Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXII

Betsy Bowen

So far, then, there was nobody found to go into my case, and to think with me, and to give me friendly countenance, with the exception of Firm Gundry. And I feared that he tried to think with me because of his faithful and manly love, more than from balance of evidence. The Sawyer, of course, held my father guiltless, through his own fidelity and simple ways; but he could not enter into my set thought of a stern duty laid upon me, because to his mind the opinion of the world mattered nothing so long as a man did aright. For wisdom like this, if wisdom it is, I was a great deal too young and ardent; and to me fair fame was of almost equal value with clear conscience. And therefore, wise or foolish, rich or poor, beloved or unloved, I must be listless about other things, and restless in all, until I should establish truth and justice.

However, I did my best to be neither ungrateful nor stupidly obstinate, and, beginning more and more to allow for honest though hateful opinions, I yielded to dear Mrs. Hockin’s wish that I should not do any thing out of keeping with English ideas and habits. In a word, I accepted the Major’s kind offer to see me quite safe in good hands in London, or else bring me straightway back again. And I took only just things enough for a day or two, meaning to come back by the end of the week. And I kissed Mrs. Hockin just enough for that.

It would not be a new thing for me to say that “we never know what is going to happen;” but, new or stale, it was true enough, as old common sayings of common-sense (though spurned when not wanted) show themselves. At first, indeed, it seemed as if I were come for nothing, at least as concerned what I thought the chief business of my journey. The Major had wished to go first to the bank, and appeared to think nothing of any thing else; but I, on the other hand, did not want him there, preferring to keep him out of my money matters, and so he was obliged to let me have my way.

I always am sorry when I have been perverse, and it seemed to serve me right for willfulness when no Betsy Bowen could be discovered either at the place which we tried first, or that to which we were sent thence. Major Hockin looked at me till I could have cried, as much as to hint that the whole of my story was all of a piece, all a wild-goose chase. And being more curious than ever now to go to the bank and ransack, he actually called out to the cabman to drive without delay to Messrs. Shovelin, Wayte, and Shovelin. But I begged him to allow me just one minute while I spoke to the servant-maid alone. Then I showed her a sovereign, at which she opened her mouth in more ways than one, for she told me that “though she had faithfully promised to say nothing about it, because of a dreadful quarrel between her mistress and Mrs. Strouss that was now, and a jealousy between them that was quite beyond belief, she could not refuse such a nice young lady, if I would promise faithfully not to tell.” This promise I gave with fidelity, and returning to the cabman, directed him to drive not to Messrs. Shovelin, Wayte, and Shovelin just yet, but to No. 17 European Square, St. Katharine’s.

From a maze of streets and rugged corners, and ins and outs nearly as crooked as those of a narrow human nature, we turned at last into European Square, which was no square at all, but an oblong opening pitched with rough granite, and distinguished with a pump. There were great thoroughfares within a hundred yards, but the place itself seemed unnaturally quiet upon turning suddenly into it, only murmurous with distant London din, as the spires of a shell hold the heavings of the sea. After driving three or four times round the pump, for the houses were numbered anyhow, we found No. 17, and I jumped out.

“Now don’t be in such a fierce hurry, Miss Wood,” cried the Major, who was now a little crusty; “English ladies allow themselves to be handed out, without hurrying the gentlemen who have the honor.”

“But I wanted to save you the honor,” I said. “I will come back immediately, if you will kindly wait.” And with this I ran up the old steps, and rang and knocked, while several bearded faces came and gazed through dingy windows.

“Can I see Mrs. Strouss?” I asked, when a queer old man in faded brown livery came to the door with a candle in his hand, though the sun was shining.

“I am the Meesther Strouss; when you see me, you behold the good Meeses Strouss also.”

“Thank you, but that will not do,” I replied; “my business is with Mrs. Strouss alone.”

He did not seem to like this at first sight, but politely put the chain-bolt on the door while he retired to take advice; and the Major looked out of the cab and laughed.

“You had better come back while you can,” he said, “though they seem in no hurry to swallow you.”

This was intended to vex me, and I did not even turn my head to him. The house looked very respectable, and there were railings to the area.

“The house is very respectable,” continued Major Hockin, who always seemed to know what I was thinking of, and now in his quick manner ran up the steps; “just look, the scraper is clean. You never see that, or at least not often, except with respectable people, Erema.”

“Pray what would my scraper be? and who is Erema?” cried a strong, clear voice, as the chain of the door was set free, and a stout, tall woman with a flush in her cheeks confronted us. “I never knew more than one Erema — Good mercy!”

My eyes met hers, and she turned as pale as death, and fell back into a lobby chair. She knew me by my likeness to my father, falling on the memories started by my name; and strong as she was, the surprise overcame her, at the sound of which up rushed the small Herr Strouss.

“Vhat are you doing dere, all of you? vhat have you enterprised with my frau? Explain, Vilhelmina, or I call de policemans, vhat I should say de peelers.”

“Stop!” cried the Major, and he stopped at once, not for the word, which would have had no power, although I knew nothing about it then, but because he had received a sign which assured him that here was a brother Mason. In a moment the infuriated husband vanished into the rational and docile brother.

“Ladies and gentlemans, valk in, if you please,” he said, to my great astonishment; “Vilhelmina and my good self make you velcome to our poor house. Vilhelmina, arise and say so.”

“Go to the back kitchen, Hans,” replied Wilhelmina, whose name was “Betsy,” “and don’t come out until I tell you. You will find work to do there, and remember to pump up. I wish to hear things that you are not to hear, mind you. Shut yourself in, and if you soap the door to deceive me, I shall know it.”

“Vere goot, vere goot,” said the philosophical German; “I never meddle with nothing, Vilhelmina, no more than vhat I do for de money and de house.”

Betsy, however, was not quite so sure of that. With no more ceremony she locked him in, and then came back to us, who could not make things out.

“My husband is the bravest of the brave,” she told us, while she put down his key on the table; “and a nobler man never lived; I am sure of that. But every one of them foreigners — excuse me, Sir, you are an Englishman?”

“I am,” replied the Major, pulling up his little whiskers; “I am so, madam, and nothing you can say will in any way hurt my feelings. I am above nationalities.”

“Just so, Sir. Then you will feel with me when I say that they foreigners is dreadful. Oh, the day that I ever married one of ’em — but there, I ought to be ashamed of myself, and my lord’s daughter facing me.”

“Do you know me?” I asked, with hot color in my face, and my eyes, I dare say, glistening. “Are you sure that you know me? And then please to tell me how.”

As I spoke I was taking off the close silk bonnet which I had worn for travelling, and my hair, having caught in a pin, fell round me, and before I could put it up, or even think of it, I lay in the great arms of Betsy Bowen, as I used to lie when I was a little baby, and when my father was in his own land, with a home and wife and seven little ones. And to think of this made me keep her company in crying, and it was some time before we did any thing else.

“Well, well,” replied the Major, who detested scenes, except when he had made them; “I shall be off. You are in good hands; and the cabman pulled out his watch when we stopped. So did I. But he is sure to beat me. They draw the minute hand on with a magnet, I am told, while the watch hangs on their badge, and they can swear they never opened it. Wonderful age, very wonderful age, since the time when you and I were young, ma’am.”

“Yes, Sir; to be sure, Sir!” Mrs. Strouss replied, as she wiped her eyes to speak of things; “but the most wonderfulest of all things, don’t you think, is the going of the time, Sir? No cabby can make it go faster while he waits, or slower while he is a-driving, than the minds inside of us manage it. Why, Sir, it wore only like yesterday that this here tall, elegant, royal young lady was a-lying on my breast, and what a hand she was to kick! And I said that her hair was sure to grow like this. If I was to tell you only half what comes across me —”

“If you did, ma’am, the cabman would make his fortune, and I should lose mine, which is more than I can afford. Erema, after dinner I shall look you up. I know a good woman when I see her, Mrs. Strouss, which does not happen every day. I can trust Miss Castlewood with you. Good-by, good-by for the present.”

It was the first time he had ever called me by my proper name, and that made me all the more pleased with it.

“You see, Sir, why I were obliged to lock him in,” cried the “good woman,” following to the door, to clear every blur from her virtues; “for his own sake I done it, for I felt my cry a-coming, and to see me cry — Lord bless you, the effect upon him is to call out for a walking-stick and a pint of beer.”

“All right, ma’am, all right!” the Major answered, in a tone which appeared to me unfeeling. “Cabman, are you asleep there? Bring the lady’s bag this moment.”

As the cab disappeared without my even knowing where to find that good protector again in this vast maze of millions, I could not help letting a little cold fear encroach on the warmth of my outburst. I had heard so much in America of the dark, subtle places of London, and the wicked things that happen all along the Thames, discovered or invented by great writers of their own, that the neighborhood of the docks and the thought of rats (to which I could never grow accustomed) made me look with a flash perhaps of doubt at my new old friend.

“You are not sure of me, Miss Erema,” said Mrs. Strouss, without taking offense. “After all that has happened, who can blame it on you? But your father was not so suspicious, miss. It might have been better for him if he had — according, leastways, to my belief, which a team of wild horses will never drag out.”

“Oh, only let me hear you talk of that!” I exclaimed, forgetting all other things. “You know more about it than any body I have ever met with, except my own father, who would never tell a word.”

“And quite right he was, miss, according to his views. But come to my little room, unless you are afraid. I can tell you some things that your father never knew.”

“Afraid! do you think I am a baby still? But I can not bear that Mr. Strouss should be locked up on my account.”

“Then he shall come out,” said Mrs. Strouss, looking at me very pleasantly. “That was just like your father, Miss Erema. But I fall into the foreign ways, being so much with the foreigners.” Whether she thought it the custom among “foreigners” for wives to lock their husbands in back kitchens was more than she ever took the trouble to explain. But she walked away, in her stout, firm manner, and presently returned with Mr. Strouss, who seemed to be quite contented, and made me a bow with a very placid smile.

“He is harmless; his ideas are most grand and good,” his wife explained to me, with a nod at him. “But I could not have you in with the gentleman, Hans. He always makes mistakes with the gentlemen, miss, but with the ladies he behaves quite well.”

“Yes, yes, with the ladies I am nearly always goot,” Herr Strouss replied, with diffidence. “The ladies comprehend me right, all right, because I am so habitual with my wife. But the gentlemans in London have no comprehension of me.”

“Then the loss is on their side,” I answered, with a smile; and he said, “Yes, yes, they lose vere much by me.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31