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WILFRID CUMBERMEDE


By George Macdonald


_With 14 Full Page Black-And-White
Illustrations By F.A. Fraser._



[Illustration: One Day, As We Were Walking Over The Fields, I Told Him
The Whole Story Of The Loss Of The Weapon At Moldwarp Hall.]




CONTENTS.


CHAP.

INTRODUCTION.

I. WHERE I FIND MYSELF.
II. MY UNCLE AND AUNT.
III. AT THE TOP OF THE CHIMNEY-STAIR.
IV. THE PENDULUM.
V. I HAVE LESSONS.
VI. I COBBLE.
VII. THE SWORD ON THE WALL.
VIII. I GO TO SCHOOL, AND GRANNIE LEAVES IT.
IX. I SIN AND REPENT.
X. I BUILD CASTLES.
XI. A TALK WITH MY UNCLE.
XII. THE HOUSE-STEWARD.
XIII. THE LEADS.
XIV. THE GHOST.
XV. AWAY.
XVI. THE ICE-CAVE.
XVII. AMONG THE MOUNTAINS.
XVIII. AGAIN THE ICE-CAVE.
XIX. CHARLEY NURSES ME.
XX. A DREAM.
XXI. THE FROZEN STREAM.
XXII. AN EXPLOSION
XXIII. ONLY A LINK
XXIV. CHARLEY AT OXFORD
XXV. MY WHITE MARE
XXVI. A RIDING LESSON
XXVII. A DISAPPOINTMENT
XXVIII. IN LONDON
XXIX. CHANGES
XXX. PROPOSALS
XXXI. ARRANGEMENTS
XXXII. PREPARATIONS
XXXIII. ASSISTANCE
XXXIV. AN EXPOSTULATION
XXXV. A TALK WITH CHARLEY
XXXVI. TAPESTRY
XXXVII. THE OLD CHEST
XXXVIII. MARY OSBORNE
XXXIX. A STORM
XL. A DREAM
XLI. A WAKING
XLII. A TALK ABOUT SUICIDE
XLIII. THE SWORD IN THE SCALE
XLIV. I PART WITH MY SWORD
XLV. UMBERDEN CHURCH
XLVI. MY FOLIO
XLVII. THE LETTERS AND THEIR STORY
XLVIII. ONLY A LINK
XLIX. A DISCLOSURE
L. THE DATES
LI. CHARLEY AND CLARA
LII. LILITH MEETS WITH A MISFORTUNE
LIII. TOO LATE
LIV. ISOLATION
LV. ATTEMPTS AND COINCIDENCES
LVI. THE LAST VISION
LVII. ANOTHER DREAM
LVIII. THE DARKEST HOUR
LIX. THE DAWN
LX. MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER
LXI. THE PARISH REGISTER
LXII. A FOOLISH TRIUMPH
LXIII. A COLLISION
LXIV. YET ONCE
LXV. CONCLUSION




WILFRID CUMBERMEDE.




INTRODUCTION.


I am - I will not say how old, but well past middle age. This much I
feel compelled to mention, because it has long been my opinion that no
man should attempt a history of himself until he has set foot upon the
border land where the past and the future begin to blend in a
consciousness somewhat independent of both, and hence interpreting
both. Looking westward, from this vantage-ground, the setting sun is
not the less lovely to him that he recalls a merrier time when the
shadows fell the other way. Then they sped westward before him, as if
to vanish, chased by his advancing footsteps, over the verge of the
world. Now they come creeping towards him, lengthening as they come.
And they are welcome. Can it be that he would ever have chosen a world
without shadows? Was not the trouble of the shadowless noon the
dreariest of all? Did he not then long for the curtained queen - the
all-shadowy night? And shall he now regard with dismay the setting sun
of his earthly life? When he looks back, he sees the farthest cloud of
the sun-deserted east alive with a rosy hue. It is the prophecy of the
sunset concerning the dawn. For the sun itself is ever a rising sun,
and the morning will come though the night should be dark.

In this 'season of calm weather,' when the past has receded so far that
he can behold it as in a picture, and his share in it as the history of
a man who had lived and would soon die; when he can confess his faults
without the bitterness of shame, both because he is humble, and because
the faults themselves have dropped from him; when his good deeds look
poverty-stricken in his eyes, and he would no more claim consideration
for them than expect knighthood because he was no thief; when he cares
little for his reputation, but much for his character - little for what
has gone beyond his control, but endlessly much for what yet remains in
his will to determine; then, I think, a man may do well to write his
own life.

'So,' I imagine my reader interposing, 'you profess to have arrived at
this high degree of perfection yourself?'

I reply that the man who has attained this kind of indifference to the
past, this kind of hope in the future, will be far enough from
considering it a high degree of perfection. The very idea is to such a
man ludicrous. One may eat bread without claiming the honours of an
athlete; one may desire to be honest and not count himself a saint. My
object in thus shadowing out what seems to me my present condition of
mind, is merely to render it intelligible to my reader how an
autobiography might come to be written without rendering the writer
justly liable to the charge of that overweening, or self-conceit, which
might be involved in the mere conception of the idea.

In listening to similar recitals from the mouths of elderly people, I
have observed that many things which seemed to the persons principally
concerned ordinary enough, had to me a wonder and a significance they
did not perceive. Let me hope that some of the things I am about to
relate may fare similarly, although, to be honest, I must confess I
could not have undertaken the task, for a task it is, upon this chance
alone: I do think some of my history worthy of being told, just for the
facts' sake. God knows I have had small share of that worthiness. The
weakness of my life has been that I would ever do some great thing; the
saving of my life has been my utter failure. I have never done a great
deed. If I had, I know that one of my temperament could not have
escaped serious consequences. I have had more pleasure when a grown man
in a certain discovery concerning the ownership of an apple of which I
had taken the ancestral bite when a boy, than I can remember to have
resulted from any action of my own during my whole existence. But I
detest the notion of puzzling my reader in order to enjoy her fancied
surprise, or her possible praise of a worthless ingenuity of
concealment. If I ever appear to behave thus, it is merely that I
follow the course of my own knowledge of myself and my affairs, without
any desire to give either the pain or the pleasure of suspense, if
indeed I may flatter myself with the hope of interesting her to such a
degree that suspense should become possible.

When I look over what I have written, I find the tone so sombre - let me
see: what sort of an evening is it on which I commence this book? Ah! I
thought so: a sombre evening. The sun is going down behind a low bank
of grey cloud, the upper edge of which he tinges with a faded yellow.
There will be rain before morning. It is late Autumn, and most of the
crops are gathered in. A bluish fog is rising from the lower meadows.
As I look I grow cold. It is not, somehow, an interesting evening. Yet
if I found just this evening well described in a novel, I should enjoy
it heartily. The poorest, weakest drizzle upon the window-panes of a
dreary roadside inn in a country of slate-quarries, possesses an
interest to him who enters it by the door of a book, hardly less than
the pouring rain which threatens to swell every brook to a torrent. How
is this? I think it is because your troubles do not enter into the book
and its troubles do not enter into you, and therefore nature operates
upon you unthwarted by the personal conditions which so often
counteract her present influences. But I will rather shut out the
fading west, the gathering mists, and the troubled consciousness of
nature altogether, light my fire and my pipe, and then try whether in
my first chapter I cannot be a boy again in such fashion that my
companion, that is, my reader, will not be too impatient to linger a
little in the meadows of childhood ere we pass to the corn-fields of
riper years.




CHAPTER I.


WHERE I FIND MYSELF.

No wisest chicken, I presume, can recall the first moment when the
chalk-oval surrounding it gave way, and instead of the cavern of
limestone which its experience might have led it to expect, it found a
world of air and movement and freedom and blue sky - with kites in it.
For my own part, I often wished, when a child, that I had watched while
God was making me, so that I might have remembered how he did it. Now
my wonder is whether, when I creep forth into 'that new world which is
the old,' I shall be conscious of the birth, and enjoy the whole mighty
surprise, or whether I shall become gradually aware that things are
changed and stare about me like the new-born baby. What will be the
candle-flame that shall first attract my new-born sight? But I forget
that speculation about the new life is not writing the history of the
old.

I have often tried how far back my memory could go. I suspect there are
awfully ancient shadows mingling with our memories; but, as far as I
can judge, the earliest definite memory I have is the discovery of how
the wind is made; for I saw the process going on before my very eyes,
and there could be, and there was, no doubt of the relation of cause
and effect in the matter. There were the trees swaying themselves about
after the wildest fashion, and there was the wind in consequence
visiting my person somewhat too roughly. The trees were blowing in my
face. They made the wind, and threw it at me. I used my natural senses,
and this was what they told me. The discovery impressed me so deeply
that even now I cannot look upon trees without a certain indescribable
and, but for this remembrance, unaccountable awe. A grove was to me for
many years a fountain of winds, and, in the stillest day, to look into
a depth of gathered stems filled me with dismay; for the whole awful
assembly might, writhing together in earnest and effectual contortion,
at any moment begin their fearful task of churning the wind.

There were no trees in the neighbourhood of the house where I was born.
It stood in the midst of grass, and nothing but grass was to be seen
for a long way on every side of it. There was not a gravel path or a
road near it. Its walls, old and rusty, rose immediately from the
grass. Green blades and a few heads of daisies leaned trustingly
against the brown stone, all the sharpness of whose fractures had long
since vanished, worn away by the sun and the rain, or filled up by the
slow lichens, which I used to think were young stones growing out of
the wall. The ground was part of a very old dairy-farm, and my uncle,
to whom it belonged, would not have a path about the place. But then
the grass was well subdued by the cows, and, indeed, I think, would
never have grown very long, for it was of that delicate sort which we
see only on downs and in parks and on old grazing farms. All about the
house - as far, at least, as my lowly eyes could see - the ground was
perfectly level, and this lake of greenery, out of which it rose like a
solitary rock, was to me an unfailing mystery and delight. This will
sound strange in the ears of those who consider a mountainous, or at
least an undulating, surface essential to beauty; but nature is
altogether independent of what is called fine scenery. There are other
organs than the eyes, even if grass and water and sky were not of the
best and loveliest of nature's shows.

The house, I have said, was of an ancient-looking stone, grey and green
and yellow and brown. It looked very hard; yet there were some attempts
at carving about the heads of the narrow windows. The carving had,
however, become so dull and shadowy that I could not distinguish a
single form or separable portion of design: still some ancient thought
seemed ever flickering across them. The house, which was two stories in
height, had a certain air of defence about it, ill to explain. It had
no eaves, for the walls rose above the edge of the roof; but the hints
at battlements were of the merest. The roof, covered with grey slates,
rose very steep, and had narrow, tall dormer windows in it. The edges
of the gables rose, not in a slope, but in a succession of notches,
like stairs. Altogether, the shell to which, considered as a
crustaceous animal, I belonged - for man is every animal according as
you choose to contemplate him - had an old-world look about it - a look
of the time when men had to fight in order to have peace, to kill in
order to live. Being, however, a crustaceous animal, I, the heir of all
the new impulses of the age, was born and reared in closest
neighbourhood with strange relics of a vanished time. Humanity so far
retains its chief characteristics that the new generations can always
flourish in the old shell.

The dairy was at some distance, so deep in a hollow that a careless
glance would not have discovered it. I well remember my astonishment
when my aunt first took me there; for I had not even observed the
depression of surface: all had been a level green to my eyes. Beyond
this hollow were fields divided by hedges, and lanes, and the various
goings to and fro of a not unpeopled although quiet neighbourhood.
Until I left home for school, however, I do not remember to have seen a
carriage of any kind approach our solitary dwelling. My uncle would
have regarded it as little short of an insult for any one to drive
wheels over the smooth lawny surface in which our house dwelt like a
solitary island in the sea.

Before the threshold lay a brown patch, worn bare of grass, and beaten
hard by the descending feet of many generations. The stone threshold
itself was worn almost to a level with it. A visitor's first step was
into what would, in some parts, be called the house-place, a room which
served all the purposes of a kitchen, and yet partook of the character
of an old hall. It rose to a fair height, with smoke-stained beams
above; and was floored with a kind of cement, hard enough, and yet so
worn that it required a good deal of local knowledge to avoid certain
jars of the spine from sudden changes of level. All the furniture was
dark and shining, especially the round table, which, with its
bewildering, spider-like accumulation of legs, waited under the
mullioned, lozenged window until meal-times, when, like an animal
roused from its lair, it stretched out those legs, and assumed expanded
and symmetrical shape in front of the fire in Winter, and nearer the
door in Summer. It recalls the vision of my aunt, with a hand at each
end of it, searching empirically for the level - feeling for it, that
is, with the creature's own legs - before lifting the hanging-leaves,
and drawing out the hitherto supernumerary legs to support them; after
which would come a fresh adjustment of level, another hustling to and
fro, that the new feet likewise might settle on elevations of equal
height; and then came the snowy cloth or the tea-tray, deposited
cautiously upon its shining surface.

The walls of this room were always whitewashed in the Spring,
occasioning ever a sharpened contrast with the dark-brown ceiling.
Whether that was even swept I do not know; I do not remember ever
seeing it done. At all events, its colour remained unimpaired by paint
or whitewash. On the walls hung various articles, some of them high
above my head, and attractive for that reason if for no other. I never
saw one of them moved from its place - not even the fishing-rod, which
required the whole length betwixt the two windows: three rusty hooks
hung from it, and waved about when a wind entered ruder than common.
Over the fishing-rod hung a piece of tapestry, about a yard in width,
and longer than that. It would have required a very capable
constructiveness indeed to supply the design from what remained, so
fragmentary were the forms, and so dim and faded were the once bright
colours. It was there as an ornament; for that which is a mere
complement of higher modes of life, becomes, when useless, the ornament
of lower conditions: what we call great virtues are little regarded by
the saints. It was long before I began to think how the tapestry could
have come there, or to what it owed the honour given it in the house.

On the opposite wall hung another object, which may well have been the
cause of my carelessness about the former - attracting to itself all my
interest. It was a sword, in a leather sheath. From the point, half way
to the hilt, the sheath was split all along the edge of the weapon. The
sides of the wound gaped, and the blade was visible to my prying eyes.
It was with rust almost as dark a brown as the scabbard that infolded
it. But the under parts of the hilt, where dust could not settle,
gleamed with a faint golden shine. That sword was to my childish eyes
the type of all mystery, a clouded glory, which for many long years I
never dreamed of attempting to unveil. Not the sword Excalibur, had it
been 'stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,' could have
radiated more marvel into the hearts of young knights than that sword
radiated into mine. Night after night I would dream of danger drawing
nigh - crowds of men of evil purpose - enemies to me or to my country;
and ever in the beginning of my dream, I stood ready, foreknowing and
waiting; for I had climbed and had taken the ancient power from the
wall, and had girded it about my waist - always with a straw rope, the
sole band within my reach; but as it went on, the power departed from
the dream: I stood waiting for foes who would not come; or they drew
near in fury, and when I would have drawn my weapon, old blood and rust
held it fast in its sheath, and I tugged at it in helpless agony; and
fear invaded my heart, and I turned and fled, pursued by my foes until
I left the dream itself behind, whence the terror still pursued me.

There were many things more on those walls. A pair of spurs, of make
modern enough, hung between two pewter dish-covers. Hanging
book-shelves came next; for although most of my uncle's books were in
his bed-room, some of the commoner were here on the wall, next to an
old fowling-piece, of which both lock and barrel were devoured with
rust. Then came a great pair of shears, though how they should have
been there I cannot yet think, for there was no garden to the house, no
hedges or trees to clip. I need not linger over these things. Their
proper place is in the picture with which I would save words and help
understanding if I could.

Of course there was a great chimney in the place; chiefly to be
mentioned from the singular fact that just round its corner was a
little door opening on a rude winding stair of stone. This appeared to
be constructed within the chimney; but on the outside of the wall, was
a half-rounded projection, revealing that the stair was not indebted to
it for the whole of its accommodation. Whither the stair led, I shall
have to disclose in my next chapter. From the opposite end of the
kitchen, an ordinary wooden staircase, with clumsy balustrade, led up
to the two bed-rooms occupied by my uncle and my aunt; to a large
lumber-room, whose desertion and almost emptiness was a source of
uneasiness in certain moods; and to a spare bed-room, which was better
furnished than any of ours, and indeed to my mind a very grand and
spacious apartment. This last was never occupied during my childhood;
consequently it smelt musty notwithstanding my aunt's exemplary
housekeeping. Its bedsteads must have been hundreds of years old. Above
these rooms again were those to which the dormer windows belonged, and
in one of them I slept. It had a deep closet in which I kept my few
treasures, and into which I used to retire when out of temper or
troubled, conditions not occurring frequently, for nobody quarrelled
with me, and I had nobody with whom I might have quarrelled.

When I climbed upon a chair, I could seat myself on the broad sill of
the dormer window. This was the watch-tower whence I viewed the world.
Thence I could see trees in the distance - too far off for me to tell
whether they were churning wind or not. On that side those trees alone
were between me and the sky.

One day when my aunt took me with her into the lumber-room, I found
there, in a corner, a piece of strange mechanism. It had a kind of
pendulum; but I cannot describe it because I had lost sight of it long
before I was capable of discovering its use, and my recollection of it
is therefore very vague - far too vague to admit of even a conjecture
now as to what it could have been intended for. But I remember well
enough my fancy concerning it, though when or how that fancy awoke I
cannot tell either. It seems to me as old as the finding of the
instrument. The fancy was that if I could keep that pendulum wagging
long enough, it would set all those trees going too; and if I still
kept it swinging, we should have such a storm of wind as no living man
had ever felt or heard of. That I more than half believed it, will be
evident from the fact that, although I frequently carried the pendulum,
as I shall call it, to the window sill, and set it in motion by way of
experiment, I had not, up to the time of a certain incident which I
shall very soon have to relate, had the courage to keep up the
oscillation beyond ten or a dozen strokes; partly from fear of the
trees, partly from a dim dread of exercising power whose source and
extent were not within my knowledge. I kept the pendulum in the closet
I have mentioned, and never spoke to any one of it.




CHAPTER II.


MY UNCLE AND AUNT.

We were a curious household. I remembered neither father nor mother;
and the woman I had been taught to call _auntie_ was no such near
relation. My uncle was my father's brother, and my aunt was his cousin,
by the mother's side. She was a tall, gaunt woman, with a sharp nose
and eager eyes, yet sparing of speech. Indeed, there was very little
speech to be heard in the house. My aunt, however, looked as if she
could have spoken. I think it was the spirit of the place that kept her
silent, for there were those eager eyes. She might have been expected
also to show a bad temper, but I never saw a sign of such. To me she
was always kind; chiefly, I allow, in a negative way, leaving me to do
very much as I pleased. I doubt if she felt any great tenderness for
me, although I had been dependent upon her care from infancy. In
after-years I came to the conclusion that she was in love with my
uncle; and perhaps the sense that he was indifferent to her save after
a brotherly fashion, combined with the fear of betraying herself and
the consciousness of her unattractive appearance, to produce the
contradiction between her looks and her behaviour.

Every morning, after our early breakfast, my uncle walked away to the
farm, where he remained until dinner-time. Often, when busy at my own
invented games in the grass, I have caught sight of my aunt, standing
motionless with her hand over her eyes, watching for the first glimpse
of my uncle ascending from the hollow where the farm-buildings lay; and
occasionally, when something had led her thither as well, I would watch
them returning together over the grass, when she would keep glancing up
in his face at almost regular intervals, although it was evident they
were not talking, but he never turned his face or lifted his eyes from
the ground a few yards in front of him.

He was a tall man of nearly fifty, with grey hair, and quiet meditative
blue eyes. He always looked as if he were thinking. He had been
intended for the Church, but the means for the prosecution of his
studies failing, he had turned his knowledge of rustic affairs to
account, and taken a subordinate position on a nobleman's estate, where
he rose to be bailiff. When my father was seized with his last illness,
he returned to take the management of the farm. It had been in the
family for many generations. Indeed that portion of it upon which the
house stood, was our own property. When my mother followed my father,
my uncle asked his cousin to keep house for him. Perhaps she had
expected a further request, but more had not come of it.

When he came in, my uncle always went straight to his room; and having
washed his hands and face, took a book and sat down in the window. If I
were sent to tell him that the meal was ready, I was sure to find him
reading. He would look up, smile, and look down at his book again; nor,
until I had formally delivered my message, would he take further notice
of me. Then he would rise, lay his book carefully aside, take my hand,
and lead me down-stairs.

To my childish eyes there was something very grand about my uncle. His
face was large-featured and handsome; he was tall, and stooped
meditatively. I think my respect for him was founded a good deal upon
the reverential way in which my aunt regarded him. And there was great



Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldWilfrid Cumbermede → online text (page 1 of 37)