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   Chapter 14 No.14

Aunt Rachel / A Rustic Sentimental Comedy By David Christie Murray Characters: 18727

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Ferdinand, in obedience to the call of the political situation, had absented himself from Heydon Hay for a week or two. The Liberals had put into the field a stronger man than he had expected to encounter, and there was a sudden awakening in the constitutional camp. He had to go the rounds and visit his bandsmen, and without being particularly alert himself to see that everybody else was on the qui vive. The constitutional candidate was, perhaps, as little interested in the coming strife as any man in the limits of the constituency, but he had allowed himself to be entered for the race, and was bound to a pretence of warmth even if he could not feel it. Ruth was not much in his mind while he was away, but when he came back again he found time once more hanging heavy on his hands; and being greeted by her when he went to listen to the quartette party precisely as he had been from the first, he determined more than ever to start a pronounced flirtation with the haughty little hussy, and bring her to a proper sense of her position. So he went early to church afoot on Sunday morning, leaving his lordship to follow alone in his carriage, and he chatted affably with the members of the little crowd that lingered about the lich-gate and the porch, and there awaited Ruth's coming.

Fuller was rather impressed with the young man's civility as a general thing, being open to the territorial sentiment, and was proud to be singled out from the rest by the Earl of Barfield's visitor, and publicly talked to on terms of apparent equality. And Ruth, who accompanied her father, was on this particular morning not quite what she had been hitherto. "When Ferdinand raised his hat and proffered her his hand she blushed, and her eyes held a singular uncertainty he had never before remarked in them. He could even feel in the few brief seconds for which her hand lay in his own that it trembled slightly. Aha! She began to awake, then. The young Ferdinand plumed himself and spread himself for her vision. The old man, not unwilling that his neighbors should remark him in familiar intercourse with the great of the land, lingered at the porch, and for once Ruth did not desert his side and run into the church alone.

"Upon my word," said Ferdinand, "there is something in the air of Heydon Hay, Mr. Fuller, which would seem to be unusually favorable to the growth of feminine charms. May I congratulate Miss Ruth upon her aspect this morning?"

He meant the little thing no harm. He could compliment her in her father's presence as easily as out of it, and perhaps with a better conscience. Whensoever loosed from the string the arrow of compliment would find its mark. Besides, the very carelessness of his appreciation would help its force. He might be a little kinder and more confidential later on.

"Well, sir," said Fuller, with a chuckle, "her's bound to look her best just now."

"Father," said Ruth, with an amazingly sudden vivacity, "I want to speak to you. Excuse us, Mr. De Blacquaire."

Her face was of the color of the rose from brow to chin, and her eyes were as shy as ever in spite of her vivacity. They met Ferdinand's smiling, conquering glance for a moment, and no more. He raised his hat and withdrew. He had shot his arrow, and had hit the white. He could afford to retire contented for the moment, and he did so. But by-and-by that young Gold, who played first fiddle in the quartette, came up with his auburn mane, with his fiddle tucked under his arm, and stopped to talk with Ruth and Fuller. Ferdinand, exchanging a friendly word or two with a doubtful voter, watched with interest. She was blushing still, and still surveying the ground, and marking patterns on it with the toe of her pretty little boot-conscious of his glance, the puss, no doubt, and was posing a little for his admiration.

Ferdinand sat in the Barfield pew, and Ruth sat opposite. Why, the philtre was working more and more! She was so conscious that she seemed scarcely able to raise her eyes; and when, as happened no less than three times, she met his glance, she looked down in the sweetest confusion. The victorious young gentleman was so absorbed in his own reflections that he took but little note of the service, and suffered his attention to it to be for the most part mechanical. But on a sudden a certain quite indefinable sense of general interest touched him. Something was doing, or was going to be done, which was not altogether in the common.

"I publish banns of marriage," said Parson Hales, in those generous old port-wine tones of his, "between Reuben Gold, bachelor, and Ruth Fuller, spinster, both of this parish, and-"

Mr. Ferdinand de Blacquaire realized with a shocking suddenness and vividness that he was an ass and a puppy. He learned later on that he was not absolutely either, but he gets a twinge out of "I publish banns of marriage," even unto this day.

Sennacherib, who sat near Reuben in the music-gallery, nudged him with his elbow.

"Knowest what's what?" he whispered, to the younger man's prodigious scandal and discomfort. "Hast got the best wench i' the parish."

Reuben would willingly have chosen another time and place for the receipt of congratulations.

Both Rachel and Ezra were in church, and each looked seriously and sadly down, thinking of what might have been.

When service was over the ringers met by previous arrangement, and startled Heydon Hay with a peal. Ezra was at Rachel's side when the flood of sound descended on them and drowned his salutation. But they shook hands, and walked away side by side until they reached the front of Ezra's house, when Rachel turned to say good-by.

"I'll walk a little way if you'll permit it, Miss Blythe," said Ezra; and the old maid assenting, they walked on until the strenuous clang of the bells was softened into music. "They'll mek a handsome couple," said Ezra, breaking the silence.

"Upon acquaintance with the young man," said Rachel, "I discover many admirable qualities in him." The speech was prim still, and was likely to continue so, but it had lost something, and had gained something. It would be hard to say what it had lost or gained, and yet the change was there, and Ezra marked it, and thought the voice tenderer and more womanly. Perhaps the flood-tide of youth which had swept over her heart at their reconciliation had not entirely ebbed away, and its inward music lent an echo to her speech. If it were there still, it was that which lent some of its own liquid sweetness to her look. Not much, perhaps, and yet a little, and discernible.

There were half a dozen homeward-going worshippers ahead of them, a hundred yards away, and a handful more a hundred yards behind, as Ezra's backward glance discerned. They were all moving in the same direction, and at pretty much the same pace. The air was very quiet, and the clear music of the bells made no hinderance to their talk.

"I'm thinkin', Miss Blythe," said Ezra, slowly, walking with his hands clasped behind him and his downcast eyes just resting on her face and gliding away again, "I'm thinkin' as the spectacle of them two young lives being linked the one with the other gives a sort of a lonely seeming to the old age as you and me has got to look to."

"Perhaps so, Mr. Gold," said Rachel, stopping with dry brevity in her walk and holding out her hand. "I must hasten homeward. I wish you a good-morning."

Ezra took her proffered hand in his, shook it gravely, and accepted his dismissal.

Not many newspapers came to Heydon Hay, and the few that found their way thither reached the regular subscribers a day or two after their news was stale to London readers. Ezra got his Argus regularly every Tuesday morning, and in fine weather would sit in the garden to read it. It happened that on the Tuesday after the first time of asking of the banns, he sat beneath a full-leaved, distorted old cherry-tree, gravely reading "Our Paris Correspondence," when his eye fell upon an item of news or fancy which startled him and then set him a-thinking. "All Paris," said our correspondent, "was delightfully fluttered by the approaching marriage of the Marquis of B. and Madame De X. Madame De X. was a reigning beauty in the days of the Consul Plancus. It would be unfair to reveal her precise age even if one knew it. The Marquis of B. was turned seventy. The two had been lovers in their youth, and had been separated by a misunderstanding. The lady had married, but the gentleman for her sake had kept single. Monsieur X. had lived with his bride for but a year, and had then succumbed to an attack of phthisis. Now, after a separation of forty years, the two lovers had met again, the ancient misunderstanding had been romantically explained, and they had decided to spend the winter of their days together. Paris was charmed, Paris was touched by this picture of a life-long devotion presented by the Marquis of B."

Ezra, rising from his seat, laid the paper upon it and walked soberly about the garden. Then he took up the journal, surrounded the paragraph which related to the devotion of the Marquis of B. with heavy ink-marks, waited patiently until the lines dried, folded up the paper, put it in his pocket, and walked into the road. There he turned to the left, and went straight on to Miss Blythe's cottage. There in the g

arden was Miss Blythe herself, in a cottage bonnet and long gloves, busily hoeing with little pecks at a raised flower-bed of the size of a tea-tray. She looked up when Ezra paused at the gate, nodded with brisk preciseness in answer to his salutation, and then went on industriously pecking at the flower-bed.

"My weekly paper has just arrived, Miss Blythe," said Ezra. "It appears to contain an unusual amount of interestin' matter, and I thought I'd ask you in passing if you'd care to have a look at it."

"You are remarkably obliging, Mr. Gold," said Rachel. "I thank you extremely." She took the newspaper from his hand and retired into the house with it. Ezra lingered, and she returned to resume her occupation.

"It is beautiful weather," said Ezra.

"It is beautiful weather, indeed," said Rachel. Ezra lingered on, but rather hopelessly, for she would not so much as glance in his direction so far as he could see, but her features were entirely hidden by the cottage bonnet.

"I trust you will find a item or two as will be of interest," he said, after a lengthy pause. Rachel contented herself with an emphatic-seeming little nod at the flower-bed. "Good-day, Miss Blythe."

"Good-day, Mr. Gold, and thank you very much for being so good as to think of me."

They did not encounter again until the following Sunday morning, when the banns between Ruth and Reuben were called a second time. The ringers were at work again when Ezra and Rachel met in the porch as the church-goers streamed slowly away, and the two shook hands mutely. They walked on side by side until Ezra's house was reached, and neither spoke until then. Pausing before the door, Miss Blythe put out her hand.

"If I might be allowed to go a little farther, Miss Blythe," said Ezra, gently. Rachel withdrew her hand and said nothing. So once more they walked, apart from other home-going worshippers, down the lane that led to Rachel's cottage.

"Did you," began Ezra, pausing to cough behind his hand-"did you tek a look at the paper, Miss Blythe?" He received a nod for sole answer, unless the pinching of the lips and an unconsciously affected maiden drooping of the eyelids might be supposed to add to it. "Did you happen to read a particular item," said Ezra, pausing to cough behind his hand again, "a item in the letter from Paris?"

"Really, Mr. Gold," said Rachel, marching on with exceeding stateliness, and looking straight before her, "at our ages that piece of news would offer a very frivolous theme for conversation."

"Might we not talk of it without being frivolous, Miss Blythe?" asked Ezra.

"Decidedly not, in my opinion," Miss Blythe responded.

"To talk of love," pursued Ezra, glancing at her now and then, "in the sense young people use the word, between persons of the ages of that lady and gentleman, 'ud be frivolous indeed. But I persoom, Miss Blythe, they did not talk so."

"I should think not, indeed," said Rachel, with decision. "I should hope not."

"But to talk of love as love is betwixt the elderly-to talk of companionship-to talk of shelterin' one another again the loneliness of late old age-to talk of each one tekin' up the little remnant of life as was left to 'em and putting it i' the other's hands for kindly keepin'! Should you think as that was ridiculous, Rachel?"

"I should think," said Rachel, "that old fools are the greatest fools of all." Ezra sighed. "I do not know," she said at this, "that the poor-marquis is so much to blame, but the lady should have known better than listen to his folly."

"I had thought," said Ezra, patiently, "you would ha' took a different view of it, Rachel." They went on to the gate without another word. "Good-morning, Rachel," Ezra said there. "Don't be afraid of me. I will not come back again to this subject. I had hoped you would not ha' looked on it with such mislikin'; but sence you do, I will say no more about it."

So they parted, and met again and were good friends, and not infrequent companions, and Ezra said no more.

The eve of Reuben's great day came round, and Reuben was dismissed from his sweetheart's presence to wander where he would, for Ruth and her assistants (among whom was none more important than Aunt Rachel) had a prodigious deal to do. The lovers were to leave directly after their marriage for no less a place than London, and there were dresses to be tried on and finished and packed, and altogether the time was trying. In his wanderings about the fields Reuben encountered the younger Sennacherib, whom he strove vainly to avoid; not because he disliked him, but because his own thoughts kept him in better company just then than the younger Sennacherib was likely to provide in his own person. But Snac was not a man to be lightly shaken off, and Reuben bent himself to listen to him as best he might.

"So," said young Sennacherib, "thee beest goin' to enter into the bounds of 'oly matterymony?" Reuben laughed, and nodded an affirmative. "Well, theest done a very pretty thing for me amongst you."

"For you?" said Reuben. "How?"

"Why this way," said Snac, bending his knees to make the tight embraces of his cords endurable. "Thee wast by when my feyther gi'en me the farewell shillin'. Very well. I'd got nothin' i' the world, and he knowed it. After a bit he begun to relent a bit, though nobody 'd iver had expected sich a thing. But so it was. He took to sendin' me a sov a week, onbeknownst to anybody, and most of all to mother. Well, mother sends me a sov a week from the beginning unbeknownst to anybody, and most of all him. Her'd ha' gone in fear of her life if her'd ha' guessed he knowed it. And now my income's cut down to half, and all because of this here weddin' o' thine."

"I don't see how," said Reuben.

"Why thus," said Snac, with a somewhat rueful grin. "This here Rachel Blythe as has come back to the parish has come to a reconciling with your uncle, as was a by-gone flame of hern; and her tells my mother as it's thee and thy bride as browt that to pass."

"True enough," Reuben allowed; "but still I don't see-"

"An' niver will see," said Snac, "till thee lettest me tell thee. Her comes to my feyther's house, this Miss Blythe, an' tells mother what a beautiful thing this reconcilin' is, and they fall to weepin' and cry-in' to my feyther both together, an' all on a sudden, t' everybody's mightiest astonishing, what's he to do but say, 'Theer, I forgi'en him. Hold your jaw, the pair on you!' Well, now, see what a pitch I'm let to fall on. Feyther durn't tell mother for his life as he helped me; her durn't tell him as her helped me. So they mek up their minds to gi'e me a pound a week betwigst the two on 'em, and that's how it comes about with these here cussed reconcilings, as I'm done out o' fifty per cent, o' my income. Look here, Mr. Gold, don't you goo about reconcilin' no more of my relations."

"Why, Snac," cried Reuben, "it's none of my doing."

"Well," Snac allowed, "it'd be hard upon a man to mek him answerable for all the doin's of his wife's mother's second cousin. But if it had been a man as had ha' done it, I'd ha' had a try to punch his head for him. I should ha' took a trial trip at you yourself, Mr. Gold, for all so big and all so handy as you be."

"Well, Snac," said Reuben, "it will be all the bet-ter for you in the end, and I hope it may mend sooner. But if the fact of my meaning to get married has done so much good as you say it has, I'm very glad to know it, and I'll take it as a happy sign."

It seemed an augury of happiness as he walked alone about the fields, and dwelt upon it. It seemed a fitting thing that love should spread peace abroad, and that peace should multiply itself.

On the morrow the ringers rang; and being inspired by plenitude of beer and rich gratuity, and hearty good-will into the bargain, they rang till sundown. And when the wedding was over, and the bride and bridegroom had driven away with cheers and blessings in their train, the wedding-guests sat in the garden with the sylvan statues standing solemnly about, and the bells making joyful music. Everybody was very sober and serious when the excitement of cheering away the wedded pair was over, and in a while the guests began to go. Ezra and Rachel lingered among the latest, and Rachel's going was the signal for Ezra to say his good-bys and follow. She made no objection to his society, and they walked on without speaking. The declining sun shone full in their faces, and cast their shadows far behind. Except for themselves the lane was lonely.

"Did you see in last week's copy of the Argus," said Rachel, suddenly, and with great dryness, "that the Marquis of B. and the lady are united?"

"I noted it," said Ezra. "Do you think so badly of them as you did?"

Rachel said nothing.

"Do you think so badly of them as you did?" he asked again, and still Rachel said nothing. The lane was lonely. He laid a hand upon the shoulder nearest him, and asked the question for a third time. Still she said not a word, but bent her head, perhaps to avoid the level sunlight. "Shall we garner up the years that are left for us together, dear?"

She gave no answer still, but he seemed to understand. They walked on side by side towards the sunset, and the joy-bells, half sad with distance, sounded in their ears.

THE END.

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