Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLIII

Going to the Bottom

It is not needful to explain every thing, any more than it was for me to tell the miller about my golden eagle, and how I had managed to lose it in the Moon — a trick of which now I was heartily ashamed, in the face of honest kindness. So I need not tell how Master Withypool managed to settle with his men, and to keep the boys unwitting of what was about to come to pass. Enough that I got a note from him to tell me that the little river would be run out, just when all Shoxford was intent upon its dinner, on the second day after I had seen him. And he could not say for certain, but thought it pretty safe, that nobody would come near me, if I managed to be there at a quarter before one, when the stream would begin to run dry, and I could watch it. I sent back a line by the pretty little girl, a sister of poor Polly, to say how much I thanked him, and how much I hoped that he himself would meet me there, if his time allowed. For he had been too delicate to say a word of that; but I felt that he had a good right to be there, and, knowing him now, I was not afraid.

Nearly every thing came about as well as could be wished almost. Master Withypool took the precaution, early in the morning, to set his great fierce bull at large, who always stopped the foot-path. This bull knew well the powers of a valley in conducting sound; and he loved to stand, as if at the mouth of a funnel, and roar down it to another bull a mile below him, belonging to his master’s brother-inlaw. And when he did this, there was scarcely a boy, much less a man or woman, with any desire to assert against him the public right of thoroughfare. Throughout that forenoon, then, this bull bellowed nobly, still finding many very wicked flies about, so that two mitching boys, who meant to fish for minnows with a pin, were obliged to run away again.

However, I was in the dark about him, and as much afraid of him as any body, when he broke into sight of me round a corner, without any tokens of amity. I had seen a great many great bulls before, including Uncle Sam’s good black one, who might not have meant any mischief at all, and atoned for it — if he did — by being washed away so.

And therefore my courage soon returned, when it became quite clear that this animal now had been fastened with a rope, and could come no nearer. For some little time, then, I waited all alone, as near that bridge as I could bring myself to stand, for Mrs. Busk, my landlady, could not leave the house yet, on account of the mid-day letters. Moreover, she thought that she had better stay away, as our object was to do things as quietly as could be.

Much as I had watched this bridge from a distance, or from my sheltering-place, I had never been able to bring myself to make any kind of sketch of it, or even to insert it in a landscape, although it was very well suited and expressive, from its crooked and antique simplicity. The overhanging, also, of the hawthorn-tree (not ruddy yet, but russety with its coloring crop of coral), and the shaggy freaks of ivy above the twisted trunk, and the curve of the meadows and bold elbow of the brook, were such as an artist would have pitched his tent for, and tantalized poor London people with a dream of cool repose.

As yet the little river showed no signs of doing what the rustic — or surely it should have been the cockney — was supposed to stand still and wait for. There was no great rush of headlong water, for that is not the manner of the stream in the very worst of weather; but there was the usual style of coming on, with lips and steps at the sides, and cords of running toward the middle. Quite enough, at any rate, to make the trout jump, without any omen of impending drought, and to keep all the play and the sway of movement going on serenely.

I began to be afraid that the miller must have failed in his stratagem against the water-god, and that, as I had read in Pope’s Homer, the liquid deity would beat the hero, when all of a sudden there were signs that man was the master of this little rustic. Broadswords of flag and rapiers of water-grass, which had been quivering merrily, began to hang down and to dip themselves in loops, and the stones of the brink showed dark green stripes on their sides as they stood naked. Then fine little cakes of conglomerated stuff, which only a great man of nature could describe, came floating about, and curdling into corners, and holding on to one another in long-tailed strings. But they might do what they liked, and make their very best of it, as they fell away to nothing upon stones and mud. For now more important things began to open, the like of which never had been yielded up before — plots of slimy gravel, varied with long streaks of yellow mud, dotted with large double shells, and parted into little oozy runs by wriggling water-weeds. And here was great commotion and sad panic of the fish, large fellows splashing and quite jumping out of water, as their favorite hovers and shelves ran dry, and darting away, with their poor backs in the air, to the deepest hole they could think of. Hundreds must have come to flour, lard, and butter if boys had been there to take advantage. But luckily things had been done so well that boys were now in their least injurious moment, destroying nothing worse than their own dinners.

A very little way below the old wooden bridge the little river ran into a deepish pool, as generally happens at or near a corner, especially where there is a confluence sometimes. And seeing nothing, as I began to search intently, stirring with a long-handled spud which I had brought, I concluded that even my golden eagle had been carried into that deep place. However, water or no water, I resolved to have it out with that dark pool as soon as the rest of the channel should be drained, which took a tormenting time to do; and having thick boots on, I pinned up my skirts, and jumping down into the shoals, began to paddle in a fashion which reminded me of childish days passed pleasantly in the Blue River.

Too busy thus to give a thought to any other thing, I did not even see the miller, until he said,

“Good-day, miss,” lifting his hat, with a nice kind smile. “Very busy, miss, I see, and right you are to be so. The water will be upon us again in less than half an hour. Now let me clear away they black weeds for you. I brought this little shivel a-purpose. If I may make so bold, miss, what do ‘e look to find here?”

“I have not the very smallest notion,” I could only answer; “but if there is any thing, it must be in that hole. I have searched all the shallow part so closely that I doubt whether even a sixpence could escape me, unless it were buried in the mud or pebbles. Oh, how can I manage to search that hole? There must be a yard of water there.”

“One thing I ought to have told ‘e for to do,” Master Withypool whispered, as he went on shoveling —“to do what the boys do when they lose a farden — to send another after un. If so be now, afore the water was run out, you had stood on that there bridge, and dropped a bright coin into it, a new half crown or a two-shilling piece, why, the chances would be that the run of the current would ‘a taken it nigh to the likeliest spot for holding any other little matter as might ‘a dropped, permiskous, you might say, into this same water.”

“I have done so,” I answered; “I have done that very thing, though not at all with that object. The day before yesterday a beautiful coin, a golden eagle of America, fell from my pocket on that upper plank, and rolled into the water. I would not lose it for a great deal, because it was given to me by my dearest friend, the greatest of all millers.”

“And ha’n’t you found it yet, miss? Well, that is queer. Perhaps we shall find it now, with something to the back of it. I thought yon hole was too far below the bridge. But there your gold must be, and something else, most likely. Plaise to wait a little bit, and us ‘ll have the wet out of un. I never should ‘a thought of that but for your gold guinea, though.”

With these words Master Withypool pulled his coat off and rolled up his shirt sleeves, displaying arms fit to hold their own even with Uncle Sam’s almost; and then he fell to with his shovel and dug, while I ran with my little spud to help.

“Plaise keep out of way, miss; I be afeard of knocking you. Not but what you works very brave indeed, miss.”

Knowing what men are concerning “female efforts,” I got out of the strong man’s way, although there was plenty of room for me. What he wanted to do was plain enough — to dig a trench down the empty bed of the Moon River, deep enough to drain that pit before the stream came down again.

“Never thought to run a race against my own old dam,” he said, as he stopped for a moment to recover breath. “Us never knows what us may have to do. Old dam must be a’most busting now. But her’s sound enough, till her beginneth to run over.”

I did not say a word, because it might have done some mischief, but I could not help looking rather anxiously up stream, for fear of the water coming down with a rush, as it very soon must do. Master Withypool had been working, not as I myself would have done, from the lips of the dark pit downward, but from a steep run some twenty yards below, where there was almost a little cascade when the river was full flowing; from this he had made his channel upward, cutting deeper as he came along, till now, at the brink of the obstinate pool, his trench was two feet deep almost. I had no idea that any man could work so with a shovel, which seems such a clumsy tool compared with a spade: but a gentleman who knows the country and the people told me that, with their native weapon, Moonites will do as much digging in an hour as other folk get through in an hour and a half with a spade. But this may be only, perhaps, because they are working harder.

“Now,” said Master Withypool at last, standing up, with a very red face, and desiring to keep all that unheeded —“now, miss, to you it belongeth to tap this here little cornder, if desirable. Plaise to excoose of me going up of bank to tell ‘e when the wet cometh down again.”

“Please to do nothing of the sort,” I answered, knowing that he offered to stand out of sight from a delicate dread of intrusion. “Please to tap the pool yourself, and stay here, as a witness of what we find in it.”

“As you plaise, miss, as you plaise. Not a moment for to lose in arguing. Harken now, the water is atopping of our dam. Her will be here in five minutes.”

With three or four rapid turns of his shovel, which he spun almost as fast as a house-maid spins a mop, he fetched out the plug of earth severing his channel from the deep, reluctant hole. And then I saw the wisdom of his way of working: for if he had dug downward from the pool itself, the water would have followed him all the way, and even drowned his tool out of its own strokes; whereas now, with a swirl and a curl of ropy mud, away rushed the thick, sluggish, obstinate fluid, and in less than two minutes the hole was almost dry.

The first thing I saw was my golden eagle, lodged about half-way down the slope on a crust of black sludge, from which I caught it up and presented it to Master Withypool, as a small token and record of his kindness; and to this day he carries it upon his Sunday watch chain.

“I always am lucky in finding things,” I exclaimed, while he watched me, and the up stream too, whence a babble of water was approaching. “As sure as I live I have found it!”

“No doubt about your living, miss. And the Captain were always lively. But what have your bright eyes hit upon? I see nort for the life of me.”

“Look there,” I cried, “at the very bottom of it — almost under the water. Here, where I put my spud — a bright blue line! Oh, can I go down, or is it quicksand?”

“No quicksand in our little river, miss. But your father’s daughter shannot go into the muck, while John Withypool stands by. I see un now, sure enough; now I see un! But her needeth care, or her may all goo away in mullock. Well, I thought my eyes was sharp enough; but I’m blest if I should have spied that, though. A bit of flint, mebbe, or of blue glass bottle. Anyhow, us will see the bottom of un.”

He was wasting no time while he spoke, but working steadfastly for his purpose, fixing the blade of his shovel below the little blue line I was peering at, so that no slip of the soft yellow slush should bury it down, and plunge over it. If that had once happened, good-by to all chance of ever beholding this thing again, for the river was coming, with fury and foam, to assert its ancient right of way.

With a short laugh the miller jumped down into the pit. “Me to be served so, by my own mill-stream! Lor’, if I don’t pay you out for this!”

His righteous wrath failed to stop the water from pouring into the pit behind him; and, strong as he was, he nearly lost his footing, having only mud to stand upon. It seemed to me that he was going to be drowned, and I offered him the handle of my spud to help him; but he stopped where he was, and was not going to be hurried.

“I got un now,” he said; “now I don’t mind coming out. You see if I don’t pay you out for this! Why, I always took you for a reasonable hanimal.”

He shook his fist strongly at the river, which had him well up to the middle by this time; and then he disdainfully waded out, with wrath in all his countenance.

“I’ve a great mind to stop there, and see what her would do,” he said to me, forgetting altogether what he went for. “And I would, if I had had my dinner. A scat of a thing as I can manage with my thumb! Ah, you have made a bad day of it.”

“But what have you found, Mr. Withypool?” I asked, for I could not enter into his wrath against the water, wet as he was to the shoulders. “You have something in your hand. May I see it, if you please? And then do please to go home and change your clothes.”

“A thing I never did in my life, miss, and should be ashamed to begin at this age. Clothes gets wet, and clothes dries on us, same as un did on the sheep afore us; else they gets stiff and creasy. What this little thing is ne’er a body may tell, in my line of life — but look’th aristocratic.”

The “mullock,” as he called it, from his hands, and from the bed where it had lain so long, so crusted the little thing which he gave me, that I dipped it again in the swelling stream, and rubbed it with both hands, to make out what it was. And then I thought how long it had lain there; and suddenly to my memory it came, that in all likelihood the time of that was nineteen years this very day.

“Will another year pass,” I cried, “before I make out all about it? What are you, and who, now looking at me with such sad, sad eyes?”

For I held in my hand a most handsome locket, of blue enamel and diamonds, with a back of chased gold, and in front the miniature of a beautiful young woman, done as they never seem to do them now. The work was so good, and the fitting so close, that no drop of water had entered, and the face shone through the crystal glass as fresh as the day it was painted. A very lovely face it was, yet touched with a shade of sadness, as the loveliest faces generally are; and the first thought of any beholder would be, “That woman was born for sorrow.”

The miller said as much when I showed it to him.

“Lord bless my heart! I hope the poor craitur’ hathn’t lasted half so long as her pictur’ hath.”

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