Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 3 of 3
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“Why should I care for life or death? The one is no good, and the other no harm. What is existence but sense of self, severance for one troubled moment from the eternal unity? We disquiet ourselves, we fume, and pant – lo, our sorrows are gone, like the smoke of a train, and our joys like the glimmer of steam. Why should I fear to be mad, any more than fear to die? What harm if the mind outrun the body upon the road of return to God? And yet we look upon madness as the darkest of human evils!
“How this gliding river makes one think of life and eternity! Not because the grand old simile lives in every language. Not because we have read and heard it, in a hundred forms and more. A savage from the Rocky Mountains feels the same idea – for ideas strongly stamped pierce into the feelings.
“Why does the mind so glide away to some calm sea of melancholy, when we stand and gaze intently upon flowing water? And the larger the spread of the water is, and the grander the march of the current, the deeper and more irresistible grows the sadness of the gazer.
“That naval captain, so well known as an explorer of the Amazon, who dined with us at Nowelhurst one day last July, was a light–hearted man by nature, and full of wit and humour. And yet, in spite of wine and warmth, he made the summer twilight creep with the sadness of his stories. Nevertheless, we hung upon them with a strange enchantment; we drew more real pleasure from them than from a world of drolleries. Poor Clayton tried to run away, for he never could bear melancholy; but all he did was to take a chair nearer to the voyager. As for me, I cried; in spite of myself, I cried; being carried away by the flow of his language, so smooth, and wide, and gliding, with the mystery of waters.
“And he was not one of those shallow men who talk for effect at dinner–parties. Nothing more than a modest sailor, leaving his mind to its natural course. Only he had been so long upon that mighty river, that he nevermore could cease from gliding, ever gliding, with it.
“Once or twice he begged our pardon for the sweep of hazy sadness moving (like the night on water) through his tales and scenery. He is gone there again of his own free choice. He must die upon that river. He loves it more than any patriot ever loved his country. Betwixt a man and flowing water there must be more than similitude, there must be a sort of sympathy.”
“Tap–Robin, ahoy there! Ahoy, every son of a sea–cook of you. Heave us over a rope, you lubbers. Would yer swamp us with parson aboard of me?”
This was Mr. Jupp, of course, churning up Crad?s weak ideas, like a steam–paddle in a fishpond. Perhaps the reason why those ideas had been of such sad obscurity, and so fluxed with sorry sentiment, was that the vague concipient believed himself to be shipped off for an indefinite term of banishment, without even a message from Amy. Whereas, in truth, he was only going for a little voyage to Ceylon, in the clipper ship Taprobane, A 1 for all time at Lloyd?s, and never allowed to carry more than twice as much as she could.
How discontented mortals are! He ought to have been jollier than a sandboy, for he had a cabin all to himself (quite large enough to turn round in), and, what of all things we Britons love best, a happy little sinecure.He was actually appointed – on the strength of his knowledge of goods earned at the Cramjam terminus, but not through any railway influence (being no chip of the board, neither any attorney?s “love–child” – if there be such a heterogeny), only through John Rosedew?s skill and knowledge of the world, Cradock was actually made “under–supercargo” of a vessel bound to the tropics.
The clipper had passed Greenhithe already, and none had hailed her or said “Farewell.” The Taprobane would have no tug. She was far too clean in the bows for that work. Her mother and grandmother had run unaided down the river; even back to the fourth generation of ships, when the Dutchmen held Ceylon, and doubtless would have kept it, but for one great law of nature: no Dutchman must be thin. But even a Dutchman loses fat within ten degrees of the line. So Nature reclaimed her square Dutchmen from the tropics, which turned them over. Most likely these regions are meant, in the end, for the Yankee, who has no fat to lose, and is harder to fry than a crocodile.
But who can stop to theorize while the Taprobane is dancing along under English colours, and swings on her keel just in time to avoid running down Mr. Rosedew and Issachar? Mr. Jupp is combining business with pleasure, being, as you may say, under orders to meet the Saucy Sally, and steer her home from Northfleet to the Surrey Docks. So he has taken a lift in a collier, and met Mr. Rosedew at Gravesend, according to agreement, and then borrowed a boat to look out alike for Saucy Sally and Taprobane.
When words and gifts had been interchanged – what Amy sent is no matter now; but Loo Jupp sent a penny ‘bacco–box, which beat father?s out and out (as he must be sure to tell Cradock), and had “Am I welcome?” on it, in letters of gold at least – when “God bless you” had been said for the twentieth time, and love tied the tongue of gratitude, the Taprobane lay–to for a moment, and the sails all shivered noisily, and the water curled crisply, and hissed and bubbled, and the little boats hopped merrily to the pipe of the rising wind.
Then Mr. Rosedew came down the side, lightly of foot and cleverly; while the under–supercargo leaned upon the rail and sorrowfully watched him. Ponderously then and slowly, with his great splay feet thrust into the rope–ladder, even up to the heel, quite at his leisure descended that good bargeman, Issachar Jupp. This noble bargee had never been seen to hurry himself on his own account. He and his deeds lagged generally on the bight of a long and slack tow–rope.
The sailors, not entering into his character, thought that he was frightened, and condemned his apprehensive luminaries, in words of a quarter the compass. Then Mr. Jupp let go with both hands, stood bolt upright on the foot–rope, and shook his great fists at them. “Let him catch them ashore at Wapping, if the devil forewent his due; let him catch them, that was all!” Thereupon they gave him a round of cheers, and promised to square the account, please God.
Mr. Rosedew and the bargeman looked up from the tossing wherry, and waved their last farewell, the parson reckless of Sunday hat, and letting his white locks glance and flutter on the cold March wind. But Cradock made no reply.
“All right, gov?nor!” said Jupp, catching hold of the parson; “no call for you to take on so. I?ve a been the likes o’ that there mysel’ in the days when I tuk’ blue ruin. The rattisination of it are to fetch it out of him by travellin?. And the Tap–Robin are a traveller, and no mistake. D?rectly moment I comes to my fortin?, I?ll improve self and family travellin?.”
Zakey, to assert his independence as his nature demanded, affected a rough familiarity with the man whom he revered. The parson allowed it as a matter of course. His dignity was not so hollow as to be afraid of sand–paper. The result was that Issachar Jupp, every time, felt more and more compunction at, and less and less of comfort in, the unresented liberties.
As he said “good–bye” at the landing–place – for he had seen the Sally coming – he put out his hand, and then drew it back with a rough bow (disinterred from long–forgotten manners), and his raspy tongue thrust far into the coal–mine of his cheek. But John Rosedew accepted his hand, and bowed, as he would have done to a nobleman. Even if a baby smiled at him, John always acknowledged the compliment. For he added Christian courtesy, and the humility of all thoughtful minds, to a certain grand and glorious gift of radiating humanity.
Cradock Nowell was loth to be sent away, and could not see the need of it; but doubtless the medical men were right in prescribing a southern voyage, a total change of scene and climate, as the likeliest means to re–establish the shattered frame and the tottering mind. And so he sailed for the gorgeous tropics, where the sun looks not askance, where the size of every climbing, swimming, fluttering, or crawling thing (save man himself) is doubled; where life of all things bounds and beats – until it is quickly beaten – as it never gets warm enough to do in the pinching zones, tight–buckled.
Meanwhile John Rosedew went to his home – a home so loved and fleeting – and tried to comfort himself on the road with various Elzevirs. Finding them fail, one after another, for his mind was not in cue for them, he pulled out his little Greek Testament, and read what a man may read every day, and never begin to be weary; because his heart still yearns the more towards the grand ideal, and feels a reminiscence such as Plato the divine, alone of heathens, won.
John Rosedew read once more the Sermon on the Mount, and wondered how his little griefs could vex him as they did. That sermon is grander in English, far grander, than in the Greek; for the genius of our language is large, and strong, and simple – the true spirit of the noblest words that ever on earth were spoken. How cramped they would be in Attic Greek (like Mount Athos chiselled); in Latin how nerveless and alien! Ours is the language to express; and ours the race to receive them.
What man, in later life, whose reading has led him through vexed places – whence he had wiser held aloof – does not, on some little touch, brighten, and bedew himself with the freshness of the morning, thrill as does the leaping earth to see the sun come back again, and, dashing all his night away, open the power of his eyes to the kindness of his Father?
John Rosedew felt his cares and fears vanish like the dew–cloud among the quivering tree–tops; and bright upon him broke the noon, the heaven wherein our God lives. Earth and its fabrics may pass away; but that which came from heaven shall not be without a home.
Meditating, comforted, strengthened on the way, John Rosedew came to his little hearth, and was gladdened again by little things, such as here are given or lent us to amuse our exile life. Most of us, with growing knowledge and keener sense of honesty, more strongly desire from year to year that these playthings were distributed more equally amongst us. But let us not say “equably.” For who shall impugn the power of contrast even in heightening the zest of heaven?
Amy met him, his own sweet Amy, best and dearest of all girls, a thoroughly English maiden, not salient like Eoa, but warmly kind, and thoughtful, and toned with self–restraint. But even that last she threw to the winds when she saw her father returning, and ran with her little feet pattering, like sweet–gale leaves, over the gravel, to the unpretentious gate.
“Darling father!” was all she said; and perhaps it was quite enough.
Of late she had dropped all her little self–will (which used to vex her aunt so), and her character seemed to expand and ripen in the quiet glow of her faithful love.
Thenceforth, and for nearly a fortnight, Amy Rosedew, if suddenly wanted, was sure to be found in a garret, whose gable–window faced directly towards the breadth of sea. When a call for her came through the crazy door, she would slam up with wonderful speed her own little Munich telescope, having only two slides and a cylinder, but clearer and brighter than high–powered glasses, ten stories long perhaps, and of London manufacture: and then she would confront the appellant, with such a colour to be sure, and a remark upon the weather, as sage as those of our weather–clerks, who allow the wind so much latitude that they never contrive to hit it. But which of the maids knew not, and loved her not the more for knowing, that she was a little coast–guard, looking out for her eau de vie? Of course she saw fifty Taprobanes– every one more genuine than its predecessor – and more than fifty Cradocks, some thirty miles away, leaning over hearts of oak, with a faint sweet smile, waving handkerchiefs as white as their own unsullied constancy, and crying with a heavy sigh, “My native land, good night!”
Facts, however, are stubborn things, and will not even make a bow to the sweetest of young ladies. And the fact was that the Ceylon trader fetched away to the southward before a jovial north–east wind, and, not being bound to say anything to either Plymouth or Falmouth, never came near the field of gentle Amy?s telescope.
That doctor knew something of his subject – the triple conglomerate called man – who prescribed for Cradock Nowell, instead of noxious medicines —medicina a non medendo– the bounding ease and buoyant freedom of a ship bound southward.
Go westward, and you meet the billows, headers all of them, staggering faith even in the Psalmist?s description (for he was never in the Bay of Biscay), and a wind that stings patriotic tears with the everlasting brine. Go eastward, and you meet the ice, or (in summer) shoals and soundings, and a dreary stretch of sand–banks. Go northward, and the chances are that you find no chance of return. But go full–sail to the glorious south, and once beyond the long cross–ploughings and headland of the Gulf Stream, you slide into a quiet breast, a confidence of waters, over which the sun more duly does his work and knows it, and under which the growth of beauty clothes your soul with wonder.
When shall we men leave off fighting, cease to prove the Darwinian theory, and the legends of Kilkenny (by leaving only our tails behind us, a legacy for new lawsuits); and in the latter days ask God the reason we were made for? When our savage life is done with, and we are no longer cannibals – and at present cannibals are perhaps of more practical mind than we, for they have an object in homicide, and the spit justifies the battle–field – when we do at last begin not to hate one another; not to think the evil first, because in nature prior; not to brand as maniacs, and marks for paltry satire, every man who dares to think that he was not born a weasel, and that ferocity is cowardice – then a man of self–respect may begin to be a patriot. At present, as our nations are, all abusing one another, none inquiring, none allowing, all preferring wrong to weakness, if it hit the breed and strain; each proclaiming that it is the favoured child of God, the only one He looks upon (merging His all–seeing eye in its squint ambition) – at present even we must feel that “patriotism” is little more than selfishness in a balloon.
Poor Cradock, wasted so and altered (when he left black London) that nothing short of woman?s true love could run him home without check, began to feel the change of sky, and drink new health from the balmy air, and relish the wholesome mind–bread, leavened with the yeast of novelty. A man who can stay in the same old place, and work the blessed old and new year at the same old work, dwell on and deal with the same old faces, receive and be bound to reciprocate the self–same old ideas, without crying out, “Oh bother you!” without yearning for the sea–view, or pining for the mountain – that man has either a very great mind, or else he has none at all. For a very great mind can create its own food, fresh as the manna, daily, or dress in unceasing variety the fruit of other intellects, and live thereon amid the grand and ever–shifting scenery of a free imagination. On the other hand, a man of no mind gets on quite contentedly, having never tasted thought–food; only wind him up with the golden key every Saturday night, and oil him with respectability at the Sunday service.
Now the under–supercargo of the Taprobane was beginning to eat his meals like a man, to be pleased with the smell of new tar, and the head–over–heel of the porpoises, and to make acquaintance with sailors of large morality. In a word, he was coming back, by spell and spate, to Cradock Nowell, but as yet so merely skew–nailed to the pillar of himself, that any change of weather caused a gape, a gap, a chasm.
Give him bright sun and clear sky, with a gentle breeze over the water spreading wayward laughter, with an amaranth haze just lightly veiling the union of heaven and ocean, and a few flying–fish, or an albatross, for incident in the foreground – and the young man would walk to and fro as briskly, and talk as clearly and pleasantly, as any one in the ship could.
But let the sky gather weight and gloom, and the sullen sun hang back in it, and the bright flaw of wind on the waters die out, and the sultry air, in oppressive folds, lean on the slimy ocean – and Cradock?s mind was gone away, like a bat flown into darkness.
Sometimes it went more gradually, giving him time to be conscious that his consciousness was departing; and that of all things was perhaps the most woeful and distressing. It was as if the weak mind–fountain bubbled up reproachfully, like a geyser over–gargled, and flushed the thin membrane and cellular tissue with more thought than they could dispose of. Then he felt the air grow chill, and saw two shapes of everything, and fancied he was holding something when his hands were empty. Then the mind went slowly off, retreating, ebbing, leaving shoal–ground, into long abeyance, into faintly–known bayous, feebly navigated by the nautilus of memory.
It is not pleasant, but is good, now and then to see afar these pretty little drawbacks upon our self–complacency – an article imported hourly, though in small demand for export. However, that is of little moment, for the home consumption is infinite. How noble it is to vaunt ourselves, how spirited to scorn as faber Him who would be father; when a floating gossamer breathed between the hemispheres of our brain makes imperial reason but the rubbish of an imperious flood. Then the cells and clever casemates, rammed home with explosive stuff to blow God out of heaven, are no mortar, but a limekiln, crusted and collapsing (after three days’ fire), a stranded cockle, dead and stale, with the door of his shell a bubble; and so ends the philosopher.
Upon a glaring torpid sea, a degree or two south of the line, the Taprobane lay so becalmed that the toss of a quid into the water was enough to drive her windward, or leeward, whichever you pleased to call it. The last of the trade winds, being long dead, was buried on the log by this time; and the sailors were whistling by day and by night, and piping into the keys of their lockers; but no responsive dimple appeared in the sleek cadaverous cheek of the never–changing sea.
What else could one expect? They had passed upon the wind?s–eyes so adverse a decision – without hearing counsel on either side – that really, to escape ophthalmia, it must close its eyelids. So everything was heavy slumber, sleep of parboiled weariness. Where sea and sky met one another – if they could do it without moving – the rim of dazzled vision whitened to a talc–like glimmer. Within that circle all was tintless, hard as steel, yet dull and oily, smitten flat with heat and haze. Not a single place in sky and sea to which a man might point his finger, and say to his mate, “Look there!” No skir of fish, not even a shark?s fin, or a mitching dolphin, no dip of wing, no life at all, beyond the hot rim of the ship, or rather now the “vessel,” where many a man lay frying, with scarcely any lard left. And oh, how the tar and the pitch did smell, running like a cankered apricot–tree, and the steam of the bilge–water found its way up, and reeked through the yawning deck–seams!
But if any man durst look over the side (being gifted with an Egyptian skull, for to any thin head the sunstroke is death, when taken upon the crown), that daring man would have seen in blue water, some twenty fathoms below him, a world of life, and work, and taste, complex, yet simple, more ingenious than his wisest labours. For here no rough rivers profane the sea with a flood of turbulent passion, like a foul oath vented upon the calm summer twilight; neither is there strong indraught from the tossing of distant waters, nor rolling leagues of mountain surf, as in the Indian Ocean. All is heat and sleep above, where the sheer dint of the sun lies; but down in the depth of those glassy halls they heed not the fervour of the noon–blaze, nor the dewy sparkle of starlight.
“Typhoon by–and–by,” said the first mate, yawning, but too lazy to stretch, under the awning of a sail which they wetted with a hydropult, a most useful thing on shipboard, as well as in a garden.
“Not a bit of it,” answered the captain, looking still more lazy, but managing to suck cold punch.
“We shall see,” was all the mate said. It was a deal too hot to argue, and he was actually drinking ale, English bottled ale, hoisted up from a dip in blue water, but as hot as the pipes in a pinery.
The under–supercargo heeded not these laconic interchanges. The oppression was too great for him. Amid that universal blaze and downright pour of stifling heat, his mind was gone woolgathering back into the old New Forest. The pleasant stir of the stripling leaves, the shadows weaving their morrice–dance, and trooping away on the grass–tufts at the pensive steps of evening; the sound and scent of the vernal wind among the blowing gorse; the milky splash of the cuckoo–flower in swarded breaks of woodland, the bees in the belfry of cowslips, the frill of the white wind–flower, and the fleeting scent of violets – all these in their form and colour moved, or lay in their beauty before him, while he was leaning against the side–rail, and it burned his hand to touch it.
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