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Chapter 1

GEORGE SOMERSET.

I.

The sun blazed down and down, till it was within half-an-hour
of its setting; but the sketcher still lingered at his
occupation of measuring and copying the chevroned doorway--a
bold and quaint example of a transitional style of
architecture, which formed the tower entrance to an English
village church. The graveyard being quite open on its western
side, the tweed-clad figure of the young draughtsman, and the
tall mass of antique masonry which rose above him to a
battlemented parapet, were fired to a great brightness by the
solar rays, that crossed the neighbouring mead like a warp of
gold threads, in whose mazes groups of equally lustrous gnats
danced and wailed incessantly.

He was so absorbed in his pursuit that he did not mark the
brilliant chromatic effect of which he composed the central
feature, till it was brought home to his intelligence by the
warmth of the moulded stonework under his touch when
measuring; which led him at length to turn his head and gaze
on its cause.

There are few in whom the sight of a sunset does not beget as
much meditative melancholy as contemplative pleasure, the
human decline and death that it illustrates being too obvious
to escape the notice of the simplest observer. The sketcher,
as if he had been brought to this reflection many hundreds of
times before by the same spectacle, showed that he did not
wish to pursue it just now, by turning away his face after a
few moments, to resume his architectural studies.

He took his measurements carefully, and as if he reverenced
the old workers whose trick he was endeavouring to acquire six
hundred years after the original performance had ceased and
the performers passed into the unseen. By means of a strip of
lead called a leaden tape, which he pressed around and into
the fillets and hollows with his finger and thumb, he
transferred the exact contour of each moulding to his drawing,
that lay on a sketching-stool a few feet distant; where were
also a sketching-block, a small T-square, a bow-pencil, and
other mathematical instruments. When he had marked down the
line thus fixed, he returned to the doorway to copy another as
before.

It being the month of August, when the pale face of the
townsman and the stranger is to be seen among the brown skins
of remotest uplanders, not only in England, but throughout the
temperate zone, few of the homeward-bound labourers paused to
notice him further than by a momentary turn of the head. They
had beheld such gentlemen before, not exactly measuring the
church so accurately as this one seemed to be doing, but
painting it from a distance, or at least walking round the
mouldy pile. At the same time the present visitor, even
exteriorly, was not altogether commonplace. His features were
good, his eyes of the dark deep sort called eloquent by the
sex that ought to know, and with that ray of light in them
which announces a heart susceptible to beauty of all kinds,--
in woman, in art, and in inanimate nature. Though he would
have been broadly characterized as a young man, his face bore
contradictory testimonies to his precise age. This was
conceivably owing to a too dominant speculative activity in
him, which, while it had preserved the emotional side of his
constitution, and with it the significant flexuousness of
mouth and chin, had played upon his forehead and temples till,
at weary moments, they exhibited some traces of being over-
exercised. A youthfulness about the mobile features, a mature
forehead--though not exactly what the world has been familiar
with in past ages--is now growing common; and with the advance
of juvenile introspection it probably must grow commoner
still. Briefly, he had more of the beauty--if beauty it ought
to be called--of the future human type than of the past; but
not so much as to make him other than a nice young man.

His build was somewhat slender and tall; his complexion,
though a little browned by recent exposure, was that of a man
who spent much of his time indoors. Of beard he had but small
show, though he was as innocent as a Nazarite of the use of
the razor; but he possessed a moustache all-sufficient to hide
the subtleties of his mouth, which could thus be tremulous at
tender moments without provoking inconvenient criticism.

Owing to his situation on high ground, open to the west, he
remained enveloped in the lingering aureate haze till a time
when the eastern part of the churchyard was in obscurity, and
damp with rising dew. When it was too dark to sketch further
he packed up his drawing, and, beckoning to a lad who had been
idling by the gate, directed him to carry the stool and
implements to a roadside inn which he named, lying a mile or
two ahead. The draughtsman leisurely followed the lad out of
the churchyard, and along a lane in the direction signified.

The spectacle of a summer traveller from London sketching
mediaeval details in these neo-Pagan days, when a lull has
come over the study of English Gothic architecture, through a
re-awakening to the art-forms of times that more nearly
neighbour our own, is accounted for by the fact that George
Somerset, son of the Academician of that name, was a man of
independent tastes and excursive instincts, who unconsciously,
and perhaps unhappily, took greater pleasure in floating in
lonely currents of thought than with the general tide of
opinion. When quite a lad, in the days of the French Gothic
mania which immediately succeeded to the great English-pointed
revival under Britton, Pugin, Rickman, Scott, and other
mediaevalists, he had crept away from the fashion to admire
what was good in Palladian and Renaissance. As soon as
Jacobean, Queen Anne, and kindred accretions of decayed styles
began to be popular, he purchased such old-school works as
Revett and Stuart, Chambers, and the rest, and worked
diligently at the Five Orders; till quite bewildered on the
question of style, he concluded that all styles were extinct,
and with them all architecture as a living art. Somerset was
not old enough at that time to know that, in practice, art had
at all times been as full of shifts and compromises as every
other mundane thing; that ideal perfection was never achieved
by Greek, Goth, or Hebrew Jew, and never would be; and thus he
was thrown into a mood of disgust with his profession, from
which mood he was only delivered by recklessly abandoning
these studies and indulging in an old enthusiasm for poetical
literature. For two whole years he did nothing but write
verse in every conceivable metre, and on every conceivable
subject, from Wordsworthian sonnets on the singing of his tea-
kettle to epic fragments on the Fall of Empires. His
discovery at the age of five-and-twenty that these inspired
works were not jumped at by the publishers with all the
eagerness they deserved, coincided in point of time with a
severe hint from his father that unless he went on with his
legitimate profession he might have to look elsewhere than at
home for an allowance. Mr. Somerset junior then awoke to
realities, became intently practical, rushed back to his dusty
drawing-boards, and worked up the styles anew, with a view of
regularly starting in practice on the first day of the
following January.

It is an old story, and perhaps only deserves the light tone
in which the soaring of a young man into the empyrean, and his
descent again, is always narrated. But as has often been
said, the light and the truth may be on the side of the
dreamer: a far wider view than the wise ones have may be his
at that recalcitrant time, and his reduction to common measure
be nothing less than a tragic event. The operation called
lunging, in which a haltered colt is made to trot round and
round a horsebreaker who holds the rope, till the beholder
grows dizzy in looking at them, is a very unhappy one for the
animal concerned. During its progress the colt springs
upward, across the circle, stops, flies over the turf with the
velocity of a bird, and indulges in all sorts of graceful
antics; but he always ends in one way--thanks to the knotted
whipcord--in a level trot round the lunger with the regularity
of a horizontal wheel, and in the loss for ever to his
character of the bold contours which the fine hand of Nature
gave it. Yet the process is considered to be the making of
him.

Whether Somerset became permanently made under the action of
the inevitable lunge, or whether he lapsed into mere dabbling
with the artistic side of his profession only, it would be
premature to say; but at any rate it was his contrite return
to architecture as a calling that sent him on the sketching
excursion under notice. Feeling that something still was
wanting to round off his knowledge before he could take his
professional line with confidence, he was led to remember that
his own native Gothic was the one form of design that he had
totally neglected from the beginning, through its having
greeted him with wearisome iteration at the opening of his
career. Now it had again returned to silence; indeed--such is
the surprising instability of art 'principles' as they are
facetiously called--it was just as likely as not to sink into
the neglect and oblivion which had been its lot in Georgian
times. This accident of being out of vogue lent English
Gothic an additional charm to one of his proclivities; and
away he went to make it the business of a summer circuit in
the west.

The quiet time of evening, the secluded neighbourhood, the
unusually gorgeous liveries of the clouds packed in a pile
over that quarter of the heavens in which the sun had
disappeared, were such as to make a traveller loiter on his
walk. Coming to a stile, Somerset mounted himself on the top
bar, to imbibe the spirit of the scene and hour. The evening
was so still that every trifling sound could be heard for
miles. There was the rattle of a returning waggon, mixed with
the smacks of the waggoner's whip: the team must have been at
least three miles off. From far over the hill came the faint
periodic yell of kennelled hounds; while from the nearest
village resounded the voices of boys at play in the twilight.
Then a powerful clock struck the hour; it was not from the
direction of the church, but rather from the wood behind him;
and he thought it must be the clock of some mansion that way.

But the mind of man cannot always be forced to take up
subjects by the pressure of their material presence, and
Somerset's thoughts were often, to his great loss, apt to be
even more than common truants from the tones and images that
met his outer senses on walks and rides. He would sometimes
go quietly through the queerest, gayest, most extraordinary
town in Europe, and let it alone, provided it did not meddle
with him by its beggars, beauties, innkeepers, police,
coachmen, mongrels, bad smells, and such like obstructions.
This feat of questionable utility he began performing now.
Sitting on the three-inch ash rail that had been peeled and
polished like glass by the rubbings of all the small-clothes
in the parish, he forgot the time, the place, forgot that it
was August--in short, everything of the present altogether.
His mind flew back to his past life, and deplored the waste of
time that had resulted from his not having been able to make
up his mind which of the many fashions of art that were coming
and going in kaleidoscopic change was the true point of
departure from himself. He had suffered from the modern
malady of unlimited appreciativeness as much as any living man
of his own age. Dozens of his fellows in years and
experience, who had never thought specially of the matter, but
had blunderingly applied themselves to whatever form of art
confronted them at the moment of their making a move, were by
this time acquiring renown as new lights; while he was still
unknown. He wished that some accident could have hemmed in
his eyes between inexorable blinkers, and sped him on in a
channel ever so worn.

Thus balanced between believing and not believing in his own
future, he was recalled to the scene without by hearing the
notes of a familiar hymn, rising in subdued harmonies from a
valley below. He listened more heedfully. It was his old
friend the 'New Sabbath,' which he had never once heard since
the lisping days of childhood, and whose existence, much as it
had then been to him, he had till this moment quite forgotten.
Where the 'New Sabbath' had kept itself all these years--why
that sound and hearty melody had disappeared from all the
cathedrals, parish churches, minsters and chapels-of-ease that
he had been acquainted with during his apprenticeship to life,
and until his ways had become irregular and uncongregational--
he could not, at first, say. But then he recollected that the
tune appertained to the old west-gallery period of church-
music, anterior to the great choral reformation and the rule
of Monk--that old time when the repetition of a word, or half-
line of a verse, was not considered a disgrace to an
ecclesiastical choir.

Willing to be interested in anything which would keep him out-
of-doors, Somerset dismounted from the stile and descended the
hill before him, to learn whence the singing proceeded.

Thomas Hardy