Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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Within the New Forest, and not far from its western boundary, as defined by the second perambulation of the good King Edward the First, stands the old mansion of the Nowells, the Hall of Nowelhurst. Not content with mere exemption from all feudal service, their estate claims privileges, both by grant and custom. The benefit of Morefall trees in six walks of the forest, the right of digging marl, and turbary illimitable, common of pannage, and license of drawing akermast, pastime even of hawking over some parts of the Crown land, – all these will be catalogued as claims quite indefeasible, if the old estates come to the hammer, through the events that form my story. With many of these privileges the Royal Commissioners will deal in a spirit of scant courtesy, when the Nowell influence is lost in the neighbouring boroughs; but as yet these claims have not been treated like those of some poor commoners.
“Pooh, pooh, my man, don?t be preposterous: you know, as well as I do, these gipsy freedoms were only allowed to balance the harm the deer did”.
And if the rights of that ancient family are ever called in question, some there are which will require a special Act to abolish them. For Charles the Second, of merry memory (saddened somewhat of late years), espied among the maids of honour an uncommonly pretty girl, whose name was Frances Nowell. He suddenly remembered, what had hitherto quite escaped him, how old Sir Cradock Nowell – beautiful Fanny?s father – had saved him from a pike–thrust during Cromwell?s “crowning mercy”. In gratitude, of course, for this, he began to pay most warm attentions to the Hampshire maiden. He propitiated that ancient knight with the only boon he craved – craved hitherto all in vain – a plenary grant of easements in the neighbourhood of his home. Soon as the charter had received the royal seal and signature, the old gentleman briskly thrust it away in the folds of his velvet mantle. Then taking the same view of gratitude which his liege and master took, home he went without delay to secure his privileges. When the king heard of his departure, without any kissing of hands, he was in no wise disconcerted; it was the very thing he had intended. But when he heard that lovely Fanny was gone in the same old rickety coach, even ere he began to whisper, and with no leave of the queen, His Majesty swore his utmost for nearly half an hour. Then having spent his fury, he laughed at the “sell”, as he would have called it if the slang had been invented, and turned his royal attention to another of his wife?s young maidens.
Nowelhurst Hall looks too respectable for any loose doings of any sort. It stands well away from the weeping of trees, like virtue shy of sentiment, and therefore has all the wealth of foliage shed, just where it pleases, around it. From a rising ground the house has sweet view of all the forest changes, and has seen three hundred springs wake in glory, and three hundred autumns waning.Spreading away from it wider, wider, slopes “the Chase”, as they call it, with great trees stretching paternal arms in the vain attempt to hold it. For two months of the twelve, when the heather is in blossom, all that chase is a glowing reach of amaranth and purple. Then it fades away to pale orange, dim olive, and a rusty brown when Christmas shudders over it; and so throughout young green and russet, till the July tint comes back again. Oftentimes in the fresh spring morning the blackcocks – “heathpoults” as they call them – lift their necks in the livening heather, swell their ruffing breasts, and crow for their rivals to come and spar with them. Below the chase the whiskers of the curling wood converge into a giant beard, tufted here and there with hues of a varying richness; but for the main of it, swelling and waving, crisping, fronding, feathering, coying, and darkening here and there, until it reach the silver mirror of the spreading sea. And the seaman, looking upwards from the war–ship bound for India, looking back at his native land, for the last of all times it may be, over brushwood waves, and billows of trees, and the long heave of the gorseland: “Now, that?s the sort of place”, he says, as the distant gables glisten; “the right sort of berth for our jolly old admiral, and me for his butler, please God, when we?ve licked them Crappos as ought to be”.
South–west of the house, half a mile away, and scattered along the warren, the simple village of Nowelhurst digests its own ideas. In and out the houses stand, endwise, crossways, skewified, anyhow except upside down, and some even tending that way. It looks like a game of dominoes, when the leaves of the table have opened and gape betwixt the players. Nevertheless, it is all good English; for none are bitterly poor there; in any case of illness, they have the great house to help them, not proudly, but with feeling; and, more than this, they have a parson who leads instead of driving them. There are two little shops exceedingly anxious to under–sell each other, and one mild alehouse conducted strictly upon philosophic principles. Philosophy under pressure, a caviller would call it, for the publican knows, and so do his customers, that if poachers were encouraged there, or any uproarious doings permitted (except in the week of the old and new year), down would come his license–board, like a flag hauled in at sunset.
Pleasant folk, who there do dwell, calling their existence “life”, and on the whole enjoying it more than many of us do; forasmuch as they know their neighbours far better than themselves, and perceive each cousin?s need of trial, and console him when he gets it. Not but what we ourselves partake the first and second advantages, only we miss the fruition of them, by turning our backs on the sufferer.
Nowelhurst village is not on the main road, but keeps a straggling companionship with a quiet parish highway which requires much encouragement. This little highway does its best to blink the many difficulties, or, if that may not be, to compromise them, and establish a pleasant footing upon its devious wandering course from the Lymington road to Ringwood. Here it goes zig to escape the frown of a heavy–browed crest of furzery, and then it comes zag when no soul expects it, because a little stream has babbled at it. It even seems to bob and dip, or jump, as the case may be, for fear of prying into an old oak?s storey or dusting a piece of grass land. The hard–hearted traveller who lives express, and is bound for the train at Ringwood, curses, too often, up hill and down dale, the quiet lane?s inconsistency. What right has any road to do anything but go straight on end to its purpose? What decent road stops for a gossip with flowers – flowers overhanging the steep ascent, or eavesdropping on the rabbit–holes? And as for the beauty of ferns – confound them, they shelter the horse–fly – that horrible forest–fly, whose tickling no civilized horse can endure. Even locusts he has heard of as abounding in the New Forest; and if a swarm of them comes this very hot weather, good–bye to him, horse and trap, newest patterns, sweet plaid, and chaste things.
And good–bye to thee, thou bustling “traveller” – whether technically so called or otherwise, – a very good fellow in thy way, but not of nature?s pattern. So counter–sunk, so turned in a lathe, so pressed and rolled by steam–power, and then condensed hydraulically, that the extract of flowers upon thy shirt is but as the oil of machinery. But we who carry no chronometer, neither puff locomotively – now he is round the corner – let us saunter down this lane beyond the mark–oak and the blacksmith?s, even to the sandy rise whence the Hall is seen. The rabbits are peeping forth again, for the dew is spreading quietude: the sun has just finished a good day?s work and is off for the western waters. Over the rounded heads and bosses, and then the darker dimples of the many–coloured foliage – many–coloured even now with summer?s glory fusing it – over heads and shoulders, and breasts of heaving green, floods the lucid amber, trembling at its own beauty – the first acknowledged leniency of the July sun. Now every moment has its difference. Having once acknowledged that he may have been too downright in his ride of triumph, the sun, like every generous nature, scatters broadcast his amends. Over holt, and knoll, and lea, and narrow dingle, scooped with shadow where the brook is wimpling, and through the breaks of grass and gravel, where the heather purples, scarcely yet in prime flush, and down the tall wood overhanging, mossed and lichened, green and grey, as the grove of Druids – over, through, and under all flows pervading sunset. Then the birds begin discoursing of the thoughts within them – thoughts that are all happiness, and thrill and swell in utterance. Through the voice of the thicket–birds – the mavis, the whinchats, and the warblers – comes the tap of the yaffingale, the sharp, short cry of the honey–buzzard above the squirrel?s cage, and the plaining of the turtle–dove.
But from birds and flowers, winding roads and woods, and waters where the trout are leaping, come we back to the only thing that interests a man much – the life, the doings, and the death of his fellow–men. From this piece of yellow road, where the tree–roots twist and wrestle, we can see the great old house, winking out of countless windows, deep with sloping shadows, mantling back from the clasp of the forest, in a stately, sad reserve. It looks like a house that can endure and not talk about affliction, that could disclose some tales of passion were it not undignified, that remembers many a generation, and is mildly sorry for them. Oh! house of the Nowells, grey with shadow, wrapped in lonely grandeur, cold with the dews of evening and the tone of sylvan nightfall, never through twenty generations hast thou known a darker fortune than is gathering now around thee, growing through the summer months, deepening ere the leaves drop! All men, we know, are born for trial, to work, to bear, to purify; but some there are whom God has marked for sorrow from their cradle. And strange as it appears to us, whose image is inverted, almost always these are they who seem to lack no probation. The gentle and the large of heart, the meek and unpretending, yet gifted with a rank of mind that needs no self–assertion, trebly vexed in this wayfaring, we doubt not they are blest tenfold in the everlasting equipoise.
Perhaps it was the July evening that made me dream and moralise; but now let us gaze from that hill again, under the fringe of autumn?s gold, in the ripeness of October. The rabbits are gone to bed much earlier – comparatively, I mean, with the sun?s retirement – because the dew is getting cold, and so has lost its flavour; and a nest of young weasels is coming abroad, “and really makes it unsafe, my dear”, says Mrs. Bunny to her third family, “to keep our long–standing engagements”. “Send cards instead”, says the timid Miss Cony; “I can write them, mamma, on a polypod”.
Now though the rabbits shirk their duty, we can see the congregation returning down the village from the church, which is over the bridge, towards Lymington, and seems set aside to meditate. In straggling groups, as gossip lumps them, or the afternoon sermon disposes, home they straggle, wondering whether the girl has kept the fire up. Kept the fire “blissy” is the bodily form of the house–thought. But all the experienced matrons of the village have got together; and two, who have served as monthly nurses, are ready to pull side–hair out. There is nothing like science for setting people hard by the ears and the throat–strings. But we who are up in the forest here can catch no buzz of voices, nor even gather the point of dispute, while they hurry on to recount their arguments, and triumph over the virile mind, which, of course, knows nothing about it.
The question is, when Lady Nowell will give an heir to the name, the house, the village, the estates, worth fifty thousand a year – an heir long time expected, hoped for in vain through six long years, now reasonably looked for. All the matrons have settled that it must be on a Sunday; everybody knows that Sunday is the day for all grand ceremonies. Even Nanny Gammon?s pigs – But why pursue their arguments – the taste of the present age is so wonderfully nice and delicate. I can only say that the Gammers, who snubbed the Gaffers upon the subject, miscarried by a fortnight, though right enough hebdomadally. They all fixed it for that day fortnight, but it was done while they were predicting. And not even the monthly nurses anticipated, no one ever guessed at the contingency of – twins.
“Whishtrew, whishtrew, every bit of me! Whativer will I do, God knows. The blue ribbon there forenint me, and the blessed infants one to aich side”!
The good nurse fell against a chest of drawers, as she uttered this loud lament; the colour ebbed from her cherry cheeks, and her sturdy form shook with terror. She had scarcely turned her back, she could swear, upon her precious charges; and now only look at the murder of it! Two little cots stood side by side, not more than four feet asunder; and on each cot fast asleep lay a fine baby, some three or four days old. Upon the floor between them was a small rosette of blue ribbon. The infants were slumbering happily; and breathing as calmly as could be. Each queer little dump of a face was nestled into its pillow; and a small red podge, which was meant for an arm, lay crosswise upon the flannel. Nothing could look more delicious to the eyes of a fine young woman.
Nevertheless, that fine young woman, Mrs. Biddy O?Gaghan, stood gazing from one cot to the other, in hopeless and helpless dismay. Her comely round face was drawn out with horror, her mouth wide open, and large tears stealing into her broad blue Irish eyes.
“And the illigant spots upon them, as like as two Blemishing spannels; nor the blissed saints in heaven, if so be they was tuk to glory, afore they do be made hairyticks, cudn?t know one from the ither, no more nor the winds from the brazes. And there go the doctor?s bell again! Oh whurra–strew, whurra, whurra”!
Now Biddy O?Gaghan would scarcely have been head–nurse at Nowelhurst Hall, before she was thirty years old, but for her quick self–reliance. She was not the woman therefore to wring her hands long, and look foolish. Her Irish wit soon suggested so many modes of solution, all so easy, and all so delightfully free from reason, that the only question was how to listen to all at once. First she went and bolted carefully both the doors of the nursery. Then, with a look of triumph, she rushed to her yellow workbox, snatched up a roll of narrow tape, some pins, and a pair of scissors, and knelt upon the floor very gingerly, where the blue ribbon lay. Then, having pinned one end of the tape to the centre of the rosette, and the rosette itself to the carpet, she let the roll run with one hand, and drew the tape tight with the other, until it arrived at the nose of the babe ensconced in the right–hand cot. There she cut it off sharply, with a snip that awoke the child, who looked at her contemplatively from a pair of large grey eyes. Leaving him to his meditations, she turned the tape on the pin, and drew it towards the nasal apology of the other infant. The measure would not reach; it was short by an inch and a half. What clearer proof could be given of the title to knot and pendency?
But alas for Biddy?s triumph! The infant last geometrised awoke at that very moment, and lifting his soft fat legs, in order to cry with more comfort, disclosed the awkward fact that his left knee was nearer by three inches to the all–important rosette, than was any part of his brother. Biddy shook anew, as she drew the tape to the dimples. What is the legal centre of a human being? Upon my word, I think I should have measured from the ???????.
Ere further measurement could be essayed, all the premises were gone utterly; for the baby upon the right contrived to turn in the flannels, as an unsettled silkworm pupa rolls in his cocoon. And he managed to revolve in the wrong direction; it was his fate through life. Instead of coming towards the rosette, as a selfish baby would have done, away he went, with his grey eyes blinking at the handle of the door. Then he put up his lips, like the ring of a limpet, and poked both his little fists into his mouth.
“Well, I never”, cried Bridget; “that settles it altogether. Plase the saints an’ he were a rogue, it?s this way he?d ha’ come over on his blessed little empty belly. My darlin’ dumplin’ dillikins, it?s you as it belongs to, and a fool I must be to doubt of it. Don?t I know the bend o’ your nose, and the way your purty lips dribbles, then? And to think I was near a robbing you! What with the sitting up o’ nights, and the worry of that carroty spalpeen, and the way as they sends my meals up, Paddy O?Gaghan, as is in glory, wud take me for another man?s wife”.
With great relief and strong conviction, Mrs. O?Gaghan began to stitch the truant rosette upon the cap of the last–mentioned baby, whence (or from that of the other) it had dropped through her own loose carelessness, before they were cuddled away. And with that ribbon she stitched upon him the heritage of the old family, the name of “Cradock Nowell”, borne by the eight last baronets, and the largest estates and foremost rank in all the fair county of Hants.
“Sure an’ it won?t come off again”, said Biddy to the baby, as she laid down her needle, for, like all genuine Irishwomen, she despised a thimble; “and it?s meself as is to blame, for not taking a nick on your ear, dear. A big fool I must be only to plait it in afore, and only for thinkin’ as it wud come crossways, when you wint to your blissed mammy, dear. And little more you be likely to get there, I?m afeared, me darlin?. An’ skeared anybody would be to hoort so much as a hair o? your skull, until such time as you has any, you little jule of jewels, and I kisses every bit on you, and knows what you be thinking on in the dead hoor of the night. Bless your ticksy–wicksies, and the ground as you shall step on, and the childer as you shall have”.
Unprepared as yet to contemplate the pleasures of paternity, Master Cradock Nowell elect opened great eyes and great mouth, in the untutored wrath of hunger; while from the other cot arose a lusty yell, as of one already visited by the injustice of the world. This bitter cry awoke the softness and the faint misgivings of the Irishwoman?s heart.
“And the pity of the world it is ye can?t both be the eldest. And bedad you should, if Biddy O?Gaghan had the making of the laws. There shan?t be any one iver can say as ye haven?t had justice, me honey”.
Leaving both the unconscious claimants snugly wrapped and smiling, she called to her assistants, now calmly at tea in an inner room. “Miss Penny, run down now just, without thinking, and give my compliments, Mrs. O?Gaghan?s kind compliments to the housekeeper?s room, and would Mrs. Toaster oblige me with her big square scales? No weights you needn?t bring, you know. Only the scales, and be quick with them”.
“And please, ma?am, what shall I say as you wants them for”?
“Never you mind, Jane Penny. Wait you till your betters asks of you. And mayn?t I weigh my grandfather?s silver, without ask you, Jane Penny? And likely you?d rather not, and good reason for that same, I dessay, after the way as I leaves it open”.
Overlooking this innuendo, as well as the slight difficulty of weighing, without weights, imaginary bullion, Miss Penny hurried away; for the wrath of the nurse was rising, and it was not a thing to be tampered with. When Jane returned with the beam of justice, and lingered fondly in the doorway to watch its application, the head–nurse sidled her grandly into the little room, and turned the key upon her.
“Go and finish your tea, Miss Penny. No draughts in this room, if you please, miss. Save their little sowls, and divil a hair upon them. Now come here, my two chickabiddies”.
Adjusting the scales on the bed, where at night she lay with the infants warm upon her, she took the two red lumps of innocence in her well–rounded arms, and laid one in either scale. As she did so, they both looked up and smiled: it reminded them, I suppose, of being laid in their cradles. Blessing them both, and without any nervousness – for to her it could make no difference – she raised by the handle the balance. It was a very nice question – which baby rose first from the counterpane. So very slight was the difference, that the rosette itself might almost have turned the scale. But there was a perceptible difference, of perhaps about half an ounce, and that in favour of the sweet–tempered babe who now possessed the ribbon; and who, as the other rose slowly before him, drew up his own little toes, and tried prematurely to crow at him. Prematurely, my boy, in many ways.
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