Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 3 of 3
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What is lovelier, just when Autumn throws her lace around us, and begs us not to begin to think of any spiteful winter, because she has not yet unfolded half the wealth of her bosom, and will not look over her shoulder – when we take that rich one gaily for her gifts of beauty; what among her clustered hair, freshened with the hoar–frost in imitation of the Spring (all fashions do recur so), tell us what can be more pretty, pearly, light, and elegant, more memoried of maidenhood, than a jolly spider?s web?
See how the diamonds quiver and sparkle in the September morning; what jeweller could have set them so? All of graduated light and metrical proportion, every third pre–eminent, strung on soft aerial tension, as of woven hoar–frost, and every carrying thread encrusted with the breath of fairies, then crossed and latticed at just angles, with narrowing interstices, to a radiated octagon – the more we look, the more we wonder at the perfect tracery. Then, if we gently breathe upon it, or a leaf of the bramble shivers, how from the open centre a whiff of waving motion flows down every vibrant radius, every weft accepts the waft slowly and lulling vibration, every stay–rope jerks and quivers, and all the fleeting subtilty expands, contracts, and undulates.
Yet if an elegant spider glide out, exquisite, many–dappled, pellucid like a Scotch pebble or a calceolaria, with a dozen dimples upon his back, and eight fierce eyes all up for business, the moment he slips from the blackberry–leaf all sense of beauty is lost to the gazer, because he thinks of rapacity.
And so, I fear, John Rosedew?s hat described in the air a flourish of more courtesy than cordiality, when he saw Mrs. Corklemore gliding forth from the bend of the road in front of him. Although she had left the house after him, by the help of a short cut through the gardens, where the rector would no longer take the liberty of trespassing, she contrived to meet him as if herself returning from the village.
“Oh, Mr. Rosedew, I am so glad to see you,” cried Georgie, as he tried to escape with his bow: “what a fortunate accident!”
“Indeed!” said John, not meaning to be rude, but unwittingly suggesting a modified view of the bliss.
“Ah, I am so sorry; but you are prejudiced against me, I fear, because my simple convictions incline me to the Low Church view.”
That hit was a very clever one. No other bolt she could have shot would have brought the parson to bay so, upon his homeward road, with the important news he bore.
“I assure you, Mrs. Corklemore, I beg to assure you most distinctly, that you are quite wrong in thinking that. Most truly I hope that I have allowed no prejudice, upon such grounds, to dwell for a moment with me.”
“Then you are not a ritualist? And you think, so far as I understand you, that the Low Church people are quite as good as the High Church?”
“I hope they are as good; still I doubt their being as right.But charity is greater even than faith and hope. And, for the sake of charity, I would wash all rubrics white. If the living are rebuked for lagging to bury their dead, how shall they be praised for battling over the Burial Service?”
Mrs. Corklemore, quick as she was, did not understand the allusion. Mr. Rosedew referred to a paltry dissension over a corpse in Oxfordshire, which had created strong disgust, far and near, among believers; while infidels gloried in it. It cannot be too soon forgotten and forgiven.
“Oh, Mr. Rosedew, I am so glad that your sentiments are so liberal. I had always feared that liberal sentiments proceeded from, or at least were associated with, weak faith.”
“I hope not, madam. The most liberal One I have ever read of was God as well as man. But I cannot speak of such matters casually, as I would talk of the weather. If your mind is uneasy, and I can in any way help you, it is my duty to do so.”
“Oh, thank you. No; I don?t think I could do that. We are such Protestants at Coo Nest. Forgive me, I see I have hurt you.”
“You misunderstand me purposely,” said John Rosedew, with that crack of perception which comes (like a chapped lip) suddenly to folks who are too charitable, “or else you take a strangely intensified view of the simplest matters. All I intended was – ”
“Oh yes, oh yes, I am always misunderstanding everybody. I am so dreadfully stupid and simple. But you will relieve my mind, Mr. Rosedew?”
Here Georgie held out the most beautiful hand that ever darned a dish–cloth, so white, and warm, and dainty, from her glove and pink muff–lining. Mr. Rosedew, of course, was compelled to take it, and she left it a long time with him.
“To be sure I will, if it is in my power, and you will only tell me how.”
“It is simply this,” she answered, meekly, dropping her eyes, and sighing; “I do so long to do good works, and never can tell how to set about it. Unhappily, I am brought so much more into contact with the worldly–minded, than with those who would improve me, and I feel the lack of something, something sadly deficient in my spiritual state. Could you assign me a district anywhere? I am sadly ignorant, but I might do some little ministering, feeling as I do for every one. If it were only ten cottages, with an interesting sheep–stealer! Oh, that would be so charming. Can I have a sheep–stealer?”
“I fear I cannot accommodate you” – the parson was smiling in spite of himself, she looked so beautifully earnest; “we have no felons here, and scarcely even a hen–stealer. Though I must not take any credit for that. Every house in the village is Sir Cradock Nowell?s, and Mr. Garnet is not long in ousting the evil–doers.”
“Oh, Sir Cradock; poor Sir Cradock!” Here she came to the real object of her expedition. “Oh, Mr. Rosedew, tell me kindly, as a Christian minister; I am in so difficult a position, – have you noticed in poor Sir Cradock anything strange of late, anything odd and lamentable?”
Mr. Rosedew hated to be called a “minister,” – the Dissenters love the word so, and even the great John had his weaknesses.
“I trust I should tell you the truth, Mrs. Corklemore, whether invoked as a minister, or asked simply as a man.”
“No doubt you would – of course you would. I am always making such mistakes. I am so unused to clever people. But do tell me, in any capacity which may suit you best” – it was foolish of her not to forego that little repartee – ”whether you have observed of late anything odd and deplorable, anything we who love him so – ” Here she hesitated, and wiped her eyes.
“Though Sir Cradock Nowell,” replied Mr. Rosedew, slowly, and buttoning up his coat at the risk of spoiling his cock?s–comb frill, “is no longer my dearest friend, as he was for nearly fifty years, it does not become me to speak about him confidentially and disparagingly to a lady whom I have not had the honour of seeing more than four times, including therein the celebration of Divine service, at which a district–visitor should attend with some regularity, if only for the sake of example. Mrs. Corklemore, I have the honour of wishing you good morning.”
Although the parson had neither desire nor power to pierce the lady?s schemes, he felt, by that peculiar instinct which truly honest men have (though they do not always use it), that the lady was dishonest, and dishonestly seeking something. Else had he never uttered a speech so unlike his usual courtesy. As for poor simple Georgie, she was rolled over too completely to do anything but gasp. Then she went to the gorse to recover herself; and presently she laughed, not spitefully, but with real amusement at her own discomfiture.
Being quite a young woman still, and therefore not spe longa, and feeling a want of sympathy in waiting for dead men?s shoes, Mrs. Corklemore, who had some genius – if creative power prove it; if gignere, not gigni, be taken as the test, though perhaps it requires both of them, – that sweet mother of a sweeter child (if so much of the saccharine be admitted by Chancellors of the Exchequer, themselves men of more alcohol), what did she do but devise a scheme to wear the shoes, ipso vivo, and put the old gentleman into the slippers.
How very desirable it was that Nowelhurst Hall, and those vast estates, should be in the possession of some one who knew how to enjoy them, and make a proper use of them! Poor Sir Cradock never could do so; it was painfully evident that he never more could discharge his duties to society, that he was listless, passive, somnolent, – somnambulant perhaps she ought to say, a man walking in a dream. She had heard of cases, – more than that, she had actually known them, – sad cases in which that pressure on the brain, which so frequently accompanies the slow reaction from sudden and terrible trials, had crushed the reason altogether, especially after a “certain age.” What a pity! And it might be twenty years yet before it pleased God to remove him. He had a tough and wiry look about him. In common kindness and humanity, something surely ought to be done to relieve him, to make him happier.
Nothing rough, of course; nothing harsh or coercive. No personal restraint whatever, for the poor old dear was not dangerous; only to make him what she believed was called a “Committee in Chancery” – there she was wrong, for the guardian is the Committee – and then Mr. Corklemore, of course, and Mr. Kettledrum would act for him. At least she should think so, unless there was some obnoxious trustee, under his marriage–settlement. That settlement must be got at; so much depended upon it. Probably young Cradock would succeed thereunder to all the settled estate upon his father?s death. If so, there was nothing for it, except to make him incapable, by convicting him of felony. Poor fellow! She had no wish to hang him. She would not have done it for the world; and she had heard he was so good–looking. But there was no fear of his being hanged, like the son of a tradesman or peasant.
Well, when he was transported for life, with every facility for repentance, who would be the next to come bothering? Why, that odious Eoa. As for her, she would hang her to–morrow, if she could only get the chance. Though she believed it would never hurt her; for the child could stand upon nothing. Impudent wretch! Only yesterday she had frightened Georgie out of her life again. And there was no possibility of obtaining a proper influence over her. There was hardly any crime which that girl would hesitate at, when excited. What a lamentable state of morality! She might be made to choke Amy Rosedew, her rival in Bob?s affection. But no, that would never do. Too much crime in one family. How would society look upon them? And it would make the house unpleasant to live in. There was a simpler way of quenching Eoa – deny at once her legitimacy. The chances were ten to one against her having been born in wedlock – such a loose, wild man as her father was. And even if she had been, why, the chances were ten to one against her being able to prove it. Whereas it would be very easy to get a few Hindoos, or Coolies, or whatever they were, to state their opinion about her mother.
Well, supposing all this nicely managed, what next? Why, let poor Sir Cradock live out his time, as he would be in her hands entirely, and would grow more and more incapable; and when it pleased God to release him, why then, “thou and Ziba divide the land,” and for the sake of her dear little Flore, she would take good care that the Kettledrums did not get too much.
This programme was a far bolder one than that with which Mrs. Corklemore had first arrived at the Hall. But she was getting on so well, that of course her views and desires expanded. All she meant at first was to gain influence over her host, and irrevocably estrange him from his surviving son, by delicate insinuations upon the subject of fratricide; at the same time to make Eoa do something beyond forgiveness, and then to confide the reward of virtue to obituary gratitude.
Could anything be more innocent, perhaps we should say more laudable? What man of us has not the privilege of knowing a dozen Christian mothers, who would do things of nobler enterprise for the sake of their little darlings?
But now, upon the broader gauge which the lady had selected, there were two things to be done, ere ever the train got to the switches. One was, to scatter right and left, behind and before, and up and down, wonder, hesitancy, expectation, interrogation, commiseration, and every other sort of whisper, confidential, suggestive, cumulative, as to poor Sir Cradock?s condition. The other thing was to find out the effect in the main of his marriage–settlement. And this was by far the more difficult.
Already Mrs. Corklemore had done a little business, without leaving a tongue–print behind her, in the distributory process; and if Mr. Rosedew could just have been brought, after that rude dismissal, to say that he had indeed observed sad eccentricity, growing strangeness, on the part of his ancient friend, why then he would be committed to a line of most telling evidence, and the parish half bound to approval.
But John?s high sense of honour, and low dislike of Georgie, had saved him from the neat, and neatly–baited, trap.
That morning Mr. Rosedew?s path was beset with beauty, though his daughter failed to meet him; inasmuch as she very naturally awaited him on the parish road. When he had left the chase, and was fetching a compass by the river, along a quiet footway, elbowed like an old oak–branch, overlapped with scraggy hawthorns, paved on either side with good intention of primroses, there, just in a nested bend where the bank overhangs the stream, and you would like to lie flat and flip in a trout fly about the end of April, over the water came lightly bounding, and on a mossy bank alighted, young Eoa Nowell.
“To and fro, that?s the way I go; don?t you see, Uncle John, I must; only the water is so narrow. It scarcely keeps me in practice.”
“Then your standard, my dear, must be very high. I should have thought twice about that jump, in my very best days!”
“You indeed!” said Eoa, with the most complacent contempt; eyeing the parson?s thick–set figure and anterior development.
“Nevertheless,” replied John, with a laugh, “it is but seven and forty years since I won first prize at Sherborne, both for the long leap and the high leap; and proud enough I was, Eoa, of sixteen feet four inches. But I should have had no chance, that?s certain, if you had entered for the stakes.”
“But how could I be there, Uncle John, don?t you see, thirty years before I was born?”
“My dear, I am quite prepared to admit the validity of your excuse. Tyrio cothurno! child, what have you got on?”
“Oh, I found them in an old cupboard, with tops, and whips, and whistles; and I made Mother Biddy take them in at the ancle, because I do hate needles so. And I wear them, not on account of the dirt, but because people in this country are so nasty and particular; and now they can?t say a word against me. That?s one comfort, at any rate.”
She wore a smart pair of poor Clayton?s vamplets, and a dark morning–frock drawn tightly in, with a little of the skirt tucked up, and a black felt hat with an ostrich feather, and her masses of hair rolled closely. As the bright colour shone in her cheeks, and the heartlight outsparkled the sun in her eyes, John Rosedew thought that he had never seen such a wildly beautiful, and yet perfectly innocent, creature.
“Well, I don?t know,” he answered, very gravely, “about your gaiters proving a Palladium against calumny. But one thing is certain, Eoa, your face will, to all who look at you. But why don?t you ride, my dear child, if you must have such rapid exercise?”
“Because they won?t let me get up the proper way on a horse. Me to sit cramped up between two horns, as if a horse was a cow! Me, who can stand on the back of a horse going at full gallop! But it doesn?t matter now much. Nobody seems to like me for it.”
She spoke in so wistful and sad a tone, and cast down her eyes so bashfully, that the old man, who loved her heartily, longed to know what the matter was.
“Nobody likes you, Eoa! Why, everybody likes you. You are stealing everybody?s heart. My Amy would be quite jealous, only she likes you so much herself.”
“I am sure, I have more cause to be jealous of her. Some people like me, I know, very much; but not the people I want to do it.”
“Oh, then you don?t want us to do it. What harm have we done, Eoa?”
“You don?t understand me at all, Uncle John. And perhaps you don?t want to do it. And yet I did think that you ought to know, as the clergyman of the parish. But I never seem to have right ideas of anything in this country!”
“Tell me, my dear,” said Mr. Rosedew, taking her hand, and speaking softly, for he saw two great tears stealing out from the dark shadow of her lashes, and rolling down the cheeks that had been so bright but a minute ago; “tell me, as if you were my own daughter, what vexes your pure heart so. Very likely I can help you, and I will promise to tell no one.”
“Oh no, Uncle John, you never can help me. Nobody in the world can help me. But do you think that you ought to know?”
“That depends upon the subject, my dear. Not if it is a family–secret, or otherwise out of my province. But if it is anything with which I have to deal, or which I understand – ”
“Oh yes, oh yes! Because you manage, you manage all – all the banns of matrimony.”
This last word was whispered with such a sob of despairing tantalization, that John, although he was very sorry, could scarcely keep from laughing.
“You need not laugh, Uncle John. You wouldn?t if you were in my place, or could at all understand the facts of it. And as for its being a family–secret, ever so many people know it, and I don?t care two pice who knows it now.”
“Then let me know it, my child. Perhaps an old man can advise you.”
The child of the East looked up at him, with a mist of softness moving through the brilliance of her eyes, and spake these unromantic words: —
“It is that I do like Bob so; and he doesn?t care one bit for me.”
She looked at the parson, as much as to say, “What do you think of that, now? I am not at all ashamed of it.” And then she stooped for a primrose bud, and put it into his button–hole, and then she burst out crying.
“Upon my word,” said John, “upon my word, this is too bad of you, Eoa.”
“Oh yes, I know all that; and I say it to myself ever so many times. But it seems to make no difference. You can?t understand, of course, Uncle John, any more than you could jump the river. But I do assure you that sometimes it makes me feel quite desperate. And yet all the time I know how excessively foolish I am. And then I try to argue, but it seems to hurt me here. And then I try not to think of it, but it will come back again, and I am even glad to have it. And then I begin to pity myself, and to be angry with every one else; and after that I get better and whistle a tune, and go jumping. Only I take care not to see him.”
“There you are quite right, my dear: and I would strongly recommend you not to see him for a month.”
“As if that could make any difference! And he would go and have somebody else. And then I should kill them both.”
“Well done, Oriental! Now, will you be guided by me, my dear? I have seen a great deal of the world.”
“Yes, no doubt you have, Uncle John. And you are welcome to say just what you like; only don?t advise me what I don?t like; but tell the truth exactly.”
“Then what I say is this, Eoa: keep away from him altogether – don?t allow him to see you, even when he wishes it, for a month at least. Hold yourself far above him. He will begin to think of you more and more. Why, you are ten times too good for him. There is not a man in England who might not be proud of you, Eoa, when you have learned a little dignity.”
Somehow or other none of the Rosedews appreciated the Garnets.
“Yes, I dare say; but don?t you see, I don?t want him to be proud of me. I only want him to like me. And I do hate being dignified.”
“If you want him to like you, do just what I have advised.”
“So I will, Uncle John. Kiss me now, to make it up. Oh, you are such a dear! – don?t you think a week would do, now?”
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