I made the acquaintance of the Peggotty family and was made free of the cabin many years ago, in the dark winter time when the Northfleet went down off Dungeness, and over three hundred passengers were lost. All the coast was then alive with expectancy of some moment finding the sea crowded with the bodies of the drowned. The nine days during which, according to all experience at Dungeness, the sea might hold its dead were past, and at any moment the resurrection might commence. But it never came, and other theories had to be broached to explain the unprecedented circumstance. The most generally acceptable, because the most absolutely irrefragable, was that the dead men and women had been carried away by an under-current out into the Atlantic, and for ever lost amid its wilds.
My old friend Peggotty tells me, in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner, a story much more weird than this. He says that after we watchers had left the scene, the divers got fairly to work and attained a fair run of the ship. They found she lay broadside on to a bank of sand, by the edge of which she had sunk till it overtopped her decks. By the action of the tide the sand had drifted over the ship, and had even at that early date commenced to bury her. The bodies of the passengers were there by the hundred, all huddled together on the lee-side.
"The divers could not see them," Peggotty adds, "for what with the mud and sand the water is pretty thick down there. But they could feel them well enough—an arm sticking out there, and a knee sticking out here, and sometimes half a body clear of the silt, owing to lying one over another. They could have got them all up easy enough, and would, too, if they had been paid for it. They were told that they were to have a pound apiece for all they brought up. They sent up one, but there was no money for it, and no one particularly glad to see it, and so they left them all there, snug enough as far as burying goes. The diving turned out a poor affair altogether. The cargo wasn't much good for bringing up, bein' chiefly railway iron, spades, and such like. There were one or two sales at Dover of odd stores they brought up, but it didn't fetch in much altogether, and they soon gave up the job as a bad un."
The years have brought little change to this strange out-of-the-way corner of the world, an additional wreck or two being scarcely a noteworthy incident. The section of an old boat in which, with fortuitous bits of building tacked on at odd times as necessity has arisen, the Peggottys live is as brightly tarred as ever, and still stoutly braves the gales in which many a fine ship has foundered just outside the front door. One peculiarity of the otherwise desirable residence is that, with the wind blowing either from the eastward, westward, or southward, Mrs. Peggotty will never allow the front door to be opened. As these quarters of the wind comprehend a considerable stretch of possible weather, the consequence is that the visitor approaching the house in the usual manner is on eight days out of ten disturbed by the apparition of Peggotty at the little look-out window, violently, and to the stranger, mysteriously, beckoning him away to the northward, apparently in the direction of the lighthouse.
This means, however, only that he is to go round by the back, and the detour is not to be regretted, as it leads by Peggotty's garden, which in its way is a marvel, a monument of indomitable struggle with adverse circumstances. It is not a large plot of ground, and perhaps looks unduly small by reason of being packed in by a high paling, made of the staves of wrecked barrels and designed to keep the sand and grit from blowing across it. But it is large enough to produce a serviceable crop of potatoes, which, with peas and beans galore occupy the centre beds, Peggotty indulging a weakness for wallflowers and big red tulips on the narrow fringe of soil running under the shadow of the palings. The peculiarity about the garden is that every handful of soil that lies upon it has been carried on Peggotty's back across the four-mile waste of shingle that separates the sea-coast from Lydd. That is, perhaps, as severe a test as could be applied to a man's predilection for a garden. There are many people who like to have a bit of garden at the back of their house. But how many would gratify their taste at the expense of bringing the soil on their own backs, plodding on "backstays" over four miles of loose shingle?
One important change has happened in this little household since I last sat by its hearthstone. Ham is married, and is, in some incomprehensible manner, understood to reside both at Lydd with Mrs. Ham and at the cabin with his mother. As for Mrs. Peggotty, she is as lively and as "managing" as ever—perhaps a trifle smaller in appearance, and with her smooth clean face more than ever suggestive of the idea of a pebble smoothed and shaped by the action of the tide.
I find on chatting with Peggotty that the old gentleman's mind is in somewhat of a chaotic state with respect to the wrecks that abound in the bay. He has been here for forty-eight years, and the fact is, in that time, he has seen so many wrecks that the timbers are, as it were, floating in an indistinguishable mass through his mind, and when he tries to recall events connected with them, the jib-boom of "the Rhoda brig" gets mixed up with the rigging of "the Spendthrift," and "the Branch, a coal-loaded brig," that came to grief thirty years ago, gets inextricably mixed up with the "Rooshian wessel." But, looking with far-away gaze towards the Ness Lighthouse, and sweeping slowly round as far east as New Romney, Peggotty can tot off a number of wrecks, now to be seen at low water, which with others, the names whereof he "can't just remember," bring the total past a score.
The first he sees on this side of the lighthouse is the Mary, a bit of black hull that has been lying there for more than twenty years. She was "bound somewheres in France," and running round the Ness, looking for shelter in the bay, stuck fast in the sand, "and broke up in less than no time." She was loaded with linseed and millstones, which I suspect, from a slight tinge of sadness in Peggotty's voice as he mentioned the circumstance, is not for people living on the coast the best cargo which ships that will go down in the bay might be loaded with. Indeed, I may remark that though Peggotty, struggling with the recollections of nearly fifty years, frequently fails to remember the name of the ship whose wreck shows up through the sand, the nature of her cargo comes back to him with singular freshness.
Near the Mary is another French ship, which had been brought to anchor there in order that the captain might run ashore and visit the ship's agent at Lydd. Whilst he was ashore a gale of wind came on "easterdly"; ship drifted down on Ness Point, and knocked right up on the shore, the crew scrambling out on to dry land as she went to pieces. Another bit of wreck over there is all that is left of the Westbourne, of Chichester, coal-laden. She was running for Ness Point at night, and, getting too far in, struck where she lay, and all the crew save one were drowned. Nearer is the Branch, also a coal-loaded brig, a circumstance which suggests to Peggotty the parenthetical remark that "at times there is a good deal of coal about the shingle." A little more to the east is "the Rooshian wessel Nicholas I.," in which Peggotty has a special interest so strong that he forgets to mention what her cargo was. It is forty-six years since Nicholas I. came to grief; and no other help being near, the whole of the crew were saved through the instrumentality of Peggotty's dog. It was broad daylight, with a sea running no boat could live in. The "Rooshian" was rapidly breaking up, and the crew were shrieking in an unknown tongue, the little group on shore well knowing that the unfamiliar sound was a cry for help. Peggotty's Newfoundland dog was there, barking with mad delight at the huge waves that came tumbling on the shore, when it occurred to Peggotty that perhaps the dog could swim out to the drowning men. So he signalled him off, and in the dog went, gallantly buffeting the waves till it reached the ship. The Russian sailors tied a piece of rope to a stick, put the stick in the dog's mouth, and he, leaping overboard, carried it safely to shore, and a line of communication being thus formed, every soul on board was saved.
"They've got it in the school-books for the little children to read," Peggotty says, permitting himself to indulge in the slightest possible chuckle. I could not ascertain what particular school-book was meant, because last winter, when another Russian ship came ashore here and was totally wrecked, Peggotty presented the captain with his only copy of the work as a souvenir of the compulsory visit. But when we returned to the cabin, Mrs. Peggotty brought down a faded, yellow, much-worn copy of the Kent Herald, in which an account of the incident appears among other items of the local news of the day.
Further eastward are the remains of a West Indiaman, loaded with mahogany and turtles, the latter disappearing in a manner still a marvel at Dungeness, whilst of the former a good deal of salvage money was made. It is not far from this wreck that the Russian last-mentioned came to grief. She met her fate in a peculiarly sad manner. The Alliance, a tar-loaded vessel, drifting inwards before a strong east wind, began to burn pitch barrels as a signal for assistance. The Russian, thinking she was on fire, ran down to her assistance, and took the ground close by. Both ships were totally wrecked, and the crews saved with no other property save the clothes they stood in.
Still glancing from Dungeness eastward, we see at every hundred yards a black mass of timber, sometimes showing the full length of a ship, oftener only a few jagged ribs marking where the carcase lies deeply embedded. Each has its name and its history, and is a memento of some terrible disaster in which strong ships have been broken up as if they were built of cardboard, and through which men and women have not always successfully struggled for life.
"We don't have so much loss of life in this bay as in the west bay round the point," said Ham. "Here, you see, when there's been a rumpus, the water quiets soon after, and the shipwrecked folk can take to their boats; on the other side the water is rougher, and there's less chance for them. There was one wreck here not long since, though, when all hands were lost. It was a Danish ship that came running down one stormy night, and run ashore there before she could make the light. We saw her flash her flare-up lights, and made ready to help her, but before we could get up she went to pieces, and what is most singular, never since has a body been seen from the wreck. Ah, sir, it's a bad spot. Often between Saturday and Monday you'll see three fine ships all stranded together on this beach. When there's a big wreck like the Northfleet over there, everybody talks about it, and all the world knows full particulars. But there's many and many a shipwreck here the newspapers never notice, and hundreds of ships get on, and with luck get off, without a word being said anywhere."
"There's mother signallin' the heggs and bakin is done," said Peggotty, looking back at the cabin, where a white apron waved out of one of the port-holes that served for window.
So we turned and left this haunted spot, where, with the ebbing tide, twenty-three wrecks, one after the other, thrust forth a rugged rib or a jagged spar to remind the passer-by of a tragedy.
TO THOSE ABOUT TO BECOME JOURNALISTS.
AN OPEN LETTER.
My dear young friends,_ I suppose no one not prominently engaged in journalism knows how widely spread is the human conviction that, failing all else, any one can "write for the papers," making a lucrative living on easy terms, amid agreeable circumstances. I have often wondered how Dickens, familiar as he was with this frailty, did not make use of it in the closing epoch of Micawber's life before he quitted England. Knowing what he did, as letters coming to light at this day testify, it would seem to be the most natural thing in the world that finally, nothing else having turned up, it should occur to Dickens that Mr. Micawber would join the Press—probably as editor, certainly on the editorial staff, possibly as dramatic critic, a position which involves a free run of the theatres and a more than nodding acquaintance with the dramatic stars of the day.
Perhaps Dickens avoided this episode because it was too literally near the truth in the life of the person who, all unconsciously, stood as the lay figure of David Copperfield's incomparable friend. It is, I believe, not generally known that Charles Dickens's father did in his last desolate days become a member of the Press. When Dickens was made editor of the Daily News, he thoughtfully provided for his father by installing him leader of the Parliamentary Corps of that journal. The old gentleman, of course, knew nothing of journalism, was not even capable of shorthand. Providentially he was not required to take notes, but generally to overlook things, a post which exactly suited Mr. Micawber. So he was inducted, and filled the office even for a short time after his son had impetuously vacated the editorial chair. Only the other day there died an original member of the Daily News Parliamentary Corps, who told me he quite well remembered his first respected leader, his grandly vague conception of his duties, and his almost ducal manner of not performing them.
Of the many letters that come to me with the assurance that I have in my possession blank appointments on the editorial and reportorial staff of all contemporary journals paying good salaries, the saddest are those written by more than middle-aged men with families. Some have for years been earning a precarious living as reporters or sub-editors on obscure papers, and now find themselves adrift; others are men who, having vainly knocked at all other gates, are flushed by the happy thought that at least they can write acceptably for the newspapers; others, again, already engaged in daily work, are anxious to burn the midnight oil, and so add something to a scanty income. These last are chiefly clergymen and schoolmasters—educated men with a love of letters and the idea that, since it is easy and pleasant to read, it must be easy to write, and that in the immensity of newspapers and periodical literature there would be not only room, but eager welcome for them.
This class of correspondents is curiously alike in one feature. There is an almost sprightliness in their conviction that what they can write in these circumstances would exactly suit any paper, daily or weekly, morning or evening. All they have to do is to give up their odd savings of time to the work; all you—their hapless correspondent—have to do is to fill up one of those blank appointments with which your desk is clogged, and send it to them by first post.
There is no other profession in the world thus viewed by outsiders. No one supposes he can make boots, cut clothes, or paint the outside of a house without having served some sort of apprenticeship, not to mention the possession of special aptitude. Any one can, right off—, become a journalist. Such as these, and all those about to become journalists, I would advise to study a book published several years ago. It is the Life of James MacDonell, a name which, before this book was published, was an idle sound to the outer world, though to contemporary workers in the inner circle of the Press Macdonell was known as one of the ablest and most brilliant of modern journalists. In these short and simple annals, the aspirant who imagines the successful journalist's life is all beer and skittles will discover what patient study, what self-denial, what strenuous effort, and, more essential than all, what rare natural gifts are needed to achieve the position into which Macdonell toiled.
It is this last consideration that makes me doubt whether there is any utility in offering practical hints "To Those about to become Journalists." If a boy or youth has in him the journalistic faculty, it will come out, whatever unpromising or adverse circumstances he may be born to. If he has it not, he had very much better take to joinering or carpentering, to clerking, or to the dispensation of goods over the retail counter. Journalism is an honourable and, for those specially adapted, a lucrative profession. But it is a poor business for the man who has mistaken his way into it. The very fact that it has such strong allurement for human nature makes harder the struggle for life with those engaged in its pursuit. I gather from facts brought under my personal notice that at the present time there are, proportionately with its numbers, more unemployed in the business of journalism than in any other, not exceeding that of the dockers. When a vacancy occurs on any staff, the rush to fill it is tremendous. Where no vacancy exists the knocking at the doors is incessant. All the gates are thronged with suitors, and the accommodation is exceedingly limited.
The first thing the youth who turns his face earnestly towards journalism should convince himself of is, that the sole guiding principle controlling admission to the Press or advance in its ranks is merit. This, as your communications, my dear young friends, have convinced me, is a statement in direct contravention of general belief. You are convinced that it is all done by patronage, and that if only some one in authority will interest himself in you, you straightway enter upon a glorious career. There is, however, no royal road to advancement on the Press. Proprietors and editors simply could not afford it. Living as newspapers do in the fierce light focussed from a million eyes, fighting daily with keen competition, the instinct of self-preservation compels their directors to engage the highest talent where it is discoverable, and, failing that, the most sedulously nurtured skill. For this they will pay almost anything; and they ask nothing more, neither blood-relationship, social distinction, nor even academic training. In journalism, more than in any other profession, not excepting the Bar, a man gets on by his own effort, and only by that. Of course, proprietors, and even editors, may, if the commercial prosperity of their journal permit the self-indulgence, find salaried situations for brothers, sons, or nephews or may oblige old friends in the same direction. Charles Dickens, as we have seen, made his father manager of the Parliamentary Corps of the Daily News. But that did not make him a journalist, nor did he, after his son's severance of his connection with the paper, long retain the post.
This line of reflection is, I am afraid, not encouraging to you, my dear young friends; but it leads up to one fact in which I trust you will be justified in finding ground for hope. Amongst the crowd struggling to obtain a footing within the pale of journalism, the reiterated rebuffs they meet with naturally lead to the conviction that it is a sort of close borough, those already in possession jealously resenting the efforts of outsiders to breach its sacred portals. Nothing could be further removed from the fact. A nugget of gold is not more pleasing to the sight of the anxious miner than is the discovery by the editor or manager of a newspaper of a new light in the world of journalism. This I put in the forefront of friendly words of advice to those about to enter journalism. Get rid of the fatal idea that some one will open the door for you and land you safely inside. You must force the door yourself with incessant knocking if need be, prepared for searching inquiry as to your right to enter, but certain of a hearty welcome and fraternal assistance when you have proved your right.
As an ounce of example is worth a ton of precept, I may perhaps mention that in a journalistic career now extending over just twenty-five years, I never but once received anything in the way of patronage, and that was extended at the very outset only after a severe test of the grounds upon which recommendation could be made. My parents, in their wisdom, destined me for a commercial career. If I had followed the bent given me when I left school, I should now have been a very indifferent clerk in the hide and valonia business. But like you, my dear young friends, I felt that my true vocation was journalism, and I determined to be a journalist.
I will tell you exactly how I did it. Like you, I meant to be an editor some day, but also, I trust, like you, I felt that it would be convenient, if not necessary to start by being a reporter. So I began to study shorthand, teaching myself by Pitman's system. When, after infinite pains, I had mastered this mystery, I began to look out for an opening on the Press. I had no friends in journalism, not the remotest acquaintance. I made the tour of the newspaper offices in the town where I lived, was more or less courteously received, and uniformly assured that there was no opening. One exception was made by a dear friend whose name is to-day known and honoured throughout Great Britain, who was then the young assistant-editor of a local daily paper. He gave me some trial work to do, and was so far satisfied that he promised me the first vacancy on the junior staff of reporters.
That was excellent, but I did not sit down waiting till fortune dropped the promised plum into my mouth. I got at all the newspapers within reach, searched for advertisements for reporters, answered them day after day, week after week, even month after month, without response. At last a cautious inquiry came. The reply was deemed satisfactory, and I got my chance.
This, dear young friends, is the short and simple annal of my start in journalism, and you will see that the pathway is equally open to you.
A CINQUE PORT.
Skulls piled roof high in the vault beneath the church tower supply the only show thing Hythe possesses. There is some doubt as to their precise nationality, but of their existence there can be none, as any visitor to the town may see for himself on payment of sixpence (parties of three or more eighteenpence). It is known how within a time to which memory distinctly goes the skulls were found down upon the beach, whole piles of them, thick as shingle on this coast. The explanation of their tenancy of British ground is popularly referred to the time, now nearly nine hundred years gone by, when Earl Godwin, being exiled, made a raid on this conveniently accessible part of England, and after a hard fight captured all the vessels lying in the haven. Others find in the peculiar formation of the crania proof positive that the skulls originally came from Denmark.
But Saxon or Dane, or whatever they be, it is certain the skulls were picked up on the beach, and after an interval were, with some dim notion of decency, carried up to the church, where they lay neglected in a vault. The church also going to decay, the determination was taken to rebuild it, and being sorely pressed for funds a happy thought occurred to a practical vicar. He had the skulls piled up wall-like in an accessible chamber, caused the passages to be swept and garnished, and then put on the impost mentioned above, the receipts helping to liquidate the debt on the building fund. Thus, by a strange irony of fate, after eight centuries, all that is left of these heathens brings in sixpences to build up a Christian church.
A good deal has happened in Hythe since the skulls first began to bleach on the inhospitable shore. When Earl Godwin suddenly appeared with his helm hard up for Hythe, the little town on the hill faced one of the best havens on the coast. It was, as every one knows, one of the Cinque Ports, and at the time of the Conqueror undertook to furnish, as its quota of armament, five ships, one hundred and five men, and five boys. Even in the time of Elizabeth there was a fair harbour here. But long ago the sea changed all that. It occupied itself in its leisure moments by bringing up illimitable shingle, with which it filled up all water ways, and cut Hythe off from communication with the sea as completely as if it were Canterbury.
It is not without a feeling of humiliation that a burgess of the once proud port of Hythe can watch the process of the occasional importation of household coal. Where Earl Godwin swooped down over twenty fathoms of water the little collier now painfully picks her way at high water. On shore stand the mariners of Hythe (in number four), manning the capstan. When the collier gets within a certain distance a hawser is thrown out, the capstan turns more or less merrily round, and the collier is beached, so that at low water she will stand high and dry.
Thus ignominiously is coal landed at one of the Cinque Ports.
Of course this change in the water approaches has altogether revolutionised the character of the place. Hythe is a port without imports or exports, a harbour in which nothing takes refuge but shingle. It has not even fishing boats, for lack of place to moor them in. It is on the greatest water highway of the world, and yet has no part in its traffic. Standing on the beach you may see day after day a never-ending fleet of ships sailing up or down as the wind blows east or west. But, like the Levite in the parable, they all pass by on the other side. Hythe has nothing to do but to stand on the beach with its hands in its pockets and lazily watch them.
Thus cut off from the world by sea, and by land leading nowhere in particular except to Romney Marshes, Hythe has preserved in an unusual degree the flavour of our earlier English world. There have indeed been times when endeavour was made to profit by this isolation. As one of the Cinque Ports Hythe has since Parliaments first sat had the privilege of returning representatives. In the time of James II. it seems to have occurred to the Mayor (an ancestor of one of the members for West Kent in a recent Parliament), that since a member had to be returned to Parliament much trouble would be saved, and no one in London would be any the wiser, if he quietly, in his capacity as returning officer, returned himself. But some envious Radical setting on the opposite benches, was too sharp for him, and we find the sequel of the story set forth in the Journals of the House of Commons under date 1685, where it is written—
"Information given that the Mayor of Hythe had returned himself: Resolved by the House of Commons that Mr. Julius Deedes, the Mayor, is not duly elected. New writ ordered in his stead."
Hythe is a little better known now, but not much. And yet for many reasons its acquaintance is worth forming. The town itself, lying snugly at the foot of the hill crowned by the old church, is full of those bits of colour and quaintnesses of wall and gable-end which good people cross the Channel to see. In the High-street there is a building the like of which probably does not anywhere exist. It is now a fish-shop, not too well stocked, where a few dried herrings hang on a string under massive eaves that have seen the birth and death of centuries. From the centre of the roof there rises a sort of watch-tower, whence, before the houses on the more modern side of the street were built, when the sea swept over what is now meadow-land, keen eyes could scan the bay on the look out for inconvenient visitors connected with the coastguard. When the sea prevented Hythe honestly earning its living in deep-keeled boats, it perforce took to smuggling, a business in which this old watch-tower played a prominent part.
This is a special though neglected bit of house architecture in Hythe. But everywhere, save in the quarters by the railway station or the Parade, where new residences are beginning to spring up, the eye is charmed by old brown houses roofed with red tiles, often standing tree-shaded in a bountiful flower garden, and always preserving their own lines of frontage and their own angle of gable, with delightful indifference to the geometric scale of their neighbour.
The South-Eastern Railway Company have laid their iron hand on Hythe, and its old-world stillness is already on Bank Holidays and other bleak periods of the passing year broken by the babble of the excursionist. In its characteristically quiet way Hythe has long been known as what is called a watering-place. When I first knew it, it had a Parade, on which were built eight or ten houses, whither in the season came quiet families, with children and nurses. For a few weeks they gave to the sea frontage quite a lively appearance, which the mariners (when they were not manning the capstan) contemplated with complacency, and said to each other that Hythe was "looking up." For the convenience of these visitors some enterprising person embarked on the purchase of three bathing machines, and there are traditions of times when these were all in use at the same hour—so great was the influx of visitors.
Also there is a "bathing establishment" built a long way after the model of the Pavilion at Brighton. The peculiarity of this bathing establishment is or was when I first knew the charming place that regularly at the end of September the pump gets out of order, and the new year is far advanced before the solitary plumber of the place gets it put right. He begins to walk dreamily round the place at Easter. At Whitsuntide he brings down an iron vessel containing unmelted solder, and early in July the pump is mended.
This mending of the pump is one of the epochs of Hythe, a sure harbinger of the approaching season. In July "The Families" begin to come down, and the same people come every year, for visitors to Hythe share in the privilege of the inhabitants, inasmuch as they never—or hardly ever—die. Of late years, since the indefatigable Town Clerk has succeeded in waking up the inhabitants to the possibilities of the great future that lies before their town, not only has a new system of drainage and water been introduced, but a register has been kept of the death-rate. From a return, published by the Medical Officer of Health, it appears that the death-rate of Hythe was 9.3 per 1000. Of sixty-three people who died in a year out of a population of some four thousand, twenty-three were upwards of sixty years of age, many of them over eighty. Perhaps the best proof of the healthfulness of Hythe is to be found in a stroll through the churchyard, whence it would appear that only very young children or very old people are carried up the hill.
The difficulty about Hythe up to recent times has been the comparative absence of accommodation for visitors. Its fame has been slowly growing as The Families have spread it within their own circles. But it was no use for strangers to go to Hythe, since they could not be taken in. This is slowly changing. Eligible building sites are offered, villas have been run up along the Sandgate Road, and an hotel has been built by the margin of the sea. When news reached the tower of the church that down on the beach there had risen a handsome hotel, fitted with all the luxuries of modern life, it is no wonder that the skulls turned on each other and—as Longfellow in the "Skeleton in Armour" puts it—
"Then from those cavernous eyes Pale flashes seem to rise, As when the northern skies Gleam In December."
This is surely the beginning of the end. Having been endowed with a railway which brings passengers down from London in a little over two hours, Hythe is now dowered with an hotel in which they may dine and sleep. The existence of the hotel being necessarily admitted, prejudice must not prevent the further admission that it is exceedingly well done. Architecturally it is a curiosity, seeing that though it presents a stately and substantial front neither stone nor brick enters into its composition. It is made entirely of shingle mixed with mortar, the whole forming a concrete substance as durable as granite. The first pebble of the new hotel was laid quite a respectable number of years ago, the ceremony furnishing an almost dangerous flux of excitement to the mariners at the capstan. It has grown up slowly, as becomes an undertaking connected with Hythe. But it is finished now, handsome without, comfortable within, with views from the front stretching seawards from Dungeness to Folkestone, and at the back across green pastures, glimpses are caught through the trees of the red-tiled town.
Now that suitable accommodation is provided for stray visitors, Hythe, with its clean beach, its parade that will presently join hands with Sandgate, its excellent bathing, and its bracing air, may look to take high rank among watering places suburban to London. But there are greater charms even than these in the immediate neighbourhood. With some knowledge of English watering places, I solemnly declare that none is set in a country of such beauty as is spread behind Hythe. Unlike the neighbourhood of most watering places, the country immediately at the back of the town is hilly and well wooded. Long shady roads lead past blooming gardens or through rich farms, till they end in some sleepy village or hamlet, the world forgetting, by the world forgot. In late July the country is perfect in its loveliness. The fields and woods are not so flowery as in May, though by way of compensation the gardens are rich in roses. Still there are sufficient wild flowers to gladden the eye wherever it turns. From the hedgerows big white convolvulus stare with wonder-wide eyes, the honeysuckle is out, the wild geranium blooms in the long grass, the blackberry bushes are in full flower, and the poppies blaze forth in great clusters at every turn of the road. The corn is only just beginning to turn a faint yellow, but the haymakers are at work, and every breath of the joyous wind carries the sweet scent of hay.
OYSTERS AND ARCACHON.
If the name had not been appropriated elsewhere, Arcachon might well be called the Salt Lake City. It lies on the south shore of a basin sixty-eight miles in circumference, into which, through a narrow opening, the Bay of Biscay rolls its illimitable waters. Little more than thirty years ago the town was represented by half a dozen huts inhabited by fishermen. It was a terribly lonely place, with the smooth lake in front of it, the Atlantic thundering on the dunes beyond, and in the rear the melancholy desert of sand known as the Landes.
The Landes is peopled by a strange race, of whom the traveller speeding along the railway to-day may catch occasional glimpses. Early in the century the department was literally a sandy plain, about as productive as Sahara, and in the summer time nearly as hot. But folks must live, and they exist on the Landes, picking up a scanty living, and occasionally dying for lack of water. One initial difficulty in the way of getting along in the Landes is the sheer impossibility of walking. When the early settler left his hut to pay a morning call or walk about his daily duties, he sank ankle deep in sand.
But the human mind invariably rises superior to difficulties of this character.
What the "backstay" is to the inhabitant of the district around Lydd, the stilts are to the lonely dwellers in the Landes. The peasants of the department are not exactly born on stilts, but a child learns to walk on them about the age that his British brother is beginning to toddle on foot.
Stilts have the elementary recommendation of overcoming the difficulty of moving about in the Landes. In addition, they raise a man to a commanding altitude, and enable him to go about his daily business at a pace forbidden to ordinary pedestrians. The stilts are, in truth, a modern realisation of the gift of the seven-league boots. They are so much a part of the daily life of the people that, except when he stoops his head to enter his hut, the peasant of the Landes would as soon think of taking off his legs by way of resting himself as of removing his stilts. The shepherds, out all day tending their sheep, might, if they pleased, stretch themselves at full length on the grey sand, making a pillow of the low bushes. But they prefer to stand; and you may see them, reclining against a third pole stuck in the ground at the rear, contentedly knitting stockings, keeping the while one eye upon the flock of sheep anxiously nibbling at the meagre grass.
Next to the shepherds, the most remarkable live stock in the Landes are the sheep. Such a melancholy careworn flock! poor relations of the plump Southdown that grazes on fat Sussex wolds. Long-legged, scraggy-necked, anxious-eyed, the sheep of the Landes bear eloquent testimony to the penury of the place and the difficulty of making both ends meet—which in their case implies the burrowing of the nose in tufts of sand-girt grass. To abide among such sheep through the long day should be enough to make any man melancholy. But the peasant of the Landes, who is used to his stilts, also grows accustomed to his sheep, and they all live together more or less happily ever afterwards.
The Landes is quite a prosperous province to-day compared with what it was in the time of Louis XVI. During the First Empire there was what we would call a Minister of Woods and Forests named Bremontier. He looked over the Landes and found it to be nothing more than a waste of shifting sand. Rescued from the sea by a mere freak of nature, it might, for all practical purposes, have been much more usefully employed if covered a few fathoms deep with salt water. To M. Bremontier came the happy idea of planting the waste land with fir trees. Nothing else would grow, the fir tree might. And it did. To-day the vast extent of the Landes is almost entirely covered with dark forests in perpetual verdure.
These have transformed the district, adding not only to the improvement of its sanitary condition, but creating a new source of wealth. Out of the boundless vistas of fir trees there ever flows a constant stream of resin, which brings in large revenues. Passing through the forest by the railway line from La Mothe to Arcachon, one sees every tree marked with a deep cut. It looks as if the woodman had been about, picking out trees ready for the axe, and had come to the conclusion that they might be cut down en bloc. But these marks are indications of the process of milking the forests. It is a very simple affair, to which mankind contributes a mere trifle. In order to get at the resin a piece of bark is cut off from each tree. Out of the wound the resin flows, falling into a hole dug in the ground at the roots. When this is full it is emptied into cans and carried off to the big reservoir: when one wound in the tree is healed another is cut above it, and so the tree is finally drained.
Besides this revenue from resin immense sums are obtained from the sale of timber; and thus the Landes, which a hundred years ago seemed to be an inconvenient freak of nature afflicting complaining France, has been turned into a money-yielding department.
The firs which fringe the seacoast by the long strip of land that lies between the mouth of the Gironde and the town of Bayonne have much to do with the prosperity of Arcachon. The salt lake, with its little cluster of fishermen's cottages, lies within a couple of hours' journey by rail from Bordeaux, a toiling, prosperous place, which, seated on the broad Garonne, longed for the sea. Some one discovered that there was excellent bathing at Arcachon, the bed of the salt lake sloping gently upwards in smooth and level sands. Then the doctors took note of the beneficial effects of the fir trees which environed the place. The aromatic scent they distilled was declared to be good for weak chests, and, almost by magic, Arcachon began to grow.
By swift degrees the little cluster of fishermen's cottages spread till it became a town—of one street truly, but the street is a mile and a half long, skirting the seashore and backed by the fir forests. Bordeaux took Arcachon by storm. A railway was made, and all through the summer months the population poured into the long street, filling it beyond all moderate notions of capacity. The rush came so soon, and Arcachon was built in such a hurry, that the houses have a casual appearance, recalling the towns one comes upon in the Far West of America, which yesterday were villages, and to-day have a town-hall, a bank, many grog-shops, a church or two, and four or five daily newspapers.
A vast number of the dwellings are of the proportion of pill-boxes. Some are literally composed of two closets, one called a bedroom and the other a sitting-room; or, oftener still, both used as bedrooms. Others are built in terraces a storey high and a few feet wide, with the name of the proprietor painted over the liliputian trap-door that serves for entrance hall. The idea is that you live at ease and in comfort at Bordeaux, and just run down to Arcachon for a bath. There are no bathing machines or tents; but all along the shore, in supplement of the liliputian houses that serve a double debt to pay—being residences at night and bathing-machines by day,—stand rows of sentry-boxes, whence the bather emerges arrayed in more or less bewitching attire. The water is very shallow, and enterprising persons of either sex spend hours of the summer day in paddling about in their bathing costumes.
It is a pretty, lively scene. For background the long straggling town; in the foreground the motley groups of bathers, the far-reaching smooth surface of the lake; and, beyond, the broad Atlantic, thundering impotently upon the barricade of sandhills that makes possible the peace of Arcachon.
Like all watering-places, Arcachon lives two lives. In summer-time it springs into active bustle, with house-room at a premium, and the shops and streets filled with a gay crowd. It affects to have a winter season, and is, indeed, ostentatiously divided into two localities, one called the winter-town and the other the summer-town. The former is situated on the higher ground at the back of the town, and consists of villa residences built on plots reclaimed from the fir forest.
This is well enough in the winter-time, many English people flocking thither attracted by the shelter and scent of the fir trees; but Arcachon itself—the long unlovely street—is in the winter months steeped in the depths of desolation. The shops are deserted, the pill-boxes have their lids put on, and everywhere forlorn signs hang forth announcing that here is a maison or an appartement a louer.
All through the winter months, shut up between sea and sand, Arcachon is A Town to Let.
Deprived in the winter months of the flock of holiday makers, Arcachon makes money in quite another way. Just as suddenly as it bloomed forth a fashionable watering-place, it has grown into an oyster park of world-wide renown. Last year the Arcachon oyster beds produced not less than three hundred million oysters, the cultivators taking in round figures a million francs. The oysters are distributed through various markets, but the greatest customer is London, whither there come every year fifty millions of the dainty bivalve.
"And what do they call your oysters in London?" I asked M. Faure, the energetic gentleman who has established this new trade between the Gironde and the Thames.
"They call them 'Natives'," he said, with a sly twinkle.
The Arcachon oyster, if properly packed, can live eight days out of the water, a period more than sufficient to allow for its transit by the weekly steamers that trade between Bordeaux and London. A vast quantity go to Marenne in the Charente lnferieure, where they fatten more successfully than in the salt lake, and acquire that green colour which makes them so much esteemed and so costly in the restaurants at Paris.
Oysters have, probably since the time of the Deluge, congregated in the Basin d'Arcachon; but it is only within the last thirty years the industry has been developed and placed on a footing that made possible the growth of today. Up to the year 1860 oysters were left to their own sweet will in the matter of creating a bed. When they settled upon a place it was diligently cultivated, but the lead was absolutely left to the oyster. Dr. Lalanne, in the intervals of a large medical practice at La Teste, a little place on the margin of the Basin, observed that oysters were often found attached to a piece of a wreck floating in the middle of the water far remote from the beds.
This led him to study more closely the reproductive habits of the oyster. He discovered that the eggs after incubation remained suspended in the water for a space of from three to five days. Thus, for some time after the frai season, practically the whole of the water in the Basin d'Arcachon was thick with oysters' eggs. Dr. Lalanne conceived the idea of providing this vast wealth with other means of establishing itself than were offered by a casual piece of wreck. What was wanted was something to which the eggs, floating in the water, could attach themselves, and remain till they were developed beyond the state of ova. After various experiments Dr. Lalanne adapted to the purpose the hollow roof tile in use everywhere in the South of France.
These are laid in blocks, each containing one hundred and twelve tiles, enclosed in a wooden framework. In June, when the oysters lay their eggs, these blocks of tiles are dropped into the water by the oyster beds. The eggs floating about, find the crusty surface of the tiles a convenient resting-place, and attach themselves by millions. Six months later the tiles, being examined, are found to be covered by oysters grown to the size of a silver sixpence. The tiles are taken up and the little oysters scraped off, a process facilitated by the fact that the tiles have in the first instance been coated with a solution of lime, which rubs off, carrying the tender oyster with it.
The infant oysters are next placed in iron network cases, through which the water freely passes, whilst the young things are protected from crabs and other natural enemies. At the end of a year or eighteen months, they have so far grown as to be trusted out on their own account. They are accordingly strewn on the broad oyster beds, to fatten for another year or eighteen months, when they are ready for the waiting gourmet. Your oyster is fit to eat at eighteen months of age; but there is more of it when it is three years old.
We sailed out from Arcachon across the lake to the oyster park. Here the water is so shallow that the men who tend the beds walk about them in waterproof boots coming up to their knees. This part of the bay is dotted with boats with white canopies. Seen at anchor from Arcachon they look like boats laid up for the winter season; but every one is tenanted night and day. They are the homes of the guardians of the oyster beds, who keep watch and ward through the long winter.
Even more disastrous than possible visits from a male poacher are the incursions of a large flat sea-fish, known at Arcachon as the there, with us the ray. This gentleman has a colossal appetite for oysters. Scorning to deal with them by the dozen, he devours them by the thousand, asking neither for the succulent lemon nor the grosser addition of Chili vinegar. His action with the oyster is exceedingly summary. He breaks the shell with a vigorous blow of his tail, and gobbles up the contents. As it is stated by reputable authorities that the there can dispose of 100,000 oysters in a day, it is clear that the tapping must be pretty persistent.
This selfish brute, regardless of the fact that we pay a minimum three shillings a dozen for oysters in London, is happily circumvented by an exceedingly simple device. Rowing about the oyster beds at Arcachon one notices that they are fringed with small twigs of fir trees. The natural supposition is that these are to mark the boundary of the various oyster beds; but it is in truth designed to keep out the there. This blundering fish, bearing down on the oyster bed in search of luncheon, comes upon the palisade of loosely planted twigs. Nothing in the world would be easier than for him to steer between the openings, of which there are abundance. But though he has stomach enough for a hundred thousand oysters, he has not brains enough to understand that by a little manoeuvring he might get at his meal. Repelled by the open network of twigs, he swims forlornly round and round the beds, so near and yet so far, with what anguish of heart only the lover of oysters can fathom.
The oyster beds at Arcachon belong to the State, and are leased to private persons, the leading company, which has created the British trade, having its headquarters at La Teste. The wholesale price of oysters at Arcachon is from a sovereign to forty shillings a thousand, according to size. In the long street they sell retail at from twopence to eightpence a dozen, thus realising what seems to-day the hopeless dream of the British oyster-eater.
CHRISTMAS EVE AT WATTS'S.
Wandering out of the High Street, Rochester, on the afternoon before Christmas Day, by a narrow passage to the left I came upon the old Cathedral. The doors were open, and as they were the only doors in Rochester open to me, except, perhaps, those of the tramp house at the Union, I entered, and sat down as near as befitted my condition. The afternoon service was going on, and even to tired limbs and an empty stomach it was restful and soothing to hear the sweet voices of the surpliced choristers, and the grand deep tones of the organ, echoing through the fretted roof, and rolling round the long pillared aisles. There were not ten people there besides myself, the clergy and the choir forming the bulk of the assembly. As soon as the service had been gone through, the clergy and the choir filed out, and the lay people one by one departed.
I should have liked to sit where I was all night. It was at least warm and sheltered, and I have slept on worse beds than may be made of half a dozen Cathedral chairs. But presently the verger came round, and perceiving at a glance that I was not a person likely to possess a superfluous sixpence, asked me if I was going to sit there all night. I said I was if he didn't mind; but he did, and there was nothing for it but to clear out.
"Haven't you got nowhere to go to?" asked the man, as I moved slowly off.
"Nowhere in particular," I answered.
"That's a bad look-out for Christmas-eve. Why don't you go over to Watts's?"
"It's a house in High Street, where you'll get a good supper, a bed, and a fourpenny-bit in the morning if you can show you'em an honest man, and not a regular tramp. There's old Watts's muniment down by the side of the choir. A reglar brick he was, who not only wrote beautiful hymns, but gave away his money for the relief of the pore."
My heart warmed to the good old Doctor whose hymns I had learnt in my youth, little thinking that the day would come when I should be thankful to him for more substantial nourishment. I had intended to go in the ordinary way to get a night's lodging in the casual ward; but Watts's was evidently a better game, and getting from the verger minute directions how to proceed in order to gain admittance to Watts's, I left the Cathedral.
The verger was not a bad-hearted fellow, I am sure, though he did speak roughly to me at first. He seemed struck with the fact that a man not too well clad, who had nowhere particular to sleep on the eve of Christmas Day, could scarcely be expected to be "merry." All the time he was talking about Watts's he was fumbling in his waistcoat pocket, and I know he was feeling if he had there a threepenny-bit. But if he had, it didn't come immediately handy, and before he got hold of it the thought of the sufficient provision which awaited me at Watts's afforded vicarious satisfaction to his charitable feelings, and he was content with bidding me a kindly good-night, as he pointed my road down the lane to the police-office, where, it seemed, Dr. Watts's guests had to put in a preliminary appearance.
Crossing High Street, passing through a sort of courtyard, and down some steps, I reached a snug-looking house, which I had some difficulty in believing was a police-office. But it was, and the first thing I saw was seven men lounging about the yard. They didn't seem like regular tramps, but they had a look as if they had walked far, and each man carried a little bundle and a stick. The verger had told me that only six men per night were admitted to Watts's, and there were seven already.
"Are you for Watts's?" one of them, a little, sharp-looking fellow, with short light hair pasted down over his forehead, asked me, seeing me hesitate.
"Well, it ain't no go to-night. There's seven here, and fust come, fust served."
"Don't believe him, young 'un," said an elderly man, "it's all one what time you come, so as it's afore half-past five you'll take your chance with the rest of us."
It was not yet five, so I loafed about with the rest of them, being scowled upon by all except the elderly man till the arrival of two other travellers removed to them the weight of the odium I had lightly borne. At a quarter to six a police-sergeant appeared at the door of the office and said:
This was generally interpreted as a signal to advance, and we stood forward in an irregular line. The sergeant looked around us sternly till his eye lighted upon the elderly man.
"So you're trying it on again, are you?"
"I've not been here for two months, if I may never sleep in a bed again," whimpered the elderly man.
"You was here last Monday week that I know of, and may be since. Off you go!" and the elderly gentleman went off with an alacrity that rather reduced the wonderment I had felt at his disinterested intervention to prevent my losing a chance, suggesting, as it did, that he felt the probability of gaining admission was exceedingly remote.
I was the next upon whom the eye of the police-sergeant loweringly fell.
"What do you want?"
"A night's lodging at Watts's."
"Watts's is for decent workmen on the tramp. You ain't a labourer. Show me your hands." I held out my hands, and the police-sergeant examined the palms critically.
"What are you?"
"A paper stainer."
"Where have you been to?"
"I came from Canterbury last."
"Where do you work?"
"In London when I can find work."
"Where are you going now?"
"How much money have you got?"
I don't know whether a murder had recently been committed in Kent, and whether I in some degree answered to the description of the supposed murderer. If it were so, the unfortunate circumstance will explain why the sergeant should have run me through and through with his eyes whilst propounding these queries, and why he should have made them in such a gruff voice. However, he seemed to have finally arrived at the conclusion that I was not the person wanted for the murder, and after a brief pause he said, "Go inside."
I went inside, into one of the snuggest little police-offices I have seen in the course of some tramping, and took the liberty of warming myself by the cosy fire, whilst the remaining applicants for admission to Watts's were being put through a sort of minor catechism such as that I had survived. Presently the sergeant came in with the selected five of my yard companions, and, taking us one by one, entered in a book, under the date "24th December," our several names, ages, birthplaces and occupations, also the names of the last place we had come from, and the next whither we were going. Then, taking up a scrap of blue paper with some printed words on it, and filling in figures, a date, and a signature, he bade us follow him.
Out of the snug police-office—which put utterly in the shade the comforts of the cathedral regarded as a sleeping place—across the courtyard, which somebody said faced the Sessions House, down High Street to the left till we stopped before an old-fashioned white house with a projecting lamp lit above the doorway, shining full on an inscription graven in stone. I read it then and copied it when I left the house next morning. It ran thus:—
RICHARD WATTS, Esqr. by his will dated 22 Aug., 1579, founded this charity for six poor travellers, who not being Rogues, or Proctors, may receive gratis, for one Night, Lodging, Entertainment, and four pence each. In testimony of his Munificence, in honour of his Memory, and inducement to his Example, Nathl. Hood, Esq., the present Mayor, has caused this stone, gratefully to be renewed, and inscribed, A.D. 1771.
It was not Dr. Watts, then, as the verger had given me to understand. I was sorry, for it had seemed like going to the house of an old friend, and I had meant after supper to recite "How doth the little Busy Bee" for the edification of my fellow-guests, and to tell them what I had learnt long ago of the good writer's life and labours.
"Here we are again, Mrs. Kercham," said our conductor, stepping into the low hall of the white house.
"Yes, here you are again," replied an old lady, dressed in black, and wearing a widow's cap. "Have you got 'em all to-night?"
"Yes, six—all tidy men. Can you write, Mr. Paper Stainer?"
I could write, and did, setting forth, in a book which lay on a table in a room labelled "Office," my name, age, occupation, and the town whence I had last come. Three of the other guests followed my example. Two could not write; and the sergeant, paying me a compliment on my beautiful clerkly handwriting, asked me to fill in the particulars for them. This ceremony over, we were shown into our bedrooms, and told to give ourselves "a good wash." My room was on the ground-floor, out in the yard: and I hope I may never be shown into a worse. It was not large, being about eight feet square, nor was it very high. The walls were whitewashed, and the floor clean. A single small window, deep set in the thick stone-built walls, looked out on to the yard, and by it stood the solitary piece of furniture, a somewhat rickety Windsor chair. I except the bed, which was supposed to stand in a corner, but actually covered nearly the whole of the floor. The bedstead was of iron, and, I should imagine, was one of the earliest constructions of the sort ever sold in this country.
"I put on three blankets, being Christmas-time, though the weather is not according; so you can take one off if you like."
"Thank you, ma'am; I'll leave it till I go to bed, if you please." Much reason had I subsequently to be thankful for my caution.
After having washed, I came out, and was told to go into a room, facing my bedroom, on the other side of the yard. Here I found three of my fellow-guests sitting by a fire, and in a few minutes the other two arrived, all looking very clean and (speaking for myself particularly) feeling ravenously hungry. The chamber, which had "Travellers' Room" painted over the doorway, was about twelve or thirteen feet long and eight wide, and, like our bedrooms, was not remarkable for variety of furniture. A plain deal table stood at one end, and then there were two benches, and that's all. Over the mantelpiece a large card hung with the following inscription:—
"Persons accepting this charity are each supplied with a supper, consisting of half a pound of meat, one pound of bread, and half a pint of porter at seven o'clock in the evening, and fourpence on leaving the house in the morning. The additional comfort of a good fire is given during the winter months, from October 18th till March 10th, for the purpose of drying their clothes and supplying hot water for their use. They go to bed at eight o'clock."
This was satisfactory, except inasmuch as it appeared that supper was not to be forthcoming till seven o'clock, and it was now only twenty minutes past six. This forty minutes promised to be harder to bear than the hunger of the long day; but the pain was averted by the appearance at half-past six of a pleasant-looking young woman, carrying a plate of cold roast beef in each hand. These she put down on the table, supplementing them in course of time with four similar plates, six small loaves, and as many mugs of porter.
It does not become guests to dictate arrangements, but if the worshipful trustees of Watts's knew how tantalising it is to a hungry man to see cold roast beef brought in in a slow and deliberate manner, they would buy a large tray for the use of the pleasant young person, and let the feast burst at once upon the vision of the guests.
Sharp on the stroke of seven we drew the benches up to the table, and Mrs. Kercham, standing at one end and leaning over, said grace. Impatiently hungry as I was, I could not help noticing the precise terms in which the good matron implored a blessing. I suppose she had had her tea in the parlour. At any rate, she was not going to favour us with her company, and so, bending over our plates of cold beef, she lifted up her voice and said with emphasis,—
"For what you are about to receive out of His bountiful goodness may the Lord make you truly thankful."
I write the personal pronoun with a capital letter, not being quite certain from Mrs. Kercham's rapid enunciation whether the bountiful goodness was Mr. Watts's or the Lord's.
Six emphatic "Amens!" followed, and before the sound had died away six able-bodied men had fallen-to upon the beef and the bread in a manner that would have done kind Master Watts's heart good had he beheld them.
I think I had done first, for I remember when I looked round the table my fellow-guests were still eating and washing their suppers down with economical draughts from the half-pint mugs of porter. They—I think I may say we—did credit to the selection of the police sergeant, and, so far as appearances went, fulfilled one of the requirements of Master Watts, there being nothing of the rogue in our faces, if I except a slight hint in the physiognomy of the little man with the fair hair plastered down over his forehead, and perhaps I am prejudiced against him.
It was a little after seven when the plates were all polished, the mugs drained, and nothing but a few crumbs left to tell where a loaf had stood. The pleasant young person coming in to clear the table, we drew up round the fire, and for the first time in our more than two hours' companionship began to exchange remarks.
They were of the briefest and most commonplace character, and attempts made to get up a general conversation signally failed. "What do you do?" "Where do you come from?" "Things hard down there?" were staple questions, with an occasional "Did you hear tell of Joe Mackin on the road?" or "Was Bill O'Brien there at the time?" From the replies to these inquiries I learnt that my companions were respectively a fitter, a painter, a waiter, and two indefinitely self-described as "labourers." They had walked since morning from Faversham, from Sittingbourne, from Gravesend, and from Greenwich, and, sitting close around the fire, soon began to testify to their weariness by nodding, and even snoring.
"Well, lads, I'm off, goodnight," said the painter, yawning and stretching himself out of the room.
One by one the remaining four quickly followed, and before what I had on entering regarded as the absurdly early hour of eight o'clock had struck, five of Watts's guests had gone to bed, and the sixth was sitting looking drowsily in the fire, and thinking what a jolly Christmas he was having.
I was awakened by a familiar voice inquiring whether I was "going to sit up all night," and opening my eyes beheld the matron standing by me with a shovelful of coal in one hand and a small jug in the other. Her voice was sharp, but her look was kind, and I was not a bit surprised when she threw the coal on the fire, and, putting down the jug, which evidently contained porter, said she would bring a glass in a minute.
"I'm not going to bed myself for a bit, and if you like to sit by the fire and smoke a pipe and drink a glass whilst I mend a stocking or two, you'll be company."
So we sat together by Master Watts's fire, and whilst I drank his porter and smoked my own tobacco, the matron mended her stockings, and told me a good deal about the trials she had gone through in a life that would never again see its sixtieth year. Forty years she had spent under the roof of Watts's, and knew all about the old man's will, and how he ordered that after the re-marriage or the death of his wife, his principal dwelling-house, called Satis, on Boley Hill, with the house adjoining, the closes, orchards, and appurtenances, his plate and his furniture, should be sold, and the proceeds be placed out at usury by the Mayor and citizens of Rochester for the perpetual support of an alms-house then erected and standing near the Market Cross; and how he further ordained that there should be added thereto six rooms, "with a chimney in each," and with convenient places for six good mattresses or flock beds, and other good and sufficient furniture for the lodgment of poor wayfarers for a single night.
Had she many people come to see the quaint old place beside those whom the police-sergeant brought every night?
Not many. The visitors' book had been twenty years in the house, and it was not nearly full of names.
I took up the book, and carelessly turning back the leaves came upon the signature "Charles Dickens," with "Mark Lemon" written underneath.
I know Dickens pretty well—his books, I mean, of course—and said, with a gratified start, "Ha! has Dickens been here?"
"Yes, he has," said the matron, in her sharpest tones, "and a pretty pack of lies he told about it. Stop a bit."
I stopped accordingly whilst the old lady flew out of the room, and flying back again with a well-worn pamphlet in her hand, shoved it at me, saying, "Read that." I opened it, and found it to be the Christmas number of Household Words for 1854. It was entitled "The Seven Poor Travellers," and the opening chapter, in Mr Dickens's well-known style, described by name, and in detail, the very house in which I had taken my supper.
It was a charming narrative, I, poor waif and stray, felt a strong personal regard for the great novelist as I read the cheery story in which he sets forth how, calling at the house on the afternoon before Christmas-day, he obtained permission to give a Christmas feast to the six Poor Travellers; how he ordered the materials for the feast to be sent in from his own inn; how, when the feast was set upon the table, "finer beef, a finer turkey, a greater prodigality of sauce and gravy," he never saw; and how "it made my heart rejoice to see the wonderful justice my travellers did to everything set before them." All this and much more, including "a jug of wassail" and the "hot plum-pudding and mince pies," which "a wall-eyed young man connected with the fly department at the hotel was, at a given signal, to dash into the kitchen, seize, and speed with to Dr. Watts's Charity," was painted with a warmth and colour that made my mouth water, even after the plate of cold beef, the small loaf, and the unaccustomed allowance of porter.
"How like Dickens!" I exclaimed, with wet eyes, as I finished the recital; "and he even waited in Rochester all night to give his poor Travellers 'hot coffee and piles of bread and butter in the morning!'"
"Get along with you! he didn't do nothing of the sort."
"What! didn't he come here, as he says, and give the poor Travellers a Christmas treat?"
Not a bit of it; as the matron, with indignation that seemed to have lost nothing by lapse of years, forthwith demonstrated. There had been no supper, no wassail, no hot coffee in the morning, and, in truth, no meeting between Charles Dickens and the Travellers, at Christmas or at any other time.
Indeed, the visitors' book testified that the visit had been paid on May 11th, 1854, and not at Christmastide at all.
It was time to go to bed after that, and I left the matron to cool down from the boiling-point to which she had been suddenly lifted at sight of the ghost of 1854. My little room looked cheerless enough in the candlelight, but I had brought sleep with me as a companion, and knew that I should soon be as happy as if my bed were of down, and the roof-tree that of Buckingham Palace.
And so in sooth I would have been but for the chimney. Why did the otherwise unexceptional Master Watts insist upon the chimney? Such a chimney it was, too, yawning across the full length of one side of the room, and open straight up to the cold sky. There was—what I forgot to mention in the inventory—a sort of tall clothes-horse standing before the enormous aperture, and after trying various devices to keep the wind out, I at last bethought me of the supernumerary blanket, and, throwing it over the clothes-horse, I leaned it against the chimney board. This served admirably as long as it kept its feet, and when it blew down, as it did occasionally during the night, it only meant putting up and refixing it, and the exercise prevented heavy sleeping.
At seven in the morning we were called up, and after another "good wash," went our ways, each with fourpence sterling in his hand, the parting gift of hospitable Master Watts.
"Good-bye, paper-stainer," said the matron, as, after looking up and down High Street, I strode off towards the bridge, Londonwards. "Come and see us again if you are passing this way."
"Thank you,—I will," I said.
NIGHT AND DAY ON THE CARS IN CANADA.
The voice broke the stillness of a long night, and suddenly woke me out of a deep sleep. There was a moment's pause, and then the voice, which sounded singularly near to my bed-curtains, spoke again.
"You have given me the wrong boots."
From the foot of my bed, as it seemed, there came another voice which said, with querulous emphasis, "These are not my boots."
Then followed explanations, apologies, and interchange of boots; and before the parleying had come to an end I was sufficiently awake to remember that on the previous night I had gone to bed in a Pullman car at Montreal, and had been speeding all night towards Halifax. It had been mild autumnal weather in Montreal, and the snow, which a week ago had fallen to the depth of two or three inches, had melted and been trodden out of sight save for the sprinkling which remained on the crest of Mount Royal. Here, as a glance through the window disclosed, we were again in the land of snow. It was not deep, for winter had not yet set in, and the sleighs, joyfully brought out at the first fall, had been relegated to summer quarters. But there was quite enough about to give the country a cheerful wintry aspect, the morning sun shining merrily over the white fields and the leafless trees, bare save for the foliage with which the snowflakes had endowed them. It may have been an equally fine morning in Montreal, but it is certain it seemed twice as bright and fresh here, and we began to realise something of those exhilarating properties of the Canadian air of which we had fondly read.
On this long journey eastward travellers do not enter the city of Quebec. They pass by on the other side of the river, and thus gain the advantage of seeing Quebec as a picture should be seen, from a convenient distance. Moreover, like many celebrated paintings, Quebec will not stand inspection at the length of the nose. But even taken in detail, walking through its narrow and steep streets, there is much to delight the eye. It has quaint old houses, and shops with pea green shutters, over which flaunt crazy, large-lettered signs that it could have entered into the heart of none but a Frenchman to devise. Save for the absence of the blouse and the sabot you might, picking your way through the mud in a street in the lower part of the city, imagine yourself in some quarters of Dieppe or Calais, or any other of the busier towns in the north of France. The peaked roofs, the unexpected balconies, the ill-regulated gables, and the general individuality of the houses are pleasing to the eye wearied with the prim monotony of English street architecture.
Quebec, to be seen at its best, should be gazed at from the harbour, or from the other side of the river. This morning it is glorious, with its streets in the snow, its many spires in the sunlight, and the blue haze of the hills in the distance. We make our first stoppage at Point Levi, the station for Quebec, and here are twenty minutes for breakfast. The whereabouts of breakfast is indicated by a youth, who from the steps of an "hotel" at the station gate stolidly rings a bell. The passengers enter, and are shown into a room, in the centre of which is a large stove. The atmosphere is simply horrible. The double windows are up for the still dallying winter, and, as the drops of dirty moisture which stand on the panes testify, they are hermetically closed. The kitchen leads out of the room by what is apparently the only open door in the house, every other being jealously closed lest peradventure a whiff of fresh air should get in. It is impossible to eat, and one is glad to pay for the untasted food and get out into the open air before the power of respiration is permanently injured.
It was said this is the only place where there would be any chance of breakfast, nothing to eat till Trois Pistoles is reached, late in the afternoon. Happily this information turned out ill-founded. At L'Islet, a little station reached at eleven o'clock a stoppage was made at an unpretentious but clean and fresh restaurant, where the people speak French and know how to make soup.
A few years ago a journey by rail between Montreal and Halifax, without break save what is necessary for replenishing the engine stores, would have been impossible. The Grand Trunk, spanning the breadth of the more favoured provinces of Ontario and Quebec, leaves New Brunswick and Nova Scotia without other means of intercommunication than is afforded by its many rivers and its questionable roads. For many years Canadian statesmen, and all others interested in the practical confederation of the various provinces that make up the Dominion, felt that the primary and surest bond of union would be a railway. The military authorities were even more urgent as to the necessity of connecting Quebec and Halifax, and at one time a military road was seriously talked about. Long ago a railway was projected, and in 1846-8 a survey was carried out with that object. From that date up to 1869, when the road was actually commenced, the matter was fitfully discussed, and it was only in 1876 that the railway was opened.
It is only a single line, and as a commercial undertaking is not likely to pay at that, passing as it does through long miles of territory where "still stands the forest primeval." It was made by the Dominion Government in pursuance of a high national policy, and it adequately and admirably meets the ends for which it was devised. The total length from Riviere du Loup to Halifax is 561 miles. There is a spur running down to St. John, in the Bay of Fundy, eighty-nine miles long, another branch fifty-two miles long to Pictou, a great coal district opposite the southern end of Prince Edward Island; while a third span of eleven miles, branching off at Monckton and finishing at Point du Char, meets the steamers for Prince Edward Island, making a total length of 713 miles. The rails are steel, and the road is, mile for mile, as well made as any in England. The carriages are on the American principle—the long waggons capable of seating fifty or sixty persons, with an open passage down the centre, through which the conductor and ticket collector periodically walk. The carriages are heated to distraction by means of a huge stove at either end. It is possible to open the windows, but that is to be easily accomplished only after an apprenticeship too long for the stay of the average traveller. After a painful hour one gets accustomed to the atmosphere of the place, as it is happily possible to grow accustomed to any atmosphere. But the effect of these fierce stoves and obstinate windows must be permanently deleterious.
The Pullman car has fortunately come to make railway travelling in America endurable. Apart from other considerations, the inevitable stove is better managed. You are thoroughly warmed,—-occasionally, it is true, parboiled. But there is at least freedom from the sulphurous atmosphere which pervades the ordinary car, with its two infernal machines, one at either end. In addition, the Pullman cars have more luxurious fittings, and are hung on smoother springs. It is at night their value becomes higher, and travellers are inclined to lie awake and wonder how their fathers and elder brothers managed to travel in the pre-Pullman era.
Life is too short to limit travel on this continent to the daytime. Travelling eight hours a day by rail, which we in England think a pretty good allowance, it would take just five days to go from Montreal to Halifax. Thanks to the Pullman car and its adequate sleeping accommodation, a business man may leave Montreal at ten o'clock at night, say on Monday, and be in Halifax in time to transact business shortly after noon on Wednesday. Thus he loses only a day, for he must sleep somewhere, and he might find many a worse bed than is made up for him on a Pullman. The arrangements for ventilation leave nothing to be desired save a little less apprehension on the part of Canadians of the supposed malign influence of fresh air. If you can get the ventilators kept open you may sleep with impunity. But, as far as a desire for preserving the goodwill of my immediate neighbours controls me, I would, being in Canada, as soon pick a pocket as open a window. One night, before the beds were made up I secretly approached the coloured gentleman in charge of the carriage and heavily bribed him to open the ventilators. This he faithfully did, as I saw, but when I awoke this morning, half stifled in the heavy atmosphere, I found every ventilator closed.
After leaving Quebec, and for a far-reaching run, the railway skirts the river St. Lawrence, of which we get glimpses near and far as we pass. The time is not far distant when this mighty river will be frozen to the distance of fully a mile out, and men may skate where Atlantic steamers sail. At present the river is free, but the frost comes like a thief in the night, and the wary shipmasters have already gone into winter quarters. The railway people are also preparing for the too familiar terrors of the Canadian winter. As we steamed out of Quebec we saw the snow-ploughs conveniently shunted, ready for use at a moment's notice. The snowsheds are a permanent institution on the Intercolonial Railway. The train passes through them sometimes for the length of half a mile. They are simply wooden erections like a box, built in parts of the line where the snow is likely to drift. Passing swiftly through them just now you catch glimmers of light through the crevices. Presently, when the snow comes, these will be effectually closed up. Snow will lie a hundred feet thick on either side, to the full height of the shed, and the train, as watched from the line, will seem to vanish in an illimitable snow mound.
This is as yet in the future. At present the landscape has all the beauty that snow can give without the monotony of the unrelieved waste of white. Mounds of brown earth, tufts of grass, bits of road, roofs of houses, and belts of pine showing above the sprinkling of snow, give colour to the landscape. One divines already why Canadians, in building their houses, paint a door, or a side of a chimney, or a gable-end, red or chocolate, whilst all the rest is white. This looks strange in the summer, or in the bleak interregnum when neither the sun nor the north-east wind can be said absolutely to reign. But in the winter, when far as the eye can roam it is wearied with sight of the everlasting snow, a patch of red or of warm brown on the scarcely less white houses is a surprising relief.
The country in the neighbourhood of Riviere du Loup, where the Grand Trunk finishes and the Intercolonial begins, is filled with comfortable homesteads. The line runs through a valley between two ranges of hills. All about the slopes on the river side stand snug little houses, each within its own grounds, each having a peaked roof, which strives more or less effectually to rival the steepness of its neighbour. The houses straggle for miles down the line, as if they had started out from Quebec with the intention of founding a town for themselves, and had stopped on the way, beguiled by the beauty of the situation. Sometimes a little group stand together, when be sure you shall find a church, curiously small but exceedingly ornate in its architecture. The spires are coated with a glazed tile, which catches whatever sunlight there may be about, and glistens strangely in the landscape.
The first day following the first night of our journey closed in a manner befitting its rare beauty. The sun went down amid a glow of grandeur that illuminated all the world to the west, transfigured the blue mountains veined with snow, and spread a soft roseate blush over the white lowlands. We went to bed in New Brunswick still in the hilly country named by the colonists Northumberland. We awoke to find ourselves in the narrow neck of land which connects Nova Scotia with the continent. It was like going to bed in Sweden in December, and waking in Ireland in September. The snow was melted, the sun was hidden behind the one thin cloud that spread from horizon to horizon, and the sharp, brisk air of yesterday was exchanged for a cold, wet atmosphere, that distilled itself in dank drops on the window-panes. The aspect of the country was also changed. The ground was sodden, the grass brown with perpetual wet. In one field we saw the hapless haycocks floating in water. Thus it was through Nova Scotia into Halifax—water everywhere on the ground, and threatening rain in the air.
EASTER ON LES AVANTS.
We nearly lost our Naturalist between Paris and Lausanne. It was felt at the time, more especially by the latest additions to the party, that this would have been a great calamity. Habits, long acquired, of stopping by the roadside and minutely examining weeds or bits of stone, are not to be eradicated in a night's journey by rail. Accordingly, wherever the train stopped the Naturalist was, at the last moment, discovered to be absent, and search parties were organised with a promptness that, before we reached Dijon, had become quite creditable. But the success achieved begat a condition of confidence that nearly proved fatal. In travelling on a French line there is only one thing more remarkable than the leisurely way in which an express train gets under way after having stopped at a station, and that is the excitement that pervades the neighbourhood ten minutes before the train starts. Men in uniform go about shrieking "En voiture, messieurs, en voiture!" in a manner that suggests to the English traveller that the train is actually in motion, and that his passage is all but lost.
It was this habitude that led to our excitement at Melun. We had, after superhuman efforts, got the Naturalist into the carriage, and had breathlessly fallen back in the seat, expecting the train to move forthwith. Ten minutes later it slowly steamed out of the station, accompanied by the sound of the tootling horn and enveloped in thick clouds of poisonous smoke. This sort of thing happening at one or two other stations, we were induced to give our Naturalist an extra five minutes to gather some fresh specimen of a rare grass growing between the rails or some curious insect embedded in the bookstall. It was at Sens that, growing bolder with success, we nearly did lose him, dragging him in at the last moment, amid a scene of excitement that could be equalled elsewhere only on the supposition that the station was on fire and that five kegs of gunpowder were in the booking-office.
Shortly after leaving Dijon a conviction began to spread that perhaps if the fates had proved adverse, and we had lost him somewhere under circumstances that would have permitted him to come on by a morning train, we might have borne up against the calamity. Amongst a miscellaneous and imposing collection of scientific instruments, he was the pleased possessor of an aneroid. This I am sure is an excellent and even indispensable instrument at certain crises. But when you have been so lucky as to get to sleep in a railway carriage on a long night journey, to be awakened every quarter of an hour to be informed "how high you are now" grows wearisome before morning.