Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 3 of 3
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But the astonishment will subside, perhaps, when we come to know all about it; for then all the misogynes may declare that the thought was born of vanity. Let them do so. Facts are facts, I say.
Amy had sent him a photograph of her faithful self, beautifully done by Mr. Silvy, of Bayswater, and framed in a patent lover?s box, I forget the proper name for it – something French, of course – so ingeniously contrived, that when a spring at the back was pressed, a little wax match would present itself, from a lining of asbestos, together with a groove to draw it in. Thus by night, as well as by day, the smile of the loved one might illumine the lonely heart of the lover.
Now this device stood him in good stead – as doubtless it was intended to do by the practical mind of the giver – for it served to light the fire wherewith man roasteth roast, and is satisfied. And a fire once lit in the hollow heart of that vast mowana–tree (where twenty men might sit and smoke, when the rainy season came), if you only supplied some fuel daily, and cleared away the ashes weekly, there need be no fear of philanthropy making a trespasser of Prometheus. Cradock soon resolved to keep his head–quarters there, for the tree stood upon a little hill, overlooking land and sea, for many a league of solitude. And it was not long before he found that the soft bark of the baobab might easily be cut so as to make a winding staircase up it; and the work would be an amusement to him, as well as a great advantage.
Master and dog having made a most admirable breakfast upon turtles’ eggs, “roasted very knowingly” – as Homer well expresses it – with a large pineapple to follow, started, before the heat of the day, in search of water, the indispensable. Shaddocks, and limes, and mangosteens, bananas – with their long leaves quilling – pineapples, mawas, and mamoshoes, cocoa–nuts, plantains, mangoes, palms, and palmyras, custard–apples, and gourds without end – besides fifty other ground–fruits, ay, and tree–fruits for that matter, quite unknown to Cradock, there was no fear of dying from drought; and yet the first thing to seek was pure water. If Cradock had thought much about the thing, very likely it would have struck him that some of the fruits which he saw are proof not so much of human cultivation, as of human presence, at some time.
But he never thought about that; and indeed his mind was too full for thinking. So he cut himself a most tremendous bludgeon of camelthorn, as heavy and almost as hard as iron, and off he went whistling, with Wena wondering whether the stick would beat her.
He certainly took things easily; more so than is quite in accord with human nature and reason. But the state of his mind was to blame for it; and the freshness of the island air, after the storm of the night.
Even a rejected lover, or a disconsolate husband, gives a jerk to his knee–joints, and carries his elbows more briskly, when the bright spring morning shortens his shadow at every step.Cradock, moreover, felt quite sure that he would not be left too long there; that his friends on board the Taprobane would come aside from their track to find him, on their return–voyage from Ceylon; and so no doubt they would have done, if it had been in their power. But the Taprobane, as we shall see, never made her escape, in spite of weatherly helm and good seamanship, from the power of that typhoon. She was lost on the shoals of Benguela Bay, thirty miles south of Quicombo; and not a man ever reached the shore to tell the name of the ship. But a Portuguese half–caste, trading there, found the name on a piece of the taffrail, and a boat which was driven ashore.
After all, we see then that Cradock was wonderfully lucky – at least, if it be luck to live – in having been left behind, that evening, on an uninhabited island. “Desolate” nobody could call it, for the gifts of life lay around in abundance, and he soon had proof that the feet of men, ay, of white men, trod it sometimes. Following the shore, a little further than the sailors had gone, he came on a pure narrow thread of crystal, a current of bright water dimpling and twinkling down the sand. Wena at once lay down and rolled, and wetted every bit of herself; and then began to lap the water wherein her own very active and industrious friends were drowning. That Wena was such a ladylike dog; she washed herself before drinking, and she never would wash in salt water. It made her hair so unbecoming.
Cradock followed up that stream, and found quite a tidy little brook, when he got above the sand–ridge, full of fish, and fringed with trees, and edged with many a quaint bright bird, scissor–bills and avosets, demoiselles and flamingoes. Wena plunged in and went hunting blue–rats, and birds, and fishes, while her master stooped down, and drank, and thanked God for this discovery.
A little way up the brook he found a rude shanty, a sort of wigwam, thatched with leaves and waterproof, backed by a low rock, but quite open in front and at both ends. Under the shelter were blocks of ebony, billets of bar–wood piled up to the roof, a dozen tusks of ivory, bales of dried bark, and piles of rough cylinders full of caoutchouc, and many other things which Cradock could not wait to examine. But he felt quite certain that this must be some trader?s dep?t for shipping: the only thing that surprised him was that the goods were left unprotected. For he knew that the West Africans are the biggest thieves in the world, while he did not understand the virtue of the hideous great Fetich, hanging there.
It was made of a long dried codfish, with glass eyes, ground in the iris, and polished again in the pupil, and a glaring stripe of red over them, and the neck of a bottle fixed as for a tongue, and the body skewered open and painted bright blue, ribbed with white, like a skeleton, and the tail prolonged with two spinal columns, which rattled as it went round. The effect of the whole was greatly increased by the tattered cage of crinoline in which it was suspended, and which went creaking round, now and then, in the opposite direction.
No nigger would dare to steal anything from such a noble idol. At least so thought the Yankee trader who knew a thing or two about them. He had left his things here in perfect faith, while he was travelling towards the Gaboon, to complete his cargo.
Cradock was greatly astounded. He thought that it must be a white man?s work; and soon he became quite certain, for he saw near a cask the clear mark of a boot, of civilized make, unquestionably. Then he prized out the head of the cask, after a deal of trouble, and found a store of ship–biscuit, a little the worse for weevil, but in very fair condition. He gave Wena one, but she would not touch it, for she set much store by her teeth, and had eaten a noble breakfast.
Having made a rough examination of the deserted shed, and found no sort of clothing – which did not vex him much, except that he wanted shoes – he resolved to continue the circuit of his new dominions, and look out perhaps for another hut. He might meet a man at any time; so he carried his big stick ready, though none but cannibals could have any good reason to hurt him. As he went on, and struck inland to cut off the northern promontory, the lie of the land and the look of the woods brought to his mind more clearly and brightly his own beloved New Forest. He saw no quadruped larger than a beautiful little deer, lighter than a gazelle, and of a species quite unknown to him. They stood and looked at him prettily, without either fear or defiance, and Wena wanted to hunt them. But he did not allow her to indulge that evil inclination. He had made up his mind to destroy nothing, even for his own subsistence, except the cold–blooded creatures which seem to feel less of the death–pang. But he saw a foul snake, with a flat heavy head, which hissed at and frightened the doggie, and he felt sure that it was venomous: monkeys also of three varieties met him in his pilgrimage, and seemed disposed to be sociable; while birds of every tint and plumage fluttered, and flashed, and flitted. Then Wena ran up to him howling, and limping, and begging for help; and he found her clutched by the seed–vessels of the terrible uncaria. He could scarcely manage to get them off, for they seemed to be crawling upon her.
When he had made nearly half his circuit, without any other discovery – except that the grapes were worthless – the heat of the noonday sun grew so strong, although it was autumn there – so far as they have any autumn – that Cradock lay down in the shade of a plantain; and, in a few seconds afterwards, was fast asleep and dreaming. Wena sat up on guard and snapped at the nasty poisonous flies, which came to annoy her master.
How heavenly tropical life would be, in a beautiful country like that, but for those infernal insects! The mosquito, for instance, – and he is an angel, compared to some of those Beelzebubs, – must have made Adam swear at Eve, even before the fall. And then those awful spiders, whose hair tickles a man to madness, even if he survives the horror of seeing such devils. And then the tampan – but let us drop the subject, please, for fear of not sleeping to–night. Cradock awoke in furious pain, and spasms most unphilosophical. He had dreamed that he was playing football upon Cowley Green, and had kicked out nobly with his right foot into a marching line of red ants. Immediately they swarmed upon him, up him, over him, into him, biting with wild virulence, and twisting their heads and nippers round in every wound to exasperate it. Wena was rolling and yelling, for they attacked her too. Cradock thought they would kill him; although he did not know that even the python succumbs to them. He was as red all over, inside his clothes and outside, as if you had winnowed over him a bushel of fine rouge. Dancing, and stamping, and recalling, with heartfelt satisfaction, some strong words learned at Oxford, he caught up Wena, and away they went, two solid lumps of ants, headlong into the sea. Luckily he had not far to go; he lay down and rolled himself, clothes and all, and rolled poor Wena too in the waves, until he had the intense delight of knowing that he had drowned a million of them. Ah! and just now he had made up his mind to respect every form of life so.
Oh, but I defy any fellow, even the sage Archbishop who reads novels to stop other people, to have lectured us under the circumstances, or to have kept his oaths in, with those twenty thousand holes in him. The salt water went into Cradock?s holes, and made him feel like a Cayenne peppercastor; and the little dog sat in the froth of the sea, and thought that even dogs are allowed a hell.
After that there was nothing to do, except to go home mournfully – if a tree may be called a home, as no doubt it deserves to be – and then to dry the clothes, and wish that the wearer knew something of botany. Cradock had no doubt at all that around him grew whole stacks of leaves which would salve and soothe his desperate pain; but he had not the least idea which were balm and which were poison. How he wished that, instead of reading so hard for the scholarship of Dean Ireland, he had kept his eyes open in the New Forest, and learned just Nature?s rudiments! Of course he would have other leaves to deal with; but certain main laws and principles hold good all the world over. Bob Garnet would have been quite at home, though he had never seen one of those plants before.
We cannot follow him, day by day. It is too late in the tale for that, even if we wished it. Enough that he found no other trace of man upon the island, except the trader?s hut, or store, with the hideous scarecrow hanging, and signs of human labour, in the growth of some few trees – about which he knew nothing – and in a rough piece of ground near the shanty, cleared for a kitchen–garden. Cassavas, and yams, and kiobos, and pea–nuts, and some other things, grew there; which, as he made nothing of them, we must treat likewise. There had even been some cotton sown, but the soil seemed not to suit it. It was meant, perhaps, by the keen American, who thought himself lord of the island, for a little random experiment.
When would he come back? That was the question Cradock asked, both of himself and Wena, twenty times a day. Of course poor Cradock knew not whether his lord of the manor were a Yankee or a Britisher, a Portuguese or a Dutchman; “Thebis nutritus an Argis.” Only he supposed and hoped that a white man came to that island sometimes, and brought other white men with him.
By this time, he had cut a winding staircase up the walls of his castle, and added a great many rough devices to his rugged interior. Twice every day he clomb his tree, to seek all round the horizon; and at one time he saw a sail in the distance, making perhaps for Loanda. But that ship was even outside the expansive margin of hope. And now he divided his time between his grand mowana citadel and the storehouse, with whose contents he did not like to meddle much, because they were not his property.
There he placed the ship?s hydropult, which he had found lying on the beach; for the mate had brought it to meet the chance of finding shallow water, where the casks could not be stooped or the water bailed without fouling it; and the boat?s crew, in their rush and flurry, had managed to leave it behind them. Cradock left it in the storehouse, because it was useless to him where he had no water, and it amused him sometimes to syringe Wena from the brook which flowed hard by. Moreover, he thought that if anything happened to prevent him from explaining things, the owner of the place, whoever he might be, would find in that implement more than the value of the biscuits which Cradock was eating, and getting on nicely with them, because they corrected the richness of turtle.
Truly, his diet was glorious, both in quality and variety; and he very soon became quite a pomarian Apicius. Of all fruits, perhaps the mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) is the most delicious, when you get the right sort of it – which I don?t think they have in Brazil – neither is the lee chee a gift to be despised, nor the chirimoya, and several others of the Annona race; some of the Granadillas, too, and the sweet lime, and the plantains, and many another fount of beauty and delight – all of which, by skill and care, might be raised in this country, where we seem to rest content with our meagre hothouse catalogue.
I do not say that all these fruits were natives of “Pomona Island,” as Cradock, appreciating its desserts, took the liberty of naming it; but most of them were discoverable in one part or another of it; some born from the breast of nature, others borne by man or tide. And almost all of them still would be greatly improved by cultivation.
So the head gardener of the island, who left the sun to garden for him, enjoyed their exquisite coolness, and wondered how they could be so cool in the torrid sunshine; and though he did not know the name of one in fifty of them, he found out wonderfully soon which of them were the nicest. And soon he discovered another means of varying his diet, for he remembered having read that often, in such lonely waters, the swarming fish will leap on board of a boat floating down the river. Thereupon he made himself a broad flat tray of bark, with a shallow ledge around it, and holding a tow–rope, made also of bark, launched it upon the brook. Immediately a vast commotion arose among the finny ones; they hustled, and huddled, and darted about, and then paddled gravely and stared at it. Then, whether from confusion of mind, or the reproaches of their comrades, or the desire of novelty, half a dozen fine fellows made a rush, and carried the ship by boarding. Whereupon Cradock, laughing heartily, drew his barge ashore, and soon Wena and himself were deep in a discussion ichthyological.
As may well be supposed, the pure sea breezes and wholesome diet, the peace and plenty, and motherly influence of nature, the due exercise of the body, without undue stagnation of mind, the pleasure of finding knowledge expand every day, stomachically, while body and mind were girded alike, and the heart impressed with the diamond–studded belt of hope – all this, we may well suppose, was beginning to try severely the nasal joints of incessant woe.
But Pomona Island, now and then, had its own little cares and anxieties. How much longer was Cradock Nowell to live upon fruit, and fish, and turtle, with ship–biscuit for dessert? When would the trader come for his goods, or had he quite forgotten them? What would Amy and Uncle John think, if the Taprobane went home without him? And the snakes, the snakes, that cared not a rap for the enmity of man, since the rainy season set in, but came almost up to be roasted! And worst of all and most terrible thing, Crad was obliged to go about barefooted, while the thorns were of nature?s invention, and went every way all at once, like a hedgehog upon a frying–pan.
For that last evil he found a cure before he had hopped many hundred yards. He discovered a pumpkin about a foot long, pointed, and with a horny rind, and contracted towards the middle. He sliced this lengthwise, and took out the seeds, and planted his naked foot there. The coolness was most delicious, and a few strips of baobab bark made a first–rate shoe of it. He wore out one pair every day, and two when he went exploring; but what did that matter, unless the supply failed? and he kept some hung up for emergency.
As to the snakes, though he did not find out the snake–wood, or the snake–stone, or the fungoid substance, like a morel, which pumices up the venom; he invented something much better, as prevention is better than cure. He discovered a species of aspalathus, perfectly smooth near the root, and not very hard to pull up, yet so barbed, and toothed, and fanged upon all except the seed–leaves, that even a python – whereof he had none – could scarcely have got through it. Of this he strewed a ring all round his great mowana–tree, and then a fenced path down the valley toward his bathing–place, and then he defied the whole of that genus so closely akin to the devil.
But Wena had saved his life ere this from one of those slimy demons. Of course we know how hateful it is to hate anything at all, except sin and crime in the abstract; but I do hope a fellow may be forgiven for hating snakes and scorpions. At any rate, if he cannot be, he ought to be able to help it. While Cradock was making his fence aspalathine, and before he had finished the ring yet, a little snake about two feet long, semi–transparent, and jellified, of a dirty bottle–green colour, like the caterpillar known as the pear–leech (Selandria ?thiops), only some hundreds of sizes bigger, that loathsome reptile sneaked in through and crouched in a corner, while Cradock thought that he smelled something very nasty, as he smoked a pipe of the trader?s tobacco, before turning into his locker.
He had cut himself a good broad coving from the inside of the mowana–tree, about three feet from the ground, fitted up with a flap and a pillow–place, and strewn with fresh plantain–leaves. Across the niche he had fastened a new mosquito net, borrowed from his friend the trader, whose goods he began to look upon now as placed under his trusteeship. And in that rude couch he slept as snugly, after a hard day?s work, as the pupa does of the goat moth, or of the giant sirex. Under his feet was Wena?s hole, wherein she crouched like a rabbit, and pricked her ears every now and then, and barked if ever the wind moaned. Fortunatos nimium; there was nobody to rogue them.
And yet no sooner was Craddy asleep, upon the night I am telling of, than that dirty bottle–green snake, flat–headed, and with a year?s supply of venom in its tooth–bag, came wriggling on its dappled belly around the hollow ring, while the dying embers of the fire – for the night was rather chilly and wet, and Cradock had cooked some fish – showed the mean sneak, poking its head up, feeling the temper of the time, ready to wriggle to anything. Then it came to the bedposts of Cradock?s couch, which he had cut, in a dry sort of humour, from the soft baobab wood. It lifted its head, and heard him snoring, and tapped its tail, and listened again. Very likely it was warm up there, and the snake was a little chilly, in this depth of the winter. So without any evil forethought – for I must be just, even to a snake – though ready to bite, at a move or a turn, of the animal known as “man,” up went that little serpent, cleverly and elegantly, as on a Bohemian vase. Cradock would have died in two hours after that snake had bitten him. But before that lissom coil of death had got all its tail off the ground, fangs as keen as its own, though not poisonous, had it by the nape of the neck. Wena knew a snake by this time, and could treat them aright. She gave the devilish miscreant not a chance to twist upon her, but tore him from his belly–hold, and walked pleasantly to the fire, and with a spit of execration threw him into it, and ran back, and then ran to again, and barked at the noise he made in fizzing. Therewith Cradock awoke, and got out of bed, and saw the past danger, and coaxed the little dog, and kissed her, and talked to her about Amy, whose name she knew quite as well as her own.
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