The invention of Week-Ends is a feat of the English social genius dating since long after my stay of twenty-odd years ago. Like so many other English mysteries it is very simple, and consists of dedicating the waste space of time between Friday afternoon and Monday forenoon to visits out of town. It is the time when, if you have friends within reasonable, or even unreasonable reach of London, you are asked down. Science has ascertained that in this interval of fifty or sixty hours no one can do anything, and that the time had better be frankly given up to pleasure.
Yet, for the alien sojourner in London, there are no such intervals between sights, or perhaps between engagements, and we found a whole week-end beyond our grasp, though ever so temptingly entreated to spend it here or there in the country. That was why we were going down to the place of a friend one Sunday morning instead of a Friday evening and coming back the same day instead of the next. But we were glad of our piece of a week-end, and we had reason to be especially grateful for the Sunday when we had it, for it was one of the most perfect of its kind. There used to be such Sundays in America when people were young, and I suppose there are such Sundays there yet for children; but if you are no longer so very young you will be more apt to find them in England, where Sunday has been studying, ever since the Romans began to observe it, in just what proportion to blend the blue and white in its welkin, and to unite warmth and coolness in its air.
I have no doubt there were multitudes going to church that morning, but our third-class compartment was filled with people going into the country for the day; fathers and grandfathers taking the little ones for an endless time in the fields and woods, which are often free in that much-owned England, while the may was yet freshly red and white on the hawthorns in the first week in June. Among our fellow-passengers that morning a young mother, not much older than her five children, sat with her youngest in her arms, while the other four perched at the edge of the seat, two on each side of her, all one stare of blue eyes, one flare of red cheeks: very still, very good, very sweet; when it came to lifting them out of the car after her, the public had to help. One's heart must go with these holiday-makers as they began to leave the train after the last suburban stations, where they could feel themselves fairly in the country, and really enter upon their joy. It was such motherly looking country, and yet young with springtime, and of a breath that came balmily in at the open car-windows; and the trees stood about in the meadows near the hedge-rows as if they knew what a good thing it was to be meadow-trees in England, where not being much good for fuel or lumber they could stand for ages and ages, and shelter the sheep and cattle without danger of the axe.
At our own station we found our host's motor waiting for us, and after waiting for some one else, who did not come by the next train, it whisked us much sooner than we could have wished over the nine miles of smooth road stretching to his house. The English are always telling you, if you are an American, how the Americans think nothing of distances, and they apparently derive their belief from the fact that it is a thousand miles from New York to Chicago, and again some two thousand to San Francisco. In vain you try to explain that we do not step casually aboard a train for either of those places, or, indeed, without much moral and material preparation. But perhaps if you did not mind being shorn of the sort of fairy glamour which you are aware attaches to you from our supposed contempt of space, you could make out a very pretty case against them, in convicting them of an even greater indifference to distances. The lengths to which they will go in giving and accepting invitations for week-ends are amazing; and a run from London down to Ultima Thule for a week is thought nothing of, or much less of than a journey from New York to Bar Harbor. But the one is much more in the English social scheme than the other is in ours; and perhaps the distance at which a gentleman will live from his railroad-station in the country is still more impressive. The American commuter who drives night and morning two or three miles after leaving and before getting his train, thinks he is having quite drive enough; if he drives six miles the late and early guest feels himself badly used; but apparently such distances are not minded in England. The motor, indeed, has now come to devour them; but even when they had to be nibbled away by a public fly, they seem not to have been regarded as evils.
For the stranger they certainly could not be an evil. Every foot, every inch of the way was delightful, and we only wished that our motor could have conceived of our pleasure in the wayside things to which custom had made it indifferent. There were some villages in the course of that swift flight where we could have willingly spent a week of such Sundays: villages with gables and thatches and tiles, and flowery door-yards and kitchen-gardens, such as could not be had for millionaire money with us, and villagers in their church-going best, whom, as they lived in the precious scene, our lightning progress suffered us to behold in a sort of cinematographic shimmer. Clean white shirt-sleeves are the symbol of our race's rustic Sunday leisure everywhere; and the main difference that I could note between our own farmer-folk and these was that at home they would be sitting on the top of rail-fences or stone-walls, and here they were hanging over gates; you cannot very well sit on the tops of hedges.
If one part of England can be said to be more charming than another, and I suppose that there are odds in its loveliness, I think there can be no doubt but we were that day in one of the most beautiful regions within an hour's reach of London. We were pretty constantly mounting in our motor-flight from the station; the uplands opened round us, and began to roll far away towards the liberal horizon, in undulations that were very stately. There is something, indeed, in the sufficiency of English downs which satisfies without surfeiting, and this we had from the windows and gardened levels of our friends' house even more than from the highroad, which we suddenly left to approach the place by a way of its own. Mountains would have been out of key with the landscape; downs were just right.
I do not know why the house was the more agreeable for being new, and for being the effect of our friends' immediate and not their ancestral fancy, quite as it would have been with most of our friends' country-houses at home. We certainly had not come to England for newness of any kind, but we liked the gardens and the shrubberies being new; and my content was absolute when I heard from our friends that they had at one time thought of building their house of wood: the fact seemed to restore me from a homesick exile to the wood-built continent which I had so willingly forsaken only a few weeks before.
But what better do we ever ask of a strange land than that it shall render us some fleeting image of the nearest and dearest things of home? What I had reasonably or logically come to England for was nature tamed to the hand of man; but whenever I came upon a bit of something wild, something savage-looking, gaunt, huge, rugged, I rejoiced with an insensate pleasure in its likeness to the roughest aspect of America that association could conjure up. I dare say that was very stupid, but it is best to be honest in such matters as well as in some others, and I will own that when our friends took us the walk over the downs which they had promised us, nothing could have gladdened me so much as to enter a secret and solemn wood of immemorial yews by a cart-track growing fainter and fainter as it left the fields, and finally forgetting itself altogether in the sombre depths of shade. Then I said to my soul that it might have been a wood-road in the White Mountains, mouldering out of memory of the clearing where the young pines and birches had grown into good-sized trees since the giants of the primeval forest were slain and dragged out over its snows and mosses.
The masses of the red may and the white may which stood here and there in the border of the yews, might have been the blossom of the wilding apple-trees which often guard the approaches to our woods; the parent hawthorns were as large and of the same lovely tints, but I could recall nothing that was quite American when once we had plunged into the shadow of these great yews, and I could not even find their like in the English literature which is the companion of American nature. I could think only of the weird tree-shapes which an artist once greatly acclaimed, and then so mocked that I am almost ashamed to say Gustave Doré, used to draw; but that is the truth, and I felt as if we were walking through any of the loneliest of his illustrations. He knew how to be true to such mediaeval moods of the great mother, and we owe it to his fame to bear what witness we can to the fact.
The yew-tree's shade in Gray's Elegy had not prepared me for a whole forest of yews, and I had never imagined them of the vastness I beheld. The place had its peculiar gloom through the church-yard associations of the trees, but there was a rich, Thomas Hardyish flavor in the lawless fact that in times when it was less protected than now, or when its wood was more employed in furniture-making, predatory emissaries from London used to come out to the forest by night and lop away great limbs of the yews, to be sold to the shyer sort of timber-merchants. From time to time my host put his hand on a broad sawn or chopped surface where a tree had been so mutilated and had remained in a dry decay without that endeavor some other trees make to cover the stump with a new growth. The down, he told us, was a common, and any one might pasture his horse or his cow or his goose on its grass, and I do not know whose forest rights, if any one's, were especially violated in these cruel midnight outrages on the yews; but some one must have had the interest to stop it.
I would not try to say how far the common extended, or how far its privileges; but the land about is mostly held in great estates, like most of the land in England, and no doubt there are signorial rights which overlie the popular privileges. I fancied a symbol of these in the game keeper—whom we met coming out of the wood, brown-clad, with a scarcely touched hat, silently sweeping through the gorse, furtive as one of the pheasants or hares to which he must have grown akin in his custody of them. He was the first game-keeper I met in England, and, as it happened, the last, but he now seems to me to have been so perfect in his way that I would not for the sake of the books where I have known so many of his sort, have him the least different from what he was.
The English sun, if you do not walk much in it, is usually cool and pleasant, but you must not take liberties. By the time we got back to lunch we could have believed, with no homesick yearning, that we had been in an American heat. But after lunch, and after the talk filling the afternoon till afternoon tea-time, which we were to take at a famous house in the neighborhood, the temperature was all right again; it was more than all right in the cold current of air which the motor created. In the course of that post-luncheon talk our host brought out a small porcelain bust of Washington, in very Continental blue, which he said was one of great numbers made in that neighborhood at the time of our Revolution to express the feeling of our English sympathizers in the struggle which gave English liberty a new lease. One reads of this sympathy, how wide and high it was, and one knows of it in a way, but till then, with that witness, I had to own I had not realized it. The miniature father-of-his-country smiled at our ignorance with his accustomed blandness, and I hope he will never regret being given to one of us as a testimony of the amity which had largely endured for our nation from and through the most difficult times. The gift lent our day a unique grace, and I could only hope that it might be without a surprise too painful that our English Washington would look upon the American Republic of his creation when we got home with him; I doubted if he would find it altogether his ideal.
The motor-spin was over the high crest of the down to the house where we were going, I do not know how many miles, for our afternoon tea. The house was famous, for being the most perfect Tudor house in existence; but I am not going to transfer the burden of my slight knowledge of its past to the mind of the reader. I will only say that it came into the hands of the jovial Henry VIII. through the loss of several of its owners' heads, a means of acquisition not so distasteful to him as to them, and after its restitution to the much decapitated family it continued in their possession till a few years ago. It remains with me a vision of turrets and gables, perfect in their Tudor kind, rising upon a gentle level of fields and meadows, with nothing dramatically picturesque in the view from its straight-browed windows. The present owner, who showed me through its rooms and gardens hurriedly in consideration of our early train, has the generous passion of leaving the old place as nearly as he can in the keeping of its past; and I was glad to have him to agree with me that the Tudor period was that in which English domestic comfort had been most effectually studied. But my satisfaction in this was much heightened by my approval of what he was simultaneously saying about the prevalent newspaper unwisdom of not publishing serial fiction: in his own newspaper, he said, he had a story running all the time.
The old and the new kiss each other constantly in England, and I perceived that this vividly modern possessor of the most perfect Tudor house existing was, with the intense actuality of his interests and ambitions, as English as the most feudal presence in the kingdom. When we came out of the house and walked towards the group we had left under a spreading oak (or it might have been an elm; the two are much of the same habit in England) on the long, wide lawn, one might have fancied one's self in any most picturesque period of the past, if it had not been for the informality of the men's dress. Women are always of the past in the beauty of their attire, and those whom the low sun, striking across the velvet of the grass, now lighted up in their pretty gowns of our day, could easily have stepped out of an old picture, or continued in it as they sat in their wicker chairs around the afternoon tea-table.
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