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
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 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
This was catching me on my archaeological 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
The weaver only laughed good-humouredly; and the girl went up to
him and patted his cheek and said laughingly, "Poor fellow! he was
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
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 naivete 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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
aesthetics, and let me do a little practical aesthetics 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
"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