Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It May Be True, Vol. II (of III), by Mrs. Wood - Full Text






"The smith, a mighty man is he,With large and sinewy hands;And the muscles of his brawny armsAre strong as iron bands.His hair is crisp, and black, and long;His face is like the tan;His brow is wet with honest sweat;He earns whate'er he can;And looks the whole world in the face,For he owes not any man."Longfellow.
It was just sunset as Matthew the pikeman went out to receive toll from some one passing, or rather coming quickly up to the gate.
It was market day at Brampton, so Matthew had to keep his ears open, and his wits about him, for generally he had a lazy post, with scarcely half a dozen calls during the day.
A spare thin man was the occupier of the light cart now coming fast along the road; who as he drew near the gate threw the pence—without slackening his horse's pace—at least a foot from where the other was standing.
"There's manners for you!" said Matthew, stooping to look for the money, "chucks the ha'pence to me as though I was a thief. Hates parting with 'em, I 'spose."
"Or hates touching you with the ends of his fingers," said a voice at his side.
"Good evening to yer, Mrs. Grey," said he, civilly rising and looking up, "Well, I'm blessed if I can find that last penny," and he counted over again those he held in his hand, "I'll make him give me another, next time I sets eyes on him, I know."
"What's this?" said Goody Grey, turning something over with her stick.
"That's it, and no mistake. Why I'd back yer to see through a brick wall, Ma'am."
"There!" said she, not heeding his last re[2]mark, and pointing out the cart going slowly up a neighbouring hill, "he's too proud to shake hands with his betters, now. Pride, all pride, upstart pride, like the rest of the fools in this world. And he used to go gleaning in the very fields he now rides over so pompously."
"Can yer call that to mind, Mrs. Grey?" asked Matthew, eyeing her keenly and searchingly.
"Call it to mind! What's that to you? I never said I could, but I know it for a truth."
"Folks say there's few things yer don't know," replied Matthew, somewhat scared at her fierce tone.
"Folks are fools!"
"Some of 'em; not all. Most say yer knows everything, and can give philters and charms for sickness and heart-ache and the like."
"Folks are fools!" repeated she again.
"Well I know nothing, nor don't want to; but," said he, dropping his voice to a whisper, "if yer could only give me a charm to keep hertongue quiet," and he pointed with his thumb[3] meaningly over his shoulder in the direction of the cottage, "I'd bless yer from the bottom of my heart as long as I live."
"What blessing will you give me?"
Matthew considered a moment, as the question somewhat puzzled him. Here was a woman who had apparently neither kith nor kin belonging to her, one who stood, as far as he could see, alone in the world. How was he to give her a blessing? She had neither children, nor husband to be kind or unkind to her; she might be a prosperous woman for aught he or the neighbours knew, or she might be the very reverse. She never seemed to crave for sympathy from anyone, but rather to shun it, and never allowed a question of herself on former days to be asked, without growing angry, and if it was repeated, or persisted in, violent.
Presently Matthew hit upon what he thought a safe expedient. "What blessing do yer most want?" he asked cunningly.
"None! I want none."
"I'll give yer one Ma'am all the same. Most[4] of us wish for something, and I'll pray that the one wish of yer heart, whatever it is, yer may get."
"How dare you wish me that?" she said in a fierce tone, "how dare you know I've any wish at all?"
"'Cos I do. That's all," replied Matthew sullenly.
"Who told you? Speak! Answer!"
"Good Lord! Mrs. Grey, ma'am; how you scare a man. Who should tell me? I don't know nothing at all about yer; how should I? All I know is that most folks has wishes of some kind or another; nobody's satisfied in this world, and in course you ain't, and so I just wished yer might be, that's all; there's no great harm in that, is there?"
"I told you folks were fools; but I think you are the biggest fool of the lot."
"Come, come, don't let's have words. I didn't mean to vex yer, you're a lone woman with not a soul to stand by yer, and the Lord knows what you've got on yer mind."
Then seeing her eyes flashed again he hastened to change the subject.
"It's a fine evening, anyhow," said he.
"We shall have rain."
"Rain!" and Matthew looked up overhead, but not a vestige of a cloud or sign of a storm could he see.
"Yes, rain, heavy rain, like the weeping of a stricken, woeful heart."
And she was passing on; but Matthew could not let her go so; he must have the charm, even at the risk of offending her again. He had thought of it for days past, it was the one wish of his heart; he had longed and sought for this opportunity and it must not slip through his fingers thus, so he said meekly, but still rather doubtfully,
"Well it may be going to rain; yer know a deal better than I do, and I won't gainsay yer? we shall know fast enough afore night closes in. And now Mrs. Grey will yer give me the charm?"
"You don't need any charm."
"Can't be done without," said he decidedly. "I've tried everything else I know of, and it ain't no use," said he despairingly.
"Well," said Goody Grey, after a moment's consideration, "do you see this box?" and she took a small box out of her pocket and filled it with some of the fine gravel from his garden, whilst Matthew looked eagerly on as if his life depended on it. "When next you are on your road to the Brampton Arms, and are close to the yew tree which grows within a stone's throw of the door, turn back, and when you reach home again take the box out of your pocket and throw away one of the stones, and don't stir forth again, save to answer the 'pike, for the rest of the evening."
"And then?" questioned Matthew.
"Then there's nothing more to be done, except to sit quiet and silent and watch your wife's face."
"Where I shall see ten thousand furies, if I don't answer her."
"You are a man, what need you care? Do as I bid you every time you are tempted to go to the[7] Public-house; never miss once until the box is empty. Then bring it back to me."
"And suppose I miss. What then?"
"How do you mean?"
"Why; what if when I finds myself so near the door of the Public—you see, ma'am, it's a great temptation—I turns in and gets a drop afore I comes home?"
"Then you must add another stone instead of taking one away, and don't attempt to deceive me, or the charm will work harm instead of good."
Deceive her; no. Matthew had far too much faith in the charm to do that; there was no occasion for her fears.
"And is this the only charm you know of?" he asked.
"The only one. When the box is empty the cure is certain; but remember the conditions, a silent tongue and not a drop of drink; the breaking of either one of these at the time when the charm is working, and a stone must be added."
"The box'll never be empty in this world," said he, with a deep sigh; "but I'll try. My thanks to yer all the same, ma'am."
"You can thank me when you bring back the box. How is Mrs. Marks?"
"Pretty tidy, thank yer," but he looked crestfallen, notwithstanding his assertion. "I never know'd her ill; she's like a horse, always ready for any amount of work, nothing knocks her up."
"Sometimes the trees we think the strongest, wither the soonest," said Goody Grey passing on, while Matthew leant against the gate and counted the stones in the box.
"There's eight of them," said he. "I wish it had been an uneven number, it's more lucky. Eight times! More than a week. It'll never be empty—never!" then he looked up and watched Goody Grey almost out of sight, and as he did so her last words came across him again.
What did she mean by them? Did she mean that his old woman was going to die? Then he[9] considered if he should tell her, and whether if he did she would believe it, and take to her bed at once, and leave him in quiet possession of the cottage and his own will; somehow his heart leaped at the thought of the latter, although he shook his head sadly while the former flashed through him.
"There's mischief abroad somewhere, Mrs. Marks," said he, entering the cottage.
"Was when you was out," retorted she; "but it's at home now, and likely to remain so for to-night."
"Who was talking of going out? I'm sure I wasn't. I never thought onc't of it, even."
"Best not, for you won't as long as I know it. You were drunk enough when the young master passed through the 'pike to last for a precious sight to come; you're not going to make a beast of yourself to-night if I can help it."
Mrs. Marks was scrubbing the table down. She was one of those women who, if they have no work to do, make it. She was never idle. Her[10] house, or rather cottage—there were only four rooms in it—was as clean as a new pin; not a speck of dirt to be seen, and as to dust, that was a thing unknown; but then she was always dusting, scrubbing, or sweeping. Matthew hated the very sight of a brush or pail, and would have grumbled if he dared; but he dared not; he was thoroughly henpecked. Had he been a sober man this would not have been the case; but he was not, and he knew it, and she knew it too; and knowing his weak points she had him at her mercy, and little enough she showed him. He answered her fast enough sometimes, but he dared not go in opposition to her will, even when he came reeling home from the Public-house. Appearances were too against him: he being small and thin, she a tall, stout, strong-looking woman. Certainly the scrubbing agreed wonderfully with her, and there seemed little prospect of Goody Grey's prophecy being verified.
"Who was it passed through the 'pike, just now?" asked she.
"White; as owns the Easdale Farm down yonder, with no more manners than old Jenny out there—the donkey,—she lets her heels fly, but I'm blessed if this chap don't let fly heels and hands both."
"Chap!" reiterated Mrs. Marks, "where's your manners? He's a deal above you in the world."
"May be. But Goody Grey don't say so. She says he was no better nor a gleaner time gone by."
"She!" replied Mrs. Marks, contemptuously. "What does she know about it? She's crazed!"
"Crazed! no more nor you and I. She's a wise woman, and knows a deal more than you think."
"I am glad of it," said Mrs. Marks sneeringly, "for it's a precious little I think of either her or her sayings."
"She went through the 'pike same time as 'other did, and told me all about him."
"Why don't you be minding your own business, instead of talking and gossiping with every tom-fool you meet."
"She's no woman to gossip with, or fool either; she made me tremble and shake again, even the fire don't warm me," said he, lighting his pipe and settling himself in the chimney corner.
"I'll take your word for her having scared you. There's few as couldn't do that easy enough."
Matthew's hand went instinctively into his pocket; he could scarcely refrain from trying the effect of the charm, but it was growing dusk, and he was afraid that for that night at least it was too late.
"Wait a bit," said he in a low voice, "Wait a bit;" but his wife heard him.
"Was that what she said?" asked she.
"No, she said—" and Matthew took the pipe out of his mouth so that he might be heard the plainer, "she said; 'all trees wither the first as looks fat and strong.' That's what she said."
"Trees fat and strong! Are you muddled again?"
"No, I'm not," replied he doggedly, "that's what she said, and no mistake; the very words, I'll take my oath of it; and if you don't see the drift of 'em I do."
"Let's hear it."
"Well," said Matthew solemnly, "she meant one or t'other of us was going to die," and he looked her full in the face to see how she would take it, expecting it would alarm her as it had done him.
Mrs. Marks put down the scrubbing brush, and resting her arms on the table returned his gaze.
"Oh! you poor frightened hare," she said, "So you think you are going to die, do you? Well I'd have more spirit in me than to list to the words of a mad woman."
His astonishment may be better guessed at than described. He had so entirely made up his mind that his wife was the one Goody Grey had so vaguely hinted at, that he never deemed it possible any one could think otherwise; least of all Mrs. Marks herself: he glanced downwards[14] at his thin legs, then stretched out his arms one after the other and feltthem, as if to satisfy himself that he had made no mistake, and that he really was the spare man he imagined.
"No, you're deceiving yourself," said he, "I'll declare it wasn't me she meant. She said fat, I call it to mind well; and I'm as thin as the sign post out yonder and no mistake."
Then he glanced at the stout, strong arms of his wife, now fully developed with her determined scrubbing. "If she meant anyone," said he decidedly, "she just meant you!"
"Me!" screamed Mrs. Marks, "Is it me you are worriting yourself about, you simpleton? There, rest easy; I'm not afraid of her evil tongue; not that I suppose I've longer to live than other folks: I'm ready to go when my time comes and the Lord pleases; but I'm not to be frightened into my bed by Mrs. Grey or any woman in the parish. No, she's come to the wrong box for that. I'll hold my own as long as I have the strength for it, and am not to be[15] ousted by any one; not I!" and Mrs. Marks nearly upset the pail in her violence, as she swept the scrubbing brush off the table into it.
"Hulloa!" cried a voice, as the latch of the door was lifted, and a stout strong-looking man entered with a good-humoured, cheerful face. "Anybody at home? How are you Mrs. Marks? I'm glad to see you again, and you too," he said, grasping and shaking Matthew's hand heartily.
"It's William Hodge of Deane!" said she in surprise, "Who'd have thought of seeing you down here, and what brings you to these parts?"
"Business," replied the other laconically.
"Something to do with the Smithy, eh?" questioned Matthew.
"Just so."
"You still keep it on, of course."
"Of course."
"There don't stand there cross-examining in that way," called Mrs. Marks, as she opened a cupboard at the further end of the room, "but attend to your own business, and just go and[16] draw some ale, while I get a bit of bread and cheese ready. Supper won't be served up yet," said she apologetically, returning and spreading a clean snow white cloth on the table; "but you must want a mouthful of something after your long journey."
"I can't wait supper, I'm in too great a hurry; thank yer all the same."
"Are you going further on?" asked Matthew, coming in with the ale.
"No. I'm to put up at the Brampton Arms for the night, or may be two—or perhaps three," he replied.
"I'm sorry for that," said Mrs. Marks. "I hate the very name of the place. They're a bad set, the whole lot of 'em."
"That don't signify a rap to me. I shan't have nothing to do with any of 'em so long as they let's me alone, that's all I care about. I shan't trouble 'em much 'cept for my bed."
"And now for a bit of news about home," said Mrs. Marks, as her visitor began his[17] supper, or rather the bread and cheese she had set before him. "How are they all down at Deane? And how's mother?"
"I'm sorry to say I've no good news of her; she've been ailing some time, and the doctor's stuff don't do her no good; he says she'll go off like the snuff of a candle. But there, she's precious old now, and well nigh worn out. I've a letter from your sister Martha—Mrs. Brooks—telling yer all about it;" and he searched and dived into his deep pockets for it, and then handed it to her.
"Is Jane as queer as ever?" asked Matthew, in a low voice, as his wife was perusing the letter.
"Yes, worse nor ever, I think; scarce ever opens her lips, and stares at yer awful, as though she had the evil eye."
"I always thought she had; she wor as strange a woman as ever I set eyes on."
"Well!" said Mrs. Marks, looking up from her letter, "I suppose I must say yes. Perhaps you'll just look in, Mr. Hodge, when the time[18] comes for you to go back to Deane, and I'll give you the answer."
"I won't fail," replied he.
"What are yer going to say yes to?" asked Matthew.
"Martha says mother's dying, and she wants to know what's to become of Jane, and if she can't come here."
"Here!" exclaimed Matthew. "The Lord save us."
"Save you from what?" asked Mrs. Marks angrily.
"From having a crazed creature in the house. Who knows but what she might burn the house down about us; Mr. Hodge says she ain't no better in the head than she used to be."
"If she was ten times as bad as she is, she should come. It's a sin and a shame to hear you talk so of your own wife's sister and she nowhere to go to, and the cottage big enough to hold her."
"Why can't your sister Martha take her?"
"Just hear him talk," said she, derisively,[19] "and Martha with more children than she knows what to do with; and a husband as is always ailing. Why you've no more charity in you than a miser; there, go and draw some more ale, and have done with your folly. Least said is soonest mended."
Mrs. Marks had two sisters and a mother living at Deane, some forty, or it might be more miles, from Brampton. Martha, the youngest, was married, and blessed—as is too often the case with the poor, or those least able to afford it—with nine children, and a sick husband; the latter worked hard enough when his health permitted, but then there was no certainty about his being able to earn wages. A cold caught and neglected had given him a fever and ague, and the least chill brought on a return of it. His wife, almost as energetic a woman as her sister, Mrs. Marks, but with a more mild and even temper, earned a living by washing, and did the best she could to keep them all; and her management certainly did her credit, her house being as clean as Mrs.[20] Marks', although not so constantly scrubbed or washed.
The other sister, Jane, lived with her mother, an old woman of seventy-five, who, until now, had borne her age well, and looked certainly some ten years younger, but then she had always enjoyed the best of health; was up betimes in the morning, summer and winter, and about her small farm and dairy, which she managed better than most did with half-a-dozen hands to help them.
Ever busy, and uncommonly active, her illness was totally unlooked for, and least expected by Mrs. Marks, who read and re-read her sister's letter several times, to assure herself there was no mistake; that she really was struck with paralysis and not expected to survive many days, and then what was to become of Jane? Jane, who was so totally dependent on others, who lived as it were on sufferance, rarely doing work, or helping her mother in any way, or interesting herself in any one single thing. If she willed it[21] she worked, if not, she remained idle; her mother never grumbling or finding fault, while the girl who helped her was severely rated as an idle good-for-nothing if any one portion of her daily work was neglected.
There were days when Jane would milk the cows, churn the butter, even scour out the dairy itself, and work willingly and well—she had been out to service in her youth—but these days were few and far between; she usually roamed about at her will, sometimes half over the parish, or else sat at home perfectly quiet and silent knitting, she never did any other kind of needlework; or if unemployed she would clasp her hands together over her knees, her eyes either fixed on vacancy, or restlessly wandering to and fro, to all appearance, as the neighbours said, not exactly a daft woman, but one whose mind was afflicted, or had been visited with some heavy calamity, the weight of which bore her to the ground, and was at times more than she had strength to bear or battle against.
Such was the sister Mrs. Marks had determined on befriending, there being little doubt she would carry out her intention, notwithstanding Matthew's decided aversion to it; and that Jane would ere long be in quiet possession of the one spare room in the cottage.
William Hodge, her present visitor, also came from Deane, and kept the small blacksmith's shop, or parish smithy. He had two sons, one a good-for-nothing, ne'er-do-weel. Also, well probably a sorrow and constant anxiety to his parents, who had been absent from home now for several months, and at his wife's earnest solicitations Hodge had come down to Brampton to seek him, they having heard accidentally of his being there or somewhere in the neighbourhood.
"How's Mrs. Hodge, and your sons?" asked Mrs. Marks, as Matthew went off once more for the ale.
"Sons!" he repeated. "Ah! there's the rub, you've hit the right nail on the head now. Richard, as works the smithy is as good a lad as[23] ever breathed; but Tom's turned out bad, and between you and I, 'tis he I've come all this way to look after. I'd turn my back upon him and have nothing more to do with him; but there, one can't always do as one wishes."
"Is Tom down here?"
"I've heerd so."
"What's he doing?"
"No good, that you may be sure," replied he, "since he's here on the sly. I'm afeard he's got into bad company, and gone along with a terrible bad lot. The old woman thinks he's turned poacher, and most worrits and frets herself to death about it; so I've come to try and find him, and get him back home again, that is if I can. It'll most break his mother's heart if I don't."
"God grant he isn't with them as murdered poor Susan's husband?"
"Amen," replied he solemnly.
"One of 'em got hanged for that, God rest his soul, though he deserved it; but there's lots[24] of 'em about; they say the gang is more desperate like since then, and have vowed to have their vengeance on Mr. Grant, the Squire's head keeper, but there, it don't do to tell yer all this; bad news comes fast enough of itself; we'll trust and hope Tom isn't with none of these."
"Well, we've all got our troubles," said Mrs. Marks again, seeing he made no reply. "I begin to think those as has no children is better off than those as has 'em."
"Ye've less trouble, no doubt of it."
"Less trouble! oh, I've mine to bear as well as the rest of yer; why there's Matthew, with no more spirit in him than a flea, and all through drink. He'll go off to the public, though 'tis half a mile and more away, whenever my eyes isn't on him."
"That's bad."
"Bad! It's worse than bad. Here's mother dying, Jane not to be trusted to come here alone, and Matthew not able to take care of himself no more than a baby! How I'm to manage to get[25] to Deane I don't know, nor can't see neither how it's to be done."
"If I was you, I'd go somehow. They'll think badly of you if you don't, and as for Marks, leave him to get drunk as oft as he likes, for a treat; I'll wager my life on it, he'll be sober when he sees your face again, my word on it."
This, to Hodge's mind, was satisfactory reasoning enough; but not so to Mrs. Marks. She would like to know who was to take care of the 'pike, during her absence, if Matthew was unable to do so? This was a question Hodge had not foreseen, and when asked, could not reply to. However, after a little more talking, they came to the friendly arrangement that Mrs. Marks should start on the morrow for Deane; Hodge, in the meanwhile, keeping house with Marks, while she was absent; her stay, not under any circumstances whatever, to extend beyond a week.
It was an arrangement that satisfied both parties, as on considering the matter over, Hodge thought it was just as well he did not[26] put up at the inn for any length of time, his being there might be noised abroad, and, although he intended passing under a feigned name, still Tom might easily recognise a description of him, be on the alert, and keep aloof until all was quiet again.
Mrs. Marks gave him sundry pieces of advice as to how he was to manage while she was at Deane, and among other things, cautioned him to beware of trusting Marks too much about Tom.
"If you take my advice," said she, "you won't tell him a word about him, that's if you want it kept quiet, I never trust him with a secret. He's the man for you if you want a bit of news spread, why it would be all over the parish in—well, I'd give him an hour's start, then I'd walk after him, and hear it all over again from everybody's mouth I met. It's ten times worse when he's got a drop of drink in him, then he'll talk for ever, and you'll may-be hear more than you care to, so mind, I caution you to be wary."
"I shan't wag my tongue, if you don't," replied Hodge.
"I!" exclaimed Mrs. Marks, indignantly. "I mind my own business, which I've plenty of, I can tell you, and don't trouble my head about other people's; let everybody take care of their own, which it's my belief they don't, or there wouldn't be so many squabbles going on in the village at times."
"You're a wise woman, Mrs. Marks."
"True for you," said Matthew, returning, "I'll back her agin a dozen women, twice her size."
"Hold your tongue, you simpleton," said his wife, "and give me the ale here; you've been a precious time drawing it. What have you been about?" added she, eyeing him suspiciously.
"Been about? Why just tilting the barrel, there ain't enough left to drown a rat in."
"Why don't you say a mouse, or som'ut smaller still. If I'd had my senses about me, I'd never have trusted you within a mile of it," said she, handing the mug to Hodge.
"I'll swear I arn't tasted a drop. I'd scorn to drink on the sly," replied Marks, attempting to look indignant, and glancing at his visitor.
"There, don't straiten your body that way, and try to look big, you meek saint, you! as scorns to drink on the sly, but don't mind telling a lie straight out; there ain't anybody here as believes you, leastways I don't. Why Mr. Hodge," said she, taking the empty mug from his hand, "you'd think I was blessed with the best husband as ever breathed, instead of the greatest rogue. Why you'd be a villain, Marks, if it warn't for knowing your wife's eye's always on you. You're afeard of it, you know you are."
"I'm a devilish deal more afeard of som'ut else; a 'ooman's eye only strikes skin deep, but her tongue do rattle a man's bones and make his flesh creep," muttered Matthew, turning away.
"There don't settle yourself in the chimney corner again, but come and help Mr. Hodge on with his great-coat. Hear to the wind how it's rising; 'tis a raw cold night outside, I take it."
"It's drenching with rain," said Hodge, as he stepped over the threshold and pulled up the collar of his coat preparatory to facing the rain, which was coming down in torrents.
"Rain!" exclaimed Matthew, as his wife closed the door on her visitor. "Who'd have thought it? But there, she said it would rain. Oh! she's a true prophet, is Goody Grey, and no mistake. I said she was a fearful 'ooman, and know'd most everything. The Lord save and deliver us, and have mercy upon us! for we none of us know," and he glanced at Mrs. Marks, "what's going to happen. Good Lord deliver us from harm."
"There go and put the pot on to boil for supper," said Mrs. Marks, turning on him sharply, "and don't stand there a chaunting of the psalms'es."
And with deep sighs and many inward groans, Matthew went and did his wife's bidding, but the psalms seemed uppermost in his mind that night; he seemed to have them at his fingers' ends.

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