Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXV

Betsy’s Tale —(Concluded.)

“Well, now,” continued Mrs. Strouss, as soon as I could persuade her to go on, “if I were to tell you every little thing that went on among them, miss, I should go on from this to this day week, or I might say this day fortnight, and then not half be done with it. And the worst of it is that those little things make all the odds in a case of that sort, showing what the great things were. But only a counselor at the Old Bailey could make head or tail of the goings on that followed.

“For some reason of his own, unknown to any living being but himself, whether it were pride (as I always said) or something deeper (as other people thought), he refused to have any one on earth to help him, when he ought to have had the deepest lawyer to be found. The constable cautioned him to say nothing, as it seems is laid down in their orders, for fear of crimination. And he smiled at this, with a high contempt, very fine to see, but not bodily wise. But even that jack-inoffice could perceive that the poor Captain thought of his sick wife up stairs, and his little children, ten times for one thought he ever gave to his own position. And yet I must tell you that he would have no denial, but to know what it was that had killed his parent. When old Dr. Diggory’s hands were shaking so that his instrument would not bite on the thing lodged in his lordship’s back, after passing through and through him, and he was calling for somebody to run for his assistant, who do you think did it for him, Miss Erema? As sure as I sit here, the Captain! His face was like a rock, and his hands no less; and he said, ‘Allow me, doctor. I have been in action.’ And he fetched out the bullet — which showed awful nerve, according to my way of thinking — as if he had been a man with three rows of teeth.

“‘This bullet is just like those of my own pistol!’ he cried, and he sat down hard with amazement. You may suppose how this went against him, when all he desired was to know and tell the truth; and people said that of course he got it out, after a bottleful of doctors failed, because he knew best how it was put in.’

“‘I shall now go and see the place, if you please, or whether you please or not,’ my master said. ‘Constable, you may come and point it out, unless you prefer going to your breakfast. My word is enough that I shall not run away. Otherwise, as you have acted on your own authority, I shall act on mine, and tie you until you have obtained a warrant. Take your choice, my man; and make it quickly, while I offer it.’

“The rural polishman stared at this, being used on the other hand to be made much of. But seeing how capable the Captain was of acting up to any thing, he made a sulky scrape, and said, ‘Sir, as you please for the present,’ weighting his voice on those last three words, as much as to say, ‘Pretty soon you will be handcuffed.’ ‘Then,’ said my master, ‘I shall also insist on the presence of two persons, simply to use their eyes without any fear or favor. One is my gardener, a very honest man, but apt to be late in the morning. The other is a faithful servant, who has been with us for several years. Their names are Jacob Rigg and Betsy Bowen. You may also bring two witnesses, if you choose. And the miller’s men, of course, will come. But order back all others.’

“‘That is perfectly fair and straightforward, my lord,’ the constable answered, falling naturally into abeyance to orders. ‘I am sure that all of us wishes your lordship kindly out of this rum scrape. But my duty is my duty.’

“With a few more words we all set forth, six in number, and no more; for the constable said that the miller’s men, who had first found the late Lord Castlewood, were witnesses enough for him. And Jacob Rigg, whose legs were far apart (as he said) from trenching celery, took us through the kitchen-garden, and out at a gap, which saved every body knowing.

“Then we passed through a copse or two, and across a meadow, and then along the turnpike-road, as far as now I can remember. And along that we went to a stile on the right, without any house for a long way off. And from that stile a foot-path led down a slope of grass land to the little river, and over a hand-bridge, and up another meadow full of trees and bushes, to a gate which came out into the road again a little to this side of the Moonstock Inn, saving a quarter of a mile of road, which ran straight up the valley and turned square at the stone bridge to get to the same inn.

“I can not expect to be clear to you, miss, though I see it all now as I saw it then, every tree, and hump, and hedge of it; only about the distances from this to that, and that to the other, they would be beyond me. You must be on the place itself; and I never could carry distances — no, nor even clever men, I have heard my master say. But when he came to that stile he stopped and turned upon all of us clearly, and as straight as any man of men could be. ‘Here I saw my father last, at a quarter past ten o’clock last night, or within a few minutes of that time. I wished to see him to his inn, but he would not let me do so, and he never bore contradiction. He said that he knew the way well, having fished more than thirty years ago up and down this stream. He crossed this stile, and we shook hands over it, and the moon being bright, I looked into his face, and he said, “My boy, God bless you!” Knowing his short ways, I did not even look after him, but turned away, and went straight home along this road. Upon my word as an Englishman, and as an officer of her Majesty, that is all I know of it. Now let us go on to the — to the other place.

“We all of us knew in our hearts, I am sure, that the Captain spoke the simple truth, and his face was grand as he looked at us. But the constable thought it his duty to ask,

“‘Did you hear no sound of a shot, my lord? For he fell within a hundred yards of this.’

“‘I heard no sound of any shot whatever. I heard an owl hooting as I went home, and then the rattle of a heavy wagon, and the bells of horses. I have said enough. Let us go forward.’

“We obeyed him at once; and even the constable looked right and left, as if he had been wrong. He signed to the miller’s man to lead the way, and my lord walked proudly after him. The path was only a little narrow track, with the grass, like a front of hair, falling over it on the upper side and on the under, dropping away like side curls; such a little path that I was wondering how a great lord could walk over it. Then we came down a steep place to a narrow bridge across a shallow river — abridge made of only two planks and a rail, with a prop or two to carry them. And one end of the handrail was fastened into a hollow and stubby old hawthorn-tree, overhanging the bridge and the water a good way. And just above this tree, and under its shadow, there came a dry cut into the little river, not more than a yard or two above the wooden bridge, a water-trough such as we have in Wales, miss, for the water to run in, when the farmer pleases; but now there was no water in it, only gravel.

“The cleverest of the miller’s men, though, neither of them had much intellect, stepped down at a beck from the constable, right beneath the old ancient tree, and showed us the marks on the grass and the gravel made by his lordship where he fell and lay. And it seemed that he must have fallen off the bridge, yet not into the water, but so as to have room for his body, if you see, miss, partly on the bank, and partly in the hollow of the meadow trough.

“‘Have you searched the place well?’ the Captain asked. ‘Have you found any weapon or implement?’

“‘We have found nothing but the corpse, so far,’ the constable answered, in a surly voice, not liking to be taught his business. ‘My first duty was to save life, if I could. These men, upon finding the body, ran for me, and knowing who it was, I came with it to your house.’

“‘You acted for the best, my man. Now search the place carefully, while I stand here. I am on my parole, I shall not run away. Jacob, go down and help them.’

“Whether from being in the army, or what, your father always spoke in such a way that the most stiff-neckedest people began without thinking to obey him. So the constable and the rest went down, while the Captain and I stood upon the plank, looking at the four of them.

“For a long time they looked about, according to their attitudes, without finding any thing more than the signs of the manner in which the poor lord fell, and of these the constable pulled out a book and made a pencil memorial. But presently Jacob, a spry sort of man, cried, ‘Hulloa! whatever have I got hold of here? Many a good craw-fish have I pulled out from this bank when the water comes down the gully, but never one exactly like this here afore.’

“‘Name of the Lord!’ cried the constable, jumping behind the hawthorn stump; ‘don’t point it at me, you looby! It’s loaded, loaded one barrel, don’t you see? Put it down, with the muzzle away from me.’

“‘Hand it to me, Jacob,’ the Captain said. ‘You understand a gun, and this goes off just the same.’ Constable Jobbins have no fear. ‘Yes, it is exactly as I thought. This pistol is one of the double-barreled pair which I bought to take to India. The barrels are rifled; it shoots as true as any rifle, and almost as hard up to fifty yards. The right barrel has been fired, the other is still loaded. The bullet I took from my father’s body most certainly came from this pistol.’

“‘Can ‘e say, can ‘e say then, who done it, master?’ asked Jacob, a man very sparing of speech, but ready at a beck to jump at constable and miller’s men, if only law was with him. ‘Can ‘e give a clear account, and let me chuck ’un in the river?’

“‘No, Jacob, I can do nothing of the kind,’ your father answered; while the rural man came up and faced things, not being afraid of a fight half so much as he was of an accident; by reason of his own mother having been blown up by a gunpowder start at Dartford, yet came down all right, miss, and had him three months afterward, according to his own confession; nevertheless, he came up now as if he had always been upright, in the world, and he said, ‘My lord, can you explain all this?’

“Your father looked at him with one of his strange gazes, as if he were measuring the man while trying his own inward doing of his own mind. Proud as your father was, as proud as ever can be without cruelty, it is my firm belief, Miss Erema, going on a woman’s judgment, that if the man’s eyes had come up to my master’s sense of what was virtuous, my master would have up and told him the depth and contents of his mind and heart, although totally gone beyond him.

“But Jobbins looked back at my lord with a grin, and his little eyes, hard to put up with. ‘Have you nothing to say, my lord? Then I am afeared I must ask you just to come along of me.’ And my master went with him, miss, as quiet as a lamb; which Jobbins said, and even Jacob fancied, was a conscience sign of guilt.

“Now after I have told you all this, Miss Erema, you know very nearly as much as I do. To tell how the grief was broken to your mother, and what her state of mind was, and how she sat up on the pillows and cried, while things went on from bad to worse, and a verdict of ‘willful murder’ was brought against your father by the crowner’s men, and you come headlong, without so much as the birds in the ivy to chirp about you, right into the thick of the worst of it. I do assure you, Miss Erema, when I look at your bright eyes and clear figure, the Lord in heaven, who has made many cripples, must have looked down special to have brought you as you are. For trouble upon trouble fell in heaps, faster than I can wipe my eyes to think. To begin with, all the servants but myself and gardener Jacob ran away. They said that the old lord haunted the house, and walked with his hand in the middle of his heart, pulling out a bullet if he met any body, and sighing ‘murder’ three times, till every hair was crawling. I took it on myself to fetch the Vicar of the parish to lay the evil spirit, as they do in Wales. A nice kind gentleman he was as you could see, and wore a velvet skull-cap, and waited with his legs up. But whether he felt that the power was not in him, or whether his old lordship was frightened of the Church, they never made any opportunity between them to meet and have it out, miss.

“Then it seemed as if Heaven, to avenge his lordship, rained down pestilence upon that house. A horrible disease, the worst I ever met, broke out upon the little harmless dears, the pride of my heart and of every body’s eyes, for lovelier or better ones never came from heaven. They was all gone to heaven in a fortnight and three days, and laid in the church-yard at one another’s side, with little beds of mould to the measure of their stature, and their little carts and drums, as they made me promise, ready for the judgment-day. Oh, my heart was broken, miss, my heart was broken! I cried so, I thought I could never cry more.

“But when your dear mother, who knew nothing of all this (for we put all their illness, by the doctor’s orders, away at the further end of the house), when she was a little better of grievous pain and misery (for being so upset her time was hard), when she sat up on the pillow, looking like a bride almost, except that she had what brides hasn’t — a little red thing in white flannel at her side — then she says to me, ‘I am ready, Betsy; it is high time for all of them to see their little sister. They always love the baby so, whenever there is a new one. And they are such men and women to it. They have been so good this time that I have never heard them once. And I am sure that I can trust them, Betsy, not to make the baby cry. I do so long to see the darlings. Now do not even whisper to them not to make a noise. They are too good to require it; and it would hurt their little feelings.’

“I had better have been shot, my dear, according as the old lord was, than have the pain that went through all my heart, to see the mother so. She sat up, leaning on one arm, with the hand of the other round your little head, and her beautiful hair was come out of its loops, and the color in her cheeks was like a shell. Past the fringe of the curtain, and behind it too, her soft bright eyes were a-looking here and there for the first to come in of her children. The Lord only knows what lies I told her, so as to be satisfied without them. First I said they were all gone for a walk; and then that the doctor had ordered them away; and then that they had got the measles. That last she believed, because it was worse than what I had said before of them; and she begged to see Dr. Diggory about it, and I promised that she should as soon as he had done his dinner. And then, with a little sigh, being very weak, she went down into her nest again, with only you to keep her company.

“Well, that was bad enough, as any mortal sufferer might have said; enough for one day at any rate. But there was almost worse to come. For when I was having a little sit down stairs, with my supper and half pint of ale (that comes like drawing a long breath to us when spared out of sickrooms, miss), and having no nursery now on my mind, was thinking of all the sad business, with only a little girl in the back kitchen come in to muck up the dishes, there appeared a good knock at the garden door, and I knew it for the thumb of the Captain. I locked the young girl up, by knowing what their tongues are, and then I let your father in, and the candle-sight of him made my heart go low.

“He had come out of prison; and although not being tried, his clothes were still in decency, they had great holes in them, and the gloss all gone to a smell of mere hedges and ditches. The hat on his head was quite out of the fashion, even if it could be called a hat at all, and his beautiful beard had no sign of a comb, and he looked as old again as he had looked a month ago.

“‘I know all about it. You need not be afraid,’ he said, as I took him to the breakfast-room, where no one up stairs could hear us. ‘I know that my children are all dead and buried, except the one that was not born yet. Ill news flies quick. I know all about it. George, Henrietta, Jack, Alf, little Vi, and Tiny. I have seen their graves and counted them, while the fool of a policeman beat his gloves through the hedge within a rod of me. Oh yes, I have much to be thankful for. My life is in my own hand now.’

“‘Oh, master; oh, Captain; oh, my lord!’ I cried; ‘for the sake of God in heaven, don’t talk like that. Think of your sweet wife, your dear lady.’

“‘Betsy,’ he answered, with his eyes full upon me, noble, yet frightful to look at, ‘I am come to see my wife. Go and let her know it, according to your own discretion.’

“My discretion would have been not to let him see her, but go on and write to her from foreign countries, with the salt sea between them; but I give you my word that I had no discretion, but from pity and majesty obeyed him. I knew that he must have broken prison, and by good rights ought to be starving. But I could no more offer him the cold ham and pullet than take him by his beard and shake him.

“‘Is he come, at last, at last?’ my poor mistress said, whose wits were wandering after her children. ‘At last, at last! Then he will find them all.’

“‘Yes, ma’am, at last, at the last he will,’ I answered, while I thought of the burial service, which I had heard three times in a week — for the little ones went to their graves in pairs to save ceremony; likewise of the Epistle of Saint Paul, which is not like our Lord’s way of talking at all, but arguing instead of comforting. And not to catch her up in that weak state, I said, ‘He will find every one of them, ma’am.’

“‘Oh, but I want him for himself, for himself, as much as all the rest put together,’ my dear lady said, without listening to me, but putting her hand to her ear to hearken for even so much as a mouse on the stairs. ‘Do bring him, Betsy; only bring him, Betsy, and then let me go where my children are.’

“I was surprised at her manner of speaking, which I would not have allowed to her, but more than all about her children, which she could only have been dreaming yet, for nobody else came nigh her except only me, miss, and you, miss, and for you to breathe words was impossible. All you did was to lie very quiet, tucked up into your mother’s side; and as regular as the time-piece went, wide came your eyes and your mouth to be fed. If your nature had been cross or squally, ‘baby’s coffin No. 7’ would have come after all the other six, which the thief of a carpenter put down on his bill as if it was so many shavings.

“Well, now, to tell you the downright truth, I have a lot of work to do tomorrow, miss, with three basketfuls of washing coming home, and a man about a tap that leaks and floods the inside of the fender; and if I were to try to put before you the way that those two for the last time of their lives went on to one another — the one like a man and the other like a woman, full of sobs and choking — my eyes would be in such a state tomorrow that the whole of them would pity and cheat me. And I ought to think of you as well, miss, who has been sadly harrowed listening when you was not born yet. And to hear what went on, full of weeping, when yourself was in the world, and able to cry for yourself, and all done over your own little self, would leave you red eyes and no spirit for the night, and no appetite in the morning; and so I will pass it all over, if you please, and let him go out of the backdoor again.

“This he was obliged to do quick, and no mistake, glad as he might have been to say more words, because the fellows who call themselves officers, without any commission, were after him. False it was to say, as was said, that he got out of Winchester jail through money. That story was quite of a piece with the rest. His own strength and skill it was that brought him out triumphantly, as the scratches on his hands and cheeks might show. He did it for the sake of his wife, no doubt. When he heard that the children were all in their graves, and their mother in the way to follow them, madness was better than his state of mind, as the officers told me when they could not catch him — and sorry they would have been to do it, I believe.

“To overhear my betters is the thing of all things most against my nature; and my poor lady being unfit to get up, there was nothing said on the landing, which is the weakest part of gentlefolks. They must have said ‘Good-by’ to one another quite in silence, and the Captain, as firm a man as ever lived, had lines on his face that were waiting for tears, if nature should overcome bringing up. Then I heard the words, ‘for my sake,’ and the other said, ‘for your sake,’ a pledge that passed between them, making breath more long than life is. But when your poor father was by the back-door, going out toward the woods and coppices, he turned sharp round, and he said, ‘Betsy Bowen!’ and I answered, ‘Yes, at your service, Sir.’ ‘You have been the best woman in the world,’ he said —‘the bravest, best, and kindest. I leave my wife and my last child to you. The Lord has been hard on me, but He will spare me those two. I do hope and believe He will.’

“We heard a noise of horses in the valley, and the clank of swords — no doubt the mounted police from Winchester a-crossing of the Moonstock Bridge to search our house for the runaway. And the Captain took my hand, and said, ‘I trust them to you. Hide the clothes I took off, that they may not know I have been here. I trust my wife and little babe to you, and may God bless you, Betsy!’

“He had changed all his clothes, and he looked very nice, but a sadder face was never seen. As he slipped through the hollyhocks I said to myself, ‘There goes a broken-hearted man, and he leaves a broken heart behind.’ And your dear mother died on the Saturday night. Oh my! oh my! how sad it was!”

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