« PreviousContinue »
"Oh," said Stephen, in no way disconcerted, "in that case they probably wouldn't want any land. I only asked the question on that account. I couldn't let them have any land."'
"They wouldn't want any," returned the visitor, regaining her composure. "Mr. Leslie, the father, is a brokendown Oxford don—he doesn't know the difference between a turnip and a potato I should think—and, as there are only two daughters, there couldn't be any question of farming."
"But the little house would never do for them, though, would it?" exclaimed Rebecca. "Nobody has lived in it for over a year now, and it 'ud want a deal o' settin' to rights."
"it's a wretched, tumbledown place, I know," returned Mrs. Turnworth with gusto. "i have often said yon ought to put it in order for your own sake, Hardy; it's a disgrace to your premises. But as far as the Leslies are concerned it really doesn't matter. They'd have to live in some miserable hole anyhow—they haven't a pennypiece in the world."
"Then perhaps they wouldn't suit me," said Stephen, with one of his quiet smiles.
"Of course I'm not speaking quite literally. They'd manage to pay your rent all right—you couldn't in conscience charge very much for that ruin. They're foolish, harmless sort of people. The old man would write and read all day and the girls could paint or garden. They'd keep the house aired, and you might as well have them living there as keep it empty."
"Be there no mother?" inquired Rebecca.
"No, she died, poor creature, when the youngest girl was four—rather a good thing, too, for I don't think she and John Leslie understood each other in the least, and there might have been an enormous family—there always is, you know, when there's no money—and
that would have complicated matters." She laughed—her own peculiar, ill-natured laugh—while Rebecca eyed her solemnly over the top of her cup. She was old-fashioned enough to consider such a speech indelicate in the presence of a young man, and, moreover, the heartlessness of it jarred upon her.
"Poor thing," she said at length, setting down her cup, "is it she who was your cousin or is it the gentleman?"
"Mrs. Leslie was my cousin," said Mrs. Turnworth rather stiffly. She thought it presumptuous of Rebecca to ask personal questions, though it never occurred to her that Mrs. Hardy might resent her own familiar use of her Christian name, or that the young yeoman, whom the wives of the Squire and the Rector were accustomed to "Mr." with all ceremony, might consider it a liberty on her part to dispense with this prefix. "That has nothing to do with the question," she continued; "the question is, will you let them the Little Farm at a reasonable rent?"
"Meaning by reasonable a very low one," intimated Stephen.
"Well, it comes to that," responded she; "but as you don't want to live there yourself and it's empty now, you must be the gainer in any case."
"i'll think about it," said Stephen.
"Oh, but you must make up your mind at once one way or the other," cried Mrs. Turnworth, the higher octave coming immediately into requisition. "I've had a letter this morning from the girls—quite a desperate letter. Why they should expect me to find a house for them I can't think, but they are the most helpless people in the world—and, of course, one can't leave them quite stranded."
Thereupon, forgetting in her eagerness all about the advisability of keeping people like the Hardys in their place, Mrs. Turnworth drew an envelope from her pocket and unfolded the sheet it contained. lt was a small sheet much blotted, especially on the first page, and was evidently written by two different hands.
"lt's a curious document," said Mrs. Turnworth, "but really they do seem in an extraordinary plight, poor shiftless creatures that they are. You can judge for yourselves from this."
Thereupon, assuming her pince-nez, she read out the missive:—
"'Dear Cousin Marian,—We are dreadfully sorry to trouble you again, but we really do feel so bewildered and forlorn we don't know what to do.' "Bess:—This is Bess, l see—spells forlorn with an 'e' l perceive." 'We have to leave this house on Monday week, and we haven't the faintest notion where to go. A friend told me that living was cheap in Dorset, and so. as we are such grovelling beggars, Kitty and l think it would be a good thing to live there. Do try and find a home of some sort for us—any squalid hole will do—just any sort of house with a garden and a roof that won't let in the rain. Of course if there were a sundial we should love it '"
"A sundial!" interpolated Rebecca with a gasp.
"Yes, a sundial," repeated Mrs. Turnworth, laughing in a way that was at once contemptuous and compassionate. "Ob, this is a most characteristic letter—characteristic of the whole family's attitude towards life. Any sort of squalid hole will do. it would be advisable to have a roof which would keep out the rain, but on the whole they would prefer a sundial. Bess seems to have exhausted herself with this statement of her requirements, for the letter has evidently lain by for a day or two before Kitty finished it. This is what she says:—
"'l am so sorry to find that Bess never posted this letter—she imagined she had and was wondering why you did not answer, but l have just found
it in her blotter. Dear Cousin Marian, do try and help us. We don't seem to have another friend in the world and certainly no relations. l don't know whom to turn to. We have to leave this on Monday week, and l don't think we ought to stay at Oxford. lt would be so hard to live in a small way here. Father would go on ordering books and things, and we should not be able to pay for them. He doesn't seem to know how much money we have left, but l am sure it is very little. lf you would help us to find a house l should be so grateful. lt would be nice to be near you, as we should not feel quite so forlorn.' "Kitty has begun by spelling forlorn with an 'e' too," remarked the reader, "but at least she has had the good sense to cross it out." 'We can only pay very little rent, not more than fifteen or twenty pounds, l should think, but l suppose we could get a cottage for that. Bess and l saw a pretty one the other day—only a laborer's cottage, but it had honeysuckle all over the porch, and a sundial in the garden.' "There's the sundial again, you see."
"l'm afraid we haven't got such a thing," said Mrs. Hardy regretfully. "Dear, to be sure, they do seem desolate, poor young things."
"Desolate!" exclaimed Mrs. Turnworth, settling herself back in her corner of the sofa, with the aspect of comfortable enjoyment with which she generally delivered her most censorious speeches. "What can you expect? They've had the most absolutely idiotic bringing up that girls could possibly have. Never denied anything—sent to the most expensive schools—allowed to grow up in absolute ignorance of all it was essential for people in their position to know—and their father meanwhile living on his capital. l fancy they must be on the verge of bankruptcy now."
Mrs. Hardy's face fell. The word bad an ugly sound, and the thing it represented was to her mind a crime worthy to be ranked with theft and arson. She looked questloningly at her stepson:—
"l shouldn't like anyone to go bankrupt in our house," she said.
"Oh, they won't do that," responded Mrs. Turnworth, again repenting her of the ease with which her terribly ready tongue outran her discretion. "l was speaking—ah—in a general way. They have some money, my cousin's money, which is strictly tied up, so that Mr. Leslie can't touch it. You'd better let them have the house, Hardy —you'll not regret it. Let them have it for a year anyhow—if the rent is not forthcoming at the end of that time they can march, and you can come down on me for it"
This postscript, though very unexpected, was thoroughly characteristic of Mrs. Turnworth; she united in her own person a very curious mixture of qualities. She would now and then do a really good-natured thing in the harshest possible way; she would make a genuine sacrifice without in any manner altering her disapproving attitude towards the recipient.
"Shall we say fifteen pounds a year?" she persisted. "You oughtn't to ask any more, you know, and you wouldn't get it if you did. Fifteen pounds a year for house, orchard, and garden. And you'll mend up the place a bit and make it tolerable tidy?"
"Very well," said Stephen.
"l don't know how it is," remarked Rebecca when Stephen came back after escorting the visitor to her carriage, "Mrs. Turnworth do never come to see us without l feel as if somebody had been scratching me. l hope she won't be popping in and out too often if she gets her cousins here. l don't know why you gave in so quick, Stephen."
"I don't know either," returned he.
He was indeed puzzled, if truth be
told, and inclined to regret his complacency. He was not a man who liked interference—above all, femluine interference. He had no wish whatever to let the Little Farm, and fifteen pounds a year meant nothing to him. And yet he had given Mrs. Turnworth her own way, secured for himself tenants who were apparently most undesirable, and no doubt let himself in for a good deal of expense and possible annoyance—Why? Perhaps because of the recurrence in that blotted letter of the misspelt word "forlorn."
lt required a good deal of effort on the part of the new landlord and hls stepmother, with, it must be owned, some assistance from Mrs. Turnworth, to render the Little Farm habitable for the incoming tenants. But as many hands were called into requisition, added to a sufficient quantity of real good will, the place was set in order with a celerity scarcely short of miraculous. Windows were glazed, missing tiles replaced, a certain amount of papering and white-washing was carried out, and big fires were lit in all the rooms so that the house was aired to Mrs. Hardy's satisfaction. The flagged path before the door was cleared of encroaching moss and grasses, the gate mended, a portion of the garden roughly dug over.
Mrs. Turnworth superintended the unloading of the Leslies' furnlturo— which seemed to consist chiefly of books and carved oak—and engaged a reliable charwoman.
On the day before the expected arrival, Stephen drove into the town and returned to the Little Farm with a rather heavy package. lt was an old sundial.
"Dear heart alive!" ejaculated his stepmother, coming out of the house and finding him engaged in setting it up. "Where did ye pick up that?"
"Oh, l chanced on it in Sarum-street . lt only cost a few shillings, but it's a genuine old one. See the verse written here on the pedestal."
"Well, they'll make thelrselves happy with their sundial, l suppose," said Rebecca, "but they don't seem to give much thought to ordinary comforts, i will say. They haven't ordered a bit of coal, and they've wrote to Mrs. Turnworth to say none of the things are to be unpacked till they come."
"l suppose they like to arrange everything themselves," said Stephen, delicately poising the dial.
"lt seems so, but they'll want beds to sleep in and chairs to sit on, i'd 'low. Mrs. Turnworth sent a man down to put up the beds, but the parlor's all littered up with cases—there's scarce staudin' room; and she thinks l'd better leave the linen chest alone. The very sheets won't be aired, my dear!"
"Well, well, it can't be helped. They know their own affairs best," rejoined Stephen.
"And there's no talk of any provisions coming in," resumed Mrs. Hardy. "'Tis to be hoped they'll arrive early enough to give their orders."
But when the luggage-piled cab tolled slowly up the lane which led to the Little Farm, it was already so dark that the figures of its occupants were indistinguishable.
An hour or two later Mrs. Green, ihe charwoman engaged by Mrs. Turnworth, came panting up to the house upon the hill.
"Oh, if you please, m'm," she cried breathlessly as Mrs. Hardy went out to her, "i took the liberty of comin' up for to inquire if you'd be willin' to oblige Miss Leslie with a few eatables tonight. The young ladies say they've brought a hamper with them, but they're not sure which it is along o' there bein' so many boxes and cases about. l made so bold as to say l felt sure you'd have no objections to helpin'
of 'em to-night, and to-morrow we'll be able to get things a bit straight."
"Dear, to be sure!" exclaimed the sympathetic Mrs. Hardy, "what a state they must foe in! But l felt certain they'd find everything terr'ble upset, lravellin' so late and all. What would they like, Mrs. Green? They'm welcome to anything l've got."
Mrs. Green, who was a tall, angular person with a lantern-jawed saturnine countenance, sniffed as she replied:—
"Well, Mrs. Hardy, it do seem a bit hard to make out what the young ladies do want. One says one thing and the other says another. The eldest told me to ax for some fresh eggs— 'there's sure to be eggs at a farm,' says she, 'and l could make a omelet.' 'No, no,' says the other, 'let's have some cold ham—they're bound to have ham at a farm because there are so many pigs'—i feel a bit put out myself, Mrs. Hardy. l brought my dinner with me seein' there was nothin' in the house, but l did look to have a bit o' supper found. l did agree for my meals wi' Mrs. Turnworth."
"To be sure, to be sure," said hospitable Rebecca. "There, they shall have ham and eggs, too, poor dears. Wait a bit—we'll get a basket and put in a few oddments of all sorts."
Presently Mrs. Green went staggering down the hill laden with comforts for the newcomers. Ham, eggs, a loaf, tea and sugar, butter, even a little flour—Mrs. Green had mentioned the young ladies had said something about flour—all these were stowed away in the basket which she carried in one hand, while the other clasped the handle of a large can of milk.
Nevertheless Rebecca went to bed that night with her kindly heart still in some anxiety.
"i know they'll never think o' gettin' their sheets aired," she said, as she crept in between her own lavenderscented ones.
Early on the morrow she persuaded Stephen to accompany her on a visit to the Little Farm.
"I do feel a bit bashful-like goin' by myself," she urged, "but i should like to know how they be a-gettin' on, and maybe we could help them a bit. An' 'tis but the proper thing for you to pay your respects to them seein' you're their landlord."
The little house was looking its best this golden October morning, the sunllght bringing out wonderful tints on the gray walls and the moss-grown tiles. The row of pollard lime trees, which stood like sentinels behind the undulating roof of the tithe-barn, carried their sparse foliage bravely; every leaf was aglow, every twig glittered, the shifting lights on the trunks danced and vanished and reappeared with dazzling rapidity, for there was a fresh breeze that morning and the branches were perpetually astir. The house door stood open, but there was no sign of life within. ln the absence of a bell, Mrs. Hardy knocked several times upon the door panel, and on receiving no answer ventured to walk in.
"Bless me," she exclaimed under her breath, "did a body ever see such a mess!"
From the narrow passage they had a glimpse of a small room, which the Miss Leslies presumably intended to use as a sitting-room. A great pile of packing cases occupied the centre of the floor, on the top of which a dish containing the remnants of Mrs. Hardy's cold ham, some cups and plates were insecurely balanced. One window was partially draped with a length of art muslin; which, having been unfolded, had apparently caught in somebody's dress, and had wound itself round the legs of a table. A good deal of earth was scattered over the recently scrubbed floor, and a mass of it heaped up in the grate, in the midst of which a large bush of Mi
chaelmas daisies was embedded. The flowers and foliage were already beginning to droop, and the probability seemed slight of their continuing to be the ornament for which they were evidently intended.
Stephen did not, however, share his step-mother's horror; he laughed indeed, and was looking about him with amusement, mingled with curiosity, when the door on the opposite side of the passage opened and Mrs. Turnworth came out.
She had left this door ajar, and through the aperture was visible the figure of a tall man standing irresolutely in the middle of the floor. His moustache and hair were white, but his face was unwrinkled and looked young, so young as almost to startle Mrs. Hardy, who, from Mrs. Turnworth's frequent allusions to "old John," had imagined Mr. Leslie to be quite an elderly person.
"Oh," cried his relative, turning sharply as she beheld the other two, "here are the Hardys, John. l'd better introduce them—he is your landlord, you know. This is Mr. Leslie, Hardy."
Stephen and his stepmother followed her into the apartment which was in future to be known as Mr. Leslie's study. The whole place was littered with packing-cases and books, but a small fire burnt in the grate, and, as the Miss Leslies had not endeavored to carry out any special scheme of decoration in their father's sanctum, its disorder was of a less appalling nature.
After a nervous glance at the newcomers, Mr. Leslie, who had been standing with both hands in his pockets, took one of them out, gazed at it with gratified surprise, as though he had not been aware of possessing so valuable an appendage, and then, apparently finding himself unable to entrust it even for a moment to the