REMINISCENCES OF M. BETHAM-EDWARDS
A BABY TAKING NOTES—THE VANISHING PIES—A VILLAGE
MYSTERY—EUGENE SUE—A CHILD SUICIDE
everyone has some recollection of first consciousness, some memory,
more or less distinct, with which individuality and the recognition
of it began. This experience in my own case is definite.
Years have failed to obliterate the impression. A life-time of
unceasing activity and of no little change has not dimmed the
picture. Looking back across the bridge of years, I see to-day
what I realised then. Were I transported to my childhood's
home, I could put finger on the scene.
Nursemaids in former days were no less given to flirtation
than at the present time. A red coat in a rustic village was
ever as tinder to the spark. One sunshiny afternoon some
gallant soldier encountered or waylaid a young woman carrying a
baby. The little girl in her nurse's arms was too young for
tale-bearing, not too young, however, for observation. The
scarlet coat so strikingly contrasted with blue sky and green
hedges, the ingratiating smiles of the wearer, who, whilst making
love to the maid, warily ministered to the good humour of her
charge, the animation of the pair, all these things made up a clear,
ineffaceable whole. From that incident memory begins.
The next landmark of childish life may also call up a smile.
When about four years old I was sent with a sister to school.
The arrangement was temporary; we were only exiled in view of an
approaching event, but even under such circumstances our anxious
mother did not forget her darlings. A hamper of home-made
cakes and fruit pies was dispatched in order to console us. It
occurred to the schoolmistress and her husband that here was an
admirable opening for economical hospitality. The little
boarders were packed off to bed betimes, card tables were laid out,
an occasional song or jig on the piano created pleasing diversion.
Now, Mrs. S—'s school occupied the rooms over her husband's
shop (he was a chemist, and they were all on the same floor).
Children are sure to remain wide awake when for some nefarious
purpose their drowsiness is most desired. As we lay abed, the
door of our room being ajar, with silent indignation we saw our
cakes and currant pies carried into the dining-room opposite and
deliberately placed on the table.
We had expected the hamper, and recognised familiar dainties
and dishes at a glance. Whether any unpleasantness arose out
of the affair I cannot say. Years after I met the worthy
couple, so in the main they were, and we chatted affably, my own
mind being full of these misappropriated pies. I could not see
that either husband or wife had outwardly changed in the least.
Every village has, I suppose, its mystery, and our own ought
to have figured in a romance. Adjoining the fine old
Elizabethan manor-house, which was my home, lay a small farmery with
pleasant dwelling-house and garden. It was indeed adapted as a
pleasure farm, the residence appearing out of all proportion with
the quantity of land. Here, at the time I write of, lived in
utter solitude a strange, as some thought a satanic, being.
Whence he came, his family history, antecedents and profession were
alike dark. After a fashion he now farmed, keeping his fifty
and odd acres in some sort of cultivation by a labourer or two.
During the daytime he was rarely to be seen; towards dusk, all the
year round, the awful figure, wrapped in a long black cloak, would
stalk to and fro, frightening passers-by, never losing eeriness in
the eyes of near neighbours.
"Master," one evening said a village wag, emboldened by
potations, "you remind me of the old one."
"You will find the difference if you ever get to a certain
place," was the slowly enunciated reply. "You are on the right
road for it, too."
The spokesman of the gaping, tittering hobbledehoys was no
very reputable character, but it required some boldness to accost
the doctor, Dr. Owen he called himself. One loafer would egg
on another, less for the love of sport than of oracular response.
How different these utterances to the tongue of every day!
Suffolk speech is a drawl, sentence after sentence forming a
gamut, each ending on the upper note. The doctor's matter was
as striking as his manner.
"Master," upon another occasion cried a looker-on, "your
cloak wants mending!"
"It does not want mending so much as your manners do," was
the reply, the speaker statelily continuing his twilight stroll.
Up and down, backwards and forwards would stalk the tall, attenuated
figure, enveloped from head to foot in a black cloak, the little
girls of his next door neighbour scuttling away at the apparition.
What intercourse this strange man held with his fellow
farmers was characterised by grim humour. Everyone had his
nickname or diminutive. Thus my father, whose baptismal name
and patronymic were one, was always "Neddy." One day our young
heifers, in local phraseology styled "buds," got into the doctor's
premises and committed all sorts of depredations.
"Tell Neddy to drive his buds back," was the doctor's sole
remonstrance, the messenger, of course, as best he could, imitating
the sonorous voice and unaccustomed elocution.
No woman ever crossed his threshold, and on his departure,
the keeping-room or parlour fireplace was found piled up with
egg-shells and other rubbish. He had evidently lived after
anchorite fashion, paying no heed to order or hygiene. It
speaks well for the harmless, unsuspecting nature of those Suffolk
villagers that such a character should remain unvictimised by
horse-play or brutal jokes. As will be seen further on,
intolerance reigned elsewhere. We must go to the rectory, the
pulpit, for anathemas and display of bitter anti-Christian spirit.
There is little doubt that the solitary thus puzzling his
neighbours was a foreigner, perhaps some Polish refugee finding
harbourage on our shores. The misfortune was that his sojourn
did not occur ten years later. What a study would he have
afforded a young novelist! The reminiscences here for the
first time put upon paper are of early childhood, of years spent in
the nursery, not the schoolroom.
The dawn of literature as a force upon any active
intelligence is ever of psychological interest. Some of us are
awakened to the consciousness one way, some another. Oddly
enough, that a novelist who has sedulously avoided sensation, who in
maturer years has but moderately relished this element in fiction,
should have surrendered to the wand of Eugene Sue! The
masterpiece of this writer, perhaps the masterpiece of all
sensational literature, was now making a noise from one end of
Europe to the other. A translation fell into the hands of our
governess, who read it aloud after tea and lessons, her older pupils
plying the needle, the little ones, myself among the number, busy
with their dolls in a corner.
To one of these, a child of six or seven, doll-dressing now
proved quite unattractive. Not venturing to betray my
interest, I listened breathlessly, every page heightening feverish
excitement. Bedtime came as a cruel sentence; to demur would
of course have been fatal, a brusque end of enchantment. So
the gaps were filled by aid of imagination, enough being heard to
glow over in secret, to remember ever after.
That marvellous story has never since come in my way, the
gaps remain, yet vivid as when heard are the scenes taken in so
breathlessly—Adrienne's escape from the convent—Rodin and the old
woman in the church—Prince Djalma and the poisoned dagger—Rose and
Blanche separating as they entered a cholera ward in search of their
father, at the other end falling into each other's arms fatally
stricken with the pestilence. Why seek disenchantment by
reading the story right through to-day? Spellbound I could
hardly be as in that Suffolk schoolroom years ago. The effect
of those dramatic episodes was, I may add, purely literary.
They no more terrified than the witch scene in Macbeth or the ghost
scene in Hamlet, both of which very soon afterwards became also
familiar to me. Creative art, whether poetic or plastic, is,
or ought to be, illusion. Yield to the illusion, and the
artist receives final verdict. Here was no question of the
reader's personality or daily surroundings. A police report,
the description of a cholera ward in newspapers, demoralise, disturb
young readers, and why? Because they are living truths, not
The divine law of retribution, the stupendous problems of
good and evil, of mutability and death, were not slow to present
themselves to my mind.
The only play-fellow of these three little girls, the younger
children of a numerous family, was a little boy named Arthur W—, and
that most terrible phenomenon, a youthful prodigy. Born of
elderly parents, the hope of a scientific but whimsical father, the
fetish of a handsome, winning, but most fond and foolish mother, he
had obtained this reputation from sheer presumptuousness and a total
disregard of accepted canons. The right and the wrong of any
matter in his eyes and his mother's was his own inclination.
Extraordinarily beautiful—the bloom of that cherubic face, the
transparency of those blue eyes, are before me as I write—he knew
how to trade upon such personal advantages and human weakness.
Whenever the dreadful boy spent a day with us, it was a case of
topsy-turvydom, of general racket, discomfort, and disorder that
only several days' brooming and brushing set right.
His favourite diversion was what he called preaching the
Gospel. In order that this could be done with due ministration
to his vanity, a little surplice had been made for him, having stole
and bands of orthodox pattern. In this guise he would harangue
the household, a large landing-place being fitted up as a church,
mattresses placed for seats, young and old, farm lads and
dairymaids, called from their occupations to listen. The
spectacle never seemed to strike anyone as irreverent, yet my mother
was a deeply religious woman, and family church-going at that time
was the order of the day.
Another of Master Arthur's favourite pastimes was
custard-making, so-called, for the hens. He would look up
eggs, then carry them to a favourite resort of our feathered kind, a
raised sandy spot of the orchard in which they could burrow and take
their dust baths. Smashing half a dozen eggs into one of the
holes here abounding, and stirring the whole with a stick, he would
complacently proceed to the next, wasting a shillings' worth of farm
produce, but, as he said, "leaving all the hens a nice custard."
This fooling came to an untimely and most tragic end.
Arthur's father, a retired ship's surgeon, combined the two
professions of surgeon and apothecary, coloured globes, as in
chemists' shops to-day, announcing the fact. Mr. W—was a man
of considerable scientific attainments and given to experimentation.
It was quite natural that an active-minded child should interest
himself in his father's pursuits and pick up many facts relating to
drugs and their effects.
Natural it was also that school seemed anything but
attractive in his eyes. There at least the will of Arthur W—
did not reign supreme. There he could neither preach the
Gospel in stole and surplice nor make custards of eggs and dust for
the hens. On the matter of attendance papa ever remained
inexorable, or ever tried to remain inexorable, whilst mamma
exhausted her ingenuity in finding pleas for default. It
dawned upon the boy's mind that as he always stayed at home when
physicked by paternal hands, he might just as well physic himself in
order to play the truant. An occasional dose of mild purgative
answered very well. Something had given him the colic, said
his mother. Stay at home for once he must.
There came at last temptation of desperate kind. One
day he returned from school determined not to go on the morrow, or
to have done with it for once and for all. Dread of punishment
or disgrace, perhaps sheer perversity, actuated the deed.
Surreptitiously stealing into the surgery, possessing himself of a
deadly drug, he swallowed the dose, and one summer morning news came
that he was dead! To his little play-fellows the shock was
great. Who could entirely love a being so self-centred, so
perverse? But he seemed part of our own lives, his very
vagaries made the loss more sensible. When the funeral
procession stopped for some minutes at our garden gate, the gate he
had oft-times swung wide with such joyful shout, there was a general
wail through nursery and schoolroom. Death had become a
reality to the youngest!
PULPIT AMENITIES-WHAT'S IN A NAME?—"ONLY ONE D—D
DROP!"—BURIAL FEES—PLAINTS OF A POOR RECTOR'S WIFE—GIRLS OF THE
PERIOD—"WHO HAD THE PARSON'S WINE?"
reasoning faculty is awakened, children appraise things not as they
are, but as they seem to be. Their unformed minds cannot strip
off excrescences, take account of what Spinoza calls limitations,
divine the kernel hidden in unsightly shell. Thus it comes
about that institutions and embodiments, noble as ideals, elevating
in their essential character, are wholly misjudged by youthful
thinkers. We blame and criticise what is really a decadence or
maybe a parody, no reflex of lofty original.
And nothing is more difficult to get rid of than prejudices,
rather notions, formed in early life. The following pages will
illustrate these remarks. Again and again have I been blamed
for severity when writing of the Church of England and its clergy.
Strange indeed were it otherwise!
Our village numbered three hundred and odd souls, and well
bore out Voltaire's famous dictum as to the disproportion of English
sauces and sects. Two of the former were certainly
known—celery-sauce eaten with roast pork and apple-sauce served with
the Michaelmas goose. Sects were almost as diverse as
surnames. One farmer was a Quaker, another a Swedenborgian, a
third a Dissenter, of what precise denomination I do not recollect,
our toll-gate keeper was a Roman Catholic, our cobbler a
free-thinker, our labouring folk, except during a few weeks in the
year, Nonconformists of various denominations.
The infinitesimal minority attended church. I should
say that the general attitude in theological matters was one of
scepticism or profound indifference.
My penultimate remark demands explanation.
Nonconformity was of course the one unpardonable sin in clerical
eyes. On my childish ears from a neighbouring pulpit once fell
inter alia this horrible sentence: "The doors of a Dissenting
chapel are the gates of hell." It may readily be imagined that
when Christmas came round and the parochial charities were to be
distributed, poor families eking out existence on eight or nine
shillings a week thought of their beef and coals. Some pious
person hundreds of years before had bequeathed a certain sum to be
thus expended by parson and churchwardens. The latter did
their best to secure an equitable apportioning, but no chapel-goer
could feel sure of his dole. Laughable, yet pathetic, it was
to see how the church gradually filled as Christmas drew near.
By the third week in December hardly a seat remained vacant.
And of course the rector always hoped against hope that some who
came for beef and coals might stay for their souls' sake.
This worthy man emptied his church and drove his congregation
wholesale into the arms of dissent by sheer want of tact and
self-control. He was not without kindly impulses; he paid his
way and lived uprightly. But an enormous family taxed alike
his resources and his naturally bearish and ungovernable temper.
He was no more fitted to be a clergyman than to be dancing-master to
the Royal family.
Of his numerous children one boy was particularly
obstreperous at church. He would put his mother's bonnet
strings into her mouth when the poor woman drowsed during the long
marital sermon, make wry faces at his brothers and sisters, and
otherwise set them a-titter. The family pew lay immediately
under the pulpit, but at last, the contagion of mischief proving
irresistible, the incorrigible youngster was imprisoned on the steps
behind his father.
On a summer afternoon hardly had the final benediction
escaped the preacher's lips, when a tremendous blow resounded
through the church. Everyone stared aghast. With a
backhanded cuff that might almost have felled an ox our rector had
sent the unfortunate boy backwards, shouting for all to hear:
"How dare you, sir, thus misbehave yourself when I am
preaching God's word in the pulpit?"
Doubtless a highly effective moral lesson was intended.
The result was that many church people betook themselves to chapel
Upon another occasion as he entered the aisle and was
proceeding toward the reading desk he perceived the village clerk
whispering to a neighbour. It was the fashion in those days,
for aught I know may be so still, for this functionary to sit close
to the officiating clergyman and read responses and alternate verse
of the day's Psalms.
"You, Parish Clerk," shouted the rector, "how dare you carry
on conversation when your minister has entered the church?"
The clerk explained that he was only asking after a
neighbour's health, but the altercation, for so it was, caused
several people to quit the sacred building, and created no little
Here is another souvenir. A young married couple had
determined, for some reason or other, to have their firstborn
christened simply "Fred." The fancy was perhaps foolish, but
the child's name certainly concerned its parents only. They
would have nothing to do with Frederick, but only the monosyllabic
This is the scene I witnessed as a child. We were
especially interested in little Fred, and had sent him his
Clergyman—"Name this child!"
Mother, shyly—"Fred, sir."
Clergyman, roughly—"Frederick, you mean?"
Mother, growing nervous, feeling that all eyes are upon
her—"No, sir; Fred, if you please, sir."
Clergyman, with an impatient murmur and vicious splash of
holy water—"Frederick, I baptise thee in the Name of the Father,
the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen."
As a matter of course, Fred's parents afterwards patronised
the meeting-house. All kinds of queer names had been accorded
in orthodox fashion; one neighbour's boy was called Julius Cæsar,
another child Rosabella, why not Fred?
These scandals should have been stopped by appeal to
ecclesiastical courts, public protest, wide publicity, but the
Suffolk temperament is somewhat lethargic, people are slow to move,
unwilling to encounter litigation. Whilst the weather remained
fine they went farther afield, attending church or chapel elsewhere.
On the return of winter, snow and slush kept them nearer home.
The parish church became a pis aller. [Ed.—last resort].
As I have before said, under the rector's rough, even
bearish, exterior beat a kindly heart. He would laughingly
recount how a poor parishioner once begged the loan of his black
trousers in order to attend his father's funeral. The request
was granted. Another form of kindliness became liable to
I do not know how it may be in most country places, but in
our village a curious custom prevailed. The wine used for
communion service was luscious Tent or Malaga, and what remained in
the chalice was given to the agèd poor who were present. The
ceremonial had a peculiarly aristocratic character little according
with the doctrine of Christian humility. No chamberlain more
exactly assigned the rank of court visitors. First knelt the
rector's wife and daughters and squire's family, next in order came
the larger or so-called gentlemen farmers and their womankind,
following these the village shopkeeper and small tradesman and
tradeswomen; lastly, the labouring folk, generally a pitiable group,
consisting of decrepid grandsires and crones just able to hobble.
No sooner had the solemn rite been administered than a
sonorous, deep-drawn quaffing was heard from the lower end of the
rails, the poor old men and women gratefully swallowing the remains
of the wine. It might have been better to go through this
little performance in the vestry. Anyhow, who can doubt that
such a custom proved a snare? My nurse (the good woman lives
and corresponds with me still) was returning from her own church one
Sunday morning when she encountered a neighbour coming from his; it
was Sacrament Sunday.
"So, Master (labourers were called Master, never Mister)
Smith, like me, I s'pose, you have been to the table."
"Yes," was the ruffled reply, "and I might as well have
stayed at home. I only got one d—d drop!"
These honest souls believed in church and chapel up to a
certain point, but had very little reverence about them. Quiet
humour, a rationalist frame of mind, are Suffolk characteristics.
The spiritual aspect of religion and of religious observance, if it
came at all, did not come from without. In the matter of
Biblical criticism, they were often far ahead of their teachers, at
any rate of their teachers' avowed belief. Formalism,
incompetence and scandals in the church, exaggeration and
grotesqueness in the meeting-house, had brought about a dead level
of indifference. In the defence of material interests there
was much more alertness. Clerical kindnesses were shown
towards both rich and poor during sickness. But when a
well-to-do parishioner died there was sure to be a squabble about
burial fees for "cutting the ground," "bricking the grave," etc.
The family losses which saddened my childhood, the sickness and
death of mother and sisters, are subjects of no general interest,
and too sacred, too near—so they seem, although divided from the
present by a long life-time—to be more than just hinted at here.
But there are circumstances attending these sorrows which seem
almost matters of history; at any rate, they contribute to an
understanding of the times. I well remember unseemly
bickerings as to a certain bricked grave, one of the many I stood by
in these early days. So outrageous were the charges for burial
ground and attendant privileges that my father demurred. The
only answer to his protest was a little volume of printed tariffs,
from which it appeared that a churchyard was an incumbent's
property, and that be might charge just what he chose for the
permission to lie there. In one corner was a congeries of tiny
mounds, graves of unbaptised babyhood.
A country parson, although having a good house, garden and
glebe, and three hundred a year, was not rich at the time I write
of, when twelve boys and girls had to be fed, clothed, and educated.
"My dear Mrs. G—" said his wife to a neighbour in my hearing,
"I assure you, it is as much as we can do to cover our children's
That she certainly contrived to do, poor woman, but the fare
was ofttimes Spartan, while education was regarded as strictly a
unisexual affair, no more a girl's prerogative than breeches or
tobacco. These sisters in more senses than one had to pick up
the crumbs that fell from their brothers' table.
"I love being ill," was the confidence of one little girl to
a playfellow, "because then I have a little lump of butter and piece
of bread and spread for myself."
Many undesirable lessons these poor girls acquired; of
education, in the accepted sense of the word, they got no inkling,
but one thing they did learn thoroughly, namely, the doctrine of
self-abnegation. Whilst the sons obtained scholarships and
nominations, by hook or by crook wriggled their way into something
that could euphemistically be termed a profession, the daughters
mended stockings, nursed the little ones, toiled from morning to
night in keeping up appearances. I well remember one instance
of sisterly devotion. A young brother was obliged to keep a
prostrate condition for many weeks in consequence of an accident.
Day after day, hour after hour, he would amuse himself by shooting
peas from a popgun, his eldest sister, a tall, growing girl,
stooping to pick them up. The perpetual bending to the ground
must have been very trying; not so much as a playful remonstrance
passed her lips. Young women of the present day, Girton and
Newnham students who "go up" or "come down" with their brothers and
comrades of the other sex, little dream what girl-life was like in
former days. Whether higher education of women so-called has
in equal degree developed this quality of self-abnegation is another
matter. For my part I have my doubts, and was ever of opinion
that unselfishness is pre-eminently a masculine virtue. We
must, however, know where to look for it. Despite the
difficulty of clothing juvenile nakedness and the thread-bare
gentility of a poor parsonage, it enjoyed numberless privileges.
Amongst others was that of a well-filled wine-cellar, gift or legacy
of rich patron.
"The parson's wine and who had it," now matter of local
tradition, is too good a story to omit here. Every village has
its wit, and rustic wit is no respecter of persons. When the
great robbery occurred, when the parsonage was burglariously
assailed and its stores of port and sherry ransacked, public
excitement knew no bounds. The wine-cellar abutted on the
dwelling-house, and before effecting their purpose the thieves were
obliged to reckon with a fierce dog chained up close by. Every
circumstance pointed to intimate acquaintance with premises and
surroundings, but police and detectives could obtain no clue.
One day rumours got about that our wit and oracle, a tall,
lean bricklayer, had dropped significant hints and innuendoes as to
the theft. He was even heard to say that he knew well enough
who had the parson's wine.
Without losing a minute the rector hurried off, at once
announcing his errand.
"I understand, Kersey," he said, "that you should say you
know who had my wine?"
"Well, sir," was the answer, with a mischievous twinkle of
the eye, "and so I do. You had it once, but could not keep
The poor rector went home slightly crest-fallen, but he was
too much of a humourist himself not to relish the joke.
That mystery remains unsolved to this day. General
suspicion lighted upon an old and much trusted dependant of the
rectory, groom, gardener, and boots, who had grown grey in clerical
service and looked like an out-of-elbow parson himself.
As I have before mentioned, narrow means did not stand in the
way of routine benevolences. When labourer's wives lay in,
gifts of broth and arrowroot accompanied the parish bag, and even
infectious diseases failed to deter visits of condolence or charity.
But there existed no real liking or sympathy between class and
class, no tie binding rectory and cottage. This is the parody
I heard in our clergyman's nursery:
"Wheno'er I take my walks abroad,
How many poor I see
Eating perk without a fork.
Oh, Lord, what beasts they be!"
Petty slights, little acts of tyranny, made folks forgetful
of broth and arrowroot. They did not relish their front doors
being pushed open without preliminary knock, nor the clipping of
their children's curls at school. As to Dissenters, these
remained under perpetual ban. Were not the doors of a
meeting-house the gates of hell?
TYPES AND FEATS—A VESTAL VIRGIN—MANETTA AND THE
OUR village, and
I presume every other, could furnish almost as many types as Homer's
Iliad. We had our Hector, our Calchas, our Odysseus, the
strong man, the seer, the man of wile. We had also a Sappho,
and to come to modern parallels a longer catalogue. These
exceptional men and women have earned no immortality. Their
reputation died with them, but whilst it lasted was widespread and
tremendous. An awful halo surrounded their brows; one and all
enjoyed a certain kind of solitude, the solitude that waits on
inborn, unchallengeable superiority. None wore his heart upon
his sleeve for daws to peck at.
Our strong man was the miller, and emblematically his
wind-mill occupied the highest point of the village. The
sails, as they deliberately rose and fell, seemed to say, "Touch me
who dare,"—to symbolise the strongest arms to be found for miles
around. In local speech, you could ride a white mare black
before you would find a match for miller T—'s thews and sinews.
What feats of bodily prowess he had displayed I never learned; that
they must have been superlative high renown testified. Did a
half-drunken encounter take place at the Swan; did bullies and
braggadocios threaten the public peace, the words "Send for the
miller" sufficed. A regiment of dragoons could not have more
promptly and effectually restored order. Had he lived in the
early part of the century he would most certainly have been
despatched to Folkestone or Dover, regarded as more than enough to
conquer Buonaparte himself.
He was no giant, on the contrary, under rather than over
medium stature. But you had only to look at him to endorse
Nature had made him up not of bone and muscle, but of steel
and iron. He would have crushed an ordinary athlete as easily
as a lion makes mincemeat of a lamb. Personal courage is
fortunately not dependent upon physical supereminence, and our bold
man, whom I will next describe, was a weakling. Long his "deed
of high renown," one of many, lived in local annals.
It was a bitter winter night when neighbour S— a small
farmer, heard suspicious noises on his premises, stealthy movements
of marauder or house-breaker.
Springing from his bed, without stopping to put on shoe or
stocking, coat or breeches, he felt his way downstairs and out of
doors. At the sound of his approach the thief took to his
heels, Farmer S— giving chase.
Across farmyard and orchard, past pightle [p.27]
and field, over stile and five-barred gate skurried the pair,
pursuer barefoot and in his shirt—an ordinary cotton shirt, so folks
said—pursued having the advantage or perhaps disadvantage of full
equipment. But the farmer, a thin, ailsome, slip of a man had
made up his mind. The hen-stealer, horse-stealer, or burglar
should be lodged in Ipswich jail if his name was John S—.
Caught the runaway was, and I never beard that his captor was
worse for his wintry chase. The adventure became famous, a
favourite story in alehouse and chimney corner; alas, no one ever
put it into rhyme! John Gilpin's ride in itself was not more
suggestive than Farmer S—'s run. No one ever saw him
afterwards without conjuring up the scene—his thin legs bare to the
knee, his white cotton shirt fluttering ghost-like in the wintry
starlight, his frantic leaps over hedge and ditch, his tumbles and
Our wit has been already mentioned!; we had also a master of
drollery, considered as a fine art, from whose lips never under any
circumstances dropped what he considered to be a truism or
A sheep-shearer by trade, he travelled the country far and
wide, supplying every farm with comicalities till next season.
His person evoked a smile. Preposterously tall and
preposterously lean, he stalked about with an expression of face
impossible to describe. His features were so composed as to be
in themselves the best possible jest; folks laughed when he opened
his lips and giggled expectantly when he remained silent.
Sheep-shearing, presided over by old Tim, did duty for the year's
comic annual. His grandiloquence never for a moment quitted
him. Thus instead of saying "Bring me the small sheep as your
master bids," he would say, "Now for yonder hanimal that Mr. Edwards
tarm [terms] a littl'un." I have seen my father laugh at
sheep-shearing time till the tears ran down, but most likely old
Tim's jokes were not all suited to the family circle. Anyhow
his reputation must here be taken upon trust.
The women of our village offered infinite diversity of type.
First and foremost I must place our only old maid, named
Sarah M—. In this little Paradise there was a lover and more
to spare for every lass. The disastrous migration to towns of
a later generation had not as yet begun. Partly from this
reason, and partly, I presume, from the fact that spinsterhood and
an unassailable reputation were not common in rural districts, Sarah
M—enjoyed a respect bordering upon veneration. No vestal
virgin of Rome in its austerer days was hedged about with more
sanctity. Middle-aged widowers and bachelors sighed as they
watched the trim, spick-and-span figure, well assured that it would
never dignify their fireside. Gay Lotharios, Don Juans of the
plough, wondered what a woman could be made of to resist every
advance, humdrum or otherwise. No tragic story of lost or
faithless love had hardened Sarah's heart. She preferred
spinsterhood, that was all—the bare, cruel, perplexing truth.
Many and many a time have I seen her on the way to church,
prayer-book and spotless pocket-handkerchief in her neatly gloved
palm, little shawl nicely adjusted, the composed, slightly severe
features and direct glance seeming to challenge criticism. She
ever consorted with matrons and elderly folks, never with youths and
maidens, although at this time she could not have been much over
A washerwoman by trade, she used to take laundry-work from
the town, herself wheeling it in a barrow to and fro. Her
cottage and garden were ever models of neatness. Well I
remember the borders of Sweet William, Jack behind the Garden Gate,
and Welcome home Husband, however-so-drunk; the second flower here
named is the Polyanthus, the third, the common yellow Sedum.
Cottage folks never knew this last mentioned plant by any other
name, inappropriate enough in Sarah's virginal domain.
Manetta P—, known in local parlance as the terrifies, was the
direct opposite of her demure neighbour. Well indeed did Miss
Manetta deserve her nickname, for she had done her best to drive
folks stark staring mad. A girl's life in those days was
passing dull. Here marriage came in the way of all, but if
anything, it was duller than maidenhood. And although Manetta
was unbeautiful, not at all of the taking sort, she would be wooed
and won after most prosaic fashion. These drawbacks made the
poor thing bitter and mischievous, ready for little, malicious turns
or for anything in the way of sensation. To use a favourite
French expression, elle cherchait des emotions, she sought
after emotions, good, bad, or indifferent, change she must have at
any price. Thought-reading, theosophy, psychical research, had
not as yet disturbed weak brains, table-turning had not emerged from
the limbo to which it has since been consigned. But what
village ever wanted its ghost story? and many a blood-curdling,
hair-bristling one had our own. On a certain wintry twilight,
a carter—I knew him well—was returning from Ipswich when a woman,
with eyes gleaming like red hot coals and black hair streaming upon
milk-white raiment, seized his horse's head and forbade advance.
He dropped on his knees, mumbled some words out of Scripture, and
lo! when he looked up, the wraith was gone. Countless stories
of the kind passed muster. Signs and wonders were religiously
believed in. Fortune-tellers did a brisk trade. Even the
"wise man" was hardly a survival, I mean to that useful individual
who could elucidate every mystification, interpret dreams, discover
lost property, throw light upon coming battle, murder, and sudden
death. It entered Manetta's head one day that life would
become much more diverting and the object of her destiny be
immensely furthered, if she could succeed in scaring her neighbours
out of their wits. So, without taking counsel of anyone but
her own foolish self, she put on a sheet, floured her face, let down
her hair, and noiselessly stole from a back window.
Circumstances at first favoured this bold undertaking. Hiding
her disguises under her mother's dark market cloak, she could get
unperceived to high ground overlooking the village street, there
unrobe and flit hither and thither. In summer time folks did
not all go to bed with their hens. There would, anyhow, be
stragglers from the Swan, belated stockmen, or a gossip or two
abroad. To Manetta's intense gratification she was observed,
fled from, evidently believed in, as the saying goes, swallowed
whole. Radiantly she flitted behind a bush, popped on her
market cloak, and, almost creeping on all fours, made the best of
her way home.
Next day and the next, this terrible apparition appeared, but
it was not till several had elapsed that anyone opened his lips on
the subject. All were afraid to begin, to become the general
laughing stock. When once the matter was broached, excitement
became general, and the more people discussed their ghost the
readier were they to believe and to caress their belief. In
itself the thing was portentous, of a piece with judgments and
visitations, Sodom and Gomorrah, but, considered from a local
and individual point of view, inviting and desirable. A ghost
conferred so much distinction, created such widespread curiosity!
The notabilities of the county—who could say?—of the kingdom, would
be magnetised to our village. Its fortune was surely made as
that of Shottisham [p.31]
by its fasting girl.
There is ever one rationalist to a host of the credulous.
When several children had been nearly frightened into fits and only
the more valiant of their elders dared stir abroad at dusk, matters
were brought to a climax. Egged on by some bold spirit, a band
of youths set upon the hapless Manetta, her ghost-hood was
ignominiously unveiled, and with rough horseplay the sorry farce was
brought to an end.
Manetta had succeeded in obtaining notoriety, but of no
enviable kind. For months existence became unbearable.
But years wore on; she found a husband with the rest; very likely a
time came when she gloried in the frolic of her youth. Of a
very different type was Betty H—, our village Sappho, rather should
I say our feminine Heber, her gentle muse dealing not with lovers'
ecstasy or frenzied desire, but pious themes and religious
Betty H— to this hour, for she lives still, cannot write her
own name. In early days, however, she taught herself to read,
and in early days she composed verse. Needless to say that her
literature consisted of the Bible, Sunday hymnals, and a few
old-fashioned stories, such as "The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain,"
"The Dairyman's Daughter," "The Cottagers of Glenburnie," "Coelebs
in search of a Wife." But a ploughman's wife has little time
for reading and native faculty requires no spur. Over her
household work, her baking, brewing, and mending, Betty would put
rhyme to rhyme, verse to verse, thus beautifying homely toil.
If ever existence needed the embellishment of poetry it was her own.
Two dire problems must be resolved somehow, namely, the feeding of
six mouths (in village phrase, the filling of six bellies) and, next
in importance, the covering of so many nakednesses upon perhaps ten
shillings a week. Betty's culinary inventions were many and
ingenious. It is wonderful how she contrived that filling of
bellies. In harvest time, her board was more generously
spread. Plum-puddings then attracted the wasps in every
cottage, harvest cakes were eaten at bever, [p.32]
as the afternoon collation was called, a taste of beef was added to
the daily pork. Then in times of child-birth and sickness how
terrible were her deprivations! I have no hesitation in
affirming that the lot of an average workman's family nowadays is
positively luxurious, Sybaritism itself, compared to the Spartan
régime of former times. The little folks who flock to the
board schools, alike in town or country, have no idea how their
grandparents lived. Betty's experiences, written by herself,
might cure many a malcontent.
Many years ago her little pieces were published under the
title of "Verses by the Wife of a Suffolk Ploughman," the authoress,
I rejoice to say, profiting by the sale. But Fame, that last
infirmity of noble minds, offered guerdon sweeter still. Betty
enjoys a renown undiminished by time or change.
THE SONS OF THE SOIL
NOTIONS GEOGRAPHICAL AND COSMOGRAPHICAL—MORAL
STANDARDS —CHIVALROUS FEELING—A PLOUGHMAN'S CAREER—ONE-EYED
DICK—PHARISEES IN THE PULPIT—PHOTOGRAPHY—TURTLE AND HIS
GANG—SCHOOLS—STEWED PRUNES—PRISON FARE—THE "HOUSE."
HARDLY is there
greater divergence between metropolitan bustle and some Cranford of
to-day, than between our village at the present time and its former
self. Public life, intercourse with the outer world,
cosmopolitan sympathies, were non-existent. Perhaps a London
daily might reach Hall or Rectory. One or two local weeklies
did duty in farmhouse, mill, general shop, and smithy. Here
the news-vendor's business began and ended. Farmers for the
most part remained illiterate to a degree which now appears
incredible. In the matter of politics, farm-labourers were as
ignorant as French peasants before the Revolution. Jacques
Bonhomme, indeed, even under Louis XIV., the greatest and worst
despot who ever lived, enjoyed certain municipal privileges, took
part in what was a partially developed Parish Council. Hodge,
throughout the greater portion of the Victorian era, no more shared
political or civic existence than the black population of Virginia
before the War of Secession. To him an election meant only so
much boozing in an ale-house, so much throwing of rotten eggs and
dead kittens at the hustings, so much hip, hip, hooraying at the
bidding of his employer.
As to parochial business, the mere suggestion of voting on
rural affairs in company of parson and squire would have shocked his
moral sense, savoured of sacrilegiousness, of sin against the Holy
Ghost itself. Farmers could of course read, write, and keep
simple accounts; their labourers, as a rule, could do none of these
things. Otherwise the mental horizon of the two classes
differed surprisingly little.
At some distance from our village lay a hill, or what by
euphemism was so called, Suffolk being as flat as a barn-floor.
This almost imperceptible slope was known as "America Hill," why, I
cannot say. The village folks, alike wise and simple, firmly
believed that if you climbed "America Hill" and walked on and on and
on, you would wake up in Columbus' Continent.
Here is a well-to-do farmer's notion of cosmography, heard by
myself at home. After those wonderful farmhouse teas, to be
described later on, host and guest would smoke a pipe over what our
French neighbours call "un grog." And conversation would
occasionally diverge from fat stock and corn prices to topics more
remote and elevating.
"There is one thing I should much like to know," said a
visitor. "If, as wise folks say, the world is round as an
apple dumpling, how on earth is the water kept in its place?"
"Why," was the prompt reply, "it must, of course, be boarded
The listeners made no observation. Poor as the solution
seemed, it was evidently thought better than none at all.
Whether morals and manners were better or worse for such
artlessness, who shall decide? Certainly folks neither spoke,
acted, nor thought as they do now. Standards of conduct
differed from those now in general acceptance. For instance,
walking one day to Ipswich, we met a labourer's wife and her two
daughters, girls of twelve and fourteen.
"So, Mrs. P—," said my eldest sister, "you have been
"No, miss," replied the good woman with an unmistakable air
of self-approval, "but I am anxious to do my girls all the good I
can, so I have just taken them to see a man hanged."
I was about twelve years old when I heard this and another
little dialogue one summer twilight in the village lane; the meaning
of the latter did not dawn upon my mind till many years after.
"Come, Ann," cried a village swain to a tall, red-haired girl
standing on the doorstep, "are you ready for a walk?"
"Oh! no, Tat," rejoined the maiden without the slightest
hesitation; "it is not dark enough yet."
Moral standards were certainly not high, nevertheless these
uncouth ploughmen often testified a chivalrous sentiment, perhaps
less common in other ranks. More frequently than otherwise,
the girl who had been betrayed was "made an honest woman of"—that is
to say, taken to church by her lover. One benevolent clergyman
of the neighbourhood did his best to stop irregularities by marrying
his parishioners for nothing; many unions were thus legalised.
Those poor faithful lovers of the plough! Where did
they learn chivalrous sentiment? How indeed could a spark of
romance take fire in such breasts, a single ray of joyousness warm
such hearts? Alike mentally, morally, spiritually, each son of
the soil could say with Topsy, "I grooved." Set to
rook-scaring and stone-picking at an age when children of a better
class are coddled in the nursery, breeched without the civilising
influences of ABC, Jack and the Bean Stalk, and Cock Robin; as a
hobbledehoy boarded and lodged by some farmer, his daily routine
hardly above the level of creatures more long-suffering still, of
"sheep and goats,
That nourish a blind life within the brain,"
as a man, his loftiest ambition soaring no higher than the prize of
a tin kettle at a ploughing match—who but feels a tinge of shame as
he contemplates the picture?
In Mr. Stead's amusing account of his imprisonment he tells
us how strongly he felt tempted to throw his prayer-book at the
chaplain's head, the cause of provocation I forget. I well
remember feeling temptation of the kind stronger still some years
ago. The occasion was the march of a Labourers' Union to
church in Sussex. Some fifty or more ploughmen had tramped
thither from the neighbouring parishes, and it seemed natural to
expect an appropriate allusion in the sermon, some word of sympathy
and encouragement, at least a friendly God-speed. The preacher
was no poverty-stricken parson, whose wife found it difficult to
cover her children's nakedness; he was rich, kept plenty of
servants, had doubtless risen from a roast beef lunch and would go
home to an orthodox dinner of soup, fish, and joint, with port at
dessert. This is what he said after a long rigmarole setting
forth the claims of his brethren to gratitude.
"Do not be misled by flatterers and false teachers who would
raise your expectations to equality and an equal share of earthly
blessings. Remember what the Scripture says: 'Blessed are the
poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.' If your
portion is hard here below, comfort yourselves with the thought that
in your Father's House are many mansions," etc., etc.
With what relish could I have hurled, not a prayer-book, but
a text at that man's head!—"Thou hypocrite"; but I leave the rest to
the reader's memory or imagination. Disappointedly the
delegates went home to their tea and bread and butter, whilst with
unctuous self-complacence the rector without doubt carved his fat
capon and sipped his old port, caressing himself with the conviction
that for a time at least he had stemmed unlawful ambitions and
curbed unholy aspirations. [p.36]
It is my misfortune, not my fault, if early experiences of
what the late Lord Houghton wittily described as "that branch of the
Civil Service usually called the Church of England" have been
deplorable. But even twenty years ago a farm labourer's life
differed immensely from that I am describing. In our village
there was neither reading-room, cricket club, annual flower-show,
brass band, nor any other organisation, social, literary, or
political. There were neither pictures on the cottage walls
nor books on the cottage table. And here I would note the
incalculable, the beneficent influence of photography. Only
those familiar with rural life of an ante-photographic period can
measure the revolution here affected. Schopenhauer truly
remarks that prolonged separation must in time render friends
visionary to each other.
The cheap photograph has done more than brighten the life and
strengthen family ties of the poor; it has served to awaken an
artistic feeling, a craving for house decoration, beauty, or at
least adornment, in the home.
"Ah, miss," said our old charwoman to an artistic young lady
trying her hand at portraits, "if only you could draw my Carrie!
What a comfort for me to behold her features long after she is dead
It apparently never occurred to Mrs. W— that in all
probability she would be dead and gone before her Carrie, but my
Suffolk friends had an odd way of expressing themselves.
We hear a good deal of Darkest England, period, distress,
agricultural depression, and so on. There is no doubt that a
cheap tripper at Hastings, whether artizan or rustic, spends more on
a single day's outing in 1897 than his forerunner, maybe his
forerunner's family, of fifty years ago, on recreation from the
cradle to the grave; equally certain it is that cottage boards of
the present time are regally furnished forth by comparison with
those spread when Queen Victoria was a bride.
Two stories will illustrate the latter assertion.
"Don't I like passing Mr. G—'s [Mr. G—was a farmer] on
Christmas Day!" said a lad to his mother. "Such a smell of
roast beef! you can smell it ever so far." Roast beef in those
days could only be enjoyed thus vicariously.
Here is another anecdote equally suggestive. In every
farm-house was kept a "baccus" boy, i.e., a boy employed in the
back-house, that back kitchen containing the enormous large oven
heated by faggots once a week, the kitchen proper being reserved for
servant's meals and the mistress's domestic operations.
The "baccus" boy I remember was a waif and a stray known as
One-eyed Dick. His employer's wife learned one day that Dick,
before washing up her dessert plate containing gooseberry husks, was
accustomed with epicurean lick to swallow the whole. From that
time Dick had his daily cabbage leaf of ripe gooseberries, and was
strictly thus forbidden to rob the pigs.
Poor Dick! He afterwards took to himself a surname and
a wife, and his eldest daughter married a "gentleman"—i.e., a person
whose avocations demanded broadcloth instead of corduroy, the
These "baccus" boys, although ignorant of what I once heard
called "the rudiments of reading," often possessed good parts.
One day a lady farmer took up a knife and showed her little
scullion how to clean knives quickly and well.
"Ah, but, ma'am," retorted the youngster, "don't you know,
they're your own?"
Here was a young mind proof against the most enticing
theories William Morris and dreamers of his school could propound.
All very well for Béranger to sing, "Voir, c'est avoir!"
This lad knew the human heart better than all the Fouriérists going.
His retort was almost worthy of that little scullion immortalised by
One day Louis XI., whose man-cages and other devilish devices
are forgotten when we read such tales as this, went incognito into
"How much do you earn a day?" he asked of a little
"gate-sauce" [p.39] turning
"As much as the king," retorted the smart lad. "By the
grace of God I earn a living, and the king can do no more."
The youthful epigrammatist, we learn, was showered with royal
favours. A "baccus" boy would perhaps pronounce himself happy
as a king. The rinsing of dried currants on baking days is a
fascinating job when we have a handful given us by way of averting
temptation. No less seductive is the carrying of harvest
cakes, apple turnovers, and Whitsuntide custards from baking-board
to oven when we get hot buns and sugary odds and ends.
Ham-pickling also is an enjoyable business for humble
helpers. Now pounding sugar and spice in a mortar, now
watching the spiced beer as it seethes on the hob, what an
improvement are such tasks upon that of scaring crows or picking
stones in a gang!
"Turtle's gang of stone-pickers" was a local institution,
part of a system then in full working order throughout the country,
and hardly less degrading than that of slavery itself. Turtle
did not wield the lash, it is true, nor, as Legree, had he a troop
of bloodhounds in his service; the shrill-voiced, evil-tongued,
hard-visaged little man nevertheless made himself a terror to his
bondservants. No other word can express the relation between
gangmaster and gang.
Many a time have I watched that train from nursery or
schoolroom window; little children, girls and youths, the mentally
and bodily infirm, the decent and the disreputable—all these would
be herded together throughout the stone-picking season, their labour
paid by the piece, Turtle, the middle-man, exacting his pound of
flesh, making what he could out of his contracts.
The moral atmosphere into which children were thus thrown may
easily be guessed. Not for the more thriving and uplooking was
such an employment. The chaste Sarahs, the poetic Bettys, the
frolicsome Manettas, would have nothing to do with Turtle or his
gang. But for the rest the temptation of a weekly shilling or
two over-ruled all scruples. And here as elsewhere scolds and
shrews, and perhaps worse feminine types still, were to be had for
the asking. Stone picking no more than turnip hoeing or barley
sowing can wait. Thus the ranks of the gang were filled by
volunteers from town and neighbouring villages, no matter their
character or career. [p.40-1]
It will be asked, what about schools? Were children no
more sent to school at this period, than peasant boys and girls in
France before '89? Well, yes, we had in my childhood one
Dame's school, and a most benignant old lady kept it. Whether
she could carry her scholars beyond the "rudiments of reading" [p.40-2]
is doubtful. She taught little boys to say hymns and "make
their bow," little girls their sampler and curtsey, which was
something. Then there was the "Church School," a small room
built on to the church, as much a part of it as pulpit and communion
table, as completely under rectorial control as the churchyard
outside. The teacher's salary, arising from what source I
cannot say, was exactly fifteen pounds per annum. Two
schoolmistresses I remember well, both respectable young women, who
could just read, write, and do easy sums. In these days they
would pass no standard whatever. Boys and girls enjoyed such
opportunities of improvement together; but as stone-picking and
other labours of the field interfered with scholastic routine, Miss
Martha's task was not very onerous. Miss, did I say? Let
me hastily recall the unpardonable slip. There were no Misses
in those days, except at rectory, hall, farm-house, and shop.
Had even the blacksmith's daughter arrogated to herself such an
assumption of gentility she would have become general laughing
stock. Master was the designation of elderly labouring folk,
their sons were young So-and-So, their daughters, the girls Smith or
But to return to Martha L—, our schoolmistress. A
well-to-do farmer's son fell in love with her. Of course such
a mésalliance was out of the question, not so romance. Every
morning fresh flowers were surreptitiously placed in the schoolroom
window, till at last folks gossiped. With tears in her eyes
Martha L— complained to the rector that the neighbours sought to
"impinge her modesty." Where she got that Newtonian predicate
Heaven only knows. Had it come in a dream, when "deep sleep
falleth upon man"? Be this as it may, the floral offerings
were stopped, her modesty was not seriously impinged. In due
time she became a matron with the rest.
Recreations were of a piece with moral, intellectual, and
social conditions. A fair, a ploughing match, a travelling
circus, such were the staple recreations. Whitsun Fair was a
day of exotic dainties.
Regularly as the day came round the sisters F—, in new print
dresses, set up their booth before the Wool Pack—our village
possessed two ale-houses; here, for degustation of carters, drovers,
and holiday-makers in general, stood saucers innumerable, each
containing a ha'porth of stewed prunes, and in this dainty a brisk
trade was done from early morning till dusk.
Why one especial regale should be chosen, and no other
candies or syrups, I cannot say. Year after year, with
clock-work precision, appeared the new cotton dresses, the booth,
and the array of saucers in front of the Wool Pack.
Afflicting as is this picture of rural life from one point of
view, from another, it awakens quite opposite reflexion. There
was no juvenile smoking, no poring over Penny Dreadfuls, no betting
in our village at this time.
The only criminal affair disgracing its annals throughout a
period of thirty years, was a drunken affray, one young ploughman
being sent to jail for three months. Poor fellow! Ill as
he fared at home, he fared much worse in prison. When he came
out he was mere skin and bone.
"I hardly liked to begin my bread and spoon victuals," he
said, "for I always left off almost as hungry as when I began."
Joyfully he returned to his "flick" (i.e., fat salt pork), his
dumplings (i.e., balls of flour and water), and "flet" cheese (i.e.,
cheese made of milk that has been skimmed or flet, [p.42]
a compound hard as nougat). In colloquial speech a hatchet was
needed for the attack.
And the last days of the farm labourer in the natural order
of things meant "the House," with what comfort and mental stay a
prospect of heavenly mansions could afford. The House, as the
workhouse was always called, rewarded three score years of Spartan
fare, life-long labour unrelieved by a single holiday, a harmless,
ofttimes respectable existence, domestic duties admirably performed.
Truly a retrospect even for outsiders to blush at!
LADY FARMERS AND OTHERS
LADY FARMERS—GIGS, TOLL—BARS, AND MATRIMONY—PIGS AND
PIANOS—BALLS—THE COST OF PULLING A NEIGHBOUR'S NOSE—CONTRASTS—A LOOK
HOW it may be now
I cannot say, but at the time I write of, lady farmers were found in
our village and in most others—widows, sisters, and daughters of
deceased tenants to whom their lease had been renewed. Such
renewal was secured by a clause, and an excellent provision it
proved to capable women. Some landowners held back, preferring
to have their property represented in Parliament, and this has ever
seemed to me a capital argument on behalf of female suffrage.
Tenant farming no longer offers the same guarantee, the lease of a
good farm is no longer in itself a little fortune; yet we may ere
long see an improved condition of things. Fruit culture,
poultry rearing, dairying, may profitably replace the old-fashioned
crops and methods. Women are sure to take advantage of the
reaction. Why they should manfully keep the world a-going,
support Her Majesty's soldiers and sailors, contribute to Colonial
expansion, yet, like occupants of the Oriental harem, be subject to
masculine law-making, has ever seemed to me directly opposed to
common sense and the most elementary notions of justice.
Women's rights had not as yet become a rallying cry. At the
time I write of it was a common thing to see Mary Smith or Ann
Brown, Farmer, on tumbril and waggon. My own name, as will be
seen further on, has thus figured. But although we could all
hold our own in practical matters and farm as high [p.44-1]
as our neighbours of the other sex, political equality was almost
undreamed of, mooted only by the few. Here I would mention the
fact that women farmers never went to market. [p.44-2]
Their samples of wheat and barley in neatly sewed brown paper bags
were exhibited either by male relative, friend, or bailiff, nor did
they ever attend cattle fairs, stock sales, or rent dinners.
Here etiquette was rigid. But they got in their wheat early,
kept their land clean, and sent prime sheep and bullocks to the
In the house their management was equally beyond criticism.
Thrift, method, above all, cleanliness reached the high water-mark.
Sometimes the latter proved a thorn in the flesh; emulation became
Nothing like a Suffolk girl for this excellent quality.
In later years I took Sarah C—, my invaluable Suffolker, to
London and showed her Westminster Abbey. As she stood before
the smoke-begrimed, time-honoured pile, she heaved a deep sigh, "How
I should like to set to work on those black walls with soap and
scrubbing-brush!" she exclaimed, adding regretfully, "but it would
take too long to get off all that dirt." In Sarah's eyes
London smuts seemed a pouring out of the Seven Vials, a judgment of
Sodom and Gomorrah.
Alike for men and women with capital, farming was a fine
business fifty years ago. To procure the lease of a good farm
was as difficult as to get into Parliament, so folks said, and they
were not far out. One riddle of local wit ran thus: Why was
Mr. W— [an octogenarian] like the Duke of York? Because he
kept a Groom-in-Waiting; the said Mr. Groom having the promise of
Mr. W—'s farm on the old gentleman's demise. Bankruptcies
among farmers, large or small, men or women, were all but unknown. [p.45]
Rents could not be called moderate. The corn rent, or rent
rising and falling with prices, nullified the effect of
extraordinary years; gentility, with its attendant outlay, was
gradually invading the farm-house. Through seasons good, bad,
and indifferent, the agricultural industry remained solvent.
Nor can mercenariness be held responsible for such prosperity or at
least solid circumstance.
The East Anglian farmer never or very rarely indeed thought
of a dowry first and a wife afterwards. To marry for money was
looked upon as mean and low, a derogation of manhood. Such an
offence against accepted standards was never forgotten. Any
man who married for money straightway lost caste and consideration.
There was once a case in which such a sacrifice seemed of
pressing necessity. Mr. H— E—, younger son, then middle-aged,
of a numerous family of farmers, had been unlucky, a few thousand
pounds would set him on his feet and enable him to hire a more
promising "occupation," thus was a farm usually called. Half a
dozen miles off lived the Misses S—, spinsters of known fortune and
of reputed shrewishness. Egged on to the enterprise by his
brothers and sisters, literally worried into the business of wooer,
the recalcitrant one day had his gig cleaned, his harness polished,
and dressing himself in his Sunday's best, drove off to propose for
the better favoured heiress's hand.
Two hours later he was seen dashing homewards in a state of
frantic jubilation. As all the members of his family rushed
out to meet him, they felt that they could not misread the tell-tale
"Thank God," cried one and all, "it is settled!" The
bridegroom to be, so they regarded him, threw the reins over his
horse's head, led animal and gig to the stable, then returned, not
as yet having opened his lips.
Once inside the house he burst out with unfeigned relief.
"She has refused me!"
In after years he revelled in telling the story, no
discreditable one either to wooer or wooed. The one had made
no pretence whatever at sentiment, the other had honestly taken his
compliment for what it was worth.
As has been already mentioned, gentility was gradually
invading the farm-house. For the most part farmers regarded
wedlock as a step forward, but in the direction of social not
material advancement. The gently bred daughter of a poor
clergyman, a governess with superior ways, possessed far more
attractions than money.
Many marriages were brought about after highly romantic
fashion. I am here writing of an epoch when gigs and toll
gates were the order of the day, and these formed important
On market days everyone who could do so of course went to
town, i.e., to their special market. In the genteeler sort of
farm-house a governess would be kept, but as a gig only holds two
persons, or at most two and a child between their knees, the young
lady presiding over the schoolroom must either walk, get a lift, or
stay at home.
A happy solution was offered by the toll-bar. Miss
So-and-So had merely to reach the nearest toll-bar and there await a
spare seat in some neighbour's gig, the spare seat naturally
belonged to bachelor or widower, and thus it came about that the
drive to market as often as not resulted in a drive to church.
The modestly endowed young persons to whom I am indebted for
instruction in "the rudiments of reading" all in turn became
farmers' wives. Their acquirements were of the slenderest, but
they could play the piano, with more or less propriety speak the
Queen's English, and in fine brought an atmosphere, rarefied and
thin it might be, of "Shakespeare and the musical glasses."
Culture, or what passes muster as such, was as yet the merest
infiltration, only here and there modifying social strata. The
largest tenant farmer in our village openly avowed that he would
rather hear the squeaking of pigs than the pianoforte! As,
however, public opinion was leaning towards pianos rather than pigs'
squeaking, he bought an instrument and allowed his little girls to
It must not be supposed that there was any dearth of social
intercourse. Farming folk were devotees of what one rustic
pedant of my acquaintance called "the Terpsichorean Muse."
In the winter everyone gave a dance, the guests driving
perhaps fifteen miles through the snow, their gala attire packed in
the gig-box, themselves well protected by enormous gig umbrellas.
Sometimes the roads were blocked and no one arrived but the
blind fiddler; he, prudent soul, well assured of a welcome, would
generally appear the day before. A fiddle could do without a
dance, but what in Heaven's name could dancers do without a fiddle?
When no mishap of this kind occurred, right merrily he set a-going
country dance and Sir Roger de Coverley. From seven in the
evening till cock-crowing, alike young and old footed it merrily, a
wonderful supper, crowned by the inimitable and invariable tipsy
cake, invigorating dancers and musician. That spirited old
fiddler! I feel inclined to dance as I recall him now.
Very rarely whiffs of "Shakespeare and the musical glasses"
varied the festive atmosphere. When this phenomenon did happen
the effect was not always agreeable.
"Is it the custom in Suffolk for gentlemen to stand by their
partners without speaking?" asked a pert young lady from London of
her cavalier in the quadrille. The unfortunate young man
coloured, stammered a word or two about the weather, and, it need
hardly be said, refrained from asking her hand for another dance.
This happened in my own home. "Unpleasant little contingencies
and delinquencies," as a grandiloquent neighbour used to say, are
unavoidable in the very best society,"
All the year round social intercourse was strictly regulated
by the lunar calendar. "The moon after next you may expect
me," an habitual guest was wont to tell us. In Gibbon's
Autobiography he alludes to the same custom: "Dinners and visits (of
neighbours) required in due season a similar return, and I dreaded
the period of the full moon, which was usually reserved for our more
Gigs would be got ready soon after the early dinner, arrival
being timed for three or four o'clock; the gentlemen would take a
farming survey, the ladies chat over needlework, at five o'clock
tea, if tea it could be called, awaiting hosts and guests. The
first course of this elaborate regale consisted of home-cured ham,
that incomparable Suffolk ham pickled in spice and harvest beer;
harvest beer, itself clear as sherry and twice as strong, was drunk
with this dish; next came the strongest of tea and the richest of
cream with rusks, also a Suffolk speciality, and cakes equally
unrivalled. The tea things removed, hot water and spirit
decanter would be brought out, pipes smoked, thereby apparently
digestion being restored. Seldom did anyone seem the worse for
such prolonged eating and drinking.
The moon regulated social intercourse and farming operations
superseded the nomenclature of the calendar. Thus no one ever
talked of spring and summer, autumn and winter, but of harrowing and
haysel, [p.48] harvest and
wheat-sowing. Fair days stood in place of Easter and
Michaelmas, "the rent-feast," or audit dinner, marked Midsummer or
Urbanity and kindliness characterised these jolly farmers.
Good faith marked their dealings with one another, a charitable
spirit their behaviour as employers. During the long wet
winter, when very few hands were really needed, old men and
"three-quarter men," i.e., the feeble or undersized, were kept on
out of pure benevolence. Some kind of work was found for them
at reduced wages.
Personal animosities were very rare. It was chiefly at
electioneering times that "unpleasant little contingencies and
delinquencies" would mar the general harmony.
Upon one of these occasions two gentlemen farmers had a
fierce fight on horseback. Upon another a highly esteemed
paterfamilias pulled another's nose. The irate victim of
political rancour went to law, with the result that damages were
assessed at five pounds. His antagonist thereupon sat down and
coolly made out his cheque as follows: "To Messrs So-and-So,
attorneys, for wringing their client's (Mr. William Smith) nose."
Humour varied the dull routine, life was sometimes viewed
with Rabelaisian eyes. If the squeaking of pigs might
occasionally be preferred to pianos, on the subject of a good joke
opinion remained unanimous.
When in Germany, years after these early experiences, an old
German schoolmistress thus expressed herself to me: "Ah! those
English farmers, Fräulein, with their red faces, great-coats, and
smart gigs! Nothing I saw in England pleased me half so much
as the sight of those fine farmers driving to market."
Fräulein Fink was right; there existed indeed matter for
enthusiasm here. And who shall say? The wave of ruin
that has of late years spread over agricultural England may
disappear, the good old times may be repeated. America,
Argentina, Russia, must in the far future have vaster markets than
Europe to supply with corn. English farmers in all probability
will never again eat bank-notes between their bread and butter as
their forefathers are said to have done a hundred years ago.
Perhaps the lease of a good farm will never again be as hard to gain
as a seat in Parliament. It seems impossible to believe that
the present state of things can last, agricultural bankruptcies of
daily occurrence, thousands of acres to be had without rent for the
asking, able-bodied men becoming survivals in rural districts, the
great corn country of Eastern England a waste!
THE WORLD OF BOOKS
THE TRIUNE SPLENDOUR—WILL WIMBLE—NURSERY SAINTS—THE
DEVIL'S STORY-BOOK—MRS. FORSDYKE AND HER DONKEY-CART
TO have entered
life, in the words of Charles Lamb, "an encyclopædia behind the
time" is perhaps no unmixed evil. "So farewell, Horace, whom I hated
so!" would never have been uttered by a self-taught student. "Hamlet" were surely not "Hamlet" to him whose acquaintance with
Shakespeare should begin by working up the greatest play in the
world for a Junior or Senior Local! Without doubt the acquisition of
a school or college certificate nowadays represents something more
solid than literary rapture, or an epicurean appreciation of "the
dainties that are bred in a book." To the youth or maiden whom our
French neighbours would describe as a struggle-for-lifer, such
guarantees of successful cram have become indispensable, represent
indeed, so much money invested at the best possible interest. The
self-educated, moreover, may sigh in after years for some of the
crumbs that now fall, not from the rich but the poor man's table. We
who started in life's race modestly equipped with "the rudiments of
reading," would fain have acquired one or two other things, to-day
the accomplishment of workhouse foundling and street urchin as yet unbreeched. I suppose everyone of us goes down to the grave with
some rankling regret, some unsatisfied wish. Mine will be a
hankering after the Rule of Three. Had I but learned the Rule of
Three, I should style myself, that rare exception, an individual
picking no quarrel with his horoscope.
But there were compensations. The fine old manor-house in which
these early years rolled by contained a small but priceless library. My first educators—could any of mortal born choose better?—were the
Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton. Next after this triune splendour,
this matchless trinity, came Walter Scott, the Spectator and
"Don Quixote" (Smollett's translation), the "Arabian Nights," "The
Vicar of Wakefield," "Robinson Crusoe," "Gulliver's Travels" and
Boswell's "Johnson." Looking back I can hardly remember the time
when these books were not familiar acquaintances. Before I was
twelve years old I had read them all and again and again. Let me
here protest against the assumption that the childish mind can be
tainted by intimacy with the sublime masterpieces and delightful
chefs d'œuvre here named. The born booklover seeks delight in
imaginative literature, food for the fancy, intellectual beauty on
which to dwell in solitude. Not in a single instance did any of
these readings awaken a morbid curiosity or impure thought.
First let me speak of the Bible, a venerable folio with curious old
prints and containing the Apocrypha. Here, naturally, the poetic
aspect appealed, the pastoral, the allegorical, the superhumanly
grand. Being of a very practical turn, theology in itself, dogma,
and revelation so-called, have never occupied my mind, spiritual
problems have always been relegated to a secondary place. The Bible
was to the child as it has remained to the mature thinker, a great
poem, a second world in marvel and beauty hardly behind the visible
globe we inhabit.
The family Shakespeare (I have it still) is a Johnson and Malone
edition in fifteen octavo volumes, published by Longman and others,
1793. On winter evenings when the family party were assembled in the
keeping-room, [p.51] one little girl would become absorbed over a big
volume in grey paper cover. She knew no Christmas trees, cards, or
gift-crammed stockings; juvenile balls, pantomimes, and other
excitements with which boys and girls of the present day are
surfeited, did not come in her way. But rapture of quite another and
more durable kind made ample amends. Not for the most dazzling
memories would I exchange my first recollection of "Winter's Tale,"
read to myself in the family circle, too absorbed to heed the chat
of the rest, or snuff the candle at my elbow.
Moments as exquisite and unforgettable were afforded by Cervantes
and Scott. The breathing into life of Hermione's statue, Dorothea at
the brook, Norna of the Fitful Head uttering her wild prophecies, by
such waving of magic wand was I ushered into the pleasure-house of
Milton may seem an odd idol of childhood, but perhaps on the
principle of the "baccus" boy mentioned earlier I adored "Paradise
Lost" because it was my own. Some grown-up cousin had purchased the
book for me, most likely attracted by its gay binding, gilt edges,
and pretty engravings. This edition of Milton's poetical works,
published by Milner & Sowerby, Halifax, at three shillings and
sixpence, contained Addison's famous critique and Channing's memoir,
also some very creditable steel plates. Pored over morning, noon,
and night, the volume proved in itself a liberal education, alike
moral, spiritual, and intellectual. Not for its weight in gold would
I part with the somewhat tawdry looking little book in the crimson
and gilt cover, now lost amid the more imposing array of my library
As beloved, but in quite a different way, are twelve small octavo
volumes, the Spectator and Tatler, in their original bindings, blue
figured paper, olive-green leather backs and corner pieces, "printed
in 1793 for J. Parsons, No. 21 Paternoster Row." How the young
reader wished that every day could still welcome its Spectator with
poetic motto or Tatler dated from White's Chocolate House, or "My
own Apartment"! The wit and learning, variety of subject, genial
temper and incomparable knowledge of men and manners, made these
readings also an education, but unlike the afore-mentioned.
Whilst Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Scott unveiled the realm of
Fancy, whilst Milton lifted into the lofty region of the epic,
Addison and his goodly brotherhood initiated into the more prosaic
but hardly less fascinating precincts of literature in its wider
sense, the universal world of letters.
Stinking weeds will find their way into every garden, and in this
collection of masterpieces were one or two very bad books. The first
of these ought certainly to have been burnt by the common hangman.
Some misguided relation had sent us for nursery reading, a little
book by a certain Rev. Baptist Noel, called "Infant Piety." A more
deliberate effort to render religious melancholia a juvenile malady,
inevitable as measles or whooping cough, failing that, to turn tiny
boys and girls into pietistic prigs of the most intolerable type,
was never made. All these babies had but one concern, namely, for
their souls, but one desire, "to go to Heaven." At two years old
they would discourse glibly as a full-blown Salvationist on original
sin, faith, good works, and regeneration. One and all died before
they were fairly emancipated from crib and go-cart, and one and all
made edifying end after the manner of Mr. Peace.
I ask, what useful end could be served by writing such stuff as
this? Have the majority of children, alas! come into the world
invulnerably fortified against morbid introspection and religious
mania by virtue of inheritance and natural temperament? Fortunately
in the present case the bad seed had fallen upon stony places. Those
odious little Davids and Abners—thus were they called—with their
egregiously unctuous sayings and doings, were quizzed, smiled at,
and speedily laid aside. Of a very different kind was the other work
alluded to, and of which I have forgotten alike name and authorship. An appropriate title for this most immoral [p.54-1] yet vastly
entertaining book would be not the sorrows but "The Joys of Satan." In a series of brief parables or apologues were set forth the easy
triumphs of his satanic majesty, here no awful personage recalling
the classic Pluto or the Miltonic Lucifer, rather a
pseudo-Mephistopheles, caricature of the devil who so divertingly
flirts with Frau Marthe in "Faust."
This out and out scoundrel—so human is he made to appear that the
appellation fits—goes about his business in the most matter-of-fact-way, tackling by turns sluggard, tippler, gamester, in fact
everyone who from his especial point of view seemed a promising
subject. Just as in "Infant Piety" the Unseen Power was treated
with smug familiarity, much as if folks were talking of some
favourite in black cloth and white choker and his "sweet truth
preached last Sunday," [p.54-2] so here every vestige of the
supernatural was stripped from the incarnation of evil. Satan was
simply an insinuating villain bent upon helping his fellows with all
possible speed to prison, the gallows, and perpetual burning.
The book was nicely bound in dark fancy leather with gilt edges, and
contained numerous steel engravings. One of these I remember well,
although the work belongs to early childhood and was never seen
later—it suddenly disappeared, perhaps being hidden away of set
purpose, perhaps being borrowed and intentionally forgotten. The
vignette alluded to represented sin in the shape of the Upas tree,
under its shade lying the prostrate figure of some victim. It was an
endearing cut and gazed at often and fondly.
Mudie's and Free Libraries were not as yet thought of, but the
capital of East Anglia was ever to the fore in matters intellectual.
Ipswich already possessed its Mechanics' Institution, the
subscription to the same being half a guinea a year. For this modest
sum subscribers could read newspapers and periodicals, and borrow
The librarian, who possessed the noble name of Franklin, was a very
shabby, dingy, semi-blind, semi-deaf old man, not always
accommodating to omnivorous readers. Upon one occasion, a Saturday,
a young man, a shop-assistant, addicted to light literature, could
find nothing to his mind. "I must take home a book of some sort or
another," he said desperately; "to-morrow is Sunday."
"Read your Bible!" growled the librarian in his surliest manner, and
the devotee of poetry and romance was sent empty away. To "old
Franklin," as he was always called, seldom fell the uncongenial task
of offering stones for bread or thistles for figs. The Mechanics'
Institution of my native town, [p.55-1] one of the first established
in the United Kingdom, was a golden treasury of wit and learning. The threadbare figure of its one-eyed custodian always reminded me
of some wizard of fairy tale, uncouth porter of enchanted palace.
Books, donkey-carts, and frail [p.55-2] baskets do not at first
sight seem associable, but true it is that to this day the sight of
a market woman in a country road transports me to bookland. On
Saturdays the Ipswich butter-market was held, and a certain
rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed old dame, with silvery hair, having sold her
eggs and butter, would bring home our books and parcels. With what
ecstasy I caught sight of the donkey-cart halting by our garden
gate! With what eagerly trembling hands the frail was
unloaded!—groceries, draperies, perhaps a leg of mutton, placed in
layers; at the bottom lying half a dozen books, one and all in that
delightfully be-thumbed condition so dear to Charles Lamb.
Good Mrs. Forsdyke of the rosy cheeks and blue eyes! Little didst
thou dream of the benignant part played by thee in another's life,
that life as remote from thine as if one of us had lived under the
Pharaohs! The honest soul, I daresay, could neither read nor write;
old Franklin's precious burdens represented to her a few pence paid
for porterage, that was all. But to me they were richest store.
With the parcels of tallow-candles, spices for ham-pickling, canvas
for cream sieves, and the rest, came some of the best books and some
of the best of their kind ever written. Among these were Lockhart's
"Life of Scott," Bruce's "Hue's Travels," Warburton's "Crescent and
the Cross," and Melville's delicious romances, "Typee" and "Omoo";
in quite a different vein, Miss Martineau's stories of "Political
Economy," Hallam's great works, and G. H. Lewes's "History of
Philosophy," then appearing in a more popular form than in later
Years and years after, when spending a week with Lewes and George
Eliot in the Isle of Wight, I mentioned the well-thumbed little
volumes and the butter-woman's cart. He listened delightedly, as
well he might. Not to many authors comes the satisfaction of what
may almost be called posthumous fame!
But I must tear myself from a subject on which I could write
volumes. The books of our youth, the friends who neither forsake us
nor drop away on our onward progress through life, the silent yet
ever present witnesses of man's better, undying part, how can we
cherish these too dearly, too often renew the immortelle, offering
of affection—the poet's tribute of a bay wreath?
THE SOCIAL MEDIUM
THE GRANDE CHARTREUSE—LOT'S WIFE—A PRODIGAL SON—A
CATASTROPHE AND A COINCIDENCE—THE REV. J. C. RYLE AND HIS WAYSIDE
BLESSINGS—"YOU'VE GOT THE WRONG COLOURS, MY DEARS. GO AND CHANGE
schooling may sometimes answer the purpose of twelve years, that is
to say, stimulate the pupil's peculiar aptitude and thus aid a
natural leaning to fittest career. If I here dwell on matters purely
personal, it is because the subject of education, considered in its
widest sense, possesses universal interest. My own opinion is that
children of all classes nowadays run the risk of being
over-educated. Those of quick brains educate themselves much more
than we suppose; the slow and the sure should be developed
practically rather than mentally, their faculties being turned to
matters well within their reach.
Nothing is more inexplicable than parental blindness here. The
brilliant one of the family, the intellectual gymnast, is often
never heard of after school and college triumphs. The quiet plodder,
set down as a dunce, will often become the mainstay of broken
fortunes, perhaps shine as an inventor, suddenly become famous for
heroism or genius!
By some happy chance the little day school to which I went when ten
years old was directed by a devotee of grammar in general and of
French grammar in particular. Like another schoolmistress of my
acquaintance, her belief was grammar, her tenets of faith were the
subject and the predicate, the major sentence and the minor
sentence. Daily she woke up to do battle for the predicate, daily
she girded her loins on behalf of the major sentence. From the
dogged purpose she put into these lessons, it might have been
supposed that the fate of the British Empire depended upon the
syntax of half a dozen little Ipswich girls. As my lucky stars would
have it, this admirable woman was a thorough mistress of French. She
had spent some years at Grenoble. An excursion to the Grande
Chartreuse, no everyday adventure at that time, had apparently been
the great event of her life. She was never tired of describing it,
now throwing her experiences into the form of a little lecture, now
dictating an account, now setting us the task of a narrative. The
Grande Chartreuse gradually became a dream of marvel and beauty that
must be realised somehow and at some time or other. By an irony of
fate, when years and years after, when having travelled,
re-travelled and re-travelled again France from end to end, I found
myself at Grenoble, enthusiasm about the Grande Chartreuse was cold. Mountain roads and awful passes make me giddy. Of monks and
monasteries I had already seen enough and to spare. So I left my
fellow-traveller to visit the long-dreamed-of site, myself spending
the day with farmers close by.
To this admirable woman I attribute the pleasure with which I have
read French from early childhood and the passionate interest
afterwards taken by me in France and French affairs. Miss Baker was
not without sublunary reward. She soon after married a Baptist
minister and set up a young ladies' school on her own account, I had
reason to believe with entire success.
The nominal mistress of the little school in question was a widow
lady with a large family. Her part of the day's business consisted
chiefly in keeping an eye upon everyone and in quaffing at stated
intervals tumblers of foaming porter brought on a tray. How a person
so utterly incompetent came to secure one of the best woman teachers then living is a mystery. The first class had not much in
common with the ardent candidates for a Junior or Senior Local
Examination nowadays. The only thing thought of seemed some possible
or perhaps wholly imaginary lover. We used to walk to school, a
distance of two miles, and be fetched home by one of our brothers in
a dog-cart. The elder girls would always contrive to get a peep at
the dog-cart, its conductors transmitting by our fifteen-year-old
sister poetic billet-doux in walnut shells, flowers, or fruit. A
niece of the austere Miss Baker headed the giddy band, no product,
alas! of this especial school or town. When I think of these early
days, nothing strikes me more than the immense improvement in one
respect. Young women may still be as sentimental as Lily Dale, as
foolish as the girls of a garrison town described by Miss Austen.
But they no longer flaunt their folly in the eyes of the world. They
may dream of lovers, sigh for a lover morning, noon, and night, at
any rate they would be ashamed to confess it.
Here I will mention another circumstance showing the curious notions
of discipline prevailing at this time.
On our way home, on the outskirts of the town we passed a second
ladies' school, one with less pretensions to gentility than our own. We often noticed in the winter twilight some girl's form standing
like a statue just opposite the front door. It was not always the
same girl, and oddly enough the apparition seemed somehow
immediately connected with bad weather. When a drizzling rain was
falling, when a north wind blew, and scattered snow-flakes, herald
of winter, might be seen here and there, then we were pretty sure of
passing the motionless figure. Bareheaded, shivering, abashed, there
stood a well-dressed girl of fourteen or fifteen, doing public
penance for some petty offence.
So much we learned afterwards. The image recalling Lot's wife was
merely some boarding-school miss guilty of having giggled over Mrs.
Markham, omitted her scales, or perhaps made signs to the chemist's
assistant over the way. And chilblains, neuralgia, consumptive
coughs thereby induced seemed of quite secondary importance. O time! O manners! These girls of the period, be it remarked by the way,
were very insufficiently clad by comparison with their fellows of
to-day. Not to go into too much details, I will cite one fact. A
young lady belonging to well-to-do people once visited us in the
depth of winter, of a Suffolk winter. Under her French merino skirt
she wore a flimsy white cotton petticoat, just as one would do in
the blazing heat of July. Fashion and hygiene must have selected the
fittest with a vengeance.
We had a little social circle. First must be named Mr. and Mrs. W—,
parents of the unfortunate little Arthur. Mr. W—, now practising as
surgeon and apothecary, had been a ship surgeon in early days and
had more than once circumnavigated the globe. He was a remarkable
man in every way, small, almost to dwarfishness, with an enormous
head, denoting that delightful combination, the man of science and
the visionary. Ever soaring to the clouds, he yet had ever
scientific light to throw upon passing questions. Fruitless chatter,
gossipy personalities were impossible to him. He must illustrate the
microscope or electric bar, dilate upon the excellent use to be made
of thistle-down, or otherwise to diverge from the commonplace. Mrs.
W――, an Irishwoman, it need hardly be said, was in every respect his
very opposite. She was twice his size to begin with, and very
handsome. I see before me now her blue eyes with their sweet,
vivacious, endearing expression, auburn hair piled up in curls above
the forehead, and exquisitely fair throat set off by a white linen
collar and blue ribbons. Whilst her husband lived in the fairyland
of science, she was all sentiment, her especial hero and heroine
being Lord Byron and the Empress Josephine. One of her favourite
books was Ganganelli's "Letters," and I believe she was a Roman
Catholic, although she never openly declared herself. No one reads Ganganelli nowadays, but the letters are charming. There was an
elder son I will call Ralph, who was grown up when little Arthur
made such lamentable end. This Ralph, a handsome harum-scarum, had
of course been fooled to the top of his bent also by an adoring
mother, and as naturally had turned out ill. His father was
constantly sending him out to some remote quarter of the globe; a
few months and the prodigal would be back again, denuded of
everything but effrontery and good looks.
Upon one occasion employment had been found for him in the heart of
Russia. Just as the snow began to fall at Ipswich Mr. W— accosted a
friend with an air of extraordinary jubilation.
"The Neva is frozen!" he cried, rubbing his hands. "We shall not see
Ralph back till the spring anyhow."
But lo and behold! the very next morning Ralph walked into his
father's shop, nonchalant as ever. He had scraped up money enough to
defray the expenses of his journey overland!
Upon another occasion he was shipped off to the Cape third class. Ralph might be a blackguard, but no matter how travestied, remained
in appearance a gentlemanly blackguard. It was impossible to make
him look insignificant or common. Among the saloon passengers
happened to be some pretty girls who very soon discovered that the
most attractive person on board belonged to the steerage. A
flirtation ensued, with the result that the first thing Ralph did on
arriving was to book a berth by the next steamer bound homeward;
arrived at Ipswich, he soon wheedled the money out of his mother for
a first-class ticket, returned to the Cape in fine style, left his
card with the saloon acquaintances of the first trip, enjoyed a few
gay, idle, flattering weeks, then returned home, not a whit sadder
or wiser than he went away.
In spite of these harassing circumstances, with no skeleton in the
cupboard but a diabolical Jack-in-the-box, ever ready to spring upon
him unexpectedly, the little doctor maintained a persistently
cheerful demeanour; the kindliest, most truly Christian spirit
embellished, animated, and enlarged that small, square, grotesque
frame. Just as his prodigal could not be outwardly vulgarised, so
neither surroundings nor company could detract from his own inborn
nobility. He never lost an opportunity of lifting others out of the
everyday atmosphere, or of imparting instruction. To one of his
scientific hints I believe I owe the excellent eyesight I have
hitherto enjoyed. "Never let the eye dwell on an unbroken surface of
white," he told us one day, as he spoke placing a coloured wafer on
a sheet of notepaper. "There," he added, "break the surface by ever
so slight a bit of colour, and the eye is thereby relieved and saved
from strain." The hint was taken by at least one youthful listener,
and from that day to this I have followed Mr. W—'s advice and used
only deep-coloured writing paper.
Quite different in character was the hospitality of this farm-house,
and that, the drive to and fro being the principal attraction. In
the parental gig would always be found room for a small third
passenger, in whose eyes every scene made a new world. The style of
these wonderful country teas has been already described; I will only
mention one circumstance regarding them sufficiently strange in
itself and of a nature to impress the childish mind.
A favourite jaunt, because the longest, was that to a bachelor
uncle's, he the gayest, most mundane, least reflective of my
father's numerous brothers. Returning home from market one dark
winter's night, his perceptions presumably blunted by an extra
"grog," this uncle was pitched with horse and gig into a deep pit by
the road-side. Fortunately, after some time his moans attracted
attention, he was carried to the nearest farm-house, and there
carefully tended till his death, which happened from internal
injuries a few days later.
On the morning after the accident an elder brother living in London
came downstairs with a worn-out look. "Thank God, I am alive and
well," he said to his wife. "All night long I was tossed about
precipices and having my limbs broken by a fall." A few hours later
he received news of his brother's fatal accident. This curious
coincidence, for of course it was nothing more, created a
considerable sensation at the time. It is hardly necessary to add
that the spot in which my ill-fated uncle thus met his death was
immediately rendered safe by palings.
A wayside acquaintance showed his love of children in a fashion very
different to that of the good little doctor. Instead of opening
their eyes to the marvels of science or nature, this reverend
gentleman—he is now a Bishop—as he rattled past in his high gig used
to scatter tracts headed "Fire, Fire, Fire!" "Why will you go to
Hell? " and so on. Fortunately, the young ladies entrusted with us
at that time were much more occupied with romance than theology. They pocketed the flying sheets, wondering all the while what would
come of next Tuesday's drive to market. But to this day I never
recall childish primrosing in Suffolk without a vision of the Rev.
J. C. Ryle and his tracts.
Other and more amusing acquaintances were made on election day. We
used to sit in a row at the open schoolroom window, from which hung
blue flags and streamers. Of course my father, who had married a
clergyman's daughter, was a tremendous Conservative. What a pageant
it was, the voters dashing by in carriages, gigs, and spring carts
ablaze with blue or orange trappings, as the case might be!
I well remember one jolly farmer, what with his yellow scarf and
waistcoat, looking like a sunflower. As he jogged past he glanced at
the three little girls vigorously waving their Tory draperies, and
shouted—"You've got the wrong colours, my dears. Go in and change
them." Which I did very soon afterwards, and for once and for all.
THE SOCIAL MEDIUM—continued
A QUAKER WORLD—A YOUNG QUAKERESS'S
PIN-MONEY—CONTRASTS THE STRUGGLE FOR GENTILITY: "ANYTHING TO PASS
THE TIME AWAY"—JULES R—: A KEY TO FRENCH CHARACTER.
THE Thee and
of the Quakers echo pleasantly across this long stretch of years. I
seem to hear still the bland "How do thee, friend Matilda?" of a
venerable Quaker acquaintance of early years.
These "egregious enthusiasts," as Hume calls them, had long
conferred a distinctive character on my native town. The most
important, most liberal, and wealthiest commercial houses belonged
to the Society of Friends. The Nonconformist body was here immensely
powerful, and ever—as elsewhere—in the van of progress, just as the
clerical world was invariably in the rear. But the Quakers, although
by no means unsociable, formed a community apart, adhering to
traditional faith, customs, and mode of life.
Both sexes rigidly adhered to primitive costume, although the
younger members were showing signs of revolt. There were Quaker
linen-drapers, Quaker milliners, Quaker tailors. A sobriety, not
without its poetic aspect, was imparted to these ancient streets by
figures that might have shaken hands with William Penn.
With all their studied simplicity the matrons were very richly
dressed. Of finest lawn their kerchiefs, of softest cashmere their
dun-coloured gowns and shawls, whilst for great occasions they had
an especial black silk, the like of which for beauty of texture and
durability I have never since seen.
Young girls were condemned to a novitiate of the strictest economy,
their gala gown, like poor Jane Eyre's, being a clean, well starched
muslin. Among our Quaker friends were two sisters belonging to one
of the wealthiest families. These girls made no secret of their
allowance for dress and pocket money. Each received exactly ten
pounds a year with the gift of a new dress at Christmas. On this sum
they continued to attain the simplex mundithii's, the exquisite
neatness, extolled by Horace; they would also contrast very
favourably with flaunting damsels of our own day, who spend twice as
much on a cycling costume. Already these two girls were
unobtrusively breaking down the barriers, making innocent little
raids into the region of coquetry. One day, a neck-ribbon
suspiciously verging on rose-colour would be introduced; another
time, something very like a flounce would be ventured upon. Restrictions of other kind were also resented. Dancing was forbidden
in Quaker circles as "an ungodly shaking of the limbs," but nothing
better pleased our young friends than a waltz or polka when away
from home. Even the Thee and Thou were reserved by them for members
of their own community. And as time wore on the younger members of
the Society of Friends fell away from its ranks, married outsiders,
betook themselves to the world worldly and the Church of England!
I linger lovingly over one gracious figure that stands out
conspicuously from these old memories.
The elder of the two sisters mentioned above was not beautiful, but
possessed a distinction far rarer than mere personal comeliness. Her
dark eyes were wonderfully soft and expressive, and from every
feature seemed to beam the light of a benignant and noble nature. Her voice, too, was one of uncommon sweetness and feeling, and she
spoke with an ease, clearness, and precision that deserved the name
of an accomplishment. A first-rate horsewoman, her slight, strong
form never showed to better advantage than on horseback, although
there was witchery enough about the little white straw bonnet with
plain ribbon trimmings and lilac and white muslin dress guiltless of
frill or furbelow.
Young Quakeresses did not go to finishing schools, but they learned
many things rarely acquired by girls of that period. Kate and her
sister had gone through the first books of Euclid and could read
Homer in the original, these exceptional endowments being very
modestly acknowledged. Learning is doubtless a good thing, alike for
daughters of Eve and sons of Adam. It might, however, be well that
the unpretentiousness of my dove-eyed Quakeress were commoner among
the young ladies who now "go up" or "go down" with their brothers.
As contrasted as well as could be with the sobriety, dignified ease,
and self-respect of these Quaker circles was another, that of a
country doctor's family some miles off. This doctor was wealthy and
had an enormous practice, besides "great expectations." There would
not, therefore, have been the slightest difficulty in comfortably
settling his numerous rather good-looking daughters in their own
position of life. But no, the fond, misguided father was positively
consumed by worldly ambition. Having brought up his girls genteelly,
and being able to portion them, he determined upon finding
sons-in-law in what is called good society, that is to say, the
enchanted regions from which, as a rule, country doctors were
rigidly excluded. What a study for Thackeray was here! The worthy
practitioner working at his profession as if for daily bread, after
long drives across country making up medicines in his surgery, never
affording himself the least little bit of leisure or distraction,
and all the while dreaming of gentility, of that Will-o'-the-wisp,
that Jack-o'-lantern, that maddening mirage now apparently within
reach, now further off than ever. Upon one occasion the doctor was
thrown into a transport from which he did not easily recover. He trod
on air. In his case truly one might have said, joy maketh afraid. The wonder was that he did not die of heart disease.
His elder daughters, it seemed, had been invited to an evening party
at a neighbouring vicarage. Next day their father retailed the great
news as he made his round. "The aristocracy helped my girls on with
their cloaks," he said, with an air of pomposity that would have
been ludicrous but for the glint of a tear accompanying the words.
Alas! that aristocratic helping on of cloaks was like a certain
American road leading to a squirrel track, or that time-honoured
parturition of the mountain. Nothing came of it. It must be admitted
that beyond a certain limp, languid personal charm, the girls were
terribly uninteresting. Their great trouble was how to get through
that portion of the twenty-four hours not devoted to sleep. One of
them was showing a new kind of fancy work to a friend, and resumed
the needle with a sigh.
"Anything to pass the time away, dear!" she said dolefully.
Year after year rolled by. As one class of suitors had been snubbed
and another class did not come forward, the limp, languid damsels
became churchy old maids. They finally settled at Clifton, or some
such place, where, doubtless, early services, clerical bazaars,
rummage sales, and curates' company to tea, nicely helped to "pass
the time away."
Refreshingly different from other early acquaintances was that of a
Frenchman, a certain Jules R , winegrower of Burgundy, who travelled
on his own account. My brothers had made his acquaintance in
Ipswich, and he often walked over to dinner or tea. He was a very
typical Frenchman, and an observation he dropped at this time has
ever seemed to me a key to French character.
Speaking of his calling as vintager and wine merchant, he said, "I
take great care not to increase my business."
Since these early days I have had a long and extraordinarily varied
experience of French temperament and modes of thought. Jules R—'s
simple confession of faith and view of life generally have
constantly recurred to me as throwing light upon both.
"I take great care not to increase my business." Have we not here an
explanation of the social and economic problems that well-nigh drive
French statesmen to desperation? Why is Algeria in reality a Jewish
and Italian colony, French subjects not being tempted thither even
by free grants of land and other bribes? Why is a tremendous money
premium to be awarded the father of a numerous family? Why are
French commercial houses, French hotels and offices, filled with
German employees? The national idea is that of my childhood's friend
Jules R—, a life of mental and bodily ease, an assured future on
native soil, an absolute immunity from daily wear and tear. Apart
from all other nations is the French; certain brilliant qualities
and endowments alike of intellect, heart, and brain here attaining
high water-mark. But there is a danger that the Jules R—'s, the
type, the norma, will swamp the remnant, the higher-minded, more
aspiring portion. For when men take great care not to increase their
business, no statesmanship can do the work for them. "One man can
lead a horse to the pond; not twenty can make him drink," says the