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A GLIMPSE OF BEANFIELD.
BY JOHN STEBBING.
BEANFIELD is just the right place to pass the summer in, if you must pass it in any town at all, for the sunlight always seems to be so completely entangled amidst its old garden walls, its gable ends, and open market-place streets, as to have resigned all thoughts of making its escape. But though I have passed the spring, and am passing the summer in Beanfield, I do not wish it to be inferred that I am always basking in the sunlight. I habitually sit in a room whose only: window is a skylight. My prospect consists of a region of cloudland and a huge horse-chesnut-tree. My occupations are legal, and my companions a set of old musty books, knocking each other's heads about in a glass-framed case, the most notable being Oke's Magisterial Institutes, Burrow's Reports, a few volumes of the Spectator, and a number of antiquated law journals and diaries. On Tuesdays and Fridays the magistrates sit in the large room next to mine, to send back to the workhouse the old women who will discharge themselves as soon as the spring sunshine appears, and go wandering about the fields stealing turnip-tops. From the clerk's office beyond occasionally come to my ears, on fine afternoons, subdued murmurs of popular airs. But with these exceptions my days pass very silently, partly occupied in work, and partly in gazing at the horse-chesnut-tree which I have already mentioned, and which for a thousand reasons I love. In the first place, it is so peculiarly my own; I am quite sure that I alone of all people in the world counted its great golden buds in the spring time, and watched with delight the resuscitation of each leaf that seemed to have been half-drowned by its first plunge into the unfathomable sky. Who but myself can have discovered that it is the south-west wind which most frequently and most gracefully discloses the purple casements of sky through the green curtains of leaves ? I want to tell you all about my life here, and the place and the people; but I don't know exactly where to begin, for I haven't been so lucky these six months as have lived a story, or, if I have, I can't discover the remotest clue to a plot. I suppose I must begin at the beginning, and that was the railway station.
Little could the architect of that great red brick house, with the columned porch and the tall sunken windows, of which those on the firstfloor are surmounted by a brickwork cherub apiece-little could the carver of its oaken banisters and the scrolls of fruit and flowers on the panels—little could the owner, as in all the dignity of peruke and hairpowder he stepped through its sombre corridors- little could any one of these have suspected that their pet mansion would one day be the houseof-call for the mail, and that its penetralia would be invaded by penny trains. But the blow did not come with unmitigated force. The country-house of the beau of Queen Anne's reign had for many years ere its present destiny served as a boarding-school. You can still see the stains of ink on the green paint of the carved peaches ; and it was some busier hand than that of Time which broke off the beaks from the eagleheads on the staircase. Just on that spot where we wait for a railway
ticket has many a young urchin stood, invoking tardy Horace from the ceiling ; and those two sisters seated on the luggage behind their mamma оссиру. the favourite seat of many a pair of friends who chose to do their Virgil in that corner, that they might talk together, and look out upon the green
fields unobserved. When the school removed, it retreated to another old house three or four miles from Beanfield, near a gravel-pit. Some schools seem to belong to old houses ; you have an instinctive feeling that they would cease to exist should they attempt to change their earthly garment of gables and red brick for any other. The idiosyncrasies of private schools might form a subject for interesting investigation.
We leave the old yew in the garden of the railway station, and stand on the outskirts of Beanfield. Behind us is a bank of hills as green and bright as though it were the side of a furrow in a field of malachite. On the right hand are the fields dipping into the horizon, with white gates here and there, like ships amidst the meadow grass. At our feet is a curve of the river. Down to the right there, amidst the few cottages near the holly-bush, at the end of the town, stands a tall, white-haired old man, making memoranda in his note-book ; he is a Waterloo pensioner, and holds the office of inspector of nuisances to the Beanfield board of health ; he has just discovered a huge uncovered drain, and marks with vast delight its gleaming, lazy, bituminous flood, rolling through the rank summer herbage on its banks. He disregards, as the mere fantasy of witchcraft, the group of noisy, healthy-looking children playing by its side, and marches off to obtain an order for its instant removal. Let us follow him half a mile to the south, along Chaseside. What a splendid bed of tulips, and what a curious old wooden cottage! The parish church beadle lives here; not at all of the Bumble species, but in appearance something like the stalk side of an apple, quaintly lined and tucked in about his mouth. That is his daughter leaning over the paling by the currant-bushes ; she is talking to some little girls who used to be her schoolfellows, but she is too delicate to go to school now.
She is making a present to one of them of a doll. “Oh! what a pretty hat! and separate sleeves! and shoes! and”—but here the voice is sunk, and the profane vulgar are supposed to be out of hearing—“wax legs ? yes ! all over !
Passing across a little meadow, in which the sorrel is already turning scarlet, and then waking up a kind of muttered echo between two high garden-walls, we come again upon the river and a house beside it. It is one of the pleasantest houses in the town, being situated between the rippling river and the old park, now used as a pasture. There are two rows of windows in its red brick front, and two rows in its red tile roof; a group of Lombardy poplars on the right balances a huge heap of ivy, which overgrows the gables on the left. There is an easy stile across the path between the bank of the stream and the garden wall, which little market-bound children use to stand on tiptoe to see the girls sitting beneath the large plum-tree, sewing and manipulating white silk and black and white velvet. If you cross this stile and follow the path you reach some spacious, sun-delighting workshops, a few feet beyond the garden, in which labour seems to have changed itself into a busy holiday. Stand now on the bridge to the left, and catch broad, sidelong views of the house, and the garden-wall, and the workshops, and the reach of the
river, and the old park pastures beyond ; the afternoon sunlight is thronging with glory a heap of noble trunks of elms on the deep green sward before the gate, and little children are nestling amongst them like the very crystals of rural health and happiness; on the house-front the roses are as a damask sash between the first and second stories ; the red wine of evening sunlight is running to waste with a glorious abundance amongst the fragments of bottles on the garden-wall; and so our eyes gradually reach the workshops, which seem partly summer-house and partly greenhouse, with their large sashes half open, and the elder-trees in bloom grouped freely about them. Laths and timbers, saws, hammers, and planes, merry apprentices and cheerful workmen ;-how brightly the evening sun glows upon the last hour of their labour, which is also reflected in bright detail within the tranquil river amidst the boughs of the overhanging chesnuts. Surely it must be a boat-builder's! Surely yon intelligent-looking man, who is evidently the master, employs the sweet leisure of the hour, during which he reclines beneath the plum-tree in his garden, in tracing with his mind's eye upon the gravel walks the ribs and vertebræ of skiff's and wherries, which would be worthy, for their form's sake, to have stars for anchors. Well, it is a boat-builder's ; they build many boats in those workrooms of much simplicity, which go on long voyages, richly freighted, with never a wreck ; boats which are launched not from the river-side, dock, or creek, nor from the pebbly beach, with a christening benediction of wine, but on the rank herbage of the graveyard, with a libation of sullen clay, amidst the stony emblems of humanity. Mr. Shorley is the Beanfield undertaker.
If it is one of the pleasantest houses in the town, they are certainly two of the prettiest children in the town who now stand in front of the undertaker's house, waiting for their father, who is in the yard talking with Mr. Shorley. It is a sad business on which they have come, and the two children feel a little conscience-stricken that they are not sadder at the thought that they shall no more play with their little baby-brother, nor any more measure his height with the Newfoundland; but they comfort each other with the reflection that they shall think more about it, and be more grieved when a little time has passed by; and so they allow themselves to enjoy the touch of the evening air through the curls upon their foreheads, and watch the blue-backed swifts darting to and fro through the bridge, as though it were the eye of a great silver needle and they were the purple threads. But Mr. Shorley soon appears at the gate, taking leave of the tall, pale gentleman, with an air which seems anxious to anticipate future favours while it expresses gratitude for the present; and then the bright-haired children, taking each a hand, accompany their papa across the heath, along paths bordered with wild thyme, so fresh and buoyant-although from natural feeling they indulge in no expressions of mirth—that they seem like the radiant edges of a cloud, by the warmth and radiance of which alone the dark sad cloud is preserved from falling into a swoon of tears.
A few minutes' stroll round the old Hog Pasture brings me to the little row of humble detached cottages, in one of which I lodge. I will not ask you in, because the partition between my landlady's room and mine is so thin, and her baby cries so much, which makes me ashamed when I have visitors. And besides, the sunlight is becoming richer, and there is just the suspicion of a pleasant coolness amidst the elms, and I have the other side of Beanfield to show
you. The road in front of my residence is one of those smooth gravel ones, running between deep borders of green turf, which, after a smart summer shower, are full of bright pools, which are as deep for half an hour as the blue heavens are high; but this evening it is all ruby-tinted, and droops amongst the trees in Sandy Hollow like a weary monarch's sceptre in the folds of his royal robe. On the opposite side of the way is a garden paling raised upon a somewhat steep bank, on which two kids are gathering their evening meal; then comes a row of half a dozen cottages, with the foliage of five grand elms above their roof : almost all of them have their doors wide open, but a man is entering one with a latch-key; the foliage of the vine and the westeria adorns the line of smooth brickwork; the occupations of the inhabitants of most of them seem to be ironing and making beds, for sheets and other linen are continually passing before the windows like ghosts, or the half-furled sails of ships in a storm. Beyond this bit of builder's speculation is a chasm of what appears at first sight a confusion of garden pales and apple-trees; but soon the eye rests gladly on mossy thatched roofs and leaded casements, slanting at all imaginable angles, but always gathering the sweetest sunlight. I do not know how many separate homesteads are collected together in this Tural nook, nor much about their inhabitants, but it is tolerably certain that amongst them are a straw-bonnet maker and a butcher's-block maker; as for the latter fine fellow, it has long been my delight to watch him for a few minutes before breakfast at his hearty toil. How lovingly he handles the huge mass! With what a delicate sense he fashions the lump into that form which in a butcher's block is recognised as beauty! As for the straw-bonnet maker I know nothing of her, but once a week or so, on a bench amongst the currant and gooseberry-bushes, glittering as brightly as crocks of gold or beehives, are displayed four or five specimens of her toil. I sometimes conjecture why they are thus set forth, and as the position does not offer a chance of sale, I decide that it is done out of pride and over-gloriousness. Beyond this nest of cottages, and much nearer the road, is a butcher's shop, which enters fully into the spirit of the early closing movement, for any day at six o'clock the proprietor may be seen sitting beneath the iron lattice-work of the closed shutters, smoking as calmly as though he had no weight on his conscience of unsold sheep within. I am recalled from my glance to the opposite side of the way by the “Good evening” of my neighbour the rat-killer. There are two stumps of poplar-trees in his garden, and he is leading against one, smoking - I suppose he kills rats by smoking, for he never does anything else. His little girl leans against the opposite poplar, hemming the skirt of an eternal lilac frock ; but now her brother comes home from work, a lad about sixteen, and the pipe goes out, and the frock is neglected, while they all three stand about the currant-bush next the wall which the blight has withered, as though a flame had passed over it.
I am passing the infant-school now, with a double row of limes all round it. I remember being near them the first day I came here, and wondering that trees so young should have attracted so many bees; but a minute after the clock struck twelve, and the murmur ceased, and a crowd of pretty faces, and pink and blue and white frocks, broke into a score of
charming groups about the green-tinted stems. This fine old house on the left is about to be pulled down; there are bills on each side of the broad, ornamented iron gate respecting the sale of the naterials ; Ic read from here that there are two hundred thousand bricks to be sold at the rate of eleven shillings a thousand; in another week the ribs of its roof will be drifting, like the skeleton of a vast sea-monster, amidst the flying clouds in the moonlight. It was once inhabited by the lord of the manor, and when the act was passed for dividing all the commons and lammas-grounds and marsh-lands, that wooded strip which stretches down along the river's side was allotted to it. Now a Freehold Land Society has purchased it, and has resolved to run the chief road of their estate through the library and butler's pantry; democratic vengeance, I suppose, against all things feudal and antique, lords of manors, doomsdaybooks, and ale stoops. I can never pass this orchard—nor, in fact, any other—without leaning on the gate for a while to enjoy the sweet silence and beauty which pervade the avenues betwixt the mossy stems; everything here gives pleasure : a fragment of a broken bough gleaming like a bit of crusted gold in the level sunlight, a dead leaf upon the rich herbage of the shade, seem to ripple the sense of enjoyment to its farthest expanse. I can see through the drooped boughs, in the farthest corner, an old man with a wicker-basket, and know that he is Old Garland, who has permission to pick up the fallen fruit in this orchard; he is always picking up something: in the spring you may see him on the White Webb pastures gathering sorrel, and in the autumn contending with the black swine for the mast. I have reached Brigadier Hill now, where there are two pretty houses, one low and dark, of brickwork, covered with ivy; the other
, much loftier, white, wooden, with a rustic porch ; a retired barrister lives in one, and the surgeon of the place in the other; there are children in both, and I have often, when passing at midnight, heard little voices calling to each other across the cedars; indeed, the houses are so close together that the children in the one cease from their play when they are at prayers in the other. But I am approaching the open country now, and at this turn of the road I lean upon the stile beside the Stone-Crop Well, and look back upon the town.
There is Beanfield in all its evening glory, purple, and amethyst, and gold. It seems as though that portion of the earth were being remolten, and even now the square church-tower meets my gaze like a sudden crystal from the mass. Suppose I had always lived in London, or suppose I had always lived on some wild country-side, how completely should I be rightly to appreciate the scene before me.
I am on high ground, amidst meadows thickly strewn with oaks and elms; the river is beneath me on my left, and the mists of evening are already amidst the alders, making them seem as though Arachne had her home there; right in front is a patch of oats, the ear full formed, but still quite young, affording a delicate gratification to the eye, such as can scarcely be surpassed, so broad in mass, so delicate in detail. Beneath this field are meadows, from which the hay has just been carried, and the cattle are in their own pastures again. Beyond these commences the town. Houses that seem to have no gardens, gardens that seem to have no houses, streets without commencement or exit, boldly sketched in as background and foreground to groups of children who, seen from here, seem to move not at all; clumps of elms so tall that they force the wayfaring crow to turn