The next day, as I passed the school-house on my way to call on the curate, I heard such an uproar that I stopped involuntarily to listen. I soon satisfied myself that it was only the usual water-spout occasioned on the ocean of boyhood by the vacuum of the master. As soon as I entered the curate's study, there stood the missing master, hat in hand. He had not sat down, and would not, hearing all the time, no doubt, in his soul, the far confusion of his forsaken realm. He had but that moment entered.
"You come just in the right time, Smith," said the curate.--We had already dropped unnecessary prefixes.--"Here is Mr. Bloomfield come to ask us to spend a final evening with him and Mrs. Bloomfield. And in the name of the whole company, I have taken upon me to assure him that it will give us pleasure. Am I not right?"
"Undoubtedly," I replied. "What evening have you fixed upon, Mr. Bloomfield?"
"This day week," he answered. "Shall I tell you why I put it off so long?"
"If you please."
"I heard your brother, Mr. Armstrong, say that you were very fond of parables. Now I have always had a leaning that way myself; and for years I have had one in particular glimmering before my mental sight. The ambition seized me, to write it out for one of our meetings, and so submit it to your judgment; for, Mr. Armstrong, I am so delighted with your sermons and opinions generally, that I long to let you know that I am not only friendly, but capable of sympathizing with you. But it is only in the rough yet, and I want to have plenty of time to act the dutiful bear to my offspring, and lick it into thorough shape. So if you will come this day week, Mrs. Bloomfield and I will be delighted to entertain you in our humble fashion. But, bless me! the boys will be all in a heap of confusion worse confounded before I get back to them. I have no business to be away from them at this hour. Good morning, gentlemen."
And off ran the worthy Neptune, to quell, by the vision of his returning head, the rebellious waves of boyish impulse.
"That man will be a great comfort to you, Armstrong," I said.
"I know he will. He is a far-seeing, and what is better, a far-feeling man."
"There is true wealth in him, it seems to me, although it may be of narrow reach in expression," said I.
"I think so, quite. He seems to me to be one of those who have never grown robust because they have laboured in-doors instead of going out to work in the open air. There is a shrinking delicacy about him when with those whom he doesn't feel to be of his own kind, which makes him show to a disadvantage. But you should see him amongst his boys to do him justice."
We were interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Armstrong, who came, after their simple fashion, to tell her husband that dinner was ready. I took my leave.
In the evening, Mrs. Bloomfield called to invite Adela and the colonel; and the affair was settled for that day week.
"You're much better, my dear, are you not?" said the worthy woman to my niece.
"Indeed I am, Mrs. Bloomfield. I could not have believed it possible that I should be so much better in so short a time--and at this season of the year too."
"Mr. Armstrong is a very clever young man, I think; though I can't say I quite relished that extraordinary story of his."
"I suppose he is clever," replied Adela, something demurely as I thought. "I must say I liked the story."
"Ah, well! Young people, you know, Mr. Smith--But, bless me! I'm sure I beg your pardon. I had forgotten you weren't a married man. Of course you're one of the young people too, Mr. Smith."
"I don't think there's much of youth to choose between you and me, Mrs. Bloomfield," said I, "if I may venture to say so. But I fear I do belong to the young people, if a liking for extravagant stories, so long as they mean well, you know--is to be the test of the classification. I fear I have a depraved taste, that way. I don't mean in this particular instance, though, Adela."
"I hope not," answered Adela, with a blushing smile, which I, at least, could read, having had not merely the key to it, but the open door and window as well, ever since I had seen the two standing together at the top of the stair.
That night the weather broke. A slow thaw set in; and before many days were over, islands of green began to appear amid the "wan water" of the snow--to use a phrase common in Scotch ballads, though with a different application. The graves in the churchyard lifted up their green altars of earth, as the first whereon to return thanks for the prophecy of spring; which, surely, if it has force and truth anywhere, speaks loudest to us in the churchyard. And on Sunday the sun broke out and shone on the green hillocks, just as good old Mr. Venables was reading the words, "I will not leave you comfortless--I will come to you."
And the ice vanished from the river, and the dark stream flowed, somewhat sullen, but yet glad at heart, on through the low meadows bordered with pollards, which, poor things, maltreated and mutilated, yet did the best they could, and went on growing wildly in all insane shapes--pitifully mingling formality and grotesqueness.
And the next day the hounds met at Castle Irksham. And that day Colonel Cathcart would ride with them.
For the good man had gathered spirit just as the light grew upon his daughter's face. And he was merry like a boy now that the first breath of spring--for so it seemed, although no doubt plenty of wintriness remained and would yet show itself--had loosened the hard hold of the frost, which is the death of Nature. The frost is hard upon old people; and the spring is so much the more genial and blessed in its sweet influences on them. Do we grow old that, in our weakness and loss of physical self-assertion, we may learn the benignities of the universe--only to be learned first through the feeling of their want?--I do not envy the man who laughs the east wind to scorn. He can never know the balmy power of its sister of the west, which is the breath of the Lord, the symbol of the one genial strength at the root of all life, resurrection, and growth--commonly called the Spirit of God.--Who has not seen, as the infirmities of age grow upon old men, the haughty, self-reliant spirit that had neglected, if not despised the gentle ministrations of love, grow as it were a little scared, and begin to look about for some kindness; begin to return the warm pressure of the hand, and to submit to be waited upon by the anxiety of love? Not in weakness alone comes the second childhood upon men, but often in childlikeness; for in old age as in nature, to quote the song of the curate,
Old Autumn's fingers
Paint in hues of Spring.
The necessities of the old man prefigure and forerun the dawn of the immortal childhood. For is not our necessity towards God our highest blessedness--the fair cloud that hangs over the summit of existence? Thank God, he has made his children so noble and high that they cannot do without Him! I believe we are sent into this world just to find this out.
But to leave my reflections and return to my story--such as it is. The colonel mounted me on an old horse of his, "whom," to quote from Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, "though he was near twenty years old, he preferred for a piece of sure service, before a great number of younger." Now the piece of sure service, in the present instance, was to take care of old John Smith, who was only a middling horseman, though his friend, the colonel, would say that he rode pretty well for a lad. The old horse, in fact, knew not only what he could do, but what I could do, for our powers were about equal. He looked well about for the gaps and the narrow places. From weakness in his forelegs, he had become a capital buck-jumper, as I think Cathcart called him, always alighting over a hedge on his hind legs, instead of his fore ones, which was as much easier for John Smith as for Hop o' my Thumb--that was the name of the old horse, he being sixteen hands, at least. But I beg my reader's pardon for troubling him with all this about my horse, for, assuredly, neither he nor I will perform any deed of prowess in his presence. But I have the weakness of garrulity in regard to a predilection from the indulgence of which circumstances have debarred me.
At nine o'clock my friend and I started upon hacks for the meet. Now, I am not going to describe the "harrow and weal away!" with which the soul of poor Reynard is hunted out of the world--if, indeed, such a clever wretch can have a soul. I daresay--I hope, at least, that the argument of the fox-hunter is analogically just, who, being expostulated with on the cruelty of fox-hunting, replied--"Well, you know, the hounds like it; and the horses like it; and there's no doubt the men like it--and who knows whether the fox doesn't like it too?" But I would not have introduced the subject except for the sake of what my reader will find in the course of a page or two, and which assuredly is not fox-hunting.
We soon found. But just before, a sudden heavy noise, coming apparently from a considerable distance, made one or two of the company say, with passing curiosity: "What is that?" It was instantly forgotten, however, as soon as the fox broke cover. He pointed towards Purley-bridge. We had followed for some distance, circumstances permitting Hop o' my Thumb to keep in the wake of his master, when the colonel, drawing rein, allowed me--I ought to say us, for the old horse had quite as much voice in the matter as I had--to come up with him.
"The cunning old dog!" said he. "He has run straight for the deepest cutting in the railway. They'll all be pounded presently! They don't know this part so well as I do. I know every field and gate in it. I used to go larking over it all when I was only a cub myself. Confound it! I'm not up to much to-day. I suppose I'm getting old, you know; or I'd strike off here at right angles to the left, and make for the bridge at Crumple's Corner. I should lose the hounds though, I fear. I wonder what his lordship will do."
All the time my old friend was talking, we were following the rest of the field, whom, sure enough, as soon as we got into the next inclosure, we saw drawing up one after another on the top of the railway cutting, which ran like the river of death between them and the fox-hunter's paradise. But at the moment we entered this field, whom should we see approaching us at right angles, from the direction of Purleybridge, but Harry Armstrong, mounted on the mare! I rode towards him.
"Trapped, you see," said I. "Are you after the fox--or some nobler game?"
"I was going my rounds," answered Harry, "when I caught sight of the hounds. I have no very pressing case to day, so I turned a few yards out of the road to see a bit of the sport. Confound these railways!"
At the moment--and all this passed, as the story-teller is so often compelled to remind his reader, in far less time than it takes to tell-- over the hedge on the opposite side from where Harry had entered the field, blundered a country fellow, on a great, heavy, but spirited horse, and ploughed his way up the soft furrow to where we stood.
"Doctor!" he cried, half-breathless with haste and exertion--"Doctor!"
"Well?" answered Henry, alert.
"There's a awful accident at Grubblebon Quarry, sir. Powder blowed up. Legs and arms! Good God! sir, make haste."
"Well," said Harry, whose compressed lips alone gave sign of his being ready for action, "ride to the town, and tell my housekeeper to give you bandages and wadding and oil, and splints, and whatever she knows to be needful. Are there many hurt?"
"Half a dozen alive, sir."
"Then you'd better let the other doctors know as well. And just tell my man to saddle Jilter and take him to by brother, the curate. He had better come out at once. Ride now."
"I will, sir," said the man, and was over the hedge in another minute.
But not before Harry was over the railway. For he rode gently towards it, as if nothing particular was to be done, and chose as the best spot one close to where several of the gentlemen stood, disputing for a moment as to which was the best way to get across. Now on the top of the cutting there was a rail, and between the rail and the edge of the cutting a space of about four feet. Harry trotted his mare gently up to the rail, and went over. Nor was the mutual confidence of mare and master misplaced from either side. She lighted and stood stock still within a foot of the slope, so powerful was she to stop herself. An uproar of cries arose among the men. I heard the old soldier's voice above them all.
"Damn you, Armstrong, you fool!" he cried; "you'll break your neck, and serve you right too!"
I don't know a stronger proof that the classical hell has little hold on the faith of the Saxons, than that good-hearted and true men will not unfrequently damn their friends when they are most anxious to save them. But before the words were half out of the colonel's mouth, Harry was half-way down the cutting. He had gone straight at it like a cat, and it was of course the only way. I had galloped to the edge after him, and now saw him, or rather her, descending by a succession of rebounds--not bounds--a succession, in fact, of short falls upon the fore-legs, while Harry's head was nearly touching her rump. Arrived at the bottom, she gave two bounds across the rails, and the same moment was straining right up the opposite bank in a fierce agony of effort, Harry hanging upon her neck. Now the mighty play of her magnificent hind quarters came into operation. I could see, plainly enough across the gulf, the alternate knotting and loosening of the thick muscles as, step by step, she tore her way up the grassy slope. It was a terrible trial of muscle and wind, and very few horses could have stood it. As she neared the top, her pace grew slower and slower, and the exertion more and more severe. If she had given in, she would have rolled to the bottom, but nothing was less in her thoughts. Her master never spurred or urged her, except it may have been by whispering in her ear, to which his mouth was near enough: he knew she needed no excitement to that effort. At length the final heave of her rump, as it came up to a level with her withers, told the breathless spectators that the attempt was a success, when a loud "Hurrah for the doctor and his mare!" burst from their lips. The doctor, however, only waved his hand in acknowledgment, for he had all to do yet. Fortunately there was space enough between the edge and the fence on that side to allow of his giving his mare a quarter of a circle of a gallop before bringing her up to the rail, else in her fatigue she might have failed to top it. Over she went and away, with her tail streaming out behind her, as if she had done nothing worth thinking about, once it was done. One more cheer for the doctor--but no one dared to follow him. They scattered in different directions to find a less perilous crossing. I stuck by my leader.
"By Jove! Cathcart," said Lord Irksham, as they parted, "that doctor of yours is a hero. He ought to have been bred a soldier."
"He's better employed, my lord," bawled the old colonel; for they were now a good many yards asunder, making for different points in the hedge. From this answer, I hoped well for the doctor. At all events, the colonel admired his manliness more than ever, and that was a great thing. For me, I could hardly keep down the expression of an excitement which I did not wish to show. It was a great relief to me when the hurrah! arose, and I could let myself off in that way. I told you, kind reader, I was only an old boy. But, as the Arabs always give God thanks when they see a beautiful woman, and quite right too! so, in my heart, I praised God who had made a mare with such muscles, and a man with such a heart. And I said to myself, "A fine muscle is a fine thing; but the finest muscle of all, keeping the others going too, is the heart itself. That is the true Christian muscle. And the real muscular Christianity is that which pours in a life-giving torrent from the devotion of the heart, receiving only that it may give."
But I fancy I hear my reader saying,
"Mr. Smith, you've forgotten the fox. What a sportsman you make!"
Well, I had forgotten the fox. But then we didn't kill him or find another that day. So you won't care for the rest of the run.
I was tired enough by the time we got back to Purleybridge. I went early to bed.
The next morning, the colonel, the moment we met at the breakfast table, said to me,
"You did not hear, Smith, what that young rascal of a doctor said to Lord Irksham last night?"
"No, what was it?"
"It seems they met again towards evening, and his lordship said to him: 'You hare-brained young devil!'--you know his lordship's rough way," interposed the colonel, forgetting how roundly he had sworn at Harry himself, "'by the time you're my age, you'll be more careful of the few brains you'll have left.' To which expostulated Master Harry replied: 'If your lordship had been my age, and would have done it yourself to kill a fox: when I am your lordship's age, I hope I shall have the grace left to do as much to save a man.' Whereupon his lordship rejoined, holding out his hand, 'By Jove! sir, you are an honour to your profession. Come and dine with me on Monday.' And what do you think the idiot did?--Backed out of it, and wouldn't go, because he thought his lordship condescending, and he didn't want his patronage. But his lordship's not a bit like that, you know."
"Then if he isn't, he'll like Harry all the better for declining, and will probably send him a proper invitation."
And sure enough, I was right; and Harry did dine at Castle Irksham on Monday.
Adela's eyes showed clearly enough that her ears were devouring every word we had said; and the glow on her face could not be mistaken by me at least, though to another it might well appear only the sign of such an enthusiasm as one would like every girl to feel in the presence of noble conduct of any kind. She had heard the whole story last night you may be sure; and I do not doubt that the unrestrained admiration shown by her father for the doctor's conduct, was a light in her heart which sleep itself could not extinguish, and which went shining on in her dreams. Admiration of the beloved is dear to a woman. You see I like to show that although I am an old bachelor, I know something about them.
I met Harry that morning; that is, I contrived to meet him.
"Well, how are you to-day, Harry?" I said.
"All right, thank you."
"Were there many hurt at the quarry?"
"Oh! it wasn't so very bad, I'm happy to say."
"You did splendidly yesterday."
"Oh, nonsense! It was my mare. It wasn't me. I had nothing to do with it."
"Well! well! you have my full permission to say so, and to think so, too."
"Well! well! say no more about it."
So it was long before the subject was again alluded to by me. But it will be long, too, before it is forgotten in that county.
And so the evening came when we were to meet--for the last time as the Story-telling club--at the schoolmaster's house. It was now past the time I had set myself for returning to London, and although my plans were never of a very unalterable complexion, seeing I had the faculty of being able to write wherever I was, and never admitted chairs and tables, and certain rows of bookshelves, to form part of my mental organism, without which the rest of the mechanism would be thrown out of gear, I had yet reasons for wishing to be in London; and I intended to take my departure on the day but one after the final meeting.--I may just remark, that before this time one or two families had returned to Purleybridge, and others were free from their Christmas engagements, who would have been much pleased to join our club; but, considering its ephemeral nature, and seeing it had been formed only for what we hoped was a passing necessity, we felt that the introduction of new blood, although essential for the long life of anything constituted for long life, would only hasten the decay of its butterfly constitution. So we had kept our meetings entirely to ourselves.
We all arrived about the same time, and found our host and hostess full of quiet cordiality, to which their homeliness lent an additional charm. The relation of host and guest is weakened by every addition to a company, and in a large assembly all but disappears. Indeed, the tendency of the present age is to blot from the story of every-day life all reminders of the ordinary human relations, as commonplace and insignificant, and to mingle all society in one concourse of atoms, in which the only distinctions shall be those of rank; whereas the sole power to keep social intercourse from growing stale is the recognition of the immortal and true in all the simple human relations. Then we look upon all men with reverence, and find ourselves safe and at home in the midst of divine intents, which may be violated and striven with, but can never be escaped, because the will of God is the very life and well-being of his creatures.
Mrs. Bloomfield looked very nice in her black silk dress, and collar and cuffs of old lace, as she presided at the tea-table, and made us all feel that it was a pleasure to her to serve us.
After repeated apologies, and confessions of failure, our host then read the following parable, as he called it, though I daresay it would be more correct to call it an allegory. But as that word has so many wearisome associations, I, too, intend, whether right or wrong, to call it a parable. So, then, it shall be: