Dorsetshire by Arthur C Benson

Story type: Essay

I am travelling just now, and am this week at Dorchester, in the company of my oldest and best friend. We like the same things; and I can be silent if I will, while I can also say anything, however whimsical, that comes into my mind; there are few things better than that in the world, and I count the precious hours very gratefully; appono lucro.

Dorsetshire gives me the feeling of being a very old country. The big downs seem like the bases of great rocky hills which have through long ages been smoothed and worn away, softened and mellowed, the rocks, grain by grain, carried downwards into the flat alluvial meadowlands beneath. In these rich pastures, all intersected with clear streams, runnels and water-courses, full at this season of rich water-plants, the cattle graze peacefully. The downs have been ploughed and sown up to the sky-line. Then there are fine tracts of heather and pines in places. And then, too, there is a sense of old humanity, of ancient wars about the land. There are great camps and earthworks everywhere, with ramparts and ditches, both British and Roman. The wolds from which the sea is visible are thickly covered with barrows, each holding the mouldering bones of some forgotten chieftain, laid to rest, how many centuries ago, with the rude mourning of a savage clan. I stood on one of the highest of these the other day, on a great gorse-clad headland, and sent my spirit out in quest of the old warrior that lay below–“Audisne haec, Amphiaraee, sub terram condite?” But there was no answer from the air; though in my sleep one night I saw a wild, red-bearded man, in a coat of skins, with rude gaiters, and a hat of foxes’ fur on his head; he carried a long staff in his hand, pointed with iron, and looked mutely and sorrowfully upon me. Who knows if it was he?

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And then of later date are many ruinous strongholds, with Cyclopean walls, like the huge shattered bulk of Corfe, upon its green hill, between the shoulders of great downs. There are broken abbeys, pinnacled church-towers in village after village. And then, too, in hamlet after hamlet, rise quaint stone manors, high-gabled, many-mullioned, in the midst of barns and byres. One of the sweetest places I have seen is Cerne Abbas. The road to it winds gently up among steep downs, a full stream gliding through flat pastures at the bottom. The hamlet has a forgotten, wistful air; there are many houses in ruins. Close to the street rises the church-tower, of rich and beautiful design, with gurgoyles and pinnacles, cut out of a soft orange stone and delicately weathered. At the end of the village stands a big farm-house, built out of the abbey ruins, with a fine oriel in one of the granaries. In a little wilderness of trees, the ground covered with primroses, stands the exquisite old gatehouse with mullioned windows. I have had for years a poor little engraving of the place, and it seemed to greet me like an old friend. Then, in the pasture above, you can see the old terraces and mounds of the monastic garden, where the busy Benedictines worked day by day; further still, on the side of the down itself, is cut a very strange and ancient monument. It is the rude and barbarous figure of a naked man, sixty yards long, as though moving northwards, and brandishing a huge knotted club. It is carved deep into the turf, and is overgrown with rough grass. No one can even guess at the antiquity of the figure, but it is probably not less than three thousand years old. Some say that it records the death of a monstrous giant of the valley. The good monks Christianised it, and named it Augustine. But it seems to be certainly one of the frightful figures of which Caesar speaks, on which captives were bound with twisted osiers, and burnt to death for a Druidical sacrifice. The thing is grotesque, vile, horrible; the very stones of the place seemed soaked with terror, cruelty and death. Even recently foul and barbarous traditions were practised there, it is said, by villagers, who were Christian only in name. Yet it lay peacefully enough to-day, the shadows of the clouds racing over it, the wind rustling in the grass, with nothing to break the silence but the twitter of birds, the bleat of sheep on the down, and the crying of cocks in the straw-thatched village below.

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What a strange fabric of history, memory, and tradition is here unrolled, of old unhappy far-off things! How bewildering to think of the horrible agonies of fear, the helpless, stupefied creatures lying bound there, the smoke sweeping over them and the flames crackling nearer, while their victorious foes laughed and exulted round them, and the priests performed the last hideous rites. And all the while God watched the slow march of days from the silent heaven, and worked out his mysterious purposes! And yet, surveying the quiet valley to-day, it seems as though there were no memory of suffering or sorrow in it at all.

We climbed the down; and there at our feet the world lay like a map, with its fields, woods, hamlets and church-towers, the great rich plain rolling to the horizon, till it was lost in haze. How infinitely minute and unimportant seemed one’s own life, one’s own thoughts, the schemes of one tiny moving atom on the broad back of the hills. And yet my own small restless identity is almost the only thing in the world of which I am assured!

There came to me at that moment a thrill of the spirit which comes but rarely; a deep hope, the sense of a secret lying very near, if one could only grasp it; an assurance that we are safe and secure in the hand of God, and a certainty that there is a vast reality behind, veiled from us only by the shadows of fears, ambitions, and desires. And the thought, too, came that all the tiny human beings that move about their tasks in the plain beneath–nay, the animals, the trees, the flowers, every blade of grass, every pebble–each has its place in the great and awful mystery. Then came the sense of the vast fellowship of created things, the tender Fatherhood of the God who made us all. I can hardly put the thought into words; but it was one of those sudden intuitions that seem to lie deeper even than the mind and the soul, a message from the heart of the world, bidding one wait and wonder, rest and be still.

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