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    Chapter 18

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    Chapter 18
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    Branscombe

    Health and pleasure resorts and all parasitic towns in fact,
    inland or on the sea, have no attractions for me and I was
    more than satisfied with a day or two of Sidmouth. Then one
    evening I heard for the first time of a place called
    Branscomb--a village near the sea, over by Beer and Seaton,
    near the mouth of the Axe, and the account my old host gave me
    seemed so attractive that on the following day I set out to
    find it. Further information about the unknown village came
    to me in a very agreeable way in the course of my tramp. A
    hotter walk I never walked--no, not even when travelling
    across a flat sunburnt treeless plain, nearer than Devon by
    many degrees to the equator. One wonders why that part of
    Devon which lies between the Exe and the Axe seems actually
    hotter than other regions which undoubtedly have a higher
    temperature. After some hours of walking with not a little of
    uphill and downhill, I began to find the heat well-nigh
    intolerable. I was on a hard dusty glaring road, shut in by
    dusty hedges on either side. Not a breath of air was
    stirring; not a bird sang; on the vast sky not a cloud
    appeared. If the vertical sun had poured down water instead
    of light and heat on me my clothing could not have clung to me
    more uncomfortably. Coming at length to a group of two or
    three small cottages at the roadside, I went into one and
    asked for something to quench my thirst--cider or milk. There
    was only water to be had, but it was good to drink, and the
    woman of the cottage was so pretty and pleasant that I was
    glad to rest an hour and talk with her in her cool kitchen.
    There are English counties where it would perhaps be said of
    such a woman that she was one in a thousand; but the Devonians
    are a comely race. In that blessed county the prettiest
    peasants are not all diligently gathered with the dew on them
    and sent away to supply the London flower-market. Among the
    best-looking women of the peasant class there are two distinct
    types--the rich in colour and the colourless. A majority are
    perhaps intermediate, but the two extreme types may be found
    in any village or hamlet; and when seen side by side--the lily
    and the rose, not to say the peony--they offer a strange and
    beautiful contrast.

    This woman, in spite of the burning climate, was white as any
    pale town lady; and although she was the mother of several
    children, the face was extremely youthful in appearance; it
    seemed indeed almost girlish in its delicacy and innocent
    expression when she looked up at me with her blue eyes shaded
    by her white sun-bonnet. The children were five or six in
    number, ranging from a boy of ten to a baby in her arms--all
    clean and healthy looking, with bright, fun-loving faces.

    I mentioned that I was on my way to Branscombe, and inquired
    the distance.

    "Branscomb--are you going there? Oh, I wonder what you will
    think of Branscombe!" she exclaimed, her white cheeks
    flushing, her innocent eyes sparkling with excitement.

    What was Branscombe to her, I returned with indifference; and
    what did it matter what any stranger thought of it?

    "But it is my home!" she answered, looking hurt at my careless
    words. "I was born there, and married there, and have always
    lived at Branscombe with my people until my husband got work
    in this place; then we had to leave home and come and live in
    this cottage."

    And as I began to show interest she went on to tell me that
    Branscombe was, oh, such a dear, queer, funny old place! That
    she had been to other villages and towns--Axmouth, and Seaton,
    and Beer, and to Salcombe Regis and Sidmouth, and once to
    Exeter; but never, never had she seen a place like Branscombe
    --not one that she liked half so well. How strange that I had
    never been there--had never even heard of it! People that
    went there sometimes laughed at it at first, because it was
    such a funny, tumbledown old place; but they always said
    afterwards that there was no sweeter spot on the earth.

    Her enthusiasm was very delightful; and, when baby cried, in
    the excitement of talk she opened her breast and fed it before
    me. A pretty sight! But for the pure white, blue-veined skin
    she might have been taken for a woman of Spain--the most
    natural, perhaps the most lovable, of the daughters of earth.
    But all at once she remembered that I was a stranger, and with
    a blush turned aside and covered her fair skin. Her shame,
    too, like her first simple unconscious action, was natural;
    for we live in a cooler climate, and are accustomed to more
    clothing than the Spanish; and our closer covering "has
    entered the soul," as the late Professor Kitchen Parker would
    have said; and that which was only becoming modesty in the
    English woman would in the Spanish seem rank prudishness.

    In the afternoon I came to a slender stream, clear and swift,
    running between the hills that rose, round and large and high,
    on either hand, like vast downs, some grassy, others wooded.
    This was the Branscombe, and, following it, I came to the
    village; then, for a short mile my way ran by a winding path
    with the babbling stream below me on one side, and on the
    other the widely separated groups and little rows of thatched
    cottages.

    Finally, I came to the last and largest group of all, the end
    of the village nearest to the sea, within ten minutes' walk of
    the shingly beach. Here I was glad to rest. Above, on the
    giant downs, were stony waste places, and heather and gorse,
    where the rabbits live, and had for neighbours the adder,
    linnet, and wheatear, and the small grey titlark that soared
    up and dropped back to earth all day to his tinkling little
    tune. On the summit of the cliff I had everything I wanted
    and had come to seek--the wildness and freedom of untilled
    earth; an unobstructed prospect, hills beyond hills of
    malachite, stretching away along the coast into infinitude,
    long leagues of red sea-wall and the wide expanse and
    everlasting freshness of ocean. And the village itself, the
    little old straggling place that had so grand a setting, I
    quickly found that the woman in the cottage had not succeeded
    in giving me a false impression of her dear home. It was just
    such a quaint unimproved, old-world, restful place as she had
    painted. It was surprising to find that there were many
    visitors, and one wondered where they could all stow
    themselves. The explanation was that those who visited
    Branscombe knew it, and preferred its hovels to the palaces
    of the fashionable seaside town. No cottage was too mean to
    have its guest. I saw a lady push open the cracked and
    warped door of an old barn and go in, pulling the door to
    after her--it was her bed-sitting-room. I watched a party of
    pretty merry girls marching, single file, down a narrow path
    past a pig-sty, then climb up a ladder to the window of a loft
    at the back of a stone cottage and disappear within. It was
    their bedroom. The relations between the villagers and their
    visitors were more intimate and kind than is usual. They
    lived more together, and were more free and easy in company.
    The men were mostly farm labourers, and after their day's work
    they would sit out-of-doors on the ground to smoke their
    pipes; and where the narrow crooked little street was
    narrowest--at my end of the village--when two men would sit
    opposite each other, each at his own door, with legs stretched
    out before them, their boots would very nearly touch in the
    middle of the road. When walking one had to step over their
    legs; or, if socially inclined, one could stand by and join in
    the conversation. When daylight faded the village was very
    dark--no lamp for the visitors--and very silent, only the low
    murmur of the sea on the shingle was audible, and the gurgling
    sound of a swift streamlet flowing from the hill above and
    hurrying through the village to mingle with the Branscombe
    lower down in the meadows. Such a profound darkness and quiet
    one expects in an inland agricultural village; here, where
    there were visitors from many distant towns, it was novel and
    infinitely refreshing.

    No sooner was it dark than all were in bed and asleep; not one
    square path of yellow light was visible. To enjoy the
    sensation I went out and sat down, and listened alone to the
    liquid rippling, warbling sound of the swift-flowing
    streamlet--that sweet low music of running water to which the
    reed-warbler had listened thousands of years ago, striving to
    imitate it, until his running rippling song was perfect.

    A fresh surprise and pleasure awaited me when I explored the
    coast east of the village; it was bold and precipitous in
    places, and from the summit of the cliff a very fine view of
    the coast-line on either hand could be obtained. Best of all,
    the face of the cliff itself was the breeding-place of some
    hundreds of herring-gulls. The eggs at the period of my visit
    were not yet hatched, but highly incubated, and at that stage
    both parents are almost constantly at home, as if in a state
    of anxious suspense. I had seen a good many colonies of this
    gull before at various breeding stations on the coast--south,
    west, and east--but never in conditions so singularly favourable
    as at this spot. From the vale where the Branscombe pours its
    clear waters through rough masses of shingle into the sea the
    ground to the east rises steeply to a height of nearly five
    hundred feet; the cliff is thus not nearly so high as many
    another, but it has features of peculiar interest. Here, in
    some former time, there has been a landslip, a large portion
    of the cliff at its highest part falling below and forming a
    sloping mass a chalky soil mingled with huge fragments of rock,
    which lies like a buttress against the vertical precipice and
    seems to lend it support. The fall must have occurred a very
    long time back, as the vegetation that overspreads the rude
    slope--hawthorn, furze, and ivy--has an ancient look. Here
    are huge masses of rock standing isolated, that resemble in
    their forms ruined castles, towers, and churches, some of them
    completely overgrown with ivy. On this rough slope, under the
    shelter of the cliff, with the sea at its feet, the villagers
    have formed their cultivated patches. The patches, wildly
    irregular in form, some on such steeply sloping ground as to
    suggest the idea that they must have been cultivated on all
    fours, are divided from each other by ridges and by masses of
    rock, deep fissures in the earth, strips of bramble and thorn
    and furze bushes. Altogether the effect was very singular
    the huge rough mass of jumbled rock and soil, the ruin wrought
    by Nature in one of her Cromwellian moods, and, scattered
    irregularly about its surface, the plots or patches of
    cultivated smoothness--potato rows, green parallel lines
    ruled on a grey ground, and big, blue-green, equidistant
    cabbage-globes--each plot with its fringe of spike-like onion
    leaves, crinkled parsley, and other garden herbs. Here the
    villagers came by a narrow, steep, and difficult path they had
    made, to dig in their plots; while, overhead, the gulls,
    careless of their presence, pass and repass wholly occupied
    with their own affairs.

    I spent hours of rare happiness at this spot in watching the
    birds. I could not have seen and heard them to such advantage
    if their breeding-place had been shared with other species.
    Here the herring-gulls had the rock to themselves, and looked
    their best in their foam-white and pearl-grey plumage and
    yellow legs and beaks. While I watched them they watched me;
    not gathered in groups, but singly or in pairs, scattered up
    and down all over the face of the precipice above me, perched
    on ledges and on jutting pieces of rock. Standing motionless
    thus, beautiful in form and colour, they looked like
    sculptured figures of gulls, set up on the projections against
    the rough dark wall of rock, just as sculptured figures of
    angels and saintly men and women are placed in niches on a
    cathedral front. At first they appeared quite indifferent to
    my presence, although in some instances near enough for their
    yellow irides to be visible. While unalarmed they were very
    silent, standing in that clear sunshine that gave their
    whiteness something of a crystalline appearance; or flying to
    and fro along the face of the cliff, purely for the delight of
    bathing in the warm lucent air. Gradually a change came over
    them. One by one those that were on the wing dropped on to
    some projection, until they had all settled down, and, letting
    my eyes range up and down over the huge wall of rock, it was
    plain to see that all the birds were watching me. They had
    made the discovery that I was a stranger. In my rough old
    travel-stained clothes and tweed hat I might have passed for a
    Branscombe villager, but I did no hoeing and digging in one of
    the cultivated patches; and when I deliberately sat down on a
    rock to watch them, they noticed it and became suspicious; and
    as time went on and I still remained immovable, with my eyes
    fixed on them, the suspicion and anxiety increased and turned
    to fear; and those that were sitting on their nests got up and
    came close to the edge of the rock, to gaze with the others
    and join in the loud chorus of alarm. It was a wonderful
    sound. Not like the tempest of noise that may be heard at the
    breeding-season at Lundy Island, and at many other stations
    where birds of several species mix their various voices--the
    yammeris and the yowlis, and skrykking, screeking, skrymming
    scowlis, and meickle moyes and shoutes, of old Dunbar's
    wonderful onomatopoetic lines. Here there was only one
    species, with a clear resonant cry, and as every bird uttered
    that one cry, and no other, a totally different effect was
    produced. The herring-gull and lesser black-backed gull
    resemble each other in language as they do in general
    appearance; both have very powerful and clear voices unlike
    the guttural black-headed and common gull. But the
    herring-gull has a shriller, more piercing voice, and
    resembles the black-backed species just as, in human voices, a
    boy's clear treble resembles a baritone. Both birds have a
    variety of notes; and both, when the nest is threatened with
    danger, utter one powerful importunate cry, which is repeated
    incessantly until the danger is over. And as the birds breed
    in communities, often very populous, and all clamour together,
    the effect of so many powerful and unisonant voices is very
    grand; but it differs in the two species, owing to the quality
    of their voices being different; the storm of sound produced
    by the black-backs is deep and solemn, while that of the
    herring-gulls has a ringing sharpness almost metallic.

    It is probable that in the case I am describing the effect of
    sharpness and resonance was heightened by the position of the
    birds, perched motionless, scattered about on the face of the
    perpendicular wall of rock, all with their beaks turned in
    my direction, raining their cries upon me. It was not a
    monotonous storm of cries, but rose and fell; for after two or
    three minutes the excitement would abate somewhat and the
    cries grow fewer and fewer; then the infection would spread
    again, bird after bird joining the outcry; and after a while
    there would be another lull, and so on, wave following wave of
    sound. I could have spent hours, and the hours would have
    seemed like minutes, listening to that strange chorus of
    ringing chiming cries, so novel was its effect, and unlike
    that of any other tempest of sound produced by birds which
    I had ever heard. When by way of a parting caress and
    benediction (given and received) I dipped my hands in
    Branscombe's clear streamlet it was with a feeling of tender
    regret that was almost a pain. For who does not make a little
    inward moan, an Eve's Lamentation, an unworded, "Must I leave
    thee, Paradise?" on quitting any such sweet restful spot,
    however brief his stay in it may have been? But when I had
    climbed to the summit of the great down on the east side of
    the valley and looked on the wide land and wider sea flashed
    with the early sunlight I rejoiced full of glory at my
    freedom. For invariably when the peculiar character and charm
    of a place steals over and takes possession of me I begin to
    fear it, knowing from long experience that it will be a
    painful wrench to get away and that get away sooner or later I
    must. Now I was free once more, a wanderer with no ties, no
    business to transact in any town, no worries to make me
    miserable like others, nothing to gain and nothing to lose.

    Pausing on the summit to consider which way I should go,
    inland, towards Axminister, or along the coast by Beer, Seton,
    Axmouth, and so on to Lyme Regis, I turned to have a last look
    and say a last good-bye to Branscombe and could hardly help
    waving my hand to it.

    Why, I asked myself, am I not a poet, or verse-maker, so as to
    say my farewell in numbers? My answer was, Because I am too
    much occupied in seeing. There is no room and time for
    'tranquillity,' since I want to go on to see something else.
    As Blake has it: "Natural objects always did and do, weaken,
    deaden and obliterate imagination in me."

    We know however that they didn't quite quench it in him.
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    Chapter 18
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