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    A Story of Long Descent

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    Chapter 5
    Previous Chapter
    It was rudely borne in upon me that there was another side to the
    shield. I was too much immersed in my own thoughts to note the peculiar
    character of the small remote old-world town I came to in the
    afternoon; next day was Sunday, and on my way to the church to attend
    morning service, it struck me as one of the oldest-looking of the small
    old towns I had stumbled upon in my rambles in this ancient land. There
    was the wide vacant space where doubtless meetings had taken place for
    a thousand years, and the steep narrow crooked medieval streets, and
    here and there some stately building rising like a castle above the
    humble cottage houses clustering round it as if for protection. Best of
    all was the church with its noble tower where a peal of big bells were
    just now flooding the whole place with their glorious noise.

    It was even better when, inside, I rose from my knees and looked about
    me, to find myself in an ideal interior, the kind I love best; rich in
    metal and glass and old carved wood, the ornaments which the good
    Methody would scornfully put in the hay and stubble category, but which
    owing to long use and associations have acquired for others a symbolic
    and spiritual significance. The beauty and richness were all the
    fresher for the dimness, and the light was dim because it filtered
    through old oxydised stained glass of that unparalleled loveliness of
    colour which time alone can impart. It was, excepting in vastness, like
    a cathedral interior, and in some ways better than even the best of
    these great fanes, wonderful as they are. Here, recalling them, one
    could venture to criticise and name their several deficits:--a Wells
    divided, a ponderous Ely, a vacant and cold Canterbury, a too light and
    airy Salisbury, and so on even to Exeter, supreme in beauty, spoilt by
    a monstrous organ in the wrong place. That wood and metal giant,
    standing as a stone bridge to mock the eyes' efforts to dodge past it
    and have sight of the exquisite choir beyond, and of an east window
    through which the humble worshipper in the nave might hope, in some
    rare mystical moment, to catch a glimpse of the far Heavenly country
    beyond.

    I also noticed when looking round that it was an interior rich in
    memorials to the long dead--old brasses and stone tablets on the walls,
    and some large monuments. By chance the most imposing of the tombs was
    so near my seat that with little difficulty I succeeded in reading and
    committing to memory the whole contents of the very long inscription
    cut in deep letters on the hard white stone. It was to the memory of
    Sir Ranulph Damarell, who died in 1531, and was the head of a family
    long settled in those parts, lord of the manor and many other things.
    On more than one occasion he raised a troop from his own people and
    commanded it himself, fighting for his king and country both in and out
    of England. He was, moreover, a friend of the king and his counsellor,
    and universally esteemed for his virtues and valour; greatly loved by
    all his people, especially by the poor and suffering, on account of his
    generosity and kindness of heart.

    A very glorious record, and by-and-by I believed every word of it.
    For after reading the inscription I began to examine the effigy in
    marble of the man himself which surmounted the tomb. He was lying
    extended full length, six feet and five inches, his head on a low
    pillow, his right hand grasping the handle of his drawn sword. The more
    I looked at it, both during and after the service, the more convinced I
    became that this was no mere conventional figure made by some lapidary
    long after the subject's death, but was the work of an inspired artist,
    an exact portrait of the man, even to his stature, and that he had
    succeeded in giving to the countenance the very expression of the
    living Sir Ranulph. And what it expressed was power and authority and,
    with it, spirituality. A noble countenance with a fine forehead and
    nose, the lower part of the face covered with the beard, and long hair
    that fell to the shoulders.

    It produced a feeling such as I have whenever I stand before a certain
    sixteenth-century portrait in the National Gallery: a sense or an
    illusion of being in the presence of a living person with whom I am
    engaged in a wordless conversation, and who is revealing his inmost
    soul to me. And it is only the work of a genius that can affect you in
    that way.

    Quitting the church I remembered with satisfaction that my hostess at
    the quiet home-like family hotel where I had put up, was an educated
    intelligent woman (good-looking, too), and that she would no doubt be
    able to tell me something of the old history of the town and
    particularly of Sir Ranulph. For this marble man, this knight of
    ancient days, had taken possession of me and I could think of nothing
    else.

    At luncheon we met as in a private house at our table with our nice
    hostess at the head, and beside her three or four guests staying in the
    house; a few day visitors to the town came in and joined us. Next to me
    I had a young New Zealand officer whose story I had heard with painful
    interest the previous evening. Like so many of the New Zealanders I had
    met before, he was a splendid young fellow; but he had been terribly
    gassed at the front and had been told by the doctors that he would not
    be fit to go back even if the war lasted another year, and we were then
    well through the third. The way the poison in his lungs affected him
    was curious. He had his bad periods when for a fortnight or so he would
    lie in his hospital suffering much and terribly depressed, and at such
    time black spots would appear all over his chest and neck and arms so
    that he would be spotted like a pard. Then the spots would fade and he
    would rise apparently well, and being of an energetic disposition, was
    allowed to do local war work.

    On the other side of the table facing us sat a lady and gentleman who
    had come in together for luncheon. A slim lady of about thirty, with a
    well-shaped but colourless face and very bright intelligent eyes. She
    was a lively talker, but her companion, a short fat man with a round
    apple face and cheeks of an intensely red colour and a black moustache,
    was reticent, and when addressed directly replied in monosyllables. He
    gave his undivided attention to the thing on his plate.

    The young officer talked to me of his country, describing with
    enthusiasm his own district which he averred contained the finest
    mountain and forest scenery in New Zealand. The lady sitting opposite
    began to listen and soon cut in to say she knew it all well, and agreed
    in all he said in praise of the scenery. She had spent weeks of delight
    among those great forests and mountains. Was she then his country-
    woman? he asked. Oh, no, she was English but had travelled extensively
    and knew a great deal of New Zealand. And after exhausting this subject
    the conversation, which had become general, drifted into others, and
    presently we were all comparing notes about our experience of the late
    great frost. Here I had my say about what had happened in the village I
    had been staying in. The prolonged frost, I said, had killed all or
    most of the birds in the open country round us, but in the village
    itself a curious thing had happened to save the birds of the place. It
    was a change of feeling in the people, who are by nature or training
    great persecutors of birds. The sight of them dying of starvation had
    aroused a sentiment of compassion, and all the villagers, men, women,
    and children, even to the roughest bush-beating boys, started feeding
    them, with the result that the birds quickly became tame and spent
    their whole day flying from house to house, visiting every yard and
    perching on the window-sills. While I was speaking the gentleman
    opposite put down his knife and fork and gazed steadily at me with a
    smile on his red-apple face, and when I concluded he exploded in a
    half-suppressed sniggering laugh.

    It annoyed me, and I remarked rather sharply that I didn't see what
    there was to laugh at in what I had told them. Then the lady with ready
    tact interposed to say she had been deeply interested in my
    experiences, and went on to tell what she had done to save the birds in
    her own place; and her companion, taking it perhaps as a snub to
    himself from her, picked up his knife and fork and went on with his
    luncheon, and never opened his mouth to speak again. Or, at all events,
    not till he had quite finished his meal.

    By-and-by, when I found an opportunity of speaking to our hostess, I
    asked her who that charming lady was, and she told me she was a Miss
    Somebody--I forget the name--a native of the town, also that she was a
    great favourite there and was loved by everyone, rich and poor, and
    that she had been a very hard worker ever since the war began, and had
    inspired all the women in the place to work.

    "And who," I asked, "was the fellow who brought her in to lunch--a
    relative or a lover?"

    "Oh, no, no relation and certainly not a lover. I doubt if she would
    have him if he wanted her, in spite of his position."

    "I don't wonder at that--a perfect clown! And who is he?"

    "Oh, didn't you know! Sir Ranulph Damarell."

    "Good Lord!" I gasped. "That your great man--lord of the manor and what
    not! He may bear the name, but I'm certain he's not a descendant of the
    Sir Ranulph whose monument is in your church."

    "Oh, yes, he is," she replied. "I believe there has never been a break
    in the line from father to son since that man's day. They were all
    knights in the old time, but for the last two centuries or so have been
    baronets."

    "Good Lord!" I exclaimed again. "And please tell me what is he----what
    does he do? What is his distinction?"

    "His distinction for me," she smilingly replied, "is that he prefers
    my house to have his luncheon in after Sunday morning service. He knows
    where he can get good cooking. And as a rule he invites some friend in
    the town to lunch with him, so that should there be any conversation at
    table his guest can speak for both and leave him quite free to enjoy
    his food."

    "And what part does he take in politics and public affairs--how does he
    stand among your leading men?"

    Her answer was that he had never taken any part in politics--had never
    been or desired to be in Parliament or in the County Council, and was
    not even a J.P., nor had he done anything for his country during the
    war. Nor was he a sportsman. He was simply a country gentleman, and
    every morning he took a ride or walk, mainly she supposed to give him a
    better appetite for his luncheon. And he was a good landlord to his
    tenants and he was respected by everybody and no one had ever said a
    word against him.

    There was nothing now for me to say except 'Good Lord!' so I said it
    once more, and that made three times.
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    Chapter 5
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