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Idlehurst : a journal kept in the country online

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meadows. All night they will sing ; and to-morrow
forenoon or afternoon, the woods will hear them
through the daylight din of thrush and blackbird,
finch and wood-dove, till darkness brings silence for
the tireless song. I listen long, then shift a cramped
foot, and she hears me. She scolds for a moment
with a harsh, croaking note, and after a minute's
silence I hear her beyond the garden begin again
that irresistible stealing sweetness ; and not to listen
all night I turn to the lights of the house, questioning
whether Gervase French might not draw some science
of prosody from that chant, or whether the passionate
air did not rather belong to the old days, when


versing was more than a parquetry of words, more
than an echo out of all the Classics ; to the days
which will come again, when plenary inspiration shall
be required and found in all who sing.

May ist. Mayday, by the almanack ; but it is
vain to try to conjure the life of the old festival into
the common air. It was not so hard to do, even in
days which I can remember ; when Mayday implied
holiday and rambles flower-gathering, and the arrival
at the house-door of little rustics with their May-
boughs, devices in the pale harmonious colouring of
the season lilac, cowslip, orchis, bluebell displayed
with smiling pride and the traditional chant in honour
of Garland Day. To-day is as lovely as any in the
early Mays ; glistening clouds draw through the blue
which is deep ultramarine at the zenith, turquoise
near the verge ; clouds which lay belts and isles of
shadow across the leafing woods, barring the distance
with palest green and russet purple. The hillside over
against my own, with its larch plantations and oak
shaws, looks as though a dusty yellow or pale
emerald had been "scumbled," as a painter would
say, over the soft brown and silver-grey groundwork
of the woodland. Light is vivid and air is buoyant ;
the day is perfect ; but the keeping of it seems to


have gone by. In the whole morning but two little
companies of garland-bearers knocked at my door for
the customary pennies. They had no song ; the
wreaths drooped dismally, having been made over-
night, not in this morning's dew. The flowers were
hidden under a clout, only withdrawn on receipt of
coppers. One wreath made of crossed hoops covered
with blue-bells and cowslips had a small doll sitting
at the intersection of the circles a relic, perhaps, of
older imagery. One of the children told me his
granfer used to be Jack-in-the-Green forty years ago,
and he likes them to go round. Altogether it was a
depressing visit ; and perhaps the custom would be
better extinct, with that other of carol-singing at
Christmas, an even unhappier pretence.

Considering these pretty superstitions giving way
before the present manner of Progress (which the
County Council's great steam-roller seemed to typify
for me, as it puffed and growled over the Arnington
road, a peremptory macadamiser), I fell into one of
those idle fits which are best suffered to tire them-
selves out. About noon I betook myself to the little
oak copse which stands below the red stems of the
fir-clump, where the thick underwood opens at one
or two places upon noble prospects both to north
and south. I always feel, on entering a wood, some


touch of the stillness and gloom of an old church ;
but to-day the ever growing and fading gleams of
sun, and the din of an army of finches in the tree-
tops, made the little thicket less reverend than gay.
I sat down on a drift of leaves under a bank, looking
out to the hills in the north, and let the senses work,
the mind slackly following. Chaffinch and greenfinch
and woodlark answered one another incessantly ;
now and again from further holts came the cuckoo's
notes, or the clap and crow of a cock-pheasant.
Once a swallow shot through the little clearing,
trilling the song which, excepting the shriek of the
swifts in chorus, seems the fullest expression of joy
in liberty and motion. Then the breeze gathered
and soughed through the firs behind me, a crescendo
murmur, travelling through the clump ; the breeze
which in the Purgatorio

" Di ramo in ramo s'accoglie
Per la pineta, in sul lito di Chiassi ; "

" from bough to bough," with Dante's exquisite nota-
tion of nature. The farthest ridge of the distance
with its keen-edged clump on Camp Hill, showed
aerially blue ; between that and the foreground in-
cessant change worked. Here a cape of woodland
flushed out into clear yellow under the travelling ray ;


here a slope of meadow faded into dusty blue-green ;
here a rounded swell of plough-land showed pale
pink or dull purple. Sudden touches of more vivid
colour gleamed out, a rape-field, a willow-plot, a white
cottage. In middle distance the oaks displayed
tawny brown, green bronze, or brass-yellow, as the
light shifted. The old white horse, feeding in the
first meadow beyond the brook, was a dominant point
of colour in the whole picture ; and the cowslips in
the grass just beyond the wood had their part in
the concert.

After a time the endless changes of beauty seemed
to weary the perception, which, as it were, flags and
fails from the necessary keen vision of mind. I moved
across a bed of bluebells to the southern side of the
wood, where a gap opened over the Weald and the
Downs. The long grey wall of chalk-hills closed
the view ; below it rolled the landscape in wooded
promontories and islands ; right beneath me lay the
little cluster of roofs, the spire beside its black yews,
the brook-poplars, the smoke drifting in a light
haze from the chimneys of the street. Sounds came
to me here on the height ; faint cock-crows from a
score of farms ; the thin clangour of the church clock
a peaceful lenitive chime ; the clink of the smithy.
I could hear the alternate rumble and silence as the



carrier Veness made his calls in the street, changing
presently into a steady trot as a little cloud of dust
travelled up the rise beyond the village, and the
piebald gelding was off upon his weekly journey to
Lewes. Next there was an outburst of treble shouts
and cries, faint and far away, and I knew that the
school was up and the boys were pitching their stumps
on the Green for the midday cricket. A fitful Babel
continues till a shrill bell a strident modern call,
not the mild harmonics of the church tenor quelled
the din, and rang the strays back to their forms and
slates again.

As I looked at the roofs below me, wavering in a
steady shimmer of heat, I forgot the reeking bars
where the men drank the heavy morning beer ;
forgot the mingling smells of Hobden the butcher's
new-painted shop ; the grocer's boys tugging their
baskets to the side-doors in Prospect Place. It
looked from my standpoint too pretty and simple
for anything but rose-covered porches, virtuous
labourers in knee-breeches and buckles, and the rural
fair with side-ringlets and tiny pointed slippers.
A stranger looking down from the hill-top on such
a day as this might well think he had reached
the Happy Valley. And even I who know can
for a space exorcise from the lovely precinct the


painful, unseemly, base life which fills it in waking

The sun flushed upon the long woods above the
village and drew the eye away to the level edge of
the Downs. It was all endlessly beautiful ; but I
found once more the recompense I have learned to
look for in any deliberate regard of natural beauty.
The sudden flushing of sunset, a chance view during
a journey, leave only memories of delight ; but when
I go in search of beauty of earth, wilfully sit down to
receive its impressions, always there grows in the end
a melancholy as of loss and departure, helpless, most
irrational, but, I believe (as with the wild irrational
happiness of dreams), going down to the deeps of our

One o'clock of this idle day goes by the church. I
think of little Alice, down at the Rectory, who has
by this time escaped from the Kings of England and
is no doubt bouncing her ball against the back of
the stables. I think of Gervase French, who, no
doubt, is leaning out of his window to call to some
one in the street, plans for going down to Sandford
in a canvas pair ; while lunch is replacing gown and
note-books on the table behind him, and across the
gay street he sees some corner of Bagley, shimmering
in the sun. I think of old Tomsett, straightening his


legs on a warm hedge bank, and fumbling for his
bread and cheese and flat bottle. All reprove my
otiose mood. I move so as to get a better view of
the patches of colour in the garden, seen between the
fir-trunks ; and while I look at the smiling oasis I
count seven of the tufted parachutes of the dandelion
sail by me from the meadows, which of late were
golden all over with the flowers, into the parterre and
the herbarium. To-day the feathery globes are
scattering far and wide, pledges to the gardener that
wholesome work in grubbing of leathery taproots
shall not fail him hereafter. To-morrow I will cer-
tainly have a turn with the spud ; to-day is sacred
to the contemplative life.

In the afternoon I made a visit to the master of
Lycetts Farm, one John Avery, an agriculturist of
seventy-five, roundly prosperous in the midst of the
decaying industry ; with whom I have occasional
commerce of poultry-sittings or cider, and also, I think,
of feeling, in our common, well-developed natural Con-
servatism. Lycetts Farm stands low and close, as
do nearly all the old foundations in our country ; you
hardly see, till the last turn of the green cart-road
opens out the farmstead clearing, its four fine
chimney stacks, warm red-brick walls, and long roof
of " Horsham slate," the flat cleft sandstone, graduated


from small squares at the ridge to broad flagstones at
the eaves, best of roofs in cold or heat. The yard
rises from sallow-planted bottoms, by grassy mounds
and pits which in ampler times were the fish-stews of
the mansion ; there is a little lawn before the door
bordered with pansies and pink daisies. A vine
straggles over the broad base of one of the chimneys ;
a yew half buries another and reaches out over old
garden-walls, where fig-trees and pears show vast boles
and a thicket of shoots.

The heavy oak door was wide ; and I found Avery
sorting out garden-seeds in the kitchen. When Lycetts
was Twy hurst, a house of the great family of the
Beres or Beers, who made themselves places in three
counties, this kitchen was the hall. It has yet the
great chimney-breast and open hearth, where an arm-
ful of sticks smoulders between the dogs, and a black
pot hangs from the bright steel crane or rack on the
chimney-back. Something remains of the old panel-
ling, faded and patched. Overhead the iron hooks
along the black timbers tell of ancient provision.
Out of the kitchen winds a broad staircase of solid
balks of oak, guarded at the foot by a massy trap of
the same timber, which when down and sparred across
would defend the upper stories, if the outer doors were
forced in a siege. In the middle of the great room


sits Avery, an odd figure, dark-faced and keen-eyed,
clad in torn and dirty frock, quaintly reigning among
all these remnants of consequence and country state,
and these solid comforts of the modern farm. As I
came in, old Tomsett, who does odd jobs in the farm,
hobbled in from the back passage with a message
from the fields about mangold seed. The master
gave his orders, not unkindly, but with the touch of
superiority inevitable perhaps from a man who has
both with honesty and credit made himself a place
in the world, to his fellow who, after sixty years of
work, is something less than when he began. Avery
began at the bottom of the hill, and found rough
places enough ; but to-day he is his own man, a
person in the parish, well-to-do, safely planted beyond
any thought of the Union or the Court. I know him
for a clear-headed, well-balanced old man, whose bank-
book is no idol to him ; who can turn at times, with
no touch of unreality, simply and gravely, to matters
which should grow into a man's last decade. From
his original eighteenpence a week as carter-boy he
rose by steady work, steady as poor Tomsett's, but
ordered by strong will and foresight, to "good
money ; " he kept his savings ; married prosperously ;
ventured when the chance came on a little farm. He
taught his boys to be worth a couple of labourers


apiece ; his wife worked tirelessly for the house.
When things were ripe he moved to Rispham, and
did very well with Southdowns. At last he came to
Lycetts, and settled down to end his days on the
hundred and thirty acres of middling land, content
with fortune, and recognising easily the limit of his
affairs, No less in secure middle age on his own
farm than in the up-hill years when he gathered other
men's harvests, he worked as few work now. Since
rheumatism cut him down at seventy, he makes shift
to hoe among turnips, propped between the hoe and
a stick, or to look after the horses. But it is not much
more than a formal defiance to idleness ; four sons,
tall men whose worth is not to be calculated in terms
of the ordinary labourer, live in the house and keep
the land " like a garden." " Good boys, they are,"
says the old man ; "I alias know they'll do just what
I tell 'em. I does without any odd man so long as I
can ; you can't put no trust in 'em. That's half why
farmin's as bad as it is ; there's not what I call
honesty ! There was a fella I turned off last year,
he was tellin' them in the publics down in the
village how he'd been makin' a fool of me, and
what he got out of the place. They han't got
their hearts in the work, not in no sense, like.
They must be right here" he says, laying a


gnarled fist on the breast of his ragged gabardine.
" When I was a boy, they'd tell us we wasn't to knock
off till we could see to count three stars a-shinin' ;
but, bless you, the chaps nowadays, they'd rather go
by their watches. They're a shacklin' lot, that's what
they are ! Now, my boys, I reckon they sees a good
many stars afore they've done some jobs, and it don't
look as if it had done 'em much 'arm."

Here Mrs. Avery interrupted us with preparations
for tea. She is a short, black-haired woman, some
ten years younger than the master, a little hard-faced,
and keeps on guard with the world. She rules the
house nobly, with painful cleanliness and plenteous-
ness of all manner of store, seconded by the eldest
son's wife, a plain girl with a face of immovable
goodness and the spirit of work in her strong
shoulders and red wrists a girl after the mother's
own heart, grappled to her soul by the silent
communion of righteous, unrelenting labour week
to week about the dairy and the henhouse and the
drying-ground. While Mrs. Avery stirred up the
stick fire and measured out the tea, she spoke about
the third son Albert, very much as though he were
a boy at school. " Jus' like a pookin' cow 'e's bin all
day. D'y' 'ear, father? All along o' somethin'
Steve Wickens was a-tellin' him las' Sat'dy down


in the village. Oh, it's the gells, is it? Who said
it was Liza Packham ? That's jus' like you ; 'spectin'
the fire to draw afore the chimley-back's half warm

like. I says to Albert, like that I says " Here

the entry of the daughter-in-law, who bears the
amazing name Deidameia (a not uncommon name
here, pronounced Dedemiah, and probably taken to
be Scriptural), stayed the further enlargement of the
secrets of the house, and left me able to talk with
the old man again. He affords a good instance of
the fair-minded way nearly all the old men have in
looking back ; he seems to see with equal clearness
merits which ended with his boyhood and those
which came in with the last Ministry. In all this
there is, of course, room for healthy grumbling ; and
just now he was complaining of the vanishing of
the old "round frocks." He hardly knew where
to get one now. "Won'erful good they was.
They'd keep out rain better nor any top-coat ; and
that warm acrost the chest again the wind. Chatfield
in Lewes, one time he'd women all over the country
makin' on 'em for him ; I don't expec' there's many
could put one together now. And look at long
leggin's ! Everybody used to wear 'em right up
to here. There was old Jack Comber had a little
tanyard clost against where the schools is now


down at Rispham ; an' when I was a boy, I'd take
the leather into Lewes every Saturday, for his sister
to make up ; and at Christmas-time, he'd give me
a pair o' leggin's, made just as I liked, brass buttons
and all. Jack was a man, he was. He used to live
over by Steyning, afore he come to Rispham ; and
he'd often tell me about the smugglers. He was
ploughman in those days, and after he's done his
day, he'd walk over the hills to help get up a lot
o' sperrits. Well, the smugglers they'd give him a
keg o' gin now and again ; and he'd alias fill his
bottle out o' that, and take it with him in the field,
ploughin' ; an' he'd get through his bottle in the day.
I asked him once if he didn't put no water to it?
'Water?' he says'; 'not unless it was uncommon
hot.' And he'd do his day's ploughin', and over
the hill again at night to the smugglin'. There's
not many men 'ud do the like of that now, would
they? They was stronger then, an' rougher too.
The men on the farms was terrible hard sometimes
on the lads. When I first went as carter-boy, I
never had a misword from the carter but once, an'
then I deserved it. The carter-boys used to be
beaten cruel, sometimes mos' generally. The second
place I was at, the carter was a rough 'un. Once we
was ploughin', and he told me he'd kill me. He


says, 'You come here!' but I kep' on a standin' and
wouldn't go ; but at last I saw he was a-comin' to
me, so I went ; an' he says, ' Take my hand,' he says ;
so I took it ; and he says, ' If you don't drive better
I'll kill you.* Next time we stopped, he says, ' You'd
better say your prayers ; ' so I said * Our Father ' out
there in the field. I was frightened, I can tell you.
Next time I took hold of the horse's head all the
way, because I really thought he'd kill me. He
lost his place after that, not over me, but about
beatin' another boy. Ay, they was rougher then
than they are now. That was when the Horsham
Gang went on. There was a lot of 'em ; they broke
into houses, but never hurt nobody. Police ? There
wasn't any then, but only beadles and constables.
At last the gentry got a man to go in with 'em ; and
they didn't take to him, not at first. After a bit
they did, and he let on them, and they was taken,
one here and another there. One was hung and
the others transported. But the man who did it,
he had to fly the country."

The clatter and clink of the horses being brought
round to the yard made old Avery hobble to the
door to inspect them ; and when he came back to his
chair, he had something to say about the disappear-
ance of oxen for the plough. Here and there they


may still be seen, chiefly in the more sequestered
parts of the Downs ; but practically the plough-bullock
is extinct. " Tis a pity," Avery thinks ; " there's
never such beef as they bullocks made when they'd
been worked and then fatted. They was goin' out ;
but I think as how it was the cattle-plague as made
people give 'em up, mostly. I rec'lect when that
first come ; we'd only horses then, an' it took them.
When I brought 'em in one night, Master 'e says,
* You've got to be a bit more careful with the whip,
my lad ; you've been hittin' this one in the eye,' he
says. Well, I'd laid the whip on a lump o' dirt
when we first went out, and never touched it all day.
When we got the horses into the stable, my mate says,
' Hold on,' he says ; * here's the other eye wrong ! '
And so it was. And the same night I was goin'
acrost the meada and I fell over a cow and kicked
her ; but she never got up ; so I says, ' Bring a
lantern, Jimmy/ I says ; ' there's something wrong
with one of the cows.' He got a light, and sure
enough she was dead. They all had it after that.
We went over to Tisfield for the farrier, but we only
lost that cow, and none of the horses. Seemed as
though the hard stuff in the roof of their mouths
came off, and then they got better."

Nowadays we have the Agricultural Depression with


us ; but we do not find our cows in the dusk dead of
the quick mysterious plague, nor are the carter-boys
half-murdered in the lonely fields. Avery seems to
perceive compensations in everything ; I do so myself
under certain conditions, but partially. I fail to see
the make-weight in the modern farmers, the fre-
quenters of the Griffin at Tisfield on market-day,
for the loss of the touch of refinement and courtesy,
the observation and the centred mind of Avery. As
I rose to go, the old fellow was full of delighted praise
of the quality of the air and the water at Lycetts.
The old folk notice such things, with much accuracy
and appreciation. " A beautiful water," " a rare fine
air," are niceties which our friends in the covert-coats
and riding-breeches, the brewer and the broker who
farm, fail to take into account ; possessions which,
with a hundred others, are not the less real because
they are rare. The Rector connects them with one of
the Beatitudes, confessing himself to be without the
qualification that inherits so largely.

There are days of March when few things are
better for a man than to get under the lee of a big
hayrick, stamp his heels in the litter, and set his nape
well into the overhanging wall ; while the mixed sleet
and dust whirls past the corner of the rick, let him
in the warm lull of the sheltered air pull a handful


of the hay and smell it ; half the spell of June is
in the grey fibres ; he can almost hear the blackbirds
on the wind ; if by chance the cowman should begin
to sharpen the hay-knife behind the rick, he hears the
clink of the scythe in the shimmering fields ; the
essence of summer is laid up in the heart of the hay.
Something after this fashion I find in talking with
old Avery. There is a kind of laid-up sunshine in
his nature, a quality impenetrable by winds of fortune,
which makes him a shelter for others on bleak days.
I wish it were given to more of us so to stack our
Midsummer grass, that it will make pleasant corners
for windy weather, and cut out sweet and wholesome
to the last truss when the scythes swish again through
the sorrel and the dog-daisies.

22nd. Last night we had rain, after a grievous
drought which entirely spoiled the transition from
latter Spring to Summer. For a month past the
glass has dropped and risen, the wind has gone about
from raw north to sweet south, every shape of cloud
has loomed and melted ; the cockchafers have held
their yearly one night's festival ; sooty airs have
pervaded the house, and candles have sputtered o'
nights ; without bringing the desired showers. It is
heart-breaking work to watch the windward from
hour to hour ; to see the promise of the airy wisps


rise only to vanish ; to try to find comfort in sunrise
or sunset. The restless wind swept the sky clear of
the last thread of vapour, and left a grey-blue vault
from which the sun shone with July face. The light
was broad and colourless, the heat dry and untem-
pered ; and the latter Spring became a desolation.
All vegetation suffered ; the breeze which all day
sucked the moisture from the roots, blew keen under
the stars, and the frost bit just before dawn in the
lower plots and unsheltered corners. Leaves lacked
the moist, crude green of Spring ; grass yellowed ;
the apple-blossom fell almost as soon as it opened.
Pseony blooms were but half-grown, and strewed
their petals all too soon ; delphiniums were climbing
inches every day, hurrying out their flower-spikes,
pushing on with the rest to bloom and seed, forced
by a dry root-run. Insect pests made the most of
the dry chill weather ; rose-grub and caterpillar
meshed up and gnawed the leaves of the Perpetuals ;
greenfly mossed over the lustiest shoots with their
serried host. As a balance to this, the slugs and
" shell-snegs " were laid close in tufts and clumps of
the borders, and the daintiest seedling was safe in the

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Online LibraryJohn HalshamIdlehurst : a journal kept in the country → online text (page 6 of 17)