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   Chapter 5 No.5

Aunt Rachel / A Rustic Sentimental Comedy By David Christie Murray Characters: 21801

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

These had been a long spell of fair weather, and the Earl of Barfield had carried on his warfare against all and sundry who permitted the boughs of their garden trees to overhang the public highway, for a space of little less than a month. The campaign had been conducted with varying success, but the old nobleman counted as many victories as fights, and was disposed, on the whole, to be content with himself. He was an old and experienced warrior in this cause, and had learned to look with a philosophic eye upon reverses.

But on the day following that which saw the introduction of his lordship's parliamentary nominee to the quartette party, his lordship encountered a check which called for all the resources of philosophy. He was routed by his own henchman, Joseph Beaker.

The defeat arrived in this wise: his lordship having carefully arranged his rounds so that Joseph should carry the ladder all the long distances while he himself bore it all the short ones, had found himself so flurried by the defeat he had encountered at the hands of Miss Blythe, that he had permitted Joseph to take up the ladder and carry it away from where it had leaned against the apple-tree in the little old lady's garden. This unforeseen incident had utterly disarranged his plans, and since he had been unadvised enough to post his servitor in the particulars of the campaign, Joseph had been quick to discover his own advantage.

"We will go straight on to Willis's, Joseph," said his lordship, when they began their rounds that afternoon. The stroke was simple, but, if it should only succeed, was effective.

"We bain't a-goin' to pass Widder Hotchkiss, be we, governor?" demanded Joseph, who saw through the device. His lordship decided not to hear the question, and walked on a little ahead, swinging the billhook and the saw.

Joseph Beaker revolved in his mind his own plan of action. In front of Widow Hotchkiss's cottage the trees were unusually luxuriant, and the boughs hung unusually low. When they were reached, Joseph contrived to entangle his ladder and to bring himself to a stand-still, with every appearance of naturalness.

"My blessed!" he mumbled, "this here's a disgrace to the parish, gaffer. Theer's nothin' in all Heydon Hay as can put a patch on it. Thee bissent agoin' past this, beest? Her's as small-sperited as a rabbit-the widder is."

"We'll take it another time, Joseph," said his lordship, striving to cover his confusion by taking a bigger pinch of snuff than common-"another time, Joseph, another time."

"Well," said Joseph, tossing his lop-sided head, as if he had at last fathomed the folly and weakness of human nature, and resigned himself to his own mournful discoveries, "I should niver ha' thought it." He made a show of shouldering the ladder disgustedly, but dropped it again. "We fled afore a little un yesterday," he said. "I did look for a show o' courage here, governor." His lordship hesitated. "Why, look at it," pursued Joseph, waving a hand towards the overhanging verdure; "it 'ud be a sinful crime to go by it."

"Put up the ladder, Joseph," replied his lordship, in a voice of sudden resolve. The Hotchkiss case was a foregone victory for him, and his own desires chimed with Joseph's arguments, even while he felt himself outgeneralled.

The widow sweetened the business by a feeble protest, and the Earl of Barfield was lordly with ner.

"Must come down, my good woman," said his lordship, firmly, "must come down. Obstruct the highway. Disgrace to the parish."

"That's what I said," mumbled Joseph, as he steadied the ladder from below. The widow watched the process wistfully, and my lord chopped and sawed with unwonted gusto. Branch after branch fell into the lane, and the aged nobleman puffed and sweated with his grateful labor. He had not had such a joyful turn for many a day. The widow moaned like a winter wind in a key-hole, and when his lordship at last descended from his perch she was wiping her eyes with her apron.

"I know full well what poor folks has got to put up with at the hands o' them as the Lord has set in authority," said the widow, "but it's cruel hard to have a body's bits o' trees chopped and lopped i' that way. When ourn was alive his lordship niver laid a hand upon 'em. Ourn 'ud niver ha' bent himself to put up wi' it, that he niver would, and Lord Barfield knows it; for though he was no better nor a market-gardener, he was one o' them as knowed what was becomin' between man and man, be he niver so lowly, and his lordship the lord o' the manor for miles around."

"Tut, tut, my good woman," returned his lordship. "Pooh, pooh! Do for firewood. Nice and dry against the winter. Much better there than obstructing the high-road-much better. Joseph Beaker, take the ladder."

"My turn next time," replied Joseph. "Carried it here."

His lordship, a little abashed, feigned to consider, and took snuff.

"Quite right, Joseph," he answered, "quite right. Quite fair to remind me. Perfectly fair." But he was a good deal blown and wearied with his exertions, and though anxious to escape the moanings of the widow he had no taste for the exercise which awaited him. He braced himself for the task, however, and handing the tools to his henchman, manfully shouldered the ladder and started away with it. The lane was circuitous, and when once he had rounded the first corner he paused and set down his burden. "It's unusually warm to-day, Joseph," he said, mopping at his wrinkled forehead.

"Theer's a coolish breeze," replied Joseph, "and a-plenty o' shadder."

"Do you know, Joseph," said the earl, in a casual tone, "I think I shall have to get you to take this turn. I am a little tired."

"Carried it last turn," said Joseph, decidedly. "A bargain's a bargain."

"Certainly, certainly," returned his lordship, "a bargain is a bargain, Joseph." He sat down upon one of the lower rungs of the ladder and fanned himself with a pocket-handkerchief. "But you know, Joseph," he began again after a pause, "nobody pushes a bargain too hard. If you carry the ladder this time I will carry it next. Come now-what do you say to that?"

"It's a quarter of a mile from here to Willis's," said Joseph, "and it ain't five score yards from theer to the Tan-yard. Theer's some," he added, with an almost philosophic air, "as knows when they are well off."

"I'll give you an extra penny," said his lordship, condescending to bargain.

"I'll do it for a extry sixpince," replied Joseph.

"I'll make it twopence," said his lordship-"twopence and a screw of snuff."

"I'll do it for a extry sixpince," Joseph repeated, doggedly.

Noblesse oblige. There was a point beyond which the Earl of Barfield could not haggle. He surrendered, but it galled him, and the agreeable sense of humor with which he commonly regarded Joseph Beaker failed him for the rest of that afternoon. It happened, also, that the people who remained to be encountered one and all opposed him, and with the exception of his triumph over the Widow Hotchkiss the day was a day of failure.

When, therefore, his lordship turned his steps homeward he was in a mood to be tart with anybody, and it befell that Ferdinand was the first person on whom he found an opportunity of venting his gathered sours. The young gentleman heaved in sight near the lodge gates, smoking a cigar and gazing about him with an air of lazy nonchalance which had very much the look of being practised in hours of private leisure. Behind him came the valet, bearing the big square color-box, the camp-stool, and the clumsy field easel.

"Daubing again, I presume?" said his lordship, snappishly.

"Yes," said Ferdinand, holding his cigar at arm's-length and flicking at the ash with his little finger, "daubing again."

His lordship felt the tone and gesture to be irritating and offensive.

"Joseph Beaker," he said, "take the ladder to the stables. I have done with you for to-day. Upon my word, Ferdinand," he continued, when Joseph had shambled through the gateway with the ladder, "I think you answer me with very little consideration, for-in short, I think your manner a little wanting in-I don't care to be addressed in that way, Ferdinand."

"I am sorry, sir," said Ferdinand. "I did not mean to be disrespectful. You spoke of my daubing. I desired to admit the justice of the term. Nothing more, I assure you."

His lordship, in his irritated mood, felt the tone to-be more irritating and offensive than before.

"I tell you candidly, Ferdinand, that I do not approve of the manner in which you spend your time here. If you imagine that you can walk over the course here without an effort you are very much mistaken. I take this idleness and indifference very ill, sir, very ill indeed, and if we are beaten I shall know on whom the blame will rest. The times are not what they were, Ferdinand, and constitutional principles are in danger."

"Really, sir," returned Ferdinand, "one can't be electioneering all the year round. There can't be a dissolution before the autumn. When the time comes I will work as hard as you can ask me to do."

"Pooh, pooh!" said his lordship, irritably. "I don't ask you to spout politics. I ask you to show yourself to these people as a serious and thoughtful fellow, and not as a mere dauber of canvas and scraper of fiddles. You come here," he went on, irritated as much by his own speech as by the actual circumstances of the case, "as if you were courting a constituency of dilettanti, and expected to walk in by virtue of your little artistic graces. They don't want a man like that. They won't have a man like that. They're hard-headed fellows, let me tell you. These South Stafford fellows are the very deuce, let me tell you, for knowing all about Free-trade, and the Cheap Loaf, and the National Debt."

"Very well, sir," said Ferdinand, laughing, "I reform. Instead of carrying easel and porte-couleur, Harvey shall go about with a copy of 'The Wealth of Nations,' and when a voter passes I'll stop and consult the volume and make a note. But l'homme sérieux is not the only man for election times. I'll wager all I am ever likely to make out of politics that I have secured a vote this afternoon, though I have done nothing more than offer a farmer's wife a little artistic advice about the choice of a bonnet. I told her that yellow was fatal to that charming complexion, and advised blue. Old Holland is proud of his young wife, and I hooked him to a certainty."

"Holland!" cried his lordship, more pettishly than ever-"Holland is conservative to the backbone. We were always sure of Holland."

"Well, well," said Ferdinand, in a voice of toleration, "we are at least as sure of him as ever."

The allowance in the young man's manner exasperated the old nobleman. But he liked his young friend in spite of his insolence and tranquil swagger, an

d he dreaded to say something which might be too strong for the occasion.

"We will talk this question over at another time," he said, controlling himself; "we will talk it over after dinner."

"I must go vote-catching after dinner," returned Ferdinand. "I promised to go and listen to the quartette party this evening."

"Very well," returned his lordship, with a sudden frostiness of manner. "I shall dine alone. Good-evening."

He marched away, the senile nodding of his head accentuated into pettishness; and Ferdinand stood looking after him for a second or two with a smile, but presently thinking better of it, he hastened after the angry old man and overtook him.

"I am sorry, sir, if I disappoint you," he said. "I don't want to do that, and I won't do it if I can help it." The earl said nothing, but walked on with an injured air which was almost feminine. "Are you angry at my proposing to go to see old Fuller? I understood you to say yesterday that his vote was undecided, and that nothing was so likely to catch him as a little interest in his musical pursuits."

"I have no objections to offer to your proposal," replied his lordship, frostily-"none whatever."

"I am glad to hear that, sir," said Ferdinand, with rather more dryness than was needed. His lordship walked on again, and the young man lingered behind.

The household ways at the Hall were simple, and the hours kept there were early. It was not yet seven o'clock when Ferdinand, having already eaten his lonely dinner, strolled down the drive, cigar in month, bound for old Fuller's garden. He thought less of electioneering and less of music than of the pretty girl he had discovered yesterday. She interested him a little, and piqued him a little. Without being altogether a puppy, he was well aware of his own advantages of person, and was accustomed to attribute to them a fair amount of his own social successes. He was heir to a baronetcy and to the estates that went with it. It was impossible in the course of nature that he should be long kept out of these desirable possessions, for the present baronet was his grandfather, and had long passed the ordinary limits of old age. The old man had outlived his own immediate natural heir, Ferdinand's father, and now, in spite of an extraordinary toughness of constitution, was showing signs of frailty which increased almost day by day. And apart from his own personal advantages, and the future baronetcy and the estates thereto appertaining, the young man felt that, as the chosen candidate of the constitutional party for that division of the county at the approaching election, he was something of a figure in the place. It was rather abnormal that any pretty little half-rustic girl should treat him with anything but reverence. If the girl had been shy, and had blushed and trembled before him a little, he could have understood it. Had she been pert he could have understood it. Young women of the rustic order, if only they were a trifle good-looking, had an old-established license to be pert to their male social superiors. But this young woman was not at all disposed to tremble before him, and was just as far removed from pertness as from humility.

As he strolled along he bethought him, vaguely enough-for he was not a young gentleman who was accustomed to put too much powder behind his purposes-that it would be rather an agreeable thing than otherwise to charm this young woman, if only just to show her that she could be charmed, and that he could be charming. He had been a little slighted, and it would be nice to be a little revenged. He was not a puppy, in spite of the fact that his head gave house-room to this kind of nonsense. The design is commoner among girls than boys, but there are plenty of young men who let their wits stray after this manner at times, and some of them live to laugh at themselves.

But while Ferdinand was thinking, an idea occurred to him which caused him to smile languidly. It would be amusing to awaken Barfield's wrath by starting a pronounced flirtation with this village beauty. It was scarcely consistent to have an inward understanding with himself, that if the flirtation should take place it should be kept secret from his noble patron of all men in the world. It would certainly be great fun to take the little hussy from her pedestal. She was evidently disposed to think of herself a good deal more highly than she ought to think, and perhaps it might afford a useful lesson to her to be made a little more pliant, a little less self-opinionated, a little less disposed to snub young gentlemen of unimpeachable attractions. Thinking thus, Ferdinand made up quite a contented mind to be rustic beauty's school-master.

The green door in the garden wall was still a little open when he reached it, but he could hear neither music nor voices.

The evening concert had not yet begun, and he was fain to stroll on a little farther. This of itself was something of an offence to his majesty, though he hardly saw on whom to fix it. He did not know his way round to the front of the house, and did not care to present himself at the rear unless there were somebody there to receive him. He lit a new cigar to pass away the time, and re-enacted his first and only interview with the girl he had made up his mind to subjugate. In the course of this mental exercise he experienced anew the sense of slight he had felt at her hands, but in a more piercing manner. He had spoken to her, and she had waved her hand against him as if he had been a child to be silenced. He had spoken to her again, and she had not even responded. In point of fact she had ignored him. The more he looked at it the more remarkable this fact appeared, and the more uncomfortable and the more resolved he felt about it.

When his cigar was smoked half through he sighted the upright and stalwart figure of Reuben Gold, who was striding at a great pace towards him, swinging his violin-case in one hand. Ferdinand paused to await him..

"Good-evening, Mr. Gold," he said, as Reuben drew near.

"Good-evening," said Reuben, raising his eyes for a moment, and nodding with a preoccupied air. His rapid steps carried him past Ferdinand in an instant, and before the young gentleman could propose to join him he was so far in advance that it was necessary either to shout or run to bring him to a more moderate pace. Ferdinand raised his eye-glass and surveyed the retreating figure with some indignation, and dropped it with a little click against one of his waistcoat-buttons. Then he smiled somewhat wry-facedly.

"A cool set, upon my word," he murmured. "Boors, pure and simple."

He was half inclined to change his mind and stay away from the al fresco concert, but then the idea of the duty he owed himself in respect to that contumelious young beauty occurred to him, and he decided to go, after all. He followed, therefore, in Reuben's hasty footsteps, but at a milder pace, and, regaining the green door, looked into the garden and saw the quartette party already assembled. Old Fuller, who was the first to perceive him, came forward with rough heartiness, and shook hands with a burly bow.

"Good-evenin', Mr. De Blacquaire," said Fuller. "We're pleased to see you. If you'd care to tek a hand i'stead of settin' idle by to listen, we shall be glad to mek room. Eh, lads?"

"No, no, thank you, Mr. Fuller," said Ferdinand, "I would rather be a listener." Ruth was standing near the table, and he raised his cap to her. She answered his salute with a smile of welcome, and brought him a chair. "Good-evening, Miss Fuller," he said, standing cap in hand before her. "What unusually beautiful weather we are having. Do you know, I am quite charmed with this old garden? There is something delightfully rustic and homely and old-fashioned about it."

"You are looking at the statues?" she said, with half a laugh. "They are an idea of father's. He wants to have them painted, but I always stand out against that-they look so much better as they are."

"Painted?" answered Ferdinand, with a little grimace, and a little lifting of the hands and shrinking of the body as if the idea hurt him physically. "Oh no. Pray don't have them painted."

"Well, well. Theer!" cried Fuller. "Here's another as is in favor o' grime an' slime! It's three to three now. Ruth and Reuben have allays been for leavin' 'em i' this way."

"Really, Mr. Fuller," said Ferdinand, "you must be persuaded to leave them as they are. As they are they are charming. It would be quite a crime to paint them. It would be horribly bad taste to paint them!"

After this partisan espousal of her cause, he was a little surprised to notice an indefinable but evident change in the rustic beauty's manner. Perhaps she disliked to hear a stranger accuse her father-however truly-of horribly bad taste, but this did not occur to Ferdinand, who had intended to show her that a gentleman was certain to sympathize with whatever trace of refinement he might discover in her.

"Would it?" said Fuller, simply. "Well, theer's three of a mind, and they'm likely enough to be right. Anny ways theer's no danger of a brush coming anigh 'em while the young missis says 'No.' Her word's law i' this house, and has been ever since her was no higher than the table."

"Wasn't that a ring at the front door?" asked Sennacherib, holding up his hand.

"Run and see, wench," said Fuller.

Ruth ran down the grass-plot and into the house. She neither shuffled nor ambled, but skimmed over the smooth turf as if she moved by volition and her feet had had nothing to do with the motion. She had scarce disappeared, when Isaiah, who faced the green door, sung out,

"Here's Ezra Gold, and bringin' a fiddle, too. Good-evenin', Mr. Gold. Beest gooin' to tek another turn at the music?"

"No," said Ezra, advancing. "I expected to find Reuben here. I've got it on my mind as the poor old lady here "-he touched the green baize bag he carried beneath his arm-"is in a bit o' danger o' losin' her voice through keeping silence all these length o' years, and I want him to see what sort of a tone her's got left in her."

Reuben rose from his seat with sparkling eyes and approached his uncle.

"Is that the old lady I've heard so much about?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Ezra, "it's the old lady herself. I don't know," he went on, looking mildly about him, "as theer's another amateur player as I'd trust her to. Wait a bit, lad, while I show her into daylight."

Reuben stood with waiting hands while the old man unknotted the strings at the mouth of the green baize bag, and all eyes watched Ezra's lean fingers. At the instant when the knot was conquered and the mouth of the bag slid open, Ruth's clear voice was heard calling,

"Father, here's Aunt Rachel! Come this way, Aunt Rachel. We're going to have a little music."

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