My Convalescent Home
The man Braithwaite met me at the station with a spring cart. The very porters seemed to expect me, and my luggage was in the cart before I had given up my ticket. Nor had we started when I first noticed that Braithwaite did not speak when I spoke to him. On the way, however, a more flagrant instance recalled young Rattray's remark, that the man was "not like other people." I had imagined it to refer to a mental, not a physical, defect; whereas it was clear to me now that my prospective landlord was stone-deaf, and I presently discovered him to be dumb as well. Thereafter I studied him with some attention during our drive of four or five miles. I called to mind the theory that an innate physical deficiency is seldom without its moral counterpart, and I wondered how far this would apply to the deaf-mute at my side, who was ill-grown, wizened, and puny into the bargain. The brow-beaten face of him was certainly forbidding, and he thrashed his horse up the hills in a dogged, vindictive, thorough-going way which at length made me jump out and climb one of them on foot. It was the only form of protest that occurred to me.
The evening was damp and thick. It melted into night as we drove. I could form no impression of the country, but this seemed desolate enough. I believe we met no living soul on the high road which we followed for the first three miles or more. At length we turned into a narrow lane, with a stiff stone wall on either hand, and this eventually led us past the lights of what appeared to be a large farm; it was really a small hamlet; and now we were nearing our destination. Gates had to be opened, and my poor driver breathed hard from the continual getting down and up. In the end a long and heavy cart-track brought us to the loneliest light that I have ever seen. It shone on the side of a hill - in the heart of an open wilderness - as solitary as a beacon-light at sea. It was the light of the cottage which was to be my temporary home.
A very tall, gaunt woman stood in the doorway against the inner glow. She advanced with a loose, long stride, and invited me to enter in a voice harsh (I took it) from disuse. I was warming myself before the kitchen fire when she came in carrying my heaviest box as though it had nothing in it. I ran to take it from her, for the box was full of books, but she shook her head, and was on the stairs with it before I could intercept her.
I conceive that very few men are attracted by abnormal strength in a woman; we cannot help it; and yet it was not her strength which first repelled me in Mrs. Braithwaite. It was a combination of attributes. She had a poll of very dirty and untidy red hair; her eyes were set close together; she had the jowl of the traditional prize-fighter. But far more disagreeable than any single feature was the woman's expression, or rather the expression which I caught her assuming naturally, and banishing with an effort for my benefit. To me she was strenuously civil in her uncouth way. But I saw her give her husband one look, as he staggered in with my comparatively light portmanteau, which she instantly snatched out of his feeble arms. I saw this look again before the evening was out, and it was such a one as Braithwaite himself had fixed upon his horse as he flogged it up the hills.
I began to wonder how the young squire had found it in his conscience to recommend such a pair. I wondered less when the woman finally ushered me upstairs to my rooms. These were small and rugged, but eminently snug and clean. In each a good fire blazed cheerfully; my portmanteau was already unstrapped, the table in the sitting-room already laid; and I could not help looking twice at the silver and the glass, so bright was their condition, so good their quality. Mrs. Braithwaite watched me from the door.
"I doubt you'll be thinking them's our own," said she. "I wish they were; t'squire sent 'em in this afternoon."
"For my use?"
"Ay; I doubt he thought what we had ourselves wasn't good enough. An' it's him 'at sent t' armchair, t'bed-linen, t'bath, an' that there lookin'-glass an' all."
She had followed me into the bedroom, where I looked with redoubled interest at each object as she mentioned it, and it was in the glass
- a masqueline shaving-glass - that I caught my second glimpse of my landlady's evil expression - levelled this time at myself.
I instantly turned round and told her that I thought it very kind of Mr. Rattray, but that, for my part, I was not a luxurious man, and that I felt rather sorry the matter had not been left entirely in her hands. She retired seemingly mollified, and she took my sympathy with her, though I was none the less pleased and cheered by my new friend's zeal for my comfort; there were even flowers on my table, without a doubt from Kirby Hall.
And in another matter the squire had not misled me: the woman was an excellent plain cook. I expected ham and eggs. Sure enough, this was my dish, but done to a turn. The eggs were new and all unbroken, the ham so lean and yet so tender, that I would not have exchanged my humble, hearty meal for the best dinner served that night in London. It made a new man of me, after my long journey and my cold, damp drive. I was for chatting with Mrs. Braithwaite when she came up to clear away. I thought she might be glad to talk after the life she must lead with her afflicted husband, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect on her. All I elicited was an ambiguous statement as to the distance between the cottage and the hall; it was "not so far." And so she left me to my pipe and to my best night yet, in the stillest spot I have ever slept in on dry land; one heard nothing but the bubble of a beck; and it seemed very, very far away.
A fine, bright morning showed me my new surroundings in their true colors; even in the sunshine these were not very gay. But gayety was the last thing I wanted. Peace and quiet were my whole desire, and both were here, set in scenery at once lovely to the eye and bracing to the soul.
>From the cottage doorstep one looked upon a perfect panorama of healthy, open English country. Purple hills hemmed in a broad, green, undulating plateau, scored across and across by the stone walls of the north, and all dappled with the shadows of rolling leaden clouds with silver fringes. Miles away a church spire stuck like a spike out of the hollow, and the smoke of a village dimmed the trees behind. No nearer habitation could I see. I have mentioned a hamlet which we passed in the spring-cart. It lay hidden behind some hillocks to the left. My landlady told me it was better than half a mile away, and "nothing when you get there; no shop; no post-office; not even a public - house."
I inquired in which direction lay the hall. She pointed to the nearest trees, a small forest of stunted oaks, which shut in the view to the right, after quarter of a mile of a bare and rugged valley. Through this valley twisted the beck which I had heard faintly in the night. It ran through the oak plantation and so to the sea, some two or three miles further on, said my landlady; but nobody would have thought it was so near.
"T'squire was to be away to-day," observed the woman, with the broad vowel sound which I shall not attempt to reproduce in print. "He was going to Lancaster, I believe."
"So I understood," said I. "I didn't think of troubling him, if that's what you mean. I'm going to take his advice and fish the beck."
And I proceeded to do so after a hearty early dinner: the keen, chill air was doing me good already: the "perfect quiet" was finding its way into my soul. I blessed my specialist, I blessed Squire Rattray, I blessed the very villains who had brought us within each other's ken; and nowhere was my thanksgiving more fervent than in the deep cleft threaded by the beck; for here the shrewd yet gentle wind passed completely overhead, and the silence was purged of oppression by the ceaseless symphony of clear water running over clean stones.
But it was no day for fishing, and no place for the fly, though I went through the form of throwing one for several hours. Here the stream merely rinsed its bed, there it stood so still, in pools of liquid amber, that, when the sun shone, the very pebbles showed their shadows in the deepest places. Of course I caught nothing; but, towards the close of the gold-brown afternoon, I made yet another new acquaintance, in the person of a little old clergyman who attacked me pleasantly from the rear.
"Bad day for fishing, sir," croaked the cheery voice which first informed me of his presence. "Ah, I knew it must be a stranger," he cried as I turned and he hopped down to my side with the activity of a much younger man.
"Yes," I said, "I only came down from London yesterday. I find the spot so delightful that I haven't bothered much about the sport. Still, I've had about enough of it now." And I prepared to take my rod to pieces.
"Spot and sport!" laughed the old gentleman. "Didn't mean it for a pun, I hope? Never could endure puns! So you came down yesterday, young gentleman, did you? And where may you be staying?"
I described the position of my cottage without the slightest hesitation; for this parson did not scare me; except in appearance he had so little in common with his type as I knew it. He had, however, about the shrewdest pair of eyes that I have ever seen, and my answer only served to intensify their open scrutiny.
"How on earth did you come to hear of a God-forsaken place like this?" said he, making use, I thought, of a somewhat stronger expression than quite became his cloth.
"Squire Rattray told me of it," said I.
"Ha! So you're a friend of his, are you?" And his eyes went through and through me like knitting-needles through a ball of wool.
"I could hardly call myself that," said I. "But Mr. Rattray has been very kind to me."
"Meet him in town?"
I said I had, but I said it with some coolness, for his tone had dropped into the confidential, and I disliked it as much as this string of questions from a stranger.
"Long ago, sir?" he pursued.
"No, sir; not long ago," I retorted.
"May I ask your name?" said he.
"You may ask what you like," I cried, with a final reversal of all my first impressions of this impertinent old fellow; "but I'm hanged if I tell it you! I am here for rest and quiet, sir. I don't ask you your name. I can't for the life of me see what right you have to ask me mine, or to question me at all, for that matter."
He favored me with a brief glance of extraordinary suspicion. It faded away in mere surprise, and, next instant, my elderly and reverend friend was causing me some compunction by coloring like a boy.
"You may think my curiosity mere impertinence, sir," said he; "you would think otherwise if you knew as much as I do of Squire Rattray's friends, and how little you resemble the generality of them. You might even feel some sympathy for one of the neighboring clergy, to whom this godless young man has been for years as a thorn in their side."
He spoke so gravely, and what he said was so easy to believe, that I could not but apologize for my hasty words.
"Don't name it, sir," said the clergyman; "you had a perfect right to resent my questions, and I enjoy meeting young men of spirit; but not when it's an evil spirit, such as, I fear, possesses your friend! I do assure you, sir, that the best thing I have heard of him for years is the very little that you have told me. As a rule, to hear of him at all in this part of the world, is to wish that we had not heard. I see him coming, however, and shall detain you no longer, for I don't deny that there is no love lost between us."
I looked round, and there was Rattray on the top of the bank, a long way to the left, coming towards me with a waving hat. An extraordinary ejaculation brought me to the right-about next instant.
The old clergyman had slipped on a stone in mid-stream, and, as he dragged a dripping leg up the opposite bank, he had sworn an oath worthy of the "godless young man" who had put him to flight, and on whose demerits he had descanted with so much eloquence and indignation.Next