A Rolling Stone Vol. II
‘Like to the grass that's newly sprung,
Or like a tale that's new begun,
Or like the bird that's here to-day,
Or like the pearled dew of May,
Or like one hour, or like a span,
Or like the singing of a swan.
E'en such is man who lives by breath—
is here, now there, in life or death.'
Palmer was ill. This was no new thing, however; his bad health, though he might refuse to acknowledge it, was patent to every observer. But it was a new thing that he should believe himself to be ill, and it was yet more surprising that he should send for a doctor; no doctor as yet had crossed the threshold of his house.
The doctor was only too delighted to come. He regarded Palmer as a sorely battered and beleaguered castle, which had held out bravely for a long time, but was at last starved into submission. He had expected this capitulation, and he came with the hearty cheeriness of one who headed a relief party, bringing health and plenty in his train.
Palmer, as usual, protested that his illness was a trifling one, though it had been serious enough to page 104 keep him indoors, and, according to the doctor, ought to have kept him in bed, could such a man have been persuaded to go to bed as long as he was able to stand.
‘It may please you to neglect these little things,’ the doctor said warningly; ‘but some day they'll bring you to lying down on your bed whether you like it or not.’
‘All right. I shall have you to pull me through,’ said Palmer.
‘If I can. Perhaps you'll be going too far to be pulled through.’
‘Well, I don't expect to live for ever,’ growled Palmer, whose temper was in an irritable state.
‘Oh, of course; so you don't mind about shortening your days. I'm an old friend; I've often thought of speaking plainly to you, Palmer, and I shall do it now.’
‘Well, go ahead. When any one reminds me that he's an old friend, and says he's going to speak plainly, I expect to be pitched into.’
‘It is this,’ said the worthy doctor. ‘You're well off—at least every one says so—and you are getting old. Why live in this miserly, pinched style; in this tumble-down old house, full of draughts, and with the window rattling to a dance tune all day long? Why not go to a cheerful, warm, healthy house, and get a servant or two to keep it in order, and a housekeeper. You had a nice tidy woman here a year age—where has she gone?’page 105
‘A nice tidy woman!’ said Palmer, struggling with suppressed wrath. ‘Do you mean that old harpy Mrs. Sligo?’
‘I do, and what the poor creature has done to be called an old harpy I don't quite perceive.’
‘A man isn't safe in the same house with her,’ said Palmer, getting husky with emotion and his cold. ‘Why, doctor, that woman only quitted my house in time to save me from becoming Mr. Sli—no, I mean to prevent her from becoming Mrs. Palmer. She would have made me marry her if she had stayed long enough.’
‘You are a free agent, I suppose?’
‘I doubt very much whether any man can be a free agent who has been so foolish as to take such a woman into his house. I don't know how she could have managed it, of course—how can you or I or any other man know the ingenuity of a widow?—but she would have done it.’
‘Well,’ said the doctor calmly, ‘you might make a worse choice. I've heard of it before; indeed I heard you were to be married, and that speedily.’
‘It's abominable!’ gurgled Palmer. ‘She gets up those reports. I do all I can to discourage them; I ride past at a canter when we meet; I don't speak unless I'm obliged, and I'm sure I don't encourage conversation on her part. What more can a man do? As for marrying her—I don't know whether there are ways of marrying a man without page 106 his knowing it; but if she intends to marry me that's the way in which she'll have to do it.’
‘Well, I believed the report, and, to tell you the truth, I thought you had done wisely,’ said the doctor, hardly able to suppress a chuckle.
‘No doubt,’ said Palmer. ‘You and all other married people will set on an old bachelor at times, and goad him on till he's almost mad enough to marry any one. I don't choose to make myself ridiculous at my time of life.’
‘I don't see anything ridiculous in marrying an amiable woman. A very sensible match, I should call it; the lady is not too young for you.’
‘Whoever said she was? She may be old enough for the patriarchs for all I care, and I can assure you she's a good fifteen years over what she owns to.’
‘Oh, really’ said the doctor, affecting to be very much shocked by Palmer's ungallant remarks. ‘A lady's age is her own business, Mr. Palmer. It doesn't matter how old she is if she doesn't look it.’
‘I'm sure it doesn't matter to me,’ said Palmer.
The doctor thought it prudent to change the subject, but he was not less plain-spoken on that with which his visit had most to do. He told Palmer that in future he would have to be as careful of his health as he had been careless.
‘Which means I'm always to be sending for you, I suppose,’ was Palmer's unamiable response.
‘No use in that, if you will ride out in rainstorms, and keep on your wet clothes when you come home, page 107 besides doing all other kinds of foolish things,’ said the doctor.
‘When can I get out of the house again?’ demanded Palmer.
‘Not until I give you leave,’ replied his physician. ‘Don't let me catch you putting your head outside.’
‘But I tell you I can't endure being shut up for another week,’ said Palmer. ‘It's very likely I shall be putting my head outside.’
Palmer had to endure it, however. The days would have been unbearably long and dreary but for his books. He began at one end of a shelf and read conscientiously across it to the other. The books were old, faded, and worn, and many of them showed signs of an approaching separation from their bindings; but they had that within which was worth more than all the brightness of fresh colouring and burnished gilding—worth more, as Palmer would say, than ‘a whole library full of modern froth.’ Poor moderns! for whom the best things have all been said or written ages ago. Those heavy quartos, with their many pages of solid information and sound sense were written and read when every one was not running a hot race with time. Nowadays we are the prey of the buccaneers of literature, who every day send out something so fresh, so brilliant, and, above all, so ‘modern,’ that we never dream it may have appeared first in one of those musty old volumes we keep in our libraries to look at but not to read.
The kindness of Mrs. Sligo at this epoch was page 108 oppressive. The good woman must have toiled for days together at her cooking stove, so many and various were the delicacies she made with her own hands, and sent to Palmer's house. It was in vain that the doctor advised him to eat them and be thankful; it was in vain that Randall even urged him not to hurt poor Mrs Sligo's feelings by despising her offerings. Palmer refused to taste them, alleging that the very sight of the different preparations of corn flour, arrowroot, and jelly instantaneously deprived him of the little appetite he had. But still they came: blancmanges, beautifully moulded as lions or dogs; jellies, pink, salmon, or sherry coloured, until Randall declared it was imperative something should be done with them, as the kitchen and pantry were filling fast. Palmer ordered them to be sent across the road to the cottage, and for a week Hickson's family feasted right royally. Unfortunately, one day when they had sat down to a meal principally composed of the rejected dainties, Mrs. Sligo suddenly entered the cottage, as was her wont, in a very unceremonious manner. By some mysterious influence her eyes were immediately drawn to the middle of the table, where stood two magnificent dishes which she knew had never been made in Mrs. Hickson's house. Almost stifled by her emotions, which must indeed have been violent, as, according to her own statement, she was deprived of the power of speech, she gazed at the well-remembered salad and blancmange for a moment, then majestically turned on her heel and left the house.page 109
‘I felt fit to drop down,’ she said, when recounting her trials to Randall, on the chance that he might afterwards tell Palmer. ‘Oh, that ungrateful 'Liza Hickson! Many's the time I've waited on her troublesome children—and such children I never saw for catching whatever may be going about; measles they've had twice, as sure as I'm here; and I've nursed them and ought to know. There they were, every one of them down to the baby, gormandising—I can't call it anything else—on what I'd made with great trouble from the combined receipts of three cookery books for poor Mr. Palmer. I daresay his appetite was so bad he couldn't eat them, and those Hicksons have been sly enough to get them over to their house unknown to him. Just as I came in Hickson was scooping out the most tremendous spoonful right into the head of as beautiful a lion as was ever moulded. I don't say I wish it may have disagreed with them, but if it should have done so it'll have been no more than justice.’
‘Why, wasn't it good?’ inquired Randall, much amused.
‘Good!’ exclaimed Mrs. Sligo hotly. ‘Good enough; and nothing in it, besides the rich milk and best loaf sugar, that could do any one harm; none of those nasty flavourings which are next door to poisons. I never use them. It would have done good to the person it was intended for. I meant to say I hoped it wouldn't benefit the Hicksons much. But I spoke my mind to Mrs. Hickson the next page 110 time I saw her. “Eliza Hickson,” said I, “we've been neighbours these five years, and I thought I knew you well, but I see now I've never had the least idea of your real character.” “Well,” she said, and smiled the great simple smile that seems to spread over her whole face, “well, what's the matter?” “Matter!” I said, “you know well. I will not demean myself by explaining. We can't associate with each other again, Mrs. Hickson, after the revelations of last week.” I thought, after I'd said that, perhaps I'd been using too elevated language to be understood by the poor woman, as she hasn't had much education, so I put it into plain words. She answered in an off-hand manner that she was of the same opinion as to breaking off the acquaintance; and Hickson, coming in just then, joined in, like the great clodhopper he is, and as good as ordered me out, and right glad I was to go.’
Mrs. Sligo was not quite discouraged by this rebuff. She continued to inquire regularly after Palmer's health, and once actually wrote a letter to Randall, in which she entreated him to make some dandelion coffee, and, if possible, induce Palmer to take it. Several recipes for the preparation of various herb medicines of great repute were enclosed in the letter.
Others besides Mrs. Sligo were concerned and anxious about the long duration of Palmer's illness. His old friend Mr. Langridge, visited him, and shook his head gravely when he left the house again. page 111 Palmer himself said, in his sanguine manner, he should be better than ever after so long a rest. There was no reason why he should trouble about his business. Randall could manage the workmen and look after everything. True, he was not so sharp an overseer; he could not scold and harangue the men as Palmer could, and they actually regretted this. Palmer had always been amusing, even when most overbearing. They longed to see him again, coming at a furious gallop along the road, taking fences, if he were in a hurry, instead of stopping to open gates. How often had he, tried to surprise them, darting into their midst like a hawk into a poultry-yard, and rousing each man into redoubled activity!
‘There was some “go” about Mr. Palmer,’ said Smithers, the engine-driver. ‘One likes to be under a man of sperrit. I don't say that Mr. Randall doesn't make a good foreman, but he's a trifle high in his manners. He's too much of the aristocrat about him.’
‘Haristocrat!’ cried Simpkins with an exuberant H. (He was still in Mr. Langridge's service, after having been turned off four times and taken on again as often.) ‘Why, is he any better than us?’
‘Can't say,’ said Smithers. ‘He seems to think so, and other folk too; but really a man ought to be more sociable with those who work for him. Mr. Palmer did speak to us often enough, though it was only blowing us up; in fact, he blew us up all day page 112 long. Now, this high and mighty gentleman doesn't condescend to blow us up at all.’
‘I won't stand it from him, so he'd better not,’ said Simpkins. ‘I don't like your high manners. I like a man to be free and easy.’ And Simpkins proceeded to eat good-sized cubes of bread and cheese on the point of a pocket-knife, in a manner that was free and easy in the last degree.
‘Well, I'm sorry for Mr. Palmer being so pulled down by this illness,’ said Smithers. ‘He had a queer way about him; one couldn't come the old soldier over him. Ho, ho! Simpkins, d'ye remember him sending me about my business?’
‘I does,’ said his friend, ‘and if he hadn't been pretty queer he wouldn't have had any more to do with you. I think we'd better be moving—there's his lordship casting his eye in our direction, and if he doesn't waste words he keeps one up to the mark.’
So, slowly and regretfully they left their nook between the stacks, and the whirr of the machine started again, and the corn fell in plump round grains into the sacks, and the bright clean straw mounted higher and higher into a clumsy heap rather than a stack; for in this land of abundance one does not waste much labour over straw. And above there was the burning sun and the sky of summer's blue, just as it was a year ago when—Randall remembered it well—he walked on the long and wearying road, past the meadows and cornfields.page 113
Mr. Langridge had not forgotten it either. ‘That was a lucky day for you,’ he said, when they were led to talk of that bygone harvesting. ‘You have been in a good place ever since. I wish you well. I always respect a man who's not afraid or ashamed to work. Do you remember me advising you to put that fine ring of yours in your pocket? I thought you'd taken offence at me then.’
‘Not at all,’ said Randall. ‘Your advice was good, and I took it. I wish I'd always taken the good advice that has been given me.’
‘Well, then, here's some more, said the farmer. ‘My old friend Palmer wouldn't have trusted you if you weren't worth trusting. No one knows what may happen; some day you may go adrift again and want a friend. Come to me, then; it will be strange if I can't put you in the way of something.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Langridge,’ said Randall warmly, surprised as well as pleased by this offer from one whom he had not suspected of being even remotely interested in his affairs. ‘I shall remember your kind promise, though I may never need to remind you of it.’
‘If you ever do you'll find I mean what I say. What a time that Simpkins is loading! I must go to those fellows; they keep us all waiting.’
Mr. Langridge briskly started in the direction of the tardy Simpkins, who, in defiance of all rules and commandments, was smoking his pipe in the harvest- page 114 field, while detailing his colonial experiences to a gaping and admiring ‘new chum.’
‘Call this hot, do you? Bless you! this is a cool summer I've known the sun to raise blisters all over one's face and hands. I remember once there wasn't no really cold water to be got anywhere My! that was a season; the cattle would rush a fellow carrying water. I've been chased by a whole drove to get’ at a bucketful I was taking for my missis. The ground cracked all over that year as if there'd been an earthquake, and the heat was that powerful I've seen men flop right down at their work. But we think nothing of that sort of thing: one soon gets used to it, Yah! you've no summers in the old country. We'll colonise you before long. I remember a young man—’
‘Just cut your rememberings short, Simpkins,’ shouted the farmer, ‘and put out your pipe, or I'll remember to give you a chance of smoking it outside my field. You're a pretty colonist, aren't you?’
‘Always at one,’ muttered Simpkins, as he extinguished his pipe; ‘and I've got so used to smoking to keep off the musketeers that I hardly knows when I does it. Ah, you've none of them at home,’ he continued, as Langridge withdrew from their position. I daresay you don't know 'em. Blood-thirsty little things! I've known men so fastened on by them that they'd be so swollen up in the face they couldn't see out of their eyes, and pale as a sheet through losing so much to the little blood- page 115 suckers. They always takes to new-comers, too; old colonists are too hardened to suit their tastes.’
‘Gracious!’ cried the new-comer, ‘what'll kill them?’
‘Well, they're mostly difficult to kill,’ said Simpkins. ‘Catching them one by one and squeezing them to death is tiring work.’
‘Are they big ones that you have here?’ anxiously inquired the new-comer.
‘Big!’ said Simpkins expressively. ‘My word! you—’
He said no more, for an angry shout from Mr. Langridge compelled him to make all haste to the stacks. The waggon creaked over the stubble, and Simpkins's ill-arranged load kept falling here and there on the way.
‘There's that carriage on the road again,’ he cried—he never made so much haste that he could not look about him and talk. ‘Puzzles me to think how some of those fine ladies, who've nothing to do but to dress up and show themselves, get through their time. They say that this overseer of Mr. Palmer's once drove in his carriage. Well, some come down and others go up.’
‘I've been told this is the place to make one's fortune in,’ said the new-comer.
‘Don't believe it,’ said Simpkins. ‘I've not made mine.’