It may seem a somewhat Irish method of beginning the story of “Two Years Ago” by a scene which happened but a month since. And yet, will not the story be on that very account a better type of many a man’s own experiences! How few of us had learnt the meaning of “Two Years Ago,” until this late quiet autumn time; and till Christmas, too, with its gaps in the old ring of friendly faces, never to be filled up again on earth, began to teach us somewhat of its lesson.
Two years ago, while pestilence was hovering over us and ours; while the battle-roar was ringing in our ears; who had time to think, to ask what all that meant; to seek for the deep lesson which we knew must lie beneath? Two years ago was the time for work; for men to do with all their might whatsoever their hands found to do. But now the storm has lulled once more; the air has cleared awhile, and we can talk calmly over all the wonders of that sudden, strange, and sad “Two years ago.”
So felt, at least, two friends who went down, just one week before Christmas-day, to Whitbury, in Berkshire. Two years ago had come to one of them, as to thousands more, the crisis of his life; and he was talking of it with his companion; and was on his way, too, to learn more of that story, which this book contains, and in which he had borne his part.
They wore both of them men who would at first sight interest a stranger. The shorter of the two he might have seen before — at picture sales, Royal Academy meetings, dinner parties, evening parties, anywhere and everywhere, in town; for Claude Mellot is a general favourite, and a general guest.
He is a tiny, delicate-featured man, with a look of half-lazy enthusiasm about his beautiful face, which reminds you much of Shelley’s portrait; only he has what Shelley had not, clustering auburn curls, and a rich brown beard, soft as silk. You set him down at once as a man of delicate susceptibility, sweetness, thoughtfulness; probably (as he actually is) an artist.
His companion is a man of statelier stamp, tall, dark, and handsome, with a very large forehead; if the face has a fault, it is that the mouth is too small; that, and the expression of face too, and the tone of voice, seem to indicate over-refinement, possibly a too aristocratic exclusiveness. He is dressed like a very fine gentleman indeed, and looks and talks like one. Aristocrat, however, in the common sense of the word, he is not; for he is a native of the Model Republic, and sleeping-partner in a great New York merchant firm.
He is chatting away to Claude Mellot, the artist, about Frémont’s election; and on that point seems to be earnest enough, though patient and moderate.
“My dear Claude, our loss is gain. The delay of the next four years was really necessary, that we might consolidate our party. And I leave you to judge, if it has grown to its present size in but a few months, what dimensions it will have attained before the next election. We require the delay, too, to discover who are our really best men; not merely as orators, but as workers; and you English ought to know better than any nation, that the latter class of men are those whom the world most needs — that though Aaron may be an altogether inspired preacher, yet it is only slow-tongued practical Moses, whose spokesman he is, who can deliver Israel from their taskmasters. Besides, my dear fellow, we really want the next four years —‘tell it not in Gath’— to look about us and see what is to be done. Your wisest Englishmen justly complain of us, that our ‘platform’ is as yet a merely negative one; that we define what the South shall not do, but not what the North shall. Ere four years be over, we will have a ‘positive platform,’ at which you shall have no cause to grumble.”
“I still think with Marie, that your ‘positive platform’ is already made for you, plain as the sun in heaven, as the lightnings of Sinai. Free those slaves at once and utterly!”
“Impatient idealist! By what means? By law, or by force? Leave us to draw a cordon, sanitaire round the tainted States, and leave the system to die a natural death, as it rapidly will if it be prevented from enlarging its field. Don’t fancy that a dream of mine. None know it better than the Southerners themselves. What makes them ready just now to risk honour, justice, even the common law of nations and humanity, in the struggle for new slave territory? What but the consciousness that without virgin soil, which will yield rapid and enormous profit to slave labour, they and their institution must be ruined!”
“The more reason for accelerating so desirable a consummation, by freeing the slaves at once.”
“Humph!” said Stangrave with a smile. “Who so cruel at times as your too benevolent philanthropist? Did you ever count the meaning of those words? Disruption of the Union, an invasion of the South by the North; and an internecine war, aggravated by the horrors of a general rising of the slaves, and such scenes as Hayti beheld sixty years ago. If you have ever read them, you will pause ere you determine to repeat them on a vaster scale.”
“It is dreadful, Heaven knows, even in thought! But, Stangrave, can any moderation on your part ward it off? Where there is crime, there is vengeance; and without shedding of blood is no remission of sin.”
“God knows! It may be true: but God forbid that I should ever do aught to hasten what may come. Oh, Claude, do you fancy that I, of all men, do not feel at moments the thirst for brute vengeance?”
Claude was silent.
“Judge for yourself, you who know all — what man among us Northerners can feel, as I do, what those hapless men may have deserved? — I who have day and night before me the brand of their cruelty, filling my heart with fire? I need all my strength, all my reason, at times to say to myself, as I say to others —‘Are not these slaveholders men of like passions with yourself? What have they done which you would not have done in their place?’ I have never read that key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I will not even read this Dred, admirable as I believe it to be.”
“Why should you?” said Claude. “Have you not a key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, more pathetic than any word of man’s or woman’s?”
“But I do not mean that! I will not read them, because I have the key to them in my own heart, Claude: because conscience has taught me to feel for the Southerner as a brother, who is but what I might have been; and to sigh over his misdirected courage and energy, not with hatred, not with contempt: but with pity, all the more intense the more he scorns that pity; to long, not merely for the slaves’ sake, but for the masters’ sake, to see them — the once chivalrous gentlemen of the South — delivered from the meshes of a net which they did not spread for themselves, but which was round their feet, and round their fathers’, from the day that they were born. You ask me to destroy these men. I long to save them from their certain doom!”
“You are right, and a better Christian than I am, I believe. Certainly they do need pity, if any sinners do; for slavery seems to be — to judge from Mr. Brooks’s triumph — a great moral curse, and a heavier degradation to the slaveholder himself, than it can ever be to the slave.”
“Then I would free them from that curse, that degradation. If the negro asks, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ have they no right to ask it also? Shall I, pretending to love my country, venture on any rash step which may shut out the whole Southern white population from their share in my country’s future glory? No; have but patience with us, you comfortable liberals of the Old World, who find freedom ready made to your hands, and we will pay you all. Remember, we are but children yet; our sins are the sins of youth — greediness, intemperance, petulance, self-conceit. When we are purged from our youthful sins, England will not be ashamed of her child.”
“Ashamed of you? I often wish I could make Americans understand the feeling of England to you — the honest pride, as of a mother who has brought into the world the biggest baby that ever this earth beheld, and is rather proud of its stamping about and beating her in its pretty pets. Only the old lady does get a little cross when she hears you talk of the wrongs which you have endured from her, and teaching your children to hate us as their ancient oppressors, on the ground of a foolish war, of which every Englishman is utterly ashamed, and in the result of which he glories really as much as you do.”
“Don’t talk of ‘you,’ Claude! You know well what I think on that point. Never did one nation make the amende honorable to another more fully and nobly than you have to us; and those who try to keep up the quarrel are — I won’t say what. But the truth is, Claude, we have had no real sorrows; and therefore we can afford to play with imaginary ones. God grant that we may not have our real ones — that we may not have to drink of the cup of which our great mother drank two years ago!”
“It was a wholesome bitter for us; and it may be so for you likewise: but we will have no sad forebodings on the eve of the blessed Christmas-tide. He lives, He loves, He reigns; and all is well, for we are His, and He is ours.”
“Ah,” said Stangrave, “when Emerson sneered at you English for believing your Old Testament, he little thought that that was the lesson which it had taught you; and that that same lesson was the root of all your greatness. That that belief in God’s being, in some mysterious way, the living King of England and of Christendom, has been the very idea which has kept you in peace and safety, now for many a hundred years, moving slowly on from good to better, not without many backslidings and many shortcomings, but still finding out, quickly enough, when you were on the wrong road, and not ashamed to retrace your steps, and to reform, as brave strong men should dare to do; a people who have been for many an age in the vanguard of all the nations, and the champions of sure and solid progress throughout the world; because what is new among you is not patched artificially on to the old, but grows organically out of it, with a growth like that of your own English oak, whose every new-year’s leaf-crop is fed by roots which burrow deep in many a buried generation, and the rich soil of full a thousand years.”
“Stay!” said the little artist. “We are quite conceited enough already, without your eloquent adulation, sir! But there is a truth in your words. There is a better spirit roused among us, and that not merely of two years ago. I knew this part of the country well in 1846–7-8, and since then, I can bear witness, a spirit of self-reform has been awakened round here, in many a heart which I thought once utterly frivolous. I find, in every circle of every class, men and women asking to be taught their duty, that they may go and do it; I find everywhere schools, libraries, and mechanics’ institutes springing up: and rich and poor meeting together more and more in the faith that God has made them all. As for the outward and material improvements — you know as well as I, that since free trade and emigration, the labourers confess themselves better off than they have been for fifty years; and though you will not see in the chalk counties that rapid and enormous agricultural improvement which you will in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, or the Lothians, yet you shall see enough to-day to settle for you the question whether we old-country folk are in a state of decadence and decay. Par exemple—”
And Claude pointed to the clean large fields, with their neat close-clipt hedge-rows, among which here and there stood cottages, more than three-fourths of them new.
“Those well-drained fallow fields, ten years ago, were poor clay pastures, fetlock deep in mire six months in the year, and accursed in the eyes of my poor dear old friend, Squire Lavington; because they were so full of old moles’-nests, that they threw all horses down. I am no farmer: but they seem surely to be somewhat altered since then.”
As he spoke, they turned off the main line of the rolling clays toward the foot of the chalk hills, and began to brush through short cuttings of blue gault and “green sand,” so called by geologists, because its usual colours are bright brown, snow-white, and crimson.
Soon they get glimpses of broad silver Whit, as she slides, with divided streams, through bright water-meadows, and stately groves of poplar, and abele, and pine; while, far aloft upon the left, the downs rise steep, crowned with black fir spinnies, and dotted with dark box and juniper.
Soon they pass old Whitford Priory, with its numberless gables, nestling amid mighty elms, and the Nunpool flashing and roaring as of old, and the broad shallow below sparkling and laughing in the low, but bright December sun.
“So slides on the noble river, for ever changing, and yet for ever the same — always fulfilling its errand, which yet is never fulfilled,” said Stangrave — he was given to half-mystic utterances, and hankerings after Pagan mythology, learnt in the days when he worshipped Emerson, and tried (but unsuccessfully) to worship Margaret Fuller Ossoli — “Those old Greeks had a deep insight into nature, when they gave to each river not merely a name, but a semi-human personality, a river-god of its own. It may be but a collection of ever-changing atoms of water; — what is your body but a similar collection of atoms, decaying and renewing every moment? Yet you are a person; and is not the river, too, a person — a live thing? It has an individual countenance which you love, which you would recognise again, meet it where you will; it marks the whole landscape; it determines probably the geography and the society of a whole district. It draws you, too, to itself by an indefinable mesmeric attraction. If you stop in a strange place, the first instinct of your idle half-hour is, to lounge by the river. It is a person to you; you call it — Scotchmen do, at least — she, and not it. How do you know that you are not philosophically correct, and that the river has a spirit as well as you?”
“Humph!” said Claude, who talks mysticism himself by the hour, but snubs it in every one else. “It has trout, at least; and they stand, I suppose, for its soul, as the raisins did for those of Jean Paul’s gingerbread bride and bridegroom and peradventure baby.”
“Oh you materialist English! sporting-mad all of you, from the duke who shooteth stags to the clod who poacheth rabbits!”
“And who therefore can fight Russians at Inkermann, duke and clod alike, and side by side; never better (says the chronicler of old) than in their first battle. I can neither fight nor fish, and on the whole agree with you: but I think it proper to be as English as I can in the presence of an American.”
A whistle — a creak — a jar; and they stop at the little Whitford station, where a cicerone for the vale, far better than Claude was, made his appearance, in the person of Mark Armsworth, banker, railway director, and de facto king of Whitbury town, long since elected by universal suffrage (his own vote included) as permanent locum tenens of her gracious Majesty.
He hails Claude cheerfully from the platform, as he waddles about, with a face as of the rising sun, radiant with good fun, good humour, good deeds, good news, and good living. His coat was scarlet once; but purple now. His leathers and boots were doubtless clean this morning; but are now afflicted with elephantiasis, being three inches deep in solid mud, which his old groom is scraping off as fast as he can. His cap is duntled in; his back bears fresh stains of peat; a gentle rain distils from the few angles of his person, and bedews the platform; for Mark Armsworth has “been in Whit” to-day.
All porters and guards touch their hats to him; the station-master rushes up and down frantically, shouting, “Where are those horse-boxes? Now then, look alive!” for Mark is chairman of the line, and everybody’s friend beside; and as he stands there being scraped, he finds time to inquire after every one of the officials by turns, and after their wives, children, and sweethearts beside.
“What a fine specimen of your English squire!” says Stangrave.
“He is no squire; he is the Whitbury banker, of whom I told you.”
“Armsworth!” said Stangrave, looking at the old man with interest.
“Mark Armsworth himself. He is acting as squire, though, now; for he has hunted the Whitford Priors ever since poor old Lavington’s death.”
“Now then — those horse-boxes!” . . .
“Very sorry, sir; I telegraphed up, but we could get but one down.”
“Put the horses into that, then; and there’s an empty carriage! Jack, put the hounds into it, and they shall all go second class, as sure as I’m chairman!”
The grinning porters hand the strange passengers in, while Mark counts the couples with his whip-point —
“Ravager — Roysterer; Melody — Gay-lass; all right. Why, where’s that old thief of a Goodman?”
“Went over a gate as soon as he saw the couples; and wouldn’t come in at any price, sir,” says the huntsman. “Gone home by himself, I expect.”
“Goodman, Goodman, boy!” And forthwith out of the station-room slips the noble old hound, grey-nosed, grey-eyebrowed, who has hidden, for purposes of his own, till he sees all the rest safe locked in.
Up he goes to Mark, and begins wriggling against his knees, and looking up as only dogs can. “Oh, want to go first-class with me, eh? Jump in, then!” And in jumps the hound, and Mark struggles after him.
“Hillo, sir! Come out! Here are your betters here before you,” as he sees Stangrave, and a fat old lady in the opposite corner.
“Oh, no; let the dog stay!” says Stangrave.
“I shall wet you, sir, I’m afraid.”
And Mark settles himself, puffing, with the hound’s head on his knees, and begins talking fast and loud.
“Well, Mr. Mellot, you’re a stranger here. Haven’t seen you since poor Miss Honour died. Ah, sweet angel she was! Thought my Mary would never get over it. She’s just such another, though I say it, barring the beauty. Goodman, boy! You recollect old Goodman, son of Galloper, that the old squire gave our old squire?”
Claude, of course, knows — as all do who know those parts — who The Old Squire is; long may he live, patriarch of the chase! The genealogy he does not.
“Ah, well — Miss Honour took to the pup, and used to walk him out; and a prince of a hound he is; so now he’s old we let him have his own way, for her sake; and nobody’ll ever bully you, will they, Goodman, my boy?”
“I want to introduce you to a friend of mine.”
“Proud to know any friend of yours, sir.”
“Mr. Stangrave — Mr. Armsworth. Mr. Stangrave is an American gentleman, who is anxious to see Whitbury and the neighbourhood.”
“Well, I shall be happy to show it him, then — can’t have a better guide, though I say it — know everything by this time, and everybody, man, woman, and child, as I hope Mr. Stangrave’ll find when he gets to know old Mark.”
“You must not speak of getting to know you, my dear sir; I know you intimately already, I assure you; and more, am under very deep obligations to you, which, I regret to say, I can only repay by thanks.”
“Obligation to me, my dear sir?”
“Indeed I am: I will tell you all when we are alone.” And Stangrave glanced at the fat old woman, who seemed to be listening intently.
“Oh, never mind her,” says Armsworth; “deaf as a post: very good woman, but so deaf — ought to speak to her, though”— and, reaching across, to the infinite amusement of his companions, he roared in the fat woman’s face, with a voice as of a speaking-trumpet —“Glad to see you, Mrs. Grove! Got those dividends ready for you next time you come into town.”
“Yah!” screamed the hapless woman, who (as the rest saw) heard perfectly well. “What do you mean, frightening a lady in that way? Deaf, indeed!”
“Why,” roared Mark again, “ain’t you Mrs. Grove, of Drytown Dirtywater?”
“No, nor no acquaintance! What business is it of your’n, sir, to go hollering in ladies’ faces at your age?”
“Well:— but I’ll swear if you ain’t her, you’re somebody else. I know you as well as the town clock”
“Me? If you must know, sir, I’m Mrs. Pettigrew’s mother, the Linendraper’s establishment, sir; a-going down for Christmas, sir!”
“Humph!” says Mark: “you see — was sure I knew her — know everybody here. As I said, if she wasn’t Mrs. Grove, she was somebody else. Ever in these parts before?”
“Never: but I have heard a good deal of them; and very much charmed with them I am. I have seldom seen a more distinctive specimen of English scenery.”
“And how you are improving round here!” said Claude, who knew Mark’s weak points, and wanted to draw him out. “Your homesteads seem all new; three fields have been thrown into one, I fancy, over half the farms.”
Mark broke out at once on his favourite topic — “I believe you! I’m making the mare go here in Whitford, without the money too, sometimes. I’m steward now, bailiff — ha! ha! these four years past — to Mrs. Lavington’s Irish husband; I wanted him to have a regular agent, a canny Scot, or Yorkshireman. Faith, the poor man couldn’t afford it, and so fell back on old Mark. Paddy loves a job, you know. So I’ve the votes and the fishing, and send him his rents, and manage all the rest pretty much, my own way.”
When the name of Lavington was mentioned, Mark observed Stangrave start; and an expression passed over his face difficult to be defined — it seemed to Mark mingled pride and shame. He turned to Claude, and said, in a low voice, but loud enough for Mark to hear —
“Lavington? Is this their country also? As I am going to visit the graves of my ancestors, I suppose I ought to visit those of hers.”
Mark caught the words which he was not intended to.
“Eh? Sir, do you belong to these parts?”
“My family, I believe, lived in the neighbourhood of Whitbury, at a place called Stangrave-end.”
“To be sure! Old farm-house now; fine old oak carving in it, though; fine old family it must have been; church full of their monuments. Hum — ha! Well! that’s pleasant, now! I’ve often heard there were good old families away there in New England; never thought that there were Whitbury people among them. Hum — well! the world’s not so big as people think, after all. And you spoke of the Lavingtons? They are great folks here — or were —” He was going to rattle on: but he saw a pained expression on both the travellers’ faces, and Stangrave stopped him, somewhat drily —
“I know nothing of them, I assure you, or they of me. Your country here is certainly charming, and shows little of those signs of decay which some people in America impute to it.”
“Decay!” Mark went off at score. “Decay be hanged? There’s life in the old dog yet, sir! and dead pigs are looking up since free trade and emigration. Cheap bread and high wages now: and instead of lands going out of cultivation, as they threatened — bosh! there’s a greater breadth down in wheat in the vale now than there ever was; and look at the roots. Farmers must farm now, or sink; and by George! they are farming, like sensible fellows: and a fig for that old turnip ghost of Protection! There was a fellow came down from the Carlton — you know what that is!” Stangrave bowed, and smiled assent. “From the Carlton, sir, two years since, and tried it on, till he fell in with old Mark. I told him a thing or two; among the rest, told him to his face that he was a liar; for he wanted to make farmers believe they were ruined, when he knew they were not; and that he’d get ’em back Protection, when he knew that he couldn’t — and, what’s more, he didn’t mean to. So he cut up rough, and wanted to call me out.”
“Did you go?” asked Stangrave, who was fast becoming amused with his man,
“I told him that that wasn’t my line, unless he’d try Eley’s greens at forty yards; and then I was his man: but if he laid a finger on me, I’d give him as sound a horsewhipping, old as I am, as ever man had in his life. And so I would.” And Mark looked complacently at his own broad shoulders. “And since then, my lord and I have had it all our own way; and Minchampstead and Co. is the only firm in the vale.”
“What’s become of a Lord Vieuxbois, who used to live somewhere hereabouts? I used to meet him at Rome.”
“Rome?” said Mark solemnly. “Yes; he was too fond of Rome, awhile back: can’t see what people want running into foreign parts to look at those poor idolators, and their Punch and Judy plays. Pray for ’em, and keep clear of them, is the best rule:— but he has married my lord’s youngest daughter; and three pretty children he has — ducks of children. Always comes to see me in my shop, when he drives into town. Oh! — he’s doing pretty well. — One of these new between-the-stools, Peelites they call them — hope they’ll be as good as the name. However, he’s a freetrader, because he can’t help it. So we have his votes; and as to his Conservatism, let him conserve hips and haws if he chooses, like a ‘pothecary. After all, why pull down anything, before it’s tumbling on your head? By the by, sir, as you’re a man of money, there’s that Stangrave-end farm in the market now. Pretty little investment — I’d see that you got it cheap; and my lord wouldn’t bid against you, of course, as you’re a liberal — all Americans, are, I suppose. And so you’d oblige us, as well as yourself, for it would give us another vote for the county.”
“Upon my word, you tempt me; but I do not think that this is just the moment for an American to desert his own country, and settle in England. I should not be here now, had I not this autumn done all I could for America in America, and so crossed the sea to serve her, if possible, in England.”
“Well, perhaps not; especially if you’re a Frémonter.”
“I am, I assure you.”
“Thought as much, by your looks. Don’t see what else an honest man can be just now.”
Stangrave laughed. “I hope every one thinks so in England.”
“Trust us for that, sir! We know a man when we see him here; I hope they’ll do the same across the water.”
There was silence for a minute or two; and then Mark began again.
“Look! — there’s the farm; that’s my lord’s. I should like to show you the short-horns there, sir! — all my Lord Ducie’s and Sir Edward Knightley’s stock; bought a bull-calf of him the other day myself for a cool hundred, old fool that I am. Never mind, spreads the breed. And here are mills — four pair of new stones. Old Whit don’t know herself again. But I dare say they look small enough to you, sir, after your American water-power.”
“What of that? It is just as honourable in you to make the most of a small river, as in us to make the most of a large one.”
“You speak like a book, sir. By the by, if you think of taking home a calf or two, to improve your New England breed — there are a good many gone across the sea in the last few years — I think we could find you three or four beauties, not so very dear, considering the blood.”
“Thanks; but I really am no farmer.”
“Well — no offence, I hope: but I am like your Yankees in one thing, you see; — always have an eye to a bit of business. If I didn’t, I shouldn’t be here now.”
“How very tasteful! — our own American shrubs! what a pity that they are not in flower! What is this,” asked Stangrave — “one of your noblemen’s parks?”
And they began to run through the cutting in Minchampstead Park, where the owner has concealed the banks of the rail for nearly half a mile, in a thicket of azaleas, rhododendrons, and clambering roses.
“All! — isn’t it pretty? His lordship let us have the land for a song; only bargained that we should keep low, not to spoil his view; and so we did; and he’s planted our cutting for us. I call that a present to the county, and a very pretty one too! Ah, give me these new brooms that sweep clean!”
“Your old brooms, like Lord Vieuxbois, were new brooms once, and swept well enough five hundred years ago,” said Stangrave, who had that filial reverence for English antiquity which sits so gracefully upon many highly educated and far-sighted Americans.
“Worn to the stumps, now, too many of them, sir; and want new-hething, as our broom-squires would say; and I doubt whether most of them are worth the cost of a fresh bind. Not that I can say that of the young lord. He’s foremost in all that’s good, if he had but money; and when he hasn’t, he gives brains. Gave a lecture, in our institute at Whitford, last winter, on the four great Poets. Shot over my head a little, and other people’s too: but my Mary — my daughter, sir, thought it beautiful; and there’s nothing that she don’t know.”
“It is very hopeful, to see your aristocracy joining in the general movement, and bringing their taste and knowledge to bear on the lower classes.”
“Yes, sir! We’re going all right now, in the old country. Only have to steer straight, and not put on too much steam. But give me the new-comers, after all. They may be close men of business; — how else could one live? But when it comes to giving, I’ll back them against the old ones for generosity, or taste either. They’ve their proper pride, when they get hold of the land; and they like to show it, and quite right they. You must see my little place too. It’s not in such bad order, though I say it, and am but a country banker: but I’ll back my flowers against half the squires round — my Mary’s, that is — and my fruit too. — See, there! There’s my lord’s new schools, and his model cottages, with more comforts in them, saving the size, than my father’s house had; and there’s his barrack, as he calls it, for the unmarried men — reading-room, and dining-room, in common; and a library of books, and a sleeping-room for each.”
“It seems strange to complain of prosperity,” said Stangrave; “but I sometimes regret that in America there is so little room for the very highest virtues; all are so well off, that one never needs to give; and what a man does here for others, they do for themselves.”
“So much the better for them. There are other ways of being generous besides putting your hand in your pocket, sir! By Jove! there’ll be room enough (if you’ll excuse me) for an American to do fine things, as long as those poor negro slaves —”
“I know it; I know it,” said Stangrave, in the tone of a man who had already made up his mind on a painful subject, and wished to hear no more of it. “You will excuse me; but I am come here to learn what I can of England. Of my own country I know enough, I trust, to do my duty in it when I return.”
Mark was silent, seeing that he had touched a tender place; and pointed out one object of interest after another, as they ran through the flat park, past the great house with its Doric façade, which the eighteenth century had raised above the quiet cell of the Minchampstead recluses.
“It is very ugly,” said Stangrave; and truly.
“Comfortable enough, though; and, as somebody said, people live inside their houses, and not outside ’em. You should see the pictures there, though, while you’re in the country. I can show you one or two, too, I hope. Never grudge money for good pictures. The pleasantest furniture in the world, as long as you keep them; and if you’re tired of them, always fetch double their price.”
After Minchampstead, the rail leaves the sands and clays, and turns up between the chalk hills, along the barge river which it has rendered useless, save as a supernumerary trout-stream; and then along Whit, now flowing clearer and clearer, as we approach its springs amid the lofty clowns. On through more water-meadows, and rows of pollard willow, and peat-pits crested with tall golden reeds, and still dykes — each in summer a floating flower-bed; while Stangrave looks out of the window, his face lighting up with curiosity.
“How perfectly English! At least, how perfectly un-American! It is just Tennyson’s beautiful dream —”
‘On either side the river lie
Long fields, of barley and of rye,
Which clothe the wold and meet the sky,
And through the field the stream runs by,
To many towered Camelot.’
“Why, what is this?” as they stop again at a station, where the board bears, in large letters, “Shalott.”
“Shalott? Where are the
‘Four grey walls, and four grey towers,’
which overlook a space of flowers?”
There, upon the little island, are the castle-ruins, now converted into a useful bone-mill. “And the lady? — is that she?”
It was only the miller’s daughter, fresh from a boarding-school, gardening in a broad straw-hat.
“At least,” said Claude, “she is tending far prettier flowers than ever the lady saw; while the lady herself, instead of weaving and dreaming, is reading Miss Young’s novels, and becoming all the wiser thereby, and teaching poor children in Hemmelford National School.”
“And where is her fairy knight,” asked Stangrave, “whom one half hopes to see riding down from that grand old house which sulks there above among the beech-woods as if frowning on all the change and civilisation below!”
“You do old Sidricstone injustice. Vieuxbois descends from thence, now-a-days, to lecture at mechanics’ institutes, instead of the fairy knight, toiling along in the blazing summer weather, sweating in burning metal, like poor Perillus in his own bull.”
“Then the fairy knight is extinct in England!” asked Stangrave, smiling.
“No man less; only he (not Vieuxbois, but his younger brother) has found a wide-awake cooler than an iron kettle, and travels by rail when he is at home; and when he was in the Crimea, rode a shaggy pony, and smoked cavendish all through the battle of Inkermann.”
“He showed himself the old Sir Lancelot there,” said Stangrave,
“He did. Wherefore the lady married him when the Guards came home; and he will breed prize pigs; and sit at the board of guardians; and take in the Times; clothed, and in his right mind; for the old Berserk spirit is gone out of him; and he is become respectable, in a respectable age, and is nevertheless just as brave a fellow as ever.”
“And so all things are changed, except the river; where still —
‘Willows whiten, aspens quiver.
Little breezes dash and shiver
On the stream that runneth ever.’”
“And,” said Claude, smiling, “the descendants of mediaeval trout snap at the descendants of mediaeval flies, spinning about upon just the same sized and coloured wings on which their forefathers spun a thousand years ago; having become, in all that while, neither bigger nor wiser.”
“But is it not a grand thought,” asked Stangrave — “the silence and permanence of nature amid the perpetual flux and noise of human life? — a grand thought that one generation goeth and another cometh, and the earth abideth for ever?”
“At least it is so much the worse for the poor old earth, if her doom is to stand still, while man improves and progresses from age to age.”
“May I ask one question, sir?” said Stangrave, who saw that their conversation was puzzling their jolly companion. “Have you heard any news yet of Mr. Thurnall!”
Mark looked him full in the face.
“Do you know him?”
“I did, in past years, most intimately.”
“Then you knew the finest fellow, sir, that ever walked mortal earth.”
“I have discovered that, sir, as well as you. I am under obligations to that man which my heart’s blood will not repay. I shall make no secret of telling you what they are at a fit time.”
Mark held out his broad red hand, and grasped Stangrave’s till the joints cracked: his face grew as red as a turkey-cock’s; his eyes filled with tears.
“His father must hear that! Hang it; his father must hear that! And Grace too!”
“Grace!” said Claude: “and is she with you?”
“With the old man, the angel! tending him night and day.”
“And as beautiful as ever?”
“Sir!” said Mark solemnly, “when any one’s soul is as beautiful as hers is, one never thinks about her face.”
“Who is Grace?” asked Stangrave.
“A saint and a heroine!” said Claude. “You shall know all; for you ought to know. But you have no news of Tom; and I have none either. I am losing all hope now.”
“I’m not, sir!” said Mark fiercely. “Sir, that boy’s not dead; he can’t be. He has more lives than a cat, and if you know anything of him, you ought to know that.”
“I have good reason to know it, none more: but —”
“But, sir! But what? Harm come to him, sir? The Lord wouldn’t harm him for his father’s sake; and as for the devil! — I tell you, sir, if he tried to fly away with him, he’d have to drop him before he’d gone a mile!” And Mark began blowing his nose violently, and getting so red that he seemed on the point of going into a fit.
“Tell you what it is, gentlemen,” said he at last, “you come and stay with me, and see his father. It will comfort the old man — and — and comfort me too; for I get down-hearted about him at times.”
“Strange attraction there was about that man,” says Stangrave, sotto voce to Claude.
“He was like a son to him —”
“Now, gentlemen. Mr. Mellot, you don’t hunt?”
“No, thank you,” said Claude.
“Mr. Stangrave does, I’ll warrant.”
“I have at various times, both in England and in Virginia.”
“Ah! Do they keep up the real sport there, eh? Well that’s the best thing I’ve heard of them, sir! — My horses are yours! — A friend of that boy, sir, is welcome to lame the whole lot, and I won’t grumble. Three days a week, sir. Breakfast at eight, dinner at 5.30 — none of your late London hours for me, sir; and after it the best bottle of port, though I say it, short of my friend S——‘s, at Reading.”
“You must accept,” whispered Claude, “or he will be angry.”
So Stangrave accepted; and all the more readily because he wanted to hear from the good banker many things about the lost Tom Thurnall.
“Here we are,” cries Mark. “Now, you must excuse me: see to yourselves. I see to the puppies. Dinner at 5.30, mind! Come along, Goodman, boy!”
“Is this Whitbury?” asks Stangrave.
It was Whitbury, indeed. Pleasant old town, which slopes down the hill-side to the old church — just “restored,” though by Lords Minchampstead and Vieuxbois, not without Mark Armsworth’s help, to its ancient beauty of grey flint and white clunch chequer-work, and quaint wooden spire. Pleasant churchyard round it, where the dead lie looking up to the bright southern sun, among huge black yews, upon their knoll of white chalk above the ancient stream. Pleasant white wooden bridge, with its row of urchins dropping flints upon the noses of elephantine trout, or fishing over the rail with crooked pins, while hapless gudgeon come dangling upward between stream and sky, with a look of sheepish surprise and shame, as of a school-boy caught stealing apples, in their foolish visages. Pleasant new national schools at the bridge end, whither the urchins scamper at the sound of the two o’clock bell. Though it be an ugly pile enough of bright red brick, it is doing its work, as Whitbury folk know well by now. Pleasant, too, though still more ugly, those long red arms of new houses which Whitbury is stretching out along its fine turnpikes — especially up to the railway station beyond the bridge, and to the smart new hotel, which hopes (but hopes in vain) to outrival the ancient “Angler’s Rest.” Away thither, and not to the Railway Hotel, they trundle in a fly — leaving Mark Armsworth all but angry because they will not sleep, as well as breakfast, lunch, and dine with him daily — and settle in the good old inn, with its three white gables overhanging the pavement, and its long lattice window buried deep beneath them, like — so Stangrave says — to a shrewd kindly eye under a bland white forehead.
No, good old inn; not such shall be thy fate, as long as trout are trout, and men have wit to catch them. For art thou not a sacred house? Art thou not consecrate to the Whitbury brotherhood of anglers! Is not the wainscot of that long low parlour inscribed with many a famous name? Are not its walls hung with many a famous countenance? Has not its oak-ribbed ceiling rung, for now a hundred years, to the laughter of painters, sculptors, grave divines (unbending at least there), great lawyers, statesmen, wits, even of Foote and Quin themselves; while the sleek landlord wiped the cobwebs off another magnum of that grand old port, and took in all the wisdom with a quiet twinkle of his sleepy eye? He rests now, good old man, among the yews beside his forefathers; and on his tomb his lengthy epitaph, writ by himself; for Barker was a poet in his way.
Some people hold the same epitaph to be irreverent, because in a list of Barker’s many blessings occurs the profane word “trout:” but those trout, and the custom which they brought him, had made the old man’s life comfortable, and enabled him to leave a competence for his children; and why should not a man honestly thank Heaven for that which he knows has done him good, even though it be but fish?
He is gone: but the Whit is not, nor the Whitbury club; nor will, while old Mark Armsworth is king in Whitbury, and sits every evening in the Mayfly season at the table head, retailing good stones of the great anglers of his youth — names which you, reader, have heard many a time — and who could do many things besides handling a blow-line. But though the club is not what it was fifty years ago — before Norway and Scotland became easy of access — yet it is still an important institution of the town, to the members whereof all good subjects touch their hats; for does not the club bring into the town good money, and take out again only fish, which cost nothing in the breeding? Did not the club present the Town-hall with a portrait of the renowned fishing Sculptor? and did it not (only stipulating that the school should be built beyond the bridge to avoid noise) give fifty pounds to the said school but five years ago, in addition to Mark’s own hundred?
But enough of this:— only may the Whitbury club, in recompense for my thus handing them down to immortality, give me another day next year, as they gave me this: and may the Mayfly be strong on, and a south-west gale blowing!
In the course of the next week, in many a conversation, the three men compared notes as to the events of two years ago; and each supplied the other with new facts, which shall be duly set forth in this tale, saving and excepting, of course, the real reason why everybody did everything. For — as everybody knows who has watched life — the true springs of all human action are generally those which fools will not see, which wise men will not mention; so that, in order to present a readable tragedy of Hamlet, you must always “omit the part of Hamlet,”— and probably the ghost and the queen into the bargain.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56