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Chapter XVII.

MOST persons judge of Essex from the marshes that they see in passing up the Thames. They fancy it to be a county with a soil like moist sponge-cake, perpetually breathing forth miasma,—that all the inhabitants die of ague and typhus fever (solacing themselves, whilst still alive, under the burden of their dreary, fen-oppressed existence, by means of opium pills—sold regularly as Epsom salts in other places by the accommodating local druggists),—that the Purfleet quarries are the nearest approach to romantic scenery that the shire can boast,—that dismal South end, with its ramshackle wooden pier—running out into the muddy water like a seedy man who longs to drown his shabby sorrows, but is afraid to make the fatal plunge,—that this caricature of a watering place is quite a flattering specimen of Essex towns. Contrasting the melancholy flats and miserable buildings on the one hand, with the verdant, wood-sprinkled slopes and trim villas on the other, steam-boat passengers exaggerate the


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loveliness and healthiness of beauteous, balmy Kent, and, as I have said before, arrive at the conclusion that poor Essex is the doomed abode of ugliness, dilapidated architecture, blue devils, disease, and death. Tilbury Fort appears to them a most unnecessary stronghold, for what foe, they reason, although actuated by the most fanatical of anti-British frenzies, would dream of landing on that Stygian shore?

Such critics, as is generally the case with those who found their opinions on impressions produced by the outsides of things, are quite wrong in their conjectures.

Leaving their county's fenny fringe to supply Campos Martios to pugilists, and fattening grounds for cattle, the East Saxons manage to attain inside it man's destined three score years and ten, as frequently as the dwellers in more famously hygienic parts of England,—are not more low-spirited than Englishmen usually are,—seek excitement in British beer and gin, instead of Turkish poppy-juice,—possess as pretty, cleanly towns, picturesque hamlets, cosy farm houses, and handsome gentlemen's seats, as can be found anywhere, and in the northern portion of their district are blest with many a peaceful scene of rural beauty. The landscapes are by no means grand, but to the mind in some moods they are not the less agreeable on that account. What are called “noble prospects”—“show” sublimities that extort admiration, often oppress the gazer. One turns from them to quiet little smiling “bits” of copsewood, cornfield, meadow, village church, and green and smithy, and mill with its great dripping wheel and willow-bordered stream,—as a man who has shuddered his applause, and felt his insignificance, before a Siddons or a Rachael, hastens, with a feeling of relief, to the placens uxor, the winsome wife, at home.

In North Essex stands the town that I call Helensburgh: an old, old place, rich in all kinds of ruin and relic—you may dig up Roman burialurns like potatoes in its neighbourhood. The Druid has cut mistletoe by moonlight in its woods, and British warriors, blue with woad, have trooped from its low huts to their scythed chariots. Agricola's legions have tramped along its High-street, with flashing armour, towering eagles, flaunting labarum, in all the majestic pomp of perfect discipline, and all the insufferable insolence of indomitable victors' pride. The dream-directed finder of the True Cross first saw sunlight here, and coming, on her return from foreign shores, to a heap of smouldering embers where she had left her flourishing native town, she caused it to rise, phœnix-like, from its ashes; laying out its streets in the form, again and again repeated, of the sacred tree that she had rescued from obscurity. The cross in the Town Arms is commemorative of her discovery and palingenetic performance;


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and though the borough be not actually named after her, as I have named it, holds a St. Helen's chapel and a St. Helen's-lane. The fierce Saxon and the fiercer Dane ruled the place by turns, according to the caprice of fickle fortune. That fragment of Abbey Wall has echoed the chants of Norman monks; and Norman knights have tilted yonder in the shadow of that massy pile,—the frowning castle, rent and crumbling, and bannered only with here and there a drooping tree, a rank patch of straggling weeds or waving grass, or a rich, fragrant tuft of blood-red, or rust-hued, or golden-yellow wall-flowers; but, nevertheless, a stout keep still. In cruel Mary's time bands of brave martyrs were driven, like sheep to the shambles, from the surrounding villages along the winding lanes, above whose hedges peered the wet, brown corn. quivering in the fresh autumn-morning breeze—the only thing, save following children about to be made motherless, that wept and trembled there, for fanaticism steeled the hearts of the butchers, and faith and hope breathed supernatural strength into the victims' souls—and then, at noon, were led, through a dense crowd of loathing faces, to be burnt upon St. John's green, within a stone's throw of the turreted gateway of the shrine of him whose latest word was love. Those three old elms upon the green have had their leaves prematurely withered by the hot blasts that swept from the blazing faggots, on which Christians, by Christians, were being charred to death: a scene to be repeated in the next Protestant-trumpeted reign, with this slight difference—that the roasters were then roastees. “Behold, how these Christians love one another,” has been a bitter satire for a dreary while. In fate-blinded Charles's time, Helensburgh, contrary to the will of its burghers, was defended by a garrison of cavaliers against a Roundhead army under Fairfax. The ramparts from which his booming cannon pounded the old wall, and shivered the gates, and truncated the church-towers (hung round with woolsacks, and converted into forts), and smashed in the roofs and windows, and ploughed up the streets of Helensburgh, may yet be seen; but now they are green with grass, the buttercup grows where the blood of wounded bombardier dropped in a trickling stream, and in the meadows over which the horrid missiles flew, singing their sibilant song of death, like so many consciously malicious demons, school-boys drive hither and thither the harmless cricket-ball, and make the calm summer evenings merry with their ringing laughter and their friendly shouts. Two white stones in the turf of the Castle Bailey mark where the gallant chiefs of the royalists—after a siege almost rivalling in its horrors of famine and bloodshed, those awful ones we read of in the Old Testament and Josephus—were shot down like dogs by the order of the parvanimous Puritan they for so long a time had baffled.




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The burghers have abjured their whiggism and puritanism, and are staunch tories and high-churchmen now, but, otherwise, the old town is little changed since those old times. Smart modern buildings have sprung up in its outskirts like funguses at the foot of an oak, but a dreamy antiquity still broods over the main body of the place. It is scarred with traces of the siege even now, like a veteran with cicatrices. The church-towers, as I have hinted, are in ruins, or repaired merely with makeshift weatherboard summits—jury steeples. St. Mary's was rebuilt, but the new masonry has not blended with the old; they touch without assimilating, like geological strata. The town wall is not much more dilapidated than it was upon that dismantling day when the victorious Roundheads wreaked their rage, with pick and spade and blasting powder, on the sturdy mass of flint and rubble ribbed with herring-bone seams of Roman brick, that for months had never flinched beneath their hailstorm of ever hurtling balls. In the timbers of quaint, gabled houses you find bullets that were lodged there in the seventeenth century. A pseudo-classical Town Hall with Caen stone front and pilasters has supplanted the grim Moot Hall of indistinguishable material, curiously composite architecture, and immemorial age; but the prim modern building gives no modern character to the slumbrous old place—it appears simply an unaccountable anachronism. The same may be said of a silk-factory that lifts its tall chimney, like a giraffe's neck, beside the river, and with its Argus-eyes strives to stare out of countenance the sleepy watermill that has ground for ten generations. The mill looks back with a sly twinkle of contempt in its dusty, diamond-paned lattices. It was a grown-up mill, scores—hundreds—of years before that upstart factory was built or thought of, and it isn't going to be put upon by the impertinent young parvenu.

A tranquil place is Helensburgh; the sluggish current of its ordinary existence being ruffled only once a week by the market-day, once a quarter by a cattle fair, and once a year by the Mayor's oyster-feast. The mollusks, for which their river is proverbial, scarcely lead a less eventful life than the Helenburghers. A railway has reached the town, (after strong opposition on the part of the old-fashioned inhabitants to a direct line,) by accident, as it were, but has not done much to enliven it. An omnibus rumbles down to the station once or twice a day, hearse-like, carrying one passenger, and bringing back none; a cab or two plant themselves before the new Town Hall, (as being the most cockneyfied building in the borough,) and try to fancy themselves on a London stand; but omnibus and cab, like Town Hall and factory, are compelled to succumb to the old-world


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atmosphere of the place, and creep about with a disconsolate, apologetic air, as if they knew that they were uninvited aliens.

It was, however, in its pre-railway times that I first saw Helensburgh.

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