The Scouring of the White Horse
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“Come, give us your hand, Dick,” said he, holding out his, and looking quite bright again; “I knew you would be all on the square, let be what might.”
“Well, I won’t deceive you, Joe,” said I, “I don’t deserve any credit for that.”
“How not?” said he.
“Why, I meant to have spoken to her half-a-dozen times, only one little thing or another stopped it. But I’m very glad of it, for I think you ought to know it first.”
“Well, well,” said he, coming and sitting down again, and staring into the fire, “it’s a precious bad job. Let’s think a bit how we be to tackle it.”
“I know,” said I, drawing up a bit – for I didn’t feel flattered at this speech – “that I’m not in the same position you are in, and that you’ve a right to look for a much richer man than I am for your sister, but – ”
“Oh, bother that,” said Joe, beginning to smoke again, and still staring into the fire; “I wasn’t thinking of that. ’Twill be just as bad for we, let who will take her. Here’s mother getting a’most blind, and ’mazing forgetful-like about every thing. Who’s to read her her chapter, or to find her spectacles? and what in the world’s to become of the keys? I be no use to mother by myself, you see,” said Joe, “and I couldn’t abide to see the old lady put about at her time of life; let alone how the pickling and preserving is to go on.”
I was very pleased and surprised to see him taking it so coolly, and particularly that he seemed not to be objecting to me, but only to losing his sister at all.
“Then there’s my dairy,” said he; “that cow Daisy, as gives the richest milk in all the Vale, nobody could ever get her to stand quiet till Lu took to her; she’ll kick down a matter o’ six pail o’ milk a week, I’ll warrant. And the poultry, too; there’s that drattl’d old galleeny’ll be learning the Spanish hens to lay astray up in the brake, as soon as ever Lu goes, and then the fox’ll have ’em all. To think of the trouble I took to get that breed, and not a mossel o’ use at last!”
“Well, but Joe,” said I, “one would think we were going to be married to-morrow, to hear you talk.”
“Well, you want to be married, don’t you?” said he, looking up.
“Yes, but not directly,” said I; “you see, I should like to have a tidy place got all ready before I should think – ”
“Why, she mayn’t be agreeable after all,” interrupted Joe, as if a new light had suddenly struck him; and then he had a good laugh at the thought, in which I didn’t join.
“Then, Joe,” said I, “I think you don’t seem to mind my being a cockney, and not a rich man?”
“I’d sooner have had a chap that knows a horse from a handspike, and something about four-course,” said he, “so I won’t tell a lie about it, Dick. Put that out of the way, and I’d as lief call you brother-in-law as any man. But you ain’t in any hurry you said just now?”
“Well, no,” said I; “but of course I should like to write to your sister directly and tell her, and I hope you won’t object to that, and won’t hinder me if you can’t help me.”
“Don’t have any of that writing,” said Joe, “’pend upon it, a good-bred girl like Lu wouldn’t stand it.”
“That’s all very well,” said I, “but I’m going away to-night, you know, and if I don’t write how’s she ever to know any thing about it?”
“Look here,” said Joe; “will you promise, Dick, to give me and mother a year to turn round in from next Christmas – that is, supposing Lu don’t say no?”
“Yes, certainly,” said I; “Christmas year is the earliest time I could hope to be ready by.”
“Then I’ll tell you what,” said he; “Don’t you go writing to her at all, and I’ll bring her up with me for Christmas cattle-show, and you can get us lodgings, and show us some of the sights.You can have it all out with her before we come home, and I shall be by to see all fair.”
“No, no, Joe, I couldn’t say a word with you by.”
“I didn’t mean that I was to be in the room, you know, only if any thing goes wrong – you understand,” said Joe, looking round, and nodding at me with a solemn face.
“Yes, I see,” said I; “but somebody else – one of the young farmers now, that I saw on the hill, may be stepping in before Christmas.”
“Not they. It’s busy times with us these next two months. Besides, I’ll look after that. Is it a bargain, then?”
“Yes,” said I, “only mind, Joe, that you look sharp meantime.”
“All right,” said he; and then fell to looking into the fire again; and I sat thinking too, and wondering at my luck, which I could hardly believe in yet.
“And now about the pot,” said Joe; “suppose Lu says yes, what have you got to keep the pot boiling?”
Then I told him what my salary was, and what I had saved, and where I had put it out, and he nodded away, and seemed very well satisfied.
“Well, Lu has got ?500,” said he, “under father’s will. Parson and I are the executors. You must go and see the Parson when you get back to London; he’s an out-and-outer, and worth more than all the chaps at that jawing shop of yours put together. The money is out at interest, all but ?200, which we’ve never raised yet, but for that matter I can pay it up whenever it’s wanted.”
“Of course,” said I, “I should wish all her fortune to be settled on her.”
“Yes, I forgot,” said he; “I suppose there ought to be some sort of tying-up done for the children. So I’ll go and see Lawyer Smith about it next market-day.”
“Perhaps you had better wait till after Christmas,” said I.
“Aye, aye,” said he, “I forgot. We may be running a tail scent after all. But, I say, Dick, if you get married, Lu can never live in those dirty, dark streets, and you away all day; she’d mope to death without a place for poultry, and a little bit of turf to cool her feet on.”
“Well,” said I, “you see I’ve got a bit of ground under a freehold land society, down the Great Northern line. It’s a very pretty place, and only five minutes’ walk from a station. I could build a house there in the spring, you know, and have the garden made.”
“That’ll do,” said he; “and if you want ?100 or so, to finish it off as should be, why you know where to come for it.”
“Thank you,” said I, “but I think I can manage it.”
“I shall send her up those Spanish hens,” said he, looking up again presently from his pipe; “they won’t be no use here.”
“I wish, Joe,” said I, “you wouldn’t talk as if it was all quite certain; it makes me feel uncomfortable. Your sister mayn’t like me, after all.”
“Makes no odds at all,” said he; “if she don’t have you, there’ll be some other chap on in no time. Once a young gal gets a follower it’s all over, so fur as I see; though ’tisn’t always the first as they takes up with as they sticks to for better for worse.”
“Thank you for nothing, Master Joe,” said I to myself; and I smoked away opposite him for some time without saying a word, thinking what a queer fellow he was, and how I had better let things rest as they were, for I couldn’t see how to handle him the least bit in the world; and I can’t tell whether I was most glad or sorry, when we heard the fogger come to the kitchen door to say the trap was all ready.
Joe knocked the ashes out of his last pipe, took off the last drop out of his tumbler, and then put out his hand and gave me one of his grips.
“It’s got to be done,” said he, “there’s no mistake about that.”
“What?” said I, “what’s to be done? Don’t look so solemn, Joe, for goodness’ sake.”
“It’s no laughing matter, mind you,” said he; and he took the candle and went off into the passage, and came back with his whip and two top-coats. “Here, you get into that,” he went on, handing me one of them; “you’ll find the night rawish.”
I buttoned myself into the coat, which was a white drab one, about as thick as a deal board, with double seams and mother-of-pearl buttons as big as cheese-plates, and followed Joe into the yard with a heavy heart.
“Carpet-bag and hamper in?” said he, taking the reins.
“Ees, Sir, all right.”
“Jump up, Dick.”
I shook hands with the honest fogger, and gave him half-a-crown, which he didn’t seem to know how to take; and then I got up by Joe’s side, and we walked out of the yard at a foot’s pace, on to the grass; he kept off the road to be more quiet. It was bright moonlight, and a streak of white mist lay along the Close. I could hear nothing but the soft crush of the wheels on the rich sward, and the breathing of the great cows as we passed them in the mist. But my heart was beating like a hammer, as I looked back over my shoulder at one window of the old house, until it was hidden behind the elm-trees; and when I jumped down to open the gate into the road, I tore open the great coat, or I think I should have been suffocated.
“It’s no laughing matter, mind you,” said Joe, looking round, after we had gone about half-a-mile along the road at a steady trot.
“No, indeed,” said I. I felt much more like crying, and I thought he was trying to comfort me, in his way.
“Come, you button up that coat again, Dick; I won’t have you getting into the train at one in the morning with a chill on you. I won’t turn my back,” he went on, “on any man in the county at sampling wheat, or buying a horse, or a lot of heifers, or a flock of sheep. Besides, if a chap does get the blind side of me, it’s maybe a ten-pound note lost, and there’s an end of it. But when you come to choosing a missus, why, it seems like jumping in the dark, for all as I can see. There’s nothing to sample ’em by, and you can’t look in their mouths or feel ’em over. I don’t take it as a man’s judgment of any account when he comes to that deal – and then, if he does get the wrong sort!”
“Thank you, Joe,” said I, “but I’m not a bit afraid about getting the wrong sort, if all goes well.”
“No, but I be,” said he; “why, one would think, Dick, that nobody had to get a missus but you.”
Well, that made me laugh out, I was so tickled to find he was thinking of himself all the time; and for the rest of the drive we were merry enough, for he went on talking about his own prospects so funnily that it was impossible to keep sad or sentimental.
We drew up at the silent station five or six minutes nearly before the train was due, and were received by the one solitary porter.
“What luggage, Sir?” said he to me, as I got down.
“One carpet-bag,” I answered, “for Paddington.”
“And a hamper,” said Joe; “you’ll find a hamper in behind there. And take care to keep it right side up, porter, for there are some pots of jam in it.”
“Who is it for?” said I; “can I look after it, and take it any where for you?”
“Why, for you, of course,” said Joe; “you don’t suppose the women would have let you go back without some of their kickshaws; and I’ve had a hare and a couple of chickens put in, and some bacon. You must eat the hare this week, mind.”
I was quite taken by surprise at this fresh instance of the thoughtful kindness of my Vale friends, and wrung Joe’s hand, mumbling out something which I meant for thanks.
“Well, good-bye, old fellow,” he said, “I’m very glad to think you’ve found your way down at last, and now, don’t forget it;” and he gave me a grip which nearly crashed all my knuckles into a jelly, and was gathering up his reins to drive off.
“But Joe, here’s your coat,” I called out, and was beginning to take it off – “you’ve forgotten your coat.”
“No, no,” said he, “keep it on – ’twill be very cold to-night, and you’ll want it in the train. We’ll fetch it at Christmas, and the hamper and the jam pots too, at the same time. Lu will be sure to look after them, so mind you don’t lose ’em – Hullo! What in the world are you cutting off the direction for?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said I, “but I often fancy parcels go safer with only the railway label on them. Besides, I shall have it in the carriage with me.”
The fact was I had caught sight of the direction, which was in her handwriting, and had quite forgotten Joe, as I was cutting it off to put it in my pocket-book.
“Well, that’s a rum start,” said Joe, “but every one has their own notions about travelling;” and so, with a cheery good-bye to me, off he drove along the dark road; and in another minute the train came up, and I and my luggage were on our way to London.
We went away up through the cold night, eastward, towards the great city which had been my home from childhood. I felt that another man was journeying back from the one who had come down a fortnight before; that he who was travelling eastward had learnt to look beyond his own narrow cellar in the great world-city, to believe in other things than cash payments and shorthand for making his cellar liveable in, to have glimpses of and to sympathize with the life of other men, in his own time, and in the old times before him. These thoughts crowded on me, but all under the shadow of and subordinated to the one great rising hope, in which I had first found and felt my new life. Together they lifted up my heart during the first stages of that night journey, and I opened the window and leant out into the rushing night air, for the carriage was too small for me, and my grand visions and resolves. But soon it began to feel cold, and I shut up the window and squeezed myself into a corner with my feet up on the opposite seat, and felt very thankful that I had on Joe’s great coat. Then the lamp went out, and it got colder as the dawn came on, and my visions and resolves began to get less bright and firm. The other side of the picture rose up in ugly colours, and I thought of the dirty dark clerks’ room, and the hours of oil-lamps and bad air, and the heartless whirl and din of the great city. And to crown all came the more than doubt whether my hope would not fade out and die in the recesses of my own heart. What was I? and what my prospects, that any one should ever give me a thought again of those whom I was so fast leaving behind, much more that she, the flower of them all, should single me out before all others? It was absurd, I should most likely never see Elm Close, or the Vale, or the great mysterious Hill again – I had better make up my mind to live the next twenty years as I had the last. With some such meaning spoke the doleful voices, but I was never much of a hand at looking at the doleful side of things, and I made good strong fight on that night ride; and took out my pipe, and lit it, and pressed my back firmer into my corner.
Well, and if they don’t remember me, thought I, I can remember them at any rate – they can’t help that; and I will remember them too, and all their kind pleasant ways, and their manlike games, and their queer songs and stories – and the queen of them all, I can carry her in my heart, thank God for that, and every word I ever heard her speak, and every smile I ever saw light up her merry eyes or dimple round her mouth – and the country, too, the fair rich Vale, and the glorious old Hill, they are mine for ever, and all the memories of the slaying of dragons; and of great battles with the Pagan. I wonder whether I shall ever see the old gentleman again who conjured it up for me, and put life into it, and made me feel as if King Alfred and his Saxons were as near and dear to me as Sir Colin Campbell and the brave lads in India!
Just then the train stopped at Reading, and the guard put his head in to say we stopped for three minutes, and I could get a glass of ale.
So I jumped out and had a glass of ale, and then another; and stamped about the platform till the train started. And when I got into my corner again, I was quite warm and jolly.
I have been always used to a good night’s rest, and I daresay the ale made me more sleepy, and so I fell into a kind of doze almost directly. But in my doze the same train of thought went on, and all the people I had been living with and hearing of flitted about in the oddest jumbles, with Elm Close and White Horse Hill for a background. I went through the strangest scenes. One minute I was first cousin to King Alfred, and trying to carry his messages over the Hill to ?thelred, only Joe’s old brown horse would run away with me along the Ridgeway; then I was the leader of the Berkshire old gamesters, playing out the last tie with a highwayman, for a gold-laced hat and pair of buckskin breeches; then I was married – I needn’t say to whom – and we were keeping house under the Hill, and waiting tea for St. George, when he should come down from killing the Dragon. And so it went on, till at last a mist came over the Hill, and all the figures got fainter and fainter, and seemed to be fading away. But as they faded, I could see one great figure coming out clearer through the mist, which I had never noticed before. It was like a grand old man, with white hair and mighty limbs; who looked as old as the hill itself, but yet as if he were as young now as he ever had been, – and at his feet were a pickaxe and spade, and at his side a scythe. But great and solemn as it looked, I felt that the figure was not a man, and I was angry with it, – why should it come in with its great pitiful eyes and smile? why were my brothers and sisters, the men and women, to fade away before it?
“The labour that a man doeth under the sun, it is all vanity. Prince and peasant, the wise man and the fool, they all come to me at last, and I garner them away, and their place knows them no more!” – so the figure seemed to say to itself, and I felt melancholy as I watched it sitting there at rest, playing with the fading figures.
At last it placed one of the little figures on its knee, half in mockery, as it seemed to me, and half in sorrow. But then all changed; and the great figure began to fade, and the small man came out clearer and clearer. And he took no heed of his great neighbour, but rested there where he was placed; and his face was quiet, and full of life, as he gazed steadily and earnestly through the mist. And the other figures came flitting by again, and chanted as they passed, “The work of one true man is greater than all thy work. Thou hast nought but a seeming power, over it, or over him. Every true man is greater than thee. Every true man shall conquer more than thee; for he shall triumph over death, and hell, and thee, oh, Time!”
And then I woke up, for the train stopped at the place where the tickets are collected; and, in another five minutes, I was in a cab, with my bag and the great basket of country treasures, creeping along in the early November morning towards Gray’s Inn Lane. And so ended my fortnight’s holiday.
THE SERMON WHICH THE PARSON SENT TO MR. JOSEPH HURST, OF ELM CLOSE FARM, IN FULFILMENT OF HIS PROMISE
“These are my feasts,” said God to the nation He was educating; “keep these feasts, for they are mine.” Now, what was the nature of these feasts, my brethren, which God called his? The Bible leaves us in no doubt about them. They were certain seasons set apart in every year, and at longer intervals, during which the nation was “to rejoice before the Lord their God.” Each feast commemorated some event in the nation’s life; either a solemn act of national worship, such as the dedication of the Temple; or some great national deliverance, such as the Exodus commemorated by the feast of Passover, or the defeat of Haman’s plot in the reign of Ahasuerus, commemorated by the feast Purim; or the daily care of God for his people, in giving them rain and fruitful seasons, the harvest and vintage, the increase of corn, and wine, and oil, commemorated by the feast of Pentecost.
They were to rejoice before the Lord their God at all these feasts. With what outward actions they were to rejoice we are not expressly told; probably it was left to each generation to express their joy in their own way. In the case of the Passover we know that they were to eat a lamb and unleavened bread; and we gather, I think, from many places, that both songs and dancing were freely used at the feasts; but further than this we do not know the outward form of their rejoicing.
But we do know the spirit in which they were to keep their feasts, the temper of mind in which God would have them rejoice before Him. This is most fully proclaimed. They were to keep alive in themselves and one another the memory of the great deliverances and blessings, which had been, and were being wrought for them. They were to remember that these deliverances had been wrought for ignorant despised bondmen, that these blessings were being poured down on a stiffnecked sinful people. Remembering these things, they were to come to their feasts, and rejoice before Him, with humble open hearts, thanking Him for all they possessed, with love towards their brethren, ready to forgive debts, to help the poor to his right, and to acknowledge and glory in the bond which bound them all together in one nation.
Moreover, these feasts were to be feasts for the whole nation – for the rich and the poor, the free man and the slave, “for thee, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant;” for those who are in trouble and sorrow, as well as for the prosperous and happy; “for the stranger, and fatherless, and widow who are within thy gates.”
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