Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXV

The Sexton

With such things in my mind, it took me long to come back to my work again. It even seemed a wicked thing, so near to all these proofs of God’s great visitation over us, to walk about and say, “I will do this,” or even to think, “I will try to do that.” My own poor helplessness, and loss of living love to guide me, laid upon my heart a weight from which it scarcely cared to move. All was buried, all was done with, all had passed from out the world, and left no mark but graves behind. What good to stir anew such sadness, even if a poor weak thing like me could move its mystery?

Time, however, and my nurse Betsy, and Jacob Rigg the gardener, brought me back to a better state of mind, and renewed the right courage within me. But, first of all, Jacob Rigg aroused my terror and interest vividly. It may be remembered that this good man had been my father’s gardener at the time of our great calamity, and almost alone of the Shoxford people had shown himself true and faithful. Not that the natives had turned against us, or been at all unfriendly; so far from this was the case, that every one felt for our troubles, and pitied us, my father being of a cheerful and affable turn, until misery hardened him; but what I mean is that only one or two had the courage to go against the popular conclusion and the convictions of authority.

But Jacob was a very upright man, and had a strong liking for his master, who many and many a time — as he told me — had taken a spade and dug along with him, just as if he were a jobbing gardener born, instead of a fine young nobleman; “and nobody gifted with that turn of mind, likewise very clever in white-spine cowcumbers, could ever be relied upon to go and shoot his father.” Thus reasoned old Jacob, and he always had done so, and meant evermore to abide by it; and the graves which he had tended now for nigh a score of years, and meant to tend till he called for his own, were — as sure as he stood there in Shoxford church-yard a-talking to me, who was the very image of my father, God bless me, though not of course so big like — the graves of slaughtered innocents, and a mother who was always an angel. And the parson might preach forever to him about the resurrection, and the right coming uppermost when you got to heaven, but to his mind that was scarcely any count at all; and if you came to that, we ought to hang Jack Ketch, as might come to pass in the Revelations. But while a man had got his own bread to earn, till his honor would let him go to the work-house, and his duty to the rate-payers, there was nothing that vexed him more than to be told any texts of Holy Scripture. Whatever God Almighty had put down there was meant for ancient people, the Jews being long the most ancient people, though none the more for that did he like them; and so it was mainly the ancient folk, who could not do a day’s work worth eighteenpence, that could enter into Bible promises. Not that he was at all behindhand about interpretation; but as long as he could fetch and earn, at planting box and doing borders, two shillings and ninepence a day and his beer, he was not going to be on for kingdom come.

I told him that I scarcely thought his view of our condition here would be approved by wise men who had found time to study the subject. But he answered that whatever their words might be, their doings showed that they knew what was the first thing to attend to. And if it ever happened him to come across a parson who was as full of heaven outside as he was inside his surplice, he would keep his garden in order for nothing better than his blessing.

I knew of no answer to be made to this. And indeed he seemed to be aware that his conversation was too deep for me; so he leaned upon his spade, and rubbed his long blue chin in the shadow of the church tower, holding as he did the position of sexton, and preparing even now to dig a grave.

“I keeps them well away from you,” he said, as he began to chop out a new oblong in the turf; “many a shilling have I been offered by mothers about their little ones, to put ’em inside of the ‘holy ring,’ as we calls this little cluster; but not for five golden guineas would I do it, and have to face the Captain, dead or alive, about it. We heard that he was dead, because it was put in all the papers; and a pleasant place I keeps for him, to come home alongside of his family. A nicer gravelly bit of ground there couldn’t be in all the county; and if no chance of him occupying it, I can drive down a peg with your mark, miss.”

“Thank you,” I answered; “you are certainly most kind; but, Mr. Rigg, I would rather wait a little. I have had a very troublesome life thus far, and nothing to bind me to it much; but still I would rather not have my peg driven down just — just at present.”

“Ah, you be like all the young folk that think the tree for their coffins ain’t come to the size of this spade handle yet. Lord bless you for not knowing what He hath in hand! Now this one you see me a-raising of the turf for, stood as upright as you do, a fortnight back, and as good about the chest and shoulders, and three times the color in her cheeks, and her eyes a’most as bright as yourn be. Not aristocratic, you must understand me, miss, being only the miller’s daughter, nor instructed to throw her voice the same as you do, which is better than gallery music; but setting these haxidents to one side, a farmer would have said she was more preferable, because more come-at-able, though not in my opinion to be compared — excuse me for making so free, miss, but when it comes to death we has a kind of right to do it — and many a young farmer, coming to the mill, was disturbed in his heart about her, and far and wide she was known, being proud, as the Beauty of the Moonshine, from the name of our little river. She used to call me ‘Jacob Diggs,’ because of my porochial office, with a meaning of a joke on my parenshal name. Ah, what a merry one she were! And now this is what I has to do for her! And sooner would I ‘a doed it a’most for my own old ooman!”

“Oh, Jacob!” I cried, being horrified at the way in which he tore up the ground, as if his wife was waiting, “the things you say are quite wrong, I am sure, for a man in your position. You are connected with this church almost as much as the clerk is.”

“More, miss, ten times more! He don’t do nothing but lounge on the front of his desk, and be too lazy to keep up ‘Amen,’ while I at my time of life go about, from Absolution to the fifth Lord’s prayer, with a stick that makes my rheumatics worse, for the sake of the boys with their pocket full of nuts. When I was a boy there was no nuts, except at the proper time of year, a month or two on from this time of speaking; and we used to crack they in the husk, and make no noise to disturb the congregation; but now it is nuts, nuts, round nuts, flat nuts, nuts with three corners to them — all the year round nuts to crack, and me to find out who did it!”

“But, Mr. Rigg,” I replied, as he stopped, looking hotter in mind than in body, “is it not Mrs. Rigg, your good wife, who sells all the nuts on a Saturday for the boys to crack on a Sunday?”

“My missus do sell some, to be sure; yes, just a few. But not of a Saturday more than any other day.”

“Then surely, Mr. Rigg, you might stop it, by not permitting any sale of nuts except to good boys of high principles. And has it not happened sometimes, Mr. Rigg, that boys have made marks on their nuts, and bought them again at your shop on a Monday? I mean, of course, when your duty has compelled you to empty the pockets of a boy in church.”

Now this was a particle of shamefully small gossip, picked up naturally by my Betsy, but pledged to go no further; and as soon as I had spoken I became a little nervous, having it suddenly brought to my mind that I had promised not even to whisper it; and now I had told it to the man of all men! But Jacob appeared to have been quite deaf, and diligently went on digging. And I said “good-evening,” for the grave was for the morrow; and he let me go nearly to the stile before he stuck his spade into the ground and followed.

“Excoose of my making use,” he said, “of a kind of a personal reference, miss; but you be that pat with your answers, it maketh me believe you must be sharp inside — more than your father, the poor Captain, were, as all them little grass buttons argueth. Now, miss, if I thought you had head-piece enough to keep good counsel and ensue it, maybe I could tell you a thing as would make your hair creep out of them coorous hitch-ups, and your heart a’most bust them there braids of fallallies.”

“Why, what in the world do you mean?” I asked, being startled by the old man’s voice and face.

“Nothing, miss, nothing. I was only a-joking. If you bain’t come to no more discretion than that — to turn as white as the clerk’s smock-frock of a Easter–Sunday — why, the more of a joke one has, the better, to bring your purty color back to you. Ah! Polly of the mill was the maid for color — as good for the eyesight as a chaney-rose in April. Well, well, I must get on with her grave; they’re a-coming to speak the good word over un on sundown.”

He might have known how this would vex and perplex me. I could not bear to hinder him in his work — as important as any to be done by man for man — and yet it was beyond my power to go home and leave him there, and wonder what it was that he had been so afraid to tell. So I quietly said, “Then I will wish you a very good evening again, Mr. Rigg, as you are too busy to be spoken with.” And I walked off a little way, having met with men who, having begun a thing, needs must have it out, and fully expecting him to call me back. But Jacob only touched his hat, and said, “A pleasant evening to you, ma’am.”

Nothing could have made me feel more resolute than this did. I did not hesitate one moment in running back over the stile again, and demanding of Jacob Rigg that he should tell me whether he meant any thing or nothing; for I was not to be played with about important matters, like the boys in the church who were cracking nuts.

“Lord! Lord, now!” he said, with his treddled heel scraping the shoulder of his shining spade; “the longer I live in this world, the fitter I grow to get into the ways of the Lord. His ways are past finding out, saith King David: but a man of war, from his youth upward, hath no chance such as a gardening man hath. What a many of them have I found out!”

“What has that got to do with it!” I cried. “Just tell me what it was you were speaking of just now.”

“I was just a-thinking, when I looked at you, miss,” he answered, in the prime of leisure, and wiping his forehead from habit only, not because he wanted it, “how little us knows of the times and seasons and the generations of the sons of men. There you stand, miss, and here stand I, as haven’t seen your father for a score of years a’most; and yet there comes out of your eyes into mine the very same look as the Captain used to send, when snakes in the grass had been telling lies about me coming late, or having my half pint or so on. Not that the Captain was a hard man, miss — far otherwise, and capable of allowance, more than any of the women be. But only the Lord, who doeth all things aright, could ‘a made you come, with a score of years atween, and the twinkle in your eyes like — Selah!”

“You know what you mean, perhaps, but I do not,” I answered, quite gently, being troubled by his words and the fear of having tried to hurry him; “but you should not say what you have said, Jacob Rigg, to me, your master’s daughter, if you only meant to be joking. Is this the place to joke with me?”

I pointed to all that lay around me, where I could not plant a foot without stepping over my brothers or sisters; and the old man, callous as he might be, could not help feeling for — a pinch of snuff. This he found in the right-hand pocket of his waistcoat, and took it very carefully, and made a little noise of comfort; and thus, being fully self-assured again, he stood, with his feet far apart and his head on one side, regarding me warily. And I took good care not to say another word.

“You be young,” he said at last; “and in these latter days no wisdom is ordained in the mouths of babes and sucklings, nor always in the mouths of them as is themselves ordained. But you have a way of keeping your chin up, miss, as if you was gifted with a stiff tongue likewise. And whatever may hap, I has as good mind to tell ‘e.”

“That you are absolutely bound to do,” I answered, as forcibly as I could. “Duty to your former master and to me, his only child — and to yourself, and your Maker too — compel you, Jacob Rigg, to tell me every thing you know.”

“Then, miss,” he answered, coming nearer to me, and speaking in a low, hoarse voice, “as sure as I stand here in God’s churchyard, by all this murdered family, I knows the man who done it!”

He looked at me, with a trembling finger upon his hard-set lips, and the spade in his other hand quivered like a wind vane; but I became as firm as the monument beside me, and my heart, instead of fluttering, grew as steadfast as a glacier. Then, for the first time, I knew that God had not kept me living, when all the others died, without fitting me also for the work there was to do.

“Come here to the corner of the tower, miss,” old Jacob went on, in his excitement catching hold of the sleeve of my black silk jacket. “Where we stand is a queer sort of echo, which goeth in and out of them big tombstones. And for aught I can say to contrairy, he may be a-watching of us while here we stand.”

I glanced around, as if he were most welcome to be watching me, if only I could see him once. But the place was as silent as its graves; and I followed the sexton to the shadow of a buttress. Here he went into a deep gray corner, lichened and mossed by a drip from the roof; and being, both in his clothes and self, pretty much of that same color, he was not very easy to discern from stone when the light of day was declining.

“This is where I catches all the boys,” he whispered; “and this is where I caught him, one evening when I were tired, and gone to nurse my knees a bit. Let me see — why, let me see! Don’t you speak till I do, miss. Were it the last but one I dug? Or could un ‘a been the last but two? Never mind; I can’t call to mind quite justly. We puts down about one a month in this parish, without any distemper or haxident. Well, it must ‘a been the one afore last — to be sure, no call to scratch my head about un. Old Sally Mock, as sure as I stand here — done handsome by the rate-payers. Over there, miss, if you please to look — about two land — yard and a half away. Can you see un with the grass peeking up a’ready?”

“Never mind that, Jacob. Do please to go on.”

“So I be, miss. So I be doing to the best of the power granted me. Well, I were in this little knuckle of a squat, where old Sally used to say as I went to sleep, and charged the parish for it — a spiteful old ooman, and I done her grave with pleasure, only wishing her had to pay for it; and to prove to her mind that I never goed asleep here, I was just making ready to set fire to my pipe, having cocked my shovel in to ease my legs, like this, when from round you corner of the chancel-foot, and over again that there old tree, I seed a something movin’ along — movin’ along, without any noise or declarance of solid feet walking. You may see the track burnt in the sod, if you let your eyes go along this here finger.”

“Oh, Jacob, how could you have waited to see it?”

“I did, miss, I did; being used to a-many antics in this dead-yard, such as a man who hadn’t buried them might up foot to run away from. But they no right, after the service of the Church, to come up for more than one change of the moon, unless they been great malefactors. And then they be ashamed of it; and I reminds them of it. ‘Amen,’ I say, in the very same voice as I used at the tail of their funerals; and then they knows well that I covered them up, and the most uneasy goes back again. Lor’ bless you, miss, I no fear of the dead. At both ends of life us be harmless. It is in the life, and mostways in the middle of it, we makes all the death for one another.”

This was true enough; and I only nodded to him, fearing to interject any new ideas from which he might go rambling.

“Well, that there figure were no joke, mind you,” the old man continued, as soon as he had freshened his narrative powers with another pinch of snuff, “being tall and grim, and white in the face, and very onpleasant for to look at, and its eyes seemed a’most to burn holes in the air. No sooner did I see that it were not a ghostie, but a living man the same as I be, than my knees begins to shake and my stumps of teeth to chatter. And what do you think it was stopped me, miss, from slipping round this corner, and away by belfry? Nort but the hoddest idea you ever heared on. For all of a suddint it was borne unto my mind that the Lord had been pleased to send us back the Captain; not so handsome as he used to be, but in the living flesh, however, in spite of they newspapers. And I were just at the pint of coming forrard, out of this here dark cornder, knowing as I had done my duty by them graves that his honor, to my mind, must ‘a come looking after, when, lucky for me, I see summat in his walk, and then in his countenance, and then in all his features, unnateral on the Captain’s part, whatever his time of life might be. And sure enough, miss, it were no Captain more nor I myself be.”

“Of course not. How could it be? But who was it, Jacob?”

“You bide a bit, miss, and you shall hear the whole. Well, by that time ’twas too late for me to slip away, and I was bound to scrooge up into the elbow of this nick here, and try not to breathe, as nigh as might be, and keep my Lammas cough down; for I never see a face more full of malice and uncharity. However, he come on as straight as a arrow, holding his long chin out, like this, as if he gotten crutches under it, as the folk does with bad water. A tall man, as tall as the Captain a’most, but not gifted with any kind aspect. He trampsed over the general graves, like the devil come to fetch their souls out; but when he come here to the ‘holy ring,’ he stopped short, and stood with his back to me. I could hear him count the seven graves, as pat as the shells of oysters to pay for, and then he said all their names, as true, from the biggest to the leastest one, as Betsy Bowen could ‘a done it, though none of ’em got no mark to ’em. Oh, the poor little hearts, it was cruel hard upon them! And then my lady in the middle, making seven. So far as I could catch over his shoulder, he seemed to be quite a-talking with her — not as you and I be, miss, but a sort of a manner of a way, like.”

“And what did he seem to say? Oh, Jacob, how long you do take over it!”

“Well, he did not, miss; that you may say for sartain. And glad I was to have him quick about it; for he might have redooced me to such a condition — ay, and I believe a’ would, too, if onst a’ had caught sight of me — as the parish might ‘a had to fight over the appintment of another sexton. And so at last a’ went away. And I were that stiff with scrooging in this cornder —”

“Is that all? Oh, that comes to nothing. Surely you must have more to tell me? It may have been some one who knew our names. It may have been some old friend of the family.”

“No, miss, no! No familiar friend; or if he was, he were like King David’s. He bore a tyrannous hate against ‘e, and the poison of asps were under his lips. In this here hattitude he stood, with his back toward me, and his reins more upright than I be capable of putting it. And this was how he held up his elbow and his head. Look ‘e see, miss, and then ‘e know as much as I do.”

Mr. Rigg marched with a long smooth step — a most difficult strain for his short bowed legs — as far as the place he had been pointing out; and there he stood with his back to me, painfully doing what the tall man had done, so far as the difference of size allowed.

It was not possible for me to laugh in a matter of such sadness; and yet Jacob stood, with his back to me, spreading and stretching himself in such a way, to be up to the dimensions of the stranger, that — low as it was — I was compelled to cough, for fear of fatally offending him.

“That warn’t quite right, miss. Now you look again,” he exclaimed, with a little readjustment. “Only he had a thing over one shoulder, the like of what the Scotchmen wear; and his features was beyond me, because of the back of his head, like. For God’s sake keep out of his way, miss.”

The sexton stood in a musing and yet a stern and defiant attitude, with the right elbow clasped in the left-hand palm, the right hand resting half-clinched upon the forehead, and the shoulders thrown back, as if ready for a blow.

“What a very odd way to stand!” I said.

“Yes, miss. And what he said was odder. ‘Six, and the mother!’ I heared un say; ‘no cure for it, till I have all seven.’ But stop, miss. Not a breath to any one! Here comes the poor father and mother to speak the blessing across their daughter’s grave — and the grave not two foot down yet!”

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