Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of the Guild by Louise Lamprey
In the Days of the Guild by  Louise Lamprey

Dickon at the Forge

How a Sussex Smith Found the World Come to Him in the Weald

T HE smithy was very small compared with a modern foundry. It was not large even for a country black-smith's shop; the cottage close by was hardly bigger; yet that forge made iron-work which went all over England. It was on one of the Sussex roads leading into Lewes. Often a knight would stop to have something done to his own armor or his horse's gear, for the war-horse also wore armor,—on head and breast at least. Some of the work of old Adam Smith had gone as far as Jerusalem. Dickon felt occasionally that if he were a spear-head or a dagger, he would stand more chance of seeing the world than he did as the son of his father.

Adam was secretly proud of the lad who at thirteen could do nearly as much as he himself could. That was saying more than a little, for Adam Smith had the knack of making every blow count by putting it in exactly the right place. A man who can do that will double his strength.

Dickon had inherited the knack, but he had something else besides, of which his father knew nothing. He never did a piece of work that he did not try to make it look right. He could see that when the bar that latched a gate was of a certain length, not too small or too large, it pleased both eye and hand. He did not consider the hinges on the door better looking for being made into an elaborate pattern, unless the pattern was a good one. In short, Dickon had what is known as a sense of beauty. Some have it and some have not. Those who have can invent beautiful patterns, while those who have not can only copy,—and they do not always copy accurately.

It may seem strange to speak of beauty in the iron-work of a little country smithy, but nothing is more beautiful in its way than good iron-work. There are gates, hinges, locks, keys and other furnishings which are so well designed that one is never weary of studying them. Armor has been made beautiful in its time; so have swords, halberds, daggers, fire-baskets, and fire-dogs.

Because iron is so simple, and there is no chance of getting an effect by using color or gilding, the task of making it beautiful is unlike that of painting a picture. The beauty of iron-work is the line, the curve, the proportion. If these are wrong one sees it at once; and the same is true when the work is right. Most of the work of Adam Smith, while strong and well wrought, was only by accident good to look at. Dickon was not allowed to do anything that his father did not oversee, and Adam Smith saw to it that no job left his shop which was not well done. Dickon had found out, little by little, that when a thing is strong enough for its use, with no unnecessary clumsiness, and the handles, catches and rivetings are where they ought to be for strength and convenience, it usually looks very well. That is to say, beautiful iron-work is useful and economical.

Dickon was hammering away, one golden autumn morning, on the latch for a gate. The cattle had broken into the Fore Acre again, and Adam, who had to go to Lewes on business, told Dickon to make that latch and do it properly, so that it would keep the gate shut. Old Wat had gone into the forest for some wood, for the great belt of woodland called the Weald was all around, and the oak from it served for fuel. Dickon had never seen a coal fire in his life. Forges like this were scattered all through the Weald, and what with the iron-workers and the ship-builders, and the people who wainscoted their houses with good Sussex oak, there is no Weald left nowadays. That part of the country keeps its name, and there are groves of oak here and there, but that is all.

Dickon could see from the door the acorns dropping from the great oak that sheltered the smithy and was so huge that a man could not circle it with his arms. He began to wonder if he could put some sort of ornamental work on that latch.

No one could have looked less like an artist than the big, muscular youth in his leathern apron, with his rough tow-head and square-chinned face; but inside his brain was a thought working itself out. He took an oak twig and laid it in this position and that, on the iron.

It is not very easy to work out a design in iron. The iron must be heated, and beaten or bent into shape while it is soft. There is no making a sketch and taking your time with the brushes. Dickon thought he would see if he could draw a pattern. He took a bit of coal and a wooden tile fallen from the roof, and began to combine the lines of the gate-latch with those of the twig. He had not copied iron utensils and other patterns without knowing how to draw the lines of an oak leaf, but he found that somehow or other the leaf, as an ornament to the latch, did not look right. The cluster of acorns was better, but even that did not fit. Dickon's feeling, though he did not think it out, was that iron is strong, and an oak tree is one of the strongest of trees, and therefore the oak was suitable to decorate Sussex iron. He changed the lines, rubbing out one and then another, until he had got a set of curves and little nubbly knot-like ornaments which were not exactly like the oak twig, but suited the lines of the latch. The leaf-like side-pieces covered the parts of the latch where the fingers and thumb would rest in opening the gate, and the projecting handle might be made into something suggesting an acorn-cluster. He nodded thoughtfully.

"That's rather good," said a voice over his shoulder. "Where did you learn to draw?"

Dickon jumped; he had been so busy that he had not heard the sound of a horse's hoofs on the turf. The stranger who stood there, bridle over arm, was a rather slender man, five or six years older than Dickon, with deep-set hazel eyes, fair hair, and muddy boots that looked as if he had come a long journey.

"Nobody never taught me," said Dickon soberly. "I was trying to find out how to do it."

"You found out then. It is good—don't touch it. Is it for that gate-latch? Go on and finish the job; I won't hinder you. I'm a Sussex man, but I never came through the Weald this way. I lost my road, and they told me this would take me to Lewes. The nag and I shall both be the better for an hour's rest."

Dickon blew up the fire and went to work, with strong, deft strokes. He was not a shy lad, particularly when he was doing what he could do well. He was used to working with people watching him. Not seldom they were making themselves disagreeable because the work was not done more quickly, but iron cannot be hurried. If a smith does not mean to spoil the temper of his work, he must keep his own temper well in hand.

The young man led his horse into the shade, and came to watch Dickon. As the leaf-curves began to stand out and the nubs of the acorn-cluster took shape he seemed more and more interested. Once he began to ask a question, but stopped himself, as if he knew that when a man has his whole mind on a task he cannot spare any part of it for talk. Dickon almost forgot that he was there. He was intent upon putting exactly the right hollows and veins in the leaf, and giving exactly the right twist to the handle.

At last it was done. Dickon straightened his back and looked at it, as the sunlight wavered upon it through the branches. The stranger clapped him on the shoulder.

"It is better than the sketch," he cried heartily. "It is good indeed. I have been in London, lad, in the Low Countries and in France, and I never saw a sweeter bit of work. How didst know the true line for that handle?"


'It is better than the sketch,' he cried heartily

"That's to make it open properly," Dickon explained, "fits the hand, like."

The other nodded approvingly. "I see. I learned that same lesson in my pottery. 'Wilfrid,' my old master used to tell me, 'never thee make too small an ear to thy jugs if thou lik'st the maids to love 'ee.' There's a knack, you see, in making a handle with a good grip to it, that will neither spill the milk nor hinder pouring. My wife she helped me there. She loves good work as well as I do."

Adam Smith, coming up the Lewes road next day, could not think what had happened when he saw Dickon in eager talk with a stranger. The boy had never been given to words. He was more taken aback when Master Wilfrid told him that his son had the making of a rare workman. He answered gruffly, stroking his big beard:

"Aye, the lad's well enow. Latch done, Dickon? Go and fit it to yon gate."

Wilfrid had come back to England full of new ideas, and ambitious above all for the honor of English craftsmen. When he found this youth working out, without any model at all, a thing so good as the oak-leaved gate-latch, he was surer than ever that the land he loved could raise her own smiths. It was his ambition to make his own house beautiful within and without, as were some of the merchants' houses he had seen in cities. He further astonished the old smith by telling him that if Dickon would put some time on work along his own lines, he would pay him double or treble what he would earn at common labor.

"You see," explained the potter, as he showed the design he had drafted for a carved oaken chest, "there's much to be thought of in iron-work. You have to make it strong as well as handsome, and what's more, nine times out of ten you have to fit it to the work of some other man. It'd never do for the hinges and handles on this coffer to spoil the looks o' the carving, and that's to be done in London, d' ye see? Belike I'll have you make those first, Dickon, and let Quentin suit his pattern to yours. He can."

"How does he make his design?" queried Dickon. "Work it out as he goes along—like iron-work?"

"Not always," Wilfrid answered. "He's got a many patterns drawn out on parchment besides what he carries in his head. But they're only for show—to give an idea of the style. When he gets the size and shape and the wood he's to use settled, he changes the pattern according to his own judgment. If a wood-carver doesn't know his trade the design can be made by an artist, and all he need do is to follow it. But that's not my idea of good work. Unless you've made such a thing yourself you don't know how the lines are going to look. I'd never try to make a design for a fire-dog, and I doubt you'd make a poor job at shaping an earthen bowl. Then, if you want to suit yourself and your customer, you'll be changing your pattern with every job. The work ought to grow—like a plant."

"I know," Dickon commented. "You make an iron pot for a woman, and another for her neighbor, and ten to one the second must be a bit bigger or narrower or somehow different. You've got to go by your eye."

"They say," Wilfrid went on musingly, "that there's like to be mechanical ways to help the work—turn it out quicker—do the planing and gouging with some kind of engine and finish by hand. It seemed to me that would take the life out o' the carving. I said so to Quentin, and he laughed. He said a man could use any tool to advantage if he had the head, but without thought you couldn't make a shovel go right. I reckon that's so."

Adam Smith nodded. "Half the smiths don't know the way to use a hammer," he said, "and well-nigh all the rest don't know what they're making. You stick to the old forge a while yet, lad. There's a bit to learn afore you'll be master o' the trade."

"Your father's right," Master Wilfrid admitted. "You'll not waste your time by learning all that he can teach you. As I was saying to you yesterday, you've been doing good plain work and learned judgment. You know how to bend a rod so that it'll be strong, and that will make it look strong. And I'll warrant when you come to make a grille for a pair of iron gates you'll know where to put your cross-bars."

For all that, Master Wilfrid did not mean to lose sight of Dickon. He knew how much a youth could learn by talking with men of other crafts, and he intended that Dickon should have his chance. He himself had lost no opportunity, while on his travels, of becoming acquainted with men who were doing good work in England, and now and then one of these men would turn off the main road to see him at his pottery or his home. When the time came to forge a pair of iron gates to the parish church, he saw to it that Dickon got the refusal of the work. With his favorite tools and his father's gruff "God speed ye, lad!" Dickon rode forth to his first work for himself, and it was done to the satisfaction of every one.

"I knew that Sussex brains could handle that job," Wilfrid exulted, as they looked at the finished task. In days when churches and cathedrals were open all day long, it was desirable to have some sort of open-work railing to keep stray beasts out of the chancel. In a more splendid building this railing might have been of silver, but the homely farmer-folk thought the iron of the Weald was good enough for them.

Up along the grassy track past the south door of the church rode a company of travelers, middle-class folk by their dress. As they came abreast of the gate the foremost called out, "Ho, Wilfrid, is there any tavern hereabouts? We be lost sheep in the wilderness. The Abbey guest-house is already full and they will not take us in."

"Faith, it's good to see thee here, Robert Edrupt," the potter answered. "I could house three or four of you, but it's harvest time, that's a fact. No, there's no tavern in the village. You see, most of the folk that travel this way go to the Abbey for a lodging."

"We'll stick together, I reckon," answered Edrupt, "if you can give us some kind o' shelter, and the makings of a meal. A barn would serve."

"I'll do better than that," Wilfrid assured them. "I'll take ye to Cold Harbor. It's part of a Roman house that we uncovered near the pottery. The walls were used in the old farmer's time for a granary. It's weather-proof, and there's a stone hearth, and Dickon here will help swing a crane for the kettles. We've plenty stores if there's a cook among ye."

"We can make shift," laughed Edrupt. "I'll come to the house to-morrow and gossip a bit. Quentin here has your carved coffer for ye."

"And here's the lad that made the hinges and the handles," Wilfrid added, with a hand on the big youth's shoulder. "Sithee here, Dickon, you show them their way to their lodging, and I'll e'en ride home and tell Edwitha to spare some pots and kettles for the cooking."

Thus Dickon was shoved all in a moment, in the edge of an autumn evening, into the company of merchants and craftsmen such as he had never met. The North-countryman, Alan of York, was a glazier; David Saumond, a Scotch stone- mason coming up from Canterbury to do some work for an Abbey; Guy of Limoges was a goldsmith; Crispin Eyre, a shoemaker of London; there were two or three merchants, some weavers newly arrived from overseas, various servants and horse-boys, and two peddlers of dark foreign aspect. The talk was mostly in a mixture of French and English, but Dickon understood this better than he could speak it, and several of the men were as English as himself. In the merry company at supper he saw what Wilfrid had meant when he said that hand-skill without head-wisdom was walking blindfold, and work done alone was limping labor. It was the England of the guilds breaking bread by that fire.

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