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NEWS FROM NOWHERE
AN EPOCH OF REST
KKIEN Publ. Int. is a trademark of KKIEN Enterprise srl
First published: 1890
Cover: “La belle Iseult”, 1858, painting of William Morris. The model is Jane Burden, William Morris’ wife.
First digital edition: 2015
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CHAPTER I: DISCUSSION AND BED
CHAPTER II: A MORNING BATH
CHAPTER III: THE GUEST HOUSE AND BREAKFAST THEREIN
CHAPTER IV: A MARKET BY THE WAY
CHAPTER V: CHILDREN ON THE ROAD
CHAPTER VI: A LITTLE SHOPPING
CHAPTER VII: TRAFALGAR SQUARE
CHAPTER VIII: AN OLD FRIEND
CHAPTER IX: CONCERNING LOVE
CHAPTER X: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
CHAPTER XI: CONCERNING GOVERNMENT
CHAPTER XII: CONCERNING THE ARRANGEMENT OF LIFE
CHAPTER XIII: CONCERNING POLITICS
CHAPTER XIV: HOW MATTERS ARE MANAGED
CHAPTER XV: ON THE LACK OF INCENTIVE TO LABOUR IN A COMMUNIST SOCIETY
CHAPTER XVI: DINNER IN THE HALL OF THE BLOOMSBURY MARKET
CHAPTER XVII: HOW THE CHANGE CAME
CHAPTER XVIII: THE BEGINNING OF THE NEW LIFE
CHAPTER XIX: THE DRIVE BACK TO HAMMERSMITH
CHAPTER XX: THE HAMMERSMITH GUEST-HOUSE AGAIN
CHAPTER XXI: GOING UP THE RIVER
CHAPTER XXII: HAMPTON COURT AND A PRAISER OF PAST TIMES
CHAPTER XXIII: AN EARLY MORNING BY RUNNYMEDE
CHAPTER XXIV: UP THE THAMES: THE SECOND DAY
CHAPTER XXV: THE THIRD DAY ON THE THAMES
CHAPTER XXVI: THE OBSTINATE REFUSERS
CHAPTER XXVII: THE UPPER WATERS
CHAPTER XXVIII: THE LITTLE RIVER
CHAPTER XXIX: A RESTING-PLACE ON THE UPPER THAMES
CHAPTER XXX: THE JOURNEY’S END
CHAPTER XXXI: AN OLD HOUSE AMONGST NEW FOLK
CHAPTER XXXII: THE FEAST’S BEGINNING—THE END
Up at the League, says a friend, there had been one night a brisk conversational discussion, as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution, finally shading off into a vigorous statement by various friends of their views on the future of the fully-developed new society.
Says our friend: Considering the subject, the discussion was good-tempered; for those present being used to public meetings and after-lecture debates, if they did not listen to each others’ opinions (which could scarcely be expected of them), at all events did not always attempt to speak all together, as is the custom of people in ordinary polite society when conversing on a subject which interests them. For the rest, there were six persons present, and consequently six sections of the party were represented, four of which had strong but divergent Anarchist opinions. One of the sections, says our friend, a man whom he knows very well indeed, sat almost silent at the beginning of the discussion, but at last got drawn into it, and finished by roaring out very loud, and damning all the rest for fools; after which befel a period of noise, and then a lull, during which the aforesaid section, having said good-night very amicably, took his way home by himself to a western suburb, using the means of travelling which civilisation has forced upon us like a habit. As he sat in that vapour-bath of hurried and discontented humanity, a carriage of the underground railway, he, like others, stewed discontentedly, while in self-reproachful mood he turned over the many excellent and conclusive arguments which, though they lay at his fingers’ ends, he had forgotten in the just past discussion. But this frame of mind he was so used to, that it didn’t last him long, and after a brief discomfort, caused by disgust with himself for having lost his temper (which he was also well used to), he found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily. “If I could but see a day of it,” he said to himself; “if I could but see it!”
As he formed the words, the train stopped at his station, five minutes’ walk from his own house, which stood on the banks of the Thames, a little way above an ugly suspension bridge. He went out of the station, still discontented and unhappy, muttering “If I could but see it! if I could but see it!” but had not gone many steps towards the river before (says our friend who tells the story) all that discontent and trouble seemed to slip off him.
It was a beautiful night of early winter, the air just sharp enough to be refreshing after the hot room and the stinking railway carriage. The wind, which had lately turned a point or two north of west, had blown the sky clear of all cloud save a light fleck or two which went swiftly down the heavens. There was a young moon halfway up the sky, and as the home-farer caught sight of it, tangled in the branches of a tall old elm, he could scarce bring to his mind the shabby London suburb where he was, and he felt as if he were in a pleasant country place—pleasanter, indeed, than the deep country was as he had known it.
He came right down to the river-side, and lingered a little, looking over the low wall to note the moonlit river, near upon high water, go swirling and glittering up to Chiswick Eyot: as for the ugly bridge below, he did not notice it or think of it, except when for a moment (says our friend) it struck him that he missed the row of lights down stream. Then he turned to his house door and let himself in; and even as he shut the door to, disappeared all remembrance of that brilliant logic and foresight which had so illuminated the recent discussion; and of the discussion itself there remained no trace, save a vague hope, that was now become a pleasure, for days of peace and rest, and cleanness and smiling goodwill.
In this mood he tumbled into bed, and fell asleep after his wont, in two minutes’ time; but (contrary to his wont) woke up again not long after in that curiously wide-awake condition which sometimes surprises even good sleepers; a condition under which we feel all our wits preternaturally sharpened, while all the miserable muddles we have ever got into, all the disgraces and losses of our lives, will insist on thrusting themselves forward for the consideration of those sharpened wits.
In this state he lay (says our friend) till he had almost begun to enjoy it: till the tale of his stupidities amused him, and the entanglements before him, which he saw so clearly, began to shape themselves into an amusing story for him.
He heard one o’clock strike, then two and then three; after which he fell asleep again. Our friend says that from that sleep he awoke once more, and afterwards went through such surprising adventures that he thinks that they should be told to our comrades, and indeed the public in general, and therefore proposes to tell them now. But, says he, I think it would be better if I told them in the first person, as if it were myself who had gone through them; which, indeed, will be the easier and more natural to me, since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world does.
Well, I awoke, and found that I had kicked my bedclothes off; and no wonder, for it was hot and the sun shining brightly. I jumped up and washed and hurried on my clothes, but in a hazy and half-awake condition, as if I had slept for a long, long while, and could not shake off the weight of slumber. In fact, I rather took it for granted that I was at home in my own room than saw that it was so.
When I was dressed, I felt the place so hot that I made haste to get out of the room and out of the house; and my first feeling was a delicious relief caused by the fresh air and pleasant breeze; my second, as I began to gather my wits together, mere measureless wonder: for it was winter when I went to bed the last night, and now, by witness of the river-side trees, it was summer, a beautiful bright morning seemingly of early June. However, there was still the Thames sparkling under the sun, and near high water, as last night I had seen it gleaming under the moon.
I had by no means shaken off the feeling of oppression, and wherever I might have been should scarce have been quite conscious of the place; so it was no wonder that I felt rather puzzled in despite of the familiar face of the Thames. Withal I felt dizzy and queer; and remembering that people often got a boat and had a swim in mid-stream, I thought I would do no less. It seems very early, quoth I to myself, but I daresay I shall find someone at Biffin’s to take me. However, I didn’t get as far as Biffin’s, or even turn to my left thitherward, because just then I began to see that there was a landing-stage right before me in front of my house: in fact, on the place where my next-door neighbour had rigged one up, though somehow it didn’t look like that either. Down I went on to it, and sure enough among the empty boats moored to it lay a man on his sculls in a solid-looking tub of a boat clearly meant for bathers. He nodded to me, and bade me good-morning as if he expected me, so I jumped in without any words, and he paddled away quietly as I peeled for my swim. As we went, I looked down on the water, and couldn’t help saying—
“How clear the water is this morning!”
“Is it?” said he; “I didn’t notice it. You know the flood-tide always thickens it a bit.”
“H’m,” said I, “I have seen it pretty muddy even at half-ebb.”
He said nothing in answer, but seemed rather astonished; and as he now lay just stemming the tide, and I had my clothes off, I jumped in without more ado. Of course when I had my head above water again I turned towards the tide, and my eyes naturally sought for the bridge, and so utterly astonished was I by what I saw, that I forgot to strike out, and went spluttering under water again, and when I came up made straight for the boat; for I felt that I must ask some questions of my waterman, so bewildering had been the half-sight I had seen from the face of the river with the water hardly out of my eyes; though by this time I was quit of the slumbrous and dizzy feeling, and was wide-awake and clear-headed.
As I got in up the steps which he had lowered, and he held out his hand to help me, we went drifting speedily up towards Chiswick; but now he caught up the sculls and brought her head round again, and said—“A short swim, neighbour; but perhaps you find the water cold this morning, after your journey. Shall I put you ashore at once, or would you like to go down to Putney before breakfast?”
He spoke in a way so unlike what I should have expected from a Hammersmith waterman, that I stared at him, as I answered, “Please to hold her a little; I want to look about me a bit.”
“All right,” he said; “it’s no less pretty in its way here than it is off Barn Elms; it’s jolly everywhere this time in the morning. I’m glad you got up early; it’s barely five o’clock yet.”
If I was astonished with my sight of the river banks, I was no less astonished at my waterman, now that I had time to look at him and see him with my head and eyes clear.
He was a handsome young fellow, with a peculiarly pleasant and friendly look about his eyes,—an expression which was quite new to me then, though I soon became familiar with it. For the rest, he was dark-haired and berry-brown of skin, well-knit and strong, and obviously used to exercising his muscles, but with nothing rough or coarse about him, and clean as might be. His dress was not like any modern work-a-day clothes I had seen, but would have served very well as a costume for a picture of fourteenth century life: it was of dark blue cloth, simple enough, but of fine web, and without a stain on it. He had a brown leather belt round his waist, and I noticed that its clasp was of damascened steel beautifully wrought. In short, he seemed to be like some specially manly and refined young gentleman, playing waterman for a spree, and I concluded that this was the case.
I felt that I must make some conversation; so I pointed to the Surrey bank, where I noticed some light plank stages running down the foreshore, with windlasses at the landward end of them, and said, “What are they doing with those things here? If we were on the Tay, I should have said that they were for drawing the salmon nets; but here—”
“Well,” said he, smiling, “of course that is what they are for. Where there are salmon, there are likely to be salmon-nets, Tay or Thames; but of course they are not always in use; we don’t want salmon every day of the season.”
I was going to say, “But is this the Thames?” but held my peace in my wonder, and turned my bewildered eyes eastward to look at the bridge again, and thence to the shores of the London river; and surely there was enough to astonish me. For though there was a bridge across the stream and houses on its banks, how all was changed from last night! The soap-works with their smoke-vomiting chimneys were gone; the engineer’s works gone; the lead-works gone; and no sound of rivetting and hammering came down the west wind from Thorneycroft’s. Then the bridge! I had perhaps dreamed of such a bridge, but never seen such an one out of an illuminated manuscript; for not even the Ponte Vecchio at Florence came anywhere near it. It was of stone arches, splendidly solid, and as graceful as they were strong; high enough also to let ordinary river traffic through easily. Over the parapet showed quaint and fanciful little buildings, which I supposed to be booths or shops, beset with painted and gilded vanes and spirelets. The stone was a little weathered, but showed no marks of the grimy sootiness which I was used to on every London building more than a year old. In short, to me a wonder of a bridge.
The sculler noted my eager astonished look, and said, as if in answer to my thoughts—
“Yes, it is a pretty bridge, isn’t it? Even the up-stream bridges, which are so much smaller, are scarcely daintier, and the down-stream ones are scarcely more dignified and stately.”
I found myself saying, almost against my will, “How old is it?”
“Oh, not very old,” he said; “it was built or at least opened, in 2003. There used to be a rather plain timber bridge before then.”
The date shut my mouth as if a key had been turned in a padlock fixed to my lips; for I saw that something inexplicable had happened, and that if I said much, I should be mixed up in a game of cross questions and crooked answers. So I tried to look unconcerned, and to glance in a matter-of-course way at the banks of the river, though this is what I saw up to the bridge and a little beyond; say as far as the site of the soap-works. Both shores had a line of very pretty houses, low and not large, standing back a little way from the river; they were mostly built of red brick and roofed with tiles, and looked, above all, comfortable, and as if they were, so to say, alive, and sympathetic with the life of the dwellers in them. There was a continuous garden in front of them, going down to the water’s edge, in which the flowers were now blooming luxuriantly, and sending delicious waves of summer scent over the eddying stream. Behind the houses, I could see great trees rising, mostly planes, and looking down the water there were the reaches towards Putney almost as if they were a lake with a forest shore, so thick were the big trees; and I said aloud, but as if to myself—
“Well, I’m glad that they have not built over Barn Elms.”
I blushed for my fatuity as the words slipped out of my mouth, and my companion looked at me with a half smile which I thought I understood; so to hide my confusion I said, “Please take me ashore now: I want to get my breakfast.”
He nodded, and brought her head round with a sharp stroke, and in a trice we were at the landing-stage again. He jumped out and I followed him; and of course I was not surprised to see him wait, as if for the inevitable after-piece that follows the doing of a service to a fellow-citizen. So I put my hand into my waistcoat-pocket, and said, “How much?” though still with the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps I was offering money to a gentleman.
He looked puzzled, and said, “How much? I don’t quite understand what you are asking about. Do you mean the tide? If so, it is close on the turn now.”
I blushed, and said, stammering, “Please don’t take it amiss if I ask you; I mean no offence: but what ought I to pay you? You see I am a stranger, and don’t know your customs—or your coins.”
And therewith I took a handful of money out of my pocket, as one does in a foreign country. And by the way, I saw that the silver had oxydised, and was like a blackleaded stove in colour.
He still seemed puzzled, but not at all offended; and he looked at the coins with some curiosity. I thought, Well after all, he is a waterman, and is considering what he may venture to take. He seems such a nice fellow that I’m sure I don’t grudge him a little over-payment. I wonder, by the way, whether I couldn’t hire him as a guide for a day or two, since he is so intelligent.
Therewith my new friend said thoughtfully:
“I think I know what you mean. You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don’t know how to manage it. And you see this ferrying and giving people casts about the water is my business, which I would do for anybody; so to take gifts in connection with it would look very queer. Besides, if one person gave me something, then another might, and another, and so on; and I hope you won’t think me rude if I say that I shouldn’t know where to stow away so many mementos of friendship.”
And he laughed loud and merrily, as if the idea of being paid for his work was a very funny joke. I confess I began to be afraid that the man was mad, though he looked sane enough; and I was rather glad to think that I was a good swimmer, since we were so close to a deep swift stream. However, he went on by no means like a madman:
“As to your coins, they are curious, but not very old; they seem to be all of the reign of Victoria; you might give them to some scantily-furnished museum. Ours has enough of such coins, besides a fair number of earlier ones, many of which are beautiful, whereas these nineteenth century ones are so beastly ugly, ain’t they? We have a piece of Edward III., with the king in a ship, and little leopards and fleurs-de-lys all along the gunwale, so delicately worked. You see,” he said, with something of a smirk, “I am fond of working in gold and fine metals; this buckle here is an early piece of mine.”
No doubt I looked a little shy of him under the influence of that doubt as to his sanity. So he broke off short, and said in a kind voice:
“But I see that I am boring you, and I ask your pardon. For, not to mince matters, I can tell that you are a stranger, and must come from a place very unlike England. But also it is clear that it won’t do to overdose you with information about this place, and that you had best suck it in little by little. Further, I should take it as very kind in you if you would allow me to be the showman of our new world to you, since you have stumbled on me first. Though indeed it will be a mere kindness on your part, for almost anybody would make as good a guide, and many much better.”
There certainly seemed no flavour in him of Colney Hatch; and besides I thought I could easily shake him off if it turned out that he really was mad; so I said:
“It is a very kind offer, but it is difficult for me to accept it, unless—” I was going to say, Unless you will let me pay you properly; but fearing to stir up Colney Hatch again, I changed the sentence into, “I fear I shall be taking you away from your work—or your amusement.”
“O,” he said, “don’t trouble about that, because it will give me an opportunity of doing a good turn to a friend of mine, who wants to take my work here. He is a weaver from Yorkshire, who has rather overdone himself between his weaving and his mathematics, both indoor work, you see; and being a great friend of mine, he naturally came to me to get him some outdoor work. If you think you can put up with me, pray take me as your guide.”
He added presently: “It is true that I have promised to go up-stream to some special friends of mine, for the hay-harvest; but they won’t be ready for us for more than a week: and besides, you might go with me, you know, and see some very nice people, besides making notes of our ways in Oxfordshire. You could hardly do better if you want to see the country.”
I felt myself obliged to thank him, whatever might come of it; and he added eagerly:
“Well, then, that’s settled. I will give my friend call; he is living in the Guest House like you, and if he isn’t up yet, he ought to be this fine summer morning.”
Therewith he took a little silver bugle-horn from his girdle and blew two or three sharp but agreeable notes on it; and presently from the house which stood on the site of my old dwelling (of which more hereafter) another young man came sauntering towards us. He was not so well-looking or so strongly made as my sculler friend, being sandy-haired, rather pale, and not stout-built; but his face was not wanting in that happy and friendly expression which I had noticed in his friend. As he came up smiling towards us, I saw with pleasure that I must give up the Colney Hatch theory as to the waterman, for no two madmen ever behaved as they did before a sane man. His dress also was of the same cut as the first man’s, though somewhat gayer, the surcoat being light green with a golden spray embroidered on the breast, and his belt being of filagree silver-work.
He gave me good-day very civilly, and greeting his friend joyously, said:
“Well, Dick, what is it this morning? Am I to have my work, or rather your work? I dreamed last night that we were off up the river fishing.”
“All right, Bob,” said my sculler; “you will drop into my place, and if you find it too much, there is George Brightling on the look out for a stroke of work, and he lives close handy to you. But see, here is a stranger who is willing to amuse me to-day by taking me as his guide about our country-side, and you may imagine I don’t want to lose the opportunity; so you had better take to the boat at once. But in any case I shouldn’t have kept you out of it for long, since I am due in the hay-fields in a few days.”
The newcomer rubbed his hands with glee, but turning to me, said in a friendly voice:
“Neighbour, both you and friend Dick are lucky, and will have a good time to-day, as indeed I shall too. But you had better both come in with me at once and get something to eat, lest you should forget your dinner in your amusement. I suppose you came into the Guest House after I had gone to bed last night?”
I nodded, not caring to enter into a long explanation which would have led to nothing, and which in truth by this time I should have begun to doubt myself. And we all three turned toward the door of the Guest House.
I lingered a little behind the others to have a stare at this house, which, as I have told you, stood on the site of my old dwelling.
It was a longish building with its gable ends turned away from the road, and long traceried windows coming rather low down set in the wall that faced us. It was very handsomely built of red brick with a lead roof; and high up above the windows there ran a frieze of figure subjects in baked clay, very well executed, and designed with a force and directness which I had never noticed in modern work before. The subjects I recognised at once, and indeed was very particularly familiar with them.
However, all this I took in a minute; for we were presently within doors, and standing in a hall with a floor of marble mosaic and an open timber roof. There were no windows on the side opposite to the river, but arches below leading into chambers, one of which showed a glimpse of a garden beyond, and above them a long space of wall gaily painted (in fresco, I thought) with similar subjects to those of the frieze outside; everything about the place was handsome and generously solid as to material; and though it was not very large (somewhat smaller than Crosby Hall perhaps), one felt in it that exhilarating sense of space and freedom which satisfactory architecture always gives to an unanxious man who is in the habit of using his eyes.
In this pleasant place, which of course I knew to be the hall of the Guest House, three young women were flitting to and fro. As they were the first of the sex I had seen on this eventful morning, I naturally looked at them very attentively, and found them at least as good as the gardens, the architecture, and the male men. As to their dress, which of course I took note of, I should say that they were decently veiled with drapery, and not bundled up with millinery; that they were clothed like women, not upholstered like armchairs, as most women of our time are. In short, their dress was somewhat between that of the ancient classical costume and the simpler forms of the fourteenth century garments, though it was clearly not an imitation of either: the materials were light and gay to suit the season. As to the women themselves, it was pleasant indeed to see them, they were so kind and happy-looking in expression of face, so shapely and well-knit of body, and thoroughly healthy-looking and strong. All were at least comely, and one of them very handsome and regular of feature. They came up to us at once merrily and without the least affectation of shyness, and all three shook hands with me as if I were a friend newly come back from a long journey: though I could not help noticing that they looked askance at my garments; for I had on my clothes of last night, and at the best was never a dressy person.
A word or two from Robert the weaver, and they bustled about on our behoof, and presently came and took us by the hands and led us to a table in the pleasantest corner of the hall, where our breakfast was spread for us; and, as we sat down, one of them hurried out by the chambers aforesaid, and came back again in a little while with a great bunch of roses, very different in size and quality to what Hammersmith had been wont to grow, but very like the produce of an old country garden. She hurried back thence into the buttery, and came back once more with a delicately made glass, into which she put the flowers and set them down in the midst of our table. One of the others, who had run off also, then came back with a big cabbage-leaf filled with strawberries, some of them barely ripe, and said as she set them on the table, “There, now; I thought of that before I got up this morning; but looking at the stranger here getting into your boat, Dick, put it out of my head; so that I was not before all the blackbirds: however, there are a few about as good as you will get them anywhere in Hammersmith this morning.”
Robert patted her on the head in a friendly manner; and we fell to on our breakfast, which was simple enough, but most delicately cooked, and set on the table with much daintiness. The bread was particularly good, and was of several different kinds, from the big, rather close, dark-coloured, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaf, which was most to my liking, to the thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, such as I have eaten in Turin.
As I was putting the first mouthfuls into my mouth my eye caught a carved and gilded inscription on the panelling, behind what we should have called the High Table in an Oxford college hall, and a familiar name in it forced me to read it through. Thus it ran:
“Guests and neighbours, on the site of this Guest-hall once stood the lecture-room of the Hammersmith Socialists. Drink a glass to the memory! May 1962.”
It is difficult to tell you how I felt as I read these words, and I suppose my face showed how much I was moved, for both my friends looked curiously at me, and there was silence between us for a little while.
Presently the weaver, who was scarcely so well mannered a man as the ferryman, said to me rather awkwardly:
“Guest, we don’t know what to call you: is there any indiscretion in asking you your name?”
“Well,” said I, “I have some doubts about it myself; so suppose you call me Guest, which is a family name, you know, and add William to it if you please.”
Dick nodded kindly to me; but a shade of anxiousness passed over the weaver’s face, and he said—“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but would you tell me where you come from? I am curious about such things for good reasons, literary reasons.”
Dick was clearly kicking him underneath the table; but he was not much abashed, and awaited my answer somewhat eagerly. As for me, I was just going to blurt out “Hammersmith,” when I bethought me what an entanglement of cross purposes that would lead us into; so I took time to invent a lie with circumstance, guarded by a little truth, and said:
“You see, I have been such a long time away from Europe that things seem strange to me now; but I was born and bred on the edge of Epping Forest; Walthamstow and Woodford, to wit.”
“A pretty place, too,” broke in Dick; “a very jolly place, now that the trees have had time to grow again since the great clearing of houses in 1955.”
Quoth the irrepressible weaver: “Dear neighbour, since you knew the Forest some time ago, could you tell me what truth there is in the rumour that in the nineteenth century the trees were all pollards?”
This was catching me on my archæological natural-history side, and I fell into the trap without any thought of where and when I was; so I began on it, while one of the girls, the handsome one, who had been scattering little twigs of lavender and other sweet-smelling herbs about the floor, came near to listen, and stood behind me with her hand on my shoulder, in which she held some of the plant that I used to call balm: its strong sweet smell brought back to my mind my very early days in the kitchen-garden at Woodford, and the large blue plums which grew on the wall beyond the sweet-herb patch,—a connection of memories which all boys will see at once.
I started off: “When I was a boy, and for long after, except for a piece about Queen Elizabeth’s Lodge, and for the part about High Beech, the Forest was almost wholly made up of pollard hornbeams mixed with holly thickets. But when the Corporation of London took it over about twenty-five years ago, the topping and lopping, which was a part of the old commoners’ rights, came to an end, and the trees were let to grow. But I have not seen the place now for many years, except once, when we Leaguers went a pleasuring to High Beech. I was very much shocked then to see how it was built-over and altered; and the other day we heard that the philistines were going to landscape-garden it. But what you were saying about the building being stopped and the trees growing is only too good news;—only you know—”
At that point I suddenly remembered Dick’s date, and stopped short rather confused. The eager weaver didn’t notice my confusion, but said hastily, as if he were almost aware of his breach of good manners, “But, I say, how old are you?”
Dick and the pretty girl both burst out laughing, as if Robert’s conduct were excusable on the grounds of eccentricity; and Dick said amidst his laughter:
“Hold hard, Bob; this questioning of guests won’t do. Why, much learning is spoiling you. You remind me of the radical cobblers in the silly old novels, who, according to the authors, were prepared to trample down all good manners in the pursuit of utilitarian knowledge. The fact is, I begin to think that you have so muddled your head with mathematics, and with grubbing into those idiotic old books about political economy (he he!), that you scarcely know how to behave. Really, it is about time for you to take to some open-air work, so that you may clear away the cobwebs from your brain.”
The weaver only laughed good-humouredly; and the girl went up to him and patted his cheek and said laughingly, “Poor fellow! he was born so.”
As for me, I was a little puzzled, but I laughed also, partly for company’s sake, and partly with pleasure at their unanxious happiness and good temper; and before Robert could make the excuse to me which he was getting ready, I said:
“But neighbours” (I had caught up that word), “I don’t in the least mind answering questions, when I can do so: ask me as many as you please; it’s fun for me. I will tell you all about Epping Forest when I was a boy, if you please; and as to my age, I’m not a fine lady, you know, so why shouldn’t I tell you? I’m hard on fifty-six.”
In spite of the recent lecture on good manners, the weaver could not help giving a long “whew” of astonishment, and the others were so amused by his naïveté that the merriment flitted all over their faces, though for courtesy’s sake they forbore actual laughter; while I looked from one to the other in a puzzled manner, and at last said:
“Tell me, please, what is amiss: you know I want to learn from you. And please laugh; only tell me.”
Well, they did laugh, and I joined them again, for the above-stated reasons. But at last the pretty woman said coaxingly—
“Well, well, he is rude, poor fellow! but you see I may as well tell you what he is thinking about: he means that you look rather old for your age. But surely there need be no wonder in that, since you have been travelling; and clearly from all you have been saying, in unsocial countries. It has often been said, and no doubt truly, that one ages very quickly if one lives amongst unhappy people. Also they say that southern England is a good place for keeping good looks.” She blushed and said: “How old am I, do you think?”
“Well,” quoth I, “I have always been told that a woman is as old as she looks, so without offence or flattery, I should say that you were twenty.”
She laughed merrily, and said, “I am well served out for fishing for compliments, since I have to tell you the truth, to wit, that I am forty-two.”
I stared at her, and drew musical laughter from her again; but I might well stare, for there was not a careful line on her face; her skin was as smooth as ivory, her cheeks full and round, her lips as red as the roses she had brought in; her beautiful arms, which she had bared for her work, firm and well-knit from shoulder to wrist. She blushed a little under my gaze, though it was clear that she had taken me for a man of eighty; so to pass it off I said—
“Well, you see, the old saw is proved right again, and I ought not to have let you tempt me into asking you a rude question.”
She laughed again, and said: “Well, lads, old and young, I must get to my work now. We shall be rather busy here presently; and I want to clear it off soon, for I began to read a pretty old book yesterday, and I want to get on with it this morning: so good-bye for the present.”
She waved a hand to us, and stepped lightly down the hall, taking (as Scott says) at least part of the sun from our table as she went.
When she was gone, Dick said “Now guest, won’t you ask a question or two of our friend here? It is only fair that you should have your turn.”
“I shall be very glad to answer them,” said the weaver.
“If I ask you any questions, sir,” said I, “they will not be very severe; but since I hear that you are a weaver, I should like to ask you something about that craft, as I am—or was—interested in it.”
“Oh,” said he, “I shall not be of much use to you there, I’m afraid. I only do the most mechanical kind of weaving, and am in fact but a poor craftsman, unlike Dick here. Then besides the weaving, I do a little with machine printing and composing, though I am little use at the finer kinds of printing; and moreover machine printing is beginning to die out, along with the waning of the plague of book-making, so I have had to turn to other things that I have a taste for, and have taken to mathematics; and also I am writing a sort of antiquarian book about the peaceable and private history, so to say, of the end of the nineteenth century,—more for the sake of giving a picture of the country before the fighting began than for anything else. That was why I asked you those questions about Epping Forest. You have rather puzzled me, I confess, though your information was so interesting. But later on, I hope, we may have some more talk together, when our friend Dick isn’t here. I know he thinks me rather a grinder, and despises me for not being very deft with my hands: that’s the way nowadays. From what I have read of the nineteenth century literature (and I have read a good deal), it is clear to me that this is a kind of revenge for the stupidity of that day, which despised everybody who could use his hands. But Dick, old fellow, Ne quid nimis! Don’t overdo it!”
“Come now,” said Dick, “am I likely to? Am I not the most tolerant man in the world? Am I not quite contented so long as you don’t make me learn mathematics, or go into your new science of æsthetics, and let me do a little practical æsthetics with my gold and steel, and the blowpipe and the nice little hammer? But, hillo! here comes another questioner for you, my poor guest. I say, Bob, you must help me to defend him now.”
“Here, Boffin,” he cried out, after a pause; “here we are, if you must have it!”
I looked over my shoulder, and saw something flash and gleam in the sunlight that lay across the hall; so I turned round, and at my ease saw a splendid figure slowly sauntering over the pavement; a man whose surcoat was embroidered most copiously as well as elegantly, so that the sun flashed back from him as if he had been clad in golden armour. The man himself was tall, dark-haired, and exceedingly handsome, and though his face was no less kindly in expression than that of the others, he moved with that somewhat haughty mien which great beauty is apt to give to both men and women. He came and sat down at our table with a smiling face, stretching out his long legs and hanging his arm over the chair in the slowly graceful way which tall and well-built people may use without affectation. He was a man in the prime of life, but looked as happy as a child who has just got a new toy. He bowed gracefully to me and said—
“I see clearly that you are the guest, of whom Annie has just told me, who have come from some distant country that does not know of us, or our ways of life. So I daresay you would not mind answering me a few questions; for you see—”
Here Dick broke in: “No, please, Boffin! let it alone for the present. Of course you want the guest to be happy and comfortable; and how can that be if he has to trouble himself with answering all sorts of questions while he is still confused with the new customs and people about him? No, no: I am going to take him where he can ask questions himself, and have them answered; that is, to my great-grandfather in Bloomsbury: and I am sure you can’t have anything to say against that. So instead of bothering, you had much better go out to James Allen’s and get a carriage for me, as I shall drive him up myself; and please tell Jim to let me have the old grey, for I can drive a wherry much better than a carriage. Jump up, old fellow, and don’t be disappointed; our guest will keep himself for you and your stories.”
I stared at Dick; for I wondered at his speaking to such a dignified-looking personage so familiarly, not to say curtly; for I thought that this Mr. Boffin, in spite of his well-known name out of Dickens, must be at the least a senator of these strange people. However, he got up and said, “All right, old oar-wearer, whatever you like; this is not one of my busy days; and though” (with a condescending bow to me) “my pleasure of a talk with this learned guest is put off, I admit that he ought to see your worthy kinsman as soon as possible. Besides, perhaps he will be the better able to answer my questions after his own have been answered.”
And therewith he turned and swung himself out of the hall.
When he was well gone, I said: “Is it wrong to ask what Mr. Boffin is? whose name, by the way, reminds me of many pleasant hours passed in reading Dickens.”
Dick laughed. “Yes, yes,” said he, “as it does us. I see you take the allusion. Of course his real name is not Boffin, but Henry Johnson; we only call him Boffin as a joke, partly because he is a dustman, and partly because he will dress so showily, and get as much gold on him as a baron of the Middle Ages. As why should he not if he likes? only we are his special friends, you know, so of course we jest with him.”
I held my tongue for some time after that; but Dick went on:
“He is a capital fellow, and you can’t help liking him; but he has a weakness: he will spend his time in writing reactionary novels, and is very proud of getting the local colour right, as he calls it; and as he thinks you come from some forgotten corner of the earth, where people are unhappy, and consequently interesting to a story-teller, he thinks he might get some information out of you. O, he will be quite straightforward with you, for that matter. Only for your own comfort beware of him!”
“Well, Dick,” said the weaver, doggedly, “I think his novels are very good.”
“Of course you do,” said Dick; “birds of a feather flock together; mathematics and antiquarian novels stand on much the same footing. But here he comes again.”
And in effect the Golden Dustman hailed us from the hall-door; so we all got up and went into the porch, before which, with a strong grey horse in the shafts, stood a carriage ready for us which I could not help noticing. It was light and handy, but had none of that sickening vulgarity which I had known as inseparable from the carriages of our time, especially the “elegant” ones, but was as graceful and pleasant in line as a Wessex waggon. We got in, Dick and I. The girls, who had come into the porch to see us off, waved their hands to us; the weaver nodded kindly; the dustman bowed as gracefully as a troubadour; Dick shook the reins, and we were off.