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Flower Of The Field Post by :Faizal Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :1286

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Flower Of The Field

A county inquiry took me, one day last summer, deeply into the Plain, up and over a rutty track which my driver will have cause to remember. An uncommonly large hawk soaring over his prey, and so near the ground that I could see the light through his ragged plumes, a hare limping through the bents, further off a crawling flock bustling after shepherd and dog, were all the living things I saw. The ground was iron, the colour of what had once been herbage a glaring brown. Of the flowers none but the hardiest had outlived the visitation of the sun. I saw rest-harrow which has a root like whipcord, and the flat thistle which thrives in dust. The harebells floated no more, the discs of the scabious were shrivelled husks; ladies' bedstraw was straw indeed, but not for ladies' uses. Three miles away from anywhere we came upon a clump of dusty sycamores whose leaves were spotted and beginning to fall; beyond them was a squat row of flint and brick bungalows, the goal of our quest. There were three tenements, of which two were empty. In the third lives the shepherd who had called me up to consider his circumstances.

There was thunder about, though not visibly; a day both airless and pitiless; one of those days when you feel that the unseen powers are conspiring against your peace. A naked sun from a naked sky stared down upon a naked earth. It seemed to me that the hawk had been a figure of more than himself and his purpose; I saw him as Homer's people saw their eagles. Just as he hung aloft so hung the sun, intent upon the life of our cowering ball. Not elsewhere in England have I seen so shadeless a place, or one so unfitted for human intercourse, so lacking in the comfort, which human sensibilities need. We live in nature as hunted things, beasts of chase. Every eye is upon us in fear or dislike; but in our turn, cursed as well as blessed by imagination, we people the wild with dreadful shapes of menace. The heat, the cold, the wind and the rain work as much against us as for us. We endow them with minds like our own, but magnified by our dismay to be the minds of gods maleficent. Without shelter of our own provision we are comfortless, and without comfort our souls perish, then our bodies. Salisbury Plain, swooning in the heat, is a paradise for insects. In those desolate dwellings both flies and (I am sure) fleas abounded, dreadfully healthy and alive. I only guess at the fleas, but the flies I can answer for. They swarmed on the baking walls and wove webs in the air above us. The rooms were black with them, and their humming filled them up with noise.

Here lived the shepherd, too heavily taxed as he thought for his hermitage; here lived his family of half a dozen swarthy and beautiful children; and here we discussed the state of affairs, since the shepherd was abroad, with his daughter, a flower of the field. She came out of this stivy tenement at the sound of our boiling radiator, and stood framed in the doorway, shading her eyes against the sun, a tall and graceful, very pretty girl, dressed in cool white which might have been fresh from its cardboard box, as she herself might have stepped from her typewriter and Government office at Whitehall. Gentle-voiced, quiet and self-possessed, she showed us the conditions of her lot. One living-room, two bedrooms, and a washhouse in a shed: three miles over the grass to shop, church, post-office, and doctor; half a mile to call up a neighbour in case of need. A rain-water tank, less than a quarter full of last winter's rain, must keep clean her house and her, and for drinking she was served by a galvanised tank in full sun, which she was lucky to get filled once a week.

I tasted of it. The water was warm, flat, and not too clean. "Where does this come from?" "It is fetched in a barrel from over the hill." "Who brings it?" "The farmer--but he makes a fuss whenever we ask for it." "He must water the stock, surely?" "Oh yes, and the sheep, too, but--" A pregnant aposiopesis. I wondered if that tank could not be put in the shade; but it seemed that it could not. The water had to be drawn from the barrel, the barrel was on wheels; time was short, life was tough; and so--you see! We did justice to the shepherd.

It is shocking that a man should live so, held of less account than the sheep which he rears; but it is admirable that this man should live as he does. The house, to call it so, was as clean as a dairy; the children were neat, washed and brushed; the girl was one for Herrick to have sung of. I wish that I could have seen the shepherd, though it may well be that his wife, if she is alive, would reveal more. Something told me that he was a widower, and that this fair young woman mothered his brood for him. What she had of the nest-lore can only have come from a shrewd mistress of it. I did not see a book in the place, nor a newspaper.

Life out there, on such terms, is more solitary than in Northumberland, where the farms are isolated and self-sufficient, but all the hinds' dwellings are clustered, and society may be had. I don't believe you can set up for a successful hermit without a long education; and although a shepherd himself may be one by a stern schooling in solitude, you should not expect it of his daughter. Here was a girl made for social amenity, who would want to be danced with, flirted with, courted with flowers, sweets and other delicate observance. She deserved admiration both to receive and impart. It is useless to talk about nature; the love of that is both sophisticated and acquired. Nothing to her the great blue spaces of the Plain, the brooded mystery of Stonehenge, the companionship of her long-dead ancestry, dust in their barrows. No solace for her, after the burden of the day, in the large solemnity of evening out there, which to some of us would call a message almost vocal. To me, for instance, a summer's dusk, a moonrise on the Plain, are poems without words. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard--!

For whom, then, had she adorned herself in white raiment, for whom dressed her dark hair? Not for us, that's certain. She had had no notice of our coming. That she should do such things for their own sake, elegantiâ quadam prope divinum, was original virtue in her. Solomon in all his glory had been no goodlier sight; and if she toiled or spun to achieve it, her state, I should say, is by so much the more gracious. And what the devil does she do with herself in the long winter nights, when you light the lamp at four and see nothing of the sun till eight the next morning--and she arrayed like a lily of the field? There's mending, but you have the afternoon for that; a letter to a brother in Canada; let us hope there's one to a sweetheart not so far away. And then--what? To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Flower Of The Field

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