And under that grey and silver cloudland, with a background of those frost-bitten and wind-tortured trees, the little Londoner told me a tale which, true or false, was as heartrending as Romeo and Juliet.
He had slowly built up in the village a small business as a photographer, and he was engaged to a girl at one of the lodges, whom he loved with passion. “I’m the sort that ‘ad better marry,” he said; and for all his frail figure I knew what he meant. But Sir Joseph, and especially Sir Joseph’s wife, did not want a photographer in the village; it made the girls vain, or perhaps they disliked this particular photographer. He worked and worked until he had just enough to marry on honestly; and almost on the eve of his wedding the lease expired, and Sir Joseph appeared in all his glory. He refused to renew the lease; and the man went wildly elsewhere. But Sir Joseph was ubiquitous; and the whole of that place was barred against him. In all that country he could not find a shed to which to bring home his bride. The man appealed and explained; but he was disliked as a demagogue, as well as a photographer. Then it was as if a black cloud came across the winter sky; for I knew what was coming. I forget even in what words he told of Nature maddened and set free. But I still see, as in a photograph, the grey muscles of the winter trees standing out like tight ropes, as if all Nature were on the rack.
“She ‘ad to go away,” he said.
“Wouldn’t her parents,” I began, and hesitated on the word “forgive.”
“Oh, her people forgave her,” he said. “But Her Ladyship…”
“Her Ladyship made the sun and moon and stars,” I said, impatiently. “So of course she can come between a mother and the child of her body.”
“Well, it does seem a bit ‘ard …” he began with a break in his voice.
“But, good Lord, man,” I cried, “it isn’t a matter of hardness! It’s a matter of impious and indecent wickedness. If your Sir Joseph knew the passions he was playing with, he did you a wrong for which in many Christian countries he would have a knife in him.”
The man continued to look across the frozen fields with a frown. He certainly told his tale with real resentment, whether it was true or false, or only exaggerated. He was certainly sullen and injured; but he did not seem to think of any avenue of escape. At last he said:
“Well, it’s a bad world; let’s ‘ope there’s a better one.”
“Amen,” I said. “But when I think of Sir Joseph, I understand how men have hoped there was a worse one.”
Then we were silent for a long time and felt the cold of the day crawling up, and at last I said, abruptly:
“The other day at a Budget meeting, I heard.”
He took his elbows off the stile and seemed to change from head to foot like a man coming out of sleep with a yawn. He said in a totally new voice, louder but much more careless, “Ah yes, sir,… this ‘ere Budget … the Radicals are doing a lot of ‘arm.”
I listened intently, and he went on. He said with a sort of careful precision, “Settin’ class against class; that’s what I call it. Why, what’s made our Empire except the readiness of all classes to work ‘eartily ‘and-in-’and.”
He walked a little up and down the lane and stamped with the cold. Then he said, “What I say is, what else kept us from the ‘errors of the French Revolution?”
My memory is good, and I waited in tense eagerness for the phrase that came next. “They may laugh at Dukes; I’d like to see them ‘alf as kind and Christian and patient as lots of the landlords are. Let me tell you, sir,” he said, facing round at me with the final air of one launching a paradox. “The English people ‘ave some common sense, and they’d rather be in the ‘ands of gentlemen than in the claws of a lot of Socialist thieves.”
I had an indescribable sense that I ought to applaud, as if I were a public meeting. The insane separation in the man’s soul between his experience and his ready-made theory was but a type of what covers a quarter of England. As he turned away, I saw the Daily Wire sticking out of his shabby pocket. He bade me farewell in quite a blaze of catchwords, and went stumping up the road. I saw his figure grow smaller and smaller in the great green landscape; even as the Free Man has grown smaller and smaller in the English countryside.