Kneeling behind Thor's Stone, with the steel barrel of his gun laid on the anvil, and pointed in the direction whence came Iver's voice, he waited till his rival should appear, and draw within range, that he might shoot him through the heart.
"Summon him again," he whispered.
"Iver come!" called Mehetabel.
Then through the illuminated haze, like an atmosphere of glow-worm's light, himself black against a background of shining water, appeared the young man.
Jonas had his teeth clenched; his breath hissed like the threat of a serpent, as he drew a long inspiration through them.
"You are there!" shouted Iver, joyously, and ran forward.
She felt a thrill run through the barrel, on which she had laid her hand; she saw a movement of the shoulder of Jonas, and was aware that he was preparing to fire.
Instantly she snatched the gun to her, laid the muzzle against her own side, and said: "Fire!" She spoke again. "So all will be well."
Then she cried in piercing tones, "Iver! run! run! he is here, and he seeks to kill you."
Jonas sprang to his feet with a curse, and endeavored to wrest the gun from Mehetabel's hand. But she held it fast. She clung to it with tenacity, with the whole of her strength, so that he was unable to pluck it away.
And still she cried, "Run, Iver, run; he will kill you!"
"Let go!" yelled Bideabout. He set his foot against Thor's Stone; he twisted the gun about, he turned it this way, that way, to wrench it out of her hands.
"I will not!" she gasped.
"It is loaded! It will go off!"
"I care not."
"Oh, no! so long as it shoots me."
"Send the lead into my heart!"
"Then let go. But no! the bullet is not for you. Let go, I say, or I will brain you with the butt end, and then shoot him!"
"I will not! Kill me if you will!"
Strong, athletic, lithe in her movements, Mehetabel was a match for the small muscular Jonas. If he succeeded for a moment in twisting the gun out of her hands it was but for an instant. She had caught the barrel again at another point.
He strove to beat her knuckles against Thor's Stone, but she was too dexterous for him. By a twist she brought his hand against the block instead of her own.
With an oath he cast himself upon her, by the impact, by the weight, to throw her down. Under the burden she fell on her knees, but did not relinquish her hold on the gun. On the contrary she obtained greater power over it, and held the barrel athwart her bosom, and wove her arms around it.
Iver was hastening to her assistance. He saw that some contest was going on, but was not able to discern either with whom Mehetabel was grappling nor what was the meaning of the struggle.
In his attempt to approach, Iver was regardless where he trod. He sank over his knees in the mire, and was obliged to extricate himself before he could advance.
With difficulty, by means of oziers, he succeeded in reaching firm soil, and then, with more circumspection, he sought a way by which he might come to the help of Mehetabel.
Meanwhile, regardless of the contest of human passion, raging close by, the great bird swung like a pendulum above the mere, and its shadow swayed below it.
"Let go! I will murder you, if you do not!" hissed Jonas. "You think I will kill him. So I will, but I will kill you first."
"Iver! help!" cried Mehetabel; her strength was abandoning her.
The Broom-Squire dragged his kneeling wife forward, and then thrust her back. He held the gun by the stock and the end of the barrel. The rest was grappled by her, close to her bosom.
He sought to throw her on her face, then on her back. So only could he wrench the gun away.
"Ah, ah!" with a shout of triumph.
He had disengaged the barrel from her arm. He turned it sharply upward, to twist it out of her hold she had with the other arm.
Then—suddenly—an explosion, a flash, a report, a cry; and Bideabout staggered back and fell.
A rush of wings.
The large bird that had vibrated above the water had been alarmed, and now flew away.
THE IRON-STONE HAMMER.
For a couple of minutes complete, death-like silence ensued.
Mehetabel, panting, everything swimming, turning before her eyes, remained motionless on her knees, but rested her hands on Thor's Stone, to save herself from falling on her face.
What had happened she hardly knew. The gun had been discharged, and then had fallen before her knees. Whom had it injured? What was the injury done?
She was unable to see, through the veil of tears that covered her eyes. She had not voice wherewith to speak.
Iver, moreover, stood motionless, holding to a willow. He also was ignorant of what had occurred. Was the shot aimed at him, or at Mehetabel? Who had fired?
Crouching against a bush, into which he had staggered and then collapsed, was the Broom-Squire. A sudden spasm of pain had shot through him at the flash of the gun. That he was struck he knew, to what extent injured he could not guess.
As he endeavored to raise one hand, the left, in which was the seat of pain, he became aware that his arm was stiff and powerless. He could not move his fingers.
The blood was coursing over his hand in a warm stream.
A horrible thought rushed through his brain. He was at the mercy of that woman who had invoked the Devil against him, and of the lover on whose account she had desired his death. She had called, and in part had been answered. He was wounded, and incapable of defending himself. This guilty pair would complete the work, kill him; blow out his brains, beat his head with the stock of the gun, and cast his body into the marsh.
Who would know how he came by his death? His sister was aware that he had gone to the moor to stalk deer. What evidence would be producible against this couple should they complete the work and dispose of him?
Strangely unaccountable as it may seem, yet it was so, that at the moment, rage at the thought that, should they kill him, Mehetabel and Iver would escape punishment, was the prevailing thought and predominant passion in Jonas's mind, and not by any means fear for himself. This made him disregard his pain, indifferent to his fate.
"I have still my right hand and my teeth," he said. "I will beat and tear that they may bear marks that shall awake suspicion."
But his head swam, he turned sick and faint, and became insensible.
When Jonas recovered consciousness he lay on his back, and saw faces bowed over him—that of his wife and that of Iver, the two he hated most cordially in the world, the two at least he hated to see together.
He struggled to rise and bite, like a wild beast, but was held down by Iver.
"Curse you! will you kill me so?" he yelled, snapping with his great jaws, trying to reach and rend the hands that restrained him.
"Lie still, Bideabout," said the young painter, "are you crazed? We will do you no harm. Mehetabel is binding up your arm. As far as I can make out the shot has run up it and is lodged in the shoulder."
"I care not. Let me go. You will murder me." Mehetabel had torn a strip from her skirt and was making a bandage of it.
"Jonas," she said, "pray lie quiet, or sit up and be reasonable. I must do what I can to stay the blood."
As he began to realize that he was being attended to, and that Iver and Mehetabel had no intention to hurt him, the Broom-Squire became more composed and patient.
His brows were knit and his teeth set. He avoided looking into the faces of those who attended to him.
Presently the young painter helped him to rise, and offered his arm. This Jonas refused.
"I can walk by myself," said he, churlishly; then turning to Mehetabel, he said, with a sneer, "The devil never does aught but by halves."
"What do you mean?"
"The bullet has entered my arm and not my heart, as you desired."
"Go," she said to the young artist; "I pray you go and leave me with him. I will take him home."
"I entreat you to go," she urged. "Go to your mother. Tell her that my husband has met with an accident, and that I am called away to attend him. That is to serve as an excuse. I must, I verily must go with him. Do not say more. Do not say where this happened."
She did not answer. He considered for a moment and then dimly saw that she was right.
"Iver," she said in a low tone, so that Jonas might not hear, "you should not have followed me; then this would never have happened."
"If I had not followed you he would have been your murderer, Matabel."
Then, reluctantly, he went. But ever and anon turned to listen or to look.
When he was out of sight, then Mehetabel said to her husband, "Lean on me, and let me help you along."
"I can go by myself," he said bitterly. "I would not have his arm. I will have none of yours. Give me my gun."
"No, Jonas, I will carry that for you."
Then he put forth his uninjured right hand, and took the kidney-iron stone from the anvil block, on which Mehetabel had left it.
"What do you want with that?" she asked.
"I may have to knock also," he answered. "Is it you alone who are allowed to have wishes?"
She said no more, but stepped along, not swiftly, cautiously, and turning at every step, to see that he was following, and that he had put his foot on substance that would support his weight.
"Why do you look at me?" he asked captiously.
"Jonas, you are in pain, and giddy with pain. You may lose your footing, and go into the water."
"So—that now is your desire?"
"I pray you," she answered, in distress, "Jonas, do not entertain such evil thoughts."
They attained a ridge of sand. She fell back and paced at his side.
Bideabout observed her out of the corners of his eyes. By the moonlight he could see how finely, nobly cut was her profile; he could see the glancing of the moon in the tears that suffused her cheeks.
"You know who shot me?" he inquired, in a low tone.
"I know nothing, Jonas, but that there was a struggle, and that during this struggle, by accident—"
"You did it."
"No, Jonas. I cannot think it."
"It was so. You touched the trigger. You knew that the piece was on full cock."
"It was altogether an accident. I knew nothing. I was conscious of nothing, save that I was trying to prevent you from committing a great crime."
"A great crime!" jeered he. "You thought only how you might save the life of your love."
Mehetabel stood still and turned to him.
"Jonas, do not say that. You cruelly, you wrongfully misjudge me I will tell you all, if you will I never would have hidden anything from you if I had not known how you would take and use what I said. Iver and I were child friends, almost brother and sister. I always cared for him, and I think he liked me. He went away and I saw nothing of him. Then, at our wedding, he returned home; and since then I have seen him a good many times—you, yourself asked him to the Punch-Bowl, and bade me stand for him to paint. I cannot deny that I care for him, and that he likes me."
"As brother and sister?"
"No—not as brother and sister. We are children no longer. But, Jonas, I have no wish, no thought other than that he should leave Thursley, and that I should never, never, never see his face again. Of thought, of word, of act against my duty to you I am guiltless. Of thoughts, as far as I have been able to hold my thoughts in chains, of words, of acts I have nothing to reproach myself with, there have been none but what might be known to you, in a light clearer than that poured down by this moon. You will believe me, Jonas."
He looked searchingly into her beautiful, pale face—now white as snow in the moonlight. After a long pause, he answered, "I do not believe you."
"I can say no more," she spoke and sighed, and went forward.
He now lagged behind.
They stepped off the sand ridge, and were again in treacherous soil, neither land nor water, but land and water tossed together in strips and tags and tatters.
"Go on," he said. "I will step after you."
Presently she looked behind her, and saw him swinging his right hand, in which was the lump of ironstone.
"Why do you turn your head?" he asked.
"I look for you."
"Are you afraid of me?"
"I am sorry for you, Jonas."
"Sorry—because of my arm?"
"Because you are unable to believe a true woman's word."
"I do not understand you."
"No—I do not suppose you can."
Then he screamed, "No, I do not believe." He leaped forward, and struck her on the head with the nodule of iron, and felled her at his feet.
"There," said he; "with this stone you sought my death, and with it I cause yours."
Then he knelt where she lay motionless, extended, in the marsh, half out of the water, half submerged.
He gripped her by the throat, and by sheer force, with his one available arm, thrust her head under water.
The moonlight played in the ripples as they closed over her face; it surely was not water, but liquid silver, fluid diamond.
He endeavored to hold her head under the surface. She did not struggle. She did not even move. But suddenly a pang shot through him, as though he had been pierced by another bullet. The bandage about his wound gave way, and the hot blood broke forth again.
Jonas reeled back in terror, lest his consciousness should desert him, and he sank for an instant insensible, face foremost, into the water.
As it was, where he knelt, among the water-plants, they were yielding under his weight.
He scrambled away, and clung to a distorted pine on the summit of a sand-knoll.
Giddy and faint, he laid his head against the bush, and inhaled the invigorating odor of the turpentine. Gradually he recovered, and was able to stand unsupported.
Then he looked in the direction where Mehetabel lay. She had not stirred. The bare white arms were exposed and gleaming in the moonlight. The face he did not see. He shrank from looking towards it.
Then he slunk away, homewards.
When Bideabout arrived in the Punch-Bowl, as he passed the house of the Rocliffes, he saw his sister, with a pail, coming from the cow-house. One of the cattle was ill, and she had been carrying it a bran-mash.
He went to her, and said, "Sally!"
"Here I be, Jonas, what now?"
"I want you badly at my place. There's been an accident."
"What? To whom? Not to old Clutch?"
"Old Clutch be bothered. It is I be hurted terr'ble bad. In my arm. If it weren't dark here, under the trees, you'd see the blood."
"I'll come direct. That's just about it. When she's wanted, your wife is elsewhere. When she ain't, she's all over the shop. I'll clap down the pail inside. You go on and I'll follow."
Jonas unlocked his house, and entered. He groped about for the tinder-box, but when he had found it was unable to strike a light with one hand only. He seated himself in the dark, and fell into a cold sweat.
Not only was he in great pain, but his mind was ill at ease, full of vague terrors. There was something in the corner that he could see, slightly stirring. A little moonlight entered, and a fold flickered in the ray, then disappeared again. Again something came within the light. Was it a foot? Was it the bottom of a skirt? He shrank back against the wall, as far as possible from this mysterious, restless form.
He looked round to see that the scullery door was open, through which to escape, should this thing move towards him.
The sow was grunting and squealing in her stye, Jonas hailed the sound; there was nothing alarming in that. Had all been still in and about the house, there might have come from that undefined shadow in the comer a voice, a groan, a sigh—he knew not what. With an exclamation of relief he saw the flash of Sally Rocliffe's lantern pass the window.
Next moment she stood in the doorway.
"Where are you, Jonas?"
"I am here. Hold up the lantern, Sarah. What's that in the corner there, movin'?"
"There—you are almost touchin it. Turn the light."
"That," said his sister; "why don'ty know your own old oilcloth overcoat as was father's, don'ty know that when you see it?"
"I didn't see it, but indistinct like," answered Jonas.
His courage, his strength, his insolence were gone out of him.
"Now, what's up?" asked Sarah. "How have you been hurted?"
Jonas told a rambling story. He had been in the Marsh. He had seen the deer, but in his haste to get within range he had run, caught his foot in a bramble, had stumbled, and the gun had been discharged, and the bullet had entered his arm.
Mrs. Rocliffe at once came to him to examine the wound.
"Why, Jonas, you never did this up yourself. There's some one been at your arm already. Here's this band be off Matabel's petticoat. How came you by that?"
He was confounded, and remained silent.
"And where is the gun, Jonas?"
He had forgotten all about it in his panic. Mehetabel had been carrying it when he beat her down. He had thought of it no more. He had thought of nothing after the deed, but how to escape from the spot as speedily as possible.
"I suppose I've lost it," he said. "Somewhere in the Moor. You see when I was wounded, I hadn't the head to think of anything else."
Mrs. Rocliffe was examining his arm. The sleeve of his coat had been cut.
"I don't understand your tale a scrap, Jonas," she said. "Who used his knife to slit up your sleeve? And how comes your arm to be bandaged with this bit of Matabel's dress?"
Bideabout was uneasy. The tale he had told was untenable. There was a necessity for it to be supplemented. But his condition of alarm and pain made him unable readily to frame a story that would account for all, and satisfy his sister.
"Jonas," said Sarah, "I'm sure you have seen Matabel, and she did this for you. Where is she?"
Bideabout trembled. He thrust his sister from him, saying, irritably, "Why do you worrit me with questions? My arm wants attendin' to."
"I can't do much to that," answered the woman. "A doctor should look to that. I'll go and call Samuel, and bid him ride away after one."
"I won't be left alone!" exclaimed the Broom-Squire, in a sudden access of terror.
Sarah Rocliffe deliberately took the lantern and held it to his face.
"Jonas," she said, "I'll do nuthin' more for you till I know the whole truth. You've seen your wife and there's somethin' passed between you. I see by your manner that all is not right. Where is Matabel? You haven't been after the deer on the Moor. You have been to the Ship."
"That is a lie," answered Bideabout. "I have been on the Moor. 'Tis there I got shot, and, if you will have it all out, it was Matabel who shot me."
"Matabel shot you?"
"Yes, it was. She shot me to prevent me from killin' him."
"You know—that painter fellow."
"So that is the truth? Then where is she?"
The Broom-Squire hesitated and moved his feet uneasily.
"Jonas," said his sister, "I will know all."
"Then know it," he answered angrily. "Somehow, as she was helpin' me along, her foot slipped and she fell into the water. I had but one arm, and I were stiff wi' pains. What could I do? I did what I could, but that weren't much. I couldn't draw her out o' the mire. That would take a man wi' two good arms, and she was able to scramble out if she liked. But she's that perverse, there's no knowing, she might drown herself just to spite me."
"Why did you not speak of that at once?"
"Arn't I hurted terr'ble bad? Arn't I got a broken arm or somethin' like it? When a chap is in racks o' pain he han't got all his wits about him. I know I wanted help, for myself, first, and next, for her; and now I've told you that she's in the Moor somewhere. She may ha' crawled out, or she may be lyin' there. I run on, so fast as possible, in my condition, to call for help."
"Where is she? Where did you leave her?"
"Right along between here and Thor's Stone. There's an old twisted Scotch pine with magpies' nests in it—I reckon more nests than there be green stuff on the tree. It's just about there."
"Jonas," said the sister, who had turned deadly white, and who lowered the lantern, unable longer to hold it to her brother's face with steady hand, "Jonas, you never ort to ha' married into a gallus family; you've ketched the complaint. It's bad enough to have men hanged on top o' Hind Head. We don't want another gibbet down at the bottom of the Punch-Bowl, and that for one of ourselves."
Then voices were audible outside, and a light flickered through the window.
In abject terror the Broom-Squire screamed "Sally, save me, hide me; it's the constables!"
He cowered into a corner, then darted into the back kitchen, and groped for some place of concealment.
He heard thence the voices more distinctly. There was a tramp of feet in his kitchen; a flare of fuller light than that afforded by Mrs. Rocliffe's lantern ran in through the door he had left ajar.
The sweat poured over his face and blinded his eyes.
Bideabout's anxiety was by no means diminished when he recognized one of the voices in his front kitchen as that of Iver.
Had Iver watched him instead of returning to the Ship? Had he followed in his track, spying what he did? Had he seen what had taken place by the twisted pine with the magpies' nests in it? And if so, had he hasted to Thursley to call out the constable, and to arrest him as the murderer of his wife.
Trembling, gnawing the nails of his right hand, cowering behind the copper, he waited, not knowing whither to fly.
Then the door was thrust open, and Sally Rocliffe came in and called to him: "Jonas! here is Master Iver Verstage—very good he is to you—he has brought a doctor to attend to your arm."
The wretched man grasped his sister by the wrist, drew her to him, and whispered—"That is not true; it is the constable."
"No, Jonas. Do not be a fool. Do not make folk suspect evil," she answered in an undertone. "There is a surgeon staying at the Ship, and this is the gentleman who has come to assist you."
Mistrustfully, reluctantly, Jonas crept from his hiding place, and came behind his sister to the doorway, where he touched his forelock, looked about him suspiciously, and said—"Your servant, gentlemen. Sorry to trouble you; but I've met with an accident. The gun went off and sent a bullet into my arm. Be you a doctor, sir?" he asked, eyeing a stranger, who accompanied Iver.
"I am a surgeon; happily, now lodging at the Ship, and Mr. Verstage informed me of what had occurred, so I have come to offer my assistance."
Jonas was somewhat reassured, but his cunning eyes fixed on Iver observed that the young painter was looking around, in quest, doubtless, of Mehetabel.
"I must have hot water. Who will attend to me?" asked the surgeon.
"I will do what is necessary," said Mrs. Rocliffe.
"Will you go to bed?" asked the surgeon, "I can best look to you then."
Jonas shook his head. He would have the wound examined there, as he sat in his arm-chair.
Then came the inquiry from Iver—"Where is your wife, Jonas? I thought she had returned with you."
"My wife? She has lagged behind."
"Not possible. She was to assist you home."
"I needed no assistance."
"She ought to be here to receive instructions from the doctor."
"These can be given to my sister."
"But, Bideabout, where is she?"
Jonas was silent, confused, alarmed.
Iver became uneasy.
"Bideabout, where is Matabel. She must be summoned."
"It's nort to you where she be," answered the Broom-Squire savagely.
Then Mrs. Rocliffe stepped forward.
"I will tell you," she said. "My brother is that mad wi' pain, he don't know what to think, and say, and do. As they was coming along together, loving-like, as man and wife, she chanced to slip and fall into the water, and Jonas, having his arm bad, couldn't help her out, as he was a-minded, and he runned accordin' here, to tell me, and I was just about sendin' my Samuel to find and help her."
"Matabel in the water—drowned!"
"Jonas did not say that. She falled in."
Iver looked from Mrs. Rocliffe towards Jonas. There was something in the Broom-Squire's look that did not satisfy him. It was not pain alone that so disturbed his face, and gave it such ghastly whiteness.
"Bideabout," said he, gravely, "I must and will have a proper explanation. I cannot take your sister's story. Speak to me yourself. After what I had seen between you and Matabel, I must necessarily feel uneasy. I must have a plain explanation from your own lips."
Jonas was silent; he looked furtively from side to side.
"I will be answered," said Iver, with vehemence.
"Who is to force me to speak?" asked the Broom-Squire, surlily.
"If I cannot, I shall fetch the constable. I say—where did you leave Mehetabel?"
"My sister told you—under the tree."
"What—not in the water?"
"She may have fallen in. I had but one arm, and that hurting terrible."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Iver. "You came home whining over your arm—leaving her in the marsh!"
"You don't suppose I threw her in?" sneered Jonas. "Me—bad of an arm."
"I don't know what to think," retorted Iver. "But I will know where Mehetabel is."
In the doorway, with her back to the moonlight, stood a female figure.
The first to see it was Jonas, and he uttered a gasp—he thought he saw a spirit.
The figure entered, without a word, and all saw that it was Mehetabel.
It was indeed Mehetabel.
She entered quietly, without a word, carrying Bideabout's gun, which she placed in the corner, by the fireplace.
Jonas and his sister looked at her, at first terror-struck, as though they beheld a ghost, then with unrest, for they knew not what she would say.
She said nothing.
She was deadly pale, and Iver, looking at her, was reminded of the Mehetabel he had seen in his dream.
At once she recognized that her husband's arm was being dressed, and leisurely, composedly, she came forward to hold the basin of water, and do whatever was required of her by the surgeon.
The first to speak was Iver, who said, "Matabel! We have just been told you had fallen into the water."
"Yes. My dress is soaked."
"And you managed to get out?"
"Yes, when I fell I had hold of my husband's gun and that was caught in a bush; it held me up."
"But how came you to fall?"
"I believe I was unconscious perhaps a faint."
Nothing further could be elicited from her, then or later. Had she any suspicion that she had been struck down? This was a question that, later, Jonas asked himself. But he never knew till—, but we must not anticipate.
A day or two after that eventful night he made some allusion to a blow on her head, when she appeared with a bandage round it.
"Yes," she said: "I fell, and hurt myself."
For some days Bideabout was in much pain and discomfort. His left shoulder had been injured by the ball that had lodged in it, and it was probable that he would always be stiff in that arm, and be unable to raise it above the breast. He was irritable and morose.
He watched Mehetabel suspiciously and with mistrust of her intentions. What did she know? What did she surmise? If she thought that he had attempted to put an end to her life, would she retaliate? In his suspicion he preferred to have his sister attend to him, and Sarah consented to do for him, in his sickness, what he required, not out of fraternal affection, but as a means of slighting the young wife, and of observing the relations that subsisted between her and Jonas.
Sarah Rocliffe was much puzzled by what had taken place. Her brother's manner had roused her alarm. She knew that he had gone forth with his jealousy lashed to fury. She had herself kindled the fire. Then he had come upon Mehetabel and Iver on the Moor, she could not doubt. How otherwise explain the knowledge of the accident which led Iver to bring the surgeon to the assistance of her brother?
But the manner in which the accident had occurred and the occasion of it, all of this was dark to her. Then the arrival of Jonas alone, and his reticence relative to his wife, till she had asked about her; also his extraordinary statement, his manifest terror; and the silence of Mehetabel on her reappearance, all this proved a mystery involving the events of the night, that Sarah Rocliffe was desirous to unravel.
She found that her every effort met with a rebuff from Jonas, and elicited nothing from Mehetabel, who left her in the same uncertainty as was Bideabout, whether she knew anything, or suspected anything beyond the fact that she had fallen insensible into the water. She had fallen grasping the gun, which had become entangled in some bushes, and this together with the water weeds had sustained her. When she recovered consciousness she had drawn herself out of the marsh by means of the gun, and had seated herself under an old pine tree, till her senses were sufficiently clear. Thereupon she had made the best of her way homeward.
What did she think of Jonas for having left her in the water? asked Mrs. Rocliffe.
Mehetabel answered, simply, that she had not thought about it. Wet, cold, and faint, she had possessed no idea save how to reach home.
There was much talk in the Punch-Bowl as well as throughout the neighborhood relative to what had taken place, and many forms were assumed by the rumor as it circulated. Most men understood well enough that Jonas had gone after the Peperharow deer, and was attempting to forestall others—therefore, serve him right, was their judgment, however he came by his accident.
Iver left Thursley on the day following and returned to Guildford. The surgeon staying at the Ship Inn continued his visits to the Punch-Bowl, as long as he was there, and then handed his patient over to the local practitioner.
Mrs. Verstage was little better informed than the rest of the inhabitants of Thursley, for her son had not told her anything about the accident to Jonas, more than was absolutely necessary; and to all her inquiries returned a laughing answer that as he had not shot the Broom-Squire he could not inform her how the thing was done.
She was too much engaged so long as the visitors were in the house, to be able to leave it; and Mehetabel did not come near her.
As soon, however, as she was more free, she started in her little trap for the Punch-Bowl, and arrived at a time when Jonas was not at home.
This exactly suited her. She had Mehetabel to herself, and could ask her any questions she liked without restraint.
"My dear Matabel," she said, "I've had a trying time of it, with the house full, and only Polly to look to for everything. Will you believe me—on Sunday I said I would give the gentlemen a little plum-pudding. I mixed it myself, and told Polly to boil it, whilst I went to church. Of course, I supposed she would do it properly, but with those kind of people one must take nothing for granted."
"Did she spoil the pudding, mother?"
"Oh, no—the pudding was all right."
"Then what harm was done?"
"She spoiled my best nightcap."
"Boiled the puddin' in it, because she couldn't find a bag. I'll never get it proper white again, nor the frills starched and made up. And there is the canary bird, too."
"What of that, mother?"
"My dear, I told Polly to clean out the cage."
"And did she not do it?"
"Oh, yes—only too well. She dipped it in a pan of hot water and soda—and the bird in it."
"What—the canary—is it dead?"
"Of course it is, and bleached white too. That girl makes the water so thick wi' soda you could stand a spoon up in it. She used five pounds in two days."
"Oh, the poor canary!" Mehetabel was greatly troubled for her pet.
"I don't quite understand the ways o' Providence," said Mrs. Verstage. "I don't suppose I shall till the veil be lifted. I understand right enough why oysters ain't given eyes—lest they should see those who are opening their mouths to eat 'em. And if geese were given wings like swallows, they wouldn't bide with us over Michaelmas. But why Providence should ha' denied domestic servants the gift of intelligence wherewith we, their masters and mistresses, be so largely endowed—that beats me. Well," in a tone of resignation, "one will know that some day, doubtless."
After a bit of conversation about the progress of Jonas to convalescence, and the chance of his being able to use his arm, Mrs. Verstage approached the topic uppermost in her mind.
"I should like to hear all about it, from your own mouth, Matabel. There is such a number of wonderful tales going round, all contradictory, and so, of course, all can't be true. Some even tell that you fired the gun and wounded Jonas. But that is ridiculous, as I said to Maria Entiknap. And actually one story is that my Iver was in it somehow. Of course, I knew he heard there was an accident. You told him when you was fetched away. Who fetched you from the Ship? I left you in the kitchen."
"Oh, mother," said Mehetabel, "all the events of that terrible night are confused in my head, and I don't know where to begin—nor what is true and what fancy, so I'd as lief say nothing about it."
"If you can't trust me—" said Mrs. Verstage, somewhat offended.
"I could trust you with anything," answered Mehetabel hastily. "Indeed, it is not that, but somehow I fell, and I suppose with fright, and a blow I got in falling, every event got so mixed with fancies and follies that I don't know where truth begins and fancy ends. For that reason I do not wish to speak."
"Now look here," said Mrs. Verstage, "I've brought you a present such as I wouldn't give to any one. It's a cookery book, as was given me. See what I have wrote, or got Simon to write for me, on the fly-leaf.
"'Susanna Verstage, her book, Give me grace therein to look. Not only to look, but to understand, For learning is better than houses and land. When land is gone, and money is spent, Then learning is most excellent.'
"And the reason why I part with this Matabel, is because of that little conversation we had together the other day at the Ship. I don't believe as how you and Bideabout get along together first rate. Now I know men, their ins and outs, pretty completely, and I know that the royal road to their affections is through their stomachs. You use this book of receipts, they're not extravagant ones, but they are all good, and in six months Jonas will just about worship you."
"Mother," said Mehetabel, after thanking her, "you are very kind."
"Not at all. I've had experience in husbands, and you're, so to speak, raw to it. They are humorous persons, are men, you have to give in a little here and take a good slice there. If you give up to them there's an end to all peace and quietness. If you don't give in enough the result is the same. What all men want is to make their wives their slaves. You know, I suppose, how Gilly Cheel, the younger, got his name of Jamaica?"
"I do not think I do."
"Why he and his Bessy are always quarrelling! Neither will yield to the other. At last, by some means, Gilly got wind that in West Indies, there are slaves, and he thought, if he could only get out there with Bess that he'd be able to enslave her and make her do what he wished. So he pretended that he'd got a little money left him in Jamaica, and must needs go out there and settle. She said she wouldn't go, and he had no call to go there, except just for the sake of getting her under control. Then he talked big of the beautiful climate, and all the cooking done by the sun, and no washing needed, because clothing are unnecessary, and not only no washing, but no mending neither, no stockings to knit, no buttons to put on—a Paradise for wimen, said Gilly—but still he couldn't get Bessy to hear of going out to the West Indies. At last, how it was, I can't say, but she got wind of the institootion of slavery there, and then she guessed at once what was working in Gilly's mind. Since that day he's always gone by the name of Jamaica, and fellows that want to tease him shout, 'Taken your passage yet for you and Bessy to Jamaica?'"
"My dear mother," said Mehetabel, "I should not mind being a slave in my husband's house, and to him, if there were love to beautify and sanctify it. But it would not be slavery then, and now I am afraid that you, mother, have perhaps took it unkind that I did not tell you more about that shot. If so, let me make all good again between us by telling you a real secret. There's no one else knows it."
"What is that?" asked the hostess eagerly.
Mehetabel was nervous and colored.
"May I tell you in your ear?"
Mrs. Verstage extended an ear to her, she would have applied both to Mehetabel's mouth had that been feasible.
The young wife, with diffidence, whispered something.
A beam of satisfaction lit up the old woman's face.
"That's famous. That's just as it ort. With that and with the cookery book, Jonas'll just adore you. There's nuthin' like that for makin' a home homely."
"And you'll come to me?"
"My dear, if alive and well, without fail."
The Broom-Squire did not recover from his wound with the rapidity that might have been expected. His blood was fevered, his head in a whirl. He could not forget what his sister had said to him relative to Mehetabel and Iver. Jealousy gnawed in his heart like a worm. That the painter should admire her for her beauty—that was nothing—who did not admire her? Had she not been an object of wonder and praise ever since she had bloomed into womanhood at the Ship? That he was envied his beautiful wife did not surprise him. He valued her because begrudged him by others.
He looked at himself in a broken glass he had, and sneered and laughed when he saw his own haggard face, and contrasted it with that of the artist. It was true that he had seen nothing to render him suspicious, when Iver came to his house, but he had not always been present. He had actually forced his wife against her wishes to go to the tavern where Iver was, had thrust her, so to speak, into his arms.
He remembered her call in the Marsh to the spirits to rid her of some one, and he could not believe her explanation. He remembered how that to save Iver, she had thrust the muzzle of the gun against her own side, and had done battle with him for mastery over the weapon. Incapable of conceiving of honor, right feeling, in any breast, he attributed the worst motives to Mehetabel—he held her to be sly, treacherous, and false.
Jonas had never suffered from any illness, and he made a bad patient now. He was irritable, and he spared neither his wife, who attended to him with self-denying patience, nor his sister, who came in occasionally. Mehetabel hoped that his pain and dependence on her might soften his rancorous spirit, and break down his antagonism towards her and every one. The longer his recovery was delayed, the more unrestrained became his temper. He spared no one. It seemed as though his wife's patience and attention provoked into virulent activity all that was most venomous and vicious in his nature. Possibly he was aware that he was unworthy of her, but could not or would not admit this to himself. His hatred of Iver grew to frenzy. He felt that he was morally the inferior of both the artist and of his own wife. When he was at their mercy they had spared his life, and that life of his lay between them and happiness. Had he not sought both theirs? Would he have scrupled to kill either had one of them been in the same helpless position at his feet?
He had come forth in sorry plight from that struggle, and now he was weakened by his accident, and unable to watch Mehetabel as fully as he would have wished.
The caution spoken by the surgeon that he should not retard his recovery by impatience and restlessness was unheeded.
He was wakeful at night, tossing on his bed from side to side. He complained of this to the surgeon, who, on his next visit, brought him a bottle of laudanum.
"Now look here," said he; "I will not put this in your hands. You are too hasty and unreliable to be entrusted with it. Your wife shall have it. It is useful, if taken in small quantities, just a drop or two, but if too much be taken by accident, then you will fall into a sleep from which there is no awaking. I can quite fancy that you in your irritable mood, because you could not sleep, would give yourself an overdose, and then—there would be the deuce to pay."
"And suppose that my wife were to overdose me?" asked the sick man suspiciously.
"That is not a suspicion I can entertain," said the surgeon, with a bow of his head in the direction of Mehetabel, "I have found her thoughtful, exact, and trustworthy. And so you have found her, I will swear, Mr. Kink, in all your domestic life?"
The Broom-Squire muttered something unintelligible, and turned a way.
When the laudanum arrived, he took the bottle and examined it. A death's head and crossbones were on the label. He took out the cork, and smelt the contents of the phial.
Though worn out with want of sleep he refused to touch any of the sedative. He was afraid to trust Mehetabel with the bottle, and afraid to mix his own portion lest in his nervous excitement he might overdo the dose.
Neither would he suffer the laudanum to be administered to him by his sister. As he said to her with a sneer, "A drop too much would give you a chance of my farm, which you won't have so long as I live."
"How can you talk like that?" said Sally. "Haven't you got a wife? Wouldn't the land go to her?"
The land, the house—to Mehetabel, and with his removal, then the way would be opened for Iver as well.
The thought was too much for Jonas. He left his bed, and carried the phial of opium to a little cupboard he had in the wall, that he kept constantly locked. This he now opened, and within it he placed the bottle. "Better endure my sleepless nights than be rocked to sleep by those who have no wish to bid me a good morrow."
Seeing that Mehetabel observed him he said, "The key I never let from my hands."
He would not empty the phial out of the window, because—he thought on the next visit of the surgeon he might get him to administer the dose himself, and he would have to pay for the laudanum, consequently to waste it would be to throw away two shillings.
It chanced one day, when the Broom-Squire was somewhat better, and had begun to go about, that old Clutch was taken ill. The venerable horse was off his feed, and breathed heavily. He stood with head down, looking sulky.
Bideabout was uneasy. He was attached to the horse, even though he beat it without mercy. Perhaps this attachment was mainly selfish. He knew that if old Clutch died he would have to replace him, and the purchase of a horse would be a serious expense. Accordingly he did all in his power to recover his steed, short of sending for a veterinary surgeon. He hastened to his cupboard in the upper chamber, and unlocked it, to find a draught that he might administer. When he had got the bottle, in his haste, being one-handed, he forgot to re-lock and remove the key. Possibly he did not observe that his wife was seated in the window, engaged in needlework. Indeed, for some time she had been very busily engaged in the making of certain garments, not intended for herself nor for her husband. She worked at these in the upper chamber, where there was more light than below in the kitchen, where, owing to the shade of the trees, the room was somewhat dark, and where, moreover, she was open to interruption.
When Bideabout left the room, Mehetabel looked up, and saw that he had not fastened the cupboard. The door swung open, and exposed the contents. She rose, laid the linen she was hemming on the chair, and went to the open press, not out of inquisitiveness, but in order to fasten the door.
She stood before the place where he kept his articles of value, and mustered them, without much interest. There were bottles of drenches for cattle, and pots of ointment for rubbing on sprains, and some account books. That was all.
But among the bottles was one that was small, of dark color, with an orange label on it marked with a boldly drawn skull and crossbones, and the letters printed on it, "Poison."
This was the phial containing the medicine, the name of which she could not recall, that the doctor had given to her husband to take in the event of his sleeplessness continuing to trouble him. The word "poison" was frightening, and the death's head still more so. But she recalled what the surgeon had said, that the result of taking a small dose would be to encourage sleep, and of an overdose to send into a sleep from which there would be no awaking.
Mehetabel could hardly repress a smile, though it was a sad one, as she thought of her husband's suspicions lest she should misuse the draught on him. But her bosom heaved, and her heart beat as she continued to look at it.
She needed but to extend her hand and she had the means whereby all her sorrows and aches of heart would be brought to an end. It was not as if there were any prospect before her of better times. If sickness had failed to soften and sweeten the temper of the Broom-Squire, then nothing would do it. Before her lay a hideous future of self-abnegation, or daily, hourly misery, under his ill-nature; of continuous torture caused by his cruel tongue. And her heart was not whole. She still thought of Iver, recalled his words, his look, the clasp of his arm, his kiss on her lips.
Would the time ever arrive when she could think of him without her pulse bounding, and a film forming over her eyes?
Would it not be well to end this now? She had but to sip a few drops from this bottle and then lay her weary head, and still more weary heart, on the bed, and sleep away into the vast oblivion!
She uncorked the bottle and smelt the laudanum. The odor was peculiar, it was unlike any other with which she was acquainted. She even touched the cork with her tongue. The taste was not unpleasant.
Not a single drop had been taken from the phial. It was precisely in the condition in which it had arrived.
If she did not yield to the temptation, what was it that stayed her? Not the knowledge that the country of the Gergesenes lay southeast of the Lake of Tiberias, otherwise called the Sea of Galilee; nor that the "lily of the field" was the Scarlet Martagon; nor that the latitude and longitude of Jerusalem were 31 deg. 47 min. by 53 deg. 15 min., all which facts had been acquired by her in the Sunday-school; but that which arrested her hand and made her replace the cork and bottle was the sight of a little white garment lying on the chair from which she had risen.
Just then she heard her husband's voice, and startled and confused by what had passed through her mind, she locked the cupboard, and without consideration slipped the key into her pocket. Then gathering up the little garment she went into another room.
Bideabout did not miss the key, or remember that he had not locked up the cupboard, for three days. The bottle with drench he had retained in the stable.
When the old horse recovered, or showed signs of convalescence, then Bideabout took the bottle, went to his room, and thrust his hand into his pocket for the key that he might open the closet and replace the drench.
Then, for the first time, did he discover his loss. He made no great disturbance about it when he found out that the key was gone, as he took for granted that it had slipped from his pocket in the stable, or on his way through the yard to it. In fact, he discovered that there was a hole in his pocket, through which it might easily have worked its way.
As he was unable to find any other key that would fit the lock, he set to work to file an odd key down and adapt it to his purpose. Living as did the squatters, away from a town, or even a large village, they had learned to be independent of tradesmen, and to do most things for themselves.
Nor did Mehetabel discover that she was in possession of the key till after her husband had made another that would fit. She had entirely forgotten having pocketed the original key. Indeed she never was conscious that she had done it. It was only when she saw him unlock the closet to put away the bottle of horse medicine that she asked herself what had been done with the key. Then she hastily put her hand into her pocket and found it.
As Jonas had another, she did not think it necessary for her to produce the original and call down thereby on herself a torrent of abuse.
She retained it, and thus access to the poison was possible to those two individuals under one roof.
One Sunday, the first snow had fallen in large flakes, and as there had been no wind it had covered all things pretty evenly—it had laden the trees, many of which had not as yet shed their leaves. Mehetabel had not gone to church because of this snow; and Jonas had been detained at home for the same reason, though not from church. If he had gone anywhere it would have been to look for holly trees full of berries which he might cut for the Christmas sale of evergreens.
Towards noon the sun suddenly broke out and revealed a world of marvellous beauty. Every bush and tree twinkled, and as the rays melted the snow the boughs stooped and shed their burdens in shining avalanches.
Blackbirds were hopping in the snow, and the track of hares was distinguishable everywhere.
As the sun burst in at the little window it illumined the beautiful face of Mehetabel and showed the delicate rose in her cheeks, and shone in her rich dark hair, bringing out a chestnut glow not usually visible in it.
Jonas, who had been sitting at his table working at his accounts, looked up and saw his wife at the window contemplating the beauty of the scene. She had her hands clasped, and her thoughts seemed to be far away, though her eyes rested on the twinkling white world before her.
Jonas, though ill-natured and captious, was fond of his wife, in his low, animal fashion, and had a coarse appreciation of her beauty. He was so far recovered from his accident that he could sleep and eat heartily, and his blood coursed as usual through his veins.
The very jealousy that worked in him, and his hatred of Iver, and envy of his advantages of youth, good looks, and ease of manner, made him eager to assert his proprietorship over his wife.
He stepped up to her, without her noticing his approach, put his right arm round her waist and kissed her.
She started, and thrust him back. She was far away in thought, and the action was unintentional. In very truth she had been dreaming of Iver, and the embrace chimed in with her dream, and the action of shrinking and repulsion was occasioned by the recoil of her moral nature from any undue familiarity attempted by Iver.
But the Broom-Squire entirely misconceived her action. With quivering voice and flashing eyes, he said—
"Oh, if this had been Iver, the daub-paint, you would not have pushed me away."
Her eyebrows contracted, and a slight start did not pass unnoticed.
"I know very well," he said, "of whom you were thinking. Deny it if you can? Your mind was with Iver Verstage."
She was silent. The blood rushed foaming through her head; but she looked Bideabout steadily in the face.
"It is guilt which keeps you silent," he said, bitterly.
"If you are so sure that I thought of him, why did you ask?" she replied, and now the color faded out of her face.
Jonas laughed mockingly.
"It serves me right," he said in a tone of resentment against himself. "I always knew what women were; that they were treacherous and untrue; and the worst of all are those who think themselves handsome; and the most false and vicious of all are such as have been reared in public-houses, the toast of drunken sots."
"Why, then, did you take me?"
"Because I was a fool. Every man commits a folly once in his life. Even Solomon, the wisest of men, committed that folly; aye, and many a time, too, for of wives he had plenty. But then he was a king, and folly such as that mattered not to him. He could cut off the head of, or shoot down any man who even looked at or spoke a word to any of his wives. And if one of these were untrue to him, he would put her in a sack and sink her in the Dead Sea, and—served her right. To think that I—that I—the shrewd Broom-Squire, should have been so bewitched and bedeviled as to be led into the bog of marriage! Now I suffer for it." He turned savagely on his wife, and said: "Have you forgotten that you vowed fidelity to me?"
"And you did you not swear to show me love?"
He broke into a harsh laugh.
"Love! That is purely! And just now, when I attempted to snatch a kiss, you struck me and thrust me off, because I was Jonas Kink, and not the lover you looked for?"
"Jonas!" said Mehetabel, and a flame of indignation started into her cheek, and burnt there on each cheek-bone. "Jonas, you are unjust. I swore to love you, and Heaven can answer for me that I have striven hard to force the love to come where it does not exist naturally. Can you sink a well in the sand-hill, and compel the water to bubble up? Can you drain away the moor and bid it blossom like a garden? I cannot love you—when you do everything to make me shrink from you. You esteem nothing, no one, that is good. You sneer at everything that is holy; you disbelieve in everything that is honest; you value not the true, and you have no respect for suffering. I do not deny that I have no love for you—that there is much in you that makes me draw away—as from something hideous. Why do not you try on your part to seek my love? Instead of that, you take an ingenious pleasure in stamping out every spark of affection, in driving away every atom of regard, that I am trying so hard to acquire for you. Is all the strivin' to be on my side?—all the thought and care to be with me? A very little pains on your part, some small self-control, and we should get to find common ground on which we could meet and be happy. As to Iver Verstage, both he and I know well enough that we can never belong to each other."
"Oh, I stand between you?"
"Yes you and my duty."
"Much you value either."
"I know my duty and will do it. Iver Verstage and I can never belong to each other. We know it, and we have parted forever. I have not desired to be untrue to you in heart; but I did not know what was possible and what impossible in this poor, unhappy heart of mine when I promised to love you. I did not know what love meant at the time. Mother told me it grew as a matter of course in married life, like chickweed in a garden."
"Am I gone crazed, or have you?" exclaimed Bideabout, snorting with passion. "You have parted with Iver quite so but only till after my death, which you will compass between you. I know that well enough. It was because I knew that, that I would not suffer you to give me doses of laudanum. A couple of drops, where one would suffice, and this obstruction to your loves was removed."
"No, never!" exclaimed Mehetabel, with flashing eye.
"You women are like the glassy pools in the Moor. There is a smooth face, and fair flowers floating thereon, and underneath the toad and the effect, the water-rat and festering poison. I shall know how to drive out of you the devil that possesses you this spirit of rebellion and passion for Iver Verstage."
"You may do that," said Mehetabel, recovering her self-mastery, "if you will be kind, forbearing, and gentle."
"It is not with kindness and gentleness that I shall do it," scoffed the Broom-Squire. "The woman that will not bend must be broken. It is not I who will have to yield in this house I, who have been master here these twenty years. I shall know how to bring you to your senses."
He was in foaming fury. He shook his fist, and his short hair bristled.
Mehetabel shrank from him as from a maniac.
"You have no need to threaten," she said, with sadness in her tone. "I am prepared for anything. Life is not so precious to me that I care for it."
"Then why did you crawl out of the marsh?"
She looked at him with wide-open eyes.
"Make an end of my wretchedness if you will. Take a knife, and drive it into my heart. Go to your closet, and bring me that poison you have there, and pour it between my lips. Thrust me, if you will, into the Marsh. It is all one to me. I cannot love you unless you change your manners of thought and act and speech altogether."
"Bah!" sneered he, "I shall not kill you. But I shall make you understand to fear me, if you cannot love me." He gripped her wrist. "Whether alive or dead, there will be no escape from me. I will follow you, track you in all you do, and if I go underground shall fasten on you, in spirit, and drag you underground as well. When you married me you became mine forever."
A little noise made both turn.
At the door was Sally Rocliffe, her malevolent face on the watch, observing all that passed.
"What do you want here?" asked the Broom-Squire.
"Nuthin', Jonas, but to know what time it is. Our clock is all wrong when it does go, and now, with the cold and snow, I suppose, it has stopped altogether."
Sally looked at the clock that stood in the comer, Jonas turned sharply on his heel, took his hat, and went forth into the backyard of his farm.
"So," said Mrs. Rocliffe, "my brother is in fear of his life of you. I know very well how he got the shot in his elbow. It was not your fault that it did not lodge in his head. And now he dare not take his medicine from your hands lest you should put poison into it. That comes of marrying into a gallows family."
Then slowly she walked away.
Mehetabel sank into the window seat.
However glorious the snow-clad, sunlit world might be without it was nothing to her. Within her was darkness and despair.
She looked at her wrist, marked with the pressure of her husband's fingers. No tears quenched the fire in her eyes. She sat and gazed stonily before her, and thought on nothing. It was as though her heart was frozen and buried under snow; as though her eyes looked over the moor, also frozen and white, but without the sun flooding it. Above hung gray and threatening clouds.
Thus she sat for many minutes, almost without breathing, almost without pulsation.
Then she sprang to her feet with a sob in her throat, and hastened about the house to her work. There was, as it were, a dark sea tumbling, foaming, clashing within her, and horrible thoughts rose up out of this sea and looked at her in ghostly fashion and filled her with terror. Chief among these was the thought that the death of Jonas could and would free her from this hopeless wretchedness. Had the bullet indeed entered his head then now she would have been enduring none of this insult, none of these indignities, none of this daily torture springing out of his jealousy, his suspicion, and his resentfulness.
And at the same time appeared the vision of Iver Verstage. She could measure Jonas by him. How infinitely inferior in every particular was Jonas to the young painter, the friend of her childhood.
But Mehetabel knew that such thoughts could but breed mischief. They were poison germs that would infect her own life, and make her not only infinitely wretched but degrade her in her own eyes. She fought against them. She beat them down as though she were battling with serpents that rose up out of the dust to lash themselves around her and sting her. The look at them had an almost paralyzing effect. If she did not use great effort they would fascinate her, and draw her on till they filled her whole mind and lured her from thought to act.
She had not been instructed in much that was of spiritual advantage when a child in the Sunday-school. The Rector, as has already been intimated, had been an excellent and kindly man, who desired to stand well with everybody, and who was always taking up one nostrum after another as a panacea for every spiritual ill. And at the time when Matabel was under instruction the nostrum was the physical geography of the Holy Land. The only thing the parson did not teach was a definite Christian belief, because he had entered into a compromise with a couple of Dissenting farmers not to do so, and to confine the instruction to such matters as could not be disputed. Moreover, he was, himself, mentally averse to everything that savored of dogma in religion. He would not give his parishioners the Bread of Life, but would supply them with any amount of stones geographically tabulated according to their strata.
However, Matabel had acquired a clear sense of right and wrong, at a little dame's school she had attended, as also from Mrs. Verstage; and now this definite knowledge of right and wrong stood her in good stead. She saw that the harboring of such thoughts was wrong, and she therefore resolutely resisted them. "He said," she sighed, when the battle was over, "that he would follow me through life and death, and finally drag me underground. But, can he be as bad as his word?"
A HERALD OF STRIFE.
The winter passed without any change in the situation. Iver did not come home for Christmas, although he heard that his mother was failing in health and strength. There was much amusement in Guildford, and he reasoned that it would be advantageous to his business to take part in all the entertainments, and accept every invitation made him to the house of a pupil. Thursley was not so remote but that he could go there at any time. He was establishing himself in the place, and must strike root on all sides.
This was a disappointment to Mrs. Verstage. Reluctantly she admitted that her health was breaking down, and that, moreover, whilst Simon remained tough and unshaken. The long-expected and hoped for time when Iver should become a permanent inmate of the house, and she would spend her declining years in love and admiration, had vanished to the region of hopes impossible of fulfilment.
Simon Verstage took the decline of his wife's powers very philosophically. He had been so accustomed to her prognostications of evil, and harangues on her difficulties, that he was case-hardened, and did not realize that there was actual imminence of a separation by death.
"It's all her talk," he would say to a confidential friend; "she's eighteen years younger nor me, and so has eighteen to live after I'm gone. There ain't been much took out of her: she's not one as has had a large family. There was Iver, no more; and women are longer-lived than men. She talks, but it's all along of Polly that worrits her. Let Polly alone and she'll get into the ways of the house in time; but Sanna be always at her about this and about that, and it kinder bewilders the wench, and she don't know whether to think wi' her toes, and walk wi' her head."
In the Punch-Bowl the relations that subsisted between the Broom-Squire and his wife were not more cordial than before. They lived in separate worlds. He was greatly occupied with his solicitor in Godalming, to whom he was constantly driving over. He saw little of Mehetabel, save at his meals, and then conversation was limited on his part to recrimination and sarcastic remarks that cut as a razor. She made no reply, and spoke only of matters necessary. To his abusive remarks she had no answer, a deepening color, a clouding eye showed that she felt what he said. And it irritated the man that she bore his insolence meekly. He would have preferred that she should have retorted. As it was, so quiet was the house that Sally Rocliffe sneered at her brother for living in it with Mehetabel, "just like two turtle doves,—never heard in the Punch-Bowl of such a tender couple. Since that little visit to the Moor you've been doin' nothin' but billin and cooin'." Then she burst into a verse of an old folks song, singing in harsh tones—
"A woman that hath a bad husband, I find By scolding won't make him the better. So let him be easy, contented in mind, Nor suffer his foibles to fret her. Let every good woman her husband adore, Then happy her lot, though t be humble and poor. We live like two turtles, no sorrows we know, And, fair girl! mind this when you marry."
"What happens, in my house is no concern of yours, Sally," Jonas would answer sharply. "If some folk would mind their own affairs they wouldn't be all to sixes and sevens. You look out that you don't get into trouble yet over that foolish affair of Thomas and the Countess. I don't fancy you've come to the end of that yet."
So the winter passed, and spring as well, and then came summer, and just before the scythe cut the green swath, for the hay harvest, Mehetabel became a mother.
The child that was born to her was small and delicate, it lacked the sturdiness of its father and of the mother. So frail, indeed, did the little life seem at first, that grave doubts were entertained whether the babe would live to be taken to church to be baptized.
Mehetabel did not have the comfort of the presence of Mrs. Verstage.
During the winter that good woman's malady advanced with rapid strides, and by summer she was confined to her room, and very generally to her bed.
To Mehetabel it was not only a grief that she was deprived of the assistance of her "mother," but also that, owing to her own condition, she was unable to attend on the failing woman. Deprived of the help of Mrs. Verstage, Mehetabel was thrown on that of her sister-in-law, Sally Rocliffe. Occasions of this sort call forth all that is good and tender in woman, and Sally was not at bottom either a bad or heartless woman. She had been embittered by a struggle with poverty that had been incessant, and had been allowed free use of her tongue by a husband, all whose self-esteem had been taken out of him by his adventure with the "Countess Charlotte," and the derision which had rained on him since. She was an envious and a spiteful woman, and bore a bitter grudge against Mehetabel for disappointing her ambition of getting her brother's farm for her own son Samuel. But on the occasion when called to the assistance of her sister-in-law, she laid aside her malevolence, and the true humanity in the depths of her nature woke up. She showed Mehetabel kindness, though in ungracious manner.
Jonas exhibited no interest in the accession to his family, he would hardly look at the babe, and refused to kiss it.
At Mehetabel's request he came up to see her, in her room; he stood aloof, and showed no token of kindliness and consideration. Sarah went downstairs.
"Jonas," said the young mother, "I have wished to have a word with you. You have been very much engaged, I suppose, and could not well spare time to see me before."
"Well, what have you to say? Come to the point."
"That is easily done. Let all be well between us. Let the past be forgotten, with its differences and misunderstandings. And now that this little baby is given to us, let it be a bond of love and reconciliation, and a promise of happiness to us both."
The Broom-Squire looked sideways at his wife, and said, sulkily, "You remind one of Sanna Verstage's story of Gilly Cheel. He'd been drinking and making a racket in the house, and was so troublesome that she had to turn him out into the street by the shoulders. What did he do, but set his back to the door, and kick with his heels till he'd stove in some of the panels. Then he went to the windows, and beat in the panes, and when he'd made a fine wreck of it all, he stuck in his head, and said, 'This is to tell you, Sanna Verstage, as how I forgive you in a Christian spirit.'"
"Bideabout! What has that to do with me?"
"Everything. Have you not wronged me, sought to compass my death, given your love away from me to another, crossed me in all my wishes?"
"No, Jonas; I have done none of this. I never sought your death, only the removal of one who made happiness to me in my home impossible. It was for you, because of you, that I desired his removal. As for my love, I have tried to give it all to you, but you must not forget that already from infancy, from the first moment that I can remember anything, Iver was my companion, that I was taught to look up to him, and to love him. But, indeed, I needed no teachin' in that. It came naturally, just as the buttercups in the meadow in spring, and the blush on the heather in July. I had not seen him for many years, and I did not forget him for all that. But I never had a thought of him other than as an old playmate. He returned home, the very day we were married, Jonas, as you remember. And since then, he often came to the Punch-Bowl. You had nothin' against that. I began to feel like the meadow when the fresh spring sun shines on it, that all the dead or sleepin' roots woke up, and are strong again, or as the heather, that seemed dry and lifeless, the buds come once more. But I knew it must not be, and I fought against it; and I went to Thor's Stone for that reason, and for none other."
"A likely tale," sneered Jonas.
"Yes, Bideabout, it is a likely tale; it is the only tale at all likely concerning an honest heart such as mine. If there be truth and uprightness in you, you will believe me. That I have gone through a great fight I do not deny. That I have been driven almost to despair, is also true. That I have cried out for help—that you know, for you heard me, and I was heard."
"Yes—in that a lump of lead was sent into my shoulder."
"No, Jonas, in that this little innocent was given to my arms. You need doubt me no more: you need fear for me and yourself no longer. I have no mistrust in myself at all now that I have this." Lovingly, with full eyes, the mother held up the child, then clasped it to her bosom, and covered the little head and tiny hands with kisses.
"What has that to do with all that has been between us?" asked Bideabout, sneeringly.
"It has everything to do," answered Mehetabel. "It is a little physician to heal all our wounds with its gentle hand. It is a tiny sower to strew love and the seeds of happiness in our united lives. It is a little herald angel that appears to announce to us peace and goodwill."
"I dun know," muttered Jonas. "It don't seem like to be any of that."
"You have not looked in the little face, felt the little hands, as I have. Why, if I had any ache and pain, those wee fingers would with their touch drive all away. But indeed, Jonas, since it came I have had no ache, no pain at all. All looks to me like sunshine and sweet summer weather. Do you know what mother said to me, many months ago, when first I told her what I was expecting?"
"Dun know that I care to hear."
"She gave me a cookery book, and she said to me that when the little golden beam shone into this dark house it would fill it with light, and that, with the baby and me—cooking you nice things to eat, as wouldn't cost much, but still nice, then all would be right and happy, and after all—Paradise, Jonas."
"It seems to me as Sanna Verstage knows nuthin about it."
"Jonas," pleaded Mehetabel, "give the little one a kiss. Take it in your arms."
He turned away.
"Jonas," she said, in a tone of discouragement, after a pause, and after having held out the child to him in vain, and then taken it back to her bosom, "what are you stampin' for?"
He was beating his foot on the flooring.
"I want Sally to come up. I thought you had something to say, and it seems there is nuthin'."
"Nothing, Jonas? Do not go. Do not leave me thus. This is the first time you have been here since this little herald of goodwill appeared in my sky. Do not go! Come to me. Put your hand in mine, say that all is love and peace between us, and there will be no more mistrust and hard words. I will do my duty by you to the very best of my power, but, oh, Jonas, this will be a light thing to accomplish if there be love. Without—it will be heavy indeed."
He continued stamping. "Will Sally never come?"
"Jonas! there is one thing more I desired to say, What is the name to be given to the little fellow? It is right you should give him one."
"I!" exclaimed the Broom-Squire, making for the stairs. "I! Call him any name you will, but not mine. Call him," he turned his mean face round, full of rancor, and with his lip drawn up on one side, "as you like—call him, if it please you—Iver."
He went down the stairs muttering. What words more he said were lost in the noise of his feet.
"Oh, my babe! my babe!" sobbed Mehetabel; "a herald not of goodwill but of wicked strife!"
As Mehetabel became strong, the better feeling towards her in the heart of Sally Rocliffe sank out of sight, and the old ill-humor and jealousy took the upper hand once more. It was but too obvious to the young mother that the woman would have been well content had the feeble flame of life in the child been extinguished. This little life stood between her son Samuel and the inheritance of the Kink's farm.
Whatever was necessary for the child was done, but done grudgingly, and Mehetabel soon learned that the little being that clung to her, and drew the milk of life from her bosom, was without a friend except herself, in the Punch-Bowl. Jonas maintained a cold estrangement from both her and the babe, its aunt would have welcomed its death.
The knowledge of this rendered her infant only more dear to Mehetabel. Hers was a loving nature, one that hungered and panted for love. She had clung as much as was allowed to the hostess at the inn. She had been prepared with all her heart to love the man to whom she had promised love. But this had been rendered difficult, if not impossible, by his conduct. She would have forgiven whatever wrong he had done her, had he shown the smallest token of affection for his child. Now that he refused the poor, helpless creature the least particle of the love that was its due, her heart that had expanded towards him, turned away and poured all its warmth on the child.
And in love for it she was satisfied. She could dispense with the love of others. She thought, cared for, lived but for this one little object which engrossed her entire horizon, filled every corner of her heart.
Marvellous is maternal love above every other love on earth, the most complete reflex of the love of the Creator for His creatures. In connubial love there is something selfish. It insists on reciprocity. In filial love there is an admixture of gratitude for treatment in the past. In maternal love there is nothing self-seeking, it is pure benevolence, giving, continuous giving, of time, of thought, of body labor, of sleep, of everything. It asks for nothing in return, it expects nothing.
Under the power of this mighty love Mehetabel rapidly became strong, and bloomed. The color returned to her cheek, the brightness to her eye, the smile to her lips, and mirth to her heart.
Whatever seeds of love for Iver had sprung up in her were smothered under the luxuriance of this new love that left in her soul no space for any other. She thought no more of Iver, for she had no thought for any one other than her child.
She who had never had any one of her own round whom to throw her arms, and to clasp to her heart, had now this frail infant; and the love that might have been dispersed among many recipients was given entire to the child—a love without stint, a love without bounds, a love infinitely pure and holy as the love that reigns in Heaven. So completely absorbed was Mehetabel in her love of the child, that the ill-humors of Sarah Rocliffe affected her not, nor did the callousness of her husband deeply wound her. So absorbed was she, that she hardly gave a thought to Simon Verstage and Susanna, and it was with a pang of self-reproach that she received an urgent appeal from the latter to visit her, sent through a messenger, along with a request that she would bring her infant with her in the conveyance sent from the Ship Inn for the purpose.
With readiness and at once Mehetabel obeyed the summons. There was a bright flush of pleasure in her cheek as she mounted to her place in the little cart, assisted by Joe Filmer, the ostler at the Ship, and folded her shawl about the living morsel that was all the world to her.
"Well, upon my word," said Joe, "I think, Matabel, you've grown prettier than ever, and if Bideabout bain't a happy man, he's different constituted from most of us."
Joe might well express his admiration. The young mother was singularly lovely now, with sufficient of the delicacy of her late confinement still on her, and with the glow of love and pride glorifying her face.
She was very pleased to go to the Ship, not so much because she wanted to see the hostess, as because she desired to show her the babe.
"How is mother?" she asked of Joe Filmer.
The ostler shook his head.
"I should say she hain't long to live. She changed terrible last week. If it weren't for her stories about Gilly Cheel, and one or another, one wouldn't believe it was the same woman. And the master, he is that composed over it all—it is wonderful, wonderful."
Mehetabel was shocked. She was not prepared for this news, and the brightness went out of her face. She was even more alarmed and troubled when she saw Mrs. Verstage, on whose countenance the shadow of approaching death was plainly lying.
But the hostess had lost none of the energy and directness of her character.
"My dear Matabel," she said, "it's no use you wishin' an' hopin'. Wishin' an' hopin' never made puff paste without lard. I haven't got in me the one thing which could raise me up again—the power to shake off my complaint. That is gone from me. I thought for long I could fight it, and by not givin' way tire it out. You can do that with a stubborn horse, but not with a complaint such as mine. But there—no more about me, show me the young Broom-Squire."
After the usual scene incident on the exhibition of a babe that is its mother's pride, a scene that every woman can fill in for herself, and which every man would ask to be excused to witness, Mrs. Verstage said: "Matabel, let there be no disguise between us. How do you and your husband stand to each other now?"
"I would rather you did not ask me," was the young wife's answer, after some hesitation.
"That tells me all," said the hostess. "I did hope that the birth of a little son or daughter would have made all right, assisted by the cookery book, but I see plainly that it has not. I have heard some sort of talks about it. Matabel, now that I stand, not with one, but with two feet on the brink of my grave, I view matters in a very different light from what I did before, and I do not mind tellin' you that I have come to the conclusion that I did a wrong thing in persuadin' you to take Bideabout. I have had this troublin' me for a long time, and it has not allowed me rest. I have not had much sleep of late, because of the pain, and because I always have been an active woman, and it puts me out to be a prisoner in my own room, and not able to get about. Well, Matabel, I have fretted a good deal over this, and have not been able to set my conscience at ease. When Polly knocked off the spout of my china teapot, I said to her, 'You must buy me another out of your wages.' She got one, but 'twasn't the same. It couldn't be the same. The fashion is gone out, and they don't make 'em as they did. It is the same with your marriage with Bideabout. The thing is done and can't be undone. So I need only consider how I can make it up in some other way."
"Mother, pray say nothing more about this. God has given me my baby, and I am happy."
"God has given you that," said Mrs. Verstage, "but I have given you nothing. I have done nothin' to make amends for the great wrong I did you, and which was the spoiling of your life. It is not much I can do, but do somethin' I must, and I will, or I shall not die happy. Now, my plan is this. I have saved some money. I have for many years been puttin' away for Iver, but he does not want it greatly. I intend to leave to you a hundred pounds."
"Mother, I pray you do nothing of the kind.
"I must do it, Matabel, to ease my mind."
"Mother, it will make me miserable."
Mehetabel did not answer.
"I intend this hundred pounds to be your own, and I shall so leave it that it shall be yours, and yours only."
"Mother, it will make matters worse." After some hesitation, and with a heightened color, she told Mrs. Verstage about the fifteen pounds given her on the wedding day by Simon. She told it in such a manner as to screen her husband to the utmost. "You know, mother, Jonas has high notions about duty, and thinks it not well that we should have separate purses. Of course he must judge in these matters, and he is, no doubt, right, whereas I am wrong. But, as he does hold this opinion, it would anger him were I to have this money, and I know what the end would be, that I should have to give it all up to him, so that there might be peace between us. I dare say he is right."
"I have heard folks say that man should do the courtin' before marriage, and the woman after, but I don't hold with it. You may give way to them too much. There was Betsy Chivers was that mild and humoring to her husband that at last he made her do everything, even clean his teeth for him. The hundred pounds is for you, whether you wish to have it or not. It is of no use your sayin' another word."
"Do you mind, if it were given instead to the baby? May it be left to him instead of me? Then there would not be the same difficulty?"
"Certainly, if you like it; but you don't want me to leave him the use of it in his present condition. Why, he'd put it into his mouth for certain. There must be some one to look after it for him till he come of age, and take it upon himself, as the baptism service says."
"There must, of course," said Mehetabel, meditatively.
"Money, edged tools, and fire—these are the three things children mustn't meddle with. But it isn't children only as must be kept off money. Men are just as bad. They have a way of getting rid of it is just astonishin' to us females. They be just like jackdaws. I know them creeturs—I mean jackdaws, not men, come in at the winder and pull all the pins out of the cushion, and carry 'em off to line their nest with 'em. And men—they are terrible secretive with money. They can't leave a lump sum alone, but must be pickin at it, for all the world like Polly and currant cake, or raisin puddin'. As for men, they've exactly the same itchin after money. If I leave the hundred pounds to your little mite, and I'm willin' to do it, I must make some one trustee, and I don't fancy putting that upon Bideabout."
"Of course Jonas would look to his own child's interests, yet—"
"I know. There's a complaint some folks have, they're always eatin' and you can never see as their food has profited them. It's so with Bideabout—he is ever picking up money, but it don't seem to do him a scrap of good. What has he done with his money that he has saved?"
"I do not know."
"And I don't suppose he does himself. No, if you wish me to leave the hundred pounds to the child instead of to yourself then I will do so, heartily, and look about for some one in whom I can place confidence to undertake to be trustee. Simon is too old and he is getting foolish. My word, if, after I'm dead and gone, Simon should take it into his stupid head to marry Polly—I'd rise out of my grave to forbid the banns."
"You need have no fear of that, mother."
"If you had been in the house you could have kept an eye on him. There, again, my wrong deed finds me out. Matabel, it's my solemn conviction that there's no foolishness men won't be up to, especially widowers. They've been kept in order so long that they break out when their wives are dead. Have you ever seen a horse as has been clipped and kept all winter on hay in the stables when he chances to get out into a meadow, up go his heels, he turns frisky, gallops about, and there's no catching him again—not even with oats. He prefers the fresh grass and his freedom. That's just like widowers; or they're ginger beer bottles, very much up, wi' their corks out. What a pity it is Providence has given men so little common sense! Well, I'll see to that matter of the trusteeship, and the little man shall have a hundred pounds as a stand-by in the chance his father may have fooled away his own money."
Jonas Kink not only raised no objection to having an entertainment at the baptism of his child, but he expressed his hearty desire that nothing should be spared to repay the gossips for what they had done to assist the infant into the Christian Church, by feeding them well, and giving them what they valued more highly, something to drink.
Mehetabel was gratified, and hoped that this was a token that, rude as his manner was, he would gradually unbend and become amiable. On the day of the christening, Bideabout was in a bustle, he passed from one room to another to see that all was in order; he rubbed his palms and laughed to himself. Occasionally his eyes rested on Sally Rocliffe, and then there was a malicious twinkle in them. There was little affection lost between the two. Neither took pains to conciliate the other. Each commented freely on those characteristics of the other which were in fact common to both.
In his ambition to make a man of comparative substance of his son Jonas, the father had not dealt liberally by his daughter, and this had rankled in Sarah's heart. She had irritated her brother by continually raking up this grievance, and assuring him that a brother with natural feeling would, out of generosity of his heart, make amends for the injustice of the father.
Jonas had not the slightest intention of doing anything of the sort, and this he conveyed to Sarah in the most bald and offensive manner possible. For twenty years, ever since the father's death, these miserable bickerings had gone on. Sally had not the sense to desist, where the pursuit of the topic could avail nothing, nor Jonas the kindliness to make her a present which might moderate her sense of having been unjustly treated.
He had been obliged to employ his sister, and yet he suspected, not without cause, that she took away from his house such scraps of food and pots and pipkins as were not likely to be missed. The woman justified her conduct to herself by the argument that she was inadequately paid in coin, and that she was forced to pilfer in order to recoup herself for the outlay of time and muscle in her brother's habitation. Thomas Rocliffe was a quiet, harmless old man, crushed not only by the derision which had clung to him like a robe of Nessus ever since his escapade with the Countess Charlotte, but also by the weight of his wife's tongue. He had sought peace by non-resistance, and this had encouraged her to violence, and had removed the only possible check to her temper. He was not a clever man. Most people thought him soft. His son Samuel was stupid and sullen, rendered both by his mother's treatment from infancy. Thomas had not sufficient intelligence and spontaneity to make a struggle to overcome his embarrassments, and force himself a way out of his difficulties. Instead of the debt that hampered him being gradually reduced, as it might have been by a man with energy, it had increased. Nothing had been spent on the house since the debt had been first contracted, and it was not water-tight. Nothing had been done to the land to dress it, to increase the stock, to open up another spring of revenue. When a bad year came the family fell into actual distress. When a good year ensued no margin was left to serve as a provision for one less favorable.
Mehetabel, pleased that her husband had put no hindrance in the way of a christening feast, had begrudged none of the necessary expense, was active and skilful in the preparation of cakes and pies.
To the church she had to go, so as to be churched immediately before the baptism, and Jonas remained at home, as he said, to see that no one broke in and carried off the good things. Never, within the memory of the oldest inhabitant of the Punch-Bowl; never, it may safely be asserted, since the Punch-Bowl had been formed, had there been seen a table so spread as that in the Kink's farmhouse on the day of the christening, and whilst the party was at the church. In the first place the table had on it a clean linen cover, not riddled with holes nor spotted with iron mould. It was exceptional for any table in the Punch-Bowl to be spread with linen. There stood on it plated and red earthenware dishes, and on the latter many good things. At one end was a cold rabbit pie. Rabbits were, indeed, a glut in Thursley, but such a pie was a phenomenon.
Bideabout's mind was exercised over it. He was curious to know whether the interior corresponded to the promise without. He inserted a knife and lifted the crust just sufficiently to allow him to project his nose to the edge of the dish and inhale the savor of the contents. "My word!" said he, "there's stuffin'. Rabbit and stuffin'. Wot next—and egg. I can see the glimmer of the white and yaller."
He rose from his stooping posture and saw Samuel Rocliffe at the window.
He beckoned to him to enter, and then showed him the table. "Did you ever see the likes?" he asked. "You ain't invited, Sam, but you can look over it all. There's a posy of flowers in the middle of the table, genteel like, as if it were a public house dinner to a club, and look at this pie. Do you see how crinkled it is all round, like the frill of your mother's nightcap? That was done with the scissors, and there's a gloss over the top. That were effected with white o' egg. Just think of that! using white o' egg when eggs is eighteen a shilling, for making the pie shine like your face o' Sundays after you've yaller-soaped it. There's stuffin' inside."
"I wish there were in my inside," said Samuel, surlily.
"You ain't invited. Do you see that thing all of a trimble over there, a sort of pale ornamental cooriosity? That's called a blue-mange. It's made of isinglass and milk and rice flour. It's not for ornament, but to be eaten, by such as is invited. There they come! You cut away. If you was a few years older, we might have invited you. But there ain't room for boys."
The unfortunate Samuel sulkily retired, casting envious eyes at the more favored denizens of the Punch-Bowl who were arriving to partake of the viands only shown to him.
The guests streamed in and took their places. They enjoyed the feast prepared, and passed encomiums on their hostess for her cookery. All fought shy at first of the blanc-mange. None had seen such a confection previously, and each desired that his fellow should taste before committing himself to a helping.
Mrs. Verstage had sent a present of half-a-dozen bottles of currant wine, and these were attacked without any hesitation.
All the males at the table were in their shirt-sleeves. No man thought of risking his Sunday coat by wearing it, even though the viands were cold.
Jonas seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. He looked about and laughed, and rubbed his hands together under the table.
"Beware!" whispered Sally to her husband. "I can't understand Bideabout. There's some joke as tickles his in'ards tremendous. Wot it is, I don't see."
"He'll let it out presently," said Thomas.
As soon as every appetite was satisfied, and the guests had thrust their plates from them into the midst of the table, Giles Cheel stood up, and looking round cleared his throat, and said, "Ladies and gem'men, neighbors all. I s'pose on such an occasion as this, and after such a feed, it's the dooty of one of us to make a speech. And as I'm the oldest and most respected of the Broom-Squires of the Bowl, I think it proves as I should express the gen'ral feelin' of satisfaction we all have. That there rabbit pie might ha' been proud to call itself hare. The currant wine was comfortin', especially to such as, like myself, has a touch of a chill below the ribs, and it helps digestion. There be some new-fangled notions comin' up about taytotallin. I don't hold by 'em. The world was once drownded with water, and I don't see why we should have Noah's Floods in our insides. The world had quite enough taytotallin' then."
Giles was pulled backwards by the hand of his wife, which grasped the strap of his waistcoat.
"Sit down, you're ramblin' from the p'int."
"Betsy, let go. I be ramblin' up to it."
"Sit down, they've had enough o' yer."
"They've hardly had a taste."
"Everyone be laughin' at yer."
"I'm just about bringin' tears into their eyes."
"If you go on, I'll clap my hand over yer mouth."
"And then I'll punch yer head."
The daily broil in the Cheel house was about to be produced in public. It was stopped by Jonas, who rose to his feet, and with a leer and chuckle round, he said, "Neighbors and friends and all. Very much obliged for the complerment. But don't think it is all about a baby. Nothin' of the kind. It is becos I wanted all, neighbors and friends, to be together whilst I made an announcement which will be pleasant hearin' to some parties, and astonishin' to all. I ain't goin' to detain you very long, for what I've got to say might be packed in a nutshell and carried away in the stomick of a tomtit. You all of you know, neighbors and friends all, as how my brother-in-law made a fool of himself, and was made a fool of through the Countess Charlotte. And how that his farm got mortgaged; and since then, with lawyers, got more charged; and the family have led a strugglin' life since to keep their heads above water. Well, I've got all their mortgage and debts into my hands, and intend—"