As John the apostel sygh with syght, I syghe that cyty of gret renoun,
Jherusalem so newe and ryally dyght, As hit wacz lyght fro the heven adoun.
“Pearl” (Fourteenth century).
Jinny’s passage through Long Bradmarsh with her overflowing freight of fares and live stock was like a triumphal progress. The loungers outside “The King of Prussia” actually raised a cheer. Fresh from the excitement of the Mott inquest, they knew the adventurous significance of her dripping cart-wheels and dry tilt, and were quick to see the symbolic significance of her carrying the disabled driver of “The Flynt Flyer,” though its destruction was still unknown to them. At the instance of Elijah, she went round by Foxearth Farm, so as to put up Maria and the poultry there, as well as to reassure Blanche of his safety. Though the interview with the latter was naturally veiled from the occupants of the cart, it was obvious to them that it was Mrs. Purley who was doing the talking. Her voice, wafted to them through walls which dulled the actual words, was like an endless drone, each sentence fusing breathlessly into the next in a maddening meaninglessness. Elijah returned with a dejected mien: due not merely, it transpired, to the cascade that had broken over him, but to the fact that Blanche was just washing her head (that generation did not speak of its hair) and unable to see him. “As if you hadn’t suffered enough from water,” said Jinny sympathetically.
She had her first view that day of Mr. Skindle’s bridal mansion. Its two stories rose in new red brick on the outskirts of Chipstone, in a forlorn field that was just being “developed,” and its architecture, from bow-window to chimney-stack, was an imitation of the residence of Dr. Mint, the leading human doctor.
“There’s Rosemary Villa!” said Elijah proudly, and Will smiled at the recollection of Bundock’s jape and Blanche’s merriment.
Ere Elijah, leaping down first, could mount his beautifully whitened steps, the door was opened excitedly and a gaunt grey-haired charwoman, with a smear on her cheek, dropped her grate-blacking brush and fell upon Elijah’s neck in a spasm of emotion.
“Thank God! Thank God!” she sobbed.
“Here! Don’t do that!” said Elijah, writhing in her grasp. He was blushingly disconcerted by this assertion of maternity before company: she had so long accepted the position of drudge that he had forgotten that his absence during the flood might reawaken the mother. “You’re all black!” he explained, disentangling himself.
“That’s mourning for you!” Jinny called merrily from her cart, and the jest relieved the situation. She looked curiously at the lank, aproned figure, fancying she caught a hint of grace in the movement of the limbs and a gleam of fire in the dark eyes. But this dim sense of the tragic passing of romance could not even faintly obscure her own happiness, on which the imminent separation from Will was the only cloud. Except for the thrilling contact achieved in helping him to alight, she had to part with him less cordially than with Caleb, who to her surprise and Martha’s gave her a smacking kiss ere he stepped down. “Thank you, dearie—ye’ve saved our lives,” he said. Jinny scoffed at that—the gratitude was due to Bidlake and Ravens. “Well, the missus’ll have to kiss them,” he sniggered. “You do your own kissing,” said Martha sharply. “And keep your kissing for your own, too.” All this talk of kissing but aggravated the pang of the frigid parting with the one person who mattered.
“Good-bye; see you soon,” was all Will said.
“You bet your bottom dollar on that,” she flashed, with a relieved smile, reading into his words a promise to come over the very next day.
“Oh, I’ll pay you next time,” he smiled back, and she had a delicious sense of his meaning to pay his lost wager in the currency with which Caleb had just acquitted his debt. She promised the old people she would come round on Friday and tell them how Frog Farm stood—if it did stand! But though her eyes exchanged with Will’s secret promises for the morrow, an eternity of loneliness seemed to lie before her, as she drove back to the town, magnanimously blowing the “Buy a Broom Polka” to apprise her faithless clients.
So many commissions clamoured for her from folk with relations in the flooded area that she had no difficulty in redeeming her dress from the pawnshop that very day. But it was not on account of the many calls upon her that she arrived home in the dark. It was because she had forgotten to command her faithful ferry’s attendance, and been forced to take the amazed Methusalem miles round by the farther bridge. Her grandfather would be anxious, she feared: then it occurred to her—not wholly with satisfaction—that he might have followed her day’s movements by telescope. But she found him as happy as she had left him, and with the hearth blazing like a bonfire, reckless of logs. He had not observed her rescue of the Flynts, for, as she had warned him, his overtaxed right eye had become inflamed and throbbed with little darts of pain, and he had been compelled to fall back on the voluptuous venom of his reflections, supplemented by a text which he had hunted out with his other eye.
“It come into my mind all of an onplunge,” he chuckled, putting a bony finger on a verse. “The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea,” she saw with a shudder. “That won’t be long afore he follows his hoss,” said the Gaffer grimly as he polished his lens for the spectacle. “Oi will sing to the Lord,” he read out, “for He hath triumphed gloriously.”
“Don’t be so wicked, Gran’fer,” she cried.
“Wicked! That’s roighteous—to sing to the Lord.”
“You don’t want people drowned!”
“Dedn’t he want us to starve?”
“Looks more like his starving now. We can afford to forgive. You’re reading the wrong end of the Bible, Gran’fer. We’ve got to turn the other cheek.”
“Sow Oi would, ef anybody was bussin’ me,” he cackled.
Jinny flushed and turned both her cheeks away.
“Why, the day Oi met Annie at Che’msford Fair——” he began.
“I don’t want to hear about Annie,” she said severely. “She wasn’t your wife.”
“That’s why I tarned from iniquity. But she ain’t nobody’s wife now.”
“No, poor thing!” she said. “And it’s a pity she’s Mr. Skindle’s mother, for he makes her do all the chares of his big new house.”
“Well, but she’s a woman, ain’t she?” he asked with unexpected lack of sympathy. “She’d have to do her husband’s chares.”
“Not at her age!”
“At her age? Annie’s a young woman.”
“Compared with you, perhaps,” she smiled.
“Git over me, her having a lad that size. Oi count she’s worritin’ over him, cooped up in Frog Farm.”
“Not now. They’re all safely out of it.”
“What! That pirate thief’s got safe!”
“That ain’t God’s doin’—that’s some evil interferin’ sperrit what comes out o’ dead bodies, says John Wesley. Who took ’em off?” he demanded fiercely.
“They came off in Bidlake’s barge,” she said weakly. “And don’t you be so unchristian. Isn’t it enough he’s——?”
“That ain’t right, interferin’ with the texts!” he interrupted doggedly. “Oi never could abide they Bidlakes. Ephraim’s grandfather come competitioning on the canals, wuss than Willie Flynt.”
“Well, Mr. Flynt can’t competition any more, can he? I expect,” she added with difficult lightness, “he’ll be coming round now to make friends.”
“Come round, will he? Just let him show his carroty head inside my doorway—he’ll be outside like fleck, Oi promise ye.”
“But if he wants to make it up——!”
“He’s got to goo down on his hands and knees fust.”
“Perhaps he will,” she suggested. Indeed she had little doubt of it. That wonderful moment, with its climax of mouth to mouth, had reduced this long foreseen obstacle to a grotesque bogy. In the light of mutual and confessed love the perspective changed, and if she had once thought that she could not have borne to see him grovel even for her sake, that it would actually impair the love grovelled for, she had now been uplifted into a plane of existence in which for him not to humour her grandfather seemed as childish as the nonagenarian’s own demand.
The old man now turned on her a red-rimmed probing eye. “He’d never come crawlin’ to me ef he warn’t arter summat. And he’s been tryin’ to git round you fust—don’t tell me! What’s his game?”
“Perhaps—he’d like—a partnership.”
“Oi dessay he would!” he chuckled ironically. “He’s got brass enough for anythin’. Why, the chap was arter you once. Ye dedn’t know it, but there ain’t much hid from Daniel Quarles. Oi suspicioned him the fust moment he come gawmin’ to the stable. And what’ll he bring to the pardnership? Cat’s-meat and matchwood?”
His coarseness jarred every nerve, but she kept to his key of jocosity. “Didn’t you say he had brass?”
“He, he, he!” he cackled. “But it’s the wrong kind o’ brass. Ef he wanted to be a pardner, why dedn’t he come when he had his coach and hosses?”
“He did. Don’t you remember?”
“Did he?” he said blankly. “Then why dedn’t Oi take ’em?”
“That was all my fault, Gran’fer.”
“No, it warn’t, dearie. It was ’cause he said Oi’d made muddles. Oi remember now. He come and swabbled, and chucked a pot at me. And he’s got to goo down on his hands and knees for it!”
Jinny saw it was hopeless to unravel these blended memories of Will and Elijah, as grotesquely interwoven as one of her own nightmares, on whose formation it seemed to throw light. She was glad, though, that the sharp edges of the actuality had now faded.
“Yes, yes—he shall,” she promised soothingly.
“And then there was that weddin’-cake what Mr. Flippance sent us,” burst up now from the labouring depths.
“Yes—wasn’t that a lovely cake?” she agreed.
“Oi offered him a shiver—shows ’twarn’t me as wanted to swabble. But he lifted his whip at me and Oi snapped it in two like my ole pipe when John Wesley stopped my smokin’. Oi don’t want no pardnerships.”
“Of course not, Gran’fer.”
“Daniel Quarles it’s been for a hundred year, and Daniel Quarles it’s a-gooin’ to remain.”
“Of course. Daniel Quarles.”
“And he’s got to goo down on his hands and knees.”
“And so have I,” she laughed, “for we’ve let our bonfire die down. Poor Mr. Flynt—he’s got a great admiration for you, spite that you’ve licked him.”
“Oi guessed you and him been gammickin’. You can’t hide much from Daniel Quarles. And ef that little Willie has got a proper respect for his elders and betters, that shows Oi larnt him a lesson.”
“You did, Gran’fer. He’s a changed man. There! Isn’t that a nice blaze again? He’s broken his right arm, too, poor fellow.”
But here she had blundered. The old man’s face lit up, not from the fire, but with a roaring flame of its own. “Thank the Lord,” he shouted, “as hears the prayer of the humble. The high arm shall be broken, says the Book, and it’s come true. The arm what dreft the hosses is broken like the coach!” He ended with a fresh cackle and rubbed his skinny hands before the blaze.
“You didn’t pray for that?” said Jinny, white and rebuking. “That was unchristian.”
“That’s what King David prayed, Jinny, and he was a man after God’s own heart. ‘Break thou the arm of the wicked’—Oi’ll show it you in the Psalm.”
“I don’t want to see it—King David wasn’t a Christian yet. And we’ve got to forgive and forget, and not bear a grudge for ever, especially when a man’s down. Think of John Wesley.”
“Happen you’re right, Jinny,” he said, softening. “We’ve got to forgive the evil-doer, and ef the Lord’s got him in hand Oi count we needn’t trouble—he’ll git all he desarves.”
And with that Jinny felt fairly content.
But though the ground was thus prepared for his advent, Will did not come. “What are you prinkin’ yourself for?” her grandfather asked in the morning. “It ain’t your day.” It was certainly not her day. It was more like a night—a long agony of expectation with every rustle of wind on the dead leaves sounding like his footstep. Towards dusk she even swept the water-logged landscape with the now neglected telescope. If she did not find him, she found—what was almost as soothing—a reason for his not coming. The broken bridge! How could he go all those miles round? Joyfully she called herself a fool, and awaited the letter he would send instead. The letter would fill up the Thursday and on the Friday she would go to him.
But even this milder expectation of a visit from Bundock went unfulfilled. At first she thought with some relief that Bundock was again shirking the circuit. But no! The glass revealed the slave of duty serving Beacon Chimneys. Throwing on her jacket, but bonnetless, she ran across the Common to meet her letter. But Bundock only gave her grumbles at the overstrain on his feet, and leaving him, to hide her dismay, she walked blindly up Beacon Hill till she was startled to come upon Master Peartree in the bosom of his new-born flock. It did not even occur to her that this was a proof he had escaped the flood, and that the occasion called for congratulation. But the sight of his lambs bounding and his ewes scooping out mangolds brought to mind his old account of a sheep that had broken its arm “in a roosh,” and at once a second rush of joy at her silliness and a still more paradoxical pleasure in Will’s broken arm flooded her soul. How could he write, the poor boy? It was not that she had really forgotten the state of his arm—indeed, she had thought of the sling as clogging the springiness of his walk, and making it still more impossible for him to come—only she must be going crazy again, she felt; just as in the days when she had taken home wedding-cakes and brought Elijah hairpins. Her eyes now filled with happy tears and, joyous as the yeanlings whose tails vibrated with such voluptuous velocity as they sucked, she gave chase to a little black lamb and kissed its sable nose.
That brought her thoughts back to the flood by way of Mother Gander’s hostelry and its drowned landlord, and she inquired at last about Master Peartree’s losses. They had been limited to one bullock, she was glad to hear, though no such glow of Christian feeling possessed her as she had recommended to her grandfather, when the shepherd-cowman proceeded to estimate that what with stacks, root-crops, and winter-wheat, Farmer Gale was the poorer by several thousand pounds. Other shepherds had been badly hit, but he himself—thanks to the Almighty—had got more twins and triplets than ever, and taking her round his plaza of straw he showed her the yellow-splashed, long-legged lambkins in the thatched pens, one set of which he would have to feed by bottle, for handsome mothers did not give the most milk, he moralized.
She ran homewards as full of the joy of life as the leaping lambs, though she was living only for the morrow. Through the frosty air she felt a first breath of spring, birds were singing, and even beginning to build, and the flood, she was sure, was falling. But when next day she reached Rosemary Villa, the gaunt drudge informed her that only the old Flynts were in! Her heart turned to lead. So he had not stayed in for her, though she, for her part, had raced to him by the shortest routes, irrespective of business, cutting through Chipstone proper by a single side-street. It was not till she had learnt that he was gone, like Elijah and all the world, to Mr. Mott’s funeral, that her heart grew light again—she seemed to batten on tragedies these days. Of course Will could not avoid this mark of respect, he who had always put up his coach in the courtyard of “The Black Sheep,” and perhaps she ought to have gone to the funeral too, and would probably have encountered it had she not skipped the High Street in her eagerness. She remembered now some lowered blinds in the street she had scuttled through, and a slow booming bell, whose disregarded notes now at last donged their message to her brain. But perhaps it was better so—her redeemed frock was too gay, her winter shawl and bonnet without a single touch of black. She ought to have borne the inevitable funeral in mind though, she told herself reproachfully. In her present guise she could hardly station even in the courtyard. It was fortunate “Mother Gander” no longer expected to see her within. How embarrassing it would have been for the widow to meet the confidante of her unmeasured denunciations! Probably the whole place would be closed for the day, though she supposed the Chelmsford coach with the passengers from London would have to come in as usual.
Apprised by the barking of Nip, the Flynt couple had descended, looking uneasy, for they had been speaking of her not long before. Their hostess-drudge had started the ball as she closed the door upon Will, outward bound for the funeral. “You’d think he’d found a fortune, not lost one,” the melancholy creature had commented, warmed by that youthful sunshine. “I reckon he wasn’t happy hartin’ Jinny’s business,” Caleb had surmised. “And to be happy is as good as a fortune.” Upon which Martha, who was equally in the passage “to see Will off,” had surprised them by a sudden sob. “She’s thinkin’ of that poor drownded young man,” Caleb had apologized, leading her gently upstairs. “Oi do hope Will’ll keep a proper face for the funeral.”
That appropriate face, however, had continued to be Martha’s, and the explanation thereof when they were alone had surprised Caleb more than the sob.
“I knew she’d rob me of Will. I knew it from the first moment she wanted to read his letter to me.”
“Rob you of him!”
“They’re in love. Are you blind?”
“You don’t say! Lord! Little Jinny! Why, she’s a baiby!”
“A cunning woman. Came after him even when you’d have thought he was safe behind the flood! This letter will be all that’s left to me! You mark my words!”
“Don’t, dear heart. You’re wettin’ the letter—it’ll spile. But dedn’t Oi leave my mother to come to you, as the Book commands?”
“That’s different. He’s all I’ve got. I can’t trust him to Jinny—she’s too flighty—always singing.”
“Sow’s the birds, but look what noice nests they make! ’Tain’t as if ’twas that Purley gal as Bundock warned us of, allus lookin’ at herself like a goose in a pond. We ought to be thankful as Will’s showed sow much sense. There’s plenty o’ good farmers along the road, but there’s no weeds to Jinny even three fields back.”
“I don’t wonder you go kissing her! Pity you can’t marry her yourself!”
“Oi’d have no chance agin Will’s looks, dear heart. He takes arter his mother, ye see.”
Dulcifying as this jocose finale had proved, it did not diminish the awkwardness of now meeting Jinny, but Martha, who had not even the consolation of finding an Ecclesia flourishing in Chipstone, was anxious to hear how far the flood had subsided from their beloved Frog Farm. They were both experiencing all the pangs of exile, aggravated by the discomforts of a house with monotonously boarded floors, forbiddingly fine furniture, and light and water coming unnaturally out of taps, and their grievances and yearnings for a return to reality now monopolized a conversation which Jinny strove in vain to divert to Will. She was reduced to looking at her cart for indications of the depths she had splashed through unobservantly, and could extract nothing about Will except that he insisted on paying for their board and lodging, and that this would surely take his last penny. “He’ll have to look for a job now, he’ll have no time or money to think of foolishness,” Martha told her meaningly. But this broad hint conveyed nothing to her. In her affection for the old woman it never occurred to her that she would not make a welcome daughter-in-law, now the competition was over. And knowing as a scientific fact that your ears burned if people had been talking of you—whereas hers had been tingling with the frost—she went away, all unsuspicious, in quest of the coveted young man.
The funeral was over now, she saw from the many coaches returning singly or in procession through and from the High Street. Surely the grandest funeral ever known (she thought), doubtless out of consideration for so tragic a passing, though somewhat confusing to the moral of her Spelling-Book. Elijah, whom she met changing from a coach into his trap, confirmed her impression of grandeur, and looked forward—on grounds of special information—to the toning up of the churchyard with a monument as big as money could buy, surmounted by angels, “not weeping, mind you, but blowing trumpets like Will’s.” Elijah wore a beautiful new top-hat, flat-brimmed and funereally braided. “Very lucky I had just got it for my wedding,” he confided to her.
“You won’t forget to take off the braid?” she smiled. “And when is it to be?”
“We’re having the banns read next Sunday. Blanche won’t wait a day longer, though I’m so frightfully busy through the flood—it’s a regular gold-stream.”
“And how’s Mr. Flynt’s arm?” she asked.
“He won’t let me see it now—I never knew such an obstinate pig. He’s gone to Dr. Mint.”
“What, just now?”
“No, no, he’s gone home—to Rosemary Villa, I mean.”
As soon as he was out of sight, Jinny turned Methusalem’s head back to the Villa. She hung about uncomfortably for some minutes in the thought that Will might be coming along or would be looking out of a window. But after ten unpleasant minutes she descended from her seat and fumbled shyly with the new brass knocker, feeling far more brazen than it. She almost cowered before the upstanding figure of the septuagenarian Mrs. Skindle—it vaguely reminded her of Britannia with a broom—but stammering out that she had forgotten to ask if the Villa needed anything, she ascertained that Will had not returned. To pitch her cart at the door was impossible, to go to meet him might lead to missing him, so there was nothing for it but desperately to prolong the conversation till he should reach home. Her tactics proved fatal, for her cheerful reference to Elijah’s coming marriage loosed upon her a deluge of hysterical tears, and she found herself the confidante of sorrows as tragic as Mrs. Mott’s. Poor Mrs. Skindle, throwing herself upon this sympathetic outsider, so providential a vent for her surcharged emotions, vociferated that all her children had abandoned her, that she was to be put away in the poorhouse. In vain Jinny, standing in that bleak passage, her heart astrain for Will’s coming, strove to assuage a grief which irritated rather than touched her. She could hardly bring her mind to bear upon this creature with the broom, so inopportune and irrelevant did the outburst seem, so sordid a shadow on her own romance. With surface words she assured the poor woman that all this was only in her imagination. But Mrs. Skindle, though admitting she had only divined it, kept iterating that a nod was as good as a wink, and that she wasn’t even a blind horse. Her son had gone to see Blanche on the Wednesday and had come back with the announcement of his marriage next month, and Blanche had made it a condition that his old mother should be put away. “She’d pison me, if she wasn’t afraid for her swan’s neck. And so I’ve got to be put out o’ sight. ’Tain’t as if I can’t earn my bread with this broom and duster, but she’s too grand to have me charin’ in Chipstone.”
“Well, then, what prevents you going somewhere else?” Jinny asked impatiently.
“I can’t go traipsin’ about to new places and new faces at my age. And I don’t want to go agin ’Lijah neither—he ought to ha’ been married long since, and wasn’t it me spurred him on to look that high? And won’t he have the loveliest wife in Chipstone? What’s your game, trying to drive me away? Why, if I leave Chipstone I’d never see my grandchicks.”
“Well, but would you see them anyhow, even supposing they’re hatched?”
“I reckon there’s days I’d be allowed out and I could see ’em as they went by in their baby-cart.”
“Well, at that rate you’d be happier in the poorhouse.”
“Yes,” with a burst of weeping, “I’d be happier there. Happen I’d better go there.”
“But I don’t believe your son will let you,” Jinny reassured her, and tore herself away, miserably conscious of a sort of Nemesis for her strategic lingering. She dismissed the scene from her mind. But it added to the heaviness of her heart as she drove slowly about the streets with never a glimpse of the face she sought, and the ache of his absence began to be complicated by the fear that it was wilful, or at least not unavoidable. Surely it was not possible for three days to elapse without their meeting, had he been as keen as she. Even the funeral, she now felt grimly, was not an absolute necessity of life! He could have got out of it. No, there was something behind, more sinister than funerals. She went anxiously over her one brief episode of happiness. Had she done or said anything to offend him? Was it that, on reflection, he had resented the little trick she had played at the flooded farm in luring him outside his door? Yes, that must be it. And she had sillily rubbed it in with her last words: “You bet your bottom dollar on that!” But no, he could hardly be resenting the innocent device without which they would never have known the wonder of their first kiss. The wonder? But was it a wonder to him? Tumultuous thoughts of Blanche and more shadowy others tore at her bosom. He did not really care, did not really need her.
The sport of elemental passions, she drove vaguely around, hoping against hope to espy him. She was a creature of pure feeling—unsophisticated by fiction or drama—and darkling images of death came to her for the first time. And for the first time she let her work go undone. It was no mere apprehension of meeting “Mother Gander” that finally kept her from the courtyard of the inn, no mere sense that with the sweeping away of competition she could afford to neglect for once even the commissions she already held; it was the absolute distraction of her mind. She could have borne final separation more easily than this uncertainty.
As she jogged home, she realized miserably that Will had at last succeeded in stamping out her business, if only for a day.
But on her way to church on the Sunday—thanksgiving was clearly due for her restored fortunes and the fast-falling flood—all her misery, which his Saturday silence had only intensified, melted away in a moment at the sound of his voice and the sight of his sling. To add to her rapture came the thought that, a turning later, she would have encountered Miss Gentry! But his exclamation: “Why, whatever became of you, Jinny? It’s been hell!” radiated so much heaven that the closing of his lips upon hers was almost a retrogression, perturbed as it was by her shyness in the open air. And, of course, she ought to have gone to the inn-yard where he had been waiting, she saw the moment he began explaining; that was the natural station for her cart to have come to. “Do forgive me making you suffer so,” she pleaded. “But I didn’t like to go in, with Mrs. Mott in that state!”
But Mrs. Mott had not been “in that state” he corrected almost laughingly. On the contrary, with her usual unexpectedness and extremism, she had reopened the bar immediately and served there herself in her handsomest dress, with the gold chain heaving once more on the bereaved bosom. Will himself had been forced to clink glasses with her. “He wouldn’t have liked to see us gloomy—like them Peculiars,” she had said. “He was always one for jollity and life.”
The anecdote enhanced the lovers’ own joy of life, and though Jinny steered for church (if by a zigzag path to avoid other worshippers) they never got out of the fir-grove, where a tree sapped by the flood presented a comparatively dry seat amid the sodden gull-haunted ways. Perhaps it was the thrushes that encouraged them—despite the dankness—to “stick to it, stick to it.” It was certainly more comfortable for kissing, Jinny shamelessly confessed, snuggling into the cloak he had bought to cover his sling. “When we stand up, you’re too proud to stoop,” she laughed blissfully. “You make me crane my neck up.”
“That’s only through the sling,” he apologized.
“Never mind—you’re not such a Goliath—nothing so tall as Elijah!”
His eyes blazed fiercely. “Why,” she laughed, “you don’t mind not being tall?”
“Of course not,” he said mendaciously. “Only you haven’t been measuring yourself against Elijah, I hope.”
“Measuring myself—?” she began, puzzled. Then her silvery laugh rippled out. “Oh, you jealous goose! But his size’ll be a bit awkward for Blanche, won’t it?” Then a sudden memory flushed both their faces, and hastily drawing a copy of the Chelmsford Chronicle from his pocket, he directed her attention to the thrilling accounts of the great flood and the greater funeral, and her fitful attempts to peruse them constituted the only rational moments of the morning.
It was odd how the reflection of events in the mighty Essex organ seemed to redouble their importance, and how even Will swelled in Jinny’s eyes when she saw him catalogued among “leading citizens” present at “the last obsequies of the popular proprietor of ‘The Black Sheep.’ ” And if Will failed to loom as large as Charley—whose death, fortunate in its journalistic opportunity, instead of being swamped by the flood, came as its climax—nevertheless he appeared in print no fewer than three times. The second occasion was the destruction of “The Flynt Flyer,” and this obituary was so long and complimentary that it almost made amends for his loss, even though he knew the details to be highly imaginative. In the third notice he owed his eminence to his father, who, Jinny learned with surprise, had been the beneficiary of a miracle. “Among the most singular of the effects produced by the Bradmarsh floods,” ran the paragraph that drew Caleb from the long obscurity of his seventy winters and which was as prolix and breathless as a sentence of Mrs. Purley’s, “may be cited the fact of a small cornstack some four yards long, recognized by a shepherd named Peartree as belonging to Mr. Caleb Flynt, of Frog Farm, father of Mr. William Flynt, the lamentable destruction of whose coach and horses under sensational circumstances is recorded in another column, having been lifted from its place by the waters that so suddenly burst upon this remote homestead; and, after floating about at their mercy, like a dismasted and rudderless ship, being deposited in safety in a higher field, wholly uninjured, save by the wet—in as firm and compact a condition as before the flood—and, apparently, without a single blade of straw in its body or its roof having been disturbed from its relative position, while other stacks in the same field, belonging to his former employer, Farmer Gale, were almost totally ruined.”
“Oh, Will, I’m so glad,” said Jinny. “I don’t mean about Farmer Gale.”
“I do. Mean hunks! Think what he paid dad all those years. But is it true about our stack, I wonder. Papers aren’t always correct.”
“Aren’t they?” She nestled closer.
“Oh dear no. You should have been in America! Haven’t you noticed it says Elijah rescued us? Such a mix-up with his housing us. That’s why I didn’t tell poor old dad till I could run up and see for myself.”
She moved back. “Oh, is that what you came for?”
“Of course not, darling. But being here, I may as well have a look.”
“Well, you’ll be able to, while I’m at church. I suppose you wouldn’t come,” she added shyly.
“Church?” he laughed. “Why, it’s nearly over!” He pointed to a pale, struggling sun that had well passed its zenith.
Mr. Fallow was, in fact, just at his Fifthly and Finally, with Nip for sole representative of Blackwater Hall. That faithful congregant, discovering that Jinny had dodged him as usual, had set out for church forthwith, and was utterly disconcerted to find her pew vacant. It was noted, however, that he remained awake during the sermon, pricking up his ears at the recurrent word “Methuselah,” which no doubt sounded to him like his old companion’s name. Mr. Fallow’s timely sermon on Noah’s Flood proved no less rousing to the human hearers, though it began unpromisingly with the text: “And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years; and he died.” But Miss Gentry, already ruffled by Jinny’s absence, wondered why so much honour should be done to Mr. Bundock “Why preach a sermon against a postman?” she asked Jinny afterwards.
The fact was, of course, that those “sceptical sophisms” which Mr. Fallow took the opportunity to traverse and confute came from “The Age of Reason,” but as Miss Gentry had heard them only from Bundock, she did not know they were inspired by Tom Paine. At any rate it was satisfactory to have them demolished and the veracity of the Bible vindicated by the very arithmetical tests with which the atheists juggled. They had “set the story of Noah and his ark as on a level with the ”Arabian Nights“ and the ages of the Patriarchs as no less fabulous than the immortality of the giants of mythology.” Well, but here was the text, Mr. Fallow thundered: “And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died.” A statement splendidly bare—bare as Truth alone could afford to be. But let them follow it, these dear brethren and sisters, into all its ramifications, trace the scattered threads of chronology and exhibit their marvellous congruity. Noah’s grandfather lived nine hundred sixty and nine years; and he died. But at the age of 187 he had begotten Lamech, and at the age of 182 Lamech had begotten Noah. Methuselah was then just 369 years old when the hero of the Flood was born. And the Flood came, we were told in a later chapter, in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life; 600 added to 369 made 969. “And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years; and he died.” Had the figures made 970, the Bible would have indeed ceased to be the infallible Word of God, and atheism could have crowed, unanswered. For Methuselah was not in the ark; and every living creature outside was destroyed from the earth!
Whether he himself perished in the Flood, or whether—as the preacher preferred to believe, the aged patriarch had been removed—like his father Enoch before him—from the evil to come, was a minor issue compared with the glorious certainty that 369 added to 600 made 969 and not 970. Had Lamech or Noah been begotten one year later, or the Flood recorded as one year earlier, what a catastrophe for mankind! How the sophists would have gloated over their perverse arithmetic! Happily such discrepancies were the mere dream of the impious. “And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years; and he died.”
Nip refused to sit through the prayer for sceptics that followed. With the cessation of the word “Methuselah” his interest waned, and the dismal conviction overcame him that Jinny had gone back to the chapel. Tearing off at a great rate, he soon, however, scented the truants homing across the Common.
“Why, where have you been?” said his mistress, as if he were the sinner!
But his raptures at seeing united at last the twain he had done so much to bring together, served to suspend a debate that had brought the first cloud on the morning’s happiness. Having to walk smartly to Blackwater Hall with no time for dalliance, they had come at last to a serious talk about their plans, and it transpired that Will’s mind was playing about the new Australian goldfields. He seemed dangerously in the grip of the “yellow fever,” which, spreading from a Mr. Hargreaves and Summer Hill Creek, had circled the world in less than nine months. He recited to Jinny the legends of the new diggings, the quartz that was three-fourths gold, the aureous streams, the nuggets the size of melons. When he spoke of purchasing shovels and blankets, it was not, alas, for their joint home, nor were the “cradles” of his conversation indelicately domestic. How could he talk of going away, she asked, with tears in her eyes, when they had only just got to know each other? Well, of course, he didn’t mean to-morrow, with his arm like that! She needn’t begin to cry yet, but obviously this hidebound old England was no place for a man without capital. Did she expect him to become a farmhand to Farmer Gale? Of course he could go on shearing sheep and doing odd jobs and sink into a Ravens, always singing, with nothing to sing about! But if they were to marry, he must find a decent livelihood. Hard, irrefutable truths! If only—she thought—they had both been less silly while he still had his coach and horses! Impossible to suggest to a man like Will that she might manage to earn enough for him as well as for her grandfather! Of course if he had lost his arm altogether—but that was too wicked a speculation to gloat over! Had Methusalem been younger and stronger, the cart might perhaps have taken on extra rounds, with Will in command. But even that would probably have jarred his pride. No, he was a ruined man, and adventure—as he truly urged—was his only chance. And yet she clung tighter to his one good arm, glad of the respite the other had given her, and hoping that the Angel-Mother would somehow intervene to keep him in the country—if not the county—she hovered over. Sufficient for the day was the good thereof; here was Will, and Nip, and the Sunday pie in the oven—the first good dinner since Christmas, the preparation of which for her lip-smacking elder had served to keep her sane during those days of torturing suspense. How glad she was the meal would be worthy of their visitor!
A faint uneasiness did indeed begin to creep under her happiness as they crossed the rutted road that divided the Common from her gate, but she was hardly conscious what it was, vaguely putting it down to Nip’s dangerous attempts to caress them with his muddy paws.
“Here we are!” she cried gaily. “Lucky Gran’fer never asks about the sermon.”
He drew her to him. Hurriedly ascertaining that there was no eye or telescope bearing upon her, she submitted to the long ardour of his kiss. Then she drew him in turn towards the gate.
“But I’ve kissed you good-bye,” he said.
“Good-bye?” she repeated blankly. “Aren’t you coming in?”
“How can I come in?”
Even then she hardly realized the situation. Foreseen as it had long been, it had so softened in her own mind—especially after her comparative success in soothing down her grandfather—that she did not realize it remained in Will’s in all its original crudity. “You’re not thinking of that nonsense!” she said, smiling. “We’ll just lift up the latch and walk in! Won’t Gran’fer be surprised?” But her smile was uneasy.
“You’ve forgotten, Jinny, he won’t have me over his doorstep.”
“Oh, is that the reason you didn’t come all the week?” The greyness creeping beneath her happiness began to spread out like a clammy fog.
“Well, how could I have got to you? I couldn’t stand about the Common in the wind and rain on the chance you might catch sight of me.”
“I’d have stood about for you,” she said simply.
“And didn’t I stand about at ‘The Black Sheep’?”
“Yes, that was my fault, sweetheart. But anyhow we won’t stand about here.” And she tugged at his arm. “Where else could you have dinner?”
“I can get some at ‘The King of Prussia.’ I’ll be just in time if I go now.”
“You desert me to get dinner!”
“You know that’s nonsense, dearest, considering I could get both if I came in.”
“Then why don’t you come in?”
“You know I can’t.”
“Because of those few high words? How absurd!”
“We won’t go into that now.”
“Yes, we will. You don’t want to eat humble pie. But it isn’t humble pie,” she laughed, with a desperate attempt at merriment, “it’s steak and kidney pie! So there!”
“But, Jinny, he forbade me to cross his sill!”
“You old goose! He never thought we’d cross it arm in arm. Like this! Come along—won’t he open his eyes and wipe his spectacles!”
He shook off her arm. “It’s no laughing matter, Jinny. An oath is an oath.”
“An oath!” she repeated dully. The violence of that grotesque collision had blurred her memory of its minutiæ.
“You can’t have forgotten? He laid his hand on the Bible—he vowed to the Almighty I should never cross your threshold.”
She essayed a last jaunty smile. “Unless on your hands and knees. Don’t forget that part.”
“Is it likely I could forget such an insult?”
“Well then, that’s all right!” Her smile became braver. “We’ll crawl in together, two little babies. Come along, petsy.” And she stooped down comically.
“How can you be so childish, Jinny?”
“Isn’t it all childish? Down you go, Willie!”
But he stiffened himself physically as well as morally. “Give in to such a humiliation?”
“You won’t really be giving in,” she said, with a happy thought. “With only one arm, you can only come in on your hand and knees. So you’ll outwit him after all. Come along, poor little lopsided creature, Jinny’ll help you—and Gran’fer will forget to count your limbs, my poor brave boy!”
“It’s you that are forgetting,” he said harshly. “It’s impossible.”
“That I should crawl to your grandfather.”
“I see! It’s your pride you love, not me.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.” She snatched her hand from his. “Nothing can bring you to your knees.”
“It’s not true. I’d go on my hands and knees to you, as if I was in chapel, and I’d crawl on ’em across your threshold and thank God for what laid on t’other side—but you see, Jinny, what breaks me up is that I made a vow too.”
“You don’t seem to remember anything.”
“I dare say I was a bit dazed at all the silliness. But if you swore too not to cross our threshold, why, I’ll go and let you in by the lattice. And perhaps Gran’fer will be that tickled, he’ll laugh and forget about his cranky old oath. Or perhaps he’ll reckon you have scrambled in on your hands and knees. Oh dear, isn’t it funny? See you in a moment, Will.” She put her hand on the latch of the gate.
He shook his head. “Neither by door nor by window.”
“Didn’t I say I’d never cross your doorstep?” she urged. “And yet I came.”
“You came through the window.”
“Well, I’ll come by the door. There! That’s a fair offer. I’m not going to stick to silliness—when it’s so silly!”
“All very well,” he said coldly. “But you know you can’t get through my door.”
“Goodness gracious! Have I grown so fat?”
“Don’t pretend. You know it’s the flood. Besides, it wouldn’t be any good my going through the window. What I said when I raised my hand to heaven was that your grandfather should never see me in his house——!”
“Just what I said—I remember now,” she interrupted. “I said you’d never see me in Frog Farm. And yet you did—and lost your bet too.” Her face was gay again. “So I gave in first, you see, sweetheart, and now you’ve got to play fair.”
“You don’t listen—you cut into my words. What I swore was that your grandfather should never see me in his house unless he carried me in!”
Her gaiety grew hysterical. “Ha, ha, ha!” she laughed. “Grandfather’s given up carrying ages ago. I’m his deputy now. Oh dear!” She measured him with a rueful eye. “Well, I can but try!” And she put her arms round his hips.
“Don’t make light of an oath, Jinny.” He pushed her off with his left hand.
“ ’Twas you that made light of an oath—taking the Lord’s name over trifles.”
“I never took the Lord’s name,” he said sullenly. “I only lifted my hand.”
“Well, you can’t lift it now—and serve you right! You surely never expected Gran’fer to lug a sulky lout over his doorstep.”
“Of course not. I never expected I’d want to cross it. Why, Jinny, though you were there in the room, I was that blind——!” And his hand sought hers again.
“Leave me alone!” she cried. “You and your miserable vows!”
“I’d cut my tongue out if I could unsay the words.”
“You can unsay ’em more easily with your tongue in.”
“A man can’t go back on his sworn word. Women don’t understand.”
“So you said about horses. And nicely you managed yours! Oh, forgive me, I didn’t mean to crow. That was your misfortune. But this is your fault. It’s your pride you’re in love with; not me. Good-bye; Gran’fer will be starving.” She lifted the gate-latch angrily.
“But only good-bye for the moment,” he pleaded. “I can’t cross your threshold, but you can cross mine.”
She answered more gently, but her tone was tired and helpless. “And what would be the good, unless you and Gran’fer make it up?”
“I’m not marrying your grandfather!”
Something patronizing in the sentence jarred afresh. “You’d better go back to Blanche—it’ll be too late soon.”
“I wouldn’t touch Blanche with Bidlake’s barge-pole!”
The magnificence of the repudiation had its effect—it swamped in both the recollection that it was Blanche who had done the refusing.
“You don’t expect me to give up Gran’fer at his age?” she said more mildly.
“We’ll get him a minder—when I come back from Australia!”
Australia put the climax to her weariness. “Oh, yes, I don’t wonder it’s so easy for you to go.”
“It isn’t easy for me to go, even as far as Chipstone,” he protested passionately. “But it’s your grandfather you love, not me.”
“I love you both. Only think how old he is. It’s like quarrelling with a child. And he is in his second childhood almost, though I wouldn’t say it to anybody else. There are times when he seems quite his old self, wonderfully strong and sensible, but there are moments when he quite frightens me. He can’t bear to be crossed, and he forgets almost everything that happens nowadays.”
“Then perhaps he’s forgotten our upset!”
“No, that’s the unfortunate part. But we must just make a little joke of it. Down on your marrow-bones, Willie!” And she laid her hand on his shoulder with a last sprightly effort.
But even as his shoulder subsided, it swelled up again, like a pressed gutta-percha ball. “It’s all grandfather with you, your husband doesn’t count.”
“Husband, indeed!” She withdrew her hand as if stung. “You’re going quicker than your coach ever went.”
“Oh, very well—I’m off to Australia!”
“As you please. I’ll call for your box!”
“I’ll have no truck with a cart of yours.”
“There’s no other way of getting things to Chipstone,” she reminded him blandly.
“I’ll shoulder it sooner,” he burst forth.
“Ah, then you won’t be going just yet!”
“Damn my arm! I’ll not stay in this wretched country another fortnight! I’ll never look on your face again.”
She began humming: “A dashing young man from Canada——!”
His face grew black with anger, and he strode away even before she had passed through the gate.
Righteous resentment saved Jinny from the collapse of the previous week. That dreadful gnawing of uncertainty was over. Whatever she had said, she was sure now that he did love her, even if she came second to his pride. That a way out of their difficulties would soon present itself to her nimble brain she did not doubt: her one fear was that he would find the way to Australia first, and it was a comfort to remember his helpless arm and his empty purse—“no money to think of foolishness,” as his dear old mother had put it. Already on the Tuesday after the unheard sermon, she found a means of communicating with him without a lowering of her own proper pride. For the fourteenth of the month was nigh upon them, and the shops—even apart from the stationer’s—-were ablaze with valentines, a few sentimental, but the overwhelming majority grotesque and flamboyant, the British version of Carnival. After long search she discovered a caricature that not only resembled Will in having carroty locks, but carried in its motto sufficient allusiveness to the quarrel with her grandfather to make it clear the overture came from her. Not that the overture looked conciliatory to the superficial eye. Quite the contrary. For apart from the ugliness of the visage, the legend ran:
To such a man I’d never pledge my troth,
I’d sooner die, I take my Bible oath.
Not a very refined couplet or procedure perhaps, but Jinny was never a drawing-room heroine, and the valentine was dear to the great heart of the Victorian people. Besides, do not the grandest dames relax at Carnival?
Jinny half expected a similar insult from Will by the same post, and though St. Valentine’s Day passed without bringing her one, she still expected a retort in kind the day after. And when Bundock appeared with a voluminous letter, directed simply to “Jinny the Carrier, Little Bradmarsh, England,” her disappointment at Mr. Flippance’s flabby handwriting was acute, though otherwise she would have been excited, not only by his letter, but by the foreign stamp, the first she had ever received. “So he’s still in Boulogne,” Bundock observed casually, lingering to pick up the contents. “I hope he’s sending you the money to pay Mrs. Purley.”
“Why should he send it through me?” she said sharply.
“Well, since he’s writing to you, it would save stamps, wouldn’t it? I do think it was rough on Mrs. Purley, though, a wedding breakfast like that, though I expect he bought his own champagne—and clinking stuff it was, nigh as good as the sherry at poor Charley’s funeral. However, she’s marrying her own daughter now—Mrs. Purley, I mean—and lucky she is too to have escaped young Flynt, who is off to Australia without a penny—looks to me almost as if they’re hurrying on the marriage so that Will may be best man before he goes, he and ’Lijah are that thick! He, he, he! Funny world, ain’t it? You’ve heard my riddle perhaps—Why are marriages never a success? Because the bride never marries the best man! He, he! Well, she came near doing it this time—he, he, he! Though whether she’s the best woman for either of ’em is a question.”
“That’s their own business,” Jinny managed to put in.
“So ’tis, but with ’Lijah a member of the Chipstone Temperance Friendly Society, he’ll hardly like a wife who washes her head in beer.”
“What nonsense! How can you know that?”
“Fact. It’s to make her hair wavy. There’s nothing her brother Barnaby don’t let out to my poor old dad. She was at it the day you all came to the Farm. It wasn’t that she had her bodice off and her hair down after the douche,”—Bundock seemed to savour these details—“she didn’t want him to smell it.”
“Well, you seem to smell out everything,” she said severely.
“I do have a nose like Nip’s!” he chuckled. But although Mr. Flippance’s letter was under it, he was forced to go off without even discovering that it did contain a financial document. Very amazed indeed was Jinny to see it drop out, this IOU, which was for herself and not Mrs. Purley, and represented half a crown! Retiring to her kitchen, she studied the large-scrawled pages.
“My dear Jinny,—I have just read in Madame F.’s copy of her London Journal (which like Mrs. Micawber she will never desert, at least not till the present serial is finished) an extract from the Chelmsford Chronicle about the miraculous saving of a cornstack belonging to our mutual friend, Mr. Caleb Flynt.
“I gather that a flood must have devastated Little Bradmarsh, and I write at once to know if all my friends are safe, especially your charming little self. Strange to think that the parlour in which I breakfasted on bacon and mushrooms in your sweet society may have been washed away! But such is life—a shadow-pantomime!
“We are still at Boulogne, you see. For one thing—to speak frankly—it’s a providential place to be at when funds are for the moment low, and it appears that Madame F.’s fortune—all that the villain Duke left of it—is in Spanish bonds. I need say no more. (I think I told you she was the niece of the famous Cairo Contortionist, and doubtless it was during the star’s sensationally successful season at Madrid that she was thus misled.) The wily master of marionettes must have been aware of this when he got [“her off his hands” appeared quite legibly here, though scratched out with heavy strokes] back his show over her head.
“Our present plans are, before attempting London (which though almost barren of talent calls for overmuch of the ready), to launch an English season in Boulogne itself, where there is such a large English circle, that saves so much by being here immune from sheriff’s officers that it can well afford the luxury of the theatre, not to mention the many French people here who must be anxious to learn English, especially after their visit to the Great Exhibition.
“Between you and I, I fear that Madame F.’s hopes will be dashed by the fact that the French have no eyes or ears except for a Jewess called Rachel, but as they have nothing near as good in the male line, we may yet—between us—show them something!
“If this fails—and I have seen too much of the public to be surprised at any ingratitude—there are always those wonderful new goldfields, where men of our race and speech are flocking, pickaxe on shoulder. Surely after their arduous toil for the filthy lucre, they must be longing of an evening for a glimpse of the higher life—I understand they have only drinking shanties.
“Imagine it, Jinny—a theatre for the rugged miners amid the primeval mountains with a practicable moon shining over the tropical scene. Pity I sold Duke that theatre-tent, but I suppose it couldn’t be transported to Australia as easily as a convict. (Good gag, that, eh?) Admission, I suppose, by nugget. I don’t see how you can give change—unless they take it in gold-dust—and anyhow, flush as they are, they will probably hand in considerable chunks at the box-office, reckless of petty calculation.
“So do not be surprised if one Easter morn you receive a golden egg laid by some Australian goose (I understand it is half a mole). Which reminds me to enclose herewith the half-crown I owe you. I dare say you have forgotten my borrowing it from you in the caravan of my blood-sucking son-in-law. But players have long memories.
“I suppose you see nothing of him or of Polly, for Chipstone is a poor pitch, but I am afraid from a Christmas card Polly sent me in reply to mine that the rascal is making her happy, so I can’t hate him as much as he deserves.
“ ‘I hope,’ I scribbled across the picture of the snowy Mistletoe Bough I sent her, ‘you are experiencing all that matrimony was designed for, when this institution was introduced into Eden.’ Lovely, isn’t it? And where do you suppose it came from? It was that delicious Martha’s farewell wish to me on my wedding morning! I fancy she took it out of the number of the Lightstand that I bought her.
“Poor, dear Martha! Do give her my love and tell her there is a branch of the New Jerusalemites in Boulogne—no, best make it two, while you are about it, a French branch as well as an English branch, mutually emulous in ‘Upbuilding!’
“And how is her dashing cavalier of a son who posed as an American? I expect he’s married by now to the queen of the wasp-killers, judging by the warm way things were going at my own wedding-party. If so, pray hand him back his mother’s Christadelphian wedding-wish with my kind regards.
“Oh, and don’t forget to say amiable things (as they put it here) to Miss What’s-a-name, the young and lovely bridesmaid! Tell her I haven’t forgotten about her becoming wardrobe mistress, though if we go to Australia, I’m afraid it’ll be too rough for her at her age, and even Madame F. may shrink from the snakes and the blacks and the convicts and the desperado diggers, in which case we shall have boys to do the female parts and revive the glories of the Shakespearean stage.
“Heavens, how I have let myself chatter on! My paper is nearly at an end—like youth and hope! Believe me, dear Jinny, in this world or the next (don’t be alarmed, I only mean Australia),
“Your ever devoted,
“P.S.—I am so sorry but I find I can’t find (excuse my Irish) any way of sending the half-crown by post, so I am compelled to send you an IOU, but if you send it to Polly (Duke’s Marionettes, England, is sure to find her some day) I have no doubt she will honour it on my behalf. Safest address for me by the way is Poste Restante, Boulogne, as Madame F. likes trying different hotels.
“P.P.S.—There is a game here called ‘Little Horses.’ Most fascinating.”
Many and mixed were Jinny’s feelings as she ploughed through this bulky document, swollen by the opulent handwriting. Having no notion about investments, she vaguely imagined that Spanish robbers had impounded Cleopatra’s money, and it added to her sense of the unsettled state of the Continent. As for the IOU, she was angrily amused to think that he had already paid her the half-crown on the very morning of the bacon and mushrooms so fondly recalled, and that she had bought him his wedding present—a Bible—with it. To pay little debts twice over while defrauding the big creditors (and she had reason to think Miss Gentry as well as the Purleys had been left unpaid) seemed to her only an aggravation of fecklessness. But perhaps the Flippances had not meant to be dishonest: it was those Spanish freebooters that were to blame, who had captured the gold destined for Little Bradmarsh. The humiliation of his reference to Blanche was hard to bear—it made her want to dismiss Will altogether—but oddly enough a still keener emotion was kindled by Mr. Flippance’s obsession with Australia. Yes, Australia was in the air, it was a net into which everybody was being swept. Will was going from her—and to a place bristling with blacks and snakes and convicts and desperado diggers. Never had she received so perturbing a letter.
In the menacing silence of Will, she began to study this interloping and kidnapping Australia. For it was not only his silence that menaced: through the hundred threads of her carrying career—antennæ always groping for news of him—she learned that his resolve was fixed. Indeed, Frog Farm was almost the only place on her rounds where his departure was not talked of. At the fountain head she could collect no information, for Martha was the only person she now saw there and the old lady seemed anxious, after receiving her parcels, to rush back to the clearing up of the colossal mess of the receded flood: a work in which the scrupulously invisible Will was understood to be lending a hand almost as vigorous as his father’s, albeit a single hand. But if the other was still in its sling, it was getting dangerously better, she gathered from Bundock’s father.
That he would go without another word to her was highly probable. Was there not in Finchingfield a hot-tempered farmer who had kept silence for seven years after his wife’s death? Miss Gentry, who in her Colchester days used to make his wife’s gowns—the lady riding in behind him to be measured—said it was from remorse because he had once used an improper expression to her. And this same Essex obstinacy was liable to manifest itself in less noble forms, as her grandfather’s feuds had proved abundantly. Will would shake off the soil of old England as surlily as he had shaken it off in his boyhood. As he had run away from his parents, so he would now run away from her, though far more unreasonably. But this time she would at least know where he was going, and her tortured soul reached out hungrily to picture his new world. The Spelling-Book was absolutely blank about Australia—how empty and worthless loomed that storehouse of information, with this gigantic lacuna!—but from a bound magazine volume of Miss Gentry’s, borrowed for the first time, she drew confirmation of her worst fears. It was a place that needed many more stations and out-stations of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and there were mosquitoes that could only be kept off by lighted torches, and biting spiders as big as your palm; after frying at 105 in the shade, you might shiver the next moment in the icy blast of the “Southern Buster.” And there were dust-winds to boot. If you went to the cemetery of Port Phillip, you would see that the majority of deaths were between the ages of thirty and forty. This premature mortality was due to the excessive drinking of cold water natural in so droughty a country. What a blessing that Will was not, like Mr. Skindle, a member of the Temperance Friendly Society! Nor was the labour market, congested as it was with ticket-of-leave men and bounty-emigrants from England, really superior to that of the old country, while house-rents were twice as high. As for the interior, another number of the magazine contained a story in which “an ill-favoured man with his arm in a sling” was pursued by a bull amid mimosa swamps in a setting of blacks with tomahawks and whites with pistols. “The Bull and the Bush,” she murmured whimsically to herself, but at heart she was cold with apprehension.
Then by a strange coincidence she found reassurance. Calling on Mrs. Bidlake in her confinement, she found the mother well and the new child vigorous. But it was not from their condition merely that emanated the novel atmosphere of happiness that radiated over the household: perhaps, indeed, the well-being was only a consequence of the happiness. For the Bidlakes, too, were off to Australia, though not to the goldfields. The cloud over the family had lifted at last. Not that Hezekiah had been proved innocent, but that he was become opulent. Released on ticket-of-leave, the sturdy ploughman had got a position with a cottage and garden in that “splendid suny clim” as he now called it, and then, just as he was about to send for Sophy and Sally, he had won six hundred and forty acres on the outskirts of Port Phillip in a lottery run by the Bank of Australasia! If he could borrow the capital from the bank, as was not improbable, he would be able to cut up his prize into ten-acre allotments and build houses on it—by that you simply doubled or trebled your outlay in a few years. His sister should have a house anyhow, and in the meantime her husband could help him manage or farm the vast estate. As for the “dere gels” there would be no need for them to work now, though if they wanted pocket-money they would be snapped up for service, and get as much as sixteen pounds a year each. He had already sent fifty pounds towards the passage-money, and would raise more when he knew if they would all come out, and moreover he understood that there was a Family Colonization Society in London to which Ephraim might apply for an advance. What a change, this going out of theirs, from that dreadful departure in the prison coach for the hulks and Botany Bay! Jinny, sharing their tears of joy, was vastly relieved on her own account at the paradise the grotesquely spelt letter conjured up, and she rejoiced to reflect that all that ancient barbarous harshness of magistrates and judges had led under Providence to the enrichment of Britain’s new soil with the sweat of her skilled agriculturists, and was even opening up new horizons for their innocent relatives. For assuredly this was a paradise on earth, if Hezekiah’s letter was not a shameless lure for his brother-in-law.
Think of tea at eighteenpence a pound—even a shilling if bought by the chest!—think of sugar at twopence-halfpenny, and neck of mutton at a penny a pound, nay, a whole sheep for five shillings. Think of pork at twopence and the best cows’ butter at sixpence; and after one has been reduced to turnips and dry bread, think of a land where ox-tails can be had for the skinning and sheeps’ heads and plucks by the barrow for the fetching away. A land where, as he wound up rapturously, any man who worked could have his bellyful, and where everything was plentiful except women, so that his girls would be able to pick and choose among the “gumsuckers” and have “cornstalks” for husbands. They shouldn’t marry among the “prisoners,” please God, for he didn’t reckon himself in that set, having done nothing to be ashamed of, though he did see now that threshing-machines were necessary when you had a lot of land.
“If they want women so badly, I might do worse than go myself,” said Jinny laughingly.
“No, no, whatever would Little Bradmarsh do without you?” said Ephraim.
“They did without me well enough,” she said bitterly. Indeed her first fine faith in human nature could not be mended as easily as the broken bridge, nor did the depreciatory allusions of her old customers to the deceased coach, and their compliments at her return, soften her cynicism. And as she spoke, she felt a sudden yearning to be done with them all: the infection of the new world began to steal into her veins too, but she knew her own exodus was impossible while her grandfather lived, and though she played with the idea and asked if she might copy Hezekiah’s instructions for the passage, her real design was to gather information for Will’s sake. It was very worrying though to copy the recommendations in the original spelling. “Of kors i don’t now wot the shipps is like nowerdies, but the nu chums ses they dont give no solt, onni roc-solt (solt is peny a pound here, peper 2d. nounc) and you’ll want thik warm close and moor beding.” There was an elaborate list of provisions necessary to supplement the ship’s dietary during the four weary months—it hardly needed copying, since it embraced a little of everything edible that would keep—but she was glad again that Will was not a temperance man when she found a bottle of brandy recommended as an indispensable medicine for the contingencies of the voyage.
Neglecting even the last instalment of her debt to Miss Gentry—had not the dressmaker given her the alternative of working it out?—Jinny began to acquire the longest-lived comestibles, storing them secretly in one of the ante-room chests. And it was by this concentration on Will’s interests that she managed to live through his dreadful silence, nay, to enjoy long spells of day-dreaming in which these edibles were for their joint Australian larder. The goldfields her imagination dismissed as bristling with “desperado diggers.” It was on the more idyllic images of her magazine article, written before the days of the discovery of gold, that her imagination fed. For though the writer denigrated the urban labour market, he admitted that there was plenty of room for rural labour, and then—with what seemed so uncanny a prying into her affairs that it flushed her cheek and made her heart beat faster—he postulated a young couple without capital setting up housekeeping together, and instructed them to take employment with a farmer while saving up enough to buy a small farm or herd of their own. The system, it appeared, was that the employer supplied rations as well as money-wages, and that while the husband worked on the land, the wife could do the farm cooking. (How lucky she had had so much experience, Jinny thought.) Nay, these rations, said the article (pursuing her affairs to what the blushing reader thought the point of indelicacy) would practically suffice for the children too, and when they grew up—-but her delicious daydream rarely went so far as this calculation of them as independent labour-assets.
The happy couple would also be permitted to keep a few cows, pigs, and fowls. Here the thought of Methusalem would intrude distressfully, and the difficulty of transporting him to the Antipodes. But when he had been left at Frog Farm in the loving hands of Caleb and Martha (become almost his parents-in-law), under promise of leisurely grazing for the rest of his life, with perhaps a rare jaunt to Chipstone market for their household needs, this ideal solution only reminded her of the phantasmal nature of the whole scheme, for Frog Farm could certainly not be saddled with her grandfather. But lest she should remember too cruelly its visionary character, the day-dream would at this point dart off swiftly on the journey through the Bush in quest of an idyllic spot free from blacks and provided with a generous employer.
Fortunate that this journey was to be so inexpensive, there being no inns (not even “The Bull and Bush”), but every settler being compelled by a wise decree of this wonderful State to give the bona fide traveller board and lodging for nothing. What a lovely journey that would be—if only one dodged the blacks and the diggers and the swamps with the alligators. She saw herself and Will bounding along like kangaroos (with Nip of course in attendance, she did not intend to take up with a dingo instead) through mimosa-bushes (like the scrub on the Common, only gaudier), and eating their dinner-packets under giant gum-trees, so enchantingly blue, whose tops, five hundred feet high, one might climb so as to survey the route for signs of native camps or friendly farmers. If there was no settler in sight by the time darkness fell, they would just perch themselves like birds in a nest of high branches out of all danger, and go to sleep under the starry heaven, which she saw vividly with the old constellations.
Closer to the real was her picture of the tenement with which the ideal farmer (when found) would provide his young couple. There would just be a few poles driven into the ground to support the roof of gum-bark, with its hole to let out the smoke. But of course one need not live much indoors in that climate—despite the occasional vagaries of the “Southerly Buster”—and it would be all the easier not to have to spend money on furniture. Why, put in Nip’s basket, lay out Will’s razor and slippers, set out her Spelling-Book and the Peculiar Hymn-Book the young rebel had thrown into the bushes, hang up his hat and her bonnet, and the place already begins to look like home. As for Will’s box—presumably conveyed to the chosen spot by the local carrier in a bullock-cart—it is so large it will crowd out everything else and furnish the place of itself. Decked with a rug it will serve as sofa, covered with a cloth it becomes a table. Lucky she has not brought a box of her own, but has squeezed her things into his—in that wonderful, incredible fusion of two existences!
It was hard to wake from these day-dreams to the wretched reality, and yet Uncle Lilliwhyte profited from one of these awakenings, for her Australian hut had reminded her of his English specimen, and she hurried to see it and him. She found them both in a bad way. His wading overmuch in the flood in quest of salvage had brought back more than a touch of his rheumatism, while the winds and rain had left his shanty leakier than ever. They were both breaking up, the ancient and his shell, and she now did her best to patch both up. Already in her new affluence she had called in young Ravens to mend her grandfather’s bedroom ceiling and redaub the gaps in the walls, and it was simple to turn this Jack-of-all-trades and fountain of melody on to the derelict hut in the woods. The poor old “Uncle” had hitherto built his fire as well as he could on the ground on the leeward side of his hut; Jinny now installed an old stove which she bought up cheap at the pawnbroker’s and conveyed to the verge of the wood. But the hole in the roof that might serve for Australia would not do for England, and after Ravens had re-thickened the walls with fresh faggots and re-thatched the hut with shavings presented by Barnaby, Jinny was amused to find that what seemed an iron chimney turned out on closer inspection to consist of three old top-hats. Where the ancient had picked up these treasures—whether in the flood or in his normal scavenging—he refused to say. “Happen Oi’ve got a mort o’ culch ye don’t know of,” he cackled, enjoying her admiration of his architecture. She wanted to have a floor to the hut, but this, like the exchange of his sacking for a pallet-bed, he opposed strenuously. “Gimme the smell o’ the earth,” he said. “Ye’ve shut out the stars and that’s enough.” He accepted, however, a bolster for a pillow.
By such interests and devices, aided by her regular rounds, Jinny staved off too clear a consciousness of the inevitable parting, which would not even have the grace of a parting. But the inexorable moment was like a black monster bearing down upon her—and yet it was not really advancing, it was rather something retreating: it could not even be visualized as a shock against which one could brace one’s shoulders. There was the horror of the impalpable in this silent drift away from her.
But when at last the day of departure was named, and came vibrating to her across a dozen subtle threads, the negative torture turned to a positive that was still more racking. It was on the Friday—unlucky day!—that Will was to leave for London, and here was already Tuesday. Some of her threads conveyed even the rumour that, in order to save a little cash for his start at the Antipodes, he meant to work his passage. And here was she unable to pack his box or even to slip her provisions into it; doomed by all the laws of sex and proper spirit to watch—bound hand and foot as in a nightmare—the receding of the mate whose lips had sealed her his. By the Wednesday morning even her grandfather observed something was wrong.
“Ye ain’t eatin’ no breakfus.”
“Yes, Gran’fer, lots!”
“Do ye don’t tell me no fibs. Oi’ve noticed your appetite fallin’ lower and lower like the flood, and now there’s a’mos’ nawthen o’ neither. And ye used to be my little mavis!”
“You don’t want me to eat snails or worms?”
“ ’Tis your singin’, Oi mean.”
“There is Hey!” she chanted obediently.
“Ye’re the most aggravatin’ gal—minds me o’ your great-gran’mother. Ye need your mouth for eatin’, not singin’.”
After a sleepless night, unable to bear this inactivity, she ran round to the Bidlake lodgings to suggest that as young Mr. Flynt seemed to be sailing for Australia, it might be a neighbourly action to show him Hezekiah’s hints to travellers. But she gathered from the happy mother that the absent Ephraim had already talked to Will about the heavier clothes and the bedding, and that Will had said how fortunate it was he had sold off his summer suits, so as in any case to get the latest make at Moses & Son’s on his passage through London. Jinny suspected he had sold them off to raise funds for the voyage. Still the bravado of this pretence of a London outfit did not displease her. She learnt too that there had been a question of Will’s convoying the ex-convict’s daughters to their impatient parent, as the Ephraim Bidlakes would not be ready for ages, but it had been thought scarcely proper in view of their age and looks—a decision Jinny thought wise. Indeed, the idea that he was not to be thus companioned almost reconciled her, by contrast, to his departure.
When she got home she found to her surprise that her grandfather was entertaining Martha Flynt, who was far from the spruceness she usually achieved for outsiders of the other sex. She looked draggled and worn after her long and windy walk. What astonished Jinny most was that the old rheumatic woman should have trudged so far, and she opined that her business must be pressing and must be with herself. For it could hardly lie in the Christadelphian texts with which Martha seemed to be battering and bemusing the nonagenarian, whose great Bible lay open between them, and who was disconcerted to find her texts really there.
Martha had never set foot in Blackwater Hall before, so far as Jinny could remember, and very strange it was to see her sitting over her cup of tea which she must have made for herself at her host’s invitation. With all his perturbation over the texts, he seemed only too brisked up by this amazing visit from a female, the first unwhiskered being, save Jinny, he had met for many moons. It was a fillip he did not need, Jinny considered: the old good food again, the sweet security, the satisfaction of revenge, had made his eyes less bleared, filled out his flacked cheeks and given him a new lease of strength and sanity—a sort of second wind—and this visit might only over-stimulate him. She did not like the undercurrent of excitement that showed itself in the twitching of his limbs and eyelids, especially when Martha declared he could not be really accepting the Book as all-inspired if he believed man’s heaven lay in the skies. “Whither I go, ye cannot come,” she repeated.
“We’ll see about that,” said Daniel Quarles fiercely, and clenched his fists as if he meant to storm the gates of cloudland. “And ain’t ye forgittin’ ’Lijah what went up to heaven with a chariot and bosses o’ fire? That won’t happen to ’Lijah Skindle, damn him—he’ll have the chariot o’ fire, but he won’t git no higher. He, he, he!”
Martha was momentarily baffled by Elijah’s ascension, but recovering her nerve, she dealt John iii. 13, “No man hath ascended up to heaven.”
Partly to soothe the old man, partly to give Martha a chance of speaking out, Jinny here intervened with the suggestion that he himself should ascend up to his room and bring down the telescope to amuse his guest withal. Obviously relieved—for he felt himself in a tight textual corner—he hastened upstairs.
It was then that the old woman, bursting into tears, and clutching at Jinny’s arm, sobbed out: “Oh, Jinny, you’ve got to come back with me—you’ve got to come back at once!”
Jinny turned cold and sick. What had happened to Will?
“But what for?” she gasped.
Her worst fears were confirmed. “Is he hurt?”
“I wish he was a little,” Martha sobbed. “But even his arm’s all right now.” What Martha went on to say Jinny never remembered, for she was suddenly sobbing with Martha. But hers was the hysteria of relief, and when she at last understood that what Martha was asking was that she should come back and marry Will, so that he should stay near his mother, her heart hardened again. It was not that she made any attempt to deny her love—things seemed suddenly to have got beyond that—but Martha, she felt, knew not what she asked, seeming to have divined from her boy’s demeanour a lover’s quarrel, but without any inkling of the real tangle and deadlock. Even if she humiliated herself, as Martha half unwittingly suggested, it was all a blind-alley.
“My making it up won’t keep him in England,” she urged. “He’s got no money. And no more have I.”
She might have been more willing to make a last desperate dash of her head against the brick wall, had she understood how Martha had fought against her from the first and how pitiable was her surrender now, but no suspicion of that underground opposition had ever crossed her mind, nor did Martha now confess what indeed she no longer remembered clearly.
“But there’s room for you in Frog Farm, dearie. We’d love to have you. We’ve always loved you.”
“I can’t,” Jinny moaned. “It’s all no use. And I’ve got Gran’fer!” Indeed, Martha’s passionate plea had curiously clarified and steadied her mind, reconciling her to the inevitable. To go to Will was exactly what she had been yearning to do. But when the plea for such action came through Martha’s mouth, she could see it from outside, as it were, realize its futility and cleanse her bosom of it. She felt strangely braced by her own refusal.
“But I’ve got some provisions for the voyage,” she said, “that you might smuggle into his box—I know it’s big enough. And I do hope, Mrs. Flynt, he’s not going to work his passage.”
“I only wish he was, for he mightn’t find a ship. But you see Flynt would go and advance him the money and insist he must go steerage like a gentleman. He’s got no heart, hasn’t Flynt,” she wept, “he only wants to settle down in peace after Will and the flood, and sit under his vine and fig-tree.”
“Don’t cry—here’s Gran’fer coming down. I tell you what I will do, Mrs. Flynt, I will call for his box.”
“Oh, bless you, Jinny!” Martha fell on her neck. “If you come, he won’t go! That’s as sure as sunrise.”
“And then I can bring him his provisions,” Jinny pointed out sceptically, as she disentangled herself from Martha’s arms. Then both females were dumbed by the sight of the Gaffer returning in his best smock and with his beard combed! He tendered Martha the telescope with a debonair gesture. But Martha, her mission comparatively successful, departed so precipitately that the poor old man felt his toilette wasted, not to mention his telescope.
“She’s a flighty young woman,” was his verdict, “as full o’ warses as our thatch o’ warmin. Sets herself up agin John. Wesley as searched the Scriptures afore she was born.” And laying down his telescope, he turned over the pages of his Bible, and perpending her textual irritants and questing for antidotes, fell quietly asleep.
He was delighted when she returned the next afternoon, and he played Genesis v. 24, with a snort of triumph, by way of greeting. Martha tremulously countered with Acts ii. 34, and denied that Enoch had gone up to heaven, but it was obvious her heart was not in the game, and Jinny was glad when Ravens’ ladder was clapped against the casement and his padded knees appeared in an ascension of a purely terrestrial character, however celestial the melody that accompanied it. For the Gaffer had grown fond of this bird-of-all-work, now in the rôle of thatcher, and would hasten to hover about him, fussily directing the operations of his club, shears, or needle, correcting the words and airs of his songs, and even joining him in duets. Ravens’ encouragement of the older bird had become almost as alarming to Jinny as his shameless delay in sending in his bill and his positive refusal to charge for Uncle Lilliwhyte’s repairs, but this afternoon his advent was welcome, though the noise and jingle of the duets outside made her conversation with Martha difficult.
“He mustn’t go—he mustn’t go,” Mrs. Flynt sobbed. “It’s like the New Jerusalem coming down and going up again.”
Jinny quite appreciated that. “I thought he wouldn’t let me call for his box,” she said quietly.
“No, the pig-headed mule! He’s going to carry it himself.”
“In what? It’s not easy to get anything but me.”
“He knows that. That’s why he’s carrying it. On his shoulders, I mean.”
“With his arm just healed!”
“There won’t be much inside—he’s going to buy his things in London!”
“But the box itself—why, it’s big enough to pack himself in!”
“I know, I know, dearie. But Caleb says he carried it himself all the way from Chipstone. And chock-full, too!”
Jinny suppressed a faint smile. “I remember,” she said. “But perhaps he’ll break down before he gets it to Chipstone,” she added encouragingly.
“Oh, do you think so, dearie?” Then Martha’s face fell. “But he only means to carry it to ‘The King of Prussia.’ There’s a commercial traveller going from there in a trap to catch the same coach.”
“Then let us hope he’ll never get to ‘The King of Prussia.’ ” Martha shook her head. “You see, Flynt’s offered to bear a hand.”
“Oh, well!” said Jinny. “Then it’s all settled.”
“But he won’t have his father, either. Nearly bullied his head off. So Flynt’s going to keep behind him all the way in case of a breakdown.”
The picture of Caleb slinking furtively along the roads, behind his boy and the box, moved Jinny’s risible muscles, and she burst into a laugh that was not far from tears.
“Don’t, Jinny! I can’t bear it. You can’t love him, or you wouldn’t sit there and laugh. I always knew you weren’t the right girl for him!”
Jinny took this as the babbling of a mind distraught. “You’ll get over it,” she assured the old woman, patting the thin hand with the worn wedding-ring. “And he’s bound to come back.” The necessity of quieting Martha was fortifying: Jinny was like a queasy passenger saved from sea-sickness by having to look after a still worse sailor. She was the soul of the company at tea, staving off the duel of texts and sending Ravens into ecstasies over her quips and flashes. There was one bad moment, however, when Daniel Quarles candidly remarked to Mrs. Flynt: “Ravens should be tellin’ me as your Willie’s gooin’ furrin. Ye’ll be well riddy o’ the rascal.”
“Willie’s an angel!” cried Martha hysterically.
“How could there be angels ef there ain’t no heaven?” he queried, with a crafty cackle. “Noa, noa, Mrs. Flynt, it ain’t no use kiverin’ up as he’s a bad egg. But one bad in a dozen or sow is fair allowance. Ye’re luckier than me, what hadn’t even one good ’un. Now ef Ravens here had been my buo-oy——!”
Jinny saw Martha a bit of the way home. She had now found a new compromise. “Tell Will that Ravens will come with my cart.”
“And what will be the good of that?”
“It will save him the strain of carrying the box. And then as to-morrow’s my day, I shall have to meet my cart at ‘The King of Prussia.’ ”
“Oh, Jinny, then you will!”
“Yes—but don’t tell him. Only say Ravens will call for the box at eight o’clock—that will give him time to walk if he jibs at the cart for himself.”
It had all been arranged with the obliging bird-of-all-work, and Ravens had left Blackwater Hall that evening, carolling even more blithely than usual, when Jinny found—evidently pushed under the house-door—a mysterious cocked-hat addressed “Miss Boldero.” With trembling fingers she opened it, her heart thumping. “To hell with Ravens! You can keep him!”
This utterly unexpected flash of an utterly unforeseen jealousy, and the thought that he had been drawn so spatially near again, was all that stood between her and despair that last dreadful night.
When the fateful Friday dawned, it found Jinny fast asleep, worn out after long listening to a wind that would soon be tossing a ship about. In those harsh hours she had felt it would be impossible to get up and go on her round in the morning. But no sooner were her eyes unsealed, than there sprang up in her mind the thought that, did she fail her customers to-day, gossip would at once connect her breakdown with Will’s departure. So far, she had reason to believe, Martha’s guess at their relations had not penetrated outside. But eyes were sharp and tongues sharper, and she must not be exposed to pity. Under this goad she sprang up instanter and did her hair carefully before the cracked mirror and dressed herself in her best and smartest. She would go around with gibe and laughter and fantasias on the horn, and whatever was consonant with celebrating the final retreat of the coach.
The morning was quiet after the blustrous night, but the year, like her fate, was at its dreariest moment—no colour in sky or garden, no hint of the Spring—and at breakfast a reaction overcame her. But this time her grandfather did not observe her depression: he was too full of the crime of ’Lijah, who—according to Martha—was putting his mother in the Chipstone poorhouse prior to installing his bride in Rosemary Villa. So garrulous was he this morning that Jinny—her mind morbidly possessed by a story of a miner who was found dead of starvation in the Bush with a bag of gold for his pillow—ceased to listen to his diatribes, retaining only an uneasy sense that he was twitching and jerking with the same excitement as when Martha had first come. “And Oi count ye’ll be doin’ the same with me one day,” she heard him say at last, for he was shaking her arm. “But Oi’d have ye know it’s my business, not yourn—Daniel Quarles, Carrier.”
Jinny wearily assured him that there was no danger of her ever marrying, and she felt vexed with Martha for coming and starting such agitated trains of thought in his aged brain. Possibly the foolish mother might even have broached to him her desire to rob him of his granddaughter.
“Ye ought to be glad Oi’ve give ye food and shelter and them fine clothes ye’ve titivated yourself with,” he went on, unsoothed, “bein’ as there ain’t enough in the business for myself. ’Tis a daily sacrifice, Jinny, and do ye don’t forgit it.”
The prompt arrival of Ravens made a break, but she had to cancel with thanks her request for his services with the cart, and then, when the old man was settled at his Bible, and her bonnet and shawl were on, she collapsed in the ante-room, sinking down on the chest in which she had hoarded Will’s provisions, and feeling her resolution oozing away with every tick of the Dutch clock. Impossible to whip up a pseudo-gaiety, to make the tour of all these inquisitive faces! And through the lassitude of her whole being pierced every now and then her grandfather’s voice, crying “Tush, you foolish woman!” She knew it was not meant for her, but for an imagined Martha whose texts he was confuting, but it sounded dismally apposite, and when once he declared “Wiser folks than you knowed it all afore you was born,” she bowed her head as before the human destiny.
When the clock struck nine, he came stalking in. “Why, Jinny! Ain’t to-day Friday?”
She raised a miserable face. “Yes, but I’m going to-morrow instead!”
“To-morrow be dangnationed!” he cried, upset. “Oi’ve, never missed my Friday yet.”
“But I don’t feel like going to-day.”
“That’ll never do, Jinny. Ye’ll ruin my business with your whimwhams and mulligrubs. And it don’t yarn enough as it is.”
“There’s no competition—it doesn’t matter now.”
“And is that your thanks to the Lord for drowndin’ Pharaoh and his chariot and hosses?”
But she put her head back in her hands. “Do let me be!” she snapped.
“Don’t ye feel well, Jinny?” he said, with a change of tone. “Have ye got shoots o’ pain in your brain-box?”
“I’m all right, but I don’t want to go to-day. I should only make muddles.”
“We don’t make muddles,” he said fiercely.
“Let me be. I can’t harness.”
“Well, then Oi’ll do it, dearie. You just set there—Oi’ll put the door a bit ajar and once you’re in the fresh air you’ll be all right.”
She heard him shuffle back into the living-room and thence into the kitchen as the shortest way to the stable, and then, almost immediately, she became aware of a little noise at the garden-gate. She was sitting opposite the clock, and through the slit at the doorway she beheld, to her amaze, a red-headed figure outside the gate, sitting on a box and mopping its brow as it gazed sentimentally at the cottage. Even in the wild leaping of her pulses, the grotesqueness of their both sitting gloomily on boxes—so near and yet so far—tickled her sense of humour. But as she sat on, smiling and fluttering, she saw him rise, cast a cautious look round, open the gate, and steal towards the living-room. In a bound she was within and waiting by the closed casement, and as his expected peep came, the lattice flew back in his face and her hysteric mockery rang out.
“I thought you’d never look on my face again!”
It was almost a greater surprise than when she had appeared with Methusalem walking the waters, for he had counted her just as surely set out on her Friday round as the sun itself, and his sentimental journey safe from misunderstanding (or was it understanding?).
“Oh, don’t cackle!” he snarled. “I might have guessed you’d try to catch me.”
She gulped down the sobs that were trying to strangle her speech. How glad she was that she had on her best frock! “I overslept myself!” she said gaily. “Gran’fer’s harnessing. I see you’ve brought your box! You’re just in time!”
“I haven’t brought my box!” he snapped.
“Do ye don’t tell me no fibs,” she parodied.
“I mean, it’s going from ‘The King of Prussia.’ ”
“Really? Well I’ll take it over the bridge for you.”
“Thank you! I’m taking it there myself.”
“This don’t seem the shortest cut to Long Bradmarsh,” she observed blandly.
He glowered. “Shows how easily I can carry it. I’m having a good-bye look at all the old places.”
But below this surface conversation they were holding one of their old silent duologues. Jinny’s heart was beating fast with happiness and triumph as her eyes told him he would never get away now, and he, hypnotized by that dancing light in them, dumbly acknowledged he was self-trapped. Yet how they were going to get out of their impasse, and how his pride was to be reconciled with their reconciliation, neither had the ghost of an idea. “I see,” she replied, as if accepting his explanation of his visit. “But as to this old place, I’m afraid Ravens has rather changed the look of it with his new thatch.”
He snorted at the name.
“But you’ll find it unchanged inside,” she added affably, “if you come in.”
“Don’t begin that again! You know I can’t.”
“Dear me! I had forgotten that old nonsense. Well, you can come nearer and peep in.” Her face shone at the window.
His face worked wildly with the struggle not to approach hers. “I did have a peep. Good-bye, I’ve got the coach to catch.”
“Well, the cart will be ready in a moment. Gran’fer is so slow harnessing. Hark! Nip’s getting impatient.”
He raised his hat. “Thank you, but I told you I was my own carrier.”
“Good-bye, then. Pity you came so out of your way.”
He turned, and his feet dragged themselves hopelessly gateward.
She waved her hand desperately through the casement.
“Good luck, Will! Hope you’ll strike plenty of nuggets!”
“Thank you, Jinny!” He opened the gate.
“You’ll let me know how you’re getting on.”
“If you like!” The gate clicked behind him. Her mother-wit leapt to stave off the moment beyond which all her frenzied questing for some solution would be waste.
“Oh dear me, Will! Where is my memory going? Put your box in the porch a moment, will you?”
“I’ve got a few little things for the voyage—I really forgot.”
“Oh, Jinny!” He came back through the gate. “But I don’t need to bring the box to the door. I’ll take the things from you through the window.”
“But I want to pack them in properly—I can’t on the road.”
“There’s nobody passing.”
“You never can tell. We don’t want Bundock——”
“But I’ll pack them in myself.”
“I’d never trust a man—in fact I expect I’ll have to repack all the rest. Look at Mr. Flippance.”
But still he hung back. “There’s lots of room.”
“I know. Like a sensible man you’re getting your outfit in London. Bring it along. Or shall I lend you a hand?”
“No! No!” He hurriedly shouldered the huge box and Jinny heard its contents shifting like a withered kernel in a nutshell. It was the same American trunk with the overarching lid, and as he swaggered up the garden with it, it seemed to her as if time had rolled back to last Spring. But what comedies and tragedies had intervened between the two box-carryings, all sprung from the same obstinacy! And yet, she felt, she did not love him the less for his manly assertiveness: how sweet would be the surrender when their sparring was over and her will could be legitimately embraced in his, held like herself in those masterful, muscular arms.
Her mind was really in her Australian hut as he dumped the box at her feet. No, it would hardly do for a table, she thought, with that lid-curvature. Then she braced herself for a tricky tussle.
“Well, where’s the goods?” he said lightly.
“Don’t be so unbelieving—they’re in that spruce-hutch. Four months, you know, you’ve got to provide against.”
“I know,” he said glumly, unlocking his trunk and throwing up the lid violently. He would have liked to smash the springs. But the lid, lined with cheap striped cloth, stood up stiffly, refusing to give him a pretext for postponing his journey.
Jinny from her doorway gazed at the jumble in the great void.
“Shove it forward a bit,” she said carelessly, moving backwards within.
“Your end of the box is not under cover.”
“Why should it be?”
“It might rain and spoil your things—I’m sure I saw a drop.” She tugged at the handle and the trunk slid along the porch and some inches over the sill. Unostentatiously he pulled it back a bit, but she jerked it in again. “Do leave it where I can see the things,” she said with simulated fretfulness. “Good gracious!” She drew out the frock-coat he had sported for the Flippance wedding. “What’s this grandeur for?”
“Oh, for funerals and things like that!”
“In the Bush? And fancy packing it next to the blanket. It’s all over hairs. I’ll brush it and sell it for you—Ravens will be wanting one for the wedding.”
“What wedding?” he demanded fiercely.
“Mr. Skindle’s, of course. Weren’t you invited?”
He winced, and unrebuked she threw his wedding raiment over the provision-chest. “We’d best keep this on top,” she said, drawing out the blanket, “else you won’t get at it.”
“I expect you’ll be married by the time I’m back,” he remarked with aloofness.
“Not I. I’ll never marry now. I’ve seen too much of men’s foolishness.”
“Going to be an old maid?”
“If I live long enough!” Her vaunt of youth was dazzling.
“Well, I hope you won’t!” he said fervently.
“Won’t live? Oh, Will!”
“Won’t fade into that. You know what I mean. The sweetest rose must fade.”
“So will this muffler—fortunately. Haven’t you taken your dad’s ‘muckinger’ by mistake?”
“No, no—you leave that be.”
“What a let of Sunday collars!”
“Weekdays too I like a clean collar.”
“Ow, this onrighteous generation,” she said in Caleb’s voice, “all one to them, Sundays or no Sundays.” She pulled up his cloak.
“You leave that cloak be!” he said, laughing despite himself.
“But now your sling’s off, you don’t need it.”
“Yes, I do. Let it be, please.”
But she unrolled it mischievously and a packet of letters fell out—her letters about the great horn.
“Well, didn’t I say men were silly!” she cried. “Fancy taking that to Australia.” And she made as if to hurl them towards the living-room fire.
“Give ’em to me!” He reached for them angrily, and that gave her an idea.
“But they’re mine!” Standing at the end of the box, which made a barrier between them, she held them mockingly just beyond his reach. He came forward, then perceiving one foot was right across the forbidden sill, he jerked himself back violently. Then balancing himself well on his soles, with a sudden swoop he curved his body forward to the utmost. It only resulted in his nearly falling athwart the open box. He recovered his balance and the perpendicular with some difficulty and no dignity.
“Take care!” she cried in almost hysterical gaiety. “You nearly crossed that time.”
“You give me my property!” he cried furiously.
“They’re as much mine as yours.”
“Not by law. You’ve no legal right to detain my property.”
“And who’s detaining it? You’ve only got to come and take it!”
His anger was enhanced by the sounds of Daniel Quarles returning with the cart, a carolling, lumbering, barking medley. It would be intolerable to be caught as though trying to cross the threshold.
“Give it me,” he hissed. “I don’t want to meet him.” And as she tantalizingly tendered the packet nearer, he lunged towards her at a desperate angle, and overreaching himself as she deftly withdrew it, fell prone into the open box, his legs asprawl in the air.
“Curl ’em in, quick,” she whispered, with an inspiration, tucking his legs in before he knew what was happening. But as the lid closed on him, he was not sorry to be spared the encounter.
“Get rid of him!” he implored through the keyhole.
“Business pouring in, Gran’fer!” she cried cheerily, as the Gaffer came up astare. “Bear a hand! No, no, not into the cart. It’s to wait here. There is Hey,” she began chanting.
“There is Ree,” came his antiphone, as he grasped the other handle. “Lord, that’s lugsome!” he panted, dropping it as soon as it was inside and letting himself fall upon it. “Whew!” he breathed heavily. Nip, too, all abristle leaped on the box and yapped hysterically, as though nosing for a rat. This was the last straw. Will, whose head the Gaffer was pressing through the far from inflexible lid, and who already felt asphyxiating, gave a vigorous heave.
“Why, it’s aloive!” cried the Gaffer, jumping up nervously. Then as the lid flew up, Nip was hurled into space and Will’s red poll popped up. “It’s a Will-in-the-box,” cried Jinny.
“Willie Flynt!” gasped the Gaffer.
“Yes, Gran’fer,” she said in laughing triumph. “And you carried him in!”
“Ha, ha, ha!” A great roar of glee came from the jubilant junior, and in the act of scrambling up, his knees relaxed in helpless mirth and he let himself fall forward once more in the box, in a convulsion of merriment. “Daniel Quarles, Carrier! Ha, ha, ha!”
“And see, Gran’fer!” cried Jinny in still greater triumph. “He came in on his hands and knees!”
Daniel Quarles’s bemused countenance changed magically.
“Ho, ho, ho!” he croaked. “On his hands and knees! Ho, ho, ho!”
Will’s spasms froze as by enchantment.
“Come along, Will,” said Jinny, hauling him out. “It’s a fair draw and you’ve got to shake hands.”
Will manfully put out his hand. “You nearly squashed me, Mr. Quarles,” he said ruefully.
“Ye wanted settin’ on,” said the Gaffer, chuckling, and he took the fleshy young hand in his bony fingers. “Ye sot yourself to ruin us. But what says the Book?” he demanded amiably. “He that diggeth a pit shall tumble into——”
“A box,” wound up Jinny merrily.
“Oi never knowed he was there, did, Oi’d a-tarned that key,” said her grandfather, guffawing afresh.
“And everybody would have thought me in Australia, and then after long years a skeleton would have been found,” said Will, with grim humour.
Jinny clapped her hands. “Just like Mr. Flippance’s play, The Mistletoe Bough!”
She had closed the house-door. A timid tapping at it, which had gone unobserved, now grew audible.
“There’s your dad!” said Jinny.
Will’s eyes widened. “My dad?” he breathed incredulously.
“Git in the box!” whispered the Gaffer, almost bursting with glee. “Git in the box!” His sinewy arms seized the young man round the waist.
Will struggled indignantly. “I nearly choked!” he spluttered.
“Sh!” Jinny with her warning finger and dancing eyes stilled him. “Just for fun—only for a moment!”
Her instinct divined that to let the old man have his way would be the surest method of clinching the reconciliation. He could then never go back on her later, never resent the trick played upon him. It would become his trick, his farce, it would provide a fund of happy memories for the rest of his life. And as she cried “Come in!” and the latch lifted and Caleb’s white-rimmed, cherubic countenance was poked meekly through a gap, while her grandfather, stroking his beard, composed his face to an exaggerated severity, Jinny felt that life was almost too delicious for laughter.
“Hullo, young chap!” was the Gaffer’s genial greeting. “What brings you here?”
“Oi—Oi happened to be passin’,” explained Caleb awkwardly, while his puzzled eyes roved from the girl to his senior, and then towards Nip, who was cowering in a corner, too nerve-shattered to leap on the lid again. “You ain’t seen my Willie?” He moved forward questingly.
The older man tried to answer, then a guffaw burst from that toothless mouth, and turning his back he blew his nose thundrously into his handkerchief, while his lean sides shook like a jelly. “Why ever should we see your Willie?” cried Jinny, saving the situation. “Ain’t he gone furrin?”
Caleb rubbed his eyes. “But Oi seen him at this door—he’ll be late for the coach.”
“At this door?” the Gaffer succeeded in saying, and then his handkerchief came into play again and he sneezed and coughed and blew like a grampus.
“Oi seen him just by the sill, swingin’ forth and back like a parrot on a perch.”
At that Jinny had some pains to keep a stiff lip, and even the box-lid quivered, but not with laughter, she surmised.
“I’m afraid you must have dreamed it,” she replied.
“Lord!” quoth Caleb, and dropped dazedly on the box. To see the Gaffer’s face when the lid shot up under his visitor was worth more than Mr. Flippance’s finest show. The very soul of old English mirth was there. You would have thought that this crude device had never entered human brain before, was as fresh as the first laughter of Eden. And what heightened the humour of the situation was that Caleb was by no means overpleased to find Will had no intention of catching his coach. Nor did he begin to enter into the spirit of the thing till, admitting that Martha would “exult in gladness,” it occurred to him what a surprise for her it would be to get her boy delivered back to her inside the box. Eagerly the two old men imagined the scene, catching fire from each other, improvising Martha’s dialogue for her, from her amazement at seeing the box back, down to the colossal climax, till the mere idea had them both rolling about in helpless quiverings and explosions. Nor could Will, though he said he’d be danged if he’d stuff himself in again, and groused he’d got cramp in every limb, altogether escape the contagion, while to witness the roisterous merriment of the two hairy ancients gave Jinny such an exquisite joy of life as not even her lover’s first kiss had given her. Such an assurance streamed from it of life being sound at the centre: a bubbling fount of sweetness and love and innocent laughter. It wiped out for ever the memory of that morbid doubt of the nature of things that had assailed her as she sat under the gaze of the stuffed owl in Mrs. Pennymole’s cottage, the day of the rape of Methusalem. Tears welled through her smiles as Will at last bade his father lend a hand in transporting the box to the waiting cart. It must return to Frog Farm, even if he was not inside it.
“And I don’t believe there ever were any provisions, Jinny,” he grinned, with an afterthought.
“Oh yes, there are,” said Jinny. “Look! And a bottle of brandy too!”
“You dear!” he began, but Jinny cut him short with warning signals. The sudden revelation of their relations might undo all the good of the spree, by reviving her grandfather’s apprehensions of desertion. Indeed, when the hurly-burly was over, he could scarcely fail to ask himself what this sportive intimacy of the young couple portended, especially as he had even in the past suspected the answer. The truth must be broken to him cautiously, and with that reflection came the chilling remembrance that all this hubbub and laughter had solved nothing, that the situation, though superficially eased, was essentially the same as before, that the problem had only been postponed. Putting Will in a box was not keeping him in England. He would probably have to sail just the same, and the pain of parting be borne afresh, and even if he remained, she could not abandon her grandfather. But she shook off these thoughts. Enough for the moment that Will was hers again.
“Oi’ve never laughed so much since Oi seen that Andraa at Che’msford Fair the day Oi fust met Annie!” said her grandfather, wiping his eyes, as she set off on her delayed round, with Will at her side, and Caleb and the box in the cart, and Nip bounding like mad along the muddy road.
But it was impossible to keep Caleb in mind. Will was too impatient and too famished a lover for that, and it is not often that you sit at your sweetheart’s side when you ought to be whirling towards the Antipodes. Caleb could not help seeing happy backs, circumplicated—in the more solitary roads—by arms, and the hope, first implanted by Martha, that he would be relieved of Will after all, and in so desirable a fashion, grew more and more assured, though the occasional rigidity of the bodies under observation unsettled him afresh.
“Aren’t you late for the coach?” he heard Bundock’s voice inquire at one of these prim intervals.
“No, too early!” laughed Will.
“But you’re going the wrong way!”
“The first time I’ve gone right!” said Will, and with magnificent indiscretion he turned and kissed Jinny.
“Oh dear!” Jinny gasped, red as fire. “It’ll be all over Chipstone by to-night.”
“I wanted the banns proclaimed as soon as possible,” he said, unabashed.
Then they became aware of a curious gulping sound behind them which drowned even Methusalem’s tick-tacks. They turned their heads. Caleb—convinced at last—had buried his face in the famous “muckinger” mentioned between them only that morning.
“What’s up, dad?” cried Will sympathetically. “Got a toothache?”
“It’s the joy at you and Jinny,” he sobbed apologetically. “And to think that some folk are near-sighted and can’t see God, their friend.”
“Meaning me, dad?” asked Will, not untouched.
“Meanin’ mother, Willie. Lord, what a state Oi left her in—all blarin’ and lamentation. ‘Have faith,’ Oi says to her. But Oi’m afeared she’s got too much brains and book-larnin’!”
“Oh, I say, dad!” laughed Will. “Wouldn’t Bundock like to hear that?”
“Bundock’s of the same opinion,” said Caleb, meaning the bed-ridden Bundock. “ ‘Few texts and much faith,’ he says to me once. And faith cometh by hearin’, don’t one of ’em tell us? Singafies the ear can’t take hold of a clutter o’ texts.”
“Oh, but surely Mrs. Flynt has faith?” protested Jinny.
“She’s too taken up with other folks’ faith,” Caleb maintained stoutly. “Wanted Mrs. Skindle to break bread with her and look for the New Jerusalem—she ain’t found much of a Jerusalem, poor lone widder. And wanted to baptize that Flip gen’leman, but he never would come to the scratch. And tried her tricks and texts on your poor old Gran’fer, she let out. But when it comes to takin’ a sorrow from the hand of God, her friend, she sets and yowls like a heathen what runs naked in the wilderness. Oi’m done with that Christy Dolphin stuff—it don’t bring the peace of God, and Oi’ll tell her sow to her head the next time she’s at me to be a Jew!”
He mopped up the remains of his tears. “And same as Oi did jine the Sin agog,” he added pensively, “how do Oi know she wouldn’t goo on gooin’ forrard?”
If, in the very heart of the romp at Blackwater Hall, Jinny’s insight could perceive that this reconciliation of her two males (or her two mules as she called them to herself) had left her marriage problem unsolved, still more did afterthought bring home the sad truth. There was no way of leaving the old man, no way of adding Will to the household. The latter alternative she never even suggested. It would bring her husband into public contempt to be thus absolutely swallowed up by the female carrier, and supported as in a poorhouse. So far off seemed the possibility of marriage that the Gaffer was considerately left in ignorance of the engagement—the only man in a radius of leagues from whom it was hidden, though Will was constantly about the cottage, having supplanted poor Ravens as a house repairer. But ever since the Gaffer had clapped him in the trunk—and the old man had forgotten he was not the first to do so—his affections had passed to the victim of his humour, and he often recalled it to Will with grins and guffaws as they sat over their beer. “Ye thought to git over Daniel Quarles,” he would chuckle, poking him in the ribs, “but ye got to come in on your hands and knees! Ho, ho, ho!” He seemed to imagine Will called on purpose to be thus twitted with his defeat, though as a matter of fact the privation of his pipe was a great grievance to the young man, and supplied a new obstacle to his taking up his quarters there as son-in-law. But outwardly Will had fallen into Jinny’s way of humouring the old tyrant, and this parade of affection rather shocked her, for she felt that Will was more interested in the veteran’s death than in his life. Once when, recalling the delectable memory, the Gaffer remarked, “Lucky ye ain’t as bonkka as Sidrach, Oi count they had to make him a extra-sized coffin,” she caught an almost ghoulish gleam in her lover’s eyes. He had indeed lugubriously drawn her attention to a paragraph in the paper saying that six thousand centenarians had been counted in Europe in the last half-century. Evidently the age of man was rising dangerously, he implied. The worst of it was that Jinny herself, though she would have fought passionately for the patriarch’s life, found shadowy speculations as to the length of his span floating up to her mind and needing to be sternly stamped under. For she had told Will definitely that so long as her grandfather lived, she could neither marry nor leave England. Gloomily he cited Old Parr—he seemed to have become an authority on centenarians—who had clung to existence till 152. “At that rate I shall be over eighty,” he calculated cheerlessly.
“Oh, it isn’t very likely!” she consoled him.
“Well, it’s lucky we aren’t living before the Flood, that’s all I can say,” he grumbled. “Fancy waiting six hundred years or so!”
“I wish we were living before our flood,” she said. “Then you’d have your livelihood.”
“And what would have been the good of that without you? You’d have stuck to your grandfather just the same.”
No, there was no way out. Australia resurged, black and menacing, and finally she even wrote herself to the London agents about his ship, consoled only by the entire supervision of his wardrobe and the famous trunk. And the only wedding that followed on their engagement was Elijah’s. For—according to Bundock’s father—till that had become certain, Blanche had refused to marry, despite the calling of her banns. “I didn’t think that a man who once aspired to me could ever keep company with a common carrier,” was her final version to Miss Gentry. “It shows how right you were to spurn him,” said that sympathetic spinster, who had transferred her adoration of the Beautiful from the faithless Cleopatra to the clinging Blanche, and figured at the altar in her now habitual rôle of bridesmaid.
And it was on that very wedding-day—so closely does tragedy tread on the sock of comedy—that poor Uncle Lilliwhyte fell asleep in a glorious hope of resurrection. Jinny had not suspected the imminence of his last moments till the evening before, though she and Will had paid him several visits at his now weathertight hut. But she had become rather alarmed about him, and returning from her round one Tuesday, she set off alone, as soon as supper was over. Will had seen sufficient of her during the day, and it was understood he was to give his mother his company that evening, for Martha had fallen into a more distressful state than ever. “Will’s got to go just the same,” she kept moaning when Jinny came, “and Flynt vows he’ll never be baptized into the Ecclesia, and turns round and tells me I lack faith. Me, who’ve learnt him all the religion he knows!”
There was a full moon as Jinny set out with a little basket for the invalid. Nip trotted behind her, and the trees and bushes cast black trunks and masses across her path, almost like solid stumbling-blocks. The bare elms and poplars rose in rigid beauty in the cold starry evening. Death was far from her thoughts till she reached the hut and saw the sunken cheeks in their tangle of hair illumined weirdly from the stove, which lay so close to the patriarch’s hand he could replenish it from his bed of sacks.
“Just in time, Jinny!” he said joyfully. “Oi was afeared you wouldn’t be.” His excitement set him coughing and, frightened, she knelt and put her jug of tea to his lips.
“There! Don’t talk nonsense!” she said, as a faint colour returned to his face.
He shook his head. “ ’Tis the tarn of the worms at last.”
“Not for twenty years. Look at Gran’fer.”
“Oi can’t grudge ’em,” he persisted. “Oi’ve took many a fish with ’em, and Oi’ve been about the woods from a buoy-oy, master of beast and bird and snake, and Oi know’d Oi’d be catched myself one day. And that’s onny fair, ain’t it?”
“Don’t talk like that—it’s horrible.”
“Ye’re too softy-hearted, Jinny, or ye wouldn’t be here fussin’ over the poor ole man in the trap. And ef ye’d been more of a sport, ye’d ha’ understood it’s all a grand ole game. Catch-me-ef-you-can, Oi calls it.”
“It’s dreadful, I think—the hawks and weasels eating the little birds.”
“Then why do the little birds sing so? Tell me that! It’s all fun, Oi tell ye, and they’re havin’ it theirselves with the flies and the worms. Take your Nip now. [Nip, hearing his name, wagged his tail.] Oi’ve seen that animal, what looks so peaceful squattin’ there by the fire, stand a-roarin’ like when you shuts the flap o’ the stove time he tries to git at a rat-hole. Ten men couldn’t howd him.”
“He’s never got a rat anyhow,” said Jinny with satisfaction.
“More shame to his breed. Oi count he’s frighted away my fox all the same. There’s one what comes and looks in at me every evenin’ just like Nip there, onny wild about the eyes like. Oi reckoned he’d be squattin’ there to-night for a warm, too, friendly-like, but he’ll find both on us cowld soon, the fire and me.” And a racking spasm of coughing accented his prognostic.
“You mustn’t talk like that. You mustn’t talk at all. I’ll send Dr. Mint to-morrow.”
He raised himself convulsively on his sacking, throwing off the rags and tags that covered him, and revealing the grimy shirt and trousers that formed his bed-costume. His grey hair streamed wildly, almost reaching the bolster. “Ef ye send me a doctor,” he threatened, “Oi’ll die afore he gits here!”
“Do lie down.” She pressed him towards his bolster.
“Oi won’t take no doctors’ stuff,” he gurgled, as his head sank back.
“But why?” she said, covering him up with his fusty bedclothes. “You’re not one of us, surely!”
“A Peculiar? Noa, thank the Lord. Oi told ye Oi don’t believe nawthen of all they religions. Git over me, the whole thing.”
“But if you won’t have medicine, you must pray, like we do.”
“Ye don’t catch me doin’ the one ne yet the tother. Oi count Oi can git along without ’em as much as the other critters in the wood. They don’t have neither.”
“Yes, they do—at least Nip and Methusalem have medicine when they’re sick. I give it ’em myself.”
“Oi reckon that’s what makes ’em sick—relyin’ on Skindles and sech. Oi never seen a stoat nor a squirrel take physic, and ye don’t want nawthen livelier, and Oi never seen a animal goo down on his knees, unless ’twas a hoss what slipped. He, he, he!”
When the cough into which his gaggle passed was quieted, Jinny reminded him sternly that men were not animals, that he had an immortal soul, and she asked whether he would see Mr. Fallow or one of the various chapel ministers. That proved the most agitating question of all.
He sat up again, his face working in terror. “None o’ that, Oi tell ye. Oi ain’t afeared o’ the old black ’un. He’ll end all my pains, though Oi ain’t tired o’ life even with ’em—no, not by a hundred year. But do ye don’t come scarin’ me with your heavens and hells, for Oi don’t want to believe in ’em.”
“But I remember your saying once, we’ve got to have one or the other.”
“And Oi told ye Oi mislikes ’em both.”
“Not really? You wouldn’t really dislike heaven.”
He shuddered. “Lord save me from it! Oi’ve thought a mort lately about that Charley Mott—Oi used to see him drunk with his mates—and ef he’s in heaven among they parsons and angels, Oi warrant he’s the most miserable soul alive.”
“Lie down! I oughtn’t to have let you talk!” she said, so shocked that she charitably supposed his wits were going. This apprehension was enhanced when, just as her hand had pressed his relaxing form back to his bolster, she felt him grow rigid again with an impulse so violent that she was jerked backwards.
“Where’s my wits?” he exclaimed in odd congruity with her thought. “Oi’ve nigh forgot the teapot!”
She hastened to offer again the half-sipped jug, which she had stood by the stove. He waved it away.
“Not that! Gimme the spade!”
“Ay, it stands in the corner—Oi ain’t used it since my old lurcher died. D’ye think he’s in heaven—Rover—and all they rats we digged up together?”
“You’re not going to dig up a rat?” she said in horror.
“No fear. But Oi won’t have nobody else ferret it out.” And from his bed he tried to shovel away the earth near the stove. But his strength failed. She took his spade. “I’ll do it. What is it?”
“ ’Tis in the earth,” he panted, “like Oi’ll be. And Oi reckon Oi’d as soon be buried here as anywheres.”
She turned faint. Did he mean her to dig his grave?
“This isn’t consecrated ground,” she said feebly.
“Oi count it’s got as lovely a smell as the churchyard earth,” he said. “But let ’em bury me where they will, so long as Oi don’t wake up. Ye ain’t diggin’, Jinny.”
Mystified and trembling, and wishing she had not come without Will, she stuck the spade in deeper and threw up the clods. Set her teeth as she might, she could not shake off the thought that she was digging his grave, and they began to chatter despite the warmth from the stove. The lurid glow streaming from it seemed sinister in the darkness of the windowless hut, and she paused to let in a streak of moonlight through a gap in the door. But the night outside in its vastness and under its blue glamour seemed even more frightening, and the cold blast that blew in made the ancient cough again. She reclosed the door, and with trembling spade resumed her strange task. Suddenly her blade struck a metallic object.
“That’s it!” he cried gleefully. “And ye wanted to put boards over it!”
More mystified than ever, she drew up a heavy old teapot of Britannia metal—never had she handled such a weighty pot.
“Pour it out! Pour it out!” he chuckled.
She held the spout over her jug, which made him laugh till he nearly died. But by thumping his shoulders she got his breath back. She understood now what moved his mirth, for though nothing had issued from the spout, the lid had burst open and a rain of gold pieces had come spinning and rolling all over the hut. It seemed like the stories the old people told of the treasures of gnomes and pixies. There seemed hundreds of them, glittering and twirling.
“All for you, Jinny,” he panted with his recovered breath. “All for you.”
“Why, wherever did you get all this?” she replied, dropping on her knees to gather the shimmering spilth.
“That’s all honest, Jinny, don’t be scat. ’Tis the pennies Oi’ve put together, man and buo-oy this sixty year and more.”
“But what for?” she gasped.
“For you. And fowrpence or fi’pence a day tots up.”
“No, I mean why did you do it?” Her brain refused to take in the idea that all this fabulous wealth was hers. “Why didn’t you live more comfortable—why didn’t you get another cottage?”
“Oi ain’t never been so happy as since Farmer tarned me out. To lay on the earth, that’s what Oi wanted all my life—onny Oi dedn’t know it.”
“Then what was the good of the money?”
A crafty look came into the hollow eyes and overspread the wan features. “They’d have had me, they guardians, ef Oi dedn’t have money. Oi wasn’t a-gooin’ to die in the poorhouse like my feyther, time they sold him up. Ef ye got the brads, they can’t touch ye. Do, the Master ’ould git into trouble. They put mother and me sep’rit from feyther, and when Oi seen her cryin’ Oi swore in my liddle heart Oi’d die sooner than stay there or tarn ’prentice. Oi dropped through a window the night o’ feyther’s funeral—for the Master had thrashed me—but Oi’d promised mother Oi’d come back for her, and ’twarn’t many year afore she was livin’ with me upright in the cottage. Happen you seen her, though she never seen you.”
“Yes, I know,” said Jinny softly. “She was blind.”
“Cried her eyes out, to my thinkin’. But Oi says to her marnin’ and night, ‘Cheer up, mother,’ Oi says, ‘so long as we’ve got the dubs, they can’t touch us, and ef they parish gents tries to lay hands on me, they’ll git such a clumsy thump with the teapot they’ll know better next time.’ She never seen the teapot, mother dedn’t, but she used to waggle her fingers about in it and laugh like billy-o.”
Jinny felt nearer weeping as she culled these spoils of a lifetime. Many of the coins were curious; mintage of an earlier reign. She was peering in a cobwebbed corner when the barking of Nip as well as a familiar footstep in the clearing announced a welcome arrival. How glad she was Will had not been able to keep away! And then suddenly—at last—came the realization of her riches, of the solution of her financial problem!
“Quick! Quick!” whispered the old man hoarsely, and signed to her to hide the teapot. To soothe him she put it swiftly in her basket.
“You’re sure there’s nobody else ought to have it?” she asked anxiously.
“Oi ain’t got no friend ’cept you and the fox. And ye don’t catch him in the poorhouse. But Oi’ll die happy, knowin’ as Oi’ve saved you from it. Don’t let ’em come in!” he gasped, as a tapping began.
“It’s only young Mr. Flynt.”
“Willie, d’ye mean?”
She blushed in the friendly obscurity. “He’s come to see me home.”
“He mustn’t come in!”
“I’ll tell him.”
She set down the basket and went out into the blue night. It was no longer terrifying. Will with his ash stick seemed a match for all the powers of darkness. But she drew back from his kiss. Death was too near. In whispers she explained the situation, forgetting even to mention the gold. “I oughtn’t to leave him—he oughtn’t to die alone.”
“Nonsense, sweetheart. You can’t stay all night with a dirty old lunatic!”
“Don’t talk so unchristianly, Will. You don’t deserve——!” But she shut her lips. She could not go now into the happiness the “dirty old lunatic” was bringing them.
“Make him up a good fire and say you’ll be back first thing in the morning. I’ll come and take you. There!”
“Couldn’t—couldn’t you stay with him, Will?”
“Me? You said he wouldn’t have me! And I haven’t got enough baccy on me.”
She went back tentatively. She found Uncle Lilliwhyte lying on his back on his sacks with closed eyes, and there was blood on the bolster. The earth had been shovelled in again and the soil flattened tidily with the back of the spade. The superfluous precaution—automatic effect of lifelong habit—had evidently cost him dear.
“He can come in now,” he said feebly.
“But he doesn’t want anything,” she explained. “You lie still.”
“Oi’d like him to come.” She went softly to the door and called.
“Here I am, uncle!” cried Will cheerily.
“ ’Tain’t you Oi want. But happen ef your mother ’ud come and talk things over——”
“My mother?” said Will, startled. Martha, he knew, would have the same repugnance as he to this feckless, grimy, impossible creature: an aversion which even the wasted features could not counteract.
“It don’t seem to git over she,” he explained, “but Oi never could hear proper, bein’ at the keyhole in a manner o’ speakin’. But ef she’d come and explain——!”
“Yes, she will,” said Jinny. “She must, Will.”
“I’ll tell her,” he murmured.
“He’ll bring her in the morning,” she promised emphatically. “You take a little more tea now and get to sleep.” She covered him up carefully and stuck a great log in the stove.
“Do ye take that fowlin’-piece, young Flynt,” he said, opening his eyes. “And be careful—it’s loaded.”
“Thanks, I’ll take it in the morning.”
“And there’s the coppers and silver, Jinny. That’s at the bottom o’ the sack Oi’m on. And old tradesmen’s tokens too.”
“In the morning—you go to sleep now,” she said tenderly. But she still lingered, reluctant to leave him, and was very relieved when Ravens (now become a woodman with an adze) looked in to see the old man, and, unembittered by the sight of the lovers, consented to pass the night in the hut he had mended.
Swinging home through the wood, through aisles flooded only with moonlight, the young lovers soon left the thought of death behind them. Indeed from the hut itself there had soon come following them the careless strains of the incurable caroller:
“’Tis my delight of a shiny night
In the season of the year.”
“What a hefty basket!” said Will at last. “Whatever have you been carrying the old codger?”
“It’s what I’m carrying off,” she laughed. “But give it me, if it’s too much for your poor arm.”
“It’s not so heavy as my box,” he smiled.
“But it saves carrying that,” she said happily.
“How do you mean?”
“That’s your farm in there—your English farm! Australia is off.” She enjoyed his obvious fear that the scene in the hut had been too much for her brain. “Goose!” she cried. “Goose with the golden eggs. Just take a peep.”
“There’s only your jug and teapot.” He was more mystified than ever.
But her happiness waned again when the riddle was read.
“You surely don’t expect me to pocket your money,” he said, as soon as his slower brain had taken in the situation.
“Oh, Will! Surely what is mine is yours!”
“Not at all. What is mine is yours.”
“But that’s what I said.”
“Don’t turn and twist—I know you’re cleverer than me.”
Her hand sought his. “Don’t let us have a storm in a teapot!”
But he rumbled on. “With all my worldly goods I thee endow—it’s the man says that.”
“You’ve been reading the marriage service.”
“And how would you know it, if you hadn’t?”
That suspended the debate on a kiss. “You see I’d be almost as bad as poor Charley Mott,” he pointed out.
“I see,” she said humbly. Indeed she felt herself so much a part of him now that she wondered how she could have failed to look at it from his point of view. Her defeat of his coach—under Providence—had humiliated him enough. To have turned suddenly into an heiress was an aggravation of her success; now to make him appear a fortune-hunter would be the last straw.
“But couldn’t I buy the farm and you rent it of me?” she ventured, with a memory of Hezekiah Bidlake.
“Everybody would think just the same——”
“Well, but somewhere else—where nobody knows us——?”
“You wouldn’t come somewhere else—not till I’m eighty!”
“Don’t be absurd! Anyhow you’ll look beautiful with a white beard.”
“Why not get him a minder with the money? Then we could go to Australia together.”
“Leave him to a stranger! He’d die. But so long as the farm was in England, it wouldn’t be so bad, even if I couldn’t come just yet.”
He did not answer, and as they walked on silently, her daydreams resurged, her nipped buds began bursting into wonderful flower. They parted at her door without further reference to money questions, but her face was brimming with happiness as the pot with guineas.
In that rosy mood—when her grandfather, nid-nodding over the hearth, roused at her return—she could not refrain from pouring out her teapot on the table, and changing his grumbles at her absence into squeaks of delight. She meant to pour out her story too, but he cut her short.
“That’s mine!” he cried, exultant. “That’s the gold Sidrach brought me!”
“No, no, Gran’fer. That comes from——!”
“But there’s the wery spade guineas!” He dabbled his claws in the coins.
“Oh, is that what they are? But there’s heads of Victoria, too.”
“That’s what he saved in Babylon. Dedn’t Oi say as he died warrum?”
“But you must listen, Gran’fer. Uncle Lilliwhyte——” she recapitulated the story.
“They’re mine anyways!” He scooped them up in his skinny palms and let them fall into the pot with a voluptuous clang. “Ye gits quite enough out o’ my biznus.”
This seemed so exactly the reverse of Will’s attitude that she found herself smiling ruefully at the way she was caught again between her “two mules.” But she could not thus lose her marriage-portion. “Uncle Lilliwhyte gave them to me for myself,” she said firmly.
“And don’t ye owe me back all the money Oi paid when your feyther died?”
Jinny was taken aback. “How much did you pay?”
“Hunderds and hunderds. Dedn’t, he’d a-been a disgraced corpse, and your mother too.”
Jinny was silent. The Angel-Mother seemed rustling overhead. The Gaffer closed shutters and bolted doors with rigorous precautions, and hugging the teapot to his bosom stumbled up to bed. Depressed by this unexpected seizure of her windfall, she found herself too utterly weary after her long day’s work and excitement to open the shutters again, much as she disliked an airless room; she had scarcely energy to pull out her chest of drawers. For a few minutes she watched from her bed the blue flickering flame of the log, then knew no more till suddenly she saw above the dead fire a monstrous shadow curling over the chimney-piece and along the ceiling: in another instant she traced it to something still more horrible—her grandfather’s legless trunk appearing over the hearthstone, with his nightlight in one hand and the teapot in the other. The rush-candle shook in its holed tin cylinder and set his grisly counterpart dancing. Jinny’s blood ran cold. Evidently some one had murdered him for the gold and this was his ghost. Then she told herself it was one of her nightmares, and she looked around for Henry Brougham, Esq., to clear up the situation. But with a soft thud the trunk dropped as through a trap-door and there was nothing left but a great glimmering hole where the hearthstone should have been. Instantly she realized that it was only a secret hiding-place in which her magpie of a grandfather was bestowing the treasure—yes, there was the hearthstone slewed round as on a pivot. This must be that old smugglers’ storehouse he and gossip had sometimes hinted at—with perhaps the long underground passages of ancient legend, reaching to Beacon Chimneys, nay, to the parsonage itself.
She closed her eyes carefully as his shadow heralded his re-ascent. He came up almost as noiselessly as that giant spectre, and between her lids she saw him scrutinize her. Reassured to see his shanks again, she emitted one of his snores, wondering whimsically if she did snore, or if any other girl had ever heard herself snore, and a smile almost broke the impassivity of her cheeks. Satisfied with the snore, he stooped down and she saw the hearthstone veer back to its place. “Well, I can always get it when I want it,” she thought cheerfully, as his slow stockinged feet bore him and his more sinister shadow upstairs.
For some time she lay awake, pondering over the fate of her money, which seemed like Cleopatra’s to be “in bonds,” and wondering whether poor Uncle Lilliwhyte was still alive; then everything faded into a vision of Mr. Flippance jogging marionettes for rugged miners who poured out their teapots at the box-office, reducing it to such a swamp that its boxes floated in the tea.
At breakfast, finding her grandfather abnormally restless, she asked him a little maliciously if he had slept all right.
“Oi’ll sleep better to-night,” he said, and chuckled a little. He seemed indeed very happy at having his treasure so well warded, and though his exuberance was alarming, she felt that the excitement of happiness was a lesser danger than that long depression of penuriousness. If the defeat of the coach had seemed to give him a second lease of life, what might not his new wealth do for him? He might really become an Old Parr, and poor Will be kept waiting till the twentieth century!
It was thus with only a moderate uneasiness that she left him, stealing with her basket to the rendezvous at the hut. In the wood she met Ravens hurrying to find breakfast, and he sang out that Martha and Will had relieved him, and that Uncle Lilliwhyte was better. As she approached the clearing, she saw the old woman come out of the hut with a bottle in her hand and a face absolutely transfigured. The whining, peevish, latter-day Martha was gone: a radiance almost celestial illumined her features—it seemed to transcend even the bonnet and to rim it with a halo. This was a woman walking not on the dead dank leaves of a frost-grey wood, but through the streets of the New Jerusalem. Behind her came Will, with a little cynical smile playing about his mouth till he espied Jinny, when his face took on the same ecstatic glow as his mother’s. Jinny could not but feel enkindled in her turn by all this spiritual effulgence, and it was three glorified countenances that met on this March morning.
“He’s broken bread with me,” breathed Martha, “and I’ve helped him put on the Saving Name.” She displayed her bottle with drops of water beaded on the mouth. She had baptized—albeit only by an unavoidable reversion to sprinkling—her first convert. The dream of years had been fulfilled at last, and the apostolic triumph had lifted her beyond humanity, fired her with a vision in which, a conquistador of faith, she was to turn all Little Bradmarsh, nay, Chipstone itself, into one vast synagogue. This were indeed the New Jerusalem. “And it was Will that led my feet,” she said, kissing him to his disconcertment. “And go where he may now, Jinny, he can’t take that away from me. And I shall always have his letter to inspire me to win other souls.” She touched the left side of her bodice, and poor Jinny, suddenly reminded that her grandfather had robbed her of her last chance of keeping Will in England, felt envious of Martha’s exalted source of consolation.
“I’ve got to go now and cook Flynt’s dinner,” said Martha. “But he won’t have much appetite for it if he’s got any right feeling left, when he hears that another man, a stranger, has been before him in the path of righteousness. Maybe you’ll write to the Lightstand, Willie, to say there’s a new brother in Little Bradmarsh.”
“I’ll tell ’em the Ecclesia has doubled its membership,” said Will, with a faint wink at Jinny, to which the girl did not respond. “Do you think, mother,” he asked with mock seriousness, “the New Jerusalem will come down in Australia same as here?”
“Of course,” said Martha.
Again Will winked at Jinny. But she frowned and shook her head. Her study of Australia had instructed her sufficiently that it was on the other side of the globe, and she knew that Will was having fun with the idea of the golden city coming down two opposite ways at once, but she felt it criminal to break Martha’s mood, and indeed was not certain she herself understood how the Australians escaped falling off into space. Discouraged by her stern face, Will murmured he’d put his mother on the road and be back. She smiled and nodded at the promise, but her heart was heavy with a sense of inevitable partings as she went in to the lingering ancient.
The death-bed conversion was evidently a success, for she found him almost as radiant as Martha, though with a more unearthly light, while the gleaming as of dewdrops on his dishevelled hair, and the stains of damp over his bolster seemed to convict his spiritual preceptress of a dangerous recklessness. But he was probably beyond saving in any case, Jinny reflected, and what other medicine could have given him that happy exaltation? The logs roared in the stove, and all was joy and warmth that rimy morning.
“Oi’ve tarned a Christy Dolphin!” he announced jubilantly.
“Yes, I’m so glad. Drink this before it gets cold.”
He waved it away. “Oi suspicioned all the time as that be the right religion. No hell at all, ye just goos to sleep, and when the New Jerusalem comes down for they righteous, ye don’t git up.”
“You’ll wake up—you and your mother,” she assured him, standing her jug by the stove.
“That’s what Mrs. Flynt says. ‘Ye ain’t done no harm,’ she says, ‘and when the trumpet blows for the saints, your bones will git their flesh agen, same as now.’ ”
There was little enough on them to go through eternity in, she thought, gazing at his shrunken arms, which he had left outside the coverings in repudiating the tea. “Won’t that be wonderful!” she said, the tears in her eyes.
“That’ll be wunnerful wunnerful,” he agreed. “That fares to be what Oi calls a real heaven—your own body, not a sort o’ smoke-cloud ye wouldn’t know was you ef you met it, your own flesh and blood, livin’ on this lovely earth with the birds and the winds and the sun and the water, all a-singin’ and a-shinin’ for ever and ever. And no bad folks ne yet angels to worrit ye, no liddle boys to call arter ye—why it’s just ginnick! Oi reckon Oi’ll choose this same old spot.”
“Yes, it’s a lovely spot,” said Jinny, but she wondered whether he had not made his own version of Martha’s New Jerusalem, which she herself had always understood to be more jewelled than natural.
“Your mother will be able to see it too,” she added gently, as she put the tea to his lips.
A beautiful smile traversed the sunken features. But suddenly a frenzy of terror swamped it. He sat up with a jerk that dashed her jug to the stove, shivering it into fragments. “But ef Oi waked, Oi’d need my money agen!” he shrilled.
What Jinny always remembered most vividly, when she recalled this tragic moment, was the red lettering on the sacks he lay on, exposed by his upright posture.
“Gay, Bird & Co., Colchester,” her eyes read mechanically. When he fell back and hid that inscription, his face was at peace again. That acuteness of terror—the quintessence of the morbidity of a lifetime—had stopped his heart.
She was terribly shaken by this sudden and grotesque end. She felt his pulse, but without hope. She had never seen human death before, but she had a vague idea that you closed the eyes and put pennies on them. She had no pennies with her. She remembered there were some in the sack he lay on, pennies and shillings, but she did not dare disturb him to get at them. She was obscurely glad she had not to wrestle with the problem of whether she ought to get his teapot buried with him, for the contingency of his resurrection. Her grandfather would never surrender it, she felt, and if she descended into his mysterious underground and abstracted it, that might upset his wits altogether. Besides, Uncle Lilliwhyte’s face was now taking on a strange beauty, as though his pecuniary anxieties were allayed.
But her nerves were giving way—she threw open the door and looked out eagerly, not for the lover, but for the man who seemed necessary in these rough moments. The dead must not be left alone, she knew that, or she would have set out to meet Will. Perhaps if she left him alone, his shy friend the fox would come trotting in, now he was so still. The parish authorities must doubtless be summoned to take charge of him. But ought he to have a pauper funeral—ought she not to steal back enough of his money to save him from that? But she remembered with relief that he had expressed indifference as to what became of his body—so long as it was restored to earth, its good old mother. As she moved a few paces without, in her peering for Will, she saw the blue smoke rising through the three top-hats, and in spite of the dead man’s doctrines and apprehensions, she could not help fancying it was his spirit soaring towards the abode of the Angel-Mother.
When Will returned, she was relieved to find Ravens striding beside him. That sunny-souled factotum, who had meant to hie to the Skindle wedding, now found himself transformed instead into a corpse-watcher, while Will, taking Jinny a bit of his way, went off by the shortest cuts to Chipstone Poorhouse, as probably the centre of authority for parish funerals.
“There’s the coroner, too,” Ravens called after him.
“Will there be an inquest?” Jinny asked.
“Must be,” said Will, and Jinny, alarmed for Martha’s sake, ran back on pretence of her basket, and surreptitiously wiped the bolster. As they left the clearing, they heard Ravens singing in the hut.
When their roads parted, Jinny insisted on returning to her grandfather, whose excitement now recurred to her mind. She was still a little uneasy about the pauper funeral, but Will had emphatically agreed with her that the teapot could not now be recaptured. Nor could it be drawn upon, he declared: the old grabber would assuredly have counted the contents. Jinny suspected that Will was pleased rather than sympathetic at her having ceased to be an heiress. The death of Uncle Lilliwhyte, so much the junior of Daniel Quarles, could not but set both their minds on the thought of a similar cutting of their Gordian knot, but the thought—dreaded or welcome—was not allowed to appear in their conversation, finding expression only in Will’s aggrieved assumption of the Gaffer’s immortality. “Even if I was to strike a nugget as big as a prize marrow, we’d be no forrarder,” he had grumbled, and Jinny, with jangled nerves, had accused him of selfishness, when that poor old uncle was lying dead.
As she approached Blackwater Hall, a creepy conviction began to invade her that their knot was already cut: after that scene in the hut she was aquiver with presages of death and disaster. The absence of smoke—surely Gran’fer’s hearth was not already cold—added to her alarm. She remembered again his effervescence at breakfast; why should his heart not stop too? And when she saw the broad garden-gate open, and the house door ajar, her own heart nearly stopped. Her intuition, she felt, had not deceived her. Yet he was nowhere in the house. Ante-room, living-room, kitchen, all were empty of him. The fire was out. In the bedroom lay his telescope, a discarded toy. She was about to sweep the horizon with it, when she had an inspiration. The smugglers’ storehouse! He had gone down to count his gold, and the stone had rolled back—The Mistletoe Bough in another version. Tearing downstairs, she managed, after much fumbling with the poker, to make it revolve, and peered down into the dark clammy depths.
“Gran’fer! Gran’fer!” she cried. But only the dank silence welled up. He was undoubtedly dead, lying there stark among his guineas. She was scrambling down into the vault. But no! What nonsense! He must be pottering about with a spud, currycombing Methusalem, or doing some other odd job his renewed strength permitted. She hauled herself up—at any rate that would postpone the dread vision—and rushed round to the stable. That door too was open—Methusalem was gone! So was the cart. Nor was there any sign of Nip.
In her relief it was almost a pleasure to trace the wheels on the road. But soon she saw black again. It was his last drive—the last drive of Daniel Quarles, Carrier. That was the meaning of his excitement of the morning. He had gone out for the last time on his old rounds, and would meet Death on his driving-board, face to face, as he had met so many wintry storms and buffets. Staying only to roll back the stone, she raced out in his tracks.
But his course led unluckily to the Four Wantz Way and there she could no longer disentangle his cart-ruts. However, Mrs. Pennymole, reinstated in her scoured ground floor, had reassuring news enough, though it carried a new apprehension.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I catched sight of him with the May Day favours all a-flyin’ and a-flutterin’ on whip and harness, and lookin’ that strong with a great old smile over his dear old phiz, and Nip barkin’ fit to bust. ‘Where be you off to?’ I cries as he dashes by, whippin’ past like fleck—I never seen Methusalem go that pace, seemin’ a’most as if he was glad to have his old master back agen, meanin’ no disrespect to you, Jinny.”
“No, of course not,” said Jinny impatiently. “But what did he say?”
“I didn’t rightly hear, I’m tellin’ you, seein’ how he tore towards the bridge. But ’twas summat about ’Lijah! I yeard that!”
“Good heavens!” cried Jinny, and thanking Mrs. Pennymole, she tore equally towards the bridge, wondering if she could get a vehicle at “The King of Prussia.” It was clear the old wretch—there was really no other name for him—had gone to sell Methusalem again. Set up with all that gold, he meant to retire, and, inflamed by it, he could not resist the extra five pounds offered by the vet. And this time Mr. Skindle would not risk impounding her horse, he would slaughter instanter. Yes, her eerie premonitions had been justified, but they were warnings about Methusalem, not about her grandfather.
At the repaired bridge Farmer Gale’s dog-cart came along with himself and his wife, but she was too shy to ask for a lift. Nor was there anything to be got immediately at “The King of Prussia.” She toiled on through footpaths grey-silted from the flood till she reached the by-way that branched off to Foxearth Farm. Here she paused, wondering if it was worth while to go down it on the chance of finding Barnaby’s trap available. And while she hesitated, there came bowling by from church the Skindle wedding-party in grand carriages. But though she cowered into the hedge, their insolent prosperity only soothed her somewhat by reminding her that Elijah had other work to-day than killing, and that, in any case, there was now no motive for it, unless perhaps revenge. To her surprise, in the rear of the procession, sharing Barnaby’s bepranked trap, rode Will. His face beside Barnaby’s seemed one large smile: even the unexpected sight of herself would hardly explain such broad cheerfulness in a man who, though profiting by a wedding, had come from arranging a pauper funeral, not to mention an inquest. But perhaps he was rejoicing at his escape from that overblown Blanche.
As if to corroborate this interpretation, he jumped down and caught her to him in the open daylight, while Barnaby’s vehicle sympathetically disappeared after the others round the by-way.
“Oh, Jinny, Jinny!” he cried. “Such a lark!”
“But Gran’fer——!” she gasped, extricating herself.
He burst into a roar of laughter. “Have you heard it already?”
“Heard what? I’m looking for Gran’fer!”
“Haven’t you met him on the road? He started back ahead of me!”
She drew a breath of relief. “With Methusalem?”
“And a fare,” he grinned. “I had to go on to the coroner or else I too——”
But she no longer heard. “I must have missed him on the footpaths,” she said happily.
“You’ll find him at Mr. Fallow’s,” he said, and then laughter caught him again and rapt his breath.
“But do speak! Do speak! What’s this mystery?”
“Your Gran’fer’s eloped!”
He wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Do speak!” She almost shook him. “Eloped with who?”
“ ’Lijah Skindle’s mother.”
“Annie?” she murmured involuntarily.
“Carried her off from the poorhouse! I was only in time for the tail-end of the fun.”
“But how could he get at her?”
“Well, I tell you I only saw it at the point the Master came into it. But others saw more, and I’ve picked up spicy details from the paupers and the wretched porter—Jims, you know.”
“Yes, I know Mr. Jims.” A vision of the fat little man in his peaked cap and blue uniform rose before her. The dismal brick building in its iron enclosure was half a mile before you got to Chipstone—administered under the Gilbert Act by half a dozen parishes clubbed together.
“Well, your Gran’fer, rigged up to the nines with his best smock and beaver, and ribbons on his whip and a bunch of wallflowers and primroses sticking out of the spout of the teapot he carried, rings at the gate, and when Jims came to take in the parcel, as he thought, the old man pushes through and makes for the wards, Jims runs after him, and when he asks him what he wants, he answers, ‘Annie! I’ve come for Annie!’ ‘Who’s Annie?’ asks Jims. ‘We don’t keep Annies—there’s only old women, and it ain’t visiting day.’ ‘Do ye don’t tell me no fibs,’ says your Gran’fer, and when Jims tries to stop him, he catches him in the stomach with his teapot and leaves him winded. Then off he scuttles to the stairs, and ‘Where’s Annie?’ he cries to an old pauper woman sweeping them. This creature happened to know Mrs. Skindle was Annie, so she says, ‘She’s washing Mr. Robinson in his bedroom.’ ‘What?’ shrieks your Gran’fer, swelling like a turkey-cock with jealousy. ‘You just show me where that bedroom is!’ The frightened old woman takes him up the stone stairs to the little yellow-ochred room where they had stowed the old dotard all by himself—I don’t think he’s as old as your Gran’fer, but he’s quite a helpless driveller—and there, the old woman told me, your Gran’fer gives a great cry ‘Annie!’ and Mrs. Skindle drops the flannel, and there they were crying and laughing and kissing like two children, and he calling her ‘My darling! My beautiful Annie!’ ”
“More than you’ve ever called me,” said Jinny, herself inclined to laugh and cry and even to kiss.
The story was interrupted by an idyllic interlude. “But I expect Gran’fer’s rather short-sighted without a telescope,” she commented, disentangling herself blushingly.
“I was in the Master’s room,” resumed Will, “speaking to him about the funeral, and hearing a lot about the guardians and the parish authorities and such-like grand folk, when in rushes Jims and pants out his tale, and we all race around till we find the old couple coming down the staircase with arms round each other’s waists, and your Gran’fer tells us fiercely he’s taking her away, and opens the teapot to show he can support two wives if he wants to! ‘Hold hard!’ says the Master. ‘I won’t stop you, though I ought to have twenty-four hours notice, because I know the guardians haven’t made such a good bargain with Mr. Skindle that they’ll try to keep her, but you can’t take away the parish clothes.’ For of course the old woman was wearing that blue cotton dress——”
“It’s got white stripes if you look close,” put in Jinny.
“ ‘Well, Oi can’t take her away without clothes,’ roared your Gran’fer. He said he counted it unrespectable enough that they should allow her to wash a strange old man, alone in a room, and that if they didn’t mend their ways he’d have a piece put in the paper about it all. ‘Well, let ’em give me back my own clothes,’ says Mrs. Skindle. ‘I’ve got to have twenty-four hours’ notice about that,’ says the Master. ‘Ha, you’ve stole ’em!’ says your Gran’fer. ‘You be careful what you’re sayin’,’ says the Master, bridling up. ‘Who wants her rags and jags?’ But in the end it was all settled friendlywise—your Gran’fer buying up some of the cast-off grandeur of the matron’s (they drove a good bargain with your Gran’fer, the pair of screws, but he was free and flush with his teapot), and off the happy pair went at last, the bride as spruced up as the bridegroom, and I saw him hand her into the wedding-cart with her bouquet, while the old gentlemen in the corduroys and the old ladies in blue, and especially the little orphans, raised a cheer. Even Jims waved. I expect he’d had a drop out of the teapot.”
“Daniel Quarles, Carrier-Off,” laughed Jinny, half hysterically, for scandalized and startled though she was, a rosy light, whose source was yet unclear to her, seemed rising on her horizon.
“I went up to the cart under pretence of patting Nip,” Will went on, “and asked the old boy where he was off to. ‘Home, of course,’ he answers friendly. ‘You should be going to chapel first, you old rip,’ I told him. ‘We’re going to be married in church,’ answers Mrs. Skindle stiffly. ‘I’m Church of England.’ ‘That’s all right, Annie,’ he says, patting her hand, ‘we’ll look in on Mr. Fallow about they banns,’ and singing ‘Oi’m Seventeen come Sunday,’ drives off with her.”
But Jinny refused to sympathize with the course of true love. “He’s not really going to marry her?” she now cried. “But that’s dreadful!”
“You scandalous creature! It would be more dreadful if he didn’t!”
“But at his age!”
“Why, he’s quite young yet,” laughed Will. “One hundred and fifty-two is his little span, remember.”
She let herself relax under his laughter. “Will they ring a peal of Grandsire Triples at his wedding?” she asked whimsically. Then with renewed anxiety: “Oh, but I do hope it hasn’t all excited him too much,” she cried. “I’d best get home as quick as possible.”
“Home? You don’t mean Blackwater Hall?”
“You can’t go there. As your Gran’fer remarked to the Master, that’s no place for a respectable female.”
She stared at him. “Besides,” he said, “you don’t want to interfere with the young couple.”
“But I’ve not cooked the dinner!”
“Let the bride do that. She’s as strong as a horse. It’s the best thing that could have happened for both of ’em. After fending for all of us at Rosemary Villa, Blackwater Hall will be a holiday to her.”
“But I must go and see about things. She won’t know where anything is. And even if she cooks the dinner, she’ll want my apron. She can’t spoil her fineries.”
“That’s enough,” he said sternly. “I don’t often quote my father, but I’m bound to say some people are near-sighted and can’t see God, their friend. You’ve done with Blackwater Hall.”
“But where am I to go then?”
He laughed. “And what about Frog Farm?” He took her arm. “And we, too, must get tied up as soon as possible. No, Jinny, we can’t do better than follow in your Gran’fer’s footsteps. The way he held that grey-headed old woman’s hand in the wedding-cart, while I—you’re right, I haven’t called you ‘beautiful’ enough.” He paused to do so without words. “The old boy’s taught me a lesson, dashing in like that, while I’ve been sitting growling and grizzling and wasting our best years.”
“But you see, Will, it couldn’t be before. And he was sacrificing himself to me, poor Gran’fer, if he wanted her so badly all the time. Just see how he waited till he could support her!”
“On your money! Under the roof you re-thatched for him!”
“It wasn’t my money. And it was Ravens who did the roof.”
“You paid for it!”
“No, I didn’t,” she protested.
“He won’t send me in the bill.”
“Oh, won’t he!” Will clenched his fist. “I’ll jolly soon stop his singing if he don’t hurry up with it! And why didn’t you ask me to mend your thatch?”
“You couldn’t come in.”
“You don’t come in to the roof.”
“That might have been a way of coming in,” she laughed, “it was so leaky. Anyhow you might have done Uncle Lilliwhyte’s—it is his money that has saved us all.”
“In a roundabout way,” he admitted.
She snuggled to him. Happiness, which had hitherto seemed like the soaped pig at village sports, was seizable at last. “Won’t it be wonderful when we’re in the hut!” she said.
He opened his eyes. “You don’t propose to live in Uncle Lilliwhyte’s hut with the three top-hats!”
“Of course not,” she said, blushing. “It’s in Australia. There’s just poles stuck in the ground.”
“Why, when have you been in Australia?”
“Never you mind! You see, I’ve already saved up a little towards my passage and——”
But her words died on his lips. “I don’t know that we need pull up our stakes,” he said when he released her. “Farmer Gale’s looking for a looker.”
“You don’t really mean that?” she said.
“He does, anyhow. I just met him in his dog-cart and he’s mad about his flood-losses. ‘You should have paid a good man,’ I told the hunks to his head.”
“Oh, but, Will,” she said, shrinking, “you don’t like Farmer Gale!”
“Well, he’s safely married now, and after all, my father had the place first. . . . It belongs to the family. . . . Anyhow,” he broke off masterfully, “I’d pay my wife’s passage-money.”
“Then I’ll be able to buy Methusalem,” she said in cheerful submission. “He’s only five pounds—I suppose your father would take care of him.”
“Rather! It would be a refuge from the New Jerusalem.”
“But we’ll take Nip with us, sweetheart—it won’t be the goldfields, you know, just a farm. And we can take over the Bidlake girls too, if you like.”
“Lord, what a crowd! But I don’t see Nip on an emigrant ship.”
“Haven’t I heard of dog-watches?” she smiled.
“I guess you’d smuggle him in somehow,” he laughed. “I’ve noticed you generally get your own way. And captains are but men.”
“I thought they were sea-dogs,” she laughed.
“You generally get the last word too,” he grumbled with adoring admiration. “But I tell you, Jinny, though there may be more money, all these new countries are terribly raw.”
“I know—‘no longer an egg, not yet a bird, only a smell,’ ” she quoted with wistful humour, and these words of his in the English wood last May evoked again for both of them all the magic of their love at its dawning.
They walked on in silence towards Frog Farm. After all, with their united treasure of youth, energy, and love, their livelihood was no grave problem. Larks were carolling, the little wrens piping, and ringdoves calling, calling, for the Spring was near after all, and the daffodils had already come. It seemed indeed a vain snapping of the heart-strings to leave such a homeland.
“That’ll be winter soon in Australia,” mused Will tenaciously.
“Not if we were together,” Jinny whispered, although the more she pondered during that wonderful walk the more the Antipodes receded to their geographical distance, the more shadowy grew the danger of falling off her planet. But, however they were to decide, she could see no reason—once her grandfather’s wedding-bells had rung—why they should not all live—wherever they all lived—happy ever after.
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