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NOT AT HOME
Mrs. Hockin, however, had not the pleasure promised her by the facetious Major of seeing me "make up to my grandmamma." For although we set off at once to catch the strange woman who had roused so much curiosity, and though, as we passed the door of Bruntlands, we saw her still at her post in the valley, like Major Hockin's new letter-box, for some reason best known to herself we could not see any more of her. For, hurry as he might upon other occasions, nothing would make the Major cut a corner of his winding "drive" when descending it with a visitor. He enjoyed every yard of its length, because it was his own at every step, and he counted his paces in an under-tone, to be sure of the length, for perhaps the thousandth time. It was long enough in a straight line, one would have thought, but he was not the one who thought so; and therefore he had doubled it by judicious windings, as if for the purpose of breaking the descent.
"Three hundred and twenty-one," he said, as he came to a post, where he meant to have a lodge as soon as his wife would let him; "now the old woman stands fifty-five yards on, at a spot where I mean to have an ornamental bridge, because our fine saline element runs up there when the new moon is perigee. My dear, I am a little out of breath, which affects my sight for the moment. Doubtless that is why I do not see her."
"If I may offer an opinion," I said, "in my ignorance of all the changes you have made, the reason why we do not see her may be that she is gone out of sight."
"Impossible!" Major Hockin cried--"simply impossible, Erema! She never moves for an hour and a half. And she was not come, was she, when you came by?"
"I will not be certain," I answered; "but I think that I must have seen her if she had been there, because I was looking about particularly at all your works as we came by."
"Then she must be there still; let us tackle her."
This was easier said than done, for we found no sign of any body at the place where she certainly had been standing less than five minutes ago. We stood at the very end and last corner of the ancient river trough, where a little seam went inland from it, as if some trifle of a brook had stolen down while it found a good river to welcome it. But now there was only a little oozy gloss from the gleam of the sun upon some lees of marshy brine left among the rushes by the last high tide.
"You see my new road and the key to my intentions?" said the Major, forgetting all about his witch, and flourishing his geological hammer, while standing thus at his "nucleus." "To understand all, you have only to stand here. You see those leveling posts, adjusted with scientific accuracy. You see all those angles, calculated with micrometric precision. You see how the curves are radiated--"
"It is very beautiful, I have no doubt; but you can not have Uncle Sam's gift of machinery. And do you understand every bit of it yourself?"
"Erema, not a jot of it. I like to talk about it freely when I can, because I see all its beauties. But as to understanding it, my dear, you might set to, if you were an educated female, and deliver me a lecture upon my own plan. Intellect is, in such matters, a bubble. I know good bricks, good mortar, and good foundations."
"With your great ability, you must do that," I answered, very gently, being touched with his humility and allowance of my opinion; "you will make a noble town of it. But when is the railway coming?"
"Not yet. We have first to get our Act; and a miserable-minded wretch, who owns nothing but a rabbit-warren, means to oppose it. Don't let us talk of him. It puts one out of patience when a man can not see his own interest. But come and see our assembly-rooms, literary institute, baths, etc., etc.--that is what we are urging forward now."
"But may I not go first and look for my strange namesake? Would it be wrong of me to call upon her?"
"No harm whatever," replied my companion; "likewise no good. Call fifty times, but you will get no answer. However, it is not a very great round, and you will understand my plans more clearly. Step out, my dear, as if you had got a troop of Mexicans after you. Ah, what a fine turn for that lot now!" He was thinking of the war which had broken out, and the battle of Bull's Run.
Without any such headlong speed, we soon came to the dwelling-place of the stranger, and really for once the good Major had not much overdone his description. Truly it was almost tumbling down, though massively built, and a good house long ago; and it looked the more miserable now from being placed in a hollow of the ground, whose slopes were tufted with rushes and thistles and ragwort. The lower windows were blocked up from within, the upper were shattered and crumbling and dangerous, with blocks of cracked stone jutting over them; and the last surviving chimney gave less smoke than a workman's homeward whiff of his pipe to comfort and relieve the air.
The only door that we could see was of heavy black oak, without any knocker; but I clinched my hand, having thick gloves on, and made what I thought a very creditable knock, while the Major stood by, with his blue-lights up, and keenly gazed and gently smiled.
"Knock again, my dear," he said; "you don't knock half hard enough."
I knocked again with all my might, and got a bruised hand for a fortnight, but there was not even the momentary content produced by an active echo. The door was as dead as every thing else.
"Now for my hammer," my companion cried. "This house, in all sound law, is my own. I will have a 'John Doe and Richard Roe'--a fine action of ejectment. Shall I be barred out upon my own manor?"
With hot indignation he swung his hammer, but nothing came of it except more noise. Then the Major grew warm and angry.
"My charter contains the right of burning witches or drowning them, according to their color. The execution is specially imposed upon the bailiff of this ancient town, and he is my own pickled-pork man. His name is Hopkins, and I will have him out with his seal and stick and all the rest. Am I to be laughed at in this way?"
For we thought we heard a little screech of laughter from the loneliness of the deep dark place, but no other answer came, and perhaps it was only our own imagining.
"Is there no other door--perhaps one at the back?" I asked, as the lord of the manor stamped.
"No, that has been walled up long ago. The villain has defied me from the very first. Well, we shall see. This is all very fine. You witness that they deny the owner entrance?"
"Undoubtedly I can depose to that. But we must not waste your valuable time."
"After all, the poor ruin is worthless," he went on, calming down as we retired. "It must be leveled, and that hole filled up. It is quite an eye-sore to our new parade. And no doubt it belongs to me--no doubt it does. The fellow who claims it was turned out of the law. Fancy any man turned out of the law! Erema, in all your far West experience, did you ever see a man bad enough to be turned out of the law?"
"Major Hockin, how can I tell? But I fear that their practice was very, very sad--they very nearly always used to hang them."
"The best use--the best use a rogue can be put to. Some big thief has put it the opposite way, because he was afraid of his own turn. The constitution must be upheld, and, by the Lord! it shall be--at any rate, in East Bruntsea. West Bruntsea is all a small-pox warren out of my control, and a skewer in my flesh. And some of my tenants have gone across the line to snap their dirty hands at me."
Being once in this cue, Major Hockin went on, not talking to me much, but rather to himself, though expecting me now and then to say "yes;" and this I did when necessary, for his principles of action were beyond all challenge, and the only question was how he carried them out.
He took me to his rampart, which was sure to stop the sea, and at the same time to afford the finest place in all Great Britain for a view of it. Even an invalid might sit here in perfect shelter from the heaviest gale, and watch such billows as were not to be seen except upon the Major's property.
"The reason of that is quite simple," he said, "and a child may see the force of it. In no other part of the kingdom can you find so steep a beach fronting the southwest winds, which are ten to one of all other winds, without any break of sand or rock outside. Hence we have what you can not have on a shallow shore--grand rollers: straight from the very Atlantic, Erema; you and I have seen them. You may see by the map that they all end here, with the wind in the proper quarter."
"Oh, please not to talk of such horrors," I said. "Why, your ramparts would go like pie crust."
The Major smiled a superior smile, and after more talk we went home to dinner.
From something more than mere curiosity, I waited at Bruntsea for a day or two, hoping to see that strange namesake of mine who had shown so much inhospitality. For she must have been at home when we made that pressing call, inasmuch as there was no other place to hide her within the needful distance of the spot where she had stood. But the longer I waited, the less would she come out--to borrow the good Irishman's expression--and the Major's pillar-box, her favorite resort, was left in conspicuous solitude. And when a letter came from Sir Montague Hockin, asking leave to be at Bruntlands on the following evening, I packed up my goods with all haste, and set off, not an hour too soon, for Shoxford.
But before taking leave of these kind friends, I begged them to do for me one little thing, without asking me to explain my reason, which, indeed, was more than I could do. I begged them, not of course to watch Sir Montague, for that they could not well do to a guest, but simply to keep their eyes open and prepared for any sign of intercourse, if such there were, between this gentleman and that strange interloper. Major Hockin stared, and his wife looked at me as if my poor mind must have gone astray, and even to myself my own thought appeared absurd. Remembering, however, what Sir Montague had said, and other little things as well, I did not laugh as they did. But perhaps one part of my conduct was not right, though the wrong (if any) had been done before that--to wit, I had faithfully promised Mrs. Price not to say a word at Bruntlands about their visitor's low and sinful treachery toward my cousin. To give such a promise had perhaps been wrong, but still without it I should have heard nothing of matters that concerned me nearly. And now it seemed almost worse to keep than to break such a pledge, when I thought of a pious, pure-minded, and holy-hearted woman, like my dear "Aunt Mary," unwittingly brought into friendly contact with a man of the lowest nature. And as for the Major, instead of sitting down with such a man to dinner, what would he have done but drive him straightway from the door, and chase him to the utmost verge of his manor with the peak end of his "geological hammer?"
However, away I went without a word against that contemptible and base man, toward whom--though he never had injured me--I cherished, for my poor cousin's sake, the implacable hatred of virtuous youth. And a wild idea had occurred to me (as many wild ideas did now in the crowd of things gathering round me) that this strange woman, concealed from the world, yet keenly watching some members of it, might be that fallen and miserable creature who had fled from a good man with a bad one, because he was more like herself--Flittamore, Lady Castlewood. Not that she could be an "old woman" yet, but she might look old, either by disguise, or through her own wickedness; and every body knows how suddenly those southern beauties fall off, alike in face and figure. Mrs. Price had not told me what became of her, or even whether she was dead or alive, but merely said, with a meaning look, that she was "punished" for her sin, and I had not ventured to inquire how, the subject being so distasteful.
To my great surprise, and uneasiness as well, I had found at Bruntlands no letter whatever, either to the Major or myself, from Uncle Sam or any other person at the saw-mills. There had not been time for any answer to my letter of some two months back, yet being alarmed by the Sawyer's last tidings, I longed, with some terror, for later news. And all the United Kingdom was now watching with tender interest the dismemberment, as it almost appeared, of the other mighty Union. Not with malice, or snug satisfaction, as the men of the North in their agony said, but certainly without any proper anguish yet, and rather as a genial and sprightly spectator, whose love of fair play perhaps kindles his applause of the spirit and skill of the weaker side. "'Tis a good fight--let them fight it out!" seemed to be the general sentiment; but in spite of some American vaunt and menace (which of late years had been galling) every true Englishman deeply would have mourned the humiliation of his kindred.
In this anxiety for news I begged that my letters might be forwarded under cover to the postmistress at Shoxford, and bearing my initials. For now I had made up my mind to let Mrs. Busk know whatever I could tell her. I had found her a cross and well-educated woman, far above her neighbors, and determined to remain so. Gossip, that universal leveler, theoretically she despised; and she had that magnificent esteem for rank which works so beautifully in England. And now when my good nurse reasonably said that, much as she loved to be with me, her business would allow that delight no longer, and it also came home to my own mind that money would be running short again, and small hope left in this dreadful civil war of our nugget escaping pillage (which made me shudder horribly at internal discord), I just did this--I dismissed Betsy, or rather I let her dismiss herself, which she might not have altogether meant to do, although she threatened it so often. For here she had nothing to do but live well, and protest against tricks of her own profession which she practiced as necessary laws at home; and so, with much affection, for the time we parted.
Mrs. Busk was delighted at her departure, for she never had liked to be criticised so keenly while she was doing her very best. And as soon as the wheels of Betsy's fly had shown their last spoke at the corner, she told me, with a smile, that her mind had been made up to give us notice that very evening to seek for better lodgings. But she could not wish for a quieter, pleasanter, or more easily pleased young lady than I was without any mischief-maker; and so, on the spur of the moment, I took her into my own room, while her little girl minded the shop, and there and then I told her who I was, and what I wanted.
And now she behaved most admirably. Instead of expressing surprise, she assured me that all along she had felt there was something, and that I must be somebody. Lovely as my paintings were (which I never heard, before or since, from any impartial censor), she had known that it could not be that alone which had kept me so long in their happy valley. And now she did hope I would do her the honor to stay beneath her humble roof, though entitled to one so different. And was the fairy ring in the church-yard made of all my family?
I replied that too surely this was so, and that nothing would please me better than to find, according to my stature, room to sleep inside it as soon as ever I should have solved the mystery of its origin. At the moment this was no exaggeration, so depressing was the sense of fighting against the unknown so long, with scarcely any one to stand by me, or avenge me if I fell. And Betsy's departure, though I tried to take it mildly, had left me with a readiness to catch my breath.
But to dwell upon sadness no more than need be (a need as sure as hunger), it was manifest now to my wondering mind that once more I had chanced upon a good, and warm, and steadfast heart. Every body is said to be born, whether that happens by night or day, with a certain little widowed star, which has lost its previous mortal, concentrating from a billion billion of miles, or leagues, or larger measure, intense, but generally invisible, radiance upon him or her; and to take for the moment this old fable as of serious meaning, my star was to find bad facts at a glance, but no bad folk without long gaze.
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