News from Nowhere - Chapter 22
HAMPTON COURT AND A PRAISER OF PAST TIMES
So on we went, Dick rowing in an easy tireless way, and Clara sitting by my side admiring his manly beauty and heartily good-natured face, and thinking, I fancy, of nothing else. As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful; and as we slipped between the lovely summer greenery, I almost felt my youth come back to me, and as if I were on one of those water excursions which I used to enjoy so much in days when I was too happy to think that there could be much amiss anywhere.
At last we came to a reach of the river where on the left hand a very pretty little village with some old houses in it came down to the edge of the water, over which was a ferry; and beyond these houses the elm-beset meadows ended in a fringe of tall willows, while on the right hand went the tow-path and a clear space before a row of trees, which rose up behind huge and ancient, the ornaments of a great park: but these drew back still further from the river at the end of the reach to make way for a little town of quaint and pretty houses, some new, some old, dominated by the long walls and sharp gables of a great red-brick pile of building, partly of the latest Gothic, partly of the court-style of Dutch William, but so blended together by the bright sun and beautiful surroundings, including the bright blue river, which it looked down upon, that even amidst the beautiful buildings of that new happy time it had a strange charm about it. A great wave of fragrance, amidst which the lime-tree blossom was clearly to be distinguished, came down to us from its unseen gardens, as Clara sat up in her place, and said:
“O Dick, dear, couldn’t we stop at Hampton Court for to-day, and take the guest about the park a little, and show him those sweet old buildings? Somehow, I suppose because you have lived so near it, you have seldom taken me to Hampton Court.”
Dick rested on his oars a little, and said: “Well, well, Clara, you are lazy to-day. I didn’t feel like stopping short of Shepperton for the night; suppose we just go and have our dinner at the Court, and go on again about five o’clock?”
“Well,” she said, “so be it; but I should like the guest to have spent an hour or two in the Park.”
“The Park!” said Dick; “why, the whole Thames-side is a park this time of the year; and for my part, I had rather lie under an elm-tree on the borders of a wheat-field, with the bees humming about me and the corn-crake crying from furrow to furrow, than in any park in England. Besides—”
“Besides,” said she, “you want to get on to your dearly-loved upper Thames, and show your prowess down the heavy swathes of the mowing grass.”
She looked at him fondly, and I could tell that she was seeing him in her mind’s eye showing his splendid form at its best amidst the rhymed strokes of the scythes; and she looked down at her own pretty feet with a half sigh, as though she were contrasting her slight woman’s beauty with his man’s beauty; as women will when they are really in love, and are not spoiled with conventional sentiment.
As for Dick, he looked at her admiringly a while, and then said at last: “Well, Clara, I do wish we were there! But, hilloa! we are getting back way.” And he set to work sculling again, and in two minutes we were all standing on the gravelly strand below the bridge, which, as you may imagine, was no longer the old hideous iron abortion, but a handsome piece of very solid oak framing.
We went into the Court and straight into the great hall, so well remembered, where there were tables spread for dinner, and everything arranged much as in Hammersmith Guest-Hall. Dinner over, we sauntered through the ancient rooms, where the pictures and tapestry were still preserved, and nothing was much changed, except that the people whom we met there had an indefinable kind of look of being at home and at ease, which communicated itself to me, so that I felt that the beautiful old place was mine in the best sense of the word; and my pleasure of past days seemed to add itself to that of to-day, and filled my whole soul with content.
Dick (who, in spite of Clara’s gibe, knew the place very well) told me that the beautiful old Tudor rooms, which I remembered had been the dwellings of the lesser fry of Court flunkies, were now much used by people coming and going; for, beautiful as architecture had now become, and although the whole face of the country had quite recovered its beauty, there was still a sort of tradition of pleasure and beauty which clung to that group of buildings, and people thought going to Hampton Court a necessary summer outing, as they did in the days when London was so grimy and miserable. We went into some of the rooms looking into the old garden, and were well received by the people in them, who got speedily into talk with us, and looked with politely half-concealed wonder at my strange face. Besides these birds of passage, and a few regular dwellers in the place, we saw out in the meadows near the garden, down “the Long Water,” as it used to be called, many gay tents with men, women, and children round about them. As it seemed, this pleasure-loving people were fond of tent-life, with all its inconveniences, which, indeed, they turned into pleasure also.
We left this old friend by the time appointed, and I made some feeble show of taking the sculls; but Dick repulsed me, not much to my grief, I must say, as I found I had quite enough to do between the enjoyment of the beautiful time and my own lazily blended thoughts.
As to Dick, it was quite right to let him pull, for he was as strong as a horse, and had the greatest delight in bodily exercise, whatever it was. We really had some difficulty in getting him to stop when it was getting rather more than dusk, and the moon was brightening just as we were off Runnymede. We landed there, and were looking about for a place whereon to pitch our tents (for we had brought two with us), when an old man came up to us, bade us good evening, and asked if we were housed for that that night; and finding that we were not, bade us home to his house. Nothing loth, we went with him, and Clara took his hand in a coaxing way which I noticed she used with old men; and as we went on our way, made some commonplace remark about the beauty of the day. The old man stopped short, and looked at her and said: “You really like it then?”
“Yes,” she said, looking very much astonished, “Don’t you?”
“Well,” said he, “perhaps I do. I did, at any rate, when I was younger; but now I think I should like it cooler.”
She said nothing, and went on, the night growing about as dark as it would be; till just at the rise of the hill we came to a hedge with a gate in it, which the old man unlatched and led us into a garden, at the end of which we could see a little house, one of whose little windows was already yellow with candlelight. We could see even under the doubtful light of the moon and the last of the western glow that the garden was stuffed full of flowers; and the fragrance it gave out in the gathering coolness was so wonderfully sweet, that it seemed the very heart of the delight of the June dusk; so that we three stopped instinctively, and Clara gave forth a little sweet “O,” like a bird beginning to sing.
“What’s the matter?” said the old man, a little testily, and pulling at her hand. “There’s no dog; or have you trodden on a thorn and hurt your foot?”
“No, no, neighbour,” she said; “but how sweet, how sweet it is!”
“Of course it is,” said he, “but do you care so much for that?”
She laughed out musically, and we followed suit in our gruffer voices; and then she said: “Of course I do, neighbour; don’t you?”
“Well, I don’t know,” quoth the old fellow; then he added, as if somewhat ashamed of himself: “Besides, you know, when the waters are out and all Runnymede is flooded, it’s none so pleasant.”
“I should like it,” quoth Dick. “What a jolly sail one would get about here on the floods on a bright frosty January morning!”
“WOULD you like it?” said our host. “Well, I won’t argue with you, neighbour; it isn’t worth while. Come in and have some supper.”
We went up a paved path between the roses, and straight into a very pretty room, panelled and carved, and as clean as a new pin; but the chief ornament of which was a young woman, light-haired and grey-eyed, but with her face and hands and bare feet tanned quite brown with the sun. Though she was very lightly clad, that was clearly from choice, not from poverty, though these were the first cottage-dwellers I had come across; for her gown was of silk, and on her wrists were bracelets that seemed to me of great value. She was lying on a sheep-skin near the window, but jumped up as soon as we entered, and when she saw the guests behind the old man, she clapped her hands and cried out with pleasure, and when she got us into the middle of the room, fairly danced round us in delight of our company.
“What!” said the old man, “you are pleased, are you, Ellen?”
The girl danced up to him and threw her arms round him, and said: “Yes I am, and so ought you to be grandfather.”
“Well, well, I am,” said he, “as much as I can be pleased. Guests, please be seated.”
This seemed rather strange to us; stranger, I suspect, to my friends than to me; but Dick took the opportunity of both the host and his grand-daughter being out of the room to say to me, softly: “A grumbler: there are a few of them still. Once upon a time, I am told, they were quite a nuisance.”
The old man came in as he spoke and sat down beside us with a sigh, which, indeed, seemed fetched up as if he wanted us to take notice of it; but just then the girl came in with the victuals, and the carle missed his mark, what between our hunger generally and that I was pretty busy watching the grand-daughter moving about as beautiful as a picture.
Everything to eat and drink, though it was somewhat different to what we had had in London, was better than good, but the old man eyed rather sulkily the chief dish on the table, on which lay a leash of fine perch, and said:
“H’m, perch! I am sorry we can’t do better for you, guests. The time was when we might have had a good piece of salmon up from London for you; but the times have grown mean and petty.”
“Yes, but you might have had it now,” said the girl, giggling, “if you had known that they were coming.”
“It’s our fault for not bringing it with us, neighbours,” said Dick, good-humouredly. “But if the times have grown petty, at any rate the perch haven’t; that fellow in the middle there must have weighed a good two pounds when he was showing his dark stripes and red fins to the minnows yonder. And as to the salmon, why, neighbour, my friend here, who comes from the outlands, was quite surprised yesterday morning when I told him we had plenty of salmon at Hammersmith. I am sure I have heard nothing of the times worsening.”
He looked a little uncomfortable. And the old man, turning to me, said very courteously:
“Well, sir, I am happy to see a man from over the water; but I really must appeal to you to say whether on the whole you are not better off in your country; where I suppose, from what our guest says, you are brisker and more alive, because you have not wholly got rid of competition. You see, I have read not a few books of the past days, and certainly THEY are much more alive than those which are written now; and good sound unlimited competition was the condition under which they were written,—if we didn’t know that from the record of history, we should know it from the books themselves. There is a spirit of adventure in them, and signs of a capacity to extract good out of evil which our literature quite lacks now; and I cannot help thinking that our moralists and historians exaggerate hugely the unhappiness of the past days, in which such splendid works of imagination and intellect were produced.”
Clara listened to him with restless eyes, as if she were excited and pleased; Dick knitted his brow and looked still more uncomfortable, but said nothing. Indeed, the old man gradually, as he warmed to his subject, dropped his sneering manner, and both spoke and looked very seriously. But the girl broke out before I could deliver myself of the answer I was framing:
“Books, books! always books, grandfather! When will you understand that after all it is the world we live in which interests us; the world of which we are a part, and which we can never love too much? Look!” she said, throwing open the casement wider and showing us the white light sparkling between the black shadows of the moonlit garden, through which ran a little shiver of the summer night-wind, “look! these are our books in these days!—and these,” she said, stepping lightly up to the two lovers and laying a hand on each of their shoulders; “and the guest there, with his over-sea knowledge and experience;—yes, and even you, grandfather” (a smile ran over her face as she spoke), “with all your grumbling and wishing yourself back again in the good old days,—in which, as far as I can make out, a harmless and lazy old man like you would either have pretty nearly starved, or have had to pay soldiers and people to take the folk’s victuals and clothes and houses away from them by force. Yes, these are our books; and if we want more, can we not find work to do in the beautiful buildings that we raise up all over the country (and I know there was nothing like them in past times), wherein a man can put forth whatever is in him, and make his hands set forth his mind and his soul.”
She paused a little, and I for my part could not help staring at her, and thinking that if she were a book, the pictures in it were most lovely. The colour mantled in her delicate sunburnt cheeks; her grey eyes, light amidst the tan of her face, kindly looked on us all as she spoke. She paused, and said again:
“As for your books, they were well enough for times when intelligent people had but little else in which they could take pleasure, and when they must needs supplement the sordid miseries of their own lives with imaginations of the lives of other people. But I say flatly that in spite of all their cleverness and vigour, and capacity for story-telling, there is something loathsome about them. Some of them, indeed, do here and there show some feeling for those whom the history-books call ‘poor,’ and of the misery of whose lives we have some inkling; but presently they give it up, and towards the end of the story we must be contented to see the hero and heroine living happily in an island of bliss on other people’s troubles; and that after a long series of sham troubles (or mostly sham) of their own making, illustrated by dreary introspective nonsense about their feelings and aspirations, and all the rest of it; while the world must even then have gone on its way, and dug and sewed and baked and built and carpentered round about these useless—animals.”
“There!” said the old man, reverting to his dry sulky manner again. “There’s eloquence! I suppose you like it?”
“Yes,” said I, very emphatically.
“Well,” said he, “now the storm of eloquence has lulled for a little, suppose you answer my question?—that is, if you like, you know,” quoth he, with a sudden access of courtesy.
“What question?” said I. For I must confess that Ellen’s strange and almost wild beauty had put it out of my head.
Said he: “First of all (excuse my catechising), is there competition in life, after the old kind, in the country whence you come?”
“Yes,” said I, “it is the rule there.” And I wondered as I spoke what fresh complications I should get into as a result of this answer.
“Question two,” said the carle: “Are you not on the whole much freer, more energetic—in a word, healthier and happier—for it?”
I smiled. “You wouldn’t talk so if you had any idea of our life. To me you seem here as if you were living in heaven compared with us of the country from which I came.”
“Heaven?” said he: “you like heaven, do you?”
“Yes,” said I—snappishly, I am afraid; for I was beginning rather to resent his formula.
“Well, I am far from sure that I do,” quoth he. “I think one may do more with one’s life than sitting on a damp cloud and singing hymns.”
I was rather nettled by this inconsequence, and said: “Well, neighbour, to be short, and without using metaphors, in the land whence I come, where the competition which produced those literary works which you admire so much is still the rule, most people are thoroughly unhappy; here, to me at least most people seem thoroughly happy.”
“No offence, guest—no offence,” said he; “but let me ask you; you like that, do you?”
His formula, put with such obstinate persistence, made us all laugh heartily; and even the old man joined in the laughter on the sly. However, he was by no means beaten, and said presently:
“From all I can hear, I should judge that a young woman so beautiful as my dear Ellen yonder would have been a lady, as they called it in the old time, and wouldn’t have had to wear a few rags of silk as she does now, or to have browned herself in the sun as she has to do now. What do you say to that, eh?”
Here Clara, who had been pretty much silent hitherto, struck in, and said: “Well, really, I don’t think that you would have mended matters, or that they want mending. Don’t you see that she is dressed deliciously for this beautiful weather? And as for the sun-burning of your hay-fields, why, I hope to pick up some of that for myself when we get a little higher up the river. Look if I don’t need a little sun on my pasty white skin!”
And she stripped up the sleeve from her arm and laid it beside Ellen’s who was now sitting next her. To say the truth, it was rather amusing to me to see Clara putting herself forward as a town-bred fine lady, for she was as well-knit and clean-skinned a girl as might be met with anywhere at the best. Dick stroked the beautiful arm rather shyly, and pulled down the sleeve again, while she blushed at his touch; and the old man said laughingly: “Well, I suppose you DO like that; don’t you?”
Ellen kissed her new friend, and we all sat silent for a little, till she broke out into a sweet shrill song, and held us all entranced with the wonder of her clear voice; and the old grumbler sat looking at her lovingly. The other young people sang also in due time; and then Ellen showed us to our beds in small cottage chambers, fragrant and clean as the ideal of the old pastoral poets; and the pleasure of the evening quite extinguished my fear of the last night, that I should wake up in the old miserable world of worn-out pleasures, and hopes that were half fears.