Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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Now he had the pleasure of seeing Nowell Corklemore flat on his back, with his pet Beurr? Superfin (snapped at the stock), and the gig–umbrella between his legs, all a hideous ruin. The gig–umbrella flapped and flapped, and the agonised pear–tree scratched and scratched, till Nowell Corklemore felt quite sure that he was in the embrace of a dragon. The glorious pears were rolling about, some crushed under his frantic heels, the rest with wet bruises on them, appealing from human barbarism.
“Well”! said Rufus Hutton. He was in such a rage, it would have choked him to say another word.
“Haw! I don?t call it well at all to be eaten up by a dragon. Pull him away for mercy?s sake, pull him away! and I?ll tell all about this business”.
At last they got him out, for the matter was really serious, and Rufus was forced to hide his woe at the destruction of the pear–tree. And after all he had no one but himself to thank for it. Why did he almost force his guests to drink the third bottle of sherry?
“Wonderful, perfectly wonderful”! exclaimed Mr. Bailey Kettledrum, as Rufus was showing them out at the gate, before having his own horse saddled. “The triumphs of horticulture in this age are really past belief. You beat all of us, Dr. Hutton, you may depend upon it; you beat all of us. I never would have believed that trees ought to be planted with their heads down, and their roots up in the air. Stupid of me, though, for I have often heard of root–pruning, and of course you could not prune the roots unless they grew in that way”.
Rufus thought he was joking, or suffering from vinous inversion of vision.
“Remember, my good friend Hutton – excuse my familiarity, I feel as if I had known you for years – remember, my dear friend, you have pledged your word for next Wednesday – and Mrs. Hutton too, mind – Mrs. Hutton with you. We waive formality, you know, in these country quarters. Kettledrum Hall, next Wednesday – honour bright, next Wednesday! You see I know the motto of your family”.
“Thank you, all right”, said Rufus Hutton; “it?s a deuced deal more than I know”, he added, going up the drive. “I didn?t know we had a motto. Well, I?m done for at last”!
No wonder he was done for. He saw what Kettledrum had taken in the purest faith. All those lovely little trees, dwarf pyramids, &c., were standing on the apex. Jonah, after all the sherry given to and stolen by him, had laid them in by the heels with a vengeance. All the pretty heads were a foot under ground, and the roots, like the locks of a mermaid, wooing the buxom air.
That evening Dr. Hutton started, on his long swift mare, for the Hall at Nowelhurst, where he had promised to be. He kissed his Rosa many times, and begged her pardon half as often, for all the crimes that day committed. Her brother Ralph, from Fordingbridge, who always slept there at short notice, because the house was lonely, would be sure to come (they knew) when the little boy Bob was sent for him.Ralph Mohorn – poor Rosa rejoiced in her rather uncommon patronymic, though perhaps it means Cow–horn – Ralph Mohorn was only too glad to come and sleep at Geopharmacy Lodge. He was a fine, fresh–hearted fellow, only about nineteen years old; his father held him hard at home, and of course he launched out all the more abroad. So he kicked up, as he expressed it, “the devil?s own dust” when he got to the Lodge, ordered everything in the house for supper, with a bottle of whisky afterwards – which he never touched, only he liked the name of the thing – and then a cardinal, or the biggest meerschaum to be found in any of the cupboards. His pipe, however, was not, like his grog, a phantom of the imagination; for he really smoked it, and sat on three chairs, while he “baited” Rosa, as he called it, with all the bogeys in Christendom. It was so delicious now to be able to throw her into a tremble, and turn her cheeks every colour, and then recollect that a few years since she had smacked his own cheeks ad libitum. However, we have little to do with him, and now he is a jolly farmer.
Rufus Hutton rode through Ringwood over the low bridge where the rushes rustle everlastingly, and the trout and dace for ever wag their pellucid tails up stream. How all that water, spreading loosely, wading over miles of meadows, growing leagues of reed and rush, mistress of a world in winter, how it all is content to creep through a pair of little bridges – matter of such mystery, let the Christchurch salmon solve it. Dr. Hutton went gaily over – at least his mare went gaily – but he was thinking (beyond his wont) of the business he had in hand. He admired the pleasant old town as he passed, and the still more pleasant waters; but his mare, the favourite Polly, went on at her usual swing, until they came to the long steep hill towards the Picked Post. As he walked her up the sharp parts of the rise, he began to ponder the mysterious visit of those convivial strangers. It was very plain that neither of them knew or cared the turn of a trowel about the frank art of gardening; that, of course, was only a sham; then what did they really come for? Rufus, although from childhood upwards he had been hospitable to his own soul, that is to say, regarded himself with genial approbation, was not by any means blindly conceited, and could not suppose that his fame, for anything except gardening, had spread through the regions round about. So he felt that his visitors had come, not for his sake, but their own. And it was not long before he suspected that they wished to obtain through him some insight, perhaps even some influence, into and in the course of events now toward at Nowelhurst Hall. They had altogether avoided the subject; which made him the more suspicious, for at present it was of course the leading topic of the county.
However, as they were related to the family, while he, Rufus Hutton, was not, it was not his place to speak of the matter, but to let his guests do as they liked about it. They had made him promise, moreover, to dine with the Kettledrums on the very earliest day he could fix – viz. the following Wednesday – and there he was to meet Mr. and Mrs. Corklemore. Was it possible that they intended, and perhaps had been instructed, to subject the guest on that occasion to more skilful manipulation than that of their rude male fingers?
“I?ll take Rosa with me”, said Rufus to himself; “a woman sees a woman?s game best; though Rosa, thank Heaven, is not very Machiavellian. How very odd, that neither of those men had the decency to carry a bit of crape, out of respect for that poor boy; and I, who am noway connected with him, have been indued by my Roe with a hat–band”!
Shrewd as our friend Rufus was, he could not be charged with low cunning, and never guessed that those two men had donned the show of mourning, and made the most of it round their neighbourhood to impress people with their kinship to the great Nowells of Nowelhurst, but that their guardian angels had disarrayed them ere they started, having no desire to set Rufus thinking about their chance of succession. As the sharp little doctor began to revolve all he had heard about Corklemore, his mare came to the Burley–road where they must leave the turnpike. Good Polly struck into it, best foot foremost, and, as she never would bear the curb well, her rider had quite enough to do, in the gathering darkness, and on that cross–country track, to attend to their common safety.
She broke from the long stride of her trot into a reaching canter, as the moon grew bright between the trees, and the lane was barred with shadow. Pricking nervously her ears at every flaw or rustle, bending her neck to show her beauty, where the light fell clear on the moor–top, then with a snort of challenge plunging into the black of the hollows, yet ready to jump the road and away, if her challenge should be answered; bounding across the water–gulley and looking askance at a fern–shadow; then saying to herself, “It is only the moon, child”, and up the ascent half ashamed of herself; then shaking her bridle with reassurance to think of that mile of great danger flown by, and the mash and the warm stable nearer, and the pleasure of telling that great roan horse how brave she had been in the moonlight —
“Goodness me! What?s that”?
She leaped over road and roadside bank, and into a heavy gorse–bush, and stood there quivering from muzzle to tail in the intensity of terror. If Rufus had not just foreseen her alarm, and gripped her with all his power, he must have lain senseless upon the road, spite of all his rough–riding in India.
“Who–hoa, who–hoa, then, Polly, you little fool, you are killing me! Can?t you see it?s only a lady”?
Polly still backed into the bush, and her unlucky rider, with every prickle running into him, could see the whites of her eyes in the moonshine, as the great orbs stood out with horror. Opposite to them, and leaning against a stile which led to a footpath, there stood a maiden dressed in black, with the moonlight sheer upon her face. She took no notice of anything; she had heard no sort of footfall; she did not know of Polly?s capers, or the danger she was causing. Her face, with the hunter?s moon upon it, would have been glorious beauty, but for the broad rims under the eyes, and the spectral paleness. One moment longer she stared at the moon, as if questing for some one gone thither, then turned away with a heavy sigh, and went towards the Coffin Wood.
All this time Rufus Hutton was utterly blind to romance, being scarified in the calf and thighs beyond any human endurance. Polly backed further and further away from the awful vision before her – the wife of the horse–fiend at least – and every fresh swerve sent a new lot of furze–pricks into the peppery legs of Rufus.
“Hang it”! he cried, “here goes; no man with a ha?porth of flesh in him could stand it any longer. Thorn for thorn, Miss Polly”. He dashed his spurs deep into her flanks, the spurs he had only worn for show, and never dared to touch her with. For a moment she trembled, and reared upright in wrath worse than any horror; then away she went like a storm of wind, headlong through trees and bushes. It was all pure luck or Providence that Rufus was not killed. He grasped her neck, and lay flat upon it; he clung with his supple legs around her; he called her his Polly, his darling Polly, and begged her to consider herself. She considered neither herself nor him, but dashed through the wild wood, wilder herself, not knowing light from darkness. Any low beech branch, any scrag holly, even a trail of loose ivy, and man and horse were done for. The lights of more than a million stars flashed before Rufus Hutton, and he made up his mind to die, and wondered how Rosa would take it. Perhaps she would marry again, and rear up another family who knew not the name of Hutton; perhaps she would cry her eyes out. Smack, a young branch took him in the face, though he had one hand before it. “Go it again”! he cried, with the pluck of a man despairing, and then he rolled over and over, and dug for himself a rabbit–hole of sand, and dead leaves, and moss. There he lay on his back, and prayed, and luckily let go the bridle.
The mare had fallen, and grovelled in the rotten ground where the rabbits lived; then she got up and shook herself, and the stirrups struck fire beneath her, and she spread out all her legs, and neighed for some horse to come and help her. She could not go any further; she had vented her soul, and must come to herself, like a lady after hysterics. Presently she sniffed round a bit, and the grass smelled crisp and dewy, and, after the hot corn and musty hay, it was fresher than ice upon brandy. So she looked through the trees, and saw only a squirrel, which did not frighten her at all, because she was used to rats. Then she brought her forelegs well under her stomach, and stretched her long neck downwards, and skimmed the wet blades with her upper lip, and found them perfectly wholesome. Every horse knows what she did then and there, to a great extent, till she had spoiled her relish for supper.
After that, she felt grateful and good, and it repented her of the evil, and she whinnied about for the master who had outraged her feelings so deeply. She found him still insensible, on his back, beneath a beech–tree, with six or seven rabbits, and even a hare, come to see what the matter was. Then Polly, who had got the bit out of her mouth, gave him first a poke with it, and then nuzzled him under the coat–collar, and blew into his whiskers as she did at the chaff in her manger. She was beginning to grieve and get very uneasy, taking care not to step on him, and went round him ever so many times, and whinnied into his ear, when either that, or the dollop of grass half chewed which lay on his countenance, revived the great spirit of Rufus Hutton, and he opened his eyes and looked languidly. He saw two immense black eyes full upon him, tenderly touched by the moonlight, and he felt a wet thing like a sponge poking away at his nostrils.
“Polly”, he said, “oh, Polly dear, how could you serve me so? What will your poor mistress say”?
Polly could neither recriminate nor defend herself; so she only looked at him beseechingly, and what she meant was, “Oh, do get up”.
So Rufus arose, and dusted himself, and kissed Polly for forgiveness, and she, if she had only learned how, would have stooped like a camel before him. He mounted, with two or three groans for his back, and left the mare to her own devices to find the road again. It was very pretty to see in the moonlight how carefully she went with him, not even leaping the small water–courses, but feeling her footing through them. And so they got into the forest–track, some half mile from where they had left it; they saw the gleam of Bull Garnet?s windows, and knew the straight road to the Hall.
Sir Cradock Nowell did not appear. Of course that was not expected; but kind John Rosedew came up from the parsonage to keep Rufus Hutton company. So the two had all the great dinner–table to themselves entirely; John, as the old friend, sat at the head, and the doctor sat by his right hand. Although there were few men in the world with the depth of mind, and variety, the dainty turns of thought, the lacework infinitely rich of original mind and old reading, which made John Rosedew?s company a forest for to wander in and be amazed with pleasure; Rufus Hutton, sore and stiff, and aching in the back, thought he had rarely come across so very dry a parson.
John was not inclined to talk: he was thinking of his Cradock, and he had a care of still sharper tooth – what had happened to his Amy? He had come up much against his wishes, only as a duty, on that dreary Saturday night, just that Mr. Hutton, who had been so very kind, might not think himself neglected. John had dined four hours ago, but that made no difference to him, for he seldom knew when he had dined, and when he was expected to do it. Nevertheless he was human, for he loved his bit of supper.
Mr. Rosedew had laboured hard, but vainly, to persuade Sir Cradock Nowell to send some or any message to his luckless son. “No”, he replied, “he did not wish to see him any more, or at any rate not at present; it would be too painful to him. Of course he was sorry for him, and only hoped he was half as sorry for himself”. John Rosedew did not dream as yet of the black idea working even now in the lonely father?s mind, gaining the more on his better heart because he kept it secret. The old man was impatient now even of the old friend?s company; he wanted to sit alone all day weaving and unravelling some dark skein of evidence, and as yet he was not so possessed of the devil as to cease to feel ashamed of him. “Coarse language”! cries some votary of our self–conscious euphemism. But show me any plainer work of the father of unbelief than want of faith in our fellow–creatures, when we have proved and approved them; want of faith in our own flesh and blood, with no cause for it but the imputed temptation. It shall go hard with poor old Sir Cradock, and none shall gainsay his right to it.
Silence was a state of the air at once uncongenial to Dr. Hutton?s system and repugnant to all his finest theories of digestion. For lo, how all nature around us protests against the Trappists, and the order of St. Benedict! See how the cattle get together when they have dined in the afternoon, and had their drink out of the river. Don?t they flip their tails, and snuffle, and grunt at their own fine sentiments, and all the while they are chewing the cud take stock of one another? Don?t they discuss the asilus and ?strum, the last news of the rinderpest, and the fly called by some the cow–dab, and don?t they abuse the festuca tribe, and the dyspepsia of the sorrel? Is the thrush mute when he has bolted his worm, or the robin over his spider?s eggs?
So Rufus looked through his glass of port, which he took merely as a corrective to the sherry of the morning, cocked one eye first, and then the other, and loosed the golden bands of speech.
“Uncommonly pretty girls, Mr. Rosedew, all about this neighbourhood”.
“Very likely, Dr. Hutton; I see many pleasant faces; but I am no judge of beauty”. He leaned back with an absent air, just as if he knew nothing about it. And all the while he was saying to himself, “Pretty girls indeed! Is there one of them like my Amy”?
“A beautiful girl I saw to–night. But I don?t wish to see much more beauty in that way. Nearly cost me my life, I know. You are up in the classics so: what is it we used to read at school? – Helene, Helenaus, Helip – something – teterrima belli causa fuit. Upon my word, I haven?t talked so much Latin and Greek – have another glass of port, just for company; the dry vintage of ’34 can?t hurt anybody”. John Rosedew took another glass, for his spirits were low, and the wine was good, and the parson felt then that he ought to have more confidence in God. Then he brought his mind to bear on the matter, and listened very attentively while the doctor described, with a rush of warm language and plenteous exaggeration, the fright of his mare at that mournful vision, the vision itself, and the consequences.
“Sir, you must have ridden like a Centaur, or like Alexander. What will Mrs. Hutton say? But are you sure that she leaped an oak–tree”?
“Perfectly certain”, said Rufus, gravely, “clean through the fork of the branches, and the acorns rattled upon my hat, like the hail of the Himalaya”.
“Remarkable! Most remarkable”!
“But you have not told me yet”, continued Dr. Hutton, “although I am sure that you know, who the beautiful young lady is”.
“From your description, and the place, though I have not heard that they are in mourning, I think it must have been Miss Garnet”.
“Miss Garnet! What Miss Garnet? Not Bull Garnet?s daughter? I never heard that he had one”.
“Yes, he has, and a very nice girl. My Amy knows a little of her. But he does not allow her to visit much, and is most repressive to her. Unwise, in my opinion; not the way to treat a daughter; one should have confidence in her, as I have in my dear child”.
“Oh, you have confidence in Miss Rosedew; and she goes out whenever she likes, I suppose”?
“Of course she does”, said the simple John, wondering at the question; “that is, of course, whenever it is right for her”.
“Of which, I suppose, she herself is the judge”.
“Why, no, not altogether. Her aunt has a voice in the matter always, and a very potent one”.
“And, of course, Miss Rosedew, managed upon such enlightened principles, never attempts to deceive you”?
“Amy! my Amy deceive me”! The rector turned pale at the very idea. “But these questions are surely unusual from a gentleman whom I have known for so very short a time. I am entitled, in turn, to ask your reason for putting them”. Mr. Rosedew, never suspecting indignities, could look very dignified.
“I?m in for it now”, thought Rufus Hutton; “what a fool I am! I fancied the old fellow had no nous, except for Latin and Greek”.
Strange to say, the old fellow had nous enough to notice his hesitation. John Rosedew got up from his chair, and stood looking at Rufus Hutton.
“Sir, I will thank you to tell me exactly what you mean about my daughter”.
“Nothing at all, Mr. Rosedew. What do you suppose I should mean”?
“You should mean nothing at all, sir. But I believe that you do mean something. And, please God, I will have it out of you”. Rufus Hutton said afterwards that he had two great frights that evening, and he believed the last was the worst. The parson never dreamed that any man could be afraid of him, except it were a liar, and he looked upon Rufus contemptuously. The man of the world was nothing before the man of truth.
“Mr. Rosedew”, said Rufus, recovering himself, “your conduct is very extraordinary; and (you will excuse my saying it) more violent than becomes a man of your position and character”.
“No violence becomes any man, whatever his position. I am sorry if I have been violent”.
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