Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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After searching in three or four drawers – for he was rather astray at the moment, though generally he could put his hand, even in the dark, upon any particular one of his ten thousand books – he came upon the Sabellian treatise, written on backs of letters, on posters, on puffing circulars, even on visiting–cards, and cast–away tradesmen?s tickets; and there, at the twenty–first page or deltis, lay a 50l. Bank of England note, with some very tough roots arranged diamond–wise on the back, and arrows, and hyphens, and asterisks, flying about thickly between them. These he copied off, in a moment, on a piece of old hat–lining, and then triumphantly waved the bank–note in the air. It was not often poor Uncle John got hold of so much money; too bitterly knew Aunt Doxy how large was the mesh of his purse.
While Cradock gazed with great admiration, John Rosedew, with his fingers upon his lips, and looking half ashamed of himself, went to a cupboard, whose doors, half open, gave a glimpse of countless sermons. From among them he drew a wide–mouthed bottle of leeches, and set it upon the table. Then he pulled out the stopper, unplugged it, and lo! from a hole in the cork fell out two sovereigns and a half one. As this money rolled on the table, John could not help chuckling a little.
“Ha, good sister Eudoxia, have I overreached thee again? Double precaution there, you see, Crad. She has a just horror of my sermons, and she runs at the sight of a leech. ‘Non missura cutem? – be sure, not a word about it, Crad. That asylum is inviolable, and sempitern, I hope. I shall put more there next week”.
Cradock took the money at once, with the deepest gratitude, but no great fuss about it; for he saw how bitterly that good man would feel it, if he were small enough to refuse.
I shall not dwell upon their good–bye, as we have had enough valediction; only Cradock promised to write from London, so soon as he could give an address there; then leaving sadness behind him, carried a deal of it with him. Only something must yet be recounted, which befell him in Nowelhurst. And this is the first act of it.
While he was in his garret packing a little bag of necessaries, forced upon him by Miss Doxy from John?s wardrobe and her own almost indiscriminately, and while she was pulling and struggling up–stairs with John, and Jemima, and Jenny – for she would have made Cradock, if she could, carry the entire house with him – he, stowing some things in his pocket, felt what he had caught up so hastily, while flying out of the wood. He examined it by the candlelight, and became at once intent upon it. It had lain beneath a drift of dead leaves backed by a scraggy branch, whence anything short of a grand “skedaddle” would never have dislodged it.
And yet it was a great deal too pretty to be treated in that way. Cradock could not help admiring it, though he shuddered and felt some wild hopes vanish as he made out the meaning. It was a beautiful gold bracelet, light, and of first–rate workmanship, harmonious too with its purpose, and of elegant design.The lower half was a strong soft chain of the fabric of Trichinopoli, which bends like the skin of a snake; the front and face showed a strong right arm, gauntleted, yet entirely dependent upon the hand of a lady. No bezilling, no jewel whatever, except that a glorious rose–shaped pearl hung, as in contest, between them.
Cradock wondered for some little time what could be the meaning of it. Then he knew that it was Clayton?s offering to the beloved Amy. No doubt could remain any longer, when he saw in the hollow of the back the proposed inscription pencilled, “Rosa debita”, for the dead gold of the lady?s palm, “Rosa dedita” for the burnished gold of the cavalier?s high pressure. With ingenious love to help him, he made it out in a moment. “A rose due, now a rose true”. That was what it came to, if you took it in punster fashion. Just one of poor Viley?s conceits.
Cradock had no time to follow it out, for Miss Eudoxia then came in with a parcel as big as a feather–bed, of comforters, wrappers, and eatables. But, after he had left the house, he began to think about it, in the little path across the green to the village churchyard. He concluded that Amy must have been in the wood that fatal evening. She must have come to meet Clayton there; and yet it was not like her. Facts, however, are facts, as sure as eggs are eggs; though our knowledge makes no great advance through either of those aphorisms. But a growing sense of injury – though he had no right to feel injured, however it might be – this sense had kept him from asking for Amy, or leaving the flirt a good–bye.
He entered the quiet churchyard, with the moon rising over the tombstones, a mass of shadow cast by the great tower, and some epitaphs pushing well into the light, like the names which get poked into history. The wavering glance of the diffident moon, uncertain yet what the clouds meant, slipped along the buttressed walls, and tried to hold on at the angles. The damp corner, where the tower stood forth, and the south porch ran out to look at it, drew back like a ghost who was curtseying, and declining all further inquiry. Green slime was about, like the sludge of a river; and a hundred sacred memories, growing weary and rheumatic, had stopped their ears with lichen.
Cradock came in at the rickety swing–stile, and, caring no shadow for ghost or ghostess, although he had run away so, took the straight course to the old black doorway, and on to the heart of the churchyard; for he must say good–bye to Clayton. All Nowelhurst still admired that path; but those who had paved and admired it first were sleeping on either side of it. The pavement now was overlapped, undertucked, and crannied, full of holes where lobworms lived and came out after a thunderstorm, and three–cornered dips that looked glazed in wet weather, but scurfy and clammy in drought. And some of the flags stole away and gave under, as if they too wanted burial, while others jerked up, and asserted themselves as superior to some of the tombstones. There in the dark, no mortal with any respect for his grandfather, nor even a ghost with unbevilled soles, could go many steps without tripping.
Who will be astonished, then, when I say that the lightest and loveliest foot that ever tripped in the New Forest not only tripped but stumbled there? At the very corner where the side walk comes in, and the shade of the tower was deepest, smack from behind a hideous sarcophagus fell into Cradock?s arms the most beautiful thing ever seen. If he had not caught her, she must have cut the very sweetest face in the world into great holes like the pavement. Stunned for a moment, and then so abroad, that she could not think, nor even speak – “speak nor think” I would have said, if Amy had been masculine – she lay in Cradock?s trembling arms, and never wondered where she was. Cradock forgot all despair for the moment, and felt uncommonly lively. It was the sweetest piece of comfort sent to him yet from heaven. Afterwards he always thought that his luck turned from that moment. Perhaps it did; although most people would laugh who knew him afterwards.
Presently Amy recovered, and was wroth with herself and everybody. Ruddier than a Boursalt rose, she fell back against the tombstone.
“Oh, Amy”, said Cradock, retiring; “I have known it long. Even you are turned against me”.
“I turned against you, Mr. Nowell! What right have you to say that of me”?
“No right to say anything, Amy; and scarcely a right to think anything. Only I have felt it”.
“Then I wouldn?t give much for your feelings. I mean – I beg your pardon – you know I can never express myself”.
“Of course, I know that”, said Cradock.
“Oh, can?t I, indeed”? said Amy; “I dare say you think so, Mr. Nowell. You have always thought so meanly of me. But, if I can?t express my meaning, I am sure my father can. Perhaps you think you know more than he does”.
“Amy”, said Cradock, for all this was so unlike herself, that, loving that self more than his own, he scarce knew what to do with it; “Amy, dear, I see what it is. I suspected it all along”.
“What, if you please, Mr. Nowell? I am not accustomed to be suspected. Suspected, indeed”!
“Miss Rosedew, don?t be angry with me. I know very well how good you are. It is the last time I shall ever see you, or I would not restore you this”.
The moon, being on her way towards the southeast, looked over the counter–like gravestone, and Cradock placed on the level surface the bracelet found in the wood. Amy knew it in a moment; and she burst out crying —
“Oh, poor Clayton! How proud he was of it! Mr. Nowell, I never could have thought this of you; never, never, never”!
“Thought what of me, Amy? Darling Amy, what on earth have I done to offend you”?
“Oh, nothing. I suppose it is nothing to remind me how cruel I have been to him. Oh no, nothing at all. And all this from you”.
In a storm of sobs she fell upon Jeremy Wattle?s tombstone, and Cradock put one arm around her, to prevent her being hurt.
“Amy, you drive me wild. I have brought it to you only because it is yours, and because I am going away”.
“Cradock, it never was mine. I refused it months ago; and I believe he gave it – you know what he was, poor dear – I believe he transferred it, and something else – oh no, I can?t express myself – to – just to somebody else”.
“Oh, you darling! and who was that other? What a fool he must have been! Confound it, I never meant that”.
“I don?t know, Cradock. Oh, please keep away. But I think it was Pearl Garnet. Oh, Cradock, dear Cradock, how dare you? No, I won?t. Yes, I will, Crad; considering all your misery”.
She put up her pure lips in the moonlight – for Cradock had got her in both arms by this time, and was listening to no reason – her sweet lips, pledged once pledged for ever, she put them up in her love and pity, and let him do what he liked with them. And the moon, attesting a thousand seals hourly, never witnessed one more binding.
After all, Cradock Nowell, so tried of Heaven, so scourged with the bitterest rods of despair, your black web of life is inwoven now with one bright thread of gold. The purest, the sweetest, the loveliest girl that ever spun happiness out of sorrow, or smiled through the veil of affliction, the truest and dearest of all God?s children, loving all things, hating none, pours into your heart for ever all that fount of love. Freed henceforth from doubt and wonder (except at her own happiness), enfranchised of another world, enriched beyond commercial thoughts, ennobled beyond self, she blushed as she spoke, and grew pale as she thought, and who shall say which was more beautiful? Cradock could tell, perhaps, if any one can; but he only knew that he worshipped her. And to see the way she cried with joy, and how her young bosom panted; it was enough to warm old Jeremy Wattle, dead and buried nigh fourscore years.
Cradock, all abroad himself, full of her existence, tasting, feeling, thinking nothing, except of her deliciousness, drew his own love round to the light to photograph her for ever. Poor Clayton was dead; else Crad would have thought that he deserved to be so, for going away to Pearl Garnet: but then the grapes were sour. How he revelled in that reflection! And yet it was very wrong of him.
Amy stood up in the moonlight, not ashamed to show herself. She felt that Cradock was poring upon her, to stereotype every inch of her; and yet she was not one atom afraid. She knew that no man ever depreciates his own property, except in the joke which is brag. It is a most wonderful thing, what girls know and what they won?t know. But who cares now for reflections?
Her thick hair had all fallen out of her hat, because she had been crying so; her delicate form, still so light and girlish, leaned forward in trust of the future, and the long dark lashes she raised for her lover glistened with the deep light under them. Shame was nestling in her cheeks, the shame of growing womanhood, the down on the yet ungathered fruit of love. Then she crept in closer to him, to stop him from looking so much at her.
“Darling Cradock, my own dear Cradock, don?t you know me now? You see, I only love you so because you are so unlucky, and I am so dreadfully obstinate”.
“Of course, I know all that, my pet; my beauty inexpressible. And, remember that I only love you so because you are such a darling”.
Then Amy told him how sorry she was for having been so fractious lately; and that she would never be so again, only it was all his fault, because she wanted to comfort him, and he would not come and let her – here the softest gleam fluttered through her tears, like the Mazarine Blue among dewdrops – and that only for the veriest chance, and the saucer she had broken – but what of that, she would like to know; it was the surest sign of good luck to them, although it was the best service – only for that, her Crad would have gone – gone away for ever, and never known how she loved him; yes, with all her heart, every single atom of it, every delicious one, if he must know. And she would keep it for him for ever, for ever; and be thinking of him always. Let him recollect that, poor darling, and think of his troubles no more.
Then he told her how Uncle John had behaved – how nobly, how magnanimously; and had given every bit of money he possessed in the world for Cradock to start in life with. John Rosedew?s only child began to cry again at hearing it, and put her little hand into her pocket in the simplest way imaginable. “Yes, you will, dear”; “No, I won?t”; went on for several minutes, till Amy nestled quite into his bosom, and put her sweet lips to his ear.
“If you don?t, I will never believe that you love me truly. I am your little wife, you know; and all that I have is yours”.
The marriage–portion in debate was no more than five and sixpence, for Amy could never keep money long; so Cradock accepted the sweet little purse, only he must have a bit of her hair in it. She pulled out her little sewing–case, which she always took to the day–school, and the small bright scissors flashed in the moonlight, and they made a great fuss over them. Two great snips were heard, I know; for exchange, after all, is no robbery.
Then hand in hand they went together to see poor Clayton?s grave, and Cradock started as they approached, for something black was moving there.
“Little dear”, said Amy, as the doggie looked mournfully up at them, “she would starve if it were not for me. And I could not coax her to eat a morsel until I said, ‘Clayton, poor Clayton!’ And then she licked my hand and whined, and took a bit to please me. She has had a very nice tea to–night; I told you I broke the saucer, but that was all my own clumsiness”.
“And what has she got there? Oh God! I can?t stand it; it is too melancholy”.
Black Wena, when it was dark that evening, and Clayton must have done dinner, had stolen away to his dressing–room, and fetched, as she had been taught to do, his smoking–jacket and slippers. It took her a long time to carry the jacket, for fear it should be wet for him. Then she came with a very important air, and put them down upon his grave, and wagged her tail for approval. She was lying there now, and wondering how much longer till he would be ready.
Cradock sobbed hysterically, and Amy led him softly away to the place where his travelling–bag was.
“Now, wait here one moment, my poor dear, and I will bring you your future companion”.
Presently Amy came back, with Wena following the coat and the slippers. “Darling Cradock, take her with you. She is so true and faithful. She will die if she is left here. And she will be such a comfort to you. Take her, Cradock, for my sake”.
The last entreaty settled it. Cradock took the coat and slippers, and carried Wena a little way, while she looked back wistfully at the churchyard, and Amy coaxed and patted her. They agreed on the road that Amy Rosedew should call upon Miss Garnet to restore the bracelet, and should mark how she received it; for Amy had now a strong suspicion (especially after what Cradock had seen, which now became intelligible) that Pearl knew more of poor Clayton?s death than had been confessed to any one.
“My own Cradock, only think”, said Amy; “I have felt the strongest conviction, throughout, that you had nothing to do with it”.
“Sweetest one”, he replied, with a desperate longing to clasp her, but for Wena and the carpetbag, “that is only because you love me. Never say it again, dear; suspense, or even doubt about it, would kill me like slow poison”.
Amy shuddered at his tone, and thought how different men were: for a woman would live on the hope of it. But she remembered those words when the question arose, and rejoiced that he knew not the whole of it.
And now with the great drops in her eyes, she stood at her father?s gate, to say good–bye to her love. She would not let him know that she cried; but Wena was welcome to know it, and Wena licked some tears off, and then quite felt for Amy.
“Good–bye, my own, my only”, said Cradock, for the twentieth time; even the latch of the gate was trembling; “God loves us, after all, Amy. Or, at any rate, He loves you”.
“And you, and you. Oh, Cradock! if He loves one, He must love both of us”.
“I believe He does”, said Cradock; “since I have seen you, I am sure of it. Now I care not for the world, except my world in you”.
“Dearest darling, life of my life, promise me not to fret again”.
“Fret, indeed, with you to love me! Give me just one more”.
Cradock, with a braver heart than he ever thought to own again (and yet with a hole and a string in it, for, after all, he did not own it), being begged away at last by the one who then went down on her knees, only to beg him back again, – that hapless yet most blessed fellow strode away as hard as he could, for fear of running back again; and the dusky trees closed round him, and he knew and loved every one of them. Then the latch of the gate for the last time clicked, when he was out of sight, and the laurustinus by the pier, beginning to bud for the winter, glistened in the moonlight with a silent storm of tears.
END OF VOL. I
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