The Novel on Blue Paper - Chapter 1
THE VILLAGE OF ORMSLADE
Our story begins in a village not so very far from London, yet in a country out of the tracks of the busiest people, and at any rate, for whatsoever reason, with a remote and unchanging air about it, that put it beyond dullness, and made the commonplace people, who wore away their monotonous and thoughtless lives there seem to the dreamy wanderer through the streets as if they must deal with a different code of right and wrong, different ways of hope and fear and pleasure and pain than him.
It was an old village of middling size, with no squire's house in it or near it, because a very great lord's house some five miles off swallowed up all the land thereabout; the rectory, on the other hand, was rich, and the rector served for squire in this village of Ormslade, which stood nearly on the borders of rich grazing country and a strange open waste, sometimes wooded and sometimes bare, called Scolton Chase. Old as the village street was it looked still older, for, in that country of good building stone, people kept building decent houses with little mullioned windows a good hundred years later than in most parts of England, and the houses here were mostly built of this brown stone with slate roofs.
A queer little old red-brick house with stiff iron railings and two yards of garden along its front had a brass plate on the door and held the doctor; another red brick house, as small, and not lacking the railings and garden, but new, and with a blue slate roof, had a general shop below, and rooms where the curate lodged above; another, originally made of two of the ordinary houses knocked into one, had been taken possession of by a retired skipper, who had long spent his days in building rockwork about the garden, fowl-houses and statues like castles in wood and plaster, and an arbour with a dome to it. The other houses were all of one type, only differing being bigger or smaller, and in some of them having little gardens in front which most lacked, the little whitehaired freckled children building their mud-pies right up against the brown stone walls of them; the village inn was not among the biggest; it stood back alittle from the road, a big pollard elm in front of the door with acircular bench round its roots, and the sign thrust out from halfway up its bole, where one could still dimly see the two white harts and the bugle of the Scolton arms.
Near its end the long street was cut across by a road, the northern armof which led up through rising ground to the Chase, the southern into the heart of the undulating hedged meadow land; just down this road lay the Rectory first, and then the church; the Rectory ahandsome old stone house, with agarden whose long high wall ran alongside the road, and had asquare turret-like pleasure arbour atthe corner of it, a common fashion thereabouts. The church and church yard ended the village on that side: and the ground sloped quickly awayfrom them into fields, heavily hedged asafore said. Looking from the crazy paling of the churchyard one might see the rich countryside, not very far indeed, for it soon swelled up into a hedged slope again, a patchwork atsome times of the year of ploughed field and grass mead, but this June tide all green, the just cleared hayfield showing bright among the beans and corn.
Between the first slope and the church had been a battle once; the whole countryside had been much fought over in the parliamentary wars; and in the time when Oxford was Charles' headquarters, aregiment of Royalist horse surprised aband of Roundhead levies marching towards Reading, and beat them into rout after a fierce skirmish; many men fell in the village street itself, and in the parish register was record of eighteen troopers buried on the north side of the church. Nearer the river again the partisans of the luckless Richard the Second had had one of their last scatterings, but the place of this was grown dim by this time; on the north side of the village history went back with a great leap, for on the borders of the Chase were three barrows, and the farmhouse they stood by had kept at any rate the popular idea of what they were, in the name of Danesho Hall.
The church itself was one of those architectural oddities of which there are so many in England—the chancel high walled, rich in carving, a very lantern of traceried windows, with a low roof covered with lead; the nave barnlike with low aisle walls, and a high roof patched in all sorts of ways and ruinous enough; this latter again nearly swallowed up the low, square tower, in which there was scarcely a stone awry, and the tangled carving of whose Norman door was sharp and clear still. Inside, there were remnants of painted screen work struggling among ricketty deal pews, the rich farmers' (in default of squire's) pews cushioned and red-curtained; this in the nave; then the now bare magnificence of the chancel beyond, so startling, so little cared for; the rich chantry by the side of it whose alabaster images had been scored all over with initials of Bumpkin's sweethearts through generations of slumbrous sermons; and in the chancel itself, the wasted and broken remains of the necessities of the old worship—half the altar stones built into the pavement, figures in stained glass without heads or turned upside down, painted tiles in the pavement, a brass or two, a half dozen of hatchments on the walls; and amidst it all, blocking up a window bay, the tomb of a member of the rector's family—(it was a family living)—who some fifty years ago had been a professed dilettante and atravelled man, and had enlightened his native place with an Italian work of art in memory of his wife, and himself when he should come to die. This was a marvel for miles around. There was Death and his dart in it, and the rector on his knees, and his wife of her own accord opening Death's door in the towering marble rockwork, amidst which an angel held ascroll of Fiat Voluntas Tua and the date—simpering meantime on a stained glass bishop in the opposite window, who, for all return, grinned queerly upon him from his aureoled head held in his hand.
The church was wretchedly kept enough amidst all these signs of former wealth, and was rather the place for an antiquary than for a seeker after the picturesque, and the village, again, full of architectural and historical interest as it was, would not have been called pretty or charming by people; and certainly I should not have called it cheerful, though there was nothing squalid about it. The general absence of gardens towards the street, the brown walls and brown road meeting, the brown-faced, heavily-walking men, the brown-faced anxious-looking women, the silence of the world (as it were) among the many noises of this summer afternoon, the landscape beyond so rich and so limited—no big hill, no wide fiver to lead one's thoughts or hopes along. Was it a place to crush passion or to soothe it, or rather to nurse and foster it with brooding, with a sense of isolation and imprisonment?