— It is what Carlyle called a “leafy Sussex lane.” It was a favorite lane with young Arthur Stanley when yonder rectory was his temporary home, and fame far before him. But a short bird’s flight away is the cottage in which John Sterling lodged during the very brief time that he served the Church ; through these hedgerows Frederick Denison Maurice often passed, seeing only the world within him.
It is a lane of English poetry and idyls ; withdrawn from a quiet highway, and winding through cornfields past a stately mansion with Jacobean windows blocked up and Victorian children about the door, till it dwindles to a mere track across the ancient deer park to the ruined castle.
Because of its seclusion it was chosen by one easily mistaken for a lady gathering flowers, perhaps even for the châtelaine of yonder towers gathering simples for the still-room ; a dignified attitude, figure even stately, the dress (twenty yards away) entirely ladylike.
But why that blue vapor rising timidly but an inch or two above the grass ? Has a lady of the olden times here set up her delicate laboratory to distill sweet fragrances and perfumed oils and essences, within touch of the vast and silent one of nature herself ?
“ I am not a good fire - maker,” said a gentle voice, a voice that might have given command to many men and maidens.
The speaker wore a hat becoming her age and face. A queen of fashion could not have better chosen. It was a close, lace-trimmed, black hat, precisely such as dowager duchesses wear in their gardens ; under its drooping brim, snowy hair, a refined hut weatherbeaten face, sound but neglected teeth. A faded cloak, once elegant, the remnants of a cotton frock, and ragged boot soles under more ragged white cotton stockings had no suggestion whatever of the neatness which makes poverty respectable. Instead of neatness and respectability was an air those decencies never have, le grand air.
In the midst of the timid smoke was a biscuit tin, set among smouldering twigs gathered by the wayside. “Would you kindly smell of it, madam,” she mildly said, “ and tell me how it seems to one who fares daintily ? I have scraped away all the maggots.” Had she said “lady,” the shibboleth of menials, I should never have seen the inside of that biscuit tin with contents gently seething, ornamented with a bit of parsley, and sending up no odor, so far as I could tell.
“ Thank you,” re-covering the tin. “ Now it will taste better. A butcher’s kind wife gave it to me.”
Her glances about her were as timid as her timid fire. “ I asked a lady outside the lane if any trouble could come upon me here, and she thought not. I should like a cup of tea ” (she said “ cup,” but meant her rusty cocoa tin) “ better than this flesh food, and people will rarely refuse us hot water, though they refuse us everything else.”
That “us” was the first actual clue to her condition.
“ I did not sleep well last night. A cup of tea cheers without inebriating, after such a night ; ” adding naively, “ Ho you not find it so ? ”
Only in answer to questioning, felt under the circumstances to be grossly vulgar and impertinent, she told that, although last night’s lodgings had been satisfactory, the sound of whistling outside had several times disturbed her slumbers.
“ Who whistle are honest,” said the visitor.
“ Of just such we are, unfortunately, afraid,” she answered simply. “ The single woman seemed delicate, so I gave her my corner, away from the door ; the married couple took the fagot-heap ; so I had Hobson’s choice inside the empty coal-bin, although I did not know it till I found bits in my mouth ; but, as Shakespeare says, where ignorance is bliss ’t is folly to be wise.”
“ Where are your fellow-lodgers ? Why did you not keep with them ? ”
“ Why should I ? I knew not who and what they were. Doubtless they were decent enough, but one must be very careful in making acquaintance when one takes to the road. The single woman was rather clever; she told me not to he afraid of dirty water, for all comes clean when it is boiled. But she had biscuits and sugar, and the married couple had tea. I had nothing, so I left them all together.”
The tanned and dirty hands were soft and still shapely. “ Picking oakum is their severest labor,” she said. “ I avoid the Shelters as much as possible on that account ; also because iu the most of them the officers speak as if you were dirt under their feet. The last one I entered at Hastings is a very ill-bred affair; so is that at Hailsham. I have turned sixty, but I can still walk all night rather than bear with rudeness. I am getting on to the Hailsham Shelter now, but if the sky clears I shall make an effort to pass it ; they keep you in until eleven, the best time of the day. Hopping begins next week; I shall probably have a pound at the end of it, enough to pay my winter’s rent. I cannot earn now the wages of twenty-five. At twenty-five I paid wages ; at fifty I was servant in a clergyman’s family, but I could not get on with his wife ; her accent was atrociously vulgar; in Warwick we use good English ; so I took out a five-shilling license to sell the bit of lace I crochet ; and now I have neither license nor lace.”
“ Husband ? He died of riotous living. Children? Both dead, and I have no abiding city, no home made with hands.”
Was she going to cant ? Did she take me for a Bible reader, as van people usually do?
“ Sad, is n’t it ? ” she laughed gleefully, seeing my perplexed face.
“ You don’t look your age, dear ” (when told it). “ But it’s sheets.” Here she drew herself up as do tragedy queens. She flourished a rusty case knife and a battered cocoa tin, not violently, but in a grand manner. “ Sheets,” she crooned, — “sheets, white, clean sheets; under them a bed, over them soft, white blankets ! In them one may turn as far as one’s arms can reach. Oh, the blessedness of sheets, sweet-smelling sheets, sheets ! Can such things be without our special wonder? the Bible says.”
The Lady Tramp then deliberately turned her back on me. She had asked for nothing, and I felt dismissed with a whole Longer Catechism yet unanswered.
When I returned, half an hour later, madam had tied her biscuit tin and contents in a grimy cloth to sling upon her arm. She accepted a small parcel with a stately bow. “You are not a Christian,” she daringly said; “ Christians don’t give away grocer’s parcels of tea. You are better, — you are a lady ! ”
As she placed the parcel in her ragged satchel she saw an inquisitive gaze rest upon a few yellow rags neatly folded.
“My clean handkerchiefs,” she explained.