- CHAPTER VIII THE SQUIRE'S BROTHER
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THE SQUIRE'S BROTHER
FOUR days later she went to walk in Hawthorn Forest. It was a golden afternoon, and she had hastened her work and got it out of hand. The roof was mended, the beehives were back, the cottage taking on an air of having been lived in all this while. Old Heron earned by scrivener's work. It was not much that he found to do, but it gave them plain fare and plain clothes to wear. Joan, too, from time to time sold to a merchant flax that she had spun. . . . She had gone no way into the forest since their return, there had been each day so much to do! But to-day an image had haunted her of how the forest used to look in its garb of May.
She let the gate-latch fall behind her and went out in the grey-green gown that she had spun and dyed herself. She wore a small cap of linen and a linen kerchief. Sunday she would wear a bluish gown, and a cap and kerchief of lawn. She was tall and light upon her feet, grey-eyed and well-featured, with hair more gold than brown, with a warm, sun-flushed, smooth, fine-textured skin, and a good mouth and chin and throat. The sun was three hours high; she meant to have a long and beautiful time.
98 THE WITCHalmost immediately great trees were about her, leaf-mould and flowerets beneath her feet. The forest was hardly yet in full leaf. There spread about her a divine pale emerald fretwork, and gold light in lances and arrows, and closing the vistas purple light in gauzy sheets and curtains. The boles of the trees were marvels, the great spreading branches kings' wonders, every slight fern illustrious. The stir and song of hidden birds, the scurrying of a hare, a glimpse down a beechen aisle of a doe and fawn, filled a cup of delight. She was Greek to it all, a country girl of Attica. Merely to live was good, merely to vibrate and quiver to the myriad straying fingers of life, merely to be, and ever more to be, with a fresh intensity.
On she wandered with a light step and heart, now by handbreadth of sward, now in a maze of trees. Now and then she stood still, gazing and listening and smelling the good earth. Once or twice she rested upon some protruding foot or fallen log, nursed her knees and marked the minute life about her.
Happy, happy, happy! with the blood coursing warmly and sanely through her veins, with her senses keen at the intake and her brain good at combining . . . Open places, small clearings, existed here and there in the forest with, at great intervals, some hut or poor cottage. So it was that she soon came in sight of the burned cot and trodden bit of garden whence Mother Spuraway had plucked the rue.
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The place lay curiously, half in gold light, half in deep shadow. The stone chimney was standing, together with some portion of charred rafter. There were currant and gooseberry bushes, and a plum tree, but the bit of garden-hedge was broken down and all things had run to waste. Joan, drawing near, heard children's voices, and presently, touching the cleared space, came into view of six or seven village boys, who, roaming at will or sent on some errand through the wood, had found here a resting-stage and fascination. They were after something—she thought a bird's nest—in a crotch of the plum tree that brushed the blackened chimney. She stood and watched for a moment, then called to them. "Leave that poor bird alone!" Two or three, turning, laughed and jeered, and one small savage at the foot of the tree threw a stone. Joan was angry, but she could not help the bird—they probably had nest and eggs by now. She went on, past the burned cot, and was presently in the greenwood again.
After a time she found herself upon the Oak Grange road, running across this corner of the forest. She had not meant to go this way, but a memory came to her of a stream flowing over pebbles, of an old house and an oak tree around which they used to say the fairies danced at night. She walked on upon the narrow and grass-grown road, and after a little time it led her out of the wood and to the edge of the pebbly stream. There was a footbridge thrown across, but she did not mean to go over to the other
100 THE WITCHbank. She had no acquaintance at the Grange. She had heard Goodman Cole say that the old miser, Master Hardwick, was still alive, but was rarely seen without the house. Will the smith's son had once worked at the Grange, but she did not know if he were there yet. . . . She sat down on a stone at this end of the bridge, and regarded now the old ruinous house sunk in ivy, with the long grass and ragged shrubs before it, and now the giant oak where the fairies danced, and now the bright blue sky behind with floating clouds, and now the shallow, narrow river with its pebbly shore, and now she regarded all in one.Ripple, ripple! sang the water.
She sat there some time, but at last, with a long breath, she stood up, looked a moment longer, then turned and, reëntering the wood, faced homeward. She had strolled and sauntered and spent her time. Now the sun was getting low in the west. Presently she left the road and took the forest track that would bring her again by the burned cot.
Through the thinning wood she saw the place before her, in shadow now, except that the top of the plum tree was gold. She thought that she still heard the boys' voices. Then, just at the edge of the clearing, she came suddenly face to face with a man.
He was a tall man, plainly dressed in some dark stuff. Stopping as he did when he saw her, stepping aside a pace to give her room, he chanced to come into a ray of the last slant sunlight. It showed his face, a lined, rather strange, not unpleasing face.
101 THE SQUIRE'S BROTHERHe was carrying in the hollow of his arm a grey and white cat. The creature lay stretched out, half-dead, blood upon its fur.
"Ah," said Joan, "it was that they were tormenting!" She stood still. She was sympathetic with animals; they were like everything else, living and loving to live. She thought they were very like human beings.
"Aye," said the man. "But it can recover. It is starved as well." He looked at this chance-met young woman. "I meant to carry it back to Doro: thy at the Grange," he said. "But I am on my way to visit a sick man and it will be much out of my road. Do you live anywhere near?" He knit his brows a little. He thought that by now he knew all faces for a long way around, but he did not know her face.
"Aye," said Joan. "I live at Heron's cottage.—If you wish me to, I '11 take her and give her milk to drink and let her lie by the hearth for a while."
They were standing beneath the very last line of trees, before there began the bit of waste and the ruined garden. The village boys were there yet, turned—all but two of them—to some other idle sport about the chimney and the fallen beams. These two, loath to give up the beast they were tormenting, and childishly wrathful against the intruder, stood watching him from behind a thorn bush.
"Will you do so?" said Aderhold. "That is well!
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I am going your way through the wood. I will carry it until we reach the path to the cottage."
They moved from the clearing and the sight of the thorn bush. It was dim now in the wood, with an evening wind and darkness stealing through. They walked rather swiftly than slowly.
"I heard that Goodman Heron had come back," said Aderhold. "You are his daughter?"
"Yes. I'm Joan."
"You have been away a long time."
"Aye. Three years come Saint John's Eve."
"Three years.—I have been here three years."
"You are the physician?" asked Joan. "You live at the Oak Grange with Master Hardwick?"
"Aye. At the Oak Grange."
"They say that fairies dance there and that a demon haunts it."
''They say' is the father and mother of delusion.''
"I would wish there were no demons," said Joan, "but some fairies are not ill folk. But the minister saith that God hates all alike."
They came to the edge of the forest, before them the threadlike green path to Heron's cottage. "I must go on now by the road," said Aderhold. Joan held out her hands and he put in them the white and grey cat. "You are a good maid to help me," he said. "I have little power to do aught for any one, but if I can serve you ever I will." He turned to the road and the sick man, she to the cottage gate.
103 THE SQUIRE'S BROTHERto Heron's cottage, Master Harry Carthew, the squire's brother, who fastened his horse to the elm at the gate, and came up the path between the daffodils in his great boots and his sad-coloured doublet and wide-brimmed hat. Joan, watching from the window,—her father was just without and would meet him,—thought how handsome a man he was, but also how stern was his aspect, stern almost as if the world were all a churchyard, with graves about.... It seemed that he had some writings that he wished copied. As she moved about the kitchen she heard his voice in explanation. The voice, she thought, was like the gentleman, a well-made voice, and yet hard, and yet melancholy, too. She heard him say that he would ride by in a day or so for the writing - and then he said that the day was warm and asked for a cup of water.
Old Heron turned his head. "Joan!"
Joan filled a cup with fresh well water, set it on a trencher for salver, and brought it forth to the squire's brother. He lifted it to his lips and drank. Goodman Cole's advice to the contrary, Joan stood with a level gaze, with the result that she was aware that as he drank he looked steadily at her over the rim of the cup. It was not a free or distasteful look, rather it had in it melancholy and wonder. He put the cup down and presently went away.
104 THE WITCHwas over. The room was bright and clean. Joan, having put for him her father's chair, sat to one side spinning; old Heron took a stool. They were yeoman stock, and the squire's brother was gentry. Carthew spoke little and the others waited for him to speak. The room was quiet save for the whirr of the wheel and the rain without. The white and grey cat lay by the hearth. Old Heron had thrown fresh faggots on the fire, and the tongues of flame threw a dancing light.
The little speech there was, and that solely between the two men, fell upon the affairs of the country. The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was seven months old, but England still echoed to the stupendous noise it had made. Old Heron said something that bore upon the now heavily penalized state of the Catholics.
"Aye, they pulled down their own house on their own heads!" answered Carthew. He spoke with a stern, intense triumph. "I would have them forth from England! There is warrant for it in all histories. As the Spaniards pushed out the Jews, so I would push them out!"
The rain stopped; he rose to go. Old Heron opening the door, let in a burst of fresh sweetness. Joan stood up from her wheel, and, as Carthew passed, curtsied. He made an inclination of his head, their eyes met. There was that in his look that both challenged and besought, that, at all events, left her troubled enough.
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Again two days and he came to recover what was copied. Again she sat and span, and again she was conscious that he looked at her rather than at her father, and that, though he spoke aloud only to her father, there was some utterance trying to pierce its way to her. He went away—but the next day he came again, when there was no looking for him.
Her father was away to the village. She was at the well, beneath the apple tree, by the heartsease bed. She turned from lifting the cool, brimming, dripping bucket, and saw him close beside her.
"Good-day," he said.
"Good-day, sir.—He is not here. Father is not here!"
"I am sorry for that," he answered; then, after a silence in which she became aware that he was fighting, she knew not why, for breath, "But you are here."
"Aye," said Joan. "I—I have so much to do." She left the bucket on the coping of the well and started toward the cottage. "Father went but a little while ago. You may overtake him, sir,—"
Carthew stood before her. "I have seen you at church three times. I have seen you here three times. For years I had not thought of earthly toys—my mind was set on the coming of the Kingdom of God.... And now you—you come.... I think you have bewitched me."
Joan's heart beat violently. A strong presence was beside her, before her. She wrenched herself free.
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"You must not speak so, sir. You must not speak so, Master Carthew! I am naught to you—you can be naught to me." Brushing by him, she began to walk swiftly toward the cottage.
He kept beside her. "You are much to me—and I will be much to you.... God knoweth the struggle, and knoweth if I be damned or no!—But now I will abide in this land that I believed not in—but I will serve Him still; even where I am, I will serve Him more strictly than before! So perhaps He will accept, and not too dreadfully condemn.... Do not doubt that I mean honestly by you."
"What you mean or mean not, I know not!" said Joan. "But I am all but a stranger to you, sir, and I will to remain so! Will you not go?—and my father shall bring you the writings—"
Carthew's hand clasped and unclasped. He had gone further than he ever meant to go today. Indeed, he had no plan, no gathered ideas. He might have pleaded that he was himself a victim, struck down unawares. Forces within had gathered, no doubt, for a violent reaction after violent, long-continued repression, and chance had set a woman, young and fair, in the eye of the reaction—and now in his soul there was a divided will and war, war! His brow showed struggle and misery, even while his eyes and parted lips desired wholly.
107 THE SQUIRE'S BROTHERride away now, and come for the writing another day.—See, I am naught now but friend and well-wisher!"
That a squire's brother should conceive that he might take some slight liberty with a cotter's daughter, that he might, on a May day and none looking, snatch a kiss or steal an arm about her, was truly, in Joan's time, neither a great rarity nor a great matter. If it went no further than that, it need not be especially remembered. Rebuff with vigour, if you chose, but so that the thing ended there, it was no hanging matter! At the castle, page or esquire might have been more forward than Carthew, and Joan, though she sent them about their business, might have done so with some inward laughter. But Master Harry Carthew! He was a Puritan, strict and stern, he was always with the minister, he walked with the Bible and by the Bible. He was no hypocrite either; it was easy to see that he was earnest. Then what did he have to do with coming here so, troubling her so? Joan felt a surge of anger and fright. Something boding and pestilential seemed to gather like a mist about her.
The two, both silent now, moved out of the shadow of the fruit trees into the blossomy hand-breadth before the cottage door. As they did so, Alison Inch came by the gate, saw the horse fastened to the elm, and, looking through the wicket, Carthew and Joan. If she had meant to come in or no did not appear; she stood stock-still for a
108 THE WITCHmoment, then put herself into motion again and passed on.
If Carthew saw her, he paid no attention. But Joan saw her, saw her face quite plainly. When Carthew—with a sudden and harsh "Good-bye for this time; or, good-bye forever, if so be I can yet kill this thing within me!"—strode away and through the gate, and, mounting his horse, rode off with a stiff bearing, not looking back, she stood for a moment or two with a still, expressionless face, then, moving slowly to the doorstep, sat down and took her head into her hands. She was seeing again Alison's face. "That's what she meant the other day—she meant that at church I was minding, not the psalm, but that man.... Then, doth she mind him so herself that she looked so, there at the gate?... Woe's me!" mourned Joan. "Here's a coil!"
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