O’er the Hills and Far Away
‘Imagine falling asleep for a hundred years. Would it not be awful?’ Georgie Macdonald whispered to her sister.
Carrie gave her a quick, crooked smile, but the shabby young man who sat at Georgie’s feet laughed. ‘Why? I think it’d be marvellous.’
‘Sssh!’ Georgie’s eldest sister, Alice, pressed her finger to her lips.
Will Fulford, holding high a small leather-bound book, declaimed: ‘All round a hedge upshoots, and shows at distance like a little wood; thorns, ivies, woodbine . . .’
Georgie tugged at the young man’s threadbare sleeve. ‘What do you mean? How could it be marvellous to sleep so long? Why, the world would be so different once you woke.’
‘That’s why.’ His grey eyes seemed full of light. ‘Just think of it! What new discoveries would have been made, what new inventions?’
Alice glanced at him reprovingly, as Will recited: ‘. . . Bur and brake and briar, and glimpsing over these, just seen, high up the topmost palace-spire . . .’
‘Can you not see it?’ The young man whispered. ‘A castle all overgrown with roses, and everyone in it asleep for a hundred years.’
He gave her a smile of singular sweetness. His name was Edward Jones, she remembered, called Ted for short. ‘A capital fellow,’ her brother Harry had said. ‘Smart as a whip, but too highly strung for his own good.’ He had won an armful of school prizes, Harry had told her, then fainted on the doormat when he got home.
Ted Jones and his friends had come to visit Harry for tea, and did not seem to mind at all having it in the schoolroom so as not to disturb Mama. The day was so cold the windows were frosted over, filling the room with a strange twilight gloom. Everyone had congregated about the coal-stove. Squat as a black goblin, it stood on four widespread legs, the slitted eyes of its grate gleaming orange. It smelt sulphurous, like hell-fires.
A one-eyed rocking-horse gazed sadly out at the sleet pelting against the barred windows. Beyond was a murky landscape of gabled roofs, chimney-pots, factory smokestacks, and church steeples drifting in fog. Georgie’s father said Birmingham was the workshop of the world, and she could understand why. All day and night, the air rang with the clatter of trains, the banging of presses, the whirling of cogs, the spray of fiery sparks, the belch of steam. Pyramids of slag on every corner, and the roads churned to mud by heavy wagons dragged by weary horses.
Even the snow fell dirty in Birmingham.
Harry lay back in a sagging armchair, swinging one scuffed boot and stifling a yawn. Georgie’s younger brother Freddy lay on the hearth-rug, hacking at a lump of wood with his pen-knife. All the other chairs in the schoolroom were taken up by Georgie’s sisters. Fifteen-year-old Alice sat upright, her skirts smoothed down over her knees to make them seem longer. Carrie lay on the only couch. She was eighteen months younger than Alice, and Georgie was eighteen months younger again, the third daughter at eleven-and-a-half years of age. All three girls were darning socks, so as not to tempt the Devil with their idleness.
Agnes was nine and Louie was seven. They sat together on the floor by the window, playing with a wooden Noah’s Ark set. Four-year-old Edith was pretending to feed her dolly with a tin spoon. The doll had been made from an old pillow, the eyes and mouth sewn crookedly. All six girls were identically dressed in brown calico frocks under old pinafores, their hair hanging in tight plaits down their backs.
‘She sleeps: her breathings are not heard, in palace chambers far apart. The fragrant tresses are not stirr’d, that lie upon her charmed heart,’ Will recited.
Ted whispered to Georgie, ‘Do you think Tennyson means to say she’s snoring, but not so loud she can be heard?’
Georgie laughed, then clapped her hands over her mouth.
Alice said, ‘Mr Jones, please be quiet. I want to listen to Mr Fulford.’
‘You’ll never be in want of an opportunity to do that,’ he answered at once, casting Georgie a glance brimming with mischief. She had to bite back a smile in response. Alice frowned at them. Ted returned his attention to the centre of the room, where his friend was saying, ‘He travels far from other skies, his mantle glitters on the rocks. A fairy prince, with joyful eyes, and lighter-footed than the fox.’
He has joyful eyes too . . .
Even as she thought it, Georgie remembered that her first impression of Ted Jones had been that he seemed long-faced and mournful, unlike her brother’s other friends who were all so cheerful. And in repose, listening quietly as he was now, his face did seem sorrowful, like a painting of Christ.
Yet, when Ted had first arrived, he had made such fearsome expressions that he had delighted Louie and terrified Edith. And Harry said he was always sketching wicked caricatures of all the masters at school.
‘He comes, scarce knowing what he seeks.’ Will paused, then cleared his throat. With an air of embarrassment, he continued, ‘He breaks the hedge: he enters there.’
Harry gave a knowing snicker. Alice looked down, colour mounting her cheeks.
Georgie looked from one face to another, sensing impropriety.
Mama would not have approved of young men reading her daughters poems such as this. She only allowed the girls to read books with titles such as Redemption and Zeal. Georgie was sure that she would consider Alfred, Lord Tennyson as morally corrupt as William Shakespeare, whose works were banned in the Macdonald household.
Mama had one of her heads, however. She had sunk into the Slough of Despond after the death of Baby Herbert the year before, and showed no sign of ever emerging. Herbert was the third of Mama’s babies to die and indeed it sometimes felt as if she cared more for the dead children than she did for the living. ‘I wish you could have seen my boy,’ Mrs Macdonald was prone to saying to lady visitors. ‘His beauty was so touching to see, so pure and white and cold, like a little marble statue. My only comfort is that he is safe with God now, no longer suffering the evils of this life on earth.’
There’s no reason to worry Mama, Georgie told herself. It’s just a fairytale.
‘More close and close his footsteps wind,’ Will read. ‘The magic music in his heart, beats quick and quicker till he find, the quiet chamber far apart. His spirit flutters like a lark. He stoops – to kiss her on his knee.’
Alice was blushing rosily now.
Will read on. ‘A touch, a kiss! The charm was snapt. There rose a noise of striking clocks, and feet that ran, and doors that clapt, and barking dogs, and crowing cocks . . .’ On the rhymes tumbled, quick as dancing feet, and Georgie wanted to clap her hands with the joy of it. Once again Ted looked back at her in quick unspoken sympathy.
Then the poem’s rhythm altered once more, slowing into a dreamy lilt. ‘And on her lover’s arm she leant, and round her waist she felt it fold, and far across the hills they went, in that new world which is the old: across the hills and far away . . .’
It was the most beautiful thing Georgie had ever heard.
When Will had finished the last stanzas, everyone in the room stirred, as if they too had found themselves held suspended in a spell of sleep. Then a hum of conversation rose.
Ted twisted about so he faced Georgie. With her sitting on a chair, and him cross-legged on the ground, their faces were almost at the same level, for she was a daintily formed child and he was tall and lanky. At nineteen years old, he seemed to her quite grown up, though only the faintest down appeared on his chin and upper lip. His hair was fair and very fine and flopped into his eyes, and every now and again he swept it away with an impatient gesture. His forehead was broad and high, but his face tapered down to a pointed chin, giving him the air of a wise elf.
‘Isn’t it a wonderful poem?’ he said.
‘I liked it very much,’ she answered shyly. ‘Particularly the end.’
‘O’er the hills, and far away . . . through all the world she follow’d him.’
Georgie nodded. She felt something sharp in her heart. She hardly knew what it was. She felt the same thing, sometimes, singing in church, or when she saw the twilight sky through a filigree of twigs.
‘I wish I could write something so beautiful,’ she said in a low voice.
‘Maybe you will one day.’
She shook her head. ‘Papa does not approve of such things. He loves books and has a great many, but they are all of sermons or such things. Books of an improving nature.’
‘Ah, yes, I know the type. But you shouldn’t read just to be improved! Books are meant to amuse and delight as well, you know, and to bring beauty into our lives.’
Georgie could only be glad that her mother was not present to hear him speak so. Mrs Macdonald lived in fear of offending God, who seemed to frown on so many things. If thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched . . .
Georgie’s whole life was bent and shaped to appease her mother’s God. Each day began and ended with prayer. The Macdonald sisters spent the hours between playing hymns on the piano and sewing proverbs into samplers, while Mama read to them from the Bible. The six girls only left the house to attend chapel and temperance meetings, to organise fund-raising bazaars for the missionaries, and to take the Word of God to the downtrodden poor. Once a week they went to Bible Class, where their souls were examined and found wanting, and so they were reproved and exhorted to try harder to guard themselves from sin. It was not easy to make friends with any other girls they met at chapel, or in Sunday School, when all sat meekly under the censorious eyes of the congregation, attending upon the ordinances of God. And since the Macdonald family moved every three years, following their father on his preaching circuit, it hardly seemed worth the effort to try.
Georgie did not know how to say all this to Ted, and so they sat in silence for a moment. Georgie waited for him to excuse himself and go to talk to his friends, standing warming themselves by the stove and talking about cricket.
But Ted fixed her with his intent gaze. ‘And do you still think it would be awful to sleep for a hundred years?’
She nodded. ‘Indeed, yes, for I’d wake up and everyone I loved would be dead and gone, and the world quite different.’
He spoke eagerly: ‘Perhaps it’d be a world where there was no rich and no poor . . . no prisons or factories or workhouses . . . no ragged children begging in the streets . . .’
‘That would be a wonderful world,’ she agreed. ‘But . . .’
Ted tilted his head quizzically, raising one eyebrow.
‘But it’d be lonely, if everyone else I knew was dead.’
‘You’d have your fairy prince to kiss you awake.’
Her eyes fell and her fingers twisted the fabric of her pinafore. Her cheeks felt hot. He went on in a rush, ‘Besides, all your loved ones would have slept with you and awakened with you, just like the king and all his courtiers in the poem.’
‘Well, then,’ she said, ‘perhaps it would not be so terrible.’
He did not answer. His eyes had darkened and did not seem to see her any longer. ‘If I were to sleep a hundred years, there’d be scarcely anyone to miss me,’ he said, in so low and gruff a voice she hardly heard him.
She gazed at him wonderingly. ‘No-one?’
‘My mother died when I was only six days old. My father was so prostrate with grief he could not bear to see me or touch me. He buried himself in his work. There was no-one to care for me. At last they found a housekeeper to look after me . . . she did her best, but . . .’ His words trailed away.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Georgie faltered, her heart moved with pity.
‘I only saw my father on Sundays, which was the day my mother died,’ he went on. ‘He’d hold my hand and we’d walk through the town, all smoky and noisy, to the graveyard, where all was deathly quiet . . . which was worse. And my father would kneel and make me kneel beside him, and he would pray and cry and hold my hand so tight it hurt. I did not like it.’
‘But does he not care now?’ Georgie asked.
Ted nodded his head slowly. ‘Yes. In a way, he cares too much. Mrs Sampson too. All they ever do is fuss.’ Suddenly his expression changed. Mischief lit his eyes again. ‘Mrs Sampson was always asking me, five-hundred-and-thirty-seven times a day, “What are you thinking, Ted?” So, quite some years ago, I came up with an answer that seemed to satisfy her.’
‘Why? What did you say?’
For an instant, Georgie gazed at him in astonishment, then she broke into peals of laughter. Ted joined in, and his laugh was so free and joyous and wild that everyone in the room looked around, smiles starting to their lips.
Alice swept over, hands on her hip. ‘What are you two talking about?’
‘Nothing,’ Georgie said.
‘Just camels,’ Ted replied. Their eyes met, and they fell again into laughter.