Harry Fairfield, when, crossing Cressley Common, he reached the road that diverges eastward, took that turn, and rode towards Hatherton.
Surly enough he looked when he slackened his pace to a walk at the foot of the long low hill that interposes between the common and that town.
He had a short pipe in his pocket, with a big bowl, and a metal cover to it, into which he stuffed some pinches of tobacco—a shilling went a good way in that sort of smoking, and Harry was economical—and soon his pipe was in full play.
This narcotic helped his cogitative powers, and he had a good deal to think about. He was going to see his old friend Bertha Velderkaust, in her new situation, and he was considering how best to approach her.
From such ruminations—too vague and irregular to be reduced to logical sequence and arrangement—there arise, nevertheless, conclusions by no means unimportant, and quite distinct enough. By this time he had smoked his pipe out, and looked down from the summit of this rising ground upon the pretty town spreading among the trees, with its old tower and steeple, its court-house, its parsonage, and that high-walled stronghold on the right, in which the object of his visit was at present secluded.
When, having complied with all formalities, he obtained an entrace, and obtained permission to visit that person, it was her pleasure to keep him waiting for some time for his audience. Harry grew cross and impatient, the more so as he heard that she had a friend with her, drinking tea, and reading the newspaper to her.
As Harry Fairfield was one of those persons who are averse to sacrificing themselves without a good consideration, the reader will conclude that his object was not altogether to serve the “old soldier.” If it had been only that, I think he would have left the town of Hatherton re infecta. As it was, he waited, and at last was admitted.
This lady, Bertha Velderkaust, chose to be known among her neighbours in misfortune as Madame Bertha Fairfield of Wyvern, which style and title she preferred to that by which she had been committed to the safe keeping of the gaoler.
When Harry Fairfield stepped into her small apartment he found her dressed and bedizened in a way that a little surprised him.
She had on a sky-blue satin dress, caught up at one side with a bunch of artificial flowers. She had a lace scarf and a lace coiffure lying flat across her head, with a miniature coronet of Roman pearl in the centre, and lappets depending at each side. She had a double necklace of enormous Roman pearls about her throat, and a pair of pink velvet slippers, embroidered with beads and bugles, and this tawdry figure sat on the side of her truckle bed to receive him, with the air of a princess in a pantomime. She accumulated her finery in this way, I think, for the purpose of impressing the people about the prison with a due sense of her position and importance. It may not have been quite without its effect.
“Hullo! madame, I came to tell you some news,” said he, as soon as the door was closed. “But, by the makins! you ’most took my breath away at first sight o’ ye.”
“Pity to have so nice a man breathless—deplorable pity!”—or biddy, as she pronounced it. “Suppose you go away. I did not ask you to come and get your breath again in the air of my place.”
“What place may that be—not Hoxton Old Town, hey?”
“Not at all—Wyvern, dear child?” she said, with a quiet sneer.
“Oh, thank ye—yes—well I will, I think, take a mouthful there as you are so good.”
As he concluded this speech Master Harry put out his tongue at the blind lady with a grimace that was outrageous.
“I’ll hide my name no longer,” she said, “I’m Mrs. Fairfield of Wyvern.”
“That’s as it may be,” he answered, serenely.
“I say, I’m Mrs. Fairfield of Wyvern,” repeated she.
“Boo!” answered Harry.
“Beast! By that noise what do you mean ?”
“I’ll tell ye, by-and-by. Come, you mustn’t be cross, it wastes time.”
“More time than we know what to do with in this house,” she sneered.
“Well, that’s true for some, I’ll not deny; but there’s some as is pretty well worked I hear—eh?—and so long as we baint, we may endure the leisure, for as bad as that is, business here, I’m told, is a deal worse,” and Harry laughed.
“Pleasant was my Harry always,” again sneered the lady.
“And ye heard of poor Charlie, of course?” he asked.
“Yes, of course. Everyone is not like you. I did hear. I don’t thank you,” she answered, tartly, and turned her pale, malignant face toward him.
“But, dear girl, I could not. There was difficulties, eyes a-watchin’ on all hands, and ears cocked, and I knew you could not be long without knowing. So you heard; but mayhap you haven’t heard this—there’s a child born o’ that marriage.”
“Marriage!” and with an oath the big Dutchwoman burst into a discordant laugh.
For a moment Harry was alarmed, but the laugh was not hysterical—purely emotional, and an escape for pent-up scorn and fury.
“Well, any how there’s a child—a boy—and a fine hale little chap, wi’ a big bald head and a bawlin’ mouth as ever a mother hugged—the darlin’.”
“Well, let the brat lie on the dung heap, you’ll not lift him,” said the lady.
“I’ll not meddle or make. I’m not over-hot about Wyvern. I’d rather have a pocket full o’ money than a house full o’ debts any day; and anyhow there he is, the four bones that’s to walk off with my share o’t.”
“I should have got mourning,” said Bertha Velderkaust, speaking from some hidden train of thought.
“Bah! No one to see you here,” said Harry.
“If I had money or credit, I’d have got it,” she said.
“That’s very affectionate of you,” said Harry; “but why do you dress like that—why do you dress like the lady wi’ the glass slipper, Cinderella, at the king’s ball, in the story book?”
“I should dress, you think, like Cinderella over the coal-scuttle ?”
“Well, I wouldn’t set the folk a laughing when I was in no laughing humour myself—not that it makes much odds, and I do suppose it don’t matter—not it.”
“It does matter something, perhaps, and perhaps nothing; but I know who I am, and I won’t let myself down,” said she. “I don’t want to lose myself among these people; I’ll keep myself distinct. I’m too high to put my foot in the mud.”
“Too high to put your foot in the mud—too high to put your foot on the pavement,” said Harry, mischievously, with his eyes on this impulsive lady, and hitching his chair off a little to secure a fair start. “You’ll be too high, I’m thinkin’, to get your foot to ground at all, one o’ these days, if you don’t look sharp. It’s too high a flight, I’m told, to touch terra firma wi’ the top o’ your toe—the gallows, I mean—and that’s what you’re coming to quick, I’m afeard,”
As Harry concluded, he stood up, intending to get out, if possible, without the indignity of coming to hand-grips with a woman.
The Herculean lady, in sky-blue satin and Roman pearls, leaned forward with sharpened features, but neither extended her arm nor attempted to rise. Then she sighed deeply, and leaned with her shoulders to the wall.
“Off in a coach for this bout,” thought Harry.
“Thank you, kind lad, always the same,” she sneered, quietly. “You wish it, no doubt, but, no, you don’t think it. I know better.”
“Why the devil should I wish you hanged, Bertha? Don’t be a fool; you’re not in my way, and never can be. There’s that boy, and, for reasons of my own, I’m glad he is—I’m glad he’s where he is—and Wyvern will be for him and not for me—never!”
“Harry, dear, you know quite well,” she drawled, softly, with a titter, “you’ll poison that boy if you can.”
“You lie!” said Harry, turning scarlet, and then as suddenly pale. “You lie!—and so that’s answered.”
Here followed a silence. The woman was not angry, but she tittered again and nodded her head.
“Wyvern’s out o’ my head. I never cared about it. I had my own reasons. I never did,” he swore, furiously, striking his hand on the table. “And I won’t see that boy ruined—my flesh and blood—my own nephew. No, no, Bertha, that would never do; the boy must have his own. I’ll see you made comfortable, but that lay won’t do—you’ll find it won’t pay nohow.”
“Speak out, man—what do you mean?” said Bertha.
“Come, come, come, Bertha, you’re no fool,” wheedled he; “there isn’t a sounder head from this to London; and though you be a bit hot-headed, you’re not as bad as you’d have us believe—’taint the worst, always, that has an o’er-hasty hand. Why, bless ye, girl, I’d be sorry ye were hurt, and I’ll help to get ye out o’ this, without scathe or scorn, if you’ll let me.”
“Well, come; what’s in your mind, Harry Vairfield?” she asked.
“I tell ye what it is, it can do you no good, no how, bein’ hard on that boy, and I know, and you know, you never were married to poor Charlie.”
“You lie!” cried the lady, bitterly. So they were quits on the point of honour.
“Now, Bertha, lass, come now—reason, reason; don’t you be in a hurry, and just listen to reason, and I’ll make it better to you than fifty marriages.”
“Don’t you think I have no advice—I’ve engaged Mr. Wynell, the best attorney in Hatherton; I know what I’m about.”
“The better you know it, the better I’m pleased; but the lawyer folk likes always a bit of a row—they seldom cries kiss and be friends until their hands be well greased, and their clients has a bellyful o’ law; therefore it’s better that friends should put their heads together and agree before it comes to that sort o’ milling, and I tell ye, ye shall be cared for; I’ll see to it, if you don’t be kickin’ up no rows about nothing.”
She laughed a quiet, scornful laugh.
“Oh ho! Master Harry, poor little fellow! he’s frightened, is he?”
“You’re damnably mistaken,” said he. “Frightened, indeed! I’ll see whose frightened: I know there was no marriage—I know it, and it won’t do tryin’ it on me, you’ll just get yourself into the wrong box; where’s the use of runnin’ your head into a cotton bag ?”
“Cotton bag your own head. Who’s to do it?”
“They’ll be clumsy fingers that can’t tie that knot, lass. Come, you’re a clever girl, you’re not to be talking—not like a fool. I know everything about it. If you try that on, it will turn out bad. ’Taint easy to green Harry Fairfield; I don’t think he was ever yet fooled by a lass but where he chose to be fooled, and it’s pretty well allowed there’s no use trying to bully him.”
“I ought to like you, if all that be so,” said she, “for you are very like my own self.”
“I’m not tryin’ to bully you, girl, nor to sell ye neither; ye were always a bit rash, and too ready wi’ your hand; but them’s not the worst folk goin’. We Fairfields has a touch o’ it, and we shouldn’t be o’er hard on quick-tempered folk like that. There was no lass that ever I met, gentle or simple, that could match ye for good looks and pleasant talk, and ye dress so beautiful, and if ye had but your eyes this minute, you’d have who ye liked at your feet.”
And Harry Fairfield repeated this view of her charms with an oath.
“If ifs and ans were pots and pans,” repeated the lady with a sigh of gratification, and with that foreign accent and peculiar drawl which made the homely proverb sound particularly odd; “I forget the end—there would be no use in tinkers, I think.”
“Well said, Bertha! but there’s none like ye, not one, this minute, so handsome,” exclaims he.
“Not that chit down at Carwell Grange, I dare say—eh?”
“Alice! Not fit to stand behind your chair. If ye could but see her, and just look in the glass, ye’d answer that question yourself,” he replied.
“There it is again—if I could look in the glass—it is fourteen years since I did that—if I could see that fool of a girl—if—if—if” she said with an irrepressible simper—“the old proverb again—ifs and ans were pots and pans—’twas old Mistress Tarnley used to say that—a damned old witch she always was,” she broke out, parenthetically, “and should be broke alive on the wheel.”
“Bang away wi’ the devil’s broomstick, and break her to smash for me,” said Harry. “But I’d sooner talk o’ yourself. Hang me, if you ever looked better—there’s no such figure; and, by the law, it’s looking up—it is—better and better every day. I like a tall lass, but ye beat them all, by the law, and ye shows off a dress so grandly.”
“Now don’t think, foolish thing, I like compliments—in at one ear and out of the other,” she said, with the same smirk, shaking her great head.
“Hoot, lass! Compliments, indeed! Why should I? Only this, that knowing you so long I just blurts out everything that comes uppermost, and it’s a pity ye shouldn’t have money to dress as ye should.”
“I never had that,” said the lady.
“Never—I know that well—and if ye won’t be said by me, ye’ll have less,” said Harry.
“I don’t think you know much about it,” said Bertha, serenely.
“Now, Bertha, child, you mustn’t keep contradictin’ me. I do know a deal about it—every thing. There was no marriage, never.”
“As long as Charlie lived, ye never said that—you always backed me.”
“I’m not going to tell lies for no one,” said he, sulkily.
“Not going! Why you have been lying all your life—you’d lie for a shilling any day—all lies, you mean, miserly liar.”
“Come, Bertha, draw it mild, won’t ye ? Did you never hear say o’ the Fairfields that they were a quick-tempered folk? and it’s an old saying, don’t knock a mad horse over the head.’”
“It’s true all I said,” she laughed; “and that’s why it stings.”
“And did ye never hear that true jests breed bad blood ?” he laughed. “But no matter, I’m not a bit riled, and I won’t. I like ye better for speaking out; I hate that mealy-mouthed talk that fine-spoken folk goes on wi’. I likes a bit of a rub now and then; if ye were too civil I couldn’t speak my own mind neither, and that would never do.”
“Get along with ye. Have you any more to say?”
“Shall I say it out, plain and short, and will ye hear it through?” he asked.
“Well, here it is; if ye don’t sign that I think ye’ll be hanged.”
“No, you don’t,” she said, more quietly.
“I do, by ———” he swore.
“No, you don’t,” she repeated, in the same tone, “who is to do it? Charlie’s gone, and vilely as he used me, he never would have done that; and Alice won’t, she told you so. I’m better informed, I believe, than you fancied. So don’t you suppose I am at all anxious.”
“I wanted to take you off in a coach, and you won’t let me,” said he.
“Thanks, simple Harry,” she sneered.
“And I’m coming this day week, and then it will be within ten days o’ the ’sizes.”
“And I’ll be discharged; and I’ll bring separate actions against every soul that had a hand in putting me here. Ask my attorney,” said the lady, with a pale angry simper.
“And Judge Risk is coming down, and you’d better ask your attorney, as you talk of him, whether he’s a hangin’ judge or no.”
“Cunning beast! all won’t do,” she said, sarcastically.
“Well, Bertha, this day week I’ll be here, and this day week will be your last chance, for things will begin that day, and no one can stop them.”
“Lord have mercy upon us!” she whined, with an ugly mockery and an upturning of her sightless eyes.
“You may be saying something like that in the press-room yet, if you won’t take the trouble to think in earnest before it’s too late. Now, listen, once for all, for it’s the last words I’ll say. That’s all true you say: Charlie’s gone, and if he was here, instead of in kingdom come, ’twould ’a been all one, for he wouldn’t never a moved a hand in the matter, nor ’a suffered it; and as for Alice, she won’t neither. But if you don’t sign that paper by this day week, and make no bones about it,”—here he swore a hard oath,—“blind as you be, I’ll open your eyes—and I’ll prosecute the indictment myself. Good-by, ma’am, and think between this and then.”
Harry Fairfield strode from the room, and was still full of the grim emotion which had animated the close of his interview, when he reached the little inn at which but a few weeks before his brother Charles had stabled his horse, when making his last visit to Hatherton.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11