Among the rest a shepherd, though but young,
Yet harten’d to his pipe, with all the skill
His few years could, began to fit his quill, Willie he hight. . . .
Fair was the day, but fairer was the maid
Who that day’s morn into the green-woods stray’d.
Sweet was the air, but sweeter was her breathing, Such rare perfumes the roses are bequeathing.
Browne, “Britannia’s Pastorals.”
It was the shepherd-cowman, and not Jinny, who delivered the horn to Will. She had “happened of him,” Master Peartree explained tediously, in the remote field to which he had taken the sheep to feed off the winter barley. “Powerfully trumpeting” for him with it just when he was looking for fly, when indeed in the very act of discovering a maggoty rump, she had besought him to convey that “liddle ole horn,” she being so late and Gran’fer likely to be “in a taking.”
Now this “liddle ole horn”—when Will saw Master Peartree and his sheep-dog coming along in the evening light—he took to be the shepherd’s crook or his great umbrella folded, so lengthy did it loom, and when he perceived that it was what he was expected to perform on, he was taken aback. It was not that he had not seen coach-horns in plenty, but he had seen them in their proper environment and at their proper altitude, their elemental straightforwardness making an exhilarating right-angle with the guard’s mouth, a sort of streaming pennon. But a coach-horn in its bare quiddity, quite as tall as the shrunken old shepherd, and hardly a foot shorter than Will himself, dissociated from jovial visions of scarlet, rum-soused visages and spanking steeds, was as ungainly to behold and as awkward to handle as it was difficult to explain away. Evidently the jade had bought him the largest size on the market; he knew not whether to be flattered or vexed at her idea of the appropriately virile. But to send it by this alien hand—to make a village wonder and scandal of it! How, indeed, was he to explain to the bucolic mind his sudden passion for the instrument? Flutes and concertinas folks could understand, even tin whistles; but what could a man looking round for a farm want with a colossal coach-horn? He was glad at least he had met Master Peartree out of sight of his parents. There was a note attached to the case, and he opened it the more eagerly that it delayed the explanation which Master Peartree seemed to his morbid vision to be grimly awaiting.
“Sir,—Mr. Daniel Quarles has pleasure in forwarding per favour of bearer Mr. William Flynt’s esteemed order. Bill enclosed. I hope you will find the stature agreeable to you—it was only by casualty I got such a protracted one, and as the compass protracts with the stature you could easily educe three octaves from it. Half-tones of course I shall not expect as without holes only a musical Arabian spirit like my granddaughter can evoke them, but when you can play the ‘Buy a Broom’ Polka with concinnity, I shall consider the gloves fairly conquered.
“P.S.—The mouthpiece unscrews being mutable, so I can exchange it for another, if this does not suit Mr. William Flynt’s lips.”
How the deuce was he to play a polka he had never heard, especially “with concinnity” (whatever that might be), was the dominant thought in his perturbed brain. But as Master Peartree seemed still expectant—was it even of a tune?—Will stooped down to pat the dog, whose black-tipped tail was hoisted like a friendly signal. It was a ragged animal just between two coats—a canine counterpart of its shabby, straggly-haired master—but Will caressed it like a velvety lapdog while he inquired carelessly—his horn tucked like a telescope under his arm—how the Carrier had carried herself, what exactly she had said. But he only provoked—after the briefest glimpse of the girl—a rambling narrative about a sheep that had broken its arm in a “roosh,” in the panicky restlessness of the thundery Sunday: it had fallen down a steep and another had rolled on top of it. And even with this “meldoo” the sheep were so pernickety you could do naught with ’em. Doubtless in this cloudy heat they felt the weight of their wool—he should be shearing some for the early market as soon as they could get the labour, which was not easy in these migrating days. Even young men who came back lazed about, he added pointedly, when they might be earning good money. Will hastened to inquire whether the shearers were as merry at their work as he remembered them. He could never forget the beautiful bass voice of Master Peartree, but he supposed time had now abated its resonancy, or was he mistaken? He was mistaken, he admiringly admitted, for the ancient was soon quavering out in a piping voice:
“There was a sheep went out to reap”
and Will, beating time with the great horn, was solemnly singing the chorus:
“Chrissimus Day, Chrissimus Day”
And now would the famous singer oblige with the “Buy a Broom Polka”? Alas, he did not know it, with or without “concinnity”! But young Ravens might know it, he who was as full of tunes as a dog of fleas, and with his perpetual flow of melody made bread and tea like harvest suppers, and shearing days as jolly as Chrissimus. But where was this musical box? Alas! he had “gone furrin,” being somewhere beyond Southend. But master expected him back for the shearing; he was a rolling stone, was Ravens, but he usually rolled back this time o’ year. No, not rolled with liquor, nor yet like the sheep that broke its arm. Had it been a fat sheep, he would have butchered it, but as it was only store he had set the arm himself. No, he had no need of a vet. for that, like the degenerate young shepherds nowadays; he wouldn’t be beholden to cattle-doctors, not he, keeping for ever o’ salts and gentians and bottles of lotion in his hut, although “suspicioning shab”—it might even be rot from the river-marsh—in one of the sheep which he had just been examining for fly, he had taken the opportunity to ask Jinny to send round Elijah Skindle. ’Tis a long talk that has no turning, and Will, when the narrative thus came, by a wide detour, back to Jinny, ceased fidgeting with the horn, and demanded what she had said to that. It transpired that she had refused to order Elijah, despite that Mrs. Flynt had recommended him as cheaper, alleging, drat her, that Jorrow was the better man. Will, curiously forgetting Mr. Flippance and his horse, concurred in the view that carriers cannot be choosers. He also started another current of indignation against carriers getting other folks to fetch and carry for them. Would the hard-working shepherd, who was too easily put upon, kindly not encourage the girl in future to shirk her job?
Touched by the sense of his own magnanimity and the sixpence slipped into his palm, the good shepherd promised to repress his obligingness in the interests of the higher ethics, and Will, bidding him farewell, slipped behind the row of stag-headed poplars opposite the gate of Frog Farm, and strove—before entering the house—to adjust his horn down his trousers and up his back. It was no easy process with such a “protracted” object: fortunately it was thin, save at the swelling end, but by keeping this bulge below, he could avoid humping his back. To walk with such a ramrod up it and adown one leg would, however, have taxed the talents of the most graceful damsel training for deportment. He hobbled painfully to the rear of the farmhouse, designing to hide the horn before entering, but lo! there was his mother filling the food-pot of his neglected ferrets.
“Oh, my poor Will!” she exclaimed. “I told your father you’d have rheumatics—sitting in chapel in your damp clothes.” She tried to take him pitifully in her arms but he limped away, fearing she would imagine his backbone had come outside.
“It’s only one leg a bit stiff,” he said ungraciously. But she hooked her arm in his and drew her halt offspring towards the back door; a brief but parlous journey, for he felt the horn slipping towards his boot.
“Why, your ankle’s swollen,” said Martha tragically.
“It’ll soon go down,” he assured her.
A terrible struggle agitated the maternal heart. Even Will, preoccupied with his grotesque position, could see her face working.
“You’re sure you wouldn’t like to have the doctor?”
“Oh no, mother. What nonsense!”
Her clouds lifted a little. “But this may be Jinny’s evening for coming—I could tell her to go for him to-morrow.”
“To-morrow it’ll be better—I feel certain, mother.”
She beamed. “I’m so glad you’ve found faith, dearie. I knew when once you began studying the texts you couldn’t miss it. King Asa, too, suffered from his feet. But he sought to the physicians and displeased the Lord. Have no confidence in man, dearie. There’s days I get pains in my side as if my ribs grated together. But I’d be afraid to put myself out of the Lord’s hands, after I’ve trusted to Him all these years.”
Will winced. He seemed to himself vaguely blasphemous. As soon as he was alone in his bedroom, the swelling was transferred to the capacious box so miraculously carried from Chipstone. He dared not descend to supper: so speedy a miracle might have seemed too “Peculiar.” But next morning (after a family breakfast which was for his elders a veritable feast of faith) he stole out with the horn and his fishing-rod and creel to the river, which in the watches of the night he had decided upon as the loneliest spot for practising, while the open ramshackle boat-house, where the rusty punt usually nested, was to afford a hiding-place for the instrument.
It was worth while going down that pastoral slope these days, even were one not bent on music, solitude, and the winning of gloves. In weather so prematurely sultry, the river was so sweet and still and green, with its shadowy reflections, its blobs of duckweed, the sedges and flags along its banks, and the willows—grey-white or silvery—along its borders: gliding so tranquilly in its reaches and lapping so lazily round its islands that only at bends did the water seem to flow at all. In the undulating meadows that sloped to it, silted with cow-droppings, Master Peartree’s kine lay around chewing, and the sense of brooding heat gave to the landscape a dreamy magic, suffused with a sense of water.
It was to this idyllic retreat that our Tityrus or Corydon repaired to essay his metallic pipe. And, standing on the bank like a watchman, his horn to his lips, “Tucker, tucker,” he breathed industriously into the unresponsive instrument. In vain did he lip and tongue the notes as instructed, nothing broke the sultry silence. Surely the mouthpiece could not suit Mr. William Flynt’s lips. Suddenly, in his shamed impotence, he had a sense of a breathing presence. In his agitation the horn slipped from his nervous fingers and went souse into the water, while the startled beast—for the observer proved to be only one of Master Peartree’s cows—lumbered bouncingly back along the pasture.
Fortunately the instrument had lodged in the shallow mud of the bank. Fishing it up—it was his sole catch that week—he found to his joy that it emitted a faint toot, and he rightly divined that a little water was just what it had needed. Encouraged by this intervention of Providence in his favour, his performance bore henceforwards some proportion to his pains.
It was embarrassing though to return from these painful puffings without a single bite. Every dinner-time he had to sneak in as best he could with empty basket after a morning of pertinacious tooting, successful enough to frighten off the deafest fish. Once, indeed, going home by a somewhat roundabout route that skirted Blackwater Hall, he chanced on a Chipstone fishmonger serving Long Bradmarsh, and was able to take home some fruits of his rod. But the only time our piscatorial swain ever tried for an honest bite was when he saw or heard somebody or something coming along. Then, drawing in his horn like a snail, he presented the picture of the complete angler. Usually it was only Bidlake’s barge that disturbed his strenuous solitude, and the transient mockery of the twins was for the futile fisher, not for the unsuspected musician. Not even Master Peartree’s cows ever munched their way again to the bank while the horn was at its fell exercises, for, like the horn which the fairy Logistilla presented to Astolpho in “Orlando Furioso,” its blast seemed to put all creation to flight. His sole auditors were a pair of swans who refused to quit their normal haunt, though they hissed him fiercely. Possibly they were accustomed “to hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn,” and so had a standard of musical taste. Is not the swan’s own song, too, celebrated, though it appears only to perform before it dies, as if to evade criticism?
But however soundly the swans might hiss, Will, after three days of red-faced rehearsal on the pleasant bank of the Brad, felt ready to challenge his female critic in all save the polka she had set for examination, and this he determined—after failing to hunt it out—was no fair part of the wager. A whole evening he had spent reknitting the thread of old acquaintanceship with carolling cottagers, gleaning much gratitude for his kindly attentions, but not the melody he was after, and being forced politely to abide while gaffers piped “Heave away, my Johnny,” or gammers ruthlessly completed “Midsummer Fair” or “Dashing away with the Smoothing Iron.” However, he could now turn out such complicated military flourishes that he excited his own military ardour, and felt like marching in his thousands, and doing such deeds of derring-do that the lips of all the damsels of Essex would vie to change places with that mouthpiece. It was high time then that this particular damsel should understand how vain was her hope that he could be baffled by a tube. Though he might not know that polka, he was sure that whatever “concinnity” might be, he could perform with it, and impatience began to steal over him at the delay in the test performance. For if Jinny had fobbed him off with the shepherd on Tuesday, she evaded service altogether on Friday. Even Nip might conceivably crop up with some small groceries tied on to him, and he could not try it on the dog. Also, unless he saw her soon, the cattle fair would be upon them, and she still unsaved. He must, with the relics of his copybook paper, compose a new note, formally citing her to stand and hear, and deliver the gloves.
But it was not easy to fix the place for deciding the wager. The riverside meadows she could not well get at in her cart, and for her to come specially on foot was hardly to be expected, in view of her household labours. To cut her off and perform to her on a high road was to run risks of being publicly ridiculous: even by-ways have ears. Suppose his nerve or his breath failed, suppose some impish accident muffled up the horn: there would he be with swollen cheeks, a mountain in labour, producing not even, a mouse-squeak; the mock of man and beast. But there was Steeples Wood—not too far back off the high road, but approached by a tangly brake that few ever penetrated: there—if he could persuade her to it—was the ideal place for the great horn solo. In a postscript he would express his willingness to take off her hands the purchase of the Showman’s horse. To convey all this by correspondence involved almost as much effort as the practising, though his renewed call upon the Bible came to Caleb and Martha as the natural sequel of his faith-cure. It was no small feat of composition, this particular letter, in face of a people, which, however abundant its horses, appeared to have had neither “wagers” upon them, nor “gloves,” riding or other.
That gloves were unknown to the ancient Hebrews, Will could hardly bring himself to believe, even by hours of searching, especially after coming upon a Fashion Catalogue for Ladies, which showed a surprising wardrobe. Bonnets they had, it would appear, and headbands and tablets and changeable suits of apparel, and mantles and wimples and crisping pins and fine linen and hoods and vails, and mufflers and girdles and stomachers: as for their jewel-cases, they seemed stuffed not only with rings and ear-rings and charms and bracelets and moony tires, but likewise with jewels that dangled at the nose or tinkled at the feet. How then should so elegant a world have dispensed with gloves? But so—after scouring the sacred Book from Genesis to Revelation—he must finally fain believe. Not a single patriarch, priest, satrap, shepherd, physician, apostle, publican, or sinner had ever sported gloves, and the Queen of Sheba fared no better in this respect than the Witch of Endor. Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed with even one of these. The Pharisees, it would appear, covered their foreheads with phylacteries—whatever these might be—but left their hands bare. And yet, Will thought wistfully, reading so early in the sacred Book how Rebekah “put the skins of the kids of the goats upon Jacob’s hands,” they might surely in all those centuries have gone on to the idea of gloves, especially for winter wear. But no, thousands of years after Rebekah, the knuckles of Dives were apparently as raw as those of Lazarus. Oh, why had he not betted something Biblical—a muffler now would have suited either sex: even handkerchiefs were available. Not that he could not risk spelling “gloves” to accord with “loves,” which he found with no great difficulty in the holy text: he felt it romantic to throw himself thus trustfully upon “love,” even should it prove misleading.
Yet the search was not altogether vain, for though he could find no gloves, the prophets, he found, were full of exhortations to Jinny, which he carefully dog-eared and committed to memory and kept up his sleeve for contingencies. “How canst thou contend with horses?” Jeremiah asked her. Ezekiel warned her against the cattle-dealer. “By reason of the abundance of his horses their dust shall cover thee.” As for Isaiah, he remarked plumply: “Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope.”
To himself, on the other hand, the prophets were kind; abounding in promises for the prosperity of his horn. And it was Amos who supplied his letter with its opening sentence, abrupt but dramatic:
“Can two walk together except they be agreed?”
But the letter written, there was the problem of sending it. The intervention of either Bundock or Daniel was intolerable. He must find an individual way. One verse that he came upon—it was in the Book of Esther—enchanted him with its images, telling how Mordecai wrote an order in the King’s name “and sealed it with the King’s ring and sent letters by post on horseback, riders on mules, camels, and young dromedaries.” How he would have liked to seal his letter too with a royal ring, and send it “by post on horseback.” He had a vision of the long procession of mules, camels, and dromedaries filing along the grass-grown lane to Blackwater Hall. How old Daniel would rub his eyes at the strange humped beasts—yes, and Jinny too. She would perhaps think that Mr. Flippance had acquired a new show and was paying her a processional visit. Possibly these animal images did lead him to the invention of his postal method, or possibly it was his prior apprehension of Jinny’s utilizing Nip as a package-bearer. At any rate, after having wondered whether Martha’s pigeons could be trained up in the way they should go, he hit on the device of tying his note to Nip’s collar. The creature was friendly, and that Saturday afternoon it would be at home. He would only have to hover long enough around Blackwater Hall for his post-dog to fawn upon him. Of course there was no certainty the dangling missive would escape Daniel’s spectacles, but Nip being providentially of the colour of paper, it was possible heaven had not blanched him in vain. Besides, this time the note was carefully addressed to Miss Jinny Quarles, with the “Quarles” scratched out by an afterthought when he remembered that it was not her name.
But, alas! Nip did not play up; that longed-for quadruped did not appear in the purlieus of the Hall. Will, tired of carrying about the note, thought again of sticking it up in the stable and ventured near, but his fear of encountering Daniel Quarles was too lively, and finally he essayed—with some obscure remembrance of Bowery melodrama—to fix it gleamingly in the fork of a tree by which Methusalem stood when harnessing and unharnessing. To his amaze a chaffinch flew out of the fork in violent protest, while her gaily coloured consort dashed up from another quarter, crying “U-whit” at him like an avine Flippance. Peeping into the hollow of the fork he saw a couple of rather belated youngsters, ugly, bald-headed, and featherless, apparently new-hatched and almost savouring of the egg: yet when he touched them with the note, opening great eyes and yawning with yellow beaks and kicking each other with skeleton legs. But before he could bethink himself of a new posting-place, lo! as sudden as the chaffinches but far more welcome, with a yelp of joy and a perpendicular tail wagging like a mad pendulum, Nip was upon him; and having succeeded with a desperate bound in licking the tip of his stooping chin, rolled himself on mother-earth with voluptuous grunts. Will profited by this supineness to attach the note by the thread he had passed through it.
The new postal system was a success. For when Will after high tea sneaked out to the Common and sounded his horn—with a happy combination of challenge, salute, and signal—Nip actually appeared with a reply.
It was, however, unsatisfactory. Miss Boldero—the very name, though he divined it denoted the same Jinny, came like a glacial blast—presented her compliments to Mr. William Flynt, but she had no time to be romantic in woods (she said) nor, even at their homes, could she ever pay more than volant visits to anybody, and that strictly in the way of Daniel Quarles’s business. He could almost always find her at Blackwater Hall except Tuesdays and Fridays, but she trusted he would not be too turgid and thrasonical about his playing, even if his contumacious serenade should be puissant enough to extort the pair of gloves.
All these strange words came, of course, from “The Universal Spelling-Book.” Will, though he would still have refused to toot before her grandfather, might have felt less crushed had he known that in that ancient authority, “romantic” was defined as “idle.”
It is possible that persons of strict ethics—like Miss Gentry, say—would have lost sympathy with Jinny in these epistolary efforts of hers to stand on tiptoe, so to speak, and write beyond her education. But in thus titivating her style with gems of speech she knew not to be false, she was moved by the necessity of countering an overweening, overbearing, interfering young man, who was subtly assuming a sort of critical wardenship over her and her life: he needed a good vibration (“shaking or beating”), she must teach him by her gelidity (“coldness”) to be less conversant (“familiar”), and that she was quite his parallel (“equal”). He must be made to feel that her company was not to be had for the rogation (“asking”), in short that she was no housekeeping ignoramus to be ridden over by world-travelled wisdom, however genuine. No, she was not going to incurvate (“bow or bend”) to Mr. William Flynt.
This rigidity was the more necessary as, ever since in that thunderstorm his hand had tightened on hers—or was it the reverse?—the lightnings seemed to pass through her, the reverberations to shake her, whenever she thought of him, and even when she did not. What there was in him to rend her thus elementally she could not understand; doubtless it was the memory of the storm now for ever associated with him. He seemed—it was perhaps his life of adventure—to be in mystic unison with tempests and floods and that sea-creek of her childhood, now remembered exclusively as tossing and white-flecked. Even when she was turning over her Spelling-Book to find words to “vibrate” him with, it was the pages that vibrated: when she copied its gelid trisyllables, she felt her hand again in his, and her quill quivered as if the lightning were going through it.
And even Miss Gentry, though she would have derided Jinny’s new vocabulary, might have admitted that there was a laudable side to her pursuit of learning: the Spelling-Book itself overflowed with commendation of such scholastic zeal. Jinny no longer knitted or sewed in her evening hour of leisure. It was occupied—even after the concoction of the grandiose letter—in a feverish study of the volume neglected since her first scholastic period. She must make herself a greater intellectual power, she felt: she must master all human knowledge. And that all human knowledge lay in the hundred and fifty pages of this little book, our simple village girl, who was not romantic in any sense of that word, who, except for Bible and hymn-book, had never read a book—not even a novel—and who approached life with senses fresh and virginal, sincerely and crudely believed.
Nor was the pose of “The Universal Spelling-Book” calculated to dissipate her delusion. This wonderful work, which was now destined to become Jinny’s guide, philosopher, and friend, had nothing in common with those shallow productions of a later period, concerned mainly with correct combinations of letters. Dating from the age of folios and exhibiting, despite its diminutive size, the same solid solemnity, it did really take all knowledge for its province. (You learnt, for example, how to make the very ink you spelled with—and although you may rarely have possessed those best blue galls of Aleppo which formed the base of black, still you might hope to get the three pints of stale beer that were the substratum of red.) And not only all knowledge, but all morals formed the farrago of this book. Well might it ostentate among its “Patronizers” clergymen, private gentlemen, philomaths, writing masters, and heads of academies.
Originally published—as already related—in the year of the Lisbon Earthquake, and creating apparently as great a sensation (in England at least), it constituted an omnium gatherum so peculiar and extensive that there was no earthly (or heavenly) subject you could be certain of not meeting there, though there was one subject you could be certain of never escaping, for it cropped up in the quaintest connexions—and that was Virtue.
As the author—who hailed oddly from the Royal Exchange Assurance Office—justly claimed in his dedication to the Right Honourable Slingsby Bethell, Esq., Lord Mayor of the City of London, and One of its Representatives in Parliament (an encourager of everything tending to “the Practice of Piety” and “the Good of Mankind”), it was designed to do more than barely teach the young idea how to spell. “To inculcate into the Minds of Youth early Notices of Religion and Virtue, and to point out to them their several Duties in the various Stages of Life” was no less its aim. “And I should be very thankful,” explained His Lordship’s obliged, obedient, and most humble servant, “should I prove an instrument in the Hand of Providence in preventing but one of the rising Generation from falling a sacrifice to the pernicious Doctrines, secret Whispers, and perpetual Insinuations of Popish Emissaries.”
It was a passage that had always swelled Jinny’s bosom with emotion and the vow to ensure the gratification of this saintly aspiration by supplying in herself the minimum one member of the rising Generation to baffle these minions of the Scarlet Woman. It had been at first a little bemusing to reflect that for her Peculiar friends, the Established Church was little less pernicious: still, fended by the double buffer of her sect and Protestantism, she had thus far resisted the Emissaries she had never encountered (for certainly the Rev. Mr. Fallow, whatever the Chipstone curate might say of his Puseyite practices, had never tried to pervert her even to the Establishment).
With three generations brought up on this pious pabulum—the copy from which Sidrach the Owler had educated himself for smuggling was already beyond the fiftieth edition—-it seemed strange that the century should have had any declensions from virtue to note; that papistry should have progressed was incredible.
If in her dim, childish way, Jinny had ever felt a jarring note in this treasure-house of virtue and information, it was the assumption that both these existed primarily for little boys. True, among the fascinating woodcuts was one depicting little girls at school, but even there the mistress occupied the stiff chair, while the Dominie of the boys’ school, majestic in a full-bottomed wig, sat throned on a chair with arms. “A good child will love God,” she read with humid eyes, only to be pulled up short by “he will put his whole trust in Him.” Everything seemed to be masculine, from God downwards: there was no place for women even in punishment: to be “well whipt at School and at Home, Day and Night”—a recommendation she found it difficult to reconcile with the definition of “Ferula,” as “a foolish Instrument, used in some Schools”—was a Nemesis held out only to the boy who minded not his Church, his School, and his Book. Such a one would live and die a Slave, a Fool, and a Dunce. But as to the fate of bad little girls there was a mysterious silence. Even for their goodness there was no sure reward: for though presumably they were included in the well-behaved who would be clothed in Garments of Gold and have a Crown of Gold set on their Head, while Angels rejoiced to see them, these joys were never definitely attached to an exclusively feminine pronoun. A virtuous “woman” appeared once to her relief, but it was only to be a crown to her husband. Even in the foot-notes Jinny could not find a female. “If the young learner has learnt to read these lessons pretty perfectly,” said one note, “let him go over them once more.” As for the Useful Fables, it was the boy that stole Apples or went into the Water instead of going to School; and when it came to the longest story of all, “Life truly painted in the Natural History of Tommy and Harry”—the story that professed to show “Youth the ways of life in General,” and did indeed show how wickedness wrecks you on the Coast of Barbary, where you are torn to pieces by wild beasts as per woodcut, while the pattern of Virtue and Goodness still lives happy—it appeared that even a realistic picture of life may be complete without girls.
Behold, however, Jinny—despite her sex—embarked on a learned career, and burning the midnight oil in her fat little lamp instead of curling up in her chest of drawers. Puckering her brow she sat on a squat wooden arm-chair in that dun papered living-room, imbibing virtue and information, till the Dutch clock in the outer box-room startled her with its emphatic declaration of the hour, and the cracked mirror revealed eyes heavy-lidded. Far out over the Common streamed the curtained light of that midnight oil, for the shutter could not be closed, owing to a pair of blackbirds that had set up house in the eaves. Jinny had found one of the young fallen on the grass: she had fed it with morsels of meat which it swallowed with great yellow gulps, following up the meal with a fluted grace. She had restored it to its nest—touched to mark the domestic virtue of its co-incubating parents. It had grown quite big now and flown hoppingly away with short sharp cries, but Jinny still cherished the nest and felt no need of the barring shutter. In the silence the creakings of the cottage often sounded like footsteps outside, but Jinny was not nervous, and a real footstep would rouse Nip, she knew. Sometimes, these warm May nights, she heard the cuckoo keeping hours as late as hers, sometimes the nightingales would sing passionately in the lane. There was one, she knew, that niched in a mutilated, ivy-swathed trunk bordering on the Common, and she would hear it answering the faint melancholy calls from afar with throbs and gushes of melody as well as with a series of quick, piercing notes. And sometimes when the air was clear she could hear the distant church clocks. But all these sounds, like Nip’s and the Gaffer’s snoring, were but a restful accompaniment to the acquisition of omniscience: even the nightingale, in her ignorance of literature, failed to romanticize her thoughts, painfully bent on mastering all there was to know.
Meanings, we have seen, played a great part in these studies: “Dollar—a Dutch coin”; “Engineer—an Artist”; “Gambadoes—a Sort of Boots”; “History—an Account of Things”; “Interview—Mutual Sight”; “Logarithms—Artificial Numbers”; “Mahomet—the Turkish Impostor”; “Replevin—a Writ so called”; “Stolidity—Foolishness”; “Tarantula—a Baneful Insect”; “Valentine—a Romish Festival”; “Upholsterer—an Undertaker”; “Zodiac—a Circle in the Heavens”: such were the strange vocables she kept muttering and misunderstanding: believing indeed that “Paramour” was merely a grander word for “Lover” and connecting divorce with “Schismatic—one guilty of unlawful separation.” It pained her to meet the “Sadducees—a People that Denies the Being of Angels,” slurring, as did these unimaginable heretics, the status of her own mother. Surely it was for such that “Damnation—the punishment of Hell Torments” had been designed. Punctuation too she studied, growing learned in Apostrophes, Asterisks, Carets, Crotchets, and Obelisks; other hours were devoted to Grammar, Tenses, Degrees of Comparison (always between good and better Boys), Genitives, and even Scraps of Latin. Pronunciation, however, was her great stumbling-block. How was it possible to keep one’s feet in the chaos, say, of four-syllabled words, each accented on a different syllable? Antiquary, Ambassador, Affidavit, Animadvert—it was heart-breaking and head-splitting. Her memory, so marvellous when vivified by realities, broke down before this procession of shadows.
With what relief she turned to the rich riot of “Moral and Satyric Poems”—though her sex was still distressingly ignored, and through every loophole the eternal male popped up.
He most improves who studies with Delight
And learns Sound Morals while he learns to write.
Still, where “Swearing, Gaming, and Pride” were rebuked in lashing lines, she was not sorry to find the petticoat conspicuous by its absence. It was a rare joy to come on Queen Anne in a “List of Abbreviations” under the unexpected guise of A.R.; in the list of kings, too, she appeared again, together with Mary and Elizabeth; not a large proportion, Jinny thought, rejoicing at the Victoria unforeseen by the learned author, whose “Chronological Account of Remarkable Things” stopped, like her friend Commander Dap’s, at the Battle of Trafalgar.
This table was indeed one of her favourite pages—it gave her, she felt, a bird’s-eye view of all history—and with her head for figures she never forgot that the Ten Commandments and the Ten Plagues were given in 1494 B.C., and that the sun stood still at Joshua’s word in 1454, while Daniel was in the Den of Lions in 536. She was puzzled, though, at the destruction of Troy which intervened between Joshua’s interference with the sun and Saul’s anointment. Of the twenty-two great events that preceded the Christian era, this was the only one that the Bible forbore to mention. Subsequently to Christianity things seemed to her to have moved fast, for up till the year 1600 alone, fourteen “remarkable Things” occurred—two-thirds as many as had happened in the whole previous 4007 years since the world was created—while after 1600, extraordinary events sprouted like blackberries, no less than fifty crowding to their grand climacteric in Trafalgar.
In these fifty she was glad to see included the Confutation of Popery by Martin Luther—a personage with whom Miss Gentry had made her familiar—and she thrilled almost with local pride to find “Arts and Sciences first taught at Cambridge, 1119,” for the Cambridge carriers sometimes penetrated eastwards as far as Chipstone itself. As a carrier, indeed, she was immensely excited by the “Eleven Days successive Snow” of 1674, the “Frost for thirteen Weeks” of 1684, “The Terrible high Wind of November 26, 1703,” “the great and total Eclipse of the Sun, April 22, 1713,” and the “severe Frost for nine Weeks” beginning on Christmas Eve, 1739. She could vividly sympathize with the unfortunate carriers of those days, and she did not wonder that these brumal phenomena should form so great a proportion of the few score happenings of Universal History, for frosts and winds must be terrible indeed to be recounted as on a level with the shooting of Admiral Byng, the American Declaration of Independence, the Birth of the Prince of Wales, and the “Attempted Assassination of George III at Drury Lane by Hadfield, a lunatic.”
These studious vigils were invariably wound up with a prayer from this same limitless thesaurus: on her knees by the transmogrified chest of drawers, and with her hair hanging down her back, and the lamplight falling on the coarse grey-typed page of the Spelling-Book, Jinny repeated one or other of its masculine supplications, prose or verse, and only a cynic (“Cynic—a Sour, Crabbed Fellow”) would have laughed at the solemnity with which she swallowed all those motley lucubrations, whether lay or clerical. An impromptu prayer for her grandfather was invariably slipped in, for this holy book of hers finished as terribly as the Old Testament, and what made it worse was that this awful culmination of the Spelling-Book was printed in black-letter. It was a gruesome recital of the miseries and follies of “the Seven Stages of Life”—none of which seemed worth living even with the correctest of spelling, while death seemed worth dying to escape the depravity and decrepitude of the final stadium. But although her grandfather, with all his peevish humours, could hardly be counted so steeped in sin as the old man of the text, while his infirmities were still rudimentary, yet the physical prognostication was terrifying—“for when we come to those years, that our Eyes grow dim, Ears deaf, Visage pale, Hands shaking, Knees trembling, and Feet faltering, then it is evident the Dissolution of our mortal Tabernacle is near at Hand.”
Jinny could never read those dreadful words but she would creep anxiously to the foot of the dark, twisting staircase and listen for the reassuring sound of the Tabernacle snoring. And if she bore so patiently with his whims and crotchets, not none of the credit must be given to this sanctimonious Spelling-Book.
While Jinny was thus pursuing omniscience and equipping herself to meet the masterful young man, and while the young man in question was adding the mastery of the horn to his conquests, their roads failed to cross. Jinny went to chapel the Sunday following the thunderstorm, but Will was too alarmed by the communal expectation of public autobiography to venture there again, and his parents were only too glad to ignore his home-staying and to resume their private Christa-peculiar-delphian service, being sufficiently fortified by his preoccupation with the Bible. What had driven Will to the Book again was the outrageous appearance on Saturday night of Uncle Lilliwhyte as parcel-bearer. Recovering from his relief that the parcel did not contain snakes, but the conventional household stores, Will found himself angry on his mother’s behalf. What right had Jinny to foist such a fusty ragamuffin upon them, the gay strings of whose rotting beaver only accentuated his griminess? Jinny must know that his mother ranked uncleanliness next to ungodliness. And Uncle Lilliwhyte would be a fixture too, unless violently shaken off—he was Jinny’s neighbour; as natural a go-between as Will’s own neighbour, Master Peartree. He had already bribed off the shepherd: must he be blackmailed by both?
And so, while Essex was at prayer, Will was concocting a furious Oriental epistle, demanding a clean envoy, if Jinny was too lazy to come herself. This was not so difficult to demand, though laziness seemed as unknown to the Hebrews as gloves. He had dallied, indeed, with his original idea of fetching the household parcels from Chipstone himself, but somehow he could not bring himself to so complete a severance of relations with Jinny, especially as after the appearance of Uncle Lilliwhyte in the new rôle of goods-deliverer, his mother had surprisingly suggested that to spare Methusalem’s legs, the old nondescript might always in future bring the weekly parcel for a penny or two. Will had put this suggestion emphatically aside—it would mean exposing his mother to a contact she detested—but he wound up his letter to Jinny by threatening to become his own carrier unless the service was conducted with propriety. Nip duly returned that same Sunday afternoon with the answer that if he would send his esteemed order in writing, Mr. Daniel Quarles would have pleasure in executing his commission through a scrupulously scoured ambassador. Will started replying instantly that it was not his order: let her mark that he was not the householder, merely the “scribe.” To write out the order, however, gave him unexpected pause. Who could have realized that “parrafin,” “sope” and “shuggar” were alike unenjoyed by the heathen Jews? A pity that Frog Farm was itself so “flowing with milk and honey”: with what confidence he could have drawn on the resources of Palestine! True, one might dodge—lamps and oil were abundant enough in Judæa, and purification and sweetness could be suggested with airy allusiveness. But in the end he only wrote grandly, “Household order the same as uzual.”
Before this order had been executed, however, chance brought about a meeting. Not that Miss Gentry, near whose wayside cottage it occurred, would have called it chance. For that deft needlewoman, besides believing in her own stained-glass miracle, cherished, as we know, a naïve faith in “Culpeper’s Complete Herbal”—a faith doubtless sustained by the attacks on the Pope or on infidel physicians that might lurk snakelike in its most innocent-seeming herb. Under the stimulus of this elementally indelicate work—never permitted to stray from her bedside, though imparted in filtered form to Jinny—she would tie woody nightshade round her neck for her dizziness, and buy watercress from Uncle Lilliwhyte to wash away pimples with the juice. And if these herbs were, as Culpeper testified, under the respective governance of Mercury and the Moon, how much more so human life! Miss Gentry had indeed remarked to Will that very afternoon (when he at last brought his mother’s bonnet to be “bleached as good as new”) that her own horoscope, cast in infancy by her aunt, had shown that the first time she went upon a voyage she would be drowned: a reading whose infallibility her happy survival demonstrated, since she had never been foolish enough to set foot upon a vessel. “But for the deciphering of this horoscope,” she had pointed out, “I should surely now have been drowned, for I am naturally as fond of voyages as you.”
It must be admitted that if Miss Gentry had thus pathetically perished, Will would not have taken his mother’s bonnet to her, nor met Jinny that afternoon. But then would he have met Jinny but for the foolish sheep? Even the ovine fates, it would appear, are interblent with the human.
This sheep suddenly dawned upon Jinny’s vision as Methusalem with his cunning nose was trying to open a gate that led over a private road, on either side of which its fellows grazed. Preoccupied with the task of clasping Nip so that he should not frighten the flock in his passage, she did not at first observe that in the gap between the hinge of the gate and the post, a sheep’s head was jammed, and that Methusalem’s success in lifting the latch bade fair to asphyxiate it. The silly creature, having escaped from the flock, had evidently tried to jump back again through this gap, at a point just large enough to admit its head, and with the failure of the leap, the head had descended into the narrowest portion and there remained in pillory. In the creature’s terror at the approach of the cart and Nip’s excited barking, its efforts to free itself became more convulsive than ever. Checking Methusalem in the middle of his pet trick, and fastening up Nip, Jinny jumped down and with soothing words seized the head of the frantic sheep, which was still thrusting itself backward and forward, though without the sense to jump upwards towards the broader space. But alas, its spasmodic struggles prevented her from getting a sufficient grip on it to lift the wedged and weighty head. She saw its ear was torn and bleeding, and to her imagination it was going black in the face. She looked round desperately. On the other side of the gate lay the flock, scattered apathetically over the pasture they had reaped and manured, chewing a tranquil cud, like self-righteous citizens before the writhings of one of their own black sheep: of a good Samaritan or shepherd there was no sign. She climbed over the gate and strove to lift the agonizing head from the other side, but she only increased the sufferer’s frenzy as well as Nip’s.
“Be quiet, Nip!” she shouted, almost hysteric herself. And as she raised her eyes to admonish the yapping terrier, she espied to her joy a puffing pipe and a stick advancing towards her cart; whether a young man or old she was not aware. He was simply man as saviour, and he was at the gate and working at the rear of the struggling head before she had quite realized it was Will, and a certain added pleasure at the sight of this man in particular had scarcely time to well up before it was swamped by the far greater pleasure of seeing the sheep deftly released. It staggered, however, as Will let it go, and lay sideways on the road, gasping, and Jinny observed with horror a raw ring round its throat where the wool was cut through as by a cord. But before she could get through the gate to its assistance, it had risen feebly, and as she came towards it, it trotted off timidly. Vastly relieved, she tried to coax or chevy the truant back to its companions. But it refused to go: on the contrary, it retreated, and in solitary self-sufficiency began to crop the wayside grass.
“Hasn’t spoiled her appetite!” said Will, with a laugh.
“They don’t seem to feel things as much as us,” agreed Jinny.
“No, indeed.” He knocked the ashes out of his pipe and pocketed it. “Fancy, if you’d got your head nipped like that!”
There seemed something aggressive in the suggestion. “I should have known to lift it up without waiting for a man,” she said.
“All very well, but when one’s head’s caught, one is apt to lose it: one struggles blindly.”
“We’re not all like sheep to go astray,” she said uneasily. “But thank you for your kind help.” She jumped up and drove slowly through the gate. He closed it behind her and ran to open the gate at the opposite end of the private road.
“Thank you again,” she said, passing through.
“But surely you’ll come into the wood now you’re so near,” he cried through the arch of the vanishing tilt.
The cart unexpectedly slackened, Jinny’s head was turned backwards. “If you won’t be long,” she said.
He shut the gate briskly and kept pace with her slow progress along the leafy lane towards the wood-path they both knew. Nip, untied, sprang to fawn at his feet, and then bounded into the hedge after something smelt, and barking raucously, wormed his way along like a weasel.
“Why didn’t you come, Will?” said Jinny softly.
“Why didn’t you?” he evaded. “Why did you send Uncle Lilliwhyte?”
“I didn’t come because you didn’t,” she answered simply.
“I—I—your grandfather,” he stammered. “I couldn’t well play before him.”
“You mean you couldn’t play well,” she flashed.
“That’s all you know about it. I can blow better than Dick Burrage.”
“Then why be nervous of poor old Gran’fer? He might have been umpire.”
He was shocked again. “Good gracious, Jinny! Where did you get those betting words from?”
“That’s my affair.” She pursed her pretty lips. “But never mind—however you blow—you’ve deserved a pair of gloves to-day—in sheepskin.”
He smiled. “I’m not above taking two pairs.”
“If you win!”
“Of course I’ll win.”
“Don’t brag. Save your breath for your blowing. We shall soon be there.”
“Oh, but I’m not going to blow now,” he pointed out.
“Not now? Then why have you lured me here?”
“But how could I guess I should meet you? How could I lure you? You could see I hadn’t got my horn.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Jinny murmured.
“It’s big enough,” he said grimly.
“Then I certainly shan’t go into the wood. I’m much too busy. Good-bye, Will.” She flicked her whip, but ere Methusalem could quicken a leg, a terrible yelping came from the bushy hedgerow—it was the voice of Nip, but not of Nip the hunter, rather of a hunted, trapped Nip.
“Oh, poor Nip!” And in a moment Jinny had leapt down and was peering and pushing into the hedge. But she could penetrate scarcely at all: the wood behind was firmly guarded by a broad chaotic belt of thistle and nightshade, burr and bramble, furze and stinging-nettle, a veritable riot of prickliness; and this thorny tangle had closed upon Nip—trespassers prosecuted indeed!—though it was a relief to his mistress to find the trap was natural, not wickedly human. Stuck full of burrs, and looking like a spotted pard, her pet was shrieking for first aid. But even while she was hesitating to pierce farther, despite her gloved hands, Will brushed by her, thrilling her with the sense that this was his second feat of animal salvation; while the woodland savours and the rich prodigality and ruin of nature—for dead wood lay around as profusely as rank vegetation sprouted—seemed to stir in her the same sense of elemental forces as the thunderstorm. She scarcely noticed that Will had the aid of his stick in parting the jungle, and when he restored the whining animal to her arms, gratitude and hero-worship mingled in her emotion, though for a moment she was too occupied in picking Nip clean to say much, while Will, for his part, was engaged with equal industry in removing thorns from his sleeves and burrs from his trousers.
“Oh, you’ve hurt yourself!” she said at last, catching sight of blood and scratches on his hands and wrists.
“It’s nothing.” He tried to pluck out something from a finger.
“Shall I help you?” She pulled off her driving-gloves, took his finger and squeezed at the flesh, perceiving the microscopic protrusion of the thorn, but her own fingers were shaking and she could not extract it. He said it did not matter, it would work out; then he started sucking it. She somehow would have liked as with a child to kiss the place and make it well—the whole back of his left hand seemed reticulated in red—but instead she carried Nip back to his basket in the cart. He, too, was scored in red, though he did not seem to mind any more than the sheep. As she bent over her scratched pet, Will came up to the tail-board, still sucking at his finger.
“I shall need gloves now,” he said, glancing with comic ruefulness at his scratches.
“You poor hero!” she said, with eyes softly flashing. “I will come into the wood and you shall win them.”
His face lit up; then fell. “But how?” he asked.
“Isn’t there my horn, silly?”
He laughed gleefully. “You’re right to call me that.” She leaped down, the horn dangling at her girdle, and fastened Methusalem to a tree. “Not that he’s likely to move: still his head is homewards.” Methusalem’s head, however, was already grasswards: he was munching with gusto, while his great tail swished at the flies.
“But suppose somebody steals the parcels!” said Will with sudden compunction.
“This isn’t Babylon—or America,” said Jinny witheringly. “Besides, there’s Nip.”
Only a few yards farther was the opening they had been making for, but they now found it almost as overgrown as the entry chosen by Nip, and had it not been for the rare fern-leaf elders in the hedge, that marked their memory of the spot, they might have passed it by. “Might be in Canada,” said Will. However, he pioneered with his stick, and, following him closely, she had a sense of safety and protection unknown since the days she was escorted from chapel. It was quite strange—yet not unsweet—to be thus guarded from the venomous vegetation thrusting at her from all sides, and she was not sure she was relieved when the menace and novelty were over, and they were in the wood. The struggle, moreover, had made the humanized part of the wood, on which they emerged, somewhat tame. The grove of young ash, beautiful as the slim silver-grey trunks were with their new green livery—too light to cast a shadow—suggested commerce to both of them, and the suggestion was emphasized by the charred remains of a bonfire of elm-loppings, and by a deserted charcoal-burner’s hut in a clearing. But poetry had gathered on the mossy stumps of other trees, long since felled, and they came down a wonderful azure river of bluebells running as between wooded green banks. As they waded through the tall thin stalks, they chanced here on a patch of late-lingering primroses and there on green advance waves of foxgloves, with their long leaves. Primrose, bluebell, foxglove—what a beautiful succession, thought Jinny. How marvellous was earth in its changing loveliness, and Heaven in its unchanging bounty! On another slope, crowned by Spanish chestnuts, glittered a stream purling down to lose itself in scrub. Here rosemary was in bloom, humming with bees, and yonder was broom, its yellow blossoms showing against a lighter green than the earlier gorse, which flowered in great golden clumps.
“The gorse looks fine,” said Jinny.
“And smells finer,” said Will. “Let’s sit down.”
“Not here,” said Jinny, coyly shrinking. “There’s nettles.”
“They’re dead!” he said, grasping their yellow brittleness. But they walked on.
They came over baby bracken and crisp beechnuts to a sort of ring surrounded by blushing young oaks, and little silver birches with their flat green leaves, and tall aspen-trees, and one lonely mountain-ash with white flowers. Overhead, early as it was, the moon had long been hanging at three-quarters, white and magically diaphanous: a dream-planet. Unseen wood-pigeons purred, and a tomtit was singing.
“Here!” said Will, beginning to sit down.
“No, no!” She clutched his arm to keep him up. “An ant-heap!” This time her shyness had found sounder cover.
He gave a comical “Oh!” and stood watching the squirm of seething life, absolutely black at the central congestion, where ants walked indifferently under or over one another: they were like the moving grains in an hour-glass, Jinny thought. Will poked his stick into the great piazza.
“Don’t,” said Jinny.
“I’m not hurting them.” The ants were, in fact, already using the rod as a causeway. “Why, they’re like you, Jinny!”
“All carriers and all busy.”
She laughed, and followed their movements with a new sympathy, though she was rather disgusted by those that carried dead flies or dead ants.
“Those are not carriers—those are undertakers,” she insisted.
They sat down at last on a mound of spongy moss, free from formic activity, and there was a silence. The little purling stream was too far off to break it, but they heard a chaffinch and the peep-bo-playing cuckoo, with that golden human note that floats through the warm, brooding May. And then the irrepressible and unbasketable Nip came rushing and tearing, not making straight for them, but appearing and disappearing like a giant fungus in the rich masses of blues or greens or yellows.
He made an opening for conversation, and presently when he came snuggling into Jinny’s arms—poor scotched creature!—an opportunity for joint patting and petting: a process in which hands do not always succeed in partitioning out the pattable and pettable surface rigidly, but graze and brush each other, and even lie passively in abstracted contact.
“Why shouldn’t I buy this wood?” said Will, after one of these sustained manual juxtapositions.
“Wouldn’t that be lovely?” said Jinny.
“Yes—I must settle something soon. Those aspens, though, I’d cut ’em down. They’re only a weed. And yonder ashlings weren’t planted quite close enough—you’ve got to make ’em fight for air if you want ’em straight enough to sell.”
Jinny was vaguely disappointed at the turn of this conversation; not following the romantic dream vaguely underlying it.
“But could you afford to buy such a big wood?” she murmured.
“Big wood? Why, in Canada you get forever of land for nothing!”
“Then why didn’t you stay there?” she asked.
“This is better than America,” and his hand touched Jinny’s too consciously.
“Why, what was the matter with America?” she murmured, withdrawing the hand from Nip’s flank with a little blush.
Everything was the matter with America, it appeared. He was, indeed, more anxious to explain how nothing was the matter with Essex, but under Jinny’s physical bashfulness and intellectual curiosity he found himself headed off his native county and kept closely to Transatlantic territory. And under the spell of her eager attention he was soon discoursing fluently enough, sketching a discreetly selected picture of his adventures, beginning with the emigrant sailing packet in which he had gone out as a stowaway, but wherein he fared little worse than the emigrants proper, who in the first six of the thirty-seven days’ voyage had had none of the stipulated provisions served out to them, despite their contract tickets, and no meat during the whole voyage. They had had to be satisfied with their daily water and the right of cooking, and complaints were met with oaths from the officers and doctors, and sometimes even with fists or rope-ends from the sailors. Once or twice the hose had been turned on them, but there were over nine hundred of them, he said, so she might imagine the Babel and confusion, though there were two great passenger decks on which the tallest man could stand, and on whose shelved sides they could all find sleeping-space, with never more than six to a berth. And then from the moment America had burst upon the vessel in the guise of touts, runners, and employers, all anxious to mislead or enslave, he had borne through the continent the banner of a steady disapprobation.
In the States, where his first clutches at Fortune had been made, peculiar perils awaited the British immigrant. If he gravitated, as was natural, to the cliques and boarding-houses of his countrymen, he was likely to be soon “used up” by the gambling and drinking sets that feigned to make him welcome. And if he escaped this pitfall by his resourcefulness, he would strike the native American prejudice against English immigrants, popularly supposed to consist of the paupers and wastrels whom the parish overseers of Old England, anxious to be quit of the burden of supporting them, bribed with free Atlantic passages and dumped on the struggling New World: a prejudice, Will admitted laughingly, which his own purse had done nothing to diminish.
At first he had got a job as car-driver and fed at the market-houses, but though the food was good and cheap, the company was rough of manner and language. And even when he was earning good money—at a boot-store with the sign of a gigantic boot made of real leather reaching to the first-floor windows—he had disliked the “go-along-steamboat” pressure of existence, and the Mechanics’ Boarding House where gabbling Yankees gobbled at a pace both unhealthy in itself and unchivalrous to the unpunctual. The habit of loading the table with all the courses simultaneously took off the edge of his appetite if he was early, and left only universal ruins if he was late. He had no patience with clams that were not oysters, egg-plants that were not eggs, and corn that had to be munched cow-like. Accustomed to the clean linen of the paternal farm, he loathed the insect-ridden bedrooms one divided with a varying number of strangers. He liked to see pigs, but not perambulating and scavenging the streets; why, in New York they were more numerous than the dogs! Providence had designed tobacco, he opined, for smoking and not for chewing; and saliva for swallowing, not for spitting.
It was, in fact, a most unpleasant America that loomed up to Jinny’s vision that day, especially in contrast with this lovely wood, overbrooded by the white moon now growing faintly golden: a sort of spittoon of a continent, mitigated by dollars and dancing. Even in Canada, for which Will had felt a more personal responsibility—accentuated by the British soldiers to be met at every turn—and in which he gladly picked out points of superiority to the States, a similar sense of massive untidiness had weighed upon him and jarred every home-born instinct.
He tried to convey to Jinny the desolation of zigzag rail-fences that took the place of these hedges now glorious with hawthorn and fool’s-parsley and the starry stitchwort; the raw settlements, the half-built log huts hardly superior to yon derelict charcoal-burner’s hut (their windows stuffed sometimes with old straw hats), the unachieved roads, full of mud or dust, the ubiquitous stumps that were once trees, the piles of logs that were not yet habitations, all that crude civilization arising shoddily out of the virgin forest on the sole principle of the cheapest practicable, with nothing whole-hearted but the lust for dollars. Caleb Flynt’s slow English conservatism, Caleb’s unworldly standards, spoke again through his son. But even Will was too inarticulate to put his feeling precisely into words—and when Jinny reminded him that in this very wood trees had been cut down and burned, and that he himself had spoken of cutting down the aspens, he could not quite make clear to her, who had never known any but long-humanized places, the peculiar indecency of a forest at the stage of semi-transformation into a mushroom settlement.
Beautiful enough the backwoods, he laboured to explain, where man’s fight with the forest was only begun, where great beeches and maples, and wild flowers still possessed the black mould the settler was to lay bare for wheat; where his pioneer hut was circled by a green gloom, and the chink of his cow-bells or the laughter of his children alone vied with the ring of the axe and the thunderous fall of the giants. But later on—“it’s like that plover’s egg you opened once,” he burst forth with a sudden inspiration. “No longer an egg, not yet a bird; only a smell!”
“But it was you who gave it me,” laughed Jinny. There was a great content at her heart, sitting here and seeing her little world open out in forests and seas and emotions still stranger. And he—he for the first time enjoyed the society of woman as spiritual counterpart, had moments in which he forgot Jinny was pretty, in which her hand—now unconsciously nestling in his in her absorption in his narration—was felt as a friendly rather than as a physical glow. Unfortunately in this sense of a sympathetic Jinny lay the serpentine temptation which shattered their paradise. For, beguiled by her apparent subjugation, he went on to improve the occasion. “And it’s just the same with women who are neither women nor men. A woman’s place is the home.”
The slipping of Jinny’s hand out of his was the first sign that he had roused her to reality. Her cry, “How late it is!” was the next. And she looked at the sunset glowing in glamorous gold through the trees. There was a magic peace in the air, and a rare thrush sang as in a dream. It seemed a tragedy to move.
Will protested vehemently. “It’s not late at all. You were unusually early this afternoon. No, don’t go—you’ll wake up poor Nip.”
“Did your story send him to sleep? Rude dog! But I must go—a woman’s place is the home!” She got up, smiling, with the snoring dog in her arms, but her mockery was friendly enough: the intimate atmosphere could not be dissipated at a jerk. He was constrained to follow her, if only to precede her through that jungly path: the prospect of driving home with her still shone rosy.
“By the way,” he said lightly, “I’ve been talking with Mr. Flippance about getting that horse for him.”
“What!” She stopped and turned on him, her eyes blazing.
“His last animal was faked,” he explained mildly. “He was badly taken in, and you can’t know all the tricks of the trade as well as a man.”
“And isn’t Mr. Flippance a man?”
“Yes, of course. But—but——”
“It all depends on which man, you see—and which woman.”
“But I’m sure no woman knows properly about horses,” he said. “How would you tell the age, for instance?”
“By the teeth, of course.”
Jinny flushed. She really did not know, and that made her only angrier: “If I wanted your help in my affairs, I should have asked you.”
“Well, there’s nothing to be mad about.”
“There is everything to be mad about. How did you know he wanted me to get a horse? Only because I told you. And then you go to him and interfere with my business and insinuate I’m incapable.”
“It’s not so much you’re incapable——” he began.
“It’s because a woman’s place isn’t the cattle-market, I know. But why can’t we buy cows as well as butter, and horses as well as horse-collars?”
“Because only men go—and it’s rough.”
“Well then, let women go and it won’t be.”
“And do you want women to be horsemen too, get up at four o’clock and go ploughing?”
“They haven’t the strength, for one thing. There’s lots of things they can’t do, and never will. Take thatching, for instance—you can’t imagine a woman sprawling along a roof.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Of course you can,” he sneered. “You can imagine her in breeches.”
“If petticoats get in the way.”
“There’ll never be Bloomerites in England,” he said grimly. “You mark my word. If a woman can’t plough or dig without leggings, that’s a proof she wasn’t meant to plough or dig.”
They had reached now the pleached and tangly path back to the road, but she darted ahead of him, battling with the branches herself in her revolt from dependence. He could not regain the lead unless he jostled rudely, and every now and then—not with wilful malice, but no less maddeningly—she held back for him the boughs she had parted. And all the while the sleeping Nip was protected too: clasped by one hand to her bosom.
Suddenly the circle of her little horn got caught in the bushes like the horn of Isaac’s ram. “Why, Jinny,” he cried, “we forgot all about the horn! Wait! Wait!”
She disentangled it calmly. “You shan’t blow mine. You must blow your own now.”
He fired up. “You want to get out of the gloves.”
“Now you’re going horn-mad,” she jested icily, emerging on the high road. “Good-bye, Mr. Flynt.”
It was the first time she had withheld the Will.
“Good-bye, Miss Boldero,” he said as frigidly, removing his hat with an exaggerated gallantry. Each felt that the parting was final: never would they even speak to each other again.
But they had yet to reckon with Nip. For that intelligent creature, waking into the distressing atmosphere that had been generated while his vigilance was relaxed, would be no party to the breach. When he perceived that the cart was to go off without Will, he jumped down and tried to chevy him into it, and as the parties went off at a tangent, he ran desperately from one to the other, striving to shepherd them together, barking and pleading and panting like a toy engine. It was only a peremptory blast from a distant horn that at last persuaded the distracted animal where his first duty lay.
The dying day still flooded the earth with warmth and radiance: the little coffee-and-cream-coloured calves still frisked in the meadows that the buttercups turned into fields of the cloth of gold: the forget-me-nots were still gleaming in the cottage gardens, the lilac was still peeping over manorial walls, the laburnum still hanging down its yellow chandeliers, and the horse-chestnut upholding its white candelabras. But for these twain, obstinately and against the best canine advice going their separate ways, the colour had been sucked out of the landscape and the clemency from the air. Before Will, wandering deviously, had remembered his evening sausages, these also had grown cold; mist and clouds had turned the moon to a blood-red boat, and the bats were swooping and the wood-owls shrilling where larks had soared and sung.
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