George Fenn.

The Rosery Folk





Now, letting slimy slugs alone, and speaking as a humble-minded individual whose profession it is to save life, I want to know whether it is cruel to kill the myriad of teeming creatures that throng this earth. With sportsmen I have nothing to do. I speak from a simple horticultural point of view, and want to know whether I am justified in destroying life. To begin with, I am a teeming creature on the surface of the earth and I dont want anybody to kill me. It would be far from pleasant to my feelings to be cut in two with a spade; to be crushed into an unpleasant mass by a broad foot; to be salted till I writhed and melted away; to be shot at with guns; caught in traps; killed with lime besprinkled upon me quick: or poisoned with deadly drugs. Yet I openly confess that I have been guilty of all these crimes. I might, in fact, have called this The Recollections of a Murderer, so bestained are my hands in innocent blood of red and green and other colours. Certainly I might do the dirty work in a vicarious way by bringing into the garden a very serious-looking young drake, who makes no more ado about swallowing great earthworms by the yard than he does of devouring slugs by the quart, but that is a sneaking, underhanded way that I do not approve. I should feel like a Venetian noble who has hired a bravo to use his stiletto upon some obnoxious friend; and besides, if I did, the shadow of those murders would come like Banquos ghost to sit at my table when the aforesaid serious-looking young drake and a brother graced the board in company with a goodly dish of green peas, and seemed to murmur of the slugs and worms he had slain at my command. And there it is again wholesale murder. I was guilty vicariously of the death of those ducks; I slew the sparrows who came to eat the peas; and, to go further, did I not kill the peas?

Who says no? The peas were alive. I plucked their pods, tearing the graceful vines to pieces limb by limb, and the pea plants died killed murdered. Certainly I planted them and saved their lives when they were tender, sprouting, infantile pea-lings by killing the invading slugs with salt and soot, but, though I murdered that they might live, there was no reason why I should slay them when mature. But it is so all through mans career, he walks his ground his little Eden a very Cain. Say he conquers that terrible disinclination to follow the example of the old man Adam, and till the ground with a spade, a genial kind of toil that opens the pores of the skin, increases the appetite with the smell of the newly-turned earth, and gives such an awful aching pain in the back that a quarter of an hours usance is quite sufficient digging for any but an extremely greedy man who possesses an enormous digestion. I repeat, say he conquers his aversion to manual toil, he has not inserted the deadly blade eight inches, and turned up the spit, as the gardeners call it, before he finds that he has chopped some wretched wriggling worm in two.

The worm had no business to be there when he was digging. Why not? What does the worm know about human rights? His name is not Macgregor, and he has no feet to be upon his native heath, but he was in his native soil. He was born there, and had gone on pleasantly boring his way through life, coming up to the surface as soon as it was dark, and lying out on the cool, dewy, fragrant earth, and then you, because you want potatoes, or peas, or some other vegetable for your gluttonous maw, come and cut him in two. A judge in a court of law would go against the worm, and call it justifiable vermicide, as he was a trespasser, you legally holding the land, but that worms blood would still be upon your spade.

There is no begging the question; if you garden you must kill wholesale. There is only one alternative. You can throw the big nuisances over into your neighbours plot, but it is only a temporary palliation, for he is sure not to like it, and certain to throw them back. Besides, you may have some compunction in the matter, and as the small nuisances cannot be thrown over, one kills and slays wholesale. It is terrible to think of! Intentionally and unintentionally one slays millions of creatures a year, beginning with ones beef, and going down to the tiniest aphis that one treads upon in ones daily walk, so that if it is wicked to kill slugs, it must be equally unjust to slay the tiniest fly. Why it is quite appalling, this reckoning up of crime. Those calceolarias were covered with lovely little green-flies right up the blossom stalks, and without compunction there was a massacre of the insects with tobacco water. That croquet lawn was infested with great worms, and they were watered with solution of copperas to crawl out and die. The great shelled snails that made a raid by regiments upon the strawberry beds were supplied with pillars of salt. The birds after much forbearance, were condemned to death for stealing cherries and black and red currants and gooseberries; so were the rabbits for nibbling off the tops of the tender broccoli and Brussels sprout plants. As a romantic young lady would say, this garden has been literally stained with gore, but the gore does not show, and the garden is the more abundant and green for the removal of its plagues.

Yes, there is the creephole left that the killing may be looked upon as in defence of ones own. The worm may be indigenous, but the birds and flies invade the place, while the slugs, snails, and rodents come in through fence and wall. They attack ones cherished plants, and, granting that those plants have life, why should they not be protected, as ones poultry is from foxes, and their young from predatory cats? Naturalists grant plants to possess life, circulation, sleep, functions, and nerves; they grow, they blossom, they have young; they have endless contrivances for sending those young emigrating to a distance where they can get a living for themselves, and not bother and eat the nutriment of the old folks, who are, perhaps, in pinched circumstances. Some send their offspring flying upon little parachutes of their own; some artfully stick them upon the backs or sides of any animal who passes by; there is one great balsam which sits on a sunny day apparently taking aim with its little seeds, and shooting them out with a loud pop to a considerable distance; some youngsters really possess locomotion, and contract and expand in quite a crawling way till they get to some distance from the parent stem; others, again, take advantage of the first rain flood, and these little ones are off to sea, merrily sailing along hundreds of yards from where they were born. Why, even in the wood, at the bottom of the garden, there is one umbelliferous plant, a kind of wild parsnip hog weed, as it is locally called which grows up in a summer nine and ten feet high, carrying a host of children upon its head like a Covent Garden porter with a basket, till it thinks they are big enough to take care of themselves, when it calmly lies down, and tilts the little seeds off three or four yards away from its roots to form an independent nursery.

I cannot solve the problem whether it is cruel to slay slugs, but take refuge in the protection theory, and so, as in duty bound, we go on killing and slaying, setting traps of sugared water for the wasps that love the plums, picking off the crawling caterpillars, before they have time to bloom into butterflies, drowning aphides with syringe storms, enlisting toads to kill the wood-lice and beetles, and full of remorse for what we do, go on in our wicked ways. To take a step outside ones garden, though, and gaze in thought around this teeming earth, what a vast scheme of preying destruction and bursting forth into new life is always going on. Those words, destruction and cruelty, might almost be expunged as being absurd in their broadest sense, for, in spite of the sore problem, it seems that from man downward to the tiniest microscopic organism, the great aim of existence is an exemplification of the verb to prey.

Jack Scales in his musings had been pretty well round the garden, and had returned to where Aunt Sophia was still killing slugs.

She looked up as he approached and seemed about to speak, so he resolved to give her the opportunity, and going up he said with a smile, Do you know Miss Raleigh, I have been musing on killing slugs, and I think yours is a very notable employment.

Humph! ejaculated the old lady, stopping short, and looking the doctor full in the face. And now, doctor, a word with you as a gentleman. You are here in constant attendance upon my nephew. He has a good deal of property and that sort of thing, but I dont think it ought to be wasted.

Of course not, my dear madam.

Are you doing James any good?

The doctor opened his eyes a little more widely at this, and then said: Well, that is a very plain question, Miss Raleigh; but Ill give you a plain answer So far, none.

Then why do you stay, putting him to expense? You know the other doctors say it is a case for years of patient waiting.

Hang the other doctors, maam! cried Scales. I do not go by what they say. I think differently, and have faith in being able to alter the condition of things.

Miss Raleigh shook her head.

Ah, but I have, madam; and I shall go on trying till my poor friend sends me away. And now, Miss Raleigh, before I go any further, I want to apologise to you.

Apologise! To me?

Yes, to you. I made use of a very common but unkindly expression towards you, yesterday. Perhaps you have forgotten it.

Aunt Sophia looked at him searchingly; and there he saw the look of pain that had softened her countenance on the previous day come back, and her eyes filled with tears, as she said quietly: I never forget these things.

But you will forgive them. Believe me, I am very sorry, and I regret it extremely. I was worried and disappointed at the time.

You only called me an old maid, said Aunt Sophia, with a smile full of sadness softening the harsh lines of her face.

And I ought to have been ashamed of myself. It was the act of some thoughtless boy. Forgive me; and he held out his hand.

Aunt Sophia gazed at him thoughtfully for a few moments, and then placed her hand in his. Let it go, she said softly. I shall never think of it again.

Jack Scales raised the hand to his lips, and had just let it fail, when he became aware of the fact that Arthur Prayle was walking along one of the neighbouring paths, apparently deep in the study of some book. Confound him! hell misinterpret that, said the doctor to himself; and then he saw that his companions eyes were fixed upon him inquiringly.

You were thinking that Mr Prayle will make remarks, she said softly.

Let him. What is it to me what he thinks?

No; it does not matter, said Aunt Sophia. Let us go down here. She led the way along the walk to where the iron gate opened upon the meadows, across which lay the lane leading to the little ivy-grown church; and, wondering at her action, Jack Scales walked by her side.

Surely, he thought, she does not imagine that Oh, absurd! He glanced sidewise, and then, man of the world as he was, he could not help a slight sensation of uneasy confusion coming over him as he noticed that Aunt Sophia seemed to have divined his thoughts, and to be reading him through and through.

This is a pretty place, she said, breaking a rather awkward silence.

As pretty a place as I ever saw, replied the doctor, jumping at the opportunity of speaking on a fresh subject.

It is much altered since I knew it as a child. James has done so much to improve it since he has been master.

You knew it well, when you were young, then?

O yes; we lived at the next house, higher up the river, said Aunt Sophia softly; and there was a dreamy look in her eyes, while a pleasant smile, rarely enough seen, played about her lips as she spoke. I was child, girl, and grew to middle age down here, Doctor Scales; I come back to the place, the grey, withered, old woman you see.

What an idiot I am! thought the doctor. I shall never understand her.

They were walking on across the meadows, at the end of which was a gate, at which Aunt Sophia paused. Will you give me your hand? she said quietly. I am not so active as I was.

I really dont understand her! muttered the doctor, climbing the gate, which was nailed up, and then assisting the old lady over. It was an easy task, for in spite of her self-disparagement, Aunt Sophias spareness made her very active, and, just holding by the doctors hands for steadiness, she jumped lightly down and stood beside him in the lane.

Shall we go down to the river and round back to the house by the path?

No, said Aunt Sophia quietly. I want to go as far as the church.

Jack Scales wondered more and more as they walked on along the shadowy lane to where the little ivy-covered church stood, with its ancient wall and lychgate, stones, and wood memorials sinking sidewise into the earth, and a general aspect everywhere of calm moss-grown decay.

Hah! exclaimed the doctor, as he stood gazing at the lichen-covered stones, and the lights and shadows thrown upon the ruddy-tiled mossy roof. I wish I were an artist. What a place to paint!

Yes, said Aunt Sophia, standing with her hands clasped, gazing in a rapt dreamy way before her; it is a beautiful old place. She moved to the gate, and held it open for him to pass through as well, pausing while he stopped to examine a wonderfully old yew-tree, about which a rough oaken seat had been placed, one that had been cut and marked by generations with initials. Then, as he turned, she went on again to the old south porch with its seat on either side, and through it into the church, which struck cool and moist as the doctor entered, taking off his hat and gazing about impressed by its ancient quaintness.

I ought to have come before, he said. How old and calm everything seems! What a place for a man to be buried in, when the lifeworks done!

And the fight, and strife, and turmoil at an end, said Aunt Sophia, in a low sweet voice, that made the doctor start, for it did not seem like hers.

Aunt Sophia went on along the little aisle with its few old pews on either side, and past the worm-eaten altar screen, beyond which were some venerable stalls, in one of which she sat down, motioning her companion to another at her side.

He took the seat, and the strangely solemn calm of the place impressed him as he noted the well-worn pavement, composed of the memorial stones of the passed away, dyed in many hues by the sunlight that streamed through the old east window. Before him were the remains of a brass relating to the founder of the church; beyond that were more of the old worm-eaten stalls, in which, in bygone days, the monks of the neighbouring priory must have sat, long enough before the huge linden that had grown to maturity, and now dappled the sunbeams that fell upon the floor, had been planted where it stood, at the chancel end.

As the doctor looked along the aisle with its soft dim light, the sunshine that streamed in through the southern windows and the light that came from the open door seemed to cut into the faint gloom, and mark out for themselves a place; while clearly heard from without came the twittering of swallows that circled about the little low tower, the chirping of sparrows in the ivy, and the clear trill of a lark somewhere poised in air hard by.

I shall end by being a lover of the country, and coming here to live, Miss Raleigh, said Scales at last, breaking the solemn silence, for his companion had not spoken since she took her place within the chancel.

Not to fire from trouble? she said with a smile.

No, he replied; not to flee from trouble. But there is such a sweet sense of tranquillity here, that one seems to feel at rest, and the ordinary cares of life are forgotten. Hark! he said, as the note of the lark grew louder and clearer in the ringing arch of heaven. And then he sat back, listening for a time, wondering at last why his companion had brought him there. Then he fell to glancing casually at the two or three tablets on the wall. One was to the memory of a former vicar; another told of the virtues of the Squire of a neighbouring Hall, who had gone to his account followed by the prayers and blessings of the whole district so the tablet seemed to say. Lastly, his eyes lighted upon a simple square marble tablet, raised upon another of black, and read the inscription: To the Memory of Charles Hartly, Lieutenant of Her Majestys th Regiment of Foot, who fell at Delhi, when bringing in a wounded comrade lying in front of the enemys lines.

Forty years ago, said the doctor thoughtfully. Poor fellow! he died a heros death.

He was to have been my husband, said Aunt Sophia in a low sweet voice, had he but lived. Forty years ago! Is it so long?

Jack Scales was a man pretty well inured to trouble. He had seen grief in many phases, and his sympathies to some extent were dulled; but as he heard those calmly uttered words, and saw the old face that was raised half reverently towards the tablet upon the wall, there was a something seemed to catch his breath, and the white marble grew dim and blurred, as did the softened face that was by his side; and as Aunt Sophia rose, he once more raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, the look he gave her asking forgiveness, which was accorded with a smile.

As they walked slowly back, the doctors manner towards his companion was entirely changed. He felt that here was a woman whom a man might be proud to call friend; and when they reached the gate leading into the meadows, and she turned to him with a smile, and said to him, And how is Lady Martlett? he started slightly, and then uttered a sigh of relief.

Hah! he exclaimed. You still take an interest in that?

O yes, doctor, she said. I have from the beginning. Well, is it to be a match?

No, no. Ill be frank with you. I like the woman well, I love her as well as a man should one whom he would make his wife; but it is impossible.

Indeed!

Yes; impossible, he said gloomily; even if she were not playing with me.

I dont think she is, doctor not if I understand anything about women. Her pride is assumed, on account of your off-hand way to her. Why, you jeer and laugh at her. I have seen you insult her.

Well, yes, I have. What else could I do? She wanted to bring me to her feet, to make me her slave, and to throw me over, as she has served a dozen more.

Fops and fortune-hunters.

Yes, thats it, he said excitedly, and quite carried out of his ordinary mood; fortune-hunters. She thinks me one of that despicable brood. Hang it all, Miss Raleigh! it is out of the question.

Why?

Why, my dear madam? Now come. You know me pretty well by this time. Do you think Id go hanging after such a woman for the sake of her money, and be the miserable reptile who married her for that?

No; I think you like her for herself alone.

I wish she hadnt a penny; and then again, if she hadnt, I couldnt marry her.

Indeed?

Now, how could I drag such a woman down from a life of refinement and luxury, to be the wife of a poor doctor? No, madam; it is all a dream. We shall go on, sneering on her part, laughing and defiant on mine, and, I believe, all the time with sore hearts hidden beneath it all. There, you have my secret out bare before you. Now, you can laugh at the misogynist of a doctor, and think as little of him as you like.

Yes, said Aunt Sophia, laying her hand upon his arm softly, and looking almost tenderly in his face, you are a strange couple. And now, she continued, tell me about my poor nephew. Tell me frankly, have you any hope of his becoming the man he was?

Hope? Yes, he replied gloomily; but little more. I have done and am doing all I can; but the human frame with all its nerves is a terrible mystery, in whose darkness one moves with awe.

Then you give him up?

Give him up! said Scales, with a short laugh give him up? Miss Raleigh; you dont know me yet. Ill never give him up. Hes my study the study of my life, and I shall fight on out of sheer obstinacy. Ive plenty of amour propre, and its touched here. Ive learned one thing about him, and thats my lighthouse by which I steer.

What do you mean?

I mean that Nature will perform the cure if cure there is to be; but Nature will not do it alone without a little guiding and calling upon at important times.

I wish you success, said Aunt Sophia softly, as they came once more in sight of Arthur Prayle, now seated in one of the garden-seats, still deep in his book; and as she spoke her eyes were fixed upon the reader. I will help you, doctor, and you must help me. Now, I am going on with my gardening. She left him, and walked straight back to her slug scissors, resuming her task as if nothing had happened, while the doctor stood looking after her.





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