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Dinners were more noted for plenty than elegance-a roast turkey at the top and boiled beef at the bottom, or a haunch of mutton at the top and a boiled turkey at the bottom, were the usual pièces de résistance. Six silver side dishes faced one another down the table, and guests were expected to carve their contents for the benefit of their neighbors. Sherry was frequently placed in pints along the table, and the butler only poured it out, when that excellent system, now, alas! extinct, of drinking wine with your neighbor, or on the part of the host with an honored guest, was brought into play. A real blessing to a shy youth that custom was. After manoeuvring successfully to get a place by some charming young lady-for excepting in the case of a county magnate we were not marshalled-the difficulty of opening conversation was got over by begging the honor, or pleasure, of a glass of wine with her. The ice was broken, and though we had little to say, we talked-what about I cannot conceive, for new books were very rare, and newspapers almost unknown. The table was lighted with wax candles, as, according to "Rejected Addresses," the theatres were. The imitator of Crabbe talks of
The long wax candles, with short cotton wicks.
I think they cost five shillings the pound. The cloth being removed, the pride of the butler's heart was disclosed in the shape of a mahogany table, polished till the lights were reflected in it, and ladies could get a furtive glance at their appearance, as it were, in a mirror.
After dinner, at most tables heavy drinking prevailed, and it was no unusual thing for a host to lock the door, and declare that until the large stock of port provided had been drunk out, no one should leave the room. This ex
cessive drinking I have often thought was not so much a matter of taste as of tyrannous compulsion, and, like some other fashionable habits, persisted in from bravado, or a fear of being singular or accounted a milksop. Otherwise, why were penalties imposed for shirking the bottle, and why was it a high compliment to say of a man that you could "drink in the dark with him"? In a lower class the same may be observed. A verse in an old harvest-home drinking song implies this:
Drink round, brave boys, drink round,
For if you do, you shall drink two,
When the gentlemen came into the drawing-room they were sometimes hardly in a condition for ladies' society, but a round game was frequently resorted to "Commerce" or "Pope Joan," for instance, were substitutes for conversation.
Surely the seasons themselves must have differed greatly from those of the present time. In the Christmas holidays we always, so far as I remember, skated every day during the greater portion of them, and the ground was almost always covered with deep snow. Then came an expedition to Whittlesea Mere, the chief of our annual treats. At that time the Mere was said to be twenty miles round. It was a strange piece of water, the recipient of the drainage of a vast extent of low land little above its level. The water was clear as crystal, and swarmed with fish; it was not more than two or at most three feet in depth, but the black semi-fluid substance which did duty for its bottom was of unknown depth. Though the fish thrived in it the water was perfectly undrinkable, almost poisonous. Islands of reeds and bulrushes were dotted about, and into them coots, wild-ducks, and moorhens scuttled, as the punt approached them.
The manner of its approach was a mystery; under the influence of the silent sprit-pole it seemed to move by some voluntary self-contained power. Indeed, the art of punting over the Mere was attained only by practice from infancy, so liquid was the bottom you could not perceive when the flat bit of wood at the end of the sprit touched it; yet if to gain a better purchase the puntsman thrust it deeper, it was seized as in a vice almost impossible to extract. The boat advanced silently towards the islets, no splash, scarce a ripple, until touching the reeds it roused the inmates, who, rushing out on the opposite side, afforded a welcome shot to the sportsman. That lake has been long since drained, its surface fine corn-land; the Great Northern rattles over it, and instead of the ague-stricken reed-cutters and puntfishers who dwelt on its margin, it is occupied by wealthy farmers at least they were wealthy when wheat was 80s. to 100s. a quarter, and appear tolerably thriving even now.
I think that there was then more religion than at present. High Church and Low Church were unknown, at least unrecognized. On Sundays the bells, put to the use they were originally intended for, called the scattered population to their devotions. Many farmers dwelt in lone houses one or two miles from the church, and as the last bell tolled they assembled in the churchyard exchanging hebdomadal greetings. Few of the men went into the church until his Reverence appeared; then the line opened on each side, and he walked between, receiving the bareheaded, kindly salutations of the parishioners, and gravely but cordially returning them. In church, inhabitants of the parish and those of the adjoining hamlet divided the open sittings; the one sat on the north, the other on the south side of the aisle. In both sections there was a division
between the male and the female worshippers, the men sitting on one side, the women and children on the other. In the chancel were two pews, one for the Rector and his family, the other for their domestics. A third, in the body of the church, the old crest of the family painted in colors on the pillar above, was tenanted by the Squire and his family. Two or three of the principal farmers also had rickety pews in the church, and so long as they did not snore, the occupants might indulge in a nap if so disposed without scandal. Possibly the sermon, which I think was more of a moral than of a deeply religious character, and somewhat long, may have had a soporific effect, but no congregation could have followed the service in a more orthodox manner than the members of our own. The responses were made by the whole congregation (at least such as could read) in an audible voice, unaided by the four-and-twenty choristers who now monopolize the most beautiful parts of the service. The Psalms were not chanted, of course, but James Stephens, the clerk, stumbled through the alternative verses as best he could. James was "no scholard," and made a dreadful hash of the long words, but he never faltered, and got over them somehow. In his own estimation he was a man of education, and in a small way a poet. On one Guy Fawkes Day he gave out "a hymn of our own composing," which ran thus:
This is the day, the glorious day,
To blow up the King and Parliament
I think it was Stephens who announced the loss of Madam's dog (the clerk in those days always gave out notices) as "a red and white spaniel with four eyes." He had written sore.
In those days the congregation
thought as much (perhaps more) of the choir as of the church service, the performers being part and parcel of the congregation. The clerk was principal performer, and walked from his desk with no small pride to the gallery occupied by the singers at the proper time. I forget what instruments were used, but certainly two flutes, a violoncello, and a queer shaped instrument like the leg of a horse, the notes that proceeded from it being precisely similar to the trump which the drivers of motor-cars now use to announce their approach. The players played and the singers sang with a will, and there was no little emulation among them. "Don't you think," said my father one day, "it would be better, James, if you sang a little less loud?" "If I didn't sing out, sir," was the reply, "how would they know my singing from that of anyone else?"
The Sacrament was, according to modern ideas, too rarely administered, perhaps hardly more than on the days prescribed by the rubric, but it was, as it should be, a solemn ordinance, and invariably announced by the reading of the whole exhortation therefor provided. The collection was very small, mostly coppers, and after service my father, with myself in his hand, went forth to pay domiciliary visits to the poorest of his parishioners and divide the proceeds amongst them. Very welcome it was. The poor in those days were very poor indeed. Farmers, as farmers, had their good qualities, but were not the liberal, openhanded race painted in novels. They had little education, being too grand to send their children to the Sunday school, and not in a position to send them to those of a higher class. The mottoes in their kitchens were generally of the class, "Waste not, want not," or "A stitch in time saves nine." They ruled the parish, and their great object was to keep down the rates. Wheat was
80s. to 1008. a quarter, bread quite 18. a loaf, wheaten bread rarely tasted by the poor; in fact, how they lived is a puzzle to me. Eight to ten shillings a week, eked out by some trifling parish allowance was all an adult man with a family had to live upon. The annual feasts at the Hall and the Parsonage were probably the only two occasions on which they got a really full meal, and those days were indeed red-letter days in their estimation. Our parish was strictly orthodox. There was but one Dissenter in it, a farmer known as "Moat Rogers," who walked three miles every Sunday to sit under his selected minister. On his farm alone the tithe was collected "in kind," and no little manoeuvring was practised in collecting it, the tenth cock or sheaf being made smaller than the others. William Bass, however, was not to be come over by so simple a device; he began his count at the second or third heap. It was a disagreeable but in those days a necessary mode of obtaining clerical dues. Mr. Rogers was of course violently opposed to both church and parson, but one day on returning home he found the latter praying by his dying wife. What passed afterwards I know not, but Rogers became an altered man, a regular attendant at church and a staunch friend of my father's.
My original destination was the Church, and so my father, a model parish priest, sought early to initiate me into one of the most important duties of a clergyman-visiting the sick. In accompanying him, I was greatly impressed not only with the patient endurance by the poor of the hardships they endured, but by their indifference to death, whether in their own persons or in that of others. "When I'm gone, Susan, you'll look to the mending of the pigsty." "You go on dying. Sam, I'll see to that," was the wife's response. "When you get up to heaven,"
said an old lady visiting her neighbor, then in a hopeless condition, "you'll see our Jem; tell him we are getting on pretty well now." "When I get up to heaven, Betty, do you think I shall have nothing better to do but to go rampauging about looking for your Jem?" was the unsatisfactory reply.
In those days every family in the rank of gentry kept a carriage and pair of horses. No doubt the steeds were utilized for more humble duties than drawing the chariot, and the coachman officiated as gardener also, but a "onehorse shay," except in the shape of a dog-cart, was unknown. In like manner, a footman was considered necessary. Now a parlormaid and a brougham, more sensibly, occupy their place. If godliness was more cultivated in those days, its younger sister, cleanliness, was sadly neglected. Baths were rare, tubbing not invented, the best bedroom was considered sufficiently furnished if it contained a ewer and basin; ablutions were practically confined to the face and hands. Schoolboys had their feet washed in a tub of bran and hot water by the housemaids, half yearly, before they went home for their holidays. There were only two kinds of soap in use, mottled and yellow. Theodore Hook describes the widow Bragg, on her wedding tour at Brighton, remarking to her husband, "I shall have a 'wesh' to-day, Jim; its fifteen-sixteen-years since I had a At a preparatory school where, as a small boy, I was starved for two or three years, half-a-dozen basins were provided for sixty or seventy boys, the rest were accommodated with a bit of yellow soap or the top of the pump. Yet there were many gentlemen's sons at that school.
As time went on, I became the happy possessor of a gun. It was an ancient implement, formerly the property of my grandfather, and intended by fate for my extinction. Once when drag
ging it through a hedge with the muzzle in close proximity to my head it missed fire; once it burst at the muzzle. I had it cut down, and then it burst at the breech, after which it was relegated to the rubbish heap. Meanwhile it was my constant companion when I took my walks abroad. On one occasion, a bitter cold morning in December, the snow lying thick on the ground, I started forth, the old flint and steel on my shoulder, the dogs at my heels, in search of any living thing bigger than a sparrow I might come across. In those halcyon days gamepreserving was unknown, and I shot over the country at my own sweet will; no keeper interfered with me, and the only notice a farmer took of my trespass was to offer me a pork-pie and a glass of ale. As I crossed the Slowton Road I espied, huddled together in the snow, a covey of partridges some thirty yards distant. In a moment the old gun was laid over the rail of the bridge I was crossing, and aiming at the cluster of birds, I fired. To my intense delight one victim, in the shape of an old cock partridge, lay struggling in the snow, shot through the head. To seize and dispose of him in my capacious pocket was the work of a moment, and then, as the shades of the short sunless day were descending, I essayed to return. But I had wandered far out of my beat, and just then a pitiless cold rain began to fall. A small village was close at hand, and to it I repaired for shelter. The only publichouse, the "Red Lion," received me hospitably, as I entered in company with two laborers returning from work. Calling, as they both did, for a pint of beer, we sat down amicably by the fire, and soon got into conversation. An argument apparently of intense importance to them soon sprang up, and I had only to listen to their monotonous conversation on the subject, assertion and counter-assertion be
ing repeated over and over again in the same dictatorial tone and the same words. I should say that the dogs which lay at my feet had started it. "Jan, you mind the Squire's old dog 'Rap'? What a wonderful dog he was, surely!"
"I do; his feyther was a setter-dog, his mother a pointer-bitch."
"No, Jan, you're wrong. His feyther was a pointer-dog and his mother a setter-bitch."
"Well, I know as his feyther was a setter-dog, and his mother a pointerbitch."
Both speakers repeated their assertions in the same words precisely. A third yokel entered, and the point was at once referred to him.
"Willum, you knew the Squire's old dog 'Rap'? His feyther was a pointerdog and his mother a setter-bitch! Jan, here, says as how his feyther was a setter-dog and his mother a pointerbitch."
Which side Willum took I do not remember, but a fourth laborer who entered was enlisted in the argument. He put a new light on it entirely.
"I knowed 'Rap' well; he was son to 'Nestor,' Muster Swain's dog
"Dog! why, Tumas, 'Nestor' was a bitch-I knowed her! 'Nestor''s all the same as 'Hester,' though some spells it that way. My wife's sister's name is Hester. Nobody never knowed a Longman's Magazine.
man named 'Nestor.' I'll ask the young Squire here. Squire, did you ever know a man named 'Nestor'?"
I confessed that I did not. The admission was greeted as a point scored on one side or the other, I know not which, and, as the storm had abated, and the argument, which was carried on word for word as it began, tired not, like the frog when his wooing was interrupted, I "took up my hat, and wished them good-night."
Men were not turned out of a public at ten o'clock in those days, and I doubt not that the argument was carried, with little change of words, into the small hours.
The above is a faithful record of a conversation carried on by men of the laboring class, not one of whom, probably, could either read or write. I would compare it with that of the members of a club, little, if at all, above them, as reported in the Pall Mall Gazette. I allude to the dialogue carried on between Mr. Miggs, the president, the Lorryman, and the white-faced member from the country. They are witty and humorous in the extreme-Mr. Miggs especially, a sort of political "Bully Bottom," his arguments evidently inspired by a perusal of the Daily News. His interlocutors, too, read their daily papers. My friends, probably, were not aware that such a thing as a daily paper existed. George Rooper.