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GOD'S GOOD MAN
A Simple Love Story
By MARIE CORELLI
AUTHOR OF "THE TREASURE OF HEAVEN," "THELMA," "A ROMANCE OF TWO WORLDS," "THE MASTER CHRISTIAN," ETC.
THE LIVING ORIGINAL
"THE REVEREND JOHN WALDEN"
AND HIS WIFE
THIS SIMPLE LOVE STORY
"THERE WAS A MAN SENT FROM GOD WHOSE NAME WAS JOHN." NEW TESTAMENT
GOD'S GOOD MAN
It was May-time in England.
The last breath of a long winter had blown its final farewell across the hills,—the last frost had melted from the broad, low-lying fields, relaxing its iron grip from the clods of rich, red-brown earth which, now, soft and broken, were sprouting thick with the young corn's tender green. It had been a hard, inclement season. Many a time, since February onward, had the too-eagerly pushing buds of trees and shrubs been nipped by cruel cold,—many a biting east wind had withered the first pale green leaves of the lilac and the hawthorn,—and the stormy caprices of a chill northern. Spring had played havoc with all the dainty woodland blossoms that should, according to the ancient 'Shepherd's Calendar' have been flowering fully with the daffodils and primroses. But during the closing days of April a sudden grateful warmth had set in,—Nature, the divine goddess, seemed to awaken from long slumber and stretch out her arms with a happy smile,—and when May morning dawned on the world, it came as a vision of glory, robed in clear sunshine and girdled with bluest skies. Birds broke into enraptured song,—young almond and apple boughs quivered almost visibly every moment into pink and white bloom,—cowslips and bluebells raised their heads from mossy corners in the grass, and expressed their innocent thoughts in sweetest odour—and in and through all things the glorious thrill, the mysterious joy of renewed life, hope and love pulsated from the Creator to His responsive creation.
It was May-time;—a real 'old-fashioned' English May, such as Spenser and Herrick sang of:
"When all is yclad With blossoms; the ground with grass, the woodes With greene leaves; the bushes with blossoming buddes,"
and when whatever promise our existence yet holds for us, seems far enough away to inspire ambition, yet close enough to encourage fair dreams of fulfilment. To experience this glamour and witchery of the flowering-time of the year, one must, perforce, be in the country. For in the towns, the breath of Spring is foetid and feverish,—it arouses sick longings and weary regrets, but scarcely any positive ecstasy. The close, stuffy streets, the swarming people, the high buildings and stacks of chimneys which only permit the narrowest patches of sky to be visible, the incessant noise and movement, the self-absorbed crowding and crushing,—all these things are so many offences to Nature, and are as dead walls of obstacle set against the revivifying and strengthening forces with which she endows her freer children of the forest, field and mountain. Out on the wild heathery moorland, in the heart of the woods, in the deep bosky dells, where the pungent scent of moss and pine-boughs fills the air with invigorating influences, or by the quiet rivers, flowing peacefully under bending willows and past wide osier-beds, where the kingfisher swoops down with the sun-ray and the timid moor-hen paddles to and from her nest among the reeds,—in such haunts as these, the advent of a warm and brilliant May is fraught with that tremor of delight which gives birth to beauty, and concerning which that ancient and picturesque chronicler, Sir Thomas Malory, writes exultantly: "Like as May moneth flourisheth and flowerth in many gardens, so in likewise let every man of worship flourish his heart in this world!"
There was a certain 'man of worship' in the world at the particular time when this present record of life and love begins, who found himself very well-disposed to 'flourish his heart' in the Maloryan manner prescribed, when after many dark days of unseasonable cold and general atmospheric depression, May at last came in rejoicing. Seated under broad apple-boughs, which spread around him like a canopy studded with rosy bud-jewels that shone glossy bright against the rough dark-brown stems, he surveyed the smiling scenery of his own garden with an air of satisfaction that was almost boyish, though his years had run well past forty, and he was a parson to boot. A gravely sedate demeanour would have seemed the more fitting facial expression for his age and the generally accepted nature of his calling,—a kind of deprecatory toleration of the sunshine as part of the universal 'vanity' of mundane things,—or a condescending consciousness of the bursting apple-blossoms within his reach as a kind of inferior earthy circumstance which could neither be altered nor avoided.
The Reverend John Walden, however, was one of those rarely gifted individuals who cannot assume an aspect which is foreign to temperament. He was of a cheerful, even sanguine disposition, and his countenance faithfully reflected the ordinary bent of his humour. Seeing him at a distance, the casual observer would at once have judged him to be either an athlete or an ascetic. There was no superfluous flesh about him; he was tall and muscular, with well- knit limbs, broad shoulders, and a head altogether lacking in the humble or conciliatory 'droop' which all worldly-wise parsons cultivate for the benefit of their rich patrons. It was a distinctively proud head,—almost aggressive,—indicative of strong character and self-reliance, well-poised on a full throat, and set off by a considerable quantity of dark brown hair which was refractory in brushing, inclined to uncanonical curls, and plentifully dashed with grey. A broad forehead, deeply-set, dark- blue eyes, a straight and very prominent nose, a strong jaw and obstinate chin,—a firmly moulded mouth, round which many a sweet and tender thought had drawn kindly little lines of gentle smiling that were scarcely hidden by the silver-brown moustache,—such, briefly, was the appearance of one, who though only a country clergyman, of whom the great world knew nothing, was the living representative of more powerful authority to his little 'cure of souls' than either the bishop of the diocese, or the King in all his majesty.
He was the sole owner of one of the smallest 'livings' in England,— an obscure, deeply-hidden, but perfectly unspoilt and beautiful relic of mediaeval days, situated in one of the loveliest of woodland counties, and known as the village of St. Rest, sometimes called 'St. Est.' Until quite lately there had been considerable doubt as to the origin of this name, and the correct manner of its pronouncement. Some said it should be, 'St. East,' because, right across the purple moorland and beyond the line of blue hills where the sun rose, there stretched the sea, miles away and invisible, it is true, but nevertheless asserting its salty savour in every breath of wind that blew across the tufted pines. 'St. East,' therefore, said certain rural sages, was the real name of the village, because it faced the sea towards the east. Others, however, declared that the name was derived from the memory of some early Norman church on the banks of the peaceful river that wound its slow clear length in pellucid silver ribbons of light round and about the clover fields and high banks fringed with wild rose and snowy thorn, and that it should, therefore, be 'St. Rest,' or better still, 'The Saint's Rest.' This latter theory had recently received strong confirmation by an unexpected witness to the past,—as will presently be duly seen and attested.
But St. Rest, or St. Est, whichever name rightly belonged to it, was in itself so insignificant as a 'benefice,' that its present rector, vicar, priest and patron had bought it for himself, through the good offices of a friend, in the days when such purchases were possible, and for some ten years had been supreme Dictator of his tiny kingdom and limited people. The church was his,—especially his, since he had restored it entirely at his own expense,—the rectory, a lop- sided, half-timbered house, built in the fifteenth century, was his,—the garden, full of flowering shrubs, carelessly planted and allowed to flourish at their own wild will, was his,—the ten acres of pasture-land that spread in green luxuriance round and about his dwelling were his,—and, best of all, the orchard, containing some five acres planted with the choicest apples, cherries, plums and pears, and bearing against its long, high southern wall the finest peaches and nectarines in the county, was his also. He had, in fact, everything that the heart of a man, especially the heart of a clergyman, could desire, except a wife,—and that commodity had been offered to him from many quarters in various delicate and diplomatic ways,—only to be as delicately and diplomatically rejected.
And truly there seemed no need for any change in his condition. He had gone on so far in life,—'so far!' he would occasionally remind himself, with a little smile and sigh,—that a more or less solitary habit had, by long familiarity, become pleasant. Actual loneliness he had never experienced, because it was not in his nature to feel lonely. His well-balanced intellect had the brilliant quality of a finely-cut diamond, bearing many facets, and reflecting all the hues of life in light and colour; thus it quite naturally happened that most things, even ordinary and common things, interested him. He was a great lover of books, and, to a moderate extent, a collector of rare editions; he also had a passion for archaeology, wherein he was sustained by a certain poetic insight of which he was himself unconscious. The ordinary archaeologist is generally a mere Dry-as- Dust, who plays with the bones of the past as Shakespeare's Juliet fancied she might play with her forefathers' joints, and who eschews all use of the imaginative instinct as though it were some deadly evil. Whereas, it truly needs a very powerful imaginative lens to peer down into the recesses of bygone civilisations, and re-people the ruined haunts of dead men with their shadowy ghosts of learning, art, enterprise, or ambition.
To use the innermost eyes of his soul in such looking backward down the stream of Time, as well as in looking forward to that 'crystal sea' of the unknown Future, flowing round the Great White Throne whence the river of life proceeds, was a favourite mental occupation with John Walden. He loved antiquarian research, and all such scientific problems as involve abstruse study and complex calculation,—but equally he loved the simplest flower and the most ordinary village tale of sorrow or mirth recounted to him by any one of his unlessoned parishioners. He gave himself such change of air and scene as he thought he required, by taking long swinging walks about the country, and found sufficient relaxation in gardening, a science in which he displayed considerable skill. No one in all the neighbourhood could match his roses, or offer anything to compare with the purple and white masses of violets which, quite early in January came out under his glass frames not only perfect in shape and colour, but full of the real 'English' violet fragrance, a benediction of sweetness which somehow seems to be entirely withheld from the French and Russian blooms. For the rest, he was physically sound and morally healthy, and lived, as it were, on the straight line from earth to heaven, beginning each day as if it were his first life-opportunity, and ending it soberly and with prayer, as though it were his last.
To such a mind and temperament as his, the influences of Nature, the sublime laws of the Universe, and the environment of existence, must needs move in circles of harmonious unity, making loveliness out of commonness, and poetry out of prose. The devotee of what is mistakenly called 'pleasure,'—enervated or satiated with the sickly moral exhalations of a corrupt society,—would be quite at a loss to understand what possible enjoyment could be obtained by sitting placidly under an apple-tree with a well-thumbed volume of the wisdom of the inspired pagan Slave, Epictetus, in the hand, and the eyes fixed, not on any printed page, but on a spray of warmly- blushing almond blossom, where a well-fed thrush, ruffling its softly speckled breast, was singing a wild strophe concerning its mate, which, could human skill have languaged its meaning, might have given ideas to a nation's laureate. Yet John Walden found unalloyed happiness in this apparently vague and vacant way. There was an acute sense of joy for him in the repeated sweetness of the thrush's warbling,—the light breeze, stirring through a great bush of early flowering lilac near the edge of the lawn, sent out a wave of odour which tingled through his sensitive blood like wine,—the sunlight was warm and comforting, and altogether there seemed nothing wrong with the world, particularly as the morning's newspapers had not yet come in. With them would probably arrive the sad savour of human mischief and muddle, but till these daily morbid records made their appearance, May-day might be accepted as God made it and gave it,—a gift unalloyed, pure, bright and calm, with not a shadow on its lovely face of Spring. The Stoic spirit of Epictetus himself had even seemed to join in the general delight of nature, for Walden held the book half open at a page whereon these words were written:
"Had we understanding thereof, would any other thing better beseem us than to hymn the Divine Being and laud Him and rehearse His gracious deeds? These things it were fitting every man should sing, and to chant the greatest and divinest hymns for this, that He has given us the power to observe and consider His works, and a Way wherein to walk. If I were a nightingale, I would do after the manner of a nightingale; if a swan, after that of a swan. But now I am a reasoning creature, and it behooves me to sing the praise of God; this is my task, and this I do, nor as long as it is granted me, will I ever abandon this post. And you, too, I summon to join me in the same song."
"A wonderfully 'advanced' Christian way of looking at life, for a pagan slave of the time of Nero!" thought Walden, as his eyes wandered from the thrush on the almond tree, back to the volume in his hand,—"With all our teaching and preaching, we can hardly do better. I wonder—-"
Here his mind became altogether distracted from classic lore, by the appearance of a very unclassic boy, clad in a suit of brown corduroys and wearing hob-nailed boots a couple of sizes too large for him, who, coming suddenly out from a box-tree alley behind the gabled corner of the rectory, shuffled to the extreme verge of the lawn and stopped there, pulling his cap off, and treading on his own toes from left to right, and from right to left in a state of sheepish hesitancy.
"Come along,—come along! Don't stand there, Bob Keeley!" And Walden rose, placing Epictetus on the seat he vacated—"What is it?"
Bob Keeley set his hob-nailed feet on the velvety lawn with gingerly precaution, and advancing cap in hand, produced a letter, slightly grimed by his thumb and finger.
"From Sir Morton, please sir! Hurgent, 'e sez."
Walden took the missive, small and neatly folded, and bearing the words 'Badsworth Hall' stamped in gold at the back of the envelope. Opening it, he read:
"Sir Morton Pippitt presents his compliments to the Reverend John Walden, and having a party of distinguished guests staying with him at the Hall, will be glad to know at what day and hour this week he can make a visit of inspection to the church with his friends."
A slight tinge of colour overspread Walden's face. Presently he smiled, and tearing up the note leisurely, put the fragments into one of his large loose coat pockets, for to scatter a shred of paper on his lawn or garden paths was an offence which neither he nor any of those he employed ever committed.
"How is your mother, Bob?" he then said, approaching the stumpy urchin, who stood respectfully watching him and awaiting his pleasure.
"Please sir, she's all right, but she coughs 'orful!"
"Coughs 'orful, does she?" repeated the Reverend John, musingly; "Ah, that is bad!—I am sorry! We must—let me think!—yes, Bob, we must see what we can do for her—eh?"
"Yes, sir," replied Bob meekly, turning his cap round and round and wondering what 'Passon' was thinking about to have such a 'funny look' in his eyes.
"Yes!" repeated Walden, cheerfully, "We must see what we can do for her! My compliments to Sir Morton Pippitt, Bob, and say I will write."
"Nothink else, sir?"
"Nothing—or as you put it, Bob, 'nothink else'! I wish you would remember, my dear boy,"—and here he laid his firm, well-shaped hand protectingly on the small brown corduroy shoulder,—"that the word 'nothing' does not terminate in a 'k.' If you refer to your spelling-book, I am sure you will see that I am right. The Educational authorities would not approve of your pronunciation, Bob, and I am endeavouring to save you future trouble with the Government. By the way, did Sir Morton Pippitt give you anything for bringing his note to me?"
"Sed he would when I got back, sir."
"Said he would when you got back? Well,—I have my doubts, Bob,—I do not think he will. And the labourer being worthy of his hire, here is sixpence, which, if you like to do a sum on your slate, you will find is at the rate of one penny per mile. When you are a working man, you will understand the strict justice of my payment. It is three miles from Badsworth Hall and three back again,—and now I come to think of it, what were you doing up at Badsworth?"
Bob Keeley grinned from ear to ear.
"Me an' Kitty Spruce went up on spec with a Maypole early, sir!"
John Walden smiled. It was May morning,—of course it was!—and in the village of St. Rest the old traditional customs of May Day were still kept up, though in the county town of Riversford, only seven miles away, they were forgotten, or if remembered at all, were only used as an excuse for drinking and vulgar horse-play.
"You and Kitty Spruce went up on spec? Very enterprising of you both, I am sure! And did you make anything out of it?"
"No, sir,—there ain't no ladies there, 'cept Miss Tabitha,—onny some London gents,—and Sir Morton, 'e flew into an orful passion— like 'e do, sir,—an' told us to leave off singin' and git out,— 'Git off my ground,' he 'ollers—'Git off!'—then jest as we was a gittin' off, he cools down suddint like, an' 'e sez, sez 'e: 'Take a note to the dam passon for me, an' bring a harnser, an' I'll give yer somethink when yer gits back.' An' all the gents was a-sittin' at breakfast, with the winders wide open an' the smell of 'am an' eggs comin' through strong, an' they larfed fit to split theirselves, an' one on 'em tried to kiss Kitty Spruce, an' she spanked his face for 'im!"
The narration of this remarkable incident, spoken with breathless rapidity in a burst of confidence, seemed to cause the relief supposed to be obtained by a penitent in the confessional, and to lift a weight off Bob Keeley's mind. The smile deepened on the 'Passon's' face, and for a moment he had some difficulty to control an outbreak of laughter, but recollecting the possibly demoralising effect it might have on the more youthful members of the community, if he, the spiritual director of the parish, were reported to have laughed at the pugnacious conduct of the valiant Kitty Spruce, he controlled himself, and assumed a tolerantly serious air.
"That will do, Bob!—that will do! You must learn not to repeat all you hear, especially such objectionable words as may occasionally be used by a—a—a gentleman of Sir Morton Pippitt's high standing."
And here he squared his shoulders and looked severely down an the abashed Keeley. Anon he unbent himself somewhat and his eyes twinkled with kindly humour: "Why didn't you bring the Maypole here?" he enquired; "I suppose you thought it would not be as good a 'spec as Badsworth Hall and the London gents—eh?"
Bob Keeley opened his round eyes very wide.
"We be all comin' 'ere, sir!" he burst out: "All on us—ever so many on us! But we reckoned to make a round of the village first and see how we took on, and finish up wi' you, sir! Kitty Spruce she be a- keepin' her best ribbin for comin' 'ere—we be all a-comin' 'fore twelve!"
"Good! I shall expect you! And mind you don't all sing out of tune when you do come. If you commit such an offence, I shall—let me see!—I shall make mincemeat of you!—I shall indeed! Positive mincemeat!—and bottle you up in jars for Christmas!" And he nodded with the ferociously bland air of the giant in a fairy tale, whose particular humour is the devouring of small children. "Now you had better get back to Badsworth Hall with my message. Do you remember it? My compliments to Sir Morton Pippitt, and I will write."
He turned away, and Bob Keeley made as rapid a departure as was consistent with the deep respect he felt for the 'Passon,' having extracted a promise from the butcher boy of the village, who was a friend of his, that if he were 'quick about it,' he would get a drive up to Badsworth and back again in the butcher's cart going there for orders, instead of tramping it.
The Reverend John, meanwhile, strolled down one of the many winding garden paths, past clusters of daffodils, narcissi and primroses, into a favourite corner which he called the 'Wilderness,' because it was left by his orders in a more or less untrimmed, untrained condition of luxuriantly natural growth. Here the syringa, a name sometimes given by horticultural pedants to the lilac, for no reason at all except to create confusion in the innocent minds of amateur growers, was opening its white 'mock orange' blossoms, and a mass of flowering aconites spread out before him like a carpet of woven gold. Here, too, tufts of bluebells peeked forth from behind the moss-grown stems of several ancient oaks and elms, and purple pansies bordered the edge of the grass. A fine old wistaria grown in tree-form, formed a natural arch of entry to this shady retreat, and its flowers were just now in their full beauty, hanging in a magnificent profusion of pale mauve, grapelike bunches from the leafless stems. Many roses, of the climbing or 'rambling' kind, were planted here, and John Walden's quick eye soon perceived where a long green shoot of one of those was loose and waving in the wind to its own possible detriment. He felt in his pockets for a bit of roffia or twine to tie up the straying stem,—he was very seldom without something of the kind for such emergencies, but this time he only groped among the fragments of Sir Morton Pippitt's note and found nothing useful. Stepping out on the path again, he looked about him and caught a glimpse of a stooping, bulky form in weather- beaten garments, planting something in one of the borders at a little distance.
"Bainton!" he called.
The figure slowly raised itself, and as slowly turned its head.
"Just come here and tie this rose up, will you?"
The individual addressed approached at a very deliberate pace, dragging out some entangled roffia from his pocket as he came and severing it into lengths with his teeth. Walden partly prepared his task for him by holding up the rose branch in the way it should go, and on his arrival assisted him in the business of securing it to the knotty bough from which it had fallen.
"That looks better!" he remarked approvingly, as he stepped back and surveyed it. "You might do this one at the same time while you are about it, Bainton."
And he pointed to a network of 'Crimson rambler' rose-stems which had blown loose from their moorings and were lying across the grass.
"This place wants a reg'ler clean out," remarked Bainton then, in accents of deep disdain, as he stooped to gather up the refractory branches: "It beats me altogether, Passon, to know what you wants wi' a forcin' bed for weeds an' stuff in the middle of a decent garden. That old Wistaria Sinyens (Sinensis) is the only thing here that is worth keeping. Ah! Y'are a precious sight, y'are!" he continued, apostrophising the 'rambler' branches—"For all yer green buds ye ain't a-goin' to do much this year! All sham an' 'umbug, y'are!—all leaf an' shoot an' no flower,—like a great many people I knows on—ah!—an' not so far from this village neither! I'd clear it all out if I was you, Passon,—I would reely now!"
"Don't open the old argument, Bainton!" he said good-humouredly; "We have talked of this before. I like a bit of wild Nature sometimes."
"Wild natur!" echoed Bainton. "Seems to me natur allus wants a bit of a wash an' brush up 'fore she sits down to her master's table;— an' who's 'er master? Man! She's jest like a child comin' out of a play in the woods, an' 'er 'air's all blown, an' 'er nails is all dirty. That's natur! Trim 'er up an' curl 'er 'air an' she's worth looking at. Natur! Lor', Passon, if ye likes wild natur ye ain't got no call to keep a gard'ner. But if ye pays me an' keeps me, ye must 'spect me to do my duty. Wherefore I sez: why not 'ave this 'ere musty-fusty place, a reg'ler breedin' 'ole for hinsects, wopses, 'ornits, snails an' green caterpillars—ah! an' I shouldn't wonder if potato-fly got amongst 'em, too!—why not, I say, have it cleaned out?"
"I like it as it is," responded Walden with cheerful imperturbability, and a smile at the thick-set obstinate-looking figure of his 'head man about the place' as Bainton loved to be called. "Have you planted out my phloxes?"
"Planted 'em out every one," was the reply; "Likewhich the Delphy Inums. An' I've put enough sweet peas in to supply Covint Garden market, bearin' in mind as 'ow you sed you couldn't have enough on 'em. Sir Morton Pippitt's Lunnon valet came along while I was a- doin' of it, an' 'e peers over the 'edge an' 'e sez, sez 'e: 'Weedin' corn, are yer?' 'No, ye gowk,' sez I! 'Ever seen corn at all 'cept in a bin? Mixed wi' thistles, mebbe?' An' then he used a bit of 'is master's or'nary language, which as ye knows, Passon, is chice—partic'ler chice. 'Evil communications c'rupts good manners' even in a valet wot 'as no more to do than wash an' comb a man like a 'oss, an' pocket fifty pun a year for keepin' of 'is haristocratic master clean. Lor'!—what a wurrld it is!—what a wurrld!"
He had by this time tied up the 'Crimson rambler' in orderly fashion, and the Reverend John, stroking his moustache to hide a smile, proceeded to issue various orders according to his usual daily custom.
"Don't forget to plant some mignonette in the west border, Bainton. Not the giant kind,—the odour of the large blooms is rough and coarse compared with that of the smaller variety. Put plenty of the 'common stuff' in,—such mignonette as our grandmothers grew in their gardens, before you Latin-loving horticultural wise-acres began to try for size rather than sweetness."
Bainton drew himself up with a quaint assumption of dignity, and by lifting his head a little more, showed his countenance fully,—a countenance which, though weather-worn and deeply furrowed, was a distinctly intelligent one, shrewd and thoughtful, with sundry little curves of humour lighting up its native expression of saturnine sedateness.
"I suppose y'are alludin' to the F.R.H.'s, Passon," he said; "They all loves Latin, as cats loves milk; howsomever, they never knows 'ow to pronounce it. Likewhich myself not bein' a F.R.H. nor likely to be, I'm bound to confess I dabbles in it a bit,—though there's a chap wot I gets cheap shrubs of, his Latin's worse nor mine, an' 'e's got all the three letters after 'is name. 'Ow did 'e get 'em? By reason of competition in the Chrysanthum Show. Lor'! Henny fool can grow ye a chrysanthum as big as a cabbage, if that's yer fancy,- -that ain't scientific gard'nin'! An' as for the mignonette, I reckon to agree wi' ye, Passon—the size ain't the sweetness, likewhich when I married, I married a small lass, for sez I: 'Little to carry, less to keep!' An' that's true enough, though she's gained in breadth, Lor' love 'er!—wot she never 'ad in heighth. As I was a-sayin', the chap wot I gets shrubs of, reels off 'is Latin like chollops of mud off a garden scraper; but 'e don't understand it while 'e sez it. Jes' for show, bless ye! It all goes down wi' Sir Morton Pippitt, though, for 'e sez, sez 'e: 'MY cabbages are the prize vegetable, grown by Mr. Smogorton of Worcester, F.R.H.' 'E's got it in 'is Catlog! Hor!—hor!—hor! Passon, a bit o' Latin do go down wi' some folks in the gard'nin' line—it do reely now!"
"Talking of Sir Morton Pippitt," said Walden, disregarding his gardener's garrulity, "It seems he has visitors up at the Hall."
"'E 'as so," returned Bainton; "Reg'ler weedy waifs an' strays o' 'umanity, if one may go by out'ard appearance; not a single firm, well-put-down leg among 'em. Mos'ly 'lords' and 'sirs.' Bein' so jes' lately knighted for buildin' a 'ospital at Riversford, out of the proceeds o' bone meltin' into buttons, Sir Morton couldn't a' course, be expected to put up wi' a plain 'mister' takin' food wi' 'im."
"Well, well,—whoever they are, they want to see the church."
"Seems to me a sight o' folks wants to see the church since ye spent so much money on it, Passon," said Bainton somewhat resentfully; "There oughter be a charge made for entry."
Walden smiled thoughtfully; but there was a small line of vexation on his brow.
"They want to see the church," he repeated, "Or rather Sir Morton wants them to 'inspect' the church;"—and then his smile expanded and became a soft mellow laugh; "What a pompous old fellow it is! One would almost think he had restored the church himself, and not only restored it, but built it altogether and endowed it!" He turned to go, then suddenly bethought himself of other gardening matters,— "Bainton, that bare corner near the house must be filled with clematis. The plants are just ready to bed out. And look to the geraniums in the front border. By the way, do you see that straight line along the wall there,—where I am pointing?"
"Yes, sir!" dutifully rejoined Bainton, shading his eyes from the strong sun with one grimy hand.
"Well, plant nothing but hollyhocks there,—as many as you can cram in. We must have a blaze of colour to contrast with those dark yews. See to the jessamine and passion-flowers by the porch; and there is a 'Gloire' rose near the drawing-room window that wants cutting back a bit." He moved a step or two, then again turned: "I shall want you later on in the orchard,—the grass there needs attending to."
A slow grin pervaded Bainton's countenance.
"Ye minds me of the 'Oly Scripter, Passon, ye does reely now!" he said—"Wi' all yer different orders an' idees, y'are behavin' to me like the very moral o' the livin' Wurrd!"
Walden looked amused.
"How do you make that out?"
"Easy enough, sir,—'The Scripter moveth us in sun'ry places'! Hor!- hor!-hor!—"and Bainton burst into a hoarse chuckle of mirth, entirely delighted with his own witticism, and walked off, not waiting to see whether its effect on his master was one of offence or appreciation. He was pretty sure of his ground, however, for he left John Walden laughing, a laugh that irradiated his face with some of the sunshine stored up in his mind. And the sparkle of mirth still lingered in his eyes as, crossing the lawn and passing the seat where the volume of Epictetus lay, now gratuitously decorated by a couple of pale pink shell-like petals dropped from the apple- blossoms above it, he entered his house, and proceeding to his study sat down and wrote the following brief epistle:
"The Reverend John Walden presents his compliments to Sir Morton Pippitt, and in reply to his note begs to say that, as the church is always open and free, Sir Morton and his friends can 'inspect' it at any time provided no service is in progress."
Putting this in an envelope, he sealed and stamped it. It should go by post, and Sir Morton would receive it next morning. There was no need for a 'special messenger,' either in the person of Bob Keeley, or in the authorised Puck of the Post Office Messenger-service.
"For there is not the slightest hurry," he said to himself: "It will not hurt Sir Morton to be kept waiting. On the contrary, it will do him good. He had it all his own way in this parish before I came,— but now for the past ten years he has known what it is to 'kick against the pricks' of legitimate Church authority. Legitimate Church authority is a fine thing! Half the Churchmen in the world don't use it, and a goodly portion of the other half misuse it. But when you've got a bumptious, purse-proud, self-satisfied old county snob like Sir Morton Pippitt to deal with, the pressure of the iron hand should be distinctly exercised under the velvet glove!"
He laughed heartily, throwing back his head with a sense of enjoyment in his laughter. Then, rising from his desk, he turned towards the wide latticed doors of his study, which opened into the garden, and looked out dreamily, as though looking across the world and far beyond it. The sweet mixed warbling of birds, the thousand indistinguishable odours of flowers, made the air both fragrant and musical. The glorious sunshine, the clear blue sky, the rustling of the young leaves, the whispering swish of the warm wind through the shrubberies,—all these influences entered the mind and soul of the man and aroused a keen joy which almost touched the verge of sadness. Life pulsated about him in such waves of creative passion, that his own heart throbbed uneasily with Nature's warm restlessness; and the unanswerable query which, in spite of his high and spiritual faith had often troubled him, came back again hauntingly to his mind,—"Why should Life be made so beautiful only to end in Death?"
This was the Shadow that hung over all things; this was the one darkness he and others of his calling were commissioned to transfuse into light,—this was the one dismal end for all poor human creatures which he, as a minister of the Gospel was bound to try and represent as not an End but a Beginning,—and his soul was moved to profound love and pity as he raised his eyes to the serene heavens and asked himself: "What compensation can all the most eloquent teaching and preaching make to men for the loss of the mere sunshine? Can the vision of a world beyond the grave satisfy the heart so much as this one perfect morning of May!"
An involuntary sigh escaped him. The beating wings of a swallow flying from its nest under the old gabled eaves above him flashed a reflex of quivering light against his eyes; and away in the wide meadow beyond, where the happy cattle wandered up to their fetlocks in cowslips and lush grass, the cuckoo called with cheerful persistence. One of old Chaucer's quaintly worded legends came to his mind,—telling how the courtly knight Arcite,
"Is risen, and looketh on the merrie daye All for to do his observance to Maye,— And to the grove of which that I you told, By aventure his way he gan to hold To maken him a garland of the greves, Were it of woodbind or of hawthorn leaves, And loud he sung against the sunny sheen,— 'O Maye with all thy flowers and thy green, Right welcome be thou, faire, freshe, Maye! I hope that I some green here getten may!"
Smiling at the antique simplicity and freshness of the lines as they rang across his brain like the musical jingle of an old-world spinet, his ears suddenly caught the sound of young voices singing at a distance.
"Here come the children!" he said; and stepping out from his open window into the garden, he again bent his ear to listen. The tremulous voices came nearer and nearer, and words could now be distinguished, breaking through the primitive quavering melody of 'The Mayers' Song' known to all the country side since the thirteenth century:
"Remember us poor Mayers all.— And thus do we begin, To lead our lives in righteousness, Or else we die in sin.
We have been rambling all this night, And almost all this day, And now returning back again, We bring you in the May.
The hedges and trees they are so green, In the sunne's goodly heat, Our Heavenly Father He watered them With His Heavenly dew so sweet.
A branch of May we have brought you—-"
Here came a pause and the chorus dropped into an uncertain murmur. John Walden heard his garden gates swing back on their hinges, and a shuffling crunch of numerous small feet on the gravel path.
"G'arn, Susie!" cried a shrill boy's voice—"If y'are leadin' us, lead! G'arn!"
A sweet flute-like treble responded to this emphatic adjuration, singing alone, clear and high,
"A branch of May—-" and then all the other voices chimed in:
"A branch of May we have brought you And at your door it stands, 'Tis but a sprout, But 'tis budded out By the work of our Lord's hands!"
And with this, a great crown of crimson and white blossoms, set on a tall, gaily-painted pole and adorned with bright coloured ribbons, came nid-nodding down the box-tree alley to the middle of the lawn opposite Walden's study window, where it was quickly straightened up and held in position by the eager hands of some twenty or thirty children, of all sizes and ages, who, surrounding it at its base, turned their faces, full of shy exultation towards their pastor, still singing, but in more careful time and tune:
"The Heavenly gates are open wide, Our paths are beaten plain, And if a man be not too far gone, He may return again.
The moon shines bright and the stars give light A little before it is day, So God bless you all, both great and small, And send you a merrie May!"
For a moment or two Walden found himself smitten by so strong a sense of the mere simple sensuous joy of living, that he could do no more than stand looking in silent admiration at the pretty group of expectant young creatures gathered round the Maypole, and huddled, as it were, under its cumbrous crown of dewy blossoms, which showed vividly against the clear sky, while the long streamers of red, white and blue depending from its summit, trailed on the daisy- sprinkled grass at their feet.
Every little face was familiar and dear to him. That awkward lad, grinning from ear to ear, with a particularly fine sprig of flowering hawthorn in his cap, was Dick Styles;—certainly a very different individual to Chaucer's knight, Arcite, but resembling him in so far that he had evidently gone into the woods early, moved by the same desire: "I hope that I some green here getten may!" That tiny girl, well to the front, with a clean white frock on and no hat to cover her tangle of golden curls, was Baby Hippolyta,—the last, the very last, of the seemingly endless sprouting olive branches of the sexton, Adam Frost. Why the poor child had been doomed to carry the name of Hippolyta, no one ever knew. When he, Walden, had christened her, he almost doubted whether he had heard the lengthy appellation aright, and ventured to ask the godmother of the occasion to repeat it in a louder voice. Whereupon 'Hip-po-ly-ta' was uttered in such strong tones, so thoroughly well enunciated, that he could no longer mistake it, and the helpless infant, screaming lustily, left the simple English baptismal font burdened with a purely Greek designation. She was, however, always called 'Ipsie' by her playmates, and even her mother and father, who were entirely responsible for her name in the first instance, found it somewhat weighty for daily utterance and gladly adopted the simpler sobriquet, though the elders of the village generally were rather fond of calling her with much solemn unction: 'Baby Hippolyta,' as though it were an elaborate joke. Ipsie was one of the loveliest children in the village, and though she was only two-and-a-half years old, she was fully aware of her own charms. She was pushed to the front of the Maypole this morning, merely because she was pretty,—and she knew it. That was why she lifted the extreme edge of her short skirt and put it in her mouth, thereby displaying her fat innocent bare legs extensively, and smiled at the Reverend John Walden out of the uplifted corners of her forget-me-not blue eyes. Then there was Bob Keeley, more or less breathless with excitement, having just got back again from Badsworth Hall, his friend the butcher boy having driven him to and from that place 'in a jiffy' as he afterwards described it,—and there was a very sparkling, smiling, vivacious little person of about fifteen, in a lilac cotton frock, who wore a wreath of laburnum on her black curls, no other than Kitty Spruce, generally alluded to in the village as 'Bob Keeley's gel';—and standing near Baby Hippolyta, or 'Ipsie,' was the acknowledged young beauty of the place, Susie Prescott, a slip of a lass with a fair Madonna-like face, long chestnut curls and great, dark, soft eyes like pansies filled with dew. Susie had a decided talent for music,—she sang very prettily, and led the village choir, under the guidance of Miss Janet Eden, the schoolmistress. This morning, however, she was risking the duties of conductorship on her own account, and very sweet she looked in her cheap white nuns-veiling gown, wearing a bunch of narcissi carelessly set in her hair and carrying a flowering hazel-wand in her hand, with which she beat time for her companions as they followed her bird-like carolling in the 'Mayers' Song.' But just now all singing had ceased,—and every one of the children had their round eyes fixed on John Walden with a mingling of timidity, affection and awe that was very winning and pretty to behold.
Taking in the whole picture of nature, youth and beauty, as it was set against the pure background of the sky, Walden realised that he was expected to say something,—in fact, he had been called upon to say something every year at this time, but he had never been able to conquer the singular nervousness which always overcame him on such occasions. It is one thing to preach from a pulpit to an assembled congregation who are prepared for orthodoxy and who are ready to listen with more or less patience to the expounding of the same,— but it is quite another to speak to a number of girls and boys all full of mirth and mischief, and as ready for a frolic as a herd of young colts in a meadow. Especially when it happens that most of the girls are pretty, and when, as a clergyman and director of souls, one is conscious that the boys are more or less all in love with the girls,—that one is a bachelor,—getting on in years too;—and that- -chiefest of all—it is May-morning! One may perhaps be conscious of a contraction at the heart,—a tightening of the throat,—even a slight mist before the eyes may tease and perplex such an one—who knows? A flash of lost youth may sting the memory,—a boyish craving for love and sympathy may stir the blood, and may make the gravest parson's speech incoherent,—for after all, even a minister of the Divine is but a man.
At any rate the Reverend John found it difficult to begin. The round forget-me-not eyes of Baby Hippolyta stared into his face with relentless persistency,—the velvet pansy-coloured ones of Susie Prescott smiled confidingly up at him with a bewildering youthfulness and unconsciousness of charm; and the mischief-loving small boys and village yokels who stood grouped against the Maypole like rough fairy foresters guarding magic timber, were, with all the rest of the children, hushed into a breathless expectancy, waiting eagerly for 'Passon' to speak. And 'Passon' thereupon began,—in the lamest, feeblest, most paternally orthodox manner:
"My dear children—"
"Hooray! Hooray! Three cheers for 'Passon'! Hooray!"
Wild whooping followed, and the Maypole rocked uneasily, and began to slant downward in a drunken fashion, like a convivial giant whom strong wine has made doubtful of his footing.
"Take care, you young rascals!" cried Walden, letting sentiment, orthodoxy and eloquence go to the winds,—"You will have the whole thing down!"
Peals of gay laughter responded, and the nodding mass of bloom was swiftly pulled up and assisted to support its necessary horizontal dignity. But here Baby Hippolyta suddenly created a diversion. Moved perhaps by the consciousness of her own beauty, or by the general excitement around her, she suddenly waved a miniature branch of hawthorn and emitted a piercing yell.
"Passon! Tum 'ere! Passon! Tum 'ere!"
There was no possibility of 'holding forth' after this. A. short address on the brevity of life, as being co-equal with the evanescent joys of a Maypole, would hardly serve,—and a fatherly ambition as to the unbecoming attitude of mendi-cancy assumed by independent young villagers carrying a great crown of flowers round to every house in the neighbourhood, and demanding pence for the show, would scarcely be popular. Because what did the 'Mayers' Song say:
"The Heavenly gates are opened wide, Our paths are beaten plain; And if a man be not too far gone, He may return again."
And the 'Heavenly gates' of Spring being wide open, the Reverend John, thought his special path was 'beaten plain' for the occasion; and not being 'too far gone' either in bigotry or lack of heart, John did what he reverently imagined the Divine Master might have done when He 'took a little child and set it in the midst." He obeyed Baby Hippolyta's imperious command, and to her again loudly reiterated "Passon! Tum 'ere!" he sprang forward and caught her up in his arms, kissing her rosy cheeks heartily as he did so. Seated in 'high exalted state' upon his shoulder. 'Ipsie' became Hippolyta in good earnest, so thoroughly aware was she of her dignity, while, holding her as lightly and buoyantly as he would have held a bird, the Reverend John turned his smiling face on his young parishioners.
"Come along, boys and girls!" he exclaimed,—"Come and plant the Maypole in the big meadow yonder, as you did last year! It is a holiday for us all to-day,—for me as well as for you! It has always been a holiday even before the days when great Elizabeth was Queen of England, and though many dear old customs have fallen into disuse with the changing world, St. Rest has never yet been robbed of its May-day festival! Be thankful for that, children!—and come along;— but move carefully!—keep order,—and sing as you come!"
Whereupon Susie Prescott lifted up her pretty voice again and her hazel wand baton at the same moment, and started the chorus with the verse:
"We have been rambling all this night, And almost all this day; And now returning back again, We bring you in the May!"
And thus carolling, they passed through the garden moving meadow- wards, Walden at the head of the procession,—and Baby Hippolyta seated on his shoulder, was so elated with the gladsome sights and sounds, that she clasped her chubby arms round 'Passon's' neck and kissed him with a fervour that was as fresh and delightful as it was irresistibly comic.
Bainton, making his way along the southern wall of the orchard, to take a 'glance round' as he termed it, at the condition of the wall fruit-trees before his master joined him on the usual morning tour of inspection, stopped and drew aside to watch the merry procession winding along under the brown stems dotted with thousands of red buds splitting into pink-and-white bloom; and a slow smile moved the furrows of his face upward in various pleasant lines as he saw the 'Passon' leading it with a light step, carrying the laughing 'Ipsie' on his shoulder, and now and again joining in the 'Mayers' Song' with a mellow baritone voice that warmed and sustained the whole chorus.
"There 'e goes!" he said half aloud—"Jes' like a boy!—for all the wurrld like a boy! I reckon 'e's got the secret o' never growin' old, for all that 'is 'air's turnin' a bit grey. 'Ow many passons in this 'ere neighbrood would carry the children like that, I wonder? Not one on 'em!—though there's a many to pick an' choose from—a darned sight too many if you axes my opinion! Old Putty Leveson, wi's bobbin' an' 'is bowin's to the east—hor!—hor!—hor!—a fine east 'e's got in 'is mouldy preachin' barn, wi' a whitewashed wall an' a dirty bit o' tinsel fixed up agin it—he wouldn't touch a child o' ourn, to save 'is life—though 'e's got three or four mean, lyin' pryin' brats of 'is own runnin' wild about the place as might jest as well 'ave never been born. And as for Francis Anthony, the 'igh pontiff o' Riversford, wi's big altar-cloak embrided for 'im by all the poor skinny spinsters wot ain't never 'ad no chance to marry—'e'd see all the children blowed to bits under the walls of Jericho to the sound o' the trumpets afore 'e'd touch 'em! Talk o' saints!—I'm not very good at unnerstannin' that kind o' folk, not seein' myself 'owever a saint could manage to get on in this mortal wurrld; but I reckon to think there's a tollable imitation o' the real article in Passon Walden—the jolly sort o' saint, o' coorse,— not the prayin', whinin', snuffin' kind. 'E's been doin' nothin' but good ever since 'e came 'ere, which m'appen partly from 'is not bein' married. If 'e'd gotten a wife, the place would a' been awsome different. Not but wot 'e ain't a bit cranky over 'is, flowers 'isself. But I'd rather 'ave 'im fussin' round than a petticut arter me. A petticut at 'ome's enough, an' I ain't complainin' on it, though it's a bit breezy sometimes,—but a petticut in the gard'nin' line would drive me main wild—it would reely now!"
And still smiling with perfect complacency, he watched the Maypole being carried carefully along the space of grass left open between the fruit trees on either side of the orchard, and followed its bright patch of colour and the children's faces and forms around it, till it entirely disappeared among the thicker green of a clump of elms that bordered the 'big meadow,' which Walden generally kept clear of both crops and cattle for the benefit of the village sports and pastimes.
He was indeed the only land-owner in the district who gave any consideration of this kind to the needs of the people. St. Rest was surrounded on all sides by several large private properties, richly wooded, and possessing many acres of ploughed and pasture land, but there was no public right-of-way across any single one of them, and every field, every woodland path, every tempting dell was rigidly fenced and guarded from 'vulgar' intrusion. None of the proprietors of these estates, however, appeared to take the least personal joy or pride in their possessions. They were for the most part away in London for 'the season' or abroad 'out' of the season,—and their extensive woods appeared to exist chiefly for the preservation of game, reared solely to be shot by a few idle louts of fashion during September and October, and also for the convenience and support of a certain land agent, one Oliver Leach, who cut down fine old timber whenever he needed money, and thought it advisable to pocket the proceeds of such devastation.
Scarcely in one instance out of a hundred did the actual owners of property miss the trees sufficiently to ask what had become of them. So long as the game was all right, they paid little heed to the rest. The partridges and the pheasants thrived, and so did Mr. Oliver Leach. He enjoyed, however, the greatest unpopularity of any man in the neighbourhood, which was some small comfort to those who believed in the laws of compensation and justice. Bainton was his particular enemy for one, and Bainton's master, John Walden, for another. His long-practised 'knavish tricks' and the malicious delight he took in trying to destroy or disfigure the sylvan beauty of the landscape by his brutish ignorance of the art of forestry, combined with his own personal greed, were beginning to be well- known in St. Rest, and it is very certain that on May-morning when the youngsters of the village were abroad and, to a great extent, had it all their own way, (aided and abetted in that way by the recognised authority of the place, the minister himself,) he would never have dared to show his hard face and stiffly upright figure anywhere, lest he should be unmercifully 'guyed' without a chance of rescue or appeal.
With the disappearance of the Maypole into the further meadow, Bainton likewise disappeared on his round of duty, which, as he had declared, moved him 'in sundry places,' and for a little while the dove-like spirit of Spring brooded in restful silence over the quiet orchard and garden.
The singing of the May-day children had now grown so faint and far as to be scarcely audible,—and the call of the cuckoo shrilling above the plaintive murmur of the wood pigeons, soon absorbed even the echo of the young human voices passing away. A light breeze stirred the tender green grass, shaking down a shower of pink almond bloom as it swept fan-like through the luminous air,—a skylark half lost in the brilliant blue, began to descend earthwards, flinging out a sparkling fountain of music with every quiver of his jewel- like wings, and away in the sheltered shade of a small hazel copse, the faint fluty notes of a nightingale trembled with a mysterious sweetness suggestive of evening, when the song should be full.
More than an hour elapsed, and no living being entered the seclusion of the parson's garden save Nebbie, the parson's rough Aberdeen terrier, who, appearing suddenly at the open study-window, sniffed at the fair prospect for a moment, and then, stepping out with a leisurely air of proprietorship lay down on the grass in the full sunshine. A wise-looking dog was Nebbie,—though few would have thought that his full name was Nebuchadnezzar. Only the Reverend John knew that. Nebbie was perfectly aware that the children had come with the Maypole, and that his master had accompanied them to the big meadow. Nebbie also knew that presently that same master of his would return again to make the circuit of the garden in the company of Bainton, according to custom,—and as he stretched his four hairy paws out comfortably, and blinked his brown eyes at a portly blackbird prodding in the turf for a worm within a stone's throw of him, he was evidently considering whether it would be worth his while, as an epicurean animal, to escort these two men on their usual round on such a warm pleasant morning. For it was a dog's real lazy day,—a day when merely to lie on the grass was sufficient satisfaction for the canine mind. And Nebbie, yawning extensively, and stretching himself a little more, closed his eyes in a rapture of peace, and stirred his tail slightly with one, two, three mild taps on the soft grass, when a sudden clear whistle caused him to spring up with every hair bristling on end, fore-paws well forward and eyes wide open.
Nebbie was nothing if not thoroughbred, and the voice of his master was, despite all considerations of sleep and sunshine, to him as the voice of the commanding officer to a subaltern. He was off like a shot at a tearing pace, nose down and tail erect, and in less than a minute had scented Walden in the shrubbery, which led by devious windings down from the orchard to the banks of the river Rest, and there finding him, started frantically gambolling round and round him, as though years had parted man and dog from one another, instead of the brief space of an hour. Walden was smiling to himself, and his countenance was extremely pleasant. Nebbie, with the quaint conceit common to pet animals, imagined that the smile was produced specially for him, and continued his wild jumps and barks till his red tongue hung a couple of inches out of his mouth with excess of heat and enthusiasm.
"Nebbie! Nebbie!" said the Reverend John, mildly; "Don't make such a noise! Down, lad, down!"
Nebbie subsided, and on reaching the river bank, squatted on his haunches, with his tongue still lolling out, while he watched his master step on a small floating pier attached by iron chains and posts to the land, and bend therefrom over into the clear water, looking anxiously downward to a spot he well knew, where hundreds of rare water-lilies were planted deep in the bed of the stream.
"Nymphea Odorata,"—he murmured, in the yearning tone of a lover addressing his beloved;—"Nymphea Chromatella—now I wonder if I shall see anything of them this year! The Aurora Caroliniana must have been eaten up by water-rats!"
Nebbie uttered a short bark. The faintest whisper of 'rats' seriously affected his nerves. He could have told his master many a harrowing story of those mischievous creatures swimming to and fro in the peaceful flood, tearing with their sharp teeth at the lily roots, and making a horrible havoc of all the most perfect buds of promise. The river Rest itself was so clear and bright that it was difficult to associate rats with its silver flowing,—yet rats there were, hiding among the osiers and sedges, frightening the moorhens and reed-warblers out of their little innocent lives. Nebbie caught and killed them whenever he could,—but he had no particular taste for swimming, and he was on rather 'strained relations' with a pair of swans who, with a brood of cygnets kept fierce guard on the opposite bank against all unwelcome intrusion.
His careful examination of the lily beds done, John Walden sprang back again from the pier to the land, and there hesitated a moment. His eyes rested longingly on a light punt, which, running half out of a rustic boathouse, swayed suggestively on the gleaming water.
"I wish I had time,—" he said, half aloud, while Nebbie wagging his tail violently, sat waiting and expectant. The river looked deliciously tempting. The young green of the silver birches drooping above its shining surface, the lights and shadows rippling across it with every breath of air,—the skimming of swallows to and fro,—the hum of bees among the cowslips, thyme and violets that were pushing fragrantly through the clipped turf,—were all so many wordless invitations to him to go forth into the fair freedom of Nature.
"The green trees whispered low and mild, It was a sound of joy! They were my playmates when a child, And rocked me in their arms so wild! Still they looked on me and smiled As if I were a boy!"
Such simple lines,—by Longfellow too, the despised of all the Sir Oracles of criticism,—yet coming to Walden's memory suddenly, they touched a chord of vivid emotion.
"And still they whispered soft and low! Oh, I could not choose but go!"
he hummed half under his breath, and then with a decided movement turned from the winding river towards the house.
"No, Nebbie, it's no use," he said aloud, addressing his four-footed comrade, who thereupon got up reluctantly and began to trot pensively beside him—"We mustn't be selfish. There are a thousand and one things to do. There is dinner to be served to the children at two o'clock—there is Mrs. Keeley to call upon—there are the school accounts to be looked into,—" here he glanced at his watch— " Good Heavens!—how time flies! It is half-past eleven! I shall have to see Bainton later on."
He hurried his steps and was just in sight of his study window, when he was met by his parlourmaid, a neat, trim young woman who rejoiced in the euphonious name of Hester Rockett, and who said as she approached him:
"If you please, sir, Mrs. Spruce."
His genial face fell a little, and he heaved a short sigh.
"Mrs. Spruce? Oh, Lord!—I mean, very well! Show her in, Hester. You are sure she wants to see me? Or is it her girl Kitty she is after?"
"She didn't mention Kitty, sir," replied Hester demurely; "She said she wished to see you very particular."
"All right! Show her into my study, and afterwards just go round to the orchard and tell Bainton I will see him when he's had his dinner. I know I sha'n't get off under an hour at least!"
He sighed again, then smiled, and entered the house, Nebbie sedately following. Arrived in his own quiet sanctum, he took off his soft slouched hat and seated himself at his desk with a composed air of patient attention, as the door was opened to admit a matronly- looking lady with a round and florid countenance, clad in a voluminous black gown, and wearing a somewhat aggressive black bonnet, 'tipped' well forward, under which her grey hair was plastered so far back as to be scarcely visible. There was a certain aggrieved dignity about her, and a generally superior tone of self- consciousness even in the curtsey which she dropped respectfully, as she returned Walden's kindly nod and glance.
"Good morning, Mrs. Spruce!"
"Good morning, sir! I trust I see you well, sir?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Spruce, I am very well."
"Which is a mercy indeed!" said Mrs. Spruce fervently; "For we never knows from one day to another whether we may be sound or crippled, considering the diseases which now flies in the air with the dust in the common road, as the papers tell us,—and dust is a thing we cannot prevent, do what we may, for the dust is there by the will of the Almighty, Who made us all out of it."
She paused. John Walden smiled and pointed to a chair,
"Won't you sit down, Mrs. Spruce?"
"Thank you kindly, sir!" and Mrs. Spruce accordingly plumped into the seat indicated with evident relief and satisfaction. "I will confess that it is a goodish step to walk on such a warm morning."
"You have come straight from the Manor?" enquired Walden, turning over a few papers on his desk, and wondering within himself when the good woman was going to unburden herself of her business.
"Straight from the Manor, sir, yes,—and such a heat and moil I never felt on any May morning, which is most onwholesome, I am sure. A cold May and a warm June is what I prefers myself,—but when you get the cuckoo and the nightingale clicketin' together in the woods on the First of May, you can look out for quarrelsome weather at Midsummer, leastways so I have heard my mother often say, and she was considered a wise woman in her time, I do assure you!"
Here Mrs. Spruce untied her bonnet-strings and flung them apart,— she likewise loosened the top button of her collar and heaved a deep sigh. Again the Reverend John smiled, and vaguely balanced a penholder on his fore-finger.
"I daresay your mother was quite right, Mrs. Spruce! Indeed, I believe all our mothers were quite right in their day. All the same, I'm glad it's a fine May morning', for the children's sakes. They are all down in the big meadow having a romp together. Your little Kitty is with them, looking as bright as a May blossom herself."
Mrs. Spruce straightened herself up, patted her ample bosom, with one hand, and threw her bonnet-strings still further back.
"Kitty's a good lass," she said, "though a bit mettlesome and wild; but I'm not saying anything again her. The Lord forbid that I should run down my own flesh and blood! An' she's better than most gels of her age. I wouldn't grudge her a bit of fun while she's got it in her,—Heaven knows it'll be soon gone out of her when she marries, which nat'rally she will do, sooner or later. Anyhow, she's all I've got,—which is a marvel how the Lord deals with some of us, when you see a little chidester of a woman like Adam Frost's wife with fifteen, boys and girls, and me with only one nesh maid."
Walden was silent. He was not disposed to argue on such marvels of the Lord's way, as resulted in endowing one family with fifteen children, and the other with only a single sprout, such as was accorded to the righteous Jephthah, judge of Israel.
"Howsomever," continued Mrs. Spruce, "Kitty's welcome to jump round the Maypole till she's wore her last pair of boots out, if so be it's your wish, Mr. Walden,—and many thanks to you, sir, for all your kindness to her!"
"Don't mention it, Mrs. Spruce!" said Walden amicably, and then, determining to bring the worthy woman sharply round to the real object of her visit, he gave a side-glance at the clock. "Is there anything you want me to do for you this morning? I'm rather busy—"
"Beggin' your pardon, I'm sure, sir, for troubling you at all!— knowin' as I do that what with the moithering old folks and the maupsing young ones, your 'ands is always full. But when I got the letter this morning, I says to my husband, William—'William,' says I, very loud, for the poor creature's growing so deaf that by and by I shall be usin' a p'lice whistle to make him 'ear me—'William,' says I, 'there is only one man in this village who's got the right to give advice when advice is asked for. Of course there's no call for us to follow advice, even when we gets it,—howsomever, it's only respectable for decent church-going folks to see the minister of the parish whenever there's any fear of our makin' a slip of our souls and goin' wrong. Therefore, William,' says I, shaking him By the arm to make the poor silly fool understand me, 'it's to Passon Walden I'm goin' this mornin' with this letter,—to Passon Walden, d'ye 'ear?' And he nodded his head wise-like, for all the world as though there were a bit of sense in it, (which there ain't), and agrees with me;—for the Lord, knows, if William doesn't, that it may make an awsome change for him as well as for me. And I do confess I've been took back."
Following as best he could the entangled thread of the estimable lady's discourse, Walden grasped the fact, albeit vaguely, that some unexpected letter with unexpected news in it had arrived to trouble the Spruces' domestic peace. Suppressing a slight yawn, he endeavoured to assume the proper show of interest which every village parson is expected to display on the shortest notice concerning any subject, from the birth of the latest baby parishioner, to the death of the earliest sucking pig.
"I'm sorry you're in trouble, Mrs. Spruce," he said kindly; "What letter are you speaking of? You see I don't quite understand—"
"Which it's not to be expected you should, sir!" replied Mrs. Spruce with an air of triumph,—"Considerin' as you wer'n't here when she left, and the Manor has been what you may call a stately 'ome of England deserted as most stately 'omes are, for more'n ten years, you couldn't be expected to understand!"
The Reverend John looked as he felt, completely mystified. He 'wasn't here when she left.' Who was 'she'? With all his naturally sweet temper he began to feel slightly irritated.
"Really, Mrs. Spruce," he said, endeavouring to throw an inflection of sternness into his mellow voice, "I must ask you to explain matters a little more clearly. I know that the Manor has been practically shut up ever since I've been here,—that you are the housekeeper in charge, and that your husband is woodman or forester there,—but beyond this I know nothing. So you must not talk in riddles, Mrs. Spruce,"—here his kind smile shone out again—"Even as a boy I was never good at guessing them! And I am getting old now."
"So you are, sir—so you are!" agreed Mrs. Spruce sympathetically; "And 'tis a shame for me to come worryin' of you,—for no one more truly than myself can feel pity for the weariness of the flesh, when 'tis just a burden to the bones and no pleasure in the carryin' of it, though you don't put much of it on, Passon Walden, you don't, I do assure you! But it's Gospel truth that some folks wears thin like a knife, while others wears thick like a pig, and there is no stopping them,—either way bein' the Lord's will,—but I'm feelin' real okkard myself to have put you about, Passon, only as I said, I've been took back,—and here's the letter, sir, which if you will kindly glance your hi over, you will tell me whether I've done the right thing to call on my way down here and get in a couple of scrubbers at eighteen-pence a day, which is dear, but they won't come for less, jest to get some of the rough dirt off the floors afore polishin', which polishin' will have to be done whether we will or no, for the boards are solid oak, and bein' ancient take the shine quickly, which is a mercy, for this day week is none too far off, seein' all that's put upon me suddint."
Here, being short of breath, she paused, and fumbling in a large black calico pocket which hung loosely at her side, attached to her ample waist by a string, she drew out with great care a rather large, square-looking missive, and then rising from her chair with much fluttering of her black gown and mysterious creaking sound, as of tight under-wear strained to breaking point, she held it out toward Walden, who had durng her last oratorical outburst unconsciously put his hand to his head in a daze of bewilderment.
"There is the letter sir," she continued, in the tone of one who should say: 'There is the warrant for execution'—"'Short and sweet,' as the farmer's wife said when she ate the pig's tail what dropped off while the animal was a-roastin'."
Allowing this brilliant simile to pass without comment, Walden took the thick, creamy-white object she offered and found himself considering it with a curious disfavour. It was a strictly 'fashionable' make of envelope, and was addressed in a particularly bold and assertive hand-writing to
MRS. SPRUCE, Housekeeper, Abbot's Manor, St. Rest.
Opening it, the Reverend John read as follows:
"Miss Vancourt begs to inform Mrs. Spruce that she will arrive at Abbot's Manor on the 7th inst., to remain there in residence. Mrs. Spruce is requested to engage the necessary household servants, as Miss Vancourt will bring none except the groom in charge of her two hunters."
Over and over again Walden read this curt and commonplace note, with a sense of irritation which he knew was perfectly absurd, but which, nevertheless, defied all reason. The paper on which it was written was thick and satiny,—and there was a faint artificial odour of violets about it which annoyed him. He hated scented notepaper. Deliberately he replaced it in its envelope, and holding it for a moment as he again studied the superscription, he addressed the expectant Mrs. Spruce, who had re-seated herself and was waiting for him to speak.
"Well, Mrs. Spruce, I don't think you need any advice from me on such a simple matter as this," he said slowly. "Your duty is quite plain. You must obey orders. Miss Vancourt is, I suppose, the mistress of Abbot's Manor?"
"She is, sir,—of course it all belongs to Miss Maryllia—"
"Miss—what?" interrupted Walden, with a sudden lightening of his dark blue eyes.
"Maryllia, sir. It is a kind of family name, pronounced 'Ma-rill- yer,'" explained Mrs. Spruce with considerable pomposity; "Many folks never gets it right—it wants knowledge and practice. But if you remember the pictures in the gallery at the Manor, sir, you may call to mind one of the ancestresses of the Vancourts, painted in a vi'let velvet; ridin' dress and holdin' a huntin' crop, and the name underneath is 'Mary Ella Adelgisa de Vaignecourt' and it was after her that the old Squire called his daughter Maryllia, rollin' the two fust names, Mary Elia, into one, as it were, just to make a name what none of his forebears had ever had. He was a queer man, the old Squire—he wouldn't a-cared whether the name was Christian or heathen."
"I suppose not." said the Reverend John carelessly, rising and pushing back his chair with a slightly impatient gesture; whereupon Mrs. Spruce rose too, and stood 'at attention,' her loosened bonnet- strings flying and her large black calico pocket well in evidence to the front of her skirt.
"Here's your letter, Mrs. Spruce;" and as she took it from his hand with a curtsey he continued: "There is evidently nothing for it but to get the house in order by the day appointed and do your best to please the lady. I can quite understand that you feel a little worried at having to prepare everything so quickly and unexpectedly,—but after all, you must have often thought that Miss Vancourt's return to her old home was likely to happen at any time."
"Which I never did, sir!" declared Mrs. Spruce emphatically, "No, sir, never! For when the old Squire died, she was jest a slip of fifteen and her uncle, the Squire's own twin brother, what had married an American heiress with somethin' like a hundred million of money, so I'm told, took her straight away and adopted her like, and the reg'ler pay for keepin' up the Manor and grounds has been sent to us through a Bank, and so far we've got nothin' to complain of bein' all strictly honourable both ways, but of Miss Vancourt we never heard a thing. And Mr. Oliver Leach he is the agent of the property, and he ain't never said a word,—and we think, me and my husband, that he don't know nothin' of her comin' back, and should we tell him, sir? Or would you reckon that we'd better keep a still tongue in our heads till she do come? For there's no knowin' why or wherefore she's comin',—though we did hear her poor uncle died two years ago, and we wondered where she and her aunt with the hundred million was got to—but mebbe she'll change her mind and not come, after all?"
"I should certainly not count upon that, if I were you, Mrs. Spruce," said Walden decisively; "Your business is to keep everything in order for the lady's arrival; but I don't think,—I really don't think, you are at all bound to inform Mr. Oliver Leach of the matter. He will no doubt find out for himself. or receive his orders direct from Miss Vancourt." Here he paused. "How old did you say she was when, she went away from home?"
"Fifteen, sir. That was nigh eleven years ago,—just one week after the Squire's funeral, and a year afore you came here, sir. She's gettin' on for seven-and-twenty now."
"Quite a woman, then," said Walden lightly; "Old enough to know her own mind at any rate. Do you remember her?"
"Perfectly well, sir,—a little flitterin' creature all eyes and hair, with a saucy way of tossin' her curls about, and a trick of singin' and shoutin' all over the place. She used to climb the pine trees and sit in them and pelt her father with the cones. Oh, yes, sir, she was a terrible child to rule, and it's Gospel truth there was no ruling her, for the governesses came and went like the seasons, one in, t'other out. Ay, but the Lord knows I'll never forget the scream she gave when the Squire was brought home from the hunting field stone dead!"
Here John Walden turned his head towards her with an air of more interest than he had yet shown.
"Ah!—How was that?" he enquired.
"He was killed jumpin' a fence;" went on Mrs. Spruce; "A fine, handsome gentleman,—they say he'd been wild in his youth; anyhow he got married in London to a great Court beauty, so I've been told. And after the wedding, they went travelling allover the world for a year and a half, and just when they was expected 'ome Mrs. Vancourt died with the birth of the child, and he and the baby and the nurses all came back here and he never stirred away again himself till death took him at full gallop,—which is 'ow he always wished to die. But poor Miss Maryllia—" And Mrs. Spruce sighed dolefully— "'Twas hard on her, seein' him ride off so gay and well and cheery in the early mornin' to be brought home afore noon a corpse! Ay, it was an awsome visitation of the Lord! Often when the wind goes wimblin' through the pines near the house I think I 'ear her shriek now,—ay, sir!—it was like the cry of somethin' as was havin' its heart tore out!"
Walden stood very silent, listening. This narrative was new to him, and even Mrs. Spruce's manner of relating it was not without a certain rough eloquence. The ancient history of the Vancourts he knew as well as he knew the priceless archaeological value of their old Manor-house as a perfect gem of unspoilt Tudor architecture,— but though he had traced the descent of the family from Robert Priaulx de Vaignecourt of the twelfth century and his brother Osmonde Priaulx de Vaignecourt who had, it was rumoured, founded a monastery in the neighbourhood, and had died during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he had ceased to follow the genealogical tree with much attention or interest when the old Norman name of De Vaignecourt had degenerated into De Vincourt and finally in the times of James I. had settled down into Vancourt. Yet there was a touch of old-world tragedy in Mrs. Spruce's modern history of the young girl's shriek when she found herself suddenly fatherless on that fatal hunting morning.
"And now," continued Mrs. Spruce, coaxing one bonnet-string at a time off each portly shoulder with considerable difficulty; "I s'pose I must be goin', Passon Walden, and thank you kindly for all! It's a great weight off my mind to have told you just what's 'appened, an' the changes likely to come off, and I do assure you I'm of your opinion, Passon, in letting Oliver Leach shift for himself, for if so be Miss Vancourt has the will of her own she had when she was a gel, I shouldn't wonder if there was rough times in store for him! But the Lord only knows what may chance to all of us!" and here she heaved another dismal sigh as she tied the refractory bonnet-strings into a bow under her fat chin. "It's right-down sinful of me to be wishin' rough times to any man, seein' I'm likely in for them myself, for a person's bound to be different at nigh seven-and-twenty to what she was at fifteen, and the modern ways of leddies ain't old ways, the Lord be merciful to us all! And I do confess, Passon, it's a bit upsettin' at my time of life to think as how I've lived in Abbot's Manor all these years, and now for all I can tell, me and William may have to shift. And where we'll go, the Lord only knows!"
"Now don't anticipate misfortune, Mrs. Spruce!" said Walden, beginning to shake off the indescribable feeling of annoyance against which he had been fighting for the past few minutes and resuming his usual quiet air of cheerfulness; "Miss Vancourt is not likely to dismiss you unless you offend her. The great thing is to avoid offence,—and to do even more than your strict duty in making her old home look its best and brightest for her return and—" Here he hesitated for a moment, then went on—"Of course if I can do anything to help you, I will."
"Thank you, sir, I'm sure most kindly," said Mrs. Spruce curtseying two or three times in a voluminous overflow of gratitude. "I shall take the liberty of asking you to step up during the week, to see how things appears to you yourself. And as for servants, there's no gels old enough at the school for servants, so I'll be goin' to Riversford with the carrier's cart to-morrow to see what I can do. Ah, It's an awsome mission I'm goin' on; there ain't no gels to be got of the old kind, as far as I can make out. They all wants to be fine leddies nowadays and marry 'Merican millionaires."
"Not quite so bad as that, I think, Mrs. Spruce!" laughed Walden, holding open the door of the study for her to pass out, as a broad hint that the interview must be considered at an end.—"There are plenty of good, industrious, intelligent girls in England ready and willing to enter domestic service, if we make it worth their while,- -and I'm sure no one can teach YOU anything in that line! Good- morning, Mrs. Spruce!"
"Good-morning, sir,—and you'll step up to the Manor when convenient some afternoon?"
"Certainly, if you wish it. Whenever convenient to yourself, Mrs. Spruce."
Mrs. Spruce curtseyed again at the respect for her own importance which was implied in Walden's last sentence, and slowly sidled out, the 'Passon' watching her with a smile as she trotted down the passage from his study to a door which led to the kitchen and basement.
"Now she'll go and tell all her story again to Hester and the cook," he said to himself; "And how she will enjoy herself to be sure! Bless the woman, what a tongue she has! No wonder her husband is deaf!"
He re-seated himself at his desk, and taking up a bundle of accounts connected with the church and the school, tried to fix his attention on them, but in vain. His mind wandered. He was obliged to own to himself that he was unreasonably irritated at the news that Abbot's Manor, which had been so long a sort of unoccupied 'show' house, was again to be inhabited,—and by one who was its rightful owner too. Ever since he had bought the living of St. Rest he had been accustomed to take many solitary walks through the lovely woods surrounding the Vancourts' residence, without any fear of being considered a trespasser,—and he had even strolled through the wide, old-fashioned gardens with as little restraint as though they had belonged to himself, Mrs. Spruce, the housekeeper, being the last person in the world to forbid her minister to enter wherever he would. He had passed long hours of delightful research in the old library, and many afternoons of meditation in the picture gallery, where the portrait of the lady in the 'vi'let velvet,' Mary Elia Adelgisa de Vaignecourt, had often caught his eye and charmed his fancy when the setting sun had illumined its rich colouring and had given life to the face, half-petulant, half-sweet, which pouted forth from the old canvas like a rose with light on its petals. Now all these pleasant rambles were finished. The mistress of Abbot's Manor would certainly object to a wandering parson in her house and grounds. Probably she was a very imperious, disagreeable young woman,—full of the light scorn, lack of sentiment and cheap atheism common to the 'smart' lady of a decadent period, and if it were true that she had been for so many years in the charge of an American aunt with a 'hundred millions,' the chances were ten to one that she would be an exceedingly unpleasant neighbour.
He gave a short impatient sigh.
"Ah, well! I only hope she will put a stop to the felling of the fine old trees in her domain," he said half aloud,—"If no one else in the village has the pluck to draw her attention to the depredations of Oliver Leach, I will. But, so far as other matters go,—my walks in the Manor woods are ended! Yes, Nebbie!" and he gently patted the head of the faithful animal, who, with inborn sagacity instinctively guessing that his master was somewhat annoyed, was clambering with caressing forepaws against his knee. "Our rambles by the big elms and silvery birches and under the beautiful tall pines are over, Nebbie! and we shouldn't be human if we weren't just a trifle sorry! Sir Morton Pippitt is bad enough as a neighbour, but he's a good three miles off at Badsworth Hall, thank Heaven!—whereas Abbot's Manor is but a quarter of an hour's walk from this gate. We've had pleasant times in the dear old- fashioned gardens, Nebbie, you and I, but it's all over! The mistress of the Manor is coming home,—and I'm positively certain, Nebbie,—yes, old boy!—positively certain that we shall both detest her!"
When England's great Queen, Victoria the Good; was still enjoying her first happy years of wedded life, and society, under her gentle sway, was less ostentatious and much more sincere in its code of ethics than it is nowadays, the village of St. Rest, together with the adjacent post-town of Riversford, enjoyed considerable importance in county chronicles. Very great 'county personages' were daily to be seen comporting themselves quite simply among their own tenantry, and the Riversford Hunt Ball annually gathered together a veritable galaxy of 'fair women and brave men' who loved their ancestral homes better than all the dazzle and movement of town, and who possessed for the most part that 'sweet content' which gives strength to the body and elasticity to the mind. There was then a natural gaiety and spontaneous cheerfulness in English country life that made such a life good for human happiness; and the jolly Squires who with their 'dames' kept open house and celebrated Harvest Home and Christmas Festival with all the buoyancy and vigour of a sane and healthful manhood undeteriorated by any sickly taint of morbid pessimism and indifferent inertia, were the beneficent rulers of a merrier rural population than has ever been seen since their day. Squire Vancourt the elder, grandfather of the present heiress of Abbot's Manor, had been a splendid specimen of 'the fine old English gentleman, all of the olden time,' and his wife, one of the handsomest, as well as one of the kindest-hearted women that ever lived, had been justly proud of her husband, devoted to her children, and a true friend and benefactress to the neighbourhood. Her four sons, two of whom were twins, all great strapping lads, built on their vigorous father's model, were considered the best- looking young men in the county, and by their fond mother were judged as the best-hearted; but, as it often happens, Nature was freakish in their regard, and turned them all out wild colts of a baser breed than might have been expected from their unsullied parentage. The eldest took to hard drinking and was killed at steeple-chasing; the second was drowned while bathing; one of the twins, named Frederick, the younger by a few minutes, after nearly falling into unnameable depths of degradation by gambling with certain 'noble and exalted' personages of renown, saved himself, as it were, by the skin of his teeth, through marriage with a rich American girl whose father was blessed with unlimited, oil-mines. He was thereby enabled to wallow in wealth with an impaired digestion and shattered nervous power, while capricious Fate played him her usual trick in her usual way by denying him any heirs to his married millions. His first-born brother, Robert, wedded for love, and chose as his mate a beautiful girl without a penny, whose grace and charm had dazzled the London world of fashion for about two seasons, and she had died at the age of twenty in giving birth to her first child, the girl whom her father had named Maryllia.
All these chances and changes of life, however, occurring to the leading family of the neighbourhood had left very little mark on St. Rest, which drowsed under the light shadow of the eastern hills by its clear flowing river, very much as it had always drowsed in the old days, and very much as it would always do even if London and Paris were consumed by unsuspected volcanoes. The memory of the first 'old Squire,'—who died peacefully in his bed all alone, his wife having passed away two years before him, and his two living twin sons being absent,—was frequently mixed with stories of the other 'old Squire' Robert, the elder twin, who was killed in the hunting field,—and indeed it often happened that some of the more ancient and garrulous villagers were not at all sure as to which was which. The Manor had been shut up for ten years,—the Manor 'family' had not been heard of during all that period, and the tenantry's recollection of their late landlord, as well as of his one daughter, was more vague and confused than authentic. The place had been 'managed' and the cottage rents collected by the detested agent Oliver Leach, a fact which did not sweeten such remembrance of the Vancourts as still existed in the minds of the people.