Page:Once a Week Volume 7.djvu/220

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212
[Aug. 16, 1862.
ONCE A WEEK.

old shops; added to which, was the grievance of being compelled to put up with very inferior articles. Dissatisfaction at this state of things had long been smouldering. It grew and grew, threatening to break out into open rebellion, perhaps to bloodshed. The neighbourhood cried shame upon Roy, and felt inclined to echo the cry upon Mrs. Verner; while Clay Lane openly avowed their belief that Peckaby’s shop was Roy’s shop, and that the Peckabys were only put in to manage it.

One fearfully hot Monday morning, in the beginning of July, Lionel Verner was passing down Clay Lane. In another week he would be away from Deerham. Lady Verner’s illness had commenced the latter end of April, and it was growing towards the end of June before she began to get better, or would give Lionel leave to depart. Jan, plain-speaking, truth-telling Jan, had at length quietly told his mother that there was nothing the matter with her but “vexing and temper.” Lady Verner went into hysterics at Jan’s unfilial conduct; but, certain it was, from that very time she began to amend. July came in, and Lionel was permitted to fix the day for his departure.

Lionel was walking down Clay Lane. It was a short cut to a friend’s house over the hills, rising there, some three or four miles distant. Not a very suitable day for a walk. Had Lionel been training for a light jockey, without any superfluous weight, he might have dispensed with extra covering in his exercise, and done as effectually without it. A hotter day never was known in our climate; a more intensely burning sun never rode in the heavens. It blazed down with a force that was almost unbearable, scorching and withering all within its radius. Lionel looked up at it; it seemed to blister his face and dazzle his eyes; and his resolution wavered as he thought of the walk before him. “I have a great mind not to go,” said he, mentally. “They can set up their targets without me. I shall be half dead by the time I get there.” Nevertheless, in the indecision, he still walked on. He thought he’d see how affairs looked when he came to the green fields. Green! brown, rather.

But Lionel found other affairs to look at before he got to the fields. On turning a sharp angle of Clay Lane, he was surprised to see a crowd collected, stretching from one side of it to the other. Not a peaceable crowd evidently, although it was composed for the most part of the gentler sex; but a crowd of threatening arms and inflamed faces, and swaying white caps and noisy tongues. The female population of Clay Lane had collected there.

Smash! went the breaking of glass in Lionel’s ears as he came in view; smash! went another crash. Were Peckaby’s shop windows suffering? A misgiving that it must be so, crossed the mind of Lionel, and he made a few steps to the scene of warfare.

Sure enough it was nothing less. Three great holes were staring in so many panes, the splinters of glass lying inside the shop-window, amongst butter and flour, and other appropriate receptacle compartments. The flour looked brown, and the butter was running away in an oily stream; but that was no reason why a shower of broken glass should be added to improve their excellencies. Mr. Peckaby, with white gills and hair raised up on end, stood the picture of tremor, gazing at the damage, but too much afraid to start out and prevent it. Those big men are sometimes physical cowards. Another pane smashed! the weapon used being a hard piece of flint coal, which just escaped short of Mr. Peckaby’s head, and Lionel thought it time to interfere. He pushed into the midst of them.

They drew aside when they saw who it was. In their hot passions—hot and angry then—perhaps no one, friend or enemy, would have stood a chance of being deferred to, but Lionel Verner. They had so long looked upon him as the future master of Verner’s Pride, that they forgot to look upon him as anything less now. And they all liked Lionel. His appearance was as oil poured upon troubled waters.

“What is the meaning of this? What is the matter?” demanded Lionel.

“Oh, sir, why don’t you interfere to protect us, now things is come to this pass? You be a Verner!” was the prayer of remonstrance that met his words from all sides.

“Give me an explanation,” reiterated Lionel. “What is the grievance?”

The particular grievance of this morning, however easy to explain, was somewhat difficult to comprehend, when twenty tongues were speaking at once; and they, shrill and excited ones. In vain Lionel assured them that if one would tell it, instead of all, he should understand it sooner; that if their tone were subdued, instead of loud enough to be heard yonder at the brick-fields, it might be more desirable. Excited women, suffering under what they deem a wrong, cannot be made quiet: you may as well try to put down a rising flood. Lionel resigned himself to his fate, and listened: and at this stage of the affair a new feature of it struck his eye and surprised him; scarcely one of the women but bore in her hand some uncooked meat. Such meat! Lionel drew himself and his coat from too close proximity to it. It was of varied colours, and walking away alive. Upon plates, whole or broken, upon half saucers, upon dust-pans, upon fire-shovels, held at the end of tongs, hooked on to a fork, spread out in a coal-box, anyhow, so as to avoid contact with fingers, these dainty pieces were exhibited for inspection.

By what Lionel could gather, it appeared that this meat had been purchased on Saturday night at Peckaby’s shop. The women had said then, one and all, that it was not good; and Mr. Peckaby had been regaled with various open conjectures, more plain than polite, as to the state of the animal which had supplied it. Independent of the quality of the meat, it was none the better, even then, for having been kept. The women scented this; but Peckaby and Peckaby’s wife, who was always in the shop with her husband on a Saturday night, protested and vowed that their customers’ noses were mistaken; that the meat would be perfectly good and fresh on the Sunday, and on the Monday too, if they liked to keep it so long. The women, somewhat doubtfully giving ear to the assurance, knowing that the alternative was that