Life's Little Ironies and a Few Crusted Characters
Thomas Hardy

Part 5 out of 5

of thoughtlessness than cruelty, and the child went. On his way back
he had to pass through Yalbury Wood, and something came out from
behind a tree and frightened him into fits. The child was quite
ruined by it; he became quite a drivelling idiot, and soon afterward

'Then the other woman had nothing left to live for, and vowed
vengeance against that rival who had first won away her lover, and
now had been the cause of her bereavement. This last affliction was
certainly not intended by her thriving acquaintance, though it must
be owned that when it was done she seemed but little concerned.
Whatever vengeance poor Mrs. Palmley felt, she had no opportunity of
carrying it out, and time might have softened her feelings into
forgetfulness of her supposed wrongs as she dragged on her lonely
life. So matters stood when, a year after the death of the child,
Mrs. Palmley's niece, who had been born and bred in the city of
Exonbury, came to live with her.

'This young woman--Miss Harriet Palmley--was a proud and handsome
girl, very well brought up, and more stylish and genteel than the
people of our village, as was natural, considering where she came
from. She regarded herself as much above Mrs. Winter and her son in
position as Mrs. Winter and her son considered themselves above poor
Mrs. Palmley. But love is an unceremonious thing, and what in the
world should happen but that young Jack Winter must fall wofully and
wildly in love with Harriet Palmley almost as soon as he saw her.

'She, being better educated than he, and caring nothing for the
village notion of his mother's superiority to her aunt, did not give
him much encouragement. But Longpuddle being no very large world,
the two could not help seeing a good deal of each other while she was
staying there, and, disdainful young woman as she was, she did seem
to take a little pleasure in his attentions and advances.

'One day when they were picking apples together, he asked her to
marry him. She had not expected anything so practical as that at so
early a time, and was led by her surprise into a half-promise; at any
rate she did not absolutely refuse him, and accepted some little
presents that he made her.

'But he saw that her view of him was rather as a simple village lad
than as a young man to look up to, and he felt that he must do
something bold to secure her. So he said one day, "I am going away,
to try to get into a better position than I can get here." In two or
three weeks he wished her good-bye, and went away to Monksbury, to
superintend a farm, with a view to start as a farmer himself; and
from there he wrote regularly to her, as if their marriage were an
understood thing.

'Now Harriet liked the young man's presents and the admiration of his
eyes; but on paper he was less attractive to her. Her mother had
been a school-mistress, and Harriet had besides a natural aptitude
for pen-and-ink work, in days when to be a ready writer was not such
a common thing as it is now, and when actual handwriting was valued
as an accomplishment in itself. Jack Winter's performances in the
shape of love-letters quite jarred her city nerves and her finer
taste, and when she answered one of them, in the lovely running hand
that she took such pride in, she very strictly and loftily bade him
to practise with a pen and spelling-book if he wished to please her.
Whether he listened to her request or not nobody knows, but his
letters did not improve. He ventured to tell her in his clumsy way
that if her heart were more warm towards him she would not be so nice
about his handwriting and spelling; which indeed was true enough.

'Well, in Jack's absence the weak flame that had been set alight in
Harriet's heart soon sank low, and at last went out altogether. He
wrote and wrote, and begged and prayed her to give a reason for her
coldness; and then she told him plainly that she was town born, and
he was not sufficiently well educated to please her.

'Jack Winter's want of pen-and-ink training did not make him less
thin-skinned than others; in fact, he was terribly tender and touchy
about anything. This reason that she gave for finally throwing him
over grieved him, shamed him, and mortified him more than can be told
in these times, the pride of that day in being able to write with
beautiful flourishes, and the sorrow at not being able to do so,
raging so high. Jack replied to her with an angry note, and then she
hit back with smart little stings, telling him how many words he had
misspelt in his last letter, and declaring again that this alone was
sufficient justification for any woman to put an end to an
understanding with him. Her husband must be a better scholar.

'He bore her rejection of him in silence, but his suffering was
sharp--all the sharper in being untold. She communicated with Jack
no more; and as his reason for going out into the world had been only
to provide a home worthy of her, he had no further object in planning
such a home now that she was lost to him. He therefore gave up the
farming occupation by which he had hoped to make himself a master-
farmer, and left the spot to return to his mother.

'As soon as he got back to Longpuddle he found that Harriet had
already looked wi' favour upon another lover. He was a young road-
contractor, and Jack could not but admit that his rival was both in
manners and scholarship much ahead of him. Indeed, a more sensible
match for the beauty who had been dropped into the village by fate
could hardly have been found than this man, who could offer her so
much better a chance than Jack could have done, with his uncertain
future and narrow abilities for grappling with the world. The fact
was so clear to him that he could hardly blame her.

'One day by accident Jack saw on a scrap of paper the handwriting of
Harriet's new beloved. It was flowing like a stream, well spelt, the
work of a man accustomed to the ink-bottle and the dictionary, of a
man already called in the parish a good scholar. And then it struck
all of a sudden into Jack's mind what a contrast the letters of this
young man must make to his own miserable old letters, and how
ridiculous they must make his lines appear. He groaned and wished he
had never written to her, and wondered if she had ever kept his poor
performances. Possibly she had kept them, for women are in the habit
of doing that, he thought, and whilst they were in her hands there
was always a chance of his honest, stupid love-assurances to her
being joked over by Harriet with her present lover, or by anybody who
should accidentally uncover them.

'The nervous, moody young man could not bear the thought of it, and
at length decided to ask her to return them, as was proper when
engagements were broken off. He was some hours in framing, copying,
and recopying the short note in which he made his request, and having
finished it he sent it to her house. His messenger came back with
the answer, by word of mouth, that Miss Palmley bade him say she
should not part with what was hers, and wondered at his boldness in
troubling her.

'Jack was much affronted at this, and determined to go for his
letters himself. He chose a time when he knew she was at home, and
knocked and went in without much ceremony; for though Harriet was so
high and mighty, Jack had small respect for her aunt, Mrs. Palmley,
whose little child had been his boot-cleaner in earlier days.
Harriet was in the room, this being the first time they had met since
she had jilted him. He asked for his letters with a stern and bitter
look at her.

'At first she said he might have them for all that she cared, and
took them out of the bureau where she kept them. Then she glanced
over the outside one of the packet, and suddenly altering her mind,
she told him shortly that his request was a silly one, and slipped
the letters into her aunt's work-box, which stood open on the table,
locking it, and saying with a bantering laugh that of course she
thought it best to keep 'em, since they might be useful to produce as
evidence that she had good cause for declining to marry him.

'He blazed up hot. "Give me those letters!" he said. "They are

'"No, they are not," she replied; "they are mine."

'"Whos'ever they are I want them back," says he. "I don't want to be
made sport of for my penmanship: you've another young man now! he
has your confidence, and you pour all your tales into his ear.
You'll be showing them to him!"

'"Perhaps," said my lady Harriet, with calm coolness, like the
heartless woman that she was.

'Her manner so maddened him that he made a step towards the work-box,
but she snatched it up, locked it in the bureau, and turned upon him
triumphant. For a moment he seemed to be going to wrench the key of
the bureau out of her hand; but he stopped himself, and swung round
upon his heel and went away.

'When he was out-of-doors alone, and it got night, he walked about
restless, and stinging with the sense of being beaten at all points
by her. He could not help fancying her telling her new lover or her
acquaintances of this scene with himself, and laughing with them over
those poor blotted, crooked lines of his that he had been so anxious
to obtain. As the evening passed on he worked himself into a dogged
resolution to have them back at any price, come what might.

'At the dead of night he came out of his mother's house by the back
door, and creeping through the garden hedge went along the field
adjoining till he reached the back of her aunt's dwelling. The moon
struck bright and flat upon the walls, 'twas said, and every shiny
leaf of the creepers was like a little looking-glass in the rays.
From long acquaintance Jack knew the arrangement and position of
everything in Mrs. Palmley's house as well as in his own mother's.
The back window close to him was a casement with little leaded
squares, as it is to this day, and was, as now, one of two lighting
the sitting-room. The other, being in front, was closed up with
shutters, but this back one had not even a blind, and the moonlight
as it streamed in showed every article of the furniture to him
outside. To the right of the room is the fireplace, as you may
remember; to the left was the bureau at that time; inside the bureau
was Harriet's work-box, as he supposed (though it was really her
aunt's), and inside the work-box were his letters. Well, he took out
his pocket-knife, and without noise lifted the leading of one of the
panes, so that he could take out the glass, and putting his hand
through the hole he unfastened the casement, and climbed in through
the opening. All the household--that is to say, Mrs. Palmley,
Harriet, and the little maid-servant--were asleep. Jack went
straight to the bureau, so he said, hoping it might have been
unfastened again--it not being kept locked in ordinary--but Harriet
had never unfastened it since she secured her letters there the day
before. Jack told afterward how he thought of her asleep upstairs,
caring nothing for him, and of the way she had made sport of him and
of his letters; and having advanced so far, he was not to be hindered
now. By forcing the large blade of his knife under the flap of the
bureau, he burst the weak lock; within was the rosewood work-box just
as she had placed it in her hurry to keep it from him. There being
no time to spare for getting the letters out of it then, he took it
under his arm, shut the bureau, and made the best of his way out of
the house, latching the casement behind him, and refixing the pane of
glass in its place.

'Winter found his way back to his mother's as he had come, and being
dog-tired, crept upstairs to bed, hiding the box till he could
destroy its contents. The next morning early he set about doing
this, and carried it to the linhay at the back of his mother's
dwelling. Here by the hearth he opened the box, and began burning
one by one the letters that had cost him so much labour to write and
shame to think of, meaning to return the box to Harriet, after
repairing the slight damage he had caused it by opening it without a
key, with a note--the last she would ever receive from him--telling
her triumphantly that in refusing to return what he had asked for she
had calculated too surely upon his submission to her whims.

'But on removing the last letter from the box he received a shock;
for underneath it, at the very bottom, lay money--several golden
guineas--"Doubtless Harriet's pocket-money," he said to himself;
though it was not, but Mrs. Palmley's. Before he had got over his
qualms at this discovery he heard footsteps coming through the house-
passage to where he was. In haste he pushed the box and what was in
it under some brushwood which lay in the linhay; but Jack had been
already seen. Two constables entered the out-house, and seized him
as he knelt before the fireplace, securing the work-box and all it
contained at the same moment. They had come to apprehend him on a
charge of breaking into the dwelling-house of Mrs. Palmley on the
night preceding; and almost before the lad knew what had happened to
him they were leading him along the lane that connects that end of
the village with this turnpike-road, and along they marched him
between 'em all the way to Casterbridge jail.

'Jack's act amounted to night burglary--though he had never thought
of it--and burglary was felony, and a capital offence in those days.
His figure had been seen by some one against the bright wall as he
came away from Mrs. Palmley's back window, and the box and money were
found in his possession, while the evidence of the broken bureau-lock
and tinkered window-pane was more than enough for circumstantial
detail. Whether his protestation that he went only for his letters,
which he believed to be wrongfully kept from him, would have availed
him anything if supported by other evidence I do not know; but the
one person who could have borne it out was Harriet, and she acted
entirely under the sway of her aunt. That aunt was deadly towards
Jack Winter. Mrs. Palmley's time had come. Here was her revenge
upon the woman who had first won away her lover, and next ruined and
deprived her of her heart's treasure--her little son. When the
assize week drew on, and Jack had to stand his trial, Harriet did not
appear in the case at all, which was allowed to take its course, Mrs.
Palmley testifying to the general facts of the burglary. Whether
Harriet would have come forward if Jack had appealed to her is not
known; possibly she would have done it for pity's sake; but Jack was
too proud to ask a single favour of a girl who had jilted him; and he
let her alone. The trial was a short one, and the death sentence was

'The day o' young Jack's execution was a cold dusty Saturday in
March. He was so boyish and slim that they were obliged in mercy to
hang him in the heaviest fetters kept in the jail, lest his heft
should not break his neck, and they weighed so upon him that he could
hardly drag himself up to the drop. At that time the gover'ment was
not strict about burying the body of an executed person within the
precincts of the prison, and at the earnest prayer of his poor mother
his body was allowed to be brought home. All the parish waited at
their cottage doors in the evening for its arrival: I remember how,
as a very little girl, I stood by my mother's side. About eight
o'clock, as we hearkened on our door-stones in the cold bright
starlight, we could hear the faint crackle of a waggon from the
direction of the turnpike-road. The noise was lost as the waggon
dropped into a hollow, then it was plain again as it lumbered down
the next long incline, and presently it entered Longpuddle. The
coffin was laid in the belfry for the night, and the next day,
Sunday, between the services, we buried him. A funeral sermon was
preached the same afternoon, the text chosen being, "He was the only
son of his mother, and she was a widow." . . . Yes, they were cruel

'As for Harriet, she and her lover were married in due time; but by
all account her life was no jocund one. She and her good-man found
that they could not live comfortably at Longpuddle, by reason of her
connection with Jack's misfortunes, and they settled in a distant
town, and were no more heard of by us; Mrs. Palmley, too, found it
advisable to join 'em shortly after. The dark-eyed, gaunt old Mrs.
Winter, remembered by the emigrant gentleman here, was, as you will
have foreseen, the Mrs. Winter of this story; and I can well call to
mind how lonely she was, how afraid the children were of her, and how
she kept herself as a stranger among us, though she lived so long.'

'Longpuddle has had her sad experiences as well as her sunny ones,'
said Mr. Lackland.

'Yes, yes. But I am thankful to say not many like that, though good
and bad have lived among us.'

'There was Georgy Crookhill--he was one of the shady sort, as I have
reason to know,' observed the registrar, with the manner of a man who
would like to have his say also.

'I used to hear what he was as a boy at school.'

'Well, as he began so he went on. It never got so far as a hanging
matter with him, to be sure; but he had some narrow escapes of penal
servitude; and once it was a case of the biter bit.'


'One day,' the registrar continued, 'Georgy was ambling out of
Melchester on a miserable screw, the fair being just over, when he
saw in front of him a fine-looking young farmer riding out of the
town in the same direction. He was mounted on a good strong handsome
animal, worth fifty guineas if worth a crown. When they were going
up Bissett Hill, Georgy made it his business to overtake the young
farmer. They passed the time o' day to one another; Georgy spoke of
the state of the roads, and jogged alongside the well-mounted
stranger in very friendly conversation. The farmer had not been
inclined to say much to Georgy at first, but by degrees he grew quite
affable too--as friendly as Georgy was toward him. He told Crookhill
that he had been doing business at Melchester fair, and was going on
as far as Shottsford-Forum that night, so as to reach Casterbridge
market the next day. When they came to Woodyates Inn they stopped to
bait their horses, and agreed to drink together; with this they got
more friendly than ever, and on they went again. Before they had
nearly reached Shottsford it came on to rain, and as they were now
passing through the village of Trantridge, and it was quite dark,
Georgy persuaded the young farmer to go no further that night; the
rain would most likely give them a chill. For his part he had heard
that the little inn here was comfortable, and he meant to stay. At
last the young farmer agreed to put up there also; and they
dismounted, and entered, and had a good supper together, and talked
over their affairs like men who had known and proved each other a
long time. When it was the hour for retiring they went upstairs to a
double-bedded room which Georgy Crookhill had asked the landlord to
let them share, so sociable were they.

'Before they fell asleep they talked across the room about one thing
and another, running from this to that till the conversation turned
upon disguises, and changing clothes for particular ends. The farmer
told Georgy that he had often heard tales of people doing it; but
Crookhill professed to be very ignorant of all such tricks; and soon
the young farmer sank into slumber.

'Early in the morning, while the tall young farmer was still asleep
(I tell the story as 'twas told me), honest Georgy crept out of his
bed by stealth, and dressed himself in the farmer's clothes, in the
pockets of the said clothes being the farmer's money. Now though
Georgy particularly wanted the farmer's nice clothes and nice horse,
owing to a little transaction at the fair which made it desirable
that he should not be too easily recognized, his desires had their
bounds: he did not wish to take his young friend's money, at any
rate more of it than was necessary for paying his bill. This he
abstracted, and leaving the farmer's purse containing the rest on the
bedroom table, went downstairs. The inn folks had not particularly
noticed the faces of their customers, and the one or two who were up
at this hour had no thought but that Georgy was the farmer; so when
he had paid the bill very liberally, and said he must be off, no
objection was made to his getting the farmer's horse saddled for
himself; and he rode away upon it as if it were his own.

'About half an hour after the young farmer awoke, and looking across
the room saw that his friend Georgy had gone away in clothes which
didn't belong to him, and had kindly left for himself the seedy ones
worn by Georgy. At this he sat up in a deep thought for some time,
instead of hastening to give an alarm. "The money, the money is
gone," he said to himself, "and that's bad. But so are the clothes."

'He then looked upon the table and saw that the money, or most of it,
had been left behind.

'"Ha, ha, ha!" he cried, and began to dance about the room. "Ha, ha,
ha!" he said again, and made beautiful smiles to himself in the
shaving glass and in the brass candlestick; and then swung about his
arms for all the world as if he were going through the sword

'When he had dressed himself in Georgy's clothes and gone downstairs,
he did not seem to mind at all that they took him for the other; and
even when he saw that he had been left a bad horse for a good one, he
was not inclined to cry out. They told him his friend had paid the
bill, at which he seemed much pleased, and without waiting for
breakfast he mounted Georgy's horse and rode away likewise, choosing
the nearest by-lane in preference to the high-road, without knowing
that Georgy had chosen that by-lane also.

'He had not trotted more than two miles in the personal character of
Georgy Crookhill when, suddenly rounding a bend that the lane made
thereabout, he came upon a man struggling in the hands of two village
constables. It was his friend Georgy, the borrower of his clothes
and horse. But so far was the young farmer from showing any alacrity
in rushing forward to claim his property that he would have turned
the poor beast he rode into the wood adjoining, if he had not been
already perceived.

'"Help, help, help!" cried the constables. "Assistance in the name
of the Crown!"

'The young farmer could do nothing but ride forward. "What's the
matter?" he inquired, as coolly as he could.

'"A deserter--a deserter!" said they. "One who's to be tried by
court-martial and shot without parley. He deserted from the Dragoons
at Cheltenham some days ago, and was tracked; but the search-party
can't find him anywhere, and we told 'em if we met him we'd hand him
on to 'em forthwith. The day after he left the barracks the rascal
met a respectable farmer and made him drunk at an inn, and told him
what a fine soldier he would make, and coaxed him to change clothes,
to see how well a military uniform would become him. This the simple
farmer did; when our deserter said that for a joke he would leave the
room and go to the landlady, to see if she would know him in that
dress. He never came back, and Farmer Jollice found himself in
soldier's clothes, the money in his pockets gone, and, when he got to
the stable, his horse gone too."

'"A scoundrel!" says the young man in Georgy's clothes. "And is this
the wretched caitiff?" (pointing to Georgy).

'"No, no!" cries Georgy, as innocent as a babe of this matter of the
soldier's desertion. "He's the man! He was wearing Farmer Jollice's
suit o' clothes, and he slept in the same room wi' me, and brought up
the subject of changing clothes, which put it into my head to dress
myself in his suit before he was awake. He's got on mine!"

'"D'ye hear the villain?" groans the tall young man to the
constables. "Trying to get out of his crime by charging the first
innocent man with it that he sees! No, master soldier--that won't

'"No, no! That won't do!" the constables chimed in. "To have the
impudence to say such as that, when we caught him in the act almost!
But, thank God, we've got the handcuffs on him at last."

'"We have, thank God," said the tall young man. "Well, I must move
on. Good luck to ye with your prisoner!" And off he went, as fast
as his poor jade would carry him.

'The constables then, with Georgy handcuffed between 'em, and leading
the horse, marched off in the other direction, toward the village
where they had been accosted by the escort of soldiers sent to bring
the deserter back, Georgy groaning: "I shall be shot, I shall be
shot!" They had not gone more than a mile before they met them.

'"Hoi, there!" says the head constable.

'"Hoi, yerself!" says the corporal in charge.

'"We've got your man," says the constable.

'"Where?" says the corporal.

'"Here, between us," said the constable. "Only you don't recognize
him out o' uniform."

'The corporal looked at Georgy hard enough; then shook his head and
said he was not the absconder.

'"But the absconder changed clothes with Farmer Jollice, and took his
horse; and this man has 'em, d'ye see!"

'"'Tis not our man," said the soldiers. "He's a tall young fellow
with a mole on his right cheek, and a military bearing, which this
man decidedly has not."

'"I told the two officers of justice that 'twas the other!" pleaded
Georgy. "But they wouldn't believe me."

'And so it became clear that the missing dragoon was the tall young
farmer, and not Georgy Crookhill--a fact which Farmer Jollice himself
corroborated when he arrived on the scene. As Georgy had only robbed
the robber, his sentence was comparatively light. The deserter from
the Dragoons was never traced: his double shift of clothing having
been of the greatest advantage to him in getting off; though he left
Georgy's horse behind him a few miles ahead, having found the poor
creature more hindrance than aid.'

The man from abroad seemed to be less interested in the questionable
characters of Longpuddle and their strange adventures than in the
ordinary inhabitants and the ordinary events, though his local
fellow-travellers preferred the former as subjects of discussion. He
now for the first time asked concerning young persons of the opposite
sex--or rather those who had been young when he left his native land.
His informants, adhering to their own opinion that the remarkable was
better worth telling than the ordinary, would not allow him to dwell
upon the simple chronicles of those who had merely come and gone.
They asked him if he remembered Netty Sargent.

'Netty Sargent--I do, just remember her. She was a young woman
living with her uncle when I left, if my childish recollection may be

'That was the maid. She was a oneyer, if you like, sir. Not any
harm in her, you know, but up to everything. You ought to hear how
she got the copyhold of her house extended. Oughtn't he, Mr. Day?'

'He ought,' replied the world-ignored old painter.

'Tell him, Mr. Day. Nobody can do it better than you, and you know
the legal part better than some of us.'

Day apologized, and began:-


'She continued to live with her uncle, in the lonely house by the
copse, just as at the time you knew her; a tall spry young woman.
Ah, how well one can remember her black hair and dancing eyes at that
time, and her sly way of screwing up her mouth when she meant to
tease ye! Well, she was hardly out of short frocks before the chaps
were after her, and by long and by late she was courted by a young
man whom perhaps you did not know--Jasper Cliff was his name--and,
though she might have had many a better fellow, he so greatly took
her fancy that 'twas Jasper or nobody for her. He was a selfish
customer, always thinking less of what he was going to do than of
what he was going to gain by his doings. Jasper's eyes might have
been fixed upon Netty, but his mind was upon her uncle's house;
though he was fond of her in his way--I admit that.

'This house, built by her great-great-grandfather, with its garden
and little field, was copyhold--granted upon lives in the old way,
and had been so granted for generations. Her uncle's was the last
life upon the property; so that at his death, if there was no
admittance of new lives, it would all fall into the hands of the lord
of the manor. But 'twas easy to admit--a slight "fine," as 'twas
called, of a few pounds, was enough to entitle him to a new deed o'
grant by the custom of the manor; and the lord could not hinder it.

'Now there could be no better provision for his niece and only
relative than a sure house over her head, and Netty's uncle should
have seen to the renewal in time, owing to the peculiar custom of
forfeiture by the dropping of the last life before the new fine was
paid; for the Squire was very anxious to get hold of the house and
land; and every Sunday when the old man came into the church and
passed the Squire's pew, the Squire would say, "A little weaker in
his knees, a little crookeder in his back--and the readmittance not
applied for: ha! ha! I shall be able to make a complete clearing of
that corner of the manor some day!"

''Twas extraordinary, now we look back upon it, that old Sargent
should have been so dilatory; yet some people are like it; and he put
off calling at the Squire's agent's office with the fine week after
week, saying to himself, "I shall have more time next market-day than
I have now." One unfortunate hindrance was that he didn't very well
like Jasper Cliff; and as Jasper kept urging Netty, and Netty on that
account kept urging her uncle, the old man was inclined to postpone
the re-liveing as long as he could, to spite the selfish young lover.
At last old Mr. Sargent fell ill, and then Jasper could bear it no
longer: he produced the fine-money himself, and handed it to Netty,
and spoke to her plainly.

'"You and your uncle ought to know better. You should press him
more. There's the money. If you let the house and ground slip
between ye, I won't marry; hang me if I will! For folks won't
deserve a husband that can do such things."

'The worried girl took the money and went home, and told her uncle
that it was no house no husband for her. Old Mr. Sargent pooh-poohed
the money, for the amount was not worth consideration, but he did now
bestir himself; for he saw she was bent upon marrying Jasper, and he
did not wish to make her unhappy, since she was so determined. It
was much to the Squire's annoyance that he found Sargent had moved in
the matter at last; but he could not gainsay it, and the documents
were prepared (for on this manor the copy-holders had writings with
their holdings, though on some manors they had none). Old Sargent
being now too feeble to go to the agent's house, the deed was to be
brought to his house signed, and handed over as a receipt for the
money; the counterpart to be signed by Sargent, and sent back to the

'The agent had promised to call on old Sargent for this purpose at
five o'clock, and Netty put the money into her desk to have it close
at hand. While doing this she heard a slight cry from her uncle, and
turning round, saw that he had fallen forward in his chair. She went
and lifted him, but he was unconscious; and unconscious he remained.
Neither medicine nor stimulants would bring him to himself. She had
been told that he might possibly go off in that way, and it seemed as
if the end had come. Before she had started for a doctor his face
and extremities grew quite cold and white, and she saw that help
would be useless. He was stone-dead.

'Netty's situation rose upon her distracted mind in all its
seriousness. The house, garden, and field were lost--by a few hours-
-and with them a home for herself and her lover. She would not think
so meanly of Jasper as to suppose that he would adhere to the
resolution declared in a moment of impatience; but she trembled,
nevertheless. Why could not her uncle have lived a couple of hours
longer, since he had lived so long? It was now past three o'clock;
at five the agent was to call, and, if all had gone well, by ten
minutes past five the house and holding would have been securely hers
for her own and Jasper's lives, these being two of the three proposed
to be added by paying the fine. How that wretched old Squire would
rejoice at getting the little tenancy into his hands! He did not
really require it, but constitutionally hated these tiny copyholds
and leaseholds and freeholds, which made islands of independence in
the fair, smooth ocean of his estates.

'Then an idea struck into the head of Netty how to accomplish her
object in spite of her uncle's negligence. It was a dull December
afternoon: and the first step in her scheme--so the story goes, and
I see no reason to doubt it--'

''Tis true as the light,' affirmed Christopher Twink. 'I was just
passing by.'

'The first step in her scheme was to fasten the outer door, to make
sure of not being interrupted. Then she set to work by placing her
uncle's small, heavy oak table before the fire; then she went to her
uncle's corpse, sitting in the chair as he had died--a stuffed arm-
chair, on casters, and rather high in the seat, so it was told me--
and wheeled the chair, uncle and all, to the table, placing him with
his back toward the window, in the attitude of bending over the said
oak table, which I knew as a boy as well as I know any piece of
furniture in my own house. On the table she laid the large family
Bible open before him, and placed his forefinger on the page; and
then she opened his eyelids a bit, and put on him his spectacles, so
that from behind he appeared for all the world as if he were reading
the Scriptures. Then she unfastened the door and sat down, and when
it grew dark she lit a candle, and put it on the table beside her
uncle's book.

'Folk may well guess how the time passed with her till the agent
came, and how, when his knock sounded upon the door, she nearly
started out of her skin--at least that's as it was told me. Netty
promptly went to the door.

'"I am sorry, sir," she says, under her breath; "my uncle is not so
well to-night, and I'm afraid he can't see you."

'"H'm!--that's a pretty tale," says the steward. "So I've come all
this way about this trumpery little job for nothing!"

'"O no, sir--I hope not," says Netty. "I suppose the business of
granting the new deed can be done just the same?"

'"Done? Certainly not. He must pay the renewal money, and sign the
parchment in my presence."

'She looked dubious. "Uncle is so dreadful nervous about law
business," says she, "that, as you know, he's put it off and put it
off for years; and now to-day really I've feared it would verily
drive him out of his mind. His poor three teeth quite chattered when
I said to him that you would be here soon with the parchment writing.
He always was afraid of agents, and folks that come for rent, and

'"Poor old fellow--I'm sorry for him. Well, the thing can't be done
unless I see him and witness his signature."

'"Suppose, sir, that you see him sign, and he don't see you looking
at him? I'd soothe his nerves by saying you weren't strict about the
form of witnessing, and didn't wish to come in. So that it was done
in your bare presence it would be sufficient, would it not? As he's
such an old, shrinking, shivering man, it would be a great
considerateness on your part if that would do?"

'"In my bare presence would do, of course--that's all I come for.
But how can I be a witness without his seeing me?"

'"Why, in this way, sir; if you'll oblige me by just stepping here."
She conducted him a few yards to the left, till they were opposite
the parlour window. The blind had been left up purposely, and the
candle-light shone out upon the garden bushes. Within the agent
could see, at the other end of the room, the back and side of the old
man's head, and his shoulders and arm, sitting with the book and
candle before him, and his spectacles on his nose, as she had placed

'"He's reading his Bible, as you see, sir," she says, quite in her
meekest way.

'"Yes. I thought he was a careless sort of man in matters of

'"He always was fond of his Bible," Netty assured him. "Though I
think he's nodding over it just at this moment However, that's
natural in an old man, and unwell. Now you could stand here and see
him sign, couldn't you, sir, as he's such an invalid?"

'"Very well," said the agent, lighting a cigar. "You have ready by
you the merely nominal sum you'll have to pay for the admittance, of

'"Yes," said Netty. "I'll bring it out." She fetched the cash,
wrapped in paper, and handed it to him, and when he had counted it
the steward took from his breast pocket the precious parchments and
gave one to her to be signed.

'"Uncle's hand is a little paralyzed," she said. "And what with his
being half asleep, too, really I don't know what sort of a signature
he'll be able to make."

'"Doesn't matter, so that he signs."

'"Might I hold his hand?"

'"Ay, hold his hand, my young woman--that will be near enough."

'Netty re-entered the house, and the agent continued smoking outside
the window. Now came the ticklish part of Netty's performance. The
steward saw her put the inkhorn--"horn," says I in my oldfashioned
way--the inkstand, before her uncle, and touch his elbow as to arouse
him, and speak to him, and spread out the deed; when she had pointed
to show him where to sign she dipped the pen and put it into his
hand. To hold his hand she artfully stepped behind him, so that the
agent could only see a little bit of his head, and the hand she held;
but he saw the old man's hand trace his name on the document. As
soon as 'twas done she came out to the steward with the parchment in
her hand, and the steward signed as witness by the light from the
parlour window. Then he gave her the deed signed by the Squire, and
left; and next morning Netty told the neighbours that her uncle was
dead in his bed.'

'She must have undressed him and put him there.'

'She must. Oh, that girl had a nerve, I can tell ye! Well, to cut a
long story short, that's how she got back the house and field that
were, strictly speaking, gone from her; and by getting them, got her
a husband.

'Every virtue has its reward, they say. Netty had hers for her
ingenious contrivance to gain Jasper. Two years after they were
married he took to beating her--not hard, you know; just a smack or
two, enough to set her in a temper, and let out to the neighbours
what she had done to win him, and how she repented of her pains.
When the old Squire was dead, and his son came into the property,
this confession of hers began to be whispered about. But Netty was a
pretty young woman, and the Squire's son was a pretty young man at
that time, and wider-minded than his father, having no objection to
little holdings; and he never took any proceedings against her.'

There was now a lull in the discourse, and soon the van descended the
hill leading into the long straggling village. When the houses were
reached the passengers dropped off one by one, each at his or her own
door. Arrived at the inn, the returned emigrant secured a bed, and
having eaten a light meal, sallied forth upon the scene he had known
so well in his early days. Though flooded with the light of the
rising moon, none of the objects wore the attractiveness in this
their real presentation that had ever accompanied their images in the
field of his imagination when he was more than two thousand miles
removed from them. The peculiar charm attaching to an old village in
an old country, as seen by the eyes of an absolute foreigner, was
lowered in his case by magnified expectations from infantine
memories. He walked on, looking at this chimney and that old wall,
till he came to the churchyard, which he entered.

The head-stones, whitened by the moon, were easily decipherable; and
now for the first time Lackland began to feel himself amid the
village community that he had left behind him five-and-thirty years
before. Here, besides the Sallets, the Darths, the Pawles, the
Privetts, the Sargents, and others of whom he had just heard, were
names he remembered even better than those: the Jickses, and the
Crosses, and the Knights, and the Olds. Doubtless representatives of
these families, or some of them, were yet among the living; but to
him they would all be as strangers. Far from finding his heart
ready-supplied with roots and tendrils here, he perceived that in
returning to this spot it would be incumbent upon him to re-establish
himself from the beginning, precisely as though he had never known
the place, nor it him. Time had not condescended to wait his
pleasure, nor local life his greeting.

The figure of Mr. Lackland was seen at the inn, and in the village
street, and in the fields and lanes about Upper Longpuddle, for a few
days after his arrival, and then, ghost-like, it silently
disappeared. He had told some of the villagers that his immediate
purpose in coming had been fulfilled by a sight of the place, and by
conversation with its inhabitants: but that his ulterior purpose--of
coming to spend his latter days among them--would probably never be
carried out. It is now a dozen or fifteen years since his visit was
paid, and his face has not again been seen.

March 1891.


Back to Full Books