From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 18, p154-172.
After Fifty Years
H. M. Tomlinson
A Mingled Yarn
By H. M. Tomlinson
Indianapolis, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Copyright 1953, by H. M. Tomlinson, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 53-6137. Printed in the U.S.A.
THE pond at the end of the row of cottages was reduced to little more than a margin of yellow mud, tough as putty. The mud framed an oval of green slime, which might have been solid, for several tin-cans were resting on it, unable to sink. The cottages were hoary with the dust of constant motor traffic, and the small strip of fenced ground in front of each was a desert in which nothing but a few tall hollyhocks survived.
The market-gardener, whose tanned face made his beard as delicate as snow, and gave his pale blue eyes a disconcerting candour, stood at the gate to the gardens just beyond the pond. Over the gardens, held aloft so that the passengers on the motor-buses from London could see it, was a new notice-board announcing that freehold building plots were for sale.
A stack of bricks was dumped on the potatoes near the notice-board. The gardener saw that I had observed this novelty in the village, and turned his head to glance that way. He crinkled his eyes at the bricks in ironical disfavour. "That's the first lot," he said. "Can't be stopped now. Better look round if you want to remember us. Wonderful how things move, once they start. One time, nothing much along here but farm wagons. Now you must hurry, crossing this here road. Specially Sundays. London ain't far away now."
"It never was very far, was it?"
"It was all right where it was. I never thought," he mumbled, "that anyone 'ud want to live here, except us folks. I almost wish I'd guessed it long ago. Might have bought this field. Never gave it a thought. Rent was cheap. I could only think of the green stuff, and that's how we get caught, attending to one thing. You City folks are too quick."
"No, we're not. It's the years that are quick. We get hurried along and pushed out, and most of the time we don't know where we are."
"Well, maybe. But here you are. Seems as though them motor-buses blasted even the 'taters. 'Tisn't only the dry summer. Everything lost heart after they put up that notice-board there. This place is different."
The old man took off his cap and put it on again. "Well, you come in and have a cup of tea on the way down. Don't go to the village hall and ask the young 'uns whether they like the difference. Sometimes I fancy the motors have served them like the 'taters."
At the end of the market-gardens, where the contractors are assembling their materials, a footpath passes some recent villas built in the Tudor style, with black planks, to represent timber work, embedded in cement, and begins a long ascent of the open downs. Beyond the last house you can see the upward track dwindle in the distance to a white thread, which is occasionally lost to sight. And beyond, where that thread vanishes, a wood is a dark crown to the downs, but it is so remote, so near to the glaring sky, that the eye tells you it is not worth the climb.
The lower slopes of the upland have been worn by the holiday-makers. The relics of the last week-end picnic littered the dry grass. Nobody was in sight then. Nothing moved, except the air over the warm ground in the distance: the down, that light inflation of chalk, vast and still, might have been quivering under its spell. At least there was a hint of its eager and tremulous spirit under the iron control of its enchantment. You thought when watching it that you might presently see the earth change more rapidly, and that dilation increase or collapse. For the chalk country, with its faint hues and its clean rondures, gives a curious sense of buoyancy and volatility. That high and distant clump, that dark raft of trees, could be sweeping forward on an immense green billow. It might slither over and vanish.
Above the litter of the picnic-makers the hill rose at a sharper angle. The dry herbage was as slippery as ice. That sharp slope appeared to be a barrier to the holiday folk. Their tide does not rise above it. Above that escarpment the life of the valley never flows; and, looking down from it, the market-gardens in the valley bottom, with the tiny mark which was a notice-board adding insult to the injury of the potatoes in a dry season, were seen to be the less significant. They were of no extent. The village itself, even with the bright red rectangles of the villas which betrayed its growth, was obviously incidental. Above the escarpment, too, the wild crops on the down were superior to anything which afflicts cabbages. They knew nothing of a drought. As a cooling breeze passed over the body of the hill the silky herbage stirred like brown fur. The skin of the earth was soft and healthy. It smelt of thyme and marjoram.
The wood, that raft on the crest of the billow of chalk, was reached at last. No drought was there. There was an outer wild of the smaller trees, guelder, wayfarer's-tree, white beam, holly, cornel and alder buckthorn, bound together with wild clematis, and brambles that sounded like dynamos with a multitude of bees. Inside the wood, wherever there was a clearing in the timber on a slope, the colours of the wild-flowers fell away in a cascade. That seclusion seemed tranquil and confident with a knowledge kept secret from the fearful and anxious. Its life sang and hummed in innumerable tiny voices. It will last a long time, and it will not need to change. A yew kept a space for itself, a twilight area through which fell rods of light. One side of the yew was splashed by the sun, and then the sooty trunk was seen to be of madder and myrtle green. Its life, though ancient, could not have been more robust. In the shade of it a company of hover-flies were at play, as though they had been doing that from the beginning and would do it for ever. They poised motionless or slightly undulated, and gyrated sideways and vanished, to reappear instantly in the same place, atoms joyous and sure in a changeless world. Sometimes one of them was caught in a beam of light, and then that morsel of life became a bubble of gold in the air. It went out. It appeared again. It could shine when it pleased.
The ship of trees was actually afloat. Its course was set high in the tides of the ether. It only seemed motionless. The murmuring of its secret power could be heard if you listened for it.