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The Recreations of a Country Parson
Chapter I. Concerning the Country Parson's Life


THIS is Monday morning. It is a beautiful sunshiny morning early in July. I am sitting on the steps that lead to my door, somewhat tired by the duty of yesterday, but feeling very restful and thankful. Before me there is a little expanse of the brightest grass, too little to be called a lawn, very soft and mossy, and very carefully mown. It is shaded by three noble beeches, about two hundred years old. The sunshine around has a green tinge from the reflection of the leaves. Double hedges, thick and tall, the inner one of gleaming beech, shut out all sight of a countiy lane that runs hard by: a lane into which this gravelled sweep of would-be avenue enters, after winding deftly through evergreens, rich and old, so as to make the utmost of its little length. On the side furthest from the lane, the miniature lawn opens into a garden of no great extent, and beyond the garden you see a green field sloping upwards to a wood which bounds the view. One-half of the front of the house is covered to the roof by a climbing rose-tree, so rich now with cluster roses that you see only the white soft masses of fragrance. Crimson roses and fuchsias cover half-way up the remainder of the front wall; and the sides of the flight of steps are green with laige-leaved ivy. If ever there was a dwelling embosomed in great trees and evergreens, it is here. Everything grows beautifully: oaks, horse-chestnuts, beeches; laurels, yews, hollies; lilacs and hawthorn trees. Off a little way on the right, graceful in stem, in branches, in the pale bark, in the light-green leaves, I see my especial pet, a fair acacia. This is the true country; not the poor shadow of it which you have near great and smoky towns. .That sapphire air is polluted by no factory chimney. Smoke is a beauty here, there is so little of it: rising thin and blue from the cottage; hospitable and friendly-looking from the rare mansion. The town is five miles distant: there is not even a village near. Green fields are all about; hawthorn hedges and rich hedge-rows; great masses of wood everywhere. But this is Scotland: and there is no lack of hills and rocks, of little streams and waterfalls; and two hundred yards off, winding round that churchyard whose white stones you see by glimpses through old oak branches, a large river glides swiftly by.

It is a quiet and beautiful scene; and it pleases me to think that Britain has thousands and thousands like it But of course none, in my mind, equal this : for this has been my home for five years.

I have been sitting here for an hour, with a book on my knee; and upon that a piece of paper, whereon I have been noting down some thoughts for the sermon which I hope to write during this week, and to preach next Sunday in that little parish church of which you can see a comer of a gable through the oaks which surround the churchyard. I have not been able to think very connectedly, indeed: for two little feet have been pattering round me, two little hands pulling at me occasionally, and a little voice entreating that I should come and have a race upon the green. Of course I went: for like most men who are not very great or very bad, I have learned, for the sake of the little owner of the hands and the voic^ to love every little child. Several times, too, I have been obliged to get up and make a dash at a very small weed which I discerned just appearing through the gravel; and once or twice my man-servant has come to consult me about matters connected with the garden and the stable. My sermon will be the better for all these interruptions. I do not mean to say that it will be absolutely good, though it will be as good as I can make it: but it will be better for the races with my little girl, and for the thoughts about my horse, than it would have been if I had not been interrupted at all The Roman Catholic Church meant it well: but it was far mistaken when it thought to make a man a better parish priest by cutting him off from domestic ties, and quite emancipating him from all the little worries of domestic life. That might be the way to get men who would preach an unpractical religion, not human in interest, not able to comfort, direct, sustain through daily cares, temptations, and sorrows. But for preaching which will come home to men’s business and bosoms, which will not appear to ignore those things which must of necessity occupy the greatest part ot an ordinary mortal’s thoughts, commend me to the preacher who has learned by experience what are human ties, and what is human worry.

It is a characteristic of country life, that living in the country you have so many cares outside. In town, you have nothing to think of (I mean in the way of little material matters) beyond the walls of your dwelling. It is not your business to see to the paving of the street before your door; and if you live in a square, you are not individually responsible for the tidiness of the shrubbery in its centre. When you come home, after the absence of a week or a month, you have nothing to look round upon and see that it is right The space within the house’s walls is not a man’s proper province. Your library-table and your books are all the domain which comes within the scope of your orderly spirit But if you live in the country, in a house of your own with even a few acres of land attached to it, you have a host of things to think of when you come home from your week's or month’s absence; you have an endless number of little things worrying you to take a turn round and see that they arc all as they should be. You can hardly sit down and rest for their tugging at you. Is the grass all trimly mown? Has the pruning been done that you ordered? Has that rose-tree been trained? Has that bit of fence been mended? Are all the walks perfectly free from weeds? Is there not a gap left in box-wood edgings? and are the edges of all walks through grass sharp and clearly defined? Has that nettly comer of a field been made tidy? Has any one been stealing the fruit? Have the neighbouring cows been in your clover? How about the stable? — any fractures of the harness? — any scratches on the carriage?—anything amiss with the horse or horses? All these, and innumerable questions more, press on the man who looks after matters for himself, when he arrives at home.

Still, there is good in all this. That which in a desponding mood you call a worry, in a cheerful mood you think a source of simple, healthful interest in life. And there is one case in particular, in which I doubt not the reader of simple and natural tastes (and such may all my readers be) has experienced, if he be a country parson not too rich or great, the benefit of these gentle counter-irritants. It is when you come home, leaving your wife and children for a little while behind you. It is autumn: you are having your holiday: you have all gone to the sea-side. You have been away two or three weeks; and you begin to think that you ought to let your parishioners see that you have not forgotten them. You resolve to go home for ten days, which shall include two Sundays with their duty. You have to travel a hundred and thirty miles. So on a Friday morning you bid your little circle good bye, and set off alone. It is not, perhaps, an extreme assumption that you are a man of sound sense and feeling, and not a selfish conceited humbug: and, the case being so, you are not ashamed to confess that you are somewhat saddened by even that short parting; and that various thoughts obtrude themselves of possible accident and sorrow before you meet again. It is only ten days, indeed: but a wise man is recorded to have once advised his fellow-men in words which run as follows, “Boast not thyself of to-morrow, for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” And as you sail along in the steamer, and sweep along in the train, you arc thinking of the little things that not without tears bade their governor farewell It was early morning when you left: and as you proceed on your solitary journey, the sun ascends to noon, and declines towards evening. You have read your newspaper: there is no one else in that compartment of the carriage: and hour after hour you grow more and more dull and down-hearted. At length, as the sunset is gilding the swept harvcst-fields, you reach the quiet little railway station among the hills. It is wonderful to sec it There is no village: hardly a dwelling in sight: there arc rocky hills all round; great trees; and a fine river, by following which the astute engineer led his railway to this seemingly inaccessible spot. You alight on that primitive platform, with several large trees growing out of it, and with a waterfall at one end of it: and beyond the little palisade, you see your trap, (let me not say carriage,) your man-servant, your horse, perhaps your pair. How kindly and pleasant the expression even of the horse’s back! How unlike the bustle of a railway station in a large town! The train goes, the brass of the engine red in the sunset; and you are left in perfect stillness. Your baggage is stowed, and you drive away gently. It takes some piloting to get down the steep slope from this out-of-the-way place. What a change from the thunder of the train to this audible quiet! You interrogate your servant first in the comprehensive question, if all is right Relieved by his general affirmative answer, you descend into particulars. Any one sick in the parish? how was the church attended on the Sundays you were away? how is Jenny, who had the fever; and John, who had the paralytic stroke? How are the servants? how is the horse;-the cow; the pig; the dog ? How is the garden progressing? how about fruit? how about flowers? There was an awful thunderstorm on Wednesday: the people thought it was the end of the world. Two bullocks were killed and thirteen sheep. Widow Wiggins’ son had deserted from the army, and had come home. The harvest-home at such a farm is to-night: may Thomas go? What a little quiet world is the country parish: what a microcosm even the country parsonage! You are interested and pleased: you are getting over your stupid feeling of depression. You are interested in all these little matters, not because you have grown a gossiping, little-minded man, but because you know it is fit and right and good for you to be interested in such things. You have five or six miles to drive: never less: the scene grows always more homely and familiar as you draw nearer home. And arrived at last, what a deal to look at! 'What a welcome on the servants' faces: such a contrast to the indifferent looks of servants in a town. You hasten to your library-table to see what letters await you: country folk are always a little nervous about their letters, as half expecting, half fearing, half hoping, some vague, great, undefined event You see the snug fire: the chamber so precisely arranged, and so fresh-looking: you remark it and value it fifty times more amid country fields and trees than you would turning out of the manifest life and civilisation of the city street You are growing cheerful and thankful now; but before it grows dark, you must look round out of doors: and that makes you entirely thankful and cheerful. Surely the place has grown greener and prettier since you saw it last 1 You walk about the garden and the shrubbery: the gravel is right, the grass is right, the trees are right, the hedges arc right, everything is right You go to the stable-yard: you pat your horse, and pull his cars, and enjoy seeing his snug resting-place for the night. You peep into the cow-house, now growing very dark: you glance into the abode of the pig: the dog has been capering about you all this while. You are not too great & man to take pleasure in these little things. And now when you enter your library again, where your solitary meal is spread, you sit down in the mellow lamplight, and feel quite happy. How different it would have been to have walked out of a street-cab into a townhouse, with nothing beyond its walls to think of!

This is so sunshiny a day, and everything is looking so cheerful and beautiful, that I know my present testimony to the happiness of the country parson’s life must be received with considerable reservation. Just at the present hour, I am willing to declare that I think the life of a country clergyman, in a pretty parish, with a well-conducted and well-to-do population, and with a fair living, is as happy, useful, and honourable as the life of man can be. Your work is all of a pleasant kind; you have, generally speaking, not too much of it; the fault is your own if you do not meet much esteem and regard among your parishioners of all degrees; you feel you are of some service in your generation: you have intellectual labours and tastes which keep your mind from growing rusty, and which admit you into a wide field of pure enjoyment: you have pleasant country cares to divert your mind from head-work, and to keep you for hours daily in the open air, in a state of pleasurable interest; your little children grow up with green fields about them, and pure air to breathe: and if your heart be in your sacred work, you feel, Sunday by Sunday, and day by day, a solid enjoyment in telling your fellow-creatures the Good News you are commissioned to address to them, which it is hard to describe to another, but which you humbly and thankfully take and keep. You have not, indeed, the excitement and the exhilaration of commanding the attention of a large educated congregation : those are reserved for the popular clergyman of a city parish. But then, you are free from the temptation to attempt the unworthy arts of the clap-trap mob-orator, or to preach mainly to display your own talents and eloquence; you have striven to exclude all personal ambition; and, forgetting yourself or what people may think of yourself, to preach simply for the good of your fcllow-sinners, and for the glory of that kind Master whom you serve. And around you there are none of those heart-breaking things which must crush the earnest clergyman in a large town, no destitution; poverty, indeed, but no starvation: and although evil will be wherever man is, nothing of the gross, darings shocking vice which is matured in the dens of the great city. The cottage children breathe a confined atmosphere while within the cottage; but they have only to go to the door, and the pure air of heaven is about them, and they live in it most of their waking hours. Very different with the pale children of a like class in the city, who do but exchange the infected chamber for the filthy lane, and whose eyes are hardly ever gladdened by the sight of a green field. And when the diligent country parson walks or drives about his parish, not without a decided, feeling of authority and ownership, he knows every man, woman, and child he meets', and all their concerns and cares. Still, even on this charming morning, I do not forget that it depends a good deal upon the parson’s present mood, what sort of account he may give of his country parish and his parochial life. If he have been recently cheated by a well-to-do farmer in the price ot some farm produce; if he have seen a humble neighbour deliberately forcing his cow through a weak part of the hedge into a rich pasture-field of the glebe, and then have found him ready to swear that the cow trespassed entirely without his knowledge or will; if he meet a hulking fellow carrying in the twilight various rails from a fence to be used as firewood; if, on a warm summer day, the whole congregation falls fast asleep during the sermon; if a farmer tells him what a bad and dishonest man a discharged man-servant was, some weeks after the parson had found that out for himself and packed off the dishonest man; if certain of the cottagers near appear disposed to live entirely, instead of only partially, of the parsonage larder; the poor parson may sometimes be found ready to wish himself in town, compact within a house in a street with no back* door; and not spreading out such a surface, as in the country he must, for petty fraud and peculation. But, after all, the country parson’s great worldly cross lies for the most part in his poverty, and in the cares which arise out of that It is not always so, indeed. In the lot of some the happy medium has been reached; they have found the “ neither poverty nor riches” of the wise man’s prayer. Would that it were so with all! For how it must cripple a clergyman's usefulness, how abate his energies, how destroy his eloquence, how sicken his heart, how narrow and degrade his mind, how tempt (as it has sometimes done) to unfair and dishonest shifts and expedients, to go about not knowing how to make the ends meet, not seeing how to pay what he owes! If I were a rich man, how it would gladden me to send a fifty-pound note to certain houses I have seen! What a dead weight it would lift from the poor wife’s heart! Ah! I can think of the country parson, like poor Sydney Smith, adding his accounts, calculating his little means, wondering where he can pinch or pare any closer, till the poor fellow' bends down his stupefied head and throbbing temples on his hands, and washes he could creep into a quiet grave. God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb; or I should wonder how it docs not drive some country parsons mad, to think what would become of their children if they were taken aw'ay. It is the warm nest upon the rotten bough. They need abundant faith; let us trust they get it But in a desponding mood, I can well imagine such a one resolving that no child of his shall ever enter upon a course in life which has brought himself such misery as he has known.

I have been writing down some thoughts, as I have said, for the sermon of next Sunday. To-morrow morning I shall begin to write it fully out. Some individuals, I am aware, have maintained that listening to a sermon is irksome work; but to a man whose tastes lie in that way, the writing of sermons is most pleasant occupation. It does you good. Unless you are a mere false pretender, you cannot try to impress any truth forcibly upon the hearts of others, without impressing itt forcibly upon your own. All that you will ever make other men feel, will be only a subdued reflection of what you yourself have felt And sermon-writing is a task that is divided into many stages. You begin afresh every week: you come to an end every week. If you are writing a book, the end appears very far away. If you find that although you do your best, you yet treat some part of your subject badly, you know that the bad passage remains as a permanent blot: and you work on under the cross-influence of that recollection. But if, with all your pains, this week’s sermon is poor, why, you hope to do better next week. You seek a fresh field: you try again. No doubt, in preaching your sermons you are somewhat annoyed by rustic boorishness and want of thought Various bumpkins will forget to close the door behind them when they enter church too late, as they not unfrequently do. Various men with great hob-nailed shoes, entering late, instead of quietly slipping into a pew close to the door, will stamp noisily up the passage to the further extremity of the church. Various faces will look up at you week by week, hopelessly blank of all interest or intelligence. Some human beings will not merely sleep, but loudly evince that they are sleeping. Well, you gradually cease to be worried by these little things. At first, they jarred through every nerve; but you grow accustomed to them. And if you be a man of principle and of sense, you know better than to fancy that amid a rustic people your powers are thrown away. Even if you have in past days been able to interest congregations of the refined and cultivated class, you will now shew your talent and your principle at once by accommodating your instructions to the comprehension of the simple souls committed to your care. I confess I have no patience with men who profess to preach sermons carelessly prepared, because they have an uneducated congregation. Nowhere is more careful preparation needed; but of course it must be preparation of the right sort Let it be received as an axiom, that the very first aim of the preacher should be to interest He must interest, before he can hope to instruct or improve. And no matter how filled with orthodox doctrine and good advice a sermon may be, if it put the congregation to sleep, it is an abominably bad sermon.

Surely, I go on to think, this kind of life must affect all the productions of the mind of the man who leads it. There must be a smack of the country, its scenes and its cares, about them all. You walk in shady lanes: you stand and look at the rugged bark of old trees: you help to prune evergreens: you devise flower-gardens and winding walks. You talk to pigs, and smooth down the legs of horses. You sit on mossy walls, and saunter by the river side, and through woodland paths. .You grow familiar with the internal arrangements of poor men’s dwellings: you see much of men and women in those solemn seasons when all pretences are laid aside; and they speak with confidence to you of their little cares and fears, for this world and the other. You kneel down and pray by the bedside of many sick; and you know the look of the dying face well. Young children, whom you have humbly sought to instruct in the best of knowledge, have passed away from this life in your presence, telling you in interrupted sentences whither they trusted they were going, and bidding you not forget to meet them there. You feel the touch of the weak fingers still; the parting request is not forgotten. You mark the spring blossoms come back; and you walk among the harvest sheaves in the autumn evening. And when you ride up the parish on your duty, you feel the influence of bare and lonely tracts, where, ten miles from home, you sometimes dismount from your horse, and sit down on a grey stone by the wayside, and look for an hour at the heather at your feet, and at the sweeps of purple moorland far away. You go down to the churchyard frequently: you sit on the gravestone of your predecessor who died two hundred years since; and you count five, six, seven spots where those who served the cure before you sleep. Then, leaning your head upon your hand, you look thirty years into the future, and wonder whether you are to grow old. You read, through moss-covered letters, how a former incumbent of the parish died in the last century, aged twenty-eight. That afternoon, coming from a cottage where you had been seeing a frail old woman, you took a flying leap over a brook near, with precipitous sides; and you thought that some day, if you lived, you would have to creep quietly round by a smoother way. And now you think you see an aged man, tottering and grey, feebly walking down to the churchyard as of old, and seating himself hard .by where you sit The garden will have grown weedy and untidy: it will not be the trim, precise dwelling which youthful energy and hopefulness keep it now.

Let it be hoped that the old man’s hat is not seedy, nor his coat threadbare: it makes one’s heart sore to see that. And let it be hoped that he is not alone. But you go home, I think, with a quieter and kindlier heart.

You live in a region, mental and material, that is very entirely out of the track of worldly ambition. You do not blame it in others: you have learnt to blame few things in others severely, except cruelty and falsehood: but you have outgrown it for yourself. You hear, now and then, of this and the other school or college friend becoming a great man. One is an Indian hero : one is attorney-general: one is a cabinet minister. You like to see their names in the newspapers. You remember how in college competitions with them, you did not come off second-best You are struck at finding that such a man, whom you recollect as a fearful dunce, is getting respectably on through life : you remember how at school you used to wonder whether the difference between the clever boy and the booby would be in after days the same great gulf that it was then. Your life goes on very regularly, each week much like the last And, on the whole, it is very happy. You saunter for a little in the open air after breakfast: you do so when the evergreens are beautiful with snow as well as when the warm sunshine makes the grass white with widely-opened daisies. Your children go with you wherever you go. You are growing subdued and sobered; but they are not: and when one sits on your knee, and lays upon your shoulder a little head with golden ringlets, you do not mind very much though your own hair (what is left of it) is getting shot with gray. You sit down in your quiet study to your work: what thousands of pages you have written at that table.

You cease your task at one o’clock: you read your Times: you get on horseback and canter up tire parish to see your sick: or you take the ribbons and tool into the county town. You feel the stir of even its quiet existence: you drop into the bookseller’s: you grumble at the venerable age of the Reviews that come to you from the club. Generally, you cannot be bothered with calls upon your tattling acquaintances: you leave these to your wife. You drive home again, through the shady lanes, away into the green country: your man-servant in his sober livery tells you with pride, when you go to the stable-yard for a few minutes before dinner, that Mr Snooks, the great judge of horse-flesh, had declared that afternoon in the inn stable in town, that he had not seen a better-kept carriage and harness anywhere, and that your plump steed was a noble creature. It is well when a servant is proud of his belongings: he will be a happier man, and a more faithful and useful. When you next drive out, you will see the silver blazing in the sun with increased brightness. And now you have the pleasant evening before you. Do not, like some slovenly men in remote places, sit down to dinner an unwashed and untidy object: living so quietly as you do, it is especially needful, if you would avoid an encroaching rudeness, to pay careful attention to the little refinements of life. And the great event of the day over, you have music, books, and children; you have the summer saunter in the twilight; you have the wintei evening fireside; you take perhaps another turn at your sermon for an hour or two. The day has brought its work and its recreation; you can look back each evening upon something done; save when you give yourself a holiday which you feel has been fairly toiled for. And what a wonderful amount of work, such as it is, you may, by exertion regular but not excessive, turn off in the course of the ten months and a-half of the working year!

And thus, day by day, and month by month, the life of the country parson passes quietly away. It will be briefly comprehended on his tombstone, in the assurance that he did his duty, simply and faithfully, through so many years. It is somewhat monotonous, but he is too-busy to weary of it: it is varied by not much society, in the sense of conversation with educated men with whom the clergyman has many common feelings. But it is inexpressibly pleasing when, either to his own house or to a dwelling near, there comes a visitor with whom an entire sympathy is felt, though probably holding very antagonistic views: then come the “good talks” with delighted Johnson; genial evenings, and long walks of afternoons. The daily post is a daily strong sensation, sometimes pleasing, sometimes painful, as he brings tidings of the outer world. You have your daily Times; each Monday morning brings your Saturday Review; and the Illustrated London News comes not merely for the children’s sake. You read all the quarterlies, of course; you skim the monthlies; but it is with tenfold interest and pleasure that month by month you receive that magazine which is edited by a dear friend who sends it to you, and in which sometimes certain pages have the familiar look of a friend’s face. You draw it wet from its big envelope: you cut its leaves with care: you enjoy the fragrance of its steam as it dries at the study fire: you glance at the shining backs of that long row of volumes into which the pleasant monthly visitants have accumulated: you think you will have another volume soon. Then there is a great delight in occasionally receiving a large bundle of books which have been ordered from your bookseller in the city a hundred miles off: in reading the address in such big letters that they must have been made with a brush: in stripping off the successive layers of immensely thick brown paper: in reaching the precious hoard within, all such fresh copies (who are they that buy the copies you turn over in the shop, but which you would not on any account take?): such fresh copies, with their bran-new bindings and their leaves so pure in a material sense: in cutting the leaves at the rate of two or three volumes an evening, and in seeing the entire accession of literature lying about the other table (not die one you write on) for a few days ere they are given to the shelves. You are not in the least ashamed to confess that you are pleased by all these little things. You regard it as not necessarily proving any special pettiness of mind or heart. You regard it as no proof of greatness in any man, that he should appear to care nothing for anything. Your private belief is that it shews him to be either a humbug or a fooL In this little volume, the indulgent reader will find certain of those Essays which the writer discovered on cutting the leaves of the magazine which comes to him on the last day of every month. They were written as something which might afford variety of work, which often proves the most restful of all recreation. They are nothing more than that which they are called—a country clergyman’s Recreatiofis. My solid work, and my first thoughts, are given to that which is the business and the happiness of my life. But these Essays have led me into a field which to myself was fresh and pleasant And I have always returned from them, with increased interest, to graver themes and trains of thought I have not forgot, as I wrote them, a certain time, when my little children must go away from their early home; when these evergreens I have planted and these walks I have made shall pass to my successor (may he be a better man!); and when I shall perhaps find my resting-place under those ancient oaks. Nor have I wholly failed to remember a coming day, when bishops and archbishops shall be called to render an account of the fashion in which they exercised their solemn and dignified trusts; and when I, who am no more than the minister of a Scotch country parish, must answer for the diligence with which I served my little cure.


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