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   Chapter 1 HARE STREET

Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother By Arthur Christopher Benson Characters: 13822

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


How loudly and boisterously the wind roared to-day across the low-hung, cloud-smeared sky, driving the broken rack before it, warm and wet out of the south! What a wintry landscape! leafless trees bending beneath the onset of the wind, bare and streaming hedges, pale close-reaped wheat-fields, brown ploughland, spare pastures stretching away to left and right, softly rising and falling to the horizon; nothing visible but distant belts of trees and coverts, with here and there the tower of a hidden church overtopping them, and a windmill or two; on the left, long lines of willows marking the course of a stream. The road soaked with rain, the grasses heavy with it, hardly a human being to be seen.

I came at last to a village straggling along each side of the road; to the right, a fantastic-looking white villa, with many bow-windows, and an orchard behind it. Then on the left, a great row of beeches on the edge of a pasture; and then, over the barns and ricks of a farm, rose the clustered chimneys of an old house; and soon we drew up at a big iron gate between tall red-brick gateposts; beyond it a paling, with a row of high lime trees bordering a garden lawn, and on beyond that the irregular village street.

From the gate a little flagged pathway leads up to the front of a long, low house, of mellow brick, with a solid cornice and parapet, over which the tiled roof is visible: a door in the centre, with two windows on each side and five windows above-just the sort of house that you find in a cathedral close. To the left of the iron gate are two other tall gateposts, with a road leading up to the side of the house, and a yard with a row of stables behind.

Let me describe the garden first. All along the front and south side of the house runs a flagged pathway, a low brick wall dividing it from the lawn, with plants in rough red pots on little pilasters at intervals. To the right, as we face the door, the lawn runs along the road, and stretches back into the garden. There are tall, lopped lime-trees all round the lawn, in the summer making a high screen of foliage, but now bare. If we take the flagged path round the house, turn the corner, and go towards the garden, the yew trees grow thick and close, forming an arched walk at the corner, half screening an old irregular building of woodwork and plaster, weather-boarded in places, with a tiled roof, connected with the house by a little covered cloister with wooden pillars. If we pass that by, pursuing the path among the yew trees, we come out on a pleasant orchard, with a few flower-beds, thickly encircled by shrubs, beyond which, towards the main road, lies a comfortable-looking old red-brick cottage, with a big barn and a long garden, which evidently belongs to the larger house, because a gate in the paling stands open. Then there is another little tiled building behind the shrubs, where you can hear an engine at work, for electric light and water-pumping, and beyond that again, but still connected with the main house, stands another house among trees, of rough-cast and tiles, with an open wooden gallery, in a garden of its own.

Photo by Bishop, Barkway

HARE STREET HOUSE

FROM THE FRONT 1914

In the orchard itself is a large grass-grown mound, with a rough wooden cross on the top; and down below that, in the orchard, is a newly-made grave, still covered, as I saw it to-day, with wreaths of leaves and moss, tied some of them with stained purple ribbons. The edge of the grave-mound is turfed, but the bare and trodden grass shows that many feet have crossed and recrossed the ground.

The orchard is divided on the left from a further and larger garden by a dense growth of old hazels; and passing through an alley you see that a broad path runs concealed among the hazels, a pleasant shady walk in summer heat. Then the larger garden stretches in front of you; it is a big place, with rows of vegetables, fruit-trees, and flower-borders, screened to the east by a row of elms and dense shrubberies of laurel. Along the north runs a high red-brick wall, with a big old-fashioned vine-house in the centre, of careful design. In the corner nearest the house is a large rose-garden, with a brick pedestal in the centre, behind which rises the back of the stable, also of old red brick.

Photo by Bishop, Barkway

HARE STREET HOUSE

FROM THE GARDEN 1914

The timbered building on the left is the Chapel; in the foreground is the unfinished rose-garden.

But now there is a surprise; the back of the house is much older than the front. You see that it is a venerable Tudor building, with pretty panels of plaster embossed with a rough pattern. The moulded brick chimney-stacks are Tudor too, while the high gables cluster and lean together with a picturesque outline. The back of the house forms a little court, with the cloister of which I spoke before running round two sides of it. Another great yew tree stands there: while a doorway going into the timber and plaster building which I mentioned before has a rough device on it of a papal tiara and keys, carved in low relief and silvered.

A friendly black collie comes out of a kennel and desires a little attention. He licks my hand and looks at me with melting brown eyes, but has an air of expecting to see someone else as well. A black cat comes out of a door, runs beside us, and when picked up, clasps my shoulder contentedly and purrs in my ear.

The house seen from the back looks exactly what it is, a little old family mansion of a line of small squires, who farmed their own land, and lived on their own produce, though the barns and rick-yard belong to the house no longer. The red-brick front is just an addition made for the sake of stateliness at some time of prosperity. It is a charming self-contained little place, with a forgotten family tradition of its own, a place which could twine itself about the heart, and be loved and remembered by children brought up there, when far away. There is no sign of wealth about it, but every sign of ease and comfort and simple dignity.

Now we will go back to the front door and go through the house itself. The door opens into a tiny hall lighted by the glass panes of the door, and bright with pictures-oil paintings and engravings. The furniture old and sturdy, and a few curiosities about-carvings, weapons, horns of beasts. To the left a door opens into a pleasant dining-room, with two windows looking out in front, dark as dining-rooms may well be. It is hung with panels of green cloth, it has a big open Tudor fireplace, with a big oak settle, some china on an old dresser, a solid table and chairs, and a hatch in the corner through which dishes can be handed.

Opposite, on the other side of the hall, a door opens into a long low library, with books all round in white shelves. There is a big grand piano here, a very solid narrow oak table with

a chest below, a bureau, and some comfortable chintz-covered chairs with a deep sofa. A perfect room to read or to hear music in, with its two windows to the front, and a long window opening down to the ground at the south end. All the books here are catalogued, and each has its place. If you go out into the hall again and pass through, a staircase goes up into the house, the walls of it panelled, and hung with engravings; some of the panels are carved with holy emblems. At the foot of the stairs a door on the right takes you into a small sitting-room, with a huge stone fireplace; a big window looks south, past the dark yew trees, on to the lawn. There are little devices in the quarries of the window, and a deep window-seat. The room is hung with a curious tapestry, brightly coloured medi?val figures standing out from a dark background. There is not room for much furniture here; a square oak stand for books, a chair or two by the fire. Parallel to the wall, with a chair behind it filling up much of the space, is a long, solid old oak table, set out for writing. It is a perfect study for quiet work, warm in winter with its log fire, and cool in summer heat.

To the left of the staircase a door goes into a roughly panelled ante-room which leads out on to the cloister, and beyond that a large stone-flagged kitchen, with offices beyond.

If you go upstairs, you find a panelled corridor with bedrooms. The one over the study is small and dark, and said to be haunted. That over the library is a big pleasant room with a fine marble fireplace-a boudoir once, I should think. Over the hall is another dark panelled room with a four-post bed, the walls hung with a most singular and rather terrible tapestry, representing a dance of death.

Beyond that, over the dining-room, is a beautiful panelled room, with a Tudor fireplace, and a bed enclosed by blue curtains. This was Hugh's own room. Out of it opens a tiny dressing-room. Beyond that is another large low room over the kitchen, which has been half-study, half-bedroom, out of which opens a little stairway going to some little rooms beyond over the offices.

Above that again are some quaint white-washed attics with dormers and leaning walls; one or two of these are bedrooms. One, very large and long, runs along most of the front, and has a curious leaden channel in it a foot above the floor to take the rain-water off the leads of the roof. Out of another comes a sweet smell of stored apples, which revives the memory of childish visits to farm storerooms-and here stands a pretty and quaint old pipe-organ awaiting renovation.

We must retrace our steps to the building at the back to which the cloister leads. We enter a little sacristy and vestry, and beyond is a dark chapel, with a side-chapel opening out of it. It was originally an old brew-house, with a timbered roof. The sanctuary is now divided off by a high open screen, of old oak, reaching nearly to the roof. The whole place is full of statues, carved and painted, embroidered hangings, stained glass, pendent lamps, emblems; there is a gallery over the sacristy, with an organ, and a fine piece of old embroidery displayed on the gallery front.

This is the house in which for seven years my brother Hugh lived. Let me recall how he first came to see it. He was at Cambridge then, working as an assistant priest. He became aware that his work lay rather in the direction of speaking, preaching, and writing, and resolved to establish himself in some quiet country retreat. One summer I visited several houses in Hertfordshire with him, but they proved unsuitable. One of these possessed an extraordinary attraction for him. It was in a bleak remote village, and it was a fine old house which had fallen from its high estate. It stood on the road and was used as a grocer's shop. It was much dilapidated, and there was little ground about it, but inside there were old frescoes and pictures, strange plaster friezes and moulded ceilings, which had once been brightly coloured. But nothing would have made it a really attractive house, in spite of the curious beauty of its adornment.

One day I was returning alone from an excursion, and passed by what we call accident through Hare Street, the village which I have described. I caught a glimpse of the house through the iron gates, and saw that there was a board up saying it was for sale. A few days later I went there with Hugh. It was all extremely desolate, but we found a friendly caretaker who led us round. The shrubberies had grown into dense plantations, the orchard was a tangled waste of grass, the garden was covered with weeds. I remember Hugh's exclamation of regret that we had visited the place. "It is exactly what I want," he said, "but it is far too expensive. I wish I had never set eyes on it!" However, he found that it had long been unlet, and that no one would buy it. He might have had the pasture-land and the farm-buildings as well, and he afterwards regretted that he had not bought them, but his income from writing was still small. However, he offered what seems to me now an extraordinarily low sum for the house and garden; it was to his astonishment at once accepted. It was all going to ruin, and the owner was glad to get rid of it on any terms. He established himself there with great expedition, and set to work to renovate the place. At a later date he bought the adjacent cottage, and the paddock in which he built the other house, and he also purchased some outlying fields, one a charming spot on the road to Buntingford, with some fine old trees, where he had an idea of building a church.

Everything in the little domain took shape under his skilful hand and ingenious brain. He made most of the tapestries in the house with his own fingers, working with his friend Mr. Gabriel Pippet the artist. He carved much of the panelling-he was extraordinarily clever with his hands. He painted many of the pictures which hang on the walls, he catalogued the library; he worked day after day in the garden, weeding, rowing, and planting. In all this he had the advantage of the skill, capacity, and invention of his factotum and friend, Mr. Joseph Reeman, who could turn his hand to anything and everything with equal energy and taste; and so the whole place grew and expanded in his hands, until there is hardly a detail, indoors or out-of-doors, which does not show some trace of his fancy and his touch.

There were some strange old traditions about the house; it was said to be haunted, and more than one of his guests had inexplicable experiences there. It was also said that there was a hidden treasure concealed in or about it. That treasure Hugh certainly discovered, in the delight which he took in restoring, adorning, and laying it all out. It was a source of constant joy to him in his life. And there, in the midst of it all, his body lies.

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