Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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No further mistrust was left in the mind of Mrs. O?Gaghan. Henceforth that rosetted infant is like to outweigh and outmeasure his brother, a hundredfold, a thousandfold, in every balance, by every standard, save those of self, and of true love, and perhaps of the kingdom of Heaven.
The reason why Mrs. O?Gaghan, generally so prompt and careful, though never very lucid, had neglected better precautions in a matter so important, was simply and solely this – Lady Nowell, the delicate mother, was dying. It had been known, ever since the birth, that she had scarcely any chance of recovery. And Biddy loved her with all her warm heart, and so did every one in the house who owned a heart that could love. In the great anxiety, all things were upside down. None of the servants knew where to go for orders, and few could act without them; the housekeeper was all abroad; house–steward there was none; head–butler Hogstaff cried in his pantry, and wiped his eyes with the leathers; and, as for the master of them all, Sir Cradock Nowell himself, he rarely left the darkened room, and when he did he could not see well.
A sweet frail creature the young mother was, wedded too early, as happens here more often than we are aware of. Then disappointed, and grieving still more at her husband?s disappointment, she had set her whole heart so long and so vainly upon prospective happiness, that now it was come she had not the strength to do anything more than smile at it. And smile she did, very sweetly, all the time she knew she was dying; she felt so proud of those two fine boys, and could not think how she had them. Ever so many times Sir Cradock, hanging fondly over her wan, sweet face, ordered the little wretches away, who would keep on coming to trouble her. But every time she looked up at him with such a feeble glory, and such a dash of humour, – “You?ve got them at last, and now you don?t care a bit about them; but oh! please do for my sake”; every time her fading eyes followed them to the door, so that the loving husband, cold with the shadow of the coming void, had to whisper, “Bring them back, put them here between us”.
Although he knew that she was dying, he could not feel it yet; the mind admitted that fearful truth, but the heart repulsed it. Further as she sunk, and further yet, from his pleading gaze, the closer to her side he crept, the more he clasped her shadowy hands, and raised her drooping neck; the fonder grew the entreating words, the whispers of the love–time, faint smiles that hoped to win her smile, although they moved in tears. And smile she did once more on earth, through the ashy hue – the shadow of the soul?s wings fluttering – when two fresh lives, bought by her death, were shown for the farewell to her.
“And if it?s wrong, then, she?ll make it right”, thought the conscientious Biddy. “I can take my oath on?t she knowed the differ from the very first; though nobody else couldn?t see it, barring the caps they was put in.Now, if only that gossoon will consent to her see them, once more, and it can?t hurt, the poor darlin? – and the blessing as comes from the death?s gaze – ”
Mrs. O?Gaghan?s doubts were ended by the entrance of the doctor, a spare, short man, with a fiery face, red hair, and quick little eyes. He was not more than thirty years old, but knew his duties thoroughly; nevertheless, he would not have been there but for the sudden emergency. He was now come to fetch the nurse, having observed that the poor mother?s eyes were gleaming feebly, once and again, towards the door that led to the nursery; and at last she had tried to raise her hand, and point in that direction. So in came Biddy, sobbing hard, with a babe on either arm; and she curtseyed cleverly to Sir Cradock without disturbing the equipoise. But the mother?s glance was not judicial, as poor Biddy had expected – her heart and soul were far beyond rosettes, and even titles. In one long, yearning look, she lingered on her new–born babes, then turned those hazy eyes in fondness to her kneeling husband?s, then tried to pray or bless the three, and shivered twice, and died.
For days and weeks Sir Cradock Nowell bore his life, but did not live. All his clear intellect and strong will, noble plans, and useful labours, all his sense of truth and greatness, lay benumbed and frozen in the cold track of death. He could not bear to see his children, he would not even hear of them; “they had robbed him of his loved one, and what good were they? Little red things; perhaps he would love them when they grew like their mother”. Those were not his expressions, for he was proud and shy; but that was the form his thoughts would take, if they could take any. No wonder that he, for a time, was lost beyond the verge of reason; because that blow, which most of all stuns and defeats the upright man, had descended on him – the blow to the sense of justice. This a man of large mind feels often from his fellow–men, never from his Maker. But Sir Cradock was a man of intellect, rather than of mind. To me a large mind seems to be strong intellect quickened with warm heart. Sir Cradock Nowell had plenty of intellect, and plenty of heart as well, but he kept the two asunder. So much the better for getting on in the world; so much the worse for dealing with God. A man so constituted rarely wins, till overborne by trouble, that only knowledge which falls (like genius) where our Father listeth. So the bereaved man measured justice by the ells and inches of this world.
And it did seem very hard, that he who had lived for twenty years, from light youth up to the balance age of forty, not only without harming any fellow–mortal, but, upon fair average, to do good in the world – it seemed, I say – it was, thought he – most unjust that such a man could not set his serious heart upon one little treasure without losing it the moment he had learned its value. Now, with pride to spur sad memory – bronze spurs to a marble horse – he remembered how his lovely Violet chose him from all others. Gallant suitors crowded round her, for she was rich as well as beautiful; but she quietly came from out them all for him, a man of twice her age. And he who had cared for none till then, and had begun to look on woman as a stubby–bearded man looks back at the romance of his first lather, he first admired her grace and beauty, then her warmth of heart and wit, then, scorning all analysis, her own sweet self; and loved her.
A few days after the funeral he was walking sadly up and down in his lonely library, caring no whit for his once–loved books, for the news of the day, or his business, and listless to look at anything, even the autumn sunset; when the door was opened quietly, and shyly through the shadows stole his schoolfellow of yore, his truest friend, John Rosedew. With this gentleman I take a very serious liberty; but he never yet was known to resent a liberty taken honestly. That, however, does not justify me. “John Rosedew” I intend to call him, because he likes it best; and so he would though ten times a Bachelor of Divinity, a late Vice–Principal of his college, and the present Rector of Nowelhurst. Formerly I did my best, loving well the character, to describe that simple–minded, tender–hearted yeoman, John Huxtable, of Tossil?s Barton, in the county of Devon. Like his, as like any two of Nature?s ever–varied works, were the native grain and staple of the Rev. John Rosedew. Beside those little inborn and indying variations which Nature still insists on, that she may know her sons apart, those two genial Britons differed both in mental and bodily endowments, and through education. In spite of that, they were, and are, as like to one another as any two men can be who have no smallness in them. Small men run pretty much of a muchness; as the calibre increases, so the divergence multiplies.
Farmer Huxtable was no fool; but having once learned to sign his name, he had attained his maximum of literary development; John Rosedew, on the other hand, although a strong and well–built man, who had pulled a good oar in his day, was not, in bulk and stature, a match for Hercules or Milo. Unpretending, gentle, a lover of the truth, easily content with others, but never with himself, even now, at the age of forty, he had not overcome the bashfulness and diffidence of a fine and sensitive nature. And, first–rate scholar as he was, he would have lost his class at Oxford solely through that shyness, unless a kind examiner, who saw his blushing agony, had turned from some commonplace of Sophocles to a glorious passage of Pindar. Then, carried away by the noble poet, John Rosedew forgot the schools, the audience, even the row of examiners, and gave grand thoughts their grand expression, breathing free as the winds of heaven. Nor till his voice began to falter from the high emotion, and his heart beat fast, though not from shame, and the tears of genius touched by genius were difficult to check, not till then knew he, or guessed, that every eye was fixed upon him, that every heart was thrilling, that even the stiff examiners bent forward like eager children, and the young men in the gallery could scarcely keep from cheering. Then suddenly, in the full sweep of magnificence, he stopped, like an eagle shot.
Now the parson, ruddy cheeked, with a lock of light brown hair astray upon his forehead, and his pale, blue eyes looking much as if he had just awoke and rubbed them, came shyly and with deep embarrassment into the darkening room. For days and days he had thought and thought, but could not at all determine whether, and when, and how, he ought to visit his ancient friend. His own heart first suggested that he ought to go at once, if only to show the bereaved one that still there were some to love him. To this right impulse – and the impulse of a heart like this could seldom be a wrong one – rose counter–checks of worldly knowledge, such little as he had. And it seemed to many people strange and unaccountable, that if Mr. Rosedew piqued himself upon anything whatever, it was not on his learning, his purity, or benevolence, it was not on his gentle bearing, or the chivalry of his soul, but on a fine acquirement, whereof in all opinions (except, indeed, his own) he possessed no jot or tittle – a strictly–disciplined and astute experience of the world. Now this supposed experience told him that it might seem coarse and forward to offer the hard grasp of friendship ere the soft clasp of love was cold; that he, as the clergyman of the parish, would appear to presume upon his office; that no proud man could ever bear to have his anguish pryed into. These, and many other misgivings and objections, met his eager longings to help his dear old friend.
Suddenly and to his great relief – for he knew not how to begin, though he felt how and mistrusted it – the old friend turned upon him from his lonely pacing, and held out both his hands. Not a word was said by either; what they meant required no telling, or was told by silence. Long time they sat in the western window, John Rosedew keeping his eyes from sunset, which did not suit them then. At last he said, in a low voice, which it cost him much to find —
“What name, dear Cradock, for the younger babe? Your own, of course, for the elder”.
“No name, John, but his sweet mother?s; unless you like to add his uncle?s”.
John Rosedew was puzzled lamentably. He could not bear to worry his friend any more upon the subject; and yet it seemed to him sad, false concord, to christen a boy as “Violet”. But he argued that, in botanical fact, a violet is male as well as female, and at such a time he could not think of thwarting a widower?s yearnings. In spite of all his worldly knowledge, it never occurred to his simple mind that poor Sir Cradock meant the lady?s maiden surname, which I believe was “Incledon”. And yet he had suggestive precedent brought even then before him, for Sir Cradock Nowell?s brother bore the name of “Clayton”; which name John Rosedew added now, and found relief in doing so.
Thus it came to pass, that the babe without rosette was baptized as “Violet Clayton”, while the owner of the bauble received the name of “Cradock” – Cradock Nowell, now the ninth in lineal succession. The father was still too broken down to care about being present; godfathers and godmothers made all their vows by proxy. Mrs. O?Gaghan held the infants, and one of them cried, and the other laughed. The rosette was there in all its glory, and received a tidy sprinkle; and the wearer of it was, as usual, the one who took things easily. As the common children said, who came to see the great ones “loustering”, the whole affair was rather like a white burying than a baptism. Nevertheless, the tenants and labourers moistened their semi–regenerate clay with many a fontful of good ale, to ensure the success of the ceremony.
It is not pleasant to recur, to have a relapse of chronology, neither does it show good management on the part of a writer. Nevertheless, being free of time among these forest by–ways, I mean to let the pig now by the ear unfold his tail, or curl it up, as the weather suits him. And now he runs back for a month or two, trailing the rope from his left hind–leg.
Poor Lady Nowell had become a mother, as indeed we learned from the village gossip, nearly a fortnight before the expected time. Dr. Jellicorse Buller, a very skilful man, in whom the Hall had long confided, was suddenly called to London, the day before that on which we last climbed the hill towards Ringwood. With Sir Cradock?s full consent, he obeyed the tempting summons. So in the hurry and flutter of that October Sunday, it seemed a most lucky thing to obtain, in a thinly–peopled district, the prompt attendance of any medical man. And but that a gallant regiment then happened to be on the march from Dorchester to Southampton, there to embark for India, no masculine aid would have been forthcoming till after the event. But the regimental surgeon, whose name was Rufus Hutton, did all that human skill could do, and saved the lives of both the infants, but could not save the young mother. Having earned Sir Cradock?s lasting gratitude, and Biddy O?Gaghan?s strong execrations, he was compelled to rejoin his regiment, then actually embarking.
The twins grew fast, and throve amain, under Mrs. O?Gaghan?s motherly care, and shook the deep–rooted country faith, that children brought up by hand are sure to be puny weaklings. Nor was it long till nature reasserted her authority, and claimed her rights of compensation. The father began to think more and more, first of his duty towards the dead mother, and then of his duty towards his children; and ere long affection set to work, and drove duty away till called for, which happened as we shall see presently. By the time those two pretty babies were “busy about their teeth”, Cradock Nowell the elder was so deep in odontology, that Biddy herself could not answer him, and was afraid to ask any questions. He watched each little white cropper, as a girl peers day by day into a starting hyacinth. Then, when they could walk, they followed daddy everywhere, and he never was happy without them. It was a pretty thing to see them toddling down the long passages, stopping by the walls to prattle, crawling at the slippery parts, where the newly–invented tiles shone. And the father would dance away backwards from them, forgetting all about the grand servants, clapping his hands to encourage them, and holding an orange as prize for a crawling–race – then whisk away round a corner, and lay his cheek flat to the wainscot, to peep at his sons, and learn which of them was the braver. And in those days, I think, he was proud to find that Cradock Nowell, the heir of the house, was by far the more gallant baby. Which of the two was the prettier, not even sharp Biddy could say; so strongly alike they were, that the palm of beauty belonged to the one who had taken least medicine lately.
Then, as they turned two years and a half, and could jump with both feet at once, without the spectator growing sad on the subject of biped deficiencies, their father would lie down on the carpet, and make them roll and jump over him. He would watch their little spotted legs with intense appreciation; and if he got an oral sprinkle from childhood?s wild sense of humour, instead of depressing him, I declare it quite set him up for the day, sir. And he never bothered himself or them by attempts to forecast their destinies. There they were enjoying themselves, uproariously happy, as proud as Punch of their exploits, and the father a great deal prouder. All three as blest for the moment, as full of life and rapture, as God meant His creatures to be, so often as they are wise enough; and, in the name of God, let them be so!
But then there came a time of spoiling, a time of doing just what they liked, even after their eyes were opening to the light and shadow of right and wrong. If they smiled, or pouted, or even cried – though in that they were very moderate – in a fashion which descended to them from their darling mother, thereupon great right and law, and even toughest prejudice, fell flat as rolled dough before them. So they toddled about most gloriously, with a strong sense of owning the universe.
Next ensued a time of mighty retribution. Astr?a, with her feelings hurt, came down for a slashing moment. Fond as he was, and far more weak than he ever had been before, Sir Cradock Nowell was not a fool. He saw it was time to check the license, ere mischief grew irretrievable. Something flagrant occurred one day; both the children were in for it; they knew as well as possible that they were jolly rogues together, and together in their childish counsel they resolved to stand it out. The rumour was that they had stolen into Mrs. Toaster?s choicest cupboard, and hardly left enough to smell at in a two–pound pot of green–gage jam. Anyhow, there they stood, scarlet in face and bright of eye, back to back, with their broad white shoulders, their sturdy legs set wide apart, and their little heels stamping defiantly. Mrs. Toaster had not the heart to do anything but kiss them, with a number of “O fies”! and they accepted her kisses indignantly, and wiped their lips with their pinafores. They knew that they were in the wrong, but they had not tried to conceal it, and they meant to brazen it out. They looked such a fine pair of lords of the earth, and vindicated their felony with so grand an air; such high contempt of all justice, that Cookey and Hogstaff, empannelled as jury, said, “Drat the little darlings, let ’em have the other pot, mem”! But as their good star would have it, Mrs. O?Gaghan came after them. Upsetting the mere nisi prius verdict, she marched them off, one in either hand, to the great judge sitting in banco, Sir Cradock himself, in the library. With the sense of heavy wrong upon them, the little hearts began to fail, as they climbed with tugs instead of jumps, and no arithmetic of the steps, the narrow flight of stone stairs that led from regions culinary. But they would not shed a tear, not they, nor even say they were sorry, otherwise Biddy (who herself was crying) would have let them go with the tap of a battledore.
Poor little souls, they got their deserts with very scanty ceremony. When Biddy began to relate their crime, one glance at their father?s face was enough; they hung behind, and dropped their eyes, and flushed all under their curling hair. Yet little did they guess the indignity impending. Hogstaff had followed all the way, and so had Mrs. Toaster, to plead for them. Sir Cradock sent them both away, and told Biddy to wait outside. Then he led his children to an inner room, and calmly explained his intentions. These were of such a nature that the young offenders gazed at each other in dumb amazement and horror, which very soon grew eloquent as the sentence was being executed. But the brave little fellows cried more, even then, at the indignity than the pain of it.
Then the stern father ordered them out of his sight for the day, and forbade every one to speak to them until the following morning; and away the twins went, hand in hand, down the cold cruel passage, their long flaxen hair all flowing together, and shaking to the sound of their contrite sobs and heart–pangs. At the corner, by the steward?s room, they turned with one accord, and looked back wistfully at their father. Sir Cradock had been saying to himself, as he rubbed his hands after the exercise – “A capital day?s work: what a deal of good it will do them; the self–willed little rascals”! but the look cast back upon him was so like their mother?s when he had done anything to vex her, that away he rushed to his bedroom, and had to wash his face afterwards.
But, of course, he held to his stern resolve to see them no more that evening, otherwise the lesson would be utterly thrown away. Holding to it as he did, the effect surpassed all calculation. It was the turning–point in their lives.
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