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    A Wiltshire Village

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    Chapter 12
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    "What is your nearest village?" I asked of a labourer I met on the road
    one bleak day in early spring, after a great frost: for I had walked
    far enough and was cold and tired, and it seemed to me that it would be
    well to find shelter for the night and a place to settle down in for a
    season.

    "Burbage," he answered, pointing the way to it.

    And when I came to it, and walked slowly and thoughtfully the entire
    length of its one long street or road, my sister said to me:

    "Yet another old ancient village!" and then, with a slight tremor in
    her voice, "And you are going to stay in it!"

    "Yes," I replied, in a tone of studied indifference: but as to whether
    it was ancient or not I could not say;--I had never heard its name
    before, and knew nothing about it: doubtless it was characteristic--
    "That weary word," she murmured.

    --But it was neither strikingly picturesque, nor quaint, nor did I wish
    it were either one or the other, nor anything else attractive or
    remarkable, since I sought only for a quiet spot where my brain might
    think the thoughts and my hand do the work that occupied me. A village
    remote, rustic, commonplace, that would make no impression on my
    preoccupied mind and leave no lasting image, nor anything but a faint
    and fading memory.

    Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
    And tempted her out of her gloom--
    And conquered her scruples and gloom.

    And fortune favoured her, all things conspiring to keep me content to
    walk in that path which I had so readily, so lightly, promised to keep:
    for the work to be done was bread and cheese to me, and in a sense to
    her, and had to be done, and there was nothing to distract attention.

    It was quiet in my chosen cottage, in the low-ceilinged room where I
    usually sat: outside, the walls were covered with ivy which made it
    like a lonely lodge in a wood; and when I opened my small outward-
    opening latticed window there was no sound except the sighing of the
    wind in the old yew tree growing beside and against the wall, and at
    intervals the chirruping of a pair of sparrows that flew up from time
    to time from the road with long straws in their bills. They were
    building a nest beneath my window--possibly it was the first nest made
    that year in all this country.

    All the day long it was quiet; and when, tired of work, I went out and
    away from the village across the wide vacant fields, there was nothing
    to attract the eye. The deadly frost which had held us for long weeks
    in its grip had gone, for it was now drawing to the end of March, but
    winter was still in the air and in the earth. Day after day a dull
    cloud was over all the sky and the wind blew cold from the north-east.
    The aspect of the country, as far as one could see in that level plain,
    was wintry and colourless. The hedges in that part are kept cut and
    trimmed so closely that they seemed less like hedges than mere faint
    greyish fences of brushwood, dividing field from field: they would not
    have afforded shelter to a hedge-sparrow. The trees were few and far
    apart--grey naked oaks, un-visited even by the tits that find their
    food in bark and twig; the wide fields between were bare and devoid of
    life of man or beast or bird. Ploughed and grass lands were equally
    desolate; for the grass was last year's, long dead and now of that
    neutral, faded, and palest of all pale dead colours in nature. It is
    not white nor yellow, and there is no name for it. Looking down when I
    walked in the fields the young spring grass could be seen thrusting up
    its blades among the old and dead, but at a distance of a few yards
    these delicate living green threads were invisible.

    Coming back out of the bleak wind it always seemed strangely warm in
    the village street--it was like coming into a room in which a fire has
    been burning all day. So grateful did I find this warmth of the deep
    old sheltered road, so vocal too and full of life did it seem after the
    pallor and silence of the desolate world without, that I made it my
    favourite walk, measuring its length from end to end. Nor was it
    strange that at last, unconsciously, in spite of a preoccupied brain
    and of the assurance given that I would reside in the village, like a
    snail in its shell, without seeing it, an impression began to form and
    an influence to be felt.

    Some vague speculations passed through my mind as to how old the
    village might be. I had heard some person remark that it had formerly
    been much more populous, that many of its people had from time to time
    drifted away to the towns; their old empty cottages pulled down and no
    new ones built. The road was deep and the cottages on either side stood
    six to eight or nine feet above it. Where a cottage stood close to the
    edge of the road and faced it, the door was reached by a flight of
    stone or brick steps; at such cottages the landing above the steps was
    like a balcony, where one could stand and look down upon a passing
    cart, or the daily long straggling procession of children going to or
    returning from the village school. I counted the steps that led up to
    my own front door and landing place and found there were ten: I took it
    that each step represented a century's wear of the road by hoof and
    wheel and human feet, and the conclusion was thus that the village was
    a thousand years old--probably it was over two thousand. A few
    centuries more or less did not seem to matter much; the subject did not
    interest me in the least, my passing thought about it was an idle straw
    showing which way the mental wind was blowing.

    Albeit half-conscious of what that way was, I continued to assure
    Psyche--my sister--that all was going well: that if she would only keep
    quiet there would be no trouble, seeing that I knew my own weakness so
    well--a habit of dropping the thing I am doing because something more
    interesting always crops up. Here fortunately for us (and our bread and
    cheese) there was nothing interesting--ab-so-lute-ly.

    But in the end, when the work was finished, the image that had been
    formed could no longer be thrust away and forgotten. It was there, an
    entity as well as an image--an intelligent masterful being who said to
    me not in words but very plainly: _Try to ignore me and it will be
    worse for you: a secret want will continually disquiet you: recognize
    my existence and right to dwell in and possess your soul, as you dwell
    in mine, and there will be a pleasant union and peace between us._

    To resist, to argue the matter like some miserable metaphysician would
    have been useless.

    The persistent image was of the old deep road, the green bank on each
    side, on which stood thatched cottages, whitewashed or of the pale red
    of old weathered bricks; each with its plot of ground or garden with,
    in some cases, a few fruit trees. Here and there stood a large shade
    tree--oak or pine or yew; then a vacant space, succeeded by a hedge,
    gapped and ragged and bare, or of evergreen holly or yew, smoothly
    trimmed; then a ploughed field, and again cottages, looking up or down
    the road, or placed obliquely, or facing it: and looking at one
    cottage and its surrounding, there would perhaps be a water-butt
    standing beside it; a spade and fork leaning against the wall; a
    white cat sitting in the shelter idly regarding three or four fowls
    moving about at a distance of a few yards, their red feathers ruffled
    by the wind; further away a wood-pile; behind it a pigsty sheltered
    by bushes, and on the ground, among the dead weeds, a chopping-block,
    some broken bricks, little heaps of rusty iron, and other litter. Each
    plot had its own litter and objects and animals.

    On the steeply sloping sides of the road the young grass was springing
    up everywhere among the old rubbish of dead grass and leaves and sticks
    and stems. More conspicuous than the grass blades, green as verdigris,
    were the arrow-shaped leaves of the arum or cuckoo-pint. But there were
    no flowers yet except the wild strawberry, and these so few and small
    that only the eager eyes of the little children, seeking for spring,
    might find them.

    Nor was the village less attractive in its sounds than in the natural
    pleasing disorder of its aspect and the sheltering warmth of its
    street. In the fields and by the skimpy hedges perfect silence reigned;
    only the wind blowing in your face filled your ears with a rushing
    aerial sound like that which lives in a seashell. Coming back from this
    open bleak silent world, the village street seemed vocal with bird
    voices. For the birds, too, loved the shelter which had enabled them to
    live through that great frost; and they were now recovering their
    voices; and whenever the wind lulled and a gleam of sunshine fell from
    the grey sky, they were singing from end to end of the long street.

    Listening to, and in some instances seeing the singers and counting
    them, I found that there were two thrushes, four blackbirds, several
    chaffinches and green finches, one pair of goldfinches, half-a-dozen
    linnets and three or four yellow-hammers; a sprinkling of hedge-
    sparrows, robins and wrens all along the street; and finally, one
    skylark from a field close by would rise and sing at a considerable
    height directly above the road. Gazing up at the lark and putting
    myself in his place, the village beneath with its one long street
    appeared as a vari-coloured band lying across the pale earth. There
    were dark and bright spots, lines and streaks, of yew and holly, red or
    white cottage walls and pale yellow thatch; and the plots and gardens
    were like large reticulated mottlings. Each had its centre of human
    life with life of bird and beast, and the centres were in touch with
    one another, connected like a row of children linked together by their
    hands; all together forming one organism, instinct with one life, moved
    by one mind, like a many-coloured serpent lying at rest, extended at
    full length upon the ground.

    I imagined the case of a cottager at one end of the village occupied in
    chopping up a tough piece of wood or stump and accidentally letting
    fall his heavy sharp axe on to his foot, inflicting a grievous wound.
    The tidings of the accident would fly from mouth to mouth to the other
    extremity of the village, a mile distant; not only would every
    individual quickly know of it, but have at the same time a vivid mental
    image of his fellow villager at the moment of his misadventure, the
    sharp glittering axe falling on to his foot, the red blood flowing from
    the wound; and he would at the same time feel the wound in his own
    foot, and the shock to his system.

    In like manner all thoughts and feelings would pass freely from one to
    another, although not necessarily communicated by speech; and all would
    be participants in virtue of that sympathy and solidarity uniting the
    members of a small isolated community. No one would be capable of a
    thought or emotion which would seem strange to the others. The temper,
    the mood, the outlook, of the individual and the village would be the
    same.

    I remember that something once occurred in a village where I was
    staying, which was in a way important to the villagers, although it
    gave them nothing and took nothing from them: it excited them without
    being a question of politics, or of "morality," to use the word in its
    narrow popular sense. I spoke first to a woman of the village about it,
    and was not a little surprised at the view she took of the matter, for
    to me this seemed unreasonable; but I soon found that all the villagers
    took this same unreasonable view, their indignation, pity and other
    emotions excited being all expended as it seemed to me in the wrong
    direction. The woman had, in fact, merely spoken the mind of the
    village.

    Owing to this close intimacy and family character of the village which
    continues from generation to generation, there must be under all
    differences on the surface a close mental likeness hardly to be
    realised by those who live in populous centres; a union between mind
    and mind corresponding to that reticulation as it appeared to me, of
    plot with plot and with all they contained. It is perhaps equally hard
    to realise that this one mind of a particular village is individual,
    wholly its own, unlike that of any other village, near or far. For one
    village differs from another; and the village is in a sense a body, and
    this body and the mind that inhabits it, act and react on one another,
    and there is between them a correspondence and harmony, although it may
    be but a rude harmony.

    It is probable that we that are country born and bred are affected in
    more ways and more profoundly than we know by our surroundings. The
    nature of the soil we live on, the absence or presence of running
    water, of hills, rocks, woods, open spaces; every feature in the
    landscape, the vegetative and animal life--everything in fact that we
    see, hear, smell and feel, enters not into the body only, but the soul,
    and helps to shape and colour it. Equally important in its action on us
    are the conditions created by man himself:--situation, size, form and
    the arrangements of the houses in the village; its traditions, customs
    and social life.

    On that airy _mirador_ which I occupied under (not in) the clouds,
    after surveying the village beneath me I turned my sight abroad and
    saw, near and far, many many other villages; and there was no other
    exactly like Burbage nor any two really alike.

    Each had its individual character. To mention only two that were
    nearest--East Grafton and Easton, or Easton Royal. The first, small
    ancient rustic-looking place: a large green, park-like shaded by well-
    grown oak, elm, beech, and ash trees; a small slow stream of water
    winding through it: round this pleasant shaded and watered space the
    low-roofed thatched cottages, each cottage in its own garden, its porch
    and walls overgrown with ivy and creepers. Thus, instead of a straight
    line like Burbage it formed a circle, and every cottage opened on to
    the tree-shaded village green; and this green was like a great common
    room where the villagers meet, where the children play, where lovers
    whisper their secrets, where the aged and weary take their rest, and
    all subjects of interest are daily discussed. If a blackcap or
    chaffinch sung in one of the trees the strain could be heard in every
    cottage in the circle. All hear and see the same things, and think and
    feel the same.

    The neighbouring village was neither line, nor circle, but a cluster of
    cottages. Or rather a group of clusters, so placed that a dozen or more
    housewives could stand at their respective doors, very nearly facing
    one another, and confabulate without greatly raising their voices.
    Outside, all round, the wide open country--grass and tilled land and
    hedges and hedgerow elms--is spread out before them. And in sight of
    all the cottages, rising a little above them, stands the hoary ancient
    church with giant old elm-trees growing near it, their branches laden
    with rooks' nests, the air full of the continuous noise of the
    wrangling birds, as they fly round and round, and go and come bringing
    sticks all day, one to add to the high airy city, the other to drop as
    an offering to the earth-god beneath, in whose deep-buried breast the
    old trees have their roots.

    But the other villages that cannot be named were in scores and
    hundreds, scattered all over Wiltshire, for the entire county was
    visible from that altitude, and not Wiltshire only but Somerset, and
    Berkshire and Hampshire, and all the adjoining counties, and finally,
    the prospect still widening, all England from rocky Land's End to the
    Cheviots and the wide windy moors sprinkled over with grey stone
    villages. Thousands and thousands of villages; but I could only see a
    few distinctly--not more than about two hundred, the others from their
    great distance--not in space but time--appearing but vaguely as spots
    of colour on the earth. Then, fixing my attention on those that were
    most clearly seen, I found myself in thought loitering in them,
    revisiting cottages and conversing with old people and children I knew;
    and recalling old and remembered scenes and talks, I smiled and by-and-
    by burst out laughing.

    It was then, when I laughed, that visions, dreams, memories, were put
    to flight, for my wise sister was studying my face, and now, putting
    her hand on mine, she said, "Listen!" And I listened, sadly, since I
    could guess what was coming.

    "I know," she said, "just what is at the back of your mind, and all
    these innumerable villages you are amusing yourself by revisiting, is
    but a beginning, a preliminary canter. For not only is it the idea of
    the village and the mental colour in which it dyes its children's mind
    which fades never, however far they may go, though it may be to die at
    last in remote lands and seas--"

    Here I interrupted, "O yes! Do you remember a poet's lines to the
    little bourne in his childhood's home? A poet in that land where poetry
    is a rare plant--I mean Scotland. I mean the lines:

    How men that niver have kenned aboot it
    Can lieve their after lives withoot it
    I canna tell, for day and nicht
    It comes unca'd for to my sicht."

    "Yes," she replied, smiling sadly, and then, mocking my bad Scotch,
    "and do ye ken that ither one, a native too of that country where, as
    you say, poetry is a rare plant; that great wanderer over many lands
    and seas, seeker after summer everlasting, who died thousands of miles
    from home in a tropical island, and was borne to his grave on a
    mountain top by the dark-skinned barbarous islanders, weeping and
    lamenting their dead Tusitala, and the lines he wrote--do you remember?

    Be it granted to me to behold you again in dying,
    Hills of my home! and to hear again the call--
    Hear about the graves of the martyrs, the pee-wees crying,
    And hear no more at all!"

    "Oh, I was foolish to quote those lines on a Scotch burn to you,
    knowing how you would take such a thing up! For you are the very soul
    of sadness--a sadness that is like a cruelty--and for all your love, my
    sister, you would have killed me with your sadness had I not refused to
    listen so many many times!"

    "No! No! No! Listen now to what I had to say without interrupting me
    again: All this about the villages, viewed from up there where the lark
    sings, is but a preliminary--a little play to deceive yourself and me.
    For, all the time you are thinking of other things, serious and some
    exceedingly sad--of those who live not in villages but in dreadful
    cities, who are like motherless men who have never known a mother's
    love and have never had a home on earth. And you are like one who has
    come upon a cornfield, ripe for the harvest with you alone to reap it.
    And viewing it you pluck an ear of corn, and rub the grains out in the
    palm of your hand, and toss them up, laughing and playing with them
    like a child, pretending you are thinking of nothing, yet all the time
    thinking--thinking of the task before you. And presently you will take
    to the reaping and reap until the sun goes down, to begin again at
    sunrise to toil and sweat again until evening. Then, lifting your bent
    body with pain and difficulty, you will look to see how little you have
    done, and that the field has widened and now stretches away before you
    to the far horizon. And in despair you will cast the sickle away and
    abandon the task."

    "What then, O wise sister, would you have me do?"

    "Leave it now, and save yourself this fresh disaster and suffering."

    "So be it! I cannot but remember that there have been many disasters--
    more than can be counted on the fingers of my two hands--which I would
    have saved myself if I had listened when I turned a deaf ear to you.
    But tell me, do you mind just a little more innocent play on my part--
    just a little picture of, say, one of the villages viewed a while ago
    from under the cloud--or perhaps two?"

    And Psyche, my sister, having won _her_ point and pacified me, and
    conquered my scruples and gloom, and seeing me now submissive, smiled a
    gracious consent.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 12
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