Cowfold, half village, half town, lies about three miles to the west of the great North Road from London to York. As you go from London, about fifty miles from the Post-Office in St. Martin’s le Grand⁠—the fiftieth milestone is just beyond the turning⁠—you will see a hand-post with three arms on it; on one is written in large letters, “To London;” on the second, in equally large letters, “To York;” and on the third, in small italic letters, “To Cowfold.” Two or three years before the events narrated in the following chapters took place⁠—that is to say, about twenty years after the death of Zachariah’s second wife⁠—a hundred coaches a day rolled past that hand-post, and about two miles beyond it was a huge inn, with stables like cavalry barracks, where horses were changed. No coach went through Cowfold. When the inhabitants wished to go northwards or southwards they walked or drove to the junction, and waited on the little grassy triangle till a coach came by which had room for them. When they returned they were deposited at the same spot, and the passengers who were going through from London to York or Scotland, or who were coming up to London, always seemed to despise people who were taken up or who were left by the roadside there.

There was, perhaps, some reason for this contempt. The North Road was at that time one of the finest roads in the world, broad, hard-metalled, and sound in the wettest weather. That which led to Cowfold was under the control of the parish, and in wintertime was very bad indeed. When you looked down it it seemed as if it led nowhere, and indeed the inhabitants of the town were completely shut off from any close communication with the outer world. How strange it was to emerge from the end of the lane and to see those wonderful words, “To London,” “To York!” What an opening into infinity! Boys of a slightly imaginative turn of mind⁠—for there were boys with imagination even in Cowfold⁠—would, on a holiday trudge the three miles eastward merely to get to the post and enjoy the romance of those mysterious fingers. No wonder; for the excitement begotten by the long stretch of the road⁠—London at one end, York at the other⁠—by the sight of the Star, Rover, Eclipse, or Times racing along at twelve miles an hour, and by the inscriptions on them, was worth a whole afternoon’s cricket or wandering in the fields. Cowfold itself supplied no such stimulus. The only thing like it was the mail-cart, which every evening took the letters from the post-office, disappeared into the dark, nobody could tell whither, and brought letters in the morning, nobody could tell whence, before the inhabitants were out of bed. There was a vague belief that it went about fifteen miles and “caught” something somewhere; but nobody knew for certain, except the postmistress and the mail-cart driver, who were always remarkably reticent on the point. The driver was dressed in red, carried a long horn slung at the side of the cart, and was popularly believed also to have pistols with him. He never accosted anybody; sat on a solitary perch just big enough for him; swayed always backwards and forwards a little in a melancholy fashion as he rode; was never seen during the daytime, and was not, in any proper sense, a Cowfold person.

Cowfold had four streets, or, more correctly, only two, which crossed one another at right angles in the middle of the town, and formed there a kind of square or open place, in which, on Saturdays, a market was held.

The Angel was in this square, and the shops grouped themselves round it. In the centre was a large pump with a great leaden spout that had a hole bored in it at the side. By stopping up the mouth of the spout with the hand it was possible through this hole to get a good drink, if a friend was willing to work the handle; and as the square was a public playground, the pump did good service, especially amongst the boys, all of whom preferred it greatly to a commonplace mug. On Sundays it was invariably chained up; for although it was no breach of the Sabbath to use the pump in the backyard, the line was drawn there, and it would have been voted by nine-tenths of Cowfold as decidedly immoral to get water from the one outside. The shops were a draper’s, a grocer’s, an ironmonger’s, a butcher’s and a baker’s. All these were regular shops, with shopwindows, and were within sight of one another.

There were also other houses where things were sold; but these were mere dwelling-houses, and were at the poorer and more remote ends of Cowfold. None of the regular shops aforesaid were strictly what they professed to be. Each of them diverged towards “the general.” The draper sold boots and shoes; the grocer sold drugs, stationery, horse and cow medicines, and sheep ointment; and the ironmonger dealt in crockery. Even the butcher was more than a butcher, for he was never to be seen at his chopping block, and his wife did all the retail work. He himself was in the “jobbing” line, and was always jogging about in a cart, in the hind part of which, covered with a net, was a calf or a couple of pigs. Three out of the four streets ran out in cottages; but one was more aristocratic. This was Church Street, which contained the church and the parsonage. It also had in it four red brick houses, each surrounded with large gardens. In one lived a brewer who had a brewery in Cowfold, and owned a dozen beer-shops in the neighbourhood; another was a seminary for young ladies; in the third lived the doctor; and in the fourth old Mr. and Mrs. Muston, who had no children, had been there for fifty years; and this, so far as Cowfold was aware, was all their history. Mr. and Mrs. Muston and the seminary were the main strength of the church. To be sure the doctor and the landlord of the Angel professed devotion to the Establishment, but they were never inside the church, except just now and then, and were charitably excused because of their peculiar calling. The rest of Cowfold was Dissenting or “went nowhere.” There were three chapels; one the chapel, orthodox, Independent, holding about seven hundred persons, and more particularly to be described presently; the second Wesleyan, new, stuccoed, with grained doors and cast-iron railing; the third, strict Baptist, ultra-Calvinistic, Antinomian according to the other sects, dark, down an alley, mean, surrounded by a small long-grassed graveyard, and named Zoar in large letters over the long window in front. The “went nowhere” class was apparently not very considerable. On Sunday morning at twelve o’clock Cowfold looked as if it had been swept clean. It was only by comparison between the total number of churchgoers and chapel-goers and the total population that it could be believed that there was anybody absent from the means of grace; but if a view could have been taken of the back premises an explanation would have been discovered. Men and women “did up their gardens,” or found, for a variety of reasons, that they were forced to stay at home. In the evening they grew bolder, and strolled through the meadows. It is, however, only fair to respectable Cowfold to say that it knew nothing of these creatures, except by employing them on weekdays.

With regard to the Wesleyan Chapel, nothing much need be said. Its creed was imported, and it had no roots in the town. The Church disliked it because it was Dissenting, and the Dissenters disliked it because it was half-Church, and, above all, Tory. It was supported mainly by the brewer, who was drawn thither for many reasons, one of which was political. Another was, that he was not in trade, and although he objected to be confounded with his neighbours who stood behind counters, the Church did not altogether suit him, because there Mr. and Mrs. Muston and the seminary stood in his way. Lastly, as he owned beer-shops, supplied liquor which was a proverb throughout the county, and did a somewhat doubtful business according to the more pious of the Cowfold Christians, he preferred to be accredited as a religious person by Methodism than by any other sect, the stamp of Methodism standing out in somewhat higher relief.

As for Zoar, it was a place apart. Its minister was a big, large-jawed, heavy-eyed man, who lived in a little cottage hard by. His wife was a very plain-looking person, who wore even on Sundays a cotton gown without any ornament, and who took her husband’s arm as they walked down the lane to the chapel. The Independent minister, the Wesleyan minister, and, of course, the rector had nothing to do with the minister of Zoar. This was not because of any heresy or difference of doctrine, but because he was a poor man and poor persons sat under him. Nevertheless he was not in any way a characteristic Calvinist. The Calvinistic creed was stuck in him as in a lump of fat, and had no organising influence upon him whatever. He had no weight in Cowfold, took part in none of its affairs, and his ministrations were confined to about fifty sullen, half stupid, wholly ignorant people who found in the Zoar services something sleepier and requiring less mental exertion than they needed elsewhere; although it must be said that the demands made upon the intellect in none of the places of worship were very extensive. There was a small endowment attached to Zoar, and on this, with the garden and house rent free, the minister lived. Once now and then⁠—perhaps once in every three or four years⁠—there was a baptism in Zoar, and at such times it was crowded. The children of the congregation, as a rule fell away from it as they grew up; but occasionally a girl remained faithful and was formally admitted to its communion. In front of the pulpit was an open space usually covered; but the boards could be taken up, and then a large kind of tank was disclosed, which was filled with water when the ceremony was performed. After hymns had been sung the minister went down into the water, and the candidate appeared dressed in a long white robe very much like a nightgown. The dear sister, during a short address, stood on the brink of the tank for a few moments, and then descended into it beside the minister, who, taking her by the neck and round the waist, ducked her fairly and completely. She emerged, and walked dripping into the vestry, where it was always said that hot brandy and water was ready.

Many of us have felt that we would give all our books if we could but see with our own eyes how a single day was passed by a single ancient Jewish, Greek, or Roman family; how the house was opened in the morning; how the meals were prepared; what was said; how the husband, wife, and children went about their work; what clothes they wore, and what were their amusements. Would that the present historian could do as much for Cowfold! Would that he could bring back one blue summer morning, one afternoon and evening, and reproduce exactly what happened in Cowfold Square, in one of the Cowfold shops, in one of the Cowfold parlours, and in one Cowfold brain and heart. Could this be done with strictest accuracy, a book would be written, although Cowfold was not Athens, Rome, nor Jerusalem, which would live for many many years longer than much of the literature of this century. But alas! the preliminary image in the mind of the writer is faint enough, and when he comes to trace it, the pencil swerves and goes off into something utterly unlike it. An attempt, however, to show what the waking hours in Cowfold Square were like may not be out of place. The shopkeeper came into his shop at half-past seven, about half an hour after the shutters had been taken down by his apprentice. At eight o’clock breakfast was ready; but before breakfast there was family worship, and a chapter was read from the Bible, followed by an extempore prayer from the head of the household. If the master happened to be absent, it was not considered proper that the mistress should pray extempore, and she used a book of “Family Devotions.” A very solid breakfast followed, and business began. It was very slow, but it was very human⁠—much more so than business at the present day in the City. Every customer had something to say beyond his own immediate errand, and the shop was the place where everything touching Cowfold interests was abundantly discussed. Cowfold too, did much trade in the country round it. Most of the inhabitants kept a gig, and two or three times, perhaps, in a week a journey somewhere or other was necessary which was not in the least like a journey in a railway train. Debts in the villages were collected by the creditor in person, who called and invited his debtors to a most substantial dinner at the inn. At one o’clock Cowfold dined. Between one and two nobody was to be seen in the streets, and the doors were either fastened or a bell was put upon them. After dinner the same duties returned in the shop; but inside the house dinner was the turning-point of the day. When the “things were washed, up,” servant and mistress began to smarten themselves, and disappearing into their bedrooms, emerged at four, to make preparations for tea, the meal most enjoyed in all Cowfold. If any spark of wit slept in any Cowfoldian male or female, it appeared then. No invitations to dinner were ever heard of; but tea was the opportunity for hospitality, especially amongst women. The minister, when he visited, invariably came to tea. The news circulated at tea, and, in fact, at tea between five and six, Cowfold, if its intellect could have been measured by a properly constructed gauge, would have been found many degrees higher in the scale than at any other hour. Granted that the conversation was personal, trivial, and even scandalous, it was in a measure philosophical. Cowfold, though it knew nothing, or next to nothing of abstractions, took immense interest in the creatures in which they were embodied. It would have turned a deaf ear to any debate on the nature of ethical obligation; but it was very keen indeed in apportioning blame to its neighbours who had sinned, and in deciding how far they had gone wrong. Cowfold in other words believed that flesh and blood, and not ideas, are the school and the religion for most of us, and that we learn a language by the examples rather than by the rules. The young scholar fresh from his study is impatient at what he considers the unprofitable gossip about the people round the corner; but when he gets older he sees that often it is much better than his books, and that distinctions are expressed by a washerwoman, if the objects to be distinguished eat and drink and sleep, which he would find it difficult to make with his symbols. Moreover, the little Cowfold clubs and parties understood what they were saying, and so far had an advantage over the clubs and parties which, since the days of penny newspapers, now discuss in Cowfold the designs of Russia, the graduation of the Income Tax, or the merits and demerits of the administration. The Cowfold horizon has now been widened, to use the phrase of an enlightened gentleman who came down and lectured there on the criminality of the advertisement duty; but unfortunately the eyes remain the same. Cowfold now looks abroad, and is very eloquent upon the fog in the distance, and the objects it thinks it sees therein; but, alas! what it has gained in inclusive breadth it has lost in definition. Politics, however, were not unknown in Cowfold; for before 1832 it was a borough, and after 1832 it was one of the principal polling-places for the county. Nevertheless it was only on the eve of an election that anybody dabbled in them, and even then they were very rudimentary. The science to most of the voters meant nothing more than a preference of blue to yellow, or yellow to blue; and women had nothing whatever to do with it, excepting that wives always, of course, took their husbands’ colours. Politics, too, as a rule, were not mentioned in private houses. They were mostly reserved for the Angel, and for the brandies and water and pipes which collected there in the evening.

To return. After tea the master went back once more to his counter, and the shutters were put up at eight. From eight to nine was an hour of which no account can be given: The lights were left burning in the shops, and the neighbour across the way looked in and remained talking till his supper was ready. Supper at nine, generally hot, was an institution never omitted, and, like tea, was convivial; but the conviviality was of a distinctly lower order. Everybody had whisky, gin, or brandy afterwards, and every male person who was of age smoked. There was, as a rule, no excess, but the remarks were apt to be disconnected and woolly; and the wife, who never had grog for herself, but always sipped her husband’s went to sleep. Eleven o’clock saw all Cowfold in bed, and disturbed only by such dreams as were begotten of the previous liver and bacon and alcohol.

There were no villains amongst that portion of the inhabitants with which this history principally concerns itself, nor was a single adventure of any kind ever known to happen beyond the adventures of being born, getting married, falling sick, and dying, with now and then an accident from a gig. Consequently it might be thought that there was no romance in Cowfold. There could not be a greater mistake. The history of every boy or girl of ordinary make is one of robbery, murder, imprisonment, death sentence, filing of chains, scaling of prison walls, recapture, scaffold, reprieve, poison, and pistols; the difference between such a history and that in the authorised versions being merely circumstantial. The garden of Eden, the murder of Cain, the deluge, the salvation of Noah, the exodus from Egypt, David and Bathsheba, with the murder of Uriah, the Assyrian invasion, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection from the Dead; to say nothing of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the tragedy of Count Cenci, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the Inquisition in Spain, and Revolt of the Netherlands, all happened in Cowfold, as well as elsewhere, and were perhaps more interesting there because they could be studied in detail and the records were authentic.

Church Street, Cowfold⁠—that is to say, the street in which the church stood⁠—was tolerably broad going east and west, so that the sun shone full on the white window-frames and red brick of Mr. Muston’s house, in which everything seemed to sleep in eternal calm. On the opposite side was the seminary, also red brick and white paint, facing the north; but, to make amends, the garden had a southern aspect, and the back of the house was covered with a huge magnolia whose edges curled round to the western side, so that it could be seen by wayfarers. It was a sight not to be forgotten⁠—the red brick, the white paint, the July sun; the magnolia leaves, the flanking elms on the east high above the chimneys, the glimpse of the acre of lawn through the great gates when they happened to be open, the peace, so profound, of summer noon! How lovely it looks as it hovers unsteadily before the eye, seen through the transfiguring haze of so many years! It was really, there is no doubt about it, handsomer than the stuccoed villa which stares at us over the way; but yet, if Cowfold Church Street, red brick, white paint, elms, lawn, and midsummer repose could be restored at the present moment, would it be exactly what the vision of it is? What is this magic gift which even for the humblest of us paints and frames these enchanting pictures? It is nothing less than the genius which is common to humanity. If we are not able to draw or model, we possess the power to select, group, and clothe with an ideal grace, which is the very soul of art, and every man and woman, every bush, nay, every cabbage, cup, and saucer, provided only it be not actually before us, becomes part of a divine picture. Would that we could do with the present what we do with the past! We can do something if we try.

At the end of Church Street came the vicarage, and then the churchyard, with the church. Beyond was the park, which half embraced Cowfold, for it was possible to enter it not only from Church Street, but from North Street, which ran at right angles to it. The Hall was not much. It was a large plain stone mansion, built in the earlier part of the eighteenth century; but in front of the main entrance was a double row of limes stretching for a quarter of a mile, and the whole of the park was broken up into soft swelling hills, from whose tops, owing to the flatness of the country round, an almost immeasurable distance could be seen, gradually losing itself in deepening mist of tenderest blue. The park, too, was not rigidly circumscribed. Public roads led through it. It melted on two or three sides into cultivated fields, and even the private garden of the Hall seemed a part of it, for there was nothing between them but a kind of grassy ditch and an almost invisible fence. The domain of Cowfold Hall was the glory of Cowfold and the pride of its inhabitants. The modern love of scenery was not known in Cowfold, and still less was that worship of landscape and nature known which, as before observed, is peculiar to the generation born under the influence of Wordsworth. We have learnt, however, from Zachariah that even before Wordsworth’s days people were sometimes touched by dawn or sunset. The morning cheered, the moon lent pathos and sentiment, and the stars awoke unanswerable interrogations in Cowfold, although it knew no poetry, save Dr. Watts, Pollok’s Course of Time, and here and there a little of Cowper. Under the avenue, too, whose slender columns, in triple rows on either side, rose to an immense height, and met in a roof overhead with all the grace of cathedral stone, and without its superincumbent weight and imprisonment⁠—a roof that was not impervious to the sunlight, but let it pass and fall in quivering flakes on the ground⁠—Cowfold generally took off its hat, partly, no doubt, because the place was cool, but also as an act of homage. Here and in the woods adjoining youths and maidens for three hundred years had walked and made love, for, though the existing house was new, it stood on the site of a far older building. Dead men and women, lord and churl, gone to indistinguishable dust, or even beyond that⁠—gone perhaps, into vapour and gas, which had been blown to New Zealand, and become men and women again⁠—had burned with passion here, and vowed a union which was to last beyond the Judgment Day. They wept here, quarrelled here, rushed again into one another’s arms here, swore to one another here, when Henry the Eighth was king; and they wept here, quarrelled here, embraced here, swore here, in exactly the same mad fashion, when William the Fourth sat upon the throne. Halfway up the avenue was a stone pillar commanding a gentle descent, one way to the Hall, and the other way to the lodge. It set forth the anguish of a former lord of the time of Queen Anne, who had lost his wife when she was twenty-six years old. She was beneath him in rank, but very beautiful, and his affection for her had fought with and triumphed over the cruel opposition of father, mother, and relations, who had other designs. He had made enemies of them all; but he won his wife, and, casting her in the scale, father, mother, and friends were as gossamer. She died two years after the wedding⁠—to the very day. Rich in her love, he had never taken a thought to propitiate anybody, nor to make friends with the Mammon of Unrighteousness, and when she suddenly departed, he turned round and found himself alone. So far from knocking at men’s doors, he more fiercely hated those who now, touched with pity, would gladly have welcomed him. He broke from them all, lived his own life, was reputed to be a freethinker, and when he came to his estate, a long while afterwards, he put up the obelisk, and recorded in Latin how Death, the foul adulterer, had ravished his sweet bride⁠—the coward Death whom no man could challenge⁠—and that the inconsolable bridegroom had erected this monument in memory of her matchless virtues. That was all: no blessed resurrection nor trust in the Saviour. The Reverend John Broad, minister of Tanner’s Lane Chapel, when he brought visitors here regularly translated the epitaph. He was not very good at Latin, but he had somehow found out its meaning. He always observed that it was not classic, and consequently not easy to render. He pointed out, too, as a further curiosity, which somewhat increased the difficulty to any ordinary person, that V was used for U, and I for J. He never, as might be expected, omitted to enlarge upon the omission of any reference to the Atoning Blood and the Life to Come, and remarked how the poor man’s sufferings would have been entirely “assuaged”⁠—a favourite word with Mr. Broad⁠—if he had believed in those “remedies.” At the same time Mr. Broad dwelt upon the “associations” of the avenue, which, he thought, added much to its natural “attractiveness.” Cowfold thought so too, and welcomed the words as exactly expressing what it felt. John Broad and Cowfold were right, and more right, perhaps, than they knew. The draper’s young man, who walked through the park with his arm round his young woman’s waist, looked up at the obelisk, repeated its story, and became more serious. Thus it came to pass that the old lord’s love lived again somewhat in the apprentice, and that which to the apprentice seemed most particularly himself was a little bit of the self of the Queen Anne’s earl long since asleep in the vault under Cowfold Church.