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But it's of no consequence. I don't mind any-
thing now you've forgiven me. I shall soon
run home."

" Come with me first. You must have some-
thing to eat."

I wanted nothing to eat, but how could I
oppose anything he said? I followed him at
once, drying my eyes as 1 went. He led me to
a great gate which I had passed before, and
opening a wicket, took me across a court, and
through another building where I saw many ser-
vants going about ; then across a second court,


which was paved with large flags, and so to a
door which he opened, calling —

" Mrs. Wilson ! Mrs. Wilson ! I want you a

" Yes, Sir Giles," answered a tall, stiff-looking
elderly woman who presently appeared descend-
ing, with upright spine, a corkscrew staircase
of stone.

" Here is a young gentleman, Mrs. Wilson,
who seems to have lost his way. He is one of
Mr. Elder's pupils at Aid wick. Will you get
him something to eat and drink, and then send
him home T

" I will, Sir Giles."

" Good-bye, my man," said Sir Giles, again
shaking hands with me. Then turning anew to
the housekeeper, for such I found she was, he
added :

" Couldn't you find a bag for him, and fill it
with some of those brown pippins ? They're
good eating, ain't they?"

" With pleasure, Sir Giles."

Thereupon Sir Giles withdrew, closing the
door behind him, and leaving me with the sense
of life from the dead.


••What's your name, young gentleman?" asked
Mrs. Wilson, with, I thought, some degree of

" Wilfrid Cumbermede," I answered.

She stared at me a little, with a stare which
would have been a start in most women. I was
by this time calm enough to take a quiet look
at her. She was dressed in black silk, with a
white neckerchief crossing in front, and black
mittens on her hands. After gazing at me
fixedly for a moment or two, she turned away
and ascended the stair, which went up straight
from the door, saying —

" Come with me, Master Cumbermede. You
must have some tea before you go."

I obeyed, and followed her into a long, low-
ceiled room, wainscotted all over in panels,
with a square moulding at the top, which served
for a cornice. The ceiling was ornamented
with plaster reliefs. The windows looked out,
on one side into the court, on the other upon
the park. The floor was black and polished like
a mirror, with bits of carpet here and there, and
a rug before the curious, old-fashioned grate,
where a little fire was burning and a small


kettle boiling fiercely on the top of it. The tea-
tray was already on the table. She got another
cup and saucer, added a pot of jam to the pre-
parations, and said :

" Sit down and have some bread and butter,
while I make the tea."

She cut me a great piece of bread, and then
a great piece of butter, and T lost no time in
discovering that the quality was worthy of the
quantity. Mrs. Wilson kept a grave silence for
a good while. At last, as she was pouring out
the second cup, she looked at me over the tea-
pot, and said —

"You don't remember your mother, I sup-
pose, Master Cumbermede ?"

"No, ma'am. I never saw my mother."

"Within your recollection, you mean. But
you must have seen her, for you were two years
old when she died."

" Did you know my mother, then, ma'am?" I
asked, but without any great surprise, for the
events of the day had been so much out of the
ordinary that I had for the time almost lost the
faculty of wonder.

She compressed her thin lips, and a perpen-


dicular wrinkle appeared in the middle of her
forehead, as she answered —

" Yes ; I knew your mother."

" She was very good, wasn't she, ma'am V
I said, with my mouth full of bread and

" Yes. Who told you that !"

" I was sure of it. Nobody ever told me."

" Did they never talk to you about her?"

"No, ma'am."

" So you are at Mr. Elder's, are you V she
said, after another long pause, during which I
was not idle, for my trouble being gone I could
now be hungry.

" Yes, ma'am."

" How did you come here, then f"

" I walked with the rest of the boys ; but they
are gone home without me."

Thanks to the kindness of Sir Giles, my fault
had already withdrawn so far into the past,
that I wished to turn my back upon it alto-
gether. I saw no need for confessing it to Mrs.
Wilson ; and there was none.

" Did you lose your way ?"

" No, ma'am."


" What brought you here, then ? I suppose
you wanted to see the place."

" The woman at the lodge told us the nearest
way was through the park."

I quite expected she would go on cross-
questioning me, and then all the truth would
have had to come out. But to my great relief,
she went no further, only kept eyeing me in a
manner so oppressive as to compel me to eat
bread and butter and strawberry jam with self-
defensive eagerness. I presume she trusted to
find out the truth by-and-by. She contented
herself in the meantime with asking questions
about my uncle and aunt, the farm, the school,
and Mr. and Mrs. Elder, all in a cold, stately,
refraining manner, with two spots of red in her
face — one on each cheek-bone, and a thin rather
peevish nose dividing them. But her forehead
was good, and when she smiled, which was not
often, her eyes shone. Still, even I, with my
small knowledge of womankind, was dimly
aware that she was feeling her way with me,
and I did not like her much.

" Have you nearly done V she asked at


" Yes, quite, thank you," I answered.

" Are you going back to school to-night ?"

" Yes, ma'am ; of course."

" How are you going V

" If you will tell me the way "

" Do you know how far you 'are from Ald-

" No, ma'am."

" Eight miles," she answered ; " and it's get-
ting rather late."

I was seated opposite the windows to the
park, and, looking up, saw with some dismay
that the air was getting dusky. I rose at once,

" I must make haste. They will think I am

"But you can never walk so far, Master

" Oh, but I must ! I can't help it. I must
get back as fast as possible."

" You never can walk such a distance. Take
another bit of cake while I go and see what
can be done."

Another piece of cake being within the bounds
of possibility, I might at least wait and see


what Mrs. Wilson's design was. She left the
room, and I turned to the cake. In a little
while she came back, sat down, and went on
talking. I was beginning to get quite uneasy,
when a maid put her head in at the door, and
said —

" Please, Mrs. Wilson, the dog-cart's ready,

" Very well," replied Mrs. Wilson, and turn-
ing to me, said — more kindly than she had yet
spoken — ■

"Now, Master Cumbermede, you must come
and see me again. I'm too busy to spare much
time when the family is at home ; but they are
all going away the week after next, and if you
will come and see me then, I shall be glad to
show you over the house."

As she spoke she rose and led the way from
the room, and out of the court by another gate
from that by which I had entered. At the
bottom of a steep descent, a groom was wait-
ing with the dog-cart.

" Here, James," said Mrs. Wilson, " take good
care of the young gentleman, and put him
down safe at Mr. Elder's. Master Wilfrid, you'll


find a hamper of apples underneath. You had
better not eat them all yourself, you know.
Here are two or three for you to eat by the

" Thank you, Mrs. Wilson. No ; I'm not quite
so greedy as that," I answered gaily, for my
spirits were high at the notion of a ride in
the dog-cart instead of a long and dreary

When I was fairly in, she shook hands with
me, reminding me that I was to visit her soon,
and «away went the dog-cart behind a high-
stepping horse. I had never before been in an
open vehicle of any higher description than a
cart, and the ride was a great delight. We
went a different road from that which my com-
panions had taken. It lay through trees all the
way till we were out of the park.

"That's the land-steward's house," said

" Oh, is it f" I returned, not much interested.
" What great trees those are all about it."

" Yes ; they're the finest elms in all the county
those," he answered. " Old Coningham knew
what he was about when he got the last baronet


to let him build his nest there. Here we are at
the gate !"

We came out upon a country road, which ran
between the wall of the park and a wooden
fence along a field of grass. I offered James
one of my apples, which he accepted.

" There, now !" he said, " there's a field ! — A
right good bit o' grass that ! Our people has
wanted to throw it into the park for hundreds
of years. Bat they won't part with it for love
or money. It ought by rights to be ours, you
see, by the lie of the country. It's all one grass
with the park. But I suppose them as owns
it ain't of the same mind. — Cur'ous old box!"
he added, pointing with his whip a long way
off. " You can just see the roof of it."

I looked in the direction he pointed. A rise
in the ground hid all but an ancient, high-peak-
ed roof. What was my astonishment to dis-
cover in it the roof of my own home ! I was
certain it could be no other. It caused a
strange sensation, to come upon it thus from
the outside, as it were, when I thought myself
miles and miles away from it. I fell a-ponder-


ing over the matter ; and as I reflected, I be-
came convinced that the trees from which we
had just emerged were the same which used to
churn the wind for my childish fancies. I did
not feel inclined to share my feelings with my
new acquaintance; but presently he put his
whip in the socket and fell to eating his apple.
There was nothing more in the conversation he
afterwards resumed deserving of record. He
pulled up at the gate of the school, where I bade
him good night and rang the bell.

There was great rejoicing over me when I
entered, for the boys had arrived without me a
•little while before, having searched all about the
place where we had parted company, and come
at length to the conclusion that I had played
them a trick in order to get home without them,
there having been some fun on the road con-
cerning my local stupidity. Mr. Elder, however,
took me to his own room, and read me a lecture
on the necessity of not abusing my privileges.
I told him the whole affair from beginning to
end, and thought he behaved very oddly. He
turned away every now and then, blew his


nose, took off his spectacles, wiped them care-
fully, and replaced them before turning again to

" Go on, go on, my boy. I'm listening," he
would say.

I cannot tell whether he was laughing or cry-
ing. I suspect both. When I had finished, he
said, very solemnly —

" Wilfrid, you have had a narrow escape. I
need not tell you how wrong you were about
the apple, for you know that as well as I do.
But you did the right thing when your eyes
were opened. I am greatly pleasd with you,
and greatly obliged to Sir Giles. I will write
and thank him this very night."

" Please, sir, ought I to tell the boys ? I
would rather not."

"No. I do not think it necessary."

He rose and rang the bell.

" Ask Master Fox to step this way."

Fox was the oldest boy, and was on the point
of leaving. »

"Fox," said Mr. Elder, "Cumbermede has
quite satisfied me. Will you oblige me by ask-
ing him no questions. I am quite aware such a


request must seem strange, but I have good
reasons for making it."

" Very well, sir," said Fox, glancing at

" Take him with you, then, and tell the rest.
It is as a favour to myself that I put it,

" That is quite enough, sir."

Fox took me to Mrs. Elder, and had a talk
with the rest before I saw them. Some twenty
years after, Fox and I had it out. I gave him
a full explanation, for by that time I could
smile over the affair. But what does the object
matter ! — an apple, or a thousand pounds ? It
is but the peg on which the act hangs. The act
is everything.

To the honour of my school-fellows I record
that not one of them ever let fall a hint in the
direction of the mystery. Neither did Mr. or
Mrs. Elder once allude to it. If possible they
were kinder than before.





1TY companions had soon found out, and I
■*-'-*- think the discovery had something to do
with the kindness they always showed me, that
I was a good hand at spinning a yarn : the
nautical phrase had got naturalized in the school.
We had no chance, if we would have taken it,
of spending any part of school-hours in such a
pastime ; but it formed an unfailing amusement
when weather or humour interfered with bodily
exercises. Nor were we debarred from the
pleasure after we had retired for the night, —
only, as we were parted in three rooms, I could
not have a large audience then. I well remem-
ber, however, one occasion on which it was
otherwise. The report of a super-excellent in-
vention having gone abroad, one by one they


came creeping into my room, after I and my
companion were in bed, until we lay three in
each bed, all being present but Fox. At the
very heart of the climax, when a spectre was
appearing and disappearing momently with the
drawing in and sending out of his breath, so
that you could not tell the one moment where
he might show himself the next, Mr. Elder
walked into the room with his chamber-candle
in his hand, straightway illuminating six coun-
tenances pale with terror — for I took my full
share of whatever emotion I roused in the rest.
But instead of laying a general interdict on the
custom, he only said,

" Come, come, boys ! it's time you were asleep.
Go to your rooms directly."

" Please, sir," faltered one — Moberly by name
— the dullest and most honourable boy, to my
thinking, amongst us, " mayn't I stay where
I am ? Cuinbermede has put me all in a

Mr. Elder laughed, and turning to me, asked
with his usual good-humour,

"How long will your story take, Cuinber-
mede r



"As long as you please, sir," I answered.

" I can't let you keep them awake all night,
you know."

"There's no fear of that, sir," I replied.
" Moberly would have been asleep long ago if
it hadn't been a ghost. Nothing keeps him
awake but ghosts."

" Well, is the ghost nearly done with f

" Not quite, sir. The worst is to come yet."

" Please, sir," interposed Moberly, " if you'll
let me stay where I am, I'll turn round on
mv deaf ear, and won't listen to a word more
of it. It's awful, I do assure you, sir."

Mr. Elder laughed again.

"No, no," he said. " Make haste and finish
your story, Cumbermede, and let them go to
sleep. You, Moberly, may stay where you are
for the night, but I can't have this made a prac-
tice of."

" No, no, sir," said several at once.

" But why don't you tell your stories by day-
light, Cumbermede 1 I'm sure you have time
enough for them then."

" Oh, but he's got one going for the day and
another for the night."


" Then do yon often lie three in a bed V ' asked
Mr. Elder with some concern.

" Oh no, sir. Only this is an extra good one,
yon see."

Mr. Elder laughed again, bade ns good night,
and left ns. The horror, however, was broken.
I could not call up one shiver more, and in a
few minutes Moberly, as well as his two com-
panions, had slipped away to roomier quarters.

The material of the tales 1 told my companions
was in part supplied from some of my uncle's
old books, for in his little library there were
more than the Arcadia of the same sort. But
these had not merely afforded me the stuff to re-
model and imitate ; their spirit had wrought
upon my spirit, and armour and war-horses and
mighty swords were only the instruments with
which faithful knights wrought honourable

I had a tolerably clear perception that such
deeds could not be done in our days ; that there
were no more dragons lying in the woods ;
and that ladies did not now fall into the hands
of giants. But I had the witness of an eter-
nal impulse in myself that noble deeds had


yet to be done, and therefore might be done,
although I knew not how. Hence a feeling of
the dignity of ancient descent, as involving as-
sociation with great men and great actions of
old, and therefore rendering such more attain-
able in the future, took deep root in my mind.
Aware of the humbleness of my birth, and un-
restrained by pride in my parents — I had lost
them so early — I would indulge in many a day-
dream of what I would gladly have been. I
would ponder over the delights of having a
history, and how grand it would be to find I
was descended from some far-away knight who
had done deeds of high emprise. In such
moods the recollection of the old sword that
had vanished from the wall would return : in-
deed the impression it had made upon me may
have been at the root of it all. How I longed
to know the story of it ! But it had gone to
the grave with grannie. If my uncle or aunt
knew it, I had no hope of getting it from either
of them ; for 1 was certain they had no sym-
pathy with any such fancies as mine. My
favourite invention, one for which my audience
was sure to call when I professed incompetence,


and which I enlarged and varied every time I
returned to it, was of a youth in humble life
who found at length he was of far other origin
than he had supposed. I did not know then
that the fancy, not uncommon with boys, has
its roots in the deepest instincts of our human
nature. I need not add that I had not yet read
Jean Paul's Titan, or Hesperus, or Comet.

This tendency of thought received a fresh
impulse from my visit to Moldwarp Hall, as I
choose to name the great house whither my
repentance had led me. It was the first I had
ever seen to wake the sense of the mighty
antique. My home was, no doubt, older than
some parts of the hall ; but the house we are
born in never looks older than the last gene-
ration until we begin to compare it with others.
By this time, what I had learned of the history
of my country, and the general growth of the
allied forces of my intellect, had rendered me
capable of feeling the hoary eld of the great
Hall. Henceforth it had a part n every inven-
tion of my boyish imagination.

I was therefore not undesirous of keeping the
half-engagement I had made with Mrs. Wilson ,


but it was not she that drew me. With all her
kindness, she had not attracted me, for cup-
board-love is not the sole, or always the most
powerful operant on the childish mind : it is in
general stronger in men than in either children
or women. I would rather not see Mrs. Wilson
again — she had fed my body, she had not warm-
ed my heart. It was the grand old house that
attracted me. True, it was associated with
shame, but rather with the recovery from it
than with the fall itself; and what memorials of
ancient grandeur and knightly ways must lie
within those walls, to harmonize with my many
dreams !

On the next holiday, Mr. Elder gave me a
ready permission to revisit Mold warp Hall. I
had made myself acquainted with the nearest
way by crossroads and footpaths, and full of
expectation, set out with my companions.
They accompanied me the greater part of the
distance, and left me at a certain gate, the
same by which they had come out of the park
on the day of my first visit. I was glad when
they were gone, for I could then indulge my
excited fancy at will. I heard their voices draw


away into the distance. I was alone on a little
footpath which led through a wood. All about
me were strangely tall and slender oaks ; but as
I advanced into the wood, the trees grew more
various, and in some of the opener spaces great
old oaks, short and big-headed, stretched out
their huge shadow-filled arms in true oak-
fashion. The ground was uneven, and the path
led uj) and down over hollow and hillock, now
crossing a swampy bottom, now climbing the
ridge of a rocky eminence. It was a lovely
forenoon, with grey-blue sky and white clouds.
The sun shone plentifully into the wood, for the
leaves were thin. They hung like clouds of
gold and royal purple above my head, layer
over layer, with the blue sky and the snowy
clouds shining through. On the ground it was
a world of shadows and sunny streaks, kept
ever in interfluent motion by such a wind as
John Skelton describes :

" There blew in that gardynge a soft piplyng cold
Enbrethyng of Zepherus with his pleasant wynde."

I went merrily along. The birds were not sing-
ing, but my heart did not need them. It was


Spring-time there, whatever it might be in the
world. The heaven of my childhood wanted no
lark to make it gay. Had the trees been bare,
and the frost shining on the ground, it would
have been all the same. The sunlight was

I was standing on the root ot a great beech-
tree, gazing up into the gulf of its foliage, and
watching the broken lights playing about in
the leaves and leaping from twig to branch,
like birds yet more golden than the leaves,
when a voice startled me.

" You're not looking for apples in a beech-
tree, hey ?" it said.

I turned instantly, with my heart in a flutter.
To my great relief I saw that the speaker was
not Sir Giles, and that probably no allusion was
intended. But my first apprehension made way
only for another pang, for, although I did not
know the man, a strange dismay shot through
me at sight of him. His countenance was as-
sociated with an undefined but painful fact that
lay crouching in a dusky hollow of my memory.
I had no time now to entice it into the light of
recollection. I took heart and spoke.


" No," I answered ; " I was only watching the
sun on the leaves."

" Very pretty, ain't it 1 Ah, it's lovely ! It's
quite beautiful — ain't it now ? You like good
timber, don't you? Trees, I mean?" he ex-
plained, aware, I suppose, of some perplexity on
my countenance.

"Yes," I answered. "I like big old ones

" Yes, yes," he returned, with an energy that
sounded strange and jarring to my mood ; "big
old ones, that have stood for ages — the monarchs
of the forest. Saplings ain't bad things either,
though. But old ones are best. Just come
here, and I'll show you one worth looking at.
It wasn't planted yesterday, / can tell you."

I followed him along the path, until we came
out of the wood. Beyond us the ground rose
steep and high, and was covered with trees ;
but here in the hollow it was open. A stream
ran along between us and the height. On
this side of the stream stood a mighty tree, to-
wards which my companion led me. It was an
oak, with such a bushy head and such great
roots rising in serpent rolls and heaves above


the ground, that the stem looked stunted be-
tween them.

" There !" said my companion ; " there's a
tree ! there's something like a tree ! How a man
must feel to call a tree like that his own !
That's Queen Elizabeth's oak. It is indeed.
England is dotted with would-be Queen Eliza-
beth's oaks ; but there is the very oak which
she admired so much that she ordered luncheon
to be served under it. . . . Ah ! she knew the
value of timber — did good Queen Bess. Thai's
now — now — let me see — the year after the Ar-
mada — nine from fifteen — ah well, somewhere
about two hundred and thirty years ago."

" How lumpy and hard it looks !" I remarked.

" That's the breed and the age of it," he re-
turned. " The wonder to me is they don't turn
to stone and last for ever, those trees. Ah !
there's something to live for now !"

He had turned away to resume his walk, but
as he finished the sentence, he turned again to-
wards the tree, and shook his finger at it, as if
reproaching it for belonging to somebody else
than himself.

" Where are you going now ?" he asked,


wheeling round upon me sharply, with a keen
look in his magpie-eyes, as the French would
call them, which hardly corresponded with the
bluntness of his address.

" I'm going to the Hall," I answered, turning

" You'll never get there that way. How are
you to cross the river ?"

" I don't know. I've never been this way

66 You've been to the Hall before, then? Whom

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldWilfrid Cumbermede (Volume 1) → online text (page 6 of 14)