TOM BROWN'S SCHOOLDAYS
II - THE "VEAST."
"And the King commandeth and
As that venerable and learned poet (whose
voluminous works we all think it the correct thing to admire and talk about, but
don't read often) most truly says, "The child is father to the man;" a
fortiori, therefore, he must be father to the boy. So as we are going at any rate to see Tom Brown through his
boyhood, supposing we never get any farther (which, if you show a proper sense
of the value of this history, there is no knowing but what we may), let us have
a look at the life and environments of the child in the quiet country village to
which we were introduced in the last chapter.
Tom, as has been already said, was a robust and
combative urchin, and at the age of four began to struggle against the yoke and
authority of his nurse. That
functionary was a good- hearted, tearful, scatter-brained girl, lately taken by
Tom's mother, Madam Brown, as she was called, from the village school to be
trained as nurserymaid. Madam Brown
was a rare trainer of servants, and spent herself freely in the profession; for
profession it was, and gave her more trouble by half than many people take to
earn a good income. Her servants
were known and sought after for miles round.
Almost all the girls who attained a certain place in the village school
were taken by her, one or two at a time, as housemaids, laundrymaids,
nurserymaids, or kitchenmaids, and after a year or two's training were started
in life amongst the neighbouring families, with good principles and wardrobes.
One of the results of this system was the perpetual despair of Mrs.
Brown's cook and own maid, who no sooner had a notable girl made to their hands
than missus was sure to find a good place for her and send her off, taking in
fresh importations from the school. Another
was, that the house was always full of young girls, with clean, shining faces,
who broke plates and scorched linen, but made an atmosphere of cheerful, homely
life about the place, good for every one who came within its influence.
Mrs. Brown loved young people, and in fact human creatures in general,
above plates and linen. They were more like a lot of elder children than servants,
and felt to her more as a mother or aunt than as a mistress.
Tom's nurse was one who took in her instruction
very slowly-- she seemed to have two left hands and no head; and so Mrs. Brown
kept her on longer than usual, that she might expend her awkwardness and
forgetfulness upon those who would not judge and punish her too strictly for
Charity Lamb was her name. It had been the immemorial habit of the village to christen
children either by Bible names, or by those of the cardinal and other virtues;
so that one was for ever hearing in the village street or on the green, shrill
sounds of "Prudence! Prudence! thee cum' out o' the gutter;" or,
"Mercy! drat the girl, what bist thee a-doin' wi' little Faith?" and
there were Ruths, Rachels, Keziahs, in every corner. The same with the boys:
they were Benjamins, Jacobs, Noahs, Enochs. I suppose the custom has come
down from Puritan times. There it
is, at any rate, very strong still in the Vale.
Well, from early morning till dewy eve, when she
had it out of him in the cold tub before putting him to bed, Charity and Tom
were pitted against one another. Physical
power was as yet on the side of Charity, but she hadn't a chance with him
wherever headwork was wanted. This
war of independence began every morning before breakfast, when Charity escorted
her charge to a neighbouring farmhouse, which supplied the Browns, and where, by
his mother's wish, Master Tom went to drink whey before breakfast.
Tom had no sort of objection to whey, but he had a decided liking for
curds, which were forbidden as unwholesome; and there was seldom a morning that
he did not manage to secure a handful of hard curds, in defiance of Charity and
of the farmer's wife. The latter good soul was a gaunt, angular woman, who, with an
old black bonnet on the top of her head, the strings dangling about her
shoulders, and her gown tucked through her pocket-holes, went clattering about
the dairy, cheese-room, and yard, in high pattens.
Charity was some sort of niece of the old lady's, and was consequently
free of the farmhouse and garden, into which she could not resist going for the
purposes of gossip and flirtation with the heir-apparent, who was a dawdling
fellow, never out at work as he ought to have been. The moment Charity had found her cousin, or any other
occupation, Tom would slip away; and in a minute shrill cries would be heard
from the dairy, "Charity, Charity, thee lazy huzzy, where bist?" and
Tom would break cover, hands and mouth full of curds, and take refuge on the
shaky surface of the great muck reservoir in the middle of the yard, disturbing
the repose of the great pigs. Here
he was in safety, as no grown person could follow without getting over their
knees; and the luckless Charity, while her aunt scolded her from the dairy door,
for being "allus hankering about arter our Willum, instead of minding
Master Tom," would descend from threats to coaxing, to lure Tom out of the
muck, which was rising over his shoes, and would soon tell a tale on his
stockings, for which she would be sure to catch it from missus's maid.
Tom had two abettors, in the shape of a couple of
old boys, Noah and Benjamin by name, who defended him from Charity, and expended
much time upon his education. They
were both of them retired servants of former generations of the Browns.
Noah Crooke was a keen, dry old man of almost ninety, but still able to
totter about. He talked to Tom quite as if he were one of his own family,
and indeed had long completely identified the Browns with himself.
In some remote age he had been the attendant of a Miss Brown, and had
conveyed her about the country on a pillion.
He had a little round picture of the identical gray horse, caparisoned
with the identical pillion, before which he used to do a sort of fetish worship,
and abuse turnpike-roads and carriages. He
wore an old full-bottomed wig, the gift of some dandy old Brown whom he had
valeted in the middle of last century, which habiliment Master Tom looked upon
with considerable respect, not to say fear; and indeed his whole feeling towards
Noah was strongly tainted with awe. And
when the old gentleman was gathered to his fathers, Tom's lamentation over him
was not unaccompanied by a certain joy at having seen the last of the wig. "Poor old Noah, dead and gone," said he; "Tom
Brown so sorry. Put him in the
coffin, wig and all."
But old Benjy was young master's real delight and
refuge. He was a youth by the side
of Noah, scarce seventy years old--a cheery, humorous, kind-hearted old man,
full of sixty years of Vale gossip, and of all sorts of helpful ways for young
and old, but above all for children. It
was he who bent the first pin with which Tom extracted his first stickleback out
of "Pebbly Brook," the little stream which ran through the village.
The first stickleback was a splendid fellow, with fabulous red and blue
gills. Tom kept him in a small
basin till the day of his death, and became a fisherman from that day.
Within a month from the taking of the first stickleback, Benjy had
carried off our hero to the canal, in defiance of Charity; and between them,
after a whole afternoon's popjoying, they had caught three or four small, coarse
fish and a perch, averaging perhaps two and a half ounces each, which Tom bore
home in rapture to his mother as a precious gift, and which she received like a
true mother with equal rapture, instructing the cook nevertheless, in a private
interview, not to prepare the same for the Squire's dinner.
Charity had appealed against old Benjy in the meantime, representing the
dangers of the canal banks; but Mrs. Brown, seeing the boy's inaptitude for
female guidance, had decided in Benjy's favour, and from thenceforth the old man
was Tom's dry nurse. And as they
sat by the canal watching their little green-and-white float, Benjy would
instruct him in the doings of deceased Browns.
How his grandfather, in the early days of the great war, when there was
much distress and crime in the Vale, and the magistrates had been threatened by
the mob, had ridden in with a big stick in his hand, and held the petty sessions
by himself. How his great-uncle,
the rector, had encountered and laid the last ghost, who had frightened the old
women, male and female, of the parish out of their senses, and who turned out to
be the blacksmith's apprentice disguised in drink and a white sheet.
It was Benjy, too, who saddled Tom's first pony, and instructed him in
the mysteries of horsemanship, teaching him to throw his weight back and keep
his hand low, and who stood chuckling outside the door of the girls' school when
Tom rode his little Shetland into the cottage and round the table, where the old
dame and her pupils were seated at their work.
Benjy himself was come of a family distinguished
in the Vale for their prowess in all athletic games. Some half-dozen of his brothers and kinsmen had gone to the
wars, of whom only one had survived to come home, with a small pension, and
three bullets in different parts of his body; he had shared Benjy's cottage till
his death, and had left him his old dragoon's sword and pistol, which hung over
the mantelpiece, flanked by a pair of heavy single-sticks with which Benjy
himself had won renown long ago as an old gamester, against the picked men of
Wiltshire and Somersetshire, in many a good bout at the revels and pastimes of
the country-side. For he had been a
famous back-swordman in his young days, and a good wrestler at elbow and collar.
Back-swording and wrestling were the most serious
holiday pursuits of the Vale--those by which men attained fame--and each village
had its champion. I suppose that,
on the whole, people were less worked then than they are now; at any rate, they
seemed to have more time and energy for the old pastimes. The great times for
back-swording came round once a year in each village; at the feast.
The Vale "veasts" were not the common statute feasts, but much
more ancient business. They are
literally, so far as one can ascertain, feasts of the dedication - that is, they
were first established in the churchyard on the day on which the village church
was opened for public worship, which was on the wake or festival of the patron
saint, and have been held on the same day in every year since that time.
There was no longer any remembrance of why the
"veast" had been instituted, but nevertheless it had a pleasant and
almost sacred character of its own; for it was then that all the children of the
village, wherever they were scattered, tried to get home for a holiday to visit
their fathers and mothers and friends, bringing with them their wages or some
little gift from up the country for the old folk.
Perhaps for a day or two before, but at any rate on "veast day"
and the day after, in our village, you might see strapping, healthy young men
and women from all parts of the country going round from house to house in their
best clothes, and finishing up with a call on Madam Brown, whom they would
consult as to putting out their earnings to the best advantage, or how best to
expend the same for the benefit of the old folk.
Every household, however poor, managed to raise a "feast-cake"
and a bottle of ginger or raisin wine, which stood on the cottage table ready
for all comers, and not unlikely to make them remember feast-time, for
feast-cake is very solid, and full of huge raisins.
Moreover, feast-time was the day of reconciliation for the parish.
If Job Higgins and Noah Freeman hadn't spoken for the last six months,
their "old women" would be sure to get it patched up by that day.
And though there was a good deal of drinking and low vice in the booths
of an evening, it was pretty well confined to those who would have been doing
the like, "veast or no veast;" and on the whole, the effect was
humanising and Christian. In fact,
the only reason why this is not the case still is that gentlefolk and farmers
have taken to other amusements, and have, as usual, forgotten the poor.
They don't attend the feasts themselves, and call them disreputable;
whereupon the steadiest of the poor leave them also, and they become what they
are called. Class amusements, be
they for dukes or ploughboys, always become nuisances and curses to a country.
The true charm of cricket and hunting is that they are still more or less
sociable and universal; there's a place for every man who will come and take his
No one in the village enjoyed the approach of
"veast day" more than Tom, in the year in which he was taken under old
Benjy's tutelage. The feast was
held in a large green field at the lower end of the village.
The road to Farringdon ran along one side of it, and the brook by the
side of the road; and above the brook was another large, gentle, sloping
pasture-land, with a footpath running down it from the churchyard; and the old
church, the originator of all the mirth, towered up with its gray walls and
lancet windows, overlooking and sanctioning the whole, though its own share
therein had been forgotten. At the point where the footpath crossed the brook and road,
and entered on the field where the feast was held, was a long, low roadside inn;
and on the opposite side of the field was a large white thatched farmhouse,
where dwelt an old sporting farmer, a great promoter of the revels.
Past the old church, and down the footpath,
pottered the old man and the child hand-in-hand early on the afternoon of the
day before the feast, and wandered all round the ground, which was already being
occupied by the "cheap Jacks," with their green- covered carts and
marvellous assortment of wares; and the booths of more legitimate small traders,
with their tempting arrays of fairings and eatables; and penny peep-shows and
other shows, containing pink-eyed ladies, and dwarfs, and boa-constrictors, and
wild Indians. But the object of
most interest to Benjy, and of course to his pupil also, was the stage of rough
planks some four feet high, which was being put up by the village carpenter for
the back-swording and wrestling. And
after surveying the whole tenderly, old Benjy led his charge away to the
roadside inn, where he ordered a glass of ale and a long pipe for himself, and
discussed these unwonted luxuries on the bench outside in the soft autumn
evening with mine host, another old servant of the Browns, and speculated with
him on the likelihood of a good show of old gamesters to contend for the
morrow's prizes, and told tales of the gallant bouts of forty years back, to
which Tom listened with all his ears and eyes.
But who shall tell the joy of the next morning,
when the church bells were ringing a merry peal, and old Benjy appeared in the
servants' hall, resplendent in a long blue coat and brass buttons, and a pair of
old yellow buckskins and top-boots which he had cleaned for and inherited from
Tom's grandfather, a stout thorn stick in his hand, and a nosegay of pinks and
lavender in his buttonhole, and led away Tom in his best clothes, and two new
shillings in his breeches-pockets? Those
two, at any rate, look like enjoying the day's revel.
They quicken their pace when they get into the
churchyard, for already they see the field thronged with country folk; the men
in clean, white smocks or velveteen or fustian coats, with rough plush
waistcoats of many colours, and the women in the beautiful, long scarlet
cloak--the usual out-door dress of west-country women in those days, and which
often descended in families from mother to daughter--or in new-fashioned stuff
shawls, which, if they would but believe it, don't become them half so well.
The air resounds with the pipe and tabor, and the drums and trumpets of
the showmen shouting at the doors of their caravans, over which tremendous
pictures of the wonders to be seen within hang temptingly; while through all
rises the shrill "root-too-too-too" of Mr. Punch, and the unceasing
pan-pipe of his satellite.
"Lawk a' massey, Mr. Benjamin," cries a
stout, motherly woman in a red cloak, as they enter the field, "be that
you? Well, I never!
You do look purely. And
how's the Squire, and madam, and the family?"
Benjy graciously shakes hands with the speaker,
who has left our village for some years, but has come over for "veast"
day on a visit to an old gossip, and gently indicates the heir-apparent of the
"Bless his little heart!
I must gi' un a kiss. --Here, Susannah, Susannah!" cries she,
raising herself from the embrace, "come and see Mr. Benjamin and young
Master Tom. --You minds our Sukey, Mr. Benjamin; she be growed a rare slip of a
wench since you seen her, though her'll be sixteen come Martinmas.
I do aim to take her to see madam to get her a place."
And Sukey comes bouncing away from a knot of old
school-fellows, and drops a curtsey to Mr. Benjamin. And elders come up from all parts to salute Benjy, and girls
who have been madam's pupils to kiss Master Tom.
And they carry him off to load him with fairings; and he returns to Benjy,
his hat and coat covered with ribbons, and his pockets crammed with wonderful
boxes which open upon ever new boxes, and popguns, and trumpets, and apples, and
gilt gingerbread from the stall of Angel Heavens, sole vender thereof, whose
booth groans with kings and queens, and elephants and prancing steeds, all
gleaming with gold. There was more
gold on Angel's cakes than there is ginger in those of this degenerate age.
Skilled diggers might yet make a fortune in the churchyards of the Vale,
by carefully washing the dust of the consumers of Angel's gingerbread.
Alas! he is with his namesakes, and his receipts have, I fear, died with
And then they inspect the penny peep-show--at
least Tom does-- while old Benjy stands outside and gossips and walks up the
steps, and enters the mysterious doors of the pink-eyed lady and the Irish
giant, who do not by any means come up to their pictures; and the boa will not
swallow his rabbit, but there the rabbit is waiting to be swallowed; and what
can you expect for tuppence? We are
easily pleased in the Vale. Now
there is a rush of the crowd, and a tinkling bell is heard, and shouts of
laughter; and Master Tom mounts on Benjy's shoulders, and beholds a jingling
match in all its glory. The games
are begun, and this is the opening of them.
It is a quaint game, immensely amusing to look at; and as I don't know
whether it is used in your counties, I had better describe it.
A large roped ring is made, into which are introduced a dozen or so of
big boys and young men who mean to play; these are carefully blinded and turned
loose into the ring, and then a man is introduced not blindfolded; with a bell
hung round his neck, and his two hands tied behind him.
Of course every time he moves the bell must ring, as he has no hand to
hold it; and so the dozen blindfolded men have to catch him. This
they cannot always manage if he is a lively fellow, but half of them always rush
into the arms of the other half, or drive their heads together, or tumble over;
and then the crowd laughs vehemently, and invents nicknames for them on the spur
of the moment; and they, if they be choleric, tear off the handkerchiefs which
blind them, and not unfrequently pitch into one another, each thinking that the
other must have run against him on purpose.
It is great fun to look at a jingling match certainly, and Tom shouts and
jumps on old Benjy's shoulders at the sight, until the old man feels weary, and
shifts him to the strong young shoulders of the groom, who has just got down to
And now, while they are climbing the pole in
another part of the field, and muzzling in a flour-tub in another, the old
farmer whose house, as has been said, overlooks the field, and who is master of
the revels, gets up the steps on to the stage, and announces to all whom it may
concern that a half-sovereign in money will be forthcoming to the old gamester
who breaks most heads; to which the Squire and he have added a new hat.
The amount of the prize is sufficient to stimulate
the men of the immediate neighbourhood, but not enough to bring any very high
talent from a distance; so, after a glance or two round, a tall fellow, who is a
down shepherd, chucks his hat on to the stage and climbs up the steps, looking
rather sheepish. The crowd, of
course, first cheer, and then chaff as usual, as he picks up his hat and begins
handling the sticks to see which will suit him.
"Wooy, Willum Smith, thee canst plaay wi' he
arra daay," says his companion to the blacksmith's apprentice, a stout
young fellow of nineteen or twenty. Willum's
sweetheart is in the "veast" somewhere, and has strictly enjoined him
not to get his head broke at back-swording, on pain of her highest displeasure;
but as she is not to be seen (the women pretend not to like to see the backsword
play, and keep away from the stage), and as his hat is decidedly getting old, he
chucks it on to the stage, and follows himself, hoping that he will only have to
break other people's heads, or that, after all, Rachel won't really mind.
Then follows the greasy cap lined with fur of a
half-gipsy, poaching, loafing fellow, who travels the Vale not for much good, I
"For twenty times was Peter feared For once
that Peter was respected,"
in fact. And
then three or four other hats, including the glossy castor of Joe Willis, the
self-elected and would-be champion of the neighbourhood, a well-to-do young
butcher of twenty-eight or thereabouts, and a great strapping fellow, with his
full allowance of bluster. This is
a capital show of gamesters, considering the amount of the prize; so, while they
are picking their sticks and drawing their lots, I think I must tell you, as
shortly as I can, how the noble old game of back- sword is played; for it is
sadly gone out of late, even in the Vale, and maybe you have never seen it.
The weapon is a good stout ash stick with a large
basket handle, heavier and somewhat shorter than a common single-stick.
The players are called "old gamesters"--why, I can't tell
you--and their object is simply to break one another's heads; for the moment
that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it
belongs is beaten, and has to stop. A
very slight blow with the sticks will fetch blood, so that it is by no means a
punishing pastime, if the men don't play on purpose and savagely at the body and
arms of their adversaries. The old gamester going into action only takes off his
hat and coat, and arms himself with a stick; he then loops the fingers of his
left hand in a handkerchief or strap, which he fastens round his left leg,
measuring the length, so that when he draws it tight with his left elbow in the
air, that elbow shall just reach as high as his crown.
Thus you see, so long as he chooses to keep his left elbow up, regardless
of cuts, he has a perfect guard for the left side of his head.
Then he advances his right hand above and in front of his head, holding
his stick across, so that its point projects an inch or two over his left elbow;
and thus his whole head is completely guarded, and he faces his man armed in
like manner; and they stand some three feet apart, often nearer, and feint, and
strike, and return at one another's heads, until one cries "hold," or
blood flows. In the first case they
are allowed a minute's time; and go on again; in the latter another pair of
gamesters are called on. If good
men are playing, the quickness of the returns is marvellous:
you hear the rattle like that a boy makes drawing his stick along
palings, only heavier; and the closeness of the men in action to one another
gives it a strange interest, and makes a spell at back-swording a very noble
They are all suited now with sticks, and Joe
Willis and the gipsy man have drawn the first lot.
So the rest lean against the rails of the stage, and Joe and the dark man
meet in the middle, the boards having been strewed with sawdust, Joe's white
shirt and spotless drab breeches and boots contrasting with the gipsy's coarse
blue shirt and dirty green velveteen breeches and leather gaiters.
Joe is evidently turning up his nose at the other, and half insulted at
having to break his head.
The gipsy is a tough, active fellow, but not very
skilful with his weapon, so that Joe's weight and strength tell in a minute; he
is too heavy metal for him. Whack,
whack, whack, come his blows, breaking down the gipsy's guard, and threatening
to reach his head every moment. There
it is at last. "Blood,
blood!" shout the spectators, as a thin stream oozes out slowly from the
roots of his hair, and the umpire calls to them to stop.
The gipsy scowls at Joe under his brows in no pleasant manner, while
Master Joe swaggers about, and makes attitudes, and thinks himself, and shows
that he thinks himself, the greatest man in the field.
Then follow several stout sets-to between the
other candidates for the new hat, and at last come the shepherd and Willum
Smith. This is the crack set-to of the day.
They are both in famous wind, and there is no crying "hold."
The shepherd is an old hand, and up to all the dodges.
He tries them one after another, and very nearly gets at Willum's head by
coming in near, and playing over his guard at the half-stick; but somehow Willum
blunders through, catching the stick on his shoulders, neck, sides, every now
and then, anywhere but on his head, and his returns are heavy and straight, and
he is the youngest gamester and a favourite in the parish, and his gallant stand
brings down shouts and cheers, and the knowing ones think he'll win if he keeps
steady; and Tom, on the groom's shoulder, holds his hands together, and can
hardly breathe for excitement.
Alas for Willum!
His sweetheart, getting tired of female companionship, has been hunting
the booths to see where he can have got to, and now catches sight of him on the
stage in full combat. She flushes
and turns pale; her old aunt catches hold of her, saying, "Bless 'ee,
child, doan't 'ee go a'nigst it;" but she breaks away and runs towards the
stage calling his name. Willum keeps up his guard stoutly, but glances for a
moment towards the voice. No guard
will do it, Willum, without the eye. The
shepherd steps round and strikes, and the point of his stick just grazes
Willum's forehead, fetching off the skin, and the blood flows, and the umpire
cries, "Hold!" and poor Willum's chance is up for the day.
But he takes it very well, and puts on his old hat and coat, and goes
down to be scolded by his sweetheart, and led away out of mischief.
Tom hears him say coaxingly, as he walks off, -
"Now doan't 'ee, Rachel!
I wouldn't ha' done it, only I wanted summut to buy 'ee a fairing wi',
and I be as vlush o' money as a twod o' feathers."
"Thee mind what I tells 'ee," rejoins
Rachel saucily, "and doan't 'ee kep blethering about fairings."
Tom resolves in his heart to give Willum the
remainder of his two shillings after the back-swording.
Joe Willis has all the luck to-day.
His next bout ends in an easy victory, while the shepherd has a tough job
to break his second head; and when Joe and the shepherd meet, and the whole
circle expect and hope to see him get a broken crown, the shepherd slips in the
first round and falls against the rails, hurting himself so that the old farmer
will not let him go on, much as he wishes to try; and that impostor Joe (for he
is certainly not the best man) struts and swaggers about the stage the
conquering gamester, though he hasn't had five minutes' really trying play.
Joe takes the new hat in his hand, and puts the
money into it, and then, as if a thought strikes him, and he doesn't think his
victory quite acknowledged down below, walks to each face of the stage, and
looks down, shaking the money, and chaffing, as how he'll stake hat and money
and another half-sovereign "agin any gamester as hasn't played
already." Cunning Joe! he thus
gets rid of Willum and the shepherd, who is quite fresh again.
No one seems to like the offer, and the umpire is
just coming down, when a queer old hat, something like a doctor of divinity's
shovel, is chucked on to the stage and an elderly, quiet man steps out, who has
been watching the play, saying he should like to cross a stick wi' the
prodigalish young chap.
The crowd cheer, and begin to chaff Joe, who turns
up his nose and swaggers across to the sticks.
"Imp'dent old wosbird!" says he; "I'll break the bald head
on un to the truth."
The old boy is very bald, certainly, and the blood
will show fast enough if you can touch him, Joe.
He takes off his long-flapped coat, and stands up
in a long- flapped waistcoat, which Sir Roger de Coverley might have worn when
it was new, picks out a stick, and is ready for Master Joe, who loses no time,
but begins his old game, whack, whack, whack, trying to break down the old man's
guard by sheer strength. But it
won't do; he catches every blow close by the basket, and though he is rather
stiff in his returns, after a minute walks Joe about the stage, and is clearly a
stanch old gamester. Joe now comes
in, and making the most of his height, tries to get over the old man's guard at
half-stick, by which he takes a smart blow in the ribs and another on the elbow,
and nothing more. And now he loses
wind and begins to puff, and the crowd laugh. "Cry 'hold,' Joe; thee'st met thy match!"
Instead of taking good advice and getting his wind, Joe loses his temper,
and strikes at the old man's body.
"Blood, blood!" shout the crowd;
"Joe's head's broke!"
Who'd have thought it? How did it come? That
body-blow left Joe's head unguarded for a moment; and with one turn of the wrist
the old gentleman has picked a neat little bit of skin off the middle of his
forehead; and though he won't believe it, and hammers on for three more blows
despite of the shouts, is then convinced by the blood trickling into his eye.
Poor Joe is sadly crestfallen, and fumbles in his pocket for the other
half- sovereign, but the old gamester won't have it.
"Keep thy money, man, and gi's thy hand," says he; and they
shake hands. But the old gamester gives the new hat to the shepherd, and,
soon after, the half-sovereign to Willum, who thereout decorates his sweetheart
with ribbons to his heart's content.
"Who can a be?" "Wur do a cum from?" ask the crowd.
And it soon flies about that the old west-country champion, who played a
tie with Shaw the Lifeguardsman at "Vizes" twenty years before, has
broken Joe Willis's crown for him.
How my country fair is spinning out!
I see I must skip the wrestling; and the boys jumping in sacks, and
rolling wheelbarrows blindfolded; and the donkey-race, and the fight which arose
thereout, marring the otherwise peaceful "veast;" and the frightened
scurrying away of the female feast-goers, and descent of Squire Brown, summoned
by the wife of one of the combatants to stop it; which he wouldn't start to do
till he had got on his top-boots. Tom
is carried away by old Benjy, dog- tired and surfeited with pleasure, as the
evening comes on and the dancing begins in the booths; and though Willum, and
Rachel in her new ribbons, and many another good lad and lass don't come away
just yet, but have a good step out, and enjoy it, and get no harm thereby, yet
we, being sober folk, will just stroll away up through the churchyard, and by
the old yew-tree, and get a quiet dish of tea and a parley with our gossips, as
the steady ones of our village do, and so to bed.
That's the fair, true sketch, as far as it goes,
of one of the larger village feasts in the Vale of Berks, when I was a little
boy. They are much altered for the
worse, I am told. I haven't been at
one these twenty years, but I have been at the statute fairs in some
west-country towns, where servants are hired, and greater abominations cannot be
found. What village feasts have
come to, I fear, in many cases, may be read in the pages of "Yeast"
(though I never saw one so bad--thank God!).
Do you want to know why? It is because, as I said before, gentlefolk and farmers have
left off joining or taking an interest in them.
They don't either subscribe to the prizes, or go down and enjoy the fun.
Is this a good or a bad sign?
I hardly know. Bad, sure enough, if it only arises from the further
separation of classes consequent on twenty years of buying cheap and selling
dear, and its accompanying overwork; or because our sons and daughters have
their hearts in London club-life, or so-called "society," instead of
in the old English home-duties; because farmers' sons are apeing fine gentlemen,
and farmers' daughters caring more to make bad foreign music than good English
cheeses. Good, perhaps, if it be
that the time for the old "veast" has gone by; that it is no longer
the healthy, sound expression of English country holiday-making; that, in fact,
we, as a nation, have got beyond it, and are in a transition state, feeling for
and soon likely to find some better substitute.
Only I have just got this to say before I quit the
text. Don't let reformers of any
sort think that they are going really to lay hold of the working boys and young
men of England by any educational grapnel whatever, which isn't some bona fide
equivalent for the games of the old country "veast" in it; something
to put in the place of the back-swording and wrestling and racing; something to
try the muscles of men's bodies, and the endurance of their hearts, and to make
them rejoice in their strength. In
all the new-fangled comprehensive plans which I see, this is all left out; and
the consequence is, that your great mechanics' institutes end in intellectual
priggism, and your Christian young men's societies in religious Pharisaism.
Well, well, we must bide our time.
Life isn't all beer and skittles; but beer and skittles, or something
better of the same sort, must form a good part of every Englishman's education.
If I could only drive this into the heads of you rising parliamentary
lords, and young swells who "have your ways made for you," as the
saying is, you, who frequent palaver houses and West-end clubs, waiting always
ready to strap yourselves on to the back of poor dear old John, as soon as the
present used-up lot (your fathers and uncles), who sit there on the great
parliamentary-majorities' pack-saddle, and make believe they're guiding him with
their red-tape bridle, tumble, or have to be lifted off!
I don't think much of you yet--I wish I
could--though you do go talking and lecturing up and down the country to crowded
audiences, and are busy with all sorts of philanthropic intellectualism, and
circulating libraries and museums, and Heaven only knows what besides, and try
to make us think, through newspaper reports, that you are, even as we, of the
working classes. But bless your
hearts, we "ain't so green," though lots of us of all sorts toady you
enough certainly, and try to make you think so.
I'll tell you what to do now:
instead of all this trumpeting and fuss, which is only the old
parliamentary-majority dodge over again, just you go, each of you (you've plenty
of time for it, if you'll only give up t'other line), and quietly make three or
four friends--real friends--among us. You'll
find a little trouble in getting at the right sort, because such birds don't
come lightly to your lure; but found they may be.
Take, say, two out of the professions, lawyer, parson, doctor--which you
will; one out of trade; and three or four out of the working classes--tailors,
engineers, carpenters, engravers. There's
plenty of choice. Let them be men
of your own ages, mind, and ask them to your homes; introduce them to your wives
and sisters, and get introduced to theirs; give them good dinners, and talk to
them about what is really at the bottom of your hearts; and box, and run, and
row with them, when you have a chance. Do
all this honestly as man to man, and by the time you come to ride old John,
you'll be able to do something more than sit on his back, and may feel his mouth
with some stronger bridle than a red-tape one.
Ah, if you only would! But you have got too far out of the right rut, I fear.
Too much over-civilization, and the deceitfulness of riches.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
More's the pity. I never
came across but two of you who could value a man wholly and solely for what was
in him--who thought themselves verily and indeed of the same flesh and blood as
John Jones the attorney's clerk, and Bill Smith the costermonger, and could act
as if they thought so.