Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXIV

Betsy’s Tale —(Continued.)

“I am only astonished, my dear,” said my nurse, as soon as she had had some tea and toast, and scarcely the soft roe of a red herring, “that you can put up so well, and abide with my instincts in the way you do. None of your family could have done it, to my knowledge of their dispositions, much less the baby that was next above you. But it often comes about to go in turns like that; ‘one, three, five, and seven is sweet, while two, four, and six is a-squalling with their feet.’ But the Lord forgive me for an ill word of them, with their precious little bodies washed, and laying in their patterns till the judgment-day.

“But putting by the words I said in the dirty little room they pleased to call a ‘court,’ and the Testament so filthy that no lips could have a hold of it, my meaning is to tell you, miss, the very things that happened, so that you may fairly judge of them. The Captain came back from going with his father, I am sure, in less than twenty minutes, and smoking a cigar in his elegant way, quite happy and contented, for I saw him down the staircase. As for sign of any haste about him, or wiping of his forehead, or fumbling with his handkerchief, or being in a stew in any sort of way — as the stupid cook who let him in declared, by reason of her own having been at the beer-barrel — solemnly, miss, as I hope to go to heaven, there was nothing of the sort about him.

“He went into the dining-room, and mistress, who had been up stairs to see about the baby, went down to him; and there I heard them talking as pleasant and as natural as they always were together. Not one of them had the smallest sense of trouble hanging over them; and they put away both the decanters and cruets, and came up to bed in their proper order, the master stopping down just to finish his cigar and see to the doors and the bringing up the silver, because there was no man-servant now. And I heard him laughing at some little joke he made as he went into the bedroom. A happier household never went to bed, nor one with better hopes of a happy time to come. And the baby slept beside his parents in his little cot, as his mother liked to have him, with his blessed mouth wide open.

“Now we three (cook and Susan and myself) were accustomed to have a good time of it whenever the master first came home and the mistress was taken up with him. We used to count half an hour more in bed, without any of that wicked bell-clack, and then go on to things according to their order, without any body to say any thing. Accordingly we were all snug in bed, and turning over for another tuck of sleep, when there came a most vicious ringing of the outer bell. ‘You get up, Susan,’ I heard the cook say, for there only was a door between us; and Susan said, ‘Blest if I will! Only Tuesday you put me down about it when the baker came.’ Not a peg would either of them stir, no more than to call names on one another; so I slipped on my things, with the bell going clatter all the while, like the day of judgment. I felt it to be hard upon me, and I went down cross a little — just enough to give it well to a body I were not afraid of.

“But the Lord in His mercy remember me, miss! When I opened the door, I had no blood left. There stood two men, with a hurdle on their shoulders, and on the hurdle a body, with the head hanging down, and the front of it slouching, like a sack that has been stolen from; and behind it there was an authority with two buttons on his back, and he waited for me to say something; but to do so was beyond me. Not a bit of caution or of fear about my sham dress-up, as the bad folk put it afterward; the whole of such thoughts was beyond me outright, and no thought of any thing came inside me, only to wait and wonder.

“‘This corpse belongeth here, as I am informed,’ said the man, who seemed to be the master of it, and was proud to be so. ‘Young woman, don’t you please to stand like that, or every duffer in the parish will be here, and the boys that come hankering after it. You be off!’ he cried out to a boy who was calling some more round the corner. ‘Now, young woman, we must come in if you please, and the least said the soonest mended.’

“‘Oh, but my mistress, my mistress!’ I cried; ‘and her time up, as nigh as may be, any day or night before new moon. ‘Oh, Mr. Constable, Mr. Rural Polishman, take it to the tool shed, if you ever had a wife, Sir.’ Now even this was turned against us as if I had expected it. They said that I must have known who it was, and to a certain length so I did, miss, but only by the dress and the manner of the corpse, and lying with an attitude there was no contradicting.

“I can not tell you now, my dear, exactly how things followed. My mind was gone all hollow with the sudden shock upon it. However, I had thought enough to make no noise immediate, nor tell the other foolish girls, who would have set up bellowing. Having years to deal with little ones brings knowledge of the rest to us. I think that I must have gone to master’s door, where Susan’s orders were to put his shaving water in a tin, and fetched him out, with no disturbance, only in his dressing-gown. And when I told him what it was, his rosy color turned like sheets, and he just said, ‘Hush!’ and nothing more. And guessing what he meant, I ran and put my things on properly.

“But having time to think, the shock began to work upon me, and I was fit for nothing when I saw the children smiling up with their tongues out for their bread and milk, as they used to begin the day with. And I do assure you, Miss Erema, my bitterest thought was of your coming, though unknown whether male or female, but both most inconvenient then, with things in such a state of things. You have much to answer for, miss, about it; but how was you to help it, though?

“The tool-shed door was too narrow to let the hurdle and the body in, and finding some large sea-kale pots standing out of use against the door, the two men (who were tired with the weight and fright, I dare say) set down their burden upon these, under a row of hollyhocks, at the end of the row of bee-hives. And here they wiped their foreheads with some rags they had for handkerchiefs, or one of them with his own sleeve, I should say, and, gaining their breath, they began to talk with the boldness of the sunrise over them. But Mr. Rural Polishman, as he was called in those parts, was walking up and down on guard, and despising of their foolish words.

“My master, the Captain, your father, miss, came out of a window and down the cross-walk, while I was at the green door peeping, for I thought that I might be wanted, if only to take orders what was to be done inside. The constable stiffly touched his hat, and marched to the head of the hurdle, and said,

“‘Do you know this gentleman?’

“Your father took no more notice of him than if he had been a stiff hollyhock, which he might have resembled if he had been good-looking. The Captain thought highly of discipline always, and no kinder gentleman could there be to those who gave his dues to him. But that man’s voice had a low and dirty impertinent sort of a twang with it. Nothing could have been more unlucky. Every thing depended on that fellow in an ignorant neighborhood like that; and his lordship, for such he was now, of course, would not even deign to answer him. He stood over his head in his upright way by a good foot, and ordered him here and there, as the fellow had been expecting, I do believe, to order his lordship. And that made the bitterest enemy of him, being newly sent into these parts, and puffed up with authority. And the two miller’s men could not help grinning, for he had waved them about like a pair of dogs.

“But to suppose that my master ‘was unmoved, and took it brutally’ (as that wretch of a fellow swore afterward), only shows what a stuck-up dolt he was. For when my master had examined his father, and made his poor body be brought in and spread on the couch in the dining-room, and sent me hot-foot for old Dr. Diggory down at the bottom of Shoxford, Susan peeped in through the crack of the door, with the cook to hold her hand behind, and there she saw the Captain on his knees at the side of his father’s corpse, not saying a word, only with his head down. And when the doctor came back with me, with his night-gown positive under his coat, the first thing he said was, ‘My dear Sir — my lord, I mean — don’t take on so; such things will always happen in this world;’ which shows that my master was no brute.

“Then the Captain stood up in his strength and height, without any pride and without any shame, only in the power of a simple heart, and he said words fit to hang him:

“‘This is my doing! There is no one else to blame. If my father is dead, I have killed him!’

“Several of us now were looking in, and the news going out like a winnowing woman with no one to shut the door after her; our passage was crowding with people that should have had a tar-brush in their faces. And of course a good score of them ran away to tell that the Captain had murdered his father. The milk-man stood there with his yoke and cans, and his naily boots on our new oil-cloth, and, not being able to hide himself plainly, he pulled out his slate and began to make his bill.

“‘Away with you all!’ your father said, coming suddenly out of the dining-room, while the doctor was unbuttoning my lord, who was dead with all his day clothes on; and every body brushed away like flies at the depth of his voice and his stature. Then he bolted the door, with only our own people and the doctor and the constable inside. Your mother was sleeping like a lamb, as I could swear, having had a very tiring day the day before, and being well away from the noise of the passage, as well as at a time when they must sleep whenever sleep will come, miss. Bless her gentle heart, what a blessing to be out of all that scare of it!

“All this time, you must understand, there was no sign yet what had happened to his lordship, over and above his being dead. All of us thought, if our minds made bold to think, that it must have pleased the Lord to take his lordship either with an appleplexy or a sudden heart-stroke, or, at any rate, some other gracious way not having any flow of blood in it. But now, while your father was gone up stairs — for he knew that his father was dead enough — to be sure that your mother was quiet, and perhaps to smooth her down for trouble, and while I was run away to stop the ranting of the children, old Dr. Diggory and that rural officer were handling poor Lord Castlewood. They set him to their liking, and they cut his clothes off — so Susan told me afterward — and then they found why they were forced to do so, which I need not try to tell you, miss. Only they found that he was not dead from any wise visitation, but because he had been shot with a bullet through his heart.

“Old Dr. Diggory came out shaking, and without any wholesome sense to meet what had arisen, after all his practice with dead men, and he called out ‘Murder!’ with a long thing in his hand, till my master leaped down the stairs, twelve at a time, and laid his strong hand on the old fool’s mouth.

“‘Would you kill my wife?’ he said; ‘you shall not kill my wife.’

“‘Captain Castlewood,’ the constable answered, pulling out his staff importantly, ‘consider yourself my prisoner.’

“The Captain could have throttled him with one hand, and Susan thought he would have done it. But, instead of that, he said, ‘Very well; do your duty. But let me see what you mean by it.’ Then he walked back again to the body of his father, and saw that he had been murdered.

“But, oh, Miss Erema, you are so pale! Not a bit of food have you had for hours. I ought not to have told you such a deal of it to once. Let me undo all your things, my dear, and give you something cordial; and then lie down and sleep a bit.”

“No, thank you, nurse,” I answered, calling all my little courage back. “No sleep for me until I know every word. And to think of all my father had to see and bear! I am not fit to be his daughter.”

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