On an early winter afternoon, clear but not cold, when the vegetable world was a weird multitude of skeletons through whose ribs the sun shone freely, a gleaming landau came to a pause on the crest of a hill in Wessex. The spot was where the old Melchester Road, which the carriage had hitherto followed, was joined by a drive that led round into a park at no great distance off.
The footman alighted, and went to the occupant of the carriage, a lady about eight — or nine-and-twenty. She was looking through the opening afforded by a field-gate at the undulating stretch of country beyond. In pursuance of some remark from her the servant looked in the same direction.
The central feature of the middle distance, as they beheld it, was a circular isolated hill, of no great elevation, which placed itself in strong chromatic contrast with a wide acreage of surrounding arable by being covered with fir-trees. The trees were all of one size and age, so that their tips assumed the precise curve of the hill they grew upon. This pine-clad protuberance was yet further marked out from the general landscape by having on its summit a tower in the form of a classical column, which, though partly immersed in the plantation, rose above the tree-tops to a considerable height. Upon this object the eyes of lady and servant were bent.
‘Then there is no road leading near it?’ she asked.
‘Nothing nearer than where we are now, my lady.’
‘Then drive home,’ she said after a moment. And the carriage rolled on its way.
A few days later, the same lady, in the same carriage, passed that spot again. Her eyes, as before, turned to the distant tower.
‘Nobbs,’ she said to the coachman, ‘could you find your way home through that field, so as to get near the outskirts of the plantation where the column is?’
The coachman regarded the field. ‘Well, my lady,’ he observed, ‘in dry weather we might drive in there by inching and pinching, and so get across by Five-and-Twenty Acres, all being well. But the ground is so heavy after these rains that perhaps it would hardly be safe to try it now.’
‘Perhaps not,’ she assented indifferently. ‘Remember it, will you, at a drier time?’
And again the carriage sped along the road, the lady’s eyes resting on the segmental hill, the blue trees that muffled it, and the column that formed its apex, till they were out of sight.
A long time elapsed before that lady drove over the hill again. It was February; the soil was now unquestionably dry, the weather and scene being in other respects much as they had been before. The familiar shape of the column seemed to remind her that at last an opportunity for a close inspection had arrived. Giving her directions she saw the gate opened, and after a little manoeuvring the carriage swayed slowly into the uneven field.
Although the pillar stood upon the hereditary estate of her husband the lady had never visited it, owing to its insulation by this well-nigh impracticable ground. The drive to the base of the hill was tedious and jerky, and on reaching it she alighted, directing that the carriage should be driven back empty over the clods, to wait for her on the nearest edge of the field. She then ascended beneath the trees on foot.
The column now showed itself as a much more important erection than it had appeared from the road, or the park, or the windows of Welland House, her residence hard by, whence she had surveyed it hundreds of times without ever feeling a sufficient interest in its details to investigate them. The column had been erected in the last century, as a substantial memorial of her husband’s great-grandfather, a respectable officer who had fallen in the American war, and the reason of her lack of interest was partly owing to her relations with this husband, of which more anon. It was little beyond the sheer desire for something to do — the chronic desire of her curiously lonely life — that had brought her here now. She was in a mood to welcome anything that would in some measure disperse an almost killing ennui. She would have welcomed even a misfortune. She had heard that from the summit of the pillar four counties could be seen. Whatever pleasurable effect was to be derived from looking into four counties she resolved to enjoy today.
The fir-shrouded hill-top was (according to some antiquaries) an old Roman camp — if it were not (as others insisted) an old British castle, or (as the rest swore) an old Saxon field of Witenagemote — with remains of an outer and an inner vallum, a winding path leading up between their overlapping ends by an easy ascent. The spikelets from the trees formed a soft carpet over the route, and occasionally a brake of brambles barred the interspaces of the trunks. Soon she stood immediately at the foot of the column.
It had been built in the Tuscan order of classic architecture, and was really a tower, being hollow with steps inside. The gloom and solitude which prevailed round the base were remarkable. The sob of the environing trees was here expressively manifest; and moved by the light breeze their thin straight stems rocked in seconds, like inverted pendulums; while some boughs and twigs rubbed the pillar’s sides, or occasionally clicked in catching each other. Below the level of their summits the masonry was lichen-stained and mildewed, for the sun never pierced that moaning cloud of blue-black vegetation. Pads of moss grew in the joints of the stone-work, and here and there shade-loving insects had engraved on the mortar patterns of no human style or meaning; but curious and suggestive. Above the trees the case was different: the pillar rose into the sky a bright and cheerful thing, unimpeded, clean, and flushed with the sunlight.
The spot was seldom visited by a pedestrian, except perhaps in the shooting season. The rarity of human intrusion was evidenced by the mazes of rabbit-runs, the feathers of shy birds, the exuviae of reptiles; as also by the well-worn paths of squirrels down the sides of trunks, and thence horizontally away. The fact of the plantation being an island in the midst of an arable plain sufficiently accounted for this lack of visitors. Few unaccustomed to such places can be aware of the insulating effect of ploughed ground, when no necessity compels people to traverse it. This rotund hill of trees and brambles, standing in the centre of a ploughed field of some ninety or a hundred acres, was probably visited less frequently than a rock would have been visited in a lake of equal extent.
She walked round the column to the other side, where she found the door through which the interior was reached. The paint, if it had ever had any, was all washed from the wood, and down the decaying surface of the boards liquid rust from the nails and hinges had run in red stains. Over the door was a stone tablet, bearing, apparently, letters or words; but the inscription, whatever it was, had been smoothed over with a plaster of lichen.
Here stood this aspiring piece of masonry, erected as the most conspicuous and ineffaceable reminder of a man that could be thought of; and yet the whole aspect of the memorial betokened forgetfulness. Probably not a dozen people within the district knew the name of the person commemorated, while perhaps not a soul remembered whether the column were hollow or solid, whether with or without a tablet explaining its date and purpose. She herself had lived within a mile of it for the last five years, and had never come near it till now.
She hesitated to ascend alone, but finding that the door was not fastened she pushed it open with her foot, and entered. A scrap of writing-paper lay within, and arrested her attention by its freshness. Some human being, then, knew the spot, despite her surmises. But as the paper had nothing on it no clue was afforded; yet feeling herself the proprietor of the column and of all around it her self-assertiveness was sufficient to lead her on. The staircase was lighted by slits in the wall, and there was no difficulty in reaching the top, the steps being quite unworn. The trap-door leading on to the roof was open, and on looking through it an interesting spectacle met her eye.
A youth was sitting on a stool in the centre of the lead flat which formed the summit of the column, his eye being applied to the end of a large telescope that stood before him on a tripod. This sort of presence was unexpected, and the lady started back into the shade of the opening. The only effect produced upon him by her footfall was an impatient wave of the hand, which he did without removing his eye from the instrument, as if to forbid her to interrupt him.
Pausing where she stood the lady examined the aspect of the individual who thus made himself so completely at home on a building which she deemed her unquestioned property. He was a youth who might properly have been characterized by a word the judicious chronicler would not readily use in such a connexion, preferring to reserve it for raising images of the opposite sex. Whether because no deep felicity is likely to arise from the condition, or from any other reason, to say in these days that a youth is beautiful is not to award him that amount of credit which the expression would have carried with it if he had lived in the times of the Classical Dictionary. So much, indeed, is the reverse the case that the assertion creates an awkwardness in saying anything more about him. The beautiful youth usually verges so perilously on the incipient coxcomb, who is about to become the Lothario or Juan among the neighbouring maidens, that, for the due understanding of our present young man, his sublime innocence of any thought concerning his own material aspect, or that of others, is most fervently asserted, and must be as fervently believed.
Such as he was, there the lad sat. The sun shone full in his face, and on his head he wore a black velvet skull-cap, leaving to view below it a curly margin of very light shining hair, which accorded well with the flush upon his cheek.
He had such a complexion as that with which Raffaelle enriches the countenance of the youthful son of Zacharias — a complexion which, though clear, is far enough removed from virgin delicacy, and suggests plenty of sun and wind as its accompaniment. His features were sufficiently straight in the contours to correct the beholder’s first impression that the head was the head of a girl. Beside him stood a little oak table, and in front was the telescope.
His visitor had ample time to make these observations; and she may have done so all the more keenly through being herself of a totally opposite type. Her hair was black as midnight, her eyes had no less deep a shade, and her complexion showed the richness demanded as a support to these decided features. As she continued to look at the pretty fellow before her, apparently so far abstracted into some speculative world as scarcely to know a real one, a warmer wave of her warm temperament glowed visibly through her, and a qualified observer might from this have hazarded a guess that there was Romance blood in her veins.
But even the interest attaching to the youth could not arrest her attention for ever, and as he made no further signs of moving his eye from the instrument she broke the silence with —
‘What do you see? — something happening somewhere?’
‘Yes, quite a catastrophe!’ he automatically murmured, without moving round.
‘A cyclone in the sun.’
The lady paused, as if to consider the weight of that event in the scale of terrene life.
‘Will it make any difference to us here?’ she asked.
The young man by this time seemed to be awakened to the consciousness that somebody unusual was talking to him; he turned, and started.
‘I beg your pardon,’ he said. ‘I thought it was my relative come to look after me! She often comes about this time.’
He continued to look at her and forget the sun, just such a reciprocity of influence as might have been expected between a dark lady and a flaxen-haired youth making itself apparent in the faces of each.
‘Don’t let me interrupt your observations,’ said she.
‘Ah, no,’ said he, again applying his eye; whereupon his face lost the animation which her presence had lent it, and became immutable as that of a bust, though superadding to the serenity of repose the sensitiveness of life. The expression that settled on him was one of awe. Not unaptly might it have been said that he was worshipping the sun. Among the various intensities of that worship which have prevailed since the first intelligent being saw the luminary decline westward, as the young man now beheld it doing, his was not the weakest. He was engaged in what may be called a very chastened or schooled form of that first and most natural of adorations.
‘But would you like to see it?’ he recommenced. ‘It is an event that is witnessed only about once in two or three years, though it may occur often enough.’
She assented, and looked through the shaded eyepiece, and saw a whirling mass, in the centre of which the blazing globe seemed to be laid bare to its core. It was a peep into a maelstrom of fire, taking place where nobody had ever been or ever would be.
‘It is the strangest thing I ever beheld,’ she said. Then he looked again; till wondering who her companion could be she asked, ‘Are you often here?’
‘Every night when it is not cloudy, and often in the day.’
‘Ah, night, of course. The heavens must be beautiful from this point.’
‘They are rather more than that.’
‘Indeed! Have you entirely taken possession of this column?’
‘But it is my column,’ she said, with smiling asperity.
‘Then are you Lady Constantine, wife of the absent Sir Blount Constantine?’
‘I am Lady Constantine.’
‘Ah, then I agree that it is your ladyship’s. But will you allow me to rent it of you for a time, Lady Constantine?’
‘You have taken it, whether I allow it or not. However, in the interests of science it is advisable that you continue your tenancy. Nobody knows you are here, I suppose?’
He then took her down a few steps into the interior, and showed her some ingenious contrivances for stowing articles away.
‘Nobody ever comes near the column — or, as it’s called here, Rings-Hill Speer,’ he continued; ‘and when I first came up it nobody had been here for thirty or forty years. The staircase was choked with daws’ nests and feathers, but I cleared them out.’
‘I understood the column was always kept locked?’
‘Yes, it has been so. When it was built, in 1782, the key was given to my great-grandfather, to keep by him in case visitors should happen to want it. He lived just down there where I live now.’
He denoted by a nod a little dell lying immediately beyond the ploughed land which environed them.
‘He kept it in his bureau, and as the bureau descended to my grandfather, my mother, and myself, the key descended with it. After the first thirty or forty years, nobody ever asked for it. One day I saw it, lying rusty in its niche, and, finding that it belonged to this column, I took it and came up. I stayed here till it was dark, and the stars came out, and that night I resolved to be an astronomer. I came back here from school several months ago, and I mean to be an astronomer still.’
He lowered his voice, and added:
‘I aim at nothing less than the dignity and office of Astronomer Royal, if I live. Perhaps I shall not live.’
‘I don’t see why you should suppose that,’ said she. ‘How long are you going to make this your observatory?’
‘About a year longer — till I have obtained a practical familiarity with the heavens. Ah, if I only had a good equatorial!’
‘What is that?’
‘A proper instrument for my pursuit. But time is short, and science is infinite — how infinite only those who study astronomy fully realize — and perhaps I shall be worn out before I make my mark.’
She seemed to be greatly struck by the odd mixture in him of scientific earnestness and melancholy mistrust of all things human. Perhaps it was owing to the nature of his studies.
‘You are often on this tower alone at night?’ she said.
‘Yes; at this time of the year particularly, and while there is no moon. I observe from seven or eight till about two in the morning, with a view to my great work on variable stars. But with such a telescope as this — well, I must put up with it!’
‘Can you see Saturn’s ring and Jupiter’s moons?’
He said drily that he could manage to do that, not without some contempt for the state of her knowledge.
‘I have never seen any planet or star through a telescope.’
‘If you will come the first clear night, Lady Constantine, I will show you any number. I mean, at your express wish; not otherwise.’
‘I should like to come, and possibly may at some time. These stars that vary so much — sometimes evening stars, sometimes morning stars, sometimes in the east, and sometimes in the west — have always interested me.’
‘Ah — now there is a reason for your not coming. Your ignorance of the realities of astronomy is so satisfactory that I will not disturb it except at your serious request.’
‘But I wish to be enlightened.’
‘Let me caution you against it.’
‘Is enlightenment on the subject, then, so terrible?’
She laughingly declared that nothing could have so piqued her curiosity as his statement, and turned to descend. He helped her down the stairs and through the briers. He would have gone further and crossed the open corn-land with her, but she preferred to go alone. He then retraced his way to the top of the column, but, instead of looking longer at the sun, watched her diminishing towards the distant fence, behind which waited the carriage. When in the midst of the field, a dark spot on an area of brown, there crossed her path a moving figure, whom it was as difficult to distinguish from the earth he trod as the caterpillar from its leaf, by reason of the excellent match between his clothes and the clods. He was one of a dying-out generation who retained the principle, nearly unlearnt now, that a man’s habiliments should be in harmony with his environment. Lady Constantine and this figure halted beside each other for some minutes; then they went on their several ways.
The brown person was a labouring man known to the world of Welland as Haymoss (the encrusted form of the word Amos, to adopt the phrase of philologists). The reason of the halt had been some inquiries addressed to him by Lady Constantine.
‘Who is that — Amos Fry, I think?’ she had asked.
‘Yes my lady,’ said Haymoss; ‘a homely barley driller, born under the eaves of your ladyship’s outbuildings, in a manner of speaking,- -though your ladyship was neither born nor ‘tempted at that time.’
‘Who lives in the old house behind the plantation?’
‘Old Gammer Martin, my lady, and her grandson.’
‘He has neither father nor mother, then?’
‘Not a single one, my lady.’
‘Where was he educated?’
‘At Warborne — a place where they draw up young gam’sters’ brains like rhubarb under a ninepenny pan, my lady, excusing my common way. They hit so much larning into en that ‘a could talk like the day of Pentecost; which is a wonderful thing for a simple boy, and his mother only the plainest ciphering woman in the world. Warborne Grammar School — that’s where ’twas ‘a went to. His father, the reverent Pa’son St. Cleeve, made a terrible bruckle hit in ‘s marrying, in the sight of the high. He were the curate here, my lady, for a length o’ time.’
‘Oh, curate,’ said Lady Constantine. ‘It was before I knew the village.’
‘Ay, long and merry ago! And he married Farmer Martin’s daughter — Giles Martin, a limberish man, who used to go rather bad upon his lags, if you can mind. I knowed the man well enough; who should know en better! The maid was a poor windling thing, and, though a playward piece o’ flesh when he married her, ‘a socked and sighed, and went out like a snoff! Yes, my lady. Well, when Pa’son St. Cleeve married this homespun woman the toppermost folk wouldn’t speak to his wife. Then he dropped a cuss or two, and said he’d no longer get his living by curing their twopenny souls o’ such d —— nonsense as that (excusing my common way), and he took to farming straightway, and then ‘a dropped down dead in a nor’-west thunderstorm; it being said — hee-hee! — that Master God was in tantrums wi’en for leaving his service — hee-hee! I give the story as I heard it, my lady, but be dazed if I believe in such trumpery about folks in the sky, nor anything else that’s said on ’em, good or bad. Well, Swithin, the boy, was sent to the grammar school, as I say for; but what with having two stations of life in his blood he’s good for nothing, my lady. He mopes about — sometimes here, and sometimes there; nobody troubles about en.’
Lady Constantine thanked her informant, and proceeded onward. To her, as a woman, the most curious feature in the afternoon’s incident was that this lad, of striking beauty, scientific attainments, and cultivated bearing, should be linked, on the maternal side, with a local agricultural family through his father’s matrimonial eccentricity. A more attractive feature in the case was that the same youth, so capable of being ruined by flattery, blandishment, pleasure, even gross prosperity, should be at present living on in a primitive Eden of unconsciousness, with aims towards whose accomplishment a Caliban shape would have been as effective as his own.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55