Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

The Custom of the Manor

They have been abolishing things again. Lord Birkenhead’s Law of Property Bill — now, I suppose, an Act — puts an end, as ‘A Barrister’ in the newspaper informs me, to the whole of the Feudal System. A great link has been broken, a link that joined us, in a way, with the men of 1066, with all the life of our forefathers from that far-off time to yesterday.

Well, I think it is a pity. I believe that I am not known generally as a politician. My views as to the lodger franchise, the borough as distinct from the county franchise, the several Reform Bills from the ‘thirties of the last century onward that were always going to make us happy, as to Redistribution on a logical basis, as to many other things of the same sort, are generally understood to be vague. They are. Extremes meet — few people understand the depths of wisdom contained in apparently obvious proverbs — and Trotsky and Lenin and I have an equal contempt for votes and all that appertains to votes. I am thoroughly with the Parson. My suffragette friend was telling him that ‘the Vote’ was the breath of life to her, that it would make everything that was wrong right. ‘The Vote,’ it seemed, was a sort of Tree of Life, the leaves of which were appointed for the healing of the nations. The Parson listened kindly; and made a liberal offer.

‘Well,’ said he, ‘I’ve got three votes, and you’re welcome to the lot for half-a-crown.’

Those are my sentiments. I have no interest in votes or in the people who deal in them. But once upon a time I was an ardent politician. The great victory of Gladstone in 1880 warmed my heart. I was an earnest young Liberal. I remember reading in the Daily News a short leading article on the Unreformed Corporations. These, it appeared, were certain small bodies ruling small towns up and down England, which had somehow slipped through the sweeping nets of the ‘thirties, and now those also were to go. Lord Rosebery, another earnest young Liberal of somewhat greater eminence than myself, had taken the Bill through the Lords and one more relic of the bad old times was over. I was profoundly glad to hear it. And I must make a parenthesis. Why on earth should I be glad? To put the question quite distinctly: What the devil did it matter to me whether corporations were reformed or unreformed? ‘Keep your breath to cool your ain parritch,’ Lord Lauderdale might well have said to me: ‘Ye’ll find it het eneuch.’ It is indeed a mystery that I should have concerned myself with such stuff. But I have been investigating these matters somewhat keenly of late, and have come to certain conclusions. More than a year ago I wrote on the mystery of young Blueface, who rows himself into incipient heart-disease at Henley, and later in life finds his chief joy in spread-eagling himself on the face of dreadful Alpine heights, at the imminent risk of his life. I have found out why he does these things. The truth is that the actualities of life are so repulsive that we have been forced to invent all sorts of ways of escaping from them. The Blueface way is one way; the playing of a dozen games of chess all at once blindfolded, is another way; drinking methylated, spirit is yet another way; and I suppose politics is another of these grim sports. If you feel a genial glow at the thought that the Unreformed Corporations are no more; then you are less likely to worry over the fact that you have not had any dinner to-day, and are likely to have a smaller dinner to-morrow.

Well, I glowed as I read this blessed news in the London street. But, a year or two later, being in my own country down in the West, I read in the local paper that the last Portreeve of Usk, accompanied by his two Bailiffs, had unveiled a window in the parish church, commemorating the ending of this old song. That Unreformed Corporations Act had got to work; and something that had endured for a thousand years or more was ended. I knew then, suddenly, that I was no longer an earnest young Liberal. I knew that I hated the notion of destroying old things, just because they were old; and that, I believe, is not a Liberal frame of mind. But to abolish the Portreeve of Usk! Why, the Chief Magistrate of the City of London was the Portreeve of London before Mayors, much less Lord Mayors, were born or thought of. And I don’t believe that Usk is any the happier for having a Local Government Board instead of a Portreeve and two Bailiffs.

Let it be understood clearly; I am by no means in favour of retaining horrible abuses, just because they are old. If the Portreeve of Usk had been enabled, by a Charter of King John, to burn alive in Porthycarne Street any persons to whose opinions he objected, I should be all in favour of a Limiting Clause: earnest Young Liberals, Unbending Young Conservatives, and a few other people being alone excepted from its benefits. But I think it is a pity to smash links just for the sake of smashing them. Thus with the measure of that ardent and devoted Tory, Lord Birkenhead. It abolishes the heriot; the fine of the ‘best beast’ levied by the lord of the manor on the successor of a dead copyholder. I confess that if I were the new copyholder I should dislike having to give up my five-hundred guinea hunter to the lord as the fee of succession. But why abolish the ancient goodly custom of the heriot? There is no difficulty. The term ‘the best beast’ should be retained, with an explanatory clause declaring that the said beast shall not exceed in value a groat, or at the most vj pence. Now, according to the Laws of Howel Dda, and allowing for the exchange, this beast should be a kitten before it has caught its first mouse; and I would insist on the kitten. I would put the copyholder who refused his heriot of a kitten in the stocks for five minutes, and if I knew the correct mediæval English for a custom which is, doubtless, ancient, I should stipulate that this false varlet should stand drinks all round to the Court Baron of the Manor.

And then, again; this wretched enactment sweeps away ‘Borough English,’ the custom which in certain manors ordains that, not the eldest, but the youngest son is heir. Now, this is fairly tearing things up by the roots. Here is a custom which, I suspect, goes far beyond Norman, far beyond Saxon, far beyond that far, far time when the Celts invaded this island and found a little, dark people dwelling here, a people that lived in caves and in houses, hollowed out in the heart of domed hills. These small people, aborigines so far as we know, are considered on a plausible theory to have furnished the source of all the stories about the Little People — the wise name for the fairies. No doubt the custom of Borough English — under a name and in a tongue which would sound unearthly to modern Europe, save perhaps to Basques and Laps — was the custom of the dark little people of the hills; and so it is, naturally enough, that in the fairy tales the hero is often the youngest son. Has Lord Birkenhead ever heard of Hop-o’-my-Thumb? In framing his measure did he consider the leading case of Beauty and the Beast, which shows that the principle of Borough English applied even to female descent? It would seem not. And yet, how simple it would have been to retain this relic of pre-history, without annoying anybody. Suppose the case of John Smith, copyholder of Mudford, being and situate in the Manor of Muckindyke-le-Marsh. John Smith is making his will; he likes his son Perivale and wishes to cut off his youngest, Mulciber, with a shilling. Very good; let him do so. Mudford goes to Perivale, and Mulciber gets nothing — save the right to entitle himself for the rest of his days ‘Heir of Mudford,’ after the Scottish precedents of ‘Master of Dun-blather’ and ‘Younger of Haddaneuk.’ And thus the ancient custom of Borough English would be preserved.

And gavelkind goes too. Gavelkind provided that the estate should be shared out equally between all the surviving sons of the copyholder. This custom, I think, is not of the vast antiquity of Borough English; still it is old and bore witness to the highly interesting fact that in early times the share-and-share-alike principle had its strong supporters, anticipating the modern French laws of inheritance by many hundreds of years. Why abolish it, when it would have been easy to get round it? Why not have arranged that the estate of Blenkinsop should be devised entirely according to the copyholder’s fancy, but that all sons should be known as Commoners of Blenkinsop, with the right of digging up one cabbage in the kitchen garden once a year at midnight on the Eve of the Derby?

Why didn’t the Lord Chancellor arrange for the digging up of that cabbage? Instead of which he goes about rooting up the past.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39