Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter L

The Panacea

As if my own trouble were not enough, so deeply was I grieved by this sad news that I had a great mind to turn back on my own and fly to far-off disasters. To do so appeared for the moment a noble thing, and almost a duty; but now, looking back, I perceive that my instinct was right when it told me to stay where I was, and see out my own sad story first. And Betsy grew hot at the mere idea of my hankering after a miller’s affairs, as she very rudely expressed it. To hear about lords and ladies, and their crimes and adventures, was lovely; but to dwell upon people of common birth, and in trade, was most unbeseeming. A man who mended his own mill, and had hands like horn — well, even she was of better blood than that, she hoped.

Before these large and liberal views had fairly been expounded, Major Hockin arrived, with his mind in such a state that he opened his watch every second.

“Erema, I must speak to you alone,” he cried; “no, not even you, Mrs. Strouss, if you please. If my ward likes to tell you, why, of course she can; but nobody shall say that I did. There are things that belong to the family alone. The most loyal retainers — you know what I mean.”

“General, I was not aware that you belonged to the family. But this way, Sir; this way, if you please. There is lath and plaster to that wall, and a crack in the panel of the door, Sir. But here is a room where I keep my jams, with double brick and patent locks, from sweet-toothed lodgers. The ‘scutcheon goes over the key-hole, General. Perhaps you will see to that, while I roll up the carpet outside; and then, if any retainers come, you will hear their footsteps.”

“Bless the woman, what a temper she has!” whispered the Major, in dread of her ears. “Is she gone, Erema? She wants discipline.”

“Yes, she is gone,” I said, trying to be lightsome; “but you are enough to frighten any one.”

“So far from that, she has quite frightened me. But never mind such trifles. Erema, since I saw you I have discovered, I may almost say, every thing.”

Coming upon me so suddenly, even with all allowance made for the Major’s sanguine opinion of his own deeds, this had such effect upon my flurried brain that practice alone enabled me to stand upright and gaze at him.

“Perhaps you imagined when you placed the matter in my hands, Miss Castlewood,” he went on, with sharp twinkles from the gables of his eyes, but soft caresses to his whiskers, “that you would be left in the hands of a man who encouraged a crop of hay under his feet. Never did you or any body make a greater mistake. That is not my character, Miss Castlewood.”

“Why do you call me ‘Miss Castlewood’ so? You quite make me doubt my own right to the name.”

Major Hockin looked at me with surprise, which gladdened even more than it shamed me. Clearly his knowledge of all, as he described it, did not comprise the disgrace which I feared.

“You are almost like Mrs. Strouss today,” he answered, with some compassion. “What way is the wind? I have often observed that when one female shows asperity, nearly all the others do the same. The weather affects them more than men, because they know nothing about it. But to come back — are you prepared to hear what I have got to tell you?”

I bowed without saying another word. For he should be almost the last of mankind to give a lecture upon irritation.

“Very well; you wish me to go on. Perceiving how sadly you were upset by the result of those interviews, first with Handkin, and then with Goad, after leaving you here I drove at once to the office, studio, place of business, or whatever you please to call it, of the famous fellow in the portrait line, whose anagram, private mark, or whatever it is, was burned into the back of the ivory. Handkin told me the fellow was dead, or, of course, his work would be worth nothing; but the name was carried on, and the register kept, at a little place somewhere in Soho, where, on the strength of his old repute, they keep up a small trade with inferior hands. I gave them a handsome order for a thing that will never be handsome, I fear — my old battered physiognomy. And then I produced the locket which in some queer state of mind you had given me, and made them hunt out their old books, and at last discovered the very entry. But to verify it I must go to Paris, where his son is living.”

“Whose son? Lord Castlewood’s?”

“Erema, have you taken leave of your senses? What son has Lord Castlewood? The artist’s son, to be sure; the son of the man who did the likeness. Is it the vellum and the stuff upon it that has so upset your mind? I am glad that you showed it to me, because it would have been mean to do otherwise. But show it to no one else, my dear, except your cousin, Lord Castlewood. He has the first right of all to know it, though he will laugh at it as I do. Trumpery of that sort! Let them produce a certified copy of a register. If they could do that, need they ever have shot that raffish old lord — I beg pardon, my dear — your highly respected grandfather? No, no; don’t tell me. Nicholas Hockin was never in any way famous for want of brains, my dear, and he tells you to keep your pluck up.”

“I never can thank you enough,” I replied, “for such inspiriting counsel. I have been rather miserable all this day. And I have had such a letter from America!”

Without my intending any offer of the kind, or having such idea at the furthest tip of any radius of mind, I found myself under a weight about the waist, like the things the young girls put on now. And this was the arm of the Major, which had been knocked about in some actions, but was useful still to let other people know, both in this way and that, what he thought of them. And now it let me know that he pitied me.

This kindness from so old a soldier made me partial to him. He had taken an age to understand me, because my father was out of the army almost before I was born, and therefore I had no traditions. Also, from want of drilling, I had been awkward to this officer, and sometimes mutinous, and sometimes a coward. All that, however, he forgave me when he saw me so downhearted; and while I was striving to repress all signs, the quivering of my lips perhaps suggested thoughts of kissing. Whereupon he kissed my forehead with nice dry lips, and told me not to be at all afraid.

“How many times have you been brave?” he inquired, to set me counting, knowing from all his own children, perhaps, that nothing stops futile tears and the waste of sobs like prompt arithmetic. “Six, if not seven, times you have displayed considerable valor. Are you going to fall away through some wretched imagination of your own? Now don’t stop to argue — time will not allow it. I have put Cosmopolitan Jack as well upon the track of Captain Brown. I have not told you half of what I could tell, and what I am doing; but never mind, never mind; it is better that you should not know too much, my dear. Young minds, from their want of knowledge of the world, are inclined to become uneasy. Now go to bed and sleep soundly, Erema, for we have lots to do tomorrow, and you have had a most worrying day today. To-morrow, of course, you must come with me to Paris. You can parleyvoo better than I can.”

However, as it happened, I did nothing of the kind, for when he came back in the morning, and while he was fidgeting and hurrying me, and vowing that we should lose the tidal train, a letter from Bruntsea was put into my hand. I saw Mrs. Price’s clear writing, followed by good Aunt Mary’s crooked lines, and knew that the latter must have received it too late to be sent by her messenger. In few words it told me that if I wished to see my cousin alive, the only chance was to start immediately.

Shock and self-reproach and wonder came (as usual) before grief, which always means to stay, and waits to get its mourning ready. I loved and respected my cousin more deeply than any one living, save Uncle Sam; and now to lose them both at once seemed much too dreadful to be true. There was no time to think. I took the Major’s cab, and hurried off to Paddington, leaving him to catch his tidal train.

Alas! when I got to Castlewood, there was but a house of mourning! Faithful Stixon’s eyes were dim, and he pointed upward and said, “Hush!” I entered with great awe, and asked, “How long?” And he said, “Four-and-twenty hours now; and a more peacefuller end was never seen, and to lament was sinful; but he was blessed if he could help it.” I told him, through my tears, that this was greatly to his credit, and he must not crush fine feelings, which are an honor to our nature. And he said that I was mistress now, and must order him to my liking.

I asked him to send Mrs. Price to me, if she was not too busy; and he answered that he believed her to be a very good soul, and handy. And if he ever had been thought to speak in a sense disparishing of her, such things should not be borne in mind, with great afflictions over us. Mrs. Price, hearing that I was come, already was on her way to me, and now glanced at the door for Mr. Stixon to depart, in a manner past misunderstanding.

“He gives himself such airs!” she said; “sometimes one would think — but I will not trouble you now with that, Miss Castlewood, or Lady Castlewood — which do you please to be called, miss? They say that the barony goes on, when there is no more Viscount.”

“I please to be called ‘Miss Castlewood,’ even if I have any right to be called that. But don’t let us talk of such trifles now. I wish to hear only of my cousin.”

“Well, you know, ma’am, what a sufferer he has been for years. If ever an angel had pains all over, and one leg compulsory of a walking-stick, that angel was his late lordship. He would stand up and look at one, and give orders in that beautiful silvery voice of his, just as if he was lying on a bed of down. And never a twitch, nor a hitch in his face, nor his words, nor any other part of him. I assure you, miss, that I have been quite amazed and overwhelmed with interest while looking at his poor legs, and thinking —”

“I can quite enter into it. I have felt the same. But please to come to what has happened lately.”

“The very thing I was at the point of doing. Then last Sunday, God alone knows why, the pain did not come on at all. For the first time for seven years or more the pain forgot the time-piece. His lordship thought that the clock was wrong; but waited with his usual patience, though missing it from the length of custom, instead of being happy. But when it was come to an hour too late for the proper attack of the enemy, his lordship sent orders for Stixon’s boy to take a good horse and ride to Pangbourne for a highly respectable lawyer. There was no time to fetch Mr. Spines, you see, miss, the proper solicitor, who lives in London. The gentleman from Pangbourne was here by eight o’clock; and then and there his lordship made his will, to supersede all other wills. He put it more clearly, the lawyer said, than he himself could have put it, but not, of course, in such legal words, but doubtless far more beautiful. Nobody in the house was forgotten; and the rule of law being, it seems, that those with best cause to remember must not witness, two of the tenants were sent for, and wrote down their names legitimate. And then his lordship lay back and smiled, and said, ‘I shall have no more pain.’

“All that night and three days more he slept as sound as a little child, to make up for so many years. We called two doctors in; but they only whispered and looked dismal, and told us to have hot water ready at any hour of the day or night. Nobody loved him as I did, miss, from seeing so much of his troubles and miraculous way of bearing them; and I sat by the hour and hour, and watched him, trusting no paid nurses.

“It must have been eight o’clock on Wednesday morning — what is today? Oh, Friday — then Thursday morning it must have been, when the clouds opened up in the east, and the light of the sun was on the window-sill, not glaring or staring, but playing about, with patterns of leaves between it; and I went to screen it from his poor white face; but he opened his eyes, as if he had been half awake, half dreaming, and he tried to lift one of his thin, thin hands to tell me not to do it. So I let the curtain stay as it was, and crept back, and asked, very softly, ‘Will your lordship have some breakfast?’

“He did not seem to comprehend me, but only watched the window; and if ever a blessed face there was, looking toward heaven’s glory, his lordship had it, so that I could scarcely keep from sobbing. For I never had seen any living body die, but knew that it must be so. He heard me catching my breath, perhaps, or at any rate he looked at me; and the poor angel knew that I was a woman; and being full of high respect, as he always was for females — in spite of the way they had served him — it became apparent to his mind that the pearl button of his neck was open, as ordered by the doctors. And he tried to lift his hand to do it; and then he tried to turn away, but could not manage either. Poor dear! the only movement he could make was to a better world.

“Then I drew the sheet across his chest, and he gave me a little smile of thanks, and perhaps he knew whose hand it was. But the look of his kind soft eyes was flickering — not steady, I mean, miss — but glancing and stopping and going astray, as drops of rain do on the window-glass. But I could not endure to examine him much; at such a holy time I felt that to watch death was unholy.

“Perhaps I ought to have rung the bell for others to be present. But his lordship was always shy, you know, miss; and with none of his kindred left, and no wife to say ‘good-by’ to him, right or wrong I resolved alone to see him depart to his everlasting rest. And people may talk about hirelings, but I think nobody loved him as I did.”

Here Mrs. Price broke fairly down, and I could not help admiring her. To a faithful servant’s humility and duty she had added a woman’s pure attachment to one more gifted than herself, and ruined for life by her own sex. But she fell away frightened and ashamed beneath my look, as if I had caught her in sacrilege.

“Well, miss, we all must come and go,” she began again, rather clumsily; “and, good and great as he was, his lordship has left few to mourn for him. Only the birds and beasts and animals that he was so good to; they will miss him, if men don’t. There came one of his favorite pigeons, white as snow all over, and sat on the sill of the window, and cooed, and arched up its neck for his fingers. And he tried to put his fingers out, but they were ice already. Whether that or something else brought home his thoughts, who knows, miss? but he seemed to mix the pigeon up with some of his own experience.

“‘Say that I have forgiven her, if ever she did harm to me,’ he whispered, without moving lips. ‘Times and times, when I was young, I was not always steady;’ and then he seemed to wander in his mind among old places; and he would have laughed at something if his voice had been sufficient.

“‘Bitter grief and pain shall never come again,’ he seemed to breathe, with a calm, soft smile, like a child with its rhyme about the rain when the sun breaks out; and sure enough, the sun upon the quilt above his heart was shining, as if there could be no more clouds. Then he whispered a few short words to the Lord, more in the way of thanks than prayer, and his eyes seemed to close of their own accord, or with some good spirit soothing them. And when or how his sleep passed from this world into the other there was scarcely the flutter of a nerve to show. There he lies, like an image of happiness. Will you come and see him?”

I followed her to the bedroom, and am very glad that I did so; for it showed me the bliss of a good man’s rest, and took away my fear of death.

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