WITH 14 FULL PAGE BLACK-AND-WHITE ILLUSTRATIONS BY F.A. FRASER.
I. WHERE I FIND MYSELF. II. MY UNCLE AND AUNT. III. AT THE TOP OF THE CHIMNEY-STAIR. IV. THE PENDULUM. V. I HAVE LESSONS. VI. I COBBLE. VII. THE SWORD ON THE WALL. VIII. I GO TO SCHOOL, AND GRANNIE LEAVES IT. IX. I SIN AND REPENT. X. I BUILD CASTLES. XI. A TALK WITH MY UNCLE. XII. THE HOUSE-STEWARD. XIII. THE LEADS. XIV. THE GHOST. XV. AWAY. XVI. THE ICE-CAVE. XVII. AMONG THE MOUNTAINS. XVIII. AGAIN THE ICE-CAVE. XIX. CHARLEY NURSES ME. XX. A DREAM. XXI. THE FROZEN STREAM. XXII. AN EXPLOSION XXIII. ONLY A LINK XXIV. CHARLEY AT OXFORD XXV. MY WHITE MARE XXVI. A RIDING LESSON XXVII. A DISAPPOINTMENT XXVIII. IN LONDON XXIX. CHANGES XXX. PROPOSALS XXXI. ARRANGEMENTS XXXII. PREPARATIONS XXXIII. ASSISTANCE XXXIV. AN EXPOSTULATION XXXV. A TALK WITH CHARLEY XXXVI. TAPESTRY XXXVII. THE OLD CHEST XXXVIII. MARY OSBORNE XXXIX. A STORM XL. A DREAM XLI. A WAKING XLII. A TALK ABOUT SUICIDE XLIII. THE SWORD IN THE SCALE XLIV. I PART WITH MY SWORD XLV. UMBERDEN CHURCH XLVI. MY FOLIO XLVII. THE LETTERS AND THEIR STORY XLVIII. ONLY A LINK XLIX. A DISCLOSURE L. THE DATES LI. CHARLEY AND CLARA LII. LILITH MEETS WITH A MISFORTUNE LIII. TOO LATE LIV. ISOLATION LV. ATTEMPTS AND COINCIDENCES LVI. THE LAST VISION LVII. ANOTHER DREAM LVIII. THE DARKEST HOUR LIX. THE DAWN LX. MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER LXI. THE PARISH REGISTER LXII. A FOOLISH TRIUMPH LXIII. A COLLISION LXIV. YET ONCE LXV. CONCLUSION
I am—I will not say how old, but well past middle age. This much I feel compelled to mention, because it has long been my opinion that no man should attempt a history of himself until he has set foot upon the border land where the past and the future begin to blend in a consciousness somewhat independent of both, and hence interpreting both. Looking westward, from this vantage-ground, the setting sun is not the less lovely to him that he recalls a merrier time when the shadows fell the other way. Then they sped westward before him, as if to vanish, chased by his advancing footsteps, over the verge of the world. Now they come creeping towards him, lengthening as they come. And they are welcome. Can it be that he would ever have chosen a world without shadows? Was not the trouble of the shadowless noon the dreariest of all? Did he not then long for the curtained queen—the all-shadowy night? And shall he now regard with dismay the setting sun of his earthly life? When he looks back, he sees the farthest cloud of the sun-deserted east alive with a rosy hue. It is the prophecy of the sunset concerning the dawn. For the sun itself is ever a rising sun, and the morning will come though the night should be dark.
In this 'season of calm weather,' when the past has receded so far that he can behold it as in a picture, and his share in it as the history of a man who had lived and would soon die; when he can confess his faults without the bitterness of shame, both because he is humble, and because the faults themselves have dropped from him; when his good deeds look poverty-stricken in his eyes, and he would no more claim consideration for them than expect knighthood because he was no thief; when he cares little for his reputation, but much for his character—little for what has gone beyond his control, but endlessly much for what yet remains in his will to determine; then, I think, a man may do well to write his own life.
'So,' I imagine my reader interposing, 'you profess to have arrived at this high degree of perfection yourself?'
I reply that the man who has attained this kind of indifference to the past, this kind of hope in the future, will be far enough from considering it a high degree of perfection. The very idea is to such a man ludicrous. One may eat bread without claiming the honours of an athlete; one may desire to be honest and not count himself a saint. My object in thus shadowing out what seems to me my present condition of mind, is merely to render it intelligible to my reader how an autobiography might come to be written without rendering the writer justly liable to the charge of that overweening, or self-conceit, which might be involved in the mere conception of the idea.
In listening to similar recitals from the mouths of elderly people, I have observed that many things which seemed to the persons principally concerned ordinary enough, had to me a wonder and a significance they did not perceive. Let me hope that some of the things I am about to relate may fare similarly, although, to be honest, I must confess I could not have undertaken the task, for a task it is, upon this chance alone: I do think some of my history worthy of being told, just for the facts' sake. God knows I have had small share of that worthiness. The weakness of my life has been that I would ever do some great thing; the saving of my life has been my utter failure. I have never done a great deed. If I had, I know that one of my temperament could not have escaped serious consequences. I have had more pleasure when a grown man in a certain discovery concerning the ownership of an apple of which I had taken the ancestral bite when a boy, than I can remember to have resulted from any action of my own during my whole existence. But I detest the notion of puzzling my reader in order to enjoy her fancied surprise, or her possible praise of a worthless ingenuity of concealment. If I ever appear to behave thus, it is merely that I follow the course of my own knowledge of myself and my affairs, without any desire to give either the pain or the pleasure of suspense, if indeed I may flatter myself with the hope of interesting her to such a degree that suspense should become possible.
When I look over what I have written, I find the tone so sombre—let me see: what sort of an evening is it on which I commence this book? Ah! I thought so: a sombre evening. The sun is going down behind a low bank of grey cloud, the upper edge of which he tinges with a faded yellow. There will be rain before morning. It is late Autumn, and most of the crops are gathered in. A bluish fog is rising from the lower meadows. As I look I grow cold. It is not, somehow, an interesting evening. Yet if I found just this evening well described in a novel, I should enjoy it heartily. The poorest, weakest drizzle upon the window-panes of a dreary roadside inn in a country of slate-quarries, possesses an interest to him who enters it by the door of a book, hardly less than the pouring rain which threatens to swell every brook to a torrent. How is this? I think it is because your troubles do not enter into the book and its troubles do not enter into you, and therefore nature operates upon you unthwarted by the personal conditions which so often counteract her present influences. But I will rather shut out the fading west, the gathering mists, and the troubled consciousness of nature altogether, light my fire and my pipe, and then try whether in my first chapter I cannot be a boy again in such fashion that my companion, that is, my reader, will not be too impatient to linger a little in the meadows of childhood ere we pass to the corn-fields of riper years.
WHERE I FIND MYSELF.
No wisest chicken, I presume, can recall the first moment when the chalk-oval surrounding it gave way, and instead of the cavern of limestone which its experience might have led it to expect, it found a world of air and movement and freedom and blue sky—with kites in it. For my own part, I often wished, when a child, that I had watched while God was making me, so that I might have remembered how he did it. Now my wonder is whether, when I creep forth into 'that new world which is the old,' I shall be conscious of the birth, and enjoy the whole mighty surprise, or whether I shall become gradually aware that things are changed and stare about me like the new-born baby. What will be the candle-flame that shall first attract my new-born sight? But I forget that speculation about the new life is not writing the history of the old.
I have often tried how far back my memory could go. I suspect there are awfully ancient shadows mingling with our memories; but, as far as I can judge, the earliest definite memory I have is the discovery of how the wind is made; for I saw the process going on before my very eyes, and there could be, and there was, no doubt of the relation of cause and effect in the matter. There were the trees swaying themselves about after the wildest fashion, and there was the wind in consequence visiting my person somewhat too roughly. The trees were blowing in my face. They made the wind, and threw it at me. I used my natural senses, and this was what they told me. The discovery impressed me so deeply that even now I cannot look upon trees without a certain indescribable and, but for this remembrance, unaccountable awe. A grove was to me for many years a fountain of winds, and, in the stillest day, to look into a depth of gathered stems filled me with dismay; for the whole awful assembly might, writhing together in earnest and effectual contortion, at any moment begin their fearful task of churning the wind.
There were no trees in the neighbourhood of the house where I was born. It stood in the midst of grass, and nothing but grass was to be seen for a long way on every side of it. There was not a gravel path or a road near it. Its walls, old and rusty, rose immediately from the grass. Green blades and a few heads of daisies leaned trustingly against the brown stone, all the sharpness of whose fractures had long since vanished, worn away by the sun and the rain, or filled up by the slow lichens, which I used to think were young stones growing out of the wall. The ground was part of a very old dairy-farm, and my uncle, to whom it belonged, would not have a path about the place. But then the grass was well subdued by the cows, and, indeed, I think, would never have grown very long, for it was of that delicate sort which we see only on downs and in parks and on old grazing farms. All about the house—as far, at least, as my lowly eyes could see—the ground was perfectly level, and this lake of greenery, out of which it rose like a solitary rock, was to me an unfailing mystery and delight. This will sound strange in the ears of those who consider a mountainous, or at least an undulating, surface essential to beauty; but nature is altogether independent of what is called fine scenery. There are other organs than the eyes, even if grass and water and sky were not of the best and loveliest of nature's shows.
The house, I have said, was of an ancient-looking stone, grey and green and yellow and brown. It looked very hard; yet there were some attempts at carving about the heads of the narrow windows. The carving had, however, become so dull and shadowy that I could not distinguish a single form or separable portion of design: still some ancient thought seemed ever flickering across them. The house, which was two stories in height, had a certain air of defence about it, ill to explain. It had no eaves, for the walls rose above the edge of the roof; but the hints at battlements were of the merest. The roof, covered with grey slates, rose very steep, and had narrow, tall dormer windows in it. The edges of the gables rose, not in a slope, but in a succession of notches, like stairs. Altogether, the shell to which, considered as a crustaceous animal, I belonged—for man is every animal according as you choose to contemplate him—had an old-world look about it—a look of the time when men had to fight in order to have peace, to kill in order to live. Being, however, a crustaceous animal, I, the heir of all the new impulses of the age, was born and reared in closest neighbourhood with strange relics of a vanished time. Humanity so far retains its chief characteristics that the new generations can always flourish in the old shell.
The dairy was at some distance, so deep in a hollow that a careless glance would not have discovered it. I well remember my astonishment when my aunt first took me there; for I had not even observed the depression of surface: all had been a level green to my eyes. Beyond this hollow were fields divided by hedges, and lanes, and the various goings to and fro of a not unpeopled although quiet neighbourhood. Until I left home for school, however, I do not remember to have seen a carriage of any kind approach our solitary dwelling. My uncle would have regarded it as little short of an insult for any one to drive wheels over the smooth lawny surface in which our house dwelt like a solitary island in the sea.
Before the threshold lay a brown patch, worn bare of grass, and beaten hard by the descending feet of many generations. The stone threshold itself was worn almost to a level with it. A visitor's first step was into what would, in some parts, be called the house-place, a room which served all the purposes of a kitchen, and yet partook of the character of an old hall. It rose to a fair height, with smoke-stained beams above; and was floored with a kind of cement, hard enough, and yet so worn that it required a good deal of local knowledge to avoid certain jars of the spine from sudden changes of level. All the furniture was dark and shining, especially the round table, which, with its bewildering, spider-like accumulation of legs, waited under the mullioned, lozenged window until meal-times, when, like an animal roused from its lair, it stretched out those legs, and assumed expanded and symmetrical shape in front of the fire in Winter, and nearer the door in Summer. It recalls the vision of my aunt, with a hand at each end of it, searching empirically for the level—feeling for it, that is, with the creature's own legs—before lifting the hanging-leaves, and drawing out the hitherto supernumerary legs to support them; after which would come a fresh adjustment of level, another hustling to and fro, that the new feet likewise might settle on elevations of equal height; and then came the snowy cloth or the tea-tray, deposited cautiously upon its shining surface.
The walls of this room were always whitewashed in the Spring, occasioning ever a sharpened contrast with the dark-brown ceiling. Whether that was even swept I do not know; I do not remember ever seeing it done. At all events, its colour remained unimpaired by paint or whitewash. On the walls hung various articles, some of them high above my head, and attractive for that reason if for no other. I never saw one of them moved from its place—not even the fishing-rod, which required the whole length betwixt the two windows: three rusty hooks hung from it, and waved about when a wind entered ruder than common. Over the fishing-rod hung a piece of tapestry, about a yard in width, and longer than that. It would have required a very capable constructiveness indeed to supply the design from what remained, so fragmentary were the forms, and so dim and faded were the once bright colours. It was there as an ornament; for that which is a mere complement of higher modes of life, becomes, when useless, the ornament of lower conditions: what we call great virtues are little regarded by the saints. It was long before I began to think how the tapestry could have come there, or to what it owed the honour given it in the house.
On the opposite wall hung another object, which may well have been the cause of my carelessness about the former—attracting to itself all my interest. It was a sword, in a leather sheath. From the point, half way to the hilt, the sheath was split all along the edge of the weapon. The sides of the wound gaped, and the blade was visible to my prying eyes. It was with rust almost as dark a brown as the scabbard that infolded it. But the under parts of the hilt, where dust could not settle, gleamed with a faint golden shine. That sword was to my childish eyes the type of all mystery, a clouded glory, which for many long years I never dreamed of attempting to unveil. Not the sword Excalibur, had it been 'stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,' could have radiated more marvel into the hearts of young knights than that sword radiated into mine. Night after night I would dream of danger drawing nigh—crowds of men of evil purpose—enemies to me or to my country; and ever in the beginning of my dream, I stood ready, foreknowing and waiting; for I had climbed and had taken the ancient power from the wall, and had girded it about my waist—always with a straw rope, the sole band within my reach; but as it went on, the power departed from the dream: I stood waiting for foes who would not come; or they drew near in fury, and when I would have drawn my weapon, old blood and rust held it fast in its sheath, and I tugged at it in helpless agony; and fear invaded my heart, and I turned and fled, pursued by my foes until I left the dream itself behind, whence the terror still pursued me.
There were many things more on those walls. A pair of spurs, of make modern enough, hung between two pewter dish-covers. Hanging book-shelves came next; for although most of my uncle's books were in his bed-room, some of the commoner were here on the wall, next to an old fowling-piece, of which both lock and barrel were devoured with rust. Then came a great pair of shears, though how they should have been there I cannot yet think, for there was no garden to the house, no hedges or trees to clip. I need not linger over these things. Their proper place is in the picture with which I would save words and help understanding if I could.
Of course there was a great chimney in the place; chiefly to be mentioned from the singular fact that just round its corner was a little door opening on a rude winding stair of stone. This appeared to be constructed within the chimney; but on the outside of the wall, was a half-rounded projection, revealing that the stair was not indebted to it for the whole of its accommodation. Whither the stair led, I shall have to disclose in my next chapter. From the opposite end of the kitchen, an ordinary wooden staircase, with clumsy balustrade, led up to the two bed-rooms occupied by my uncle and my aunt; to a large lumber-room, whose desertion and almost emptiness was a source of uneasiness in certain moods; and to a spare bed-room, which was better furnished than any of ours, and indeed to my mind a very grand and spacious apartment. This last was never occupied during my childhood; consequently it smelt musty notwithstanding my aunt's exemplary housekeeping. Its bedsteads must have been hundreds of years old. Above these rooms again were those to which the dormer windows belonged, and in one of them I slept. It had a deep closet in which I kept my few treasures, and into which I used to retire when out of temper or troubled, conditions not occurring frequently, for nobody quarrelled with me, and I had nobody with whom I might have quarrelled.
When I climbed upon a chair, I could seat myself on the broad sill of the dormer window. This was the watch-tower whence I viewed the world. Thence I could see trees in the distance—too far off for me to tell whether they were churning wind or not. On that side those trees alone were between me and the sky.
One day when my aunt took me with her into the lumber-room, I found there, in a corner, a piece of strange mechanism. It had a kind of pendulum; but I cannot describe it because I had lost sight of it long before I was capable of discovering its use, and my recollection of it is therefore very vague—far too vague to admit of even a conjecture now as to what it could have been intended for. But I remember well enough my fancy concerning it, though when or how that fancy awoke I cannot tell either. It seems to me as old as the finding of the instrument. The fancy was that if I could keep that pendulum wagging long enough, it would set all those trees going too; and if I still kept it swinging, we should have such a storm of wind as no living man had ever felt or heard of. That I more than half believed it, will be evident from the fact that, although I frequently carried the pendulum, as I shall call it, to the window sill, and set it in motion by way of experiment, I had not, up to the time of a certain incident which I shall very soon have to relate, had the courage to keep up the oscillation beyond ten or a dozen strokes; partly from fear of the trees, partly from a dim dread of exercising power whose source and extent were not within my knowledge. I kept the pendulum in the closet I have mentioned, and never spoke to any one of it.
MY UNCLE AND AUNT.
We were a curious household. I remembered neither father nor mother; and the woman I had been taught to call auntie was no such near relation. My uncle was my father's brother, and my aunt was his cousin, by the mother's side. She was a tall, gaunt woman, with a sharp nose and eager eyes, yet sparing of speech. Indeed, there was very little speech to be heard in the house. My aunt, however, looked as if she could have spoken. I think it was the spirit of the place that kept her silent, for there were those eager eyes. She might have been expected also to show a bad temper, but I never saw a sign of such. To me she was always kind; chiefly, I allow, in a negative way, leaving me to do very much as I pleased. I doubt if she felt any great tenderness for me, although I had been dependent upon her care from infancy. In after-years I came to the conclusion that she was in love with my uncle; and perhaps the sense that he was indifferent to her save after a brotherly fashion, combined with the fear of betraying herself and the consciousness of her unattractive appearance, to produce the contradiction between her looks and her behaviour.
Every morning, after our early breakfast, my uncle walked away to the farm, where he remained until dinner-time. Often, when busy at my own invented games in the grass, I have caught sight of my aunt, standing motionless with her hand over her eyes, watching for the first glimpse of my uncle ascending from the hollow where the farm-buildings lay; and occasionally, when something had led her thither as well, I would watch them returning together over the grass, when she would keep glancing up in his face at almost regular intervals, although it was evident they were not talking, but he never turned his face or lifted his eyes from the ground a few yards in front of him.
He was a tall man of nearly fifty, with grey hair, and quiet meditative blue eyes. He always looked as if he were thinking. He had been intended for the Church, but the means for the prosecution of his studies failing, he had turned his knowledge of rustic affairs to account, and taken a subordinate position on a nobleman's estate, where he rose to be bailiff. When my father was seized with his last illness, he returned to take the management of the farm. It had been in the family for many generations. Indeed that portion of it upon which the house stood, was our own property. When my mother followed my father, my uncle asked his cousin to keep house for him. Perhaps she had expected a further request, but more had not come of it.
When he came in, my uncle always went straight to his room; and having washed his hands and face, took a book and sat down in the window. If I were sent to tell him that the meal was ready, I was sure to find him reading. He would look up, smile, and look down at his book again; nor, until I had formally delivered my message, would he take further notice of me. Then he would rise, lay his book carefully aside, take my hand, and lead me down-stairs.
To my childish eyes there was something very grand about my uncle. His face was large-featured and handsome; he was tall, and stooped meditatively. I think my respect for him was founded a good deal upon the reverential way in which my aunt regarded him. And there was great wisdom, I came to know, behind that countenance, a golden speech behind that silence.
My reader must not imagine that the prevailing silence of the house oppressed me. I had been brought up in it, and never felt it. My own thoughts, if thoughts those conditions of mind could be called, which were chiefly passive results of external influences—whatever they were—thoughts or feelings, sensations, or dim, slow movements of mind—they filled the great pauses of speech; and besides, I could read the faces of both my uncle and aunt like the pages of a well-known book. Every shade of alteration in them I was familiar with, for their changes were not many.
Although my uncle's habit was silence, however, he would now and then take a fit of talking to me. I remember many such talks; the better, perhaps, that they were divided by long intervals. I had perfect confidence in his wisdom, and submission to his will. I did not much mind my aunt. Perhaps her deference to my uncle made me feel as if she and I were more on a level. She must have been really kind, for she never resented any petulance or carelessness. Possibly she sacrificed her own feeling to the love my uncle bore me; but I think it was rather that, because he cared for me, she cared for me too.
Twice during every meal she would rise from the table with some dish in her hand, open the door behind the chimney, and ascend the winding stair.
AT THE TOP OF THE CHIMNEY-STAIR.
I fear my reader may have thought me too long occupied with the explanatory foundations of my structure: I shall at once proceed to raise its walls of narrative. Whatever further explanations may be necessary, can be applied as buttresses in lieu of a broader base.
One Sunday—it was his custom of a Sunday—I fancy I was then somewhere about six years of age—my uncle rose from the table after our homely dinner, took me by the hand, and led me to the dark door with the long arrow-headed hinges, and up the winding stone stair which I never ascended except with him or my aunt. At the top was another rugged door, and within that, one covered with green baize. The last opened on what had always seemed to me a very paradise of a room. It was old-fashioned enough; but childhood is of any and every age, and it was not old-fashioned to me—only intensely cosy and comfortable. The first thing my eyes generally rested upon was an old bureau, with a book-case on the top of it, the glass-doors of which were lined with faded red silk. The next thing I would see was a small tent-bed, with the whitest of curtains, and enchanting fringes of white ball-tassels. The bed was covered with an equally charming counterpane of silk patchwork. The next object was the genius of the place, in a high, close, easy-chair, covered with some dark stuff, against which her face, surrounded with its widow's cap, of ancient form, but dazzling whiteness, was strongly relieved. How shall I describe the shrunken, yet delicate, the gracious, if not graceful form, and the face from which extreme old age had not wasted half the loveliness? Yet I always beheld it with an indescribable sensation, one of whose elements I can isolate and identify as a faint fear. Perhaps this arose partly from the fact that, in going up the stair, more than once my uncle had said to me, 'You must not mind what grannie says, Willie, for old people will often speak strange things that young people cannot understand. But you must love grannie, for she is a very good old lady.'
'Well, grannie, how are you to-day?' said my uncle, as we entered, this particular Sunday.
I may as well mention at once that my uncle called her grannie in his own right and not in mine, for she was in truth my great-grandmother.
'Pretty well, David, I thank you; but much too long out of my grave,' answered grannie; in no sepulchral tones, however, for her voice, although weak and uneven, had a sound in it like that of one of the upper strings of a violin. The plaintiveness of it touched me, and I crept near her—nearer than, I believe, I had ever yet gone of my own will—and laid my hand upon hers. I withdrew it instantly, for there was something in the touch that made me—not shudder, exactly—but creep. Her hand was smooth and soft, and warm too, only somehow the skin of it seemed dead. With a quicker movement than belonged to her years, she caught hold of mine, which she kept in one of her hands, while she stroked it with the other. My slight repugnance vanished for the time, and I looked up in her face, grateful for a tenderness which was altogether new to me.
'What makes you so long out of your grave, grannie?' I asked.
'They won't let me into it, my dear.'
'Who won't let you, grannie?'
'My own grandson there, and the woman down the stair.'
'But you don't really want to go—do you, grannie?'
'I do want to go, Willie. I ought to have been there long ago. I am very old; so old that I've forgotten how old I am. How old am I?' she asked, looking up at my uncle.
'Nearly ninety-five, grannie; and the older you get before you go the better we shall be pleased, as you know very well.'
'There! I told you,' she said with a smile, not all of pleasure, as she turned her head towards me. 'They won't let me go. I want to go to my grave, and they won't let me! Is that an age at which to keep a poor woman from her grave?'
'But it's not a nice place, is it, grannie?' I asked, with the vaguest ideas of what the grave meant. 'I think somebody told me it was in the churchyard.'
But neither did I know with any clearness what the church itself meant, for we were a long way from church, and I had never been there yet.
'Yes, it is in the churchyard, my dear.'
'Is it a house?' I asked.
'Yes, a little house; just big enough for one.'
'I shouldn't like that.'
'Oh yes, you would.'
'Is it a nice place, then?'
'Yes, the nicest place in the world, when you get to be so old as I am. If they would only let me die!'
'Die, grannie!' I exclaimed. My notions of death as yet were derived only from the fowls brought from the farm, with their necks hanging down long and limp, and their heads wagging hither and thither.
'Come, grannie, you mustn't frighten our little man,' interposed my uncle, looking kindly at us both.
'David!' said grannie, with a reproachful dignity, 'you know what I mean well enough. You know that until I have done what I have to do, the grave that is waiting for me will not open its mouth to receive me. If you will only allow me to do what I have to do, I shall not trouble you long. Oh dear! oh dear!' she broke out, moaning and rocking herself to and fro, 'I am too old to weep, and they will not let me to my bed. I want to go to bed. I want to go to sleep.'
She moaned and complained like a child. My uncle went near and took her hand.
'Come, come, dear grannie!' he said, 'you must not behave like this. You know all things are for the best.'
'To keep a corpse out of its grave!' retorted the old lady, almost fiercely, only she was too old and weak to be fierce. 'Why should you keep a soul that's longing to depart and go to its own people, lingering on in the coffin? What better than a coffin is this withered body? The child is old enough to understand me. Leave him with me for half an hour, and I shall trouble you no longer. I shall at least wait my end in peace. But I think I should die before the morning.'
Ere grannie had finished this sentence, I had shrunk from her again and retreated behind my uncle.
'There!' she went on, 'you make my own child fear me. Don't be frightened, Willie dear; your old mother is not a wild beast; she loves you dearly. Only my grand-children are so undutiful! They will not let my own son come near me.'
How I recall this I do not know, for I could not have understood it at the time. The fact is that during the last few years I have found pictures of the past returning upon me in the most vivid and unaccountable manner, so much so as almost to alarm me. Things I had utterly forgotten—or so far at least that when they return, they must appear only as vivid imaginations, were it not for a certain conviction of fact which accompanies them—are constantly dawning out of the past. Can it be that the decay of the observant faculties allows the memory to revive and gather force? But I must refrain, for my business is to narrate, not to speculate.
My uncle took me by the hand, and turned to leave the room. I cast one look at grannie as he led me away. She had thrown her head back on her chair, and her eyes were closed; but her face looked offended, almost angry. She looked to my fancy as if she were trying but unable to lie down. My uncle closed the doors very gently. In the middle of the stair he stopped, and said in a low voice,
'Willie, do you know that when people grow very old they are not quite like other people?'
'Yes. They want to go to the churchyard,' I answered.
'They fancy things,' said my uncle. 'Grannie thinks you are her own son.'
'And ain't I?' I asked innocently.
'Not exactly,' he answered. 'Your father was her son's son. She forgets that, and wants to talk to you as if you were your grandfather. Poor old grannie! I don't wish you to go and see her without your aunt or me: mind that.'
Whether I made any promise I do not remember; but I know that a new something was mingled with my life from that moment. An air as it were of the tomb mingled henceforth with the homely delights of my life. Grannie wanted to die, and uncle would not let her. She longed for her grave, and they would keep her above-ground. And from the feeling that grannie ought to be buried, grew an awful sense that she was not alive—not alive, that is, as other people are alive, and a gulf was fixed between her and me which for a long time I never attempted to pass, avoiding as much as I could all communication with her, even when my uncle or aunt wished to take me to her room. They did not seem displeased, however, when I objected, and not always insisted on obedience. Thus affairs went on in our quiet household for what seemed to me a very long time.
It may have been a year after this, it may have been two, I cannot tell, when the next great event in my life occurred. I think it was towards the close of an Autumn, but there was not so much about our house as elsewhere to mark the changes of the seasons, for the grass was always green. I remember it was a sultry afternoon. I had been out almost the whole day, wandering hither and thither over the grass, and I felt hot and oppressed. Not an air was stirring. I longed for a breath of wind, for I was not afraid of the wind itself, only of the trees that made it. Indeed, I delighted in the wind, and would run against it with exuberant pleasure, even rejoicing in the fancy that I, as well as the trees, could make the wind by shaking my hair about as I ran. I must run, however; whereas the trees, whose prime business it was, could do it without stirring from the spot. But this was much too hot an afternoon for me, whose mood was always more inclined to the passive than the active, to run about and toss my hair, even for the sake of the breeze that would result therefrom. I bethought myself. I was nearly a man now; I would be afraid of things no more; I would get out my pendulum, and see whether that would not help me. Not this time would I flinch from what consequences might follow. Let them be what they might, the pendulum should wag, and have a fair chance of doing its best.
I went up to my room, a sense of high emprise filling my little heart. Composedly, yea solemnly, I set to work, even as some enchanter of old might have drawn his circle, and chosen his spell out of his iron-clasped volume. I strode to the closet in which the awful instrument dwelt. It stood in the furthest corner. As I lifted it, something like a groan invaded my ear. My notions of locality were not then sufficiently developed to let me know that grannie's room was on the other side of that closet. I almost let the creature, for as such I regarded it, drop. I was not to be deterred, however. I bore it carefully to the light, and set it gently on the window sill, full in view of the distant trees towards the west. I left it then for a moment, as if that it might gather its strength for its unwonted labours, while I closed the door, and, with what fancy I can scarcely imagine now, the curtains of my bed as well. Possibly it was with some notion of having one place to which, if the worst came to the worst, I might retreat for safety. Again I approached the window, and after standing for some time in contemplation of the pendulum, I set it in motion, and stood watching it.
It swung slower and slower. It wanted to stop. It should not stop. I gave it another swing. On it went, at first somewhat distractedly, next more regularly, then with slowly retarding movement. But it should not stop.
I turned in haste and got from the side of my bed the only chair in the room, placed it in the window, sat down before the reluctant instrument, and gave it a third swing. Then, my elbows on the sill, I sat and watched it with growing awe, but growing determination as well. Once more it showed signs of refusal; once more the forefinger of my right hand administered impulse.
Something gave a crack inside the creature: away went the pendulum, swinging with a will. I sat and gazed, almost horror-stricken. Ere many moments had passed, the feeling of terror had risen to such a height that, but for the very terror, I would have seized the pendulum in a frantic grasp. I did not. On it went, and I sat looking. My dismay was gradually subsiding.
I have learned since that a certain ancestor—or was he only a great-uncle?—I forget—had a taste for mechanics, even to the craze of the perpetual motion, and could work well in brass and iron. The creature was probably some invention of his. It was a real marvel how, after so many years of idleness, it could now go as it did. I confess, as I contemplate the thing, I am in a puzzle, and almost fancy the whole a dream. But let it pass. At worst, something of which this is the sole representative residuum, wrought an effect on me which embodies its cause thus, as I search for it in the past. And why should not the individual life have its misty legends as well as that of nations? From them, as from the golden and rosy clouds of morning, dawns at last the true sun of its unquestionable history. Every boy has his own fables, just as the Romes and the Englands of the world have their Romuli and their Arthurs, their suckling wolves and their granite-sheathed swords. Do they not reflect each other? I tell the tale as 'tis left in me.
How long I sat thus gazing at the now self-impelled instrument, I cannot say. The next point in the progress of the legend, is a gust of wind rattling the window in whose recess I was seated. I jumped from my chair in terror. While I had been absorbed in the pendulum, the evening had closed in; clouds had gathered over the sky, and all was gloomy about the house. It was much too dark to see the distant trees, but there could be no doubt they were at work. The pendulum had roused them. Another, a third, and a fourth gust rattled and shook the rickety frame. I had done it at last! The trees were busy away there in the darkness. I and my pendulum could make the wind.
The gusts came faster and faster, and grew into blasts which settled into a steady gale. The pendulum went on swinging to and fro, and the gale went on increasing in violence. I sat half in terror, half in delight, at the awful success of my experiment. I would have opened the window to let in the coveted air, but that was beyond my knowledge and strength. I could make the wind blow, but, like other magicians, I could not share in its benefits. I would go out and meet it on the open plain. I crept down the stair like a thief—not that I feared detention, but that I felt such a sense of the important, even the dread, about myself and my instrument, that I was not in harmony with souls reflecting only the common affairs of life. In a moment I was in the middle of a storm—for storm it very nearly was and soon became. I rushed to and fro in the midst of it, lay down and rolled in it, and laughed and shouted as I looked up to the window where the pendulum was swinging, and thought of the trees at work away in the dark. The wind grew stronger and stronger. What if the pendulum should not stop at all, and the wind went on and on, growing louder and fiercer, till it grew mad and blew away the house? Ah, then, poor grannie would have a chance of being buried at last! Seriously, the affair might grow serious.
Such thoughts were passing in my mind, when all at once the wind gave a roar which made me spring to my feet and rush for the house. I must stop the pendulum. There was a strange sound in that blast. The trees themselves had had enough of it, and were protesting against the creature's tyranny. Their master was working them too hard. I ran up the stair on all fours: it was my way when I was in a hurry. Swinging went the pendulum in the window, and the wind roared in the chimney. I seized hold of the oscillating thing, and stopped it; but to my amaze and consternation, the moment I released it, on it went again. I must sit and hold it. But the voice of my aunt called me from below, and as I dared not explain why I would rather not appear, I was forced to obey. I lingered on the stair, half minded to return.
'What a rough night it is!' I heard my aunt say, with rare remark.
'It gets worse and worse,' responded my uncle. 'I hope it won't disturb grannie; but the wind must roar fearfully in her chimney.'
I stood like a culprit. What if they should find out that I was at the root of the mischief, at the heart of the storm!
'If I could believe all that I have been reading to-night about the Prince of the Power of the Air, I should not like this storm at all,' continued my uncle, with a smile. 'But books are not always to be trusted because they are old,' he added with another smile. 'From the glass, I expected rain and not wind.'
'Whatever wind there is, we get it all,' said my aunt. 'I wonder what Willie is about. I thought I heard him coming down. Isn't it time, David, we did something about his schooling? It won't do to have him idling about this way all day long.'
'He's a mere child,' returned my uncle. 'I'm not forgetting him. But I can't send him away yet.'
'You know best,' returned my aunt.
Send me away! What could it mean? Why should I—where should I go? Was not the old place a part of me, just like my own clothes on my own body? This was the kind of feeling that woke in me at the words. But hearing my aunt push back her chair, evidently with the purpose of finding me, I descended into the room.
'Come along, Willie,' said my uncle. 'Hear the wind how it roars!'
'Yes, uncle; it does roar,' I said, feeling a hypocrite for the first time in my life. Knowing far more about the roaring than he did, I yet spoke like an innocent!
'Do you know who makes the wind, Willie?'
'Yes. The trees,' I answered.
My uncle opened his blue eyes very wide, and looked at my aunt. He had had no idea what a little heathen I was. The more a man has wrought out his own mental condition, the readier he is to suppose that children must be able to work out theirs, and to forget that he did not work out his information, but only his conclusions. My uncle began to think it was time to take me in hand.
'No, Willie,' he said. 'I must teach you better than that.'
I expected him to begin by telling me that God made the wind; but, whether it was that what the old book said about the Prince of the Power of the Air returned upon him, or that he thought it an unfitting occasion for such a lesson when the wind was roaring so as might render its divine origin questionable, he said no more. Bewildered, I fancy, with my ignorance, he turned, after a pause, to my aunt.
'Don't you think it's time for him to go to bed, Jane?' he suggested.
My aunt replied by getting from the cupboard my usual supper—a basin of milk and a slice of bread; which I ate with less circumspection than usual, for I was eager to return to my room. As soon as I had finished, Nannie was called, and I bade them good-night.
'Make haste, Nannie,' I said. 'Don't you hear how the wind is roaring?'
It was roaring louder than ever, and there was the pendulum swinging away in the window. Nannie took no notice of it, and, I presume, only thought I wanted to get my head under the bed-clothes, and so escape the sound of it. Anyhow, she did make haste, and in a very few minutes I was, as she supposed, snugly settled for the night. But the moment she shut the door I was out of bed, and at the window. The instant I reached it, a great dash of rain swept against the panes, and the wind howled more fiercely than ever. Believing I had the key of the position, inasmuch as, if I pleased, I could take the pendulum to bed with me, and stifle its motions with the bed-clothes—for this happy idea had dawned upon me while Nannie was undressing me—I was composed enough now to press my face to a pane, and look out. There was a small space amidst the storm dimly illuminated from the windows below, and the moment I looked—out of the darkness into this dim space, as if blown thither by the wind, rushed a figure on horseback, his large cloak flying out before him, and the mane of the animal he rode streaming out over his ears in the fierceness of the blast. He pulled up right under my window, and I thought he looked up, and made threatening gestures at me; but I believe now that horse and man pulled up in sudden danger of dashing against the wall of the house. I shrank back, and when I peeped out again he was gone. The same moment the pendulum gave a click and stopped; one more rattle of rain against the windows, and then the wind stopped also. I crept back to my bed in a new terror, for might not this be the Prince of the Power of the Air, come to see who was meddling with his affairs? Had he not come right out of the storm, and straight from the trees? He must have something to do with it all! Before I had settled the probabilities of the question, however, I was fast asleep.
I awoke—how long after, I cannot tell—with the sound of voices in my ears. It was still dark. The voices came from below. I had been dreaming of the strange horseman, who had turned out to be the awful being concerning whom Nannie had enlightened me as going about at night to buy little children from their nurses, and make bagpipes of their skins. Awaked from such a dream, it was impossible to lie still without knowing what those voices down below were talking about. The strange one must belong to the being, whatever he was, whom I had seen come out of the storm; and of whom could they be talking but me? I was right in both conclusions.
With a fearful resolution I slipped out of bed, opened the door as noiselessly as I might, and crept on my bare, silent feet down the creaking stair, which led, with open balustrade, right into the kitchen, at the end furthest from the chimney. The one candle at the other end could not illuminate its darkness, and I sat unseen, a few steps from the bottom of the stair, listening with all my ears, and staring with all my eyes. The stranger's huge cloak hung drying before the fire, and he was drinking something out of a tumbler. The light fell full upon his face. It was a curious, and certainly not to me an attractive face. The forehead was very projecting, and the eyes were very small, deep set, and sparkling. The mouth—I had almost said muzzle—was very projecting likewise, and the lower jaw shot in front of the upper. When the man smiled the light was reflected from what seemed to my eyes an inordinate multitude of white teeth. His ears were narrow and long, and set very high upon his head. The hand which he every now and then displayed in the exigencies of his persuasion, was white, but very large, and the thumb was exceedingly long. I had weighty reasons for both suspecting and fearing the man; and, leaving my prejudices out of the question, there was in the conversation itself enough besides to make me take note of dangerous points in his appearance. I never could lay much claim to physical courage, and I attribute my behaviour on this occasion rather to the fascination of terror than to any impulse of self-preservation: I sat there in utter silence, listening like an ear-trumpet. The first words I could distinguish were to this effect:—
'You do not mean,' said the enemy, 'to tell me, Mr Cumbermede, that you intend to bring up the young fellow in absolute ignorance of the decrees of fate?'
'I pledge myself to nothing in the matter,' returned my uncle, calmly, but with something in his tone which was new to me.
'Good heavens!' exclaimed the other. 'Excuse me, sir, but what right can you have to interfere after such a serious fashion with the young gentleman's future?'
'It seems to me,' said my uncle, 'that you wish to interfere with it after a much more serious fashion. There are things in which ignorance may be preferable to knowledge.'
'But what harm could the knowledge of such a fact do him?'
'Upset all his notions, render him incapable of thinking about anything of importance, occasion an utter—'
But can anything be more important?' interrupted the visitor.
My uncle went on without heeding him.
'Plunge him over head and ears in—'
'Hot water, I grant you,' again interrupted the enemy, to my horror; 'but it wouldn't be for long. Only give me your sanction, and I promise you to have the case as tight as a drum before I ask you to move a step in it.'
'But why should you take so much interest in what is purely our affair?' asked my uncle.
'Why, of course you would have to pay the piper,' said the man.
This was too much! Pay the man that played upon me after I was made into bagpipes! The idea was too frightful.
'I must look out for business, you know; and, by Jove! I shall never have such a chance, if I live to the age of Methuselah.'
'Well, you shall not have it from me.'
'Then,' said the man, rising, 'you are more of a fool than I took you for.'
'Sir!' said my uncle.
'No offence; no offence, I assure you. But it is provoking to find people so blind—so wilfully blind—to their own interest. You may say I have nothing to lose. Give me the boy, and I'll bring him up like my own son; send him to school and college, too—all on the chance of being repaid twice over by—'
I knew this was all a trick to get hold of my skin. The man said it on his way to the door, his ape-face shining dim as he turned it a little back in the direction of my uncle, who followed with the candle. I lost the last part of the sentence in the terror which sent me bounding up the stair in my usual four-footed fashion. I leaped into my bed, shaking with cold and agony combined. But I had the satisfaction presently of hearing the thud of the horse's hoofs upon the sward, dying away in the direction whence they had come. After that I soon fell asleep.
I need hardly say that I never set the pendulum swinging again. Many years after, I came upon it when searching for a key, and the thrill which vibrated through my whole frame announced a strange and unwelcome presence long before my memory could recall its origin.
It must not be supposed that I pretend to remember all the conversation I have just set down. The words are but the forms in which, enlightened by facts which have since come to my knowledge, I clothe certain vague memories and impressions of such an interview as certainly took place.
In the morning, at breakfast, my aunt asked my uncle who it was that paid such an untimely visit the preceding night.
'A fellow from Minstercombe' (the county town), 'an attorney—what did he say his name was? Yes, I remember. It was the same as the steward's over the way. Coningham, it was.'
'Mr Coningham has a son there—an attorney too, I think,' said my aunt.
My uncle seemed struck by the reminder, and became meditative.
'That explains his choosing such a night to come in. His father is getting an old man now. Yes, it must be the same.'
'He's a sharp one, folk say,' said my aunt, with a pointedness in the remark which showed some anxiety.
'That he cannot conceal, sharp as he is,' said my uncle, and there the conversation stopped.
The very next evening my uncle began to teach me. I had a vague notion that this had something to do with my protection against the machinations of the man Coningham, the idea of whom was inextricably associated in my mind with that of the Prince of the Power of the Air, darting from the midst of the churning trees, on a horse whose streaming mane and flashing eyes indicated no true equine origin. I gave myself with diligence to the work my uncle set me.
I HAVE LESSONS.
It is a simple fact that up to this time I did not know my letters. It was, I believe, part of my uncle's theory of education that as little pain as possible should be associated with merely intellectual effort: he would not allow me, therefore, to commence my studies until the task of learning should be an easy one. Henceforth, every evening, after tea, he took me to his own room, the walls of which were nearly covered with books, and there taught me.
One peculiar instance of his mode I will give, and let it stand rather as a pledge for the rest of his system than an index to it. It was only the other day it came back to me. Like Jean Paul, he would utter the name of God to a child only at grand moments; but there was a great difference in the moments the two men would have chosen. Jean Paul would choose a thunder-storm, for instance; the following will show the kind of my uncle's choice. One Sunday evening he took me for a longer walk than usual. We had climbed a little hill: I believe it was the first time I ever had a wide view of the earth. The horses were all loose in the fields; the cattle were gathering their supper as the sun went down; there was an indescribable hush in the air, as if Nature herself knew the seventh day; there was no sound even of water, for here the water crept slowly to the far-off sea, and the slant sunlight shone back from just one bend of a canal-like river; the hay-stacks and ricks of the last year gleamed golden in the farmyards; great fields of wheat stood up stately around us, the glow in their yellow brought out by the red poppies that sheltered in the forest of their stems; the odour of the grass and clover came in pulses; and the soft blue sky was flecked with white clouds tinged with pink, which deepened until it gathered into a flaming rose in the west, where the sun was welling out oceans of liquid red.
I looked up in my uncle's face. It shone in a calm glow, like an answering rosy moon. The eyes of my mind were opened: I saw that he felt something, and then I felt it too, His soul, with the glory for an interpreter, kindled mine.
He, in turn, caught the sight of my face, and his soul broke forth in one word:—
God! Willie; God!' was all he said; and surely it was enough.
It was only then in moments of strong repose that my uncle spoke to me of God.
Although he never petted me, that is, never showed me any animal affection, my uncle was like a father to me in this, that he was about and above me, a pure benevolence. It is no wonder that I should learn rapidly under his teaching, for I was quick enough, and possessed the more energy that it had not been wasted on unpleasant tasks.
Whether from indifference or intent I cannot tell, but he never forbade me to touch any of his books. Upon more occasions than one he found me on the floor with a folio between my knees; but he only smiled and said—
'Ah, Willie! mind you don't crumple the leaves.'
About this time also I had a new experience of another kind, which impressed me almost with the force of a revelation.
I had not yet explored the boundaries of the prairie-like level on which I found myself. As soon as I got about a certain distance from home, I always turned and ran back. Fear is sometimes the first recognition of freedom. Delighting in liberty, I yet shrunk from the unknown spaces around me, and rushed back to the shelter of the home-walls. But as I grew older I became more adventurous; and one evening, although the shadows were beginning to lengthen, I went on and on until I made a discovery. I found a half-spherical hollow in the grassy surface. I rushed into its depth as if it had been a mine of marvels, threw myself on the ground, and gazed into the sky as if I had now for the first time discovered its true relation to the earth. The earth was a cup, and the sky its cover.
There were lovely daisies in this hollow—not too many to spoil the grass—and they were red-tipped daisies. There was besides, in the very heart of it, one plant of the finest pimpernels I have ever seen, and this was my introduction to the flower. Nor were these all the treasures of the spot. A late primrose, a tiny child, born out of due time, opened its timid petals in the same hollow. Here then we regathered red-tipped daisies, large pimpernels, and one tiny primrose. I lay and looked at them in delight—not at all inclined to pull them, for they were where I loved to see them. I never had much inclination to gather flowers. I see them as a part of a whole, and rejoice in them in their own place without any desire to appropriate them. I lay and looked at these for a long time. Perhaps I fell asleep. I do not know. I have often waked in the open air. All at once I looked up and saw a vision.
My reader will please to remember that up to this hour I had never seen a lady. I cannot by any stretch call my worthy aunt a lady; and my grandmother was too old, and too much an object of mysterious anxiety, to produce the impression, of a lady upon me. Suddenly I became aware that a lady was looking down on me. Over the edge of my horizon, the circle of the hollow that touched the sky, her face shone like a rising moon. Sweet eyes looked on me, and a sweet mouth was tremulous with a smile. I will not attempt to describe her. To my childish eyes she was much what a descended angel must have been to eyes of old, in the days when angels did descend, and there were Arabs or Jews on the earth who could see them. A new knowledge dawned in me. I lay motionless, looking up with worship in my heart. As suddenly she vanished. I lay far into the twilight, and then rose and went home, half bewildered, with a sense of heaven about me which settled into the fancy that my mother had come to see me. I wondered afterwards that I had not followed her; but I never forgot her, and, morning, midday, or evening, whenever the fit seized me, I would wander away and lie down in the hollow, gazing at the spot where the lovely face had arisen, in the fancy, hardly in the hope, that my moon might once more arise and bless me with her vision.
Hence I suppose came another habit of mine, that of watching in the same hollow, and in the same posture, now for the sun, now for the moon, but generally for the sun. You might have taken me for a fire-worshipper, so eagerly would I rise when the desire came upon me, so hastily in the clear grey of the morning would I dress myself, lest the sun should be up before me, and I fail to catch his first lance-like rays dazzling through the forest of grass on the edge of my hollow world. Bare-footed I would scud like a hare through the dew, heedless of the sweet air of the morning, heedless of the few bird-songs about me, heedless even of the east, whose saffron might just be burning into gold, as I ran to gain the green hollow whence alone I would greet the morning. Arrived there, I shot into its shelter, and threw myself panting on the grass, to gaze on the spot at which I expected the rising glory to appear. Ever when I recall the custom, that one lark is wildly praising over my head, for he sees the sun for which I am waiting. He has his nest in the hollow beside me. I would sooner have turned my back on the sun than disturbed the home of his high-priest, the lark. And now the edge of my horizon begins to burn; the green blades glow in their tops; they are melted through with light; the flashes invade my eyes; they gather; they grow, until I hide my face in my hands. The sun is up. But on my hands and my knees I rush after the retreating shadow, and, like a child at play with its nurse, hide in its curtain. Up and up comes the peering sun; he will find me; I cannot hide from him; there is in the wide field no shelter from his gaze. No matter then. Let him shine into the deepest corners of my heart, and shake the cowardice and the meanness out of it.
I thus made friends with Nature. I had no great variety even in her, but the better did I understand what I had. The next Summer I began to hunt for glow-worms, and carry them carefully to my hollow, that in the warm, soft, moonless nights they might illumine it with a strange light. When I had been very successful, I would call my uncle and aunt to see. My aunt tried me by always having something to do first. My uncle, on the other hand, would lay down his book at once, and follow me submissively. He could not generate amusement for me, but he sympathized with what I could find for myself.
'Come and see my cows,' I would say to him.
I well remember the first time I took him to see them. When we reached the hollow, he stood for a moment silent. Then he said, laying his hand on my shoulder,
'Very pretty, Willie! But why do you call them cows?'
'You told me last night,' I answered, 'that the road the angels go across the sky is called the milky way—didn't you, uncle?'
'I never told you the angels went that way, my boy.'
'Oh! didn't you? I thought you did.'
'No, I didn't.'
'Oh! I remember now: I thought if it was a way, and nobody but the angels could go in it, that must be the way the angels did go.'
'Yes, yes, I see! But what has that to do with the glow-worms?'
'Don't you see, uncle? If it be the milky way, the stars must be the cows. Look at my cows, uncle. Their milk is very pretty milk, isn't it?'
'Very pretty, indeed, my dear—rather green.'
'Then I suppose if you could put it in auntie's pan, you might make another moon of it?'
'That's being silly now,' said my uncle; and I ceased, abashed.
'Look, look, uncle!' I exclaimed, a moment after; 'they don't like being talked about, my cows.'
For as if a cold gust of wind had passed over them, they all dwindled and paled. I thought they were going out.
'Oh dear, oh dear!' I cried, and began dancing about with dismay. The next instant the glow returned, and the hollow was radiant.
'Oh, the dear light!' I cried again. 'Look at it, uncle! Isn't it lovely?'
He took me by the hand. His actions were always so much more tender than his words!
'Do you know who is the light of the world, Willie?'
'Yes, well enough. I saw him get out of bed this morning.'
My uncle led me home without a word more. But next night he began to teach me about the light of the world, and about walking in the light. I do not care to repeat much of what he taught me in this kind, for like my glow-worms it does not like to be talked about. Somehow it loses colour and shine when one talks.
I have now shown sufficiently how my uncle would seize opportunities for beginning things. He thought more of the beginning than of any other part of a process.
'All's well that begins well,' he would say. I did not know what his smile meant as he said so.
I sometimes wonder how I managed to get through the days without being weary. No one ever thought of giving me toys. I had a turn for using my hands; but I was too young to be trusted with a knife. I had never seen a kite, except far away in the sky: I took it for a bird. There were no rushes to make water-wheels of, and no brooks to set them turning in. I had neither top nor marbles. I had no dog to play with. And yet I do not remember once feeling weary. I knew all the creatures that went creeping about in the grass, and although I did not know the proper name for one of them, I had names of my own for them all, and was so familiar with their looks and their habits, that I am confident I could in some degree interpret some of the people I met afterwards by their resemblances to these insects. I have a man in my mind now who has exactly the head and face, if face it can be called, of an ant. It is not a head, but a helmet. I knew all the butterflies—they were mostly small ones, but of lovely varieties. A stray dragon-fly would now and then delight me; and there were hunting-spiders and wood-lice, and queerer creatures of which I do not yet know the names. Then there were grasshoppers, which for some time I took to be made of green leaves, and I thought they grew like fruit on the trees till they were ripe, when they jumped down, and jumped for ever after. Another child might have caught and caged them; for me, I followed them about, and watched their ways.
In the Winter, things had not hitherto gone quite so well with me. Then I had been a good deal dependent upon Nannie and her stories, which were neither very varied nor very well told. But now that I had begun to read, things went better. To be sure, there were not in my uncle's library many books such as children have now-a-days; but there were old histories, and some voyages and travels, and in them I revelled. I am perplexed sometimes when I look into one of these books—for I have them all about me now—to find how dry they are. The shine seems to have gone out of them. Or is it that the shine has gone out of the eyes that used to read them? If so, it will come again some day. I do not find that the shine has gone out of a beetle's back; and I can read The Pilgrim's Progress still.
All this has led me, after a roundabout fashion, to what became for some time the chief delight of my Winters—an employment, moreover, which I have taken up afresh at odd times during my life. It came about thus. My uncle had made me a present of an old book with pictures in it. It was called The Preceptor—one of Dodsley's publications. There were wonderful folding plates of all sorts in it. Those which represented animals were of course my favourites. But these especially were in a very dilapidated condition, for there had been children before me somewhere; and I proceeded, at my uncle's suggestion, to try to mend them by pasting them on another piece of paper. I made bad work of it at first, and was so dissatisfied with the results, that I set myself in earnest to find out by what laws of paste and paper success might be secured. Before the Winter was over, my uncle found me grown so skilful in this manipulation of broken leaves—for as yet I had not ventured further in any of the branches of repair—that he gave me plenty of little jobs of the sort, for amongst his books there were many old ones. This was a source of great pleasure. Before the following Winter was over, I came to try my hand at repairing bindings, and my uncle was again so much pleased with my success that one day he brought me from the county town some sheets of parchment with which to attempt the fortification of certain vellum-bound volumes which were considerably the worse for age and use. I well remember how troublesome the parchment was for a long time; but at last I conquered it, and succeeded very fairly in my endeavours to restore to tidiness the garments of ancient thought.
But there was another consequence of this pursuit which may be considered of weight in my history. This was the discovery of a copy of the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia—much in want of skilful patching, from the title-page, with its boar smelling at the rose-bush, to the graduated lines and the Finis. This book I read through from boar to finis—no small undertaking, and partly, no doubt, under its influences, I became about this time conscious of a desire after honour, as yet a notion of the vaguest. I hardly know how I escaped the taking for granted that there were yet knights riding about on war-horses, with couched lances and fierce spurs, everywhere as in days of old. They might have been roaming the world in all directions, without my seeing one of them. But somehow I did not fall into the mistake. Only with the thought of my future career, when I should be a man and go out into the world, came always the thought of the sword which hung on the wall. A longing to handle it began to possess me, and my old dream returned. I dared not, however, say a word to my uncle on the subject. I felt certain that he would slight the desire, and perhaps tell me I should hurt myself with the weapon; and one whose heart glowed at the story of the battle between him on the white horse with carnation mane and tail, in his armour of blue radiated with gold, and him on the black-spotted brown, in his dusky armour of despair, could not expose himself to such an indignity.
THE SWORD ON THE WALL.
Where possession was impossible, knowledge might yet be reached: could I not learn the story of the ancient weapon? How came that which had more fitly hung in the hall of a great castle, here upon the wall of a kitchen? My uncle, however, I felt, was not the source whence I might hope for help. No better was my aunt. Indeed I had the conviction that she neither knew nor cared anything about the useless thing. It was her tea-table that must be kept bright for honour's sake. But there was grannie!
My relations with her had continued much the same. The old fear of her lingered, and as yet I had had no inclination to visit her room by myself. I saw that my uncle and aunt always behaved to her with the greatest kindness and much deference, but could not help observing also that she cherished some secret offence, receiving their ministrations with a certain condescension which clearly enough manifested its origin as hidden cause of complaint and not pride. I wondered that my uncle and aunt took no notice of it, always addressing her as if they were on the best possible terms; and I knew that my uncle never went to his work without visiting her, and never went to bed without reading a prayer by her bedside first. I think Nannie told me this.
She could still read a little, for her sight had been short, and had held out better even than usual with such. But she cared nothing for the news of the hour. My uncle had a weekly newspaper, though not by any means regularly, from a friend in London, but I never saw it in my grandmother's hands. Her reading was mostly in the Spectator, or in one of De Foe's works. I have seen her reading Pope.
The sword was in my bones, and as I judged that only from grannie could I get any information respecting it, I found myself beginning to inquire why I was afraid to go to her. I was unable to account for it, still less to justify it. As I reflected, the kindness of her words and expressions dawned upon me, and I even got so far as to believe that I had been guilty of neglect in not visiting her oftener and doing something for her. True, I recalled likewise that my uncle had desired me not to visit her except with him or my aunt, but that was ages ago, when I was a very little boy and might have been troublesome. I could even read to her now if she wished it. In short, I felt myself perfectly capable of entering into social relations with her generally. But if there was any flow of affection towards her, it was the sword that had broken the seal of its fountain.
One morning at breakfast I had been sitting gazing at the sword on the wall opposite me. My aunt had observed the steadiness of my look.
'What are you staring at, Willie?' she said. 'Your eyes are fixed in your head. Are you choking?'
The words offended me. I got up and walked out of the room. As I went round the table I saw that my uncle and aunt were staring at each other very much as I had been staring at the sword. I soon felt ashamed of myself, and returned, hoping that my behaviour might be attributed to some passing indisposition. Mechanically I raised my eyes to the wall. Could I believe them? The sword was gone—absolutely gone! My heart seemed to swell up into my throat; I felt my cheeks burning. The passion grew within me, and might have broken out in some form or other, had I not felt that would at once betray my secret. I sat still with a fierce effort, consoling and strengthening myself with the resolution that I would hesitate no longer, but take the first chance of a private interview with grannie. I tried hard to look as if nothing had happened, and when breakfast was over, went to my own room. It was there I carried on my pasting operations. There also at this time I drank deep in the 'Pilgrim's Progress;' there were swords, and armour, and giants, and demons there: but I had no inclination for either employment now.
My uncle left for the farm as usual, and to my delight I soon discovered that my aunt had gone with him. The ways of the house were as regular as those of a bee-hive. Sitting in my own room I knew precisely where any one must be at any given moment; for although the only clock we had was oftener standing than going, a perfect instinct of time was common to the household, Nannie included. At that moment she was sweeping up the hearth and putting on the kettle. In half an hour she would have tidied up the kitchen, and would have gone to prepare the vegetables for cooking: I must wait. But the sudden fear struck me that my aunt might have taken the sword with her—might be going to make away with it altogether. I started up, and rushed about the room in an agony. What could I do? At length I heard Nannie's pattens clatter out of the kitchen to a small outhouse where she pared the potatoes. I instantly descended, crossed the kitchen, and went up the winding stone stair. I opened grannie's door, and went in.
She was seated in her usual place. Never till now had I felt how old she was. She looked up when I entered, for although she had grown very deaf, she could feel the floor shake. I saw by her eyes, which looked higher than my head, that she had expected a taller figure to follow me. When I turned from shutting the door, I saw her arms extended with an eager look, and could see her hands trembling ere she folded them about me, and pressed my head to her bosom.
'O Lord!' she said, 'I thank thee. I will try to be good now. O Lord, I have waited, and thou hast heard me. I will believe in thee again!'
From that moment I loved my grannie, and felt I owed her something as well as my uncle. I had never had this feeling about my aunt.
'Grannie!' I said, trembling from a conflict of emotions; but before I could utter my complaint, I had burst out crying.
'What have they been doing to you, child?' she asked, almost fiercely, and sat up straight in her chair. Her voice, although feeble and quavering, was determined in tone. She pushed me back from her and sought the face I was ashamed to show. 'What have they done to you, my boy?' she repeated, ere I could conquer my sobs sufficiently to speak.
'They have taken away the sword that—'
'What sword?' she asked quickly. 'Not the sword that your great-grandfather wore when he followed Sir Marmaduke?'
'I don't know, grannie.'
'Don't know, boy? The only thing your father took when he—. Not the sword with the broken sheath? Never! They daren't do it! I will go down myself. I must see about it at once.'
'Oh, grannie, don't!' I cried in terror, as she rose from her chair. 'They'll not let me ever come near you again, if you do.'
She sat down again. After seeming to ponder for a while in silence, she said:—
'Well, Willie, my dear, you're more to me than the old sword. But I wouldn't have had it handled with disrespect for all that the place is worth. However, I don't suppose they can—. What made them do it, child? They've not taken it down from the wall?'
'Yes, grannie. I think it was because I was staring at it too much, grannie. Perhaps they were afraid I would take it down and hurt myself with it. But I was only going to ask you about it. Tell me a story about it, grannie.'
All my notion was some story, I did not think whether true or false, like one of Nannie's stories.
'That I will, my child—all about it—all about it. Let me see.'
Her eyes went wandering a little, and she looked perplexed.
'And they took it from you, did they? Poor child! Poor child!'
'They didn't take it from me, grannie. I never had it in my hands.'
'Wouldn't give it you then? Oh dear! Oh dear!'
I began to feel uncomfortable—grannie looked so strange and lost. The old feeling that she ought to be buried because she was dead returned upon me; but I overcame it so far as to be able to say:
'Won't you tell me about it then, grannie? I want so much to hear about the battle.'
'What battle, child? Oh yes! I'll tell you all about it some day, but I've forgot now, I've forgot it all now.'
She pressed her hand to her forehead, and sat thus for some time, while I grew very frightened. I would gladly have left the room and crept down-stairs, but I stood fascinated, gazing at the withered face half-hidden by the withered hand. I longed to be anywhere else, but my will had deserted me, and there I must remain. At length grannie took her hand from her eyes, and seeing me, started.
'Ah, my dear!' she said,' I had forgotten you. You wanted me to do something for you: what was it?'
'I wanted you to tell me about the sword, grannie.'
'Oh yes, the sword!' she returned, putting her hand again to her forehead. 'They took it away from you, did they? Well, never mind. I will give you something else—though I don't say it's as good as the sword.'
She rose, and taking an ivory-headed stick which leaned against the side of the chimney-piece, walked with tottering steps towards the bureau. There she took from her pocket a small bunch of keys, and having, with some difficulty from the trembling of her hands, chosen one and unlocked the sloping cover, she opened a little drawer inside, and took out a gold watch with a bunch of seals hanging from it. Never shall I forget the thrill that went through my frame. Did she mean to let me hold it in my own hand? Might I have it as often as I came to see her? Imagine my ecstasy when she put it carefully in the two hands I held up to receive it, and said:
'There, my dear! You must take good care of it, and never give it away for love or money. Don't you open it—there's a good boy, till you're a man like your father. He was a man! He gave it to me the day we were married, for he had nothing else, he said, to offer me. But I would not take it, my dear. I liked better to see him with it than have it myself. And when he left me, I kept it for you. But you must take care of it, you know.'
'Oh, thank you, grannie!' I cried, in an agony of pleasure. 'I will take care of it—indeed I will. Is it a real watch, grannie—as real as uncle's?'
'It's worth ten of your uncle's, my dear. Don't you show it him, though. He might take that away too. Your uncle's a very good man, my dear, but you mustn't mind everything he says to you. He forgets things. I never forget anything. I have plenty of time to think about things. I never forget.'
'Will it go, grannie?' I asked, for my uncle was a much less interesting subject than the watch.
'It won't go without being wound up; but you might break it. Besides, it may want cleaning. It's several years since it was cleaned last. Where will you put it now?'
'Oh! I know where to hide it safe enough, grannie,' I exclaimed. 'I'll take care of it. You needn't be afraid, grannie.'
The old lady turned, and with difficulty tottered to her seat. I remained where I was, fixed in contemplation of my treasure. She called me. I went and stood by her knee.
'My child, there is something I want very much to tell you, but you know old people forget things—'
'But you said just now that you never forgot anything, grannie.'
'No more I do, my dear; only I can't always lay my hands upon a thing when I want it.'
'It was about the sword, grannie,' I said, thinking to refresh her memory.
'No, my dear; I don't think it was about the sword exactly—though that had something to do with it. I shall remember it all by-and-by. It will come again. And so must you, my dear. Don't leave your old mother so long alone. It's weary, weary work, waiting.'
'Indeed I won't, grannie,' I said. 'I will come the very first time I can. Only I mustn't let auntie see me, you know.—You don't want to be buried now, do you, grannie?' I added; for I had begun to love her, and the love had cast out the fear, and I did not want her to wish to be buried.
'I am very, very old; much too old to live, my dear. But I must do you justice before I can go to my grave. Now I know what I wanted to say. It's gone again. Oh dear! Oh dear! If I had you in the middle of the night, when everything comes back as if it had been only yesterday, I could tell you all about it from beginning to end, with all the ins and outs of it. But I can't now—I can't now.'
She moaned and rocked herself to and fro.
'Never mind, grannie,' I said cheerfully, for I was happy enough for all eternity with my gold watch; 'I will come and see you again as soon as ever I can.' And I kissed her on the white cheek.
'Thank you, my dear. I think you had better go now. They may miss you, and then I should never see you again—to talk to, I mean.'
'Why won't they let me come, and see you, grannie?' I asked.
'That's what I wanted to tell you, if I could only see a little better,' she answered, once more putting her hand to her forehead. 'Perhaps I shall be able to tell you next time. Go now, my dear.'
I left the room, nothing loth, for I longed to be alone with my treasure. I could not get enough of it in grannie's presence even. Noiseless as a bat I crept down the stair. When I reached the door at the foot I stood and listened. The kitchen was quite silent. I stepped out. There was no one there. I scudded across and up the other stair to my own room, carefully shutting the door behind me. Then I sat down on the floor on the other side of the bed, so that it was between me and the door, and I could run into the closet with my treasure before any one entering should see me.
The watch was a very thick round one. The back of it was crowded with raised figures in the kind of work called repoussee. I pored over these for a long time, and then turned to the face. It was set all round with shining stones—diamonds, though I knew nothing of diamonds then. The enamel was cracked, and I followed every crack as well as every figure of the hours. Then I began to wonder what I could do with it next. I was not satisfied. Possession I found was not bliss: it had not rendered me content. But it was as yet imperfect: I had not seen the inside. Grannie had told me not to open it: I began to think it hard that I should be denied thorough possession of what had been given to me, I believed I should be quite satisfied if I once saw what made it go. I turned it over and over, thinking I might at least find how it was opened. I have little doubt if I had discovered the secret of it, my virtue would have failed me. All I did find, however, was the head of a curious animal engraved on the handle. This was something. I examined it as carefully as the rest, and then finding I had for the time exhausted the pleasures of the watch, I turned to the seals. On one of them was engraved what looked like letters, but I could not read them. I did not know that they were turned the wrong way. One of them was like a W. On the other seal—there were but two and a curiously-contrived key—I found the same head as was engraved on the handle—turned the other way of course. Wearied at length, I took the precious thing into the dark closet, and laid it in a little box which formed one of my few possessions. I then wandered out into the field, and went straying about until dinner-time, during which I believe I never once lifted my eyes to the place where the sword had hung, lest even that action should betray the watch.
From that day my head, and as much of my heart as might be, were filled with the watch. And, alas! I soon found that my bookmending had grown distasteful to me, and for the satisfaction of employment, possession was a poor substitute. As often as I made the attempt to resume it, I got weary, and wandered almost involuntarily to the closet to feel for my treasure in the dark, handle it once more, and bring it out into the light. Already I began to dree the doom of riches, in the vain attempt to live by that which was not bread. Nor was this all. A certain weight began to gather over my spirit—a sense almost of wrong. For although the watch had been given me by my grandmother, and I never doubted either her right to dispose of it or my right to possess it, I could not look my uncle in the face, partly from a vague fear lest he should read my secret in my eyes, partly from a sense of something out of joint between him and me. I began to fancy, and I believe I was right, that he looked at me sometimes with a wistfulness I had never seen in his face before. This made me so uncomfortable that I began to avoid his presence as much as possible. And although I tried to please him with my lessons, I could not learn them as hitherto.
One day he asked me to bring him the book I had been repairing.
'It's not finished yet, uncle,' I said.
'Will you bring it me just as it is. I want to look for something in it.'
I went and brought it with shame. He took it, and having found the passage he wanted, turned the volume once over in his hands, and gave it me back without a word.
Next day I restored it to him finished and tidy. He thanked me, looked it over again, and put it in its place. But I fairly encountered an inquiring and somewhat anxious gaze. I believe he had a talk with my aunt about me that night.
The next morning, I was seated by the bedside, with my secret in my hand, when I thought I heard the sound of the door-handle, and glided at once into the closet. When I came out in a flutter of anxiety, there was no one there. But I had been too much startled to return to what I had grown to feel almost a guilty pleasure.
The next morning after breakfast, I crept into the closet, put my hand unerringly into the one corner of the box, found no watch, and after an unavailing search, sat down in the dark on a bundle of rags, with the sensations of a ruined man. My world was withered up and gone. How the day passed, I cannot tell. How I got through my meals, I cannot even imagine. When I look back and attempt to recall the time, I see but a cloudy waste of misery crossed by the lightning-streaks of a sense of injury. All that was left me now was a cat-like watching for the chance of going to my grandmother. Into her ear I would pour the tale of my wrong. She who had been as a haunting discomfort to me, had grown to be my one consolation.
My lessons went on as usual. A certain pride enabled me to learn them tolerably for a day or two; but when that faded, my whole being began to flag. For some time my existence was a kind of life in death. At length one evening my uncle said to me, as we finished my lessons far from satisfactorily—
'Willie, your aunt and I think it better you should go to school. We shall be very sorry to part with you, but it will be better. You will then have companions of your own age. You have not enough to amuse you at home.'
He did not allude by a single word to the affair of the watch. Could my aunt have taken it, and never told him? It was not likely.
I was delighted at the idea of any change, for my life had grown irksome to me.
'Oh, thank you, uncle!' I cried, with genuine expression.
I think he looked a little sad; but he uttered no reproach.
My aunt and he had already arranged everything. The next day but one, I saw, for the first time, a carriage drive up to the door of the house. I was waiting for it impatiently. My new clothes had all been packed in a little box. I had not put in a single toy: I cared for nothing I had now. The box was put up beside the driver. My aunt came to the door where I was waiting for my uncle.
'Mayn't I go and say good-bye to grannie?' I asked.
'She's not very well to-day,' said my aunt. 'I think you had better not. You will be back at Christmas, you know.'
I was not so much grieved as I ought to have been. The loss of my watch had made the thought of grannie painful again.
'Your uncle will meet you at the road,' continued my aunt, seeing me still hesitate. 'Good-bye.'
I received her cold embrace without emotion, clambered into the chaise, and looking out as the driver shut the door, wondered what my aunt was holding her apron to her eyes for, as she turned away into the house. My uncle met us and got in, and away the chaise rattled, bearing me towards an utterly new experience; for hardly could the strangest region in foreign lands be more unknown to the wandering mariner than the faces and ways of even my own kind were to me. I had never played for one half-hour with boy or girl. I knew nothing of their play-things or their games. I hardly knew what boys were like, except, outwardly, from the dim reflex of myself in the broken mirror in my bed-room, whose lustre was more of the ice than the pool, and, inwardly, from the partly exceptional experiences of my own nature, with which even I was poorly enough acquainted.
I GO TO SCHOOL, AND GRANNIE LEAVES IT.
It is an evil thing to break up a family before the natural period of its dissolution. In the course of things, marriage, the necessities of maintenance, or the energies of labour guiding 'to fresh woods and pastures new,' are the ordered causes of separation.
Where the home is happy, much injury is done the children in sending them to school, except it be a day-school, whither they go in the morning as to the labours of the world, but whence they return at night as to the heaven of repose. Conflict through the day, rest at night, is the ideal. A day-school will suffice for the cultivation of the necessary public or national spirit, without which the love of the family may degenerate into a merely extended selfishness, but which is itself founded upon those family affections. At the same time, it must be confessed that boarding-schools are, in many cases, an antidote to some of the evil conditions which exist at home.
To children whose home is a happy one, the exile to a school must be bitter. Mine, however, was an unusual experience. Leaving aside the specially troubled state in which I was when thus carried to the village of Aldwick, I had few of the finer elements of the ideal home in mine. The love of my childish heart had never been drawn out. My grandmother had begun to do so, but her influence had been speedily arrested. I was, as they say of cats, more attached to the place than the people, and no regrets whatever interfered to quell the excitement of expectation, wonder, and curiosity which filled me on the journey. The motion of the vehicle, the sound of the horses' hoofs, the travellers we passed on the road—all seemed to partake of the exuberant life which swelled and overflowed in me. Everything was as happy, as excited, as I was.