Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXIV

Shoxford

Are there people who have never, in the course of anxious life, felt desire to be away, to fly away, from every thing, however good and dear to them, and rest a little, and think new thought, or let new thought flow into them, from the gentle air of some new place, where nobody has heard of them — a place whose cares, being felt by proxy, almost seem romantic, and where the eyes spare brain and heart with a critic’s self-complacence? If any such place yet remains, the happy soul may seek it in an inland English village.

A village where no billows are to stun or to confound it, no crag or precipice to trouble it with giddiness, and where no hurry of restless tide makes time, its own father, uneasy. But in the quiet, at the bottom of the valley, a beautiful rivulet, belonging to the place, hastens or lingers, according to its mood; hankering here and there, not to be away yet; and then, by the doing of its own work, led to a swift perplexity of ripples. Here along its side, and there softly leaning over it, fresh green meadows lie reposing in the settled meaning of the summer day. For this is a safer time of year than the flourish of the spring-tide, when the impulse of young warmth awaking was suddenly smitten by the bleak east wind, and cowslip and cuckoo-flower and speedwell got their bright lips browned with cold. Then, moreover, must the meads have felt the worry of scarcely knowing yet what would be demanded of them; whether to carry an exacting load of hay, or only to feed a few sauntering cows.

But now every trouble has been settled for the best; the long grass is mown, and the short grass browsed, and capers of the fairies and caprices of the cows have dappled worn texture with a deeper green. Therefore let eyes that are satisfied here — as any but a very bad eye must be, with so many changes of softness — follow the sweet lead of the valley; and there, in a bend of the gently brawling river, stands the never-brawling church.

A church less troubled with the gift of tongues is not to be found in England: a church of gray stone that crumbles just enough to entice frail mortal sympathy, and confesses to the storms it has undergone in a tone that conciliates the human sigh. The tower is large, and high enough to tell what the way of the wind is without any potato-bury on the top, and the simple roof is not cruciated with tiles of misguided fancy. But gray rest, and peace of ages, and content of lying calmly six feet deeper than the bustle of the quick; memory also, and oblivion, following each other slowly, like the shadows of the church-yard trees — for all of these no better place can be, nor softer comfort.

For the village of Shoxford runs up on the rise, and straggles away from its burial-place, as a child from his school goes mitching. There are some few little ups and downs in the manner of its building, as well as in other particulars about it; but still it keeps as parallel with the crooked river as the far more crooked ways of men permit. But the whole of the little road of houses runs down the valley from the church-yard gate; and above the church, looking up the pretty valley, stands nothing but the mill and the plank bridge below it; and a furlong above that again the stone bridge, where the main road crosses the stream, and is consoled by leading to a big house — the Moonstock Inn.

The house in which my father lived so long — or rather, I should say, my mother, while he was away with his regiment — and where we unfortunate seven saw the light, stands about half-way down the little village, being on the right-hand side of the road as you come down the valley from the Moonstock bridge. Therefore it is on the further and upper side of the street — if it can be called a street — from the valley and the river and the meads below the mill, inasmuch as every bit of Shoxford, and every particle of the parish also, has existence — of no mean sort, as compared with other parishes, in its own esteem — on the right side of the river Moon.

My father’s house, in this good village, standing endwise to the street, was higher at one end than at the other. That is to say, the ground came sloping, or even falling, as fairly might be said, from one end to the other of it, so that it looked like a Noah’s ark tilted by Behemoth under the stern-post. And a little lane, from a finely wooded hill, here fell steeply into the “High Street” (as the grocer and the butcher loved to call it), and made my father’s house most distinct, by obeying a good deal of its outline, and discharging in heavy rain a free supply of water under the weather-board of our front-door. This front-door opened on the little steep triangle formed by the meeting of lane and road, while the back-door led into a long but narrow garden running along the road, but raised some feet above it; the bank was kept up by a rough stone wall crested with stuck-up snap-dragon and valerian, and faced with rosettes and disks and dills of houseleek, pennywort, and hart’s-tongue.

Betsy and I were only just in time to see the old house as it used to be; for the owner had died about half a year ago, and his grandson, having proved his will, was resolved to make short work with it. The poor house was blamed for the sorrows it had sheltered, and had the repute of two spectres, as well as the pale shadow of misfortune. For my dear father was now believed by the superstitious villagers to haunt the old home of his happiness and love, and roam from room to room in search of his wife and all his children. But his phantom was most careful not to face that of his father, which stalked along haughtily, as behooved a lord, and pointed forever to a red wound in its breast. No wonder, therefore, that the house would never let; and it would have been pulled down long ago if the owner had not felt a liking for it, through memories tender and peculiar to himself. His grandson, having none of these to contend with, resolved to make a mere stable of it, and build a public-house at the bottom of the garden, and turn the space between them into skittle-ground, and so forth.

To me this seemed such a very low idea, and such a desecration of a sacred spot, that if I had owned any money to be sure of, I would have offered hundreds to prevent it. But I found myself now in a delicate state of mind concerning money, having little of my own, and doubting how much other people might intend for me. So that I durst not offer to buy land and a house without any means to pay.

And it was not for that reason only that Betsy and I kept ourselves quiet. We knew that any stir in this little place about us — such as my name might at once set going — would once for all destroy all hope of doing good by coming. Betsy knew more of such matters than I did, besides all her knowledge of the place itself, and her great superiority of age; therefore I left to her all little management, as was in every way fair and wise. For Mrs. Strouss had forsaken a large and good company of lodgers, with only Herr Strouss to look after them — and who was he among them? If she trod on one side of her foot, or felt a tingling in her hand, or a buzzing in her ear, she knew in a moment what it was — of pounds and pounds was she being cheated, a hundred miles off, by foreigners!

For this reason it had cost much persuasion and many appeals to her faithfulness, as well as considerable weekly payment, ere ever my good nurse could be brought away from London; and perhaps even so she never would have come if I had not written myself to Mrs. Price, then visiting Betsy in European Square, that if the landlady was too busy to be spared by her lodgers, I must try to get Lord Castlewood to spare me his housekeeper. Upon this Mrs. Strouss at once declared that Mrs. Price would ruin every thing; and rather than that — no matter what she lost — she herself would go with me. And so she did, and she managed very well, keeping my name out of sight (for, happen what might, I would have no false one); and she got quiet lodgings in her present name, which sounded nicely foreign; and the village being more agitated now about my father’s material house, and the work they were promised in pulling it down, than about his shattered household, we had a very favorable time for coming in, and were pronounced to be foreigners who must not be allowed to run up bills.

This rustic conclusion suited us quite well, and we soon confirmed it unwittingly, Betsy offering a German thaler and I an American dollar at the shop of the village chandler and baker, so that we were looked upon with some pity, and yet a kind desire for our custom. Thus, without any attempt of ours at either delusion or mystery, Mrs. Strouss was hailed throughout the place as “Madam Straw,” while I, through the sagacity of a deeply read shoe-maker, obtained a foreign name, as will by-and-by appear.

We lodged at the post-office, not through any wisdom or even any thought on our part, but simply because we happened there to find the cleanest and prettiest rooms in the place. For the sun being now in the height of August, and having much harvest to ripen, at middle day came ramping down the little street of Shoxford like the chairman of the guild of bakers. Every house having lately brightened up its whitewash — which they always do there when the frosts are over, soon after the feast of St. Barnabas — and the weeds of the way having fared amiss in the absence of any water-cart, it was not in the strong, sharp character of the sun to miss such an opportunity. After the red Californian glare, I had no fear of any English sun; but Betsy was frightened, and both of us were glad to get into a little place sheltered by green blinds. This chanced to be the post-office, and there we found nice lodgings.

By an equal chance this proved to be the wisest thing we could possibly have done, if we had set about it carefully. For why, that nobody ever would impute any desire of secrecy to people who straightway unpacked their boxes at the very head-quarters of all the village news. And the mistress of the post was a sharp-tongued woman, pleased to speak freely of her neighbors’ doings, and prompt with good advice that they should heed their own business, if any of them durst say a word about her own. She kept a tidy little shop, showing something of almost every thing; but we had a side door, quite of our own, where Betsy met the baker’s wife and the veritable milkman; and neither of them knew her, which was just what she had hoped; and yet it made her speak amiss of them.

But if all things must be brought to the harsh test of dry reason, I myself might be hard pushed to say what good I hoped to do by coming thus to Shoxford. I knew of a great many things, for certain, that never had been thoroughly examined here; also I naturally wished to see, being a native, what the natives were; and, much more than that, it was always on my mind that here lay my mother and the other six of us.

Therefore it was an impatient thing for me to hear Betsy working out the afternoon with perpetual chatter and challenge of prices, combating now as a lodger all those points which as a landlady she never would allow even to be moot questions. If any applicant in European Square had dared so much as hint at any of all the requirements which she now expected gratis, she would simply have whisked her duster, and said that the lodgings for such people must be looked for down the alley. However, Mrs. Busk, our new landlady, although she had a temper of her own (as any one keeping a post-office must have) was forced by the rarity of lodgers here to yield many points, which Mrs. Strouss, on her own boards, would not even have allowed to be debated. All this was entirely against my wish; for when I have money, I spend it, finding really no other good in it; but Betsy told me that the purest principle of all was — not to be cheated.

So I left her to have these little matters out, and took that occasion for stealing away (as the hours grew on toward evening) to a place where I wished to be quite alone. And the shadow of the western hills shed peace upon the valley, when I crossed a little stile leading into Shoxford church-yard.

For a minute or two I was quite afraid, seeing nobody any where about, nor even hearing any sound in the distance to keep me company. For the church lay apart from the village, and was thickly planted out from it, the living folk being full of superstition, and deeply believing in the dead people’s ghosts. And even if this were a wife to a husband, or even a husband reappearing to his wife, there was not a man or a woman in the village that would not run away from it.

This I did not know at present, not having been there long enough; neither had I any terror of that sort, not being quite such a coward, I should hope. But still, as the mantles of the cold trees darkened, and the stony remembrance of the dead grew pale, and of the living there was not even the whistle of a grave-digger — my heart got the better of my mind for a moment, and made me long to be across that stile again. Because (as I said to myself) if there had been a hill to go up, that would be so different and so easy; but going down into a place like this, whence the only escape must be by steps, and where any flight must be along channels that run in and out of graves and tombstones, I tried not to be afraid, yet could not altogether help it.

But lo! when I came to the north side of the tower, scarcely thinking what to look for, I found myself in the middle of a place which made me stop and wonder. Here were six little grassy tuffets, according to the length of children, all laid east and west, without any stint of room, harmoniously.

From the eldest to the youngest, one could almost tell the age at which their lowly stature stopped, and took its final measurement.

And in the middle was a larger grave, to comfort and encourage them, as a hen lies down among her chicks and waits for them to shelter. Without a name to any of them, all these seven graves lay together, as in a fairy ring of rest, and kind compassion had prevented any stranger from coming to be buried there.

I would not sit on my mother’s grave for fear of crushing the pretty grass, which some one tended carefully; but I stood at its foot, and bent my head, and counted all the little ones. Then I thought of my father in the grove of peaches, more than six thousand miles away, on the banks of the soft Blue River. And a sense of desolate sorrow and of the blessing of death overwhelmed me.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31