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    Chapter 4

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    Chapter 4
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    Seeking a Shelter

    The "walks" already spoken of, at a time when life had
    little or no other pleasure for us on account of poverty and
    ill-health, were taken at pretty regular intervals two or
    three times a year. It all depended on our means; in very
    lean years there was but one outing. It was impossible to
    escape altogether from the immense unfriendly wilderness of
    London simply because, albeit "unfriendly," it yet appeared to
    be the only place in the wide world where our poor little
    talents could earn us a few shillings a week to live on.
    Music and literature! but I fancy the nearest crossing-sweeper
    did better, and could afford to give himself a more generous
    dinner every day. It occasionally happened that an article
    sent to some magazine was not returned, and always after so
    many rejections to have one accepted and paid for with a
    cheque worth several pounds was a cause of astonishment, and
    was as truly a miracle as if the angel of the sun had
    compassionately thrown us down a handful of gold. And out of
    these little handfuls enough was sometimes saved for the
    country rambles at Easter and Whitsuntide and in the autumn.
    It was during one of these Easter walks, when seeking for a
    resting-place for the night, that we met with another
    adventure worth telling.

    We had got to that best part of Surrey not yet colonized by
    wealthy men from the City, but where all things are as they
    were of old, when, late in the day, we came to a pleasant
    straggling village with one street a mile long. Here we
    resolved to stay, and walked the length of the street making
    inquiries, but were told by every person we spoke to that the
    only place we could stay at was the inn--the "White Hart."
    When we said we preferred to stay at a cottage they smiled a
    pitying smile. No, there was no such place. But we were
    determined not to go to the inn, although it had a very
    inviting look, and was well placed with no other house near
    it, looking on the wide village green with ancient trees
    shading the road on either side.

    Having passed it and got to the end of the village, we turned
    and walked back, still making vain inquiries, passing it
    again, and when once more at the starting-point we were in
    despair when we spied a man coming along the middle of the
    road and went out to meet him to ask the weary question for
    the last time. His appearance was rather odd as he came
    towards us on that blowy March evening with dust and straws
    flying past and the level sun shining full on him. He
    was tall and slim, with a large round smooth face and big
    pale-blue innocent-looking eyes, and he walked rapidly but in
    a peculiar jerky yet shambling manner, swinging and tossing
    his legs and arms about. Moving along in this disjointed
    manner in his loose fluttering clothes he put one in mind of
    a big flimsy newspaper blown along the road by the wind.
    This unpromising-looking person at once told us that there was
    a place where we could stay; he knew it well, for it happened
    to be his father's house and his own home. It was away at the
    other end of the village. His people had given accommodation
    to strangers before, and would be glad to receive us and make
    us comfortable.

    Surprised, and a little doubtful of our good fortune, I asked
    my young man if he could explain the fact that so many of his
    neighbours had assured us that no accommodation was to be had
    in the village except at the inn. He did not make a direct
    reply. He said that the ways of the villagers were not the
    ways of his people. He and all his house cherished only kind
    feelings towards their neighbours; whether those feelings were
    returned or not, it was not for him to say. And there was
    something else. A small appointment which would keep a man
    from want for the term of his natural life, without absorbing
    all his time, had become vacant in the village. Several of
    the young men in the place were anxious to have it; then he,
    too, came forward as a candidate, and all the others jeered at
    him and tried to laugh him out of it. He cared nothing for
    that, and when the examination came off he proved the best man
    and got the place. He had fought his fight and had overcome
    all his enemies; if they did not like him any the better for
    his victory, and did and said little things to injure him, he
    did not mind much, he could afford to forgive them.

    Having finished his story, he said good-bye, and went his way,
    blown, as it were, along the road by the wind.

    We were now very curious to see the other members of his
    family; they would, we imagined, prove amusing, if nothing
    better. They proved a good deal better. The house we sought,
    for a house it was, stood a little way back from the street
    in a large garden. It had in former times been an inn, or
    farm-house, possibly a manor-house, and was large, with
    many small rooms, and short, narrow, crooked staircases,
    half-landings and narrow passages, and a few large rooms,
    their low ceilings resting on old oak beams, black as ebony.
    Outside, it was the most picturesque and doubtless the oldest
    house in the village; many-gabled, with very tall ancient
    chimneys, the roofs of red tiles mottled grey and yellow with
    age and lichen. It was a surprise to find a woodman--for that
    was what the man was--living in such a big place. The woodman
    himself, his appearance and character, gave us a second and
    greater surprise. He was a well-shaped man of medium height;
    although past middle life he looked young, and had no white
    thread in his raven-black hair and beard. His teeth were
    white and even, and his features as perfect as I have seen in
    any man. His eyes were pure dark blue, contrasting rather
    strangely with his pale olive skin and intense black hair.
    Only a woodman, but he might have come of one of the oldest
    and best families in the country, if there is any connection
    between good blood and fine features and a noble expression.
    Oddly enough, his surname was an uncommon and aristocratic
    one. His wife, on the other hand, although a very good woman
    as we found, had a distinctly plebeian countenance. One day
    she informed us that she came of a different and better class
    than her husband's. She was the daughter of a small
    tradesman, and had begun life as a lady's-maid: her husband
    was nothing but a labourer; his people had been labourers for
    generations, consequently her marriage to him had involved a
    considerable descent in the social scale. Hearing this, it
    was hard to repress a smile.

    The contrast between this man and the ordinary villager of his
    class was as great in manners and conversation as in features
    and expression. His combined dignity and gentleness, and
    apparent unconsciousness of any caste difference between man
    and man, were astonishing in one who had been a simple toiler
    all his life.

    There were some grown-up children, others growing up, with
    others that were still quite small. The boys, I noticed,
    favoured their mother, and had commonplace faces; the girls
    took after their father, and though their features were not so
    perfect they were exceptionally good-looking. The eldest son
    --the disjointed, fly-away-looking young man who had conquered
    all his enemies--had a wife and child. The eldest daughter
    was also married, and had one child. Altogether the three
    families numbered about sixteen persons, each family having
    its separate set of rooms, but all dining at one table.
    How did they do it? It seemed easy enough to them. They were
    serious people in a sense, although always cheerful and
    sometimes hilarious when together of an evening, or at their
    meals. But they regarded life as a serious matter, a state of
    probation; they were non-smokers, total abstainers, diligent
    at their work, united, profoundly religious. A fresh wonder
    came to light when I found that this poor woodman, with so
    large a family to support, who spent ten or twelve hours every
    day at his outdoor work, had yet been able out of his small
    earnings to buy bricks and other materials, and, assisted by
    his sons, to build a chapel adjoining his house. Here he held
    religious services on Sundays, and once or twice of an evening
    during the week. These services consisted of extempore
    prayers, a short address, and hymns accompanied by a
    harmonium, which they all appeared able to play.

    What his particular doctrine was I did not inquire, nor did I
    wish for any information on that point. Doubtless he was a
    Dissenter of some kind living in a village where there was no
    chapel; the services were for the family, but were also
    attended by a few of the villagers and some persons from
    neighbouring farms who preferred a simpler form of worship to
    that of the Church.

    It was not strange that this little community should have been
    regarded with something like disfavour by the other villagers.
    For these others, man for man, made just as much money, and
    paid less rent for their small cottages, and, furthermore,
    received doles from the vicar and his well-to-do parishioners,
    yet they could not better their position, much less afford the
    good clothing, books, music, and other pleasant things which
    the independent woodman bestowed on his family. And they knew
    why. The woodman's very presence in their midst was a
    continual reproach, a sermon on improvidence and intemperance,
    which they could not avoid hearing by thrusting their fingers
    into their ears.

    During my stay with these people something occurred to cause
    them a very deep disquiet. The reader will probably smile
    when I tell them what it was. Awaking one night after
    midnight I heard the unusual sound of voices in earnest
    conversation in the room below; this went on until I fell
    asleep again. In the morning we noticed that our landlady had
    a somewhat haggard face, and that the daughters also had pale
    faces, with purple marks under the eyes, as if they had kept
    their mother company in some sorrowful vigil. We were not
    left long in ignorance of the cause of this cloud. The good
    woman asked if we had been much disturbed by the talking. I
    answered that I had heard voices and had supposed that friends
    from a distance had arrived overnight and that they had sat up
    talking to a late hour. No--that was not it, she said; but
    someone had arrived late, a son who was sixteen years old, and
    who had been absent for some days on a visit to relations in
    another county. When they gathered round him to hear his news
    he confessed that while away he had learnt to smoke, and he
    now wished them to know that he had well considered the
    matter, and was convinced that it was not wrong nor harmful to
    smoke, and was determined not to give up his tobacco. They
    had talked to him--father, mother, brothers, and sisters
    --using every argument they could find or invent to move him,
    until it was day and time for the woodman to go to his woods,
    and the others to their several occupations. But their
    "all-night sitting" had been wasted; the stubborn youth had
    not been convinced nor shaken. When, after morning prayers,
    they got up from their knees, the sunlight shining in upon
    them, they had made a last appeal with tears in their eyes,
    and he had refused to give the promise they asked. The poor
    woman was greatly distressed. This young fellow, I thought,
    favours his mother in features, but mentally he is perhaps
    more like his father. Being a smoker myself I ventured to put
    in a word for him. They were distressing themselves too much,
    I told her; smoking in moderation was not only harmless,
    especially to those who worked out of doors, but it was a
    well-nigh universal habit, and many leading men in the
    religious world, both churchmen and dissenters, were known to
    be smokers.

    Her answer, which came quickly enough, was that they did not
    regard the practice of smoking as in itself bad, but they knew
    that in some circumstances it was inexpedient; and in the case
    of her son they were troubled at the thought of what smoking
    would ultimately lead to. People, she continued, did not care
    to smoke, any more than they did to eat and drink, in
    solitude. It was a social habit, and it was inevitable that
    her boy should look for others to keep him company in smoking.
    There would be no harm in that in the summer-time when young
    people like to keep out of doors until bedtime; but during the
    long winter evenings he would have to look for his companions
    in the parlour of the public-house. And it would not be easy,
    scarcely possible, to sit long among the others without
    drinking a little beer. It is really no more wrong to drink
    a little beer than to smoke, he would say; and it would be
    true. One pipe would lead to another. and one glass of
    beer to another. The habit would be formed and at last all
    his evenings and all his earnings would be spent in the
    public-house.

    She was right, and I had nothing more to say except to wish
    her success in her efforts.

    It is curious that the strongest protests against the evils of
    the village pubic, which one hears from village women, come
    from those who are not themselves sufferers. Perhaps it is
    not curious. Instinctively we hide our sores, bodily and
    mental, from the public gaze.

    Not long ago I was in a small rustic village in Wiltshire,
    perhaps the most charming village I have seen in that country.
    There was no inn or ale-house, and feeling very thirsty after
    my long walk I went to a cottage and asked the woman I saw
    there for a drink of milk. She invited me in, and spreading a
    clean cloth on the table, placed a jug of new milk, a loaf,
    and butter before me. For these good things she proudly
    refused to accept payment. As she was a handsome young woman,
    with a clear, pleasant voice, I was glad to have her sit there
    and talk to me while I refreshed myself. Besides, I was in
    search of information and got it from her during our talk. My
    object in going to the village was to see a woman who, I had
    been told, was living there. I now heard that her cottage was
    close by, but unfortunately, while anxious to see her, I had
    no excuse for calling.

    "Do you think," said I to my young hostess, "that it would do
    to tell her that I had heard something of her strange history
    and misfortunes, and wished to offer her a little help? Is
    she very poor?"

    "Oh, no," she replied. "Please do not offer her money, if you
    see her. She would be offended. There is no one in this
    village who would take a shilling as a gift from a stranger.
    We all have enough; there is not a poor person among us."

    "What a happy village!" I exclaimed. "Perhaps you are all
    total abstainers."

    She laughed, and said that they all brewed their own beer
    --there was not a total abstainer among them. Every cottager
    made from fifty to eighty gallons, or more, and they drank
    beer every day, but very moderately, while it lasted. They
    were all very sober; their children would have to go to some
    neighbouring village to see a tipsy man.

    I remarked that at the next village, which had three
    public-houses, there were a good marry persons so poor that
    they would gladly at any time take a shilling from any one.

    It was the same everywhere in the district, she said, except
    in that village which had no public-house. Not only were they
    better off, and independent of blanket societies and charity
    in all forms, but they were infinitely happier. And after the
    day's work the men came home to spend the evening with their
    wives and children.

    At this stage I was surprised by a sudden burst of passion on
    her part. She stood up, her face flushing red, and solemnly
    declared that if ever a public-house was opened in that
    village, and if the men took to spending their evenings in it,
    her husband with them, she would not endure such a condition
    of things--she wondered that so many women endured it--but
    would take her little ones and go away to earn her own living
    under some other roof!
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