A man will tell you how he has walked to such and such a place “across
the fields,” with an air of saying, “You, I suppose, not knowing the
country, painfully pursue the highroad.” He has the look of one who has
made the discovery that it is good and wise to leave the beaten track,
the cart rut, and the plain and obvious road, and has adventured in a
daring spirit from stile to stile, from gate to ditch, where only the
knowing ones may go. He is generally so occupied in the pride of
reaching his destination by these means, that he has had little time to
look about him and enjoy the expanse of country. For all that, he is a
man after my own heart for, in a sense, he becomes part owner of England
with me as soon as he puts his leg across a stile and begins to cast an
eye across country.
There is an extraordinary satisfaction in following a footpath, that is
made doubly sweet if one sucks in the joy of the day, and the blitheness
of that through which we pass. To be knee-high in a bean field in flower
is as good a thing as I know, more especially if it be on a hillside
overlooking the sea.
I sat once on the polished rail of a stile (very well made with cross
arms to hold by, like two short step-ladders, each with one long arm)
and looked at a path I had taken that lay through a field of whispering
oats. They seemed to hold a thousand secrets that they passed from ear
to ear all down the field, and when the breeze came, and blew birds
across the hedge, the whole field swayed, showing a rustling, silken
surface, as if it enjoyed a great joke. The Poppies and Cornflowers and
the White Convolvulus had no part in the conversation of the Oats, but
field mice had, and ran across the path hurrying like urgent messengers,
and once a mole nosed its way from the earth by my stile and vanished
grumbling—like some gruff old gentleman—along the hedgerow. I never saw
a field laugh as much as that field, or be so frivolous, or so feminine.
The field at my back was more like a great lady in a green velvet gown,
embroidered with Daisies. There, at the bottom of the field, was a pond
like a bright blue eye in the green, and lazy cattle, red and white,
stood in it, while others lay under a chestnut tree near by.
Down in the valley, a long undulating spread before me, fields of
different hues, some green, some brown, some golden with ripe Corn, lay
baked in the heat, quivering under a calm blue sky. In one field a man
was sharpening a scythe with a whetstone—the rasp came floating up to me
clearly, and presently he began to open a field of wheat for the reaping
machine I could see, with men round her, under a clump of trees. Next to
this field was a narrow strip of coarse grass all aglow with Buttercups,
then a wide triangular field, with a pit in the corner of it, snowed
over with Daisies, and then a farm looking like a toy place, neat with
white painted railings, and a dovecote, and a long barn covered over
with yellow Stone Crop. I could see—all in miniature—the farmer come out
of his house door, beckon to a dog, and walk past a row of Hollyhocks
and a flush of pink Sweet Williams, open the gate and cross a road to
the Corn-field. The dog leapt ahead of him, barking joyously.
A little further down, and cut off partly from view by the May tree that
sheltered me, was a village, white and grey, sheltered by Elm trees. In
the midst of the handful of cottages the square-towered flint church
stood with Ivy on the tower and dark Yews in the churchyard. The graves
in the churchyard looked like the Daisies in the distant field, as if
they grew there. At the back of the church, and facing the high road,
was a line of trees from whence came an incessant noise of rooks.
Very few things moved on the high road, a lumbering waggon, the doctor’s
trap, a bicycle, and then the carrier’s cart with a man I knew driving
it, a very pleasant man who preached in the Sion Chapel on Sundays and
chalked up texts in the tilt of his waggon—but with a shrewd eye to
business: a man who never forgave a debt.
As I sat on my stile I felt this was all mine: no person there knew the
beauty of it as I did, or cared to capture its sweetness as I did. No
one but I saw the field of Oats laugh, or cared to note the business of
the dragon fly, or the flashing patterns of the butterflies. I had seen
these fields turned up, rich and brown, under the plough, and tender
green when the seeds came up, and waving green, and gold when they bore
their harvest of Corn, or silver and green with roots and red with
Beets. I had counted the sheep on the hillsides, and watched the cattle
stray in a long line to be milked at milking time, and though I did not
farm an acre of it, I owned it with my heart, and gathered its harvest
with my eyes.
Every field footpath had its story, the road was rich in old romance,
and hidden by the trees at the head of the valley was the big house
where my hostess lived and with a loving hand directed all this little
world—but I doubt if she owned it more than I.
To end all this, comes a little maid through the Oats, almost hidden by
them, her face quivering with tears because of a misplaced trust in a
bunch of Nettles. So we apply Dock leaves and a penny, and a farthing’s
worth of country wisdom, and part friends—I to the head of the valley,
she to her father’s farm on the other side of the hill.