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Charles G. (Charles George) Harper.

The Brighton road : the classic highway to the south online

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hillsides the great Ouse Valley Viaduct of the Brighton line, down towards
Balcombe and Ardingly, is seen stalking across the low-lying meadows,
mellowed by distance to the romantic similitude of an aqueduct of ancient
Rome.

Plentiful traces are yet visible of the rugged old hollow lane that was
the precursor of the present road. In places it is a wayside pool; in
others a hollow, grown thickly with trees, with tree-roots, gnarled and
fanglike, clutching in desperate hold its crumbling banks. The older
rustics know it, if the younger and the passing stranger do not: they tell
you "'tis wheer th' owd hroad tarned arff."




XXVI


The pleasant old town of Cuckfield stands on no railway, and has no
manufactures or industries of any kind; and since the locomotive ran the
coaches off the road has been a veritable Sleepy Hollow. It was not always
thus, for in those centuries - from the fourteenth until the early part of
the eighteenth - when the beds of Sussex iron-ore were worked and smelted
on the spot, the neighbourhood of Cuckfield was a Black Country, given
over to the manufacture of ironware, from cannon to firebacks.

[Illustration: CUCKFIELD, 1789. _From an aquatint after Rowlandson._]

All this was so long ago that nature has healed the scars made by that
busy time. Wooded hills replace the uplands made bare by the smelters, the
cinder-heaps and mounds of slag are hidden under pastures, the
"hammer-ponds" of the smelteries and foundries have become the resorts of
artists seeking the picturesque, and the descendants of the old
iron-masters, the Burrells and the Sergisons, have for generations past
been numbered among the county families.

[Sidenote: CUCKFIELD]

Cuckfield very narrowly escaped being directly on the route of the
Brighton railway, but it pleased the engineers to bring their line no
nearer than Hayward's Heath, some two miles distant. They built a station
there, on the lone heath, "for Cuckfield," with the result, sixty years
later, that the sometime solitude is a town and still growing, while
Cuckfield declines. Hayward's Heath, curiously enough, is, or was until
December, 1894, in the parish of Cuckfield, but the time is at hand when
the two will be joined by the spread of that railway upstart; and then
will be the psychological moment for abolishing the name of Hayward's
Heath - which is a shocking stumbling-block for the aitchless - and adopting
that of the parental "Cookfield."

Meanwhile, I shall drop no sentimental tears over the chance that
Cuckfield lost, sixty years ago, of becoming a railway junction and a
modern town. Of junctions and mushroom towns we have a sufficiency, but of
surviving sweet old country townlets very few.

To see Cuckfield thoroughly demands some little leisure, for although it
is small one must needs have time to assimilate the atmosphere of the
place, if it is to be appreciated at its worth; from the grey old church
with its tall shingled spire and its monuments of Burrells and Sergisons
of Cuckfield Place, to the staid old houses in the quiet streets, and
those two fine old coaching inns, the "Talbot" and the "King's Head."
Rowlandson made a picture of the town in 1789, and it is not wholly unlike
that, even now, but where is that Fair we see in progress in his spirited
rendering? Gone, together with the smart fellow driving the curricle, and
all the other figures of that scene, into the forgotten. There, in one
corner, you see the Recruiting Sergeant and the drummer, impressing with
military glory a typical smock-frocked Hodge, gaping so outrageously that
he seems to be opening his face rather than merely his mouth; the artist's
idea seems to have been that, like a dolphin, he would swallow anything,
either in the way of food or of stories. There are no full-blooded
Sergeant Kites and gaping yokels nowadays.

Cuckfield is evidently feeling, more and more, the altered condition of
affairs. Motorists, who are supposed to bring back prosperity to the road,
do nothing of the kind on the road to Brighton; for those who live at
Brighton or London merely want to reach the other end as quickly as
possible, and, with a legal limit up to twenty miles an hour, can cover
the distance in two hours and a half, and, with an occasional illegal
interval, easily in two hours. Except in case of a breakdown, the wayside
hostelries do not often see the colour of the motorists' money, but they
smell the stink, and are choked with the dust of them, and landlords and
every one else concerned would be only too glad if the project for
building a road between London and Brighton, exclusively for motor
traffic, were likely to be realised. Then ordinary users of the highway
might once more be able to discern the natural scenery of the road, at
present obscured with dust-clouds.

The text for these remarks is furnished by the recent closing, after a
hundred and fifty years or more, of the once chief inn of Cuckfield: the
fine and stately "Talbot," now empty and "To Let"; the hospitable
quotation "You're welcome, what's your will," from _The Merry Wives of
Windsor_ on its fanlight, reading like a bitter mockery.

The interior of Cuckfield Church is crowded with monuments of the
Sergisons and the Burrells. Pride of place is given in the chancel to the
monument of Charles Sergison, who died in 1732, aged 78. It is a very fine
white marble monument, with a figure of Truth gazing into her mirror, and
holding with one hand a medallion partly supported by a Cupid,
displaying a portrait of the lamented Sergison, who, we learn from a
sub-acid inscription, was "Commissioner of the Navy forty-eight years,
till 1719, to the entire satisfaction of the King and his Ministers." "The
civil government of the Navy then being put into military hands, he was
esteemed by them not a fit person to serve any longer." He was, in short,
like those "rulers of the Queen's (or King's) Navee" satirised by Sir W.
S. Gilbert in modern times, and "never went to sea." At the period of his
compulsory retirement it seems to have rather belatedly occurred to the
authorities that such an one could not be well acquainted with the needs
of the Navy; so the "Capacity, Penetration, exact Judgment" of this "true
patriot" were shelved; but, at any rate, he had had his whack, and it was
surely high time for the exact judgment, true patriotism, capacity and
penetration of others to have a chance of making something out of the
nation.

[Illustration: THE ROAD OUT OF CUCKFIELD.]

A few monuments are hidden behind the organ, among them one to Guy
Carleton, "son of George, Lord Bishop of Chichester." He, it seems, "died
of a consumption, cl=c=l=c=cxxiv," which appears to be the highly esoteric
way of writing 1624. "_Mors vitæ initium_" he tells us, and illustrates it
with the pleasing fancy of a skull mounted on an hour-glass, with ears of
wheat sprouting from the eyeless sockets. Other equally pleasant devices,
encircled with fragments of Greek, are plentiful, the whole concluding
with the announcement that "The end of all things is at hand." Holding
that opinion, it would seem to have been hardly worth while to erect the
monument, but in the result it survives to show what a very gross mistake
he made.

Two illustrations of the quiet annals of Cuckfield, widely different in
point of time, are the old clock and the wall-plate memorial to one Frank
Bleach of the Royal Sussex Volunteer Company, who died at Bloemfontein in
1901. The ancient hand-wrought clock, made in 1667 by Isaac Leney,
probably of Cuckfield, finally stopped in 1867, and was taken down in
1873. After lying as lumber in the belfry for many years, it was in 1904
fixed on the interior wall of the tower.




XXVII


[Sidenote: "ROOKWOOD"]

Cuckfield Place, acknowledged by Harrison Ainsworth to be the original of
his "Rookwood," stands immediately outside the town, and is visible, in
midst of the park, from the road. That romantic home of ghostly tradition
is fittingly approached by a long and lofty avenue of limes, where stands
the clock-tower entrance-gate, removed from Slaugham Place.

Beyond it the picturesquely broken surface of the park stretches,
beautifully wooded and populated with herds of deer, the grey, many-gabled
mansion looking down upon the whole.

[Sidenote: AINSWORTH]

"Rookwood," the fantastic and gory tale that first gave Harrison Ainsworth
a vogue, was commenced in 1831, but not completed until 1834. Ainsworth
died at Reigate, January 3, 1882. Thus in his preface he acknowledges his
model:

"The supernatural occurrence forming the groundwork of one of the ballads
which I have made the harbinger of doom to the house of Rookwood, is
ascribed by popular superstition to a family resident in Sussex, upon
whose estate the fatal tree (a gigantic lime, with mighty arms and huge
girth of trunk, as described in the song) is still carefully preserved.
Cuckfield Place, to which this singular piece of timber is attached, is, I
may state for the benefit of the curious, the real Rookwood Hall; for I
have not drawn upon imagination, but upon memory in describing the seat
and domains of that fated family. The general features of the venerable
structure, several of its chambers, the old garden, and, in particular,
the noble park, with its spreading prospects, its picturesque views of the
hall, 'like bits of Mrs. Radcliffe' (as the poet Shelley once observed of
the same scene), its deep glades, through which the deer come lightly
tripping down, its uplands, slopes, brooks, brakes, coverts, and groves
are carefully delineated."

[Illustration: CUCKFIELD PLACE.]

"Like Mrs. Radcliffe!" That romance is indeed written in the peculiar
convention which obtained with her, with Horace Walpole, with Maturin, and
"Monk" Lewis; a convention of Gothic gloom and superstition, delighting in
gore and apparitions, responsible for the "Mysteries of Udolpho," "The
Italian," "The Monk," and other highly seasoned reading of the early years
of the nineteenth century. Ainsworth deliberately modelled his manner upon
Mrs. Radcliffe, changing the scenes of his desperate deeds from her
favourite Italy to our own land. His pages abound in apparitions,
death-watches, highwaymen, "pistols for two and breakfasts for one,"
daggers, poison-bowls, and burials alive, and, with a little literary
ability added to his horribles, his would be a really hair-raising
romance. But the blood he ladles out so plentifully is only coloured
water; his spectres are only illuminated turnips on broomsticks; his
verses so deplorable, his witticisms so hobnailed that even schoolboys
refuse any longer to be thrilled. He "wants to make yer blood run cold,"
but he not infrequently raises a hearty laugh instead. It would be
impossible to burlesque "Rookwood"; it burlesques itself, and shall be
allowed to do so here, from the point where Alan Rookwood visits the
family vault, to his tragic end:

[Illustration: THE CLOCK-TOWER AND HAUNTED AVENUE, CUCKFIELD PLACE.]

[Illustration: HARRISON AINSWORTH. _From the Fraser portrait._]

"He then walked beneath the shadow of one of the yews, chanting an odd
stanza or so of one of his wild staves, wrapped the while, it would seem,
in affectionate contemplation of the subject-matter of his song:

THE CHURCHYARD YEW.

' - - Metuendaque succo
Taxus.'

A noxious tree is the churchyard yew,
As if from the dead its sap it drew;
Dark are its branches, and dismal to see,
Like plumes at Death's latest solemnity.
Spectral and jagged, and black as the wings
Which some spirit of ill o'er a sepulchre flings:
Oh! a terrible tree is the churchyard yew;
Like it is nothing so grimly to view.

Yet this baleful tree hath a core so sound,
Can nought so tough in a grove be found:
From it were fashioned brave English bows,
The boast of our isle, and the dread of its foes.
For our sturdy sires cut their stoutest staves
From the branch that hung o'er their fathers' graves;
And though it be dreary and dismal to view,
Staunch at the heart is the churchyard yew.

"His ditty concluded, Alan entered the church, taking care to leave the
door slightly ajar, in order to facilitate his grandson's entrance. For an
instant he lingered in the chancel. The yellow moonlight fell upon the
monuments of his race; and, directed by the instinct of hate, Alan's eye
rested upon the gilded entablature of his perfidious brother Reginald, and
muttering curses, 'not loud, but deep,' he passed on. Having lighted his
lantern in no tranquil mood, he descended into the vault, observing a
similar caution with respect to the portal of the cemetery, which he left
partially unclosed, with the key in the lock. Here he resolved to abide
Luke's coming. The reader knows what probability there was of his
expectations being realised.

[Sidenote: FARCICAL ROMANCE]

"For a while he paced the tomb, wrapped in gloomy meditation, and
pondering, it might be, upon the result of Luke's expedition, and the
fulfilment of his own dark schemes, scowling from time to time beneath his
bent eyebrows, counting the grim array of coffins, and noticing, with
something like satisfaction, that the shell which contained the remains of
his daughter had been restored to its former position. He then bethought
him of Father Checkley's midnight intrusion upon his conference with Luke,
and their apprehension of a supernatural visitation, and his curiosity was
stimulated to ascertain by what means the priest had gained admission to
the spot unperceived and unheard. He resolved to sound the floor, and see
whether any secret entrance existed; and hollowly and dully did the hard
flagging return the stroke of his heel as he pursued his scrutiny. At
length the metallic ringing of an iron plate, immediately behind the
marble effigy of Sir Ranulph, resolved the point. There it was that the
priest had found access to the vault; but Alan's disappointment was
excessive when he discovered that this plate was fastened on the
under-side, and all communication thence with the churchyard, or to
wherever else it might conduct him, cut off; but the present was not the
season for further investigation, and tolerably pleased with the discovery
he had already made, he returned to his silent march around the sepulchre.

"At length a sound, like the sudden shutting of the church door, broke
upon the profound stillness of the holy edifice. In the hush that
succeeded a footstep was distinctly heard threading the aisle.

"'He comes - he comes!' exclaimed Alan joyfully; adding, an instant after,
in an altered voice, 'but he comes alone.'

"The footstep drew near to the mouth of the vault - it was upon the stairs.
Alan stepped forward to greet, as he supposed, his grandson, but started
back in astonishment and dismay as he encountered in his stead Lady
Rookwood. Alan retreated, while the lady advanced, swinging the iron door
after her, which closed with a tremendous clang. Approaching the statue of
the first Sir Ranulph she passed, and Alan then remarked the singular and
terrible expression of her eyes, which appeared to be fixed upon the
statue, or upon some invisible object near it. There was something in her
whole attitude and manner calculated to impress the deepest terror on the
beholder, and Alan gazed upon her with an awe which momently increased.
Lady Rookwood's bearing was as proud and erect as we have formerly
described it to have been, her brow was as haughtily bent, her chiselled
lip as disdainfully curled; but the staring, changeless eye, and the
deep-heaved sob which occasionally escaped her, betrayed how much she was
under the influence of mortal terror. Alan watched her in amazement. He
knew not how the scene was likely to terminate, nor what could have
induced her to visit this ghostly spot at such an hour and alone; but he
resolved to abide the issue in silence - profound as her own. After a time,
however, his impatience got the better of his fears and scruples, and he
spoke.

"'What doth Lady Rookwood in the abode of the dead?' asked he at length.

"She started at the sound of his voice, but still kept her eye fixed upon
the vacancy.

"'Hast thou not beckoned me hither, and am I not come?' returned she, in a
hollow tone. 'And now thou askest wherefore I am here. I am here because,
as in thy life I feared thee not, neither in death do I fear thee. I am
here because - - '

"'What seest thou?' interrupted Alan, with ill-suppressed terror.

"'What see I - ha - ha!' shouted Lady Rookwood, amidst discordant laughter;
'that which might appal a heart less stout than mine - a figure
anguish-writhen, with veins that glow as with a subtle and consuming
flame. A substance, yet a shadow, in thy living likeness. Ha - frown if
thou wilt; I can return thy glances.'

[Sidenote: MELODRAMA POUR RIRE]

"'Where dost thou see this vision?' demanded Alan.

"'Where?' echoed Lady Rookwood, becoming for the first time sensible of
the presence of a stranger. 'Ha - who are you that question me? - what are
you? - speak!'

"'No matter who or what I am,' returned Alan; 'I ask you what you behold?'

"'Can you see nothing?'

"'Nothing,' replied Alan.

"'You knew Sir Piers Rookwood?'

"'Is it he?' asked Alan, drawing near her.

"'It is,' replied Lady Rookwood; 'I have followed him hither, and I will
follow him whithersoever he leads me, were it to - - '

"'What doth he now?' asked Alan; 'do you see him still?'

"'The figure points to that sarcophagus,' returned Lady Rookwood - 'can you
raise up the lid?'

"'No,' replied Alan; 'my strength will not avail to lift it.'

"'Yet let the trial be made,' said Lady Rookwood; 'the figure points there
still - my own arm shall aid you.'

"Alan watched her in dumb wonder. She advanced towards the marble
monument, and beckoned him to follow. He reluctantly complied. Without any
expectation of being able to move the ponderous lid of the sarcophagus, at
Lady Rookwood's renewed request he applied himself to the task. What was
his surprise when, beneath their united efforts, he found the ponderous
slab slowly revolve upon its vast hinges, and, with little further
difficulty, it was completely elevated, though it still required the
exertion of all Alan's strength to prop it open and prevent its falling
back.

"'What does it contain?' asked Lady Rookwood.

"'A warrior's ashes,' returned Alan.

"'There is a rusty dagger upon a fold of faded linen,' cried Lady
Rookwood, holding down the light.

"'It is the weapon with which the first dame of the house of Rookwood was
stabbed,' said Alan, with a grim smile:

'Which whoso findeth in the tomb
Shall clutch until the hour of doom;
And when 'tis grasped by hand of clay
The curse of blood shall pass away.

So saith the rhyme. Have you seen enough?'

"'No,' said Lady Rookwood, precipitating herself into the marble coffin.
'That weapon shall be mine.'

"'Come forth - come forth,' cried Alan. 'My arm trembles - I cannot support
the lid.'

"'I will have it, though I grasp it to eternity,' shrieked Lady Rookwood,
vainly endeavouring to wrest away the dagger, which was fastened, together
with the linen upon which it lay, by some adhesive substance to the bottom
of the shell.

"At this moment Alan Rookwood happened to cast his eye upward, and he
then beheld what filled him with new terror. The axe of the sable statue
was poised above its head, as in the act to strike him. Some secret
machinery, it was evident, existed between the sarcophagus lid and this
mysterious image. But in the first impulse of his alarm Alan abandoned his
hold of the slab, and it sunk slowly downwards. He uttered a loud cry as
it moved. Lady Rookwood heard this cry. She raised herself at the same
moment - the dagger was in her hand - she pressed it against the lid, but
its downward force was too great to be withstood. The light was within the
sarcophagus and Alan could discern her features. The expression was
terrible. She uttered one shriek, and the lid closed for ever.

"Alan was in total darkness. The light had been enclosed with Lady
Rookwood. There was something so horrible in her probable fate that even
_he_ shuddered as he thought upon it. Exerting all his remaining strength,
he essayed to raise the lid; but now it was more firmly closed than ever.
It defied all his power. Once, for an instant, he fancied that it yielded
to his straining sinews, but it was only his hand that slided upon the
surface of the marble. It was fixed - immovable. The sides and lid rang
with the strokes which the unfortunate lady bestowed upon them with the
dagger's point; but these sounds were not long heard. Presently all was
still; the marble ceased to vibrate with her blows. Alan struck the lid
with his knuckles, but no response was returned. All was silent.

[Sidenote: FRENZY]

"He now turned his attention to his own situation, which had become
sufficiently alarming. An hour must have elapsed, yet Luke had not
arrived. The door of the vault was closed - the key was in the lock, and on
the outside. He was himself a prisoner within the tomb. What if Luke
should _not_ return? What if he were slain, as it might chance, in the
enterprise? That thought flashed across his brain like an electric shock.
None knew of his retreat but his grandson. He might perish of famine
within this desolate vault.

"He checked this notion as soon as it was formed - it was too dreadful to
be indulged in. A thousand circumstances might conspire to detain Luke. He
was sure to come. Yet the solitude, the darkness, was awful, almost
intolerable. The dying and the dead were around him. He dared not stir.

"Another hour - an age it seemed to him - had passed. Still Luke came not.
Horrible forebodings crossed him; but he would not surrender himself to
them. He rose, and crawled in the direction, as he supposed, of the
door - fearful even of the stealthy sound of his own footsteps. He reached
it, and his heart once more throbbed with hope. He bent his ear to the
key; he drew in his breath; he listened for some sound, but nothing was to
be heard. A groan would have been almost music in his ears.

"Another hour was gone! He was now a prey to the most frightful
apprehensions, agitated in turns by the wildest emotions of rage and
terror. He at one moment imagined that Luke had abandoned him, and heaped
curses upon his head; at the next, convinced that he had fallen, he
bewailed with equal bitterness his grandson's fate and his own. He paced
the tomb like one distracted; he stamped upon the iron plate; he smote
with his hands upon the door; he shouted, and the vault hollowly echoed
his lamentations. But Time's sand ran on, and Luke arrived not.

"Alan now abandoned himself wholly to despair. He could no longer
anticipate his grandson's coming - no longer hope for deliverance. His fate
was sealed. Death awaited him. He must anticipate his slow but inevitable
stroke, enduring all the grinding horrors of starvation. The contemplation
of such an end was madness, but he was forced to contemplate it now; and
so appalling did it appear to his imagination, that he half resolved to
dash out his brains against the walls of the sepulchre, and put an end at
once to his tortures; and nothing, except a doubt whether he might not, by
imperfectly accomplishing his purpose, increase his own suffering,
prevented him from putting this dreadful idea into execution. His dagger
was gone, and he had no other weapon. Terrors of a new kind now assailed
him. The dead, he fancied, were bursting from their coffins, and he
peopled the darkness with grisly phantoms. They were round about him on
each side, whirling and rustling, gibbering, groaning, shrieking,
laughing, and lamenting. He was stunned, stifled. The air seemed to grow
suffocating, pestilential; the wild laughter was redoubled; the horrible
troop assailed him; they dragged him along the tomb, and amid their howls
he fell, and became insensible.

[Sidenote: TORMENT]

"When he returned to himself, it was some time before he could collect his
scattered faculties; and when the agonising consciousness of his terrible
situation forced itself upon his mind, he had nigh relapsed into oblivion.
He arose. He rushed towards the door: he knocked against it with his
knuckles till the blood streamed from them; he scratched against it with
his nails till they were torn off by the roots. With insane fury he
hurled himself against the iron frame: it was in vain. Again he had
recourse to the trap-door. He searched for it; he found it. He laid
himself upon the ground. There was no interval of space in which he could
insert a finger's point. He beat it with his clenched hand; he tore it


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Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Brighton road : the classic highway to the south → online text (page 14 of 18)