Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXVIII

A Witch

It was true enough that Stixon now had nothing more to tell, but what he had told already seemed of very great importance, confirming strongly, as it did, the description given me by Jacob Rigg. And even the butler’s concluding words — that I seemed born to hear it all — comforted me like some good omen, and cheered me forward to make them true. Not that I could, in my sad and dangerous enterprise, always be confident. Some little spirit I must have had, and some resolve to be faithful, according to the power of a very common mind, admiring but never claiming courage. For I never did feel in any kind of way any gift of inspiration, or even the fitness of a quick, strong mind for working out deeds of justice. There were many good ladies in America then, and now there are some in England, perceiving so clearly their own superiority as to run about largely proclaiming it. How often I longed to be a little more like these, equal to men in achievements of the body, and very far beyond them in questions of the mind!

However, it was useless to regret my lacks, and foolish, perhaps, to think of them. To do my very best with what little gifts I had was more to the purpose and more sensible. Taking in lonely perplexity now this dim yet exciting view of things, I resolved, right or wrong, to abide at the place where the only chance was of pursuing my search. I was pledged, as perhaps has been said before, to keep from every one excepting faithful Betsy, and above all from Lord Castlewood, the unexpected little tale wrung out of Mr. Stixon. That promise had been given without any thought, in my eagerness to hear every thing, and probably some people would have thought of it no more. But the trusty butler was so scared when I asked him to release me from it, so penitent also at his own indiscretion, which never would have overcome him (as he said in the morning) only for the thunder-storm, that instead of getting off, I was quite obliged to renew and confirm my assurances.

Therefore, in truth, I had no chance left but to go back to Shoxford and do my best, meeting all dark perils with the shield of right spread over me. And a great thing now in my favor was to feel some confidence again in the guidance of kind Wisdom. The sense of this never had abandoned me so much as to make me miserable about it; but still I had never tried to shelter under it, and stay there faithfully, as the best of people do. And even now I was not brought to such a happy attitude, although delivered by these little gleams of light from the dark void of fatalism, into which so many bitter blows had once been driving me.

However, before setting off again, I made one more attempt upon Lord Castlewood, longing to know whether his suspicions would help me at all to identify the figure which had frightened both the sexton and the butler. That the person was one and the same, I did not for a moment call in question, any more than I doubted that he was the man upon whose head rested the blood of us. But why he should be allowed to go scot-free while another bore his brand, and many others died for him, and why all my most just and righteous efforts to discover him should receive, if not discouragement, at any rate most lukewarm aid — these and several other questions were as dark as ever.

“You must not return to Shoxford, my cousin,” Lord Castlewood said to me that day, after a plain though courteous refusal to enlighten me even with a mere surmise, except upon the condition before rejected. “I can not allow you to be there without strict supervision and protection. You will not, perhaps, be aware of it, as perhaps you have not been before; but a careful watch will be kept on you. I merely tell you this that you may not make mistakes, and confound friendly vigilance with the spying of an enemy. Erema, you will be looked after.”

I could not help being grateful for his kindness, and really, try as I might to be fearless, it would be a great comfort to have some one to protect me. On the other hand, how would this bear upon my own freedom of looking about, my desire to make my own occasions, and the need of going every where? Could these be kept to my liking at all while an unknown power lay in kind regard of me? Considering these things, I begged my cousin to leave me to my own devices, for that I was afraid of nobody on earth, while only seeking justice, and that England must be worse than the worst parts of America if any harm to me could be apprehended at quiet times and in such a quiet place.

My cousin said no more upon that point, though I felt that he was not in any way convinced; but he told me that he thought I should pay a little visit, if only for a day, such as I treated him with, to my good friends at Bruntsea, before I returned to Shoxford. There was no one now at Bruntsea whom I might not wish to meet, as he knew by a trifling accident; and after all the kind services rendered by Major and Mrs. Hockin, it was hardly right to let them begin to feel themselves neglected. Now the very same thing had occurred to me, and I was going to propose it; and many things which I found it hard to do without were left in my little chest of locked-up drawers there. But of that, to my knowledge, I scarcely thought twice; whereas I longed to see and have a talk with dear “Aunt Mary.” Now, since my affairs had been growing so strange, and Lord Castlewood had come forward — not strongly, but still quite enough to speak of — there had been a kind-hearted and genuine wish at Bruntsea to recover me. And this desire had unreasonably grown while starved with disappointment. The less they heard of me, the more they imagined in their rich good-will, and the surer they became that, after all, there was something in my ideas.

But how could I know this, without any letters from them, since letters were a luxury forbidden me at Shoxford? I knew it through one of the simplest and commonest of all nature’s arrangements. Stixon’s boy, as every body called him (though he must have been close upon five-and-twenty, and carried a cane out of sight of the windows), being so considered, and treated boyishly by the maids of Castlewood, asserted his dignity, and rose above his value as much as he had lain below it, by showing that he owned a tender heart, and them that did not despise it. For he chanced to be walking with his cane upon the beach (the very morning after he first went to Bruntsea, too late for any train back again), and casting glances of interior wonder over the unaccustomed sea — when from the sea itself out-leaped a wondrous rosy deity.

“You there, Mr. Stixon! Oh my! How long?” exclaimed Mrs. Hockin’s new parlormaid, ready to drop, though in full print now, on the landward steps of the bathing-machine set up by the reckless Major.

“Come this very hinstant, miss, honor bright!” replied the junior Stixon, who had moved in good society; “and just in the hackmy of time, miss, if I may offer you my ‘umble hand.”

The fair nymph fixed him with a penetrating gaze through tresses full of salt curliness, while her cheeks were conscious of an unclad dip. But William Stixon’s eyes were firm with pure truth, gently toning into shy reproach and tenderness. He had met her at supper last night, and done his best; but (as he said to the Castlewood maids) it was only feeling then, whereas now it was emoshun.

“Then you are a gentleman!” Polly Hopkins cried; “and indeed, Mr. Stixon, these are slippery things.” She was speaking of the steps, as she came down them, and they had no hand-rails; and the young man felt himself to be no more Stixon’s boy, but a gentleman under sweet refining pressure.

From that hour forth it was pronounced, and they left the world to its own opinion, that they were keeping company; and although they were sixty miles apart by air, and eighty-two by railway, at every post their hearts were one, with considerable benefit to the United Kingdom’s revenue. Also they met by the sad sea waves, when the bathing-machines had been hauled up — for the Major now had three of them — as often as Stixon senior smiled — which he did whenever he was not put out — on the bygone ways of these children. For Polly Hopkins had a hundred pounds, as well as being the only child of the man who kept the only shop for pickled pork in Bruntsea. And my Mr. Stixon could always contrive to get orders from his lordship to send the boy away, with his carriage paid, when his health demanded bathing. Hence it is manifest that the deeds and thoughts of Bruntsea House, otherwise called “Bruntlands,” were known quite as well, and discussed even better — because dispassionately — at Castlewood than and as they were at home.

Now I won forever the heart of Stixon’s boy, and that of Polly Hopkins, by recoiling with horror from the thought of going to Bruntsea unattended. After all my solitary journeys, this might have been called hypocrisy, if it had been inconvenient; but coming as it did, it was pronounced, by all who desired either news or love, to be another proof of the goodness of my heart.

Escorted thus by William Stixon (armed with a brilliant cane bought for this occasion), and knowing that Sir Montague Hockin was not there, I arrived at Bruntlands in the afternoon, and received a kindly welcome from my dear friend Mrs. Hockin. Her husband was from home, and she grieved to say that now he was generally doing this; but nobody else could have any idea what his avocations were! Then she paid me some compliments on my appearance — a thing that I never thought of, except when I came to a question of likeness, or chanced to be thinking of things, coming up as they will, at a looking-glass.

That the Major was out was a truth established in my mind some time ago; because I had seen him, as our fly crawled by, expressly and emphatically at work on a rampart of his own designing. The work was quite new to me, but not so his figure. Though I could not see people three miles off, as Firm Gundry was said to do, I had pretty clear sight, and could not mistake the Major within a furlong. And there he was, going about in a row of square notches against the sea-line, with his coat off, and brandishing some tool, vehemently carrying on to spirits less active than his own. I burned with desire to go and join him, for I love to see activity; but Mrs. Hockin thought that I had better stay away, because it was impossible to get on there without language too strong for young ladies.

This closed the question, and I stopped with her, and found the best comfort that I ever could have dreamed of. “Aunt Mary” was so steadfast, and so built up with, or rather built of, the very faith itself, that to talk with her was as good as reading the noblest chapter of the Bible. She put by all possibility of doubt as to the modern interference of the Lord, with such a sweet pity and the seasoned smile of age, and so much feeling (which would have been contempt if she had not been softened by her own escapes), that really I, who had come expecting to set her beautiful white hair on end, became like a little child put into the corner, but too young yet for any other punishment at school, except to be looked at. Nevertheless, though I did look small, it made me all the happier. I seemed to become less an individual, and more a member of a large kind race under paternal management. From a practical point of view this may have been amiss, but it helped to support me afterward. And before I began to get weary or rebel against her gentle teaching, in came her husband; and she stopped at once, because he had never any time for it.

“My geological hammer!” cried the Major, being in a rush as usual. “Oh, Miss Castlewood! I did not see you. Pardon me! It is the want of practice only; so wholly have you deserted us. Fallen into better hands, of course. Well, how are you? But I need not ask. If ever there was a young lady who looked well — don’t tell me of troubles, or worries, or nerves — I put up my glasses, and simply say, ‘Pretty young ladies are above all pity!’ My hammer, dear Mary; my hammer I must have. The geological one, you know; we have come on a bit of old Roman work; the bricklayer’s hammers go flat, like lead. I have just one minute and a half to spare. What fine fellows those Romans were! I will build like a Roman. See to every bit of it myself, Erema. No contractor’s jobs for me. Mary, you know where to find it.”

“Well, dear, I think that you had it last, to get the bung out of the beer barrel, when the stool broke down in the corner, you know, because you would —”

“Never mind about that. The drayman made a fool of himself. I proceeded upon true principles. That fellow knew nothing of leverage.”

“Well, dear, of course you understand it best. But he told cook that it was quite a mercy that you got off without a broken leg; and compared with that, two gallons of spilled ale —” Mrs. Hockin made off, without finishing her sentence.

“What a woman she is!” cried the Major; “she takes such a lofty view of things, and she can always find my tools. Erema, after dinner I must have a talk with you. There is something going on here — on my manor — which I can not at all get a clew to, except by connecting you with it, the Lord knows how. Of course you have nothing to do with it; but still my life has been so free from mystery that, that — you know what I mean —”

“That you naturally think I must be at the bottom of every thing mysterious. Now is there any thing dark about me? Do I not labor to get at the light? Have I kept from your knowledge any single thing? But you never cared to go into them.”

“It is hardly fair of you to say that. The fact is that you, of your own accord, have chosen other counselors. Have you heard any more of your late guardian, Mr. Shovelin? I suppose that his executor, or some one appointed by him, is now your legal guardian.”

“I have not even asked what the law is,” I replied. “Lord Castlewood is my proper guardian, according to all common-sense, and I mean to have him so. He has inquired through his solicitors as to Mr. Shovelin, and I am quite free there. My father’s will is quite good, they say; but it never has been proved, and none of them care to do it. My cousin thinks that I could compel them to prove it, or to renounce in proper form; but Mr. Shovelin’s sons are not nice people — as different from him as night from day, careless and wild and dashing.”

“Then do you mean to do nothing about it? What a time she is finding that hammer!”

“I leave it entirely to my cousin, and he is waiting for legal advice. I wish to have the will, of course, for the sake of my dear father; but with or without any will, my mother’s little property comes to me. And if my dear father had nothing to leave, why should we run up a great lawyer’s bill?”

“To be sure not! I see. That makes all the difference. I admire your common-sense,” said the Major —“but there! Come and look, and just exercise it here. There is that very strange woman again, just at the end of my new road. She stands quite still, and then stares about, sometimes for an hour together. Nobody knows who she is, or why she came. She has taken a tumble-down house on my manor, from a wretch of a fellow who denies my title; and what she lives on is more than any one can tell, for she never spends sixpence in Bruntsea. Some think that she walks in the dark to Newport, and gets all her food at some ship stores there. And one of our fishermen vows that he met her walking on the sea, as he rowed home one night, and she had a long red bag on her shoulder. She is a witch, that is certain; for she won’t answer me, however politely I accost her. But the oddest thing of all is the name she gave to the fellow she took the house from. What do you think she called herself? Of all things in the world —‘Mrs. Castlewood!’ I congratulate you on your relative.”

“How very strange!” I answered. “Oh, now I see why you connect me with it; and I beg your pardon for having been vexed. But let me go and see her. Oh, may I go at once, if you please, and speak to her?”

“The very thing I wish — if you are not afraid. I will come with you, when I get my hammer. Oh, here it is! Mary, how clever you are! Now look out of the window, and you shall see Erema make up to her grandmamma.”

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