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BY THE EDITOR.
The I attached to implied to myself in
CHAPTER 1.-EAGLESMERE. I was a very queer child. It had been said so often and so persistently, under so many different circumstances, and by so many different people, that I quite believed it, feeling that I laboured under some mysterious disadvantage, which could not be helped although it might reasonably be deplored. One day, when I was quite a little fellow, I remember asking somebody what “queer” meant, for, baby as I was, I began to feel uncom. fortable when the epithet was applied to myself in my hearing, and involuntarily I attached to it an idea of disparagement and inferiority. The good woman, the wife of one of our dalesmen, to whom I put the question, stared at me in amaze, and burst out laughing.
“Just hearken to him," she cried to some one who happened to be in the house-place with her; “ did you ever know such a queer child ? He always wants to know what things mean, and why people do things, and he keeps wondering what's going to happen presently. I should think the Wrays have a precious handful with him, and he no kith nor kin of theirs, as I've heard. There, bairn, there's a piece of white bread and honey. Go home to yer granny, and don't sticky your clean pinner.”
Thus baffled I asked no more questions, but kept on the alert and formed my own conclusions. That word “queer” was continually cropping up, sometimes as applied to things and events, sometimes to people, and not unfrequently to myself. Putting this and that together, I decided that to be queer was not to be wicked, not even to be naughty, that it was not to be stupid or idle, but that it was to be unlike other people, and to be, to some extent, unfortunate, and deserving of pity rather than of blame.
Still, queerness was a defect, or people would not shake their heads and look so compassionately; and somehow I shrank from their pity, and did not like to be commiserated ; and the older I grew the shyer I became, the more I loved solitude, the more I thought and reasoned. Heaven help me, what a queer jumble of thinking and reasoning it was! and I grew stranger, no doubt, and I read more books than were good for me, and pondered curiously on what I read, and on myself, and wondered, till my wonder grew to pain, why I was unlike other boys of my age,
who by good rights ought to have been my companions, but with whom I had no notion of consorting.
Now, as a rule, people have, or have had, two parents. I had had a father; I knew that he was a sea-captain, and he had died on a distant voyage, and been buried in the deep. Old Martin and old Margery, with whom I lived at Eaglesmere, and whom I called grand-dad and granny, sometimes, though not often, spoke of him as "the Captain," or Captain Vassall, or as “poor little Hughy's father.” But it seemed to me that I never had a mother ; no one ever spoke of her; she was never referred to; and as for myself, I had no recollection of any other home than that which now sheltered me at Eaglesmere. Nevertheless, I knew-I am sure I do not know how—that Martin and Margery Wray were not my grandparents.
Martin Wray was a shoemaker by trade, and the parish clerk of Eaglesmere. He made boots and shoes for all the country round, and prided himself upon turning out his work substantially and well finished. He was a really good man, a very superior man for his station, and I believe he shared with me, so far as his neighbours were concerned, the opprobrium of “queerness.” Margery, his wife, was kind and motherly, but except for a certain reserve and reticence far from usual in persons of her rank, she was decidedly common-place. She could scold, too, in right feminine fashion, and Martin and I were a little afraid of her tongue, and tried to get out of her way whenever we perceived a storm impending. But I am bound to say she was one of those whose deeds are better than their words; to quote an old Scotch proverb, “Her bark was waur na' her bite;" her fiercest anger quickly spent itself, and generally evaporated entirely in a few sharp, peevish utterances for which nobody was very much the worse. Poor dear granny! I am sure she was very sorry when one of her explosions reduced Phoebe and me to tears and drove away her husband to the church or to the dark little den called the shop, where, singing hymns and psalms, and chanting portions of the Church service, he ordinarily carried on his craft. For Martin never forgot that he was parish clerk. I am quite sure he believed himself to be in some sort of holy orders, and as we had no resident squire at Eaglesmere, he accounted himself, in virtue of his office, the second person in the parish—“his reverence” being undeniably the first.
Phoebe, whom I have just mentioned, was three years younger than myself, and she was really the grandchild of Martin and Margery. She was an orphan, but everybody knew all about her, and her father and mother, John and Alice Milner, lay buried in the churchyard near at hand. John, a stalwart young farmer, and the best wrestler and quoit player in the dale, had been stricken
down with fever in the midst of harvest; and Alice his wife, the daughter and only surviving child of the Wrays, very quickly followed him, and the little Phæbe, not two years old, was taken to the home and heart of her grandparents, who found in her their greatest earthly joy and surest consolation. Phoebe was a very pretty child, quick-tempered, but generous and loving, and I always called her my sister, though I knew perfectly well that we were not at all related.
Eaglesmere in those days was a very lonely place; though actually in the “ Lake district” it was quite out of the way of all ordinary tourists. Now and then in the autumn came an artist, who took up his quarters at the humble little inn, which was all the hostelry we had to boast of; and occasionally a pedestrian, with knapsack and staff, trudged through the pass which shut in our quiet valley, and stayed among us for a few hours or days as the case might be, and brought us tidings of a world which might have been in another planet for all the relation it seemed to bear to us or us to it, for we knew nothing of railways. No coach passed nearer than ten or twelve miles, and letters and newspapers, if any one expected them, had to be fetched from the nearest“ town,” which was three miles on the other side of the pass,-a town, by the way, consisting of an old church, a score or two of grey stone houses jumbled together, and a number of outlying cottages and small farms such as are to be found only in the remoter districts of the north country. In the winter, nature herself not unfrequently established a cordon of her own, and shut us up securely in our secluded dale, permitting none to leave it and none to enter it for weeks together.
Eaglesmere was not a village, for it had no regular street. There was no post-office, and only one shop-a general shop of course, retailing the most incongruous articles on the smallest possible scale. Jenny Walker professed to keep “something of everything ;' but the “something” was generally so limited as to preclude any rash idea of selection, which the purchaser might be inclined to entertain, and not unfrequently the good dame was “out of" articles required for weeks together. Once a quarter she shut up her shop, and journeyed to Kendal in a covered cart, replenishing her own stock-in-trade, and executing all manner of commissions on behalf of her neighbours.
Eaglesmere had a weird, wild beauty of its own; it was nearly shut in by high dark mountains, and the lower fells which rose up sheer from the small lake or tarn, which gave the place its name, were steep and barren, and cast sombre shadows in the limpid waters at their base.
Round this lakelet, especially round its head, were scattered small lone houses, little old-fashioned tenements, scantily furnished, for the most part thatched, and many of them consisting of one storey only, with perhaps a loft-like garret in the roof. Our house, which was called Waterhead from its position, was one of the better sort; it was tiled or slated, it had three upper rooms and a real staircase, though for steepness it almost rivalled the ladders which many of our neighbours were fain to be contented with. The "house-place,” as the principal apartment was called, had a stone floor, a wide open fire-place, and a small-paned window, letting in the smallest possible allowance of light. Yet in the deep windowseat, and on the table under the window, Margery kept a number of geraniums, chiefly of the old-fashioned scarlet and scented sort, and there was one tall arum lily, which was expected to flower every summer, only it never did; and several snaky, deformed-looking cactuses that never seemed to grow an inch, and something that I think must have been an attenuated mesembryanthemum hanging up to the ceiling, and sending down over the sides of its pot long, clinging, spider-like tendrils or limbs, which in the almost continual semi-twilight of the room gave it a horrible, centipede appearance. Margery took great pride in her plants, though, in spite of all her cares and hopes, they conducted themselves so unsatisfactorily, commonly refusing to flower, or else sending up scant, sickly, straggling pale blossoms of the most degenerate character. Sometimes, in the summer, she turned them all out of doors, for an airing as she said ; and on such occasions I always rejoiced, for I thought the poor things must be so glad to feel the soft warm air wandering among their leaves, and the glorious sunshine flooding them with its brilliance from crown to root. The furniture of the house-place was considered highly respectable, but it was monstrously heavy and ugly, and of course quite out of date; the legs of the woodenbottomed chairs had feet like hoofs; the oblong dining-table matched the chairs; the sofa was a delusion and a snare, for it was only a superior sort of settle, covered with patchwork, with an apology for a cushion. In one corner was the inevitable family chest of dark carved oak; by the stair-foot door stood a loudticking eight-day clock that was kept on principle rather more than an hour too fast, and that struck in a hurried, sneezy fashion, as if protesting against its own untruthful proclamations. The front door, of course, opened straight into this state apartment-for such indeed it was; and another door led into the kitchen, and another into a closet-like room with an earthen and pebbled floor, called, I know not why, the parlour, but used as a pantry, in which food was spoiled rather than stored, through the universal dampness; and there was yet another door opening into a cavernous den under the stair-head, in which Phæbe and I were fond of hiding, till one day we found out that the rats resented our intrusion. With so many doors no wonder that the house-place was rather draughty-not that any one cared particularly about draughts, neither Martin nor Margery ever thinking of attributing to them, or to the stone floors, the rheumatism from which they suffered.
The rats were a great trouble; they scampered about from dark to dawn; they had runs from the great barn, which was under the same roof as the dwelling-house, through the walls, and under the upper floors; and the “attocks," as Margery always called the uninhabitable lofts under the slates, they had all to themselves; and night after night, and sometimes all night long, they chased each other up and down, dancing, scrambling, scuttering, rushing in a style that struck terror to my childish heart as I lay trembling underneath the bed-clothes, for a sad habit of sleeplessness was one of the traits which were noticed and commented on as being “queer.” Sometimes the rats gnawed their way through into the rooms, especially into the room where Martin and Margery slept, the reason of this preference being that they kept at their bedhead sacks of corn, which the rats naturally wished to investigate. Now and then we tried wholesale poisoning. Martin went to Kendal and brought back a pot of something that smelt like lucifer-matches, and we spread it daintily on thick slices of bread and lard and cut it up genteelly, and placed it where the rats were sure to find it, and then there used to be a lull in their proceedings, the survivors taking warning and decamping, lest they should share the fate of their more luckless companions. They always came back, however, in course of time, and, as I had an insurmountable horror of the creatures, they were a perpetual source of misery, and caused me many a wakeful night, and many a frightful dream.
Martin and Margery lived very hard, as did most of the dales people at that time; white bread was very seldom seen at Eaglesmere, except at the Vicarage, where Dame Foster, the Vicar's housekeeper, baked wheaten loaves and cakes twice every week. Butcher's meat was indeed a luxury, for there was no regular butcher in the place, and if there had been, he would have been minus customers, a few slices of bacon and occasionally fish from the lakes and the becks forming the staple of the festival dinners of the good folks of Eaglesmere. Buttermilk was plentiful, and so was spruce-beer, which everybody brewed, and Margery was considered quite an important person because she always kept in the house a bottle of “red wine,” in case of sickness, the said wine being in truth a villanous doctored port, obtained from the public-house at Crampton, the little town I spoke of on the other side of the Pass, and which was, luckily for the consumers, administered always in homeopathic doses.