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A Story of Long Descent

It was rudely borne in upon me that there was another side to the
shield. I was too much immersed in my own thoughts to note the peculiar
character of the small remote old-world town I came to in the
afternoon; next day was Sunday, and on my way to the church to attend
morning service, it struck me as one of the oldest-looking of the small
old towns I had stumbled upon in my rambles in this ancient land. There
was the wide vacant space where doubtless meetings had taken place for
a thousand years, and the steep narrow crooked medieval streets, and
here and there some stately building rising like a castle above the
humble cottage houses clustering round it as if for protection. Best of
all was the church with its noble tower where a peal of big bells were
just now flooding the whole place with their glorious noise.

It was even better when, inside, I rose from my knees and looked about
me, to find myself in an ideal interior, the kind I love best; rich in
metal and glass and old carved wood, the ornaments which the good
Methody would scornfully put in the hay and stubble category, but which
owing to long use and associations have acquired for others a symbolic
and spiritual significance. The beauty and richness were all the
fresher for the dimness, and the light was dim because it filtered
through old oxydised stained glass of that unparalleled loveliness of
colour which time alone can impart. It was, excepting in vastness, like
a cathedral interior, and in some ways better than even the best of
these great fanes, wonderful as they are. Here, recalling them, one
could venture to criticise and name their several deficits:--a Wells
divided, a ponderous Ely, a vacant and cold Canterbury, a too light and
airy Salisbury, and so on even to Exeter, supreme in beauty, spoilt by
a monstrous organ in the wrong place. That wood and metal giant,
standing as a stone bridge to mock the eyes' efforts to dodge past it
and have sight of the exquisite choir beyond, and of an east window
through which the humble worshipper in the nave might hope, in some
rare mystical moment, to catch a glimpse of the far Heavenly country
beyond.

I also noticed when looking round that it was an interior rich in
memorials to the long dead--old brasses and stone tablets on the walls,
and some large monuments. By chance the most imposing of the tombs was
so near my seat that with little difficulty I succeeded in reading and
committing to memory the whole contents of the very long inscription
cut in deep letters on the hard white stone. It was to the memory of
Sir Ranulph Damarell, who died in 1531, and was the head of a family
long settled in those parts, lord of the manor and many other things.
On more than one occasion he raised a troop from his own people and
commanded it himself, fighting for his king and country both in and out
of England. He was, moreover, a friend of the king and his counsellor,
and universally esteemed for his virtues and valour; greatly loved by
all his people, especially by the poor and suffering, on account of his
generosity and kindness of heart.

A very glorious record, and by-and-by I believed every word of it.
For after reading the inscription I began to examine the effigy in
marble of the man himself which surmounted the tomb. He was lying
extended full length, six feet and five inches, his head on a low
pillow, his right hand grasping the handle of his drawn sword. The more
I looked at it, both during and after the service, the more convinced I
became that this was no mere conventional figure made by some lapidary
long after the subject's death, but was the work of an inspired artist,
an exact portrait of the man, even to his stature, and that he had
succeeded in giving to the countenance the very expression of the
living Sir Ranulph. And what it expressed was power and authority and,
with it, spirituality. A noble countenance with a fine forehead and
nose, the lower part of the face covered with the beard, and long hair
that fell to the shoulders.

It produced a feeling such as I have whenever I stand before a certain
sixteenth-century portrait in the National Gallery: a sense or an
illusion of being in the presence of a living person with whom I am
engaged in a wordless conversation, and who is revealing his inmost
soul to me. And it is only the work of a genius that can affect you in
that way.

Quitting the church I remembered with satisfaction that my hostess at
the quiet home-like family hotel where I had put up, was an educated
intelligent woman (good-looking, too), and that she would no doubt be
able to tell me something of the old history of the town and
particularly of Sir Ranulph. For this marble man, this knight of
ancient days, had taken possession of me and I could think of nothing
else.

At luncheon we met as in a private house at our table with our nice
hostess at the head, and beside her three or four guests staying in the
house; a few day visitors to the town came in and joined us. Next to me
I had a young New Zealand officer whose story I had heard with painful
interest the previous evening. Like so many of the New Zealanders I had
met before, he was a splendid young fellow; but he had been terribly
gassed at the front and had been told by the doctors that he would not
be fit to go back even if the war lasted another year, and we were then
well through the third. The way the poison in his lungs affected him
was curious. He had his bad periods when for a fortnight or so he would
lie in his hospital suffering much and terribly depressed, and at such
time black spots would appear all over his chest and neck and arms so
that he would be spotted like a pard. Then the spots would fade and he
would rise apparently well, and being of an energetic disposition, was
allowed to do local war work.

On the other side of the table facing us sat a lady and gentleman who
had come in together for luncheon. A slim lady of about thirty, with a
well-shaped but colourless face and very bright intelligent eyes. She
was a lively talker, but her companion, a short fat man with a round
apple face and cheeks of an intensely red colour and a black moustache,
was reticent, and when addressed directly replied in monosyllables. He
gave his undivided attention to the thing on his plate.

The young officer talked to me of his country, describing with
enthusiasm his own district which he averred contained the finest
mountain and forest scenery in New Zealand. The lady sitting opposite
began to listen and soon cut in to say she knew it all well, and agreed
in all he said in praise of the scenery. She had spent weeks of delight
among those great forests and mountains. Was she then his country-
woman? he asked. Oh, no, she was English but had travelled extensively
and knew a great deal of New Zealand. And after exhausting this subject
the conversation, which had become general, drifted into others, and
presently we were all comparing notes about our experience of the late
great frost. Here I had my say about what had happened in the village I
had been staying in. The prolonged frost, I said, had killed all or
most of the birds in the open country round us, but in the village
itself a curious thing had happened to save the birds of the place. It
was a change of feeling in the people, who are by nature or training
great persecutors of birds. The sight of them dying of starvation had
aroused a sentiment of compassion, and all the villagers, men, women,
and children, even to the roughest bush-beating boys, started feeding
them, with the result that the birds quickly became tame and spent
their whole day flying from house to house, visiting every yard and
perching on the window-sills. While I was speaking the gentleman
opposite put down his knife and fork and gazed steadily at me with a
smile on his red-apple face, and when I concluded he exploded in a
half-suppressed sniggering laugh.

It annoyed me, and I remarked rather sharply that I didn't see what
there was to laugh at in what I had told them. Then the lady with ready
tact interposed to say she had been deeply interested in my
experiences, and went on to tell what she had done to save the birds in
her own place; and her companion, taking it perhaps as a snub to
himself from her, picked up his knife and fork and went on with his
luncheon, and never opened his mouth to speak again. Or, at all events,
not till he had quite finished his meal.

By-and-by, when I found an opportunity of speaking to our hostess, I
asked her who that charming lady was, and she told me she was a Miss
Somebody--I forget the name--a native of the town, also that she was a
great favourite there and was loved by everyone, rich and poor, and
that she had been a very hard worker ever since the war began, and had
inspired all the women in the place to work.

"And who," I asked, "was the fellow who brought her in to lunch--a
relative or a lover?"

"Oh, no, no relation and certainly not a lover. I doubt if she would
have him if he wanted her, in spite of his position."

"I don't wonder at that--a perfect clown! And who is he?"

"Oh, didn't you know! Sir Ranulph Damarell."

"Good Lord!" I gasped. "That your great man--lord of the manor and what
not! He may bear the name, but I'm certain he's not a descendant of the
Sir Ranulph whose monument is in your church."

"Oh, yes, he is," she replied. "I believe there has never been a break
in the line from father to son since that man's day. They were all
knights in the old time, but for the last two centuries or so have been
baronets."

"Good Lord!" I exclaimed again. "And please tell me what is he----what
does he do? What is his distinction?"

"His distinction for me," she smilingly replied, "is that he prefers
my house to have his luncheon in after Sunday morning service. He knows
where he can get good cooking. And as a rule he invites some friend in
the town to lunch with him, so that should there be any conversation at
table his guest can speak for both and leave him quite free to enjoy
his food."

"And what part does he take in politics and public affairs--how does he
stand among your leading men?"

Her answer was that he had never taken any part in politics--had never
been or desired to be in Parliament or in the County Council, and was
not even a J.P., nor had he done anything for his country during the
war. Nor was he a sportsman. He was simply a country gentleman, and
every morning he took a ride or walk, mainly she supposed to give him a
better appetite for his luncheon. And he was a good landlord to his
tenants and he was respected by everybody and no one had ever said a
word against him.

There was nothing now for me to say except 'Good Lord!' so I said it
once more, and that made three times.


W. H. Hudson