‘I could ring the old thing’s neck that put it here!
A public house! it may be public for birds,
Squirrels, and suchlike, ghosts of charcoal-burners
And highwaymen.’ The wild girl laughed. ‘But I
Hate it since I came back from Kennington.
I gave up a good place.’ Her Cockney accent
Made her and the house seem wilder by calling up–
Only to be subdued at once by wildness–
The idea of London, there in the forest parlour,
Low and small among those towering beeches
And the one bulging butt that’s like a font.
Her eyes flashed up; she shook her hair away
From eyes and mouth, as if to shriek again;
Then sighed back to her scrubbing. While I drank
I might have mused of coaches and highwaymen,
Charcoal-burners and life that loves the wild.
For who now used these roads except myself,
A market waggon every other Wednesday,
A solitary tramp, some very fresh one
Ignorant of these eleven houseless miles,
A motorist from a distance slowing down
To taste whatever luxury he can
In having North Downs clear behind, South clear before,
And being midway between two railway lines
Far out of sight or sound of them? There are
Some houses – down the by-lanes; and a few
Are visible – when their damsons are in bloom.
But the land is wild, and there’s a spirit of wildness
Much older, crying when the stone-curlew yodels
His sea and mountain cry, high up in Spring.
He nests in fields where still the gorse is free as
When all was open and common. Common ’tis named
And calls itself, because the bracken and gorse
Still hold the hedge where plough and scythe have chased them.
Once on a time ’tis plain that ‘The White Horse’
Stood merely on the border of a waste
Where horse and cart picked its own course afresh.
On all sides then, as now, paths ran to the inn;
And now a farm-track takes you from a gate.
Two roads cross, and not a house in sight
Except ‘The White Horse’ in this clump of beeches.
It hides from either road, a field’s breadth back;
And it’s the trees you see, and not the house,
Both near and far, when the clump’s the highest thing
And homely too upon a far horizon
To one that knows there is an inn within.
‘ ‘Twould have been different,’ the wild girl shrieked, ‘suppose
That widow had married another blacksmith and
Kept on the business. This parlour was the smithy.
If she had done, there might never have been an inn;
And I, in that case, might never have been born.
Years ago, when this was all a wood
And the smith had charcoal-burners for company,
A man from a beech-country in the shires
Came with an engine and a little boy
(To feed the engine) to cut up timber here.
It all happened years ago. The smith
Had died, his widow had set up an alehouse–
I could wring the old thing’s neck for thinking of it.
Well, I suppose they fell in love, the widow
And my great-uncle that sawed up the timber:
Leastways they married. The little boy stayed on.
He was my father.’ She thought she’d scrub again–
‘I draw the ale, and he grows fat’ she muttered–
But only studied the hollows in the bricks
And chose among her thoughts in stirring silence.
The clock ticked, and the big saucepan lid
Heaved as the cabbage bubbled, and the girl
Questioned the fire and spoke: ‘My father, he
Took to the land. A mile of it is worth
A guinea; for by that time all trees
Except these few about the house were gone:
That’s all that’s left of the forest unless you count
The bottoms of the charcoal-burners’ fires –
We plough one up at times. Did you ever see
Our signboard?’ No. The post and empty frame
I knew. Without them I could not have guessed
The low grey house and its one stack under trees
Was a public house and not a hermitage.
‘But can that empty frame be any use?
Now I should like to see a good white horse
Swing there, a really beautiful white horse,
Galloping one side, being painted on the other.’
‘But would you like to hear it swing all night
And all day? All I ever had to thank
The wind for was for blowing the sign down.
Time after time it blew down and I could sleep.
At least they fixed it, and it took a thief
To move it, and we’ve never had another :
It’s lying at the bottom of our pond.
But no one’s moved the wood from off the hill
There at the back, although it makes a noise
When the wind blows, as if a train were running
The other side, a train that never stops
Or ends. And the linen crackles on the line
Like a wood fire rising.’ ‘But if you had the sign
You might draw company. What about Kennington?’
She bent down to her scrubbing with ‘Not me:
Not back to Kennington. Here I was born,
And I’ve a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I’d have it blowing that I might go with it
Somewhere far off, where there are trees no more
And I could wake and not know where I was
Nor even wonder if they would roar again.
Look at those calves.’
Between the open door
And the trees two calves were wading in the pond,
Grazing the water here and there and thinking,
Sipping and thinking, both happily, neither long.
The water wrinkled, but they sipped and thought,
As careless of the wind as it of us.
‘Look at those calves. Hark at the trees again.’