Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXVII

Some Answer to it

Hasty indignation did not drive me to hot action. A quiet talk with Mrs. Price, as soon as my cousin’s bad hour arrived, was quite enough to bring me back to a sense of my own misgovernment. Moreover, the evening clouds were darkening for a night of thunder, while the silver Thames looked nothing more than a leaden pipe down the valleys. Calm words fall at such times on quick temper like the drip of trees on people who have been dancing. I shivered, as my spirit fell, to think of my weak excitement, and poor petulance to a kind, wise friend, a man of many sorrows and perpetual affliction. And then I recalled what I had observed, but in my haste forgotten — Lord Castlewood was greatly changed even in the short time since I had left his house for Shoxford. Pale he had always been, and his features (calm as they were, and finely cut) seemed almost bleached by indoor life and continual endurance. But now they showed worse sign than this — a delicate transparence of faint color, and a waxen surface, such as I had seen at a time I can not bear to think of. Also he had tottered forward, while he tried for steadfast footing, quite as if his worried members were almost worn out at last.

Mrs. Price took me up quite sharply — at least for one of her well-trained style — when I ventured to ask if she had noticed this, which made me feel uneasy. “Oh dear, no!” she said, looking up from the lace-frilled pockets of her silk apron, which appeared to my mind perhaps a little too smart, and almost of a vulgar tincture; and I think that she saw in my eyes that much, and was vexed with herself for not changing it —“oh dear, no, Miss Castlewood! We who know and watch him should detect any difference of that nature at the moment of its occurrence. His lordship’s health goes vacillating; a little up now, and then a little down, like a needle that is mounted to show the dip of compass; and it varies according to the electricity, as well as the magnetic influence.”

“What doctor told you that?” I asked, seeing in a moment that this housekeeper was dealing in quotation.

“You are very”— she was going to say “rude,” but knew better when she saw me waiting for it —“well, you are rather brusque, as we used to call it abroad, Miss Castlewood; but am I incapable of observing for myself?”

“I never implied that,” was my answer. “I believe that you are most intelligent, and fit to nurse my cousin, as you are to keep his house. And what you have said shows the clearness of your memory and expression.”

“You are very good to speak so,” she answered, recovering her temper beautifully, but, like a true woman, resolved not to let me know any thing more about it. “Oh, what a clap of thunder! Are you timid? This house has been struck three times, they say. It stands so prominently. It is this that has made my lord look so.”

“Let us hope, then to see him much better tomorrow,” I said, very bravely, though frightened at heart, being always a coward of thunder. “What are these storms you get in England compared to the tropical outbursts? Let us open the window, if you please, and watch it.”

“I hear myself called,” Mrs. Price exclaimed. “I am sorry to leave you, miss. You know best. But please not to sit by an open window; nothing is more dangerous.”

“Except a great bunch of steel keys,” I replied; and gazing at her nice retreating figure, saw it quickened, as a flash of lightning passed, with the effort of both hands to be quit of something.

The storm was dreadful; and I kept the window shut, but could not help watching, with a fearful joy, the many-fingered hazy pale vibrations, the reflections of the levin in the hollow of the land. And sadly I began to think of Uncle Sam and all his goodness; and how in a storm, a thousandfold of this, he went down his valley in the torrent of the waves, and must have been drowned, and perhaps never found again, if he had not been wearing his leathern apron.

This made me humble, as all great thoughts do, and the sidelong drizzle in among the heavy rain (from the big drops jostling each other in the air, and dashing out splashes of difference) gave me an idea of the sort of thing I was — and how very little more. And feeling rather lonely in the turn that things had taken, I rang the bell for somebody; and up came Stixon.

“Lor’, miss! Lor’, what a burning shame of Prick! —‘Prick’ we call her, in our genial moments, hearing as the ‘k’ is hard in Celtic language; and all abroad about her husband. My very first saying to you was, not to be too much okkipied with her. Look at the pinafore on her! Lord be with me! If his lordship, as caught me, that day of this very same month fifty years, in the gooseberry bush —”

“To be sure!” I said, knowing that story by heart, together with all its embellishments; “but things are altered since that day. Nothing can be more to your credit, I am sure, than to be able to tell such a tale in the very place where it happened.”

“But, Miss — Miss Erma, I ain’t begun to tell it.”

“Because you remember that I am acquainted with it. A thing so remarkable is not to be forgotten. Now let me ask you a question of importance; and I beg you, as an old servant of this family, to answer it carefully and truly. Do you remember any one, either here or elsewhere, so like my father, Captain Castlewood, as to be taken for him at first sight, until a difference of expression and of walk was noticed?”

Mr. Stixon looked at me with some surprise, and then began to think profoundly, and in doing so he supported his chin with one hand.

“Let me see — like the Captain?” He reflected slowly: “Did I ever see a gentleman like poor Master George, as was? A gentleman, of course, it must have been — and a very tall, handsome, straight gentleman, to be taken anyhow for young Master George. And he must have been very like him, too, to be taken for him by resemblance. Well then, miss, to the best of my judgment, I never did see such a gentleman.”

“I don’t know whether it was a gentleman or not,” I answered, with some impatience at his tantalizing slowness; “but he carried his chin stretched forth — like this.”

For Stixon’s own attitude had reminded me of a little point in Jacob Rigg’s description, which otherwise might have escaped me.

“Lor’, now, and he carried his chin like that!” resumed the butler, with an increase of intelligence by no means superfluous. “Why, let me see, now, let me see. Something do come across my mind when you puts out your purty chin, miss; but there, it must have been a score of years agone, or more — perhaps five-and-twenty. What a daft old codger I be getting, surely! No wonder them new lights puts a bushel over me.”

“No,” I replied; “you are simply showing great power of memory, Stixon. And now please to tell me, as soon as you can, who it was — a tall man, remember, and a handsome one, with dark hair, perhaps, or at any rate dark eyes — who resembled (perhaps not very closely, but still enough to mislead at a distance) my dear father — Master George, as you call him, for whose sake you are bound to tell me every thing you know. Now try to think — do please try your very best, for my sake.”

“That I will, miss; that I will, with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength, as I used to have to say with my hands behind my back, afore education were invented. Only please you to stand with your chin put out, miss, and your profield towards me. That is what brings it up, and nothing else at all, miss. Only, not to say a word of any sort to hurry me. A tracherous and a deep thing is the memory and the remembrance.”

Mr. Stixon’s memory was so deep that there seemed to be no bottom to it, or, at any rate, what lay there took a very long time to get at. And I waited, with more impatience than hope, the utterance of his researches.

“I got it now; I got it all, miss, clear as any pictur’!” the old man cried out, at the very moment when I was about to say, “Please to leave off; I am sure it is too much for you.” “Not a pictur’ in all of our gallery, miss, two-and-fifty of ’em, so clear as I see that there man, dark as it was, and a heavy wind a-blowing. What you call them things, miss, if you please, as comes with the sun, like a face upon the water? Wicked things done again the will of the Lord, and He makes them fade out afterwards.”

“Perhaps you mean photographs. Is that the word?”

“The very word, and no mistake. A sinful trespass on the works of God, to tickle the vanity of gals. But he never spread himself abroad like them. They shows all their ear-rings, and their necks, and smiles. But he never would have shown his nose, if he could help it, that stormy night when I come to do my duty. He come into this house without so much as a ‘by your leave’ to nobody, and vexed me terrible accordingly. It was in the old lord’s time, you know, miss, a one of the true sort, as would have things respectful, and knock down any man as soon as look. And it put me quite upon the touch-and-go, being responsible for all the footman’s works, and a young boy promoted in the face of my opinion, having my own son worth a dozen of him. This made me look at the nature of things, miss, and find it on my conscience to be after every body.”

“Yes, Stixon, yes! Now do go on. You must always have been, not only after, but a very long way after, every body.”

“Miss Erma, if you throw me out, every word goes promiscuous. In a heffort of the mind like this it is every word, or no word. Now, did I see him come along the big passage? — a ‘currydoor’ they call it now, though no more curry in it than there is door. No, I never seed him come along the passage, and that made it more reproachful. He come out of a green-baize door — the very place I can point out to you, and the selfsame door, miss, though false to the accuracy of the mind that knows it, by reason of having been covered up red, and all the brass buttons lost to it in them new-fangled upholsteries. Not that I see him come through, if you please, but the sway of the door, being double-jointed, was enough to show legs, had been there. And knowing that my lord’s private room was there, made me put out my legs quite wonderful.”

“Oh, do please to put out your words half as quickly.”

“No, miss, no. I were lissome in those days, though not so very stiff at this time of speaking, and bound to be guarded in the guidance of the tongue. And now, miss, I think if you please to hear the rest tomorrow, I could tell it better.”

A more outrageous idea than this was never presented to me. Even if I could have tried to wait, this dreadful old man might have made up his mind not to open his lips in the morning, or, if he would speak, there might be nothing left to say. His memory was nursed up now, and my only chance was to keep it so. Therefore I begged him to please to go on, and no more would I interrupt him. And I longed to be ten years older, so as not to speak when needless.

“So then, Miss Erma, if I must go on,” resumed the well-coaxed Stixon, “if my duty to the family driveth me to an ‘arrowing subjeck, no words can more justly tell what come to pass than my language to my wife. She were alive then, the poor dear hangel, and the mother of seven children, which made me, by your leave comparing humble roofs with grandeur, a little stiff to him up stairs, as come in on the top of seven. For I said to my wife when I went home — sleeping out of the house, you see, miss, till the Lord was pleased to dissolve matrimony —‘Polly,’ I said, when I took home my supper, ‘you may take my word for it there is something queer.’ Not another word did I mean to tell her, as behooved my dooty. Howsoever, no peace was my lot till I made a clean bosom of it, only putting her first on the Testament, and even that not safe with most of them. And from that night not a soul has heard a word till it comes to you, miss. He come striding along, with his face muffled up, for all the world like a bugglar, and no more heed did he pay to me than if I was one of the pedestals. But I were in front of him at the door, and to slip out so was against all orders. So in front of him I stands, with my hand upon the handles, and meaning to have a word with him, to know who he was, and such like, and how he comes there, and what he had been seeking, with the spoons and the forks and the gravies on my mind. And right I would have been in a court of law (if the lawyers was put out of it) for my hefforts in that situation. And then, what do you think he done, miss? So far from entering into any conversation with me, or hitting at me, like a man — which would have done good to think of — he send out one hand to the bottom of my vest — as they call it now in all the best livery tailors — and afore I could reason on it, there I was a-lying on a star in six colors of marble. When I come to think on it, it was but a push directed to a part of my system, and not a hit under the belt, the like of which no Briton would think of delivering. Nevertheless, there was no differ in what came to me, miss, and my spirit was roused, as if I had been hit foul by one of the prizemen. No time to get up, but I let out one foot at his long legs as a’ was slipping through the door, and so nearly did I fetch him over that he let go his muffle to balance himself with the jamb, and same moment a strong rush of wind laid bare the whole of his wicked face to me. For a bad wicked face it was, as ever I did see; whether by reason of the kick I gave, and a splinter in the shin, or by habit of the mind, a proud and ‘aughty and owdacious face, and, as I said to my poor wife, reminded me a little of our Master George; not in his ordinary aspect, to be sure, but as Master George might look if he was going to the devil. Pray excoose me, miss, for bad words, but no good ones will do justice. And so off he goes, after one look at me on the ground, not worth considering, with his chin stuck up, as if the air was not good enough to be breathed perpendiklar like.”

“And of course you followed him,” I exclaimed, perceiving that Stixon would allow me now to speak. “Without any delay you went after him.”

“Miss Erma, you forget what my dooty was. My dooty was to stay by the door and make it fast, as custodian of all this mansion. No little coorosity, or private resentment, could ‘a borne me out in doing so. As an outraged man I was up for rushing out, but as a trusted official, and responsible head footman, miss — for I were not butler till nine months after that — my dooty was to put the big bolt in.”

“And you did it, without even looking out to see if he tried to set the house on fire! Oh, Stixon, I fear that you were frightened.”

“Now, Miss Erma, I calls it ungrateful, after all my hefforts to obleege you, to put a bad construction upon me. You hurts me, miss, in my tenderest parts, as I never thought Master George’s darter would ‘a doed. But there, they be none of them as they used to be! Master George would ‘a said, if he ever had heard it. ‘Stixon, my man, you have acted for the best, and showed a sound discretion. Stixon,’ he would have said, ‘here’s a George and Dragon in reward of your gallant conduck.’ Ah, that sort of manliness is died out now.”

This grated at first upon my feelings, because it seemed tainted with selfishness, and it did not entirely agree with my own recollections of my father. But still Mr. Stixon must have suffered severely in that conflict, and to blame him for not showing rashness was to misunderstand his position. And so, before putting any other questions to him, I felt in my pocket for a new half sovereign, which I hoped would answer.

Mr. Stixon received it in an absent manner, as if he were still in the struggle of his story, and too full of duty to be thankful. Yet I saw that he did not quite realize the truth of a nobly philosophic proverb —“the half is more than the whole.” Nevertheless, he stowed away his half, in harmony with a good old English saying.

“Now, when you were able to get up at last,” I inquired, with tender interest, “what did you see, and what did you do, and what conclusion did you come to?”

“I came to the conclusion, miss, that I were hurt considerable. Coorosity on my part were quenched by the way as I had to rub myself. But a man is a man, and the last thing to complain of is the exercise of his functions. And when I come round I went off to his lordship, as if I had heared his bell ring. All of us knew better than to speak till him beginning, for he were not what they now call ‘halfable,’ but very much to the contrary. So he says, ‘You door-skulker, what do you want there?’ And I see that he got his hot leg up, certain to fly to bad language. According, I asked, with my breath in my hand, if he pleased to see any young man there just now, by reason that such likes had been observated going out in some direction. But his lordship roared to me to go in another direction, not fit for young ladies. My old lord was up to every word of English; but his present lordship is the hopposite extreme.”

“Is that all you have to tell me, Stixon? Did you never see that fearful man again? Did you never even hear of him?”

“Never, miss, never! And to nobody but you have I ever told all as I told now. But you seems to be born to hear it all.”

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