“I hope, my dear, that your ride has done you good,” said the Rector’s wife to the Rector, as he came into the hall with a wonderfully red face, one fine afternoon in October. “If colour proves health, you have gained it.”
“Maria, I have not been so upset for many years. Unwholesome indignation dyes my cheeks, and that is almost as bad as indigestion. I have had quite a turn — as you women always put it. I am never moved by little things, as you know well, and sometimes to your great disgust; but today my troubles have conspired to devour me. I am not so young as I was, Maria. And what will the parish come to, if I give in?”
“Exactly, dear; and therefore you must not give in.” Mrs. Twemlow replied with great spirit, but her hands were trembling as she helped him to pull off his new riding-coat. “Remember your own exhortations, Joshua — I am sure they were beautiful — last Sunday. But take something, dear, to restore your circulation. A reaction in the system is so dangerous.”
“Not anything at present,” Mr. Twemlow answered, firmly; “these mental cares are beyond the reach of bodily refreshments. Let me sit down, and be sure where I am, and then you may give me a glass of treble X. In the first place, the pony nearly kicked me off, when that idiot of a Stubbard began firing from his battery. What have I done, or my peaceful flock, that a noisy set of guns should be set up amidst us? However, I showed Juniper that he had a master, though I shall find it hard to come down-stairs tomorrow. Well, the next thing was that I saw James Cheeseman, Church-warden Cheeseman, Buttery Cheeseman, as the bad boys call him, in the lane, in front of me not more than thirty yards, as plainly as I now have the pleasure of seeing you, Maria; and while I said ‘kuck’ to the pony, he was gone! I particularly wished to speak to Cheeseman, to ask him some questions about things I have observed, and especially his sad neglect of public worship — a most shameful example on the part of a church-warden — and I was thinking how to put it, affectionately yet firmly, when, to my great surprise, there was no Cheeseman to receive it! I called at his house on my return, about three hours afterwards, having made up my mind to have it out with him, when they positively told me — or at least Polly Cheeseman did — that I must be mistaken about her ‘dear papa,’ because he was gone in the pony-shay all the way to Uckfield, and would not be back till night.”
“The nasty little story-teller!” Mrs. Twemlow cried. “But I am not at all surprised at it, when I saw how she had got her hair done up, last Sunday.”
“No; Polly believed it. I am quite sure of that. But what I want to tell you is much stranger and more important, though it cannot have anything at all to do with Cheeseman. You know, I told you I was going for a good long ride; but I did not tell you where, because I knew that you would try to stop me. But the fact was that I had made up my mind to see what Caryl Carne is at, among his owls and ivy. You remember the last time I went to the old place I knocked till I was tired, but could get no answer, and the window was stopped with some rusty old spiked railings, where we used to be able to get in at the side. All the others are out of reach, as you know well; and being of a yielding nature, I came sadly home. And at that time I still had some faith in your friend Mrs. Stubbard, who promised to find out all about him, by means of Widow Shanks and the Dimity-parlour. But nothing has come of that. Poor Mrs. Stubbard is almost as stupid as her husband; and as for Widow Shanks — I am quite sure, Maria, if your nephew were plotting the overthrow of King, Church, and Government, that deluded woman would not listen to a word against him.”
“She calls him a model, and a blessed martyr”— Mrs. Twemlow was smiling at the thought of it; “and she says she is a woman of great penetration, and never will listen to anything. But it only shows what I have always said, that our family has a peculiar power, a sort of attraction, a superior gift of knowledge of their own minds, which makes them — But there, you are laughing at me, Joshua!”
“Not I; but smiling at my own good fortune, that ever I get my own way at all. But, Maria, you are right; your family has always been distinguished for having its own way — a masterful race, and a mistressful. And so much the more do the rest of mankind grow eager to know all about them. In an ordinary mind, such as mine, that feeling becomes at last irresistible; and finding no other way to gratify it, I resolved to take the bull by the horns, or rather by the tail, this morning. The poor old castle has been breaking up most grievously, even within the last twenty years, and you, who have played as a child among the ruins of the ramparts, would scarcely know them now. You cannot bear to go there, which is natural enough, after all the sad things that have happened; but if you did, you would be surprised, Maria; and I believe a great part has been knocked down on purpose. But you remember the little way in from the copse, where you and I, five-and-thirty years ago —”
“Of course I do, darling. It seems but yesterday; and I have a flower now which you gathered for me there. It grew at a very giddy height upon the wall, full of cracks and places where the evening-star came through; but up you went, like a rocket or a race-horse; and what a fright I was in, until you came down safe! I think that must have made up my mind to have nobody except my Joshua.”
“Well, my dear, you might have done much worse. But I happened to think of that way in, this morning, when you put up your elbow, as you made the tea, exactly as you used to do when I might come up there. And that set me thinking of a quantity of things, and among them this plan which I resolved to carry out. I took the trouble first to be sure that Caryl was down here for the day, under the roof of Widow Shanks; and then I set off by the road up the hill, for the stronghold of all the Carnes. Without further peril than the fight with the pony, and the strange apparition of Cheeseman about half a mile from the back entrance, I came to the copse where the violets used to be, and the sorrel, and the lords and ladies. There I tethered our friend Juniper in a quiet little nook, and crossed the soft ground, without making any noise, to the place we used to call our little postern. It looked so sad, compared with what it used to be, so desolate and brambled up and ruinous, that I scarcely should have known it, except for the gray pedestal of the prostrate dial we used to moralise about. And the ground inside it, that was nice turf once, with the rill running down it that perhaps supplied the moat — all stony now, and overgrown, and tangled, with ugly-looking elder-bushes sprawling through the ivy. To a painter it might have proved very attractive; but to me it seemed so dreary, and so sombre, and oppressive, that, although I am not sentimental, as you know, I actually turned away, to put my little visit off, until I should be in better spirits for it. And that, my dear Maria, would in all probability have been never.
“But before I had time to begin my retreat, a very extraordinary sound, which I cannot describe by any word I know, reached my ears. It was not a roar, nor a clank, nor a boom, nor a clap, nor a crash, nor a thud, but if you have ever heard a noise combining all those elements, with a small percentage of screech to enliven them, that comes as near it as I can contrive to tell. We know from Holy Scripture that there used to be such creatures as dragons, though we have never seen them; but I seemed to be hearing one as I stood there. It was just the sort of groan you might have expected from a dragon, who had swallowed something highly indigestible.”
“My dear! And he might have swallowed you, if you had stopped. How could you help running away, my Joshua? I should have insisted immediately upon it. But you are so terribly intrepid!”
“Far from it, Maria. Quite the contrary, I assure you. In fact, I did make off, for a considerable distance; not rapidly as a youth might do, but with self-reproach at my tardiness. But the sound ceased coming; and then I remembered how wholly we are in the hand of the Lord. A sense of the power of right rose within me, backed up by a strong curiosity; and I said to myself that if I went home, with nothing more than that to tell you, I should not have at all an easy time of it. Therefore I resolved to face the question again, and ascertain, if possible, without self-sacrifice, what was going on among the ruins. You know every stick and stone, as they used to be, but not as they are at present; therefore I must tell you. The wall at the bottom of the little Dial-court, where there used to be a sweet-briar hedge to come through, is entirely gone, either tumbled down or knocked down — the latter I believe to be the true reason of it. Also, instead of sweet-briar, there is now a very flourishing crop of sting-nettles. But the wall at the side of the little court stands almost as sound as ever; and what surprised me most was to see, when I got further, proceeding of course very quietly, that the large court beyond (which used to be the servants’ yard, and the drying-ground, and general lounging-place) had a timber floor laid down it, with a rope on either side, a long heavy rope on either side; and these ropes were still quivering, as if from a heavy strain just loosened. All this I could see, because the high door with the spikes, that used to part the Dial-court from this place of common business, was fallen forward from its upper hinge, and splayed out so that I could put my fist through.
“By this time I had quite recovered all my self-command, and was as calm as I am now, or even calmer, because I was under that reaction which ensues when a sensible man has made a fool of himself. I perceived, without thinking, that the sound which had so scared me proceeded from this gangway, or timberway, or staging, or whatever may be the right word for it; and I made up my mind to stay where I was, only stooping a little with my body towards the wall, to get some idea of what might be going forward. And then I heard a sort of small hubbub of voices, such as foreigners make when they are ordered to keep quiet, and have to carry on a struggle with their noisy nature.
“This was enough to settle my decision not to budge an inch, until I knew what they were up to. I could not see round the corner, mind — though ladies seem capable of doing that, Maria — and so these fellows, who seemed to be in two lots, some at the top and some at the bottom of the plankway, were entirely out of my sight as yet, though I had a good view of their sliding-plane. But presently the ropes began to strain and creak, drawn taut — as our fishermen express it — either from the upper or the lower end, and I saw three barrels come sliding down — sliding, not rolling (you must understand), and not as a brewer delivers beer into a cellar. These passed by me; and after a little while there came again that strange sepulchral sound, which had made me feel so uneasy.
“Maria, you know that I can hold my own against almost anybody in the world but you; and although this place is far outside my parish boundaries, I felt that as the Uncle of the present owner — so far at least as the lawyers have not snapped him up — and the brother-inlaw of the previous proprietor, I possessed an undeniable legal right — quo warranto, or whatever it is called — to look into all proceedings on these premises. Next to Holy Scripture, Horace is my guide and guardian; and I called to mind a well-known passage, which may roughly be rendered thus: ‘If the crushed world tumble on him, the ruins shall strike him undismayed.’ With this in my head, I went softly down the side-wall of the Dial-court (for there was no getting through the place where I had been peeping) to the bottom, where there used to be an old flint wall, and a hedge of sweet-briar in front of it. You remember the pretty conceit I made — quaint and wholesome as one of Herrick’s — when you said something — but I verily believe we were better in those days than we ever have been since. Now don’t interrupt me about that, my dear.
“Some of these briars still were there, or perhaps some of their descendants, straggling weakly among the nettles, and mullein, and other wild stuff, but making all together a pretty good screen, through which I could get a safe side-view of the bottom of the timber gangway. So I took off my hat, for some ruffian fellows like foreign sailors were standing below, throwing out their arms, and making noises in their throats, because not allowed to scream as usual. It was plain enough at once to any one who knew the place, that a large hole had been cut in the solid castle wall, or rather, a loophole had been enlarged very freely on either side, and brought down almost to the level of the ground outside. On either side of this great opening stood three heavy muskets at full cock, and it made my blood run cold to think how likely some fatal discharge appeared. If I had been brought up to war, Maria, as all the young people are bound to be now, I might have been more at home with such matters, and able to reconnoitre calmly; but I thought of myself, and of you, and Eliza, and what a shocking thing it would be for all of us — but a merciful Providence was over me.
“Too late I regretted the desire for knowledge, which had led me into this predicament, for I durst not rush off from my very sad position, for my breath would soon fail me, and my lower limbs are thick from the exercise of hospitality. How I longed for the wings of a dove, or at any rate for the legs of Lieutenant Blyth Scudamore! And my dark apprehensions gained double force when a stone was dislodged by my foot (which may have trembled), and rolled with a sharp echo down into the ballium, or whatever it should be called, where these desperadoes stood. In an instant three of them had their long guns pointed at the very thicket which sheltered me, and if I had moved or attempted to make off, there would have been a vacancy in this preferment. But luckily a rabbit, who had been lying as close as I had, and as much afraid of me perhaps as I was of those ruffians, set off at full speed from the hop of the stone, and they saw him, and took him for the cause of it. This enabled me to draw my breath again, and consider the best way of making my escape, for I cared to see nothing more, except my own house-door.
“Happily the chance was not long in coming. At a shout from below — which seemed to me to be in English, and sounded uncommonly like ‘now, then!’— all those fellows turned their backs to me, and began very carefully to lower, one by one, the barrels that had been let down the incline. And other things were standing there, besides barrels: packing-cases, crates, very bulky-looking boxes, and low massive wheels, such as you often see to artillery. You know what a vast extent there is of cellars and vaults below your old castle, most of them nearly as sound as ever, and occupied mainly by empty bottles, and the refuse of past hospitality. Well, they are going to fill these with something — French wines, smuggled brandy, contraband goods of every kind you can think of, so long as high profit can be made of them. That is how your nephew Caryl means to redeem his patrimony. No wonder that he has been so dark and distant! It never would have done to let us get the least suspicion of it, because of my position in the Church, and in the Diocese. By this light a thousand things are clear to me, which exceeded all the powers of the Sphinx till now.”
“But how did you get away, my darling Joshua?” Mrs. Twemlow enquired, as behoved her. “So fearless, so devoted, so alive to every call of duty — how could you stand there, and let the wretches shoot at you?”
“By taking good care not to do it,” the Rector answered, simply. “No sooner were all their backs towards me, than I said to myself that the human race happily is not spiderine. I girt up my loins, or rather fetched my tails up under my arms very closely, and glided away, with the silence of the serpent, and the craft of the enemy of our fallen race. Great care was needful, and I exercised it; and here you behold me, unshot and unshot-at, and free from all anxiety, except a pressing urgency for a bowl of your admirable soup, Maria, and a cut from the saddle I saw hanging in the cellar.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50