by Charles Reade
MR. SAMUEL SUTTON, wool-stapler, had a large business in Frome, inherited from his father, and enlarged by himself; also a nest-egg of £150,000 invested at four per cent in solid securities. He lived clear out of the town in a large house built by himself, and called "Merino Lodge," with lawn, gardens, conservatories, stables, all of them models. He loved business, and spent his day in the office; he loved his wife, and enjoyed his evenings at home. But this life of calm content was broken up in one month: his wife sickened and died, leaving him utterly desolate and wretched. No child to reflect her beloved features, and no live thing to cherish but her favorite dog, an orphan girl she had taken into the house eight years before, and the immortal memory of a watchful and unselfish affection.
Under this stunning blow messages of consolation poured in upon him, many of them delicately and admirably worded, all written with a certain sympathy, but with dry eyes. His very servants spoke with bated breath and sorrowful looks before him, but he heard the squawks of the women and the guffaws of the men out in the yard. Only one creature beside himself suffered. It was his wife's protégée, Rebecca Barnes. For many a day this girl, like himself, never smiled, and often burst into tears all in a moment over her work. This was not lost on the mourner; hitherto he had hardly noticed this humble figure; but now he looked at her with interest, and told her, once for all, he would be a friend to her, as his beloved wife had been.
The young woman thus distinguished was attractive; she was tall and straight, but not bony, nor nipped in at the waist. She had the face of an English rural beauty, light brown hair, a very white skin, dark gray eyes, and a complexion not divided into red and white, but with a light brick-dusty color, very sweet and healthy, diffused all over two oval cheeks; a large but shapely mouth and beautiful teeth made her winning; a little cocked-up nose spoiled her for a beauty; and she might be summed up as comeliness in person.
Educated by a lady with great good sense, she could read aloud fluently and with propriety, could write like a clerk, cook well, make pickles and preserves, sweep, dust, cut and sew dresses, iron and get up lace and linen; but could not play the piano nor dance a polka.
Mrs. Sutton always intended her to be housekeeper; and the widower now told her to try and qualify herself in time; she was too young at present.
Months rolled on, but Samuel Sutton's loneliness did not abate.. He had only one relation who interested him, Joe Newton, son of a deceased sister, a bold Eton boy he had often tipped. Joe was now at Oxford, and Mr. Sutton invited him for the long vacation, and prepared to like him.
While he is on the road let us attempt his character--at that period: a goodish scholar, excellent athlete; rowed six in the college boat, and was promised a place in the University Eleven for fair defense, hard hitting, and exceptional throwing.
He used to back himself against both the universities to fling the hammer and construe Demosthenes; the college tutor heard, and remonstrated. "It was not the thing at Oxford to brag; why, Stilwell made a hundred and fifteen against Surry the other day, but he only said he had been very lucky. That is the form at present," said the excellent tutor, stroke of the university boat in his day. Joe explained largely. Of course he knew there were two men who could beat him at throwing the hammer, one Oxford, one Cambridge, and a lot who could eclipse him at construing Greek orators. "But you see, sir," said he, slyly, "the fellows that can construe Demosthenes can't fling the hammer; and the happy pair that can take the shine out of me at the hammer can't construe Demosthenes. I can do both after a fashion."
"Oh," said the tutor, "that alters the case. So it was only an enigma; sounded like a brag."
Add to the virtues indicated above, pugilism, wrestling, good spirits, six feet, broad shoulders, abundance of physical and a want of moral courage, and behold Joe Newton, aged twenty-one.
He came to "Merino Lodge," and filled the place with sudden vitality. He rowed everybody on the lake; armed both sexes with fishing rods; mowed and rolled a paddock into a cricket-ground; organized matches between county clubs; drew on his uncle for copious luncheons; chaffed, talked, and enlivened all the family and neighborhood, and gazed at Rebecca Barnes till he troubled her peace, and set her heart in a flutter.
One fine summer evening there was a harvest-home supper, and the rustics drank the farmer's cider without stint. Returning from this banquet a colossal carter met Rebecca Barnes and proceeded to some very rough courtship. She gave him the slip, and ran and screamed a little. It was near the cricket-ground that Joe was rolling for a match to come off. He heard the signals of distress, and vaulted over the gate in front of Rebecca, just as the carter caught her, and she screamed violently.
"Come, drop that, my man," said Joe, good-humoredly enough.
"Who be you?" inquired the rustic, disdainfully, and challenged him to fight.
"No, don't, sir; pray don't," cried Rebecca. "He is bigger than you, and he thrashes them all."
Joseph hesitated out of good nature. The bully called him a coward, and took off his coat. Joseph said, apologetically--
"He wants a lesson. I won't detain you a minute. Now, then, sir, let us get it over;" and without taking off his coat, put himself in his favorite attitude. The carter made a rush, got it right and left as if from Heaven, and stood staring with two black eyes; came on again more cautiously, but while endeavoring a tremendous rounder that would probably have finished the business his way, received a dazzler with the left followed by a heavy right-hander on the throat that felled him like a tree.
Joe then gave his arm to Rebecca, who was trembling all over. She took it with both hands, and an inclination to droop her head on his shoulder, which made the walk home slow, amusing, and delightful to Joe.
After that evening Rebecca, who was already on the verge of danger, began to be divinely happy and unreasonably depressed by turns. She was always peeping at Joe, and coming near him, and avoiding him; and then he took to spooning upon her, and she was coy, but fluttered with wild hopes, and thrilled with innocent joys.
At last energetic Joe spooned on her so openly that Mr. Sutton observed.
He made short work with both culprits.
"Rebecca," said he, "be good enough to keep that young fool at a distance. Joe, let that girl alone. She is only a servant, after all, and I will not have her head turned."
Rebecca blushed, and cried, and tried to obey.
Joe affected compliance, got impatient, and one day watched for Rebecca, caught her away from home, declared his love for her, and urged her to run away with him.
The instinct of virtue supplied the place of experience, and she rejected him with indignation, and after that kept out of his way in earnest.
However, before he left he owned his fault, begged her pardon, and asked her to wait for him till he got his family living, and was independent of everybody.
This was another matter, and female love soon forgives male audacity. Reckless Joe overcame her reasonable misgivings, and fed her passion by letters for three whole years, and she refused young Farmer Mortlock, an excellent match in every way.
By and by Joe's letters cooled, and became rare. He even declined his uncle's invitations on pretense of reading with a tutor in Wales.
Then Rebecca paled and pined, and divined that she was abandoned. Soon cruel suspense gave way to certainty. Joe was ordained priest, took the family living, and married Melusina Florence Tiverton, a young lady of fashion, high connections, and eight thousand pounds, which before the marriage was settled on her and her children.
Mr. Sutton announced this to his friends with satisfaction, and he even told it to Rebecca Barnes, whom he happened to find at a passage window sewing buttons on his shirts. He was fond of Joe, and thought his good marriage ought to please everybody, and so he was in a good humor, and told Rebecca all about it, and that he had promised the happy pair a thousand pounds to start with.
Rebecca turned cold as a stone, and kept on sewing, but slower and slower every stitch.
"Well, you might wish them joy," said Mr. Sutton.
"I wish--them--every--happiness," said Rebecca, slowly and faintly, and went on sewing mechanically.
Mr. Sutton looked at her inquiringly, but had already said more to her than was his custom at that period of her service; so he went about his business.
She sewed on still, feeling very cold, and soon the patient tears began to trickle, and then she put her work aside, and laid her brow against the corner of the shutter, that the tears might run their course without spoiling her master's collars and cuffs.
Not long after this the housekeeper left and Mr. Sutton sent for Rebecca. "You are young," he said, half hesitating, "but you are steady and faithful." Then he turned his back on her and looked at his wife's portrait. "Yes, Jane," said he, "we can but try her." Then, without turning from the picture, "Rebecca, take the housekeeper's keys and let us see how you can govern my house."
"I will try, sir," said she; then courtesied and left the room with the tear in her eye at him consulting the picture of her they both loved.
Rebecca Barnes had made many observations upon servants and their ways, and entered on office with some fixed ideas of economy and management.
She did not hurry matters, but by degrees waste was quietly put down, the servants were compelled, contrary to their nature, to return everything to its place; the weekly bills decreased, and yet the donations to worthy people increased.
She had held the keys, and nearly doubled their number, about eight months, when Mr. Sutton gave her an order. "Barnes," said he, "Joe and his wife are coming to see me next Wednesday at five o'clock. Get everything ready for them at once--give them the best bedroom--and make them comfortable."
"Yes, sir," said she, and went about it directly.
She summoned maids, saw fires lit, beds and blankets put down to them, not sheets only, took linen out of her lavender cupboard, ordered flowers, and secured the comfort of the visitors, though heats and chills pervaded her own body by turns at the thought of receiving Joe Newton and the woman he had preferred to herself.
"She is beautiful, no doubt," thought Rebecca. "I wonder whether she knows? Oh, no, surely he would never tell her. He would be ashamed." The mere doubt, though, made her red and then pale.
The pair arrived with their own maid; a house-maid under orders showed them to their rooms; Rebecca Barnes kept out of their way at first, and steeled herself by degrees to the inevitable encounter.
She took her opportunity next day, and approached Mrs. Newton first with a civil inquiry if she could do anything for her.
"You are the--the--" drawled the lady.
"The housekeeper, madam."
"The housekeeper? You are very young for that."
"Not so young as I look, perhaps; and I have been sixteen years in the house." She then renewed her question.
"Not at present," was the reply. "I will send for you if I require anything."
The words were colorless in themselves, but there was a hard, unfriendly, and superior tone in them rather out of place in a house where she was a guest, and a new one, and kindly civility just being shown her.
Downstairs the lady did not charm. She desired to please, but had not the tact. Her voice was high-pitched, and she could not listen. Her husband, however, was in ecstasy over her, and rather wearied his uncle with descanting on her perfections.
Things went on well enough until she got a little more familiar with Uncle Samuel; and then, looking on him as virtually a bachelor, she must needs advise him from the heights of her matronly experience. She told him his housekeeper was too young for the place.
"She is young," said he, "but she has experience, and my dear wife taught her."
Instead of listening to that, and saying, "Ah, that alters the case," as most men or women would, this tactless young lady went on to say that she was too young and good-looking to be about a widower. It would set people talking, and so she strongly advised him to change her for some staid, respectable person.
"Mind your own business, my dear," replied the wool-stapler, with such contemptuous resolution that she held her tongue directly, and contented herself just then with hating Rebecca Barnes for this repulse. But when she got hold of Joe, she scolded him well for the affront; she never saw she had drawn it on herself. It was not in her nature to see a fault in herself under any circumstances whatever.
Joe, physical hero, moral coward, dared not say a word, but took his unjust punishment meekly.
However, after dinner, owning to himself that this infallible creature had made a blunder, he set himself to remove any ill impression. He descanted on her virtues; above all, her generosity and her zeal for her friend's interests, etc.
Uncle Sutton got sick of his marital mendacity, and said, "Now, Joe, don't you be an uxorious ass. She is your wife, and she is well enough; but she is no paragon." And so he shut him up.
They stayed a fortnight and then went home. As Melusina had intruded her opinion on Rebecca, Mr. Sutton, who came more into contact with the latter now she was housekeeper, had the sly curiosity to ask her, in a half careless way, what she thought of Joe's wife.
"Well, sir," said Rebecca, wiser and more on her guard than Melusina, "he might have done better, I think, and he might have done worse."
"Voice too shrill for me," said the master. "But I suppose he took her for her good looks."
"Good looks, sir? What, with a beak for a nose, and a slit for a mouth?"
Mr. Sutton laughed. "How you women do admire one another. Stop; now I think of it, this is ungrateful of you, for she told me you were too good-looking."
"Too good-looking!" said Rebecca. "What did she mean by that? Ah! she wanted you to part with me."
"Stuff and nonsense," said he; but he colored a little at the abominable shrewdness of females in reading one another at half a word.
Rebecca was too discreet to press the matter; she pretended to accept the disavowal, but she did not. Joe's wife to come into the house on her first visit, and instantly endeavor to turn out the poor girl that had been there from a child!
"And he could look on and let her," said she; "he that thought it little to defend me against that giant. Men are so strange, and hard to understand."
Next year Joe came by himself, and charmed everybody. Rebecca at last kept out of his way, for she found the old affection reviving, and was frightened.
Two years more, and the pair came on a visit at one day's notice. But all was ready for them in that well-ordered house.
The motive of this hasty visit soon transpired. They had spent more than double their income since they married, owed two thousand pounds, and had an execution in the house.
Uncle Sutton was displeased. "Debt is dishonest," said he. "We can all cut our coat according to our cloth." But he ended by saying, "Well, make out a list of all the debts. Try if you can tell the truth now, both of you, and put them all down."
By this time Rebecca had become his accountant in private matters, and her fidelity and discretion had gradually earned his confidence. He actually consulted her on the situation, not that she could have influenced him against his own judgment. No man was more thoroughly master than Sam Sutton. But he was a solitary man, and it is hard to be always silent.
"Bad business, Rebecca. Now I wonder what you would do in my place?"
"Do, sir? Why, pay Master Joe's debts directly. You will never miss it. But when I had paid them, I'd tell her not to come begging here again with a fortune on her back."
"Come, come," said Sutton, "she is dressed plainer than any lady in Frome. I will say that for her."
"La! sir, where are your eyes? What, with those furs and that old point lace? Three hundred guineas never bought them. There are no such furs in Frome. I've seen their fellows in London. They are Russian sables, the finest to be had for money. And look at her fingers, crippled with diamonds and rubies. There's four or five hundred more, and that is how Master Joe's money goes. I pity him; he couldn't have done worse if he had married--a servant."
Mr. Sutton looked very grave. However, he sold out and drew the check. But, unfortunately, instead of lecturing the wife, he took the husband to task. He said he was sorry to see Mrs. Joseph so extravagant in dress.
"My dear uncle," replied he, "why, she is anything but that; she is most self-denying. I am the only one to blame, believe me."
"Now, you uxorious humbug," cried Uncle Samuel, "can't you see she has got three hundred guineas on her back in lace and sable furs, and as much more on her fingers? Where are your eyes?"
Joe looked sheepish. "I am no judge of these things, uncle. But I feel sure you are mistaken."
"No, I am not mistaken. Everybody knows the value of sables and diamonds."
Joe retailed this conversation very timidly to his wife, not to make her less extravagant, but more cautious under Uncle Sutton's eye. He took care to draw that distinction for the sake of peace.
His finesse was wasted. "It's the woman," said she, as quick as lightning.
"The woman Barnes. She has told him--to make mischief."
"No, no! the old fox has got eyes of his own."
"Not for sables. It is the woman."
"Well, dear, I don't think so; but if it is, then I wouldn't give her the chance again."
"Me take off my sables because a woman is envious of them? What do you think I bought them for? I'll wear them all the more--ten times more."
"Hush! hush!" implored the weak husband, for the peacock voice, raised in defiance, was audible through doors at a considerable distance.
All this mortified Mrs. Joe's vanity, and that was her stronger passion. She came no more to "Merino Lodge."
But she sent her husband once a year, with orders to bring home some money and get rid of the woman Barnes.
He was to tell Mr. Sutton Barnes was a mercenary woman and kept his wife away. But Joe's subservience relaxed when he got to "Merino Lodge," and his pea-hen could not watch him. He made himself agreeable to everybody.
One fine day he discovered that Rebecca was consulted in matters of domestic account, and that he owed the check he always took home in some degree to her good word as well as to his uncle's affection. Upon that he forgot he was to undermine her, and began to spoon a little on her; but this was received with a sort of shudder that brought him to his senses.
So the years rolled on, confirming the virtues and the faults of all these characters, for nothing stands still.
Joe Newton was forty-one, and looked forty-five; Rebecca Barnes thirty-eight, and looked twenty-five. Mrs. Newton was forty, and looked fifty; and Uncle Sutton, though fifty-seven, looked five-and-forty, thanks to sober living, good humor, and a fine constitution.
Joe's inheritance seemed distant, and he was always in debt, though often relieved.
But who can foretell? The stout wool-stapler was seized with a mysterious malady, frequent sickness, constant depression. He struggled manfully, went to his office ill, came back no better; but at last had to stay at home.
By and by he took to his bed.
Rebecca wrote to Joe Newton. He came and found his uncle eternally sick, and turning yellow.
Joe spoke hopefully, said it was only jaundice, but went away and told a different tale at home.
There he and his wife, demoralized by debt, discussed the approaching death of a great benefactor in hypocritical terms, through which eager expectation pierced.
"You are sure he has not made a fresh will? That woman has his ear."
"Make your mind easy, dear. He told me all about it himself not six months ago. He leaves us and our children all his money, except £5,000 to Rebecca Barnes."
"Five thousand pounds to a servant!"
"And only £200,000 to us," said Joe, hazarding a little humor.
"Tied up, I'll be bound."
"Well, dear," said Joe, "even if it should be, our children will benefit, and we shall have enough."
"Five thousand pounds to that woman! And not tied up, of course."
Joe could have told her from his uncle's own lips why he was to have a life-interest only in that large fortune. "Your wife is vain, selfish, and extravagant, and you are her slave. She shall not waste my money as she has yours. It is all secured to you and your children."
But Joe preferred peace to admonition, and kept his uncle's treasons to himself.
Mr. Sutton was tenderly nursed night and day by Rebecca Barnes and a young orphan girl she had brought into the house, as she herself had been brought thirty years ago. He was attended by Dr. Stevenson, an old friend.
But neither physic nor nursing could stop the fatal sickness that prostrated the strong man.
At last Dr. Stevenson, and a physician he had summoned from London, told Rebecca to prepare for the worst. He must die of inanition, and that shortly.
Rebecca sent a mounted messenger to Joe: "Come at once, or you will not see him alive."
Joe sent back word he would come by the first train.
But before he went his wife gave him instructions. "Now, mind, if he knows you, and can speak, do nothing. But if he is insensible, you must begin to think of your interests; you are executor; you told me so."
"One of them."
"And the one on the spot. There are quantities of plate and valuables in the house. You must fix seals and ask Barnes for her keys."
"Will not that be premature?"
"No, stupid; it will be just in time."
"Hum! she has been a faithful servant. I am afraid it would wound her feelings."
"The feelings of a menial? Besides, there are two ways of doing these things. Of course you will flatter her, and say you only want to relieve her of responsibility. But mind you secure her keys, or I'll never forgive you."
"Very well," said Joe. "I suppose you are right; you always are."
He reached the Lodge and Rebecca met him with a despairing cry: "Oh, Mr. Joseph!" and led the way to the sickroom.
They found Mr. Sutton yellow, and yet cadaverous, gasping and almost rattling for breath.
"He is dying," said Joe, awestruck. "He will not live an hour."
Presently the patient gasped desperately and tried to raise himself.
"Lift him!" cried Rebecca, and seized a basin, while Joe's strong arm raised him.
Instantly there burst from the patient a copious discharge of black blood, or what looked like it.
Joe turned pale, and cried, "Oh, it is the substance of the liver," and he felt faint at the sight.
Rebecca stood firm. She gave the basin quickly to the girl, and filled Joe a glassful of neat brandy. He tossed it off, and it revived him.
They laid the patient back gently, and Rebecca felt his pulse. It was scarcely perceptible.
"He is going," she said. Then, looking round in despair, she seized a tablespoon, filled it with brandy slightly diluted, and opening his mouth, placed the spoon at the root of the tongue, and so got the contents down his throat.
As he retained it, she repeated the dose three times.
The patient lay motionless, no longer gasping, but just faintly breathing, as men do before life's little candle flickers out.
They sat down on each side of him in silence. He had been a good friend to both.
By and by Joe's dinner was announced. He asked Rebecca to come down and eat a morsel with him.
Rebecca was hospitable, but could not leave the moribund even for a moment. "No," said she, "I saw her die, and I must see him die."
Joe assured her he would not die till night, and said he could not eat alone.
Accustomed to oblige, Rebecca consented, though unwillingly. She summoned an elderly woman that was in the house, and bade her watch him with the young girl, and send down to her the moment there was any change.
Then she went reluctantly and sat down opposite Joseph Newton, pale and woe-be-gone. He had recovered himself, and ate a tolerable dinner. She tried, out of complaisance, but could only get a morsel or two down.
After a hasty meal and two glasses of port, the Rev. Joseph Newton opened his commission. He began as directed. He dilated upon her long and faithful service, and then told her he knew she was not forgotten, or he would have felt bound to take care of her.
While he delivered these sugar-plums he did not look her in the face, and so he did not observe that her eye was fixed on him and never moved.
Having thus prepared the way, he proceeded in a briefer style to say that he was his uncle's executor, and a great responsibility was now about to fall on him; unfortunately he could not stay here all night to discharge those sad duties, so perhaps it would be as well to intrust him with her keys before he left.
Then Rebecca, who had hitherto been keenly observant and silent, said, very quietly, "Give you my keys, sir? What! do you mistrust me?"
"Of course not; my only object is to relieve you of so great a responsibility, where there are so many servants, and so many valuables about."
"Valuables about? That is not my way, sir. There is nothing loose in this house more than I can keep my eye on."
"An excellent system," said Joe warmly. "I promise to follow it. But, to do so, I must have an executor's power. Come, Rebecca, I must return by the five o'clock train; please oblige me with your keys; the places that have none you and I will seal up together."
Rebecca Barnes rose from the table so straight she seemed six feet high, and the eyes that had watched him like a cat from the first syllable he had uttered flashed lightning at him.
"You have spoken a woman's mind; take a woman's answer. What! you couldn't wait till the breath was out of that poor, dear body before you must lay your greedy hands upon his goods!"
Joe rose in his turn. "Rebecca, you forget yourself."
"No, I remember too well. Twenty years ago you did your best to ruin me; and when you couldn't, you trifled with my affections, held me in hand for years, and flung me away without one grain of pity--you broke my heart and made me a servant for life. Now you insult the faithful servant, you that were false to the faithful lover. Trust you with my keys, you false-hearted-- No, sir." And she folded her arms superbly. "Go back to your wife, and tell her if she wants to rob him she must kill him first, and me too; for while he lives I am mistress of this house, and she and you are--NOBODY."
Then she turned her back on him as only a tall, disdainful woman can, and flew wildly upstairs to her dying master.
AFTER all, once in twenty years is not often to vent one's outraged feelings, and those who smother their fiery wrongs too long owe nature an explosion.
But Rebecca Barnes, though wild with passion, was by nature anything but a virago. So, even as she flew up the stairs, the rain followed the thunder, and it was in a wild distress, not fury, she darted into her master's room, hurried the other women out of it, and flung herself on her knees by his side. "Oh, master! master!" she cried, "is it come to this? They wish you dead. They want your plate, they want your china, they want your money; they don't want you. For all the good you have done, only one poor woman will shed a tear for you." Then she began to mumble his hand and wet it with her honest tears.
"Now I understand my dream," said a calm, faint voice that seemed to come from the other world.
Rebecca sprang to her feet with a scream and eyed him keenly.
"You are better?"
"I am. There was something growing inside me. I always said so. It has broken; I feel lighter now."
Rebecca flung herself on her knees again. "Oh, master! then don't give in. Try, try, try, and you'll get well. If you won't get well to please poor me, do pray get well to spite those heartless creatures. They couldn't wait. They demanded my keys, they were so hot to take possession."
"Joe and his wife?"
"Put her first; he is her slave. He has no heart or conscience when she gives the order. But let's you and I baffle them. Let us get well."
"I mean to," said he slowly, "so where's the sense of your sobbing and crying like that?"
"Dear heart, what can I do? The fear of losing you--the affront--my anger--my hope--my joy--of course I must cry. Oh! oh! oh! La! how you smell of brandy!"
"Ay, brandy has been my best friend. I drank about a pint while you were downstairs."
"Oh, goodness gracious me! a pint of brandy!"
"Tell ye it saved me. I'm sleepy."
He went off to sleep. Rebecca covered him up warm and fanned him gently. He slept some hours, and on awaking asked for brandy and yolk of egg. He took this at intervals.
Dr. Stevenson came, examined and felt him all over, and found him full of vital warmth, looked at what had come from him, and said, "Better an empty house than a bad tenant." In a word, pronounced him out of danger.
During his convalescence Mr. Sutton talked more to Rebecca than he had ever done, and told her that at one time he never expected to live, "for," said he, solemnly, "I was as near my dear wife as I am to you. I could not see her, unfortunately, but she spoke to me."
"Oh, sir, tell me; you'll tell me. I loved her; I had reason."
"Yes, I will tell you," said he. "She said, 'Not now, Samuel. There was only one woman shed a tear for me, and only one will shed a tear for you.'" He reflected a little. "Now I think of it, that was bidding me to live this time. Yes, Jenny, my love, I'll live and teach some folk a lesson--they have taught me one."
He ordered Rebecca to write and ask his lawyer to come to him at once with two witnesses.
Rebecca had cooled by this time, and began to be a little alarmed at the turn things were taking; so she said she had been a good deal put out about the keys, and he must not take to heart every word an angry woman said.
"Mind your own business," was his reply. "Write as I bade you."
The lawyer came with his witnesses. Rebecca retired.
When she re-appeared she seemed so uneasy that he said to her: "You needn't look as if you had robbed a church. I have not disinherited Joe."
"I am right down glad of that."
"But I have cut him down a bit, and I've changed my executor. Now please remember--the next time I die--you are my sole executor; and your keys never leave you."
She cast a beaming look of affection and gratitude on him. He had applied the right salve to her wound. She belonged to a sex that does not always weigh things in our balances. She was not very greedy of money, but to take her keys from her was to dishonor her in her office.
It was soon public that Mr. Sutton had made a new will--contents unknown. Lawyers do not reveal such secrets spontaneously.
"We are disinherited," cried Joe's wife, "and by that woman Barnes. I always warned you how it would end. But you never would get rid of her. We have you to thank for it, the children and I."
Joe resisted for once. "No," said he, "it is all your doing. She would have let you alone if you had let her alone. But you were in such a hurry to insult her you could not wait till it was safe."
What, ho! Mutiny! Rebellion! And by the head of the house, paragon of submission hitherto. Mrs. Joe went into a fury, and threatened to leave him and take the children--a menace I should have welcomed with rapture; but it ended in his apologizing for his gleam of reason.
When Mr. Sutton had kept them on tenter-hooks for a month and more, and was in better health than ever he had been, he instructed his lawyers to answer the questions of coarse or interested curiosity, and it soon became public that he had made an equal division, half to his nephew's family, with life-interest to Joseph himself, and half to Rebecca Barnes and her heirs forever, the said Rebecca being his wife's protégée, and his faithful housekeeper and nurse.
Joe liked this much better than being disinherited. "Come, Melly," said he, "'blood is thicker than, water.' I am content. A hundred thousand pounds is not starvation."
Mrs. Joe, however, did not seem to think so, at least she complained rather louder than before. "To share our inheritance with a menial," said she, and repeated this in more places than one. She even inoculated Dr. Stevenson with this gentle phrase, and prevailed on him to offer friendly advice to his late patient, and gave him hints what to say. Mrs. Joe was his best client, being full of imaginary disorders, so he adopted her course; called on Mr. Sutton, was heartily welcomed, promised him thirty years more, and then took the liberty of an old friend to advise him. Joe had a young family. The division was not equal, and would it not be a pity to leave disproportionate wealth to a menial?
"A menial?" inquired Sutton, affecting innocent ignorance of his meaning.
"Well, it is a harsh term, but it is what people are saying just now, and would say louder over your tombstone; and, after all, whoever you pay wages to is a menial, and if large fortunes are left to them, especially females, why somehow it always makes scandal, and throws discredit on an honored name. I hope you will not be angry with me for speaking freely--we are old friends."
Mr. Sutton seemed to ponder. "I am afraid you are right. It is too much money to leave to a menial." Then, suddenly, "Seen Joe and his wife lately?"
"I saw them only yesterday," said the doctor, off his guard. "May I venture to tell them you will reconsider the matter?"
"Not from me. But you can tell who you like that, on second thoughts, I ought not to make a menial my executor."
"You are right. And I suppose you will not leave such a very large fortune--"
"To a menial? No."
The doctor went away pleased at his influence. Mr. Sutton rang the bell and bade a servant send Rebecca to him.
When she came he handed her a draft for £100, and told her she must get a wedding-dress ready-made, and waste no time, for she was to be married right off by special license.
"Me!" said she, staring, and then blushing. "Never."
"Next Monday, at 10:30," said he, calmly.
"No, sir," said she, resolutely. "I'll never leave my master. I always respected you, and now--I have nursed you. I-- Don't ask me to leave you--for I won't. Forgive me. I cannot. How could I? The idea!"
"Who asks you, goose? It is me you have got to marry."
"You, sir?" She blushed like a girl, she laughed, she looked at him to see if he was in earnest; then she said, "Well, I never!"
"Come, Becky," said he, "you are a woman now; don't waste time like a girl."
"I am a woman," said she, "and too much your friend to do this foolishness. Where's the use? I shall never leave you, whether or no. And finely the folk would talk if you were to marry your servant. See how they always do on such occasion. No, sir, if you will be ruled by me for once (she had been guiding him for years) you will let well alone. As a servant you have got a very good bargain in Becky Barnes. But I should be a bad bargain as a wife."
"Don't you--teach me--my business--Becky Barnes," said the master, severely. "I have been making bargains all my life, and never a bad one. 'Try 'em before you buy 'em' is a safe rule, and terribly neglected in marriages. I have had you under my eye twenty years in health and sickness. You are a good housekeeper, a tender nurse, a faithful friend, and you are going to be a good wife. Come, you'll have to obey me at last, so don't waste words, and don't waste time."
By this time Rebecca's face was red and her eye moist at such unwonted praise from a man who never exaggerated or flattered.
She looked at him softly, and said, with a pretty air of mock defiance,
"I'll tell everybody you made me."
"Say what you like, my dear, and do what I bid you." So then he drew her to him and kissed her; put the draft into her hand, and dispatched her to make her purchases.
Her pride was gratified. The nursing had brought their hearts nearer to each other, and she said to herself,
"After all, what does it matter to me? And if he is unhappy, why, it will be my fault. He shall not be unhappy."
She made her own wedding-dress for fear of unpunctual milliners.
Sunday night she had one cry over the illusions of her youth. It was but a short one. She asked herself, if those two men stood before her now which she should take.
"Why, the man, and not the cur."
They were married privately, on Monday, at 10:30.
At 11 came by appointment the lawyer and two witnesses. Mrs. Samuel Sutton was sent upstairs to put on her traveling dress. Meantime Mr. Sutton and the lawyer did business.
"Mr. Dawson, my second will was open to objection. I left too much to a menial."
"Well, sir," said the lawyer, "it was not for me to advise."
"But you agree with me."
"Well, then, cancel will No. 2."
"Both wills are canceled by your marriage, sir."
"Ah! I forgot. Well, draw me a will on the lines of my first. Only no rigmarole this time. I'm in a hurry. You can charge me for a volume, but put it all in the ace of spades, that's a good soul."
The lawyer consented, and handed Mr. Sutton testament No. 1 to peruse, and reminded him that in that testament the whole property was left to the Reverend Joseph Newton and his children--all but £5,000 to Rebecca Barnes.
"Yes. But £5,000 was not excessive."
"Not at all, if you knew the two parties. Well, sir, I don't think we can improve on the form of that will. Just reverse the provisions, that is all."
The lawyer stared.
"Leave the £5,000 to my nephew to play ducks and drakes with, and all my real and personal estate to my wife Rebecca Sutton and her heirs forever."
The lawyer stared, bowed, and set to work. Mr. Sutton left him to prepare for his journey; but in a few minutes came back and hurried him.
"Come, polish that off," said he. "We have only half an hour to get to the station."
"I could engross it and send it up to you for signature," suggested the solicitor.
"What! me go by rail intestate? No, thank you."
The will was drawn and attested, and as he signed it, Sutton said to the lawyer, "You see I have not left my fortune to a menial"--then, bitterly, "nor yet to mercenaries."
The wedded pair dashed up to London. Each looked lovingly at the other on the road, and Sutton said to himself, "I have done this marriage in a vulgar way. She was entitled to more sentiment; and--by Jove--now I look at her--she is a duck!"
He was right, every woman likes to be courted; and this one deserved it. Well, he first courted her after marriage instead of before; courted her as if she was a complete novelty; presents, nosegays, attentions of every kind; always by her side, and finding her some pleasure or another; and always good-humored, kind, and courteous in a plain, manly way.
She came back beaming with happiness, and he wore a conquering air that made folks smile.
Sneers flew about at home and abroad, and Mr. Sutton was now and then discomposed.
Rebecca's watchful eye saw it. She never said a word about it, but she ruminated.
One day the study door was ajar, and she heard Mr. Sutton's voice louder than usual. A tradesman was there and had said something blunt; she gathered as much from Mr. Sutton's answer. "Why, here's a to-do because a plain man of business has married his housekeeper that was brought up by his wife, and her father was just what I am, only not so lucky. One would think a duke had gone and married his kitchen wench. Well, yes, I took a peach out of my own garden instead of a prickly pear out of a swell hot-house; and all the better for me, and all the worse for Joe Newton."
Rebecca heard this in passing, turned round and put the tips of the fingers of both hands to her lips and blew the speaker a kiss through the door with an ardor, an abandon, and a grace that would have adorned a lady of distinction.
Next morning she went to work in her way. "My dear," said she, gayly, "I wonder whether you would give me a treat."
"Well, Becky, I am not found of denying you."
"No, indeed, you overindulge me. But the truth is I have a great desire to see foreign countries, if it is agreeable to you, dear."
"Agreeable to me! Why, I have been going to do it these thirty years."
"Oh, I'm so glad. Then will you arrange a tour for us, a nice long one?"
Mr. Sutton fell into this without seeing all that lay behind. It was a fair specimen of Rebecca's handiwork. By this means the house was shut up, the satirical servants discharged without a wrangle, and his friends and neighbors taught the value of Samuel Sutton by his absence.
The couple traveled Europe wisely; never bound themselves to leave a place half enjoyed, nor stay in it exhausted. They were eighteen months away, but spent the last six in a lovely villa near the Bois de Boulogne.
They came home with a thumping boy and a Norman nurse, and both parents looked younger than when they went.
The news spread like wild-fire.
"They bought that child abroad," said Mrs. Joe.
Alas! for that romantic theory, Rebecca nursed him herself and gloated over him, as mothers will, and fourteen months later produced a lovely girl.
The parents were happy in their children and themselves; both found in their own hearts unsuspected treasures of tenderness.
The wool-stapler was dictatorial in his own house; his wife docile whenever he laid down the law; but if he directed she suggested, and he generally went her way; sometimes without knowing it. Under her gentle influence he arranged a large business-like system of personal charity, and this increased so as to find them both occupation, and withdraw him by degrees from active trade without subjecting him to ennui.
He became a sleeping partner in the wool trade and an active partner in a large scheme of education, and judicious loans and relief, much of which emanated by degrees from an enlarged housekeeper feeling her way, and possessed of administrative ability.
When they drove out together they often sat hand in hand, as well as side by side, and one plain friend who saw their ways declared they were a young couple, and he would prove it.
"Ay, prove that, you dog," said Samuel Sutton, laughing.
"Well, I will. 'A man is as old as he feels, and a woman's as old as she looks.' "
The proverb was admitted, and the application thereof.
After a long struggle between poverty and pride the Rev. Joseph Newton wrote to his uncle a piteous tale of his young family--and begged relief.
He received an answer by return of post.
"MY DEAR JOE--This sort of thing is in your aunt's department. You had better write to her."
Then there was fury in the house of Newton. Reproaches--defiance--"Apply to that woman--never!"
A few more months and County Court summonses, and Joe was reproached as a bad father, who could not sacrifice his pride to his children's welfare.
So then Joe sent the hat to his aunt. He got a word of comfort and £100 by return of post; He was melted with gratitude, and said so openly.
Mrs. Joe snubbed him, and said it was a mere drop out of the ocean the woman had robbed them of.
Not a year passed without a contribution of this kind, sometimes unasked, sometimes solicited. Aunt Rebecca drew the checks, Uncle Samuel connived with a shrug; it was money thrown into a bottomless pit, and he knew it.
Only once did Aunt Rebecca send advice to her dilapidated nephew-- "You have enough, if you could but be master in your own house."
Which was wasted most, the advice or the money, is a problem to be solved by him who shall have squared the circle.
Years have rolled on, but they are all alive, these little studies; to call them characters might seem presumptuous.
When last seen Mr. Sutton was eighty, and looked sixty; Joe sixty-two, and looked seventy; Rebecca sixty, and looked forty--thanks to goodness, a nature affectionate, not passionate, and her light brick-dust color; Mrs. Joseph Newton sixty-one, and looked eighty.
"Scornful dogs eat dirty puddings." She still speaks disdainfully of "that woman," and takes that woman's money, and awaits the decease of Uncle Samuel, and he looks the very man to outlive her.
The title of this story is a fine one, and there are many examples of its truth in history besides the above tale, the leading incident of which is true to the letter. That title, though it reads idiomatic, is but a happy translation. The original is Greek, and comes down to us with an example. To the best of my recollection, the ancient legend runs that a Greek philosopher was discoursing to his pupil on the inability of man to foresee the future--ay, even the event of the next minute. The pupil may have perhaps granted the uncertainty of the distant future, but he scouted the notion that men could not make sure of immediate and consecutive events. By way of illustration, he proceeded to fill a goblet.
"I predict," said he, sneeringly, "that, after filling this goblet, the next event will be I shall drink the wine."
Accordingly he filled the goblet. At that moment his servant ran in. "Master! master! a wild boar in our vineyard."
The master caught up his javelin directly, and ran out to find the boar and kill him.
He had the luck to find the boar, and attacked him with such spirit that Sir Boar killed him, and the goblet remained filled.
From that incident arose in Greece the saying,
This has been Englished, thus:
"There's many a slip
'Twixt the cup and the lip."
And to my mind the superiority of the English language is shown here, for an original writer has always a certain advantage over a translator, yet the English couplet expresses in eleven syllables all that the Greek hexameter says in sixteen; and our couplet, close as it is, can be reduced to eight syllables without weakening or obscuring the sense--
"Many a slip
'Twixt cup and lip."
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