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The Board Schoolmaster and I are not friends. He is something of a zealot, and conceives it his mission to weed out the small superstitions of the countryside and plant exact information in their stead. He comes from up the country--a thin, clean-shaven town-bred man, whose black habit and tall hat, though considerably bronzed, refuse to harmonise with the scenery amid which they move. His speech is formal and slightly dogmatic, and in argument he always gets the better of me. Therefore, feeling sure it will annoy him excessively, I am going to put him into this book. He laid himself open the other day to this stroke of revenge, by telling me a story; and since he loves precision, I will be very precise about the circumstances.
At the foot of my garden, and hidden from my window by the clipt box hedge, runs Sanctuary Lane, along which I see the heads of the villagers moving to church on Sunday mornings. But in returning they invariably keep to the raised footpath on the far side, that brings the women's skirts and men's smallclothes into view. I have made many attempts to discover how this distinction arose, and why it is adhered to, but never found a satisfying explanation. It is the rule, however.
From the footpath a high bank (where now the primroses have given place to stitchwort and ragged robin) rises to an orchard; so steeply that the apple-blossom drops into the lane. Just now the petals lie thickly there in the early morning, to be trodden into dust as soon as the labourers fare to work. Beyond and above the orchard comes a stretch of pastureland and then a young oak-coppice, the fringe of a great estate, with a few Scotch firs breaking the sky-line on top of all. The head gamekeeper of this estate tells me we shall have a hot summer, because the oak this year was in leaf before the ash, though only by a day. The ash was foliating on the 29th of April, the oak on the 28th. Up there the blue-bells lie in sheets of mauve, and the cuckoo is busy. I rarely see him; but his three notes fill the hot noon and evening. When he spits (says the gamekeeper again) it is time to be sheep-shearing. My talk with the gamekeeper is usually held at six in the morning, when he comes down the lane and I am stepping across to test the water in Scarlet's Well.
This well bubbles up under a low vault scooped in the bank by the footpath and hung with hart's-tongue ferns. It has two founts, close together; but whereas one of them oozes only, the other is bubbling perennially, and, as near as I have observed, keeps always the same. Its specific gravity is that of distilled water--1.000 deg.; and though, to be sure, it upset me, three weeks back, by flying up to 1.005 deg., I think that must have come from the heavy thunderstorms and floods of rain that lately visited us and no doubt imported some ingredients that had no business there. As for its temperature, I will select a note or two of the observations I made with a Fahrenheit thermometer this last year:--
June 12th.--Temperature in shade of well, 62 deg.; of water, 51 deg..
August 25th.--In shade of well (at noon), 73 deg.; of water, 52 deg..
November 20th.--In shade of well, 43 deg.; of water, 52 deg..
January 1st.--External air, 56 deg.; enclosure, 53 deg.; water, 52 deg..
March 11th.--A bleak, sunless day. Temperature in shade of well, at noon, 54 deg.; water, 51 deg.. The Chrysosplenium Oppositiflorium in rich golden bloom within the enclosure.
But the spring has other properties besides its steady temperature. I was early abroad in my garden last Thursday week, and in the act of tossing a snail over my box hedge, when I heard some girls' voices giggling, and caught a glimpse of half-a-dozen sun-bonnets gathered about the well. Straightening myself up, I saw a group of maids from the village, and, in the middle, one who bent over the water. Presently she scrambled to her feet, glanced over her shoulder and gave a shrill scream.
I, too, looked up the lane and saw, a stone's throw off, the schoolmaster advancing with long and nervous strides. He was furiously angry.
"Thomasine Slade," said he, "you are as shameless as you are ignorant!"
The girl tossed her chin and was silent, with a warm blush on her cheek and a lurking imp of laughter in her eye. The schoolmaster frowned still more darkly.
"Shameless as well as ignorant!" he repeated, bringing the ferule of his umbrella smartly down upon the macadam; "and you, Jane Hewitt, and you, Lizzie Polkinghorne!"
"Why, what's the matter?" I asked, stepping out into the road.
At sight of me the girls broke into a peal of laughter, gathered up their skirts and fled, still laughing, down the road.
"What's the matter?" I asked again.
"The matter?" echoed the schoolmaster, staring blankly after the retreating skirts; then more angrily--"The matter? come and look here!" He took hold of my shirt-sleeve and led me to the well. Stooping, I saw half-a-dozen pins gleaming in its brown depths.
The schoolmaster nodded.
"Thomasine Slade has been wishing for a husband. I see no sin in that. When she looked up and saw you coming down the lane--"
I paused. The schoolmaster said nothing. He was leaning over the well, gloomily examining the pins.
"--your aspect was enough to scare anyone," I wound up lamely.
"I wish," the schoolmaster hastily began, "I wish to Heaven I had the gift of humour! I lose my temper and grow positive. I'd kill these stupid superstitions with ridicule, if I had the gift. It's a great gift. My God, I do hate to be laughed at!"
"Even by a fool?" I asked, somewhat astonished at his heat.
"Certainly. There's no comfort in comparing the laugh of fools with the crackling of thorns under a pot, if you happen to be inside the pot and in process of cooking."
He took off his hat, brushed it on the sleeve of his coat, and resumed in a tone altogether lighter--
"Yes, I hate to be laughed at; and I'll tell you a tale on this point that may amuse you at my expense.
"I am London-bred, as you know, and still a Cockney in the grain, though when I came down here to teach school I was just nineteen and now I'm over forty. It was during the summer holidays that I first set foot in this neighbourhood--a week before school re-opened. I came early, to look for lodgings and find out a little about the people and settle down a bit before beginning work.
"The vicar--the late vicar, I mean--commended me to old Retallack, who used to farm Rosemellin, up the valley, a widower and childless. His sister, Miss Jane Ann, kept house for him, and these were the only two souls on the premises till I came and was boarded by them for thirteen shillings a week. For that price they gave me a bedroom, a fair-sized sitting-room and as much as I could eat.
"A month after my arrival, Farmer Retallack was put to bed with a slight attack of colic. This was on a Wednesday, and on Saturday morning Miss Jane Ann came knocking at my door with a message that the old man would like to see me. So I went across to his room and found him propped up in the bed with three or four pillows and looking very yellow in the gills, though clearly convalescent.
"'Schoolmaster,' said he, 'I've a trifling favour to beg of ye. You give the children a half-holiday, Saturdays--hey? Well, d'ye think ye could drive the brown hoss, Trumpeter, into Tregarrick this afternoon? The fact is, my old friend Abe Walters, that kept the Packhorse Inn is lying dead, and they bury 'en at half after two to-day. I'd be main glad to show respect at the funeral and tell Mrs. Walters how much deceased 'll be missed, ancetera; but I might so well try to fly in the air. Now if you could attend and just pass the word that I'm on my back with the colic, but that you've come to show respect in my place, I'd take it very friendly of ye. There'll be lashins o' vittles an' drink. No Walters was ever interred under a kilderkin.'" Now the fact was, I had never driven a horse in my life and hardly knew (as they say) a horse's head from his tail till he began to move. But that is just the sort of ignorance no young man will readily confess to. So I answered that I was engaged that evening. We were just organising night-classes for the young men of the parish, and the vicar was to open the first, with a short address, at half-past six.
"'You'll be back in lashins o' time,' the farmer assured me.
"This put me fairly in a corner. 'To tell you the truth,' said I, 'I'm not accustomed to drive much.' But of course this was wickedly short of the truth.
"He declared that it was impossible to come to grief on the way, the brown horse being quiet as a lamb and knowing every stone of the road. And the end was that I consented. The brown horse was harnessed by the farm-boy and led round with the gig while Miss Jane Ann and I were finishing our midday meal. And I drove off alone in a black suit and with my heart in my mouth.
"Trumpeter, as the farmer had promised, was quiet as a lamb. He went forward at a steady jog, and even had the good sense to quarter on his own account for the one or two vehicles we met on the broad road. Pretty soon I began to experiment gingerly with the reins; and by the time we reached Tregarrick streets, was handling them with quite an air, while observing the face of everyone I met, to make sure I was not being laughed at. The prospect of Tregarrick Fore Street frightened me a good deal, and there was a sharp corner to turn at the entrance of the inn-yard. But the old horse knew his business so well that had I pulled on one rein with all my strength I believe it would have merely annoyed, without convincing, him. He took me into the yard without a mistake, and I gave up the reins to the ostler, thanking Heaven and looking careless.
"The inn was crowded with mourners, eating and drinking and discussing the dead man's virtues. They packed the Assembly Room at the back, where the subscription dances are held, and the reek of hot joints was suffocating. I caught sight of the widow Walters bustling up and down between the long tables and shedding tears while she changed her guests' plates. She heard my message, welcomed me with effusion, and thrusting a plateful of roast beef under my nose, hurried away to put on her bonnet for the funeral.
"A fellow on my right paused with his mouth full to bid me eat. 'Thank you,' I said, 'my only wish is to get out of this as quickly as possible.'
"He contemplated me for half a minute with an eye like an ox's; remarked 'You'll be a furriner, no doubt;' and went on with his meal.
"If the feasting was long, the funeral was longer. We sang so many burying-tunes, and the widow so often interrupted the service to ululate, that the town clock had struck four when I hurried back from the churchyard to the inn, and told the ostler to put my horse in the gig. I had little time to spare.
"'Beg your pardon, sir,' the ostler said, 'but I'm new to this place--only came here this day week. Which is your horse?'
"'Oh,' I answered, 'he's a brown. Make haste, for I'm in a hurry.'
"He went off to the stables and returned in about two minutes.
"'There's six brown hosses in the stable, sir. Would you mind coming and picking out yours?'
"I followed him with a sense of impending evil. Sure enough there were six brown horses in the big stable, and to save my life I couldn't have told which was Trumpeter. Of any difference between horses, except that of colour, I hadn't an idea. I scanned them all anxiously, and felt the ostler's eye upon me. This was unbearable. I pulled out my watch, glanced at it carelessly, and exclaimed--
"'By George, I'd no notion it was so early! H'm, on second thoughts, I won't start for a few minutes yet.'
"This was my only course--to wait until the other five owners of brown horses had driven home. I strolled back to the inn and talked and drank sherry, watching the crowd thin by degrees, and speeding the lingering mourners with all my prayers. The minutes dragged on till nothing short of a miracle could take me back in time to open the night-class. The widow drew near and talked to me. I answered her at random.
"Twice I revisited the stable, and the second time found but three horses left. I walked along behind them, murmuring, 'Trumpeter, Trumpeter!' in the forlorn hope that one of the three brutes would give a sign.
"'I beg your pardon, sir,' said the ostler; 'were you saying anything?'
"'No--nothing,' said I, and luckily he was called away at this moment to the further end of the stable. 'Oh,' sighed I, 'for Xanthus, horse of Achilles!'
"I felt inclined to follow and confide my difficulty to the ostler, but reflected that this wouldn't help me in the least: whereas, if I applied to a fellow-guest, he must (if indeed he could give the information) expose my previous hypocrisy to the ostler. After all, the company was dwindling fast. I went back and consumed more sherry and biscuits.
"By this six o'clock had gone, and no more than a dozen guests remained. One of these was my bovine friend, my neighbour at the funeral banquet, who now accosted me as I struggled with a biscuit.
"'So you've got over your hurry. Glad to find ye settlin' down so quick to our hearty ways.'
"He shook hands with the widow and sauntered out. Ten more minutes passed and now there were left only the widow herself and a trio of elderly men, all silent. As I hung about, trying to look unbounded sympathy at the group, it dawned upon me that they were beginning to eye me uneasily. I took a sponge cake and another glass of wine. One of the men--who wore a high stock and an edging of stiff grey hair around his bald head--advanced to me.
"'This funeral,' said he, 'is over.'
"'Yes, yes,' I stammered, and choked over a sip of sherry.
"'We are waiting--let me tap you on the back--'
"'We are waiting to read the will.'
"I escaped from the room and rushed down to the stables. The ostler was harnessing the one brown horse that remained.
"I was thinking you wouldn't be long, sir. You're the very last, I believe, and here ends a long day's work.'
"I drove off. It was near seven by this, but I didn't even think of the night-class. I was wondering if the horse I drove were really Trumpeter. Somehow--whether because his feed of corn pricked him or no I can't say--he seemed a deal livelier than on the outward journey. I looked at him narrowly in the twilight, and began to feel sure it was another horse. In spite of the cool air a sweat broke out upon me.
"Farmer Retallack was up and dressed and leaning on a stick in the doorway as I turned into the yard.
"'I've been that worried about ye,' he began, 'I couldn't stay abed. Parson's been up twice from the schoolhouse to make inquiries. Where in the name o' goodness have 'ee been?'
"'That's a long story,' said I, and then, feigning to speak carelessly, though I heard my heart go thump--'How d'ye think Trumpeter looks after the journey?'
"'Oh, he's all right,' the old man replied indifferently; 'but come along in to supper.'
"Now, my dear sir"--the schoolmaster thus concluded his tale, tucking his umbrella tightly under his armpit, and tapping his right forefinger on the palm of his left hand--"these pagans whom I teach are as sensitive as I to ridicule. If I only knew how to take them--if only I could lay my finger on the weak spot--I'd send their whole fabric of silly superstitions tumbling like a house of cards."
This happened last Thursday week. Early this morning I crossed the road as usual with my thermometer, and found a strip of pink calico hanging from the brambles by the mouth of Scarlet's Well. I had seen the pattern before on a gown worn by one of the villager's wives, and knew the rag was a votive offering, hung there because her child, who has been ailing all the winter, is now strong enough to go out into the sunshine. As I bent the bramble carefully aside, before stooping over the water, Lizzie Polkinghorne came up the lane and halted behind me.
"Have 'ee heard the news?" she asked.
"No." I turned round, thermometer in hand.
"Why, Thomasine Slade's goin' to marry the schoolmaster! Their banns 'll be called first time nest Sunday."
We looked at each other, and she broke into a shout of laughter. Lizzie's laugh is irresistible.
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