« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
“where we stand is a queer sort of echo, which goeth in and out of them big tombstones. And for aught I can say to contrairy, he may be a watching of us while here we stand.”
I glanced around, as if he were most welcome to be watching me, if only I could see him once. But the place was as silent as its graves ; and I followed the sexton to the shadow of a buttress. Here he went into a deep-grey corner, lichened and mossed by a drip from the roof; and being, both in his clothes and self, pretty much of that same colour, he was not very easy to discern from stone when the light of day was declining.
“ This is where I catches all the boys," he whispered ; "and this is where I caught him, one evening when I were tired, and gone to nurse my knees a bit.
Let me see; why, let me see! Don't you speak till I do, Miss. Were it the last but one I dug? Or could 'un 'a been the last but two? Never mind ; I can't call to mind quite justly. We puts down about one a month in this parish, without any distemper or haxident. Well, it must 'a been the one afore last—to be sure, no call to scratch
head about 'un ! Old Sally Mock, as sure as I stand heredone handsome by the ratepayers! Over there, Miss, if you please to look-about two land-yard and a half away. Can you see 'un with the grass peeking up, a'ready ?”
“Never mind that, Jacob. Do please to go on.”
“So I be, Miss. So I be doing, to the best of the power granted me. Well, I were in this little knuckle of a squat, where old Sally used to say as I went to sleep, and charged the parish for it—a spiteful old 'ooman, and I done her grave with pleasure, only wishing her had to pay for it; and to prove to her mind that I never goed asleep here, I was just making ready to set fire to my pipe, having cocked my shovel in to ease my legs, like this, when from round yon corner of the chancel-foot, and over again that there old tree, I seed a something movin' along-movin' along, without any noise or declarance of solid feet walking. see the track burnt in the sod, if you let your eyes go along this here finger.”
• Oh, Jacob, how could you have waited to see it?"
“I did, Miss, I did ; being used to a many antics in this dead-yard, such as a man who hadn't buried them might up foot to run away from. But they no right, after the service of the Church, to come up for more than one change of the moon, unless they been great malefactors. And then they be ashamed of it; and I reminds them of it. 'Amen,' I say, in the very same voice as I used at the tail of their funerals; and then they knows well that I covered them up, and the most uneasy goes back again. Lor' bless you, Miss; I no fear of the dead. At both ends of life us be harmless. It is in the life, and mostways in the middle of it, we makes all the death for one another."
This was true enough; and I only nodded to him, fearing to interject any new ideas from which he might go rambling.
“Well, that there figure were no joke, mind you," the old man con
tinued, as soon as he had freshened his narrative powers with another pinch of snuff; “ being tall, and grim, and white in the face, and very onpleasant for to look at; and its eyes seemed a'most to burn holes in the air. No sooner did I see that it were not a ghostie, but a living man the same as I be, than my knees begins to shake, and my stumps of teeth to chatter. And what do you think it was stopped me, Miss, from slipping round this corner, and away by belfry? Nort but the hoddest idea you ever heared on. For all of a suddint it was borne unto my
mind that the Lord had been pleased to send us back the Captain; not so handsome as he used to be, but in the living flesh, however, in spite of they newspapers. And I were just at the pint of coming forrard, out of this here dark cornder, knowing as I had done my duty by them graves that his honour to my mind must 'a come looking after, when, lucky for me, I see summat in his walk, and then in his countenance, and then in all his features, unnateral on the Captain's part, whatever his time of life might be. And sure enough, Miss, it were no Captain, more nor I myself be.”
“Of course not. How could it be? But who was it, Jacob?”
“You bide a bit, Miss, and you shall hear the whole. Well, by that time 'twas too late for me to slip away, and I was bound to scrooge up into the elbow of this nick here, and try not to breathe as nigh as might be, and keep my Lammas cough down; for I never see a face more full of malice and uncharity. However, he come on, as straight as a arrow, holding his long chin out, like this, as if he gotten crutches under it, as the folk does with bad water. A tall man, as tall as the Captain a'most, but not gifted with any kind aspect. He trampsed over the general graves, like the devil come to fetch their souls out; but when he come here to the 'holy ring,' he stopped short, and stood with his back to me. I could hear him count the seven graves, as pat as the shells of oysters to pay for, and then he said all their names, as true, from the biggest to the leastest one, as Betsy Bowen could 'a done it; though none of 'em got no mark to 'em. Oh, the poor little hearts, it was cruel hard upon
them! And then my lady in the middle, making seven. So far as I could catch over his shoulder, he seemed to be quite a talking with her, not as you and I be, Miss; but a sort of a manner of a way, like."
“ And what did he seem to say ? Oh, Jacob, how long you do take
over it !”
"Well, he did not, Miss; that you may say for sartain. And glad I was to have him quick about it; for he might have redooced me to such a condition, ay and I believe a' would too, if onst a' had caught sight of me, as the parish might 'a had to fight over the appintment of another sexton. And so at last a' went away. And I were that stiff with scrooging in this corndor
“ Is that all? Oh, that comes to nothing! Surely you must have moro to tell me? It may have been some one who knew our names. It may have been some old friend of the family."
“ No, Miss, no! No familiar friend; or if he was, he were like King David's. He bore a tyrannous hate against 'e, and the poison of asps were under his lips. In this here hattitude he stood, with his back Howard me, and his reins more upright than I be capable of putting it.
, And this was how he held up his elbow and his head. Look 'e see, Miss, and then 'o know as much as I do.”
Mr. Rigg marched with a long smooth step--a most difficult strain for his short-bowed legs--as far as the place he had been pointing out; and there he stood with his back to me, painfully doing what the tall man had done, so far as the difference of size allowed.
It was not possible for me to laugh in a matter of such sadness; and yet Jacob stood, with his back to me, spreading and stretching himself in such a way, to be up to the dimensions of the stranger, that low as it was I was compelled to cough, for fear of fatally offending him.
“That warn't quite right, Miss. Now you look again !” he exclaimed, with a little readjustment. Only he had a thing over one shoulder, the like of what the Scotchmen wear; and his features was beyond me, because of the back of his head, like. For God's sake keep out of his
The sexton stood in a musing, and yet a stern and defiant attitude, with the right elbow clasped in the left-hand palm, the right hand resting half-clenched upon the forehead, and the shoulders thrown back, as if ready for a blow.
“What a very odd way to stand !” I said.
“Yes, Miss. And what he said was odder. "Six, and the mother!' I heared 'un say; ‘no cure for it till I have all seven.' Miss. Not a breath to anyone ! Here comes the poor father and mother to speak the blessing across their daughter's grave-and the grave not two foot down yet!"
A SIMPLE QUESTION.
Now this account of what Jacob Rigg had seen, and heard, threw me into a state of mind extremely unsatisfactory. To be in eager search of some unknown person who had injured me inexpressibly, without any longing for revenge on my part, but simply with a view to justice, this was a very different thing from feeling that an unknown person was in quest of me, with the horrible purpose of destroying me, to ensure his own wicked safety.
At first, I almost thought that he was welcome to do this; that such a life as mine (if looked at from an outer point of view) was better to be died, than lived out. Also that there was nobody left, to get any good out of all that I could do; and even if I ever should succeed, truth would come out of her tomb too late. And this began to make me cry, which I had long given over doing, with no one to feel for the heart of it.
But a thing of this kind could not long endure; and as soon as the sun of the morrow arose (or at least as soon as I was fit to see him), my view of the world was quite different. Here was the merry brook, playing with the morning, spread around with ample depth and rich retreat of meadows; and often, after maze of leisure, hastening with a tinkle into shadowy delight of trees. Here, as well, were happy lanes, and footpaths of a soft content, unworn with any pressure of the price of time or business. None of them knew (in spite, at flurried spots, of their own direction-posts) wbence they were coming, or whither going-only that here they lay, between the fields, or through them, like idle veins of earth, with sometimes company of a man or boy, whistling to his footfall, or & singing maid with a milking-pail. And how ungrateful it would be to forget the pleasant copses, in waves of deep green leafage flowing down and up the channelled hills, waving at the wind to tints and tones of new refreshment, and tempting idle folk to come and hear the hush, and see the twinkled texture of pellucid gloom !
Much, however, as I loved to sit in places of this kind alone, for some little time I feared to do so, after hearing the sexton's tale; for Jacob's terror was so unfeigned (though his own life had not been threatened), that knowing as I did from Betsy's account, as well as bis own appearance, that he was not at all a nervous man, I could not help sharing his vague alarm. It seemed so terrible that any one should come to the graves of my sweet mother and her six harmless children, and, instead of showing pity, as even a monster might have tried to do, should stand—if not with threatening gestures, yet with a most hostilo mien-and thirst for the life of the only survivor--my poor self.
But terrible or not, the truth was so; and neither Betsy, nor myself, could shake Mr. Rigg's conclusion. Indeed he became more and more emphatic, in reply to our doubts and mild suggestions, perhaps that his eyes had deceived him, or perhaps that, taking a nap in the corner of the buttress, he had dreamed at least a part of it. And Betsy, on the score of ancient friendship, and kind remembrance of his likings, put it to him in a gentle way, whether his knowledge of what Sally Mock had been, and the calumnies she might have spoken of his beer (when herself, in the workhouse, deprived of it), might not have induced him to take a little more than usual, in going down so deep for her. But be answered, “No; it was nothing of the sort. Deep he had gone, to the tiptoe of his fling; not from any feeling of a wish to keep her down, but just because the parish paid, and the parish would have measurement. And when that was on, he never brought down more than the quart tin from the public; and never had none down afterwards. Otherwise the ground was so ticklish, that a man, working too free, might stay down there. No, no! That idea was like one of Sally's own. He just had his quart of Persfield aleshort measure, of course, with a woman at the bar-and if that were enough to make a man dream dreams, the sooner he dug his own grave, the better for all connected with him.”
We saw that we had gone too far in thinking of such a possibility; and if Mr. Rigg had not been large-minded, as well as notoriously sober, Betsy might have lost me all the benefit of his evidence by her Londonbred clumsiness with him. For it takes quite a different handling, and a different mode of outset, to get on with the London working-class, and the labouring kind of the country; or at least it seemed to me so.
Now my knowledge of Jacob Rigg was owing, as might be supposed, to Betsy Strouss, who had taken the lead of me in almost everything ever since I brought her down from London. And now I was glad that, in one point at least, her judgment had overruled mine-to wit, that my name and parentage were as yet not generally known in the village. Indeed only Betsy herself, and Jacob, and a faithful old washerwoman, with no roof to her mouth, were aware of me as Miss Castlewood. Not that I had taken any other name—to that I would not stoop—but because the public, of its own accord, paying attention to Betsy's style of addressing me, followed her lead (with some little improvement), and was pleased to entitle me, "Miss Raumur."
Some question had been raised as to spelling me aright; till a man of advanced intelligence proved to many eyes, and even several pairs of spectacles (assembled in front of the blacksmith's shop), that no other way could be right except that. For there it was in print, as any one able might see, on the side of an instrument, whose name and qualities were even more mysterious than those in debate. Therefore I became “Miss Raumur;" and a protest would have gone for nothing unless printed also. But it did not bebove me to go to that expense, while it suited me very well to be considered, and pitied, as a harmless foreigner-a being, who on English land may find some cause to doubt whether, even in his own country, a prophet could be less thought of. And this large pity for me, as an outlandish person, in the very spot where I was born, endowed me with tenfold the privilege of the proudest native. For the natives of this valley are declared to be of a different stock from those around them, not of the common Wessex strain, but of Jutish or Danish origin. How that may be I do not know; at any rate they think well of themselves, and no doubt they have cause to do so.
Moreover, they all were very kind to me, and their primitive ways amused me, as soon as they had settled that I was a foreigner, equally beyond and below inquiry. They told me that I was kindly welcome to stay there as long as it pleased me; and knowing how fond I was of making pictures, after beholding my drawing-book, every farmer among them gave me leave to come into his fields, though he never had heard there was anything there worth painting.
When once there has been a deposit of idea in the calm deep eocene of British rural mind, the impression will outlast any shallow deluge of the noblest education. Shoxford had settled two points for eyer, with