I was promised to William, in a manner of speaking, close upon seven year. What I mean to say is, when he was nigh upon fourteen, and was to go away to his uncle in Somerset to learn farming, he gave me a kiss and half of a broken sixpence, and said--
'Kate, I shall never think of any girl but you, and you must never think of any chap but me.'
And the Lord in His goodness knows that I never did.
Father and mother laughed a bit, and called it child's nonsense; but they was willing enough for all that, for William was a likely chap, and would be well-to-do when his good father died, which I am sure I never wished nor prayed for. All the trouble come from his going to Somerset to learn farming, for his uncle that was there was a Roman, and he taught William a good deal more than he set out to learn, so that presently nothing would do but William must turn Roman Catholic himself. I didn't mind, bless you. I never could see what there was to make such a fuss about betwixt the two lots of them. Lord love us! we're all Christians, I should hope. But father and mother was dreadful put out when the letter come saying William had been 'received' (like as if he was a parcel come by carrier). Father, he says--
'Well, Kate, least said soonest mended. But I had rather see you laid out on the best bed upstairs than I'd see you married to William, a son of the Scarlet Woman.'
In my silly innocence I couldn't think what he meant, for William's mother was a decent body, who wore a lilac print on week-days and a plain black gown on Sunday for all she was a well-to-do farmer's wife, and might have gone smart as a cock pheasant.
It was at tea-time, and I was a-crying on to my bread-and-butter, and mother sniffing a little for company behind the tea-tray, and father, he bangs down his fist in a way to make the cups rattle again, and he says--
'You've got to give him up, my girl. You write and tell him so, and I'll take the letter as I go down to the church to-night to practice. I've been a good father to you, and you must be a good girl to me; and if you was to marry him, him being what he is, I'd never speak to you again in this world or the next.'
'You wouldn't have any chance in the next, I'm afraid, James,' said my mother gently, 'for her poor soul, it couldn't hope to go to the blessed place after that.'
'I should hope not,' said my father, and with that he got up and went out, half his tea not drunk left in the mug.
Well, I wrote that letter, and I told William right enough that him and me could never be anything but friends, and that he must think of me as a sister, and that was what father told me to say. But I hope it wasn't very wrong of me to put in a little bit of my own, and this is what I said after I had told him about the friend and sister--
'But, dear William,' says I, 'I shall never love anybody but you, that you may rely, and I will live an old maid to the end of my days rather than take up with any other chap; and I should like to see you once, if convenient, before we part for ever, to tell you all this, and to say "Good-bye" and "God bless you." So you must find out a way to let me know quiet when you come home from learning the farming in Somerset.'
And may I be forgiven the deceitfulness, and what I may call the impudence of it! I really did give father that same letter to post, and him believing me to be a better girl than I was, to my shame, posted it, not doubting that I had only wrote what he told me.
That was the saddest summer ever I had. The roses was nothing to me, nor the lavender neither, that I had always been so fond of; and as for the raspberries, I don't believe I should have cared if there hadn't been one on the canes; and even the little chickens, I thought them a bother, and--it goes to my heart to say it--a whole sitting was eaten by the rats in consequence. Everything seemed to go wrong. The butter was twice as long a-coming as ever I knowed it, and the broad beans got black fly, and father lost half his hay with the weather. If it had been me that had done something unkind, father would have said it was a Providence on me. But, of course, I knew better than to speak up to my own father, with his hay lying rotting and smoking in the ten-acre, and telling him he was a-being judged.
Well, the harvest was got in. It was neither here nor there. I have seen better years and I have seen worse. And October come. I was getting to bed one night; at least, I hadn't begun to undress, for I was sitting there with William's letters, as he had wrote me from time to time while he was in Somerset, and I was reading them over and thinking of William, silly fashion, as a young girl will, and wishing it had been me was a Roman Catholic and him a Protestant, because then I could have gone into a convent like the wicked people in father's story-books. I was in that state of silliness, you see, that I would have liked to do something for William, even if it was only going into a convent--to be bricked up alive, perhaps. And then I hears a scratch, scratch, scratching, and 'Drat the mice,' says I; but I didn't take any notice, and then there was a little tap, tapping, like a bird would make with its beak on the window-pane, and I went and opened it, thinking it was a bird that had lost its way and was coming foolish-like, as they will, to the light. So I drew the curtain and opened the window, and it was--William!
'Oh, go away, do,' says I; 'father will hear you.'
He had climbed up by the pear-tree that grew right and left up the wall, and--
'I ask your pardon,' says he, 'my pretty sweetheart, for making so free as to come to your window this time of night, but there didn't seem any other way.'
'Oh, go, dear William, do go,' says I. I expected every moment to see the door open and father put his head in.
'I'm not going,' said William, 'till you tell me where you'll meet me to say "Good-bye" and "God bless you," like you said in the letter.'
Though I knew the whole parish better than I know the palm of my hand, if you'll believe me, I couldn't for the life of me for the moment think of any place where I could meet William, and I stood like a fool, trembling. Oh, what a jump I gave when I heard a noise like a heavy foot in the garden outside!
'Oh! it's father got round. Oh! he'll kill you, William. Oh! whatever shall we do?'
'Nonsense!' said William, and he caught hold of my shoulder and gave me a gentle little shake. 'It was only one of these pears as I kicked off. They must be as hard as iron to fall like that.'
Then he gave me a kiss, and I said: 'Then I'll meet you by the Parson's Shave to-morrow at half-past five, and do go. My heart's a-beating so I can hardly hear myself speak.'
'Poor little bird!' says William. Then he kissed me again and off he went; and considering how quiet he came, so that even I couldn't hear him, you would not believe the noise he made getting down that pear-tree. I thought every minute some one would be coming in to see what was happening.
Well, the next day I went about my work as frightened as a rabbit, and my heart beating fit to choke me, trying not to think of what I had promised to do. At tea-time father says, looking straight before him--
'William Birt has come home, Kate. You remember I've got your promise not to pass no words with him, him being where he is, without the fold, among the dogs and things.'
And I didn't answer back, though I knew well enough it wasn't honest; but he hadn't got my word. Father had brought me up careful and kind, and I knew my duty to my parents, and I meant to do it, too. But I couldn't help thinking I owed a little bit of a duty to William, and I meant doing that, so far as keeping my promise to meet him that afternoon went. So after tea I says, and I do think it is almost the only lie I ever told--
'Mother,' I says, 'I've got the jumping toothache, and it's that bad I can hardly see to thread my needle.'
Then she says, as I knew she would, her being as kind an old soul as ever trod: 'Go and lie down a bit and put the old sheepskin coat over your head, and I'll get on with the darning.'
So I went upstairs trembling all over. I took the bolster and pillow and put them under the covers, to look as like me as I could, and I put the old sheepskin coat at the top of all; and as you come into the room any one would have thought it was me lying there with the toothache. Then I took my hat and shawl and I went out, quiet as a mouse, through the dairy. When I got to the Parson's Shave there was William, and I was so glad to see him, I didn't think of nothing else for full half a minute. Then William said--
'It's only one field to the church. Why not go up there and sit in the porch? See, it's coming on to rain.'
So he took my arm, and we started across the field, where all the days of the year but one you would not meet a soul. We went up through the churchyard. It was 'most dark, but I wasn't a bit afraid with William's arm round me. But when we got to the porch and had sat down, I was sorry I'd come, for I heard feet on the road below, and they stopped outside the lychgate.
'Come, quick,' says I, 'or we're caught like rats in a trap. If I am going to give you up to please father, I may as well please him all round. There's no reason why he should know I've seen you.'
'So we stole on our tiptoes round to the little door that is hardly ever fastened, and so through to the tower. Father being one of the bellringers, I knew every step. There's a stone seat cut out of the wall in the bellringers' loft, and there we sat down again, and I was just going to tell him again what I had said in the letter about being his sister and a friend, which seemed to comfort me somehow, though William has told me since it never would have him, when William, he gripped my hand like iron, and ''S-sh!' says he, 'listen.' And I listened, and oh! what I felt when I heard footsteps coming up the tower. I didn't dare speak a word to him, and only kept tight hold of his hand, and pulled him along till we got to the tower steps, and went on up. But I says to myself, 'Oh, what's my head made of, to forget that it's practising night? and Him the church was built for only knows how long they won't be here practising!' We went on up the twisted cobwebby stairs, with bits of broken birds' nests that crackled under our feet that loud I thought for sure the folks below must hear us; and we got into the belfry, and there William was for staying, but I whispered to him--
'If you hear them bells when they're all a-going, you won't never hear much else. We must get on up out of it unless we want to be deaf the rest of our lives.'
And it was pitch dark in the belfry, except for the little grey slits where the shuttered windows are. The owls and starlings were frightened, I suppose, at hearing us, though why they should have been, I don't know, being used to the bells; and they flew about round us liker ghosts than anything feathered, and one great owl flopped out right into my face, till I nearly screamed again. It was all very, very dusty, and not being able to see, and being afraid to strike a light, we had to feel along the big beams for our way between the bells, I going first, because I knew the way, and reaching back a hand every now and then to see that William was coming after me safe and sound. On hands and knees we had to go for safety, and all the while I was dreading they would start the bells a-going and, maybe, shake William, who wasn't as used to it as I was, off the beams, and him perhaps be smashed to pieces by the bells as they swung.
I don't know how long it took us to get across the belfry to the corner where the ladder is that leads up to the tower-top. William says it must have been about a couple of minutes, but I think it was much more like half an hour. I thought we should never get there, and oh! what it was to me when I came to the end of the last beam, and got my foot down on the firm floor again, and the ladder in my hand, and William behind me! So up we went, me first again, because I knew the way and the fastenings of the door. And that part of it wasn't so bad, for I will say, if you've got to go up a long ladder, it's better to go up in the dark, when you can't see what's below you if you happen to slip; and I got up and opened the door, and it was light out of doors and fresh with the rain--though that had stopped now.
Then William would take his coat off, and put it round me, for all I begged him not, and presently the tower began to shake and the bells began, and directly they began I knew what they was up to.
'O William,' I says, 'it's Grandsire Triples, and there's five thousand and fifty changes to 'em, and it's a matter of three hours!'
But he couldn't hear a word I said for the bells. So then I took his coat and my shawl, and we wrapped them round both our heads to shut the bells out, and then we could hear each other speak inside.
I'm not going to write down all I said nor all he said, which was only foolishness--and besides, it come to nothing after all. But somehow the time wasn't long; and it's a funny thing, but unhappy and happy you can be at the same time when you are with one you love and are going to leave. William, he begged and prayed of me not to give him up. But I said I knew my duty, and he said he hoped I would think better of it, and I said, 'No, never,' and then we kissed each other again, and the bells went on, and on, and on, clingle, clangle, clingle, chim, chime, chim, chime, till I was 'most dazed, and felt as if I had lived up there all my life, and was going to live up there twenty lives longer.
'I'll wait for you all my life long,' says William. 'Not that I wish the old man any harm, but it's not in the nature of things your father can live for ever, and then--'
'It ain't no use thinking of that, William,' said I. 'Father is sure to make me promise never to have you--when he's dying, and I can't refuse him anything. It's just the kind of thing he'd think of.'
Perhaps you will think William ought to have made more stand, for everybody likes a masterful man; but what stand can you make when you are up in a belfry with the bells shouting and yelling at you, and when the girl you are with won't listen to reason? And you have no idea what them bells were. Often and often since then I have started up in the bed thinking I heard them again. It was enough to drive one distracted.
'Well,' says William, 'you'll give me up, but I'll never give you up; and you mark my words, you and me will be man and wife some day.'
And as he said it, the bells stopped sudden in the middle of a change. The rain had come on again. It was very chill up there. My teeth was chattering, and so was William's, though he pretended he did it for the joke.
'Let's get inside again,' says he. 'Perhaps they are going home, and if they are not, we can stay there till they begin it again.'
So we opened the door and crept down the ladder. There was light now coming up from the bellringers' loft through the holes in the floor, and we got down to the belfry easy, and as we got to the bottom of the ladder I heard my father's voice in the loft below--
'I don't believe it,' he was shouting. 'It can't be true. She's a God-fearing girl.'
And then I heard my mother. 'Come home, James,' she said, 'come home--it's true. I told you you was too hard on them. Young folks will be young folks, and now, perhaps, our little girl has come to shame instead of being married decent, as she might have been, though Roman.'
Then there was silence for a bit, and then my father says, speaking softer, 'Tell me again. I can't think but what I'm dreaming.'
Then mother says--'Don't I tell you she said she'd got the toothache, and she was going to lie down a bit, and I went to take her up some camomiles I'd been hotting, and she wasn't there, and her bolsters and pillows, poor lamb, made up to pretend she was, and Johnson's Ben, he see her along of William Birt by the Parson's Shave with his arm round her--God forgive them both!'
Then says my father, 'Here's an end on't. She's no daughter o' mine. If she was to come back to me, I'd turn her out of doors. Don't let any one name her name to me never no more. I hain't got no daughter,' he said, 'and may the Lord--'
I think my mother put her hands afore his mouth, for he stopped short, and mother, she said--
'Don't curse them, James. You'll be sorry for it, and they'll have trouble enough without that.'
And with that father and mother must have gone away, and the other ringers stood talking a bit.
'She'd best not come back,' said the leader, John Evans. 'Out a-gallivanting with a young chap from five to eight as I understand! What's the good of coming back? She's lost her character, and a gal without a character, she's like--like--'
'Like a public-house without a licence,' said the second ringer.
'Or a cart without a horse,' said the treble.
There was only one man spoke up for me--that was Jim Piper at the general shop. 'I don't believe no harm of that gal,' says he, 'no more nor I would of my own missus, nor yet of him.'
'Well, let's hope for the best,' said the others. But I had a sort of feeling they was hoping for the worst, because when things goes wrong, it's always more amusing for the lookers-on than when everything goes right. Presently they went clattering down the steps, and all was dark, and there was me and William among the cobwebs and the owls, holding each other's hands, and as cold as stone, both of us.
'Well?' says William, when everything was quiet again.
'Well!' says I. 'Good-bye, William. He won't be as hard as his word, and if I couldn't give you all my life to be a good wife to you, I have given you my character, it seems; not willing, it's true; but there's nothing I should grudge you, William, and I don't regret it, and good-bye.'
But he held my hands tight.
'Good-bye, William,' I says again. 'I'm going. I'm going home.'
'Yes, my girl,' says he, 'you are going home; you're going home with me to my mother.' And he was masterful enough then, I can tell you. 'If your father would throw you off without knowing the rights or wrongs of the story, it's not for him you should be giving up your happiness and mine, my girl. Come home to my mother, and let me see the man who dares to say anything against my wife.'
And whether it was father's being so hard and saying what he did about me before all those men, or whether it was me knowing that mother had stood up for us secret all the time, or whether it was because I loved William so much, or because he loved me so much, I don't know. But I didn't say another word, only began to cry, and we got downstairs and straight home to William's mother, and we told her all about it; and we was cried in church next Sunday, and I stayed with the old lady until we was married, and many a year after; and a good mother she was to me, though only in law, and a good granny to our children when they come. And I wasn't so unhappy as you may think, because mother come to see me directly, and she was at our wedding; and father, he didn't say anything to prevent her going.
When I was churched after my first, and the boy was christened--in our own church, for I had made William promise it should be so if ever we had any--mother was there, and she said to me: 'Take the child,' she said, 'and go to your father at home; and when he sees the child, he'll come round, I'll lay a crown; for his bark,' she says, 'was allus worse than his bite.'
And I did so, and the pears was hard and red on the wall as they was the night William climbed up to my window, and I went into the kitchen, and there was father sitting in his big chair, and the Bible on the table in front of him, with his spectacles; but he wasn't reading, and if it had been any one else but father, I should have said he had been crying. And so I went in, and I showed him the baby, and I said--
'Look, father, here's our little baby; and he's named James, for you, father, and christened in church the same as I was. And now I have got a child of my own,' says I, for he didn't speak, 'dear father, I know what it is to have a child of your own go against your wishes, and please God mine never will--or against yours either. But I couldn't help it, and O father, do forgive me!'
And he didn't say anything, but he kissed the boy, and he kissed him again. And presently he says--
'It's 'most time your mother was home from church. Won't you be setting the tea, Kate?'
So I give him the baby to hold, for I knew everything was all right betwixt us.
And all the children have been christened in the church. But I think when father is taken from us--which in the nature of things he must be, though long may it be first!--I think I shall be a Roman Catholic too; for it doesn't seem to me to matter much one way or the other, and it would please William very much, and I am sure it wouldn't hurt me. And what's the good of being married to the best man in the world if you can't do a little thing like that to please him?