As stories go, there isn’t much here. But I’d love to hear your ideas about why a Mormon woman of 1939 – and a much-published author like Vesta P. Crawford – wrote stories like this, and why the Magazine printed them, and how readers might have responded to them.
From the Relief Society Magazine, August 1939 –
“The Ancient Beautiful Things”
By Vesta P. Crawford
John Wilson sat on a rounded rock half way up a long hill in the South Downs country. Below him at the base of the white sea cliffs the little village of Shoreham jutted out into the Channel. It was a fine clear day, but John was tired. He took off his worn shoes and pressed his feet down into the cool grass. The salty breeze swept up the hills and ruffled the man’s white hair. Here he was in England again, back home after so many years.
From his coat pocket he took out a blue notebook, a small bottle of ink, and his pen. He balanced the book on his knee and began to write slowly: “Today is the tenth of August, 1896. I am in my sixty-fifth year and have been on this mission nearly fourteen months. Here I am in this lovely South Downs country, the land of my birth. Shoreham, my native village, lies below me. Forty years ago I left this place and sailed to America with my wife and child. Forty years, and now I am back again, a Mormon missionary tracting in the very section where I played as a youth.
“Forty years – so much has happened. The child we had then has been dead thirty-nine years. My wife died twenty years ago. I am very poor in worldly goods. Yet, in America I found great wealth of spirit, joy in the Gospel, and happiness with my family.
“Utah is a strange country – so very new. I realize this more fully now as I sit on the hills above that place where the ships of the Saxon kings lay at anchor nearly a thousand years ago. near me, along the roads that wind inland, are old castles and steepled churches with intricate carvings and stained glass windows. Not far away is London with its great museums and magnificent libraries housing the art and culture of the centuries. Indeed, when I think of all this, I am more sympathetic than ever with the efforts of my people in the mountain valleys to bring education and opportunity to their children. It is I, and others like me, who must take back all that we can of the good things of the earth, the ancient beautiful things …”
John closed the book and put it back in his pocket. He stood up, stretched himself, and picked up his shoes. He turned them upside down to get the pebbles out. Then, when the shoes were again neatly laced and tied, he started slowly up the hill, holding his head high, feeling the wind on his face.
At the summit he stopped and breathed deeply. How different the moist air was from the dry atmosphere of Utah, the dusty, dry air of the desert. he wondered how things were going now, far away in that little farming community known as Dover. The hills, high crested, blue, now would be glinting in the hot sun of late summer; the river, shrunken in its steep banks, now would move slowly, drift along, unruffled. His little adobe house perched above the stream, how did it look? His fields, how would his fields be now? Dry, withered, no doubt, burned up with alkali – his hard-won fields!
Now he took another look at the sea beating endlessly against the white cliffs, beating against the shore. he turned around and walked down the other side of the hill toward Kingstone. Secluded, safe, the village lay, coved in by the hills, its crooked streets curved through a green meadow.
John thought of the long roads of his Utah home, rutted, dusty, bordered with sagebrush. Perhaps even now, at this very moment, his daughter Maud might be walking along the road toward the adobe house. Dear Maud, black-haired, gray-eyed, a frail little thing for being all of twenty-two. And his daughter Kate, where was she? Home in the house singing, very likely, or perhaps out in the garden. Let’s see, it was Maud’s birthday this month and six weeks later Kate would be twenty-four.
What would he send them for their birthdays? He couldn’t spend much money. If only he could find something to bear a message from England to these children of his, something to carry the beauty and culture of this mother country to the far Utah valley – some token of a father’s love, to bridge the sea and bring the green hills of England and the gray hills of Utah close together.
It was nearly sundown when John came into Kingstone. Ahead of him he could see a second-hand book store. Nearly every village in England had them, crowded little shops where you might find anything from an Atlas of the World to a first edition of Shakespeare. John never could pass a bookstore without at least looking. How he loved books. how his daughters loved books.
Books, that was it. Books are the carriers of all ancient beautiful things. They bear messages of hope and achievement and high thoughts from one generation to another, from one land to another, from great minds to lesser minds. Books are the treasure chests of the ages.
He read title after title. He kept saying to himself, “I’d better hurry along. I really can’t afford to buy books.”
Then he saw them right together, two volumes – The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the other, The Poems of Felicia Hemans. Both were selling for three shillings. John’s fingers touched the good leather bindings. The title letters were written in gold.
He turned the pages of the Browning volume. He scanned the immortal words of that Elizabeth who said she was “but a cricket,” compared to her husband, the great Robert, who was “a mandolin.” John turned the pages. He noted the perfection of the lines of poetry, the music of the words … “Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame …”
John laid the volume down and picked up the Hemans poems. He turned to his favorite, that great American poem, written by an English poetess – The Landing of the Pilgrims … “the breaking waves dashed high on a stern and rock-bound coast, and the woods against a stormy sky their giant branches tossed …”
The Englishman from America handed the two volumes across the counter. “I’ll take both of these,” he said, and took three shillings out of his purse.
He stood there and wrote on the fly-leaf of the Browning volume: “To my dear daughter Kate, with best birthday wishes, from your father in England, 1896.” Upon the fly-leaf of the other, he penned in large letters: “To my darling Maud, many happy returns of your natal day, from your father across the sea.”
John laid a fourth shilling on the counter. “Mail these books, please,” he said. “Here’s the address – The Misses Kate and Maud Wilson, Dover, Sanpete County, Utah, U.S.A.”
It was dusk when he came out of the shop. Deep quiet lay upon the village and stretched away to the hills. Peace and beauty. John thought again of the land of his birth and the land of his adoption. He thought of the sea and ships and the long roads in Utah. He thought – I have sent some of England home to America.