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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    By Swallowfield

    One of the most attractive bits of green and wooded country
    near London I know lies between Reading and Basingstoke and
    includes Aldermaston with its immemorial oaks in Berkshire and
    Silchester with Pamber Forest in Hampshire. It has long been
    one of my favourite haunts, summer and winter, and it is
    perhaps the only wooded place in England where I have a home
    feeling as strong as that which I experience in certain places
    among the South Wiltshire downs and in the absolutely flat
    country on the Severn, in Somerset, and the flat country in
    Cambridgeshire and East Anglia, especially at Lynn and about
    Ely.

    I am now going back to my first visit to this green retreat;
    it was in the course of one of those Easter walks I have
    spoken of, and the way was through Reading and by Three Mile
    Cross and Swallowfield. On this occasion I conceived a
    dislike to Reading which I have never quite got over, for it
    seemed an unconscionably big place for two slow pedestrians to
    leave behind. Worse still, when we did leave it we found that
    Reading would not leave us. It was like a stupendous octopus
    in red brick which threw out red tentacles, miles and miles
    long in various directions--little rows and single and double
    cottages and villas, all in red, red brick and its weary
    accompaniment, the everlasting hard slate roof. These square
    red brick boxes with sloping slate tops are built as close as
    possible to the public road, so that the passer-by looking in
    at the windows may see the whole interior--wall-papers,
    pictures, furniture, and oftentimes the dull expressionless
    face of the woman of the house, staring back at you out of her
    shallow blue eyes. The weather too was against us; a grey
    hard sky, like the slate roofs, and a cold strong east wind to
    make the road dusty all day long.

    Arrived at Three Mile Cross, it was no surprise to find it no
    longer recognizable as the hamlet described in Our Village,
    but it was saddening to look at the cottage in which Mary
    Russell Mitford lived and was on the whole very happy with her
    flowers and work for thirty years of her life, in its present
    degraded state. It has a sign now and calls itself the
    "Mitford Arms" and a "Temperance Hotel," and we were told that
    you could get tea and bread and butter there but nothing else.
    The cottage has been much altered since Miss Mitford's time,
    and the open space once occupied by the beloved garden is now
    filled with buildings, including a corrugated-iron dissenting
    chapel.

    From Three Mile Cross we walked on to Swallowfield, still by
    those never-ending roadside red-brick cottages and villas, for
    we were not yet properly out of the hated biscuit metropolis.
    It was a big village with the houses scattered far and wide
    over several square miles of country, but just where the
    church stands it is shady and pleasant. The pretty church
    yard too is very deeply shaded and occupies a small hill with
    the Loddon flowing partly round it, then taking its swift way
    through the village. Miss Mitford's monument is a plain,
    almost an ugly, granite cross, standing close to the wall,
    shaded by yew, elm, and beech trees, and one is grateful to
    think that if she never had her reward when living she has
    found at any rate a very peaceful resting-place.

    The sexton was there and told us that he was but ten years old
    when Miss Mitford died, but that he remembered her well and
    she was a very pleasant little woman. Others in the place
    who remembered her said the same--that she was very pleasant
    and sweet. We know that she was sweet and charming, but
    unfortunately the portraits we have of her do not give that
    impression. They represent her as a fat common-place looking
    person, a little vulgar perhaps. I fancy the artists were
    bunglers. I possess a copy of a very small pencil sketch made
    of her face by a dear old lady friend of mine, now dead, about
    the year 1851 or 2. My friend had a gift for portraiture in a
    peculiar way. When she saw a face that greatly interested
    her, in a drawing-room, on a platform, in the street, anywhere,
    it remained very vividly in her mind and on going home she
    would sketch it, and some of these sketches of well known
    persons are wonderfully good. She was staying in the country
    with a friend who drove with her to Swallowfield to call on
    Miss Mitford, and on her return to her friend's house she
    made the little sketch, and in this tiny portrait I can see
    the refinement, the sweetness, the animation and charm which
    she undoubtedly possessed.

    But let me now venture to step a little outside of my own
    province, my small plot--a poor pedestrian's unimportant
    impressions of places and faces; all these p's come by
    accident; and this I put in parenthetically just because an
    editor solemnly told me a while ago that he couldn't abide and
    wouldn't have alliteration's artful aid in his periodical.
    Let us leave the subject of what Miss Mitford was to those of
    her day who knew her; a thousand lovely personalities pass
    away every year and in a little while are no more remembered
    than the bright-plumaged bird that falls in the tropical
    forest, or the vanished orchid bloom of which some one has
    said that the angels in heaven can look on no more beautiful
    thing. Leaving all that, let us ask what remains to us of
    another generation of all she was and did?

    She was a prolific writer, both prose and verse, and, as we
    know, had an extraordinary vogue in her own time. Anything
    that came from her pen had an immediate success; indeed, so
    highly was she regarded that nothing she chose to write,
    however poor, could fail. And she certainly did write a good
    deal of poor stuff: it was all in a sense poor, but books and
    books, poor soul, she had to write. It was in a sense poor
    because it was mostly ambitious stuff, and, as the proverb
    says, "You cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a
    wren." She was driven to fly, and gave her little wings too
    much to do, and her flights were apt to be mere little weak
    flutterings over the surface of the ground. A wren, and she
    had not a cuckoo but a devouring cormorant to sustain--that
    dear, beautiful father of hers, who was more to her than any
    reprobate son to his devoted mother, and who day after day,
    year after year, gobbled up her earnings, and then would
    hungrily go on squawking for more until he stumbled into the
    grave. Alas! he was too long in dying; she was worn out by
    then, the little heart beating not so fast, and the bright
    little brain growing dim and very tired.

    Now all the ambitious stuff she wrote to keep the cormorant
    and, incidentally, to immortalize herself, has fallen
    deservedly into oblivion. But we--some of us--do not forget
    and never want to forget Mary Russell Mitford. Her letters
    remain--the little friendly letters which came from her pen
    like balls of silvery down from a sun-ripened plant, and were
    wafted far and wide over the land to those she loved. There
    is a wonderful charm in them; they are so spontaneous, so
    natural, so perfectly reflect her humour and vivacity, her
    overflowing sweetness, her beautiful spirit. And one book too
    remains--the series of sketches about the poor little hamlet,
    in which she lived so long and laboured so hard to support
    herself and her parents, the turtledove mated with a
    cormorant. Driven to produce work and hard up for a subject,
    in a happy moment she took up this humble one lying at her own
    door and allowed her self to write naturally even as in her
    most intimate letters. This is the reason of the vitality of
    Our Tillage; it was simple, natural, and reflected the author
    herself, her tender human heart, her impulsive nature, her
    bright playful humorous spirit. There is no thought, no mind
    stuff in it, and it is a classic! It is about the country,
    and she has so little observation that it might have been
    written in a town, out of a book, away from nature's sights
    and sounds. Her rustic characters are not comparable to those
    of a score or perhaps two or three score of other writers who
    treat of such subjects. The dialogue, when she makes them
    talk, is unnatural, and her invention so poor that when she
    puts in a little romance of her own making one regrets it.
    And so one might go on picking it all to pieces like a
    dandelion blossom. Nevertheless it endures, outliving scores
    of in a way better books on the same themes, because her own
    delightful personality manifests itself and shines in all
    these little pictures. This short passage describing how she
    took Lizzie, the little village child she loved, to gather
    cowslips in the meadows, will serve as an illustration.

    They who know these feelings (and who is so happy as not to
    have known some of them) will understand why Alfieri became
    powerless, and Froissart dull; and why even needlework, the
    most effective sedative, that grand soother and composer of
    women's distress, fails to comfort me today. I will go out
    into the air this cool, pleasant afternoon, and try what
    that will do. . . . I will go to the meadows, the beautiful
    meadows and I will have my materials of happiness, Lizzie
    and May, and a basket for flowers, and we will make a
    cowslip ball. "Did you ever see a cowslip ball, Lizzie?"
    "No." "Come away then; make haste! run, Lizzie!"

    And on we go, fast, fast! down the road, across the lea,
    past the workhouse, along by the great pond, till we slide
    into the deep narrow lane, whose hedges seem to meet over
    the water, and win our way to the little farmhouse at the
    end. "Through the farmyard, Lizzie; over the gate; never
    mind the cows; they are quiet enough." "I don't mind 'em,"
    said Miss Lizzie, boldly and' truly, and with a proud
    affronted air, displeased at being thought to mind anything,
    and showing by her attitude and manner some design of proving
    her courage by an attack on the largest of the herd, in the
    shape of a pull by the tail. "I don't mind 'em." "I know
    you don't, Lizzie; but let them, alone and don't chase
    the turkey-cock. Come to me, my dear!" and, for wonder,
    Lizzie came.

    In the meantime my other pet, Mayflower, had also gotten
    into a scrape. She had driven about a huge unwieldy sow,
    till the animal's grunting had disturbed the repose of a
    still more enormous Newfoundland dog, the guardian of the
    yard.

    The beautiful white greyhound's mocking treatment of the
    surly dog on the chain then follows, and other pretty
    scenes and adventures, until after some mishaps and much
    trouble the cowslip ball is at length completed.

    What a concentration of fragrance and beauty it was!
    Golden and sweet to satiety! rich in sight, and touch, and
    smell! Lizzie was enchanted, and ran off with her prize,
    hiding amongst the trees in the very coyness of ecstasy, as
    if any human eye, even mine, would be a restraint on her
    innocent raptures.

    Here the very woman is revealed to us, her tender and lively
    disposition, her impulsiveness and childlike love of fun
    and delight in everything on earth. We see in such a passage
    what her merit really is, the reason of our liking or
    "partiality" for her. Her pleasure in everything makes
    everything interesting, and in displaying her feeling without
    art or disguise she succeeds in giving what we may call a
    literary expression to personal charm--that quality which is
    almost untranslatable into written words. Many women possess
    it; it is in them and issues from them, and is like an essential
    oil in a flower, but too volatile to be captured and made use
    of. Furthermore, women when they write are as a rule even more
    conventional than men, more artificial and out of and away
    from themselves.

    I do not know that any literary person will agree with me; I
    have gone aside to write about Miss Mitford mainly for my own
    satisfaction. Frequently when I have wanted to waste half an
    hour pleasantly with a book I have found myself picking up
    "Our Village" from among many others, some waiting for a first
    perusal, and I wanted to know why this was so--to find out, if
    not to invent, some reason for my liking which would not make
    me ashamed.

    At Swallowfield we failed to find a place to stay at; there
    was no such place; and of the inns, named, I think, the
    "Crown," "Cricketers," "Bird-in-the-Hand," and "George and
    Dragon," only one, was said to provide accommodation for
    travellers as the law orders, but on going to the house we
    were informed that the landlord or his wife was just dead, or
    dangerously ill, I forget which, and they could take no one
    in. Accordingly, we had to trudge back to Three Mile Cross
    and the old ramshackle, well-nigh ruinous inn there. It was a
    wretched place, smelling of mould and dry-rot; however, it was
    not so bad after a fire had been lighted in the grate, but
    first the young girl who waited on us brought in a bundle of
    newspapers, which she proceeded to thrust up the chimney-flue
    and kindle, "to warm the flue and make the fire burn," she
    explained.

    On the following day, the weather being milder, we rambled on
    through woods and lanes, visiting several villages, and
    arrived in the afternoon at Silchester, where we had resolved
    to put up for the night. By a happy chance we found a
    pleasant cottage on the common to stay at and pleasant people
    in it, so that we were glad to sit down for a week there, to
    loiter about the furzy waste, or prowl in the forest and haunt
    the old walls; but it was pleasant even indoors with that wide
    prospect before the window, the wooded country stretching many
    miles away to the hills of Kingsclere, blue in the distance
    and crowned with their beechen rings and groves. Of Roman
    Calleva itself and the thoughts I had there I will write in
    the following chapter; here I will only relate how on Easter
    Sunday, two days after arriving, we went to morning service in
    the old church standing on a mound inside the walls, a mile
    from the village and common.

    It came to pass that during the service the sun began to shine
    very brightly after several days of cloud and misty windy wet
    weather, and that brilliance and the warmth in it served to
    bring a butterfly out of hiding; then another; then a third;
    red admirals all; and they were seen through all the prayers,
    and psalms, and hymns, and lessons, and the sermon preached by
    the white-haired Rector, fluttering against the translucent
    glass, wanting to be out in that splendour and renew their
    life after so long a period of suspension. But the glass was
    between them and their world of blue heavens and woods and
    meadow flowers; then I thought that after the service I would
    make an attempt to get them out; but soon reflected that to
    release them it would be necessary to capture them first, and
    that that could not be done without a ladder and butterfly
    net. Among the women (ladies) on either side of and before me
    there were no fewer than five wearing aigrettes of egret and
    bird-of-paradise plumes in their hats or bonnets, and these
    five all remained to take part in that ceremony of eating
    bread and drinking wine in remembrance of an event supposed to
    be of importance to their souls, here and hereafter. It
    saddened me to leave my poor red admirals in their prison,
    beating their red wings against the coloured glass--to leave
    them too in such company, where the aigrette wearers were
    worshipping a little god of their own little imaginations, who
    did not create and does not regard the swallow and dove and
    white egret and bird-of-paradise, and who was therefore not my
    god and whose will as they understood it was nothing to me.

    It was a consolation when I went out, still thinking of the
    butterflies in their prison, and stood by the old ruined walls
    grown over with ivy and crowned with oak and holly trees, to
    think that in another two thousand years there will be no
    archaeologist and no soul in Silchester, or anywhere else in
    Britain, or in the world, who would take the trouble to dig up
    the remains of aigrette-wearers and their works, and who would
    care what had become of their pitiful little souls--their
    immortal part.
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