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THE BISHOP'S BASIN.
I went home very quietly, as I say, thinking about the strange elements that not only combine to make life, but must be combined in our idea of life, before we can form a true theory about it. Now-a-days, the vulgar notion of what is life-like in any annals is to be realised by sternly excluding everything but the commonplace; and the means, at least, are often attained, with this much of the end as well--that the appearance life bears to vulgar minds is represented with a wonderful degree of success. But I believe that this is, at least, quite as unreal a mode of representing life as the other extreme, wherein the unlikely, the romantic, and the uncommon predominate. I doubt whether there is a single history--if one could only get at the whole of it--in which there is not a considerable admixture of the unlikely become fact, including a few strange coincidences; of the uncommon, which, although striking at first, has grown common from familiarity with its presence as our own; with even, at least, some one more or less rosy touch of what we call the romantic. My own conviction is, that the poetry is far the deepest in us, and that the prose is only broken-down poetry; and likewise that to this our lives correspond. The poetic region is the true one, and just, THEREFORE, the incredible one to the lower order of mind; for although every mind is capable of the truth, or rather capable of becoming capable of the truth, there may lie ages between its capacity and the truth. As you will hear some people read poetry so that no mortal could tell it was poetry, so do some people read their own lives and those of others.
I fell into these reflections from comparing in my own mind my former experiences in visiting my parishioners with those of that day. True, I had never sat down to talk with one of them without finding that that man or that woman had actually a HISTORY, the most marvellous and important fact to a human being; nay, I had found something more or less remarkable in every one of their histories, so that I was more than barely interested in each of them. And as I made more acquaintance with them, (for I had not been in the position, or the disposition either, before I came to Marshmallows, necessary to the gathering of such experiences,) I came to the conclusion--not that I had got into an extraordinary parish of characters--but that every parish must be more or less extraordinary from the same cause. Why did I not use to see such people about me before? Surely I had undergone a change of some sort. Could it be, that the trouble I had been going through of late, had opened the eyes of my mind to the understanding, or rather the simple SEEING, of my fellow-men?
But the people among whom I had been to-day belonged rather to such as might be put into a romantic story. Certainly I could not see much that was romantic in the old lady; and yet, those eyes and that tight-skinned face--what might they not be capable of in the working out of a story? And then the place they lived in! Why, it would hardly come into my ideas of a nineteenth-century country parish at all. I was tempted to try to persuade myself that all that had happened, since I rose to look out of the window in the old house, had been but a dream. For how could that wooded dell have come there after all? It was much too large for a quarry. And that madcap girl--she never flung herself into the pond!--it could not be. And what could the book have been that the lady with the sea-blue eyes was reading? Was that a real book at all? No. Yes. Of course it was. But what was it? What had that to do with the matter? It might turn out to be a very commonplace book after all. No; for commonplace books are generally new, or at least in fine bindings. And here was a shabby little old book, such as, if it had been commonplace, would not have been likely to be the companion of a young lady at the bottom of a quarry--
"A savage place, as holy and enchanted As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon lover."
I know all this will sound ridiculous, especially that quotation from Kubla Khan coming after the close of the preceding sentence; but it is only so much the more like the jumble of thoughts that made a chaos of my mind as I went home. And then for that terrible pool, and subterranean passage, and all that--what had it all to do with this broad daylight, and these dying autumn leaves? No doubt there had been such places. No doubt there were such places somewhere yet. No doubt this was one of them. But, somehow or other, it would not come in well. I had no intention of GOING IN FOR--that is the phrase now--going in for the romantic. I would take the impression off by going to see Weir the carpenter's old father. Whether my plan was successful or not, I shall leave my reader to judge.
I found Weir busy as usual, but not with a coffin this time. He was working at a window-sash. "Just like life," I thought--tritely perhaps. "The other day he was closing up in the outer darkness, and now he is letting in the light."
"It's a long time since you was here last, sir," he said, but without a smile.
Did he mean a reproach? If so, I was more glad of that reproach than I would have been of the warmest welcome, even from Old Rogers. The fact was that, having a good deal to attend to besides, and willing at the same time to let the man feel that he was in no danger of being bored by my visits, I had not made use even of my reserve in the shape of a visit to his father.
"Well," I answered, "I wanted to know something about all my people, before I paid a second visit to any of them."
"All right, sir. Don't suppose I meant to complain. Only to let you know you was welcome, sir."
"I've just come from my first visit to Oldcastle Hall. And, to tell the truth, for I don't like pretences, my visit to-day was not so much to you as to your father, whom, perhaps, I ought to have called upon before, only I was afraid of seeming to intrude upon you, seeing we don't exactly think the same way about some things," I added--with a smile, I know, which was none the less genuine that I remember it yet.
And what makes me remember it yet? It is the smile that lighted up his face in response to mine. For it was more than I looked for. And his answer helped to fix the smile in my memory.
"You made me think, sir, that perhaps, after all, we were much of the same way of thinking, only perhaps you was a long way ahead of me."
Now the man was not right in saying that we were much of the same way of THINKING; for our opinions could hardly do more than come within sight of each other; but what he meant was right enough. For I was certain, from the first, that the man had a regard for the downright, honest way of things, and I hoped that I too had such a regard. How much of selfishness and of pride in one's own judgment might be mixed up with it, both in his case and mine, I had been too often taken in--by myself, I mean--to be at all careful to discriminate, provided there was a proportion of real honesty along with it, which, I felt sure, would ultimately eliminate the other. For in the moral nest, it is not as with the sparrow and the cuckoo. The right, the original inhabitant is the stronger; and, however unlikely at any given point in the history it may be, the sparrow will grow strong enough to heave the intruding cuckoo overboard. So I was pleased that the man should do me the honour of thinking I was right as far as he could see, which is the greatest honour one man can do another; for it is setting him on his own steed, as the eastern tyrants used to do. And I was delighted to think that the road lay open for further and more real communion between us in time to come.
"Well," I answered, "I think we shall understand each other perfectly before long. But now I must see your father, if it is convenient and agreeable."
"My father will be delighted to see you, I know, sir. He can't get so far as the church on Sundays; but you'll find him much more to your mind than me. He's been putting ever so many questions to me about the new parson, wanting me to try whether I couldn't get more out of you than the old parson. That's the way we talk about you, you see, sir. You'll understand. And I've never told him that I'd been to church since you came--I suppose from a bit of pride, because I had so long lefused to go; but I don't doubt some of the neighbours have told him, for he never speaks about it now. And I know he's been looking out for you; and I fancy he's begun to wonder that the parson was going to see everybody but him. It WILL be a pleasure to the old man, sir, for he don't see a great many to talk to; and he's fond of a bit of gossip, is the old man, sir."
So saying, Weir led the way through the shop into a lobby behind, and thence up what must have been a back-stair of the old house, into a large room over the workshop. There were bits of old carving about the walls of the room yet, but, as in the shop below, all had been whitewashed. At one end stood a bed with chintz curtains and a warm-looking counterpane of rich faded embroidery. There was a bit of carpet by the bedside, and another bit in front of the fire; and there the old man sat, on one side, in a high-backed not very easy- looking chair. With a great effort he managed to rise as I approached him, notwithstanding my entreaties that he would not move. He looked much older when on his feet, for he was bent nearly double, in which posture the marvel was how he could walk at all. For he did totter a few steps to meet me, without even the aid of a stick, and, holding out a thin, shaking hand, welcomed me with an air of breeding rarely to be met with in his station in society. But the chief part of this polish sprung from the inbred kindliness of his nature, which was manifest in the expression of his noble old countenance. Age is such a different thing in different natures! One man seems to grow more and more selfish as he grows older; and in another the slow fire of time seems only to consume, with fine, imperceptible gradations, the yet lingering selfishness in him, letting the light of the kingdom, which the Lord says is within, shine out more and more, as the husk grows thin and is ready to fall off, that the man, like the seed sown, may pierce the earth of this world, and rise into the pure air and wind and dew of the second life. The face of a loving old man is always to me like a morning moon, reflecting the yet unrisen sun of the other world, yet fading before its approaching light, until, when it does rise, it pales and withers away from our gaze, absorbed in the source of its own beauty. This old man, you may see, took my fancy wonderfully, for even at this distance of time, when I am old myself, the recollection of his beautiful old face makes me feel as if I could write poetry about him.
"I'm blithe to see ye, sir," said he. "Sit ye down, sir."
And, turning, he pointed to his own easy-chair; and I then saw his profile. It was delicate as that of Dante, which in form it marvellously resembled. But all the sternness which Dante's evil times had generated in his prophetic face was in this old man's replaced by a sweetness of hope that was lovely to behold.
"No, Mr Weir," I said, "I cannot take your chair. The Bible tells us to rise up before the aged, not to turn them out of their seats."
"It would do me good to see you sitting in my cheer, sir. The pains that my son Tom there takes to keep it up as long as the old man may want it! It's a good thing I bred him to the joiner's trade, sir. Sit ye down, sir. The cheer'll hold ye, though I warrant it won't last that long after I be gone home. Sit ye down, sir."
Thus entreated, I hesitated no longer, but took the old man's seat. His son brought another chair for him, and he sat down opposite the fire and close to me. Thomas then went back to his work, leaving us alone.
"Ye've had some speech wi' my son Tom," said the old man, the moment he was gone, leaning a little towards me. "It's main kind o' you, sir, to take up kindly wi' poor folks like us."
"You don't say it's kind of a person to do what he likes best," I answered. "Besides, it's my duty to know all my people."
"Oh yes, sir, I know that. But there's a thousand ways ov doin' the same thing. I ha' seen folks, parsons and others, 'at made a great show ov bein' friendly to the poor, ye know, sir; and all the time you could see, or if you couldn't see you could tell without seein', that they didn't much regard them in their hearts; but it was a sort of accomplishment to be able to talk to the poor, like, after their own fashion. But the minute an ould man sees you, sir, he believes that you MEAN it, sir, whatever it is. For an ould man somehow comes to know things like a child. They call it a second childhood, don't they, sir? And there are some things worth growin' a child again to get a hould ov again."
"I only hope what you say may be true--about me, I mean."
"Take my word for it, sir. You have no idea how that boy of mine, Tom there, did hate all the clergy till you come. Not that he's anyway favourable to them yet, only he'll say nothin' again' you, sir. He's got an unfortunate gift o' seein' all the faults first, sir; and when a man is that way given, the faults always hides the other side, so that there's nothing but faults to be seen."
"But I find Thomas quite open to reason."
"That's because you understand him, sir, and know how to give him head. He tould me of the talk you had with him. You don't bait him. You don't say, 'You must come along wi' me,' but you turns and goes along wi' him. He's not a bad fellow at all, is Tom; but he will have the reason for everythink. Now I never did want the reason for everything. I was content to be tould a many things. But Tom, you see, he was born with a sore bit in him somewheres, I don't rightly know wheres; and I don't think he rightly knows what's the matter with him himself."
"I dare say you have a guess though, by this time, Mr. Weir," I said; "and I think I have a guess too."
"Well, sir, if he'd only give in, I think he would be far happier. But he can't see his way clear."
"You must give him time, you know. The fact is, he doesn't feel at home yet.' And how can he, so long as he doesn't know his own Father?"
"I'm not sure that I rightly understand you," said the old man, looking bewildered and curious.
"I mean," I answered, "that till a man knows that he is one of God's family, living in God's house, with God up-stairs, as it were, while he is at his work or his play in a nursery below-stairs, he can't feel comfortable. For a man could not be made that should stand alone, like some of the beasts. A man must feel a head over him, because he's not enough to satisfy himself, you know. Thomas just wants faith; that is, he wants to feel that there is a loving Father over him, who is doing things all well and right, if we could only understand them, though it really does not look like it sometimes."
"Ah, sir, I might have understood you well enough, if my poor old head hadn't been started on a wrong track. For I fancied for the moment that you were just putting your finger upon the sore place in Tom's mind. There's no use in keeping family misfortunes from a friend like you, sir. That boy has known his father all his life; but I was nearly half his age before I knew mine."
"Strange!" I said, involuntarily almost.
"Yes, sir; strange you may well say. A strange story it is. The Lord help my mother! I beg yer pardon, sir. I'm no Catholic. But that prayer will come of itself sometimes. As if it could be of any use now! God forgive me!"
"Don't you be afraid, Mr Weir, as if God was ready to take offence at what comes naturally, as you say. An ejaculation of love is not likely to offend Him who is so grand that He is always meek and lowly of heart, and whose love is such that ours is a mere faint light--'a little glooming light much like a shade'--as one of our own poets says, beside it."
"Thank you, Mr Walton. That's a real comfortable word, sir. And I am heart-sure it's true, sir. God be praised for evermore! He IS good, sir; as I have known in my poor time, sir. I don't believe there ever was one that just lifted his eyes and looked up'ards, instead of looking down to the ground, that didn't get some comfort, to go on with, as it were--the ready--money of comfort, as it were--though it might be none to put in the bank, sir."
"That's true enough," I said. "Then your father and mother--?"
And here I hesitated.
"Were never married, sir," said the old man promptly, as if he would relieve me from an embarrassing position. "I couldn't help it. And I'm no less the child of my Father in heaven for it. For if He hadn't made me, I couldn't ha' been their son, you know, sir. So that He had more to do wi' the makin' o' me than they had; though mayhap, if He had His way all out, I might ha' been the son o' somebody else. But, now that things be so, I wouldn't have liked that at all, sir; and bein' once born so, I would not have e'er another couple of parents in all England, sir, though I ne'er knew one o' them. And I do love my mother. And I'm so sorry for my father that I love him too, sir. And if I could only get my boy Tom to think as I do, I would die like a psalm-tune on an organ, sir."
"But it seems to me strange," I said, "that your son should think so much of what is so far gone by. Surely he would not want another father than you, now. He is used to his position in life. And there can be nothing cast up to him about his birth or descent."
"That's all very true, sir, and no doubt it would be as you say. But there has been other things to keep his mind upon the old affair. Indeed, sir, we have had the same misfortune all over again among the young people. And I mustn't say anything more about it; only my boy Tom has a sore heart."
I knew at once to what he alluded; for I could not have been about in my parish all this time without learning that the strange handsome woman in the little shop was the daughter of Thomas Weir, and that she was neither wife nor widow. And it now occurred to me for the first time that it was a likeness to her little boy that had affected me so pleasantly when I first saw Thomas, his grandfather. The likeness to his great-grandfather, which I saw plainly enough, was what made the other fact clear to me. And at the same moment I began to be haunted with a flickering sense of a third likeness which I could not in the least fix or identify.
"Perhaps," I said, "he may find some good come out of that too."
"Well, who knows, sir?"
"I think," I said, "that if we do evil that good may come, the good we looked for will never come thereby. But once evil is done, we may humbly look to Him who bringeth good out of evil, and wait. Is your granddaughter Catherine in bad health? She looks so delicate!"
"She always had an uncommon look. But what she looks like now, I don't know. I hear no complaints; but she has never crossed this door since we got her set up in that shop. She never conies near her father or her sister, though she lets them, leastways her sister, go and see her. I'm afraid Tom has been rayther unmerciful, with her. And if ever he put a bad name upon her in her hearing, I know, from what that lass used to be as a young one, that she wouldn't be likely to forget it, and as little likely to get over it herself, or pass it over to another, even her own father. I don't believe they do more nor nod to one another when they meet in the village. It's well even if they do that much. It's my belief there's some people made so hard that they never can forgive anythink."
"How did she get into the trouble? Who is the father of her child?"
"Nay, that no one knows for certain; though there be suspicions, and one of them, no doubt, correct. But, I believe, fire wouldn't drive his name out at her mouth. I know my lass. When she says a thing, she 'll stick to it."
I asked no more questions. But, after a short pause, the old man went on.
"I shan't soon forget the night I first heard about my father and mother. That was a night! The wind was roaring like a mad beast about the house;--not this house, sir, but the great house over the way."
"You don't mean Oldcastle Hall?" I said.
"'Deed I do, sir," returned the old man, "This house here belonged to the same family at one time; though when I was born it was another branch of the family, second cousins or something, that lived in it. But even then it was something on to the downhill road, I believe."
"But," I said, fearing my question might have turned the old man aside from a story worth hearing, "never mind all that now, if you please. I am anxious to hear all about that night. Do go on. You were saying the wind was blowing about the old house."
"Eh, sir, it was roaring!-roaring as if it was mad with rage! And every now and then it would come down the chimley like out of a gun, and blow the smoke and a'most the fire into the middle of the housekeeper's room. For the housekeeper had been giving me my supper. I called her auntie, then; and didn't know a bit that she wasn't my aunt really. I was at that time a kind of a under-gamekeeper upon the place, and slept over the stable. But I fared of the best, for I was a favourite with the old woman--I suppose because I had given her plenty of trouble in my time. That's always the way, sir.--Well, as I was a-saying, when the wind stopped for a moment, down came the rain with a noise that sounded like a regiment of cavalry on the turnpike road t'other side of the hill. And then up the wind got again, and swept the rain away, and took it all in its own hand again, and went on roaring worse than ever. 'You 'll be wet afore you get across the yard, Samuel,' said auntie, looking very prim in her long white apron, as she sat on the other side of the little round table before the fire, sipping a drop of hot rum and water, which she always had before she went to bed. 'You'll be wet to the skin, Samuel,' she said. 'Never mind,' says I. 'I'm not salt, nor yet sugar; and I'll be going, auntie, for you'll be wanting your bed.'-'Sit ye still,' said she. 'I don't want my bed yet.' And there she sat, sipping at her rum and water; and there I sat, o' the other side, drinking the last of a pint of October, she had gotten me from the cellar--for I had been out in the wind all day. 'It was just such a night as this,' said she, and then stopped again.--But I'm wearying you, sir, with my long story."
"Not in the least," I answered. "Quite the contrary. Pray tell it out your own way. You won't tire me, I assure you."
So the old man went on.
"' It was just such a night as this,' she began again--'leastways it was snow and not rain that was coming down, as if the Almighty was a-going to spend all His winter-stock at oncet.'--'What happened such a night, auntie?' I said. 'Ah, my lad!' said she, 'ye may well ask what happened. None has a better right. You happened. That's all.'--'Oh, that's all, is it, auntie?' I said, and laughed. 'Nay, nay, Samuel,' said she, quite solemn, 'what is there to laugh at, then? I assure you, you was anything but welcome.'-- 'And why wasn't I welcome?' I said. 'I couldn't help it, you know. I'm very sorry to hear I intruded,' I said, still making game of it, you see; for I always did like a joke. 'Well,' she said, 'you certainly wasn't wanted. But I don't blame you, Samuel, and I hope you won't blame me.'--' What do you mean, auntie ?' I mean this, that it's my fault, if so be that fault it is, that you're sitting there now, and not lying, in less bulk by a good deal, at the bottom of the Bishop's Basin.' That's what they call a deep pond at the foot of the old house, sir; though why or wherefore, I'm sure I don't know. 'Most extraordinary, auntie!' I said, feeling very queer, and as if I really had no business to be there. 'Never you mind, my dear,' says she; 'there you are, and you can take care of yourself now as well as anybody.'--'But who wanted to drown me?' 'Are you sure you can forgive him, if I tell you?'--'Sure enough, suppose he was sitting where you be now,' I answered. 'It was, I make no doubt, though I can't prove it,--I am morally certain it was your own father.' I felt the skin go creepin' together upon my head, and I couldn't speak. 'Yes, it was, child; and it's time you knew all about it. Why, you don't know who your own father was!'--'No more I do,' I said; 'and I never cared to ask, somehow. I thought it was all right, I suppose. But I wonder now that I never did.'--'Indeed you did many a time, when you was a mere boy, like; but I suppose, as you never was answered, you give it up for a bad job, and forgot all about it, like a wise man. You always was a wise child, Samuel.' So the old lady always said, sir. And I was willing to believe she was right, if I could. 'But now,' said she, 'it's time you knew all about it.--Poor Miss Wallis!--I'm no aunt of yours, my boy, though I love you nearly as well, I think, as if I was; for dearly did I love your mother. She was a beauty, and better than she was beautiful, whatever folks may say. The only wrong thing, I'm certain, that she ever did, was to trust your father too much. But I must see and give you the story right through from beginning to end.--Miss Wallis, as I came to know from her own lips, was the daughter of a country attorney, who had a good practice, and was likely to leave her well off. Her mother died when she was a little girl. It's not easy getting on without a mother, my boy. So she wasn't taught much of the best sort, I reckon. When her father died early, and she was left atone, the only thing she could do was to take a governess's place, and she came to us. She never got on well with the children, for they were young and self willed and rude, and would not learn to do as they were bid. I never knew one o' them shut the door when they went out of this room. And, from having had all her own way at home, with plenty of servants, and money to spend, it was a sore change to her. But she was a sweet creature, that she was. She did look sorely tried when Master Freddy would get on the back of her chair, and Miss Gusta would lie down on the rug, and never stir for all she could say to them, but only laugh at her.--To be sure!' And then auntie would take a sip at her rum and water, and sit considering old times like a static. And I sat as if all my head was one great ear, and I never spoke a word. And auntie began again. 'The way I came to know so much about her was this. Nobody, you see, took any notice or care of her. For the children were kept away with her in the old house, and my lady wasn't one to take trouble about anybody till once she stood in her way, and then she would just shove her aside or crush her like a spider, and ha' done with her.'--They have always been a proud and a fierce race, the Oldcastles, sir," said Weir, taking up the speech in his own person, "and there's been a deal o' breedin in-and-in amongst them, and that has kept up the worst of them. The men took to the women of their own sort somehow, you see. The lady up at the old Hall now is a Crowfoot. I'll just tell you one thing the gardener told me about her years ago, sir. She had a fancy for hyacinths in her rooms in the spring, and she Had some particular fine ones; and a lady of her acquaintance begged for some of them. And what do you think she did? She couldn't refuse them, and she couldn't bear any one to have them as good as she. And so she sent the hyacinth-roots--but she boiled 'em first. The gardener told me himself, sir.--'And so, when the poor thing,' said auntie, 'was taken with a dreadful cold, which was no wonder if you saw the state of the window in the room she had to sleep in, and which I got old Jones to set to rights and paid him for it out of my own pocket, else he wouldn't ha' done it at all, for the family wasn't too much in the way or the means either of paying their debts--well, there she was, and nobody minding her, and of course it fell to me to look after her. It would have made your heart bleed to see the poor thing flung all of a heap on her bed, blue with cold and coughing. "My dear!" I said; and she burst out crying, and from that moment there was confidence between us. I made her as warm and as comfortable as I could, but I had to nurse her for a fortnight before she was able to do anything again. She didn't shirk her work though, poor thing. It was a heartsore to me to see the poor young thing, with her sweet eyes and her pale face, talking away to those children, that were more like wild cats than human beings.
She might as well have talked to wild cats, I'm sure. But I don't think she was ever so miserable again as she must have been before her illness; for she used often to come and see me of an evening, and she would sit there where you are sitting now for an hour at a time, without speaking, her thin white hands lying folded in her lap, and her eyes fixed on the fire. I used to wonder what she could be thinking about, and I had made up my mind she was not long for this world; when all at once it was announced that Miss Oldcastle, who had been to school for some time, was coming home; and then we began to see a great deal of company, and for month after month the house was more or less filled with visitors, so that my time was constantly taken up, and I saw much less of poor Miss Wallis than I had seen before. But when we did meet on some of the back stairs, or when she came to my room for a few minutes before going to bed, we were just as good friends as ever. And I used to say, "I wish this scurry was over, my dear, that we might have our old times again." And she would smile and say something sweet. But I was surprised to see that her health began to come back--at least so it seemed to me, for her eyes grew brighter and a flush came upon her pale face, and though the children were as tiresome as ever, she didn't seem to mind it so much. But indeed she had not very much to do with them out of school hours now; for when the spring came on, they would be out and about the place with their sister or one of their brothers; and indeed, out of doors it would have been impossible for Miss Wallis to do anything with them. Some of the visitors would take to them too, for they behaved so badly to nobody as to Miss Wallis, and indeed they were clever children, and could be engaging enough when they pleased.--But then I had a blow, Samuel. It was a lovely spring night, just after the sun was down, and I wanted a drop of milk fresh from the cow for something that I was making for dinner the next day; so I went through the kitchen-garden and through the belt of young larches to go to the shippen. But when I got among the trees, who should I see at the other end of the path that went along, but Miss Wallis walking arm-in-arm with Captain Crowfoot, who was just home from India, where he had been with Lord Clive. The captain was a man about two or three and thirty, a relation of the family, and the son of Sir Giles Crowfoot'--who lived then in this old house, sir, and had but that one son, my father, you see, sir.--'And it did give me a turn,' said my aunt, 'to see her walking with him, for I felt as sure as judgment that no good could come of it. For the captain had not the best of characters--that is, when people talked about him in chimney corners, and such like, though he was a great favourite with everybody that knew nothing about him. He was a fine, manly, handsome fellow, with a smile that, as people said, no woman could resist, though I'm sure it would have given me no trouble to resist it, whatever they may mean by that, for I saw that that same smile was the falsest thing of all the false things about him. All the time he was smiling, you would have thought he was looking at himself in a glass. He was said to have gathered a power of money in India, somehow or other. But I don't know, only I don't think he would have been the favourite he was with my lady if he hadn't. And reports were about, too, of the ways and means by which he had made the money; some said by robbing the poor heathen creatures; and some said it was only that his brother officers didn't approve of his speculating as he did in horses and other things. I don't know whether officers are so particular. At all events, this was a fact, for it was one of his own servants that told me, not thinking any harm or any shame of it. He had quarrelled with a young ensign in the regiment. On which side the wrong was, I don't know. But he first thrashed him most unmercifully, and then called him out, as they say. And when the poor fellow appeared, he could scarcely see out of his eyes, and certainly couldn't take anything like an aim. And he shot him dead,--did Captain Crowfoot.'-Think of hearing that about one's own father, sir! But I never said a word, for I hadn't a word to say.--'Think of that, Samuel,' said my aunt, 'else you won't believe what I am going to tell you. And you won't even then, I dare say. But I must tell you, nevertheless and notwithstanding.--Well, I felt as if the earth was sinking away from under the feet of me, and I stood and stared at them. And they came on, never seeing me, and actually went close past me and never saw me; at least, if he saw me he took no notice, for I don't suppose that the angel with the flaming sword would have put him out. But for her, I know she didn't see me, for her face was down, burning and smiling at once.'--I'm an old man now, sir, and I never saw my mother; but I can't tell you the story without feeling as if my heart would break for the poor young lady.--'I went back to my room,' said my aunt, 'with my empty jug in my hand, and I sat down as if I had had a stroke, and I never moved till it was pitch dark and my fire out. It was a marvel to me afterwards that nobody came near me, for everybody was calling after me at that time. And it was days before I caught a glimpse of Miss Wallis again, at least to speak to her. At last, one night she came to my room; and without a. moment of parley, I said to her, "Oh, my dear! what was that wretch saying to you?"--"What wretch?" says she, quite sharp like. "Why, Captain Crowfoot," says I, "to be sure."--"What have you to say against Captain Crowfoot?" says she, quite scornful like. So I tumbled out all I had against him in one breath. She turned awful pale, and she shook from head to foot, but she was able for all that to say, "Indian servants are known liars, Mrs Prendergast," says she, "and I don't believe one word of it all. But I'll ask him, the next time I see him."--"Do so, my dear," I said, not fearing for myself, for I knew he would not make any fuss that might bring the thing out into the air, and hoping that it might lead to a quarrel between them. And the next time I met her, Samuel--it was in the gallery that takes to the west turret--she passed me with a nod just, and a blush instead of a smile on her sweet face. And I didn't blame her, Samuel; but I knew that that villain had gotten a hold of her. And so I could only cry, and that I did. Things went on like this for some months. The captain came and went, stopping a week at a time. Then he stopped for a whole month, and this was in the first of the summer; and then he said he was ordered abroad again, and went away. But he didn't go abroad. He came again in the autumn for the shooting, and began to make up to Miss Oldcastle, who had grown a line young woman by that time. And then Miss Wallis began to pine. The captain went away again. Before long I was certain that if ever young creature was in a consumption, she was; but she never said a word to me. How ever the poor thing got on with her work, I can't think, but she grew weaker and weaker. I took the best care of her she would let me, and contrived that she should have her meals in her own room; but something was between her and me that she never spoke a word about herself, and never alluded to the captain.
By and by came the news that the captain and Miss Oldcastle were to be married in the spring. And Miss Wallis took to her bed after that; and my lady said she had never been of much use, and wanted to send her away. But Miss Oldcastle, who was far superior to any of the rest in her disposition, spoke up for her. She had been to ask me about her, and I told her the poor thing must go to a hospital if she was sent away, for she had ne'er a home to go to. And then she went to see the governess, poor thing! and spoke very kindly to her; but never a word would Miss Wallis answer; she only stared at her with great, big, wild-like eyes. And Miss Oldcastle thought she was out of her mind, and spoke of an asylum. But I said she hadn't long to live, and if she would get my lady her mother to consent to take no notice, I would take all the care and trouble of her. And she promised, and the poor thing was left alone. I began to think myself her mind must be going, for not a word would she speak, even to me, though every moment I could spare I was up with her in her room. Only I was forced to be careful not to be out of the way when my lady wanted me, for that would have tied me more. At length one day, as I was settling her pillow for her, she all at once threw her arms about my neck, and burst into a terrible fit of crying. She sobbed and panted for breath so dreadfully, that I put my arms round her and lifted her up to give her relief; and when I laid her down again, I whispered in her ear, "I know now, my dear. I'll do all I can for you." She caught hold of my hand and held it to her lips, and then to her bosom, and cried again, but more quietly, and all was right between us once more. It was well for her, poor thing, that she could go to her bed. And I said to myself, "Nobody need ever know about it; and nobody ever shall if I can help it." To tell the truth, my hope was that she would die before there was any need for further concealment. "But people in that condition seldom die, they say, till all is over; and so she lived on and on, though plainly getting weaker and weaker.--At the captain's next visit, the wedding-day was fixed. And after that a circumstance came about that made me uneasy. A Hindoo servant--the captain called him his NIGGER always--had been constantly in attendance upon him. I never could abide the snake-look of the fellow, nor the noiseless way he went about the house. But this time the captain had a Hindoo woman with him as well. He said that his man had fallen in with her in London; that he had known her before; that she had come home as nurse with an English family, and it would be very nice for his wife to take her back with her to India, if she could only give her house room, and make her useful till after the wedding. This was easily arranged, and he went away to return in three weeks, when the wedding was to take place. Meantime poor Emily grew fast worse, and how she held out with that terrible cough of hers I never could understand--and spitting blood, too, every other hour or so, though not very much. And now, to my great trouble, with the preparations for the wedding, I could see yet less of her than before; and when Miss Oldcastle sent the Hindoo to ask me if she might not sit in the room with the poor girl, I did not know how to object, though I did not at all like her being there. I felt a great mistrust of the woman somehow or other. I never did like blacks, and I never shall. So she went, and sat by her, and waited on her very kindly--at least poor Emily said so. I called her Emily because she had begged me, that she might feel as if her mother were with her, and she was a child again. I had tried before to find out from her when greater care would be necessary, but she couldn't tell me anything. I doubted even if she understood me. I longed to have the wedding over that I might get rid of the black woman, and have time to take her place, and get everything prepared. The captain arrived, and his man with him. And twice I came upon the two blacks in close conversation.--Well, the wedding-day came. The people went to church; and while they were there a terrible storm of wind and snow came on, such that the horses would hardly face it. The captain was going to take his bride home to his father, Sir Giles's; but, short as the distance was, before the time came the storm got so dreadful that no one could think of leaving the house that night. The wind blew for all the world just as it blows this night, only it was snow in its mouth, and not rain. Carriage and horses and all would have been blown off the road for certain. It did blow, to be sure! After dinner was over and the ladies were gone to the drawing-room, and the gentlemen had been sitting over their wine for some time, the butler, William Weir--an honest man, whose wife lived at the lodge--came to my room looking scared. "Lawks, William!" says I,' said my aunt, sir, '"whatever is the matter with you?"--"Well, Mrs Prendergast!" says he, and said no more. "Lawks, William," says I, "speak out."--"Well," says he, "Mrs Prendergast, it's a strange wedding, it is! There's the ladies all alone in the withdrawing-room, and there's the gentlemen calling for more wine, and cursing and swearing that it's awful to hear. It's my belief that swords will be drawn afore long."--"Tut!" says I, "William, it will come the sooner if you don't give them what they want. Go and get it as fast as you can."--"I don't a'most like goin' down them stairs alone, in sich a night, ma'am," says he. "Would you mind coming with me?"--"Dear me, William," says I, "a pretty story to tell your wife"--she was my own half-sister, and younger than me--"a pretty story to tell your wife, that you wanted an old body like me to go and take care of you in your own cellar," says I. "But I'll go with you, if you like; for, to tell the truth, it's a terrible night." And so down we went, and brought up six bottles more of the best port. And I really didn't wonder, when I was down there, and heard the dull roar of the wind against the rock below, that William didn't much like to go alone.--When he went back with the wine, the captain said, "William, what kept you so long? Mr Centlivre says that you were afraid to go down into the cellar." Now, wasn't that odd, for it was a real fact? Before William could reply, Sir Giles said, "A man might well be afraid to go anywhere alone in a night like this."
Whereupon the captain cried, with an oath, that he would go down the underground stair, and into every vault on the way, for the wager of a guinea. And there the matter, according to William, dropped, for the fresh wine was put on the table. But after they had drunk the most of it--the captain, according to William, drinking less than usual--it was brought up again, he couldn't tell by which of them. And in five minutes after, they were all at my door, demanding the key of the room at the top of the stair. I was just going up to see poor Emily when I heard the noise of their unsteady feet coming along the passage to my door; and I gave the captain the key at once, wishing with all my heart he might get a good fright for his pains. He took a jug with him, too, to bring some water up from the well, as a proof he had been down. The rest of the gentlemen went with him into the little cellar-room; but they wouldn't stop there till he came up again, they said it was so cold. They all came into my room, where they talked as gentlemen wouldn't do if the wine hadn't got uppermost. It was some time before the captain returned. It's a good way down and back. When he came in at last, he looked as if he had got the fright I wished him, he had such a scared look. The candle in his lantern was out, and there was no water in the jug. "There's your guinea, Centlivre," says he, throwing it on the table. "You needn't ask me any questions, for I won't answer one of them."--"Captain," says I, as he turned to leave the room, and the other gentlemen rose to follow him, "I'll just hang up the key again."--" By all means," says he. "Where is it, then?" says I. He started and made as if he searched his pockets all over for it. "I must have dropped it," says he; "but it's of no consequence; you can send William to look for it in the morning. It can't be lost, you know."--"Very well, captain," said I. But I didn't like being without the key, because of course he hadn't locked the door, and that part of the house has a bad name, and no wonder. It wasn't exactly pleasant to have the door left open. All this time I couldn't get to see how Emily was. As often as I looked from my window, I saw her light in the old west turret out there, Samuel. You know the room where the bed is still. The rain and the wind will be blowing right through it to-night. That's the bed you was born upon, Samuel.'--It's all gone now, sir, turret and all, like a good deal more about the old place; but there's a story about that turret afterwards, only I mustn't try to tell you two things at once.--'Now I had told the Indian woman that if anything happened, if she was worse, or wanted to see me, she must put the candle on the right side of the window, and I should always be looking out, and would come directly, whoever might wait. For I was expecting you some time soon, and nobody knew anything about when you might come. But there the blind continued drawn down as before. So I thought all was going on right. And what with the storm keeping Sir Giles and so many more that would have gone home that night, there was no end of work, and some contrivance necessary, I can tell you, to get them all bedded for the night, for we were nothing too well provided with blankets and linen in the house. There was always more room than money in it. So it was past twelve o'clock before I had a minute to myself, and that was only after they had all gone to bed--the bride and bridegroom in the crimson chamber, of course. Well, at last I crept quietly into Emily's room. I ought to have told you that I had not let her know anything about the wedding being that day, and had enjoined the heathen woman not to say a word; for I thought she might as well die without hearing about it. But I believe the vile wretch did tell her. When I opened the room-door, there was no light there. I spoke, but no one answered. I had my own candle in my hand, but it had been blown out as I came up the stair. I turned and ran along the corridor to reach the main stair, which was the nearest way to my room, when all at once I heard such a shriek from the crimson chamber as I never heard in my life. It made me all creep like worms. And in a moment doors and doors were opened, and lights came out, everybody looking terrified; and what with drink, and horror, and sleep, some of the gentlemen were awful to look upon. And the door of the crimson chamber opened too, and the captain appeared in his dressing-gown, bawling out to know what was the matter; though I'm certain, to this day, the cry did come from that room, and that he knew more about it than any one else did. As soon as I got a light, however, which I did from Sir Giles's candle, I left them to settle it amongst them, and ran back to the west turret. When I entered the room, there was my dear girl lying white and motionless. There could be no doubt a baby had been born, but no baby was to be seen. I rushed to the bed; but though she was still warm, your poor mother was quite dead. There was no use in thinking about helping her; but what could have become of the child? As if by a light in my mind, I saw it all. I rushed down to my room, got my lantern, and, without waiting to be afraid, ran to the underground stairs, where I actually found the door standing open. I had not gone down more than three turnings, when I thought I heard a cry, and I sped faster still. And just about half-way down, there lay a bundle in a blanket. And how ever you got over the state I found you in, Samuel, I can't think. But I caught you up as you was, and ran to my own room with you; and I locked the door, and there being a kettle on the fire, and some conveniences in the place, I did the best for you I could. For the breath wasn't out of you, though it well might have been. And then I laid you before the fire, and by that time you had begun to cry a little, to my great pleasure, and then I got a blanket off my bed, and wrapt you up in it; and, the storm being abated by this time, made the best of my way with you through the snow to the lodge, where William's wife lived. It was not so far off then as it is now.
But in the midst of my trouble the silly body did make me laugh when he opened the door to me, and saw the bundle in my arms. "Mrs Prendergast," says he, "I didn't expect it of you."--"Hold your tongue," I said. "You would never have talked such nonsense if you had had the grace to have any of your own," says I. And with that I into the bedroom and shut the door, and left him out there in his shirt. My sister and I soon got everything arranged, for there was no time to lose. And before morning I had all made tidy, and your poor mother lying as sweet a corpse as ever angel saw. And no one could say a word against her. And it's my belief that that villain made her believe somehow or other that she was as good as married to him. She was buried down there in the churchyard, close by the vestry-door,' said my aunt, sir; and all of our family have been buried there ever since, my son Tom's wife among them, sir."
"But what was that cry in the house?" I asked "And what became of the black woman?"
"The woman was never seen again in our quarter; and what the cry was my aunt never would say. She seemed to know though; notwithstanding, as she said, that Captain and Mrs Crowfoot denied all knowledge of it. But the lady looked dreadful, she said, and never was well again, and died at the birth of her first child. That was the present Mrs Oldcastle's father, sir."
"But why should the woman have left you on the stair, instead of drowning you in the well at the bottom?"
"My aunt evidently thought there was some mystery about that as well as the other, for she had no doubt about the woman's intention. But all she would ever say concerning it was, 'The key was never found, Samuel. You see I had to get a new one made.' And she pointed to where it hung on the wall. 'But that doesn't look new now,' she would say. 'The lock was very hard to fit again.' And so you see, sir, I was brought up as her nephew, though people were surprised, no doubt, that William Weir's wife should have a child, and nobody know she was expecting.--Well, with all the reports of the captain's money, none of it showed in this old place, which from that day began, as it were, to crumble away. There's been little repair done upon it since then. If it hadn't been a well-built place to begin with, it wouldn't be standing now, sir. But it's a very different place, I can tell you. Why, all behind was a garden with terraces, and fruit trees, and gay flowers, to no end. I remember it as well as yesterday; nay, a great deal better, for the matter of that. For I don't remember yesterday at all, sir."
I have tried a little to tell the story as he told it. But I am aware that I have succeeded very badly; for I am not like my friend in London, who, I verily believe, could give you an exact representation of any dialect he ever heard. I wish I had been able to give a little more of the form of the old man's speech; all I have been able to do is to show a difference from my own way of telling a story. But in the main, I think, I have reported it correctly. I believe if the old man was correct in representing his aunt's account, the story is very little altered between us.
But why should I tell such a story at all?
I am willing to allow, at once, that I have very likely given it more room than it deserves in these poor Annals of mine; but the reason why I tell it at all is simply this, that, as it came from the old man's lips, it interested me greatly. It certainly did not produce the effect I had hoped to gain from an interview with him, namely, A REDUCTION TO THE COMMON AND PRESENT. For all this ancient tale tended to keep up the sense of distance between my day's experience at the Hall and the work I had to do amongst my cottagers and trades-people. Indeed, it came very strangely upon that experience.
"But surely you did not believe such an extravagant tale? The old man was in his dotage, to begin with."
Had the old man been in his dotage, which he was not, my answer would have been a more triumphant one. For when was dotage consistently and imaginatively inventive? But why should I not believe the story? There are people who can never believe anything that is not (I do not say merely in accordance with their own character, but) in accordance with the particular mood they may happen to be in at the time it is presented to them. They know nothing of human nature beyond their own immediate preference at the moment for port or sherry, for vice or virtue. To tell me there could not be a man so lost to shame, if to rectitude, as Captain Crowfoot, is simply to talk nonsense. Nay, gentle reader, if you--and let me suppose I address a lady--if you will give yourself up for thirty years to doing just whatever your lowest self and not your best self may like, I will warrant you capable, by the end of that time, of child murder at least. I do not think the descent to Avernus is always easy; but it is always possible. Many and many such a story was fact in old times; and human nature being the same still, though under different restraints, equally horrible things are constantly in progress towards the windows of the newspapers.
"But the whole tale has such a melodramatic air!"
That argument simply amounts to this: that, because such subjects are capable of being employed with great dramatic effect, and of being at the same time very badly represented, therefore they cannot take place in real life. But ask any physician of your acquaintance, whether a story is unlikely simply because it involves terrible things such as do not occur every day. The fact is, that such things, occurring monthly or yearly only, are more easily hidden away out of sight. Indeed we can have no sense of security for ourselves except in the knowledge that we are striving up and away, and therefore cannot be sinking nearer to the region of such awful possibilities.
Yet, as I said before, I am afraid I have given it too large a space in my narrative. Only it so forcibly reminded me at the time of the expression I could not understand upon Miss Oldcastle's face, and since then has been so often recalled by circumstances and events, that I felt impelled to record it in full. And now I have done with it.
I left the old man with thanks for the kind reception he had given me, and walked home, revolving many things with which I shall not detain the attention of my reader. Indeed my thoughts were confused and troubled, and would ill bear analysis or record. I shut myself up in my study, and tried to read a sermon of Jeremy Taylor. But it would not do. I fell fast asleep over it at last, and woke refreshed.
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