I had never been out to service before, and I thought it a grand thing when I got a place at Charleston Farm. Old Mr. Alderton was close-fisted enough, and while he had the management of the farm it was a place no girl need have wished to come to; but now Mr. Alderton had given up farming this year or two, and young Master Harry, he had the management of everything. Mr. Alderton, he stuck in one room with his books, which he was always fond of above a bit, and must needs be waited on hand and foot, only driving over to Lewes every now and then.
Six pounds a year I was to have, and a little something extra at Christmas, according as I behaved myself. It was Master Harry who engaged me. He rode up to our cottage one fine May morning, looking as grand on his big grey horse, and says he, through the stamping clatter of his horse's hoofs on the paved causeway--
'Are you Deresby's Poll?' says he.
And I says, 'Yes; what might you be wanting?'
'We want a good maid up at the farm,' says he, patting his horse's neck--'Steady, old boy--and they tell me you're a good girl that wants a good place, and ours is a good place that wants a good girl. So if our wages suit you, when can you come?'
And I said, 'Tuesday, if that would be convenient.'
And he took off his hat to me as if I was a queen, though I was floury up to the elbows, being baking-day, and rode off down the lane between the green trees, and no king could have looked handsomer.
Charleston is a lonesome kind of house. It's bare and white, with the farm buildings all round it, except on one side where the big pond is; and lying as it does, in the cup of the hill, it seems to shut loneliness in and good company out.
I was to be under Mrs. Blake, who had been housekeeper there since the old mistress died. No one knew where she came from, or what had become of Mr. Blake, if ever there had been one. For my part I never thought she was a widow, and always expected some day to see Mr. Blake walk in and ask for his wife. But as a widow she came, and as a widow she passed.
She had just that kind of handsome, black, scowling looks that always seem to need a lot of black jet and crape to set them off--the kind of complexion that seems to be playing up for the widow's weeds from the very cradle. I have heard it said she was handsome, and so she may have been; and she took a deal of care of her face, always wearing a veil when there was a wind, and her hands to have gloves, if you please, for every bit of dirty work.
But she was a capable woman, and she soon put me in the way of my work; and me and Betty, who was a little girl of fourteen from Alfreston, had most of the housework to do, for Mrs. Blake would let none of us do a hand's-turn for the old master. It was she must do everything, and as he got more and more took up with his books there come to be more and more waiting on him in his own room; and after a bit Mrs. Blake used even to sit and write for him by the hour together.
I have heard tell old Mr. Alderton wasn't brought up to be a farmer, but was a scholar when he was young, and had to go into farming when he married Hakes's daughter as brought the farm with her; and now he had gone back to his books he was more than ever took up with the idea of finding something out--making something new that no one had ever made before--his invention, he called it, but I never understood what it was all about--and indeed Mrs. Blake took very good care I shouldn't.
She wanted no one to know anything about the master except herself--at least that was my opinion--and if that was her wish she certainly got it.
It was hard work, but I'm not one to grudge a hand's-turn here or a hand's-turn there, and I was happy enough; and when the men came in for their meals I always had everything smoking hot, and just as I should wish to sit down to it myself: And when the men come in, Master Harry always come in with them, and he'd say, 'Bacon and greens again, Polly, and done to a turn, I'll wager. You're the girl for my money!' and sit down laughing to a smoking plateful.
And so I was quite happy, and with my first six months' money I got father a new pipe and a comforter agin the winter, and as pretty a shepherd's plaid shawl as ever you see for mother, and a knitted waistcoat for my brother Jim, as had wanted one this two year, and had enough left to buy myself a bonnet and gown that I didn't feel ashamed to sit in church in under Master Harry's own blue eye. Mrs. Blake looked very sour when she saw my new things.
'You think to catch a young man with those,' says she. 'You gells is all alike. But it isn't fine feathers as catches a husband, as they say. Don't you believe it.'
And I said, 'No; a husband as was caught so easy might be as easy got rid of, which was convenient sometimes.'
And we come nigh to having words about it.
That was the day before old master went off to London unexpected. When Mrs. Blake heard he was going, she said she would take the opportunity of his being away to make so bold as to ask him for a day's holiday to go and visit her friends in Ashford. So she and master went in the trap to the station together, and off by the same train; and curious enough, it was by the same train in the evening they come back, and I thought to myself, 'That's like your artfulness, Mrs. Blake, getting a lift both ways.'
And I wondered to myself whether her friends in Ashford, supposing she had any, was as glad to see her as we was glad to get rid of her.
That's a day I shall always remember, for other things than her and master going away.
That was the day Betty and I got done early, and she wanted to run home to her mother to see about her clean changes for Sunday, which hadn't come according to expectations.
So I said, 'Off you go, child, and mind you're back by tea,' and I sat down in the clean kitchen to do up my old Sunday bonnet and make it fit for everyday.
And as I was sitting there, with the bits of ribbons and things in my lap, unpicking the lining of the bonnet, I heard the back door open, and thinking it was one of the men bringing in wood, maybe, I didn't turn my head, and next minute there was Master Harry had got his hand under my chin and holding my head back, and was kissing me as if he never meant to stop.
'Lor bless you, Master Harry,' says I, as soon as I could push him away, dropping all the ribbons and scissors and things in my flurry, 'how could you fashion to behave so? And me alone in the house! I thought you had better sense.'
'Don't be cross, Polly,' says he, smiling at me till I could have forgiven him much more than that, and going down on his knees to pick up my bits of rubbish. 'You know well enough who my choice is. I haven't lived in the house with you six months without finding out there's only one girl as I should like to keep my house to the end of the chapter.'
He had that took me by surprise that I give you my word that for a minute or two I couldn't say anything, but sat looking like a fool and taking the ribbons and things from his hands as he picked them up.
When I come to my senses I said, 'I don't know what maggot has bit you, sir, to think of such nonsense. What would the master say, and Mrs. Blake and all?'
Well, he got up off his knees and walked up and down the kitchen twice in a pretty fume, and he said a bad word about what Mrs. Blake might say that I'm not going to write down here.
'And as for my father,' says he, 'I know he's ideas above what's fitting for farmer folk, but I know best what's the right choice for me, and if you won't mind me not telling him, and will wait for me patient, and will give me a kind word and a kiss on a Sunday, so to say, you and me will be happy together, and you shall be mistress of the farm when the poor old dad's time comes to go. Not that I wish his time nearer by an hour, for all I love you so dear, Polly.'
And I hope I did what was right, though it was with a sore heart, for I said--
'I couldn't stay on in your folks' house to have secret understandings with you, Master Harry. That ain't to be thought of. But I do say this--'tain't likely that I shall marry any other chap; and if, when you come to be master of Charleston, you are in the same mind, why you can speak your mind to me again, and I'll listen to you then with a freer heart, maybe, than I can to-day.'
And with that I bundled all my odds and ends into the dresser drawer, and took the kettle off, which was a-boiling over.
'And now,' I says, 'no more of this talk, if you and me is to keep friends.'
'Shake hands on it,' says he; 'you're a good girl, Polly, and I see more than ever what a lucky man I shall be the day I go to church with you; and I'll not say another word till I can say it afore all the world, with you to answer "Yes" for all the world to hear.'
So that was settled, and, of course, from that time I kept myself more than ever to myself, not even passing the time of day with a young man if I could help it, because I wanted to keep all my thoughts and all my words for Master Harry, if he should ever want me again.
Well, as I said, old Master and Mrs. Blake come back together from the station, and from that day forward Mrs. Blake was unbearabler than ever. And one day when Mr. Sigglesfield, the lawyer from Lewes, was in the parlour, she a-talking to him after he'd been up to see master (about his will, no doubt), she opened the parlour door sharp and sudden just as I was bringing the tea for her to have it with him like a lady--she opened the door sudden, as I say, and boxed my ears as I stood, and I should have dropped the tea-tray but for me being brought up a careful girl, and taught always to hold on to the tea-tray with all my fingers.
I'm proud to say I didn't say a word, but I put down that tea-tray and walked into the kitchen with my ear as hot as fire and my temper to match, which was no wonder and no disgrace. Then she come into the kitchen.
'You go this day month, Miss,' she says, 'a-listening at doors when your betters is a-talking. I'll teach you!' says she, and back she goes into the parlour.
But I took no notice of what she said, for Master Harry, he hired me, and I would take no notice from any one but him.
Mr. Sigglesfield was a-coming pretty often just then, and Harry he come to me one day, and he says--
'It's all right, Polly, and I must tell you because you're the same as myself, though I don't like to talk as if we was waiting for dead men's shoes. Long may he wear them! But father's told me he has left everything to me, right and safe, though I am the second son. My brother John never did get on with father, but when all's mine, we'll see that John don't starve.'
And that day week old master was a corpse.
He was found dead in his bed, and the doctor said it was old age and a sudden breaking up.
Mrs. Blake she cried and took on fearful, more than was right or natural, and when the will was to be read in the parlour after the funeral she come into the kitchen where I was sitting crying too--not that I was fond of old master, but the kind of crying there is at funerals is catching, I think, and besides, I was sorry for Master Harry, who was a good son, and quite broken down.
'You can come and hear the will read,' she says, 'for all your impudence, you hussy!'
And I don't know why I went in after her impudence, but I did. Mr. Sigglesfield was there, and some of the relations, who had come a long way to hear if they was to pull anything out of the fire; and Master Harry was there, looking very pale through all his sun-brownness. And says he, 'I suppose the will's got to be read, but my father, he told me what I was to expect. It's all to me, and one hundred to Mrs. Blake, and five pounds apiece to the servants.'
And Mr. Sigglesfield looks at him out of his ferret eyes, and says very quietly, 'I think the will had better be read, Mr. Alderton.'
'So I think,' says Mrs. Blake, tossing her head and rubbing her red eyes with her handkerchief at the same minute almost.
And read it was, and all us people sat still as mice, listening to the wonderful tale of it. For wonderful it was, though folded up very curious and careful in a pack of lawyer's talk. And when it was finished, Master Harry stood up on his feet, and he said--
'I don't understand your cursed lawyer's lingo. Does this mean that my father has left me fifty pounds, and has left the rest, stock, lock and barrel, to his wife Martha. Who in hell,' he says, 'is his wife Martha?'
And at that Mrs. Blake stood up and fetched a curtsy to the company.
'That's me,' she said, 'by your leave; married two months come Tuesday, and here's my lines.'
And there they were. There was no getting over them. Married at St. Mary Woolnoth, in London, by special licence.
'O you wicked old Jezebel!' says Master Harry, shaking his fist at her; 'here's a fine end for a young man's hopes! Is it true?' says he, turning to the lawyer. And Mr. Sigglesfield shakes his head and says--
'I am afraid so, my poor fellow.'
'Jezebel, indeed!' cries Mrs. Blake. 'Out of my house, my young gamecock! Get out and crow on your own dunghill, if you can find one.'
And Harry turned and went without a word. Then I slipped out too, and I snatched my old bonnet and shawl off their peg in the kitchen, and I ran down the lane after him.
'Harry,' says I, and he turned and looked at me like something that's hunted looks when it gets in a corner and turns on you. Then I got up with him and caught hold of his arm with both my hands. 'Never mind the dirty money,' says I. 'What's a bit of money,' I says--'what is it, my dear, compared with true love? I'll work my fingers to the bone for you,' says I, 'and we're better off than her when all's said and done.'
'So we are, my girl,' says he; and the savage look went out of his face, and he kissed me for the second time.
Then we went home, arm-under-arm, to my mother's, and we told father and mother all about it; and mother made Harry up a bit of a bed on the settle, and he stayed with us till he could pull himself together and see what was best to be done.
Of course, our first thought was, 'Was she really married?' And it was settled betwixt us that Harry should go up to London to the church named in her marriage lines and see if it was a real marriage or a make-up, like what you read of in the weekly papers. And Harry went up, I settling to go the same day to fetch my clothes from Charleston.
So as soon as I had seen him off by the train, I walked up to Charleston, and father with me, to fetch my things.
Mrs. Blake--for Mrs. Alderton I can't and won't call her--was out, and I was able to get my bits of things together comfortable without her fussing and interfering. But there was a pair of scissors of mine I couldn't find, and I looked for them high and low till I remembered that I had lent them to Mrs. Blake the week before. So I went to her room to look for them, thinking no harm; and there, looking in her corner cupboard for my scissors, as I had a right to do, I found something else that I hadn't been looking for; and, right or wrong, I put that in my pocket and said nothing to father, and so we went home and sat down to wait for Harry.
He came in by the last train, looking tired and gloomy.
'They were married right enough,' he said. 'I've seen the register, and I've seen the clerk, and he remembers them being married.'
'Then you'd better have a bit of supper, my boy,' says mother, and takes it smoking hot out of the oven.
The next day when I had cleared away breakfast, I stood looking into the street. It was a cold day, and a day when nobody would be out of doors that could anyways be in. I shouldn't have had my nose out of the door myself, except that I wanted to turn my back on other folks now, and think of what I had found at Charleston, for I hadn't even told Harry of it yet.
And as I sat there, who should come along but the postman, as is my second cousin by the mother's side, and, 'Well, Polly,' says he, 'times do change. They tell me young Alderton is biding with your folks now.'
'They tell you true for once,' says I.
'Then 'tain't worth my while to be trapesing that mile and a quarter to leave a letter at the farm, I take it, especially as it's a registered letter, and him not there to sign for it.'
So I calls Harry out, who was smoking a pipe in the chimney-corner, as humped and gloomy as a fowl on a wet day, and he was as surprised as me at getting a letter with a London postmark, and registered too; and he was that surprised that he kept turning it over and over, and wondering who it could have come from, till we thought it would be the best way to open and see, and we did.
'Well, I'm blowed!' says Harry; and then he read it out to me. It was--
'MY DEAR BROTHER,--I have seen in the papers the melancholy account of our poor father's decease, and the disastrous circumstances of his second marriage; and the more I have thought of it, the more it seems to me that there was a screw loose somewhere. I had the misfortune, as you know, to offend him by my choice of a profession; but you will be glad to hear that I have risen from P.C. to detective-sergeant, and am doing well.
'I have made a few inquiries about the movements of our lamented father and Mrs. Blake on the day when they were united, and if the same will be agreeable to you, I will come down Sunday morning and talk matters over with you.--I remain, my dear brother, your affectionate brother,
JOHN. 'P.S. I shall register the letter to make sure. Telegraph if you would like me to come.'
Well, we telegraphed, though mother doesn't hold with such things, looking on it as flying in the face of Providence and what's natural. But we got it all in, with the address, for sixpence, and Harry was as pleased as Punch to think of seeing his brother again. But mother said she doubted if it would bring a blessing. And on the Sunday morning John came.
He was a very agreeable, gentlemanly man, with such manners as you don't see in Littlington--no, nor in Polegate neither,--and very changed from the boy with the red cheeks as used to come past our house on his way to school when he was very little.
Harry met him at the station and brought him home, and when he come in he kissed me like a brother, and mother too, and he said--
'The best good of trouble, ma'am, is to show you who your friends really are.'
'Ah,' says mother, 'I doubt if all the detectives in London, asking your pardon, Master John, can set Master Harry up in his own again. But he's got a pair of hands, and so has my Polly, and he might have chosen worse, though I says it.'
Now, after dinner, when I'd cleared away, nothing would serve but I must go out with the two of them. So we went out, and walked up on to the Downs for quietness' sake, and it was a warm day and soft, though November, and we leaned against a grey gate and talked it all over.
Then says Master John, 'Look here, Polly, we aren't to have any secrets from you. There's no doubt they were married, but doesn't it seem to you rather strange that my poor old father should have been taken off so suddenly after the wedding?'
'Yes,' I said, 'but the doctors seemed to understand all about it.'
Then he said something about the doctors that it was just as well they weren't there to hear, and he went on--
'Of course I thought at first they weren't married, so I set about finding out what they did when they came to London; and I haven't found out what my father did, but I did pounce on a bit of news, and that's that she wasn't with him the whole day. They came to Charing Cross by the same train, but he wasn't with her when she went to get that arsenic from the chemist's.'
'What!' says I, 'arsenic?'
'Yes,' says John, 'don't you get excited, my dear. I found that out by a piece of luck once as doesn't come to a man every day of the week. A woman answering to her description went into a chemist's shop, and the assistant gave the arsenic, a shilling's-worth it was, to kill rats with.'
'And God above only knows why they put such bits of fools into a shop to sell sixpenny-worths of death over the counter,' says Harry.
'Now the question is: Was this woman answering to her description really Mrs. Blake or not?'
'It was Mrs. Blake,' says I, very short and sharp.
'How do you know?' says John, shorter and sharper.
Then I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out what I had found in Mrs. Blake's corner cupboard, and John took it in his hand and looked at it, and whistled long and low. It was a little white packet, and had been opened and the label torn across, but you could read what was on it plain enough--'Arsenic--Poison,' and the name of the chemist in London.
John's face was red as fire, like some men's is when they're going in fighting, and my Harry's as white as milk, as some other men's is at such times. But as for me, I fell a-crying to think that any woman could be so wicked, and him such a good master and so kind to her, and she having the sole care of him, helpless in her hands as the new-born babe.
And Harry, he patted me on the back, and told me to cheer up and not to cry, and to be a good girl; and presently, my handkerchief being wet through, I stopped, and then John, he said--
'We'll bring it home to her yet, Harry, my boy. I'll get an order to have poor old father exhumed, and the doctors shall tell us how much of the arsenic that cursed old hag gave him.'
IV I don't know what you have to do to get an order to open up a grave and look at the poor dead person after it is once put away, but, whatever it was, John knew and did it.
We didn't tell any one except our dear old parson who buried the old man; and he listened to all we had to say, and shook his head and said, 'I think you are wrong--I think you are wrong,' but that was only natural, him not liking to see his good work disturbed. But he said he would be there.
Now, no one was told of it, and yet it seemed as if every one for miles round knew more than we did about it.
Afore the day come, old Mrs. Jezebel up at the farm, she met me one day, and she says, 'You're a pretty puss, aren't you, howking up my poor dear deceased husband's remains before they're hardly cold? Much good you'll do yourself. You'll end in the workhouse, my fine miss, and I shall come to see you as a lady visitor when you're dying.'
I tried to get past her, but she wouldn't let me. 'I wish you joy o' that Harry, cursed young brute!' says she. 'It serves him right, it does, to marry a girl out of the gutter!'
And with that--I couldn't help it--I fetched her a smack on the side of the face with the flat of my hand as hard as I could, and bolted off, her after me, and me being young and she stout she couldn't keep up with me. Gutter, indeed! and my father a respectable labourer, and known far and wide.
There were several strangers come the day the coffin was got up. It was a dreadful thing to me to see them digging, not to make a grave to be filled up, but to empty one. And there were a lot of people there I didn't know; and the parson, and another parson, seemingly a friend of his, and every one as could get near looking on.
They got the coffin up, and they took it to the room at the Star, at Alfreston, where inquests are held, and the doctors were there, and we were all shut out. And Harry and John and I stood on the stairs. But parson, being a friend of the doctor's, he was let in, him and his friend. And we heard voices and the squeak of the screws as they was drawn out; and we heard the coffin lid being laid down, and then there was a hush, and some one spoke up very sharp inside, and we couldn't hear what he said for the noise and confusion that came from every one speaking at once, and nineteen to the dozen it seemed.
'What is it?' says Harry, trembling like a leaf: 'O my God! what is it? If they don't open the door afore long, by God, I shall burst it open! He was murdered, he was! And if they wait much longer, that woman will have time to get away.'
As he spoke, the door opened and parson came out, and his friend with him.
'These are the young men,' says our parson.
'Well, then,' says parson number two, 'it's a good thing I heard of this, and came down--out of mere curiosity, I am ashamed to say--for the man who is buried there is not the man whom I united in holy matrimony to Martha Blake two months ago last Tuesday.'
We didn't understand.
'But the poison?' says Harry.
'She may have poisoned him,' said our parson, 'though I don't think it. But from what my friend here, the rector of St Mary Woolnoth, tells me, it is quite certain she never married him.'
'Then she's no right to anything?' said Harry.
'But what about the will?' says I. But no one harkened to me.
And then Harry says, 'If she poisoned him she will be off by now. Parson, will you come with me to keep my hands from violence, and my tongue from evil-speaking and slandering? for I must go home and see if that woman is there yet.'
And parson said he would; and it ended in us, all five of us, going up together, the new parson walking by me and talking to me like somebody out of the Bible, as it might be one of the disciples.
I got to know him well afterwards, and he was the best man that ever trod shoe-leather.
We all went up together to Charleston Farm, and in through the back, without knocking, and so to the parlour door. We knew she was sitting in the parlour, because the red firelight fell out through the window, and made a bright patch that we see before we see the house itself properly; and we went, as I say, quietly in through the back; and in the kitchen I said, 'Oh, let me tell her, for what she said to me.'
And I was sorry the minute I'd said it, when I see the way that clergyman from London looked at me; and we all went up to the parlour door, and Harry opened it as was his right.
There was Mrs. Blake sitting in front of the fire. She had got on her widow's mourning, very smart and complete, with black crape, and her white cap; and she'd got the front of her dress folded back very neat on her lap, and was toasting her legs, in her black-and-red checked petticoat, and her feet in cashmere house-boots, very warm and cosy, on the brass fender; and she had got port wine and sherry wine in the two decanters that was never out of the glass-fronted chiffonier when master was alive; and there was something else in a black bottle; and opposite her, in the best arm-chair that old master had sat in to the last, was that lawyer, Sigglesfield from Lewes. And when we all came in, one after another, rather slow, and bringing the cold air with us, they sat in their chairs as if they had been struck, and looked at us.
Harry and John was in front, as was right; and in the dusk they could hardly see who was behind.
'And what do you want, young men?' says Mrs. Blake, standing up in her crape, and her white cap, and looking very handsome, Harry said afterwards, though, for my part, I never could see it; and, as she stood up, she caught sight of the clergyman from London, and she shrank back into her chair and covered her face with her hands; and the clergyman stepped into the room, none of us having the least idea of what he was going to say, and said he--
'That's the woman that I married on the 7th; and that's the man I married her to!' said he, pointing to Sigglesfield, who seemed to turn twice as small, and his ferret eyes no better than button-hole slits.
'That!' said our parson; 'why, that's Mr. Sigglesfield, the solicitor from Lewes.'
'Then the lady opposite is Mrs. Sigglesfield, that's all,' said the parson from London.
'What I want to know,' says Harry, 'is--is this my house or hers? It's plain she wasn't my father's wife. But yet he left it to her in the will.'
'Slowly, old boy!' said John; 'gently does it. How could he have left anything in a will to his wife when he hadn't got any wife? Why, that fellow there---'
But here Mrs. Blake got on her feet, and I must say for the woman, if she hadn't got anything else she had got pluck.
'The game's up!' she says. 'It was well played, too, though I says it. And you, you old fool!' she says to the parson, 'you have often drunk tea with me, and gone away thinking how well-mannered I was, and what a nice woman Mrs. Blake was, and how well she knew her place, after you had chatted over half your parish with me. I know you are the curiousest man in it, and as you and me is old friends, I don't mind owning up just to please you. It'll save a lot of time and a lot of money.'
'It's my duty to warn you,' said John, 'that anything you say may be used against you.'
'Used against a fiddlestick end!' said Mrs. Blake. 'I married Robert Sigglesfield in the name of William Alderton, and he sitting trembling there, like a shrimp half boiled! He got ready the kind of will we wanted instead of the one the old man meant, and gave it to the old man to sign, and he signed it right enough.'
'And what about that arsenic,' says I,--'that arsenic I found in your corner cupboard?'
'Oh, it was you took it, was it? You little silly, my neck's too handsome for me to do anything to put a rope round it. Do you suppose I've kept my complexion to my age with nothing but cold water, you little cat?'
'And the other will,' says Harry, 'that my father meant to sign?'
'I'll get you that,' says Mrs. Blake. 'It's no use bearing malice now all's said and done.'
And she goes upstairs to get it, and, if you'll believe me, we were fools enough to let her go; and we waited like lambs for her to come back, which being a woman with her wits about her, and no fool, she naturally never did; and by the time we had woke up to our seven senses, she was far enough away, and we never saw her again. We didn't try too much. But we had the law of that Sigglesfield, and it was fourteen years' penal.
And the will was never found--I expect Mrs. Blake had burnt it,--so the farm came to John, and what else there was to Harry, according to the terms of the will the old man had made when his wife was alive, afore John had joined the force. And Harry and John was that pleased to be together again that they couldn't make up their minds to part; so they farm the place together to this day.
And if Harry has prospered, and John too, it's no more than they deserve, and a blessing on brotherly love, as mother says. And if my dear children are the finest anywhere on the South Downs, that's by the blessing of God too, I suppose, and it doesn't become me to say so.