Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXII

At Home

Some of the miserable, and I might say strange, things which had befallen me from time to time unseasonably, now began to force their remembrance upon me. Such dark figures always seem to make the most of a nervous moment, when solid reason yields to fluttering fear and small misgivings. There any body seems to lie, as a stranded sailor lies, at the foot of perpendicular cliffs of most inhuman humanity, with all the world frowning down over the crest, and no one to throw a rope down. Often and often had I felt this want of any one to help me, but the only way out of it seemed to be to do my best to help myself.

Even, now I had little hope, having been so often dashed, and knowing that my father’s cousin possessed no share of my father’s strength. He might, at the utmost, give good advice, and help me with kind feeling; but if he wanted to do more, surely he might have tried ere now. But my thoughts about this were cut short by a message that he would be glad to see me, and I followed the servant to the library.

Here I found Lord Castlewood sitting in a high-backed chair, uncushioned and uncomfortable. When he saw me near him he got up and took my hand, and looked at me, and I was pleased to find his face well-meaning, brave, and generous. But even to rise from his chair was plainly no small effort to him, and he leaned upon a staff or crutch as he offered me a small white hand.

“Miss Castlewood,” he said, with a very weak yet clear and silvery voice, “for many years I have longed in vain and sought in vain to hear of you. I have not escaped all self-reproach through my sense of want of energy; yet, such as I am, I have done my best, or I do my best to think so.”

“I am sure you have,” I replied, without thinking, knowing his kindness to my father, and feeling the shame of my own hot words to Mr. Shovelin about him. “I owe you more gratitude than I can tell, for your goodness to my dear father. I am not come now to trouble you, but because it was my duty.”

While I was speaking he managed to lead me, feebly as himself could walk, to a deep chair for reading, or some such use, whereof I have had few chances. And in every step and word and gesture I recognized that foreign grace which true-born Britons are proud to despise on both sides of the Atlantic. And, being in the light, I watched him well, because I am not a foreigner.

In the clear summer light of the westering sun (which is better for accurate uses than the radiance of the morning) I saw a firm, calm face, which might in good health have been powerful — a face which might be called the moonlight image of my father’s. I could not help turning away to cry, and suspicion fled forever.

“My dear young cousin,” he said, as soon as I was fit to speak to, “your father trusted me, and so must you. You may think that I have forgotten you, or done very little to find you out. It was no indifference, no forgetfulness: I have not been able to work myself, and I have had very deep trouble of my own.”

He leaned on his staff, and looked down at me, for I had sat down when thus overcome, and I knew that the forehead and eyes were those of a learned and intellectual man. How I knew this it is impossible to say, for I never had met with such a character as this, unless it were the Abbe of Flechon, when I was only fourteen years old, and valued his great skill in spinning a top tenfold more than all his deep learning. Lord Castlewood had long, silky hair, falling in curls of silver gray upon either side of his beautiful forehead, and the gaze of his soft dark eyes was sad, gentle, yet penetrating. Weak health and almost constant pain had chastened his delicate features to an expression almost feminine, though firm thin lips and rigid lines showed masculine will and fortitude. And when he spoke of his own trouble (which, perhaps, he would not have done except for consolation’s sake), I knew that he meant something even more grievous than bodily anguish.

“It is hard,” he said, “that you, so young and healthy and full of high spirit as you are (unless your face belies you), should begin the best years of your life, as common opinion puts such things, in such a cloud of gloom and shame.”

“There is no shame at all,” I answered; “and if there is gloom, I am used to that; and so was my father for years and years. What is my trouble compared with his?”

“Your trouble is nothing when compared with his, so far as regards the mere weight of it; but he was a strong man to carry his load; you are a young and a sensitive woman. The burden may even be worse for you. Now tell me all about yourself, and what has brought you to me.”

His voice was so quiet and soothing that I seemed to rest beneath it. He had not spoken once of religion or the will of God, nor plied me at all with those pious allusions, which even to the reverent mind are like illusions when so urged. Lord Castlewood had too deep a sense of the will of God to know what it is; and he looked at me wistfully as at one who might have worse experience of it.

Falling happily under his influence, as his clear, kind eyes met mine, I told him every thing I could think of about my father and myself, and all I wanted to do next, and how my heart and soul were set upon getting to the bottom of every thing. And while I spoke with spirit, or softness, or, I fear, sometimes with hate, I could not help seeing that he was surprised, but not wholly displeased, with my energy. And then, when all was exhausted, came the old question I had heard so often, and found so hard to answer —

“And what do you propose to do next, Erema?”

“To go to the very place itself,” I said, speaking strongly under challenge, though quite unresolved about such a thing before; “to live in the house where my father lived, and my mother and all of the family died; and from day to day to search every corner and fish up every bit of evidence, until I get hold of the true man at last, of the villain who did it — who did it, and left my father and all the rest of us to be condemned and die for it.”

“Erema,” replied my cousin, as he had told me now to call him, “you are too impetuous for such work, and it is wholly unfit for you. For such a task, persons of trained sagacity and keen observation are needed. And after all these eighteen years, or nearly nineteen now it must be, there can not be any thing to discover there.”

“But if I like, may I go there, cousin, if only to satisfy my own mind? I am miserable now at Bruntsea, and Sir Montague Hockin wears me out.”

“Sir Montague Hockin!” Lord Castlewood exclaimed; “why, you did not tell me that he was there. Wherever he is, you should not be.”

“I forgot to speak of him. He does not live there, but is continually to and fro for bathing, or fishing, or rabbit-shooting, or any other pretext. And he makes the place very unpleasant to me, kind as the Major and Mrs. Hockin are, because I can never make him out at all.”

“Do not try to do so,” my cousin answered, looking at me earnestly; “be content to know nothing of him, my dear. If you can put up with a very dull house, and a host who is even duller, come here and live with me, as your father would have wished, and as I, your nearest relative, now ask and beg of you.”

This was wonderfully kind, and for a moment I felt tempted. Lord Castlewood being an elderly man, and, as the head of our family, my natural protector, there could be nothing wrong, and there might be much that was good, in such an easy arrangement. But, on the other hand, it seemed to me that after this my work would languish. Living in comfort and prosperity under the roof of my forefathers, beyond any doubt I should begin to fall into habits of luxury, to take to the love of literature, which I knew to be latent within me, to lose the clear, strong, practical sense of the duty for which I, the last of seven, was spared, and in some measure, perhaps, by wanderings and by hardships, fitted. And then I thought of my host’s weak health, continual pain (the signs of which were hardly repressed even while he was speaking), and probably also his secluded life. Was it fair to force him, by virtue of his inborn kindness and courtesy, to come out of his privileges and deal with me, who could not altogether be in any place a mere nobody? And so I refused his offer.

“I am very much obliged to you indeed,” I said, “but I think you might be sorry for it. I will come and stop with you every now and then, when your health is better, and you ask me. But to live here altogether would not do; I should like it too well, and do nothing else.”

“Perhaps you are right,” he replied, with the air of one who cares little for any thing, which is to me the most melancholy thing, and worse than any distress almost; “you are very young, my dear, and years should be allowed to pass before you know what full-grown sorrow is. You have had enough, for your age, of it. You had better not live in this house; it is not a house for cheerfulness.”

“Then if I must neither live here nor at Bruntsea,” I asked, with sudden remonstrance, feeling as if every body desired to be quit of me or to worry me, “to what place in all the world am I to go, unless it is back to America? I will go at once to Shoxford, and take lodgings of my own.”

“Perhaps you had better wait a little while,” Lord Castlewood answered, gently, “although I would much rather have you at Shoxford than where you are at present. But please to remember, my good Erema, that you can not go to Shoxford all alone. I have a most faithful and trusty man — the one who opened the door to you. He has been here before his remembrance. He disdains me still as compared with your father. Will you have him to superintend you? I scarcely see how you can do any good, but if you do go, you must go openly, and as your father’s daughter.”

“I have no intention whatever of going in any other way, Lord Castlewood; but perhaps,” I continued, “it would be as well to make as little stir as possible. Of an English village I know nothing but the little I have seen at Bruntsea, but there they make a very great fuss about any one who comes down with a man-servant.”

“To be sure,” replied my cousin, with a smile; “they would not be true Britons otherwise. Perhaps you would do better without Stixon; but of course you must not go alone. Could you by any means persuade your old nurse Betsy to go with you?”

“How good of you to think of it! — how wise you are!” I really could not help saying, as I gazed at his delicate and noble face. “I am sure that if Betsy can come, she will; though of course she must be compensated well for the waste all her lodgers will make of it. They are very wicked, and eat most dreadfully if she even takes one day’s holiday. What do you think they even do? She has told me with tears in her eyes of it. They are all allowed a pat of butter, a penny roll, and two sardines for breakfast. No sooner do they know that her back is turned —”

“Erema!” cried my cousin, with some surprise; and being so recalled, I was ashamed. But I never could help taking interest in very little things indeed, until my own common-sense, or somebody else, came to tell me what a child I was. However, I do believe that Uncle Sam liked me all the better for this fault.

“My dear, I did not mean to blame you,” Lord Castlewood said, most kindly; “it must be a great relief for you to look on at other people. But tell me — or rather, since you have told me almost every thing you know — let me, if only in one way I can help you, help you at least in that way.”

Knowing that he must mean money, I declined, from no false pride, but a set resolve to work out my work, if possible, through my own resources. But I promised to apply to him at once if scarcity should again befall me, as had happened lately. And then I longed to ask him why he seemed to have so low an opinion of Sir Montague Hockin. That question, however, I feared to put, because it might not be a proper one, and also because my cousin had spoken in a very strange tone, as if of some private dislike or reserve on that subject. Moreover, it was too evident that I had tried his courtesy long enough. From time to time pale shades of bodily pain, and then hot flushes, had flitted across his face, like clouds on a windy summer evening. And more than once he had glanced at the time-piece, not to hurry me, but as if he dreaded its announcements. It was a beautiful clock, and struck with a silvery sound every quarter of an hour. And now, as I rose to say good-by, to catch my evening train, it struck a quarter to five, and my cousin stood up, with his weight upon his staff, and looked at me with an inexpressible depth of weary misery.

“I have only a few minutes left,” he said, “during which I can say any thing. My time is divided into two sad parts: the time when I am capable of very little, and the time when I am capable of nothing; and the latter part is twice the length of the other. For sixteen hours of every day, far better had I be dead than living, so far as our own little insolence may judge. But I speak of it only to excuse bad manners, and perhaps I show worse by doing so. I shall not be able to see you again until tomorrow morning. Do not go; they will arrange all that. Send a note to Major Hockin by Stixon’s boy. Stixon and Mrs. Price will see to your comfort, if those who are free from pain require any other comfort. Forgive me; I did not mean to be rude. Sometimes I can not help giving way.”

Less enviable than the poorest slave, Lord Castlewood sank upon his hard stiff chair, and straightened his long narrow hands upon his knees, and set his thin lips in straight blue lines. Each hand was as rigid as the ivory handle of an umbrella or walking-stick, and his lips were like clamped wire. This was his regular way of preparing for the onset of the night, so that no grimace, no cry, no moan, or other token of fierce agony should be wrung from him.

“My lord will catch it stiff to-night,” said Mr. Stixon, who came as I rang, and then led me away to the drawing-room; “he always have it ten times worse after any talking or any thing to upset him like. And so, then, miss — excuse a humble servant — did I understand from him that you was the Captain’s own daughter?”

“Yes; but surely your master wants you — he is in such dreadful pain. Do please to go to him, and do something.”

“There is nothing to be done, miss,” Stixon answered, with calm resignation; “he is bound to stay so for sixteen hours, and then he eases off again. But bless my heart, miss — excuse me in your presence — his lordship is thoroughly used to it. It is my certain knowledge that for seven years now he has never had seven minutes free from pain — seven minutes all of a heap, I mean. Some do say, miss, as the Lord doeth every thing according to His righteousness, that the reason is not very far to seek.”

I asked him what he meant, though I ought, perhaps, to have put a stop to his loquacity; and he pretended not to hear, which made me ask him all the more.

“A better man never lived than my lord,” he answered, with a little shock at my misprision; “but it has been said among censoorous persons that nobody ever had no luck as came in suddenly to a property and a high state of life on the top of the heads of a family of seven.”

“What a poor superstition!” I cried, though I was not quite sure of its being a wicked one. “But what is your master’s malady, Stixon? Surely there might be something done to relieve his violent pain, even if there is no real cure for it?”

“No, miss, nothing can be done. The doctors have exorced themselves. They tried this, that, and the other, but nature only flew worse against them. ’Tis a thing as was never heard of till the Constitooshon was knocked on the head and to pieces by the Reform Bill. And though they couldn’t cure it, they done what they could do, miss. They discovered a very good name for it — they christened it the ‘New-rager!’”

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