'She thought of the dark plantation, And the hares and her husband's blood, And the voice of her indignation Rose up to the throne of G.o.d.
'"I am long past wailing and whining-- I have wept too much in my life: I've had twenty years of pining As an English labourer's wife.
'"A labourer in Christian England, Where they cant of a Saviour's name, And yet waste men's lives like the vermin's For a few more brace of game.
'"There's blood on your new foreign shrubs, squire; There's blood on your pointer's feet; There's blood on the game you sell, squire, And there's blood on the game you eat!"'
'You villain!' interposed the squire, 'when did I ever sell a head of game?'
'"You have sold the labouring man, squire, Body and soul to shame, To pay for your seat in the House, squire, And to pay for the feed of your game.
"'You made him a poacher yourself, squire, When you'd give neither work nor meat; And your barley-fed hares robbed the garden At our starving children's feet;
'"When packed in one reeking chamber, Man, maid, mother, and little ones lay; While the rain pattered in on the rotting bride-bed, And the walls let in the day;
'"When we lay in the burning fever On the mud of the cold clay floor, Till you parted us all for three months, squire, At the cursed workhouse door.
"'We quarrelled like brutes, and who wonders?
What self-respect could we keep, Worse housed than your hacks and your pointers, Worse fed than your hogs and your sheep?"'
'And yet he has the impudence to say he don't mean me!' grumbled the old man. Tregarva winced a good deal--as if he knew what was coming next; and then looked up relieved when he found Lancelot had omitted a stanza--which I shall not omit.
'"Our daughters with base-born babies Have wandered away in their shame; If your misses had slept, squire, where they did, Your misses might do the same.
"'Can your lady patch hearts that are breaking With handfuls of coals and rice, Or by dealing out flannel and sheeting A little below cost price?
"'You may tire of the gaol and the workhouse, And take to allotments and schools, But you've run up a debt that will never Be repaid us by penny-club rules.
'"In the season of shame and sadness, In the dark and dreary day When scrofula, gout, and madness, Are eating your race away;
"'When to kennels and liveried varlets You have cast your daughters' bread; And worn out with liquor and harlots, Your heir at your feet lies dead;
"'When your youngest, the mealy-mouthed rector, Lets your soul rot asleep to the grave, You will find in your G.o.d the protector Of the freeman you fancied your slave."
'She looked at the tuft of clover, And wept till her heart grew light; And at last, when her pa.s.sion was over, Went wandering into the night.
'But the merry brown hares came leaping Over the uplands still, Where the clover and corn lay sleeping On the side of the white chalk hill.'
'Surely, sir,' said Lancelot, 'you cannot suppose that this latter part applies to you. or your family?'
'If it don't, it applies to half the gentlemen in the vale, and that's just as bad. What right has the fellow to speak evil of dignities?' continued he, quoting the only text in the Bible which he was inclined to make a 'rule absolute.' 'What does such an insolent dog deserve? What don't he deserve, I say?'
'I think,' quoth Lancelot, ambiguously, 'that a man who can write such ballads is not fit to be your gamekeeper, and I think he feels so himself;' and Lancelot stole an encouraging look at Tregarva.
'And I say, sir,' the keeper answered, with an effort, 'that I leave Mr. Lavington's service here on the spot, once and for all.'
'And that you may do, my fine fellow!' roared the squire. 'Pay the rascal his wages, steward, and then duck him soundly in the weir- pool. He had better have stayed there when he fell in last.'
'So I had, indeed, I think. But I'll take none of your money. The day Harry Verney was buried I vowed that I'd touch no more of the wages of blood. I'm going, sir; I never harmed you, or meant a hard word of all this for you, or dreamt that you or any living soul would ever see it. But what I've seen myself, in spite of myself, I've set down here, and am not ashamed of it. And woe,' he went on with an almost prophetic solemnity in his tone and gesture--'woe to those who do these things! and woe to those also who, though they dare not do them themselves, yet excuse and defend them who dare, just because the world calls them gentlemen, and not tyrants and oppressors.'
He turned to go. The squire, bursting with pa.s.sion, sprang up with a terrible oath, turned deadly pale, staggered, and dropped senseless on the floor.
They all rushed to lift him up. Tregarva was the first to take him in his arms and place him tenderly in his chair, where he lay back with gla.s.sy eyes, snoring heavily in a fit of apoplexy.
'Go; for G.o.d's sake, go,' whispered Lancelot to the keeper, 'and wait for me at Lower Whitford. I must see you before you stir.'
The keeper slipped away sadly. The ladies rushed in--a groom galloped off for the doctor--met him luckily in the village, and, in a few minutes, the squire was bled and put to bed, and showed hopeful signs of returning consciousness. And as Argemone and Lancelot leant together over his pillow, her hair touched her lover's, and her fragrant breath was warm upon his cheek; and her bright eyes met his and drank light from them, like glittering planets gazing at their sun.
The obnoxious ballad produced the most opposite effects on Argemone and on Honoria. Argemone, whose reverence for the formalities and the respectabilities of society, never very great, had, of late, utterly vanished before Lancelot's bad counsel, could think of it only as a work of art, and conceived the most romantic longing to raise Tregarva into some station where his talents might have free play. To Honoria, on the other hand, it appeared only as a very fierce, coa.r.s.e, and impertinent satire, which had nearly killed her father. True, there was not a thought in it which had not at some time or other crossed her own mind; but that made her dislike all the more to see those thoughts put into plain English. That very intense tenderness and excitability which made her toil herself among the poor, and had called out both her admiration of Tregarva and her extravagant pa.s.sion at his danger, made her also shrink with disgust from anything which thrust on her a painful reality, which she could not remedy. She was a staunch believer, too, in that peculiar creed which allows every one to feel for the poor, except themselves, and considers that to plead the cause of working-men is, in a gentleman, the perfection of virtue, but in a working-man himself, sheer high treason. And so beside her father's sick-bed she thought of the keeper only as a scorpion whom she had helped to warm into life; and sighing a.s.sent to her mother, when she said, 'That wretch, and he seemed so pious and so obliging! who would have dreamt that he was such a horrid Radical?' she let him vanish from her mind and out of Whitford Priors, little knowing the sore weight of manly love he bore with him.
As soon as Lancelot could leave the Priory, he hastened home to find Tregarva. The keeper had packed up all his small possessions and brought them down to Lower Whitford, through which the London coach pa.s.sed. He was determined to go to London and seek his fortune. He talked of turning coal-heaver, Methodist preacher, anything that came to hand, provided that he could but keep independence and a clear conscience. And all the while the man seemed to be struggling with some great purpose,--to feel that he had a work to do, though what it was, and how it was to be done, he did not see.
'I am a tall man,' he said, 'like Saul the son of Kish; and I am going forth, like him, sir, to find my father's a.s.ses. I doubt I shan't have to look far for some of them.'
'And perhaps,' said Lancelot, laughing, 'to find a kingdom.'
'May be so, sir. I have found one already, by G.o.d's grace, and I'm much mistaken if I don't begin to see my way towards another.'
'And what is that?'
'The kingdom of G.o.d on earth, sir, as well as in heaven. Come it must, sir, and come it will some day.'
Lancelot shook his head.
Tregarva lifted up his eyes and said,--
'Are we not taught to pray for the coming of His kingdom, sir? And do you fancy that He who gave the lesson would have set all mankind to pray for what He never meant should come to pa.s.s?'
Lancelot was silent. The words gained a new and blessed meaning in his eyes.
'Well,' he said, 'the time, at least, of their fulfilment is far enough off. Union-workhouses and child-murder don't look much like it. Talking of that, Tregarva, what is to become of your promise to take me to a village wake, and show me what the poor are like?'
'I can keep it this night, sir. There is a revel at Bone-sake, about five miles up the river. Will you go with a discharged gamekeeper?'
'I will go with Paul Tregarva, whom I honour and esteem as one of G.o.d's own n.o.blemen; who has taught me what a man can be, and what I am not,'--and Lancelot grasped the keeper's hand warmly. Tregarva brushed his hand across his eyes, and answered,--
'"I said in my haste, All men are liars;" and G.o.d has just given me the lie back in my own teeth. Well, sir, we will go to-night. You are not ashamed of putting on a smock-frock? For if you go as a gentleman, you will hear no more of them than a hawk does of a covey of partridges.'
So the expedition was agreed on, and Lancelot and the keeper parted until the evening.
But why had the vicar been rambling on all that morning through pouring rain, on the top of the London coach? And why was he so anxious in his inquiries as to the certainty of catching the up- train? Because he had had considerable experience in that wisdom of the serpent, whose combination with the innocence of the dove, in somewhat ultramontane proportions, is recommended by certain late leaders of his school. He had made up his mind, after his conversation with the Irishman, that he must either oust Lancelot at once, or submit to be ousted by him, and he was now on his way to Lancelot's uncle and trustee, the London banker.
He knew that the banker had some influence with his nephew, whose whole property was invested in the bank, and who had besides a deep respect for the kindly and upright practical mind of the veteran Mammonite. And the vicar knew, too, that he himself had some influence with the banker, whose son Luke had been his pupil at college. And when the young man lay sick of a dangerous illness, brought on by debauchery, into which weakness rather than vice had tempted him, the vicar had watched and prayed by his bed, nursed him as tenderly as a mother, and so won over his better heart that he became completely reclaimed, and took holy orders with the most earnest intention to play the man therein, as repentant rakes will often do, half from a mere revulsion to asceticism, half from real grat.i.tude for their deliverance. This good deed had placed the banker in the vicar's debt, and he loved and reverenced him in spite of his dread of 'Popish novelties.' And now the good priest was going to open to him just as much of his heart as should seem fit; and by saying a great deal about Lancelot's evil doings, opinions, and companions, and nothing at all about the heiress of Whitford, persuade the banker to use all his influence in drawing Lancelot up to London, and leaving a clear stage for his plans on Argemone. He caught the up-train, he arrived safe and sound in town, but what he did there must be told in another chapter.
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