Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 8
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XV. PECKABY’S SHOP.
On passing through Deerham from Verner’s Pride, a little below the shop of Mrs. Duff, you come upon an opening on the left hand, which led to quite a swarm of cottages. Many of the labourers congregated here. If you took this turning, which was called Clay Lane, and continued your way past the cottages in a straight line over the fields, you would arrive at the residence of the gamekeeper, Broom, leaving some brick-fields to the right, and the Willow-pool, which had been the end of poor Rachel Frost, on the left. But, unless you climbed hedges, you could not get to the pool from this quarter without going a round near the gamekeeper’s. The path which led to Verner’s Pride past the pool, and which Rachel had taken that unfortunate night, had its commencement higher up in the village, above Mrs. Duff’s. A few cottages were scattered again beyond the gamekeeper’s, and one or two on this side it: but we have nothing to do with them at present.
A great part of the ill-feeling rife on the estate was connected with these brick-fields. It had been a great mistake on Mr. Verner’s part ever to put Roy into power: had Mr. Verner been in the habit of going out of doors himself, he would have seen this, and not kept the man on a week. The former bailiff had died suddenly; he, the bailiff, had given some little power to Roy during his lifetime; had taken him on as a sort of inferior helper; and Mr. Verner, put to shifts by the bailiff’s death, had allowed Roy so to continue. Bit by bit, step by step, gradually, covertly, the man made good his footing: no other was put over his head, and in time he came to be called Roy the bailiff, without having ever been formally appointed as bailiff. He drew his two pounds per week—his accorded wages—and he made, it is hard to say what, besides. Avarice and tyranny were the predominant passion of Roy’s mind; bad qualities, and likely to bring forth bad fruits, when joined to petty power.
About three years previous to Mr. Verner’s death, a stranger had appeared in Clay Lane, and set up a shop there. Nearly every conceivable thing in the shape of eatables was sold in it; that is, such eatables as are in request amidst the poor. Bread, flour, meat, potatoes, butter, tea, sugar, red herrings, and the like. Soap and candles were also sold; and afterwards the man added green vegetables and coals, the latter doled out by the measure, so much a “kipe.” The man’s name was Peckaby: he and his wife were without family, and they managed the shop between them. A tall, strong, brawny man was he; his wife was a remarkably tall woman, fond of gossip and of smart caps. She would go gadding out for hours at a stretch, leaving him to get through all the work at home, the preparing meals, the serving customers.
Folks fly to new things; to do so is a propensity inherent in the human, female nature; and Mr. Peckaby’s shop flourished. Not that he was much honoured with the complimentary “Mr.;” his customers brought it out short—“Peckaby’s shop.” Much intimacy had appeared to exist, from the first, between him and Roy, so that it was surmised they had been previously acquainted. The prices were low, the shop was close at hand, and Clay Lane flocked to it.
New things, however, like new faces, are apt to turn out no better than the old: sometimes not as good. And thus it proved with Peckaby’s shop. From rather underselling the shops of the village, Peckaby’s shop grew to increase its charges until they were higher than those of anybody else: the wares also deteriorated in value. Clay Lane awoke to this by degrees, and would have taken its custom away. But that was more easily contemplated than done: a good many of them had been allowed to get on Peckaby’s books, and they also found that Roy set his face against their leaving the shop. For Roy to set his face against a measure, was a formidable affair, not readily contended with: the labourers did not dare to fly in his face, lest he should make an excuse to take their work from them. He had already discharged several. So Clay Lane, for the most part, found itself tied to Peckaby’s shop, and to paying some thirty per cent. beyond what they would have paid at the old shops; added to which, was the grievance of being compelled to put up with very inferior articles. Dissatisfaction at this state of things had long been smouldering. It grew and grew, threatening to break out into open rebellion, perhaps to bloodshed. The neighbourhood cried shame upon Roy, and felt inclined to echo the cry upon Mrs. Verner; while Clay Lane openly avowed their belief that Peckaby’s shop was Roy’s shop, and that the Peckabys were only put in to manage it.
One fearfully hot Monday morning, in the beginning of July, Lionel Verner was passing down Clay Lane. In another week he would be away from Deerham. Lady Verner’s illness had commenced the latter end of April, and it was growing towards the end of June before she began to get better, or would give Lionel leave to depart. Jan, plain-speaking, truth-telling Jan, had at length quietly told his mother that there was nothing the matter with her but “vexing and temper.” Lady Verner went into hysterics at Jan’s unfilial conduct; but, certain it was, from that very time she began to amend. July came in, and Lionel was permitted to fix the day for his departure.
Lionel was walking down Clay Lane. It was a short cut to a friend’s house over the hills, rising there, some three or four miles distant. Not a very suitable day for a walk. Had Lionel been training for a light jockey, without any superfluous weight, he might have dispensed with extra covering in his exercise, and done as effectually without it. A hotter day never was known in our climate; a more intensely burning sun never rode in the heavens. It blazed down with a force that was almost unbearable, scorching and withering all within its radius. Lionel looked up at it; it seemed to blister his face and dazzle his eyes; and his resolution wavered as he thought of the walk before him. “I have a great mind not to go,” said he, mentally. “They can set up their targets without me. I shall be half dead by the time I get there.” Nevertheless, in the indecision, he still walked on. He thought he’d see how affairs looked when he came to the green fields. Green! brown, rather.
But Lionel found other affairs to look at before he got to the fields. On turning a sharp angle of Clay Lane, he was surprised to see a crowd collected, stretching from one side of it to the other. Not a peaceable crowd evidently, although it was composed for the most part of the gentler sex; but a crowd of threatening arms and inflamed faces, and swaying white caps and noisy tongues. The female population of Clay Lane had collected there.
Smash! went the breaking of glass in Lionel’s ears as he came in view; smash! went another crash. Were Peckaby’s shop windows suffering? A misgiving that it must be so, crossed the mind of Lionel, and he made a few steps to the scene of warfare.
Sure enough it was nothing less. Three great holes were staring in so many panes, the splinters of glass lying inside the shop-window, amongst butter and flour, and other appropriate receptacle compartments. The flour looked brown, and the butter was running away in an oily stream; but that was no reason why a shower of broken glass should be added to improve their excellencies. Mr. Peckaby, with white gills and hair raised up on end, stood the picture of tremor, gazing at the damage, but too much afraid to start out and prevent it. Those big men are sometimes physical cowards. Another pane smashed! the weapon used being a hard piece of flint coal, which just escaped short of Mr. Peckaby’s head, and Lionel thought it time to interfere. He pushed into the midst of them.
They drew aside when they saw who it was. In their hot passions—hot and angry then—perhaps no one, friend or enemy, would have stood a chance of being deferred to, but Lionel Verner. They had so long looked upon him as the future master of Verner’s Pride, that they forgot to look upon him as anything less now. And they all liked Lionel. His appearance was as oil poured upon troubled waters.
“What is the meaning of this? What is the matter?” demanded Lionel.
“Oh, sir, why don’t you interfere to protect us, now things is come to this pass? You be a Verner!” was the prayer of remonstrance that met his words from all sides.
“Give me an explanation,” reiterated Lionel. “What is the grievance?”
The particular grievance of this morning, however easy to explain, was somewhat difficult to comprehend, when twenty tongues were speaking at once; and they, shrill and excited ones. In vain Lionel assured them that if one would tell it, instead of all, he should understand it sooner; that if their tone were subdued, instead of loud enough to be heard yonder at the brick-fields, it might be more desirable. Excited women, suffering under what they deem a wrong, cannot be made quiet: you may as well try to put down a rising flood. Lionel resigned himself to his fate, and listened: and at this stage of the affair a new feature of it struck his eye and surprised him; scarcely one of the women but bore in her hand some uncooked meat. Such meat! Lionel drew himself and his coat from too close proximity to it. It was of varied colours, and walking away alive. Upon plates, whole or broken, upon half saucers, upon dust-pans, upon fire-shovels, held at the end of tongs, hooked on to a fork, spread out in a coal-box, anyhow, so as to avoid contact with fingers, these dainty pieces were exhibited for inspection.
By what Lionel could gather, it appeared that this meat had been purchased on Saturday night at Peckaby’s shop. The women had said then, one and all, that it was not good; and Mr. Peckaby had been regaled with various open conjectures, more plain than polite, as to the state of the animal which had supplied it. Independent of the quality of the meat, it was none the better, even then, for having been kept. The women scented this; but Peckaby and Peckaby’s wife, who was always in the shop with her husband on a Saturday night, protested and vowed that their customers’ noses were mistaken; that the meat would be perfectly good and fresh on the Sunday, and on the Monday too, if they liked to keep it so long. The women, somewhat doubtfully giving ear to the assurance, knowing that the alternative was that or none, bought the meat and took it home. On Sunday morning, they found the meat was—anything you may imagine. It was neither cookable nor eatable; and their anger against Peckaby was not diminished by a certain fact which oozed out to them: namely, that Peckaby himself did not cut his Sunday’s dinner off the meat in his shop, but sent to buy it of one of the Deerham butchers. The general indignation was great; the men, deprived of their Sunday’s meat, joined in it; but nothing could be done until Monday morning. Peckaby’s shop was always hermetically sealed on a Sunday. Mr. Verner had been stringent in allowing no Sunday traffic on the estate.
Monday came. The men went to their work as usual, leaving their wives to deal with the matter. Behold them assembled with their meat, kept for the occasion in spite of its state, before the shop of Peckaby. But of redress they could get none; Peckaby was deaf; and Lionel arrived to find hostilities commenced. Such was the summary of the story.
“You are acting very wrong,” were Lionel’s first words to them in answer. “You should blame the meat, not Peckaby. Is this weather for keeping meat?”
“The weather didn’t get to this heat till yesterday in the afternoon,” said they—and Lionel could not deny the fact. Mrs. Dawson took up the word.
“Our meat warn’t bought at Peckaby’s; our meat were got at Clark’s, and it were sweet as a nut. ’Twere veal, too, and that’s the worst meat for keeping. Roy ’ud kill us if he could; but he can’t force us on to Peckaby’s rubbish. We defy him to’t.”
In point of defying Roy, the Dawsons had done that long ago. There was open warfare between them, and skirmishes took place occasionally. The first act of Roy, after it was known that Lionel was disinherited, had been to discharge old Dawson and his sons from work. How they had managed to live since, was a mystery: funds did not seem to run low with them: tales of their night-poaching went about, and the sons got an odd job at legitimate work now and then.
“It’s an awful shame,” cried a civil, quiet woman, Sarah Grind, one of a very numerous family, commonly called “Grind’s lot,” “that we should be beat down to have our victuals and other things at such a place as Peckaby’s! Sometimes, sir, I’m almost inclined to ask, is it Christians as rules over us?”
Lionel felt the shaft levelled at his family, though not personally at himself.
“You are not beaten down to it,” he said. “Why do you deal at Peckaby’s? Stay a bit! I know what you would urge: that by going elsewhere you would displease Roy. It seems to me that if you would all go elsewhere, Roy could not prevent it. Should one of you attempt to go, he might; but he could not prevent it if you all go with one accord. If Peckaby’s things are bad—as I believe they are—why do you buy them?”
“There ain’t a single thing as is good in his place,” spoke up a woman, half-crying. “Sir, it’s truth. His flour is half bone-dust, and his ’taturs is watery, his sugar is sand, and his tea is leaves dried over again, and his eggs is rotten, and his coals is flint.”
“Allowing that it is so, it is no good reason for your smashing his windows,” said Lionel. “It is utterly impossible that that can be tolerated.”
“Why do he palm his bad things off upon us, then?” retorted the crowd. “He makes us pay half as much again as we do in the other shops; and when we gets them home, we can’t eat ’em. Sir, you be Mr. Verner now; you ought to see as we be protected.”
“I am Mr. Verner; but I have no power. My power has been taken from me, as you know. Mrs. Verner is—”
“A murrain light upon her!” scowled a man from the outskirts of the crowd. “Why do she call herself Mrs. Verner, and stick herself up for missis at Verner’s Pride, if she is to take no notice on us? Why do she leave us in the hands of Roy, to be—”
Lionel had turned upon the man like lightning.
“Davies, how dare you presume so to speak of Mrs. Verner in my presence? Mrs. Verner is not the source of your ills; you must look nearer to you, for that. Mrs. Verner is aged and ailing; she cannot get out of doors to see into your grievances.”
At the moment of Lionel’s turning to the man, he, Davies, had commenced to push his way towards Lionel. This caused the crowd to sway, and Lionel’s hat, which he held carelessly in his hand, having taken it off to wipe his heated brow, got knocked down. Before he could rescue it, it was trampled out of shape; not intentionally—they would have protected Lionel and his things with their lives—but inadvertently. A woman picked it up with a comical look of despair. To put on that again, was impossible.
“Never mind,” said Lionel, good-naturedly. “It was my own fault; I should have held it better.”
“Put your handkercher over your head, sir,” was the woman’s advice. “It’ll keep the sun off.”
Lionel smiled, but did not take it. Davies was claiming his attention: while some of the women seemed inclined to go in for a fight, which should get the hat.
“Could Mr. Verner get out o’ doors and look into our grievances, the last years of his life, any more, sir, nor she can?” he was asking, in continuation of the subject. “No, sir; he couldn’t, and he didn’t; but things wasn’t then brought to the pitch as they be now.”
“No,” acquiesced Lionel, “I was at hand then, to interpose between Roy and Mr. Verner.”
“And don’t you think, sir, as you might be able to do the same thing still?”
“No, Davies. I have been displaced from Verner’s Pride, and from all power connected with it. I have no more right to interfere with the working of the estate than you have. You must make the best of things until Mr. Massingbird’s return.”
“There’ll be some dark deed done, then, afore many weeks is gone over; that’s what there’ll be!” was Davies’s sullen reply. “It ain’t to be stood, sir, as a man and his family is to clam, ’cause Peckaby—”
“Davies, I will hear no more on that score,” interrupted Lionel. “You men should be men, and make common cause in that one point for yourselves, against Roy. You have your wages in your hand on a Saturday night, and can deal at any shop you please.”
The man—he wore a battered old straw hat on his head, which looked as dirty as his face—raised his eyes with an air of surprise at Lionel.
“What wages, sir? We don’t get ours.”
“Not get your wages?” repeated Lionel.
“No, sir; not on a Saturday night. That’s just it—it’s where the new shoe’s a-pinching. Roy don’t pay now on a Saturday night. He gives us all a sort o’ note, good for six shilling, and we has, us or our wives, to take that to Peckaby’s, and get what we can for it. On the Monday, at twelve o’clock, which is his new time for paying the wages, he docks us of six shilling. That’s his plan now: and no wonder as some of us has kicked at it, and then he have turned us off. I be one.”
Lionel’s brow burnt; not with the blazing sun, but with indignation. That this should happen on the lands of the Verners! Hot words rose to his lips—to the effect that Roy, as he believed, was acting against the law—but he swallowed them down ere spoken. It might not be expedient to proclaim so much to the men.
“Since when has Roy done this?” he asked. “I am surprised not to have heard it.”
“This six weeks he have done it, sir, and longer nor that. It’s get our things from Peckaby’s, or it’s not get any at all. Folks won’t trust the likes of us, without us goes with the money in our hands. We might have knowed there was some evil in the wind when Peckaby’s took to give us trust. Mr. Verner wasn’t the best of masters to us, after he let Roy get on our backs,—saving your presence for saying it, sir; but you must know as it’s truth,—but there’s things a going on now as ’ud make him, if he knowed ’em, rise up out of his grave. Let Roy take care of hisself, that he don’t get burned up some night in his bed!” significantly added the man.
“Be silent, Davies! You——”
Lionel was interrupted by a commotion. Upon turning to ascertain its cause, he found an excited crowd hastening towards the spot from the brick-fields. The news of the affray had been carried thither, and Roy, with much intemperate language and loud wrath, had set off at full speed to quell it. The labourers set off after him, probably to protect their wives. Shouting, hooting, swearing—at which pastime Roy was the loudest—on they came, in a state of fury.
But for the presence of Lionel Verner, things might have come to a crisis—if a fight could have brought a crisis on. He interposed his authority, which even Roy did not yet dispute to his face, and he succeeded in restoring peace for the time. He became responsible—I don’t know whether it was quite wise of him to do so—for the cost of the broken windows, and the women were allowed to go home unmolested. The men returned to their work, and Mr. Peckaby’s face regained its colour. Roy was turning away, muttering to himself, when Lionel beckoned him aside with an authoritative hand.
“Roy, this must not go on. Do you understand me? It must not go on.”
“What’s not to go on, sir?” retorted Roy, sullenly.
“You know what I mean. This disgraceful system of affairs altogether. I believe that you would be amenable to the law in thus paying the men, or in part paying them, with an order for goods; instead of in open, honest coin. Unless I am mistaken, it borders very closely upon the tally system.”
“I can take care of myself and of the law, too, sir,” was the answer of Roy.
“Very good. I shall take care that this sort of oppression is lifted off the shoulders of the men. Had I known it was being pursued, I should have stopped it before.”
“You have no right to interfere between me and anything now, sir.”
“Roy,” said Lionel, calmly, “you are perfectly well aware that the right, not only to interfere between you and the estate, but to invest me with full power over it and you, was sought to be given me by Mrs. Verner at my uncle’s death. For reasons of my own I chose to decline it, and have continued to decline it. Do you remember what I once told you,—that one of my first acts of power would be to displace you? After what I have seen and heard to-day, I shall deliberate whether it be not my duty to reconsider my determination, and assume this, and all other power.”
Roy’s face turned green. He answered defiantly, not in tone, but in spirit:
“It wouldn’t be for long, at any rate, sir; and Mr. Massingbird, I know, ’ll put me into my place again on his return.”
Lionel did not reply immediately. The sun was coming down upon his uncovered head like a burning furnace, and he was casting a glance round to see if any friendly shade might be at hand. In his absorption over the moment’s business he had not observed that he had halted with Roy right underneath its beams. No, there was no shade just in that spot. A public pump stood behind him, but the sun was nearly vertical, and the pump got as much of it as he did. A thought glanced through Lionel’s mind of resorting to the advice of the women to double his handkerchief cornerwise over his head. But he did not purpose staying above another minute with Roy, to whom he again turned.
“Don’t deceive yourself, Roy. Mr. Massingbird is not likely to countenance such doings as these. That Mrs. Verner will not, I know; and, I tell you plainly, I will not. You shall pay the men’s wages at the proper and usual time; you shall pay them in full, to the last halfpenny that they earn. Do you hear? I order you now to do so. We will have no underhanded tally system introduced on the Verner estate.”
“You’d like to ruin poor Peckaby, I suppose, sir?”
“I have nothing to do with Peckaby. If public rumour is to be credited, the business is not Peckaby’s, but yours—”
“Them that says it is a pack of liars!” burst forth Roy.
“Possibly. I say I have nothing to do with that. If Peckaby—”
Lionel’s voice faltered. An awful pain—a pain, the like of which for acute violence he had never felt—had struck him in the head. He put his hand up to it, and fell against the pump.
“Are you ill, sir?” asked Roy.
“What can it be?” murmured Lionel. “A sudden pain has attacked me here, Roy,” touching his head: “an awful pain. I’ll get into Frost’s, and sit down.”
Frost’s cottage was but a minute’s walk, but Lionel staggered as he went to it. Roy attended him. The man humbly asked if Mr. Lionel would be pleased to lean upon him, but Lionel waved him off. Matthew Frost was sitting indoors alone: his grandchildren were at school, his son’s wife was busy elsewhere. Matthew no longer went out to labour. He had been almost incapable of it before Mr. Verner’s annuity dropped to him. Robin was away at work: but Robin was a sadly altered man since the death of Rachel. His very nature appeared to have changed.
“My head! my head!” broke from Lionel, as he entered, in the intensity of his pain. “Matthew, I think I must have got a sun-stroke.”
Old Matthew pulled off his straw hat, and lifted himself slowly out of his chair: all his movements were slow now. Lionel had sat himself down on the settle, his head clasped by both hands, and his pale face turned to fiery red: as deep a crimson as Mrs. Verner’s was habitually.
“A sun-stroke?” echoed old Matthew, leaning on his stick, as he stood before him, attentively regarding Lionel. “Ay, sir, for sure it looks like it. Have you been standing still in the sun, this blazing day?”
“I have been standing in it without my hat,” replied Lionel. “Not for long, however.”
“It don’t take a minute, sir, to do the mischief. I had one myself, years before you were born, Mr. Lionel. On a day as hot as this, I was out in my garden, here, at the back of this cottage. I had gone out without my hat, and was standing over my pig, watching him eat his wash, when I felt something take my head—such a pain, sir, that I had never felt before, and never wish to feel again. I went indoors, and Robin, who might be a boy of five, or so, looked frightened at me, my face was so red. I couldn’t hold my head up, sir; and when the doctor came, he said it was a sun-stroke. I think there must be particular moments and days when the sun has this power to harm us, though we don’t know which they are, nor how to avoid them,” added old Matthew, as much in self-soliloquy as to Lionel. “I had often been out before, without my hat, in as great heat; for longer, too; and it had never harmed me. Since then, sir, I have put a white handkerchief inside the crown of my hat in hot weather: the doctor told me to.”
“How long did the pain last?” asked Lionel, feeling his pain growing worse with every moment. “Many hours?”
“Hours?” repeated old Matthew, with a strong emphasis on the word. “Mr. Lionel, it lasted for days and weeks. Before the next morning came, sir, I was in a raging fever; for three weeks, good, I was in my bed, above here, and never out of it; hardly the clothes smoothed atop of me. Sun-strokes are not frequent in this climate, sir, but when they do come, they can’t be trifled with.”
Perhaps Lionel felt the same conviction. Perhaps he felt that with this pain, increasing as it was in intensity, he must make the best of his way home, if he would go at all. “Good day, Matthew,” he said, rising from the bench, “I’ll get home at once!”
“And send for Dr. West, sir, or for Mr. Jan, if you are no better when you get there,” was the parting salutation of the old man.
He stood at the door, leaning on his stick, and watched Lionel down Clay Lane. “A sun-stroke, for sure,” repeated he, slowly turning in, as the angle of the lane hid Lionel from his view.
CHAPTER XVI. DAYS AND NIGHTS OF PAIN.
In his darkened chamber at Deerham Court, lay Lionel Verner. Whether it was a sun-stroke, or whether it was but the commencement of a fever which had suddenly struck him down that day, certain it was, that a violent illness attacked him, and he lay for many, many days—days and weeks as old Frost had called it—between life and death. Fever and delirium struggled with life, which should get the mastery.
Very little doubt, was there, that his state of mind increased the danger of his state of body. How bravely Lionel had struggled to do battle with his great pain, he might scarcely have known himself, in all its full intensity, save for this illness. He had loved Sibylla with the pure fervour of feelings young and fresh. He could have loved her to the end of life; he could have died for her. No leaven was mixed with his love; no base dross: it was refined as the purest silver. It is only these exalted, ideal passions, which partake more of heaven’s nature than of earth’s, that tell upon the heart when their end comes. Terribly had it told upon Lionel Verner’s. In one hour he had learnt that Sibylla was false to him, was about to become the wife of another. In his sensitive reticence, in his shrinking pride, he had put a smiling face upon it before the world. He had watched her marry Frederick Massingbird, and had “made no sign.” Deep, deep in his heart, fifty fathom deep, had he pressed down his misery, passing his days in what may be called a false atmosphere—showing a false side to his friends. It seemed false to Lionel, the appearing what he was not. He was his true self at night only, when he could turn, and toss, and groan out his trouble at will. But, when illness attacked him, and he had no strength of body to throw off his pain of mind, then he found how completely the blow had shattered him. It seemed to Lionel, in his sane moments, in the intervals of his delirium, that it would be far happier to die, than to wake up again to renewed life, to bear about within him that ever-present sorrow. Whether the fever—it was not brain fever, though bordering closely upon it—was the result of his state of mind, more than of the sun-stroke, might be a question. Nobody knew anything of that state of mind, and the sun-stroke got all the blame—save, perhaps, from Lionel himself. He may have doubted.
One day Jan called in to see him. It was in August. Several weeks had elapsed since the commencement of his illness, and he was so far recovered as to be removed by day to a sitting-room on a level with his chamber. A wondrously pretty sitting-room over Lady Verner’s drawing-room, but not so large as that, and called “Miss Decima’s room.” The walls were panelled in medallions, white and delicate blue, the curtains were of blue satin and lace, the furniture blue. In each medallion hung an exquisite painting in water colours, framed—Decima’s doing. Lady Verner was one who liked at times to be alone, and then Decima would sit in this room, and feel more at home than in any room in the house. When Lionel began to recover, the room was given over to him. Here he lay on the sofa; or lounged in an easy chair; or stood at the window, his hands clasping hold of some support, and his legs as tottering as were poor old Matthew Frost’s. Sometimes Lady Verner would be his companion, sometimes he would be consigned to Decima and Lucy Tempest. Lucy was pleased to take her share of helping the time to pass; would read to him, or talk to him; or sit down on her low stool on the hearthrug and only look at him, waiting until he should want something done. Dangerous moments, Miss Lucy! Unless your heart shall be cased in adamant, you can scarcely be with that attractive man—ten times more attractive now, in his sickness—and not get your wings singed.
Jan came in one day when Lionel was sitting on the sofa, having propped the cushion up at the back of his head. Decima was winding some silk, and Lucy was holding the skein for her. Lucy wore a summer dress of white muslin, a blue sprig raised upon it in tambour-stitch, with blue and white ribbons at its waist and neck. Very pretty, very simple it looked, but wonderfully according with Lucy Tempest. Jan looked round, saw a tolerably strong table, and took up his seat upon it.”
“How d’ye get on, Lionel?” asked he.
It was Dr. West who attended Lionel, and Jan was tenacious of interfering with the doctor’s proper patients—or, rather, the doctor was tenacious of his doing it—therefore Jan’s visits were entirely unprofessional.
“I don’t get on at all—as it seems to me,” replied Lionel. “I’m sure I am weaker than I was a week ago.”
“I daresay,” said Jan.
“You daresay!” echoed Lionel. “When a man has turned the point of an illness, he expects to get stronger, instead of weaker.”
“That depends,” said Jan. “I beg your pardon, Miss Lucy; that’s my foot caught in your dress, isn’t it?”
Lucy turned to disentangle her dress from Jan’s great feet.
“You should not sway your feet about so, Jan,” said she, pleasantly.
“It hasn’t hurt it, has it?” asked Jan.
“Oh, no. Is there another skein to hold, Decima?”
Decima replied in the negative. She rose, put the paper of silk upon the table, and then turned to Jan.
“I and mamma had quite a contention yesterday,” she said to him. “I say that Lionel is not being treated properly.”
“That’s just my opinion,” laconically replied Jan. “Only West flares up so, if his treatment is called in question. I’d get him well in half the time.”
Lionel wearily changed his position on the sofa. The getting well, or the keeping ill, did not appear to interest him greatly.
“Let’s look at his medicine, Decima,” continued Jan. “I have not seen what has come round lately.”
Decima left the room and brought back a bottle with some medicine in it.
“There’s only one dose left,” she remarked to Jan.
Jan took the cork out and smelt it; then he tasted it, apparently with great gusto, like anybody else might taste port wine; while Lucy watched him, drawing her lips away from her pretty teeth in distaste at the proceeding.
“Psha!” cried Jan.
“Is it not proper medicine for him?” asked Decima.
“It’s as innocent as water,” said Jan. “It’ll do him neither good nor harm.”
And finally Jan poured the lot down his own throat.
“Oh, Jan, how could you take it?”
“It won’t hurt me,” said literal Jan.
“But it must be so nasty! I never could have believed any one would willingly drink medicine. It is bad enough to do it when compelled by sickness.”
“Law!” returned Jan. “If you call this nasty, Miss Lucy, you should taste some of our physic. The smell would about knock you down.”
“I think nothing is worse than the smell of drugs,” resumed Lucy. “The other day, when Lady Verner called in at your surgery to speak to you, and took me with her, I was glad to get into the open air again.”
“Don’t you ever marry a doctor, then, Miss Lucy.”
“I am not going to marry one,” returned Lucy.
“Well, you need not look so fierce,” cried Jan. “I didn’t ask you.” Lucy laughed.
“Did I look fierce, Jan? I suppose I was thinking of the drugs. I’d never never be a surgeon, of all things in the world.”
“If every body was of your mind, Miss Lucy, how would people get doctored?”
“Very true,” answered Lucy. “But I don’t envy them.”
“The doctors or the people?” asked Jan.
“I meant the doctors. But I envy the patients less,” glancing involuntarily towards Lionel as she spoke.
Jan glanced at him too.
“Lionel, I’ll bring you round some better stuff than this,” said he. “What are you eating?”
“Nothing,” put in Decima. “Dr. West keeps him upon arrow root and beef-tea, and such things.”
“Slops,” said Jan, contemptuously. “Have a fowl cooked every day, Lionel, and eat it all if you like, bones and all: or a mutton-chop or two; or some good eels. And have the window open and sit at it; don’t lounge on that sofa, fancying you can’t leave it; and to-morrow or the next day, borrow Mrs. Verner’s carriage—”
“No, thank you,” interposed Lionel.
“Have a fly, then,” composedly went on Jan. “Rouse yourself, and eat and drink, and go into the air, and you’ll soon be as well as I am. It’s the stewing and fretting in-doors, fancying themselves ill, that keeps folks back.”
Something like a sickly smile crossed Lionel’s wan lips.
“Do you remember how you offended your mother, Jan, by telling her she only wanted to rouse herself?”
“Well,” said Jan, “it was the truth. West keeps his patients dilly-dallying on, when he might have them well in no time. If he says anything about them to me, I always tell him so; otherwise I don’t interfere: it’s no business of mine. But you are my brother, you know.”
“Don’t quarrel with West on my account, Jan. Only settle it amicably between you, what I am to do, and what I am to take. I don’t care.”
“Quarrel!” said Jan. “You never knew me to quarrel in your life. West can come and see you as usual, and charge you, if you please; and you can just pour his physic down the sink. I’ll send you some bark: but it’s not of much consequence whether you take it or not; it’s good kitchen physic you want now. Is there anything on your mind that’s keeping you back?” added plain Jan.
A streak of scarlet rose to Lionel’s white cheek.
“Anything on my mind, Jan! I do not understand you.”
“Look here,” said Jan. “If there is nothing, you ought to be better than this by now, in spite of old West. Well, what you have got to do is to rouse yourself, and believe you are well, instead of lying by, here. My mother was angry with me for telling her that, but didn’t she get well all one way after it. And look at the poor. They have their illnesses that bring ’em down to skeletons; but when did you ever find them lie by, after they got better? They can’t; they are obliged to go out and turn-to at work again; and the consequence is they are well in no time. You have your fowl to-day,” continued Jan, taking himself off the table to depart; “or a duck, if you fancy it’s more savoury; and if West comes in while you are eating it, tell him I ordered it. He can’t grumble at me for doctoring you.”
Decima left the room with Jan. Lucy Tempest went to the window, threw it open, drew an easy-chair with its cushions near to it, and then returned to the sofa.
“Will you come to the window?” said she to Lionel. “Jan said you were to, and I have put your chair ready.”
Lionel unclosed his eyelids. “I am better here, child, thank you.”
“But you heard what Jan said—that you were not going the right way to get well.”
“It does not much matter, Lucy, whether I get well, or whether I don’t,” he answered, wearily.
Lucy sat down; not on her favourite stool, but on a low chair, and fixed her eyes upon him gravely.
“Do you know what Mr. Cust would say to that?” she asked. “He would tell you that you were ungrateful to God. You are already half-way towards getting well.”
“I know, Lucy. But I am nearly tired of life.”
“It is only the very old who say that, or ought to say it. I am not sure that they ought—even if they were a hundred. But you are young. Stay! I will find it for you.”
He was searching about for his handkerchief. Lucy found it, fallen on the floor at the back of the sofa. She brought it round to him, and he gently laid hold of her hand as he took it.
“My little friend, you have yet to learn that things, not years, tire us of life.”
Lucy shook her head.
“No; I have not to learn it. I know it must be so. Will you please to come to the window?”
Lionel, partly because his tormentor—(may the word be used? he was sick, bodily and mentally, and would have lain still for ever)—was a young lady, partly to avoid the trouble of persisting in “No,” rose, and took his seat in the arm-chair.
“What an obstinate nurse you would make, Lucy! Is there anything else, pray, that you wish me to do?”
She did not smile in response to his smile; she looked very grave and serious.
“I would do all that Jan says, were I you,” was her answer. “I believe in Jan. He will get you well sooner than Dr. West.”
“Believe in Jan?” repeated Lionel, willing to be gay if he could. “Do you mean that Jan is Jan?”
“I mean that I have faith in Jan. I have none in Dr. West.”
“In his medical skill? Let me tell you, Lucy, he is a very clever man, in spite of what Jan may say.”
“I can’t tell anything about his skill. Until Jan spoke now I did not know but he was treating you rightly. But I have no faith in himself. I think a good, true, faithful-natured man should be depended on for cure, more certainly than one who is false-natured.”
“False-natured!” echoed Lionel. “Lucy, you should not so speak of Dr. West. You know nothing wrong of Dr. West. He is much esteemed among us at Deerham.”
“Of course I know nothing wrong of him,” returned Lucy with some slight surprise. “But when I look at people I always seem to know what they are. I am sorry to have said so much. I—I think I forgot it was to you that I spoke.”
“Forgot!” exclaimed Lionel. “Forgot what?”
She had hesitated at the last sentence, and she now blushed vividly.
“I forgot for the moment that he was Sibylla’s father,” she simply said.
Again the scarlet rose in the face of Lionel. Lucy stood against the window-frame but a few paces from him, her large soft eyes, in their earnest sympathy, lifted to his. He positively shrunk from them.
“What’s Sibylla to me?” he asked. “She is Mrs. Frederick Massingbird.”
Lucy stood in penitence.
“Do not be angry with me,” she timidly cried. “I ought not to have said it to you, perhaps. I see it always.”
“See what, Lucy?” he continued, speaking gently, not in anger.
“I see how much you think of her, and how ill it makes you. When Jan asked just now if you had anything on your mind to keep you back, I knew what it was.”
Lionel grew hot and cold with a sudden fear.
“Did I say anything in my delirium?”
“Nothing at all—that I heard of. I was not with you. I do not think anybody suspects that you are ill because—because of her.”
“Ill because of her!” he sharply repeated; the words breaking from him in his agony, in his shrinking dread at finding so much suspected. “I am ill from fever. What else should I be ill from?”
Lucy went close to his chair, and stood before him meekly.
“I am so sorry,” she whispered. “I cannot help seeing things, but I did not mean to make you angry.”
He rose, steadying himself by the table, and laid his hand upon her head, with the same fond motion that a father might have used.
“Lucy, I am not angry. Only vexed at being watched so closely,” he concluded, his lips parting with a faint smile.
In her earnest, truthful, serious face of concern, as it was turned up to him, he read how futile it would be to persist in his denial.
“I did not watch you for the purpose of watching. I saw how it was, without being able to help myself.”
Lionel bent his head.
“Let the secret remain between us, Lucy. Never suffer a hint of it to escape your lips.”
Nothing answered him save the glad expression that beamed out from her countenance, telling him how implicitly he might trust to her.