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    Chapter 23

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    Chapter 23
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    Following a River

    The stream invites us to follow: the impulse is so common that
    it might be set down as an instinct; and certainly there is no
    more fascinating pastime than to keep company with a river
    from its source to the sea. Unfortunately this is not easy in
    a country where running waters have been enclosed, which
    should be as free as the rain and sunshine to all, and were
    once free, when England was England still, before landowners
    annexed them, even as they annexed or stole the commons and
    shut up the footpaths and made it an offence for a man to go
    aside from the road to feel God's grass under his feet. Well,
    they have also got the road now, and cover and blind and choke
    us with its dust and insolently hoot-hoot at us. Out of the
    way, miserable crawlers, if you don't want to be smashed!

    Sometimes the way is cut off by huge thorny hedges and fences
    of barbed wire--man's devilish improvement on the bramble
    --brought down to the water's edge. The river-follower must
    force his way through these obstacles, in most cases greatly
    to the detriment of his clothes and temper; or, should they
    prove impassable, he must undress and go into the water.
    Worst of all is the thought that he is a trespasser. The
    pheasants crow loudly lest he should forget it. Occasionally,
    too, in these private places he encounters men in velveteens
    with guns under their arms, and other men in tweeds and
    knickerbockers, with or without guns, and they all stare at
    him with amazement in their eyes, like disturbed cattle in a
    pasture; and sometimes they challenge him. But I must say
    that, although I have been sharply spoken to on several
    occasions, always, after a few words, I have been permitted to
    keep on my way. And on that way I intend to keep until I have
    no more strength to climb over fences and force my way through
    hedges, but like a blind and worn-out old badger must take to
    my earth and die.

    I found the Exe easy to follow at first. Further on
    exceedingly difficult in places; but I was determined to keep
    near it, to have it behind me and before me and at my side,
    following, leading, a beautiful silvery serpent that was my
    friend and companion. For I was following not the Exe only,
    but a dream as well, and a memory. Before I knew it the Exe
    was a beloved stream. Many rivers had I seen in my
    wanderings, but never one to compare with this visionary
    river, which yet existed, and would be found and followed at
    last. My forefathers had dwelt for generations beside it,
    listening all their lives long to its music, and when they
    left it they still loved it in exile, and died at last with
    its music in their ears. Nor did the connection end there;
    their children and children's children doubtless had some
    inherited memory of it; or how came I to have this feeling,
    which made it sacred, and drew me to it? We inherit not from
    our ancestors only, but, through them, something, too, from
    the earth and place that knew them.

    I sought for and found it where it takes its rise on open
    Exmoor; a simple moorland stream, not wild and foaming and
    leaping over rocks, but flowing gently between low peaty
    banks, where the little lambs leap over it from side to side
    in play. Following the stream down, I come at length to
    Exford. Here the aspect of the country begins to change; it
    is not all brown desolate heath; there are green flowery
    meadows by the river, and some wood. A little further down
    and the Exe will be a woodland stream; but of all the rest of
    my long walk I shall only say that to see the real beauty of
    this stream one must go to Somerset. From Exford to Dulverton
    it runs, singing aloud, foam-flecked, between high hills
    clothed to their summits in oak woods: after its union with
    the Barle it enters Devonshire as a majestic stream, and flows
    calmly through a rich green country; its wild romantic charm
    has been left behind.

    The uninformed traveller, whose principle it is never to look
    at a guide-book, is surprised to find that the small village
    of Exford contains no fewer than half a dozen inns. He asks
    how they are kept going; and the natives, astonished at his
    ignorance, proceed to enlighten him. Exford is the
    headquarters of the stag-hunt: thither the hunters flock in
    August, and spend so much money during thir brief season that
    the innkeepers grow rich and fat, and for the rest of the year
    can afford to doze peacefully behind their bars. Here are the
    kennels, and when I visited them they contained forty or fifty
    couples of stag-hounds. These are gigantic foxhounds,
    selected for their great size from packs all over the country.
    When out exercising these big vari-coloured dogs make a fine
    show. It is curious to find that, although these individual
    variations are continually appearing--very large dogs born of
    dogs of medium size--others cannot be bred from them; the
    variety cannot be fixed.

    The village is not picturesque. Its one perennial charm is
    the swift river that flows through it, making music on its
    wide sandy and pebbly floor. Hither and thither flit the
    wagtails, finding little half-uncovered stones in the current
    to perch upon. Both the pied and grey species are there; and,
    seeing them together, one naturally wishes to resettle for
    himself the old question as to which is the prettiest and most
    graceful. Now this one looks best and now that; but the
    delicately coloured grey and yellow bird has the longest tail
    and can use it more prettily. Her tail is as much to her,
    both as ornament and to express emotions, as a fan to any
    flirtatious Spanish senora. One always thinks of these dainty
    feathered creatures as females. It would seem quite natural
    to call the wagtail "lady-bird," if that name had not been
    registered by a diminutive podgy tortoise-shaped black and red

    So shallow is the wide stream in the village that a little
    girl of about seven came down from a cottage, and to cool her
    feet waded out into the middle, and there she stood for some
    minutes on a low flat stone, looking down on her own wavering
    image broken by a hundred hurrying wavelets and ripples. This
    small maidie, holding up her short, shabby frock with her
    wee hands, her bright brown hair falling over her face as she
    bent her head down and laughed to see her bare little legs and
    their flickering reflection beneath, made a pretty picture.
    Like the wagtails, she looked in harmony with her

    So many are the villages, towns, and places of interest seen,
    so many the adventures met with in this walk, starting with
    the baby streamlet beyond Simonsbath, and following it down to
    Exeter and Exmouth, that it would take half a volume to
    describe them, however briefly. Yet at the end I found that
    Exford had left the most vivid and lasting impression, and was
    remembered with most pleasure. It was more to me than
    Winsford, that fragrant, cool, grey and green village, the
    home of immemorial peace, second to no English village in
    beauty; with its hoary church tower, its great trees, its old
    stone, thatched cottages draped in ivy and vine, its soothing
    sound of running waters. Exeter itself did not impress me so
    strongly, in spite of its cathedral. The village of Exford
    printed itself thus sharply on my mind because I had there
    been filled with wonder and delight at the sight of a face
    exceeding in loveliness all the faces seen in that West
    Country--a rarest human gem, which had the power of imparting
    to its setting something of its own wonderful lustre. The
    type was a common Somerset one, but with marked differences in
    some respects, else it could not have been so perfect.

    The type I speak of is a very distinct one: in a crowd in a
    London street you can easily spot a Somerset man who has this
    mark on his countenance, but it shows more clearly in the
    woman. There are more types than one, but the variety is less
    than in other places; the women are more like each other, and
    differ more from those that are outside their borders than is
    the case in other English counties. A woman of this prevalent
    type, to be met with anywhere from Bath and Bedminster to the
    wilds of Exmoor, is of a good height, and has a pleasant,
    often a pretty face; regular features, the nose straight,
    rather long, with thin nostrils; eyes grey-blue; hair brown,
    neither dark nor light, in many cases with a sandy or sunburnt
    tint. Black, golden, reds, chestnuts are rarely seen. There
    is always colour in the skin, but not deep; as a rule it is a
    light tender brown with a rosy or reddish tinge. Altogether
    it is a winning face, with smiling eyes; there is more in it
    of that something we can call "refinement" than is seen in
    women of the same class in other counties. The expression is
    somewhat infantile; a young woman, even a middle-aged woman,
    will frequently remind you of a little girl of seven or eight
    summers. The innocent eyes and mobile mouth are singularly
    childlike. This peculiarity is the more striking when we
    consider the figure. This is not fully developed according to
    the accepted standards the hips are too small, the chest too
    narrow and flat, the arms too thin. True or false, the idea
    is formed of a woman of a childlike, affectionate nature, but
    lacking in passion, one to be chosen for a sister rather than
    a wife. Something in us--instinct or tradition--will have it
    that the well-developed woman is richest in the purely womanly
    qualities--the wifely and maternal feelings. The luxuriant
    types that abound most in Devonshire are not common here.

    It will be understood that the women described are those that
    live in cottages. Here, as elsewhere, as you go higher in the
    social scale--further from the soil as it were--the type
    becomes less and less distinct. Those of the "higher class,"
    or "better class," are few, and always in a sense foreigners.
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    Chapter 23
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