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   Chapter 6 No.6

Aunt Rachel / A Rustic Sentimental Comedy By David Christie Murray Characters: 16848

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Ezra Gold, seizing the violin gently by the neck, suffered the green baize bag to fall to the ground at his feet, and then tenderly raising the instrument in both hands, looked up and dropped it to the ground. A little cry of dismay escaped from Reuben's lips, and he was on his knees in an instant.

"She's not hurt," he said, examining the violin with delicate care- "not hurt at all."

Then he looked up, and at the sight of his uncle's face rose swiftly to his feet. The old man's eyes were ghastly, and his cheeks, which had usually a hectic flush of color too clear and bright for health, were of a leaden gray. Ezra's hand was on his heart.

"Not hurt?" he said, in a strange voice. "Art sure she's not hurt, lad? That's fortunate."

The color came back to his face as suddenly as it had disappeared.

"No," said Reuben, tapping the back of the fiddle lightly with his finger-tips, and listening to the tone, though he kept his eyes fixed upon his uncle's-"she's as sound as a bell."

"That's well, lad, that's well," said Ezra, in the same strange voice. The hands he reached out towards his nephew trembled, and Reuben handed back the precious instrument in some solicitude. It was natural that an old player should prize his favorite instrument, but surely, he thought, a little chance danger to it should scarcely shake a man in this way. Ezra's trembling hands began to tune the strings, and at the sound of Ruth's voice Reuben turned away. His uncle's agitation shocked him. He had known for years, as everybody had known, that Ezra had but a weakly constitution, but he had never seen so striking a sign of it before, and the old man's agitation awoke the young man's fears. There was a very close and tender affection between them.

"Reuben," Ruth was saying, "this is my aunt Rachel. Aunt, this is Mr. Reuben Gold. I don't suppose you remember him."

"I do not remember Mr. Reuben Gold," said the little old lady, mincingly. "Is Mr. Gold a native of Heydon Hay? I do not think, from Mr. Gold's appearance, that he was born when I quitted the village. I think I recognize my old friends, the Elds," she went on, with an air almost of patronage. "This will be Mr. Isaiah? Yes! I thought so. Mr. Isaiah was always mild in manner. And this will be Mr. Sennacherib? Yes! Mr. Sennacherib was unruly. I recognize them by their expressions."

"You remember me, Rachel?" said Mr. De Blacquaire, who had been watching the old lady since her arrival. She turned her head in a swift, bird-like way, and fixed her curiously youthful eyes upon him for an instant. The withered old face lit up with a smile which so transfigured it that for the moment it matched the youth of her eyes.

"Is it possible!" she cried. "Mr. Ferdinand! The dear, dear child!" She seized one of his hands and kissed it, but he drew it away, and putting an arm about her shoulders, stooped to kiss her wrinkled cheek. "The grandson," she cried, turning on the others with an air of pride and tender triumph, "of my dear mistress, Lady De Blacquaire. I nursed Mr. Ferdinand in his infancy. I bore him to the font, and in my arms he received his baptismal appellation."

If she had laid claim to the loftiest of worldly distinctions she could scarcely have done it with a greater air of pride.

Ezra's tremulous fingers were still at work at the violin keys when Ruth addressed him.

"I dare say you know my aunt Rachel, Mr. Gold," she said. "Heydon Hay was such a little place five-and-twenty years ago that everybody must have known everybody."

"It was my privilege to know Miss Blythe when she lived here," said Ezra, looking up and speaking in a veiled murmur.

The little old lady started, turned pale, drew herself to her full height, and turned away. Sennacherib, who was watching the pair, drove out his clinched fist sideways with intent to nudge his brother Isaiah in the ribs, to call his attention to this incident as a confirmation of the history he had told the night before. He miscalculated his distance, and landed on Isaiah's portly waistcoat with such force that the milder brother grunted aloud, and, arising, demanded with indignation to know why he was thus assaulted. For a mere second Sennacherib was disconcerted, but recovering himself, he drew Isaiah on one side and whispered in his ear,

"I on'y meant to gi'e thee a nudge, lad. Dost mind what I tode thee about 'em? Didst tek note how they met?"

"Thinkest thou'rt th' only man with a pair of eyes in his head?" demanded Isaiah, angrily and aloud. Sennacherib, by winks and nods and gestures, entreated him to silence, but for a minute or two Isaiah refused to be pacified, and sat rubbing at his waistcoat and darting looks of vengeance at his brother. "Punchin' a man at my time o' life i' that way!" he mumbled wrathfully; "it's enough t' upset the systim for a month or more."

Nobody noticed the brethren, however, for the other members of the little party had each his or her preoccupation.

"Mr. Ferdinand," said Miss Blythe, turning suddenly upon the young gentleman, "I must seize this opportunity to ask what news there is of my dear mistress. I know that she is frail, and that correspondence would tax her energies too severely, but I make a point of writing to her once a week and presenting to her my respectful service."

She took his hand again as she addressed him, and Ferdinand noticed that it was icy cold. She was trembling all over and her eyes were troubled. He was just about to answer when a sharp twang caught his ear, and turning his head he saw Ezra in the act of handing the violin to Reuben.

"Have you got a fourth string, lad?" asked Ezra, speaking unevenly and with apparent effort; "this has gi'en way. I'm no hand at a fiddle nowadays," he added, with a pitiable smile, "or else there's less virtue in catgut than there used to be."

"They make nothing as they used to do," said Reuben. He had drawn a flat tin box from his pocket and had selected a string from it, when Rachel drew Ferdinand on one side.

"Let me bring you a chair, Mr. Ferdinand," she said. "We will sit here and you must tell me of my dear mistress."

"Stay here," said Ferdinand, "I will bring you a chair." He was not sorry to be seen in this amiable light. It was agreeable to bend condescendingly to his grandmother's attached and faithful servitor, and to be observed. There was a genuine kindliness in him, too, towards the little withered old woman who had nursed him in his babyhood, and had taught him his first lessons. He brought the chairs and sat down with his old nurse at the edge of the grass-plot at some little distance from the others.

"We will talk for a little time about my dear mistress," said Rachel, "and then I will ask you to take me away." She leaned forward in her chair, looking up at her companion and laying both hands upon his arm. "I cannot stay here," she went on, in a whisper. "There are reasons. There is a person here I have not seen for more than a quarter of a century. You have observed that I am sometimes a little flighty." She withdrew one of her hands and tapped her forehead.

"My dear Rachel!" said Ferdinand, in smiling protestation.

"Yes, yes," she insisted, in a mincing whisper, as if she were laying claim to a distinction. "A little flighty. You do no credit to your own penetration, dear Mr. Ferdinand, if you deny it. That person is the cause. I suffered a great wrong at that person's hands. Let us say no more. Tell me about my dear mistress."

The varnish of unconscious affectation was transparent enough for Ferdinand to see through. The little old woman minced and bridled, and took quaintly sentimental airs, but she was moved a great deal, though in what way he could not guess. He sat and talked to her with a magnificent unbending, and she took his airs as no more than his right, and was well contented with them.

"And now, Reuben," cried Fuller, who, like everybody else, had noticed Miss Blythe's curious behavior to Ezra and was disturbed by it-"and now, Reuben, if thee hast got the old lady into fettle, let's have a taste of her quality. It's maney an' maney a year now since I had a chance of listenin' to her. Let's have a solo, lad. Gi'e us summat old and flavorsome. Let's have 'The Last Rose o' Summer.'"

Reuben sat down, threw one leg over the other, and began to play. The evening was wonderfully still and quiet, but

from far off, the mere ghost of a sound, came the voice of church-bells. Their tone was so faint and far away that at the first stroke of the bow they seemed to die, and the lovely strain rose upon the air pure and unmingled with another sound. Rachel ceased her emphatic noddings and her mincing whisper, and sat with her hands folded in her lap to listen. Ezra, with his gaunt hands folded behind him, stood with his habitual stoop more marked than common, and stared at the grass at his feet. Ruth, from her old station by the apple-tree, looked from one to the other. She had heard Sennacherib's story from her father, and her heart was predisposed to read a romance here, little as either of the actors in that obscure drama of so many years ago looked like the figures of a romance now. They had been lovers before she was born, and had quarrelled somehow, and had each lived single. And now, when they had met after this great lapse of years, the gray old man trembled, and the wrinkled old woman turned her back upon him. The music was not without its share in the girl's emotion. And there was Reuben, with manly head and great shoulders, with strength and masculine grace in every line of him, to her fancy, drawing the loveliest music from the long-silent violin, and staring up at the evening sky as he played. Ah! if Reuben and she should quarrel and part!

But Reuben had never spoken a word, and the girl, catching herself at this romantic exercise, blushed for shame, and for one swift second hid her face in her hands. Then with a sudden pretence of perfect self-possession, such as only a woman could achieve on such short notice, she glanced with an admirably casual air about her to see that the gesture had not been observed. Nobody looked at her. Her father and the two brothers were watching Reuben, Ezra preserved his old attitude, Ferdinand was fiddling with his eye-glass, and moving his hand and one foot in time to the music, and Rachel's strangely youthful eyes were bright with tears. As the girl looked at her a shining drop brimmed over from each eye and dropped upon the neat mantle of black silk she wore. The little old maid did not discover that she had been crying until Reuben's solo was over, and then she wiped her eyes composedly and turned to renew her conversation with Ferdinand.

"Ah!" said Fuller, expelling a great sigh when Reuben laid down his bow upon the table, "theer's a tone! That's a noble instrument, Mr. Gold."

"She'll be the better for being played upon a little," said Ezra, mildly.

"Well, thee seest," said Isaiah, with a look of contemplation, "her's been a leadin' what you might call a hideal sort o' life this five-and-twenty 'ear for a fiddle. Niver a chance of ketchin' cold or gettin' squawky. Allays wrapped up nice and warm and dry. Theer ain't, I dare venture to say it, a atom o' sap in the whole of her body. Her's as dry as-"

"As I be," interposed Sennacherib. "It 'ud be hard for anything to be drier. Let's have a drop o' beer, Fuller, and then we'll get to work."

Ruth ran into the house laughing, and the four musicians gathered round the table. Ferdinand arose, strolled towards them, and took up a position behind Sennacherib's chair. Ezra made an uncertain movement or two, and finally, with grave resolve, crossed the grass-plot and took the chair the young gentleman had vacated.

"I am informed, Miss Blythe," he said, with a slow, polite formality, "as you have come once more to reside among us." She inclined her head, but vouchsafed no other answer. The movement was prim to the verge of comedy, but it was plain that she meant to be chilly with him. He coughed behind his shaky white hand, and hesitated. "I do not know, Miss Blythe," he began again, with a new resolve, "in what manner I chanced to 'arn your grave displeasure. That is a thing I never knew." She turned upon him with a swift and vivid scorn. "A thing I never knew," he repeated. "If it is your desire to visit it upon me at this late hour, I have borne it for so many 'ears that I can bear it still. But I should like to ask, if I might be allowed to put the question, how it come to pass. I have allays felt as there was a misunderstandin' i' the case. It is a wise bidding in Holy Writ as says, 'Let not the sun go down upon thy wrath.' And when the sun is the sun of life the thing is the more important."

"My good sir," said Rachel, rising from her seat and asserting every inch of her small stature, "I desire to hold no communication with you now or henceforth."

"That should be enough for a man, Miss Blythe," said Ezra, mildly. "But why? if I may make so bold."

"I thought," said the little old lady, more starched and prim than ever, "I believed myself to have intimated that our conversation was at an end."

"You was not wont to be cruel nor unjust in your earlier days," Ezra answered. "But it shall be as you wish."

He left the seat, gave her a quaint old-fashioned bow, and returned to his former standing-place. Ruth was back again by this time, and Rachel crossed over to where she stood.

"Niece Ruth," she said, speaking after a fashion which was frequent with her, with an exaggerated motion of the lips, "I shall be obliged to you if you will accompany me to the house."

"Certainly, aunt," the girl answered, and placing an arm around her shoulders, walked away with her. "There is something the matter, dear. What is it?"

"There is nothing the matter," said the old lady, coldly.

"There is something serious the matter," said Ruth. They were in the house by this time, and sheltered from observation. "You are trembling and your hands are cold. Let me get you a glass of wine."

Aunt Rachel stood erect before her, and answered with frozen rebuke,

"In my young days girls were not encouraged to contradict their seniors. I have said there is nothing the matter."

Ruth bent forward and took the two cold, dry little hands in her own warm grasp, and looked into her aunt's eyes with tender solicitude. The hands were suddenly snatched away, and Aunt Rachel dropped into a seat, and without preface began to cry. Ruth knelt beside her, twining a firm arm and supple hand about her waist, and drawing down her head softly until its gray curls were pressed against her own ripe cheek. Not a word was spoken, and in five minutes the old maid's tears were over.

"Say nothing of this, my dear," she said, as she kissed Ruth, and began to smooth her ruffled ribbons and curls. Her manner was less artificial than common, but the veneer of affectation was too firmly fixed to be peeled off at a moment's notice. "We are all foolish at times. You will find that out for yourself, child, as you grow older. I have been greatly disturbed, my dear, but I shall not again permit my equilibrium to be shaken by the same causes. Tell me, child, is Mr. Ezra Gold often to be found here?"

"Not often," said Ruth; "he seems scarcely ever to move from home."

"I am glad to know it," said Aunt Rachel. "I cannot permit myself to move in the same society with Mr. Ezra Gold."

"We all like him very much," Ruth answered, tentatively.

"Ah!" said Aunt Rachel, pinching her lips and nodding. "You do not know him. I know him. A most despicable person. They will tell you that I am a little flighty."

"My dear aunt! What nonsense!"

"It is not nonsense, and you know it. I am a little flighty-at times. And I owe that to Mr. Ezra Gold. I owe a great deal to Mr. Ezra Gold, and that among it. Now, dear, not a word of this to anybody. Will you tell dear Mr. Ferdinand that I shall be honored if he will grace my humble cottage with his presence? Thank you. Good-night, child. And remember, not a word to anybody."

She dropped her veil and walked to the front door with her usual crisp and bird-like carriage. At the door she turned.

"Shun Mr. Ezra Gold, my dear. Shun all people who bear his name. I know them. I have cause to know them. They are cheats! deceivers! villains!"

She closed her lips tightly after this, and nodded many times. Then turning abruptly she hopped down the steps which led towards the garden gate, and disappeared. Ruth stood looking into the quiet street a moment, then closed the door and returned to the garden.

"Not all," she said to herself, as she paused in sight and hearing of the quartette party, who were by this time deep in an andante of Haydn's-"not all."

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