Littell's Living Age/Volume 126/Issue 1626/The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
From The New Quarterly Review.
THE TOWN MOUSE AND THE COUNTRY MOUSE.
We have been instructed this year by an eloquent essay on the conditions of "Life at High Pressure;" and it seems to have been taken generally for granted that by "Life at High Pressure" is meant our own mode of existence in 1875, and by "Life at Low Pressure" that of our fathers and grandfathers, let us say in 1775, or 1800, or 1825. The difference, however, scarcely seems to be one of chronology so much as of geography; and the mistake reads like that of the hasty students who assume that the Stone Age came to an end all over the world before the Bronze and Iron Ages had commenced. There are many tribes of savages in the Stone Period now, and there are thousands of Englishmen, tens of thousands of Englishwomen, whose lives at this hour are passed, not merely at low pressure, but at a petite vitesse little beyond stoppage. Locality more than date determines the speed; and all that railways have really effected to make rural life trot faster is so much less than what they, and the telegraphs and penny-posts between them, have done to make town life gallop, that the difference of pace between the two is perhaps even more obvious than before, when the country walked and the town ambled. Formerly the squire (like Mr. Black's delightful King of Thule) always flattered himself, and complained to his wife and daughters that he "lived in a vortex," when he happened to see three strangers in a week, and had attended petty sessions and a board of poor-law-guardians. Now he can scarcely escape a sense (having very important moral consequences) that he lies stranded like an old boat just outside the current which is eddying fiercely a little distance away.
Whether it is best to live quickly or slowly; whether, after all, the "twenty years of Europe" are better than the "cycle of Cathay;" and what is to be said on behalf of each of the two modes of existence, supposing us to have the choice between them, seems to be a question not unworthy of a little consideration. It is quite possible that the common impulse to desire to be "in among the throngs of men," and to cram a month's series of ideas and sensations into a day, may be the truest guide to happiness; and indeed it is rather sorrowful to doubt that it should be so, considering how every successive census shows the growth of the urban over the rural populations, and how clearly the magnets of the great cities seem destined in future years to draw into them all the loose attractable human matter in each country. Nevertheless, it must be admitted to be also possible that, like the taste for tobacco or alcohol or opium, the taste for town life may be an appetite the indulgence of which is deleterious, and that our gains of enjoyment thereby obtained may be practically outbalanced by the loss of pleasures which slip away meanwhile unperceived. It would be satisfactory, once for all, to feel assured that in choosing either town or country life (when we have the choice), we not only follow immediate inclination, but make deliberate selection of what must necessarily be the higher and happier kind of life, on which we shall lookback, when the time comes for saying good-night, without the miserable regret that we have permitted the nobler duties and the sweeter joys to escape us, while we have spent our years in grasping at shadows and vanities. The dog with the bone in his mouth, who drops it to catch the bone in the water, is a terrible warning to all mankind. But which is the real bone, and which is only the reflection? The question is not easily answered.
Let us premise that it is of English country life and town life alone I mean to speak. Foreigners — Frenchmen, for example — who live in the country, seem always to do so under protest, and to wish to convey to the traveller that, like the patriarch, they are only strangers and sojourners in the rural districts, seeking a better country, even a Parisian. Molière's Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, who had been six weeks in the capital once in her life, and who indignantly asks her visitor, "Me prenez vous pour une provinciale, Madame?" is the type of them all. Of course, country life taken thus as a temporary and rather disgraceful banishment can never display its true features, or produce its proper quantum of enjoyment.
And again, among English forms of country life, it is life in bonâ fide rural districts which we must take for our type. All round London there now exists a sort of intellectual cordon, extending from twenty to thirty miles into Kent and Surrey, and about ten miles into Herts and Essex. Professor Nichols might have mapped it as he did our starry cluster, by jotting down every house on the boundary inhabited by politicians, literary men, and artists, and then running a line all round from one to another. Within this circumference (of course, extending year by year) the ideas, habits, and conversation of the inhabitants are purely Londonesque. The habitué of London dinner-parties finds himself perfectly at home at every table where he sits down, and may take it for granted that his hosts and their guests will all know the same familiar characters, the same anecdotes of the season, the books, the operas, the exhibitions; and much more than all this, will possess the indescribable easy Londonof lightly tripping over commonplace subjects, and seriously discussing only really interesting ones, which is the art of conversational perspective. Beyond the invisible mental London Wall which we have described, the wanderer seems suddenly to behold another intellectual realm. As the author of the "Night Thoughts" describes a rather more startling experience, he stands on the last battlement, which
Looks o'er the vale of non-existence
at the end of all things wherewith he is familiar. He has, in short, penetrated into the rural districts of the mind, where men's ideas have hedges and ditches as well as their fields.
And once again we must take English country life in its most elevated and perfect form — that of the hereditary landed gentry — to contrast it most advantageously with the life of towns. To understand and enjoy country life as it may be enjoyed, a man should not only live in one of those "stately homes of England," of which Mrs. Hemans was so enamoured, but be born and have spent his youth in such a house built by his fathers in long-past generations. A wealthy merchant or a great lawyer who buys in his declining years the country-seat of some fallen family, to enjoy therein the honourable fruits of his labours, may probably be a much more intelligent person than the neighbouring squire, whose acres have descended to him depuis que le monde est rnonde. But he can no more make himself into a country gentleman, and acquire the tastes and ideas of one, or learn to understand from the inside the loves and hates, pleasures and prejudices of squiredom, than he can acquire the dolce favella Toscana by buying himself a Florentine barony.
And, lastly, our typical country life must neither be that of people so great and wealthy as to be called frequently by political interests up to Parliament, and who possess two or more great estates (a man can no more have two homes than he can have two heads), nor yet that of people in embarrassed and narrow circumstances. The genuine squire is never rich in the sense in which great merchants and manufacturers are rich, for, however many acres he may possess, it is tolerably certain that the claims on them will be quite in proportion to their extent. There is, in fact, a kind of money which never comes out of land; a certain breadth of margin and freedom in the disposal of large sums quite unknown among the landed gentry. But if not possessed of a heavy balance at their bankers, the country family must at least have the wherewithal for the young men to shoot and hunt and fish, and for the girls to ride or amuse themselves with garden and pleasure-grounds according to taste. All these things being elements of the typical English country life must be assumed as at least attainable at will by our "Country Mouse" if he is not to be put altogether out of countenance by his brother of the town.
As for the "Town Mouse," he need not be rich, nor is it more than a trifling advantage to him (felt chiefly at the outset of his career), that his father or grandfather should have occupied the same social position as himself. All that is needed is that (in the case of a man) he should belong to a good club, and go out often to dinner; and, in the case of a lady, that she should have from one hundred to five hundred people on her visiting-list. Either of these fortunate persons may, without let or hindrance, experience pretty nearly all the intellectual and moral advantages and disadvantages of living in a town, provided their place of abode be London. Over every other city in the empire there steals some breath of country air, if it be small; or if it be large, its social character is so far modified by special commercial, industrial, or ecclesiastical conditions, that its influence cannot be held to be merely that of a town pur et simple; nor are the people who come out of it properly typically towny, but rather commercial-towny, manufacturing-towny, or cathedral-towny, as the case may be.
Turn we now from these preliminaries to the characteristics of the town life and the country life, each in its most perfect English form. Let us see first what is to be said for each, and then strike our balance. Very briefly we may dismiss the commonly recognized external features of both, and pass as rapidly as possible to the more subtle ones, which have scarcely perhaps been noted as carefully as their importance as items in the sum of happiness will warrant.
Town Mouse, loquitur.
"I confess I love London. It is a confession, of course, for everybody who lives in the country seems to think there is a particular virtue in doing so, resembling the cognate merit of early rising; and even that charming town poet, Mr. Locker, practically admits the same when he says : —
I hope I'm fond of much that's good,
As well as much that's gay;
I'd like the country if I could,
I like Hyde Park in May.
"The truth is that one wants to live, not to vegetate; to do as much good, either to ourselves or other people, as time permits; to receive and give impressions; to feel, to act, to be as much as possible in the few brief years of mortal existence; and this concentrated life can be lived in London and nowhere else. If a man have any ambition, here it may best be pursued. If he desire to contend for any truth or any justice, here is his proper battlefield. If he love pleasure, here are fifty enjoyments at his disposal for one which he can obtain in the country. The mere sense of forming part of this grand and complicated machine whereof four millions of men and women work the wheels, makes my pulse beat faster, and gives me a sense as if I were marching to the sound of trumpets. Then the finish and completeness of London life is delightful to the thoroughly civilized mind. It is only the half-reclaimed savage who is content with unpaved and unlighted roads, ill-trained servants, slovenly equipages, and badly-cooked, badly-attended dinners. Like my little nibbling prototyye who served his feast 'sur un tapis de Turquie,' I like everything, down to the little card on which my menu is written, to be perfect about me. The less I am reminded by disagreeable sensations of my animal part, the more room is left for the exercise of my higher intellectual functions. The ascetic who lives on locusts and wild honey, and catches the locusts, has, I am sure, far less leisure to think about better things than the alderman who sits down every day to ten courses, served by a well-trained staff of London servants. The sense of order, of ease, of dignity and courtesy, is continually fostered and flattered in the great imperial city, which, notwithstanding its petty faults of local government, is still the freest and noblest town the globe has ever borne. People talk of the 'freedom' of the country, and my quondam host, the Country Mouse, is perpetually boasting of his 'crust of bread and liberty.' But except the not very valuable license to wear rather shabby old clothes, I am at a loss to discover wherein the special freedom of rural life consists. You are certainly watched, and your actions, looks, and behaviour commented on fifty times more by your idle neighbours in the country, gasping for gossip, than by your busy neighbours in town, who never trouble themselves to turn their heads when you pass them in the street, or even find out your name, if you live next door. In the country, you have generally the option of going on either of three or four roads. In London you have the choice of as many thousand streets. In the country you may 'kill something' whenever you may take your walks abroad, if that special privilege of the British gentleman be dear to your soul, and you care to shoot, hunt, or fish. Or, if you are of the softer sex or sort, you may amuse yourself in your garden or shrubbery, play croquet, teach in the village school, or pay a visit to some country neighbour who will bore you to extinction. In London you have ten times as large a choice of occupations, and five hundred times as pleasant people to visit; seeing that in the country even clever men and women grow dull, and in town the most stupid get frotté with other people's ideas and humour.
"Again — and this is a most important consideration in favour of London — when a man has no particular bodily pain or mental affliction, and is not in want of money, the worst evil which he has to dread is ennui. To be bored is the 'one great grief of life' to people who have no other grief. But can there be any question whether ennui is better avoided in London or in the country? Even in the month of August, as somebody has remarked, 'when London is "empty," there are always more people in it than anywhere else;' and where there are people there must be the endless play of human interests and sympathies. Nay, for my part, I find a special gratification in the cordiality wherewith my acquaintances, left stranded like myself by chance in the dead season, hail me when we meet in Pall Mall like shipwrecked mariners on a rock; and in the respectful enthusiasm wherewith I am greeted in the half-deserted shops, where in July I made my modest purchases unnoticed and unknown. In the country, on the contrary, ennui stalks abroad all the year round, and the puerile ceremonies wherewith the ignorant natives strive to conjure away the demon — the dismal tea and croquet parties, the deplorable archery meetings, and above all, the really frightful antediluvian institution, called 'spending a day' — only place us more helplessly at his mercy. We conjugate the reflective verb 'to be bored,' in all moods and tenses: not in the light and airy way of townsfolk, when they trivially observe they were 'bored at such a party last night,' or decline to be 'bored by going to hear such a preacher on Sunday morning,' but sadly and in sober earnest, as men who recognize that boredom is a chronic disease from which they have no hope of permanent relief. There is, in short, the same difference between ennui in the country and ennui in town, as between thirst in the midst of Sahara, and thirst in one's own home, where one may ring the bell at any moment and call for soda-water."
So speaks the modern Town Mouse, describing the more superficial and obvious advantages of his abode over those of his friend in the country. And (equally on the surface of things) straightway replies —
"There is some sense in these boasts of my illustrious friend and guest, but against them I think I can produce equivalent reasons for preferring the country. In the first place, if he live faster I live longer; and I have better health than he all the time. My lungs are not clogged with smoke, my brain not addled by eternal hurry and interruption, my eyes not dimmed by fog and gaslight into premature blindness. While his limbs are stiffening year by year till he can only pace along his monotonous pavement, I retain till the verge of old age much of the agility and vigour wherewith I walked the moors and climbed the mountains in my youth. He is pleased at having twenty times as many sensations in a day as I; but if nineteen out of the twenty be jarring noises, noxious smells, plague, worry, and annoyance, I am quite content with my humbler share of experience. Even if his thick-coming sensations and ideas were all pleasant, I doubt if he ever have the leisure necessary to enjoy them. Very little would be gained by the most exquisite dinner ever cooked, and the finest wines ever bottled, if a man should be obliged to gobble them standing up, while his train, just ready to start, is whistling behind him. Londoners gulp their pleasures, we country folk sip such as come in our way; think of them a long time in advance with pleasant anticipation, and ruminate on them and talk them over for months afterwards. I submit that even a few choice gratifications thus carefully prized, add to a man's sense of happiness as much as double the number which are received when he is too weary to enjoy, or too hurried to recall them.
"Again, the permanent and indefeasible delights of the country seem somehow to be more indispensable to human beings than the high-strung exciting gratifications of the town. The proof of this fact is that while we can live at home all the year round, town mice, after eight or nine months' residence at longest, begin to hate their beloved city, and pine for the country. Even when they are in the full fling of the London season, it is instructive to notice the enthusiasm and sparkle wherewith thet discuss their projected tours a few weeks later among Swiss mountains, or up Norwegian fiords. Also it may be observed how of all the entertainments of the year the most popular are the flower-shows, and the afternoon garden-parties in certain private grounds. Even the wretched unmanly sport of Hurlingham has become fashionable, chiefly because it has brought men and women out of London for a day into the semblance of a country place. Had the gentlemen shot the poor pigeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields or Bloomsbury, the admiring spectators of their prowess would have been exceedingly few. Nay, it is enough to watch in any London drawing-room wherein may stand on one table a bouquet of the costliest hot-house flowers, and on the other a bowl of primroses in March, of hawthorn in May, and of purple heather in July, and see how every guest will sooner or later pay some little affectionate attention to the vase which brings the reminiscence of the fields, woods, and mountains, taking no notice at all of the gorgeous azaleas, and pelargoniums, and gardenias, and camellias in the rival nosegay. It is very well to boast of the 'perfection' and 'finish' of London life, but the 'perfection' fails to supply the first want of nature — fresh air — and the 'finish ' yet waits for a commencement in cheerful sunlight unobscured by smoke and fog, and a silence which shall not be marred all day and night by hideous, jarring, and distracting sounds. Who is there who would prefer to live in one of the Venetian palace chambers, gorgeously decorated and adorned with frescoes and marbles, and gilding and mirrors, but with a huge high wall, black, damp, and slimy, within two feet of the windows, shutting out the light of day and the air of heaven, rather than in a homely English drawing-room, furnished with nothing better than a few passable water-colour sketches and some chintz-covered chairs and sofas, but opening down wide on a sunny garden, with the acacia waving its blossoms over the emerald sward, and the children weaving daisy chains round the neck of the old colly, who lies beside them panting with the warmth of the weather and his own benevolence?
"Then as to the dulness of our country conversation, wherewith my distinguished friend the Town Mouse has rather impolitely taunted us. Is it because we take no particular interest in his gossip of the clubs that he thinks himself justified in pronouncing us stupid? Perhaps we also think him a trifle local (if we may not say provincial) in his choice of topics, and are of opinion that the harvest prospects of our country, and the relations of agricultural labour to capital, are subjects quite as worthy of attention as his petty and transitory cancans about articles in reviews, quarrels, scandals, and jests. East Indians returning to Europe after long absence are often amazed that nobody at home cares much to hear why Colonel Chutnee was sent from Curriepoor to Liverabad, or how it happened that Mrs. Cayenne broke off her engagement with old General Temperatesty. And in like manner perhaps a Londoner may be surprised without much reason that his intensely interesting 'latest intelligence' is rather thrown away upon us down in the shires. Let him enjoy a good fox-hunt in the morning, and then see if he does not like to talk it over after dinner! But the poor Town Mouse does not even know what that supreme rural pleasure may be, and all the charms and wonders of sport are a dead letter to him. Here at least is a point on which there can be no comparison between us, and till he can name some delight of the town equal to a walk over the moors in August, or the stubbles in September, or a good run with the hounds, I must be permitted to retain my preference for my 'hollow tree.'"
These, as we premised, are the obvious and salient advantages and disadvantages of town and country life respcclively observed and recognized by everybody who thinks on the subject. It is the purport of the present paper to pass beyond them to some of the more subtle and less noticed features of either mode of existence, and to attempt to strike some kind of balance of the results as regards individuals of different character and the same individual in youth and old age.
When we ask seriously the question which, of any two ways of spending our years, is the most conducive to happiness, we are apt to overlook the fact that it is not the one which supplies us with the most numerous isolated items of pleasure, but the one whose whole current tends to maintain in us the capacity for enjoyment at the highest pitch and for as long a time as possible. There is something exceedingly stupid in our common practice of paying superabundant attention to all the external factors of happiness down to the minutest rose-leaf which can be smoothed out for our ease, and all the time forgetting that there must always be an internal factor of delightability to produce the desired result; just as there must be an eye to see with, as well as candles to give light. The faculty of taking enjoyment, of finding sweetness in the rose, grandeur in the mountain, refreshment in food and rest, interest in books, and happiness in loving and being loved, is — as we must perceive the moment we consider it — indefinitely more precious than any gratiification which can be offered to the senses, the intellect, or the affections; even as eyesight is more valuable than the finest landscape, and the power of loving better than the homage of a world. Yet, as Shelley lamented —
Rarely, rarely comest thou,
Spirit of Delight;
and we allow it to remain absent from our souls, and grow accustomed to living without it, while all the time we are plodding on multiplying gratifications and stimulants, while the delicate and evanescent sense they are meant to please is becoming numb and dead. We often, indeed, make religio-philosophical remarks on the beautiful patience and cheerfulness of sufferers from agonizing disease, and we smile at the unfailing hilarity wherewith certain Mark Tapleys of our acquaintance sustain the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We quote, with high approval, the poet who sings that —
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
Nevertheless, the singular phenomenon of evident, unmistakable happiness enjoyed, in despite of circumstances, never seems to teach us how entirely secondary all objective circumstances needs must be to the subjective side of the question; and how much more rational it would be on our part to look first to securing for ourselves the longest and completest tenure of the internal elements of enjoyment, before we turn our attention to the attainment of those which are external.
The bearing of this remark on the present subject is, of course, obvious. Which mode of life is it, life in town or life in the country, wherein the springs of happiness are most likely to flow with perennial freshness, and wherein the spirit of delight will burn brightest and longest? To solve this problem we must turn over in our minds the various conditions of such a state of mind and spirits — the most generally recognized being bodily health.
There is not the smallest danger in these days that any inquirer, however careless, should overlook the vast importance of physical soundness to every desirable mental result. Indeed, quite on the contrary; we may rather expect shortly to find our teachers, like the people of Erewhon, treating disease as the only real delinquency in the world, and all crimes and vices as mere symptoms of disordered nerves or overloaded stomach: kleptomania, dipsomania, homicidal mania, or something equally pardonable on the part of automata like ourselves. Seriously speaking, a high state of health, such as the "Original" described himself as having attained, or even something a few degrees less perfect, is, undoubtedly, a potent factor in the sum of happiness, causing every separate sensation — sleeping, waking, eating, drinking, exercise, and rest — to be delightful; and the folly of people who seek for happiness, and yet barter away health for wealth or fame, or any other element thereof, is like that of a man who should sell gold for dross. Admitting this, it would seem to follow that life in the country, generally understood to be the most wholesome, must be the most conducive to the state of enjoyment. But there are two points not quite cleared up on the way to this conclusion. First, bodily health seems to be, to some people, anything but the blessing it ought to be, rendering them merely coarse and callous, untouched by those finer impulses and sentiments which pain has taught their feebler companions, and so shuting them out from many of the purest and most spiritual joys of humanity. Paley questioned whether the sum of happiness would not be increased to most of us by one hour of moderate pain in every twenty-four; and though few would directly ask for the increment of enjoyment so attained, there are perhaps still fewer who would desire to unlearn all the lessons they have been taught in the school of suffering, and find themselves with the gross, ox-like nature of many a farmer or publican, whose rubicund visage bears testimony to his vigorous appetite and to the small amount of pain, sorrow, or anxiety which his own or any body else's troubles have ever caused him. Taking it all in all, it seems doubtful then, whether the most invariably robust people are really much happier than those with more fluctuating health who have taken from the bitter cup the sweet drop which is always to be found by those who seek it at the bottom. For those unhappiest of all, whom disease has only rendered more selfish and self-centred and rebellious, there is of course no comparison possible.
And, secondly, is it thoroughly proved that country life is invariably healthier than the life of towns? The maladies arising from bad air, late hours, and that over-work and over-strain which is the modern black-death, are of course unknown in the calm-flowing existence of a rural squire and his family. But there are other diseases which come of monotonous repose, unvarying meals, and general tedium vitæ, quite as bad as the scourges of the town. Of all sources of ill-health, I am inclined to think lack of interest in life, and the constant society of dull and disheartening people, the very worst and most prolific. Undoubtedly it is so among the upper class of women, and the warnings of certain American physicians against the adoption by girls of any serious or earnest pursuit, seem painfully suggestive of a well-founded alarm, lest their own lists of hysterical and dyspeptic patients should show a lamentable falling-off under the new impetus given to women's work and study. In London, people have very much less leisure to think about their ailments, or allow the doctor's visits to become a permanent institution, as is so often the case in country houses. The result is that (whether or not statistics prove the existence of more sickness in town than in the country), at least we do not hear of eternally ailing people in London nearly so often as we do in the country neighbourhoods, where there are always to be found as stock subjects of local interest and sympathy old Mr. A.'s gout, and Lady B.'s liver-complaint; and those sad headaches which yet fortunately enable poor Mrs. C. to spend at least one day in the week in her darkened bedroom out of the reach of her lord's intolerable temper. Be it remarked also that the maladies which townsfolk mostly escape, namely, dyspepsia, hysteria, and neuralgia, are precisely those which exercise the most direct and fatal influence on human powers of enjoyment, whereas the ills to which flesh is heir in great cities — at least, among the upper and well-fed classes — are generally more remotely connected therewith.
But — pace the doctors and all their materialistic followers — I question very much whether bodily health, the mere absence of physical disease, be nearly as indispensable a condition of happiness, as certain peculiarities of the mental and moral constitution. The disposition to anxiety, for instance, which reduces many lives to a purgatory of incessant care — about money, about the opinion of society, or about the health and well-being of children — is certainly a worse drawback to peace and happiness than half the diseases in the registrar-general's list. This anxious temperament is commonly supposed to be fostered and excited in towns, and laid to sleep in the peaceful life of the country; and if it were certainly and invariably so, I think the balance of happiness between the two would well-nigh be settled by that fact alone. But again there is something to be said on the side of the town. An African traveller has described to me how, after months exposed to the interminable perils from man, and brute, and climate, he felt, after his first night on board a homeward-bound English ship, a reaction from the tension of anxiety, which revealed to himself the anguish he had been half-unconsciously enduring for many months. In like manner the city man or the statesman feels, when at last he takes his summer holiday, under what tremendous pressure of care he has been living during the past year, or session, in London; and he compares it, naturally enough, with the comparatively careless life of his friend, the country squire. But every one in London does not run a race for political victory or social success, and there are yet some sober old ways of business — both legal and mercantile — which do not involve the alternative of wealth or ruin every hour. For such people I apprehend London life is actually rather a cure for an anxious temperament than a provocative of care. There is no time for dwelling on topics of a painful sort, or raising spectres of possible evils ahead. Labours and pleasures, amusements and momentary worries, succeed each other so rapidly that the more serious anxieties receive less and less attention as the plot of London life thickens year by year. One nail drives out another, and we are now and then startled to remember that there has been really for days and months a reasonable fear of disaster hanging over us, to which we have somehow scarcely given a thought, while in the country it would have filled our whole horizon, and we should scarcely have forgotten it day or night.
And again, quite as important as bodily health and freedom from anxiety, is the possession of a certain child-like freshness of character; a simplicity which enables men and women, even in old age, to enjoy such innocent pleasures as come in their way without finding them pall, or despising them as not worth their acceptance. Great minds and men of genius seem generally specially gifted with this invaluable attribute of perennial youth; while little souls, full of their own petty importance and vanities, lose it before they are well out of the schoolroom. The late sculptor, John Gibson (whose works will be, perhaps, appreciated when all the monstrosities of modern English statuary are consigned to the lime-kiln), used to say in his old age that he wished he could live over again every day and hour of his past life precisely as he had spent it. Let the reader measure what this means in the mouth of a man of transparent veracity, and it will appear that the speaker must needs have carried on through his seventy years the freshness of heart of a boy, never wearied by his ardent pursuit of the beautiful, and supported by the consciousness that this pursuit was not wholly in vain. People who are always "looking for the next thing," taking each pleasure not as a pleasure in itself, but merely as a useful stepping-stone to something else, or as a subject to be talked of; people who are always climbing, like boys at a fair, up the slippery pole of ambition, cannot possibly know the meaning of such genuine and ever fresh enjoyment.
Is a man likely to grow more or less simple-hearted and single-minded in town or in the country? Alas! there can be little or no doubt that London life is a sad trial to all such simplicity; and that nothing is more difficult than to preserve, in its hot stifling atmosphere, the freshness and coolness of any flower of sentiment, or the glory of any noble unselfish enthusiasm. Social wear and tear, and the tone of easy-letting-down commonly adopted by men of the world towards any lofty aspiration, compels those who would fain cherish generous and conscientious motives to cloak them under the guise of a hobby or a whim, and before many years are over, the glow and bloom of almost every enthusiasm is rubbed off and spoiled. "The trail of ——," a certain weekly review, "is over them all."
But it is time to pass from the general subjective conditions of happiness common to us all, to those individual tastes and idiosyncrasies which are probably more often concerned in the preference of town or country life. We are all of us mingled of pretty nearly the same ingredients of character, but they are mixed in very different proportions in each man's brewing, and in determining the flavour of the compound everything depends on the element which happens to prevail. By some odd chance few of us, notwithstanding all our egotism and self-study, really know ourselves well enough to consciously recognize whether we are by nature gregarious or solitary, acted upon most readily by meteorological or by psychological influences; capable of living only on our affections, or requiring the exercise of our brains. We are always, for example, talking about the gloom or brightness of the weather, as if we were so many pimpernels, to whom the sun is everything, and a cloudy day or a sharp east wind the most pitiable calamity. The real truth is, that to ninety-nine rational English men and women out of a hundred, atmospheric conditions are altogether insignificant compared to social ones, and the spectacle of a single member of our family in the dumps, or even the suspicion that the servants are quarrelling in the kitchen, detracts more from our faculty of enjoyment than a fall of the barometer from very dry to stormy. In the same way we talk about people "loving the country" or "loving the town," just as if the character which fitted in and found its natural gratification in the one were qualified to enjoy quite equally the other.
Obviously in some of us the passion for nature and natural beauty is so predominant that if it be starved (as it must needs be in a great city) or only tantalized by the sight of pictures reminding us of woods, and hills, and fresh breezes when we are stifled and jostled in the crowded rooms of Burlington House, we miss so much out of life that nothing can make up for it, and no pleasures of the intellect in the company of clever people, or gratification of taste in the most luxurious home, is sufficient to banish the regret. A young branch swaying in the breeze of spring, and the song of the lark rising out of the thyme and the clover, are better than all the pictures, the concerts, the conversations which the town can offer. And just in the opposite way, there are others amongst us in whom the whole æsthetic element is subordinate to the social; and who long to take a part in the world's work, rather than to stand by and watch the grand panorama of summer and winter move before them while they remain passive. Is it not patently absurd to talk as if persons so differently constituted as these could find happiness — the one where his ingrained passion for nature is permanently denied its innocent and easy gratification — the other, where his no less deeply-rooted interest in the concerns of his kind is narrowed within the petty sphere of rural social life.
But let us now pass on, hoping that we have found the round man for the round hole, and the square man for the square one. What are the more hidden and recondite charms of the two modes of life, whose superficial characteristics the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse have rehearsed? What is the meaning in the first place of that taste for "Life at High Pressure," against which Mr. Greg cautions us, and Mr. Matthew Arnold inveighs? Why was it that the sage Dr. Johnson felt undoubtedly a twinge of the same unholy passion when he remarked to the faithful Boswell how delightful it was to drive fast in a post-chaise — in such a post-chaise, and over such roads as existed in his time? I apprehend that the love for rapid movement comes from the fact that it always conveys to us a sense of vivid volition, and effectually stirs both our pulses and our brains, causing us not only to seem to ourselves, but actually to become, more intelligent. At first the bustle and hurry of London life bewilder the visitor, and finding it impossible to think, move, and speak, as fast as is needful, he feels like a feeble old lady arm-in-arm with Jack in his seven-league boots. But after a little while he learns to step out mentally as rapidly as his neighbours, and thereby acquires the double satisfaction of the intrinsic pleasure of thinking quickly, and not dwelling on ideas till they become tedious, and the further sense of gratified vanity in being as clever as other people. This last is again a curious source of metropolitan satisfaction. It is all very well to boast of having "also dwelt in Arcadia." Such pastoral pride is humility beside the conceit of being a thorough-bred Londoner. There may live many men with souls so dead as never to themselves to have said — anything signifying peculiar appropriation of the soil of Scotland, or of any other "native land." But who has ever yet met a Cockney who was not from the bottom to the top of his soul proud of being a Londoner, and deeply convinced that he and his fellows can alone be counted as standing eminent "in the foremost files of time"? Of course whilst he is actually in London, he has no provocation to betray his self-satisfaction among people who can all make the same boast. But watch him the moment he passes into the country, the pains which he takes that the natives shall fully understand what manner of man — even a Londoner — they have the privilege of entertaining, and no doubt will remain as to how immensely superior he feels himself to be from those who habitually dwell "far from the madding crowd." If he wander into the remoter provinces, say of Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, there is always in his recognition of the hospitality shown to him, a tone like that of the shipwrecked apostle, "the barbarous people there showed us no small kindness;" and he manages to convey by looks, words, and manners, his astonishment at any vestiges of civilization he may meet on those distant shores, and his graceful forbearance in putting up with the delicious fresh fruit, cream, vegetables, and home-fed beef and mutton of his entertainers in lieu of the stale produce of the London shops. One such stranded Cockney I have known to remark that he "observed" that the eggs at N——, and at another country house where he occasionally visited, had in them a "peculiar milky substance," about whose merits he seemed doubtful; and another I have heard after landing at Holyhead on his return from Ireland, complacently comparing his watch (which had like himself faithfully kept London time during all his tour) with the clock in the station, and observing to his fellow passengers "that there was not a single clock right in Dublin; they were all twenty minutes too slow, and when he went to Galway he found them still worse."
Even if a man sincerely prefer country life and transfer his abode from London to the rural districts, he still retains a latent satisfaction at having lived once in the very centre of human interests, close to the throbbing heart of the world. The old squire who has been too gouty and too indolent to run up to town for twenty years, will still brighten up at the names of the familiar streets and play-houses, and will tell anecdotes whose chief interest seems to lie in the fact that he formerly lodged in Jermyn Street, or bought his seals at the corner of Waterloo Place, or had his hair cut in Bond Street, preparatory to going to Drury Lane.
As volunteers enjoy a field-day and all the manoeuvres and marches, so a Londoner experiences a dim sense of pleasure in forming part of the huge army of four million human beings who are forever moving hither and thither, and yet strangely bringing about not confusion but order. The Greek philosophers and statesmen who thought such a little tiny polis as Athens or Sparta (not an eighth part of one postal district of London) almost a miracle of divine order, would have fallen down and worshipped at the shrine of Gog and Magog for having provided that a whole nation should be fed, housed, clothed, washed, lighted, warmed, taught, and amused for years and generations in a single city eight miles long. It is impossible not to feel an ever fresh interest and even surprise in the solution of so marvellous a problem as the human ant-hill presents, and Londoners themselves, perhaps even more than their visitors, are wont to watch with pleasant wonder each occurrence which brings its magnitude to mind; the long quadruple train of splendid equipages filing through Hyde Park of a summer afternoon; the scene presented by the river at the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race; or the overwhelming spectacle of such crowds as greeted the queen and her son on Thanksgiving-day.
The facility wherewith a busy-minded person, possessed of moderate pecuniary resources, can carry out almost any object in London, is another great source of the pleasure of town life. At every corner a cab, a hansom, an omnibus, an underground station, or a penny steamboat, is ready to convey him rapidly and securely to any part of the vast area, or a post-pillar or post-office, or telegraph-office, to forward his letter or card or telegram. He has acquired the privileges of Briareus for doing the work of a hundred hands, while the scores of penny and halfpenny newspapers give him the benefit of the hundred eyes of Argus to see how to do it.
Not many people seem to notice wherein the last and greatest of London pleasures, that of London society, has its special attraction. It is contrasted with the very best society which the country can ever afford, by always offering the charm of the imprévu. There are always indefinite possibilities of the most delightful and interesting new acquaintances, or of the renewal of old friendships in London; whereas even in the most brilliant circles in the country, we are aware before we enter a house, that our host's choice of our fellow-guests must have lain within a very narrow and restricted circle, and that if a stranger should happily have fallen from the skies into the neighbourhood, his advent would have been proclaimed in our note of invitation. Now it is twice as piquant to meet an agreeable person unexpectedly than by formal rendezvous; and as for that large proportion of mankind who are not particularly agreeable, it is still more essential that they should be presented freshly to our acquaintance. Other things being equal, a Stranger Bore is never half so great a bore as a Familiar Bore, of whose boredom we have already had intimate painful experience. There yet hangs about the Stranger Bore somewhat of the mists of early day, and we are a little while in piercing them and thoroughly deciding that he is a bore and nothing better. Often, indeed, for the first hour, or two, of acquaintanceship he fails to reveal himself in his true colours, and makes remarks and tells anecdotes whose dulness we shall only thoroughly recognize when we have heard them repeated on twenty other occasions. With our own Familiar Bore no illusion is possible. The moment we see him enter the room, we know everything that is going to be said for the rest of the evening, and Hope itself escapes out of Pandora's box. Thus, even if there were proportionally as many bores in London as in the provinces, we should still, in town, enjoy a constant change of them, which would considerably lighten the burden. Of course, however, this is very far from being the case, and the stupid wives of clever men, and the dull husbands of clever wives, who alone smuggle into the inner coteries (few people having the effrontery to omit them in their invitations) are so far rubbed up and instructed in the best means of concealing their ignorance, silliness, or stupidity, that they are often quite harmless and inoffensive, and even qualified to shine with a mild reflected lustre in rural society in the autumn. Certain immutable laws made and provided by society against bores are brought sooner or later to their knowledge. They do not tell stories more than five minutes long in the narration, nor rehearse jokes till they fancy they can recall the point, nor entertain their friends by an abridgment of their own pedigree, or by a catalogue of the ages, names, heights, and attainments in the Latin grammar of their hopeful offspring. To all this sort of thing the miserable visitor in the country is liable to be subjected in every house whose threshold he may venture to cross; for even if his host and hostess be the most delightful people, they always have some old uncle or aunt, or privileged and pompous neighbour, with whom nobody has ever dared to interfere in his ruthless exercise of the power to bore, and who will fasten on a new-comer just as mosquitoes do on fresh arrivals at a seaport after having tormented all the old inhabitants.
And if London bores are as lions with drawn teeth and clipped claws, London pleasant people on the other hand are beyond any doubt the pleasantest in the world; more true and kind and less eaten up by vanity and egotism than Parisians, and twice as agile-minded as the very cleverest German. Again, a great delight of London is that wealth is of so much less social weight there than anywhere else. It is curious what false apprehensions are current on this subject, and how apt are country people to say that money is everything in town, whereas the exact converse of this proposition is nearer the truth. In a country neighbourhood the man who lives in the largest house, drives the handsomest horses, and gives the most luxurious entertainments, is allowed with little question to assume a prominent position, be he never so dull and never so vulgar; and though respect will still be paid to well-born and well-bred people of diminished or narrow fortune, their position as regards their nouveau-riche neighbours is every year less dignified or agreeable. Quite on the contrary in town; with no income beyond what is needful to subscribe to a club and wear a good coat, a man may take his place (hundreds do take their places) in the most delightful circles, welcomed by all for his own worth or agreeability, for the very simple and sufficient reason that people like his society and want nothing more. In a city where there are ten thousand people ready to give expensive dinners, it is not the possession of money enough to entertain guests which can by itself make the owner an important personage, or cause the world to overlook the fact that he is a snob; nor will the lack of wealth prevent those thousands who are on the lookout only for a pleasant and brilliant companion from cultivating one be he never so poor. The distinction between the rural and the urban way of viewing a new acquaintance as regards both birth and fortune is very curiously betrayed by the habit of townsfolk to ask simply "what a man may be?" (meaning, Is he a lawyer, a littérateur, a politician, a clergyman — above all, is he a pleasant fellow?); and that of country gentry invariably to inquire, "Who is he?" (meaning, Has he an estate, and is he related to the So-and-so's of such a place?) It is not a little amusing sometimes to witness the discomfiture of both parties when a bland old gentleman is introduced in London to some man of world-wide celebrity (whose antecedents none of the company have ever dreamed of investigating), and the squire courteously intimates, as the pleasantest thing he can think of to say, that he "used to meet often in the hunting-field a gentleman of that name who had a fine place in Cheshire;" or that "he remembers a man who must surely have been his father, a gentleman commoner of Christchurch."
For those men and women — numerous enough in these days — who hold rather pronounced opinions of the sort not relished in country circles, who are heretics regarding the religious or political creed of their relatives and neighbours, London offers the real Broad Sanctuary, where they may rest in peace, and be no more looked upon as black sheep, suspicious and uncomfortable characters, "unbelievers," or "radicals," as the case may be, the "gentleman who voted for Topsy Turvey at the last election," or "the lady who doesn't go to church on Sundays." In town not only will their errors be overlooked, but they will find scores of pleasant and reputable persons who share the worst of them and go a great deal further, and in whose society they will soon begin to feel themselves by comparison quite orthodox, and perhaps rather conservative characters.
And lastly, beside all the other advantages of London which I have recapitulated, there is one of which very little note is ever taken. If many sweet and beautiful pleasures are lost by living there, many sharp and weary pains also therein find a strange anodyne. There is no time to be very unhappy in London. Past griefs are buried away under the surface, since we may not show them to the unsympathizing eyes around; and present cares and sorrows are driven into dark corners of the mind by the crowd of busy every-day thoughts which inevitably take their place. A man may feel the heart-ache in the country, and wander mourning by the solitary shore, or amid the silent woods. But let him go out of doors, after receiving a piece of sad intelligence, into the busy London streets, and be obliged to pick his way amid the crowd, to pass by a score of brilliant shops, avoid being run over by an omnibus, give a penny to a street-sweeper, push through the children looking at Punch, close his ears to a German band, hail a hansom and drive to his office or his chambers, and at the end of the hour how many thoughts will he have given to his sorrow? Before it has had time to sink into his mind many days of similar fuss and business will have intervened; and by that time the edge of the grief will be dulled, and he will never experience it in its sharpness. Of the influence of this process, continually repeated, on the character, a good deal might be said; and there may be certainly room to doubt whether thus perpetually shirking air the more serious and solemn passages of life is conducive to the higher welfare. After we have suffered a good deal, and the readiness of youth to encounter every new experience and drink every cup to the dregs, has been exchanged for the dread of strong emotions and the weariness of grief which belong to later years, there is an immense temptation to spare our own hearts as much as we can: and London offers the very easiest way without any failure of kindness, duty, or decorum, to effect such an end. Nevertheless, the sacred faculties of sympathy and unselfish sorrow are not things to be lightly tampered with, an is to be feared that the consequences of any conscious evasion of their claims must always be followed by that terrible Nemesis, the hardening of our hearts and the disbelief in the sympathy of our neighbours. We have made love and friendship unreal to ourselves, and it becomes impossible to continue to believe they are real to other people. Yet, I think, if the shelter be not wilfully or intentionally sought, if it merely come in the natural course of things, that the business and variety of town life prevent us from dwelling on sorrows which cannot be lightened by our care, it seems a better alternative than the almost infinite durability and emphasis given to grief in the monotonous life of the country.
If these be the advantages of town life, however, there are to be set against them many and grievous drawbacks. First, as the Country Mouse justly urges, half those quickly-following sensations and ideas which constitute the highly-prized rapidity of London life are essentially disagreeable in themselves, and might be dispensed with to our much greater comfort. In the country, for example, out of fifty sights, forty-nine at least are of pretty or beautiful objects, even where there is no particular scenery to boast. Woods, gardens, rivers, country roads, cottages, waggons, ploughs, cattle, sheep, and over all always a broad expanse of the blessed sky, with the pomps of sunrises and sunsets, and moonlight nights and snow-clad winter days — these are things on which everywhere (save in the Black Country, which is not the country at all) the eye rests, and finds peace and delight. In the town, out of the same number of glances of our tired eyeballs, we shall probably behold a score of huge advertisements, a line of hideous houses with a butcher's shop as the most prominent object, an omnibus and a brewer's dray, a score of bricklayers returning slightly drunk from dinner, and a handsome carriage with the unfortunate horses champing their gag-bits in agony from their tight bearing-reins, while the coachman flicks them with his whip. In the country, again, out of fifty odours the great majority will be of fresh herbage, or hay, or potato or bean fields, or of newly-ploughed ground, or burning weeds or turf. In the town we shall endure the sickly smell of drains, of stale fish, of raw meat, of carts laden with bones and offal, the insufferable effluvium of the city cook-shops; and last — not least — pervading every street and shop and park, puffed eternally in our faces, the vilest tobacco. And finally, in the country, our ears are no less soothed and flattered than our senses of smelling and sight. The golden silence, when broken at all, is disturbed only by the noise of running waters, of cattle lowing, sheep bleating, thrushes and larks and cuckoos singing, rooks cawing on their return home at evening, or the exquisite "sough" of the night wind, as it passes over the sleeping woods as in a dream. In the town we have the relentless roar and grind of a thousand carts, cabs, drags, and omnibuses, the perpetual grinding of organs and hurdy-gurdies, the unintelligible and ear-piercing cries of the costermongers in the streets, and generally, to complete our misery, the jangle of a pianoforte heard through the thin walls of our house as if there were no partition between us and the detestable children who thump through their scales and polkas for six hours out of the twenty-four. Such are the gratifications of the senses in town, surely worth setting against the luxuries it is supposed to command, but which it only commands for the rich, whereas neither rich nor poor have any immunity from the ugly sights, ugly smells, and ugly noises wherewith it abounds. But beyond these mortifications of the flesh, London entails on its thoroughgoing votaries a heavier punishment. Sooner or later on every one who really works in London there comes a certain pain, half physical, half mental, which seems to have its bodily seat somewhere about the diaphragm, and its mental place between our feelings and our intellect — a sense, not of being tired and wanting rest, for that is a natural and wholesome alternative of all strong and sustained exercise of our faculties — but of being "like dumb driven cattle," and of having neither power to go on nor to stop. We seem to be under some slave-master who whips us here and there, and forbids us to sit down and take breath. We want fresh air; but our walks through the crowded streets or parks only add fatigue to our eyes and weariness and excitement to our brains. We need food, — but it does us no good; and sleep, — but we waken up before half the night is past, with our brains busy already with the anxieties of the morrow. We are conscious we are using up brains, eyesight, health, everything which makes life worth possessing, and yet we are entangled in such a mesh of engagements and duties, that we cannot in honour break loose. We can only break down, and that is what we pretty surely do when this state of things has lasted a little too long.
Perhaps the reader is inclined to say, Why not try the golden mean, the compromise between town and country, to be found in some rus in urbe in Fulham or Hampstead, or a viila a little way further at Richmond or Norwood or Wimbledon? I beg leave humbly to contend that the venerable Aristotelian meson, is as great a mistake in geography as in ethics, and that it will be generally found that people adopting the half-way house system of lodgment will be disposed to repeat the celebrated Scotch ode with slight variations. "Their heart is" in London; "their heart is not," by any means, in Hampstead or Twickenham. Their days are spent either in waiting at railway-stations to go in or out of town, or in the yet more tantalizing anticipation of friends who have promised to "give them a day," and for whom they have provided the modern substitute for the fatted calf, but who, on the particular morning of their engagement, are sure to be swept off their consciences by an unexpected ticket for the opera, which they "could not enjoy if they had gone so far in the morning as dear Mr. A.'s delightful villa." Of course, it is possible to live in the outer circle of real London, and have fresh air and comparative quiet, infinitely valuable. But he who goes further afield, the ambitious soul which dreams of cocks and hens, or even soars to a paddock and a cow, is destined to disillusion and despair. He tries to "make the best of both worlds," and he gets the worst of the two. The genuine Londoner considers his proffers of hospitality as an imposition, and the genuine country cousin is indignant, on accepting them, to find how far is his residence from the exhibitions and the shops. His trees are black, his roses cankered, and his soul embittered by the defalcations of friends, the blunders and extortions of cabmen, and his own infructuous effort to be always in two places at once.
Nor is the second and, apparently, more facile resource of the tired Londoner — that of quartering himself on his kind country friends for his holidays — very much more successful. The country would indeed be delightful for our Christmas fortnight, or our Easter or Whitsuntide week, if we were permitted to enjoy in it that repose we so urgently need and so fondly seek. We are quite enamoured, when we first turn our steps from the smoky city, with the trees and fields, and we enjoy indescribably our rides and drives and walks, and the aspects of nature, and the beasts and birds wherewith we are surrounded. But one thing we have not bargained for, and that is — country society. Of course we love our friends and relations in whose homes we are received with kindness and affection, whom we know to be the salt of the earth for goodness, and who love us enough to feel an interest even in our towniest gossip. But their country friends, the neighbouring gentlefolk, the clergyman's wife, the family doctor, the people who are invariably invited to meat us at the long formal country dinner! This is the trial beneath which our new-found love of rural life is apt to succumb. Sir Cornewall Lewis's too famous dictum returns, slightly modified, to our memories — as "life would be tolerable, but for its pleasures," so the country would be enchanting, were it not for its society. Could we be allowed to live in the country, and see only our hosts, we should be as happy as kings and queens. But to fly, for the sake of rest and quiet, from the tables where we might have met some of the most brilliant men and women of the day, and then to find that we shall incur the disgrace of being unsociable curmudgeons, if we object to spend the afternoon in playing croquet with the rector's stupid daughters, and to dine afterwards at the house of a particularly dull and vulgar neighbour, with whom we would fain avoid such acquaintance as may justify him in visiting us in town, this is surely an evil destiny! When, alas! will all the good and kind people who invite town friends to come and rest with them in the country forbear to make their acceptance the occasion for a round of rural dissipation, and believe that their weary friends would be only too glad, did civility permit, to inscribe on the doors of their bedroom during their sojourn, the affecting Italian epitaph, Implora pace!
The Country Mouse has naturally said as little as possible of the drawbacks of his favourite mode of existence — metaphorically speaking, the dampness of his "hollow tree," and its liability to be infested by owls. It may be well to jot off a few of the less-recognized offsets to the pleasures of rural life before listening to any eulogies thereof.
The real evil of country life I apprehend is this — the whole happiness or misery of it is so terribly dependent on the character of those with whom we live, that if we are not so fortunate as to have for our companions the best and dearest, wisest and pleasantest of men and women (in which case we may be far happier than in any other life in the world), we are infinitely worse off than we can ever be in town. One, two, or perhaps three, relatives and friends who form our permanent housemates, make or mar all our days by their good or evil tempers, their agree-ability or stupidity, their affection and confidence, or their dislike and jealousy. "Etre avec les gens qu'on aime cela suffit," says Rousseau, and he speaks truth. But "être avec les gens qu'on n'aime pas," and buried in a dull country house with them, without any prospect of change, is as bad as having a millstone tied round our necks and being drowned in the depth of the sea. In a town house, if the fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, scold and wrangle, if the husband be a bear, or the wife a shrew, there is always the refuge of the outer circle of acquaintances, wherein cheer and comfort, or, at least, variety and relief, may be found. Reversing the pious Dr. Watts' maxim, we cry: —
Whatever brawls disturb the home,
Let peace be in the street.
The club is the shelter of henpecked man; a friend's house or Marshall and Snelgrove's the refuge of cockpecked woman. On the stormiest domestic debate, the advent of a visitor intervenes, throwing temporary oil on the waters, and compelling the belligerents to put off their quarrels and put on their smiles; and when the unconscious peacemaker has departed, it is often found difficult, if not impossible, to take up the squabble just where it was left off. But there is no such luck for cross-grained people in country houses. Humboldt's "Cosmos" contains several references to certain observations made by two gentlemen who passed a winter together on the inhospitable northern shores of Asia, and one of name of Wrangle. It is difficult to imagine any trial more severe than that of spending the six dark months of the year with Wrangle on the Siberian coast of the Polar Sea; but this is a mere fancy sketch, whereas hundreds of unlucky English men and women spend their winters every year in country houses, limited, practically, to the society of a Mr., or a Mrs., Wrangle, who makes life a burden by everlasting fault-finding, squabbling, worry, suspicion, jar and jolt. As regards children or dependent people, or the wives of despotic husbands, the case is often worse than this. By a terrible law of our nature, an unkindness, harshness, or injustice done once to any one, has a frightful tendency to produce hatred of the victim — (I have elsewhere called the passion heteropathy) — and a restlessness to heap wrong on wrong, and accusation on accusation, to justify the first fault. Woe to the hapless step-child, or orphan nephew, or penniless cousin, or helpless and aged mother-in-law, who falls under this terrible destiny in a country house, where there are few eyes to witness the cruelty, and no tongue bold enough to denounce it! The misery endured by such beings, the poor young souls which wither under the blight of the perpetual unmerited blame, and the older sufferers mortified and humiliated in their age, must be quite indescribable. Perhaps by no human act can truer charity be done than by resolutely affording moral support, if we can do no more, to such butts and victims; and, if it be possible, to take them altogether away out of their ill-omened conditions, and "deliver him that is oppressed from the hand of the adversary." It is astonishing how much may be done by very humble spectators to put a check to evils like these, even by merely showing their own surprise and distress in witnessing them; and, on the contrary, how deplorably ready are nine people out of ten to fall in with the established prejudices and unkindnesses of every house they enter.
Very little of this kind of thing goes on in towns. People are too busy about their own affairs and pleasures, and their feelings of all kinds are too much diffused among the innumerable men and women with whom they come in contact, to permit of concentrated dislike settling down on any inmate of their homes in the thick cloud it is apt to do in the country.
Here we touch, indeed, on one great secret of the difference of town and country life. All sentiments, amiable and unamiable, are more or less dissipated in town, and concentrated and deepened in the country. Even a very trifling annoyance, an arrangement of hours of meals too late or too early for our health, a smoky chimney, a bad coachman, a door below stairs perpetually banged, assumes a degree of importance when multiplied by the infinite number of times we expect to endure it in the limitless monotony of country life. Our nerves become in advance irritated by all we expect to go through in the future, and the consequence is that a degree of heat enters into family disputes about such matters which greatly amazes the parties concerned to remember, when the wear and tear of travel and of town life have made the whole mode of existence in a country home seem a placid stream, with scarcely a pebble to stir a ripple.
And now, at last, let us begin to seek out wherein lie the more hidden delights of the country life; the violets under the hedge which sweeten all the air, but remain half-unobserved even by those who would fain gather up the flowers. We return in thought to one of those old homes, bosomed in its ancestral trees, and with the work-day world far enough away behind the park palings so that the sound of wheels is never heard, save when some friend approaches by the smooth-rolled avenue. What is the keynote of the life led by the men and women who have grown from childhood to manhood and womanhood in such a place, and then drop slowly down the long years which will lead them surely at last to that bed in the green churchyard close by, where they shall "sleep with their fathers"? That "note" seems to me to be a peculiar sense, exceeding that of mere calmness — of stability, of a repose of which neither beginning nor end are in sight. Instead of a "changeful world," this is to them a world where no change comes, or comes so slowly as to be imperceptible. Almost everything which the eye rests upon in such a home is already old, and will endure for years to come, probably long after its present occupants are under the sod. The house itself was built generations since, and its thick walls look as if they would defy the inroads of time. The rooms were furnished, one, perhaps, at the father's marriage; another, tradition tells, by a famous great-grandmother; the halls — no one remembers by whom or how long ago. The old trees bear on their boles the initials of many a name which has been inscribed long years also on the churchyard stones. The garden, with its luxuriant old-fashioned flowers, and clipped box borders, and quaint sun-dial, has been a garden so long that the rich soil bears blossoms with twice the perfume of other flowers; and as we pace along the broad terraced walks in the twilight, the odours of the well-remembered bushes of lavender, and jessamine, and cistus (each growing where it has stood since we were born), fall on our senses like the familiar note of some dear old tune. The very sounds of the landrail in the grass, the herons shrieking among their nests, the rooks darkening the evening sky, the cattle driven in to milking, and lowing as they go, all in some way suggest the sense, not of restlessness and turmoil, like the noises of the town, but of calm and repose and the unchanging order of the "abode of ancient Peace."
Then the habits of the owners of such old seats are sure to fall into a sort of rhythm. There are the lesser beats at intervals through the long day, when the early labourer's bell, and the gong at nine o'clock, and one o'clock and seven o'clock, sound the call to prayers and to meals. And there are the weekly beats, when Sunday makes the beautiful refrain of the psalm of life. And yet again, there are the half-yearly summer strophe and winter antistrophe of habits of each season, taken up and laid down with unfailing punctuality; while the family life oscillates like a pendulum between the first of May, which sees the domestic exodus into the fresh, vast old drawing-room, and the first of November, which brings the return into the warm oak-panelled library. To violate or alter these long-established rules and precedents scarcely enters into the head of any one, and the child hears the old servants (themselves the most dear and permanent institutions of all) speak of them almost as if they were so many laws of nature. Thus he finds life, from the very beginning, set for him to a kind of music, simple and beautiful in its way, and he learns to think that "Order is Heaven's first law," and that change will never come over the placid tenour of existence. The difficulty to him is to realize in after years that any vicissitudes have really taken place in the old home, that it has changed owners, or that the old order has given place to new. He almost feels, — thinking perhaps of his mother in her wonted seat, — that Shelley's dreamy philosophy must be true —
That garden sweet, that lady fair,
And all bright shapes and odours there,
In truth, have never passed away;
'Tis we, 'tis ours, have changed, not they.
The anticipation of perpetual variety and change which is the lesson commonly taught to children by town life, — the Micawber-like expectation of "something turning up," to amuse or distract them, and for which they are constantly in a waiting frame of mind, is precisely reversed for the little scion of the old county family. For him nothing is ever likely to turn up beyond the ordinary vicissitudes of fair weather and foul, the sickness of his pony, the death of his old dog, or the arrival of his new gun. All that is to be made out of life he invents for himself in his sports and his rambles, till the hour arrives when he is sent to school. And when the epochs of school and college are over, when he returns as heir or master, life lies all spread out before him in a long straight honourable road, all his duties and his pleasures lying by the wayside, ready for his acceptance. For the girl there is often even longer and more unbroken monotony, lasting (unless she marry) into early womanhood and beyond it. Nothing can exceed the eventlessness of many a young lady's life in such a home. Her walks to her village school, or to visit her cottage friends in their sicknesses and disasters; her rides and drives along the familiar roads which she has ridden and driven over five hundred times already; the rare arrival of a new book, or of some old friend (more often her parent's contemporary than her own) make up the sum of her excitements, or even expectations of excitement, perhaps, through all those years when youth is most eager for novelty, and the outer world seems an enchanted place. The effects on the character of this extreme regularity and monotony, this life at low pressure, vary, of course, in different individuals. Upon a dull mind without motu proprio, or spring of original ideas, it is, naturally, depressing enough, but it is far from equally injurious to those possessed of some force of character, provided they meet the affection and reasonable indulgence of liberty, without which the heart and intellect can no more develop healthfully than a babe can thrive without milk, or a child's limbs grow agile in swaddling-clothes. The young mind slowly working out its problems for itself, unwarped by the influence (so enormous in youth), of thoughtless companions, and devouring the great books of the world, ferreted out of a miscellaneous library by its own eager appetite and self-guided taste, is perhaps ripening in a healthier way than the best-taught town child, with endless "classes," and masters for every accomplishment under the sun. Even the imagination is better cultivated in loneliness, when the child, through its solitary rambles by wood and shore, spins its gossamer webs of fancy, and invents tales of heroism and wonder such as no melodrama or pantomime ever yet brought to the town child's exhausted brain. Then the affections of the country child are concentrated on their few objects with a passionate warmth of which the feelings of the town child, dissipated amid scores of friends and admirers, afford no measure whatever. The admiration amounting to worship paid by many a little lonely girl to some older woman who represents to her all of grace and goodness she has yet dreamed, and who descends every now and then from some far-off Elysium to be a guest in her home, is one of the least read and yet surely one of the prettiest chapters of innocent human sentiment. As to the graver and more durable affections nourished in the old home, the fond attachment of brothers and sisters; the reverence for the father, the love — purest and deepest of all earthly loves — of mother for child and child for mother, — there can be little doubt that their growth in the calm, sweet country life must be healthier and deeper-rooted than it can well be elsewhere.
And finally, almost certainly, such a peaceful and solitary youth soon enters the deeper waters of the moral and spiritual life, and breathes religious aspirations which have in them, in those early years, the freshness and the holiness of the morning. Happy and good must, indeed, be that later life from whose heights any man or woman can dare to look back on one of those lonely childhoods, without a covering of the face. Talk of hermitages or monasteries! The real nursery of religion is one of these old English homes, where every duty is natural, easy, beautiful; where the pleasures are so calm, so innocent, so interwoven with the duties that the one need scarcely be defined from the other; and where the spectacle of nature's loveliness is forever suggesting the thought of Him who built the blue dome of heaven, and scattered over all the ground His love-tokens of flowers. The happy child dwelling in such a home with a father and mother, who speak to it sometimes of God and the life to come, but do not attempt to intrude into that Holy of Holies, a young soul's love and penitence and resolution, is the place on earth, perhaps, best fitted to nourish the flame of religion. Of the cruelty and wickedness and meanness of the world the child hears only as she learns in her school-books of the wild beasts or poisonous reptiles who may roam or crawl in African deserts. They are too far off to force themselves on her attention as dreadful problems of the Sphinx to be solved on pain of moral death. Even of sickness, poverty, and death, she thinks oftenest as occasions for the kindly and helpful sympathy of her parents and guides.
To turn to lighter matters. Of course among the first recognized pleasures of the country is the constant intercourse with, or rather bathing in, nature. We are up to the lips in the ocean of fresh air, grass, and trees. It is not one beautiful object, or another, which attracts us (as sometimes happens in town), but, without being interrupted by thinking of them individually, they influence us en masse. Dame Nature has taken us on her lap, and soothes us with her own lullaby. Probably, on the whole, country folks admire each separate view and scrap of landscape less than their visitors from the town, and criticise it as little as schoolboys do their mother's dress. But they love nature as a whole, and her real influence appears in their genial characters, their healthy nervous systems, and their optimist opinions. Nor is it by any means only inanimate nature wherewith they are concerned. Not to speak of their poorer neighbours (of whom they know much more, and with whom they usually live in far more kindly relations than townsfolk with theirs), they have incessant concern with brutes and birds. How much, to some of us, the leisurely watching of stately cattle, gentle sheep, and playful lambs, the riding and driving of generous, kindly-natured horses, and the companionship of loving dogs, adds to the sum of the day's pleasures, and tunes the mind to its happiest keynote, it would be difficult to define. For my own part, I have never ceased to wonder how Christian divines have been able to picture heaven, and leave it wholly unpeopled by animals. Even for their own sakes (not to speak of justice to the oft ill-treated brutes), would they not have desired to give their humble companions some little corner in their boundless sky? A place with perpetual music going on, and not a single animal to caress — even those which Mahomet promised his followers, — his own camel, Balaam's ass, and Tobit's dog — would, I think, be a very incomplete and unpleasant paradise indeed!
It has often been said that the passion of Englishmen for field-sports is really due to this love of nature and of animals; that, like sheep-dogs (who, if they are not trained to guard sheep, will by an irresistible impulse follow and harry them), they feel compelled to have something to do with hares, and foxes, and partridges, and grouse, and salmon, and find that the only thing to be done is to course, and hunt, and shoot, and angle for them. Into this mystery I cannot dive. The propensity which can make a kind-hearted and merciful man (as most sportsmen are) not merely endure, but actually take pleasure in, killing innocent living things, and changing what is so beautiful in life and joy, into what is so ineffably sad and piteous wounded and dying, remains always to me utterly incomprehensible. But it is simply a fact that boys trained from boyhood to take pleasure in such "sports," and having, I doubt not, an "hereditary set of the brain" towards them, like so many greyhounds or pointers, never feel the ribrezzo or the remorse of the bird or beast murderer, but escaping all reflection, triumph in their own skill, and at the same time enjoy the woods, and fields, and river-sides where their quarry leads them. To do them justice, as against many efforts lately made to confound them with torturers of a very different class, they know very little what pain they inflict, and they endeavour eagerly to make that pain as brief as possible. Nevertheless, sport is as inexplicable a passion to the non-sporting mind to contemplate as for a deaf man to watch people dancing, bobbing up and down to music he does not hear.
A larger source of wonder is it to reflect that this same unaccountable passion for killing pheasants and pursuins: foxes has so deep a root in English life, that its arrest and disappointment by such a change of the game-laws as would lead to the abolition of game, would practically revolutionize all our manners. The attraction of the towns already preponderates over that of the country; but, as yet, the grouse have had the honour of proroguing annually the British Senate, and the partridges, the pheasants, the woodcocks, and the foxes, induce pretty nearly every man who can afford to shoot or hunt them, to bring his family to the country during the season wherein they are to be pursued. Of course women, left to themselves, would mostly choose to spend their winters in town, and their summers, from May till November, in the country. But the sport determines the session of Parliament, and the session determines the season; and as women love the London season quite as much as men like fox-hunting, both parties are equally bound to the same unfortunate division of time, and year after year passes, and the lilacs, and laburnums, and hawthorns, and limes in the old country homes waste their loveliness and their sweetness unseen, and the little children pine in Belgravian and South Kensington mansions, when they ought to be romping among their father's hay-fields, and galloping their ponies about his park. All these arrangements, and further, the vast establishments of horses and hounds, the enormous expenditure on guns, and gamekeepers and beaters, and game-preserving — the sole business of thousands of working-men, and the principal occupation and interest of half the gentlemen in the country — would be swept away by a stroke.
By some such change as this, or, more probably, by the pressure of a hundred sources of change, it is probable, nay, it is certain, that the old form of country life (which I have been describing, perhaps, rather as it was a few years ago than as it is now), will pass away and become a thing of memory. When that time arrives, I cannot but think that England and the world will lose a phase of human existence which, with all its lights and shadows, has been, perhaps, the most beautiful and perfect yet realized on earth. Certainly it has offered to many a happiness, pure, stable, noble, and blameless, such as it will be hard to parallel in any of the novel types of high-pressure modern life.
And, on the other hand, there is nothing so mournful as the life of an old ancestral home in the country! Everything reminds us of the lost, the dead who once called these stately chambers their habitations, whose voices once echoed through the halls, and for whose familiar tread we seem yet to wait; whose entrance, as of yore, through one of the lofty doors would scarcely surprise us; whom we almost expect, when we return after long absence, to see rising from their accustomed seats with open arms to embrace us, as in the days gone by. The trees they planted, the walks and flower-beds they designed; the sword which the father brought back from his early service; the tapestry the mother wrought through her long years of declining health; the dog grown blind and old, the companion of walks which shall never be taken again; the instrument which once answered to a sweet touch forever still — these things make us feel death and change as we never feel them amid the instability and eager interests of town existence. All things remain as of old "since the fathers fell asleep." The leaves of the woods come afresh, and then fade; the rooks come cawing home; the church bells ring, and the old clock strikes the hour. Only there is one chair pushed a little aside from its wonted place, an old horse turned out to graze in peace for his latter days; a bedroom up-stairs into which no one goes, save in silent hours, unwatched and furtively.
As time goes by, and one after another of those who have made youth blessed have dropped away, and we begin to count the years of those who remain, and watch grey hairs thickening on heads we remember golden, and talk of the hopes and ambitions of early days as things of the past — things which might have been, but now, we know, will never be on earth — when all this comes to pass, then the sense of the tragedy of life becomes too strong for us. The dear home, loved so tenderly, is for us little better than the cenotaph of the lost and dead; the warning to ourselves that over all our busy schemes and hopes the pall will soon come down — "the night cometh when no man can work."
I believe it is this deep, sorrowful sense of all that is most sad and most awful in our mortal lot — a sense which we escape amid the rushing to and fro of London, but which settles down on our souls in such a home as I have pictured — which makes the country unendurable to many, as the shadows of the evening lengthen. To accept it, and look straight at the grave towards which they are walking down the shortened vista of their years, taxes men's courage and faith beyond their strength, and they fly back to the business and the pleasures wherein such solemn thoughts are forgotten and drowned. And yet beneath our cowardice there is the longing that our little race should round itself once again to the old starting-point; that where we spent our blessed childhood, and rested on our mother's breast, and lisped our earliest prayers, there also we should lay down the burden of life, and repent its sins, and thank the Giver for its joys, and fall asleep, — to waken, we hope, in the eternal Home.
- I have heard this peculiar but common form of feminine affliction classified at the "Bad Husband Headache."