“And why Tom Tiddler’s ground?” said the Traveller.
“Because he scatters halfpence to Tramps and such-like,” returned the Landlord, “and of course they pick ’em up. And this being done on his own land (which it is his own land, you observe, and were his family’s before him), why it is but regarding the halfpence as gold and silver, and turning the ownership of the property a bit round your finger, and there you have the name of the children’s game complete. And it’s appropriate too,” said the Landlord, with his favourite action of stooping a little, to look across the table out of window at vacancy, under the window-blind which was half drawn down. “Leastwise it has been so considered by many gentlemen which have partook of chops and tea in the present humble parlour.”
The Traveller was partaking of chops and tea in the present humble parlour, and the Landlord’s shot was fired obliquely at him.
“And you call him a Hermit?” said the Traveller.
“They call him such,” returned the Landlord, evading personal responsibility; “he is in general so considered.”
“What is a Hermit?” asked the Traveller.
“What is it?” repeated the Landlord, drawing his hand across his chin.
“Yes, what is it?”
The Landlord stooped again, to get a more comprehensive view of vacancy under the window-blind, and – with an asphyxiated appearance on him as one unaccustomed to definition – made no answer.
“I’ll tell you what I suppose it to be,” said the Traveller. “An abominably dirty thing.”
“Mr. Mopes is dirty, it cannot be denied,” said the Landlord.
“Mr. Mopes is vain of the life he leads, some do say,” replied the Landlord, as another concession.
“A slothful, unsavoury, nasty reversal of the laws of human mature,” said the Traveller; “and for the sake of GOD’S working world and its wholesomeness, both moral and physical, I would put the thing on the treadmill (if I had my way) wherever I found it; whether on a pillar, or in a hole; whether on Tom Tiddler’s ground, or the Pope of Rome’s ground, or a Hindoo fakeer’s ground, or any other ground.”
“I don’t know about putting Mr. Mopes on the treadmill,” said the Landlord, shaking his head very seriously. “There ain’t a doubt but what he has got landed property.”
“How far may it be to this said Tom Tiddler’s ground?” asked the Traveller.
“Put it at five mile,” returned the Landlord.
“Well! When I have done my breakfast,” said the Traveller, “I’ll go there. I came over here this morning, to find it out and see it.”
“Many does,” observed the Landlord.
The conversation passed, in the Midsummer weather of no remote year of grace, down among the pleasant dales and trout-streams of a green English county. No matter what county. Enough that you may hunt there, shoot there, fish there, traverse long grass-grown Roman roads there, open ancient barrows there, see many a square mile of richly cultivated land there, and hold Arcadian talk with a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, who will tell you (if you want to know) how pastoral housekeeping is done on nine shillings a week.
Mr. Traveller sat at his breakfast in the little sanded parlour of the Peal of Bells village alehouse, with the dew and dust of an early walk upon his shoes – an early walk by road and meadow and coppice, that had sprinkled him bountifully with little blades of grass, and scraps of new hay, and with leaves both young and old, and with other such fragrant tokens of the freshness and wealth of summer. The window through which the landlord had concentrated his gaze upon vacancy was shaded, because the morning sun was hot and bright on the village street. The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree. The quietest little dwellings with the largest of window-shutters (to shut up Nothing as carefully as if it were the Mint, or the Bank of England) had called in the Doctor’s house so suddenly, that his brass door-plate and three stories stood among them as conspicuous and different as the doctor himself in his broadcloth, among the smock-frocks of his patients. The village residences seemed to have gone to law with a similar absence of consideration, for a score of weak little lath-and-plaster cabins clung in confusion about the Attorney’s red-brick house, which, with glaring door-steps and a most terrific scraper, seemed to serve all manner of ejectments upon them. They were as various as labourers – high-shouldered, wry-necked, one-eyed, goggle-eyed, squinting, bow-legged, knock-knee’d, rheumatic, crazy. Some of the small tradesmen’s houses, such as the crockery-shop and the harness-maker, had a Cyclops window in the middle of the gable, within an inch or two of its apex, suggesting that some forlorn rural Prentice must wriggle himself into that apartment horizontally, when he retired to rest, after the manner of the worm. So bountiful in its abundance was the surrounding country, and so lean and scant the village, that one might have thought the village had sown and planted everything it once possessed, to convert the same into crops. This would account for the bareness of the little shops, the bareness of the few boards and trestles designed for market purposes in a corner of the street, the bareness of the obsolete Inn and Inn Yard, with the ominous inscription “Excise Office” not yet faded out from the gateway, as indicating the very last thing that poverty could get rid of. This would also account for the determined abandonment of the village by one stray dog, fast lessening in the perspective where the white posts and the pond were, and would explain his conduct on the hypothesis that he was going (through the act of suicide) to convert himself into manure, and become a part proprietor in turnips or mangold-wurzel.
Mr. Traveller having finished his breakfast and paid his moderate score, walked out to the threshold of the Peal of Bells, and, thence directed by the pointing finger of his host, betook himself towards the ruined hermitage of Mr. Mopes the hermit.
For, Mr. Mopes, by suffering everything about him to go to ruin, and by dressing himself in a blanket and skewer, and by steeping himself in soot and grease and other nastiness, had acquired great renown in all that country-side – far greater renown than he could ever have won for himself, if his career had been that of any ordinary Christian, or decent Hottentot. He had even blanketed and skewered and sooted and greased himself, into the London papers. And it was curious to find, as Mr. Traveller found by stopping for a new direction at this farm-house or at that cottage as he went along, with how much accuracy the morbid Mopes had counted on the weakness of his neighbours to embellish him. A mist of home-brewed marvel and romance surrounded Mopes, in which (as in all fogs) the real proportions of the real object were extravagantly heightened. He had murdered his beautiful beloved in a fit of jealousy and was doing penance; he had made a vow under the influence of grief; he had made a vow under the influence of a fatal accident; he had made a vow under the influence of religion; he had made a vow under the influence of drink; he had made a vow under the influence of disappointment; he had never made any vow, but “had got led into it” by the possession of a mighty and most awful secret; he was enormously rich, he was stupendously charitable, he was profoundly learned, he saw spectres, he knew and could do all kinds of wonders. Some said he went out every night, and was met by terrified wayfarers stalking along dark roads, others said he never went out, some knew his penance to be nearly expired, others had positive information that his seclusion was not a penance at all, and would never expire but with himself. Even, as to the easy facts of how old he was, or how long he had held verminous occupation of his blanket and skewer, no consistent information was to be got, from those who must know if they would. He was represented as being all the ages between five-and-twenty and sixty, and as having been a hermit seven years, twelve, twenty, thirty, – though twenty, on the whole, appeared the favourite term.
“Well, well!” said Mr. Traveller. “At any rate, let us see what a real live Hermit looks like.”
So, Mr. Traveller went on, and on, and on, until he came to Tom Tiddler’s Ground.
It was a nook in a rustic by-road, which the genius of Mopes had laid waste as completely, as if he had been born an Emperor and a Conqueror. Its centre object was a dwelling-house, sufficiently substantial, all the window-glass of which had been long ago abolished by the surprising genius of Mopes, and all the windows of which were barred across with rough-split logs of trees nailed over them on the outside. A rickyard, hip-high in vegetable rankness and ruin, contained outbuildings from which the thatch had lightly fluttered away, on all the winds of all the seasons of the year, and from which the planks and beams had heavily dropped and rotted. The frosts and damps of winter, and the heats of summer, had warped what wreck remained, so that not a post or a board retained the position it was meant to hold, but everything was twisted from its purpose, like its owner, and degraded and debased. In this homestead of the sluggard, behind the ruined hedge, and sinking away among the ruined grass and the nettles, were the last perishing fragments of certain ricks: which had gradually mildewed and collapsed, until they looked like mounds of rotten honeycomb, or dirty sponge. Tom Tiddler’s ground could even show its ruined water; for, there was a slimy pond into which a tree or two had fallen – one soppy trunk and branches lay across it then – which in its accumulation of stagnant weed, and in its black decomposition, and in all its foulness and filth, was almost comforting, regarded as the only water that could have reflected the shameful place without seeming polluted by that low office.