By David Christie Murray
Author Of "First Person Singular" "Rainbow Gold" Etc.
A critic, otherwise almost altogether friendly, protests, in reviewing a recent book of mine, that no rustics ever would, could, or will talk in real life as the rustics in that work are made to talk by me. Since this criticism might apply still more pointedly, if it were true, to "Aunt Rachel" than to "Rainbow Gold," I desire to say a word or two in self-defence. A little, a very little, of the average rustic would go a long way in fiction. But I do not profess to deal with the average rustic. I deal, and love to deal, with the rustic exceptional, the village notable and wiseacre. Observant readers will have noticed that the date of one story is 1853, and that the epoch of the other is remoter by a dozen years. In my boyhood, in the Staffordshire Black Country, the rustic people were saturated with the speech of the Bible, the Church Service, and the "Pilgrim's Progress." It is otherwise to-day, and their English, when it pretends at all to a literary flavor, is the English of the local weekly paper. The gravity, the slow sententiousness, and purposed wisdom of the utterances of more than one or two knots of habitual companions whom I can recall, were outside the chances of exaggeration. Often these people were really wise and witty. They were the makers of the local proverbial philosophy, and many of their phrases are alive today. I recall and could set down here a score of the quaintest bits of humor and good-sense, and one or two things genuinely poetical, which were spoken in my childish hearing. But I refrain myself easily from this temptation, because I have not written my last Black Country story, and prefer to put these things in a form as near their own as I can achieve. I only desire to say that I have not exaggerated, but have fallen short of the characteristics I have had to deal with.
D. Christie Murray.
Rochefort, Belgium, December, 1885.
A Rustic Sentimental Comedy.
A quartette party—three violins and a 'cello—sat in summer evening weather in a garden. This garden was full of bloom and odor, and was shut in by high walls of ripe old brick. Here and there were large-sized plaster casts—Venus, Minerva, Mercury, a goat-hoofed Pan with his pipes, a Silence with a finger at her lips. They were all sylvan green and crumbled with exposure to the weather, so that, in spite of cheapness, they gave the place a certain Old-world and stately aspect to an observer who was disposed to think so and did not care to look at them too curiously. A square deal table with bare top and painted legs was set on the grass-plot beneath a gnarled apple-tree whose branches were thick with green fruit, and the quartette party sat about this table, each player with his music spread out before him on a portable little folding stand.
Three of the players were old, stout, gray, and spectacled. The fourth was young and handsome, with dreamy gray-blue eyes and a mass of chestnut-colored hair. There was an audience of two—an old man and a girl. The old man stood at the back of the chair of the youngest player, turning his music for him, and beating time with one foot upon the grass. The girl, with twined fingers, leaned both palms on the trunk of the apple-tree, and reposed a clear-colored cheek on her rounded arm, looking downward with a listening air. The youngest player never glanced at the sheets which the old man so assiduously turned for him, but looked straight forward at the girl, his eyes brightening or dreaming at the music. The three seniors ploughed away business-like, with intent frownings, and the man who played the 'cello counted beneath his breath, "One, two, three, four—one, two, three, four," inhaling his breath on one set of figures and blowing on the next.
The movement closed, and the three seniors looked at each other like men who were satisfied with themselves and their companions.
"Lads," said the man with the 'cello, in a fat and comfortable voice, "that was proper! He's a pretty writer, this here Bee-thoven. Rewben, the hallygro's a twister, I can tell thee. Thee hadst better grease thy elbow afore we start on it. Ruth, fetch a jug o' beer, theer's a good wench. I'm as dry as Bill Duke. Thee canst do a drop, 'Saiah, I know."
"Why, yes," returned the second-fiddle. "Theer's a warmish bit afore us, and it's well to have summat to work on."
The girl moved away slowly, her fingers still knitted and her palms turned to the ground. An inward-looking smile, called up by the music, lingered in her eyes, which were of a warm, soft brown.
"Reuben," said the second-fiddle, "thee hast thy uncle's method all over. I could shut my eyes an' think as I was five-and-twenty 'ear younger, and as he was a-playin'. Dost note the tone, Sennacherib?"
"Note it?" said the third senior. "It's theer to be noted. Our 'Saiah's got it drove into him somehow, as he's the one in Heydon Hay as God A'mighty's gi'en a pair of ears to."
"An' our Sennacherib," retorted Isaiah, "is the one as carries Natur's license t' offer the rough side of his tongue to everybody."
"I know it's a compliment," said the younger man, "to say I have my uncle's hand, though I never heard my uncle play."
"No, lad," said the old man who stood behind his chair. "Thee'rt a finer player than ever I was. If I'd played as well as thee I might have held on at it, though even then it ud ha' gone a bit agen the grain."
"Agen the grain?" asked the 'cello-player, in his cheery voice. "With a tone like that? Why, I mek bold to tell you, Mr. Gold, as theer is not a hammer-chewer on the fiddle, not for thirty or may be forty mile around, as has a tone to name in the same day with Rewben."
"There's a deal in what you say, Mr. Fuller," said the old man, who had a bearing of sad and gentle dignity, and gave, in a curious and not easily explainable way, the idea that he spoke but seldom and was something of a recluse. "There's a deal in what you say, Mr. Fuller, but the fiddle is not a thing as can be played like any ordinary instryment. A fiddle's like a wife, in a way of speaking. You must offer her all you've got. If she catches you going about after other women—"
"It's woe betide you!" Sennacherib interrupted.
"You drive her heart away," the old man pursued. "The fiddle's jealouser than a woman. It wants the whole of a man. If Reuben was to settle down to it twelve hours a day, I make no doubt he'd be a player in a few years' time."
"Twelve hours a day!" cried Sennacherib. "D'ye think as life was gi'en to us to pass it all away a scrapin' catgut?"
"Why, no, Mr. Eld," the old man answered, smilingly. "But to my mind there's only two or three men in the world at any particular space o' given time as has the power gi'en 'em by Nature to be fiddlers; that is to say, as has all the qualities to be masters of the instryment. It is so ordered as the best of qualities must be practised to be perfect, and howsoever a man may be qualified to begin with, he must work hour by hour and day by day for years afore he plays the fiddle."
"I look upon any such doctrine as a sinful crime," said Sennacherib. "The fiddle is a recrehation, and was gi'en us for that end. So, in a way, for them as likes it, is skittles. So is marvils, or kite-flyin', or kiss-i'-the-ring. But to talk of a man sittin' on his hinder end, and draggin' rosined hosshair across catgut hour by hour and day by day for 'ears, is a doctrine as I should like to hear Parson Hales's opinion on, if ever it was to get broached afore him."
"Ruth," called the 'cello-player, as the girl reappeared, bearing a tray with a huge jug and glasses, "come along with the beer. And when we've had a drink, lads, well have a cut at the hallygro. It's marked 'vivaysy,' Reuben, an' it'll tek thee all thy time to get the twirls and twiddles i' the right placen."
Ruth poured out a glass of beer for each of the players, and, having set the tray and jug upon the grass, took up her former place and position by the apple-tree.
"Wheer's your rosin, 'Saiah?" asked Sennacherib.
"I forgot to bring it wi' me," said Isaiah. "I took it out of the case last night, and was that neglectful as I forgot to put it back again."
"My blessid!" cried Sennacherib, "I niver see such a man!"
"Well, well!" said the 'cello-player, "here's a bit. You seem to ha' forgot your own."
"What's that got to do wi' it?" Sennacherib demanded. "I shall live to learn as two blacks mek a white by-an'-by, I reckon. There niver was a party o' four but there was three wooden heads among 'em." The girl glanced over her arm, and looked with dancing eyes at the youngest of the party. He, feeling Sennacherib's eye upon him, contrived to keep a grave face. The host gave the word and the four set to work, Reuben playing with genuine fire, and his companions sawing away with a dogged precision which made them agreeable enough to listen to, but droll to look at. Ruth, with her chin upon her dimpled arm, watched Reuben as he played. He had tossed back his chestnut mane of hair rather proudly as he tucked his violin beneath his chin, and had looked round on his three seniors with the air of a master as he held his bow poised in readiness to descend upon the strings. His short upper lip and full lower lip came together firmly, his brows straightened, and his nostrils contracted a little. Ruth admired him demurely, and he gave her ample opportunity, for this time he kept his eyes upon the text. She watched him to the last stroke of the bow, and then, shifting her glance, met the grave, fixed look of the old man who stood behind his chair. At this, conscious of the fashion in which her last five minutes had been passed, she blushed, and to carry this off with as good a grace as might be, she began to applaud with both hands.
"Bravo, father! bravo! Capital, Mr. Eld! capital!"
"Theer," said Sennacherib, ignoring the compliment, and scowling in a sort of dogged triumph at the placid old man behind Reuben's chair, "d'ye think as that could be beat if we spent forty 'ear at it? Theer wa'n't a fause note from start to finish, and time was kep' like a clock."
"It's a warmish bit o' work, that hallygro," said old Fuller, in milder self-gratulation, as he disposed his 'cello between his knees, and mopped his bald forehead. "A warmish bit o' work it is."
"Come, now," said Sennacherib, "d'ye think as it could be beat? A civil answer to a civil question is no more than a beggar's rights, and no less than a king's obligingness."
"It was wonderful well played, Mr. Eld," the old man answered.
"Beat!" said Isaiah. "Why it stands to natur' as it could be beat. D'ye think Paganyni couldn't play a better second fiddle than I can?"
"Ought to play second fiddle pretty well thyself," returned Sennacherib. "Hast been at it all thy life. Ever since thee was married, annyway."
"Come, come, come," said the fat 'cello-player. "Harmony, lads, harmony! How was it, Mr. Gold, as you come to give up the music. Theer's them as is entitled to speak, and has lived i' the parish longer than I have, as holds you up to have been a real noble player."
"There's them," the old man answered, "as would think the parish church the finest buildin' i' the king-dom. But they wouldn't be them as had seen the glories of Lichfield cathedral."
"I'm speakin' after them as thinks they have a right to talk," said the other.
"I might at my best day have come pretty nigh to Reuben," the old man allowed, "though I never was his equal. But as for a real noble player—"
"Well, well," said Fuller, "it ain't a hammer-chewer in a county as plays like Reuben. Give Mr. Gold a chair, Ruth. I should like to hear what might ha' made a man throw it over as had iver got as far."
"I heard Paganini," the old man answered. "I was up in London rather better than six-and-twenty year ago, and I heard Paganini."
"Well?" asked Fuller.
"That's all the story," said the old man, seating himself in the chair the girl had brought him. "I never cared to touch a bow again."
"I don't seem to follow you, Mr. Gold."
"I have never been a wine-drinker," said Gold, "but I may speak of wine to make clear my mean-in'. If you had been drinkin' a wonderful fine glass of port or sherry wine, you wouldn't try to take the taste out of your mouth with varjuice."
"I've tasted both," said the 'cello-player, "but they niver sp'iled my mouth for a glass of honest beer."
"I can listen to middlin'-class music now," said Gold, "and find a pleasure in it. But for a time I could not bring myself to take any sort of joy in music. You think it foolish? Well, perhaps it was. I am not careful to defend it, gentlemen, and it may happen that I might not if I tried. But that was how I came to give up the fiddle. He was a wonder of the world, was Paganini. He was no more like a common man than his fiddlin' was like common fiddlin'. There was things he played that made the blood run cold all down the back, and laid a sort of terror on you."
"I felt like that at the 'Hallelujah' first time I heerd it," said Isaiah. "Band an' chorus of a hundred. It was when they opened the big Wesley Chapel at Barfield twenty 'ear ago."
"We'll tek a turn at Haydn now, lads," said the host, genially.
"I'm sorry to break the party up so soon," Reuben answered, "but I must go. There are people come to tea at father's, and I was blamed for coming away at all. I promised to get back early and give them a tune or two." He arose, and, taking his violin-case from the grass, wiped it carefully all over with his pocket-handkerchief. "I was bade to ask you, sir, if Miss Ruth might come and pass an hour or two. My mother would be particularly pleased to see her, I was to say."
The young fellow was blushing fierily as he spoke, but no one noticed this except the girl.
"Go up, my gell, and spend an hour or two," said her father. "Reuben 'll squire thee home again."
"Wait while I put on my bonnet," she said, as she ran past Reuben into the house. Reuben blushed a little deeper yet, and knelt over his violin-case on the grass, where he swaddled the instrument as if it had been a baby, and bestowed it in its place with unusual care and solicitude.
"Reuben," said his uncle, as the young man arose, "that's a thing as never should be done." The young man looked inquiry. "The poor thing's screwed up to pitch," the old man explained, almost sternly. "Ease her down, lad, ease her down. The strain upon a fiddle is a thing too little thought upon. You get a couple o' strong men one o' these days, and make 'em pull at a set of strings, and see if they'll get them up to concert pitch! I doubt if they'd do it, lad, or anything like. And there's all that strain on a frail shell like that. I've ached to think of it, many a time. A man who carries a weight about all day puts it off to go to bed." "Wondrous delicate an' powerful thing," said old Fuller. "Reminds you o' some o' them delicate-lookin' women as'll goo through wi' a lot more in the way o' pain-bearin' than iver a man wool."
"Rubbidge!" said Sennacherib. "You'd think the women bear a lot. They mek a outcry, to be sure, but theer's a lot more chatter than work about a woman's sufferin', just as theer is about everythin' else her does. Dost remember what the vicar said last Sunday was a wick? It 'ud be a crime, he said, to think as the Lord made the things as is lower in the scale o' natur' than we be to feel like us. The lower the scale the less the feelin'. Stands to rayson, that does. I mek no manner of a doubt as he's got Scripter for it."
"Lower in the scale of natur', Mr. Eld?" said Gold, turning his ascetic face and mournful eyes upon Sennacherib.
"Theer's two things," returned Sennacherib, "as a man o' sense has no particular liking to. He'll niver ask to have his cabbage twice b'iled, nor plain words twice spoke. I said 'Lower in the scale o' na-tur'.' Mek the most on it."
Sennacherib was short but burly, and between him and Gold there was very much the sort of contrast which exists between a mastiff and a deer-hound.
"I will not make the most of it, Mr. Eld," the old man said, with a transient smile. "I might think poorlier of you than I've a right to if I did. When a rose is held lower in the scale of natur' than a turnip, or the mastership in music is gi'en in again the fiddle in favor o' the hurdy-gurdy, I'll begin to think as you and me is better specimens of natur's handiwork than this here gracious bit o' sweetness as is coming towards us at this minute. Good-evenin', Mr. Eld. Good-evenin', Isaiah. Good-evenin', Mr. Fuller. Good-evenin', Reuben. No, I'm not goin' thy way, lad. Call o' me to-morrow; I've a thing to speak of. Good-evenin', Miss Ruth."
When he had spoken his last good-by he folded his gaunt hands behind him and walked away slowly, his shoulders rounded with an habitual stoop and his eyes upon the ground. Ruth and Reuben followed, and the three seniors reseated themselves, and each with one consent reached out his hand to his tumbler.
"Theer's a kind of a mildness o' natur' in Ezra Gold," said Isaiah, passing the back of his hand across his lips, "as gives me a curious sort o' likin' for him."
"Theer's a kind of a mildness o' natur' in a crab-apple," said Sennacherib, "as sets my teeth on edge."
"Come, come, lads, harmony!" said Fuller. He laid hold of his great waistcoat with the palms of both hands and agitated it gently. "It beats me," he said, "to think of his layin' by the music in that way, and for sich a cause."
"Well," said Sennacherib, "I'll tell thee why he laid by the music. I wonder at Gold settlin' up to git over men like me with a stoory so onlikely."
"What was it, then?" asked Isaiah, bestowing a wink on Fuller.
"It was a wench as did it," said Sennacherib. "He was allays a man as took his time to think about a thing. If he'd been a farmer he'd ha' turned the odds about and about wi' regards to gettin' his seed into the ground till somebody 'ud ha' told him it 'ud be Christmas-day next Monday. He behaved i' that way wi' regards to matrimony. He put off thinkin' on it till he was nigh on forty—six-an'-thirty he was at the lowest. Even when he seemed to ha' made up what mind he'd got he'd goo and fiddle to the wench instead o' courtin' her like a Christian, or sometimes the wench 'ud mek a visit to his mother, and then he'd fiddle to her at hum. He made eyes at her for all the parish to see, and the young woman waited most tynacious. But when her had been fiddled at for three or four 'ear, her begun to see as her was under no sort o' peril o' losin' her maiden name with Ezra. So her walked theer an' then—made up her mind an' walked at once—went into some foreign part of the country to see if her couldn't find somebody theer as'd fancy a nice-lookin' wench, and tek less time to find out what he'd took a likin' for."
"Was that it?" asked Isaiah, with the manner of a man who finds an explanation for an old puzzle. "That 'ud be Rachel Blythe."
"A quick eye our 'Saiah's got," said Sennacherib. "He can see a hole through a ladder when somebody's polished his glasses. Rachel Blythe was the wench's name. Her was a little slip of a creator', no higher than a well-grown gell o' twelve, but pretty in a sort o' way."
"Why, Jabez, lad," cried Isaiah, "thee lookest like a stuck pig. What's the matter?"
The host's eyes were rounded with astonishment, and he was staring from one of his guests to the other with an air of fatuous wonder.
"Why," said he, with an emphasis of astonishment which seemed not altogether in keeping with so simple a discovery, "this here Rachel Blythe was my first wife's second cousin. Our Fanny Jane used to be talkin' about her constant. Her had offers by the baker's dozen, so it seemed, but her could never be brought to marry. Fanny Jane was a woman as was gi'en a good deal up to sentiment, and her was used to say the gell's heart was fixed on somebody at Heydon Hay. It 'ud seem to come in wi' the probability of things as they might have had a sort of a shortness betwixt 'em, and parted."
"Theer was nobody after her here but Ezra Gold," said Sennacherib. "Nobody. I niver heard, howsever, as they got to be hintimate enough to quarrel. But as for Paganyni, that's rubbidge. The man played regular till Rachel Blythe left the parish, and then he stopped."
"Well, well," said the host, contemplatively, "it's too late in life for both on 'em. Her's back again. Made us a visit yesterday. Her's took that little cottage o' Mother Duke's on the Barfield Road."
"Bless my soul!" said Isaiah. "I seen her yesterday as I was takin' my walks abroad. But, Jabez, lad, her's as withered as a chip! The littlest, wizen-edest, tiniest little old woman as ever I set eyes on. Dear me! dear me! To think as six-an'-twenty 'ear should mek such a difference. Her gi'en me a nod and a smile as I went by, but I niver guessed as it was Rachel Blythe."
"Rachel Blythe it was, though," returned old Fuller. "Well, well! To think as her and Mr. Gold should ha' kep' single one for another. Here's a bit of a treeho, lads, as I bought in Brummagem the day afore yesterday. It's by that new chap as wrote 'Elijah' for the festival. Let's see. What's his name again? Mendelssohn. Shall us have a try at it?"
The Earl of Barfield stood at the lodge gate on a summer afternoon attired in a wondrously old-fashioned suit of white kerseymere and a peaked cap. He was a withered old gentleman, with red-rimmed eyes, broad cheek-bones, and a projecting chin. He had a very sharp nose, and his close-cropped hair was of a harsh, sandy tone and texture. He was altogether a rather ferret-like old man, but he had, nevertheless, a certain air of dignity and breeding which forbade the least observant to take him for anything but a gentleman. His clothes, otherwise spotless, were disfigured by a trail of snuff which ran lightly along all projecting wrinkles from his right knee to his right shoulder. This trail was accentuated in the region of his right-hand waistcoat pocket, where his lordship kept his snuff loose for convenience' sake. He was over eighty, and his head nodded and shook involuntarily with the palsy of old age, but his figure was still fairly upright, and seemed to promise an activity unusual for his years. He rested one hand on the rung of a ladder which leaned against the wall beside him, and glanced up and down the road with an air of impatience. On the ground at his feet lay a billhook and a hand-saw, and once or twice he stirred these with his foot, or made a movement with his disengaged right hand as if he were using one of them.
When he had stood there some ten minutes in growing impatience, a young gentleman came sauntering down the drive smoking a cigar. Times change, and nowadays a young man attired after his fashion would be laughable, but for his day he looked all over like a lady-killer, from his tasselled French cap to his pointed patent leathers. Behind him walked a valet, carrying a brass-bound mahogany box, a clumsy easel, and a camp-stool.
"Going painting again, Ferdinand?" said his lordship, in a tone of some little scorn and irritation.
"Yes," said Ferdinand, rather idly, "I am going painting. Your man hasn't arrived yet?" He cast a glance of lazy amusement at the ladder and at the tools that lay at its feet.
"No," returned his lordship, irritably. "Worthless scoundrel. Ah! here he comes. Go away. Go away. Go and paint. Go and paint."
The young gentleman lifted his cap and sauntered on, turning once or twice to look at his lordship and a queer lop-sided figure shambling rapidly towards him.
"Joseph Beaker," said the Earl of Barfield, shaking his hand at the lop-sided man, "you are late again. I have been waiting ten minutes."
"What did I say yesterday?" asked Joseph Beaker. His face was lop-sided, like his figure, and his speech came in a hollow mumble which was difficult to follow. Joseph was content to pass as the harmless lunatic of the parish, but there was a shrewdly humorous twinkle in his eye which damaged his pretensions with the more discerning sort of people.
"I do not want to know what you said yesterday," his lordship answered, tartly. "Take up the billhook and the saw. Now bring the ladder."
"What I said yesterday," mumbled Joseph, shambling by the nobleman's side, a little in the rear.
"Joseph Beaker," said the earl, "hold your tongue."
"Niver could do it," replied Joseph; "it slips from betwixt the thumb and finger like a eel. What I said yesterday was, 'Why doesn't thee set thy watch by the parish church?' Thee'st got Barfield time, I reckon, and Barfield's allays a wick and ten minutes afore other placen."
The aged nobleman twinkled and took snuff.
"Joseph," said his lordship, "I am going to make a new arrangement with you."
"Time you did," returned Joseph, pausing, ostensibly to shift the ladder from one shoulder to the other, but really to feign indifference.
"I find ninepence a day too much."
"I've allays said so," Joseph answered, shambling a little nearer. "A sinful sight too much. And half on it wasted o' them white garmints."
"I find myself a little in want of exercise," said his lordship. "I shall carry the ladder from the first tree to the second, and you will carry it from the second to the third; then I shall carry it again, and then you will carry it again. We shall go on in that way the whole afternoon, and shall continue in that way so long as I stay here."
Joseph laughed. It was in his laugh that he chiefly betrayed the shortcomings of character. His smile was dry and full of cunning, but his laugh was fatuous.
"Naturally," pursued the earl, "I shall not pay you full wages for a half-day's work." Joseph's face fell into a look of ludicrous consternation. "I shall be generous, however—I shall be generous. I shall give you sixpence. Sixpence a day, Joseph, and I shall do half the work myself."
"It ar'n't to be done, gaffer," said Joseph, resolutely stopping short, and setting up the ladder in the roadway.
The old nobleman turned to face him with pretended anger.
"You are impertinent, Joseph."
"It caw't be done, my lord," his assistant mumbled, thrusting his head through a space in the ladder.
"Times are hard, Joseph," returned his lordship.
There had been a discernible touch of banter in his voice and manner when he had rebuked Joseph a second or two before, but he was very serious now indeed.
"Times are hard; expenses must be cut down. I can't afford more. Sixpence a day is three shillings a week, and three shillings a week is one hundred and fifty-six shillings a year—seven pounds sixteen. That is interest at three per cent, on a sum of two hundred and fifty-nine pounds ten shillings. That is a great amount to lie waste. While I pay you sixpence a day I am practically two hundred and fifty-nine pounds ten shillings poorer than I should be if I kept the sixpence a day to myself. I might just as well not have the money—it is of no use to me."
"Gi'e it to me, then," suggested Joseph, with a feeble gleam.
"Sixpence a day," said his lordship, "is really a great waste of money."
"It's cruel hard o' me," returned Joseph, betraying a sudden inclination to whimper. "If I was a lord I'd be a lord, I would."
"Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!" cried his lordship, sharply.
"It's cruel hard," said Joseph, whimpering outright. "I'd be a man or a mouse, if I was thee."
"I shall be generous," said the aged nobleman, relenting. "I shall give you a suit of clothes. I shall give you a pair of trousers and a waistcoat—a laced waistcoat—and a coat."
Joseph laughed again, but clouded a moment later.
"Theer's them as pets the back to humble the belly, and theer's them as pets the belly to humble the back," he said, rubbing his bristly chin on a rung of the ladder as he spoke. "What soort o' comfort is theer in a laced wescut, if a man's got nothing to stretch it out with?"
"Well, well, Joseph," returned the earl, "sixpence a day is a great deal of money. In these hard times I can't afford more."
"What I look at," said Joseph, "is, it robs me of my bit o' bacon. If I was t'ask annybody in Heydon Hay, 'Is Lord Barfield the man to rob a poor chap of his bit o' bacon?' they'd say, 'No.' That's what they'd say. 'No,' they'd say; 'niver dream of a such-like thing as happening Joseph.'"
His lordship fidgeted and took snuff.
"What his lordship 'ud be a deal likelier to do," pursued Joseph, declaiming, in imitation of his supposed interlocutor, with his head through the ladder, and waving the billhook and the saw gently in either hand, "'ud be to say as a poor chap as wanted it might goo up to the Hall kitchen and have a bite—that's what annybody 'ud say in Hey don Hay as happened to be inquired of."
Joseph's glance dwelt lingeringly and wistfully on his lordship's face as he watched for the effect of his speech. The old earl took snuff with extreme deliberateness.
"Very well, Joseph," he said, after a pause, "we will arrange it in that way. Sixpence a day. And now and then—now and then, Joseph, you may go and ask Dewson for a little cold meat. There is a great deal of waste in the kitchen. It will make little difference—little difference."
Things being thus happily arranged, his lordship drew a slip of paper from his pocket and began to study it with much interest as he walked. He began to chuckle, and the fire of strategic triumph lit his aged eyes. The day's itinerary was planned upon that slip of paper, and Lord Barfield had so arranged it that Joseph should carry the ladder all the long distances, while he himself should carry it all the short ones. Joseph on his side was equally satisfied with the arrangement, so far as he knew it, and gave himself up to the sweet influences of fancy. He saw a glorified edition of himself, attired in my lord's cast-off garments, and engaged in the act of stretching out the laced waistcoat in the kitchen at the Hall. The prospect grew so glorious that he could not hold his own joy and gratulation. It welled over in a series of hollow chuckles, and his lordship twinkled dryly as he walked in front, and took snuff with a double gusto.
"We shall begin," said his lordship, "at Mother Duke's. That laburnum has been an eyesore this many a day. We must be resolute, Joseph. I shall expect you to guard the ladder, and not to let it go, even if she should venture to strike you."
"Her took me very sharp over the knuckles with the rollin'-pin last time, governor," said Joseph. "But her'll be no more trouble to thee now; her's gone away."
"Gone away! Mother Duke gone away?"
"Yes," mumbled Joseph, "her's gone away. There's a little old maid as lives theer now—has been theer a wick to-day."
"That's a pity—that's a pity," said his lordship. "I should have liked another skirmish with Mother Duke. At least, Joseph," he added, with the air of a man who finds consolation in disappointment, "we'll trim the laburnum this time. At all events, we'll make a fight for it, Joseph—we'll make a fight for it." Here he took the billhook and the saw from his assistant, and strode on, swinging one of the tools in each hand.
"Theer'll be no need for a fight," returned Joseph. "Her's no higher than sixpenn'orth o' soap after a hard day's washing."
"That's wrong reckoning, Joseph," said the earl; "wrong reckoning. The smaller they are the more terrible they may be."
"I niver fled afore a little un," said Joseph. "I could allays face a little un." He spoke with a retrospective tone. His lordship eyed him askance with a twinkle of rich enjoyment, and took snuff with infinite relish, as if he took Joseph's mental flavor with it and found it delightful. "Mother Duke could strike a sort of a fear into a man," pursued Joseph.
"What did you say was the new tenant's name, Joseph?" his lordship demanded, presently.
"Dunno," said Joseph. "Her's a little un—very straight up. Goes about on her heels like, to mek the most of herself."
A minute's further walk brought them to a bend in the lane, and, passing this, they paused before a cottage. The front of this cottage was overgrown with climbing roses, just then in full bloom, and a disorderly patch of overgrown blossom and shrub lay on each side the thread of gravel-walk which led from the gate to the door. A little personage, attired in a tight-fitting bodice and a girlish-looking skirt, was busily reducing the redundant growth to order with a pair of quick-snapping shears. It gave his lordship an odd kind of shock when this little personage arose and turned. The face was old. There was youth in the eyes and the delicate dark-brown arch of the eyebrows, but the old-fashioned ringlet which hung at either cheek beneath the cottage bonnet she wore was almost white. The cheeks were sunken from what had once been a charming contour, the delicate aquiline nose was pinched ever so little, the lips were dry, and there were fine wrinkles everywhere. There was something almost eerie in the youthfulness of the eyes, which shone in the midst of all her faded souvenirs of beauty. Had the eyes been old the face would have been beautiful still, but the contrast they presented to their setting was too striking for beauty. They gave the old face a curiously exalted look, an expression hardly indicative of complete sanity, though every feature was expressive in itself of keen good-sense, quick apprehension, and strong self-reliance.
The figure in its tight-fitting bodice looked like that of a girl of seventeen, but the stature was no more than that of a well-grown girl of twelve. The movement with which she had arisen and the attitude she took were full of life and vivacity. His lordship was so taken aback by the extraordinary mixture of age and girlishness she presented that he stared for a second or two unlike a man of the world, and only recovered himself by an effort.
"Set up the ladder here, Joseph," he said, pointing with the billhook to indicate the place. Joseph set down the ladder on the pathway, and leaning it across the close-clipped privet hedge where numberless small staring eyes of white wood betrayed the recent presence of the shears, he propped it against the stout limb of a well-pruned apple-tree. His lordship, somewhat ostentatiously avoiding the eye of the inmate of the cottage, tucked his saw and his billhook under his left arm and mounted slowly, while Joseph made a great show of steadying the ladder. The little old woman opened the garden gate with a click and slipped into the roadway. His lordship hung his saw upon a rung of the ladder, and leaning a little over took a grasp of the bough of a sweeping laburnum which overhung the road.
"My lord," said a quick, thin voice, which in its blending of the characteristics of youth and age matched strangely with the speaker's aspect, "this tenement and its surrounding grounds are my freehold. I cannot permit your lordship to lay a mutilating hand upon them."
"God bless my soul!" said his lordship. "That's Rachel Blythe! That must be Rachel Blythe."
"Rachel Blythe at your lordship's service," said the little old lady. She dropped a curt little courtesy, at once as young and as old as everything about her, and stood looking up at him, with drooping hands crossed upon the garden shears.
"God bless my soul! Dear me!" said his lordship. "Dear me! God bless my soul!" He came slowly down the ladder and, surrendering his billhook to Joseph, advanced and proffered a tremulous white hand. Miss Blythe accepted it with a second curt little courtesy, shook it once up and down and dropped it. "Welcome back to Heydon Hay, Miss Blythe," said the old nobleman, with something of an air of gallantry. "You have long deprived us of your presence."
Perhaps Miss Blythe discerned a touch of badinage in his tone, and construed it as a mockery. She drew up her small figure in exaggerated dignity, and made much such a motion with her head and neck as a hen makes in walking.
"I have long been absent from Heydon Hay, my lord," she answered. "My good man," turning upon Joseph, "you may remove that ladder. His lordship can have no use for it here."
"Oh, come, come, Miss Blythe," said his lordship. "Manorial rights, manorial rights. This laburnum overhangs the road and prevents people of an average height from passing."
"If your lordship is aggrieved I must ask your lordship to secure a remedy in a legal manner."
"But really now. Observe, Miss Blythe, I can't walk under these boughs without knocking my hat off." He illustrated this statement by walking under the boughs. His cap fell on the dusty road, and Joseph, having picked it up, returned it to him.
"Your lordship is above the average height," said Miss Blythe— "considerably."
"No, no," the earl protested. "Not at all, not at all."
"I beg your lordship's pardon," said the little old lady, with stately politeness. "Nobody," she added, "who was not profoundly disloyal would venture to describe the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty as undersized. I am but a barleycorn less in stature than her Most Excellent Majesty, and your lordship is yards taller than myself."
"My dear Miss Blythe—" his lordship began, with hands raised in protest against this statement.
"Your lordship will pardon me," Miss Blythe interposed, swiftly, "if I say that at my age—forgive me if I say at your lordship's also—the language of conventional gallantry is unbecoming."
The little old lady said this with so starched and prim an air, and through this there peeped so obvious a satisfaction in rebuking him upon such a theme, that his lordship had to flourish his handkerchief from his pocket to hide his laughter.
"I have passed the last quarter of a century of my life," pursued Miss Blythe, "in an intimate if humble capacity in the service of a family of the loftiest nobility. I am not unacquainted with the airs and graces of the higher powers, but between your lordship and myself, at our respective ages, I cannot permit them to be introduced."
His lordship had a fit of coughing which lasted him two or three minutes, and brought the tears to his eyes. Most people might have thought that the cough bore a suspicious resemblance to laughter, but no such idea occurred to Miss Blythe.
"You are quite right, Miss Blythe," said the old nobleman, when he could trust himself to speak. He was twitching and twinkling with suppressed mirth, but he contained himself heroically. "I beg your pardon, and I promise that I will not again transgress in that manner. But really, that—that—fit of coughing has quite exhausted me for the moment. May I beg your permission to sit down?"
"Certainly, my lord," replied the little old lady, and in a bird-like fashion fluttered to the gate. It was not until she had reached the porch of the cottage that she became aware of the fact that the earl was following her. "Your lordship's pardon," she said then; "I will bring your lordship a chair into the garden. I am alone," she added, more prim and starched than ever, "and I have my reputation to consider."
Miss Blythe entered the cottage and returned with a chair, which she planted on the gravelled pathway. The old nobleman sat down and took snuff, twitching and twinkling in humorous enjoyment.
"How long is it since you left us?" he asked. "It looks as if it were only yesterday."
"I have been absent from Heydon Hay for more than a quarter of a century," the little old lady answered.
"Ah!" said he, and for a full minute sat staring before him rather forlornly. He recovered himself with a slight shake and resumed the talk. "You maintain your reputation for cruelty, Miss Blythe?"
"For cruelty, my lord?" returned Miss Blythe, with a transparent pretence of not understanding him.
"Breaking hearts," said his lordship, "eh? I was elderly before you went away, you know, but I remember a disturbance—a disturbance." He rapped with the knuckles of his left hand on his white kerseymere waistcoat. Miss Blythe tightened her lips and regarded him with an uncompromising air.
"Differences of sex, alone, my lord," she said, with decision, "should preclude a continuance of this conversation."
"Should they?" asked the old nobleman. "Do you really think so? I forget. I am a monument of old age, and I forget, but I fancy I used to think otherwise. You were the beauty of the place, you know. Is that a forbidden topic also?"
Miss Blythe blushed ever so little, but her curiously youthful eyes smiled, and it was plain she was not greatly displeased. The Earl of Barfield went quiet again, and again stared straight before him with a somewhat forlorn expression. The little old lady reminded him of her mother, and the remembrance of her mother reminded him of his own youth. He woke up suddenly. "So you've come back?" he said, abruptly. "You've bought the cottage?"
"The freehold of the cottage was purchased for me by my dear mistress," said the little old lady. "I desired to end my days where I began them."
"H'm!" said my lord. "We're going to be neighbors? We are neighbors. We must dwell together in unity. Miss Blythe—we must dwell together in unity. I have my hands pretty full this afternoon, and I must go. I'll just trim these laburnums, and alter—"
"I beg your lordship's pardon," said Miss Blythe, with decision, "your lordship will do nothing of the sort."
"Eh? Oh, nonsense, nonsense! Must clear the footway. Must have the footway clear—really must. Besides, it improves the aspect of the garden. Always does. Decidedly improves it. Joseph Beaker, hold the ladder."
Talking thus, the old gentleman had arisen from his chair and had re-entered the roadway, but the little old lady skimmed past him and faced him at the foot of the ladder.
"If your lordship wants to cut trees," she said, "your lordship may cut your lordship's own."
"Up thee goest, gaffer," said Joseph, handing over the little old lady's head the billhook and the saw.
Miss Blythe turned upon him with terrible majesty.
"Joseph Beaker?" she said, regarding him inquiringly. "Ah! The passage of six-and-twenty years has not improved your intellectual condition. Take up that ladder, Joseph Beaker. If you should ever dare again to place it against a tree upon my freehold property I shall call the policeman. I will set man-traps," pursued the little old lady, shaking her curls vigorously at Joseph. "I will have spring-guns placed in the trees."
"Her's wuss than t'other un," mumbled the routed Joseph, as he shambled in his lop-sided fashion down the road. "I should ha' thought you could ha' done what you liked wi' a little un like that. I niver counted on being forced to flee afore a little un."
The earl said nothing, and Miss Blythe, satisfied that the retreat was real, had already gone back to her gardening.
In the mean time the young man in the tasselled cap and the patent-leathers had strolled leisurely in the opposite direction to that the earl had taken, and in a little while—still followed by the valet, who bore his painting tools—had climbed into a field knee-deep in grass which was ready for the scythe. At the bottom of this meadow ran a little purling stream, with a slant willow growing over it. In obedience to the young gentleman's instructions, the valet set down his burden here, and having received orders to return in an hour's time, departed. The young gentleman sketched the willow and the brook in no very masterly fashion, but at a sort of hasty random, and tiring of his self-imposed task before half an hour was over, threw himself at length beside the brook, and there, lulled by the ripple of the water and the slumberous noise of insects, fell asleep. The valet's returning footsteps awoke him. He rolled over idly and lit a new cigar.
"Shall I take back the things to the Hall, sir?" asked the servant.
"Yes, take them back to the Hall," said the young gentleman, lazily. Rising to his feet, he produced a small pocket-mirror, and having surveyed the reflection of his features, arranged his scarf, cocked his cap, and sauntered from the field. His way led him past a high time-crumbled wall, over which a half score of trees pushed luxuriant branches. The wall was some ten feet in height, and in the middle of it was a green-painted door which opened inward. It was not quite closed, and a mere streak of sunlit grass could be seen within.
As the idle young gentleman sauntered along with his hands folded behind him, his eyes half closed, and his nose in the air, a sudden burst of music reached his ears and brought him to a stand-still. It surprised him a little, partly because it was extremely well played, and partly because the theme was classic and but little known. He moved his head from side to side to make out, if possible, the inmates of the garden, but he could see nothing but the figure of a girl, who leaned her hands upon a tree and her cheek upon her hands. This, however, was enough to pique curiosity, for the figure was singularly graceful, and had fallen into an attitude of unstudied elegance. He pushed the door an inch wider, and so far enlarged his view that he could see the musicians—three old men and a young one—who sat in the middle of a grassy space and ploughed away at the music with a will. Not caring to be observed in his clandestine espial he drew back a little, still keeping the figure of the girl in sight, and listened to the music.
He was so absorbed that the sudden spectacle of the Earl of Barfield, who came round the corner with a ladder on his shoulder, startled him a little. His lordship was followed by Joseph Beaker, who bore the saw and the billhook, and the old nobleman was evidently somewhat fatigued, and carried the ladder with difficulty. Seeing his young friend, he propped his burden against the wall and mopped his forehead, casting an upward glance at the boughs which stretched their pleasant shadow overhead.
"Well, Ferdinand," he said, in a discontented voice, "what are you doing here?"
"I am listening to the music," said Ferdinand, in answer.
"The music?" said his lordship. "That caterwauling?" He waved a hand towards the wall. "Old Fuller and his friends."
"They play capitally," said Ferdinand; "for country people they play capitally. They are amateurs, of course?"
"Do they?" asked the earl, somewhat eagerly; "do they, really? Tell 'em so, tell 'em so. Nothing so likely"—he dropped his voice to a whisper—"nothing so likely to catch old Fuller's vote as that. He's mad on music. I haven't ventured to call on him for a long time. We had quite a little fracas years ago about these overhanging boughs. They're quite an eyesore—quite an eyesore; but he won't have 'em touched; won't endure it. Joseph, you can carry the ladder home. We'll go in, Ferdinand—it's an admirable opportunity. I've been wondering how to approach old Fuller, and this is the very thing—the very thing."
"Wait until they have finished," said the younger man; and Joseph having shouldered the ladder and gone off with it in his own crab-like way, the two stood together until the musicians in the garden had finished the theme upon which they were engaged.
The earl pushed open the garden door and entered, Ferdinand following in the rear. The girl turned at the noise made by the shrieking hinges, and stood somewhat irresolutely, as if uncertain. Finally, she bowed in a manner sufficiently distant and ceremonious. Ferdinand put up an eye-glass and surveyed her with an air of criticism, while the old nobleman advanced briskly towards the table around which the musicians were seated.
"Good-day, Fuller, good-day," he said, in a hearty voice; "don't let me disturb you, I beg. We heard your beautiful music as we passed by, and stopped to listen to it. This is my young friend, Mr. De Blacquaire, who's going to stand, you know, for this division of the county. Mr. De Blacquaire is a great amateur of music, and was delighted with your playing—delighted."
"I was charmed, indeed," said Ferdinand. "There are lovers of music everywhere, of course, but I had not expected to find so advanced a company of amateurs in Heydon Hay. That final passage was exquisitely rendered."
The earl stood with a smile distorted in the sunlight, looking alternately from the candidate to the voters.
"Exquisitely rendered, I am sure," he said—"exquisitely rendered. Praise from Mr. De Blacquaire is worth having, let me tell you, Fuller. Mr. De Blacquaire is himself a distinguished musician. Ah! my old friend Eld! How do you do? how do you do?"
This greeting was addressed to Sennacherib, who had arisen on the earl's arrival, had deliberately turned his back, and was now engaged in turning over the leaves of music which lay on the table before him.
"Sennacherib," said Isaiah, mildly, "his lordship's a-talking to thee."
"I can hear," responded Sennacherib, "as he's a-talking to one on us. As for me, I'm none the better for being axed."
"And none the worse, I hope," said his lordship, as cheerily as he could.
"Nayther wuss nor better, so far as I can see," replied Sennacherib.
"Come, come, Mr. Eld," said Fuller. "Harmony! harmony!"
"I was a-tekin' my walks abroad this mornin'," said Sennacherib, still bending over his music, "when I see that petted hound of the vicar's mek a fly at a mongrel dog as had a bone. The mongrel run for it and took the bone along with him. It comes into my mind now as if the hound had known a month or two aforehand as he'd want that bone, he'd ha' made friends wi' the mongrel."
This parable was so obviously directed at his lordship and his young protege that Sennacherib's companions looked and felt ill at ease. Fuller was heard to murmur "Harmony!" but a disconcerted silence fell on all, and his lordship took snuff while he searched for a speech which should turn the current of conversation into a pleasanter channel. The Earl of Barfield was particularly keen in his desire to run Mr. Ferdinand de Blacquaire for the county, and to run him into Parliament. Ferdinand himself was much less keen about the business, and regarded it all as a mingled joke and bore. This being the case, he felt free to avoid the ordinary allures of the parliamentary candidate, and, apart from that, he had, with himself at least, a reputation to sustain as a man of wit.
"Has this mongrel a bone?" he asked, in a silky tone. "Let him keep it."
His lordship shot a glance of surprised wrath at him, almost of horror, but Sennacherib began to chuckle.
"Pup's got a bite in him," said Sennacherib—"got a bite in him."
His lordship felt a little easier, and looking about him discovered that everybody was smiling more or less, though on one or two faces the smile sat uneasily.
"Come, come, Mr. Eld," said Fuller, "harmony!"
"Ah!" cried the earl, seizing gladly on the word. "Let us have a little harmony. Don't let our presence disturb your music. Mr. Eld is a local notability, Ferdinand. Mr. Eld speaks his mind to everybody. I'm afraid he's on the other side, and in that case you'll have many a tussle with him before you come to the hustings. Eh? That's so, isn't it, Eld? Eh? That's so?"
"Oh," said Sennacherib, with the slow local drawl, "we'll tek a bit of a wrastle now and again, I mek no manner of a doubt."
"And in the mean time," said his lordship, "let us start harmoniously. Give us a little music, Fuller. Go on just as if we were not here."
"Ruth, my wench," said Fuller, "fetch his lordship a chair, and bring another for Mr.——-" He hung upon the Mr., searching to recall the name.
"Devil-a-care," suggested Sennacherib.
"De Blacquaire," said the earl, correcting him. "Mr. Ferdinand de Blacquaire."
The girl had already moved away, and Ferdinand, with an air in which criticism melted slowly into approval, watched her through his eye-glass. The only young man in the quartette party, Reuben Gold, eyed Ferdinand with a look in which criticism hardened into disapproval, and, turning away, fluttered the edges of the music sheets before him with the tip of his bow.
"Look here, lads," said Fuller, "we'll have a slap at that there sonata of B. Thoven's, eh?"
"Beethoven?" asked Ferdinand, with a little unnecessary stress upon the name to mark his pronunciation of it. "You play Beethoven? This is extremely interesting." He spoke to the earl, who rubbed his hands and nodded. The young first-violin tossed his chestnut-colored mane on one side with a gesture of irritation. Ruth reappeared with a chair in each hand. They were old-fashioned and rather heavy, being built of solid oak, but she carried them lightly and gracefully. Ferdinand started forward and attempted to relieve her of her burden. At first she resisted, but he insisting upon the point she yielded. The young Ferdinand was less graceful than he had meant to be in the carriage of the chairs, and Ruth looked at Reuben with a smile so faint as scarcely to be perceptible. Reuben with knitted brows pored over his music, and the girl returned to her old place and her old attitude by the apple-tree.
Ferdinand, having the placing of the chairs in his own hands, took up a position in which, without being obtrusively near, he was close enough to address Ruth if occasion should arise, as he was already fairly resolved it should. The three elders were most drolly provincial, to his mind, and their accent was positively barbarous to his ears. Reuben was less provincial to look at, but to Mr. De Blacquaire's critical eye the young man was evidently not a gentleman. He had not heard him speak as yet, but could well afford to make up his mind without that. Nobody but a boof could have employed Reuben's tailor or his shoemaker. As for the girl, she looked like a lily in a kitchen-garden, a flower among the coarse and commonplace things of every-day consumption. It would be a deadly pity, he thought, if she should have an accent like the rest. Her dress was perfectly refined and simple, and Ferdinand guessed pretty shrewdly that this was likely to be due to her own handiwork and fancy.
"What a delightful, quaint old garden you have here, to be sure," he said.
With a perfect naturalness she raised a warning palm against him, and at that instant the quartette party began their performance. She had not even turned an eye in his direction, and he was a little piqued. The hand which had motioned him to silence was laid now on the gnarled old apple-tree, and she rested her ripe cheek against it. Her eyes began to dream at the music, and it was evident that her forgetfulness of the picturesque young gentleman beside her was complete and unaffected. The picturesque young gentleman felt this rather keenly. The snub was small enough, in all conscience, but it was a snub, and he was sensitive, even curiously sensitive, to that kind of thing. And he was not in the habit of being snubbed. He was accustomed to look for the signs of his own power to please among young women who moved in another sphere.
It was a very, very small affair, but then it is precisely these very small affairs which rankle in a certain sort of mind. Ferdinand dismissed it, but it spoiled his music for the first five minutes.
The Earl of Barfield was one of those people to whom music is neither more nor less than noise. He loved quiet and hated noise, and the four interpreters of the melody and harmony of Beethoven afforded him as much delight as so many crying children would have done. It had been a joke against him in his youth that he had once failed to distinguish between "God save the King" and the "Old Hundredth." Harmony and melody here were alike divine in themselves, and were more than respectably rendered, and he sat and suffered under them in his young friend's behoof like a hero. They bored him unspeakably, and the performance lasted half an hour. When it was all over he beat his withered white hands together once or twice, and smiled in self-gratulation that his time of suffering was over.
"Admirably rendered!" cried Ferdinand; "admirably—admirably rendered. Will you forgive me just a hint, sir?" He addressed Sennacherib. "A leetle more light and shade! A performance less level in tone."
"P'raps the young man'll show us how to do it," said Sennacherib, in a dry, mock humility, handing his fiddle and bow towards the critic.
The critic accepted them with a manner charmingly unconscious of the intended satire, and walked round the table until he came behind Reuben, when he turned back the music for a leaf or two.
"Here, for example," he said, and tucking the instrument beneath his chin, played through a score of bars with a certain exaggerated chic which awakened Sennacherib's derision.
"What dost want to writhe i' that fashion for?" he demanded. "Dost find thine inwards twisted? It's a pretty tone, though," he allowed. "The young man can fiddle. Strikes me, young master, as thee'dst do better at the Hopera than the House o' Commons. Tek a fool's advice and try."
Ferdinand smiled with genuine good-humor. This insolent old personage began to amuse him.
"Really I don't know, sir," he answered. "Perhaps I may do pretty well in the House of Commons, if you will be good enough to try me. One can't please everybody, but I promise to do my best."
"The best can do no more," said Fuller, in a mellow, peace-making kind of murmur; "the best can do no more."
"I've no mind for that theer whisperin' and shout-in' in the course of a piece of music," said Sennacherib. "Pianner is pianner, and forte is forte, but theer's no call to strain a man's ears to listen to the one, nor to drive him deaf with t'other. Same time, if the young gentleman 'ud like to come an' gi'e us a lesson now and then we'd tek it."
"I'm not able to give you lessons, sir," returned Mr. De Blacquaire, with unshaken good-humor; "but if you'll allow me to take one now and then by listening, I shall be delighted."
"Nothin' agen that, is theer, Mr. Fuller?" demanded Sennacherib.
"Allays pleased to see the young gentleman," responded Fuller.
"When may I come to listen to you again, gentlemen?" asked Ferdinand. His manner was full of bonhomie now, and had no trace of affectation. It pleased everybody but Reuben, who had conceived a distaste for him from the first. Perhaps, if he had not placed his chair so near to Ruth, and had regarded her less often and with a less evident admiration, the young man might have liked him better.
"Well," said Fuller, "we are here pretty nigh every evenin' while the fine weather lasts. We happen to be here this afternoon because young Mr. Gold is goin' away for to-night to Castle Barfield. You'll find we here almost of any evenin'—to-morrow, to begin with."
"We had better be going now, Ferdinand," said his lordship, who dreaded the new beginning of the music. "Good-afternoon, Fuller. Good-afternoon, Eld. Good-afternoon, Gold."
"Good-day, my lord," said Reuben, rather gloomily. He had not spoken until now, and Ferdinand had wished to note the accent. There was none to note in the few words he uttered.
"Your little girl is growing into a woman, Fuller," said his lordship.
"That's the way wi' most gells, my lord," said Fuller.
"Good-afternoon, Miss Ruth," said the old nobleman, nodding and smiling.
"Good-afternoon, my lord," said Ruth. Ferdinand's attentive ear noted again the absence of the district accent. He removed his cap and bowed to her.
"Good-afternoon. I may come to-morrow evening, then?" The query was addressed to her, but she did not answer it, either by glance or word. She had answered his bow and turned away before he had spoken.
"Ay," said Fuller; "come and welcome."
He bowed and smiled all round, and walked away with his lordship. He turned at the garden door for a final glance at the pretty girl, but she had her back turned upon him, and was leaning both hands on her father's shoulder.
The rustic little church at Heydon Hay made a nucleus for the village, which, close at hand, clustered about it pretty thickly, but soon began to fray off into scattered edges, as if the force of attraction decreased with distance, after the established rule. Beside the church-yard, and separated from it by a high brick wall, was a garden, fronted by half a dozen slim and lofty poplars. Within the churchyard the wall was only on a level with the topmost tufts of grass, but on the garden side it stood six feet high, and was bulged out somewhat by the weight of earth which pressed against it. Facing the tall poplars was a house of two stories. It looked like a short row of houses, for it boasted three front doors. Over each of these was hung a little contrivance which resembled a section of that extinguisher apparatus which is still to be found suspended above the pulpit in some old-fashioned country churches. All the windows of the old house were of diamond panes, and those of the upper story projected from the roof of solid and venerable thatch. A pair of doves had their home in a wicker cage which hung from the wall, and their cooing was like the voice of the house, so peaceful, homely, and Old-world was its aspect.
Despite the three front doors, the real entrance to the house was at the rear, to which access was had by a side gate. A path, moss-grown at the edges, led between shrubs and flowers to a small circle of brickwork, in the midst of which was a well with rope and windlass above it, and thence continued to the door, which led to an antique, low-browed kitchen. A small dark passage led from the kitchen to a front room with a great fireplace, which rose so high that there was but just enough room between the mantle-board and the whitewashed ceiling for the squat brass candlesticks and the big foreign sea-shells which stood there for ornament.
The diamonded window admitted so little light that on entering here from the outer sunshine the visitor could only make out the details one by one. When his eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness he was sure to notice a dozen or more green baize bags which hung upon the walls, each half defining, in the same vague way as all the others, the outline of the object it contained. Each green baize bag was closely tied at the neck, and suspended at an equal height with the rest upon a nail. There was something of a vault-like odor in the room, traceable probably to the two facts that the carpet was laid upon a brick floor, and that the chamber was rarely opened to the air.
Ezra Gold, seated upright in an oaken arm-chair, with a hand lightly grasping the end of either arm, was at home in the close, cool shadow of the place. The cloistered air, the quiet and the dim shade seemed to suit him, and he to be in harmony with them. His eyes were open, and alighted now and again with an air of recognition on some familiar object, but otherwise he might have seemed asleep. On the central table was a great pile of music-books, old-fashioned alike in shape and binding. They exhaled a special cloistral odor of their own, as if they had been long imprisoned. Ezra's eye dwelt oftener on these musty old books than elsewhere.
He had sat still and silent for a long time, when the bells of the church, with a startling nearness and distinctness, broke into a peal. He made a slight movement when the sound first fell upon his ear, but went back to his quiet and his dreams again at once.
Ten minutes went by and the bells were still pealing, when he heard a sound which would have been inaudible in the midst of the metallic clamor to ears less accustomed than his own. He had lived there all his life, and scarcely noticed the noise which would almost have deafened a stranger. The sound he had heard was the clicking of the gate, and after a pause it was followed by the appearance of his nephew Reuben, who looked about him with a dazzled and uncertain gaze.
"Well, Reuben, lad?" said the old man; but his voice was lost for his nephew in the noise which shook the air. "Dost not see me?" he cried, speaking loudly this time.
"I'm fresh from the sunlight," Reuben shouted, with unnecessary force. "You spoke before. I couldn't hear you for the bells."
The old man with a half-humorous gesture put his hands to his ears.
"No need to shout a man's head off," he answered. "Come outside."
Rueben understood the gesture, though he could not hear the words, and the two left the room together, and came out upon the back garden. The sound of the bells was still clear and loud, but by no means so overwhelming as it had been within-doors.
"That's better," said Reuben. "They're making noise enough for young Sennacherib's wedding."
"Young Sennacherib?" asked his uncle. "Young Eld? Is young Eld to be married?"
"Didn't you Know that? The procession is coming along the road this minute. Old Sennacherib disapproves of the match, and we've had a scene the like of which was never known in Heydon Hay before."
"Ay?" said Ezra, with grave interest, slowly, and with a look of a man long imprisoned, to whom outside things are strange, but interesting still. "As how?"
"Why thus," returned Reuben, with a laugh in his eyes. "Old Sennacherib comes to his gate and awaits the wedding-party. Young Snac, with his bride upon his arm, waves a braggart handkerchief at the oldster, and out walks papa, plants himself straight in front of the company, and brings all to a halt. 'I should like to tell thee,' says the old fellow before them all, rolling that bull-dog head of his, 'as I've made my will an' cut thee off with a shillin'!'"
"Dear me!" said Ezra, seriously; "dear me! And what answer made young Snac to this?"
"Young Snac," said Reuben, "was equal to his day. 'All right,' says he; 'gi'e me the shillin' now, an' we'll drop in at the "Goat" and split a quart together.' 'All right,' says the old bull-dog; 'it's th' on'y chance I shall ever light upon of mekin' a profit out o' thee.' He lugs out a leather bag, finds a shilling, bites it to make sure of its value, hands it to the young bull-dog, and at the 'Goat' they actually pull up together, and young Snac spends the money then and there. 'Bring out six pints,' cries Snac the younger. 'Fo'penny ale's as much as a father can expect when his loving son is a-spendin' the whole of his inheritance upon him.' Everybody sipped, the bride included, and the two bull-dogs clinked their mugs together. I sipped myself, being invited as a bystander, and toasted father and son together."
"But, mind thee, lad," said Ezra, "it's scarcely to be touched upon as a laughing matter. Drollery of a sort theer is in it, to be sure; but what Sennacherib Eld says he sticks to. When he bites he holds. He was ever of that nature."
"I know," said Reuben; "but young Nip-and-Fasten has the breed of old Bite-and-Hold-Fast in him, and if the old man keeps his money the young one will manage to get along without it."
At this moment the bells ceased their clangor.
"They've gone into the church, Reuben," said the old man. "I'll do no less than wish 'em happiness, though there's fewer that finds it than seeks it by that gate."
"It's like other gates in that respect, I suppose," Reuben answered.
"Well, yes," returned the elder man, lingeringly. "But it's the gate that most of 'em fancy, and thereby it grows the saddest to look at, lad. Come indoors again. There'll be no more bells this yet-awhile."
Reuben followed him into the cloistral odors and shadows of the sitting-room. Ezra took his old seat, and kept silence for the space of two or three minutes.
"You said you wanted to speak to me, uncle," said the younger man, at length.
"Yes, yes," said Ezra, rising as if from a dream. "You're getting to have a very pretty hand on the fiddle, Reuben, and—well, it's a shame to bury anything that has a value. This"—he arose and laid a hand on the topmost book of the great pile of music—"this has never seen the light for a good five-and-twenty year. Theer's some of it forgot, notwithstanding that it's all main good music. But theer's no room i' the world for th' old-fangled an' the newfangled. One nail drives out another. But I've been thinking thee mightst find a thing or two herein as would prove of value, and it's yours if you see fit to take it away."
"Why, it's a library," said Reuben. "You are very good, uncle, but—"
"Tek it, lad, tek it, if you'd like it, and make no words. And if it shouldn't turn out to have been worth the carrying you can let th' old chap think it was—eh?"
"Worth the carrying?" said Reuben, with a half-embarrassed little laugh. "I'm pretty sure you had no rubbish on your shelves, uncle." He began to turn over the leaves of the topmost book. "'Etudes?" he read, "'pour deux violins, par Joseph Manzini.' This looks good. Who was Joseph Manzini? I never heard of him."
"Manzini?" asked the old man, with a curious eagerness—"Manzini." His voice changed altogether, and fell into a dreamy and retrospective tone. He laid a hand upon the open pages, and smoothed them with a touch which looked like a caress.
"Who was he?" asked Reuben. "Did you know him?"
"No, lad," returned the old man, coming out of his dream, and smiling as he spoke, "I never knew him. What should bring me to know a German musician as was great in his own day?"
"I thought you spoke as if you knew him," said Reuben.
"Hast a quick ear," said Ezra, "and a searching fancy. No, lad, no; I never knew him. But that was the last man I ever handled bow and fiddle for. I left that open" (he tapped the book with his fingers and then closed it as he spoke)—"I left that open on my table when I was called away on business to London. I found it open when I came home again, and I closed it, for I never touched a bow again. I'd heard Paganini in the mean time. Me and 'Saiah Eld tried that through together, and since then I've never drawn a note out o' catgut."
"I could never altogether understand it, uncle," said Reuben. "What could the man's playing have been like?"
"What was it like?" returned the older man. "What is theer as it wa'n't like? I couldn't tell thee, lad—I couldn't tell thee. It was like a lost soul a-wailing i' the pit. It was like an angel a-sing-ing afore the Lord. It was like that passage i' the Book o' Job, where 'tis said as 'twas the dead o' night when deep sleep falleth upon men, and a vision passed afore his face, and the hair of his flesh stood up. It was like the winter tempest i' the trees, and a little brook in summer weather. It was like as if theer was a livin' soul within the thing, and sometimes he'd trick it and soothe it, and it'd laugh and sing to do the heart good, an' another time he'd tear it by the roots till it chilled your blood."
"You heard him often?" asked Reuben.
"Never but once," said Ezra, shaking his head with great decision. "Never but once. He wa'n't a man to hear too often. 'Twas a thing to know and to carry away. A glory to have looked at once, but not to live in the midst on. Too bright for common eyes, lad—too bright for common eyes."
"I've heard many speak of his playing," said Reuben. "But there are just as many opinions as there are people."
"There's no disputing in these matters," the older man answered. "I've heard him talked of as a Charley Tann, which I tek to be a kind of humbugging pretender, but 'twas plain to see for a man with a soul behind his wescut as the man was wore to a shadow with his feeling for his music. 'Twas partly the man's own sufferin' and triumphin' as had such a power over me. It is with music as th' other passions. % Theer's love, for example. A lad picks out a wench, and spends his heart and natur' in her behalf as free as if there'd niver been a wench i' the world afore, and niver again would be. And after all a wench is a commonish sort of a object, and even the wench the lad's in love with is a commonish sort o' creature among wenches. But what's that to him, if her chances to be just the sort his soul and body cries after?"
"Ah!" said Reuben, "if his soul cries after her. But if he values goodness his soul will cry after it, and if he values beauty his soul will cry after that. I never heard Paganini, but he was a great player, or a real lover of music like you would never have found what he wanted in him."
"Yes, lad," his uncle answered, falling suddenly into his habitual manner, "the man was a player. Thee canst have the music any time thee likst to send for it."
Reuben knew the old man and his ways. The talkative fit was evidently over, and he might sit and talk, if he would, from then till evening, and get no more than a monosyllable here and there in return for his pains.
"It will take a hand-cart to carry the books," he said; "but I will take Manzini now if you will let me." The old man, contenting himself with a mere nod in answer, he took up the old-fashioned oblong folio, tucked it under his arm, and shook hands with the donor. "This is a princely gift, uncle," he said, with the natural exaggeration of a grateful youngster. "I don't know how to say thank you for it."
Ezra smiled, but said nothing. Reuben, repeating his leave-taking, went away, and coming suddenly upon the bright sunlight and the renewed clangor of the bells, was half stunned by the noise and dazzled by the glare. With all this clash and brilliance, as if they existed because of her, and were a part of her presence, appeared Ruth Fuller in the act of passing Ezra's house. Ruth had brightness, but it was rather of the twilight sort than this; and the music which seemed fittest to salute her apparition might have been better supplied by these same bells at a distance of a mile or two. Reuben was perturbed, as any mere mortal might expect to be on encountering a goddess.
Let us see the goddess as well as may be.
She was country-bred to begin with, and though to Heydon Hay her appearance smacked somewhat of the town, a dweller in towns would have called her rustic. She wore a straw hat which was in the fashion of the time, and to the eyes of the time looked charming, though twenty years later we call it ugly, and speak no more than truth. Beneath this straw hat very beautiful and plenteous brown hair escaped in defiance of authority, and frolicked into curls and wavelets, disporting itself on a forehead of creamy tone and smoothness, and just touching the eyebrows, which were of a slightly darker brown, faintly arched on the lower outline, and more prominently arched on the upper. Below the brows brown eyes, as honest as the day, and with a frank smile always ready to break through the dream which pretty often filled them. A short upper lip, delicately curved and curiously mobile, a full lower lip, a chin expressive of great firmness, but softened by a dimpled hollow in the very middle of its roundness, a nose neither Grecian nor tilted, but betwixt the two, and delightful, and a complexion familiar with sun and air, wholesome, robust, and fine. In stature she was no more than on a level with Reuben's chin; but Reuben was taller than common, standing six feet in his stockings. This fact of superior height was not in itself sufficient to account for the graceful inclination of the body which always characterized Reuben when he talked with Ruth. There was a tender and unconscious deference in his attitude which told more to the least observant observer than Reuben would willingly have had known.
Ezra Gold saw the chance encounter through the window, and watched the pair as they shook hands. They walked away together, for they were bound in the same direction, and the old man rose from his seat and walked to the window to look after them.
"Well, well, lad," he said, speaking half aloud, after the fashion of men who spend much of their time alone, "theert beauty and goodness theer, I fancy. Go thy ways, lad, and be happy."
They were out of sight already, and Ezra, with his hands folded behind him, paced twice or thrice along the room. Pausing before one of the green baize bags, he lifted it from its nail, and having untied the string that fastened it, he drew forth with great tenderness an unstrung violin, and, carrying it to the light, sat down and turned it over and over in his hands. Then he took the neck with his left hand, and, placing the instrument upright upon his knee, caressed it with his right.
"Poor lass," he said, "a' might think as thee was grieved to have had ne'er a soul to sing to all these years. I've a half mind to let thee have a song now, but I doubt thee couldst do naught but screech at me. I've forgotten how to ask a lady of thy make to sing. Shalt go to Reuben, lass; he'll mek thee find thy voice again. Rare and sweet it used to be—rare and sweet."
He fell into a fit of coughing which shook him from head to foot, but even in the midst of the paroxysm he made shift to lay down the violin with perfect tenderness. When the fit was over he lay back in his chair with his arms depending feebly at his sides, panting a little, but smiling like a man at peace.
These had been a long spell of fair weather, and the Earl of Barfield had carried on his warfare against all and sundry who permitted the boughs of their garden trees to overhang the public highway, for a space of little less than a month. The campaign had been conducted with varying success, but the old nobleman counted as many victories as fights, and was disposed, on the whole, to be content with himself. He was an old and experienced warrior in this cause, and had learned to look with a philosophic eye upon reverses.
But on the day following that which saw the introduction of his lordship's parliamentary nominee to the quartette party, his lordship encountered a check which called for all the resources of philosophy. He was routed by his own henchman, Joseph Beaker.
The defeat arrived in this wise: his lordship having carefully arranged his rounds so that Joseph should carry the ladder all the long distances while he himself bore it all the short ones, had found himself so flurried by the defeat he had encountered at the hands of Miss Blythe, that he had permitted Joseph to take up the ladder and carry it away from where it had leaned against the apple-tree in the little old lady's garden. This unforeseen incident had utterly disarranged his plans, and since he had been unadvised enough to post his servitor in the particulars of the campaign, Joseph had been quick to discover his own advantage.
"We will go straight on to Willis's, Joseph," said his lordship, when they began their rounds that afternoon. The stroke was simple, but, if it should only succeed, was effective.
"We bain't a-goin' to pass Widder Hotchkiss, be we, governor?" demanded Joseph, who saw through the device. His lordship decided not to hear the question, and walked on a little ahead, swinging the billhook and the saw.
Joseph Beaker revolved in his mind his own plan of action. In front of Widow Hotchkiss's cottage the trees were unusually luxuriant, and the boughs hung unusually low. When they were reached, Joseph contrived to entangle his ladder and to bring himself to a stand-still, with every appearance of naturalness.
"My blessed!" he mumbled, "this here's a disgrace to the parish, gaffer. Theer's nothin' in all Heydon Hay as can put a patch on it. Thee bissent agoin' past this, beest? Her's as small-sperited as a rabbit—the widder is."
"We'll take it another time, Joseph," said his lordship, striving to cover his confusion by taking a bigger pinch of snuff than common—"another time, Joseph, another time."
"Well," said Joseph, tossing his lop-sided head, as if he had at last fathomed the folly and weakness of human nature, and resigned himself to his own mournful discoveries, "I should niver ha' thought it." He made a show of shouldering the ladder disgustedly, but dropped it again. "We fled afore a little un yesterday," he said. "I did look for a show o' courage here, governor." His lordship hesitated. "Why, look at it," pursued Joseph, waving a hand towards the overhanging verdure; "it 'ud be a sinful crime to go by it."
"Put up the ladder, Joseph," replied his lordship, in a voice of sudden resolve. The Hotchkiss case was a foregone victory for him, and his own desires chimed with Joseph's arguments, even while he felt himself outgeneralled.
The widow sweetened the business by a feeble protest, and the Earl of Barfield was lordly with ner.
"Must come down, my good woman," said his lordship, firmly, "must come down. Obstruct the highway. Disgrace to the parish."
"That's what I said," mumbled Joseph, as he steadied the ladder from below. The widow watched the process wistfully, and my lord chopped and sawed with unwonted gusto. Branch after branch fell into the lane, and the aged nobleman puffed and sweated with his grateful labor. He had not had such a joyful turn for many a day. The widow moaned like a winter wind in a key-hole, and when his lordship at last descended from his perch she was wiping her eyes with her apron.
"I know full well what poor folks has got to put up with at the hands o' them as the Lord has set in authority," said the widow, "but it's cruel hard to have a body's bits o' trees chopped and lopped i' that way. When ourn was alive his lordship niver laid a hand upon 'em. Ourn 'ud niver ha' bent himself to put up wi' it, that he niver would, and Lord Barfield knows it; for though he was no better nor a market-gardener, he was one o' them as knowed what was becomin' between man and man, be he niver so lowly, and his lordship the lord o' the manor for miles around."
"Tut, tut, my good woman," returned his lordship. "Pooh, pooh! Do for firewood. Nice and dry against the winter. Much better there than obstructing the high-road—much better. Joseph Beaker, take the ladder."
"My turn next time," replied Joseph. "Carried it here."
His lordship, a little abashed, feigned to consider, and took snuff.
"Quite right, Joseph," he answered, "quite right. Quite fair to remind me. Perfectly fair." But he was a good deal blown and wearied with his exertions, and though anxious to escape the moanings of the widow he had no taste for the exercise which awaited him. He braced himself for the task, however, and handing the tools to his henchman, manfully shouldered the ladder and started away with it. The lane was circuitous, and when once he had rounded the first corner he paused and set down his burden. "It's unusually warm to-day, Joseph," he said, mopping at his wrinkled forehead.
"Theer's a coolish breeze," replied Joseph, "and a-plenty o' shadder."
"Do you know, Joseph," said the earl, in a casual tone, "I think I shall have to get you to take this turn. I am a little tired."
"Carried it last turn," said Joseph, decidedly. "A bargain's a bargain."
"Certainly, certainly," returned his lordship, "a bargain is a bargain, Joseph." He sat down upon one of the lower rungs of the ladder and fanned himself with a pocket-handkerchief. "But you know, Joseph," he began again after a pause, "nobody pushes a bargain too hard. If you carry the ladder this time I will carry it next. Come now—what do you say to that?"
"It's a quarter of a mile from here to Willis's," said Joseph, "and it ain't five score yards from theer to the Tan-yard. Theer's some," he added, with an almost philosophic air, "as knows when they are well off."
"I'll give you an extra penny," said his lordship, condescending to bargain.
"I'll do it for a extry sixpince," replied Joseph.
"I'll make it twopence," said his lordship—"twopence and a screw of snuff."
"I'll do it for a extry sixpince," Joseph repeated, doggedly.
Noblesse oblige. There was a point beyond which the Earl of Barfield could not haggle. He surrendered, but it galled him, and the agreeable sense of humor with which he commonly regarded Joseph Beaker failed him for the rest of that afternoon. It happened, also, that the people who remained to be encountered one and all opposed him, and with the exception of his triumph over the Widow Hotchkiss the day was a day of failure.
When, therefore, his lordship turned his steps homeward he was in a mood to be tart with anybody, and it befell that Ferdinand was the first person on whom he found an opportunity of venting his gathered sours. The young gentleman heaved in sight near the lodge gates, smoking a cigar and gazing about him with an air of lazy nonchalance which had very much the look of being practised in hours of private leisure. Behind him came the valet, bearing the big square color-box, the camp-stool, and the clumsy field easel.
"Daubing again, I presume?" said his lordship, snappishly.
"Yes," said Ferdinand, holding his cigar at arm's-length and flicking at the ash with his little finger, "daubing again."
His lordship felt the tone and gesture to be irritating and offensive.
"Joseph Beaker," he said, "take the ladder to the stables. I have done with you for to-day. Upon my word, Ferdinand," he continued, when Joseph had shambled through the gateway with the ladder, "I think you answer me with very little consideration, for—in short, I think your manner a little wanting in—I don't care to be addressed in that way, Ferdinand."
"I am sorry, sir," said Ferdinand. "I did not mean to be disrespectful. You spoke of my daubing. I desired to admit the justice of the term. Nothing more, I assure you."
His lordship, in his irritated mood, felt the tone to-be more irritating and offensive than before.
"I tell you candidly, Ferdinand, that I do not approve of the manner in which you spend your time here. If you imagine that you can walk over the course here without an effort you are very much mistaken. I take this idleness and indifference very ill, sir, very ill indeed, and if we are beaten I shall know on whom the blame will rest. The times are not what they were, Ferdinand, and constitutional principles are in danger."
"Really, sir," returned Ferdinand, "one can't be electioneering all the year round. There can't be a dissolution before the autumn. When the time comes I will work as hard as you can ask me to do."
"Pooh, pooh!" said his lordship, irritably. "I don't ask you to spout politics. I ask you to show yourself to these people as a serious and thoughtful fellow, and not as a mere dauber of canvas and scraper of fiddles. You come here," he went on, irritated as much by his own speech as by the actual circumstances of the case, "as if you were courting a constituency of dilettanti, and expected to walk in by virtue of your little artistic graces. They don't want a man like that. They won't have a man like that. They're hard-headed fellows, let me tell you. These South Stafford fellows are the very deuce, let me tell you, for knowing all about Free-trade, and the Cheap Loaf, and the National Debt."