England - Listening To The Rain At Evesham
( Originally Published 1900 )
On certain lovers of rain — The horrors of a middle Victorian coffee room — A respectable Autolycus — Drunken Bideford— Abbot's Salford— Bread and honey.
I AM at Evesham engaged in listening to the rain, which at last there is no escaping; and, like Melisande, I am not happy. In fact, I am in one of those moods of vicious disappointment, which are apt to make one's observation of exterior things a little unreliable. I know, of course, that rain is a very beautiful thing, and that I ought to be grateful for this unique opportunity of studying it. Why cannot I watch its fall in the spirit of the lady essayist, who, in a very ecstasy of observation, bids us realise that the rods that thinly stripe our landscape" are "infinitely separate, units, an innumerable flight of single things, and the simple movement of intricate points."
Or why cannot I rejoice in that thorough southwest soaking-to-the-skin, our capacity for enjoying which is one of Mr. Meredith's tests of the true nature lover. It will be seen that I am trying to recall all the beautiful things about rain within reach of my memory, for I would like to be happy if I could. Of course, I think of Verlaine, and I think too of a young poet who writes, —
" O ! do you hear the rain
But mostly I think of the rain as Verhaeren somewhat grotesquely celebrates it in images of weariness and hopelessness. Disrespectfully translating him, I exclaim : "0! the rain ; the long rain, the long, long rain ; the very long rain — the rain!
At reasonable times I can be as grateful for the rain as though I were a flower —or a farmer. I believe that I could write poetry to the rain— if it would only stop; though I admit to many an occasion when during the falling of rain my brain has been mysteriously freshened, like any other handful of earth, and when the mere sound of the rain at the window or on the roof has set up a rhythm in my mind, and loosened the unwilling words. But that was at home — where rain has a way of being a soothing, protecting creature, where we are driven inwards upon the happiness we are apt sometimes to forget in the days that sing us out into the sun, and where we are often grateful to the rain for so prosaic a reason as its comforting message : "No one will call to-day - Rain keeps them all away — Best friends sit safe indoors — Safe for one day from bores." Rain at home is one thing— but rain away from home is quite another. Away from home it is the most homeless thing in the world. Far from enhancing, it depreciates the most genial interior, and disintegrates, with its eternal drip-drip, its innumerable flight of single things," its "simple movement of intricate points" — such small happiness as we may possess.
This evening, though a train would easily bring me before midnight to friend-ship that would extravagantly disprove such fancies, the rain has the power to make me feel utterly desolate and forsaken, lost beyond reach of those who love me --
" Beyond the reach of weeping, Beyond the reach of hands."
I feel sure that I shall never again see a face I love or clasp a friendly hand. I am hermetically sealed within a stale coffee room, and I am condemned to sit and look at that portrait of the Prince Consort for all eternity - with the alter-native of occasionally turning to a mysterious engine of pleasure found in many country inns, called, I believe, a stereoscope. A table is mournfully littered with double photographs, which I believe are occasionally slid into the instrument and looked at. They seem to be photographs of every conceivable thing I was born entirely without the desire to see. A stereoscope! Was any human being ever really amused by that sad device ? I suppose it was the phonograph of 1851.
If you want to know what it is really to hate that much-abused year, to hate it from real experience, you should make a tour of country inns ; for to-night, at all events, I am inclined to the opinion that the mine ease at mine inn " sentiment is a sad fraud. How is it possible to take one's ease at an inn which seems to be a limbo of forgotten furniture and unforgiven steel-engravings ? Washington Irving, and essayists of his period, were in a position to talk prettily about the old English inn, for they knew it, for the most part, before it had been refurnished and repictured in accordance with middle-Victorian taste. They knew nothing of that later scourge, the German oleograph. Of course, there are no few inns in England that have entirely escaped violation. Such an inn is the Red Horse, Stratford, where only last night I was so happy and home-like, and where— Would to Heaven I had remained ! In such inns the indigenous good taste of our old England that carved the old chairs and panelled the old rooms, and filled old bowls with old-fashioned flowers, still survives ; the taste that, innocent of aesthetic philosophies, understood the beauty of simple effects of shape and colour, hated mere gaudy display, and has imposed a certain homely tradition of seemliness even upon those who minister to the quite physical needs of life : the seemliness of clean-swept stables, of sweet-smelling dairies, of cream sold in certain jars and raspberries in certain baskets, of dishes served in one fair way and no other.
From the inn, however, in which I am this evening drearily incarcerated, such taste has long since fled. It is picturesque enough on the outside, possessing indeed part of one of those inn-yard galleries from which the quality were accustomed to watch the young Elizabethan drama. But its picturesque outside only accentuates the horrors of its inside. So far as those insignificant matters, comfort, cleanliness and cooking, are concerned, it is, I am bound to admit, satisfactory — though I must qualify the word " comfort ; " for surely comfort means something more than clean sheets and arm-chairs. One's dinner may be excellent, the chair which we draw up to it luxurious, but how is it possible to enjoy either, with a portrait of the Prince Consort on one wall, " Dignity and Impudence" on another, and a German print on a third?
During dinner I vainly strove to screw my courage to ringing up the proprietor and making some such speech as this :
My dear sir, the dinner you have provided for me is delightful. The roast duck is a dream of culinary loveliness.
The peas are as green — as a meadow by Chaucer. The potatoes must have been boiled to music, and I foresee that the gooseberry tart was made in heaven. My congratulations, my thanks, are sincere, and yet— what are all these things to me ? How can I enjoy them in a room which, while it thus ministers to one of my senses, so cruelly violates another ? How is it possible to enjoy your dinner when suffering so acutely from your pictures ? Will you, there-fore, have the kindness to remove the portrait of the Prince Consort from that wall, 'Dignity and Impudence' from that, and' that from that ! "
" Also," I might have added, "there are two pictures in my bedroom which must either make sleep impossible, or fill it with distressing nightmares such as I hesitate to face. The pictures are called 'The First Sacrament' and 'The Last Sacrament.' The one represents a young surpliced clergyman in the act of baptising an infant, while the mother in a crinoline, and the father in military uniform and dated by mutton-chop whiskers, press close to a font designed in the most distressing taste, other and earlier children in 'steps and stairs ' about them. The second picture represents a bald-headed old gentleman lying on his back in bed, and evidently at the point of death. A middle-aged surpliced clergyman bends over him administering the sacred wafer, and the crinoline and the mutton-chop whiskers and the nice little white-stockinged grandchildren are there. This picture faces the end of my bed, and when-ever I wake in the night, is there with its gruesome reminder — of the most horrible period of English taste. You cannot, I am sure, think me unreasonable in desiring the temporary removal of these pictures also."
But, no doubt, I have done enough grumbling. Is there nothing pleasant to record of the day ? Actually this complaint is concerned only with the dreary close of a fair day, and is thus a piece of ingratitude. For, indeed, up till five o'clock the day has been like a book full of green leaves, emblazoned with sunbeams. And I have had the Avon for companion a great part of the way hither from Stratford. It is here once more in a broad, stone-bridged stream beneath my window, and in spite of the rain a merry-go-round is in full blast upon its green marge. It is delighting Evesham with Miss Julie Mackey's " A Little Bit of Orange Peel," and, like a drunken man with a tune in his head, it goes on repeating it over and over again with fatuous absorption.
That reminds me that my way hither ran through " Drunken Bideford," sign posts to the right and left of the road pointing off to " Haunted Hillbro' " and the other villages associated with the legend of Shakespeare's fatal drinking match. I suppose I must have passed the site of the crab-apple tree somewhere on the way. At Bideford, respecting the customs of the place, I dismounted at one of the inns which garnish the long time-worn street, irregular as a toper's walk. Inside a broad-faced, jovial-looking pedlar sat enjoying the cool shade of the bar and a long pint of ale, a basket of robust woollen stockings by his side. It was his horse and trap standing at the door, for he was a very respectable and prosperous Autolycus.
They used to call this drunken Bideford ? " I said, by way of being conversational.
That's about it, sir," he answered, with a slow twinkle ; and I found presently that that was his formula of answer to any question whatsoever.
That 's about it, and it still lives up to the old name. These old places don't change much."
But I suppose it's no more drunken than its neighbours," said I ; no more drunken than Hillbro' is haunted ? Most country villages seem rather thirsty places, judging by the number of inns. I suppose a village is like the rest of us. Give it a bad name — and it lives up to it." " That 's about it, sir."
" I suppose you go a good round on your journeys," I said presently, glancing at his basket.
" About how far ? "
" Could hardly say," he answered, as though the question had never before occurred to him.
" A hundred miles ? "
" That's aboutit," he answered, relieved from the burden of calculation.
" Round Leicester ? " I hazarded. " That 's about it."
" Stockings hand-knitted ? "
No, his daughters made them on stocking machines in Leicester, and he went out with them into the green lanes of Warwickshire, the hosier of many a country dance. I imagined his daughters pretty mistresses of the loom, though this I knew was a conscious illusion of the fancy, for country girls are only pretty in picture books— and the whole scheme seemed a charming primitive scheme of life.
Now, if there were only the same demand for books as for stockings, what an ideal life it would be to travel the country with a horse and trap selling one's own poems — troubadour and publisher in one. One's wife and daughters might do the printing and binding at home, and even, as machinery advances, weave the poetry on the new poetry looms ; thus leaving to oneself the only process really demanding skill, — that of selling it.
Some way out of Bideford, the road steals by a lovely old seventeenth century house, all mullions and old dreams, with a little belfry up among its many gables. Here I alighted, and, passing through an old gate-house, found myself in a long courtyard leading directly to a porch, over which is carved, " 1662. Moderata Durant " — excellent advice to the passing cyclist. A ruddy farm girl answered my ring, and I found that the old place is not unaccustomed to being looked at; indeed, quite expecting it, it charges six-pence for the privilege. It likewise sells you honey in the honeycomb. For it is now a farm, though once long ago it was a nunnery and it still keeps up a little chapel for the benefit of devout Catholics in the neighbourhood — its owner belonging to the true faith. I followed my quite intelligent little guide through the various rooms. Two of them are beautifully panelled, though the panelling has been barbarously painted over, and these are inhabited by several old family portraits which seemed rather to resent my modern intrusion, hanging aloof and Elizabethan. Along the whole length of the top floor, the garrets of the house, runs an enormous room, once the dormitory, but now filled only with light from the many skylights. What a place for keeping apples in ! But what an orchard you would need to fill it!
The curiosity of the house is an ingenious priest's hiding place on one of the many landings. You open a small cup-board and reveal three or four innocent-looking shelves ; but if you loosen a hidden catch and push these shelves, they give way, swinging inwards on hinges at the top, and revealing underneath a little pit about a yard and a half square and about the same depth. When the shelves were in place, there would be room to stand up in, and listen through the chinks to the men-at-arms tapping for hollow wainscots through the house, and coming nearer every moment.
I asked about the old bell. Was it ever rung nowadays? Only when Mr. , the farmer, was in a distant field and was needed in a hurry. Then I bought some honey, and begged a slice or two of bread, for I was intent on a queen's meal by the roadside; and, thus provided, I said good-bye to Abbot's Salford.
Some way out of it I found a lonely corner of lane, and took out my bread and honey. As I sat eating, a few critics waddled past me, following each other in line as they always do, and hissing their usual recognition. I smiled at them, and went on with my bread and honey — an ideal meal for the open air. Indeed, honey should always be eaten so. Eaten indoors at breakfast, it is robbed of its proper suggestiveness. Its wild earth-sweetness is gone. It has become as domesticated as marmalade. It is a caged lark among foods. But, by the roadside, eaten among the very flowers whence it was stolen, it is like milk from the cow. With the body of corn in the form of bread, and the spirit of corn in the form of a flask, what more should an earth-born man need? Nature blesses the meal and sends you all her musicians to make it merry, particularly grass-hoppers. Grasshoppers and wild honey ! It is a delicious meal !