In Praise of a Suffolk Cottage

Mary Cholmondeley

First published in The Romance of His Life: and other romances, John Murray, 1921.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

In Praise of a Suffolk Cottage

Written as the introduction to The Romance of His Life: and other romances

Most of these stories were written in a cottage in Suffolk.

For aught I know to the contrary there may be other habitable dwellings in that beloved country of grey skies and tidal rivers, and cool sea breezes. There certainly are other houses in our own village, some larger, some smaller than mine, where pleasant neighbours manage to eat and sleep, and to eke out their existence. But, of course, though they try to hide it, they must all be consumed with envy of me, for a cottage to equal mine I have never yet come across, nor do I believe in its existence.

Everyone has a so-called cottage nowadays. But fourteen years ago when I fell desperately in love with mine they were not yet the rage. The fashion was only beginning.

Now we all know that it is a parlous affair to fall in love in middle age. Christina Rossetti goes out of her way to warn us against these dangerous grey haired attachments.

She says:

“Keep love for youth, and violets for the spring.”

I had often read those beautiful lines and thought how true they were, but I paid no more attention to their prudent advice the moment my emotions were stirred than a tourist does to the word “Private” on a gate.

It amazes me to recall that the bewitching object of my affections had actually stood, forlorn, dishevelled, and untenanted, for more than a year before I set my heart upon it, and the owner good naturedly gave me a long lease of it.

Millionaires would tumble over each other to secure it now. This paper is written partly in order to make millionaires uneasy, for I have a theory, no, more than a theory, a conviction that they seldom obtain the pick of the things that make life delightful.

Do you remember how the exKaiser, even in his palmy days, never could get hot buttered toast unless his daughter’s English governess made it for him, and later on chronicled the fact for the British public.

There are indications that a few millionaires and crowned heads have dimly felt for some time past the need of cottages, but Royalty has not yet got any nearer to one than that distressful eyesore at Kew with tall windows, which I believe Queen Caroline built, and which Queen Victoria bequeathed to the nation as “a thing of beauty.”

One of the many advantages of a cottage is that the front door always stands open unless it is wet, and as the Home Ruler and I sit at breakfast in the tiny raftered hall we see the children running to school, and the cows coming up the lane, and Mrs. A’s washing wending its way towards her in a wheelbarrow, and Mrs. M’s pony and cart en route for Woodbridge. That admirable pony brings us up from the station, and returns there for our heavy luggage, it fetches groceries, it snatches “prime joints” from haughty butchers. It is, as someone has truly said, “our only link with the outer world.”

The village life flows like a little stream in front of us as we sip our coffee at our small round mahogany table with a mug of flaming Siberian wallflower on it, the exact shade of the orange curtains. Of course if you have orange curtains you are bound to grow flowers of the same colour.

The passers by also see us, but that is a sight to which they are as well accustomed as to the village pump, the stocks at the Church gate, or any other samples of “still life.” They take no more heed of us than the five young robins, who fly down from the nest in the honeysuckle over the porch, and bicker on the foot scraper.

The black beam that stretches low over our heads across the little room has a carved angel at each end, brought by the Home Ruler in prewar days from Belgium; and, in the middle of the beam, is a hook from which at night a lantern is suspended, found in a curiosity shop in Kent. My nephew, aged seven, watched me as I cautiously bought it, and whispered to his mother:

“Why does Aunt Mary buy the lantern when, for thirty shillings, she could get a model engine?”

“Well, you see she does not want a model engine, and she does want a lantern, and it is not wrong of her to buy it as she has earned the money.”

Shrill amazement of nephew.

What! Aunt Mary earned thirty shillings! How she must have sweated to make as much as that!”

I must tell you that our cottage was once two cottages. That is why it looks so long and pretty from the lane, pushing back the roses from its eyes as it peers at you over its wooden fence. Consequently we have two green front doors exactly alike, and each approached by a short brick path edged with clipped box. Each path has its own little green wooden gate. One of these doors has had a panel taken out by the Home Ruler, and a wire grating stretched over the opening, as she has converted the passage within into a larder.

Now, would you believe it? Chauffeurs, after drawing up magnificent motors in front of the house, actually go and beat upon the larder door, when, if they would only look through the iron grating, they would see a leg of mutton hanging up within an inch of their noses—that is in prewar days: of course now only sixpenny worth of bones, and a morsel of liver.

And all the time we are waiting to admit our guests at the other door, the open door, the hall door, the front door, with an old brass knocker on it, and an electric bell, and a glimpse within of a table laid for luncheon, with an orange table cloth—to match the curtains!

I have no patience with chauffeurs. They observe nothing.

That reminds me that a friend of ours, with that same chauffeur, was driving swiftly in her car the other day, and ran into a butcher’s boy on his bicycle. As I have already remarked, chauffeurs never recognize meat when they see it unless it is on a plate. The boy was knocked over. My friend saw the overturned bicycle in the ditch; and a string of sausages festooned on the hedge, together with a piece of ribs of beef, and a pound of liver caught on a sweet-briar, and imagined that they were the scattered internal fittings of the butcher’s boy, until he crawled out from under the car uninjured. She did not recover from the shock for several days.

To return to the cottage. I am not going to pretend that it had no drawbacks. There were painful surprises, especially in the honeymoon period of my affections. Most young couples, if they were honest, which they never are, would admit that they emerged stunned, if not partially paralysed, from the strain of the first weeks of wedded life. I was stunned, but I remembered it was the common lot and took courage. Yes, there were painful surprises. Ants marched up in their cohorts between the bricks in the pantry floor. When we enquired into this phenomenon, behold! there was no floor. For a moment I was as “dumbfounded” as the bridegroom who discovers a plait of hair on his bride’s dressing table. The bricks were laid in noble simplicity on Mother Earth, no doubt as in the huts of our forefathers, in the days when they painted themselves with wode, and skirmished with bows and arrows. I had to steel my heart against further discoveries. Rats raced in battalions in the walls at night. Plaster and enormous spiders dropped (not, of course in collusion) from the ceilings in the dark. Upper floors gave signs of collapse. Two rooms which had real floors, when thrown into one, broke our hearts by unexpectedly revealing different levels. That really was not playing fair.

Frogs, large, active, shiny Suffolk frogs had a passion for leaping in at the drawing room windows in wet weather. The frogs are my department, for the Home Ruler, who fears neither God nor man, hides her face in her hands and groans when the frogs bound in across the matting; and I, moi qui vous parle, I pursue them with the duster, which, in every well organised cottage, is in the left hand drawer of the writing table.

The great great grandchildren of the original jumpers, jump in to this day, in spite of the severity with which they and their ancestors from one generation to another have been gathered up in dusters, and cast forth straddling and gasping on to the lawn. Frogs seem as unteachable as chauffeurs!

Very early in the day we realised that in the principal bedroom a rich penetrating aroma of roast hare made its presence felt the moment the window was shut. Why this was so I do not know. The room was not over the kitchen. We have never had a hare roasted on the premises during all the years we have lived in that delectable place. We have never even partaken of jugged hare within its walls. But the fact remains: when the window is shut the hare steals back into the room. Perhaps it is a ghost!!!

I never thought of that till this moment. I feel as if I had read somewhere about a ghost which always heralds its approach by a smell of musk. And then I remember also hearing about an old woman who after her death wanted dreadfully to tell her descendants that she had hidden the lost family jewels in the chimney. But though she tried with all her might to warn them she never got any nearer to it than by appearing as a bloodhound at intervals. Everyone who saw her was terrified, and the jewels remained in the chimney.

Is it possible that I have not taken this aroma of roast hare sufficiently seriously! Perhaps it is a portent. Perhaps it is an imperfect manifestation—like the bloodhound—of someone on the other side who is trying to confide in me.

Yes, we sustained shocks not a few, but there was in store for us at any rate one beautiful surprise which made up for them all.

One bedroom (the one with the hare in it, worse luck) possessed an oak floor, fastened with the original oak pins. It had likewise a Tudor door, but the rest of the chamber was commonplace with oddly bulging walls, covered with a garish flowery wallpaper.

We stripped it off. There was another underneath it. There always is. We stripped that off, then another, and another, and yet another. (The reader will begin to think the roast hare is not so mysterious after all.)

We got down at last to that incredibly ugly paper which in my childhood adorned every cottage bedroom I visited in my native Shropshire. Do you know it, reader, a realistic imitation of brickwork? It seems to have spread itself over Suffolk as well as the Midlands.

After stripping off seven papers the beautiful upright beams revealed themselves, and the central arch, all in black oak like the floor.

We whitewashed the plaster between the beams, scratched the beams themselves till they were restored to their natural colour, and rejoiced exceedingly. We rejoice to this day.

But the hare is still there.

Our cottage is on the edge of a little wood. Great forest trees stand like sentinels within a stone’s throw of the house. In front of the drawing room windows is a tiny oasis of mown lawn, bounded by a low wall clambered over by humps of jasmine and montana, and that loveliest of single roses scinica anemone. The low wall divides the mown grass from the rough broken ground which slopes upwards behind it till it loses itself among the tree trunks. Here tall families of pink and white foxgloves and great yellow lupins jostle each other, and it is all the Home Ruler can do to keep the peace between them, and to persuade them to abide in their respective places between stretches of shining ground ivy and blue periwinkle; all dappled and checkered by the shadows of the over-arching trees.

If you walk down that narrow path between the leaning twisted hollies you come suddenly upon an opening in the thicket, and a paved path leads you into another little garden.

This also has its bodyguard of oaks and poplars on the one side, and on the other the high hedge dividing it from the lane, over which tilt the red roofs of the cottages.

Within the enclosure a family of giant docks spread themselves in the long grass, and ancient fruit trees sprawl on their hands and knees, each with a rose tree climbing over its ungainliness, making a low inner barrier between the tall trees, and the little low-lying burnished garden in the midst. Here ranged and grouped colonies of rejoicing plants follow each other into flower in an ordered sequence, all understood and cherished by the earth-ingrained hands of the Home Ruler.

Some few disappointments there are, but many successes. Wire worm may get in. Cuttings may “damp off.” Brompton stocks may not always “go through the winter.” But the flowers respond in that blessed little place. They do their best, for the best has been done for them. If it is essential to their well being that their feet should be shaded from the sun, their feet are shaded, by some well-bred low growing plant in front of them, which does not interfere with them. If they need the morning sun they are placed where its rays can pour upon them.

It is a garden of vivid noonday sunshine, when we sit and bask among the rock pinks on the central bit of brickwork; and of long velvet afternoon shadows: a garden of quiet conversation, and peaceful intercourse, and of endless, endless loving labour in sun and rain.

I contribute the quiet conversation, and the Home Ruler contributes the loving labour; and, while we thus each do our share, the manifold voices of the village reach us through the tall hedge: the cries of the children playing by the bridge, the thin complaint of the goats, the jingle of harness, and the thud of ponderous slow stepping hoofs, the whistle of the lad sitting sideways on the leading horse; all the paisible rumeur of the pleasant communal life of which we are a part.

Our village is not really called Riff. It has a beautiful and ancient name, which I shall not disclose, but I don’t mind telling you that it is close to Mouse Hold,1 a hamlet in the boggy meadows beyond the Deben; and not so very far from Gobblecock Hall. Of course if you are not Suffolk born and bred you will think I am trying to be humourous and that I have invented this interesting old English name. I can only say. Look in any good map of Suffolk. You will find Gobblecock Hall on it near the coast. Riff is only a few miles from Kesgrave Church, where you can still see the tombstone of the gipsy queen in the churchyard. The father of one of the oldest inhabitants of Riff witnessed the immense concourse of gipsies who attended the funeral.

1 Probably originally Morass Hold.

Riff is within an easy walk of Boulge, where Fitzgerald lies under his little Persian rose tree, covered in summer with tiny yellow roses. You see how central Riff is. And, if you cross the Deben, and walk steadily up the low hill to that broomy, gorsy, breezy upland, Bromswell Heath, then you stand on the very spot where, a little over a hundred years ago, British troops were encamped to await Napoleon. And a few years ago our soldiers assembled there once more to resist the invasion which Kitchener at any rate expected, and which it now seems evident Germany intended.

We in Riff learned the meaning of war early in the day. Which of us will forget the first Zeppelin raid, and later on the sight of torn, desolated Woodbridge the day after it was bombed: the terrified blanched faces peeping out from the burst doorways, the broken smoking buildings, the high piles of shredded matchwood that had been houses yesterday, the blank incredulous faces of friends and neighbours. No doubt our faces were as incredulous as those we saw around us. It seemed as if it could not, could not be! We had seen photographs of similar havoc in Belgium and France, but Woodbridge! our own Woodbridge, that pleasant shopping town on its tidal river with the wild swans on it. It could not be! But so it was.

Yes, the war reached us early, and it left us late. Riff suffered as every other village in Great Britain suffered. Our ruddy cheerful lads went out one after another. Twenty-two came back no more.

As the years passed we became inured to raids. Nevertheless, just as we remember the first, so all of us at Riff remember the last in the small hours of Sunday morning, June 17th, 1917.

I was awakened as often before, by what seemed at first a distant thunderstorm, at about 3 o’clock in the morning.

I got up and went downstairs in the dark. By this time the bombs were falling nearer and nearer. As I felt my way down the narrow staircase it seemed as if the trembling walls were no stronger than paper. The cottage shook and shook as in a palsy, and C. and E. and I took refuge in the garden. M. kept watch in the lane. It was, as far as I could see, pitch dark, but their younger eyes descried, though mine did not, the wounded Zeppelin lumber heavily over us inland, throwing out its bombs. Our ears were deafened by the sharp rat-tat-tat of the machine guns, and by our own frantic anti-aircraft fire. In that pandemonium we stood, how long I know not, unaware that a neighbour’s garden was being liberally plastered by our own shrapnel. Then, for the second time, the stricken airship blundered over us, this time in the direction of the sea.

When it had passed overhead we groped our way through the cottage, and came out on its eastern side. A mild light met our eyes. The dawn was at hand. It trembled, flushed and stainless as the heart of a wild rose, behind the black clustered roofs of the village, and the low church tower.

And above the roofs, some miles away, outlined against the sky, hung the crippled Zeppelin, motionless, tilted. We watched it fascinated. Slowly we saw it right itself, and begin to move. It headed towards the coast, but it could only flee into its worst enemy—the dawn. It travelled, it dwindled. The sea haze began to enfold it. The clamour of our gun fire suddenly ceased. It toiled like a wounded sea bird towards its only hope—the sea.

As we watched it fierce wings whirred unseen overhead. Our aeroplanes had taken up the chase.

The Zeppelin travelled, travelled.

What was that?

A spark of light appeared upon it. It stretched, it leaped into a great flame. The long body of the Zeppelin was seen to be alight from end to end.

Then rose simultaneously from every throat in Riff a shout of triumph, the shrill cries of the children joining with the voices of the elders.

And, after that one cry, silence fell upon us, as we watched that towering furnace of flame, freighted with agony, sink slowly to the earth. At last it sank out of sight, leaving a pillar of smoke to mark its passing.

So windless was the air that the smoke remained like some solemn upraised finger pointing from earth to heaven.

No one stirred. No one spoke. The light grew. And, in the silence of our awed hearts, a cuckoo near at hand began calling gently to the new day, coming up in peace out of the shining east.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005