Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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“Bridget O?Geoghegan”, began the worthy doctor, emphasising slowly every syllable of her name, and prepared to write down her replies, “you are now upon your solemn oath, to declare the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And if you fail in this, remember, you will place your precious soul in the power of the evil one”.
“Amin to that same, thin. And more power to yer”.
“Bridget, do you remember the night when your master?s children were born”?
“Sure an’ I do, thin. Unless it wur the mornin?. How wud I help remimber it”?
“And do you remember the medical gentleman who was suddenly called in”?
“And if I wur ten times on my oath, I don?t remimber no gintleman. A bit of a red–haired gossoon there was, as wor on the way to be transported”.
“Do you remember his name”?
“Remimber it? Let me see, thin. It wor hardly worth the throuble of forgittin. Button, or Mutton; no, faix I b?lieve it wor Rubus Rotten”.
“Well, never mind his name – ”
“My faith, and I niver did, thin, nor the little spalpin ayther. But to my heart I was sorry for the dear, good, beautiful lady – glory be to her sowl – along o’ that ignorant, carroty, sprawlin?, big–knuckled omadhawn. Small chance for her to git over it”.
“Silence, woman, how dare you”? said Sir Cradock, very angrily.
“And I thought it was arl the truth as yer honour said I was to tell”. Here Biddy looked hurt and amazed. “Have the little clerk got it all in black and white”? With a sigh for his incapacity, she peered over the desk at his paper.
“Now, Mrs. O?Gaghan, no trifling”! Her master spoke sternly and sharply. But Rufus could not speak at all. He was in such a choking passion.
“If so be I have said any harm, sir, for the best of us is errowneous, I axes a humble pardon. Iver since I lose my good husband – and a better husband there cudn?t be, barrin only the bellises, and I wudn?t deny upon my oath but what I desarved the spout now and thin – ”
“Mrs. O?Gaghan”, said Dr. Hutton, trying very hard to look amiable, “do your best for once, I entreat you, to prove yourself, if there is such a thing, a respectable Irishwoman”.
From that moment the tables were turned. Her temper boiled up like a cauldron. It is quite of a piece with a thing that is all pieces – the genuine Irish nature – that, proud as they are of their country, they cannot bear to be told of their citizenship.
“Irish, thin, is it? Irish indade! Well, and I knows I?m Irish. And if I ain?t, what do I care who knows I am”?
She flung up her head superbly, and great tears ran from her eyes. Rufus Hutton perceived his advantage, and, though not at all a mean fellow, he was smarting far too sharply from the many attacks on his vanity, to forego his sweet revenge.
“You remember, then, when the doctor gave you the first–born child, that he made some odd remark, and told you to keep it separate”?
“And how can a poor Irishwoman remimber anything at all”?
“Come, you know very well that you remember that.Now, can you deny it”?
“Is it likely you?ll catch me deny anything as is a lie, then, Irish or not, as you plases”? Her bosom still was heaving with the ground–swell of her injury.
“Well, now, for the honour of old Ireland, tell us the truth for once. What were the words he said”?
“Save me if evir a bit of me can tell. Mayhap I might call to mind, if I heer?d them words agin”.
“Were they not these – ?Left to right over the shoulder, and a strapping boy he is?’”
“Bedad thin, and they might have been”.
“I want to know what they were”.
“How can I tell what they were? I only know what they was”.
“Well, and what was that”?
“Thim very same words as you?ve said”. She turned towards the door with a sullen air, while he looked at Sir Cradock in triumph. Nevertheless, he still wanted her evidence as to the subsequent mistake. He had been, as I said, to the “Jolly Foresters” and seen the Miss Penny of old; who now, as the mother of nine or ten children, was kindly communicative upon all questions of infancy.
“So then, Mrs. O?Gaghan, with the best intentions in the world, you marked the elder child with a rosette, as I saw on the following day”.
“Thrue for you as the Gospel. And what more wud you have me do”?
“Nothing. Only take a needle and thread to it; instead of crimping it into the cap”.
Poor Biddy started from where she stood, and pressed one hand to her heart. “It?s the divil himself”, she muttered. “as turns me inside out so. And sure that same is the reason he does be so black red”. Then aloud, with a final rally —
“And who say they iver see me take a needle and thread? And if I did, what odds to them”?
“No, that was the very thing you omitted to do, until it was too late. But when you sent to Mrs. Toaster for her large butter–scales, what was it you put on each side”?
“What was it? No lining at all. Fair play for the both of them, as I hope to be weighed in purgatory”.
Sir Cradock was looking on, all this while, with the deepest amazement and interest. He had not received any hint beforehand of this confirmative evidence. “And, pray, what was the reason that you wanted to weigh them at all? You know that it is considered unlucky among nurses to weigh infants”.
“Why else wud I weigh them, except to see which wur the heaviest”?
“And pray, Bridget, which was the heavier”? asked Sir Cradock, almost smiling.
“Mr. Cradock, as is now, your honour. I?d swear it on my dying bed. Did you think, then, I?d iver wrong him, the innocents as they was”?
“And did you weigh them with rosettes on”? Rufus Hutton had not finished yet.
“How cud I, and only one got it”?
“Oh, then, you had fastened it on again”?
“Do you think they was born with ribbons on”?
This was poor Biddy?s last repartee. She lost heart and told everything afterwards. How she had heard that there was some difference in the marks of the infants, though what it was she knew not justly; having, like most Irishwomen, the clearest perception that right and left are only relative terms, and come wrong in the looking–glass, as they do in heraldry. How, when she found the rosette adrift, she had done the very best she could, according to her lights, to work even–handed justice, and up to this very day believed that the heft of the scales was the true one. Then she fell to a–crying bitterly that her darling Crad should be ousted, and then she laughed as heartily that her dear boy Clayton was in for it.
With timid glances at Mrs. O?Gaghan, like a boy?s at his schoolmaster, Jane Cripps came in, and told all she knew, saying “please sir”, at every sentence. She had seen at the time Dr. Hutton?s sketch, which was made without Biddy?s knowledge, because she never would have allowed it, on account of the bad luck to follow. And Mrs. Cripps was very clever now everything was known. She had felt all along that things went queerly on the third day after the babes were born. She had made up her mind to speak at the time, only Mrs. O?Gaghan was such – excuse her – such a disciplinarian, that – that – and then Lady Nowell died, and everything was at sixes and sevens, and no one cried more violent, let them say what they like about it, than she, Jane Penny as had been.
“If Sir Cradock thought further evidence needful, there was Mrs. Bowyer, a most respectable woman, who washed thirty shilling a week, Mrs. Cripps’ first cousin and comate, who had heard at the time all about the drawing, and had not been easy about the scales, and had dreamed of it many times afterwards, as indeed her Aunt Betsy know; and her husband was no man, or he never would have said to her – ”
By this time the shadows came over the room, and the trees outside were rustling, and you could see them against the amber sunset, like a child?s scrawling on his horn–book. Volunteers throughout the household longed to give their evidence. Their self–respect for a week would be hostile, if it were not accepted. But Sir Cradock kept the door fastened, till Mrs. O?Gaghan slipped out, and put all the wenches down the steps backwards. Mrs. Toaster alone she durst not touch; but Mrs. Toaster will never forgive her, and never believe the case tried on its merits, because she was not summoned to depose to the loan of the scales.
Ha, so it is in our country, and among the niggers also. When wealth, position, title, even bastardom from princes, even the notoriety which a first–rate murderer stabs for – when any of these are in question, how we crowd into the witness–box, how we feel the reek of the court an aureola on our temples. But let any poor fellow, noble unknown, an upright man now on the bend with trouble, let him go in to face his creditors, after the uphill fight of years, let him gaze around with work–worn eyes – which of his friends will be there to back him, who will give him testimony?
After all, what matters it except in the score against us? We are bitter with the world, we make a fuss, and feel it fester, we explode in small misanthropy, only because we have not in our heart–sore the true balm of humanity. No longer let our watchword be, “Every man for himself, and God for us all”, but “Every man for God, and so for himself and all”. So may we do away with all illicit process, and return to the primal axiom that “the greater contains the less”.
The rays of the level sun were nestling in the brown bosom of the beech–clump, and the fugitive light went undulating through the grey–arched portico, like a reedy river; when Cradock and Clayton Nowell met in the old hall of their childhood. With its deep embrasures, and fluted piers, high–corniced mantel of oak relieved with alabaster figures, and the stern array of pike, and steel–cap, battle–axe, and arquebus, which kept the stag–heads over against them nodding in perpetual fear, this old hall was so impressed upon their earliest memories, that they looked upon it, in some sort, as the entrance to their lives.
As the twins drew near from opposite doors, each hung back for a moment: knowing all that had passed that day, how would his brother receive him? But in that moment each perceived how the other?s heart was; Cradock cried, “Hurrah, all right”! and Clayton?s arms were round his neck. Clayton sobbed hysterically – for he had always been woman–hearted – while Cradock coaxed him with his hand, as if he were ten years the elder. It was as though the days of childhood had returned once more, the days when the world came not between them, but they were the world to each other.
“Crad, I won?t have a bit of it. Did you think I would be such a robber, Crad? And I don?t believe one syllable of their humbugging nursery stories. Why, every fellow knows that you must be the eldest brother”.
“Viley, my boy, I am so glad that it has turned out so. You know that I have always longed to fight my way in the world, and I am fitter for it than you are. And you are more the fellow for a baronet, and a big house, and all that sort of thing; and in the holidays I shall come every year to shoot with you, and to break your dogs, and all that; for you haven?t got the least idea, Viley, of breaking a dog”.
“Well, no, I suppose I haven?t”, said Clayton, very submissively; at any other time he would have said, “Oh, haven?t I”? for it was a moot point between them. “But, Craddy, you shall have half, at any rate. I won?t touch it, unless you take half”.
“Then the estates must go to the Queen, or to Mr. Nowell Corklemore, your especial friend, Viley”.
Clayton was famed for his mimicry of the pompous Mr. Corklemore, and he could not resist it now, though the tears were still in his eyes.
“Haw, yes; I estimate so, sir. A mutually agreeable and unobjectionable arrangement, sir. Is that your opinion? Haw”! and Clayton stroked an imaginary beard, and closed one eye at the ceiling. Cradock laughed from habit; and Clayton laughed because Cradock did.
Oh that somebody had come by to see them thus on the very best terms, as loving as when they whipped tops together, or practised Sir Roger de Coverley! They agreed to slip away that evening from the noise of the guests and the winebibbing, and have a quiet jug of ale in Cradock?s little snuggery. There they would smoke their pipes together, and consider the laws of inheritance. Already they were beginning to laugh and joke about the matter; what odds about the change of position, if they only maintained the brotherhood? Unluckily no one came near them. The servants were gathered in their own hall, discussing the great discovery; Sir Cradock was gone to the Rectory to meet John Rosedew upon his return, and counsel how to manage things. Even the ubiquitous Dr. Hutton had his especial alibi. He had rushed away to catch Mr. Garnet and the illumination folk, that the necessary changes might be made in the bedizenment of the oak–tree.
Suddenly Clayton exclaimed, “Oh, what a fool I am, Craddy! I forgot a most important thing, until it is nearly too late for it”.
“What”? asked Cradock, eagerly, for he saw there was great news coming.
“When I was out with the governor to–day, what do you think I saw”?
“What, what, my boy? Out with it”.
“Can?t stop to make you guess. A woodcock, sir; a woodcock”.
“A woodcock so early? Nonsense, man; it must have been a hawk or a night–jar”.
“Think I don?t know a woodcock yet? And I?ll tell you who saw it, too. Glorious old Mark Stote; his eyes are as sharp as ever. We marked him down to a T, sir, just beyond the hoar–witheys at the head of Coffin Wood; and I should have been after him two hours ago if it had not been for this rumpus. I meant to have had such a laugh at you, for I would not have told you a word of it; but now you shall go snacks in him. Even the governor does not know it”.
“Fancy killing a woodcock in the first week of October”! said Cradock, with equal excitement; “why, they?ll put us in the paper, Viley”.
“Not unless you look sharp. He?s sure to be off at dusk. He?s a traveller, as Mark Stote said: sailed on from the Wight, most likely, last night; he?ll be off for Dorset, this evening. Run for your gun, Crad, your pet Purday; I?ll meet you here with my Lancaster in just two minutes’ time. Don?t say a word to a soul. Mind, we?ll go quite alone”.
“Yes; but you bring your little Wena, and I?ll take my Caldo, and work him as close as possible. I promised him a run this afternoon”.
Away they ran, out of different doors, to get their guns and accoutre themselves; while the poor tired woodcock sitting on one leg, under a holly bush, was drawing up the thin quivering coverlet over his great black eyes.
Cradock came back to the main hall first, with his gun on his arm, and his shot–belt across him, his broad chest shown by the shooting–jacket, and the light of hope and enterprise in his clear strong glance. Before you could have counted ten, Clayton was there to meet him; and none but a very ill–natured man could have helped admiring the pair of them. Honest, affectionate, simple fellows, true West Saxons as could be seen, of the same height and figure as nearly as could be, each with the pure bright Nowell complexion, and the straightforward Nowell gaze. The wide forehead, pointed chin, arched eyebrows, and delicate mouth of each boy resembled the other?s exactly, as two slices cut from one fern–root. Nevertheless, the expression – if I may say it without affectation, the mind – of the face was different. Clayton, too, was beginning to nurse a very short moustache, a silky bright brown tasselet; while Cradock exulted rationally in a narrow fringe of young whiskers. And Viley?s head was borne slightly on one side, Cradock?s almost imperceptibly on the other.
With a race to get to the door first, the twins went out together, and their merry laugh rang round the hall, and leaped along the passages. That hall shall not hear such a laugh, nor the passages repeat it, for many a winter night, I fear, unless the dead bear chorus.
The moment they got to the kennel, which they did by a way of their own, avoiding all grooms and young lumbermen, fourteen dogs, of different races and a dozen languages, thundered, yelled, and yelped at the guns, some leaping madly and cracking their staples, some sitting up and begging dearly, with the muscles of their chest all quivering, some drawing along on their stomachs, as if they were thoroughly callous, and yawning for a bit of activity; but each in his several way entreating to be the chosen one, each protesting that he was truly the best dog for the purpose – whatever that might be – and swearing stoutly that he would “down–charge” without a hand being lifted, never run in upon any temptation, never bolt after a hare. All the while Caldo sat grimly apart; having trust in human nature, he knew that merit must make its way, and needed no self–assertion. As his master came to him he stood upon his hind–legs calmly, balanced by the chain–stretch, and bent his forearms as a mermaid or a kangaroo does. Then, suddenly, Cradock Nowell dropped the butt of his gun on his boot, and said, with his face quite altered:
“Viley, I am very sorry; but, after all, I can?t go with you”.
“Not come with me, Craddy, and a woodcock marked to a nicety! And you with your vamplets on, and all! What the deuce do you mean”?
“I mean just what I say. Don?t ask me the reason, my dear fellow; I?ll tell you by–and–by, when we smoke our pipes together. Now I beg you, as an especial favour, don?t lose a moment in arguing. Go direct to the mark yourself, and straight powder to you! I?ll come and meet you in an hour?s time in the spire–bed by the covert”.
“Crad, it?s no good to argue with you; that I have known for ages. Mind, the big–wigs don?t dine till seven o?clock, so you have plenty of time to come for me. But I am so sorry I shan?t have you there to wipe my eye as usual. Nevertheless, I?ll bring home Bill Woodcock; and what will you say to me then, my boy? Ta, ta; come along, Wena, won?t we astonish the natives? But I wish you were coming with me, Crad”.
The brothers went out at the little gate, and there Cradock stopped and watched the light figure hurrying westward over the chase, taking a short cut for the coverts. Clayton would just carry down the spinney, where the head of the spring was, because the woodcock might have gone on there; and if ever a snipe was come back to his home yet, that was the place to meet him. Thence he would follow the runnel, for about a third of a mile, down to the spot in the Coffin Wood, where the hollies grew, and the hoar–witheys. When quit of that coppice, the little stream stole away down the valley, and so past Mr. Garnet?s cottage to the Nowelhurst water beyond the church bridge. Now whether this were the self–same brook on whose marge we observed Master Clayton last week walking, not wholly in solitude, is a question of which I will say no more, except that it does not matter much. There are so many brooks in the New Forest; and after all, if you come to that, how can the most consistent of brooks be identical with the special brook which we heard talking yesterday? Isn?t it running, running on, even as our love does? Join hands and keep your fingers tight; still it will slip through them.
When Clayton was gone but a little way over the heather and hare–runs, his brother made off, with his gun uncharged, for the group still at work in the house–front. Bull Garnet was there, with Rufus Hutton sticking like a leech to him; no man ever was bored more sharply, or more bluntly expressed it. The veins of his temples and close–cropped head stood out like a beech–tree?s stay roots; he was steaming all over with indignation, and could not find a vent for it. When Cradock came up, Bull saw in a glimpse that he was expected to say something; in fact, that he ought, as a gentleman, to show his interest, not his surprise. Nevertheless he would not do it, though he loved and admired Cradock; and for many reasons was cut to the heart by his paulo–postponement. So he left Craddy to begin, and presented no notch in his swearing. His swearing was tremendous, for he hated change of orders.
“Mr. Garnet”, said Cradock, at last, “I have heard a great deal of bad language, especially among the bargees at Oxford and the piermen at Southampton; and I don?t pretend to split hairs myself, nor am I mealy–mouthed; but I trust you will excuse my observing, that up to the present moment I have never heard such blackguardly language as you are now employing”.
Bull Garnet turned round and looked at him. If Cradock had shown any sign of fear, he would have gone to the earth at once, for his unripe strength would have had no chance with Garnet?s prime in its fury. The eyes of each felt hot in the other?s, as in reciprocal crucibles; then Mr. Garnet?s rolled away in a perfect blaze of tears. He dashed out his hand and shook Cradock?s mightily, quite at the back of the oak–tree; then he patted him on the shoulders, to resume his superiority; and said:
“My boy, I thank you”.
“Well”, thought Cradock, “of all the extraordinary fellows I ever came across, you are the most extraordinary. And yet it is quite impossible to doubt your perfect sincerity, and almost impossible to call in question your sanity”.
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