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   Chapter 4 No.4

Aunt Rachel / A Rustic Sentimental Comedy By David Christie Murray Characters: 17161

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The rustic little church at Heydon Hay made a nucleus for the village, which, close at hand, clustered about it pretty thickly, but soon began to fray off into scattered edges, as if the force of attraction decreased with distance, after the established rule. Beside the church-yard, and separated from it by a high brick wall, was a garden, fronted by half a dozen slim and lofty poplars. Within the churchyard the wall was only on a level with the topmost tufts of grass, but on the garden side it stood six feet high, and was bulged out somewhat by the weight of earth which pressed against it. Facing the tall poplars was a house of two stories. It looked like a short row of houses, for it boasted three front doors. Over each of these was hung a little contrivance which resembled a section of that extinguisher apparatus which is still to be found suspended above the pulpit in some old-fashioned country churches. All the windows of the old house were of diamond panes, and those of the upper story projected from the roof of solid and venerable thatch. A pair of doves had their home in a wicker cage which hung from the wall, and their cooing was like the voice of the house, so peaceful, homely, and Old-world was its aspect.

Despite the three front doors, the real entrance to the house was at the rear, to which access was had by a side gate. A path, moss-grown at the edges, led between shrubs and flowers to a small circle of brickwork, in the midst of which was a well with rope and windlass above it, and thence continued to the door, which led to an antique, low-browed kitchen. A small dark passage led from the kitchen to a front room with a great fireplace, which rose so high that there was but just enough room between the mantle-board and the whitewashed ceiling for the squat brass candlesticks and the big foreign sea-shells which stood there for ornament.

The diamonded window admitted so little light that on entering here from the outer sunshine the visitor could only make out the details one by one. When his eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness he was sure to notice a dozen or more green baize bags which hung upon the walls, each half defining, in the same vague way as all the others, the outline of the object it contained. Each green baize bag was closely tied at the neck, and suspended at an equal height with the rest upon a nail. There was something of a vault-like odor in the room, traceable probably to the two facts that the carpet was laid upon a brick floor, and that the chamber was rarely opened to the air.

Ezra Gold, seated upright in an oaken arm-chair, with a hand lightly grasping the end of either arm, was at home in the close, cool shadow of the place. The cloistered air, the quiet and the dim shade seemed to suit him, and he to be in harmony with them. His eyes were open, and alighted now and again with an air of recognition on some familiar object, but otherwise he might have seemed asleep. On the central table was a great pile of music-books, old-fashioned alike in shape and binding. They exhaled a special cloistral odor of their own, as if they had been long imprisoned. Ezra's eye dwelt oftener on these musty old books than elsewhere.

He had sat still and silent for a long time, when the bells of the church, with a startling nearness and distinctness, broke into a peal. He made a slight movement when the sound first fell upon his ear, but went back to his quiet and his dreams again at once.

Ten minutes went by and the bells were still pealing, when he heard a sound which would have been inaudible in the midst of the metallic clamor to ears less accustomed than his own. He had lived there all his life, and scarcely noticed the noise which would almost have deafened a stranger. The sound he had heard was the clicking of the gate, and after a pause it was followed by the appearance of his nephew Reuben, who looked about him with a dazzled and uncertain gaze.

"Well, Reuben, lad?" said the old man; but his voice was lost for his nephew in the noise which shook the air. "Dost not see me?" he cried, speaking loudly this time.

"I'm fresh from the sunlight," Reuben shouted, with unnecessary force. "You spoke before. I couldn't hear you for the bells."

The old man with a half-humorous gesture put his hands to his ears.

"No need to shout a man's head off," he answered. "Come outside."

Rueben understood the gesture, though he could not hear the words, and the two left the room together, and came out upon the back garden. The sound of the bells was still clear and loud, but by no means so overwhelming as it had been within-doors.

"That's better," said Reuben. "They're making noise enough for young Sennacherib's wedding."

"Young Sennacherib?" asked his uncle. "Young Eld? Is young Eld to be married?"

"Didn't you Know that? The procession is coming along the road this minute. Old Sennacherib disapproves of the match, and we've had a scene the like of which was never known in Heydon Hay before."

"Ay?" said Ezra, with grave interest, slowly, and with a look of a man long imprisoned, to whom outside things are strange, but interesting still. "As how?"

"Why thus," returned Reuben, with a laugh in his eyes. "Old Sennacherib comes to his gate and awaits the wedding-party. Young Snac, with his bride upon his arm, waves a braggart handkerchief at the oldster, and out walks papa, plants himself straight in front of the company, and brings all to a halt. 'I should like to tell thee,' says the old fellow before them all, rolling that bull-dog head of his, 'as I've made my will an' cut thee off with a shillin'!'"

"Dear me!" said Ezra, seriously; "dear me! And what answer made young Snac to this?"

"Young Snac," said Reuben, "was equal to his day. 'All right,' says he; 'gi'e me the shillin' now, an' we'll drop in at the "Goat" and split a quart together.' 'All right,' says the old bull-dog; 'it's th' on'y chance I shall ever light upon of mekin' a profit out o' thee.' He lugs out a leather bag, finds a shilling, bites it to make sure of its value, hands it to the young bull-dog, and at the 'Goat' they actually pull up together, and young Snac spends the money then and there. 'Bring out six pints,' cries Snac the younger. 'Fo'penny ale's as much as a father can expect when his loving son is a-spendin' the whole of his inheritance upon him.' Everybody sipped, the bride included, and the two bull-dogs clinked their mugs together. I sipped myself, being invited as a bystander, and toasted father and son together."

"But, mind thee, lad," said Ezra, "it's scarcely to be touched upon as a laughing matter. Drollery of a sort theer is in it, to be sure; but what Sennacherib Eld says he sticks to. When he bites he holds. He was ever of that nature."

"I know," said Reuben; "but young Nip-and-Fasten has the breed of old Bite-and-Hold-Fast in him, and if the old man keeps his money the young one will manage to get along without it."

At this moment the bells ceased their clangor.

"They've gone into the church, Reuben," said the old man. "I'll do no less than wish 'em happiness, though there's fewer that finds it than seeks it by that gate."

"It's like other gates in that respect, I suppose," Reuben answered.

"Well, yes," returned the elder man, lingeringly. "But it's the gate that most of 'em fancy, and thereby it grows the saddest to look at, lad. Come indoors again. There'll be no more bells this yet-awhile."

Reuben followed him into the cloistral odors and shadows of the sitting-room. Ezra took his old seat, and kept silence for the space of two or three minutes.

"You said you wanted to speak to me, uncle," said the younger man, at length.

"Yes, yes," said Ezra, rising as if from a dream. "You're getting to have a very pretty hand on the fiddle, Reuben, and-well, it's a shame to bury anything that has a value. This"-he arose and laid a hand on the topmost book of the great pile of music-"this has never seen the light for a good five-and-twenty year. Theer's some of it forgot, notwithstanding that it's all main good music. But theer's no room i' the world for th' old-fangled an' the newfangled. One nail drives out another. But I've been thinking thee mightst find a thing or two herein as would prove of value, and it's yours if you see fit to take it away."

"Why, it's a library," said Reuben. "You are very good, uncle, but-"

"Tek it, lad, tek it, if you'd like it, and make no words. And if it shouldn't turn out to have been worth the carrying you can let th

' old chap think it was-eh?"

"Worth the carrying?" said Reuben, with a half-embarrassed little laugh. "I'm pretty sure you had no rubbish on your shelves, uncle." He began to turn over the leaves of the topmost book. "'études?" he read, "'pour deux violins, par Joseph Manzini.' This looks good. Who was Joseph Manzini? I never heard of him."

"Manzini?" asked the old man, with a curious eagerness-"Manzini." His voice changed altogether, and fell into a dreamy and retrospective tone. He laid a hand upon the open pages, and smoothed them with a touch which looked like a caress.

"Who was he?" asked Reuben. "Did you know him?"

"No, lad," returned the old man, coming out of his dream, and smiling as he spoke, "I never knew him. What should bring me to know a German musician as was great in his own day?"

"I thought you spoke as if you knew him," said Reuben.

"Hast a quick ear," said Ezra, "and a searching fancy. No, lad, no; I never knew him. But that was the last man I ever handled bow and fiddle for. I left that open" (he tapped the book with his fingers and then closed it as he spoke)-"I left that open on my table when I was called away on business to London. I found it open when I came home again, and I closed it, for I never touched a bow again. I'd heard Paganini in the mean time. Me and 'Saiah Eld tried that through together, and since then I've never drawn a note out o' catgut."

"I could never altogether understand it, uncle," said Reuben. "What could the man's playing have been like?"

"What was it like?" returned the older man. "What is theer as it wa'n't like? I couldn't tell thee, lad-I couldn't tell thee. It was like a lost soul a-wailing i' the pit. It was like an angel a-sing-ing afore the Lord. It was like that passage i' the Book o' Job, where 'tis said as 'twas the dead o' night when deep sleep falleth upon men, and a vision passed afore his face, and the hair of his flesh stood up. It was like the winter tempest i' the trees, and a little brook in summer weather. It was like as if theer was a livin' soul within the thing, and sometimes he'd trick it and soothe it, and it'd laugh and sing to do the heart good, an' another time he'd tear it by the roots till it chilled your blood."

"You heard him often?" asked Reuben.

"Never but once," said Ezra, shaking his head with great decision. "Never but once. He wa'n't a man to hear too often. 'Twas a thing to know and to carry away. A glory to have looked at once, but not to live in the midst on. Too bright for common eyes, lad-too bright for common eyes."

"I've heard many speak of his playing," said Reuben. "But there are just as many opinions as there are people."

"There's no disputing in these matters," the older man answered. "I've heard him talked of as a Charley Tann, which I tek to be a kind of humbugging pretender, but 'twas plain to see for a man with a soul behind his wescut as the man was wore to a shadow with his feeling for his music. 'Twas partly the man's own sufferin' and triumphin' as had such a power over me. It is with music as th' other passions. % Theer's love, for example. A lad picks out a wench, and spends his heart and natur' in her behalf as free as if there'd niver been a wench i' the world afore, and niver again would be. And after all a wench is a commonish sort of a object, and even the wench the lad's in love with is a commonish sort o' creature among wenches. But what's that to him, if her chances to be just the sort his soul and body cries after?"

"Ah!" said Reuben, "if his soul cries after her. But if he values goodness his soul will cry after it, and if he values beauty his soul will cry after that. I never heard Paganini, but he was a great player, or a real lover of music like you would never have found what he wanted in him."

"Yes, lad," his uncle answered, falling suddenly into his habitual manner, "the man was a player. Thee canst have the music any time thee likst to send for it."

Reuben knew the old man and his ways. The talkative fit was evidently over, and he might sit and talk, if he would, from then till evening, and get no more than a monosyllable here and there in return for his pains.

"It will take a hand-cart to carry the books," he said; "but I will take Manzini now if you will let me." The old man, contenting himself with a mere nod in answer, he took up the old-fashioned oblong folio, tucked it under his arm, and shook hands with the donor. "This is a princely gift, uncle," he said, with the natural exaggeration of a grateful youngster. "I don't know how to say thank you for it."

Ezra smiled, but said nothing. Reuben, repeating his leave-taking, went away, and coming suddenly upon the bright sunlight and the renewed clangor of the bells, was half stunned by the noise and dazzled by the glare. With all this clash and brilliance, as if they existed because of her, and were a part of her presence, appeared Ruth Fuller in the act of passing Ezra's house. Ruth had brightness, but it was rather of the twilight sort than this; and the music which seemed fittest to salute her apparition might have been better supplied by these same bells at a distance of a mile or two. Reuben was perturbed, as any mere mortal might expect to be on encountering a goddess.

Let us see the goddess as well as may be.

She was country-bred to begin with, and though to Heydon Hay her appearance smacked somewhat of the town, a dweller in towns would have called her rustic. She wore a straw hat which was in the fashion of the time, and to the eyes of the time looked charming, though twenty years later we call it ugly, and speak no more than truth. Beneath this straw hat very beautiful and plenteous brown hair escaped in defiance of authority, and frolicked into curls and wavelets, disporting itself on a forehead of creamy tone and smoothness, and just touching the eyebrows, which were of a slightly darker brown, faintly arched on the lower outline, and more prominently arched on the upper. Below the brows brown eyes, as honest as the day, and with a frank smile always ready to break through the dream which pretty often filled them. A short upper lip, delicately curved and curiously mobile, a full lower lip, a chin expressive of great firmness, but softened by a dimpled hollow in the very middle of its roundness, a nose neither Grecian nor tilted, but betwixt the two, and delightful, and a complexion familiar with sun and air, wholesome, robust, and fine. In stature she was no more than on a level with Reuben's chin; but Reuben was taller than common, standing six feet in his stockings. This fact of superior height was not in itself sufficient to account for the graceful inclination of the body which always characterized Reuben when he talked with Ruth. There was a tender and unconscious deference in his attitude which told more to the least observant observer than Reuben would willingly have had known.

Ezra Gold saw the chance encounter through the window, and watched the pair as they shook hands. They walked away together, for they were bound in the same direction, and the old man rose from his seat and walked to the window to look after them.

"Well, well, lad," he said, speaking half aloud, after the fashion of men who spend much of their time alone, "theert beauty and goodness theer, I fancy. Go thy ways, lad, and be happy."

They were out of sight already, and Ezra, with his hands folded behind him, paced twice or thrice along the room. Pausing before one of the green baize bags, he lifted it from its nail, and having untied the string that fastened it, he drew forth with great tenderness an unstrung violin, and, carrying it to the light, sat down and turned it over and over in his hands. Then he took the neck with his left hand, and, placing the instrument upright upon his knee, caressed it with his right.

"Poor lass," he said, "a' might think as thee was grieved to have had ne'er a soul to sing to all these years. I've a half mind to let thee have a song now, but I doubt thee couldst do naught but screech at me. I've forgotten how to ask a lady of thy make to sing. Shalt go to Reuben, lass; he'll mek thee find thy voice again. Rare and sweet it used to be-rare and sweet."

He fell into a fit of coughing which shook him from head to foot, but even in the midst of the paroxysm he made shift to lay down the violin with perfect tenderness. When the fit was over he lay back in his chair with his arms depending feebly at his sides, panting a little, but smiling like a man at peace.

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