Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLIV

Hermetically Sealed

The discovery which I have described above (but not half so well as the miller tells it now) created in my young heart a feeling of really strong curiosity. To begin with, how could this valuable thing have got into the Moon-stream, and lain there so long, unsought for, or at best so unskillfully sought for? What connection could it have with the tragic death of my grandfather? Why was that man so tardily come to search for it, if he might do so without any body near him? Again, what woman was this whose beauty no water or mud could even manage to disguise? That last was a most disturbing question to one’s bodily peace of mind. And then came another yet more urgent — what was in the inside of this tight case?

That there was something inside of it seemed almost a certainty. The mere value of the trinket, or even the fear that it ever might turn up as evidence, would scarcely have brought that man so often to stir suspicion by seeking it; though, after so long a time, he well might hope that suspicion was dead and buried. And being unable to open this case — after breaking three good nails over it, and then the point of a penknife — I turned to Master Withypool, who was stamping on the grass to drain himself.

“What sort of a man was that,” I asked, “who wanted you to do what now you have so kindly done for me? About a month or six weeks ago? Do please to tell me, as nearly as you can.”

If Mrs. Withypool had been there, she might have lost all patience with me for putting long questions so selfishly to a man who had done so much for me, and whose clothes were now dripping in a wind which had arisen to test his theory of drying. He must have lost a large quantity of what scientific people call “caloric.” But never a shiver gave he in exchange.

“Well, miss,” he said, “I was thinking a’most of speaking on that very matter. More particular since you found that little thing, with the pretty lady inside of it. It were borne in on my mind that thissom were the very thing he were arter.”

“No doubt of it,” I answered, with far less patience, though being comparatively dry. “But what was he like? Was he like this portrait?”

“This picture of the lady? No; I can’t say that he were, so much. The face of a big man he hath, with short black fringes to it. Never showeth to my idea any likeliness of a woman. No, no, miss; think you not at all that you have got him in that blue thing. Though some of their pictures is like men, the way they dress up nowadays.”

“I did not mean that it was meant for him; what I mean is, do you see any sign of family likeness? Any resemblance about the eyes, or mouth, or forehead?”

“Well, now, I don’t know but what I might,” replied Master Withypool, gazing very hard; “if I was to look at ’un long enough, a’ might find some’at favoring of that tall fellow, I do believe. Indeed, I do believe the more I look, the more I diskivers the image of him.”

The good and kind miller’s perception of the likeness strengthened almost too fast, as if the wish were father to the thought, until I saw clearly how selfish I was in keeping him in that state so long; for I knew, from what Mrs. Busk had told me, that in spite of all his large and grand old English sentiments about his clothes, his wife would make him change them all ere ever she gave him a bit of dinner, and would force him then to take a glass of something hot. So I gave him a thousand thanks, though not a thousandth part of what he deserved, and saw him well on his homeward way before I went back to consider things.

As soon as my landlady was at leisure to come in and talk with me, and as soon as I had told her how things happened, and shown her our discovery, we both of us did the very same thing, and said almost the very same words. Our act was, with finger and nail and eye, to rime into every jot of it; and our words were,

“I am sure there is something inside. If not, it would open sensibly.”

In the most senseless and obstinate manner it refused not only to open, but to disclose any thing at all about itself. Whether it ever had been meant to open, and if so, where, and by what means; whether, without any gift of opening, it might have a hidden thing inside; whether, when opened by force or skill, it might show something we had no business with, or (which would be far worse) nothing at all — good Mrs. Busk and myself tested, tapped, and felt, and blew, and listened, and tried every possible overture, and became at last quite put out with it.

“It is all of a piece with the villains that owned it,” the postmistress exclaimed at last. “There is no penetrating either it or them. Most likely they have made away with this beautiful lady on the cover. Kill one, kill fifty, I have heard say. I hope Master Withypool will let out nothing, or evil it will be for you, miss. If I was you, I would carry a pistol.”

“Now please not to frighten me, Mrs. Busk. I am not very brave at the best of times, and this has made me so nervous. If I carried a pistol, I should shoot myself the very first hour of wearing it. The mere thought of it makes me tremble. Oh, why was I ever born, to do man’s work?”

“Because, miss, a man would not have done it half so well. When you saw that villain digging, a man would have rushed out and spoiled all chance. And now what man could have ever found this? Would Master Withypool ever have emptied the Moon River for a man, do you think? Or could any man have been down among us all this time, in this jealous place, without his business being long ago sifted out and scattered over him? No, no, miss; you must not talk like that — and with me as well to help you. The rogues will have reason to wish, I do believe, that they had only got a man to deal with.”

In this argument there were points which had occurred to me before; but certainly it is a comfort to have one’s own ideas in a doubtful matter reproduced, and perhaps put better, by a mind to which one may have lent them, perhaps, with a loan all unacknowledged. However, trouble teaches care, and does it so well that the master and the lesson in usage of words are now the same; therefore I showed no sign of being suggested with my own suggestions, but only asked, quietly, “What am I to do?”

“My dear young lady,” Mrs. Busk replied, after stopping some time to think of it, “my own opinion is, for my part, that you ought to consult somebody.”

“But I am, Mrs. Busk. I am now consulting you.”

“Then I think, miss, that this precious case should be taken at once to a jeweler, who can open it without doing any damage, which is more than we can do.”

“To be sure; I have thought of that,” I replied. “But how can that be done without arousing curiosity? — without the jeweler seeing its contents, if indeed it has any? And in that case the matter would be no longer at our own disposal, as now it is. I have a great mind to split it with a hammer. What are the diamonds to me?”

“It is not the diamonds, but the picture, miss, that may be most important. And more than that, you might ruin the contents, so as not to make head or tale of them. No, no; it is a risk that must be run; we must have a jeweler, but not one of this neighborhood.”

“Then I shall have to go to London again, and perhaps lose something most important here. Can you think of no other way out of it?”

“No, miss, at present I see nothing else. Unless you will place it all in the hands of the police.”

“Constable Jobbins, to wit, or his son! No, thank you, Mrs. Busk, not yet. Surely we are not quite reduced to such a hopeless pass as that. My father knew what the police were worth, and so does Betsy, and so does Major Hockin. ‘Pompous noodles,’ the Major calls them, who lay hold of every thing by the wrong end.”

“Then if he can lay hold of the right end, miss, what better could you do than consult him?”

I had been thinking of this already, and pride alone debarred me. That gentleman’s active nature drove him to interfere with other people’s business, even though he had never heard of them; and yet through some strange reasoning of his own, or blind adoption of public unreason, he had made me dislike, or at any rate not like, him, until he began to show signs at last of changing his opinion. And now the question was, had he done that enough for me, without loss of self-respect, to open my heart to him, and seek counsel?

In settling that point the necessity of the case overrode, perhaps, some scruples; in sooth, I had nobody else to go to. What could I do with Lord Castlewood? Nothing; all his desire was to do exactly what my father would have done: and my father had never done any thing more than rove and roam his life out. To my mind this was dreadful now, when every new thing rising round me more and more clearly to my mind established what I never had doubted — his innocence. Again, what good could I do by seeking Betsy’s opinion about it, or that of Mrs. Price, or Stixon, or any other person I could think of? None whatever — and perhaps much harm. Taking all in all, as things turn up, I believed myself to be almost equal to the cleverest of those three in sense, and in courage not inferior. Moreover, a sort of pride — perhaps very small, but not contemptible — put me against throwing my affairs so much into the hands of servants.

For this idea Uncle Sam, no doubt the most liberal of men, would perhaps condemn me. But still I was not of the grand New World, whose pedigrees are arithmetic (at least with many of its items, though the true Uncle Sam was the last for that); neither could I come up to the largeness of universal brotherhood. That was not to be expected of a female; and few things make a man more angry than for his wife to aspire to it. No such ideas had ever troubled me; I had more important things to think of, or, at any rate, something to be better carried out. And of all these desultory thoughts it came that I packed up that odious but very lovely locket, without further attempt to unriddle it, and persuaded my very good and clever Mrs. Busk to let me start right early. By so doing I could have three hours with a good gentleman always in a hurry, and yet return for the night to Shoxford, if he should advise me so.

Men and women seem alike to love to have their counsels taken; and the equinox being now gone by, Mrs. Busk was ready to begin before the tardy sun was up, who begins to give you short measure at once when he finds the weights go against him. Mrs. Busk considered not the sun, neither any of his doings. The time of day was more momentous than any of the sun’s proceedings. Railway time was what she had to keep (unless a good customer dropped in), and as for the sun —“clock slow, clock fast,” in the almanacs, showed how he managed things; and if that was not enough, who could trust him to keep time after what he had done upon the dial of Ahaz? Reasoning thus — if reason it was — she packed me off in a fly for the nearest railway station, and by midday I found the Major laboring on his ramparts.

After proper salutations, I could not help expressing wonder at the rapid rise of things. Houses here and houses there, springing up like children’s teeth, three or four in a row together, and then a long gap, and then some more. And down the slope a grand hotel, open for refreshment, though as yet it had no roof on; for the Major, in virtue of his charter, defied all the magistrates to stop him from selling whatever was salable on or off the premises. But noblest and grandest of all to look at was the “Bruntsea Athenaeum, Lyceum, Assembly–Rooms, Institution for Mutual Instruction, Christian Young Men’s Congress, and Sanitary, Saline, Hydropathic Hall, at nominal prices to be had gratis.”

“How you do surprise me!” I said to Major Hockin, after reading all that, which he kindly requested me to do with care; “but where are the people to come from?”

“Erema,” he replied, as if that question had been asked too often, “you have not had time to study the laws of political economy — the noblest of noble sciences. The first of incontrovertible facts is that supply creates demand. Now ask yourself whether there could even be a Yankee if ideas like yours had occurred to Columbus?”

This was beyond me; for I never could argue, and strove to the utmost not to do so. “You understand those things, and I do not,” said I, with a smile, which pleased him. “My dear aunt Mary always says that you are the cleverest man in the world; and she must know most about it.”

“Partiality! partiality!” cried the Major, with a laugh, and pulling his front hair up. “Such things pass by me like the idle wind; or rather, perhaps, they sadden me, from my sense of my own deficiencies. But, bless me! dinner must be waiting. Look at that fellow’s trowel — he knows: he turns up the point of it like a spoon. They say that he can smell his dinner two miles off. We all dine at one o’clock now, that I may rout up every man-Jack of them.”

The Major sounded a steam-guard’s whistle, and led me off in the rapidly vanishing wake of his hungry workmen.

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