Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXIV

Cauliflowers

“They cocks and hens,” Mr. Swipes used to say in the earlier days of his empire —“bless you, my lord, they cocks and hens knows a good bit of gardening as well as I do. They calls one another, and they comes to see it, and they puts their heads to one side and talks about it, and they say to one another, ‘Must be something good there, or he wouldn’t have made it so bootiful’; and then up go their combs, and they tear away into it, like a passel of Scotchmen at a scratching-match. If your lordship won’t put a lock on the door, you will never taste a bit of good vegetable.”

Admiral Darling was at length persuaded to allow Mr. Swipes the privilege of locking himself in the kitchen-garden; and then, for the purpose of getting at him, a bell was put in the gable of the tool-house, with a long handle hanging outside the door in the courtyard towards the kitchen. Thus he was able to rest from his labours, without incurring unjust reproach; and gradually as he declined, with increasing decision, to answer the bell when it rang, according to the highest laws of nature it left off ringing altogether. So Mr. Swipes in the walled kitchen-garden sought peace and ensued it.

One quiet November afternoon, when the disappearance of Dan Tugwell had been talked out and done with, a sad mishap befell this gardener, during the performance, or, to speak more correctly, the contemplation of his work. A yawn of such length and breadth and height and profundity took possession of him that the space it had so well occupied still retained the tender memory. In plainer words, he had ricked his jaw, not from general want of usage, but from the momentary excess.

“Sarves me right,” he muttered, “for carrying on so, without nothing inside of ’un. Must go to doctor, quick step, and no mistake.”

In this strait he set off for John Prater’s (for it was a matter of luck to get ale at the Hall, and in such emergency he must not trust to fortune), and passing hastily through the door, left it unlocked behind him. Going down the hill he remembered this, and had a great mind to go back again, but the unanimous demand of his system for beer impelled him downwards. He never could get up that hill again without hydraulic pressure.

All might have gone well, and all would have gone well, except for the grievous mistake of Nature in furnishing women with eyes whose keenness is only exceeded by that of their tongues. The cook at the Hall, a superior person — though lightly esteemed by Mrs. Cloam — had long been ambitious to have a voice in the selection of her raw material. If anything was good, who got the credit? Mr. Swipes, immediately. But if everything was bad, as more often happened, who received the blame? Mary Knuckledown. Her lawful name was “Knuckleup,” but early misfortunes had reduced her to such mildness that her name became converted — as she expressed it — in harmony with her nature. Facts having generally been adverse to her, she found some comfort in warm affection for their natural enemies and ever-victorious rivals — words. Any words coming with a brave rush are able to scatter to the winds the strongest facts; but big words — as all our great orators know — knock them at once on the head and cremate them. But the cook was a kind-hearted woman, and liked both little and big words, without thinking of them.

She had put down her joint, a good aitch-bone, for roasting — than which, if well treated, are few better treats — to revolve in the distant salute of the fire (until it should ripen for the close embrace, where the tints of gold and chestnut vie), when it came into her provident mind with a flash that neither horse-radish nor cauliflower had yet been delivered by Mr. Swipes. She must run out and pull the long handle in the yard, and remind him gently of her needs, for she stood in some awe of his character, as a great annalist of little people’s lives.

Leaving the small dog Dandolo with stern orders to keep the jack steadily going, with a stick on the dresser to intimidate one eye, and a sop in the dripping-pan to encourage the other, Mrs. Knuckledown ran into the court-yard, just in time to see the last swing of the skirt of that noble gardener’s coat, as he turned the wall corner on his march towards the tap. She longed to call him back, but remembered just in time how fearfully cross that had made him once before, and she was yielding with a sigh to her usual bad luck, when an eager and triumphant cluck made her look about. The monarch and patriarch of cocks, a magnificent old Dorking, not idly endowed with five claws for the scratch, had discovered something great, and was calling all his wives, and even his sons, as many as yet crowed not against him, to share this special luck of fortune, or kind mood of Providence. In a minute or two he had levied an army, some half-hundred strong, and all spurring the land, to practise their liberal claws betimes for the gorgeous joy of scattering it. Then the grand old cock, whose name was “Bill,” made them all fall in behind him, and strutting till he almost tumbled on his head, led the march of destruction to the garden door.

But, alas, he had waited for his followers too long, eager as they were for rapine. When he came to his portal of delight, there stood, stout as Britannia herself, and sweeping a long knife for her trident, the valiant cook, to protect her cauliflowers. “You be off, Bill,” she cried. “I don’t want to hurt you, because you have been a good bird in your time, but now you be growing outrageous.” Bill made a rush for it, but losing a slice of his top-heavy comb, retired.

“Now’s my opportunity,” said Mary to herself, “for to cut my own cabbage for once in my life, and to see what that old beast does in here. Oh my! The old villain, and robber that he is! Bamboozlement is the language for it.” Embezzlement she should have said, and to one who knew as she did how badly the table of the master was supplied, the suspicion was almost unavoidable. For here she saw in plenteous show, and appetising excellence, a many many of the very things she had vainly craved from Mr. Swipes. And if it was so now in November, what must it have been two months ago? Why, poor Miss Faith — Mary Knuckledown’s idol, because of her kindness and sad disappointment — had asked a little while ago for a bit of salsify, not for herself — she never thought of herself — but for a guest who was fond of it; also the Admiral himself had called out for a good dish of skirrets. But no; Mr. Swipes said the weather and the black blight had destroyed them. Yet here they were; Mary could swear to them both, with their necks above-ground, as if waiting for the washing! Cauliflowers also (as the cooks call broccoli of every kind), here they were in abundance, ten long rows all across the middle square, very beautiful to behold. Some were just curling in their crinkled coronets, to conceal the young heart that was forming, as Miss in her teens draws her tresses around the first peep of her own palpitation; others were showing their broad candid bosoms, with bold sprigs of nature’s green lace crisping round; while others had their ripe breasts shielded from the air by the breakage of their own broad fringe upon them.

Mary knew that this was done by Mr. Swipes himself, because he had brought her some in that condition; but the unsuspicious master had accepted his assurance that “they was only fit for pigs as soon as the break-stalk blight come on ’em”; and then the next day he had bought the very same, perhaps at ninepence apiece, from Mr. Cheeseman’s window, trimmed and shorn close, like the head of a monk. “I’ll see every bit of ’un, now that I be here.” Mrs. Knuckledown spoke aloud, to keep up her courage. “Too bad for that old beast to keep us locked out from the very place us ought to have for pommylarding, because he saith all the fruit would go into our pockets. And what goes into his’en, I should like to know? Suppose I lock him out, as he hath locked us out. He won’t be back yet for half an hour, anyway. Wish I could write — what a list I would make, if it was only of the things he denieth he hath got!”

Strong in her own honesty and loyalty to her master, the cook turned the key in the lock, and left Swipes to ring himself into his own garden, as he always called it. That is to say, if he should return, which was not very likely, before she had time for a good look round. But she saw such a sight of things she had longed for, to redeem her repute in the vegetable way, as well as such herbs for dainty stuffing, of which she knew more than cooks generally do, that her cap nearly came off her head with amazement, and time flew by unheeded. Until she was startled and terrified sadly by the loud, angry clang of the bell in the gable. Not only was Mr. Swipes come back, but he was in a furious rage outside, though his fury was chilled with some shivers of fear. At first, when he found the door locked against him, he thought that the Admiral must have come home unexpected, and failing to find him at work, had turned the key against him, while himself inside. If so, his situation would be in sad peril, and many acres of lies would be required to redeem it. For trusting in his master’s long times of absence, and full times of public duty when at home, Mr. Swipes had grown more private stock, as he called it, and denied the kitchen more, than he had ever done before, in special preparation for some public dinners about to be given at the Darling Arms, by military officers to naval, and in turn by the latter to the former; for those were hospitable days, when all true Britons stuck their country’s enemy with knife and fork, as well as sword.

But learning, as he soon did at the stables, that the Admiral was still away, and both the young ladies were gone for a ride with Miss Twemlow, the gardener came back in a rage, and rang the bell. “Oh, whatever shall I do?” the trembling Mary asked herself. “Best take the upper hand if I can. He’s a thief, and a rogue, and he ought to be frighted. Does he know I can’t write? No, for certain he dothn’t. One of his big lies about me was a letter I wrote to poor Jonadab.”

With her courage renewed by the sense of that wrong, she opened the door, and stood facing Mr. Swipes, with a piece of paper in her hand, which a woman’s quick wit bade her fetch from her pocket.

“Halloa, madam!” the gardener exclaimed, with a sweep of his hat and a low salute, which he meant to be vastly satirical; “so your ladyship have come to take the air in my poor garden, instead of tending the spit. And what do your ladyship think of it, so please you? Sorry as I had any dung about, but hadn’t no warning of this royal honour.”

“Sir,” said Mrs. Knuckledown, pretending to be frightened a great deal more than she was —“oh, sir, forgive me! I am sure I meant no harm. But the fowls was running in, and I ran up to stop them.”

“Oh, that was how your ladyship condescended; and to keep out the fowls, you locked out me! Allow me the royal and unapparelled honour of showing your ladyship to her carriage; and if I ever catch her in here again, I’ll pitch you down the court-yard pretty quick. Be off, you dirty baggage, or I won’t answer for it now!”

“Oh, you are too kind, Mr. Swipes; I am sure you are too gentle, to forgive me, like of that! And the little list I made of the flowers in your garden, I shall put it in a teapot till the Quality wants something.”

Mr. Swipes gave a start, and his over-watered eyes could not meet those of Mary, which were mildly set upon them. “List!” he muttered —“little list! What do you please to mean, Miss?”

“Well, the ‘dirty baggage’ means nothing unparalleled, sir, but just the same as anybody else might do. Some people calls it a Inventionary, and some an Emmarandum, and some a Catalogue. It don’t interfere with you, Mr. Swipes; only the next time as Miss Dolly asks, the same as she was doing the other day —”

“Oh, she was, was she? The little ——-!” Mr. Swipes used a word concerning that young lady which would have insured his immediate discharge, together with one from the Admiral’s best toe. “And pray, what was her observations, ma’am?”

“It was Charles told me, for he was waiting at dinner. Seems that the turnip was not to her liking, though I picked out the very best of what few you sent in, so she looks up from her plate, and she says: ‘Well, I cannot understand it! To me it is the greatest mistress in the world,’ she says, ‘that we never can get a bit of vegetable fit for eating. We’ve got,’ she says, ‘a kitchen-garden close upon two acres, and a man who calls himself head gardener, by the name of Swipes’— my pardoning to you, Mr. Swipes, for the young lady’s way of saying it —‘and his two sons, and his nephew, and I dare say soon his grandsons. Well, and what comes of it?’ says she. ‘Why, that we never has a bit of any kind of vegetable, much less of fruit, fit to lay a fork to!’ Charles was a-pricking up his ears at this, because of his own grumbles, and the master saw it, and he says, ‘Hush, Dolly!’ But she up and answers spiritly: ‘No, I won’t hush, papa, because it is too bad. Only you leave it to me,’ she says, ‘and if I don’t keep the key from that old thief — excoose me, Mr. Swipes, for her shocking language —‘and find out what he locks up in there, my name’s not Horatia Dorothy Darling.’ Oh, don’t let it dwell so on your mind, Mr. Swipes! You know what young ladies be. They says things random, and then goes away and never thinks no more about it. Oh, don’t be upset so — or I shall have to call Charles!”

Mr. Swipes took his hat off to ease his poor mind, which had lost its way altogether in other people’s wickedness. “May I never set eyes on that young man no more!” he exclaimed, with more pathetic force than reasoning power. “Either him or me quits this establishment tomorrow. Ah, I know well why he left his last place, and somebody else shall know tomorrow!”

“What harm have poor Charles done?” the cook asked sharply; “it wasn’t him that said it; it was Miss Dolly. Charley only told me conferentially.”

“Oh, I know what ‘conferentially’ means, when anything once gets among the womenkind! But I know a thing or two about Miss Dolly, as will give her enough to do at home, I’ll warrant, without coming spying after me and my affairs. Don’t you be surprised, cook, whatever you may hear, as soon as ever the Admiral returneth. He’s a soft man enough in a number of ways, but he won’t put up with everything. The nasty little vixen, if she don’t smart for this!”

“Oh, don’t ‘e, now don’t ‘e, Mr. Swipes, that’s a dear!” cried the soft-hearted Mrs. Knuckledown; “don’t ‘e tell on her, the poor young thing. If her hath been carrying on a bit with some of them young hofficers, why, it’s only natteral, and her such a young booty. Don’t ‘e be Dick-tell-tale, with a name to it, or without. And perhaps her never said half the things that Charles hath contributed to her.” The truth was that poor Dolly had said scarcely one of them.

“Bain’t no young hofficer,” Mr. Swipes replied, contemptuously; “ten times wuss than that, and madder for the Admiral. Give me that paper, Miss, and then, perhaps, I’ll tell ‘e. Be no good to you, and might be useful to me.”

Mary could not give up the paper, because it was a letter from one of her adorers, which, with the aid of Jenny Shanks, she had interpreted. “No, no,” she said, with a coaxing look; “by-and-by, Mr. Swipes, when you have told me who it is, and when you have promised not to tell on poor Miss Dolly. But nobody sha’n’t see it, without your permission. We’ll have another talk about that tomorrow. But, oh my! look at the time you have kept me, with all the good things to make a hangel’s mouth water! Bring me two cauliflowers in two seconds. My beef will want basting long ago; and if Dandy hathn’t left his job, he’ll be pretty well roasted hisself by now.”

Mr. Swipes went muttering up the walk, and was forced to cut two of the finest cauliflowers intended for Cheeseman’s adornment tomorrow. This turned his heart very sour again, and he shook his head, growling in self-commune: “You see if I don’t do it, my young lady. You speaks again me, behind my back, and I writes again you, before your face; though, in course, I need not put my name to it.”

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