Tom Tiddler's Ground (1900)/Chapter 1
PICKING UP SOOT AND CINDERS.
"And why Tom Tiddler's Ground?" asked the traveller. "Because he scatters half-pence to tramps and such-like," returned the landlord, "and of course they pick 'em up. And this being done on his own land (which it is his own land, you observe, and were his family's before him), why it is but regarding the half-pence as gold and silver, and turning the ownership of the property a bit round your finger, and there you have the name of the children's game complete. And it's appropriate too," said the landlord, with his favorite action of stooping a little, to look across the table out of window at vacancy, under the window-blind which was half drawn down. "Leastwise it has been so considered by many gentlemen which have partook of chops and tea in the present humble parlor."
The traveller was partaking of chops and tea in the present humble parlor, and the landlord's shot was fired obliquely at him.
"And you call him a hermit?" said the traveller.
"They call him such," returned the landlord, evading personal responsibility; "he is in general so considered."
"What is a hermit?" asked the traveller.
"What is it?" repeated the landlord, drawing his hand across his chin.
"Yes, what is it?"
The landlord stooped again, to get a more comprehensive view of vacancy under the window-blind, and—with an asphyxiated appearance on him as one unaccustomed to definition—made no answer.
"I'll tell you what I suppose it to be," said the traveller.
"An abominably dirty thing."
"Mr. Mopes is dirty, it cannot be denied," said the landlord.
"Mr. Mopes is vain of the life he leads, some do say," replied the landlord, as another concession.
"A slothful, unsavory, nasty reversal of the laws of human nature," said the traveller; "and for the sake of God's working world and its wholesomeness, both moral and physical, I would put the thing on the tread-mill (if I had my way) wherever I found it; whether on a pillar, or in a hole; whether on Tom Tiddler's ground, or the Pope of Rome's ground, or a Hindoo fakirs ground. or any other ground."
"I don't know about putting Mr Mopes on the tread-mill," said the landlord, shaking his head very seriously. "There ain't a doubt but what he has got landed property."
"How far may it be to this said Tom Tiddler's Ground?" asked the traveller.
"Put it at five mile," returned the landlord.
"Well! When I have done my breakfast," said the traveller, "I'll go there. I came over here this morning to find it out and see it."
"Many does," observed the landlord.
The conversation passed, in the midsummer weather of no remote year of grace, down among the pleasant dales and trout-streams of a green English county. No matter what county. Enough that you may hunt there, shoot there, fish there, traverse long grass-grown Roman roads there, open ancient barrows there, see many a square mile of richly cultivated land there, and hold Arcadian talk with a bold peasantry, their country's pride, who will tell you (if you want to know) how pastoral housekeeping is done on nine shillings a week.
Mr. Traveller sat at his breakfast in the little sanded parlor of the Peal of Bells village ale-house, with the dew and dust of an early walk upon his shoes—an early walk by road and meadow and coppice,that had sprinkled him bountifully with little blades of grass, and scraps of new hay, and with leaves both young and old, and with other such fragrant tokens of the freshness and wealth of summer. The window through which the landlord had concentrated his gaze upon vacancy was shaded, because the morning sun was hot and bright on the village street. The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters (to shut up nothing as carefully as if it were the mint, or the Bank of England), had called in the doctor's house so suddenly, that his brass door-plate and three stories stood among them as conspicuous and different as the doctor himself in his broadcloth, among the smock-frocks of his patients. The village residences seemed to have gone to law with a similar absence of consideration, for a score of weak little lath-and-plaster cabins clung in confusion about the attorney's red-brick house, which, with glaring doorsteps and a most terrific scraper, seemed to serve all manner of ejectments upon them. They were as various as laborers—high-shouldered, wry-necked, one-eyed, goggle-eyed, squinting, bow-legged, knock-kneed, rheumatic, crazy. Some of the small tradesmen's houses, such as the crockery-shop and the harness-maker's, had a Cyclops window in the middle of the gable, within an inch or two of its apex, suggesting that some forlorn rural 'prentice must wriggle himself into that apartment horizontally, when he retired to rest, after the manner of the worm. So beautiful in its abundance was the surrounding country, and so Jean and scant the village, that one might have thought the village had sown and planted everything it once possessed, to convert the same into crops. This would account for the bareness of the little shops, the bareness of the few boards and trestles designed for market purposes in a corner of the street, the bareness of the obsolete inn and inn yard, with the ominous inscription, "Excise Office," not yet faded out from the gateway as indicating the very last thing that poverty could get rid of. This would also account for the determined abandomnent of the village by one stray clog, fast lessening in the perspective where the white posts and the pond were, and would explain his conduct on the hypothesis that he was going (through the act of suicide) to convert himself into manure, and become a part proprietor in turnips or mangold-wurzel.
Mr. Traveller having finished his breakfast and paid his moderate score, walked out to the threshold of the Peal of Bells, and thence directed by the pointing finger of his host, betook himself toward the ruined hermitage of Mr. Mopes, the hermit.
For Mr. Mopes, by suffering everything about him to go to ruin, and by dressing himself in a blanket and skewer, and by steeping himself in soot and grease, and other nastiness, had acquired great renown in all that country side—far greater renown than he could ever have won for himself, if his career had been that of any ordinary Christian, or decent Hottentot. He had even blanketed and skewered and sooted and greased himself into the London papers. And it was curious to find, as Mr. Traveller found by stopping for a new direction at this farm-house or at that cottage as he went along, with how much accuracy the morbid Mopes had counted on the weakness of his neighbors to embellish him. A mist of home-brewed marvel and romance surrounded Mopes, in which (as in all fogs) the real proportions of the real object were extravagantly heightened. he had murdered his beautiful beloved in a fit of jealousy, and was doing penance; he had made a vow under the influence of grief; he had made a vow under the influence of a fatal accident; he had made a vow under the influence of religion; he had made a vow under the influence of drink; he had made a vow under the influence of disappointment; he had never made any vow, but "had got led into it" by the possession of a mighty and most awful secret; he was enormously rich, he was stupendously charitable, he was profoundly learned, he saw spectres, he knew and could do all kinds of wonders. Some said he went out every night, and was met by terrified wayfarers stalking along dark roads, others said he never went out; some knew his penance to be nearly expired, others had positive information that his seclusion was not a penance at all, and would expire but with himself. Even as to the easy facts of how old he was, or how long he had held verminous occupation of his blanket and skewer, no consistent information was to be got, from those who must know if they would. He was represented as being all the ages between five-and-twenty and sixty, and as having been a hermit seven years, twelve, twenty, thirty—though twenty, on the whole, appeared the favorite term.
"Well, well!" said Mr. Traveller. "At any rate, let us see what a real live hermit looks like."
So Mr. Traveller went on, and on, and on, until he came to Tom Tiddler's Ground.
It was a nook in a rustic by-road, which the genius of Mopes had laid waste as completely as if he had been born an emperor and a conqueror. Its centre object was a dwelling-house, sufficiently substantial, all the window-glass of which had been long ago abolished by the surprising genius of Mopes, and all the windows of which were barred across with rough split logs of trees nailed over them on the outside. A rick-yard, hip-high in vegetable rankness and ruin, contained out-buildings, from which the thatch had lightly fluttered away, on all the winds of all the seasons of the year, and from which the planks and beams had heavily dropped and rotted. The frosts and damps of winter, and the heat of summer, had warped what wreck remained, so that not a post or board retained the position it was meant to hold, but everything was twisted from its purpose, like its owner, and degraded and debased. In this homestead of the shiggard, behind the ruined hedge, and sinking away among the ruined grass and the nettles, were the last perishing fragments of certain ricks, which had gradually mildewed and collapsed, until they looked like mounds of rotten honey-comb or dirty sponge. Tom Tiddler's Ground could even show its ruined water; for there was a slimy pond into which a tree or two had fallen—one soppy trunk and blanches lay across it then—which in its accumulation of stagnant weed, and in its black decomposition, and in all its foulness and filth, was almost comforting, regarded as the only water that could have reflected the shameful place without seeming polluted by that low office.
Mr. Traveller looked all around him on Tom Tiddler's Ground, and his glance at last encountered a dusky tinker lying among the weeds and rank grass, in the shade of the dwelling-house. A rough walking-staff lay on the ground by his side, and his head rested on a small wallet
He met Mr. Traveller's eye without lifting up his head, merely depressing his chin a little (for he was lying on his back) to get a better view of him.
"Good-day!" said Mr. Traveller.
"Same to you, if you like it," returned the tinker.
"Don't you like it? It's a very fine day."
"I ain't partickler in weather," returned the tinker, with a yawn.
Mr. Traveller had walked up to where he lay, and was looking down at him. " This is a curious place," said Mr. Traveller.
"Ay, I suppose so I" returned the tinker. "Tom Tiddler's Ground, they call this."
"Are you well acquainted with it?"
"Never saw it afore to-day," said the tinker, with another yawn, " and I don't care if I never see it again.
There was a man here just now, told me what it was called. If you want to see Tom himself, you must go in at the gate." He faintly indicated with his chin a little mean ruin of a wooden gate at the side of the house.
"Have you seen Tom?"
"No, and I ain't partickler to see him. I can see a dirty man anywhere."
"He does not live in the house, then?" said Mr. Traveller, casting his eyes upon the house anew.
"The man said," returned the tinker, rather irritably,—"him as was here just now—'this what you're a-lyingon, mate, is Tom Tiddler's Ground. And if you want to see Tom,' he says, 'you must go in at that gate.' The man come out at that gate himself, and he ought to know."
"Certainly," said Mr. Traveller.
"Though, perhaps," exclaimed the tinker, so struck by the brightness of his own idea, that it had the electric effect upon him of causing him to lift up his head an inch or so," perhaps he was a liar! He told some rum 'uns him as was here just now, did about this place of Tom's. He says—him as was here just now—'When Tom shut up the house, mate, to go to rack, the beds was left, all made, like as if somebody was a-going to sleep in every bed. And if you was to walk through the bedrooms now, you'd see the ragged mouldy bed-clothes a-heaving and a-heaving like seas. And a-heaving and a-heaving with what?' he says. 'Why, with the rats under em.'"
"I wish I had seen that man," Mr. Traveller remarked.
"You'd have been welcome to see him instead of me seeing him," growled the tinker; "for he was a long-winded one."
Not without a sense of injury in the remembrance, the tinker gloomily closed his eyes. Mr. Traveller, deeming the tinker a short-winded one, from whom no further breath of information was to be derived, betook himself to the gate.
Swung upon its rusty hinges, it admitted him into a yard in which there was nothing to be seen but an outhouse attached to the ruined building, with a barred window in it. As there were traces of many recent foot-steps under this window, and as it was a low window, and unglazed, Mr. Traveller made bold to peep within the bars. And there to be sure he had a real live hermit before him, and could judge how the real dead hermits used to look.
He was lying on a bank of soot and cinders, on the floor, in front of a rusty fireplace. There was nothing else in the dark little kitchen, or scullery, or whatever his den had been originally used as, but a table with a litter of old bottles on it. A rat made a clatter among these bottles, jumped down, and ran over the real live hermit on his way to his hole, or the man in his hole would not have been so easily discernible. Tickled in the face by the rat's tail, the owner of Tom Tiddler's Ground opened his eyes, saw Mr. Traveller, started up, and sprang to the window.
"Humph!" thought Mr. Traveller, retiring apace or two from the bars. "A compound of Newgate, Bedlam, a debtor's prison in the worst time, a chimney-sweep, a mudlark, and the Noble Savage ! A nice old family, the hermit family. Hah!"
Mr. Traveller thought this, as he silently confronted the sooty object in the blanket and skewer (in sober truth he wore nothing else), with the matted hair and the staring eyes. Further, Mr. Traveller thought, as the eyes surveyed him with a very obvious curiosity in ascertaining the effect they produced, "Vanity, vanity, vanity! Verily, all is vanity!"
"What is your name, sir, and where do you come from?" asked Mr. Mopes the hermit—with an air of authority, but in the ordinary human speech of one who has been to school.
Mr. Traveller answered the inquiries.
"Did you come here, sir, to see me?"'
"I did. I heard of you, and I came to see you.—I know you like to be seen." Mr. Traveller coolly threw the last words in, as a matter of course, to forestall an affectation of resentment or objection that he saw rising beneath the grease and grime of the face. They had their effect.
"So," said the hermit, after a momentary silence, unclasping the bars by which he had previously held, and seating himself behind them on the ledge of the window, with his bare legs and feet crouched up, "you know I like to be seen?"
Mr. Traveller looked about him for something to sit on, and, observing a billet of wood in a corner, brought it near the window. Deliberately seating himself upon it, he answered, "Just so."
Each looked at the other, and each appeared to take some pains to get the measure of the other.
"Then you have come to ask me why I lead this life," said the hermit, frowning in a stormy manner. "I never tell that to any human being. I will not be asked that."
"Certainly you will not be asked that by me," said Mr. Traveller, " for I have not the slightest desire to know."
"You are an uncouth man," said Mr. Mopes the hermit.
"You are another," said Mr. Traveller.
The hermit, who was plainly in the habit of overawing his visitors with the novelty of his filth and his blanket and skewer, glared at his present visitor in some discomfiture and surprise, as if he had taken aim at him with a sure gun, and his piece had missed fire,
"Why do you come here at all ?" he asked, after a pause.
"Upon my life," said Mr. Traveller, "I was made to ask myself that very question only a few minutes ago—by a tinker too."
As he glanced toward the gate in saying it, the hermit glanced in that direction likewise.
"Yes. He is lying on his back in the sunlight outside," said Mr. Traveller, as if ha had been asked concerning the man, "he won't come in; for he says—and really very reasonably—'What should I come in for! I can see a dirty man anywhere!'"
"You are an insolent person. Go away from my premises. Go!" said the hermit, in an imperious and angry tone.
"Come, come!" returned Mr. Traveller, quite undisturbed. "This is a little too much. You are not going to call yourself clean? Look at your legs. And as to these being your premises, they are in far too disgraceful a condition to claim any privilege of ownership, or anything else."
The hermit bounced down from his window-ledge, and cast himself on his bed of soot and cinders.
"I am not going," said Mr. Traveller, glancing in after him. "You won't get rid of me in that way. You had better come and talk."
"I won't talk," said the hermit, flouncing round to get his back to the window.
"Then I will," said Mr. Traveller. "Why should you take it ill that I have no curiosity to know why you live this highly absurd and highly indecent life? When I contemplate a man in a state of disease, surely there is no moral obligation on me to be anxious to know how he took it."
After a short silence, the hermit bounced up again, and came back to the barred window.
"What? you are not gone?" he said, affecting to have supposed that he was.
"Nor going," Mr. Traveller replied: "I design to pass this summer day here."
"How dare you come, sir, upon my premises—"the hermit was returning, when his visitor interrupted him.
"Really, you know, you must not talk about your premises. I cannot allow such a place as this to be dignified with the name of premises."
"How dare you," said the hermit, shaking his bars,
"come in at my gate, to taunt me with being in a diseased state?"
"Why, Lord bless my soul," returned the other, very composedly, "you have not the face to say that you are in a wholesome state? Do allow me again to call your attention to your legs. Scrape yourself anywhere—with anything—and then tell me that you are in a wholesome state. The fact is, Mr. Mopes, that you are not only a nuisance—"
"A nuisance?" repeated the hermit, fiercely.
"What is a place in this obscene state of dilapidation but a nuisance? What is a man in your obscene state of dilapidation but a nuisance? Then, as you very well know, you cannot do without an audience, and your audience is a nuisance. You attract all the disreputable vagabonds and prowlers within ten miles round, by exhibiting yourself to them in that objectionable blanket, and by throwing copper money among them, and giving them drink out of those very dirty jars and bottles that I see in there (their stomachs need be strong!); and in short," said Mr. Traveller, summing up in a quietly and comfortably settled manner, "you are a nuisance, and this keimel is a nuisance, and the audience that you cannot possibly dispense with is a nuisance, and the nuisance is not merely a local nuisance, because it is a general nuisance to know that there can be such a nuisance left in civilization so very long after its time,"
"Will you go away? I have a gun in here," said the hermit.
"Now, I put it to you. Did I say you had not? And as to going away, didn't I say 1 am not going away? You have made me forget where I was. I now remember that I was remarking on your conduct being a nuisance. Moreover, it is in the last and lowest degree inconsequent foolishness and weakness."
"Weakness?" echoed the hermit.
"Weakness," said ]Mr. Traveller, with his former comfortably settled final air.
"I weak, you fool?" cried the hermit— " I, who have held to my purpose, and my diet, and my only bed there, all these years?"
"The more the years, the weaker you," returned Mr. Traveller. "Though the years are not so many as folks say, and as you willingly take credit for. The crust upon your face is thick and dark, Mr. Mopes, but I can see enough of you through it, to see that you are still a young man."
"Inconsequent foolishness is lunacy, I suppose?" said the hermit.
"I suppose it is very like it," answered Mr. Traveller.
"Do I converse like a lunatic?"
"One of us two must have a strong presumption against him of being one, whether or no. Either the clean and decorously clad man, or the dirty and indecorously clad man. I don't say which."
"Why, you self-sufficient bear," said the hermit, "not a day passes but I am justified in my purposes by the conversations I hold here; not a day passes but I am shown, by everything I hear and see here, how right and strong I am in holding my purpose."
Mr. Traveller, lounging easily on his billet of wood, took out a pocket pipe and began to fill it. "Now, that a man," he said, appealing to the summer sky as he did so, "that a man—even behind bars, in a blanket and skewer—should tell me that he can see, from day to day, any orders or conditions of men, women, or children, who can by any possibility teach him that it is anything but the miserablest drivelling for a human creature to quarrel with his social nature—not to go so far as to say, to renounce his common human decency, for that is an extreme case; or who can teach him that he can in anywise separate himself from his kind and the habits of his kind, without becoming a deteriorated spectacle calculated to give the devil (and perhaps the monkeys) pleasure,—is something wonderful! I repeat," said Mr. Traveller, beginning to smoke "the unreasoning hardihood of it is something wonderful—even in a man with the dirt upon him an inch or two thick— behind bars—in a blanket and skewer!"
The hermit looked at him irresolutely, and retired to his soot and cinders and lay down, and got up again and came to the bars, and again looked at him irresolutely, and finally said with sharpness: "I don't like tobacco."
"I don't like dirt," rejoined Mr. Traveller; "tobacco is an excellent disinfectant. We shall both be the better for my pipe. It is my intention to sit here through this summer day, until that blessed summer sun sinks low in the west, and to show you what a poor creature you are, through the lips of every chance wayfarer who may come in at your gate."
"What do you mean?" inquired the hermit, with a furious air.
"I mean that yonder is your gate, and there are you, and here am I. I mean that I know it to be a moral impossibility that any person can stray in at that gate from any point of the compass, with any sort of experience, gained at first hand, or derived from another, that can confute me and justify you."
"You are an arrogant and boastful hero," said the hermit. "You think yourself profoundly wise."
"Bah!" returned Mr. Traveller, quietly smoking.
"There is little wisdom in knowing that every man must be up and doing, and that all mankind are made dependent on one another."
"You have companions outside," said the hermit. "I am not to be imposed upon by your assumed confidence in the people who may enter."
"A depraved distrust," returned the visitor, compassionately raising his eyebrows, "of course belongs to your state. I can't help that."
"Do you mean to tell me you have no confederates?"
"I mean to tell you nothing but what I have told you. What I have told you is, that it is a moral impossibility that any son or daughter of Adam can stand on this ground that I put my foot on, or any ground that mortal treads, and gainsay the healthy tenure on which we hold our existence."
"Which is," sneered the hermit, "according to you—"
"Which is," returned the other, "according to eternal providence, that we must arise and wash our faces and do our gregarious work, and act and react on one another, leaving only the idiot and the palsied to sit blinking in the corner. Come!" apostrophizing the gate, "Open Sesame! Show his eyes and grieve his heart! I don't care who comes, for I know what must come of it!"
With that he faced round a little on his billet of wood towards the gate; and Mr. Mopes, the hermit, after two or three ridiculous bounces of indecision at his bed and back again, submitted to what he could not help himself against, and coiled himself on his window-ledge, holding to his bars and looking out rather anxiously.