Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXIII

Betsy’s Tale

Now I scarcely know whether it would be more clear to put into narrative what I heard from Betsy Bowen, now Wilhelmina Strouss, or to let her tell the whole in her own words, exactly as she herself told it then to me. The story was so dark and sad — or at least to myself it so appeared — that even the little breaks and turns of lighter thought or livelier manner, which could scarcely fail to vary now and then the speaker’s voice, seemed almost to grate and jar upon its sombre monotone. On the other hand, by omitting these, and departing from her homely style, I might do more of harm than good through failing to convey impressions, or even facts, so accurately. Whereas the gist and core and pivot of my father’s life and fate are so involved (though not evolved) that I would not miss a single point for want of time or diligence. Therefore let me not deny Mrs. Strouss, my nurse, the right to put her words in her own way. And before she began to do this she took the trouble to have every thing cleared away and the trays brought down, that her boarders (chiefly German) might leave their plates and be driven to their pipes.

“If you please, Miss Castlewood,” Mrs. Strouss said, grandly, “do you or do you not approve of the presence of ‘my man,’ as he calls himself? — an improper expression, in my opinion; such, however, is their nature. He can hold his tongue as well as any man, though none of them are very sure at that. And he knows pretty nigh as much as I do, so far as his English can put things together, being better accustomed in German. For when we were courting I was fain to tell him all, not to join him under any false pretenses, miss, which might give him grounds against me.”

“Yes, yes, it is all vere goot and true — so goot and true as can be.”

“And you might find him come very handy, my dear, to run of any kind of messages. He can do that very well, I assure you, miss — better than any Englishman.”

Seeing that he wished to stay, and that she desired it, I begged him to stop, though it would have been more to my liking to hear the tale alone.

“Then sit by the door, Hans, and keep off the draught,” said his Wilhelmina, kindly. “He is not very tall, miss, but he has good shoulders; I scarcely know what I should do without him. Well, now, to begin at the very beginning: I am a Welshwoman, as you may have heard. My father was a farmer near Abergavenny, holding land under Sir Watkin Williams, an old friend of your family. My father had too many girls, and my mother scarcely knew what to do with the lot of us. So some of us went out to service, while the boys staid at home to work the land. One of my sisters was lady’s-maid to Lady Williams, Sir Watkin’s wife, at the time when your father came visiting there for the shooting of the moor-fowl, soon after his marriage with your mother. What a sweet good lady your mother was! I never saw the like before or since. No sooner did I set eyes upon her but she so took my fancy that I would have gone round the world with her. We Welsh are a very hot people, they say — not cold-blooded, as the English are. So, wise or foolish, right, wrong, or what might be, nothing would do for me but to take service, if I could, under Mrs. Castlewood. Your father was called Captain Castlewood then — as fine a young man as ever clinked a spur, but without any boast or conceit about him; and they said that your grandfather, the old lord, kept him very close and spare, although he was the only son. Now this must have been — let me see, how long ago? — about five-and-twenty years, I think. How old are you now, Miss Erema? I can keep the weeks better than the years, miss.”

“I was eighteen on my last birthday. But never mind about the time — go on.”

“But the time makes all the difference, miss, although at the time we may never think so. Well, then, it must have been better than six-and-twenty year agone; for though you came pretty fast, in the Lord’s will, there was eight years between you and the first-born babe, who was only just a-thinking of when I begin to tell. But to come back to myself, as was — mother had got too many of us still, and she was glad enough to let me go, however much she might cry over it, as soon as Lady Williams got me the place. My place was to wait upon the lady first, and make myself generally useful, as they say. But it was not very long before I was wanted in other more important ways, and having been brought up among so many children, they found me very handy with the little ones; and being in a poor way, as they were then — for people, I mean, of their birth and place — they were glad enough soon to make head nurse of me, although I was under-two-and-twenty.

“We did not live at the old lord’s place, which is under the hills looking on the river Thames, but we had a quiet little house in Hampshire; for the Captain was still with his regiment, and only came to and fro to us. But a happier little place there could not be, with the flowers, and the cow, and the birds all day, and the children running gradually according to their age, and the pretty brook shining in the valley. And as to the paying of their way, it is true that neither of them was a great manager. The Captain could not bear to keep his pretty wife close; and she, poor thing, was trying always to surprise him with other presents besides all the beautiful babies. But they never were in debt all round, as the liars said when the trouble burst; and if they owed two or three hundred pounds, who could justly blame them?

“For the old lord, instead of going on as he should, and widening his purse to the number of the mouths, was niggling at them always for offense or excuse, to take away what little he allowed them. The Captain had his pay, which would go in one hand, and the lady had a little money of her own; but still it was cruel for brought-up people to have nothing better to go on with. Not that the old lord was a miser neither; but it was said, and how far true I know not, that he never would forgive your father for marrying the daughter of a man he hated. And some went so far as to say that if he could have done it, he would have cut your father out of all the old family estates. But such a thing never could I believe of a nobleman having his own flesh and blood.

“But, money or no money, rich or poor, your father and mother, I assure you, my dear, were as happy as the day was long. For they loved one another and their children dearly, and they did not care for any mixing with the world. The Captain had enough of that when put away in quarters; likewise his wife could do without it better and better at every birth, though once she had been the very gayest of the gay, which you never will be, Miss Erema.

“Now, my dear, you look so sad and so ‘solid,’ as we used to say, that if I can go on at all, I must have something ready. I am quite an old nurse now, remember. Hans, go across the square, and turn on the left hand round the corner, and then three more streets toward the right, and you see one going toward the left, and you go about seven doors down it, and then you see a corner with a lamp-post.”

“Vilhelmina, I do see de lamp-post at de every corner.”

“That will teach you to look more bright, Hans. Then you find a shop window with three blue bottles, and a green one in the middle.”

“How can be any middle to three, without it is one of them?”

“Then let it be two of them. How you contradict me! Take this little bottle, and the man with a gold braid round a cap, and a tassel with a tail to it, will fill it for four-pence when you tell him who you are.”

“Yes, yes; I do now comprehend. You send me vhere I never find de vay, because I am in de vay, Vilhelmina!”

I was most thankful to Mrs. Strouss for sending her husband (however good and kind-hearted he might be) to wander among many shops of chemists, rather than to keep his eyes on me, while I listened to things that were almost sure to make me want my eyes my own. My nurse had seen, as any good nurse must, that, grown and formed as I might be, the nature of the little child that cries for its mother was in me still.

“It is very sad now,” Mrs. Strouss began again, without replying to my grateful glance; “Miss Erema, it is so sad that I wish I had never begun with it. But I see by your eyes — so like your father’s, but softer, my dear, and less troublesome — that you will have the whole of it out, as he would with me once when I told him a story for the sake of another servant. It was just about a month before you were born, when the trouble began to break on us. And when once it began, it never stopped until all that were left ran away from it. I have read in the newspapers many and many sad things coming over whole families, such as they call ‘shocking tragedies;’ but none of them, to my mind, could be more galling than what I had to see with my very own eyes.

“It must have been close upon the middle of September when old Lord Castlewood came himself to see his son’s house and family at Shoxford. We heard that he came down a little on the sudden to see to the truth of some rumors which had reached him about our style of living. It was the first time he had ever been there; for although he had very often been invited, he could not bear to be under the roof of the daughter, as he said, of his enemy. The Captain, just happening to come home on leave for his autumn holiday, met his father quite at his own door — the very last place to expect him. He afterward acknowledged that he was not pleased for his father to come ‘like a thief in the night.’ However, they took him in and made him welcome, and covered up their feelings nicely, as high-bred people do.

“What passed among them was unknown to any but themselves, except so far as now I tell you. A better dinner than usual for two was ready, to celebrate the master’s return and the beginning of his holiday; and the old lord, having travelled far that day, was persuaded to sit down with them. The five eldest children (making all except the baby, for you was not born, miss, if you please) they were to have sat up at table, as pretty as could be — three with their high cushioned stools, and two in their arm-chairs screwed on mahogany, stuffed with horsehair, and with rods in front, that the little dears might not tumble out in feeding, which they did — it was a sight to see them! And how they would give to one another, with their fingers wet and shining, and saying, ‘Oo, dat for oo.’ Oh dear, Miss Erema, you were never born to see it! What a blessing for you! All those six dear darlings laid in their little graves within six weeks, with their mother planted under them; and the only wonder is that you yourself was not upon her breast.

“Pay you no heed to me, Miss Erema, when you see me a-whimpering in and out while I am about it. It makes my chest go easy, miss, I do assure you, though not at the time of life to understand it. All they children was to have sat up for the sake of their dear father, as I said just now; but because of their grandfather all was ordered back. And back they come, as good as gold, with Master George at the head of them, and asked me what milk-teeth was. Grandpa had said that ‘a dinner was no dinner if milk-teeth were allowed at it.’ The hard old man, with his own teeth false! He deserved to sit down to no other dinner — and he never did, miss.

“You may be sure that I had enough to do to manage all the little ones and answer all their questions; but never having seen a live lord before, and wanting to know if the children would be like him before so very long, I went quietly down stairs, and the biggest of my dears peeped after me. And then, by favor of the parlor-maid — for they kept neither butler nor footman now — I saw the Lord Castlewood, sitting at his ease, with a glass of port-wine before him, and my sweet mistress (the Captain’s wife, and your mother, if you understand, miss) doing her very best, thinking of her children, to please him and make the polite to him. To me he seemed very much to be thawing to her — if you can understand, miss, what my meaning is — and the Captain was looking at them with a smile, as if it were just what he had hoped for. From my own eyesight I can contradict the lies put about by nobody knows who, that the father and the son were at hot words even then.

“And I even heard my master, when they went out at the door, vainly persuading his father to take such a bed as they could offer him. And good enough it would have been for ten lords; for I saw nothing wonderful in him, nor fit to compare any way with the Captain. But he would not have it, for no other reason of ill-will or temper, but only because he had ordered his bed at the Moonstock Inn, where his coach and four were resting.

“‘I expect you to call me in the morning, George,’ I heard him say, as clear as could be, while his son was helping his coat on. ‘I am glad I have seen you. There are worse than you. And when the times get better, I will see what I can do.’

“With him this meant more than it might have done; for he was not a man of much promises, as you might tell by his face almost, with his nose so stern, and his mouth screwed down, and the wrinkles the wrong way for smiling. I could not tell what the Captain answered, for the door banged on them, and it woke the baby, who was dreaming, perhaps, about his lordship’s face, and his little teeth gave him the wind on his chest, and his lungs was like bellows — bless him!

“Well, that stopped me, Miss Erema, from being truly accurate in my testimony. What with walking the floor, and thumping his back, and rattling of the rings to please him — when they put me on the Testament, cruel as they did, with the lawyers’ eyes eating into me, and both my ears buzzing with sorrow and fright, I may have gone too far, with my heart in my mouth, for my mind to keep out of contradiction, wishful as I was to tell the whole truth in a manner to hurt nobody. And without any single lie or glaze of mine, I do assure you, miss, that I did more harm than good; every body in the room — a court they called it, and no bigger than my best parlor — one and all they were convinced that I would swear black was white to save my master and mistress! And certainly I would have done so, and the Lord in heaven thought the better of me, for the sake of all they children, if I could have made it stick together, as they do with practice.”

At thought of the little good she had done, and perhaps the great mischief, through excess of zeal, Mrs. Strouss was obliged to stop, and put her hand to her side, and sigh. And eager as I was for every word of this miserable tale, no selfish eagerness could deny her need of refreshment, and even of rest; for her round cheeks were white, and her full breast trembled. And now she was beginning to make snatches at my hand, as if she saw things she could only tell thus.

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