Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 11

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Chapter XI: "The Yard Where the Gentlemen Live"

I may be forgiven, surely, if I run somewhat into detail about this my first visit to the country.

I had, as I have said before, literally never been further afield than
Fulham or Battersea Rise. One Sunday evening, indeed, I had got as far as
Wandsworth Common; but it was March, and, to my extreme disappointment, the
heath was not in flower.

But, usually, my Sundays had been spent entirely in study; which to me was rest, so worn out were both my body and my mind with the incessant drudgery of my trade, and the slender fare to which I restricted myself. Since I had lodged with Mackaye certainly my food had been better. I had not required to stint my appetite for money wherewith to buy candles, ink, and pens. My wages, too, had increased with my years, and altogether I found myself gaining in strength, though I had no notion how much I possessed till I set forth on this walk to Cambridge.

It was a glorious morning at the end of May; and when. I escaped from the pall of smoke which hung over the city, I found the sky a sheet of cloudless blue. How I watched for the ending of the rows of houses, which lined the road for miles—the great roots of London, running far out into the country, up which poured past me an endless stream of food and merchandise and human beings—the sap of the huge metropolitan life-tree! How each turn of the road opened a fresh line of terraces or villas, till hope deferred made the heart sick, and the country seemed—like the place where the rainbow touches the ground, or the El Dorado of Raleigh's Guiana settler—always a little farther off! How between gaps in the houses, right and left, I caught tantalizing glimpses of green fields, shut from me by dull lines of high-spiked palings! How I peeped through gates and over fences at trim lawns and gardens, and longed to stay, and admire, and speculate on the name of the strange plants and gaudy flowers; and then hurried on, always expecting to find something still finer ahead—something really worth stopping to look at—till the houses thickened again into a street, and I found myself, to my disappointment, in the midst of a town! And then more villas and palings; and then a village;—when would they stop, those endless houses?

At last they did stop. Gradually the people whom I passed began to look more and more rural, and more toil-worn and ill-fed. The houses ended, cattle-yards and farm-buildings appeared; and right and left, far away, spread the low rolling sheet of green meadows and cornfields. Oh, the joy! The lawns with their high elms and firs, the green hedgerows, the delicate hue and scent of the fresh clover-fields, the steep clay banks where I stopped to pick nosegays of wild flowers, and became again a child,—and then recollected my mother, and a walk with her on the river bank towards the Red House—and hurried on again, but could not be unhappy, while my eyes ranged free, for the first time in my life, over the chequered squares of cultivation, over glittering brooks, and hills quivering in the green haze, while above hung the skylarks, pouring out their souls in melody. And then, as the sun grew hot, and the larks dropped one by one into the growing corn, the new delight of the blessed silence! I listened to the stillness; for noise had been my native element; I had become in London quite unconscious of the ceaseless roar of the human sea, casting up mire and dirt. And now, for the first time in my life, the crushing, confusing hubbub had flowed away, and left my brain calm and free. How I felt at that moment a capability of clear, bright meditation, which was as new to me, as I believe it would have been to most Londoners in my position. I cannot help fancying that our unnatural atmosphere of excitement, physical as well as moral, is to blame for very much of the working man's restlessness and fierceness. As it was, I felt that every step forward, every breath of fresh air, gave me new life. I had gone fifteen miles before I recollected that, for the first time for many months, I had not coughed since I rose.