If you turn to the British Gazetteer of some years back, you may discover - I don't say that you will, mind - under the letter O, some interesting particulars concerning the village of Oakmere St Mary's, so called to distinguish it from the township of King's Oakmere, which is some twelve miles farther from London. You will likely enough light upon some such entry as this:
"OAKMERE ST MARY'S, a parish in the south division of Mogley hundred, on the western bank of the Trill, a tributary of the Run; union of Knogley, county of Uplandshire; 41½ miles from London (coach-road 29), 6 miles from Bilberry Bishop, 8 from Chiddle Abbots, 9 from Little Rigglington, and 12 from King's Oakmere. The living (St Mary's), a rectory in the Archdeaconry of Uplandshire, diocese of Binchester, is valued at 5l. 16s. 3d. ; present net income, 167l. ; patron, the Hon B C H Bertie-Bloxham, of The Chase, Mogley-Grimstone Grange, Glazely, Cumberland, and Bryanstone Square, London; present Incumbent, Rev Morris Baldersby (1818). Contains 1,064 acres, 23 houses, population in 18-, 189; poor-rates in 18-, 13l. 12s. ; tithes commuted in 1806. Access SE Railway to Minchcombe-le-Willows, thence 12 miles. Money orders issued at Bilberry Bishop; London letters delivered at 10½am ; post closed at 4pm. Several Roman antiquities have been discovered in the parish."After these remarkable particulars, is it possible that any one can want to know anything further about Oakmere St Mary's?
There may be very notable stories to be told of even very dull looking people; there may be much interesting matter attached to small and quiet-seeming places: the difficulty is to get at these things. Some fine morning our blank friend kindles into a brilliant creature: he has been smouldering all the while, capable at any moment of bursting into a flame if we had but known it. This quiet village, so unpretending amidst the soaring hills it neighbours, is scarcely known to human beings, forgotten apparently save by the sunshine, and the fresh air, and the flowers; to-morrow, a crime committed there, a benefaction, an accident, "an act of God or the king's enemies," as the old carriers' bills had it, and it rushes into notoriety and becomes an historical fact. Let the reader count upon his fingers the number of people and place which the occurrences of the past ten years, say, have made familiar words to him, and which before he had, perhaps, never even heard of. I think he will soon find that he has got his hands full.
However, Oakmere St Mary's is not yet famous, and perhaps it is hardly necessary for me to state that I am not going to make it so. Nothing I plan to relate concerning it will lift it into notoriety. Indeed, if any circumstance did exist capable of endowing this little place with general interest and value, for sufficient reasons, I should not be its historian; I should leave Oakmere St Mary's to be dealt with by more muscular hands; for I presume but to chronicle small beer: the historians of double stout and other more violently alcoholic liquors reside many doors off from me. I have no connection whatever with their establishments, as they will be careful to inform you, if you will take the trouble to inquire. I have but a small-beer story to tell about my small parish. If your worship looks for stronger potations, pass on, I prithee. I am not ashamed of the ware I deal in. Even malt decoction of this thinness may not be without good qualities. In certain cases it may be refreshing and wholesome, while I pledge my word that it shall never in any way trouble your head. It is not strong, and perhaps I may say at once that, very likely, it is not particularly new neither. Yet I believe there are certain old stories to which the world will always lend an ear.
A very pretty village. A close little cluster of thatch-roofed cottages; a few others that looked as though they had dropped off from the general group, like dissenting sects from a parent church, and settled down in different directions a few yards off; a smooth village green, sloping down from the winding white road, and pleasantly freckled with geese trooping pompously to their pond in the corner; a fine row of old elms fringing the highway, the sun streaking through their boughs, and making a sort of intricate marquetrie work of light and shade upon the road; the tiny tower of the church half-way up the hill backing the landscape golden and purple brown in the sunlit distance; - ought not these items to compose a charming picture? Well, and they did.
Shall I ever forget the great discussion between Fribble and Frabble - distinguished artists and close friends - when they came down from London formally to paint Oakmere St Mary's, partly on my recommendation. They had walked over from the station at Minchcombe-le-Willows, the day sultry, and they certainly tired and angry. (I have noticed that long walks do, as a rule, make people very cross indeed; though I would not, of course, in these times, hint one word against the advantages of violent exercise and physical exertion. Still, undoubtedly, fatigue tries the temper a good deal.) How they did squabble as to the point of view from which they should take Oakmere St Mary's! How they wrangled and abused each other! I thought at one time that Fribble would fairly shed tears over the debate. But I appreciated their difficulty at last. It was the pump!
Well, the pump in the centre of the green of Oakmere St Mary's was certainly not a picturesque object. In fact, I doubt if a pump can ever fairly be made picturesque. A fountain or a well is all right enough - and I am bound to say that art has never hesitated to make either of these advantages available. But a pump? Can we regard a pump aesthetically? Is there not something too burlesque, too grotesque about a pump, "considered in its quiddity?"1 Surely it bears the same relation to a fountain that a gorilla does to a man. One cannot get rid of its parody air. And it has a human look, too - a caricature resemblance of a one-armed human being. I have seen arms move very much upon the pump-handle principle, and that smooth iron ball on the top is really frightfully like many small bald heads that are about town clubs. No wonder Fribble and Frabble shrunk from depicting that useful ugly cylinder.
"Leave it out," I suggested to Frabble. How he turned up what would have been the whites of his eyes, if they had not been the yellows!
"Is there never to be honesty in art?" he cried. I had forgotten how ready he was with cut and dried ejaculation of that description, or I would never have given him such a chance.
It was unquestionably a blot upon the beauty of Oakmere St Mary's - that pump. And yet I remember when not long ago a scheme was unfolded to me for a new fountain, of strictly Gothic architecture, to be the substitute for the ugly, old pump, I rather hung back from aiding in the alteration. It was ugly, and - a pump. Still it was old, and a friend. And I have a sort of apprehension about new Gothic; it is so crisp and bright, spick span; and it has a cardboard and scissors look; it is so much like immature Stilton cheese, or new port wine. I want it with a blue mould and a crust. Contemplating Gothic architecture, I coincide with the bachelor's reflections on the baby - I regret that it cannot come into the world a few years old. Certainly, both buildings and babies may be too new and young to be pleasant. And I was happy to find that the pump agitation, after all, ended in nothing: Oakmere St Mary's is yet without a Gothic fountain on its green.
Sunday morning. The church is some half-mile from the village. The bells have ceased to ring. The last white smock-frock has left the green churchyard, and slouched up the red-paved aisle to his assigned pew. The clerk - a spectacled old man, with a head so bald and polished that it quite glitters in the sunlight - appears in the little gallery, and turns the handle of the organ with solemn slowness. The schoolmistress, a faded woman in limp bombazine, raises her rather worn soprano voice; it is wiry here and there, while there are notes in it that should be avoided - marked "dangerous," like cracked ice, still it has been a good voice once, before sorrow scored up such a heavy reckoning on the poor soul's forehead, and time compelled the wearing of that rusty false front. The simple anthem, "I will arise," swells through the church - not well executed, false in time often enough, and the closing notes drawn out painfully, as though they were on the rack; the noisy birds outside breaking in, too, in odd places, with their secular irreverential music, and yet with something touching in the primitive rendering of the prodigal's confession and praise. The Rev Morris Baldersby - such a little tremulous, bent old man (he was a fellow of Cassius, and tutor to the third Marquis of Trunkbury when Lord Twigford, and went on the grand tour with that young nobleman in '16; but he quarrelled with his charge at Venice, and so lost the presentation to the handsome living of Chinkstone-in-the-Wold, which had been always promised him, and was in the Marquis's gift; afterwards he married, and, of course, was obliged to resign his fellowship,2 and was, indeed, glad at last to become the rector of poor little Oakmere St Mary's: for Trunkbury, we all know all about his goings on, and "the creature" he ultimately raised to the rank of Marchioness, and the sort of life he has led since, and generally the credit he has been to his order) - the Rev Morris creeps to the reading desk, his hands cased in fretted, over-large black gloves, resting here and there on the pew-doors as he passes along the aisle. In low, and yet impressive tones, with perhaps a little of the pomp and sing-song of an old school of elocution in his delivery, the pastor leads his simple flock through the appointed morning service.
Meanwhile, a high-stepping, Roman-nosed, grey mare drew a yellow-wheeled chaise through the village; not at a very quick pace, for the mare had some distance to travel, and was indeed not so sound in her wind as she had been; but she got along pretty steadily, by dint of some snorting and blowing, and much wagging and swaying about of her head. A calm, shrewd, sun-withered looking man sat alone in the chaise, but troubled himself little enough about the business of driving; he held the reins loosely, and the whip was idle at his side; he let the mare have her own way: they were old friends, and he could not think of urging her on against her inclination, or acting contrarily to her will. So with a steady laziness the twain went through Oakmere St Mary's.
It was quite as well it was a healthy village. For this was Dr Gregor, the nearest medical man, and he came from Bilberry Bishop, six miles off, as we have seen. His patients, scattered about in different parishes, lived often at considerable distances from him, and his post of doctor to the sick-club took him very long rounds, and brought him in very little money. There was no church for him that Sunday. Perhaps he was off to see poor crippled Miss Hensingham, of Hensingham Priory, Chiddle Abbots, or to visit Squire Cotgreave's farm-bailiff, bad with the ague at Little Rigglington. "It was allays agerish at Little Rigglington," people said, "along o' Marsh." Anyhow, he stopped short half-way on the road through Oakmere St Mary's for he saw a man coming to him across the green.
"So it's you, is it?" said the doctor, cheerfully. "How are you, Mr Bryce?"
And he shook hands with a thin old man, with hair so white and closely clipped, that it looked like a down scull-cap made to fit very tightly.
"I'm hearty, thank'ee," answered Mr Bryce.
"Why, I thought it was a much younger man," the doctor went on, "you were walking at such a pace."
The old man chuckled approvingly.
"Eighty-seven," he said, "come Christmas. Eighty-seven, and all my faculties! all my faculties!"
It was noteworthy, however, that he would put his hand to his ear, after the manner of deaf people, whenever the doctor spoke.
"Not at church, Mr Bryce; how's that?"
"I'm going on there now. I've been looking up the skulkers a bit; they try to hide behind the pump, and think I shan't see 'em. But I'm one too many for 'em, I am. I've just sent on little Billy Martin. That boy'd never be at church at all, I do believe, if I weren't here to drive him. He's a bad 'un, that boy, if there ever was one."
As he put his hand again to his ear, the fact that he had lost two of his fingers became apparent.
"How's Miss Patty?"
"Grows quite a great girl;" and there was a pleased look in the old man's sharp blue eyes. "Takes a class now at the school, under the schoolmistress! I taught her - wonderful clever girl."
"And as pretty as ever?"
"God bless her!" said the old man; "she'll do, for the matter o' that, will my Patty."
The fortress city of Seringapatam was the capital of the Muslim rulers of the kingdom of Mysore, Haidar Ali and his eldest son, Tipu Sultan, "The Tiger of Mysore". Located on an island in the Cauvery (Kaveri) River, the name is derived from the ancient Hindu temple of Sri Rangar Swami which is on the west end of the island and was the site of two of the most famous sieges of the Anglo-Mysore Wars (in 1792 and 1799). The final assault on 4 May, 1799 resulted in the death of Tipu Sultan. As a result of this victory, the British were able to secure control of all of southern India.
For, indeed, the grey mare, listening attentively to this monologue, her ears twitching about vividly in her interest and excitement, had slackened pace considerably, and there were some miles to go before Hensingham Priory was reached - always supposing that Dr Gregor was proceeding thither.
Mr Bryce turned towards the church, the while looking out sharply, however, for "skulkers." He was much curved now by his years, and it was difficult to believe that in his youth he had stood six feet high. The old military bearing was gone of late; it was noticeable that Mr Bryce's back was very much bent now, that he moved more slowly, that his age was telling upon him - so all the village said. A handsome old man, but that the lines of his features were a little too hard and stern. He wore a very grim look when he was angry; his thick, projecting, white eyebrows came down over his fierce eyes, his nostrils dilated and stiffened, his lips disappeared, and left merely a deep dent or rut in his face to mark where his mouth was to be found ordinarily. There was rather a leonine expression on his face on the whole. No wonder the village boys shrunk from meeting the old sergeant-major of HM's 140th Regiment of Foot, especially in his wrathful moments. He had constituted himself a sort of aide-de-camp to the Rev Morris Baldersby, or rather a whipper-in, perhaps. He was always careful to note who were absent from church, going over a sort of mental muster-roll, and to ascertain after the service the reasons for their non-attendance; and just before service commenced he would make a round of the village to hunt up skulkers and arrest deserters. I think, if he had not been born to be a sergeant-major, he would have been a beadle - certainly the beadle element was very strong in him. I know he entertained a deep-seated belief that little boys were only sent into the world to be caned. He always twirled his little ratan as though with a longing to bring it well to bear upon youthful absentees from church, or delinquents during the service. And he would often conduct himself as a commissioner appointed to inquire into the state of education of the neighbourhood. He would suddenly pounce upon one of the school-children wandering about the country lanes, with the question, "Do you know your collic?" or the demand, "What did your godfathers and godmothers then for you?" It was rare indeed that the budding minds of this village were prepared for these abrupt calls upon them, and the ensuing flushing of faces, shortness of breath, and insufficient answers to his questions went far to confirm Mr Bryce in his opinions as to the general worthlessness of infancy, and the consequent necessity for the constant application of the ratan. He was a very strict disciplinarian; he knew what discipline had done at Seringapatam, and he had faith in court-martial decisions, and regretted that the cat-o'-nine-tails was never employed on civilians, nor in daily use in family circles. The village, perhaps, rather feared than loved him. He occupied a position midway between the gentlefolks and the working population. Still he was greatly respected, and, on the whole, Oakmere St Mary's was proud of him; in the first place, for being a wonderful old man - eighty-seven - and in possession of all his faculties; and next, as being, in the opinion of the village, out and out the greatest soldier - of course, after the Duke of Wellington - that England had ever known. He wore a military stock and white trousers, a grey coat closely buttoned, a shining oilskin cap with a military peak; and in church he always sat on the pulpit stairs, being a little hard of hearing, as he admitted, and anxious not to lose any part of the Rev Morris Baldersby's discourse.
The presence of Mr Bryce was almost as good as ipecacuanha for stopping coughs in church. His sharp eyes settled steadily upon an offender in this respect, and held him tightly, as it were, for several minutes; the punishment was more than sufficient for the offence. It is ever grievous pain to the agriculturist to be looked at; he is always shy and bashful, and prompt to blush. The white smock-frocks always turned their faces to the wall when they were called upon to execute (and "execute" is a fit and expressive word for the occasion) the "Dismissal," and other hymns in use by the congregation of St Mary's for they could not stand the gaze of their fellow-worshippers; and the man who dared to cough more than once during the sermon positively writhed under the resulting agony, inflicted by the piercing eye of the ex-Sergeant-Major.
But during the singing Mr Bryce's gaze was turned in another direction - away from the organ-loft and towards the chancel - and he looked not severely this time, but with pleasure and admiration. A little maiden, in a coarse straw hat, with very thick chesnut hair and very blue eyes, soft rosy cheeks, and a charmingly shaped little red-lipped mouth, sat there in charge of a detachment of school children, and often enhanced the music of the service by adding thereto her sweet mellow voice, perfectly in tune, and soft, flexible, and most witching in its tones.
Farmer Barford, the stout man with the hair brought over his forehead, the red face, the check neckcloth, the blue coat, and the very rough hat, wore a gloomy look, as he came out of church. He did not tarry to interchange salutations with his neighbours, according to custom. He pushed on rather crossly, with his wife at his side, and his two boys, like early editions of himself, following closely. Once fairly out of the precincts of the church, past the churchyard gate, and just by George the thatcher's cottage, Farmer Barford relieved his pent-up feelings; he turned round to his second son, Amos, and boxed his ears impetuously.
"You was catching flies dooring sarmon," Mr Barford said, by way of explanation of the blow.
"You wuz, and Muster Bryce he saw you. Do it again, and I'll hide'e well, I wull."
The boy bore the punishment, which made his face look redder and more swollen than ever - though before that would have seemed hardly possible - with a stolid courage and stubborn anger that were eminently Britannic. As his cheeks cooled his anger passed away. He had forgiven and forgotten the blow by the time he came to his second mouthful of the excellent roast pork the Barfords had for dinner that day.
"Tidy hot in church, I thought it," observed Farmer Barford, wiping his forehead with a scarlet handkerchief kept in his hat, and thoroughly warm in consequence.
"It were," Mrs Barford agrees, and then she continues: "Did you notice stoodent chap in chancel pew?"
"Him as lives over at Todd's? Didn't notice un pertikler to speak on."
"Looks poorly like," says Mrs Barford.
"Ah! them town lads I've noticed a'most allays has white faces and a sickerly sort of look. Suppose they can't help?"
Soon Mr Bryce and the little maiden in the straw hat had come up to the Barfords.
"Your Patty gets to sing nice, Mr Bryce," Mrs Barford remarks, with an amiable smile of greeting.
"She do," said the old man, with a grin of pleasure. "Uncommon fine this morning, I thought it," And then in a whisper, "Wonderful clever girl! I taught her."
"Never heerd you sing much though yerself, Muster Bryce," quoth Farmer Barford, boldly, undeterred by his wife's nods and signs not to offend the soldier, "less it was 'Jemmy-linkum-feedle,' or summut of that sort, at harvest supper."
"I taught her," repeated Mr Bryce, persistently and proudly, and putting away from him all opposition.
At the gate of the Barfords' farm the two families divide. Farmer Barford plucks a rose, the largest he can find.
"There, Patty," he says, giving her the flower with a gallantry that makes up in heartiness for its want of grace; "and it ain't such a pooty colour as your cheeks, neither, my dear."
Mrs Barford smiles approbation. Patty Dean blushes, and her cheeks beat the rose hollow in point of crimson.
"Why, you boys oughter a' thought o' that," Mrs Barford observes; "you'll never be half the man what your father were, neither of you."
The young Barfords look rather sheepish, and sniff in the air. Perhaps they are thinking of the roast pork, and prefer that occupation by a great deal to contemplating Patty's beauty. At certain periods of life the stomach prevails over the heart in a wonderful way.
"Have some more roses, Patty, if you like," says the farmer. And then, by way of explanation to the old soldier, "There's plenty here, and I've noticed as your roses is somehow backward this season, Muster Bryce."
Patty glanced timidly at her grandfather. From something she saw in his face she thought it best to take no more roses. They went on slowly and silently for some minutes to their cottage at the end of the green - the last cottage but one, that being the wheelwright's. They were soon out of sight of Farmer Barford's.
Mr Bryce eyed the rose for some time rather ill-naturedly.
"Are you very fond of flowers, Patty?" he asked.
"You don't care for that one in partikler, do you, Patty? I think we've got some in our garden that's every bit as good as that - every bit, only that Barford's given to bragging, and thinks all his things are ever so much better than anybody else's - a dull fool!"
"Oh, grandfather!" and Patty stopped quite suddenly, she was so shocked.
"Well, well, my dear, he means well; I dare say he means well. Perhaps one shouldn't call him names like - not of a Sunday, and coming from church and all. But those Barfords always want to be riding the high horse, and making presents, and looking down on one. I won't have it! Throw the flower away, Patty!"
"If you wish it, grandfather," she said, rather mournfully.
The old man laid a trembling hand upon her shoulder, and said, in a low, moved voice:
"They want you to love them more than me, Patty! They want to take away your love from me, Patty. Don't let them; don't, there's a dear lamb! I'm a very old man, Patty, and troublesome, very likely, and hard to please sometimes; but I'm your grandfather - I'm your poor mother's father - and they're strangers, quite strangers. They're not blood-kin to you in any way, my dear. Don't get to love them more than me - don't, Patty. I want all your love, every bit, my child. You must love no one else - nothing else - only me, Patty!"
She looked into his face in a strange, scared way. For a moment there was the gleam as of tears in her eyes. Then she let fall the rose, and they went on again.
"Who's that coming along behind us, Patty?" asked Mr Bryce.
Patty turned. She saw a young man following them, who stopped when he came to where she had dropped Farmer Barford's rose. Could she be mistaken? It seemed to her that he picked up the fallen flower, and thrust it into his breast-pocket. Again Patty blushed. She was rather given to blushing; and there was a slight falter in her voice as she said:
"It's the young man lodging at Todd's the wheelwright's."
"Do you know his name, my dear?"
"I think it's Becket; at least, so Mr Barford said."
What a splendid colour adorned Patty's cheeks! The old man muttered something. It sounded very like, "Bother Mr Barford!" Perhaps it was even a more forcible expression. Probably the army at Seringapatam was accustomed to hear and to use rather strong language. I can find no other excuse for him.
Was it from pure chance only that there came that beautiful glow on Patty's face - that brilliant gleam in Patty's eyes - when she mentioned the name of the young man lodging "over at Todd the wheelwright's?"
Mrs Barford was right. Certainly Mr Becket - "stoodent chap," as she called him - looked "poorly like;" had "a sickerly sort o' look," according to Mr Barford. It was a very white face that had appeared over the chancel-pew door every now and then, during the morning ministration of the Rev Morris Baldersby, for it was occasionally only that the members of his flock were visible to each other, the partitions between them were so high. During the Litany, for instance, the whole congregation were lost to view - secreted at the bottom of their pews - like solitary half-pence in separate money-boxes. But during the singing of the Psalms pale Mr Becket could be seen by all. He owned a handsome face, though it was so white. A little too womanly and delicate, perhaps, and wanned by illness apparently - yet certainly handsome, if only from its refinement and expression. Fair hair, a slender figure, and thin white nervous hands that matched the clergyman's only they were without their tremor. Mrs Barford had quick eyes. Did she notice that when Patty's singing from her seat near the communion-table drew Mr Bryce's approving gaze upon her, that Mr Becket's eyes also turned in the same direction - with looks of admiration of a very ardent kind indeed? But perhaps Mrs Barford was a woman of discretion. It is as well not to see too much. It is as well to let some events occur without comment.
Who was Mr Becket? He had come down from London in bad health; he had taken lodgings at Todd's; he was studying law.
Looking from the window at the back of Todd's house, it was not possible not to see ex-Sergeant-Major Bryce's garden; still less was it possible not to see Patty Dean if she happened to be in her grandfather's garden - and she was there very often.
The student sat at his window poring over a thick book - an ugly-looking book - bound in what is known as law calf, with the name on a red label at the back. He leant his head upon his hand, clutching a handful of his long light hair, and frowning as he read, curving his back and twisting his legs together after the usual inevitable unwise manner of students. It was very still. The soft-scented air blowing gently in at the open casement, fanning the student's white face - only the noise of the stray jasmine branch, that would tap now and then upon the panes, or the buzzing of the loaded bee bungling at the glass striving to burst his way through and make free with the flowers inside the room; or now and then the glad notes of that intrepid aeronaut, the lark, high up above - a musical rocket - raining down sparks of song upon the world. It would be very pleasant to be a-top of the purple hill at the back of the cottage, breathing the air at very first hand, as it were - while it was yet virginal and new - untaxed and unsoiled; or to be on one's back in the shade, watching the little Trill, enjoying its sparkling wrestle with its rushes! So the student thought, perhaps, as he glanced up at the sky - out at the hills - and then turned again to his law calf-bound book, and sighed. and this time thrust both hands into his tangled hair.
"An agreement by a feme covert, having separate estate, for the purchase of property, has been enforced against the seller upon the ground that she may contract as if she were a feme sole for the purchase of an estate, and that her property will be bound by the contract, although she do not refer to it. But in a case before Sir J Leach -"
Three times did the student stagger through this interesting paragraph, struggling to take it into his intelligence. But he couldn't. It was not the sky, nor the hill, nor the lark, nor the bee, nor the Trill that hindered him. Somehow he felt - there was as much feeling as seeing in the case - the presence of some one in Sergeant Bryce's garden. The next moment, and he encountered the exquisite blue eyes of Patty Dean! Of course each looked away instantly - he steadily at the sky, she intently on the ground. But the mischief was done. It was as though they were at the ends of a chain which love had electrified all ready for them. They had touched the wire - only with the very tips of their fingers - in the slightest way possible. It was enough.
Is love often so instantaneous as this? I don't know; I am only stating a single case, not laying down a general rule founded upon many facts. Certainly when Patty read in the student's rapt glance, "I love you!" she hung out signals in her eyes that expressed, as plainly as though she had spoken the words, "Thank you; I love you!"
Could he go on reading after that? Was it possible to chain himself to that ugly law book longer? No! "She may contract as if she were a feme sole!" What did the author mean? Would he dare to call that angel in Sergeant Bryce's garden - would he dare to speak of her as a feme sole? What an infamy! A feme sole! Ha! ha! Why not a fried sole? It was just as reasonable, quite as fit. That darling a feme sole! Great Heaven! And he kicked the book into a corner.
He strode about the room. There was a smile upon his lips now, and light in his eyes, and colour in his cheeks. He looked already a hundred per cent better. He seemed to grow quite healthy, muscular, and athletic all of a sudden. He gave the book another kick when he came into its neighbourhood; he squared pugilistically at an imaginary foe, and hit out at him. Suddenly he stopped.
Strange pictures find their way on to cottage walls. Balancing a dreadful print of Queen Charlotte, on the other side of the fire-place - a small sheaf of dried wheat, mixed with peacock's feathers, crowning each - there was an old brown German engraving, "The Temptation of St Anthony." A crowd of evil shapes leered and gibbered at a grey-bearded hermit in a cave, and skipped round him, and leaped over him, shrieking with laughter or vomiting fire. A charming young lady - a little over-fed, perhaps; but some German painters hold that there is no beauty without fat, or grace of form without rotundity - circled the saint's neck with nude white-satin arms, and looked with guileful eyes into his holy face. How intently the student examined this old print! He had passed it a hundred times before, and never dreamt of looking searchingly into it - had passed it over as an old drab patch upon the cottage wall. But now - it was very odd - very curious indeed. The artist imagining that work must have had a singular mind. Was he the student tempted like St Anthony, lured from his book to ruin by worthless loveliness?
He looked again from the window, and read in Patty's face an answer to the question. Harm! ruin! in such good, pure beauty as that? Impossible! He did not regret closing his book, nor even kicking it. And he devoted himself to watching Patty Dean's movements in Sergeant Bryce's garden. Hers was a simple occupation enough. A cord ran from the big apple-tree in the centre of the garden to the lime close to the house. On this cord Patty was engaged in hanging "the things" to dry. It was certainly interesting to the spectator, was this employment. There was an element of chance about it. Now she was quite hidden behind a turbulent swelling sheet; when would she emerge? What a time she kept out of sight! There she was! Ah! gone again in a second. It was like a game of peep-bo! and every time their eyes met, how they blushed, Patty and the student, and yet they enjoyed their own and each other's diffidence. They were quite children at the game - the game of love, I mean this time, and not peep-bo - but they played at it very creditably indeed for beginners. And the student grew desperately bad. He longed to sally forth, leap the little boundary hedge that sundered the domains of Mr Bryce and Mr Todd, and crown Patty with a wreath of apple-blossom; it was the most perfect decoration at hand, and very pretty would the white pink-tinted flowers have looked, starring Patty's clouds of chesnut hair, and setting off to perfection her blue eyes and her red lips, and the beautiful bloom of her cheeks; then fall at her feet, and do fealty to her as the lawful queen of his heart.
Altogether, perhaps, it was no wonder that he looked at her so earnestly from the chancel-pew, or that she blushed when she saw him pick up and treasure the rose Farmer Barford had given her, and Sergeant Bryce had begged her to discard.
What would grandfather say if he were to know all this? What, indeed! But then he didn't know it. All things considered, it may be that it was quite as well he didn't.
Sergeant Bryce sat in his garden, smoking a long clay pipe. On the rustic table before him rested a handsome wire cage, containing a canary bird with the brightest black eyes, and the gayest yellow plumage that ever were seen. Bird and cage had been presented to Patty, some months before, by Miss Ada Morris, the rector's grand-niece, who had been charmed by the way Mr Bryce's grand-daughter had distinguished herself in the school, and by her singing in church. The bird hopped from perch to perch of his cage in the most sprightly manner, and tilted his head to and fro the better to eye old Mr Bryce and his proceedings. A preliminary note or two, and the bird treated himself to quite a scena of song, full of difficulties, admirably executed. The merits of the performance, however, were lost on Mr Bryce. He simply scowled at the bird; if it had been a little bigger, I think he would have liked to use his ratan to it.
"Little beast!" he muttered, "how I hate that bird! I wish Patty wouldn't bring it out here, parading it about enough to make one sick. She's allays pampering of it, and a-smartening up of its cage, and a-talking to it, and a-singing and a-whistling, and making it peck sugar from 'twixt her lips. I can't think what makes her so fond of it. I can't see nothing in it. Ugly little devil I call it."
And he looked round cautiously to see if he were watched, and then puffed a cloud of tobacco-smoke into the cage. The poor bird looked very dismal indeed under this violent change of atmosphere.
"I wish that girl up at Rectory had kept the bird to herself," the old man went on, regardless of the canary's aspect of astonishment and distress. "Patty thinks of nothing, now, but this bird, I declare. All day long, from morning till night, there's no comfort in the house now - none. She's too fond of it, that's what she is; it isn't right. I hate to see her so fond of it; she used to care a bit for me once, but now -"
Suddenly the old man stopped, and put down his pipe; a strange eager look came into his face; then he scrutinised the cage with great care. He took off his oilskin cap, and wiped his forehead.
"Why, the door isn't fastened," he said, "the slightest touch would open it. It would hardly be my doing, supposing - supposing the door was to open and the bird to hop out, - hardly my doing; she ought to have seen that it was secure, of course she ought; it would be her own fault if the bird were to get away - entirely her own fault."
He thought over the matter a little. He took a puff or two at his pipe.
"Why, I believe a breath of wind, even, would do it. A breath -"
He stooped over the cage, and blew in another cloud of smoke from the side of the cage opposite to that he had operated upon before. The door opened a little, a very little only, so he helped it by means of his pipe. The bird, puzzled by the smoke, hopped down to inhale the fresh air coming in at the door, now wide open; hopped on to the frame of the door, peered round cautiously. The sergeant held his breath; the bird was out - on the table - on the ground - away - over the hedge!
The deed was done. Of course he was sorry for it the moment after; shocked at his meanness, ashamed of his jealousy, trembling all over, his hand shook so he could not hold his pipe, and it fell and broke, and he stood pale, cowed, and guilty-looking - before his grandchild!
"Oh, my poor birdie! my dear, darling, little birdie!" and Patty was in agony of sorrow.
"I couldn't help it, indeed I couldn't," he faltered. "You left the cage open, and the bird got out. I couldn't stop him, indeed I couldn't; you left the cage open."
"Poor, poor dickey!" Patty hid her face in her hands.
"Don't cry," said a voice they had neither of them heard before. Some one jumped over the hedge from the next garden. Patty looked up, and her eyes met the student's.
"It's quite safe," he said; "it flew straight to me, straight to my heart."
And he restored to her the little, warm, throbbing canary. In doing this their hands met for the first time. It seemed to be quite difficult to part them again. It was quite a long business, that passing the bird from his keeping to hers.
"How can I ever thank you enough," said Patty; "my darling! my darling!"
Of course these terms of endearment were intended for the bird; but somehow the student seemed to derive a sort of reflected tenderness from them.
"I am very glad," he said, "that I was able to secure it. But, indeed, I could hardly help it, for it flew straight to my heart."
He seemed to attach importance to that phrase - he dwelt upon it so. He turned to the old man:
"I saw how it escaped." he said, steadily.
The hedge once leapt, words interchanged, hands met, and there was not now one wire only bringing Patty and the student en rapport, there was a whole electric coil; they were knit together now in quite a tangle of love. Could it be long before the story of the student's passion found its way from his heart to his lips? One delicious moonlight night Patty was in the garden, quite accidentally of course, and in a moment there was the student on his knees before her, telling her what she must have known perfectly well, and which yet she trembled to hear. How her heart beat, and her voice fled from her! No; she couldn't speak. Poor Patty! The tears came into her eyes, and she stooped down and kissed her lover. Perhaps the action was more eloquent than speech, after all. Poor Patty!
A hoarse, harsh shout startled them. It was like a cracked gong breaking in upon a pastoral symphony. Sergeant-Major Bryce, with fury in his face, was sundering the lovers; driving angrily one into his cottage, menacing the other with a feeble fist.
"I'd never have believed it of you; never, Patty, never. To think you should come to this; tricking, and lying, and cheating your poor old grandfather, as has been so kind to you. No," he screamed, passionately, "crying ain't no use, not a bit; you bad, wicked, heartless girl, you. You've no more feeling than a stone, you know you haven't. I that has loved you so much, and hoped that you'd love only me - only me - a poor old man of eighty-seven. You might have waited a bit, Patty. I shan't be here long to trouble you. You might have waited till they took me to the churchyard, Patty. But you've no heart, no feelin', no thought but for your own wicked, worthless self. You bad girl, you - you," etc, etc.
So the old man rained down words that were blows upon poor Patty's devoted head.
"Don't speak so to me, grandfather, don't; you'll kill me."
And she went to him to kiss him. He thrust her from him rudely, fiercely even.
"Get away; I want no viper's kisses, I don't. You're no grandchild of mine, no more. You're not my Patty. You're not -"
But he stopped. Her face was so white that it frightened him, even in his senseless anger.
"Will you give him up, Patty?" he asked.
"Anything, anything!" she cried, in a strange, broken voice, "only don't, don't, for God's sake, speak to me like that!" and she fell fainting into his arms.
"Oh, no; never, never; it can never be," she said to her lover, at a last stolen interview; "have pity on me. Don't think unkindly of me, Henry. I do love you, indeed I do; but we must never meet again. I dare not see you any more; I hardly dare to think of you. My life belongs to him. Forgive me, Henry - and yet, no, no, please don't forget me."
What could he do? What but strain her to his heart, press his lips on her white face, swear that he would love her always, murmur, "God bless you, Patty!" and then turn his back upon Oakmere St Mary's. For ever?
Months went by. Autumn mists brooded over the village green, almost obscured the pump. The landscape wore a threadbare look, like an old coat. The foliage waned and faded. The trees were losing flesh, as it were, and fast becoming skeletons. The cold winds had commenced already to whistle through their naked branches. The flowers were gone, and with them the roses from Patty's cheeks. She was very pale now, and so thin and weak that any effort seemed to fatigue and pain her. She could sing no more in church now. She had tried, but her voice gave way. She burst into tears, and nearly swooned in front of the chancel pew.
And no news of the student? None. He had gone, and left no trace - save the sorrow in Patty's heart and eyes. One thing to mark his visit; the ugly law book, with the name of "Henry Becket" and a London address written on the fly-leaf - he had left that behind him. Todd the wheelwright - perhaps he could make a guess as to what had happened, he was a kind-hearted man, and very fond of his little neighbour Patty - Todd asked her if she would mind taking charge of the book until his lodger came or sent for it. Poor Patty! how she hugged it to her heart, and kissed it, and cried over it. It was a strange use to put a legal authority to. I don't think the learned author ever contemplated a feme sole conducting herself so curiously over his work.
"She'll go jist like her mother did afore her," so the old folks said up the village. "She fell sickerly, and got pale and agerish; and Muster Bryce, he ain't the man he were. Can't look after the boys in church as he used. He's agoing fast: and he be that deaf now -"
There were no more boasts about "eighty-seven, and all his faculties." He was very feeble and peevish, and his voice was now quite a whine.
There had been sickness at Farmer Barford's house. Little Amos had been bad with the measles, and Doctor Gregor had been constantly in attendance. The sufferer, however, was convalescent now, and Mrs Barford was able to talk to the doctor upon other subjects than her sick child. One morning she had a very long conversation indeed with him. I think she was putting him in possession of the history of Oakmere St Mary's during the past six months.
"He's a confounded old fool," said the doctor, when she had finished. "I am going on to Hensingham Priory. I'll call on him as I come back."
Some hours later and the doctor returned through Oakmere St Mary's.
"Is your neighbour in?" he asked of Todd the wheelwright. Todd nodded in reply.
"Then I'm going to bully him well," said the doctor.
"Tew can play at that," Todd answered with a grin. (Todd came from Devonshire originally.) And he chuckled to himself. "Bully old Bryce! That's something like a joke. The hardest-mouthed old man about these parts."
The doctor made his way into Bryce's cottage.
"You're a wicked old man," cried the doctor.
He paused, expecting a violent outburst in reply. Mr Bryce shuffled his feet and moved uneasily in his chair.
"I know I am," he said, humbly.
"You've made yourself miserable -"
"And you're breaking your grandchild's heart."
"Don't say that," and the old man held up his hands imploringly. The doctor had expected a fierce battle. But the foe surrendered without striking a blow.
"Don't you say she is going like her mother. I've heard them say so up the village. Anything but that. Don't you say it."
"Send for him then," said the doctor.
"I've thought of it often. I've been wrong and foolish, but I'm eighty-seven, you see. I'd have sent for him long ago, but -"
"I never knew his name, not to recollect it, much less his address."
Just then Patty entered with the law calf-bound book. When she pointed to the writing on the fly-leaf, there was more colour in her face than had been seen there for months.
"There's just half an hour to catch the London post," said the doctor, looking at his watch.
It was not very long after this that the Rev Morris Baldersby was busy with the Marriage Service.
"I, Henry, take thee, Patty," etc, etc. (She was christened Patty, it appeared.)
Did Mr Henry Becket's friends speak of a mésalliance ever? None who ever knew his wife. Indeed, she should have been accounted a good match. Her heart was of gold.
Mrs Barford provided a superb cake.
"Will you have it all," whispered the doctor to Sergeant Bryce, "or will a slice do? A slice? Very good. Eighty-seven, and all your faculties; and, listen: perhaps when you are eighty-eight, or a little better, a great-grandfather - think of that! But shall you want all your great grandchild's love? Won't a slice of it do? Yes, so I should think."
Patty's grandfather was convinced. He shook hands with the doctor, next with the bridegroom, then with everybody else in the room. He was perfectly happy and comfortable. And to demonstrate his possession of his faculties, and especially to delight Farmer Barford, he straightway struck up and sang twice through his favourite song, "Jemmy-linkum-feedle."
1. Quiddity, meaning "essence; what makes a thing what it is."
2. Fellows of the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges at this time had to be unmarried. If a fellow wished to marry then he had to resign his fellowship.
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