MoboReader > Literature > Julia And Her Romeo: A Chronicle Of Castle Barfield / From Schwartz" by David Christie Murray"

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Julia And Her Romeo: A Chronicle Of Castle Barfield / From Schwartz" by David Christie Murray" By David Christie Murray Characters: 21742

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


In this Castle Barfield version of Romeo and Juliet the parody would have been impossible without the aid and intervention of some sort of Friar Laurence. He was a notability of those parts in those days, and he was known as the Dudley Devil. In these enlightened times he would have been dealt with as a rogue and vagabond, and, not to bear too hardly upon an historical personage, whom there is nobody (even with all our wealth of historical charity-mongers) to whitewash, he deserved richly in his own day the treatment he would have experienced in ours. He discovered stolen property-when his confederates aided him; he put the eye on people obnoxious to his clients, for a consideration; he overlooked milch cows, and they yielded blood; he went about in the guise of a great gray tom-cat. It was historically true in my childhood-though, like other things, it may have ceased to be historically true since then-that it was in this disguise of the great gray tom-cat that he met his death. He was fired at by a farmer, the wounded cat crawled into the wizard's cottage, and the demon restored to human form was found dying later on with a gun-shot charge in his ribs. There were people alive a dozen-nay, half a dozen-years ago, who knew these things, to whom it was blasphemous to dispute them.

The demon's earthly name was Rufus Smith, and he lived 'by Dudley Wood side, where the wind blows cold,' as the local ballad puts it His mother had dealt in the black art before him, and was ducked to death in the Severn by the bridge in the ancient town of Bewdley. He was a lean man, with a look of surly fear. It is likely enough that he half expected some of his invocations to come true one fine day or other, with consequences painful to himselt The old notions are dying out fast, but it used to be said in that region that when a man talked to himself he was talking with the universal enemy. Rufus and his mother were great chatterers in solitude, and what possible companion could they have but one?

It is not to be supposed that all the ministrations for which the people of the country-side relied upon Rufus were mischievous. If he had done nothing but overlook cattle and curse crops, and so forth, he would have been hunted out. Some passably good people have been said, upon occasions, to hold a candle to the devil. With a similar diversion from general principle, Rufus was known occasionally to perform acts of harmless utility. He charmed away warts and corns, he prepared love philtres, and sold lucky stones. He foreran the societies which insure against accident, and would guarantee whole bones for a year or a lifetime, according to the insurer's purse or fancy. He told fortunes by the palm and by the cards, and was the sole proprietor and vendor of a noted heal-all salve of magic properties.

He and his mother had gathered together between them a respectable handful of ghastly trifles, which were of substantial service alike to him and to his clients. A gentleman coming to have his corns or warts charmed away would be naturally assisted towards faith by the aspect of the polecat's skeleton, the skulls of two or three local criminals, and the shrivelled, mummified dead things which hung about the walls or depended head downwards from the ceiling. These decorations apart, the wizard's home was a little commonplace. It stood by itself in a bare hollow, an unpicturesque and barn-like cottage, not altogether weather-proof.

It fell upon a day that Mrs. Jenny Rusker drove over from Castle Barfield to pay Rufus a visit. She rode in a smart little trap, the kind of thing employed by the better sort of rustic tradesmen, and drove a smart little pony. She was a motherly, foolish, good creature, who, next to the reading of plays and romances, loved to have children about her and to make them happy. On this particular day she had Master Richard with her. She kept up her acquaintance with both her old lovers, and was on terms of rather coolish friendship with them. But she adored their children, and would every now and again make a descent on the house of one or other of her old admirers and ravish away a child for a day or two.

Mrs. Jenny had consoled herself elsewhere for the loss of lovers for whom she had never cared a halfpenny, but she had never ceased to hold a sort of liking for both her old suitors. Their claims had formerly been pretty evenly balanced in her mind, and even now, when the affair was ancient enough in all conscience to have been naturally and quietly buried long ago, she never met either of her quondam lovers without some touch of old-world coquetry in her manner. The faintest and most far-away touch of anything she could call romance was precious to the old woman, and having a rare good heart of her own under all her superannuated follies, she adored the children. Dick was her especial favourite, as was only natural, for he was pretty enough and regal enough with his childish airs of petit grand seigneur to make him beloved of most women who met him. Women admire the frank masterfulness of a generous and half-spoiled boy, and Mrs. Jenny saw in the child the prophecy of all she had thought well of in his father, refined by the grace of childhood and by a better breeding than the father had ever had.

So she and Dick were great allies, and there was always cake and elderberry wine and an occasional half-crown for him at Laburnum Cottage. It was only natural that, so fostered, Dick's affection for the old lady should be considerable. She was his counsellor and confidante from his earliest years, and the little parlour, with its antiquated furniture and works of art-in wool, its haunting odour of pot-pourri emanating from the big china jar upon the mantelshelf, and its moist warm atmosphere dimly filtered through the drooping green and gold of the laburnum tree, whose leaves tapped incessantly against the lozenged panes of its barred windows, was almost as familiar in his memory in after years as the sitting-room at home at the farm.

Dick conferred upon its kindly and garrulous old tenant the brevet rank of 'Aunt' Jenny, and loved her, telling her, in open-hearted childish fashion, his thoughts, experiences, and secrets. Naturally, the story of the fight with the paynim oppressors of beauty came out in his talk soon after its occurrence, and lost nothing in the telling. Mrs. Jenny would have found a romance in circumstances much less easily usable to that end than those of the scion of one house rescuing the daughter of a rival and inimical line, and here was material enough for foolish fancy. She cast a prophetic eye into the future, and saw Dick and Julia, man and maid, reuniting their severed houses in the bonds of love, or doubly embittering their mutual hatred and perishing-young and lovely victims to clannish hatred and parental rigour-like Romeo and Juliet.

The boy's account of the fight was given as he sat by her side in her little pony-trap in the cheerfully frosty morning. Dick chatted gaily as the shaggy-backed pony trotted along the resounding road with a clatter of hoofs and a jingle of harness, and an occasional sneeze at the frosty air. They passed the field of battle on the road, and Dick pointed it out. Then, as was natural, he turned to the family feud, and retailed all he had heard from Ichabod, supplemented by information from other quarters and such additions of fancy as imaginative children and savages are sure to weave about the fabric of any story which comes in their way to make tradition generally the trustworthy thing it is.

Mrs. Busker was strong on the family quarrel. A family quarrel was a great thing in her estimation, almost as good as a family ghost, and she gave Dick the whole history of the incident of the brook and of many others which had grown out of it, among them one concerning the death of a certain Reddy which had tragically come to pass a year or two before his birth. The said Reddy had been found one November evening stark and cold at the corner of the parson's spinney, with an empty gun grasped in his stiffened hand, and a whole charge of small shot in his breast. Crowner's quest had resulted in a verdict of death by misadventure, and the generally received explanation was that the young fellow's own gun had worked the mischief by careless handling in passing through stiff undergrowth. But a certain ne'er-do-well Mountain, a noted striker and tosspot of the district, had mysteriously disappeared about that date, and had never since come within scope of Castle Barfield knowledge. Ugly rumours had got afloat, vague and formless, and soon to die out of general memory. Dick listened open-mouthed to all this, and when the narrative was concluded, held his peace for at least two minutes.

'She isn't wicked, is she, Aunt Jenny?' he suddenly demanded.

'She? Who? 'asked Mrs. Eusker in return. 'The little girl, Julia.'

'Wicked? Sakes alive, whativer is the boy talking about? Wicked? O' course not. She's a dear good little thing as iver lived.'

'Ichabod said that all the Mountains were wicked. But I know Joe isn't-at least, not very. He promised me a monkey and a parrot-a green parrot, when he came back from running away. But he didn't run away, because father found him and took him home. His father gave him an awful thrashing. He often thrashes him, Joe says. Father never thrashes me. What does his father thrash him for?' 'Mr. Mountain's a harder man than your father, my dear. An' I fear as Joe's a bit wild, like his father when he was a boy, and obstinit. Theer niver was a obstinater man i' this earth than Samson Mountain, I do believe, an' Joe's got a bit on it in him.'

'She's pretty,' said Dick, returning with sudden childish inconsequence to the subject uppermost in his thoughts. 'Joe isn't Why is it that the girls are always prettier than the boys?'

'I used to think it was the other way about when I was a gell,' said Aunt Jenny, with perfect simplicity. 'But she is pretty, that's true. But then her mother was a likely lass, an' Samson warn't bad lookin', if he hadn't ha' been so fierce an' cussid. An' to think as it should be you, of all the lads i' Barfield, as should save a Mountain. An' a gell too.. I suppose as you'll be a settin' up to fall in love wi' her now, like Romeo and Juliet?'

'What was that? 'asked the boy.

'It's a play, my dear, wrote by a clever man as has been dead iver so many 'ears, William Shaakespeare.'

'Shakespeare?' said Dick. 'I know. It's a big book on one of the shelves at home, full of poetry. But what's Romeo and Juliet?'

'Romeo and Juliet was two lovers, as lived a long time ago in a place called Verona. I don't know where it is,' she added quickly, to stave off the imminent question already on the boy's lips. 'Somewhere abroad, wheer Bonyparty is. Juliet'

s name was Capulet, an' Romeo's was Montague, an' the Capilets and the Montagues hated each other so as they could niver meet wi'out havin' a bit of a turn-up one with another. They was as bad as the Reddys an' the Mountains, only i' them daysen folks allays wore swords an' daggers, so's when they fowt they mostly killed each other. Well, one night old Capilet gi'en a party, an' asked all his friends, an' everybody wore masks, so's they didn't know half the time who they was a-talkin' tew, as was the fashion i' them times, an' Romeo, he goes, just for divilment, an' he puts on a mask tew, so as they didn't know him, else they'd ha' killed him, sure an' certain. An' theer he sees Juliet, an' she was beautiful, an' he falls plump in love wi' her, an' she falls in love wi' him, an' they meets o' nights, i' the moonlight, on the window-ledge outside her room, but they had to meet i' secret, 'cause the two fam'lies was like cat an' dog, an' there'd ha' been awful doin's if they'd been found out. Well, old Capilet-that was Juliet's feyther-he finds a husband for Juliet, a nice chap enough, a count, like Lord Barfield, on'y younger an' likelier. An' Juliet, she gets welly mad, because she wants to marry Romeo. And then, to mek matters wuss, Romeo meets one o' Juliet's relations, a young man named Tybalt, as hates him like pison, an' they fowt, an' Romeo killed him. Well, the Capilets was powerful wi' the king as ruled in Verona, like Joseph used to be with Pharaoh in the Holy Land, my dear, an' Romeo, he has to run away an' hide himself, else p'raps they'd ha' hung him for killin' Tybalt, though it was Tybalt as begun the fight, so poor Juliet's left all alone. An' her marriage day's a-gettin' near, and old Capilet, he's stuck on her marryin' the count, an' the day's been named, and everything provided for the weddin'. Well, Romeo takes a thought, an' goes to a friar, a kind o' priest, as was a very book-learned man, and asks if he can help him. And at first he says no, he can't, an' Romeo gets that crazed, he's goin' to kill himself, but by an' by he thinks of a plan. He gives Juliet a bottle o' physic stuff to send her to sleep, and make her look as if she was dead. Then her relations 'll be sure to bury her i' the family vault, an' he'll write to Romeo to come back to Verona i' the night-time an' take her out o' the vault, an' goo away quiet wi' her till things have blown over, an' they can come back again. An' Juliet takes the physic, an' everybody thinks her dead, her father, an' her mother, an' her old nuss, an' Paris-that's the name of the gentleman as they wanted her to marry-an' there's such a hullabaloo an' racket as niver was. An' they buried her i' the vault, wi' all her relations, an' the old friar thinks as it's all a-comin' straight. But the letter as he'd writ to Romeo niver reaches him, an' Romeo hears as how Juliet's really dead, and he buys a bottle o' pison, an' comes to Juliet's grave i' the night-time, an' there he meets Paris, as has come to put flowers there an' pray for Juliet's soul, knowin' no better and lovin' her very dear. An' him an' Romeo fights, and Romeo kills him, an' opens the vault, an' go's in, an' theer's Juliet, lyin' stiff an' stark, because the physic ain't had time to work itself off yit. An' he kisses her, an' cries over her, and then he teks the pison, and dies. An' just as he's done it, Juliet wakes up, and finds him dead, and she takes his knife, an' kills herself, poor thing, an' that's the hend on 'em.'

The old sentimentalist's eyes were moist, and her voice choked, as she concluded her legend. It was the first love-story Dick had ever heard, and in pity at the beautiful narrative, which no clumsiness of narration could altogether rob of its pathos, he was crying too. There is no audience like an impressionable child, and the immortal story of love and misfortune seemed very pitiful to his small and tender heart.

'Why, theer! theer! Dick! It's only a story, my dear, wrote in a book,' said Mrs Jenny. 'It most likely ain't true, an' if it is, it all happened sich a time ago as it's no good a-frettin' about it. Why, wheeriver did you get all them warts? 'She took one of the hands with which Dick was rubbing his eyes. 'You should have 'em looked tew, they quite spile your hands. I must get Rufus Smith to have a look at 'em. You know who we'm agoin' to see, don't you? You've heard tell o' the Dudley Devil, Dick?'

'Yes,' said Dick. 'Ichabod goes to him for his rheumatism.'

'It's on'y a step away. That's his cottage, over there. We'll get him to charm the warts away.'

A hundred yards farther on Mrs. Jenny checked the pony, and, dismounting from the vehicle, bade Dick tie him to an elder-shoot and follow her. They went through a gap in a ruinous hedge, and traversed a furzy field, at the farther side of which stood the wizard's hut, a wretched place of a single story, with a shuttered window and a thatched roof full of holes and overgrown with weeds. As they approached the door a mighty clatter was audible within, and Mrs. Jenny held the boy's hand in a tightened grasp, fearful of devilry. As they stood irresolute to advance or retreat, a big cat dashed out at the doorway with a feline imprecation, and the wizard appeared, revengefully waving a stick, and swearing furiously.

'Cuss the brute,' he said, 'the divil's in her, sure an' sartin'.'

It seemed not unlikely to the onlookers, the cat being the wizard's property, and therefore, by all rule and prescription, his prompter and familiar. She was not of the received colour, however, her fur being of a rusty red. But as she raised her back, and spat at her master's visitors from under her chubbed tail, she looked demoniac enough for anything. And from the fashion in which, her anathema once launched, she sat down and betook herself to the rearrangement of her ruffled coat, it might have been conjectured that it was not purely personal to them, but that they were attacked merely as types of the human race, whose society she and her master had forsworn.

'Cuss her!' reiterated the wizard. 'Where's her got tew? My soul, what's this?'

He peered with a short-sighted terror-stricken scowl on Mrs. Jenny and her charge, as if for a moment the fancy had crossed him that his refractory familiar had taken their shapes. His gray lips muttered something, and his fingers worked oddly as he took a step or two forward, clearly outlined in the cold winter sunshine against the black void beyond his open door.

'Why, Rufus, what's the matter?' asked Mrs. Jenny. 'Don't look like that at a body.'

'It's you, mum?' said the necromancer. A look of relief came into his wizened face. 'I didn't know but what it might be--' His voice trailed off into an indistinct murmur, and he smeared his hand heavily across his face, and looked at it, mistrustfully, as if he rather expected to find something else in its place. 'Cuss her!' he said again, looking round for the cat.

'What's she done?' demanded Mrs. Jenny.

'Done? Ate up all my brekfus, that's what she's done,' rejoined the wizard. The familiar grinned with a relish of the situation so fiendishly human that Dick clung closer to Mrs. Rusker's hand, and devoutly wished himself back in the trap. To his childish sense the incongruity of one gifted with demoniac powers being helpless to prevent the depredations of his own domestic animal did not appeal. As for Mrs. Jenny, she had piously believed in witchcraft all her life, and was quite as insensible to the absurdity as he.

'I want you to look at this young gentleman's hands,' said Mrs. Busker. 'He's got warts that bad. I suppose you can charm 'em away for him?'

Appealed to on a point of his art, the wizard's air changed altogether. He assumed an aspect of wooden majesty.

'Why, yis,' he said. 'I think I'm equal to that Step inside, mum, and bring the young gentleman with you.'

'Couldn't you----' Mrs. Busker hesitatingly began, 'couldn't you do it outside?'

'The forms and ceremonies,' said the necromancer, with an increase of woodenness in his manner, 'cannot be applied out o' doors. Arter you, mum.'

He ushered them into the one room of his hut, and the cat, with her tail floating above her like a banner, entered too, evading a kick, and sprang upon a rotten deal shelf, which apparently acted as both dresser and table.

Rufus closed the ruinous door, thereby intensifying the gloom which reigned within the place. The floor was of simple earth, unboarded, and the air smelt of it Here and there a fine spear of ghostly sunlight pierced a crack in roof or wall. By the time their eyes had become accustomed to the gloom they saw that Rufus, on his knees on the floor, was scratching a circle about himself with a scrap of a broken pot, and the indistinct rhythmic murmur of the spell he muttered reached their ears.

The cat, perched upon the dresser, purred as if her internal machinery were running down to final collapse, and her contracting and dilating eyes borrowed infernal fires from the chance ray of sunshine in which she sat. The brute's rusty red head, so lit, fascinated Dick, and the mingled rhythms of her purring and the wizard's mounted and mounted, until to his bewildered mind the whole world seemed filled with their murmur, and the demoniac head seemed to dilate as he gazed at it. Suddenly, Rufus paused in his sing-song, and the cat's purr ceased with it, as though her share of the charm was done.

'Come into the ring,' said Rufus. His voice was shaky, and if there had been light enough to see it, his face was gray with terror of his own hocus-pocus. The cat's head had dropped out of the line of sunlight, and she had coiled herself up on the dresser among a disorderly litter of crockery ware. Dick, relieved from the fascination of her too-visible presence, obeyed the summons, and Rufus, seating himself upon a broken stool, took his hand in moist and quivering fingers, and touching the warts one by one, recommenced his mumble. It had proceeded for a minute or so, when a crash, which, following as it did on the dead stillness, an earthquake could scarce have equalled, elicited a scream from Mrs. Jenny and brought the wizard to his knees with a yell of terror.

'My blessid!' he cried, with clacking jaws, 'I've done it at last! Get thee behind me, Satan!'

In terror-stricken earnest he believed that the Great Personage he had passed all his life in trying to raise had answered to his call at last. So, though it was unquestionably a relief to him to find that the appalling clatter had merely been caused by his familiar's pursuit of a mouse among the crockery, a shade of disappointment may have followed the discovery.

'Cuss her!' he said, for the third time that morning, and with additional unction. 'Her'll be the death of me some day, I know her will!'

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