Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 1 of 3
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The scenery of the New Forest is of infinite variety; but the wooded parts may be ranged, perhaps, in a free, loose–branching order (as befits the subject), into some three divisions, which cross and interlace each other, as the trees themselves do.
First, and most lovely, the glades and reaches of gentle park and meadow, where the beech–tree invades not seriously, or, at any rate, not with discipline, but straggles about like a tall centurion amused by ancient Britons. Here are the openings winged with fern, and ruffling to the west wind; and the crimped oval leaves of the alder rustle over the backs of the bathing cows. In and out we glance, or gaze, through the groined arcade of trees, where the sun goes wandering softly, as if with his hand before his eyes. Of such kind is the Queen?s Bower Wood, beside the Boldre Water.
Of the second type, most grand and solemn, is the tall beech–forest, darkening the brow of some lonely hill, and draping the bosomed valleys. Such is Mark Ash Wood, four miles to the west of Lyndhurst. Overhead, is the vast cool canopy; underfoot, the soft brown carpet, woven by a thousand autumns. No puny underwood foils the gaze, no coppice–whispers circulate; on high there moves one long, unbroken, and mysterious murmur, and all below grey twilight broods in a lake of silent shadow. Through this the ancient columns rising, smooth, dove–coloured, or glimpsed with moss, others fluted, crannied, bulging, hulked at the reevings of some great limb; others twisted spirally and tortuously rooting; a thousand giants receding, clustering, opening lattice–peeps between them, standing forth to stop the view, or glancing some busy slant of light – in the massive depth of gloom they seem almost to glide.
The third and most rudely sylvan form is that of the enclosures, where the intolerant beech is absent, and the oak, the spruce, and the Spanish chestnut protect the hazel, the fern and bramble, the dog–rose and the honeysuckle.
In a bowering, gleaming, twinkling valley, such as I have first described, we saw Miss Amy Rosedew admiring her own perfections; and now, some three months afterwards, a certain young lady, not wholly unlike her, is roaming in a deep enclosure, thick with oaks and underwood. It lies about a furlong from the western lodge of Nowelhurst, and stretches away towards the sunset, far from the eye of house or hut. Even the lonely peatman, who camps (or camped, while so allowed) beneath the open sky, wherever the waste yields labour freely, and no prescription bars him – even he finds nothing here to draw his sauntering footstep. The gorse prefers more open places, the nuts are few and hard to reach, the fuel–turf is not worth cutting, and the fuel–wood he dare not hew. In short, there is nothing there to tempt him. As for shade, and solitude, and the crystal rill, he gets a deal too much of that sort of thing already.
By the side of that crystal rill, and where the trees hung thickest, in the grey gloom of that Michaelmas evening, walked the aforesaid maiden, and (what we had not bargained for) a gentle youth beside her.The light between the lapping boughs and leaves – whose summer whisper grew hoarse in autumn?s rustle – the clouded light fell charily, but showed the figures comely, as either could wish of the other.
The maiden?s face was turned away, but one hand lay in her lover?s; with the other she was drawing close the loose folds of her mantle – her flushing cheek was glad of shade, and the grass thought her feet were trembling.
His eager, glistening, wavering eyes told of hope with fear behind it; and all his life was waiting for a word or look. But for the moment neither came. She trembled more and more before him, and withdrew a little, as the silver–weed at her feet withdrew from the runnel?s passion. She thought he would yet say more – she longed for him to say more; oh that her heart would be quiet!
But never another word he said, till she turned to him, sadly and proudly, with her soft eyes full of tears.
“Mr. Nowell, you are very eloquent; but you do not know what love is”.
She lifted her left hand towards her heart, but was too proud to put it there, and dropped it, hiding the movement.
“I not know what love is! And I have been saying things I should have laughed at any fellow for saying, though I am fit to cry while I say them. Oh, how cold–blooded you are; for I cannot make you feel them”!
He looked at her so ardently, that her sweet gaze fell like a violet in the May sun.
“No, Mr. Clayton Nowell, I am not cold–blooded; but, at least, my blood is pure, though not in the eyes of the world so high and refined as your own”.
“What has that got to do with it? My own – own – own – ” He was in a great hurry to embrace her, because she looked at him tenderly, to palliate the toss of her head.
“Wait, if you please. Throughout all your rhapsody” (here she smiled so that none could be angry) “you have not said a single word to show whether – that is – I mean to say whether – ”
She burst into tears, turned from him, and clung to the dead arm of the old oak.
“Whether what”? asked Clayton, sharply, in spite of her deep distress; for he began to doubt if he truly were loved, and to tire of the highstrung suspense. “Whether I have got money enough to support us both respectably? Isn?t that the proper word for it? And because I am the younger son”?
He frowned very hard at the bark of the oak, and crushed the grey touchwood under his foot, though his hand was still seeking for hers. Then she turned full upon him suddenly, too proud to dissemble her tears.
“Oh, Clayton, Clayton Nowell, can you think me so mean as that? Though my father would cast me off, perhaps, in his gratitude to Sir Cradock, do you think I would care for all the world, so long as I only had you? What I meant was only that you never said if you meant me to be – to be – your wife”. Her long lashes fell on her glistening cheeks, like the willow–leaves over the Avon.
“Why, what – well, that beats cockfighting! – why, what else did you suppose I meant, you darling of all born darlings”?
“I am sure I don?t know, Clayton. Only I beg your pardon”.
He gave her no time to beg it twice, with those wistful eyes upon him, but made her earn it thoroughly, with her round arms on his neck, and other proceedings wherewithal we have no right to meddle.
“Yes, you may call me now your own” – ever so many interruptions – “your own; yours only, for ever”.
“And you would rather have me than my elder brother”?
“Sooner than a thousand elder brothers, all as grave as Methusalem”.
Clayton was so delighted hereat, that he really longed to squeeze her, although it is a thing which young ladies now–a–days never think of allowing. Let them hope that he did not do it. The probabilities are in their favour.
“Oh, Clayton, how can I be such a simpleton? What would my father say to me”?
“What do I care, my gem, my jewel, my warm delicious pearl? For three long months I have been dying to kiss you; and now I won?t be cheated so. Surely you are not afraid of me, my beautiful wild rose”?
Her gardening hat had fallen off, her eyes were bright with tears, and the glow upon her cheeks had faded to a pellucid gleam. So have I seen the rich red Aurora weep itself, in a pulse–throb, to a pearly and waxen pink.
“No, Clayton, I am not afraid of you. I know that you are a gentleman”.
“Well”, thought Clayton, “she must be a witch, or the cleverest girl in the universe, as well as the most beautiful. She knows the way to manage me, as if we had been married fifty years”.
He looked so disconcerted at the implied rebuke, that she could have found it in her sweet heart to give him fifty kisses; but, with all her warmth of passion, she was a pure and sensitive maiden, full of self–respect. Though abashed for the moment, and bowing her head to the sunrise of young affection, she possessed a fine and very sensible will and way of her own. She was just the wife for Clayton Nowell – a hot, impulsive, wayward youth; proud to be praised by every one, more than proud of deserving it. With such a wife, he would ripen and stiffen into a fine, full character; with a weak and volatile spouse, he would swing to and fro to his ruin. His goodness as yet was in the material; only a soft, firm hand could fashion it.
So she kept him at his distance; except every now and then, when her warm, loving nature looked forth from her eyes, for fear of hurting his feelings. Hand in hand they walked along, as if they still were children, and held much counsel, as they went, about the difficulties between them. But happen what would, they made up their minds about one thing; and for them henceforth both plural and singular were entirely merged in the dual. That sentence is priggish and pedantic, but I think young lovers can solve it; if not, let them put their heads together, and unriddle it in labiates.
Nothing ever, ever, ever, in the world of fact, or in the reach of imagination, should hold apart that faithful pair, whose all in all was to each the other. This they settled with much satisfaction, before discussing anything else.
“Except, of course, you know, darling”, said the more thoughtful maiden, “if either of us should die”.
Clayton shuddered at the idea, for it was a dark place of the wood, and the rustle of the ivy–leaves seemed to whisper “die”. Then he insisted upon his amends for such a nasty suggestion; and she, with the tender thought moving her heart, could not refuse strict justice.
“And so you say, love, I must stay at Oxford until I take my degree. What a long time it does seem! Doesn?t it”?
“Never mind, dearest, how long it is, if we are true to one another”.
“Oh, that of course there?s no doubt about. And you think I must tell my father”?
“Of course you must, Clayton. We are not very old, you know; he will think that he can part us, and that may make him less angry”, – here she laughed at her own subtlety, – “and putting that out of the question, neither of us could bear to be deceiving him so long. After all, you are but a younger son; and I am a lady, I hope. I have been thoroughly educated; and there is nothing but money against me”.
She looked so proud in the shade of the spruce, that he was obliged to stop and admire her. At least he thought it his duty to do so, and the opinion did not offend her.
“But what will your brother Cradock say? He is so different from you. So odd, so determined and – upright”.
“I don?t care that for what he says. Only he had better be civil. He treated me very badly that time about the Ireland. I have a very great regard for Cradock; he is a very decent fellow; but I must teach him his proper place”.
“And you can beat him easily in Latin; my father says you can. What a shame that he would not go in for the Hertford, that you might turn the tables upon him! He would not even have got a proxy, or whatever it was he gave you”.
“I don?t know that”, said Clayton, who was truthful in spite of vanity; “very likely he would have beaten me. But I have cut him out in two things; for I can?t help thinking that he has a hankering after you”.
He looked at her with a keen, shrewd glance, for he was desperately jealous. She saw it, and smiled, and only said – “Would you believe that he could help it? But it happens that I know otherwise”.
“Oh, then, you would have had him, if you could”?
“Now, Clayton, don?t be childish. In your heart you know better”.
Of course he did, a great deal better. Then there was that to make up again, because she looked so hurt and so charming. But we can?t stop here all day, or follow all these little doings, even if honour allowed us.
“And another thing, not so important, though, I have cut him out in, most decidedly”, said Clayton, lifting his head again; “the governor likes me long chalks better than he does Cradock, I can tell you”.
“No doubt of it, I should say, dear. But I don?t think you ought to talk of it”.
“No, only to you. No secrets from one?s wife, you know. But you won?t tell your father yet, till I?ve opened upon Sir Cradock”?
“Why not? I intend to tell him directly I get home. And one thing is certain, Clayton, he will be more angry than yours will”.
Clayton found it very difficult to change her determination. But at last he succeeded in doing so.
“But only for a week, mind; I will only put it off for a week, Clayton; and I would not do that, only as you say he would rush off at once to Sir Cradock; and I must give you time to take your father at the very best opportunity”.
“And when will that be, my sweet prime minister, in your most sage opinion”?
“Why, of course, on my dear love?s birthday, next week, when all those rejoicings are to be at his brother becoming of age”.
The young lady meant no mischief at all, but her lover did not look gracious.
“My brother! oh yes, to be sure, my brother! And I dreamed last night that I was the elder. He used to talk about giving me half; but I haven?t heard much of that lately. As for my majority, as the lawyers are pleased to call it, nobody cares two straws for that. All my life I shall be a minor”.
“Yes, somebody cares for it, darling; and more than all the hundreds put together who will shout and hurrah for your brother”.
And she looked at him fondly from her heart. What a hot little partisan! The whole of that heart was now with Clayton, and he felt its strength by sympathy. So he lifted her hand to his lips, as a cavalier does in a picture. For the moment all selfish regrets lost their way in the great wide world of love.
“And my fealty shall be to you”, he cried, kneeling half in play before her; “you are my knightly fee and fortune, my castle, my lands, and my home”.
They had stopped at a point where two forest–paths met, and the bushes fell back a little, and the last of the autumn sunset glanced through the pales of a moss–grown gate, the mark whereby some royalty, or right of chase, was limited. Kneeling there, Clayton Nowell looked so courtly and gentle, with the bowered light of the west half saddening his happy, affectionate countenance, that his newly–betrothed must needs stoop graciously, and kiss his uncovered forehead.
While Clayton was admiring secretly the velvet of her lips, back she leaped, as if stung by a snake; then proudly stood confronting. Clayton sprang up to defend her; but there was no antagonist. All he saw was a man on horseback, passing silently over the turf, behind a low bank crowned with fern. Here a narrow track, scarce visible, saved the traveller some few yards, subtending as it did the angle where the two paths met. Clayton could not see the horse, for the thick brake–fern eclipsed him. But he felt that the nag was rather tired, and getting sad about supper–time. The rider seemed to be making a face, intended to express the most abstract philosophy possible, and superlunary contemplation. Any rabbit skilled in physiognomy would have come out of his hole again, quite reassured thereby. A short man he was, and apparently one meant by his mother for ruddiness; and still the brick–red of his hair proclaimed some loyalty to her intention. But his face was browned, and flaked across, like a red potato roasting, and his little eyes, sharp as a glazier?s diamond, and twinkling now at the zenith, belied his absent attitude. Then as he passed by a shadowy oak, which swallowed him up in a moment, that oak (if it had been duly vocal) would have repeated these words —
“Well, if that ain?t the parson?s daughter, grind me under a curry–stone. What a sly minx! – but devilish pretty. You?re a deal too soft, John Rosedew”.
As he passed on towards Nowelhurst the lovers felt that they had been seen, and perhaps watched ever so long; and then they felt uncomfortable. The young lady was the first to recover presence of mind. She pressed on her glossy round head the hat which had been so long in her left hand, and, drawing a long breath, looked point–blank at the wondering stare of her sweetheart.
“Well, Clayton, we may make up our minds for it now”.
“For what, I should like to know? Who cares for that interloping, beetroot–coloured muff”?
“He is no muff at all, I can tell you, but an exceedingly clever man. Do you mean to say you don?t know him”?
“Not I, from Esau or Ishmael. And he looks like a mixture of both”.
“He is Doctor Rufus Hutton”.
Clayton indulged in a very long whistle, indrawn, and not melodious. ’Twas a trick he had learned at Oxford; it has long been discarded elsewhere, but at both Universities still subsists, as the solace of newly–plucked men; the long–drawn sound seems to wind so soothingly down the horns of dilemma. Then the youth jumped up, and gathered a nut, cracked it between his white front teeth, and offered it, husk and all, without any thought of hygrometry, to his beautiful frightened darling. She took it, as if his wife already, and picked out the thin shell, piece by piece, anxiously seeking the kernel. He all the while with admiration watched the delicate fingers moving, the reflex play of the lissome joints, the spiral thread and varying impress of the convex tips, and the faintly flushing pink beneath the transparency of her nails. Then she laughed and jumped, as it proved to be a magnificent double nut – two fat kernels close together, shaped by one another. Of course she gave him one, and of course we know what they did about it. I will only state that they very soon forgot all about Dr. Rufus Hutton, and could scarcely part where the last branch–path was quite near to the maiden?s window. Even there, where the walks divided, when neither could see the other, each stepped aside, very proud of love?s slyness, to steal the last of the other?s footfall; and soon, with a blush of intuition, each knew that the other was lingering, and each felt ashamed of himself or herself, and loved the other all the more for it. So they broke from the bushes, detected and laughing, to put a good face upon it, and each must go to tell the other how it came about. They kissed once more, for they felt it was right now that the moon was risen; then home ran both, with a warmth of remembrance and hope glowing in the heart.
Whatever the age, or the intellect of the passing age, may be, even if ever arise again such a galaxy of great minds as dawned upon this country three hundred years ago, though all those great minds start upon their glorious career, comprising and intensifying all the light engendered by, before, and since the time of Shakespeare, Bacon, Newton; then, though they enhance that light tenfold by their own bright genius, till a thousand waking nations gleam, like hill–tops touched with sunrise – to guide men on the human road, to lead them heaven–ward, all shall be no more than a benighted river wandering away from the stars of God. Do what we will, and think as we may, enlarging the mind in each generation, growing contemptuous of contempt, casting caste to the winds of heaven, and antiquating prejudice, nevertheless we shall never outrun, or even overtake Christianity. Science, learning, philosophy, may regard it through a telescope: they touch it no more than astronomy sets foot upon a star. To a thoughtful man, who is scandalized at all the littleness felt and done under the holy name, until he almost begins to doubt if the good outweigh the evil, it is reassurance to remember that we are not Christians yet, and comfort to confess that on earth we never can be. For nothing shows more clearly that our faith is of heaven, than the truth that we cannot rise to it until it raise us thither. And this reflection is akin to the stately writer?s sentiment, that our minds conceive so much more than our bodies can perform, to give us token, ay, and earnest, of a future state.
Of all the creeds which have issued as yet from God, or man, or the devil, there is but one which is far in advance of all human civilization. True Christianity, like hope, cheers us to continual effort, exalts us to unbounded prospect, flies in front of our best success. Let us call it a worn–out garb, when we have begun to wear it; as yet the mantle is in the skies, and we have only the skirt with the name on it.
Such thoughts as these were always stirring in the heart of a man of power, a leading character in my story, a leading character everywhere, whithersoever he went. Bull Garnet was now forty–five years old, and all who met him were surprised at his humble place in the commonwealth. A sense of power so pervaded even the air he breathed, that strong men rebelled instinctively, though he urged no supremacy; weak men caught some infection from him, and went home and astonished their families. Strong and weak alike confessed that it was a mysterious thing how a man of such motive strength, and self–reliance illimitable, could be content with no higher post than that of a common steward. But neighbourly interest in this subject met with no encouragement. Albeit his views of life expanded into universal sympathy, his practice now and then admitted some worldly–wise restrictions. And so, while really glad to advise on the doings of all around him, he never permitted brotherly interference with his own.
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