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being a listener. “And what's to be dune, I'm sure passes my puir wits to tell! Martin, he's a' for ganging ; I'm for biding in tauld place, and layin' my auld bones amang my ain folk.”
“Go where? I do not know in the least what you are talking of," interposed Mr. Gibson. “Am I to read the letter ? "
“Sure, yer reverence, read every word of it; 'tis fra' the Marchioness hersel' ye see! 'tis a lang screed, an' my puir eyes are weary a' spelling it oot, but a scholard like you, vicar, will rin it ower in nae time.”
All this time I stood silent in the background, wondering whether the mystery concerned myself, half hoping, half fearing, and at the same time feeling pretty certain that it did. Dovercourt! where was it? I had never heard of any such place. And the Marchioness! who was she? A great lady of course ; but it was strange that a great lady should write to Margery—no, to Martinand want him and his wife to go somewhere—to Dovercourt most likely. And if they went, would they take me with them? Of course Phæbe would go, but then she actually belonged to them. The vicar sat down, wiped his spectacles, and once more trimmed the candle ; but as he commenced to read the Marchioness's letter Margery said to me, “Come ye in t' kitchen, bairn : it's unco' late ye are t' neet; come, and I'll gie ye the nice pasty I made for yer supper, and ye can tak’ it in yer hand and gang up to bed stret awa'; for it's ill for bairns to be up at this time o' neet. Wad ye like a sup o' t evening's milk, or shall I get ye a drink o' buttermilk? Ye maun be droughty climming the fells and talking to vicar. I'm afeard ye’ve danged his twa puir ears wi’yer clish-me-clavers!"
I accepted the offer of a cup of new milk; Margery brought it for me from the dairy, and I drank it standing in the darksome kitchen. Then she hustled me through the house-place again, and upstairs to my own room, and charged me to undress and get to bed and to sleep as fast as ever I could.
I obeyed her as far as undressing and getting into bed went, but going to sleep was quite another affair. For a child I was singularly wakeful; sleeping soundly was not one of my accomplishments, and now that I had so much to think and wonder about, composing myself on the instant to balmy slumbers was altogether out of the question. As I lay I listened, of course, to every sound below; I could hear the muffled voices of the assembled conclave in the house-place, and though I could not tell what they said I knew when it was Margery who spoke, and I could distinguish the vicar's tones from Martin's. I do not think I should have been so curious had I not been so sure that this mysterious letter concerned myself; but then what marchioness would trouble herself about me? I mused and doubted, and tried to remember whether I had ever heard of the place they called Dovercourt, and which the vicar named so glibly directly “ the South” was mentioned. But I could not recollect that I had ever heard it spoken of, and I must have remembered if I had, for it was a pretty name, and reminded me of Dover that my geography book told me of, and through which, Mr. Gibson assured me, lay the nearest way to France. Perhaps Dovercourt was really a part of Dover ; it would be grand to go there and see the sea, and the white cliffs under which Julius Cæsar could not land; and perhaps, I thought, we might have a glimpse of London by the way; for Dover was certainly in the south ; it could not well be much souther I determined, as I called to mind its position on the map of England. Only were Dover and Dovercourt synonymous ?
Presently I heard the clock strike twelve in its usual sneezy fashion-it was really about twenty minutes to eleven-and still they talked on, those three in the room, directly beneath my chamber. What could be the business which detained the vicar so long, and on Saturday night too, when he professed to go to bed punctually at ten after a light supper of milk-porridge and oat-cake? I got too restless to be still, and as my excitement increased I got out of bed and crept stealthily to the door, which 1 quietly opened. Standing with my bare feet, I heard distinctly my own name-Hugh Vassall. I heard it twice; once the vicar spoke it, once Martin, and then I crept a little lower down and listened, too much wrought up to think about the dishonourableness of the procedure. I heard the vicar saying—“ It is altogether irrational; I think the whole plan insane and unfeasible. I do not see why at your age and in your circumstances you should feel constrained to leave your comfortable home, and your own people, and your dead, to engage in a wild-goose scheme, which can bring with it nothing but danger and disappointment.”
“ Just sae, just sae!” said Margery, eagerly ; “ we canna be expectit, my man and me, to be ganging to furrin pairts at our time o' life, for a' t' marchionesses that ever was. And t' li'le bairn Phoebe too !”
" It would be for Phæbe's gude,” interposed Martin. “ Phoebe would git an eddication fit for a leddy, and be med a woman of. Dinna flyte, Margery! the terms be gude, recht gude, I say, and my leddy is generous in her offers.”
“ Terms !” said Margery, contemptuously; “ what can pay for givin' up hearth and hame, and kirk, and t'kirkyard whare my ain dead be leein, waitin for t resurrection mornin'?”.
“ Hoot, woman, hoot! It wadna' be for lang-siven years, and nae mair, surely!”
“ Siven years, ye auld sinner; and aren't ye abune siventy this hour, and mayn't t' gude Lord ca' ye to Himsel any day? Ye talk o'siven years as if ye wear but twenty-siven, jest a' callant amang t’lasses. Fie, Martin, fie, and ye wi' yer ain bairn's bairn in thouse!”
Martin was exasperated, no doubt, but he made a very ungallant reply—“ Whisht, woman, whisht! ye're aulder na’ I by twa years and mair, ye ken weel; and a woman, puir soul, is a'ways aulder na' a man o't same years. Sae ye’re ten years aulder na' me in strength o' body an’ in speerit, an' it canna be expectit that ye, an auld woman, siventy-fower come Martinmas, should see things as I, a man, and fu' tin years yaunger i' mind, sees 'em. Woman is kittle cattle, and they sees but the odds an' ends o' things, niver the length and breadth o' anything. It canna be helpit, it's their way, puir cretters,” concluded Martin, magnanimously.
There was a silence. Margery was probably offended too deeply to reply. Where is the woman who can bear to be taunted with her age, and by her own husband too? It was a sore point with Margery that she was two years older than Martin, and she never liked to be reminded of it. It was unkind of Martin, to say the least of it. Then Mr. Gibson spoke soothingly and deprecatingly I thought; but I could not catch his words.
Another silence, and then Martin resumed :—“Auld woman, I dinna want to vex ye, tho' ye've oft vexed me with yer unbridled tangue. An unbridled tangue's a sad thing, is n't, vicar? t' Bible itsel' speaks agen it; a vairy sad thing in a woman, be she maid, or wife, or lane widow. As I said, I dinna want t' vex ye; but I may as weel say noo, wi' vicar for witness, that I hev med up my moind; and, Margery Wray, as sure as eggs is eggs, I mean to gang South. Dinna look sae blackit; ye need na gang, ye ken. Ye can stop here in t' auld place with li'le Phæbe, and I'll gang awa' wi' ť boy. I dinna want ye gangin' wi' me agenst yer weell.”
Then Margery broke forth into tears and loud wailing. “Hech, sirs !” she cried, “an' hev I ben his weddid wife these fower-andforty years, and the mither o’his bairns-puir Alice an' twee babes in kirkyard-an' he tells me noo he dinna want me nae mair? Oh, wae is me! and if I hev giv him the length o' my unruly tangue awhiles, I'd dee for him, that I would, vicar. He is my man, and he's bin my man these fower-and-forty years, and I wunna leave him noo. Sae I'll gang wi'ye, Martin, to furrin pairts; I'll stick to ye, my man, as a gude wife should, though I'am aulder na when ye kist me in Thrang Wood, as I came hame that neet in lambin time. An' I'm na sae blithe, na sae bonnie ; but I weer a sousie lassie ance, an' ye had a' I had to gie, Martin ; and I'd gie a' to ye agen, if time cam'ower agen, tho' ye're weary o' me, yer puir auld, stupid wife, with her gray hairs, and too lang a tangue.” And Margery lifted up her voice and wept; and I with my feet on the bare boards, and shivering in my scanty night-shirt, was constrained to weep with her, only more quietly. I had half a mind though to rush down in my airy attire, and, proclaiming that I had heard all, throw my arms round Margery's neck, and tell her that I would nerer tire of her, and that I would stay with her and work for her, while Martin went away to see the fine people in the South. For I was very angry with Martin, and I longed to give him a piece of my mind.
Then I heard him say kindly, “ Dinna greet, woman, dinna greet! Hech, sirs, but what fules the women be! Say half a word that isn't half meant, an' they tak’ it a' for Gospel. Nae, auld woman, we wunna pairt till death pairts us. You'll steck to me, an' I'll steck to ye, as is accordin' to Scriptur' and holy matrimony; but I'm ganging South; my moind is med up as fast as Helvellyn, and Skiddaw, and Scaw Fell, and a' the rist o' em. I'm ganging South, and ye'll ayn gang wi' me, Margery Wray, my ain auld true wifie.”
I heard no more, for there was a sound of movement in the house-place, and I went back to bed. Then the vicar went away, and presently Martin and Margery came upstairs and shut their door; and then all was still as death, till the untruthful clock sneezed out its solitary strike ; soon afterwards, being fairly tired out, I fell asleep.
When I awoke it was a calm, sweet Sabbath morning ; I knew by the sun that it was full late, and I hurried with my dressing and made haste down-stairs. I entered the kitchen somewhat bashfully, thinking of the information I had surreptitiously obtained the night before, and wondering whether anything would be said about our proposed flitting to Dovercourt, if indeed I were included in the arrangement. But, to my surprise, and greatly to my disappointment, there were no traces of anything unusual in the manner or countenance of either Martin or Margery. Margery was busy with the porridge for our breakfast; Martin, in rusty quasi-clerical attire, was looking out the “ lessons for the day” in his own private Prayer-book; and Phæbe, with her shining golden hair and her bright blue eyes, set off by her pretty Sunday frock and her clean, snowy pinafore, sat on a two-legged stool just in the doorway, learning, poor little soul, with much pains and patience, how her godfathers and godmothers had renounced in ber name " the pomps and vanities of this wicked world,” &c., &c. For the Church catechism was, in Martin's opinion, the only sound foundation on which could be built up the superstructure of a really orthodox education, so Phæbe and I began on it betimes, greatly to our sorrow, for catechisms generally are not easy to learn, and
win that it wastairs. I entert had surreptice would 1
the catechism of the Established Church of England is perhaps as difficult as any; and many a sad Sunday evening we had, both of us in our turn, over that terrible, “My duty to my neighbour," and that still more terrible and elaborate explanation of what needs no explaining—the Lord's Prayer. We had breakfast just as usual, only we were later than was our wont, and Martin began to get into a fume, lest any of us should be too late for church. Margery was cross-grained, and snubbed us all, her husband especially. Phæbe looked dejected, for the catechism was too much for her, and, moreover, she had been too near the rabbit-hutch, our joint property, and had got what her granny called a “dab,” all across one side of her bran-new print frock; a miserable fact, as yet known only to the poor child herself; and it prayed upon her mind, for dirtying clean clothes and rending tidy garments were counted as cardinal sins in the small household of Margery Wray.
I began to think the experiences of the night before must have been a dream. Had I really heard all that talk about going away into the South ? Had I actually listened to that pathetic outburst of poor Margery when her ungallant spouse spoke of leaving her behind at Eaglesmere ? No! it was not a dream; it was every bit reality, and yet the old couple were going on “the even tenor of their way,” just as if nothing had happened to disturb them. I did not know then how much it takes to turn people, particularly old people, aside from the common routine of their daily life.
It was a long and weary Sunday, and the commencement of a long and weary week. I did not hear a word of the vicar's sermon; and when, in the evening, Martin, according to custom, examined me in Old Testament history, and asked me, “Where was Balaam, the son of Beor, going when his ass spake and rebuked him?” I answered without hesitation, “Going South!”
Martin's sacred geography being both confused and limited, he was not in a position to question this unexpected statement. “Ay, lad,” he replied, as he took up his Bible and glanced down the page, “Moab was south, nae doot, but who was Balaam going to ?” I wonder I did not say “To the Marchioness," but the halt in our progress had restored me to my senses, and I fortunately gave the right answer, “ To Balak, the son of Zippor."
All the week my mind wandered from my lessons, and I watched the vicar and the old people closely, wondering when I should be told of the projected emigration. I resolved never to listen again, whatever might be the temptation, for now I was in the position of a man who has stolen a bank-note of value which he dare not run the risk of changing or of paying away. The knowledge I had obtained was worse than useless to me, for not only was I longing to know all about the affair, thirsting for further and fuller in