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And at that moment the door was suddenly opened, and, without any warning, Aymer Digby entered the room.
The first thought he had was, that somehow once again she was the child of the City of Prague, with whom of late he had ceased to associate her. She was dressed in dark-blue linen, made with a sailor-like shirt-it may have been in part that fact and her hair also was twisted loosely up with a comb, from which it escaped in careless loops and curls. That was his first thought. The second, even as he approached the table at which she wrote, was, that never before during all their acquaintance had he ever seen her look frightened, and now into her eyes there certainly passed an expression which banished their fearlessness: then the lashes had fallen, and he was standing by her side.
"Of course I am a fool ". his voice was rough and moved"but tell me, what did you mean by those words you said to me last night?"
There was a hurried glance round, as if she were calculating the chances of escape: then he
heard a sharp, painful sob, and she had covered her face with her hands, and between the slender fingers two tears fell.
"Felicity," he knelt beside her, taking her hands in his,-" do not cry. Is it my roughness that has hurt you? Answer me, did they mean nothing? Tell me you may trust me."
Still no answer. He lifted his hands, and, clasping hers gently, drew them down into her lap. The lashes were wet, the tears rose and fell slowly one by one.
"Perhaps the folly was in coming back," he said, and his voice was still strange and hurried; "but you are courageous-speak to me. Shall I go or stay?"
The dark eyes were raised for a moment. Perhaps their expression was enough, perhaps words were unnecessary, for "Say it once," he said, very low; "tell me that you love me."
"Oh, you know it," she cried; 'you must know it! I am only afraid."
But with his arm round her and his kisses on her tear-wet cheeks, it seemed easy to believe the voice that told her there was nothing more for her to fear.
AN ANCIENT INN.
"AH! there you are," said a friend whom I met lately at the Writers' Club, which some of our women authors frequent. "I have been nursing up something new in the natural history line, a curious fact that I thought would interest you, and perhaps serve as copy for your 'Country Month by Month.' Did you ever hear of a rabbit that casts its furry skin, entirely and completely, just as a snake does?"
"Never," I answer, confidently. "Then I can tell you of one which happens to be just now going through the loosening process. You can go and see it if you like, and the coat which it cast off last year as well; also, if you are unbelieving, you can put your hand up its back, and feel the beautiful new coat of fur underneath your hand and the whole old skin over it: so complete is this, that with a little trimming at the head and tail, it would make the loveliest muff. It is an Angora rabbit, and the fur is of long silky dark-grey hair."
This wonderful creature was, I learned further, to be seen at Colnbrook, a little town which, I am ashamed to say, I had never heard of before, although from the earliest times in our history, as I found out later, it has been frequented by kings, queens, ambassadors, not to speak of those "Sixe worthie Yeomen of the West," of whom Gordon Willough by Gyll, Esq., of the ancient parish of Wraysbury, the chronicler of this remarkable little town, tells that they were written about in an old book by "a certain Thow of Reading." This book, he says, was, even at the time he wrote,
early in the century, difficult to be procured.
To return to the present time, however, and to our rabbit: Colnbrook, which had for very many years been left out in the cold in the world's progress, through having no railroad, is now to be reached by a single line, running from West Drayton, on the Great Western line. Thither I journeyed as soon as it was possible for me to do so, for I feared lest that skin might be cast before I had time to put my hand in between the two coats, &c., &c. I do not purpose to describe the rabbit in this article, it need scarcely be mentioned again. I have simply spoken of it, as it was the cause of my visit to the remarkable old town. Perhaps I should say, however, that it was just what my friend described it, a great curiosity in its way; so unusual, in fact, that the well-known zoologist, Mr Tegetmeyer of the Field,' &c., has arranged to exhibit the skin, now cast, at the next meeting of the Royal Zoological Society, as he declares that the case is unique and most interesting.
As I neared the little railwaystation, the line passing through a number of water-meadows, a heron rose with heavy flapping flight from a small stream, a tributary of the river Colne; and presently another from a little runnel, where he had been feeding. So in order to note this interesting bird, I was glad to find one need only go a few miles beyond Ealing. Long lines of pollard willows lined the streams, and there are innumerable little runnels and channels that feed the larger river. The county of Buck
ingham is bounded by this river Colne for a length of fourteen miles of its course, as it runs to empty itself into the Thames, opposite Tinsey Mead, about half a mile from Staines. An old writer says of these willows, "Such who have lost their love make their mourning garlands, and the Jews hung their harps on these doleful supporters." But in their favour again Mr Gyll says it has been remarked that the owner of willows will buy a horse, whilst by other trees he would only pay for his saddle.
Colnbrook itself is on four channels of the stream, and one-half of the long grey stone bridge which crosses it, just as one enters the town, is in Middlesex and the other half in Buckingham. It belongs to the parish of Horton, which name is derived from Ort or Wort, a herb or vegetable, and tun, an inclosure or garden. The soil here is rich and fruitful; and this was the rural retreat chosen by the father of our poet John Milton, when he retired from his business in Bread Street, at the ripe age of seventy, to renew his youth among these pleasant surroundings. In spite of the amount of water that seems to run and lie everywhere in this district, there must be something in the air very conducive to longevity, for I found that a great number of the inhabitants were exceedingly old. In the stilted language of a bygone age, we are told that "Horton and the repeated strains of the sweet bird of eve, for nightingales abound in the village, together with the scenery and the society, awakened an inspiration in the thoughtful mind of the young philosopher and child of song. A welcome reception at the big Manor House endeared him to his companions, and as the Sabbaths revolved he found
himself the centre of a congregation animated with warm devotion and gratitude, whose expansion is a virtue and a pleasure.'
Are not these what used to be called rounded periods? Life is now too rapid, fortunately or unfortunately, shall we say, for sentences such as these, in which many of our cultured forefathers delighted. Not so, however, that early writer whom Mr Gyll calls "old Thow of Reading," whose "pleasant Historie," as we shall see further on, is marked by a pithy simplicity of style which is quite refreshing.
The home of the rabbit which I had come to see was, I found, in an old-fashioned little house just where the town begins, and I had a pleasant welcome from its owners. "What an old-world forgotten sort of air your little town has," I remarked to my hostess, a most intelligent and youthful old lady, now in her eightieth year. in her pretty drawing-room, stroking the silky hair of the rabbit, which was in my lap, for Bunny is allowed to run about the house and the garden freely.
"Ah, yes! it is indeed so; yet I remember the time when coaches ran by our house every five minutes, and great waggons, too, with eight horses to each, their bells jingling merrily; but now the place is silent indeed. Across the road there, you see King John's old house-Magna Charta island, you know, is very near to this; and a few doors farther up in our street is the house that used to be a noted inn called the Catherine's Wheel. Henry VIII. stayed there with Queen Catherine and their suite. It is still a good house, but it has, as you will see, been refronted. The Ostrich Inn is, however, the great feature of the place: it is the house where
the ambassadors used to put up, in order to robe themselves before being presented to royalty at WindQueen Elizabeth's arms are still over the mantel in one old room; she stayed there once whilst one of the wheels of her coach, which had come to grief, was being repaired. The house is well worth going over: they will show you the best chamber, which Dick Turpin always used, and the window from which he sprang into the road below when he was once hotly pursued. But the inn, indeed, is chiefly noted for the great number of murders which took place there at one time."
"Have you any old book about the place?" I asked.
"There used to be one; but no one seems to know what has become of it. It was written about three hundred years ago. We can show you, however, a history of this parish, which was written early in this century."
This was the book to which I have previously alluded; and after glancing at some of its facts about Colnbrook, and hearing the tales which my hostess and her daughter told me, with the hints at that old book which was fifty years ago already so "difficult to be procured," I began to feel I was coming in touch with an oldworld life-rare, indeed, to hear of in the present day—and I was seized with that instinct which was keen in my old favourites, William and Mary Howitt, and of which that charming author, Miss Mitford, wrote: "All my life long I have had a passion for that sort of seeking that implies finding the secret, I believe, of the love of field-sports-which is in man's mind a natural impulse." The first thing to do was, I felt, to go and have some luncheon at the old Ostrich Inn, which I found
to be a most interesting old house, part of which has long been used as corn-stores. The whole building is panelled with beautifully grained chestnut-wood, which was all grown on the adjacent Hounslow Heath. In the part now used as an inn, this has unfortunately been painted or papered over; but in the larger rooms up-stairs, now used for storing grain, it is as it originally was.
The old landlady's daughter, in showing me Dick Turpin's room, said that as children they always feared to go into it, because of the tales told of all that had happened there. Tradition indeed said that there had been the gruesome old death-trap, of which I shall tell further on. But that could not have been so, as the house that stood first on this site, called in our old book the Crane, must have been that public inn with the half hide of land, on the site of the present Ostrich, on the road to London, which was given to the Abbey of Abingdon by Milo Crispin in return for certain good offices received near the time of his death, soon after the Norman Conquest; which inn was, as we shall see, destroyed by order of King Henry I., at the time when the present town is said to have been first called Colebrook. the Doomsday Book it had not been mentioned by that name.
Amongst other old furniture in Dick Turpin's room is an old chest, on which is lettered, "God give Jeames Stiles grace, 1695." There were four doors to this room, and a hidden communication with a large well-floored attic-room, that runs the whole length of the long building. The exterior of this is remarkably well preserved, and it is strange that it has attracted so little notice in works descriptive of old domestic architecture.
In the centre, over an archway, is the frame of a doorway, and the ledge on which rested the balcony from which, over a small drawbridge, the "quality" stepped on to the tops of the old coaches. We read of the Ostrich as having been a famous inn frequently resorted to by "visitors wending to and from the Palace at Windsor,' as far back as the time of Edward I.; and in 'Froissart's Chronicles' he says of four French Ambassadors to Edward III., "So they dyned in the Kynge's chamber, and after they departed, and lay the same night at Colbrook and the next day at London." Mr Gyll again speaks of the "sad reputation" of this inn for " systematic removal of strangers."
The old ballad of the three cooks of Colnbrook was composed here. Later on Queen Elizabeth and many great Court magnates slept at the old George Inn, which is said to have taken its name from a wooden statue of St George, which was stolen by a clothier from the porch of the parish church of Dursley in Gloucester, and carried to Colebrook on his waggon. But the Ostrich has remained always as the centre of interest in the old town.
At the Ostrich again I heard of the old book. It was not there; but I did not return to town from Colnbrook, that day, without having found it, and it lies before me as I write this article. It was written by Tom Deloney, a famous ballad-maker and broadsheet writer of Queen Elizabeth's time, who was also the author of the well-known "Jack of Newberry,' " and some lives of contemporaneous angling worthies. Several of Deloney's "Garlands" and broad-sheets have been reprinted by the Percy Society, and his chapbooks were long favourites with the people.
The proper title of the book is 'Thomas of Reading; or, The Sixe worthie Yeomen of the West,' which was, as its title-page states, "Now for the sixth time corrected and enlarged by T. D.," and printed in London by Eliz. Allde for Robert Bird, 1632. The author of the later work I have alluded to was therefore incorrect when he spoke of it as having been written by one Thow of Reading. He knew of the book probably only by hearsay. The story of Thomas of Reading concerns Čolnbrook, because the surname of that worthy clothier was Cole; and it was the tragic ending to his life which took place at the Crane Inn, that stood on the present site of the Ostrich, which caused the place to be called Colnbrook, and the stream which runs past the bottom of the inn-yard to be called the Colne. In all the earlier records the name is written Colbrook, Culbrok, or Colebrook, as it is pronounced.
I shall give the story of Thomas Cole as far as possible in the very wording of the quaint author: it presents a more vivid picture of the life and manners of that early age than I remember to have read elsewhere. The spelling will be altered slightly, so as to make it more intelligible.
In the days of King Henry I. there lived nine men who, for the trade of clothing, were famous throughout all England. This art in those days was held in high reputation both in respect of the great riches which thereby was gotten, as also of the benefit it brought to the whole Commonwealth: the younger sons knights and gentlemen, to whom their fathers would leave no lands, were most commonly preferred to learn this trade, to the end that they might thereby live in good