Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 2 of 3
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And here let me acknowledge, as behoveth a man to do, not in a scambling preface, which nobody ever would read, but in the body of my work, great and loving obligation to the labours of Mr. John R. Wise. His book is perfectly beautiful, written in admirable English, full of observation, taste, and gentle learning; and the descriptions of scenery are such that they make the heart yearn to verify them. I know the New Forest pretty well, from my own perambulations and perequitations – one barbarism is no worse than the other – but I never should have loved it as I do but for his loving guidance.
The Rev. Mr. Pell, as some people put when they write to a parson, – hoping still to keep faith with Amy, because her eyes were so lovely, – pulled the snaffle, and turned Cor?bus into a short cut, through beeches and hazels. Then compromise came soon to an end, and the big bamboo was compelled to fall upon the fat flank of Cor?bus, because he would not go without it. He showed sense of that first attention only by a little buck–jump, and a sprightly wag of his tail; then, hoping that the situation need not be looked in the face, shambled along at five miles an hour, with a mild responsibility.
“Five miles more,” said Octave Pell, “and only twenty minutes to do it in! It?s an unlucky thing for you, Cor?bus, that your mistress is engaged.” Whack, came the yellow bamboo again, and this time in solid earnest; R?bus went off as if he meant to go mad. He had never known such a blow since the age wherein he belonged to the innkeeper. Oh, could a horse with four feeds a day be expected to put up with tyranny?
But, to the naggy?s great amazement, Octave Pell did not tumble off; more than that, he seemed to stick closer, with a most unpleasant embrace, and a pressure that told upon the wind – not of heaven but of horse – till the following symptoms appeared: – First a wheeze, and creak internal, a slow creak, like leather chafing, or a pair of bellows out of order; then a louder remonstrance, like the ironwork of a roller, or the gudgeons of a wheelbarrow; then, faster and faster, a sucking noise, like the bucket of an old pump, when the gardener works by the job; finally, puff, and roar, and shriek, with notes of passing sadness, like the neap–tide wailing up a cavern, or the lament of the Berkshire Blowing Stone.
In forest glades, where hollow hoofs fell on the sod quite mutely, that roar was enough to try masculine courage, though never unnerved by a heart–shock. How then could poor Pearl Garnet, sitting all alone, in a lonely spot, wherein she had pledged herself to her dead love, sitting there to indulge her tears, the only luxury left her – how could she help being frightened to death as the unearthly sound approached her?
The terror was mutual. Cor?bus, turning the corner sharply, stopped short, in a mode that must have sent his true master over his withers, to explore the nature of the evil. Then he shook all through, and would have bolted, if the bamboo had not fallen heavily.
In the niche of a hollow oak was crouching, falling backward with terror, and clutching at the brave old bark, yet trying to hide behind it – only the snowy arms would come outwards – a beautiful girl, clad in summer white on that foggy day of December.The brown cloak, which had protected her from sylvan curiosity, lay on the ground, a few yards away, on the spot so sad and sacred. Pearl Garnet?s grief, if we knew the whole of it, or perhaps because we cannot, was greater than any girl could bear. A lovely, young, and loving maid, with stores of imagination, yet a practical power of stowing it; of building castles, yet keeping them all within compass of the kitchen–range; quite different from our Amy, yet a better wife for some men – according to what the trumps are, and Amy must have hearts, or she dies; – that very nice girl, we have let her go weep, and never once cared to follow her. There is never any justice in this world; therefore who cares to apologise? It would take up all our business–time, if we did it properly.
Now, as she stretched her white arms forth, and her delicate form shrunk back into the black embrace of the oak–tree; while her rich hair was streaming all down her breast, and her dark eyes still full of tear–drops; the rider no less than the horse was amazed, and seemed to behold a vision. Then as she shrunk away into the tree–bole, with a shriek of deadly terror – for what love casteth out fear? – and she saw not through the ivy–screen, and Cor?bus groaned sepulchrally, Pell came down with a dash on one foot, and went, quick jump, to help her.
In a fainting fit, – for the heart so firm and defiant in days of happiness was fluxed now and frail with misery – she was cowering away in the dark tree–nook, like the pearls of mistletoe fallen, with her head thrown back (such an elegant head, a woman?s greatest beauty), and the round arms hanging helpless.
Hereupon Mr. Pell was abroad. He had never experienced any sisters, nor much mother consciously – being the eighth son, as of course we know, of a jolly Yorkshire baronet; at any rate he had lost his mother at the birth of Nonus Pell; and I am sorry there are not ninety of them, if of equal merit.
So Octavius stood like a fish out of water, with both hands in his pocket, as it is so generally the habit of fishes to stand.
Then, meaning no especial harm, nor perhaps great good, for that matter, he said to himself —
“Confound it all. What the deuce am I to do?”
His sermon upon the Third Commandment, about to be preached at Rushford, where the fishermen swore like St. Peter, – that sermon went crack in his pocket at such a shocking ejaculation. Never heeding that, he went on to do what a stout fellow and a gentleman must have done in this emergency. He lifted the drooping figure forth into the open air, touching it only with his hands, timidly and reverently, as if every fair curve were sacred. Then he fetched water in his best Sunday hat – the only chimney–pot he possessed – from the stream trickling through the spire–bed; and he sprinkled it on the broad, white forehead, as if he were christening a baby.
The moment he saw that her life was returning, and her deep grey eyes, quiet havens of sorrow, opened and asked where their owner was, and her breast rose like a billow in a place where two tides meet, that moment Octave laid her back against the rugged trunk, in the thick brown cloak which he had fetched when he went for the water; and wrapped it around her, delicately, as if she were taking a nap there.
Oh, man of short pipes and hard, bachelor fare, for this thou deservest as good a wife as ever basted a leg of mutton!
At last the young lady looked up at him with a deep–drawn sigh, and said —
“I am afraid I have been very silly.”
“No, indeed, you have not. But I am very sorry for you, because I am dreadfully clumsy.”
She glanced at his snowy choker – which he never wore but on Sundays – and, being a very quick–witted young woman, she guessed at once who he was.
“Oh, please to tell me – I hope the service is not over at Nowelhurst church.”
“The service has been over for a quarter of an hour; because there was no sermon.”
“Oh, what shall I do, then? What can I do? I had better never go home again.”
This was said to herself in anguish, and Pell saw that he was not meant to hear it.
“Can I go, please, to the Rectory? Mr. Rosedew is from home; but I?m sure they will give me shelter until my – until I am sent for. I have lost my way in the wood here.”
This statement was none of the truest.
“To be sure,” said the hasty parson, forgetting about the Rushford bells, the rheumatic clerk, and the quid–chewing pilots – let them turn their quids a bit longer – “to be sure, I will take you there at once. Allow me to introduce myself. How very stupid of me! Octavius Pell, Mr. Rosedew?s curate at Rushford.”
Hereupon “Pello, pepuli, pulsum” (as his friends loved to call him from his driving powers at cricket, and to show that they knew some Latin) executed a noble salaam – quite of the modern school, however, and without the old reduplication (like the load on the back of Christian) – till the duckweed came out of his hat in a body, and fell into the flounce tucket of the beautiful Pearl?s white skirt.
She never looked, though she knew it was there – that girl understood her business – but curtseyed to him prettily, having recovered strength by this time; and there was something in his dry, manly tone, curt modesty, and breeding, without any flourish about it, which led the young maid to trust him, as if she had known him since tops and bottoms.
“I am Pearl Garnet,” said she, imitating his style unconsciously, “the daughter – I mean I live at Nowelhurst Dell Cottage.”
Cor?bus had cut off for stable long ago, with three long weals from bamboo upon him, which he vowed he would show to Amy.
“Please to take my arm, Miss Garnet. You are not very strong yet. I know your brother well; and a braver or more straightforward young gentleman never thought small things of himself after doing great ones.”
Pearl was delighted to hear Bob?s praises; and Mr. Pell treated that subject so cleverly, from every possible point of view, that she was quite astonished when she saw the Rectory side–gate, and Octavius, in the most light–hearted manner, made a sudden and warm farewell, and darted away for Rushford. How good it is for a sad, heavy heart to exchange with a gay and light one!
“Hang it! after that let me have a burster!” was his clerical ejaculation, “or else it is all up with me. I hope we haven?t spilt the sermon, though, or got any duckweed down it. Duckweed, indeed; what a duck she is! And oh, what splendid eyes!”
He ran all the way to Rushford, at a pace unknown to Cor?bus; and his governor–coat flew away behind him, with the sermon banging about, and the text peeping out under the pocket–lap. “Swear not at all,” were the words, I believe; and a rare good sermon it must have been, if it stuck to the text under the circumstances.
The jolly old tars, after waiting an hour, orally refreshing their grandmothers’ epitaphs, and close–hauling on many a tight yarn, were just setting up stun?sails to take grog on board at the “Lugger?s Locker,” hard by, as the banyan time was over. Let them ship their grog, and their old women might keep gravy hot, and be blessed to them. They had come there for sarvice, and shiver their timbers if they?d make sail till the chaplain came. Good faith, and they got their service at last, but an uncommonly short–winded one, a sermon, moreover, which each man felt coming admirably home – to his shipmate.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pell had left behind no small excitement at Nowelhurst. For a rumour took wing after morning service – when the wings of fame are briskest in all country parishes – that parson John was gone to London to complain to the Queen that Sir Cradock Nowell never came to church now, nor even sent his agent thither, to manage matters for him. For Mr. Garnet still retained his stewardship among them, though longing to be quit of it, and discharging his duties silently, and not with his old pronouncement, because his health was weaker. The vivid power of vital force seemed to be failing the man who had stamped his character upon all people around him; because he never said a thing which he did not think, and scarcely ever thought a thing with any fear of saying it.
Hitherto we have had of Bull Garnet by far the worse side uppermost. I will offer no excuses now for his too ready indulgence of his far too savage temper. In sooth, we meet with scarce any case in which excuses are undiscoverable. God and the angels find them always; our best earthly friends can see them, when properly pointed out; our enemies, when they want to make accusation of them.
All I will say for Bull Garnet is (to invert the historian?s sentence) “H?c tanta viri vitia ingentes virtutes ex?quabant” – “These blemishes, however dark, had grand qualities to redress them.” Strong affection, great scorn of falsehood, tenderness almost too womanly, liberality both of mind and heart, a real depth of sympathy – would all these co–exist with, or be lost in, one great vice? It appears to me that we are so toothed in, spliced and mortised, dovetailed, double–budded, and inarched, both of good and evil, that the wrong, instead of poisoning the right, often serves as guano to it. Nevertheless we had better be perfect – when we have found the way out.
It must not be forgotten that Rufus Hutton all this time was very hard at work, and so was Mrs. Corklemore. Between that lady and Eoa pleasant little passes gave a zest to daily intercourse, Georgie?s boundless sympathies being circumscribed only by terror. Nevertheless, although Sir Cradock laughed (when his spirits were good, and his mind was clear) at their fundamental difference, Georgie began to gain upon him, and Eoa to lose ground. How could it be otherwise, even if their skill had been equal – and Eoa not only had no skill, but scorned sweet Georgie for having any – how could Mrs. Corklemore fail of doing her blessed duty, when she was in the house all day, and Eoa out, jumping the river, or looking about for Bob Garnet? Whatever the weather was, out went Eoa, peering around for the tracks of Bob, which, like those of a mole, were self–evident; and then hiding behind a great tree when she found him; and hoping, with flutter of heart about it, that Bob had not happened to see her. Yet, if he happened not to see, she would go up and be cross with him, and ask whether Amy Rosedew had turned to the right or left there, or had stopped in a hollow tree. And did Bob think she looked well that morning? Then he had no right to think so. And perhaps her own new hat, with black ostrich, was a hideously ugly thing. Oh, she only wished there were tigers!
Leave the little dear to do exactly as she likes – for nothing else she will do; and now, in looking through the forest, grey and white with winter, scorn we not the grand old trunk, in our gay love of the mistletoe.
There is a very ancient tree, an oak well known and good of fame, even at the first perambulation of our legislator king. It stands upon the bend and brow under which two valleys meet, where a horse–shoe of the wood has chanced, and water takes advantage. In the scoop below the tree, two covered brooks fetch round high places into one another, prattle satisfaction, and steal away for their honeymoon, without a breeze upon them. This “mark–oak,” last of seven stout brothers, dwells upon a surge of upland, and commands three valleys, two of which unite below it, and the other leads them off, welcoming their waters. The grand tree lifts its proven column, channeled, ramped, and crocketed, flaked with brown on lines of grey, and bulked with cloudlike ganglions. Then from the maintop, where is room for fifty archers to draw the bow, limbs of rugged might arise, spread flat, or straggle downwards. But the two great limbs of all, the power and main glory, the arms that reared their pride to heaven, are stricken, riven, and blasted. Gaping with great holes and rotten, heavily twisted in and out, and ending in four long scraggy horns, ghastly white in the winter sun; where the squirrel durst not build, nor the honey–buzzard watch for prey; this shattered hope of a noble life records the wrath of Heaven.
The legend is that a turf–cutter having murdered a waylost pedlar, for the sake of his pack, buried the corpse in this hollow tree, and sat down on the grave to count his booty. Here, while he was bending over the gewgaws and the trinkets, which he had taken for gold upon the poor huckster?s word, and which gleamed and flashed in the August twilight, the vengeance of God fell upon him. In bodily form God?s lightning crashed through the dome of oak above him, leaped on the murderer?s head, and drove him through the cloven earth, breast to breast on his victim?s corpse. You may be sure that the sons of Ytene, a timid and superstitious race, find small attractions in that tree, when the shades of night are around it.
John Rosedew did not return on the Monday, nor yet on the Tuesday, &c. Not even until the last down–train roared through the Forest on Saturday. Then, as it rushed through the dark night of winter, throwing its white breath (more strong than our own, and very little more fleeting) in bracelets on the brown–armed trees, and in chains on the shoulders of heather, the parson leaned back on the filthy panels of a second–class carriage, and thought of the scene he had left.
He had written from London to Miss Rosedew, insisting, so far as he ever cared to insist on a little matter, that none at home should stay up for him, that no one should come to the station to meet him, and that Pell should be begged to hold himself ready for the Sunday?s duty, because Mr. Rosedew would not go home, if any change should that day befall unlucky Cradock Nowell. Lucky Cradock, one ought to say, inasmuch as for a fortnight now he had lost all sense of trouble.
Finding from Dr. Tink that no rapid change was impending, John Rosedew determined to see his home, and allay his child?s anxiety. Moreover, he felt that his “cure of souls” must need their Sunday salting. Now walking away from the wooded station that cloudy Christmas Eve – for Christmas that year fell on Sunday – how grand he found the difference from the dirty coop of London.
The new moon was set, but the clouds began to lift above the tree–tops, and a faint Aurora flushed and flickered in the far north–west. Then out came several stars rejoicing, singing in twinkles their Maker?s praise; and some of the sounds that breathe through a forest, even in the hush of a winter?s night, began to whisper peace and death.
John, who feared not his Master?s works, and was happiest often in solitude, trudged along with the leathern valise, and three paper parcels strapped comfortably upon his ample back. Presently he began to think of home and his parish cares, and the breadth of God spread around him; and then from thinking rose unawares into higher communion, for surely it is a grander thing to feel than to think of greatness.
And in this humour quietly he plodded his proper course for the first four miles or so, until he had passed the Dame Slough, near the Blackwater stream, and was over against Vinney Ridge. But here he must needs try a short cut, through the Government Woods, to Nowelhurst, though even in the broad daylight he could scarcely have found his way there. He thought that, in spite of his orders, Amy would be sure to stay up for him, and so he must hurry homeward.
At a fine brisk pace, for a man of his years, he plunged into the deep wood, and in five minutes? time he had very little hope of getting out before daylight. Have you ever been lost in a great wood at night, alone, and laden, and weary, where the frithings have not been cut for ten years, when there is no moon or wind to guide a man, and the stars glimpse so deceitfully? How the stubs, even if you are so quick–footed as not to be doubled back by them, or thrown down with nostrils patulous – how they catch you at the knee with three prongs apiece, and make you think of white swelling! Then the slip, where the wet has dribbled from some officious branch, or sow, or cow, summer–pasturing, has kept her volutabre. Down you plump, and your heels alone have chance of going to heaven, because (unless you are a wonder) you employ such powerful language.
Rising with some difficulty, after doubting if it be worth the while, and rubbing spitefully ever so long at “the case of the part affected,” you have nothing for it but to start again, and fall into worse disasters. Going very carefully then you jump from the goading repulse of a holly into the heart of a hazel–bush – one which has numberless clefts and tongs, and is hospitable to a bramble. Tumbling out of it, full of thorns, recalling your Farnaby epigram, and wishing they had pelted the hazel harder, away you go, quite desperate now, knowing well that the wood is full of swamps, some of which will petrify you, under sun–dew and blue campanula, when the summer comes again.
Through all these pleasing incidents and animating encounters John Rosedew went ahead, and, too often, a “header,” until he was desperately tired, and sat down to think about it. Then he heard two tawny owls hooting to one another, across at least a mile of trees; and every forest sound grew clearer in the stillness of the night; the sharp, sad cry of the marten–cat, the bark of the fox so impatient, the rustle of the dry leaves as a weasel or rat skirred over them, the wing–flap of some sliding bird roused from his roost by danger, the scratching of claws upon trunks now and then, and the rubbing of horns against underwood: these and other stranger noises, stirring the “down of darkness,” moving the sense of lonesome mystery and of fear indefinite, were abroad on the air (in spite of Shakespeare) on that Christmas Eve.
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