Chantry House by Charlotte M. Yonge
Chapter XVI--Cat Language
Soon as she parted thence--the fearful twayne, That blind old woman and her daughter deare, Came forth, and finding Kirkrapine there slayne, For anguish greate they gan to rend their heare And beate their breasts, and naked flesh to teare; And when they both had wept and wayled their fill, Then forth they ran, like two amazed deere, Half mad through malice and revenging will, To follow her that was the causer of their ill.' SPENSER.
The Christmas vacation was not without another breeze about Griffith's expenses at Oxford. He held his head high, and declared that people expected something from the eldest son of a man of property, and my father tried to convince him that a landed estate often left less cash available than did the fixed salary of an office. Griff treated all in his light, good-humoured way, promised to be careful, and came to me to commiserate the poor old gentleman's ignorance of the ways of the new generation.
There ensued some trying weeks of dark days, raw frost, and black east wind, when the home party cast longing, lingering recollections back to the social intercourse, lamp-lit streets, and ready interchange of books and other amenities we had left behind us. We were not accustomed to have our nearest neighbours separated from us by two miles of dirty lane, or road mended with excruciating stones, nor were they very congenial when we did see them. The Fordyce family might be interesting, but we younger ones could not forget the slight to Clarence, and, besides, the girls seemed to be entirely in the schoolroom, Mrs. Fordyce was delicate and was shut up all the winter, and the only intercourse that took place was when my father met the elder Mr. Fordyce at the magistrates' bench; also there was a conference about Amos Bell, who was preferred to the post left vacant by George Sims, in right of his being our tenant, but more civilised than Earlscombers, a widow's son, and not sufficiently recovered from his accident to be exposed to the severe tasks of a ploughboy in the winter.
Mrs. Fordyce was the manager of a book-club, which circulated volumes covered in white cartridge paper, with a printed list of the subscribers' names. Two volumes at a time might be kept for a month by each member in rotation, novels were excluded, and the manager had a veto on all orders. We found her more liberal than some of our other neighbours, who looked on our wants and wishes with suspicion as savouring of London notions. Happily we could read old books and standard books over again, and we gloated over Blackwood and the Quarterly, enjoying, too, every out-of-door novelty of the coming spring, as each revealed itself. Emily will never forget her first primroses, nor I the first thrush in early morning.
Blankets, broth, and what were uncomfortably termed broken victuals had been given away during the winter, and a bewildering amount of begging women and children used to ask interviews with 'the Lady Winslow,' with stories that crumbled on investigation so as to make us recollect the Rector's character of Earlscombe.
However, Mr. Henderson came in the second week of Lent, and what our steps towards improvement introduced would have seemed almost as shocking to you youngsters, as what they displaced. For instance, a plain crimson cloth covered the altar, instead of the rags in the colours of the Winslow livery, presented, according to the queer old register, by the unfortunate Margaret. There was talk of velvet and the gold monogram, surrounded by rays, alternately straight and wavy, as in our London church, but this was voted 'unfit for a plain village church.' Still, the new hangings of pulpit, desk, and altar were all good in quality and colour, and huge square cushions were provided as essential to each. Moreover, the altar vessels were made somewhat more respectable,--all this being at my father's expense.
He also carried in the Vestry, though not without strong opposition from a dissenting farmer, that new linen and a fresh surplice should be provided by the parish, which surplice would have made at least six of such as are at present worn. The farmers were very jealous of the interference of the Squire in the Vestry--'what he had no call to,' and of church rates applied to any other object than the reward of birdslayers, as thus, in the register -
Hairy Wills, 1 score sprows heds 2d. Jems Brown, 1 poulcat 6d. Jarge Bell, 2 howls 6d.
It was several years before this appropriation of the church rates could be abolished. The year 1830, with a brand new squire and parson, was too ticklish a time for many innovations.
Hillside Church was the only one in the neighbourhood where Holy Week or Ascension Day had been observed in the memory of man. When we proposed going to church on the latter day the gardener asked my mother 'if it was her will to keep Thursday holy,' as if he expected its substitution for Sunday. Monthly Communions and Baptisms after the Second Lesson were viewed as 'not fit for a country church,' and every attempt at even more secular improvements was treated with the most disappointing distrust and aversion. When my father laid out the allotment grounds, the labourers suspected some occult design for his own profit, and the farmers objected that the gardens would be used as an excuse for neglecting their work and stealing their potatoes. Coal-club and clothing-club were regarded in like manner, and while a few took advantage of these offers in a grudging manner, the others viewed everything except absolute gifts as 'me-an' on our part, the principle of aid to self-help being an absolute novelty. When I look back to the notes in our journals of that date I see how much has been overcome.
Perhaps we listened more than was strictly wise to the revelations of Amos Bell, when he attended Emily and me on our expeditions with the donkey. Though living over the border of Hillside, he had a family of relations at Earlscombe, and for a time lodged with his grandmother there. When his shyness and lumpishness gave way, he proved so bright that Emily undertook to carry on his education. He soon had a wonderful eye for a wild flower, and would climb after it with the utmost agility; and when once his tongue was loosed, he became almost too communicative, and made us acquainted with the opinions of 'they Earlscoom folk' with a freedom not to be found in an elder or a native.
Moreover, he was the brightest light of the Sunday school which Mr. Henderson opened at once--for want of a more fitting place--in the disused north transept of the church. It was an uncouth, ill-clad crew which assembled on those dilapidated paving tiles. Their own grandchildren look almost as far removed from them in dress and civilisation as did my sister in her white worked cambric dress, silk scarf, huge Tuscan bonnet, and the little curls beyond the lace quilling round her bright face, far rosier than ever it had been in town. And what would the present generation say to the odd little contrivances in the way of cotton sun-bonnets, check pinafores, list tippets, and print capes, and other wonderful manufactures from the rag-bag, which were then grand prizes and stimulants?
Previous knowledge or intelligence scarcely existed, and then was not due to Dame Dearlove's tuition. Mr. Henderson pronounced an authorised school a necessity. My father had scruples as to vested rights, for the old woman was the last survivor of a family who had had recourse to primer and hornbook after their ejection on 'black Bartholomew's Day;' and when the meeting-house was built after the Revolution, had combined preaching with teaching. Monopoly had promoted degeneracy, and this last of the race was an unfavourable specimen in all save outward picturesqueness. However, much against Henderson's liking, an accommodation was proposed, by which books were to be supplied to her, and the Church Catechism be taught in her school, with the assistance of the curate and Miss Winslow.
The terms were rejected with scorn. No School Board could be more determined against the Catechism, nor against 'passons meddling wi' she;' and as to assistance, 'she had been a governess this thirty year, and didn't want no one trapesing in and out of her school.'
She was warned, but probably did not believe in the possibility of an opposition school; and really there were children enough in the place to overfill both her room and that which was fitted up after a very humble fashion in one of our cottages. H.M. Inspector would hardly have thought it even worth condemnation any more than the attainments of the mistress, the young widow of a small Bristol skipper. Her qualifications consisted in her piety and conscientiousness, good temper and excellent needlework, together with her having been a scholar in one of Mrs. Hannah More's schools in the Cheddar district. She could read and teach reading well; but as for the dangerous accomplishments of writing and arithmetic, such as desired to pass beyond the rudiments of them must go to Wattlesea.
So nice did she look in her black that Earlscombe voted her a mere town lady, and even at a penny a week hesitated to send its children to her. Indeed it was currently reported that her school was part of a deep and nefarious scheme of the gentlefolks for reducing the poor-rates by enticing the children, and then shipping them off to foreign parts from Bristol.
But the great crisis was one unlucky summer evening when Emily and I were out with the donkey, and Griffith, just come home from Oxford, was airing the new acquisition of a handsome black retriever.
Close by the old chapel, a black cat was leisurely crossing the road. At her dashed Nero, stimulated perhaps by an almost involuntary scss--scss--from his master, if not from Amos and me. The cat flew up a low wall, and stood at bay on the top on tiptoe, with bristling tail, arched back, and fiery eyes, while the dog danced round in agony on his hind legs, barking furiously, and almost reaching her. Female sympathy ever goes to the cat, and Emily screamed out in the fear that he would seize her, or even that Griff might aid him. Perhaps Amos would have done so, if left to himself; but Griff, who saw the cat was safe, could not help egging on his dog's impotent rage, when in the midst, out flew pussy's mistress, Dame Dearlove herself, broomstick in hand, using language as vituperative as the cat's, and more intelligible.
She was about to strike the dog--indeed I fancy she did, for there was a howl, and Griff sprang to his defence with--'Don't hurt my dog, I say! He hasn't touched the brute! She can take care of herself. Here, there's half-a-crown for the fright,' as the cat sprang down within the wall, and Nero slunk behind him. But Dame Dearlove was not so easily appeased. Her blood was up after our long series of offences, and she broke into a regular tirade of abuse.
'That's the way with you fine folk, thinking you can tread down poor people like the dirt under your feet, and insult 'em when you've taken the bread out of the mouths of them that were here before you. Passons and ladies a meddin' where no one ever set a foot before! Ay, ay, but ye'll all be down before long.'
Griff signed to us to go on, and thundered out on her to take care what she was about and not be abusive; but this brought a fresh volley on him, heralded by a derisive laugh. 'Ha! ha! fine talking for the likes of you, Winslows that you are. But there's a curse on you all! The poor lady as was murdered won't let you be! Why, there's one of you, poor humpy object--'
At this savage attack on me, Griff waxed furious, and shouted at her to hold her confounded tongue, but this only diverted the attack on himself. 'And as for you--fine chap as ye think yourself, swaggering and swearing at poor folk, and setting your dog at them-- your time's coming. Look out for yourself. It's well known as how the curse is on the first-born. The Lady Margaret don't let none of 'em live to come after his father.'
Griff laughed and said, 'There, we have had enough of this;' and in fact we had already moved on, so that he had to make some long steps to overtake us, muttering, 'So we've started a Meg Merrilies! My father won't keep such a foul-mouthed hag in the parish long!'
To which I had to respond that her cottage belonged to the trustees of the chapel, whereat he whistled. I don't think he knew that we had heard her final denunciation, and we did not like to mention it to him, scarcely to each other, though Emily looked very white and scared.
We talked it over afterwards in private, and with Henderson, who confessed that he had heard of the old woman's saying something of the kind to other persons. We consulted the registers in hopes of confuting it, but did not satisfy ourselves. The last Squire had lost his only son at school. He himself had been originally second in the family, and in the generation before him there had been some child-deaths, after which we came back to a young man, apparently the eldest, who, according to Miss Selby's story, had been killed in a duel by one of the Fordyces. It was not comfortable, till I remembered that our family Bible recorded the birth, baptism, and death of a son who had preceded Griffith, and only borne for a day the name afterwards bestowed on me.
And Henderson, who was so little our elder as to discuss things on fairly equal grounds, had some very interesting talks with us two over ancestral sin and its possible effects, dwelling on the 18th of Ezekiel as a comment on the Second Commandment. Indeed, we agreed that the uncomfortable state of disaffection which, in 1830, was becoming only too manifest in the populace, was the result of neglect in former ages, and that, even in our own parish, the bitterness, distrust, and ingratitude were due to the careless, riotous, and oppressive family whom we represented.