Wrecked in Port/Book II, Chapter X

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Chapter X.The Girls They Left Behind Them.

It is a conventional, but by no means a correct, notion, that at the time of a social separation those who are left behind have so very much the worst of it. People imagine that those who remain must necessarily be so dull after the departure of their friends; though very frequently those departing are the very persons who have imported gloom and misery into the household, who have sat like social old men and women of the sea on the necks of the jovial Sindbads, who have been skeletons at the feast, and wet blankets, and bottle-stoppers, and killjoys, and mirth-quenchers, and story-baulkers. It is by no means an uncommon occurrence, that there has been no such pleasant music for weeks, in the ears of those remaining in the house, as the noise of the wheels of the carriage speeding the parting guest.

The people of Helmingham village, when they saw the carriage containing Mr. Creswell and his bride spinning away to the station, after indulging in a fresh theme of talk expressive of their surprise at all that had happened, and their delight at the cleverness of the schoolmaster's daughter, who had, as they politely expressed it, "carried her pigs to such a good market," began to discuss the situation at Woolgreaves; and as it had been universally agreed that the day should be made a general holiday, the new married folk and their kith and kin, their past and future, were served up as topics of conversation, not merely at the various village tea-tables, but in the commercial room of the Lion at Brocksopp, which, there being no commercial gentlemen staying in the house, had been given up to the tenantry on the estate, who were given to understand that Mr. Teesdale, Mr. Creswell's agent, would attend to the bill. It was long since the Lion had done such a roaring trade, for the commercial gents, by whom the house was chiefly frequented, though convivial souls, were apt to be convivial on small orders, "fours" of rum and "sixes" of brandy; and it was only on exceptional occasions that old Mr. Mulock, who "travelled in hardware," would suffer himself to be fined a crown bowl of punch for having committed the uncommercial atrocity of smoking in the commercial room before seven o'clock, or young Mr. Cunynghame, who represented his own firm in Scotch goods—a very pushing young gentleman, and a wonderful fellow to get on—would "stand champagne round" when he had received a specially remunerative order. But now Miss Parkhurst, in the bar, had not a second to herself, the demand for her strong mahogany-coloured brandy-and-water was so great; steaming jorums of "hot with" here, huge goblets of "cold without" there; the fascinating Hebe of the Lion had not dispensed so much drink at one time since the day when old Major Barth was returned in the Conservative interest for Brocksopp—and the major, it is allowed, was not merely a hard drinker himself, but the cause of hard drinking in others; while as for old Tilley, the jolly landlord, he was so overwhelmed with the exertion of punch-compounding, that he took off the short-tailed snuff-coloured coat which he usually wore, and went to work in his shirt-sleeves, slicing lemons, mixing, strengthening, sweetening,—ay, and tasting too—until his pleasant face, always round and red, assumed a greater rotundity and an extra glow, and his little, short, fat body ached again, with fatigue.

But, as is very often the case in better society than that with which we are now engaged, the amount of conversation indulged in had not been in equal ratio with the amount of liquor consumed. They were very quiet drinkers in those parts, and on great occasions sat round the council fire as silently and gravely as a set of aboriginal Indians. They had touched lightly on the subject of the wedding, but only as men who knew that they had an interminable subject at hand, ready to fall back upon whenever they felt disposed, and from that they had jumped at a tangent to discussing the chances of the lambing season, where they were far more at home, and much more practical in what they had to say. The fertility of Farmer Porter's ewes, or the carelessness of Tom Howson, Farmer Jeffrey's shepherd, were topics which went home to every man present; on which each had a distinct opinion, which he delivered with far greater force and emphasis than when called upon to pronounce upon an analysis of the guiding motives of the human heart in connexion with the choice of a husband. Indeed, so much had to be said upon the subject of these "yows," that the conversation began to become rather tiresome to some members of the company, who were also tenants of the bridegroom's, but whose business connexions were rather with commerce than agriculture or stock-purchase. These gentry, who would have sat interested for that indefinite period known as "a blue moon," had the talk been of markets, and prices, and "quotations," at length thought it time to vary the intellectual repast, and one of them suggested that somebody should sing a song. In itself not a bad proposition, but one always hard to be properly carried out. A dead silence fell upon the company at once, broken by Farmer Whicher, who declared he had often heard neighbour Croke "wobble like a lavrock," and moved that neighbour Croke be at once called upon. Called upon Mr. Croke was unanimously, but being a man of uncertain temper he nearly spoiled the harmony of the evening by declaring flatly that he would be "darnged" if he would. A book-keeper in one of the Brocksopp mills, a young man of literary tendencies, who had erected several in memoriam tombstones to his own genius in the Brocksopp Banner and County Chronicle, then proposed that Mr. M'Shaw, who, as the speaker remarked, "came from the land which produced the inspired exciseman," would favour them with a Scotch ballad. But Mr. M'Shaw declined the compliment. A thrifty man with a large family, Alick M'Shaw always kept himself in check in every way where expense was concerned, and now for the first time for years he found himself in the position of being able to consume a large quantity of whisky, without being called upon to pay for it. He knew that the time taken up in singing the ballad would be so much time wasted, during which he must perforce leave off drinking, and so, though he had a pretty tenor voice, and sang very fairly, he pleaded a cold and made his excuse. Finally, everybody having been tried, and everybody having in more or less cantankerous manner refused, it fell upon Farmer Whicher to sing that ditty for which he was well known for a score of miles round, which he had sung for nearly a third of a century at various harvest homes, shearing feasts, and other country merry-makings, and which never failed—it being a supposed joyous and bacchanalian chant—in crushing the spirits and subduing the souls of those who listened to it. It was a performance which never varied the smallest iota in its details. The intending singer first laid down his pipe, carefully knocking out the ashes, and placing it by his right hand to act on emergency as a conductor's bâton, then assuming a most dismal expression of countenance, he glared round into the faces of those surrounding him to sue for pity, or to see if there were any chance of a reprieve, and finding neither he would clear his throat, which was in itself an operation of some magnitude, and commence the song as a solemn recitation; but the chorus, which was duly sung by all present, each man using the most doleful tune with which he was best acquainted, ran thus:

Then pŭsh, pŭsh, pŭsh—the bōwl about,
And pŭsh the bōwl to me-ee—
The longer we sits here, and drinks,
The merr-ī-er we shall be!

It is doubtful to what extent this doleful dirge might have been protracted, for the number of verses is beyond human reckoning, and the more frequently the choruses were repeated the more they are prolonged; but Mr. Teesdale, the agent, a shrewd man of business, saw his opportunity for making a cast, and accordingly, at the end of the ninth stanza, he banged the table with such energy that his cue was taken by the more knowing ones, and the harmony was abandoned as Mr. Teesdale went on to say:

"Capital, bravo, excellent! Always look to you, Whicher, to sing us a good song! First time I heard you sing that was years ago, when our old friend Hardy gave us a supper on the occasion of opening his dancing school! Poor Hardy, not well, eh? or he'd have been here among us! Push the bowl about, eh? Ah, we're likely to have plenty of that sort of fun soon, if I'm correctly informed!"

"What's that, Muster Teesdale?" asked Farmer Adams. "Somebody going to be married, eh?"

"No, no, one at a time, Adams, one at a time."

"What's comin' off then, Muster Teesdale?"

"Well, it's expected that in about a couple of months' time there'll be a general election, Mr. Adams, and you know what that means! I wasn't far out when I said that the bowl would be pushed about at such a time as that, was I?"

"That 'ee warn't, Muster Teesdale, that 'ee warn't! Not that we hold much wi' 'lections about here!"

"That's 'cos there's no proper spirit of opp'sition," said Mr. Croke, who was accustomed to speak very loudly and freely on political matters, and who was delighted at seeing the conversation taking this turn; "that's 'cos there's no proper spirit of opp'sition," he repeated, looking round him, partly in triumph, partly to see if any antagonist were making ready net and spear. "They Tories is 'lowed to walk over the course and du just as pleases 'em!"

"What sort of opp'sition could you expect, Muster Croke?" said Farmer Spalding, puffing at his long churchwarden. "What good could Lib'rals do in a borough like this here Brocksopp, for instance, where its factories, and works, and mills, and such like, are held by rich folk as ought to be Lib'rals and is Tories?"

"Why ought they?" asked Mr. Croke; and while his interlocutor was gathering up his answer, old Croke added, "I'm all for argeyment! I'm a Tory mysel', as all my house have been, but I like to see a opp'sition in everything, and a proper fight, not one-sided 'lections, such as we have seen! Well, Muster Spalding, and why should our rich party folk be Lib'rals and not Tories?"

"Because," said Mr. Spalding, fanning away the smoke from before him, and speaking with great deliberation, "because they sprung from the people, and therefore their symp'ties should be wi' those of whom they were afore they became rich."

"Like enough, like enough, neighbour Spalding. That's what's called mo-rality, that is; but it's not common sense! Common sense is, that it's lucky they grew rich; they becam' Tories, which is the same thing as meaning they wanted their money taken care of."

"Ay, ay, that's it, Croke!" said Farmer Adams. "You've just hit the way to put 'un! Lib'rals, when they've got nothing and want everything, Tories when they've got something and want to take care of it."

"Well, but what's Tories goin' to do this time?" asked Mr. Moule, a maltster in the town. "Our presen' member, Sir George Neal, won't stand again! Told me so his own self last time he was in town for quarter sessions—say's he's too old. My 'pinion is his wife won't let 'un. He's a rum 'un, is Sir George, and when he gets up to London by himself, he goes it, they du say!"

"Nansense, Moule! I wunner at a man o' your sense talkin' such stuff," said Farmer Croke. "That's playin' the Lib'ral game, that is!—though I hev understood that Sir George won't come forrerd again."

"And the Lib'rals is going to mek a tre-menjous struggle this time, I've heerd," observed Moule.

"Who are they goin' to bring forrerd, hev you heerd?" asked Mr. Spalding, with interest.

"Well, I did hear, but I've a'most forgot," said Mr. Moule, who was of a misty and a muddled nature. "No, now I reck'lect, it was young Bokenham!"

"What, son of old Tom Bokenham of Blott's Mills?" asked Mr. Spalding.

"That same! Old man's terrible rich, they du say; firm was Bokenham and Sculthorpe, but Sculthorpe broke his leg huntin' wi' Squire Peacock's harriers, and has been out of business for some time."

"He's just built two saw-mills in Galabin-street, hasn't he?" asked Mr. Croke.

"He has, and that plant in Harmer's-row is his too. Young Bill, he's lawyer up in London—lawyer they say, tho' I thowt he was a parson, as they told me he lives in a Temple, and he's wonderful clever in speakin' at club-meetin's and such like, and they du say that he's not only a Lib'ral, but"—and here Mr. Moule sunk his voice to a whisper to give due horror to his revelation—"that he's an out-and-out Rad!"

"You don't say that!" said Farmer Adams, pushing away his chair with a creak, and gazing with terror at the speaker.

"They du!" said Mr. Moule, delighted and astonished to find himself of so much importance.

"That's a "bad job!" said Mr. Croke, reflectively; "they carry a main lot o' weight in this borough do they Bokenhams! a main lot of weight!" And Mr. Croke shook his head with great solemnity.

"Don't be down-hearted, Mr. Croke!" said Mr. Teesdale, who had been a silent and an amused spectator of this scene. "No doubt Tommy Bokenham, who they say is a clever chap, and who'll be well backed by his father's banking account, is a formidable opponent. But I much doubt if our side won't be able to bring forward some one with as good a head on his shoulders and as much brass in his pockets!"

"Where's he to be found, Muster Teesdale? Sir George won't stand, and it would welly nigh break any one else's back in the neighbr'ood, 'less it were young Rideout, and all his money goes in horse-racin'!"

"What should you say," said Mr. Teesdale, becoming very much swollen with importance—"what should you say to Mr. Creswell?"

"Muster Creswell! What, Squire Creswell, your master, Muster Teesdale?" exclaimed Croke, completely astounded.

"My employer—Squire Creswell, my employer!" said Mr. Teesdale, making a mental note to refuse Farmer Croke the very next request he made, no matter what it might be.

"Are you in ayrnest, Muster Teesdale?" asked Spalding. "Is th' old squire comin' forward for Parlyment?"

"He is, indeed, Mr. Spalding," replied Teesdale; "and he'll make the Lion his head-quarters, won't he, Mr. Tilley?" he said to the old landlord, who had just entered bearing a steaming bowl of punch.

"I hope so, sir—I hope so!" said the old man, in his cheery voice. "The Lion always was the Blue house. I've seen Sir George Neal, quite dead beat wi' fatigue and hoarse wi' hollerin', held up at that window by Squire Armstrong on one side, and Charley Rea, him as left here and went away to Chiney or some furrin' part, on the other, and screechin' for cheers and Kentish fires and Lord knows what, to the mob outside! I ha' got the blue banner somewhere now, that Miss Good, as was barmaid here afore Miss Parkhurst came, 'broidered herself for Sir George at last election."

"Well, there'll be no banners or anything of that kind now, Tilley; that's against the law, that is, but there'll be plenty of fun for all that, and plenty of fighting for the matter of that, for Mr. Creswell means to win!"

"He really du?" asked Farmer Croke, once more in high spirits.

"He really does! And, what's more, I may tell you, gentlemen, as it's no longer any secret, that Mr. Creswell's candidature is approved by her Majesty's Government, by Sir George Neal, and by the principal county gentlemen, so that there's no likelihood of any split in the Conservative camp! And as for young Mr. Bokenham, of whom our friend Moule here has told us so much, well—even if he is all that our friend Moule has made him out—we must try and beat him even then!"

Poor Mr. Moule! it was lucky he had enjoyed his temporary notoriety, for the sarcasm of the agent speedily relegated him to his old post of butt and bolt.

The household at Woolgreaves seemed to get on very well during the absence of its legitimate heads. The young ladies rather gloried in their feeling of independence, in the freedom from the necessity of having to consult any one or to exercise the smallest system of restraint, and they took pleasure in sitting with Mrs. Ashurst and ministering to her small wants. They had always had a kindly feeling towards the old lady, and this had been increased by her helplessness and by her evident unconsciousness of the manner in which the world was slipping away from her. There is something sad in witnessing the struggle for resignation with which a person, smitten with mortal disease, and conscious of their fate, strives to give up all worldly hopes and cares, and to wean their thoughts and aspirations from those things on which they have hitherto been bent; but there is something infinitely more sad in watching the sick-bed of one who is all unconscious of the fiat that has gone forth, who knows, indeed, that her strength is not what it was, but who has no idea that the hand is already uplifted and the dart already poised. Mrs. Ashurst was in this last-named condition; she had gradually been growing weaker and weaker, but there were times when she plucked up wonderfully, and when she would talk of things present, ay, and of things future, as though she had years of life to run. The girls encouraged her to talk. Dr. Osborne had told them that she must be "roused" as much as possible, and they would sit with her and chatter for hours, the old lady taking no inconsiderable share in the conversation. It was astonishing with what unanimity they had hitherto kept off the subject of the marriage, the very topic which one might have imagined would have been the first they would have discussed, but whenever they came near it, whenever they grew "warm," as children say in the old-fashioned game, they seemed by tacit instinct bound to draw away and leave it untouched. At last one day, after the married couple had been a week absent, Mrs. Ashurst said, quietly, "Maud, my dear! weren't you very much astonished when you heard your uncle was going to marry my Marian?"

"No, dear Mrs. Ashurst. Though I'm not very old, I've lived too long to be astonished at anything, and certainly that did not surprise me!"

"It did me!" said Gertrude, for once venturing on an independent remark.

"And why did it surprise you, Gerty?" asked the old lady, already smiling at the quaint reply which she always expected from Gertrude.

"Because I didn't think uncle was so silly!" Gertrude blurted out. "At least, I don't mean that exactly; don't misunderstand me, dear Mrs. Ashurst, but I never thought that uncle would marry again at all; such an idea never entered our heads, did it, Maud?" But Maud declining to play chorus, Gertrude continued: "And if I had thought of such a thing, I should always have set uncle down as marrying some one more his own age, and—and that kind of thing!"

"There is certainly a great disparity of years between them," said Mrs. Ashurst, with a sigh. "I trust that won't work to the disadvantage of my poor, dear girl!"

"I don't think you need fear that, dear old friend!" said Maud; and then thinking that her tone of voice might have been hard, she laid her hand on the old lady's shoulder and added, "Miss Ash—I mean Mrs. Creswell, you know, is wise beyond her years! She has already had the management of a large household, which, as I understand, she conducted excellently; and even did she show a few shortcomings, uncle is the last man to notice them!"

"Yes, my dear, I know; but I didn't mean that! I was selfishly thinking whether Marian had done rightly in accepting a man so much older than herself! She did it for my sake, poor child—she did it for my sake!" And the old lady burst into tears.

"Don't cry, dear!" said Gertrude. "You are not to blame, I'm sure, whatever has happened."

"How can you make yourself so perfectly ridiculous, Gertrude!" said strong-minded Maud. "No one is to blame about anything! And, my dear Mrs. Ashurst, I don't think, if I were you, I should look upon your daughter's present proceeding as such an act of self-sacrifice. Depend upon it she is very well pleased at her new dignity and position." Maud knew that the Creswells were only "new people," but she could not sit by and hear them patronised by a schoolmaster's widow.

"Well, my dear, very likely," said the old lady, meekly; "though she might have been a baronet's lady if she had only chosen. I'm sure young Sir Joseph Attride would have proposed to her, with a little more encouragement; and though my poor husband always said he had pudding in his head instead of brains, that wouldn't have been any just cause or impediment. You never heard about Sir Joseph, Maud?"

"No; Miss Ashurst never spoke to us of any of her conquests," said Maud, with something of a sneer.

"Well, my dear, Marian was never one to say much, you know; but I'm sure she might have done as well as any girl in the county, for the matter of that. There was Sir Joseph, and young Mr. Peacock, before he went up to live in London, and a young German, who was over here to learn English—Burckhardt his name was, and I think his friends were counts, or something of that kind, in their own country—oh, quite grand, I assure you!"

"I wonder whether uncle knows of all these former rivals?" asked Gertrude.

"No, my dear, of course he doesn't, and of course Marian would not be such a goose as to tell him. I think I'll sleep for a bit now, dears; I'm tired."

They kissed her, and left the room; but before the old lady had dropped off she said to herself, "I wasn't going to let them crow over me, or think that my Marian couldn't have had her pick and choice of a husband, if she'd been so minded."

Maud and Gertrude were going towards the garden after leaving Mrs. Ashurst; they saw the postman quitting the door, and the servant came to them with a letter, which she handed to Maud. That young lady opened and read it, but she could scarcely have gone through a few lines, when a particularly stern expression came over her face, her brows were knit, and her lips set tightly together.

"What's the matter, Maud?" asked Gertrude, looking on in wonder. "Who's the letter from?"

"From our new mistress!" said the girl; "at least, I expect she intends we should regard her as such—Mrs. Creswell. They are to be at home at the end of next week, and my lady thinks she shall require what is now our music room for her boudoir. We can have the room at the end of the north passage. Can we, indeed! How very considerate! And it's no use appealing to uncle! He daren't help us, I know! What did I tell you, Gertrude? This woman won't rest until she has crushed us into a state of mere dependence!"