At Noulton Farm each day was like its brother. Inflexible hours, inflexible duties, all proceeded with a regimental punctuality. At meals not a word was spoken, and while the master of the house was in it, all conversation was carried on, even in remote rooms, in an undertone.
Our little friend used to see the workhouse boy at prayers, morning and evening, and occasionally to pass his pale disquieted face on the stairs or lobbies when his duties brought him there. They eyed one another wistfully, but dared not speak. Mr. Archdale had so ordained it.
That workhouse boy—perhaps he was inefficient, perhaps too much was expected from him—but he had the misfortune perpetually to incur—I can hardly say his master’s displeasure, for the word implies something emotional, whereas nothing could be at all times more tranquil and cold than that master—but his correction.
These awful proceedings occurred almost daily, and were conducted with the absolute uniformity which characterised the system of Noulton Farm. At eleven o’clock the cold voice of the Sergeant–Major called “Tony!” and Tony appeared, writhing and whimpering by anticipation.
“My cane,” said the master, stepping into the room which he called the workshop, where the organ, half finished, stood, stop-diapason, dulciana, and the rest in deal rows, with white chips, chisels, lead, saws, and glue-pots, in industrious disorder, round. Then Tony’s pale, miserable face was seen in the “parlour,” and Miss Mary would look down on the floor in pale silence, and our little friend’s heart would flutter over his lesson book as he saw the lank boy steal over to the chimney-piece, and take down the cane, and lingeringly disappear.
Then was heard the door of the workshop close, and then very faint the cold clear voice of the master. Then faint and slow the measured cut of the cane, and the whine of the boy rising to a long hideous yell, and “Oh, sir, dear—oh, sir, dear; oh, Mr. Archdale, oh, master, dear, oh, master, dear!” And this sometimes so protracted that Mary used to get up and walk round the room in a kind of agony whispering—“Oh, poor boy. Oh, poor Tony. Oh mercy—oh goodness. Oh! my good Lord, when will it be over!” And, sitting apart, the little boy’s eyes as they followed her would fill with tears of horror.
The little fellow said lessons to Mr. Archdale. There was nothing unreasonable in their length, and his friend Mary helped him. It was well for him, however, that he was a bright little fellow, with a good memory, for the Sergeant was not a teacher to discriminate between idleness and dulness.
No one ever heard Mr. Archdale use a violent expression, or utter a curse. He was a silent, cold, orderly person, and I think the most cruel man I ever saw in my life.
He had a small active horse, and a gig, in which he drove upon his outdoor business. He had fixed days and houre for everything, except where he meditated a surprise.
One day the Sergeant–Major entered the room where the boy was reading at his lessons, and, tapping him on the shoulder, put the county newspaper into his hand; and, pointing to a paragraph, desired him to read it, and left the room.
It was a report of the proceedings against Tom Orange, and gave a rather disreputable character of that amusing person. There was a great pain at the boy’s affectionate heart as he read the hard words dealt to his old friend, and worse still, the sentence. He was crying silently when the Sergeant returned. That stern man took the paper, and said in his cold terrible tones—
“You’ve read that?”
“And understand it?”
“If I find you speaking to Thomas Orange I’ll tie you up in the workshop, and give you five dozen.” And with this promise he serenely left him.
Children are unsuspicious of death, and our little friend, who every night used to cry in his bed silently, with a bursting heart, thinking of his mammy and old happy times, till he fell asleep in the dark, never dreamed that his poor friend Mary was dying—she, perhaps, herself did not think so any more than he, but every one else said it.
They two grew to be great friends. Each had a secret, and she trusted hers to the little friend whom God had sent her.
It was the old story—the troubled course of true love. Willie Fairlace was the hero.
The Sergeant–Major had found it all out, and locked up his daughter, and treated her, it was darkly rumoured, with cruel severity.
He was proud of his daughter’s beauty and had ambitious plans, I dare say; and he got up Willie’s farm, and “Willie was ruined, and had enlisted and was gone.
The Sergeant–Major knew the post-office people in the village, and the lovers dared not correspond directly. But Willie’s cousin, Mrs. Page, heard from him regularly, and there were long messages to Mary. His letters were little else. And now at last had come a friend to bear her messages to trusty Mrs. Page, and to carry his back again to Noulton Farm.
After her father had gone out, or in the evening when he was at the organ in the “workshop,” and sometimes as, wrapped in her cloak, on a genial evening, she sat on the rustic seat under the great ash tree, and the solemn and plaintive tones of the distant organ floated in old church music from the open window through the trees and down the fragrant field toward the sunset sky, filling the air with grand and melancholy harmony, she would listen to that whispered message of the boy’s, looking far away, and weeping, and holding the little fellow’s hand, and asking him to say it over again, and telling him she felt better, and thanking him, and smiling and crying bitterly.
One evening the Sergeant was at his organ-pipes as usual. The boy as he stood in the garden at his task, watering the parched beds, heard a familiar laugh at the hedge, and the well-known refrain——
“Tag-rag-merry-derry-perrywig and hatband-hic-hoc-horum-genetivo!”
It was Tom Orange himself!
In spite of his danger the boy was delighted. He ran to the hedge, and he and Tom, in a moment more, were actually talking.
It became soon a very serious conversation. The distant booming of the organ-pipes assured him that the light grey eye and sharp ear of the Sergeant were occupied still elsewhere.
Tom Orange was broaching a dreadful conspiracy.
It was no less than that the boy should meet him at the foot of the field where the two oziers grow, at eleven o’clock, on the night following, and run away with him, and see mammy again, and come to a nice place where he should be as happy as the day is long, and mammy live with him always, and Tom look in as often as his own more important business would permit.
“I will, Tom,” said the boy, wildly and very pale.
“And oh! Tom, I was so sorry about the trial, and what lies they told,” said the boy, after they had talked a little longer; “and saying that you had been with gipsies, and were a poacher; and oh! Tom, is mammy quite well? ”
“And all my ships were lost—on the moor; and how is little Toozie the cat?”
“Very well; blooming—blushing.”
“And, Tom, you are quite well?”
“Never better, as I lately told Squire Harry Fairfield; and mind ye, I’ll be even yet with the old boy in there,” and he indicated the house with a jerk of his thumb. “I don’t hear the organ, Tom. Good-bye.” And Tom was off in a moment, and the boy had resumed his watering-pot. And that evening he sat down with, for the first time, a tremendous secret at his heart.
There was one grief even in the hope of his liberation. When he looked at poor Mary, and thought how lonely she would be. Oh! if poor Mary could come with him! But some time or other he and Tom would come and take her away, and she would live with him and mammy, and be one of that happy family.
She did not know what thoughts were in the boy’s mind as his sad earnest eyes were fixed on her, and she smiled with a little languid nod.
But he need not have grieved his gentle heart on this account. There was not to be a seeming desertion of his friend ; nor anything she could mistake for a treacherous slight.
That morning, at two o’clock, Mary died.
About ten minutes before an alarm from the old servant who slept in the room called up her father.
Her faithful little friend was on his knees sobbing beside the bed, with her wasted hand in his, as the Sergeant–Major, hastily dressed, walked in, and stood by the curtain looking down into those large deep eyes. She was conscious, though she could not speak. She saw, as she looked up her last look, a few sullen drops gather in those proud eyes, and roll down his cheeks. Perhaps the sad, wondering look with which she returned these signs of tenderness, smote him, and haunted him afterwards. There was a little motion in her right hand as if she would have liked him to take it—in sign of reconciliation—and with those faint tokens of the love that might have been, the change of death came, and the troubled little heart was still, and the image of Willie Fairlace was lost in the great darkness.
Then the little boy cried aloud wildly—“Oh! Mary, pretty Mary. Oh! Mary, are you dead? Oh! isn’t it a pity; isn’t it a pity! Oh! is she dead?”
The Sergeant dried his eyes hastily. He hoped, I dare say, that no one had seen his momentary weakness. He drew a long breath. With a stern face he closed the pretty eyes that Willie Fairlace, far away now, will never forget; and closed the little mouth that never will complain, or sigh, or confess its sad tale more.
“You had better get to your room, boy. Get to your bed,” said the Sergeant, not ungently laying his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’ll take cold. Give him a candle.”
Last updated Monday, March 30, 2015 at 21:19