Argemone, sweet prude, thought herself bound to read Honoria a lecture that night, on her reckless exhibition of feeling; but it profited little. The most consummate cunning could not have baffled Argemone’s suspicions more completely than her sister’s utter simplicity. She cried just as bitterly about Mops’s danger as about the keeper’s, and then laughed heartily at Argemone’s solemnity; till at last, when pushed a little too hard, she broke out into something very like a passion, and told her sister, bitterly enough, that ‘she was not accustomed to see men drowned every day, and begged to hear no more about the subject.’ Whereat Argemone prudently held her tongue, knowing that under all Honoria’s tenderness lay a volcano of passionate determination, which was generally kept down by her affections, but was just as likely to be maddened by them. And so this conversation only went to increase the unconscious estrangement between them, though they continued, as sisters will do, to lavish upon each other the most extravagant protestations of affection — vowing to live and die only for each other — and believing honestly, sweet souls, that they felt all they said; till real imperious Love came in, in one case of the two at least, shouldering all other affections right and left; and then the two beauties discovered, as others do, that it is not so possible or reasonable as they thought for a woman to sacrifice herself and her lover for the sake of her sister or her friend. Next morning Lancelot and the colonel started out to Tregarva’s cottage, on a mission of inquiry. They found the giant propped up in bed with pillows, his magnificent features looking in their paleness more than ever like a granite Memnon. Before him lay an open Pilgrim’s Progress, and a drawer filled with feathers and furs, which he was busily manufacturing into trout flies, reading as he worked. The room was filled with nets, guns, and keepers’ tackle, while a well-filled shelf of books hung by the wall.
‘Excuse my rising, gentlemen,’ he said, in his slow, staid voice, ‘but I am very weak, in spite of the Lord’s goodness to me. You are very kind to think of coming to my poor cottage,’
‘Well, my man,’ said the colonel, ‘and how are you after your cold bath? You are the heaviest fish I ever landed!’
‘Pretty well, thank God, and you, sir. I am in your debt, sir, for the dear life. How shall I ever repay you?’
‘Repay, my good fellow? You would have done as much for me.’
‘May be; but you did not think of that when you jumped in; and no more must I in thanking you. God knows how a poor miner’s son will ever reward you; but the mouse repaid the lion, says the story, and, at all events, I can pray for you. By the bye, gentlemen, I hope you have brought up some trolling-tackle?’
‘We came up to see you, and not to fish,’ said Lancelot, charmed with the stately courtesy of the man.
‘Many thanks, gentlemen; but old Harry Verney was in here just now, and had seen a great jack strike, at the tail of the lower reeds. With this fresh wind he will run till noon; and you are sure of him with a dace. After that, he will not be up again on the shallows till sunset. He works the works of darkness, and comes not to the light, because his deeds are evil.’
Lancelot laughed. ‘He does but follow his kind, poor fellow.’
‘No doubt, sir, no doubt; all the Lord’s works are good: but it is a wonder why He should have made wasps, now, and blights, and vermin, and jack, and such evil-featured things, that carry spite and cruelty in their very faces — a great wonder. Do you think, sir, all those creatures were in the Garden of Eden?’
‘You are getting too deep for me,’ said Lancelot. ‘But why trouble your head about fishing?’
‘I beg your pardon for preaching to you, sir. I’m sure I forgot myself. If you will let me, I’ll get up and get you a couple of bait from the stew. You’ll do us keepers a kindness, and prevent sin, sir, if you’ll catch him. The squire will swear sadly — the Lord forgive him — if he hears of a pike in the trout-runs. I’ll get up, if I may trouble you to go into the next room a minute.’
‘Lie still, for Heaven’s sake. Why bother your head about pike now?’
‘It is my business, sir, and I am paid for it, and I must do it thoroughly; — and abide in the calling wherein I am called,’ he added, in a sadder tone.
‘You seem to be fond enough of it, and to know enough about it, at all events,’ said the colonel, ‘tying flies here on a sick-bed.’
‘As for being fond of it, sir — those creatures of the water teach a man many lessons; and when I tie flies, I earn books.’
‘I send my flies all over the country, sir, to Salisbury and Hungerford, and up to Winchester, even; and the money buys me many a wise book — all my delight is in reading; perhaps so much the worse for me.’
‘So much the better, say,’ answered Lancelot warmly. ‘I’ll give you an order for a couple of pounds’ worth of flies at once.’
‘The Lord reward you, sir,’ answered the giant.
‘And you shall make me the same quantity,’ said the colonel. ‘You can make salmon-flies?’
‘I made a lot by pattern for an Irish gent, sir.’
‘Well, then, we’ll send you some Norway patterns, and some golden pheasant and parrot feathers. We’re going to Norway this summer, you know, Lancelot —’
Tregarva looked up with a quaint, solemn hesitation.
‘If you please, gentlemen, you’ll forgive a man’s conscience.’
‘But I’d not like to be a party to the making of Norway flies.’
‘Here’s a Protectionist, with a vengeance!’ laughed the colonel. ‘Do you want to keep all us fishermen in England? eh? to fee English keepers?
‘No, sir. There’s pretty fishing in Norway, I hear, and poor folk that want money more than we keepers. God knows we get too much — we that hang about great houses and serve great folks’ pleasure — you toss the money down our throats, without our deserving it; and we spend it as we get it — a deal too fast — while hard-working labourers are starving.’
‘And yet you would keep us in England?’
‘Would God I could!’
‘Why then, my good fellow?’ asked Lancelot, who was getting intensely interested with the calm, self-possessed earnestness of the man, and longed to draw him out.
The colonel yawned.
‘Well, I’ll go and get myself a couple of bait. Don’t you stir, my good parson-keeper. Down charge, I say! Odd if I don’t find a bait-net, and a rod for myself, under the verandah.’
‘You will, colonel. I remember, now, I set it there last morning; but the water washed many things out of my brains, and some things into them — and I forgot it like a goose.’
‘Well, good-bye, and lie still. I know what a drowning is, and more than one. A day and a night have I been in the deep, like the man in the good book; and bed is the best of medicine for a ducking;’ and the colonel shook him kindly by the hand and disappeared.
Lancelot sat down by the keeper’s bed.
‘You’ll get those fish-hooks into your trousers, sir; and this is a poor place to sit down in.’
‘I want you to say your say out, friend, fish-hooks or none.’
The keeper looked warily at the door, and when the colonel had passed the window, balancing the trolling-rod on his chin, and whistling merrily, he began —
‘“A day and a night have I been in the deep!”— and brought back no more from it! And yet the Psalms say how they that go down to the sea in ships see the works of the Lord! — If the Lord has opened their eyes to see them, that must mean —’
‘What a gallant gentleman that is, and a valiant man of war, I’ll warrant — and to have seen all the wonders he has, and yet to be wasting his span of life like that!’
Lancelot’s heart smote him.
‘One would think, sir — You’ll pardon me for speaking out.’ And the noble face worked, as he murmured to himself, ‘When ye are brought before kings and princes for my name’s sake. — I dare not hold my tongue, sir. I am as one risen from the dead,’— and his face flashed up into sudden enthusiasm —‘and woe to me if I speak not. Oh, why, why are you gentlemen running off to Norway, and foreign parts, whither God has not called you! Are there no graves in Egypt, that you must go out to die in the wilderness!’
Lancelot, quite unaccustomed to the language of the Dissenting poor, felt keenly the bad taste of the allusion.
‘What can you mean?’ he asked.
‘Pardon me, sir, if I cannot speak plainly; but are there not temptations enough here in England that you must go to waste all your gifts, your scholarship, and your rank, far away there out of the sound of a church-going bell? I don’t deny it’s a great temptation. I have read of Norway wonders in a book of one Miss Martineau, with a strange name.’
‘Feats on the Fiord?’
‘That’s it, sir. Her books are grand books to set one a-thinking; but she don’t seem to see the Lord in all things, does she, sir?’
Lancelot parried the question.
‘You are wandering a little from the point.’
‘So I am, and thank you for the rebuke. There’s where I find you scholars have the advantage of us poor fellows, who pick up knowledge as we can. Your book-learning makes you stick to the point so much better. You are taught how to think. After all — God forgive me if I’m wrong! but I sometimes think that there must be more good in that human wisdom, and philosophy falsely so called, than we Wesleyans hold. Oh, sir, what a blessing is a good education! What you gentlemen might do with it, if you did but see your own power! Are there no fish in England, sir, to be caught? precious fish, with immortal souls? And is there not One who has said, “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men?”’
‘Would you have us all turn parsons?’
‘Is no one to do God’s work except the parson, sir? Oh, the game that you rich folks have in your hands, if you would but play it! Such a man as Colonel Bracebridge now, with the tongue of the serpent, who can charm any living soul he likes to his will, as a stoat charms a rabbit. Or you, sir, with your tongue:— you have charmed one precious creature already. I can see it: though neither of you know it, yet I know it.’
Lancelot started, and blushed crimson.
‘Oh, that I had your tongue, sir!’ And the keeper blushed crimson, too, and went on hastily —
‘But why could you not charm all alike! Do not the poor want you as well as the rich?’
‘What can I do for the poor, my good fellow? And what do they want? Have they not houses, work, a church, and schools — and poor-rates to fall back on?’
The keeper smiled sadly.
‘To fall back on, indeed! and down on, too. At all events, you rich might help to make Christians of them, and men of them. For I’m beginning to fancy strangely, in spite of all the preachers say, that, before ever you can make them Christians, you must make them men and women.’
‘Are they not so already?’
‘Oh, sir, go and see! How can a man be a man in those crowded styes, sleeping packed together like Irish pigs in a steamer, never out of the fear of want, never knowing any higher amusement than the beer-shop? Those old Greeks and Romans, as I read, were more like men than half our English labourers. Go and see! Ask that sweet heavenly angel, Miss Honoria,’— and the keeper again blushed — ‘And she, too, will tell you. I think sometimes if she had been born and bred like her father’s tenants’ daughters, to sleep where they sleep, and hear the talk they hear, and see the things they see, what would she have been now? We mustn’t think of it.’ And the keeper turned his head away, and fairly burst into tears.
Lancelot was moved.
‘Are the poor very immoral, then?’
‘You ask the rector, sir, how many children hereabouts are born within six months of the wedding-day. None of them marry, sir, till the devil forces them. There’s no sadder sight than a labourer’s wedding now-a-days. You never see the parents come with them. They just get another couple, that are keeping company, like themselves, and come sneaking into church, looking all over as if they were ashamed of it — and well they may be!’
‘Is it possible?’
‘I say, sir, that God makes you gentlemen, gentlemen, that you may see into these things. You give away your charities kindly enough, but you don’t know the folks you give to. If a few of you would but be like the blessed Lord, and stoop to go out of the road, just behind the hedge, for once, among the publicans and harlots! Were you ever at a country fair, sir? Though I suppose I am rude for fancying that you could demean yourself to such company.’
‘I should not think it demeaning myself,’ said Lancelot, smiling; ‘but I never was at one, and I should like for once to see the real manners of the poor.’
‘I’m no haunter of such places myself, God knows; but — I see you’re in earnest now — will you come with me, sir — for once? for God’s sake and the poor’s sake?’
‘I shall be delighted.’
‘Not after you’ve been there, I am afraid.’
‘Well, it’s a bargain when you are recovered. And, in the meantime, the squire’s orders are, that you lie by for a few days to rest; and Miss Honoria’s, too; and she has sent you down some wine.’
‘She thought of me, did she?’ And the still sad face blazed out radiant with pleasure, and then collapsed as suddenly into deep melancholy.
Lancelot saw it, but said nothing; and shaking him heartily by the hand, had his shake returned by an iron grasp, and slipped silently out of the cottage.
The keeper lay still, gazing on vacancy. Once he murmured to himself —
‘Through strange ways — strange ways — and though he let them wander out of the road in the wilderness; — we know how that goes on —’
And then he fell into a mixed meditation — perhaps into a prayer.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10