Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 13.

The Black Hare.

It was a glorious breezy November morning; the sturdy oaks alone held on to the last brown remnants of their summer finery; all the rest of the trees in the vast sheets of wood which clothed the lower parts of the downs overhanging Ravenshoe, had changed the bright colours of autumn for the duller, but not less beautiful, browns and purples of winter. Below, in the park, the deer were feeding among the yellow fern brakes, and the rabbits were basking and hopping in the narrow patches of slanting sunlight, which streamed through the leaf-less trees. Aloft, on the hill, the valiant blackcock led out his wives and family from the whortle-grown rocks, to flaunt his plumage in the warmest corner beneath the Tor.

And the Tors, too, how they hung aloft above the brown heather, which was relieved here and there by patches of dead, brown, king-fern; hung aloft like brilliant, clearly defined crystals, with such mighty breadths of light and shadow as Sir Charles Barry never could accomplish, though he had Westminster Abbey to look at every day.

Up past a narrow sheep path, where the short grass faded on the one side into feathery broom, and on the other into brown heather and grey stone, under the shadow of the Tor which lay nearest to Ravenshoe, and overhung those dark woods in which we saw Densil just now walking with his old hound; there was grouped, on the morning after the day of Charles’s arrival, a happy party, every one of whom is already known to the reader. Of which circumstance I, the writer, am most especially glad. For I am already as tired of introducing new people to you as my lord chamberlain must be of presenting strangers to Her Majesty at a levee.

Densil first, on a grey cob, looking very old and feeble, straining his eyes up the glen whither Charles, and James, the old keeper, had gone with the greyhounds. At his rein stood William, whom we knew at Oxford. Beside the old man sat Mary on her pony, looking so radiant and happy, that, even if there had been no glorious autumn sun overhead, one glance at her face would have made the dullest landscape in Lancashire look bright. Last, not least, the good Father Tiernay, who sat on his horse, hatless, radiant, scratching his tonsure.

“And so you’re determined to back the blue dog, Miss Mary,” said he.

“I have already betted a pair of gloves with Charles, Mr. Tiernay,” said Mary, “and I will be rash enough to do so with you. Euin is the quickest striker we have ever bred.”

“I kuow it; they all say so,” said the priest; “but come, I must have a bet on the course. I will back Lightning.”

“Lightning is the quicker dog,” said Densil; “but Euin! you will see him lie behind the other dog all the run, and strike the hare at last. Father Mackworth, a good judge of a dog, always backs him against the kennel.”

“Where is Father Mackworth?”

“I don’t know,” said Densil. “I am surprised he is not with us; he is very fond of coursing.”

“His reverence, sir,” said William, “started up the moor about an hour ago. I saw him going.”

“Where was he going to?”

“I can’t say, sir. He took just over past the rocks ion the opposite side of the bottom from Mr. Charles.”

“I wonder,” said Father Tiernay, “whether James will find his friend, the witch, this morning.”

“Ah,” said Densil, “he was telling me about that. I am sure I hope not.”

Father Tiernay was going to langh, but didn’t.

“Do you believe in witches, then, Mr. Ravenshoe?”

“Why, no,” said Densil, stroking his chin thoughtfully, “I suppose not. It don’t seem to me now, as an old man, a more absurd belief than this new electrobiology and table-turning. Charles tells me that they use magic crystals at Oxford, and even claim to have raised the devil himself in Merton; which, at this time of day, seems rather like reverting to first principles.

But I am not sure I believe in any of it. I only know that, if any poor old woman has sold herself to Satan, and taken it into her head to transform herself into a black hare, my greyhounds won’t light upon her. She must have made such a deuced hard bargain that I shouldn’t like to cheat her out of any of the small space left her between this and, and — thingamy.”

William, as a privileged servant, took the liberty of remarking that old Mrs. Jewel didn’t seem to have been anything like a match for Satan in the way of a bargain, for she had had hard times of it seven years before she died. From which —

Father Tiernay deduced the moral lesson, that that sort of thing didn’t pay; and —

Mary said she didn’t believe a word of such rubbish, for old Mrs. Jewel was as nice an old body as ever was seen, and had worked hard for her living, until her strength failed, and her son went down in one of the herring-boats.

Densil said that his little bird was too positive. There was the witch of Endor, for instance —

Father Tiernay, who had been straining his eyes and attention at the movements of Charles and the greyhounds, and had only caught the last word, said with remarkable emphasis and distinctness —

“A broomstick of the Witch of Endor, Well shod wi’ brass,” and then looked at Densil as though he had helped him out of a difficulty, and wanted to be thanked. Densil continued without noticing him —

“There was the Witch of Endor. And ‘ thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ If there weren’t such things as witches, you know, St. Paul wouldn’t have said that.”

“I don’t think it was St. Paul, papa, was it?” said Mary.

“It was one of them, my love; and, for that matter, I consider St. Peter quite as good as St. Paul, if not better. St. Peter was always in trouble, I know; but he was the only one who struck a blow for the good cause, all honour to him. Let me see, he married St. Veronica, didn’t he?”

“Marry St. Veronica, virgin and martyr?” said the priest, aghast. “My good sir, you are really talking at random.”

“Ah, well, I may be wrong; she was virgin, but she was no martyr.”

“St. Veronica,” said Father Tiernay, dogmatically, and somewhat sulkily, “was martyred under Tiberius; no less than that.”

“I bet you what you like of it,” cried Densil, “she died —”

But what was Densil’s opinion about the last days of St. Veronica will for ever remain a mystery; for at this moment there came a “See, HO!” from Charles; in the next a noble hare had burst from a tangled mass of brambles at his feet; in another the two dogs were on er haunches, and Charles, carrying two little flags furled in his hand, had dashed at the rough rocks on the bottom of the valley, had brought his horse on Iris nose, recovered him, and was half way up the hill after the flying greyhounds.

It was but a short course. Puss raced for some broken ground under the hill, opposite to — where our party stood. She was too close pressed, and doubled back for the open, but, meeting James, turned as a last desperate chance back to her first point. Too late; the dogs were upon her. There was a short scuffle, and then Charles, rising in his saddle, unfurled his blue flag, and waved it.

“Hurrah!” cried Mary, clapping her hands, “two pairs of gloves this morning; where will he try now, I wonder? Here comes James; let us ask him.”

James approached them with the dead hare, and Densil asked where he was going to try. He said, just where they were.

Densil asked, had he seen Father Mackworth? and he was in the act of saying that he was gone over the down, when a shout from Charles, and a still louder one from James, made them all start. A large black hare had burst from the thorns at Charles’s feet, and was bowling down the glen straight toward them, with the dogs close behind her.

“The witch,” shouted James, “the witch! we shall know who she is now.”

It seemed very likely indeed. Densil broke away rom William, and, spurring his pony down the sheep-path at the risk of his neck, made for the entrance of the wood. The hare, one of such dark colour that she looked almost black, scudded along in a parallel direction, and dashed into the grass ride just in front of Densil; they saw her flying down it, just under the dogs’ noses, and then they saw her dash into a cross ride, one of the dogs making a strike at her as she did so; then hare and greyhounds disappeared round the corner.

“She’s dead, sir, confound her! we shall have her now, the witch!”

They all came round the corner pell-mell. Here stood the dogs, panting and looking foolishly about them, while, in front of them, a few yards distant, stood Father Mackworth, looking disturbed and flushed, as though he had been running.

Old James stared aghast; William gave a long whistle; Mary, for a moment, was actually terrified. Densil looked puzzled, Charles amused; while Father Tiernay made the forest ring with peal after peal of uproarious laughter.

“I am afraid I have spoilt sport, Mr. Ravenshoe,” said Mackworth, coming forward; “the hare ran almost against my legs, and doubled into the copse, puzzling the dogs. They seemed almost inclined to revenge themselves on me for a moment,”

“Ha, ha!” cried the jolly priest, not noticing, as Charles did, how confused the priest was. “So we’ve aught you sneaking home from your appointment with your dear friend.”

“What do you mean, sir, by appointment? You are overstepping the bounds of decorum, sir. Mr. Ravenshoe, I beg you to forgive me for inadvertently spoiling your sport.”

“Not at all, my dear Father,” said Densil, thinking it best, from the scared look of old James, to enter into no urther explanations; “we have killed one hare, and now I think it is time to come home to lunch.”

“Don’t eat it all before I come; I must run up to the Tor; I have dropped my whip there,” said Charles. “James, ride my horse home; you look tired. I shall be there on foot in half the time.”

He had cast the reins to James, and was gone, and they all turned homewards together.

Charles, fleet of foot, was up on the Tor in a few minutes, and had picked up his missing property; then he sat him down on a stone, thinking.

“There is something confoundedly wrong somewhere; and I should like to find out what it is. What had that Jack priest been up to, that made him look so queer? And, also, what was the matter between Ellen and William last night? Whom has she been going on with? I will go down. I wish I could find some trace of him. One thing I know, and one thing only, that he hates me worse than poison; and that his is not likely to be a passive hatred.”

The wood into which Charles descended was of very large extent, and composed of the densest copse, intersected by long straight grass rides. The day had turned dark and chilly; and a low moaning wind began to sweep through the bare boughs, rendering still more dismal the prospect of the long-drawn vistas of damp grass and rotting leaves.

He passed musing on from one ride to another, and, in one of them, came in sight of a low, white building, partly ruinous, which had been built in the deepest recesses of the wood for a summerhouse. Years ago Cuthbert and Charles used to come and play there on happy summer holidays — play at being Robinson Crusoe and what not; but there had been a light with the poachers there, and one of their young men had been kicked in the head by one of the gang, and rendered idiotic; and Charles had seen the blood on the grass next morning; and so they voted it a dismal place, and never went near it again. Since then it had been taken possession of by the pheasants to dust themselves in. Altogether it was a solitary, ghostly sort of place; and, therefore, Charles was considerably startled, on looking in at the low door, to see a female figure, sitting unmoveable in the darkest corner.

It was not a ghost for it spoke. It said, “Are you come back to upbraid me again? I know my power, and you shall never have it.” And Charles said “Ellen!”

She looked up, and began to cry. At first a low, moaning cry, and afterwards a wild passionate burst of grief.

He drew her towards him, and tried to quiet her, but she drew away. “Not today,” she cried, “not today.”

“What is the matter, pretty one? What is the matter, sister?” said Charles.

“Call me sister again,” she said, looking up. “I like that name. Kiss me, and call me sister, just for once.”

“Sister dear,” said Charles kindly, kissing her on the forehead, “What is the matter?”

“I have had a disagreement with Father Mackworth, and he has called me names. He found me here walking with Master Cuthbert.”

“With Cuthbert?”

“Ay, why not? I might walk with you or him any time, and no harm. I must go.”

Before Charles had time to say one word of kindness, or consolation, or wonder, she had drawn him towards her, given him a kiss, and was gone down the ride towards the house. He saw her dress nutter round the last comer, and she disappeared.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44