It is a great thing for a lad when he is first turned into the independence of lodgings. I do not think I ever was so satisfied and proud in my life as when, at seventeen, I sate down in a little three-cornered room above a pastry-cook’s shop in the county town of Eltham. My father had left me that afternoon, after delivering himself of a few plain precepts, strongly expressed, for my guidance in the new course of life on which I was entering. I was to be a clerk under the engineer who had undertaken to make the little branch line from Eltham to Hornby. My father had got me this situation, which was in a position rather above his own in life; or perhaps I should say, above the station in which he was born and bred; for he was raising himself every year in men’s consideration and respect. He was a mechanic by trade, but he had some inventive genius, and a great deal of perseverance, and had devised several valuable improvements in railway machinery. He did not do this for profit, though, as was reasonable, what came in the natural course of things was acceptable; he worked out his ideas, because, as he said, ‘until he could put them into shape, they plagued him by night and by day.’ But this is enough about my dear father; it is a good thing for a country where there are many like him. He was a sturdy Independent by descent and conviction; and this it was, I believe, which made him place me in the lodgings at the pastry-cook’s. The shop was kept by the two sisters of our minister at home; and this was considered as a sort of safeguard to my morals, when I was turned loose upon the temptations of the county town, with a salary of thirty pounds a year.
My father had given up two precious days, and put on his Sunday clothes, in order to bring me to Eltham, and accompany me first to the office, to introduce me to my new master (who was under some obligations to my father for a suggestion), and next to take me to call on the Independent minister of the little congregation at Eltham. And then he left me; and though sorry to part with him, I now began to taste with relish the pleasure of being my own master. I unpacked the hamper that my mother had provided me with, and smelt the pots of preserve with all the delight of a possessor who might break into their contents at any time he pleased. I handled and weighed in my fancy the home-cured ham, which seemed to promise me interminable feasts; and, above all, there was the fine savour of knowing that I might eat of these dainties when I liked, at my sole will, not dependent on the pleasure of any one else, however indulgent. I stowed my eatables away in the little corner cupboard — that room was all corners, and everything was placed in a corner, the fire-place, the window, the cupboard; I myself seemed to be the only thing in the middle, and there was hardly room for me. The table was made of a folding leaf under the window, and the window looked out upon the market-place; so the studies for the prosecution of which my father had brought himself to pay extra for a sitting-room for me, ran a considerable chance of being diverted from books to men and women. I was to have my meals with the two elderly Miss Dawsons in the little parlour behind the three-cornered shop downstairs; my breakfasts and dinners at least, for, as my hours in an evening were likely to be uncertain, my tea or supper was to be an independent meal.
Then, after this pride and satisfaction, came a sense of desolation. I had never been from home before, and I was an only child; and though my father’s spoken maxim had been, ‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child’, yet, unconsciously, his heart had yearned after me, and his ways towards me were more tender than he knew, or would have approved of in himself could he have known. My mother, who never professed sternness, was far more severe than my father: perhaps my boyish faults annoyed her more; for I remember, now that I have written the above words, how she pleaded for me once in my riper years, when I had really offended against my father’s sense of right.
But I have nothing to do with that now. It is about cousin Phillis that I am going to write, and as yet I am far enough from even saying who cousin Phillis was.
For some months after I was settled in Eltham, the new employment in which I was engaged — the new independence of my life — occupied all my thoughts. I was at my desk by eight o’clock, home to dinner at one, back at the office by two. The afternoon work was more uncertain than the morning’s; it might be the same, or it might be that I had to accompany Mr Holdsworth, the managing engineer, to some point on the line between Eltham and Hornby. This I always enjoyed, because of the variety, and because of the country we traversed (which was very wild and pretty), and because I was thrown into companionship with Mr Holdsworth, who held the position of hero in my boyish mind. He was a young man of five-and-twenty or so, and was in a station above mine, both by birth and education; and he had travelled on the Continent, and wore mustachios and whiskers of a somewhat foreign fashion. I was proud of being seen with him. He was really a fine fellow in a good number of ways, and I might have fallen into much worse hands.
Every Saturday I wrote home, telling of my weekly doings — my father had insisted upon this; but there was so little variety in my life that I often found it hard work to fill a letter. On Sundays I went twice to chapel, up a dark narrow entry, to hear droning hymns, and long prayers, and a still longer sermon, preached to a small congregation, of which I was, by nearly a score of years, the youngest member. Occasionally, Mr Peters, the minister, would ask me home to tea after the second service. I dreaded the honour, for I usually sate on the edge of my chair all the evening, and answered solemn questions, put in a deep bass voice, until household prayer-time came, at eight o’clock, when Mrs Peters came in, smoothing down her apron, and the maid-of-all-work followed, and first a sermon, and then a chapter was read, and a long impromptu prayer followed, till some instinct told Mr Peters that supper-time had come, and we rose from our knees with hunger for our predominant feeling. Over supper the minister did unbend a little into one or two ponderous jokes, as if to show me that ministers were men, after all. And then at ten o’clock I went home, and enjoyed my long-repressed yawns in the three-cornered room before going to bed. Dinah and Hannah Dawson, so their names were put on the board above the shop-door — I always called them Miss Dawson and Miss Hannah — considered these visits of mine to Mr Peters as the greatest honour a young man could have; and evidently thought that if after such privileges, I did not work out my salvation, I was a sort of modern Judas Iscariot. On the contrary, they shook their heads over my intercourse with Mr Holdsworth. He had been so kind to me in many ways, that when I cut into my ham, I hovered over the thought of asking him to tea in my room, more especially as the annual fair was being held in Eltham market-place, and the sight of the booths, the merry-go-rounds, the wild-beast shows, and such country pomps, was (as I thought at seventeen) very attractive. But when I ventured to allude to my wish in even distant terms, Miss Hannah caught me up, and spoke of the sinfulness of such sights, and something about wallowing in the mire, and then vaulted into France, and spoke evil of the nation, and all who had ever set foot therein, till, seeing that her anger was concentrating itself into a point, and that that point was Mr Holdsworth, I thought it would be better to finish my breakfast, and make what haste I could out of the sound of her voice. I rather wondered afterwards to hear her and Miss Dawson counting up their weekly profits with glee, and saying that a pastry-cook’s shop in the corner of the market-place, in Eltham fair week, was no such bad thing. However, I never ventured to ask Mr Holdsworth to my lodgings.
There is not much to tell about this first year of mine at Eltham. But when I was nearly nineteen, and beginning to think of whiskers on my own account, I came to know cousin Phillis, whose very existence had been unknown to me till then. Mr Holdsworth and I had been out to Heathbridge for a day, working hard. Heathbridge was near Hornby, for our line of railway was above half finished. Of course, a day’s outing was a great thing to tell about in my weekly letters; and I fell to describing the country — a fault I was not often guilty of. I told my father of the bogs, all over wild myrtle and soft moss, and shaking ground over which we had to carry our line; and how Mr Holdsworth and I had gone for our mid-day meals — for we had to stay here for two days and a night — to a pretty village hard by, Heathbridge proper; and how I hoped we should often have to go there, for the shaking, uncertain ground was puzzling our engineers — one end of the line going up as soon as the other was weighted down. (I had no thought for the shareholders’ interests, as may be seen; we had to make a new line on firmer ground before the junction railway was completed.) I told all this at great length, thankful to fill up my paper. By return letter, I heard that a second-cousin of my mother’s was married to the Independent minister of Hornby, Ebenezer Holman by name, and lived at Heathbridge proper; the very Heathbridge I had described, or so my mother believed, for she had never seen her cousin Phillis Green, who was something of an heiress (my father believed), being her father’s only child, and old Thomas Green had owned an estate of near upon fifty acres, which must have come to his daughter. My mother’s feeling of kinship seemed to have been strongly stirred by the mention of Heathbridge; for my father said she desired me, if ever I went thither again, to make inquiry for the Reverend Ebenezer Holman; and if indeed he lived there, I was further to ask if he had not married one Phillis Green; and if both these questions were answered in the affirmative, I was to go and introduce myself as the only child of Margaret Manning, born Moneypenny. I was enraged at myself for having named Heathbridge at all, when I found what it was drawing down upon me. One Independent minister, as I said to myself, was enough for any man; and here I knew (that is to say, I had been catechized on Sabbath mornings by) Mr Dawson, our minister at home; and I had had to be civil to old Peters at Eltham, and behave myself for five hours running whenever he asked me to tea at his house; and now, just as I felt the free air blowing about me up at Heathbridge, I was to ferret out another minister, and I should perhaps have to be catechized by him, or else asked to tea at his house. Besides, I did not like pushing myself upon strangers, who perhaps had never heard of my mother’s name, and such an odd name as it was — Moneypenny; and if they had, had never cared more for her than she had for them, apparently, until this unlucky mention of Heathbridge. Still, I would not disobey my parents in such a trifle, however irksome it might be. So the next time our business took me to Heathbridge, and we were dining in the little sanded inn-parlour, I took the opportunity of Mr Holdsworth’s being out of the room, and asked the questions which I was bidden to ask of the rosy-cheeked maid. I was either unintelligible or she was stupid; for she said she did not know, but would ask master; and of course the landlord came in to understand what it was I wanted to know; and I had to bring out all my stammering inquiries before Mr Holdsworth, who would never have attended to them, I dare say, if I had not blushed, and blundered, and made such a fool of myself.
‘Yes,’ the landlord said, ‘the Hope Farm was in Heathbridge proper, and the owner’s name was Holman, and he was an Independent minister, and, as far as the landlord could tell, his wife’s Christian name was Phillis, anyhow her maiden name was Green.’
‘Relations of yours?’ asked Mr Holdsworth.
‘No, sir — only my mother’s second-cousins. Yes, I suppose they are relations. But I never saw them in my life.’
‘The Hope Farm is not a stone’s throw from here,’ said the officious landlord, going to the window. ‘If you carry your eye over yon bed of hollyhocks, over the damson-trees in the orchard yonder, you may see a stack of queer-like stone chimneys. Them is the Hope Farm chimneys; it’s an old place, though Holman keeps it in good order.’
Mr Holdsworth had risen from the table with more promptitude than I had, and was standing by the window, looking. At the landlord’s last words, he turned round, smiling — ‘It is not often that parsons know how to keep land in order, is it?’
‘Beg pardon, sir, but I must speak as I find; and Minister Holman — we call the Church clergyman here “parson,” sir; he would be a bit jealous if he heard a Dissenter called parson — Minister Holman knows what he’s about as well as e’er a farmer in the neighbourhood. He gives up five days a week to his own work, and two to the Lord’s; and it is difficult to say which he works hardest at. He spends Saturday and Sunday a-writing sermons and a-visiting his flock at Hornby; and at five o’clock on Monday morning he’ll be guiding his plough in the Hope Farm yonder just as well as if he could neither read nor write. But your dinner will be getting cold, gentlemen.’
So we went back to table. After a while, Mr Holdsworth broke the silence:—‘If I were you, Manning, I’d look up these relations of yours. You can go and see what they’re like while we re waiting for Dobson’s estimates, and I’ll smoke a cigar in the garden meanwhile.’
‘Thank you, sir. But I don’t know them, and I don’t think I want to know them.’
‘What did you ask all those questions for, then?’ said he, looking quickly up at me. He had no notion of doing or saying things without a purpose. I did not answer, so he continued — ‘Make up your mind, and go off and see what this farmer-minister is like, and come back and tell me — I should like to hear.’
I was so in the habit of yielding to his authority, or influence, that I never thought of resisting, but went on my errand, though I remember feeling as if I would rather have had my head cut off. The landlord, who had evidently taken an interest in the event of our discussion in a way that country landlords have, accompanied me to the house-door, and gave me repeated directions, as if I was likely to miss my way in two hundred yards. But I listened to him, for I was glad of the delay, to screw up my courage for the effort of facing unknown people and introducing myself. I went along the lane, I recollect, switching at all the taller roadside weeds, till, after a turn or two, I found myself close in front of the Hope Farm. There was a garden between the house and the shady, grassy lane; I afterwards found that this garden was called the court; perhaps because there was a low wall round it, with an iron railing on the top of the wall, and two great gates between pillars crowned with stone balls for a state entrance to the flagged path leading up to the front door. It was not the habit of the place to go in either by these great gates or by the front door; the gates, indeed, were locked, as I found, though the door stood wide open. I had to go round by a side-path lightly worn on a broad grassy way, which led past the court-wall, past a horse-mount, half covered with stone-crop and the little wild yellow fumitory, to another door —‘the curate’, as I found it was termed by the master of the house, while the front door, ‘handsome and all for show’, was termed the ‘rector’. I knocked with my hand upon the ‘curate’ door; a tall girl, about my own age, as I thought, came and opened it, and stood there silent, waiting to know my errand. I see her now — cousin Phillis. The westering sun shone full upon her, and made a slanting stream of light into the room within. She was dressed in dark blue cotton of some kind; up to her throat, down to her wrists, with a little frill of the same wherever it touched her white skin. And such a white skin as it was! I have never seen the like. She had light hair, nearer yellow than any other colour. She looked me steadily in the face with large, quiet eyes, wondering, but untroubled by the sight of a stranger. I thought it odd that so old, so full-grown as she was, she should wear a pinafore over her gown.
Before I had quite made up my mind what to say in reply to her mute inquiry of what I wanted there, a woman’s voice called out, ‘Who is it, Phillis? If it is any one for butter-milk send them round to the back door.’
I thought I could rather speak to the owner of that voice than to the girl before me; so I passed her, and stood at the entrance of a room hat in hand, for this side-door opened straight into the hall or house-place where the family sate when work was done. There was a brisk little woman of forty or so ironing some huge muslin cravats under the light of a long vine-shaded casement window. She looked at me distrustfully till I began to speak. ‘My name is Paul Manning,’ said I; but I saw she did not know the name. ‘My mother’s name was Moneypenny,’ said I — ‘Margaret Moneypenny.’
‘And she married one John Manning, of Birmingham,’ said Mrs Holman, eagerly.
‘And you’ll be her son. Sit down! I am right glad to see you. To think of your being Margaret’s son! Why, she was almost a child not so long ago. Well, to be sure, it is five-and-twenty years ago. And what brings you into these parts?’
She sate down herself, as if oppressed by her curiosity as to all the five-and-twenty years that had passed by since she had seen my mother. Her daughter Phillis took up her knitting — a long grey worsted man’s stocking, I remember — and knitted away without looking at her work. I felt that the steady gaze of those deep grey eyes was upon me, though once, when I stealthily raised mine to hers, she was examining something on the wall above my head.
When I had answered all my cousin Holman’s questions, she heaved a long breath, and said, ‘To think of Margaret Moneypenny’s boy being in our house! I wish the minister was here. Phillis, in what field is thy father today?’
‘In the five-acre; they are beginning to cut the corn.’
‘He’ll not like being sent for, then, else I should have liked you to have seen the minister. But the five-acre is a good step off. You shall have a glass of wine and a bit of cake before you stir from this house, though. You’re bound to go, you say, or else the minister comes in mostly when the men have their four o’clock.’
‘I must go — I ought to have been off before now.’
‘Here, then, Phillis, take the keys.’ She gave her daughter some whispered directions, and Phillis left the room.
‘She is my cousin, is she not?’ I asked. I knew she was, but somehow I wanted to talk of her, and did not know how to begin.
‘Yes — Phillis Holman. She is our only child — now.’
Either from that ‘now’, or from a strange momentary wistfulness in her eyes, I knew that there had been more children, who were now dead.
‘How old is cousin Phillis?’ said I, scarcely venturing on the new name, it seemed too prettily familiar for me to call her by it; but cousin Holman took no notice of it, answering straight to the purpose.
‘Seventeen last May-day; but the minister does not like to hear me calling it May-day,’ said she, checking herself with a little awe. ‘Phillis was seventeen on the first day of May last,’ she repeated in an emended edition.
‘And I am nineteen in another month,’ thought I, to myself; I don’t know why. Then Phillis came in, carrying a tray with wine and cake upon it.
‘We keep a house-servant,’ said cousin Holman, ‘but it is churning day, and she is busy.’ It was meant as a little proud apology for her daughter’s being the handmaiden.
‘I like doing it, mother,’ said Phillis, in her grave, full voice.
I felt as if I were somebody in the Old Testament — who, I could not recollect — being served and waited upon by the daughter of the host. Was I like Abraham’s servant, when Rebekah gave him to drink at the well? I thought Isaac had not gone the pleasantest way to work in winning him a wife. But Phillis never thought about such things. She was a stately, gracious young woman, in the dress and with the simplicity of a child.
As I had been taught, I drank to the health of my newfound cousin and her husband; and then I ventured to name my cousin Phillis with a little bow of my head towards her; but I was too awkward to look and see how she took my compliment. ‘I must go now,’ said I, rising.
Neither of the women had thought of sharing in the wine; cousin Holman had broken a bit of cake for form’s sake.
‘I wish the minister had been within,’ said his wife, rising too. Secretly I was very glad he was not. I did not take kindly to ministers in those days, and I thought he must be a particular kind of man, by his objecting to the term May-day. But before I went, cousin Holman made me promise that I would come back on the Saturday following and spend Sunday with them; when I should see something of ‘the minister’.
‘Come on Friday, if you can,’ were her last words as she stood at the curate-door, shading her eyes from the sinking sun with her hand. Inside the house sate cousin Phillis, her golden hair, her dazzling complexion, lighting up the corner of the vine-shadowed room. She had not risen when I bade her good-by; she had looked at me straight as she said her tranquil words of farewell.
I found Mr Holdsworth down at the line, hard at work superintending. As Soon as he had a pause, he said, ‘Well, Manning, what are the new cousins like? How do preaching and farming seem to get on together? If the minister turns out to be practical as well as reverend, I shall begin to respect him.’
But he hardly attended to my answer, he was so much more occupied with directing his work-people. Indeed, my answer did not come very readily; and the most distinct part of it was the mention of the invitation that had been given me.
‘Oh, of course you can go — and on Friday, too, if you like; there is no reason why not this week; and you’ve done a long spell of work this time, old fellow.’ I thought that I did not want to go on Friday; but when the day came, I found that I should prefer going to staying away, so I availed myself of Mr Holdsworth’s permission, and went over to Hope Farm some time in the afternoon, a little later than my last visit. I found the ‘curate’ open to admit the soft September air, so tempered by the warmth of the sun, that it was warmer out of doors than in, although the wooden log lay smouldering in front of a heap of hot ashes on the hearth. The vine-leaves over the window had a tinge more yellow, their edges were here and there scorched and browned; there was no ironing about, and cousin Holman sate just outside the house, mending a shirt. Phillis was at her knitting indoors: it seemed as if she had been at it all the week. The manyspeckled fowls were pecking about in the farmyard beyond, and the milk-cans glittered with brightness, hung out to sweeten. The court was so full of flowers that they crept out upon the low-covered wall and horse-mount, and were even to be found self-sown upon the turf that bordered the path to the back of the house. I fancied that my Sunday coat was scented for days afterwards by the bushes of sweetbriar and the fraxinella that perfumed the air. From time to time cousin Holman put her hand into a covered basket at her feet, and threw handsful of corn down for the pigeons that cooed and fluttered in the air around, in expectation of this treat.
I had a thorough welcome as soon as she saw me. ‘Now this is kind — this is right down friendly,’ shaking my hand warmly. ‘Phillis, your cousin Manning is come!’
‘Call me Paul, will you?’ said I; ‘they call me so at home, and Manning in the office.’
‘Well, Paul, then. Your room is all ready for you, Paul, for, as I said to the minister, “I’ll have it ready whether he comes on Friday or not.” And the minister said he must go up to the Ashfield whether you were to come or not; but he would come home betimes to see if you were here. I’ll show you to your room, and you can wash the dust off a bit.’
After I came down, I think she did not quite know what to do with me; or she might think that I was dull; or she might have work to do in which I hindered her; for she called Phillis, and bade her put on her bonnet, and go with me to the Ashfield, and find father. So we set off, I in a little flutter of a desire to make myself agreeable, but wishing that my companion were not quite so tall; for she was above me in height. While I was wondering how to begin our conversation, she took up the words.
‘I suppose, cousin Paul, you have to be very busy at your work all day long in general.’
‘Yes, we have to be in the office at half-past eight; and we have an hour for dinner, and then we go at it again till eight or nine.’
‘Then you have not much time for reading.’
‘No,’ said I, with a sudden consciousness that I did not make the most of what leisure I had.
‘No more have I. Father always gets an hour before going a-field in the mornings, but mother does not like me to get up so early.’
‘My mother is always wanting me to get up earlier when I am at home.’
‘What time do you get up?’
‘Oh! — ah! — sometimes half-past six: not often though;’ for I remembered only twice that I had done so during the past summer.
She turned her head and looked at me.
‘Father is up at three; and so was mother till she was ill. I should like to be up at four.’
‘Your father up at three! Why, what has he to do at that hour?’
‘What has he not to do? He has his private exercise in his own room; he always rings the great bell which calls the men to milking; he rouses up Betty, our maid; as often as not he gives the horses their feed before the man is up — for Jem, who takes care of the horses, is an old man; and father is always loth to disturb him; he looks at the calves, and the shoulders, heels, traces, chaff, and corn before the horses go a-field; he has often to whip-cord the plough-whips; he sees the hogs fed; he looks into the swill-tubs, and writes his orders for what is wanted for food for man and beast; yes, and for fuel, too. And then, if he has a bit of time to spare, he comes in and reads with me — but only English; we keep Latin for the evenings, that we may have time to enjoy it; and then he calls in the men to breakfast, and cuts the boys’ bread and cheese; and sees their wooden bottles filled, and sends them off to their work; — and by this time it is half-past six, and we have our breakfast. There is father,’ she exclaimed, pointing out to me a man in his shirt-sleeves, taller by the head than the other two with whom he was working. We only saw him through the leaves of the ash-trees growing in the hedge, and I thought I must be confusing the figures, or mistaken: that man still looked like a very powerful labourer, and had none of the precise demureness of appearance which I had always imagined was the characteristic of a minister. It was the Reverend Ebenezer Holman, however. He gave us a nod as we entered the stubble-field; and I think he would have come to meet us but that he was in the middle of giving some directions to his men. I could see that Phillis was built more after his type than her mother’s. He, like his daughter, was largely made, and of a fair, ruddy complexion, whereas hers was brilliant and delicate. His hair had been yellow or sandy, but now was grizzled. Yet his grey hairs betokened no failure in strength. I never saw a more powerful man — deep chest, lean flanks, well-planted head. By this time we were nearly up to him; and he interrupted himself and stepped forwards; holding out his hand to me, but addressing Phillis.
‘Well, my lass, this is cousin Manning, I suppose. Wait a minute, young man, and I’ll put on my coat, and give you a decorous and formal welcome. But — Ned Hall, there ought to be a water-furrow across this land: it’s a nasty, stiff, clayey, dauby bit of ground, and thou and I must fall to, come next Monday — I beg your pardon, cousin Manning — and there’s old Jem’s cottage wants a bit of thatch; you can do that job tomorrow while I am busy.’ Then, suddenly changing the tone of his deep bass voice to an odd suggestion of chapels and preachers, he added. ‘Now, I will give out the psalm, “Come all harmonious tongues”, to be sung to “Mount Ephraim” tune.’
He lifted his spade in his hand, and began to beat time with it; the two labourers seemed to know both words and music, though I did not; and so did Phillis: her rich voice followed her father’s as he set the tune; and the men came in with more uncertainty, but still harmoniously. Phillis looked at me once or twice with a little surprise at my silence; but I did not know the words. There we five stood, bareheaded, excepting Phillis, in the tawny stubble-field, from which all the shocks of corn had not yet been carried — a dark wood on one side, where the woodpigeons were cooing; blue distance seen through the ash-trees on the other. Somehow, I think that if I had known the words, and could have sung, my throat would have been choked up by the feeling of the unaccustomed scene.
The hymn was ended, and the men had drawn off before I could stir. I saw the minister beginning to put on his coat, and looking at me with friendly inspection in his gaze, before I could rouse myself.
‘I dare say you railway gentlemen don’t wind up the day with singing a psalm together,’ said he; ‘but it is not a bad practice — not a bad practice. We have had it a bit earlier today for hospitality’s sake — that’s all.’
I had nothing particular to say to this, though I was thinking a great deal. From time to time I stole a look at my companion. His coat was black, and so was his waistcoat; neckcloth he had none, his strong full throat being bare above the snow-white shirt. He wore drab-coloured knee-breeches, grey worsted stockings (I thought I knew the maker), and strong-nailed shoes. He carried his hat in his hand, as if he liked to feel the coming breeze lifting his hair. After a while, I saw that the father took hold of the daughter’s hand, and so, they holding each other, went along towards home. We had to cross a lane. In it were two little children, one lying prone on the grass in a passion of crying, the other standing stock still, with its finger in its mouth, the large tears slowly rolling down its cheeks for sympathy. The cause of their distress was evident; there was a broken brown pitcher, and a little pool of spilt milk on the road.
‘Hollo! Hollo! What’s all this?’ said the minister. ‘Why, what have you been about, Tommy,’ lifting the little petticoated lad, who was lying sobbing, with one vigorous arm. Tommy looked at him with surprise in his round eyes, but no affright — they were evidently old acquaintances.
‘Mammy’s jug!’ said he, at last, beginning to cry afresh.
‘Well! and will crying piece mammy’s jug, or pick up spilt milk? How did you manage it, Tommy?’
‘He’ (jerking his head at the other) ‘and me was running races.’
‘Tommy said he could beat me,’ put in the other.
‘Now, I wonder what will make you two silly lads mind, and not run races again with a pitcher of milk between you,’ said the minister, as if musing. ‘I might flog you, and so save mammy the trouble; for I dare say she’ll do it if I don’t.’ The fresh burst of whimpering from both showed the probability of this.
‘Or I might take you to the Hope Farm, and give you some more milk; but then you’d be running races again, and my milk would follow that to the ground, and make another white pool. I think the flogging would be best — don’t you?’
‘We would never run races no more,’ said the elder of the two.
‘Then you’d not be boys; you’d be angels.’
‘No, we shouldn’t.’
They looked into each other’s eyes for an answer to this puzzling question. At length, one said, ‘Angels is dead folk.’
‘Come; we’ll not get too deep into theology. What do you think of my lending you a tin can with a lid to carry the milk home in? That would not break, at any rate; though I would not answer for the milk not spilling if you ran races. That’s it!’
He had dropped his daughter’s hand, and now held out each of his to the little fellows. Phillis and I followed, and listened to the prattle which the minister’s companions now poured out to him, and which he was evidently enjoying. At a certain point, there was a sudden burst of the tawny, ruddy-evening landscape. The minister turned round and quoted a line or two of Latin.
‘It’s wonderful,’ said he, ‘how exactly Virgil has hit the enduring epithets, nearly two thousand years ago, and in Italy; and yet how it describes to a T what is now lying before us in the parish of Heathbridge, county — — England.’
‘I dare say it does,’ said I, all aglow with shame, for I had forgotten the little Latin I ever knew.
The minister shifted his eyes to Phillis’s face; it mutely gave him back the sympathetic appreciation that I, in my ignorance, could not bestow.
‘Oh! this is worse than the catechism,’ thought I; ‘that was only remembering words.’
‘Phillis, lass, thou must go home with these lads, and tell their mother all about the race and the milk. Mammy must always know the truth,’ now speaking to the children. ‘And tell her, too, from me that I have got the best birch rod in the parish; and that if she ever thinks her children want a flogging she must bring them to me, and, if I think they deserve it, I’ll give it them better than she can.’ So Phillis led the children towards the dairy, somewhere in the back yard, and I followed the minister in through the ‘curate’ into the house-place. ‘Their mother,’ said he, ‘is a bit of a vixen, and apt to punish her children without rhyme or reason. I try to keep the parish rod as well as the parish bull.’
He sate down in the three-cornered chair by the fire-side, and looked around the empty room.
‘Where’s the missus?’ said he to himself. But she was there home — by a look, by a touch, nothing more — as soon as she in a minute; it was her regular plan to give him his welcome could after his return, and he had missed her now. Regardless of my presence, he went over the day’s doings to her; and then, getting up, he said he must go and make himself ‘reverend’, and that then we would have a cup of tea in the parlour. The parlour was a large room with two casemented windows on the other side of the broad flagged passage leading from the rector-door to the wide staircase, with its shallow, polished oaken steps, on which no carpet was ever laid. The parlour-floor was covered in the middle by a home-made carpeting of needlework and list. One or two quaint family pictures of the Holman family hung round the walls; the fire-grate and irons were much ornamented with brass; and on a table against the wall between the windows, a great beau-pot of flowers was placed upon the folio volumes of Matthew Henry’s Bible. It was a compliment to me to use this room, and I tried to be grateful for it; but we never had our meals there after that first day, and I was glad of it; for the large house-place, living room, dining-room, whichever you might like to call it, was twice as comfortable and cheerful. There was a rug in front of the great large fire-place, and an oven by the grate, and a crook, with the kettle hanging from it, over the bright wood-fire; everything that ought to be black and Polished in that room was black and Polished; and the flags, and window-curtains, and such things as were to be white and clean, were just spotless in their purity. Opposite to the fire-place, extending the whole length of the room, was an oaken shovel-board, with the right incline for a skilful player to send the weights into the prescribed space. There were baskets of white work about, and a small shelf of books hung against the wall, books used for reading, and not for propping up a beau-pot of flowers. I took down one or two of those books once when I was left alone in the house-place on the first evening — Virgil, Caesar, a Greek grammar — oh, dear! ah, me! and Phillis Holman’s name in each of them! I shut them up, and put them back in their places, and walked as far away from the bookshelf as I could. Yes, and I gave my cousin Phillis a wide berth, as though she was sitting at her work quietly enough, and her hair was looking more golden, her dark eyelashes longer, her round pillar of a throat whiter than ever. We had done tea, and we had returned into the house-place that the minister might smoke his pipe without fear of contaminating the drab damask window-curtains of the parlour. He had made himself ‘reverend’ by putting on one of the voluminous white muslin neckcloths that I had seen cousin Holman ironing that first visit I had paid to the Hope Farm, and by making one or two other unimportant changes in his dress. He sate looking steadily at me, but whether he saw me or not I cannot tell. At the time I fancied that he did, and was gauging me in some unknown fashion in his secret mind. Every now and then he took his pipe out of his mouth, knocked out the ashes, and asked me some fresh question. As long as these related to my acquirements or my reading, I shuffled uneasily and did not know what to answer. By-and-by he got round to the more practical subject of railroads, and on this I was more at home. I really had taken an interest in my work; nor would Mr Holdsworth, indeed, have kept me in his employment if I had not given my mind as well as my time to it; and I was, besides, full of the difficulties which beset us just then, owing to our not being able to find a steady bottom on the Heathbridge moss, over which we wished to carry our line. In the midst of all my eagerness in speaking about this, I could not help being struck with the extreme pertinence of his questions. I do not mean that he did not show ignorance of many of the details of engineering: that was to have been expected; but on the premises he had got hold of; he thought clearly and reasoned logically. Phillis — so like him as she was both in body and mind — kept stopping at her work and looking at me, trying to fully understand all that I said. I felt she did; and perhaps it made me take more pains in using clear expressions, and arranging my words, than I otherwise should.
‘She shall see I know something worth knowing, though it mayn’t be her dead-and-gone languages,’ thought I.
‘I see,’ said the minister, at length. ‘I understand it all. You’ve a clear, good head of your own, my lad — choose how you came by it.’
‘From my father,’ said I, proudly. ‘Have you not heard of his discovery of a new method of shunting? It was in the Gazette. It was patented. I thought every one had heard of Manning’s patent winch.’
‘We don’t know who invented the alphabet,’ said he, half smiling, and taking up his pipe.
‘No, I dare say not, sir,’ replied I, half offended; ‘that’s so long ago.’ Puff — puff — puff.
‘But your father must be a notable man. I heard of him once before; and it is not many a one fifty miles away whose fame reaches Heathbridge.’
‘My father is a notable man, sir. It is not me that says so; it is Mr Holdsworth, and — and everybody.’
‘He is right to stand up for his father,’ said cousin Holman, as if she were pleading for me.
I chafed inwardly, thinking that my father needed no one to stand up for him. He was man sufficient for himself.
‘Yes — he is right,’ said the minister, placidly. ‘Right, because it comes from his heart — right, too, as I believe, in point of fact. Else there is many a young cockerel that will stand upon a dunghill and crow about his father, by way of making his own plumage to shine. I should like to know thy father,’ he went on, turning straight to me, with a kindly, frank look in his eyes.
But I was vexed, and would take no notice. Presently, having finished his pipe, he got up and left the room. Phillis put her work hastily down, and went after him. In a minute or two she returned, and sate down again. Not long after, and before I had quite recovered my good temper, he opened the door out of which he had passed, and called to me to come to him. I went across a narrow stone passage into a strange, many-cornered room, not ten feet in area, part study, part counting house, looking into the farm-yard; with a desk to sit at, a desk to stand at, a Spittoon, a set of shelves with old divinity books upon them; another, smaller, filled with books on farriery, farming, manures, and such subjects, with pieces of paper containing memoranda stuck against the whitewashed walls with wafers, nails, pins, anything that came readiest to hand; a box of carpenter’s tools on the floor, and some manuscripts in short-hand on the desk.
He turned round, half laughing. ‘That foolish girl of mine thinks I have vexed you’— putting his large, powerful hand on my shoulder. ‘“Nay,” says I, “kindly meant is kidney taken”— is it not so?’
‘It was not quite, sir,’ replied I, vanquished by his manner; ‘but it shall be in future.’
‘Come, that’s right. You and I shall be friends. Indeed, it’s not many a one I would bring in here. But I was reading a book this morning, and I could not make it out; it is a book that was left here by mistake one day; I had subscribed to Brother Robinson’s sermons; and I was glad to see this instead of them, for sermons though they be, they’re . . . well, never mind! I took ’em both, and made my old coat do a bit longer; but all’s fish that comes to my net. I have fewer books than leisure to read them, and I have a prodigious big appetite. Here it is.’
It was a volume of stiff mechanics, involving many technical terms, and some rather deep mathematics. These last, which would have puzzled me, seemed easy enough to him; all that he wanted was the explanations of the technical words, which I could easily give.
While he was looking through the book to find the places where he had been puzzled, my wandering eye caught on some of the papers on the wall, and I could not help reading one, which has stuck by me ever since. At first, it seemed a kind of weekly diary; but then I saw that the seven days were portioned out for special prayers and intercessions: Monday for his family, Tuesday for enemies, Wednesday for the Independent churches, Thursday for all other churches, Friday for persons afflicted, Saturday for his own soul, Sunday for all wanderers and sinners, that they might be brought home to the fold.
We were called back into the house-place to have supper. A door opening into the kitchen was opened; and all stood up in both rooms, while the minister, tall, large, one hand resting on the spread table, the other lifted up, said, in the deep voice that would have been loud had it not been so full and rich, but without the peculiar accent or twang that I believe is considered devout by some people, ‘Whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do, let us do all to the glory of God.’
The supper was an immense meat-pie. We of the house-place were helped first; then the minister hit the handle of his buck-horn carving-knife on the table once, and said —
‘Now or never,’ which meant, did any of us want any more; and when we had all declined, either by silence or by words, he knocked twice with his knife on the table, and Betty came in through the open door, and carried off the great dish to the kitchen, where an old man and a young one, and a help-girl, were awaiting their meal.
‘Shut the door, if you will,’ said the minister to Betty.
‘That’s in honour of you,’ said cousin Holman, in a tone of satisfaction, as the door was shut. ‘When we’ve no stranger with us, the minister is so fond of keeping the door Open, and talking to the men and maids, just as much as to Phillis and me.
‘It brings us all together like a household just before we meet as a household in prayer,’ said he, in explanation. ‘But to go back to what we were talking about — can you tell me of any simple book on dynamics that I could put in my pocket, and study a little at leisure times in the day?’
‘Leisure times, father?’ said Phillis, with a nearer approach to a smile than I had yet seen on her face.
‘Yes; leisure times, daughter. There is many an odd minute lost in waiting for other folk; and now that railroads are coming so near us, it behoves us to know something about them.’
I thought of his own description of his ‘prodigious big appetite’ for learning. And he had a good appetite of his own for the more material victual before him. But I saw, or fancied I saw, that he had some rule for himself in the matter both of food and drink.
As soon as supper was done the household assembled for prayer. It was a long impromptu evening prayer; and it would have seemed desultory enough had I not had a glimpse of the kind of day that preceded it, and so been able to find a clue to the thoughts that preceded the disjointed utterances; for he kept there kneeling down in the centre of a circle, his eyes shut, his outstretched hands pressed palm to palm — sometimes with a long pause of silence was anything else he wished to ‘lay before the Lord! (to use his own expression)— before he concluded with the blessing. He prayed for the cattle and live creatures, rather to my surprise; for my attention had begun to wander, till it was recalled by the familiar words.
And here I must not forget to name an odd incident at the conclusion of the prayer, and before we had risen from our knees (indeed before Betty was well awake, for she made a practice of having a sound nap, her weary head lying on her stalwart arms); the minister, still kneeling in our midst, but with his eyes wide open, and his arms dropped by his side, spoke to the elder man, who turned round on his knees to attend. ‘John, didst see that Daisy had her warm mash to-night; for we must not neglect the means, John — two quarts of gruel, a spoonful of ginger, and a gill of beer — the poor beast needs it, and I fear it slipped Out of my mind to tell thee; and here was I asking a blessing and neglecting the means, which is a mockery,’ said he, dropping his voice. Before we went to bed he told me he should see little or nothing more of me during my visit, which was to end on Sunday evening, as he always gave up both Saturday and Sabbath to his work in the ministry. I remembered that the landlord at the inn had told me this on the day when I first inquired about these new relations of mine; and I did not dislike the opportunity which I saw would be afforded me of becoming more acquainted with cousin Holman and Phillis, though I earnestly hoped that the latter would not attack me on the subject of the dead languages.
I went to bed, and dreamed that I was as tall as cousin Phillis, and had a sudden and miraculous growth of whisker, and a still more miraculous acquaintance with Latin and Greek. Alas! I wakened up still a short, beardless lad, with ‘tempus fugit’ for my sole remembrance of the little Latin I had once learnt. While I was dressing, a bright thought came over me: I could question cousin Phillis, instead of her questioning me, and so manage to keep the choice of the subjects of conversation in my own power.
Early as it was, every one had breakfasted, and my basin of bread and milk was put on the oven-top to await my coming down. Every one was gone about their work. The first to come into the house-place was Phillis with a basket of eggs. Faithful to my resolution, I asked —
‘What are those?’
She looked at me for a moment, and then said gravely —
‘No! they are not,’ said I. ‘They are eggs. What do you mean by saying they are potatoes?’
‘What do you mean by asking me what they were, when they were plain to be seen?’ retorted she.
We were both getting a little angry with each other.
‘I don’t know. I wanted to begin to talk to you; and I was afraid you would talk to me about books as you did yesterday. I have not read much; and you and the minister have read so much.’
‘I have not,’ said she. ‘But you are our guest; and mother says I must make it pleasant to you. We won’t talk of books. What must we talk about?’
‘I don’t know. How old are you?’
‘Seventeen last May. How old are you?’
‘I am nineteen. Older than you by nearly two years,’ said I, drawing myself up to my full height.
‘I should not have thought you were above sixteen,’ she replied, as quietly as if she were not saying the most provoking thing she possibly could. Then came a pause.
‘What are you going to do now?’ asked I.
‘I should be dusting the bed-chambers; but mother said I had better stay and make it pleasant to you,’ said she, a little plaintively, as if dusting rooms was far the easiest task.
‘Will you take me to see the live-stock? I like animals, though I don’t know much about them.’
‘Oh, do you? I am so glad! I was afraid you would not like animals, as you did not like books.’
I wondered why she said this. I think it was because she had begun to fancy all our tastes must be dissimilar. We went together all through the farm-yard; we fed the poultry, she kneeling down with her pinafore full of corn and meal, and tempting the little timid, downy chickens upon it, much to the anxiety of the fussy ruffled hen, their mother. She called to the pigeons, who fluttered down at the sound of her voice. She and I examined the great sleek cart-horses; sympathized in our dislike of pigs; fed the calves; coaxed the sick cow, Daisy; and admired the others out at pasture; and came back tired and hungry and dirty at dinner-time, having quite forgotten that there were such things as dead languages, and consequently capital friends.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09