Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 2 of 3
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Alas, poor Bob! Nature, who overlooks nothing, was well aware of the difficulties when she cried, “Jump up on my lap, Bob, and never be weaned from me.” She knew that things of all sorts would come between herself and her child, some of them drawn from her own mother–milk, but most of them from man?s muzzling. Of the latter she had not much fear with Bob; but the former, she knew, were beyond her, and she had none but herself to thank for them. She knew that the lad, so strongly imbued with her own pleasant affluences, was almost sure to be touched with that one which comes from her breast the warmest. And then what would become of zoology, phytology, entomology, and all the other yard–long names which her children spin out of her apron–strings?
While Bob was still fiddling with his fingers, and forgetting all about butterflies, Miss Eudoxia, fetched by Amy, came to hold discourse with him.
“Why, Master Robert, I do declare, Robert, my butterfly boy! I have not seen you for such a time, Robert.” And she held out her hand, which Bob took with very little sense of gratitude. To be called a “butterfly boy” before Amy, and Amy to acquiesce in it!
“Ah, you think I have nothing for you, Robert. You school–boys live upon suction. But just wait a moment, my dear.”
She drew forth an old horn comfit–box, which had belonged to her grandmother, and was polished up like amber from the chafing of many a lining. This she opened with much ado, poured three crinkled sugar–plums on her gloved palm, and a smooth one as large as a hazel–nut, and offered them all to Robert, with a smile of the finest patronage.
“No, thank you, Miss Rosedew; no, thank you. I am very much obliged to you.”
Miss Eudoxia had been wondering at her own generosity, and thought that he was overcome with it. So her smile became one of encouragement and assurance against self–sacrifice.
“Oh, you need not be afraid, Robert. And you can put some under your pillow, and wake up in the night and suck them. How nice that will be, to be sure! You see I know what boys are. And I have plenty left for the infant–school. And they don?t deserve them as you do, Robin.”
“Miss Rosedew,” said Bob, in his loftiest manner, though he was longing for them, only that Amy was there; “you will believe me when I assure you that I never touch sweets of any sort; not even at a late dinner–party.”
Miss Eudoxia turned her eyes up, and almost dropped the sugar–plums. But Amy, instead of being impressed, merrily laughed, and said,
“Give them to me, then, auntie, please. Some of the men at the night–school eat sweets after early suppers.”
Bob said “good–bye” disconsolately, for he knew that he had affronted Miss Doxy, without rising in Amy?s opinion. He forgot all about the gladiolus, and let many great prizes escape him; for the day was the last of the soft and sunny, which tempt forth the forest denizens ere the frosty seal is set on them. In the glimpses of every brown arcade, in the jumbled gleam of the underwood, in the alleys between the upstanding trees, even in the strong light where the golden patches shone, and the wood fell back to look at them, in all of these he seemed to see and then to lose his angel.Her face he could not see clearly yet, hard as he strove to do it; affection is, but love is not, a photographic power. Still he could see her shadowly; her attitude, the fall of her hair, the manner of her gestures; even the ring of her voice would seem to dwell about the image. But he never got them all together; one each time was the leading thing; vague; and yet it went through him.
He made one attempt – for he feared from the first, although he never could feel it so, that his love was a thorough wild–goose chase – the poor boy made one last attempt to catch at some other pursuit.
“Father,” he said that very same night, after sitting for hours of wandering, “will you give me a gun and let me take to shooting?”
“A gun!” cried Bull Garnet, starting; “a gun, Bob! What do you mean by it?”
“I meant nothing at all, father. Only I know the way to stuff birds, and there are some rare ones here sometimes, and I want to make a collection.”
“Bob Garnet, as long as I am alive, you never shall have a gun.”
“Then, will you lend me yours, father? I know very well how to use it. I mean your patent – ”
“Never, Bob. My son, if you love me, never speak of it again.”
When Miss Rosedew and her niece came in to get ready for dinner, Amy cried out suddenly, “Oh, only look at the roses, aunt; how they have opened to–day! What delicious Louise Odier, and just look at General Jacqueminot! and I do declare Jules Margottin is finer than he was at Midsummer. I must cut a few, for I know quite well there will come a great frost if I don?t, and then where will all my loves be?”
Amy?s prediction about the weather was as random a guess as we may find in great authorities, who are never right, although they give the winds sixteen points of the thirty–two to shuffle in. But it so turned out that the girl was right – a point of the compass never hit till a day too late by our weather–clerks.
That very same night such a frost set in as had not been known in October for very nearly a century. It lasted nine nights and eight days; twice the mercury fell more than half way from the freezing point to zero, and the grass was crisp in the shade all day, though the high sun wiped off the whiteness at noon wherever he found the way to it. Boys rejoiced, and went mitching, to slide on the pools of the open furzery: no boys since the time of their great–grandfathers had done the heel–tap in October. But the birds did not appreciate it. What in the world did it mean? Why, there were the hips not ripe yet, and the hollyberries come to no colour, and half the blackberries still too acid, and, lo! it was freezing hard enough to make a worm cold for the stomach, even if you could get him! Surely there was some stupid mistake of two months in the piper?s almanac. All they could say was that, if it were so, those impudent free–and–easy birds who came sponging on them in the winter – and too stuck up, forsooth! to live with them after sucking all the fat of the land, and winning their daughters’ affections – those outlandish beggars – be hanged to them – had got the wrong almanac too.
Why, they had not even heard the chatter, the everlasting high–fashion clack, of those jerk–tail fieldfares yet; nor had a missel–thrush come swaggering to bully a decent throstle that had sung hard all the summer, just because his breast and his coarse–shaped spots were bigger. Why, they had not even seen a clumsy short–eared owl flopping out of the dry fern yet – much good might it do him, the fern that belonged to themselves! – nor a single wedge of grey–lag geese, nor a woodcock that knew his business. And those nasty dissolute quacking mallards that floated in bed all day, the sluggards, and then wouldn?t let a respectable bird have a chance of a good night?s roost – there they were still on the barley–stubble; please God they might only get frozen!
And yet, confound it all, what was the weather coming to? You might dig, and tap, and jump with both feet, and put your head on one side in the most knowing manner possible, and get behind a tuft of grass, and wait there ever so long, and devil a worm would come up! And, as for the slugs, oh, don?t let me hear of them! Though the thieves had not all got home yet, they were ten degrees too cold for even an oyster–catcher?s stomach: feathers and pip, my dear fellow! it gives me the colic to think of one. Put your head under my wing, Jenny Wren; oh, my darling, how cold your beak is!
Such, so far as I could gather them, were the sentiments of the birds, and their confabulation, when they went to roost, half an hour earlier than usual – for bed is the warmest place after all; besides, what was there to do? – on the 24th of October, 1859. And they felt the cold rime settling down on grey twig, and good brown leaf. Yet some of the older birds, cocks of long experience, buffers beyond all chaff, perked one eye at the eastern heavens, before tucking it under the scapular down – the eastern heavens all barred with murky red. Then they gave a little self–satisfied tweedle, which meant to the ear of Melampus,
“Ah ha! an old bird like me knows something about the weather! Bless my drumsticks and merrythought, I shan?t be so cold and hungry, please God, this time to–morrow night.”
Oh you little wiseacres, much you know what impendeth! A worse row than all the mallards you grumble at could make in a thousand years will spoil your roost to–morrow night. Think it a mercy if you do not get your very feathers blown off of you – ay, and the tree of your ancestors snapped beneath your feet – before this time to morrow night.
John Rosedew met the prettiest bird that ever had nest in the New Forest, his own little duck of an Amy, in the passage by the parlour–door, at eight o?clock in the morning of that 25th of October. He kissed her white forehead lovingly, according to early usage; then he glanced at the weather–glass, and went nearer, supposing that his short sight had cheated him.
“Why, Amy dear, you must have forgotten to set the glass last night.”
“No, indeed, papa. I set it very carefully. You know I can do it as well as you can, since you showed me the way. It was just a little hollow last night, and I moved the Verrier scale just a hundredth part of an inch downwards, and then it was ten o?clock.”
“Then may the Lord have mercy on all seafaring men, especially our poor boatmen, and the dredging people off Rushford!”
Mr. Rosedew, as has been said before, was parson of Rushford as well as of Nowelhurst. At the former place he kept a curate, but looked after the poor people none the less, for the distance was only six miles; and now, as his legs were getting stiff, he had bought Cor?bus to help him. Rushford lies towards the eastern end of the great Hurst shingle bank, the most dangerous part of Christchurch Bay, being fully exposed to the south–west gales, and just in the run of the double tide; in the eddy of the Needles.
“Why, what is the matter, papa? Even if it rains, it won?t hurt them much. And it?s as lovely a morning as ever was seen, and the white frost sparkling beautifully. What a magnificent sunrise! Or, at least, a very strange one.”
“?Sibi temperat unda carinis.’ All is smooth for the present. But I heard the lash of the ground–sea last night, when I lay awake. Fetch my telescope, darling, and come with me to the green room. We can see thence to St. Alban?s Head; but the danger is for those beyond it. All the ships on this side of it will have time to work up the Solent. Never before have I known the mercury fall as it has done now. An inch and a tenth in only ten hours!”
When they went to bed on the previous night, the quicksilver stood at 30° 10?. Now it was at 29°, and cupped like the bottom of a champagne bottle, which showed that it still fell rapidly. But as yet the silver of the frost was sparkling on the lawn, and the morning sun looked up the heavens, as if he felt all right. Nevertheless, it was but show: he is bound to make the best of it, and, like all other warm–hearted beings, sometimes has sorry work there.
When they saw that no large craft had rounded St. Alban?s Head, only that the poor cement–dredgers were working away at septaria, John and his daughter went to breakfast, hoping that no harm would be, while Miss Eudoxia lay in bed, and reflected on her own good qualities.
Amy came out after breakfast, without any bonnet or hat on, to make her own observations. That girl so loved the open air, the ever glorious concave, the frank palm of the hand of God – for in cities we get His knuckles – that she felt as if she had not bowed before her Friend and Maker, the all–giving, the all–loving One, until she had paid her orisons and sung her morning hymn with His own ceiling over her. So now she walked beneath the branches laden with His jewellery, and over the ground hard–trodden by ministers doing His will, and beside the spear and the flat–grass, chilled with the awe of His breath, and among the wailing flowers, wailing and black and shrivelled up, because His face was cold to them.
For these poor Amy grieved sadly, for she was just beginning to care again for the things whose roots were outside of her. Lo the bright chrysanthemums, plumed, reflex, and fimbriate; lo the gorgeous dahlias, bosses quilled and plaited tight, and wrought with depth of colour; and then the elegant asters, cushioned, cochleate, praying only to have their eyes looked into; most of all, her own sweet roses, chosen flowers of the chosen land – they hung their heads, and stuck together, as brown as a quartered apple. Who could look at them, who could think of them, and not feel as if some of herself were dead?
Now, walking there, this youthful maiden, fairest of all His works and purest, began to observe, as He has taught us, the delicacies, the pores, and glints of the grand universal footprint. Not that the girl perceived one–tenth of the things being done around her, any more than I can tell them; for observation grows from as well as begets experience; and the girlish mind (and the boyish too, at any rate for the most part) has very lax and indefinite communion with nature. How seldom do we meet a lady who knows what way the wind is! They all believe that it must freeze harder when the sky is cloudy; not one in fifty but trembles more at the thunder than at the lightning.
Yet Amy, with true woman?s instinct, being alarmed for the lives of others, after her father?s prediction, looked around her narrowly. And first her eyes went upwards, and they were right in doing so. Of the sky she knew less than nothing – although herself well known there; but the trees – come now, she was perfectly sure she knew something about the trees. So you do, you darling; and yet a very wee little; though more than half the ladies do. You know an elm from a wych–elm, and a hornbeam from a beech; and what more can we expect of you?
The rime upon the dark tree–boles and the forward push of the branches, the rime of white fur, newly breathen but an hour ago, when a flaw from the east came cat–like, and went through without moving anything; this delicate down from the lips of morning, silk work upon the night–fleece, was, as all most beautiful is, the first to fleet and vanish. Changing into a doubtful glister, which you must touch to be sure of it, then trickling away into beaded drops, like a tear which will have no denial, it came down the older and harder rime, and perhaps would bring that into its humour, and perhaps would get colder and freeze again into little lumps, like a tap leaking. Then the white face of the rough pillared trunks, pearled with glistening purity, was bighted into with scoops and dark bays, like the sweep of a scythe in the morning. On the bars of the gate, the silver harvest, spiked and cropping infinitely, began to sheave itself away, and then the sheaves were full ripe tears, and the tears ran down if you thought of them.
But the notable sight of all, at least to a loitering mind the most striking, was to see how the hoar–frost gradually was lifting its light wing from the grass. In little tufts and random patches – random to us who know not why – the spangles, the spears, and the crusted flakes, the fairy tinsel, the ermine of dew, the very down of moonlight, the kiss of the sky too pure for snow, and the glittering glance of stars reflected – all this loveliness, caught and fastened, by the night?s halourgic, in one broad sheet of virgin white, was hovering off in tufts and patches, as if a blind angel had breathed on it, with his flight only guided by pity.
But through, and in, and between it all, the boles of the trees, and the bars of the gate, the ridge of the ruts, and dapples of lawn, one thing Amy observed which puzzled her, for even she knew that it was a thing against all usage. The thaw was not on the south side or the south–east side of anything, though the sickly sun was gazing there; but the melting came from the north, and took the frost aback. She wondered vainly about it, but the matter was simple enough, like most of the things which we wonder at, instead of at our own ignorance. A flaw of warm air from the north had set in; a lower warp which shot through and threaded the cold south–eastern woof. This is not a common occurrence. Since my vague, unguided, and weak observations began, I have only seen it thrice. And on each of those three times it has been followed by a fearful tempest. Usually, a frost breaks up with a shift of the wind to the south–east, a gradual relaxing, a fusion of warmer air, and a great effusion of damp, a blanket of clouds for the earth, and a doubt in the sky how to use them. Then the doubt ends – as many other doubts end – in precipitation. The wind chops round to the west of south; the moisture condenses outside our windows, instead of starring the inside; and then come a few spits of rain. But the rain is not often heavy at first, although it is stinging and biting, – a rain which is half ashamed of itself, as if it ought to be hail.
But, after all, these things depend on things we cannot depend upon, – moods of the air to be multiplied into humours of the earth and sea, and the product traversed, indorsed, divided, touched, and sliced at every angle by solar, lunar, and astral influences.
“Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.”
Lucky the man who knows when to take out his umbrella.
That morning, the north wind crept along, sponging the rime from the grass, and hustling it rudely from the tree–sprays, on many of which the black leaves draggled, frozen while yet in verdure. Then the sky began to be slurred across with white clouds breathing out from it, as a child breathes on the blade of a knife, or on a carriage window. These blots of cloud threw feelers out, and strung themselves together, until a broad serried and serrate bar went boldly across the heavens, from south–east to north–west. It marked the point whence the gale would begin, and the quarter where it would end. From this great bar, on either side, dappled and mottled, like the wash of sepia on a drawing, little offsets straggled away, and began to wisp with a spiral motion, slow and yet perceptible.
This went on for an hour or two, darkening and deepening continually, amassing more and more of the sky, gathering vapours to it, and embodying as it got hold of them; but still there was some white wan sunshine through the mustering cloud–blots and the spattering mud of the heavens; and still the good folks who had suffered from chilblains, and found it so much milder, exclaimed, “What a beautiful day!”
Then about noon a mock sun appeared, feeble, wild, and haggard, whose mates on the crown and the east of the arc could scarcely keep him in countenance. Over all this, and over the true sun and the cirrhous outrunners, heavily drove at one o?clock the laden and leaden cumulus, blurred on the outskirts with cumulostrate, and daubed with lumps of vapour which mariners call “Noah?s arks.”
Then came the first sough of the wind, a long, prolonged, deep–drawn, dry sob, a hollow and mysterious sound, that shivered through the brown leaves, and moaned among the tree–boles. Away went every beast and bird that knew the fearful signal: the deer lanced away to the holm–frith; the cattle in huffs came belloking to the lew of the boughy trees; the hogs ran together, and tossed their snouts, and skittered home from the ovest; the squirrel hied to his hollow dray, the weasel slunk to his tuffet lair, and every rabbit skipped home from grass. The crows and the magpies were all in a churm; the heavy–winged heron flapped off from the brook–side; the jar–bird flicked out from the ivy–drum; the yaffingale darted across the ride with his strange discordant laugh; even the creepers that ply the trees crept into lichened fastnesses, lay flat to the bark, and listened.
Nor less the solid, heavy powers that have to stay and break the storm, no less did they, the beechen clump, the funnelled glens, the heathery breastwork, even the depths of forest night – whence common winds shrink back affrighted – even the bastions of Norman oak, scarred by many a tempest–siege, and buckled by the mighty gale of 1703, – one and all they whispered of the stress of heaven impending.
First came fitful scuds of rain, “flisky” rain they call it, loose outriders of the storm, spurning the soft ice, as they dashed by, and lashing the woodman?s windows. Then a short dark pause ensued, in which the sky swirled up with clouds, and the earth lay mute with terror. Only now and then a murmur went along the uplands.
Suddenly, ere a man might say, “Good God!” or “Where are my children?” every tree was taken aback, every peat–stack reeled and staggered, every cot was stripped of its thatch, on the opposite side to that on which the blow was expected.
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