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   Chapter 4 SKIMPING'S FARM.

Lady Hester; Or, Ursula's Narrative By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 20760

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Skimping's Farm was the unlucky name of the place, and Fulk would allow of no modification-his resolution was to accept it all entirely. Now I love no spot on earth so well. It was very different then.

The farm-house lay on the slope of the hill, in the parish of Trevorsham, but with the park lying between it and the main village. The ground sloped sharply down to the little river, which, about two miles lower down, blends with the Avon, being, in fact, a creek out of Shinglebay. Beneath the house the stream is clear and rocky, but then comes a flat of salt marsh, excellent for cattle; and then, again, the river becomes tidal, and reaches at high water to the steep banks, sometimes covered with wood, sometimes with pasture or corn.

Then under the little promontory comes the hamlet of fisherfolk at Quay Trevor; and then the coast sweeps away to Shinglebay town, as anyone may see by the map.

Ours is an old farm, and had an orchard of old apple-trees sloping down to the river-as also did the home field, only divided by a low stone wall from the little strip of flower-garden before the house, which in those days had nothing in it but two tamarisks, a tea-tree, and a rose with lovely buds and flowers that always had green hearts.

There was a good-sized kitchen-garden behind, and the farm-yard was at the side by the back door. The house is old and therefore was handsome outside, even then, but the chief of the lower story was comprised in one big room, a "keeping-room," as it was called, with an open chimney, screened by a settle, and with a long polished table, with a bench on either side. Into this room the front porch-a deep one, with seats-opened. At one end was a charming little sitting-room, parted off; at the other, the real kitchen for cooking, and the dairy and all the rest of the farm offices.

Up-stairs-the stairs are dark oak, and come down at one end of the big kitchen-there is one beautiful large room, made the larger by a grand oriel window under the gable, one opening out of it, and four more over the offices; then a step-ladder and a great cheese-room, and a perfect wilderness of odd nooks up in the roof.

As to furniture, Fulk had bought that with the stock and everything else belonging to the farm for a round sum; and the Chancery people told us that we might take anything for ourselves from home that had been bought by ourselves, had belonged to our mother, or been given to us individually.

So the furniture of Fulk's rooms in London-most of which he had had at Oxford-my own piano, our books, and various little worktables, chairs, pictures, and knicknacks appertained to us; also, we brought what belonged to the little one's nursery, and put him in the large room. His grand nurse-Earl though he was-could not stand the change; but old Blake, who was retiring into a public house, as he could do nothing else for us, suggested his youngest sister, who became the comfort of my life, for she was the widow of a small farmer, and could give me plenty of sound counsel as to how much pork to provide for the labourers, and how much small beer would keep them in good heart, and not make them too merry. And she had too much good sense to get into rivalry with Susan Sisson, the hind's wife, who lived in a kind of lean-to cottage opening into the farm-yard, and was the chief (real) manager of the dairy and poultry-though such was not Jaquetta's view of the case by any manner of means.

What a help it was to have one creature who did enjoy it all from the very first!

The parting with Bertram was sore, and one's heart will ache after him still at times, though he is prosperous and happy with his wife and fine family at the new Trevorsham. Fulk went through it all in a grave set way, as if he knew he never should be happy again, and accepted everything in silence, as a matter of course, not wanting to sadden us, but often grieving me more by his steady silence than if he had complained.

One thing he was resolved on, that he would be a farmer out and out-not a gentleman farmer, as he said; but though he only wore broadcloth in the evening and on Sundays, I can't say he ever succeeded in not looking more of the gentleman.

We fitted up the little parlour with our prettiest things, and it was our morning room, and we put a screen across the big keeping-room, which made it snug for a family gathering place. But those were the days when everyone was abusing the farmers for not living with their labourers in the house, and Fulk was determined to try it, at least the first year, either for the sake of consistency, or because he was resolved to keep our expenses as low as possible. "Failure would be ruin," he impressed on us, and he thought we ought to live on the profits of the farm, except what was directly spent on the boy, and to save the income of the agency. (Taking one year with another, we did so.)

So he gave up his own dear old Cid, and only used the same horses that had sufficed for our predecessor-a most real loss and deprivation-and he chose to take meals at the long table in the keeping-room with the farm servants. He said we girls might dine in our little parlour apart, but there was no bearing that, and the whole household dined and supped together. Breakfast was at such uncertain times that we left that for the back kitchen, and had our own little round table by the fire, or in the parlour, at half-past seven; and so we took care to have a good cup of coffee for Fulk when he came in about five or six; but the half-past twelve dinner and eight o'clock supper were at the long table, our three selves and Baby at the top-Baby between me and Mrs. Rowe ("Ally's Rowe," as he called her), then George and Susan Sisson opposite each other, the under nurse, the two maids, the hind, and the three lads.

I believe it was a very awful penance to them at first. We used to hear them splashing away at the pump and puffing like porpoises; and they came in with shining faces and lank hair in wet rats' tails, the foremost of which they pulled on all occasions of sitting down, getting up, or being offered food.

But they always behaved very well, and the habit of the animal at feeding-time is so silent that I believe the restraint was compensated by the honour; and it did civilise them, thanks, perhaps, to Susan's lectures on manners, which we sometimes overheard.

Fulk made spasmodic attempts to talk to Sisson; but the chief conversation was Jaquetta's. She went on merrily all dinner-time, asking about ten thousand things, and hazarding opinions that elicited amusement in spite of ourselves: as when she asked, what sheep did with their other two legs, or suggested growing canary seed, as sure to be a profitable crop. Indeed, I think she had a little speculation in it on her own account in the kitchen garden-only the sparrows were too many for her-and what they left would not ripen.

But the child was always full of some new and rare device, rattling on anyhow, not for want of sense, but just to force a smile out of Fulk and keep us all alive, as she called it. She knew every bird and beast on the farm, fed the chickens, collected the eggs, nursed tender chicks or orphan lambs and weaning calves, and was in and out with the dogs all day, really as happy as ten queens, with the freedom and homely usefulness of the life-tripping daintily about in the tall pattens of farm life in those days, and making fresh enjoyment and fun of everything.

I used to be half vexed to see her grieve so little over all we had lost; but Fulk said, "I suppose it is very hard to break down a creature at that age."

And even I was cheered by the wonderful start of health Alured took from the time Mrs. Rowe had him. He grew fat and rosy, and learnt to walk; and Dr. Hart was quite astonished at his progress, and said he was nearly safe from any more attacks of that fearful water on the brain till he was six or seven years old, and that, till that time, we must let him be as much as possible in the open air, and with the animals, and not stimulate his brain-neither teach, nor excite, nor contradict him, nor let him cry. The farm life was evidently the very thing he wanted.

What a reprieve it was, even though it should be only a reprieve!

He was already three years old, and was very clever and observant.

We were glad that he was too young to take heed of the change, or to see what was implied by his change from "baby," to "my lord," and we always called him by his Christian name. Mrs. Rowe felt far too much for us to gossip to him, and he was always with her or with me, though I do believe he liked Ben-the great, rough, hind-better than anyone else; would lead Mrs. Rowe long dances after him, to see him milk the cows, and would hold forth to him at dinner, in a way as diverting to us as it was embarrassing to poor Ben, who used to blurt out at intervals, "Yoi, my lord," and "Noa, my lord," while the two maids tried to swallow their tittering. The farmers at market used to call Fulk, "my lord," by mistake, and then colour up to their eyes through their red faces.

I believe, indeed, it was their name for him among themselves, and that they watched him with a certain contemptuous compassion, in the full belief that he would ruin himself.

And he declares he should if he had lived a bit more luxuriously, or if he had not had the agency salary to help him through the years of buying experience and the bad season with which he began.

Nor was it till he had for some years introduced that capital breed which thrives so well in the salt marshes, and twice following showed up the prize ox at the county show, that they began to believe in "Farmer Torwood," or think his "advanced opinions" in agriculture anything but a gentleman's whimsies.

As to friends and acquaintance, I am afraid we showed a great deal of pride and stiffness. They were kinder than we deserved, but we thought it prying and patronage, and would not accept what we could not return.

It is not fair to say we. It was only myself-Jaquetta never saw anything but kindness, and took it pleasantly, and Fulk was too busy and too unhappy to be concerned about our visiting matters. If I saw anyone coming to call I hid myself in the orchard, or if I was taken by surprise I was stiffness itself; and then I wrote a set o

f cards (Miss Torwood and Miss Jaquetta Torwood), and drove round in the queer old-fashioned gig to leave them, and there was an end of it; for I would accept no invitations, though Jaquetta looked at me wistfully. And thus I daunted all but old Miss Prior. Poor old thing! All her pleasures had oozed down from our house in old times to her; and her gratitude was indomitable, and stood all imaginable rebuffs that courtesy permitted me. I believe she only pitied and loved me the more, and persevered in the dreadful kindness that has no tact.

It did not strike me that pleasure might be good for Jaquetta, or that Fulk's stern silent sorrow might have been lightened by variety. Used as he had been to political life and London society, it was no small change to have merely the market for interest, the farm for occupation, and no society but ourselves; no newspaper but the County Chronicle once a week; no new books, for Mudie did not exist then, even if we could have afforded it. We had dropped out of the guinea country book club, and Knight's "Penny Magazine" was our only fresh literature. However, Jaquetta never was much of a reader, and was full of business-queen of the poultry, and running after the weakly ones half the day, supplementing George Sisson's very inadequate gardening-aye, and his wife's equally rough cooking. She found a receipt book, and turned out excellent dishes. She could not bear, she said, to see Fulk try to eat grease, and with an effort at concealment, assisted by the dogs, fall back upon bread and cheese.

Luckily plain work in the school-room had not gone out in our day, and I could make and mend respectably, but I had to keep a volume of Shakespeare, Scott, or Wordsworth open before me, and learn it by heart, to keep away thoughts, which might have been good for me; but no-they were working on their own bitterness.

Sunday was the hardest day of all to Fulk, for this was the only one on which he could not be busy enough to tire himself out. We were a mile from church, and when we got to the worm-eaten farm pew there was a smell, as Jaquey said, as if generations of farmers had been eating cheese there, and generations of mice eating after them; and she always longed to shut up a cat there.

The old curate was very old, and nothing seemed alive but the fiddles in the gallery-indeed, after the "Penny Magazine" had made us acquainted with the Nibelung, Jaquey took to calling Sisson, Folker the mighty fiddler, so determined were his strains.

After the great house was shut up, one service was dropped, and so the latter part of the day was spent in a visit to all the livestock, Fulk laden with Alured, and Jaquetta with tit bits for each and all.

She and Alured really enjoyed it, and we tried to think we did! And then Fulk used to stride off on a long solitary walk, or else sit in the porch with his arms across, in a dumb heavy silence, till he saw us looking at him; and then he would shake himself, and go and find Sisson, and discuss every field and beast with him.

At least we thought we should have been at peace here; but one afternoon, when Jaquetta had gone across to the village to see some purchase at the shop, she came back flushed and breathless, and said as she sat down by me, "Oh! Ursie, Ursie, I met Miss Prior; and she has bought Spinney Lawn."

She was Hester; it had never meant anyone else amongst us when it was said in that voice. Fulk, when we told him, had, it appeared, known it for some days past. All he said was, "Well! she has every right."

And when I exclaimed, "Just like a harpy, come to watch our poor child!" he said, "Nonsense."

But I knew I was right, and sat brooding-till presently he said, "Put that out of your head, Ursula, or you will not be able to behave properly to her."

"I don't see any good in behaving properly to her," said Jaquetta. "What business has she to come here?"

"I do not choose to regale the neighbourhood with our family jars"-said Fulk, quietly.

And then-such a ridiculous child as Jaquetta was-she burst out laughing, and cried, "What a feast they would be! Preserved crabs, I suppose;" and she brought a tiny curl into the corner of his mouth.

My pride was up, and I remember I answered, "You are right, Fulk. No one shall say we are jealous, or shrink from the sight of her!"

"When Smith told me that he had no idea who was the bidder, or he would not have suffered it," said Fulk, "I told him I could have no possible objection!"

And so we endured it in our pride and our dignity.

Lady Hester Lea was the heroine of the neighbourhood. The romance of the disowned daughter was charming; and I was far too disagreeable to excite any counterbalancing pity. She was handsome, and everybody raved about her likeness to poor papa and the family portraits; and her Montreal convent had given her manners quite distinct from English vulgarity; or, maybe, her blood told on her bearing, for she was immensely admired for her demeanour, quite as much as for her beauty.

Old Miss Prior-whom no coldness on my part could check in her assiduous kindness, and nothing would hinder from affectionately telling us whatever we did not want to hear-kept us constantly informed of the new comer's triumphs. Especially she would dwell upon the sensation that Lady Hester produced, and all that the gentlemen said of her. Her name stood as lady patroness to all the balls and fancy fairs, and archery, that Shinglebay produced; and there was no going to shop there without her barouche coming clattering down the street with the two prancing greys, and poor little Trevor inside, with a looped-up hat and ostrich feather exactly like Alured's; for by some intention she always dressed him in the exact likeness of his little uncle's. I used to think Miss Prior told her, and sedulously prevented her ever seeing his lordship out of his brown holland pinafores, but the same rule still held good.

What tender enquiries poor Miss Prior used to make after "the dear little lord," as she called him. My asseverations of his health and intelligence generally eliciting that it was current among Lady Hester's friends that he could neither stand nor speak, and was so imbecile that it was a mercy that he could not live to be eight years old.

Of course that was what Hester was waiting for. And no small pleasure was it when Alured would come pattering in with a shout of "Ursa, Ursa," and as soon as he saw a lady, would stop, and pull off his hat from his chestnut curls like the little gentleman he always was.

Spinney Lawn was bought before Joel Lea came to England. If he had seen where it was I doubt whether he would have consented to the purchase; but Perrault managed it all, and then, with what he had made out of the case, bought himself a share in Meakin's office at Shinglebay, and constituted himself Lady Hester's legal adviser.

Mr. Lea, after vainly trying to get his wife to return to Sault St. Pierre, thought it wrong to be apart from her and his son, and came to England.

Fulk went at once to call on him, expecting to be disgusted with Yankeeisms; but came home, saying he had found a more unlucky man than himself!

Fancy a great, big, plain, hard-working back-woodsman, bred only to the axe and rifle, with illimitable forests to range in, happy in toil and homely plenty, and a little king to himself, set down in an English villa, with a trim garden and paddock, and servants everywhere to deprive him of the very semblance to occupation!

Poor man! he had not even the alleviation of being proud of it, and trying to live up to it. Puritan to the bone of his broad back, he thought everything as wicked as it was wearisome and foolish; and lived like Faithful in "Vanity Fair," solely enduring it for the sake of his wife and son. I suppose he could not have carried her off, or altered her course without the strong hand; for she was a determined woman, all the more resolute because she acted for her child.

He was a staunch Dissenter, and would not go to church with Lady Hester, who did so as a needful part of the belonging of her station, or, perhaps, to watch over us, but trudged two miles every Sunday to the meeting-house at Shinglebay, where he was a great light, and spent all that she allowed him on the minister and the Sunday school.

As to society, he abhorred it on principle, and kept out of the way when his wife gave her parties. If she had an old affection for him in the depths of her heart, it was swallowed up in vexation and provocation; and no wonder, for the verdict of society, as Miss Prior reported it, was-"How sad that such a woman as Lady Hester should have been thrown away on a mere common man-not a bit better than a labourer."

I detested him like all the rest; but Fulk declared he was sublime in passive endurance, and used to make opportunities of consulting him about cattle or farming, just to interest him.

Fulk and the dissenting minister were the only friends the poor man had, and the latter Hester would not let into her house. As to Perrault, he loathed and shrank from him as the real destroyer of all his peace, and still the most dangerous influence about his wife. He never said so, but we felt it.

I think the poor man's happiest hours were spent here; and, now and then in a press of work, or to show how a thing ought to be done, he put his own hand to axe, lever, or hay-fork, and toiled with that cruelly-wasted alert strength.

Fulk always says there never was anyone who taught him so much as Joel Lea, and he means deeper things than farming.

Sometimes Mr. Lea brought his little boy. I was vexed at first; but Alured, who had hardly spoken to a child before, was in ecstasies, as if a new existence had come upon him; and Trevor Lea was really a very nice little boy. He was only half a year the elder; and they were so much alike that strangers did not know them apart, dressed alike, as they were; or they were taken for twins, and it made people laugh to find they were uncle and nephew.

And I must allow the nephew was the best behaved, though it made me savage to hear Fulk say so. But our Ally's was not real naughtiness-only the consequence of our not being able to keep up discipline, while we lived in dread of that seventh year that might rob us of our darling-always sweet and loving.

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