Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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“Yees, I zeed wan”, said Mark Stote, scratching the back of his head (where at least the memory ought to be); “but a wadn?t of no ’count much”.
“Now tell us where that one was”.
“Homezide of the rue, avore you coams to them hoar–witheys, naigh whur the bower–stone stanneth. ’Twur zumbawdy yaping about mebbe after nuts as had lanced fro’ the rue auver the water–tabble”.
Before this could be translated, a great stir was heard in the outer–room, a number of people crying “Don?t ’ee–now”! and a hoarse voice uttering “I will”. The coroner was just dismissing Mr. Stote with deep relief to both of them, and each the more respecting because he could not understand the other.
“Mark Stote, you have given your evidence in a most lucid manner. There are few people more to be respected than the thorough Saxon gamekeeper”.
“Moy un goo, my lard”? asked the patient Mark, with his neck quite stiff, as he at first had stuck it, and one eye cocked at the coroner, as along the bridge of a fowling–piece.
“Mr. Stote, you may now depart. Your evidence does you the greatest credit, both as the father of a family, and as – as a conservator of game, and I may say – ah, yes – as a faithful family retainer”.
“Thank ’ee, my lard, and vor my peart I dwoan?t b?leeve now as you manes all the ’arm as most volks says of ’ee”.
Mark was louting low, trying to remember the fashion they taught him forty years since in the Sunday–school, when the door flew back, and the cold wind entered, and in walked Cradock Nowell.
As regards the outer man, one may change in fifty ways in half of fifty horn?s. Villainous ague, want of sleep, violent attacks of bile, inferior claret, love rejected, scarlet fever, small–pox, any of these may make a man lose memory in the looking–glass; but all combined could not have wrought such havoc, such appalment, such drought in the fountains of the blood, as that young face now told of. There was not one line of it like the face of Cradock Nowell. It struck the people with dismay, as they made room and let him pass; it would have struck the Roman senate, even with Cato speaking. Times there are when we forget even our sense of humour, absorbed in the power of passion, and the rush of our souls along with it. No one in that room could have laughed at the best joke ever was made, while he looked at Cradock Nowell.
Utterly unconscious what any fellow thought of him (except perhaps in some under–current of electric sympathy, whose wires never can be cut, up to the drop of the gallows), Cradock crossed the chairs and benches, feeling them no more than the wind feels the hills it crosses. Yet with the inbred courtesy of nature?s thorough gentleman, though he forgot all the people there as thinking of himself, he did not yet forget himself as bound to think of them. He touched no man on leg or elbow, be he baronet or cobbler, without apologizing to him. Then he stood in the foremost place, looking at the coroner, saying nothing, but ready to be arraigned of anything.
Mr.Cole had never yet so acutely felt the loss of his “brains”; and yet it is likely that even Chope would have doubted how to manage it. The time a man of the world might pass in a dozen common–places, passed over many shrewd heads there, and none knew what to say. Cradock?s deep grey eyes, grown lighter by the change of health, and larger from the misery, seemed to take in every one who had any feeling for him.
“Here I am, and cannot be hurt, more than my own soul has hurt me. Charge me with murder if you please, I never can disprove it. Reputation is a thing my God thinks needless for me; and so it is, in the despair which He has sent upon me”.
Not a word of this he spoke, but his eyes said every word of it, to those who have looked on men in trouble, and heard the labouring heart. As usual, the shallowest man there was the first to speak.
“Mr. Nowell”, asked the coroner, blandly, as of a wealthy client, “am I to understand, sir, that you come to tender your evidence”?
“Yes”, replied Cradock. His throat was tight, and he could not manage to say much.
“Then, sir, I am bound to administer to you the caution usual on these occasions. Excuse me; in fact, I know you will; but your present deposition may be – I mean it is possible – ”
“Sir, I care for nothing now. I am here to speak the truth”.
“Very laudable. Admirable! Gentlemen of the jury – Mr. Brockwood, perhaps you will oblige the court by examining in chief”?
“No, your honour, I cannot do that; it would be a confusion of duties”.
“I will not be examined”, said Cradock, with a low hoarse voice; he had been in the woods for a day and two nights, and of course had taken cold, – “I don?t think I could stand it. A woman who gave me some bread this morning told me what you were doing, and I came here as fast as I could, to tell you all I know. Let me do it, if you please, in the best way I can; and then do what you like with me”.
The utter despair of those last words went cold to the heart of every one, and Mark Stote burst out crying so loud that a woman lent him her handkerchief. But Cradock?s eyes were hard as flint, and the variety of their gaze was gone.
The coroner hesitated a little, and whispered to his clerk. Then he said with some relief, and a look of kindness —
“The court is ready, Mr. Nowell, to receive your statement. Only you must make it upon oath”.
Cradock, being duly sworn, told all he knew, as follows:
“It had been agreed between us, that my – my dear brother should go alone to look for a woodcock, which he had seen that day. I was to follow in about an hour, and meet him in the spire–bed just outside the covert. For reasons of my own, I did not mean to shoot at all, only to meet my brother, hear how he had got on, and come home with him. However, I took my gun, because my dog was going with me, and I loaded it from habit. Things had happened that afternoon which had rather upset me, and my thoughts were running upon them. When I got to the spire–bed, there was no one there, although it was quite dusk; but I thought I heard my brother shooting inside the Coffin Wood. So I climbed the hedge, with my gun half–cocked, and called him by his name”.
Here Cradock broke down fairly, as the thought came over him that henceforth he might call and call, but none would ever answer.
“By what name did you call him”? Mr. Brockwood looked at the coroner angrily. What difference could it make?
“I called, ‘Viley, Viley, my boy!’ three times, at the top of my voice. I used to call him so in the nursery, and he always liked it. I can?t make out why he did not answer, for he must have been close by – though the bushes were very thick, certainly. At that instant, before I had time to jump down into the covert, a woodcock, flushed, perhaps, by the sound of my voice, crossed a little clearing not thirty yards in front of me. I forgot all about my determination not to shoot that day, cocked both barrels in a moment, but missed him clean with the first, because a branch of the hedge flew back and jerked the muzzle sharply. But the bird was flying rather slowly, and I got a second shot at him, as he crossed a little path in the copse, too narrow to be called a ride. I felt quite sure that I shot straight at him, and I thought I saw him fall; but the light was very bad, and the trees were very thick, and he gave one of those flapping jerks at the moment I pulled the trigger, so perhaps I missed him”.
“That ’ee doedn?t, Meester Craydock. Ai?se larned ’ee a bit too much for thic. What do ’ee call thissom”? Here he held up the woodcock. “Meester Craydock, my lard, be the sprackest shat anywhur round these pearts”.
Poor Mark knew not that in his anxiety to vindicate his favourite?s skill, he was making the case more black for him.
“Mark Stote, no more interruptions, if you please”, exclaimed the coroner; “Mr. Nowell, pray proceed”.
“Dwoan?t ’ee be haish upon un, my lard, dwoan?t ’ee vaind un guilty. A coodn?t no how ’ave doed it. A wor that naice and pertiklar, a woodn?t shat iven toard a gipsy bwoy. And his oyes be as sprack as a merlin?s. A cood zee droo a mokpie?s neestie”.
Cradock?s face, so pale and haggard but a minute before, was now of a burning red. The jury looked at him with astonishment, and each, according to his bias, put his construction upon the change. Two of them thought it was conscious guilt; the rest believed it to be indignation at the idea of being found guilty. It was neither; it was hope. The flash and flush of sudden hope, leaping across the heart, like a rocket over the sea of despair. He could not speak, but gasped in vain, then glutched (to use a forest word, which means gulped down a sob), and fell back into John Rosedew?s arms, faint, and stark, and rigid.
The process of his mind which led him to the shores of light – but only for a little glimpse, a glimpse and then all dark again – was somewhat on this wise: “Only a bullet, or balled cartridge, at the distance I was from him, could have killed my darling Viley on the spot, as I saw him dead, with the hole cut through him. I am almost sure that my cartridge was in the left barrel of the gun, where I always put it. And now it is clear that the left barrel killed that unlucky bird, and killed him with shot flying separate, so the cartridge must have opened. Viley, too, was ten feet under the height the bird was flying. I don?t believe that I hit him at all. I had loose shot in my right barrel; the one that sent so random, on account of the branch that struck it. I am almost sure I had, and I fired quite straight with the left barrel. God is good, the great God is merciful, after all I thought of Him”. No wonder that he fainted away, in the sudden reaction.
There is no need to dwell any longer on the misery of that inquest. The principal evidence has been given. The place where Cradock stood in the hedge, and the place where Clayton fell and died; how poor Cradock saw him first, in the very act of jumping, and hung like a nut–shuck, paralysed; how he ran back to his dead twin–brother and could not believe in his death, and went through the woods like a madman, with nothing warm about him except his brother?s blood, – all this, I think, is clear enough, as it had long been to the jury, and now was to the coroner. Only Cradock awoke from his hope – what did he care for their verdict? He awoke from his hope not in his moral – that there could be no doubt of – but in his manual innocence; when, to face all circumstances, he had nothing but weak habit. He could not swear, he could not even feel confident (and we want three times three for swearing, that barbarous institution) that he had rammed the cartridge down the left barrel, and the charge of shot down the right. All he could say was this, that it was a very odd thing if he had not.
The oddity of a thing is seldom enough to establish its contrary, in the teeth of all evidence. So the jury found that “Violet Clayton Nowell had died from a gunshot wound, inflicted accidentally by his brother Cradock Nowell, whom, after careful consideration, they absolved from all blame”.
Rufus Hutton rode home that night to Geopharmacy Lodge. He had worked unusually hard, even for a man of his activity, during the last three days, and he wanted to see his Rosa again, and talk it all over with her. Of course he had cancelled her invitation, as well as that of all others, under the wretched circumstances. But before he went, he saw Cradock Nowell safe in the hands of the rector, for he could not induce him to go to the Hall, and did not think it fair towards his wife, now in her delicate health, to invite him to the Lodge. And even if he had done so, Cradock would not have gone with him.
If we strike the average of mankind, we shall find Rufus Hutton above it. He had his many littlenesses – and which of us has few? – his oddities of mind and manner, even his want of charity, and his practical faith in selfishness; none the less for all of that there were many people who loved him. And those of us who are loved of any – save parents, wife, or daughter – loved, I mean, as the word is felt and not interpreted, – with warmth of heart, and moistened eyes (when good or ill befalls us); any such may have no doubt of being loved by God.
All this while, Sir Cradock Nowell had been alone; and, as Homer has it, “feeding on his heart”. Ever since that fearful time, when, going home to his happy dinner with a few choice friends, he had overtaken some dark thing, which he would not let them hide from him – ever since that awful moment when he saw what it was, the father had not taken food, nor comfort of God or man.
All they did – well–meaning people – was of no avail. It was not of disgrace he thought, of one son being murdered, and the other son his murderer; he did not count his generations, score the number of baronets, and weep for the slur upon them; rave of his painted scutcheon, and howl because this was a dab on it. He simply groaned and could not eat, because he had lost his son – his own, his sweet, his best–beloved son.
As for Cradock, the father hoped – for he had not now the energy to care very much about it – that he might not happen henceforth to meet him (for all things now were of luck) more than once a month, perhaps; and then they need not say much. He never could care for him any more; of that he felt as sure as if his heart were become a tombstone.
Young Cradock, though they coaxed and petted, wept before him at the parson?s, and still more behind him, and felt for him so truly deeply that at last he burst out crying (which did him Heaven?s own good) – Cradock, on his part, would not go to his father, until he should be asked for. He felt that he could fall on his knees, and crawl along in abasement, for having robbed the old grey man of all he loved on earth. Only his father must ask for him, or at least give him leave to come.
Perhaps he was wrong. Let others say. But in the depths of his grief he felt the need of a father?s love; and so his agony was embittered because he got no signs of it. Let us turn to luckier people.
“Rufus, why, my darling Rufus, how much more – are you going to put on that little piece of ground, no bigger than my work–table”?
Mrs. Hutton had been brought up to “call a spade a spade”; and she extended this wise nomenclature to the contents of the spade as well.
“Rosa, why, my darling Rosa, that bed contains one hundred and twenty–five feet. Now, according to the great Justus Liebig, and his mineral theory – ”
“One hundred and twenty–five feet, Rue! And I could jump across it! I am sure it is not half so long as my silk measure in the shell, dear”!
“Dearest Rosa, just consider: my pet, get out your tablets, for you are nothing at mental arithmetic”.
“Indeed! Well, you never used to tell me things like that, Rufus”!
“Well, perhaps I didn?t, Roe. I would have forsworn to any extent, when I saw you among the candytuft. But now, my darling, I have got you; and from a lofty feeling, I am bound to tell the truth. Consider the interests, Rosa – ”
“Go along with your nonsense, Rue. You talk below your great understanding, because you think it suits me”.
“Perhaps I do”, said Rufus, “perhaps I do now and then, my dear: you always hit the truth so. But is it not better to do that than to talk Greek to my Rosa”?
“I am sure I don?t know; and I am sure I don?t care either. When have I heard you say anything, Rufus, so wonderful, and so out of the way, that I, poor I, couldn?t understand it? Please to tell me that, Rufus”.
“My darling, consider. You are exciting yourself so fearfully. You make me shake all over”.
“Then you should not say such things to me, Rufus. Why, Rue, you are quite pale”! – What an impossibility! She might have boiled him in soda without bringing him to a shrimp–colour. – “Come into the house this moment, I insist upon it, and have two glasses of sherry. And you do say very wonderful things, much too clever for me, Rufus; and indeed, I believe, too clever for any woman in the world, even the one that wrote Homer”.
Rosa Hutton ran into the house, and sought for the keys high and low; then got the decanter at last out of the cellaret, and brought out a bumper of wine. Crafty Rufus stopped outside, thoroughly absorbed in an autumn rose; knowing that she liked to do it for him, and glad to have it done for him.
“Not a drop, unless you drink first, dear. Rosa, here under the weeping elm: you are not afraid of the girls who are making the bed, I hope”!
“I should rather hope not, indeed! Rue, dear, my best love to you. Do you think I?d keep a girl in the house I was afraid to see through the window”?
To prove her spirit, Mrs. Hutton tossed a glass of wine off, although she seldom took it, and it was not twelve o?clock yet. Rufus looked on with some dismay, till he saw she had got the decanter.
“Well done, Rosa! What good it does me to see you take a mere drop of wine! You are bound now to obey me. Roe, my love, your very best health, and that involves my own. You?re not heavy on my shoulder, love”.
“No, dear, I know that: you are so very strong. But don?t you see the boy coming? And that hole among the branches! And the leaves coming off too! Oh, do let me go in a moment, Rue! – ”
“Confound that boy! I?m blest if he isn?t always after me”.
The boy, however, or man as he called himself, was far too important a personage in their domestic economy to be confounded audibly. Gardener, groom, page, footman, knife–boy, and coachman, all in one; a long, loose, knock–kneed, big–footed, what they would call in the forest a “yaping, shammocking gally–bagger”. His name was Jonah, and he came from Buckinghamshire, and had a fine drawl of his own, quite different from that of Ytene, which he looked upon as a barbarism.
“Plase, sir, Maister Reevers ave a zent them traases as us hardered”. Jonah?s eyes, throughout this speech, which occupied him at least a minute, were fixed upon the decanter, with ineffable admiration at the glow of the wine now the sun was upon it.
“Then, Jonah, my boy”, cried Rufus Hutton, all animation in a moment, “I have a great mind to give you sixpence. Rosa, give me another glass of sherry. Here?s to the health of the great horticulturist, Rivers! Most obliging of him to send my trees so early, and before the leaves are off. Come along, Roe, you love to see trees unpacked, and eat the fruit by anticipation. I believe you?ll expect them to blossom and bear by Christmas, as St. Anthony made the vines do”.
“Well, darling, and so they ought, with such a gardener as you to manage them. – Jonah, you shall have a glass of wine, to drink the health of the trees. He has never taken his eyes off the decanter, ever since he came up, poor boy”.
Rosa was very good–natured, and accustomed to farm–house geniality. Rufus laughed and whispered, “My love, my Indian sherry”!
“Can?t help it”, said Mrs. Hutton; “less chance of its disagreeing with him. Here, Jonah, you won?t mind drinking after your master”.
“Here be vaine health to all on us”, said Jonah, scraping the gravel and putting up one finger as he had seen the militia men do (in imitation of the regulars); “and may us nayver know no taime warse than the prasent mawment”.
“Hear, hear”! cried Rufus Hutton; “now, come along, and cut the cords, boy”.
Dr. Hutton set off sharply, with Rosa on his arm, for he did not feel at all sure but what Jonah?s exalted sentiment might elicit, at any rate, half a glass more of sherry. They found the trees packed beautifully; a long cone, like a giant lobster–pot, weighing nearly two hundred–weight, thatched with straw, and wattled round, and corded over that.
“Out with your knife and cut the cords, boy”.
“Well, Rufus, you are extravagant”! – “Rather fine, that”, thought Dr. Hutton, “after playing such pranks with my sherry”! – “Jonah, I won?t have a bit of the string cut. I want every atom of it. What?s the good of your having hands if you can?t untie it”?
At last they got the great parcel open, and strewed all the lawn with litter. There were trees of every sort, as tight as sardines in a case, with many leaves still hanging on them, and the roots tied up in moss. Half a dozen standard apples; half a hundred pyramid pears, the prettiest things imaginable, furnished all round like a cypress, and thick with blossom–spurs; then young wall–trees, two years’ trained, tied to crossed sticks, and drawn up with bast, like the frame of a schoolboy?s kite; around the roots and in among them were little roses in pots No. 60, wrapped in moss, and webbed with bast; and the smell of the whole was glorious.
“Hurrah”! cried Rufus, dancing, “no nurseries in the kingdom, nor in the world, except Sawbridgeworth, could send out such a lot of trees, perfect in shape, every one of them, and every one of them true to sort. What a bore that I?ve got to go again to Nowelhurst to–day! Rosa, dear; every one of these trees ought to be planted to–day. The very essence of early planting (which in my opinion saves a twelvemonth) is never to let the roots get dry. These peach–trees in a fortnight will have got hold of the ground, and be thinking of growing again; and the leaves, if properly treated, will never have flagged at all. Oh, I wish you could see to it, Rosa”.
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