‘You see, you are my crutch,’ Lady Dunstane said to him—raising the stick in reminder of the present.
He offered his arm and hurriedly informed her, to dispose of dull personal matter, that he had just landed. She looked at the clock. ‘Lukin is in town. You know the song: “Alas, I scarce can go or creep While Lukin is away.” I do not doubt you have succeeded in your business over there. Ah! Now I suppose you have confidence in your success. I should have predicted it, had you come to me.’ She stood, either musing or in weakness, and said abruptly: ‘Will you object to lunching at one o’clock?’
‘The sooner the better,’ said Redworth. She had sighed: her voice betrayed some agitation, strange in so serenely-minded a person.
His partial acquaintance with the Herculean Sir Lukin’s reputation in town inspired a fear of his being about to receive admission to the distressful confidences of the wife, and he asked if Mrs. Warwick was well. The answer sounded ominous, with its accompaniment of evident pain: ‘I think her health is good.’
Had they quarrelled? He said he had not heard a word of Mrs. Warwick for several months.
‘I—heard from her this morning,’ said Lady Dunstane, and motioned him to a chair beside the sofa, where she half reclined, closing her eyes. The sight of tears on the eyelashes frightened him. She roused herself to look at the clock. ‘Providence or accident, you are here,’ she said. ‘I could not have prayed for the coming of a truer’ man. Mrs. Warwick is in great danger. . . . You know our love. She is the best of me, heart and soul. Her husband has chosen to act on vile suspicions—baseless, I could hold my hand in the fire and swear. She has enemies, or the jealous fury is on the man—I know little of him. He has commenced an action against her. He will rue it. But she . . . you understand this of women at least;—they are not cowards in all things!—but the horror of facing a public scandal: my poor girl writes of the hatefulness of having to act the complacent—put on her accustomed self! She would have to go about, a mark for the talkers, and behave as if nothing were in the air-full of darts! Oh, that general whisper!—it makes a coup de massue—a gale to sink the bravest vessel: and a woman must preserve her smoothest front; chat, smile—or else!—Well, she shrinks from it. I should too. She is leaving the country.’
‘Wrong!’ cried Redworth.
‘Wrong indeed. She writes, that in two days she will be out of it. Judge her as I do, though you are a man, I pray. You have seen the hunted hare. It is our education—we have something of the hare in us when the hounds are full cry. Our bravest, our best, have an impulse to run. “By this, poor Wat far off upon a hill.” Shakespeare would have the divine comprehension. I have thought all round it and come back to him. She is one of Shakespeare’s women: another character, but one of his own:—another Hermione! I dream of him—seeing her with that eye of steady flame. The bravest and best of us at bay in the world need an eye like his, to read deep and not be baffled by inconsistencies.’
Insensibly Redworth blinked. His consciousness of an exalted compassion for the lady was heated by these flights of advocacy to feel that he was almost seated beside the sovereign poet thus eulogized, and he was of a modest nature.
‘But you are practical,’ pursued Lady Dunstane, observing signs that she took for impatience. ‘You are thinking of what can be done. If Lukin were here I would send him to The Crossways without a moment’s delay, on the chance, the mere chance:—it shines to me! If I were only a little stronger! I fear I might break down, and it would be unfair to my husband. He has trouble enough with my premature infirmities already. I am certain she will go to The Crossways. Tony is one of the women who burn to give last kisses to things they love. And she has her little treasures hoarded there. She was born there. Her father died there. She is three parts Irish—superstitious in affection. I know her so well. At this moment I see her there. If not, she has grown unlike herself.’
‘Have you a stout horse in the stables?’ Redworth asked.
‘You remember the mare Bertha; you have ridden her.’
‘The mare would do, and better than a dozen horses.’ He consulted his watch. ‘Let me mount Bertha, I engage to deliver a letter at The Crossways to-night.’
Lady Dunstane half inclined to act hesitation in accepting the aid she sought, but said: ‘Will you find your way?’
He spoke of three hours of daylight and a moon to rise. ‘She has often pointed out to me from your ridges where The Crossways lies, about three miles from the Downs, near a village named Storling, on the road to Brasted.
The house has a small plantation of firs behind it, and a bit of river—rare for Sussex—to the right. An old straggling red brick house at Crossways, a stone’s throw from a fingerpost on a square of green: roads to Brasted, London, Wickford, Riddlehurst. I shall find it. Write what you have to say, my lady, and confide it to me. She shall have it to-night, if she’s where you suppose. I’ll go, with your permission, and take a look at the mare. Sussex roads are heavy in this damp weather, and the frost coming on won’t improve them for a tired beast. We haven’t our rails laid down there yet.’
‘You make me admit some virtues in the practical,’ said Lady Dunstane; and had the poor fellow vollied forth a tale of the everlastingness of his passion for Diana, it would have touched her far less than his exact memory of Diana’s description of her loved birthplace.
‘I trust my messenger to tell you how I hang on you. I see my ship making for the rocks. You break your Emma’s heart. It will be the second wrong step. I shall not survive it. The threat has made me incapable of rushing to you, as I might have had strength to do yesterday. I am shattered, and I wait panting for Mr. Redworth’s return with you. He has called, by accident, as we say. Trust to him. If ever heaven was active to avert a fatal mischance it is today. You will not stand against my supplication. It is my life I cry for. I have no more time. He starts. He leaves me to pray— like the mother seeing her child on the edge of the cliff. Come. This is your breast, my Tony? And your soul warns you it is right to come. Do rightly. Scorn other counsel—the coward’s. Come with our friend—the one man known to me who can be a friend of women.
Redworth was in the room. ‘The mare’ll do it well,’ he said. ‘She has had her feed, and in five minutes will be saddled at the door.’
‘But you must eat, dear friend,’ said the hostess.
‘I’ll munch at a packet of sandwiches on the way. There seems a chance, and the time for lunching may miss it.’
‘You understand . . .?’
‘Everything, I fancy.’
‘If she is there!’
‘One break in the run will turn her back.’
The sensitive invalid felt a blow in his following up the simile of the hunted hare for her friend, but it had a promise of hopefulness. And this was all that could be done by earthly agents, under direction of spiritual, as her imagination encouraged her to believe.
She saw him start, after fortifying him with a tumbler of choice Bordeaux, thinking how Tony would have said she was like a lady arming her knight for battle. On the back of the mare he passed her window, after lifting his hat, and he thumped at his breast-pocket, to show her where the letter housed safely. The packet of provision bulged on his hip, absurdly and blessedly to her sight, not unlike the man, in his combination of robust serviceable qualities, as she reflected during the later hours, until the sun fell on smouldering November woods, and sensations of the frost he foretold bade her remember that he had gone forth riding like a huntsman. His great-coat lay on a chair in the hall, and his travelling-bag was beside it. He had carried it up from the valley, expecting hospitality, and she had sent him forth half naked to weather a frosty November night! She called in the groom, whose derision of a great-coat for any gentleman upon Bertha, meaning work for the mare, appeased her remorsefulness. Brisby, the groom, reckoned how long the mare would take to do the distance to Storling, with a rider like Mr. Redworth on her back. By seven, Brisby calculated, Mr. Redworth would be knocking at the door of the Three Ravens Inn, at Storling, when the mare would have a decent grooming, and Mr. Redworth was not the gentleman to let her be fed out of his eye. More than that, Brisby had some acquaintance with the people of the inn. He begged to inform her ladyship that he was half a Sussex man, though not exactly born in the county; his parents had removed to Sussex after the great event; and the Downs were his first field of horse-exercise, and no place in the world was like them, fair weather or foul, Summer or Winter, and snow ten feet deep in the gullies. The grandest air in England, he had heard say.
His mistress kept him to the discourse, for the comfort of hearing hard bald matter-of-fact; and she was amused and rebuked by his assumption that she must be entertaining an anxiety about master’s favourite mare. But, ah! that Diana had delayed in choosing a mate; had avoided her disastrous union with perhaps a more imposing man, to see the true beauty of masculine character in Mr. Redworth, as he showed himself today. How could he have doubted succeeding? One grain more of faith in his energy, and Diana might have been mated to the right husband for her—an open-minded clear-faced English gentleman. Her speculative ethereal mind clung to bald matter-of-fact today. She would have vowed that it was the sole potentially heroical. Even Brisby partook of the reflected rays, and he was very benevolently considered by her. She dismissed him only when his recounting of the stages of Bertha’s journey began to fatigue her and deaden the medical efficacy of him and his like. Stretched on the sofa, she watched the early sinking sun in South-western cloud, and the changes from saffron to intensest crimson, the crown of a November evening, and one of frost.
Redworth struck on a southward line from chalk-ridge to sand, where he had a pleasant footing in familiar country, under beeches that browned the ways, along beside a meadowbrook fed by the heights, through pines and across deep sand-ruts to full view of weald and Downs. Diana had been with him here in her maiden days. The coloured back of a coach put an end to that dream. He lightened his pocket, surveying the land as he munched. A favourable land for rails: and she had looked over it: and he was now becoming a wealthy man: and she was a married woman straining the leash. His errand would not bear examination, it seemed such a desperate long shot. He shut his inner vision on it, and pricked forward. When the burning sunset shot waves above the juniper and yews behind him, he was far on the weald, trotting down an interminable road. That the people opposing railways were not people of business, was his reflection, and it returned persistently: for practical men, even the most devoted among them, will think for themselves; their army, which is the rational, calls them to its banners, in opposition to the sentimental; and Redworth joined it in the abstract, summoning the horrible state of the roads to testify against an enemy wanting almost in common humaneness. A slip of his excellent stepper in one of the half-frozen pits of the highway was the principal cause of his confusion of logic; she was half on her knees. Beyond the market town the roads were so bad that he quitted them, and with the indifference of an engineer, struck a line of his own Southeastward over fields and ditches, favoured by a round horizon moon on his left. So for a couple of hours he went ahead over rolling fallow land to the meadow-flats and a pale shining of freshets; then hit on a lane skirting the water, and reached an amphibious village; five miles from Storling, he was informed, and a clear traverse of lanes, not to be mistaken, ‘if he kept a sharp eye open.’ The sharpness of his eyes was divided between the sword-belt of the starry Hunter and the shifting lanes that zig-tagged his course below. The Downs were softly illumined; still it amazed him to think of a woman like Diana Warwick having an attachment to this district, so hard of yield, mucky, featureless, fit but for the rails she sided with her friend in detesting. Reasonable women, too! The moon, stood high on her march as he entered Storling. He led his good beast to the stables of The Three Ravens, thanking her and caressing her. The ostler conjectured from the look of the mare that he had been out with the hounds and lost his way. It appeared to Redworth singularly, that near the ending of a wild goose chase, his plight was pretty well described by the fellow. However, he had to knock at the door of The Crossways now, in the silent night time, a certainly empty house, to his fancy. He fed on a snack of cold meat and tea, standing, and set forth, clearly directed, ‘if he kept a sharp eye open.’ Hitherto he had proved his capacity, and he rather smiled at the repetition of the formula to him, of all men. A turning to the right was taken, one to the left, and through the churchyard, out of the gate, round to the right, and on. By this route, after an hour, he found himself passing beneath the bare chestnuts of the churchyard wall of Storling, and the sparkle of the edges of the dead chestnut-leaves at his feet reminded him of the very ideas he had entertained when treading them. The loss of an hour strung him to pursue the chase in earnest, and he had a beating of the heart as he thought that it might be serious. He recollected thinking it so at Copsley. The long ride, and nightfall, with nothing in view, had obscured his mind to the possible behind the thick obstruction of the probable; again the possible waved its marsh-light. To help in saving her from a fatal step, supposing a dozen combinations of the conditional mood, became his fixed object, since here he was— of that there was no doubt; and he was not here to play the fool, though the errand were foolish. He entered the churchyard, crossed the shadow of the tower, and hastened along the path, fancying he beheld a couple of figures vanishing before him. He shouted; he hoped to obtain directions from these natives: the moon was bright, the gravestones legible; but no answer came back, and the place appeared to belong entirely to the dead. ‘I’ve frightened them,’ he thought. They left a queerish sensation in his frame. A ride down to Sussex to see ghosts would be an odd experience; but an undigested dinner of tea is the very grandmother of ghosts; and he accused it of confusing him, sight and mind. Out of the gate, now for the turning to the right, and on. He turned. He must have previously turned wrongly somewhere—and where? A light in a cottage invited him to apply for the needed directions. The door was opened by a woman, who had never heard tell of The Crossways, nor had her husband, nor any of the children crowding round them. A voice within ejaculated: ‘Crassways!’ and soon upon the grating of a chair, an old man, whom the woman named her lodger, by way of introduction, presented himself with his hat on, saying: ‘I knows the spot they calls Crassways,’ and he led. Redworth understood the intention that a job was to be made of it, and submitting, said: ‘To the right, I think.’ He was bidden to come along, if he wanted ‘they Crassways,’ and from the right they turned to the left, and further sharp round, and on to a turn, where the old man, otherwise incommunicative, said: ‘There, down thik theer road, and a post in the middle.’
‘I want a house, not a post!’ roared Redworth, spying a bare space.
The old man despatched a finger travelling to his nob. ‘Naw, there’s ne’er a house. But that’s crassways for four roads, if it ‘s crassways, you wants.’
They journeyed backward. They were in such a maze of lanes that the old man was master, and Redworth vowed to be rid of him at the first cottage. This, however, they were long in reaching, and the old man was promptly through the garden-gate, hailing the people and securing ‘information, before Redworth could well hear. He smiled at the dogged astuteness of a dense-headed old creature determined to establish a claim to his fee. They struck a lane sharp to the left.
‘You’re Sussex?’ Redworth asked him, and was answered: ‘Naw; the Sheers.’
Emerging from deliberation, the old man said: ‘Ah’m a Hampshireman.’
‘A capital county!’
‘Heigh!’ The old man heaved his chest. ‘Once!’
‘Why, what has happened to it?’
‘Once it were a capital county, I say. Hah! you asks me what have happened to it. You take and go and look at it now. And down heer’ll be no better soon, I tells ’em. When ah was a boy, old Hampshire was a proud country, wi’ the old coaches and the old squires, and Harvest Homes, and Christmas merryings.—Cutting up the land! There’s no pride in livin’ theer, nor anywhere, as I sees, now.’
‘You mean the railways.’
‘It’s the Devil come up and abroad ower all England!’ exclaimed the melancholy ancient patriot.
A little cheering was tried on him, but vainly. He saw with unerring distinctness the triumph of the Foul Potentate, nay his personal appearance ‘in they theer puffin’ engines.’ The country which had produced Andrew Hedger, as he stated his name to be, would never show the same old cricketing commons it did when he was a boy. Old England, he declared, was done for.
When Redworth applied to his watch under the brilliant moonbeams, he discovered that he had been listening to this natural outcry of a decaying and shunted class full three-quarters of an hour, and The Crossways was not in sight. He remonstrated. The old man plodded along. ‘We must do as we’re directed,’ he said.
Further walking brought them to a turn. Any turn seemed hopeful. Another turn offered the welcome sight of a blazing doorway on a rise of ground off the road. Approaching it, the old man requested him to ‘bide a bit,’ and stalked the ascent at long strides. A vigorous old fellow. Redworth waited below, observing how he joined the group at the lighted door, and, as it was apparent, put his question of the whereabout of The Crossways. Finally, in extreme impatience, he walked up to the group of spectators. They were all, and Andrew Hedger among them, the most entranced and profoundly reverent, observing the dissection of a pig.
Unable to awaken his hearing, Redworth jogged his arm, and the shake was ineffective until it grew in force.
‘I’ve no time to lose; have they told you the way?’
Andrew Hedger yielded his arm. He slowly withdrew his intent fond gaze from the fair outstretched white carcase, and with drooping eyelids, he said: ‘Ah could eat hog a solid hower!’
He had forgotten to ask the way, intoxicated by the aspect of the pig; and when he did ask it, he was hard of understanding, given wholly to his last glimpses.
Redworth got the directions. He would have dismissed Mr. Andrew Hedger, but there was no doing so. ‘I’ll show ye on to The Crossways House,’ the latter said, implying that he had already earned something by showing him The Crossways post.
‘Hog’s my feed,’ said Andrew Hedger. The gastric springs of eloquence moved him to discourse, and he unburdened himself between succulent pauses. ‘They’ve killed him early. He ‘s fat; and he might ha’ been fatter. But he’s fat. They’ve got their Christmas ready, that they have. Lord! you should see the chitterlings, and—the sausages hung up to and along the beams. That’s a crown for any dwellin’! They runs ’em round the top of the room—it’s like a May-day wreath in old times. Home-fed hog! They’ve a treat in store, they have. And snap your fingers at the world for many a long day. And the hams! They cure their own hams at that house. Old style! That’s what I say of a hog. He’s good from end to end, and beats a Christian hollow. Everybody knows it and owns it.’
Redworth was getting tired. In sympathy with current conversation, he said a word for the railways: they would certainly make the flesh of swine cheaper, bring a heap of hams into the market. But Andrew Hedger remarked with contempt that he had not much opinion of foreign hams: nobody, knew what they fed on. Hog, he said, would feed on anything, where there was no choice they had wonderful stomachs for food. Only, when they had a choice, they left the worst for last, and home-fed filled them with stuff to make good meat and fat ‘what we calls prime bacon.’ As it is not right to damp a native enthusiasm, Redworth let him dilate on his theme, and mused on his boast to eat hog a solid hour, which roused some distant classic recollection:—an odd jumble.
They crossed the wooden bridge of a flooded stream.
‘Now ye have it,’ said the hog-worshipper; ‘that may be the house, I reckon.’
A dark mass of building, with the moon behind it, shining in spires through a mound of firs, met Redworth’s gaze. The windows all were blind, no smoke rose from the chimneys. He noted the dusky square of green, and the finger-post signalling the centre of the four roads. Andrew Hedger repeated that it was The Crossways house, ne’er a doubt. Redworth paid him his expected fee, whereupon Andrew, shouldering off, wished him a hearty good night, and forthwith departed at high pedestrian pace, manifestly to have a concluding look at the beloved anatomy.
There stood the house. Absolutely empty! thought Redworth. The sound of the gate-bell he rang was like an echo to him. The gate was unlocked. He felt a return of his queer churchyard sensation when walking up the garden-path, in the shadow of the house. Here she was born: here her father died: and this was the station of her dreams, as a girl at school near London and in Paris. Her heart was here. He looked at the windows facing the Downs with dead eyes. The vivid idea of her was a phantom presence, and cold, assuring him that the bodily Diana was absent. Had Lady Dunstane guessed rightly, he might perhaps have been of service!
Anticipating the blank silence, he rang the house-bell. It seemed to set wagging a weariful tongue in a corpse. The bell did its duty to the last note, and one thin revival stroke, for a finish, as in days when it responded livingly to the guest. He pulled, and had the reply, just the same, with the faint terminal touch, resembling exactly a ‘There!’ at the close of a voluble delivery in the negative. Absolutely empty. He pulled and pulled. The bell wagged, wagged. This had been a house of a witty host, a merry girl, junketting guests; a house of hilarious thunders, lightnings of fun and fancy. Death never seemed more voiceful than in that wagging of the bell.
For conscience’ sake, as became a trusty emissary, he walked round to the back of the house, to verify the total emptiness. His apprehensive despondency had said that it was absolutely empty, but upon consideration he supposed the house must have some guardian: likely enough, an old gardener and his wife, lost in deafness double-shotted by sleep! There was no sign of them. The night air waxed sensibly crisper. He thumped the backdoors. Blank hollowness retorted on the blow. He banged and kicked. The violent altercation with wood and wall lasted several minutes, ending as it had begun.
Flesh may worry, but is sure to be worsted in such an argument.
‘Well, my dear lady!’—Redworth addressed Lady Dunstane aloud, while driving his hands into his pockets for warmth —‘we’ve done what we could. The next best thing is to go to bed and see what morning brings us.’
The temptation to glance at the wild divinings of dreamy-witted women from the point of view of the practical man, was aided by the intense frigidity of the atmosphere in leading him to criticize a sex not much used to the exercise of brains. ‘And they hate railways!’ He associated them, in the matter of intelligence, with Andrew Hedger and Company. They sank to the level of the temperature in his esteem—as regarded their intellects. He approved their warmth of heart. The nipping of the victim’s toes and finger-tips testified powerfully to that.
Round to the front of the house at a trot, he stood in moonlight. Then, for involuntarily he now did everything running, with a dash up the steps he seized the sullen pendant bell-handle, and worked it pumpwise, till he perceived a smaller bell-knob beside the door, at which he worked piston-wise. Pump and piston, the hurly-burly and the tinkler created an alarm to scare cat and mouse and Cardinal spider, all that run or weave in desolate houses, with the good result of a certain degree of heat to his frame. He ceased, panting. No stir within, nor light. That white stare of windows at the moon was undisturbed.
The Downs were like a wavy robe of shadowy grey silk. No wonder that she had loved to look on them!
And it was no wonder that Andrew Hedger enjoyed prime bacon. Bacon frizzling, fat rashers of real homefed on the fire-none of your foreign-suggested a genial refreshment and resistance to antagonistic elements. Nor was it, granting health, granting a sharp night—the temperature at least fifteen below zero—an excessive boast for a man to say he could go on eating for a solid hour.
These were notions darting through a half nourished gentleman nipped in the frame by a severely frosty night. Truly a most beautiful night! She would have delighted to see it here. The Downs were like floating islands, like fairy-laden vapours; solid, as Andrew Hedger’s hour of eating; visionary, as too often his desire!
Redworth muttered to himself, after taking the picture of the house and surrounding country from the sward, that he thought it about the sharpest night he had ever encountered in England. He was cold, hungry, dispirited, and astoundingly stricken with an incapacity to separate any of his thoughts from old Andrew Hedger. Nature was at her pranks upon him.
He left the garden briskly, as to the legs, and reluctantly. He would have liked to know whether Diana had recently visited the house, or was expected. It could be learnt in the morning; but his mission was urgent and he on the wings of it. He was vexed and saddened.
Scarcely had he closed the garden-gate when the noise of an opening window arrested him, and he called. The answer was in a feminine voice, youngish, not disagreeable, though not Diana’s.
He heard none of the words, but rejoined in a bawl: ‘Mrs. Warwick!—Mr. Redworth!’
That was loud enough for the deaf or the dead.
The window closed. He went to the door and waited. It swung wide to him; and O marvel of a woman’s divination of a woman! there stood Diana.
Last updated Tuesday, January 12, 2016 at 18:34