Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLII

Master Withypool

At first I was much inclined to run for help, or at least for counsel, either to Lord Castlewood or to Major Hockin; but further consideration kept me from doing any thing of the kind. In the first place, neither of them would do much good; for my cousin’s ill health would prevent him from helping me, even if his strange view of the case did not, while the excellent Major was much too hot and hasty for a delicate task like this. And, again, I might lose the most valuable and important of all chances by being away from the spot just now. And so I remained at Shoxford for a while, keeping strict watch upon the stranger’s haunt, and asking about him by means of Mrs. Busk.

“I have heard more about him, miss,” she said one day, when the down letters had been dispatched, which happened about middle-day. “He has been here only those three times this summer, upon excuse of fishing always. He stays at old Wellham, about five miles down the river, where the people are not true Moonites. And one thing that puzzles them is, that although he puts up there simply for the angling, he always chooses times when the water is so low that to catch fish is next to impossible. He left his fishing quarters upon the very day after you saw him searching so; and he spoke as if he did not mean to come again this season. And they say that they don’t want him neither, he is such a morose, close-fisted man; and drinking nothing but water, there is very little profit with him.”

“And did you find out what his name is? How cleverly you have managed!”

“He passes by the name of ‘Captain Brown;’ but the landlord of his inn, who has been an old soldier, is sure he was never in the army, nor any other branch of the service. He thinks that he lives by inventing things, for he is always at some experiments, and one of his great points is to make a lamp that will burn and move about under water. To be sure you see the object of that, miss?”

“No, really, Mrs. Busk, I can not. I have not your penetration.”

“Why, of course, to find what he can not find upon land. There is something of great importance there, either for its value or its meaning. Have you ever been told that your poor grandfather wore any diamonds or precious jewels?”

“No. I have asked about that most especially. He had nothing about him to tempt a robber. He was a very strong-willed man, and he hated outward trumpery.”

“Then it must be something that this man himself has dropped, unless it were a document, or any other token, missing from his lordship. And few things of that sort would last for twenty years almost.”

“Nineteen years the day after tomorrow,” I answered, with a glance at my pocket-book. “I determined to be here on that very day. No doubt I am very superstitious. But one thing I can not understand is this — what reason can there have been for his letting so many years pass, and then hunting like this?”

“No one can answer that question, miss, without knowing more than we know. But many reasons might be supposed. He might have been roving abroad, for instance, just as you and your father have been. Or he might not have known that the thing was there; or it might not have been of importance till lately; or he might have been afraid, until something else happened. Does he know that you are now in England?”

“How can I possibly tell, Mrs. Busk? He seems to know a great deal too much. He found me out when I was at Colonel Gundry’s. At least I conclude so, from what I know now; but I hope he does not know”— and at such a dreadful idea I shuddered.

“I am almost sure that he can not know it,” the good postmistress answered, “or he would have found means to put an end to you. That would have been his first object.”

“But, Mrs. Busk,” I said, being much disturbed by her calmness, “surely, surely he is not to be allowed to make an end of every one! I came to this country with the full intention of going into every thing. But I did not mean at all, except in my very best moments, to sacrifice myself. It seems too bad — too bad to think of.”

“So it is, Miss Erema,” Mrs. Busk replied, without any congenial excitement. “It does seem hard for them that have the liability on them. But still, miss, you have always shown such a high sense of duty, and of what you were about —”

“I can’t — I can not. There are times, I do assure you, when I am fit for nothing, Mrs. Busk, and wish myself back in America. And if this man is to have it all his own way —”

“Not he, miss — not he. Be you in no hurry. Could he even have his way with our old miller? No; Master Withypool was too many for him.”

“That is a new thing. You never told me that. What did he try to do with the miller?”

“I don’t justly know what it was, Miss Erema. I never spoke to miller about it, and, indeed, I have had no time since I heard of it. But those that told me said that the tall strange gentleman was terribly put out, and left the gate with a black cloud upon his face, and the very next day the miller’s daughter died, quite sudden and mysterious.”

“How very strange! But now I have got a new idea. Has the miller a strong high dam to his pond, and a good stout sluice-gate at the end!”

“Yes, miss, to be sure he has,” said Mrs. Busk; “otherwise how could he grind at all, when the river is so low as it is sometimes?”

“Then I know what he wanted, and I will take a leaf out of his own book — the miscreant! He wanted the miller to stop back the water and leave the pool dry at the ‘Murder-bridge.’ Would it be possible for him to do that?”

“I can not tell you, miss; but your thought is very clever. It is likely enough that he did want that, though he never would dare to ask without some pretense — some other cause I mean, to show for it. He may have been thinking that whatever he was wanting was likely to be under water. And that shows another thing, if it is so.”

“Mrs. Busk, my head goes round with such a host of complications. I do my best to think them out — and then there comes another!”

“No, miss; this only clears things up a little. If the man can not be sure whether what he is looking for is on land or under water, it seems to me almost to show that it was lost at the murder time in the dark and flurry. A man would know if he dropped any thing in the water by daylight, from the splash and the ripple, and so on, for the stream is quite slow at that corner. He dropped it, miss, when he did the deed, or else it came away from his lordship.”

“Nothing was lost, as I said before, from the body of my grandfather, so far at least as our knowledge goes. Whatever was lost was the murderer’s. Now please to tell me all about the miller, and how I may get round him.”

“You make me laugh in the middle of black things, miss, by the way you have of putting them. But as to the miller — Master Withypool is a wonder, as concerns the ladies. He is one of those men that stand up for every thing when a man tries upper side of them. But let a woman come, and get up under, and there he is — a pie crust lifted. Why, I, at my age, could get round him, as you call it. But you, miss — and more than that, you are something like his daughter; and the old man frets after her terrible. Go you into his yard, and just smile upon him, miss, and if the Moon River can be stopped, he’ll stop it for you.”

This seemed a very easy way to do it. But I told Mrs. Busk that I would pay well also, for the loss of a day’s work at the mill was more than fifty smiles could make up.

But she told me, above all things, not to do that. For old Master Withypool was of that sort that he would stand for an hour with his hands in his pocket for a half-penny, if not justly owing from him. But nothing more angered him than a bribe to step outside of his duty. He had plenty of money, and was proud of it. But sooner would he lose a day’s work to do a kindness, when he was sure of having right behind it, than take a week’s profit without earning it. And very likely that was where the dark man failed, from presuming that money would do every thing. However, there was nothing like judging for one’s self; and if I would like to be introduced, she could do it for me with the best effect; taking as she did a good hundred-weight of best “households” from him every week, although not herself in the baking line, but always keeping quartern bags, because the new baker did adulterate so.

I thought of her father, and how things work round; but that they would do without remarks of mine. So I said nothing on that point, but asked whether Master Withypool would require any introduction. And to this Mrs. Busk said, “Oh dear, no!” And her throat had been a little rough since Sunday, and the dog was chained tight, even if any dog would bite a sweet young lady; and to her mind the miller would be more taken up and less fit to vapor into obstacles, if I were to hit upon him all alone, just when he came out to the bank of his cabbage garden, not so very long after his dinner, to smoke his pipe and to see his things a-growing.

It was time to get ready if I meant to catch him then, for he always dined at one o’clock, and the mill was some three or four meadows up the stream; therefore as soon as Mrs. Busk had re-assured me that she was quite certain of my enemy’s departure, I took my drawing things and set forth to call upon Master Withypool.

Passing through the church-yard, which was my nearest way, and glancing sadly at the “fairy ring,” I began to have some uneasiness about the possible issue of my new scheme. Such a thing required more thinking out than I had given to it. For instance, what reason could I give the miller for asking so strange a thing of him? And how could the whole of the valley be hindered from making the greatest talk about the stoppage of their own beloved Moon, even if the Moon could be stopped without every one of them rushing down to see it? And if it was so talked of, would it not be certain to come to the ears of that awful man? And if so, how long before he found me out, and sent me to rejoin my family?

These thoughts compelled me to be more discreet; and having lately done a most honorable thing, in refusing to read that letter, I felt a certain right to play a little trick now of a purely harmless character. I ran back therefore to my writing-desk, and took from its secret drawer a beautiful golden American eagle, a large coin, larger and handsomer than any in the English coinage. Uncle Sam gave it to me on my birthday, and I would not have taken 50 pounds for it. With this I hurried to that bridge of fear, which I had not yet brought myself to go across; and then, not to tell any story about it, I snipped a little hole in the corner of my pocket, while my hand was still steady ere I had to mount the bridge. Then pinching that hole up with a squeeze, I ran and got upon that wicked bridge, and then let go. The heavy gold coin fell upon the rotten plank, and happily rolled into the water, as if it were glad not to tempt its makers to any more sin for the sake of it.

Shutting up thought, for fear of despising myself for the coinage of such a little trick, I hurried across the long meadow to the mill, and went through the cow-gate into the yard, and the dog began to bark at me. Seeing that he had a strong chain on, I regarded him with lofty indignation. “Do you know what Jowler would do to you?” I said; “Jowler, a dog worth ten of you. He would take you by the neck and drop you into that pond for daring to insult his mistress!” The dog appeared to feel the force of my remarks, for he lay down again, and with one eye watched me in a manner amusing, but insidious. Then, taking good care to keep out of his reach, I went to the mill-pond and examined it.

It looked like a very nice pond indeed, long, and large, and well banked up, not made into any particular shape, but producing little rushy elbows. The water was now rather low, and very bright (though the Moon itself is not a crystal stream), and a school of young minnows, just watching a water-spider with desirous awe, at sight of me broke away, and reunited, with a speed and precision that might shame the whole of our very best modern fighting. Then many other things made a dart away, and furrowed the shadow of the willows, till distance quieted the fear of man — that most mysterious thing in nature — and the shallow pool was at peace again, and bright with unruffled reflections.

“What ails the dog?” said a deep gruff voice; and the poor dog received a contemptuous push, not enough to hurt him, but to wound his feelings for doing his primary duty. “Servant, miss. What can I do for you? Foot-path is t’other side of that there hedge.”

“Yes, but I left the foot-path on purpose. I came to have a talk with you, if you will allow me.”

“Sartain! sartain,” the miller replied, lifting a broad floury hat and showing a large gray head. “Will you come into house, miss, or into gearden?”

I chose the garden, and he led the way, and set me down upon an old oak bench, where the tinkle of the water through the flood-gates could be heard.

“So you be come to paint the mill at last,” he said. “Many a time I’ve looked out for you. The young leddy down to Mother Busk’s, of course. Many’s the time we’ve longed for you to come, you reminds us so of somebody. Why, my old missus can’t set eyes on you in church, miss, without being forced to sit down a’most. But we thought it very pretty of you not to come, miss, while the trouble was so new upon us.”

Something in my look or voice made the old man often turn away, while I told him that I would make the very best drawing of his mill that I could manage, and would beg him to accept it.

“Her ought to ‘a been on the plank,” he said, with trouble in getting his words out. “But there! what good? Her never will stand on that plank no more. No, nor any other plank.”

I told him that I would put her on the plank, if he had any portrait of her showing her dress and her attitude. Without saying what he had, he led me to the house, and stood behind me, while I went inside. And then he could not keep his voice as I went from one picture of his darling to another, not thinking (as I should have done) of what his feelings might be, but trying, as no two were at all alike, to extract a general idea of her.

“Nobody knows what her were to me,” the old man said, with a quiet little noise and a sniff behind my shoulder. “And with one day’s illness her died — her died.”

“But you have others left. She was not the only one. Please, Mr. Withypool, to try to think of that. And your dear wife still alive to share your trouble. Just think for a moment of what happened to my father. His wife and six children all swept off in a month — and I just born, to be brought up with a bottle!”

I never meant, of course, to have said a word of this, but was carried away by that common old idea of consoling great sorrow with a greater one. And the sense of my imprudence broke vexatiously upon me when the old man came and stood between me and his daughter’s portraits.

“Well, I never!” he exclaimed, with his bright eyes steadfast with amazement. “I know you now, miss. Now I knows you. To think what a set of blind newts us must be! And you the very moral of your poor father, in a female kind of way! To be sure, how well I knew the Captain! A nicer man never walked the earth, neither a more unlucky one.”

“I beg you — let me beg you,” I began to say; “since you have found me out like this —”

“Hush, miss, hush! Not my own wife shall know, unless your own tongue telleth her. A proud man I shall be, Miss Raumur,” he continued, with emphasis on my local name, “if aught can be found in my power to serve you. Why, Lord bless you, miss,” he whispered, looking round, “your father and I has spent hours together! He were that pleasant in his ways and words, he would drop in from his fishing, when the water was too low, and sit on that very same bench where you sat, and smoke his pipe with me, and tell me about battles, and ask me about bread. And many a time I have slipped up the gate, to give him more water for his flies to play, and the fish not to see him so plainly. Ah, we have had many pleasant spells together; and his eldest boy and girl, Master George and Miss Henrietta, used to come and fetch our eggs. My Polly there was in love with him, we said; she sat upon his lap so, when she were two years old, and played with his beautiful hair, and blubbered — oh, she did blubber, when the Captain went away!”

This invested Polly with new interest for me, and made me determine to spare no pains in putting her pretty figure well upon the plank. Then I said to the miller, “How kind of you to draw up your sluice-gates to oblige my father! Now will you put them down and keep them down, to do a great service both to him and me?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he promised that any thing he could do should be done, if I would only tell him what I wanted. But perhaps it would be better to have our talk outside. Taking this hint, I followed him back to the bench in the open garden, and there explained what I wished to have done, and no longer concealed the true reason. The good miller answered that with all his heart he would do that much to oblige me, and a hundred times more than that; but some little thought and care were needful. With the river so low as it was now, he could easily stop the back-water, and receive the whole of the current in his dam, and keep it from flowing down his wheel trough, and thus dry the lower channel for perhaps half an hour, which would be ample for my purpose. Engineering difficulties there were none; but two or three other things must be heeded. Miller Sims, a mile or so down river, must be settled with, to fill his dam well, and begin to discharge, when the upper water failed, so as not to dry the Moon all down the valley, which would have caused a commotion. Miller Sims being own brother-inlaw to Master Withypool, that could be arranged easily enough, after one day’s notice. But a harder thing to manage would be to do the business without rousing curiosity, and setting abroad a rumor which would be sure to reach my enemy. And the hardest thing of all, said Master Withypool, smiling as he thought of what himself had once been, would be to keep those blessed boys away, who find out every thing, and go every where. Not a boy of Shoxford but would be in the river, or dancing upon its empty bed, screeching and scolloping up into his cap any poor bewildered trout chased into the puddles, if it were allowed to leak out, however feebly, that the Moon water was to stop running. And then how was I to seek for any thing?

This was a puzzle. But, with counsel, we did solve it. And we quietly stopped the Moon, without man or boy being much the wiser.

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