Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 48.

In which Cuthbert Begins to See Things in a New Light.

The stream at Ravenshoe was as low as they had ever seen it, said the keeper’s boys who were allowed to take artists and strangers up to see the waterfall in the wood. The artists said that it was more beautiful than ever; for now, instead of roaring headlong over the rocks in one great sheet beneath the quivering oak leaves, it streamed and spouted over and among the black slabs of slate in a million interlacing jets. Yes, the artists were quite satisfied with the state of things; but the few happy souls who had dared to ask Cuthbert for a day or so of salmon-fishing were not so well satisfied by any means. While the artists were saying that this sort of tiring, you know, was the sort of thing to show one how true it was that beauty, life, and art, were terms coordinate, synonymous, inseparable — that these made up the sum of existence — that the end of existence was love, and what was love but the worship of the beautiful (or something of this sort, for your artist is but a mortal man, like the rest of us, and is apt, if you give him plenty of tobacco on a hot day, to get uncommon hazy in his talk) — while, I say, the artists were orking away like mad, and uttering the most beautiful sentiments in the world, the anglers were, as old Master Lee, up to Slarrow, would have said, “dratting” the scenery, the water, the weather, the beer, and existence generally, because it wouldn’t rain. If it had rained, you see, the artists would have left talking about the beautiful, and begun “dratting ” in turn; leaving the anglers to talk about the beautiful as best they might. “Which fact gives rise to moral reflections of the profoundest sort. But every one, except the discontented anglers, would have said that it was heavenly summer weather. The hay was all got in without one drop of rain on it. And now, as one glorious, cloudless day succeeded another, all the land seemed silently swelling with the wealth of the harvest. Fed by gentle dews at night, warmed by the genial sun by day, the corn began to turn from grey to gold, and the distant valleys which spread away inland, folded in the mighty grey arms of the moor, shone out gallantly with acre beyond acre of yellow wheat and barley. A still, happy time.

And the sea! Who shall tell the beauty of the restless Atlantic in such weather? For nearly three weeks there was a gentle wind, now here, now there, which just curled the water, and made a purple shadow for such light clouds as crept across the blue sky above. Night and morning the fishing-boats crept out and in. Never was such a fishing season. The mouth of the stream was crowded with salmon, waiting to get up the first fresh. You might see them as you sailed across he shallow sandbank, the Delta of the stream, which had never risen above the water for forty years, yet which now, so still had been the bay for three weeks, was within a foot of the surface at low tide.

A quiet, happy time. The three old Master Lees lay all day on the sand, where the fishing-boats were drawn up, and had their meals brought to them by young male relatives, who immediately pulled off every rag of clothes they had, and went into the water for an hour or two. The minding of these ’ere clothes, and the looking out to sea, was quite enough employment for these three old cronies. They never fell out once for three weeks. They used to talk about the war, or the cholera, which was said to be here, or there, or coming, or gone. But they cared little about that. Ravenshoe was not a cholera place. It had never come there before, and they did not think that it was coming now. They were quite right; it never came. Cuthbert used his influence, and got the folks to move some cabbage stalks, and rotten fish, just to make sure, as he said. They would have done more for him than that just now; so it was soon accomplished. The juvenile population, which is the pretty way of saying the children, might have offered considerable opposition to certain articles of merchandise being removed without due leave obtained and given; but, when it was done, they were all in the water as naked as they were born. When it was over they had good sense enough to see that it could not be helped. These sweeping measures of reform, however, are apt to bear hard on particular cases. For instance, young James Lee, great-grandson of Master James Lee, up to Slarrow, lost six dozen (some say nine, but that I don’t believe) of oyster shells, which he was storing up for a grotto. Cuthbert very properly refunded the price of them, which amounted to twopence.

“Nonsense, again,” you say. Why no! What I have written above is not nonsense. The whims and oddities of a village; which one has seen with one’s own eyes, and heard with one’s own ears, are not nonsense. I knew, when I began, what I had to say in this chapter, and I have just followed on a train of images. And the more readily, because I know that what I have to say in this chapter must be said without effort to be said well.

If I thought I was writing for a reader who was going to criticise closely my way of telling my story, I tell you the honest truth, I should tell my story very poorly indeed. Of course I must submit to the same criticism as my betters. But there are times when I feel that I must have my reader go hand in hand with me. To do so, he must follow the same train of ideas as I do. At such times I write as naturally as I can. I see that greater men than I have done the same. I see that Captain Marryat, for instance, at a particular part of his noblest novel, “The King’s Own,” has put in a chapter about his grandmother and the spring tide?, which, for perfect English and rough humour, it is hard to match anywhere.

I have not dared to play the fool, as he has, for two reasons. The first, that I could not play it so well, and the second, that I have no frightful tragedy to put before you, to counterbalance it, as he had. Well, it is time that this rambling came to an end. I hope that I have not rambled too far, and bored you. That would be very unfortunate just now.

Ravenshoe bay again, then — in the pleasant summer drought I have been speaking of before. Father Mackworth and the two Tiernays were lying on the sand, looking to sea. Cuthbert had gone off to send away some boys who were bathing too near the mouth of the stream and hunting his precious salmon. The younger Tiernay had recently taken to collect “ common objects of the shore” — a pleasant, healthy mania which prevailed about that time. He had been dabbling among the rocks at the western end of the bay, and had just joined his brother and Father Mackworth with a tin-box full of all sorts of creatures, and he turned them out on the sand and called theu’ attention to them.

“A very good morning’s work, my brother,” he said, “These anemones are all good and rare ones.”

“Bedad,” said the jolly priest, “they’d need be of some value, for they ain’t pretty to look at; what’s this cockle now wid the long red spike coming out of him?”

“Cardium tuberculatum.”

“See here, Mackworth,” said Tiernay, rolling over toward him on the sand with the shell in his hand.

“Here’s the rid-nosed oysther of Carlingford. Ye remember the legend about it, surely?”

“I don’t, indeed,” said Mackworth, angrily, pretty sure that Father Tiernay was going to talk nonsense, but not exactly knowing how to stop him.

“Not know the legend!” said Father Tiernay. “Why, when Saint Bridget was hurrying across the sand, to attend Saint Patrick in his last illness, poor dear, this divvil of a oysther was sunning himself on the shore, and, as she went by, he winked at her holiness with the wicked eye of ‘um, and he says, says he, ‘Nate ankles enough, anyhow,’ he ‘says. ‘Ye’re drunk ye spalpeen,’ says St. Bridget, ‘to talk like that at an honest gentlewoman.’ ‘ Sorra a bit of me,’ says the oysther. ‘Ye’re always drunk,’ says St. Bridget. ‘ Drunk yourself,’ says the oysther; ‘ I’m fastin from licker since the tide went down.’ ‘ What makes yer nose so red, ye scoundrel?’ says St. Bridget: ‘No ridder nor yer own,’ says the oysther, getting angry. For the Saint was stricken in years, and red-nosed by rayson of being out in all weathers, seeing to this and to that. ‘ Yer nose is red through drink,’ says she, ‘ and yer nose shall stay as rid as mine is now, till the day of judgment.’ And that’s the legend about St. Bridget and the Carlingford oysther, and ye ought to be ashamed that ye never heard it before.”

“I wish, sir,” said Mackworth, “that you could possibly stop yourself from talking this preposterous, indecent nonsense. Surely the first and noblest of Irish Saints may claim exemption from your clumsy wit.”

“Begorra, I’m catching it, Mr. Ravenshoe,” said Tiernay.

“What for?” said Cuthbert, who had just come up.

“Why, for telling a legend. Sure, I made it up on the spot. But it is none the worse for that; d’ye think so now?”

“Not much the better, I should think,” said Cuthbert, laughing.

“Allow me to say,” said Mackworth, “that I never heard such shameless, blasphemous nonsense in my life.”

The younger Tiernay was frightened, and began gathering up his shells and weeds. His handsome weak face was turned towards the great, strong, coarse face of his brother, with a look of terror, and his fingers trembled as he put the sea-spoils into his box. Cuthbert, watching them both, guessed that sometimes Father Tiernay could show a violent, headlong temper, and that his brother had seen an outbreak of this kind and trembled for one now. It was only a guess, possibly a good one; but there were no signs of such an outbreak now. Father Tiernay only lay back on the sand and laughed, without a cloud on his face.

“Bedad,” he said, “I’ve been lying on the sand, and the sun has got into my stomach and made me talk nonsense. When I was a gossoon, I used to sleep with the pig; and it was a poor feeble-minded pig, as never ot fat on petaty skins. If folly’s catchin’, I must have caught it from that pig. Did ye ever hear the legend of St. Laurence O’Toole’s wooden-legged sow, Mackworth?”

It was evident, after this, that the more Mackworth fulminated against good Father Tiernay’s unutterable nonsense, the more he would talk; so he rose and moved sulkily away. Cuthbert asked him, laughing, what the story was.

“Faix,” said Tiernay, “I ain’t sure, principally because I havn’t had time to invent it; but we’ve got rid of Mackworth, and can now discourse reasonable.”

Cuthbert sent a boy up to the hall for some towels, and then lay down on the sand beside Tiernay. He was very fond of that man in spite of his recldess Irish habit of talking nonsense. He was not alone there. I think that every one who knew Tiernay liked him.

They lay on the sand together, those tlu-ee; and, when Father Mackworth’s anger had evaporated, he came back and lay beside him. Tiernay put his hand out to him, and Mackworth shook it, and they were reconciled. I believe Mackworth esteemed Tiernay, though they were so utterly unlike in character and feeling. I know that Tiernay had a certain admiration for Mackworth.

“Do you think, now,” said Tiernay, “that you Englishmen enjoy such a scene and such a time as this as much as we Irishmen do? I cannot tell. You talk etter about it. You Lave a dozen poets to our one. Our best poet, I take it, is Tommy Moore. You class him as third-rate; but I doubt, mind you, whether you feel nature so acutely as we do.”

“I think we do,” said Cuthbert, eagerly. “I cannot think that you can feel the beauty of the scene we are looking at more deeply than I do. You feel nature as in ‘ Silent O’Moyle; ‘ we feel it as in Keats’ ‘St. Agnes’ Eve.’”

He was sitting up on the sand, with his elbows on his knees, and his face buried in his hands. None of them spoke for a time; and he, looking seaward, said, idly, in a low voice —

“St. Agnes’ Eve. Ah! bitter chill it was.

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;

The hare limped, trembling, through the frozen grass;

And drowsy was the flock in woolly fold.”

What was the poor lad thinking of? God knows. There are times when one can’t follow the train of a man’s thoughts — only treasure up their spoken words as priceless relics.

His beautiful face was turned towards the dying sun, and in that face there was a look of such kindly, quiet peace, that they who watched it were silent, and waited to hear what he would say.

The western headland was black before the afternoon sun, and, far to sea, Lundy lay asleep in a golden haze. All before them the summer sea heaved between the capes, and along the sand, and broke in short crisp surf at their feet, gently moving the seaweed, the sand, and he shells.

“St. Agnes’ Eve,” he said again. “Ah, yes! that is ne of the poems written by Protestants which help to ake men Catholics. Nine-tenths of their highest eligious imagery is taken from Catholicism. The English poets have nothing to supply the place of it. Milton felt it, and wrote about it; yes, after ranging hrough all heathendom for images, he comes home to us at last:—

“Let ray due feet never fail

To walk the studious cloisters pale,

And love the high embowed roof,

With antique pillars massy proof.

And storied windows, richly dight.

Casting a dim religious light.

“Yes; he could feel for that cloister life. The highest form of human happiness! We have the poets with us, at all events. Why, what is the most perfect bijou of a poem in the English language? Tennyson’s ‘ St. Agnes.’ He had to come to us.”

The poor fellow looked across the sea, which was breaking in crisp ripples at his feet among the seaweed, the sand, and the shells; and, as they listened, they heard him say, almost passionately —

“Break up the heavens, oh Lord! and far

Through all yon starhght keen

Draw rae, thy bride, a glittering star

In raiment white and clean.

“They have taken our churches from us, and driven us into Birmingham-built chapels. They sneer at us, but they forget that we built their arches and stained their glass for them. Art has revenged herself on them for their sacrilege by quitting earth in disgust. They have robbed us of our churches and our revenues, and turned us out on the world. Ay, but we are revenged. They don’t know the use of them now they have got them; and the only men who could teach them, the Tractarians, are abused and persecuted by them for their superior knowledge.”

So he rambled on, looking seaward; at his feet the surf playing with the sand, the seaweed, and the shells.

He made a very long pause, and then, when they thought that he was thinking of something quite different, he suddenly said —

“I don’t believe it matters whether a man is buried in the chancel, or out of it. But they are mad to discourage such a feeling as that, and not make use of it. Am I the worse man because I fancy that, when I lie there so quiet, I shall hear above my head the footfalls of those who go to kneel around the altar? What is it one of them says —

“Or where the kneeling hamlet drains The chalice of the grapes of God.”

He very seldom spoke so much as this. They were surprised to hear him ramble on so; but it was an afternoon in which it was natural to sit upon the shore and talk, saying straight on just what came uppermost — a quiet, pleasant afternoon; an afternoon to lie upon the sand and conjure up old memories.

“I have been rambling, hav’n’t I?” he said presently. “Have I been talking aloud, or only thinking?”

“You have been talking,” said Tiernay, wondering at such a question.

“Have I? I thought I had been only thinking. I will go and bathe, I think, and clear my head from dreams. I must have been quoting poetry, then,” he added, smiling.

“Ay, and quoting it well too,” said Tiernay.

A young fisherman was waiting with a boat, and the lad had come with his towels. He stepped lazily across the sand to the boat, and they shoved off.

Besides the murmur of the surf upon the sand, playing with the shells and seaweed; besides the shouting of the bathing boys; besides the voices of the home — returning fishermen, carried sharp and distinct along the water; besides the gentle chafing of the stream among the pebbles, was there no other sound upon the beach that afternoon? Yes, a sound different to all these. A loud-sounding alarm drum, beating more rapidly and furiously each moment, but only heard by one man, and not heeded by him.

The tide drawing eastward, and a gentle wind following it, hardly enough to fill the sails of the lazy fishing-boats and keep them to their course. Here and there among the leeward part of the fleet, you might hear the sound of an oar working in the rowlocks sleepily coming over the sea and mingling harmoniously with the rest.

The young man with Cuthbert rowed out a little distance, and then they saw Cuthbert standing in the prow undressing himself. The fishing-boats near him luffed and hurriedly put out oars, to keep away. The Squire was going to bathe, and no Ravenshoe man was ill-mannered enough to come near.

Those on the shore saw him standing stripped for one moment — a tall majestic figure. Then they saw him plunge into the water and begin swimming.

And then; — it is an easy task to tell it. They saw his head go under water, and, though they started on their feet and waited till seconds grew to minutes and hope was dead, it never rose again. Without one cry, without one struggle, without even one last farewell wave of the hand, as the familiar old landscape faded on his eyes for ever, poor Cuthbert went down; to be seen no more until the sea gave up its dead. The poor wild, passionate heart had fluttered itself to rest for ever.

The surf still gently playing with the sand, the sea changing from purple to grey, and from grey to black, under the fading twilight. The tide sweeping westward towards the tall black headland, towards the slender-curved thread of the new moon, which grew more brilliant as the sun dipped to his rest in the red Atlantic.

Groups of fishermen and sea boys and servants, that followed the ebbing tide as it went westward, peering into the crisping surf to see something they knew was here. One group that paused among the tumbled boulders on the edge of the retreating surges, under the dark promontory and bent over something which lay at their feet.

The naked corpse of a young man, calm and beautiful in death, lying quiet and still between two rocks, softly pillowed on a bed of green and purple seaweed. And a priest that stood upon the shore, and cried wildly to the four winds of heaven, “Oh, my God, I loved him! My God! my God! I loved him!”

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