BY E. NESBIT
THESE tales are written in an English dialect—none the less a dialect for that it lacks uniformity in the misplacement of aspirates, and lacks, too, strange words misunderstanded of the reader.
In South Kent villages with names ending in 'den,' and out away on the Sussex downs where villages end in 'hurst,' live the plain people who talk this plain speech—a speech that should be sweeter in English ears than the implacable consonants of a northern kail-yard, or the soft one-vowelled talk of western hillsides.
All through the summer nights the market carts creak along the London road; to London go the wild young man and the steady young man who 'betters' himself. To London goes the girl seeking a 'place.' The 'beano' comes very near to this land—so near that across its marches you may hear the sackbut and shawm from the breaks. Once a year come the hoppers. And so the cup of the hills holds no untroubled pool of pastoral speech. This book therefore is of no value to a Middle English scholar, and needs no glossary.
KENT, March 1896.
THE BRISTOL BOWL BARRING THE WAY GRANDSIRE TRIPLES A DEATH-BED CONFESSION HER MARRIAGE LINES ACTING FOR THE BEST GUILTY SON AND HEIR ONE WAY OF LOVE COALS OF FIRE
THE BRISTOL BOWL
MY cousin Sarah and me had only one aunt between us, and that was my Aunt Maria, who lived in the little cottage up by the church.
Now my aunt had a tidy little bit of money laid by, which she couldn't in reason expect to carry with her when her time came to go, wherever it was she might go to, and a houseful of furniture, old-fashioned, but strong and good still. So of course Sarah and I were not behindhand in going up to see the old lady, and taking her a pot or so of jam in fruiting season, or a turnover, maybe, on a baking-day, if the oven had been steady and the baking turned out well. And you couldn't have told from aunt's manner which of us she liked best; and there were some folks who thought she might leave half to me and half to Sarah, for she hadn't chick nor child of her own.
But aunt was of a having nature, and what she had once got together she couldn't bear to see scattered. Even if it was only what she had got in her rag-bag, she would give it to one person to make a big quilt of, rather than give it to two persons to make two little quilts.
So Sarah and me, we knew that the money might come to either or neither of us, but go to both it wouldn't.
Now, some people don't believe in special mercies, but I have always thought there must have been something out of the common way for things to happen as they did the day Aunt Maria sprained her ankle. She sent over to the farm where we were living with my mother (who was a sensible woman, and carried on the farm much better than most men would have done, though that's neither here nor there) to ask if Sarah or me could be spared to go and look after her a bit, for the doctor said she couldn't put her foot to the ground for a week or more.
Now, the minister I sit under always warns us against superstition, which, I take it, means believing more than you have any occasion to. And I'm not more given to it than most folks, but still I always have said, and I always shall say, that there's a special Providence above us, and it wasn't for nothing that Sarah was laid up with a quinsy that very morning. So I put a few things together—in Sarah's hat-tin, I remember, which was handier to carry than my own—and I went up to the cottage.
Aunt was in bed, and whether it was the sprained ankle or the hot weather I don't know, but the old lady was cantankerous past all believing.
'Good-morning, aunt,' I said, when I went in, 'and however did this happen?'
'Oh, you've come, have you?' she said, without answering my question, 'and brought enough luggage to last you a year, I'll be bound. When I was young, a girl could go to spend a week without nonsense of boxes or the like. A clean shift and a change of stockings done up in a cotton handkerchief—that was good enough for us. But now, you girls must all be young ladies. I've no patience with you.'
I didn't answer back, for answering back is a poor sort of business when the other person is able to make you pay for every idle word. Of course, it's different if you haven't anything to lose by it. So I just said—
'Never mind, aunt dear. I really haven't brought much; and what would you like me to do first?'
'I should think you'd see for yourself,' says she, thumping her pillows, 'that there's not a stick in the house been dusted yet—no, nor a stair swep'.'
So I set to to clean the house, which was cleaner than most people's already, and I got a nice bit of dinner and took it up on a tray. But no, that wasn't right, for I'd put the best instead of the second-best cloth on the tray.
'The workhouse is where you'll end,' says aunt.
But she ate up all the dinner, and after that she seemed to get a little easier in her temper, and by-and-by fell off to sleep.
I finished the stairs and tidied up the kitchen, and then I went to dust the parlour.
Now, my aunt's parlour was a perfect moral. I have never seen its like before or since. The mantelpiece and the corner cupboard, and the shelves behind the door, and the top of the chest of drawers and the bureau were all covered up with a perfect litter and lurry of old china. Not sets of anything, but different basins and jugs and cups and plates and china spoons and the bust of John Wesley and Elijah feeding the ravens in a red gown and standing on a green crockery grass plot.
There was every kind of china uselessness that you could think of; and Sarah and I used to think it hard that a girl had no chance of getting on in life without she dusted all this rubbish once a week at the least.
'Well, the sooner begun the sooner ended,' says I to myself So I took the silk handkerchief that aunt kep' a purpose—an old one it was that had belonged to uncle, and hemmed with aunt's own hair and marked with his name in the corner. (Folks must have had a deal of time in those days, I often think.) And I began to dust the things, beginning with the big bowl on the chest of drawers, for aunt always would have everything done just one way and no other.
You think, perhaps, that I might as well have sat down in the arm-chair and had a quiet nap and told aunt afterwards that I had dusted everything; but you must know she was quite equivalent to asking any of the neighbours who might drop in whether that dratted china of hers was dusted properly.
It was a hot afternoon, and I was tired and a bit cross.
'Aunts, and uncles, and grandmothers,' thinks I to myself. 'O what a stupid old lot they must have been to have set such store by all this gimcrackery! Oh, if only a bull or something could get in here for five minutes and smash every precious—oh, my cats alive!'
I don't know how I did it, but just as I was saying that about the bull, the big bowl slipped from my hands and broke in three pieces on the floor at my feet, and at the same moment I heard aunt thump, thump, thumping with the heel of her boot on the floor for me to go up and tell her what I had broken. I tell you I wished from my heart at that moment that it was me that had had the quinsy instead of Sarah.
I was so knocked all of a heap that I couldn't move, and the boot went on thump, thump, thumping overhead. I had to go, but I was flustered to that degree that as I went up the stairs I couldn't for the life of me think what I should say.
Aunt was sitting up in bed, and she shook her fist at me when I went in.
'Out with it!' she said. 'Speak the truth. Which of them is it? The yallar china dish, or the big teapot, or the Wedgwood tobaccojar that belonged to your grandfather?'
And then all in a minute I knew what to say. The words seemed to be put into my mouth, like they were into the prophets of old.
'Lord, aunt!' I said, 'you give me quite a turn, battering on the floor that way. What do you want? What is it?'
'What have you broken, you wicked, heartless girl? Out with it, quick!'
'Broken?' I says. 'Well, I hope you won't mind much, aunt, but I have had a misfortune with the little cracked pie-dish that the potatopie was baked in; but I can easy get you another down at Wilkins.'
Aunt fell back on her pillows with a sort of groan.
'Thank them as be!' she said, and then she sat up again, bolt upright all in a minute.
'You fetch me the pieces,' she says, short and sharp.
I hope it isn't boastful to say that I don't think many girls would have had the sense to bring up that dish in their apron and to break it on their knee as they came up the stairs, and take it in and show it to her.
'Don't say another word about it,' says my aunt, as kind and hearty as you please.
Things not being as bad as she expected, it made her quite willing to put up with things being a bit worse than they had been five minutes before. I've often noticed it is this way with people.
'You're a good girl, Jane,' she says, 'a very good girl, and I shan't forget it, my dear. Go on down, now, and make haste with your washing up, and get to work dusting the china.'
And it was such a weight off my mind to feel that she didn't know, that I felt as if everything was all right until I got downstairs and see those three pieces of that red and yellow and green and blue basin lying on the carpet as I had left them. My heart beat fit to knock me down, but I kept my wits about me, and I stuck it together with white of egg, and put it back in its place on the wool mat with the little teapot on top of it so that no one could have noticed that there was anything wrong with it unless they took the thing up in their hands.
The next three days I waited on aunt hand and foot, and did everything she asked, and she was as pleased as pleased, till I felt that Sarah hadn't a chance.
On the third day I told aunt that mother would want me, it being Saturday, and she was quite willing for the Widow Gladish to come in and do for her while I was away. I chose a Saturday because that and Sunday were the only days the china wasn't dusted.
I went home as quick as I could, and I told mother all about it.
'And don't you, for any sake, tell Sarah a word about it, or quinsy or no quinsy, she'll be up at aunt's before we know where we are, to let the cat out of the bag.'
I took all the money out of my money-box that I had saved up for starting housekeeping with in case aunt should leave her money to
Sarah, and I put it in my pocket, and I took the first train to London.
I asked the porter at the station to tell me the way to the best china-shop in London; and he told me there was one in Queen Victoria Street. So I went there.
It was a beautiful place, with velvet sofas for people to sit down on while they looked at the china and glass and chose which pattern they would have; and there were thousands of basins far more beautiful than aunt's, but not one like hers, and when I had looked over some fifty of them, the gentleman who was showing them to me said—
'Perhaps you could give me some idea of what it is you do want?'
Now, I had brought one of the pieces of the bowl up with me, the piece at the back where it didn't show, and I pulled it out and showed it to him.
'I want one like this,' I said.
'Oh!' said he, 'why didn't you say so at first? We don't keep that sort of thing here, and it's a chance if you get it at all. You might in Wardour Street, or at Mr. Aked's in Green Street, Leicester Square.'
Well, time was getting on and I did a thing I had never done before, though I had often read of it in the novelettes. I waved my umbrella and I got into a hansom cab.
'Young man,' I said, 'will you please drive to Mr. Aked's in Green Street, Leicester Square? and drive careful, young man, for I have a piece of china in my hands that's worth a fortune to me.'
So he grinned and I got in and the cab started. A hansom cab is better than any carriage you ever rode in, with soft cushions to lean against and little looking-glasses to look at yourself in, and, somehow, you don't hear the wheels. I leaned back and looked at myself and felt like a duchess, for I had my new hat and mantle on, and I knew I looked nice by the way the young men on the tops of the omnibuses looked at me and smiled. It was a lovely drive. When we got to Mr. Aked's, which looked to me more like a rag-and-bone shop than anything else, and very poor after the beautiful place in Queen Victoria Street, I got out and went in.
An old gentleman came towards me and asked what he could do for me, and he looked surprised, as though he wasn't used to see such smart girls in his pokey old shop.
'Please, sir,' I said, 'I want a bowl like this, if you have got such a thing among your old odds and ends.'
He took the piece of china and looked at it through his glasses for a minute. Then he gave it back to me very carefully.
'There's not a piece of this ware in the market. The few specimens extant are in private collections.'
'Oh dear,' I said; 'and can't I get another like it?'
'Not if you were to offer me a hundred pounds down,' said the old man.
I couldn't help it. I sat down on the nearest chair and began to cry, for it seemed as if all my hopes of Aunt Maria's money were fading away like the 'roseate hues of early dawn' in the hymn.
'Come, come,' said he, 'what's the matter? Cheer up. I suppose you're in service and you've broken this bowl. Isn't that it? But never mind—your mistress can't do anything to you. Servants can't be made to replace valuable bowls like this.'
That dried my eyes pretty quick, I can tell you.
'Me in service!' I said. 'And my grandfather farming his own land before you were picked out of the gutter, I'll be bound'—God forgive me that I should say such a thing to an old man—'and my own aunt with a better lot of fal-lals and trumpery in her parlour than you've got in all your shop.'
With that he laughed, and I flounced out of the shop, my cheeks flaming and my heart going like an eight-day clock. I was so flustered I didn't notice that some one came out of the shop after me, and I had walked a dozen yards down the street before I saw that some one was alongside of me and saying something to me.
It was another old gentleman—at least, not so old as Mr. Aked,—and I remembered now having seen him at the back of the shop. He was taking off his hat, as polite as you please.
'You're quite overcome,' he said, 'and no wonder. Come and have a little dinner with me quietly somewhere, and tell me all about it.'
'I don't want any dinner,' I said; 'I want to go and drown myself, for it's all over, and I've nothing more to look for. My brother Harry will have the farm, and I shan't get a penny of aunt's money. Why couldn't they have made plenty of the ugly old basins while they were about it?'
'Come and have some dinner,' the old gentleman said again, 'and perhaps I can help you. I have a basin just like that.'
So I did. We went to some place where there were a lot of little tables and waiters in black clothes; and we had a nice dinner, and I did feel better for it, and when we had come to the cheese, I told him exactly what had happened; and he leaned his head on his hands, and he thought, and thought, and presently he said—
'Do you think your aunt would sell any of her china?'
'That I'm downright sure she wouldn't,' I said; 'so it's no good your asking.'
'Well, you see, your aunt won't be down for three or four days yet. You give me your address, and I'll write and tell you if I think of anything.'
And with that he paid the bill and had a cab called, and put me in it and paid the driver, and I went along home.
I didn't sleep much that night, and next day I was thinking all sermon-time of whatever I could do, for it wasn't in nature that my aunt would not find me out before another two days was over my head; and she had never been so nice and kind, and had even gone so far as to say—
'Whoever my money's left to, Jane, will be bound not to part with my china, nor my old chairs and presses. Don't you forget, my child. It's all written in black and white, and if the person my money's left to sells these old things, my money goes along too.'
There was no letter on Monday morning, and I was up to my elbows in the suds, doing aunt's bit of washing for her, when I heard a step on the brick path, and there was that old gentleman coming round by the water-butt to the back-door.
'Well?' says he. 'Anything fresh happened?
'For any sake,' says I in a whisper, 'get out of this. She'll hear if I say more than two words to you. If you've thought of anything that's to be of any use, get along to the church porch, and I'll be with you as soon as I can get these things through the rinse-water and out on the line.'
'But,' he says in a whisper, 'just let me into the parlour for five minutes, to have a look round and see what the rest of the bowl is like.'
Then I thought of all the stories I had heard of pedlars' packs, and a married lady taken unexpectedly, and tricks like that to get into the house when no one was about. So I thought—
'Well, if you are to go in, I must go in with you,' and I squeezed my hands out of the suds, and rolled them into my apron and went in, and him after me.
You never see a man go on as he did. It's my belief he was hours in that room, going round and round like a squirrel in a cage, picking up first one bit of trumpery and then another, with two fingers and a thumb, as carefully as if it had been a tulle bonnet just home from the draper's, and setting everything down on the very exact spot he took them up from.
More than once I thought that I had entertained a loony unawares, when I saw him turn up the cups and plates and look twice as long at the bottoms of them as he had at the pretty parts that were meant to show, and all the time he kept saying—'Unique, by Gad, perfectly unique!' or 'Bristol, as I'm a sinner,' and when he came to the large blue dish that stands at the back of the bureau, I thought he would have gone down on his knees to it and worshipped it.
'Square-marked Worcester!' he said to himself in a whisper, speaking very slowly, as if the words were pleasant in his mouth, 'Square-marked Worcester—an eighteen-inch dish!'
I had as much trouble getting him out of that parlour as you would have getting a cow out of a clover-patch, and every minute I was afraid aunt would hear him, or hear the china rattle or something; but he never rattled a bit, bless you, but was as quiet as a mouse, and as for carefulness he was like a woman with her first baby. I didn't dare ask him anything for fear he should answer too loud, and by-and-by he went up to the church porch and waited for me.
He had a brown-paper parcel with him, a big one, and I thought to myself, 'Suppose he's brought his bowl and is wishful to sell it.' I got those things through the blue-water pretty quick, I can tell you. I often wish I could get a maid who would work as fast as I used to when I was a girl. Then I ran up and asked aunt if she could spare me to run down to the shop for some sago, and I put on my sunbonnet and ran up, just as I was, to the church porch. The old gentleman was skipping with impatience. I've heard of people skipping with impatience, but I never saw any one do it before.
'Now, look here,' he said, 'I want you—I must—oh, I don't know which way to begin, I have so many things to say. I want to see your aunt, and ask her to let me buy her china.'
'You may save your trouble,' I said, 'for she'll never do it. She's left her china to me in her will,' I said.
Not that I was quite sure of it, but still I was sure enough to say so. The old gentleman put down his brown-paper parcel on the porch seat as careful as if it had been a sick child, and said—
'But your aunt won't leave you anything if she knows you have broken the bowl, will she?'
'No,' I said, 'she won't, that's true, and you can tell her if you like.' For I knew very well he wouldn't.
'Well,' says he, speaking very slowly, 'if I lent you my bowl, you could pretend it's hers and she'll never know the difference, for they are as like as two peas. I can tell the difference, of course, but then I'm a collector. If I lend you the bowl, will you promise and vow in writing, and sign it with your name, to sell all that china to me directly it comes into your possession? Good gracious, girl, it will be hundreds of pounds in your pocket.'
That was a sad moment for me. I might have taken the bowl and promised and vowed, and then when the china came to me I might have told him I hadn't the power to sell it; but that wouldn't have looked well if any one had come to know of it. So I just said straight out—
'The only condition of my having my aunt's money is, that I never part with the china.'
He was silent a minute, looking out of the porch at the green trees waving about in the sunshine over the gravestones, and then he says—
'Look here, you seem an honourable girl. I am a collector. I buy china and keep it in cases and look at it, and it's more to me than meat, or drink, or wife, or child, or fire—do you understand? And I can no more bear to think of that china being lost to the world in a cottage instead of being in my collection than you can bear to think of your aunt's finding out about the bowl, and leaving the money to your cousin Sarah.'
Of course, I knew by that that he had been gossiping in the village.
'Well?' I said, for I saw that he had something more on his mind.
'I'm an old man,' he went on, 'but that need not stand in the way. Rather the contrary, for I shall be less trouble to you than a young husband. Will you marry me out of hand? And then when your aunt dies the china will be mine, and you will be well provided for.'
No one but a madman would have made such an offer, but that wasn't a reason for me to refuse it. I pretended to think a bit, but my mind was made up.
'And the bowl?' I said.
'Of course I'll lend you my bowl, and you shall give me the pieces of the old one. Lord Worsley's specimen has twenty-five rivets in it.'
'Well, sir,' I said, 'it seems to be a way out of it that might suit both of us. So, if you'll speak to mother, and if your circumstances is as you represent, I'll accept your offer, and I'll be your good lady.'
And then I went back to aunt and told her Wilkinses was out of sago, but they would have some in on Wednesday.
It was all right about the bowl. She never noticed the difference. I was married to the old gentleman, whose name was Fytche, the next week by special licence at St. Nicholas Cole Abbey, Queen Victoria Street, which is very near that beautiful glass and china shop where I had tried to match the bowl; and my aunt died three months later and left me everything. Sarah married in quite a poor way. That quinsy of hers cost her dear.
Mr. Fytche was very well off, and I should have liked living at his house well enough if it hadn't been for the china. The house was cram full of it, and he could think of nothing else. No more going out to dinner; no amusements; nothing as a girl like me had a right to look for. So one day I told him straight out I thought he had better give up collecting and sell aunt's things, and we would buy a nice little place in the country with the money.
'But, my dear,' he said, 'you can't sell your aunt's china. She left it stated expressly in her will.'
And he rubbed his hands and chuckled, for he thought he had got me there.
'No, but you can,' I said, 'the china is yours now. I know enough about law to know that; and you can sell it, and you shall.'
And so he did, whether it was law or not, for you can make a man do anything if you only give your mind to it and take your time and keep all on. It was called the great Fytche sale, and I made him pay the money he got for it into the bank; and when he died I bought a snug little farm with it, and married a young man that I had had in my eye long before I had heard of Mr. Fytche.
And we are very comfortably off, and not a bit of china in the house that's more than twenty years old, so that whatever's broke can be easy replaced.
As for his collection, which would have brought me in thousands of pounds, they say, I have to own he had the better of me there, for he left it by will to the South Kensington Museum.
BARRING THE WAY
I DON'T know how she could have done it. I couldn't have done it myself. At least, I don't think so. But being lame and small, and not noticeable anyhow, I had never any temptation, so I can't judge those that have.
Ellen was tall and a slight figure, and as pretty as a picture in her Sunday clothes, and prettier than any picture on a working day, with her sleeves rolled up to her shoulder and the colour in her face like a rose, and her brown, hair all twisted up rough anyhow; and, of course, she was much sought after and flattered. But I couldn't have done it myself, I think, even if I had been sought after twice as much and twice as handsome. No, I couldn't, not after the doctor had said that father's heart was weak, and any sudden shock might bring an end to him.
But, oh! poor dear, she was my sister—my own only sister—and it's not the time now to be hard on her, and she where she is.
She was walking regular with a steady young man, who worked through the week at Hastings, and come home here on a Sunday, and she would have married him and been as happy as a queen, I know; and all her looking in the glass, and dressing herself pretty, would have come to being proud of her babies and spending what bits she could get together in making them look smart; but it was not to be.
Young Barber, the grocer's son, who had a situation in London, he come down for his summer holiday, and then it was 'No, thank you kindly,' to poor Arthur Simmons, that had loved her faithful and true them two years, and she was all for walking with young Mr. Barber, besides running into the shop twenty times a day when no occasion was, just for a word across the counter.
And father wasn't the best pleased, but he was always a silent man, very pious, and not saying much as he sat at his bench, for he had been brought up to the shoemaking and was very respected among Pevensey folks. He would hum a hymn or two at his work sometimes, but he was never a man of words. When young Barber went back to London, Ellen, she began to lose her pretty looks. I had never thought much of young Barber. There was something common about him—not like the labouring men, but a kind of town commonness, which is twenty times worse to my thinking; and if I didn't like him before, you may guess I didn't waste much love on him when I see poor Ellen's looks.
Now, if I am to tell you this story at all, I must tell it very steady and quiet, and not run on about what I thought or what I felt, or I shan't never have the heart to go through it. The long and short of it was that a month hadn't passed over our heads after young Barber leaving, when one morning our Ellen wasn't there. And she left a note, nailed to father's bench, to say she had gone off with her true love, and father wasn't to mind, for she was going to be married.
Father, he didn't say a word, but he turned a dreadful white, and blue his lips were, and for one dreadful moment I thought that I had lost him too. But he come round presently. I ran across to the Three Swans to get a drop of brandy for him; and I looked at her letter again, and I looked at him, and we both see that neither of us believed that she was going to be married. There was something about the very way of the words as she had written them which showed they weren't true.
Father, he said nothing, only when next Sunday had come, and I had laid out his Sunday things and his hat, all brushed as usual, he says—
'Put 'em away, my girl. I don't believe in Sunday. How can I believe in all that, and my Ellen gone to shame?'
And, after that, Sundays was the same to him as weekdays, and the folks looked shy at us, and I think they thought that, what with Ellen's running away and father's working on Sundays, we was on the high-road to the pit of destruction.
And so the time went on, and it was Christmas. The bells was ringing for Christmas Eve, and I says to father: 'O father! come to church. Happen it's all true, and Ellen's an honest woman, after all.'
And he lifted his head and looked at me, and at that moment there come a soft little knock at the door. I knew who it was afore I had time to stir a foot to go across the kitchen and open the door to her. She blinked her eyes at the light as I opened the door to her. Oh, pale and thin her face was that used to be so rosy-red, and—
'May I come in?' she said, as if it wasn't her own home. And father, he looked at her like a man that sees nothing, and I was frightened what he might do, like the fool I was, that ought to have known better.
'I'm very tired,' says Ellen, leaning against the door-post; 'I have come from a very long way.'
And the next minute father makes two long steps to the door, and his arms is round her, and she a-hanging on his neck, and they two holding each other as if they would never let go. And so she come home, and I shut the door.
And in all that time father and me, we couldn't make too much of her, me being that thankful to the Lord that He had let our dear come back to us; and never a word did she say to me of him that had been her ruin. But one night when I asked her, silly-like, and hardly thinking what I was doing, some question about him, father down with his fist on the table, and says he—
'When you name that name, my girl, you light hell in me, and if ever I see his damned face again, God help him and me too.'
And so I held my stupid tongue, and sat sewing with Ellen long days, and it was a happy, sad time, if a time can be sad and happy both.
And it was about primrose-time that her time come, and we had kept it quiet, and nobody knew but us and Mrs. Jarvis, that lived in the cottage next to ours, and was Ellen's godmother, and loved her like her own daughter; and when the baby come, Ellen says, 'Is it a boy or a girl?' And we told her it was a boy.
Then, says she, 'Thank God for that! My baby won't live to know such shame as mine.'
And there wasn't one of us dared tell her that God meant no shame or pain or grief at all should come to her little baby, because it was dead. But by-and-by she would have it to lie by her, and we said No: it was asleep; and for all we said she guessed the truth somehow. And she began to cry, the tears running down her cheeks and wetting the linen about her, and she began to moan, 'I want my baby—oh, bring me my little baby that I have never seen yet. I want to say "good-bye" to it, for I shall never go where it is going.'
And father said, 'Bring her the child.'
I had dressed the poor little thing—a pretty boy, and would have been a fine man—in one of the gowns I had taken a pleasure in sewing for it to wear, and the little cap with the crimped border that had been Ellen's own when she was a baby and her mother's pride, and I brought it and put it in her arms, and it was clay-cold in my hands as I carried it. And she laid its head on her breast as well as she could for her weakness; and father, who was leaning over her, nigh mad with love and being so anxious about her, he says—
'Let Lucy take the poor little thing away, Ellen,' he says, 'for you must try to get well and strong for the sake of those that love you.'
Then she says, turning her eyes on him, shining like stars out of her pale face, and still holding her baby tight to her breast, 'I know what's the best thing I can do for them as love me, and I'm doing it fast. Kiss me, father, and kiss the baby too. Perhaps if I hold it tight we'll go out into the dark together, and God won't have the heart to part us.' And so she died.
And there was no one but me that touched her after she died, for all I am a cripple, and I laid her out, my pretty, with my own hands, and the baby in the hollow of her arm; and I put primroses all round them, and I took father to look at them when all was done, and we stood there, holding hands and looking at her lying there so sweet and peaceful, and looking so good too, whatever you may think, with all the trouble wiped off her face as if the Lord had washed it already in His heavenly light.
Now, Ellen was buried in the churchyard, and Parson, who was always a hard man, he would have her laid away to the north side, where no sun gets to for the trees and the church, and where few folks like to be buried. But father, he said, 'No; lay her beside her mother, in the bit of ground I bought twenty years ago, where I mean to lie myself, and Lucy too, when her time comes, so that if the talk of rising again is true we shall be all together at the last, as kinsfolk should.'
So they laid her there, and her name was cut under mother's on the headstone.
Father didn't grieve and take on as some men do, but he was quieter than he used to be, and didn't seem to have that heart in his work that he always had even after she had left us. It seemed as if the spring of him was broken, somehow. Not but what he was goodness itself to me then and always. But I wasn't his favourite child, nor could I have looked to be, me being what I am and she so sweet and pretty, and such a way with her.
And father went to church to the burying, but he wouldn't go to service. 'I think maybe there's a God, and if there is, I have that in my heart that's quite enough keeping in my own poor house, without my daring to take it into His.'
And so I gave up going too. I wouldn't seem to be judging father, not though I might be judged myself by all the village. But when I heard the church-bells ringing, ringing, it was like as if some one that loved me was calling to me and me not answering; and sometimes when all the folk was in church, I used to hobble up on my crutches to the gate and stand there and sometimes hear a bit of the singing come through the open door.
It was the end of August that Mr. Barber at the shop fell off a ladder leading to his wareroom, and was killed on the spot; and Mrs. Jarvis, she says to me, 'If that young Barber comes home, as I suppose he will, to take what's his by right in the eyes of the law, he might as well go and put his head into an oven on a baking-day, and get his worst friend to shove his legs in after him and shut the door to.'
'He won't come back,' says I. 'How could he face it, when every one in the village knows it?'
For when Ellen died it could not be kept secret any longer, and a heap of folks that would have drawn their skirts aside rather than brush against her if she had been there alive and well, with her baby at her breast, had a tear and a kind word for her now that she was gone where no tears and no words could get at her for good or evil.
I see once a bit of poetry in a book, and it said when a woman had done what she had done, the only way to get forgiven is to die, and I believe that's true. But it isn't true of fathers and sisters.
It was Sunday morning, and father, he was working away at his bench—not that it ever seemed to make him any happier to work, only he was more miserable if he didn't,—and I had crept up to the churchyard to lean against the wall and listen to the psalms being sung inside, when, looking down the village street, I saw Barber's shop open, and out came young Barber himself. Oh, if God forgets any one in His mercy, it will be him and his like!
He come out all smart and neat in his new black, and he was whistling a hymn tune softly. Our house was betwixt Barber's shop and the church, not a stone's-throw off, anyway; and I prayed to God that Barber would turn the other way and not come by our house, where father he was sitting at his bench with the door open.
But he did turn, and come walking towards me; and I had laid my crutches on the ground, and I stooped to pick them up to go home—to stop words; for what were words, and she in her grave?—when I heard young Barber's voice, and I looked over the wall, and see he had stopped, in his madness and folly and the wickedness of his heart, right opposite the house he had brought shame to, and he was speaking to father through the door.
I couldn't hear what he said, but he seemed to expect an answer, and, when none came, he called out a little louder, 'Oh, well, you've no call to hold your head so high, anyhow!' And for the way he said it I could have killed him myself, but for having been brought up to know that two wrongs don't make a right, and 'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay.'
They was at prayers in the church, and there was no sound in the street but the cooing of the pigeons on the roofs, and young Barber, he stood there looking in at our door with that little sneering smile on his face, and the next minute he was running for his life for the church, where all the folks were, and father after him like a madman, with his long knife in his hand that he used to cut the leather with. It all happened in a flash.
Barber come running up the dusty road in his black, and passed me as I stood by the churchyard gate, and up towards the church; but sudden in the path he stopped short, his eyes seeming starting out of his head as he looked at Ellen's grave—not that he could see her name, the headstone being turned the other way,—and he put his hands before his eyes and stood still a-trembling, like a rabbit when the dogs are on it, and it can't find no way out. Then he cried out, 'No, no, cover her face, for God's sake!' and crouched down against the footstone, and father, coming swift behind him, passed me at the gate, and he ran his knife through Barber's back twice as he crouched, and they rolled on the path together.
Then all the folks in church that had heard the scream, they come out like ants when you walk through an ant-heap. Young Barber was holding on to the headstone, the blood running out through his new broadcloth, and death written on his face in big letters.
I ran to lift up father, who had fallen with his face on the grave, and as I stooped over him, young Barber he turned his head towards me, and he says in a voice I could hardly catch, such a whisper it was, 'Was there a child? I didn't know there was a child—a little child in her arm, and flowers all round.'
'Your child,' says I; 'and may God forgive you!'
And I knew that he had seen her as I see her when my hands had dressed her for her sleep through the long night.
I never have believed in ghosts, but there is no knowing what the good Lord will allow.
So vengeance overtook him, and they carried him away to die with the blood dropping on the gravel; and he never spoke a word again.
And when they lifted father up with the red knife still fast in his hand, they found that he was dead, and his face was white and his lips were blue, like as I had seen them before. And they all said father must have been mad; and so he lies where he wished to lie, and there's a place there where I shall lie some day, where father lies, and mother, and my dear with her little baby in the hollow of her arm.
I WAS promised to William, in a manner of speaking, close upon seven year. What I mean to say is, when he was nigh upon fourteen, and was to go away to his uncle in Somerset to learn farming, he gave me a kiss and half of a broken sixpence, and said—
'Kate, I shall never think of any girl but you, and you must never think of any chap but me.'
And the Lord in His goodness knows that I never did.
Father and mother laughed a bit, and called it child's nonsense; but they was willing enough for all that, for William was a likely chap, and would be well-to-do when his good father died, which I am sure I never wished nor prayed for. All the trouble come from his going to Somerset to learn farming, for his uncle that was there was a Roman, and he taught William a good deal more than he set out to learn, so that presently nothing would do but William must turn Roman Catholic himself. I didn't mind, bless you. I never could see what there was to make such a fuss about betwixt the two lots of them. Lord love us! we're all Christians, I should hope. But father and mother was dreadful put out when the letter come saying William had been 'received' (like as if he was a parcel come by carrier). Father, he says—
'Well, Kate, least said soonest mended. But I had rather see you laid out on the best bed upstairs than I'd see you married to William, a son of the Scarlet Woman.'
In my silly innocence I couldn't think what he meant, for William's mother was a decent body, who wore a lilac print on week-days and a plain black gown on Sunday for all she was a well-to-do farmer's wife, and might have gone smart as a cock pheasant.
It was at tea-time, and I was a-crying on to my bread-and-butter, and mother sniffing a little for company behind the tea-tray, and father, he bangs down his fist in a way to make the cups rattle again, and he says—
'You've got to give him up, my girl. You write and tell him so, and I'll take the letter as I go down to the church to-night to practice. I've been a good father to you, and you must be a good girl to me; and if you was to marry him, him being what he is, I'd never speak to you again in this world or the next.'
'You wouldn't have any chance in the next, I'm afraid, James,' said my mother gently, 'for her poor soul, it couldn't hope to go to the blessed place after that.'
'I should hope not,' said my father, and with that he got up and went out, half his tea not drunk left in the mug.
Well, I wrote that letter, and I told William right enough that him and me could never be anything but friends, and that he must think of me as a sister, and that was what father told me to say. But I hope it wasn't very wrong of me to put in a little bit of my own, and this is what I said after I had told him about the friend and sister—
'But, dear William,' says I, 'I shall never love anybody but you, that you may rely, and I will live an old maid to the end of my days rather than take up with any other chap; and I should like to see you once, if convenient, before we part for ever, to tell you all this, and to say "Good-bye" and "God bless you." So you must find out a way to let me know quiet when you come home from learning the farming in Somerset.'
And may I be forgiven the deceitfulness, and what I may call the impudence of it! I really did give father that same letter to post, and him believing me to be a better girl than I was, to my shame, posted it, not doubting that I had only wrote what he told me.
That was the saddest summer ever I had. The roses was nothing to me, nor the lavender neither, that I had always been so fond of; and as for the raspberries, I don't believe I should have cared if there hadn't been one on the canes; and even the little chickens, I thought them a bother, and—it goes to my heart to say it—a whole sitting was eaten by the rats in consequence. Everything seemed to go wrong. The butter was twice as long a-coming as ever I knowed it, and the broad beans got black fly, and father lost half his hay with the weather. If it had been me that had done something unkind, father would have said it was a Providence on me. But, of course, I knew better than to speak up to my own father, with his hay lying rotting and smoking in the ten-acre, and telling him he was a-being judged.
Well, the harvest was got in. It was neither here nor there. I have seen better years and I have seen worse. And October come. I was getting to bed one night; at least, I hadn't begun to undress, for I was sitting there with William's letters, as he had wrote me from time to time while he was in Somerset, and I was reading them over and thinking of William, silly fashion, as a young girl will, and wishing it had been me was a Roman Catholic and him a Protestant, because then I could have gone into a convent like the wicked people in father's story-books. I was in that state of silliness, you see, that I would have liked to do something for William, even if it was only going into a convent—to be bricked up alive, perhaps. And then I hears a scratch, scratch, scratching, and 'Drat the mice,' says I; but I didn't take any notice, and then there was a little tap, tapping, like a bird would make with its beak on the window-pane, and I went and opened it, thinking it was a bird that had lost its way and was coming foolish-like, as they will, to the light. So I drew the curtain and opened the window, and it was—William!
'Oh, go away, do,' says I; 'father will hear you.'
He had climbed up by the pear-tree that grew right and left up the wall, and—
'I ask your pardon,' says he, 'my pretty sweetheart, for making so free as to come to your window this time of night, but there didn't seem any other way.'
'Oh, go, dear William, do go,' says I. I expected every moment to see the door open and father put his head in.
'I'm not going,' said William, 'till you tell me where you'll meet me to say "Good-bye" and "God bless you," like you said in the letter.'
Though I knew the whole parish better than I know the palm of my hand, if you'll believe me, I couldn't for the life of me for the moment think of any place where I could meet William, and I stood like a fool, trembling. Oh, what a jump I gave when I heard a noise like a heavy foot in the garden outside!
'Oh! it's father got round. Oh! he'll kill you, William. Oh! whatever shall we do?'
'Nonsense!' said William, and he caught hold of my shoulder and gave me a gentle little shake. 'It was only one of these pears as I kicked off. They must be as hard as iron to fall like that.'
Then he gave me a kiss, and I said: 'Then I'll meet you by the Parson's Shave to-morrow at half-past five, and do go. My heart's a-beating so I can hardly hear myself speak.'
'Poor little bird!' says William. Then he kissed me again and off he went; and considering how quiet he came, so that even I couldn't hear him, you would not believe the noise he made getting down that pear-tree. I thought every minute some one would be coming in to see what was happening.
Well, the next day I went about my work as frightened as a rabbit, and my heart beating fit to choke me, trying not to think of what I had promised to do. At tea-time father says, looking straight before him—
'William Birt has come home, Kate. You remember I've got your promise not to pass no words with him, him being where he is, without the fold, among the dogs and things.'
And I didn't answer back, though I knew well enough it wasn't honest; but he hadn't got my word. Father had brought me up careful and kind, and I knew my duty to my parents, and I meant to do it, too. But I couldn't help thinking I owed a little bit of a duty to William, and I meant doing that, so far as keeping my promise to meet him that afternoon went. So after tea I says, and I do think it is almost the only lie I ever told—
'Mother,' I says, 'I've got the jumping toothache, and it's that bad I can hardly see to thread my needle.'
Then she says, as I knew she would, her being as kind an old soul as ever trod: 'Go and lie down a bit and put the old sheepskin coat over your head, and I'll get on with the darning.'
So I went upstairs trembling all over. I took the bolster and pillow and put them under the covers, to look as like me as I could, and I put the old sheepskin coat at the top of all; and as you come into the room any one would have thought it was me lying there with the toothache. Then I took my hat and shawl and I went out, quiet as a mouse, through the dairy. When I got to the Parson's Shave there was William, and I was so glad to see him, I didn't think of nothing else for full half a minute. Then William said—
'It's only one field to the church. Why not go up there and sit in the porch? See, it's coming on to rain.'
So he took my arm, and we started across the field, where all the days of the year but one you would not meet a soul. We went up through the churchyard. It was 'most dark, but I wasn't a bit afraid with William's arm round me. But when we got to the porch and had sat down, I was sorry I'd come, for I heard feet on the road below, and they stopped outside the lychgate.
'Come, quick,' says I, 'or we're caught like rats in a trap. If I am going to give you up to please father, I may as well please him all round. There's no reason why he should know I've seen you.'
'So we stole on our tiptoes round to the little door that is hardly ever fastened, and so through to the tower. Father being one of the bellringers, I knew every step. There's a stone seat cut out of the wall in the bellringers' loft, and there we sat down again, and I was just going to tell him again what I had said in the letter about being his sister and a friend, which seemed to comfort me somehow, though William has told me since it never would have him, when William, he gripped my hand like iron, and ''S-sh!' says he, 'listen.' And I listened, and oh! what I felt when I heard footsteps coming up the tower. I didn't dare speak a word to him, and only kept tight hold of his hand, and pulled him along till we got to the tower steps, and went on up. But I says to myself, 'Oh, what's my head made of, to forget that it's practising night? and Him the church was built for only knows how long they won't be here practising!' We went on up the twisted cobwebby stairs, with bits of broken birds' nests that crackled under our feet that loud I thought for sure the folks below must hear us; and we got into the belfry, and there William was for staying, but I whispered to him—
'If you hear them bells when they're all a-going, you won't never hear much else. We must get on up out of it unless we want to be deaf the rest of our lives.'
And it was pitch dark in the belfry, except for the little grey slits where the shuttered windows are. The owls and starlings were frightened, I suppose, at hearing us, though why they should have been, I don't know, being used to the bells; and they flew about round us liker ghosts than anything feathered, and one great owl flopped out right into my face, till I nearly screamed again. It was all very, very dusty, and not being able to see, and being afraid to strike a light, we had to feel along the big beams for our way between the bells, I going first, because I knew the way, and reaching back a hand every now and then to see that William was coming after me safe and sound. On hands and knees we had to go for safety, and all the while I was dreading they would start the bells a-going and, maybe, shake William, who wasn't as used to it as I was, off the beams, and him perhaps be smashed to pieces by the bells as they swung.
I don't know how long it took us to get across the belfry to the corner where the ladder is that leads up to the tower-top. William says it must have been about a couple of minutes, but I think it was much more like half an hour. I thought we should never get there, and oh! what it was to me when I came to the end of the last beam, and got my foot down on the firm floor again, and the ladder in my hand, and William behind me! So up we went, me first again, because I knew the way and the fastenings of the door. And that part of it wasn't so bad, for I will say, if you've got to go up a long ladder, it's better to go up in the dark, when you can't see what's below you if you happen to slip; and I got up and opened the door, and it was light out of doors and fresh with the rain—though that had stopped now.
Then William would take his coat off, and put it round me, for all I begged him not, and presently the tower began to shake and the bells began, and directly they began I knew what they was up to.
'O William,' I says, 'it's Grandsire Triples, and there's five thousand and fifty changes to 'em, and it's a matter of three hours!'
But he couldn't hear a word I said for the bells. So then I took his coat and my shawl, and we wrapped them round both our heads to shut the bells out, and then we could hear each other speak inside.
I'm not going to write down all I said nor all he said, which was only foolishness—and besides, it come to nothing after all. But somehow the time wasn't long; and it's a funny thing, but unhappy and happy you can be at the same time when you are with one you love and are going to leave. William, he begged and prayed of me not to give him up. But I said I knew my duty, and he said he hoped I would think better of it, and I said, 'No, never,' and then we kissed each other again, and the bells went on, and on, and on, clingle, clangle, clingle, chim, chime, chim, chime, till I was 'most dazed, and felt as if I had lived up there all my life, and was going to live up there twenty lives longer.
'I'll wait for you all my life long,' says William. 'Not that I wish the old man any harm, but it's not in the nature of things your father can live for ever, and then—'
'It ain't no use thinking of that, William,' said I. 'Father is sure to make me promise never to have you—when he's dying, and I can't refuse him anything. It's just the kind of thing he'd think of.'
Perhaps you will think William ought to have made more stand, for everybody likes a masterful man; but what stand can you make when you are up in a belfry with the bells shouting and yelling at you, and when the girl you are with won't listen to reason? And you have no idea what them bells were. Often and often since then I have started up in the bed thinking I heard them again. It was enough to drive one distracted.
'Well,' says William, 'you'll give me up, but I'll never give you up; and you mark my words, you and me will be man and wife some day.'
And as he said it, the bells stopped sudden in the middle of a change. The rain had come on again. It was very chill up there. My teeth was chattering, and so was William's, though he pretended he did it for the joke.
'Let's get inside again,' says he. 'Perhaps they are going home, and if they are not, we can stay there till they begin it again.'
So we opened the door and crept down the ladder. There was light now coming up from the bellringers' loft through the holes in the floor, and we got down to the belfry easy, and as we got to the bottom of the ladder I heard my father's voice in the loft below—
'I don't believe it,' he was shouting. 'It can't be true. She's a God-fearing girl.'
And then I heard my mother. 'Come home, James,' she said, 'come home—it's true. I told you you was too hard on them. Young folks will be young folks, and now, perhaps, our little girl has come to shame instead of being married decent, as she might have been, though Roman.'
Then there was silence for a bit, and then my father says, speaking softer, 'Tell me again. I can't think but what I'm dreaming.'
Then mother says—'Don't I tell you she said she'd got the toothache, and she was going to lie down a bit, and I went to take her up some camomiles I'd been hotting, and she wasn't there, and her bolsters and pillows, poor lamb, made up to pretend she was, and Johnson's Ben, he see her along of William Birt by the Parson's Shave with his arm round her—God forgive them both!'
Then says my father, 'Here's an end on't. She's no daughter o' mine. If she was to come back to me, I'd turn her out of doors. Don't let any one name her name to me never no more. I hain't got no daughter,' he said, 'and may the Lord—'
I think my mother put her hands afore his mouth, for he stopped short, and mother, she said—
'Don't curse them, James. You'll be sorry for it, and they'll have trouble enough without that.'
And with that father and mother must have gone away, and the other ringers stood talking a bit.
'She'd best not come back,' said the leader, John Evans. 'Out a-gallivanting with a young chap from five to eight as I understand! What's the good of coming back? She's lost her character, and a gal without a character, she's like—like—'
'Like a public-house without a licence,' said the second ringer.
'Or a cart without a horse,' said the treble.
There was only one man spoke up for me—that was Jim Piper at the general shop. 'I don't believe no harm of that gal,' says he, 'no more nor I would of my own missus, nor yet of him.'
'Well, let's hope for the best,' said the others. But I had a sort of feeling they was hoping for the worst, because when things goes wrong, it's always more amusing for the lookers-on than when everything goes right. Presently they went clattering down the steps, and all was dark, and there was me and William among the cobwebs and the owls, holding each other's hands, and as cold as stone, both of us.
'Well?' says William, when everything was quiet again.
'Well!' says I. 'Good-bye, William. He won't be as hard as his word, and if I couldn't give you all my life to be a good wife to you, I have given you my character, it seems; not willing, it's true; but there's nothing I should grudge you, William, and I don't regret it, and good-bye.'
But he held my hands tight.
'Good-bye, William,' I says again. 'I'm going. I'm going home.'
'Yes, my girl,' says he, 'you are going home; you're going home with me to my mother.' And he was masterful enough then, I can tell you. 'If your father would throw you off without knowing the rights or wrongs of the story, it's not for him you should be giving up your happiness and mine, my girl. Come home to my mother, and let me see the man who dares to say anything against my wife.'
And whether it was father's being so hard and saying what he did about me before all those men, or whether it was me knowing that mother had stood up for us secret all the time, or whether it was because I loved William so much, or because he loved me so much, I don't know. But I didn't say another word, only began to cry, and we got downstairs and straight home to William's mother, and we told her all about it; and we was cried in church next Sunday, and I stayed with the old lady until we was married, and many a year after; and a good mother she was to me, though only in law, and a good granny to our children when they come. And I wasn't so unhappy as you may think, because mother come to see me directly, and she was at our wedding; and father, he didn't say anything to prevent her going.
When I was churched after my first, and the boy was christened—in our own church, for I had made William promise it should be so if ever we had any—mother was there, and she said to me: 'Take the child,' she said, 'and go to your father at home; and when he sees the child, he'll come round, I'll lay a crown; for his bark,' she says, 'was allus worse than his bite.'
And I did so, and the pears was hard and red on the wall as they was the night William climbed up to my window, and I went into the kitchen, and there was father sitting in his big chair, and the Bible on the table in front of him, with his spectacles; but he wasn't reading, and if it had been any one else but father, I should have said he had been crying. And so I went in, and I showed him the baby, and I said—
'Look, father, here's our little baby; and he's named James, for you, father, and christened in church the same as I was. And now I have got a child of my own,' says I, for he didn't speak, 'dear father, I know what it is to have a child of your own go against your wishes, and please God mine never will—or against yours either. But I couldn't help it, and O father, do forgive me!'
And he didn't say anything, but he kissed the boy, and he kissed him again. And presently he says—
'It's 'most time your mother was home from church. Won't you be setting the tea, Kate?'
So I give him the baby to hold, for I knew everything was all right betwixt us.
And all the children have been christened in the church. But I think when father is taken from us—which in the nature of things he must be, though long may it be first!—I think I shall be a Roman Catholic too; for it doesn't seem to me to matter much one way or the other, and it would please William very much, and I am sure it wouldn't hurt me. And what's the good of being married to the best man in the world if you can't do a little thing like that to please him?
A DEATH-BED CONFESSION
AND so you think I shall go to heaven when I die, sir! And why? Because I have spent my time and what bits of money I've had in looking after the poor in this parish! And I would do it again if I had my time to come over again; but it will take more than that to wipe out my sins, and God forgive me if I can't always believe that even His mercy will be equal to it. You're a clergyman, and you ought to know. I think sometimes the black heart in me, that started me on that deed, must have come from the devil, and that I am his child after all, and shall go back to him at the last. Don't look so shocked, sir. That's not what I really believe; it's only what I sometimes fear I ought to believe, when I wake up in the chill night and think things over, lying here alone.
To see me old and prim, with my cap and little checked shawl, you'd never think that I was once one of the two prettiest girls on all the South Downs. But I was, and my cousin Lilian was the other. We lived at Whitecroft together at our uncle's. He was a well-to-do farmer, as well-to-do as a farmer could be in such times as those, and on such land as that.
Whenever I hear people say 'home,' it's Whitecroft I think of, with its narrow windows and thatch roof and the farm-buildings about it, and the bits of trees all bent one way with the wind from the sea.
Whitecroft stands on a shoulder of the Downs, and on a clear day you can see right out to sea and over the hollow where Felscombe lies cuddled down close and warm, with its elms and its church, and its bright bits of gardens. They are sheltered from the sea wind down there, but there's nothing to break the wing of it as it rolls across the Downs on to Whitecroft; and of a night Lilian and I used to lie and listen to the wind banging the windows, and know that the chimneys were rocking over our heads, and feel the house move to and fro with the strength of the wind like as if it was the swing of a cradle.
Lilian and I had come there, little things, and uncle had brought us up together, and we loved each other like sisters until that happened, and this is the first time I have told a human soul about it; and if being sorry can pay for things—well, but I'm afraid there are some things nothing can pay for.
It was one wild windy night, when, if you should open the door an inch, everything in the house jarred and rattled. We were sitting round the fire, uncle and Lilian and me, us with our knitting and him asleep in his newspaper, and nobody could have gone to sleep with a wind like that but a man who has been bred and born at sea, or on the South Downs.
Lilian and I were talking over our new winter dresses, when there come a knock at the side door, not nigh so loud as some of the noises the wind made, but not being used to it, uncle sat up, wide awake, and said, 'Hark!' In a minute it come again, and then I went to the door and opened it a bit. There was some one outside who began to speak as soon as he saw the light, but I could not hear what he said for the roaring of the wind, and the cracking of the trees outside.
'Shut that door!' uncle shouted from the parlour. 'Let the dog in, whatever he is, and let him tell his tale this side the oak.'
So I let him in and shut the door after him, and I had better have shut to the lid of my own coffin after me.
Him that I let in was dripping wet, and all spent with fighting the wind on these Downs, where it is like a lion roaring for its prey, and will go nigh to kill you, if you fight it long enough. He leaned against the wall and said—
'I have lost my way, and I have had a nasty fall. I think there is something wrong with my arm—hollow—slip—light—hospitality beg your pardon, I'm sure,' and with that he fainted dead off on the cocoanut matting at my feet.
Uncle came out when I screamed, and we got the stranger in and put him on the big couch by the fire. Uncle was nursing up with one of his bad attacks of bronchitis, the same thing that carried him off in the end, and the first thing he said when he'd felt the poor chap's arm down was—
'This is a bad break. Which of you girls will go and wake one of the waggoners to fetch Doctor from Felscombe?'
'I will,' I said.
But before I went I got out the port wine and the brandy, and bade Lilian rub his hands a bit, and be sure she didn't let him see her looking frightened when he come to.
Why did I do that? Because the Lord made me to be a fool—giving him her pretty face to be the first thing he looked at when he come to after that long, dreary spell on the Downs, and that black journey into the strange place where people go to when they faint.
But everything that there was of me ached to be of some use to him. So I went, and once outside the door it seemed easier to take Brown Bess and go myself to Felscombe than to rouse the waggoners, who were but sleepy and slow-headed at the best of times. So I saddled Brown Bess myself and started.
It was but a small way across the Downs that I had to lead her, it being almost as much as both of us could do to keep our feet in the fury of the wind. Then you go down the steep hill into the village, and as soon as we had passed the brow, it was easy and I mounted. I was down there in less time than it would have taken to rouse one of those heavy-headed carters; and Doctor, he come back with me, walking beside Brown Bess with his hand on her bridle, he not being by any means loth to come out such a night, because, forsooth, it was me that fetched him. Oh yes! I might have married him if I had wanted to, and more than one better man than him; but that's neither here nor there.
When we got in, we found Lilian kneeling by the sofa rubbing the young man's hands as I had told her to, and his eyes were open, and there was a bit of colour in his cheek, and he was looking at her like as any one but a fool might have known he would look; and the Doctor, he saw it too, and looked at me and grinned; and if I had been God, that grin should have been his last. No, I don't mean to be irreverent, but it's true, all the same.
Well, the arm was set, and when he was a bit easier we settled round the fire, and he told us that his name was Edgar Linley, and he was an artist, and had been painting the angry sunset that had come before that night's storm, and got caught in the dusk and so lost his way, as many do on our Downs at home, some not so lucky as him to see a light and get to it.
This Mr. Linley had a way with him like no other man I ever see; not only a way to please women with, but men too. I never saw my uncle so taken up with anybody; and the long and the short of it was that he stayed there a month, and we nursed him; and at the end of the month I knew no more than I had known that evening when I had seen him looking at Lilian; but he and Lilian, they had learned a deal in that time.
And one evening I was at my bedroom window, and I see them coming up the path in the red light of the evening, walking very close together, and I went down very quick to the parlour, where uncle was just come in to his tea and taking his big boots off, and I sat down there, for I wanted to hear how they'd say it, though I knew well enough what they had got to say. And they came in and he says, very frank and cheery—
'Mr. Verinder,' he says, 'Lilian and I have made up our minds to take each other, with your consent, for better, for worse.'
And uncle was as pleased as Punch; and as for me, I didn't believe in God then, or I should have prayed Him to strike them both down dead as they stood.
Why did I hate them so? And you call yourself a man and a parson, and one that knows the heart of man! Why did I hate them? Because I loved him as no woman will ever love you, sir, if you'll pardon me being so bold, if you live to be a thousand.
He would have understood all about everything with half what I have been telling you. As it is, I sometimes think that he understood, for he was very gentle with me and kind, not making too much of Lilian when I was by, yet never with a look or a word that wasn't the look and the word of her good, true lover; and she was very happy, for she loved him as much as that blue-and-white teacup kind of woman can love; and that's more than I thought for at the time.
He was an orphan, and well off, and there was nothing to wait for, so the wedding was fixed for early in the new year; and I sewed at her new clothes with a marrow of lead in every bone of my fingers.
A truly understanding person might get some meaning out of my words when I say that I loved her in my heart all the time that I was hating her; and the devil himself must have sent out my soul and made use of the rest of me on that night I shall tell you about presently.
It was in the sharp, short, frosty days that brought in Christmas that uncle came home one day from Lewes, looking thunder black, with an eye like fire and a mouth like stone. And he walked straight into the kitchen where we three were making toast for tea, for Edgar was one of us by this time, and lent a hand at all such little things as young folks can be merry over together. And uncle says—
'Leave my house, young man; it's an honest house and a clean, and no fit place for a sinful swine. Get out,' he says, '"For without are dogs—"'
With that he went on with a long text of Revelation that I won't repeat to you, sir, for I know your ears are nice, and it's out of one of the plainest-spoken parts of the Bible. Edgar turned as white as a sheet.
'I swear to God,' he said, 'I wasn't to blame. I know what you have heard, but if I can't whiten myself without blacking a woman
I'll live and die as black as hell,' he says. 'But I don't need whitening with those that love me,' he says, looking at Lilian and then at me—oh! yes, he looked at me then.
I said, 'No, indeed,' and so did Lilian; but she began to cry, and before we had time to think what it was all about, he had taken his hat and kissed Lilian and was gone. But he turned back at the door again.
'I'll write to you,' he says to Lilian, 'but I don't cross this door again till those words are unsaid,' and so he was gone.
Him being gone, uncle told us what he had heard in Lewes, and what all folks there believed to be the truth; how young Edgar had carried on, as men may not, with a young married woman, the grocer's wife where he lodged, the end of it being that she drowned herself in a pond near by, leaving as her last word that he was the cause of it; and so he may have been, but not the way my uncle and the folk at Lewes thought, I'll stake my soul. God makes His troubles in dozens; He don't make a new patterned one for every back. I wasn't the only woman who ever loved Edgar Linley without encouragement and without hope, and risked her soul because she was mad with loving him.
But when uncle had told us all this with a black look on his face I never had seen before, he said—
'Girls, I have always been a clean liver, and I have brought you up in the fear of the Lord. I don't want to judge any man, and Lilian is of age and her own mistress. It's not for me to say what she shall or shan't do, but if she marries that scoundrel, she has my curse here and hereafter, and not one penny of my money, if it was to save her from the workhouse.'
After that we were sad enough at Whitecroft. But in two days come a letter from Edgar to Lilian; and when she had read it, she looked at me and said, 'O Isabel, whatever shall I do? I never can marry without dear uncle's consent,' and I turned and went from her without a word, because I couldn't bear to see her arguing and considering what to do, when the best thing in the world was to her hand for the taking.
All the next week she cried all day and most of the night. Then uncle went to London, my belief being it was to alter his will, so that if Lilian married Edgar, she should feel it in her pocket, anyhow, and he was to stay all night, and the farm servants slept out of the house, and we were without a maid at the time. So Lilian and me were left alone at Whitecroft.
Lilian and I didn't sleep in one room now. I had made some excuse to sleep on the other side of the house, because I couldn't bear to wake up of mornings and see her lying there so pretty, looking like a lily in her white nightgown and her fair hair all tumbled about her face. It was more than any woman could have borne to see her lying there, and think that early in the new year it was him that would see her lying like that of a morning.
And that night the place seemed very quiet and empty, as if there was more room in it for being unhappy in. When Lilian had taken her candle and gone up to bed, I walked through all the rooms below, as uncle's habit was, to see that all was fast for the night. It was as I set the bolt on the door of the little lean-to shed, where the faggots were kept, that the devil entered into me all in a breath; and I thought of Lilian upstairs in her white bed, and of how the day must come, when he would see how pretty she looked and white, and I said to myself, 'No, it never shall, not if I burn for it too.'
I hope you are understanding me. I sometimes think there is something done to folks when they are learning to be parsons as takes out of them a part of a natural person's understandingness; and I would rather have told the doctor, but then he couldn't have told me whether these are the kind of things Christ died to make His Father forgive, and I suppose you can.
What I did was this. I clean forgot all about uncle and how fond I was of Whitecroft, and how much I had always loved Lilian (and I loved her then, though I know you can't understand me when I say so), and I took all them faggots, dragging them across the sanded floor of the kitchen, and I put them in the parlour in the little wing to the left, and just under Lilian's bedroom, and I laid them under the wooden corner cupboard where the best china is, and then I poured oil and brandy all over, and set it alight.
Then I put on my hat and jacket, buttoning it all the way down, as quiet as if I was going down to the village for a pound of candles. And I made sure all was burning free, and out of the front door I went and up on to the Downs, and there I set me down under the wall where I could see Whitecroft.
And I watched to see the old place burn down; and at first there was no light to be seen.
But presently I see the parlour windows get redder and redder, and soon I knew the curtains had caught, and then there was a light in Lilian's bedroom. I see the bars of the window as you do in the ruined mill when the sun is setting behind it; and the light got more and more, till I see the stone above the front door that tells how it was builded by one of our name this long time since; and at that, as sudden as he had come, the devil left me, and I knew all in a minute that I was crouched against a wall, very cold, and my hands hooked into my hair over my ears, and my knees drawn up under my chin; and there was the old house on fire, the dear old house, with Lilian inside it in her little white bed, being burnt to death, and me her murderer! And with that I got up, and I remember I was stiff, as if I had been screwing myself all close together to keep from knowing what it was I had been a-doing. I ran down the meadow to our house faster than I ever ran in my life, in at the door, and up the stairs, all blue and black, and hidden up with coppery-coloured smoke.
I don't know how I got up them stairs, for they were beginning to burn too. I opened her door—all red and glowing it was inside! like an oven when you open it to rake out the ashes on a baking-day. And I tried to get in, because all I wanted then was to save her—to get her out safe and sound, if I had to roast myself for it, because we had been brought up together from little things, and I loved her like a sister. And while I was trying to get my jacket off and round my head, something gave way right under my feet, and I seemed to fall straight into hell!
I was badly burnt, and what handsomeness there was about my face was pretty well scorched out of it by that night's work; and I didn't know anything for a bit.
When I come to myself, they had got me into bed bound up with cotton-wool and oil and things. And the first thing I did was to sit up and try to tear them off.
'You'll kill yourself,' says the nurse.
'Thank you,' says I, 'that's the best thing I can do, now Lilian is dead.'
And with that the nurse gives a laugh. 'Oh, that's what's on your mind, is it?' says she. 'Doctor said there was something. Miss Lilian had run away that night to her young man. Lucky for her! She's luckier than you, poor thing! And they're married and living in lodgings at Brighton, and she's been over to see you every day.'
That day she came again. I lay still and let her thank me for having tried to save her; for the farm men had seen the fire, and had come up in time to see me go up the staircase to her room, and they had pulled me out. She believes to this day the fire was an accident, and that I would have sacrificed my life for her. And so I would; she's right there.
I wasn't going to make her unhappy by telling her the real truth, because she was as fond of me as I was of her; and she has been as happy as the day is long, all her life long, and so she deserves.
And as for me, I stayed on with uncle at the farm until he died of that bronchitis I told you of, and the little wing was built up again, and the lichen has grown on it, so that now you could hardly tell it is only forty years old; and he left me all his money, and when he died, and Whitecroft went to a distant relation, I came here to do what bits of good I could.
And I have never told the truth about this to any one but you. I couldn't have told it to any one as cared, but I know you don't. So that makes it easy.
HER MARRIAGE LINES
I HAD never been out to service before, and I thought it a grand thing when I got a place at Charleston Farm. Old Mr. Alderton was close-fisted enough, and while he had the management of the farm it was a place no girl need have wished to come to; but now Mr. Alderton had given up farming this year or two, and young Master Harry, he had the management of everything. Mr. Alderton, he stuck in one room with his books, which he was always fond of above a bit, and must needs be waited on hand and foot, only driving over to Lewes every now and then.
Six pounds a year I was to have, and a little something extra at Christmas, according as I behaved myself. It was Master Harry who engaged me. He rode up to our cottage one fine May morning, looking as grand on his big grey horse, and says he, through the stamping clatter of his horse's hoofs on the paved causeway—
'Are you Deresby's Poll?' says he.
And I says, 'Yes; what might you be wanting?'
'We want a good maid up at the farm,' says he, patting his horse's neck—'Steady, old boy—and they tell me you're a good girl that wants a good place, and ours is a good place that wants a good girl. So if our wages suit you, when can you come?'
And I said, 'Tuesday, if that would be convenient.'
And he took off his hat to me as if I was a queen, though I was floury up to the elbows, being baking-day, and rode off down the lane between the green trees, and no king could have looked handsomer.
Charleston is a lonesome kind of house. It's bare and white, with the farm buildings all round it, except on one side where the big pond is; and lying as it does, in the cup of the hill, it seems to shut loneliness in and good company out.
I was to be under Mrs. Blake, who had been housekeeper there since the old mistress died. No one knew where she came from, or what had become of Mr. Blake, if ever there had been one. For my part I never thought she was a widow, and always expected some day to see Mr. Blake walk in and ask for his wife. But as a widow she came, and as a widow she passed.
She had just that kind of handsome, black, scowling looks that always seem to need a lot of black jet and crape to set them off—the kind of complexion that seems to be playing up for the widow's weeds from the very cradle. I have heard it said she was handsome, and so she may have been; and she took a deal of care of her face, always wearing a veil when there was a wind, and her hands to have gloves, if you please, for every bit of dirty work.
But she was a capable woman, and she soon put me in the way of my work; and me and Betty, who was a little girl of fourteen from Alfreston, had most of the housework to do, for Mrs. Blake would let none of us do a hand's-turn for the old master. It was she must do everything, and as he got more and more took up with his books there come to be more and more waiting on him in his own room; and after a bit Mrs. Blake used even to sit and write for him by the hour together.
I have heard tell old Mr. Alderton wasn't brought up to be a farmer, but was a scholar when he was young, and had to go into farming when he married Hakes's daughter as brought the farm with her; and now he had gone back to his books he was more than ever took up with the idea of finding something out—making something new that no one had ever made before—his invention, he called it, but I never understood what it was all about—and indeed Mrs. Blake took very good care I shouldn't.
She wanted no one to know anything about the master except herself—at least that was my opinion—and if that was her wish she certainly got it.
It was hard work, but I'm not one to grudge a hand's-turn here or a hand's-turn there, and I was happy enough; and when the men came in for their meals I always had everything smoking hot, and just as I should wish to sit down to it myself: And when the men come in, Master Harry always come in with them, and he'd say, 'Bacon and greens again, Polly, and done to a turn, I'll wager. You're the girl for my money!' and sit down laughing to a smoking plateful.
And so I was quite happy, and with my first six months' money I got father a new pipe and a comforter agin the winter, and as pretty a shepherd's plaid shawl as ever you see for mother, and a knitted waistcoat for my brother Jim, as had wanted one this two year, and had enough left to buy myself a bonnet and gown that I didn't feel ashamed to sit in church in under Master Harry's own blue eye. Mrs. Blake looked very sour when she saw my new things.
'You think to catch a young man with those,' says she. 'You gells is all alike. But it isn't fine feathers as catches a husband, as they say. Don't you believe it.'
And I said, 'No; a husband as was caught so easy might be as easy got rid of, which was convenient sometimes.'
And we come nigh to having words about it.
That was the day before old master went off to London unexpected. When Mrs. Blake heard he was going, she said she would take the opportunity of his being away to make so bold as to ask him for a day's holiday to go and visit her friends in Ashford. So she and master went in the trap to the station together, and off by the same train; and curious enough, it was by the same train in the evening they come back, and I thought to myself, 'That's like your artfulness, Mrs. Blake, getting a lift both ways.'
And I wondered to myself whether her friends in Ashford, supposing she had any, was as glad to see her as we was glad to get rid of her.
That's a day I shall always remember, for other things than her and master going away.
That was the day Betty and I got done early, and she wanted to run home to her mother to see about her clean changes for Sunday, which hadn't come according to expectations.
So I said, 'Off you go, child, and mind you're back by tea,' and I sat down in the clean kitchen to do up my old Sunday bonnet and make it fit for everyday.
And as I was sitting there, with the bits of ribbons and things in my lap, unpicking the lining of the bonnet, I heard the back door open, and thinking it was one of the men bringing in wood, maybe, I didn't turn my head, and next minute there was Master Harry had got his hand under my chin and holding my head back, and was kissing me as if he never meant to stop.
'Lor bless you, Master Harry,' says I, as soon as I could push him away, dropping all the ribbons and scissors and things in my flurry, 'how could you fashion to behave so? And me alone in the house! I thought you had better sense.'
'Don't be cross, Polly,' says he, smiling at me till I could have forgiven him much more than that, and going down on his knees to pick up my bits of rubbish. 'You know well enough who my choice is. I haven't lived in the house with you six months without finding out there's only one girl as I should like to keep my house to the end of the chapter.'
He had that took me by surprise that I give you my word that for a minute or two I couldn't say anything, but sat looking like a fool and taking the ribbons and things from his hands as he picked them up.
When I come to my senses I said, 'I don't know what maggot has bit you, sir, to think of such nonsense. What would the master say, and Mrs. Blake and all?'
Well, he got up off his knees and walked up and down the kitchen twice in a pretty fume, and he said a bad word about what Mrs. Blake might say that I'm not going to write down here.
'And as for my father,' says he, 'I know he's ideas above what's fitting for farmer folk, but I know best what's the right choice for me, and if you won't mind me not telling him, and will wait for me patient, and will give me a kind word and a kiss on a Sunday, so to say, you and me will be happy together, and you shall be mistress of the farm when the poor old dad's time comes to go. Not that I wish his time nearer by an hour, for all I love you so dear, Polly.'
And I hope I did what was right, though it was with a sore heart, for I said—
'I couldn't stay on in your folks' house to have secret understandings with you, Master Harry. That ain't to be thought of. But I do say this—'tain't likely that I shall marry any other chap; and if, when you come to be master of Charleston, you are in the same mind, why you can speak your mind to me again, and I'll listen to you then with a freer heart, maybe, than I can to-day.'
And with that I bundled all my odds and ends into the dresser drawer, and took the kettle off, which was a-boiling over.
'And now,' I says, 'no more of this talk, if you and me is to keep friends.'
'Shake hands on it,' says he; 'you're a good girl, Polly, and I see more than ever what a lucky man I shall be the day I go to church with you; and I'll not say another word till I can say it afore all the world, with you to answer "Yes" for all the world to hear.'
So that was settled, and, of course, from that time I kept myself more than ever to myself, not even passing the time of day with a young man if I could help it, because I wanted to keep all my thoughts and all my words for Master Harry, if he should ever want me again.
Well, as I said, old Master and Mrs. Blake come back together from the station, and from that day forward Mrs. Blake was unbearabler than ever. And one day when Mr. Sigglesfield, the lawyer from Lewes, was in the parlour, she a-talking to him after he'd been up to see master (about his will, no doubt), she opened the parlour door sharp and sudden just as I was bringing the tea for her to have it with him like a lady—she opened the door sudden, as I say, and boxed my ears as I stood, and I should have dropped the tea-tray but for me being brought up a careful girl, and taught always to hold on to the tea-tray with all my fingers.
I'm proud to say I didn't say a word, but I put down that tea-tray and walked into the kitchen with my ear as hot as fire and my temper to match, which was no wonder and no disgrace. Then she come into the kitchen.
'You go this day month, Miss,' she says, 'a-listening at doors when your betters is a-talking. I'll teach you!' says she, and back she goes into the parlour.
But I took no notice of what she said, for Master Harry, he hired me, and I would take no notice from any one but him.
Mr. Sigglesfield was a-coming pretty often just then, and Harry he come to me one day, and he says—
'It's all right, Polly, and I must tell you because you're the same as myself, though I don't like to talk as if we was waiting for dead men's shoes. Long may he wear them! But father's told me he has left everything to me, right and safe, though I am the second son. My brother John never did get on with father, but when all's mine, we'll see that John don't starve.'
And that day week old master was a corpse.
He was found dead in his bed, and the doctor said it was old age and a sudden breaking up.
Mrs. Blake she cried and took on fearful, more than was right or natural, and when the will was to be read in the parlour after the funeral she come into the kitchen where I was sitting crying too—not that I was fond of old master, but the kind of crying there is at funerals is catching, I think, and besides, I was sorry for Master Harry, who was a good son, and quite broken down.
'You can come and hear the will read,' she says, 'for all your impudence, you hussy!'
And I don't know why I went in after her impudence, but I did. Mr. Sigglesfield was there, and some of the relations, who had come a long way to hear if they was to pull anything out of the fire; and Master Harry was there, looking very pale through all his sun-brownness. And says he, 'I suppose the will's got to be read, but my father, he told me what I was to expect. It's all to me, and one hundred to Mrs. Blake, and five pounds apiece to the servants.'
And Mr. Sigglesfield looks at him out of his ferret eyes, and says very quietly, 'I think the will had better be read, Mr. Alderton.'
'So I think,' says Mrs. Blake, tossing her head and rubbing her red eyes with her handkerchief at the same minute almost.
And read it was, and all us people sat still as mice, listening to the wonderful tale of it. For wonderful it was, though folded up very curious and careful in a pack of lawyer's talk. And when it was finished, Master Harry stood up on his feet, and he said—
'I don't understand your cursed lawyer's lingo. Does this mean that my father has left me fifty pounds, and has left the rest, stock, lock and barrel, to his wife Martha. Who in hell,' he says, 'is his wife Martha?'
And at that Mrs. Blake stood up and fetched a curtsy to the company.
'That's me,' she said, 'by your leave; married two months come Tuesday, and here's my lines.'
And there they were. There was no getting over them. Married at St. Mary Woolnoth, in London, by special licence.
'O you wicked old Jezebel!' says Master Harry, shaking his fist at her; 'here's a fine end for a young man's hopes! Is it true?' says he, turning to the lawyer. And Mr. Sigglesfield shakes his head and says—
'I am afraid so, my poor fellow.'
'Jezebel, indeed!' cries Mrs. Blake. 'Out of my house, my young gamecock! Get out and crow on your own dunghill, if you can find one.'
And Harry turned and went without a word. Then I slipped out too, and I snatched my old bonnet and shawl off their peg in the kitchen, and I ran down the lane after him.
'Harry,' says I, and he turned and looked at me like something that's hunted looks when it gets in a corner and turns on you. Then I got up with him and caught hold of his arm with both my hands. 'Never mind the dirty money,' says I. 'What's a bit of money,' I says—'what is it, my dear, compared with true love? I'll work my fingers to the bone for you,' says I, 'and we're better off than her when all's said and done.'
'So we are, my girl,' says he; and the savage look went out of his face, and he kissed me for the second time.
Then we went home, arm-under-arm, to my mother's, and we told father and mother all about it; and mother made Harry up a bit of a bed on the settle, and he stayed with us till he could pull himself together and see what was best to be done.
Of course, our first thought was, 'Was she really married?' And it was settled betwixt us that Harry should go up to London to the church named in her marriage lines and see if it was a real marriage or a make-up, like what you read of in the weekly papers. And Harry went up, I settling to go the same day to fetch my clothes from Charleston.
So as soon as I had seen him off by the train, I walked up to Charleston, and father with me, to fetch my things.
Mrs. Blake—for Mrs. Alderton I can't and won't call her—was out, and I was able to get my bits of things together comfortable without her fussing and interfering. But there was a pair of scissors of mine I couldn't find, and I looked for them high and low till I remembered that I had lent them to Mrs. Blake the week before. So I went to her room to look for them, thinking no harm; and there, looking in her corner cupboard for my scissors, as I had a right to do, I found something else that I hadn't been looking for; and, right or wrong, I put that in my pocket and said nothing to father, and so we went home and sat down to wait for Harry.
He came in by the last train, looking tired and gloomy.
'They were married right enough,' he said. 'I've seen the register, and I've seen the clerk, and he remembers them being married.'
'Then you'd better have a bit of supper, my boy,' says mother, and takes it smoking hot out of the oven.
The next day when I had cleared away breakfast, I stood looking into the street. It was a cold day, and a day when nobody would be out of doors that could anyways be in. I shouldn't have had my nose out of the door myself, except that I wanted to turn my back on other folks now, and think of what I had found at Charleston, for I hadn't even told Harry of it yet.
And as I sat there, who should come along but the postman, as is my second cousin by the mother's side, and, 'Well, Polly,' says he, 'times do change. They tell me young Alderton is biding with your folks now.'
'They tell you true for once,' says I.
'Then 'tain't worth my while to be trapesing that mile and a quarter to leave a letter at the farm, I take it, especially as it's a registered letter, and him not there to sign for it.'
So I calls Harry out, who was smoking a pipe in the chimney-corner, as humped and gloomy as a fowl on a wet day, and he was as surprised as me at getting a letter with a London postmark, and registered too; and he was that surprised that he kept turning it over and over, and wondering who it could have come from, till we thought it would be the best way to open and see, and we did.
'Well, I'm blowed!' says Harry; and then he read it out to me. It was—
'MY DEAR BROTHER,—I have seen in the papers the melancholy account of our poor father's decease, and the disastrous circumstances of his second marriage; and the more I have thought of it, the more it seems to me that there was a screw loose somewhere. I had the misfortune, as you know, to offend him by my choice of a profession; but you will be glad to hear that I have risen from P.C. to detective-sergeant, and am doing well.
'I have made a few inquiries about the movements of our lamented father and Mrs. Blake on the day when they were united, and if the same will be agreeable to you, I will come down Sunday morning and talk matters over with you.—I remain, my dear brother, your affectionate brother,
'P.S. I shall register the letter to make sure. Telegraph if you would like me to come.'
Well, we telegraphed, though mother doesn't hold with such things, looking on it as flying in the face of Providence and what's natural. But we got it all in, with the address, for sixpence, and Harry was as pleased as Punch to think of seeing his brother again. But mother said she doubted if it would bring a blessing. And on the Sunday morning John came.
He was a very agreeable, gentlemanly man, with such manners as you don't see in Littlington—no, nor in Polegate neither,—and very changed from the boy with the red cheeks as used to come past our house on his way to school when he was very little.
Harry met him at the station and brought him home, and when he come in he kissed me like a brother, and mother too, and he said—