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   Chapter 2 No.2

Aunt Rachel / A Rustic Sentimental Comedy By David Christie Murray Characters: 21664

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The Earl of Barfield stood at the lodge gate on a summer afternoon attired in a wondrously old-fashioned suit of white kerseymere and a peaked cap. He was a withered old gentleman, with red-rimmed eyes, broad cheek-bones, and a projecting chin. He had a very sharp nose, and his close-cropped hair was of a harsh, sandy tone and texture. He was altogether a rather ferret-like old man, but he had, nevertheless, a certain air of dignity and breeding which forbade the least observant to take him for anything but a gentleman. His clothes, otherwise spotless, were disfigured by a trail of snuff which ran lightly along all projecting wrinkles from his right knee to his right shoulder. This trail was accentuated in the region of his right-hand waistcoat pocket, where his lordship kept his snuff loose for convenience' sake. He was over eighty, and his head nodded and shook involuntarily with the palsy of old age, but his figure was still fairly upright, and seemed to promise an activity unusual for his years. He rested one hand on the rung of a ladder which leaned against the wall beside him, and glanced up and down the road with an air of impatience. On the ground at his feet lay a billhook and a hand-saw, and once or twice he stirred these with his foot, or made a movement with his disengaged right hand as if he were using one of them.

When he had stood there some ten minutes in growing impatience, a young gentleman came sauntering down the drive smoking a cigar. Times change, and nowadays a young man attired after his fashion would be laughable, but for his day he looked all over like a lady-killer, from his tasselled French cap to his pointed patent leathers. Behind him walked a valet, carrying a brass-bound mahogany box, a clumsy easel, and a camp-stool.

"Going painting again, Ferdinand?" said his lordship, in a tone of some little scorn and irritation.

"Yes," said Ferdinand, rather idly, "I am going painting. Your man hasn't arrived yet?" He cast a glance of lazy amusement at the ladder and at the tools that lay at its feet.

"No," returned his lordship, irritably. "Worthless scoundrel. Ah! here he comes. Go away. Go away. Go and paint. Go and paint."

The young gentleman lifted his cap and sauntered on, turning once or twice to look at his lordship and a queer lop-sided figure shambling rapidly towards him.

"Joseph Beaker," said the Earl of Barfield, shaking his hand at the lop-sided man, "you are late again. I have been waiting ten minutes."

"What did I say yesterday?" asked Joseph Beaker. His face was lop-sided, like his figure, and his speech came in a hollow mumble which was difficult to follow. Joseph was content to pass as the harmless lunatic of the parish, but there was a shrewdly humorous twinkle in his eye which damaged his pretensions with the more discerning sort of people.

"I do not want to know what you said yesterday," his lordship answered, tartly. "Take up the billhook and the saw. Now bring the ladder."

"What I said yesterday," mumbled Joseph, shambling by the nobleman's side, a little in the rear.

"Joseph Beaker," said the earl, "hold your tongue."

"Niver could do it," replied Joseph; "it slips from betwixt the thumb and finger like a eel. What I said yesterday was, 'Why doesn't thee set thy watch by the parish church?' Thee'st got Barfield time, I reckon, and Barfield's allays a wick and ten minutes afore other placen."

The aged nobleman twinkled and took snuff.

"Joseph," said his lordship, "I am going to make a new arrangement with you."

"Time you did," returned Joseph, pausing, ostensibly to shift the ladder from one shoulder to the other, but really to feign indifference.

"I find ninepence a day too much."

"I've allays said so," Joseph answered, shambling a little nearer. "A sinful sight too much. And half on it wasted o' them white garmints."

"I find myself a little in want of exercise," said his lordship. "I shall carry the ladder from the first tree to the second, and you will carry it from the second to the third; then I shall carry it again, and then you will carry it again. We shall go on in that way the whole afternoon, and shall continue in that way so long as I stay here."

Joseph laughed. It was in his laugh that he chiefly betrayed the shortcomings of character. His smile was dry and full of cunning, but his laugh was fatuous.

"Naturally," pursued the earl, "I shall not pay you full wages for a half-day's work." Joseph's face fell into a look of ludicrous consternation. "I shall be generous, however-I shall be generous. I shall give you sixpence. Sixpence a day, Joseph, and I shall do half the work myself."

"It ar'n't to be done, gaffer," said Joseph, resolutely stopping short, and setting up the ladder in the roadway.

The old nobleman turned to face him with pretended anger.

"You are impertinent, Joseph."

"It caw't be done, my lord," his assistant mumbled, thrusting his head through a space in the ladder.

"Times are hard, Joseph," returned his lordship.

There had been a discernible touch of banter in his voice and manner when he had rebuked Joseph a second or two before, but he was very serious now indeed.

"Times are hard; expenses must be cut down. I can't afford more. Sixpence a day is three shillings a week, and three shillings a week is one hundred and fifty-six shillings a year-seven pounds sixteen. That is interest at three per cent, on a sum of two hundred and fifty-nine pounds ten shillings. That is a great amount to lie waste. While I pay you sixpence a day I am practically two hundred and fifty-nine pounds ten shillings poorer than I should be if I kept the sixpence a day to myself. I might just as well not have the money-it is of no use to me."

"Gi'e it to me, then," suggested Joseph, with a feeble gleam.

"Sixpence a day," said his lordship, "is really a great waste of money."

"It's cruel hard o' me," returned Joseph, betraying a sudden inclination to whimper. "If I was a lord I'd be a lord, I would."

"Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!" cried his lordship, sharply.

"It's cruel hard," said Joseph, whimpering outright. "I'd be a man or a mouse, if I was thee."

"I shall be generous," said the aged nobleman, relenting. "I shall give you a suit of clothes. I shall give you a pair of trousers and a waistcoat-a laced waistcoat-and a coat."

Joseph laughed again, but clouded a moment later.

"Theer's them as pets the back to humble the belly, and theer's them as pets the belly to humble the back," he said, rubbing his bristly chin on a rung of the ladder as he spoke. "What soort o' comfort is theer in a laced wescut, if a man's got nothing to stretch it out with?"

"Well, well, Joseph," returned the earl, "sixpence a day is a great deal of money. In these hard times I can't afford more."

"What I look at," said Joseph, "is, it robs me of my bit o' bacon. If I was t'ask annybody in Heydon Hay, 'Is Lord Barfield the man to rob a poor chap of his bit o' bacon?' they'd say, 'No.' That's what they'd say. 'No,' they'd say; 'niver dream of a such-like thing as happening Joseph.'"

His lordship fidgeted and took snuff.

"What his lordship 'ud be a deal likelier to do," pursued Joseph, declaiming, in imitation of his supposed interlocutor, with his head through the ladder, and waving the billhook and the saw gently in either hand, "'ud be to say as a poor chap as wanted it might goo up to the Hall kitchen and have a bite-that's what annybody 'ud say in Hey don Hay as happened to be inquired of."

Joseph's glance dwelt lingeringly and wistfully on his lordship's face as he watched for the effect of his speech. The old earl took snuff with extreme deliberateness.

"Very well, Joseph," he said, after a pause, "we will arrange it in that way. Sixpence a day. And now and then-now and then, Joseph, you may go and ask Dewson for a little cold meat. There is a great deal of waste in the kitchen. It will make little difference-little difference."

Things being thus happily arranged, his lordship drew a slip of paper from his pocket and began to study it with much interest as he walked. He began to chuckle, and the fire of strategic triumph lit his aged eyes. The day's itinerary was planned upon that slip of paper, and Lord Barfield had so arranged it that Joseph should carry the ladder all the long distances, while he himself should carry it all the short ones. Joseph on his side was equally satisfied with the arrangement, so far as he knew it, and gave himself up to the sweet influences of fancy. He saw a glorified edition of himself, attired in my lord's cast-off garments, and engaged in the act of stretching out the laced waistcoat in the kitchen at the Hall. The prospect grew so glorious that he could not hold his own joy and gratulation. It welled over in a series of hollow chuckles, and his lordship twinkled dryly as he walked in front, and took snuff with a double gusto.

"We shall begin," said his lordship, "at Mother Duke's. That laburnum has been an eyesore this many a day. We must be resolute, Joseph. I shall expect you to guard the ladder, and not to let it go, even if she should venture to strike you."

"Her took me very sharp over the knuckles with the rollin'-pin last time, governor," said Joseph. "But her'll be no more trouble to thee now; her's gone away."

"Gone away! Mother Duke gone away?"

"Yes," mumbled Joseph, "her's gone away. There's a little old maid as lives theer now-has been theer a wick to-day."

"That's a pity-that's a pity," said his lordship. "I should have liked another skirmish with Mother Duke. At least, Joseph," he added, with the air of a man who finds consolation in disappointment, "we'll trim the laburnum this time. At all events, we'll make a fight for it, Joseph-we'll make a fight for it." Here he took the billhook and the saw from his assistant, and strode on, swinging one of the tools in each hand.

"Theer'll be no need for a fight," returned Joseph. "Her's no higher than sixpenn'orth o' soap after a hard day's washing."

"That's wrong reckoning, Joseph," said the earl; "wrong reckoning. The smaller they are the more terrible they may be."

"I niver fled afore a little un," said Joseph. "I could allays face a little un." He spoke with a retrospective tone. His lordship eyed him askance with a twinkle of rich enjoyment, and took snuff with infinite relish, as if he took Joseph's mental flavor with it and found it delightful. "Mother Duke could strike a sort of a fear into a man," pursued Joseph.

"What did you say was the new tenant's name, Joseph?" his lordship demanded, presently.

"Dunno," said Joseph. "Her's a little un-very straight up. Goes about on her heels like, to mek the most of herself."

A minute's further walk brought them to a ben

d in the lane, and, passing this, they paused before a cottage. The front of this cottage was overgrown with climbing roses, just then in full bloom, and a disorderly patch of overgrown blossom and shrub lay on each side the thread of gravel-walk which led from the gate to the door. A little personage, attired in a tight-fitting bodice and a girlish-looking skirt, was busily reducing the redundant growth to order with a pair of quick-snapping shears. It gave his lordship an odd kind of shock when this little personage arose and turned. The face was old. There was youth in the eyes and the delicate dark-brown arch of the eyebrows, but the old-fashioned ringlet which hung at either cheek beneath the cottage bonnet she wore was almost white. The cheeks were sunken from what had once been a charming contour, the delicate aquiline nose was pinched ever so little, the lips were dry, and there were fine wrinkles everywhere. There was something almost eerie in the youthfulness of the eyes, which shone in the midst of all her faded souvenirs of beauty. Had the eyes been old the face would have been beautiful still, but the contrast they presented to their setting was too striking for beauty. They gave the old face a curiously exalted look, an expression hardly indicative of complete sanity, though every feature was expressive in itself of keen good-sense, quick apprehension, and strong self-reliance.

The figure in its tight-fitting bodice looked like that of a girl of seventeen, but the stature was no more than that of a well-grown girl of twelve. The movement with which she had arisen and the attitude she took were full of life and vivacity. His lordship was so taken aback by the extraordinary mixture of age and girlishness she presented that he stared for a second or two unlike a man of the world, and only recovered himself by an effort.

"Set up the ladder here, Joseph," he said, pointing with the billhook to indicate the place. Joseph set down the ladder on the pathway, and leaning it across the close-clipped privet hedge where numberless small staring eyes of white wood betrayed the recent presence of the shears, he propped it against the stout limb of a well-pruned apple-tree. His lordship, somewhat ostentatiously avoiding the eye of the inmate of the cottage, tucked his saw and his billhook under his left arm and mounted slowly, while Joseph made a great show of steadying the ladder. The little old woman opened the garden gate with a click and slipped into the roadway. His lordship hung his saw upon a rung of the ladder, and leaning a little over took a grasp of the bough of a sweeping laburnum which overhung the road.

"My lord," said a quick, thin voice, which in its blending of the characteristics of youth and age matched strangely with the speaker's aspect, "this tenement and its surrounding grounds are my freehold. I cannot permit your lordship to lay a mutilating hand upon them."

"God bless my soul!" said his lordship. "That's Rachel Blythe! That must be Rachel Blythe."

"Rachel Blythe at your lordship's service," said the little old lady. She dropped a curt little courtesy, at once as young and as old as everything about her, and stood looking up at him, with drooping hands crossed upon the garden shears.

"God bless my soul! Dear me!" said his lordship. "Dear me! God bless my soul!" He came slowly down the ladder and, surrendering his billhook to Joseph, advanced and proffered a tremulous white hand. Miss Blythe accepted it with a second curt little courtesy, shook it once up and down and dropped it. "Welcome back to Heydon Hay, Miss Blythe," said the old nobleman, with something of an air of gallantry. "You have long deprived us of your presence."

Perhaps Miss Blythe discerned a touch of badinage in his tone, and construed it as a mockery. She drew up her small figure in exaggerated dignity, and made much such a motion with her head and neck as a hen makes in walking.

"I have long been absent from Heydon Hay, my lord," she answered. "My good man," turning upon Joseph, "you may remove that ladder. His lordship can have no use for it here."

"Oh, come, come, Miss Blythe," said his lordship. "Manorial rights, manorial rights. This laburnum overhangs the road and prevents people of an average height from passing."

"If your lordship is aggrieved I must ask your lordship to secure a remedy in a legal manner."

"But really now. Observe, Miss Blythe, I can't walk under these boughs without knocking my hat off." He illustrated this statement by walking under the boughs. His cap fell on the dusty road, and Joseph, having picked it up, returned it to him.

"Your lordship is above the average height," said Miss Blythe- "considerably."

"No, no," the earl protested. "Not at all, not at all."

"I beg your lordship's pardon," said the little old lady, with stately politeness. "Nobody," she added, "who was not profoundly disloyal would venture to describe the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty as undersized. I am but a barleycorn less in stature than her Most Excellent Majesty, and your lordship is yards taller than myself."

"My dear Miss Blythe-" his lordship began, with hands raised in protest against this statement.

"Your lordship will pardon me," Miss Blythe interposed, swiftly, "if I say that at my age-forgive me if I say at your lordship's also-the language of conventional gallantry is unbecoming."

The little old lady said this with so starched and prim an air, and through this there peeped so obvious a satisfaction in rebuking him upon such a theme, that his lordship had to flourish his handkerchief from his pocket to hide his laughter.

"I have passed the last quarter of a century of my life," pursued Miss Blythe, "in an intimate if humble capacity in the service of a family of the loftiest nobility. I am not unacquainted with the airs and graces of the higher powers, but between your lordship and myself, at our respective ages, I cannot permit them to be introduced."

His lordship had a fit of coughing which lasted him two or three minutes, and brought the tears to his eyes. Most people might have thought that the cough bore a suspicious resemblance to laughter, but no such idea occurred to Miss Blythe.

"You are quite right, Miss Blythe," said the old nobleman, when he could trust himself to speak. He was twitching and twinkling with suppressed mirth, but he contained himself heroically. "I beg your pardon, and I promise that I will not again transgress in that manner. But really, that-that-fit of coughing has quite exhausted me for the moment. May I beg your permission to sit down?"

"Certainly, my lord," replied the little old lady, and in a bird-like fashion fluttered to the gate. It was not until she had reached the porch of the cottage that she became aware of the fact that the earl was following her. "Your lordship's pardon," she said then; "I will bring your lordship a chair into the garden. I am alone," she added, more prim and starched than ever, "and I have my reputation to consider."

Miss Blythe entered the cottage and returned with a chair, which she planted on the gravelled pathway. The old nobleman sat down and took snuff, twitching and twinkling in humorous enjoyment.

"How long is it since you left us?" he asked. "It looks as if it were only yesterday."

"I have been absent from Heydon Hay for more than a quarter of a century," the little old lady answered.

"Ah!" said he, and for a full minute sat staring before him rather forlornly. He recovered himself with a slight shake and resumed the talk. "You maintain your reputation for cruelty, Miss Blythe?"

"For cruelty, my lord?" returned Miss Blythe, with a transparent pretence of not understanding him.

"Breaking hearts," said his lordship, "eh? I was elderly before you went away, you know, but I remember a disturbance-a disturbance." He rapped with the knuckles of his left hand on his white kerseymere waistcoat. Miss Blythe tightened her lips and regarded him with an uncompromising air.

"Differences of sex, alone, my lord," she said, with decision, "should preclude a continuance of this conversation."

"Should they?" asked the old nobleman. "Do you really think so? I forget. I am a monument of old age, and I forget, but I fancy I used to think otherwise. You were the beauty of the place, you know. Is that a forbidden topic also?"

Miss Blythe blushed ever so little, but her curiously youthful eyes smiled, and it was plain she was not greatly displeased. The Earl of Barfield went quiet again, and again stared straight before him with a somewhat forlorn expression. The little old lady reminded him of her mother, and the remembrance of her mother reminded him of his own youth. He woke up suddenly. "So you've come back?" he said, abruptly. "You've bought the cottage?"

"The freehold of the cottage was purchased for me by my dear mistress," said the little old lady. "I desired to end my days where I began them."

"H'm!" said my lord. "We're going to be neighbors? We are neighbors. We must dwell together in unity. Miss Blythe-we must dwell together in unity. I have my hands pretty full this afternoon, and I must go. I'll just trim these laburnums, and alter-"

"I beg your lordship's pardon," said Miss Blythe, with decision, "your lordship will do nothing of the sort."

"Eh? Oh, nonsense, nonsense! Must clear the footway. Must have the footway clear-really must. Besides, it improves the aspect of the garden. Always does. Decidedly improves it. Joseph Beaker, hold the ladder."

Talking thus, the old gentleman had arisen from his chair and had re-entered the roadway, but the little old lady skimmed past him and faced him at the foot of the ladder.

"If your lordship wants to cut trees," she said, "your lordship may cut your lordship's own."

"Up thee goest, gaffer," said Joseph, handing over the little old lady's head the billhook and the saw.

Miss Blythe turned upon him with terrible majesty.

"Joseph Beaker?" she said, regarding him inquiringly. "Ah! The passage of six-and-twenty years has not improved your intellectual condition. Take up that ladder, Joseph Beaker. If you should ever dare again to place it against a tree upon my freehold property I shall call the policeman. I will set man-traps," pursued the little old lady, shaking her curls vigorously at Joseph. "I will have spring-guns placed in the trees."

"Her's wuss than t'other un," mumbled the routed Joseph, as he shambled in his lop-sided fashion down the road. "I should ha' thought you could ha' done what you liked wi' a little un like that. I niver counted on being forced to flee afore a little un."

The earl said nothing, and Miss Blythe, satisfied that the retreat was real, had already gone back to her gardening.

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