THE FLITTIN

“When lo there came a rumour,
A whispering to me
Of the grey town, the fey town,
The town where I would be.”
FRANCIS BRETT BRETT-SMITH.

The village was thunderstruck. Nay, more; the village was disapproving,
almost scandalised.

It was astounded to the verge of incredulity when it heard that a man
who had lived in its midst quietly and peaceably for five-and-twenty
years was suddenly, and without any due warning whatsoever, going to
remove to the south of England not only himself, but the entire
household effects of a dwelling that had never belonged to him.

It is true that the minister pointed out to certain of these adverse
critics that by her will Miss Esperance had left both house and
furniture to Mr. Wycherly in trust for her great-nephews; but people
shook their heads: “Once the bit things were awa’ to Oxford wha’ kenned
what he’d dae wi’ them?”

Such conscientious objectors mistrusted Oxford, and they deeply
distrusted the motives that led Mr. Wycherly to go there in little more
than a month after the death of his true and tried old friend.

That it was a return only made matters worse, and the postman, who was
also one of the church elders, summed up the feelings of the community
in the ominous words: “He has gone back to the husks.”

Even Lady Alicia, who liked and trusted Mr. Wycherly, thought it was odd
of him to depart so soon, and that it would have been better to have the
boys up to Scotland for their Easter holidays.

What nobody realised was that poor Mr. Wycherly felt his loss so
poignantly, missed the familiar, beneficent presence so cruelly, that he
dreaded a like experience for the boys he loved. The “wee hoose” in the
time of its mistress had always been an abode of ordered cheerfulness,
and Mr. Wycherly wanted that memory and no other to abide in the minds
of the two boys.

It was all very well to point out to remonstrating neighbours that March
and not May is “the term” in England; that he was not moving till April,
and that the time would just coincide with their holidays and thus save
Edmund and Montagu the very long journey to Burnhead. Neither of these
were the real reasons.

The “wee hoose” had become intolerable to him. Hour by hour he found
himself waiting, ever listening intently for the light, loved footstep;
for the faint rustle that accompanies gracious, gentle movements; for
the sound of a kind and welcoming old voice. And there came no comfort
to Mr. Wycherly, till one day in a letter from Montagu at Winchester he
found these words: “I suppose now you will go back to Oxford. Mr. Holt
thinks you ought, and I’m sure Aunt Esperance would like it. She always
said she hoped you would go back when she wasn’t there any more. It
must be dreadfully lonely now at Remote, and it would be easier for us
in the holidays.”

“I suppose now you will go back to Oxford.” All that day the sentence
rang in Mr. Wycherly’s head. That night for the first time since her
death he slept well. He dreamed that he walked with Miss Esperance in
the garden of New College beside the ancient city wall, and that she
looked up at him, smiling, and said, “It is indeed good to be here.”

Next day, as Robina, the servant, put it, “he took the train,” and four
days later returned to announce that he had rented a house in Oxford and
was going there almost at once.

* * * * *

If Mr. Wycherly’s sudden move was made chiefly with the hope of sparing
the boys sadness and sense of bereavement in this, their first holidays
without their aunt, that hope was abundantly fulfilled.

It was a most delightful house: an old, old house in Holywell with three
gables resting on an oaken beam which, in its turn, was supported by oak
corbels in the form of dragons and a rotund, festive-looking demon who
nevertheless clasped his hands over “the place where the doll’s wax
ends” as though he had a pain.

Two of the gables possessed large latticed windows, but the third was
blank, having, however, a tiny window at the side which looked down the
street towards New College.

At the back was a long crooked garden that widened out like a tennis
racquet at the far end.

It was all very delightful and exciting while the furniture was going in
and the three stayed at the King’s Arms at the corner.

Edmund and Montagu between them took it upon themselves to settle the
whereabouts of the furniture and drove the removal men nearly distracted
by suggesting at least six positions for each thing as it was carried
in. But finally Mr. Wycherly was bound to confess that there was a
certain method in their apparent madness. For as the rooms in Holywell
filled up, he found that, allowing for difference in their dimensions
and, above all, their irregularity of shape, every big piece of
furniture was placed in relation to the rest exactly as it had been in
the small, square rooms at Remote.

Boys are very conservative, and in nothing more so than in their
attachment to the familiar. They pestered and worried that most patient
foreman till each room contained exactly the same furniture, no more and
no less, that had, as Edmund put it, “lived together” in their aunt’s
house.

Then appeared a cloud on the horizon. Lady Alicia, who loved arranging
things for people, had very kindly written to a friend of her own at
Abingdon, and through her had engaged “a thoroughly capable woman” to
“do for” Mr. Wycherly in Oxford.

“She can get a young girl to help her if she finds it too much after
you’re settled, but you ought to try and do with one at first; for a
move, and such a move—why couldn’t you go into Edinburgh if you want
society?—will about ruin you. And, remember, no English servant
washes.”

“Oh, Lady Alicia, I’m sure you are mistaken there,” Mr. Wycherly
exclaimed, indignant at this supposed slur on his country-women. “I’m
sure they look even cleaner and neater than the Scotch.”

“Bless the man! I’m not talking of themselves—I mean they won’t do the
washing, the clothes and sheets and things; you’ll have to put it out or
have someone in to do it. Is there a green?”

“There is a lawn,” Mr. Wycherly said, dubiously—”it’s rather a pleasant
garden.”

“Is there a copper?”

“I beg your pardon?” replied the bewildered Mr. Wycherly, thinking this
must be some “appurtenance” to a garden of which he was ignorant.

“There, you see, there are probably hundreds of things missing in that
house that ought to be in it. You’d better put out the washing.”

Mr. Wycherly felt and looked distinctly relieved. The smell of wet
soapsuds that had always pervaded Remote on Monday mornings did not
appeal to him.

And now, when all the furniture was in its place and the carpets laid;
when the china and pots and pans had been unpacked by the removal men
and laid upon shelves; when the beds had been set up and only awaited
their customary coverings; on the very day that the “thoroughly capable
woman” was to come and take possession of it all, there came a letter
from her instead to the effect that “her mother was took bad suddint,”
and she couldn’t leave home. Nor did she suggest any date in the near
future when she would be at liberty to come. Moreover, she concluded
this desolating intelligence with the remark, “after having thinking it
over I should prefer to go where there’s a missus, so I hopes you’ll
arrange according.”

Here was a knock-down blow!

They found the letter in the box at the new house when they rushed there
directly after breakfast to gloat over their possessions.

The wooden shutters were shut in the two downstairs sitting-rooms; three
people formed a congested crowd in the tiny shallow entrance, even when
one of the three was but ten years old. So they went through the
parlour and climbed a steep and winding staircase to one of the two
large front bedrooms. There, in the bright sunlight of an April
morning, Mr. Wycherly read aloud this perturbing missive.

“Bother the woman’s mother,” cried Edmund who was not of a sympathetic
disposition. “Let’s do without one altogether, Guardie. We could
pretend we’re the Swiss Family Robinson and have awful fun.”

“I fear,” said Mr. Wycherly sadly, “that I, personally, do not possess
the ingenuity of the excellent father of that most resourceful family.”

“Shall I telegraph to Lady Alicia?” asked Montagu, who had lately
discovered the joys of the telegraph office. “She could poke up that
friend of hers in Abingdon to find us an orphan.”

“No!” replied Mr. Wycherly with decision. “We won’t do that. We must
manage our own affairs as best we can and not pester our friends with
our misfortunes.”

“How does one get servants?” asked Montagu.

Nobody answered. Even Edmund for once was at a loss. None of the three
had ever heard the servant question discussed. Old Elsa had lived with
Miss Esperance from girlhood; dying as she had lived in the service of
her beloved mistress. Robina had come when the little boys were added
to the household and remained till Mr. Wycherly left for Oxford, when
she at last consented to marry “Sandie the Flesher,” who had courted her
for nine long years.

Mr. Wycherly sat down on a chair beside his bed immersed in thought.
Montagu perched on the rail at the end of the bed and surveyed the
street from this eminence. As there were neither curtains nor blinds in
the window his view was unimpeded. Edmund walked about the room on his
hands till he encountered a tin-tack that the men had left, then he sat
on the floor noisily sucking the wounded member.

It seemed that his gymnastic exercises had been mentally stimulating,
for he took his hand out of his mouth to remark:

“What’s ’A High-class Registry Office for servants’?”

Mr. Wycherly turned to him in some excitement.

“I suppose a place where they keep the names of the disengaged upon
their books to meet the needs of those who seek servants. Why? Have
you seen one?”

Edmund nodded. “Yesterday, in yon street where you went to the
bookseller. It was about three doors up, a dingy window with a wire
blind and lots of wee cards with ’respectable’ coming over and over
again. They were all ’respectable’ whether they were ten pounds or
twenty-four. I read them while I was waiting for you.”

“Dear me, Edmund,” exclaimed Mr. Wycherly admiringly, “what an observant
boy you are. I’ll go there at once and make inquiries. In the meantime
I daresay we could get a charwoman to come in and make up the beds for
us, and so move in to-morrow as arranged. They can’t all be very busy
yet as the men have not come up.”

“But there’s only three beds,” Edmund objected; “she can’t make them all
day.”

“She can do other things, doubtless,” said Mr. Wycherly optimistically;
“she’ll need to cook for us and,” with a wave of the hand, “dust, you
know, and perhaps assist us to unpack some of those cases that are as
yet untouched. There are many ways in which she could be most useful.”

“I’d rather have Swissed it,” Edmund murmured sorrowfully.

“Shall we come with you?” asked Montagu, who had an undefined feeling
that his guardian ought not to be left to do things alone.

“No,” said Mr. Wycherly, rising hastily. “You might, if you would be so
good, find the boxes that contain blankets and sheets and begin
unpacking them. I’ll go to that office at once.”

He hurried away, walking fast through the sunny streets, so strange and
yet so familiar, till he came to the window with the wire blind that
Edmund had indicated. Here he paused, fixed his eyeglasses firmly on
his nose and read the cards exhibited. Alas! they nearly all referred
to the needs of the servantless, and only two emanated from handmaidens
desirous of obtaining situations. Of these, one was a nursemaid, and
the other “as tweeny,” a species unknown to Mr. Wycherly, and as her age
was only fourteen he did not allow his mind to dwell upon her
possibilities.

He opened the door and an automatic bell rang loudly. He shut the door,
when it rang again, greatly to his distress. He seemed to be making so
much noise.

The apartment was sparsely furnished with a largish table covered with
rather tired-looking ledgers; two cane chairs stood in front of the
table, while behind it was a larger leather-covered chair on which was
seated a stout, formidable woman, who glared rather than looked at Mr.
Wycherly as he approached.

She really was of great bulk, with several chins and what dressmakers
would call “a fine bust.” Her garments were apparently extremely tight,
for her every movement was attended by an ominous creaking. Her hair
was frizzed in front right down to her light eyebrows; at the back it
was braided in tight plaits. She regarded Mr. Wycherly with small,
hostile eyes.

He had removed his hat on entrance, and stood before her with dignified
white head bowed in deference towards her, courteously murmuring, “Good
morning.”

As she did not make any response, he continued, “I am in need of a
competent cook-housekeeper, and thought perhaps——”

“How many servants kep’?” she demanded with a fire and suddenness that
startled Mr. Wycherly.

“I had thought of trying to do with one.”

“’Ow many in fambly?” and this alarming woman opened one of the books in
front of her and seized a pen. There was in her tone such a dreadful
suggestion of, “Anything you may say will be used against you,” that
when she dipped her pen into the ink Mr. Wycherly positively trembled;
and grasped the back of one of the cane chairs as a support.

“For the larger portion of the year I shall be alone,” he said rather
sadly, “but during the holidays my two wards——”

“Male or female?”

“Really,” Mr. Wycherly remonstrated, “what has that got to do with it?
As a matter of fact my wards are boys.”

All this time she had been making entries in the ledger; now she looked
up to fire off, abruptly as before:

“The booking fee is one-and-six.”

Mr. Wycherly took a handful of silver out of his pocket and abstracted
this sum and laid it upon the desk. She of the ledger ignored the
offering and continued her cross-examination:

“What wages?”

Mr. Wycherly mentally invoked a blessing upon Lady Alicia’s practical
head as he replied quite glibly, “From twenty to twenty-five pounds, but
she must be trustworthy and capable.”

“What outings?”

Here was a poser! But the fighting spirit had been roused in Mr.
Wycherly. He would not be browbeaten by this stout, ungracious person
who took his eighteenpence, and so far had done nothing but ask
questions, affording him no information whatsoever.

“That,” he retorted with dignity, “can be arranged later on.”

“Your name and address?” was the next query, and when he furnished this
information, carefully spelling his name, it pained him inexpressibly to
note that she wrote it down as “Witcherby,” at the same time remarking
in a rumbling tone indicative of displeasure, “Very old ’ouses, most
inconvenient, most trying stairs…. ’Ow soon do you want a general?”

“A what?” asked Mr. Wycherly, this time thoroughly mystified.

“A general, that’s what she is if there’s no more kep’. You won’t get
no cook-’ousekeeper unless she’s to ’ave ’er meals along with you, and a
little girl to do the rough work.”

“She can’t possibly have her meals with me,” cried Mr. Wycherly, crimson
at the very thought. “It would be most unpleasant—for both of us.”

“Then as I said it’s a general you wants.”

“And have you upon your books any staid and respectable young
woman—preferably an orphan—” Mr. Wycherly interpolated, remembering
Montagu’s suggestion, “who could come to us at once?”

“Not, so to speak, to-day, I ’aven’t; but they often comes in of a
Monday, and I’ll let you know. I could send ’er along; it isn’t far.”

The ledger was shut with a bang as an intimation that the interview was
at an end, and Mr. Wycherly fared forth into the street with heated brow
and a sense that, in spite of his heroism in braving so dreadful a
person, he was not much further on his quest. “Monday, she said,” he
kept repeating to himself, “and to-day is only Thursday.”

When he got back to Holywell, the boys were standing at the front door
on the lookout for him. They rushed towards him exclaiming in delighted
chorus: “We’ve got a woman. We thought we’d ask at the King’s Arms, and
they told us of one.”

“What? A servant?” asked Mr. Wycherly with incredulous joy.

“No, no, a day-body. The boots knew about her; she lives down Hell
Lane, just about opposite.”

“Edmund!” Mr. Wycherly remonstrated. “However did you get hold of that
name?”

“Hoots!” replied Edmund. “Everyone calls it that. Her name is Griffin,
and she’s coming at once. Have _you_ got one?”

“No,” said Mr. Wycherly, “not yet. Boys, it’s a most bewildering
search. Can either of you tell me since when maid-servants have taken
to call themselves after officers in the army? The rather alarming
person in charge of that office informs me that what we require is a
’general.’ Do you suppose that if we should need a younger maid to help
her we must ask for a ’sub-lieutenant’?”

“Perhaps they are called generals when they’re old,” said Montagu
thoughtfully; “at that rate we ought to call Mrs. Griffin a
field-marshal. She’s pretty old, I can tell you, but she’s most
agreeable.”

“Probably,” said Mr. Wycherly, “in time to come they will get tired of
the army and take to the nomenclature of the Universities. Then we
shall have provosts and deans and wardens. But I’m glad that you have
been more successful than I have. I’ve no doubt we can manage with Mrs.
Griffin until we get a maid of our own.”

“I think it was mean of that body with the mother,” said Edmund; “she
didn’t even say she’d come as soon as she could. But I think the
Griffin will be fun, and if she can’t do it all we’ll get the
Mock-Turtle to help her.”

“Was it very high-class, that registry?” he continued; “it didn’t look
at all grand outside.”

“I cannot judge of its class, I have never been to such a place before
and I earnestly hope I may never be called upon to go there again, for
it is a species of inquisition, and they write your answers down in a
book. A horrid experience.” And Mr. Wycherly shuddered.

By this time they had reached the house and he was sitting, exhausted,
in his arm-chair in his own dining-room. The boys had opened the
shutters and casement, and in spite of a thick coating of dust
everywhere it looked home-like and comfortable.

“_Richly_ built, never pinchingly” is as true of ancient Oxford houses
as of her colleges. There seemed some mysterious affinity between the
queer old furniture from Remote and that infinitely older room. The
horse-hair sofa with the bandy legs and slippery seat that stood athwart
the fireless hearth was in no way discordant with the beautiful stone
fireplace and shallow mantelshelf.

Mr. Wycherly surveyed the scene with kind, pleased eyes; nor did he
realise then that what made it all seem so endearing and familiar was
the fact that on the horse-hair sofa there sprawled—”sat” is far too
decorous a word—a lively boy of ten, with rumpled, curly, yellow hair
and a rosy handsome face from which frank blue eyes looked forth upon a
world that, so far, contained little that he did not consider in the
light of an adventure.

While balanced on the edge of the table—again “sat” is quite
undescriptive—another boy swung his long legs while his hands were
plunged deep in his trouser pockets. A tall, thin boy this, with grave
dark eyes, long-lashed and gentle, and a scholar’s forehead.

Montagu, nearly fourteen, had just reached the age when clothes seem
always rather small, sleeves short, likewise trousers: when wrists are
red and obtrusive and hair at the crown of the head stands straight on
end.

Neither of the boys ever sat still except when reading. Then Montagu,
at all events, was lost to the world. They frequently talked loudly and
at the same time, and were noisy, gay and restless as is the usual habit
of their healthy kind.

Strange companions truly for a scholarly recluse! Yet the boys were
absolutely at ease with and fearless of their guardian.

With him they were even more artlessly natural than with schoolfellows
of their own age. Their affection for him was literally a part of their
characters, and, in Montagu’s case, passionately protective. The elder
boy had already realised how singularly unfitted Mr. Wycherly was, both
by temperament and habit, to grapple with practical difficulties.

“Ah’m awfu’ hungry,” said Edmund presently, in broadest Doric.

“Edmund,” remarked his guardian, “I have noticed on several occasions
since you returned from school that you persist in talking exactly like
the peasantry at Burnhead. Why?”

“Well, you see, Guardie, for one thing I’m afraid of forgetting it. And
then, you know, it amuses the chaps. _They_ admire it very much.”

“But you never did it in Scotland,” Mr. Wycherly expostulated.

“Oh, didn’t I. Not to you and Aunt Esperance, perhaps, but you should
have heard me when I got outside——

“I don’t like it, Edmund, and I wonder your masters have not found fault
with you.”

“They think I can’t help it, and it makes them laugh—you should hear me
say my collect exactly like Sandie Croall——”

“Indeed I wish to hear nothing of the kind,” said Mr. Wycherly in
dignified reproof. “I can’t think why you should copy the lower classes
in your mode of speech.”

“I’m a Bethune,” Edmund replied in an offended voice. “I _want_ people
to know I’m a Scot.”

“Your name is quite enough to make them sure of that,” Mr. Wycherly
argued, “and you may take it from me that Scottish gentlemen don’t talk
in the least like Sandie Croall.”

At that particular moment Edmund was busily engaged in doing a
handspring on the end of the sofa, so he forebore to reply. The fact
was, that like the immortal “Christina McNab” Edmund had, early in his
career at school, decided that to be merely “Scotch” was ordinary and
uninteresting, but to be “d—d Scotch” was both distinguished and
amusing, and he speedily attained to popularity and even a certain
eminence among his schoolfellows when he persisted in answering every
question with a broadness of vowel and welter of “r’s” characteristic of
those whom Mr. Wycherly called “the peasantry of Burnhead.” Moreover,
he used many homely and expressive adjectives that were seized upon by
his companions as a new and sonorous form of slang. Altogether Edmund
was a social success in the school world. His report was not quite
equally enthusiastic, but, as he philosophically remarked to Montagu,
“It would be monotonous for Guardie if we both had good reports, and
your’s makes you out to be a fearful smug.”

Whereupon Montagu suitably chastised his younger brother with a slipper,
and the subject was held over to the next debate.

Presently there came a meek little tinkle from the side-door bell.

“That’ll be the Griffin,” cried Edmund joyfully; “I’ll open to her.”

It _was_ the Griffin, and their troubles began in earnest.