Mr. Verdant Green Married and Done for/Chapter 6
MR. VERDANT GREEN JOINS A NORTHUMBERLAND PIC-NIC.
OME weeks had passed away very pleasantly to all—pleasantly even to Mr. Verdant Green; for, although he had not renewed his apple-tree conversation with Miss Patty, and was making progress with his "Legend of the Fair Margaret," yet—it may possibly have been that the exertion to make "dove" rhyme with "love," and "gloom" with "doom," occupied his mind to the exclusion of needless sorrow—he contrived to make himself mournfully amiable, even if not tolerably happy, in the society of the fair enchantress.
The Honeywood party were indeed a model household; and rode, and drove, and walked, and fished, and sketched, as a large family of brothers and sisters might do—perhaps with a little more piquancy than is generally found in the home-made dish.
They had had more than one little friendly pic-nic and excursion, and had seen Warkworth, and grown excessively sentimental in its hermitage; they had lionised Alnwick, and gone over its noble castle, and sat in Hotspur's chair, and fallen into raptures at the Duchess's bijou of a dairy, and viewed the pillared passant lion, with his tail blowing straight out (owing, probably, to the breezy nature of his position), and seen the Duke's herd of buffaloes tearing along their park with streaming manes; and they had gone back to Honeywood Hall, and received Honeywood guests, and been entertained by them in return.
But the squire was now about to give a pic-nic on a large scale; and as it was important, not only in its dimensions and preparations, but also in bringing about an occurrence that in no small degree affected Mr. Verdant Green's future life, it becomes his historian's duty to chronicle the event with the fulness that it merits. The pic-nic, moreover, deserves mention because it possessed an individuality of character, and was unlike the ordinary solemnities attending the pic-nics of every-day life.
In the first place, the party had to reach the appointed spot—which was Chillingham—in an unusual manner. At least half of the road that had to be traversed was impassable for carriages. Bridgeless brooks had to be crossed; and what were called "roads" were little better than the beds of mountain torrents, and in wet weather might have been taken for such. Deep channels were worn in them by the rush of impetuous streams, and no known carriage-springs could have lived out such ruts. Carriages, therefore, in this part of the country, were out of the question, The squire did what was usual on such occasions: he appointed, as a rendezvous, a certain little inn at the extremity of the carriageable part of the road, and there all the party met, and left their chariots and horses. They then—after a little preparatory pic-nic, for many of them had come from long distances—took possession of certain wagons that were in waiting for them.
These wagons, though apparently of light build, were constructed for the country, and were capable of sustaining the severe test of the rough roads. Within them were lashed hay-sacks, which, when covered with railway rugs, formed sufficiently comfortable seats, on which the divisions of the party sat vis-à-vis, like omnibus travellers. Frederick Delaval and a few others, on horses and ponies, as outriders, accompanied the wagon procession, which was by no means deficient in materials for the picturesque. The teams of horses were turned out to their best advantage, and decorated with flowers. The fore horse of each team bore his collar of little brass bells, which clashed out a wild music as they moved along. The ruddy-faced wagoners were in their shirt-sleeves, which were tied round with ribbons; they had gay ribbons also on their hats and whips, and did not lack bouquets and flowers for the further adornment of their persons. Altogether they were most theatrical-looking fellows, and appeared perfectly prepared to take their places in the Sonnambula, or any other opera in which decorated rustics have to appear and unanimously shout their joy and grief at the nightly rate of two shillings per head. The light summer dresses of the ladies helped to make an agreeable variety of colour, as the wagons moved slowly along the dark heathery hills, now by the side of a brawling brook, and now by a rugged road.
The joltings of these same roads were, as little Mr. Bouncer feelingly remarked, facts that must be felt to be believed. For, when the wheel of any vehicle is suddenly plunged into a rut or hole of a foot's depth, and from thence violently extracted with a jerk, plunge, and wrench, to be again dropped into another hole or rut, and withdrawn from thence in a like manner,—and when this process is being simultaneously repeated, with discordant variations, by other three wheels attached to the self-same vehicle, it will follow, as a matter of course, that the result of this experiment will be the violent agitation and commingling of the movable contents of the said vehicle; and, when these contents chance to take the semblance of humanity, it may readily be imagined what must have been the scene presented to the view as the pic-nic wagons, with their human freight, laboured through the mountain roads that led towards Chillingham. But all this only gave a zest to the day's enjoyment; and, if Miss Patty Honeywood was unable to maintain her seat without assistance from her neighbour, Mr. Verdant Green, it is not at all improbable but that she approved of his kind attention, and that the other young ladies who were similarly situated accepted similar attentions with similar gratitude.
In this way they literally jogged along to Chillingham, where they alighted from their novel carriages and four, and then leisurely made their way to the castle. When they had sufficiently lionised it, and had strolled through the gardens, they went to have a look at the famous wild cattle. Our Warwickshire friends had frequently had a distant view of them; for the cattle kept together in a herd, and as their park was on the slope of a dark hill, they were visible from afar off as a moving white patch on the landscape. On the present occasion they found that the cattle, which numbered their full herd of about a hundred strong, were quietly grazing on the border of their pine wood, where a few of their fellow-tenants, the original red-deer, were lifting their enormous antlers. From their position the pic-nic party were unable to obtain a very near view of them; but the curiosity of the young ladies was strongly excited, and would not be allayed without a closer acquaintance with these formidable but beautiful creatures. And it therefore happened that, when the courageous Miss Bouncer proposed that they should make an incursion into the very territory of the Wild Cattle, her proposition was not only seconded, but was carried almost unanimously. It was in vain that Mr. Honeywood, and the seniors and chaperones of the party, reminded the younger people of the grisly head they had just seen hanging up in the lodge, and those straight sharp horns that had gored to death the brave keeper who had risked his own life to save his master's friend; it was in vain that Charles Larkyns, fearful for his Mary's sake, quoted the "Bride of Lammermoor," and urged the improbability of another Master of Ravenswood starting out of the bushes to the rescue of a second Lucy Ashton; it was in vain that anecdotes were told of the fury of these cattle,—how they would single out some aged or wounded companion, and drive him out of the herd until he miserably died, and how they would hide themselves for days within their dark pine-wood, where no one dare attack them; it was in vain that Mr. Verdant Green reminded Miss Patty Honeywood of her narrow escape from Mr. Roarer, and warned her that her then danger was now increased a hundredfold; all in vain, for Miss Patty assured him that the cattle were as peaceable as they were beautiful, and that they only attacked people in self-defence when provoked or molested. So, as the young ladies were positively bent upon having a nearer view of the milk-white herd, the greater number of the gentlemen were obliged to accompany them.
It was no easy matter to get into the Wild Cattle's enclosure, as the boundary fence was of unusual height, and the difficulty of its being scaled by ladies was proportionately increased. Nevertheless, the fence and the difficulty were alike surmounted, and the party were safely landed within the park. They had promised to obey Mr. Honeywood's advice, and to abstain from that mill-stream murmur of conversation in which a party of young ladies usually indulge, and to walk quietly among the trees, across an angle of the park, at some two or three hundred yards' distance from the herd, so as not to unnecessarily attract their attention; and then to scale the fence at a point higher up the hill. Following this advice, they walked quietly across the mossy grass, keeping behind trees, and escaping the notice of the Cattle. They had reached midway in their proposed path, and, with silent admiration, were watching the movements of the herd as they placidly grazed at a short distance from them, when Miss Bouncer, who was addicted to uncontrollable fits of laughter at improper seasons, was so tickled at some sotto voce remark of Frederick Delaval's, that she burst into a hearty ringing laugh, which, ere she could smother its noise with her handkerchief, had startled the watchful ears of the monarch of the herd.
The Bull raised his magnificent head, and looked round in the direction from whence the disturbance had proceeded. As he perceived it, he sniffed the air, made a rapid movement with his pink-edged ears, and gave an ominous bellow. This signal awoke the attention of the other bulls, their wives, and children, who simultaneously left off grazing and commenced gazing. The bovine monarch gave another bellow, stamped upon the ground, lashed his tail, advanced about twenty yards in a threatening manner, and then paused, and gazed fixedly upon the pic-nic party and Miss Bouncer, who too late regretted her malapropos laugh.
"For heaven's sake!" whispered Mr. Honeywood, "do not speak; but get to the fence as quietly and quickly as you can."
The young ladies obeyed, and forbore either to scream or faint—for the present. The Bull gave another stamp and bellow, and made a second advance. This time he came about fifty yards before he paused, and he was followed at a short distance, and at a walking pace, by the rest of the herd. The ladies retreated quietly, the gentlemen came after them, but the park-fence appeared to be at a terribly long distance, and it was evident that if the herd made a sudden rush upon them, nothing could save them—unless they could climb the trees; but this did not seem very practicable. Mr. Verdant Green, however, caught at the probability of such need, and anxiously looked round for the most likely tree for his purpose.
The Bull had made another advance, and was gaining upon them. It seemed curious that he should stand forth as the champion of the herd, and do all the roaring and stamping, while the other bulls remained mute, and followed with the rest of the herd, yet so it was; but there seemed no reason to disbelieve the unpleasant fact that the monarch's example would be imitated by his subjects. The herd had now drawn so near, and the young ladies had made such a comparatively slow retreat, that they were yet many yards distant from the boundary fence, and it was quite plain that they could not reach it before the advancing milk-white mass would be hurled against them. Some of the young ladies were beginning to feel faint and hysterical, and their alarm was more or less shared by all the party.
It was now, by Charles Larkyns's advice, that the more active gentlemen mounted on to the lower branches of the wide-spreading trees, and, aided by others upon the ground, began to lift up the ladies to places of security. But, the party being a large one, this caring for its more valued but less athletic members was a business that could not be transacted without the expenditure of some little time and trouble, more, as it seemed, than could now be bestowed; for, the onward movement of the Chillingham Cattle was more rapid than the corresponding upward movement of the Northumbrian pic-nickers. And, even if Charles Larkyns's plan should have a favourable issue, it did not seem a very agreeable prospect to be detained up in a tree, with a century of bulls bellowing beneath, until casual assistance should arrive; and yet, what was this state of affairs when compared with the terrors of that impending fate from which, for some of them at least, there seemed no escape? Mr. Verdant Green fully realised the horrors of this alternative when he looked at Miss Patty Honeywood, who had not yet joined those ladies who, clinging fearfully to the boughs, and crouching among the branches like roosting guinea-fowls, were for the present in comparative safety, and out of the reach of the Cattle.
The monarch of the herd had now come within forty yards' distance, and then stopped, lashing his tail and bellowing defiance, as he appeared to be preparing for a final rush. Behind him, in a dense phalanx, white and terrible, were the rest of the herd. Suddenly, and before the Snowy Bull had made his advance, Frederick Delaval, to the wondering fear of all, stepped boldly forth to meet him. As has been said, he was one of the equestrians of the party, and he carried a heavy-handled whip, furnished with a long and powerful lash. He wrapped this lash round his hand, and walked resolutely towards the Bull, fixing his eyes steadily upon him. The Bull chafed angrily, and stamped upon the ground, but did not advance. The herd, also, were motionless; but their dark, lustrous eyes were centred upon Frederick Delaval's advancing figure. The members of the pic-nic party were also watching him with intense interest. If they could, they would have prevented his purpose; for to all appearance he was about to lose his own life in order that the rest of the party might gain time to reach a place of safety. The very expectation of this prevented many of the ladies availing themselves of the opportunity thus so boldly purchased, and they stood transfixed with terror and astonishment, breathlessly awaiting the result.
They watched him draw near the wild white Bull, who stood there yet, foaming and stamping up the turf, but not advancing. His huge horned head was held erect, and his mane bristled up, as he looked upon the adversary who thus dared to brave him. He suffered Frederick Delaval to approach him, and only betrayed a consciousness of his presence by his heavy snorting, angry lashing of the tail, and quick motion of his bright eye. All this time the young man had looked the Bull steadfastly in the front, and had drawn near him with an equal and steady step. Suppressed screams broke from more than one witness of his bravery, when he at length stood within a step of his huge adversary. He gazed fixedly into the Bull's eyes, and, after a moment's pause, suddenly raised his riding-whip, and lashed the animal heavily over the shoulders. The Bull tossed round, and roared with fury. The whole herd became agitated, and other bulls trotted up to support their monarch.
Still looking him steadfastly in the eyes, Frederick Delaval again raised his heavy whip, and lashed him more severely than before. The Wild Bull butted down, swerved round, and dashed out with his heels. As he did so, Frederick again struck him heavily with the whip, and, at the same time, blew a piercing signal on the boatswain's whistle that he usually carried with him. The sudden shriek of the whistle appeared to put the coup de grace to the young man's bold attack, for the animal had no sooner heard it than he tossed up his head and threw forward his ears, as though to ask from whence the novel noise proceeded. Frederick Delaval again blew a piercing shriek on the whistle; and when the Wild Bull heard it, and once more felt the stinging lash of the heavy whip, he swerved round, and with a bellow of pain and fury trotted back to the herd. The young man blew another shrill whistle, and cracked the long lash of his whip until its echoes reverberated like so many pistol-shots. The Wild Bull's trot increased to a gallop, and he and the whole herd of the Chillingham Cattle dashed rapidly away from the pic-nic party, and in a little time were lost to view in the recesses of their forest.
"Thank God!" said Mr. Honeywood; and it was echoed in the hearts of all. But the Squire's emotion was too deep for words, as he went to meet Frederick Delaval, and pressed him by the hand.
"Get the women outside the park as quickly as possible," said Frederick, "and I will join you."
But when this was done, and Mr. Honeywood had returned to him, he found him lying motionless beneath the tree.