One Morning in the Autumn of seventeen forty-one, when I was not yet eleven Yeares of Age, still round in Figure and innocent in Mind, Nathaniel Ravenscroft took me a-walking by the River. I supposed that this small River, the Coller, must have emerged from beneath the chalk Hills somewhere to the South; and as I had once been told that it did not, as other local Rivers, tribute the Isis at Oxford, I imagined that it must somewhere have an equivalent Place at which it sank again beneath them, to flow silent and unseen below the White Horse.
Shirelands Hall, my Father’s House, stands a fair Mile north of the Coller, on the main Road between Faringdon and Highworth. It is a Country House of Palladian Design, built largely of Sandstone and Marble about the Time of the first Protectorate; and being the largest House for several Miles it was usually first Point of Call for wandering Beggars and Tradesmen as they travelled thro’ the County on their Way around Oxford. To travel by Carriage to the nearby Village of Collerton, as I had been obliged every Sundaye in my short Life to do, required that the Coachman follow this main Road eastwards for some short Distance before turning the Horses on to Collerton Lane, which after a Mile and an Half brought the Carriage straight up to the Doorway of Collerton Church. If one then continued along the Lane, eventually one would arrive at the Lamb Inn, where my Parents had celebrated my Christening and that of my Sister, Jane; and finally the River, which tho’ it had given Collerton its Name maintained an aloof Distance betwixt it and the Human Settlement.
If, however, upon quitting Shirelands’ Drive, one turned one’s Horses to the West, and continued toward Highworth, one would come upon a Crossroads marked with a Way-Stone, and a coaching Inn under the Sign of the Bull. Proceed West, and one would find oneself at Highworth; turn North, and the tedious winding Track led thro’ Hamlets and Farmsteads in the vague Direction of Lechlade. But turn Left, and South, and the Road travelled on to Shrivenham past a small Number of grand Houses, which had been built beside the Coller to enjoy the fine Views of the antient Chalk-cut Monument upon the Hill provided by the River’s gently lowering Slopes.
My Father’s Estate, which consisted of a number of large uninclosed Haymeadows and arable Fields, began at the Inn Crossroads and stretched as far as the eastern parish Boundary of Collerton, including also a short Stretch of the Coller itself, whereupon I greatly enjoyed to fish. The Living of Collerton Rectory, which lay well within this Compass, fell naturally therefore under my Family’s Disposal. Its present Incumbent, whom my Grandfather had installed in both Position and House upon the Death of the previous Rector twenty Yeares before, was a fat and torrid tempered Cleric by the Name of Ravenscroft, about whom I had nothing Good to say or think except that he was Nathaniel’s Father; at which Fact I admired wondrous much.
Nathaniel, Nathaniel Ravenscroft, who was two Yeares older than I, was my dearest Friend and closest Companion. In truth, I must admit, attaining this Distinction would not have been difficult for him had he possesst but one Quarter of his Charm; for I was a shy and sullen Child, cursed, I had heard my Father say, when I had been believed well out of Earshot, with a melancholic Disposition that I had surely inherited from my Sephardic Mother. This Reference was a Revelation to me, for in the six Yeares since her Death I had never heard anyone speak of my Mother, and I remembered little more of her than her Voice. His Words stirred a Curiosity in me to know more, but I did not dare to ask. My Lack of Desire to make Friends with Boys of mine own Age and Station was not, however, intirely due to my Disposition. Verily, I knew, even at that tender Age, and without overhearing anyone, that I had inherited more from my Mother than her Humour. I was a dark Child, brown skinned and black eyed as a Spaniard, with unmistakable upon my Countenance all those distinguishing Features supposed to be indicative of Jewry; and even tho’ I had been raised a Christian, with no more Knowledge of Talmud and Torah than I had of the internal Workings of the Sunne, I received no Mercy from those who had been born unmistakably English, and I had long ago learned that it was better for mine Health if I avoided their Society.
But Nathaniel was a true Sanguine, in every Sense. Long of Limb, even at thirteen, and athletick of Build, he towered laughingly over mine Head, and with merry Jibes and chearfull Jests made me to feel ashamed of my round Belly, and my clumsy Movements. Nathaniel’s Hair, unlike my black Mop, was the finest and fairest I had ever seen upon a living Youth, white-gold in Colour and each Strand as soft to the Touch as a downy Feather. His Eyes, which, his Father insisted, were a marshy grey, always appeared to me in the most dazzling and verdant Shade of green.
I loved Nathaniel Ravenscroft marvellous much, and looked up to him as one might an older Brother; and perhaps it was on Account of this Love I bore him, and naught else, neither Fear for mine own Sanity nor Punishment, that I did not ever speak to any Body concerning his strange Habits. Of these Nathaniel had many; but the worst, which he had disclosed to me when I was six, and which caused me much Disgust and Dismay, was his perpetual Delight in snatching blue Tits from the Hedges, and consuming them direct upon the Spot. This inevitably took Place in identical Fashion. Nathaniel and I would be walking, or riding, and engaged in Conversation or idly playing Games, when he would spy a Flutter of Blue in the Briar. At once he would fall stiff and still, and so would I, dreading the Scene I was about to witness, yet unable to look askance; then out would snap his Hand, fast as a striking Snake, and the small Bird would disappear in a Flurry of pathetic Twittering and Blood. Then Nathaniel would turn to me, and smile the happy and innocent Smile of a Babe that hath eaten a Sweetmeat; whilst I would watch the tiny Feathers tumbling from his Mouth, delicate as many coloured Snowflakes. His eye Teeth were surprizing long, and white, and deadly sharp as Poniards.
I would recoil from Nathaniel then in sudden Fear; for always it seemed to me that no Human Creature could behave in such a Way; and sometimes I would flee; but ever he, long shanked and agile, would catch me, and, smiling, demand to know what was the Trouble. I could never tell him.
Unlike My Self, who had but the one Sister, Jane, two Yeares my Senior, Nathaniel was the oldest Child of a large and still increasing Brood of Youngsters, all of whom in some Degree resembled the Rector, whether by a somewhat portly Build or in the Cast of their Features. None possesst any Shine akin to his Fairness, and none was as dark as I; all were, Nathaniel told me, intirely mediocre, and unworthy of our Interest, our Contempt or our Approbation.
“They all,” he told me confidently, “will meet grisly Ends in the clutching Claws of Raw-Head-and-Bloody-Bones; for they tell petty Lies, and make up malicious Tales; and everyone knows how he lieth in Wait for wicked Children, crouching in the Dark atop his Pile of Bones and jibber-jabbering.”
I did not allow My Self to pay much Attention to Nathaniel’s Words, for I was, in some childish Part of me, mortally afraid of Raw Head, who, my Nurse had told me when I had been about four, was lurking silent at the Bottom of the River Coller, waiting to leap out and drag me to my Death. Whether Raw Head was real Creature, or Phantasm, I was not intirely sure, but it made little difference; it, or he, was an Horrour: an half known, formless Dread that poisoned the Night and kept blameless Infants from their Dreams. Nathaniel, who shewed no Fear, and claimed to know the Goblin right well, made it Sport to teaze those of us who were not so brave. One autumn Evening, when I was six, he crept up behind me whilst I lay on my Belly watching Minnows thro’ my Reflection, and leaning over my Shoulder, created of us both a veritable Monster. Crying out: “Two Heads, two Faces, and two Persons, as the Almighty hath three!” he convinced me that I had really perceived Raw-Head-and-Bloody-Bones. I did not sleep for many Nights.
On this September Morning, in my twelfth Yeare, we had put Raw Head quite out of our Minds and spent several Houres at our favourite fishing Spot upon the Coller. We had wandered westwards thro’ the uncut Corn and well grazed Pastures till we had come upon a Loop in the River, about an half Mile from the Shrivenham Road. There stood here a short Row of half ruined Cottages, which had not been let for several Yeares as they had proved subject to Flooding, and my Father had eventually grown tired of their Repair and had moved all their Tenants to higher Ground. The Earth here was soft and often boggy, and when the swollen River ran fast and lethal, as it always did in Winter, it would become quite treacherous. Todaye, however, it was dry and hard, and the Waters looked as placid as a Millpond.
We set up our Rods, and sate, and waited, and entertained ourselves until the Sunne was long past its Highest; and then Nathaniel’s Stomach beginning to call him homewards, we packed up our Equipments, and our few Fish, and returned thro’ the yellowing Fields to Shirelands Hall.
I had been of the Expectation that we would ask the Hall Kitchen to fill our Bellies for us, but as we drew near to the House, Nathaniel all on a Sudden turned about, and said: “I have a better Idea, Tris. What sayst we visit my Father’s apple Orchard?”
This Suggestion made mine Heart to skip a Beat, for the Rectory Orchard was strict forbidden both to Nathaniel and to My Self. Nathaniel hugely disliked this Restriction, as, indeed, he disliked any authoritative Limitation placed upon his Freedom, and he did his Best to disregard it. I knew that if we were to visit the Orchard, we ran an high Risk of being discovered, having our Spoils confiscated, and our Ears sorely harangued; but I found My Self immediately nodding in Assent.
We ran fast to the kitchen Step, deposited our Fish, and then once more we were running away from Shirelands, this Time along the Driveway that would take us thro’ the iron Gates on to the Faringdon Road.
Shirelands’ Driveway was flanked by an Avenue of ash Trees, and the Ground beneath our Feet was littered with their Leaves, the first that Yeare to have fallen. Nathaniel stoppt at the Foot of the Tallest, for I was somewhat out of Breath from our sudden Exertion, and struggling to keep Pace with him, who sprinted like a Greyhound.
Nathaniel laughed, and put his Hand upon my Shoulder. “Alas! You are poorly named, Tristan Hart; not nearly as fleet footed as your name-Sake.”
“I cannot help that,” I mumbled, ashamed.
“Fie, Tris, I do but teaze you,” Nathaniel said, not unkindly. “Sit down here, until your Breath come back to you.”
I sate me down upon the mossy Roots, gratefull for the Rest, and watched Nathaniel prowl betwixt the Trees like a great, golden Cat. If I were like you, I thought, how fine and easy my Life must surely be.
Nathaniel gave an impatient Sigh, which I suppose I should not have noticed, and taking out his pocket Knife, set about carving his Initials into the the great Trunk at my Back.
A strange Thought came to me: Doth not the Tree feel it? I dismisst this Notion instantly, for ’twas Nonsense. I was well aware that there was no Possibility of a mere Tree feeling anything at all, least of all Pain, as an Human might; but then, snapping at the Heels of its Dismissal came another: Might not it be possible?
Might not it be real?
I got quickly to my Feet, and asked Nathaniel at once if I might borrow his Knife. He was happy to lend it, and so, having the Blade in mine Hand, I turned about and forcibly inscribed into the surprizing soft Bark of the Tree mine own Initials. T. H. Tristan Hart.
If the Tree screamed, I did not hear it.
“Look thro’,” Nathaniel said, pointing upward. “Mistletoe, upon an ash Tree.”
I squinted both mine Eyes and peered upwards, but I could distinguish no Difference between one leafy Mass and another. “What is special in that?” I said, feeling somewhat resentfull of his sharp Sight.
“It is a Rarity,” Nathaniel said. “Mistletoe grows easily upon the Apple, and the Oak; but it is scarce found on the Ash, and is most magickal when it doth so.”
“I did not know that,” I said.
“You do not know anything. It is possible; it is real. Let’s go. My Father’s Apples are ripe for the Picking. Canst not hear them calling? Pluck us, they cry! Eat!”
I smiled, and returned Nathaniel his Knife. Then we passt out thro’ Shirelands’ open Gates and made our Way along the Road toward Collerton.
The Rectory stood on the north Side of the Village, before one reached the Church, and so from Shirelands Hall it was a long Walk. By the Time Nathaniel and I came into the Village, my Stomach was beginning to complain of its Neglect, and I had begun to feel a little dizzy. Nathaniel, however, seemed to have compleat forgot his Hunger, for he gave no Indication of it, and had made no more Mention of our eating the Apples we were out to steal. I hoped this did not mean that he had changed his Mind and was leading me, without Explanation, somewhere else intirely; Nathaniel’s Character was changeable in the Extream, and his Desires also.
We reached the Rectory and made our Way, without shewing ourselves to the Inhabitants within, to the Rector’s treasured cider Trees behind. The orchard Gate being locked, as was quite usual, Nathaniel assisted me to scramble over the dry, crumbling Wall into the glowing Eden that lay inclosed therein. Once I was down, he scurried over the Wall himself with a marten-like Agility and Speed that made me to ponder why the Rector had ever troubled to have locked his Gate, for open or shut, it provided no Defense. The apple Orchard, in the late afternoon Sunneshine, seemed to mine Eyes a veritable Oasis of sweet Bounties and Delights. The Aire was warm, and slightly humid, and the Perfume of ripening Fruit hung upon it as light as a Breath. Bees buzzed happily about mine Ears; a song Thrush whistled. And on every Tree, in every Cranny and Corner of the Orchard, hung the most delicious Apples of every Hue from the brightest yellow to the deepest crimson. My Mouth watered.
I hastened over to the most heavily laden of the Trees and began to rip the red-gold Apples from the Boughs; more, I was certain, than I would eat; but it did not matter. I sate down upon the Greensward, and fell to with a great Relish. Nathaniel laughed aloud, and told me that I must be a very Pig to have made such a crude Mess of my Meal. This Censure stung me at my Quick, as Nathaniel, surely, had known it must. From mine earliest Infancy I had disliked and feared Pigs.
“If you are sick tonight,” Nathaniel said, “don’t blame me, tho’ you will never hear the last of it from Mrs H.; or from your Father.”
I said: “My Father cares naught.” But I began to eat more slowly.
I do not now think it was true that my Father cared nothing for my Welfare, or even, for that Matter, my Behaviour. Certainly, whenever I was caught, as I frequently was, about some Misdemeanour, his Reaction was not that of an usual Parent, for it was to refrain from both Punishment and Guidance by ignoring the Instance altogether. This curious Blindness of his was, I know now, a Source of Friction between him and our Neighbours, who took the more Christian Approach and did not spare the Rod, but again, as a Child, I was quite unaware of it. All I knew was that when Nathaniel and I would play a Trick, however cruel, upon some unsuspecting Soule, I would not be punished and Nathaniel would not be caught. Nathaniel Ravenscroft had the Ability, in Addition to his other Peculiarities, of being able to vanish utterly into thin Aire at the first Whisper of Trouble. He had never, to my certain Knowledge, taken any Blame for any Wickedness in which we had been discovered; and altho’ this Circumstance appeared hugely unjust, it did have its Advantages. Nathaniel could get clean away with Mischief that no other Boy would dare dream of, and afterwards he would share the Spoils with me, whether they were his Sisters’ Secrets or his Father’s Cider.
Nathaniel, intirely unconcerned by my ruffled Sentiments, laughed aloud, and scrambled up the Trunk of the tallest apple Tree with the same efficient Ease that had taken him up and over the orchard Wall. He perched himself merrily in the upper Branches, and plucking himself an Apple, said: “I shall act as our Lookout, Tris. If I see someone approaching, I shall caw, thus”: he made a chattering Noise identical in Pitch and Intensity to that of a Magpie. “An you hear it, you must straightway hide.”
This Strategy of Nathaniel’s was not in itself a bad one, for he must have had a good View of the Pathway from his Perch; but having no Fear for himself of being caught, he was not the most reliable of Sentries. Perhaps he gave the warning Signal too late, or perhaps he had already given it and I, intent upon filling my Belly, had not noticed; but all in one Second I became aware of the Rat-tat-tattling of a Pie, and the Rattling of a Key in the iron Lock of the orchard Gate; and before I had Wit or Time to hide My Self it opened wide, and there stood the Rector.
To mine own Detriment and Defeat—for if I had but remained silent and still he might, perhaps, not have seen me, and I might have been able to slip unobserved out of the Gate—I gave a guilty Start, and let from my Lips a small Cry of Surprize.
The Rector Ravenscroft, for his Part, was also somewhat astonished; but his Recovery was rapid, and his Retribution swift. With a Bellow of Rage, he bore down on me like a fat, cassocked Epitome of Death. His thick fingered Hand, sweating from the Shock of his Passion or his sudden bodily Exertion, clamped itself upon the Back of my Neck.
“So!” he shouted. “Tristan Hart! Caught in the Act, yet again, by God!”
He hauled me to my Feet. Half eaten Apples tumbled from my Lap. The Rector stiffened at the Sight.
“You have the Devil in you, Tristan Hart!” he roared. “He is in your Blood, your very Blood, and you have your Foot firm and fast upon the Road to Hell! I tell you, Boy, if your Father won’t take it upon himself to beat him out of you, I shall! Never let it be said that I let anyone’s Soule go to the Devil without battling to save him!”
Without any more ado, he thrust me roughly up against the nearest Tree, and with his walking Cane proceeded to inflict upon my tender young Body as brutal and prolonged a Thrashing as I have ever witnessed; and if I had not been fully cloathed I have no Doubt but that the resultant Injuries would have been severe. You may be certain that I screamed, and cried, and begged for Mercy, and fought, and struggled hard to make good mine Escape; but all to no Effect. When it was finally over I collapsed exhausted on the velvet Ground, my Ribs and Spine bruised black, in such an Intensity of Pain and Shock that I could neither stand nor weep.
As I have said, my Father, the Squire, had never beaten me, nor suffered me to be beaten at the Hand of any of our Servants; so altho’ by this Age of eleven Yeares I had endured from them many a Scolding, I had never once been hit; and as my Body cried out in Pain, so my Mind staggered under the Shock of what had happened, so suddenly, so unexpectedly, to me.
I did not know what had befallen Nathaniel. I supposed that he was yet in the apple Tree, but as I had no Way of finding out without discovering his Presence to his Father I kept quiet, and did not resist as the Rector dragged me once again to my Feet and hauled me from his Orchard. I was terrified now lest of Course he should thrash me again, but to my Surprize he called instead for his Chaise, and forced me inside.
“I will have Words with your Father,” he said. “For there is a Wickedness bred in you, Boy, and it must be curbed, by whatever Means he chooseth, else you grow up vicious as the Devil. Too long have you been left unchecked, too long have you been left to his Devices.”
The Whip cracked over the Pony’s Back. The Animal sprang forward, into a lively Trot, and the Chaise rumbled out of the Rectory Grounds, and along Collerton Lane towards Shirelands Hall, and my looming Disgrace.