The Scouring of the White Horse
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I had been bred up from a child never to look beyond my own narrow sphere. To get on in it was the purpose of my life, and I had drilled myself into despising every thing which did not, as I thought, help towards this end. Near relations I had none. I was really fond of my two friends, but I don’t think I should ever have got to be friends with them if we hadn’t been in the same office; and I used often to be half provoked with them, and to think myself a very wise fellow, because out of office-hours they would read poetry and novels instead of fagging at shorthand or accounts, as I did, and spent all their salaries instead of saving. Except those two, I knew nobody; and though I belonged to a debating society, it wasn’t that I cared for the members, or what they talked about, but that I thought it might be useful to me to talk fluently if I got on in business. Sometimes, and especially in my yearly holidays, I had felt as if I wanted something else, and that my way of life was after all rather a one-eyed sort of business; but I set all such misgivings down as delusions, and had never allowed them long to trouble me. In short I begin to suspect that I must have been getting to be a very narrow, bigoted, disagreeable sort of fellow, and it was high time that I should find my way to Elm Close, or some such place, to have my eyes opened a little, and discover that a man may work just as steadily and honestly – aye, much more steadily and honestly – at his own business, without shutting up his brains and his heart against every thing else that is going on in the world around him. However, I can’t be too thankful that my teaching came to me in the way it did, for I might have had to learn my lesson in a very different school from Elm Close Farm.
There certainly never was such a pleasant school. For the next two or three days after ‘the Scouring,’ Mr. Warton was my chief companion. Joe and Miss Lucy both had their work to attend to after breakfast, and so the Parson and I were left a good deal together; and we used to start off to see some of the old men whom he had promised to show me, who could tell me about the old pastimes. I never liked any thing so much as these walks – not even the walks I afterwards used to have alone with Miss Lucy, for they were too exciting, and half the time I was in such a fret that I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy them. But there was no drawback in these walks with the Parson. He was full of fun, and of all sorts of knowledge; and he liked talking, and I think rather took a fancy to me, and was pleased to see how I worked at collecting all the information I could about the White Horse, for he took a great deal of pains to help me.
One morning though I remember he got me into a regular puzzle about King Alfred, for I had been reading over my notes of the old gentleman’s story, and couldn’t make it agree with the tales which I had read about Alfred’s hiding away in the cowherd’s hut, and burning the cakes. So I asked Mr.Warton about it.
“I think,” said he, “you will find that Alfred was in the cowherd’s cottage in the year 878, after the battle at Chippenham.”
“But, Sir,” said I, “according to the old gentleman’s story, Ashdown was Alfred’s greatest victory; and Ashdown was fought in 871. Now it seems very odd that he should have to run away and skulk about in such places after that.”
“Well,” said he, “I’m not well enough up in the history to explain it to you, but I’m pretty sure you’ll find I’m right about the dates – why shouldn’t you write and ask the old gentleman?”
So I did, and I kept a copy of my letter; but I don’t think I need print that, because his answer will be quite enough without it. Here it is: —
But to return to my subject, from which I have been wandering for the pleasure of putting in the old gentleman’s letter. The Parson in our walks set me thinking about fifty subjects which I never cared about before, because I could see that he was himself deeply interested in them, and really believed whatever he said to me. We used to get home by about twelve o’clock, and then I would go away by myself, and think over what we had been talking about till dinner. And, after dinner, Miss Lucy, and sometimes Joe, would come out and walk with us till tea. Sometimes we went to the village school, and I sat at the door and heard them teaching; and as long as Mr. Warton was with us it was all right, but afterwards, when he had gone, I could see that the schoolmistress, a young woman of about thirty, sallow-faced and rather prudish, used to look at me as if I had no business there.
When he left, Mr. Warton gave me a kind invitation to go and see him in town, and added he had no doubt I should come, for he could see I should soon want some such work as he could give me to do.
After he was gone I tumbled fairly head over heels into the net in which I suppose every man “as is a man” (as old Seeley would say) gets enmeshed once in his life. I found it was no use to struggle any longer, and gave myself up to the stream, with all sails set. Now there is no easier thing than going down stream somehow, when wind and tide are with you; but to steer so as to make the most of wind and tide, isn’t so easy – at least I didn’t find it so.
For as often as not, I think, I did the wrong thing, and provoked, instead of pleasing her. I used to get up every morning before six, to be ready to wish her good morning as she went out to the dairy; but I don’t think she half liked it, for she was generally in a very old gown tucked through her pocket holes, and pattens. Then after breakfast I used to hanker round the kitchen, or still-room, or wherever she might happen to be, like a Harry-long-legs round a candle. And again in the afternoon I never could keep away, but was at her side in the garden, or on her walks; in fact, to get rid of me, she had fairly to go up to her room.
But I couldn’t help myself; I felt that, come what might, I must be near her while I could; and on the whole, I think she was pleased, and didn’t at all dislike seeing me reduced to this pitiful state.
When I was involuntarily out of her sight, I used to have a sort of craving for poetry and often wished that I had spent a little more time over such matters. I got Joe to lend me the key of the cupboard where he kept his library, hoping to find something to suit me there. But, besides a few old folios of divinity and travel, and some cookery books, and the Farmer’s Magazine, there was nothing but Watts’s Hymns and Pollock’s Course of Time, which I didn’t find of any use to me.
Joe used to wonder at me at first, when I refused his offers of a day’s coursing, or a ride with him to Farringdon or Didcot markets; but he soon got used to it, and put it down to my cockney bringing up, and congratulated himself that, at any rate, I was pretty good company over a pipe in the kitchen.
The autumn days sped away all too quickly, but I made the most of them as they passed, and over and over again I wondered whether there were any but kind and hospitable and amusing people in the Vale, for the longer I stayed there, the more I was astonished at the kind courtesy of everybody I came across, from the highest to the lowest, and I suppose everybody else would find it the same as I did.
It seemed as if I were destined to leave Elm Close without a single unkind thought of any body I had seen while there, for even Jack made his peace with me. Only two days before my departure, Miss Lucy gave out at breakfast that she was going to walk over to see her uncle, and wanted to know if her mother or Joe had any message. No, they hadn’t. But of course I managed to accompany her.
When we came to her uncle’s farm, he was out, and in five minutes Miss Lucy was away with her dear friend and cousin, one of the girls I had seen at the pastime, and I was left to the tender mercies of Jack. However, Jack at his own house, with no women by to encourage him to make a fool of himself, was a very decent fellow. He walked me about the homestead, and chatted away about the pastime, and the accomplishments of his terrier dog, whom he had got from the kennel of the Berkshire hounds, and whose father used to run with them regularly. Then he began to inquire about me in a patronizing way; how I came to know Joe, what I was, and where I lived. And when he had satisfied his curiosity about me, he took to talking about his cousins. Joe, I soon found out, was his hero; and he looked forward to the time when he should be able to breed a good horse, like Joe’s chestnut, and to go about to all the markets and carry his head as high as any one, as Joe could, as the height of human happiness. As to cousin Lu, if he were looking out for any thing of the sort, there was no girl within twenty miles that he knew of to whom she couldn’t give a stone over any country. But she wasn’t likely to marry any of the young men about; she was too full of fun, and laughed at them too much. “I shouldn’t be a bit surprised now, if she was to take to some town chap like you, after all’s said and done,” said Jack, in conclusion, as we returned to the house.
My last day at Elm Close came swiftly and surely, and the sun rose, and went pitilessly up into the heavens, and sank down behind White Horse Hill, and the clocks went on striking one after another, just as if it had been any other day. What a number of things I had in my head that morning to say to all of them, and above all to her; but one thing or another interfered, and I had said not one quarter of them, and these not in the way I had intended, before it was dark, and tea on the table. But I did go all round the farm and the village, and took a last look at every field and nook and corner where I had been so happy.
The old lady was unusually talkative at tea, and for some time afterwards. The fact that I was not going to leave the house till after midnight, and was to be at business, in London, at nine o’clock the next morning, now that she had realized it, excited her very much, and waked up all sorts of recollections of her own travels; particularly how, when she was a child, she had been a whole day getting to Reading by the stage, and how, even after her marriage, she and father had had to sleep at Windsor, on the occasion of their one visit to London. I was watching Miss Lucy at her work all the time, and thought she seemed a little absent and sorrowful, and when our eyes met every now and then, she looked away directly. We hardly said a word, and left Joe to keep up the talk with the old lady.
Before long she got tired and went off to bed, and then, I thought, if something would only call Joe out – but nothing happened, and so we sat on talking commonplaces, till prayer time; which, however, Joe did consent to put off this evening, because it was my last, till past ten o’clock. The three servants came in, and knelt down as usual; and I, in a place where I could see her, and watch every turn of her figure, and hear every breath she drew. I own I didn’t listen to a word that Joe read – I couldn’t – and I don’t believe any poor fellow in my state will ever be hardly judged, whatever square-toed people may say, for not forcing himself to attend when he hasn’t the power to do it. I only know that, though I couldn’t listen to the prayers, I could and did thank God for having brought me down there, and allowed me to see her and know her; and prayed, as heartily as was in me to pray, that I might never do any thing which might make me unworthy of one so bright, and pure, and good as she.
And too soon Joe shut the book, and got up, and the servants went out, and Joe dived off into the recess; and she lighted her candle and came up to me, holding out her hand, but without saying any thing, or looking up in my face.
I took the hand which she held out to me in both mine, but somehow, when I thought it might be for the last time, I couldn’t let it go. So I stood holding it, my heart beating so that I couldn’t speak, and feeling very uncomfortable about the throat. She didn’t take it away, and presently I got my voice again.
“Good bye, Miss Lucy,” said I, “and God bless you. I can’t tell you what my holiday at Elm Close has been to me – and I can’t find words to thank you. I’m a poor lonely fellow, with nobody belonging to me, and leading a slave of a life in the midst of the great crowd, with all sorts of temptations to go wrong. You’ll let me think of you, and Elm Close, and it will be like a little bright window with the sun shining through into our musty clerks’ room. I feel it will help to keep me straight for many a long day. You’ll let me think of you now, won’t you?” said I, pressing the little hand which I held in mine.
“Why, you see I can’t help it if I would,” said she, looking up with a merry light in her eyes; but she went on directly, “but, indeed, I’m sure we shall think of you quite as often as you will of us. Joe used to talk so often about you that I felt quite like an old friend before we met, and now you’ve been here we shall feel so dull without you.”
“Now, you two! don’t stand talking there all night,” said Joe, coming out of the recess, where he had been rummaging out the pipes and a black bottle; “come, come, kiss and part.”
I felt the blood rush up to my face, when Joe said that, but I opened my hands with a jerk, and let hers go, I hardly knew why. If I hadn’t been so fond that I was afraid of her, I should have taken Joe at his word. But I’m glad I didn’t; I’m sure I was right, for I stole a look at her, and saw that she looked vexed, and flushed up to her bright brown hair. Next moment she held out her hand again, and shook mine heartily, and said, without looking up, “Good-bye, you must come again soon,” and then hurried out of the room, and took away all the light with her. Heigh-ho! when shall I see the light again.
Well, as I followed Joe into the kitchen, what between the sinking I felt at having to leave, and the doubt whether I hadn’t made a fool of myself at the last with Miss Lucy, I felt half mad, and the first thing I made up my mind to was to have a good quarrel with Joe.
So when he sat down on one side of the fire, and began lighting his pipe, I kept standing looking at him, and thinking how I should begin.
“There’s your pipe, Dick,” said he, puffing away, “on the settle – why don’t you sit down and light up?”
“I shan’t smoke with you to-night, Joe,” said I, “you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“Ashamed o’ myself,” shouted Joe, staring up at me till I could hardly keep from laughing, angry as I was; “what, in the name o’ goodness, have I done to be ashamed of?”
“’Tisn’t what you’ve done, but what you’ve said.”
“Said! what in the world have I said? Precious little I know, for you always get all the talk to yourself.”
“Why, what you said just now to me and Miss Lucy,” said I.
“To you and Lu?” said he, looking puzzled; and then off he went into one of his great laughs. “Oh, I take – well, that’s too much! To be blown up by you for it! Why, if any one is to scold, I should say it’s Lu.”
“Do you think I like to be made the means of giving your sister pain?” said I.
“There now, don’t be a fool, Dick – sit down like a good fellow, and light your pipe. What I said don’t mean any thing down in these parts. Well, I’m very sorry. She’ll never think twice about it, bless you. And besides, you know, there can’t be any harm done, for you didn’t take my advice.”
Well, I began to get cool, and to think I might do something better than quarrel with Joe the last night; so I took my pipe, and filled it, and sat down opposite him, and he began to mix two glasses of grog, twisting his face about all the time to keep himself from laughing.
“Here’s your health, old fellow,” said he, when he had done, “and, mind you, we shall always be glad to see you here when you can come; though I’m afraid the place must be terrible dull for a Londoner.”
“It’s the best place I’ve ever been in,” said I, with a sigh.
This pleased Joe; and he went off about what he would find me to do if I could come down in the winter or the spring; but I didn’t listen much, for I was making up my mind to speak to him about his sister, and I was afraid how he might take it.
Presently he stopped for a moment, and I thought, ‘now or never,’ and began.
“I want to ask you, Joe, is your sister engaged to any one?”
“Not she,” said Joe, looking up rather surprised; “why, she’s only eighteen come Lady-day!”
“What do you think of Mr. Warton?” said I.
“Our Parson!” laughed Joe; “that is a good ’un. Why he has got a sweetheart of his own. Let alone that he’d know better than to court a farmer’s daughter.”
“Are you sure?” said I; “your sister isn’t like most girls, I can tell you.”
“Yes, I tell you,” said Joe, “he’s no more in love with our Lu than you are.”
“Then I’m over head and ears in love with her, and that’s all about it,” said I, and I looked straight across at him, though it wasn’t an easy thing to do. But I felt I was in for it, and I should be much better for having it over.
Joe gave a start, and a long whistle; and then a puff or two at his pipe, staring at me right in the eyes till I felt my head swimming. But I wasn’t going to look down just then; if he had looked me right through he couldn’t have found any thing I was ashamed of, so far as his sister was concerned, and I felt he had a right to look as hard as he pleased, and that I was bound not to shirk it.
Presently he got up, and took a turn or two up and down the kitchen. Then he stopped —
“Spoke to her, yet?” said he.
“No,” said I, “I haven’t.”
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