Felix Holt the Radical
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FELIX HOLT, THE RADICAL
BY GEORGE ELIOT
Upon the midlands now the industrious muse doth fall, The shires which we the heart of England well may call.
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My native country thou, which so brave spirits hast bred, If there be virtues yet remaining in the earth, Or any good of thine thou bred'st into my birth, Accept it as thine own, whilst now I sing of thee, Of all thy later brood the unworthiest though I be.
BOSTON DE WOLFE, FISKE & COMPANY 361 AND 365 WASHINGTON STREET
FELIX HOLT, THE RADICAL.
Five-and-thirty years ago the glory had not yet departed from the oldcoach roads: the great roadside inns were still brilliant withwell-polished tankards, the smiling glances of pretty barmaids, and therepartees of jocose hostlers; the mail still announced itself by themerry notes of the horn; the hedge-cutter or the rick-thatcher mightstill know the exact hour by the unfailing yet otherwise meteoricapparition of the pea-green Tally-ho or the yellow Independent; andelderly gentlemen in pony-chaises, quartering nervously to make way forthe rolling, swinging swiftness, had not ceased to remark that timeswere finely changed since they used to see the pack-horses and hear thetinkling of their bells on this very highway.
In those days there were pocket boroughs, a Birmingham unrepresented inParliament and compelled to make strong representations out of it,unrepealed corn-laws, three-and-sixpenny letters, a brawny andmany-breeding pauperism, and other departed evils; but there were somepleasant things, too, which have also departed. _Non omnia grandior aetasquae fugiamus habet_, says the wise goddess: you have not the best of itin all things, O youngsters! the elderly man has his enviable memories,and not the least of them is the memory of a long journey in mid-springor autumn on the outside of a stage coach. Posterity may be shot, like abullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure, from Winchester toNewcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes; but the slow,old fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other isthe better thing to have in the memory. The tube-journey can never lendmuch to picture and narrative; it is as barren as an exclamatory O!Whereas, the happy outside passenger, seated on the box from the dawn tothe gloaming, gathered enough stories of English life, enough of Englishlabors in town and country, enough aspects of earth and sky, to makeepisodes for a modern Odyssey. Suppose only that his journey took himthrough that central plain, watered at one extremity by the Avon, at theother by the Trent. As the morning silvered the meadows with their longlines of bushy willows marking the water-courses, or burnished thegolden corn-ricks clustered near the long roofs of some midlandhomestead, he saw the full-uddered cows driven from their pasture to theearly milking. Perhaps it was the shepherd, head-servant of the farm,who drove them, his sheep-dog following with a heedless, unofficial air,as of a beadle in undress. The shepherd, with a slow and slouching walk,timed by the walk of grazing beasts, moved aside, as if unwillingly,throwing out a monosyllabic hint to his cattle; his glance, accustomedto rest on things very near the earth, seemed to lift itself withdifficulty to the coachman. Mail or stage coach for him belonged to themysterious distant system of things called "Gover'ment," which, whateverit might be, was no business of his, any more than the most outlyingnebula or the coal-sacks of the southern hemisphere: his solar systemwas the parish; the master's temper and the casualties of lambing-timewere his region of storms. He cut his bread and bacon with hispocket-knife, and felt no bitterness except in the matter of pauperlaborers and the bad-luck that sent contrarious seasons and thesheep-rot. He and his cows were soon left behind, and the homestead,too, with its pond overhung by elder-trees, its untidy kitchen-gardenand cone-shaped yew-tree arbor. But everywhere the bushy hedgerowswasted the land with their straggling beauty, shrouded the grassyborders of the pastures with catkined hazels, and tossed their longblackberry branches on the corn-fields. Perhaps they were white withMay, or starred with pale pink dog-roses; perhaps the urchins werealready nutting among them, or gathering the plenteous crabs. It wasworth the journey only to see those hedgerows, the liberal homes ofunmarketable beauty--of the purple blossomed, ruby-berried nightshade,of the wild convolvulus climbing and spreading in tendriled strengthtill it made a great curtain of pale-green hearts and white trumpets, ofthe many-tubed honey-suckle which, in its most delicate fragrance, hid acharm more subtle and penetrating than beauty. Even if it were winter,the hedgerows showed their coral, the scarlet haws, the deep-crimsonhips, with lingering brown leaves to make a resting-place for the jewelsof the hoar-frost. Such hedgerows were often as tall as the laborers'cottages dotted along the lanes, or clustered into a small hamlet, theirlittle dingy windows telling, like thick-filmed eyes, of nothing but thedarkness within. The passenger on the coach-box, bowled along abovesuch a hamlet, saw chiefly the roofs of it: probably it turned its backon the road, and seemed to lie away from everything but its own patch ofearth and sky, away from the parish church by long fields and greenlanes, away from all intercourse except that of tramps. If its facecould be seen, it was most likely dirty; but the dirt was Protestantdirt, and the big, bold, gin-breathing tramps were Protestant tramps.There was no sign of superstition near, no crucifix or image to indicatea misguided reverence: the inhabitants were probably so free fromsuperstition that they were in much less awe of the parson than of theoverseer. Yet they were saved from the excess of Protestantism by notknowing how to read, and by the absence of handlooms and mines to be thepioneers of Dissent: they were kept safely in the _via media_ ofindifference, and could have registered themselves in the census by abig black mark as members of the Church of England.
But there were trim cheerful villages too, with a neat or handsomeparsonage and gray church set in the midst; there was the pleasanttinkle of the blacksmith's anvil, the patient cart horses waiting at hisdoor; the basket-maker peeling his willow wands in the sunshine; thewheelwright putting his last touch to a blue cart with red wheels; hereand there a cottage with bright transparent windows showing pots full ofblooming balsams or geraniums, and little gardens in front all doubledaisies or dark wallflowers; at the well, clean and comely womencarrying yoked buckets, and toward the free school small Britonsdawdling on, and handling their marbles in the pockets of unpatchedcorduroys adorned with brass buttons. The land around was rich andmarly, great corn-stacks stood in the rick-yards--for the rick-burnershad not found their way hither; the homesteads were those of richfarmers who paid no rent, or had the rare advantage of a lease, andcould afford to keep the corn till prices had risen. The coach would besure to overtake some of them on their way to their outlying fields orto the market-town, sitting heavily on their well-groomed horses, orweighing down one side of an olive-green gig. They probably thought ofthe coach with some contempt, as an accommodation for people who had nottheir own gigs, or who, wanting to travel to London and such distantplaces, belonged to the trading and less solid part of the nation. Thepassenger on the box could see that this was the district of protuberantoptimists, sure that old England was the best of all possible countries,and that if there were any facts which had not fallen under their ownobservation, they were facts not worth observing: the district of cleanlittle market-towns without manufactures, of fat livings, anaristocratic clergy, and low poor-rates. But as the day wore on thescene would change: the land would begin to be blackened with coal-pits,the rattle of handlooms to be heard in hamlets and villages. Here werepowerful men
walking queerly with knees bent outward from squatting inthe mine, going home to throw themselves down in their blackened flanneland sleep through the daylight, then rise and spend much of their highwages at the ale-house with their fellows of the Benefit Club; here thepale eager faces of the handloom-weavers, men and women, haggard fromsitting up late at night to finish the week's work, hardly begun tillthe Wednesday. Everywhere the cottages and the small children weredirty, for the languid mothers gave their strength to the loom; piousDissenting women, perhaps, who took life patiently, and thought thatsalvation depended chiefly on predestination, and not at all oncleanliness. The gables of Dissenting chapels now made a visible sign ofreligion, and of a meeting-place to counterbalance the ale-house, evenin the hamlets; but if a couple of old termagants were seen tearing eachother's caps, it was a safe conclusion that, if they had not receivedthe sacraments of the Church, they had not at least given in toschismatic rites, and were free from the errors of Voluntaryism. Thebreath of the manufacturing town, which made a cloudy day and a redgloom by night on the horizon, diffused itself over all the surroundingcountry, filling the air with eager unrest. Here was a population notconvinced that old England was as good as possible; here weremultitudinous men and women aware that their religion was not exactlythe religion of their rulers, who might therefore be better than theywere, and who, if better, might alter many things which now made theworld perhaps more painful than it need be, and certainly more sinful.Yet there were the gray steeples too, and the churchyards, with theirgrassy mounds and venerable headstones, sleeping in the sunlight; therewere broad fields and homesteads, and fine old woods covering a risingground, or stretching far by the roadside, allowing only peeps at thepark and mansion which they shut in from the working-day world. In thesemidland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of Englishlife to another: after looking down on a village dingy with coal-dust,noisy with the shaking of looms, he might skirt a parish all of fields,high hedges, and deep rutted lanes; after the coach had rattled over thepavement of a manufacturing town, the scenes of riots and trades-unionmeetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region,where the neighborhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of anear market for corn, cheese, and hay, and where men with a considerablebanking account were accustomed to say that "they never meddled withpolitics themselves." The busy scenes of the shuttle and the wheel, ofthe roaring furnace, of the shaft and the pulley, seemed to make butcrowded nests in the midst of the large-spaced, slow-moving life ofhomesteads and far-away cottages and oak-sheltered parks. Looking at thedwellings scattered amongst the woody flats and the plowed uplands,under the low gray sky which overhung them with an unchanging stillnessas if Time itself were pausing, it was easy for the traveller toconceive that town and country had no pulse in common, except where thehandlooms made a far-reaching straggling fringe about the great centresof manufacture; that till the agitation about the Catholics in '29,rural Englishmen had hardly known more of Catholics than of the fossilmammals; and that their notion of Reform was a confused combination ofrick-burners, trades-unions, Nottingham riots, and in general whateverrequired the calling out of the yeomanry. It was still easier to seethat, for the most part, they resisted the rotation of crops and stoodby their fallows: and the coachman would perhaps tell how in one parishan innovating farmer, who talked of Sir Humphrey Davy, had been fairlydriven out by popular dislike, as if he had been a confounded Radical;and how, the parson having one Sunday preached from the words, "Break upyour fallow-ground," the people thought he had made the text out of hisown head, otherwise it would never have come "so pat" on a matter ofbusiness; but when they found it in the Bible at home, some said it wasan argument for fallows (else why should the Bible mention fallows?),but a few of the weaker sort were shaken, and thought it was an argumentthat fallows should be done away with, else the Bible would have said,"Let your fallows lie"; and the next morning the parson had a stroke ofapoplexy, which, as coincident with a dispute about fallows, so set theparish against the innovating farmer and the rotation of crops, that hecould stand his ground no longer, and transferred his lease.
The coachman was an excellent travelling companion and commentator onthe landscape: he could tell the names of sites and persons, and explainthe meaning of groups, as well as the shade of Virgil in a morememorable journey; he had as many stories about parishes, and the menand women in them, as the Wanderer in the "Excursion," only his stylewas different. His view of life had originally been genial, such asbecame a man who was well warmed within and without, and held a positionof easy, undisputed authority; but the recent initiation of railways hadembittered him: he now, as in a perpetual vision, saw the ruined countrystrewn with shattered limbs, and regarded Mr. Huskisson's death as aproof of God's anger against Stephenson. "Why, every inn on the roadwould be shut up!" and at that word the coachman looked before him withthe blank gaze of one who had driven his coach to the outermost edge ofthe universe, and saw his leaders plunging into the abyss. Still hewould soon relapse from the high prophetic strain to the familiar one ofnarrative. He knew whose the land was wherever he drove; what noblemenhad half-ruined themselves by gambling; who made handsome returns ofrent; and who was at daggers-drawn with his eldest son. He perhapsremembered the fathers of actual baronets, and knew stories of theirextravagant or stingy housekeeping; whom they had married, whom they hadhorsewhipped, whether they were particular about preserving their game,and whether they had had much to do with canal companies. About anyactual landed proprietor he could also tell whether he was a Reformer oran Anti-Reformer. That was a distinction which had "turned up" in lattertimes, and along with it the paradox, very puzzling to the coachman'smind, that there were men of old family and large estate who voted forthe Bill. He did not grapple with the paradox; he let it pass, with allthe discreetness of an experienced theologian or learned scholiast,preferring to point his whip at some object which could raise noquestions.
No such paradox troubled our coachman when, leaving the town of TrebyMagna behind him, he drove between the hedges for a mile or so, crossedthe queer long bridge over the river Lapp, and then put his horses to aswift gallop up the hill by the low-nestled village of Little Treby,till they were on the fine level road, skirted on one side by grandlarches, oaks, and wych elms, which sometimes opened so far as to letthe traveller see that there was a park behind them.
How many times in the year, as the coach rolled past theneglected-looking lodges which interrupted the screen of trees, andshowed the river winding through a finely-timbered park, had thecoachman answered the same questions, or told the same things withoutbeing questioned! That?--oh, that was Transome Court, a place there hadbeen a fine sight of lawsuits about. Generations back, the heir of theTransome name had somehow bargained away the estate, and it fell to theDurfeys, very distant connections, who only called themselves Transomesbecause they had got the estate. But the Durfeys' claim had beendisputed over and over again; and the coachman, if he had been asked,would have said, though he might have to fall down dead the next minute,that property didn't always get into the right hands. However, thelawyers had found their luck in it; and people who inherited estatesthat were lawed about often lived in them as poorly as a mouse in ahollow cheese; and, by what he could make out, that had been the waywith these present Durfeys, or Transomes, as they called themselves. Asfor Mr. Transome, he was as poor, half-witted a fellow as you'd wish tosee; but _she_ was master, had come of a high family, and had aspirit--you might see it in her eye and the way she sat her horse. Fortyyears ago, when she came into this country, they said she was a pictur';but her family was poor, and so she took up with a hatchet-faced fellowlike this Transome. And the eldest son had been just such another as hisfather, only worse--a wild sort of half-natural, who got into badcompany. They said his mother hated him and wished him dead; for she'dgot another son, quite of a different cut, who had gone to foreign partswhen he was a youngster, and she wanted her favorite to be heir. Butheir or no heir, Lawyer Jermyn had had _h
is_ picking out of the estate.Not a door in his big house but what was the finest polished oak, allgot off the Transome estate. If anybody liked to believe he paid for it,they were welcome. However, Lawyer Jermyn had sat on that box-seat manyand many a time. He had made the wills of most people thereabout. Thecoachman would not say that Lawyer Jermyn was not the man he wouldchoose to make his own will some day. It was not so well for a lawyer tobe over-honest, else he might not be up to other people's tricks. And asfor the Transome business, there had been ins and outs in time gone by,so that you couldn't look into it straight backward. At this Mr. Sampson(everybody in North Loamshire knew Sampson's coach) would screw hisfeatures into a grimace expressive of entire neutrality, and appear toaim his whip at a particular spot on the horse's flank. If the passengerwas curious for further knowledge concerning the Transome affairs,Sampson would shake his head and say there had been fine stories in histime; but he never condescended to state what the stories were. Someattributed this reticence to a wise incredulity, others to a want ofmemory, others to simple ignorance. But at least Sampson was right insaying that there had been fine stories--meaning, ironically, storiesnot altogether creditable to the parties concerned.
And such stories often come to be fine in a sense that is not ironical.For there is seldom any wrong-doing which does not carry along with itsome downfall of blindly-climbing hopes, some hard entail of suffering,some quickly-satiated desire that survives, with the life in death ofold paralytic vice, to see itself cursed by its woeful progeny--sometragic mark of kinship in the one brief life to the far-stretching lifethat went before, and to the life that is to come after, such as hasraised the pity and terror of men ever since they began to discernbetween will and destiny. But these things are often unknown to theworld; for there is much pain that is quite noiseless; and vibrationsthat make human agonies are often a mere whisper in the roar of hurryingexistence. There are glances of hatred that stab and raise no cry ofmurder; robberies that leave man or woman forever beggared of peace andjoy, yet kept secret by the sufferer--committed to no sound except thatof low moans in the night, seen in no writing except that made on theface by the slow months of suppressed anguish and early morning tears.Many an inherited sorrow that has marred a life has been breathed intono human ear.
The poets have told us of a dolorous enchanted forest in the underworld. The thorn-bushes there, and the thick-barked stems, have humanhistories hidden in them; the power of unuttered cries dwells in thepassionless-seeming branches, and the red warm blood is darkly feedingthe quivering nerves of a sleepless memory that watches through alldreams. These things are a parable.