All's Well Alice's Victory
By Emily Sarah Holt This book is set in the sixteenth century, at the beginning of the Reformation. The action is in the Weald of Kent, a hugely forested area that extended as far as Hampshire. The family at the centre of the story had been converted to Protestantism, but still outwardly clung to Catholicism. This meant that the local priest, through hearing confessions, knew something of what was going on, and carried the information to the Bishop. One of the younger women of the family had been particularly advanced in her Protestant action and beliefs. She is taken before the Bishop, and is condemned to jail, where she is very badly treated, sleeping on straw, without change of clothing, and fed only on bread and water. The place where she was kept was changed for the better, after she had been brought for further interview before the Bishop. But this was only because she was to be burnt alive, in the manner of Holy Church of those days.
A moving story that makes a good audiobook, of little more than 7 hours' duration. NH
ALL'S WELL ALICE'S VICTORY
BY EMILY SARAH HOLT
FRIENDS AND NEIGHBOURS.
"Give you good-morrow, neighbour! Whither away with that great fardel [Bundle], prithee?"
"Truly, Mistress, home to Staplehurst, and the fardel holdeth broadcloth for my lads' new jerkins." The speakers were two women, both on the younger side of middle age, who met on the road between Staplehurst and Cranbrook, the former coming towards Cranbrook and the latter from it. They were in the midst of that rich and beautiful tract of country known as the Weald of Kent, once the eastern part of the great Andredes Weald, a vast forest which in Saxon days stretched from Kent to the border of Hampshire. There was still, in 1556, much of the forest about the Weald, and even yet it is a well-wooded part of the country, the oak being its principal tree, though the beech sometimes grows to an enormous size. Trees of the Weald were sent to Rome for the building of Saint Peter's.
"And how go matters with you, neighbour?" asked the first speaker, whose name was Alice Benden.
"Well, none so ill," was the reply. "My master's in full work, and we've three of our lads at the cloth-works. We're none so bad off as some."
"I marvel how it shall go with Sens Bradbridge, poor soul! She'll be bad off enough, or I err greatly."
"Why, how so, trow? I've not heard what ails her."
"Dear heart! then you know not poor Benedict is departed?"
"Eh, you never mean it!" exclaimed the bundle-bearer, evidently shocked. "Why, I reckoned he'd taken a fine turn toward recovery. Well, be sure! Ay, poor Sens, I'm sorry for her."
"Two little maids, neither old enough to earn a penny, and she a stranger in the town, pretty nigh, with never a 'quaintance saving them near about her, and I guess very few pennies in her purse. Ay, 'tis a sad look-out for Sens, poor heart."
"Trust me, I'll look in on her, and see what I may do, so soon as I've borne this fardel home. Good lack! but the burying charges 'll come heavy on her! and I doubt she's saved nought, as you say, Benedict being sick so long."
"I scarce think there's much can be done," said Alice, as she moved forward; "I was in there of early morrow, and Barbara Final, she took the maids home with her. But a kindly word's not like to come amiss. Here's Emmet [See Note 1] Wilson at hand: she'll bear you company home, for I have ado in the town. Good-morrow, Collet."
"Well, good-morrow, Mistress Benden. I'll rest my fardel a bit on the stile while Emmet comes up."
And, lifting her heavy bundle on the stile, Collet Pardue wiped her heated face with one end of her mantle—there were no shawls in those days—and waited for Emmet Wilson to come up.
Emmet was an older woman than either Alice or Collet, being nearly fifty years of age. She too carried a bundle, though not of so formidable a size. Both had been to Cranbrook, then the centre of the cloth-working industry, and its home long before the days of machinery. There were woven the solid grey broadcloths which gave to the men of the Weald the title of "the Grey-Coats of Kent." From all the villages round about, the factory-hands were recruited. The old factories had stood from the days when Edward the Third and his Flemish Queen brought over the weavers of the Netherlands to improve the English manufactures; and some of them stand yet, turned into ancient residences for the country squires who had large stakes in them in the old days, or peeping out here and there in the principal streets of the town, in the form of old gables and other antique adornments.
"Well, Collet! You've a brave fardel yonder!"
"I've six lads and two lasses, neighbour," said Collet with a laugh. "Takes a sight o' cloth, it do, to clothe 'em."
"Be sure it do! Ay, you've a parcel of 'em. There's only my man and Titus at our house. Wasn't that Mistress Benden that parted from you but now? She turned off a bit afore I reached her."
"Ay, it was. She's a pleasant neighbour."
"She's better than pleasant, she's good."
"Well, I believe you speak sooth. I'd lief you could say the same of her master. I wouldn't live with Master Benden for a power o' money."
"Well, I'd as soon wish it too, for Mistress Benden's body; but I'm not so certain sure touching Mistress Benden's soul. 'Tis my belief if Master Benden were less cantankerous, Mistress wouldn't be nigh so good."
"What, you hold by the old rhyme, do you—?
"'A spaniel, a wife, and a walnut tree, The more they be beaten, the better they be.'"
"Nay, I'll not say that: but this will I say, some folks be like camomile—'the more you tread it, the more you spread it.' When you squeeze 'em, like clover, you press the honey forth: and I count Mistress Benden's o' that sort."
"Well, then, let's hope poor Sens Bradbridge is likewise, for she's like to get well squeezed and trodden. Have you heard she's lost her master?"
"I have so. Mistress Final told me this morrow early. Nay, I doubt she's more of the reed family, and 'll bow down her head like a bulrush. Sens Bradbridge'll bend afore she breaks, and Mistress Benden 'll break afore she bends."
"'Tis pity Mistress Benden hath ne'er a child; it might soften her master, and anyhow should comfort her."
"I wouldn't be the child," said Emmet drily.
Collet laughed. "Well, nor I neither," said she. "I reckon they'll not often go short of vinegar in that house; Master Benden's face 'd turn all the wine, let alone the cream. I'm fain my master's not o' that fashion: he's a bit too easy, my Nick is. I can't prevail on him to thwack the lads when they're over-thwart; I have to do it myself."
"I'll go bail you'd not hurt 'em much," said Emmet, with an amused glance at the round, rosy, good-humoured face of the mother of the six "over-thwart" lads.
"Oh, will you! But I am a short mistress with 'em, I can tell you. Our Aphabell shall hear of it, I promise you, when I get home. I bade him yester-even fetch me two pound o' prunes from the spicer's, and gave him threepence in his hand to pay for 'em; and if the rascal went not and lost the money at cross and pile with Gregory White, and never a prune have I in the store-cupboard. He's at all evers playing me tricks o' that fashion. 'Tisn't a week since I sent him for a dozen o' Paris candles, and he left 'em in the water as he came o'er the bridge. Eh, Mistress Wilson, but lads be that pestiferous! You've but one, and that one o' the quiet peaceable sort—you've somewhat to be thankful for, I can tell you, that hasn't six like me, and they a set o' contrarious, outrageous, boisterous caitiffs as ever was seen i' this world."
"Which of 'em would you wish to part with, Collet?"
"Well, be sure!" was Collet's half-laughing answer, as she mentally reviewed the young gentlemen in question—her giddy, thoughtless Aphabell, her mischievous Tobias, her Esdras always out at elbows, her noisy, troublesome Noah, her rough Silvanus, whom no amount of "thwacking" seemed to polish, and her lazy, ease-loving Valentine. "Nay, come, I reckon I'll not make merchandise of any of 'em this bout. They are a lot o' runagates, I own, but I'm their mother, look you."
Emmet Wilson smiled significantly. "Ay, Collet, and 'tis well for you and me that cord bears pulling at."
"You and me?" responded Collet, lifting her bundle higher, into an easier position. "'Tis well enough for the lads, I dare say; but what ado hath it with you and me?"
"I love to think, neighbour, that somewhat akin to it is said by nows and thens of us, too, in the Court of the Great King, when the enemy accuseth us—'Ay, she did this ill thing, and she's but a poor black sinner at best; but thou shalt not have her, Satan; I'm her Father.'"
"You're right there, Emmet Wilson," said Collet, in a tone which showed that the last sentence had touched her heart. "The work and care that my lads give me is nought to the sins wherewith we be daily angering the Lord. He's always forgiving us, be sure."
"A sight easier than men do, Collet Pardue, take my word for it."
"What mean you, neighbour?" asked Collet, turning round to look her companion in the face, for Emmet's tone had indicated that she meant more than she said.
"I mean one man in especial, and his name's Bastian."
"What, the priest? Dear heart! I've not angered him, trow?"
"You soon will, if you cut your cloth as you've measured it. How many times were you at mass this three months past?"
"How many were you?" was the half-amused answer.
"There's a many in Staplehurst as hasn't been no oftener," said Emmet, "that I know: but it'll not save you, Collet. The priest has his eye on you, be sure."
"Then I'll keep mine on him," said Collet sturdily, as she paused at her own door, which was that of the one little shoemaker's shop in the village of Staplehurst. "Good-morrow, neighbour. I'll but lay down my fardel, and then step o'er to poor Sens Bradbridge."
"And I'll come to see her this even. Good-morrow."
And Emmet Wilson walked on further to her home, where her husband was the village baker and corn-monger.
Note 1. Emmet is a very old variation of Emma, and sometimes spelt Emmot; Sens is a corruption of Sancha, naturalised among us in the thirteenth century; and Collet or Colette, the diminutive of Nichola, a common and favourite name in the Middle Ages.
Alice Benden had reached Cranbrook, and was busied with her various errands. Her position was slightly superior to that of Emmet and Collet, for she was the wife of a man who "lived upright," which enigmatical expression signified that he had not to work for his living. Edward Benden's father had made a little money, and his son, who had no children to whom to leave his property, chose to spend it rather than bequeath it to distant relatives who were strangers to him. He owned some half-dozen houses at Staplehurst, one of which was occupied by the Pardues, and he lived on the rents of these, and the money saved by his thrifty father. The rents he asked were not unreasonable, but if a tenant failed to pay, out he must go. He might as well appeal to the door-posts as to Edward Benden.
This agreeable gentleman treated his wife much as he did his tenants. He gave a sum of money into her hands for certain purchases, and with that sum those purchases must be made. It was not of the least use to explain failure by an unexpected rise in prices, or the fact that the article required could not be had at a given time. Mr Benden expected perfection—in every one but himself. Excuses, many and often very poor, were admitted for that favoured individual, but no other had a chance to offer any.
On the present occasion, Alice had ten shillings for her marketing, with which she was expected to provide six rabbits, a dozen pigeons, twenty-four eggs, five yards of buckram, a black satin cap and a brown silk doublet for her husband, a pair of shoes for herself, and sundry things at the spicer's. The grocer, or grosser, as the word was originally spelt, only sold wholesale, and his stock as we have it was divided among the spicer, pepperer, and treacle-monger. That her money would not stretch thus far Alice well knew, and she knew also that if she were to avoid a scolding, Mr Benden's personal wants must be supplied, whatever became of her own. Her first call, therefore, was at the capper's for the satin cap, which cost one shilling and eightpence; then at the tailor's for the doublet, which took four and sixpence; then she paid ninepence for the pigeons, which were for Mr Benden's personal eating; and next she went to the spicer's. A sugarloaf she must have, expensive as it was, for her tyrant required his dishes sweet, and demanded that the result should be effected by dainty sugar, not like common people by honey or treacle: nor did she dare to omit the currants, since he liked currant cake with his cheese and ale. Two pounds of prunes, and four of rice, she meant to add; but those were not especially for him, and must be left out if needful. When she had reached this point, Alice paused, and counted up what money she had left.
"Doublet, 4 shillings 6 pence; cap, 1 shilling 8 pence; pigeons, 9 pence; sugarloaf, 7 pence; currants, 1 shilling: total, 8 shillings 6 pence." Thus ran Alice's calculations. "Only eighteenpence left. The other things I wanted will come to 6 shillings 9 pence. What can I do without?"
The buckram must go: that was the heaviest article in the list, five yards at ninepence a yard. Alice's Sunday gown must be worn without a new lining for a while longer. Two rabbits instead of six, at twopence a piece; three pennyworth of eggs at eight a penny: these she could scarcely do without. The shoes, too, were badly wanted. Rice and prunes could not be had to-day. Alice bought a pair of cheaper shoes than she intended, paying tenpence instead of a shilling; purchased the two rabbits and the eggs; and found that she had one penny left. She decided that this would answer her purpose—nay, it must do so. Mr Benden was not likely to ask if she had all she needed, so long as she did not fail to supply his own requirements. She arranged with the poulterer to put by the rabbits, pigeons, and eggs, for which she would send a boy in the afternoon; and carrying the rest of her parcels, with which she was well laden, she took the road to Staplehurst.
As she turned the corner of the last house in Cranbrook, she was brought to a stand-still by a voice behind her.
A light sprang to Alice's eyes as she turned quickly round to greet a man a few years older than herself—a man with grave dark eyes and a brown beard. Passing all her parcels into the left hand, she gave him the right—an action which at that time was an indication of intimate friendship. The kiss and the hand-clasp have changed places since then.
"Why, Roger! I look not to see thee now. How goes it this morrow with Christie?"
"As the Lord will, good sister."
"And that, mefeareth, is but evil?"
"Nay, I will not lay that name on aught the Lord doth. But she suffers sorely, poor darling! Wilt come round our way and look in on her, Alice?"
"I would I might, Roger!" said Alice, with a rather distressed look. "But this morrow—"
"Thou hast not good conveniency thereto." Roger finished the sentence for her. "Then let be till thine occasion serveth. Only, when it so doth, bethink thee that a look on Aunt Alice is a rare comfort to the little maid."
"Be thou sure I shall not forget it. Tom came in last night, Roger. He and Tabitha and the childre, said he, fare well."
"That's a good hearing. And Edward hath his health?"
"Oh ay, Edward doth rarely well."
Mr Benden was not apt to lose his health, which partly accounted for the very slight sympathy he was wont to show with those who were. It was noticeable that while other people were spoken of by affectionate diminutives both from Alice and her brother, Edward and Tabitha received their names in full.
"Well, then, Alice, I shall look for thee—when thou shalt be able to come. The Lord have thee in His keeping!"
"The Lord be with thee, dear Roger!"
And Roger Hall turned down a side street, while Alice went on toward Staplehurst. They were deeply attached to each other, this brother and sister, and all the more as they found little sympathy outside their mutual affection. Roger was quite aware of Alice's home troubles, and she of his. They could see but little of each other, for while Mr Benden had not absolutely forbidden his brother-in-law to enter his house, it was a familiar fact to all parties that his sufficiently sharp temper was not softened by a visit from Roger Hall, and Alice's sufferings from the temper in question were generally enough to prevent her from trying it further. It was not only sharp, but also uncertain. What pleased him to-day—and few things did please him—was by no means sure to please him to-morrow. Alice trod on a perpetual volcano, which was given to opening and engulfing her just at the moment when she least expected it.
Roger's home troubles were of another sort. His wife was dead, and his one darling was his little Christabel, whose few years had hitherto been passed in pain and suffering. The apothecary was not able to find out what hidden disorder sapped the spring of little Christie's health, and made her from her very babyhood a frail, weak, pallid invalid, scarcely fit to do anything except lie on a sofa, learn a few little lessons from her father, and amuse herself with fancy work. A playfellow she could seldom bear. Her cousins, the three daughters of her Uncle Thomas, who lived about a mile away, were too rough and noisy for the frail child, with one exception—Justine, who was lame, and could not keep up with the rest. But Justine was not a comfortable companion, for she possessed a grumbling temper, or it would perhaps be more correct to say she was possessed by it. She suffered far less than Christie, yet Christie was always bright and sunny, while Justine was dark and cloudy. Yet not even Justine tried Christie as did her Aunt Tabitha.
Aunt Tabitha was one of those women who wish and mean to do a great deal of good, and cannot tell how to do it. Not that she realised that inability by any means. She was absolutely convinced that nearly all the good done in the Weald of Kent was done by Tabitha Hall, while the real truth was that if Tabitha Hall had been suddenly transported to Botany Bay, or any other distant region, the Weald of Kent would have got along quite as well without her. According to Aunt Tabitha, the one grand duty of every human creature was to rouse himself and other people: and, measured by this rule, Aunt Tabitha certainly did her duty. She earnestly impressed on Alice that Mr Benden would develop into a perfect angel if only she stood up to him; and she was never tired of assuring Christie that her weakness and suffering were entirely the result of her own idle disinclination to rouse herself. Thus urged, Christie did sometimes try to rouse herself, the result being that when deprived of the stimulating presence of Aunt Tabitha, she was fit for nothing but bed for some time afterwards. It was a good thing for her that Aunt Tabitha's family kept her busy at home for the most part, so that her persecutions of poor Christie were less frequent than they would otherwise have been.
Mr Thomas Hall, the younger brother of Roger and Alice, had the air of a man who had been stood up to, until he had lost all power or desire of standing up for himself. He remarked that it was a fine morning with an aspect of deprecation that would have made it seem quite cruel to disagree with him, even if it were raining hard. He never contradicted his Tabitha: poor man, he knew too well what would come of it! It would have been as easy for him to walk up to the mouth of a loaded cannon when the gunner was applying the match, as to remark to her, in however mild a tone, that he preferred his mutton boiled when he knew she liked it roasted. Yet he was a good man, in his meek unobtrusive way, and Christie liked her Uncle Thomas next best to her father and Aunt Alice.
"Christie, I marvel you are not weary!" said her lively, robust cousin Friswith [a corruption of Frideawide], one day.
Not weary! Ah, how little Friswith knew about it!
"I am by times, Friswith," said Christie meekly.
"Mother saith she is assured you might have better health an' you would. You lie and lie there like a log of wood. Why get you not up and go about like other folks?"
"I can't, cousin; it hurts me."
"Hurts you, marry! I wouldn't give in to a bit of a hurt like that! I never mind being hurt."
Christie silently doubted that last statement.
"Hear you, Christie?"
"Yes, Friswith, I hear."
"Then why rouse you not up, as Mother saith?"
"I can't, Friswith; my head pains me this morrow."
"Lack-a-daisy, what a fuss you make o'er a bit of pain! Well, I must be away—I've to go to Cranbrook of an errand for Mother; she lacks a sarcenet coif. If I can scrimp enough money out of this, I'll have some carnation ribbon to guard my hat—see if I don't!"
"Oh, Friswith! It isn't your money, 'tis Aunt Tabitha's."
"I'll have it, though; I hate to go shabby. And I can tell you, I met Beatrice Pardue last night, with a fresh ribbon on hers. I'll not have her finer than me. She's stuck-up enough without it. You look out on Sunday as I go by the window, and see if my hat isn't new guarded with carnation. I'll get round Mother somehow; and if she do give me a whipping, I'm not so soft as you. Good-morrow!"
Friswith only laughed as she closed the door on Christabel, and ran off lightly down the Cranbrook road.
THE COMFORTABLE JUSTICE.
Mr Justice Roberts sat in his dining-room after supper, with a tankard of ale at his elbow. Had the "pernicious weed" been discovered at that date, he would probably also have had a pipe in his hand; but tobacco being yet a calamity of the future, the Justice was not smoking.
He was, however, very comfortable. He sat in a big leather chair, which rested his portly figure; he had just had a good supper, consisting of a partridge pie and a dish of juicy pears; he had sold a horse that morning at considerable profit; his mind was as easy as his body.
There was only one thing the occurrence of which Mr Roberts would have thought it worth his while to deprecate at that moment. This was, anybody coming to bother him. The worthy Justice did not like to be bothered. A good many people are of the same opinion. He had that evening but one enemy in the world, and that was the man who should next rap at his house door.
"Go to Jericho!" said the Justice to the unseen individual who was thus about to disturb his rest. "I want none of you. Why on earth can't you let a man alone?—What is it, Martha?"
"Please you, Master, 'tis Master Benden would have a word with you."
"What can the companion want?" mildly growled the Justice. "Well! let him in, and bring another tankard. Good evening, Master Benden. A fine autumn eve, trow."
Mr Benden's face said that he had come to talk about something of more moment than autumn evenings. He sat down opposite the Justice, buttoned his long gown up to the neck, as if to gird himself for action, and cleared his throat with an air of importance.
"Master Roberts, I am come on a grave matter and a sad."
"Can't deal with grave matters after supper," said the Justice. "Come again in the morning. Take a pear."
"Sir, this is a serious business."
"Business hours are over. I never do business out of hours."
"To-night, Master Roberts, and to-night only, shall serve for this business."
"I do no business out of hours!" solemnly repeated the officer of the law. "Take a pear—take two pears, and come again in the morning."
Mr Benden shook his head in a tragic manner, and let the pears alone.
"They are good pears," said the Justice. "If you love no pears, put one in your pocket with my commendations to good Mistress Benden. How doth she?—well, I hope."
"Were I able, Sir," replied the visitor impressively, "to bear your commendations to good Mistress Benden, I were the happier man. But, alas! I am not at that pass."
"What, come you hither to complain of your wife? Fie, Master Benden! Go you home and peace her, like a wise man as you are, and cast her half a suffering for some woman's gear."
Mr Benden might most truthfully have made reply that he had ere that evening bestowed on his wife not half a suffering only, but many whole ones: but he knew that the Justice meant half a sovereign, which was then pronounced exactly like suffering.
"Sir!" he said rather angrily, "it pleases you to reckon lightly of this matter: but what, I pray you, if you have to make account thereon with the Queen's Grace's laws, not to speak of holy Church? Sir, I give you to wit that my wife is an ill hussy, and an heretic belike, and lacketh a sharp pulling up—sharper than I can give her. She will not go to church, neither hear mass, nor hath she shriven her this many a day. You are set in office, methinks, to administer the laws, and have no right thus to shuffle off your duty by hours and minutes. I summon you to perform it in this case."
Mr Justice Roberts was grave enough now. The half-lazy, half-jocose tone which he had hitherto worn was cast aside entirely, and the expression of his face grew almost stern. But the sternness was not all for the culprit thus arraigned before him; much of it was for the prosecutor. He was both shocked and disgusted with the course Mr Benden had taken: which course is not fiction, but fact.
"Master Benden," said he, "I am two men—the Queen's officer of her laws, and plain Anthony Roberts of Cranbrook. You speak this even but to Anthony Roberts: and as such, good Master, I would have you bethink you that if your wife be brought afore me as Justice, I must deal with her according to law. You know, moreover, that in case she shall admit her guilt, and refuse to amend, there is no course open to me save to commit her to prison: and you know, I suppose, what the end of that may be. Consider well if you are avised to go through with it. A man need count the cost of building an house ere he layeth in a load of bricks."
"You are not wont, Master Justice, to be thus tender over women," said Benden derisively. "Methinks ere now I have heard you to thank the saints you never wedded one."
"And may do so yet again, Master Benden. I covet little to have a wife to look after."
Like many men in his day, Mr Roberts looked upon a wife not as somebody who would look after him, in the sense of making him comfortable, but rather as one whom he would have the trouble of perpetually keeping out of all sorts of ways that were naughty and wrong.
"But that is not your case," he continued in the same stern tone. "You set to-night—if you resolve to persevere therein—a ball rolling that may not tarry till it reach the fire. Are you avised thereon?"
"I am. Do your duty!" was the savage reply.
"Then do you yours," said Mr Roberts coldly, "and bring Mrs Benden before me next sessions day. There is time to forethink you ere it come."
Unconscious of the storm thus lowering over her, Alice Benden was sitting by little Christie's sofa. There were then few playthings, and no children's books, and other books were scarce and costly. Fifty volumes was considered a large library, and in few houses even of educated people were there more books than about half-a-dozen. For an invalid confined to bed or sofa, whether child or adult, there was little resource save needlework. Alice had come to bring her little niece a roll of canvas and some bright-coloured silks. Having so much time to spare, and so little variety of occupation, Christie was a more skilful embroideress than many older women. A new pattern was a great pleasure, and there were few pleasures open to the invalid and lonely child. Her sole home company was her father, for their one servant, Nell, was too busy, with the whole work of the house upon her hands, to do more for Christabel than necessity required; and Mr Hall, who was manager of one of the large factories in Cranbrook, was obliged to be away nearly the whole day. Other company—her Aunt Alice excepted—was rather a trial than a pleasure to Christabel. The young people were rough and noisy, even when they tried not to be so, and the child's nerves were weak. Aunt Tabitha worried her to "rouse herself, and not be a burden on her poor father"; and how gladly would Christabel have done it! Uncle Thomas was also a harassing visitor, though in another way. He never knew what to say, when he had once asked how the invalid felt: he only sat and gazed at her and the window alternately, now and then, as though by a mental jerk, bringing out a few words.
"He causes me to feel so naughty, Aunt," said Christie dolefully, "and I do want to be good. He sits and looks on me till I feel—I feel—Aunt Alice, I can't find the words: as if all my brains would come out of my finger-ends, if he went on. And now and then he says a word or two— such as 'Rain afore night, likely,' or 'Bought a drove of pigs yesterday,' and I can only say, 'Yes, uncle.' I think 'tis hard for both of us, Aunt Alice, for we don't know what to say one to the other. I can't talk to him, and he can't talk to me."
Alice laughed, and then the tears almost rose in her eyes, as she softly smoothed Christie's fair hair. She knew full well the sensation of intense, miserable nerve-strain, for which the little girl strove in vain to find words.
"'Tis hard to be patient, little Christie," she said tenderly. "But God knoweth it, dear heart; and He is very patient with us."
"O Aunt Alice, I know! And I am so sorry afterwards, when I should have been quiet and patient, and I have spoken crossly. People know not how hard it is, and how hard one tries: they only see when one gives way. They see not even how ashamed one is afterwards."
"Truth, sweet heart; but the Lord seeth."
"Aunt, think you the Lord Jesus ever felt thus?"
"He never felt sin, Christie; but I reckon He knew as well as any of us what it is to be wearied and troubled, when matters went not to His comfort. 'The contradiction of sinners' covereth a great deal."
"I wonder," said Christie plaintively, "if He felt as if it hurt Him when His brethren banged the doors! Friswith alway does when she comes; and it is like as if she struck me on the ears. And she never seems to hear it!"
"I cannot tell, sweeting, what He felt in the days of His flesh at Nazareth; but I can tell thee a better thing—that He doth feel now, and for thee. 'I am poor and needy, but the Lord careth for me.' Keep that in thine heart, little Christie; it shall be like a soft pillow for thy weary head."
Alice rose to go home, and tied on her blue hood.
"O Aunt Alice, must you go? Couldn't you tarry till Father comes?"
"I think not, my dear heart. Tell thy father I had need to haste away, but I will come again and see both him and thee to-morrow."
"Give him my loving commendations. Good-night, my child." And Alice hurried away.
TABBY SHOWS HER CLAWS.
Friswith Hall was returning from Cranbrook in a state of great satisfaction. She had made an excellent bargain; and she was the sort of girl to whose mind a bargain had the flavour of a victory. In the first place, she had squeezed both coif and ribbon out of her money; and in the second, she had—as she fondly believed—purchased an article worth one-and-tenpence for eighteenpence.
As she came up to the last stile she had to pass, Friswith saw two girls sitting on it—the elder a slender, delicate-looking girl of some fourteen years, the younger a sturdy, little, rosy-faced damsel of seven. They looked up on hearing steps, and the elder quitted her seat to leave Friswith room to pass.
"Good-morrow, Pen! So you've got Patience there?"
"I haven't much, I'm afraid," said Pen, laughing. "I came out here because the lads made such a noise I could scarce hear myself speak; and I wanted to teach Patience her hymn. Charity knows hers; but Patience learns slower."
"Are they with you, then—both?"
"For a few days. Mistress Bradbridge is gone to visit her brother at Chelmsford, so she left her little maids with Mother."
"What a company must you be! How can you ever squeeze into the house?"
"Oh, folks can squeeze into small corners when they choose," said Penuel Pardue, with a smile. "A very little corner will hold both Charity and Patience."
"Then you haven't much of either," answered Friswith satirically. "Look you here, Pen!"
And unrolling her ribbon, she displayed its crimson beauties.
"What's that for?"
"For my hat! You can tell Beatrice, if you like, she won't be the best-dressed maid at church next Sunday."
"I should never suppose she would," was the quiet reply.
"Oh, I saw her blue ribbons! But I'll be as grand as she, you'll see now. Mother sent me to buy her a coif, and I got this for the money too. Don't you wish you were me?"
"No, Friswith, I don't think I do," said Penuel gravely.
"That's because you think Mother will scold. I'll stand up to her if she do. She's always bidding us stand up to folks, and I'll see how she likes it herself a bit!"
With which very dutiful speech, Friswith took her departure.
Penuel looked after her for a moment, and then, with a shake of her head which meant more than words, turned back to Patience and the hymn.
"Now, little Patience, try to learn the next verse. I will say it over to thee.
"'And in the presence of my foes My table Thou shalt spread; Thou shalt, O Lord, fill full my cup, And eke anoint my head.'"
"Who be my foes, Pen?" said Patience.
"Folks that tease and trouble thee, my child."
"Oh!" responded Patience, instantly making a practical application. "Toby and Silas, that is. But they didn't see you spread the table, Pen. They were out playing on the green."
Penuel tried to "improve" this very literal rendering of the Psalm, but found it impossible to advance further than the awakening in Patience's mind an expectation of a future, but equally literal table, the dainties on which Toby and Silas would not be privileged to share.
"I won't give them the lessest bit, 'cause they're my foes," said Patience stubbornly. "You shall have some, Pen, and so shall Beatie— and Abbafull, if he's good. He tied my shoe."
"Aphabell, not Abbafull," corrected Penuel. "But, Patience, that won't serve: you've got to forgive your enemies."
"They shan't have one bit!" announced Patience, putting her hands behind her back, as if to emphasise her statement. "Pen, what does 'anoint my head' mean?"
"Pour oil on it," said Penuel.
"I won't have oil on my head! I'll pour it on Silas and Toby. It'll run down and dirt their clothes, and then Mother Pardue'll thwack 'em."
"Patience, Patience! Little maids mustn't want to have people thwacked."
"I may want my foes thwacked, and I will!" replied Patience sturdily.
"Look at the people coming up the road," answered Penuel, thinking it well to make a diversion. "Why, there's Master Benden and his mistress, and Mistress Hall, and ever so many more. What's ado, I marvel?"
About a dozen persons comprised the approaching group, which was brought up by a choice assortment of small boys, among whom Penuel's brothers, Esdras and Silvanus, were conspicuous. Mr Benden walked foremost, holding his wife by her wrist, as if he were afraid of her running away; whilst she went with him as quietly as if she had no such intention. Almost in a line with them was Tabitha Hall, and she was pouring out a torrent of words.
"And you'll rue it, Edward Benden, you take my word for it! You savage barbarian, to deal thus with a decent woman that never shamed you nor gave you an ill word! Lack-a-day, but I thank all the saints on my bended knees I'm not your wife! I'd—"
"So do I, Mistress!" was Mr Benden's grim answer.
"I'd make your life a burden to you, if I were! I'd learn you to ill-use a woman! I'd give it you, you white-livered dotipole [cowardly simpleton] of a Pharisee! Never since the world began—"
"Go to!" shrieked the boys behind, in great glee. "Scratch him, Tabby, do!"
Alice never uttered a word, either to her husband or her sister-in-law. She heard it all as though she heard not. Catching the eye of her brother Esdras, Penuel beckoned to him, and that promising youth somewhat reluctantly left the interesting group, and shambled up to his eldest sister at the stile.
"Esdras, what is all this? Do tell me."
"'Tis Master Benden, a-carrying of his mistress afore the Justices, and Mistress Hall's a-showing him the good love she bears him for it."
"Afore the Justices! Mistress Benden! Dear saints, but wherefore?"
"Oh, I wis nought of the inwards thereof," said Esdras, pulling a switch from the hedge. "Some saith one thing, and some another. But they saith she'll go to prison, safe sure."
"Oh, Esdras, I am sorry!" said Penuel, in a tone of great distress. "Mother will be sore troubled. Everybody loves Mistress Benden, and few loveth her master. There's some sorry blunder, be thou sure."
"Very like," said Esdras, turning to run off after the disappearing company.
"Esdras," said little Patience suddenly, "you've got a big hole in you."
"Oh, let be! my gear's alway in holes," was the careless answer. "It'll hold together till I get back, I reckon. Here goes!"
And away went Esdras, with two enormous holes in his stockings, and a long strip of his jacket flying behind him like a tail.
"Oh dear, this world!" sighed Penuel. "I'm afraid 'tis a bad place. Come, little Patience, let us go home."
When the girls reached Mrs Pardue's cottage, they found there the mother of Patience, Mrs Bradbridge. She sat talking earnestly to Mrs Pardue, who was busy washing, and said little in answer beyond such replies, compatible with business, as "Ay," "I reckon so," or "To be sure!"
"Mother!" said Penuel, as she led Patience in, "have you heard of this matter of Mistress Benden's?"
"Nay, child," replied Collet, stopping in the process of hanging up a skirt to dry. "Why, whatso? Naught ill, I do hope and trust, to Mistress Benden. I'd nigh as soon have aught hap evil to one of my own as her."
"Eh, neighbour, 'tis all a body need look for," sighed poor Widow Bradbridge, lifting Patience on her knee. "This world's naught save trouble and sorrow—never was sin' the Flood, more especially for women."
"She's had up to the Justices, Mother, but I couldn't hear for why; and her own husband is he that taketh her."
"He'll get his demerits, be sure," said Mrs Bradbridge.
"Well, and I wouldn't so much mind if he did," was Mrs Pardue's energetic comment. "He never was fit to black her shoes, he wasn't. Alice Benden afore the Justices! why, I'd as soon believe I ought to be there. If I'd ha' knowed, it should ha' cost me hot water but I'd ha' been with her, to cheer up and stand by the poor soul. Why, it should abhor any Christian man to hear of such doings!"
"Mistress Hall's withal, Mother: and I guess Master Benden 'll have his water served not much off the boil."
"I'm fain to hear it!" said Collet.
"Eh, she was at him, I can tell you! and she handled the matter shrewdly too. So was Esdras and Silas, and a sort more lads, a-crying, 'Scratch him, Tabby!' and she scraught him right well."
"The naughty caitiffs!" exclaimed their mother. "Howbeit, when they come home we shall maybe know the inwards of the matter."
The boys did not come home for some hours. When they did, Esdras slunk up the ladder, his garments being in a state which, as Silas had just kindly informed him, "smelt of the birch," and not desiring the application of that remedy sooner than could be helped. Silas flung his cap into the furthest corner, with a shout of "Hooray!" which sent his mother's hands to her ears.
"Bless the lad!—he'll deafen a body, sure enough! Now then, speak, caitiff, and tell us what's ado with Mistress Benden. Is she let off?"
"She's sent a-prison," shouted Silas, in tones which seemed likely to carry that information down the row. "Justice axed her why she went not to church, and quoth she, 'That can I not do, with a good conscience, since there is much idolatry committed against the glory of God.' And then she was committed. Justice didn't love his work o'er well, and Master Benden, as he was a-coming away, looked as sour as crabs. And old Tabby—Oh, lack-a-daisy-me! didn't she have at him! She's a good un, and no mistake! She stuck to his heels all the way along, and she beat him black and blue with her tongue, and he looked like a butt of alegar with a hogshead o' mustard in it. Hooray for old Tabby!"—and Silas announced that sentiment to the neighbourhood at the top of his very unsubdued voice.
"Sil-van-us Par-due!" Five very distinct syllables from his mother greeted the speech wherein Master Silas expressed his appreciation of the action of Mrs Tabitha Hall. "Silas, I would you were as 'shamed of yourself as I am of you."
"Well, Mother," responded Silas, with a twinkle in a pair of shining brown eyes, "if you'll run up yonder ladder and take half a look at Esdras, you'll not feel nigh so 'shamed of me at after!"
This skilful diversion of the attack from himself to his brother—a feat wherein every son of Adam is as clever as his forefather—effected the end which Master Silvanus had proposed to himself.
"Dear heart alive!" cried Mrs Pardue, in a flutter, "has that lad tore his self all o' pieces?"
"There isn't many pieces left of him," calmly observed Silas.
Mrs Pardue disappeared up the ladder, from which region presently came the sound of castigation, with its attendant howls from the sufferer, while Silas, having provided himself with a satisfactory cinder, proceeded, in defiance of Penuel's entreaties, to sketch a rather clever study of Mrs Tabitha Hall in the middle of his mother's newly washed table-cloth.
"Eh, Pen, you'll never do no good wi' no lads!" lamented Mrs Bradbridge, rising to depart. "Nought never does lads a bit o' good save thrashing 'em. I'm truly thankful mine's both maids. They're a sight o' trouble, lads be. Good even."
As Mistress Bradbridge went out, Mr Pardue was stepping in.
"Silas, let be!" said his father quietly; and Silas made a face, but pocketed the cinder for future use. "Pen, where's Mother?"
Mrs Pardue answered for herself by coming down the ladder.
"There! I've given it Esdras: now, Silas, 'tis thy turn."
No pussy cat could have worn an aspect of more exquisite meekness than Mr Silvanus Pardue at that moment, having dexterously twitched a towel so as to hide the work of art on which he had been engaged the moment before.
"I've done nothing, Mother," he demurely observed, adding with conscious virtue, "I never tear my clothes."
"You've made a pretty hole in your manners, my master," replied his mother. "Nicholas, what thinkest a lad to deserve that nicks Mistress Hall with the name of 'Old Tabby'?"
Nicholas Pardue made no answer in words, but silently withdrew the protecting towel, and disclosed the sufficiently accurate portrait of Mistress Tabitha on the table-cloth.
"Thou weary gear of a pert, mischievous losel!" [wretch, rascal] cried Collet. "Thou shalt dine with Duke Humphrey [a proverbial expression for fasting] this morrow, and sup on birch broth, as I'm a living woman! My clean-washed linen that I've been a-toiling o'er ever since three o' the clock! Was there nought else to spoil but that, thou rascal?"
"Oh ay, Mother," said Silas placidly. "There's your new partlet, and Pen's Sunday gown."
Mrs Pardue's hand came down not lightly upon Silas.
"I'll partlet thee, thou rogue! I'll learn thee to dirt clean gear, and make work for thy mother! If ever in all my born days I saw a worser lad—"
The door was darkened. Collet looked up, and beheld the parish priest. Her hold of Silas at once relaxed—a fact of which that lively gentleman was not slow to take advantage—and she dropped a courtesy, not very heartfelt, as the Reverend Philip Bastian made his way into the cottage. Nicholas gave a pull to his forelock, while Collet, bringing forward a chair, which she dusted with her apron, dismissed Penuel with a look.
The priest's face meant business. He sat down, leaned both hands on his gold-headed cane, and took a deliberate look at both Nicholas and Collet before he said a word beyond the bare "Good even." After waiting long enough to excite considerable uneasiness in their minds, he inquired in dulcet tones—
"What have you to say to me, my children?"
It was the woman who answered. "Please you. Father, we've nought to say, not in especial, without to hope you fare well this fine even."
"Indeed!—and how be you faring?"
"Right well, an't like you, Father, saving some few pains in my bones, such as I oft have of a washing-day."
"And how is it with thy soul, daughter?"
"I lack not your help therein, I thank you," said Collet somewhat spiritedly.
"Do you not so? I pray you, where have you stood in the church since last May, that never once have I, looking from the altar, seen your faces therein? Methinks you must have found new standing-room, behind the rood-screen, or maybe within the font," suggested the priest satirically. "Wit you that this is ever the beginning of heresy? Have you heard what has befallen your landlord's wife, Mistress Benden? Doubtless she thought her good name and repute should serve her in this case. Look you, they have not saved her. She lieth this night in Canterbury Gaol, whither you may come belike, an' you have not a care, and some of your neighbours with you. Moreover, your dues be not fully paid—"
"Sir," replied Nicholas Pardue, "I do knowledge myself behind in that matter, and under your good leave, I had waited on you ere the week were out. A labouring man, with a great store of children, hath not alway money to his hand when it most list him to pay the same."
"So far, well," answered the priest more amiably. "I will tarry a time, trusting you shall in other ways return to your duty. God give you a good even!"
And with seven shillings more in his pocket than when he entered, the Rev. Philip Bastian went his way. Nicholas and Collet looked at each other with some concern.
"We've but barely 'scaped!" said the latter. "What do we now, Nick? Wilt go to church o' Sunday?"
"No," said Nicholas quietly.
"Shall I go without thee, to peace him like?"
"Not by my good-will thereto."
"Then what do we?"
"What we have hitherto done. Serve God, and keep ourselves from idols."
"Nick, I do by times marvel if it be any ill to go. We worship no idols, even though we bow down—"
"'Thou shalt not bow down to them' is the command."
"Ay, but they were images of false gods."
"Read the Commandment, good wife. They were 'any graven image, or the likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth.' Not a word touching false gods read I there."
"Why, but that were to condemn all manner of painting and such like— even yon rogue's likeness of Mistress Hall yonder."
"Scarcely, methinks, so long as it were not made for worship. The cherubim were commanded to be made. But if so were, wife—whether were better, that the arts of painting and sculpture were forgotten, or that God should be dishonoured and His commands disobeyed?"
"Well, if you put it that way—"
"Isn't it the true way?"
"Ay, belike it is. But he'll be down on us, Nick."
"No manner of doubt, wife, but he will, and Satan too. But 'I am with thee, and no man shall invade thee to hurt thee,' [see Note] saith the Lord unto His servants."
"They've set on Mistress Benden, trow."
"Nay, not to hurt her. 'Some of you shall they cause to be put to death... yet shall not an hair of your head perish.'"
"Eh, Nick, how shall that be brought about?"
"I know not, Collet, neither do I care. The Lord's bound to bring it about, and He knows how. I haven't it to do."
"'Tis my belief," said Collet, shaking the table-cloth, in a fond endeavour to obliterate the signs of Master Silas and his art, "that Master Benden 'll have a pretty bill to pay, one o' these days!"
Her opinion would have been confirmed if she could have looked into the window at Briton's Mead, as Mr Benden's house was called. For Edward Benden was already coming to that conclusion. He sat in his lonely parlour, without a voice to break the stillness, after an uncomfortable supper sent up in the absence of the mistress by a girl whom Alice had not yet fully trained, and who, sympathising wholly with her, was not concerned to increase the comfort of her master. At that time the mistress of a house, unless very exalted, was always her own housekeeper and head cook.
Mr Benden was not a man usually given to excess, but he drank deeply that evening, to get out of the only company he had, that of his own self-reproachful thoughts. He had acted in haste—spurred on, not deterred, by Tabitha's bitter speeches; and he was now occupied in repenting considerably at leisure. He knew as well as any one could have told him, that he was an unpopular man in his neighbourhood, and that no one of his acquaintance would have done or suffered much for him, save that long-suffering wife who, by his own act, lay that night a prisoner in Canterbury Gaol. Even she did not love him—he had never given her room nor reason; but she would have done her duty by him, and he knew it.
He looked up to where her portrait hung upon the wall, taken ten years ago, in the bloom of her youth. The eyes were turned towards him, and the lips were half parted in a smile.
"Alice!" he said, as if the picture could have heard him. "Alice!"
But the portrait smiled on, and gave no answer.
"I'll have you forth, Alice," he murmured. "I'll see to it the first thing to-morrow. Well, not to-morrow, neither; market-day at Cranbrook. I meant to take the bay horse to sell there. Do no harm, trow, to let her tarry a two-three days or a week. I mean you no harm, Alice; only to bring you down a little, and make you submissive. You're a bit too much set on your own way, look you. I'll go to Master Horden and Master Colepeper, and win them to move Dick o' Dover to leave her go forth. It shall do her a power of good—just a few days. And I can ne'er put up with many suppers like this—I must have her forth. Should have thought o' that sooner, trow. Ay, Alice—I'll have you out!"
Note. Most of the Scriptural quotations are taken from Cranmer's Bible.
"Father! O Father! Must I forgive Uncle Edward? I don't see how I can."
"I'm afraid you must, Christie, if you look to follow Christ."
"But how can I? To use dear Aunt Alice so cruelly!"
"How can God forgive thee and me, Christie, that have used His blessed Son far, far worser than Uncle Edward hath used Aunt Alice, or ever could use her?"
"Father, have you forgiven him?"
It was a hard question. Next after his little Christie herself, the dearest thing in the world to Roger Hall was his sister Alice. He hesitated an instant.
"No, you haven't," said Christie, in a tone of satisfaction. "Then I'm sure I don't need if you haven't."
"Dost thou mean, then, to follow Roger Hall, instead of the Lord Jesus?"
Christie parried that difficult query by another.
"Father, love you Uncle Edward?"
"I am trying, Christie."
"I should think you'd have to try about a hundred million years!" said Christie. "I feel as if I should be as glad as could be, if a big bear would just come and eat him up!—or a great lion, I would not mind which it was, if it wouldn't leave the least bit of him."
"But if Christ died for Uncle Edward, my child?"
"I don't see how He could. I wouldn't."
"No, dear heart, I can well believe that. 'Scarce will any man die for a righteous man... But God setteth out His love toward us, seeing that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.' And He left us 'an ensample,' my Christie, 'that we should follow His steps.'"
"I can't, Father; I can't!"
"Surely thou canst not, without the Lord make thee able. Thou canst never follow Christ in thine own strength. But 'His strength is made perfect through weakness.' I know well, my dear heart, 'tis vastly harder to forgive them that inflict suffering on them we love dearly— far harder than when we be the sufferers ourselves. But God can enable us to do even that, Christie."
Christie's long sigh, as she turned on her cushion, said that it was almost too hard for her to believe. But before she had found an answer, the door opened, and Mrs Tabitha Hall appeared behind it.
"Well, Roger Hall, how love you your good brother-in-law this morrow?" was her greeting. "I love not his action in no wise, sister."
"What mean you by that? Can you set a man's action in one basket, and himself in another? It's a strain beyond E-la, that is." [See note.]
"We're trying to forgive Uncle Edward, Aunt," said Christie from her couch, in a rather lugubrious tone.
"Pleasant work, isn't it?" was Aunt Tabitha's answer. "I haven't forgiven him, nor tried neither; nor I amn't going."
"But Father says we must."
"Very good; let him set us the ensample."
Aunt Tabitha made herself comfortable in Mr Hall's big chair, which he vacated for her convenience. By her side she set down her large market-basket, covered with a clean cloth, from which at one end protruded the legs of two geese, and at the other the handle of a new frying-pan.
"I've been up to see him this morrow; I thought he'd best not come short o' bitters. But he's off to Cranbrook with his bay horse—at the least so saith Mall—and I shall need to tarry while he comes back. It'll not hurt: bitters never lose strength by standing. I'll have it out with him again, come this even."
"Best not, Tabitha. It should maybe turn to more bitters for poor Alice, if you anger him yet further. And we have no right to interfere."
"What mean you by that, Roger Hall?" demanded Mistress Tabitha, in warlike tones. "No right, quotha! If that isn't a man, all o'er! I've a right to tell my brother-in-law he's an infamous rascal, and I'll do it, whether I have or no! No right, marry come up! Where else is he to hear it, prithee? You talk of forgiving him, forsooth, and Alice never stands up to him an inch, and as for that Tom o' mine, why, he can scarce look his own cat in the face. Deary weary me! where would you all be, I'd like to know, without I looked after you? You'd let yourselves be trod on and ground down into the dust, afore you'd do so much as squeal. That's not my way o' going on, and you'd best know it."
"Thank you, Sister Tabitha; I think I knew it before," said Mr Hall quietly.
"Please, Aunt Tabitha—" Christie stopped and flushed.
"Well, child, what's ado?"
"Please, Aunt, if you wouldn't!" suggested Christie lucidly. "You see, I've got to forgive Uncle Edward, and when you talk like that, it makes me boil up, and I can't."
"Boil up, then, and boil o'er," said Aunt Tabitha, half-amused. "I'll tarry to forgive him, at any rate, till he says he's sorry."
"But Father says God didn't wait till we were sorry, before the Lord Jesus died for us, Aunt Tabitha."
"You learn your gram'mer to suck eggs!" was the reply. "Well, if you're both in that mind, I'd best be off; I shall do no good with you." And Aunt Tabitha swung the heavy market-basket on her strong arm as lightly as if it were only a feather's weight. "Good-morrow; I trust you'll hear reason, Roger Hall, next time I see you. Did you sup your herbs, Christie, that I steeped for you?"
"Yes, Aunt, I thank you," said Christabel meekly, a vivid recollection of the unsavoury flavour of the dose coming over her, and creating a fervent hope that Aunt Tabitha would be satisfied without repeating it.
"Wormwood, and betony, and dandelion, and comfrey," said Aunt Tabitha. "Maybe, now, you'd best have a change; I'll lay some camomile and ginger to steep for you, with a pinch of balm—that'll be pleasant enough to sup."
Christabel devoutly hoped it would be better than the last, but she wisely refrained from saying so.
"As for Edward Benden, I'll mix him some wormwood and rue," resumed Aunt Tabitha grimly: "and I'll not put honey in it neither. Good-morrow. You've got to forgive him, you know: much good may it do you! It'll not do him much, without I mistake."
And Aunt Tabitha and her basket marched away. Looking from the window, Mr Hall descried Mr Benden coming up a side road on the bay horse, which he had evidently not succeeded in selling. He laughed to himself as he saw that Tabitha perceived the enemy approaching, and evidently prepared for combat. Mr Benden, apparently, did not see her till he was nearly close to her, when he at once spurred forward to get away, pursued by the vindictive Tabitha, whose shrill voice was audible as she ran, though the words could not be heard. They were not, however, difficult to imagine. Of course the horse soon distanced the woman. Aunt Tabitha, with a shake of her head and another of her clenched fist at the retreating culprit, turned back for her basket, which she had set down on the bank to be rid of its weight in the pursuit.
Mr Benden's reflections were not so pleasant as they might have been, and they were no pleasanter for having received curt and cold welcome that morning from several of his acquaintances in Cranbrook. People manifestly disapproved of his recent action. There were many who sympathised but little with Alice Benden's opinions, and would even have been gratified by the detection and punishment of a heretic, who were notwithstanding disgusted and annoyed that a quiet, gentle, and generally respected gentlewoman should be denounced to the authorities by her own husband. He, of all men, should have shielded and screened her. Even Justice Roberts had nearly as much as told him so. Mr Benden felt himself a semi-martyr. The world was hard on disinterested virtue, and had no sympathy with self-denial. It is true, the world did not know his sufferings at the hands of Mary, who could not send up a decent hash—and who was privately of opinion that an improper hash, or no hash at all, was quite good enough for the man who had accused her dear mistress to the authorities. Mr Benden was growing tired of disinterested virtue, which was its own reward, and a very poor one.
"I can't stand this much longer; I must have Alice back!" was his reflection as he alighted from the bay horse.
But Nemesis had no intention of letting him off thus easily. Mistress Tabitha Hall had carried home her geese and frying-pan, and after roasting and eating the former with chestnut sauce, churning the week's supply of butter, setting the bread to rise, and indicating to Friswith and Joan, her elder daughters, what would be likely to happen to them if the last-named article were either over or under-baked, she changed her gown from a working woollen to an afternoon camlet, and took her way to Briton's Mead. Mr Benden had supped as best he might on a very tough chicken pie, with a crust not much softer than crockery, and neither his digestion nor his temper was in a happy condition, when Mary rapped at the door, and much to her own satisfaction informed her master that Mistress Hall would fain have speech of him. Mr Benden groaned almost audibly. Could he by an act of will have transported Tabitha to the further side of the Mountains of the Moon, nobody in Staplehurst would have seen much more of her that year. But, alas! he had to run the gauntlet of her comments on himself and his proceedings, which he well knew would not be complimentary. For a full hour they were closeted together. Mary, in the kitchen, could faintly hear their voices, and rejoiced to gather from the sound that, to use her own expression, "the master was supping his broth right well peppered." At last Mistress Tabitha marched forth, casting a Parthian dart behind her.
"See you do, Edward Benden, without you want another basin o' hot water; and I'll set the kettle on to boil this time, I promise you!"
"Good even, Mary," she added, as she came through the kitchen. "He (without any antecedent) has promised he'll do all he can to fetch her forth; and if he doesn't, and metely soon too, he'll wish he had, that's all!"
So saying, Mistress Tabitha marched home to inspect her bread, and if need were, to "set the kettle on" there also.
Note: E-la is the highest note in the musical system of Guido d'Aretino, which was popular in the sixteenth century. "A strain beyond E-la," therefore, signified something impossible or unreasonable.
WHEREIN ALICE COMES HOME.
Partly moved by a faint sense of remorse, partly by Mrs Tabitha's sharp speeches, and partly also—perhaps most of all—by his private discomfort in respect of Mary's culinary unskilfulness, Mr Benden set himself to eat his dose of humble pie. He waited on Mr Horden of Finchcocks, and Mr Colepeper of Bedgebury Park, two of the chief men of position and influence in his neighbourhood, to entreat them to exert themselves in persuading the Bishop to release Alice as soon as possible. The diocese, of course, was that of Cardinal Pole; but this portion of it was at that time in the hands of his suffragan, Dr Richard Thornton, Bishop of Dover, whom the irreverent populace familiarly termed Dick of Dover. This right reverend gentleman was not of the quiet and reasonable type of Mr Justice Roberts. On the contrary, he had a keen scent for a heretic, and took great delight in bringing one into tribulation. On receiving the letters wherein Messrs. Horden and Colepeper interceded for Alice Benden, his Lordship ordered the prisoner to be brought before him.
The Archbishop's gaoler went down to the prison, where Alice Benden, a gentlewoman by birth and education, shared one large room with women of the worst character and lowest type, some committed for slight offences, some for heavy crimes. These women were able to recognise in an instant that this prisoner was of a different order from themselves. Those who were not fallen into the depths, treated her with some respect; but the lowest either held aloof from her or jeered at her—mostly the latter. Alice took all meekly; did what she could for the one or two that were ailing, and the three or four who had babies with them; spoke words of Gospel truth and kindly sympathy to such as would let her speak them: and when sleep closed the eyes and quieted the tongues of most, meditated and communed with God. The gaoler opened the door a little way, and just put his head into the women's room. The prisoners might have been thankful that there were separate chambers for men and women... Such luxuries were unknown in many gaols at that date.
"Alice Benden!" he said gruffly.
Alice rose, gave back to its mother a baby she had been holding, and went towards the gaoler, who stood at the top of the stone steps which led down from the door.
"Here I am, Master Gaoler: what would you with me?"
"Tie on your hood and follow me; you are to come afore my Lord of Dover."
Alice's heart beat somewhat faster, as she took down her hood from one of the pegs around the room, and followed the gaoler through a long passage, up a flight of steps, across a courtyard, and into the hall where the Bishop was holding his Court. She said nothing which the gaoler could hear: but the God in whom Alice trusted heard an earnest cry of—"Lord, I am Thine; save Thine handmaid that trusteth in Thee!"
The gaoler led her forward to the end of a long table which stood before the Bishop, and announced her name to his Lordship.
"Alice Benden, of Briton's Mead, Staplehurst, an' it like your Lordship."
"Ah!" said his Lordship, in an amiable tone; "she it is touching whom I had letters. Come hither to me, I pray you, Mistress. Will you now go home, and go to church in time coming?"
That meant, would she consent to worship images, and to do reverence to the bread of the Lord's Supper as if Christ Himself were present? There was no going to church in those days without that. And that, as Alice Benden knew, was idolatry, forbidden by God in the First and Second Commandments.
"If I would have so done," she said in a quiet, modest tone, "I needed not have come hither."
"Wilt thou go home, and be shriven of thy parish priest?"
"No, I will not." Alice could not believe that a man could forgive sins. Only God could do that; and He did not need a man through whom to do it. The Lord Jesus was just as able to say to her from His throne above, as He had once said on earth to a poor, trembling, despised woman—"Thy sins be forgiven thee; go in peace."
Something had made "Dick of Dover" unusually gentle that afternoon. He only replied—"Well, go thy ways home, and go to church when thou wilt."
Alice made no answer. She was resolved to promise nothing. But a priest who stood by, whether mistakenly thinking that she spoke, or kind enough to wish to help her, answered for her—"She says she will, my Lord."
"Enough. Go thy ways!" said the Bishop, who seemed to wish to set her at liberty: perhaps he was a little afraid of the influential men who had interceded for her. Alice, thus dismissed, walked out of the hall a free woman. As she came out into Palace Street, a hand was laid upon her shoulder.
"Well, Alice!" said Edward Benden's voice. "I wrought hard to fetch you forth; I trust you be rightly thankful. Come home."
Not a word did he say of the pains he had taken originally to drive her into the prison; neither did Alice allude to that item. She only said in the meekest manner—"I thank you, Edward"—and followed her lord and master down Mercery Lane towards Wincheap Gate. She did not even ask whether he had made any preparations for her journey home, or whether he expected her to follow him on foot through the five-and-twenty miles which lay between Canterbury and Staplehurst. But when they reached the western corner of the lane, Mr Benden stopped at the old Chequers Inn, and in a stentorian voice demanded "that bay." The old bay horse which Alice knew so well, and which her husband had not succeeded in selling for more than its worth, as he desired, was brought forth, laden with a saddle and pillion, on the latter of which Alice took her place behind Mr Benden.
Not a word was spoken by either during the journey. They were about a mile from Staplehurst, and had just turned a corner in the road, when they were greeted by words in considerable number.
"Glad to see you!" said a brown hood—for the face inside it was not visible. "I reckoned you'd think better of it; but I'd got a good few bitters steeping for you, in case you mightn't. Well, Alice! how liked you yonder?—did Dick o' Dover use you metely well?—and how came he to let you go free? Have you promised him aught? He doesn't set folks at liberty, most commonly, without they do. Come, speak up, woman! and let's hear all about it."
"I have promised nothing," said Alice calmly; "nor am I like so to do. Wherefore the Bishop let me go free cannot I tell you; but I reckon that Edward here wist more of the inwards thereof than I. How go matters with you, Tabitha?"
"Oh, as to the inwards," said the brown hood, with a short, satirical laugh, "I guess I know as much as you or Edward either; 'twas rather the outwards I made inquiry touching. Me? Oh, I'm as well as common, and so be folks at home; I've given Friswith a fustigation, and tied up Joan to the bedpost, and told our Tom he'd best look out. He hasn't the spirit of a rabbit in him. I'd fain know where he and the childre 'd be this day month, without I kept matters going."
"How fares Christabel, I pray you?"
"Oh, same as aforetime; never grows no better, nor no worser. It caps me. She doesn't do a bit o' credit to my physicking—not a bit. And I've dosed her with betony, and camomile, and comfrey, and bugloss, and hart's tongue, and borage, and mugwort, and dandelion—and twenty herbs beside, for aught I know. It's right unthankful of her not to mend; but childre is that thoughtless! And Roger, he spoils the maid—never stands up to her a bit—gives in to every whim and fantasy she takes in her head. If she cried for the moon, he'd borrow every ladder in the parish and lash 'em together to get up."
"What 'd he set it against?" gruffly demanded Mr Benden, who had not uttered a word before.
"Well, if he set it against your conceit o' yourself, I guess he'd get high enough—a good bit higher than other folks' conceit of you. I marvel if you're ashamed of yourself, Edward Benden. I am."
"First time you ever were ashamed of yourself."
"Ashamed of myself?" demanded Tabitha Hall, in tones of supreme contempt, turning her face full upon the speaker. "You'll not butter your bread with that pot o' dripping, Edward Benden, if you please. You're not fit to black my shoes, let alone Alice's, and I'm right pleased for to tell you so."
"Good even, Mistress Hall; 'tis time we were at home."
"Got a home-truth more than you wanted, haven't you? Well, 'tis time enough Alice was, so go your ways; but as where 'tis time you were, my dainty master, that's the inside of Canterbury Gaol, or a worser place if I could find it; and you've got my best hopes of seeing you there one o' these days. Good den."
The bay horse was admonished to use its best endeavours to reach Briton's Mead without delay, and Mistress Tabitha, tongue and all, was left behind on the road.
"Eh, Mistress, but I'm fain to see you!" said Mary that evening, as she and Alice stood in the pleasant glow of the kitchen fire. "I've had a weary fortnight on't, with Master that contrarious, I couldn't do nought to suit him, and Mistress Hall a-coming day by day to serve him wi' vinegar and pepper. Saints give folks may be quiet now! We've had trouble enough to last us this bout."
"I am glad to come home, Mall," was the gentle answer. "But man is born to trouble, and I scarce think we have seen an end of ours. God learneth His servants by troubles."
"Well, I wouldn't mind some folks being learned thus, but I'd fain see other some have a holiday. What shall I dress for supper, Mistress? There's a pheasant and a couple of puffins, and a platter of curds and whey, and there's a sea-pie in the larder, and a bushel o' barberries."
"That shall serve, Mall. We had best lay in some baconed herrings for next fish-day; your master loves them."
"Afore I'd go thinking what he loved, if I were you!"
This last reflection on Mary's part was not allowed to be audible, but it was very earnest notwithstanding.
REPENTING HIS REPENTANCE.
It was Saturday evening, and three days after Alice returned home. Mr Benden sat in the chimney-corner, having just despatched a much more satisfactory supper than Mary had ever allowed him to see during her mistress's imprisonment; and Alice, her household duties finished for the day, came and sat in the opposite corner with her work.
The chimney-corner, at that date, was literally a chimney-corner. There were no grates, and the fire of logs blazed on a wide square hearth, around which, and inside the chimney, was a stone seat, comfortably cushioned, and of course extremely warm. This was the usual evening seat of the family, especially its elder and more honourable members. How they contrived to stand the very close quarters to the blazing logs, and how they managed never to set themselves on fire, must be left to the imagination.
Alice's work this evening was knitting. Stockings? Certainly not; the idea of knitted stockings had not yet dawned. Stockings were still, as they had been for centuries, cut out of woollen cloth, and sewn together like any other garment. The woman who was to immortalise her name by the brilliant invention of knitting stockings was then a little girl, just learning to use her needles. What Alice was knitting this evening was a soft woollen cap, intended for the comfort of Mr Benden's head.
The inside of the head in question was by no means so comfortable as Alice was preparing to make the outside. Mr Benden was pulled two ways, and not knowing which to go, he kept trying each in turn and retracing his steps. He wanted to make Alice behave herself; by which he meant, conform to the established religion as Queen Mary had Romanised it, and go silently to church without making insubordinate objections to idolatry, or unpleasant remarks afterwards. This was only to be attained, as it seemed to him, by sending her to prison. But, also, he wanted to keep her out of prison, and to ensure the continuance of those savoury suppers on which his comfort and contentment depended, and the existence of which appeared to depend on her remaining at home. How were the two to be harmoniously combined? Reflections of this kind resulted in making Mr Benden a very uncomfortable man; and he was a man with whom to be uncomfortable was to be unreasonable.
"Alice!" he said at last, after a period of silent thought Alice looked up from her work.
"The morrow shall be Sunday."
Alice assented to that indisputable fact.
"You'll come to church with me?"
For one instant Alice was silent. Her husband thought she was wavering in her decision, but on that point he was entirely mistaken. She was doing what Nehemiah did when he "prayed to the God of heaven" between the King's question and his answer. Well she knew that to reply in the negative might lead to reproach, prison, torture, even death. Yet that was the path of God's commandments, and no flowery By-path Meadow must tempt her to stray from it. In her heart she said to Him who had redeemed her—
"Saviour, where'er Thy steps I see, Dauntless, untired, I follow Thee!"
and then she calmly answered aloud, "No, Edward, that I cannot do."
"What, hath your taste of the Bishop's prison not yet persuaded you?" returned he angrily.
"Nay, nor never will."
"Then you may look to go thither again, my mistress."
"Very well, Edward." Her heart sank low, but she did not let him see it.
"You'll either go to church, or here you bide by yourself."
"I thought to go and sit a while by Christie," she said.
"You'll not go out of this house. I'll have no whisperings betwixt you and those brethren of yours—always tuting in your ear, and setting you up to all manner of mischief. You'd not be so troublesome if you hadn't Roger Hall at your back—that's my belief. You may just keep away from them; and if they keep not away from you, they'll maybe get what they shall love little."
Alice was silent for a moment. Then she said very quietly, "As you will, Edward. I would only ask of you one favour—that I may speak once with Roger, to tell him your pleasure."
"I'll tell him fast enough when I see him. Nay, my mistress: you come not round me o' that fashion. I'll not have him and you plotting to win you away ere the catchpoll [constable] come to carry you hence. You'll tarry here, without you make up your mind to be conformable, and go to church."
The idea of escape from the toils drawing close around her had never entered Alice's brain till then. Now, for one moment, it surged in wild excitement through her mind. The next moment it was gone. A voice seemed to whisper to her—
"The cup which thy Father hath given thee, wilt thou not drink it?"
Then she said tranquilly, "Be it as you will. Because I cannot rightly obey you in one matter, I will be the more careful in all other to order me as you desire."
Mr Benden answered only by a sneer. He did not believe in meekness. In his estimation, women who pretended to be meek and submissive were only trying to beguile a man. In his heart he knew that this gentle obedience was not natural to Alice, who had a high spirit and plenty of fortitude; and instead of attributing it to the grace of God, which was its real source, he set it down to a desire to cheat him in some unrevealed fashion.
He went to church, and Alice stayed at home as she was bidden. Finding that she had done so, Mr Benden tried hard to discover that one of her brothers had been to see her, sharply and minutely questioning Mary on the subject.
"I told him nought," said Mary afterwards to Mistress Tabitha: "and good reason why—there was nought to tell. But if every man Jack of you had been here, do you think I'd ha' let on to the likes o' him?"
A very uncomfortable fortnight followed. Mr Benden was in the exasperating position of the Persian satraps, when they could find no occasion against this Daniel. He was angry with the Bishop for releasing Alice at his own request, angry with the neighbouring squires, who had promoted the release, angry with Roger Hall for not allowing himself to be found visiting his sister, most angry with Alice for giving him no reasonable cause for anger. The only person with whom he was not angry was his unreasonable self.
"If it wasn't for Mistress yonder, I should be in twenty minds not to tarry here," said Mary to Mistress Tabitha, whom she overtook in the road as both were coming home from market. "I'd as lief dwell in the house with a grizzly bear as him. How she can put up with him that meek as she do, caps me. Never gives him an ill word, no matter how many she gets; and I do ensure you, Mistress Hall, his mouth is nothing pleasant. And how do you all, I pray you? for it shall be a pleasure to my poor mistress to hear the same. Fares little Mistress Christabel any better?"
"Never a whit, Mall; and I am at my wits' end to know what I shall next do for her. She wearies for her Aunt Alice, and will not allow of me in her stead."
Mary felt privately but small astonishment at this.
"I sent Friswith and Justine over to tarry with her, but she seemed to have no list to keep them; they were somewhat too quick for her, I reckon." By quick, Mistress Hall meant lively. "I'll tell you what, Mary Banks—with all reverence I speak it, but I do think I could order this world better than it is."
"Think you so, Mistress Hall? And how would you go to do it?"
"First business, I'd be rid of that Edward Benden. Then I'd set Alice in her brother Roger's house, to look after him and Christabel. She'd be as happy as the day is long, might she dwell with them, and had that cantankerous dolt off her hands for good. Eh dear! but if Master Hall, my father-in-law, that made Alice's match with Benden, but had it to do o'er again, I reckon he'd think twice and thrice afore he gave her to that toad. The foolishness o' folks is beyond belief. Why, she might have had Master Barnaby Final, that was as decent a man as ever stepped in leather—he wanted her: but Benden promised a trifle better in way of money, and Master Hall, like an ass as he was, took up wi' him. There's no end to men's doltishness [foolishness]. I'm homely, [plain-spoken] you'll say, and that's true; I love so to be. I never did care for dressing my words with all manner o' frippery, as if they were going to Court. 'Tis a deal the best to speak plain, and then folks know what you're after."
When that uncomfortable fortnight came to an uncomfortable end, Mr Benden went to church in a towering passion. He informed such of his friends as dared to approach him after mass, that the perversity and obduracy of his wife were beyond all endurance on his part. Stay another week in his house she should not! He would be incalculably indebted to any friend visiting Cranbrook, if he would inform the Justices of her wicked ways, so that she might be safely lodged again in gaol. An idle young man, more out of thoughtless mischief than from any worse motive, undertook the task.
When Alice Benden appeared the second time before the Bench, it was not with ease-loving, good-natured Justice Roberts that she had to do. Sir John Guildford was now the sitting magistrate, and he committed her to prison with short examination. But the constable, whether from pity or for some consideration of his own convenience, did not wish to take her; and the administration of justice being somewhat lax, she was ordered by that official to go home until he came for her.
"Go home, forsooth!" cried Mr Benden in angry tones. "I'll not have her at home!"
"Then you may carry her yourself to Canterbury," returned the constable. "I cannot go this week, and I have nobody to send."
"Give me a royal farthing, and I will!" was the savage answer.
The constable looked in his face to see if he meant it. Then he shook his head, dipped his hand into his purse, and pulled out half-a-crown, which he passed to Mr Benden, who pocketed this price of blood. Alice had walked on down the Market Place, and was out of hearing. Mr Benden strode after her, with the half-crown in his pocket.
ALICE DECIDES FOR HERSELF.
"Not that road, Mistress!"
Alice had nearly reached the end of the Market Place, when her husband's harsh call arrested her. She had been walking slowly on, so that he might overtake her. On hearing this, she paused and waited for him to come up.
"That's not the way to Canterbury!" said Mr Benden, seizing her by the wrist, and turning her round.
"I thought we were going home," said Alice quietly.
"Methinks, Mistress, there's somewhat wrong with your hearing this morrow. Heard you not the Justice commit you to gaol?"
"Truly I so did, Edward; but I heard also the constable to say that he would come for me when it should stand with his conveniency, and I reckoned it was thus settled."
"Then you reckoned without your host. The constable hath given me money to carry you thither without delay, and that will I with a very good will."
"Given you money!"
Through six years of unhappy married life Alice Benden had experienced enough of her husband's constant caprice and frequent brutality; but this new development of it astonished her. She had not supposed that he would descend so far as to take the price of innocent blood. The tone of her voice, not indignant, but simply astonished, increased Mr Benden's anger. The more gently she spoke, the harsher his voice grew. This is not unusual, when a man is engaged in wilfully doing what he knows to be wrong.
"Verily, your hearing must be evil this morrow, Mistress!" he said, with some wicked words to emphasise his remark. "The constable hath paid me a royal farthing, and here it is"—patting his pocket as he spoke—"and I have yet to earn it. Come, step out; we have no time to lose."
Alice came to a sudden stand-still.
"No, Edward," she said firmly. "You shall not carry me to gaol. I will have a care of your character, though you little regard mine. I pray you, unhand me, and I will go mine own self to the constable, and entreat him to take me, as his office and duty are." [This part of the story, however extraordinary, is pure fact.]
In sheer amazement, Mr Benden's hand unloosed from Alice's arm; and seizing her opportunity, she walked rapidly back to the Court House. For a moment he stood considering what to do. He had little more concern for his own reputation than for hers; but he felt that if he followed her to the constable, he could scarcely avoid refunding that half-crown, a thing he by no means desired to do. This reflection decided him. He went quickly to the inn where he had left his horse, mounted, and rode home, leaving Alice to her own devices, to walk home or get taken to Canterbury in any way she could.
The constable was not less astonished than Mr Benden. He was not accustomed to receive visits from people begging to be taken to gaol. He scratched his head, put it on one side and looked at Alice as if she were a curiosity in an exhibition, then took off his cap again, and scratched his head on the other side.
"Well, to be sure!" he said at last. "To tell truth, my mistress, I know not what to do with you. I cannot mine own self win this day to Canterbury, and I have no place to tarry you here; nor have I any to send withal save yon lad."
He pointed as he spoke to his son, a lad of about twelve years old, who sat on the bench by the Court House door, idly whistling, and throwing up a pebble to catch it again.
"Then, I pray you, Master Constable," said Alice eagerly, "send the lad with me. I am loth to put you to this labour, but verily I am forced to it; and methinks you may lightly guess I shall not run away from custody."
The constable laughed, but looked undecided.
"In very deed," said he, "I see not wherefore you should not go home and tarry there, till such time as I come to fetch you. But if it must be, it must. I will go saddle mine horse, and he shall carry you to Canterbury with George."
While the constable went to saddle the horse, and Alice sat on the bench waiting till it was ready, she fought with a very strong temptation. Her husband would not receive her, so much she knew for a certainty; but there were others who would. How welcome Roger would have made her! and what a perfect haven of rest it would be, to live even for a few days with him and Christabel! Her old father, too, at Frittenden, who had told her not many days before, with tears in his eyes, how bitterly he repented ever giving her to Edward Benden. It must be remembered that in those days girls were never permitted to choose for themselves, whether they wished to marry a man or not; the parents always decided that point, and sometimes, as in this instance, they came to a sadly mistaken decision. Alice had not chosen her husband, and he had never given her any reason to love him; but she had done her best to be a good wife, and even now she would not depart from it. The temptation was sore, and she almost gave way under it. But the constant habit of referring everything to God stood her in good stead in this emergency. To go and stay with her brother, whose visits to her Mr Benden had forbidden, would be sure to create a scandal, and to bring his name into even worse repute than it was at present. She must either be at Briton's Mead or in Canterbury Gaol; and just now the gaol was the only possible place for her. Be it so! God would go with her into the gaol—perhaps more certainly than into Roger's home. And the place where she could be sure of having God with her was the place where Alice chose and wished to be.
Her heart sank heavily as she heard the great door of the gaol clang to behind her. Alice was made of no materials more all-enduring than flesh and blood. She could enjoy rest and pleasantness quite as well as other people. And she wondered drearily, as she went down the steps into the women's room, how long she was to stay in that unrestful and unpleasant place.
"Why, are you come again?" said one of the prisoners, as Alice descended the steps. "What, you wouldn't conform? Well, no more would I."
Alice recognised the face of a decent-looking woman who had come in the same day that she was released, and in whom she had felt interested at the time from her quiet, tidy appearance, though she had no opportunity of speaking to her. She sat down now on the bench by her side.
"Are you here for the like cause, friend? I mind your face, methinks, though I spake not to you aforetime."
"Ay, we row in the same boat," said the woman with a pleasant smile, "and may as well make us known each to other. My name's Rachel Potkin, and I come from Chart Magna: I'm a widow, and without children left to me, for which I thank the Lord now, though I've fretted o'er it many a time. Strange, isn't it, we find it so hard to remember that He sees the end from the beginning, and so hard to believe that He is safe to do the best for us?"
"Ay, and yet not strange," said Alice with a sigh. "Life's weary work by times."
"It is so, my dear heart," answered Rachel, laying a sympathising hand on Alice's. "But, bethink you, He's gone through it. Well, and what's your name?"
"My name is Alice Benden, from Staplehurst."
"Are you a widow?"
Had Tabitha been asked that question in the same circumstances, she would not improbably have replied, "No; worse luck!" But Alice, as we have seen, was tender over her husband's reputation. She only returned a quiet negative. Rachel, whose eyes were keen, and ears ditto, heard something in the tone, and saw something in the eyes, which Alice had no idea was there to see and hear, that made her say to herself, "Ah, poor soul! he's a bad sort, not a doubt of it." Aloud she only said,—
"And how long look you to be here—have you any notion?"
Prisoners in our milder days are committed to prison for a certain term. In those days there was no fixed limit. A man never knew for a certainty, when he entered the prison, whether he would remain there for ten days or for fifty years. He could only guess from appearances how long it might be likely to be.
"Truly, friend, that know I not. God knoweth."
"Well said, Mistress Benden. Let us therefore give thanks, and take our hearts to us."
Just then the gaoler came up to them.
"Birds of a feather, eh?" said he, with not unkindly humour. For a gaoler, he was not a hard man. "Mistress Benden, your allowance is threepence by the day—what shall I fetch you?"
The prisoners were permitted to buy their own food through the prison officials, up to the value of their daily allowance. Alice considered a moment.
"A pennyworth of bread, an' it like you, Master; a farthing's worth of beef; a farthing's worth of eggs; and a pennyworth of ale. The halfpenny, under your good pleasure, I will keep in hand."
Does the reader exclaim, Was that the whole day's provision? Indeed it was, and a very fair day's provision too. For this money Alice would receive six rolls or small loaves of bread, a pound of beef, two eggs, and a pint of ale,—quite enough for supper and breakfast. The ale was not so much as it seems, for they drank ale at every meal, even breakfast, only invalids using milk. To drink water was thought a dreadful hardship, and they had no tea or coffee.
The gaoler nodded and departed.
"Look you, Mistress Benden," said Rachel Potkin, "I have thought by times to try, being here in this case, on how little I could live, so as to try mine endurance, and fit me so to do if need were. Shall we essay it together, think you? Say I well?"
"Very well, Mistress Potkin; I were fain to make the trial. How much is your allowance by the day?"
"The like of yours—threepence."
"We will try on how little we can keep in fair health," said Alice with a little laugh, "and save our money for time of more need. On what shall we do it, think you?"
"Why, I reckon we may look to do it on fourpence betwixt us."
"Oh, surely!" said Alice. "Threepence, I well-nigh think."
While this bargain was being made, Mr Benden sat down to supper, a pork pie standing before him, a dish of toasted cheese to follow, and a frothed tankard of ale at his elbow. Partly owing to her mistress's exhortations, Mary had changed her tactics, and now sought to mollify her master by giving him as good a supper as she knew how to serve. But Mr Benden was hard to please this evening. "The pork is as tough as leather," he declared; "the cheese is no better than sawdust, and the ale is flat as ditch-water." And he demanded of Mary, in rasping tones, if she expected such rubbish to agree with him?
"Ah!" said Mary to herself as she shut the door on him, "'tis your conscience, Master, as doesn't agree with you."
Old Grandfather Hall had got a lift in a cart from Frittenden, and came to spend the day with Roger and Christabel. It was a holy-day, for which cause Roger was at home, for in those times a holy-day was always a holiday, and the natural result was that holiday-making soon took the place of keeping holy. Roger's leisure days were usually spent by the side of his little Christie.
"Eh, Hodge, my lad!" said Grandfather Hall, shaking his white head, as he sat leaning his hands upon his silver-headed staff, "but 'tis a strange dispensation this! Surely I never looked for such as this in mine old age. But 'tis my blame—I do right freely confess 'tis my blame. I reckoned I wrought for the best; I meant nought save my maid's happiness: but I see now I had better have been content with fewer of the good things of this life for the child, and have taken more thought for an husband that feared God. Surely I meant well,—yet I did evil; I see it now."
"Father," said Roger, with respectful affection, "I pray you, remember that God's strange dispensations be at times the best things He hath to give us, and that of our very blunders He can make ladders to lift us nearer to Himself."
"Ay, lad, thou hast the right; yet must I needs be sorry for my poor child, that suffereth for my blunder. Hodge, I would thou wouldst visit her."
"That will I, Father, no further than Saint Edmund's Day, the which you wot is next Tuesday. Shall I bear her any message from you?"
Old Mr Hall considered an instant; then he put his hand into his purse, and with trembling fingers pulled out a new shilling.
"Bear her this," said he; "and therewithal my blessing, and do her to wit that I am rarely troubled for her trouble. I cannot say more, lest it should seem to reflect upon her husband: but I would with all mine heart—"
"Well, Nell!" said a voice in the passage outside which everybody knew. "Your master's at home, I count, being a holy-day? The old master here likewise?—that's well. There, take my pattens, that's a good maid. I'll tarry a bit to cheer up the little mistress."
"Oh dear!" said Christabel in a whisper, "Aunt Tabitha won't cheer me a bit; she'll make me boil over. And I'm very near it now; I'm sure I must be singing! If she'd take me off and put me on the hob! Aunt Alice would, if it were she."