Richard Blackmore.

Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 2 of 3





The first squall of that great tempest broke from the dark southeast. It burst through the sleet, and dashed it upwards like an army of archers shooting; ere a man could stay himself one way, it had caught him up from another. The leaves from the ground flew up again through the branches which had dropped them; and then a cloud of all manner of foliage, whirling, flustering, capering, flitting, soared high over the highest treetops, and drove through the sky like dead shootingstars.

All that afternoon, the squalls flew faster, screaming onward to one another, furious maniacs dashing headlong, smiting themselves and everything. Then there came a lull. So sudden that the silence was more stunning than the turmoil. A pause for sunset; for brave men countless to see their last of sunlight. That evening, the sundown gun from Calshot was heard over all the forest. I remember to have expected fully that the next flaw of air would come, like a heavy sigh, from the southwest. The expectation showed how much I underrated the magnitude of that broad storm?s area. If the wind had chopped then, it would have been only a hard gale, not a hurricane.

Like a wave of the sea, it came on solidly, and from the old direction; no squall, no blast, any more; but one bodily rush of phalanxed air through a chasm in the firmament. Black, and tossing stone and metal as a girl jerks up her hatplume, it swept the breadth of land and sea, as bisons horded sweep the snowdrifts, as Niagara sweeps the weeds away.

Where the full force of that storm broke, any man must have been mad drunk who attempted to go to bed. Houses unroofed, great trees snapped off and flung into another tree, men caught like chaff from the winnowing and dropped somewhere in pond or gravelpit, the carrier?s van overthrown on the road, and three oaks come down to lie upon it, some blownaway people brought news of these things, and fetched their breath up to tell them.

Our own staunch hearths rocked under us, and we looked for the walls to fall in upon us, as every mad rush came plunging.

Miss Eudoxia sat with Amy, near the kitchen fire; at least where the fire should have been, but the wind had quenched it long ago. Near them cowered Jemima and Jenny, begging not to be sent to bed. They had crawled upstairs to see about it, and the floor came up to them so they said like the shifting plate of the oven. The parlour chimneystack had fallen; but, in God?s mercy, clear and harmless from the roof of the house. No fear of the thatch taking fire: that wind would have blown out the fire of London.

Now as they sat, or crouched and sidled, watching the cracks of the ceiling above, jumping every now and then, as big lumps of mortar fell down the chimney, and shrinking into themselves, every time the great stack groaned and laboured so, Miss Eudoxia, full of pluck, was reading aloud to little purpose, for she scarcely could hear her own voice the prayers which are meant to be used at sea, and the 107th Psalm.

And who shall say that she was wrong, especially as the devil is supposed to be so busy in a gale of wind?

Jemima and Amy were doing their best to catch her voice at intervals. As for Jenny, she did not care much what became of her now. She knew at the last full moon that her sweetheart was thoroughly up for jilting her; and now when she had ventured out purely of her own selfwill the wind had taken her up anyhow, and whisked her like a snowflake against the washhouse door. She was sure to have a black eye in the morning, and then it would be all up with her; and Jemima might go sweethearting, and she could not keep her company.

The roar through the wood, the yells at the corners, the bellowing round the chimneys, the thunder of the implacable hurricane; any mortal voice was less than a whisper into a steamwhistle. Who could tell what trees were falling? A monster might be hurled on the roof, and not one of them would know it until it came sheer through the ceiling. Amy was pale as the cinders before her, but firm as the bars of iron, and even trying to smile sometimes at the shrieks and queer turns of the tempest. No candle could be kept alight, and the flame of the parlour lamp quivered like a shirt badly pinned on a washingline. But Amy was thinking dearly of the father of the household, the father of the parish, out in the blinding wind and rain, and where the wild waves were lashing. And now and then Amy wondered whether it blew so hard in London, and hoped they had no big chimneys there.

John Rosedew had taken his little bundle, in a waterproof case, and set out on foot for Rushford, when the storm became unmistakeable. He would not ride Cor?bus; first because he would have found it impossible to wipe him dry, secondly because the wind has such purchase upon a man when he is up there on the pommel. So the rector strode off in his stoutest manner, an hour or so before nightfall, and the rain went into him, neck and shoes, before he got to the peatrick. To a resolute man, who feels sometimes that the human hide wants tanning, there are few greater pleasures than getting basted and cracklined by the wet wind; only it must not come too often, neither last too long.

So John was in excellent spirits, quelching along and going pop like a ball of Indiarubber, when he came on a weaker fellowmortal, stuck fast in a chair of beechroots.

Why, Robert! said Mr. Rosedew, and ninetenths of his voice went to leeward; Robert, my boy; oh dear!

That last exclamation followed in vain John?s favourite old hat, which every one in the parish loved, especially the children. The hat went over the crest of the hill, and leaped into an oaktree, and was seen no more but of turtledoves, who built therein next summer, and for three or four generations; and all the doves were blessed, for the sake of the man who sought peace and ensued it.

Let me go after it, cried Bob, with his knees and teeth knocking together.

To be sure I will, replied John Rosedew the nearest approach to irony that the worst wind ever took him now, Robert, come with me.

He hooked the light stripling, hard and firm, to his own staunch powerful frame, and, like a steamer lashed alongside, forced him across the windbrunt. And so, by keeping the covered ways, by running the grooves of the hurricane, they both got safe to Rushford; to which achievement Bob?s loving knowledge of every inch of the forest contributed at least as much as the stern strength of the parson.

Pretty Bob had no right, of course, to be out there at that time; but he had heard of a glorious company of the death?shead caterpillar, in a snug potatofield, scooped from out the woodlands. He knew that they must have burrowed now, and so he set out to dig for them with his little handfork, directly the thaw allowed him. Anything to divert his mind, or rather revert it into the natural channel. He had dreamed about sugarplums, and Amy, and butterflynets, and Queens of Spain, and his father scowling over all, until his brain, at that sensitive time, was like a sirex, trying to get out but stuck fast by the antenn?. Now, Bob, though awake to the little tricks and pleasant ways of Nature, as observed in cricks and crannies, knew nothing as yet of her broader moods, her purging sweeps, her clearances, in a word, he was a stranger to the law of storms. Therefore he got a bitter lesson, and one which set him a thinking. John Rosedew, with his grand bare head bent forward to the windblow, and the grey locks sweeping backward how Amy would have cried! towed Bob Garnet down the combe which spreads out to the sea at Rushford. The fall of the waves was short and hard no long ocean rollers yet, only an angry beating surf, sputtering under the gravelcliff.

They found some shelter in the hollow, which opens to the southsouthwest; for, though it was blowing as hard as ever, the wind had not canted round yet; and the little village of Rushford, upon which the sea is gaining so, was happy enough in its bunney, and could keep its candles burning.

I?ll go home with the boy at sundown, when the gale breaks, as I hope it will. His father will be in a dreadful way, and I know what that man is. But I could not leave the boy there, neither could I go back again.

So said John Rosedew, lulled by the shelter, feeling as if he had frightened himself and all his household for nothing; almost ashamed to show himself at Octavius Pell?s seacottage, the very last dwelling of the village. But Octave Pell knew better. He had not lived upon that coast, fagging out as a cricketer of the Church of England, with his feet and his hands ready always, and his spiked shoes holding the ground, he had not been on the outside of all things, hoping for innings some day, without looking up at the skies sometimes, and guessing about promotion. So he knew that his rector, whom he revered beyond all the fathers of men or women for he too was soft upon Amy he saw that his rector was right in coming, except for his own dear sake.

John came in, with his shapely legs stuck all tight in the shrunk kerseymere (shrunk, and varnished, and puckered like plaiting, from the pelt of the rain), and by one hand still he drew the quenched and welyy Bob. The wind was sucking round the cliff, and the door flew open hard enough for a weak man?s legs to go with it. But Octave Pell as he was called, because he would sing, though he could not the Reverend Octavius was of a sturdy order, wellbalanced and steadygoing. He drew in his reeking visitors, and dried, and fed, and warmed them; Bob being lodged in a suit of clothes which he could only inhabit sparsely. Then Pell laid aside his roseroot pipe out of deference to his rector, and made Bob drink hot brandyandwater till he chattered more than his teeth had done.

That curate was a fine young fellow, a B.A. of John Rosedew?s college, to whom John had given a title for orders not sold it, as some rectors do, for a twelvemonth?s stipend. A tall, strong, gentlemanly parson, stuck up in no wise, nor stuck down; neither of the High nor Low Church rut, although an improvement on the old type which cared for none of these things. He did his duty by his parish; and, as follows almost of necessity, his parish loved and admired him. He never lifted a poor man?s potlid to know what he had for dinner; he never made much of sectarian squabbles, nor tried to exorcise dissent. In a word, he kept his place, because he felt and loved it.

Only two rooms had Pell to boast of, but he was wonderfully happy in them. He could find all his property in the dark, and had only one silver spoon. And the man who can be happy with one, was born with it in his mouth. Those two rooms he rented from old Jacob Thwarthawse, or rather from Mrs. Jacob, for the old man was a pilot on the Southampton Water, and scarcely home twice in a twelvemonth. The little cot looked like a boathouse at the bottom of the bunney; so close it was to the highwater mark, that the froth of the waves and the drifting skates eggs came almost up to the threshold when the tide ran big, and the wind blew fresh.

And in the gentle summer night pray what is it in Theocritus? John Rosedew could tell, but not I at least, I mean without looking


Along the pinched caboose, on every side,
With mincing murmur swam the ocean tide.

Id. xxi. 17.

CHAPTER IV

By the time Octavius Pell had clothed, and fed, and warmed his drenched and buffeted guests, the sun was slipping out of sight, and glad to be quit of the mischief. For a minute or two, the cloudcurtain lifted over St. Alban?s Head, and a narrow bar of lively green striped the lurid heavens. This was the critical period, and John Rosedew was aware of it, as well as Octave Pell. Either the wind would shift to southwest quicker than vanes could keep time with it, and then there would be a lively storm, with no very wide area; or else it would come on again with one impetuous leap and roar, and no change of direction, and work to the southwest gradually, blowing harder until it got there. The sea was not very heavy yet, when they went out to look at it; the rain had ceased altogether; there was not air enough to move the fur of a lady?s boa; but, out beyond the Atlantic offing, ridges like edges of knives were jumping, as if to look over the skyline.

Nulla in prospectu navis, said John Rosedew, who always talked Latin, as a matter of course, when he met an Oxford man; at least, so far as I can see with the aid of my longrangers.

No, replied Pell, and I?m heartily glad that there is no ship in sight; for, unless I?m much mistaken run, sir, run like lightning. I?ve got no more dry clothes.

They ran for it, and were just in time before the fury came down again. Bob Garnet was ready to slip away, for he knew that his father would be wild about him; he had taken his drenched hat from the firetongs, and was tugging at the latch of the door. But now there was no help for it.

We are in for it now, cried Mr. Rosedew; I have not come down for nothing. It is, what I feared this morning, the heaviest storm that has broken upon us for at least a generation. And we are not yet in the worst of it. God grant there be no unfortunate ship making for the Needles. All our boats, you say, Pell, are in the Solent long ago. Bob, my boy, you must not expect to see your father tonight. I hope he will guess what has happened.

The beach, or pebble bank of Hurst, is a long and narrow spit of land, growing narrower every year, which forms a natural breakwater to the frith of the Solent. It curves away to the south of east from the straighter and more lofty coast of Barton, Hordle, and Rushford. Hurst Castle, in which it terminates, is the eastern horn of Christchurch Bay, as Hengistbury Head is the western. The Isle of Wight and the Needle Rocks protect this bay from the east wind?s power, but a due south wind brings in the sea, and a southwest the Atlantic. Off this coast we see at times those strange floating or rising islands known by the name of the Shingles; which sometimes stay above water so long, that their surface is clad with the tender green of bladderwort and samphire; but more often they disappear after taking the air for a few short hours. For several years now they have taken no air; and a boatman told me the other day, that, from the rapid strides of the sea, he thought it impossible for the Shingles ever to top the waves again.

Up and down the Solent channel the tide pours at a furious speed; and the rush of the strong ebb down the narrows, flushed with the crosstide from St. Helen?s, combs and pants out into Christchurch Bay, above the floodmark of two hours since. This great eddy, or reflux, is called the doubletide; and an awkward power it has for any poor vessel to fall into.

All that night it blew and blew, harder and harder yet; the fishermen?s boats on the beach were caught up, and flung against the gravelcliff; the stout men, if they ventured out, were snatched up as a mother snatches a child from the wheels of a carriage; the oaks of the wood, after wailing and howling, as they had done to a thousand tempests, found that outcry go for nothing, and with it went themselves. Seven hundred towers of Nature?s building showed their roots to the morning. The old moon expired at O32; and many a gap the new moon found, where its mother threw playful shadows. The sons of Ytene are not swiftwitted, nor deeply read in the calendar; yet they are apt to mark and heed the great convulsions of nature. The old men used to date their weddings from the terrible winter of 1787; the landmark of the young men?s annals is the storm of 1859.

All that night, young Robert Garnet was strung by some strange tension. Of course he could not sleep, amid that fearful uproar, although he was plunged and lost from sight in Octavius Pell?s great chair. The only luxury Pell possessed and that somehow by accident was a deep, and soft, and mighty chair, big enough for three people. After one of the windows came in, which it did, with a crash, about ten o?clock, scattering Pell?s tobaccojars, and after they had made it good with books and boxes and a rug, so that the wind was filtered through it, John Rosedew and his curate sat on a couple of hard old Windsors, watching the castle of Hurst. Thence would come the signal flash, if any hapless bark should be seen driving over the waters. There they sat, John Rosedew talking, as he could talk to a younger man, when his great heart was moved to its depth, and the multitude of his mind in march, and his soul anticipating it: talking so that Octave Pell, following his silver tones, even through that turmoil, utterly forgot the tempest, and the lapse of hours, and let fall on his lap the pipe, which John had made him smoke.

The thunder of the billows waxing, for the wind was now southwest, began to drown the roar of the gale, and a storm of foam was flying, when the faint gleam of a gun at sea was answered by artillery?s flash from the walls of old Henry the Eighth. Both men saw the landward light leap up and stream to leeward; but only the younger one descried the weak appeal from the offing.

Where is she, Pell? Have you any idea?

She is away, sir, here to the right: dead in the eye of the wind.

Then may our God and Father pity our brothers and our sisters!

Out ran both those strong good men, leaving poor Bob (as they thought) asleep in the depth of the easychair. The little cottage was partly sheltered by an elbow of the cliff; otherwise it would have been flying up the bunney long ago. The moment the men came out of the shelter, they were driven one against the other, and both against the cliff.

My castle will go at highwater, said Pell, though none could hear him; but I shall be back in time enough to get the old woman out.

Then, as far as Pell could make out in the fierce noise and the darkness, John Rosedew begged him to go back, while himself went on alone. For it was John?s especial business; he had procured the lifeboat, chosen the crew, and kept the accounts; and he thought himself responsible for any wreck that happened. But what good on earth could Pell do, and all his chattels in danger?

No good, very likely, Pell shouted, and a good deal perhaps indoors! Keep the sea out with a besom.

Octave had a dry way with him, not only when he sang, but when he thought he saw the right, and did not mean to argue it. So rector and curate, old man and young man, trudged along together, each bending low, and throwing his weight, like a quoit, against the wind; each stopping and crouching at every tenth yard, as the blast irresistible broke on them. Crusted with hunks of froth pellmell, like a storm of eggs on the hustings, drenched by pelting sheets of spray, deafened by the thundering surf, and often obliged to fly with the wind from a wave that rushed up scolloping, they battled for that scoop of the bay where the ship must be flung by the indraught.

Up to the present, Christchurch Point, and St. Alban?s Head beyond it, broke (as the wind was westering) some little of the wildest seabrunt. But now they stood, or rather crouched, where the mountain rollers gathering, sweeping, towering onward, avalanche upon avalanche, burst on their destined barrier. A thousand leagues of water, swelled by the whole weight of heaven flung on it, there leaped up on the solid earth, and to the heaven that vexed it. As a strong man in his wrath accepts his wife?s endorsement, so the surges took the minor passion of a fierce springtide, rolled it in their own, and scorned the flat land they looked down upon. Tush, the combing of their crests was bigger than any town there. On they came, too grand to be hurried even by the storm that roused them; each had a quarter of a mile to himself, and who should take it from him? The white foam fell back in the wide water valleys, and hissed and curdled away in flat loops, and the storm took the mountain ridges again and swept the leaping snow off. Anon, as it struck the shelving shore, each rolling monster tossed its crest unspeakably indignant; hung with impending volume, curling like the scroll of God; then thundered, as in judgment, down, and lashed the trembling earth.

Among them, not a mile from shore, as the breaking daylight showed it, heaved, and pitched, and wallowed hoglike in the trough of waters, a large ship, swept and naked. Swept of her masts, of her canvas naked; but clad, alas! with men and women, clustering, clinging, cowering from the great white grave beneath them. As she laboured, reeled, and staggered up to the stormrent heavens, and then plunged down the yawning chasm, every attitude, every gesture of terror, love, despair, and madness could be descried on the objectglass of the toofaithful telescope. As a ghastly wan gleam from the east lit up all that quivering horror, all that plight of anguish, John Rosedew turned away in tears, and fell upon his knees.





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