Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 2 of 3
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On the morning now of the 27th, with the long sullen swell gold–beater–skinned by the recovering sun, the shingle–bank was full of interest to an active trader. They had picked up several bodies with a good bit of money upon them, and the beach was strewn with oranges none the worse for a little tossing. For the stout East Indiaman Aliwal had touched at the Western Islands, and taken on board a thousand boxes of the early orange harvest. And not only oranges were rolling among the wrack, the starfish, the shark?s teeth, and the cuttle–eggs, but also many a pretty thing, once prized and petted by women. There were little boxes with gilt and paint, sucked heartily by the salt water, and porcupine–quills rasping up from panels of polished ebony, cracked mirrors inside them, and mother–of–pearl, and beading of scented wood; all the taste and the labour of man yawning like dead cockles, crimped backward, sodden and shredded, as hopeless a wreck as a drunkard.
Then there were barrels, and heavy chests, planking already like hemp in the prison–yard, bulkheads, and bulwarks, and cordage, and reeve–blocks, and ten thousand other things, well appreciated by the wreckers, who were hauling them up the bunneys; while the Admiralty droitsmen made an accurate inventory of the bungs and the blacking bottles. Some of the sailors, and most of the passengers, who had escaped in the boats to Christchurch, came over to look for anything that might turn up of their property. Hereupon several fights ensued, and many poor fellows enjoyed opportunity for a closer inspection of the Rushford stratum than the most sanguine of their number anticipated; until the police came down in force, and extinguished at once all other rights of salvage except their own.
Nevertheless there was yet one field upon which the police could not interfere; although Jack wished for nothing better than to catch the lubbers there. This was Jack?s own domain, the sea, where an animated search was going on for the body of Colonel Nowell. His servant had hurried from Christchurch to Nowelhurst to report the almost certain death of Sir Cradock?s only brother. He did not go first to ascertain it; for the road along the cliffs was impassable during the height of the storm. Sir Cradock received the announcement with very few signs of emotion. He had loved that Clayton in early youth, but now had almost forgotten him; and Clayton had never kept his brother at all apprised of his doings. Sir Cradock had gone into mourning for him, some three years ago; and Colonel Nowell never took the trouble to vindicate his vitality until Dr. Hutton?s return. And, even though they had really known and loved one another as brothers, the loss would have been but a tap on the back to a man already stabbed through the heart. Therefore Sir Cradock?s sorrow exploded (as we love to make our griefs do, and as we so often express them) in the moneyed form. “I will give 500l. to the man who finds my poor brother?s body.”
That little speech launched fourteen boats.What wrecker could hope for anything of a tenth part of the value? Men who had sworn that they never would pull in the same boat again together – might the Great Being, the Giver of life, strike them dead if they did! – forgot the solemn perjuration, and cried, “Give us your flipper, Ben; after all, there are worse fellows going than you, my lad:” and Ben responded, “Jump into the starn–sheets; you are just the hand as we want, Harry. Many?s the time I?ve thought on you.” Even the dredging smacks hauled in–shore from their stations, and began to dredge for the Colonel; till the small boats resolved on united action, tossed oars, and held solemn council. Several speeches were made, none of them very long, but all embodying that fine sentiment, “fiat justitia, ruat c?lum,” in the form of “fair play, and be d – d to you.” Then Sandy Mac, of the practical mind, made a suggestion which was received with three wild rounds of cheers.
“Give ‘em a little ballast, boys, as they be come in–shore to dredge for it.”
With one consent the fourteen boats made for the shore, like the fleet of canoes described by the great Defoe. Nor long before each shallop?s nose “grated on the golden sands.” The men in the dredging smacks looked at the sky to see if a squall was coming. And soon they got it, thick as hail, and as hot as pepper. The fourteen boats in battle array advanced upon them slowly, only two men rowing in each, all the rest standing up, and every man charged heavily. When they were at a nice wicket distance, old Mac gave the signal, and a flight of stones began, which, in the words of the ancient chroniclers, “well–nigh darkened the noonday sun.” The bravest dredger durst not show his head above the gunwale; for the Rushford stones are close of grain, and it is sweeter to start than to stop them. As for south–westers and dreadnoughts, they were no more use than vine–leaves in a storm of electric hail.
The dredgers gave in, and hoisted a shirt as a signal for a parley. The Rushford men refused to hear a syllable about “snacks.” What they demanded was “unconditional surrender;” and the dredgers, having no cement–stones on board, were compelled to accept it. So they took up their bags, and walked the smacks off three miles away to their station, with very faint hopes indeed that the obliging body might follow them. The boatmen celebrated their victory with three loud cheers for Sandy Mac, and a glass of grog all round. Then they returned to the likeliest spot, and dragged hard all the afternoon.
“Tarnation ‘cute body,” cried Ben, “as ever I come across. Who?d a thought as any perfessing Christian would have stuck to Davy Jones?s locker, and refooged the parson and clerk so? Spit on your grapples, my lads of wax, and better luck the cast after.”
“The Lord kens the best,” replied Sandy Mac, with a long–drawn sigh, “us poor vessels canna do more than is the will of the Lord, boys. Howsomever, I brought a bit of bait, a few lug–worms, and a soft crab or two; and please the Lord I?ll rig my line out, and see if the bass be moving. And likely there may be a tumbling cod on the run speering after the puir bodies. Ah, yes, the will of the Lord; we ates them, and they ates us.”
The canny old Scotchman, without foregoing his share in the general venture – for he helped to throw the grapnels, or took a spell at the rudder – rigged out a hook on his own account, and fastened the line to the rowlocks.
“Fair play, my son,” cried Ben, winking at his comrades; “us go snacks in what you catch, mind. And the will of the Lord be done.”
“Dinna ye wish ye may get it?” – the old man glowered at him indignantly – “I?ll no fish at all on that onderstanding.”
“Fish away, old boy, and be blessed, then. I see he ain?t been in the purwentive sarvice for nothing. But I?m blowed if he?ll get much supper, Harry, if it?s all to come off that darned old hook.” They all laughed at old Mac, who said nothing, but regarded his line attentively.
With many a joke and many an oath, they toiled away till the evening fog came down upon the waters. Then, as they turned to go home, old Mac felt a run upon his fishing–gear. Hand over hand he began to haul in, coiling the line in the stern–sheets.
“It?s a wapping big fish, as ever I feel, mates; na, na, ye?ll no touch it, or ye?ll be claiming to come and sup wi’ me. And deil a bit – the Lord forgive me – will ye ha?, for grinning at an auld mon the likes of that, I tell ye. Lord ha’ mercy on me, a wake and sinful crater!”
They all fell back, except Macbride, as before them in the twilight rose the ashy grey face and the long white hair of Colonel Clayton Nowell.
Mac stuck to his haul like a Scotchman; to him the main chance was no ghost. Many a time has he told that story, and turned his quid upon it, cleverly raining between his teeth with fine art to prolong the crisis.
The line being his, and the hook being his, and the haul of his own hands only, Sandy Mac could never see why he should not have all the money. The question came close to litigation; but for that, except as a word of menace, Mac was a deal too wide awake. He compounded at last for 300l. and let the other four share the residue.
So poor Colonel Nowell?s countenance, still looking grand and dignified, was saved from the congers and lobsters; and he sleeps close by his nephew and namesake in Nowelhurst churchyard. The body of Captain Roberts was found a long way up the Solent. He had always carried a weather helm, and shaped a good course for harbour. May they rest in peace!
I have no doubt that Captain Roberts so rests, and am fain to believe, in the mercy of God, the same of the brave old Colonel. At least, we will hope that he is not gone to that eternal punishment, whose existence our divines contend for in a manner so disinterested. He had been a harum–scarum man; and now, having drowned and buried him, we may enter upon his history with the charity due to both quick and dead, but paid to the latter only.
A soldier is, in many things, by virtue of his calling, a generous, careless man. We have always credited the sailor with these popular qualities; hornpipes, national drama, and naval novels imbuing us. I doubt if the sailor be, on the whole, so careless a man as the soldier. Jack is obliged, by force of circumstance, to bottle up his money, his rollicksomeness and sentimentality, and therefore has more to get rid of, when he comes ashore once in a twelvemonth. But spread the outburst over the year, strike the average of it, and the rainfall at Aldershot will equal that at Portsmouth.
Only by watching the Army List – which at length he was tired of doing – could the English brother tell if the Indian brother were living. Even the most careful of us begin to feel that care is too much for the nine lives of a cat, when Fahrenheit scores 110° in the very coolest corner, and the punkah is too hot to move. So, after one or two Griffin letters, full of marvels which the writer pretended not to marvel at, a silence, as of the jungle, ensued, and Sir Cradock thought of tigers. Then the slides of his own life began to move upon him; and less and less every year he thought of the boy who had laughed and cried with him.
Lieutenant Nowell was ordered suddenly to the borders of the Punjaub, and for twenty years his brother Cradock drank his health at Christmas, and wondered how about the Article against praying for the dead. The next thing he heard, though it proved his own orthodoxy, disproved it by making him swear hard. Clayton Nowell had married; married an Affghan woman, to the great disgust of his brother officers, and the furious disdain of her kinsmen. A very fine family of Affghan chiefs immediately loaded their fusils, and swore to shoot both that English dog and their own Bright Eyes of the Morning.
“To think,” cried Sir Cradock Nowell, “that a brother of mine should disgrace himself, and (what matters far more) his family, by marrying a wretched low Affghan woman!”
“To think,” cried Mohammed Khans, “that a sister of ours should disgrace herself, and (what matters far more) her family, by marrying a cursed low English dog!”
Which party was in the right, judge ye who understand the matter. The officers’ wives got over their prejudice against Bright Eyes of the Morning, and matronised, and petted, and tried to make a Christian of her. Captain Nowell adored her; she was so elegant in every motion, so loving, and so simple. She quite reformed him for the time from his too benevolent anthropology, from the love of dice, and the vinous doings which the Prophet does not encourage.
But the poor thing died in her first confinement, while following her husband?s regiment at the foot of the Himalayah, leaving her new–born babe to the care of a faithful Affghan nurse, who had kept at her dear lady?s side, even among the infidels. This good nurse, being great of soul, and therefore strong of faith, could not bear that the child of her mistress, the highest blood of the Affghans, should become a low Frank idolater. So she set off with it, in the dark night, crouching past the sentinels, thieves, and other camp followers, and trusted herself to the boundless jungle, with only the stars to guide her. She put the wailing child to her breast, for her own dear babe was dead, and hushed it from the vigilant ears of the man–eating tiger. Then off again for Affghanistan, six hundred miles in the distance.
How this wonderful woman, soothing and coaxing the little stranger (obtrusively remarkable for the power of her squalls), how she got on through the thorns, the fire, the famine, the jaws of the tiger, and, worse than all, the pestilent fever, bred from the rich stagnation of that alluvial soil, is more than I, or any other unversed in woman?s unity, may pretend to show. Enough that with her eyes upon the grand religious heights – heathen high places, we should call them – she struggled along through nearly three–quarters of her pilgrimage, and then she fell among robbers. A villanous hill–tribe, of mixed origin, always shifting, never working, never even fighting when they could run away, hated and despised by the nobler mountain races, the pariahs of the Himalayah, ignorant of any good, debased as any Africans – in a single word, Rakshas, or worshippers of the devil. A nice school of education for a young lady of tender years – or rather months – to commence in.
The nurse was allotted to one of their chiefs, and the babe was about to be knocked on the head, when it struck an enlightened priest that in two years’ time she would make a savoury oblation to the devil; so the Affghan woman was allowed to keep her, until she began to crawl about among the dogs and babes of the station. Here she so distinguished herself by precocious skill in thieving, that her delighted owner conferred upon her the title of “Never–spot–the–dust,” and even instructed her how to steal the high priest?s knife of sacrifice. That last exploit saved her life. Such a genius had never appeared in any tribe of the Rakshas until this great manifestation.
So “Never–spot–the–dust” was well treated, and made much of by her owner, to whom she was quite a fortune; and soon all the band looked up to her as the future priestess of the devil. For ten years she wandered about with them, becoming every year more important, proud that none could approach her skill in stealing, lying, and perjury, utterly void of all religion, except the few snatches of Moslemism which her nurse had contrived to impart, and the vague terror of the evil spirit to whom the wild men paid their vows. But, when she was ten years old, a tall and wonderfully active child, and just about to be consecrated by the blood of inferior children, a British force drew suddenly all around the nest of robbers. Of late the scoundrels had done things that made John Bull?s hair stand on end; and, when his hair is in that condition, sparks are apt to come out of it.
Seeing no chance of escape, and having very faint hopes of quarter, the robbers fought with a bravery which quite astonished themselves; but the evil spirit was against them – a rare inconsistence on his part. Their rascally camp was burnt, which they who had burned some hundreds of villages looked upon as the grossest cruelty, and more than half of their number were sent home to their patron and guardian. Then the Affghan nurse, so faithful and so unfortunate, fled from the burning camp with her charge, fell before the British colonel, and poured forth all her troubles. The Englishman knew Major Nowell, and had heard some parts of his history; so he took “Never–spot–the–dust” to her father, who was amazed at once and amused with her. She could run up the punkah, and stand on the top, and twirl around on one foot; she could cross the compound in three bounds; she could jump upon her father?s shoulder, and stay there with the spring of her sole; she could glide along over the floor like a serpent, and hold on with one hand to anything. And then her most wonderful lightness of touch; she had fully earned her name, she could brush the dust without marking it. She could come behind her father?s back, crawling over the table, and fasten his sword–hilt to his whiskers, without his knowing a thing of it. She could pick all his pockets, of course; but that was too rude an operation for her to take any delight in it. What she delighted to do, and what even she found difficult, was to take off his shoes and stockings without his being aware of it. It was a beautiful thing to see her: consummate skill is beautiful, in whatever way it is exercised. The shoe she could get off easily enough, but the difficulty was with the stocking; and there the chief difficulty was through the sensitiveness of the skin, unaccustomed to exposure. Though she had never heard of temperature, evaporation, or anything long, her genius told her the very first time where the tug was and how to meet it. Keeping her little cornelian lips – lips which you could see through – just at the proper distance, she would breathe so softly upon the skin that the breath could not be felt, as inch by inch she lowered down the thin elastic covering. Then she would jump up out of the ground, and shout into his ears, with a voice of argute silver —
“Faddery, will ‘oo have ‘oor shoe? Fear to go wiyout him?”
She began to talk English, after a bit; and the weather beaten Colonel – for now he had got that far – who had never looked upon any child, except as one rupee per month – thinking of his beloved Bright Eyes of the Morning, who might, with the will of God, have made a first–rate man of him, only she was too good for him, – thinking of her, and seeing the gleam of her glorious eyes in her child, he loved that child beyond all reason, and christened her “Eoa.”
He never took to bad things again. He had something now in pledge with God; a part of himself that still would live, and love him when he was skeleton. And that, his better part, should learn how lying and stealing do not lead to the right half of the other world.
His ideas about that other world were as dormant as Eoa?s; but now he began to think about it, because he wanted to see her there. So, with lots of tears, not only feminine, Eoa Nowell was sent to the best school in Calcutta, where she taught the other young ladies some very odd things indeed.
Wherever she went, she must be foremost; “second to none” was her motto. Therefore she learned with amazing quickness; but it was not so easy to unlearn.
Then arose that awful mutiny, and the Colonel at Mhow was shot through the neck, and let lie, by his own soldiers. His daughter heard of it, and screamed, and no walls ever built would hold her. All the way from Calcutta, up the dreary Ganges, she forced her passage, sometimes by boat, sometimes on her weariless feet.
She had never cared much for civilization, and loved every blade of the jungle. The old life revived within her, as she looked upon the broad waters, and the boundless yellow tangle, wherein glided no swifter thing, nothing more elegant, than herself.
She found her darling father in some rude cantonment, prostrate, helpless, clinging faintly to the verge of death. Dead long ago he must have been but for Rufus Hutton; and dead even now he would have been but for his daughter?s presence. His dreamy eyes went round the hut to follow her graceful movements; she alone could tend the wounds as if with the fall of gossamer, she alone could soothe and fan the intolerable aching. They looked into each other?s eyes and cried without thinking about it.
Then, as he gradually got better, and the surge of trouble passed them, Eoa showed for his amusement all her strange accomplishments. She had not forgotten one of them in the grand school at Calcutta. They had even grown with her growth, and strengthened with her strength.
She would leap over Rufus Hutton?s head like a flash of light, and stand facing him, without a muscle moving, and on his back would be a land–crab; she would put his up–country hat on the floor, and walk on one foot round the crown of it; she would steal his case of instruments, and toss them in the air all open, and catch them all at once.
By her nursing and her loving, her stealing and her mockery, she won Dr. Hutton?s heart so entirely that he would have proposed to her, had she only been of marriageable age, or had come to think about anything.
Then they had all to cut and run, with barely three hours’ notice, for the ebb of the rebellion swept through that district mightily. Eoa went to school again, and her father came to see her daily, until he was appointed to a regiment having something more than name and shadow.
Now Eoa, having learned everything that they can teach in Calcutta, the Himalayah, or the jungle, was coming to England to receive the down and crown of accomplishments. Who could tell but what they might even teach her affectation? Youth is plastic and imitative; and she was sure to find plenty of models.
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