Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XX

Bruntsea

It would be unfair to Major Hockin to take him for an extravagant man or a self-indulgent one because of the good dinner he had ordered, and his eagerness to sit down to it. Through all the best years of his life he had been most frugal, abstemious, and self-denying, grudging every penny of his own expense, but sparing none for his family. And now, when he found himself so much better off, with more income and less outlay, he could not be blamed for enjoying good things with the wholesome zest of abstinence.

For, coming to the point, and going well into the matter, the Major had discovered that the “little property” left to him, and which he was come to see to, really was quite a fine estate for any one who knew how to manage it, and would not spare courage and diligence. And of these two qualities he had such abundance that, without any outlet, they might have turned him sour.

The property lately devised to him by his cousin, Sir Rufus Hockin, had long been far more plague than profit to that idle baronet. Sir Rufus hated all exertion, yet could not comfortably put up with the only alternative — extortion. Having no knowledge of his cousin Nick (except that he was indefatigable), and knowing his own son to be lazier even than himself had been, longing also to inflict even posthumous justice upon the land agent, with the glad consent of his heir he left this distant, fretful, and naked spur of land to his beloved cousin Major Nicholas Hockin.

The Major first heard of this unexpected increase of his belongings while he was hovering, in the land of gold, between his desire to speculate and his dread of speculation. At once he consulted our Colonel Gundry, who met him by appointment at Sacramento; and Uncle Sam having a vast idea of the value of land in England, which the Major naturally made the most of, now being an English land-owner, they spent a most pleasant evening, and agreed upon the line marked out by Providence.

Thus it was that he came home, bringing (by kind arrangement) me, who was much more trouble than comfort to him, and at first disposed to be cold and curt. And thus it was that I was left so long in that wretched Southampton, under the care of a very kind person who never could understand me. And all this while (as I ought to have known, without any one to tell me) Major Hockin was testing the value and beating the bounds of his new estate, and prolonging his dinner from one to two courses, or three if he had been travelling. His property was large enough to afford him many dinners, and rich enough (when rightly treated) to insure their quality.

Bruntsea is a quiet little village on the southeast coast of England, in Kent or in Sussex, I am not sure which, for it has a constitution of its own, and says that it belongs to neither. It used to be a place of size and valor, furnishing ships, and finding money for patriotic purposes. And great people both embarked and landed, one doing this and the other that, though nobody seems to have ever done both, if history is to be relied upon. The glory of the place is still preserved in a seal and an immemorial stick, each of which is blessed with marks as incomprehensible as could be wished, though both are to be seen for sixpence. The name of the place is written in more than forty different ways, they say; and the oldest inhabitant is less positive than the youngest how to spell it.

This village lies in the mouth, or rather at the eastern end of the mouth, of a long and wide depression among the hills, through which a sluggish river wins its muddy consummation. This river once went far along the sea-brink, without entering (like a child who is afraid to bathe), as the Adur does at Shoreham, and as many other rivers do. And in those days the mouth and harbor were under the cliff at Bruntsea, whence its seal and corporation, stick, and other blessings. But three or four centuries ago the river was drawn by a violent storm, like a badger from his barrel, and forced to come straight out and face the sea, without any three miles of dalliance. The time-serving water made the best of this, forsook its ancient bed (as classic nymphs and fountains used to do), and left poor Bruntsea with a dry bank, and no haven for a cockle-shell. A new port, such as it is, incrusted the fickle jaw of the river; piles were driven and earth-works formed, lest the water should return to its old love; and Bruntsea, as concerned her traffic, became but a mark of memory. Her noble corporation never demanded their old channel, but regarded the whole as the will of the Lord, and had the good sense to insist upon nothing except their time-honored ceremonies.

In spite of all these and their importance, land became of no value there. The owner of the Eastern Manor and of many ancient rights, having no means of getting at them, sold them for an “old song,” which they were; and the buyer was one of the Hockin race, a shipwrecked mariner from Cornwall, who had been kindly treated there, and took a fancy accordingly. He sold his share in some mine to pay for it, settled here, and died here; and his son, getting on in the world, built a house, and took to serious smuggling. In the chalk cliff’s eastward he found holes of honest value to him, capable of cheap enlargement (which the Cornish holes were not), and much more accessible from France. Becoming a magistrate and deputy-lieutenant, he had the duty and privilege of inquiring into his own deeds, which enabled him to check those few who otherwise might have competed with him. He flourished, and bought more secure estates; and his son, for activity against smugglers, was made a gentle baronet.

These things now had passed away, and the first fee-simple of the Hockin family became a mere load and incumbrance. Sir George and Sir Robert and Sir Rufus, one after another, did not like the hints about contraband dealings which met them whenever they deigned to come down there, till at last the estate (being left to an agent) cost a great deal more than he ever paid in. And thus — as should have been more briefly told — the owner was our Major Hockin.

No wonder that this gentleman, with so many cares to attend to, had no time at first to send for me. And no wonder that when he came down to see me, he was obliged to have good dinners. For the work done by him in those three months surprised every body except himself, and made in old Bruntsea a stir unknown since the time of the Spanish Armada. For he owned the house under the eastern cliff, and the warren, and the dairy-farm inland, and the slope of the ground where the sea used to come, and fields where the people grew potatoes gratis, and all the eastern village, where the tenants paid their rents whenever they found it rational.

A hot young man, in a place like this, would have done a great deal of mischief. Either he would have accepted large views, and applauded this fine communism (if he could afford it, and had no wife), or else he would have rushed at every body headlong, and batted them back to their abutments. Neither course would have created half the excitement which the Major’s did. At least, there might have been more talk at first, but not a quarter so much in sum total. Of those things, however, there is time enough to speak, if I dare to say any thing about them.

The things more to my mind (and therefore more likely to be made plain to another mind) are not the petty flickering phantoms of the shadow we call human, and which alone we realize, and dwell inside it and upon it, as if it were all creation; but the infinitely nobler things of ever-changing but perpetual beauty, and no selfishness. These, without deigning to us even sense to be aware of them, shape our little minds and bodies and our large self-importance, and fail to know when the lord or king who owns is buried under them. To have perception of such mighty truths is good for all of us: and I never had keener perception of them than when I sat down on the Major’s camp-stool, and saw all his land around me, and even the sea — where all the fish were his, as soon as he could catch them — and largely reflected that not a square foot of the whole world would ever belong to me.

“Bruntlands,” as the house was called, perhaps from standing well above the sea, was sheltered by the curve of the eastern cliff, which looked down over Bruntsea. The cliff was of chalk, very steep toward the sea, and showing a prominent headland toward the south, but prettily rising in grassy curves from the inland and from the westward. And then, where it suddenly chined away from land-slope into sea-front, a long bar of shingle began at right angles to it, and, as level as a railroad, went to the river’s mouth, a league or so now to the westward. And beyond that another line of white cliffs rose, and looked well till they came to their headland. Inside this bank of shingle, from end to end, might be traced the old course of the river, and to landward of that trough at the hither end stood, or lay, the calm old village.

Forsaken as it was by the river, this village stuck to its ancient site and home, and instead of migrating, contracted itself, and cast off needless members. Shrunken Bruntsea clung about the oldest of its churches, while the four others fell to rack and ruin, and settled into cow-yards and barns, and places where old men might sit and sigh. But Bruntsea distinctly and trenchantly kept the old town’s division into east and west.

East Bruntsea was wholly in the Major’s manor, which had a special charter; and most of the houses belonged to him. This ownership hitherto had meant only that the landlord should do all the tumble-down repairs (when the agent reported that they must be done), but never must enter the door for his rent. The borough had been disfranchised, though the snuggest of the snug for generations; and the freemen, thus being robbed of their rights, had no power to discharge their duties. And to complicate matters yet further, for the few who wished to simplify them, the custom of “borough-English” prevailed, and governed the descent of dilapidations, making nice niceties for clever men of law.

“You see a fine property here, Miss Wood,” Major Hockin said to me, as we sat, on the day after I was allowed to come, enjoying the fresh breeze from the sea and the newness of the February air, and looking abroad very generally: “a very fine property, but neglected — shamefully, horribly, atrociously neglected — but capable of noble things, of grand things, of magnificent, with a trifle of judicious outlay.”

“Oh, please not to talk of outlay, my dear,” said good Mrs. Hockin, gently; “it is such an odious word; and where in the world is it to come from?”

“Leave that to me. When I was a boy my favorite copy in my copy-book was, ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way.’ Miss Wood, what is your opinion? But wait, you must have time to understand the subject. First we bring a railway — always the first step; why, the line is already made for it by the course of the old river, and the distance from Newport three miles and a half. It ought not to cost quite 200 pounds a mile — the mere outlay for rails and sleepers. The land is all mine, and — and of course other landed proprietors’. Very well: these would all unite, of course; so that not a farthing need be paid for land, which is the best half of the battle. We have the station here — not too near my house; that would never do; I could not bear the noise — but in a fine central place where nobody on earth could object to it — lively, and close at hand for all of them. Unluckily I was just too late. We have lost a Parliamentary year through that execrable calm — you remember all about it. Otherwise we would have had Billy Puff stabled at Bruntsea by the first of May. But never mind; we shall do it all the better and cheaper by taking our time about it. Very well: we have the railway opened and the trade of the place developed. We build a fine terrace of elegant villas, a crescent also, and a large hotel replete with every luxury; and we form the finest sea-parade in England by simply assisting nature. Half London comes down here to bathe, to catch shrimps, to flirt, and to do the rest of it. We become a select, salubrious, influential, and yet economical place; and then what do we do, Mrs. Hockin?”

“My dear, how can I tell? But I hope that we should rest and be thankful.”

“Not a bit of it. I should hope not, indeed. Erema, what do we do then?”

“It is useless to ask me. Well, then, perhaps you set up a handsome saw-mill!”

“A saw-mill! What a notion of Paradise! No; this is what we do — but remember that I speak in the strictest confidence; dishonest antagonism might arise, if we ventilated our ideas too soon — Mrs. Hockin and Miss Wood, we demand the restoration of our river! — the return of our river to its ancient course.”

“I see,” said his wife; “oh, how grand that would be! and how beautiful from our windows! That really, now, is a noble thought!”

“A just one — simply a just one. Justice ought not to be noble, my dear, however rare it may be. Generosity, magnanimity, heroism, and so on — those are the things we call noble, my dear.”

“And the founding of cities. Oh, my dear, I remember, when I was at school, it was always said, in what we called our histories, that the founders of cities had honors paid them, and altars built, and divinities done, and holidays held in their honor.”

“To that I object,” cried the Major, sternly. “If I founded fifty cities, I would never allow one holiday. The Sabbath is enough; one day in seven — fifteen per cent, of one’s whole time; and twenty per cent, of your Sunday goes in church. Very right, of course, and loyal, and truly edifying — Mrs. Hockin’s father was a clergyman, Miss Wood; and the last thing I would ever allow on my manor would be a Dissenting chapel; but still I will have no new churches here, and a man who might go against me. They all want to pick their own religious views, instead of reflecting who supports them! It never used to be so; and such things shall never occur on my manor. A good hotel, attendance included, and a sound and moderate table d’hote; but no church, with a popish bag sent round, and money to pay, ‘without anything to eat.’”

“My dear! my dear!” cried Mrs. Hockin, “I never like you to talk like that. You quite forget who my father was, and your own second son such a very sound priest!”

“A priest! Don’t let him come here,” cried the Major, “or I’ll let him know what tonsure is, and read him the order of Melchisedec. A priest! After going round the world three times, to come home and be hailed as the father of a priest! Don’t let him come near me, or I’ll sacrifice him.”

“Now, Major, you are very proud of him,” his good wife answered, as he shook his stick. “How could he help taking orders when he was under orders to do so? And his views are sound to the last degree, most strictly correct and practical — at least except as to celibacy.”

“He holds that his own mother ought never to have been born! Miss Wood, do you call that practical?”

“I have no acquaintance with such things,” I replied; “we had none of them in California. But is it practical, Major Hockin — of course you know best in your engineering — I mean, would it not require something like a tunnel for the river and the railway to run on the same ground?”

“Why, bless me! That seems to have escaped my notice. You have not been with old Uncle Sam for nothing. We shall have to appoint you our chief engineer.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31