"Holy Mr. Herbert"
A GENTLEMAN was seated on a mile-stone that marked four miles to Bemerton, in the county of Wiltshire; it was midday in the month of June; warm, fair, and cloudy; the gentleman had an inkhorn by his side, and was employed in busily writing on some loose sheets of paper that he held on his knee.
A little grove of young beech trees cast a rippling shade across the smooth white road; a hedge of hawthorn stuck with great clusters of blossoms shut off the meadow-land, where flocks of silent sheep grazed; about the mile-stone and edging the road grew sparrow-grass, dock leaves, large and torn, the parsley flowers with their feathery green and swollen striped buds, wild thyme, close and dark in the tufted grass, buttercups smooth and glistening, sun-reddened daisies, and ragged-robins, fragile and wild.
A continuous veil of soft white cloud moved slowly across the sky, allowing a tempered sun to shine gently over the fields; and it was so quiet that the sound of the gentleman's quill moving over the paper was heard distinctly by a person who, all unknown to him, seated beside the gate that led into the meadow behind him, was watching him very closely.
This person was a lady of comely appearance habited in a dark-gray travelling dress.
She had a little riding-switch in her hands, and held it across her knees with an air of resolution, and her hood was thrown back on her shoulders, showing red ribbons in her brown hair.
After she was tired of bending frowning eyes on the unconscious gentleman on the mile-stone, she took to glancing up and down the road, uttering little sighs of impatience, as if in hope the busy writer might look up.
But he was too absorbed to hear her. The faint shadows waved to and fro on the road, the sheep moved slowly about in the soft grass, the wild flowers glowed and sparkled in the hedges, the hawthorn shone amid its sharp leaves and thorns; still the gentleman wrote, and the lady sat a few yards away from him on the low gate-post, sighing, frowning, and twisting her whip in her gloved fingers.
Then, coming evidently to some resolution, she left her post and advanced along the hedge.
Still he seemed utterly unaware of her presence; she stopped within a yard of the mile-stone.
"Sir," she' said, "wilt thou be so courteous as to give me a sheet of paper, and to lend me for a moment thy pen?"
He looked up, glanced at her with a pair of sweet gray eyes, and smiled in an abstracted manner; he was attired in quiet black, and long fair curls hung on to his clerical collar of fair lawn.
"Surely, mistress," he answered, courteously; he handed her a sheet of paper, drawn from those on his knee, and fell to writing again.
She looked at him with an amused frown on her brows.
"Sir, if thou deniest me the quill, the paper is of no service."
He looked at her blankly, then tugged himself away from his dreams and blushed.
"I crave thy indulgence, mistress," he said. "When I am full of thoughts I am not mindful." He gave her the pen.
"Nay," she answered, taking it, "I have watched thee for a full half-hour and hardly hast thou moved."
"Watched me?" he glanced about him, bewildered; it began to occur to him that it was a strange thing a lady should interrupt his work in this manner. Now that he had resigned his pen, he had wits and leisure to observe her; she was young and pleasant, well dressed; he knew her for a gentlewoman, and marvelled that she should be alone.
She took the sheet of paper to a beech tree that had encroached beyond the hedge, and, leaning across the flowers, began to write, setting the sheet against the stem. Standing so, with the parsley blossoms against her gray dress and the sunshine glimmering through the transparent beech leaves on to her glossy hair, with her brows gathered in a frown with the joint labor of writing and holding the paper steady, she made a pretty image of grace and softness.
The gentleman's curiosity was aroused.
"Hold it not unmannerly, mistress," he said, "if I shall question thee as to the reason of thy unprotected condition on a roadway where, albeit as tranquil as any in the King's dominions, Violence oft stalks abroad, to the menace of the weak."
The lady looked at him over her shoulder and colored.
"I know it fits not well with safety, sir, for a female to expose her person, unattended, seeing there are robbers and such horrid creatures that do prowl about, as I have oft heard travellers relate, but untoward circumstances have brought me to this pass. I pray that thou thinkest no less of me for that."
She had now finished writing, and, taking a pin from her dress, fixed the paper to the tree.
"I was seated by yonder gate when thou first camest hither—surely thou hadst not seen me had I not spoken, so deep wast thou in thy meditation. There is thy pen."
He had risen and come toward her, holding the fluttering sheets.
"Is it permitted me to read what thou hast written?" he asked.
"I write not secrets on the barks of trees," she answered. "It is there for any man to peruse."
She stood holding out the pen to him; he took it, and she watched him while he read her paper. It ran thus—in a large, unpractised hand:
"Dere Tom,—It is a Sade Thinge Men are soe fulle of Evile and a Pitie, I see Thou hast deserted me Leeving me to Alle the Perils on the King his rode soe I am Gone and doe not meen to see your Face againe tho' once I thought it bewtiful. If Thou Returnst Thou wilt No why I am Gone Tom. If Not Thou dost not care so in Each case Fare thee well, tho' Wicked. Nancy.
I Add that I am also Hungrie."
"I do not write clerkly penmanship," she said. "And it may be some words are ill spelt, but it is clear and stinging, is it not, sir?"
"I am pitiful for Tom," answered the gentleman. "This offence must be great."
"It is," she returned, shortly.
"And the last portion of this message or letter," continued the gentleman"—forgive me—it is hardly logical this that thou hast written—'in each case, farewell.' Now if he sees not the paper he obtains not the farewell—so it is not in each case or either case, but in one—"
"Tom is no scholar," she answered, gravely. "And what irks thee he will notice not."
He was not satisfied. "If he returneth, he hath not forsaken thee?"
"Nay," she admitted.
"Then if he returneth he needeth not the message, and if he cometh not it is useless, since he will not see it."
The lady bit her lip and reflected.
"He is not coming back," she said at length. "But if he did I should desire him to know I knew he would not. So I will leave the paper."
The gentleman was silenced.
"How far is it to the nearest village?" she asked, playing with a spray of hawthorn.
"At four miles lieth Bemerton," he pointed to the mile-stone. "Of which parish I am the unworthy minister, Mr. Herbert."
"I thank thee. I am Mistress Anne Rolleston. I would the village was something nearer, as I am passing hungry, but even as it is I must proceed there, waiting no more for Tom."
"This is a strange matter," said Mr. Herbert. "Truly if thou wouldst tell me a little more I might aid thee."
"Sir," she answered, "it is a woful series of misadventures—all due to the ill temper of Tom. Tom is of a pragmatical, tiresome humor—of a—"
"In brief—ye have quarrelled," smiled Mr. Herbert.
"This morning," she said, gravely, "I was married to Tom by uncle's chaplain, and we ran away, meaning to depart from this spot. But the chaplain through fear betrayed us, I conjecture, for my uncle and my cousin Humphrey came after us with pistols, my uncle always desiring me to marry my cousin Humphrey, and I caring nothing for it. We distanced them, which Tom said was a miracle, as his horse had a double burden, and I misliked that and told him it was of his own choosing that I rode behind him, and he replied that a wife should not have sharp answers ready—which was an ill thing in him, seeing we have been but a few hours wed. On saying this to Tom he said that it was no matter of time but one of principle, and I could not forbear rejoining that my cousin Humphrey had never spoken to me like that—being always more gentle in his manner to me than Tom.
"Near this the horse fell lame and Tom was furious, and I chid him for it, for if a man cannot keep his temper on his wedding-day—when shall he? He said I loved to chafe him, and that we must turn off our course, else we should be overtaken by uncle and Cousin Humphrey, so we went across some fields and came upon another road, which was mighty lonely. Tom led the horse and I walked behind. And then were we set upon by ugly villains who had guns; they took the horse and my box of jewels and Tom's watch and shoe-buckles and brooch and left us desolate. Upon which I wept and told Tom Humphrey would have done better in the like case, and he said if he had made resistance he had been killed, and perhaps I had been glad, and this was what came to a man for taking a wife, he had done better to have remained single, as his friends had advised him, and such like unmannerly talk. Then we came on to this road, and Tom said we must walk to Bemerton, and I said I would not, being tired, and so we disagreed. He said he would not leave me, I said he was no protection, whereon he told me I was a silly woman, and he wished that he had left me in my uncle's house. I said I wished so indeed, and asked him could he not find me a horse? He replied he would go a little way down the road to see if he might observe a house. Whereat he went, and that must be two hours or so past, and I will wait no longer."
Mistress Rolleston finished her tale with an indignant glance from brown eyes sparkling with moisture at the paper pinned to the beech tree.
"Some mischance hath befallen Tom," said Mr. Herbert. "I cannot believe he would forsake thee in this barbarous manner."
She seemed to be under no apprehension as to Tom's safety.
"Thieves will not molest a man already robbed," she said, scornfully; she drew out her handkerchief from her sleeve and dashed away the tears gathered in her eyes. "And Tom had his wits and his two hands— Nay, he hath gone of a design and left me forlorn."
"But, mistress," protested Mr. Herbert, "a man may not so desert his wife—knowst thou where he had intention of taking thee?"
"To his house, Rolleston Court. It is, he told me, many miles from here, nor do I desire to go there—nay, nor will I."
"Then thou wilt return to thy uncle, mistress?" questioned Mr. Herbert.
Mistress Rolleston evaded that.
"Sir, I am hungry and chafed with waiting; I will go on to Bemerton, where some will have pity on my plight."
"Assuredly I will accompany thee," said Mr. Herbert, in his courtier-like yet sweetly simple manner. "It is not meet for thee to go alone."
"Sir," she answered, gratefully, "I cannot be so far beholden to thee—"
Mr. Herbert waved his delicate hand.
"Bemerton Rectory will be honored—and thou shalt not call it hospitality, since it is my bare duty as God His minister."
He picked up his hat and his inkhorn and rolled together the papers.
"Thou writest a book?" she asked, striving to put by her own heaviness.
A look of soft shy pleasure came into Mr. Herbert's face.
"It is, Mistress Rolleston, a book of some poor prose meditations—entitled The Priest to the Temple."
"Thou art a learned gentleman," answered she, "and a kind one, and I am sorely troubled that I have interrupted thee with my trivial and worldly distresses."
He reassured her that his work, such as it was, suffered not at all from being broken off abruptly, and they turned their faces toward Bemerton.
Perceiving that the lady labored under some gloom caused by her forsaken plight, and that her thoughts were turning upon Tom, Mr. Herbert, to distract her, began to discourse pleasantly.
"Hath not nature fairly enamelled these fields and meadows?" he said. "It seemeth to me that the month of June hath in it something of an unearthly beauty, as if God His mercy did disclose unto us a little of the delights of Paradise. Truly, a space of green, set with tall and excellent flowers, a fresh hedge beyond grown with tender white blossoms, a group of slender trees with leaves uplifted to the pearly heavens, hath in it as much of the divine as is vouchsafed to us."
"It is very sweet," she answered.
"Thou hast a neighborhood full of delights here, Mr. Herbert."
"In my most ungrateful moments I could desire no more than the blessings God hath sent me," said Mr. Herbert, his eyes shining. "But this scene, enchanting as it is, lacketh yet one thing—the Sabbath bells—that do come so sweetly across the fields; on a fair Sunday morning it breaketh the heart with beauty to hear them."
"Ah me!" sighed the lady, "I would Tom had been a godly man."
They reached a point where the road divided into two; the sign-post marked one way to Bemerton, that which led straight ahead.
Close to the sign-post was a whitewashed inn.
"Here we may get food," said Mr. Herbert.
"Tom had not far to go," remarked the lady, and her lips quivered.
As they approached the inn they saw a bay horse with a white forefoot standing by the mounting-block.
"Oh!" cried Mistress Anne Rolleston; she stopped. "I beseech you, sir, that we do not enter the inn—"
"Methought," answered Mr. Herbert, "thou wert over-hungry to walk to Bemerton."
"I am hungry no longer," she said, hastily, "For that is Cousin Humphrey his horse."
"Then, mistress," exclaimed Mr. Herbert, "I will call him out—"
"Nay," she returned, something pale and shaking. "He would be enraged with me and carry me back to uncle—and since I am Tom his wife—"
"We must discover Tom," said Mr. Herbert.
She made no reply to that.
"Do not pass the inn, lest he be looking from the window," she entreated, "but let us take this road."
"Which leads not to the village," smiled Mr. Herbert. "But since I have a friendship for Tom we will follow it for a little and then traverse the fields to Bemerton."
Her deep brown eyes flashed gratitude.
"Dear sir, thou art very good to me."
They turned down the other road and walked rapidly away from the inn.
"It must be Cousin Humphrey came this way," said Mr. Herbert, "otherwise had he passed us."
"And where is Tom?" she cried. "What if he met with Humphrey?" Then, after considering a space, "I am sorry," said she, "that I did leave that message on the tree, for if Cousin Humphrey should see it he will know that I have quarrelled with Tom, which is not to my liking."
"Thou saidst—'twas for all men to read."
"All—save Humphrey and uncle."
The road was narrow and high banked with wild-sloe hedges; blue asters and yellow daisies edged their path. Mr. Herbert carried his hat in his hand as if in reverence of the beautiful day, and tenderly clasped his papers to his bosom; Anne Rolleston thought of Tom and fingered her hood and her kirtle and looked about her uneasily, as if she feared to see him lying dead or disabled under every tree they passed..
But she carried it with a high head, for—ah!—it was disgraceful of him. Not half a mile along the road—merely round the bend—there was this inn; minutes should have seen his return, and if the place proved not a posting-house, why—then he could have come back to take her there; oh, Tom, I fear thou art without excuse.
They turned through a gate and walked across the fields.
"This way," said Mr. Herbert. "It is many miles to Bemerton, but I know a cottage where they will be pleased to let thee rest."
"Oh, sir," replied Mistress Rolleston, "how I am beholden to thy goodness, yet, withal, must admit, though ashamed, that my heart is something heavy because of Tom."
"Be not downcast," replied Mr. Herbert, sweetly. "Assuredly we shall find thy Tom—there is some explanation for his absence, difficult now to guess at, but ample, in truth, and easy to believe."
Mistress Anne kept her glance on the grass at her feet.
"Sir," she said, falteringly, "a while ago I spoke overconfidently also, I fear—I was enraged—but thou dost not think—that is—harm is not likely to have come to him?"
"To mine own knowledge the country is open as God His hand," replied Mr. Herbert. "Never have I seen aught but pleasant and innocent sights, and though I would love not to think of a damsel wandering in any place alone, still I would never fret for a gentleman his safety."
The field they traversed sloped to an orchard enclosed by a low wooden fence; Mr. Herbert opened the wicket and they entered.
All hues of pink and cream and white, the clusters of blossoms lay lightly on the gnarled old trees; green and gray mosses, dull-red lichens, clung to their twisted branches, and here and there the flowers had drifted on to the tall grass and lay fluttering there amid the sorrel and daisies.
"Summer snow," said Mr. Herbert. "It is wondrous sweet."
In places the trees were so low they had to stoop in passing under them, and once Mistress Anne's hood was caught back by an errant bough and the white petals shaken on to her brown curls and red ribbons.
When they had passed through the orchard they came to another gate, admitting them to a garden filled with currant and gooseberry bushes, the young fresh leaves of which were smelling fragrantly.
Mistress Anne gathered up her skirts because of the thorns and looked at the gabled house adjoining the garden.
They went round to the front, where the sun lay strongly over a bed of pinks, a border of stocks and sweet-williams; over the white-beamed face of the house climbed a sweetbrier; a thrush in a basket cage hung against the wall, and a smooth-haired dog slept on the warm cobbled path.
"This is a tranquil place," sighed Mistress Anne.
A woman in a blue gown came to the open door and curtsied low at the sight of Mr. Herbert.
"Mistress Powell," he said, "there hath been an accident on the highroad, and this lady is too weary to walk to Bemerton, therefore I dared assure her she would be welcome here for what time it would take me to return to Bemerton and fetch a horse."
Mistress Powell, overwhelmed with pleasure, welcomed them into the house.
"And my Jack will run into Bemerton for your honor."
"Nay," answered Mr. Herbert. "This lady will stay at the Rectory, and I will acquaint Mistress Herbert of her coming."
Mistress Anne sank down on the settle inside the door of the great shady kitchen, for she was truly weary.
"Mr. Herbert," said she, "I put thee to great trouble."
"Nay," he replied. "’Tis I who will ask a favor of thee—that is, that thou shouldest take these papers into thy keeping until my return."
She flushed with pleasure and put her hand out for the roll.
Mr. Herbert lingered over it.
"They are safer with thee," he smiled. "If I, being careless when alone, dropped any of these vagrant sheets, it would be some anguish to repair the loss."
With that and many comforting words and assurances of his swift return the gentleman left the cottage.
Mistress Anne clasped his papers tightly and watched him across the fields, his fair hair spread over his gleaming white collar, his slender black figure casting a shadow behind it; Mistress Powell, with a tall girl to help her and two curious children clustering about her skirts, brought refreshment to the guest, and she was not slow to take it; Tom, she reflected, must be hungry by now, and at the thought of him she had much ado to prevent the tears from splashing into a cup of milk or flavoring the cake she ate.
When she had finished she was prettily grateful; they hastened to place a chair for her in the door, and she sat there in the sun, with the fat thrush and the silly dog for company.
While she mused about Tom and his great wickedness, the roll of Mr. Herbert's writings fell from her knee, and, being carelessly tied, the string ('twas a ribbon from Mr. Herbert's wristband) came undone and the sheets were scattered at her feet.
She picked them up hastily and respectfully and began putting them neatly together according to their numbering.
There were eight pages—all freshly written upon in a close hand.
She counted them—one, two, three, four, five, six—nine, ten—
She caught her breath-two sheets were gone. She looked about the garden. But no; had she not instantly picked up the leaves as they came untied?
Again she counted them. Alas, there was no mistake; two sheets of Mr. Herbert's book were lost.
Dismay and self-reproach made her heart beat thickly; she had disturbed him, distracted him; through her his book, the result of his holy meditation and labor, would be spoiled.
She could not bear to picture his face when he discovered his misfortune—had he not said "it would be anguish to repair the loss"?
"Oh, Tom!" she cried to herself, "thou art the cause of all this!"
But there was a remedy; somewhere along the road were those two straying sheets, the chances great that nobody would yet have passed along that lonely way, discovering them. It was not so very far to the mile-stone where she had first met Mr. Herbert; could she but run back there and secure them before he returned, she would repair the mischief that she had unconsciously caused.
She did not like to go along the road alone; she was sorely tired, and she had a dread of Cousin Humphrey lurking near—but these objections were not to be set against the joy of recovering the precious sheets.
Rising, she softly called to her one of the children watching her from the kitchen.
"Dear chuck," she said, "if I am not back before Mr. Herbert his return, tell him I am gone to walk in the orchard and will soon be back—the same to thy mother."
She tied up carefully the remaining papers and put them in the pocket hanging at her side, then started off swiftly through the currant bushes, looking about her as she went.
Quite distinctly could she remember the way they had come, and reckoning the distance in her mind, was sure that she could secure the precious writings and be back with them before Mr. Herbert returned from Bemerton.
If she could not find them—that tragedy loomed as large in her mind as the desertion of Tom, "for surely," she said to herself, "it would be a woful thing if Mr. Herbert his book was spoiled through a silly woman."
Under the orchard boughs she looked in vain; across the meadows her eyes were busy from right to left for a hopeful glimmer of white or aught that might prove to be the missing sheets.
When she reached the road she had found nothing, and was besides a little breathless with anxiety and quick walking.
The sun was now at its fiercest, and the clouds had rolled off the sky, leaving the landscape golden. Mistress Anne set her lips at the sight of the long, lonely, white, hot road, closed the gate with an air of resolution, and hurried in the direction of the inn.
Her eager brown eyes scanned every bed of celandines, every clump of white clover, every waving tuft of speedwell she passed, and when she had almost reached the end of the road—when the white inn began to stare at her through the trees—her heart sank dolefully.
Fears of Cousin Humphrey assailed her; she began to slacken her pace; it was hot and dusty, she felt miserably alone, and the prospect of the empty road with no hint of what she sought was mighty merciless.
Still she pursued her way, though flaggingly, and presently had reached the inn and turned on to the highroad.
The ominous nag with the white forefoot was no longer there; that was some poor comfort—but, alas! it seemed as if she would not find the missing sheets!
Had she overlooked them on the way?—how was it possible they could have gone—who, on that lonely road, should, in the short space of half an hour or so, have found and carried away two small portions of paper lying by the roadside? It was mystifying and miserable.
If she might find only one—her feverish thoughts told her that two must spoil the work of the gentle writer who had befriended her. ... She reached the mile-stone ... nothing!
There was her own message, dangling from the beech trunk—there was the mile-stone, marked with ink—nothing else!
She sank down on the soft wild flowers and gentle grass, all dismayed.
"Oh, Tom," she said, and, "Sweet Tom, where art thou?" then she began to cry for desolation, and, "Cruel Tom!" said she.
Her hands went up to her face and she sobbed, not loudly, in a piteous, stifled manner.
She must go back to Mr. Herbert—she must face him with the tale of the missing pages.
A live terror mingled suddenly with these miseries, caused by the click, click of a horse coming slowly along the road.
Perhaps this was Humphrey—perhaps it was some passing traveller who had found the precious leaves; perhaps it was some brigand or robber.
This last surmise proved the strongest; Mistress Anne sprang up and withdrew into the foliage beneath the beech, tears still in her eyes and her heart thumping thickly.
She saw the horseman come into sight; a bay horse with a white forefoot, but the rider was not Humphrey.
"Hullo—Nan!" said he.
"Oh, Tom!" she cried, coming round the tree, then she choked.
He walked the horse up to her and dismounted; his pleasant face was red and he had no hat.
"Nan, where hast thou been?" he asked her. "Sweet Nan, art thou still angered?"
"Indeed," said she, joyfully, "I was not angry, Tom—but thou, thou art a little—late."
"Late!" answered he; and he smiled, for no reason, it seemed, but the pleasure of looking at her face. "Late!" he repeated. "When I have had thy cousin Humphrey to settle with—"
"That is Cousin Humphrey his horse," cried she—"and, oh, Tom!"—this in a breathless addition—"hast thou killed him!"
"Nay," said he, in a shy manner. "But first tell me where thou wert."
She told him her adventures in a breath.
"I waited here till I was tired, Tom, then I went with a clergyman—Mr. Herbert—on the road to Bemerton."
"Ay," answered Tom, "that is holy Mr. Herbert that was at the court—but what of the man from the inn? Listen, Nan; when I got thither I ran into Humphrey, and we talked, and I asked after thy uncle. He is five miles back, said Humphrey, being too stout for riding—I am the only one. I said, 'I am Anne her husband.' 'Very well,' said he, heroical, 'I will make Anne a widow.' Seeing he was resolved to fight, I called a man and bid him go up the road and stand by you. With that we went into the garden, and we said, let us fight only till the first blood is drawn, because we once were friends. So we did, but I hurt Humphrey his side so that he was near to death. And methought thou wast safe away from the bloodshed, so rode into Bemerton on Humphrey his horse, where there is a doctor, to save Humphrey his life, and when I returned asked about the lady. 'I found no lady,' said this silly man, and I was like to be maddened, and with that galloped up here and saw naught—then I went the other way and all the while called on thee—and but now came back here again to look once more. And that is the story, Nan."
He paused, panting and flushed after the longest speech he had ever made in his life, and a little surprised at himself for having made it.
Mistress Anne pulled her message off the tree and squeezed it up in her hand.
"What is that?" he asked.
"Tom," said she, "thou art very nice."
He colored and played with the saddle fringe of Humphrey's bay; she came to where he stood and slid her hand into his.
"Art sweet-tempered, too," she smiled.
"Am a brute," said Tom, looking at the dusty toes of his boots, "to have vexed thee, Nan."
"Nay-I was peevish with the early rising—and, oh, Tom!" she pulled the papers out of her pocket, "there are Mr. Herbert his papers, and two are lost!"
"Thou camest to search for them?" asked Torn; "then I am glad they were lost."
"Oh, Tom!" she cried, thrusting them into his big hand. "It is a book and marred by two sheets—being gone—and through me was this misfortune."
Tom puckered his brows and strove to look learned.
"We must find them, dear heart," he said.
They spread out the curling sheets on the saddle and Tom's great fingers smoothed them out.
"One, two, three, four, five, six," said she counting; "then—see—nine, ten—"
Tom frowned and twisted up his face; he seemed to be reading the close writing; Mistress Anne waited in awe.
"See," said he, triumphantly—"the words read straight from six to nine—and so on—'tis Mr. Herbert hath numbered them wrong, and no sheets are missing, Nan."
Her delight and admiration were boundless.
"Thou art a scholar and wit," she cried.
Then she looked away and they both were silent.
"Wilt thou ride pillion now?" asked Tom at last, shyly, "as far as Bemerton, Nan?"
"Oh, Tom!" she said.