I.–THE MOURNER’S HORSE.
The Board Schoolmaster and I are not friends. He is something of a zealot, and conceives it his mission to weed out the small superstitions of the countryside and plant exact information in their stead. He comes from up the country–a thin, clean-shaven town-bred man, whose black habit and tall hat, though considerably bronzed, refuse to harmonise with the scenery amid which they move. His speech is formal and slightly dogmatic, and in argument he always gets the better of me. Therefore, feeling sure it will annoy him excessively, I am going to put him into this book. He laid himself open the other day to this stroke of revenge, by telling me a story; and since he loves precision, I will be very precise about the circumstances.
At the foot of my garden, and hidden from my window by the clipt box hedge, runs Sanctuary Lane, along which I see the heads of the villagers moving to church on Sunday mornings. But in returning they invariably keep to the raised footpath on the far side, that brings the women’s skirts and men’s smallclothes into view. I have made many attempts to discover how this distinction arose, and why it is adhered to, but never found a satisfying explanation. It is the rule, however.
From the footpath a high bank (where now the primroses have given place to stitchwort and ragged robin) rises to an orchard; so steeply that the apple-blossom drops into the lane. Just now the petals lie thickly there in the early morning, to be trodden into dust as soon as the labourers fare to work. Beyond and above the orchard comes a stretch of pastureland and then a young oak-coppice, the fringe of a great estate, with a few Scotch firs breaking the sky-line on top of all. The head gamekeeper of this estate tells me we shall have a hot summer, because the oak this year was in leaf before the ash, though only by a day. The ash was foliating on the 29th of April, the oak on the 28th. Up there the blue-bells lie in sheets of mauve, and the cuckoo is busy. I rarely see him; but his three notes fill the hot noon and evening. When he spits (says the gamekeeper again) it is time to be sheep-shearing. My talk with the gamekeeper is usually held at six in the morning, when he comes down the lane and I am stepping across to test the water in Scarlet’s Well.
This well bubbles up under a low vault scooped in the bank by the footpath and hung with hart’s-tongue ferns. It has two founts, close together; but whereas one of them oozes only, the other is bubbling perennially, and, as near as I have observed, keeps always the same. Its specific gravity is that of distilled water–1.000 deg.; and though, to be sure, it upset me, three weeks back, by flying up to 1.005 deg., I think that must have come from the heavy thunderstorms and floods of rain that lately visited us and no doubt imported some ingredients that had no business there. As for its temperature, I will select a note or two of the observations I made with a Fahrenheit thermometer this last year:–
June 12th.–Temperature in shade of well, 62 deg.; of water, 51 deg..
August 25th.–In shade of well (at noon), 73 deg.; of water, 52 deg..
November 20th.–In shade of well, 43 deg.; of water, 52 deg..
January 1st.–External air, 56 deg.; enclosure, 53 deg.; water, 52 deg..
March 11th.–A bleak, sunless day. Temperature in shade of well, at noon, 54 deg.; water, 51 deg.. The Chrysosplenium Oppositiflorium in rich golden bloom within the enclosure.
But the spring has other properties besides its steady temperature. I was early abroad in my garden last Thursday week, and in the act of tossing a snail over my box hedge, when I heard some girls’ voices giggling, and caught a glimpse of half-a-dozen sun-bonnets gathered about the well. Straightening myself up, I saw a group of maids from the village, and, in the middle, one who bent over the water. Presently she scrambled to her feet, glanced over her shoulder and gave a shrill scream.