i00bost.

Favorite authors in prose and poetry online

. (page 16 of 66)
Online Libraryi00bostFavorite authors in prose and poetry → online text (page 16 of 66)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


may be called its floor. These are not above five or six
at the most ; and one, the remotest of the whole, was un-
tenanted for all the thirty years of my acquaintance with
the place. Secondly, it is impressive from the excessive love-
liness which adorns its little area. This is broken up into
small fields and miniature meadows, separated not as too
often happens, with sad injury to the beauty of the lake
country by stone-walls, but sometimes by little hedge-rows,
sometimes by little sparkling, pebbly " beck," lustrous to the
very bottom, and not too broad for a child's flying leap ;
and sometimes by wild self-sown woodlands of birch, alder,
holly, mountain-ash, and hazel, that meander through the
valley, intervening the different estates with natural sylvan
marches, and giving cheerfulness in winter, by the bright
scarlet of their barrier. It is the character of all the north-
ern English valleys, as I have already remarked, and it
is a character first noticed by Wordsworth, that they
assume, in their bottom areas, the level, floor like shape.



A MOUNTAIN CATASTROPHE. 217

making everywhere a direct angle with the surrounding
hills, and definitely marking out the margin of their out-
lines ; whereas the Welsh valleys have too often the glar-
ing imperfection of the basin shape, which allows no sense
of any absolute valley surface ; the hills are already com-
mencing at the very centre of what is called the level area.
The. little valley of Easedale is, in this respect, as highly
finished as in every other ; and in the Westmoreland spring,
which may be considered May and the earlier half of June,
whilst the grass in the meadows is yet short from the
habit of keeping the sheep on it until a much later period
than elsewhere, (viz. until the mountains are so far cleared
of snow and the probability of storms as to make it safe
to send them out on their summer migration,) the little
fields of Easedale have the most lawny appearance, and,
from the humidity of the Westmoreland climate, the most
verdant that it is possible to imagine; and on a gentle
vernal day when vegetation has been far enough ad-
vanced to bring out the leaves, an April sun gleaming
coyly through the clouds, and genial April rain gently
penciling the light spray of the wood with tiny pearl-
drops I have often thought, whilst looking with silent
admiration upon this exquisite composition of landscape,
\\ith its miniature fields running up like forest glades into
miniature woods ; its little columns of smoke, breathing up
like incense to the household gods, from the hearths of two
or three picturesque cottages, abodes of simple, primi-
tive manners, and what, from personal knowledge, I will
call humble virtue, whilst my eyes rested on this charm-
ing combination of lawns and shrubberies, I have thought
that if a scene on this earth could deserve to be sealed up,
lik'e the valley of Rasselas, against the intrusion of the
world, if there were one to which a man would willingly
surrender himself a prisoner for the years of a long life,
that it is this Easedale, which would justify the



218 THOMAS DE QUINCE Y.

choice, and recompense the sacrifice. But there is a third
advantage possessed by this Easedale, above other rival
valleys, in the sublimity of its mountain barriers. In one
of its many rocky recesses is seen a " force " (such is the
local name for a cataract), white with foam, descending at
all seasons with respectable strength, and after the melting
of snows with an Alpine violence. Follow the leading of
this " force " for three quarters of a mile, and you come to
a little mountain lake, locally termed a "tarn," the very
finest and most gloomy sublime of its class. From this
tarn it was, I doubt not, though applying it to another,
that Wordsworth drew the circumstances of his general
description :

" Thither the rainbow comes, the cloud,

And mists that spread the flying shroud ;
And winds

That, if they could, would hurry past :

But that enormous barrier binds them fast.
&c. &c. &c.

The rocks repeat the raven's croak,

In symphony austere/'

And far beyond this " enormous barrier," that thus impris-
ons the very winds, tower upwards the aspiring heads
(usually enveloped in cloud and mist) of Glaramara, Bow
Fell, and the other fells of Langdale Head and Borrow-
dale. Finally, superadded to the other circumstances of
solitude, arising out of the rarity of human life, and of the
signs which mark the goings on of human life, two other
accidents there are of Easedale which sequester it from
the world, and intensify its depth of solitude beyond what
could well be looked for or thought possible in any vale
within a district so beaten by modern tourists. One is,
that it is a chamber within a chamber, or rather a closet
within a chamber, a chapel within a cathedral, a little
private oratory within a chapel. For Easedale is, in fact,
a dependency of Grasmere, a little recess lying within



A MOUNTAIN CATASTROPHE. 219

the same general basin of mountains, but partitioned off
by a screen of rock and swelling uplands, so inconsiderable
in height, that, when surveyed from the commanding sum-
mits of Fairfield or Seat Sandal, they seem to subside into
the level area, and melt into the general surface. But,
viewed from below, these petty heights form a sufficient
partition ; which is pierced, however, in two points,
once by the little murmuring brook threading its silvery
line onwards to the -lake of Grasmere, and again by a little
rough lane, barely capable (and I think not capable in all
points) of receiving a postchaise. This little lane keeps
ascending amongst wooded steeps for a quarter of a mile ;
and then, by a downward course of a hundred yards or
so, brings you to a point at which the little valley suddenly
bursts upon you with as full a revelation of its tiny pro-
portions as the traversing of the wooded backgrounds
will permit The lane carries you at last to a little wooden
bridge, practicable for pedestrians ; but for carriages, even
the doubtful road already mentioned ceases altogether:
and this fact, coupled with the difficulty of suspecting such
a lurking paradise from the high road through Grasmere,
at every point of which the little hilly partition crowds
up into one mass with the capital barriers in the rear,
seeming, in fact, not so much to blend with them as to be
a part of them, may account for the fortunate neglect of
Easedale in the tourist's route; and also because there
is no one separate object, such as a lake or a splendid
cataract, to bribe the interest of those who are hunting
after sights; for the "force" is comparatively small, and
the tarn is beyond the limits of the vale, as well as difficult
of approach-
One other circumstance there is about Easedale, which
completes its demarcation, and makes it as entirely a land-
locked little park, within a ring-fence of mountains, as
ever human art, if rendered capable of dealing with moun



220 THOMAS DE QUINCEY.

tains and their arrangement, could have contrived. The
sole approach, as I have mentioned, is from Grasmere;
and some one outlet there must inevitably be in every vale
that can be interesting to a human occupant, since without
water it would not be habitable ; and running water must
force an exit for itself, and, consequently, an inlet for the
world; but, properly speaking, there is no other. For,
when you explore the remoter end of the vale, at which
you suspect some communication with the world outside,
you find before you a most formidable amount of climbing,
the extent of which can hardly be measured where there
is no solitary object of human workmansliip or vestige of
animal life, not a sheep-track even, not a shepherd's hovel,
but rock and heath, heath and rock, tossed about in monoto-
nous confusion. And, after the ascent is mastered, you
descend into a second vale, long, narrow, sterile, known
by the name of "Far Easedale," from which point, if
you could drive a tunnel below the everlasting hills, per-
haps six or seven miles might bring you to the nearest
habitation of man, in Borrowdale ; but, crossing the moun
tains, the road cannot be less than twelve or fourteen, and,
in point of fatigue, at the least twenty. This long valley,
which is really terrific at noonday, from its utter loneli-
ness and desolation, completes the defences of little sylvan
Easedale. There is one door into it from the Grasmere
side ; but that door is hidden ; and on every other quarter
there is no door at all, nor any, the roughest, access, but
what would demand a day's walking.

Such is the solitude so deep, so seventimes guarded,
and so rich in miniature beauty of Easedale; and in
this solitude it was that George and Sarah Green, two
poor and hard-working peasants, dwelt, with a numerous
family of small children. Poor as they were, they had
won the general respect of the neighborhood, from the
uncomplaining firmness with which they bore the hard-



A MOUNTAIN CATASTROPHE. 221

of their lot, and from the decent attire in which the
good mother of the family contrived to send out her chil-
dren to the Grasmere school. It is a custom, and a very
ancient one, in Westmoreland, and I have seen the same
usage prevailing in Southern Scotland, that any sale
by auction, whether of cattle, of farming-produce, farming-
stock, wood, or household furniture, and seldom a fort-
night passes without something of the sort, forms an ex-
cuse for the good women, throughout the whole circumfer-
ence of perhaps a dozen valleys, to assemble at the place
of sale, with the nominal purpose of aiding the sale, or of
buying something they may happen to want. No doubt
the real business of the sale attracts numbers ; although of
late years, that is, for the last twenty-five years, through
which so many sales of furniture the most expensive (has-
tily made by casual settlers, on the wing for some fresher
novelty), have made this particular article almost a
drug in the country; and the interest in such sales has
greatly declined. But, in 1807, this fever of founding vil-
las or cottages ornees was yet only beginning ; and a sale,
except it were of the sort exclusively interesting to farming-
men, was a kind of general intimation to the country, from
the owner of the property, that he would, on that afternoon,
be "at home" for all comers, and hoped to see as large
an attendance as possible. Accordingly, it was the almost
invariable custom and often, too, when the parties were
far too poor for such an effort of hospitality to make
ample provision, not of eatables, but of liquor, for all who
came. Even a gentleman, who should happen to present
himself on such a festal occasion, by way of seeing the
"humors" of the scene, was certain of meeting the most
cordial welcome. The good woman of the house more
particularly testified her sense of the honor done to her
house, and was sure to seek out some cherished and soli-
tary article of china, a wreck from a century back,



222 THOMAS DE QUINCEY

in order that he, being a porcelain man amongst so many
delf men and women, might have a porcelain cup to drink
from.

The main secret of attraction at these sales many a
score of which I have attended was the social rendez-
vous thus effected between parties so remote from each
other (either by real distance, or by the virtual distance
which results from a separation by difficult tracts of hilly
country), that, in fact, without some such common object
and oftentimes something like a bisection of the interval
between them, they would not be likely to hear of each
other for months, or actually to meet for years. This
principal charm of the " gathering," seasoned, doubtless, to
many by the certain anticipation that the whole budget of
rural scandal would then and there be opened, was not
assuredly diminished to the men by the anticipation of
excellent ale (usually brewed six or seven weeks before,
in preparation for the event), and possibly of still more
excellent pow-sowdy (a combination of ale, spirits, and
spices) ; nor to the women by some prospect, not so inev-
itably fulfilled, but pretty certain in a liberal house, of
communicating their news over excellent tea. Even the
auctioneer was always "part and parcel" of the mirth:
he was always a rustic old humorist, a " character," and a
jovial drunkard, privileged in certain good-humored liber-
ties and jokes with all bidders, gentle or simple, and fur-
nished with an ancient inheritance of jests appropriate to
the articles offered for sale, jests that had, doubtless, done
their office from Elizabeth's golden days ; but no more, on
that account, failed of their expected effect, with either
man or woman of this nineteenth century, than the sun
fails to gladden the heart because it is that same old obso-
lete sun that has gladdened it for thousands of years.

One thing, however, in mere justice to the poor indige-
nous Dalesmen of Westmoreland and Cumberland, I am



A MOUNTAIN CATASTROPHE. 223

bound, in this place, to record, that, often as I have been at
these sales, and through many a year before even a scat-
tering of gentry began to attend, yet so true to the natural
standard of politeness was the decorum uniformly main-
tained, even the old buffoon (as sometimes he was) of an
auctioneer never forgot himself so far as to found upon any
article of furniture a jest that could have called up a pain-
ful blush in any woman's face. He might, perhaps, go so
far as to awaken a little rosy confusion upon some young
bride's countenance, when pressing a cradle upon her at-
tention : but never did I hear him utter, nor would he have
been tolerated in uttering, a scurrilous or disgusting jest,
such as might easily have been suggested by something
offered at a household sale. Such jests as these I heard
for the first time at a sale in Grasmere in 1814, and, I am
ashamed to say it, from some " gentlemen " of a great city.
And it grieved me to see the effect, as it expressed it-
self upon the manly faces of the grave Dalesmen, a
sense of insult offered to their women, who met in confid-
ing reliance upon the forbearance of the men, and upon
their regard for the dignity of the female sex, this feeling
struggling with the habitual respect they are inclined to
show towards what they suppose gentle blood and supe-
rior education. Taken generally, however, these were the
most picturesque and festal meetings which the manners
of the country produced. There you saw all ages and
both sexes assembled ; there you saw old men whose heads
would have been studies for Guido; there you saw the
most colossal and stately figures amongst the young men
that England has to show ; there the most beautiful young
women. There it was that sometimes I saw a lovelier face
than ever I shall see again : there it was that local pecu-
liarities of usage or of language were best to be studied ;
there at least in the earlier years of my residence in
that district that the social benevolence, the grave wis-



224 THOMAS DE QtHNCEY.

dom, the innocent mirth, and the neighborly kindness of
the people, most delightfully expanded, and expressed them-
selves with the least reserve.

To such a scene it was, to a sale of domestic furniture
at the house of some proprietor on the point of giving up
housekeeping, perhaps in order to live with a married son
or daughter, that George and Sarah Green set forward in
the forenoon of a day fated to be their last on earth. The
sale was to take place in Langdale Head ; to which, from
their own cottage in Easedale, it was possible in daylight,
and supposing no mist upon the hills, to find out a short cut
of not more than eight miles. By this route they went ; and
notwithstanding the snow lay on the ground, they reached
their destination in safety. The attendance at the sale must
have been diminished by the rigorous state of the weather ;
but still the scene was a gay one as usual. Sarah Green,
though a good and worthy woman in her maturer years, had
been imprudent, and, as the tender consideration of the
country is apt to express it, " unfortunate " in her youth.
She had an elder daughter, and I believe the father of this
girl was dead. The girl herself was grown up ; and the
peculiar solicitude of poor Sarah's maternal heart was at
this time called forth on her behalf: she wished to see her
placed in a very respectable house, where the mistress was
distinguished for her notable qualities and her success in
forming good servants. This object so important to Sarah
Green in the narrow range of her cares, as in a more ex-
alted family ft might be to obtain a ship for a lieutenant
that had passed as master and commander, or to get him
"posted" occupied her almost throughout the sale. A
doubtful answer had been given to her application; and
Sarah was going about the crowd, and weaving her person
in and out in order to lay hold of this or that intercessor
who might have, or might seem tc have, some weight with
the principal person concerned.



A MOUNTAIN CATASTROPHE. 225

This was the last occupation which is known to have
stirred the pulses of her heart. An illegitimate child is
everywhere, even in the indulgent society of Westmore-
land Dalesmen, under some shade of discountenance ; so
that Sarah Green might consider her duty to be the stronger
toward the child of her " misfortune." And she probably
had another reason for her anxiety as some words dropped
by her on this evening led people to presume in her con-
scientious desire to introduce her daughter into a situation
less perilous than that which had compassed her own youth-
fill steps with snares. If so, it is painful to know that the
virtuous wish, whose

" vital warmth
Gave the last human motion to the heart,"

should not have been fulfilled. She was a woman of ardent
and affectionate spirit, of which Miss Wordsworth's memoir,
or else her subsequent memorials in conversation, (I forget
which,) gave some circumstantial and affecting instances,
which I cannot now recall with accuracy. This ardor it was,
and her impassioned manner, that drew attention to what
she did ; for, otherwise, she was too poor a person to be
important in the estimation of strangers, and, of all possible
situations, to be important at a sale, where the public atten-
tion was naturally fixed upon the chief purchasers, and the
attention of the purchasers upon the chief competitors. Hence
it happened that, after she ceased to challenge notice by the
emphasis of her solicitations for her daughter, she ceased
to be noticed at all ; and nothing was recollected of her sub-
sequent behavior until the time arrived for general separa-
tion. This time was considerably after sunset; and the
final recollections of the crowd with respect to George and
Sarah Green were, that, upon their intention being under-
stood to retrace their morning path, and to attempt the
perilous task of dropping down into Easedale from the
mountains above Langdale Head, a sound of remonstrance
15



226 THOMAS DE QUINCE Y.

arose from many quarters. However, at a moment when
everybody was in the hurry of departure, and, to persons
of their mature age, the opposition could not be very ob-
stinate, party after party rode off; the meeting melted
away, or, as the Northern phrase is, scaled ; and at length
nobody was left of any weight that could pretend to influ-
ence the decision of elderly people. They quitted the scene,
professing to obey some advice or other upon the choice of
roads ; but, at as early a point as they could do so unob-
served, began to ascend the hills, everywhere open from the
rude carriage-way. After this, they were seen no more.
They had disappeared into the cloud of death. Voices were
heard, some hours afterwards, from the mountains, voices,
as some thought, of alarm ; others said, no, that it was
only the voices of jovial people, carried by the wind into un-
certain regions. The result was, that no attention was paid
to the sounds.

That night, in little peaceful Easedale, six children sat
by a peat fire, expecting the return of their parents, upon
whom they depended for their daily bread. Let a day
pass, and they were starved. Every sound was heard with
anxiety; for all this was reported many a hundred times
to Miss Wordsworth, and those who, like myself, were
never wearied of hearing the details. Every sound, every
echo amongst the hills was listened to for five hours, from
seven to twelve. At length, the eldest girl of the family
about nine years old told her little brothers and sisters to
go to bed. They had been taught obedience ; and all of them,
at the voice of their eldest sister, went off fearfully to their
beds. What could be their fears, it is difficult to say ! they
had no knowledge to instruct them in the dangers of the
hills ; but the eldest sister always averred that they had a
deep solicitude, as she herself had, about their parents.
Doubtless she had communicated her fears to them. Some
time in the course of the evening, but it was late and



A MOUNTAIN CATASTKOPHE. 227

after midnight, the moon arose, and shed a torrent of light
upon the Langdale fells, which had already, long hours be-
fore, witnessed in darkness the death of their parents. It
may be well here to cite Mr. Wordsworth's stanzas :

" Who weeps for strangers ? Many wept

For George and Sarah Green ;
Wept for that pair's unhappy fate,
Whose graves may here be seen.

" By night, upon these stormy fells,

Did wife and husband roam ;
Six little ones at home had left,
And could not find that home.

" For any dwelling-place of man

As vainly did they seek.
He perished ; and a voice was heard
The widow's lonely shriek.

"Not many steps, and 'she was left

A body without life,
A few short steps were the chain that bound
The husband to the wife.

" Now do these sternly-featured hills,

Look gently on this grave ;
And quiet now are the depths of air,
As a sea without a wave.

" But deeper lies the heart of peace

In quiet more profound ;
The heart of quietness is here
Within this churchyard bound,

"And from all agony of mind
It keeps them safe, and far
From fear and grief, and from all need
Of sun or guiding star.

" O darkness of the grave ! how deep,

After that living night,
That last and dreary living one
Of sorrow and affright !



228 THOMAS DE QUINCEY.

" sacred marriage-bed of death,
That keeps them side by side
In bond of peace, in bond of love,
That may not be untied ! "

That night, and the following morning, came a further
and a heavier fall of snow ; in consequence of which the
poor children were completely imprisoned, and cut off from
all possibility of communicating with their next neighbors.
The brook was too much for them to leap ; and the' little
crazy wooden bridge could not be crossed, or even ap-
proached with safety, from the drifting of the snow having
made it impossible to ascertain the exact situation of some
treacherous hole in its timbers, which, if trod upon, would
have let a small child drop through into the rapid waters.
Their parents did not return. For some hours of the morn-
ing the children clung to the hope that the extreme severity
of the night had tempted them to sleep in Langdale ; but
this hope forsook them as the day wore away. Their father,
George Green, had served as a soldier, and was an active
man, of ready resources, who would not, under any cir-
cumstances, have failed to force a road back to his family,
had he been still living ; and this reflection, or rather semi-
conscious feeling, which the awfulness of their situation
forced upon the minds of all but the mere infants, taught
them to feel the extremity of their danger. Wonderful it is
to see the effect qf sudden misery, sudden grief, or sudden
fear, (where they do not utterly upset the faculties,) in
sharpening the intellectual perceptions. Instances must
have fallen in the way of most of us. And I have noticed
frequently that even sudden and intense bodily pain is part
of the machinery employed by nature for quickening the
development of the mind. The perceptions of infants aie
not, in fact, excited gradatim and continuously, but per
saltum, and by unequal starts. At least, in the case of my
own children, one and all, I have remarked, that, after any



A MOUNTAIN CATASTROPHE. 229

very severe fit of those peculiar pains to which the delicate
digestive organs of most infants are liable, there always
become apparent on the following day a very considerable
increase of vital energy and of vivacious attention to the ob-
jects around them. The poor desolate children of Blentarn



Online Libraryi00bostFavorite authors in prose and poetry → online text (page 16 of 66)