Out of the Past

A RARE occupation it is to vex our minds with trying to re-create a living, visible background for the storied events in our country’s history, a rare thing to envisage with undimmed mental eye just exactly how the chalk cliffs of England looked, with thyme and viper’s bugloss in flower, when Cæsar visited our island; to recapture in retrospect the very smells of the great Hampshire forest on the morning of William Rufus’s death; to hear across fields enclosed for hay the sound of the rebeck as the country villages rejoiced over the return of Charles Stuart.

But quite apart from such imaginative pastimes, which are, indeed, common to all of us, each family, however modest its origin, possesses its own particular tale of the past — a tale which can bewitch us with as great a sense of insistent romance as can ever the traditions of kings and princes. The years lived by our father before he begot us have upon them a wonder that cannot easily be matched. Just as we feel ourselves half participant in the experiences of our children, so in some dim way do we share in those adventures of this mortal who not so long ago moved over the face of the earth like a god to call us up out of the deep.

Often it is the name of some particular place, some historic city with tilted roofs and clustered chimneys, some market town or wintry hamlet, that is associated with this transfigured world before we were born. We grow up with scraps of hearsay about the place forever in our ears, the very repetition of the accustomed syllables creating presently an assured legend, a legend that takes soon an important part in the substance of our minds.

In the annals of my own family it is the Dorset village of Stalbridge that has held our imaginations in fee. Ever since the days when our father would visit the nursery before going down to his tea in the dining room, the word ‘Stalbridge’ has carried in its utterance a significance outside the commonplace. Stalbridge! The old china tea set came from Stalbridge. It was at Stalbridge that a cup of coffee used to be left in the oven overnight so that it might be warm for my father in the early hours of the morning when, as a boy, he set out to fish for pike in the still black river pools of the Stour. It was in Stalbridge Vale that my father had found all the rarest specimens in his collection of birds’ eggs, in that collection which he preserved so carefully all through his long life in the three lower drawers of the cabinet in his study. It was to Stalbridge that he had gone, half across the county, in his great age, when, rendered dumb as an animal by the merciless years, he had suddenly, without warning, left his servants in his house at Weymouth. Hour after hour passed and still he did not return, this aged, inarticulate clergyman, who was so old that he had almost forgotten how a man puts bread into his mouth. It was to Stalbridge that he had gone, to the beloved rectory where he had played with his brother.

What manner of call had he received, imperative and not to be denied, to return unto that place from whence he came? Far away over the seas as I was at the time, I have often wondered whether I could have borne to have found him, this old man, my father, advancing with deliberate purpose, with intellectual purpose, along the green leafy lanes of Dorset. Should I have had the temerity to divert him from his dedicated pilgrimage with the cry of ‘Father!’ as he went forward, this octogenarian who was lost and yet who knew every stile, every ditch, every shard, along the way he was taking?

It is exactly ninety years since my grandfather, who himself was born in the eighteenth century, — was born, indeed, but five years after the death of Dr. Johnson, — came first to Stalbridge to take possession of the fattest of all the Corpus livings. And in the circle of those years my father has lived to a great age, and to-day lies buried hip bone to hip bone by the side of my mother in Somersetshire clay.

For the first time in my life I visited Stalbridge last Whitsuntide. With the dear companion of my days I set out upon my adventure in bright June sunshine. Hardly had we descended upon the deserted village platform when we felt come over us a strange glamour. Although for sixty years no member of my family had lived in the village, yet as we came up the street each crooked, mute paving stone seemed to keep back a memory. We entered the churchyard, and there under the tall holly, with rose trees at its foot, was the flat stone marking my grandfather’s grave. There he was lying, this other octogenarian, hip bone to hip bone with his wife. Presently we opened a side gate and entered Stalbridge Park. It was noon. We found ourselves in a hayfield. Then it was, as we ate our fruit, under the shadow of a group of West Country elms, that ninety years seemed to us to shrink to the proportions of a day.

With the ancient timber standing in the mown grass, with the protecting wall of quarried slabs set up like tombstones about the meadow, familiar to me from many an old faded water color in the album at home, the prospect before us was exactly the same, and we knew it, as it must have been when, as a young girl, Queen Victoria sat upon the throne of England. Here through these sweet-smelling pastures my grandfather must have walked on many a summer evening, here my father must have come as a boy on many an early spring morning in search of the brittle eggs of the far-off ancestors of the birds which crossed and recrossed our vision in the trembling gnat-burdened air between tree and tree. Out of the stones of the old sheep-washing pool, now fallen into decay, grew herb Robert and silverweed, flowers so familiar, so actual and inevitable to the experience of my own life, that it seemed impossible that these simple tokens of the countryside as we knew it could ever have adorned in the same matter-of-fact way the nooks of this pastoral structure on those occasions when my uncle and my father had stood to watch the busy activities that used to take place here in the old days.

We left the park and entered Wood Lane, a hesitating narrow lane which runs above the village. We knocked at the door of a thatched cottage. The woman who answered us gave us cool water to drink from her mossy well. She knew nothing of my grandfather, but told us to go to an aged woman named Maria at the end of the street. Old Maria had nearly lived out a century and yet her mind was still clear. She took down a book, a thin book on religion, kept carefully all these years, with my grandfather’s writing on it. ‘You yourself be terribly like to him,’ she said. ’I can mind the old gentleman as though ’t were yesterday; I can most see ’an now come down the street with half crown in flat of hand. On one of the young gentlemans’ birthdays we would go up to the house and dance before ’en. I do carry the ditty in head to this day.’ And this old woman, whose face had retained through all her years so much refinement, sang to us these simple words: —

‘Children go to and fro
In a merry, pretty row.
Footsteps light, faces bright,
’T is a happy, happy sight.
Swiftly turning round and round,
Do not look upon the ground.
Follow me, full of glee,
Singing merrily.’

And as I gazed upon this frail human being, so purely winnowed by the harsh flails of life, I felt a deep love surge up in me for the old creature who still carried in her head the memory of the dancing days of her childhood under the mulberry tree in the rectory garden of Stalbridge eighty years ago. There she stood before us, backed by her cottage ornaments, her small head swaying a little as she repeated the words of t he rhyme. When we turned to go tears were falling down her cheeks and were in my own eyes. Had we not both of us been plunged into the deep waters of the past that are forever flowing toward an ocean without marge or bottom?

From Maria we went to the cottage of Mrs. Duffet, another old woman. She required no prompting. She remembered Mr. Powys. Had not her mother come to the very house in which she now lived so as to be nearer to the rectory? A duty had been required of her— the duty, namely, of twice a day suckling my father. Here, then, I was talking to my father’s foster sister — this old woman and my father had been held up to the same fountain, had drunk from the same life-giving well. This was the daughter of the woman who had put wormwood to her dugs, sitting in the sun under Stalbridge Cross!

How would it be possible to catch, to hold for a moment, the quality of those magical hours of June sunshine, of June moonlight, down in that Dorset village? At night we wandered along Drew Lane far into the vale. On all sides of us recumbent cattle dreamed away their animal existence under hedges festooned with dog-roses already in bud. Barn-door owls with unfilmed eyes called to each other out of the hollow bodies of listening trees. One by one the lights of the village above the valley were put out. The old men dreamed, the old women dreamed, the boys and girls dreamed, and a grace, the solace of antiquity, sustained in Christian peace these ancient meadows.

The next morning we were waked by the treading of cows being driven through the street. All was once more astir. Above each little back garden, with its produce so neatly set out in rows, innumerable larks trilled. We left our hostess early and made our way in the direction of the next village. Often had I heard my father speak of a certain halter path which led to Sturminster Newton, and I now had a mind to follow it. More like a lane than a path it turned out to be. Sturdy oaks flourished on each side of it. We presently realized that we were overtaking a bowed figure, who, with a stick in her hand, was picking her way over the ruts. We spoke to her. She had lived in Stalbridge all her life, she said. When she heard who I was she laughed aloud. She remembered my uncle Littleton well. ’He used to run races along be I. He used to give I star cakes; they star cakes were as big round as a frying pan and had currants in ’em.’ And then as the old woman gathered her memories about her, like starlings collecting on a bare January field, it was as though in that ancient mind time became discounted. The bracken that was uncurling on upright stems in the ditches belonged to the year 1927, but to the old cottage woman it opened upon a world where death itself was forgotten. ‘Tell them, tell them,’ she cried with excitement, ‘that ye met Nancy Curtis in the halter path, the girl what used to run races for they star cakes — that will bring I back to the mind o’ ’em.’

I asked for her blessing and hurried on. How could I explain that she had given me a message to a soldier who had been lying dead in the dry soil of India already for half a century!