Clara Vaughan. Volume 1 of 3
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Mr. Ebenezer Dawe, without any hesitation or salute, took a three-legged stool, and set it between our chairs, then looked from Mrs. Huxtable to me, and introduced himself.
"Agray indeed," cried Mrs. Huxtable, "doon 'e zee the quarlity be here, ye aul vule?" Then turning to me. "Doon'e be skeared, Miss Clerer, it be oney that there aul mazed ramscallion, Beany Dawe. Her makth what girt scholards, laike you, karls potry, or zum such stoof. Her casn' oppen the drort of him nohow, but what her must spake potry. Pote11
The subject of these elegant strictures regarded her all the time, with that pleased pity which none but a great Poet so placed can feel. Then swinging slowly on his tripod, and addressing the back of the chimney, he responded:
Perhaps his lofty couplet charmed her savage ear; at any rate she made a peaceful overture.
"E shan't have no cider," replied his hostess, "without e'll spake, for wance, laike a Kirsten, maind that, without no moor of thiccy jingle jangle, the very zame for arl the world as e be used to droon in the zawpit, 'Zee, zaw, Margery Daw,' with the arms of e a gwayn up and doon, up and doon, and your oyes and maouth most chokked with pilm22
As she delivered this comment, she swung to and fro on her chair, in weak imitation of the impressive roll, with which he enforced his rhyme.This plagiarism annoyed him much more than her words: but he vindicated his cause, like a true son of song.
A mighty "ha ha" from the door, like a jocund earthquake, proved that this last hit had found an echo in some ample bosom.
"Thee shall have as much vittels as ever thee can let down," said the farmer, as he entered, "danged if thee bain't a wunnerful foine chap, zure enough. Ai'd as lieve a'most to be a pote, plase God, as I wud to be a ooman: zimth to ai, there bain't much differ atwixt 'em. But they vainds out a saight of things us taks no heed on. I reckon now, Beany, thee cas'n drink beer?"
This was a home thrust, for Mr. Dawe was a notorious drinker. He replied with a heavy sigh and profoundly solemn look:
"And what was it the doctor said to you, Mr. Dawe?" I asked, perceiving that he courted inquiry. He fixed his eyes upon me, with a searching look; eager, as it seemed, yet fearing to believe that he had found at last a generous sympathy.
These words he repeated with impressive earnestness, shaking his head and sighing, as if in deprecation of so sad a remedy. Yet the subject possessed perhaps a melancholy charm, and his voice relented to a pensive unctuousness, as he concluded.
"Thee wasn' long avore thee tried it, I'll warr'n," said the farmer, "tache the calf the wai to the coo!"
Scorning this vile insinuation, Mr. Dawe continued thus:
Here he paused, overcome by his own description.
"Wull," said the farmer, brightening with fellow-feeling, for he liked his glass, "Wull, thee toorned in and had a drap, laike a man, and not be shamed of it nother. And how did her tast? A must have been nation good, after so long a drouth!"
"The very sa-am, the very sa-am," he repeated with an extrametrical smack of his lips, which he wiped with the back of his hand, and cast a meaning glance towards the cellar. The farmer rose, and took from the dresser a heavy quart cup made of pewter. With this he went to the cellar, whence issued presently a trickling and frothing sound, which thrilled to the sensitive heart of Mr. Dawe. The tankard of ale, with a crown of white foam, was presented to the thirsty bard by his host, who did not, however, relinquish his grasp upon the vessel; but imposed (like Pluto to Orpheus) a stern condition. "Now, Beany Dawe, thee shan't have none, unless thee can zay zummut without no poetry in it."
At this barbarous restriction, poor Ebenezer rolled his eyes in a most tragic manner; he thrust his tongue into his cheek, and swung himself, not to and fro as usual, but sideways, and clutched one hand on the tatters of his sack, while he clung with the other to the handle of the cup. Then with a great effort, and very slowly, he spoke-
A rhyme came over him, the twitching of his face showed the violence of the struggle; he attempted to say "in," but nature triumphed, and he uttered the fatal "down." In a moment the farmer compressed his mighty fingers, and crushed the thick metal like silver paper. The forfeit liquor flew over the poet's knees, and hissed at his feet in the ashes. Foreseeing a storm of verse from him, and of prose from Mrs. Huxtable at the fate of the pride of her dresser, I made a hasty retreat.
Thenceforth I took a kind interest in our conceited but harmless bard. His neighbours seemed not to know, how long it was since he had first yielded to his unfortunate ailment; which probably owed its birth to the sound of the saw. During our first interview, his rhythm and rhyme had been unusually fluent and finished, from pride perhaps at having found a new audience, or from some casual inspiration. Candour compels me to admit that his subsequent works were little, if at all, better than those of his more famous contemporaries; and I am not so proud, as he expects me to be, of his connexion with my sad history.
About half a mile from Tossil's Barton (the farmhouse where we lived) there is a valley, or rather a vast ravine, of a very uncommon formation. A narrow winding rocky combe, where slabs, and tors, and boulder stones, seem pasturing on the velvet grass, or looking into the bright trout-stream, which leaps down a flight of steps without a tree to shade its flash and foam; this narrow, but glad dingle, as it nears the sea, bursts suddenly back into a desert gorge, cleaving the heights that front the Bristol Channel. The mountain sides from right and left, straight as if struck by rule, steeply converge, like a high-pitched roof turned upside down; so steep indeed that none can climb them. Along the deep bottom gleams a silver chord, where the cramped stream chafes its way, bedded and banked in stone, without a blade of green. From top to bottom of this huge ravine there is no growth, no rocks, no cliffs, no place to stay the foot, but all a barren, hard, grey stretch of shingle, slates, and gliddery stones: as if the ballast of ten million fleets had been shot in two enormous piles, and were always on the slip. Looking at it we forget that there is such a thing as life: the desolation is not painful, because it is so grand. The brief noon glare of the sun on these Titanic dry walls, where even a lichen dies; the gaunt desert shade stealing back to its lair in the early afternoon; the solemn step of evening stooping to her cloak below-I know not which of these is the most impressive and mournful. No stir of any sort, no voice of man or beast, no flow of tide, ever comes to visit here; the little river, after a course of battles, wins no peaceful union with the sea, but ponds against a shingle bar, and gurgles away in slow whirlpools. Only a fitful moaning wind draws up and down the melancholy chasm. The famous "Valley of Rocks," some four miles to the east, seems to me common-place and tame compared to this grand defile. Yet how many men I know who would smoke their pipes throughout it!
Thinking so much of this place, I long wished my mother to see it; and finding her rather stronger one lovely April morning, I persuaded her forth, embarked on Mrs. Huxtable's donkey. We went, down a small tributary glen, towards the head of the great defile. The little glen was bright, and green, and laughing into bud, and bantering a swift brook, which could hardly stop to answer, but left the ousels as it passed to talk at leisure about their nests, and the trout to make those musical leaps that sound so crisp through the alders. Another stream meets it among the bushes below, and now they are entitled to the dignity of a bridge whereon grows the maidenhair fern, and which, with its rude and pointed arch, looks like an old pack-saddle upon the stream.
From this point we followed a lane, leading obliquely up the ascent, before the impassable steep begins. Having tethered our quiet donkey to a broken gate, I took my mother along a narrow path through the thicket to the view of the great ravine. Standing at the end of this path, she was astonished at the scene before her. We had gained a height of about two hundred feet, the hill-top stretched a thousand feet above us. We stood on the very limit of vegetation, a straight line passing clown the hill where the quarry-like steep begins.
My dear mother was tired, and I had called her to come home, lest the view should make her giddy; when suddenly she stepped forward to gather a harebell straggling among the stones. The shingle beneath her foot gave way, then below her, and around, and above her head, began in a great mass to glide. Buried to the knees and falling sideways, she was sinking slowly at first, then quickly and quicker yet, with a hoarse roar of moving tons of stone, gathering and whelming upon her, down the rugged abyss. Screaming, I leaped into the avalanche after her, never thinking that I could only do harm. Stronger, and swifter, and louder, and surging, and berged with shouldering stone the solid cascade rushed on. I saw dearest mother below me trying to clasp her hands in prayer, and to give me her last word. With a desperate effort dragging my shawl from the gulfing crash, I threw it towards her, but she did not try to grasp it. A heavy stone leaped over me, and struck her on the head; her head dropped back, she lay senseless, and nearly buried. We were dashing more headlong and headlong, in the rush of the mountain side, to the precipice over the river, and my senses had all but failed, and revenge was prone before judgment, when I heard through the din a shout. On the brink of firm ground stood a man, and signed me to throw my shawl. With all my remaining strength I did so, but not as he meant, for I cast it entirely to him, and pointed to my mother below. One instant the avalanche paused, he leaped about twenty feet down, through the heather and gorse, and stayed his descent by clutching a stout ash sapling. To this in a moment he fastened my shawl, (a long and strong plaid), and just as my mother was being swept by, he plunged with the other end into the shingle tide. I saw him leap and struggle towards her, and lift her out of the gliding tomb, gliding himself the while, and sway himself and his burden, by means of the shawl, not back (for that was impossible), but obliquely downwards; I saw the strong sapling bow to the strain like a fishing-rod, while hope and terror fought hard within me; I saw him, by a desperate effort, which bent the ash-tree to the ground, leap from the whirling havoc, and lay my mother on the dead fern and heath. Of the rest, I know nothing, having become quite unconscious, before he saved me, in the same manner.
We must have been taken home in Farmer Huxtable's butt, for I remember well that, amidst the stir and fright of our return, and while my mother was still insensible, Mrs. Huxtable fell savagely upon poor Suke, for having despatched that elegant vehicle without cleaning it from the lime dust; whereby, as she declared, our dresses (so rent and tattered by the jagged stones) were "muxed up to shords." Poor Suke would have been likely to fare much worse, if, at such a time, she had stopped to dust the cart.
When the farmer came home, his countenance, rich in capacity for expressing astonishment, far outdid his words. "Wull, wull, for sure! wuther ye did or no?" was all the vent he could find for his ideas during the rest of the day; though it was plain to all who knew him that he was thinking profoundly upon the subject, and wholly occupied with it. In the course of the following week he advised me very impressively never to do it again; and nothing could ever persuade him but that I jumped in, and my mother came to rescue me.
But his wife very soon had all her wits about her. She sent to "Coom" for the doctor (I begged that it might not be Mr. Dawe's physician), she put dear mother to bed, and dressed her wounds with simples worth ten druggists' shops, and bathed her temples with rosemary, and ran down the glen for "fathery ham" (Valerian), which she declared "would kill nine sorts of infermation;" then she hushed the entire household, permitting no tongue to move except her own, and beat her eldest boy (a fine young Huxtable) for crying, whereupon he roared; she even conquered her strong desire to know much more than all could tell; and showed my mother such true kindness and pity that I loved her for it at once, and ever since.
Breathing slowly and heavily, my poor mother lay in the bed which had long been the pride of Tossil's Barton. The bedstead was made of carved oak, as many of them are in North Devon, and would have been handsome and striking, if some ancestral Huxtable had not adorned it with whitewash. But the quilt was what they were proud of. It was formed of patches of diamond shape and most incongruous colours, with a death's head in the centre and crossbones underneath.
When first I beheld it, I tossed it down the stairs, but my mother would have it brought back and used, because she knew how the family gloried in it, and she could not bear to hurt their feelings.
One taper white hand lay on it now, with the tender skin bruised and discoloured by blows. She had closed the finger which bore her wedding ring, and it still remained curved and rigid. In an agony of tears, I knelt by the side of the bed, watching her placid and deathlike face. Till then I had never known how strongly and deeply I loved her.
I firmly believe that she was revived in some degree by the glare of the patched quilt upon her eyes. The antagonism of nature was roused, and brought home her wandering powers. Feebly glancing away, she came suddenly to herself, and exclaimed:
"Is she safe? is she safe?'
"Yes, mother; here I am, with my own dear mother."
She opened her arms, and held me in a nervous cold embrace, and thanked God, and wept.
When the surgeon came, he pronounced that none of her limbs were broken, but that the shock to the brain, and the whole system, had been so severe, that the only chance of recovery consisted in perfect quiet. She herself said that the question was, whether Providence wanted her still to watch over her child.
After some days she came down stairs, not without my support, and was propped once more upon her poor sofa. Calm she appeared, and contented, and happy in such sort as of old; but whenever she turned her glance from me, she observed with starting eyes every little thing that moved. Especially she would lie and gaze through the open window, at a certain large spider, who worked very hard among the woodbine blossoms. One day, in making too bold a cast, he fell; some chord of remembrance was touched, and she swooned away on the couch.
In spite of these symptoms I fondly hoped that she was recovering strength. She even walked out with me twice, in the sunny afternoon. But this only lasted a very short time; it soon became manifest, even to me, that ere long she would be with my father.
Unable to fight any more with this dark perception, I embraced it with a sort of savage despair, an utter sinking of the heart, which defied God as it sank. This she soon discovered, and I fear that it saddened her end.
She was much disappointed, too, that we could not find or thank him who had perilled his life for us. None could tell who he was, or what had become of him; though the farmer, at our entreaty, searched all the villages round. We were told, indeed, by the landlady of the "Red-deer Inn" (a lonely public-house near the scene of the accident) that a stranger had come to her in very great haste, and, having learned who we were, for she had seen us pass half an hour before, had sent her boy to the farm for some kind of conveyance, while he returned at full speed to attend those whom he had rescued. It further appeared that this stranger had helped to place us in the cart, and showed the kindest anxiety to lessen the roughness of its motion, himself even leading old "Smiler," to thwart his propensity to the deepest and hardest ruts. By the time our slow vehicle reached the farm, Mrs. Huxtable was returned from the Lower Cleve orchard, where she had been smoking the fernwebs, in ignorance of our mishap; and our conductor, seeing us safe in her hands, departed without a word, while she was too flurried and frightened to take much notice of him.
Neither could the woman of the inn describe him; she was so "mazed," when she heard of the "vail arl down the girt goyal," as she called our slide of about fifty feet; and for this she quoted the stranger as her authority, "them's the very words as he used;" though, just before this, she had stated that he was a foreigner and could not speak English. Knowing that in Devonshire any stranger is called a foreigner, and English means the brogue of the countryside, I did not attach much weight to this declaration. The only remaining witness, the lad who had come with the butt, was too stupid to describe anything, except three round O's, with his mouth and eyes.
But it mattered little about description; I had seen that stranger under such circumstances, that I could not fail to know him again.
On the morrow, and once in the following week, some kind inquiries were made as to our condition, by means of slips of paper conveyed by country lads. No name was attached to these, and no information given about the inquirer. The bearer of the first missive came from Lynmouth, and of the second from Ilfracombe. Neither lad knew anything (though submitted by Mrs. Huxtable to keen cross-examination), except that he was paid for his errand, but would like some cider, and that the answer was to be written upon the paper he brought.
Whether any motive for concealment existed, beside an excess of delicacy, or whether there even was any intentional secresy, or merely indifference to our gratitude, was more than we could pretend to say. I am not at all inquisitive-not more so, I mean, than other women-but I need not confess that my curiosity (to say nothing of better feelings) was piqued a little by this uncommon reserve.
So now, beside the engrossing search for my deadly enemy, I had to seek out another, my brave and noble friend.
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