An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 10
THE type of the old English cottage was—one room below for kitchen and every other purpose by day, and one room upstairs for repose at night for the entire family, and this reached by a stair like a ladder. Very poor quarters as we now consider, but relatively not poor when compared with the farms and manor-houses at the time when they were built.
And a vast number of our labourers' cottages date from two, three, and four hundred years ago; especially where built of stone or "cob." The latter is kneaded clay with straw in it. This makes a warm and excellent wall, and one that will endure for ever if only the top be kept dry. Brick cottages are later. Timber and plaster belong to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The oak turns hard as iron and is perhaps more enduring than iron, for the latter is eaten through in time with rust.
That which is destroying the old cottage is not the tooth of time, but the insurance office, which imposes heavy rates on thatched buildings, and when the thatch goes and its place is taken by slate, the beauty of the cottage is gone. But generally, if a cottage that was thatched has to be slated, it is found that the timbers were not put up to bear the weight of slate, so have to be renewed, and then it is said by the agent, "Pull the whole thing down, it is not worth re-roofing. Build it afresh from the foundation." Then, in the place of a lovely old building with its windows under thatch, and the latter covering it soft and brown and warm as the skin of a mole, arises a piece of hideousness that is perhaps more commodious, but hardly so comfortable. I know that labourers who have been transferred from old "cob" cottages under thatch to new brick cottages under slate, complain bitterly that they are losers in coziness by the exchange, and that they suffer from cold in these trim and gaunt erections.
No cottages are more lovely than those that are tiled, when the tiles are old; and the Eastern Counties, if they lack the beauty of landscape of the West, and of the Welsh hills, and the Lake district, infinitely surpass them in the picturesqueness of their groups of cottages. Slate, it must be admitted, is only beautiful when mellowed by the growth over it of lichen; and some slate not even time can make other than ugly.
I have been reading Professor Fawcett's Economic Position of the British Labourer, and I note the following passage relative to our agricultural workmen: "Theirs is a life of incessant toil for wages too scanty to give them a sufficient supply even of the first necessaries of life. No hope cheers their monotonous career; a life of constant labourbrings them no other prospect than that when their strength is exhausted they must crave as suppliant mendicants a pittance from parish relief. Many classes of labourers have still to work as long, and for as little remuneration as they received in past times; and one out of every twenty inhabitants of England is sunk so deep in pauperism that he has to be supported by parochial relief."
This is very interesting. Mr. Fawcett was, I believe, blind and resided in a town. No doubt he evolved this sad picture out of his interior consciousness. Beside it let me put some notes from my diary.
1896. Dec. 25, Christmas Day. Universal holiday.
„ 26, Day after Christmas. No work done.
„ 27, Sunday.
„ 28, Monday, Bank Holiday; no work.
1897. Jan. 1, New Year's Day, General Holiday; no work.
„ 2, Saturday; not full work.
„ 3, Sunday.
„ 6, Old Christmas Day. No work done.
„ 9, Saturday; not full work.
„ 10, Sunday.
„ 11, Excursion to Plymouth and pantomime. Half the workmen gone to the pantomime.
„ 13, Hounds met. All the men off running after them. Wages as usual.
Ten work-days out of twenty. I don't grudge it them. I rejoice over it with all my heart, but I cannot see that this quite jumps with Professor Fawcett's description. Of course it is not Christmas time all the year, but at other times are other festivals, flower shows, reviews, harvest festivals, club feasts, Bank Holidays, regattas, etc., etc., and my experience is that when there is anything to be seen the workmen go to see it and take their wives with them.
A few years ago there was a large bazaar given in my neighbourhood. I asked afterwards of the secretary and treasurer from whom most money was taken. The answer was, "From the young agricultural workmen. Squires didn't come, farmers didn't come—all too poor; but the young farm lads and lasses seemed to have gold in their purses and not to mind spending it."
Very glad to hear it I was, only I regretted that it was one class only that was well off and not the other two.
Now let us see whether my experience of the wages and housing of the labourers agrees with Professor Fawcett's picture. Here, where I live—and it was the same when I was in other parts of England (before the depression there)—the wages of the labourer was fourteen to fifteen shillings a week. For a comfortable cottage with over half an acre of garden he pays from £4 to £6 per annum, hardly sufficient to pay for keeping the cottage in repair, consequently it may be said that he has garden and half the house rent given to him. The garden is worth to him from £4 to £6 per annum. Consequently his receipts per annum may be reckoned at £42 or £48. He has to pay out of this into his club. He has nothing to pay in rates or taxes, or for his children's education; and if he has children, every son, on leaving school, till he marries brings in to him say 6s. to 12s. per week for his board, and his daughters go out into service and earn from £10 to £20 per annum as wages, and ought to remit some of this to their parents.
I am convinced that there is many a peasant proprietor abroad who would jump at the offer to be an English farm labourer.
I have spent ten years in collecting the folk songs of the West of England, and I have not come across one in which the agricultural labourer grrumbles at his lot. On the contrary, their songs, the very outpouring of their hearts, are full of joy and happiness. Once, indeed, an old minstrel did say to me, "Did y' ever hear, sir, 'The Lament of the Poor Man?'"
I pricked up my ears. Now at last I was about to hear some socialistic sentiment, some cry of anguish of the oppressed peasant. "No," I answered, "never—sing it me."
And then I heard it. The lament of a man afflicted with a scolding wife. That alone made him poor, and that affliction is not confined to the dweller in the cottage.
Here and there we do come on miserable cottages—a disgrace to the land. But to whom do they belong? They have been erected on lives, or by squatters, and the landlords have no power over them. I know a certain village which is nearly all ruinous; but there all the ruinous cottages are held on lives. It is quite true that the landowner can force the holder of the tenure to put it in repair, but he is reluctant to put on the screw of the law, and he argues, "The houses were built to last three lives—no more. When they fall in to me, they will fall in altogether, and I will build decent, solid cottages in their place."
Over the squatter's cottage he has no control whatever.
Listen to the note of the agricultural, down-trodden labourer, his wail of anguish under the heel of the squire and farmer.
When the day's work is ended and over, he'll go
To fair or to market to buy him a bow,
And whistle as he walks, O! and shrilly too will sing,
There's no life like the ploughboy's all in merry spring.
"Good luck to the ploughboy, wherever he may be,
A fair pretty maiden he'll take on his knee,
He'll drink the nut-brown ale, and this song the lad will sing,
O the ploughboy is happier than the noble or the king."
This is sung from one end of England to another, and always to the same very rude melody in a Gregorian tone, that shows it has expressed the sentiments of the ploughboy for at least two hundred years.
"Prithee lend your jocund voices,
For to listen we're agreed;
Come sing of songs the choicest,
Of the life the ploughboys lead.
There are none that live so merry
As the ploughboy does in spring,
When he hears the sweet birds whistle
And the nightingales to sing.
"In the heat of the daytime
It's little we can do,
We will lie beside our oxen
For an hour, or for two.
On the banks of sweet violets
I'll take my noontide rest,
And it's I can kiss a pretty girl
As hearty as the best.
"O, the farmer must have seed, sirs,
Or I swear he cannot sow,
And the miller with his millwheel
Is an idle man also.
And the huntsman gives up hunting,
And the tradesman stands aside,
And the poor man bread is wanting,
So 'tis we for all provide."
That last verse is delicious. It lets us into the very innermost heart of the ploughman. He knows his own value—God bless him. And so do we.
There is one great advantage in our English system, that, not being bound to the soil, the poor workman can go wherever there is a demand for him. And this is one reason why we have so many examples of a young fellow who rises high up in the social scale, and from being a poor lad springs to be a rich man.
In another chapter I shall have something to say of the parish ne'er-do-weel. But if every parish has one of these latter, there is hardly one that cannot show his contrary. And now for a true story of one of these latter.
There is no country in the world, America possibly excepted, where greater facilities are afforded for a youth of energy and intelligence to make his way. But there is something more that gives a lad now a chance of rising, something far less generally diffused than intelligence and less conspicuous than energy, which is in immense demand, and at a premium and that is honesty. In ancient Greece the churlish philosopher is said to have lit a lamp and gone about the streets by day looking for an honest man. It is, perhaps, the failing of advanced and widespread culture that it encourages mental at the expense of moral progress; nay, further, that with the development of mental advance there is moral retrogression. Every man is now in such a hurry to make himself comfortable that he loses all scruple as to the way in which he sets about it, and so misses the one way paramount over all others, that of common honesty.
This lack of integrity is the thing that all employers complain of. They can no longer repose trust in their workmen, in their clerks—all have to be watched. There is no question as to their abilities, only as to their honesty.
This leads me to tell the story—which is true—of a young man with whose career I am well acquainted, from childhood till he was prematurely cut off whilst in the ripeness of his powers, trusted, esteemed, and loved by all with whom he was brought in contact. He began life with little to favour him. His father was a quarryman who was killed by a fall of rock, and his mother died not long after, never having recovered from the shock of the loss of a dearly loved young husband. So the orphan boy was left to be brought up by his grandmother, a widow, who went out charing for her maintenance, and who received eighteen pence and a loaf per week from the parish, and who is alive to this day.
The lad grew up lanky, and looked insufficiently fed. The squire of the parish took him early into his service to clean boots and run errands at sixpence a day, and after a while, as the fellow proved trusty, advanced him to be a butler boy in the house, in livery, to clean knives and attend the door.
Trusty and good the lad remained in this condition also, but it was not congenial to him. One day the housemaid told the mistress, with a laugh, "Please, ma'am, what do you think? Every now and then I've found bits of wood laid one across another under Richard's bed. I couldn't make out what it meant, at last I've found out. He's made an arrangement with the gardener on certain mornings to be up very early before his regular work begins, that he may go round the greenhouses with him and help him there, and a bit in the gardens. Richard won't be a minute late for his work in the house, but he do so dearly love to be in the garden that he'll get up at four o'clock to go there, and as he's a heavy sleeper, he has the notion that if he makes a little cross under his bed by putting one stick across another, and says over it, 'I want to be waked at four o'clock,' then sure enough at that hour he will rise."
When his master and mistress knew the lad's taste, and heard from him how much happier he would be in the gardens than in the house, they put him with the gardener, and he laid aside his livery never to resume it.
In the gardens he remained for a good many years, always the same, reliable in every particular, and then an uneasiness became manifest in him. When he met his master he was embarrassed, as though he had something on his mind that he wished to say, and yet shrank from saying. Then the squire received a hint that Richard wished to "have a tell" with him in private, and he made occasion for this, and opened the way. The young man still had difficulties in bringing out what was in his heart, but at last it came forth. He thought he had learned all that could be learned from the head gardener; indeed, in several points, aided by books, the underling believed he knew more than his superior, who, however, was too conservative in his habits to yield his opinions and change his practice. Richard wished to better himself. It was not increase of wage that he desired, but opportunities of advance in knowledge. He had hesitated for long, because he knew that he owed so much to his master, who had been kind to him, and thought for him for many years. For this reason he did not wish to inconvenience him, yet he believed there were many other lads in the village capable of filling his place, and the desire in him to progress in his knowledge of flowers and fruit had become almost irresistible.
When the squire heard this, he smiled. "Richard," he said, "I have been thinking the same thing. I saw you were being held back, and that is what ought not to be done with any young mind. I have already written about you to Mr. Kewe, the great nurseryman, and if he values my opinion at all and consults his own interest, by the end of the week there will be a letter from him to engage you."
Mr. Kewe did consult his own interest, and secured this young man. Then, when Richard came to take his leave, and thank his master again for his help, with heightened colour he said, "I think, sir, I ought to add that you have made two young people happy."
"Yes, sir. There's Mary Kelloway; she has been brought up next door to grandmother and me, and somehow we have always thought of each other as like to be made one some day, and now that I see that I am going ahead in my profession, both Mary and I fancy the day isn't so terribly far off."
"Mary Kelloway!" exclaimed the squire, and did not at once congratulate the young man.
"Yes, sir, there is not a better girl in the place."
"I am quite aware of that, Richard, but you know——"
"Yes, sir, I know that her father and brother died of decline, and that she is delicate herself; but, sir, her mother's very poor, and more's the reason I should marry her, for then she can have strengthening things other than Mrs. Kelloway can afford to give her."
"I am a little afraid, Dick, she will not make a strong or useful wife, though that she is as good as gold I do not doubt for an instant."
"More's the reason why I should work hard with both arms and head," answered the young gardener, "and that, sir, is one reason why I have been so set on getting forward in my profession."
Richard was for a few years with the great nursery gardener, Mr. Kewe, who speedily found that nothing advanced in his favour by the squire, his good customer, was unfounded. He entrusted more and more to Richard, and the latter rapidly acquired knowledge and experience.
Occasionally, when he was allowed a day off, he would run to his native village and see his grandmother, and, naturally, Mary Kelloway. But such holidays could not be frequently accorded, for his master knew he could trust Richard, and was doubtful whom else in his gardens he could trust, and plants require the most careful watching and tending. One day's neglect in watering, one night's frost unforeseen, may ruin hundreds of pounds' worth of goods. The thrip, the mealy bug, the scale, are enemies to be grappled with and fought with incessant vigilance, and the green fly with its legions coming none know whence, appearing at all seasons, must be combated with smoke and Gishurst's compound without intermission.
One day, about noon, or a little after, a stranger came into the nursery gardens, and entering one of the conservatories where was Richard, asked if he could see Mr. Kewe.
"The master," answered the young man, "is just now at his dinner. If it be particularly desired I could run to his house."
"By no means," interrupted the visitor. "I should like to have a walk round the grounds and through the houses, and I daresay you will be good enough to accompany me. I have an hour at my disposal, and I would rather spend it here than anywhere else. I will await the arrival of Mr. Kewe."
Accordingly Richard accompanied the visitor about the nursery, and told him the names of the plants, putting aside such as the stranger ordered or selected.
"I don't know how it is," said the latter, pointing with his stick to a row of flourishing rhododendrons, "but you and all my friends grow these to perfection, whilst there is a fatality with mine; they won't flower, or if they do, they throw out sickly bloom, and the plants continually die and have to be removed."
"It depends on the soil, sir. What is your soil?"
"I don't know. Most things do well. We are on chalk."
"That is it, sir. The rhododendron has an aversion to lime in any form. A man will not thrive on hay, nor a horse on mutton chops. Each plant has its own proper soil in which it thrives. Give it other soil and it languishes and dies. Excuse me, sir, for a moment."
Richard ran to a boy who was lifting and removing a young thuja.
"Look here," he said. "My boy, when you take a baby from one room to another you do not carry it by the hair of its little head, do you? No, you put your arm under it and bear it easily—thus. You are transplanting that tree in altogether a wrong manner. You hold it—suspend it by the delicate twigs and leafage, and leave the root unsupported, dropping the soil and exposing every fibre. Treat a plant with as much consideration and tenderness as a baby, and it will thank you."
At that moment Mr. Kewe appeared, and Richard with a bow withdrew, but not before he had heard the nurseryman address the visitor as "My lord."
When Richard had gone out of earshot, the visitor, who was Lord St. Ledger, said to Mr. Kewe, "I have come here to ask you to help me. I have lost my good old head gardener. Poor fellow, he has had brain fever, and is quite beyond managing the gardens again. His head and memory are affected, and his nervous irritability make him unable to carry on smoothly with the others. I have pensioned him, and now I want another, and that speedily. I have no under gardener fit to advance into his room."
"You want an elderly man, my lord?"
"I want a good man, and an honest one, and one who understands the business. You know my gardens, hot-houses, and conservatories."
"If he had only been a little older——" began the nurseryman.
"Oh, I am not particular as to age."
"I was merely considering, my lord that man who has been round the gardens with you——"
"Would suit me exactly," interrupted Lord St. Ledger. "I took a fancy to him at once. He loves plants. He looks full of intelligence and honesty."
"Honesty! Honest as the day. And as for intelligence, there is no lack of that. Experience may be wanting."
"I'll take him," said Lord St. Ledger. "I took stock of the fellow whilst he was going round with me."
"I am sorry to part with him," said the nurseryman, "and yet I should be more sorry to stand in the way of Richard's advancement."
No sooner had the young man news of his engagement, and that he had to look to a comfortable cottage, a good income, and employment in which he was sure he could be happy and give satisfaction to his employers, than he hastened to his native place, which he had been unable to revisit for six months.
He was full of hope, full of joy, but on his arrival his joy was somewhat dashed and his hope clouded. He found that his Mary, whom he had loved since boyhood, was manifestly in a decline. Hoping against hope, snatching at every encouraging symptom, she had not forewarned him, and he saw on his arrival that already she was deathstruck.
Her delicate complexion was delicate to the utmost refinement; her beautiful soft eyes were larger than they had ever seemed, even in childhood; her lovely face was lovelier than ever, with an angelic purity and beauty.
Then she told him the truth; but, indeed, he saw it for himself.
"Mary, dearest," said he, "if there is a little bit of life left only to you, let it be to me also."
"Dick, I can but be a burden."
"That—never—a joy as long as you are with me. Give me the one thing I have thought of, worked for, if it be but for a year or two."
"A year or two! Oh, Dick, only perhaps a month."
"Then let this month be our honeymoon."
And so it was.
The faithful fellow, true to everyone with whom he was brought in contact, was true to his dying love. She came, ghostlike, to church, and I shall never forget the pathos, the tenderness, the sincerity with which each took the irrevocable vows which bound in one the ebbing scrap of one life with the flowing vigour of the other.
Richard moved his frail, fading Mary to the pretty gardener's cottage at Lord St. Ledger's. There she ebbed away, happy, peaceful, with the love and devotion of her husband surrounding her.
The story of his marriage reached the ears of the ladies of the castle, and hardly a day passed without some of them coming to see her, and Lord St. Ledger gave orders that fruit and flowers were to be hers as she craved for them.
Just a month after the marriage her coffin was brought back to her native village and laid in a grave in a sunny part of the yard.
"Make a double grave," said Richard to the sexton. A double grave was made.
When the funeral was over, his old master, the squire, went to him, took his arm, and said, "Oh, Richard, you have had a terrible loss."
"I have had a great gain, sir."
"Yes, sir. I could never have been happy had she not been mine. But she became mine, and she is mine—for ever."
He returned to his duties.
I have not quite done the story of Richard. For years there worked in Lord St. Ledger's woods a man, somewhat rough in manners, slow, but diligent. Only after many years was the truth known that he was Richard's elder brother. Richard had been advanced from gardener to steward of the St. Ledger estates. Faithful in his garden, he was faithful in his management of the property, and he appointed as woodman one of the same surname. It was not on account of any personal pride in Richard that the relationship was kept a secret; it was at the express wish of his brother John.
"Look y' here," said John. "You're a gen'leman, Dick, in broadcloth and silk 'at. I'm but a poor rummagy labourin' man. Now if you favours me anyway, and my lord puts me up a bit, folk'll say, 'Oh, it's all becos he's Mr. Richard's brother.' So I reckon 't will be best to keep that quiet, and then you can give me a leg up as I desarves it."
And John, partly by his brother's favour, mainly by his own good conduct, was advanced, but the relationship was not discovered till one day Richard was dead. He had caught a chill that settled on his chest, and hurried him off at the age of forty-five.
Then John Noble stood forward, and when Lord St. Ledger said something about Richard being laid in the churchyard of St. Ledger, then John said, "Please, my lord, no. I'm Richard's own brother, and I knowed his heart's wishes, as was told to none other. He sent for me when he was a dyin', and sez he to me, 'I've got a double grave made at the dear old home, in the churchyard, and Mary she be there, and there lay me by her. Us was together only one month, but now us shall be together world wi'out end, Amen.'"