“And the King commandeth and forbiddeth, that from henceforth neither fairs nor markets be kept in Church-yards, for the honour of the Church.” — STATUTES: 13 Edw. I. Stat. II. cap. VI.
AS that venerable and learned poet (whose voluminous works we all think it the correct thing to admire and talk about, but don’t read often), most truly says, “the child is father to the man;” à fortiori, therefore, he must be father to the boy. So, as we are going at any rate to see Tom Brown through his boyhood, supposing we never get any further, (which, if you show a proper sense of the value of this history, there is no knowing but what we may,) let us have a look at the life and environments of the child, in the quiet country village to which we were introduced in the last chapter.
Tom, as has been already said, was a robust and combative urchin, and at the age of four began to struggle against the yoke and authority of his nurse. That functionary was a good-hearted, tearful, scatter-brained girl, lately taken by Tom’s mother, Madam Brown, as she was called, from the village school to be trained as nurserymaid. Madam Brown was a rare trainer of servants, and spent herself freely in the profession; for profession it was, and gave her more trouble by half than many people take to earn a good income. Her servants were known and sought after for miles round. Almost all the girls who attained a certain place in the village school were taken by her, one or two at a time, as housemaids, laundrymaids, nurserymaids, or kitchenmaids, and after a year or two’s drilling, were started in life amongst the neighbouring families, with good principles and wardrobes. One of the results of this system was the perpetual despair of Mrs. Brown’s cook and own maid, who no sooner had a notable girl made to their hands, than Missus was sure to find a good place for her and send her off, taking in fresh importations from the school. Another was, that the house was always full of young girls, with clean shining faces; who broke plates and scorched linen, but made an atmosphere of cheerful homely life about the place, good for every one who came within its influence. Mrs. Brown loved young people, and in fact human creatures in general, above plates and linen. They were more like a lot of elder children than servants, and felt to her more as a mother or aunt than as a mistress.
Tom’s nurse was one who took in her instruction very slowly, — she seemed to have two left hands and no head; and so Mrs. Brown kept her on longer than usual, that she might expend her awkwardness and forgetfulness upon those who would not judge and punish her too strictly for them.
Charity Lamb was her name. It had been the immemorial habit of the village, to christen children either by Bible names, or by those of the cardinal and other virtues; so that one was for ever hearing in the village street, or on the green, shrill sounds of, “Prudence! Prudence! thee cum’ out o’ the gutter;” or, “Mercy! d’rat the girl, what bist thee a doin’ wi’ little Faith?” and there were Ruths, Rachels, Keziahs, in every corner. The same with the boys; they were Benjamins, Jacobs, Noahs, Enochs. I suppose the custom has come down from Puritan times — there it is at any rate, very strong still in the Vale.
Well, from early morn till dewy eve, when she had it out of him in the cold tub before putting him to bed, Charity and Tom were pitted against one another. Physical power was as yet on the side of Charity, but she hadn’t a chance with him wherever head-work was wanted. This war of independence began every morning before breakfast, when Charity escorted her charge to a neighbouring farm-house which supplied the Browns, and where, by his mother’s wish, Master Tom went to drink whey, before breakfast. Tom had no sort of objection to whey, but he had a decided liking for curds, which were forbidden as unwholesome, and there was seldom a morning that he did not manage to secure a handful of hard curds, in defiance of Charity and of the farmer’s wife. The latter good soul was a gaunt angular woman, who with an old black bonnet on the top of her head; the strings dangling about her shoulders, and her gown tucked through her pocket-holes, went clattering about the dairy, cheese-room, and yard, in high pattens. Charity was some sort of niece of the old lady’s, and was consequently free of the farm-house and garden, into which she could not resist going for the purposes of gossip and flirtation with the heir-apparent, who was a dawdling fellow, never out at work as he ought to have been. The moment Charity had found her cousin, or any other occupation, Tom would slip away; and in a minute shrill cries would be heard from the dairy, “Charity, Charity, thee lazy huzzy, where bist?” and Tom would break cover, hands and mouth full of curds, and take refuge on the shaky surface of the great muck reservoir in the middle of the yard, disturbing the repose of the great pigs. Here he was in safety, as no grown person could follow without getting over their knees; and the luckless Charity, while her aunt scolded her from the dairy-door, for being “allus hankering about arter our Willum, instead of minding Master Tom,” would descend from threats to coaxing, to lure Tom out of the muck, which was rising over his shoes and would soon tell a tale on his stockings, for which she would be sure to catch it from missus’s maid.
Tom had two abettors in the shape of a couple of old boys, Noah and Benjamin by name, who defended him from Charity, and expended much time upon his education. They were both of them retired servants of former generations of the Browns. Noah Crooke was a keen dry old man of almost ninety, but still able to totter about. He talked to Tom quite as if he were one of his own family, and indeed had long completely identified the Browns with himself. In some remote age he had been the attendant of a Miss Brown, and had conveyed her about the country on a pillion. He had a little round picture of the identical grey horse, caparisoned with the identical pillion, before which he used to do a sort of fetish worship, and abuse turnpike-roads and carriages. He wore an old full-bottomed wig, the gift of some dandy old Brown whom he had valeted in the middle of last century, which habiliment Master Tom looked upon with considerable respect, not to say fear; and indeed his whole feeling towards Noah was strongly tainted with awe; and when the old gentleman was gathered to his fathers, Tom’s lamentation over him was not unaccompanied by a certain joy at having seen the last of the wig: “Poor old Noah, dead and gone,” said he, “Tom Brown so sorry! Put him in the coffin, wig and all.”
But old Benjy was young Master’s real delight and refuge. He was a youth by the side of Noah, scarce seventy years old. A cheery, humorous, kind-hearted old man, full of sixty years of Vale gossip, and of all sorts of helpful ways for young and old, but above all for children. It was he who bent the first pin, with which Tom extracted his first stickleback out of “Pebbly Brook,” the little stream which ran through the village. The first stickleback was a splendid fellow, with fabulous red and blue gills. Tom kept him in a small basin till the day of his death, and became a fisherman from that day. Within a month from the taking of the first stickleback, Benjy had carried off our hero to the canal, in defiance of Charity, and between them, after a whole afternoon’s popjoying, they had caught three or four small coarse fish and a perch, averaging perhaps two and a half ounces each, which Tom bore home in rapture to his mother as a precious gift, and she received like a true mother with equal rapture, instructing the cook nevertheless, in a private interview, not to prepare the same for the Squire’s dinner. Charity had appealed against old Benjy in the meantime, representing the dangers of the canal banks; but Mrs. Brown seeing the boy’s inaptitude for female guidance, had decided in Benjy’s favour, and from thenceforth the old man was Tom’s dry nurse. And as they sat by the canal watching their little green and white float, Benjy would instruct him in the doings of deceased Browns. How his grandfather, in the early days of the great war, when there was much distress and crime in the Vale, and the magistrates had been threatened by the mob, had ridden in with a big stick in his hand, and held the Petty Sessions by himself. How his great uncle, the Rector, had encountered and laid the last ghost, who had frightened the old women, male and female, of the parish out of their senses, and who turned out to be the blacksmith’s apprentice, disguised in drink and a white sheet. It was Benjy too who saddled Tom’s first pony, and instructed him in the mysteries of horsemanship, teaching him to throw his weight back and keep his hand low; and who stood chuckling outside the door of the girls’ school, when Tom rode his little Shetland into the cottage and round the table, where the old dame and her pupils were seated at their work.
Benjy himself was come of a family distinguished in the Vale for their prowess in all athletic games. Some half-dozen of his brothers and kinsmen had gone to the wars, of whom only one had survived to come home, with a small pension, and three bullets in different parts of his body; he had shared Benjy’s cottage till his death, and had left him his old dragoon’s sword and pistol, which hung over the mantelpiece, flanked by a pair of heavy single-sticks with which Benjy himself had won renown long ago as an old gamester, against the picked men of Wiltshire and Somersetshire, in many a good bout at the revels and pastime of the country-side. For he had been a famous back-sword man in his young days, and a good wrestler at elbow and collar.
Back-swording and wrestling were the most serious holiday pursuits of the Vale — those by which men attained fame — and each village had its champion. I suppose that on the whole, people were less worked then than they are now; at any rate, they seemed to have more time and energy for the old pastimes. The great times for back-swording came round once a-year in each village, at the feast. The Vale “veasts” were not the common statute feasts, but much more ancient business. They are literally, so far as one can ascertain, feasts of the dedication, i.e. they were first established in the churchyard on the day on which the village church was opened for public worship, which was on the wake or festival of the patron Saint, and have been held on the same day in every year since that time.
There was no longer any remembrance of why the “veast” had been instituted, but nevertheless it had a pleasant and almost sacred character of its own. For it was then that all the children of the village, wherever they were scattered, tried to get home for a holiday to visit their fathers and mothers and friends, bringing with them their wages or some little gift from up the country for the old folk. Perhaps for a day or two before, but at any rate on “veast day” and the day after, in our village, you might see strapping healthy young men and women from all parts of the country going round from house to house in their best clothes, and finishing up with a call on Madam Brown, whom they would consult as to putting out their earnings to the best advantage, or how to expend the same best for the benefit of the old folk. Every household, however poor, managed to raise a “feast-cake” and bottle of ginger or raisin wine, which stood on the cottage table ready for all comers, and not unlikely to make them remember feast time — for feast-cake is very solid, and full of huge raisins. Moreover, feast-time was the day of reconciliation for the parish. If Job Higgins and Noah Freeman hadn’t spoken for the last six months, their “old women” would be sure to get it patched up by that day. And though there was a good deal of drinking and low vice in the booths of an evening, it was pretty well confined to those who would have been doing the like, “veast or no veast,” and on the whole, the effect was humanizing and Christian. In fact, the only reason why this is not the case still, is that gentlefolk and farmers have taken to other amusements, and have, as usual, forgotten the poor. They don’t attend the feasts themselves, and call them disreputable, whereupon the steadiest of the poor leave them also, and they become what they are called. Class amusements, be they for dukes or plough-boys, always become nuisances and curses to a country. The true charm of cricket and hunting is, that they are still more or less sociable and universal; there’s a place for every man who will come and take his part.
No one in the village enjoyed the approach of “veast day” more than Tom, in the year in which he was taken under old Benjy’s tutelage. The feast was held in a large green field at the lower end of the village. The road to Farringdon ran along one side of it, and the brook by the side of the road; and above the brook was another large gentle sloping pasture-land, with a footpath running down it from the churchyard; and the old church, the originator of all the mirth, towered up with its grey walls and lancet windows, overlooking and sanctioning the whole, though its own share therein had been forgotten. At the point where the footpath crossed the brook and road, and entered on the field where the feast was held, was a long low road-side inn, and on the opposite side of the field was a large white thatched farm-house, where dwelt an old sporting farmer, a great promoter of the revels.
Past the old church, and down the footpath, pottered the old man and the child hand in hand early on the afternoon of the day before the feast, and wandered all round the ground, which was already being occupied by the “cheap Jacks,” with their green covered carts and marvellous assortment of wares, and the booths of more legitimate small traders with their tempting arrays of fairings and eatables! and penny peep-shows and other shows, containing pink-eyed ladies, and dwarfs, and boa-constrictors, and wild Indians. But the object of most interest to Benjy, and of course to his pupil also, was the stage of rough planks some four feet high, which was being put up by the village carpenter for the back-swording and wrestling; and after surveying the whole tenderly, old Benjy led his charge away to the road-side inn, where he ordered a glass of ale and a long pipe for himself, and discussed these unwonted luxuries on the bench outside in the soft autumn evening with mine host, another old servant of the Browns, and speculated with him on the likelihood of a good show of old gamesters to contend for the morrow’s prizes, and told tales of the gallant bouts of forty years back, to which Tom listened with all his ears and eyes.
But who shall tell the joy of the next morning, when the church bells were ringing a merry peal, and old Benjy appeared in the servants’ hall, resplendent in a long blue coat and brass buttons, and a pair of old yellow buckskins and top-boots, which he had cleaned for and inherited from Tom’s grandfather; a stout thorn-stick in his hand, and a nosegay of pinks and lavender in his button-hole, and led away Tom in his best clothes, and two new shillings in his breeches-pockets? Those two, at any rate, look like enjoying the day’s revel.
They quicken their pace when they get into the churchyard, for already they see the field thronged with country folk, the men in clean white smocks or velveteen or fustian coats, with rough plush waistcoats of many colours, and the women in the beautiful long scarlet cloak, the usual out-door dress of west-country women in those days, and which often descended in families from mother to daughter, or in new-fashioned stuff shawls, which, if they would but believe it, don’t become them half so well. The air resounds with the pipe and tabor, and the drums and trumpets of the showmen shouting at the doors of their caravans, over which tremendous pictures of the wonders to be seen within hang temptingly; while through all rises the shrill “root-too-too-too” of Mr. Punch, and the unceasing pan-pipe of his satellite.
“Lawk a’ massey, Mr. Benjamin,” cries a stout motherly woman in a red cloak, as they enter the field “be that you? Well I never! you do look purely. And how’s the Squire, and Madam, and the family?”
Benjy graciously shakes hands with the speaker, who has left our village for some years, but has come over for Veast-day on a visit to an old gossip — and gently indicates the heir apparent of the Browns.
“Bless his little heart! I must gi’ un a kiss. Here Susannah, Susannah!” cries she, raising herself from the embrace, “come and see Mr. Benjamin and young Master Tom. You minds our Sukey, Mr. Benjamin, she be growed a rare slip of a wench since you seen her, tho’ her’ll be sixteen come Martinmas. I do aim to take her to see Madam to get her a place.”
And Sukey comes bouncing away from a knot of old school-fellows, and drops a curtsey to Mr. Benjamin. And elders come up from all parts to salute Benjy, and girls who have been Madam’s pupils to kiss Master Tom. And they carry him off to load him with fairings; and he returns to Benjy, his hat and coat covered with ribands, and his pockets crammed with wonderful boxes which open upon ever new boxes and boxes, and popguns and trumpets, and apples, and gilt gingerbread from the stall of Angel Heavens, sole vendor thereof, whose booth groans with kings and queens, and elephants, and prancing steeds, all gleaming with gold. There was more gold on Angel’s cakes than there is ginger in those of this degenerate age. Skilled diggers might yet make a fortune in the churchyards of the Vale, by carefully washing the dust of the consumers of Angel’s gingerbread. Alas! he is with his namesakes, and his receipts have, I fear, died with him.
And then they inspect the penny peep-show, at least Tom does, while old Benjy stands outside and gossips, and walks up the steps, and enters the mysterious doors of the pink-eyed lady, and the Irish Giant, who do not by any means come up to their pictures; and the boa will not swallow his rabbit, but there the rabbit is waiting to be swallowed — and what can you expect for tuppence? We are easily pleased in the Vale. Now there is a rush of the crowd, and a tinkling bell is heard, and shouts of laughter; and Master Tom mounts on Benjy’s shoulders and beholds a jingling match in all its glory. The games are begun, and this is the opening of them. It is a quaint game, immensely amusing to look at, and as I don’t know whether it is used in your counties, I had better describe it. A large roped ring is made, into which are introduced a dozen or so of big boys and young men who mean to play; these are carefully blinded and turned loose into the ring, and then a man is introduced not blindfolded, with a bell hung round his neck, and his two hands tied behind him. Of course every time he moves, the bell must ring, as he has no hand to hold it, and so the dozen blindfolded men have to catch him. This they cannot always manage if he is a lively fellow, but half of them always rush into the arms of the other half, or drive their heads together, or tumble over; and then the crowd laughs vehemently, and invents nicknames for them on the spur of the moment, and they, if they be choleric, tear off the handkerchiefs which blind them, and not unfrequently pitch into one another, each thinking that the other must have run against him on purpose. It is great fun to look at a jingling-match certainly, and Tom shouts, and jumps on old Benjy’s shoulders at the sight, until the old man feels weary, and shifts him to the strong young shoulders of the groom, who has just got down to the fun.
And now, while they are climbing the pole in another part of the field, and muzzling in a flour-tub in another, the old farmer whose house, as has been said, overlooks the field, and who is master of the revels, gets up the steps on to the stage, and announces to all whom it may concern that a half-sovereign in money will be forthcoming for the old gamester who breaks most heads; to which the Squire and he have added a new hat.
The amount of the prize is sufficient to stimulate the men of the immediate neighbourhood, but not enough to bring any very high talent from a distance; so after a glance or two round, a tall fellow, who is a down shepherd, chucks his hat on to the stage and climbs up the steps looking rather sheepish. The crowd of course first cheer, and then chaff as usual, as he picks up his hat and begins handling the sticks to see which will suit him.
“Wooy, Willum Smith, thee cans’t plaay wi’ he arra daay,” says his companion to the blacksmith’s apprentice, a stout young fellow of nineteen or twenty. Willum’s sweetheart is in the “veast” somewhere, and has strictly enjoined him not to get his head broke at back-swording, on pain of her highest displeasure; but as she is not to be seen, (the women pretend not to like to see the back-sword play, and keep away from the stage,) and as his hat is decidedly getting old, he chucks it on to the stage, and follows himself, hoping that he will only have to break other people’s heads, or that after all Rachel won’t really mind.
Then follows the greasy cap lined with fur of a half-gipsy, poaching, loafing fellow, who travels the Vale not for much good, I fancy:
“Full twenty times was Peter feared
For once that Peter was respected”
in fact. And then three or four other hats, including the glossy castor of Joe Willis, the self-elected and would-be champion of the neighbourhood, a well-to-do young butcher of twenty-eight or thereabouts, and a great strapping fellow, with his full allowance of bluster. This is a capital show of gamesters, considering the amount of the prize; so while they are picking their sticks and drawing their lots, I think I must tell you, as shortly as I can, how the noble old game of back-sword is played; for it is sadly gone out of late, even in the Vale, and maybe you have never seen it.
The weapon is a good stout ash-stick with a large basket handle, heavier and somewhat shorter than a common single-stick. The players are called “old gamesters” — why, I can’t tell you, — and their object is simply to break one another’s heads: for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop. A very slight blow with the sticks will fetch blood, so that it is by no means a punishing pastime, if the men don’t play on purpose, and savagely, at the body and arms of their adversaries. The old gamester going into action only takes off his hat and coat, and arms himself with a stick: he then loops the fingers of his left hand in a handkerchief or strap which he fastens round his left leg, measuring the length, so that when he draws it light with his left elbow in the air, that elbow shall just reach as high as his crown. Thus you see, so long as he chooses to keep his left elbow up, regardless of cuts, he has a perfect guard for the left side of his head. Then he advances his right hand above and in front of his head, holding his stick across so that its point projects an inch or two over his left elbow, and thus his whole head is completely guarded, and he faces his man armed in like manner, and they stand some three feet apart, often nearer, and feint, and strike, and return at one another’s heads, until one cries “hold,” or blood flows; in the first case they are allowed a minute’s time, and go on again; in the latter, another pair of gamesters are called on. If good men are playing, the quickness of the returns is marvellous; you hear the rattle like that a boy makes drawing his stick along palings, only heavier, and the closeness of the men in action to one another gives it a strange interest and makes a spell at back-swording a very noble sight.
They are all suited now with sticks, and Joe Willis and the gipsy man have drawn the first lot. So the rest lean against the rails of the stage, and Joe and the dark man meet in the middle, the boards having been strewed with sawdust; Joe’s white shirt and spotless drab breeches and boots contrasting with the gipsy’s coarse blue shirt and dirty green velveteen breeches and leather gaiters. Joe is evidently turning up his nose at the other, and half insulted at having to break his head.
The gipsy is a tough active fellow, but not very skilful with his weapon, so that Joe’s weight and strength tell in a minute; he is too heavy metal for him: whack, whack, whack, come his blows, breaking down the gipsy’s guard, and threatening to reach his head every moment. There it is at last — “Blood, blood!” shout the spectators, as a thin stream oozes out slowly from the roots of his hair, and the umpire calls to them to stop. The gipsy scowls at Joe under his brows in no pleasant manner, while Master Joe swaggers about, and makes attitudes, and thinks himself, and shows that he thinks himself, the greatest man in the field.
Then follow several stout sets-to between the other candidates for the new hat, and at last come the shepherd and Willum Smith. This is the crack set-to of the day. They are both in famous wind, and there is no crying “hold;” the shepherd is an old hand and up to all the dodges; he tries them one after another, and very nearly gets at Willum’s head by coming in near, and playing over his guard at the half-stick, but somehow Willum blunders through, catching the stick on his shoulders, neck, sides, every now and then, anywhere but on his head, and his returns are heavy and straight, and he is the youngest gamester and a favourite in the parish, and his gallant stand brings down shouts and cheers, and the knowing ones think he’ll win if he keeps steady, and Tom on the groom’s shoulder holds his hands together, and can hardly breathe for excitement.
Alas for Willum! his sweetheart getting tired of female companionship has been hunting the booths to see where he can have got to, and now catches sight of him on the stage in full combat. She flushes and turns pale; her old aunt catches hold of her, saying, “Bless’ee, child, doan’t’ee go a’nigst it;” but she breaks away and runs towards the stage calling his name. Willum keeps up his guard stoutly, but glances for a moment towards the voice. No guard will do it, Willum, without the eye. The shepherd steps round and strikes, and the point of his stick just grazes Willum’s forehead, fetching off the skin, and the blood flows, and the umpire cries “Hold,” and poor Willum’s chance is up for the day. But he takes it very well, and puts on his old hat and coat, and goes down to be scolded by his sweetheart, and led away out of mischief. Tom hears him say coaxingly, as he walks off —
“Now doan’t’ee, Rachel! I wouldn’t ha’ done it, only I wanted summut to buy’ee a fairing wi’, and I be as vlush o’ money as a twod o’ veathers.”
“Thee mind what I tells’ee,” rejoins Rachel saucily, “and doan’t’ee kep blethering about fairings.” Tom resolves in his heart to give Willum the remainder of his two shillings after the back-swording.
Joe Willis has all the luck to-day. His next bout ends in an easy victory, while the shepherd has a tough job to break his second head; and when Joe and the shepherd meet, and the whole circle expect and hope to see him get a broken crown, the shepherd slips in the first round and falls against the rails, hurting himself so that the old farmer will not let him go on, much as he wishes to try; and that impostor Joe (for he is certainly not the best man) struts and swaggers about the stage the conquering gamester, though he hasn’t had five minutes really trying play.
Joe takes the new hat in his hand, and puts the money into it, and then as if a thought strikes him and he doesn’t think his victory quite acknowledged down below, walks to each face of the stage, and looks down, shaking the money, and chaffing, as how he’ll stake hat and money and another half-sovereign “agin any gamester as hasn’t played already.” Cunning Joe! he thus gets rid of Willum and the shepherd, who is quite fresh again.
No one seems to like the offer, and the umpire is just coming down, when a queer old hat, something like A Doctor of Divinity’s shovel, is chucked on to the stage, and an elderly quiet man steps out, who has been watching the play, saying he should like to cross a stick wi’ the prodigalish young chap.
The crowd cheer and begin to chaff Joe, who turns up his nose and swaggers across to the sticks. “Imp’dent old wosbird!” says he, “I’ll break the bald head on un to the truth.”
The old boy is very bald certainly, and the blood will show fast enough if you can touch him, Joe.
He takes off his long flapped coat, and stands up in a long flapped waistcoat, which Sir Roger de Coverley might have worn when it was new, picks out a stick, and is ready for Master Joe, who loses no time, but begins his old game, whack, whack, whack, trying to break down the old man’s guard by sheer strength. But it won’t do, — he catches every blow close by the basket, and though he is rather stiff in his returns, after a minute walks Joe about the stage, and is clearly a staunch old gamester. Joe now comes in, and making the most of his height, tries to get over the old man’s guard at half-stick, by which he takes a smart blow in the ribs and another on the elbow and nothing more. And now he loses wind and begins to puff, and the crowd laugh: “Cry ‘hold,’ Joe — thee’st met thy match!” Instead of taking good advice and getting his wind, Joe loses his temper, and strikes at the old man’s body.
“Blood, blood!” shout the crowd, “Joe’s head’s broke!”
Who’d have thought it? How did it come? That body-blow left Joe’s head unguarded for a moment, and with one turn of the wrist the old gentleman has nicked a neat little bit of skin off the middle of his forehead, and though he won’t believe it, and hammers on for three more blows despite of the shouts, is then convinced by the blood trickling into his eye. Poor Joe is sadly crestfallen, and fumbles in his pocket for the other half-sovereign, but the old gamester won’t have it. “Keep thy money, man, and gi’s thy hand,” says he, and they shake hands; but the old gamester gives the new hat to the shepherd, and, soon after, the half-sovereign to Willum, who thereout decorates his sweetheart with ribbons to his heart’s content.
“Who can a be?” “Wur do a cum from?” ask the crowd. And it soon flies about that the old west-country champion, who played a tie with Shaw the Life-guardsman at “Vizes” twenty years before, has broken Joe Willis’s crown for him.
How my country fair is spinning out! I see I must skip the wrestling, and the boys jumping in sacks, and rolling wheelbarrows blindfolded: and the donkey-race, and the fight which arose thereout, marring the otherwise peaceful “veast;” and the frightened scurrying away of the female feast-goers, and descent of Squire Brown, summoned by the wife of one of the combatants to stop it; which he wouldn’t start to do till he had got on his top-boots. Tom is carried away by old Benjy, dog-tired and surfeited with pleasure, as the evening comes on and the dancing begins in the booths; and though Willum and Rachel in her new ribbons and many another good lad and lass don’t come away just yet, but have a good step out, and enjoy it, and get no harm thereby, yet we, being sober folk, will just stroll away up through the churchyard, and by the old yew-tree; and get a quiet dish of tea and a parle with our gossips, as the steady ones of our village do, and so to bed.
That’s the fair true sketch, as far as it goes, of one of the larger village feasts in the Vale of Berks, when I was a little boy. They are much altered for the worse, I am told. I haven’t been at one these twenty years, but I have been at the statute fairs in some west-country towns, where servants are hired, and greater abominations cannot be found. What village feasts have come to, I fear, in many cases, may be read in the pages of Yeast, (though I never saw one so bad — thank God!)
Do you want to know why? It is because, as I said before, gentlefolk and farmers have left off joining or taking an interest in them. They don’t either subscribe to the prizes, or go down and enjoy the fun.
Is this a good or a bad sign? I hardly know. Bad, sure enough, if it only arises from the further separation of classes consequent on twenty years of buying cheap and selling dear, and its accompanying over-work; or because our sons and daughters have their hearts in London Club-life, or so-called Society, instead of in the old English home duties; because farmers’ sons are apeing fine gentlemen, and farmers’ daughters caring more to make bad foreign music than good English cheeses. Good, perhaps, if it be that the time for the old “veast” has gone by, that it is no longer the healthy sound expression of English country holiday-making; that, in fact, we as a nation have got beyond it, and are in a transition state, feeling for and soon likely to find some better substitute.
Only I have just got this to say before I quit the text. Don’t let reformers of any sort think that they are going really to lay hold of the working boys and young men of England by any educational grapnel whatever, which hasn’t some bonâ fide equivalent for the games of the old country “veast” in it; something to put in the place of the back-swording and wrestling and racing; something to try the muscles of men’s bodies, and the endurance of their hearts, and to make them rejoice in their strength. In all the new-fangled comprehensive plans which I see, this is all left out: and the consequence is, that your great Mechanics’ Institutes end in intellectual priggism, and your Christian Young Men’s Societies in religious Pharisaism.
Well, well, we must bide our time. Life isn’t all beer and skittles, — but beer and skittles, or something better of the same sort, must form a good part of every Englishman’s education. If I could only drive this into the heads of you rising Parliamentary Lords, and young swells who “have your ways made for you,” as the saying is, — you, who frequent palaver houses and West-end clubs, waiting always ready to strap yourselves on to the back of poor dear old John, as soon as the present used-up lot (your fathers and uncles), who sit there on the great Parliamentary-majorities’ pack-saddle, and make belief they’re guiding him with their red-tape bridle, tumble, or have to be lifted off!
I don’t think much of you yet — I wish I could; though you do go talking and lecturing up and down the country to crowded audiences, and are busy with all sorts of philanthropic intellectualism, and circulating libraries and museums, and Heaven only knows what besides; and try to make us think, through newspaper reports, that you are, even as we, of the working classes. But, bless your hearts, we “ain’t so green,” though lots of us of all sorts toady you enough certainly, and try to make you think so.
I’ll tell you what to do now: instead of all this trumpeting and fuss, which is only the old Parliamentary-majority dodge over again — just you go each of you (you’ve plenty of time for it, if you’ll only give up t’other line,) and quietly make three or four friends, real friends, among us. You’ll find a little trouble in getting at the right sort, because such birds don’t come lightly to your lure — but found they may be. Take, say, two out of the professions, lawyer, parson, doctor — which you will; one out of trade, and three or four out of the working classes — tailors, engineers, carpenters, engravers, — there’s plenty of choice. Let them be men of your own ages, mind, and ask them to your homes; introduce them to your wives and sisters, and get introduced to theirs: give them good dinners, and talk to them about what is really at the bottom of your heart, and box, and run, and row with them, when you have a chance. Do all this honestly as man to man, and by the time you come to ride old John, you’ll be able to do something more than sit on his back, and may feel his mouth with some stronger bridle than a red tape one.
Ah, if you only would! But you have got too far out of the right rut, I fear. Too much over-civilization, and the deceitfulness of riches. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. More’s the pity. I never came across but two of you, who could value a man wholly and solely for what was in him; who thought themselves verily and indeed of the same flesh and blood as John Jones the attorney’s clerk, and Bill Smith the costermonger, and could act as if they thought so.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55