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The Secret Places XXI & XXII

The last two chapters of The Secret Places (Elkin Mathews & Marrot London 1929) - a chronicle of the 'pilgrimages' of the author, Reginald Francis Foster (1896-1975), and his friend 'Longshanks' idly rambling in Sussex, Kent and Surrey. See our posting of the first chapters for more on Foster and this book, including a contemporary review in The Tablet.

XXI

BEER AND A BISHOP

A man with a lorry, who said he was going into Sussex, offered us a lift, and because night was come and we needed rest, we climbed up beside him and fell asleep at once. He set us down at Littlehampton before dawn, and not liking that place we left the town and walked northwards in the half light.
When the sun lifted over Highdown Hill, Angering way, we reached a village south of Arundel, whose name we did not know, and stopped to watch two men who were busily semaphoring to each other across the pond which separated them. One, a fat man in a blue jersey, was obviously an old sailor, and he manipulated his arms in expert fashion; the other wore a bowler hat and had a mustache that was fiercely waxed. Also, an umbrella hung by its crook from the top pocket of his smart overcoat. He was a small, important-looking man, and his arms moved uncertainly in his strange exercise.
The old sailor suddenly roared: “Stand easy!” whereupon his pupil lowered his arms and, seeing us, raised his bowler hat politely and straightway told us his name. “I am a Government inspector of breweries,” he added manfully.
In a short while we were very friendly with the little man, and he told us many strange things, amongst them being that brewers put Glauber salts in beer in order to give it the flavor of Burton brew. When we doubted him he swore by St. Clavius of Terres–a Saint I did not know–that he spoke the truth, and so we had to believe him.
Later, we went into the inn, and the inspector called for ginger-beer, while Longshanks, who had become unaccountably depressed, stared gloomily at the beer engines and would drink nothing.
The little man chid him for his melancholy, whereat Longshanks waxed suddenly fierce. “Inspector,” he said angrily, “you are an abomination to good Christian men. Why did you speak of Glauber salts?”
The waxed mustache drooped pathetically. Four cowmen–their smell betrayed them–left their shove-ha’penny and lumbered towards us.
“It’s that there Gov’ment man!” one rumbled. “Sure-lye, ‘ee a’nt biding’ with us, ‘I’m and ‘is formed salts!”
“Thus is judgement come upon him,” murmured Longshanks.
“Ay, it’s ‘I’m,” said the landlord. “Takin’ all my trade away, that’s what you be doing’,” he told the inspector. “Sam and Rufus, Alf’ed, an’ George here are drinking ‘small lemons,’ and they be as honest as the day, too!”
Then those cowmen began to entreat the little man despitefully, so that he claimed our aid, and we took him outside where the fat sailor sat on a bench cleaning his finger-nails with a jack-knife. The cowmen having followed us to the door, we hurried our charge down the road, the sailor trotting behind us.
“You deserve no protection,” Longshanks told the little man when at last we halted, “and I think it better that we part company, for you are a menace to England–and especially are you so to Sussex.”
We left the two, therefore–the sailor had said no word since he had roared “Stand easy!”–and went into the sea flats to the end that we might forget the inspector’s revelation, and when we were come into Shripney, to our great amazement we met the Poet–the same who had shown us the Cave of Adullam weeks earlier in mid-Sussex–and with him was a gaunt man whose he presented to us a colonial bishop.
By this time the memory of the brewery inspector’s saying was less vivid; also we argued that the little man was probably a Rechabite who had tried to cozen us into abstinence. Being athirst, therefore, we sought the pleasant inn in Shripney, but we could not persuade the bishop to drink with us, nor would he give us his benison when we parted from him.
The Poet, too, looked at us in reproof as he left with his friend. It was strange, therefore, that he should return. It was strange, therefore, that he should return within three minutes and join us in the bar-parlour. The last we saw of the bishop was when we looked through the window and silently raised our stone mugs to him as he tramped sturdily towards Arun.


XXII

THE LAST MARCH

We had decided, Longshanks and I, that our pilgrimage–if so it might still be called–should have end when there was proof that Spring was come. Thereafter would the roads e invaded by mere pleasure-seekers in cars and other abominations, for the which we had no stomach (though we did not voice this reason lest each should be tempted to call the other a prig). To return thus before London folk should brave the weather’s inclemency did not mean that we would go no more adventuring, but that, since every pilgrimage must have period, this one should end at that time, and that, when we should be rested, we would go forth again in a different direction.
We resolved, therefore, to wait for one of three signs of Spring–the call of the green woodpecker, the springing of bracken, or the budding of elms–before we started, or if all three failed us, then would we return so as to arrive at our starting-point at the Paschal full moon.
It was on a gloomy February day while we tramped the monotonous road in the Sussex Weald that sign was accorded us. As we thought regretfully of the warm fire that we had but newly left, the unmistakable call of a green woodpecker suddenly put life into the day. Eagerly we sniffed the air for a smell of greenness.
Sure enough the wind was changing. For three days it had blown uncertainly between west of north and south-east, but on this day of days and at this precise moment of the green woodpecker’s heralding it died, and when it blew again it came softly from the south.
“Spring has come,” I said soberly, savoring the new warmth of the air.
“This change of temperature means fog to-night,” quoth Longshanks, practical for once.
Ignoring that, I said that our time was come, and that our pilgrimage being fulfilled in that we had journeyed from equinox to equinox–despite the astronomers–we would return to Chilworth and there render a just account of our doings.
“And further,” I said, being full of the joe of home-coming, “we will make a song and sing it as we go. You shall start it, Longshanks, and be careful that its strophe is suitable for the occasion. We will compose it as we go, and I will match my verses against yours.”
Longshanks replied that we were two days’ march from Chilworth–which I had overlooked–and so we said that we would lie that night in the fold country and start on the last stage at dawn, when also we would being our song.

*               *               *               *

But I had not taken into account that the next day was Sunday, and that the south wind would take its message even to London and so tempt the bold into the open.

On the morrow’s morning we left the hostelry where we had stayed the night–rather later than we had resolved–and (it being Sunday, as I have said) went across the fields that were yet glittering with yesterday’s raindrops to Mass in a little church in the valley. Perhaps, because of all things Mass is simple in its profundity, or perhaps because of the homely crowing of cocks in that valley, we came out into the quiet road afterwards and started on our last march filled with the peace of morning–which is different from that of evening, for the one is happy and hopeful; and the other is full of melancholy, being born of weariness.
The sun was well above the tree-tops now, and its ardor was such that it licked up the last patches of Longshanks’s promised fog. The clamor of birds had died. We had not gone far when a little car passed us. It was a very little car that made a great noise; its cylinders, air-cooled, were exposed, so that it looked like a paunched rabbit; and in it were crammed four people and a hamper.
A little later came another car, a very big car this time, stealthy until its deep superior horn sounded, metal work a-glitter in the sunlight and its occupants as immaculate as itself. No dust rose to soil its purity; from behind–for it had passed us by now and we, being simple, had turned to gape after it–from behind trailed no malodorous smoke. And it contained no visible hamper.
“We will not sing, after all,” decided Longshanks, looking at me gloomily. “In fact, I think we should conclude our journey by train.”
“That were a disgrace,” I said. “But I agree with you about singing. I do not feel like it. Besides, these people in their horrid cars would laugh at us; even perhaps they might hale us to the lock-up. Instead, then, let us talk about them.”
“–and be snobs?” add Longshanks.
“What does it matter?” I said. “It is not snobbish to talk of the obvious.”
“Well, then,” said Longshanks, evidently much relieved, “I will begin. And do you not interrupt me. But first I will light my pipe, that by its aid I may breathe an air cleansed of the stench of oil and petrol.”
And having lighted his pipe he made a start with his speaking.
“These cars, of which, it being yet early, we have seen but two so far.” he began, “are the forerunners of many. Did you notice that whereas the first car (which was a small one) carried a hamper, the large one had none?”
“At least we saw none,” I corrected him.
“Do not interrupt. That second car had no hamper. At mid-day, and thereafter, you would find that of the horde of cars that shall presently pass along this road–Look out! There are two coming. . . . Damn you, sir! Don’t blast your horn at me like that–Of these cars, as I was saying, you would find the little ones pulled into the roadside, shaming the bareness of the Downs, while their occupants sit in or out of them, munching their food, and the larger cars will be found outside flaunting hotels and places which once were inns, but which are now mere feeding-places of the rich.”
Longshanks stopped and took a deep breath.
“Another thing,” I said hurriedly; “each little car probably carries a portable wireless set, or failing that, a gramophone, wherewith to vanquish boredom and uncomfortable thoughts born of the murmur of the sea, the sighing of the wind, and the little sounds that come from the earth on a hot noon.”
“That is  very good,” commended Longshanks. “What you say is true; but you interrupted me. I was about to say that this holidaying proves more than anything does that we are gregarious. By ‘we’ I exclude ourselves–you and I–for we are eccentrics. Just as these people–for let us be bold and dissociate ourselves from them–just as these people work in droves, and live in flocks, so, when comes a rest from toil and ordinary things, do they leave our home-places–as you would say–and go in one vast company to those of others. If a man go by train to Brighton, Southend, or Blackpool, it is no coincidence that he travels with the same people with whom he journeys daily to his work: there is nothing strange in his nodding acquaintance on the Grand Parade to the man to whom he nods daily: if he go to Paris or to Nice, his traveling companions and his fellow-guests at the hotel may well be from his own street in Ealing, Tooting, or Thornton Heath.”
“But those cars,” I put in hastily, “big and little, with and without gramophones and wireless sets (paid for or in process of being paid for), evidence that our profounder superstitions are dead. In place of them are those which entail great mortification of the flesh and chastening of the spirit, a greater thralldom in that liberty makes slaves of us all.”
“True,” agreed Longshanks. “And there is no doubt that the fruits of invention are extravagant, inasmuch as they take one from simplicity and an understanding of fundamental things. Moreover, a man with a little car is every bit the equal of the man with a large one–which means that the apportionment of wealth above a certain minimum does not now affect status or happiness: the very rich and the fairly poor man and simple,” I said warmly, “there is another class of people, who desire neither large cars nor little ones, wireless sets nor gramophones. Amongst them are the old aristocracy, and because of that one understands in a measure what inventions mean.”
“I believe you are right,” said Longshanks. “Feudalism was killed by inventions: the beginning of the end of the old order of things came about when warfare ceased to be so much a matter of personal bravery and skill with simple arms, when one ceased to fight at close quarters, but threw death upon an adversary from a distance. Long-range fighting does not involve the same personal courage as a hand-to-hand encounter, and there is less skill in handling a gun than in wielding a sword or lance.
“As inventions grew the common man discovered a weapon, for the under-dog is not only concerned with raising himself, but with hurting those who of old were masters, and half the desire of equality (even perhaps in sex) is born of the desire to humiliate the old superior.”
“Maybe,” I answered him. “But that scarcely affects the argument. We were talking of little cars––“
You were,” Longshanks corrected me, amiably.
“You started it. Anyhow, it doesn’t matter. I was about to remark–those little cars which early in the morning make havoc of the peace of roads that are lonely through the week, and desecrate the hills that are holy and the shore which, washed by the changeless se, makes more obvious the fret and futility of modern life–those horrid little cars are evidence not only of the rebellion against inequality, but of the desire to be amused at all costs, the desire to have the wine of life sweetened by the infusion of sugar.
“But inventions,” I went on earnestly, and yet with conviction, “make for no real happiness. A man needs at times to be alone: he needs to be quiet, to ignore all extraneousness, to contemplate the things of the spirit. Real happiness comes of fundamental things–and the hope of heaven at the last.”
“I am in entire agreement,” said Longshanks soberly. “I think that the limit in permissible inventions should be the bicycle, foot-propelled.”

*               *               *               *

All this time, it should be understood, the cars were growing in number until we were so choked with the fumes and exhausted with dodging the monsters that hurtled nightmarishly along the road that we could no longer speak.

It occurred to us at mid-day that there were other roads than this we trod. We therefore turned away from the gap of Guildford, and going several miles to the eastward, found another road, which, climbing up into the Downs, should take us finally to the Guildford-Dorking valley.
We ate quietly at an inn on the heights and then, with a solemn vow to take neither meat nor wine nor ale until we should be come to Chilworth Friary, we commended our final effort to God and, limping a little, took the road for the last time.
I shall not write much of this last stage of our journey, for it was fraught with much sadness. We spoke in low voices of all that had befallen us since we had climbed up on to the Pilgrims’ Way in the Autumn; of the people we had met; of the Poet and the blacksmith at Small Dole; of the warden of the hostelry at Rochester and the hand-bell ringers at St. Nicholas-at-Wade; of the pig-farmer and the hermit who lived in a tree; of Ben the Ugly Angel and the old woman who would not pay him; of the colonial bishop and the quaint old man who had a Dêne-hole in his garden; of Old Crackpot and gracious lady who kept the Crown Inn at Sarre; of these good fold and of Zebedee, of inns and churches, of the food we had eaten and the wine and ale that we had drunk; of all such people and things we spoke regretfully.
And then we tried to tell each other that there was joy in home coming and journey’s ending, but we knew that we lied, for our sadness was of no other thing than that our pilgrimage was done.
So at last we limped into Chilworth and pulled at the chain of the great bell of the Friary. . . .

THE END

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