IN one of those villages peculiar to our Eastern coast, whose long lines of pepper-and-salt stone-fences indicate laborious, if not profitable farming, and where the saline breath of the ocean has the effect of making fruit-trees more picturesque than productive, in a stone chunk of house, whose aspect is quite as interesting to the geologist as to the architect, lives Captain Belgrave.
The Captain, as he says himself, “is American clean through, on the father’s side, up to Plymouth Rock, and knows little, and cares less, of what is beyond that.” To hear him talk, you would suppose Adam and Eve had landed there from the May-Flower, and that the Garden of Eden was located within rifle distance of that celebrated 284 land-mark. His genealogical table, however, stands upon unequal legs; for, on his mother’s side he is part German and part Irishman. I mention this for the benefit of those who believe that certain qualities in men are hereditary. Of course it will be easy for them to assign those of Captain Belgrave to their proper source.
The house is square, and would not be remarkable but for a stone turret on one corner. This, rising from the ground some forty feet, embroidered with ivy, and pierced with arrow-slits, has rather a feudal look. It stands in a by-lane, apart from the congregated village. On the right side of the road is a plashy spring, somewhat redolent of mint in the summer. Opposite to this, in a clump of oaks, surrounded with a picket-fence, is the open porch, with broad wooden benches, and within is an ample hall, looking out upon well-cultivated fields, and beyond — blue water! This is the “Oakery,” as Captain Belgrave calls it. Here he lives with his brother Adolphus — bachelors both.
His title is a mystery. There is a legend in the village, that during the last war Belgrave was enrolled in the militia on some frontier. One night 285 he was pacing as sentinel on a long wooden piazza in front of the General’s quarters. It was midnight; the camp was asleep, and the moon was just sinking behind a bank of clouds. Belgrave heard a footstep on the stairs at the foot of the piazza. “Who goes there?” No answer. Another step. “Who goes there?” he repeated, and his heart began to fail him. No answer — but another step. He cocked his musket. Step! step! step! and then between him and the sinking moon appeared an enormous head, decorated with diabolical horns. Belgrave drew a long breath and fired. The next instant the spectre was upon him; he was knocked down; the drums beat to arms; the guard turned out, and found the sentinel stretched upon the floor, with an old he-goat, full of defiance and odor, standing on him. From that time he was called “Captain.”
No place, though it be a paradise, is perfect without one of the gentler sex. There is a lady at the Oakery. Miss Augusta Belgrave is a maiden of about — let me see; her age was formerly inscribed on the fly-leaf of the family Bible between the Old and New Testaments; but the page was torn out, and now it is somewhere in the Apocrypha. No matter what her age may be; if you were to see her, you would say she was safe 286 over the breakers. Two unmarried brothers, with a spinster sister, living alone: it is not infrequent in old families. The rest of the household may be embraced in Hannah, the help, who is also “a maiden all forlorn,” and Jim, the stable-boy. Jim is a unit, as well as the rest. Jim has been a stable-boy all his life, and now, at the age of sixty, is only a boy ripened. His chief pride and glory is to drive a pair of bob-tailed bay trotters that are (traditionally) fast! Adolphus, who has a turn for literature, christened the off-horse “Spectator;” but the near horse came from a bankrupt wine-broker, who named him “Chateau Margaux.” This the Captain reduced to “Shatto,” and the village people corrupted to “Shatter.”
There was something bold and jaunty in the way the Captain used to drive old Shatter on a dog-trot through the village (Spectator rarely went with his mate except to church on Sundays), with squared elbows, and whip depending at a just angle over the dash-board. “Talk of your fast horses!” he would say. “Why, if I would only let him out,” pointing his whip, like a marshal’s baton, toward Shatter, “you would see time!” But he never lets him out.
The square turret rises considerably above the 287 house roof. Every night, at bed-time, the villagers see a light shining through its narrow loop-holes. There are loop-holes in the room below, and strong casements of ordinary size in the rooms adjoining. In the one next to the tower Miss Augusta sleeps, as all the village knows, for she is seen at times looking out of the window. Next to that is another room, in which Adolphus sleeps. He is often seen looking out of that window. Next, again, to that is the vestal chamber of Hannah, on the south-west corner of the house. She is sometimes seen looking out of the window on either side. Next to that again is the dormitory of Jim, the stable-boy. Jim always smells like a menagerie, and so does his room, no doubt. He never looks out of his window except upon the Fourth of July, when there is too much noise in the village to risk driving Spec and Shat. No living person but the occupants has ever been in that story of the house. No living person understands the mystery of the tower. The light appears at night through the loop-holes in the second story, then flashes upward, shines again through the slits in the lofty part of the turret, burns steadily half an hour or so, and then vanishes. Who occupies that lonely turret?288
Let us take the author-privilege and ascend the stairs. First we come to Jim’s room; we pass through that into Hannah’s apartment. There is a bolt on the inside of her door; we pass on into the room of Adolphus; it, too, has a bolt on the inside. Now all the virtues guide and protect us, for we are in the sleeping-apartment of the spinster sister! It, too, has a bolt on the inside; and here we are in the tower: the door, like the rest, is bolted. There is nothing in the room but the carpet on the floor; no stair-case, but a trap-door in the ceiling. It is but a short flight for fancy to reach the upper story. The trap is bolted in the floor; there is a ladder standing beside it; here are chairs, a bureau, a table, with an extinguished candle, and the moonlight falls in a narrow strip across the features of Captain Belgrave, fast asleep, and beside him a Bible, and an enormous horse-pistol, loaded.
Nowhere but in the household of some old bachelor could such discipline exist as in the Oakery. At night the Captain is the first to retire; Miss Augusta follows with a pair of candlesticks and candles; then metaphysical Adolphus with his mind in a painful state of fermentation; 289 then Hannah, the help, with a small brass candlestick; then Jim, the stable-boy, who usually waits until the company is on the top-stair, when he makes a false start, breaks, pulls himself up, and gets into a square trot just in time to save being distanced at the landing. Adolphus and Jim are not trusted with candles. Miss Augusta is rigorous on that point. She permits the Captain to have one because he is careful with it; besides he owns the house and everything in it; the land and everything on it; and supports the family; therefore his sister indulges him. We now understand the internal arrangement of the Oakery. It is a fort, a castle, a citadel, of which Augusta is the scarp, Jim the glacis, Hannah the counter-scarp, and Adolphus the ditch. The Captain studied the science of fortification after his return from the wars.
The Belgraves are intimate with only one family in the village, and they are new acquaintances — the Mewkers. There is Mr. Mewker, Mrs. Mewker, Mrs. Lasciver, formerly Miss Mewker, and six or seven little Mewkers. Mewker has the reputation of being a good man, but unfortunately his appearance is not prepossessing. He has large 290 bunchy feet, with very ineffectual legs, low shoulders, a sunken chest, a hollow cavity under the waistcoat, little, weak eyes that seem set in bladders, straggling hair, rusty whiskers, black, and yellow teeth, and long, skinny, disagreeable fingers; beside, he is knock-kneed, shuffling in gait, and always leans on one side when he walks. Uncharitable people say he leans on the side where his interests lie, but Captain Belgrave will not believe a word of it. Oh! no; Mewker is a different man from that. He is a member of the church, and sings in the choir. He is executor of several estates, and of course takes care of the orphans and widows. He holds the church money in trust, and of course handles it solely to promote its interests. And then he is so deferential, so polite, so charitable. “Never,” says the Captain, “did I hear him speak ill of anybody, but he lets me into the worst points of my neighbors by jest teching on ’em, and then he excuses their fibles, as if he was a kind o’ sorry for ’em; but I keeps my eye onto ’em after the hints he give me, and he can’t blind me to them.”
Harriet Lasciver, formerly Miss Mewker, is a widow, perfectly delicious in dimples and dimity, 291 fond of high life and low-necked dresses, music, birds, and camelias. Captain Belgrave has a great fancy for the charming widow. This is a secret, however. You and I know it, and so does Mewker.
It is Sunday in Little-Crampton — a summer Sunday. The old-fashioned flowers are blooming in the old-fashioned gardens, and the last vibration of the old rusty bell in the century-old belfry seems dying off, and melting away in fragrance. Outside, the village is quiet, but within the church there is an incessant plying of fans and rustling of dresses. The Belgraves are landed at the porch, and Spec and Shat whirl the family carriage into the grave-yard. The Mewkers enter with due decorum. Adolphus drops his hymn-book into the pew in front, as he always does. The little flatulent organ works through the voluntary. The sleek head of the Rev. Mr. Spat is projected toward the audience out of the folds of his cambric handkerchief; and after doing as much damage to the simple and beautiful service as he can by reading it, flourishes through the regular old Spatsonian 292 sermon; its tiresome repetitions and plagiarisms, with the same old rising and falling inflections, the same old tremulous tone toward the end, as if he were crying; the same old recuperative method by which he recovers his lost voice in the last sentence, when it was all but gone; and the same old gesture by which the audience understand that this labors (and theirs) are over for the morning. Then the congregation departs with the usual accompaniments of dresses rustling, and pew-doors slamming: and Mr. Mewker descends from the choir and sidles up the aisle, nursing his knobs of elbows in his skinny fingers, and congratulates the Rev. Mr. Spat upon the excellent discourse he had delivered, and receives the customary quid pro quo in the shape of a compliment upon the excellent singing in the choir. This account adjusted, Mr. Mewker shuffles home beside the lovely widow; and Mrs. Mewker and the small fry of members follow in their wake.
“I have looked into the records in the country clerk’s office,” Mewker says in a whisper, to his sister, “and the property is all right. That old Thing, (unconscious Augusta Belgrave, rolling home behind Spec and Shat, do you hear this?) 293 that old Thing, and that old fool of a book-worm (Adolphus) can be packed off after the wedding, and then we can arrange matters between us. Spat understands me in this, and intends to be hand and glove with Belgrave, so as to work upon him. He will, he must do it, for he knows that his remaining in this church depends upon me.” Here Mr. Mewker was interrupted by one of the young Mewkers, who came running up, hat in hand. “Oh! pa, look there! see those beautiful climbing roses growing all over that old tree!” “Jacob,” said Mewker, catching him by the hair, and rapping his head with his bony knuckles until the tears came, “haven’t I told you not to speak of such trivial things on the Sabbath? How dare you (with a repetition of raps) think of climbing roses so soon after church? Go (with a fresh clutch in the scalp of Mewker Junior), go to your mother, and when I get home I will punish you.” Mr. Mewker resumed the whispered conversation. “Belgrave is ruled entirely by his sister, but between Spat and me, she can be blinded, I think. If she should suspect, now, she would interfere, of course, and Belgrave would not dare to disobey her. But if we can get him committed once in 294 some way, he is such a coward that he would be entirely in my power. Dear,” he said aloud to Mrs. Me., “how did you like the sermon?” “Angelic,” replies Mrs. Mewker. “That’s my opinion, too,” responds Mewker. “Angelic, angelic. Spat is a lovely man, my dear. What is there for dinner?”
If there were some feminine meter by which Harriet Lasciver’s soul could be measured, it would indicate “good” pretty high up on the scale. Yet she had listened to this after-church discourse of her brother not only with complacency, but with a full and unequivocal assent to all he had proposed. So she would have listened, so assented to anything, no matter what, proposed by him; and all things considered, it was not surprising. Even as continued attrition wears the angles of the flint until it is moulded into the perfect pebbles, so had her nature been moulded by her brother. He had bullied her in her childhood and in her womanhood, except when there was a purpose in view which he could better accomplish by fawning; and her natural good disposition, so indurated by these opposed modes of treatment, had become as insensible to finer emotions as her 295 heart was callous to its own impulses. There was one element in his composition which at times had cast a gloss upon his actions. It was his piety! God help us! that any one should allude to that but with reverence and love! Nor do I here speak of it but as a profession, an art, or specious showing forth of something that was not real, but professed, in order to accomplish other ends. What profited her own experience, when Harriet Lasciver was so far imposed upon as to believe her brother’s professions sincere? What though all his life he had been a crooked contriver and plotter, malicious in his enmity, and false in his friendship; and she knew it? Yet, as she could not reconcile it with his affected sanctity, she could not believe it. That wonderful power which men seldom, and woman never analyze — hypocrisy, held her entangled in its meshes, and she was his instrument to be guided as he chose. Every noble trait true woman possesses — pity, tenderness, love, and high honor — were commanded by an influence she could not resist. Her reason, nay, her feelings were dormant, but her faith slept securely upon her brother’s religion!
In this instance there was another consideration 296 — a minor one, it is true, but in justice to the widow, it must be added. She really admired the Captain; but that make no great difference. A widow must love somebody. Those delicate tendrils of affection which put forth with the experiences of the young wife, die not in the widow, but survive, and must have some support. Even if the object be unworthy or unsightly, as it happens sometimes, still will they bind, and bloom and cling, and blossom around it, like honeysuckles around a pump.
The windows at the Oakery are open, and the warm air of a Sunday summer evening pours in, as Augusta pours out the tea. The Captain burns his mouth with the first cup, turns the tea into the saucer, blows it to cool it, drinks it off hastily, takes a snap at the thin, white slice of bread on his plate, takes another snap at a radish somewhat overcharged with salt, wipes his mouth, goes to the window and calls out “Jim!” Jim appears at the stable-door with a wisp of straw and a curry-comb. “Put in the hosses!” Jim telegraphs with the 297 curry-comb, “All right, Sir!” Augusta stares at Adolphus, and Adolphus brushes the metaphysical films from his eyes, and, for once, seems wide awake. The Captain takes his seat and a fresh snap at his bread. Augusta looks at him steadily. “Why, brother, where are you going with the horses on Sunday afternoon?” The Captain squints at the bread, and answers, “To Mewker’s.” “Mewker’s!” repeats Augusta; “Mewker’s! why, brother, you’re crazy; they never receive company on Sunday. You know how strictly pious Mr. Mewker is, and he would look at you with amazement. To see you riding, too! why — I — never!”
The Captain, however, said nothing, but waited, with some impatience, until Spec and Shat turned out with the carriage from the stable. Then he took the ribbons, stopped, threw them down, went up into the tower, came back with a clean shirt on, climbed into the seat, and drove off.
“He’ll come back from there in a hurry, I guess,” said Augusta to the wondering Adolphus.
But the Captain did not return until eleven that night, and then somewhat elevated with wine. “Augushta,” said he, as the procession formed as 298 usual on the stairs, “that Mucous ’sha clever feller, heesha clever feller, heesha dev’lish clever feller; heesh fond of talking on church matters, and sho ’mi. His shister, sheesha another clever feller, she’s a chump! I asked ’em to come to-morrow to tea, and shaid they would.”
“Why, brother, to-morrow is Monday, washing-day!” replied the astonished sister.
“Tha ’s a fac, Gushta, fac,” answered the Captain, as he took the candle from his sister at the tower-door; “but, wash or no wash, musht come. When I ask ’em to come, musht come. Goo-ni!”
The bolts are closed on the several doors, scarp and counterscarp, ditch and glacis are wrapped in slumber; but the Captain lies wide awake, looking through the slits in the tower casement at the Great Bear in the sky, and thinking rapturously of the lovely Lasciver.
Never did the old family carriage have such a polishing as on that Monday morning. Never did Jim so bestir himself with the harness as on that day under the eye of Belgrave. The Captain neglects to take his accustomed ride to the village in the morning, that Spec and Shat may be in condition for the afternoon. At last the carriage rolls 299 down the road from the Oakery, with Jim on the box, and the Captain retires to dress for company. In due course the carriage returns with Spec and Shat somewhat blown with an over-load; for all the young Mewkers are piled up inside, on the laps of Mrs. Mewker and the lovely Lasciver. Then Augusta hurries into the kitchen to tell Hannah, the help, to cut more bread for the brats; and Adolphus is hurried out into the garden to pull more radishes; and the young Mewker tribe get into his little library, and revel in his choice books, and quarrel over them, and scatter some leaves and covers on the floor as trophies of the fight. Then the tea is brought on, and the lovely Lasciver tries in vain to soften the asperity of Augusta; and then Mewker takes her in hand, and does succeed, and in a remarkable degree, too. Meanwhile the ciphers of the party, Mrs. Mewker and Adolphus, drink and eat in silence. Then they adjourn to the porch, and Mewker sits beside Augusta, and entertains her with an account of the missions in Surinam, to which she turns an attentive ear. Then Mrs. Mewker says it is time to go, “on account of the children,” at which Mewker darts a petrifying look at her, and turns with a 300 smile to Augusta, who, in the honesty of her heart, says she, too, thinks it is best for the young ones to go to bed early. Then Jim is summoned from the stable, and Spec and Shat; and the Mewkers take leave, and whirl along the road again toward home.
It was long before the horses returned, for Jim drove back slowly. There was not a tenderer heart in the world than the one which beat in the bosom of that small old boy of sixty. He sat perched upon the box, calling out, “Gently, soho!” to Spec and Shat, when they advanced beyond a walk, and held a talk with himself in this wise: “I don’t want to carry that old carcase agin. He gits in and praises up the Cap’n so as I can hear him, and then asks me if I won’t lay the whip on the hosses. Says I, ‘Mr. Mewker, them hosses has been druv.’ Says he, ‘Yes, James, but you can give ’em a good rubbin’ down when you get to hum, and that will fetch ’em all right.’ Now, I want to know if you take a man, and lay a whip onto him, and make him travel till he’s sore, whether rubbin’ down is a-goin’ to make him all right? No, Sir. Then he calls me James. I don’t want no man to call me James; my name’s Jim. There 301 was an old Midgely; he called me James; didn’t he coax out of me all I’d saved up for more’n twenty years, and then busted? There was Deacon Cotton; didn’t he come in over the Captain with that pork? He called me James, too. And there was that psalm-singin’ pedlar that got Miss Augusty to lend him the colt; he called me James. Did he bring the colt back? No, Sir; at least not yit, and it’s more’n three years ago. When a man calls me James, I take my eye and places it onto him. I hearn him when he tells Miss Mewker not to give beggars nothin’. I hearn him. He sez they may be imposters! Well, ’spose they be? When a feller-creetur’ gits so low as to beg, haven’t they got low enough? Aint they ragged, dirty, despised? Don’t they run a chance of starvin’, impostors or not, if every body drives them off? And what great matter is it if they do get a-head of you, for a crumb or a cent? When I see a feller-creetur’ in rags, beggin,’ I say human natur’ has got low enough; it’s in rags! it begs! it’s ‘way down, and it don’t make much difference if it’s actin’ or not. Them aint impostors that will do much harm. Them aint impostors like old Midgely, and Deacon Cotton, and that old psalm-singin’ pedlar that borrowed the 302 colt; at least they don’t cut it so fat. But ’spose they don’t happen to be imposters, arter all? Whar’s that account to be squared? I guess I’d rayther be the beggar than the other man when that account is squared. I guess when that account is squared, it will kind a-look as if the impostor wasn’t the once that asked for the stale bread, but the one that wouldn’t give it. Seems as if I’ver heard ’em tell about a similar case somewhere.”
A good rubbing down, indeed, for Spec and Shat that night, and a well-filled manger too. when Jim picked up his stable-lantern, he gave each horse a pat on the head, and a parting hung, and then backed out, with his eyes still on them. “Spec!” said he at the door. Spec gave a whinny in reply. “Shat!” Shat responded also. “Good-night, old boys! Old Jim aint a-goin to lay no whip onto you. If old Jim wants to lay a whip onto something, it won’t be onto you, that’s been spavined and had the bots, and he’s cured ’em, and they know it, hey! No, Air. His ’tipathy works outside into another quarter. Is my name James? Well, it aint. It’s Jim, isn’t it? Yes, Sir!”
From that night, however, the halcyon days of Spec and Shat were at an end. The Mewkers loved to ride, but they had no horses: the only living thing standing upon four legs belonging to Mr. Mewker was an ugly, half-starved, cross-grained, suspicious looking dog, that had the mange and a bad reputation. Of course, the Captain’s horses were at their service, for rides to the beach, for pic-nics in the woods, for shopping in the village, or, perchance, to take Mr. Mewker so some distant church-meeting. And not only were the horses absent at unusual times; there seemed to be a growing fondness in the Captain for late hours. The old-style regularity of the Oakery, the time-honored habits of early hours to bed, the usual procession up the stairs, formal but cheerful, were, in some measure, broken into; not but what these were observed as formerly; not but what every member of the family waited and watched until the Captain returned, no matter how late; but that sympathetic feeling which all had felt when the hour of bed-time came, had ceased to be, and in its place was the dreary languor, the tiresome, 304 tedious feeling that those experience who sit up and wait and wait, for an absent one, waiting and asking, “Why tarry the wheels of his chariot?” There was an increasing presentiment, a gloomy foreshadowing of evil, in Miss Augusta’s mind at those doings of the Captain: and this feeling was heightened by something, trifling in itself, yet still mysterious and unaccountable. Somebody, almost every day, cut off a tolerably large piece from the beef or mutton, or whatever kind of meat there chanced to be in the cellar. And nobody knew anything about it. Hannah was fidelity itself; Jim was beyond suspicion; Adolphus never went into the cellar, scarcely out of the library, in fact. The Captain! could it be her brother? Miss Augusta watched. She saw him do it! She saw him covertly draw his jack-knife from his pocket, and purloin a piece of beautiful rump-steak, then wrap it in paper, put it in his pocket, and walk off whistling, as if nothing had happened. “The widow is at the bottom of this!” was the thought that flashed through the mind of Augusta. She was indirectly correct. The widow was at the bottom of the theft, and I will tell you how. I have mentioned a large mangy dog, of disreputable 305 character, Mr. Mewker’s property, and “Bose” by name. Whenever the Captain drove up the path to the house of his friend, there, beside the step of the wagon, from the time it passed the gate until it reached the porch, was this dog, with a tail short as pie-crust, that never wagged; thick, wicked eyes, and a face that did not suggest fidelity and sagacity, but treachery and rapine, dead sheep, and larceny great or small. And although the Captain was a stout, active, well-framed man, with a rosy cheek, a bright eye, and a sprightly head of hair, yet he was afraid of that dog. And therefore the Captain, to conciliate Bose, brought him every day some choice morsel from his own kitchen; and as he did not dare to tell Augusta, the same was abstracted in the manner already described.
Here I must mention a peculiarity in Captain Belgrave’s character. He never saw a dog without thinking of hydrophobia; he never bathed on the beautiful beach in the rear of his house without imagining every chip in the water, or ripple on the wave, to be the dorsal fin of some voracious shark. When he drove home at night, it was with fear and trembling, for an assassin might be lurking in the bushes; and if he passed a sick neighbor, he 306 walked off with small-pox, measles, typhoid, and whooping-cough trundling at his heels. In a word, he was the most consummate coward in Little-Crampton. It was for this reason he had built and slept in the tower; and what with reading of pirates, buccaneers, Captain Kidd, and Black Beard, his mind was so infected that no sleeping-place seemed secure and safe, but his own turret and trap-door, scarp, counter-scarp, ditch, and glacis, through which all invaders had to pass before they encountered him with his tremendous horse-pistol.
It was not the discovery of the theft alone that had opened the eyes of Augusta in regard to her brother’s motions. Although he had told her, again and again, that he merely went to Mewker’s to talk over church matters, yet she knew intuitively, as every woman would, that, a widow so lovely as Harriet Lasciver could not but have great attractions for such an old bachelor as her brother. In fact, she knew, if the widow, as the phrase is, “set her cap for him,” the Captain was a lost man. But to whom could she apply for counsel and assistance? Adolphus? Adolphus had no more sense than a kitten. Hannah? There was something of 307 the grand old spinster-spirit about Augusta that would not bend to the level of Hannah, the help. Jim? She would go to Jim. She would see that small boy of sixty, and ask his advice. And she did. She walked over to the stable in the evening, while her brother was making his toilet for the customary visit to the Mewkery, and without beating around the bush at all, reached the point at once. “Jim,” said she, “the Captain is getting too think with the Mewkers, and we must put a stop to it. How is that to be done?”
Jim paused for a moment, and then held up his forefinger. “I know one way to stop him a-goin’ there; and, if you say so, Miss Augusta, then old Jim is the boy to do it.”
Augusta assented in a grand, old, towering nod. Jim, with a mere motion of his forefinger, seemed to reiterate, “If you say so, I’ll do it.”
“Then, by Golly!” responded Jim, joyfully, “arter this night he’ll never go there ag’in.”
Augusta walked toward the house with a smile, and Jim proceeded to embellish Shatter.
By-and-by the Captain drove off in the wagon, and old Jim busied himself with Spectator, fitting 308 a mouldy saddle on his back, and getting him ready for action.
There was a thin cloud, like lace, over the moon that night; just enough to make objects painfully distinct, as Captain Belgrave turned out from Mewker’s gate, and took the high road toward home. He jogged along, however, quite comfortably, and had just reached the end of Mewker’s fence, when he saw a figure on horseback, emerging from the little lane that ran down, behind the garden, to the pond at the back of the house. The apparition had a sort of red cape around its shoulders; a soldier-cap, with a tall plume (very like the one the Captain used to wear on parade), was upon its head; in its hand was a long, formidable-looking staff; and the horse of the spectre was enveloped in a white saddle-cloth, that hung down almost to the ground. What was remarkable, Old Shatter, as if possessed with the devil, actually drew out of the road toward the stranger, and gave a whinny, which was instantly responded to in the most frightful tones by the horse of the spectre. Almost paralyzed, the Captain suffered the apparition to 309 approach him. What a face it had! Long masses of hair, like tow, waved around features that seemed to have neither shape nor color. Its face seemed like a face of brown paper, so formless and flat was it, with great hideous eyes and mouth of intolerable width. As it approached, the figure seemed to have a convulsion — it rolled so in the saddle; but, recovering, it drew up beside the shaft, and, whirling its long staff, brought such a whack upon Shatter’s flank, that the old horse almost jumped out of his harness. Away went the wagon and the Captain, and away went the spectre close behind; fences, trees, bushes, dust, whirled in and out of sight; bridges, sedges, trout-brooks, mills, willows, copses, plains, in moonlight and shadow, rolled on and on; but not an inch was lost or won; there, behind the wagon, was the goblin with his long plume bending, and waving, and dancing, and his staff whirling with terrible menaces. On, and on, and on, and ever and anon the goblin steed gave one of those frightful whinnies that seemed to tear the very air with its dissonance. On, and on, and on! The Captain drove with his head turned back over his shoulder, but Shat knew the road. On, and on, and on! A thought flashes 310 like inspiration through the mind of the Captain, “The horse-pistol!’ It is under the cushions. He seizes it nervously, cocks it, and — bang! goes the plume of the goblin. “By gosh!” said a voice under the soldier-cap, “I didn’t calc’late on that;” and then, “I vum ef old Shat hain’t run away!” Sure enough, Shatto has run away; the wagon is out of sight in a turn of the road, the next instant, it brings up against a post; off goes Shat, with shafts and dislocated fore-wheels; and old Jim soon after finds the remains of the wagon, and the senseless body of his master, in a ditch, under the moon, and a willow. To take the red blanket from his shoulders, which he had worn like a Mexican poncho by putting his head through a hole in the middle, is done in an instant; and then, with big tears rolling down his cheeks, the old boy brings water from a spring, in the crown of the soldier-cap, to bathe the face of the Captain. The report of a pistol has alarmed a neighbor; and the two, with the assistance of the hind wheels and the body of the wagon, carry poor Belgrave through the moonlit streets of Little-Crampton, to the Oakery.
When the Captain opened his eye (for the other was under the tuition of a large patch of brown 311 paper, steeped in vinegar), he found himself safe at home, surrounded and fortified, as usual, by Augusta, Adolphus, Hannah, the help, and Jim, in picturesque attitudes. How he came there, was a mystery. Stay; he begins to take up the thread: Mewkers, fence, the figure, the race for life, and the pistol! What else? Nothing — blank — oblivion. So he falls into a tranquil state of comfort, and feels that he does not care about it. No getting up that steep ladder to-night! Never mind. It is a labor to think, so he relapses into thoughtlessness, and finally falls asleep. There was a stranger in the room behind the bed’s head, a tall, astringent-looking man, Dr. Butternuts, by whom the Captain had been let blood. If Belgrave had seen him, he would have fainted. “No injuries of any consequence,” says the doctor, departing and waving his brown hand. “Terribly skart, though,” Augusta responds, in a whisper. “Yes, he will get over that; to-morrow he will be better;” and the doctor waves himself out. Adolphus retires, and then Hannah, the help; but Augusta and Jim watch by the bedside until morning. The Captain, every now and then, among the snowy sheets and coverlet, turns up a side of face that looks like a 312 large, purple egg-plant, at which Jim sighs heavily; but Augusta whispers soothingly, “Never mind, Jim, it’s for his good; I’m glad you skart him; you skart him a leetle too much this time, that’ all; next time you’ll be more careful, won’t you, and not skear him so bad?”
That Captain Belgrave ahd been thrown from his wagon, and badly hurt, was known all over Little-Crampton, next morning. Some said he had been shot at by a highwayman; some said he had shot a highwayman. The story took a hundred shapes, and finally was rolled up at the door of the Rev. Melchior Spat, who at once took his wagon, and drove off to the Mewkery. There the rumor was unfolded to Mer. Mewker, who, enjoying it immensely, made so many funny remarks thereon, that the Rev. Melchior Spat was convulsed with laughter, and then the two drove down to the Oakery to condole with the sufferer. On the way there, the Rev. Melchior was so wonderfully facetious, that Mewker, who never enjoyed any person’s jokes but his own, was actually stimulated into mirth, and had it not been for happily catching a distant sight of the tower, would have so forgotten himself as to drive up to the door with a 313 pleasant expression of countenance. As it was, they both entered grave as owls, and inquired, in faint and broken voices, how the Captain was, and whether he was able to see friends. Augusta, who received them, led them up to the room, where the Captain, with his face like the globe in the equinox, sitting propped up in bed, shook both feebly by the hand, and then the Rev. Melchior proposed prayer, to which Mewker promptly responded by dropping on his knees, and burying his face in the bottom of an easy chair. This was a signal for Adolphus to do likewise; and the Captain, not to be behind, struggling up into a sitting posture, leaned forward in the middle of the coverlet, with his toes and the end of his shirt deployed upon the pillows. Then the Rev. Melchior, in a crying voice, proceeded according to the homœopathic practice — that is, making it short and sweet as possible — touched upon the excellent qualities of the sufferer, the distress of his beloved friends, and especially of the anxiety which would be awakened in the bosom of one now absent, “whose heart was only the heart of a woman, a heart not strong and able to bear up against calamity, but weak, and fragile, and loving, and pitiful, and tender; 314 a heart that was so weak, and loving, and pitiful, and tender, and fragile, that it could not bear up against calamity; no, it could not; no, it could not; it was weak, it was pitiful, it was loving, it was tender, it was fragile like a flower, and against calamity it could not bear up.”
So great was the effect of the Rev. Melchior Spat’s eloquence, that the Captain fairly cried, so as to leave a round wet spot in the middle of the coverlet, and Mr. Mewker wiped his eyes frequently with his handkerchief, as he rose from the chair. And although the voice of the Reverend Melchior had been heard distinctly, word for word, by Jim, in the far-off stables, yet it sank to the faintest whisper when he proceeded to inquire of the Captain how he felt, and what was this dreadful story. And then the Captain, in a voice sill fainter, told how he was attacked by a man of immense size, mounted on a horse of proportionate dimensions, and how he had defended himself, and did battle bravely until, in the fight, “Shatto got skeared, and overset the wagon, and then the man got onto him, and pounded the life out of him, while he was entangled with reins.” Then Mr. Mewker and the Rev. Mr. Spat took leave with 315 sorrowful faces, and as they drove home again, renewed the jocularity which had been interrupted somewhat by the visit to the Oakery.
To say that Mr. Mewker neglected his friend, the Captain, during his misfortunes, would be doing a great injustice to that excellent man. Every day he was at the Oakery, to inquire after his health; and rarely did he come without some little present, a pot of sweetmeats, a bouquet, or something of the kind, from the lovely Lasciver. How good it was of him to buy jelly at two shillings a pound at the store, and bring it to the Captain, saying, “This little offering is from Harriet, who thought some delicacy of the kind would be good for you.” Was it not disinterested? Hiding his own modest virtues in a pot of jelly, and presenting it in the name of another! The truth is, Mewker’s superior tactics were too profound for Augusta to contend against; she felt, as it were, the sand sliding from under her feet. Nor was Mewker without a powerful auxiliary in the Reverend Melchior Spat, who, by his prerogative, had free access to the house at all times, and made the most of it, too. Skillfully turning to common topics when Augusta was present, and as skillfully returning to the old 316 subject when she retired, he animated the Captain with such desire for the lovely widow, that, had it not been for his black eye, he would assuredly have gone off and proposed on the spot. This feeling, however, subsided when the Rev. Melchior was gone; the Captain did not think of marrying; he was a true old bachelor, contented with his lot, and not disposed to change it even for a better; besides, he was timid.
At last our hero was able once more to go about, and Jim drove him down slowly to the Mewkery. Such a noise as Bose made when he saw the carriage approaching! But there was no present from the hand of his friend this time; so Bose contented himself with growling and snapping angrily at his own tail, which was not longer than half a cucumber. What a blush spread over the face of the Captain when he saw the widow, all dimples and dimity, advancing to meet him in the familiar back-parlor! How the sweet roses breathed through the shaded blinds as he breathed out his thanks to the widow for many precious favors 317 during his confinement. They were alone; the Captain sat beside her on the sofa; one of her round, plump, white, dimpled hands was not far from him, resting upon the black hair-cloth of the sofa bottom. He looked right and left; there was no one near; so he took the hand respectfully, and raised it to his lips, intending to replace it of course. To his dismay, she uttered a tender “O!” and leaned her head upon his shoulder. What to do, he did not know; but he put his arm around her bewitching waist, to support her. Her eyes were closed, and the long, radiant lashes heightened, by contrast, the delicious color that bloomed in her cheeks. The Captain looked right and left again; no one was near; if he could venture to kiss her? He had never kissed a pretty woman in all his life! The desire to do so increased; it seemed to grow upon him; in fact, drawn toward her by an influence he could not resist, he leaned over and touched those beautiful lips, and then — in walked Mr. Mewker.
Had Mewker not been a genius, he might have compromised everything by still playing the humble, deferential, conscientious part; but hypocrisy on a low key was not his cue now; he knew his 318 man too well for that, and besides, familiar as this branch of art had been, there was another still more natural to him; he was wonderful in the sycophant, but matchless in the bully! Those little, weak, bladdery eyes seemed almost to distil venom, as, wrapping his knobby arms in a knot, he strode up to the astonished Belgrave, and asked him “how he dared to invade the privacy of his house, the home of his wife and children, and the sanctuary of his sister? How he dared trespass upon the hospitality that had been extended toward, nay, that had been lavished upon him? Was not the respectability of the Mewker family, a family related to the wealthy Balgangles of Little-Crampton, and connected by marriage with the Shellbarques of Boston, a sufficient protection against his nefarious designs/ And did he undertake, under the mask of friendship,” and Mewker drew up his forehead into a complication of lines like an indignant web, “to come, as a hypocrite, a member of the church (O Mewker!) with the covert intention of destroying the peace and happiness of his sister?”
Belgrave was a man who never swore; but on this occasion he uttered an exclamation: ‘My grief!” said he, “I never had no such idee.”319
“What, then, are you intentions?” said Mewker, fiercely.
“T’ make it all straight,” replied the Captain.
Belgrave paused, and Mewker shuffled rapidly to and fro, muttering to himself. At last he broke out again:
“How, I say?”
“On that p’int I’m codjitatin’.”
“Do — you — mean —” said Mewker, with a remarkable smile, placing his hand calmly on the Captain’s shoulder, “to — trifle — with — me?”
“No,” replied poor Belgrave, surrendering up, as it were, what was left of him; “I’m ready to be married, if that will make it all straight, provided,” he added, with natural courtesy, turning to the lovely widow, “provided this lady does not think me unworthy of her.”
Mewker drew forth a tolerably clean handkerchief, and applied it to his eyes: a white handkerchief held to the eyes of a figure in threadbare black is very effective. The lovely Lasciver remained entirely passive; such is discipline.
Here, at last, was an opportunity to beat a retreat. The Captain rose, and shaking Mewker’s 320 unemployed hand, which, he said afterwards, “felt like a bunch of radishes,” left the room without so much as a word to the future Mrs. Belgrave. So soon as the door closed upon him, Mr. Mewker raised his eyes from the handkerchief, and smiled sweetly upon his sister. The thing is accomplished.
As some old bear, who had enjoyed freedom from cubhood, feels, at the bottom of a pit dug by the skillful hunter, so feels Captain Belgrave, as he rides home sorrowfully. His citadel, after all is not a protection. Into its penetralia a subtle spirit has at last found entrance. The air grows closer and heavier around him, the shadows broader, the bridges less secure, the trout-brooks blacker and deeper. How shall he break the matter to Augusta? “No hurry, though; the day hasn’t been app’inted yit;” and at this suggestion the clouds begin to break and lighten. Then he sees Mewker, threadbare and vindictive; his sky again is overcast, but filaments of light stream through as he conjures up the image of the lovely widow, the dimpled hand, the closed eyes, the long radiate lashes, cheeks, lips, and the temptation which had so unexpected a conclusion. Home at last; and, with some complaint of fatigue, the Captain retires, 321 to his high tower to ruminate over the past and the future.
The future! yes, the future! A long perspective stretched before his eyes; and, at the end of the vista, was a bride in white, and a wedding. It would take some months to gradually break the subject to his sister. Then temperately and moderately, the courtship would go on, year by ear, waxing by degrees to the end.
Mr. Mewker altered the focus of Belgrave’s optics next morning, by a short note, in which he himself fixed the wedding-day at two weeks from the Captain’s declarations of intentions. This intelligence confined the Captain two days in the tower, “codjitating,” during which time everybody in Little-Crampton was informed that Widow Lasciver and he were engaged to be married. The news came from the best authority — the Rev. Melchior Spat. On the evening of the second day, a pair of lead-colored stockings, a fustian petticoat, a drab short gown, and a bright bunch of keys, 322 descended the steep step-ladder from the trap in the tower, and walked into the room adjoining. Then two hands commenced wringing themselves, by which we may understand that Augusta was in great tribulation. The rumor, rife in Little-Crampton, had reached her ears, and her brother had confirmed its truth. The very means employed to keep him out of danger had only assisted the other party to carry him off. This should be a warning to those who interfere with affairs of the heart. But what was her own future? Certainly her reign was at an end; a new queen-bee was to take possession of the hive; and then — what then? kings and kaisers, even, are not free the exquisite anguish which, in that hour, oppressed the heart of Augusta Belgrave. It was but a step; but what a step? from mistress to menial, from ruler to subordinate. She knelt down heavily by the bedside, and there prayed; but oh! the goodness of woman’s heart! — it was a prayer, earnest, sincere, truthful and humble; not for herself, but for her brothers. Then her heart was lightened and strengthened; and as she rose, she smiled with a bitter sweetness, that, considering everything, was beautiful.
Great preparations now in Little-Crampton for 323 the wedding. Invitations were out, and needles, scissors, flowers, laces, ribbons, and mantua-makers, at a premium. The Captain took heart of grace, and called upon his lovely bride, but always managed to get past that lane before night-fall. Hood & Wessup the fashionable tailors of Little-Crampton, were suborned to lay themselves out night and day upon his wedding-suit. He had set his heart upon having Adolphus dressed precisely like himself on the occasion. Two brothers dressed alike, groom, and groomsman, look remarkably well at a wedding. But to his surprise, Adolphus refused to be dressed, and would not go to the wedding — “positively.” Neither would Augusta. Brother and sister set to work packing up, and when the expected night arrived there was all their little stock and store in two, blue, wooden trunks, locked, and corded, and ready for moving, in the hall of the Oakery.
It was a gloomy night outside and in, for the rain had been falling all day, and a cold rain-storm in summer is dreary enough. But cheerful bars of 324 light streamed across the darkness from the tower windows, lighting up a green strip on a tree here and there, a picket or two in the fence, and banding with an illuminated ribbon the side and roof of the dripping barn. The Captain was making his toilet. White ruffled shirt, with a black mourning pin containing a lock of his mother’s hair; white Marseilles waistcoat, set off with an inner vest of blue satin (suggested by Hood & Wessup); trowsers of bright mustard color, fitting as tight as if his legs had been melted and poured into them; blue coat, cut brass buttons, end of handkercher’ sticking out of the pocket behind; black silk stockings and pumps; red check-silk neck-cloth, and flying-jib collars. Down he came, and there sat brother and sister on their corded trunks in the hall, portentous as the Egyptian statues that overlook the Nile from their high stone chairs. Not a word was said; but the Captain opened the door, and looked out. “Why, it rains like fury. Jim!”
Jim, who was unseen in the darkness, and yet within three feet of the door, answered cheerily, “Aye, aye, Sir!”
“All ready, Jim?”
“All ready, Capt’in.”325
“Wait till I get my cloak;” and as the Captain wrapped himself up, his sister silently and carefully assisted him; not on account of his plumage, but to keep him from catching cold.
Off goes Shatter, Jim and the Captain; off through the whistling rain and the darkness. The mud whirled up from the wheels and covered the cloak of the bridegroom, so he told Jim “to drive keerful, as he wanted to keep nice.” It was a long and dreary road, but at last they saw the bright lights from Mewker’s windows, and with a palpitating heart the Captain alighted at the porch.
Old Bose, who had been scouring the grounds and barking at every guest, started up with a fearful growl, but the Captain threw off his travel-stained cloak, and exhibited himself to the old dog in all his glory. The instant Bose recognized his friend and benefactor he leaped upon him with such a multitude of caresses that the white Marseilles vest and mustard-colored trowsers were covered with proofs of his fidelity and attachment. “Hey, there! hey! down, Bose!” said Mewker at the door: “Why, my dear brother!”
The Captain, with great gravity, was snapping with his thumb and finger the superfluous mud 326 with which Bose had embellished his trowsers.
“Come in here,” said Mewker, chuckling and scratching his chin. “I’ll get you a brush. No hurry. Time enough before the ceremony.”
The Captain walked after him through the hall, and caught a glimpse of the parlors, radiant with wax-lights, and crowded with such a display of company as was rarely seen in Little-Crampton.
“Come in here,” said Mewker, still chuckling, as he opened the door. “This is your room;” and he winked, and gave the bridegroom such a nudge with his knobby elbow as almost tumbled him over the bed. “Your room — understand? The bridal-chamber! Wait here, now; wait here till I get a brush.”
The Captain, left alone, surveyed the apartment. The pillow-cases were heavy with lace. Little tasteful vases filled with flowers, made the air drunk with fragrance; a white, worked pin-cushion was on the bureau, before an oval glass, with his own name wrought thereon in pins’ heads. The astral lamp on the mantel shed a subdued and chastened light over the whole. Long windows reached to the floor, and opened on the piazza; 327 light Venetian blinds were outside the sashes, without other fastenings than a latch. The Captain tried the windows, and they opened with a touch of his thumb and fore-finger. He had not slept in so insecure a place for more than twenty years. Then he thought of the phantom-horseman, and the deep pond behind the house. He shivered a little, either from cold or timidity. The window was partially raised, so he throws it up softly, touches the latch; the blinds are open; he walks out on the piazza, and then covertly steals around to the front of the house, where he finds Shatter and the wagon, with old Jim peering through the blinds, to see the wedding come off.
“Jim,” he says, in a hoarse whisper, “take me hum. I ain’t a-goin’ to sleep in such a room as that, no how.”
The old boy quietly unbuckled the hitching-strap, and when Mewker got back with the brush, Shatter was flying through the mud toward the Oakery, at a three-minute gait. Two or three quick knocks at his own door, and it is opened by Augusta, who, with her brother, had kept watch and ward on their corded trunks. The Captain took the candle from the table without saying a word, ascended the 328 stairs, passed through scarp, counterscarp, glacis, and ditch, mounted his ladder, drew it up after him, bolted the trap in the floor, and cocked his pistol.
“Now,” said he, “let ’em come on! They ain’t got me married this time, anyhow!”