Richard Blackmore.

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


At high noon of a bright cold day in the early part of March, a labourer who had been frithing, that is to say, cutting underwood in one of the forest copses, came out into the green track, which could scarce be called a lane, to eat his wellearned dinner.

As it happened to be a Monday, the poor man had a better dinner than he would see or smell again until the following Sunday. For there, as throughout rural England, a working man, receiving his wages on the Saturday evening, lives upon a sliding scale throughout the dreary week. He has his bit of hot on Sunday, smacking his lips at every morsel; and who shall scold him for staying at home to see it duly boiled, and feeling his heart move with the steaming and savoury potlid more kindly than with the dry parson?

And he wants his old woman long of him; he see her so little all the week, and she be always besttempered on Sundays. Let the young uns go to school to get larning though he don?t much see the use of it, and his father lived happy without it bating that matter, which is beyond him, let them go, and then hear parson, and bring home the news to the old folk. Only let em come home good time for dinner, or they had best look out. Now, Molly, lift the potlid again. Oh, it do smell so good! Got ever another onion?

Having held high feast on Sunday, and thanked the Lord, without knowing it (by inhaling happiness, and being good to the children our Lord?s especial favourites), off he sets on the Monday morning, to earn another eighteenpence twopence apiece for the young uns. And he means to be jolly that day, for he has got his pinch of tobacco and two lucifers in his waistcoat pocket, and in his frail a most glorious dinner hanging from a hedgestake.

All the dogs he meets jump up on his back; but he really cannot encourage them, with his own dog so fond of bones, and having the first right to them. Of course, his own dog is not far behind; for it is a law of nature, admitting no exception, that the poorer a man is, the more certain he is to have a dog, and the more certain that dog is to admire him.

Pretermitting the dog, important as he is, let us ask of the master?s dinner. He has a great hunk of cold bacon, from the cabbagesoup of yesterday, with three short bones to keep it together, and a cross junk from the clod of beef (out of the same great pot) which he will put up a tree for Tuesday; because, if it had been left at home, mother couldn?t keep it from the children; who do scarce a stroke of work yet, and only get strong victuals to console them for school upon Sundays. Then upon Wednesday our noble peasant of this merry England will have come down to the scraping of bones; on Thursday he may get bread and dripping from some rich man?s house; on Friday and Saturday nothing but bread, unless there be cold potatoes. And he will not have fed in this fat rich manner unless he be a good workman, a hater of publichouses, and his wife a tidy body.

Now this labourer who came out of the copse, with a fine appetite for his Monday?s dinner (for he had not been spreeing on Sunday), was no other than Jem not Jem Pottles, of course, but the Jem who fell from the oakbranch, and must have been killed or terribly hurt but for Cradock Nowell?s quickness.

Everybody called him Jem, except those who called him father; and his patronymic, not being important, may as well continue latent. Now why could not Jem enjoy his dinner more thoroughly in the copse itself, where the witheys were gloved with silver and gold, and the primroses and the violets bloomed, and the first of the woodanemones began to star the dead ashleaves? In the first place, because in the timbertrack happen he might see somebody just to give good day to; the chances were against it in such a lonesome place, still it might so happen; and a man who has been six hours at work in the deep recesses of a wood, with only birds and rabbits moving, is liable to a gregarious weakness, especially at feedingtime. Furthermore, this particular copse had earned a very bad name. It was said to be the harbourage of a white and lonesome ghost, a ghost with no consideration for embodied feelings, but apt to walk in the afternoon, in the glimpses of wooded sunshine. Therefore Jem was very uneasy at having to work alone there, and very angry with his mate for having that day abandoned him. And but that his dread of Mr. Garnet was more than supernatural, he would have wiped his billhook then and there, and gone all the way to the publichouse to fetch back that mate for company.

Pondering thus, he followed the green track as far as the corner of the coppice hedge, and then he sat down on a mossy log, and began to chew more pleasantly. He had washed his hands at a little spring, and gathered a bit of watercress, and fixed his square of cold bacon cleverly into a mighty hunk of brown bread, like a whetstone in its socket; and truly it would have whetted any plain man?s appetite to see the way he sliced it, and the intense appreciation.

With his mighty claspknife (straight, not curved like a gardener?s) he cut little streaky slips along, and laid each on a good thickness of crust, and patted it like a piece of butter, then fondly looked at it for a moment, then popped it in, with the resolution that the next should be a still better one, supposing such excellence possible. And all the while he rolled his tongue so, and smacked his lips so fervently, that you saw the man knew what he was about, dealt kindly with his hunger, and felt a good dinner when he got it.

There, Scratch, he cried to his dog, after giving him many a taste, off and on, as in fairness should be mentioned; hie in, and seek it there, lad.

With that he tossed well in over the hedge for he was proud of his dog?s abilities the main bone of the three (summum bonum from a canine point of view; and, after all, perhaps they are right), and the flat bone fell, it may be a rod or so, inside the fence of the coppice. Scratch went through the hedge in no time, having watched the course of the bone in air (as a cricketer does of the ball, or an astronomer of a comet) with his sweet little tail on the quiver. But Scratch, in the coppice, was all abroad, although he had measured the distance; and the reason was very simple the bone was high up in the fork of a bush, and there it would stay till the wind blew. Now this apotheosis of the bone to the terrier was not proven; his views were low and practical; and he rushed (as all we earthmen do) to a lowering conclusion. The bone must have sunk into ?ra?s bosom, being very sharp at one end, and heavy at the other. The only plan was to scratch for it, within a limited area; and why was he called Scratch, but for scarifying genius?

Therefore that dog set to work, in a manner highly praiseworthy (save, indeed, upon a flowerbed). First he wrought well with his forefeet, using them at a trot only, until he had scooped out a little hole, about the size of a rat?s nest. This he did in several places, and with sound assurance, but a purely illusory bonus. Presently he began in earnest, as if he had smelled a rat; he put out his tongue and pricked his ears, and worked away at full gallop, all four feet at once, in a fashion known only to terriers. Jem came through the hedge to see what it was, for the little dog gave short barks now and then, as if he were in a rabbithole, with the coney round the corner.

Mun there, mun, lad; show whutt thee carnst do, boy.

Thus encouraged, Scratch went on, emulative of selfburial, throwing the soft earth high in the air, and making a sort of laughing noise in the rapture of his glory.

After a while he sniffed hard in the hole, and then rested, and then again at it. The master also was beginning to share the little dog?s excitement, for he had never seen Scratch dig so hard before, and his mind was wavering betwixt the hope of a pot of money, and the fear of finding the skeleton belonging to the ghost.

Scratch worked for at least a quarter of an hour, and then ran to the ditch and lapped a little, and came back to work again, while Jem stood by at a prudent distance, and puffed his pipe commensurately, and wished he had somebody with him. Presently he saw something shining in the peaty and sandy trough, about two feet from the surface, something at which Scratch tried his teeth, but found the subject ungenial. So Jem ran up, making sure this time that it was the pot of money. Alas, it was nothing of the sort, nothing at all worth digging for. Jem was so bitterly disappointed that he laid hold of Scratch, and cuffed him well, and the little dog went away and howled, and looked at his bleeding claws, and stood penitent, with his tail down.

Nevertheless, the thing dug up had cost some money in its time, for gunmakers know the way to charge, if never another soul does. It was a pair of gunbarrels, without any stock, or lock, or ramrod, heavily battered and marked with fire, as if an attempt had been made to burn the entire implement, and then, the wood being consumed, the iron parts had been kicked asunder, and the hot barrels fiercely trampled on. Now Jem knew nothing whatever of guns, except that they were apt to go off, whether loaded or unloaded; so after much ponderous thinking and fearing fiat experimentum in corpore vilihe summoned poor Scratch, and coaxed him, and said, Hie, boy, vetch thic thur thin?!

When he found that the little dog took the barrels in his mouth without being hurt by them, and then dragged them along the ground, inasmuch as he could not carry them, Jem plucked up courage and laid them by, to take them home that evening.

After his bit of supper that night, Jem and his wife held counsel, the result of which was that he took his prize down to Roger Sweetland?s shop, at the lower end of the village. There he found the blacksmith and one apprentice working overtime, repairing a harrow, which must be ready for Farmer Blackers next morning. The worthy Vulcan received Jem kindly, for his wife was Jem?s wife?s second cousin; and then he blew up a sharp yellow fire, and examined the barrels attentively.

Niver zeed no goon the likes o thissom, though a ave eered say as they makes em now to shut out o t?other end, man. Whai, her han?t gat niver na brichin?! A must shut the man as shuts wi? her.

What wull e gie vor un, Roger? Her bain?t na gude to ussen.

Gie thee a zhillin?, lad, mare nor her be worth, on?y to bate up vor harseshoon.

After vainly attempting to get eighteepence, Jem was fain to accept the shilling; and this piece of beautiful workmanship, and admirable Damascus twist, was set in the corner behind the door, to be forged into shoes for a carthorse. So, as Sophocles well observes, all things come round with the rolling years: the best gunbarrels used to be made of the stubnails and the horseshoes (though the thing was a superstition); now good horseshoes shall be made out of the best gunbarrels.

But, in despite of this law of nature, those gunbarrels never were made into horseshoes at all, and for this simple reason: Rufus Hutton came over from Nowelhurst to have his Polly shodden; meanwhile he would walk up to the Hall, and see how his child Eoa was. It is a most worshipful providence, and as clever as the works of a watch, that all the people who have been far abroad, whether in hot or cold climates (I mean, of course, respectively, and not that a Melville Bay harpooner would fluke in with a Ceylon rifleman), somehow or other, when they come home, groove into, and dovetail with, one another; and not only feel a pudor not to contradict a brother alien, but feel bound by a sacramentum to back up the lies of each other. To this rule of course there are some exceptions (explosive accidents in the Times, for instance), but almost every one will admit that it is a rule; just as it is not to tell out of school.

As regards Rufus and Eoa, this association was limited (as all of them are nowadays, except in their powers of swindling), strictly limited to a keen and spicily patriarchal turn. Eoa, somehow or other, with that wonderful feminine instinct (which is far in advance of the canine, but not a whit less jealous) felt that Rue Hutton had admired her, though he was old enough to be her grandfather in those precocious climates. And though she would not have had him, if he had come out of Golconda mine, one stalactite of diamonds, she really never could see that Rosa had any business with him. Therefore, on no account would she go to Geopharmacy Lodge, and she regarded the baby, impending there, as an outrage and an upstart.

Dr. Hutton knew more about shoeing a horse than any of the country blacksmiths; and as Polly, in common with many fast trotters, had a trick of throwing her hindfeet inwards, and cutting (as it is termed in the art), she liked to have her hindshoes turned up, and her hoofs rasped in a peculiar manner, which Sweetland alone could execute to her perfect satisfaction.

Ha, Roger, what have you got here? said Rufus, having returned from the Hall, and inspected Polly?s new shoes, which she was very proud to show him.

Naethin at all, yer honour, but a bit o a old anshent goon, as happed to coom in last avening.

Ancient gun, man! Why, it is a new breechloader, only terribly knocked about. I found it all out in London. But there are none in this part of the country. How on earth did you come by it? And what made you spoil it, you stupid, in your forgefire?

Her han?t a bin in my vargevire. If her had, her?d nivir a coom out alaive. Her hath bin in a wood vire by the look o the smouk.

Then Roger Sweetland told Rufus Hutton, as briefly as it is possible for any New Forest man to tell anything, all he knew about it; to which the inquisitive doctor listened with the keenest interest.

And what will you take for it, Sweetland? Of course it is utterly ruined; but I might stick it up in my rubbishhole.

I?ll tak whutt I gie vor un; no mare, nor no less. Though be warth a dale mare by the looks ov un.

And what did you give for it twopence?

As good a croonpace as wor iver cooined. Putt un barck in carner, if a bain?t worth thart.

Dr. Hutton was glad to get it for that, but the blacksmith looked rather blue when he saw him, carefully wielding it, turn his mare?s head towards the copse where poor Jem was at work. For to lose the doctor?s custom would make his lie at four shillings premium an uncommonly bad investment, and Jem was almost sure to let out how much he had got for the gunbarrels.

After hearing all that Jem had to say, and seeing the entire process of discovery put dramatically, and himself searching the spot most carefully without any further result, and (which was the main point of all, at least in Jem?s opinion) presenting the woodman with halfacrown, and bidding him hold his tongue, Rufus Hutton went home, and very sagely preferred Harpocrates to Hymen.

The which resolution was most ungrateful, for Hymen had lately presented him with a perfect little Cupid, according to the very best judges, including the nurse and the mother, and the fuss that was made at the Lodge about it (for to us men a baby is neuter, a heterogeneous vocable, unluckily indeclinable); really the way everybody went on, and worst of all Rufus Hutton, was enough to make a sane bachelor bless the memory of Herod. However, of that no more at present. Some one was quite awake to all the ridiculous parts of it, and perfectly ready to turn it all to profitable account, as an admirable reviewer treats the feeble birth of a novel.

Mrs. Corklemore?s sympathetic powers were never displayed more brilliantly, or to better effect; and before very long she had added one, and that the primal, step to the ascending scale of the amiable monarch. For she could manage baby, and baby could manage Rosa, and Rosa could manage Rufus. Only Rufus was not king of the world, except in his own opinion.

As soon as Dr. Hutton could get away, he took the barrels to his own little room, and examined them very carefully. Scarred as they were, and battered, and discoloured by the fire, there could be no question as to their having formed part of a patent breechloading gun; even the hinge and the bolt still remained, though the wooden continuation of the stock was, of course, consumed; moreover, there was no loop for ramrod, nor screwthread to take the breeching. Then Rufus went to a little cupboard, and took out a very small bottle of a strong and rodent acid, and with a feather slightly touched the battered, and crusted, and rusty bridge, in the place where a gunmaker puts his name, and for the most part engraves it wretchedly. In breechloading guns, the bridge itself is only retained from the force of habit, and our conservatism of folly; for as the breechend is so much thicker than the muzzleend of the barrel, and the interior a perfect cylinder, the line of sight (if meddled with) should be raised instead of being depressed at the muzzleend, to give us a perfect parallel. Of course we know that shot falls in its flight, and there is no pure pointblank; but surely the allowance for, and correction of, these defeasances, according to distance, &c., should be left to the marksman?s eye and practice, not slurred by a crossing of planes at one particular distance.

Leaving that to wiser heads, which already are correcting it (by omitting the bridge entirely), let us see what Dr. Hutton did. As the acid began to work, it was very beautiful to watch the clouding and the clearing over the noble but fiercelyabused metal. There is no time now to describe it for which readers will be thankful enough that the result revealed the maker?s name and address, L , C rstreet, and the number of the gun. Dr. Hutton by this time had made the acquaintance of that eminent gunmaker, who, after improving greatly upon a French design, had introduced into this country a rapid and striking improvement; an implement of slaughter as far in advance of the muzzleloader as a lucifermatch is of flint and tinder. And Rufus, although with a set design to work out his suspicions, would have found it a very much slower work, but for a bit of accident.

He was sauntering along one day from Charing Cross to the westward, looking in at every window (as his manner was, for he loved all information), when suddenly he espied the very moral as the old women say the exact facsimile of the thing in his waistcoat pocket.

Instantly he entered the shop, and asked a number of questions. Though it was clear that he came to purchase nothing, he was received most courteously, for it is one of the greatest merits of men who take the lead with us, that they scale or skin the British dragon, and substitute for John Bull?s jumble of surliness and serfdom, the courtesy of selfrespect.

Then the brevity and simplicity of the new invention for everything is new with us during fiveandtwenty years; and it took thirty years of persistent work to make Covent Garden own rhubarb all the great advantages, which true Britons would consider of, were pointed out to Rufus Hutton, and he saw them in a moment, though of guns he had known but little.

And now he saw so much of import in his new discovery, that he resolved to neglect all other business, and start for London the very next morning, if Rosa could be persuaded to let him, without having heard his purpose. But, in spite of all his eagerness, he did nothing of the sort; for Rufus junior that very night was taken with some infantile ailment of a serious kind, and for more than a month the doctor could not leave home for a day even, without breach of duty towards his wife, and towards the unconscious heir of his orchardhouse and pyramids.

Troubles were closing round Bull Garnet, but he knew nothing of them; and, to tell the truth, he cared not now what the end would be, or in what mode it would visit him. All he cared for was to defer (if it might be so) the violence of the outburst, the ruin of the household, until his darling son should be matured enough of judgment, and shaped enough in character, to feel, and to make others feel, that to answer for our own sins is quite enough for the best of us.

Yet there was one other thing which Mr. Garnet fain would see in likely course of settlement, ere the recoil of his own crime should sweep upon his children. It regarded only their worldly affairs; their prospects, when he should have none. And being the mixture he happened to be so shrewd, and so sentimental he saw how good it was to exert the former attributive, when his children were concerned; and the latter, and far larger one, upon the world at large.

He had lately made some noble purchase from the Government Commissioners who generally can be cheated, because what they sell is not their own and he felt that he was bound by the very highest interests to be a capable grantee, till all was signed, and sealed, and safely conveyed to uses beyond attaint of felony. Therefore he was labouring hard to infuse some of his old energy into the breasts of lawyers which attempt proves the heat of his nature more than would a world of testimony.

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