Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXI

Adrift

Having got money enough to last long with one brought up to simplicity, and resolved to have nothing to do for a while with charity or furnished lodgings (what though kept by one’s own nurse), I cast about now for good reason to be off from all the busy works at Bruntsea. So soon after such a tremendous blow, it was impossible for me to push my own little troubles and concerns upon good Mr. Shovelin’s family, much as I longed to know what was to become of my father’s will, if any thing. But my desire to be doing something, or, at least, to get away for a time from Bruntsea, was largely increased by Sir Montague Hockin’s strange behavior toward me.

That young man, if still he could be called young — which, at my age, scarcely seemed to be his right, for he must have been ten years older than poor Firm — began more and more every day to come after me, just when I wanted to be quite alone. There was nothing more soothing to my thoughts and mind (the latter getting quiet from the former, I suppose) than for the whole of me to rest a while in such a little scollop of the shingle as a new-moon tide, in little crescents, leaves just below high-water mark. And now it was new-moon tide again, a fortnight after the flooding of our fly by the activity of the full moon; and, feeling how I longed to understand these things — which seem to be denied to all who are of the same sex as the moon herself — I sat in a very nice nick, where no wind could make me look worse than nature willed. But of my own looks I never did think twice, unless there was any one to speak of such a subject.

Here I was sitting in the afternoon of a gentle July day, wondering by what energy of nature all these countless pebbles were produced, and not even a couple to be found among them fit to lie side by side and purely tally with each other. Right and left, for miles and miles, millions multiplied into millions; yet I might hold any one in my palm and be sure that it never had been there before. And of the quiet wavelets even, taking their own time and manner, in default of will of wind, all to come and call attention to their doom by arching over, and endeavoring to make froth, were any two in sound and size, much more in shape and shade, alike? Every one had its own little business, of floating pop-weed or foam bubbles or of blistered light, to do; and every one, having done it, died and subsided into its successor.

“A trifle sentimental, are we?” cried a lively voice behind me, and the waves of my soft reflections fell, and instead of them stood Sir Montague Hockin, with a hideous parasol.

I never received him with worse grace, often as I had repulsed him; but he was one of those people who think that women are all whims and ways.

“I grieve to intrude upon large ideas,” he said, as I rose and looked at him, “but I act under positive orders now. A lady knows what is best for a lady. Mrs. Hockin has been looking from the window, and she thinks that you ought not to be sitting in the sun like this. There has been a case of sun-stroke at Southbourne — a young lady meditating under the cliff — and she begs you to accept this palm leaf.”

I thought of the many miles I had wandered under the fierce Californian sun; but I would not speak to him of that. “Thank you,” I said; “it was very kind of her to think of it, and of you to do it. But will it be safe for you to go back without it?”

“Oh, why should I do so?” he answered, with a tone of mock pathos which provoked me always, though I never could believe it to be meant in ridicule of me, for that would have been too low a thing; and, besides, I never spoke so. “Could you bear to see me slain by the shafts of the sun? Miss Castlewood, this parasol is amply large for both of us.”

I would not answer him in his own vein, because I never liked his vein at all; though I was not so entirely possessed as to want every body to be like myself.

“Thank you; I mean to stay here,” I said; “you may either leave the parasol or take it, whichever will be less troublesome. At any rate, I shall not use it.”

A gentleman, according to my ideas, would have bowed and gone upon his way; but Sir Montague Hockin would have no rebuff. He seemed to look upon me as a child, such as average English girls, fresh from little schools, would be. Nothing more annoyed me, after all my thoughts and dream of some power in myself, than this.

“Perhaps I might tell you a thing or two,” he said, while I kept gazing at some fishing-boats, and sat down again, as a sign for him to go —“a little thing or two of which you have no idea, even in your most lonely musings, which might have a very deep interest for you. Do you think that I came to this hole to see the sea? Or that fussy old muff of a Major’s doings?”

“Perhaps you would like me to tell him your opinion of his intellect and great plans,” I answered. “And after all his kindness to you!”

“You never will do that,” he said; “because you are a lady, and will not repeat what is said in confidence. I could help you materially in your great object, if you would only make a friend of me.”

“And what would your own object be? The pure anxiety to do right?”

“Partly, and I might say mainly, that; also an ambition for your good opinion, which seems so inaccessible. But you will think me selfish if I even hint at any condition of any kind. Every body I have ever met with likes me, except Miss Castlewood.”

As he spoke he glanced down his fine amber-colored beard, shining in the sun, and even in the sun showing no gray hair (for a reason which Mrs. Hockin told me afterward), and he seemed to think it hard that a man with such a beard should be valued lightly.

“I do not see why we should talk,” I said, “about either likes or dislikes. Only, if you have any thing to tell, I shall be very much obliged to you.”

This gentleman looked at me in a way which I have often observed in England. A general idea there prevails that the free and enlightened natives of the West are in front of those here in intelligence, and to some extent, therefore, in dishonesty. But there must be many cases where the two are not the same.

“No,” I replied, while he was looking at his buttons, which had every British animal upon them; “I mean nothing more than the simple thing I say. If you ought to tell me any thing, tell it. I am accustomed to straightforward people. But they disappoint one by their never knowing any thing.”

“But I know something,” he answered, with a nod of grave, mysterious import; “and perhaps I will tell you some day, when admitted, if ever I have such an honor, to some little degree of friendship.”

“Oh, please not to think of yourself,” I exclaimed, in a manner which must have amused him. “In such a case, the last thing that you should do is that. Think only of what is right and honorable, and your duty toward a lady. Also your duty to the laws of your country. I am not at all sure that you ought not to be arrested. But perhaps it is nothing at all, after all; only something invented to provoke me.”

“In that case, I can only drop the subject,” he answered, with that stern gleam of the eyes which I had observed before, and detested. “I was also to tell you that we dine today an hour before the usual time, that my cousin may go out in the boat for whiting. The sea will be as smooth as glass. Perhaps you will come with us.”

With these words, he lifted his hat and went off, leaving me in a most uncomfortable state, as he must have known if he had even tried to think. For I could not get the smallest idea what he meant; and, much as I tried to believe that he must be only pretending, for reasons of his own, to have something important to tell me, scarcely was it possible to be contented so. A thousand absurd imaginations began to torment me as to what he meant. He lived in London so much, for instance, that he had much quicker chance of knowing whatever there was to know; again, he was a man of the world, full of short, sharp sagacity, and able to penetrate what I could not; then, again, he kept a large account with Shovelin, Wayte, and Shovelin, as Major Hockin chanced to say; and I knew not that a banker’s reserve is much deeper than his deposit; moreover — which, to my mind, was almost stronger proof than any thing — Sir Montague Hockin was of smuggling pedigree, and likely to be skillful in illicit runs of knowledge.

However, in spite of all this uneasiness, not another word would I say to him about it, waiting rather for him to begin again upon it. But, though I waited and waited, as, perhaps, with any other person I scarcely could have done, he would not condescend to give me even another look about it.

Disliking that gentleman more and more for his supercilious conduct and certainty of subduing me, I naturally turned again to my good host and hostess. But here there was very little help or support to be obtained at present. Major Hockin was laying the foundations of “The Bruntsea Assembly–Rooms, Literary Institute, Mutual Improvement Association, Lyceum, and Baths, from sixpence upward;” while Mrs. Hockin had a hatch of “White Sultans,” or, rather, a prolonged sitting of eggs, fondly hoped to hatch at last, from having cost so much, like a chicken-hearted Conference. Much as I sorrowed at her disappointment — for the sitting cost twelve guineas — I could not feel quite guiltless of a petty and ignoble smile, when, after hoping against hope, upon the thirtieth day she placed her beautifully sound eggs in a large bowl of warm water, in which they floated as calmly as if their price was a penny a dozen. The poor lady tried to believe that they were spinning with vitality; but at last she allowed me to break one, and lo! it had been half boiled by the advertiser. “This is very sad,” cried Mrs. Hockin; and the patient old hen, who was come in a basket of hay to see the end of it, echoed with a cluck that sentiment.

These things being so, I was left once more to follow my own guidance, which had seemed, in the main, to be my fortune ever since my father died. For one day Mr. Shovelin had appeared, to my great joy and comfort, as a guide and guardian; but, alas! for one day only. And, except for his good advice and kind paternal conduct to me, it seemed at present an unlucky thing that I had ever discovered him. Not only through deep sense of loss and real sorrow for him, but also because Major Hockin, however good and great and generous, took it unreasonably into his head that I threw him over, and threw myself (as with want of fine taste he expressed it) into the arms of the banker. This hurt me very much, and I felt that Major Hockin could never have spoken so hastily unless his hair had been originally red; and so it might be detected, even now, where it survived itself, though blanched where he brushed it into that pretentious ridge. Sometimes I liked that man, when his thoughts were large and liberal; but no sooner had he said a fine brave thing than he seemed to have an after-thought not to go too far with it; just as he had done about the poor robbed woman from the steerage and the young man who pulled out his guinea. I paid him for my board and lodging, upon a scale settled by Uncle Sam himself, at California prices; therefore I am under no obligation to conceal his foibles. But, take him altogether, he was good and brave and just, though unable, from absence of inner light, to be to me what Uncle Sam had been.

When I perceived that the Major condemned my simple behavior in London, and (if I may speak it, as I said it to myself) “blew hot and cold” in half a minute — hot when I thought of any good things to be done, and cold as soon as he became the man to do them — also, when I remembered what a chronic plague was now at Bruntsea, in the shape of Sir Montague, who went to and fro, but could never be trusted to be far off, I resolved to do what I had long been thinking of, and believed that my guardian, if he had lived another day, would have recommended. I resolved to go and see Lord Castlewood, my father’s first cousin and friend in need.

When I asked my host and hostess what they thought of this, they both declared that it was the very thing they were at the point of advising, which, however, they had forborne from doing because I never took advice. At this, as being such a great exaggeration, I could not help smiling seriously; but I could not accept their sage opinion that, before I went to see my kinsman, I ought to write and ask his leave to do so. For that would have made it quite a rude thing to call, as I must still have done, if he should decline beforehand to receive me. Moreover, it would look as if I sought an invitation, while only wanting an interview. Therefore, being now full of money again, I hired the flyman who had made us taste the water, and taking train at Newport, and changing at two or three places as ordered, crossed many little streams, and came to a fair river, which proved to be the Thames itself, a few miles above Reading.

In spite of all the larger lessons of travel, adventure, and tribulation, my heart was throbbing with some rather small feelings, as for the first time I drew near to the home of my forefathers. I should have been sorry to find it ugly or mean, or lying in a hole, or even modern or insignificant; and when none of these charges could be brought against it, I was filled with highly discreditable pain that Providence had not seen fit to issue me into this world in the masculine form; in which case this fine property would, according to the rules of mankind, have been mine. However, I was very soon ashamed of such ideas, and sat down on a bank to dispel them with the free and fair view around me.

The builder of that house knew well both where to place and how to shape it, so as not to spoil the site. It stood near the brow of a bosoming hill, which sheltered it, both with wood and clevice, from the rigor and fury of the north and east; while in front the sloping foreground widened its soft lap of green. In bays and waves of rolling grass, promontoried, here and there, by jutting copse or massive tree, and jotted now and then with cattle as calm as boats at anchor, the range of sunny upland fell to the reedy fringe and clustered silence of deep river meadows. Here the Thames, in pleasant bends of gentleness and courtesy, yet with will of its own ways, being now a plenteous river, spreads low music, and holds mirror to the woods and hills and fields, casting afar a broad still gleam, and on the banks presenting tremulous infinitude of flash.

Now these things touched me all the more because none of them belonged to me; and, after thus trying to enlarge my views, I got up with much better heart, and hurried on to have it over, whatever it might be. A girl brought up in the real English way would have spent her last shilling to drive up to the door in the fly at the station — a most sad machine — but I thought it no disgrace to go in a more becoming manner.

One scarcely ever acts up to the force of situation; and I went as quietly into that house as if it were Betsy Bowen’s. If any body had been rude to me, or asked who I was, or a little thing of that sort, my spirit might have been up at once, and found, as usually happens then, good reason to go down afterward. But happily there was nothing of the kind. An elderly man, without any gaudy badges, opened the door very quietly, and begged my pardon, before I spoke, for asking me to speak softly. It was one of his lordship’s very worst days, and when he was so, every sound seemed to reach him. I took the hint, and did not speak at all, but followed him over deep matting into a little room to which he showed me. And then I gave him a little note, written before I left Bruntsea, and asked him whether he thought that his master was well enough to attend to it.

He looked at me in a peculiar manner, for he had known my father well, having served from his youth in the family; but he only asked whether my message was important. I answered that it was, but that I would wait for another time rather than do any harm. But he said that, however ill his master was, nothing provoked him more than to find that any thing was neglected through it. And before I could speak again he was gone with my letter to Lord Castlewood.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/blackmore/rd/erema/chapter31.html

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