It had rained that April more continuously than capriciously, but this morning April showed at last her fairer face. The sunshine held as yet no sense of heat, only the bracingness of a glad salt wave. Across the spacious blue of the Essex sky clouds floated and met and parted in a restful restlessness. The great valley swam in a blue sea of vapour. Men trod as on buoyant sunshine that bore them along. The buds were peeping out from every hedge and tree, the blackthorn was bursting into white, the whole world seemed like a child tiptoeing towards some delightful future. Primroses nestled in every hollow: the gorse lay golden on the commons. The little leaves of the trees seemed shy, scarcely grown familiar with the fluttering of the birds. All the misery, pain, and sadness had faded from creation like a bad dream: the stains and pollutions were washed out, leaving only the young clean beauty of the first day. It was a virgin planet, fresh from the hands of its Maker, trembling with morning dew—an earth that had never seen its own blossoming. And the pæan of all this peace and innocence throbbed exultingly in bird-music through all the great landscape. Over the orchard of Frog Farm there were only two larks, but you would have thought a whole orchestra.
A blot against this background seemed the blood-red shirt of Caleb Flynt in that same orchard; a wild undulating piece of primeval woodland where plum-trees and pear-trees indeed flourished, but not more so than oaks and chestnuts, briars and brambles, or fairy mists of bluebells. The task of regenerating it had been annually postponed, but now that Caleb was no longer the Frog Farm “looker,” it formed, like his vegetable garden, his wheat patch, or his wife’s piggery, a pleasant pottering-ground. He worked without coat or smock, chastening the ranker grass while the dew was still on it—or in his own idiom, “while the dag was on the herb.” White-bearded and scythe-bearing, he suggested—although the beard was short and round and he wore a shapeless grey hat—a figure of Father Time, incarnadined from all his wars. But in sooth no creature breathed more at one with the earth’s mood that morning than this ancient “Peculiar,” whose parlour bore as its text of honour—in white letters on a lozenge of brown paper: “When He giveth quietness, who then can make trouble?”
Quietness was, indeed, all around him in this morning freshness: the swish of the scythe, the murmurous lapse of shorn grass, the drone of insects, the cooing of pigeons from the cote, the elusive cry of the new-come cuckoo, seemed forms of silence rather than of sound. And his inner peace matched his outer, for, as his arms automatically wielded the scythe, his soul was actually in heaven—or at least in the New Jerusalem which, according to his wife’s novel Christadelphian creed, was to be let down from heaven for the virtuous remnant of earth—and at no distant date! Not that he definitely believed in her descending city, though he felt a certain proprietary interest in it. “Oi don’t belong to Martha’s Church,” he reassured his brethren of the Peculiar faith, “but Oi belongs to she and she belongs to me.”
In this mutual belonging he felt himself the brake and Martha the spirited mare who could never stand still. No doubt her argument that we were here to learn and to move forward was plausible enough—how could he traverse it, he who had himself changed from Churchman to Peculiar? But her rider: “We don’t leave the doctrine, we carry it with us,” struck him as somewhat shifty. And her move from “Sprinkling” to “Total Immersion”—even if the submergence did in a sense include the sprinkling—was surely enough progression for one lifetime. He did not like “this gospel of gooin’ forrard”: an obstinate instinct warned him to hold back, though with an uneasy recognition that her ceaseless explorations of her capacious Bible—to him a sealed book—must naturally yield discoveries denied to his less saintly and altogether illiterate self. Discoveries indeed had not been spared him. Ever since she had joined those new-fangled Christadelphians—“Christy Dolphins” as he called them—she had abounded in texts as crushing as they were unfamiliar; and even the glib Biblical patter he had picked up from the Peculiars was shown to imply at bottom the new teaching. Curtain lectures are none the less tedious when they are theological, and after a course of many months—each with its twenty-eight to thirty-one nights—Caleb Flynt was grown wearisomely learned in the bold doctrine launched by the great John Thomas that “the Kingdom of God on earth” actually meant on earth and must be brought about there and nowhere else, and that Immortality enjoyed except in one’s terrestrial body—however spiritualized—was as absurd a notion as that it was lavished indiscriminately upon Tom, Giles, and Jerry.
The worst of it was he could never be sure Martha was not in the right—she had certainly modified his belief in “Sprinkling”—and he fluttered around her “New Jerusalem” like a moth around a lighthouse. Had anybody given a penny for his thoughts as he stooped now over his scythe, the fortunate investor would have come into possession of “the street of pure gold, as it were transparent glass,” not to mention the sapphires and emeralds, the beryls and chrysolites and all the other shining swarms of precious stones catalogued in Revelation. If he had kept from her the rumour that had reached his own ears of such a treasure-city of glass actually arising in London at this very moment, it was not because he believed this was veritably her celestial city, but because it might possibly excite her credulity to the pitch of wishing to see it. And the thought of a journey was torture. Already Martha had dropped hints about the difficulties of “upbuilding” in the lack of local Christadelphians to institute a “Lightstand”: the wild dream of some day breaking bread in an “Ecclesia” in London had been adumbrated: it was possible the restless female mind even contemplated London itself as a place to be seen before one died.
But surely the New Jerusalem, if it descended at all, would—he felt—descend here, at Little Bradmarsh. A heaven that meant girding up one’s loins and wrenching out one’s roots was a very problematic paradise, for all the splendour with which his inward eye was now, despite himself, dazzled.
From this jewelled Jerusalem Caleb was suddenly brought back to the breathing beauty of our imperfect earth, to pear-blossom and plum-blossom, to the sun-glinted shadows under his trees and the mellow tiles of his roof. The sound of his own name fell from on high—like the city of his daydream—accompanied by a great skirring of wings, and looking up dazedly, the pearly gates still shimmering, his eye followed the tarred side-wall of the farmhouse till, near the roof, it lit upon his wife’s night-capped head protruded from the tiny diamond-paned casement that alone broke the sheer black surface of the wood.
A sense of the unusual quickened his pulses. It stole upon him, not mainly from Martha’s face, which, despite its excited distension, wore—over wrinkles he never saw—the same russet complexion and was crowned by the same glory of unblanched brown hair that had gladdened his faithful eyes since the beginning of the century; but, more subtly and subconsciously, through the open lattice which framed this ever-enchanting vision. In the Flynt tradition, windows—restricted at best by the window tax still in force—were for light, not air. Had folks wanted air, they would have poked a hole in the wall; not built a section of it “of transparent glass.” People so much under the sky as Caleb and Martha Flynt had no need to invite colds by artificial draughts. They were getting a change of air all day long. But their rooms—their small, low-ceiled rooms—were not thus vivified, even in their absence; the ground-floor windows were indeed immovable, and an immemorial mustiness made a sort of slum atmosphere in this spacious, sun-washed solitude. Hence Caleb’s sense of a jar in his universe at the familiar, flat pattern of the wall dislocated into a third dimension by the out-flung casement: a prodigy which he was not surprised to find fluttering the dovecot, and which presaged, he felt, still vaster cataclysms. And to add to the auspices of change, he observed another piebald pigeon among his snowy flock.
“Yes, dear heart,” he called up, disguising his uneasiness and shearing on.
Martha pointed a fateful finger towards the high-hedged, oozy path meandering beyond the orchard gate, and dividing the sown land from the pastures sloping to the Brad. “There’s Bundock coming up the Green Lane!”
“Bundock?” gasped Caleb, the scythe stopping short. “You’re a-dreamin’.” That Brother Bundock, who had been prayed over for a decade by himself and every Peculiar in the vicinity, should at last have taken up his bed and walked, was too sudden a proof of their tenets, and the natural man blurted out his disbelief.
“But I see his red jacket,” Martha protested, “his bag on his shoulder.”
“Ow!” His tone was divided between relief and disappointment. “You mean Bundock’s buoy-oy!” He drew out the word even longer than usual, and it rose even beyond the high pitch his Essex twang habitually gave to his culminating phrases. “Whatever can Posty be doin’ in these pa-arts?” he went on, with a new wonder.
“And the chace that squashy,” said Martha, who from her coign of vantage could see the elderly figure labouring in the remoter windings, “he’s sinking into it at every step.”
“Ay, the mud’s only hazeled over. Whatever brings the silly youth when the roads be in that state?”
“It’ll be the Census again!” groaned Martha.
Caleb’s brow gloomed. He feared Martha was right, and anything official must have to do with that terrible paper-filling which had at last by the aid of Jinny been, they had hoped, finally accomplished some weeks before. Ever since the first English census had been taken in the first year of the century, Martha had been expecting a plague to fall upon the people as it had upon the Israelites when King David numbered them. But although she had been disappointed, there was no doubt of the plague of the Census itself.
“Haps it’s a letter for the shepherd,” hazarded Caleb to comfort her.
“Who’d be writing Master Peartree a letter? He can’t read.”
“Noa!” he answered complacently, for his wife’s learning seemed part of their mutual “belonging.” The drawbacks of this vicarious erudition were, however, revealed by his next remark; for on Martha crying out that poor Bundock had sunk up to his knees, Caleb bade her be easy. “He won’t be swallowed up like that minx Cora!”
But Martha’s motherly heart was too agitated to recognize the Korah of her Biblical allusions—she vaguely assumed it was some scarlet woman englutted in the slimy saltings of Caleb’s birthplace. “Run and lead him into the right path,” she exhorted.
But Caleb’s brain was not one for quick reactions. Inured for nigh seventy years to a world in which nothing happened too suddenly, even thunderbolts giving reasonable notice and bogs getting boggier by due degrees, he stood dazedly, his hands paralysed on the nibs of his arrested scythe. “Happen the logs Oi put have sunk down!” he soliloquized slowly.
“If I wasn’t in my nightgown I’d go myself,” said Martha impatiently. “ ’Tis a lesson from the Lord not to lay abed.”
“The Lord allows for rheumaties, dear heart,” said Caleb soothingly.
“He’ll be up to his neck, if you don’t stir your stumps.”
“Not he, Martha. Unless he stands on his head.” Caleb meant this as a literal contribution to the discussion. There was no wilful topsy-turveydom. He was as unconscious of his own humour as of other people’s.
“But he’ll spoil his breeches anyways,” retorted Martha with equal gravity. “And the Lord just sending his wife a new baby.”
“Bundock’s breeches be the Queen’s,” said Caleb reassuringly. But laying down his scythe, he began to move mazedly adown the orchard, and before the postman’s mud-cased leggings had floundered many more rods, the veteran was sitting astride his stile, dangling his top-boots over a rotten-planked brook, and waving in his hairy, mahogany hand his vast red handkerchief like a danger signal.
Bundock responded with a cheerful blast on his bugle. “Ahoy, Uncle Flynt!”
“Turn back. Don’t, ye’ll strike a bog-hole.”
“I never go back!” cried the dauntless Bundock. And even as he spoke, his stature shrank till his bag rested on the ooze.
“The missus was afeared you’d spoil the Queen’s breeches,” said Caleb sympathetically. “Catch hold of yon crab-apple branch.”
“Better spoil her breeches than be unfaithful to her uniform,” said the slimy hero, struggling up as directed. “I’ve got a letter for you.”
Caleb’s flag fell into the brook and startled a water-rat. “A letter for us!”
He splashed into the water, still dazedly, to rescue his handkerchief, avoiding the plank as a superfluous preliminary to the wetting; and, standing statuesque in mid-stream, more like Father Neptune now than Father Time, he continued incredulously: “Who’d be sendin’ us a letter?”
“That’s not my business,” cried Bundock sternly. He came on heroically, disregarding a posterior consciousness of damp clay, and picking his way along the grassy, squashy strip that was starred treacherously with peaceful daisies and buttercups, over-hung by wild apple-trees, and hedged from the fields on either hand by a tall, prickly tangle and congestion—as of a vegetable slum—in which gorse, holly, speedwell, mustard, and lily of the valley (still in green sheaths), strove for breathing space. At the edge of a palpable mudhole he paused perforce. Caleb, who, when he recovered from his daze at the news of the letter, had advanced with dripping boots to meet him, was equally arrested at the opposite frontier, and the two men now faced each other across some fifteen feet of flowery ooze, two studies in red; Caleb, big-limbed and stolid, in his crimson shirt, and Bundock, dapper and peart, in his scarlet jacket.
The postman’s face was lightly pockmarked, but found by females fascinating, especially under the quasi-military cap. Hairlessness was part of its open charm: his sun-tanned cheek kept him juvenile despite his half-century, and preserved from rust his consciousness of a worshipping womanhood. Caleb, on the contrary, was all hair, little bushes growing even out of his ears, and whiskers and beard and the silver-grey mop at his crown running into one another without frontiers—the “Nonconformist fringe” in a ragged edition.
“Sow sorry to give ye sow much ill-convenience,” he called apologetically. “Oi count,” he added, having had time for reflection, “one of our buoy-oys has written from furrin parts. And he wouldn’t be knowing the weather here.”
“ ’Tain’t any of your boys,” said Bundock crossly, “because it comes from London.”
“That’s a pity. The missus’ll get ’sterical when she hears it’s for us, and it’s cruel hard to disappoint her. There ain’t nobody else as we want letters from. Can’t you send it back?”
“Not if I can deliver it,” said Bundock stiffly.
“But ye can’t—unless you chuck it over.”
The slave of duty shook his head. “I daren’t risk the Queen’s mail like that.”
“But it’s my letter.”
“Not yet, Uncle Flynt. When it reaches your hand it may be considered safely, legally, and constitutionally delivered. But, till then, ’tis the Queen’s letter, and don’t you forget it.”
Caleb scratched his head.
“If ’twas the Queen’s letter, she could read it,” he urged obstinately.
“And so she can,” rejoined Bundock. “She has the right to open any letter smelling of high treason, so to speak, and nobody can say her nay.”
“But my letter ain’t high treasony,” said Caleb indignantly. “And if Wictoria wants to read it, why God bless her, says Oi.”
Bundock sighed before the bovinity of the illiterate mind.
“The Queen has got better things to do than read every scribble her head’s stuck on to.”
“Happen Oi could ha’ retched it with a rake,” Caleb mused. “What a pity you ain’t got spladges, like when Oi was a buoy-oy, and gatherin’ pin-patches on the sands. And fine and fat they was too when ye got ’em on the pin!” His tongue clucked.
Bundock looked his contempt. “A pretty sight, Her Majesty’s uniform lumbering along like a winkle-picker!”
“Bide a bit then,” said Caleb, “and Oi’ll thrash through the hedge and work through agen in your rear.”
It was a chivalrous offer, for a deep ditch barred the way to the freshly ploughed land, and a tough and prickly chaos to the pasture land; but Bundock declined churlishly, if not unheroically, declaring there was a letter for Frog Cottage too. And when Caleb, recovering from this vindication of his wife’s prophesyings, offered to transmit it to the shepherd, “What guarantee have I,” asked Bundock, “that it reaches him safely, legally, and constitutionally? Nay, nay, uncle, a man must do his own jobs.”
“Then work through the bushes yourself. Don’t, ye’ll be fit to grow crops on.”
“Lord, how I hate going round—circumbendibus!” groaned Bundock. “I might as well be driving a post-cart.”
“There’s a mort of worser things than gooin’ round,” said Caleb. “And Oi do be marvelling a young chap like you should mind a bit of extra leg-work, bein’ as how ye’ve got naught else to do but to put one leg afore the ’tother.”
“Indeed?” snapped Bundock, this ignorant summary of his duties aggravating the moist clayey consciousness that resided at the seat of Her Majesty’s trousers.
“Ef ye won’t keep to the high roads, you ought to git a hoss what can clear everything,” Caleb went on to advise.
“And break my neck?”
“Posty always had a hoss when I was a cad.”
“Or lay in the road with a broken back and Her Majesty’s mail at the mercy of every tramp?” pursued Bundock. “No, no, one cripple in a family is enough.”
Caleb looked pained. “You dedn’t ought to talk o’ your feyther like that. And him pinchin’ hisself and maybe injurin’ his spinal collar to keep you at school till you was a large buoy-oy!”
Bundock’s irritation at his Bœotian critic was suddenly diverted by the spectacle of a female figure bearing down upon him literally by leaps and bounds—it seemed as if the steeplechase method recommended by Caleb was already in action. The postman felt for his spectacles, discarded normally in the interests of manly fascination. “Lord!” he cried. “Has your missus joined the Jumpers?” Caleb turned his head, not unalarmed. With so skittish a theologian anything was possible. But his agitation subsided into a smile of admiration.
“She thinks of everything,” he said.
The practical Martha was in fact advancing with an improvised leaping-pole that had already carried her neatly over the brook and would obviously bring Bundock over the boglet. But why—Caleb wondered—was she risking her “bettermost” skirt? His own mother, he remembered, had not hesitated to tuck up her petticoats when winkles had to be gathered. And why was Martha’s hair massed in its black net cap with a Sunday stylishness?
“Morning, Mrs. Flynt,” cried Bundock, becoming as genial as the weather. Females, even sexagenarian, so long as not utterly uncomely, turned him from an official into a man.
“Morning, Mr. Bundock!” Martha called back across the mudhole. “I hope your father’s no worse!”
Bundock’s brow clouded. Still harping on his father.
“He’s not so active as you,” he replied a bit testily.
“Thank the Lord!” said Caleb fervently. Then, colouring under Bundock’s stare, “For the missus’s legs,” he explained.
And to cover his confusion he snatched the pole from her and hurled it towards Bundock, who had barely time to jump aside into a still squidgier patch. But in another instant the dauntless postman secured it, and with one brave bound—like Sir Walter Scott’s stag—had cleared the slimiest section, and his staggering, sliding form was safely locked in Caleb’s sanguineous shirt-sleeves. Safely but not contentedly, for at heart he was deeply piqued at this inglorious position of Her Majesty’s envoy; the dignified newsbearer, the beguiler of loneliness, the gossip welcomed alike in the kitchens of the great and the parlours of the humble. Morbidly conscious of his unpresentable rear, he kept carefully behind the couple, while Caleb explained the situation to Martha, breaking and blunting the news at one hammer-blow.
“There’s a letter for us! From Lunnon!”
Martha was wonderful. “What a piece! What a master!” he thought. One might live with a woman for half a century, yet never fathom her depths. Not a gasp, not a cry, not a sigh of vain yearning. Merely: “Then it’ll be from Cousin Caroline. When she went back to London at Michaelmas she promised to let us know if she reached home safe, and if your brother George was better.”
“Ay, ay!” he assented happily. “Oi’d disremembered Cousin Caroline.”
It was a merciful oblivion, for his Cockney cousin had come from Limehouse in August and stayed two months, protesting that it was impossible to bide a day in a place where there wasn’t a neighbour to speak to except a silly shepherd who was never at home; where water was scooped filthily from a green-scummy pond instead of flowing naturally from a tap; where on moonless nights you could break your leg at your own doorstep; where frogs croaked and cocks crowed and pigeons moaned and foxes barked at the unholiest hours; where disgusting vermin were nailed on the trees and where you broke out in itching blotches, which folks might ascribe to “harvesters,” but which were susceptible of a more domestic explanation. Moreover, Cousin Caroline had brought a profuse and uninvited progeny, whose unexpected appearance in Jinny’s cart, though vaguely comforting as recalling the days when the house resounded with child-life, was in truth at disturbing discord with the Quakerish calm into which Frog Farm had subsided after the flight of its teeming chicks. As Caleb came along now, convoying Bundock through the lush orchard grass, the echo of Cousin Caroline’s querulous voice rasped his brain and made him wish she had pretermitted her promise to write. As for his ailing brother George, information about whom she was probably sending, it was obvious that he was no worse, else one would assuredly have heard of his funeral. Had not George carefully let him know when he got married? Caroline was a Churchwoman—he remembered suddenly—she had compromised Frog Farm by eking out Parson Fallow’s miserable congregation. And now she had sent her letter just at a season to plague and muddy a worthy Dissenter.
“Sow sorry to give ye sow much ill-convenience, Mr. Bundock,” he repeated, as they reached the farmhouse.
Frog Farm, before which Bundock stood fumbling in his bag, was—as its name implies—situated in a batrachian region, croakily cheerless under a sullen sky, a region revealed under the plough as ancient sedge-land, black with rotted flags and rushes. But the scene was redeemed at its worst by the misty magnificence of great spaces, whose gentle undulations could not counteract a sublime flatness; not to mention the beauty of the Brad gliding like the snake in the grass it sometimes proved. The pasture land behind the farmhouse and sloping softly down to the river—across which, protected by a dyke and drained by little black mills working turbine wheels, lay the still lower Long Bradmarsh—was the salvage of a swamp roughly provided with a few, far-parted drains by some pioneer squatter, content—on the higher ground where a farmhouse was possible—to fell and slice his own timber and bake his own tiles. At the topmost rim, on a road artificially raised to take its wagons to the higher ground or “Ridge” of the village, rose this farmhouse with its buildings, all dyked off from the converted marsh by a three-foot wall of trunk-fragments and uncouth stones, bordered by bushes. The house turned its back on the Brad, and had not even hind eyes to see it—another effect of the window tax—and had the rear of the house not been relieved by the quaint red chimney bisecting it, the blankness would have been unbearable. But if little of good could have been said of its architecture behind its back, and if even in front it ended abruptly at one extremity like a sheer cliff or a halved haystack, with one gable crying for another to make both ends meet, it was as a whole picturesque enough with all that charm of rough wood, which still seems to keep its life-sap, and beside which your marble hall is a mere petrifaction. Weather-boarded and tarred, it faced you with a black beauty of its own, amid which its diamond-paned little lattices gleamed like an Ethiopian’s eyes. In the foreground, haystacks, cornricks, and strawstacks gave grace and colour, fusing with the spacious landscape as naturally as the barns and byres and storehouses, the troughs and stables and cart-sheds and the mellow, immemorial dung.
But what surprised the stranger more than its lop-sidedness was the duplication of its front door, for there were two little doors, with twin sills and latches. It had, in fact, been partitioned to allow a couple of rooms to the shepherd-cowman, when that lone widower’s cottage was needed for an extra horseman. Master Peartree’s new home became known as Frog Cottage. The property was what was here called an “off-hand farm,” the owner being “in parts,” or engaged in other enterprises, and for more than a generation Caleb Flynt had lived there as “looker” to old Farmer Gale, the cute Cornish invader who had discovered the fatness of the oozy soil, and who had been glad to install a son of it as a reconciling link between Little Bradmarsh and “the furriner.” Caleb belonged to that almost extinct species of managers who can dispense with reading and writing, and his semi-absentee employer found his honesty as meticulous as his memory. While the Flynt nestlings were growing up, the parent birds had found the nest a tight fit, but with the gradual flight of the brood to every quarter of the compass, the old pair had receded into its snugger recesses—living mainly by the kitchen fire under the hanging hams. Thus when last year Farmer Gale’s son, succeeding to the property and foolishly desiring a more scientific and literate bailiff, delicately intimated that having bought all the adjoining land, he had been compelled to acquire therewith the rival looker, the old Flynts were glad enough to be allowed for a small rent the life-use of the farmhouse and the bits of waste land around it, subject to their providing living room for old Master Peartree, who was to pasture his flock of sheep and a few kine in the near meadows. Martha, indeed, always maintained that Caleb had made a bad bargain with the new master—did not the whole neighbourhood pronounce the young widower a skinflint?—but Caleb, who had magisterially negotiated with the new bailiff the swapping of his wood-ashes for straw for her pet pig, Maria, limited his discussions with her to theology. “When one talks law and high business,” he maintained, “we must goo back to the days afore Eve was dug out of Adam.”
Bundock, restored to his superiority by the deprecatory expectancy of the old couple, observed graciously that there was no need to apologize: anybody was liable to have a letter. Indeed, he added generously, with nine boys dotted about the world, Frog Farm might have been far more troublesome.
“Eleven, Mr. Bundock,” corrected Martha with a quiver in her voice.
“I don’t reckon the dead and buried, Mrs. Flynt. They don’t write—not even to the dead-letter office.” He cut short a chuckle, remembering this was no laughing matter.
“And the other nine might as well be dead for all the letters you bring me,” Martha retorted bitterly.
“No news is good news, dear heart,” Caleb put in, as though to shield the postman. He was not so sure now that this unfortunate letter had not disturbed her slowly won resignation. “We’ve always yeared of anything unpleasant—like when Daniel married the Kaffir lady.”
“That was Christopher,” said Martha.
“Ow, ay, Christopher. ’Tis a wonder he could take to a thick-lipped lady. Oi couldn’t fancy a black-skinned woman, even if she was the Queen of Sheba. Oi shook hands with one once, though, and it felt soft. They rub theirselves with oil to keep theirselves lithe.”
Martha replied only with a sigh. The Kaffir lady, for all her coloured and heathen horror, at least supplied a nucleus for visualization, whereas all her other stalwart sons, together with one married daughter, had vanished into the four corners of the Empire—building it up with an unconsciousness mightier than the sword—and only the children who had died young—two girls and a boy—remained securely hers, fixed against the flux of life and adventure. Occasionally indeed an indirect rumour of her live sons’ doings came to her, but correspondence was not the habit of those days when even amid the wealthier classes a boy might go out to India and his safe arrival remain unknown for a semestrium or more. The foreign postage, too, was no inconsiderable check to the literary impulse or encouragement to the lazy. Indeed postage stamps were still confined to half a dozen countries. It was but a decade since they had come in at all and letters with envelopes or an extra sheet had ceased to be “double”; postcards were still unknown, and in many parts postmen came as infrequently as carriers, people often hastening to scrawl replies which the same men might convey to the mail-bags.
“Kaffirs ain’t black,” corrected Bundock. “They’re coffee-coloured. That’s what the name means.”
Martha sighed again. So far had her brooding fantasy gone that she sometimes pictured baby grandchildren as innocently dusky as the hybrid young fantails which no solicitude could keep out of her dovecot, and which were a reminder that heaven knew no colour-boundaries.
“Don’t be nervous,” Bundock reassured her. “I’ll find it.”
“Oh, no hurry, no hurry!” said Caleb, beginning to perspire distressingly under the postman’s exertions and to mop his hairy brow with his brook-sopped handkerchief. How these youngsters grew up! he was thinking. Brats one had seen spanked waxed into mighty officers of State. “Shall I brush your breeches, Posty?” he inquired tactlessly.
“What’s the use till they’re dry?” snapped Bundock.
“Come in and dry them before the kitchen fire,” said Martha.
“This sun’ll dry them,” he said coldly.
“Not so slick as the fire,” Caleb blundered on. “ ’Tain’t like you was a serpent walking on your belly.”
Bundock flushed angrily and right-wheeled to hide the seat of his trousers. “Why you should go and catch your letter when the roads are in that state——!” he muttered.
“You could ha’ waited till they dried!” Caleb said deprecatingly.
“I did wait a post-day or so,” said Bundock with undiminished resentment. “But there’s such a thing, uncle, as duty to my Queen. Things might have got damper instead of drier, like the time the floods were out beyond Long Bradmarsh, and I might have had to swim out to you.”
Caleb was impressed. “But can you swim?” he inquired.
“That’s not the point,” growled Bundock. “I don’t say I’d ha’ faced the elements for you, but if somebody with real traffic and entanglement were living here, e.g. the Duke of Wellington, I should have come through fire and water.”
“The Dook at a farm!” Caleb smiled incredulously.
“In the Battle of Waterloo,” said Bundock icily, “the whole fight was whether he or Boney should hold a farm.”
“You don’t say!” cried Caleb excitedly. “And who got it?”
“Well, it wasn’t Froggy’s Farm.” And Bundock roared with glee and renewed self-respect. Caleb guffawed too, but merely for elation at the Frenchy’s defeat.
The calm and piping voice of Martha broke in upon this robustious duet, pointing out that there was no Duke in residence and no need for natation, but that since Jinny called for orders every Friday he might have given her the letter.
“Give the Queen’s mail to a girl!” Bundock looked apoplectic.
“Jinny never loses anything,” said Martha, unimpressed.
“She’ll lose her character if she ain’t careful,” he said viciously; “driving of a Sunday with Farmer Gale.”
“That’s onny to chapel,” said Caleb.
“A man that rich’ll never take her there!” sneered Bundock.
“Why, Jinny’s only a child,” said Martha, roused at last. “And the best girl breathing. Look how she slaves for her grandfather!”
“Jinny! Jinny!” Bundock muttered. “Nothing but Jinny all the day and all the way.” How often indeed had she snatched the gossip from his mouth, staled his earth-shaking tidings, even as the Bellman anticipated his jokes! “Let me catch her carrying letters, that’s all. I’ll have the law on her, child or no child. I expect she blows that horn to make the old folks think she’s got postal rights!” He did not mention that in his vendetta against the girl it was he who never hesitated to poach on the rival preserves, and that he was even now carrying a certain packet of tracts which he had found at “The Black Sheep” awaiting Jinny’s day, and which he had bagged on the ground that he had a letter for the same address.
“Jinny would have saved your legs,” said Martha dryly.
Caleb turned on her. “Ay, and his leggings too!” he burst forth with savage sarcasm. But at great moments deep calls to deep. “Women don’t understand a man’s duty. And Posty’s every inch a man.”
Bundock tried to look his full manhood: fortunately the discovery of the letter at this instant enabled him to gain an inch or two by throwing back his shoulders, so long bent under the royal yoke.
“Mrs. Flynt,” he announced majestically.
“For me?” gasped Martha.
“For you,” said Bundock implacably. “Mrs. Flynt, Frog Farm, Swash End, Little Bradmarsh, near Chipstone, Essex. Not that I hold it’s proper to write to a man’s wife while he’s alive—but my feelings don’t count.” And he tendered her the letter.
“It does seem more becoming for Flynt to have his Cousin Caroline’s letter,” admitted Martha, shrinking back meekly.
Bundock relaxed in beams. “I’m wonderfully pleased with you, Mrs. Flynt,” he said, handing Caleb the letter. “You’re a shining example, for all you stand up for that chit. When I think of Deacon Mawhood’s wife and how she defies him with that bonnet of hers——!”
“What sort of bonnet?” said Martha, pricking up her ears.
“You haven’t heard?” Bundock’s satisfaction increased. “It’s like the Queen’s—drat her! I mean, drat Mrs. Mawhood—made with that new plait—‘Brilliant’s’ the name. They turn the border of one edge of the straw inwards and that makes it all splendiferous.”
“Pomps and wanities,” groaned Caleb. “And she a deacon’s wife!”
Bundock sniggered. His sympathy with the husband was deeper and older than theology.
“I told you,” Martha reminded Caleb, “what would come of electing a ratcatcher a deacon.”
“A righteous ratcatcher,” maintained Caleb sturdily, “be higher than a hungodly emperor.”
“You haven’t got any emperors,” said the practical Martha.
“And how many kings have joined your Ecclesia?” put in Bundock.
“All the kings of righteousness!” answered Martha in trumpet-tones.
Bundock was quelled. “Well, I can’t stop gammicking,” he said, shouldering his bag.
“Won’t you have a glass of pagles wine?” said Martha, relapsing to earth.
“No, thank you. I’ve got a letter for Frog Cottage too!”
“For Master Peartree!” cried Martha. “And all in one morning. Well, if that’s not a miracle!”
“You and your miracles!” he said with a Tom Paine brutality. “Why I saved up yours till another came for Swash End. And so I’ve managed to kill——” His face suddenly changed. The brutal look turned beatific. But his sentence was frozen. The good couple regarded him dubiously.
“What’s amiss?” cried Martha.
Bundock gasped for expression like a salmon on a slab. “To kill” burst from his lips again, but the rest was choked in a spasm of cachinnation.
“You’ll kill yourself laughin’,” said Caleb.
Bundock mastered himself with a mighty effort. “So as to kill—ha, ha, ha!—to kill—ha, ha, ha!—two frogs—ha, ha, ha!—with one stone!”
Martha corrected him coldly: “Two birds, you mean.”
“Ay,” corroborated Caleb, “the proverb be two birds.”
“But here,” Bundock explained between two convulsions, “it’s two frogs.”
Caleb shook his head. “Oi’ve lived here or by the saltings afore you was born, and brought up a mort o’ childer here. Two birds, sonny, two birds.”
Bundock’s closing chuckles died into ineffable contempt.
“Good morning,” he said firmly.
“You’re sure you won’t have a sip o’ pagles wine?” repeated Martha.
He shook his head sternly. “If I had time for drinking I’d have time to tell you all the news.” He turned on his heel, presenting the post-bag at them like a symbol of duty.
“Anything fresh?” murmured Martha.
Bundock veered round viciously. “D’you suppose all Bradmarsh is as sleepy as the Froggeries? Fresh? Why, there’s things as fresh as the thatch on Farmer Gale’s barn or the paint on Elijah Skindle’s new dog-hospital or the black band on the chimney-sweep’s Sunday hat.”
“Is Mrs. Whitefoot dead?” inquired Martha anxiously.
“No, ’twas only his mother-in-law in London, and when he went up to the funeral he had his pocket picked. Quite spoilt his day, I reckon—ha, ha, ha!”
“Buryin’ ain’t a laughin’ matter,” rebuked Caleb stolidly.
“It depends who’s buried,” said Bundock. “I shouldn’t cry over Mrs. Mawhood. Which reminds me that the Deacon sent out the Bellman to say he couldn’t be responsible for her debts.”
“Good!” cried Caleb. Martha paled, but was silent.
“Only the Bellman spoilt it as usual with his silly old jokes. Proclaimed that the Deacon had put his foot down on his wife’s bonnet.”
“He, he, he!” laughed the old couple.
Bundock turned a hopeless hump. “Good morning!”
“And thank you kindly for the letter,” called Martha.
“Don’t mention it,” said Bundock. “And besides I killed—ho, ho, ho!—two frogs!”
They heard his explosions on the quiet air long after he and his royal hump had vanished along the Bradmarsh road.
Caleb’s eyes followed the heaving mail-bag.
“Bundock’s buoy-oy fares to be jolly this mornin’.”
“He does be lively sometimes,” agreed Martha.
Suddenly Caleb became aware of the letter in his hand.
“Dash my buttons, Martha! We disremembered to ask him to read it.”
It can no longer be concealed that despite her erudition Martha could not read writing nor write save by imitating print. The cursive alphabet was Phœnician to her.
“I didn’t forget,” she answered with her masterly calm. “Bundock’s too leaky. You heard him tell all the gossip and scandal. And it ain’t true about Jinny, for Master Peartree saw them riding in the other Sunday and Farmer Gale’s little boy sat between them. Besides, Bundock’s a man, and I don’t want a man to read my letter from Caroline.”
The point seemed arguable, but Caleb meekly suggested the little boy she had just mentioned—only a mile and a half away. He would be at school, Martha pointed out.
Caleb looked at the letter as a knifeless cook at an oyster.
“What’s the clock-time?” he asked.
“Not quite certain. I set the clock by Jinny last Friday, but it stopped suddenly yesterday, when I was reading you St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians. Haven’t you heard it not striking?”
Caleb shook his head.
“Afeared Oi’m gooin’ deafish, dear heart. But we’ll know the clock-time on Friday,” he added philosophically. “And when Jinny comes she can read the letter likewise.”
But Martha was blushing. “No, no, not Jinny! She’s a young girl.”
“Thank the Lord for her lively face!” agreed Caleb.
“Maybe she oughtn’t to read a letter to a married woman,” explained Martha shyly, “being a girl without mother or sisters, brought up by her grandfather.”
“But Cousin Caroline wouldn’t write naught improper.”
“Of course not—but it mightn’t be proper for an orphan girl to read. Maybe it’s not even proper for you, and that’s why she addressed it to me.”
Caleb felt as bemused as before a Bundock witticism.
“Joulterhead!” said Martha, with a loving smile. “And you’ve had fourteen!”
The letter fell from his nerveless fingers. “Cousin Caroline confined again!” And the clacking of all those innumerable infants filled the air—like the barking of the black geese on the wintry mud-flats. But he recovered himself. “Why, she’s a widow, not a pair.”
“Widows can be re-paired,” said Martha.
“Must have been a middlin’ bold man to goo courtin’ a family that size,” Caleb reflected.
He picked up the letter and poised it in his hand.
“Don’t feel as weighty as St. Paul’s letters,” he said.
“The text doesn’t mean his letters were heavy,” explained Martha. “ ‘His letters, say they, are weighty and powerful’—that’s what I was reading you when the clock stopped. Any fool can write a heavy letter—he’s only got to write on a slate.”
“That’s a true word,” said Caleb, admiring her.
“Whereas,” pursued Martha, “the whole Bible has been got inside a nutshell.”
“Lord!” said Caleb. “I suppose it was a cokernut!”
“Not at all. Only a walnut.”
“Fancy! But was there walnuts in the Holy Land?”
“I didn’t say ’twas done in Palestine.”
“Then there wasn’t walnuts there?” His face fell.
“I don’t remember—oh, yes—Solomon asked his love to come into the garden of nuts.”
“But it don’t say walnuts?” he inquired wistfully.
“I can’t say it does.”
“Then maybe there won’t be pickled walnuts in the New Jerusalem?”
“Not all the righteous have your carnal appetite,” said Martha severely.
“You just said Solomon’s sweetheart liked nuts,” said Caleb stoutly. “And dedn’t the Holy Land flow with milk and honey?” He had a vision of it, seamed and riddled like his native mud-flat, but with lacteal creeks and mellifluous pools.
“You put me out so,” snapped Bundock, suddenly reappearing before the engrossed couple, “that I forgot to kill my two frogs after all!” And going to the Frog Cottage doorway, he knocked officially before opening it and committing the letter to the empty interior.
“You’ll be witness that I delivered it constitutionally,” he said, “for I can’t be expected to come a third time.”
“ ’Tis a windfall your coming a second,” cried Caleb eagerly, “bein’ as we can’t read the letter.”
Martha made facial contortions to remind him that Bundock was barred. “ ’Tain’t you we want to read it,” he hurriedly added, “but when a letter comes all of an onplunge, time a man’s peacefully trimmin’ the werges, he ain’t prepared like. You haven’t got a moment—did, Oi’d be glad o’ your counsel on the matter.”
“Well, since I’ve wasted so much of the Queen’s time——!” said Bundock, flattered.
They adjourned to the parlour to give him a rest, and denuding himself of both cap and bag of office, he occupied oracularly the long-unused arm-chair, while Caleb, uncomfortably perched on a seat of slippery horsehair, started to unfold the situation.
“Take off your hat,” broke in Martha. “Mr. Bundock will be thinking you’ve no manners.”
“Oi’ll be soon gooin’ outside again,” said Caleb obstinately, and re-started his story.
“Do let me explain,” interrupted Martha at last.
“Do let me get a word in,” cried Caleb.
“Well, take off your hat.”
“Oi’ll be gooin’ outside soon, Oi tell ye.”
“Then you can put it on again.”
“Oi shall never make Bundock sensible, ef you keep interruptin’ me.”
“You see, Mr. Bundock, it’s this way——” began Martha.
“Oi’ve told him all that,” said Caleb. “Let me speak.”
“Well, take off your hat,” said Martha.
“Oi’ll be gooin’ outside agen, won’t Oi?”
Bundock was examining the letter which had been laid on the table as for an operation.
“But it don’t look like a woman’s writing,” he interrupted. “That would be spidery.”
“ ’Tain’t likely she could write herself in that condition,” began Caleb, but Martha’s face again hushed him down.
“There’s neither seal nor sticking envelope,” pursued the expert. “Nothing but a wafer. Comes from a poor man.”
“Her new husband,” said Caleb, and set Martha grimacing again.
“Oi’ll be soon gooin’ outside,” he protested, misunderstanding.
“What you want,” summed up Bundock judicially, “is a mixture of discretion with matrimony, seasoned with a sprinkle of learning.”
“He talks like the Book!” said Caleb admiringly.
“But where is this mixture?” inquired Martha eagerly.
“She don’t exist,” said Bundock. “But Miss Gentry is the nearest lady that can read, and Fate is just sending me with a letter and a packet to her.”
The couple looked doubtful.
“She ain’t matrimony,” said Caleb.
“No,” admitted Bundock, “but I guess she’s old enough to be, though I haven’t seen her census paper—he, he! And besides she’s a dressmaker!”
“What’s that to do with it?” asked Caleb.
“I see your missus understands,” said Bundock mysteriously.
“But she won’t walk five miles to read my letter,” urged the blushing Martha.
Caleb had one of the great inspirations of his life.
“And ain’t it time you got a new gownd?”
Martha flushed up. “Oh, Caleb! Don’t let us run to vanity!”
“Wanity, mother! It ain’t tinkling ornaments nor cauls nor nose-jewels,” protested Caleb, with a vague reminiscence of her Biblical readings. “And ye’ve had naught since the sucking-pig Oi bought ye for your sixtieth birthday.”
But Martha shook her head, quoting firmly:
“Let me be dressed fine as I will,
Birds, flowers, and worms exceed me still.”
“Then why not a bonnet?” suggested Bundock. “That would be cheaper than a gown.”
“Ay, a bonnet!” agreed Caleb, though he sounded it a “boarnt.”
Martha flashed a resentful glance which, however, Bundock took for but another thrust at Caleb’s obstinate hat.
“I don’t want a new bonnet,” she cried indignantly.
“It needn’t be new,” said Bundock helpfully. “Just have your old bonnet whitened. That’s on her bill-paper:
‘Bonnets Bleached As Good As New.’ ”
“That’s a good notion,” said Caleb. “You don’t want it bran-span-new. Posty’ll tell her to come over here to get your old boarnt and then we’ll spring Cousin Caroline’s letter on her for her to read!” He chuckled. Bundock chuckled too, swelling at the adoption of his advice.
“And now that I’ve stopped gammicking so long, I may as well sample that cowslip wine, Mrs. Flynt,” he observed graciously.
But Martha had vanished.
Miss Gentry had apartments in one of the most elegant cottages to be found in Little Bradmarsh. Protected by palings, it stood all alone on the high road, painted a vivid green, with three pollarded lime-trees in front like sentinel mops. At the base of the trim little garden the front door rose above two wooden steps with a little porch and ostentated a brass plate with the inscription:
Late of Colchester
Practical Dressmaker and Milliner.
In proof of which, from the cottage window, whose green shutters lay folded back, a visite or jacket of black silk, and a polka jacket, and a trio of straw bonnets, Tuscan or Leghorn, appealed to the passing eye: one of them a bonnet cap with a quilting of net and broad blue strings, another resplendent with purple ribbons and the new-treated straw plait that the Queen and Mrs. Mawhood favoured, and the third of drawn silk on little wires. The pictures of the period with a wonderful unanimity and monotony display a single style of bonnet, but artists in those days were men, and Miss Gentry could have told you better. “I’ve looked down from a pew in the gallery of my Colchester Church on Easter Sunday,” she told Jinny once, “and tried in vain to find two fellow-bonnets.”
But her professional door with its immaculate paint and shining brass was so forbiddingly respectable that clients mostly preferred to seek access through her landlady’s back door, where the flutter of washing from the clothes-line on its green square poles in the little orchard was reassuring; not to mention her chickens.
“Practical” was the unfailing adjective in those parts. Miss Gentry was not undeserving of it, for her dresses were cheap without being vulgar, while her knack of whitening the straw enabled the poorest, in the succession of new bonnets, to keep pace with Victoria on the throne. A stranger might have thought another species of dressmaker existed, whose confections, though exquisite, would never fit, or who designed, but could not execute; whereas the only other person for miles round at all in the sartorial line was an equally “Practical Breeches-Maker,” placarding from a flower-potted cottage window his “Strong, Stylish Pantaloons.” But the thought of unpractical pantaloons—say, without buttons or belts—or of theoretical trousers, was simple compared with the image evoked by Mr. Henry Whitefoot’s door-plate, proclaiming that victim of the London pick-pocket a “Practical Chimney-Sweep”: as by contrast with some exquisite dream Ethiopian, only platonically black, darkly revolving flues and fireplaces, sweeping shadow-chimneys with fleckless brushes, and carrying off ideal bags of the soot that never was on sea or land.
But perhaps in Miss Gentry’s case the word “Practical” was necessary to offset the business-damage of the tradition that had followed her from her native Colchester. For Miss Gentry had had a “revelation.” It had occurred in her girlhood, but the halo of it still circled round her chignon. Seated in church, full of worldly thoughts—possibly studying the infinite variety of bonnets—she had seen the stained-glass angel move. What this flutter of wing and lifting of leg “revealed” had never been clear: unless—as a wag maintained—it portended the flight of Miss Gentry herself. That hegira of hers from Colchester to Bradmarsh had not, alas, increased her prophetic prestige: what right has a “furriner” to come with “revelations”? Even her fellow-Churchfolk—she was one of the few Bradmarshians that clung to the Establishment—looked askance on the miracle, feeling it indeed as reprehensibly Papish, and as lending colour to the suspicion that she was a “French” dressmaker: a suspicion strengthened at once by her elegant handiwork, and by her full-bosomed plenitude, swarthy complexion, and more than embryonic moustache. It was forgotten that if these did imply Gallic blood, it would have been, not the Papish, but that Huguenot strain whose inpour into the county had at one time carried the French liturgy into Essex churches. As a matter of fact Miss Gentry was so fanatical a Church woman that she supplemented all her bills and receipts by tracts in defence of the Establishment, purchased at her own expense from a mysterious reservoir in Colchester. Nevertheless, such is the contrariety of mankind, the large accession she represented to the parish church—where on wet Sundays only the Apostle’s two or three were gathered together—was discounted by her felt queerness.
And it was, still more oddly, from the Peculiars that she received the bulk of her custom, and this despite her top-lofty airs towards them, and the tracts suggesting that souls, no less than bonnets, could be bleached as good as new. Possibly their more elastic spirituality vibrated more readily to the moving angel: perhaps the real bond of sympathy was that they knew her unpopular with the Church: like themselves a butt of legend, and lacking even their advantage of Bradmarsh birth.
But even the Churchwomen did not utterly deny patronage to this talented needlewoman, nor refuse her the deference due to weekday gloves, a parasol, and bills with printed headlines; they did not even discountenance her crusade against Dissent, though her copious allusions to Providence “moving in a mysterious way” were felt to be too broadly autobiographic. Moreover, in view of the caustic remarks upon cardinals, Puseyites, black-robed priests, and winking pictures, by which her tracts began to diversify the attack upon Dissent—for John Bull was getting alarmed at the new Roman invasion—it was a source of surprise that she failed to see the beam in her own eye. For if Virgins could not wink in Rimini, why should Angels wobble in Colchester? To add to her oddity, her brain was full of ancient maggots of astrology and medicine, crept in from “Culpeper’s Herbal,” her one bedside book.
That Bundock should be bringing a bonnet commission to this excellent and industrious, if freakish female, was the more laudable, inasmuch as he nourished a prejudice against her and her tracts. Not that he held with Catholic or evangelical Dissenters any more than with the Church proper. As a follower of Tom Paine, whose “Age of Reason” he read piously in bed every Sunday morning—the passage asserting that to make a true miracle Jonah should have swallowed the whale was a regular Lesson—he regarded himself as a great free spirit in an illiterate and priest-ridden world, one whose God was everywhere except in Church. Not that he could follow the Master’s excursions into trigonometry or astronomy or knew anything of his idol’s “Rights of Man,” being indeed singularly free from the contemporary unrest of the industrial townsman, and combining, like greater men, a crusty conservatism for the old order with a radical rejection of its spinal creed. Possibly his devotion to the still youthful Queen was part of his softness for the sex, for the only part of “The Age of Reason” that left him unconvinced was its impugnment of the wisdom of Solomon, its contention that “seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines are worse than none.” But it was not Tom Paine, nor even Bob Taylor’s “The Devil’s Chaplain,” it was the long years of his father’s paralysis that had first sapped his faith in the pharmacopœian aspects of prayer, though he considerately concealed his defection from his bed-ridden parent, and even the visiting elders withheld the racking information. The old Bundock was not, however, to be deceived, on this point at least.
“My son is moral, only moral,” he would say, with a sigh.
To such a temperament Miss Gentry must needs be antipathetic, and to mark his distaste, Bundock was wont to leave the Colchester packets of tracts as well as the “practical” correspondence at the side door, shedding the light of his countenance only on the landlady. But on this occasion, having a message to deliver as well as a missive and a packet, he performed resoundingly on the green knocker, and Miss Gentry herself, attended by Squibs, her ebony cat, appeared in the narrow, little passage, frenziedly stitching at a feminine fabric. Behind her, through the open back door, was a gleam of blossoming orchard and dangling chemises.
“Good morning, Bundock,” she said graciously; “lovely weather.”
“It’s all right overhead,” he grumbled, “but underfoot, especially at Frog Farm—whew!”
“You had to go to Frog Farm?” she inquired sympathetically.
“Yes, but there was a letter for Frog Cottage too. So I—he, he!—I killed two frogs with one stone.”
“Two birds, you mean,” said Miss Gentry, embosoming her letter with a romantic air and laying her packet on a chair. She added in alarm: “Would you like a glass of water?”
“I don’t need drink,” said Bundock, mastering the apoplectic assault, “it’s other folks that need brains.”
“My, were the old Flynts unusually trying?” she asked sympathetically.
“They want you to clean the gammer’s bonnet,” he answered brusquely.
“That’s not so foolish.” Her needle was moving busily again. “Have you brought it?”
“That does seem foolish.”
“I’m not a bonnet-bearer! They want you to fetch it.”
“Me! Five miles to clean a bonnet! When I’m so busy! And in all that mud!”
“It ain’t so muddy this side o’ Swash End, and it’s not two miles each way by the fields.”
“Yes, with horrid cows!”
Bundock felt protective. “Cows ain’t bulls.”
“Well, I won’t go. You tell Mrs. Flynt she must come to me.”
“How can I tell her? I shan’t likely be going that way for months, thank my stars.” Miss Gentry quivered a little at the expression, wondering under what planet he was born.
“Well, I’ll write to her,” she said conclusively.
“What! And me take the letter!” In his indignation he almost blurted out that the same difficulty of reading it would arise.
“Then I’ll tell Jinny to bring the bonnet!”
Bundock felt baffled. Instead of cunningly helping the Flynts to get their letter read, he had only secured that minx of a carrier a commission. He scowled at the dressmaker, seeing her moustache as big as a guardsman’s and believing the worst of the legends about it: even that the real reason she left Colchester was that the bristly-bearded oysterman to whom she was engaged had refused to shave unless she did. “I’ll be wishing you a good morning,” he said icily, hitching up his bag.
“Good morning,” said Miss Gentry. But she omitted to slam the door in his face as he expected, indeed she had gradually advanced into the porch, stitching unrelaxingly. And Bundock now became acutely aware that he could not turn his back on her without revealing the stain on Her Majesty’s uniform, that even by lowering the mail-bag he had just hitched up, he could not cover up what certain rude ploughboys had already commented on. He understood it was green. In this dreadful situation he began backing slowly as from the presence of royalty, making desperate conversation to cover his retreat.
“I did give you your tracts, didn’t I?” he babbled.
“If you mean the packet,” said Miss Gentry in stern rebuke, “there it lies. I haven’t opened it!”
“Do you mean that I have?” he asked indignantly, gaining another yard in this rear-guard action. “We don’t have to open an oyster to know what’s inside.”
Miss Gentry’s brow grew as swarthy as her moustache—at the reminder of her lost oysterman, Bundock supposed in dismay.
“Don’t you always send out tracts after I bring you packets?” he explained hastily, still retreating with his face to the foe.
“Not when they’re patterns,” said Miss Gentry crushingly. “And how do you know it’s not The Englishwomen’s Magazine?”
She turned back into the passage, and he hoped she would slam the door on her triumph, but she took up the packet instead. “We shall soon see,” and snipping the string with mysteriously produced scissors, she read out unctuously: “Ishmael and the Wilderness.”
Bundock did not know which way to turn. Why in the name of propriety did she not go back to her workroom and close her door? Miss Gentry, without the clue to his lingering attitude, observed invitingly, tapping the packet: “If this won’t make you see the beauties of the Establishment, nothing will.”
He grinned uncomfortably. “Always willing to see the beauties of any establishment.”
It was very strange. Give him a female, even with a moustache, even tepefied by tracts, and something from the deeps rose up to philander. Not that there wanted a lurid fascination in this exotic and literate lady: his very loathing was a tribute to a vivid personality.
Miss Gentry, however, was shocked. She put down the tracts. She knew herself “born under Venus,” but romance and respectability were never disjoined in her day-dreams, and as the channel of a revelation she felt profaned. “Don’t talk like that,” she said sharply. “You’re a married man.”
“ ’Tis a married man knows how to appreciate beauty,” he replied, receding farther nevertheless as in ironic commentary.
“For shame!” Her needle stabbed on. “And you setting up to be holy!”
“Me?” Surprise brought his strategic retreat to a standstill. “I never set up to be a stained-glass saint.”
Again he had blundered. The black eyes flashed fire. “You who move mountains!” she cried angrily.
“Me move mountains?” Bundock was bewildered.
“A little grain of mustard-seed,” he heard her saying more tremulously. “And if a sycamine-tree could move—! Surely you don’t hold with the unbelievers!”
It was precisely whom Bundock did hold with, but the big black eyes seemed suddenly tearful and appealing, her needle seemed entering his breast, and she swam before him as a fine, voluptuous female. Through the passage he saw the apple-trees in bridal bloom and the white feminine washing, and the Master’s remark on the apparent miracle of the extraction of electric flashes from the human body thrilled in his memory.
“Of course not,” he heard himself saying soothingly, while his legs felt going forward, losing all the ground so laboriously won.
“Then you do believe the angel moved?” she asked eagerly.
“Don’t I see her moving?” he replied.
Miss Gentry looked down from her doorstep more in sorrow than in anger. “You’re a married man!” she reminded him again.
“And does marriage pick out a man’s eyes—like a goat-sucker?” He felt too near her now to back out, and he put forth his hand for hers, not without nervousness at the needle. Could his father have seen him now, he might have thought his son not even “moral.” But Miss Gentry dexterously met the amorous palm with a tract. “That’ll open your eyes,” she said.
To feel a flabby piece of paper instead of a warm hand is not conducive to theological persuasion: all Bundock’s dissenting blood rushed to his head.
“There’s two opinions about that,” he snorted.
“There are two opinions,” Miss Gentry assented placidly; “one wrong and the other mine.”
“Oh, of course!” he sneered. “The Church is always infallible.”
“We’re eighteen and a half centuries old,” said Miss Gentry freezingly.
“Did you put that in your census paper?” retorted the humorist.
Miss Gentry winced. She was weary of the jokes that had desolated Bradmarsh, yet she was conscious of having let her landlady’s estimate of her age go by default.
“I had no paper to fill up,” she reminded him frigidly. “But if there was a census of religions, you’d certainly be among the mushrooms.”
“Better than being among the mummies.” Bundock’s father might have clapped his palsied hands, to hear this defender of the faith. But Miss Gentry mistook this fair retort in kind for another allusion to the personal census.
“I thought you could discuss like a gentleman!” It was a cunning shaft, and Squibs, seizing this moment to rub herself against the postman’s leggings, he replied more mildly: “What’s the use of going by age—except the Age of Reason?”
“Then be guided by Reason.” Miss Gentry stitched implacably. “If the Almighty meant prayer to be medicine, why did He create castor-oil?”
Bundock was dumbfounded.
“Or Epsom salts?” she added triumphantly.
“They’re for cattle which can’t pray,” he answered with an inspiration.
Miss Gentry’s needle stabbed the air. But she recovered herself. “Then why do you eat rhubarb pie?”
“Because it’s nice.” He grinned.
“But rhubarb’s a medicine!”
He countered cleverly. “We don’t mind taking medicine—so long as we’re well!” We! He was identifying himself with his despised Brethren: such is human nature under attack. But Miss Gentry was not at the end of her resources.
“Well, what do you do when you break your legs? Pray the bones straight?”
“But we don’t break our legs. I never heard of a Peculiar breaking his leg.”
“But why shouldn’t a Peculiar break his leg?”
“That’s not my affair. He don’t. I’ve got Peculiars all over my beat, and never have I known one to break a leg. A broken heart, now——!”
“But if he did break a leg?” persisted Miss Gentry.
“If any one could break a leg, it would be me!” he said crossly.
“Well, then what would you do—if you broke your leg?”
Bundock was worn out. “What’s the good of meeting troubles half-way?” he snapped, turning on his heel.
“Yours seem to have come more than half-way,” scoffed Miss Gentry.
Bundock clapped his hand to the mud-patch, stung in his tenderest part. He wheeled round prestissimo, raging with repartee. But the door had closed—too late! Solitary, the sable Squibs dominated the doorstep—like a sardonic spirit.
Bundock was turning away angrily, though now fearlessly, when with a sudden thought he caught up the cat and plucked out one of her hairs. It was not revenge—it was merely that his youngest daughter had a sty, for which he believed the black hair an infallible remedy.
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