Cragwell End

A poem by R. C. Lehmann

I

There's nothing I know of to make you spend
A day of your life at Cragwell End.
It's a village quiet and grey and old,
A little village tucked into a fold
(A sort of valley, not over wide)
Of the hills that flank it on either side.
There's a large grey church with a square stone tower,
And a clock to mark you the passing hour
In a chime that shivers the village calm
With a few odd bits of the 100th psalm.
A red-brick Vicarage stands thereby,
Breathing comfort and lapped in ease,
With a row of elms thick-trunked and high,
And a bevy of rooks to caw in these.

'Tis there that the Revd. Salvyn Bent
(No tie could be neater or whiter than his tie)
Maintains the struggle against dissent,
An Oxford scholar ex Aede Christi;
And there in his twenty-minute sermons
He makes mince-meat of the modern Germans,
Defying their apparatus criticus
Like a brave old Vicar,
A famous sticker
To Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus.
He enjoys himself like a hearty boy
Who finds his life for his needs the aptest;
But the poisoned drop in his cup of joy
Is the Revd. Joshua Fall, the Baptist,
An earnest man with a tongue that stings -
The Vicar calls him a child of schism -
Who has dared to utter some dreadful things
On the vices of sacerdotalism,
And the ruination
Of education
By the Church of England Catechism.

Set in a circle of oak and beech,
North of the village lies Cragwell Hall;
And stretching far as the eye can reach,
Over the slopes and beyond the fall
Of the hills so keeping their guard about it
That the north wind never may chill or flout it,
Through forests as dense as that of Arden,
With orchard and park and trim-kept garden,
And farms for pasture and farms for tillage,
The Hall maintains its rule of the village.
And in the Hall
Lived the lord of all,
Girt round with all that our hearts desire
Of leisure and wealth, the ancient Squire.
He was the purplest-faced old man
Since ever the Darville race began,
Pompous and purple-faced and proud;
With a portly girth and a voice so loud
You might have heard it a mile away
When he cheered the hounds on a hunting day.
He was hard on dissenters and such encroachers,
He was hard on sinners and hard on poachers;
He talked of his rights as one who knew
That the pick of the earth to him was due:
The right to this and the right to that,
To the humble look and the lifted hat;
The right to scold or evict a peasant,
The right to partridge and hare and pheasant;
The right to encourage discontent
By raising a hard-worked farmer's rent;
The manifest right to ride to hounds
Through his own or anyone else's grounds;
The right to eat of the best by day
And to snore the whole of the night away;
For his motto, as often he explained,
Was "A Darville holds what a Darville gained."
He tried to be just, but that may be
Small merit in one who has most things free;
And his neighbours averred,
When they heard the word,
"Old Darville's a just man, is he? Bust his
Gills, we could do without his justice!"

II

The village itself runs, more or less,
On the sinuous line of a letter S,
Twining its little houses through
The twists of the street, as our hamlets do,
For no good reason, so far as I know,
Save that chance has arranged it so.
It's a quaint old ramshackle moss-grown place,
Keeping its staid accustomed pace;
Not moved at all by the rush and flurry,
The mad tempestuous windy hurry
Of the big world tossing in rage and riot,
While the village holds to its old-world quiet.

There's a family grocer, a family baker,
A family butcher and sausage-maker -
A butcher, proud of his craft and willing
To admit that his business in life is killing,
Who parades a heart as soft as his meat's tough -
There's a little shop for the sale of sweet stuff;
There's a maker and mender of boots and shoes
Of the sort that the country people use,
Studded with iron and clamped with steel,
And stout as a ship from toe to heel,
Who announces himself above his entry
As "patronised by the leading gentry."
There's an inn, "The George";
There's a blacksmith's forge,
And in the neat little inn's trim garden
The old men, each with his own churchwarden,
Bent and grey, but gossipy fellows,
Sip their innocent pints of beer,
While the anvil-notes ring high and clear
To the rushing bass of the mighty bellows.
And thence they look on a cheerful scene
As the little ones play on the Village Green,
Skipping about
With laugh and shout
As if no Darville could ever squire them,
And nothing on earth could tame or tire them.

On the central point of the pleasant Green
The famous stone-walled well is seen
Which has never stinted its ice-cold waters
To generations of Cragwell's daughters.
No matter how long the rain might fail
There was always enough for can and pail -
Enough for them and enough to lend
To the dried-out rivals of Cragwell End.
An army might have been sent to raise
Enough for a thousand washing days
Crowded and crammed together in one day,
One vast soap-sudded and wash-tubbed Monday,
And, however fast they might wind the winch,
The water wouldn't have sunk an inch.
For the legend runs that Crag the Saint,
At the high noon-tide of a summer's day,
Thirsty, spent with his toil and faint,
To the site of the well once made his way,
And there he saw a delightful rill
And sat beside it and drank his fill,
Drank of the rill and found it good,
Sitting at ease on a block of wood,
And blessed the place, and thenceforth never
The waters have ceased but they run for ever.
They burnt St. Crag, so the stories say,
And his ashes cast on the winds away,
But the well survives, and the block of wood
Stands - nay, stood where it always stood,
And still was the village's pride and glory
On the day of which I shall tell my story.
Gnarled and knotty and weather-stained,
Battered and cracked, it still remained;
And thither came,
Footsore and lame,
On an autumn evening a year ago
The wandering pedlar, Gipsy Joe.
Beside the block he stood and set
His table out on the well-stones wet.
"Who'll buy? Who'll buy?" was the call he cried
As the folk came flocking from every side;
For they knew their Gipsy Joe of old,
His free wild words and his laughter bold:
So high and low all gathered together
By the village well in the autumn weather,
Lured by the gipsy's bargain-chatter
And the reckless lilt of his hare-brained patter.
And there the Revd. Salvyn Bent,
The parish church's ornament,
Stood, as it chanced, in discontent,
And eyed with a look that was almost sinister
The Revd. Joshua Fall, the minister.
And the Squire, it happened, was riding by,
With an angry look in his bloodshot eye,
Growling, as was his wont, and grunting
At the wasted toil of a bad day's hunting;
And he stopped his horse on its homeward way
To hear what the gipsy had to say.

III

Then the pedlar called to the crowd to hear,
And his voice rang loud and his voice rang clear;
And he lifted his head and began to troll
The whimsical words of his rigmarole: -

"Since last I talked to you here I've hurled
My lone way over the wide, wide world.
South and North and West and East
I've fought with man and I've fought with beast;
And I've opened the gates and cleared the bar
That blocks the road to the morning star!

"I've seen King Pharaoh sitting down
On his golden throne in his jewelled crown,
With wizards fanning like anything
To cool the face of the mighty King:
But the King said, 'Wizards are off,' said he;
'Let Joseph the gipsy talk to me.'

"So I sat by the King and began to spout
As the day drew in and the sun went out;
And I sat by the King and spun my tale
Till the light returned and the night grew pale;
And none of the Wizards blinked or stirred
While the King sat drinking it word by word.

"Then he gave me rubies and diamonds old;
He gave me masses of minted gold.
He gave me all that a King can give:
The right to live and to cease to live
Whenever - and that'll be soon, I know -
The days are numbered of Gipsy Joe.

"Then I went and I wandered on and on
Till I came to the kingdom of Prester John;
And there I stood on a crystal stool
And sang the song of 'The First Wise Fool':
Oh, I sang it low and I sang it high
Till John he whimpered and piped his eye.

"Then I drew a tooth from the lively jaw
Of the Prester's ebony Aunt-in-law;
And he bubbled and laughed so long, d'you see,
That his wife looked glum and I had to flee.
So I fled to the place where the Rajahs grow,
A place where they wanted Gipsy Joe.

"The Rajahs summoned the turbaned hordes
And gave me sheaves of their inlaid swords;
And the Shah of Persia next I saw,
Who's brother and friend to the Big Bashaw;
And he sent me a rope of turquoise stones
The size of a giant's knuckle-bones.

"But a little brown Pygmie took my hand
And rattled me fast to a silver strand,
Where the little brown Pygmie boys and girls
Are cradled and rocked to sleep in pearls.
And the Pygmies flattered me soft and low,
'You are tall; be King of us, Gipsy Joe.'

"I governed them well for half-a-year,
But it came to an end, and now I'm here.
Oh, I've opened the gates and cleared the bar,
And I've come, I've come to my friends from far.
I'm old and broken, I'm lame and tired,
But I've come to the friends my soul desired.

"So it's watches and lockets, and who will buy?
It's ribbon and lace, and they're not priced high.
If you're out for a ring or a golden chain
You can't look over my tray in vain:
And here is a balsam made of drops
From a tree that's grown by the AEthiops!

"I've a chip of the tooth of a mastodont
That's sure to give you the girl you want.
I've a packet of spells to make men sigh
For the lustrous glance of your liquid eye -
But it's much too dark for such wondrous wares,
So back, stand back, while I light my flares!"

Then he lit a match, but his fingers fumbled,
And, striking his foot on a stone, he stumbled;
And the match, released by the sudden shock,
Fell in flame on the old wood-block,
And burnt there very quietly -
But before you could have counted three,
Hardly giving you time to shout,
A red-blue column of fire shot out,
Up and up and ever higher,
A marvellous burst of raging fire,
Lighting the crowd that shrank from its flashes,
And so decreasing,
And suddenly ceasing
As the seat of St. Crag was burnt to ashes!

But in the smoke that drifted on the Green
Queer freaks of vision weirdly wrought were seen:
For on that shifting background each one saw
His own reflection and recoiled in awe;
Saw himself there, a bright light shining through him,
Not as he thought himself, but as men knew him.
Before this sudden and revealing sense
Each rag of sham, each tatter of pretence
Withered and vanished, as dissolved in air,
And left the shuddering human creature bare.
But when they turned and looked upon a friend
They saw a sight that all but made amend:
For they beheld him as a radiant spirit
Indued with virtue and surpassing merit,
Not vain or dull or mean or keen for pelf,
But splendid - as he mostly saw himself.
Darville and Fall were drawn to one another,
And both to Bent as to their heart's own brother;
And a strange feeling grew in every breast,
A self-defeating altruistic zest
Which from that moment's flash composed their strife,
Informed their nature and controlled their life.
But when they sought the Gipsy, him they found,
His dark eyes staring, dead upon the ground.

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