« PreviousContinue »
just above them, pausing in undischarged fury, more terrible from the suspension; and the rain came dashing in, in fierce oblique torrents, through the opening pillars of the hut, driving the shrinking females together, whose screams became more and more audible, as the strong red lightning flashed in broad sheets above and around them, giving a terrible tinge to the woods, which, a few moments before, slept in their dark brown solitary depths, which it appeared no light could penetrate. Maturin.
There are certain things and persons that seem as if they could never die: things of such vigour and hardiness, that they seem constituted for an interminable duration, a sort of immortality. An old pollard oak of my acquaintance used to give me this impression. Never was tree so gnarled, so knotted, so full of crooked life. Garlanded with ivy and woodbine, almost bending under the weight of its own rich leaves and acorns, tough, vigorous, lusty, concentrating as it were the very spirit of vitality into its own curtailed proportions,—could that tree ever die? I have asked myself twenty times as I stood looking on the deep water over which it hung, and in which it seemed to live again—would that strong dwarf ever fall? Alas! the question is answered. Walking by the spot to-day—this very day—there it lay prostrate; the ivy still clinging about it, the twigs swelling with sap and putting forth already the early buds. There it lay a victim to the taste and skill of some admirer of British woods, who with the tact of Ugo Forcolo (that prince of amateurs) has discovered in the knots and gnarls of the exterior coat the leopardlike beauty which is concealed within the trunk. There it lies, a type of silvan instability, fallen like an emperor. Another piece of strong nature in a human form used to convey to me exactly the same feeling— and he is gone too! Tom Cordery is dead. The bell is tolling for him at this very moment. Tom Cordery dead! the words seem almost a contradiction. One is tempted to send for the sexton, and the undertaker, to undig the grave, to force open the coffin lid—there must be some mistake. But, alas! it is too true: typhus, that axe which levels the strong as the weak, has hewed him down at a blow. Poor Tom Cordery!
This human oak grew on the wild, north of Hampshire country, of which I have before made honourable mention ; a country of heath, and hill, and forest, partly reclaimed, enclosed and planted by some of the greater proprietors, for the most part wholly uncultivated and uncivilized; aproper refuge for wild animals of every species. Of these the most notable was my friend Tom Cordery, who presented in his own person no unfit emblem of the district in which he lived—the gentlest of savages, the wildest of civilized men. He was by calling rat-catcher, hare-finder, and broom-maker; a triad of trades which he had substituted for the one grand profession of poaching, which he had followed in his younger days with unrivalled talent and success, and would Vol. m. z z
undoubtedly have pursued till his death, had not the bursting of an overloaded gun unluckily shot off his left hand. As it was, he still continued to mingle a little of his old unlawful occupation with his honest callings; was a reference of high authority amongst the young aspirants, an adviser of undoubted honour and secrecy—suspected, and more than suspected, as being one "who, though he played no more, o'erlooked the cards." Yet he kept to the windward of the law, and indeed contrived to be on such terms of social and even friendly intercourse with the guardians of the game on M. Common, as may be said to prevail between reputed thieves and the myrmidons of justice in the neighbourhood of Bowstreet. Indeed his especial crony, the head keeper, used sometimes to hint, when Tom, elevated by ale, had provoked him by overcrowing, "that a stump was no bad shield, and that to shoot off a hand and a bit of an arm for a blind, would be nothing to so daring a chap as Tom Cordery." This conjecture, never broached till the keeper was warm with wrath and liquor, and Tom fairly out of hearing, always seemed to me a little super-subtle; but it is certain that Tom's new professions did bear rather a suspicious analogy to the old, and the ferrets and terriers, and mongrels by whom he was surrounded, " did really look," as the worthy keeper observed, "fitter to find Christian hares and pheasants, than rats and such vermin." So in good truth did Tom himself. Never did any human being look more like that sort of sportsman commonly called a poacher. He was a tall
finely-built man, with a prodigious stride, that cleared the ground like a horse, and a power of continuing his slow and steady speed, that seemed nothing less than miraculous. Neither man, nor horse, nor dog, could outtire him. He had a bold undaunted presence, and an evident strength and power of bone and muscle. You might see by looking at him, that he did not know what fear meant. In his youth he had fought more battles than any man in the forest. He was as if born without nerves, totally insensible to the recoils and disgusts of humanity. I have known him take up a huge adder, cut off its head, and then deposit the living and writhing body in his brimless hat, and walk with it wreathing about his head, like another Medusa, till the sport of the day was over, and he carried it home to secure the fat. With all this iron stubbornness of nature, he was of a most mild and gentle demeanour, had a fine placidity of countenance, and a quick blue eye beaming with good humour. His face was sunburnt into one general pale vermilion hue that overspread all his features; his very hair was sunburnt too. His costume was generally a smock-frock of no doubtful complexion, dirt-coloured, which hung round him in tatters like fringe, rather augmenting than diminishing the freedom, and if I may so say, the gallantry of his bearing. This frock was furnished with a huge inside pocket, in which to deposit the game killed by his patrons—for of his three employments, that which consisted of finding hares for the great farmers and small gentry who were wont to course on the common was by far the most profitable and most pleasing to him, and to them. Every body liked Tom Cordery. He had himself an aptness to like, which is almost certain to be repaid in kind— the very dogs knew him and loved him, and would beat for him almost as soon as for his master. May, herself, the most sagacious of greyhounds, appreciated his talents, and would almost as soon listen to Tom sohoing as to old Tray giving tongue.
Nor was his conversation less agreeable to the other part of the company. Servants and masters were equally desirous to secure Tom. Besides his general and professional familiarity with beasts and birds, their ways and doings, a knowledge so minute and accurate that it might have put to shame many a professed naturalist, he had no small acquaintance with the goings on of that unfeathered biped called man; in short, he was, next after Lucy, who recognised his rivalry by hating, decrying, and undervaluing him, by far the best newsgatherer of the country side. His news he of course picked up on the civilized side of the parish (there is no gossiping in the forest), partly at that well frequented inn the Red Lion, of which Tom was a regular and noted supporter— partly amongst his several employers, and partly by his own sagacity. In the matter of marriages (pairings he was wont to call them), he relied chiefly on his own skill in noting certain preliminary indications; and certainly, for a guesser by profession, and a very bold one, he was astonishingly often right. At the alehouse especially, he was of the very first authority. An air of