Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

First Impressions of England and its People
Chapter XIV


Drive from Birmingham to Stratford rather tame. — Ancient Building in a modern-looking Street; of rude and humble Appearance. — "The Immortal Shakspeare born in this House.” — Description of the Interior. — The Walls and Ceiling covered with Names. — Albums. — Shakspeare, Scott, Dickens; greatly different in their Intellectual Stature, but yet all of one Family.— Principle by which to take their Measure.— No Dramatist ever draws an Intellect taller than his own. — Imitative Faculty.— The Reports of Dickens. — Learning of Shakspeare. — New Place. — The Rev. Francis Gastrall. — Stratford Church.— The Poet’s Grave; his Bust; far superior to the idealized Representations. — The Avon. — The Jubilee, and Cowper’s Description of it. — The true Hero Worship. — Quit Stratford for Olney. — Get into bad Company by the way.— Gentlemen of the Fancy. — Adventure.

The drive from Birmingham, for the greater part of the way, is rather tame. There is no lack of fields and hedge-rows, houses and trees; but, from the great flatness of the country, they are doled out to the eye in niggardly detail, at the rate of about two fields and three hedge-rows at a time. Within a few miles of Stratford-on-Avon, however, the scenery improves. We are still on the Upper New Red Sandstone, and on this formation the town is built: but the Lias beyond shoots out, just in the line of our route, into a long promontory, capped by two insulated outliers, that, projected far in advance, form the outer piquets of the newer and higher system; and for some four or five miles ere we enter the place, we coast along the tree-mottled shores of this green headland and its terminal islands. A scattered suburb introduces us to a rather commonplace-looking street of homely brick houses, that seem as if they had all been reared within the last half century; all, at least, save one, a rude, unsightly specimen of the oak-framed domicile of the days of Elizabeth and James. Its walls are incrusted with staring white-wash, its beams carelessly daubed over with lamp-black; a deserted butcher’s shop, of the fifth-rate class, with the hooks still sticking in the walls, and the sill-board still spread out, as if to exhibit the joints, occupies the ground-floor; the one upper story contains a single rickety casement, with a forlorn flower-pot on the sill; and directly in front of the building there is what seems a rather clumsy sign-board, hung between two poles, that bears on its weather-beaten surface a double line of white faded letters on a ground of black. We read the inscription, and this humblest of dwellings — humble, and rather vulgar to boot — rises in interest over the palaces of kings: — “The immortal Shakspeare was born in this house.” I shall first go and see the little corner his birthplace, I said, and then the little corner his burial-place: they are scarce half a mile apart; nor, after the lapse of more than two centuries, does the intervening modicum of time between the two events, his birth and his burial, bulk much larger than the modicum of space that separates the respective scenes of them; but how marvellously is the world filled with the cogitations which employed that one brain in that brief period! Could it have been some four pounds’ weight of convoluted matter, divided into two hemispheres, that, after originating these buoyant immaterialities, projected them upon the broad current of time, and bade them sail onwards and downwards forever? I cannot believe it: the sparks of a sky-rocket survive the rocket itself but a very few seconds. I cannot believe-that these thoughts of Shakspeare, “that wander through eternity,” are the mere sparks of an exploded rocket,— the mere scintillations of a little galvanic battery, made of fibre and albumen, like that of the torpedo, and whose ashes would now lie in the corner of a snuff-box.

I passed through the butcher’s shop, over a broken stone pavement, to a little gloomy kitchen behind, and then, under charge of the guide, up a dark narrow stair, to the low-browed room in which the poet was born. The floor of old oak, much worn in the seams, has apparently undergone no change since little Bill, be-frocked and be-booted in woolen prepared from the rough material by the wool-comber his father, coasted it along the walls, in bold adventure, holding on, as he went, by tables and chairs. The ceiling, too, though unluckily covered up by modern lath and plaster, is in all probability that which stretched over the head of the boy. It presents at least no indication of having been raised. A man rather above the middle size may stand erect under its central beam with his hat on, but with certainly no room to spare; and it seems more than probable that, had the old ceiling been changed for another, the new one would have been heightened. But the walls have been sadly altered. The one window of the place is no longer that through which Shakspeare first saw the light; nor is the fireplace that at which he stealthily lighted little bits of stick, and twirled them in the air, to see the fiery points converted into fiery circles. There are a few old portraits and old bits of furniture, of somewhat doubtful lineage, stuck round the room; and, on the top of an antique cabinet, a good plaster cast of the monumental bust in the church, in which, from its greater accessibility, one can better study than in the original the external signs affixed by nature to her mind of largest calibre. Every part of the walls and ceiling is inscribed with names. I might add mine, if I chose, to the rest, the woman told me; but I did not choose it. Milton and Dryden would have added theirs: he, the sublimest of poets, who, ere criticism had taken the altitude of the great writer whom he so fervently loved and admired, could address him in the fondness of youthful enthusiasm as “ my Shakspeare ; ” and he, the sympathetic critic, who first dared to determine that “ of all modem, and perhaps ancient poets, Shakspeare had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” Messrs. Wiggins and Tims, too, would have added their names; and all right. They might not exactly see for themselves what it was that rendered Shakspeare so famous; but their admiration, entertained on tmst, would be at least a legitimate echo of his renown; and so their names would have quite a right to be there as representatives of the outer halo — the second rainbow, if I may so express myself—of the poet’s celebrity. But I was ashamed to add mine. I remembered that it was my business to write, — to cast, day after day, shavings from off my mind, — the figure is Cowper’s, — that went rolling away, crisp and dry, among the vast heap already on the floor, and were never more heard of; and so I didn’t add my name. The woman pointed to the album, or rather set of albums, which form a record of the visiters, and said her mother could have turned up for me a great many names that strangers liked to look at; but the old woman was confined to her bed, and she, considerably less at home in the place, could show me only a few. The first she turned up was that of Sir Walter Scott; the second, that of Charles Dickens. “You have done remarkably well,” I said “your mother could n’t have done better. Now, shut the book.”

The scale is a descending one; so is the scale from the lion to the leopard, and from the leopard to the tiger-cat; but cat, leopard, and lion, belong to one great family; and these three poets belong unequivocally to one great family also. They are generically one; masters, each in his own sphere, not simply of the art of exhibiting character in the truth of nature, — for that a Hume or a Tacitus may possess, — but of the rarer and more difficultdramatic art of making characters exhibit themselves. It is not uninstructive to remark how the peculiar ability of portraying character in this form is so exactly proportioned to the general intellectual power of the writer who possesses it. No dramatist, whatever he may attempt, ever draws taller men than himself: as water in a bent tube rises to exactly the same height in the two limbs, so intellect in the character produced rises to but the level of the intellect of the producer. Milton’s fiends, with all their terrible strength and sublimity, are but duplicates of the Miltonic intellect united to vitiated moral natures; nor does that august and adorable Being, who perhaps should not have been dramatically introduced into even the “ Paradise Lost,” excel as an intelligence the too daring poet by whom he is exhibited. Viewed with reference to this simple rule, the higher characters of Scott, Dickens, and Shakspeare, curiously indicate the intellectual stature of the men who produced them. Scott’s higher characters possess massive good sense, great shrewdness, much intelligence: they are always very superior, if not always great men; and by a careful arrangement of drapery, and much study of position and attitude, they play their parts wonderfully well. The higher characters of Dickens do not stand by any means so high; the fluid in the original tube rests at a lower level: and no one seems better aware of the fact than Dickens himself. He knows his proper walk; and, content with expatiating in a comparatively humble province of human life and character, rarely stands on tiptoe, in the vain attempt to portray an intellect taller than his own. The intellectual stature of Shakspeare rises, on the other hand, to the highest level of man. His range includes the loftiest and the lowest characters, and takes in all between. There was no human greatness which he could not adequately conceive and portray; whether it was a purely intellectual greatness, as in Hamlet; or a purely constitutional greatness, — forceful and massive, — as in Corio-lanus and Othello; or a happy combination of both, as in Julius Caesar. He could have drawn with equal effect, had he flourished in an after period, the Lord Protector of England and the Lord Protector’s Latin secretary; and men would have recognized the true Milton in the one, and the genuine Cromwell in the other.

It has frequently occurred to me, that the peculiar dramatic faculty developed so prominently in these three authors, that, notwithstanding their disparities of general intellect, we regard it as constituting their generic stamp, and so range them together in one class, seems, in the main, rather a humble one, when dissociated from the auxiliary faculties that exist in the mind of genius. Like one of our Scotch pebbles, so common in some districts, in their rude state, that they occur in almost every mole-hill, it seems to derive nearly all its value and beauty from the cutting and the setting. A Shakspeare without genius would have been merely the best mimic in Stratford. He would have caught every peculiarity of character exhibited by his neighbors, — every little foible, conceit, and awkwardness, —every singularity of phrase, tone, and gesture. However little heeded when he spoke in his own character, he would be deemed worthy of attention when he spoke in the character of others; for whatever else his viva voce narratives might want, they woulcf be at least rich in the dramatic; men would recognize in his imitations peculiarities which they had failed to remark in the originals, but which, when detected by the keen eye of the mimic, would delight them, as “natural though not obvious; ” and though, perhaps, regarded not without fear, he would, at all events, be deemed a man of infinite amusement. But to this imitative faculty, — this mere perception of the peculiarities that confer on men the stamp of individuality, — there was added a world-wide invention, an intellect of vastest calibre, depths unsounded of the poetic feeling, with a breadth of sympathy which embraced all nature ; and the aggregate was a Shakspeare. I have seen this imitative ability, so useless in the abstract, rendered valuable by being set in even very humble literary attainment, — that of the newspaper reporter; and have had to estimate at a different rate of value the respective reports of gentlemen of the press, equal in their powers of memory and in general acquirement, and unequal merely in the degree in which they possessed the imitative faculty. In the reports of the one class I have found but the meaning of the speakers; in those of the other, both the meaning and the speakers too. Dickens, ere he became the most popular of living English authors, must have been a first-class reporter; and the faculty that made him so is the same which now leads us to speak of him in the same breath with Shakspeare. Bulwer is evidently a man of great reflective power; but Bulwer, though a writer of novels and plays, does not belong to the Shakspearian genus. Like those dramatists of English literature that, maugre their play-writing propensities, were not dramatic, —the Drydens and Thomsons of other days, — he lacks the imitative power. By the way, in this age of books, I marvel no bookseller has ever thought of presenting the public with the Bow-street reports of Dickens. They would form assuredly a curious work, — not less so, though on a different principle, than the Parliamentary reports of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

No one need say what sort of a building the church of Strat-ford-on-Avon is: no other edifice in the kingdom has half so often employed the pencil and the burin. I may just remark, however, that it struck me at a little distance, rising among its graceful trees, beside its quiet river, as one of the finest old English churches I had yet seen. One passes, in approaching it from the poet’s birthplace, through the greater part of Stratford. We see the town-hall, a rather homely building, — the central point of the bizarre Jubilee Festival of 1769,— with a niche in front occupied by a statue of Shakspeare, presented to the town by David Garrick, the grand master of ceremonies on the occasion. We then pass a lane, which leads down to the river, and has a few things worth looking at on either hand. There is an old Gothic chapel on the one side, with so ancient a school attached to it, that it existed as such in the days of the poet’s boyhood ; and in this school, it is supposed, he may have acquired the little learning that served fairly to enter him on his after-course of world-wide attainment. Little, I suppose, would have served the purpose : a given knowledge of the alphabet, and of the way of compounding its letters into words, as his premises, would have enabled the little fellow to work out the rest of the problem for himself. There has been much written on the learning of Shakspeare, but not much to the purpose: one of our old Scotch proverbs is worth all the dissertations on the subject I have yet seen. “God’s bairns,” it says, “are eath to lear” i. e. easily instructed. Shakspeare must, I suppose, have read many more books than Homer (we may be sure, every good one that came in his way, and some bad ones), and yet Homer is held to have known a thing or two : the more ancient poet was unquestionably as ignorant of English as the more modern one of Greek; and as the one produced the “ Iliad ” without any acquaintance with “Hamlet,” I do not see why the other might not have produced “Hamlet ” without any acquaintance with the “Iliad.” Johnson was quite in the right in holding that, though the writings of Shakspeare exhibit “ much knowledge, it is often such knowledge as books did not supply.” He might have added further, that the knowledge they display, which books supply, is of a kind which might be all found in English books at the time,— fully one-half of it, indeed, in the romances of the period. Every great writer, in the department in which he achieves his greatness, whether he be a learned Milton or an unlearned Bums, is self-taught. One stately vessel may require much tugging ere she gets fairly off the beach, whereas another may float off, unassisted, on the top of the flowing tide; but when once fairly prosecuting their voyage in the open sea, both must alike depend on the spread sail and the guiding rudder, on the winds of heaven and the currents of the deep.

On the opposite side of the lane, directly fronting the chapel, and forming the angle where lane and street unite, there is a plain garden-wall, and an equally plain dwelling-house; and these indicate the site of Shakspeare’s domicile, — the aristocratic mansion,—one of the “greatest,” it is said, in Stratford,— which the vagrant lad, who had fled the country in disgrace, returned to purchase for himself, when still a young man, — no longer a vagrant, however, and “ well to do in the world.” The poet’s wildnesses could not have lain deep in his nature, or he would scarce have been a wealthy citizen of Stratford in his thirty-third year. His gardens extended to the river side,— a distance of some two or three hundred yards ; and doubtless the greater part of some of his later dramas must have been written amid their close green alleys and straight-lined walks,— for they are said to have been quaint, rich, and formai, in accordance with the taste of the period; and so comfortable a mansion was the domicile that, in 1643, Queen Henrietta, when at Stratford with the royalist army, made it her place of residence for three weeks. I need scarce tell its subsequent story. After passing through several hands, it was purchased, about the middle of the last century, by the Rev. Francis Gastrall,— a nervous, useless, ill-conditioned man, much troubled by a bad stomach and an unhappy temper. The poet’s mulberry-tree had become ere now an object of interest; afid his reverence, to get rid of the plague of visiters, cut it down and chopped it into fagots. The enraged people of the town threw stones and broke his reverence’s windows; and then, to spite them still more, and to get rid of a poor-rate assessment to boot, he pulled down the poet’s house. And so his reverence’s name shares, in consequence, in the celebrity of that of Shakspeare, — “pursues the triumph and partakes the gale.” The Rev. Francis Gastrall must have been, I greatly fear, a pitiful creature; and the clerical prefix in no degree improves the name.

The quiet street gets still quieter as one approaches the church. We see on either side a much greater breadth of garden-walls than of houses, — walls with the richly-fruited branches peeping over ; and at the churchyard railing, thickly overhung by trees, there is so dense a mass of foliage, that of the church, which towers so high in the distance, we can discern no part save the door. A covered way of thick serarching limes runs along the smooth flat gravestones from gateway to doorway. The sunlight was streaming this day in many a fantastic patch on the lettered pavement below, though the checkering of shade predominated; but at the close of the vista the Gothic door opened dark and gloomy, in the midst of broad sunshine. The Avon flows past the churchyard wall. One may drop a stone at arm’s length over the edge of the parapet into four feet water, and look down on shoals of tiny fish in play around the sedges. I entered the silent church, and passed along its rows of old oak pews, on to the chancel. The shadows of the trees outside were projected dark against the windows, and the numerous marbles of the place glimmered cold and sad in the thickened light. The chancel is raised a single step over the floor, — a step some twelve or fourteen inches in height; and, ranged on end along its edge, just where the ascending foot would rest, there lie three flat tombstones. One of these covers the remains of “William Shakspeare, Gentleman the second, the remains of his wife, Anne Hathaway; while the third rests over the dust of his favorite daughter Susanna, and her husband John Hall. And the well-known monument — in paley tints of somewhat faded white lead — is fixed in the wall immediately above, at rather more than a man’s height from the floor.

At the risk of being deemed sadly devoid of good taste, I must dare assert that I better like the homely monumental bust of the poet, low as is its standing as a work of art, than all the idealized representations of him which genius has yet transferred to marble or canvas. There is more of the true Shakspeare in it. Burns complained that the criticisms of Blair, if adopted, would make his verse “too fine for either warp or woof;” and such has been the grand defect of the artistic idealisms which have been given to the world as portraits of the dramatist. They make him so pretty a fellow, all redolent of poetic odors, “shining so brisk” and “smelling so sweet,” like the fop that annoyed Hotspur, that one seriously asks if such a person could ever have got through the world. No such type of man, leaving Stratford penniless in his twenty-first year, would have returned in his thirty-third to purchase the “ capital messuage ” of New Place, “ with all the appurtenances,” and to take rank amid the magnates of his native town. The poet of the artists would never have been “William Shakspeare,    Gentleman,” nor would his burying-ground have lain in the chancel of his parish church. About the Shakspeare of the stone bust, on the contrary, there is a purpose-like strength and solidity. The head, a powerful mass of brain, would require all Dr. Chalmers’ hat; the forehead is as broad as that of the doctor, considerably taller, and of more general capacity; and the whole countenance is that of a shrewd, sagacious, kindly-tempered man, who could, of course, be poetical when he willed it, — vastly more so, indeed, than anybody else, — but who mingled wondrous little poetry in the management of his every-day business. The Shakspeare of the stone bust could, with a very slight training, have been Chancellor of the Exchequer; and in opening the budget, his speech would embody many of the figures of Cocker, judiciously arranged, but not one poetical figure.

On quitting the church, I walked for the better part of two miles upwards along the Avon, — first on the Stratford side to the stone bridge, which I crossed, and then on the side opposite, through quiet, low-lying meadows, bordered by fields. Up to the bridge the stream is navigable, and we may see the occasional sail gleaming white amid the green trees, as it glides past the resting-place of the poet. But on the upper side there are reaches through which even a slight shallop would have difficulty in forcing her way. The bulrush attains, in the soft oozy soil that forms the sides and bottom of the river, to a great size: I pulled stems from eight to ten feet in height; and in the flatter inflections, where the current stagnates, it almost chokes up the channel from side to side. Here it occurs in tall hedge-like fringes that line and overtop the banks, — there, in island-like patches, in the middle of the stream, — yonder, in diffused transverse thickets, that seem to connect the fringes on the one side with the fringes on the other. I have rarely seen anything in living nature — nature recent and vital — that better enabled me to realize the luxuriant aquatic vegetation of the Coal Measures. The unbroken stream dimples amid the rushes; in the opener depths we may mark, as some burnished fly flutters along the surface, the sullen plunge of the carp; the eel, startled by the passing shadow, wriggles outward from its bank of mud; while scores of careless gudgeons, and countless shoals of happy minnows, dart hither and thither, like the congregated midges that dance unceasingly in the upper element, but a few inches over them. For the first mile or so, the trees which line the banks are chiefly old willow pollards, with stiff’ rough stems and huge bunchy heads. Shrubs of various kinds, chiefly, however, the bramble and the woody nightshade, have struck root atop into their decayed trunks, as if these formed so many tall flower-pots; and we may catch, in consequence, the unwonted glitter of glossy black and crimson berries from amid the silvery leaves. The scenery improves as we ascend the stream. The willow pollards give place to forest trees, carelessly grouped, that preserve, unlopped and unmutilated, their proper proportions. But the main features of the landscape remain what they were. A placid stream, broadly. befringed wTith sedges, winds in tortuous reaches through rich meadows; and now it sparkles in open sunlight, for the trees recede; and anon it steals away, scarce seen, amid the gloom of bosky thickets. And such is the Avon, — Shakspeare’s own river. Here must he have wandered in his boyhood, times unnumbered. That stream, with its sedges, and its quick glancing fins, — those dewy banks, with their cowslips and daffodils, — trees chance-grouped, exactly such as these, and to which these have succeeded, — must all have stamped their deep impress on his mind; and, when an unsettled adventurer in London, they must have risen before him in all their sunshiny peacefulness, to inspire feelings of sadness and regret; and when, in after days, he had found his true vocation, their loved forms and colors must have mingled with the tissue of his poetry. And here must he have walked in sobeT middle life, when fame and fortune had both been achieved, happily to feel amid the solitude that there is but little of solid good in either, and that, even were it otherwise, the stream of life glides away to its silent bourn, from their gay light and their kindly shelter, to return no more forever. What would his thoughts have been, if, after spending in these quiet recesses his fiftieth birth-day, he could have foreseen that the brief three score and ten annual revolutions, — few as certainly as evil, — which have so long summed up the term of man’s earthly existence, were to be mulcted, in his case, of full seventeen years!

How would this master of human nature have judged of the homage that has now been paid him for these two centuries? and what would have been his theory of “Hero Worship”? Many a bygone service of this inverted religion has Stratford-on-Avon witnessed. The Jubilee devised by Garrick had no doubt much of the player in it; but it possessed also the real devotional substratum, and formed the type, on a splendid scale, not less in its hollowness than in its groundwork of real feeling, of those countless acts of devotion of which the poet’s birth and burial places have been the scene. “Man praises man;” Garrick, as became his occupation, was a little more ostentatious and formal in his Jubilee services, — more studious of rich ceremonial and striking forms, — more High Church in spirit, — than the simpler class of hero-devotees who are content to worship extempore; but that was just all.

“He drew the Liturgy, and framed the rites
And solemn ceremonial of the day,
And called the world to worship on the banks
Of Avon, famed in song. Ah! pleasant proof
That piety has still in human hearts
Some place, a spark or two not yet extinct.
The mulberry-tree was hung with blooming wreaths;
The mulberry-tree stood centre of the dance;
The mulberry-tree was hymned with dulcet airs;
And from his touchwood trunk the mulberry-tree
Supplied such relics as devotion holds
Still sacred, and preserves with pious care.
So’t was a hallowed time; decorum reigned,
And mirth without offence. No few returned
Doubtless much edified, and all refreshed.”

Such was Cowper’s estimate — to be sure, somewhat sarcastically expressed—of the services of the Jubilee. What would Shakspeare’s have been of the deeply-based sentiment, inherent, it would seem, in human nature, in which the Jubilee originated ? An instinct so widely diffused and so deeply implanted cannot surely be a mere accident; it must form, however far astray of the proper mark it may wander, one of the original components of the mental constitution, which we have not given ourselves. What would it be in its integrity ? It must, it would appear, have humanity on which to rest, — a nature identical with our own; and yet, when it finds nothing higher than mere humanity, it is continually running, as in the case of the Stratford Jubilee, into grotesque idolatry. Did Shakspeare, with all his vast knowledge, know where its aspirations could be directed aright? The knowledge seems to have got, somehow, into his family; nay, she who appears to have possessed it was the much-loved daughter on whom his affections mainly rested,

“Witty above her sexe; but that’s not all, —
Wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall.”

So says her epitaph in the chancel, where she sleeps at the feet of her father. There is a passage in the poet's will, too, written about a month ere his death, which may be, it is true, a piece of mere form, but which may possibly be something better. “I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping, and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ, my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting.” It is, besides, at least something, that this play-writer and play-actor, with wit at will, and a shrewd appreciation of the likes and dislikes of the courts and monarchs he -had to please, drew for their amusement no Mause Headriggs or Gabriel Kettledrummles. Puritanism could have been no patronizer of the Globe Theatre. Both Elizabeth and James hated the principle with a perfect hatred, and strove hard to trample it out of existence ; and such a laugh at its expense as a Shakspeare could have raised would have been doubtless a high luxury; nay, Puritanism itself was somewhat sharp and provoking in those days, and just a little coarse in its jokes, as the Martin Mar-Prelate tracts survive to testify; but the dramatist, who grew wealthy under the favor of Puritan-detesting monarchs was, it would seem, not the man to make reprisals. There are scenes in his earlier dramas, from which, as eternity neared upon his view, he could have derived little satisfaction; but there is no “Old Mortality” among them. Had the poor player some sense of what his beloved daughter seems to have clearly discovered, — the true “Hero Worship”. In his broad survey of nature and of man, did he mark one solitary character standing erect amid the moral waste of creation, untouched by taint of evil or of weakness, — a character infinitely too high for even his vast genius to conceive, or his profound comprehension to fathom? Did he draw near to inquire, and to wonder, and then fall down humbly to adore?

I took the evening coach for Warwick, on my way to Olney, and passed through the town for the railway station, a few minutes before sunset. It was a delightful evening, and the venerable castle and ancient town, with their surrounding woods and quiet river, formed in the red light a gorgeous picture. I could fain have waited for a day to explore Guy’s Cliff, famous of old for its caves and its hermits, and to go over the ancient castle of king-making Warwick, — at once the most extensive and best preserved monument in the kingdom of the bygone feudal grandeur. The geology of the locality, too, is of considerable interest. Frofh Stratford to the western suburbs of Warwick, the substratum of the landscape is composed, as every fallow-field which we pass certifies, in its flush of chocolate red, of the saliferous marls. Just, however, where the town borders on the country, the lower pavement of sandstone, on which the marls rest, comes to the surface, and stretches away northward in a long promontory, along which we find cliffs and quarries, and altogether bolder features than the denuding agents could have sculptured out of the incoherent marls. Guy’s Cliff, and the cliff on which Warwick Castle stands, are both composed of this sandstone. It is richer, too, in remains of vertebrate animals, than the Upper New Red anywhere else in England. It has its bone bed, containing, though in a sorely mutilated state, the remains of fish, chiefly teeth, and the remains of the teeth and vertebrae of saurians. The saurian of Guy’s Cliff, with the exception of the saurian of the Dolomitic Conglomerate, near Bristol, is the oldest British reptile known to geologists. Time pressed, however; and leaving behind me the antiquities of Warwick, geologic and feudal, I took my seat in the railway train for the station nearest Olney, — that of Wolverton. And the night fell ere we had gone over half the way.

I had now had some little experience of railway travelling in England, and a not inadequate idea of the kind of quiet, comfortable-looking people whom I might expect to meet in a second-class carriage. But my fellow-passengers this evening were of a different stamp. They were chiefly, almost exclusively indeed, of the male sex, — vulgar, noisy, ruffian-like fellows, full of coarse oaths and dogged asseverations, and singularly redolent of gin; and I was quite glad enough, when the train stopped at the Wolverton station, that I was to get rid of them. At the station, however, they came out en masse. All the other carriages disgorged similar cargoes; and I found myself in the middle of a crowd that represented very unfairly the people of England. It was now nine o’clock. I had intended passing the night in the inn at Wolverton, and then walking on in the morning to Olney, a distance of nine miles; but when I came to the inn, I found it all ablaze with light, and all astir with commotion. Candles glanced in every window; and a thorough Babel of sound — singing, quarrelling, bell-ringing, thumping, stamping, and the clatter of mugs and glasses — issued from every apartment. I turned away from the door, and met, under the lee of a fence which screened him from observation, a rural policeman. “What is all this about?” I asked. — “Do you not know?” was the reply. — “No; I am quite a stranger here.” — “Ah, there are many strangers here. But do you not know?” — “I have no idea whatever,” I reiterated: “I am on my way to Olney, and had intended spending the night here; but would prefer walking on, to passing it in such a house as that.” — “O, beg pardon; I thought you had been one of themselves: Bendigo of Nottingham has challenged Caunt of London to fight for the championship. The battle comes on to-morrow, somewhere hereabouts; and we have got all the blackguards in England, south and north, let loose upon us. If you walk on to Newport Pagnell, — just four miles, — you will no doubt get a bed; but the way is lonely, and there have been already several robberies since nightfall.” — “I shall take my chance of that,” I said.—"Ah,—well, — your best way, then, is to walk straight forwards., at a smart pace, keeping the middle of the highway, and stopping for no one.” I thanked the friendly policeman, and took the road. It was a calm, pleasant night; the moon, in her first quarter, was setting dim and lightless in the west; and an incipient frost, in the form of a thin film of blue vapor, rested in the lower hollows.

The way was quite lonely enough; nor were the few strag* gling travellers whom I met of a kind suited to render its solitariness more cheerful. About half way on, where the road runs between tall hedges, two fellows started out towards me, one from each side of the way. “Is this the road,” asked one, “to Newport Pagnell?” — “Quite a stranger here,” I replied, without slackening my pace; “don’t belong to the kingdom even.” — “No!” said the same fellow, increasing his speed, as if to overtake me; “to what kingdom, then?” — “Scotland,” I said, turning suddenly round, somewhat afraid of being taken from behind by a bludgeon. The two fellows sheered off in double quick time, the one who had already addressed me muttering, “More like an Irishman, I think;” and I saw no more of them. I had luckily a brace of loaded pistols about me, and had at the moment a trigger under each fore-finger; and though the ruffians — for such I doubt not they were — could scarcely have been cognizant of the fact, they seemed to have made at least a shrewd approximation towards it. In the autumn of 1842, during the great depression of tratle, when the entire country seemed, in a state of disorganization, and the law in some of the mining districts failed to protect the lieges, I was engaged in following out a course of geologic exploration in our Lothian Coal Field; and, unwilling to suspend my labors, had got the pistols, to do for myself, if necessary, what the authorities at the time could not do for me. But I had fortunately found no use for them, though I had visited many a lonely hollow and little-frequented water-course, — exactly the sort of places in which, a century ago,- one would have been apt to raise footpads as one now starts hares; and in crossing the borders, I had half resolved to leave them behind me. They gave confidence, however, in unknown neighborhoods, or when travelling alone in the night-time ; and so I had brought them with me into England, to support, if necessary, the majesty of the law and the rights of the liege subject; and certainly did not regret this evening that I had.

I entered Newport Pagnell a little after ten o’clock, and found all its inns exactly such scenes of riot and uproar as the inn at Wolverton. There was the same display of glancing lights in the windows, and the same wild hubbub of sound. On I went. A decent mechanic, with a white apron before him, whom I found in the street, assured me there was no chance of getting a bed in Newport Pagnell, but that I might possibly get one at Skirvington, a village on the Olney road, about three miles further on. And so, leaving Newport Pagnell behind me, I set out for Skirvington. It was now wearing late, and I met no more travellers: the little bit of a moon had been down the hill for more than an hour, the fog rime had thickened, and the trees by the wayside loomed through the clouds like giants in dominos. In passing through Skirvington, I had to stoop down and look between me and the sky for signposts. There were no lights in the houses, save here and there in an upper casement; and all was quiet as in a churchyard. By dint of sky-gazing, I discovered an inn, and rapped hard at the door. It was opened by the landlord, coat and waistcoat. There was no bed to be had there, he said; the beds were all occupied by travellers who could get no accommodation in Newport Pagnell; but there ^as another inn in the place further on, though it was not unlikely, as it did n’t much business, the family had gone to bed. This was small comfort. 1 had, however, made up my mind, that if I failed in finding entertainment at inn the second, I should address myself to hay-rick the first; but better fortune awaited me. I sighted my way to the other sign-post of the village: the lights within had gone up stairs to the attics; but as I tapped and tapped, one of them came trippingly down; it stood pondering behind the door for half a second, as if in deliberation, and then bolt and bar were withdrawn, and a very pretty young Englishwoman stood in the door-way. “Could I get accommodation there for a night, — supper and bed?” There was a hesitating glance at my person, followed by a very welcome “yes;” and thus closed the adventures of the evening. On the following morning I walked on to Olney. It was with some little degree of solicitude that, in a quiet corner by the way, remote from cottages, I tried my pistols, to ascertain what sort of defence I would have made had the worst come to the worst in the encounter of the previous evening. Pop, pop! — they went off beautifully, and sent their bullets through an inch board; and so in all probability I would have succeeded in astonishing the “fancy-men.”


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast