Sir Jasper was always the best of masters to me and to all of us; and he had that kind of way with him, masterful and gentle at the same time, like as if he was kind to you for his own pleasure, and ordering you about for your own good, that I believe any of us would have cut our hand off at the wrist if he had told us to.
Lady Breynton had been dead this many a year. She hadn't come to her husband with her hands empty. They say that Sir Jasper had been very wild in his youth, and that my Lady's money had come in very handy to pull the old place together again. She worshipped the ground Sir Jasper walked on, as most women did that he ever said a kind word to. But it never seemed to me that he took to her as much as you might have expected a warm-hearted gentleman like him to do. But he took to her baby wonderful. I was nurse to that baby from the first, and a fine handsome little chap he was, and when my Lady died he was wholly given over to my care. And I loved the child; indeed, I did love him, and should have loved him to the end but for one thing, and that comes in its own place in my story. But even those who loved young Jasper best couldn't help seeing he hadn't his father's winning ways. And when he grew up to man's estate, he was as wild as his father had been before him. But his wild ways were the ways that make young men enemies, not friends, and out of all that came to the house, for the hunting, or the shooting, or what not, I used to think there wasn't one would have held out a hand to my young master if he had been in want of it. And yet I loved him because I had brought him up, and I never had a child of my own. I never wished to be married, but I used to wish that little Jasper had been my own child. I could have had an authority over him then that I hadn't as his nurse, and perhaps it might have all turned out differently.
There were many tales about Sir Jasper, but I didn't think it was my place to listen to them.
Only, when it's your own eyes, it's different, and I couldn't help seeing how like young Robert, the under-gamekeeper, was to the Family. He had their black, curly hair, and merry Irish eyes, and he, if you please, had just Sir Jasper's winning ways.
Why he was taken on as gamekeeper no one could make out, for when he first came up to the Hall to ask the master for a job, they tell me he knew no more of gamekeeping than I do of Latin. Young Robert was a steady chap, and used to read and write of an evening instead of spending a jolly hour or two at the Dove and Branch, as most young fellows do, and as, indeed, my young master did too often. And Sir Jasper, he gave him books without end and good advice, and would have him so often about him he set everybody's tongue wagging to a tune more merry than wise. And young Robert loved the master, of course. Who didn't?
Well, there came a day when the Lord above saw fit to put out the sunshine like as if it had been a bedroom candle; for Sir Jasper, he was brought back from the hunting-field with his back broke.
I always take a pleasure in remembering that I was with him to the last, and did everything that could be done for him with my own hands. He lingered two days, and then he died.
It was the hour before the dawn, when there is always a wind, no matter how still the night, a chilly wind that seems to find out the marrow of your bones, and if you are nursing sick folk, you bank up the fire high and watch them extra careful till the sun gets up.
Sir Jasper opened his eyes and looked at me--oh! so kindly. It brings tears into my eyes when I think of it. 'Nelly,' he says, 'I know I can trust you.'
And I said, 'Yes, sir.' And so he could, whatever it might have been. What happened afterwards wasn't my fault, and couldn't have been guarded against.
'Then go,' he said, 'to my old secretaire and open it.'
And I did. There was rows of pigeon-holes inside, and little drawers with brass knobs.
'You take hold of the third knob from the right, Nelly,' said he. 'Don't pull it; give it a twist round.' I did, and lo and behold! a little drawer jumped out at me from quite another part of the secretaire.
'You see what's in it, Nelly?' says he.
It was a green leather case tied round with a bit of faded ribbon.
'Now, what I want you to do,' he says, 'is to lay that beside me when it's all over. I have always had my doubts about the dead sleeping so quiet as some folks say. But I think I shall sleep if you lay that beside me, for I am very tired, Nelly,' he said, 'very tired.'
Then I went back to his bed, where he lay looking quite calm and comfortable.
'The end has come very suddenly,' says he; 'but it is best this way.'
Then we was both quiet a bit.
'I may be wrong,' he went on presently, his face quite straight, but a laugh in his blue eye. 'I may be wrong, Nelly, but I think you would like to kiss me before I die--I know well enough you'll do it after.'
And when he said that, I was glad I had never kissed another man. And soon after that, it being the coldest hour of all the night, he moved his head on his pillow and said--
'I'm off now, Nelly, but you needn't wake the doctors. It's very dark outside. Hand me out, my girl, hand me out.' So I gave him my hand, and he died holding it. Whether I grieved much or little over my old master is no one's business but my own. I went about the house, and I did my duty--ever since Master Jasper had been grown up I had been housekeeper. I did my duty, I say, and before the coffin lid was screwed down I laid that green leather case under the shroud by my master's side; and just as I had done it I turned round feeling that some one was in the room, and there stood young Master Jasper at the door looking at me.
'All's ready now,' I said to the undertaker's men, and called them in, and young Master Jasper, he followed me along the passage. 'What were you doing?'
'I was putting something in the master's coffin he told me to put there.'
'What was it?' he asked, very sharp and sudden.
'How should I know?' says I. 'It's in a case. It may be some old letter or a lock of hair as belonged to your mother.'
'Come into my room,' he said, and I followed him in. He looked very pale and anxious, and when he'd shut the door he spoke--
'Look here, Nelly, I'm going to trust you. My father was very angry with me about some little follies of mine, and he told me the other night he had left a good slice of the estate away from me. Do you think that packet you put in the coffin had anything to do with it?'
'Good Lord, bless your soul, sir, no,' I said. 'That was no will or lawyer's letters, it was but some little token of remembrance he set store by.'
'Thanks, Nelly, that was all I wanted to know.'
No one ever knows who tells these things, but it had leaked out somehow that that slice of the estate was to belong to young Robert the gamekeeper, and you may be sure the tongues went wagging above a bit. But it seemed to me, if it was so, my master was right to make a proper provision for Robert as well as for Jasper. However, nobody could be sure of anything until after the funeral.
The doctor was staying in the house, and master's younger brother, besides the lawyer and young Master Jasper; so I had many things to see to, and ought to have been tired enough to get to sleep easy the night before he was buried. But somehow I couldn't sleep. I couldn't help thinking of my master as I had known him all these years. Him being always so gentle and so kind, and so light-hearted, it didn't seem likely he could have had young Robert on his conscience all the time; and yet what was I to think? And then my poor Jasper--I say 'poor,' but I never loved and pitied him less than I did that night. He had lost such a father, and he could go troubling about whether he had got the whole estate or not. So I lay awake, and I thought of the coffin lying between its burning tapers in the great bedroom, and I wished they had not screwed him down, for then I could have gone, late as it was, and had another look at my master's face. And as I lay it seemed to me that I heard a door opened, and then a step, and then a key turned. Now, the master never locked his door, so the key of that room turned rusty in the lock, and before I had time to think more than that I was out of bed and in my dressing-gown, creeping along the passage. Sure enough, my master's door was open, as I saw by the streak of light across the corridor. I walked softly on my bare feet, and no one could have heard me go along the thick carpet. When I got to the door, I saw that what I had been trying not to think of was really true. Master Jasper was there taking the screws out of his father's coffin to see what was in that green leather case.
I stood there and looked. I could not have moved, not for the Queen's crown, if it had been offered me then and there. One after another he took the screws out and laid them on the little bedside table, where the master used to keep his pistols of a night. When all the screws was out he lifted the lid in both his arms and set it on the bed, where it lay looking like another coffin. Then he began to search for what I had put in beside his father.
Now, I may be a heartless woman, and I suppose I am, or how account for it? But when I saw my young master go to his father's coffin like that, and begin to serve his own interest and his own curiosity, every spark of love I had ever had for the boy died out, and I cared no more for him than if he had been the first comer.
If he had kissed his father, or so much as looked kindly at the dead face in the coffin, it would have been different. But he hadn't a look or a thought to spare for him as gave him life, and had humoured and spoiled and petted and made much of him all his twenty years. Not a thought for his father; all his thoughts was to find out what his father hadn't wished him to know.
Now I was feeling set that Master Jasper should never know what was in that green leather case, and I cared no more for what he thought or what he felt than I should have done if he had been a common thief as, God forgive me, he was in my eyes at that hour. So I crept behind him softly, softly, an inch at a time, till I got to where I could see the coffin; and if you'll believe a foolish old woman, I kept looking at that dead face till I nigh forgot what I was there for. And while I was standing mazed like and stupid, young Master Jasper had got out the green case, and was turning over what was in it in his hands.
I got him by the two elbows behind, and he started like a horse that has never felt even the whip will do at the spur's touch. Almost at the same time my heart came leaping into my mouth, and if ever a woman nearly died of fright, I was that woman, for some one behind me put a hand on my shoulder and said, 'What's all this?'
Young Sir Jasper and I both turned sharp. It was the doctor. His ears were as quick as mine, and he had heard the key too, I suppose. Anyhow, there he was, and he picked up the papers young Sir Jasper had let fall, and says he, 'I will deal with these, young gentleman. Go you to your room.' And Sir Jasper, like a kicked hound, went. Then I began to tell my share in that night's work. But the doctor stopped me, for he had seen me and watched me all along. Then he stood by the coffin, and went through what was in the little leather case.
'I must keep these now,' he said, 'but you shall keep your promise and put them beside him before he is buried.'
And the next day, before the funeral, I went alone and saw my master again, and gave him his little case back, and I thought I should have liked him to know that I had done my best for him, but he could not have known that without knowing of what young Sir Jasper had done, and that would have broken his heart; so when all's said and done, perhaps it's as well the dead know nothing.
And after the funeral we was all in the library to hear the will read, and the lawyer he read out that the personal property went to Robert the gamekeeper, and the entailed property would of course be young Sir Jasper's.
And young Sir Jasper, oh that ever I should have called him my boy!--he rose up in his place and said that his father was a doting old fool and out of his mind, and he would have the law of them, anyhow, and my late dear master not yet turned of fifty! And then the doctor got up and he said--
'Stop a bit, young man; I have a word or two to say here.'
And he up and told before all the folks there straight out what had passed last night, and how young Sir Jasper had willed to rob his father's coffin.
'Now, you'll want to know what was in the little green leather case,' he says at the end. 'And it was this,--a lock of hair and a wedding ring, and a marriage certificate, and a baptism certificate; and you, Jasper, are but the son by a second marriage; and Sir Robert, I congratulate you, for you are come to your own.'
'Do I get nothing, then?' shrieked young Sir Jasper, trembling like a woman, and with the devil looking out of his eyes.
'Your father intended you to have the entailed estates, right or wrong; that was his choice. But you chose to know what he wished to hide from you, and now you know that the entailed estates belong to your brother.'
'But the personalty?'
'You forget,' said the doctor, rubbing his hands, with a sour smile, 'that your father provided for that in the will to which you so much objected.'
'Then, curse his memory and curse you,' cried Jasper, and flung out of the house; nor have I ever seen him again, though he did set lawyer folk to work in London to drive Sir Robert out of his own place. But to no purpose.
And Sir Robert, he lives in the old house, and is loved as his father was before him by all he says a kind word to, and his kind words are many.
And to me he is all that I used to wish the boy Jasper might be, and he has a reason for loving me which Jasper never had.
For he said to me when he first spoke to me after his father's funeral--
'My mother was a farmer's girl,' he said, 'and your father was a farmer, so I feel we come, as it were, of one blood; and besides that, I know who my father's friends were. I never forget those things.'
I still live on as a housekeeper at the Hall. My master left me no money, but he bade his heir keep me on in my old place. I am glad to think that he did not choose to leave me money, but instead the great picture of himself that hung in the Hall. It hangs in my room now, and looks down on me as I write.