George Smith.

The Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- online

. (page 41 of 91)
Online LibraryGeorge SmithThe Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- → online text (page 41 of 91)
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Bion of comfort and cheerfulness from the lustre and exquisite poUsh of

17—2



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S40 FABMEHS AlH) FAHMS.

everything, from the ancient oak table, turned up like a screen, in whicll
Hetty stole glances at her own pretty features, and the hobs of the grate,
which shone like jasper ; to the face of the good-humoured master of the
house, and the rosy cheeks of the hard-worked servant-wenches. That
patriarchal eiystem of life in common had its advantages as well as its
charms. Men and maidens might put up with a great deal in the
way of rough speeches which, as they knew, meant very little, when
they were ti*eated on a footing of easy equality. It flattered the vague
sentiments of self-respect which lie latent somewhere in the bosom of the
English boor, as they have been developed by Bousseaus and revolutions
and universal suffrage in the peasants and artisans of La Belle France.
And the rich abundance they were admitted to share must have come
home to the feelings of Mrs. Peyser's domestics. When Molly went to
the cellar for the amber-coloured ale, she drew the jugfuls for the
labourers at the lower end of the table, from the identical barrel that
served her master. And as for the menu of the supper, so liberally dis-
pensed — ^the cold veal and the stuffed chine, the fresh lettuces and the
potato salad — associating it with a long afternoon in the fields, after a half-
past twelve o'clock dinner, it makes one's mouth water to think of it.

Peyser was one of the principal tenants on a fine property. Mrs.
Peyser was a woman in a thousand, and her home and housekeeping
were exceptionally comfortable. But theirs was the life led by the gene-
rality of the substantial farmers of the time. Turning from realistic
novels to descriptive prose, no one gives a better idea of the farmer's
feelings and habits than William Howitt in his Rural England,
Hewitt had been brought up from boyhood in the country. In the
course of his Vi9iU to Remarkahle Places y and to the Homes and Haunts
of the Poets, he had travelled almost every county in England. No man
had a keener eye for country matters, or a better knowledge of the in-
habitants of our hamlets and homesteads. And he paints them to the
life with a touch of envy, though, for himself, he was too highly culti-
vated and intellectual to enter so heartily as he might have desired into
their material enjoyments. He represents the farmer as going occasion-
allyi through hard times, and being squeezed by the pressure of falUng
prices. But, on the whole, the victim of temporary misfortune had the
£uth of experience in the averages of the seasons. It is an ill wind that
blows good to nothing or nobody; and the rain that keeps the grain
from ripening must be beneficial to the grass and the root crops. Then
the healthy labour in the open air, with the sound sleep after wholesome
weariness, ought to keep the mind equably balanced. The fairly pro-
sperous agriculturist should have no knowledge of nerves, or of the
exaggerated and perpetual anxieties that make the misery of so manj
gentlemen of culture. Immunity from these must be worth much to every
man, and might well compensate for some restriction in inteUectual
pleasures. " Take things easy and grow fat," we assume to be an axiom ;
and it follows logically that when a man grows fat^ there must be an



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FABMEBS AND FABMa 341

obvious presumption tliat the world goes easily with him. We are all
familiar with the farmer as the typical John Bull of comic art — hluff
and broad-shouldered, in top boots a trifle too tight, and with the strong
eoat seams strained almost to bursting across the ample chest. His
£nrehead may run into wrinkles now and then as he scratches his head
over an ugly bill, or has his attention called to some misdemeanour of
his servants. But he knows that his credit is as sound as his oonstitu*
tion, while that nothing is to be gained by cheiishing his wonies, and so
digestion waits on unfailing appetite.

And that magnificent physique, though running decidedly to coipu-
knoe, was never maintained on any meagre diet. He had no notion of
stinting for the sake of saving, like the Frenchman who notoriously
nourished himself on frogs, or the Spaniard whom he had scarcely heard
of before Lord Wellington's campaigns. How he would have " scunnered "
— ^to borrow an expression of the £ttrick Shepherd — at the idea of break-
ing his &st on black bread and acid wine ; or of dining in German fashion
on the bread eked out by sauer kraut and sausages ; or even at the more
savoury Castilian oUa, with shreds of bacon stewed through the beans 1
We have seen how he fed in ordinary at snug homesteads like the
Hall Farm ; and Howitt, in his racy style, gives a Gargantuan picture
of his convivialities. Setting aside the meetings at the ordinary of a
market-day, and the " modest cheerers " that wetted the bargains, the con-
vivialities of course were few and far between ; or, rather, they came
crowded together at particult^ seasons, when the work was slack and
the masters at leisure. Then the well-to-do farmers of a neighbourhood
indulged themselves in a round of mutual entertainment. Invitations
sent about by word of mouth were sure to be promptly and satisfactorily
responded to. The mighty preparations remind one of the superabundance
of Camancho's wedding, except that the FiUglish feasting was by no
means phenomenal Sheep were slaughtered, and sirloins laid in for the
great day of the feast ; poultry of all kinds had their necks wrung by
the ludT dozen; the oven was in full blast, baking pies and all manner of
pastry ; ' rhile the mistress of the house taxed her skill to the uttermost
over ere «ms, and syllabubs, and special rustic delicacies. And the guests
did all honour to the preparations ; and if they civiUy strained a point, at
the entoeaties of their hosts, the effort came pleasantly and harmlessly to
them. They were urged to come early, and they came early. The snack
between ten and eleven, ' to stay the stomach after the drive/ consisted of
some promiscuous trifling with hams and tongues and huge cottage loaves.
It merely served to whet their appetites for the dinner, which was on the
table at the stroke of one ; and then they naturally delivered the main
assault, when turkeys, and geese, and pigeon pies came in merely as
unconsidered entries. A substantial tea followed in due course ; and that
was succeeded by a heavy supper, planned on the same scale as the
dinner. The beverages were strong home-brewed and spirits. Mr.
Poyser would have turned up his nose at sherry which Dinmont would



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S42 FARMERS AKD FARMS.

have oondemned as ' shilpit ' drink; and the cost of the entertainment
wa4 moderate enough, patting the quantity consumed out of the question.
That ponderous joviality implied a great deal. What admirable diges^
tions our worthy friends must have had ; and what placid existences
they must have led to preserve these digestions unimpaired ! As a rule,
they could count on their heads as on their stomachs. They might have
eut the comers rather sharp, and perhaps had an occasional upset, as
they rattled homewards along lanes where the ruts and ditches w^ro
overshadowed by thick masses of foliage. But we may depend on it that
they were seldom troubled by nightmares ; and if the doctor who joined
in the festivities had a summons from one of his convives the next mom*
ing, he was more likely to be called in as surgeon than physician.

They lived in the reasonable gratification of their desires, without
being greatly troubled with the cares of riches. Farming *was not al-
together what Mrs. Peyser painted it, when she wished to disenchant
Arthur Donnithome of his fancy of coming to settle at the Hall Famx —
" putting money into your pocket wi' your right hand, and fetching it
out wi' youi* left." But those who practised it were content to get along
from year to year, with something in hand after the rent was paid.
They had no faith in the safety of anything but the land, or the county
banker. They had no ticklish *^ securities " fluctuating in the vicissitudes
of financial aflairs, and they cared little for wars or rumours of wars,
except in so far as these affected com and cattle. As often as not, in
remoter districts, the best part of their spare capital was kept floating in
a capacious leather pocket-book, or invested in the bottom of a drawer
or on the top shelf of a cupboard. At best the good man's ambition was
to lay by some modest portion against his daughter's marriage, or to
scn^ a sum together to start a son in his own way of life. Farming in
those days was managed cheaply. The fields were manured from the
&rm ; the fencing and ditching were of the roughest ; the waggons were
built by the village wheelwright at his leisure ; the blacksmith undertook
the ordinary repairs, and could turn out a ploughshare or harrow-teeth
with anybody. The landlord gave a trifle for repairing now and then,
but he had no notion of squandering his money on " permanent improve-
ments ; " and he would assuredly have declined in most forcible language
had he been asked to put his hand- in his pocket for drain-pipes, or to
give a tenant an order for some waggon-loads of lime.

On the other hand, he and his tenantry lived, generally speaking, on
excellent terms. The tenants were slow to move, and had settled down
into circular grooves, like the horses that went the rounds in their own
threshing machines. Old families in every sense of the word, in which
stalwart men married fruitful wives, many of them had lived on the
land for generations. The elders had celebrated the squire's birth, whan
the hogshead of old ale was broached on the lawn ; and they had assisted
at many a merry-making under the roof-tree of the mansion-house.
They looked on the landlord as their natural friend ; firmly believed in



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FAEMEBS AKD FARMS, 343

m identity of intereets ; and showed him a feudal loyalty which was
partly sentimental and partly instrnctive. When it came to mustering
forces for a battle on the hustings, the landlords counted the votes they
could command by the heads of their tenants. The lord of the manor
in the one parish might be a Whig, and his neighbour in the next a true
blue Tory ; but the flEumers who mounted the yellow or blue had no
sense of sacrificing their independence of opinion. Then there was sel-
dom any grieyance on the question of the game. There was generally
a £ur head of pheasants and partridges looked after by a keeper, with
an assistant or two, according to the extent of the estate ; and if the
hares might occasionally be somewhat in excess, preserving for bloody
battues had nowhere come into fashion. In some places the shooting
arrangements were so amicable that the farmer might easily obtain
leave to take a turn round his fields with the gun, or even ofier a
day's sport to a friend ; while on the downs of the southern counties, or
in the dales of the north, not a few of the tenants kept their greyhounds ;
and others, who did a little horse-breeding, seldom failed to show at the
nearer meets, or were regular in their attendance on the squire's hamers.
Talking of field-sports reminds us of the old-fashioned yeoman-
farmer, a race not yet altogether extinct. You may still come here and
there on one of the old homesteads, where little has been changed for the
last hundred and fifty years. It is situated somewhere aside from rail-
ways, perhaps in the dales of Derbyshire or Yorkshire, or veiy likely
near some secluded village on the Downs. We said that little had been
changed for a century and a half, but the chances are that it was bjiilt
long before that. The date in old English figures is inscribed con-
spicuously over the door or on one of the projecting gables, and may
carry one back to the Civil Wars. The house is of stone or weather-
stained brick, according as it is situated in the north or south. In the
former case it is somewhat grim of aspect ; in the latter it is more
attractively picturesque, since the material lends ijself more easily to the
architect's fancies. There is a confusion of short, steep roofs, at a strange
variety of angles; there are fantastic gables, and quaint dormer windows,
and stacks of chimneys of graceful design. The casements open among
curtains of creepers, or perhaps the edifice has almost hidden itself
out of sight behind the clinging masses of ivy. And the ivy has covered
the great wooden bams, finding its way through the chinks in the tiles
and the holes of the knots it has displaced, and covering the rafters within
with acobwebbed tapestry of tendrils. Whenever you do catch sight of
the roof, it is gorgeous with stone-crop or orange-tinted lichen^. There
is an ancient pigeon-house at one side of the straw-yard, where the pigs
are grubbing among the turkeys and geese; and the young cattle with a
mare and foal are standing up to their hocks in litter. There is no ap-
pearance of poverty — quite the reverse, and yet everything seems tending
more or less to decay. The mateiial wants of the creatures are most
amply attended to, but there is an absence of the graces of fancy farming.



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344 FARMERS AND FAKMS*

The trees coming closely up to the house, and sorely in need of tibinning,
give cover to troops of jackdaws and starlings, who watch the young
broods of chickens with felonious intent. Tou feel a longing to hack
among the timber, and let in some light and air ; the more so that it over«
shadows a muddy horse-pond, diffusing odours that are anything but
fragrant. It is a relief to wander down the brick-paved walk, and turn
aside through the wicket-gate into the garden, where yoif find yourself
walking between high yew hedges, among the sunflowers, and holly-
hocks, and arbours of honeysuckle.

The master of the place is much what you might expect. A tall old
gentleman, well preserved, rather stiff though somewhat bowed, dressed
probably as the sporting dandy of the old school, in a cutaway coat, a
blue bird's-eye necktie, tall collar, flat hat, ribbed corduroys, and tight
gaiters. A sportsman he was bred, not to say bom ; for his father and
grandfather before him used to be famed for their sporting dogs and
their fighting-cocks. Though he has served churchwarden to his parish,
and his hand and kitchen are open to cbaiity, ho laments the effeminate
degeneracy of the age that condemns the cock-pit and prosecutes for
badger-baiting. But he still shows you some of the old breed of game
fowl, and prides himself on the setters in his kennel, while detesting
battues as he does the total abstinence movement. He goes to bed
genially mellow most evenings of his life, and in consequence of these
regular habits, as he says, he can shoot as steadDy as ever. And the
property he farms is a paradise for all sorts of wild creatures. He keeps
down the rabbits for obvious reasons, and takes care that the hares do not
come to too great a head, for, though given to the sports of the field, he
has regard to his crops and the main chance. But there is cover of all
kinds for bird and beast in what we may call the tame picturesqueness
of a hilly English county. He seldom trims a hedgerow, and never grubs
a copse ; and there are deep, dark pools among alders and sedges, and
rivulets trickling under canopies of leaves, beloved by the singing-birds
that breed in swarms, ' and whard you may often come on a duck or a
woodcock. Hale as he is, it cannot be very long before the old gentle-
man is gathered to his fathers, and then the place will see melancholy
changes. Though he does mot care to change the destination, the thought
of its future is pain and bitterness to him. His heir, whether he occu-
pies or lets the farm, has long resolved that far more must be made of
it. Copses will be cleared away; the hedges that straggle in wild
luxuriance will be trimmed like the hind-quarters of a French poodle ;
the old irregular fields, running into odd nooks and angles, will give
place to great rectangular enclosures ; the courses of the brooks will be
straightened ; the black pools will be drained, and the pollard willows
and alders cut up by the roots. The birds must accept the notice of
ejection, and even the sparrows that used to fly up in clouds about the
homestead will be forced to go with the rest. For the venerable build-
ings with the lichen-covered roofs will be razed and replaced by a smart



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FARMEBS AND FABMS. 345

new fannsteading ; and the house itself, transmogrifted by builders and
bricklayers, will look like a withered harridan rejuvenated by paint and
violet powder. That at least is the kind of transformation which has been
going on everywhere of late years, and ia certain to make still more
general progress under the growing pressure on impoverished landlords.

It was about the time when our old friend was a boy that British
fiEurming took a fresh start. " Peace, Reform, and Betrenchment " were
to become fhe watchwords of a political party with whom he never had
any sort of sympathy, and all three were to be forced upon him and hia
oeighboura sorely against the grain. The Peace, that came as a blessing
to war-wearied Europe, pressed hardly alike on English landowners and
their tenants. The famine prices of. grain had collapsed — ^it had been
selling in the first year of the century at 120 shillings the quarter — ^and
the prices of cattle fell in proportion, when the ports of the grazing
countries on the North Sea were opened again. The agitation and
alarm were as great as they have been in the past year, and Beform and
Betrenchment became matters of necessity. But the landcxl interest wag
still " protected," so that it had an ample margin to come and go upon,
and every encouragement for judicious expenditure. The shrewd Scotch
people, secured by their long leases, took the lead in the movement.
They went in for deep subsoil-draining. They took pains to improve
their breeds of cattle. As a necessary consequence, valuable animals
had to be suitably housed, for lung diseases and similar complaints were
serious matters in herds predisposed to them by high feeding. And
when the stock was made comfortable in clean litter in spacious stalls,
it followed of course that their masters' accommodation should be
bettered. When the richer proprietors set the example of liberality
others had to follow suit, and substantial slated houses of two stories
sprung up all over the counties where the land repaid intelligent culti-
vation. The wilder and more barren districts for long remained compa-
ratively backward; yet even there the lairds began to find out that
nothing paid better than judicious reclamation. Of ready money as a
rule they had little or none ; but enactments of the Legislature offered
them new facilities for borrowing on their prospects by " heritable bond."
Of course the landowners took all possible precautions to see that their
tenants made the most of the borrowed money ; and covenants of leases
as to rotation of cropping, ibc., were drawn up more strictly after the
best authorities and rigorously enforced under heavy penalties. The
very poverty of the Scotch soil and the inclemency of the climate tended
towards the perfection of high farming by calling the energy and intelli*
gence of the agriculturist into action.

Shorter leases and more favourable dimatio conditions made the
southern agriculturists take things more easily. Even in England, the
deurther north one goes, as a rule, the more conspicuous are the signs of
c^tal and intelligence. There are farms in Lincolnshire and the
Yorkshire Bidings, still more perhaps in Durham and Northumberland,

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346 FAKMEHS AND FABMS.

as higbly cultivated as anj in the Lothians or in the Carse of Gowrie—
the most fertile district of Perthshire. And a farm liberally and scien-
tifically managed is a yery pretty sight in its own way. One remembers
the naive admiration expressed by Lenny Fairfield, in My Novd, when
Richard Avenel showed him his farming conducted on the money-
getting system of the TJDited States. Poet in embryo, as Leonard was,
the young rustic, brought up in the back settlements of Hazeldean, had
a shrewd appreciation of the beauties of the profitable, and burst out
with, " This is farming, indeed I " Yet Dick Avenel, though he had
straightened his fences and felled his hedgerow timber, could have had
no prescience of the impending revolution in agriculture or of the inven-
tions that are become the commonplaces of tillage. We doubt if the
guano deposits of the Chincha Islands had been discovered then ; and we
are sure that researches in artificial manures had hardly gone beyond
the preliminary experiments. All the heavy work on the farm was
done by horses, and the most skilful firms of agricultural implement
makers contented themselves with improving on the ideas of their
fathers. Now the farmer feeds his land almost as highly as his prize
cattle. The fresh country air is often unpleasantly odoriferous with the
too fragrant contents of the brown manure sacks delivered by the truck-
load at the nearest railway station. The rustic lanes are not only cut up
by the heavy waggons, but grooved by the more ponderous wheels of the
traction engines. Gro where you will, from mom to dewy eve, you may
listen to a monotonous drone in the distance like the hum of the swarm-
ing of brobdingnagian humble bees. It is the engine at work, where a
pair of Messrs. Fowler's steam-pjoughs are tearing beautifully straight
furrows in the stiff fallow ; or threshing by steam is going on near the
stackyard, in the yellow haze of floating clouds of the straw-dust. Steam
power and complicated machinery necessitate the employment of skilled
labour, which must be paid proportionately. Then the outbuildings are
the most substantial of their kind, with every modem improvement in
the way of drainage and ventilation. And all that involves a great out-
lay of capital, which renders returns in some respects more of a certainty,
but in other respects makes farming a great industrial speculation. Chi
a long average of seasons one may be pretty sure of a remunerative yield ;
but in the meantime fluctuations in prices may mean prosperity or
insolvency. The old-fashioned farmer, sitting at an easy rent, who went
about his work in his slovenly fashion, cared little for anybody but his
landlord or his banker. They knew him, and were willing to give him
time if he were backward witii bis rent or repayments on advances. But
the capitalist has to turn the interest quickly on very large sums of
money ; and must meet heavy outgoings in all directions before he can
strike the balance of net profits. Besides the expenditure for weekly
labour, he has been running long bills all over England — ^with shipping
agents at the seaports ; with implement makers at Grantham or Ipswich ;
with hirers of steam machinery; with maniifacturer8| and chemical



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FARMERS AND FARMS. 347

analysts. With most of these, the terms are cash on (delivery ; or he
must be mulcted in an important percentage if he persuades them to deal
on credit. A sudden droop in the price of wheat or stock makes the
difference between a loss and a profit ; and the loss of his interest on the
soma he has at stake soon runs to an embarrassing reserve of debt In
buoyant times the county bankers are ready enough to accommodate a
regular customer. They and he make sure that things will come round,
and that some tai years will counterbalance the misfortunes of a lean one.
In the meantime his temporary straits are kept a close secret. If he can
at all manage it, he must be punctual with his rent ; for credit to a
capitalist of his class is almost as important as it is to a City financier.
For the same reason, he is reluctant to retrench in domestic expenses,
and it would be suioidal to cut down the outlay on his farm and starve
the goose that lays the golden eggs. But if permanent causes of depre-
ciation are at work, as has lately been the case, the millstone that hangs
round his neck grows heavier. The provincial bankers finding the
money-market tighten on them, and that the majority of their customers
are being simultaneously pinched, civilly decline further advances. Our
farming friend is driven to his wit's end, and, possibly, to force sales of
his produce — a proceeding which is one of the shortest cuts to ruin. The
bankers, who make a point of having information as to their client's



Online LibraryGeorge SmithThe Cornhill magazine, v. 1-16. -- → online text (page 41 of 91)