Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 3 of 3
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Upon the Christmas morning the parish flocked to church, and the church was dressed so beautifully that every one was amazed. Amy and Eoa made the wreaths, the garlands, and rosettes; there was only one cross out of the lot, a badly–bred Maltese one; and Eoa walked over the barbarous pewscreens (like the travisses in a stable), springing from one to another, with a cable of flowers and evergreens, as easily and calmly as she would come down–stairs to dinner. Of course she had never heard of that sort of thing before, but she took to it at once, as she did to anything pretty; and soon she was Amy?s mistress, as indeed she must be every one?s, unless she could not bear them.
The sons of the Forest looked up with amazement as they shambled in one after other, and an old woodcutter went home for his axe, lest the ivy should throttle the pillars. On the whole, the parish attributed this great outburst of foliage to the indignation of the pixies at Parson John?s going to London, and staying there so long.
The prayers were read by Mr. Pell, for the rector was weary and languid; but he would not forego his pleasant words to the well–known flock that day. While the choir was making a stupendous din out of something they called an “anthem,” Octave slipped off to his Rushford duty, through the chancel–door. Then, with his silken gown on – given him years ago by subscription, and far too grand for him to wear, except at Christmas and Easter – John Rosedew mounted the pulpit–stairs, and showed (as in a holy bower of good–will and of gratitude) the loving–kindness of his face and the grandeur of his forehead. As he glanced from one to the other with a general welcome, a genial interest in the welfare both of soul and body, a stir and thrill ran through the church, and many eyes were tearful. For already a rumour was abroad that “Uncle John” must leave them, that another Christmas Day would see a stranger in his pulpit.
After dwelling briefly on his favourite subject, Christian love, and showing (by quotations from the noblest of heathen philosophers) how low and false their standard was, how poor a keystone is earthly citizenship, the patriotism of a pugnacious village, or a little presumptuous Attica, to crown and bind together the great arch of humanity; after showing, too, with a depth of learning wasted on his audience, how utterly false the assertion is that the doctrines, or rather the principles, nay, the one great principle of our New Testament, had ever been anticipated on the banks of the Yellow River – eloquently he turned himself to the application of his subject.
With some unconscious yearning perhaps, or perhaps some sense of home–truth, he gazed towards the curtained pew where sat his ancient friend, brought thither (it was too evident) by tidings of his absence. As the eyes of the old men met, for the first time after long estrangement – those eyes that had met so frankly and kindly for more than fifty years, during all which time each to the other had been a “necessarius” – and as each observed how pale and grey his veteran comrade looked, neither heart was wholly free from self–reproach and sorrow.
John Rosedew?s mild eyes glistened so, and his voice so shook and faltered, that all the parish noticed it, and wondered what harm it had done last week.For none of them had ever known his voice shake, except when some parishioner had done the unbecoming; and then the village mourned it, because it vexed the parson so.
The next day, as soon as Parson John had found that all parochial matters were in proper trim, and that he might leave home again without neglect of duty, what did he do but order a fly, no less than a one–horse fly, from the “Jolly Foresters;” which fly should rush to the parsonage–door, as nearly as might be, at one o?clock? Now why would not Cor?bus suffice to carry the rector and valise, according to the laws of the Medes and Persians, a distance of two parasangs?
Simply because our Amy was going, and had every right to go. Beautiful Amy was going to London, great fountain–head of all visions and marvels, even from white long–clothes up to the era of striped crinoline. And who shall object, except on the ground that Amy was too good to go?
If Amy were put down now in Hyde Park, Piccadilly, or Regent–street, at the height and cream of the season, when fop, and screw, and fogey, Frivolus and Frivola, Diana Venatrix, Copa Syrisca, Aphrodite Misthote, yea, and even some natural honest girls moderately ticketed, are doing their caravaning – if Amy were put on the pathway there, in her simple grey hat and feather, and that roundabout chenille thing which she herself had made, and which followed the lines of her figure so, fifty fellows, themselves of the most satisfactory figure (at Drummond?s, or at Coutts?s), fifty fellows who had slipped the hook fifty times apiece (spite of motherly bend O?Shaugnessey) must have received their stroke of grace, and hated Cradock Nowell.
Although the South–Western Railway had been open so many years, our forest–child had never been further from green leaf and yellow gorse than Winchester in the eastern hemisphere, and Salisbury in the western. And now after all to think that she was going to London, not for joy, but sorrow. Desperate coaxing it had cost; every known or new device – transparent every one of them, as the pleading eyes that urged it – every bit of cozening learned from three years old and upward, every girlish argument that never can hold water, unless it be a tear–drop; and, better than a million pleas, every soft caress and kiss, all loving, all imploring – there was not one of these but came to batter Amy?s father, or ever he surrendered. For John?s ideas were very old–fashioned as to maidenly decorum, and Aunt Eudoxia?s view of the matter was even more prim and grim than his. Yet (as Amy well remarked) if she could see no harm in it, there certainly could be none; and how could they insist so much on the ????? and the ??????, as if they over–rode ?? ????!
It is likely enough that this last stroke won the palm of victory; for, though Miss Amy knew little of Greek, and her father knew a great deal, she often contrived, with true feminine skill, to take his wicket neatly, before he had found his block–hole. And then her father would smile and chuckle, and ask to have his bat again; which never was allowed him. To think that any man should be the father of such ????????!
Therefore, that father was compelled to throw himself, flat as a flounder, on Eudoxia?s generosity; for the leech–bottle now was dry.
“Darling Doxy, you know quite well you are such a wonderful manager; you have got a little cash somewhere?”
He put it with a twist of interrogation, a quivering lever of doubt, and yet a grand fulcrum of confidence, which were totally irresistible. No wonder his daughter could coax. Oh that I were like you, John, when I want a bit of money!
Hereupon Aunt Doxy smiled, with the perception of superior mind, and the power of causing astonishment. Never a word she said, but went to some unknown recesses in holy up–stair adyta: she fussed about with many keys, over sounding boards and creaking ones, to signify her caution; and at last came back with a leathern bag, wash–leather tied with bobbin. Putting up her hands to keep Amy at a distance, she pursed her lips, as if to say, “Now don?t be disappointed; there is really nothing in it. Nothing, at least, I mean for people of your extravagant ideas.”
Then, one by one, before John?s eyes, which enlarged with a geometric progression of amazement, she laid a gorgeous train of gold, as if it were but dominoes, beginning with half–sovereigns first, then breaking into the broader gauge, until there must have been twenty pounds, and John thought of all his poor people. Verily then she stopped awhile, to enhance her climax; or perhaps she hesitated, as was only natural. But now the pleasure of the thing was too much for her prudence. Looking at John and then at Amy, and wanting to look at both at once, she drew from a little niche in the bag, with a jerk (as if it were nothing) a dainty marrowfat ten–pound note of the Bank of England, with a name of substance upon the back, and an authenticity of grease grander than any water–mark. She tried very hard to make light of it, and not wave it in the air even; but the tide of her heart was too strong for her, and she turned away, and cried as hard as if she had no money.
Who may pretend to taste and tell every herb in the soup of nature? There is no sovereign moly, no paramount amellus; even basil (the herb of kings) may be lost in garlic. Blest are they who seek not ever for the forced–meat balls, but find some good in every brewis, homely, burnt, or overstrained. John Rosedew, putting on his boots for the road to London, felt himself, at every tug, quite as rich as Megacles – that man of foremost Athenian blood, but none the more a gentleman, who walked capaciously into, and rapaciously walked out of, the gold–granaries of Cr?sus. A delightful sense of having gotten great money out of Eudoxia – a triumph without historic parallel – inspired him, away with that overdone word! – aerated him with glory. Thirty pounds, and some odd shillings, wholly at John Rosedew?s mercy (who never gave quarter to money, but hewed it as small as Agag when anybody asked him), – thirty pounds, with no duty upon it, no stamp of responsibility, and a peculiar and peppery piquancy in the spending of every halfpenny, to wonder what sister Doxy would think if she could only know it! He gave careful Amy the note to keep, and 15l. to go inside it, because he had promised to do so, for Doxy knew his nature.
In that noble fly from the “Foresters,” which had only two springs broken, John and his daughter went away to catch the train at Brockenhurst. Out of the windows dangerously they pushed their beautiful heads – the beauty of youth on one side, the beauty of age on the other – although the coachman had specially warned them that neither door would fasten. But what could they do, when Aunt Doxy was there by the great rhododendron, with a kettle–holder over her mouth because it was so cold; fat Jemima too, and Jenny, and Jem Pottles leading Cor?bus to shake off his dust at the shay–horse, and learn what he might come to?
Some worthy people had journeyed up from the further end of the village, to bid an eternal farewell to Amy, and to take home the washing. They knew she would never come back again; she would never be let go again; folks in London were so wicked, and parson was so innocent. Evil though the omens were, as timidly blushing she went away, tearfully leaving her father?s hearth, though a daw on the left hand forbade her to go, and a wandering chough was overheard, and a croaking raven whirled away into the wilds of the woodland – for whom shall I fear, I the cannie seer, while Amy smiles dexter out of the cab, and wraps her faith around her?
Make we not half our life here, according as we receive it? Is it not as the rain that falls, softly when softly taken, as of leaves and grass and water; but rattling and flying in mud and foul splashes, when met at wrong angles repulsively?
My little daughter, if you cannot see your way in that simile – a very common–place one, – take a still more timeworn and venerable illustration. Our life is but a thread, my child, at any moment snappable, though never snapped unwisely; and true as it is that we cannot spin and shape it (as does the spider) out of our own emotions, yet we have this gift of God, that we can secrete some gold along it, some diamonds fetching the sunlight. Knowing, then, in whose Hand we are, and feeling how large that Hand is, let us know and feel therewith that He will not crush us; that He loves us to rejoice therein, and tamely to regard Him; with confidence in adoration, a smile in every bow to Him.
Polly Ducksacre was sitting in state behind the little counter, and opposite the gas–jet, upon her throne – a bushel basket set upside down on another. It was the evening of Boxing Day, and Polly was arrayed with a splendour that challenged the strictest appraisement; so gorgeous were her gilt earrings, cornelian necklace, sham cameo brooch – Cupid stealing the sword of Mars – and German–silver bracelets. The children who came in for “ha?porths of specked” forgot their errand and hopes of prigging, and, sucking their lips with wild admiration, cried “Lor now! Ain?t she stunnin?” “Spexs her sweetheart in a coach and four,” exclaimed one little girl of great penetration; “oh give us a ride, miss, when he comes.”
That little girl was right, to a limited extent. Polly did expect her sweetheart; not in a coach and four, however, but in a smallish tax–cart, chestnut–coloured, picked out with white; on the panel whereof was painted, as the Act directs, “Robert Clinkers, Junior, Coal–merchant, Hammersmith.” Mr. Clinkers, whose first visit had been paid simply from pity for Cradock, and to acquit himself of all complicity in Hearty Wibraham?s swindle, had called again to make kind inquiries, after finding how ill the poor fellow was, and that his landlady sold coals. Nor was it long before he ventured to propose an arrangement, mutually beneficial, under which the Ducksacre firm should receive their supply from him. Two or three councils were held, but the ladies were obliged to surrender at last, because he was so complimentary, and had such nice white teeth, and spoke in such a feeling manner of his dear departed angel. On the other hand, their old wharfinger would come blustering about his sacks, loud enough to make the potatoes jump, and he kept such impudent men, and bit his nails without any manners, and called them both “Mrs. Acreducks.”
During this Clinkerian diplomacy, Polly showed such shrewdness, and such a nice foot and ancle, and had such a manner of rolling her eyes – blacker and brighter than best Wallsend – that the coals of love were laid, the match struck, the fire kindled, and drawing well up the hearth–place, before Robert Clinkers knew what he was at. And now he came every evening, bringing two sacks of coal with him, and sat on a bag of Barcelonas, and cracked, and gazed at Polly.
“Miss Ducksacre, you should sell lemonade,’” he had said only Saturday last, which was Christmas Eve, “it is such a genteel drink, you know, when a chap is consumed with internal fires, as the great poet says – him as wrote the operas, or the copperas, bless me, I never know which it is; likely you can tell, miss?”
“Lor, Mr. Clinkers, why, the proper name is hopperas; we shows the boards, and we gets a ticket, when nobody else won?t go.”
“Oh now! Do you, though? Ah, I was there, afore ever I knew what life was. A tricksome thing is life, Miss Polly, especially for a ‘andsome female, and no young fellow to be trusted with it. Valuable cargo on green wood. Sure to come to shipwreck.”
“Lor, Mr. Clinkers, you don?t mean me! I am sure I am not at all handsome.”
“Then there isn?t one in London, miss. Coals is coals, and fire is fire – oh, I should like some lemonade, with a drop of rum in it. Would you join me in it now, if I just pop round the corner? It would make you feel so nice now.”
“Do I ever feel anything else but nice?” Oh, Polly, what a leading question!
“I wishes it was in my province now, with the deepest respect, to try!” Here Polly flashed away, though nobody was pursuing her, got behind some Penzance broccoli, and seized a half–pottle to defend herself. Mr. Clinkers, knowing what he was about, appealed to a bunch of mistletoe, under which, in distracting distraction, the young lady had taken refuge.
“Now nobody else in all this London,” said the coal–merchant to the berries, “in all this mighty Baal, as the poet beautifully expresses it, especially if a young man, not over five–and–thirty, not so very bad–looking but experienced in life, and with great veneration for females, and a business, you may say, of three hundred a year clear of income–tax and increasing yearly, and a contract with the company, without no encumbrances, would ever go to think of letting that beautiful young lady enjoy the sweets of retirement in that most initing position, without plucking some of the pearls off, and no harm done or taken. And nothing at all pervents me, no consideration of the brockolo – could pay for it to–morrow morning – but my deepest respects, not having my best togs on, through a cruel haxident. Please pigs they?ll come home to–morrow morning, and I?ll do it on Monday, and lock up yard at four o?clock, if tailor has made a job of it. Look nice indeed, and feel nice? I should like to know how she could help it!”
This explains why, when the wheels at the door proved to be not of the sprightly tax–cart, but a lumbering cab, Polly was disappointed. Neither was her displeasure removed when she saw a very pretty girl get out, and glide into the shop, with the loveliest damask spreading over the softest and clearest cheeks. Though Polly had made up her mind about Cradock as now a bad speculation, it was not likely that she should love yet any one who meant to have him.
Amy shrunk back as her nice clean skirt swept the grimy threshold. She was not by any means fidgety, but had a nervous dislike of dirt, as most upright natures have. Then she felt ashamed of herself, and coloured yet more deeply to think that a place good enough for Cradock should seem too sordid for her, indeed! And then her tears glanced in the gas–light, that Cradock should ever have come to this, and partly, no doubt, for her sake, though she never could tell how.
The little shop was afforested with Christmas–trees of all sorts and of every pattern, as large as ever could be squeezed, with a knuckle of root to keep them steady, into pots No. 32. The costermongers repudiate larger pots, because they take too much room on a truck, and involve the necessity of hiring a boy to push.
Aucuba, Irish yew, Portugal laurel, arbor vit?, and bay–tree, but most of all – and for the purpose by far the most convenient, because of the hat–peg order – the stiff, self–confident, argumentative spruce. All these, when they have done their spiriting, and yielded long–remembered fun, will be fondly tended by gentle–hearted girls on some suburban balcony; they will be watered enough to kill lignum vit?; patent compost will be bought at about the price of sugar; learned consultations will be held between Sylvia and Lucilla; and then, as the leaves grow daily more yellow, and papa is so provoking that he will only shake his head (too sagaciously to commit himself), an earnest appeal will be addressed to some of the gardening papers. Or perhaps the tree will be planted, with no little ceremony, in the centre of some grass–plot nearly as large as a counterpane; while the elder members of the family, though bland enough to drink its health, regard the measure as very unwise, because the house will be darkened so in a few short years.
Meanwhile the editor?s reply arrives – “Possibly Sylvia?s tree has no roots.” He is laughed to scorn for his ignorance, until little Charley falls to work with his Ramsgate spade unbidden. Factura nepotibus umbram! It has been chopped all round the bole with a hatchet, and is as likely to grow as a lucifer–match.
Through that Christmas Tabraca John Rosedew led his daughter, begging her at every step to be careful of the trees, whose claims upon her attention she postponed to those of her frock.
“Lor bless me, sir, is that you now, and your good lady along of you! How glad I am, to be sure!”
“Miss Ducksacre, this is my daughter, Miss Amy Rosedew, of whom you have heard me speak;” here John executed a flourish of great complacency with his hat; “my only child, but as good to me as any dozen could be. Will you allow her to stop here a minute, while I go up–stairs?”
Amy was trembling now, more and more every moment, and John would not ask how Cradock was, for fear of frightening his daughter.
“To be sure she can stay here,” said Polly, not over graciously; for if Mr. Clinkers should come in the while, it might alter his ideal.
“Ah, so very sad; so very sad, miss, ain?t it now?”
“Yes,” said Amy, having no desire to pursue the subject with Polly. But Polly?s tongue could no more keep still than a frond of maiden–hair fern in the draught of a river archway.
“Ah, so very sad! To think of him go, quite young as he is, to one of them moonstruck smilems, where they makes rope–mats and tiger rugs! As ‘andsome a young man, miss, as ever I see off a hengine; and of course he must be such, being as he is your brother.”
Before poor Amy could answer, Mrs. Ducksacre came to fetch her, and frowned very hard at Polly, who began to look out of the window. In spite of all her faith and hope, the child could scarcely get up the stairs, till her father came to meet her.
“There is no one with him now, dear; Mrs. Jupp is in the sitting–room, so very kindly lent us by the good landlady. Only two more pairs of stairs, and there our Cradock lies, not a bit worse than he was; if anything, a little better; and his faithful little Wena with him: she won?t leave him, night or day, dear. Give me your hand, Amy. Why, I declare, it is rather dark, when you get too far from the windows! Madam, come in with us.”
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