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   Chapter 6 No.6

A Mere Accident By George Augustus Moore Characters: 16696

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Like Juggernaut's car, Catholicism had passed over John's mind, crushing all individualism, and leaving it but a wreck of quaking mysticism. Twenty times a day the spectre of his conscience rose and with menacing finger threatened him with flames and demons. And his love was a source of continual suffering. How often did he ask himself if he were surrendering his true vocation? How often did he beg of God to guide him aright? But these mental agitations were visible to no one. He preserved his calm exterior and the keenest eye detected in him only an ordinary young man with more than usually strict business habits. He had appointments with his solicitor. He consulted with him, he went into complex calculations concerning necessary repairs, and he laid plans for the more advantageous letting of the farms.

His mother encouraged him to attend to his business. Her head was full of other matters. A dispensation had to be obtained; it was said that the Pope was more than ever opposed to mixed marriages. But no objection would be made to this one. It would be madness to object.... A rich Catholic family at Henfield-nearly four thousand a-year-must not be allowed to become extinct. Thornby Place was the link between the Duke of Norfolk and the So and So's. If those dreadful cousins came in for the property, Protestantism would again be established at Thornby Place. And what a pity that would be; and just at a time when Catholicism was beginning to make headway in Sussex. And if John did not marry now he would never marry; of that she was quite sure.

As may be imagined, these were not the arguments with which Mrs Norton sought to convince the Rev. William Hare; they were those with which she besieged the Brompton Oratory, Farm Street, and the Pro-Cathedral. She played one off against the other. The Jesuits were nettled at having lost him, but it was agreeable to learn that the Carmelites had been no less unfortunate than they. The Oratorians on the whole thought he was not in their "line"; and as their chance of securing him was remote, they agreed that John would prove more useful to the Church as a married man than as a priest. A few weeks later the Papal sanction was obtained.

The clause concerning the children affected Mr Hare deeply, but he was told that he must not stand in the way of the happiness of two young people. He considered the question from many points of view, but in the meantime Mrs Norton continued to deluge Kitty with presents, and to talk to everybody of her son's marriage. The parson's difficulties were thereby increased, and eventually he found he could not withhold his consent.

And as time went on, John seemed to take a more personal delight in life than he had done before. He forgot his ancient prejudices if not his ancient ideals, and, as was characteristic of him, he avoided thinking with any definiteness on the nature of the new life into which he was to enter soon. His neighbours declared he was very much improved; and there were dinner parties at Thornby Place. One of his great pleasures was to start early in the morning, and having spent a long day with Kitty, to return home across the downs. The lofty, lonely landscape, with its lengthy hills defined upon the flushes of July, came in happy contrast with the noisy hours of tennis and girls; and standing on the gently ascending slopes, rising almost from the wicket gate of the rectory, he would wave farewells to Kitty and the Austins. And in the glittering morning, grey and dewy, when he descended these slopes to the strip of land that lies between them and the sea, he would pause on the last verge where the barn stands. Squire Austin's woods are in front, and they stretch by the town to the sleepy river with its spiderlike bridge crossing the sandy marshes. The church spire and roofs show through each break in the elm trees, and higher still the horizon of the sea is shimmering.

The rectory is rich brown brick and tiles. About it there is an ample farmyard. Mr Hare has but the house and an adjoining field, the three great ricks are Mr Austin's; the sunlight is upon them, and through the long shadows the cart horses are moving with the drays; and now a hundred pigeons rise and are seen against the green velvet of the elms, and one bird's wings are white upon the white sea.

Mr Hare is sitting in the verandah smoking, Kitty is attending to her birds.

"Good morning, John," she cried, "but I can't shake hands with you, my hands are dirty. Do you talk to father, I haven't a moment. There is such a lot to do. You know the Miss Austins are coming here to early dinner, and we have two young men coming from Worthing to play tennis. The court isn't marked yet."

"I will help you to mark it."

"Very well, but I am not ready yet."

John lit a cigar, and he spoke of books to Mr Hare, whom he considered a gross Philistine, although a worthy man. The shadows of the Virginia creeper fell on the red pavement, and Kitty's light voice was heard on the staircase. Presently she appeared, and lifting the trailing foliage, she spoke to him. She took him away, and the parson watched the white lines being marked on the sward. He watched them walk by the iron railing that separated Little Leywood from Leywood, the Squire's house. They passed through a small wooden gate into a bit of thick wood, and so gained the drive. Mr Austin took John to see the horses, Kitty ran to see the girls who were in their room dressing. How they chattered as they came down stairs, and with what lightness and laughter they went to Little Leywood. Their interests were centred in John, and Kitty took the foremost place as an engaged girl. After dinner young men arrived, and tennis was played unceasingly. At six o'clock, tired and hot with air and exercise, all went in to tea-a high tea. At seven John said he must be thinking of getting home; and happy and glad with all the pleasant influences of the day upon them, Kitty and the Miss Austins accompanied him as far as the farm gate.

"What a beautiful walk you will have, Mr Norton; but aren't you tired? Seven miles in the morning and seven in the evening!"

"But I have had the whole day to rest in."

"What a lovely evening! Let's all walk a little way with him," said Kitty.

"I should like to," said the elder Miss Austin, "but we promised father to be home for dinner. The one sure way of getting into his black books is to keep his dinner waiting, and he wouldn't dine without us."

"Well, good-bye, dear," said Kitty, "I shall walk as far as the burgh."

The Miss Austins turned into the rich trees that encircle Leywood, Kitty and John faced the hill. They were soon silhouettes, and ascending, they stood, tiny specks upon the pink evening hours. The table-land swept about them in multitudinous waves; it was silent and solitary as the sea. Lancing College, some miles distant, stood lonely as a lighthouse, and beneath it the Ada flowed white and sluggish through the marshes, the long spine of the skeleton bridge was black, and there, by that low shore, the sea was full of mist, and sea and shore and sky were lost in opal and grey. Old Shoreham, with its air of commerce, of stagnant commerce, stood by the sea. The tide was out, the sea gates were dry, only a few pools flashed silver amid the ooze; and the masts of the tall vessels,-tall vessels aground in that strange canal or rather dyke which runs parallel with and within a few yards of the sea for so many miles,-tapered and leaned out over the sea banks, and the points of the top masts could be counted. Then on the left hand towards Brighton, the sea streamed with purple, it was striped with green, and it hung like a blue veil behind the rich trees of Leywood and Little Leywood, and the trees and the fields were full of golden rays.

The lovers stood on a grassy plain; sheep were travelling over the great expanses of the valleys; rooks were flying about. Looking over the plain you saw Southwick,-a gleam of gables, a gleam of walls,-skirting a plantation; and further away still, Brighton lay like a pile of rocks heaped about a low shore.

To the lovers life was now as an assortment of simple but beautiful flowers; and they passed the blossoms to and fro and bound them into a bouquet. They talked of the Miss Austins, of their flirta

tions, of the Rectory, of Thornby Place, of Italy, for there they were going next month on their honeymoon. The turnip and corn lands were as inconceivable widths of green and yellow satin rolling through the rich light of the crests into the richer shadow of the valleys. And there there was a farm-house surrounded by buildings, surrounded by trees,-it looked like a nest in its snug hollow; the smoke ascended blue and peacefully. It was the last habitation. Beyond it the downs extend, in almost illimitable ranges ascending to the wild golden gorse, to the purple heather.

We are on the burgh. The hills tumble this way and that; below is the great weald of Sussex, blue with vapour, spotted with gold fields, level as a landscape by Hobbema; Chanctonbury Ring stands up like a gaunt watcher; its crown of trees is pressed upon its brow, a dark and imperial crown.

Overhead the sky is full of dark grey clouds; through them the sun breaks and sheds silver dust over the landscape; in the passing gleams the green of the furze grows vivid. If you listen you hear the tinkling of the bell-wether; if you look you see a solitary rabbit. A stunted hawthorn stands by the circle of stone, and by it the lovers were sitting. He was talking to her of Italy, of cathedrals and statues, for although he now loves her as a man should love, he still saw his honeymoon in a haze of Botticellis, cardinals, and chants. They stood up and bid each other good-bye, and waving hands they parted.

Night was coming on apace, a long way lay still before him, and he walked hastily; she being nearer home, sauntered leisurely, swinging her parasol. The sweetness of the evening was in her blood and brain, and the architectural beauty of the landscape-the elliptical arches of the hills-swam before her. But she had not walked many minutes before a tramp, like a rabbit out of a bush, sprang out of the furze where he had been sleeping. He was a gaunt hulking fellow, six feet high.

"Now 'aven't you a copper or two for a poor fellow, Missie?"

Kitty started from him frightened. "No, I haven't, I have nothing ... go away."

He laughed hoarsely, she ran from him. "Now, don't run so fast, Missie, won't you give a poor fellow something?"

"I have nothing."

"Oh, yes you 'ave; what about those pretty lips?"

A few strides brought him again to her side. He laid his hand upon her arm. She broke her parasol across his face, he laughed hoarsely. She saw his savage beast-like eyes fixed hungrily upon her. She fainted for fear of his look of dull tigerish cruelty. She fell....

When shaken and stunned and terrified she rose from the ground, she saw the tall gaunt figure passing away like a shadow. The wild solitary landscape was pale and dim. In the fading light it was a drawing made on blue paper with a hard pencil. The long undulating lines were defined on the dead sky, the girdle of blue encircling sea was an image of eternity. All now was the past, there did not seem to be a present. Her mind was rocked to and fro, and on its surface words and phrases floated like sea weed.... To throw her down and ill-treat her. Her frock is spoilt; they will ask her where she has been to, and how she got herself into such a state. Mechanically she brushed herself, and mechanically, very mechanically she picked bits of furze from her dress. She held each away from her and let it drop in a silly vacant way, all the while running the phrases over in her mind: "What a horrible man ... he threw me down and ill-treated me; my frock is ruined, utterly ruined, what a state it is in! I had a narrow escape of being murdered. I will tell them that ... that will explain ... I had a narrow escape of being murdered." But presently she grew conscious that these thoughts were fictitious thoughts, and that there was a thought, a real thought, lying in the background of her mind, which she dared not face, which she could not think of, for she did not think as she desired to; her thoughts came and went at their own wild will, they flitted lightly, touching with their wings but ever avoiding this deep and formless thought which lay in darkness, almost undiscoverable, like a monster in a nightmare.

She rose to her feet, she staggered, her sight seemed to fail her. There was a darkness in the summer evening which she could not account for; the ground seemed to slide beneath her feet, the landscape seemed to be in motion and to be rolling in great waves towards the sea. Would it precipitate itself into the sea, and would she be engulphed in the universal ruin? O! the sea, how implacably serene, how remorselessly beautiful; green along the shore, purple along the horizon! But the land was rolling to it. By Lancing College it broke seaward in a soft lapsing tide, in front of her it rose in angry billows; and Leywood hill, green, and grand, and voluted, stood up a great green wave against the waveless sea.

"What a horrible man ... he attacked me, ill-treated me ... what for?" Her thoughts turned aside. "He should be put in prison.... If father knew it, or John knew it, he would be put in prison, and for a very long time.... Why did he attack me?... Perhaps to rob me; yes, to rob me, of course to rob me." The evening seemed to brighten, the tumultuous landscape to grow still, To rob her, and of what?... of her watch; where was it? It was gone. The happiness of a dying saint when he opens arms to heaven descended upon her. The watch was gone ... but, had she lost it? Should she go back and see if she could find it? Oh! impossible; see the place again-impossible! search among the gorse-impossible! Horror! She would die. O to die on the lonely hills, to lie stark and cold beneath the stars! But no, she would not be found upon these hills. She would die and be seen no more. O to die, to sink in that beautiful sea, so still, so calm, so calm-why would it not take her to its bosom and hide her away? She would go to it, but she could not get to it; there were thousands of men between her and it.... An icy shiver passed through her.

Then as her thoughts broke away, she thought of how she had escaped being murdered. How thankful she ought to be-but somehow she is not thankful. And she was above all things conscious of a horror of returning, of returning to where she would see men and women's faces... men's faces. And now with her eyes fixed on the world that awaited her, she stood on the hillside. There was Brighton far away, sparkling in the dying light; nearer, Southwick showed amid woods, winding about the foot of the hills; in front Shoreham rose out of the massy trees of Leywood, the trees slanted down to the lawn and foliage and walls, made spots of white and dark green upon a background of blue sea; further to the right there was a sluggish silver river, the spine of the skeleton bridge, a spur of Lancing hill, and then mist, pale mist, pale grey mist.

"I cannot go home", thought the girl, and acting in direct contradiction to her thoughts, she walked forward. Her parasol-where was it? It was broken. The sheep, how sweet and quiet they looked, and the clover, how deliciously it smelt.... This is Mr Austin's farm, and how well kept it is. There is the barn. And Evy and Mary, when would they be married? Not so soon as she, she was going to be married in a month. In a month. She repeated the words over to herself; she strove to collect her thoughts, and failing to do so, she walked on hurriedly, she almost ran as if in the motion to force out of sight the thoughts that for a moment threatened to define themselves in her mind. Suddenly she stopped; there were some children playing by the farm gate. They did not know that she was by, and she listened to their childish prattle unsuspected. To listen was an infinite assuagement, one that was overpoweringly sweet, and for some moments she almost forgot. But she woke from her ecstacy in deadly fear and great pain, for coming along the hedgerow the voice of a man was heard, and the children ran away. And she ran too, like a terrified fawn, trembling in every limb, and sick with fear she sped across the meadows. The front door was open; she heard her father calling. To see him she felt would be more than she could bear; she must hide from his sight for ever, and dashing upstairs she double locked her door.

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