As this my story will probably run counter to more than one fashion of the day, literary and other, it is prudent to bow to those fashions wherever I honestly can; and therefore to begin with a scrap of description.
The edge of a great fox-cover; a flat wilderness of low leafless oaks fortified by a long, dreary, thorn capped clay ditch, with sour red water oozing out at every yard; a broken gate leading into a straight wood ride, ragged with dead grasses and black with fallen leaves, the centre mashed into a quagmire by innumerable horsehoofs; some forty red coats and some four black; a sprinkling of young-farmers, resplendent in gold buttons and green; a pair of sleek drab stable-keepers, showing off horses for sale; the surgeon of the union, in Mackintosh and antigropelos; two holiday schoolboys with trousers strapped down to bursting point, like a penny steamer’s safety-valve; a midshipman, the only merry one in the field, bumping about on a fretting, sweating hack, with its nose a foot above its ears; and Lancelot Smith, who then kept two good horses, and ‘rode forward’ as a fine young fellow of three-and-twenty who can afford it, and ‘has nothing else to do,’ has a very good right to ride.
But what is a description, without a sketch of the weather? — In these Pantheist days especially, when a hero or heroine’s moral state must entirely depend on the barometer, and authors talk as if Christians were cabbages, and a man’s soul as well as his lungs might be saved by sea-breezes and sunshine; or his character developed by wearing guano in his shoes, and training himself against a south wall — we must have a weather description, though, as I shall presently show, one in flat contradiction of the popular theory. Luckily for our information, Lancelot was very much given to watch both the weather and himself, and had indeed, while in his teens, combined the two in a sort of a soul-almanack on the principles just mentioned — somewhat in this style:—
‘Monday, 21st. — Wind S.W., bright sun, mercury at 30.5 inches. Felt my heart expanded towards the universe. Organs of veneration and benevolence pleasingly excited; and gave a shilling to a tramp. An inexpressible joy bounded through every vein, and the soft air breathed purity and self-sacrifice through my soul. As I watched the beetles, those children of the sun, who, as divine Shelley says, “laden with light and odour, pass over the gleam of the living grass,” I gained an Eden-glimpse of the pleasures of virtue.
‘N.B. Found the tramp drunk in a ditch. I could not have degraded myself on such a day — ah! how could he?
‘Tuesday, 22d. — Barometer rapidly falling. Heavy clouds in the south-east. My heart sank into gloomy forebodings. Read Manfred, and doubted whether I should live long. The laden weight of destiny seemed to crush down my aching forehead, till the thunderstorm burst, and peace was restored to my troubled soul.’
This was very bad; but to do justice to Lancelot, he had grown out of it at the time when my story begins. He was now in the fifth act of his ‘Werterean’ stage; that sentimental measles, which all clever men must catch once in their lives, and which, generally, like the physical measles, if taken early, settles their constitution for good or evil; if taken late, goes far towards killing them. Lancelot had found Byron and Shelley pall on his taste and commenced devouring Bulwer and worshipping Ernest Maltravers. He had left Bulwer for old ballads and romances, and Mr. Carlyle’s reviews; was next alternately chivalry-mad; and Germany-mad; was now reading hard at physical science; and on the whole, trying to become a great man, without any very clear notion of what a great man ought to be. Real education he never had had. Bred up at home under his father, a rich merchant, he had gone to college with a large stock of general information, and a particular mania for dried plants, fossils, butterflies, and sketching, and some such creed as this:—
That he was very clever.
That he ought to make his fortune.
That a great many things were very pleasant — beautiful things among the rest.
That it was a fine thing to be ‘superior,’ gentleman-like, generous, and courageous.
That a man ought to be religious.
And left college with a good smattering of classics and mathematics, picked up in the intervals of boat-racing and hunting, and much the same creed as he brought with him, except in regard to the last article. The scenery-and-natural-history mania was now somewhat at a discount. He had discovered a new natural object, including in itself all — more than all — yet found beauties and wonders — woman!
Draw, draw the veil and weep, guardian angel! if such there be. What was to be expected? Pleasant things were pleasant — there was no doubt of that, whatever else might be doubtful. He had read Byron by stealth; he had been flogged into reading Ovid and Tibullus; and commanded by his private tutor to read Martial and Juvenal ‘for the improvement of his style.’ All conversation on the subject of love had been prudishly avoided, as usual, by his parents and teacher. The parts of the Bible which spoke of it had been always kept out of his sight. Love had been to him, practically, ground tabooed and ‘carnal.’ What was to be expected? Just what happened — if woman’s beauty had nothing holy in it, why should his fondness for it? Just what happens every day — that he had to sow his wild oats for himself, and eat the fruit thereof, and the dirt thereof also.
O fathers! fathers! and you, clergymen, who monopolise education! either tell boys the truth about love, or do not put into their hands, without note or comment, the foul devil’s lies about it, which make up the mass of the Latin poets — and then go, fresh from teaching Juvenal and Ovid, to declaim at Exeter Hall against poor Peter Dens’s well-meaning prurience! Had we not better take the beam out of our own eye before we meddle with the mote in the Jesuit’s?
But where is my description of the weather all this time?
I cannot, I am sorry to say, give any very cheerful account of the weather that day. But what matter? Are Englishmen hedge-gnats, who only take their sport when the sun shines? Is it not, on the contrary, symbolical of our national character, that almost all our field amusements are wintry ones? Our fowling, our hunting, our punt-shooting (pastime for Hymir himself and the frost giants)— our golf and skating — our very cricket, and boat-racing, and jack and grayling fishing, carried on till we are fairly frozen out. We are a stern people, and winter suits us. Nature then retires modestly into the background, and spares us the obtrusive glitter of summer, leaving us to think and work; and therefore it happens that in England, it may be taken as a general rule, that whenever all the rest of the world is indoors, we are out and busy, and on the whole, the worse the day, the better the deed.
The weather that day, the first day Lancelot ever saw his beloved, was truly national. A silent, dim, distanceless, steaming, rotting day in March. The last brown oak-leaf which had stood out the winter’s frost, spun and quivered plump down, and then lay; as if ashamed to have broken for a moment the ghastly stillness, like an awkward guest at a great dumb dinner-party. A cold suck of wind just proved its existence, by toothaches on the north side of all faces. The spiders having been weather-bewitched the night before, had unanimously agreed to cover every brake and brier with gossamer-cradles, and never a fly to be caught in them; like Manchester cotton-spinners madly glutting the markets in the teeth of ‘no demand.’ The steam crawled out of the dank turf, and reeked off the flanks and nostrils of the shivering horses, and clung with clammy paws to frosted hats and dripping boughs. A soulless, skyless, catarrhal day, as if that bustling dowager, old mother Earth — what with match-making in spring, and fetes champetres in summer, and dinner-giving in autumn — was fairly worn out, and put to bed with the influenza, under wet blankets and the cold-water cure.
There sat Lancelot by the cover-side, his knees aching with cold and wet, thanking his stars that he was not one of the whippers-in who were lashing about in the dripping cover, laying up for themselves, in catering for the amusement of their betters, a probable old age of bed-ridden torture, in the form of rheumatic gout. Not that he was at all happy — indeed, he had no reason to be so; for, first, the hounds would not find; next, he had left half-finished at home a review article on the Silurian System, which he had solemnly promised an abject and beseeching editor to send to post that night; next, he was on the windward side of the cover, and dare not light a cigar; and lastly, his mucous membrane in general was not in the happiest condition, seeing that he had been dining the evening before with Mr. Vaurien of Rottenpalings, a young gentleman of a convivial and melodious turn of mind, who sang — and played also — as singing men are wont — in more senses than one, and had ‘ladies and gentlemen’ down from town to stay with him; and they sang and played too; and so somehow between vingt-un and champagne-punch, Lancelot had not arrived at home till seven o’clock that morning, and was in a fit state to appreciate the feelings of our grandfathers, when, after the third bottle of port, they used to put the black silk tights into their pockets, slip on the leathers and boots, and ride the crop-tailed hack thirty miles on a winter’s night, to meet the hounds in the next county by ten in the morning. They are ‘gone down to Hades, even many stalwart souls of heroes,’ with John Warde of Squerries at their head — the fathers of the men who conquered at Waterloo; and we their degenerate grandsons are left instead, with puny arms, and polished leather boots, and a considerable taint of hereditary disease, to sit in club-houses, and celebrate the progress of the species.
Whether Lancelot or his horse, under these depressing circumstances, fell asleep; or whether thoughts pertaining to such a life, and its fitness for a clever and ardent young fellow in the nineteenth century, became gradually too painful, and had to be peremptorily shaken off, this deponent sayeth not; but certainly, after five-and-thirty minutes of idleness and shivering, Lancelot opened his eyes with a sudden start, and struck spurs into his hunter without due cause shown; whereat Shiver-the-timbers, who was no Griselda in temper —(Lancelot had bought him out of the Pytchley for half his value, as unrideably vicious, when he had killed a groom, and fallen backwards on a rough-rider, the first season after he came up from Horncastle)— responded by a furious kick or two, threw his head up, put his foot into a drain, and sprawled down all but on his nose, pitching Lancelot unawares shamefully on the pommel of his saddle. A certain fatality, by the bye, had lately attended all Lancelot’s efforts to shine; he never bought a new coat without tearing it mysteriously next day, or tried to make a joke without bursting out coughing in the middle . . . and now the whole field were looking on at his mishap; between disgust and the start he turned almost sick, and felt the blood rush into his cheeks and forehead as he heard a shout of coarse jovial laughter burst out close to him, and the old master of the hounds, Squire Lavington, roared aloud —
‘A pretty sportsman you are, Mr. Smith, to fall asleep by the cover-side and let your horse down — and your pockets, too! What’s that book on the ground? Sapping and studying still? I let nobody come out with my hounds with their pocket full of learning. Hand it up here, Tom; we’ll see what it is. French, as I am no scholar! Translate for us, Colonel Bracebridge!’
And, amid shouts of laughter, the gay Guardsman read out —
‘St. Francis de Sales: Introduction to a Devout Life.’
Poor Lancelot! Wishing himself fathoms under-ground, ashamed of his book, still more ashamed of himself for his shame, he had to sit there ten physical seconds, or spiritual years, while the colonel solemnly returned him the book, complimenting him on the proofs of its purifying influence which he had given the night before, in helping to throw the turnpike-gate into the river.
But ‘all things do end,’ and so did this; and the silence of the hounds also; and a faint but knowing whimper drove St. Francis out of all heads, and Lancelot began to stalk slowly with a dozen horsemen up the wood-ride, to a fitful accompaniment of wandering hound-music, where the choristers were as invisible as nightingales among the thick cover. And hark! just as the book was returned to his pocket, the sweet hubbub suddenly crashed out into one jubilant shriek, and then swept away fainter and fainter among the trees. The walk became a trot — the trot a canter. Then a faint melancholy shout at a distance, answered by a ‘Stole away!’ from the fields; a doleful ‘toot!’ of the horn; the dull thunder of many horsehoofs rolling along the farther woodside. Then red coats, flashing like sparks of fire across the gray gap of mist at the ride’s-mouth, then a whipper-in, bringing up a belated hound, burst into the pathway, smashing and plunging, with shut eyes, through ash-saplings and hassock-grass; then a fat farmer, sedulously pounding through the mud, was overtaken and bespattered in spite of all his struggles; — until the line streamed out into the wide rushy pasture, startling up pewits and curlews, as horsemen poured in from every side, and cunning old farmers rode off at inexplicable angles to some well-known haunts of pug: and right ahead, chiming and jangling sweet madness, the dappled pack glanced and wavered through the veil of soft grey mist. ‘What’s the use of this hurry?’ growled Lancelot. ‘They will all be back again. I never have the luck to see a run.’
But no; on and on — down the wind and down the vale; and the canter became a gallop, and the gallop a long straining stride; and a hundred horsehoofs crackled like flame among the stubbles, and thundered fetlock-deep along the heavy meadows; and every fence thinned the cavalcade, till the madness began to stir all bloods, and with grim earnest silent faces, the initiated few settled themselves to their work, and with the colonel and Lancelot at their head, ‘took their pleasure sadly, after the manner of their nation,’ as old Froissart has it.
‘Thorough bush, through brier,
Thorough park, through pale;’
till the rolling grass-lands spread out into flat black open fallows, crossed with grassy baulks, and here and there a long melancholy line of tall elms, while before them the high chalk ranges gleamed above the mist like a vast wall of emerald enamelled with snow, and the winding river glittering at their feet.
‘A polite fox!’ observed the colonel. ‘He’s leading the squire straight home to Whitford, just in time for dinner.’
They were in the last meadow, with the stream before them. A line of struggling heads in the swollen and milky current showed the hounds’ opinion of Reynard’s course. The sportsmen galloped off towards the nearest bridge. Bracebridge looked back at Lancelot, who had been keeping by his side in sulky rivalry, following him successfully through all manner of desperate places, and more and more angry with himself and the guiltless colonel, because he only followed, while the colonel’s quicker and unembarrassed wit, which lived wholly in the present moment, saw long before Lancelot, ‘how to cut out his work,’ in every field.
‘I shan’t go round,’ quietly observed the colonel.
‘Do you fancy I shall?’ growled Lancelot, who took for granted — poor thin-skinned soul! that the words were meant as a hit at himself.
‘You’re a brace of geese,’ politely observed the old squire; ‘and you’ll find it out in rheumatic fever. There —“one fool makes many!” You’ll kill Smith before you’re done, colonel!’ and the old man wheeled away up the meadow, as Bracebridge shouted after him —
‘Oh, he’ll make a fine rider — in time!’
‘In time!’ Lancelot could have knocked the unsuspecting colonel down for the word. It just expressed the contrast, which had fretted him ever since he began to hunt with the Whitford Priors hounds. The colonel’s long practice and consummate skill in all he took in hand — his experience of all society, from the prairie Indian to Crockford’s, from the prize-ring to the continental courts — his varied and ready store of information and anecdote — the harmony and completeness of the man — his consistency with his own small ideal, and his consequent apparent superiority everywhere and in everything to the huge awkward Titan-cub, who, though immeasurably beyond Bracebridge in intellect and heart, was still in a state of convulsive dyspepsia, ‘swallowing formulae,’ and daily well-nigh choked; diseased throughout with that morbid self-consciousness and lust of praise, for which God prepares, with His elect, a bitter cure. Alas! poor Lancelot! an unlicked bear, ‘with all his sorrows before him!’—
‘Come along,’ quoth Bracebridge, between snatches of a tune, his coolness maddening Lancelot. ‘Old Lavington will find us dry clothes, a bottle of port, and a brace of charming daughters, at the Priory. In with you, little Mustang of the prairie! Neck or nothing!’—
And in an instant the small wiry American, and the huge Horncastle-bred hunter, were wallowing and staggering in the yeasty stream, till they floated into a deep reach, and swam steadily down to a low place in the bank. They crossed the stream, passed the Priory Shrubberies, leapt the gate into the park, and then on and upward, called by the unseen Ariel’s music before them. — Up, into the hills; past white crumbling chalk-pits, fringed with feathered juniper and tottering ashes, their floors strewed with knolls of fallen soil and vegetation, like wooded islets in a sea of milk. — Up, between steep ridges of tuft crested with black fir-woods and silver beech, and here and there a huge yew standing out alone, the advanced sentry of the forest, with its luscious fretwork of green velvet, like a mountain of Gothic spires and pinnacles, all glittering and steaming as the sun drank up the dew-drops. The lark sprang upward into song, and called merrily to the new-opened sunbeams, while the wreaths and flakes of mist lingered reluctantly about the hollows, and clung with dewy fingers to every knoll and belt of pine. — Up into the labyrinthine bosom of the hills — but who can describe them? Is not all nature indescribable? every leaf infinite and transcendental? How much more those mighty downs, with their enormous sheets of spotless turf, where the dizzy eye loses all standard of size and distance before the awful simplicity, the delicate vastness, of those grand curves and swells, soft as the outlines of a Greek Venus, as if the great goddess-mother Hertha had laid herself down among the hills to sleep, her Titan limbs wrapt in a thin veil of silvery green.
Up, into a vast amphitheatre of sward, whose walls banked out the narrow sky above. And here, in the focus of the huge ring, an object appeared which stirred strange melancholy in Lancelot — a little chapel, ivy-grown, girded with a few yews, and elders, and grassy graves. A climbing rose over the porch, and iron railings round the churchyard, told of human care; and from the graveyard itself burst up one of those noble springs known as winter-bournes in the chalk ranges, which, awakened in autumn from the abysses to which it had shrunk during the summer’s drought, was hurrying down upon its six months’ course, a broad sheet of oily silver over a temporary channel of smooth greensward.
The hounds had checked in the woods behind; now they poured down the hillside, so close together ‘that you might have covered them with a sheet,’ straight for the little chapel.
A saddened tone of feeling spread itself through Lancelot’s heart. There were the everlasting hills around, even as they had grown and grown for countless ages, beneath the still depths of the primeval chalk ocean, in the milky youth of this great English land. And here was he, the insect of a day, fox-hunting upon them! He felt ashamed, and more ashamed when the inner voice whispered —‘Fox-hunting is not the shame — thou art the shame. If thou art the insect of a day, it is thy sin that thou art one.’
And his sadness, foolish as it may seem, grew as he watched a brown speck fleet rapidly up the opposite hill, and heard a gay view-halloo burst from the colonel at his side. The chase lost its charm for him the moment the game was seen. Then vanished that mysterious delight of pursuing an invisible object, which gives to hunting and fishing their unutterable and almost spiritual charm; which made Shakespeare a nightly poacher; Davy and Chantrey the patriarchs of fly-fishing; by which the twelve-foot rod is transfigured into an enchanter’s wand, potent over the unseen wonders of the water-world, to ‘call up spirits from the vasty deep,’ which will really ‘come if you do call for them’— at least if the conjuration be orthodox — and they there. That spell was broken by the sight of poor wearied pug, his once gracefully-floating brush all draggled and drooping, as he toiled up the sheep-paths towards the open down above.
But Lancelot’s sadness reached its crisis, as he met the hounds just outside the churchyard. Another moment — they had leaped the rails; and there they swept round under the gray wall, leaping and yelling, like Berserk fiends among the frowning tombstones, over the cradles of the quiet dead.
Lancelot shuddered — the thing was not wrong —‘it was no one’s fault,’— but there was a ghastly discord in it. Peace and strife, time and eternity — the mad noisy flesh, and the silent immortal spirit — the frivolous game of life’s outside show, and the terrible earnest of its inward abysses, jarred together without and within him. He pulled his horse up violently, and stood as if rooted to the place, gazing at he knew not what.
The hounds caught sight of the fox, burst into one frantic shriek of joy — and then a sudden and ghastly stillness, as, mute and breathless, they toiled up the hillside, gaining on their victim at every stride. The patter of the horsehoofs and the rattle of rolling flints died away above. Lancelot looked up, startled at the silence; laughed aloud, he knew not why, and sat, regardless of his pawing and straining horse, still staring at the chapel and the graves.
On a sudden the chapel-door opened, and a figure, timidly yet loftily stepped out without observing him, and suddenly turning round, met him full, face to face, and stood fixed with surprise as completely as Lancelot himself.
That face and figure, and the spirit which spoke through them, entered his heart at once, never again to leave it. Her features were aquiline and grand, without a shade of harshness; her eyes shone out like twain lakes of still azure, beneath a broad marble cliff of polished forehead; her rich chestnut hair rippled downward round the towering neck. With her perfect masque and queenly figure, and earnest, upward gaze, she might have been the very model from which Raphael conceived his glorious St. Catherine — the ideal of the highest womanly genius, softened into self-forgetfulness by girlish devotion. She was simply, almost coarsely dressed; but a glance told him that she was a lady, by the courtesy of man as well as by the will of God.
They gazed one moment more at each other — but what is time to spirits? With them, as with their Father, ‘one day is as a thousand years.’ But that eye-wedlock was cut short the next instant by the decided interference of the horse, who, thoroughly disgusted at his master’s whole conduct, gave a significant shake of his head, and shamming frightened (as both women and horses will do when only cross), commenced a war-dance, which drove Argemone Lavington into the porch, and gave the bewildered Lancelot an excuse for dashing madly up the hill after his companions.
‘What a horrible ugly face!’ said Argemone to herself, ‘but so clever, and so unhappy!’
Blest pity! true mother of that graceless scamp, young Love, who is ashamed of his real pedigree, and swears to this day that he is the child of Venus! — the coxcomb!
[Here, for the sake of the reader, we omit, or rather postpone a long dissertation on the famous Erototheogonic chorus of Aristophanes’s Birds, with illustrations taken from all earth and heaven, from the Vedas and Proclus to Jacob Boehmen and Saint Theresa.]
‘The dichotomy of Lancelot’s personality,’ as the Germans would call it, returned as he dashed on. His understanding was trying to ride, while his spirit was left behind with Argemone. Hence loose reins and a looser seat. He rolled about like a tipsy man, holding on, in fact, far more by his spurs than by his knees, to the utter infuriation of Shiver-the-timbers, who kicked and snorted over the down like one of Mephistopheles’s Demon-steeds. They had mounted the hill — the deer fled before them in terror — they neared the park palings. In the road beyond them the hounds were just killing their fox, struggling and growling in fierce groups for the red gobbets of fur, a panting, steaming ring of horses round them. Half a dozen voices hailed him as he came up.
‘Where have you been?’ ‘He’ll tumble off!’ ‘He’s had a fall!’ ‘No he hasn’t!’ ”Ware hounds, man alive!’ ‘He’ll break his neck!’
‘He has broken it, at last!’ shouted the colonel, as Shiver-the-timbers rushed at the high pales, out of breath, and blind with rage. Lancelot saw and heard nothing till he was awakened from his dream by the long heave of the huge brute’s shoulder, and the maddening sensation of sweeping through the air over the fence. He started, checked the curb, the horse threw up his head, fulfilling his name by driving his knees like a battering-ram against the pales — the top-bar bent like a withe, flew out into a hundred splinters, and man and horse rolled over headlong into the hard flint-road.
For one long sickening second Lancelot watched the blue sky between his own knees. Then a crash as if a shell had burst in his face — a horrible grind — a sheet of flame — and the blackness of night. Did you ever feel it, reader?
When he awoke, he found himself lying in bed, with Squire Lavington sitting by him. There was real sorrow in the old man’s face, ‘Come to himself!’ and a great joyful oath rolled out. ‘The boldest rider of them all! I wouldn’t have lost him for a dozen ready-made spick and span Colonel Bracebridges!’
‘Quite right, squire!’ answered a laughing voice from behind the curtain. ‘Smith has a clear two thousand a year, and I live by my wits!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10