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Barrow the Repellant

Barrow the Repellant


FOUR miles away from Hull, by a slanting course across the Humber, is the village of New Holland: which preserves in its name its tradition that old-time Dutchmen—fishers and traders—in some forgotten century were its founders.

Both name and tradition were spurs to my too mettlesome imagination—and off it went at a canter with the fancy that over there on the Lincolnshire shore I should find a proper little Dutch town: Rows of gabled squat Dutch houses; a Dutch little snug tavern where I could have bread and cheese and beer and smoke a comfortable pipe with the broad-beamed Dutch landlord; more broad-beamed Dutch—sailormen for the most part—loitering in the streets, and broader-beamed Dutch housewives leaning out over the half-doors of their little houses sociably, with all of whom (using the few Dutch words I happen to have in my possession) I could pass the time of day friendly; and out in the stream, lying at anchor, a fleet of lee-boarded bulgy-bowed schuyts—the whole being in accord with my composite memories of various Dutch villages on the shores of the Zuyder Zee.

So quaint an exotic being well worth seeing, away we went one morning in the ferry-boat to see it: very pleased with the notion of reaching a foreign country in twenty minutes at a cost of fourpence ha'penny; and cheerfully confident—as we are always at the outset of our expeditions—that pleasing adventures of one sort or another would attend our voyage. Later on, I must admit—as we found what the stars in their courses were doing with us—we came to have a pretty warm sympathy with Sisera.

Our landing was made (this was the first fly in our amber) at a very up-to-date railway pier—the train terminal of the Great Central's branch line to Hull—that extended far out from the low shore through the shallows; and as we walked landward we noted with some concern that—while on either side of the pier the anchorage for such vessels was excellent—not a schuyt anywhere was to be seen. We told each other, reassuringly, that the railway pier was a commendable innovation in the interest of practical convenience; and we accounted buoyantly for the lack of schuyts by the rational explanation that they had taken advantage of the good weather for fishing and had gone away to sea. But when we were come to the pier-head, and were face to face with the Yarborough, we could but shake our heads at each other pretty dismally and admit that things seemed to be in the way to go badly wrong!

Probably the Yarborough is as good a hotel, of its calibre and range, as is to be found within the three kingdoms; but it has such a tripper look about it, and yet such an inappropriate air—for a tripper hotel—of desolate loneliness, that it wholly puzzled us: until we accounted for its present situation by assuming that it had been washed away—during a gale of exceptional severity—from South End or Margate; had been blown up the coast and into the Humber; and eventually had been stranded where we found it by an even higher than Miss Ingelow's Lincolnshire high tide.

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This strayed revelling-place was an unpromising outpost to the Dutch antique village that we had come in quest of; and all of its unpromise was realized—when we had passed it, and had walked on for a while gloomily—by the smug street or two of very new squat little brick houses, all alike and all aggressively dull-looking, which made up the village that we found. The one odd, and therefore interesting, note about the place was that the whole body of its inhabitants seemed to have gone into hiding. Save a lost-looking dog, and a melancholy grocer brooding in a very small grocery, no living creatures were visible. The squat little houses had the air of being dwelt in—their suburban trimness and trigness was one of our objections to them—but their dwellers lay so close that a Mexican town at midday never was more desert nor more still. Even when we fell back on the hypothesis that all the townsfolk had gone to sea in all the schuyts—and bolstered up this proposition with the incontestable fact that all the schuyts were missing—we did but resolve the mystery of this abandoned town into the larger mystery of its abandonment.

Not did any view of the situation modify its remnant essence: which was—to our utter discomfiture as explorers—that New Holland failed to exhibit even a rudimentary trace of its Dutch origin, and in every particular was as uninterestingly commonplace as it possibly could be!

I am never "for crying over spilt ideals. It is better to make new ones, and to take a fresh start. Wo had not found what we had come in search of—no more did Columbus—but it did not matter much. We were explorers for the game, not for the stakes—and any queer finding would serve our turn. Open to our adventuring lay the whole of what Baedeker—with a made-in-Germany spitefulness— calls "the flat and featureless county of Lincoln"; and directly before us was a most characteristic featureful bit of it: fading away to a far horizon of hazy hills, a great plain cut by hedge-bordered roads and hedge-bordered wide ditches—"drains," they are called locally—with patches of woodland and little wooded knolls breaking the wide level of it; and, above the treetops on one of the knolls, a church tower rising sharp against the sky.

It was the church tower that settled the direction of our travels. Where there was a church, we reasoned inductively, there would be a village containing an inn containing a luncheon: which last content—by then we had got past noon-time—agreeably could be transferred to ourselves. The tower did not look to be more than a couple of miles away, and off we started for it—glad to leave our New Holland unrealized hopes behind us—along a Roman-like road: wide and straight, ditched on each side, and banked above the level of the billiard-board meadows across which it ran. The road did not lead directly to our objective point; and when we had fetched a compass and were come to Barrow—from the chemist we learned the name of that repellant village—we had walked a good three miles.

Barrow is a tangle of old little red brick houses bowered in trees grouped about and dominated by a very beautiful graystone church that dates—I infer from its blending of Decorated and Perpendicular—from the latter part of the fourteenth century; and standing apart stately from the rabble of small dwellings is a great rambling red brick white-moulded hip-roofed ivy-draped manor-house: the whole making a thoroughly typical English village, and equally making—I can rise above prejudice— a picturesque delight. Although we came to Barrow hungry, only to be thrust forth from it hungrier; although I believe that all of its inhabitants who are not Publicans (with the pleasing exception of the chemist) are Priests and Levites; and although I know certainly that (saving possibly the sick one) all of its publicans are sinners—I still will say handsomely for it that it is one of the most charming villages that ever I have seen. And I will add, in cold justice, that whited sepulchres may be referred to in equally handsome terms!

We were brought to a halt—hungrily eager though we were for our inn and our luncheon—before the chemist's window in the tiny High Street: as we found displayed there, all mixed up with the bottles, an array of Barrow photographs which did not class at all—the man behind the camera evidently having had original notions about how and at what to point it—with the ordinary "local views."

At times I have had dealings with a camera myself, and I know the innate perversity of that objectionable instrument. In these pictures were delightful clouds and far-extending clear backgrounds—of a sort that I frequently have tried to get, under seemingly favorable conditions, and uniformly haven't. Moreover, the subjects were chosen as a painter would have chosen them—always with a nice feeling for mass and for composition and for light-and-shade. The best of the lot—technically because of the skill required to capture an effect so illusive, and artistically because of the beauty of it—was a late twilight view of a sedge-bordered stream soft flowing through meadows toward a dying sunset: a picture filled with the poetic feeling of the Fen Country at dusk. Altogether, we were charmed.

It was the chemist himself who had made these photographs we discovered—when we had entered his shop from the front, and the bell over the door had jingled him into it from the rear—and he turned out to be, while by vocation an apothecary, an artist who felt for his avocation of photography a genuine love. Our obviously sincere interest in his work, and especially our recognition of the artistic quality of it, brought us to friendly terms with him quickly—and presently we all were chatting away together as cordially and as sociably as though our acquaintance had been not a matter of minutes but of years. Had our hunger been less urgent we should have had a still longer session with that unusual chemist; but our need for food did not suffer us to linger in his agreeable company—and off we went to get our belated luncheon, in accordance with his advice, at the Six Bells.

It is an enticing name for a public-house, Six Bells: meaning seven o'clock in the evening—and so suggesting the restful after-supper time when work for the day is all over and done with, and bed-time waiting at the end of it, and no need to keep strictly sober because your wife can be counted upon—even though she may not be exactly pleasant about it—to come for you and fetch you safe home. For myself, to be sure, I had no intention of going adrift down the broad way leading to beery perdition; but the name of the place did have a charm for me, in that it gave promise of friendly hospitality: and I had a heartening vision of a clean-spread table with a big cold joint and pickles and cheese and bread and butter on it, and likely a tart to end off with; and of a smiling plump landlady bringing me all the pewter pint pots I wanted abrim with well-brewed ale! But over the Six Bells was hanging heavily a cloud of trouble that we had to take a share of. While, doubtless, all of those elements of a good country luncheon did lurk in the larder and in the cellar of it, they were not for us that day.

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When we were come to the little inn—a trig and tidy place, that we liked the looks of—there was about it an odd air of forsakenness; and in the atmosphere of the bar parlor—to which we penetrated without sight of a living human—was a boding gloom. Evidently, there was something all wrong about the place; and presently, from a harried and hurried woman whom we caught on the wing scurrying along an inner passage—her black hair disordered, and her black eyes having a scared look in them—we found out what it was. In a breaking voice she told us, briefly, that the landlord of the Six Bells was ill, very ill; that everything was upset and in confusion; that food could not be given to anybody—no, not even to the King! Then she was for hurrying on again: but paused for a moment—good-heartedly caring for our small trouble in the thick of her own great one—to advise us to try the Red Lion; and to add that—if that rubescent beast failed us—the grocer on the High Street, "who sometimes fed trippers," might serve our turn.

Being human institutions, inns must take their share, of course, of human sorrows and anxieties; and in such seasons of misfortune must be permitted to subdue their public duties to their private pains. It was our bad luck that had made us bring our hunger to the Six Bells at that calamitous moment: and the only course open to us was to take it away again—and on to the Red Lion, in accordance with that kind poor woman's direction—with no more delay than was needed for the saying of a word or two of sympathy and thanks.

As amateur antiquarians, we were disposed to take kindly to the Red Lion. It was a little old ale-house, not an inn; and of a type that nowadays is found only in out-of-the-way nooks and corners of the land. Filling more than half the width of one side of the low-ceiled tap-room was a great pent-hooded open fireplace; and before it, set squarely, were fixed old-fashioned high-backed settles—making a draught-defying warm quadrangle to sit in before the blazing fire cozily through long winter evenings of biting cold. For a century or two, no doubt, the humbler class of Barrow folk very comfortably has nooked itself of such bitter nights on those old settles before that old great fireplace; and has listened relishingly to the gusty outside wind a-blowing, and to the gusty roar of the big chimney, while smoking its pipes in warm ease there, and while pulling in warm contentment at its pots of poker-heated spiced ale. But the great fireplace is choked up with a cook-stove now; and, even were it stoveless, I have my doubts—and I have my reasons for them—if those hospitable traditions still survive.

An unfriendly-looking man was the only occupant of the tap-room when we entered it, and he listened to my request for luncheon in a distinctly unfriendly way. Without answering, he retired with a doubting slowness into the Red Lion's inner recesses—whence came for a while, faintly, a murmur of talk. At the end of it a woman, presumably the Red Lioness in person, appeared in the doorway and asked us what we wanted—she knew perfectly well what we wanted—in a voice that was hard and cold. While I told her—and I was very humble about it, and moderate in what I asked for, and doing my best to be ingratiating—she looked us over censoriously; and at the end of my appeal—having by that time reached her own disparaging conclusions—she said shortly that she had nothing to give us: and said it not as to one who with a purposeful ostentation was jingling shillings and half-crowns in his pockets, but as to a shillingless and half-crownless tramp!

As I have written, the Red Lion is an ale-house, not an inn, and so perhaps was warranted—now that the painful incident is closed, and I am cool again, I wish to be fair to it—in denying food to chance wayfarers coming (it was near two o'clock by that time) at somewhat unusual hours. But, I protest—wrath not being- the only thing that should be turned away by a soft answer—there was no need to make its denial so curtly crushing; so humiliatingly severe. Really, I never remember feeling quite so ignominiously small!

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P193, Harper's Magazine 1908--Barrow the repellant.png

Filled with a bitterness that made more poignant our otherwise emptiness, wo left the lair of that ungenerous animal and went onward—pretty dismally—to the grocer who sometimes fed trippers. Why—in view of our experience in tripping there—trippers ever should come to Barrow, I cannot imagine. Why—after being fed by the grocer—they never should trip back to it. I can imagine very easily indeed! All that he had to offer us was a dusty regale of soda biscuit—that even in our famishing we rejected: aghast at the Sahara notion of eating such arid morsels away from even so small an oasis as ginger ale.

Being thus at the end of our rope, we went back to the chemist. He was not in the least responsible, of course, for the way that Barrow was starving us; but we ( hitched at him, despairingly, because in that small ocean of unfriendliness he was our one friendly straw.

We found him, as we were confident that we should find him, comfortingly sympathetic. He really seemed to be quite cut up by the way that the place was treating us; and I am sure would have tried to balance matters—had he happened to think of it—by offering us heartily from his own stock a picked-up luncheon of any pills that we fancied, along with a bottle of his best decoction of calisaya bark to wash it down. However, hospitality of that medicated nature did not occur to him; and all that he did offer us was the suggestion that we should take the omnibus that would start at three o'clock for New Holland—where, he assured us cheerfully, we could get at the Yarborough a very good luncheon indeed.

We did not share—our points of view were different—our chemist's cheerfulness. Cheer there was in the thought of getting to the Yarborough—toward which we were beginning to have a friendly feeling quite at odds with our earlier superciliousness—but not in his plan for getting us there: which involved our lingering for a long hungry hour in Barrow, with no better pastime than nursing our resentment of its cold-shouldering ways. Better, we decided, was the bad alternative of walking the three miles on our own empty stomachs—and so to the filling of them before the tarrying wheels of the omnibus began to turn. In all amity we bade farewell to our kindly chemist, but with finality: being well persuaded—as in regard to Saint Paul were them of Ephesus, but for other reasons—we should see his face no more. Then, down the High Street, we started on our breadless march.

"When the tale of bricks is doubled, Moses comes!" We had no more than got well out of Barrow, and shaken from off our feet the dust of it, when our luck turned. Our Moses was an elderly philanthropist wearing extensible purple spectacles—they hinged around the corners of his eyes, and gave him a totally misleading look of dark malevolence—who came up behind us driving an empty brake. With all the good-will in the world, after no more than a moment of parley, into his salving brake he welcomed us—and whisked us along in it so briskly that, just catching an outgoing boat, by three o'clock we were across the Humber, and in our own sitting-room at the Minerva, and listening with a great thankfulness to the jingling of plates and dishes on our luncheon tray on its way up-stairs!

Tuppence apiece was the price set by that true-hearted purple-spectacled brake-driver for his rescue of us from our raft of the Medusa—'tis no extravagance to draw the parallel—and he still may be formulating wondering theories to account for my largess of half a crown. And I, on my side, take shame to myself for my parsimony and regret that his reward was so mean.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.