Chapter 31




A COUNCIL OF FRIENDS.


My reader will easily believe that I returned home that Sunday evening somewhat jaded, nor will he be surprised if I say that next morning I felt disinclined to leave my bed. I was able, however, to rise and go, as I have said, to Old Rogers's cottage.

But when I came home, I could no longer conceal from myself that I was in danger of a return of my last attack. I had been sitting for hours in wet clothes, with my boots full of water, and now I had to suffer for it. But as I was not to blame in the matter, and had no choice offered me whether I should be wet or dry while I sat by the dying woman, I felt no depression at the prospect of the coming illness. Indeed, I was too much depressed from other causes, from mental strife and hopelessness, to care much whether I was well or ill. I could have welcomed death in the mood in which I sometimes felt myself during the next few days, when I was unable to leave my bed, and knew that Captain Everard was at the Hall, and knew nothing besides. For no voice reached me from that quarter any more than if Oldcastle Hall had been a region beyond the grave. Miss Oldcastle seemed to have vanished from my ken as much as Catherine Weir and Mrs Tomkins--yes, more--for there was only death between these and me; whereas, there was something far worse--I could not always tell what--that rose ever between Miss Oldcastle and myself, and paralysed any effort I might fancy myself on the point of making for her rescue.

One pleasant thing happened. On the Thursday, I think it was, I felt better. My sister came into my room and said that Miss Crowther had called, and wanted to see me.

"Which Miss Crowther is it?" I asked.

"The little lady that looks like a bird, and chirps when she talks."

Of course I was no longer in any doubt as to which of them it was.

"You told her I had a bad cold, did you not?"

"Oh, yes. But she says if it is only a cold, it will do you no harm to see her."

"But you told her I was in bed, didn't you?"

"Of course. But it makes no difference. She says she's used to seeing sick folk in bed; and if you don't mind seeing her, she doesn't mind seeing you."

"Well, I suppose I must see her," I said.

So my sister made me a little tidier, and introduced Miss Crowther.

"O dear Mr Walton, I am SO sorry! But you're not very ill, are you?"

"I hope not, Miss Jemima. Indeed, I begin to think this morning that I am going to get off easier than I expected."

"I am glad of that. Now listen to me. I won't keep you, and it is a matter of some importance. I hear that one of your people is dead, a young woman of the name of Weir, who has left a little boy behind her. Now, I have been wanting for a long time to adopt a child----"

"But," I interrupted her, "What would Miss Hester say?"

"My sister is not so very dreadful as perhaps you think her, Mr Walton; and besides, when I do want my own way very particularly, which is not often, for there are not so many things that it's worth while insisting upon--but when I DO want my own way, I always have it. I then stand upon my right of--what do you call it?-- primo--primogeniture--that's it! Well, I think I know something of this child's father. I am sorry to say I don't know much good of him, and that's the worse for the boy. Still----"

"The boy is an uncommonly sweet and lovable child, whoever was his father," I interposed.

"I am very glad to hear it. I am the more determined to adopt him. What friends has he?"

"He has a grandfather, and an uncle and aunt, and will have a godfather--that's me--in a few days, I hope."

"I am very glad to hear it. There will be no opposition on the part of the relatives, I presume?"

"I am not so sure of that. I fear I shall object for one, Miss Jemima."

"You? I didn't expect that of you, Mr Walton, I must say."

And there was a tremor in the old lady's voice more of disappointment and hurt than of anger.

"I will think it over, though, and talk about it to his grandfather, and we shall find out what's best, I do hope. You must not think I should not like you to have him."

"Thank you, Mr Walton. Then I won't stay longer now. But I warn you I will call again very soon, if you don't come to see me. Good morning."

And the dear old lady shook hands with me and left me rather hurriedly, turning at the door, however, to add--

"Mind, I've set my heart upon having the boy, Mr Walton. I've seen him often."

What could have made Miss Crowther take such a fancy to the boy? I could not help associating it with what I had heard of her youthful disappointment, but never having had my conjectures confirmed, I will say no more about them. Of course I talked the matter over with Thomas Weir; but, as I had suspected, I found that he was now as unwilling to part with the boy as he had formerly disliked the sight of him. Nor did I press the matter at all, having a belief that the circumstances of one's natal position are not to be rudely handled or thoughtlessly altered, besides that I thought Thomas and his daughter ought to have all the comfort and good that were to be got from the presence of the boy whose advent had occasioned them so much trouble and sorrow, yea, and sin too. But I did not give a positive and final refusal to Miss Crowther. I only said "for the present;" for I did not feel at liberty to go further. I thought that such changes might take place as would render the trial of such a new relationship desirable; as, indeed, it turned out in the end, though I cannot tell the story now, but must keep it for a possible future.

I have, I think, entirely as yet, followed, in these memoirs, the plan of relating either those things only at which I was present, or, if other things, only in the same mode in which I heard them. I will now depart from this plan--for once. Years passed before some of the following facts were reported to me, but it is only here that they could be interesting to my readers.

At the very time Miss Crowther was with me, as nearly as I can guess, Old Rogers turned into Thomas Weir's workshop. The usual, on the present occasion somewhat melancholy, greetings having passed between them, Old Rogers said--

"Don't you think, Mr Weir, there's summat the matter wi' parson?"

"Overworked," returned Weir. "He's lost two, ye see, and had to see them both safe over, as I may say, within the same day. He's got a bad cold, I'm sorry to hear, besides. Have ye heard of him to-day?"

"Yes, yes; he's badly, and in bed. But that's not what I mean. There's summat on his mind," said Old Rogers.

"Well, I don't think it's for you or me to meddle with parson's mind," returned Weir.

"I'm not so sure o' that," persisted Rogers. "But if I had thought, Mr Weir, as how you would be ready to take me up short for mentionin' of the thing, I wouldn't ha' opened my mouth to you about parson--leastways, in that way, I mean."

"But what way DO you mean, Old Rogers?"

"Why, about his in'ards, you know."

"I'm no nearer your meanin' yet."

"Well, Mr Weir, you and me's two old fellows, now--leastways I'm a deal older than you. But that doesn't signify to what I want to say."

And here Old Rogers stuck fast--according to Weir's story.

"It don't seem easy to say no how, Old Rogers," said Weir.

"Well, it ain't. So I must just let it go by the run, and hope the parson, who'll never know, would forgive me if he did."

"Well, then, what is it?"

"It's my opinion that that parson o' ours--you see, we knows about it, Mr Weir, though we're not gentlefolks--leastways, I'm none."

"Now, what DO you mean, Old Rogers?"

"Well, I means this--as how parson's in love. There, that's paid out."

"Suppose he was, I don't see yet what business that is of yours or mine either."

"Well, I do. I'd go to Davie Jones for that man."

A heathenish expression, perhaps; but Weir assured me, with much amusement in his tone, that those were the very words Old Rogers used. Leaving the expression aside, will the reader think for a moment on the old man's reasoning? My condition WAS his business; for he was ready to die for me! Ah! love does indeed make us all each other's keeper, just as we were intended to be.

"But what CAN we do?" returned Weir.

Perhaps he was the less inclined to listen to the old man, that he was busy with a coffin for his daughter, who was lying dead down the street. And so my poor affairs were talked of over the coffin-planks. Well, well, it was no bad omen.

"I tell you what, Mr Weir, this here's a serious business. And it seems to me it's not shipshape o' you to go on with that plane o' yours, when we're talkin' about parson."

"Well, Old Rogers, I meant no offence. Here goes. NOW, what have you to say? Though if it's offence to parson you're speakin' of, I know, if I were parson, who I'd think was takin' the greatest liberty, me wi' my plane, or you wi' your fancies."

"Belay there, and hearken."

So Old Rogers went into as many particulars as he thought fit, to prove that his suspicion as to the state of my mind was correct; which particulars I do not care to lay in a collected form before my reader, he being in no need of such a summing up to give his verdict, seeing the parson has already pleaded guilty. When he had finished,

"Supposing all you say, Old Rogers," remarked Thomas, "I don't yet see what WE'VE got to do with it. Parson ought to know best what he's about."

"But my daughter tells me," said Rogers, "that Miss Oldcastle has no mind to marry Captain Everard. And she thinks if parson would only speak out he might have a chance."

Weir made no reply, and was silent so long, with his head bent, that Rogers grew impatient.

"Well, man, ha' you nothing to say now--not for your best friend--on earth, I mean--and that's parson? It may seem a small matter to you, but it's no small matter to parson."

"Small to me!" said Weir, and taking up his tool, a constant recourse with him when agitated, he began to plane furiously.

Old Rogers now saw that there was more in it than he had thought, and held his peace and waited. After a minute or two of fierce activity, Thomas lifted up a face more white than the deal board he was planing, and said,

"You should have come to the point a little sooner, Old Rogers."

He then laid down his plane, and went out of the workshop, leaving Rogers standing there in bewilderment. But he was not gone many minutes. He returned with a letter in his hand.

"There," he said, giving it to Rogers.

"I can't read hand o' write," returned Rogers. "I ha' enough ado with straight-foret print But I'll take it to parson."

"On no account," returned Thomas, emphatically "That's not what I gave it you for. Neither you nor parson has any right to read that letter; and I don't want either of you to read it. Can Jane read writing?"

"I don't know as she can, for, you see, what makes lasses take to writin' is when their young man's over the seas, leastways not in the mill over the brook."

"I'll be back in a minute," said Thomas, and taking the letter from Rogers's hand, he left the shop again.

He returned once more with the letter sealed up in an envelope, addressed to Miss Oldcastle.

"Now, you tell your Jane to give that to Miss Oldcastle from me--mind, from ME; and she must give it into her own hands, and let no one else see it. And I must have it again. Mind you tell her all that, Old Rogers."

"I will. It's for Miss Oldcastle, and no one else to know on't. And you're to have it again all safe when done with."

"Yes. Can you trust Jane not to go talking about it?"

"I think I can. I ought to, anyhow. But she can't know anythink in the letter now, Mr Weir."

I know that; but Marshmallows is a talkin' place. And poor Kate ain't right out o' hearin' yet.--You'll come and see her buried to-morrow, won't ye, Old Rogers?"

"I will, Thomas. You've had a troubled life, but thank God the sun came out a bit before she died."

"That's true, Rogers. It's all right, I do think, though I grumbled long and sore. But Jane mustn't speak of that letter."

"No. That she shan't."

"I'll tell you some day what's in it. But I can't bear to talk about it yet"

And so they parted.

I was too unwell still either to be able to bury my dead out of my sight or to comfort my living the next Sunday. I got help from Addicehead, however, and the dead bodies were laid aside in the ancient wardrobe of the tomb. They were both buried by my vestry-door, Catherine where I had found young Tom lying, namely, in the grave of her mother, and old Mrs Tomkins on the other side of the path.

On Sunday, Rogers gave his daughter the letter, and she carried it to the Hall. It was not till she had to wait on her mistress before leaving her for the night that she found an opportunity of giving it into her own hands.

Then when her bell rang, Jane went up to her room, and found her so pale and haggard that she was frightened. She had thrown herself back on the couch, with her hands lying by her sides, as if she cared for nothing in this world or out of it. But when Jane entered, she started and sat up, and tried to look like herself. Her face, however, was so pitiful, that honest-hearted Jane could not help crying, upon which the responsive sisterhood overcame the proud lady, and she cried too. Jane had all but forgotten the letter, of the import of which she had no idea, for her father had taken care to rouse no suspicions in her mind. But when she saw her cry, the longing to give her something, which comes to us all when we witness trouble--for giving seems to mean everything-brought to her mind the letter she had undertaken to deliver to her. Now she had no notion, as I have said, that the letter had anything to do with her present perplexity, but she hoped it might divert her thoughts for a moment, which is all that love at a distance can look for sometimes.

"Here is a letter," said Jane, "that Mr Weir the carpenter gave to my father to give to me to bring to you, miss."

"What is it about, Jane?" she asked listlessly.

Then a sudden flash broke from her eyes, and she held out her hand eagerly to take it. She opened it and read it with changing colour, but when she had finished it, her cheeks were crimson, and her eyes glowing like fire.

"The wretch," she said, and threw the letter from her into the middle of the floor.

Jane, who remembered the injunctions of her father as to the safety and return of the letter, stooped to pick it up: but had hardly raised herself when the door opened, and in came Mrs Oldcastle. The moment she saw her mother, Ethelwyn rose, and advancing to meet her, said,

"Mother, I will NOT marry that man. You may do what you please with me, but I WILL NOT."

"Heigho!" exclaimed Mrs Oldcastle with spread nostrils, and turning suddenly upon Jane, snatched the letter out of her hand.

She opened and read it, her face getting more still and stony as she read. Miss Oldcastle stood and looked at her mother with cheeks now pale but with still flashing eyes. The moment her mother had finished the letter, she walked swiftly to the fire, tearing the letter as she went, and thrust it between the bars, pushing it in fiercely with the poker, and muttering--

"A vile forgery of those low Chartist wretches! As if he would ever have looked at one of THEIR women! A low conspiracy to get money from a gentleman in his honourable position!"

And for the first time since she went to the Hall, Jane said, there was colour in that dead white face.

She turned once more, fiercer than ever, upon Jane, and in a tone of rage under powerful repression, began:--

"You leave the house--THIS INSTANT."

The last two words, notwithstanding her self-command, rose to a scream. And she came from the fire towards Jane, who stood trembling near the door, with such an expression on her countenance that absolute fear drove her from the room before she knew what she was about. The locking of the door behind her let her know that she had abandoned her young mistress to the madness of her mother's evil temper and disposition. But it was too late. She lingered by the door and listened, but beyond an occasional hoarse tone of suppressed energy, she heard nothing. At length the lock--as suddenly turned, and she was surprised by Mrs Oldcastle, if not in a listening attitude, at least where she had no right to be after the dismissal she had received.

Opposite Miss Oldcastle's bedroom was another, seldom used, the door of which was now standing open. Instead of speaking to Jane, Mrs Oldcastle gave her a violent push, which drove her into this room. Thereupon she shut the door and locked it. Jane spent the whole of the night in that room, in no small degree of trepidation as to what might happen next. But she heard no noise all the rest of the night, part of which, however, was spent in sound sleep, for Jane's conscience was in no ways disturbed as to any part she had played in the current events.

It was not till the morning that she examined the door, to see if she could not manage to get out and escape from the house, for she shared with the rest of the family an indescribable fear of Mrs Oldcastle and her confidante, the White Wolf. But she found it was of no use: the lock was at least as strong as the door. Being a sensible girl and self-possessed, as her parents' child ought to be, she made no noise, but waited patiently for what might come. At length, hearing a step in the passage, she tapped gently at the door and called, "Who's there?" The cook's voice answered.

"Let me out," said Jane. "The door's locked." The cook tried, but found there was no key. Jane told her how she came there, and the cook promised to get her out as soon as she could. Meantime all she could do for her was to hand her a loaf of bread on a stick from the next window. It had been long dark before some one unlocked the door, and left her at liberty to go where she pleased, of which she did not fail to make immediate use.

Unable to find her young mistress, she packed her box, and, leaving it behind her, escaped to her father. As soon as she had told him the story, he came straight to me.




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