The birth at Lone Barn, Christmas Day 1908
That winter a man might have picked up the paper after breakfast and found descriptions of funerals and marriages, the well-attended presentation to the local member of Parliament, the successful meeting of his rival, the list of hunting appointments, and a column and a half headed, “Suffering Children–Parental Neglect–Queer Defence–Severe Sentences–Magistrate’s Scathing Condemnation.” A capital fox-hunter presiding, the bench had given four months’ hard labour to a man and wife for neglecting their seven young children, “in such a way as to cause them unnecessary suffering and injury to their health.” Having scorched his back parts the reader would turn his front parts to the fire and read on. These nine had been living for some weeks at Lone Barn, which lies unexpectedly in a small hollow at one of the highest points of the downs, three miles from the nearest hamlet. It had long been deserted. The farmhouse was ruinous, and a fox taking refuge there could not be dislodged from the fallen masonry and elder and yew tree roots. The hunters had noticed nothing in the barn.
I knew the farmhouse and had often wondered about the man who built it in that solitude somewhere in the eighteenth century. It had walls of unusual thickness, such as could not have been overthrown simply by time and weather. It must long have been empty and subject to the hostility of discontented spirits such as probably infest a house, as they do a man, left utterly alone. I had not suspected that anybody was living in the barn, but I remember a pale, shuffling man carrying a child who begged from me monotonously as I came down the hill in mist a little before dark. I had given him something without exactly realizing that he was a man, so frail, subdued, and weak-voiced had he been—a creation of the mist quite in harmony with the hour. This was probably Arthur Aubrey Bishopstone, who was now in prison.
He and his wife and six children had arrived at the barn on Christmas Eve. For a week before they had been at a barn nearer the village, but as this had to be repaired they were turned out. They were allowed to settle in Lone Barn because Bishopstone had done an occasional day’s work for the farmer on whose land it stood. During January and February he did several more days’ work. The wife and children remained in the barn. The two eldest had measles, the sixth had pneumonia; all were verminous. On Christmas Day a seventh had been born in Lone Barn. The mother, who had fainted in court a week before and had been remanded, pleaded guilty of neglect, but said that “she could not do in a barn as she could in a cottage,” there being no bed, no furniture, and no water except from a cattle pond half a mile away. The man had been unable to get a cottage. The family had been found lying round a fire in the barn, and after medical examination arrested. Bishopstone hardly spoke in answer to the questions and insults of the bench, but he was understood to say, “The Lord is on my side,” and several other blasphemous or unintelligible things, which were no defence or excuse. The nine were now condemned to the comfort of the workhouse and the prison until haymaking time.
I went to Lone Barn again, the birthplace of Francis Albert Edward Bishopstone.
The black brook, full of the white reflections of its snowy banks and beginning to steam in the sun, was hourly growing and coiling all its long loops joyously through the land. The dabchick was laughing its long shrill titter under the alder roots. Faint, soft shadows fell on to the snow from the oaks, whose grey skeletons were outlined in snow against the clear deep blue of the now dazzling sky. Thrushes were beginning to sing, as if it had always been warm and bright. In hedge and thicket and tall wood, myriads of drops were falling and singing in the still air. Against the south the smooth downs were white under a diaphanous haze of grey, and upon them seemed to rest heavenly white mountains, very still, dream-like, and gently luminous. Lone Barn lay up in the haze invisible.
At the foot of the hills the land was divided by low hedges into broad fields. There no birds sang, and no stream gurgled. The air was full of the pitiful cries of young lambs at their staggering play in the shallow snow. One ewe stood with her new-born lamb in a stamped, muddy circle tinged with blood amidst the pure white. The lamb was yellowish green in colour; it stumbled at her teats, fell down and sucked upon its knees. The big mother stood still, shaggy, stubborn, meek, with her head down, her eyes upon me, her whole nature upon the lamb buried in her wool, part of her.
The hill was hedgeless save where a narrow, ancient road deeply trenched it in ascending curves, lined by thorns. The road had probably not been trodden since that procession of ten had descended towards the town six miles away. A kestrel had killed a gold-crest upon the bank, and as I approached it sailed away from the crimson-centred circle of feathers on the snow. But the wind had been the chief inhabitant of the slopes, and unseen of mortal eyes it had been luxuriously, playfully carving the snow which submerged the hedge. The curved wind-work in the drift, deeply ploughed or deliberately chiselled, remained in the stillness as a record of the pure joy of free, active life contented with itself. It was the same blithe hand which had shaped the infant born in this black barn.
An old plum tree, planted when barn and house were built, and now dead and barkless, stood against one end, and up it had climbed a thick ivy stem that linked barn and tree inseparably with a profusion of foliage, emerald and white. The last of its doors lay just outside in the dead embers of the tramps’ fire. Thus open on both sides to the snowlight and the air the barn looked the work rather of nature than of man. The old thatch was grooved, riddled, and gapped, and resembled a grassy bank that has been under a flood the winter through; covered now in snow it had the outlines in miniature of the hill on which it was built. The patched walls, originally of tarred timber laid in horizontal planks, were of every hue of green and yellow that moss, lichen, and mould can bestow, each strip of board being of a different date and a different shade. What gave them something in common with one another was the fresh black stains which ran from the melting eaves to the nettle-bed below. The porches, lofty enough to admit a waggon piled as high as possible with sheaves of corn, had slipped somewhat away: it was to them alone that the exterior of the building owed a faint suggestion of a church and, consequently, a pathetic, undermined dignity: without them it would have seemed wholly restored to nature, amiably and submissively ruinous, with a silence in which not the most perverse mind could have detected melancholy. But within it was unexpectedly lofty, and the ponderous open timber-work, rough-hewn and naturally curved was obviously performing too efficiently the task of supporting the roof: it at once inspired the thought that it should ere now have relaxed the strain of its crooked arms and acquiesced and slipped or collapsed. The oak floor was pierced in many places by wear and by drippings from the broken roof; grass and corn had grown up through the crevices and died. Some of the fallen thatch had been piled in a dry corner for a bed. In the centre of the floor was another sign of its late use—squares chalked by the children for the playing of a game. I walked to and fro: There were no ghosts or so it seemed.
A starved thrush lay dead in a corner. That was all. I stirred the bed with my stick, meaning to set fire to it. An old coat was concealed beneath it and out of the pocket fell a book.
On the front page was written, “A. A. Bishopstone, — College, Oxford, October, 1890.” The first pages were filled with accounts of expenditure, subscriptions, purchases, etc., the items abbreviated as a rule beyond recognition. Apparently he had soon ceased to keep accounts. Several pages were torn out and a mere few left only to save their other halves farther on. The book had then begun to serve another purpose. Under the date March, 1891, there was a list of books read during the term ending in that month—“The Letters of Flaubert, Gilchrist’s Blake, etc.” He had meant to make a comment on this reading, perhaps, but it was crossed out deliberately lest he should be tempted to decipher the hateful thing. He had left only the words, “It is a mistake to leave comments of this kind on record, as in after years one is unable to get back at their meaning and the imperfectly expressive words are irritating and humiliate. The mere names of books read, people seen, places walked to and the like are more eloquent far. This day I have burnt my old diaries. They help the past to haunt us out of its grave.” Consequently there were from time to time carelessly written jottings of names of books, lists of places visited with dates: they were eloquent enough. On some pages short poems and passages of prose were copied out in a very neat hand, showing a kind of priestly sense of reverence for Claudian’s poem On the Sirens, etc. These entries needed no comment, the serious worship implied in the caligraphy was unmistakable; Bishopstone would have no difficulty in recalling to his mind the mood in which they were copied out. They were headed usually by no more than the year in which they were written down, sometimes not at all. Thus he wrote “1892” at the head of a page and apparently added nothing, for it was in an altered hand that the prayer from Shelley was copied :—
Make me thy lyre even as the forest is.
Next, in March of the same year, he had written down, perhaps from dictation, the names of historical books, with a few words showing that in the following summer he would have to go up for the examination which had qualified him for a degree. Evidently he was resolved to work hard at special books and to put behind him the intellectual luxuries of Rabelais, etc. Whether he read too hard or not is uncertain, but the entry for September of that year was merely, “Brain fever and a 2nd class. I am now alone.”
The next entry was in 1893: “Sell all thou hast and follow Me.” In the same year came the words “I possess my working clothes and a Greek testament. I earn 14s. a week.”
There was no more for that year, but under 1894 were a number of detached thoughts, such as:—
“ ‘All men are equal’ is only a corollary of ‘At men are different’—if only the former had been forgot instead of latter. It might have changed things less—and more.”
“Forgive we one another, for we know not what we do.
“Each man suffers for the whole world and the whole world for each man. There is little distinction between the destinies of one man and another if this is understood.
“Let us not exalt worldly distinctions, titles, etc., by saying that they make no difference.”
In 1895 came the words, “East Anglia—the Fens—Yorkshire—the Lakes,” and the isolated thought:
“To be alone in eternity is the human lot of a man, but to be alone in time, alas! alas!”
The next year he had not touched the book: it was the year of his marriage, for in 1897 he had written: “We have now been married one year.” A list of villages followed showing a zigzag course right across England; then the thought: “There is nothing like the visible solitude of another soul to teach us our own. Two hungers, two thirsts, two solitudes, begetting others.”
Was it perhaps at the birth of a child—the date is not given, it might have been the same year, 1897—that he wrote this? “To him who is born into eternity it matters little what happens in time, and a generation of pain is as the falling of a leaf.” Then:—
“Unhappiness is apart from pain. When they tell us that in the Middle Ages and even in the last century men suffered more pain and discomfort than we, they do not tell us that they also had less unhappiness. Many a battlefield has seen more joy than pain; many a festival as little of either.”
And then, on a page to itself:—
“We are looking for straight oak sticks in a world where it is hazel that grows straight.”
That he was still travelling was indicated only by names of places written down without comment. A week’s accounts showed the expenditure of 10s. on food for himself on the food of himself, his wife, and John and Paul, two children. In March, 1898, he wrote:—
“The road northward out of Arundel leads to Heaven”; to which he had added, “So does Lavender Hill.”
Other thoughts were set down in the same year:
“The man who is discontented with this world is like a blackbird who desires to be a plover that calls by night in the wandering sky.
“To have loved truly, be it for an hour only, is to be sure of eternity. Love is eternity. And if we have not loved, then also we are destined to eternity in order that in some other condition we may yet love.
“If only we did not know that in this world it is often well to attempt what it would not be well to achieve.
“Preach extravagance and extremes and ideals that haply we may achieve something above mediocrity. If we preach compromise we may not achieve more than desolation. And yet even out of desolation may bloom the rose.
“Exactly the same proportion of marriages as of illicit unions are immoral, even in a worldly sense.”
In 1899 it must have been the death of a child that dictated the words:—
“I do not shed tears: I did that when she was born, for I saw her lie dead in the cot where she smiled.”
There was a long interval and then one short entry:—
“I possess everything, but in the world’s sense nothing but my name—A. A. B; if I could lose that I should be a better citizen, not of the world, but of the universe of eternity. Are the stars called Procion and Lyra except by astronomers? Then why should I have a name?—unless, indeed, there were a name which described me as a poem describes an emotion. I will be nameless. I will no longer condemn myself to this title of A. A. B.”
The next and final entries all belonged to the winter which he .spent in the barn.
On Christmas Eve:—
“Life will never be better or nobler, nor has ever been, than here at this instant in my breast. But—may I never be content to know it lest to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow be the less for it.”
“What is man? One moment he is a prayer, another a flower of God, another a flame to consume he knows not what save that it is himself. And, again, he is but a dungeon in which an infant’s cry is echoing. One day I saw soldiers, and I was nothing but, as it were, a sea-shell to record the clattering hoofs, the scarlet, the shattering trumpet.
“The children have a doll that was given to them. They are talking to it and about it—as I talk to and about another man.
“I heard the wind rustle in the dead leaves this morning, I heard it rustle over my grave, and over the world’s, and over the embers of all the stars, and I was not afraid.
“What name has my beautiful barn in heaven? In it was born a man in the sight of his brothers and sisters. God has told me my seed shall be multiplied as the sands of the sea. Can it be that out of this barn will grow the regeneration of the world, or will the forgotten memory of it troub1e the well-being of some citizen far hence in time and so give birth to a flame, a prayer, a rose out of the soul of him? It is cold, yes, but the frost is one of the angels.
“A doctor has been here, a man not used to our life. He too felt that it was cold. He said that little Francis—whom Mary calls Albert Edward—is ill and may die. If he does, then it may be from the corpse of an infant the saviour of society will be born.”
These were the last words. On the day after the doctor’s visit the arrest was made. Arthur Aubrey Bishopstone and two of the children died in the infirmary of the prison. Francis Albert Edward, born at Lone Barn on Christmas Day, recovered from the effects of his birth and left the workhouse at the end of June with his mother and four brothers. I believe that after Lone Barn there was nothing they missed less than Arthur Aubrey Bishopstone. If they had been given to considering such matters they would have said that he ought to have lived solitary and let his hair grow in Wayland's Smithy instead of marrying and begetting seven children, of whom only two were able to die in infancy.
Lone Barn has since been burnt to the ground, and should Francis Albert Edward (his real name) or the world visit the scene of his nativity, to worship or verify the facts, they wou1d find in that hollow of the downs only a square space of nettles, poppies and batchelor’s buttons, amidst the turf. . . .