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    Chapter 9

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    Chapter 9
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    Rural Rides

    "A-birding on a Broncho" is the title of a charming little book
    published some years ago, and probably better known to readers
    on the other side of the Atlantic than in England. I remember
    reading it with pleasure and pride on account of the author's
    name, Florence Merriam, seeing that, on my mother's side, I am
    partly a Merriam myself (of the branch on the other side of
    the Atlantic), and having been informed that all of that rare
    name are of one family, I took it that we were related, though
    perhaps very distantly. "A-birding on a Broncho" suggested an
    equally alliterative title for this chapter--"Birding on a
    Bike"; but I will leave it to others, for those who go
    a-birding are now very many and are hard put to find fresh
    titles to their books. For several reasons it will suit me
    better to borrow from Cobbett and name this chapter "Rural
    Rides."

    Sore of us do not go out on bicycles to observe the ways of
    birds. Indeed, some of our common species have grown almost
    too familiar with the wheel: it has become a positive danger
    to them. They not infrequently mistake its rate of speed and
    injure themselves in attempting to fly across it. Recently I
    had a thrush knock himself senseless against the spokes of my
    forewheel, and cycling friends have told me of similar
    experiences they have had, in some instances the heedless
    birds getting killed. Chaffinches are like the children in
    village streets--they will not get out of your way; by and by
    in rural places the merciful man will have to ring his bell
    almost incessantly to avoid running over them. As I do not
    travel at a furious speed I manage to avoid most things, even
    the wandering loveless oil-beetle and the small rose-beetle
    and that slow-moving insect tortoise the tumbledung. Two or
    three seasons ago I was so unfortunate as to run over a large
    and beautifully bright grass snake near Aldermaston, once a
    snake sanctuary. He writhed and wriggled on the road as if I
    had broken his back, but on picking him up I was pleased to
    find that my wind-inflated rubber tyre had not, like the
    brazen chariot wheel, crushed his delicate vertebra; he
    quickly recovered, and when released glided swiftly and easily
    away into cover. Twice only have I deliberately tried to run
    down, to tread on coat-tails so to speak, of any wild
    creature. One was a weasel, the other a stoat, running along
    at a hedge-side before me. In both instances, just as the
    front wheel was touching the tail, the little flat-headed
    rascal swerved quickly aside and escaped.

    Even some of the less common and less tame birds care as
    little for a man on a bicycle as they do for a cow. Not long
    ago a peewit trotted leisurely across the road not more than
    ten yards from my front wheel; and on the same day I came upon
    a green woodpecker enjoying a dust-bath in the public road.
    He declined to stir until I stopped to watch him, then merely
    flew about a dozen yards away and attached himself to the
    trunk of a fir tree at the roadside and waited there for me to
    go. Never in all my wanderings afoot had I seen a yaffingale
    dusting himself like a barn-door fowl!

    It is not seriously contended that birds can be observed
    narrowly in this easy way; but even for the most conscientious
    field naturalist the wheel has its advantages. It carries him
    quickly over much barren ground and gives him a better view of
    the country he traverses; finally, it enables him to see more
    birds. He will sometimes see thousands in a day where,
    walking, he would hardly have seen hundreds, and there is joy
    in mere numbers. It was just to get this general rapid sight
    of the bird life of the neighbouring hilly district of
    Hampshire that I was at Newbury on the last day of October.
    The weather was bright though very cold and windy, and towards
    evening I was surprised to see about twenty swallows in
    Northbrook Street flying languidly to and fro in the shelter
    of the houses, often fluttering under the eaves and at
    intervals sitting on ledges and projections. These belated
    birds looked as if they wished to hibernate, or find the most
    cosy holes to die in, rather than to emigrate. On the
    following day at noon they came out again and flew up and down
    in the same feeble aimless manner.

    Undoubtedly a few swallows of all three species, but mostly
    house-martins, do "lie up" in England every winter, but
    probably very few survive to the following spring. We should
    have said that it was impossible that any should survive but
    for one authentic instance in recent years, in which a
    barn-swallow lived through the winter in a semi-torpid state
    in an outhouse at a country vicarage. What came of the
    Newbury birds I do not know, as I left on the 2nd of November
    --tore myself away, I may say, for, besides meeting with
    people I didn't know who treated a stranger with sweet
    friendliness, it is a town which quickly wins one's
    affections. It is built of bricks of a good deep rich red
    --not the painfully bright red so much in use now--and no
    person has had the bad taste to spoil the harmony by
    introducing stone and stucco. Moreover, Newbury has, in Shaw
    House, an Elizabethan mansion of the rarest beauty. Let him
    that is weary of the ugliness and discords in our town
    buildings go and stand by the ancient cedar at the gate and
    look across the wide green lawn at this restful house, subdued
    by time to a tender rosy-red colour on its walls and a deep
    dark red on its roof, clouded with grey of lichen.

    From Newbury and the green meadows of the Kennet the Hampshire
    hills may be seen, looking like the South Down range at its
    highest point viewed from the Sussex Weald. I made for Coombe
    Hill, the highest hill in Hampshire, and found it a
    considerable labour to push my machine up from the pretty
    tree-hidden village of East Woodhay at its foot. The top is a
    league-long tableland, with stretches of green elastic turf,
    thickets of furze and bramble, and clumps of ancient noble
    beeches--a beautiful lonely wilderness with rabbits and birds
    for only inhabitants. From the highest point where a famous
    gibbet stands for ever a thousand feet above the sea and where
    there is a dew-pond, the highest in England, which has never
    dried up although a large flock of sheep drink in it every
    summer day, one looks down into an immense hollow, a Devil's
    Punch Bowl very many times magnified,--and spies, far away and
    far below, a few lonely houses half hidden by trees at the
    bottom. This is the romantic village of Coombe, and hither I
    went and found the vicar busy in the garden of the small old
    picturesque parsonage. Here a very pretty little bird comedy
    was in progress: a pair of stock-doves which had been taken
    from a rabbit-hole in the hill and reared by hand had just
    escaped from the large cage where they had always lived, and
    all the family were excitedly engaged in trying to recapture
    them. They were delightful to see--those two pretty blue
    birds with red legs running busily about on the green lawn,
    eagerly searching for something to eat and finding nothing.
    They were quite tame and willing to be fed, so that anyone
    could approach them and put as much salt on their tails as he
    liked, but they refused to be touched or taken; they were too
    happy in their new freedom, running and flying about in that
    brilliant sunshine, and when I left towards the evening they
    were still at large.

    But before quitting that small isolated village in its green
    basin--a human heart in a chalk hill, almost the highest in
    England--I wished the hours I spent in it had been days, so
    much was there to see and hear. There was the gibbet on the
    hill, for example, far up on the rim of the green basin, four
    hundred feet above the village; why had that memorial, that
    symbol of a dreadful past, been preserved for so many years
    and generations? and why had it been raised so high--was it
    because the crime of the person put to death there was of so
    monstrous a nature that it was determined to suspend him, if
    not on a gibbet fifty cubits high, at all events higher above
    the earth than Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite? The
    gruesome story is as follows.

    Once upon a time there lived a poor widow woman in Coombe,
    with two sons, aged fourteen and sixteen, who worked at a farm
    in the village. She had a lover, a middle-aged man, living at
    Woodhay, a carrier who used to go on two or three days each
    week with his cart to deliver parcels at Coombe. But he was a
    married man, and as he could not marry the widow while his
    wife remained alive, it came into his dull Berkshire brain
    that the only way out of the difficulty was to murder her, and
    to this course the widow probably consented. Accordingly, one
    day, he invited or persuaded her to accompany him on his
    journey to the remote village, and on the way he got her out
    of the cart and led her into a close thicket to show her
    something he had discovered there. What he wished to show her
    (according to one version of the story) was a populous
    hornets' nest, and having got her there he suddenly flung her
    against it and made off, leaving the cloud of infuriated
    hornets to sting her to death. That night he slept at Coombe,
    or stayed till a very late hour at the widow's cottage and
    told her what he had done. In telling her he had spoken in
    his ordinary voice, but by and by it occurred to him that the
    two boys, who were sleeping close by in the living-room, might
    have been awake and listening. She assured him that they were
    both fast asleep, but he was not satisfied, and said that if
    they had heard him he would kill them both, as he had no wish
    to swing, and he could not trust them to hold their tongues.
    Thereupon they got up and examined the faces of the two boys,
    holding a candle over them, and saw that they were in a deep
    sleep, as was natural after their long day's hard work on the
    farm, and the murderer's fears were set at rest. Yet one of
    the boys, the younger, had been wide awake all the time,
    listening, trembling with terror, with wide eyes to the
    dreadful tale, and only when they first became suspicious
    instinct came to his aid and closed his eyes and stilled his
    tremors and gave him the appearance of being asleep. Early
    next morning, with his terror still on him, he told what he
    had heard to his brother, and by and by, unable to keep the
    dreadful secret, they related it to someone--a carter or
    ploughman on the farm. He in turn told the farmer, who at
    once gave information, and in a short time the man and woman
    were arrested. In due time they were tried, convicted, and
    sentenced to be hanged in the parish where the crime had been
    committed.

    Everybody was delighted, and Coombe most delighted of all, for
    it happened that some of their wise people had been diligently
    examining into the matter and had made the discovery that the
    woman had been murdered just outside their borders in the
    adjoining parish of Inkpen, so that they were going to enjoy
    seeing the wicked punished at somebody else's expense. Inkpen
    was furious and swore that it would not be saddled with the
    cost of a great public double execution. The line dividing
    the two parishes had always been a doubtful one; now they were
    going to take the benefit of the doubt and let Coombe hang its
    own miscreants!

    As neither side would yield, the higher authorities were
    compelled to settle the matter for them, and ordered the cost
    to be divided between the two parishes, the gibbet to be
    erected on the boundary line, as far as it could be
    ascertained. This was accordingly done, the gibbet being
    erected at the highest point crossed by the line, on a stretch
    of beautiful smooth elastic turf, among prehistoric
    earthworks--a spot commanding one of the finest and most
    extensive views in Southern England. The day appointed for
    the execution brought the greatest concourse of people ever
    witnessed at that lofty spot, at all events since prehistoric
    times. If some of the ancient Britons had come out of their
    graves to look on, seated on their earthworks, they would have
    probably rubbed their ghostly hands together and remarked to
    each other that it reminded them of old times. All classes
    were there, from the nobility and gentry, on horseback and in
    great coaches in which they carried their own provisions, to
    the meaner sort who had trudged from all the country round on
    foot, and those who had not brought their own food and beer
    were catered for by traders in carts. The crowd was a
    hilarious one, and no doubt that grand picnic on the beacon
    was the talk of they country for a generation or longer.
    The two wretches having been hanged in chains on one gibbet
    were left to be eaten by ravens, crows, and magpipes, and
    dried by sun and winds, until, after long years, the swinging,
    creaking skeletons with their chains on fell to pieces and
    were covered with the turf, but the gibbet itself was never
    removed.

    Then a strange thing happened. The sheep on a neighbouring
    farm became thin and sickly and yielded little wool and died
    before their time. No remedies availed and the secret of
    their malady could not be discovered; but it went on so long
    that the farmer was threatened with utter ruin. Then, by
    chance, it was discovered that the chains in which the
    murderers had been hanged had been thrown by some evil-minded
    person into a dew-pond on the farm. This was taken to be the
    cause of the malady in the sheep; at all events, the chains
    having been taken out of the pond and buried deep in the
    earth, the flock recovered: it was supposed that the person
    who had thrown the chains in the water to poison it had done
    so to ruin the farmer in revenge for some injustice or grudge.
    But even now we are not quite done with the gibbet! Many,
    many years had gone by when Inkpen discovered from old
    documents that their little dishonest neighbour, Coombe, had
    taken more land than she was entitled to, that not only a part
    but the whole of that noble hill-top belonged to her! It was
    Inkpen's turn to chuckle now; but she chuckled too soon, and
    Coombe, running out to look, found the old rotten stump of the
    gibbet still in the ground. Hands off! she cried. Here
    stands a post, which you set up yourself, or which we put up
    together and agreed that this should be the boundary line for
    ever. Inkpen sneaked off to hide herself in her village, and
    Coombe, determined to keep the subject in mind, set up a
    brand-new stout gibbet in the place of the old rotting one.
    That too decayed and fell to pieces in time, and the present
    gibbet is therefore the third, and nobody has ever been hanged
    on it. Coombe is rather proud of it, but I am not sure that
    Inkpen is.

    That was one of three strange events in the life of the
    village which I heard: the other two must be passed by; they
    would take long to tell and require a good pen to do them
    justice. To me the best thing in or of the village was the
    vicar himself, my put-upon host, a man of so blithe a nature,
    so human and companionable, that when I, a perfect stranger
    without an introduction or any excuse for such intrusion came
    down like a wolf on his luncheon-table, he received me as if I
    had been an old friend or one of his own kindred, and freely
    gave up his time to me for the rest of that day. To count his
    years he was old: he had been vicar of Coombe for half a
    century, but he was a young man still and had never had a
    day's illness in his life--he did not know what a headache
    was. He smoked with me, and to prove that he was not a total
    abstainer he drank my health in a glass of port wine--very
    good wine. It was Coombe that did it--its peaceful life,
    isolated from a distracting world in that hollow hill, and the
    marvellous purity of its air. "Sitting there on my lawn," he
    said, "you are six hundred feet above the sea, although in a
    hollow four hundred feet deep." It was an ideal open-air
    room, round and green, with the sky for a roof. In winter it
    was sometimes very cold, and after a heavy fall of snow the
    scene was strange and impressive from the tiny village set in
    its stupendous dazzling white bowl. Not only on those rare
    arctic days, but at all times it was wonderfully quiet. The
    shout of a child or the peaceful crow of a cock was the
    loudest sound you heard. Once a gentleman from London town
    came down to spend a week at the parsonage. Towards evening
    on the very first day he grew restless and complained of the
    abnormal stillness. "I like a quiet place well enough," he
    exclaimed, "but this tingling silence I can't stand!" And
    stand it he wouldn't and didn't, for on the very next morning
    he took himself off. Many years had gone by, but the vicar
    could not forget the Londoner who had come down to invent a
    new way of describing the Coombe silence. His tingling phrase
    was a joy for ever.

    He took me to the church--one of the tiniest churches in the
    country, just the right size for a church in a tiny village
    and assured me that he had never once locked the door in his
    fifty years--day and night it was open to any one to enter.
    It was a refuge and shelter from the storm and the Tempest,
    and many a poor homeless wretch had found a dry place to sleep
    in that church during the last half a century. This man's
    feeling of pity and tenderness for the very poor, even the
    outcast and tramp, was a passion. But how strange all this
    would sound in the ears of many country clergymen! How many
    have told me when I have gone to the parsonage to "borrow the
    key" that it had been found necessary to keep the church door
    locked, to prevent damage, thefts, etc. "Have you never had
    anything stolen?" I asked him. Yes, once, a great many years
    ago, the church plate had been taken away in the night. But
    it was recovered: the thief had taken it to the top of the
    hill and thrown it into the dewpond there, no doubt intending
    to take it out and dispose of it at some more convenient time.
    But it was found, and had ever since then been kept safe at
    the vicarage. Nothing of value to tempt a man to steal was
    kept in the church. He had never locked it, but once in his
    fifty years it had been locked against him by the
    churchwardens. This happened in the days of the Joseph Arch
    agitation, when the agricultural labourer's condition was
    being hotly discussed throughout the country. The vicar's
    heart was stirred, for he knew better than most how hard these
    conditions were at Coombe and in the surrounding parishes. He
    took up the subject and preached on it in his own pulpit in a
    way that offended the landowners and alarmed the farmers in
    the district. The church wardens, who were farmers, then
    locked him out of his church, and for two or three weeks there
    was no public worship in the parish of Coombe. Doubtless
    their action was applauded by all the substantial men in the
    neighbourhood; the others who lived in the cottages and were
    unsubstantial didn't matter. That storm blew over, but its
    consequences endured, one being that the inflammatory parson
    continued to be regarded with cold disapproval by the squires
    and their larger tenants. But the vicar himself was
    unrepentant and unashamed; on the contrary, he gloried in what
    he had said and done, and was proud to be able to relate that
    a quarter of a century later one of the two men who had taken
    that extreme course said to him, "We locked you out of your
    own church, but years have brought me to another mind about
    that question. I see it in a different light now and know
    that you were right and we were wrong."

    Towards evening I said good-bye to my kind friend and
    entertainer and continued my rural ride. From Coombe it is
    five miles to Hurstbourne Tarrant, another charming "highland"
    village, and the road, sloping down the entire distance,
    struck me as one of the best to be on I had travelled in
    Hampshire, running along a narrow green valley, with oak and
    birch and bramble and thorn in their late autumn colours
    growing on the slopes on either hand. Probably the beauty of
    the scene, or the swift succession of beautiful scenes, with
    the low sun flaming on the "coloured shades," served to keep
    out of my mind something that should have been in it. At all
    events, it was odd that I had more than once promised myself a
    visit to the very village I was approaching solely because
    William Cobbett had described and often stayed in it, and now
    no thought of him and his ever-delightful Rural Rides was in
    my mind.

    Arrived at the village I went straight to the "George and
    Dragon," where a friend had assured me I could always find
    good accommodations. But he was wrong: there was no room for
    me, I was told by a weird-looking, lean, white-haired old
    woman with whity-blue unfriendly eyes. She appeared to resent
    it that any one should ask for accommodation at such a time,
    when the "shooting gents" from town required all the rooms
    available. Well, I had to sleep somewhere, I told her:
    couldn't she direct me to a cottage where I could get a bed?
    No, she couldn't--it is always so; but after the third time of
    asking she unfroze so far as to say that perhaps they would
    take me in at a cottage close by. So I went, and a poor kind
    widow who lived there with a son consented to put me up. She
    made a nice fire in the sitting-room, and after warming myself
    before it, while watching the firelight and shadows playing on
    the dim walls and ceiling, it came to me that I was not in a
    cottage, but in a large room with an oak floor and
    wainscoting. "Do you call this a cottage?" I said to the
    woman when she came in with tea. "No, I have it as a cottage,
    but it is an old farm-house called the Rookery," she returned.
    Then, for the first time, I remembered Rural Rides. "This
    then is the very house where William Cobbett used to stay
    seventy or eighty years ago," I said. She had never heard of
    William Cobbett; she only knew that at that date it had been
    tenanted by a farmer named Blount, a Roman Catholic, who had
    some curious ideas about the land.

    That settled it. Blount was the name of Cobbett's friend, and
    I had come to the very house where Cobbett was accustomed to
    stay. But how odd that my first thought of the man should
    have come to me when sitting by the fire where Cobbett himself
    had sat on many a cold evening! And this was November the
    second, the very day eighty-odd years ago when he paid his
    first visit to the Rookery; at all events, it is the first
    date he gives in Rural Rides. And he too had been delighted
    with the place and the beauty of the surrounding country with
    the trees in their late autumn colours. Writing on November
    2nd, 1821, he says: "The place is commonly called Uphusband,
    which is, I think, as decent a corruption of names as one
    could wish to meet with. However, Uphusband the people will
    have it, and Uphusband it shall be for me." That is indeed
    how he names it all through his book, after explaining that
    "husband" is a corruption of Hurstbourne, and that there are
    two Hurstbournes, this being the upper one.

    I congratulated myself on having been refused accommodation at
    the "George and Dragon," and was more than satisfied to pass
    an evening without a book, sitting there alone listening to an
    imaginary conversation between those two curious friends.
    "Lord Carnarvon," says Cobbett, "told a man, in 1820, that he
    did not like my politics. But what did he mean by my
    politics? I have no politics but such as he ought to like.
    To be sure I labour most assiduously to destroy a system of
    distress and misery; but is that any reason why a Lord should
    dislike my politics? However, dislike them or like them, to
    them, to those very politics, the Lords themselves must come
    at last."

    Undoubtedly he talked like that, just as he wrote and as he
    spoke in public, his style, if style it can be called, being
    the most simple, direct, and colloquial ever written. And for
    this reason, when we are aweary of the style of the stylist,
    where the living breathing body becomes of less consequence
    than its beautiful clothing, it is a relief, and refreshment,
    to turn from the precious and delicate expression, the
    implicit word, sought for high and low and at last found, the
    balance of every sentence and perfect harmony of the whole
    work--to go from it to the simple vigorous unadorned talk of
    Rural Rides. A classic, and as incongruous among classics as
    a farmer in his smock-frock, leggings, and stout boots would
    appear in a company of fine gentlemen in fashionable dress.
    The powerful face is the main thing, and we think little of
    the frock and leggings and how the hair is parted or if parted
    at all. Harsh and crabbed as his nature no doubt was, and
    bitter and spiteful at times, his conversation must yet have
    seemed like a perpetual feast of honeyed sweets to his farmer
    friend. Doubtless there was plenty of variety in it: now he
    would expatiate on the beauty of the green downs over which he
    had just ridden, the wooded slopes in their glorious autumn
    colours, and the rich villages between; this would remind him
    of Malthus, that blasphemous monster who had dared to say that
    the increase in food production did not keep pace with
    increase of population; then a quieting down, a
    breathing-space, all about the turnip crop, the price of eggs
    at Weyhill Fair, and the delights of hare coursing, until
    politics would come round again and a fresh outburst from the
    glorious demagogue in his tantrums.

    At eight o'clock Cobbett would say good night and go to bed,
    and early next morning write down what he had said to his
    friend, or some of it, and send it off to be printed in his
    paper. That, I take it, is how Rural Rides was written, and
    that is why it seems so fresh to us to this day, and that to
    take it up after other books is like going out from a
    luxurious room full of fine company into the open air to feel
    the wind and rain on one's face and see the green grass.
    But I very much regret that Cobbett tells us nothing of his
    farmer friend. Blount, I imagine, must have been a man of a
    very fine character to have won the heart and influenced such
    a person. Cobbett never loses an opportunity of vilifying the
    parsons and expressing his hatred of the Established Church;
    and yet, albeit a Protestant, he invariably softens down when
    he refers to the Roman Catholic faith and appears quite
    capable of seeing the good that is in it.

    It was Blount, I think, who had soothed the savage breast of
    the man in this matter. The only thing I could hear about
    Blount and his "queer notions" regarding the land was his idea
    that the soil could be improved by taking the flints out.
    "The soil to look upon," Cobbett truly says, "appears to be
    more than half flint, but is a very good quality." Blount
    thought to make it better, and for many years employed all the
    aged poor villagers and the children in picking the flints
    from the ploughed land and gathering them in vast heaps. It
    does not appear that he made his land more productive, but his
    hobby was a good one for the poor of the village; the stones,
    too, proved useful afterwards to the road-makers, who have
    been using them these many years. A few heaps almost clothed
    over with a turf which had formed on them in the course of
    eighty years were still to be seen on the land when I was
    there.

    The following day I took no ride. The weather was so
    beautiful it seemed better to spend the time sitting or
    basking in the warmth and brightness or strolling about.
    At all events, it was a perfect day at Hurstbourne Tarrant,
    though not everywhere, for on that third of November the
    greatest portion of Southern England was drowned in a cold
    dense white fog. In London it was dark, I heard. Early in
    the morning I listened to a cirl-bunting singing merrily from
    a bush close to the George and Dragon Inn. This charming bird
    is quite common in the neighbourhood, although, as elsewhere
    in England, the natives know it not by its book name, nor by
    any other, and do not distinguish it from its less engaging
    cousin, the yellowhammer.

    After breakfast I strolled about the common and in Doles Wood,
    on the down above the village, listening to the birds, and on
    my way back encountered a tramp whose singular appearance
    produced a deep impression on my mind. We have heard of a
    work by some modest pressman entitled "Monarchs I have met",
    and I sometimes think that one equally interesting might be
    written on "Tramps I have met". As I have neither time nor
    stomach for the task, I will make a present of the title to
    any one of my fellow-travellers, curious in tramps, who cares
    to use it. This makes two good titles I have given away in
    this chapter with a borrowed one.

    But if it had been possible for me to write such a book, a
    prominent place would be given in it to the one tramp I have
    met who could be accurately described as gorgeous. I did not
    cultivate his acquaintance; chance threw us together and we
    separated after exchanging a few polite commonplaces, but his
    big flamboyant image remains vividly impressed on my mind.

    At noon, in the brilliant sunshine, as I came loiteringly down
    the long slope from Doles Wood to the village, he overtook me.
    He was a huge man, over six feet high, nobly built, suggesting
    a Scandinavian origin, with a broad blond face, good features,
    and prominent blue eyes, and his hair was curly and shone like
    gold in the sunlight. Had he been a mere labourer in a
    workman's rough clay-stained clothes, one would have stood
    still to look at and admire him, and say perhaps what a
    magnificent warrior he would have looked with sword and spear
    and plumed helmet, mounted on a big horse! But alas! he had
    the stamp of the irreclaimable blackguard on his face; and
    that same handsome face was just then disfigured with several
    bruises in three colours--blue, black, and red. Doubtless he
    had been in a drunken brawl on the previous evening and had
    perhaps been thrown out of some low public-house and properly
    punished.

    In his dress he was as remarkable as in his figure. Bright
    blue trousers much too small for his stout legs, once the
    property, no doubt, of some sporting young gent of loud tastes
    in colours; a spotted fancy waistcoat, not long enough to meet
    the trousers, a dirty scarlet tie, long black frock-coat,
    shiny in places, and a small dirty grey cap which only covered
    the topmost part of his head of golden hair.

    Walking by the hedge-side he picked and devoured the late
    blackberries, which were still abundant. It was a beautiful
    unkept hedge with scarlet and purple fruit among the
    many-coloured fading leaves and silver-grey down of old-man's-
    beard.

    I too picked and ate a few berries and made the remark that it
    was late to eat such fruit in November. The Devil in these
    parts, I told him, flies abroad in October to spit on the
    bramble bushes and spoil the fruit. It was even worse further
    north, in Norfolk and Suffolk, where they say the Devil goes
    out at Michaelmas and shakes his verminous trousers over the
    bushes.

    He didn't smile; he went on sternly eating blackberries, and
    then remarked in a bitter tone, "That Devil they talk about
    must have a busy time, to go messing about blackberry bushes
    in addition to all his other important work."

    I was silent, and presently, after swallowing a few more
    berries, he resumed in the same tone: "Very fine, very
    beautiful all this"--waving his hand to indicate the hedge,
    its rich tangle of purple-red stems and coloured leaves, and
    scarlet fruit and silvery oldman's-beard. "An artist enjoys
    seeing this sort of thing, and it's nice for all those who go
    about just for the pleasure of seeing things. But when it
    comes to a man tramping twenty or thirty miles a day on an
    empty belly, looking for work which he can't find, he doesn't
    see it quite in the same way."

    "True," I returned, with indifference.

    But he was not to be put off by my sudden coldness, and he
    proceeded to inform me that he had just returned from
    Salisbury Plain, that it had been noised abroad that ten
    thousand men were wanted by the War Office to work in forming
    new camps. On arrival he found it was not so--it was all a
    lie--men were not wanted--and he was now on his way to
    Andover, penniless and hungry and--

    By the time he had got to that part of his story we were some
    distance apart, as I had remained standing still while he,
    thinking me still close behind, had gone on picking
    blackberries and talking. He was soon out of sight.

    At noon the following day, the weather still being bright and
    genial, I went to Crux Easton, a hilltop village consisting of
    some low farm buildings, cottages, and a church not much
    bigger than a cottage. A great house probably once existed
    here, as the hill has a noble avenue of limes, which it wears
    like a comb or crest. On the lower slope of the hill, the old
    unkept hedges were richer in colour than in most places, owing
    to the abundance of the spindle-wood tree, laden with its
    loose clusters of flame-bright, purple-pink and orange
    berries.

    Here I saw a pretty thing: a cock cirl-bunting, his yellow
    breast towards me, sitting quietly on a large bush of these
    same brilliant berries, set amidst a mass of splendidly
    coloured hazel leaves, mixed with bramble and tangled with ivy
    and silver-grey traveller's-joy. An artist's heart would have
    leaped with joy at the sight, but all his skill and oriental
    colours would have made nothing of it, for all visible nature
    was part of the picture, the wide wooded earth and the blue
    sky beyond and above the bird, and the sunshine that glorified
    all.

    On the other side of the hedge there were groups of fine old
    beech trees and, strange to see, just beyond the green slope
    and coloured trees, was the great whiteness of the fog which
    had advanced thus far and now appeared motionless. I went
    down and walked by the side of the bank of mist, feeling its
    clammy coldness on one cheek while the other was fanned by the
    warm bright air. Seen at a distance of a couple of hundred
    yards, the appearance was that of a beautiful pearly-white
    cloud resting upon the earth. Many fogs had I seen, but never
    one like this, so substantial-looking, so sharply defined,
    standing like a vast white wall or flat-topped hill at the
    foot of the green sunlit slope! I had the fancy that if I had
    been an artist in sculpture, and rapid modeller, by using the
    edge of my hand as a knife I could have roughly carved out a
    human figure, then drawing it gently out of the mass proceeded
    to press and work it to a better shape, the shape, let us say,
    of a beautiful woman. Then, if it were done excellently, and
    some man-mocking deity, or power of the air, happened to be
    looking on, he would breathe life and intelligence into it,
    and send it, or her, abroad to mix with human kind and
    complicate their affairs. For she would seem a woman and
    would be like some women we have known, beautiful with blue
    flower-like eyes, pale gold or honey-coloured hair; very white
    of skin, Leightonian, almost diaphanous, so delicate as to
    make all other skins appear coarse and made of clay. And with
    her beauty and a mysterious sweetness not of the heart, since
    no heart there would be in that mist-cold body, she would draw
    all hearts, ever inspiring, but never satisfying passion, her
    beauty and alluring smiles being but the brightness of a cloud
    on which the sun is shining.

    Birds, driven by the fog to that sunlit spot, were all about
    me in incredible numbers. Rooks and daws were congregating on
    the bushes, where their black figures served to intensify the
    red-gold tints of the foliage. At intervals the entire vast
    cawing multitude simultaneously rose up with a sound as
    of many waters, and appeared now at last about to mount up
    into the blue heavens, to float circling there far above the
    world as they are accustomed to do on warm windless days in
    autumn. But in a little while their brave note would change
    to one of trouble; the sight of that immeasurable whiteness
    covering so much of the earth would scare them, and led by
    hundreds of clamouring daws they would come down again to
    settle once more in black masses on the shining yellow trees.

    Close by a ploughed field of about forty acres was the
    camping-ground of an army of peewits; they were travellers
    from the north perhaps, and were quietly resting, sprinkled
    over the whole area. More abundant were the small birds in
    mixed flocks or hordes--finches, buntings, and larks in
    thousands on thousands, with a sprinkling of pipits and pied
    and grey wagtails, all busily feeding on the stubble and fresh
    ploughed land. Thickly and evenly distributed, they appeared
    to the vision ranging over the brown level expanse as minute
    animated and variously coloured clods--black and brown and
    grey and yellow and olive-green.

    It was a rare pleasure to be in this company, to revel in
    their astonishing numbers, to feast my soul on them as it
    were--little birds in such multitudes that ten thousand
    Frenchmen and Italians might have gorged to repletion on their
    small succulent bodies--and to reflect that they were safe
    from persecution so long as they remained here in England.
    This is something for an Englishman to be proud of.

    After spending two hours at Crux Easton, with that dense
    immovable fog close by, I at length took the plunge to get to
    Highclere. What a change! I was at once where all form and
    colour and melody had been blotted out. My clothes were hoary
    with clinging mist, my fingers numb with cold, and Highclere,
    its scattered cottages appearing like dim smudges through the
    whiteness, was the dreariest village on earth. I fled on to
    Newbury in quest of warmth and light, and found it indoors,
    but the town was deep in the fog.

    The next day I ventured out again to look for the sun, and
    found it not, but my ramble was not without its reward. In a
    pine wood three miles from the town I stood awhile to listen
    to the sound as of copious rain of the moisture dropping from
    the trees, when a sudden tempest of loud, sharp metallic
    notes--a sound dear to the ornithologist's ears--made me jump;
    and down into the very tree before which I was standing
    dropped a flock of about twenty crossbills. So excited and
    noisy when coming down, the instant they touched the tree they
    became perfectly silent and motionless. Seven of their number
    had settled on the outside shoots, and sat there within forty
    feet of me, looking like painted wooden images of small green
    and greenish-yellow parrots; for a space of fifteen minutes
    not the slightest movement did they make, and at length,
    before going, I waved my arms about and shouted to frighten
    them, and still they refused to stir.

    Next morning that memorable fog lifted, to England's joy, and
    quitting my refuge I went out once more into the region of
    high sheep-walks, adorned with beechen woods and
    traveller's-joy in the hedges, rambling by Highclere,
    Burghclere, and Kingsclere. The last--Hampshire's little
    Cuzco--is a small and village-like old red brick town,
    unapproached by a railroad and unimproved, therefore still
    beautiful, as were all places in other, better, less civilized
    days. Here in the late afternoon a chilly grey haze crept
    over the country and set me wishing for a fireside and the
    sound of friendly voices, and I turned my face towards beloved
    Silchester. Leaving the hills behind me I got away from the
    haze and went my devious way by serpentine roads through a
    beautiful, wooded, undulating country. And I wish that for a
    hundred, nay, for a thousand years to come, I could on each
    recurring November have such an afternoon ride, with that
    autumnal glory in the trees. Sometimes, seeing the road
    before me carpeted with pure yellow, I said to myself, now I
    am coming to elms; but when the road shone red and russet-gold
    before me I knew it was overhung by beeches. But the oak is
    the common tree in this place, and from every high point on
    the road I saw far before me and on either hand the woods and
    copses all a tawny yellow gold--the hue of the dying oak leaf.
    The tall larches were lemon-yellow, and when growing among
    tall pines produced a singular effect. Best of all was it
    where beeches grew among the firs, and the low sun on my left
    hand shining through the wood gave the coloured translucent
    leaves an unimaginable splendour. This was the very effect
    which men, inspired by a sacred passion, had sought to
    reproduce in their noblest work--the Gothic cathedral and
    church, its dim interior lit by many-coloured stained glass.
    The only choristers in these natural fanes were the robins and
    the small lyrical wren; but on passing through the rustic
    village of Wolverton I stopped for a couple of minutes to
    listen to the lively strains of a cirl-bunting among some farm
    buildings.

    Then on to Silchester, its furzy common and scattered village
    and the vast ruinous walls, overgrown with ivy, bramble, and
    thorn, of ancient Roman Calleva. Inside the walls, at one
    spot, a dozen men were still at work in the fading light; they
    were just finishing--shovelling earth in to obliterate all
    that had been opened out during the year. The old flint
    foundations that had been revealed; the houses with porches
    and corridors and courtyards and pillared hypocausts; the
    winter room with its wide beautiful floor--red and black and
    white and grey and yellow, with geometric pattern and twist
    and scroll and flower and leaf and quaint figures of man and
    beast and bird--all to be covered up with earth so that the
    plough may be driven over it again, and the wheat grow and
    ripen again as it has grown and ripened there above the dead
    city for so many centuries. The very earth within those walls
    had a reddish cast owing to the innumerable fragments of red
    tile and tessera mixed with it. Larks and finches were busily
    searching for seeds in the reddish-brown soil. They would
    soon be gone to their roosting-places and the tired men to
    their cottages, and the white owl coming from his hiding-place
    in the walls would have old Silchester to himself, as he has
    had it since the cries and moans of the conquered died into
    silence so long ago.
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    Chapter 9
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