HotFreeBooks.com
The Broom-Squire
by S. (Sabine) Baring-Gould
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Nuthin' else?"

"And because he would never make a farmer nor an innkeeper."

"It's a dratted noosence is this here porch," muttered the hostess. "It ort to 'a been altered ages agone, but lor', heart-alive, the old man be that stubborn and agin' all change. And you heard no more?"

"I was busy, mother, and didn't give attention to what didn't concern me."

"Oh!" said Mrs. Verstage, "only listened, did you, to what did concern you?"

A fear had come over the hostess lest the girl had caught Simon's words relative to his notion, rather than intention, of bequeathing what he had away from Iver and to the child that had been adopted.

Of course, Simon did not seriously purpose doing anything of the sort. It was foolish, inconsiderate of him to give utterance to such a thought, and that in such a place as the porch, whence every whisper was conveyed throughout the interior of the house.

If Mehetabel had overheard his words, what a Fool's Paradise she might create for herself! How her head might be turned, and what airs she might give herself.

Leave the farm, the inn, everything to a girl with whom they were wholly unconnected, and to the detriment of the son. Hoity-toity! such a thought must not be allowed to settle, to take root, to spring up and fructify.

"Mother," said the girl, "I think that you ought to write to Iver with your own hand, though I know it will cost you trouble. But it need not be in many words. Say he must come himself without delay and see father. If Iver keeps at a distance the breakage will never be mended, the wound will never be healed. Father is a resolute man, but he is tender-hearted under all, and he's ever been wonderful kind to me."

"Oh, yes, so long as he ain't crossed he's right enough with anyone," answered Mrs. Verstage quickly. She did not relish the allusion to the old man's kindness towards Mehetabel, it seemed to her suspicious heart due to anticipation of what had been hinted by him. She considered a moment, and determined to have the whole matter out, and to dash any expectations the girl might have formed at once and for ever. A direct woman Mrs. Verstage had ever been.

"Matabel," she said, and drew her lips together and contracted her brows, "whatever father may scheme about making a will, it's all gammon and nonsense. I don't know whether he's said any tomfoolery about it to you, or may do so in time to come. Don't think nuthin' of it. Why should he make a will? He has but Iver to whom he can leave what he has. If he don't make a will—where's the odds? The law will see to it; that everything goes to Iver, just as it ort."

"You will write to Iver to come?"

"Yes, I will. Matters can't be worse than they be, and they may come to a betterment. O dear life of me! What I have suffered all these years, parted from my only child."

"I have tried to do what I could for you, dear mother."

"Oh, yes"—the bitterness was still oozing up in the woman's heart, engalling her own mind—"that I know well enough. But then you ain't my flesh and blood. You may call me mother, and you may speak of Simon as father, but that don't alter matters, no more nor when Samuel Doit would call the cabbage plants broccaloes did it make 'em grow great flower heads like passon's wigs. Iver is my son, my very own child. You, Matabel, are only—"

"Only what, mother?"

"Only a charity girl."



CHAPTER IX.

BIDEABOUT.

The words were hardly spoken before a twinge of conscience made Mrs. Verstage aware that she had given pain to the girl who had been to her as a daughter.

Yet she justified herself to herself with the consideration that it was in the end kindest to cut down ruthlessly any springing expectation that might have started to life at the words of Simon Verstage. The hostess cast a glance at Mehetabel, and saw that her face was quivering, that all color had gone out of her cheeks, that her hands were contracted as with the cramp.

"I had no wish to hurt you," said the landlady; "but facks are facks, and you may pull down the blinds over 'em wi'out putting them out o' existence. There's Laura Tickner—got a face like a peony. She sez it's innade modesty; but we all knows it's arrysippelas, and Matthew Maunder tells us his nose comes from indigestion; but it's liquor, as I've the best reason to know. Matabel, I love you well, but always face facks. You can't get rid of facks any more than you can get rid of fleas out o' poultry."

Mrs. Verstage disappeared through the doorway. Mehetabel seated herself on the bench. She could not follow the hostess, for her limbs trembled and threatened to give way.

She folded her arms on her lap, and leaned forward, with her eyes on the ground.

"A charity girl! Only a charity girl!"

She said the words to herself again and again. Her eyes burnt; a spray hung on her eyelids. Her lips were contracted with pain, spasms ran through her breast.

"Only a charity girl! She'd never, never a'sed that had she loved me. She don't." Then came a sob. Mehetabel tried to check it, but could not, and the sound of that sob passed through the house. It was followed by no other.

The girl recovered herself, leaned back against the wall, and looked at the twilight sky.

There was no night now. The season was near midsummer:—

"Barnaby bright, All day and no night."

Into the luminous blue sky Mehetabel looked steadily, and did battle with her own self in her heart.

That which had been said so shortly was true; had it been wrapped up in filagree—through all disguise the solid unpleasant truth would remain as core. If that were true, then why should she be so stung by the few words that contained the truth?

It was not the words that had hurt her—she had heard them often at school—it was that "Mother" had said them. It was the way in which they had been uttered.

Mrs. Verstage had ever been kind to the girl; more affectionate when she was quite a child than when she became older. Gradually the hostess had come to use her, and using her as a servant, to regard her in that light.

Susanna Verstage was one of those women to whom a baby is almost a necessity, certainly a prime element of happiness. As she philosophically put it, "Men likes 'baccy; wimin likes babies; they was made so;" but the passion for a baby was doubly strong in the heart of the landlady. As long as Mehetabel was entirely dependent, the threads that held her to the heart of the hostess were very strong, and very many, but so soon as she became independent, these threads were relaxed. The good woman had a blunt and peremptory manner, and she at times ruffled the girl by sharpness of rebuke; but never previously had she alluded to her peculiar position and circumstances in such a galling manner.

Why had she done this now? Why gone out of her way to do so?

Mehetabel thought how wonderful it was that she, a stranger, should be in that house, treated almost, though not wholly, as its child, whereas the son of the house was shut out from it,—that against him only was the door fast, which was held open with invitation to every one else.

It was the thought of this contrast, perhaps, that had been working in Mrs. Verstage's mind, and had provoked the impatience and occasioned the cruel words.

"Well," said Mehetabel to herself, "I must face it. I have only the name that Iver gave me in the barn. I have no father, no mother, and no other name than that which I am given in charity." She looked at her gown. "I owe that to charity;" at her hands—"My flesh is nourished out of charity." She wiped her eyes—the very kerchief was a gift to her in charity. "It is so," she said. "I must bear the thought and get accustomed to it. I was given a name in charity, and in charity my father was granted a grave. All I can look to as in some fashion my own—and yet they are not my own—be the headstone in the churchyard to show how my real father was killed, and the gallows on Hind Head, with the chains, to tell where those hung who killed him. 'Tain't every one can show that." She raised her head with a flash of pride. Human Nature must find something on which to plume itself. If nothing else can be found, then a murdered father and a gallows for the murderers served.

Mehetabel was a handsome girl, and she knew it. She could not fail to know it, situated as she was. The men who frequented the public house would not leave a girl long in doubt whether she were comely or the reverse.

But Mehetabel made small account of her appearance. No youth of the neighborhood had won his way into her heart; and she blew away the compliments lavished upon her as the men blew away the froth from their tankards. What mattered it whether she were good-looking or not, so long as she was only Mehetabel, without a surname, without kin, without a penny!

When Iver had run away from home she had done all that lay in her power to comfort the mother. She had relieved the landlady of half of her work; she had stayed up her heart when downcast, despondent. She had talked with her of the absent son, whose name the father would not allow to be mentioned in his hearing; had encouraged her with hopes, and, by her love, had sought to compensate for the loss.

It was due to her that the Ship Inn had a breath of youth and cheerfulness infused into it. But for her, the absence and indifference of the host, and the moroseness of the disappointed hostess, would have driven custom away.

Mrs. Verstage had found her useful, even necessary. She could hardly endure to be for an hour without her, and she had come to rely upon her more and more in the conduct of business, especially such as required sufficient scholarship to do correspondence and keep accounts.

The hostess was proud of the girl's beauty and engaging manner, and took to herself some of the credit of having her adopted daughter regarded as the belle of Thursley. She was pleased to see that the men admired her, not less than the women envied her. There was selfishness in all this. Mrs. Verstage's heart was without sincerity. She had loved Mehetabel as a babe, because the child amused her. She liked her as a girl, because serviceable to her, and because it flattered her vanity to think that her adopted daughter should be so handsome.

Now, however, that the suspicion was engendered that her own son might be set aside in favor of the adopted child, through Simon's partiality, at once her maternal heart took the alarm, and turned against the girl in resolution to protect the rights of Iver, Mehetabel did not understand the workings of Susanna Verstage's mind. She felt that the regard entertained for her was troubled.

She had heard Simon Verstage's remark about constituting her his heir, but had so little considered it as seriously spoken, and as embodying a resolution, that it did not now occur to her as an explanation of the altered conduct of the "mother" towards herself.

Mehetabel felt instinctively that a vein of truer love throbbed in the old host than in his wife; and now, with a hunger for some word of kindness after the rebuff she had sustained, she stood up and walked in the direction of the hayfield to meet Simon Verstage on his return journey.

As she stepped along she heard a footfall behind her. The step was quickened, and a hand was laid on her shoulder. She turned, and exclaimed sharply:

"Bideabout—what do you want?"

"You, Matabel."

A man stayed her: the Broom-Squire.

"What with me?"

"I want you to listen to what I have to say."

"I can spare you a minute, not more. I expect father. He has gone to look at the hay."

Mehetabel disengaged her shoulder from his grasp. She stepped back. She had no liking for the Broom-Squire. Indeed, he inspired her with a faint, undefined repugnance.

Jonas was now a middle-aged man, still occupying his farm in the Punch-Bowl, making brooms, selling holly, cultivating his patch of land, laying by money and still a bachelor.

He had rounded shoulders and a short neck; this made him thrust his head forward in a peering manner, like a beast of prey watching for a victim. His eyes were keen and restless. His hair was short-cut, and his ears projected from the sides of his head like those of a bat. Otherwise he was not a bad-looking man. His features were good, but his expression was unpleasant. The thin lip was curled contemptuously; and he had a trick of thrusting forth his sharp tongue to wet his lips before making a spiteful remark.

He was a frequent visitor at the Ship, and indeed his inclination for liquor was his one weakness.

Of late he had been much oftener at this inn than formerly. Latterly he had been profuse in his compliments to Mehetabel, which she had put aside, much as she brushed empty tankards, and tobacco ash off the table. He was no welcome guest. His bitter tongue was the occasion of strife, and a brawl was no infrequent result of the appearance of the Broom-Squire in the public house. Sometimes he himself became the object of attack, but usually he succeeded in setting others by the ears and in himself escaping unmolested. But on one of the former occasions he had lost two front teeth, and through the gap thus formed he was wont to thrust his tongue.

"I am glad to have caught you," said the Broom-Squire; "and caught you alone—it is hard to find you so—as it's hard to find a treacle cask without flies round it."

"What have you to say?"

"You have always slipped out of my way when I thought I had you."

"I did not know that you had a fancy to catch me alone." She made as if to proceed on her course.

"Stand still," said he imperiously. "It must come out. Do not look at me with that keep-your-distance air. I mean no incivility. I care a deal more for you than for any one else."

"That is not saying much."

"I care for you alone in all the world."

"Except yourself."

"Of course."

He breathed as though relieved of a burden.

"Look here, Mehetabel, I've not been a marrying man. Wife and family cost too much. I've been saving and not spending. But this can't go on forever. All good things come to an end some time. It has come to this, I must have a woman to mind the house. My sister and I have had a tiff. You know her, Sarah Rocliffe. She won't do as I like, and what I want. So I'll just shut the door in her face and make a long nose at her, and say, 'Got some one else now.'"

"So," exclaimed Mehetabel, the color rushing to her cheeks in anger, "you want me as your housekeeper that you may make a nose at your sister and deny her the house."

"I won't have any other woman in my house but yourself."

"You will have to wait a long time before you get me."

"I mean all fair and honorable," said Jonas. "I didn't say housekeeper, did I? I say wife. If any chap had said to me, Bideabout, you are putting your feet into a rabbit net, and will be caught, and—'" he made a sign as if knocking a rabbit's neck to kill it—"I say, had any one said that, I'd a' laughed at him as a fool."

"You may laugh at him still," said the girl. "No one that I know has set any net for you."

"You have," he sniggered. "Aye, and caught me."

"I!" laughed Mehetabel contemptuously, "I spread a net for you? It is you who pursue and pester me. I never gave you a thought save how to make you keep at arm's length."

"You say that to me." His color went.

"It is ridiculous, it is insulting of you to speak to me of netting and catching. What do I want of you save to be let go my way."

"Come, Mehetabel," said the Broom-Squire caressingly, "we won't quarrel about words. I didn't mean what you have put on me. I want you to come and be my wife. It isn't only that I've had a quarrel with my sister. There's more than that. There is something like a stoat at my heart, biting there, and I have no rest till you say—'I'll have you, Jonas!'"

"The stoat must hang on. I can't say that."

"Why not?"

"I am not obliged to give a reason."

"Will you not have me?"

"No, Bideabout, I will not. How can I take an offer made in this way? When you ask me to enable you to be rude to your sister, when you speak of me as laying traps for you; and when you stay me on my road as if you were a footpad."

Again she made an attempt to go in the direction of the hayfield. Her bosom was heaving with anger, her nostrils were quivering.

Again he arrested her.

"If you will not let me go," said she, "I will call for help. Here comes father. He shall protect me."

"I'll have you yet," said the Broom-Squire with a sneer. "If it ain't you that nets me, then it'll be I net you, Mehetabel."



CHAPTER X.

INTO THE NET.

"We must have cake and ale for the hayfield," said Mrs. Verstage. "Of ale there be plenty in the house, but for cake, I must bake. It ort to ha' been done afore. Fresh cakes goes twice as fast as stale, but blessin's on us, the weather have been that changeable I didn't know but I might put it off to anywhen."

This was said on the morrow of the occurrence just described.

Whilst Mrs. Verstage was engaged in the baking she had not time for much talk, but she asked abruptly: "What's that as to Bideabout? Father said he'd come on you and him, and you was both in a sort o' take on."

Mehetabel had no reason for reticence, and she told the hostess of the suit of the Broom-Squire, and of the manner in which he made his proposal. Mrs. Verstage said nothing at the time. She was occupied—too occupied for comments. But when the cake was in the oven, she seated herself at the kitchen table, with a sigh of relief, and beckoned to Mehetabel to do the same.

Mrs. Verstage was warm, both on account of the heat of the morning, but also because she had been hard at work. She fanned herself with a dish, and as she did so looked at the girl.

"So—the Broom-Squire offered himself, did he?"

Mehetabel made a sign in the affirmative.

"Well," continued the hostess, "if he weren't so good a customer here he would be suitable enough. But yet a good wife will soon cure him. A hudger (bachelor) does things as a married man don't allow himself."

Mehetabel looked questioningly at the landlady.

She said: "There must be good stuff in a man, or marriage won't bring it out."

"Who says there ain't good stuff in Bideabout?"

"I have never seen the glint of it."

"You don't see the iron ore as lies under the sand, but there it is, and when wanted it can be worked. I like a man to show his wust side forefront. There's many a man's character is like his wesket, red plush and flowers in front and calico in rags behind hid away under his coat."

Mehetabel was surprised, troubled. She made no response, but color drifted across her face.

"After all," pursued Mrs. Verstage, "he may ha' come here not after liquor, but drawed by you. Then you see he's been alone all these years, and scriptur' saith it ain't good for a man to be that. They goes sour and mouldy—men do if unmarried. I think you'd be fulfillin' your dooty, and actin' accordin' to the word o' God if you took him."

"I—mother! I!" The girl shrank back. "Mother, let him take some one else. I don't want him."

"But he wants you, and he don't want another. Matabel, it's all moonshine about leap year. The time never comes when the woman can ax the man. It's tother way up—and Providence made it so. Bideabout has a good bit o' land, for which he is his own landlord, he has money laid by, so folks tell. You might do worse. It's a great complerment he's paid you. You see he's well off, and you have nothin'. Men generally, nowadays, look out for wives that have a bit o' money to help buy a field, or a cow, or nothin' more than a hog. You see Bideabout's above that sort o' thing. If you can't have butter to your bread, you must put up wi' drippin."

"I'm not going to take Bideabout," said Mehetabel.

"I don't say you should. But he couldn't a took a fancy to you wi'out Providence ordainin' of it."

"And if I don't like him," threw in the girl, half angry, half in tears, "I suppose that is the doings of Providence too?"

Mrs. Verstage evaded a reply to this. She said: "I do not press you to take him. You are kindly welcome to stay on with us a bit, till you've looked about you and found another. We took you up as a babe and cared for you; but the parish allowance was stopped when you was fourteen. It shan't be said of us that bare we took you in and bare we turn you out. But marry you must. It's ordained o' nature. There's the difference atwixt a slug and a snail. The snail's got her own house to go into. A slug hasn't. When she's uncomfortable she must go underground."

The hostess was silent for awhile. Mehetabel said nothing. Her cheeks burned. She was choking.

Mrs. Verstage went on: "There was Betsy Purvis—she was a bit of a beauty, and gave herself airs. She wouldn't have Farmer James, as his legs was so long, he looked like a spider—and she wouldn't have Odger Kay, as his was too short—he looked like a dachs-dog. It came in the end she married Purvis, who had both his legs shot off in the wars, 'cos and why? she couldn't get another. She'd been too finical in choosin'."

"Are you tired of me?" gasped the girl. "Do you wish to be rid of me?"

"Not at all," answered the landlady. "It's becos we're so fond of you, father and I, that we want to see you well settled."

"And father—does he wish me to take Bideabout?"

Mrs. Verstage hesitated.

"He hasn't said that right out. You see he didn't know for certain Jonas were hoppin' about you. But he'd be tremendous pleased to have you well married."

"And you think I should be well married if I became Bideabout's wife?"

"Of course. He's a great catch for the likes of you, who belong to nobody and to no place, properly. Beggars mustn't be choosers."

Mehetabel sprang to her feet.

"It is so. I am a beggar. I am only a charity girl, nothing else."

She struck her head against the wall. "Let me beat my brains out if I am in your way. Why should I be thrown into the arms of any passer-by?

"You misjudge and misunderstand me," said Mrs. Verstage, hotly. "Because you have been with me so long, and because I love you, I want to see you settled. Because I can't give you a prince in spangles and feathers you fly out against me."

"I don't ask for a prince, only to be let alone. I am happy here, as a girl, working for you and father."

"But we shall not live forever. We are growing old, and shall have to give up. Iver may return any day, and then—"

The hostess became crimson to the temples; she knew how handsome the girl was, doubly handsome she seemed now, in her heat and agitation, and it occurred to Mrs. Verstage that Iver with his artistic appreciation of the beautiful, might also think her handsome, that the old childish fancy for each other might spring to new and to stronger life, and that he might even think of Mehetabel as a wife. That would never, never do. For Iver something better must be found than a girl without means, friends, and name.

"What then?" asked Mehetabel. "Suppose Iver do come here and keep the inn. I can go with you wherever you go, and if you become old, I can attend to you in your old age."

"You are good," said Mrs. Verstage; but although her words were gracious, her manner was chilling. "It is for us to think of you and your future, not you to consider for us. The Broom-Squire—"

"I tell you, mother, I don't like him."

"You must hear me out. You do not love him. Lawk-a-jimmeny! we can't all marry for love. You don't suppose I was in love with Simon when I took him? I was a good-looking wench in my day, and I had many admirers, and were more of tragedy-kings than Simon. But I had sense, and I took him for the sake of the Ship Inn and the farm. We have lived happy together, and if it hadn't been for that matter of Iver, there'd not ha' been a cloud between us. Love grows among married folk, like chickweed in a garden. You can't keep it out. It is thick everywhere, and is never out o' season. I don't say there ain't a ripping of it out one day—but it comes again, twice as thick on the morrow, and much good it does! I don't think I cared for Simon when I took him any more than you care for Jonas, but I took him, and we've fared well enough together." After a pause the hostess said, "Talkin' of marriage, I have a fine scheme in my head. If Iver comes back, as I trust he will, I want him to marry Polly Colpus."

"Polly Colpus, mother!"

"She's James Colpus's only child, and will come in for money. James Colpus is a wonderful thrivin' man."

"But she has a moustache."

"What of that, if she have money?"

"But—Iver—if he couldn't bear an ugly signboard to the house, will he relish an ugly figure-head to his wife within it?"

"She has gold which will gild her moustache."

"I don't know," said Mehetabel; "Iver wouldn't take the business at his father's wish, will he take a wife of his mother's providing?"

"He will know which side his bread is buttered better than some persons I could name."

"I fancy when folk look out for wives, they don't borrow their mother's eyes."

"You cross me in everything to-day," said the hostess, peevishly.

Mehetabel's tears began to flow.

Mrs. Verstage was a woman who did not need much time or much balancing to arrive at a determination, and when she had formed her resolution, she clung to it with the same tenacity as her husband did to his.

Her maternal jealousy had been roused, and the maternal instinct is the strongest that exists in the female nature. Many a woman would allow herself to be cut to bits for her child. But not only will she sacrifice herself without hesitation, but also any one else who in any way hinders the progress of her schemes for the welfare of her child. Mrs. Verstage entertained affection for the girl, an affection very real, yet not to the extent of allowing it to blind her to the true interests of her own son. She was roused to jealousy by the partiality of Simon for his adopted daughter, to the prejudice of Iver. And now she was gravely alarmed lest on the return of Iver, the young affection of the two children for each other should take a new spell of life, assume a new form, and intensify into passion.

Accordingly she was resolved, if possible, to remove the girl from the Ship before the arrival of Iver. The proposal of the Broom-Squire was opportune, and she was anxious to forward his suit as the best means for raising an insuperable barrier between her son and the girl, as well as removing her from Simon, who, with his characteristic wrong-headedness, might actually do what he had proposed.

"I don't see what you're crying about," said Mrs. Verstage, testily. "It ain't no matter to you whether Iver takes Polly Colpus or a Royal Princess."

"I don't want him to be worried, mother, when he comes home with having ugly girls rammed down his throat. If you begin that with him he'll be off again."

"Oh! you know that, do you?"

"I am sure of it."

"I know what this means!" exclaimed the angry woman, losing all command over her tongue. "It means, in plain English, just this—'I'm going to try, by hook or by crook, to get Iver for myself.' That's what you're driving at, hussy! But I'll put you by the shoulders out of the door, or ever Iver comes, that you may be at none of them tricks. Do you think that because he baptized you, that he'll also marry you?"

Mehetabel sprang through the door with a cry of pain, of wounded pride, of resentment at the injustice wherewith she was treated, of love in recoil, and almost ran against the Broom-Squire. Almost without power to think, certainly without power to judge, fevered with passion to be away out of a house where she was so misjudged, she gasped, "Bideabout! will you have me now—even now. Mother turns me out of doors."

"Have you? To be sure I will," said Jonas; then with a laugh out of the side of his mouth, he added in an undertone, "Don't seem to want that I should set a net; she runs right into my hands. Wimen is wimen!"



CHAPTER XI.

A SURNAME AT LAST.

When Simon Verstage learned that Mehetabel was to be married to the Broom-Squire, he was not lightly troubled. He loved the girl more dearly than he was himself aware. He was accustomed to see her about the house, to hear her cheerful voice, and to be welcomed with a pleasant smile when he returned from the fields. There was constitutional ungraciousness in his wife. She considered it lowering to her dignity, or unnecessary, to put on an amiable face, and testify to him pleasure at his presence. Little courtesies are dear to the hearts of the most rugged men; Simon received them from Mehetabel, and valued them all the more because withheld from him by his wife. The girl had known how to soothe him when ruffled, she had forestalled many of his little requirements, and had exercised a moderating influence in the house. Mrs. Verstage, in her rough, imperious fashion, had not humored him, and many a domestic storm was allayed by the tact of Mehetabel.

Simon had never been demonstrative in his affection, and it was only now, when he was about to lose her, that he became aware how dear she was to his old heart. But what could he do, now that she had given herself to Jonas Kink? Of the manner in which this had been brought about he knew nothing. Had he been told he would have stormed, and insisted on the engagement coming to an end. But would this have mended matters? Would it not have made Mehetabel's position in the house only more insupportable?

He remained silent and depressed for a week, and when the girl was in the room followed her with his eyes, with a kindly, regretful light in them. When she passed near him, he held out his hand, took hers, squeezed it, and said, "Matabel, we shall miss you:—wun'erful—wun'erful!"

"Dear father!" she would answer, and return the pressure of his hand, whilst her eyes filled.

"I hope you'll be happy," he would say; then add, "I suppose you will. Mother says so, and wimen knows about them sort o' things better nor we."

To his wife Simon said, "Spare nothing. Give her a good outfit, just as if she was our own daughter. She has been a faithful child, and has saved us the expense and worrit of a servant, and I will not have it said—but hang it! what odds to me what is said? I will not have her feel that we begrudge her aught. She has no father and mother other than we, and we must be to her all that we can."

"Leave that to me," said the wife.

Mainly through the instrumentality of Mrs. Verstage the marriage was hastened on; it was to be as soon as the banns had been called thrice.

"Wot's the good o' waitin'?" asked Mrs. Verstage, "where all is pleasant all round, and all agreed?"

Mehetabel was indifferent, even disposed to have the wedding speedily, there was no advantage in postponing the inevitable. If she were not wanted in the Ship, her presence was desired in the Punch-Bowl, if not by all the squatters there, at all events by the one most concerned.

She felt oppression in the house in which she had been at home from infancy, and was even conscious that her adopted mother was impatient to be rid of her. Mehetabel was proud, too proud to withdraw from her engagement, to acknowledge that she had rushed into it without consideration, and had accepted a man whom she did not love. Too proud, in fine, to continue one day longer than need be, eating the bread of charity.

Seamstresses were summoned, and every preparation made that Mehetabel should have abundance of clothing when she left the Ship.

"Look here, Susanna," said Simon, "you'll have made a pocket in them gownds, you mind."

"Yes, Simon, of course."

"Becos I means to put a little purse in for Matabel when she goes from us—somethin' to be her own. I won't have the little wench think we han't provided for her."

"How much?" asked Mrs. Verstage, jealously.

"That I'm just about considerin'," answered the old man cautiously.

"Don't you do nothin' reckless and unraysonable, Simon. What will she want wi' money? Hasn't she got the Broom-Squire to pay for all and everything?"

During the three weeks that intervened between the precipitate and ill-considered engagement and the marriage, Mehetabel hardly came to her senses. Sometimes when occupied with her work in the house a qualm of horror came over her and curdled the blood in her heart; then with a cold sweat suffusing her brow, and with pale lips, she sank on a stool, held her head between her palms, and fought with the thoughts that rose like spectres, and with the despair that rolled in on her soul like a dark and icy tide. The words spoken by the hostess had made it impossible for her to retrace her steps. She could not understand what had come over Mrs. Verstage to induce her to address her as she had. The after conduct of the hostess was such as showed her that although wishing her well she wished her away, and that though having a kindly feeling towards her, she would not admit a renewal of former relations. They might continue friends, but only on condition of being friends at a distance. Mehetabel racked her brain to find in what manner she had given offence to the old woman, and could find none. She was thrust from the only bosom to which she had clung from infancy, without a reason that she could discover. Meanwhile she drew no nearer to Bideabout. He was delighted at his success, and laid aside for a while his bitterness of speech. But she did not admit him to nearer intimacy. His attempts at familiarity met with a chilling reception; the girl had to exercise self-restraint to prevent the repugnance with which she received his addresses from becoming obvious to him and others.

Happily for her peace of mind, he was a good deal away, engaged in getting his house into order. It needed clearing out, cleansing and repairing. No money had been expended on dilapidations, very little soap and water on purification, since his mother's death.

His sister, Mrs. Rocliffe, some years older than himself, living but a few yards distant, had done for him what was absolutely necessary, and what he had been unable to do for himself; but her interest had naturally been in her own house, not in his.

Now that he announced to her that he was about to marry, Sarah Rocliffe was angry. She had made up her mind that Jonas would continue a "hudger," and that his house and land would fall to her son, after his demise. This was perhaps an unreasonable expectation, especially as her own conduct had precipitated the engagement; but it was natural. She partook of the surly disposition of her brother. She could not exist without somebody or something to fall out with, to scold, to find fault with. Her incessant recrimination had at length aroused in Jonas the resolve to cast her wholly from his dwelling, to have a wife of his own, and to be independent of her service.

Sarah Rocliffe ascertained that she had overstepped the mark in quarrelling with her brother, but instead of blaming herself she turned the fault on the head of the inoffensive girl who was to supplant her. She resolved not to welcome her sister-in-law with even a semblance of cordiality.

Nor were the other colonists of the Bowl favorably disposed. It was a tradition among them that they should inter-marry. This rule had once been broken through with disastrous results. The story shall be told presently.

The squatter families of the Punch-Bowl hung together, and when Sarah Rocliffe took it in dudgeon that her brother was going to marry, then the entire colony of Rocliffes, Boxalls, Nashes, and Snellings adopted her view of the case, and resented the engagement as though it were a slight cast on them.

As if the Bowl could not have provided him with a mate meet for him! Were there no good wenches to be found there, that he must go over the lips to look for a wife? The girls within the Bowl, thanks be, had all surnames and kindred. Matabel had neither.

It was not long before Bideabout saw that his engagement to Mehetabel was viewed with disfavor by him immediate neighbors, but he was not the man to concern himself about their opinions. He threw about his jibes, which did not tend to make things better. The boys in the Bowl had concocted a jingle which they sang under his window, or cast at him from behind a hedge, and then ran away lest he should fall on them with a stick. This was their rhyme:—

"A harnet lived in an 'ollow tree, A proper spiteful twoad were he. And he said as married and 'appy he'd be; But all folks jeered and laughed he-he!"

Mehetabel's cheeks were pale, and her brows were contracted and her lips set as she went to Thursley Church on the wedding-day, accompanied by Mrs. Verstage and some village friends.

Gladly would she have elected to have her marriage performed as quietly as possible, and at an hour and on a day to which none were privy save those most immediately concerned. But this did not suit the pride of the hostess, who was resolved on making a demonstration, of getting to herself the credit of having acted a generous and even lavish part towards the adopted child.

Mehetabel held up her head, not with pride, but with resolution not to give way. Her brain was stunned. Thought would no more flow in it than veins of water through a frozen soil. All the shapes of human beings that passed and circled around her were as phantasms. In church she hardly gathered her senses to know when and what to respond.

She could scarcely see the register through the mist that had formed over her eyes when she was required to sign her Christian name, or collect her thoughts to understand the perplexity of the parson, as to how to enter her, when she was without a surname.

When congratulated with effusion by Mrs. Verstage, with courtesy by the Vicar, and boisterously by the boys and girls who were present, she tried to force a smile, but ineffectually, as her features were set inflexibly.

The bridegroom kissed her cheek. She drew back as if she had been stung, as a sensitive plant shrinks from the hand that grasps it.

The previous day had been one of rain, so also had been the night, with a patter of raindrops on the roof above Mehetabel's attic chamber, and a flow of tears beneath.

During the morning, on the way to church, though there had been no rain, yet the clouds had hung low, and were threatening.

They separated and were brushed aside as the wedding party issued from the porch, and then a flood of scorching sunlight fell over the bride and bridegroom. For the first time Mehetabel raised her head and looked up. The impulse was unconscious—it was to let light shine into her eyes and down into the dark, despairing chambers of her soul filled only with tears.

The villagers in the churchyard murmured admiration; as she issued from the gates they cheered.

Bideabout was elate; he was proud to know that the handsomest girl in the neighborhood was now his. It was rare for a sarcastic curl to leave his lips and the furrow to be smoothed on his brow. Such a rare occasion was the present. And the Broom-Squire had indeed secured one in whom his pride was justifiable.

No one could say of Mehetabel that she had been frivolous and forward. Reserved, even in a tavern: always able to maintain her dignity; respecting herself, she had enforced respect from others. That she was hard-working, shrewd, thrifty, none who visited the Ship could fail to know.

Many a lad had attempted to win her favor, and all had been repulsed. She could keep forward suitors at a distance without wounding their self-esteem, without making them bear her a grudge. She was tall, well-built and firmly knit. There was in her evidence of physical as well as of moral strength.

Though young, Mehetabel seemed older than her years, so fully developed was her frame, so swelling her bosom, so set were her features.

Usually the girl wore a high color, but of late this had faded out of her face, which had been left of an ashen hue. Her pallor, however, only gave greater effect to the lustre and profusion of her dark hair and to the size and to the velvet depth and softness of her hazel eyes.

The girl had finely-moulded eyebrows, which, when she frowned through anger, or contracted them through care, met in one band, and gave a lowering expression to her massive brow.

An urchin in the rear nudged a ploughboy, and said in a low tone, "Jim! The old harnet out o' the 'ollow tree be in luck to-day. Wot'll he do with her, now he's ketched a butterfly?"

"Wot be he like to do?" retorted the bumpkin. "A proper spiteful twoad such as he—why, he'll rumple all the color and booty out o' her wings, and sting her till her blood runs pison."

Then from the tower pealed the bells.

Jonas pressed the arm of Mehetabel, and leering into her face, said: "Come, say a word o' thanks. Better late than never. At the last, through me, you've gotten a surname."



CHAPTER XII.

UNEXPECTED.

The wedding party was assembled at the Ship, which for this day concerned itself not with outsiders, but provided only for such as were invited to sit and drink, free of charge, to the health and happiness of bride and bridegroom.

The invitation had been extended to the kinsfolk of Jonas in the Punch-Bowl, as a matter of course; but none had accepted, one had his farm, another his business, and a third could not go unless his wife let him.

Consequently the bridegroom was badly supported. He was not the man to make friends, and such acquaintances of his as appeared did so, not out of friendship, but in expectation of eating and drinking at the landlord's table.

This angered Jonas, who, in church, on looking around, had noticed that his own family had failed to attend, but that they should fail also at the feast was what surprised him.

"It don't matter a rush," scoffed he in Mehetabel's ear, "we can get along without 'em, and if they won't come to eat roast duck and green peas, there are others who will and say 'Thank'y.'"

The announcement of Jonas's engagement had been indeed too bitter a morsel for his sister to swallow. She resented his matrimonial project as a personal wrong, as a robbery committed on the Rocliffes. Her husband was not in good circumstances; in fact, the family had become involved through a marriage, to which allusion has already been made; and had not thereafter been able to recover from it.

She had felt the pressure of debt, and the struggle for existence. It had eaten into her flesh like a canker, and had turned her heart into wormwood. In her pinched circumstances, even the pittance paid by her brother for doing his cooking and washing had been a consideration. This now was to be withdrawn.

Sarah Rocliffe had set her ambition on the acquisition of her brother's estate, by which means alone, as far as she could see, would the family be enabled to shake off the incubus that oppressed it. Content in her own lifetime to drudge and moil, she would have gone on to the end, grumbling and fault-finding, indeed, but satisfied with the prospect that at some time in the future her son would inherit the adjoining farm and be lifted thereby out of the sorry position in which was his father, hampered on all sides, and without cheeriness.

But this hope was now taken from her. Jonas was marrying a young and vigorous wife, and a family was certain to follow.

The woman had not the command over herself to veil her feelings, and put on a semblance of good humor, not even the grace to put in an appearance at the wedding.

The story must now be told which accounts for the embarrassed circumstances of the Rocliffe family.

This shall be done by means of an extract from a periodical of the date of the event which clouded the hitherto flourishing condition of the Rocliffes. The periodical from which the quotation comes is "The Royal Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Companion" for 1765.

"A few weeks ago a gentlewoman, about twenty-five years of age, applied to a farmer and broom-maker, near Hadleigh, in Hants [1] for a lodging, telling them that she was the daughter of a nobleman, and forced from her father's house by his ill-treatment. Her manner of relating the story so affected the farmer that he took her in, and kindly entertained her.

"In the course of conversation, she artfully let drop that she had a portion of L90,000, of which she should be possessed as soon as her friends in London knew where she was.

"After some days' stay she told the farmer the best return in her power for this favor would be to marry his son, Thomas (a lad about eighteen), if it was agreeable to him. The poor old man was overjoyed at the proposal, and in a short time they were married; after which she informed her father-in-law she had great, interest at Court, and if he could for the present raise money to equip them in a genteel manner, she could procure a colonel's commission for her husband.

"The credulous farmer thereupon mortgaged his little estate for L100, and everything necessary being bought for the new married couple, they took the rest of the money and set out for London, accompanied by three of the farmer's friends, and got to the Bear Inn, in the Borough, on Christmas eve; where they lived for about ten days in an expensive manner; and she went in a coach every morning to St. James's end of the town, on pretence of soliciting for her husband's commission, and to obtain her own fortune. But it was at length discovered that the woman was an impostor; and the poor country people were obliged to sell their horses by auction towards defraying the expenses of the inn before they could set out on their return home, which they did on foot, last Saturday morning."

If the hundred pounds raised on mortgage had covered all the expenses incurred, the Rocliffes might have been satisfied.

Unhappily they got further involved. They fell into the hands of a lawyer in Portsmouth, who undertook to see them righted, but the only advantage they gained from his intervention was the acquisition of certain information that the woman who had married Thomas had been married before.

Accordingly Thomas was free, and he used his freedom some years later, when of a ripe age, to marry Sarah Kink, the sister of Bideabout.

Rocliffe had never been able to shake himself free of the ridicule that attended to him, after the expedition to London, and what was infinitely more vexatious and worse to endure was the burden of debt that had then been incurred, and which was more than doubled through the activity of the lawyer by whom he had been inveigled into submitting himself and his affairs to him.

As the eating and drinking proceeded, the Broom-Squire drank copiously, became noisy, boastful, and threw out sarcastic remarks calculated to hit those who ate and drank with him, but were mainly directed against those of his own family who had absented themselves, but to whose ears he was confident they would be wafted.

Mehetabel, who saw that he was imbibing more than he could bear without becoming quarrelsome lost her pallor, and a hectic flame kindled in her cheek.

Mrs. Verstage looked on uneasily. She was familiar with the moods of Bideabout, and feared the turn matters would take.

Presently he announced that he would sing a song, and in harsh tones began:—

"A cobbler there was, and he lived in a stall, But Charlotte, my nymph, had no lodging at all. And at a Broom-Squire's, in pitiful plight, Did pray and beseech for a lodging one night, Derry-down, derry-down.

"She asked for admittance, her story to tell. Of all her misfortunes, and what her befel, Of her parentage high,—but so great was her grief, Shed never a comfort to give her relief, Derry-down, derry-down. [2]

"Now, look here," said Simon Verstage, interrupting the singer, "We all of us know that there ballet, pretty well. It's vastly long, if I remembers aright, something like fourteen verses; and I think we can do very well wi'out it to-night. I fancy your brother-inlaw, Thomas, mightn't relish it."

"He's not here," said the Broom-Squire.

"But I am here," said the landlord, "and I say that the piece is too long for singing, 'twill make you too hoarse to say purty speeches and soft things to your new missus, and it's a bit stale for our ears."

"It's an ill bird that befouls its own nest," said a young fellow present.

Bideabout overheard the remark. "What do you mean by that? Was that aimed at me?" he shouted and started to his feet.

A brawl would have inevitably ensued, but for a timely interruption.

In the door stood a well-dressed, good-looking young man, surveying the assembled company with a smile.

Silence ensued. Bideabout looked round.

Then, with a cry of joy, mingled with pain, Mrs. Verstage started from her feet.

"It is Iver! my Iver!"

In another moment mother and son were locked in each other's arms.

The guests rose and looked questioningly at their host, before they welcomed the intruder.

Simon Verstage remained seated, with his glass in his hand, gazing sternly into it. His face became mottled, red spots appeared on the temples, and on the cheekbones; elsewhere he was pale.

Mehetabel went to him, placed her hand upon his, and said, in a trembling voice, "Dear father, this is my wedding day. I am about to leave you for good. Do not deny me the one and only request I make. Forgive Iver."

The old man's lips moved, but he did not speak. He looked steadily, somewhat sternly, at the young man and mustered his appearance.

Meanwhile Iver had disengaged himself from his mother's embrace, and he came towards his father with extended hand.

"See," said he cheerily, "I am free to admit, and do it heartily, that I did wrong, in painting over the stern of the vessel, and putting it into perspective as far as my lights went. Father! I can remove the coat of paint that I put on, and expose that outrageous old stern again. I will do more. I will violate all the laws of perspective in heaven and earth, and turn the bows round also, so as to thoroughly show the ship's head, and make that precious vessel look like a dog curling itself up for a nap. Will that satisfy you?"

All the guests were silent, and fixed their eyes anxiously on the taverner.

Iver was frank in speech, had lost all provincial dialect, was quite the gentleman. He had put off the rustic air entirely. He was grown a very handsome fellow, with oval face, full hair on his head, somewhat curling, and his large brown eyes were sparkling with pleasure at being again at home. In his whole bearing there was self-confidence.

"Simon!" pleaded Mrs. Verstage, with tears in her voice, "he's your own flesh and blood!"

He remained unmoved.

"Father!" said Mehetabel, clinging to his hand, "Dear, dear father! for my sake, whom you have loved, and whom you lose out of your house to-day."

"There is my hand," said the old man.

"And you shall have the ship again just as suits your heart," said Iver.

"I doubt," answered the taverner, "it will be easier to get the Old Ship to look what she ort, than it will be to get you to look again like a publican's son."

The reconciliation on the old man's side was without cordiality, yet it was accepted by all present with cheers and handshakings.

It was but too obvious that the modish appearance of his son had offended the old man.

"Heaven bless me!" exclaimed Iver, when this commotion was somewhat allayed. He was looking with undisguised admiration and surprise at Mehetabel.

"Why," asked he, pushing his way towards her, "What is the meaning of all this?"

"That is Matabel, indeed," explained his mother. "And this is her wedding day."

"You married! You, Matabel! And, to-day! The day of my return! Where is the happy man? Show him to me."

His mother indicated the bridegroom. Mehetabel's heart was too full to speak; she was too dazed with the new turn of affairs to know what to do.

Iver looked steadily at Jonas.

"What!" he exclaimed, "Bideabout! Never, surely! I cannot mistake your face nor the look of your eyes. So, you have won the prize—you!"

Still he looked at Jonas. He refrained from extending his hand in congratulation. Whether thoughtlessly or not, he put it behind his back. An expression passed over his face that the bride observed, and it sent the blood flying to her cheek and temples.

"So," said Iver, and now he held out both hands, "Little Matabel, I have returned to lose you!"

He wrung her hands, both,—he would not let them go.

"I wish you all joy. I wish you everything, everything that your heart can desire. But I am surprised. I can't realize it all at once. My little Matabel grown so big, become so handsome—and, hang me, leaving the Old Ship! Poor Old Ship! Bideabout, I ought to have been consulted. I gave Matabel her name. I have certain rights over her, and I won't surrender them all in a hurry. Here, mother, give me a glass, 'tis a strange day on which I come home."

Dissatisfaction appeared in his face, hardly to be expected in one who should have been in cloudless radiance on his return after years of absence, and with his quarrel with the father at an end.

Now old acquaintances crowded about him to ask questions as to how he had lived during his absence, upon what he had been employed, how the world had fared with him, whether he was married, and if so, how many children he had got, and what were their respective ages and sexes, and names and statures.

For a while bride and bridegroom were outside the circle, and Iver was the centre of interest and regard. Iver responded good-humoredly and pleaded for patience. He was hungry, he was thirsty, he was dusty and hot. He must postpone personal details till a more convenient season. Now his mind was taken up with the thought, not of himself, but of his old playmate, his almost sister, his—he might dare to call her, first love—who was stepping out of the house, out of his reach, just as he stepped back into it, strong with the anticipation of finding her there. Then raising his glass, and looking at Matabel, he said: "Here's to you, Matabel, and may you be very happy with the man of your choice."

"Have you no good wish for me?" sneered the Broom-Squire.

"For you, Bideabout," answered Iver, "I do not express a wish. I know for certainty that you, that any man, not may, but must be happy with such a girl, unless he be a cur."



CHAPTER XIII.

HOME.

Bideabout was driving his wife home.

Home! There is no word sweeter to him who has created that reality to which the name belongs; but there is no word more full of vague fears to one who has it to create.

Home to Bideabout was a rattle-trap farmhouse built partly of brick, mainly of timber, thatched with heather, at the bottom of the Punch-Bowl.

It was a dwelling that served to cover his head, but was without pleasant or painful associations—a place in which rats raced and mice squeaked; a place in which money might be made and hoarded, but on which little had been spent. It was a place he had known from childhood as the habitation of his parents, and which now was his own. His childhood had been one of drudgery without cheerfulness, and was not looked back on with regret. Home was not likely to be much more to him in the future than it was in the present. More comfortable perhaps, certainly more costly. But it was other with Mehetabel.

She was going to the unknown.

As we shudder at the prospect of passing out of this world into that beyond the veil, so does many a girl shrink at the prospect of the beyond seen through the wedding ring.

She had loved the home at the Ship. Would she learn to love the home in the Punch-Bowl?

She had understood and made allowance for the humors of the landlord and landlady of the tavern; did she know those of her future associate in the farm? To many a maid, the great love that swells her heart and dazzles her brain carries her into the new condition on the wings of hope.

Love banishes fear. Confidence in the beloved blots out all mistrust as to the future.

But in this case there was no love, nothing to inspire confidence; and Mehetabel looked forward with vague alarm, almost with a premonition of evil.

Jonas was in no mood for meditation. He had imbibed freely at the inn, and was heavy, disposed to sleep, and only prevented from dozing by the necessity he was under of keeping the lazy cob in movement.

For if Jonas was in no meditative mood, the old horse was, and he halted at intervals to ponder over the load he was drawing, and ask why on this occasion he had to drag uphill two persons instead of one.

The sun had set before the couple left the Ship.

The road ascended, at first gradually, then at a more rapid incline. The cob could not be induced to trot by word or whip; and the walk of a horse is slower than that of a man.

"It's bostall (a steep ascent, in the Wealden dialect) till we come to the gallows," muttered Jonas; "then we have the drove-road down into the Punch-Bowl."

Mehetabel tightened her shawl about her shoulders and throat. The evening was chilly for the time of the year. Much rain had fallen, and the air was charged with moisture, that settled in cold dew on the cart, on the harness, on Bideabout's glazed hat, on the bride's clothing, bathing her, all things, as in the tears of silent sorrow.

"One of us must get out and walk," said the bridegroom. "Old Clutch—that's the 'oss—is twenty-five, and there's your box and bundle behind."

He made no attempt to dismount, but looked sideways at the bride.

"If you'll pull up I'll get out and walk," she answered. "I shall be glad to do so. The dew falls like rain, and I am chilled to the marrow."

"Right then," assented the Broom-Squire, and drew the rein.

Mehetabel descended from her seat in the cart. In so doing something fell on the road from her bosom. She stooped and picked it up.

"Wots that?" asked Jonas, and pointed to the article with his whip, that was flourished with a favor of white ribbons.

"It is a present father has made me," answered Mehetabel. "I was in a hurry—and not accustomed to pockets, so I just put it into my bosom. I ought to have set it in a safer place, in the new pocket made to my gown. I'll do that now. Its money."

"Money!" repeated Bideabout. "How much may it be?"

"I have not looked."

"Then look at it, once now (at once)."

He switched the whip with its white favor about, but kept his eye on Mehetabel.

"What did he give it you for?"

"As a wedding present."

"Gold, is it?"

"Gold and notes."

"Gold and notes. Hand 'em to me. I can count fast enough."

"The sum is fifteen pounds—dear, kind, old man."

"Fifteen pounds, is it? You might ha' lost it wi' your carelessness."

"I'll not be careless now."

"Good, hand it me."

"I cannot do that, Jonas. It is mine. Father said to me I was to keep it gainst a rainy day."

"Didn't you swear in church to endow me with all your worldly goods?" asked the Broom-Squire.

"No, it was you who did that. I then had nothing."

"Oh, was it so? I don't remember that. If you'd had them fifteen pounds then, and the passon had knowed about it, he'd ha' made you swear to hand it over to me—your lord and master."

"There's nothing about that in the Prayer-book."

"Then there ort to be. Hand me the money. You was nigh on losing the lot, and ain't fit to keep it. Fifteen pounds!"

"I cannot give it to you, Bideabout; father told me it was to be my very own, I was not to let it go out of my hands, not even into yours, but to husband it."

"Ain't I your husband?"

"I do not mean that, to hoard it against an evil day. There is no saying when that may come. And I passed my word it should be so."

He growled and said, "Look here, Matabel. It'll be a bostall road with you an' me, unless there's give on one side and take on the other."

"Is all the give to be on my side, and the take on yours?"

"In coorse. Wot else is matrimony? The sooner you learn that the better for peace."

He whipped the cob, and the brute moved on.

Mehetabel walked forward and outstripped the conveyance. Old Clutch was a specially slow walker. She soon reached that point at which moorland began, without hedge on either side. Trees had ceased to stud the heathy surface.

Before her rose the ridge that culminated where rose the gallows, and stood inky black against the silvery light of declining day behind them.

To the north, in the plain gleamed some ponds.

Curlew were piping sadly.

Mehetabel was immersed in her own thoughts, glad to be by herself. Jonas had not said much to her in the cart, yet his presence had been irksome. She thought of the past, of her childhood along with Iver, of the day when he ran away. How handsome he had become! What an expression of contempt had passed over his countenance when he looked at Bideabout, and learned that he was the bridegroom—the happy man who had won her! How earnestly he had gazed into her eyes, till she was compelled to lower them!

Was Iver going to settle at the Ship? Would he come over to the Punch-Bowl to see her? Would he come often and talk over happy childish days? There had been a little romance between them as children: long forgotten: now reviving.

Her hand trembled as she raised it to her lips to wipe away the dew that had formed there.

She had reached the highest point on the road, and below yawned the great crater-like depression, at the bottom of which lay the squatter settlement. A little higher, at the very summit of the hill, stood the gibbet, and the wind made the chains clank as it trifled with them. The bodies were gone, they had mouldered away, and the bones had fallen and were laid in the earth or sand beneath, but the gallows remained.

Clink! clink! clank! Clank! clink! clink!

There was rhythm and music, as of far-away bells, in the clashing of these chains.

The gibbet was on Mehetabel's left hand; on the right was the abyss.

She looked down into the cauldron, turning with disgust from the gallows, and yet was inspired with an almost equal repugnance at the sight of the dark void below.

She was standing on the very spot where, eighteen years before, she had been found by Iver. He had taken her up, and had given her a name. Now she was taken up by another, and by him a new name was conferred upon her.

"Come!" said Jonas; "it's all downhill, henceforth."

Were the words ominous?

He had arrived near her without her hearing him, so occupied had her mind been. As he spoke she uttered a cry of alarm.

"Afraid?" he asked. "Of what?"

She did not answer. She was trembling. Perhaps her nerves had been overwrought. The Punch-Bowl looked to her like the Bottomless Pit.

"Did you think one of the dead men had got up from under the gallows, and had come down to talk with you?"

She did not speak. She could not.

"It's all a pass'l o' nonsense," he said. "When the dead be turned into dust they never come again except as pertaties or the like. There was Tim Wingerlee growed won'erful fine strawberries; they found out at last he took the soil in which he growed 'em from the churchyard. I don't doubt a few shovelfuls from under them gallows 'ud bring on early pertaties—famous. Now then, get up into the cart."

"I'd rather walk, Jonas. The way down seems critical. It is dark in the Bowl, and the ruts are deep."

"Get up, I say. There is no occasion to be afraid. It won't do to drive among our folk, to our own door, me alone, and you trudgin', totterin' behind. Get up, I say."

Mehetabel obeyed.

There was a fragrance of fern in the night air that she had inhaled while walking. Now by the side of Bideabout she smelt only the beer and stale tobacco that adhered to his clothes.

"I am main glad," said he, "that all the hustle-bustle is over. I'm glad I'm not wed every day. Fust and last time I hopes. The only good got as I can see, is a meal and drink at the landlord's expense. But he'll take it out of me someways, sometime. Folks ain't liberal for nuthin'. 'Tain't in human nature."

"It is very dark in the Punch-Bowl," said Mehetabel. "I do not see a glimmer of a light anywhere."

"That's becos the winders ain't looking this way. You don't suppose it would be a pleasure to have three dead men danglin' in the wind afore their eyes all day long. The winders look downward, or else there's a fold of the hill or trees between. But I know where every house is wi'out seeing 'em. There's the Nashes', there's the Boxalls', there's the Snellings', there's my brother-in-law's, Thomas Rocliffe's, and down there be I."

He pointed with his whip. Mehetabel could distinguish nothing beyond the white favor bound to his whip.

"We're drivin to Paradise," said Jonas. And as to this remark she made no response, he explained—"Married life, you know."

She said nothing.

"It rather looks as if we were going down to the other place," he observed, with a sarcastic laugh. "But there it is, one or the other—all depends on you. It's just as you make it; as likely to be one as the other. Give me that fifteen pounds—and Paradise is the word."

"Indeed, Jonas, do you not understand that I cannot go against father's will and my word?"

The road, or rather track, descended along the steep side of the Punch-Bowl, notched into the sand falling away rapidly on the left hand, on which side sat Mehetabel.

At first she had distinguished nothing below in the blackness, but now something like a dead man's eye looked out of it, and seemed to follow and observe her.

"What is that yonder?" she asked.

"Wot is wot?" he asked in reply.

"That pale white light—that round thing glimmerin' yonder?"

"There's water below," was his explanation of the phenomenon.

In fact that which had attracted her attention and somewhat alarmed her, was one of the patches of water formed in the marshy bottom of the Punch-Bowl by the water that oozes forth in many springs from under the sandstone.

The track now passed under trees.

A glimpse of dull orange light, and old Clutch halted, unbidden.

"Here we be, we two," said Jonas. "This is home. And Paradise, if you will."



CHAPTER XIV.

NOT PARADISE.

At the moment that the cart halted, a black dog burst out of the house door, and flew at Mehetabel as she attempted to descend.

"Ha, Tartar!" laughed Jonas. "The rascal seems to know his reign is over. Go back, Tartar. I'll thrash you till the favor off my whip is beat into your hide, if you don't be quiet. Hitherto he has guarded my house, when I have been from home. Now that will be your duty, Matabel. Can't keep a wife and a dog. 'Twould be too extravagant. Tartar! Down! This is your mistress—till I get rid of you."

The dog withdrew reluctantly, continuing to growl and to show his fangs at Mehetabel.

In the doorway stood Sally Rocliffe, the sister of Jonas. Though not so openly resentful of the intrusion as was Tartar, she viewed the bride with ill-disguised bad humor; indeed, without an affectation of cordiality.

"I thought you was never coming," was Sarah's salutation. "Goodness knows, I have enough to do in my own house, and for my own people, not to be kept dancin' all these hours in attendance, because others find time for makin' fools of themselves. Now, I hope I shall not be wanted longer. My man needs his meals as much as others, and if he don't get 'em reglar, who suffers but I? Dooty begins at home. You might have had more consideration, and come earlier, Jonas."

The woman accorded to Mehetabel but a surly greeting. The young bride entered the house. A single tallow dip was burning on the table, with a long dock to it, unsnuffed. The hearth was cold.

"I didn't light a fire," said Mrs. Rocliffe; "you see it wouldn't do. Now you have come as mistress, it's your place to light the fire on the hearth. I've heard tell it's unlucky for any other body to do it. Not as I knows." She shrugged her shoulders. It seemed that this was a mere excuse put forward to disguise her indolence, or to veil her malevolence.

Mehetabel looked around her.

There were no plates. There was nothing to eat prepared on the kitchen table. No cloth; nothing whatever there, save the guttering candle.

"I didn't lay out nuthin'," said Mrs. Rocliffe; "you see, how was I to say you'd want vittles? I suppose you have had as much as is good for you away where you come from—at the Ship. If you are hungry—there's cold rabbit pie in the larder, if it ain't gone bad. This weather has been bad for keepin' meat. There's bread in the larder, if you don't mind the rats and mice havin' been at it. That's not my fault. Jonas, he had some for his break'us, and never covered up the pan, so the varmin have got to it. There's ale, too, in a barrel, I know, but Jonas keeps the key to that lest I should take a sup. He begrudges me that, and expects me to work for him like a galley-slave."

Then the woman was silent, looking moodily down. The floor was strewn with flakes of whitewash as though snow had fallen over it.

"You see," said Mrs. Rocliffe, "Jonas would go to the expense of whitenin' the ceilin', just because you was comin.' It had done plenty well for father and mother, and I don't mind any time it were whitened afore, and I be some years the elder of Jonas. The ceiling was that greasy wi' smoke, that the whitewashin' as it dried 'as pealed off, and came down just about. You look up—the ceilin' is ten times worse than afore. It looks as if it were measly. I wouldn't sweep up the flakes as fell off just to let Jonas see what comes of his foolishness. I told him it would be so, but he wouldn't believe me, and now let him see for himself—there it is."

With a sort of malignant delight the woman observed Mehetabel, and saw how troubled and unhappy she was.

Again a stillness ensued. Mehetabel could hear her heart beat. She could hear no other sound. She looked through the room towards the clock. It was silent.

"Ah, now there," said Sarah Rocliffe. "There be that, to be sure. Runned down is the weight. It wasn't proper for me now to wind up the clock. As you be the new mistress in the house, it is your place and dooty. I suppose you know that."

Then from without Mehetabel heard the grunts of the sow in the stye that adjoined the house, and imparted an undesirable flavor to the atmosphere in it.

"That's the sow in the pen," said Mrs. Rocliffe; "she's wantin' her meat. She hain't been galliwantin', and marryin', and bein' given in marriage. I'm not the mistress, and I've not the dooty to provide randans and crammins for other folks' hogs. She'll be goin' back in her flesh unless fed pretty smart. You'd best do that at once, but not in your weddin' dress. You must get acquainted together, and the sooner the better. She's regular rampagous wi' hunger."

"Would you help me in with my box, Mrs. Rocliffe?" asked Mehetabel. "Jonas set it down by the door, and if I can get that upstairs I'll change my dress at once, and make the fire, clean the floor, wind up the clock, and feed the hog."

"I've such a terrible crick in my back, I dussn't do it," answered Sarah Rocliffe. "Why, how much does that there box weigh? I wonder Jonas had the face to put it in the cart, and expect Clutch to draw it. Clutch didn't like it now, did he?"

"But how can I get my box in and carried up? Jonas is with the horse, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes, he is minding the horse. Clutch must be made comfortable, and given his hay. I'll be bound you and Jonas have been eatin' and drinkin' all day, and never given Clutch a mouthful, nor washed his teeth with a pail o' water."

"I'm sure Joe Filmer looked to the horse at the Ship. He is very attentive to beasts."

"On ordinary days, and when nuthin' is goin' on, I dare say—not when there's weddin's and ducks and green peas goin' for any who axes for 'em."

The report that ducks and green peas were to form an element of the entertainment had been told everywhere before the day of the marriage, and it was bitterness to Mrs. Rocliffe to think that "on principle," as she put it, she had been debarred from eating her share.

"Ducks and green peas!" repeated she. "I s'pose you don't reckon on eating that every day here, no, nor on Sundays, no, not even at Christmas. 'Taint such as we in the Punch-Bowl as can stuff ourselves on ducks and green peas. Green peas and ducks we may grow—but we sells 'em to the quality."

After some consideration Mrs. Rocliffe relented sufficiently to say, "I don't know but what Samuel may be idlin'; he mostly is. I'll go and send my son Samuel to help you with the box."

Then with a surly "Good-night" the woman withdrew.

After a couple of minutes, she returned: "I've come back," she said, "to tell you that if old Clutch is off his meat—and I shouldn't wonder if he was—wi' neglect and wi' drawing such a weight—then you'd best set to work and make him gruel. Jonas can't afford to lose old Clutch, just becos he's got a wife." Then she departed again.

Jonas was indeed in the stable attending to the horse. He had, moreover, to run the cart under shelter. Mehetabel put out a trembling hand to snuff the candle. Her hand was so unsteady that she extinguished the light. Where to find the tinder box she knew not. She felt for a bench, and in the darkness when she had reached it, sank on it, and burst into tears.

Such was the welcome to her new home.

For some time she sat with as little light in her heart as there was without.

She felt some relief in giving way to her surcharged heart. She sobbed and knitted her fingers together, unknitted them, and wove them together again in convulsions of distress—of despair.

What expectation of happiness had she here? She was accustomed at the Ship to have everything about her neat and in good order. The mere look round that she had given to the room, the principal room of the house she had entered, showed how ramshackle it was. To some minds it is essential that there should be propriety, as essential as that the food they consume should be wholesome, the water they drink should be pure. They can no more accommodate themselves to disorder than they can to running on hands and feet like apes.

It was quite true that this house would be given up to Mehetabel to do with it what she liked. But would her husband care to have it other than it was? Would he not resent her attempts to alter everything?

And for what purpose would she strive and toil if he disapproved of her changes?

She had no confidence that in temper, in character, in mind, he and she would agree, or agree to differ. She knew that he was grasping after money, that he commended no man, but had a disparaging word for every one, and envy of all who were prosperous. She had seen in him no sign of generosity of feeling, no spark of honor. No positive evil was said of him; if he were inclined to drink he was not a drunkard; if he stirred up strife in himself he was not quarrelsome. He over-reached in a bargain, but never did anything actually dishonest. He was not credited with any lightness in his moral conduct towards any village maid. That he was frugal, keen witted, was about all the good that was said, and that could be said of him. If he had won no one's love hitherto, was it likely that there was anything lovable in him? Would he secure the affections of his wife?

Thoughts rose and fell, tossed and broke in Mehetabel's brain; her tears fell freely, and as she was alone in the house she was able to sob without restraint.

Jonas had chained up Tartar, and the dog was howling. The pig grunted impatiently. A rat raced across the floor. Cockroaches came out in the darkness and stirred, making a strange rustling like the pattering of fine rain.

Mehetabel could hear the voice of her husband in the yard. He was thrusting the cart under a roof. He would be in the house shortly, and she did not wish that he should find her in tears, that he should learn how weak, how hopeless she was.

She put her hand into her pocket for a kerchief, and drew forth one, with which she staunched the flow from her eyes, and dried her cheeks. She put her knuckle to her lips to stay their quivering. Then, when she had recovered some composure, she drew a long sigh and replaced the sodden kerchief in her pocket.

At that moment she started, sprang to her feet, searched her pocket in the darkness with tremulous alarm, with sickness at her heart.

Then, not finding what she wanted, she stooped and groped along the floor, and found nothing save the flakes of fallen whitewash.

She stood up panting, and put her hand to her heart. Then Jonas entered with a lantern, and saw her as she thus stood, one hand to her brow, thrusting back the hair, the other to her heart; he was surprised, raised his lantern to throw the light on her face, and said:—"Wot's up?"

"I have been robbed! My fifteen pounds have been taken from me."

"Well I—"

"Jonas!" she said, "I know it was you. It was you who robbed me, where those men robbed my father. Just as I got into the cart you robbed me."

He lowered the lantern.

"Look here, Matabel, mind wot I said. In matrimony it's all give and take, and if there ain't give on one side, then there's take, take on the t'other. I ain't going to have this no Paradise if I can help it."



CHAPTER XV.

IVER.

Next day was bright; but already some rime lay in the cold and marshy bottom of the Punch-Bowl.

Mehetabel went round the farm with Bideabout, and with some pride he showed her his possessions, his fields, his barn, sheds and outhouses. Amongst these was that into which she had been taken on the night of her father's murder.

She had often heard the story from Iver. She knew how that every door had been shut against her except that of the shed in which the heather and broom steels were kept that belonged to Jonas, and which served as his workshop.

With a strange sense, as though she were in the hands of Fate thrusting her on, she knew not whither, with remorseless cogency, the young wife looked into the dark shed which had received her eighteen years before.

It was wonderful that she should have begun the first chapter of her life there, and that she should return to the same spot to open the second chapter.

She felt relieved when Jonas left her to herself. Then she at once set to work on the house, in which there was much to be done. She was ambitious to get it into order and comfort before Mrs. Verstage came to visit her in her new quarters.

As she worked, her mind reverted to the Ship. Would she be missed there? Would the new maid engaged be as active and attentive as she had been? Her place in the hearts of the old couple was now occupied by Iver. However much the innkeeper might pretend to be hard of reconciliation, yet he must yearn after his own son; he must be proud of him now that Iver was grown so fine and independent, and had carved for himself a place in the world.

When the first feeling of regret over her departure was passed away, then all their thoughts, their aspirations, their pride would be engrossed by Iver.

Mehetabel was scouring a saucepan. She lowered it, and her hands remained inactive. Iver!—she saw him, as he stood before her in the Ship, extending his hands to her. She almost felt his grasp again.

Mehetabel brushed back the hair that had fallen over her face; and as she did so a tear ran down her cheek.

Then she heard her husband's voice; he was speaking with Samuel Rocliffe, his nephew; and it struck her as never before, how harsh, how querulous was his intonation.

During the day, Mrs. Rocliffe came in, looked about inquisitively, and pursed up her lips when she saw the change effected, and conjectured that more was likely to follow.

"I suppose nuthin' is good enough as it was—but you must put everything upside down?"

"On the contrary, I am setting on its feet everything I have found topsy-turvy."

To the great surprise of all, on the following Sunday, Bideabout, in his best suit, accompanied Mehetabel to church. He had never been a church-goer. He begrudged having to pay tithes. He begrudged having to pay something for his seat in addition to tithes to the church, if he went to a dissenting chapel. If religious ministrations weren't voluntary and gratuitous, "then," said Jonas, "he didn't think nuthin' of 'em."

Jonas had been disposed to scoff at religion, and to work on Sundays, though not so openly as on other days of the week. He went to church now because he was proud of his wife; not out of devotion, but vanity.

Some days later arrived a little tax-cart driven by Iver, with Mrs. Verstage in it.

The hostess had already discovered what a difference it made in her establishment to have in it a raw and dull-headed maid in the room of the experienced and intelligent daughter. She did not regret what she had done—she had removed Mehetabel out of the reach of Iver, and had no longer any anxiety as to the disposal of his property by Simon. For her own sake she was sorry, as she plainly saw that her life was likely to run less smoothly in the future in her kitchen and with her guests. Now that Mehetabel was no longer dangerous, her heart unfolded towards her once more.

The young wife received Mrs. Verstage with pleasure. The flush came into her cheeks when she saw her, and for the moment she had no eyes, no thoughts, no welcome for Iver.

The landlady was not so active as of old, and she had to be assisted from her seat. As soon as she reached the ground she was locked in the embrace of her daughter by adoption.

Then Mehetabel conducted the old woman over the house, and showed her the new arrangements she had made, and consulted her on certain projected alterations.

Jonas had come to the door when the vehicle arrived; he was in his most gracious mood, and saluted first the hostess and then her son, with unwonted cordiality.

"Come now, Matabel," said Mrs. Verstage, when both she and the young wife were alone together, "I did well to push this on, eh? You have a decent house, and a good farm. All yours, not rented, so none can turn you out. What more could you desire? I dare be sworn Bideabout has got a pretty nest egg stuck away somewhere, up the chimney or under the hearth. Has he shown you what he has? There was the elder Gilly Cheel was a terrible skinflint. When he died his sons hunted high and low for his money and couldn't find it. And just as they wos goin' to bury him, the nuss said she couldn't make a bootiful corpse of him, he were that puffed in his mouth. What do you think, Matabel? The old chap had stuffed his money into his mouth when he knew he was dyin'. Didn't want nobody to have it but himself. Don't you let Bideabout try any of them games."

"Have you missed me greatly, dear mother?" asked Mehetabel, who had heard the story of Giles Cheel before.

Mrs. Verstage sighed.

"My dear, do you know the iron-stone bowl as belonged to my mother. The girl broke it, and hadn't the honesty to say so, but stuck it together wi' yaller soap, and thought I wouldn't see it. Then one of the customers made her laugh, and she let seven pewters fall, and they be battered outrageous. And she has been chuckin' the heel taps to the hog, and made him as drunk as a Christian. She'll drive me out of my seven senses."

"So you do miss me, mother?"

"My dear—no—I'm not selfish. It is all for your good. There wos Martha Lintott was goin' to a dance, and dropped her bustle. Patty Pickett picked it up, and thinkin' she couldn't have too much of a good thing, clapped it on a top of her own and cut a fine figure wi' it—wonderful. And Martha looked curious all up and down wi'out one. But she took it reasonable, and said, 'What's one woman's loss is another woman's gain.' O, my dear life! If Iver would but settle with Polly Colpus I should die content."

"Is not the match agreed to yet?"

"No!" Mrs. Verstage sighed. "I've got my boy back, but not for long. He talks of remaining here awhile to paint—subjects, he calls 'em, but he don't rise to Polly as I should like. Polly is a good girl. Master Colpus was at your weddin', and was very civil to Iver. I heard him invite the boy to come over and look in on him some evening—Sunday, for instance, and have a bite of supper and a glass. But Iver hasn't been nigh the Colpuses yet; and when I press him to go he shrugs his shoulders and says he has other and better friends he must visit first."

Mrs. Verstage sighed again.

"Well, perhaps he doesn't fancy Polly," said Mehetabel.

"Why should he not fancy her? She will have five hundred pounds, and old James Colpus's land adjoins ours. I don't understand Iver's ways at all."

Mehetabel laughed. "Dear mother, you cannot expect that; he did not think with his father's head when a boy. He will think only with his own head now he is a man."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse