SUGGESTIONS OF 'EPITAPHS'
I MUST apologise to the Essay Meeting for making choice of a rejected subject, for indeed it is not from mere caprice I choose it. Two people may pass together along the crowded highway, and when the strolling organ-player turns the handle of his instrument and plays for the thousandth time an old familiar tune, one of those two will hurry past with an ejaculation of disgust, the other turn and give his willing coin for the notes that have sent him on his way soothed with sweet thoughts and tender recollections. And this word "epitaph" is like that barrel-organ: it has a voice which every listener may interpret as he will. It can speak of poor comical attempts at rhyme engraven on the old grey head-stones of rustic burial-places; of high-sounding eulogiums upon the titled dead, for whom the unflattering grave knows no distinction; it can whisper sweet words of consolation inscribed by Christian mourners on the graves of their beloved ones, in token that they "sorrowed not as those which have no hope"; and it can recall that countless number of simple tombstones which tell us only, as we carelessly pass by, that the many sleepers on whose dust we tread once lived and bore a name. And if none of these voices are welcome, it has yet another, for it speaks of the places where epitaphs are found. How often, as we journey through this pleasant land of ours, its quiet graveyards and its old church towers lend the last touch of beauty to a lovely scene, and we forget all difference of creed in our thankful veneration for these time-worn witnesses to the faith of our fatherland! This surely is a pleasant theme; so pleasant, at least, are the pictures it portrays for me, that I venture an attempt to sketch their outlines, and offer them as a contribution to the Essay Portfolio. (1856.)--It is a bright April day, how welcome its brightness those only who have been subjected to weeks of indoor imprisonment can tell. Day after day slight storms of snow have swept over the hills, forbidding them to resign the wintry aspect they had worn so long. Then came long weeks of rain and mist, and the farmer looked gloomily on his fields and longed to lead forth his plough, but dared not, for the ground was too swampy to bear his horses' feet. But it grew slowly finer, and day by day bright gleams of fitful sunshine stole across the valley, and we could watch the swelling of the tree-buds and the timorous shooting of the early corn. And thus with slow, irregular steps the spring drew near, till at last there came a truly genial day. This country road, with its faintly-tinted hedgerows and wayside trees winding through a broad valley girt with hills, will be trodden by many feet to-day, but the farmer is not going to his field nor the market-woman to the little town: it is another call they will obey this morning. The sweet, solemn tones of the bell in yonder grey church-tower bids them meet for worship and the celebration of another Good Friday. It is a pleasant sight to watch the different groups as they wind over the hills, and from the lonely cottages around, till all meet at last in the little churchyard, shaded with its rows of beech, and sheltered by the larch wood skirting the near hillside. And we, of whatever sect we are, need not fear to enter with them, for he who will preach to-day is one who has laboured long and faithfully in his Master's cause, and he speaks the truth with simple earnestness. He has lived amongst his people as curate for thirty years, and the churchyard holds two of his heart treasures, for a beloved wife and a fair young daughter, the darling of his declining years, are buried there. He is a grave and quiet man, but when his theme leads him to the borders of the better country, a smile steals over his face so bright and heavenly that you need no words to tell you how often in spirit he had visited the home where those he loved so fondly are gone to dwell. But if you would rather linger out in the fresh, glad sunshine, do so; the early primroses are smiling in the hedges, and on the bright hillsides, where the cloud shadows chase each other, the broom is venturing to unfold its petals, which shall soon array them in a robe as brilliant as burnished gold. This is the dawn of summer; we do not know now, we could hardly venture to believe if we were told, how long and glorious a summer it will be. We have waited so long for the first signs of spring; it is enough delight to inhale its warm breath, and welcome its early signs of gladness. And there is another church, which lies two miles away, where we can go this afternoon, and very old and beautifully situated is the little church of Hope Bowdler. We must leave Caer Caradoc behind, and follow a steep turnpike road for about a mile and a half till it makes an abrupt descent towards Hope Bowdler, and the village church and wooded hill beyond lie close beneath us. We enter the village and turn into a kind of farmyard, with ploughs and waggons standing empty in the sheds, and felled timber lying on either side of it. At the end a little gate leads into the churchyard, where there are many graves. The whole place is very quiet this sunny afternoon, and a rustic with a scarlet waistcoat lounges idly against the gate and seems to wonder what has brought us here. To our great disappointment, he tells us that the church is closed, for there is no afternoon service to-day, but offers to bring the keys that we may see the interior. We enter, and are glad that we have come, though nothing meets the eye but the sternest and most primitive simplicity, the woodwork being very old and rude, and the stone floors damp and chill. It seems smaller inside than we had expected, but is quite in keeping with the quaint exterior, whose tower, with its square peaked roof, like St. Luke's of this town, is roughly tiled and thickly coated with moss. Yet it is a pleasant thought that this simple, ancient church was some few years ago regularly filled, and many even came who could not be admitted for want of room, attracted by the earnest eloquence of a curate who resided here some time; and that his hearers came not only from the villages close by, but for miles beyond the Long Mynds in that hill-country whose people lie scattered in lonely houses far apart, where superstition loves to linger, where even at this very time a strange tale of witchcraft has gained their ready credence, and they have sent to Shrewsbury to obtain a counter spell. Let us hope that the teachings of Hope Bowdler Church may prove a better remedy.
And now we must leave the graveyard and the church and the broad field beyond, with its many yew-trees, for already a dark shadow has fallen on the fir wood and a distant peal of thunder warns us that a storm is gathering on the hills, and we must return home; and Good Friday, with its fair sunshine and unlooked-for tempest, pass away.
(1857.)--And now the rich glories of the harvest-time succeed the unwonted splendours of June and July, and the mellow noon of this sweet August day is well suited to the scene we are to visit. Our old lumbering carriage has conducted us to Lea Hurst, the grey, old, ivy-covered house with its neat little lawn and quaint thorn-tree in front, its long unpretending drive pleasantly shaded with trees, beneath which an old countrywoman stands, who seems to know the place and its owners. She tells us how Miss Nightingale comes and stays here sometimes, for this is her father's country-house, and "how good and kind she is to her poor neighbours round, and what famous things she has done amongst the wars, and how she wanted to mount a horse and go herself through the battlefield to help the poor, wounded, dying soldiers." But with true self-respect and reverence for her noble calling, she neither seeks applause herself nor will her father permit his sweet, retired mansion to be turned into a show-house; and so we must content ourselves with a hasty view of the exterior, and of the splendid prospect which the windows at the right of the house command, and return to the patient old driver who waits to take us home. Then we remember the clerk's story about Dethwick--the tall, half-dreamy looking young man who showed us Old Matlock Church yesterday, with its strangely-painted ceiling and few old monuments, and the white paper garlands two hundred years old which used to be borne by the coffins of young girls, and have hung so long in the church that they are decaying for very age. We recollect that, as we stood talking in the churchyard, he quietly remarked, " There are many other old halls and a nice church further on among the hills "; and in spite of our driver's utter ignorance of the place, we determined to try and visit Dethwick. After a very pleasant ride we can see through the trees on either side a pretty little stream, the tower of a church, and leave the carriage to find a way to it. The way is not very long, but perfectly retired--a narrow, winding lane with a low wall on one side and a fence on the other, both richly overgrown with honeysuckle and briar, which brings us at length to a little open green; a noble tree stands in the centre, and beneath it there are some white geese feeding. These are the only living things sight, and long rows of stone-roofed outhouse indicate the neighbourhood of a farm. Yet tht old house we are approaching through that beautiful archway of carved stone overhung with creepers does not look like a farm; the side which faces the small courtyard we are entering looks more like the renovated portion of a much older and more stately mansion which has once occupied twice the space of the present unassuming dwelling. This is really the case, and wet are unexpectedly gratified on finding that, in spite of its utter loneliness and the very few visitors who ever find their way to it, its historical interest renders the owners willing to show the only portions which remain unaltered since the time of Queen Elizabeth. These are the kitchens off that part of the present house which has been converted into a small farm. One of them is a large, low room, with a great old-fashioned open fireplace; the other, rougher still, adjoins it; but the farm-servants are at dinner, and we visit the church in the meantime. On our return from the church one of the maid-servants shows us these two rooms, and a lazy-looking young man, who appears to act as bailiff on the estate, stands with his hands behind him idly watching our progress thence to the garden, which he has given us leave to enter, while a girl in a stout loose garment, like a shepherd's smock-frock, peers at us from out a kitchen furnace, which she; appears engaged in cleaning. An orchard lies beyond the left side of the house, and the garden is small and simply laid out like a cottager's, but of flowers, and has a bee-hive near to the h'ck yew-hedge which bounds it. Beside Deth-farin there is not a house in sight; the only building near it is the church, and the churchyard adjoins the garden of the right wing of the house. The keys are given us, and we are sent to explore alone. It is a pretty church, with a high, slender tower, decorated towards the top with open carving of a more elaborate kind than is mostly seen in country churches. As we ascend its winding staircase, the soft blue summer sky shines through the narrow windows, and a merry twitter from the dusky belfry draws us aside to watch the white martins fluttering round their pretty nests by the heavy, silent bell, and then we climb again till the topmost step is gained, and the lovely landscape reposes at our feet. And it does repose: there is hardly a sound to break the languid, mid-day stillness of this secluded scene. )The haymaking is over, and woods and fields have caught a richer hue from the harvest suns. The fruit is ripening in the orchard, and the honeysuckle berries hang in scarlet clusters beside the few blossoms that remain, and upon the long grey roofs the moss is changing from green to amber. All is peace and quietude and plenty. And the thought is strange and sad, and difficult to realise, that from this sweet country-home went? three centuries ago, a young gentleman to the Court of France, to lose in that school of intrigue and vice the English virtues of straightforwardness and truth, to lend a too ready ear to the treasonable plots of Jesuits, and return to his native land only to add to the list of those fatally misguided nobles who died an ignominious death in the cause of Mary Stuart, the name of Anthony Babington. Yet this was indeed the case. The old mansion of Dethwick was his father's house. So we stood awhile looking from the church tower upon that home forfeited by treason to the Crown, and tried to picture to ourselves the scenes in the sad drama once enacted there. We pictured stealthy rides along the lonely lanes at night, fugitives skulking in the outhouses, and nervous anxiety darkening the social board. We thought of all the deep-laid, well-concerted plans, so certain, their contrivers thought, to accomplish their design, so surely falling one by one into the hands of Walsingham. Then a day of horror and consternation when all was discovered, and the conspirators dragged from their homes to meet a traitor's doom. Could so dark a tragedy belong to a place like this? And history, which cannot be gainsaid, answers yes! But the warm sky shines down lovingly upon it, wild-flowers breathe sweet fragrance in the lanes, and many-coloured moss and lichens cling to the old grey walls, for the shadow of man's sin may darken his own threshold--the loving care of God preserves the beauty of His earth.