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MOONLIGHT AND APPLE-BLOSSOMS.
The next morning, immediately after breakfast, lord Herbert set out for Chepstow first and then Monmouth, both which places belonged to his father, and were principal sources of his great wealth.
Still, amid the rush of the changeful tides of war around them, and the rumour of battle filling the air, all was peaceful within the defences of Raglan, and its towers looked abroad over a quiet country, where the cattle fed and the green wheat grew. On the far outskirts of vision, indeed, a smoke might be seen at times from the watch-tower, and across the air would come the dull boom of a great gun from one of the fortresses, at which lady Margaret's cheek would turn pale; but, although every day something was done to strengthen the castle, although masons were at work here and there about the walls like bees, and Caspar Kaltoff was busy in all directions, now mounting fresh guns, now repairing steel cross-bows, now getting out of the armoury the queerest oldest-fashioned engines to place wherever available points could be found, there was no hurry and no confusion, and indeed so little appearance of unusual activity, that an unmilitary stranger might have passed a week in the castle without discovering that preparations for defence were actively going on. All around them the buds were creeping out, uncurling, spreading abroad, straightening themselves, smoothing out the creases of their unfolding, and breathing the air of heaven--in some way very pleasant to creatures with roots as well as to creatures with legs. The apple-blossoms came out, and the orchard was lovely as with an upward-driven storm of roseate snow. Ladies were oftener seen passing through the gates and walking in the gardens--where the fountains had begun to play, and the swans and ducks on the lakes felt the return of spring in every fibre of their webby feet and cold scaly legs.
And Dorothy sat as it were at the spring-head of the waters, for, through her dominion over the fire-engine, she had become the naiad of Raglan. The same hour in which lord Herbert departed she went to Kaltoff, and was by him instructed in its mysteries. On the third day after, so entirely was the Dutchman satisfied with her understanding and management of it, that he gave up to her the whole water-business. And now, as I say, she sat at the source of all the streams and fountains of the place, and governed them all. The horse of marble spouted and ceased at her will, but in general she let the stream from his mouth flow all day long. Every water-cock on the great tower was subject to her. From the urn of her pleasure the cistern was daily filled, and from the summit of defence her flood went pouring into the moat around its feet, until it mantled to the brim, turning the weeds into a cold shadowy pavement of green for a foil to its pellucid depth. She understood all the secrets of the aqueous catapult, at which its contriver had little more than hinted on that memorable night when he disclosed so much, and believed she could arrange it for action without assistance. At the same time her new responsibilities required but a portion of her leisure, and lady Margaret was not the less pleased with the wise-headed girl, whose manners and mental ways were such a contrast to her own, that her husband considered her fit to be put in charge of his darling invention. But Dorothy kept silence concerning the trust to all but her mistress, who, on her part, was prudent enough to avoid any allusion which might raise yet higher the jealousy of her associates, by whom she was already regarded as supplanting them in the favour of their mistress.
One lovely evening in May, the moon at the full, the air warm yet fresh, the apple-blossoms at their largest, with as yet no spot upon their fair skin, and the nightingales singing out of their very bones, the season, the hour, the blossoms, and the moon had invaded every chamber in the castle, seized every heart of both man and beast, and turned all into one congregation of which the nightingales were the priests. The cocks were crowing as if it had been the dawn itself instead of its ghost they saw; the dogs were howling, but whether that was from love or hate of the moon, I cannot tell; the pigeons were cooing; the peacock had turned his train into a paralune, understanding well that the carnival could not be complete without him and his; and the wild beasts were restless, uttering a short yell now and then, at least aware that something was going on. All the inhabitants of the castle were out of doors, the ladies and gentlemen in groups here and there about the gardens and lawns and islands, and the domestics, and such of the garrison as were not on duty, wandering hither and thither where they pleased, careful only not to intrude on their superiors.
Lady Margaret was walking with her step-son Henry on a lawn under the northern window of the picture-gallery, and there the ladies Elizabeth and Anne joined them--the former a cheerful woman, endowed with a large share of her father's genial temperament; joke or jest would moult no feather in lady Elizabeth's keeping; the latter quiet, sincere, and reverent. The marquis himself, notwithstanding a slight attack of the gout, had hobbled on his stick to a chair set for him on the same lawn. Beside him sat lady Mary, younger than the other two, and specially devoted to her father.
Their gentlewomen were also out, flitting in groups that now and then mingled and changed. Rowland Scudamore joined lady Margaret's people, and in a moment lady Broughton was laughing merrily. But mistress Doughty walked on with straight neck, as if there were nobody but herself in heaven or on the earth, although mortals were merry by her side, and nightingales singing themselves to death over her head. Behind them came Amanda Serafina, with her eyes on her feet, and the corners of her pretty mouth drawn down in contempt of nobody in particular. Now and then Scudamore, when satisfied with his own pretty wit, would throw a glance behind him, and she, somehow or other, would, without change of muscle, let him know that she had heard him. This group sauntered into the orchard.
After them came Dorothy with Dr Bayly, talking of their common friend Mr. Matthew Herbert, and following them into the orchard, wandered about among the trees, under the curdled moonlight of the apple-blossoms, amid the challenges and responses of five or six nightingales, that sang as if their bodies had dwindled under the sublimating influences of music, until, with more than cherubic denudation, their sum of being was reduced to a soul and a throat.
Moonlight, apple-blossoms, nightingales, with the souls of men and women for mirrors and reflectors! The picture is for the musician not the painter, either him of words or him of colours. It was like a lovely show in the land of dreams, even to the living souls that moved in and made part of it. The earth is older now, colder at the heart, a little nearer to the fate of cold-hearted things, which is to be slaves and serve without love; but she has still the same moonlight, the same apple-blossoms, the same nightingales, and we have the same hearts, and so can understand it. But, alas! how differently should we come in amongst the accessories of such a picture! For we men at least are all but given over to ugliness, and, artistically considered, even vulgarity, in the matter of dress, wherein they, of all generations of English men and women, were too easily supreme both as to form and colour. Hence, while they are an admiration to us, we shall be but a laughter to those that come behind us, and that whether their fashions be better than ours or no, for nothing is so ridiculous as ugliness out of date. The glimmer of gold and silver, the glitter of polished steel, the flashing of jewels, and the flowing of plumes, went well. But, so canopied with loveliness, so besung with winged passion, so clothed that even with the heavenly delicacies enrounding them they blended harmoniously, their moonlit orchard was an island beat by the waves of war, its air would quiver and throb by fits, shaken with the roar of cannon, and might soon gleam around them with the whirring sweep of the troopers' broad blades; while all throughout the land, the hateful demon of party spirit tore wide into gashes the wounds first made by conscience in the best, and by prejudice in the good.
The elder ladies had floated away together between the mossy stems, under the canopies of blossoms; Rowland had fallen behind and joined the waiting Amanda, and the two were now flitting about like moths in the moonshine; Dorothy and Dr. Bayly had halted in an open spot, like a moonlight impluvium, the divine talking eagerly to the maiden, and the maiden looking up at the moon, and heeding the nightingales more than the divine.
'CAN they be English nightingales?' said Dorothy thoughtfully.
The doctor was bewildered for a moment. He had been talking about himself, not the nightingales, but he recovered himself like a gentleman.
'Assuredly, mistress Dorothy,' he replied; 'this is the land of their birth. Hither they come again when the winter is over.'
'Yes; they take no part in our troubles. They will not sing to comfort our hearts in the cold; but give them warmth enough, and they sing as careless of battle-fields and dead men as if they were but moonlight and apple-blossoms.'
'Is it not better so?' returned the divine after a moment's thought. 'How would it be if everything in nature but re-echoed our moan?'
Dorothy looked at the little man, and was in her turn a moment silent.
'Then,' she said, 'we must see in these birds and blossoms, and that great blossom in the sky, so many prophets of a peaceful time and a better country, sent to remind us that we pass away and go to them.'
'Nay, my dear mistress Dorothy!' returned the all but obsequious doctor; 'such thoughts do not well befit your age, or rather, I would say, your youth. Life is before you, and life is good. These evil times will go by, the king shall have his own again, the fanatics will be scourged as they deserve, and the church will rise like the phoenix from the ashes of her purification.'
'But how many will lie out in the fields all the year long, yet never see blossoms or hear nightingales more!' said Dorothy.
'Such will have died martyrs,' rejoined the doctor.
'On both sides?' suggested Dorothy.
Again for a moment the good man stood checked. He had not even thought of the dead on the other side.
'That cannot be,' he said. And Dorothy looked up again at the moon.
But she listened no more to the songs of the nightingales, and they left the orchard together in silence.
'Come, Rowland, we must not be found here alone,' said Amanda, who saw them go. 'But tell me one thing first: is mistress Dorothy Vaughan indeed your cousin?'
'She is indeed. Her mother and mine were cousins german--sisters' children.'
'I thought it could not be a near cousinship. You are not alike at all. Hear me, Rowland, but let it die in your ear--I love not mistress Dorothy.'
'And the reason, lovely hater? "Is not the maiden fair to see?" as the old song says. I do not mean that she is fair as some are fair, but she will pass; she offends not.'
'She is fair enough--not beautiful, not even pleasing; but, to be just, the demure look she puts on may bear the fault of that. Rowland, I would not speak evil of any one, but your cousin is a hypocrite. She is false at heart, and she hates me. Trust me, she but bides her time to let me know it--and you too, my Rowland.'
'I am sure you mistake her, Amanda,' said Scudamore. 'Her looks are but modest, and her words but shy, for she came hither from a lonely house. I believe she is honest and good.'
'Seest thou not then how that she makes friends with none but her betters? Already hath she wound herself around my lady's heart, forsooth! and now she pays her court to the puffing chaplain! Hast thou never observed, my Rowland, how oft she crosses the bridge to the yellow tower? What seeks she there? Old Kaltoff, the Dutchman, it can hardly be. I know she thinks to curry with my lord by pretending to love locks and screws and pistols and such like. "But why should she haunt the place when my lord is not there?" you will ask. Her pretence will hold the better for it, no doubt, and Caspar will report concerning her. And if she pleases my lord well, who knows but he may give her a pair of watches to hang at her ears, or a box that Paracelsus himself could not open without the secret as well as the key? I have heard of both such. They say my lord hath twenty cartloads of quite as wonderful things in that vault he calls his workshop. Hast thou never marked the huge cabinet of black inlaid with silver, that stands by the wall--fitter indeed for my lady's chamber than such a foul place?'
'I have seen it,' answered Scudamore.
'I warrant me it hath store of gewgaws fit for a duchess.'
'Like enough,' assented Rowland.
'If mistress Dorothy were to find the way through my lord's favour into that cabinet--truly it were nothing to thee or me, Rowland.'
'Assuredly not. It would be my lord's own business.'
'Once upon a time I was sent to carry my young lady Raven thither--to see my lord earn his bread, as said my lady: and what should my lord but give her no less than a ball of silver which, thrown into a vessel of water at any moment would plainly tell by how much it rose above the top, the very hour and minute of the day or night, as well and truly as the castle-clock itself. Tell me not, Rowland, that the damsel hath no design in it. Her looks betoken a better wisdom. Doth she not, I ask your honesty, far more resemble a nose-pinched puritan than a loyal maiden?'
Thus amongst the apple-blossoms talked Amanda Serafina.
'Prithee, be not too severe with my cousin, Amanda,' pleaded Scudamore. 'She is much too sober to please my fancy, but wherefore should I for that hate her? And if she hath something the look of a long-faced fanatic, thou must think, she hath but now, as it were, lost her mother.'
'But now! And I never knew mine! Ah, Rowland, how lonely is the world!'
'Lovely Amanda!' said Rowland.
So they passed from the orchard and parted, fearful of being missed.
How should such a pair do, but after its kind? Life was dull without love-making, so they made it. And the more they made, the more they wanted to make, until casual encounters would no longer serve their turn.
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