Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 32.

Some of the Humours of a London Mews.

So pursuing the course of our story, we have brought ourselves to the present extraordinary position. That Charles Ravenshoe, of Ravenshoe, in the county Devonshire, Esquire, and sometime of St. Paul’s College, Oxford, had hired himself out as groom to Lieutenant Hornby, of the 11Oth Hussars, and that also the above-named Charles Ravenshoe was not, and never had been, Charles Ravenshoe at all, but somebody else all the time, to wit, Charles Horton, a gamekeeper’s son, if indeed he was even this, having been christened under a false name. The situation is so extraordinary and so sad, that having taken the tragical view of it in the previous chapter, we must of necessity begin to look on the brighter side of it now. And this is the better art, because it is exactly what Charles began to do himself. One blow succeeded the other so rapidly, the utter bouleversement of all that he cared about in the world. Father, friends, position, mistress, all lost in one day, had brought on a kind of light-hearted desperation, which had the effect of making him seek company, and talk boisterously and loud all day. It was not unnatural in so young and vigorous a man. But if he oke in the night, there was the cold claw grasping his heart. Well, I said, we would have none of this at present, and we won’t.

Patient old earth, intent only on doing her duty in her set courses, and unmindful of the mites which had been set to make love or war on her bosom, and the least of whom was worth her whole well-organized mass, had rolled on, and on, until by bringing that portion of her which contains the island of Britain, gradually in greater proximity to the sun, she had produced that state of things on that particular part of her which is known among mortals as spring. Now, I am very anxious to please all parties. Some people like a little circumlocution, and for them the above paragraph was written; others do not, and for them, I state that it was the latter end of May, and beg them not to read the above flight of fancy, but to consider it as never having been written.

It was spring. On the sea-coast, the watchers at the lighthouses and the preventive stations began to walk about in their shirt-sleeves, and trim up their patches of spray-beaten garden, hedged with tree-mallow and tamarisk, and to thank God that the long howling winter nights were past for a time. The fishermen shouted merrily one to another as they put off from shore, no longer dreading a twelve hours’ purgatory of sleet and freezing-mist and snow; saying to one another how green the land looked, and how pleasant mackarel time was after all. Their wives, light-hearted at the thought that the wild winter was past, and that they were not widows, brought their work out to the doors, and gossiped pleasantly in the sun, while some of the bolder boys began to paddle about in the surf, and try to believe that the Gulf Stream had come in, and that it was summer again, and not only spring.

In inland country places the barley was all in and springing, the meadows were all bush-harrowed, rolled, and laid up for hay; nay, in early places, brimful of grass, spangled with purple orchises, and in moist rich places golden with marsh marigold, over which the south-west wind passed pleasantly, bringing a sweet perfume of growing vegetation, which gave those who smelt it a tendency to lean against gates, and stiles, and such places, and think what a delicious season it was, and wish it were to last for ever. The young men began to slip away from work somewhat early of an evening, not (as now) to the parade ground, or the butts, but to take their turn at the wicket on the green, where Sir John (our young landlord), was to be found in a scarlet flannel shirt, bowling away like a catapult, at all comers, till the second bell began to ring, and he had to dash off and dress. Now lovers walking by moonlight in deep banked lanes began to notice how dark and broad the shadows grew, and to wait at the lane’s end by the river, to listen to the nightingale, with his breast against the thorn, ranging on from height to height of melodious passion, petulant at his want of art, till he broke into one wild jubilant burst, and ceased, leaving night silent, save for the whispering of newborn insects, and the creeping sound of reviving vegetation.

Spring. The great renewal of the lease. The time when nature-worshippers make good resolutions, to be very often broken before the leaves fall. The time the country becomes once more habitable and agreeable. Does it make any difference in the hundred miles of brick and mortar called London, save, in so far as it makes every reasonable Christian pack up his portmanteau and fly to the green fields, and lover’s lanes beforementioned (though it takes two people for the latter sort of business)? Why, yes; it makes a difference to London certainly, by bringing somewhere about 10,000 people, who have got sick of shooting and hunting through the winter months, swarming into the west end of it, and making it what is called full.

I don’t know that they are wrong after all, for London is a mighty pleasant place in the season (we don’t call it spring on the paving-stones). At this time the windows of the great houses in the squares begin to be brilliant with flowers; and, under the awnings of the balconies, one sees women moving about in the shadow. Now, all through the short night, one hears the ceaseless low rolling thunder of beautiful carriages, and in the daytime also the noise ceases not. All through the west end of the town there is a smell of flowers, of fresh watered roads, and Macassar oil; while at Covent Garden, the scent of the peaches and pineapples begins to prevail over that of rotten cabbage-stalks. The fiddlers are all fiddling away at concert pitch for their lives, the actors are all acting their very hardest, and, the men who look after the horses, have never a minute to call their own, day or night. . It is neither to dukes nor duchesses, to actors nor fiddlers, that we must turn our attention just now, but to a man who was sitting in a wheelbarrow watching a tame jackdaw.

The place was a London mews, behind one of the great squares — the time was afternoon. The weather was warm and sunny. All the proprietors of the horses were out riding or driving, and so the stables were empty and the mews were quiet.

This was about a week after Charles’s degradation, almost the first hour he had to himself in the daytime, and so he sat pondering on his unhappy lot.

Lord Ballyroundtower’s coachman’s wife was hanging out the clothes. She was an Irishwoman off the estate (his lordship’s Irish residences, I see on referring to the peerage, are, “The Grove,” Blarney, and “Swatewathers,” near Avoca). When I say that she was hanging out the clothes I am hardly correct, for she was only fixing the lines up to do so, and being of short stature, and having to reach, was naturally showing her heels, and the jackdaw perceiving this, began to hop stealthily across the yard. Charles saw what was conung and became deeply interested. He would not have spoken for his life. The jackdaw sidled up to her, and began digging into her tendon Achilles with his hard bill with force and rapidity which showed that he was fully-aware of the fact, that the amusement, like most pleasant things, could not last long, and must therefore be made the most of Some women would have screamed and faced round at the first assault.!N’ot so our Irish friend. She endured the anguish until she had succeeded in fastening the clothes-line round the post, and then she turned round on the jackdaw, who had fluttered away to a safe distance, and denounced him.

“Bad cess to ye, ye impident divie, sure it’s Sathan’s own sister’s son ye are, ye dirty prothestant, pecking at the hales of an honest woman, daughter of my lord’s own man. Corny O’Brine, as was a dale bether nor them as sits on whalebarrows and sets ye on too’t — (this was levelled at Charles, so he politely took off his cap and bowed).

“Though, God forgive me, there’s some sitting on whalebarrows as should be sitting in drawingrooms may be (here the jackdaw raised one foot, and said “Jark ”). Get out ye baste, don’t ye hear me blessed lady’s own bird swearing at ye, like a gentleman’s bird as he is. A pretty dear.”

This was strictly true. Lord Ballyroundtower’s brother, the Honourable Frederick Mulligan, was a lieutenant in the navy. A short time before this, being on the Australian station, and wishing to make his sister-in-law a handsome present, he had commissioned a Sydney Jew bird-dealer to get him a sulphur-crested cockatoo, price no object, but the best talker in the olony. The Jew faithfully performed his behest; he got him the best talking cockatoo in the colony, and the Hon. Fred, brought it home in triumph to his sister-in-law’s drawingroom in Belgrave Square.

The bird was a beautiful talker. There was no doubt about that. It had such an amazingly distinct enunciation. But then the bird was not always discreet. Nay, to go further, the bird never icas discreet. He had been educated by a convict bullock-driver, and finished off by the sailors on board H.M.S. Actceon, and really you know, sometimes he did say things he ought not to have said. It was all very well pretending that you couldn’t hear him, but it rendered conversation impossible. You were always in agony at what was to come next. One afternoon a great many people were there, calling. Old Lady Hainault was there. The bird was worse than ever. Every body tried to avoid a silence, but it came, inexorably. That awful old woman, Lady Hainault, broke it by saying that she thought Fred Mulligan must have been giving the bird private lessons himself. After that you know it wouldn’t do. Fred might be angry, but the bird must go to the mews.

So there the bird was, swearing dreadfully at the jackdaw. At last her ladyship’s pug dog, who was staying with the coachman for medical treatment, got excited, bundled out of the house, and attacked the jackdaw. The jackdaw formed square to resist cavalry, and sent the dog howling into the house again quicker than he came out. After which the bird barked and came and sat on the dunghill by Charles.

The mews itself, as I said, was very quiet, with a smell of stable, subdued by a fresh scent of sprinkled water; but at the upper end it joined a street leading from Belgrave Square towards the Park, which was by no means quiet, and which smelt of geraniums and heliotropes. Carriage after carriage went blazing past the end of the mews, along this street, like figures across the disk of a magic lanthorn. Some had scarlet breeches, and some blue; and there were pink bonnets, and yellow bonnets, and Magenta bonnets; and Charles sat on the wheelbarrow by the dunghill, and looked at it all, perfectly contented.

A stray dog lounged in out of the street. It was a cur dog — that any one might see. It was a dog which had bit its rope and run away, for the rope was round its neck now; and it was a thirsty dog, for it went up to the pump and licked the stones. Charles went and pumped for it, and it drank. Then, evidently considering that Charles, by his act of good nature, had acquired authority over its person, and having tried to do without a master already, and having found it wouldn’t do, it sat down beside Charles and declined to proceed any further.

There was a public-house at the corner of the mews, where it joined the street; and on the other side of the street you could see one house. No. 16. The footman of No. 16 was in the area, looking through the railings.

A thirsty man came to the public-house on horseback, and drank a pot of beer at a draught, turning the pot upside down. It was too much for the footman, who disappeared.

Next came a butcher with a tray of meat, who turned into the area of No. 16, and left the gate open. After him came a blind man, led by a dog. The dog, instead of going straight on, turned down the area steps after the butcher. The blind man thought he was going round the corner. Charles saw what would happen; but, before he had time to cry out, the blind man had plunged headlong down the area steps and disappeared, while from the bottom, as from the pit, arose the curses of the butcher.

Charles and others assisted the blind man up, gave him some beer, and set him on his way. Charles watched him. After he had gone a little way, he began striking spitefully at where he thought his dog was, with his stick. The dog was evidently used to this amusement, and dexterously avoided the blows. Finding vertical blows of no avail, the blind man tried horizontal ones, and caught an old gentleman across the shins, making him drop his umbrella and catch up his leg. The blind man promptly asked an alms from him, and, not getting one, turned the corner; and Charles saw him no more.

The hot street and, beyond, the square, the dusty lilacs and laburnums, and the crimson hawthorns. What a day for a bathe! outside the gentle surf, with the sunny headlands right and left, and the moor sleeping quietly in the afternoon sunlight, and Lundy, like a faint blue cloud on the Atlantic horizon, and the old house. He was away at Ravenshoe on a May afternoon.

They say poets are never sane; but are they ever mad? Never. Even old Cowper saved himself from actual madness by using his imagination. Charles was no poet; but he was a good day-dreamer, and so now, instead of maddening himself in his squalid brick prison, he was away in the old bay, bathing and fishing, and wandering up the old stream, breast high among king-fern under the shadowy oaks.

Bricks and mortar, carriages and footmen, wheelbarrows and dunghills, all came back in one moment, and settled on his outward senses with a jar. For there was a rattle of horse’s feet on the stones, and the clank of a sabre, and Lieutenant Hornby, of the 140tli Hussars (Prince Arthur’s Own), came branking into the yard, with two hundred pounds’ worth of trappings on him, looking out for his servant. He was certainly a splendid fellow, and Charles looked at him with a certain kind of pride, as on something that he had a share in.

“Come round to the front door, Horton, and take my horse up to the barracks ” (the Queen had been to the station that morning, and his guard was over.)

Charles walked beside him round into Grosvenor Place. He could not avoid stealing a glance up at the magnificent apparition beside him; and, as he did so, he met a pair of kind grey eyes looking down on him.

“You mustn’t sit and mope there, Horton,” said the lieutenant; “it never does to mope. I know it is infernally hard to help it, and of course you can’t associate with servants, and that sort of thing, at first; but you will get used to it. If you think I don’t know you are a gentleman, you are mistaken. I don’t know who you are, and shall not try to find out. I’ll lend you books or anything of that sort; but you mustn’t brood over it. I can’t stand seeing my fellows wretched, more especially a fellow like you.”

If it had been to save his life, Charles couldn’t say a word. He looked up at the lieutenant and nodded his head. The lieutenant understood him well enough, and said to himself —

“Poor fellow!”

So there arose between these two a feeling which lightened Charles’s servitude, and which before the end came had grown into a liking. Charles’s vengeance was not for Hornby, for the injury did not come from him. His vengeance was reserved for another, and we shall see how he took it.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56