A STORY OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
AUTHOR OF 'BRISTOL DIAMONDS,' 'THE TOWER ON THE CLIFF,' 'HER SEASON IN BATH,' ETC.
The budding floweret blushes at the light, The meads are dappled with the yellow hue, In daisied mantle is the mountain dight, The tender cowslip bendeth with the dew.
LONDON SEELEY AND CO. LIMITED ESSEX STREET, STRAND 1892
The incidents in the life of Thomas Chatterton which are introduced into this story are gathered chiefly from Mr Masson's exhaustive essay and a biography of the poet by Mr Chatterton Dix.
In these books full details may be found of the pathetic life, misdirected genius, and tragic death of the boy poet.
Several citizens of Bristol, who are connected with his sad history, appear in the following tale; the other characters are wholly imaginary.
WOODSIDE LEIGH WOODS, CLIFTON, February 1892.
I. LONGING FOR FLIGHT, 1
II. THE SQUIRE, 13
III. AN ELEGY, 28
IV. THE LETTER DELIVERED, 39
V. THE ORCHARD GATE, 48
VI. THE SYMPATHY OF POVERTY, 58
VII. CONSULTATION, 68
VIII. THE SONGS OF ROWLEY THE PRIEST, 77
IX. THE POET'S FRIENDS, 87
X. A LONG RESPITE, 99
XI. CHRISTMAS AT THE FARM, 109
XII. THE FINAL BLOW, 118
XIII. AN UNSUCCESSFUL SUIT, 128
XIV. ON THE HILLSIDE, 137
XV. THE LAST EVENING, 152
XVI. FORGIVENESS, 164
XVII. THE LAST, 176
LONGING FOR FLIGHT.
'Grandfather! I want to speak to you; please listen.'
'Well, who said I would not listen? But speak up, Biddy.'
The old man put his hand to his ear, and his granddaughter leaned over the back of his chair.
'Don't call me Biddy, grandfather. I am Bryda.'
'Bryda! Phew! Your poor mother was called Biddy, and you ain't better than she was that I know of.'
'Well, never mind; but this is what I want to say, and Betty is quite of my mind. Do let me go to Bristol. Jack Henderson heard old Mrs Lambert say she would like a bright, sharp girl to help her in the house, and I am bright and sharp, grandfather!'
'I daresay, and make you a drudge!'
'No; I shouldn't be a drudge. I should be treated well, and you know Mrs Lambert is a relation.'
'Relation! that's very pretty, when she has taken no heed of you for years. No, no; stay at home, Biddy, and put such silly stuff out of your head. Goody Lambert may find somebody else—not my granddaughter. Come! it's about supper-time. Where's Bet? She doesn't want to gad about; she knows when she is well off.'
Bryda pouted, and darted out of the large parlour of Bishop's Farm into the orchard, where the pink-and-white blossoms of the trees were all smiling in the westering sunshine of the fair May evening.
The level rays threw gleams of gold between the thickly-serried ranks of the old trees—many of them with gnarled, crooked branches, covered with white lichen—some, more recently planted, spreading out straight boughs—the old and young alike all covered with the annual miracle of the spring's unfailing gift of lovely blossoms, which promised a full guerdon of fruit in after days.
In and out amongst the trees Bryda threaded her way, sometimes brushing against one of the lower boughs, which shed its pink-and-white petals on her fair head as she passed.
'Betty!' she called. 'Bet, are you here? Bet!'
Bryda had come to a wicket-gate opening on a space of rugged down, golden with gorse, and from which could be seen an extensive view of Bristol in one direction, and of the village of Langholm and the woods of Leigh on the other.
Bishop's Farm was on the high ground of the Mendips, not a mile distant from the church of Dundry, whose tower is a landmark of this district, and is seen as a beacon to the country-side for many miles.
'Yes, here I am. Bryda, what is the matter?'
Betty was seated on a bit of rock, anxiously looking down on a lamb which the shepherd had brought from the fold, as it seemed, to die.
'It's just dying, that's what it. It's no use making a to-do Miss Betty. Lor'! the master can afford to lose one lamb, and it's no fault of mine.'
'It should have been brought in last evening, Silas. I'll carry it in myself, poor dear little thing.'
'Better not, better not; let it die in peace, miss. No mortal power can save it now. The mother is all but dying, too, and if I save her it's as much as I can do. There, I told you so. It's gone, poor dumb thing.'
For the lamb give one little feeble moan rather than a bleat, drew its thick legs together convulsively, and then lay still.
'Dead! Oh, take it away, Silas,' Bryda exclaimed; 'I cannot bear to see anything dead. Come away, Betty,' she entreated.
'There, there, Miss Biddy, don't take on. I'll carry it off, and don't trouble your heads no more about it. We've all got to die, and the lamb is no worse off than we. Can't say but I am sorry though,' Silas said, in a softer tone, as he picked up the dead lamb. 'I'd sooner see it frisking about in the meadow yonder than lying so cold and quiet.'
And then Silas, in his smock frock and wide hat, strode away over gorse and heather, and left the sisters alone.
Of these sisters Betty was the younger of the two by one year, but older in many ways—older in her careful thought for others, in her unselfish life, in her patience and tender forbearance with her somewhat irascible old grandfather.
Bryda and Betty had lived with their grandfather at Bishop's Farm ever since they could remember anything.
Their aunt, their father's sister by the farmer's first marriage, a widow, took the charge of the house after her husband's death, when she had come to her old home at her father's bidding rather than at his invitation.
He had been angry with her for marrying a sailor, had prophesied from the first that no good could come of it, and he was more triumphant than sorry that his prophecy had proved true.
There are some people who feel a keen satisfaction when they are able to say with Peter Palmer of the Bishop's Farm, 'I told you so, and I knew how it would be.' Peter certainly repeated this often in the ears of his daughter, a stolid, heavy woman, whom it was difficult to rouse to any keen emotion, either of joy or sorrow.
Mrs Burrow was one of those slow people to whom stagnation is life. She could scarcely read, and her writing was so much like hieroglyphics that on the rare occasions when she had to sign her name she used to get one of her nieces to write, 'Dorothy Burrow, her mark,' and then she would add the cross.
She did not neglect the homely duties which devolved on her as head of her father's house. She managed the dairy and the poultry, and kept the farm servants up to the mark.
Her world was a wholly different world from that of her young nieces, and the imaginative and enthusiastic Bryda especially had nothing in common with her.
Biddy, who undertook the plain cooking and baking of the establishment, and had a light hand for pastry and cakes, and who mended the linen with unexampled neatness, was Mrs Burrow's favourite. She was useful, and had no new-fangled ways like Biddy, and would make a good wife when her turn came, but as to that flighty Biddy, the man who married her would repent it to his last hour.
'Do ask grandfather, Bet, to let me go to Mrs Lambert's.'
'I wonder you are in such a hurry to leave me,' was the reply.
'It's not you, it's this humdrum life. Here we live, with no books and no fun, day after day, month after month, year after year. Why, I shall be twenty at midsummer, and I have only been to Bristol twice, and to Wells once by the coach. Oh, Bet, I might as well be a turnip or—'
A laugh from someone near made the girls spring up.
'So Bryda is like a turnip. That's good, I must say.'
'Jack, how you frightened me,' Betty said. 'I thought you was gone back to Bristol.'
'No, I have got another week's holiday. Uncle Antony sent word by the carrier that he would as lieve have my room as my company.'
'Oh, Jack, have you quarrelled with Mr Henderson?'
'Not exactly; but I am no favourite of his. Well, aren't you going to ask me to supper, Betty? I am hungry enough, I can tell you.'
'I must go and find out if there is enough supper for you,' Betty said, laughing. 'You and Bryda can follow when you like, but, Jack, don't fill her head with nonsense about going to Bristol. She will only be miserable if she goes to old Madam Lambert.'
And then Betty let the wicket-gate click behind her, and went singing through the orchard.
Jack Henderson was a giant in stature, with large ungainly hands and a somewhat slouching gait.
If ever a man was cut out for a country life it was Jack Henderson. But his mother was a little of the fine lady, and when her husband's brother offered to take Jack as an apprentice in his jeweller's shop in Corn Street, Bristol, she eagerly accepted the proposal, or rather, I should say, Mr Henderson at last gave a somewhat reluctant consent to receive Jack and polish him up as he polished his old silver and chased gold in his Bristol shop.
'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear,' had been Mr Henderson's remark when the bargain was finally struck, 'so don't expect it, Molly,' he said to his sister-in-law. 'But as you are a widow, and I promised poor Jim to do something for his children, I'll hold to the bargain.'
The bargain was this. Mrs Henderson was to supply vegetables, cream and butter, and cider from her farm in return for her son's board, lodging, and learning the trade in her brother-in-law's shop in Corn Street.
Jack Henderson threw his huge form on the ground at Bryda's feet, and said,—
'What are you doleful about, Bryda—eh?'
'Don't ask me,' Bryda said. 'I might as well cry for the moon as ask grandfather to let me go to Mrs Lambert. He won't give me leave.'
'Go without,' was the prompt reply. 'I'll manage it.'
Bryda shook her head.
'It would vex poor Bet if I did.'
'Well, it will vex me if you stay here. I'd give something to see you once a week, and if you stay here I sha'n't see you till next Whitsun'—p'r'aps not then.'
Bryda made no answer to this. She was leaning forward, and looking past Jack to the lovely landscape stretched before her, listening intently, her eyes full of wistful longing, her small hands clasped round her knees, and a pair of little feet, which the thick, clumsy shoes of the village shoemaker could not altogether disguise, crossed one over the other close to Jack Henderson's large hand.
'Hush.' she said, 'there are the bells, Bristol bells calling—they always seem to call me—but it's no use.'
Then, rallying, Bryda said,—
'Tell me about that boy—you know who I mean.'
'Oh! the mad fellow at Lambert's, he is as mad as ever, writing and scribbling verses. But, all the same, he is not a bad sort of chap. Old Lambert hates him, but masters always hate their apprentices, just as Uncle Tom hates me.'
'Have you brought me any more poems, Jack?'
'No. You must come for 'em. I'll lay a wager Chatterton will give you a lot of stuff like the "Friar's Bridge" when he sees you.'
'You might send me Felix Farley's Journal when you go back to business.'
'Look here, Bryda, you must come for it. I shall be off in the cart next Monday morning. I'll wait at the turn by the church till you come. Only old Tim will know, and he is as blind as a mole and deaf as a post. Now, come, there's a good girl.'
'But Mrs Lambert may not want me.'
'You are quick with your pen, write to the old lady and tell her you will come to be a grandchild to her, or what you like. Come, Bryda, say yes.'
But Bryda still hesitated.
The flight to Bristol was to the country-bred village maiden of a hundred and twenty years ago a serious matter. Just as she had seen the young swallows stretching their wings on the nests under the eaves, and fluttering and trembling before they followed their twittering parents, so did Bryda pause, before she could make up her mind to take this earnestly desired flight into the heart of the city from the heart of the hills.
Bryda had few books, for books, of which there were not many in those days, did not find their way to the Mendip villages. But the girl lived in her own world of romance, and peopled it with airy phantoms, as many a maiden has done before her. Her prosaic aunt and the two or three cronies who paid visits to Bishop's Farm were much more unreal to her than the creations of her own brain.
She loved Betty with the love that is born of dependence, for Betty exercised a half maternal care over the sister of whose beauty she was so proud, and who seemed to her simple soul so far superior to herself and to any of her neighbours.
That Bryda should have the best of everything was a recognised fact with Betty—the best clothes, the brightest ribbons, the choicest food.
Many a time had Betty stood as a shield between their Aunt Dorothy and the spoiled child, her sister, and skilfully covered any of Bryda's delinquencies by the garment which loving hands know so well how to throw over those who are dearest to them.
Betty was very pretty, but she had no acknowledged admirers, while there was not a young man in the district who did not show signs of adoration for Bryda—mute signs, perhaps, but not the less sincere—a flower presented as she passed under the porch of the village church, or a fairing brought from Bristol, left with no words on the stone seat under the porch.
But none had dared to make a formal declaration of love, except Jack Henderson, perhaps, who, on his not frequent visits to his old home at the Mendips, found Bryda more and more irresistible, and gave her reason to know, as at this time, that the sight of her was indispensable to his happiness. Poor Jack, he was to find out that the very temptation he put in Bryda's way—to take flight to the busy, toiling city, now lying at the distance of some miles below them, wrapt in the gathering blue haze of the May evening—was to widen and not lessen the distance between them.
'Well,' he said, drawing his huge ungainly form from the soft cushion of moss, where the daisies and golden cistus flowers had shut their eyes for the night, 'well, take my word for it, you'll find a lot of things you care for in Bristol, and I tell you, if I were you, I should write to Madam Lambert at once. You can send it by the carrier, tied up in brown paper. He baits his horse in Corn Street, close to Lambert's office, and he'll take it direct to Dowry Square. You'll get heaps of things you want. Books—why, bless you, Bristol is a mighty learned place. The folks there do nothing else than write histories, and read till they are blind. You'll get a lot of things there, and so you'll say when you are once there.'
'Bryda, Bryda,' it was Betty's voice calling in the orchard, 'Bryda, pray come; Aunt Dorothy is as cross as two sticks.'
'Is that anything new?' Bryda said, with a little laugh, as she sprang to her feet, waved her hand to Jack Henderson, and disappeared under the blossoming apple trees. He longed to follow her, but as she did not ask him to do so, he turned towards his home two miles away.
That night, when Betty was quietly sleeping in the white-curtained tent-bed which the sisters shared, Bryda went to the lattice and opened it gently, and looked out into the calm of the summer night. The old-fashioned garden below sent up from its bushes of lavender and rosemary, and sweet-scented thyme and wallflower, a dewy fragrance. A honeysuckle just coming into full flower clasped the mullion of the old stone framework by the lattice with clinging tendrils. Above, the stars looked down, giving the sense of the infinite and eternal, which will strike at times the dullest heart with awe and reverence. The sounds were subtle and scarcely defined. The rustle of a bird in the nest, where she was guarding her newly-fledged young ones, a whisper of the breeze faintly stirring the leaves of a silver birch, whose white trunk shone out in the dim twilight, for the days were nearing midsummer and May was just melting into June.
'Yes,' Bryda said, 'I might gain much, but should I not lose more? And yet there is life, life in the city, and here it is sameness, and life, real life, is scarce felt. I wonder how it will be.'
Bryda was about to close the lattice when her ear caught sounds more audible than the faint whisper of the breeze and the rustle of the leaves. Voices low and angry came from the kitchen, which was below her window.
The voices grew louder, then a door was sharply shut, and Flick, the big watch-dog, gave a low growl and the gate of the farmyard clicked again and again as it swung violently backwards and forwards before it finally closed.
The dwellers in farmhouses a hundred and twenty years ago on the height of the Mendips were early to bed and early to rise. It was therefore unusual to hear anyone coming or going between nine and ten o'clock.
'I wonder who it was?' Bryda thought. 'And there is grandfather coming up to bed. How slowly he comes, and—what can be the matter?'
For, as the heavy footsteps reached the landing by the girl's bedroom, there was a pause, and then a prolonged sigh, which was more like a groan.
Bryda stood transfixed, her hand on the latch of the door, which she had not courage to lift.
Another heavy sigh, and then the slow footsteps were heard getting fainter and fainter as the old man passed along the passage to his room.
Then all was quiet, and Bryda, still haunted with the fear of something unusual and strange, lay down by Betty's side and was soon asleep.
How often some cherished wish when fulfilled comes to us, not as the phantom of delight, as we pictured it, but with a grave and sober mien which makes us scarcely recognise that the desire which is granted is 'the tree of life,' for the fruit too often has a bitter taste, or ere we can grasp it is turned to dust and ashes. Bryda's longings were to be satisfied, but not as she had imagined. The way was to be made plain for her departure from Bishop's Farm; the home of her childhood and early girlhood was to be hers no longer.
Her grandfather went up to his bed that night a ruined man.
The next morning the poor old farmer came down to the plentiful breakfast prepared by Dorothy Burrow looking ten years older than when he had left the kitchen the night before. He refused all food, and sat in the settle by the fire, holding his thin hands over the smouldering embers, and shuddering every now and then and moaning to himself.
'You ain't cold now, father?' Dorothy bawled in his ear. 'It is hot enow in the fields, even now, I can tell you. Do you want a bigger fire—eh?'
The old man shook his head.
'What do you want then? Don't sit there as if you was crazy—sighing and muttering.'
'Here, grandfather,' Betty said, approaching the settle and sitting down by her grandfather's side, 'here. I've put a drop of rum in the new milk, now take a draught of it, do, and you will feel quite spry and lively. Come!'
Betty always took a common sense view of things, and she added,—
'You can't feel well if you don't break your fast.'
She succeeded in making the old man swallow half the contents of the thick-lipped mug. Then she put another faggot on the fire, not heeding Dorothy's remark that they should all be smothered with heat, and sat down on the bench at the table, by Bryda's side, to discuss her own breakfast with a keen appetite.
Bryda, who was thinking over the loud, angry voices she had heard on the previous night, connected her grandfather's appearance with some mysterious visitor, who had evidently left the house in anger. So she did not do justice to the particular griddle cake, done to a turn, which Betty had put on her plate.
'Something is wrong,' she whispered to Betty. 'I know there is. I wish we knew what it is.'
They were not left long in doubt. As soon as the scraping of the heavy boots of the farm servants was heard on the brick floor of the back kitchen, where they took their meals, and the benches pushed back by the general servant of the farm, Mr Palmer spoke, jerking his thumb in the direction of the open door.
'Shut yonder door,' he said, 'and come here all of you.'
The girls obeyed, Bryda and Betty seating themselves on either side of their grandfather, while Dorothy Burrow stood before him, her stout red arms uncovered, her elbows stuck on either side of her thick waist, and the frills of her big calico cap blown back from her stolid face.
'Well,' she said, 'what's up, father?'
The old man shook his head, and thumped his fist irritably.
'Didn't I say I was going to tell you summat?' he said. 'Hold your tongue till I've done it. Years agone,' he began, 'I had a son—your father, Biddy and Bet. You don't remember him—how should you. He and your poor silly mother died when you were babes.'
'I remember him well enow,' Dorothy began; 'I had cause for he disgraced the family.'
'Hold you tongue, Doll.'
'Yes, Aunt Dorothy, do be quiet,' Bryda said in a trembling voice.
'Well, he went wrong, very wrong, and I wanted to get him out of the country, to escape the justices. It was a big sum, and I borrowed it of Squire Bayfield up Binegar way. I put my name to a paper that I'd be surety it should be paid on demand. The old Squire was a kind-hearted chap, and he never pressed me. I spoke to him last fall, when he was out with the beagles, as stout and as strong as ever, I thought. I told him times were bad, and the crops scarce, and I had lost a lot of sheep in the hard winter. And says he, "All right, I'll not come down on you." So I was easy in my mind, and if he had lived it would have been all right; but he dropped down dead last Candlemas, and his son, who has come back from foreign parts, says he will have the cash or sell me up.'
'How much is it?' Betty asked, with white trembling lips.
'Three hundred pounds. I paid interest, I did, but this chap, curse him, says he will have the lump sum or he'll put the bailiffs in.'
'Are you bound to pay him the sum?' Bryda asked. 'I expect not.'
'Yes, the paper says, or heirs of his body.'
'Ask a lawyer about it. Ask Mr Lambert,' Betty said.
'It ain't no good. The young fellow was here blustering last night. He says he is in want of cash, and he must have it. That's the long and the short of it. No, there's no hope. So the stock must go, and the bits of furniture that have stood here since I was no higher than the table.'
'Lor'!' the old man said, wandering back into the past, 'I can see my mother now a-polishing and rubbing yonder bureau till I could see my face in it. Well, well, it's not for myself I grieve, it's for you children.'
Bryda had risen, and stood with one hand on her grandfather's shoulder and the other grasping the carved elbow of the old oak settle. Her lips were firmly shut, and her whole bearing determined, almost defiant. Presently she said,—
'I never knew before it was as bad as this. I never knew my father was what Aunt Dorothy says—a disgrace. But did you know it, Betty?'
'I guessed something, not much; but, Bryda, it is all over now.'
'All over,' the girl said, with flashing eyes, 'all over! Such a stain can never be wiped away.' Then, with a sudden impulse of pity and tenderness, Bryda stooped, and kissing the furrowed brow of the old man, she said,—
'Ah, poor grandfather!'
'He was such a fine, handsome boy, was our Phil. There was not one to match him—straight as a dart, and that strong, he could get the better of the strongest in the wrestling matches. Oh, he was a fine fellow was Phil! To see him on horseback was a treat.'
'What did he do? I wish to know now, grandfather.'
But the old father shook his head.
'It is so long ago, now—near nineteen years. Yes, nineteen years. Betty was born just after, and her mother died of a broken heart, they said. Hearts don't break.'
'Do you know, Aunt Dorothy, what my father did?'
'Well, if you must know—he forged a cheque. If he hadn't been got off to America he would have been—hung. Father scraped up a hundred pounds, and sent him packing, and borrowed the three hundred to pay the man Phil had robbed. That's the long and short of it. I wasn't here, but that's what father told me, and I suppose it's gospel truth. It's over and done with now, and no one need have been the wiser if that fool, young Bayfield, had not come and stormed at father. Shameful, I call it.' Then Dorothy threw her apron over her face, and leaving the kitchen, called Betty to come and look after the butter. 'It is churning day,' she said, 'and to spoil pounds of good butter won't mend matters.'
Betty obeyed, and Bryda was left with her grandfather.
'Is my father dead?' she asked, putting her mouth close to the old man's ear.
'Dead? Yes. I never heard a word of him since the ship sailed from Bristol one dark night. I put him aboard. No one knew. When I got back there was Bet wailing. She was born—and your poor silly mother died. Poor thing! poor thing! She said, "I am glad to die, take care of my babes." And I said I would, and so I did—eh, Biddy?'
'Yes, yes, grandfather; and now we will take care of you. I'll go and earn my keep at any rate; but first I shall go and see Mr Bayfield.'
'No, no; it's like a lamb running into the jaws of a lion. He will only storm at you. There's nought to be done but sell up, and pay the cash down. But I'll do it myself. He sha'n't send his fellows here to knock about the things. The stock must go. The sheep will fetch summat—and there's two fine young heifers, beside the milch cows.'
Three hundred pounds looked an enormous sum in the eyes of the Somersetshire maiden, but she was determined to make an appeal to the hard-hearted young Squire.
Binegar was some miles from the hamlet of Upton, where Bishop's Farm stood; but Bryda was well used to long rambles over hill and dale, and she ran up to her room full of her scheme.
'I will tell no one—no, not even Bet,' she thought. 'They shall see for once I can be of use. And then I will go to Bristol and see Mr Lambert, and tell him I will come and be the useful girl about the place his mother wants.'
Bryda took some pains with her appearance, as she stood before a little glass, which gave but a distorted reflection of the fair face which gazed into it.
Bryda exchanged her blue homespun skirt for a red camlet, a material then much used for women's dress. It was made with short elbow sleeves, and the bodice cut low. Over this Bryda pinned a white kerchief, confining the ends at the waist with a silver buckle which had belonged to her mother. Then she tied back her bright hair, which was the colour of a cornfield rippling in the sunshine, with a blue ribbon, and perched on the top of her pretty head a bonnet of Dunstable straw which would have disguised most faces so ugly was its shape. But Bryda's face could not lend itself to any disguise. Her luminous eyes seemed to shine the brighter under the shadow of the peak. Her clear rose-and-white complexion was set off by the clumsy knot of faded ribbon strings which passed under the high crown of the bonnet was tied under Bryda's dimpled chin, and defined its beautiful outline.
Thus equipped, Bryda stepped quietly downstairs, and went out at the back door of the farm.
In the yard, on a barrel turned up for a seat, sat Silas the shepherd.
He was cutting huge slices of coarse bread with a clasp knife, and crowding them into his mouth, with morsels of Cheddar cheese.
'I want to take one of the dogs for a walk, Silas. Which can you spare?'
'Neither,' was the short response.
'Oh, let me have one, Silas. Let me have Flick. Here, Flick, will you come?'
'Where be thee going?'
'For a long walk, that's all.'
'You'll find it nearly broiling 'cross the hill. The old ewe died early this morning. There's another loss for the master. But, lor', he's dazed like. If I told him the whole flock was dead he wouldn't care. Master is queerish this morning.'
'He is not well,' Bryda said. 'Don't trouble him, Silas, if you can help, and let me have Flick.'
Flick was only waiting the word of command from his master, with anxious upturned nose and eyes scanning Silas's rugged face.
'Get along with you,' was the not very gracious dismissal.
And the old dog leaped for joy, gave his low, deep-mouthed bay, scuttled round the yard twice, sending two sedate cats clambering up the old wall, with its high lichen-covered coping, where they turned at bay, with swelled tails and arched backs, to spit at their enemy.
So bright was the sky, and so full of life was everything around her, that as Bryda tripped lightly on her way she had almost forgotten what was her errand.
The church clock of Dundry struck ten as she passed. The village was quiet, almost deserted.
The people were out at their daily toil on the hills, and only a few white-headed children were making dust pies by the churchyard gate, two or three women, with babies in their arms, gossiping at their cottage doors.
'Where's she off to, I wonder? That's Peter Palmer's girl, she is mighty proud, and never passes good-morning or the time of day, not she.'
'Pride must have a fall,' said another. 'Look at her in her fine red gown as if 'twere a Fair day.'
And then the women hushed their squalling babies with somewhat rough vehemence and turned to other subjects.
Bryda was a little doubtful of the nearest road to Rock House when she came to the place where four roads met.
The old sign-post had lost one of its arms, and the lettering on another was defaced. Bryda knew Rock House was several miles nearer Dundry than the town of Binegar, but she could not feel sure which of the four roads that looked so much alike was the right one.
As she stood hesitating, a young man, with a gun under his arm, leaped over the hedge into the road.
Flick growled as he approached, and Bryda, putting her hand through his collar, said,—
Then, addressing the young man, she said,—
'Please, sir, can you tell me the way to Rock House, Squire Bayfield's?' Then she added demurely, 'I have business with him.'
'Well,' was the reply, 'the Squire is a lucky man, that's all I have to say.'
Bryda's colour rose, for this young man's gaze was a little too openly admiring.
She curtsied, with a grace which was very different from the low bob of the country maiden generally, and said,—
'I beg you, sir, to be so good as to tell me which road I am to take, right or left.'
'It's right ahead,' was the reply; 'I am going the same way. Your dog is not a very pleasant companion; he looks as if he would fly at my throat if he could.'
'He knows his manners, sir,' Bryda said, 'and he will not fly at anyone without reason. Down!' she said, 'quiet, Flick.'
This, with a pat on his shaggy head, was taken as a sign that Bryda's companion was not the foe Flick had at first imagined, and he walked gravely by her side, as if unconscious of a third person's presence.
Bryda volunteered no conversation, and for some minutes there was silence. Presently the man asked,—
'Have you any acquaintance with Squire Bayfield?'
'No, sir; not with the young Squire. He has been in foreign parts for years.'
'Yes, that's true; he came home a week ago to find his father dead and buried, and the old place a ruin for him to build up, and money short to do it.'
Again there was silence, till a pair of large gates came in sight and a long avenue of firs leading up to a house, of which the low front was seen at the end of the drive.
'Is this Squire Bayfield's house, sir?'
'Yes, and I have business there also, so we will walk up to the door together.'
Bryda hesitated, and then said,—
'I have business with the Squire, sir; but it is of a private nature, and I must see him alone.'
'That I'll warrant you shall do, madam,' and insensibly the man's manner became more respectful.
This was no country maiden to whom he might offer any familiarity, praise her beauty, or rally her on her charms. Bryda had always about her that innate purity and refinement, which acts as a shield against the shafts of impertinent admiration which men of a certain type in the eighteenth century were apt to offer to win favour with the belles of town or country.
A short flight of stone steps led to the front entrance of the house, and here the young man paused. After a moment's hesitation he opened the door, and a parcel of dogs of all shapes and sizes came rushing out, whining and capering with delight.
Immediately Flick stood at bay, and a scrimmage seemed imminent, when the young man took a short whip from a peg in the hall, and thrashing right and left, with a great many oaths and curses, exclaimed, 'The brutes—the underbred brutes,' as the dogs went whining and yelping back to the place whence they came.
'Now, madam,' the young man said, after apologising for this uproar, 'let me show you into the only habitable room in the place where you can have your desired interview with the Squire.'
He pushed open a door as he spoke, and holding it for Bryda to pass, closed it again, and left her alone.
Bryda was in the old library, which was full of deed boxes and papers. Books lined the walls, and a big chair at the farther end by the bay window was the magistrate's seat, where Mr Bayfield had, after the custom of the time, tried prisoners for poaching, petty larceny, and other offences.
Bryda felt frightened, and yet gathered up all her courage to meet Mr Bayfield when he appeared.
The summer sunshine, lying on the wide expanse of open country, did not touch this gloomy room, which looked full north, and only caught a gleam of brightness later in the day for a short space.
Bryda walked to the window and looked out. Flick was lying on the terrace, his nose on his big ungainly paws, his ears pricked up—on guard, and watching for a return of the yapping crew which the young man's whip had so summarily dismissed.
The aspect of everything was dreary and cheerless. The dark firs, the decayed urns, which flanked either side of the stone steps, the rough terrace of loose stones, the long grass of the pleasance below, where a few flowers were bravely struggling to show themselves under difficulties.
'What a dreary place!' Bryda exclaimed. 'But, oh, I wish the Squire would come. I wish Betty was here; but I must make the best of it now I have come here. No gentleman would be cruel to an old man like grandfather, and—'
She stopped, for the door opened and the same man whom she had met on the road came in. He made a low bow, and advancing, said,—
'The Squire, otherwise David Bayfield, is at your service, madam. I pray you be seated, and let me ask you to take such refreshment as this miserable house can afford. I have ordered it to be brought.'
But Bryda stood like a fawn at bay, and said with all the calmness she could command,—
'I do not understand, sir. I am at a loss to know whether—'
'I am the Squire? Yes, fair lady, I have the misfortune to bear that ill-starred title, and I beg you to be seated and open out your business.'
But Bryda, though trembling from head to foot, repressed all outward sign of fear, and still stood, her hand on the back of the old carved oak chair, which, when she had turned from the window, she had grasped at the entrance of the young Squire.
'My business, sir, will not detain you long,' she said. 'My poor grandfather, Mr Palmer, to save a son, my father'—this was said with infinite sadness—'yes, my father, from disgrace, borrowed a sum of money, a very large sum, from the old Squire. He never pressed him for payment, and indeed it is doubtful that he ever expected it. I came to ask you, sir, to be pitiful, and give my grandfather time, at least. He has had years of poor crops, and many losses of stock. He is already behind hand. If you press him, as I heard you did last night, you will ruin him, you will kill him,' she added with vehemence—'yes, you will kill an old man, who is over seventy, and,' clasping her hands, 'make us all wretched and miserable.'
'Madam,' David Bayfield began, coming nearer, while Bryda, with the shield of the old magistrate's chair before her, felt secure, 'madam, I feel like a poacher on trial, you the judge. Listen to a prisoner pleading; I pray you, be merciful. You speak of ruin—the money I claim by right of your respected grandfather it is absolutely necessary I should have. I hold the note of hand. I showed it to the old man last night. It sets forth that the money is payable on demand to my father, or heirs of his body. I must have the money.'
Bryda looked straight into the face before her, and with flashing eyes, drawing her small figure up to its full height, she said,—
'Very good, sir; I need detain you no longer, but return whence I came from my bootless errand. I do not envy you, sir; it is always better to be the injured than the injurer. Permit me to pass, sir, as I must lose no time.'
The door opened at this moment, and an old man-servant came shuffling in, a tray in his hand, loaded with a silver goblet of spiced wine and a few wheaten cakes. He eyed Bryda curiously, and placing the tray on a small table covered with dust, he put a chair before it, and was retiring, when Bryda seized the moment for escape. She came swiftly round from the chair, and before the servant could close the door she had gone out into the hall.
'Nay, madam, I pray you, do not leave my house thus. It will put me in the position of an inhospitable brute. I beseech you take some refreshment ere you depart.'
'I did not come here for refreshment, sir,' Bryda said. 'I came in the hope of finding a merciful gentleman, who would not hasten an old man to his grave by cruelty and hard usage. This hope is at an end. There is nothing left for me but to repent I ever came hither.'
'But, my dear madam, hearken. I would fain win your favour. I am not one to make fair speeches, but I am not cruel. Right is right, and—'
'Mercy is mercy,' Bryda said. 'Good-day to you, sir. Flick, Flick!'
The dog was at her side in an instant. He gave an ominous growl as the Squire tried to follow, and then Mr Bayfield stood like a statue on the top step of the cracked flight and watched Bryda's light figure as it passed under the sombre firs, Flick striding at her side as she walked swiftly, at a pace which was nearly running, towards the white gates, and then vanished out of sight.
The Squire clenched his teeth and muttered a string of oaths, turned into the house, swallowed the contents of the silver mug at one draught, and then sat down before the table, with its many pigeon-holes and secret drawers, to curse his stupidity in allowing Bryda to depart without another attempt to detain her.
She was so entirely different from any woman he had met. There was a mingling of dignity and sweetness which he was not slow to recognise. Her beauty was not her only attraction. He read in her clear eyes purity, and strength of purpose in her round, determined chin, with its slightly upward curve. David Bayfield felt ashamed of himself as he had never felt before, and unable to settle to any business matters, he went to the stable, saddled one of the horses, which had been eating off their heads there since his father's death, and galloped at a furious pace to Wells to consult his man of business there as to what steps should be taken.
Bryda had just reached the cross roads where she had met the Squire when a heavy lumbering cart came slowly in sight, which she recognised as Mrs Henderson's. If Jack was driving it, she would at once tell him what had happened; but Jack was not likely to be driving at that snail pace.
It was Jack, however, indulging in a slumber as the old horse, who knew his way in the district as well or better than his master, plodded soberly along to his destination.
'Oh! it is Jack!' Bryda exclaimed. 'Jack, Jack, do stop!'
Jack Henderson opened his sleepy eyes and called 'Wo, wo!' to the horse.
'Oh, Jack, will you take me up, I am so tired and so—'
Jack brought his huge frame down into the dirty road with a mighty thud, and said,—
'Why, Bryda, what's up? What are you doing here? Lor'! don't take on like this,' for poor Bryda's self-possession suddenly forsook her, and she began to cry helplessly, like a tired and frightened child.
'There, get up,' Jack said, 'and I'll take you home, but for mercy's sake don't cry.'
Bryda climbed up the steps of the waggon, and Flick, looking highly satisfied with the arrangement, rubbed his nose against Jack's leg, and whined as if to say, 'I know she will be safe now,' waited with his red tongue lolling out of his big mouth, panting hard after the manner of dogs on a hot day, till Jack gathered the slack reins in his hand and mounted to the seat by Bryda's side.
'Well,' he said, 'I was amazed to see you. Why, you are six miles from Dundry. Come along home with me, and—'
'No, no; I must get back. If you will wait I will tell you everything—and, Jack, I want to go to Bristol, to Madam Lambert's. That will be a help. I am no use at the farm, Aunt Dolly is always telling me so; and now, now they will have a hard fight to get through at all. Grandfather has got to sell up all the stock to pay a debt.'
'Nonsense, get along, I don't believe it,' Jack said. 'What do you mean?'
'What I say.'
And then Bryda poured the whole story into Jack's sympathetic ears, which he received with sundry ejaculations, which were anything but complimentary to Squire Bayfield.
But Jack, however sympathetic, had only one thing to advise.
'Don't pay the money to the young scoundrel, don't you do it, and go to Bristol and get out of all the bother.'
'It is not that I want to get out of the bother, Jack,' Bryda said. 'How can you think so? I want to help by going away. Why, yesterday, I wanted to go for my own pleasure, now I must go to try and help. Perhaps Madam Lambert will give me wages in time, then I can be a real help, and send Bet some money, and get comforts for poor grandfather.'
'You must get comforts for yourself first,' Jack said.
He was so pleased that his favourite scheme of getting Bryda to Bristol was to be carried out that he forgot everything else.
'I am going back Monday,' he said, 'and you can come along with me.'
'No,' Bryda said decidedly, as Jack drew a little nearer to her. 'No, Jack, I shall go before Monday. I shall try to make Madam Lambert take me. She is a sort of relation, you know; and if she won't, well, I must try to get into a haberdasher's shop—or be a servant—or—'
'You stop that,' Jack said. 'I'll never see you a servant while I'm alive. You are too good and too beautiful to be a servant.'
Jack laid emphasis on the last word, with a sharp slap of the whip on the drowsy old horse's fat back. Not that Jack Henderson wished to hasten on his way, he would have been content to jog along thus with Bryda at his side for days. To this simple-hearted young man whom Nature had designed for a farmer, but whose ambitious mother had willed that he should be a silversmith and jeweller, in the fond hope that he might succeed his childless uncle in his Bristol business, Bryda was an idol at whose shrine he worshipped, and whose smile sent him on his way rejoicing, while her frown, or a sharp word from her, made him miserable, and conscious that he was too dull and stupid and clumsy ever to win her as his wife.
Jack's education had been of the scantiest. It had been begun at a village dame school, and finished at the Wells Grammar School. It is to be doubted if any school could have raised Jack Henderson above the ordinary type of the Somersetshire farmer's son. He had shut his Latin primer and his English grammar when he left Wells, and had never opened a book since, except his prayer book on Sundays, and then he could scarcely spell out the verse of the psalms, and shouted Tate and Brady to the accompaniment of scraping fiddle and trombone in the gallery of the church, with a refreshing disregard of words, though he supplied deficiencies by mystic utterances which filled in doubtful passages and could be interpreted according to the wishes of the hearer.
Such was Jack Henderson, with his true Somersetshire dialect, where 'Z was, and is still preferred before 'S, making the speech of the good people on the Mendips somewhat difficult to understand.
But beneath Jack Henderson's rough exterior beat a true and honest heart. He was upright in word and deed. Shams were hateful to him, and he would not try to seem other than he was for all the gold and silver in his uncle's shop in Corn Street.
He set Bryda down close by the entrance to Bishop's Farm, and said,—
'Look ye here, Bryda, I'll jog off to Bristol to-morrow, and take your letter myself to Madam Lambert. You put it under the loose stone in yon wall, and I'll be here at daybreak and trudge off. I'll bring an answer back in the evening. Come, will this suit you—eh?'
Bryda had already jumped down into the road, and Jack was standing, with the reins in his hand, anxiously peering into her face.
'Eh, Bryda, will that suit you?'
'Thank you, Jack. Yes, I will have the letter ready. But will your mother be angry?'
'Lor'! why should she? But if she is, it's no odds to me. I say, Bryda, give me—'
But before Jack could finish his sentence Bryda was gone.
She found things at the farm going on much as usual.
The butter was made, the noonday dinner cleared away, Dorothy 'cleaned up' for the afternoon, and seated at the table cutting up some bits of old printed calico for a patchwork quilt.
When she caught sight of Bryda at the open door she called out,—
'Where have you been to? Dinner is done an hour ago. P'r'aps you have had yours at Mistress Henderson's?' This with a sniff of contempt. 'You are mighty partial to these Hendersons, I know I can't abide them.'
Instead of taking any notice of these remarks, Bryda asked,—
'At his business, of course. Another lamb is dead, and another ewe past hope. Everything is gone crooked. The last brood of chicks are dying fast as they can. It's all along with Goody Fenton's evil eye. I said so when she sat in the porch Lady-day. I told you you was feeding a bad old woman, and I was right.'
Bryda gave a little incredulous laugh.
'I should feed her again,' she said, 'if she came this way, poor miserable old creature!'
'Wicked old wretch, she'll end in the ducking stool, and serve her right. I'd like to be by and see it, that's all.'
Bryda's imaginative nature had a vein of superstition in it. She was not altogether sure that witchcraft had died out of the land, and she rather liked to hear the stories of elves and fairies, good spirits which made those dark rings on the turf by their dances, when all the rest of the world were asleep.
There was a fascination for her in the notion of a world of little mysterious fairies, who cradled themselves in the deep blue bells of the campanules, and lay in the heart of the tall white lilies, powdering their airy garments with gold, and flying through the air of the still summer nights on the backs of the shy, spotted moths which blundered over the moor, when none were there to see, in chase of a will-of-the-wisp, whose lantern, darting hither and thither, lured them on. She stood thinking for a moment over all the run of ill luck to which Dorothy referred, and then her thoughts went back to the cause of all this trouble, a crime of which she had never known before—her father's sin.
'The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.' Was it to be so in her case and Betty's—Betty, whose wailing cry struck her grandfather's ear when he returned from his sad errand at Bristol, and had parted from his only son for ever?
Then there came over Bryda that strange regret for the ignorance of yesterday, as bliss when compared with the bitter knowledge of to-day. But with the knowledge came tender regret, the longing to remedy the evil and efface the stain of disgrace from the name she bore.
She said no more to Dorothy, whose huge scissors clipped the square of gay stuff lying before her as if to make the gaudy quilt was the one object of her life, but she ran upstairs to the bedroom she shared with Betty, and found her there, as she expected, exchanging her working gown, with its large apron, for what was called an afternoon frock, with a dainty kerchief and white apron.
'I have seen him,' Bryda exclaimed.
'Seen who?' Bet asked.
'The Squire. He is as hard as nails. He will have the money.'
'Why, Bryda, how did you get to the house?'
'I'll tell you, Bet; but,' she said, 'do get me a bit of something to eat and drink. I am so famished.'
'I wondered what had become of you, but I kept you a currant dumpling in the oven, and a bit of hash. I'll go and fetch it.'
'Yes, I would rather have it here.'
However distressed the young are, and however perplexed, they do not lose their appetite.
Bryda ate everything Betty brought her with keen relish, and drank a cup of cider. Then she said,—'I feel fit for anything now, and now I will tell you the whole story, and what I have resolved to do.'
Betty was a sympathetic listener, but she did not quite see why Bryda should go to Bristol.
'No one wants me here.'
'I want you,' Betty said, 'and if trouble is coming, and the stock sold, and that dreadful young Squire comes here, I shall be frightened without you.'
'He won't come here any more, Bet; he has made up his mind, and he will stick to it, and I want to hear what Mr Lambert says about it all. I suppose it is lawful, if the paper was signed by grandfather, but I should like to tell the whole story to a man who knows about such things. Now, I am going to write my letter to Madam Lambert, and I shall be off to Bristol before the end of the week.'
There was in Bryda's determination a dash of romance as well as of keen desire to do something to help her grandfather in his sore strait.
Of course it may be questioned whether Betty, pursuing the even tenor of her way, and letting nothing interfere with her household work, was not more in the line of duty than her beautiful sister. But the two sisters were, as often happens, so entirely different in character that one cannot be judged by the same rules as the other. The impulsive enthusiast and the matter-of-fact, practical labourer in the field see things from a different standpoint.
In this case there was no division of heart between the two.
Betty believed in Bryda, and had for the whole of her short life looked on her as superior to herself, and to any of the few acquaintances of their own age whom the sisters knew, and she was quite content to take the subordinate place and sit at the feet of her beautiful sister.
Betty fetched an inkhorn and two quills from a cupboard by their bed, and placed them on a somewhat rickety table, where Bryda's few books lay—books well worn and studied, books which fed her romance—two volumes of the Rambler and Spectator, Pope's verses, and last, but not least, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
On the style of these English classics Bryda had formed hers, and thus her expressions were somewhat quaint, and yet she was free from the stilted and flowery mannerism of the women of her time who had received a superficial education.
Bryda might be said to be self-educated. Her schooling had been of the narrow type afforded by a 'decayed gentlewoman' in a neighbouring large village, who had undertaken to instruct her pupils in reading, writing, and arithmetic, with fine needlework and the rudiments of French.
These rudiments seldom advanced beyond the auxiliary verbs and the pronouns, but Miss Darcy still kept school at Pensford, and spoke with pride of her late talented pupil Miss Palmer.
Bryda wrote her letter on a sheet of blue Bath post, and folding it, sealed it with a pink wafer, and addressed it to 'Mrs Lambert, Dowry Square, Bristol,' and wrote in the corner, 'By the hand of Mr J. Henderson.'
In the evening, when everyone was going or gone to bed, Bryda stepped out and placed the letter under the loose coping-stone of the wall, and then with a sense of relief went through the dewy orchard and out on the moor, where the purple hues of evening had gathered, and indulged in those castles in the air which were so dear to her.
'Perhaps I shall find ways in Bristol to make myself known. If that strange boy gets his verses printed in Felix Farley's Journal I may as well try to get mine there. Then people will ask who is Beta—for I shall call myself Beta. I know that is the Greek for B—and it sounds pretty. I have many verses in my old school book. Miss Darcy said they were elegant—at least the one I called "Farewell to Miss Darcy."
'I am sure I could write some verses about the dead lamb. Let me try, so many words which are appropriate would rhyme.
'Dear little lambkin lying on the grass So stiff and cold while strangers careless pass, Never again to frisk amongst the flowers, Never again to skip in vernal bowers. Oh, little lambkin, death is hard for thee, Though many a weary wight would gladly flee From all the trouble of this mortal life, And bid Farewell to grief, and pain, and strife.
'Yet what is Death? We get no sure reply As cold and stiff like thee our dear ones lie. Say, whither does the spirit seek its home When all the battle's o'er, the victory won? Ah! whither are they flown?'
Bryda came to a full stop.
A soft breeze wandering through the orchard gently caressed her hair, making its own soft music as it whispered to the flowers and buds that the day was done and that all things must end.
'I must go in now,' the girl said, starting up. 'I will write those lines to-morrow, and take them with me to Bristol. I hope Jack will not forget to come for the letter. But I know he won't. Poor old Jack, he is kind and good, if he is stupid. But everyone can't be clever. The young Squire looked as if he knew a good deal; and he was very handsome. Though I hate him, I can't help seeing he is handsome, but cruel and hard—yes, hard as nails, as poor grandfather said. I might as well try to soften that big bit of rock.'
Then Bryda let the gate of the orchard close behind her, and went towards the house.
THE LETTER DELIVERED.
Jack Henderson was up before the sun the next morning. He had thought it better not to take a horse and cart from his mother's stable, but trust to his own powers of locomotion.
He made his way across the meadows, where the cowslips hung their graceful heads, yet heavy with the dew of the short summer night. As the light strengthened in the east, and lines of pink and gold announced the approach of the sun, the birds began to sing in full chorus. A lark soared high above Jack's head, and lost itself in the blue ether in an ecstasy of rejoicing.
The sleepy cows raised their clumsy forms and began to chew the grass. A company of rooks, in a black line, winged their way, cawing as they went, to seek a breakfast for their young ones, yet in their nests in the mass of elms which stood dark against the sky in the direction of Binegar.
From afar came the gentle coo of the wood-pigeon, and the bleating of the lambs in a fold, awaiting the shepherd's voice to go forth with their mothers to try their newly acquired strength on the soft turf of the uplands.
Jack's honest heart was filled with an emotion he could not have put into words. He only knew that Bryda reigned there supreme. All these sights and sounds of beauty, and the youth of the day and of the year, were in harmony with his love for her, though he was only conscious that it was a fine morning and he was glad to be astir early to serve her.
When Jack Henderson reached the Bishop's Farm no one seemed to be stirring. He approached the wall which skirted the farmyard very cautiously, and lifting the loose stone of the coping, found the letter. He placed it carefully in the large pocket of his long buff waistcoat, which reached far below the waist of his blue coat, and hid the upper part of the short corduroys, which were met at the knee by coarse stockings, and fastened by large metal buttons.
For a moment Jack paused. He looked up at the old farm, and at the open casement of the room where he knew Bryda and Betty slept.
His heart beat with mingled feelings of hope and fear.
'If any harm should come to her from going to Bristol I shall have had a hand in it. Yet it's what she wants, and I have done it for her sake. Oh, bless her!' he continued, taking off his hat and gazing at the window. 'I say, God bless her, and keep her safe!'
And Bryda, all unconscious of this benediction, murmured in her sleep the last lines of the stanza of her elegy on the lamb which she had composed the night before, and which was interrupted by the vain hunt for a rhyme to 'won.'
'When all the battle's o'er, the victory won, Ah! whither are they flown?'
Bryda awoke with the question on her lips to which she could find no rhyme and no answer.
Jack Henderson knew his way about Bristol, and found himself in Dowry Square just as the deep-toned cathedral clock struck seven from afar.
The townspeople were not so early in their rising as those in the country and Dowry Square was wrapt in repose when Jack Henderson entered it. The blinds in the upper windows, and the shutters, with their heart-shaped holes, were still closed.
A door in one of the houses opened quickly, and a woman came out in a large frilled nightcap and a big apron. She had a broom in her hand, and began to raise a great dust by sweeping out the entrance and the dirty steps. She watched Jack curiously as he knocked at the door of one of the opposite houses twice and three times with no apparent effect.
'You may knock there till you are tired. Nobody is stirring there yet, I'll lay a wager. Folks who keep no women servants always lie late.'
Jack only nodded in reply to this, and knocking once more, leaned against the side of the door and resigned himself to waiting and patience.
Presently footsteps were heard and the bolts withdrawn and the key turned in the lock.
The face that appeared as the door was partially opened was a remarkable one. The eyes that met Jack's were literally blazing with anger, and the mass of hair tossed back from the wide white brow gave the appearance of a young lion at bay.
'Curse you, Jack Henderson, for knocking like that at this time of the day.'
'Keep a civil tongue in your head, Tom. Time of day, indeed! You ought to be up and half-way to the office by this time. I know Bristol folks are lie-a-beds, but I didn't think past seven o'clock was thought early even by them.'
'Well, what do you want? Out with it. Dogs are loth to quit their kennels when they can dream of the game they never catch when awake. Come, Henderson, I sha'n't parley any longer. I suppose you are come to beg, like a poltroon, to be taken back to that precious office in Corn Street. Get Lambert to intercede for you—eh?'
'I'm not dismissed that I know of. It's nothing of the sort, so hold your tongue; but I have got a letter here for Madam Lambert, and I want to see it in safe custody before I leave it.'
'Well, hand it over.'
'You swear to give it to madam, and say I'll call back for an answer in the afternoon.'
'Who is it from?'
'Ah, that's another matter. I sha'n't tell you; but I say, Tom, if ever you set eyes on the writer, remember what I tell you. If ever an angel—'
And now the young men's conversation was abruptly ended. A loud, strident voice was heard from the head of the wide oak staircase, which was at some distance from the narrow lobby.
'Chatterton, what do you mean, gossiping like any old woman at the street door? Where's Sam?'
'Asleep,' was the short reply.
'Wake him, then. Bid him attend to the door. It's not your business that I know of.'
'I should have thought it was, as I share his bed in the cellar. I should have thought it was share and share alike.'
This was said with infinite scorn, betrayed in the tone of the musical voice as well as by the contemptuous tossing back of the thick hair and shrug of the shoulders, which were seen in sharp outline under a threadbare coat hastily thrown on.
'Hold your tongue or I'll find means to make you. Who is it at the door?'
'Come down and see for yourself, sir,' was the final reply, as Thomas Chatterton departed whence he came and disappeared in the lower regions of the house.
The door was still open, and Jack Henderson still stood there. He ventured to advance to the foot of the stairs, and looking up he could dimly discern the figure of a gentleman in a long nightgown, his head surmounted by a huge nightcap, with a tassel dangling from its crown.
Mr Lambert held to the banister of the second flight of wide stairs, and peered down at Jack, who looked up at him.
'I have brought a letter, sir, from a young lady to Madam Lambert. She is a relative of yours, and wants to find a place in Bristol.'
'Relative, relative—tut, tut. Ah! I see you are Henderson's nephew. Well, judging from his experience, relatives are like to be more plague than profit.'
'Miss Palmer's mother was first cousin of Madam Lambert's, sir.'
'Oh! Well, I know nothing about it, but hand up the letter, and I will see my mother has it, though I don't promise you she will think anything of it.'
'I will call back for an answer, sir, about one o'clock.'
'Very well, very well. Here comes Mrs Symes, and I suppose we shall now have a chance of breakfast.'
The open door now admitted a large and portly personage, who came every morning to perform the duties of the household, assisted by the footboy Sam, who wore a suit of livery and answered the door to clients who might prefer to see lawyer Lambert at his private house rather than in the somewhat cramped office in Corn Street.
Mr Lambert disappeared upstairs as the woman began to throw open shutters and draw up blinds and let the light of the morning into the house.
Jack Henderson was not invited to breakfast, and after his early walk he was very hungry. He was just turning out of the square, towards the river, when he heard footsteps behind him.
Presently a hand was laid on his arm, and a voice said,—
'I was vastly uncivil half an hour ago, Henderson, but when one is treated like a cur one is apt to snarl like one. Where are you going to break your fast? At your uncle's—eh?'
'No,' Jack said,' I leave well alone there. I am not in high favour, and don't go near him till next Monday, when I hope to bring Miss Palmer along with me.'
Jack blushed to the roots of his hair.
'I can't joke about her,' he said.
'I crave pardon,' was the answer. 'Don't be sulky, Jack. I snatch a roll and a draught of water somewhere at a shop near by. Come with me and share the frugal repast.'
Then the two young men turned into the road by the river, where the early frequenters of the Spa were returning from drinking the waters in sedan chairs or wrapped up in fur. A band was playing before the door of the pump-room, and the whole scene was at once festive and melancholy.
The bun shop was not a dozen yards from the pump-room, and when Jack and his companion turned in to satisfy their hunger several gaily dressed beaux and young gentlewomen, probably relatives of the sick people who were drinking the waters, were laughing and chatting as if there was no such thing as death or sickness or sorrow in the world.
The group formed a sharp contrast indeed to the patients leaning on the arms of their attendants, who came forth in melancholy procession from the baths, coughing continuously, and with faces where consumption had too plainly left its mark. On some the bright hectic burned, on others the pallor of the last stages of that fell disease was seen.
Thomas Chatterton seemed wholly unconscious of what was passing before him. He threw down his penny for a roll, and drank a glass of water, and then stalked out of the shop, while Jack demolished a pork pie and two rolls, asking for a mug of cider to complete his breakfast. Having settled his account with the smart young woman behind the counter, he hastened to rejoin Chatterton.
He had walked away in the direction of St Vincent's Rocks, and Jack, with his long strides, soon overtook him.
'I am ready now,' he said; 'shall I walk back with you as far as Corn Street?'
But Chatterton did not answer. He stood like one in a dream, staring with his wonderful eyes at the giant rocks ahead of him, and seemed unconscious of any presence.
Something in Chatterton already struck Jack Henderson with a strange awe.
Now, as he stood on the bank of the river, where the tide had just turned its dun-coloured waters, rushing swiftly towards the sea, his head bare, his hair tossed back from his capacious brow, his hands clasped and his lips moving, though no sound escaped them, he looked as if he belonged to a different race from the big stalwart youth beside him, whose honest face was all aglow with health and vigour, and who towered a head and shoulders above the slight boyish form at his side.
Presently Chatterton spoke, but not to Jack.
'Rushing on to the sea—rush on—and bear the tidings of wrong and injustice and hate to the great ocean. I see them as they go—the evil spirits which make Bristol a hell on earth—drown them in the flood—free the city from their presence—and then—'
'Are you not going to the office, Chatterton?' Jack ventured to say at last. 'You will not be there at eight, I say,' and Jack touched the boy's arm.
The human touch seemed to break the spell, and Chatterton laughed a strange unnatural laugh.
'Oh, is it you, old Jack? Late, do you say? Yes, I am late for everything—too late—always too late. Farewell. I must away with all speed. Tell your angel she is coming to a place where she will find no good company.' And then, before Jack could say another word, Chatterton's slight boyish form was speeding along the road with incredible swiftness, and had disappeared at a turn leading from the Hot Wells to Bristol.
'I believe they are right,' Jack thought; 'he is mad. I must warn Bryda to be careful. All the queer stories about him are true, I daresay; but, after all, he is only a boy—sixteen at the most—and I am twenty. Hang that jeweller's shop! I think I will cut it, and go off in one of these big ships—make a fortune in America—and then—then—'
Ah! Jack Henderson, what then? Your simple soul has its dreams as you stand by that mighty rushing river, under the giant rocks, and your dreams are sweet, sweeter than those of the marvellous boy who has just left you to return to the hated drudgery of Mr Lambert's office in Corn Street.
THE ORCHARD GATE.
Jack Henderson found the morning very long, and finally stretched himself on one of the benches of the pump-room and slept away the time, rousing himself at intervals as a group of laughing girls passed him with their attendant beaux, for Clifton Hot Springs was now becoming a very fashionable resort, and the houses lying under the shadow of the huge rocks were in great demand.
Now but little is left to tell of the glory of the past. The pump-room has long since been pulled down, and instead of gaily dressed bevies of fashionable folk disporting themselves under a row of trees in the May sunshine, heavy trams, drawn by patient horses at an even jog-trot, pass along at stated intervals, at all times and seasons, connecting the traffic of the busy, populous city with Avonmouth which is just beyond the graceful Suspension Bridge which spans the gorge between the Gloucestershire and Somersetshire banks of the Avon.
But the grand old rocks do not change. The black-winged daws fly in and out of their nests in the crevices, where the yellow wallflower and large golden-eyed daisies still grow in profusion where no hand can reach them, and flourishing with the scant nourishment that the crevices in the rocks afford them, fill the air with their fragrance. Generations of men come and go, and the face of Nature remains as it was when the boy poet first gazed in a rapt vision at the grey bastions of St Vincent's Rocks, and down at the river at his feet rushing out to the sea.
Jack Henderson fortified himself with another meal at the confectioner's, and then pursued his way back to Dowry Square.
The aspect of things was changed there since the early morning. The brass handle of the door was polished and bright, the steps clean, and Jack's pull at the bell and rap at the door was answered by Sam, in neat livery, who conducted him immediately to a pleasant parlour where Mrs Lambert was sitting; an old lady of a past time, her grey curls fastened back from her forehead by two combs, surmounted by a large cap something between a turban and a mob. Her black paduasoy gown, full at the waist and only touching her ankles, was covered with a spotless white apron with deep pockets.
Over the low bodice of her dress Mrs Lambert wore a thick white kerchief, fastened close to the throat by a gold pin. On her arms she wore thick mittens, which reached the elbow of her short sleeves, and on her thin but shapely fingers she wore two or three handsome rings.
Jack made his best bow, and advanced to Mrs Lambert's chair, unhappily treading as he did so on the paw of a tabby cat, who resisted the indignity by a very prolonged yell and an angry spit at her enemy.
'Poor puss,' said her mistress. 'I expect, sir, your foot is no light weight. I believe you brought me this letter,' laying her hand on the precious document, which was placed on a little table by her side.
Jack murmured an assent.
'I have been much troubled by the loss of servants of late. One made a foolish match, the other died—both old servants. I have made efforts to replace them, and have failed. Is this young woman known to you, sir?'
'Well known, madam, but—' Jack paused. 'She isn't a servant. I believe she is a relative of yours.'
Mrs Lambert gave a little incredulous laugh.
'I see she subscribes herself as my cousin, but this is a very distant connection. However, it is a pretty note, take it altogether, and she speaks of trouble at home—her father in money difficulty. I showed my son the letter, and from all he can make out the sum borrowed will have to be repaid. He will speak more of that hereafter, but I will send my answer to Miss Palmer's request. Writing is difficult to me, for my fingers are a little stiff with rheumatism, therefore I am glad to spare them. First, are you the accepted lover of Miss Palmer?'
Again poor Jack felt the hot blushes rise to his face, again he shrank from the rough touch of the secret in his heart which he held sacred.
'Because,' Mrs Lambert continued, 'I do not permit sweethearts in the house. It is on this ground that I have dismissed several young serving-maids and depend on the services of Mrs Symes. I don't quite know what your views may be about Miss Palmer, but as I hear you are apprenticed in Bristol to a respectable goldsmith I should wish to make it plain that I can have no gallivanting or—'
'Madam,' Jack said, interrupting this long speech,' I have known Miss Bryda Palmer all my life. I am anxious to serve her, but I am not her accepted suitor.' Then, rising to his full height, Jack asked, 'What are your commands, madam? What answer am I to take to Miss Palmer?'
'I will take her on trial, and give a wage, say ten pounds per annum. This is only an arrangement, as I say, on trial, to be broken by either party at a month's not a quarter's notice.'
'Miss Palmer will come next Monday,' Jack said. Then, his voice faltering, he went on with some hesitation. 'She has been much cared for and—and loved. I hope you will be good to her, and remember she has never been used to hard words.'
'She has been very fortunate, then; but I think, sir, you forget yourself when you remind me of my duty. Good-day.'
Jack bowed, or rather ducked his head, which nearly reached the thick oak beam across the ceiling of the parlour, and as he was leaving the room, Mrs Lambert said,—
'Will you take a cup of cider before you leave, sir?'
'No, I am obliged to you. I have dined, and must hasten homewards.'
And then Jack, inwardly conscious that he had been but a poor ambassador, departed on his way to scale those heights which rise above Bristol in a straight unbroken line, where the tower of Dundry stands out against the sky.
Jack plodded on. His stalwart frame knew little of fatigue, and he was not nearly as tired, when at last Bishop's Farm came in sight, as he often felt when sitting with his long legs tucked under him on the high stool in his uncle's workshop in Corn Street. When he reached the gate of the farmyard he paused and determined to go round by the lane, and then pass through the orchard to the house if he did not, as he hoped, find Bryda on her favourite seat on the rough bit of limestone which cropped out of the turf.
The sound of his steps brought Flick to inspect him. Flick was satisfied, for he gave a low whine of welcome and rubbed his nose against Jack's hand.
At the gate of the orchard Jack saw two figures—Bryda's and a man's; the man, with a liver-and-white pointer at his feet, leaning against the gate in an easy attitude; Bryda, on the other side, with her face flushed, and a look in her eyes like a frightened fawn.
Jack strode up to the gate, and said in a rough tone,—
'Let me pass, sir. I have business with Miss Bryda.'
'So have I, sir, and I will despatch it, by your leave, without your interference.'
Jack put his hand on the gate and pushed it towards Bryda, but a hand, apparently as strong as his, pulled it back, with an oath.
'Wait one minute, Jack, wait till this gentleman is gone. He is speaking to me about—about—'
Poor Bryda's voice broke down, and she hid her face in her hands.
'If you wish it I will wait,' Jack said. 'Do you wish me to wait?'
A faint 'Yes' was the reply.
'Then I'll wait,' Jack said, but, glancing at the Squire, he added, 'If it were not for this wish of Miss Palmer's, sir, I would not wait your pleasure; but her word is law to me. If it weren't,' he muttered, 'I'd knock you down.'
An ironical laugh, with the words, 'Come, sir, be off!' was the only rejoinder, and then Jack strode away out of sight.
'Will that big sulky fellow eavesdrop?' he heard as he was departing, and the question was not likely to allay his wrath.
The conversation lasted for more minutes than Jack's patience held out, and he fumed and chafed at the indignity passed on him.
'To be warned off by a brute like that!' he murmured. 'What right has he to do it?'
Presently Betty's face appeared above the low wall which skirted the farmyard.
'Oh! Jack,' she exclaimed, 'Bryda has been talking to the young Squire ever so long. She sent me away. I do so wish she would come. It is all about that money and grandfather; but I don't like her to be alone with that man; he has a bad face. She has got Flick, but still I wish she would come.'
'Hang it all!' Jack said, 'I won't stand this another minute,' and he retraced his steps up the lane, reaching the down just as the Squire, with a pointer at his heels, was bowing low and waving his hand in farewell to Bryda.
Jack was at her side in an instant.
'What does that fellow want?'
Bryda had recovered her self-possession.
'He has promised to stay proceedings against grandfather for a month,' and the swift colour came to her face, and then vanishing, left it pale as death.
'What has he been saying to you?' Jack demanded, almost fiercely. 'Has he been frightening you to death—it looks like it.'
'Don't be angry, Jack; you should be glad. I have got a month's respite. I am tired, that is all. Come in to supper; Betty is sure to have something good to-night to try and tempt grandfather.'
Jack was wondering when Bryda would ask what had been the result of his journey to Bristol. He had walked some twenty miles in her service, and yet she asked no questions about the letter.
'I have been to Bristol,' he began, 'and delivered your letter. Don't you want to know what Madam Lambert said?'
'Oh, my letter! Yes—will she have me?' But Bryda did not seem eager for an answer.
'Yes, you can ride with me on Monday in the cart, and I will put you down at number six Dowry Square. Madam will give you ten pounds a year, and you will get a lot of books—I saw shelves full in the parlour—and you will see all the fine folks at the pump-room, and hear the band play. Won't you like that—eh, Bryda?'
'Oh, yes, of course I shall. I thank you, Jack, for taking all this trouble for me.'
But the thanks were not so warm as Jack expected, and he could not understand what made Bryda seem so different from the eager, restless girl of the previous day, whose whole heart seemed then set on going to Bristol.
The supper was silent, and old Mr Palmer could not be persuaded to taste the little meat pie made expressly for him. He pushed the plate away, saying,—
'What business have I to be eating dainties like that, when I may not have a crust to gnaw before the year's out. Take it away, take it away—I don't want it.'
Jack took leave as soon as supper was over, and made his way with a heavy heart to his own home.
Then he found his mother in a very captious mood, upbraiding him for his long absence, and asking what he had been about all day.
'That's my concern, I suppose, in my holidays,' he replied.
'I shall be glad when your holidays are over, vastly glad. Your brother Jim is worth six of you after all. You don't know how to take advantage of the place in uncle's shop, which many would give their ears for.'
'Let Jim go to be a silversmith,' Jack said, 'and I'll come on the farm.'
'No. I know what's what, and the eldest shall have the first chance. For the sake of your widowed mother and six innocent little sisters you ought to be willing to do anything to raise you in the world.'
'Raise me! Pshaw! it's the other way,' Jack said. 'It's fine "raising," indeed, to be cooped up in a little workshop, peering into the works of old watches, with a glass in my eye and my back ready to break. However, I'm off again on Monday,' he said, altering his tone, for he remembered that if Bryda was in Dowry Square, within reach, even the little workshop and the pain in his back would be tolerable.
Mrs Henderson was seated by the wide lattice window, with her feet on a stool, dressed much more smartly than the farmers' wives in the neighbourhood. She was sprigging fine muslin for a cap, and she wore large rings on the finger of her left hand, as well as her wedding ring on the other.
The rings were of doubtful quality, like Falstaff's of old, but they were family heirlooms, and had been worn by her mother before her.
Mrs Henderson prided herself on her ancestry, her mother being the daughter of a draper and haberdasher in Bath. She was generally supposed to be a cut above her neighbours, and she left the farm to the serving-man she dignified with the name of bailiff, and her six little girls to tumble up as best they could. It was thought by Dorothy Burrow and others, ridiculous to try to make Jack into a Bristol tradesman and Jim the farmer. But Jim was no favourite with his mother. She set great store on appearances, and Jim had a squint and a wide mouth, a freckled face, with carroty hair, while Jack was in his mother's eyes, and in the eyes of other people also, a fine handsome fellow, with eyes of a deep blue, and chestnut hair curling lightly on his shapely head.
Mrs Henderson trusted to Jack to set the family up by becoming a partner at last in Mr Henderson's business, he being a bachelor, and with no son to succeed him.
'There's a great talk about these poor Palmers, Jack,' his mother said, dropping her work as the light failed. 'The old man is ruined. Money he borrowed of old Squire Bayfield has to be paid back. And it all came from that worthless son of his years agone having to leave the country to escape the gallows. Farmer Short was here to-day and was telling me all about it. A nice come down for these two girls, especially the eldest, who thinks herself a wit and a beauty. She'll have to go to service, if anybody will take such a useless piece of goods!'
'Good-night, mother,' was Jack's only reply. 'I'm tired, and off to roost—good-night.'
THE SYMPATHY OF POVERTY.
It was one evening early in June, when the days were almost at their longest, that Mrs Chatterton sprang to the door of her modest little dwelling in Redcliffe Street to greet her son.
'Welcome, my dear boy, welcome!' And the embrace between mother and son was as fervent as if they had been parted for a month instead of only four days. 'Where was you the last evening, Tom?' his mother asked.
'I was walking to and fro in the streets,' was the reply, 'too restless to come hither to trouble you and sister. By-the-bye, where is Sis?'
'Gone to take a bit of supper with Mrs Edkins, sure, but she will be returning ere long. You will bear me company till she returns. Have you had a letter from the grand gentleman in London, Tom?' his mother asked.
Instantly the sunshine on Chatterton's face, which the loving greeting of his mother had kindled there, was gone; his whole bearing changed. His eyes flashed, and he exclaimed,—
'Don't weary me with questions, mother. When the great or little man deigns to reply to me I'll tell you.' Then muttered imprecations followed, and the boy paced the little room, with his hands at his back, his head bent, not uttering another word for ten minutes. Presently he shook off his ill mood, and laughing, said, 'There has been an arrival at the mansion in Dowry Square. I came to tell you of it, only you put it out of my head.'
'An arrival? A new serving-maid?'
'Yes; but that word does not suit her. I am taking her out on Sunday, and I shall bring her here, poor soul! I pity her as I pity anyone who has to deal with the family of Lambert. You know that big fellow Henderson—I brought him here once.'
'Yes, sure, I remember him, and his pleasant face.'
'His stupid face, rather. Well, to proceed—a cart lumbered up to Lambert's house Monday at noon, and with a mighty thump the said Henderson descended. Then he put a bundle on the pavement, next a box, next a big bunch of gillyflowers and roses, and next he helped out a young woman. What do I say?—a young lady, beautiful as an angel—just such an one as I have seen in dreams.'
'Like Miss Rumsey, Tom.'
'Pshaw! Miss Rumsey is of the earth earthy, but this one is of another race. In she came just as I was returning from a message sent by Mr Lambert, and I stood aside to let her pass. She smiled, and yet there were tears in her eyes as she turned to Henderson, and says she, "Good-bye, Jack. Come and see me soon, and—" Then came a voice from the parlour, "Sam, take the young woman's box to her chamber, and walk in here, Miss Palmer." Then the vision passed, and I was in the street bidding Jack Henderson good day as he clambered up to his seat to drive round to Corn Street and put up the horse for the night at the White Hart. I'll bring her here on Sunday, and you'll judge for yourself and sister also. She will admire her as much as I do, if she don't look at her through the green eyes of jealousy.'
'Whatever has brought her to Mr Lambert's?'
'She is a cousin of the old lady's, in poor plight from some loss of money. Poor! How pretty that word sounds from Madam Lambert's lips. Well, the poverty will make a bond between this young lady and me; and when I asked her if she would like to see my mother she said she would fain see anyone who would be kind to her, so expect us on Sunday.'
'In the forenoon, Tom?'
'I think not. She will have her slaving to get through first.'
Then Chatterton went to a door leading up a flight of narrow stairs to the upper storey of his mother's house.
'You are not going up there for long, Tom?' his mother asked, with a sigh.
But there was no reply as Chatterton's light steps were heard ascending to the garret where he kept all his old parchments, his charcoal, his books, and various possessions, all as necessary to him, or indeed more necessary than his daily bread.
It was in this year of 1769 that Chatterton's hopes had risen on rainbow coloured wings, when his 'The Ryse of Peyncteyne in England, written by T. Rowlie, in 1469, for Master Canynge,' had been favourably received by no less a personage than Horace Walpole. The spring of that year had been the springtime of Chatterton's fairest hopes. In April a letter from Mr Walpole fired the boy with the desire to do more than ever with his strange conceits and imitations of old documents.
If Mr Walpole could be deceived, who might not follow his example?
But that courteous, nay deferential, letter on the receipt of 'The Ryse of Peyncteyne' was the first of its kind and the last. For now June had come, and other specimens of Rowley's extraordinary gifts were not even acknowledged, nor could his repeated requests for the return of the manuscripts avail, and his heart was full of bitterness and indignation against everyone.
It is hard to realise that the author of 'AElla' and all the other fictions was scarcely more than a child; that the boy of one of our public schools, in the sixth form, is the age of this poor lawyer's apprentice, whose short life was filled with the dreams and aspirations of a man while as yet he had scarcely emerged from childhood, and was but a boy in years.
Bryda Palmer's arrival at Mrs Lambert's house in Dowry Square was exactly as Chatterton had described it to his mother.
A great wave of desolation had swept over her as she heard the cart rumble off, and took up her posy of gillyflowers and her small basket as she obeyed Mrs Lambert's summons to the parlour.
Mrs Lambert looked her down from head to foot, and was apparently satisfied.
'Take care not to drop the flowers about, if you please,' she said. 'You can put them in a pot by the grate, but I like no litters made by flowers or anything else. You may sit down while I talk to you,' Mrs Lambert added. 'You look very delicate; I hope you are not in a decline.'
'I am very well, madam. It is only that I have felt the pain of leaving home a little. I shall soon get used to it; and I am much obliged to you for taking me in, I will try to please you.'
'I want a maid-servant who can attend to me—crimp my lace borders, clear starch, iron aprons, make bows, and do needlework, also help below stairs when fine cooking is needed. My son brings in a friend to supper sometimes, for cribbage, and he is very particular about the pastry being light, and the Welsh rabbit done to a turn. Have you ever made a Welsh rabbit—toasted cheese, you know, wetted with a little ale?'
'I daresay I can do it,' Bryda said.
'Well, added to this, you must dust the chayney. I have very fine chayney. And you'll have to rub the oak bureaus and clean the brass. If you serve my purpose I shall get no more sluts as maids, but keep going with Mrs Symes, who comes every morning, and Sam the footboy. Then I expect you to be pretty, trim, and neat in the afternoon, and sit here and read to me, darn stockings—my son's and mine—and mend fine lace, and—well—a hundred other jobs which I need not count up now. There is no one in the house but yourself and an apprentice, who is bound to my son—worse luck—an idle good-for-nothing, with whom you may just civilly pass the time of day, but no more. He is not a companion fit for any young woman—a wild scapegrace. Mr Lambert would be glad to be quit of him. Now, if your box is taken to your chamber, you may go and lay aside your hood. I suppose you have more gowns than that you stand up in?'
'Yes, I have changes of gowns and aprons.'
'Very well, I think you will suit me. Mr Lambert comes into his dinner at half after one o'clock; it is near that now. You can take your meals with us, and see my friends when they visit me. There, now, I think you are a very lucky young person—be off to your chamber—first door on the second flight.'
Bryda hastened to obey, and was thankful to get a few minutes to herself.
Mrs Lambert seemed satisfied, but it was Mr Lambert whom she wanted to see, and she dare not address him before his mother.
On the second day after her arrival Mrs Lambert said there would be friends to sup, and Bryda must make a cake and some apple pies, and Mrs Symes had her orders to put things ready for her in the kitchen.
Up to this time the glimpse Bryda had of the apprentice at the door was all she had seen of him.
But when she went down into the kitchen at twelve o'clock she found him seated at a very untempting meal, with Sam the footboy and Mrs Symes.
But whether the repast was tempting or not made but little difference to Chatterton. He had a book open before him, and only now and then swallowed a bit of the unsavoury morsels provided, and preserved a haughty silence when Mrs Symes questioned him as to any of the gossip current in Bristol.
Presently she pushed back her chair, and before departing to the back kitchen with Sam she placed, with rather a bad grace, a rolling pin and flour and butter on a board at a side-table, some apples and a jar of raisins and spice and coarse sugar, saying,—
'Will that suit your fine cookery, miss? Lor' bless me, I could die of laughing to think a pair of hands like yours could make better paste than mine! You'd best be careful or you'll catch it. If ever there was a fidget about his food it's Master Lambert. Come, now, Tom, I am going to clear away, so you must budge. Why, you've left half your victuals on the platter. I'll feed the cat with them.'
Chatterton now looked up from his book, and said,—
'You're welcome, or rather the cat is welcome.'
He had an hour allowed for his dinner, and was not due at the office again till one o'clock, when Mr Lambert left it to return to Dowry Square for his midday repast at half-past one.
Chatterton rose as he spoke, and sat down on a stool by the fire, his book still in his hand.
But he was not reading now, he was watching the lithe, graceful figure at the side-table.
Bryda had rolled up her short sleeves above the elbow, and her pretty rounded arms were seen to advantage as she mixed the flour and kneaded it, and then passed the rolling pin lightly over it.
She was conscious of Chatterton's presence, but her back was turned to him.
Presently she turned her head, and saw a pair of extraordinary eyes fixed on her. It was not an impertinent gaze like that of Squire Bayfield's, it was simply one of almost wistful earnestness.
'I am wondering, miss,' he began, 'what made you come to this hole?'
'I came because I am poor, and wish to help them at home.'
Chatterton's eyes flashed.
'Poor! Aye, to be poor is a curse.'
'No,' Bryda said, 'it need not be a curse.'
Then she went on with her rolling and kneading. Presently she said again,—
'Are you a lawyer, sir?'
'A lawyer's apprentice, worse luck.'
'I have a question about law to ask Mr Lambert and I am afraid to approach him.'
'I don't wonder. Well, what is the question?'
'If a person promised to pay back a debt, and put his hand to a bond, and the man to whom he owed the money died before it was paid, would the son of that man have a right to it?'
'If it had been so set down in the bond that the heirs of his body should have it, yes, he'd have to pay it.'
'Then there is no hope,' Bryda said, with a sigh, and Chatterton saw her wipe a tear away with the corner of her apron.
'Hark, miss,' he said, 'I am poor, and treated here like a dog because I am poor. I have a good mother, and if you would like to see her she would be proud to see you. I can escort you there on Sunday, and show you a thing or two.'
'If I may, I will come,' Bryda said.
'May? Sunday is everyone's holiday. I should feel it an honour to guide you to St Mary's grand church. It is there my father found all these fine poems, you know, up in the muniment room.'
'I knew you were very learned. I have the story of the "Fryars passing over the old Bridge" in my pocket-book. I cut it out of the newspaper.'
'But I can read you better things than that, if you care to hear them. I have a splendid poem called the "Tragedy of AElla." The minstrel's song would be to your taste, perhaps. But I must away now. Count me as your friend in this miserable hole should you need one.'
'I do need a friend,' poor Bryda said; 'I am friendless in Bristol except for one,' she added. 'You know him—Mr Jack Henderson.'
'Yes, I know him, a big country lout and bumpkin, whom his uncle is trying to polish as he polishes his silver goods, poor fool for his pains.'
But Bryda rose on the defensive for Jack.
'Mr Henderson is a good and true friend, sir, nor can I hear him ill-spoken of.'
'Nay, I meant no harm,' Chatterton said, and the next minute Bryda was left to her pastry making and cake mixing.
'If Jack should ask me to go out on Sunday he will be angered against me for promising to go with that strange boy, but what fire there is in his eyes, what a noble mien he has when he answers Mrs Symes.'
Here Bryda's soliloquy was abruptly broken in on by Mrs Symes' voice.
'Seasoning your pastry with gossip, I hear. Have a care of yon fellow. I think an evil spirit is in him, and so do many beside me, let me tell you, miss.'