JUST as that in variable setting sun which so often ushers a traveller into a story-book was sinking to rest below the horizon, I came in sight of the country-inn which was to shelter me for the night.
Inns on a solitary wayside present the same desolate appearance which is noticeable in a stray lamb or a lost child. One ruminates whether they have no expression equivalent to the cry of a child or the bleat of a lamb. These inns are as solitary as Stonehenge. Once the altars of hospitality, they are now mostly visited by the curious.
The inn of Baytown stood near no bay, and only a very untravelled yokel would be likely to call the village close to it a town. The inn was a brown patch on the top of a slope; gray lights from the east fell hard upon it, while the crimson glory of the west slanted off to the distant landscape, and drew every warm tinge away from the village hotel Immediately I conjured up all those dismal stories whose focus of action centres upon these wayside inns.
However, the dipping sun seemed to be delaying its downfall, so that I might reach my destination under its patronage, just as a spluttering candle will sometimes flare up desperately to accommodate a reader to the last line but one of his book.
I was not insensible to the luminary's attention ; I would not make light of it while it made light for me. I quickened my horse's pace and soon drew rein before Baytown inn. Then the red globe departed in presence, and left only its train of effulgence behind. Evidently earthly monarchs have taken counsel of the celestial one, since they allow their personal splendor to stream off into gorgeous retinue.
But no earthly monarch disports the colors of his court in so wide an arena as the horizon across which the pompous sun swept his train. Serried troops of clouds moved superbly in the haze of his departed majesty, and to its shimmer reached the tallest trees, and their topmost leaves caught the glow of royalty, and shone like bits of burnished gold.
I might have reflected upon the beauty of the scene to an unlimited extent, for I find that the habit of reflection is thus much akin to the habit of smoking—it grows upon one insensibly. And as it is usual to have more than one cigar in a case, so it is usual to possess two or three forms of reverie in the mind. My thoughts were cut short, however, by an ostler, who came out of the inn and laid his hand on my horse's bridle with an air of appropriation. He said,
"Fine to-day, sir; wet to-morrow. "
"Well," said I, " how do you know that ? "
"See those clouds over there, sir! Bless your heart, not that way, but where the sun doesn't shine. Pretty closely banked together, you see, sir. Blue as mouldy cheese. Well, if they don't bust to-morrow, I never see a storm. Come in, sir. ' Good stabling for horse and man,' as the poet do say."
"This is a dead-alive place," I remarked irreverently.
"Not a bit, sir, not a bit Twice a week the people pours past here on their way to Wookle, which is two miles off. And they pours back again—in the course of nature, which keeps a river wet at its source, as my father used to say. Twouldn't be much of a river, I suppose, that filled the sea and got dry at its rise. ' Charity begins at home,' as my mother used to say."
"Perhaps you can tell me what your grandmother used to say ? " I asked amiably.
The ostler gave me a sly glance.
"She said, sir, according to my memory, that civility were its own reward. But, to my thinking, civility comes all the easier when there's something to wash it down, digestive like."
"You don't look like a teetotaller," said I, fumbling in my pocket, while I scrutinized the ostler's red nose. " Is there anybody human beside yourself here ? because, if there is, I should like a room and a meal."
"Master is down with the pigs," said the ostler, fingering my remembrance with supple fingers. " And Simon, I don't know where Simon is, sir. Here, Simon," he cried, lifting his voice and shouting into vacancy, "you're wanted."
The sound died away without an answer to meet it; profound silence ensued for the space of three minutes, at the end of which time the ostler said,
"I don't think he's coming, sir."
"I don't think he is," said I.
Imagination must have been rife to dream that any creature was coming in the utter stillness, save a bluebottle fly which whisked through the air and settled on my nose.
"Can't you take me in yourself?" said I, as the ostler put up his hands in preparation for another volley.
The man dropped his hands with alacrity,
"Course I Come along, sir, this way. Perhaps you wouldn't mind getting out of the way of that goat. It always butts at strangers, poor thing."
I willingly consented not to mind, under apprehensive circumstances, though I conjectured whether I or the goat should be an object of pity. After stumbling over a plank, which sent my hat flying into a tub of dirty water, I arrived safely at the inn-door, with the goat in my rear.
"Why, in the name of thunder," said I inappositely, "do you keep a goat and a tub before your door ? "
"Why, you see, sir," said the ostler, grinning, "one's a butt and the other butts. Singler and pluriel, as my school-master used to say."
"Hang your schoolmaster ! " I exclaimed testily.
"Can't, sir," retorted the ostler; "he's dead."
I picked out my drenched hat with a grace that was not suave, and followed the man into a room. There he left me, with the cheering assurance that if the reluctant Simon did not soon come the landlord himself would appear after he had disengaged himself from his pigs. Judging from the silence of Simon's distant presence I prepared to fortify myself with patience, and began to look about me, and to investigate the place as if I were the man in possession.
The large gloomy room in which I sat seemed to have packed into it the ancient refuse furniture of the county. The chair which supported me creaked uneasily, as though to warn me that it was only warranted to bear the weight of a ghostly ancestor. An old looking-glass above the cracked mantelpiece had tearful tendencies, which induced dull deadened streaks down its would-be glossy surface; and some peacocks' feathers in two antiquated vases waved to and fro like the plumes of a hearse. Some old prints, entitled to the respect of age, but claiming no other respect whatever, backed against the wall, as though they were ready to retire from the scene, a sentiment on their part which did them credit; for they were atrociously executed, and the nearest approach to definite drawing was presented by a head and a tail separated by vacuum. A vivid image ination, ruralized, might discern in these salient features the suggestion of a frolicsome lamb. The sofa was pitted with a disease peculiar to rep and rosewood ; a species of furniture smallpox. The ravages of this malady revealed a dirty white substance, which might have been taken from the pictorial lamb after it had tumbled in the gutter.
A chiffonier, crammed with photographs in every stage of consumptive complexion, and weighted by an enormous Bible, completed the chief furniture of the room. After taking stock of a stuffed dog, a footstool, and two more chairs, elegantly frail, the inventory was complete.
I heard a knock at the door; it was very feeble, very uncertain. I shouted out, " Come in !" for it seemed to me that so unsubstantial a summons must need a vigorous reply in order to reach it. The waiter opened the door; his back was as weak as the wooden one which supported me. He appeared to have been dispossessed at some time of his spine ; probably in infancy, for he achieved a variety of contortions that could only have been acquired after long practice. He had the inbred ease of a caterpillar, and his hairy hands fostered the crawling illusion.
I saloted this flexible human, as he opened the door and crept round the edge of it to the inside, with a quiet, " Well, sir?"
"Well, sir!" repeated the waiter, staring at me very hard indeed, as if I had him under examination, and he was trying to gauge my profundity.
"Well, sir?" I reiterated, waiting to hear what he would say next.
"Well, sir?" he repeated, as if he were waiting for the same thing too.
"Have you nothing to say for yourself? " demanded I.
"No, sir," answered the man, with exasperating sub-mission.
"Nothing!" I cried warmly.
"Missis told me to ask you whether you meant to stay here all night."
"Is that what you call having nothing to say ? " asked I.
"Bless you, sir, I haint," replied the waiter earnestly. "I never have anything to say, not of my own."
I looked at the man with sudden compunction, as at one whose speech, like his time, belonged to other people. He noticed the glance, and was going to shrink away, when I called him back.
"You may tell your mistress I mean to stay the night And—what is the matter? "
For my waiter had begun to cry.
I looked at him in the silence of astonishment I was uncomfortable. I shut my eyes, to open them again with a sense of reality. There was no need for the test. This waiter of a wayside inn had already displayed to me two uncommon accomplishments : he undulated and he cried; and he did both with the ease of habit.
I put my hands in my pockets. There is no other attitude which so fully expresses the master of the situation. I felt like a very small First Napoleon.
"Now, my man," said I, "what do you mean by this? If you are a knave, I shall find you out; if you are a fool—"
"Bless you, sir," interrupted the waiter uneasily, " I hain't insane. But the house is chock-full, as I live. All of us sleep here ; we never have stranger what stop."
"And yet your mistress sent to ask me if I meant to stop all night?"
"She didn't, that's it I" cried the waiter writhing in a frenzy of grief, as if I had stamped upon all his nerves at once. "She said you could not stop all night; but I forgot, I made a mistake; I—O dear ! "
"Don't be a fool," I said. " What room in this place do you call your own, because—"
The man petrified me with a stare. Then he said slowly,
"I go anywheres, sir. I haint anything in this world; leastways, not o' mine."
This was the sublimity of the ridiculous. They are not only next door to each other; they can fall into each other and make ruins. I was impelled to change the purpose which I had before resolved on when I had started in the morning from Baytown inn.
"Never mind about my bedroom, " I said briskly. '' Where is the top loft ? "
I looked straight at the snaky figure and the washed-out eyes, receiving in return only a puzzled expression, which revealed nothing, and seemed to have nothing to reveal.
"Come, you know it," I said persuasively.
But this last effect was lost by the appearance of another figure in the doorway—a figure stout and sleek and well proportioned, whose thick round head was thrust into a soft felt hat, which was trying not to burst its seams asunder under the pressure. It had so far failed as to bulge into several awkward holes.
"Are you the proprietor ?" I asked of this third masculine apparition.
"Guess so," he replied, with a jolly roll on the last word "Fat enough for the place, ain't I, sir? "
He did not wait for an answer, but, seeing some symptom of jocosity in his remark, which had totally escaped me, he began to laugh with the vehemence which makes one think of a fit The waiter had ceased to cry; the landlord was laughing; I could not assume an impassive air.
The last gamut died away at length, and mine host inquired if I wanted anything.
"I want a bedroom," said I, with some hesitation. Per-haps the landlord could cry as well as his man.
"Bedroom ready," promptly replied the landlord. " Here, you Wriggler, go and tell your missis to be quick."
The Wriggler departed, and I began with,
"A little soft—ha, ha !" said the landlord, rubbing his hands in a cheerful way. "We are all soft somewhere, eh, sir ? Some in the head; some in the heart Now, my place is in the heart."
I congratulated the landlord on the happy locality of his tender spot, and asked him if there was only one bedroom for travellers in the house.
"Only one, sir. Our trade depends on the market-people. We are not often favored with a gentleman of your evident ability, sir. Ha, ha ! There's a garret, sir, where they say you can have a fine view of the moon. Ha, ha, ha! We call it the top loft, sir."
I asked myself how a man could laugh so much at nothing, and for answer found myself laughing too. We joined our peals together, and made a chime which might have convinced a misanthrope that we were convulsed with overpowering wit.
"Well, that' a good joke," said my landlord, rubbing his hands with the satisfied air of a man who had just made a bargain.
"Capital ! " echoed I.
"One doesn't get that sort of thing every day." My landlord spoke like a connoisseur.
"No, nor every other day," said I cordially.
"You're a good judge, sir, if you know as much about wine—"
I accepted the delicate hint, and before long mine host and I sat opposite to each other in a small parlor, with a bottle of claret between us, which no more separated us than a galvanic battery divides the people who are holding on to its wires.
I had a purpose in my conversation with the landlord; there were times when I doubted whether he had not a pup pose with me. Through the bursts of his exuberant mirth I caught now and then a stray glance, which was distrustful, sharp, anxious. But one cannot draw a flash of lightning as it passes, and I could not transcribe definitely on my mind the glances which aroused me.
We sat and talked long. I persisted in chatting until my dinner was ready. The landlord was not so willing to stay as I was to keep him. He took an immense interest in my dinner, and left the room several times to overlook it. I waited for him to come back, and on the principle of attraction, by which a strong will galvanizes a weak one, he came back, always with a joke upon his lips. I laughed so much to accommodate him, that I began to long for the serenity of a meal. But my mirth and my conversational powers had as yet been wasted, and I had not arrived at the consciousness of a well-earned repast.
Yet I had made minute inquiries. With the enthusiasm of an antiquary, I had asked for a history of the old inn about me. The landlord gave it freely. I inquired if he would allow me to look through it. With affability he promised me an inquisitorial visit after dinner. But before dinner—. For once my baffled faculties hoped that a meal would Drove suggestive instead of soporific.
As it progressed in the large ghostly room, which I had first entered, I meditated on several plans of circumventing the landlord. It is always difficult to fathom jollity; one has much more chance of unmasking a serious shrewd man than of showing up an individual bulwarked with the bonhomie of my jolly landlord. There was no air of mystery about him. It is proverbially possible to find skeletons in cupboards, where a fit darkness reigns. But to fish one up out of a steaming punch-bowl, the very reservoir of joviality, is scarcely to be expected of any man.
However, my task had been set me, and I had promised to execute it, with the suggestion that a sterner execution might be the result of it. I had, happily, no tremors, only an incertitude as to the best way of proceeding. Under this perplexity, for the first time in my life, I ceased to envy one living statesman.
My dinner was a good one, and I could not help appreciating the zeal of the landlord, as my palate warmed with fine flavors. For an out-of-the-way place the cooking was extraordinary, and was explained by the assertion of my landlord that he had been the pupil of a renowned chef. It is not easy to cherish suspicions against a man who gives you a good dinner; and after the wriggler had cork screwed away my last dish, I lit a cigar and slowly paced the room.
"The confounded dreamer!" said I, fondly apostrophizing an absent friend. " He will find a ghost in his sugar-basin some day. Suspicious, indeed ! Think of that mushroom omelette, and don't talk to me of suspicions. Pooh I a man with a firm mind can see at a glance that the idea was only the wildest conjecture."
At this resolute climax the door creaked ominously. My firm mind started on its well-balanced hinges. The door was not well-balanced at all; but it swung on its hinges, nevertheless, and revealed the Wriggler.
As an habitué of the place and its customs since five o'clock, I was not surprised that he did not speak. It was not even astonishing to find him staring at me meditatively for a second or two. I maintained that serene composure which any adept in the art of being photographed soon learns. With similar composure he scanned my features. But that he writhed continually, one might have taken him for a petrified artist, absorbed in the sublime reverie of creating me on canvas.
I waited patiently for speech from the oracle. When it came, I was persuaded it would be worth hearing. Expectations are delusive; the Wriggler suddenly withdrew his face, and was about to latch the door outside. I interposed He was quietly wriggling with the grace of a boa-constrictor in the middle of my room ; my hand was tenacious of his coat-collar.
"Now," said I, with as much suavity as I could command, " you must explain to me your kind scrutiny of my features. You don't understand ? Well, what is there in my face to stare at ? "
"Missis wanted me to look at you," said the Wriggler.
It was quite evident that the man had no mind to pursue his mistress' behest, for he slid to the door with the subtle ease that oil trickles down a warm tin.
"Please," faltered the Wriggler, " missis didn't tell me to tell you I was to look at you."
"What of that ?" I demanded.
"Don't tell her," replied the man. "If she knew I told you, she would be angry if you told her."
I consented to have nothing to do with these perplexing pronouns, and told the man to go away and mind his own business.
"Lor", sir, said he, in departing, " I hain't got no business, not o' mine."
This unexpected visit had upset all my comfortable theories of resolving my friend's arguments into dreams. Why should the Wriggler be sent to look at me ? I was not a young man of Apollo-like appearance, nor at all calculated to impress the imagination even of a landlady. When acquaintances wish to pay me a compliment they find it easiest to congratulate me on the improvement in my general appearance if I mount a pair of eye-glasses. I appreciate their delicacy, while I gauge it Without a looking-glass it is possible for me to know that to produce effect I must purchase it No, the landlady's interest in my features could not be due to an admiration of them during any surreptitious glance which she might have obtained.
There was a mystery, without doubt—the waiter had convinced me on that score—and I set myself to brood over it in a methodical manner. But the landlord's jolly face interposed continually between me and my morbid fancies. How could such an appearance hold any horror in disguise ? Impossible. And yet—ah, yet—I dropped into the depths of a reverie.
A reverie is the plantation where phantoms are raised. They spring up like the proverbial mushrooms, and they are the same sort of creation—dark, misshapen, flexible. It was too warm for a fire, or else a few burning coals heat the chill atmosphere of sickly fancies, and induce a current of fresh air through the mind. I stared at the fireless grate : I watched the flickering candles ; I measured my shadow on the wall; I paced the room ; I sat down on every chair; I even turned up the Bible, read attentively through Noah's family-tree, and having satisfied myself as to his extreme respectability, I drank to his memory.
Now, whether the wine fermented an idea, or whether the Bible supplied it, I never can determine. Certain it is that I returned to the latter, and turned over its leaves between the division that separates the Old Testament from the New. There another genealogy confronted me: of less ancient stock than Noah's, but of more interest to me on that account.
There were three pages inserted between the Old and New Testament, closely lined and headed respectively with Births, Marriages, Deaths. This was a family Bible ; and the compiler of it had provided lines enough to certify the names of as many children as Methuselah might have had during his thousand years of existence. There was provision made for forty births, forty marriages, and forty deaths. The supply, in all respects, was generous.
But generosity is one of those commodities which, like charity, is often ill-bestowed. In this desert of a register there existed only one oasis of an entry in black ink—one on each page. They were written in a large anxious hand, which I easily traced to my landlord. One generally observes that these jovial uneducated men only exhibit anxiety when they sit down to write. I traced the register backwards. Of death there was one notice :
"Died, on the 20th January 18—, my mother, Elizabeth Ann Fern, aged seventy-six. Her end was peace."
Under the head of marriages this singular statement occurred:
"On the 10th September 18—, I, Thomas Fern, bachelor, married Mary Sexton, spinster, at the parish church, Bay-town. May we never live to regret it ! "
I turned to the births. There was one recorded :
"This day, the 9th August 18—, I, Thomas Fern, joyfully record the birth of a daughter. Her name is to be Lucy."
This announcement was dated eleven years past I shut the Bible. These records were quite in the vein of my jolly landlord. They were simple and practical. I felt relieved again, and determined to see if the child was still extant, with the intent of having her in to amuse, after the fashion of an elderly man who likes children.
I walked out of my sitting-room, and, in the low passage outside, came into concussion with my first friend—the ostler. He was running through the house from back to front, and dashed against me, as if he thought I was an apparition, and expected to find me only a vaporous obstacle.
"Sharp work, sir," said he, rubbing his forehead where it had met mine.
"Particularly so," said I, trying to imitate his tone of cordial fraternity.
"That dratted goat has flied away, you see, sir, and I was.
"Flying after it," said I comprehensively. "Very good ! I should not expect anything in this place to follow the ordinary suggestions of Nature. Can I assist you ? "
"Well, it's storming," said the ostler, in the reflective manner which I had observed before. "That 'ere goaf's a regular Wandering Jew. You never seed the brain it has fix travelling. It's my belief it's haunted."
The ostler dropped his voice to an impressive whisper.
"You don't mean it !" I said, looking mysterious.
"Fact, sir! Ever since—But bless my heart, if I go out with a ghost to carry my thoughts for me, I shall never get down to Ditchley Pond."
"If the goat has such a remarkable bump of locality as you suggest," said I, " could it not find it sway backagain ? "
"Bless your hinnercent mind, sir, the missis wouldn't rest a moment while that 'ere goat was flying about Ever since—"
There was a pause again. I nodded encouragingly.
"Yes; ever since—"
"No; that I won't!" cried the ostler, buttoning up his coat-collar with sudden determination. " Tain't the sort of reflection for a dark night Would you like to come, sir; I daresay it won't rain all the way to Ditchley Pond. That dratted goat always flies to the water like a poisoned rat"
"How far is it ? " asked I hesitatingly.
"Something short of two mile, sir. I reckon a little more back, because the creature has to be pulled against its will. When a thing sticks its four legs into the ground square, you has an instinct that it have got two too many."
"Does your mistress expect you to go out in this storm after the goat ? " said I.
"Hush-sh, sir! We never tell her it's lost till it's found. She'd be in that wandering way that runs between hysterics and a faint I'll run him up in no time; and if you are afraid of spoiling the shine of your hat, sir, I wouldn't advise you to go with me, for those blue clouds are bursting their very skins."
I submitted to this kind consideration, and, out of respect to my hat, declined the wild goat-chase. The ostler nodded me a cheery good-night and opened the front door. There was a rush of rain outside, and the wind, with wet skirts, trailed through the passage, and sighed and moaned.
I would have begged the man to delay his search until calmer weather: but he had shut the door and was gone. I opened it to call after him; there was no response, save from the heavy wind. I heard the ostler's feet racing through the dark night. Would he have told me the sequel of that "ever since—" if I had gone with him? Not he, after that resolution of voice and action. Besides, I had rheumatism, and avoided the rain from sheer instinct.
I determined to hunt out the mistress of the establishment. If she were as peculiar as the rest of its supporters, I thought the quartet of singularity would be complete. Besides, there was the child, and one seeks for a child by its mother's side, as one looks for seaweed on the shore of the ocean. I pursued my way through the irregular passage that ran from back to front, with a keen look-out ahead, lest the Wriggler should be also bent upon some express message, which might lead to some more sharp work, as the ostler expressively termed it.
The passage was dimly lighted, as for accustomed feet, and I stumbled twice over steps that occurred in the darkest recesses of the corridor. There were voices sounding, however, in the fore, and there was also a ray of light, which slanted through an open doorway; a light that flickered and waned and reddened, and came evidently from a fire. The voices drifted over the light; they were duo—the treble of a woman, the rougher utterance of a man.
I went cautiously along, but not stealthily ; for when one is not very sure of one's reception, there is nothing like footfalls to presage an introduction. Evidently my boots served this purpose; the voices suddenly stopped. I went on, pushed farther open the already opened door, and stood before my landlord's wife and the Wriggler. The Wriggler had been under cross-examination ; there was the evidence of restraint and anxious memory upon his face. He welcomed my advent with relief, and looked at the door as a felon looks at the "Way out" for the public thoroughfare. The woman before me rose as I made my unceremonious entrance. I had purposely avoided knocking ; but the purpose was not sufficient to extinguish my annoyance at having committed a breach of common courtesy, most especially as I looked at the landlady. I had expected to see a buxom dame of " marmish " manners and florid countenance. Instead, I saw a woman who could have compelled respect in any society. Her composure, the decision and repose of her massive olive-skinned face, the unconscious steadiness and dignity of her attitude, were impressive. My intentional discourtesy ceased to be atoned for by circumstances ; her presence made the intrusion an unwarrantable liberty.
"I must really apologize," said I, with real earnestness. "My abrupt entrance cannot be excused by the only excuse I have to make—that I heard voices within, and wanted to speak to some one."
"It is no matter, sir," said Mrs. Fern, looking a little surprised. " I am quite ready to speak to you, sir, if there is anything I can do for you. Simon, you may go."
The accent of this speech was Scotch; that nativity explained some portion of the landlady's manner. Simon, the Wriggler, went with alacrity, and was so jubilant over his escape, that he ventured the suggestion of a wink at me.
"Are you lonely, sir?" asked Mrs. Fern, with a smile, which showed to advantage on her thin crisp lips.
"Rather eerie, I think," said I. "You will understand a native word."
"You catch a Scotch twang in my speech," she said; " but I am not Scotch, though my father was. He was a superstitious man, and used to make me eerie with his tales of fays and goblins upon the winter mountains."
"That sort of education should develop here," said I. "One could swear to a legion of spirits round this house. Are you nervous ?"
"Not a bit," said she, with a cheery laugh. "Nor are you, sir; only uncommonly impressionable for a man."
"You have a taste for photography," said I, smiling. " It asserts itself here as well as in your drawing-room."
"Ah, sir, that is my husband. I hate litter, and like every bit of mahogany to show off its polish, as long as there is any. But my husband has an odd fancy to keep brittle stuff everywhere, and he wouldn't part with those photographs for all the fine pictures that were ever painted."
"That is a hobby," said I.
"No, begging your pardon, sir," Mrs. Fern answered, " it is a soft heart. Didn't he tell you he had a soft heart ? Well, it's true, though people are not often correct about their characteristics, to my thinking. Things soon get valuable to him by association; and he keeps more than one silly trifle because he has kept it before, for some forgotten reason. I hate litters; but he humors me, and I must humor him."
"I don't know whether I ought to condemn your sex, even to make you an exception, Mrs. Fern," said I. "But women are not generally as fair as you in giving and receiving."
"Are you married, sir?" asked the landlady; and her shrewd placid face, as it surveyed me, made the question perfectly becoming.
"Not I," said I, laughing. "Never had a fancy yet, except for cigars. Do you believe it?"
"No," she said quietly. "I don't." The voice was resolute, but there was not a sign of curiosity upon her face. She turned the subject, not abruptly, but by a leading route.
"I was going to say, sir, that only a married man has a chance of knowing how much a woman can give and give in without seeming to do either. You must not reckon yourself a judge, sir, if you will pardon my saying so."
"Thank you for setting me straight," I answered. "I recognize you as an authority. But am I detaining you as much as I am keeping you standing? Your husband promised to let me see some rooms in the house after dinner."
"He will be here in a minute," Mrs. Fern replied "Won't you sit down, sir? Simon, where is George?"
This latter was addressed to the Wriggler, who had crept into the room with some coals. While I wondered that so dignified a woman should ask a servant about her husband by his Christian name, she turned to me with an interpreting glance and an amused laugh.
"Not my husband, sir, but the ostler !"
I bowed instinctively, and began to be afraid lest my purpose should be discernible to this quick-eyed woman, In my conversation with her I had forgotten it, and this reminder made me feel ill at ease.
The Wriggler stood blankly still, coals in hands and mouth agape. His mistress betrayed no impatience, but said decisively,
"Are you silly, Simon ? "
The nursery tale which used to beguile my childhood with pictures and verses, anent an acute pieman who refused Simon a pie without a penny, here came vividly to my mind. I laughed, and the landlady heard me.
"Pray excuse me,' said I apologetically. "It is only another instance of photography which I will explain to you in a moment."
"You have not forgotten the nursery, sir," said she smiling. '' Simon, where is George ? "
The poor Wriggler trembled, and I could divine the cause of his agitation after the ostler's remarks.
"Well, Simon ?" said his mistress, with asperity.
"He's out," burst forth the unhappy waiter, wringing his hands and shooting the coals forth right and left.
"Good luck, man!" exclaimed Mrs. Fern, seizing the shovel-handle and stopping the downfall. " Are you quite iaft?" She threw the coals on the fire, and then petrified the Wriggler with another question: "Why has George gone out? He will get drowned in this deluge."
The Wriggler faltered miserably. He stuttered and broke into a palpable falsehood :
"Please, 'm, I don't know."
His mistress dismissed him, with an uneasy expression upon her face.
"One can never judge of that poor fellow," she said to me. "He generally seems to tell a lie when he speaks the truth; and when he does venture on a falsehood he manages to assume a plausible air."
I asked myself if she were trying to deceive herself or me; Her calm straightforward face rebuked my suspicions.
At this moment my landlord entered. He nodded at me, and rolled out a jolly—
"Evening, sir. How did you like your dinner ? "
"Never ate a better one," I answered. "You are a master of combinations."
"I served under a good master, you see, sir. What is the matter, missis ? You don't look spry to-night."
"George has gone out," said the landlady, in a distrustful tone.
"Has he? " said Mr. Fern, stooping down low to tie up a bootlace. "Well, it's a mercy he's weather-proofed, ain't it ? There's enough water to-night to drown any one with warmer blood than a fish."
"Why has he gone out? " asked his wife.
"Couldn't swear," replied the landlord, still busied with his bootlace. " He's one of the sort that has whims. Best to leave whims to break out free, like small-pox or scarlet-fever, I say."
This liberal view of the subject did not seem to satisfy Mrs. Fern. I saw that a question trembled on her lip, which she once or twice resolutely repressed. I should have retired in order to afford her the liberty of making it, but that her husband was evidently afraid of meeting the demand. He seemed anxious to keep me there, and told his wife to get out some of her own particular cordial, which he warranted would warm a corpse back to life. I suggested that it was a wonder his house was not besieged for so marvellous an elixir, and he laughed, and asked me, as a future corpse, to give my opinion of the liquor.
It was excellent—sweet as Noyeau, almost as fine-flavored as Chartreuse; and as I mentioned Chartreuse I was forth-with led into telling a legend of an old monk, who had divulged the secret of a famous liqueur, and whose retribution was devised by his fellows. He was allowed to take nothing but the liquor until he died. "Best way of being starved I ever heard of," ejaculated the landlord, and he went to put a wedge of wood into a shaking window.
And during this time the storm grew in passion and intensity. There was a wild animus in its strength; there was almost personal spite in its clamors at the doors and windows. The landlady's face got whiter, and her thin lips almost disappeared in the pressure with which they met Her husband drank the cordial, held it up to the light and admired its color; but he laughed uneasily.
I was anxious to introduce the topic of the child, and yet knew not how. Mrs. Fern wore a black dress, but there was no crape upon it; and above its blackness, no sign of mourning about it Neither were there any signs of childhood in this living-room. I looked vainly for a doll, or a toy, or a ribbon, or a shoe. Where, then, was little Lucy Fern ? ON a visit ? in her bed ? Surely not That man and woman had no air about them which bespoke the caresses of a child And on such a fearful night as this, no child could be left alone; no mother, with the evident tenderness of Mrs. Fern's disposition, would fail to be by the cot of the house, and to make a warm presence there through the desolate and resounding darkness.
I drank two glasses of cordial, and my landlady was pressing another on me, when there came a tap at the back door; and thither went the landlord George followed his master into the kitchen, and in the rear came the Wriggler, supported by his fellow-servant's presence. Mrs. Fern was holding the bottle over my little glass when they entered; she put it down again.
The landlord took off his hat and put it on again: this served to pass the first awkward moment Mrs. Fern scanned George thoroughly. He was wet from head to foot, and rain-drops trickled from his heavy eyebrows down his broad flat face, and some of them entered his gaping mouth.
"Well, George," said Mrs. Fern rather shortly, "I should have thought you had had enough of water without swallowing it! Come near the fire, man, and let us look at ye."
George advanced, an unwilling spectacle. I could not help smiling. The wiry ostler was deluged, his short cod was patched with masses of wet, his cut-sleeves were twinking with rain-drops; and he himself looked as If he had lost his identity—had become an amphibious cn.ature, and was bewildered at his new condition.
"Why, man, ye're as daft as Simon!" said Mrs. Fern impatiently. "Is the water glueing your feet to the floor? What possessed you to go out this night ? "
There was silence. The landlord returned to his bootlace; the Wriggler began to slide to the door; George kept his ground, but bent his head and looked at the floor. I was an interested spectator of this sudden tableau. Mrs. Fern's brow clouded; into her clear gray eyes there stole a hot mist, and she half turned away and opened a cupboard-door.
"Of course," she said, in a low troubled voice. "I knew it must be that. George, have you brought it back ? "
The question was spoken in a different tone from the soliloquy. There was a breath of defiance in it; and the woman faced the ostler inquiringly,
"Yes, mum," said George. "I didn't want you to know about it until I brought it back; but that Wriggler is always a burstin' of himself with a secret, if it is no bigger than a sparrow's egg."
Mrs. Fern took up the bottle of cordial again. Her hand was not as steady as before, but she managed to pour me out my glass. Then she produced a tumbler, half filled it, and gave it to the ostler.
"Take that, George, and go to bed, and Simon shall dry your clothes: you're a good lad. And the goat's all right? "
"He ain't too ill to be obstinate," said George, smiling assuringly. "Not a soul can manage that rampageous animal since—"
"Hush!" said the landlord. "Enough of that Don't stand shivering, my lad; you can put off having rheumatism till you're as old as me."
George departed with a general good-night, followed by the Wriggler. A strange gloom had fallen on mine host, and mine hostess looked stern and sad. I could make no inquiries that night, and asked, instead, for my candle. Mrs. Fern gave it to me, and offered to show me to my bedroom. It was still early, but I had no mind to face the sepulchral parlor again. Mine host bade me good-night and hoped I should sleep well, and I returned the compliment Mrs. Fern preceded me upstairs, opened a door, and hoped that I should be comfortable. I replied suitably, and was left alone with my candle, my bedroom, and my reflections."
This new chamber was situated exactly over the parlor and was of the same dimensions and the same dreariness. The furniture was still more worn than that below-stairs, and the huge bedstead stood like a stranded ark in the middle of the apartment I walked across the worm-eaten floor to the place where my small knapsack stood, and began to undo the straps ; they creaked, but something else creaked, and I sprang to the door and opened it wide, to find nothing. There was an old key in the lock, too rusty to turn; there was no bolt to the door; and the only protection I could devise consisted in placing a chair against the door and on the chair two tin candlesticks, so that any one wishing to enter must perforce enter with a noise.
The storm was getting madder every moment. I pulled up my blind and peered into the deluged country through the window. The rain dashed against it in heavy splashes; but in the intervals I could see a sombre landscape, in which the draggled trees stood like giants, melancholy and forlorn. A few lights were dotted about the village, and the wind made them shiver as it passed over them to grapple with the trees in furious gusts of spasmodic strength. The view without was suicidal in its influences. I turned again to the one within. Except that the room was dry and sheltered, it was scarcely more cheering than the miserable landscape. I held up my candle and glanced round me. There was but one picture on the wall. It was a photograph enlarged and colored : the photograph of a very pretty child, with light-blue eyes and curling flaxen hair. And the face boded the firmness of Mrs. Fern, together with the good-humor and frankness of her husband. This must be the child whose birth was registered in the family Bible. She looked about seven years old, but the intelligence of her large eyes and wide brow spoke of a mental growth beyond the proportion of the physical. I was not surprised at the unusual brightness of this child; her mother was a remarkable woman, repressed by ordinary circumstances. Even a sculptor would show no recognized talent if he had only cast iron to mould. And the circumstances of Mrs. Fern's life were not such as to give her scope for the expression of a resolute and original character. In some volcanic era she might have stood as to the burning-bush, illuminated with all its fiery passions, even the focus of them, while she remained erect and unconsumed.
Yet these forces of character are seldom wholly lost, though they be concealed. The young child at whose portrait I was gazing had the prophetic air of one whose way in the world would be signalled by phosphorescent footprints, and whoes speech when it fell, would be clearer than the mumble of the crowd Where was she, this child ? Did not her mother love her with that affection which a mature mind conceives for one cast in the same mould, still undeveloped, but giving hints of power lying within the measure of its growth, as a young science prophesies material of wonderment for coming ages ?
I could not go to bed while the storm still raged. There was a sofa in one corner, and I wheeled it close away from the wall, and lay myself down and listened to the demoniacal breathing of the storm. With a hundred eerie voices it shrieked past my window and sent a passing blast down the chimney. With a thump and a twirl and a skurry like a Highland reel gone mad, the dervish wind played its blustering pranks till it moaned like a spent thing, and sobbed with the reaction of its furious anguish.
Under such influence I fell asleep, and the last face I had seen came to me—a little face, the crowning of a slender, delicate form ; a little face with pleading eyes and earnest visage, and determined lips and brows; a straight, slim creature, that held out its hands to me, and the rain-drops fell from them drearily. I tried to touch it, but I could not; it shrank from my approach, and still entreated me when I left it; and when I gave up all hope of holding it in my grasp, it came and whispered close to my ear with wet cold lips that it was wandering, ever wandering. Unhouseled and tormented, restless and tired to death, it sought for peace, and yet could not find a clod of mother earth that would cover it and keep it warm.
The wan eyes pleaded for sleep, the young worn face wanted a yielding pillow, the little body strained with sickening pilgrimage was all a-quiver for a couch whereon to lay its limbs.
I could not touch it nor speak to it—it went. And darkness followed it and overspread me, and dreamless slumber came upon me, wherein lies the monotony of unconsciousness.
Something awoke me, I could not tell what. I sprang to my feet with that bewildering sense which comes from startled awakement, that I must act in a crisis without knowing what the crisis might be. Gradually my nerves regained vitality. What had awoke me? There was not a sound in the house. And yet, was there not ? In acute states of sensitiveness one seems to feel sound rather than to hear it. I knew that there were footsteps moving not many paces oft I looked at my watch : it was one o'clock in the morning. I had slept for three hours. And again I listened. There were steps approaching close to my door. Double footsteps; two people, and one was the onerous tread of man, the other of light-footed woman. I looked at the door, expecting to see it burst open, with a shock of tin candlesticks, and Heaven only knows what other shocks besides. But my door remained unmoved, and I advanced to it swiftly and laid my head against the keyhole. A woman's dress rustled. Mrs. Fern's voice whispered sadly,
"Dear Thomas, not to-night! O, not to-night!"
"Ay, to-night," answered the landlord, in a dogged, sullen tone that I could scarcely recognize as his, "Go you to bed, my lass, and I will fetch a light."
"How can I go to bed? Thomas, you are mad. Not to-night, dear Thomas. You have not the nerve."
"Go you to bed, lass. Go back, lass. Leave me alone; I'm going to get a light."
I heard the heavy footsteps descend and the lighter footsteps ascend. There was a dead silence, in which twenty fancies rose like night shades in my mind. One minute contained the materials for a hundred lives. A hundred lives are lived through sixty years each, with less emotion, less incidents, than were crammed into that minute of absolute inaction.
The candle had burnt to the socket; at the same time I was conscious that the storm no longer raged. I drew up the blind, and from the broken sky, worn as it were to pieces, the moon beamed calmly. That most imperturbable light has no heart of fire in it; it makes use of a quintessence of devouring flame only to radiate its surface—like many a stoical nature, that basks in the fame of a great name, and has no sympathy for the genius that creates it.
Nevertheless, that reflected light was next best to having a new candle, which I had not Mine was flickering out fast Since I could not carry the moon about with me, I would have foregone the universal radiance for the sake of having an ordinary dip. Still, I thought one might be worse off without a moon. I waited for some time, and heard no sound. Perhaps my landlord had found the queen of the night effulgent enough to make a candle unnecessary. I opened the door and stood in the dark passage. Presently footsteps came along the corridor downstairs, and no light came with them. The footsteps came nearer, and up the stairs. Before they reached the landing on which my door opened I had retreated behind it, and had shut it.
A pause of the heavy feet, and then they went on up-wards, and my mind carried my body after them; for, with a sudden resolution, I turned into the black stairway, and followed my landlord in my stockinged feet. He stayed a moment at the next landing in the darkness, and his wife came to her bedroom door and entreated him to rest He answered her doggedly, bade her back to her bed, shut her door after her, and went on. I went on. A slight twist in the landing showed a steep ladder, whitened by the moon, that streamed through a small window. My landlord sped up this as agilely as if he were not stout. I watched him to the top of it He unclosed his hand, and put a key in the door that fronted the ladder. The lock turned noiselessly and he went in, leaving the door ajar. Up that ladder I crept carefully. I was not so corpulent as the landlord, but my feet blundered and were not certain.
I reached the top without making a sound. Then I pushed open the door, and stood within a room that I knew was the top loft.
In one moment I saw its peculiarities ; in another I saw its mystery. The moonlight was radiantly cold within its compass; there was nothing unrevealed. It showed an attic with a lean-to roof, and the rafters above were rough and splintered. It lit up, with the height of contrast, black hangings that were nailed against the walls. It shone into the empty, blackened, ill-shaped room, and lay upon the pile of a red rug that covered the centre of the floor; and upon a box with silver handles raised high in the midst; and upon an old man grovelling before it in a posture that was too undone for kneeling and too utterly debased for devotion.
And I, with senses alert, and with cold veins, moved a heavy step further into the room. My landlord sprang to his feet, and stood before me, and looked at me, and spoke no word. I spoke.
"You are found out at last, Mr. Fern," I said.
He looked at me, and waited for the words to form sense within his brain. Then, with a sigh and with unmoved acquiescence,
"Yes, at last."
I scarcely knew what to say next: the man did not defy me; he only looked nonplussed.
"The law has reached you through me, Mr. Fern; you must submit to it."
"Yes, yes," he said quietly. " But I have duped it this three year come October."
"Great Heaven ! " I cried ; " can you talk coolly of your crime? Are you hardened to the most awful form of murder—."
"Eh, what ? " said the man, dazed at the first word, and indignant and furious at the second. "I a murderer? Curse you I God judge you, sir, as you have foully judged me.
He laid his great hand upon my arm, and shook it. The tears were running down his face, while the deep curses of a broken heart thronged to his lips, and stayed there for powerlessness of utterance. I looked, at him and at the silvered coffin and at the desolate room, and wrenched my arm from his grasp.
"Then, in the name of your Judge and mine, what is that ? " I said, pointing to the sepulchral box.
His anger died; his passion was quenched; he covered his face with his hands, and groped his way to the little coffin, and laid his head upon it, and cried with words unintelligible some names of endearment that were framed in sobs. I felt a movement behind me, and turned to see Mrs. Fern. Her face was as white as the light that illuminated it, but the strength of her bearing was unshaken by the funereal room or the stricken husband. She had put on a long gown, and beneath it her breath came and went quickly ; otherwise the form of her mien was calm.
She looked at me and passed me, and went to her husband and put her arms round his neck. He moved to her touch, and laid his great tousled head upon her shoulder. The passion of grief which shook him showed the balance of that jovial temperament. She smoothed his face with her hand as if it had been a baby's ; she bent over his head her indomitable one, tearless, tender, powerful. And, after a time, with a slight movement she brought his eyes and hers to the small window, and pointed to him the heavens, from which all clouds were drifting, where the serene rested deep blue between the glittering stars, and stretched backwards from this bright white moon.
He lifted his small eyes to her face with a curious expression, like the appeal of the dumb brute that begs for a translation of the feeling that it cannot give tongue to. There was no shade of sentimentality in Mrs. Fern's spoken answer to this mute speech.
"Why will you not look there instead of here?"
He turned back to the coffin, and hid his face from the suggestions of the far-away heavens. His words were thick, and his hoarse voice quivered.
"Because this is her. The bit of flesh I held is here; the lips I kissed are here ; the cheek I loved is here. It is only the thing, you say, not the spirit. The spirit may be yonder, as cold and uncanny as those blessed stars. But 'twas the dear body that I nursed and loved. The bright eyes her blue eyes—I nailed them safe in here."
He nodded his head at me, and went on with a proud mournfulness I should not have expected of him :
"You called me a hard word, sir—a word that might tempt a man to be the vile brute you named. Your scent is mighty keen, sir, but it sniffed astray at the last. The demon that killed my child was Croup, and I kissed down her dead eyelids. You may go in the churchyard and see her name written on a gravestone, and you might have seen, three years agone, a funeral there. They put a coffin in the ground, didn't they, wife? but it don't hold my darling."
He stood up straight now, and faced me with tremor, with eagerness. Grief and passion gave him eloquence, and his defence was warm.
"Do you think I would give my pretty one to the filthy worms, to eat out her eyes, and crawl into her ears, and feed on her lips? Do you think I would put her into the cold, the storm, and the sodden earth ? Couldn't the old roof that had sheltered her lively living body cover her when she was so mighty still and gave no trouble ? I read an old book that tells how to wrap up the dead, that they will keep at least for years. I made two coffins, one within the other, and put her on a soft feather bed inside them. And I shut her up and brought her here, and kept her here. And they buried an empty box yonder; and I and wife held another service here, without e'er a clergyman, but with our groans and tears.
"And the child was always frightened in a storm; I always come to watch when there is rain and wind. But to-night my lass persuaded me not to come because you were in the house. I waited, but my spirit wouldn't hold. I had to come, and I came at last, just to see her quiet, after the hullabaloo. And you came, sir; you've outwitted me. My lass is a keen lass, and she read somewhat in your face. You never married; you never lost a child. And you think it's easy to bury dead limbs out of your sight? But it ain't: Lord, it ain't It's the heart-breakingest thing ; it's—O Lord!"
His head bent over the coffin-lid again. I stepped to Mrs. Fern and whispered to her :
"Forgive me, I will leave you now, I will go to my room until morning. Will you see me then?"
She nodded, and I went.
A year later, I stood in the churchyard of Baytown, and with me stood George, the ostler. The mortal remains of little Lucy Fern lay then beneath the gravestone. I had gone to the clergyman of the parish after that stormy night He had heard my tale with some professional horror and with much human sympathy, and he had lent his aid in conveying to its last resting-place the coffin of the top loft.
And a year after, George and I stood there together. The ostler rambled in his meditative style, while I listened :
"Bless you, sir, you did a sight of good to the master and missis. Queer whispers was always on the go. They never could be happy with a dead corpse a-corrupting of itself over their heads. As my mother used to say, the worms must live, and we ain't no right to stand against the natural food of a thing. Curious thing, Miss Lucy died in a storm; couldn't tell which howled the louder—it or master. Not missis, bless you, sir. She's one of that sort that chews her tears, reg'lar.
"That dratted goat was the plaything of Miss Lucy. It were always civil to her, and as sweet as an ass eating hay. But the night she died, it made off in the storm. The missis sent me after it; and when I had tugged it back, the little soul was dead. But the goat always goes astray now when there's a storm. The missis won't have it chained up, because of Miss Lucy; but she doesn't like it to go away, for she's got a fancy, her father taught her, that the child has a hold on the goat somehow—sort of unvisible reins, sir; and it might go off and drown itself in that sloppy pond, and then the spent of Miss Lucy would naturally go down ; and bless you, sir, I hain't up to these spiritual things. My grandfather used to say, he liked the sperits that you can keep bottled up ; they don't give you the shivers when they gets into you. Pretty grave, sir! I planted them violets, he earth do know how to put a good face on the horrors cuddled in its old bosom."
"We thought we'd come down after you, sir," said Mr. Fern's voice at that moment.
Mrs. Fern was with him. I made way for her to stand before the stone. Her calm eyes studied the words upon it, as though they were the features of her daughter's face. Mr. Fern stooped to pick a violet, and he gave it to his wife.
And in tender silence the fresh spring wind breathed upon our lips the murmurs of its youth, and gently brushed the grave of a young life which had blossomed and died like a flower of spring.