She was standing in the open window with a fleecy white shawl

About a mile seaward from Porlock, separated from it by a narrow strip
of the most luxuriant meadowland in Devonshire, lies the village of
Bossington. Perhaps it were better called a hamlet, for at the time
when I knew anything about it (which, let the tourist remember, is many
years ago) it consisted but of six or seven cottages, a farmhouse, and
a half-ruined old manor-house, for the privilege of living in which my
father paid ten pounds a year, or some such trifling sum, to the
neighbouring clergyman whose property it was.

But what the place lacked in size was certainly atoned for–and more
than atoned for–by the beauty of its situation. High above it, like a
mighty protecting giant, rose Bossington Headland, covered always with
a soft, springy turf, and glowing in midsummer with the brilliant
colouring of rich purple heather and yellow gorse. Often have I stood
on its highest point, and with my head bared to the strong fresh
breeze, watched the sun rise over the Exmoor Hills and Dunkerry Beacon,
and waited until it shed its first warm gleams on the white cottages
and queer old church-tower of Porlock, which lay clustered together in
picturesque irregularity at the head of the little bay. And almost as
often have I gazed upon the same scene from the same spot by the less
distinct but more harmonious light of the full harvest moon, and have
wondered in which guise it seemed the fairest.

Behind Bossington lay Allercombe Woods, great tree-covered hills
sloping on one side down to the road which connected, and still
connects, Porlock with Minehead and the outside world, and on the
other, descending precipitously to the sea; so precipitously indeed
that it seemed always a wonder to me how the thickly growing but
stunted fir-trees could preserve their shape and regularity. The
descent from Bossington Headland into Porlock was by a steep winding
path through Allercombe Woods, and many a time I have looked through
the thin coating of green leaves upon the fields which stretched like a
piece of patchwork below down to the sea, and wondered whether any
other country in the world (I had never been out of Devonshire then)
could be more beautiful than this.

Within a stone’s throw of where the blue sea of our English Bay of
Naples rippled in on to the firm white sands, was the tumble-down old
building in which we lived. What there had been of walls had long
before our time been hidden by climbing plants and ivy, and in
summer-time the place from a distance somewhat resembled a gigantic
nosegay of cottage roses, jessamine, and other creeping flowers. There
was but a small garden and no ground, for Bossington Headland rose
precipitously close to the back of the house, and in front there was no
space for any. A shed served as a stable for one or two Exmoor ponies,
and also as a sleeping-place for the lanky, raw-boned Devonshire lad
whom we kept to look after them.

There were but few habitable rooms in our mansion, but they were
sufficient, for our household was a small one. My father, mother,
sister, myself, and a country servant comprised it. We never had a
visitor, save occasionally the clergyman from Porlock. We never went
anywhere. We knew no one, and at seventeen years of age an idea which
had been developing in me for a long time, took to itself the tangible
shape of words.

“Father,” I said to him one evening when we were sitting out upon our
little strip of lawn together, he smoking, I envying him for being able
to smoke, “do you know that I have never been out of Devonshire–never
been further than Exeter even, and I am eighteen years old?”

It was long before he answered me, and when, at last, he turned round
and did so, I was distressed to see the look of deep anxiety in his
worn, handsome face, and the troubled light in his clear eyes.

“I know it, my boy,” he said, pityingly. “I have been expecting this.
You are weary of the country.”

I stood up, with my hands in my pockets, and my back against the
latticed wall of the house, gazing over the sparkling, dancing sea, to
where, on the horizon, the stars seemed to stoop and meet it. Was I
tired of this quiet home? I scarcely knew; country sports and country
sights were dear to me, and I had no desire to leave them for ever. I
thought of the fat trout in the Exford streams, and the huntsman’s
rallying call from “t’other side Dunkerry,” and the wild birds that
needed so much getting at and such quick firing, and of the deep-sea
fishing, and the shooting up the coombes from Farmer Pulsford’s boat,
and of the delight of shipping on a hot summer’s day and diving deep
down into the cool bracing water. Why should I wish to leave all this?
What should I be likely to find pleasanter in the world of which, as
yet, I knew nothing? For a moment or two I hesitated–but it was only
for a moment or two. The restlessness which had been growing up within
me for years was built upon a solid foundation, and would not be
silenced.

“No, I’m not tired of the country, father,” I answered, slowly. “I
love it too much ever to be tired of it. But men don’t generally live
all their lives in one place, do they, without having any work or
anything to do except enjoy themselves?”

“And what should you like to be?” my father asked, quickly.

I had long ago made up my mind upon that point, and was not slow to
answer–

“I should like to be a soldier,” I declared, emphatically.

I was very little prepared for the result of my words. A spasm of what
seemed to be the most acute pain passed across my father’s face, and he
covered it for a moment with his hands. When he withdrew them he
looked like a ghost, deathly pale in the golden moonlight, and when he
spoke his voice trembled with emotion.

“God forbid that you should wish it seriously!” he said, “for it is the
one thing which you can never be!”

“Oh, Hugh, you do not mean it really; you do not wish to go away from
us!”

I turned round, for the voice, a soft and gentle one, was my mother’s.
She was standing in the open window with a fleecy white shawl around
her head, and her eyes, the sweetest I ever saw, fixed appealingly upon
me. I glanced from one to the other blankly, for my disappointment was
great. Then, like a flash, a sudden conviction laid hold of me. There
was some great and mysterious reason why we had lived so long apart
from the world.

That was quite an eventful night in our quiet life. Whilst we three
stood looking at one another half fearfully–I full Of this strange,
new idea which had just occurred to me–we heard the latch of our
garden gate lifted, and Mr. Cox, the vicar of Porlock and my instructor
in the classics, followed by no fewer than four large-limbed,
broad-shouldered, Porlock men, entered.

They made their way up the steep garden path, and my father, in no
little surprise, rose to greet them. With Mr. Cox he shook hands and
then glanced inquiringly at his followers, who, after touching their
hats respectfully, stood in a row looking supremely uncomfortable, and
each betraying a strong disposition to retire a little behind the
others. Mr. Cox proceeded to explain matters.

“You are pleased to look upon us as a deputation,” he said, pleasantly,
waving his hand towards the others, “of which I am the spokesman. We
come from the Porlock Working Men’s Conservative Club.”

My father bowed, and bidding me bring forward a garden seat, requested
the deputation to be seated. Then he called into the house for Jane to
bring out some jugs of cider and glasses, and a decided smile appeared
on the somewhat wooden faces of the deputation. I was vastly
interested, and not a little curious.

When the cider had been brought and distributed, and a raid made upon
the tobacco jar, Mr. Cox proceeded with his explanation.

“We have come to ask you a favour, Mr. Arbuthnot,” he said. “We are
going to hold a political meeting in the school-room at Porlock next
week. A gentleman from Minehead is going to give us an address on the
land question which promises to be very interesting, and Mr. Bowles
here has kindly promised to say a few words.”

The end man on the seat here twirled his hat, and, being nudged by his
neighbour, betrayed his personality by a broad grin. Finally, to
relieve his modesty, he buried his face in the mug of cider which stood
by his side.

“The difficulty we are in is this,” continued Mr. Cox; “we want a
chairman. I have must unfortunately promised to be in Exeter on that
day and shall not be able to return in time for the meeting, or else we
would not have troubled you. But as I shall not be available, we
thought that perhaps you might be induced to accept the office. That
is what we have come to ask you.”

My father shook his head.

“It is very kind of you to think of me,” he said, hesitatingly, “but I
fear that I must decline your offer. Politics have lost most of their
interest for me–and–and, in short, I think I would rather not.”

“I hope you will reconsider that,” Mr. Cox said, pleasantly. “It will
be a very slight tax upon you after all. You need only say a very few
words. Come, think it over again. We really are at our wit’s end or
we would not have troubled you.

“There is Mr. Sothern,” my father protested.

“He is in bed ill. An attack of pleurisy, I think.”

“Mr. Brown, then?”

“A rank Radical.”

“Mr. Jephcote?”

“Away.”

“Mr. Hetton?”

“Gone to London for a week.”

“Mr. Smith, then?”

“Will be at Exeter cattle fair.”

My father was silent for a moment or two. Then he suggested some more
names, to each of which there was some objection.

“You do seem to have been unfortunate,” he declared, at last. “To tell
you the truth, Mr. Cox,” he added, thoughtfully, “I scarcely know what
to say. I had made up my mind, for certain private reasons, never to
have anything to do with public life in any shape or form.”

“This isn’t a very formidable undertaking, is it?” Mr. Cox urged,
smiling.

“It isn’t. But the principle is the same,” my father answered.
“However, leave it in this way if you like. Give me until to-morrow
evening to think the matter over, and in the meantime see if you can’t
find some one else. I’m afraid I can’t say more than that.”

The deputation thought that nothing could be fairer than this, and
nothing more satisfactory except an unqualified assent. I think my
father imagined that having promised so much they would take their
departure. But nothing of the sort happened. Perhaps they found the
cider too good, or perhaps they were tired after their day’s work and
the walk from Porlock. At any rate, there they sat for more than an
hour, taking occasional gulps at their cider, and puffing incessantly
at their blackened pipes with a stolid vacuous look on their honest
faces, whilst my father and Mr. Cox talked a little aside in a low
tone. I fancied that I was the subject of their conversation, but
though I strained my ears in the attempt to catch some part of it, I
was unsuccessful. Once or twice the sound of my name reached me, but
directly I leaned forward they dropped their voices, so that I could
hear no more. I have always believed, however, that my father was
asking advice from Mr. Cox concerning me, and that Mr. Cox was urging
him to send me to the University. But I never knew for certain, for
events were soon to occur which swept out of my mind all minor
curiosity.

At last Mr. Cox rose to go, and the deputation, with manifest
reluctance, did the same. My father courteously accompanied them to
the garden gate, and shook hands with them all, thanking them for their
visit. When he returned there was a slight sparkle in his eyes, and an
amused smile on his lips. So monotonous was our life, that even such
an event as this was welcome, and I could tell from his manner that he
was pleased at the request which had been made to him, and disposed to
accept it. I determined to encourage him in it.

“Governor,” I remarked, leaning over the wall and watching the
retreating forms of our visitors, “I hope we’re not going to have many
political deputations here, especially if they’re all going to be as
thirsty as this one was. Did you ever see such fellows for cider! We
shan’t have a drop left for the hot weather if you encourage this sort
of thing. But you’ll do what they want you to, won’t you? I should!
It’ll be capital fun, and I’m sure you’d make a rattling speech.
You’re up on the land question, too. I heard you giving it to old
Simpson the other morning.”

My father smiled, and stood by my side watching them make their way
down the coombe.

“I shall have to consult your mother about it,” he said. “I almost
think that I may venture it,” he added, in a lower tone and
thoughtfully, as though to himself.

“Venture it! What could there be adventurous in it,” I wondered, “to a
well-read, scholarly man such as I knew him to be!” But I did not dare
to ask.

Presently he turned to me with a much graver look in his face.

“Hugh!” he said, “these people interrupted our conversation. There is
something which I must say to you at once. I do not wish you to become
a soldier. When you feel that you can stay here no longer, and that
this country life is too quiet for you, you must choose some other
profession. But a soldier you can never be.”

I was bitterly disappointed, and not a little curious, and an idea
which had often occurred to me swept suddenly into my mind with renewed
strength.

“Father, may I ask you a question?”

He hesitated, but did not forbid me.

“I have heard it said down in the village–every one says that you must
once have been a soldier. You walk and hold your head like one,
and–father, what is the matter?” I broke off all at once, for his
face had become like a dead man’s, and he had sunk heavily on to the
seat.

I would have sprung to his side, but my mother was there before him.
She had passed one arm around his neck, and with the other she motioned
me to go into the house.

“It isn’t your fault, Hugh,” she said, “but you mustn’t ask your father
questions; they distress him. Leave us now.”

I turned heavily away, and went up-stairs to my room. About an hour
afterwards, when I pushed open my window before getting into bed, there
stole into my room together with the sweet scent of jessamine and
climbing roses the sound of subdued voices.

“He must be told,” I heard my father say solemnly. “God give me
strength.”

Then the voices ceased for a while, but I still lingered, and presently
they began again, but in a more cheerful key.

I moved away and got into bed, but I left the window open as I always
did, and some fragments of their conversation still reached me.

“I am sure that you need have no fear, Herbert. No one in these parts
can have the slightest idea of … I hope you will … It will be a
change … Now promise.”

I could hear nothing of my father’s reply, but from its tone he seemed
reluctant, though wishful. Then the voices dropped again, and I think
that I must have dozed for some time. But suddenly I awoke and sat up
in bed startled, for my father’s voice was ringing in through the
window.

“You are right, Marian; you are right. I will do my duty. The boy
must be told. The time has come when I must dig up my trouble again.
The boy must be told.”

Then I heard them enter the house (leaving the door wide open, as was
our common practice), and come up to their rooms. Afterwards there was
silence, but there was no more sleep for me that night.

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