THE BLUEBELL WOOD AND THE CALM STONE DOG

Man is an autobiographical animal, he speaks only from his thimbleful of
human experience, and the I, I, I, of his talk drops out like an
insistent drip of water. Even the knowledge we gain from books has to be
grafted on to the knowledge we have of life before it bears fruit in our
minds. Like patient clerks we are always adding up the columns of facts,
fancies, and ideas, and arriving at the very tiny total at the end of
the day.

In order to give themselves scope when they wish to soliloquise, many
authors address their conversation to a cat, a grandfather clock, a dog,
a picture on the wall, or what-not. Cats, I think, have the preference.
I have often wondered what Crome, the painter, said to his cat when he
pulled hairs out of her to make paint-brushes; or what Doctor Johnson
said to his cat Hodge, about Boswell. Having explained this much, I may
easily be forgiven for repeating the conversation I had with a Stone Dog
who sat on his haunches outside the door of a woodman’s cottage.

The cottage stood on the edge of a wood, and was, as I shall point out,
a remnant of departed glory, of which the dog was the most pertinent
reminder.

A cottage on the borders of a wood is in itself one of the most valuable
pictures for a romance. A woodcutter may be in league with goodness
knows how many fairies, elves, and witches. It is a place where heroes
meet heroines; where kings in disguise eat humble pie; where dukes, lost
in hunting a white stag, meet enchanted princesses.

The wood, of which I speak, was once, years ago—about three hundred
years—part of the park of Tanglewood Court, an extensive property, an
old house, a great family possession.

Gone, like last winter’s snow, were the family of Bois; gone the pack;
gone the glories of the great family; gone the portraits, the armour,
the very windows of Tanglewood Court, of which but a fine ruin remained.
And the lane, a mere cart track, was all that was left of the fine sweep
of drive to the house; and a tangled undergrowth under ancient trees all
that stood for the grand avenue down which my Lord Bois had once ridden
so madly. They call the lane Purgatory Lane, and they tell a story of
wild doings and of a beautiful avenue, that cannot have its place here.

The great gates that once swung open to admit the carriage of Perpetua
Bois (of the red hair, the full voluptuous figure, the smile Sir Peter
Lely painted) were now two stone stumps at the feet of which two slots,
green and worn, showed where the hinges had been. These fine gates once
boasted, on the top of stone pillars, the greyhounds of Bois in stone.
One of these dogs had been rescued from the undergrowth by the
woodcutter, the other lies broken and bramble-covered in the wood. I
wonder if they miss each other.

So you see I was addressing myself to a high-born Jacobean dog.

This dog, very calm and dignified, with a stone tail and a back worn
smooth by wind and weather, sat with his back to the cottage which had
been built out of the remains of the old stone lodge by a gentleman of
the name of Bellington, who was afterwards found drowned in the lake.
That lake held many secrets, indeed, some said (the woodcutter’s wife
told me this) it held Lady Perpetua’s jewels. That did not concern me,
for it held for me the finer jewels of Water Lilies that grew there in
profusion, though I will not deny that the idea of Lady Perpetua gave an
added touch of romance. How often had the clear water of the lake
reflected her satin-clad figure and the forms of her little toy
spaniels?

It so happening, I sat by the Stone Dog, on a wooden seat, to eat my
lunch one day, and dropped into conversation with him, after a bite or
two, in the most natural way in the world.

There was the wood in front of us, blue-purple with wild Hyacinths.
There was the old cottage behind clothed with rambling Creepers; a
carpet of smooth rabbit-worn grass at our feet; a profusion of
Primroses, Wind Flowers, and budding trees before our eyes. There was
also the enchanting hum of wild bees (like those wild bees Horace knew,
that sought the mountain of Matinus in Calabria, and there “laboriously
gathered the grateful thyme”) to soothe us in our solitude.

I addressed him then, “Stone Dog,” I said, “this is a very beautiful
wood. Nature, laughing at the ghosts of the Bois family, steel-clad,
periwigged, or patched, has reclaimed her own.”

The dog answered me never a word but kept his gaze fixed in front of him
as if he saw visions in the wood.

“This was a Park once,” said I, “the pleasure-ground of great folk,
where they might sport in playful dalliance”—I thought that sounded
rather Jacobean.

But, as I looked at him, it seemed, as though he listened for the sound
of wheels, and turned his sightless eyes to look for the figure of Lady
Perpetua.

“She was very fair,” I said, understanding him, knowing that he had seen
many generations drive through the gates he sat to guard. “She would
come down to the lodge-keeper’s house to take her breakfast draught of
small ale. Poor Lady Perpetua, she was a good house wife, and saw to the
pickling of Nasturtium buds, and Lime Tree buds, and Elder roots; and
ordered the salting of the winter beef; and looked to it that plenty of
Parsnips were stored to eat with it. What sights you must have seen!”

Even as I talked there emanated from the Stone Dog some atmosphere of
the past, and we were once more in a fair English park, with its
orangeries, and houses of exotic plants, and its maze, and leaden
statues, and cut yew trees, and lordly peacocks. The great trees had
been cut down, and the timber sold; acres of land, once grazing ground
for herds of deer, were ploughed; here, in front of us, was the tangled
wood, a corner of what was, once, a wild garden—a fancy of Lady
Perpetua’s, no doubt, who loved solitudes, and sentimental poetry:

“I could not love thee, dear, so much;
Loved I not honour more.”

Perhaps it was here she met young Hervey; perhaps it was here Lord Bois
found them, cutting initials on one of those very trees, G. H. and P. B.
and two hearts with an arrow through them. Ah! then the smile Sir Peter
Lely painted faded to a quiver of the lips. Lord Bois looked at the
trembling mouth and his glance flew to the initials on the tree. “So
this is why, madam,” I could hear him say, “you took to sylvan glades
like a timid deer; so this is why you coaxed me up to London, leaving
you alone—but, not unprotected.” I could see his sneering bow to young
Hervey—a bow that was a blow.




And all the while I was only seeing with the Stone Dog’s eyes. There was
just the rippling sea of wild Hyacinths, the pale gold of the Primroses,
the innocent white of the wood Anemones—like fairies’ washing—and the
purple haze of bursting buds.

Once the Stone Dog had looked along an avenue and had seen a vista of
Tanglewood Court, and smooth terraces, and bright beds of flowers, with
Lords and Ladies walking up and down, taking the air, discussing fruit
trees, and Dutch gardening, and glass hives for bees. Now, he saw
nothing but the woods all brimming with Spring flowers: a garden made by
Nature.

And then I thought I saw one Bluebell detach itself from its fellows and
come wafting to us with a fairy’s message, but it was a bright blue
butterfly who sailed, rejoicing in the sun. Somehow the butterfly
reminded me of the Lady Perpetua, soft and smiling, and fluttering in
the sun: as if she had returned to her woods in that guise to hover near
the tree, the trysting-place, on which the initials were cut.

I said as much to the Stone Dog, but received no answer.

“Stone Dog,” I said, “England is a very wonderful place: every park,
every field, every little wood is full of stories. I cannot pass a park
gate without thinking of the men and women who have been through it.
What a Garden of History the whole place is! I’ll warrant a Roman has
kissed a Saxon girl in this very place, for there’s a camp not far
off—perhaps you have seen twinkling ghostly watch-fires gleaming in the
night. Young Hervey’s dead, but you never saw him die; they fought in
the garden on the smooth grass, and the story goes that he slipped, and
Bois ran him through as he lay on the grass. What flowers grow over his
head now? And Perpetua is dead. They say she ran out and saw her lover
dead, and bared her breast to her husband’s sword. The grass was wet
with her blood when you saw Lord Bois ride madly down the drive, through
the gates, and out into the open country. The smile Sir Peter Lely
painted is carved by the hand of Death. She was only a girl, after all.
Who places flowers on her grave?”

Meanwhile the sun shone on the Bluebells, and struck odd leaves of the
trees, picking them out with a fanciful finger till they shone like
green fires.

Then the idea came to me that this wood held the spirit of Lady Perpetua
fast for ever. The Bluebells were the satin sheen of her dress (blue
like the Lely portrait), the red-brown autumn leaves and the dead
Bracken were her hair; the Wind Flowers, like her body linen; the
Violets, her eyes; the Primroses, her breath; the Cowslips, her golden
ornaments; the Daisy petals like her pure white skin. A gentle breeze
stirred all the flowers together, and—behold! there she was, alive. The
wood was yielding up her secret, as woods and flowers will do to those
who love them.

So the Stone Dog and I had a bond of sympathy between us, the bond of
old memories, and the wood united us with its store of romance and
beauty: and he who loves wild flowers and woods, as well as walled
gardens and trees clipped in images, may gather store of pictures for
his mind.

So the afternoon passed in this pleasant manner, and I took opportunity
to speak once more to the Stone Dog before the woodcutter’s children
came home from school to spoil our peace.

[Illustration: BLUEBELLS IN SURREY.]

I said, “There is no man so poor but he can afford to take pleasure in
Bluebells, and, even if he live in a town, there are wild flowers for
sale in the streets, and a bunch of Spring to be bought for a penny. And
there is no man so rich that he can wall up the treasures of heaven, or
build his walls so high but a Rose will peep over the edge. Poor and
rich are free of their thoughts, and there are thoughts and enough to
spare, in a hedgerow or a wood. Uncaged birds sing best, and wild
flowers yield the purest scents. You and I are fellow dreamers, and this
wood is our garden, and these birds our orchestra, and this grass our
carpet; and even when I am underneath the brown earth I love so well,
you will sit here and listen for the sound of carriage wheels, and
wonder if you will catch a glimpse of red hair and a satin dress through
the long-silent avenue. There are mountains, Stone Dog, that still feel
the pressure of the foot of Moses; and hills under which Roman soldiers
lie; and there are woods growing where orchard gardens were; and gardens
planted where the wild boar once ravaged.”

After I had said this came wild shouts, and the laughter of children,
and a great clatter as the four children of the woodcutter came running
from the village school.

As I left that place, and turned, before a bend of the road shut out the
sight of the wood, I saw the sea of Bluebells, and the sky above, the
Primroses and the Wind Flowers and last year’s leaves all melt into one.
The figure they made was the figure of Lady Perpetua standing there
smiling. Then I heard the wheels of a carriage on the road, and I could
have sworn I saw the Stone Dog turn his head.