I have no doubt that a good many flaws may be found in these calculations; but one point is beyond dispute, viz., that a town income is always more apparent than real. Money is worth no more than its purchasing power. The business man who is offered 1000 pounds per annum in New York against 700 pounds per annum in London, refuses the offer unless it carries with it great contingent advantages, because he knows perfectly well that 700 pounds a year in London is worth a good deal more than 1000 pounds a year in New York. But the same kind of prudent calculation is seldom applied to the case of town versus country living at home. It is impossible to persuade the labourer that a pound a week in London is really less than fifteen shillings a week in the country. Men are dazzled by mere figures, and there is no country clerk who would not jump at the idea of a fifty pounds a year rise in London, though ten minutes spent over a sum in addition and subtraction would be sufficient to assure him that he would not be enlarging his income but diminishing it. A man has to live upon a certain scale suited to his needs and tastes, but the income which makes this kind of life possible is a variable quantity. It is not by what men earn in the aggregate that their incomes should be measured, but by what they have left when the necessary cost of living is defrayed. If it costs a man fifty pounds a year more to live in London than in the country, he is obviously no better off by the extra fifty pounds he earns in London. He is not earning fifty pounds for himself but fifty pounds for the landlord, the rate-collector, the gas-man, the restaurant proprietor, the omnibus and railway companies. His gold never reaches his own pocket; it is filched from him by dexterous thieves; it gleams before him for an instant like the coin spun in the air by the conjurer or thimble-rigger, and then vanishes for ever. Yet I have found few men keen enough to penetrate the delusion; it would seem they love to be deluded, and by their conduct justify the satiric lines of Hudibras—
Doubtless the pleasure is as great To cheated be as 'tis to cheat.
In most things I claim to be no wiser than my fellow-men, but in this I knew myself wiser; I knew where I was cheated. I knew that the schoolmaster who cost me thirty pounds a year was a licensed footpad; half the money spent in restaurants and tea-shops was blackmail paid to respectability; the landlord who took his forty-five pounds a year from my pocket was a mere robber, who took advantage of the need I had to live in a certain locality that I might attend to my vocation. Not only were my brains exploited that my employer might maintain a sumptuous house at Kensington, but the wage he paid me was exploited by a host of other people, who had houses of their own to maintain. Before I could feed my children I must help to pay for and cook the dinner of the folk who lived on the dividends of railways and omnibus companies. On the way to my office the tailor took toll of me by forcing me to wear a garb which I detested, simply because I dared wear no other garb. I could not even drink plain water but that some one was the richer. I was the common gull of the thing called convention. I was plucked to the skin, and if my skin had been worth turning into leather, some one would have put in a claim to that. Even for my skin, poor asset as it was, some one did wait, when it had ceased to be of use to me, for London cemeteries declare dividends upon the dead. My case reminded me of an old gentleman I once knew, who wore so many coats, waistcoats, and shirts to keep warmth in a body of singular attenuation, that it was commonly said that by the time James Smith undressed at night there was very little James Smith that was discoverable. Certainly by the time London had done wringing gold out of me there was very little gold left that was my own.
There was, however, one kind of comfort to be deduced from these reflections; if I was not nearly so well off as I appeared to be, I had all the less to lose. Rightly considered it would not be 250 pounds per annum that I should lose by leaving London, for I had never possessed that sum, I calculated my real loss at something nearer 150 pounds, and this seemed not so terrible a thing. I had my forty pounds a year for certain. I had the small earnings of my pen, and with abundant time upon my hands I saw every reason why these should be increased. Could I face a new kind of life upon an income of seventy pounds per annum? Ah, how anxiously that problem was debated with my wife, many a night when the children were abed! The natural conservatism of woman had a great deal to say in these debates. 'It was all very well,' said my wife, 'to do these little sums on paper, but suppose the facts did not correspond? Suppose I found no cottage at twenty pounds a year, and no decent school at sixpence a week? Then the world was full of writers for the press.' (I frowned.) 'Not of course like you, not half so good,' she added with a smile, 'but how do you know that you will succeed? Show me a fixed income of 100 pounds a year, and I would chance it, for I can live simply enough,' she would say, 'and am as fond of liberty as you.'
She might have added what I knew to be true, that the penalties of London life fell heavier upon her than me. I was not insensible to the instantaneous lightening of spirits that happened with her when she was able to forsake the abominable purlieus of the cellar-kitchen where her life was spent; and although I knew not half her toils, nor half her dejections and anxieties, which were sedulously kept from me, yet I was not wholly blind. I had seen her too amid the roses of a cottage garden flying the colour of long-forgotten roses in her cheeks; in the hay-field shaking off a dozen years in as many hours; and although she was always young to me, she never seemed so young and sweet as when we walked a honeysuckled lane together. Her desire was with me I knew well; she had no fear of poverty, and would have been content with plainer fare than I; but her children made her prudent.
At last the one thing happened which made her prudence coincide with her desires; one of the children sickened with a languor that was the precursor of disease, and the doctors said that only country air could bring back strength. And then fate itself took the whole matter out of my control. Something happened in the city—I know not what—and the firm I served came near to shipwreck. Business shrank to a diminished channel, and the staff of clerks must needs be reduced. I have said some hard words of my employer as the exploiter of my labour; he will appear no more in this history, and my last word about him shall be justly kind. He broke the news of his misfortune to me with a delicacy that made me respect him, and with a hesitating painful shame that made me pity him. He praised me beyond my merit for my twenty years of service; he had hoped to keep me with him for another twenty years, and I believe he spoke the truth when he said it pained him to think that his misfortunes should be mine. He handed me in silence a cheque for fifty pounds. He then shook my hand heartily, murmured some vague words about hoping to reinstate me if things should mend, and hurried from me; and in his broken look and bowed shoulders I read the prophecy that his days of fortune and success were gone for ever. The little tragedy was played out in less than ten minutes. I locked my desk, put on my hat and coat, and went out into the street; and my heart felt a pang at leaving the place which I should never have imagined possible. I had walked fully half a mile before another thought occurred to me. My blood suddenly sang in my veins, and I remembered that I was an emancipated slave; at last I was Free!
IN SEARCH OF THE PICTURESQUE
I was free, but what was I to do with my freedom? Ingenious apologists for slavery used to argue that the slave was much happier as a bondman than a freeman, as long as the conditions of his bondage were not unendurably harsh: but no one ever knew a slave who held this creed. There never was a slave who did not prefer his dinner of herbs, earned by his own labour, to the stalled ox of luxurious captivity. For my part, I thought the air never tasted so sweet as on that morning of my liberation. I walked slowly, drawing long breaths, that I might taste its full relish, as a connoisseur passes an exquisite and rare wine over his palate, that he may discriminate its subtleties. I became a lounger, and took the pavement with the air of a gentleman at ease. I wandered into Hyde Park, paid my penny for a seat, and sat down almost dizzy with the unaccustomed thought that there was not a human being in the universe who, at that moment, had the smallest claim to make upon my time or energy. An hour passed in a kind of ecstatic dream. It chanced to be a morning when Queen Victoria was driving from Paddington to Buckingham Palace, and every instant the throng of carriages increased. Standing on my seat, I saw an immense lane of people, silent as a wood; a contagious shiver stirred them, like a gust of wind amongst the leaves; I saw the distant glitter of helmets and cuirasses, and the pageant swept along with that one tired, kindly, homely face for its centre of attraction, luring loyalty even from a heart so republican as mine by its air of patient weariness. I thought, and I believed the thought sincere, that I would not have exchanged places with her who was the mistress of so many peoples, the Empress of such indeterminable Empire. My new-born loyalty was three-parts pity. Had she, who sat there in such 'lonely splendour,' ever known the day, since as a young girl the heavy rod of empire was intrusted to her frail and unaccustomed hands, when she woke to say, 'This day I am free, I will go where I will, do as I please, and none shall stay me?' Yet I, a manumitted clerk, had come upon this singular and glad day; and I had it in my heart to say with Emerson, 'Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of empire ridiculous.'
I turned slowly homeward in this glow of exultation. I should have run, for the news, either good or evil, called for instant communication. Let my delay stand excused; I had certain matters to be settled with myself that morning. My feet had to learn a new kind of movement, and my thoughts a new sequence; I was as a child learning to walk and think before I could take my place on equal terms with new companions. One incident of my walk struck me by way of humour and discovery. I had often strolled into bookshops toward evening, and had remarked upon the cold discourtesy with which my presence was regarded. Now I knew the reason; I had come at the clerk's hour, and the keen eyes of discriminating shopmen had recognised my low estate. I came now under altered auspices. To shop at three in the afternoon is to give proof of leisure; behold, in the eyes of obsequious shopmen I had at once become a wealthy dilettante, nurturing the growth of an expensive library, and the rarest books were laid before me with an ingratiating smile. Let the man who would understand how much the estimates men take of us are based on wealth, or supposed wealth, make the brief experiment of shopping at the rich man's hour, instead of at the poor man's; he will be surprised to note the difference of the social atmosphere. A man's clothes may be poor enough, and his appearance contemptible, but if he will shop at the hour when all the drudges are at work, no one will take him for a drudge. I will confess it gave me pleasure to note this change of estimate. I seemed to taste the first privilege of a freeman, when a pursy bookseller took from a glass case certain expensive books on Art, and drew my attention, with subtle deference to my judgment, to the merits of the pictures they contained. I may as well confess at once, that so intoxicated was I with the new respect that greeted me, that I even bought one of these volumes, which I did not need, and certainly could not afford. It was a weakness and a folly, no doubt; but how could I tell my obsequious friend that I paid my guinea not for anything he sold me, but as a sort of first footing on my entrance to the realm of freedom? I might have spent it much worse, for I bought my self-respect with it.
The sight of my doorstep brought me to my bearings, for a man's own doorstep is a rare corrective of disordered fancies. The fact I had to communicate was briefly this; That I had lost 250 pounds per annum, against which I had 50 pounds to show by way of compensation. Women, I have long noticed—or women of the best kind, I ought to add—have much more genius in finance than men. They have a much keener sense of the use of money; an excellent thing in women when it does not deteriorate into cheese-paring and sordid parsimony. They, being primitive and unsophisticated creatures, are unacquainted with the lax morals of the cheque-book; a pound is just twenty shillings to them, and each shilling is an entity, and each is spent with an indomitable aim to get the most out of it. How would my wife regard the definite disappearance of five thousand shillings? Not with levity, I knew; and I thought it best to say nothing of that guinea volume on the Tombs of the Etruscans. The Tombs of the Etruscans would have meant to her three pairs of boots; and I wished that I might conceal it in mine. A wise bishop once argued that marriage was ordained not for man's pleasure, but his discipline; I believe that he was not far wrong. It is no use disputing the fact that the married man is always in danger of the judgment; and it is only by some form of bribery that he can hope to escape being cast in damages. I resolved on bribery, and made my cheque the bribe. Here said I, was present wealth, let us be content. The plea was not received with instant favour, but it was not wholly ineffectual. By the time we sat down to supper that night we had all attained to cheerfulness. It was a meal of some tenuity, not calculated to lie heavy on the stomach; for, said Charlotte, 'If we have to begin high thinking and plain living, we can't begin too early.' The only load on my digestion that night was the Tombs of the Etruscans.
It says much for the steadfastness of our convictions, that in this new crisis of affairs the old resolution to seek a country life passed unquestioned. What to another had seemed calamity appeared to us opportunity. When the daily paper came next morning, it was not to the columns where commerce chronicles its wants that my eye turned, but to the much more engaging columns where lands and houses were advertised for sale. This part of the newspaper had long ago attracted me by its fine air of surreptitious romance. My mind had often been kept aglow for a whole day by some seductive advertisement of cottages 'situate amid pine-woods,' or farmhouses, all complete, even to the styes and kennels, which by all accounts were to be given away. One such advertisement I particularly remember for a kind of insane generosity which pervaded it. It described at length a farmhouse, 'stone-built and covered with ivy' (observe the very definite sense of the picturesque conveyed in this phrase), containing ten rooms, commanding pleasant views of a well-wooded country, together with a large orchard, and one hundred and fifty acres of freehold land, the whole of which might be purchased for 750 pounds; and, added the advertiser, 'the furniture at present in the house is included in the price.' I do not know where this terrestrial Paradise existed; I believe it was in Essex; but I often regretted that I made no effort to discover it.
However, the morning paper, if it contained no paragraph comparable with this in point of style and seduction, certainly did appear singularly rich in Paradises. Philanthropists, disguised as land-agents, contended eagerly with one another through many columns of advertisements, offering a reluctant world all the advantages of rural happiness on what appeared merely nominal terms. It appeared that they did not even want the money, which they mentioned only in a kind of gentlemanly whisper; pay them but 100 pounds in sound cash, and the rest might stand at mortgage upon easy terms for an indefinite period! One might have imagined that the whole of rural England was depopulated; that Eden itself had been cut up into building lots; that, in fact, the land-agent was subsidised by a paternal government to persuade the townsman to turn landed proprietor on terms which even the squatter in new lands would regard as generous.
The reality I soon found to be entirely different. The moment I set about the deliberate business of finding a cottage I made a series of surprising discoveries which I will now relate.
In the first place, I found that many of these much vaunted farmhouses were situated in districts utterly destitute of beauty, and even desolate. One specimen may stand for the whole. I omit the particulars of the advertisement, which was drawn up in the usual style; but I must say, in justice to its author, that when I interviewed him in his city office he did what he could to discourage too abundant hope. He did not go the length of admitting his description false, but he told me drily that 'I had better see the thing for myself.' An hour's journey found me on the Essex flats. There was a bright sky and a brisk wind, but nothing could disguise the featureless monotony of the far-stretched landscape. The train put me down at a roadside station where a dogcart waited my arrival. I drove through a small village of mean, red-brick houses, and soon found myself in the open country. My driver made but one remark during the four-mile journey.
'You be come to see Dawes' farm?' he said.
I admitted the fact.
'There's a-many has come,' he replied. 'You be the twenty-first I have drove. An' they all be uncommon glad to get away agen.'
'Why?' I asked.
'You'll soon find out.'
With that he lit his pipe and smoked stolidly. I was not long in comprehending the reason of his reticence. Dawes' farm may once have been a comfortable residence, but when I saw it it was a mildewed, rat-haunted ruin. It stood upon a piece of redeemed marsh-land, and the salt damp of the marsh had eaten into its very vitals. The wainscots were discoloured, the walls oozed, and part of the roof was broken. There had once been a garden; that, like the rest, was a ruin. The land was there no doubt, fifty acres said the advertisement, but it was treeless, bleak, flat, covered with coarse grass, and cut up by muddy watercourses. To have lived in the house at all it must have been rebuilt, and even then nothing could have made it a cheerful place of residence. There was no water-supply that I could discover, unless half a dozen butts that took the drippings of the roof represented it. The orchard had long ago gone back to barbarism. It appeared that the place had been deserted for half a dozen years. I did not wonder. The only wonder was that it had ever been inhabited.
'Ah,' repeated my driver, 'there's a-many as comes an' looks, an' they all be uncommon glad to get away agen.'
I subscribed to the common sentiment. Never did that infinite diapason which we call the roar of London sound so sweet, never did those long, lighted, busy streets seem so habitable, as on that night when I returned from my casual inspection of Dawes' farm.
The memory of Dawes' farm taught me that if I was to live in the country some charm of outlook was indispensable to my content. Mountains, a lake, a wood, a running river—some delicate effect of scenery, some concourse of elements, either in themselves or in their combination beautiful—these I must have if I would be happy. They were as necessary to me as my daily bread. But here I made a second disquieting discovery; there was not a part of England which could be justly described as beautiful that was not already occupied in the degree of its accessibility. I thought of Surrey; I visited it and found myself in a superior Cockney Paradise. Half a dozen men of genius had in an inadvertent moment advertised the pure air of the Surrey highlands, and by the time I came upon the scene trim villas had sprung up by hundreds, and wealth was already in possession. The merest cottage in this favoured district provoked keen contest in the auction-room. Indeed, in the true sense, there were no cottages; they had been transformed, added to, rebuilt, till only a remnant of their primitive rusticity remained. It was the same everywhere. I was too late by twenty years in this kind of quest.
I had been led to believe by various social writers that the villages of England were depopulated. According to these fallacious chroniclers the country abounded in cottages and even small manor-houses from which the inhabitants had fled. I can only say I never found it so. A deserted roadside cottage I often found, but there were obvious reasons for its desolation. Sometimes it was so far from other houses, or any centre of congregated life, that it must have been difficult, and almost impossible, for any one residing in it to obtain the common necessaries of life. More commonly it was deserted because it was falling into ruin. But no sooner did I reach a real village than I found every house in occupation. The usual complaint was lack of accommodation. Hence rents were by no means low, and the contest for houses was vehement. If the village had real beauties of its own—a cluster of thatched and dormer-windowed cottages, properties valuable to the artist—one was sure to come upon immediate evidence of the cockney invasion. What I thought a barn would as like as not prove a studio, and it was no farmer who lived at the pleasant, yellow-washed farmhouse amid the rose-garden, but 'a gentleman from London.' And we had but to go a little way down some shady lane to find a glaring board announcing building land for lease, and from some local agent one obtained particulars of the exact kind of house which the investor would be permitted to build upon the site.
It will be said that this was not the country proper, nor was it, for London has annexed every place within fifty miles of Charing Cross. But in the country proper a new difficulty met me: not only were there no empty cottages, but landowners stuck to their acres with such jealous obstinacy that they refused to sell a rood of land for a cottage on any terms whatever. I will give one example, which may be taken as typical. There was a Welsh valley where I had once spent a summer holiday, exquisitely retired and beautiful—a dozen miles from the nearest railway. Beyond the green strath, with its few white cottages and farms, rose on every side the wide hills, with Snowdon towering over all like a dome. The hillside land had but a prairie value. It had never been cultivated. A few sheep strayed over it; but for months together no human foot trod its heather, or wandered by its vociferous cascades. One would have supposed that had any one offered to build a house on these solitary hillsides, the owner of the land would have been only too glad to have fostered a folly that would have proved remunerative to himself. On the contrary, the two great landowners of the district stuck to every inch of soil as if it had been sown with gold. The land was quite useless, as I have said. It might have been worth three pounds an acre—yet they refused fifty. They would not even let on lease. Nor could it be pretended that the scenery would have lost any element of its charm by a cottage that would have been scarcely observed on those vast slopes of Snowdon. Jealous obstinacy, the desire to keep intact their own, the desire to keep out all intruders—this was the temper of the landowners. They did all they could to harass their existing tenants. A tenant whose family had increased so that his cottage was as overcrowded as a tenement in Spitalfields, had to plead long before he was allowed to add a couple of rooms to his cottage, even when he did so at his own expense. Often enough he was refused so harshly, that he was constrained to seek a house in some other district. Yet, in all that valley, which was five miles long by two in breadth, there were not two hundred houses; and there rose around them the unpopulated hillside, where a host of people might have lived in health, and where, indeed, men had once lived, as was witnessed by the roofless gables which here and there rose among the heather.
It seems to me that in this state of things there is a monstrous injustice. There is no law to compel these gentlemen to sell land, and there is no public sentiment that can affect them. They are the complete despots of the countryside. If a man does not like their domination, he leaves the district; he knows that it is vain to resist it. In this way many rural districts are depopulated, or kept under-populated, simply to gratify the selfish temper of a great proprietor. It is not as though he lived in the district, and wished to keep its beauties secret to himself; often enough he visits it so rarely that his face is not known among his tenants. No; but he must have everything to himself; he must round off his estate; he must look from his park on nothing which is not his; for your rural Ahab could not sleep with a Naboth's little vineyard even a mile away. It is useless to tell him that the land you want is waste natural land, on which you propose to confer value; he prefers that it shall be valueless, rather than that it shall be yours. Before population can be re-distributed to the advantage of town and country alike, this difficulty must be overcome. It can only be overcome by drastic legislation. Compulsory purchase, regulated by an equitable land court, is the only remedy; and it is hard that Irishmen should have, and grumble over, privileges which their English brethren would receive with open arms.
Such were some of the discoveries which I made when I came to the real business of finding a humble country residence. In my ignorance and inexperience it had seemed the easiest thing in the world. After a fortnight of experiment I began to think it was the hardest.
I FIND MY COTTAGE
In the meantime a circumstance had occurred which was of great importance to me. Some enterprising spirits had started a new weekly local paper, and—mirabile dictu—they actually contemplated a literary page! With a faith in suburban culture, so unprecedented as to be almost sublime, these daring adventurers proposed giving their readers reviews of books, literary gossip, and general information about the doings of eminent writers. They offered the work to me at the modest honorarium of two pounds a week, and were willing to give me a three years' agreement. They were frank enough to acknowledge that their journal was likely to die of 'superiority to its public,' long before the three years were over; but, barring this disaster, they gave me assurance of regular employment. This was the very thing for me. One could write about books anywhere. I thankfully closed with the offer and began to study the ha'-penny evening papers with assiduity, in order to learn the craft of manufacturing biographies of living authors.
The greatest of all questions was thus settled: I should not starve. But the question of a local habitation remained as difficult as ever. I went upon wild-goose chases innumerable; was the victim of every kind of chance hint; gathered fallacious information from garrulous third-class passengers on many railways; confided my case to carters and rural postmen, who played upon my innocence with genial malice; stayed so long at village public-houses without visible motive that I incurred the suspicion of the local constabulary, and on one memorable occasion found myself identified with a long watched-for robber of local hen-roosts. When I dropped upon some quaint village that, from a pictorial point of view, seemed to offer all that I desired, I found my tale, that I wished to settle in it, universally derided. No one could conceive any sane person as being desirous of living in a village; the design seemed wholly unaccountable to people who themselves would have been only too glad to live in towns.
That I came from London was against me, It seemed to these village Daniels barely possible that I was honest, and quite certain that I cloaked some base designs under an innocent inquiry for empty cottages. The little black bag in which I carried my lunch on these excursions was the object of extraordinary hypotheses. At one time I was believed to be selling tracts, at another time, tea; once I was suspected of being an itinerant anarchist, doing a brisk business in infernal machines. Landladies, who had lavished smiles upon me when they supposed me an ordinary pedestrian in search of the picturesque, gave me the cold shoulder when I began to explain my genuine intentions. They sometimes treated me with such a mixture of aversion and alarm that it was plain they doubted not only my sincerity but my sanity. The travelling artist they knew, the pedlar, the insurance agent, and the cockney beanfeaster; but the stranger who desired permanent neighbourship with them they knew not; him they treated as a lunatic at large. If the papers had chanced to be full at this time of the doings of some flagrant murderer flying from justice, which fortunately for me they were not, I have little doubt that these amiable villagers would have delivered me up to the police without scruple, and have chuckled over their sagacity.
The thing was amusing enough, and yet it had a certain serious significance. It was a striking illustration of the way in which the growth of cities had perverted even the rural mind. I had thoughts of writing an article on The Reluctant Villagers, and a very good article I could have made of it; for I found hardly any one who was a villager by choice. A village might appear fair as Paradise to the casual eye; but closer inspection always revealed the serpent of discontent among the flowers. Where every outward object breathed of rest, there was universal restlessness among the people. The common ambition of all the younger generation was to get to London by almost any means, and in almost any capacity. There was not a household that had not children or relatives in London. The young ploughman went to London as a carter or ostler; the milkmaid as a servant. The village carpenter was invariably a middle-aged or an old man, secretly despised by his apprentice, if he had one, for his contentment with his lot. One saw very few young people in the village street, except mere children. The universal complaint was that life was dull. There were no libraries or reading-rooms; no concerts or entertainments; even the innocuous penny-reading had died out. Nor were there cricket clubs, or any organised system of sport, except in isolated cases. Here and there a modern-minded clergyman had recognised the need of recreation in his parishioners, and had done something to provide for it; but he was an exception. Hence it happened that the public-house was the common centre of the village life: it was the poor man's club, and it was used less for purposes of social intercourse than for the discussing of racing odds.
Artists have often painted village politicians in earnest confabulation in an oak-pannelled inn-parlour. I can only say that, so far as my experience went, I found the village politician quite extinct. The sort of talk I heard in village bar-rooms was inane and contemptible to the last degree, and it never once touched on politics. Nor, as a rule, was there any trace of that leaven of superior intelligence which comes from a fusion of the classes. All the landlords were practically non-resident. They knew nothing of their tenants; and that pleasant intercourse between hall and cottage which poets and novelists depict, rarely happened. Once a year, perhaps, and for a few weeks only, the blinds of the Hall windows were drawn up; carriages rolled through the park gates; young ladies, bright in Bond Street toilets, flashed like deities upon the village street; my Lady Bountiful left a quarter of a pound of tea at half a dozen cottages; and then the whole vision faded like an unsubstantial pageant. The blinds were drawn down again, the lodge-keeper went to sleep, and the monotonies of life submerged everything like a wave. The clergyman alone remained as the symbol of a fuller life, sometimes doing his duty with intelligence, sometimes not; but the case was rare where any definite attempt was made to uplift the village community by the infusion of any intellectual interest, any sense of Art, or any care for honest sport. And here lies the whole secret of the discontent of villages; their inhabitants are conscious of unjust deprivations in their lot; and if they remain villagers, it is rather from lethargy than love.
Were I to describe all the places I visited in search of a habitation, my list would be interminable. I have given one example in Dawes' Farm; let me give one other, as illustrating another kind of difficulty in my quest.
On an exquisite morning in June I found myself climbing the long chalk hills that lie northward of the Thames valley. At every step the air became more pure and sparkling; and while in the hazy lowlands not a leaf stirred, here a brisk and gusty breeze was blowing. The road ran through high chalk banks, like a railway cutting, and I have since found that Roman soldiers used it in the days of Caesar. At the height of three hundred feet authentic forest scenery began. Here the elms ceased, and enormous woods of beech took their place. The turf was of the greenest, the solitude intense, the air exhilarating; and never had I so admired the lace-like delicacy of foliage which distinguishes the beech, for never had I seen it in such mass or such perfection. The house I sought stood at fully eight hundred feet above sea-level, on a carpet of soft turf, round which the forest rose like a wall. Never did place look so sweetly habitable; it was a kind of green hermitage in the woods, inimitably quiet, warmed by clearest sunlight, cooled by freshest winds. Here, said I, at last is my much sought El Dorado; nor did the cottage, when I came to it, belie my hopes. It was a true woodland cottage, an intimate part and parcel of the scenery. It had been recently inhabited by a man of letters, a poet and a dreamer; and a fitter spot to dream in eye never rested on.
My enthusiasm rose as I drew nearer to it, There was a warm, homely compactness about it, as of a nest among the trees. The forest turf came to the very gate; a young orchard of five hundred trees lay to the southward of the house, a green paddock to the northward; and, as my advertisement informed me, the entire price of this eligible freehold property was five hundred pounds! Why, then, was its possessor so eager to be quit of it? I walked round the house, went through its rooms, took the view from various windows, already treating it as mine, and it was long before I came upon the cause. That cause was not its remoteness or its solitude; it was lack of water. There was no well, and to have sunk a well would have been costly. The only water-supply was the rain-water from the roofs. Men can laugh at a good many deprivations, but deprivation of water is a serious business. I found upon inquiry that the nearest spring was two miles away. In time of drought—and in this high district summer drought was normal—it was this or nothing. Water was then sold by the bucket, nor was it easy to find any one to fetch and carry for you. I had no mind to condemn myself to drink the droppings of a roof for life, nor to perform my ablutions by the aid of a teacup and a saucer. The place, for all its beauty, was plainly uninhabitable as the Sahara. A camel might have lived there with content; it was no place for a family used to the delights of tubbing. I had remarked in the owner of the house a certain elementary lack of linen; the cause was now explained. I think his only method of attaining cleanliness must have been by what is called 'the dry air process.'
This adventure lives in my memory, not only because it had delightful elements, but because it was the last of a long series, which might have been called more truthfully misadventures. For an exhilarating month I scoured the neighbourhood of London, living in a happy fever of enterprise and hope, but without result. July came, and my problem was still unsolved. I had already given notice to terminate the tenancy of my house in London, and there seemed a fair prospect that September would find me homeless. At my present height of good spirits I cannot say that even this prospect dismayed me. If the worst came to the worst I meant to take to the road in one of those convenient vans much used by travelling hawkers. I had long envied the extraordinary snugness of those itinerant habitations; to be a Dr. Marigold seemed the happiest of fates; rent free, and finally delivered from tax-collectors and their tribe, I might yet roam the world as a superior kind of vagrant. I knew indeed a young friend of mine who had adopted this very life. He sold tracts and Bibles upon village greens, and I promise you no mansion had a warmer glow of comfort than the interior of his yellow van when the lamp was lit at night for supper. He has since found his way to a lonely missionary station in Peru; but he has often told me that he was never happier than when he played the part of pious gipsy on the village greens of England. At a pinch I thought that I could do what he had done; it was a romantic trade, and a new Lavengro might be written on it.
But whatever dreams of permanent and dedicated vagrancy I might entertain, manifestly my first duty was to find a cottage if I could. At last, and almost by accident, I came on what I wanted. I had gone to the Lake District in the month of August, and one day I struck into a lonely road to the north-west of Buttermere. Half an hour's walk brought me to a tiny hamlet beside a rushing stream, and here, for the first time in all my wanderings, I found a genuine deserted cottage. To speak by the book there were two cottages exactly similar, covered by a single roof. They stood upon a gentle slope; a group of pines formed a shelter from the north, the moorland rose behind them, and the river sang through a contiguous glen. My first glance told me that they had not long been out of occupation. They showed no marks of dilapidation, and the little gardens, though weed-grown, gave signs of recent care. A woman whom I met told me their history. They had long been inhabited by two families, father and son. A few months previously these families had sailed for Canada. No one had applied for the cottages, for in that part work was scarce, and the foundries and shipyards on the coast drew away the younger population. The rent—it seemed incredible—was two shillings a week. The woman yielded to what she thought my idle curiosity, and brought me the keys. Each cottage contained four rooms, and the two could easily be thrown into one. They were dry and water-tight, the walls whitewashed and clean, the woodwork sound and well cared for. I sat down upon the sun-warmed bank beside the gate and thought. Here was solitude indeed; a dozen neighbours in all, simple labouring folk:
The silence that is in the starry sky, The sleep that is among the lonely hills.
Here, too, was beauty in excess; a glen untrodden by the feet of tourists, moorland and pine-wood, a stream that lifted up a cheerful voice, hills and mountains of delightful form and colour, and not far away the silver gleam of lakes. In all external features it was my dream come true, and the deep-bosomed woman at my side, with her face of rosy, placid health, was herself the proof of how lightly the wings of time passed over this haunt of ancient peace.
I suppose that no one ever approaches the realisation of his hopes without a kind of fear. In those imaginary dramas which we invent and rehearse perpetually in the silent theatre of our own minds, we always take care that we get the best of the situation and the dialogue. The dramas of real life are apt to end differently. The coveted occasion finds us incapable; a baffling scepticism of our own powers leaves us impotent; the part that ran so easily, with such unanimous applause, when we were both the dramatist and the actor, suddenly bristles with a hundred unsuspected difficulties. For the first time, as I sat on that sunny bank, I began to ask myself whether I could really play the part I had so long desired to play. Could I reconcile myself to seclusion so entire? Would not this weight of utter silence grow heavier than I could bear? It was not always June, I told myself, and there were days of lashing rain, grey skies, and 'death-dumb autumn dripping' fog to think of. The vision of lighted streets and bustling crowds, the warm contiguity of numbers, the long lines of windows all aglow at evening, the genial stir and tumult of congregated life, took masterful possession of my mind. Could I bear to relinquish the familiar scene? A thousand threads of use and habit bound me to it, each in itself as light as gossamer, but the whole tough as cords of steel. I foresaw that I had underestimated the ease of my deliverance. It would require a strength of consistent resolution of which perhaps I was not capable. It was but too likely that I should be one of those who put their hand to the plough and look back, a reluctant recruit of a cause that won my faith, but could not win my will. This would be not only fatal to my peace, it would make me despicable in my own eyes, which is the worst of all calamities that man can suffer.
Such a distress of mind was natural; yet I think that behind it all my thought was firm and clear. What I had proposed to do for twenty years I must do, or attempt to do, if I would retain my self-respect. I might become despicable to myself by failure in my task, but I should be much more despicable by never trying to accomplish it. In that half-hour of meditation the die was cast. I had come to my predestined battlefield. I must here be triumphant or defeated; in any case I must attempt the conflict.
The decision restored, as by a stroke of magic, all my good spirits. I examined my two cottages again with an eye less critical, more kindly, more urbane. I saw with how few touches they could be transformed into a habitation suited to my needs. With the two main rooms thrown into one I should have a spacious living-room; the two gardens would compose an admirable lawn; roses should grow against the walls, warm-hued creepers frame the upper windows; it should become a lodge in Eden. Then there was the air, the view, the company of the silent mountains and the singing stream. Here was my theatre, my orchestra, my concert-room. The woman who was my guide took me into her own cottage for a cup of tea, and I was struck with its homely air of comfort. An oak dresser, covered with blue ware such as is common in these parts, filled one wall; an oak chest of drawers another; there was a broad-seated oak settle by the fire; all solid, of a good design, and polished to a deep brown by use and industry. The floor was red brick; flowers lined the windows; and everything was clean as hands could make it. I saw my house furnished on the same plan, and it pleased me. A recollection crossed my mind, curious and most fantastic at such a time, of a certain room in one of the show-houses in London, furnished entirely in the French style. I recalled the console tables of old gilt, the brocaded couch, and the gilded chairs which no one dared to sit upon; and I confess that I preferred this habitable cottage-room. There was something satisfying in its plainness; a sense of something honest and intimately right; a suggestion of solid worth and homely ease. My spirits had already been restored by my decision; they were now invigorated to the point of joy, for I saw the concrete emblems, as it were, of the beauty which is found in true simplicity.
The next day I returned to the spot accompanied by my wife and my two boys. We made a new and elaborate inspection of the two cottages. In the afternoon the landlord, a neighbouring farmer, met us. He was a dales-man born and bred, shrewd, much given to silence, but with a plenitude of genial good sense. He began by being somewhat suspicious of us after the usual country fashion. When he at last understood the sincerity and novelty of our intentions, he treated us with a kind of fatherly derision, which had no hint of impoliteness or impertinence in it. 'It will na do, I'm thinking,' he said, several times. When he saw us persistent, and that our persistence grew in the ratio of his dissuasion, he said, just as though he were talking to wayward children, 'Well, a wilful man maun have his way. As for my bit of cottages, ye're welcome to them, an' I'll ask no rent till ye've been in them long enough to know your own minds better. They're of no worth to me, an' I'll be your debtor for living in them. If ye want to pull them aboot, ye'll do it at your own expense, I'm willing. Later on, if ye care to stay, you and me'll fix a rent, an' I gie ye ma word it shall na be more than ten pund a year. I'll help ye too if ye'll let me. I can find ye a man as 'll do all the little jobs you want done, an' glad to do it. As for fishing, the stream's yours, an' I would na say but what ye might get some shooting too. But ye'll tire of it, ye'll tire of it,' he concluded, with a grave smile.
With that he handed us the keys. He then shook our hands with the melancholy air of a man who says farewell to friends embarked upon a perilous adventure, and strode away across the heather, stopping once to wave his hand to us as if in wise dissuasion.
So Mahomet might have stood above Damascus when he said, 'My Paradise is not there,' and yet Damascus was a Paradise all the same.
We are all children, and in nothing so much perhaps as in the kind of delight we take in any form of building. The architectural efforts of a child with a box of bricks or a heap of sand explain the Tower of Babel, the Pyramids, and the Golden House of Nero. House-building unites the ideal with the real more thoroughly than any other human employment. What can there be more delightful than to see that which you have dreamed grow into tangible and enduring form? No wonder the rich man builds himself 'a lordly pleasure-house'; it is a kind of practical poetry which he can understand. Were there only millionaires enough to go round all architects would be wealthy, for building is a kind of material art admirably suited to men of material intelligence.
The weeks which followed the acquisition of my two deserted cottages were the most delightful I have ever spent. First of all, there was the question of structural alterations to be considered. In my opinion the living-room of the house is the chief consideration. It should be a room to live in, the focus of the whole life of the household. For this reason it should be large and airy, covering the whole site of the house as nearly as possible. One large room is infinitely to be preferred to two or three small rooms; it is healthier, and much more cheerful. Space and air are most needed in the room which is most in use. It is of no consequence that the bedrooms should be small; one's active hours are not spent in them, and a window left wide open summer and winter will provide an ample supply of oxygen in the smallest chamber. What can be more absurd than the arrangement of a modern London villa? It is usually cut up by partition walls into a number of small rooms, not more than one of which is in constant use. Pretension takes the place of comfort. Mrs. Grundy must have a 'drawing-room' or die! It is a kind of holiest of holies, too beautiful for normal occupation, full of gimcrack chairs that cannot be sat upon, and decorative futilities which give it the aspect of a miscellaneous stall at a 'rummage sale.' Such a room is very well as a withdrawing-room, its proper use; but as a room into which no one withdraws it is absurd. As I expected to keep no company, and needed no room into which to withdraw, I was able to get rid of this apartment. Moreover, in a very small house, common sense demanded that every room should be really and thoroughly used.
Fortunately the fireplaces of my two cottages were against the outer or gable ends, and not against the partition wall, as is commonly the case. I had only to remove this partition wall, supporting the ceiling by a strong beam, and I had a room about twenty-four long by fifteen in breadth. At the back of this room were two small kitchens, only one of which was needed. By widening the doorway leading to one of them to double its breadth, I gained another room about ten feet square. This made my library, by which I mean not a room in which I ever sat, but a room entirely devoted to the housing of my books. I had the walls entirely lined with books, making and staining the bookshelves with my own hands. Across the widened doorway from which the door had been removed hung a warm curtain, so that it was to all intents and purposes a part of my living-room. I took infinite and almost childish delight in the arrangement of this living-room. I had brought not a single article of domestic furniture with me from London. Such furniture as I had—chairs, tables, couch, sideboard, and so forth—would have looked out of place in the country, and moreover it was better economy to sell them. I sold them very well in a London auction-room, getting almost as much as they cost me. With the money thus received in my pocket I went to a neighbouring market town where there happened to be a shop that dealt in old furniture. For less than ten pounds I bought an excellent oaken gate-table, half a dozen serviceable oak chairs, a couple of fine carved chests, and a corner cupboard. My oak dresser and settle, each good specimens of serviceable cottage furniture, cost me thirty-seven shillings at a country auction. I found that even at these modest prices I had paid too much. Oaken furniture was common in these parts, and had little value. When a church was restored, or an old house re-constructed, large quantities of old oak were literally thrown away. Thus, at a merely nominal expense I acquired enough carved oak to fit together into a handsome fireplace, and later on the pews of a church came in for oak panelling.
Let me now picture my living-room as it was about four months after I took possession. It was entirely oak panelled to a height of nine feet, above which about a foot of white-washed wall showed, forming a plain frieze. The fireplace at one end of the room was built in with carved oak; what had been the corresponding fireplace at the other end of the room was turned into a cupboard, with plain oak doors. The room had three old-fashioned leaded windows opening outward. Two were original, one had been added—the centre window taking the place of the gap left by the destroyed partition wall. My oak chests, dresser and cupboard, constituted the furniture of the room. The library, curtained off with a plain curtain of crimson plush, adjoined; the kitchen door opened at the east corner of the room. The windows faced due south. The room therefore was always sunny. The floor-boards were stained, and covered by two or three cheap rugs. Flowers were at the windows, a vase of flowers always on the table. The fireplace was open, for I had removed the ugly modern grate, substituting for it a low hearth of red brick with iron dogs, on which wood could be burned. This room, with the adjoining library, was the great feature of my little house.
The other rooms in the house required no alteration; fresh whitewash and wall-papers soon transformed them; and although they were small, they were not devoid of charm. When my scheme of adaptation was complete I found myself possessed of a house containing one beautiful living-room, a small library, a kitchen, and four good bedrooms. My bill for labour, including the mason's work in the removal of the partition wall, the building of a new window, and the laying of a fresh hearth; the carpenter's work in fitting my oak, and various minor repairs, amounted in all to about twelve pounds. The cost of my furniture, including the oak panelling in the living-room, and all that was needed for the bedrooms, was about fifty pounds, against which I had to set thirty-eight pounds, received from the sale of my superfluous effects in London. If I added to these sums the general expenses of removal, the carriage and cartage of my goods, and so forth, which I reckoned at ten pounds, I found that the cost of my exodus and new tenancy had been as follows:—
L. s. d. By expenses of removal . . . . . . 10 0 0 By alterations and labour . . . . . 12 0 0 By cost of furniture for living-room and four bedrooms . . . . . . . . 50 0 0 —————- L72 0 0 Against which, by sale of goods in London . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38 0 0 —————- Leaving total outlay of . . . . . . L34 0 0 —————-
I am conscious that to a townsman, accustomed to the wastefulness of towns, some parts of this account must appear incredible. Take, for instance, the bill for labour. No one has ever lived in London without having occasion to complain of the dearness and badness of labour. The chief object of the town artisan is to do as little work as possible. He is absolutely without conscience in his work, and all that he does is slovenly. He surveys a job, and meditates upon it for an hour—at your expense; begins it, and goes away to fetch a tool that he has forgotten—the time of his absence being duly charged against you; procrastinates and dawdles; sits down to read the paper, if no one watches him; and in one way and another takes quite twice as long over a job as is needed, and then does it badly. When I first became a householder in London I naturally sent to some neighbouring employer of labour for any little jobs of carpentering and plumbing that needed to be done. I soon had to relinquish the practice. If a new latch were put upon a window, the screws were driven into the old holes, so that in a week the latch was off again. If the plumber effected one repair he invariably left some damage that made it necessary to recall him before the month was out. There are houses in London which must be as good as an annuity to local tradesmen; I believe the workmen are instructed to do their work so badly that it is never really done. I soon found it wise to learn how to do repairs for myself; and it was by doing them myself that I discovered how I had been victimised by the rapacity, dishonesty, and inefficiency of the British workman and his master.
But in the country things are different. The village workman has honest pride in his reputation, and in his work. Moreover, he can turn his hand to anything, he does not grudge his time, and he is not corrupted by the contiguity of the public-house. The man who did my masonry work for me was a grey-haired, silent, pertinacious fellow, of great practical intelligence and efficiency. He did not work rapidly, but all that he did was thoroughly done. The carpenter was a man of the same type. He took a genuine delight in fitting my oak to its new uses, and had ideas of his own, which were often ingenious, and always practical. He even had a true artistic sense; uncultivated for want of education, but real. I understood the extraordinary skill of mediaeval craftsmen through my association with this man. The pieces of exquisite carved oak which find their way into museums to-day were wrought by men such as he was; quiet, thoughtful men, residing in villages, who developed their artistic sense in solitude. I am quite sure that this man thought a great deal more of his work than of the money he earned by it. At all events he charged me astonishingly little. He refused a contract, evidently regarding it as implying suspicions of his honesty. 'I'll charge ye what's fair,' he said, 'and you and me'll not quarrel as to the price.' If my bill for labour was so moderate that it seems absurd to a townsman, it was because I had to deal with honest craftsmen, who brought not only efficiency and handiness to their work, but a high sense of honour, and a real intelligence and interest.
It was in the end of August when I took my house; by the beginning of December I had completed my work upon it. The gardens in front of the house had been levelled, and covered with the finest mountain turf. The walls had been colour-washed a warm yellow, and all the window-frames painted white. For three months every hour had been busy, and not the least blessing of my toil was that it had brought me a degree of physical vigour such as I had never yet enjoyed. How different were my sensations when I woke in the morning now from those which I had known in London! In London the hour of rising had invariably found me languid and reluctant. I woke with the sense of a load upon me, and I dreaded the long grey day. I see now that these sensations were not so much mental as physical. I had not mental buoyancy simply because I was deficient in physical vitality. But at Thornthwaite I woke eager for the day. The first sounds that greeted me through the open window were the songs of the birds, the sea-like diapason of the wind in the elm-trees on the lawn, and the animating song of the river in the glen. The weather during the whole of that autumn was extraordinarily fine. After a week of equinoctial storm in the end of September, the weather settled into exquisite repose. Day succeeded day, calm, bright, sunny. It was as warm as August, but with all the tonic freshness of autumn. November, usually a month of misery in London, was here delightful. The year died slowly, amid the pomp of crimson leaves and bronzed bracken. For the first time I understood that it is bliss to be alive. Like the child whom Wordsworth celebrates, I felt my life in every limb. There was no goading of dull powers to unwelcome tasks; energy ran free, like the mountain-stream at my door, and the zest of life was strong in me.
I never came downstairs into my living-room without a sense of new delight. How beautiful, how sweetly habitable it looked in the morning sunshine! Any one living in a city, who immediately on rising enters the room which he has used overnight, has noticed the peculiar staleness of the atmosphere. It is not exactly a noxious atmosphere; there is no palpable unpleasant odour in it, but it is used up, it is stale. He will also notice the dust which rests on everything. In a city the daily grinding of millions of wheels over thousands of miles of roads fills the air with an acrid, almost impalpable powder, which finds its way even through closed windows and settles upon everything. In my London house I could not take up a book without soiled fingers. Even books which were protected by glass doors, and papers shut up in drawers, did not escape this filthy powder, composed of the fine-ground dust and excrement of the London streets. If I wiped a picture with a white silk handkerchief, a black stain showed itself upon the handkerchief, and this in spite of the most careful efforts to keep the house clean. I suppose Londoners get used to dirt, as eels are said to get used to skinning. They spend their time in washing their hands, but with the most transient gain of cleanliness. No one knows how filthy London is till he begins to notice how much longer window-curtains, household draperies, and personal linen keep clean in the country. I should not like to be called an old maid, but I confess to an old-maidish care for cleanliness. Untidiness in books or papers would not distress me, but dirt is a real distress; and if it be old-maidish to fight a continual battle with dirt, to scour and polish and dust, content with nothing less than immaculate purities of polished surface, then I suppose I am an old maid, and I count it to myself for righteousness.
Amid the many miseries of cities, this no doubt is but a minor misery, but the relief which I experienced in deliverance from it was disproportionately great. The purity and freshness of the atmosphere, the corresponding cleanliness of all I touched in the house, were delightful to me, and added to my self-respect. The clean, aromatic air passed like a ceaseless lustration through every room of the house. The very bed-linen, bleached in the open air, had acquired the fragrance of mountain thyme and lavender. I did not need to climb the hill to find the pine-woods; they grew round the very table where I ate. Four walls and a roof gave me shelter, yet I lived in the open air all the time.
Then there was also the silence, at first so strange as to be almost oppressive, but later on sweeter than music. It was at early morning and nightfall that this silence was most intense. On a still night one could almost hear the earth move, and fancy that the stars diffused a gentle crackling noise as of rushing flame. The fall of an acorn in a pine wood startled the ear like an explosion. The river also was discerned as having a definite rhythm of its own. It ran up and down a perpetual scale, like a bird singing. What had seemed a heavy confused sound of falling water resolved itself into regular harmonies, which could have been written down in musical notation. At times there was also in the air the sense of breathing. On a dark night, standing at my door, I had the sense of a great heart that beat in the obscurity, of a bosom that rose and fell, of a pulse as regular as a clock. I think that the ear must have recovered a fine sensitiveness, normal to it under normal conditions, but lost or dulled amid the deafening roar of towns. It is scarcely an exaggeration when poets speak of hearing the grass grow; we could hear it, no doubt, if the ear were not stunned by more violent sounds.
It is probable that mere increase of vitality in itself is sufficient to account for this new delicacy of the physical senses. The senses adapt themselves to their environment. An example of this is found in the absence of what is called long sight among city children. Having no extensive horizon constantly before the eye, the power of discerning distant objects gradually decays. On the contrary a child brought up upon the African veldt, where he is daily confronted with almost infinite distances, acquires what seems to be an almost preternatural sharpness of vision. It is the same with hearing. The savage can distinguish sounds which are entirely inaudible to the civilised man. The footfall of his enemy, the beat of a horse's hoofs, the movement of a lion in the jungle, are heard at what appear impossible distances. I do not seek to offer any absolute explanation of these phenomena as regards myself, but I state the fact that in returning to a natural life I found a remarkable quickening of my physical senses. As my eye became accustomed to the wide moorland prospects I found myself increasingly able to discriminate distant objects. Flowers that had seemed to me to smell pretty much alike, now had distinct fragrances. I knew when I woke in the morning from which direction the wind came, by its odour; the wind from the moorland brought the scent of heather and wild thyme, the wind from the glen the scent of water.
It was the same with sound. Properly speaking there is no such thing as silence in Nature. The silence, or what seems silence, is divisible into a multitude of minute sounds. Everything in Nature is toiling and straining at its task, the sap in the tree, the rock balanced on its bed of clay, the grass-blade pushing and urging its way toward the sun. And as there is no real silence, so there is no real solitude in a world where every atom is vigorously at work. Wordsworth's conception of Nature as a Presence becomes at once intelligible when we live close to the heart of Nature. Had Wordsworth lived in towns his poetry could never have been written, nor can its central conception of Nature as a Presence be understood by the townsman. I had often enough read the wonderful lines—
And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
But I never really understood them till I lived among scenes similar to those in which they were composed. And the organ by which they were interpreted was not the mind so much as the senses, quickened and invigorated by solitude. I presented a more sensitive surface to Nature, and the instant result was the perception of Nature as of something alive. In the silence of the night, as I stood at my door, I felt the palpitation of a real life around me; the sense, as I have said, of a breathing movement, of pulsation, of a beating heart, and then I knew that Wordsworth wrote with strict scientific accuracy, and not with vague mysticism as is commonly supposed, when he described Nature as a living Presence.
The sum of these sensations was for me a state of physical beatitude. I was often reminded of the grim confession of the poor wastrel, who, when asked where he lived, replied, 'I don't live, I linger.' I had never really lived; I had lingered. I had trodden the path of the days and years with reluctant feet. Now every daybreak was a new occasion of joy to me. I was rejuvenated not only in mind, but in the very core and marrow of my body. I had put myself in right relation to Nature; I had established contact, as electricians would say; and as a consequence all the electric current of Nature flowed through me, vitalising and quickening me in every nerve. Men who live in cities are but half alive. They mistake infinite contortion for life. Life consists in the efficient activity of every part of us, each part equally efficient, and moving in a perfect rhythm. For the first time, since I had been conscious of myself, I realised this entire efficiency.
Many times I had coveted what is called 'rude health,' but I had been led to believe that rude health implies lack of sensitiveness. I now found the reverse to be the case. Perfect health and perfect sensitiveness are the same thing. I felt, enjoyed, and received sensations more acutely simply because my health was perfect. It may be said that the sensations afforded by such a life as mine were not upon a grand scale. They were not to be compared with the acute and poignant sensations afforded—perhaps I should say inflicted—by a city. I can only say they were enough for me. All pleasures are relative, and the simplest pleasure is capable of affording as great delight as the rarest. The sight of a flower can produce as keen a pleasure as a Coronation pageant, and the song of a bird may become to the sensitive ear as fine a music as a sonata by Beethoven. May I not also say that the simplest pleasures are the most enduring, the commonest delights are the most invigorating, the form of happiness which is the most easily available is the best? The further we stray from Nature the harder are we to please, and he knows the truest pleasure who can find it in the simplest forms.
HOW WE LIVED
The most common objection to country life is what is called its dulness. When I used to suggest to my town acquaintances the advantages of a holiday in purely rustic scenes, I was always met by the remark: 'Oh, there would be nothing to do there!' No doubt if a holiday is devoted to lounging, it is much more difficult to lounge at a solitary farm than at some crowded seaside resort. But my holidays in the country had never been of this description. I am constitutionally unfitted for a lounger. I like to have my days planned out, and to live them fully. A country holiday for me had always meant incessant occupation of one kind or another, fishing, climbing, boating, long cycling excursions, and an industrious endeavour to explore all scenes of interest within a reasonable compass. Now that I had come to live in the country, I felt more than ever the need of incessant occupation, for I fully realised that the worst enemy of human happiness is ennui.
During the first three months, while I was busy in getting settled, there was no danger of ennui. I was constantly interested, and I was constantly at work. I learned how to do carpentering and joiner's jobs with a fair proficiency; I dug nearly an acre of land at the back of my house with my own spade; made paths, and planted fruit trees; all the turf for my lawn I laid myself, with a few hours' assistance from a farm-hand; and there was no night when I did not go to bed with aching muscles and often with bruised hands. If my bill for labour was absurdly moderate, it was partly because I did so much myself.
For instance, I employed no one to hang papers or to whitewash ceilings or paint woodwork. With the willing help of my wife and my boys this was done with complete satisfaction. One result of these labours was the pride and love for our little homestead which they created. In modern civilised life we get too many things done for us, and this is not merely an economical but an ethical mistake. It is difficult to feel any real pride in a home which is the creation of other people. In a true state of civilisation no man will pay another to do what he can do himself. Not only does he preserve his independence by such a rule, but he creates a hundred new objects of interest for himself. The paper which I had hung with my own labour gave me a pleasure which a much finer paper hung by paid labour could not have given me. The lawn which I had laid with my own hands seemed more intimately mine than if I had paid some one else to make it. The more I reflect upon the matter the more am I convinced that one of the great curses of civilisation is the division of labour which makes us dependent upon other people to a degree which destroys individual efficiency. Thrown back upon himself as a dweller in a wilderness, any man of ordinary capacity soon develops efficiency for kinds of work which he would never have attempted in a city, simply because a city tempts him at every point to delegate his own proper toil to others. I can conceive of few things that would do more to create a genuine pride of home than to insist that no man should possess a house except by building it for himself, after the old primitive principle of the earliest social communities. To build thus is to mix sentiment with the mortar, and the house thus created is a place to which affections and memories cling; whereas the mere tenancy of a cube of rotten bricks, thrown together by the jerry-builder—of which we know no more than the amount of rent which is charged for it—is incapable of nourishing any sentiment, and is, in any case, not a home but a lodging.
This idea is no doubt chimerical; for in a vast city, where the great object is to escape starvation, no one has time to interest himself deeply in the kind of house he occupies, and still less has he the opportunity to build a house which is the expression of his own taste and labour. But in the country the idea is not only practicable, it is urgent. Independence is made necessary because there are fewer people on whom we can become dependent. I soon found that if I wanted potatoes and cabbages, I must grow them; if a pipe burst there was no plumber to mend it, I must mend it myself; and so through a long range of occupations, with which I had had no previous acquaintance. The immortal Captain Davis, of the Sea Ranger, remarks to the incompetent landsman Herrick, whom he has engaged as first mate on the Farralone, 'There ain't nothing to sailoring when you come to look it in the face,' and I am inclined to think that the observation is true of other things besides navigation. There is nothing in ordinary gardening, carpentering, or work about a house that any intelligent man cannot learn in a month by giving his mind to it. Intelligence, industry, and a deft hand will take any man of capacity through any of the ordinary employments of life with moderate credit, or at least without disgrace. When once the right handling of tools is learned, the rest is merely a matter of intelligence. At all events, I had to learn how to be proficient in the handling of many strange tools, because there was no one within reach to handle them for me. The experience was salutary for me in every way. It taught me to be ashamed of that kind of inefficiency which in towns is reckoned the hall-mark of gentility. It taught me the virtue of that independence which makes a man equal to his own needs. It also saved me from ennui. I found myself living a much busier life than I had ever lived. I had never worked so hard, and yet there was not a single part of my work that did not add to my delight. And I worked for direct results, for things I could see, and things which I might justly claim as my own, since I had created them.
I shall perhaps fall under the suspicion of morbid sensitiveness when I confess that I never took my weekly wage in London without a qualm and a compunction, for I could never make myself believe that I had really earned it. What had I done? I had simply performed a few arithmetical processes which any schoolboy might have done as well. My labour, such as it was, was absorbed instantly in the commercial operations of a great firm. I could not trace it, and I had no means of estimating its value. The money I took for it seemed therefore to come to me by a sort of legerdemain. That some one thought it worth while to pay me was ostensible proof that my work was really worth something; but so little able was I to penetrate the processes that resulted in this judgment, so vivid was the sense of some ingenious jugglery in the whole business, that I did not know whether I had been cheated or was a cheat, in living by a kind of labour that cost me so little. How different was my feeling now! At the end of an hour's spade-work, I saw something actually done, of which I was the indisputable author. When I laid down the saw and plane and hammer, and stretched my aching back, I saw something growing into shape, which I myself had created. There was no jugglery about this; there was immediate intimate relation between cause and effect. And thence I found a kind of joy in my work, which was new and exquisite to me. I stood upon my own feet, self-possessed, self-respecting, efficient for my own needs, and conscious of a definite part in the great rhythm of infinite toil which makes the universe. It is only when a man works for himself that this kind of joy is felt. So enamoured was I of this new joy, that had it been possible I would have possessed nothing that was not the direct result of my own labour. I would have liked to have spun the wool for my own clothes, and have tanned the leather for my own boots. I would have liked to grow the corn for my own bread, and have killed my own meat, as the savage or the primitive settler does. In this respect the savage or the primitive settler approaches much nearer the true ideal of human life than the civilised man, for the true ideal is that every man shall be efficient for his own needs, with as little dependence as possible on others.
Under natural conditions there is enough faculty in a man's ten fingers to supply his own needs, and all the avocations needful to life may meet under one hat. The familiar illustration of the number of men required to make a pin is typical of that contemptible futility to which what is called civilisation reduces men by mere dispersal of labour. Such dispersal develops single faculties, but paralyses men. It is like developing some single part of the human organism, such as a finger-tip, to high sensitiveness, by drawing away the sensitiveness from all the rest. To do this reduces life to barrenness; it makes it meagre in energy and pleasure; it makes work a disease. But in such a life as I now lived, it was not a finger-tip that worked but the whole man. The cabbage I cut for dinner was fashioned from my own substance, for my sweat had nourished it. The butter I ate was part of my own energy, spent over the churn, come back to me in the freshness and firmness of edible gold. My bread was baked in a flame kindled at my own heart [Transcriber's note: hearth?], and it was the sweeter for it. When I lay down at night I was quits with Nature. I had paid so much energy into her bank, and had a right to the dividend of rest she gave me.
Apart from all other things, the economy of this mode of life will be at once perceived. My expenses sank steadily month by month. I made a good many mistakes, of course, for there is more than meets the eye in remunerative gardening, chicken farming, and bee-keeping, as there is in most human occupations which appear delusively simple. It took me some time to rectify these mistakes, but before a year had passed I found myself raising all my own garden produce, well supplied with eggs and poultry for my own table, and able to earn a little by the sale of my superfluous stock. Some articles, such as coal, were excessively dear; but then, as a set-off, I could have all the wood I required for next to nothing, and we burned more wood than coal. Groceries I purchased in wholesale quantities from a Manchester store, so that in spite of carriage I paid less for them than I had paid in London, and secured the best quality. My trout rod served my breakfast table, and my gun brought me many a dinner. In short, I found that small as was the sum of money which I had earned, yet it was more than enough for my needs.
Winter is, of course, the trying time for a resident in the country. About the beginning of December the weather broke, and there was a week of driving rain. A fortnight of grey weather followed, and then came three days of heavy snow. From the moment that the snow ceased winter became delightful. No words of mine can describe the glory of these winter days. It is only of late years that people have discovered that Switzerland is infinitely more beautiful in winter than in summer; some day they will discover the same truth about the Lake District. It happened one day in midwinter that business took me as far as Keswick, and I shall never forget the astonishment and delight of that visit. Skiddaw was a pure snow mountain, a miniature Mont Blanc; Derwentwater was blue as polished steel, covered with ice so clear that it was everywhere transparent; the woods were plumed with snow, and over all shone the sun of June, and the keen air tingled in the veins like wine. Beside the road the drifts ran high, hollowed by the wind into a hundred curves and cavities, and in each the reflected light made a tapestry of delicate violet and rose. Those who imagine that snow is only white—dead, cold white—have never seen the pure new-fallen snow, when the stricture of the frost begins to bind it; such snow has every colour of the rainbow in it, and where it is beaten fine it is like a dust of diamonds. Under a hard grey sky snow appears dead white; but under such a sun as this it glowed and sparkled with all the glories of an ice cave. And then came the sunset, a sunset to be dreamed of. Skiddaw was a pyramid of rosy flame; great saffron seas of light lay over the Catbells, the immense shoulders of Borrowdale were purple, and the lake was truly a sea of glass and fire. Nor was this a singular and unmatched day. For a whole month the pageant of the snow lasted. Close to my own door were glories scarcely inferior to those of Borrowdale and Derwentwater. The glen was rich with all the fantastic arabesque of the frost, the moor was like a frozen sea, and four miles away lay Buttermere, ringing from morn to night with the sound of skates. There is no greater error than to suppose winter a drear and joyless season in the country. It has delights of its own unimagined by the townsman, to whom winter means burst pipes and slushy streets, and snow that is soiled even as it falls. But among mountains winter has its own incomparable glories, and holds a pageant not inferior to summer's.
But even in days of rain life had its pleasures. However bad the weather might be there were few days when we could not be abroad for some hours, and none when the mountains had not some peculiar beauty to reveal. At the end of a day of rain there were often splendid half-hours, just before sunset, when the mountains glowed with richest colour; when through the rift of thinning clouds some vast peak named like a torch, and the mist blew out like purple banners, and the watercourses sparkled like ropes of brilliants hung on the scarred rocks, and the air was fresh and fragrant with all the perfume of health. Fog we seldom had, and when it came, it rarely lasted beyond midday. And then there were the warm delights of winter evenings, when the wood fire blazed upon the hearth, and the gale roared against the windows.
I have already remarked that books read in the solitude of the country always make a deeper impression on my mind than books read in the uneasy leisure of towns. I found this doubly true when I came to live in the country. I came to my books with a keener and healthier brain. The great masters of literature resumed their sway over me; Scott, Shakespeare, Cervantes, long-neglected, took powerful hold upon my mind. It is not to dwellers in the town that great writers ever make their full appeal. They are too occupied with the trivial dramas of life among a crowd, too disturbed by the eddy and rush of the life around them. But for the dweller in solitude these great writers erect a theatre, which is the only theatre he knows. He is able to attend to the drama presented to him, and to be absorbed by it. He discusses the actors and their doings as though they were real personages. Effie Deans and Varley, Ophelia and Don Quixote, were for us creatures whom we knew. It was the same with later writers. Byron's poetry once more appealed to me by its revolutionary note, Shelley was interpreted afresh to me by these mountains which he would have loved. One incident I recollect which may serve to illustrate this new hold which imaginative literature took upon me. I opened one evening Great Expectations, and began to read it aloud. The next morning, at five o'clock, my two boys were contending for the book. For a month Pip sat beside our hearth, and Joe Gargery winked at us, and 'that ass' Pumblechook mouthed his solemn platitudes. We were continually reminding each other never to forget 'them as brought us up by hand.' Could any book have laid hold of us after this fashion if it had been read in the hurried leisure of a city life? It was the very absence of incident in our quiet lives that made these imaginary incidents delightful. We lingered over the books we read, extracting from them all their charm, all their wisdom, and there was more good talk, more discriminating criticism heard in my cottage in a month than would be heard in a London drawing-room in a year. And the explanation is simple. We had no trivialities to talk about; none of those odds and ends of gossip that do duty for conversation in cities; and thus such talk as we had concerned itself with real thoughts, and the thoughts of wise men and great writers.
One of the principal occupations of my first winter was the education of my boys. After the approved modern fashion I had intrusted this task to others, upon the foolish assumption that what I paid heavily for must needs be of some value. I discovered my delusion the moment I came to look into the matter for myself. I found that they knew nothing perfectly: certain things they had learned by rote, and could recite with some exactitude, but of the reasons and principles that underlie all real knowledge they knew nothing. I believe this to be characteristic of almost all modern education, especially since competitive examinations have set the pace. The brain is gorged with crude masses of undigested fact, which it has no power to assimilate. Fragments of knowledge are lodged in the mind, but the mind is not taught to co-ordinate its knowledge, or, in other words, to think and reason. The yearly examination papers of public schools and universities afford ample and often amusing illustrations of this condition of things. I remember an Oxford tutor, who set papers for a certain Theological College, telling me that one year he put this question: 'Give some account of the life of Mary, the mother of our Lord.' This was a question which obviously required some power of synthesis, some exercise of thought and skill in narrative. One bright youth, after a feeble sentence or two in which the name of Mary was at least included, went on to say, 'At this point it may not be out of place to give a list of the kings of Israel.' Here was something he did know, and it was something not worth knowing. I found that my boys had been educated on much the same principle. They could do a simple problem of mathematics after a fashion; that is, they could recite it; but it had never once been suggested to them as an exercise of reason. It was the same with history; they could recite dates and facts, but they had no perception of principles. It may be imagined that I had to go to school again myself before I could attempt to instruct them. I had to take down again my long disused Virgil and Cicero, and work through many a forgotten passage. At first the task was distasteful enough, but it soon became fascinating. My love of the classics revived. I began to read Homer and Thucydides, Tacitus and Lucretius, for my own pleasure. It was delightful to observe what interest my boys took in Virgil, as soon as they discovered that Virgil was not a mere task-book, but poetry of the noblest order. By avoiding all idea of mere unintelligent task-work, I soon got them to take a real interest in their work, until at last they came to anticipate the hour of these common studies. I took care also to never make the burden of study oppressive. Two hours of real study is as much as a young boy can bear at a time. He should rise from his task, not with an exhausted, but with a fresh and quickened, mind. On very fine days it was understood that no books should be opened. Such days were spent in fishing, in mountain-climbing, or in long cycling excursions, and the store of health laid up by these days gave new vigour to the mind when the work of education was resumed.
When the summer came on, life became a daily lyric of delight. By five in the morning, sometimes by four, we were out fishing. In the narrow part of the glen there was a place where the rocks met in a wild miniature gorge, and through them the water poured into a large circular rock-basin, about forty feet in diameter. This was our bathing-pool, and the cool shock and thrill of those exquisitely pure and flowing waters runs along my nerves still as I write. We often spent more than an hour there in the early morning, swimming from side to side of our natural bath, diving off a rock which rose almost in the centre of the pool, passing to and fro under the cascade, or sitting out in the sun, till sheer hunger drove us home to breakfast. Writers who boast a sort of finical superiority will no doubt disdain these barbarian delights, and wonder that memory should be persistent over mere physical sensations. But I am not sure that these physical sensations are not recollected with more acuteness than mental ones, and there is no just reason why they should be despised. I have forgotten a good many aesthetic pleasures which at the time gave me keen delight—some phrase in oratory, some movement in concerted music, and such like—but I never forget the sensation of wind blowing over my bare flesh as I coasted down a long mountain road on a broiling day in August, nor the poignant thrill of that rushing water in my morning bathes. And mixed with it all is the aromatic scent of the pines beside the stream, the freshness of the meadows, and the song of falling water. Sometimes, when the river was in summer flood, there was just that spice of danger in our bathing which gave it a memorable piquancy. On such occasions we had to use skill and coolness to avoid disaster; we were tossed about the boiling water like bubbles; incredible masses of water flowed over us, warm and strong, in a few seconds, and we came out of the roaring pool so beaten and thrashed by the violence of the stream that every nerve quivered. Breakfast was a great occasion after these adventures. Then came a stroll round our small estate, and an hour or so over books. Matthew Arnold's Thyrsis was a favourite poem with us all on these mornings. It breathed the very spirit of the life we lived, but for its sadness—this we did not feel. But we did appreciate its wonderfully exact and beautiful interpretation of Nature, and we had but to look around us to see the very picture Arnold painted when he wrote:
Soon will the high midsummer pomps come on, Soon will the musk carnations break and swell, Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon, Sweetwilliam with his homely cottage smell, And stocks in fragrant blow: Roses that down the alley shine afar, And open, jasmine-muffled lattices, And groups under the dreaming garden trees, And the full moon, and the white evening star.
Such was the life we lived. If we looked back at all to the life we had left, it was with that sort of sick horror which a prisoner may feel who has endured and survived a long term of imprisonment. It seemed to us that we had never really lived before. The past was a dream, and an evil dream. We had moved in a world of bad enchantment, like phantoms, barely conscious of ourselves. We had now recovered proprietorship in our own lives. Work, that had been a curse, was a blessing. Life, that had gone on maimed feet, was now virile in every part. This mere fulness of health was in itself ample compensation for the loss of a hundred artificial pleasures which we had once thought necessary to existence. We knew that we had found a delight in mere living which must remain wholly incredible to the tortured hosts that toil in cities; and we knew also that when at last we came to lie down with kings and conquerors in the house of sleep, we should carry with us fairer dreams than they ever knew amid all the tumult of their triumph.
There is a wonderful passage in Timon of Athens which appears to express in a few strokes, at once broad and subtle, the picture and the ideal of a perfect city:
Piety and fear, Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth, Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood, Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades, Degrees, observances, customs, and laws.
The congregated life of man, many-coloured, intricate, composed of numerous interwoven interests, was never painted with a higher skill. The word that is most expressive in this description is 'neighbourhood.' It strikes the note of cities. Uttering it, one is aware of the pleasant music of bustling streets, greetings in the market-place, whispered converse in the doorways, gay meetings and laughter, lighted squares and crowds, the touch of kind hands, evening meals and festivals, and all the reverberation of man's social voice. A man may grow sick for such scenes as a sailor grows sick with longing for the sea. There were times when this sickness came on me, this nostalgia of streets. It was only by degrees I came to see that neighbourhood has a significance apart from cities.
The first sensation of the man suddenly exiled from cities is a kind of bewildering homelessness in Nature. He is confronted with a spaciousness that knows no limit. He treads among voids. He experiences an almost unendurable sense of infinity. He can put a bound to nothing that he sees; it is a relief to the eye to come upon a wall or a hedge, or any kind of object that implies dimension. There is something awful in the glee or song of birds; it seems irrational that with wings so slight they should dare heights so profound. All sense of proportion seems lost. After being accustomed for many years to think of himself as in some sense a figure of importance in the universe, a man finds himself unimportant, insignificant, a little creature scarce perceptible a mile away. I came once upon some human bones lying exposed on the side of an old earthwork on the summit of a hill; heavy rains had loosened the soil, and there lay these painful relics in the cold eye of day. Two thousand years ago, or more, spears had clashed upon this hillside, living men had gone to final rest amid their blood; and it came upon me with a sense of insult how little man and all his battles counted for in the limitless arena of the world. The brute violence of winds and tempests had swept these hills for centuries; and he whose lordship of the world is so loudly trumpeted, had lain prone beneath this violence, unremembered even by his fellows. I understood in that moment that affecting doctrine of the nothingness of man, which coloured mediaeval thought so strangely: like the monk of the cloister I also had before me my memento mori. But in truth I did not need the bones of dead warriors to humble me; the mere space and stillness of the world sufficed. My ear ached for some sound more rational than the cry of blind winds, my eye for some narrower stage than this tremendous theatre, where an army might defile unnoticed. In such a mood the desire of neighbourship grows keen. One is cheered even by the comradeship of his own shadow. It becomes necessary to talk aloud merely to gain assurance that one lives. So ghost-like appears man's march across the fields of Time, that some active expression of physical sensation becomes imperative, in order to recover evidence of one's physical existence; and thrice welcome, like the violence offered to the half-drowned, is any kind of buffet which breaks the dream, and sets the nerves tingling in the certainty of contact with men who breathe and live.