A Few Crusted Characters, by Thomas Hardy

Netty Sargent’s Copyhold

‘She continued to live with her uncle, in the lonely house by the copse, just as at the time you knew her; a tall spry young woman. Ah, how well one can remember her black hair and dancing eyes at that time, and her sly way of screwing up her mouth when she meant to tease ye! Well, she was hardly out of short frocks before the chaps were after her, and by long and by late she was courted by a young man whom perhaps you did not know — Jasper Cliff was his name — and, though she might have had many a better fellow, he so greatly took her fancy that ’twas Jasper or nobody for her. He was a selfish customer, always thinking less of what he was going to do than of what he was going to gain by his doings. Jasper’s eyes might have been fixed upon Netty, but his mind was upon her uncle’s house; though he was fond of her in his way — I admit that.

‘This house, built by her great-great-grandfather, with its garden and little field, was copyhold — granted upon lives in the old way, and had been so granted for generations. Her uncle’s was the last life upon the property; so that at his death, if there was no admittance of new lives, it would all fall into the hands of the lord of the manor. But ’twas easy to admit — a slight “fine,” as ’twas called, of a few pounds, was enough to entitle him to a new deed o’ grant by the custom of the manor; and the lord could not hinder it.

‘Now there could be no better provision for his niece and only relative than a sure house over her head, and Netty’s uncle should have seen to the renewal in time, owing to the peculiar custom of forfeiture by the dropping of the last life before the new fine was paid; for the Squire was very anxious to get hold of the house and land; and every Sunday when the old man came into the church and passed the Squire’s pew, the Squire would say, “A little weaker in his knees, a little crookeder in his back — and the readmittance not applied for: ha! ha! I shall be able to make a complete clearing of that corner of the manor some day!”

‘’Twas extraordinary, now we look back upon it, that old Sargent should have been so dilatory; yet some people are like it; and he put off calling at the Squire’s agent’s office with the fine week after week, saying to himself, “I shall have more time next market-day than I have now.” One unfortunate hindrance was that he didn’t very well like Jasper Cliff; and as Jasper kept urging Netty, and Netty on that account kept urging her uncle, the old man was inclined to postpone the re-liveing as long as he could, to spite the selfish young lover. At last old Mr. Sargent fell ill, and then Jasper could bear it no longer: he produced the fine-money himself, and handed it to Netty, and spoke to her plainly.

‘“You and your uncle ought to know better. You should press him more. There’s the money. If you let the house and ground slip between ye, I won’t marry; hang me if I will! For folks won’t deserve a husband that can do such things.”

‘The worried girl took the money and went home, and told her uncle that it was no house no husband for her. Old Mr. Sargent pooh-poohed the money, for the amount was not worth consideration, but he did now bestir himself; for he saw she was bent upon marrying Jasper, and he did not wish to make her unhappy, since she was so determined. It was much to the Squire’s annoyance that he found Sargent had moved in the matter at last; but he could not gainsay it, and the documents were prepared (for on this manor the copy-holders had writings with their holdings, though on some manors they had none). Old Sargent being now too feeble to go to the agent’s house, the deed was to be brought to his house signed, and handed over as a receipt for the money; the counterpart to be signed by Sargent, and sent back to the Squire.

‘The agent had promised to call on old Sargent for this purpose at five o’clock, and Netty put the money into her desk to have it close at hand. While doing this she heard a slight cry from her uncle, and turning round, saw that he had fallen forward in his chair. She went and lifted him, but he was unconscious; and unconscious he remained. Neither medicine nor stimulants would bring him to himself. She had been told that he might possibly go off in that way, and it seemed as if the end had come. Before she had started for a doctor his face and extremities grew quite cold and white, and she saw that help would be useless. He was stone-dead.

‘Netty’s situation rose upon her distracted mind in all its seriousness. The house, garden, and field were lost — by a few hours — and with them a home for herself and her lover. She would not think so meanly of Jasper as to suppose that he would adhere to the resolution declared in a moment of impatience; but she trembled, nevertheless. Why could not her uncle have lived a couple of hours longer, since he had lived so long? It was now past three o’clock; at five the agent was to call, and, if all had gone well, by ten minutes past five the house and holding would have been securely hers for her own and Jasper’s lives, these being two of the three proposed to be added by paying the fine. How that wretched old Squire would rejoice at getting the little tenancy into his hands! He did not really require it, but constitutionally hated these tiny copyholds and leaseholds and freeholds, which made islands of independence in the fair, smooth ocean of his estates.

‘Then an idea struck into the head of Netty how to accomplish her object in spite of her uncle’s negligence. It was a dull December afternoon: and the first step in her scheme — so the story goes, and I see no reason to doubt it —’

‘’Tis true as the light,’ affirmed Christopher Twink. ‘I was just passing by.’

‘The first step in her scheme was to fasten the outer door, to make sure of not being interrupted. Then she set to work by placing her uncle’s small, heavy oak table before the fire; then she went to her uncle’s corpse, sitting in the chair as he had died — a stuffed arm-chair, on casters, and rather high in the seat, so it was told me — and wheeled the chair, uncle and all, to the table, placing him with his back toward the window, in the attitude of bending over the said oak table, which I knew as a boy as well as I know any piece of furniture in my own house. On the table she laid the large family Bible open before him, and placed his forefinger on the page; and then she opened his eyelids a bit, and put on him his spectacles, so that from behind he appeared for all the world as if he were reading the Scriptures. Then she unfastened the door and sat down, and when it grew dark she lit a candle, and put it on the table beside her uncle’s book.

‘Folk may well guess how the time passed with her till the agent came, and how, when his knock sounded upon the door, she nearly started out of her skin — at least that’s as it was told me. Netty promptly went to the door.

‘“I am sorry, sir,” she says, under her breath; “my uncle is not so well to-night, and I’m afraid he can’t see you.”

‘“H’m! — that’s a pretty tale,” says the steward. “So I’ve come all this way about this trumpery little job for nothing!”

‘“O no, sir — I hope not,” says Netty. “I suppose the business of granting the new deed can be done just the same?”

‘“Done? Certainly not. He must pay the renewal money, and sign the parchment in my presence.”

‘She looked dubious. “Uncle is so dreadful nervous about law business,” says she, “that, as you know, he’s put it off and put it off for years; and now today really I’ve feared it would verily drive him out of his mind. His poor three teeth quite chattered when I said to him that you would be here soon with the parchment writing. He always was afraid of agents, and folks that come for rent, and such-like.”

‘“Poor old fellow — I’m sorry for him. Well, the thing can’t be done unless I see him and witness his signature.”

‘“Suppose, sir, that you see him sign, and he don’t see you looking at him? I’d soothe his nerves by saying you weren’t strict about the form of witnessing, and didn’t wish to come in. So that it was done in your bare presence it would be sufficient, would it not? As he’s such an old, shrinking, shivering man, it would be a great considerateness on your part if that would do?”

‘“In my bare presence would do, of course — that’s all I come for. But how can I be a witness without his seeing me?”

‘“Why, in this way, sir; if you’ll oblige me by just stepping here.” She conducted him a few yards to the left, till they were opposite the parlour window. The blind had been left up purposely, and the candle-light shone out upon the garden bushes. Within the agent could see, at the other end of the room, the back and side of the old man’s head, and his shoulders and arm, sitting with the book and candle before him, and his spectacles on his nose, as she had placed him.

‘“He’s reading his Bible, as you see, sir,” she says, quite in her meekest way.

‘“Yes. I thought he was a careless sort of man in matters of religion?”

‘“He always was fond of his Bible,” Netty assured him. “Though I think he’s nodding over it just at this moment However, that’s natural in an old man, and unwell. Now you could stand here and see him sign, couldn’t you, sir, as he’s such an invalid?”

‘“Very well,” said the agent, lighting a cigar. “You have ready by you the merely nominal sum you’ll have to pay for the admittance, of course?”

‘“Yes,” said Netty. “I’ll bring it out.” She fetched the cash, wrapped in paper, and handed it to him, and when he had counted it the steward took from his breast pocket the precious parchments and gave one to her to be signed.

‘“Uncle’s hand is a little paralyzed,” she said. “And what with his being half asleep, too, really I don’t know what sort of a signature he’ll be able to make.”

‘“Doesn’t matter, so that he signs.”

‘“Might I hold his hand?”

‘“Ay, hold his hand, my young woman — that will be near enough.”

‘Netty re-entered the house, and the agent continued smoking outside the window. Now came the ticklish part of Netty’s performance. The steward saw her put the inkhorn —“horn,” says I in my oldfashioned way — the inkstand, before her uncle, and touch his elbow as to arouse him, and speak to him, and spread out the deed; when she had pointed to show him where to sign she dipped the pen and put it into his hand. To hold his hand she artfully stepped behind him, so that the agent could only see a little bit of his head, and the hand she held; but he saw the old man’s hand trace his name on the document. As soon as ’twas done she came out to the steward with the parchment in her hand, and the steward signed as witness by the light from the parlour window. Then he gave her the deed signed by the Squire, and left; and next morning Netty told the neighbours that her uncle was dead in his bed.’

‘She must have undressed him and put him there.’

‘She must. Oh, that girl had a nerve, I can tell ye! Well, to cut a long story short, that’s how she got back the house and field that were, strictly speaking, gone from her; and by getting them, got her a husband.

‘Every virtue has its reward, they say. Netty had hers for her ingenious contrivance to gain Jasper. Two years after they were married he took to beating her — not hard, you know; just a smack or two, enough to set her in a temper, and let out to the neighbours what she had done to win him, and how she repented of her pains. When the old Squire was dead, and his son came into the property, this confession of hers began to be whispered about. But Netty was a pretty young woman, and the Squire’s son was a pretty young man at that time, and wider-minded than his father, having no objection to little holdings; and he never took any proceedings against her.’

There was now a lull in the discourse, and soon the van descended the hill leading into the long straggling village. When the houses were reached the passengers dropped off one by one, each at his or her own door. Arrived at the inn, the returned emigrant secured a bed, and having eaten a light meal, sallied forth upon the scene he had known so well in his early days. Though flooded with the light of the rising moon, none of the objects wore the attractiveness in this their real presentation that had ever accompanied their images in the field of his imagination when he was more than two thousand miles removed from them. The peculiar charm attaching to an old village in an old country, as seen by the eyes of an absolute foreigner, was lowered in his case by magnified expectations from infantine memories. He walked on, looking at this chimney and that old wall, till he came to the churchyard, which he entered.

The head-stones, whitened by the moon, were easily decipherable; and now for the first time Lackland began to feel himself amid the village community that he had left behind him five-and-thirty years before. Here, besides the Sallets, the Darths, the Pawles, the Privetts, the Sargents, and others of whom he had just heard, were names he remembered even better than those: the Jickses, and the Crosses, and the Knights, and the Olds. Doubtless representatives of these families, or some of them, were yet among the living; but to him they would all be as strangers. Far from finding his heart ready-supplied with roots and tendrils here, he perceived that in returning to this spot it would be incumbent upon him to re-establish himself from the beginning, precisely as though he had never known the place, nor it him. Time had not condescended to wait his pleasure, nor local life his greeting.

The figure of Mr. Lackland was seen at the inn, and in the village street, and in the fields and lanes about Upper Longpuddle, for a few days after his arrival, and then, ghost-like, it silently disappeared. He had told some of the villagers that his immediate purpose in coming had been fulfilled by a sight of the place, and by conversation with its inhabitants: but that his ulterior purpose — of coming to spend his latter days among them — would probably never be carried out. It is now a dozen or fifteen years since his visit was paid, and his face has not again been seen.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:22