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TOM BROWN'S BIRTHPLACE.
Failures slide off them like July rain off a duck's back feathers. Jem and his whole family turn out bad, and cheat them one week, and the next they are doing the same things for Jack; and when he goes to the tread-mill, and his wife and children to the workhouse, they will be on the look-out for Bill to take his place. :
However, it is time for us to get from the general to the particular; so leaving the great army of Browns, who are scattered over the whole empire on which the sun never sets, and whose general diffusion I take to be the chief cause of that empire's stability ; let us at once fix our attention upon the small nest of Browns in which our hero was hatched, and which dwelt in that portion of the royal county of Berks which is called the Vale of White Horse.
Most of you have probably travelled down the Great Western Railway as far as Swindon. Those of you who did so with their eyes open, have been aware, soon after leaving the Didcot station, of a fine range of chalk hills running parallel with the railway on the left-hand side as you go down, and distant some two or three miles, more or less, from the line. The highest point in the range is the White Horse Hill, which you come in front of just before you stop at the Shrivenham station. If you love English scenery and have a few hours to spare, you can't do better, the next time you pass, than stop at the Farringdon road, or Shrivenham station, and make your way to that highest point. And those who care for the vague old stories that haunt country sides all about England, will not, if they
THE OLD BOY MOURNETH.
are wise, be content with only a few hours' stay; for glorious as the view is, the neighbourhood is yet more interesting for its relics of bygone times. I only know two English neighbourhoods thoroughly, and in each, within a circle of five miles, there is enough of interest and beauty to last any reasonable man his life. I believe this to be the case almost throughout the country, but each has its special attraction, and none can be richer than the one I am speaking of and going to introduce you to very particularly; for on this subject I must be prosy ; so those that don't care for England in detail may skip the chapter.
Oh Young England! Young England! You who are born into these racing railroad times, when there's a Great Exhibition, or some monster sight, every year, and you can get over a couple of thousand miles of ground for three pound ten, in a five weeks' holiday; why don't you know more of your own birthplaces? You're all in the ends of the earth, it seems to me, as soon as you get your necks out of the educational collar, for Midsummer holidays, long vacations, or what not. Going round Ireland with a return ticket, in a fortnight; dropping your copies of Tennyson on the tops of Swiss mountains; or pulling down the Danube in Oxford racing-boats. And when you get home for a quiet fortnight, you turn the steam off, and lie on your backs in the paternal garden, surrounded by the last batch of books from Mudie's library, and half bored to death. Well, well! I know it has its good side. You all patter French more or less, and perhaps Gere
OVER YOUNG ENGLAND.
man; you have seen men and cities, no doubt, and have your opinions, such as they are, about schools of painting, high art, and all that; have seen the pictures at Dresden and the Louvre, and know the taste of sourkrout. All I say is, you don't know your own lanes and woods and fields. Though you may be chock full of science, not one in twenty of you knows where to find the wood sorrel, or beeorchis, which grow in the next wood, or on the down three miles off, or what the hog-bean and wood-sage are good for. And as for the country legends, the stories of the old gable-ended farm-houses, the place where the last skirmish was fought in the civil wars, where the parish Butts stood, where the last highwayman turned to bay, where the last ghost was laid by the parson, they're gone out of date altogether.
Now in my time, when we got home by the old coach, which put us down at the cross-roads with our boxes the first day of the holidays, and had been driven off by the family coachman, singing “Dulce domum” at the top of our voices, there we were, fixtures, till Black Monday came round. We had to cut out our own amusements within a walk or a ride of home. And so we got to know all the country folk, and their ways and songs and stories, by heart; and went over the fields and woods and hills, again and again, till we made friends of them all. We were Berkshire, or Gloucestershire, or Yorkshire boys, and you’re young cosmopolites, belonging to all counties and no countries. No doubt it's all right, I dare say it is. This is the day of large views and glorious 16
THE VALE OF WHITE HORSE.
humanity, and all that; but I wish backsword play had'nt gone out in the Vale of White Horse, and that that confounded Great Western hadn't carried away Alfred's Hill to make an embankment.
But to return to the said Vale of White Horse, the country in which the first scenes of this true and interesting story are laid. As I said, the Great Western now runs right through it, and it is a land of large rich pastures, bounded by ox-fences, and covered with fine hedgerow timber, with here and there a nice little gorse or spinney, where abideth poor Charley, having no other cover to which to betake himself for miles and miles, when pushed out some fine November morning by the Old Berkshire. Those who have been there, and well mounted, only know how he, and the stanch little pack who dash after him, heads high and sterns low, with a breast-high scent, can consume the ground at such times. There being little plough-land, and few woods, the Vale is only an average sporting country, except for hunting. The villages are straggling, queer, old-fashioned places, the houses being dropped down without the least regularity, in nooks and outof-the-way corners, by the sides of shadowy lanes and footpaths, each with its patch of garden. They are built chiefly of good gray stone and thatched, though I see that within the last year or two the red-brick cottages are multiplying, for the Vale is beginning to manufacture largely both bricks and tiles. There are lots of waste ground by the side of the roads in every village, amounting often to village greens, where feed the pigs and ganders of the peo
VALES IN GENERAL.
ple; and these roads are old-fashioned, homely roads, very dirty and badly made, and hardly endurable in winter, but still pleasant jog-trot roads, running through the great pasture lands, dotted here and there with little clumps of thorns, where the sleek kine are feeding, with no fence on either side of them, and a gate at the end of each field, which makes you get out of your gig (if you keep one) and gives you a chance of looking about you every quarter of a mile.
One of the moralists whom we sat under in my youth, — was it the great Richard Swiveller, or Mr. Stiggins ? — says, “we are born in a vale, and must take the consequences of being found in such a situation.” These consequences, I for one am ready to encounter. I pity people who weren't born in a vale. I don't mean a flat country, but a vale; that is, a flat country bounded by hills. The having your hill always in view if you choose to turn towards him, that's the essence of a vale. There he is forever in the distance, your friend and companion; you never lose him as you do in hilly districts.
And then what a hill is the White Horse Hill! There it stands right up above all the rest, nine hundred feet above the sea, and the boldest, bravest shape for a chalk hill that you ever saw. Let us go up to the top of him, and see what is to be found there. Aye, you may well wonder, and think it odd you never heard of this before ; but, wonder or not, as you please, there are hundreds of such things lying about England, which wiser folk than you