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A SIMPLE QUESTION
Now this account of what Jacob Rigg had seen and heard threw me into a state of mind extremely unsatisfactory. To be in eager search of some unknown person who had injured me inexpressibly, without any longing for revenge on my part, but simply with a view to justice--this was a very different thing from feeling that an unknown person was in quest of me, with the horrible purpose of destroying me to insure his own wicked safety.
At first I almost thought that he was welcome to do this; that such a life as mine (if looked at from an outer point of view) was better to be died than lived out. Also that there was nobody left to get any good out of all that I could do; and even if I ever should succeed, truth would come out of her tomb too late. And this began to make me cry, which I had long given over doing, with no one to feel for the heart of it.
But a thing of this kind could not long endure; and as soon as the sun of the morrow arose (or at least as soon as I was fit to see him), my view of the world was quite different. Here was the merry brook, playing with the morning, spread around with ample depth and rich retreat of meadows, and often, after maze of leisure, hastening with a tinkle into shadowy delight of trees. Here, as well, were happy lanes, and footpaths of a soft content, unworn with any pressure of the price of time or business. None of them knew (in spite, at flurried spots, of their own direction posts) whence they were coming or whither going--only that here they lay, between the fields or through them, like idle veins of earth, with sometimes company of a man or boy, whistling to his footfall, or a singing maid with a milking pail. And how ungrateful it would be to forget the pleasant copses, in waves of deep green leafage flowing down and up the channeled hills, waving at the wind to tints and tones of new refreshment, and tempting idle folk to come and hear the hush, and see the twinkled texture of pellucid gloom.
Much, however, as I loved to sit in places of this kind alone, for some little time I feared to do so, after hearing the sexton's tale; for Jacob's terror was so unfeigned (though his own life had not been threatened) that, knowing as I did from Betsy's account, as well as his own appearance, that he was not at all a nervous man, I could not help sharing his vague alarm. It seemed so terrible that any one should come to the graves of my sweet mother and her six harmless children, and, instead of showing pity, as even a monster might have tried to do, should stand, if not with threatening gestures, yet with a most hostile mien, and thirst for the life of the only survivor--my poor self.
But terrible or not, the truth was so; and neither Betsy nor myself could shake Mr. Rigg's conclusion. Indeed, he became more and more emphatic, in reply to our doubts and mild suggestions, perhaps that his eyes had deceived him, or perhaps that, taking a nap in the corner of the buttress, he had dreamed at least a part of it. And Betsy, on the score of ancient friendship and kind remembrance of his likings, put it to him in a gentle way whether his knowledge of what Sally Mock had been, and the calumnies she might have spoken of his beer (when herself, in the work-house, deprived of it), might not have induced him to take a little more than usual in going down so deep for her. But he answered, "No; it was nothing of the sort. Deep he had gone, to the tiptoe of his fling; not from any feeling of a wish to keep her down, but just because the parish paid, and the parish would have measurement. And when that was on, he never brought down more than the quart tin from the public; and never had none down afterward. Otherwise the ground was so ticklish, that a man, working too free, might stay down there. No, no! That idea was like one of Sally's own. He just had his quart of Persfield ale--short measure, of course, with a woman at the bar--and if that were enough to make a man dream dreams, the sooner he dug his own grave, the better for all connected with him."
We saw that we had gone too far in thinking of such a possibility; and if Mr. Rigg had not been large-minded, as well as notoriously sober, Betsy might have lost me all the benefit of his evidence by her London-bred clumsiness with him. For it takes quite a different handling, and a different mode of outset, to get on with the London working class and the laboring kind of the country; or at least it seemed to me so.
Now my knowledge of Jacob Rigg was owing, as might be supposed, to Betsy Strouss, who had taken the lead of me in almost every thing ever since I brought her down from London. And now I was glad that, in one point at least, her judgment had overruled mine--to wit, that my name and parentage were as yet not generally known in the village. Indeed, only Betsy herself and Jacob and a faithful old washer-woman, with no roof to her mouth, were aware of me as Miss Castlewood. Not that I had taken any other name--to that I would not stoop--but because the public, of its own accord, paying attention to Betsy's style of addressing me, followed her lead (with some little improvement), and was pleased to entitle me "Miss Raumur."
Some question had been raised as to spelling me aright, till a man of advanced intelligence proved to many eyes, and even several pairs of spectacles (assembled in front of the blacksmith's shop), that no other way could be right except that. For there it was in print, as any one able might see, on the side of an instrument whose name and qualities were even more mysterious than those in debate. Therefore I became "Miss Raumur;" and a protest would have gone for nothing unless printed also. But it did not behoove me to go to that expense, while it suited me very well to be considered and pitied as a harmless foreigner--a being who on English land may find some cause to doubt whether, even in his own country, a prophet could be less thought of. And this large pity for me, as an outlandish person, in the very spot where I was born, endowed me with tenfold the privilege of the proudest native. For the natives of this valley are declared to be of a different stock from those around them, not of the common Wessex strain, but of Jutish or Danish origin. How that may be I do not know; at any rate, they think well of themselves, and no doubt they have cause to do so.
Moreover, they all were very kind to me, and their primitive ways amused me, as soon as they had settled that I was a foreigner, equally beyond and below inquiry. They told me that I was kindly welcome to stay there as long as it pleased me; and knowing how fond I was of making pictures, after beholding my drawing-book, every farmer among them gave me leave to come into his fields, though he never had heard there was any thing there worth painting.
When once there has been a deposit of idea in the calm deep eocene of British rural mind, the impression will outlast any shallow deluge of the noblest education. Shoxford had settled two points forever, without troubling reason to come out of her way--first, that I was a foreign young lady of good birth, manners, and money; second, and far more important, I was here to write and paint a book about Shoxford. Not for the money, of that I had no need (according to the congress at the "Silver-edged Holly"), but for the praise and the knowledge of it, like, and to make a talk among high people. But the elders shook their heads--as I heard from Mr. Rigg, who hugged his knowledge proudly, and uttered dim sayings of wisdom let forth at large usury: he did not mind telling me that the old men shook their heads, for fear of my being a deal too young, and a long sight too well favored (as any man might tell without his specs on), for to write any book upon any subject yet, leave alone an old, ancient town like theirs. However, there might be no harm in my trying, and perhaps the school-master would cross out the bad language.
Thus for once fortune now was giving me good help, enabling me to go about freely, and preventing (so far as I could see, at least) all danger of discovery by my unknown foe. So here I resolved to keep my head-quarters, dispensing, if it must be so, with Betsy's presence, and not even having Mrs. Price to succeed her, unless my cousin should insist upon it. And partly to dissuade him from that, and partly to hear his opinion of the sexton's tale, I paid a flying visit to Lord Castlewood; while "Madam Straw," as Betsy now was called throughout the village, remained behind at Shoxford. For I long had desired to know a thing which I had not ventured to ask my cousin--though I did ask Mr. Shovelin--whether my father had intrusted him with the key of his own mysterious acts. I scarcely knew whether it was proper even now to put this question to Lord Castlewood; but even without doing so, I might get at the answer by watching him closely while I told my tale. Not a letter had reached me since I came to Shoxford, neither had I written any, except one to Uncle Sam; and keeping to this excellent rule, I arrived at Castlewood without notice.
In doing this I took no liberty, because full permission had been given me about it; and indeed I had been expected there, as Stixon told me, some days before. He added that his master was about as usual, but had shown some uneasiness on my account, though the butler was all in the dark about it, and felt it very hard after all these years, "particular, when he could hardly help thinking that Mrs. Price--a new hand compared to himself, not to speak of being a female--knowed all about it, and were very aggravating. But there, he would say no more; he knew his place, and he always had been valued in it, long afore Mrs. Price come up to the bottom of his waistcoat."
My cousin received me with kindly warmth, and kissed me gently on the forehead. "My dear, how very well you look!" he said. "Your native air has agreed with you. I was getting, in my quiet way, rather sedulous and self-reproachful about you. But you would have your own way, like a young American; and it seems that you were right."
"It was quite right," I answered, with a hearty kiss, for I never could be cold-natured; and this was my only one of near kin, so far, at least, as my knowledge went. "I was quite right in going; and I have done good. At any rate, I have found out something--something that may not be of any kind of use; but still it makes me hope things."
With that, in as few words as ever I could use, I told Lord Castlewood the whole of Jacob's tale, particularly looking at him all the while I spoke, to settle in my own mind whether the idea of such a thing was new to him. Concerning that, however, I could make out nothing. My cousin, at his time of life, and after so much travelling, had much too large a share of mind and long skill of experience for me to make any thing out of his face beyond his own intention. And whether he had suspicion or not of any thing at all like what I was describing, or any body having to do with it, was more than I ever might have known, if I had not gathered up my courage and put the question outright to him. I told him that if I was wrong in asking, he was not to answer; but, right or wrong, ask him I must.
"The question is natural, and not at all improper," replied Lord Castlewood, standing a moment for change of pain, which was all his relief. "Indeed, I expected you to ask me that before. But, Erema, I have also had to ask myself about it, whether I have any right to answer you. And I have decided not to do so, unless you will pledge yourself to one thing."
"I will pledge myself to any thing," I answered, rashly; "I do not care what it is, if only to get at the bottom of this mystery."
"I scarcely think you will hold good to your words when you hear what you have to promise. The condition upon which I tell you what I believe to be the cause of all is, that you let things remain as they are, and keep silence forever about them."
"Oh, you can not be so cruel, so atrocious!" I cried, in my bitter disappointment. "What good would it be for me to know things thus, and let the vile wrong continue? Surely you are not bound to lay on me a condition so impossible?"
"After much consideration and strong wish to have it otherwise, I have concluded that I am so bound."
"In duty to my father, or the family, or what? Forgive me for asking, but it does seem so hard."
"It seems hard, my dear, and it is hard as well," he answered, very gently, yet showing in his eyes and lips no chance of any yielding. "But remember that I do not know, I only guess, the secret; and if you give the pledge I speak of, you merely follow in your father's steps."
"Never," I replied, with as firm a face as his. "It may have been my father's duty, or no doubt he thought it so; but it can not be mine, unless I make it so by laying it on my honor. And I will not do that."
"Perhaps you are right; but, at any rate, remember that I have not tried to persuade you. I wish to do what is for your happiness, Erema. And I think that, on the whole, with your vigor and high spirit, you are better as you are than if you had a knowledge which you could only brood over and not use."
"I will find out the whole of it myself," I cried, for I could not repress all excitement; "and then I need not brood over it, but may have it out and get justice. In the wildest parts of America justice comes with perseverance: am I to abjure it in the heart of England? Lord Castlewood, which is first--justice or honor?"
"My cousin, you are fond of asking questions difficult to answer. Justice and honor nearly always go together. When they do otherwise, honor stands foremost, with people of good birth, at least."
"Then I will be a person of very bad birth. If they come into conflict in my life, as almost every thing seems to do, my first thought shall be of justice; and honor shall come in as its ornament afterward."
"Erema," said my cousin, "your meaning is good, and at your time of life you can scarcely be expected to take a dispassionate view of things."
At first I felt almost as if I could hate a "dispassionate view of things." Things are made to arouse our passion, so long as meanness and villainy prevail; and if old men, knowing the balance of the world, can contemplate them all "dispassionately," more clearly than any thing else, to my mind, that proves the beauty of being young. I am sure that I never was hot or violent--qualities which I especially dislike--but still I would rather almost have those than be too philosophical. And now, while I revered my father's cousin for his gentleness, wisdom, and long-suffering, I almost longed to fly back to the Major, prejudiced, peppery, and red-hot for justice, at any rate in all things that concerned himself.
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