Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 2 of 3
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John Rosedew laid his burden by, and began to think, or wonder, what was best to do. Long as he had lived amid the woods, he knew much more of classic sylvul? and poetical arundines, than of the natural greenwood, and the tasseling of morasses.
Bob Garnet would have found his way there, or in any other English forest, with little hesitation. From his knowledge of all the epiphytes and their different aspects, the bent of the winter grasses, the sense which even a bramble has of sun and wind and rain, he would soon have established his compass, with allowance for slope and exposure.
The parson sat upon an ants’ nest, which had done its work, and feeling discharged, collapsed with him – a big nest of the largest British ant, which is mostly found near fir–trees. That nest alone would have told poor Bob something of his whereabouts; for there are not many firs in that part of the forest, and only one clump, high up on a hill, in the wood where John Rosedew had lost himself. But the man of great learning was none the wiser, only he felt that his smallclothes were done for, and Mr. Channing?s fashionable cut gone almost as prematurely as the critic who had condemned it.
“Let me now consider,” said Mr. Rosedew to himself, for about the fiftieth time; “it strikes me at the first sight – though I declare I can?t see anything – would that I could not feel! for I confess that these legs are grievous; but putting aside that view or purview of the question, it strikes me that, having no Antigone to lead me from this, which certainly is the grove of the Eumenides – there is another ant gone up my leg – ?ingentis formica laboris.’ I wish he wouldn?t work so hard, though, and I always have had the impression that they stayed in–doors in the winter. Mem. To consult Theophrastus, and compare him, as usual, with Pliny. Also look at the Geoponika, full of valuable hints – why there he is again, biting very hard or stinging. What says Aristophanes about the music of the gnats? Indelicate, I fear, as he too often is. Nay, nay, good ant, if indeed thou art an ant – Why, what is that over yonder?”
It was a dim light in the great hollow oak, “the Murderer?s Tree,” as they called it, not a hundred yards from John Rosedew.
The parson approached it cautiously, for he knew that desperate men, and criminals under a ban, still harboured sometimes in the Forest. As he drew nearer, the feeble light, glimmering through the entrance, showed him at once what tree it was, because the rays glanced through two dark holes under the bulging and beetling brow, which peasants call “the eyes of God.”
John Rosedew was as brave a man as ever wept for another?s grief, or with the word of God assuaged it. No man could have less superstition, unless (as some would have us believe) all religion is that. Upon this point we will not be persuaded, until we have seen them live the better, and die the more calmly for holding it. Yet John Rosedew, so firmly set, so full of faith in his Maker, so far above childish fears (which spring from the absence of our Father), – he, who having injured none had no dread of any, yet drew back and trembled greatly at the sight before him.
A small reflector–lamp, with the wick overhung with fungus, stood upon a knotted niche in the hollow of the tree.By it, and with his face and eyes set towards the earth, a tall and powerful man, stripped to the waist, was leaning, with one great arm beneath his forehead, and bloody stripes across his back. The drooping of his figure, the woe in every vein of it, the deep and everlasting despair in every bone – it was an extremity of our human nature, which neither chisel nor pen may approach, nor even the mind of man conceive, until it has been through it.
Presently the man upraised his massive head, and scorned himself for being so effeminate. He had nearly fainted with the pain; what right had he to feel it? Why should his paltry body quail at a flea–bite lash or so, when body and soul were damned for ever?
But if his form had told of sorrow, great God, what did his face tell? He never sighed, nor groaned, nor moaned; his woe was beyond such trumpery; he simply took the heavy scourge from the murderer?s grave, upon which it had dropped when the swoon came over him, and, standing well forth in the black hollow?s centre, to gain full swing for his scorpion thongs, he lashed himself over back and round breast, with the utmost strength of his mighty arms, with every corded muscle leaping, but not a sign of pain on his face, nor a nerve of his body flinching. Then, at last, he fell away, and allowed himself to moan a little.
John Rosedew would have leaped forward at once, in his horror at such self–cruelty, but that he saw who it was, and knew how his meddling would be taken. He knew that Bull Garnet?s religious views were very strange and peculiar, and never must be meddled with, except at his own request, and at seasonable moments. Yet he had never dreamed that self–chastisement was part of them.
“Garnet a wild flagellant!” said the parson to himself; “well, I knew that he was an enthusiast, but never dreamed that he was a fanatic. And how shockingly hard he hits himself! Strong as Dr. Mastix at Sherborne; but the doctor took good care never to hit himself. Upon my word, I must run away. It is too sad to laugh at. What resolution that man must have! He scarcely feels the blows in the agony of his mind. I must reason with him about it, if I ever can find occasion. With such violation of His image, God cannot be well pleased.”
Meditating deeply upon this strange affair, the parson plodded homewards, for now he knew his way, with the Murderer?s Oak for his landmark. At last he saw his quiet home, and gave a very gentle knock, because it was so late.
The door was opened by Amy herself, pale, excited, and jumping.
“Oh, daddy, daddy!” Chock – chock – chock – such a lot of kisses, and both arms round his neck.
“Corculum, voluptas, glycymelon, anima mea – ”
“Oh, papa, say ‘Amy dear,’ and then I shall know it is you.”
Then she laughed, and then she cried, and presently fell to at kissing again. I am afraid she proved herself a fool; but allowance must be made for her, because she had never learned before how to get on without her father.
“Oh, you beautiful love of a daddy! I was quite sure you would come, you know; that you could not leave me any longer; so I would not listen to a single word any one of them said. And I kept the kitchen fire up, and a good fire in your pet room, dear; and I have got such a supper for you! Now, off with your coat in a minute, darling. Oh, how poorly you look, my own father! But we will soon put you to rights again. Aunt Doxy is gone to bed, hurrah! and so are Jemima and Jenny. And she won?t have the impudence to come down, with all her hair in the jelly–bags, so I shall have you all to myself, dada; and if any one can deserve you, I do.”
“My own pet child, my warm–hearted dear,” said John, with the tears in his eyes; “I had not the least idea that your mind was so ill–regulated. We must have a course of choriambics together, or the heavy trimacrine dimeter, as I have ventured to name it, about which – ”
“About which not another short syllable, till you have had a light tri–mackerel supper, and not a quasi–c?sura left even.”
“Why, Amy, you are getting quite witty!” And John, with one arm still in his overcoat, looked at her bright eyes wonderingly.
“Of course I am, dad, when you come home. My learning sparkles at sight of you. Come, quick now, for fear of my eating you before you begin your supper. You?ll have it in the kitchen, you know, dear, because it will be so much nicer; and then a pipe by the book–room fire, and a chat with your good little daughter. O father, father, mind you never go away from me such a long, long time again.”
John thought to himself that, ere many years, he must go away from his Amy for much more than a fortnight; but of course he would not damp her young joy with any such troubles now.
“If you please, my meritorious father, you will come to the door, and just smell them; and then you will have five minutes allowed you to put on your dear old dressing–gown, and the slippers worked by the Vestal virgins; five minutes by the kitchen clock, and not a book to be touched, mind. Now, don?t they smell lovely? I put them on when I knew your knock. The first mackerel of the season, only caught this afternoon. I sent word to Mr. Pell for them. He can do what he likes with the fishermen. And you know as well as I do, papa, you can never resist a mackerel.”
When John came down, half the table was covered with some of his favourite authors – not that she meant to let him read, but only because he would miss his books a great deal more than the salt–cellar – and the other half she was bleaching, and smoothing, and stroking with a snowy cloth, soft and sleek as her own bare arms, setting all things in lovely order, and looking at her father every moment, with the skirt of her frock pinned up, and her glossy hair dancing jigs on the velvet slope of her shoulders. And she made him hungrier every moment by savoury word and choice innuendo.
“Worcester sauce, pa, darling, and a little of the very best butter, not mixed up with flour, you know, but melting on them, like their native element. Just see how they are browning, and not a bit of the skin come off. What is it about the rhombus, pa, and when am I to read Juvenal?”
“Never, my child.”
“Very well, pa, dear, you know best, of course; but I thought it was very nice about weighing Hannibal, in the Excerpta. Father, put that book down; I can?t allow any reading. And after supper I shall expect you to spin me such a yarn, dear, to wind up the thread of your adventures.”
“??????????,” said John, calmly, although he was so hungry; “the very word poor Cradock used in his rendering of that dirge —
Oh, I forgot; ah yes, to be sure. A word, I mean, which expresses in a figurative and yet homely manner – ”
“Cradock, papa! Oh, father, have you been with him in London? Oh, how Aunt Doxy has cheated me! You know very well, my own father, that you cannot tell me a story. Did you go to London because poor Cradock was very, very ill?”
“Yes,” said her father, those soft bright eyes beamed into his so appealingly; “my own child, your Cradock is very ill indeed.”
“Not dead, father? Oh, not dead?”
“No, my child; nor in any great danger, I sincerely believe, just at present.”
“Then eat your supper, pa, while it is hot. I am so glad you have seen him. I am quite content with that.”
She believed, or she would not have said it. And yet how far from the truth it was!
“You shall tell me all after supper, my father. Thank God for His mercies to me. I am never in a hurry, dear.”
Yet Amy, in dishing up the mackerel, had the greatest difficulty (for her breath came short, and her breast heaved fast) in holding back the tide of hysterics, which would have spoiled her father?s supper.
“My amulet, I cannot eat a morsel while I see your hand shake. Darling, I must tell you all; I cannot bear your anxiety.”
The second mackerel, a fish of no manners, instead of curling his tail at the frying, had glued it to the pan, until a tear of Amy?s fried, and then he let go in a moment. John Rosedew caught his darling child, and drew her to his knees, with the frying–pan in her hand; and then he made her look at him, and she tried to have her eyes dry. Do what she might she could not speak, only to let her neck rise, and her drooping eyelids tremble.
“My own life?s love, I have told you the worst. God is very good to us. Cradock has been at the point of death, but now he is better a little. Only his mind is in danger. And it must come home very slowly, if it comes at all. Now, darling, you know everything.”
She took his magnificent silvery head between her little white hands, and kissed him twice on either brow, but not a word she said.
“My own sweet child,” cried her father, slowly passing one arm around her, and swindling his heart of a smile; “I am apt to make the worst of things. Let us try to be braver, or at least to have more faith.”
She leaped up at that very word, with the dawn of a glorious smile in her eyes, and she took the frying–pan once again, and eased out, with a white–handled knife, mackerel No. 3. But, upon second thoughts, she let him slide into the frizzle again, to keep him warm and comfortable. Her heart was down very deep just now, but for all that, her father must have and must enjoy his supper.
“Father, I am all right now. Only eat your supper, dear. What a selfish thing I am!”
“Have a bit, my darling heart.”
“Yes, I will have a bit of tail, pa, just to test my cookery. That?s what I call frying! Look at the blue upon him, and the crisp brown shooting over it! Come, daddy, no nonsense, if you please. I could have eaten all three of them if I had only been out on the warren. And you to come starving from London! Now No. 3, papa, if you please.” But she kept her face away from him, and bent her neck peculiarly.
“How beautifully fresh this ale is! Oh, the stuff they sell in London! I am almost inclined to consider the result of taking another half glass.”
Her quick feet went pat on the cellar–steps, while her father was yet perpending; and she came back not a whit out of breath, but sweetly fresh and excited.
“Such a race, pa; because I know of one family of cockroaches, and half suspect another. They are so very imprudent. Robert Garnet says that they stay at home, and keep their Christmas domestically, and I need not run for fear of them, at least till the end of April. And perhaps he is right, because he knows and studies everything nasty. Only I can?t believe what he says about ants, because it contradicts Solomon, who was so very much older. Now, you paternal darling, let me froth it up for you.”
“Thank the Lord for as good a meal as ever one of His children was blessed with.”
The parson stood up as he said these words, and put his thick but not large hands together, among the crumbs on the tablecloth.
“Now, if you please, the leastest – double superlative, pa, you know, like ?????????, and something else – oh, they will pluck me at Oxford! – the very leastest little drop of the old French cognac we bought for parochial rheumatism, with one thin slice of lemon, an ebullition of water, and half a knob of sugar.”
Before John could remonstrate, there it was, all winking at him, and begging to be sniffed before sipping.
“My pet, you are so premature. How can I trust your future? You never give me time to consider a subject, even in the first of its bearings.”
“To be sure not, father. You know quite well you would take at least eight different views of the matter, and multiply them into eight others of people I never heard of. Now the pipe, dear. You shall have it here, because it is so much warmer. You know you can?t fill it properly.”
So the parson, happy in having a child who could fill a pipe better than he could, leaned back in his favourite chair, which Amy had wheeled in for him, and held his long clay in his left hand, while his right played with her hair, as she sat at his feet, and coaxed him.
“Sermon all ready, dear?”
“Well, you know best about that, Amy; I always trust you to arrange them.”
“Never fear, papa; leave it to me. What would you do without me? I have put you out such a beauty, because it is Christmas Day: one that always makes me cry, because I have heard it so often. But you must have confidence in me.”
“Implicit confidence, my pet. Still I like to run my eyes over them, for I cannot see as I did. My eyes are getting so old.”
“I?ll kiss them till you can?t see one bit, if you dare to say that again, papa. Old, indeed! They are better than mine. And I can see the pattern of a lady–bird, all across the room. There was a lady–bird on the window to–day. At this time of year, only think! That was good luck, wasn?t it? And a dear little robin flew in, and perched upon the hat–pegs; and then I knew that you must come home.”
“Oh, you superstitious pet! I must reason with you to–morrow.”
END OF VOL. II
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