The day after the Lavingtons’ return, when Lancelot walked up to the Priory with a fluttering heart to inquire after all parties, and see one, he found the squire in a great state of excitement.
A large gang of poachers, who had come down from London by rail, had been devastating all the covers round, to stock the London markets by the first of October, and intended, as Tregarva had discovered, to pay Mr. Lavington’s preserves a visit that night. They didn’t care for country justices, not they. Weren’t all their fines paid by highly respectable game-dealers at the West end? They owned three dog-carts among them; a parcel by railway would bring them down bail to any amount; they tossed their money away at the public-houses, like gentlemen; thanks to the Game Laws, their profits ran high, and when they had swept the country pretty clean of game, why, they would just finish off the season by a stray highway robbery or two, and vanish into Babylon and their native night.
Such was Harry Verney’s information as he strutted about the courtyard waiting for the squire’s orders.
‘But they’ve put their nose into a furze-bush, Muster Smith, they have. We’ve got our posse-commontaturs, fourteen men, sir, as’ll play the whole vale to cricket, and whap them; and every one’ll fight, for they’re half poachers themselves, you see’ (and Harry winked and chuckled); ‘and they can’t abide no interlopers to come down and take the sport out of their mouths.’
‘But are you sure they’ll come to-night?’
‘That ’ere Paul says so. Wonder how he found out — some of his underhand, colloguing, Methodist ways, I’ll warrant. I seed him preaching to that ’ere Crawy, three or four times when he ought to have hauled him up. He consorts with them poachers, sir, uncommon. I hope he ben’t one himself, that’s all.’
‘Oh? Eh? Don’t say old Harry don’t know nothing, that’s all. I’ve fixed his flint, anyhow.’
‘Ah! Smith!’ shouted the squire out of his study window, with a cheerful and appropriate oath. ‘The very man I wanted to see! You must lead these keepers for me to-night. They always fight better with a gentleman among them. Breeding tells, you know — breeding tells.’
Lancelot felt a strong disgust at the occupation, but he was under too many obligations to the squire to refuse.
‘Ay, I knew you were game,’ said the old man. ‘And you’ll find it capital fun. I used to think it so, I know, when I was young. Many a shindy have I had here in my uncle’s time, under the very windows, before the chase was disparked, when the fellows used to come down after the deer.’
Just then Lancelot turned and saw Argemone standing close to him. He almost sprang towards her — and retreated, for he saw that she had overheard the conversation between him and her father.
‘What! Mr. Smith!’ said she in a tone in which tenderness and contempt, pity and affected carelessness, were strangely mingled. ‘So! you are going to turn gamekeeper to-night?’
Lancelot was blundering out something, when the squire interposed.
‘Let her alone, Smith. Women will be tender-hearted, you know. Quite right — but they don’t understand these things. They fight with their tongues, and we with our fists; and then they fancy their weapons don’t hurt — Ha! ha! ha!’
‘Mr. Smith,’ said Argemone, in a low, determined voice, ‘if you have promised my father to go on this horrid business — go. But promise me, too, that you will only look on, or I will never —’
Argemone had not time to finish her sentence before Lancelot had promised seven times over, and meant to keep his promise, as we all do.
About ten o’clock that evening Lancelot and Tregarva were walking stealthily up a ride in one of the home-covers, at the head of some fifteen fine young fellows, keepers, grooms, and not extempore ‘watchers,’ whom old Harry was marshalling and tutoring, with exhortations as many and as animated as if their ambition was ‘Mourir pour la patrie.’
‘How does this sort of work suit you, Tregarva, for I don’t like it at all! The fighting’s all very well, but it’s a poor cause.’
‘Oh, sir, I have no mercy on these Londoners. If it was these poor half-starved labourers, that snare the same hares that have been eating up their garden-stuff all the week, I can’t touch them, sir, and that’s truth; but these ruffians — And yet, sir, wouldn’t it be better for the parsons to preach to them, than for the keepers to break their heads?’
‘Oh?’ said Lancelot, ‘the parsons say all to them that they can.’
Tregarva shook his head.
‘I doubt that, sir. But, no doubt, there’s a great change for the better in the parsons. I remember the time, sir, that there wasn’t an earnest clergyman in the vale; and now every other man you meet is trying to do his best. But those London parsons, sir, what’s the matter with them? For all their societies and their schools, the devil seems to keep ahead of them sadly. I doubt they haven’t found the right fly yet for publicans and sinners to rise at.’
A distant shot in the cover.
‘There they are, sir. I thought that Crawy wouldn’t lead me false when I let him off.’
‘Well, fight away, then, and win. I have promised Miss Lavington not to lift a hand in the business.’
‘Then you’re a lucky man, sir. But the squire’s game is his own, and we must do our duty by our master.’
There was a rustle in the bushes, and a tramp of feet on the turf.
‘There they are, sir, sure enough. The Lord keep us from murder this night!’ And Tregarva pulled off his neckcloth, and shook his huge limbs, as if to feel that they were all in their places, in a way that augured ill for the man who came across him.
They turned the corner of a ride, and, in an instant, found themselves face to face with five or six armed men, with blackened faces, who, without speaking a word, dashed at them, and the fight began; reinforcements came up on each side, and the engagement became general.
‘The forest-laws were sharp and stern,
The forest blood was keen,
They lashed together for life and death
Beneath the hollies green.
‘The metal good and the walnut-wood
Did soon in splinters flee;
They tossed the orts to south and north,
And grappled knee to knee.
‘They wrestled up, they wrestled down,
They wrestled still and sore;
The herbage sweet beneath their feet
Was stamped to mud and gore.’
And all the while the broad still moon stared down on them grim and cold, as if with a saturnine sneer at the whole humbug; and the silly birds about whom all this butchery went on, slept quietly over their heads, every one with his head under his wing. Oh! if pheasants had but understanding, how they would split their sides with chuckling and crowing at the follies which civilised Christian men perpetrate for their precious sake!
Had I the pen of Homer (though they say he never used one), or even that of the worthy who wasted precious years in writing a Homer Burlesqued, what heroic exploits might not I immortalise! In every stupid serf and cunning ruffian there, there was a heart as brave as Ajax’s own; but then they fought with sticks instead of lances, and hammered away on fustian jackets instead of brazen shields; and, therefore, poor fellows, they were beneath ‘the dignity of poetry,’ whatever that may mean. If one of your squeamish ‘dignity-of-poetry’ critics had just had his head among the gun-stocks for five minutes that night, he would have found it grim tragic earnest enough; not without a touch of fun though, here and there.
Lancelot leant against a tree and watched the riot with folded arms, mindful of his promise to Argemone, and envied Tregarva as he hurled his assailants right and left with immense strength, and led the van of battle royally. Little would Argemone have valued the real proof of love which he was giving her as he looked on sulkily, while his fingers tingled with longing to be up and doing. Strange — that mere lust of fighting, common to man and animals, whose traces even the lamb and the civilised child evince in their mock-fights, the earliest and most natural form of play. Is it, after all, the one human propensity which is utterly evil, incapable of being turned to any righteous use? Gross and animal, no doubt it is, but not the less really pleasant, as every Irishman and many an Englishman knows well enough. A curious instance of this, by the bye, occurred in Paris during the February Revolution. A fat English coachman went out, from mere curiosity, to see the fighting. As he stood and watched, a new passion crept over him; he grew madder and madder as the bullets whistled past him; at last, when men began to drop by his side, he could stand it no longer, seized a musket, and rushed in, careless which side he took —
‘To drink delight of battle with his peers.’
He was not heard of for a day or two, and then they found him stiff and cold, lying on his face across a barricade, with a bullet through his heart. Sedentary persons may call him a sinful fool. Be it so. Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.
Lancelot, I verily believe, would have kept his promise, though he saw that the keepers gave ground, finding Cockney skill too much for their clumsy strength; but at last Harry Verney, who had been fighting as venomously as a wild cat, and had been once before saved from a broken skull by Tregarva, rolled over at his very feet with a couple of poachers on him.
‘You won’t see an old man murdered, Mr. Smith?’ cried he, imploringly.
Lancelot tore the ruffians off the old man right and left. One of them struck him; he returned the blow; and, in an instant, promises and Argemone, philosophy and anti-game-law prejudices, were swept out of his head, and ‘he went,’ as the old romances say, ‘hurling into the midst of the press,’ as mere a wild animal for the moment as angry bull or boar. An instant afterwards, though, he burst out laughing, in spite of himself, as ‘The Battersea Bantam,’ who had been ineffectually dancing round Tregarva like a gamecock spurring at a bull, turned off with a voice of ineffable disgust —
‘That big cove’s a yokel; ta’nt creditable to waste science on him. You’re my man, if you please, sir,’— and the little wiry lump of courage and conceit, rascality and good humour, flew at Lancelot, who was twice his size, ‘with a heroism worthy of a better cause,’ as respectable papers, when they are not too frightened, say of the French.
‘Do you want any more?’ asked Lancelot.
‘Quite a pleasure, sir, to meet a scientific gen’lman. Beg your pardon, sir; stay a moment while I wipes my face. Now, sir, time, if you please.’
Alas for the little man! in another moment he tumbled over and lay senseless — Lancelot thought he had killed him. The gang saw their champion fall, gave ground, and limped off, leaving three of their party groaning on the ground, beside as many Whitford men.
As it was in the beginning, so is it to be to the end, my foolish brothers! From the poacher to the prime minister — wearying yourselves for very vanity! The soldier is not the only man in England who is fool enough to be shot at for a shilling a day.
But while all the rest were busy picking up the wounded men and securing the prisoners, Harry Verney alone held on, and as the poachers retreated slowly up the ride, he followed them, peering into the gloom, as if in hopes of recognising some old enemy.
‘Stand back, Harry Verney; we know you, and we’d be loth to harm an old man,’ cried a voice out of the darkness.
‘Eh? Do you think old Harry’d turn back when he was once on the track of ye? You soft-fisted, gin-drinking, counter-skipping Cockney rascals, that fancy you’re to carry the county before you, because you get your fines paid by London-tradesmen! Eh? What do you take old Harry for?’
‘Go back, you old fool!’ and a volley of oaths followed. ‘If you follow us, we’ll fire at you, as sure as the moon’s in heaven!’
‘Fire away, then! I’ll follow you to —!’ and the old man paced stealthily but firmly up to them.
Tregarva saw his danger and sprang forward, but it was too late.
‘What, you will have it, then?’
A sharp crack followed — a bright flash in the darkness — every white birch-stem and jagged oak-leaf shone out for a moment as bright as day — and in front of the glare Lancelot saw the old man throw his arms wildly upward, fall forward, and disappear on the dark ground.
‘You’ve done it! off with you!’ And the rascals rushed off up the ride.
In a moment Tregarva was by the old man’s side, and lifted him tenderly up.
‘They’ve done for me, Paul. Old Harry’s got his gruel. He’s heard his last shot fired. I knowed it ‘ud come to this, and I said it. Eh? Didn’t I, now, Paul?’ And as the old man spoke, the workings of his lungs pumped great jets of blood out over the still heather-flowers as they slept in the moonshine, and dabbled them with smoking gore.
‘Here, men,’ shouted the colonel, ‘up with him at once, and home! Here, put a brace of your guns together, muzzle and lock. Help him to sit on them, Lancelot. There, Harry, put your arms round their necks. Tregarva, hold him up behind. Now then, men, left legs foremost — keep step — march!’ And they moved off towards the Priory.
‘You seem to know everything, colonel,’ said Lancelot.
The colonel did not answer for a moment.
‘Lancelot, I learnt this dodge from the only friend I ever had in the world, or ever shall have; and a week after I marched him home to his deathbed in this very way.’
‘Paul — Paul Tregarva,’ whispered old Harry, ‘put your head down here: wipe my mouth, there’s a man; it’s wet, uncommon wet.’ It was his own life-blood. ‘I’ve been a beast to you, Paul. I’ve hated you, and envied you, and tried to ruin you. And now you’ve saved my life once this night; and here you be a-nursing of me as my own son might do, if he was here, poor fellow! I’ve ruined you, Paul; the Lord forgive me!’
‘Pray! pray!’ said Paul, ‘and He will forgive you. He is all mercy. He pardoned the thief on the cross —’
‘No, Paul, no thief — not so bad as that, I hope, anyhow; never touched a feather of the squire’s. But you dropped a song, Paul, a bit of writing.’
Paul turned pale.
‘And — the Lord forgive me! — I put it in the squire’s fly-book.’
‘The Lord forgive you! Amen!’ said Paul, solemnly.
Wearily and slowly they stepped on towards the old man’s cottage. A messenger had gone on before, and in a few minutes the squire, Mrs. Lavington, and the girls, were round the bed of their old retainer.
They sent off right and left for the doctor and the vicar; the squire was in a frenzy of rage and grief.
‘Don’t take on, master, don’t take on,’ said old Harry, as he lay; while the colonel and Honoria in vain endeavoured to stanch the wound. ‘I knowed it would be so, sooner or later; ’tis all in the way of business. They haven’t carried off a bird, squire, not a bird; we was too many for ’em-eh, Paul, eh?’
‘Where is that cursed doctor?’ said the squire. ‘Save him, colonel, save him; and I’ll give you —’
Alas! the charge of shot at a few feet distance had entered like a bullet, tearing a great ragged hole. — There was no hope, and the colonel knew it; but he said nothing.
‘The second keeper,’ sighed Argemone, ‘who has been killed here! Oh, Mr. Smith, must this be? Is God’s blessing on all this?’
Lancelot said nothing. The old man lighted up at Argemone’s voice.
‘There’s the beauty, there’s the pride of Whitford. And sweet Miss Honor, too — so kind to nurse a poor old man! But she never would let him teach her to catch perch, would she? She was always too tender-hearted. Ah, squire, when we’re dead and gone — dead and gone — squire, they’ll be the pride of Whitford still! And they’ll keep up the old place — won’t you, my darlings? And the old name, too! For, you know, there must always be a Lavington in Whitford Priors, till the Nun’s pool runs up to Ashy Down.’
‘And a curse upon the Lavingtons,’ sighed Argemone to herself in an undertone.
Lancelot heard what she said.
The vicar entered, but he was too late. The old man’s strength was failing, and his mind began to wander.
‘Windy,’ he murmured to himself, ‘windy, dark and windy — birds won’t lie — not old Harry’s fault. How black it grows! We must be gone by nightfall, squire. Where’s that young dog gone? Arter the larks, the brute.’
Old Squire Lavington sobbed like a child.
‘You will soon be home, my man,’ said the vicar. ‘Remember that you have a Saviour in heaven. Cast yourself on His mercy.’
Harry shook his head.
‘Very good words, very kind — very heavy gamebag, though. Never get home, never any more at all. Where’s my boy Tom to carry it? Send for my boy Tom. He was always a good boy till he got along with them poachers.’
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘listen! There’s bells a-ringing — ringing in my head. Come you here, Paul Tregarva.’
He pulled Tregarva’s face down to his own, and whispered —
‘Them’s the bells a-ringing for Miss Honor’s wedding.’
Paul started and drew back. Harry chuckled and grinned for a moment in his old foxy, peering way, and then wandered off again.
‘What’s that thumping and roaring?’ Alas! it was the failing pulsation of his own heart. ‘It’s the weir, the weir — a-washing me away — thundering over me. — Squire, I’m drowning — drowning and choking! Oh, Lord, how deep! Now it’s running quieter — now I can breathe again — swift and oily — running on, running on, down to the sea. See how the grayling sparkle! There’s a pike! ‘Tain’t my fault, squire, so help me — Don’t swear, now, squire; old men and dying maun’t swear, squire. How steady the river runs down? Lower and slower — lower and slower: now it’s quite still — still — still —’
His voice sank away — he was dead!
No! once more the light flashed up in the socket. He sprang upright in the bed, and held out his withered paw with a kind of wild majesty, as he shouted —
‘There ain’t such a head of hares on any manor in the county. And them’s the last words of Harry Verney!’
He fell back — shuddered — a rattle in his throat — another — and all was over.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10