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Quiet Old Towns
by [?]

A rather popular writer, who first came into notice by dint of naming a book of essays, “Is Life worth Living?” gave us not long ago a very sweet description of an English country town; and he worked himself up to quite a moving pitch of rapture as he described the admirable social arrangements which may be perceived on a market-day. This enthusiast tells us how the members of the great county families drive in to do their shopping. The stately great horses paw and champ at their bits, the neat servants bustle about in deft attendance, and the shopkeeper, who has a feudal sort of feeling towards his betters, comes out to do proper homage. The great landowner brings his wealth into the High Street or the market place, and the tradesmen raise their voices to bless him. We have all heard of institutions called “stores”; but still it is a pity to carp at a pretty picture drawn by a literary artist. I know that rebellious tradesmen in many of the shires use violent language as they describe the huge packing-cases which are deposited at various mansions by the railway vans. I know also that the regulation saddler who airs his apron at the door of his shop on market-days will inform the stranger that the gentry get saddles, harness, and everything else nowadays from the abominable “stores”; but I must not leave my artist, and shall let the saddler growl to himself for the present. The polished writer goes on to speak of the ruddy farmer who strolls round in elephantine fashion and hooks out sample-bags from his plethoric and prosperous pockets; the dealers drive a brisk trade, the small shopkeepers are encouraged by their neighbours from the country, and everything is extremely idyllic and pure and pretty and representative of England at her best. The old church rears its quaint height above the quainter houses that cluster near. In the churchyard the generations of natives sleep sound; one may trace some families back for hundreds of years, and thus perceive how firmly the love of the true townsman clings to his native place. Perhaps a castle looms over the modest streets and squares–it is converted into a prison in all probability; but the sight of it brings memories of haughty nobles, or of untitled personages whose pride of race would put monarchs to the blush. The river flows sweetly past the sleepy lovely town, and sober citizens walk solemnly beside the rippling watery highway when the day’s toil is over. On Sunday, when the bells chime their invitation, all sorts and conditions of men meet in the dim romantic precincts of the ancient church, and there is much pleasant gossiping when morning and evening worship are ended. Good old solid England is put before us in miniature when we glance at such of the community as choose to show themselves before the artistic observer, and, as we drive away along the sound level roads, we say–if we are very literary and enthusiastic–“Happy little town! Happy little nation!” Now that is all very pretty; and yet the conscientious philosopher is bound to admit that there is another side–nay, several other sides–to the charming picture. I do not want any students of the modern French school to prove that rural life in small towns may be as base and horrible as the life of crowded cities–I do not want any minute analysis of degradation; but I may prick a windbag of conceit and do some little service if I try to show that the state of things in some scores of these delightful old places is base and corrupt enough to warm the heart of the most exacting cynic that ever thought evil of his fellow-creatures.

Let us go behind the scenes and see what the idyllic prospect looks like from the rear. We must proceed with great deliberation, and we must take our rustic society stratum by stratum. First, then, there are the idle men who have inherited or earned fortunes, and who like to settle in luxurious houses away from great centres of population. Such men are always in great force on the skirts of quiet old towns, and they are much revered by the tradesmen. I cannot help thinking that the fate of the average “retired” man must be not a little dolorous, for I find that the typical member of that class conducts himself in much the same way no matter where he pitches his habitation in broad England. He is saved if he has a hobby; but, without a hobby, he is a very poor creature, and his ways of living on from day to day are the reverse of admirable. If such a revolutionary institution as a club has been established in the town, he may begin his morning’s round there; or, in default of a club, there is the “select” room in the principal hotel. If he is catholic in his tastes and hungry for conversation, he may wander from one house of call to another, and he meets a large and well-chosen assortment of hucksters who come to bind bargains with the inevitable “drink”; he meets the gossip who knows all the secrets of the township, he meets flashy persons who have a manly thirst which requires perpetual assuagement. Then he converses to his heart’s content; and, alas, what conversation it is–what intellectual exertion is expended by these forlorn gossips in the morning round that takes up the time of many men in a quiet town! There is a little slander, a good deal of peeping out of windows, a little discussion of the financial prospects ascribed to various men in the neighbourhood, and an impartial examination of everybody’s private affairs. The regular crew of gossips hold it as a duty to know and talk about the most minute details of each other’s lives, and, when a man leaves any given room where the piquant chatter is going on, he is quite aware that he leaves his character behind him. The state of his banking account is guessed at, the disposition of his will is courageously foretold, the amounts which he paid to various shopkeepers are added up with reverence or scorn according to the amount–and the company revel in their mean babble until it is time to go to another place and pull the character and the financial accounts of somebody else to pieces. By luncheon time most of these useful beings are a little affected in complexion and speech by the trifling potations which wash down the scandal; but no one is intoxicated. To be seen mastered by “drink” in the morning would cause a man to lose caste; and, besides, if he said too much while his tongue was loose, he would not be believed when next he set down a savoury mess for the benefit of the company. Through all the talk of these wretched entities, be it observed that money, money runs as a species of key-note; the men may be coarse and servile, but a shrewd eye can detect every sign of purse-pride. Let a gentleman of some standing walk past a window where the grievous crew are wine-bibbing and blabbing, and some one will say, “Carries hisself high enough, don’t he? He ain’t got a thousand to fly with. I bet a bottle on it! Why, me, or Jimmy there, or even old Billy Spinks, leaving out Harry, and let alone the Doctor–any one on us could buy him out twelve times over, and then have a bit of roast or biled for Sunday’s dinner!” This remark is received as a wise and trenchant tribute to the power of the assembly, and they have more “drink” by way of self-gratulation. Those poor “retired” men, and “independent” men, often go deeper and deeper down the incline towards mental and moral degradation until they become surprisingly repulsive specimens of humanity. In all their dreary perambulations they rarely speak or hear an intelligent word; they are amazingly ignorant concerning their country’s affairs, and their conceptions of politics are mostly limited to a broad general belief that some particular statesman ought to be hanged.