Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLVI

Vain Zeal

Leaving his telescope leveled at the men, the Major marched off with his opera-glass in a consciously provoking style, and Mrs. Hockin most heartily joined me in condemning such behavior. In a minute or two, however, she would not have one word said against him, and the tide of her mind (as befits a married woman) was beyond all science; so that the drift of all words came back to her husband’s extraordinary merits. And certainly these, if at all like her description, deserved to be dwelt upon at very precious periods.

However, I had heard enough of them before; for the Major himself was not mute upon this point, though comparatively modest, and oftentimes deprecating praise ere ever he received it. And so I brought Mrs. Hockin back at last to talk about the lady who was living in the ruin.

“It is not quite a ruin,” she said. “My dear husband is fond of picturesque expressions. However, it is not in very good repair; and being unable to get possession of it, through some legal quibble, possibly he may look at it from a rather unfavorable point of view. And for the same reason — though he is so purely just — he may have formed a bad opinion of the strange individual who lives there. What right has she to be living without his leave upon his own manor? But there she is, and she does not care for us or any body. She fetches all she wants, she speaks to none, and if any body calls for rates or taxes, or any other public intrusion, they may knock and knock, but never get in, and at last they go away again.”

“But surely that can not go on forever. Bruntsea is such an enlightened place.”

“Our part of it is, but the rest quite benighted. As the man says — I forget his name, but the man that misunderstands us so — his contention is that ‘Desolate Hole,’ as the Major calls it, although in the middle of our land, is entirely distinct from it. My husband never will put up with that — his love of justice is far too strong — and he means to have a lawsuit. But still he has reasons for not beginning yet; and he puts up with a great deal, I am sure. It is too bad for them to tease him so.”

“It does seem a very sad thing,” I replied; “and the poor soul living there all alone! Even in the summer it is bad enough; but whatever will she do when the winter comes? Why, the sea in bad weather must be almost in upon her. And the roar of the pebbles all night! Major Hockin will never allow her to stay there.”

“What can he do, when he can not get in, and they even deny his title? I assure you, Erema, I have sent down cream, and even a dozen of my precious eggs, with the lady of the manor’s compliments; but instead of being grateful, they were never taken in; and my Polly —‘Miss Polly Hopkins,’ you know — very wisely took it all to her grandmother.”

“To her grandmother instead of mine, as the Major facetiously calls her. And now he says this is her portrait; and instead of giving his reasons, runs away! Really you must excuse me, Aunt Mary, for thinking that your good husband has a little too much upon his mind sometimes.”

The old lady laughed, as I loved to see her do. “Well, my dear, after that, I think you had better have it out with him. He comes home to tea at 6.30, which used to be half past six in my days. He is very tired then, though he never will allow it, and it would not be fair to attack him. I give him a mutton-chop, or two poached eggs, or some other trifle of nourishment. And then I make him doze for an hour and a half, to soothe his agitated intellect. And when he wakes he has just one glass of hot water and sugar, with a little Lochnagar. And then he is equal to any thing — backgammon, bezique, or even conversation.”

Impatient as I was, I saw nothing better; and by this time I was becoming used to what all of us must put up with — the long postponement of our heavy cares to the light convenience of others. Major Hockin might just as well have stopped, when he saw how anxious I was. Uncle Sam would have stopped the mill itself, with a dozen customers waiting; but no doubt he had spoiled me; and even that should not make me bitter. Aunt Mary and I understood one another. We gazed away over the breadth of the sea and the gleam of its texture, and we held our peace.

Few things are more surprising than the calm way in which ripe age looks on at things which ought to amaze it. And yet any little one of its own concerns grows more important, perhaps, than ever as the shadow of the future dwindles. Major Hockin had found on the beach a pebble with a streak of agate in it. He took it as the harbinger of countless agates, and resolved to set up a lapidary, with a tent, or even a shop, perhaps — not to pay, but to be advertised, and catch distinguished visitors.

“Erema, you are a mighty finder; you found the biggest nugget yet discovered. You know about stones from the Rocky Mountains, or at least the Sierra Nevada. You did not discover this beautiful agate, but you saw and greatly admired it. We might say that a ‘young lady, eminent for great skill in lithology, famed as the discoverer,’ etc. Hold it between your eyes and this candle, but wet it in the slop-basin first; now you see the magnificent veins of blue.”

“I see nothing of the kind,” I said; for really it was too bad of him. “It seems to me a dirty bit of the commonest flint you could pick up.”

This vexed him more than I wished to have done, and I could not help being sorry; for he went into a little fit of sulks, and Aunt Mary almost frowned at me. But he could not stay long in that condition, and after his doze and his glass he came forth as lively and meddlesome as ever. And the first thing he did was to ask me for the locket.

“Open it?” he cried; “why, of course I can; there is never any difficulty about that. The finest workmanship in the world is that of the Indian jewelers. I have been among them often; I know all their devices and mechanism, of which the European are bad copies. I have only to look round this thing twice, and then pronounce my Sesame.”

“My dear, then look round it as fast as you can,” said his wife, with a traitorous smile at me, “and we won’t breathe a Sess till it flies asunder.”

“Mary, Miss Castlewood makes you pert, although herself so well conducted. However, I do not hesitate to say that I will open this case in two minutes.”

“Of course you will, dear,” Mrs. Hockin replied, with provoking acquiescence. “The Major never fails, Erema, in any thing he is so sure about; and this is a mere child’s toy to him. Well, dear, have you done it? But I need not ask. Oh, let us see what is inside of it!”

“I have not done it yet, Mrs. Hockin; and if you talk with such rapidity, of course you throw me out. How can I command my thoughts, or even recall my experience?”

“Hush! now hush, Erema! And I myself will hush most reverently.”

“You have no reverence in you, and no patience. Do you expect me to do such a job in one second? Do you take me for a common jeweler? I beg you to remember —”

“Well, my dear, I remember only what you told us. You were to turn it round twice, you know, and then cry Sesame. Erema, was it not so?”

“I never said any thing of the sort. What I said was simply this — However, to reason with ladies is rude; I shall just be off to my study.”

“Where you keep your tools, my darling,” Mrs. Hockin said, softly, after him: “at least, I mean, when you know where they are.”

I was astonished at Aunt Mary’s power of being so highly provoking, and still more at her having the heart to employ it. But she knew best what her husband was; and to worship forever is not wise.

“Go and knock at his door in about five minutes,” Mrs. Hockin said to me, with some mischief in her eyes. “If he continues to fail, he may possibly take a shorter way with it. And with his tools so close at hand —”

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “his geological hammer — that dreadful crusher! May I go at once? I detest that thing, but I can not have it smashed.”

“He will not break it up, my dear, without your leave. He never would think of such a thing, of course. However, you may as well go after him.”

It was wrong of Mrs. Hockin to make me do this; and I felt quite ashamed of myself when I saw the kind old Major sitting by his lamp, and wrinkling his forehead into locks and keys of puzzle, but using violence to his own mind alone. And I was the more ashamed when, instead of resenting my intrusion, he came to meet me, and led me to his chair, and placed the jeweled trinket in my hand, and said, “My dear, I give it up. I was wrong in taking it away from you. You must consult some one wiser.”

“That odious thing!” I answered, being touched by this unusual humility of his; “you shall not give it up; and I know no wiser person. A lapidary’s tricks are below your knowledge. But if you are not tired of me and offended, may I leave it to you to get it opened?”

“I would like nothing better,” he replied, recovering his natural briskness and importance; “but you ought to be there, my dear; you must be there. Are you sure that you ought not rather to take it to your good cousin Lord Castlewood? Now think before you answer.”

“I need not think twice of that, Major Hockin. Good and learned as my father’s cousin is, he has distinctly refused to help me, for some mysterious reason of his own, in searching into this question. Indeed, my great hope is to do it without him: for all that I know, he might even wish to thwart me.”

“Enough, my dear; it shall be just as you wish. I brought you to England, and I will stand by you. My cousin, Colonel Gundry, has committed you to me. I have no patience with malefactors. I never took this matter up, for very many reasons; and among them not the least was that Sampson, your beloved ‘Uncle Sam,’ thought it better not to do so. But if you desire it, and now that I feel certain that an infamous wrong has been done to you — which I heartily beg your pardon for my doubt of — by the Lord of all justice, every thing else may go to the devil, till I see it out. Do you desire it, Erema?”

“I certainly do not wish that any of your great works should be neglected. But if, without that, you can give me your strong help, my only difficulty will be to thank you.”

“I like plain speaking, and you always speak plainly; sometimes too plainly,” he said, recollecting little times when he had the worst of it. “How far do you trust me now?”

“Major Hockin, I trust you altogether. You may make mistakes, as all men do —”

“Yes, yes, yes. About my own affairs; but I never do that for other people. I pay a bill for twopence, if it is my own. If I am trustee of it, I pay three half-pence.”

His meaning was a little beyond me now; but it seemed better not to tell him so; for he loved to explain his own figures of speech, even when he had no time to spare for it. And he clearly expected me to ask him to begin; or at least it seemed so from his eyebrows. But that only came home to me afterward.

“Please not to speak of my affairs like that,” I said, as if I were quite stupid; “I mean to pay fourpence for every twopence — both to friends and enemies.”

“You are a queer girl; I have always said so. You turn things to your own ideas so. However, we must put up with that, though none of my daughters have ever done it; for which I am truly thankful. But now there is very little time to lose. The meaning of this thing must be cleared up at once. And there is another thing to be done as well, quite as important, in my opinion. I will go to London with you tomorrow, if you like. My clever little Cornishman will see to things here — the man that sets up all the angles.”

“But why should I hurry you to London so?” I asked. “Surely any good country jeweler could manage it? Or let us break it open.”

“On no account,” he answered; “we might spoil it all; besides the great risk to the diamonds, which are very brittle things. To London we must take it, for this reason — the closure of this case is no jeweler’s work; of that I have quite convinced myself. It is the work of a first-rate lapidary, and the same sort of man must undo it.”

To this I agreed quite readily, because of such things I knew nothing; whereas my host spoke just as if he had been brought up to both those walks of art. And then I put a question which had long been burning on my tongue.

“What made you imagine, Major Hockin, that this very beautiful face could have ever been that of the old lady living in the ruin?”

“In Desolate Hole? I will tell you at once; and then call it, if you like, an imagination. Of all the features of the human face there is none more distinctive than the eyebrow. ‘Distinctive’ is not exactly what I mean — I mean more permanently marked and clear. The eyes change, the nose changes, so does the mouth, and even the shape of the forehead sometimes; but the eyebrows change very little, except in color. This I have noticed, because my own may perhaps be a little peculiar; and they have always been so. At school I received a nickname about it, for boys are much sharper than men about such things; and that name after fifty years fits as well as ever. You may smile, if you like; I shall not tell you what it was, but leave you to re-invent it, if you can. Now look at this first-rate miniature. Do you see an unusual but not uncomely formation of the eyebrows?”

“Certainly I do; though I did not observe it until you drew my attention. I had only regarded the face, as a whole.”

“The face, as a whole, is undoubtedly fine. But the eyebrows have a peculiar arch, and the least little turn at the lower end, as if they designed to rise again. The lady of Desolate Hole has the same.”

“But how can you tell? How very strange! I thought she let nobody see her face.”

“You are perfectly right about that, Erema; so far at least as she has vouchsafed to exhibit her countenance to me. Other people may be more fortunate. But when I met her for the second time, being curious already about her, I ventured to offer my services, with my inborn chivalry, at a place where the tide was running up, and threatened to surround her. My politeness was not appreciated, as too often is the case; for she made me a very stiff bow, and turned away. Her face had been covered by the muffler of her cloak, as if the sea-breeze were too much for her; and she did not even raise her eyes. But before she turned away, I obtained a good glance at her eyebrows — and they were formed like these.”

“But her age, Major Hockin! Her age — what is it?”

“Upon that proverbially delicate point I can tell you but little, Erema. Perhaps, however, I may safely say that she can not be much under twenty.”

“It is not right to provoke me so. You call her ‘the old woman,’ and compare her to your letter-box. You must have some idea — is she seventy?”

“Certainly not, I should say; though she can not expect me to defend her, when she will not show her face to me; and what is far worse, at my time of life, she won’t even pay me a half-penny of rent. Now let us go back to Aunt Mary, my dear; she always insists upon packing overnight.”

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