tried to bury their past; they did, indeed, bury their ancient pastor, and they have grieved over the grave and quarrelled over the will ever since.
I remember attending a service in the old chapel many years ago. It was in May, when the apple trees in a garden close by, seen from the gallery, were in bloom. The building was filled in every part; some, indeed, occupied the pulpit with the preacher. A stranger delivered a special sermon, but the occasion I have forgotten. He had a clear, earnest voice, an impassioned delivery, and, though evidently uncultured, was well read in the Scriptures and in the Christian experience. It was late in the afternoon, and the long, low sunlight swept across the still and intensely attracted congregation, a strange, soft weirdness making one realize mysterious things. The text was from Habakkuk : ” God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.” The Divine Presence was not only described: it was felt. As the preacher went on with graphic force to speak of the glory and the praise the people were wrapped in silence and emotion. There was no stir, no restlessness; no one seemed to breathe. The shadows Iengthened, the sunlight died away, gloom stole over the land, but the people listened on and looked upon the streaming glory from Teman and the dazzling radiance from Paran. Then the preacher sat down, but the stillness was unbroken. In awe and wonder people waited in the gloaming, as if expecting to see the darkness pass away and God appear. The spell was relieved by some one beginning the ” Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,” and instantly the large assembly rose to its feet and sang aloud. How the old building echoed with the sound of many voices.! And all went away feeling that for once perhaps only for once in this life they had seen the glories of the land beyond the silent stars.
Stand with me for a few minutes in the shade near this pond in the street, and before we take ourselves to the station let me present to you two or three more of the old inhabitants of the town.
This stout ancient gentleman in the knee-breeches and broad-brimmed hat standing at the corner of East street and High is one of the honored and honorable members of the community. He is a Quaker, and through his long and useful life has been both an ornament to his society and a benefit to his fellow-men. The only weakness known to the public of which he has been guilty is writing what he is pleased to call poetry ; but in this he is not singular. A neighbor and tenant of his, a sawyer by trade and a dog-fancier by way of amusement, is fond of writing obituary and satirical lines. Whenever any one of consequence in the neighborhood dies, or whenever the zeal of the Wesleyans against whom he has a violent antipathy breaks out in extraordinarily volcanic-like fervor, good John Potter leaves his log which he is sawing and, accompanied by two or three of his favorite dogs, goes to the ” Cross Keys,” there at the corner, and with mine host Howlett’s strong ale soon reaches a stage of spirituous and poetic exhilaration. A few hours later, in his back parlor, redolent with divers aromas for his wife makes ginger beer and takes in dyeing and is as fond of cats and jackdaws as he is of dogs the worthy disciple of the Muses may be found driving his quill, scratching his head, swearing at the world in general and at the partner of his joys in particular, sipping his potion of porter qualified with an unknown quantity of Scotch of unknown strength, and thus evolving slowly and painfully stanzas, rhymes and fantasies which shall be the wonder of the world when the world has nothing else to do but read them. Fortunately, a policeman lodges a few doors away, and the poet’s wife and that guardian of the peace take John off to bed before any serious damage is done. The next morning both the author and the poem are ready the one for the saw-pit and the other for the press ; and when the latter has done its work, a copy is sent with Mr. John Potter’s compliments to our good friend the Quaker. It has been said but neither you nor I can believe it as we look into his calm, honest face as he stands there looking up into the poplar trees to see which way the wind is blowing that the Quaker snorts and fumes and exhibits emotions of a dangerous tendency when he receives and reads his neighbor’s effusions. He has even been charged with throwing the copy behind the fire, and then, being uncertain as to some line but faintly remembered, and his curiosity growing greater as his memory grows less, has sent to ask Mr. Potter to do him the favor of giving him another copy. The sawyer-poet is flattered and delighted : his rival is doubtless impressed ; he has pleasure too extensive to be set forth in an ordinary foolscap sheet of paper in acceding to his request. A few days later, and within an envelope John finds the copy with emendations and criticisms crushing and severe, and a request that he will pay up the five weeks’ arrears of rent without further delay even more crushing and severe. But John is not vanquished. The poem is dedicated to some local patron; and when it is presented, John receives a guinea perhaps two guineas, for the gentry are careful to encourage incipient genius and do not wish to have the misfortunes of Goldsmith or the tragedy of Chatterton repeated and armed with that John calls upon his land-lord, gives him a piece of his mind and pays his rent in full.
Our Quaker, however, is not harsh, though his treatment of his brother-genius may seem so. He is kind to his tenants; and when they bring their rent he gives each of the children an apple or a dose of camphor and nitre. The latter is in cases where he thinks medicine is needed, and it is always taken, because he is a great man and a wise man. He also lends books to the good boys of the neighborhood. He quarrels with no one, and, as he and his wife are the only Quakers in the town, his dining-room does for a place of worship; and some evilly- and carnally-minded folks have said that the two Friends have sat there in silence the whole of a Sunday afternoon, not uttering a word and only bobbing their heads at each other. Be this as it may, he always pays his tithe and treats the parson with respect.
The old man is charitably disposed. As he comes down the street toward us he stops to speak to that woman who in sun-bonnet and shabby black dress is going in the opposite direction. She keeps a bakery not far from here, is a Baptist, and looks upon Quakers and people of that stamp as self-righteous Pharisees and not much better than ignorant and worldly churchmen. But she has a son who has brought her trouble woeful trouble not to be spoken about and were we nearer we should hear the kindly Friend’s customary greeting : Is thee well to-day ?” See ! without waiting for a reply he slips a gold coin into her hand and passes on. She looks at it ; a tear comes into her eye ; a vision of hope passes before her; and she lifts up her heart to God that he will bring that man into the truth, save him from his legalism and will-worship and make him an heir of glory.
Farther on, nearly opposite where we are standing, is the barber’s shop. Mr. Simon is a tailor by trade and a Methodist by profession. His shaving and haircutting is an extra accomplishment, done because there is no one else at this end of the town competent to reduce stubbly beards or to make a feather-lock on a boy’s crown. He is a deliberate man : he walks, eats, talks, snuffs, snips his scissors, sneezes, in a deliberate way. When he is serious, as at prayer-meetings or when shaving some unknown stranger, he is very deliberate. He has frequently prayed down two inches of tallow candle, and not a few of the brethren have wished that Brother Simon’s piety would run a little faster and his devotions keep within one snuffing of the candle ; but the sisters think him exactly and edifyingly right. When engaged in controversy, as is often the case, he is somewhat of Sir Roger de Coverley’s turn of mind, and thinks there is much to be said on both sides of the question. On only two things are he and the principal man in the Baptist chapel fully agreed first, that the Church is a nest-bed of popery and wickedness ; and secondly, that the parson and the Quaker are good men, but not after God’s own heart. The Baptist man is a butcher, and they deal with each other, but they have never prayed together for Church, parson or Quaker, because the one is doubtful if the other has true saving knowledge, after all. How a man can say he loves God and not take to election and immersion is the problem on the one side, and how he could love God and take to them is the problem on the other. They have discussed the question over and over again, but without any further result than making the tailor-barber threaten to buy no beef from the butcher, and the butcher declare that he will neither send his cloth to the tailor-barber nor come himself to have his hair cut. But the breeze passes over, and each generously forgives the other ; only, when the Baptist remarks that he will pray for his erring brother that he may see the light, Brother Simon replies more deliberately and freezingly than ever, ” I rather think you had better pray for yourself.”
Now, if there was any person in Thame or in the region round about of whom Brother Simon had a complete and wholesome dread, it was the district visitor. When she died, he said ” Thank God !” with a full and grateful heart. She was an indefatigable lady of middle life, full of zeal and discretion and a loyal and patriotic churchwoman. Within her part of the town she visited every house regularly once a fortnight. She knew nothing about dissenters and honestly refused to recognize them. Were they not all English people ? and therefore did they not all belong to the Church of the English people ? So she visited Wesleyans, and nursed sick Baptists, and gave presents to Independent boys and girls, and lent money to everybody, irrespective of sect or denomination. Her influence was, therefore, very great, and, though she would no more think of going into the Baptist meeting-house than she would of going into the Red Lion bowling-alley, she was much beloved by every one. Even the Quaker approved of her, and, being somewhat of a genealogist and antiquary, thought of trying to ascertain if she were not a descendant or a relative of a good Quaker family ; but when he intimated this to her and she warmly repudiated the possibility, he gave up the idea. Only Brother Simon, could not endure her. When she called, he treated her with scant courtesy, and the tract which she left he carefully stuck high up behind the looking-glass, so that no one might see it and she might have it unread when she called again. She had a strong objection to those personal appeals which at one time were characteristic of Wesleyans, and she told our friend that she thought such very rude and vulgar that, as at a table no polite host would press his guest to take that for which he did not care and had declined, so no minister having self-respect would force upon people that which they did not desire. Religion, she added, was not like medicine, to be given as mothers give children castor-oil with a spoon and a rod. But as Brother Simon had never in his life dined with a gentleman and was in the habit, when he had a guest at his table, of making him eat as much as he would hold, after the manner of the plebeian English, he did not see the force of the objection; and, as for castor-oil, he always gave it to his children with black-currant jam. The district visitor was doubtless without the light. She was lost in the Church ; poor soul ! she was gone. He had heard of two or three young men who had been very near the Lord’s vineyard led off by her persuasion to attend the Litany service at the parish church on Sun-day afternoons, and of no less than seven girl-probation ers who had gone one after another to be bishoped. It was an outrage, and he gave it out as his deliberate and conclusive judgment: “That lady’s a proselytizer; I say it knowingly, and I say it dee-leeburatelee. As sure as her dress has flounces and her hair is done up in curls, her soul has all the phalacteries of Pharisaism and her mind has all the crookedness of the kingdom of Satan.”
The sun is fast dropping behind the trees, and soon the train for Oxford will be due. This street on the left is the highway to London. The stage-coach rolled along that road less than thirty years since, and there was a something sweeter than the whistle of an engine in the winding notes of the postboy’s horn. How cheerily it sounded in the clear, frosty air ! Letters and strangers from great London far away ! Well, forty-. four miles was a long distance in those days, and the man who had been there was thought something of a traveller. The pound of real gunpowder tea, at fourpence or sixpence an ounce, which he brought back lasted a long time and was considered a luxury proper only for sick folks and for Christmas. Taken with milk, it was good ; with the least drop of brandy, excellent. There are birds’ nests in the hedges on that road, and a mile or so from here a footpath leading down to the river, where perch and pike abound. I know a good soul even such a one as Izaak himself who has drawn many a wriggling eel and weighty jack out of that water, a man whose heart at the sight of rod and line leaps as the trout to the fly on a summer day. There are no game laws relating to fish, only the question of trespassing on the land ; but it is not every one who has the skill, to profit by free access to the river. The fish in these old streams are cunning and wary and up to most devices of the angler. Among the flags and the rushes on the banks are frogs such as the sharks of the fresh water love, and under the willow-bark are grubs and caddis which are as irresistible to a carp or a chub as he is himself to a finny or a human epicure. In the late afternoon you may often see some one with rod and wicker basket turning up this street, bent for that same quiet stream.
This Park street, through which we pass to the railway-station, was a glorious place to the schoolboys. when hid within a November fog. Then the vision was limited by the thick yellow mist, and shrill voices cried their ” Halloo!” and ” Tally-ho !” and nimble feet ran hide-and-seek. English people are tenacious and assertive of their rights even English boys. A funeral of a little fellow was once wending its way down this street to the parish church. Four schoolmates carried the small coffin and the friends walked behind : hearses were unknown in that part of the country. Last of all came a maid and the only brother of the deceased. He was crying bitterly, not only for the loss of one dear to him, but also because the physician concluded that cherry turnovers were the cause of the untimely mortality, and he therefore should have no more. He was very fond of his brother; he was also very fond of cherry turnovers. However, a short distance down the street, another boy one who was not invited to the funeral came up to our weeping lad and wished to walk beside him. This was a privilege to which he had no right, and he was instantly and decisively ordered off. He declined to leave ; the nurse remonstrated, but the dignity of the funeral was in question, and grief gave way to threats and feelings of violence. That evening, in a back lane, under some elder trees, two boys had a fight. When the mother of one of them came with her bruised and black-eyed son to the father of the other, his opponent exclaimed, ” It was my funeral ; he had no right to follow my brother or to stick himself in.”
That building on the right, behind the row of laurel-bushes, is the Royal British School. It is not of famous reputation, nor do I know that any of its scholars have reached any position of eminence. You might find some of the old boys wheelwrights and policemen possibly, one a gamekeeper. Nevertheless, it was largely attended in days of yore, and was remarkable for two things a May-pole and a master. The former stood in the yard, here on the south side. Yes, it is gone, like many an-other good thing, but on the first day of the month of flowers it was adorned with festive and floral glory. The whole town turned out to keep May-day then, and there was a May-queen, sometimes the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, and sometimes, when no girl would act, the prettiest boy : sex made no difference. Old folks came to look on; even the Quaker, though he was not sure such things were right possibly only expedient, to please the youngsters. And the master! Now, it is the master of whom I wish to speak, and as we walk on I will tell you about him. He took part in the fun, you may be sure, and everybody thought he was only a boy grown old. His accomplishments were varied. First of all, he was a Welsh-man and knew how to pronounce a word with eighteen consonants and only three vowels in it. Then he was a musician and could sing a song and scrape a violin. And lastly he was an economic and, as he was very poorly paid, knew how to make a decent living out of poverty. Where thrift is an object, it is well to have it taught by experienced teachers. Besides these gifts, he was a small man, very fond of potatoes and geography he would hoe the one and talk about the other at the same time had a wife, dabbled in local zoology, rode a dandy-horse, the precursor of the bicycle, read Sir Walter Scott, knew a little carpentering, kept rabbits and canaries and was looked upon with respect by all who knew him. The masters at the grammar-school did not know him, and therefore could not be expected to think anything of him ; but their pupil did, and, not altogether liking his solitude, used to mingle with these ruder boys, and, all things considered, got a fair amount of pleasure out of life. It was he who advised the rubbing of the master’s cane with a lemon. During a mid-day recess it was done, placed in the sun to dry, and in the afternoon when applied to a boy’s shoulders it split into fragments. It was he also who knew the intricacies of tit-tat-too and how to win all the fellows’ taws. Nobody could make whistles out of willow-sticks as well as he, and nobody else could talk Welsh with the master. The latter thought him a clever and promising lad and gave him many a hint concerning kidney potatoes and the use of the Latin subjunctive. It was rumored that they had frequently gone fishing together, and some one said that their intention was some day to go to New Zealand and buy a farm. That was absurd on the face of it, for the master stopped at potatoes and knew no more about fox-hunting which is an essential qualification to good farming than the man who was sent to the moon for gathering sticks on a Sunday. Here is the train ! Oxford? All right. Grand old place, Thame. Full of interest; church worth going many a mile to see. Tired? Warm day and a long walk. Never mind; draw the blue curtain aside and let the last sunbeams in. Well, yes, the old school-master is dead. He died years ago some said studied to death and some said starved to death, but there is no telling. Teachers were not paid much in those days, and the wonder is there were any teachers at all. Common people did not want their children to know more than plain reading and writing and the rule of three. They had been happy on less, and fine schooling was not for the likes of them. Now that is all changed. Education is the order of the day. Ploughboys have a chance to learn Greek, and girls whose mothers washed dishes at twopence an hour can embroider and play the piano. It is enough to disturb even Lord Williams and all the old squires at Aston Row-ant. And what will be the end ? You cannot have wait on you at table a fellow who knows the rudiments of Sanskrit and all about conic sections, nor can you have to scrub your floor or to starch your collars a woman who can speak Italian and criticise Matthew Arnold. When everybody knows as much as you know, what will become of you ? Electricity, eh ? Nonsense ! Talk about electricity after a day spent in the country and a town whose only idea of a track of lightning is the trail of a snail across a cabbage-leaf! In America we have the negro and the Irish to do our heavy labor and the Chinese to do our washing, but what have you in England got? No, the people here are dull ; we have seen more to-day than half the inhabitants hereabouts have seen in a lifetime. But they are going to wake up ; the schools are doing wonders. If the old master were to come back, he would shake his head and say, ” Alas! alas ! Teaching the boys political economy and. the girls botany ! And where is that obedience which only can make boys men and girls women ?”