Benjamin Farjeon.

Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 1 of 3)



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CHAPTER I
THE LAST OF THE CARE-TAKERS

In Dropmore Beeches, near Beddington, county of Surrey, stands a red brick mansion, in the Gothic style, known as Parksides. It is situated on the outskirts of an estate of forty acres, comprised of a few acres of cover, and, for the rest, of shrubberies, meadow-land, and a wilderness wood, upon the arrangement of which great care had been bestowed and a vast amount of money expended. This was in the old days, when the house had been occupied by a family of good standing, the heirs of which had resided in it for many generations. Pride was taken in it then, and it was deservedly renowned for its beauty. The country people round about quoted Parksides as a possession which reflected honour upon themselves, and the vicarious distinction was accounted of high value. They had good reasons for being proud of it, and of its masters and mistresses, who were to the fore not only in the county but in the metropolis. The gentlemen fought for King and country, and administered the laws; the ladies dispensed charities and set the fashions; they attended Court, hunted, travelled, and held their heads high, as was their due. But other times, other men. The family that had owned Parksides for centuries slipped out of the ranks – for which they had none but themselves to blame. A strain of foreign blood was introduced by marriage, and the heir born of that union inherited the vices of his mother's family. He ran his course merrily; and after him a spendthrift heir, and after him another, reaped what had been bred and zealously cultivated in the bone. They played the part of absentees, and plunged into the fashionable dissipations of the city – raked, and made matches on the race-courses, rattled the dice-box from night till morning, were always ready for any mad prank, drank deeply, and borrowed at exorbitant interest – until they had thoroughly succeeded in squandering their fortune. It was too late, then, for repentance: Parksides was lost to them and theirs for ever. There had been long and complicated law proceedings in connection with the estate, and at the period of the opening of this story it was supposed to be in Chancery – which troubled itself not at all in the matter – and to have no rightful or legal owner. Nevertheless, it was occupied by a man who had earned the name of Miser Farebrother, who paid rent to no one, and was not called upon to do so. It was really doubtful whether any person had authority to demand it; and if a claimant had come forward, his right would have been stubbornly contested by Miser Farebrother, who had papers in his fire proof safe proving, in some entangled way, that he had advanced money upon the estate which entitled him to possession. The lawyers, for a great number of years, had gathered rich harvests out of Parksides, and, after picking its bones clean and involving it in legal complications which the entire learned profession could not have unravelled, had turned their backs upon it and flown to more profitable game.

Its fate, long before it fell into the hands of Miser Farebrother, may be described in one word – decay. The wilderness wood, the wild charms of which had been preserved with much care and skill, was so encumbered with stunted wood growth and overrun with giant weeds that it resembled a miniature Forest of Despair; the shrubberies were wrecks; the meadow-land was thick with tufts of rank grass; and the only part of the estate which had thriven was the cover, in which the rabbits literally swarmed, spreading destruction all around. Not a shilling did Miser Farebrother expend upon the grounds – a proof that he did not regard his rights as absolutely incontestable. He had a keen eye for the main chance, and money could have been laid out on the land with profit, both in the present and the future; but he was not the man to waste the smallest coin upon a doubtful venture. "Safe and sure" had been his motto all through his life, and from a worldly point of view he had made it pay.

He took possession of Parksides in the dead of night. For at least a dozen years it had been without a tenant, and for many years before that time its only inmates had been the care-takers appointed by the Courts and the lawyers. The last of these care-takers were a very old man and a very old woman of the name of Barley, who were supposed to have died of starvation in the house. It was said that there were long arrears of wages due to them, which were never paid, because the last shilling of the available funds had been swept away by wig and gown. No one cared to assume responsibility in the matter, and so this old couple were left in possession to do as they pleased. They had come from a distance to enter upon their duties, and nobody in the neighbourhood knew anything about them or their antecedents; nor was it known how they came to be appointed. That they were the poorest of the poor was clear – all that they brought with them to Parksides were a stick and a bundle. The old man carried the stick, and the old woman the bundle.

How they subsisted was a mystery. In the autumn they were in the habit of picking up bits of broken branches and carrying them into the house, presumably to serve in lieu of coals when winter came on. Both of them were bent nearly double with old age and rheumatism. Occasionally they would be seen sitting on a log, very close to each other, with a little pile of stones before them, which they shied with weak and trembling hands at a rabbit or a bird, or at shadows which they mistook for living creatures. They never by any chance hit anything they aimed at, and they did not even succeed in frightening the birds or the rabbits, which darted hither and thither and hopped about quite near to them in the most unconcerned fashion. During the latter years of their tenancy one or other of the old people would sometimes be seen, when the weather was fine, creeping out of Parksides and out of Beddington, starting early in the morning and returning late at night. On these occasions it was observed that they carried a parcel, which without further evidence it was decided was something abstracted from the mansion, which they were travelling to a distance to sell, in order to obtain food; and it was also decided that they did not dispose of these articles in the immediate neighbourhood of Beddington, lest they should be accused of theft. If this were really the case, the old couple might have dismissed their fears; the difficulty of finding a prosecutor would have been insurmountable; and as to portable property of a sufficiently small size to be tied up in a pocket-handkerchief, there was little enough of that in the mansion. All that was valuable and of easy carriage had long since been seized and sold, lawfully or unlawfully. The ruin of Parksides was not a grand crash, in the thunder of which lightning-flashes of old glories made themselves visible; it was a long and mean decline, made up of piecemeal borrowings and bit-by-bit sales; of filchings and small robberies, a few feathers by this sharp rogue, a few feathers by that, from the plumage of the birds that were once the pride of the country. There was certainly plenty of old furniture in the house, which had been allowed to remain, probably because it was heavy and cumbersome and falling to pieces – bedsteads, tables, chairs, benches and sideboards, quaintly and curiously carved; rich tapestries too, mostly worn to shreds, and rotted by age and neglect, in which old stories had been woven by fair hands. They and the gallant deeds they recorded were now on an equality; the reflected radiance of stately seasons of honourable life and dignified labour was utterly and for ever dead, leaving no soul behind; the story was told, and flesh and silk were little better than dust. There were not any pictures in frames in the rooms; but there were paintings on the wall panels, so faded now and colourless that the learning of an antiquary were needed to describe them.

Amidst these ancient surroundings the last of the care-takers, old Mr. and Mrs. Barley, moved and starved. One can imagine them creeping up the wide staircases, and tottering about the rooms, living ghosts, clinging to each other for support (they were both past seventy, and chronically weak from want of proper nourishment), wondering whether they had not reached the dead world upon the brink of which they stood. There came a hard winter, and a fall of snow which lasted intermittently, but pretty steadily, nevertheless, for a full fort-night. It was during this winter that an incident occurred in the career of the last of the care-takers.

Said a gossip to a kindred heart, trudging through the snow at least a hundred yards for the purpose, "My man, coming home from work last night, passed the gates of Parksides."

"He does always, doesn't he?" was the response, evincing in the querist an ungracious spirit, for Gossip Number Two was aware that her neighbour had not walked ankle-deep in the coldest of carpets to impart this information.

"Yes, he does always, when he doesn't go another way."

"What other way?"

"The way of the Hog in the Pound." (For comprehension to uninformed minds, a public-house.)

"That's the way he likes best," observed Gossip Number Two, still with the ungracious spirit upon her.

"You needn't boast," said Gossip Number One; "your man leaves half his wages there."

"Yes; worse luck! But what about Parksides?"

"He saw a woman going in."

"Old Mrs. Barley?"

"No; a youngish woman, looking like a beggar, with a boy holding on to her."

"A tramp! The Barleys can't help her – can't help themselves."

"She asked my man whether that was Parksides, and whether a married couple of the name of Barley lived there. 'Lives there!' says my man to her. 'Starves there, would be nearer the truth.' The woman gave a sigh, and passed into the grounds."

"Is that all?" asked Gossip Number Two, disappointed in a story so bare of incident.

"That's all," replied Gossip Number One. "Leastways it's all my man told me."

"It ain't much."

"No, it ain't. But," added Gossip Number One, cheerfully illogical, her temperament being livelier than that of her neighbour, "what can we expect in such weather? Just look how the snow's coming down again!"

This shifting of responsibility from a colourless story to a remarkable storm – which, despite its inconveniences, was interesting because it afforded a sound theme for conversation – somewhat mollified Gossip Number Two, who, accompanied by her visitor, stepped to the window to gaze upon the whirling flakes. They were thick and heavy, and a strong, uncertain wind was lashing them furiously about, this way and that, with a bewildering lack of method which furnished an exception to the indisputable truth that order is nature's first law. The window through which the gossips were looking was in the front room of the cottage, and faced the narrow lane which led to the main road. Along this lane a woman was walking, with a little boy scarcely three years of age tugging at her gown. Presently they reached the cottage, where the woman paused to wipe the snow from her face and eyes. She was very poorly dressed, and belonged evidently to the lower orders.

"Is that her?" asked Gossip Number Two.

"It might be. She's got a little boy with her, and she looks like a beggar. Let's have her in."

Candour compels the admission that it was not an instinct of hospitality or humanity that prompted the suggestion. It was simply curiosity to discover what connection existed between the poor woman and her child and old Mr. and Mrs. Barley.

There was not much to learn. The last of the care-takers were her parents. Having lost her husband, and being at her wits' end how to live, she had tramped a matter of sixty miles to Parksides in the hope that her parents might be able to assist her. Her hope was shattered the moment she saw them. So desperate were their circumstances that she would stop with them only one night, and she was now on her way back to her native town, in which, at all events, she had a claim upon the poor-house. She did not complain. She had been so used to poverty and hardships that she harboured them without a murmur, but she said it was bitter weather, and she did not know how ever she would get home again. While she was telling her tale, sitting by the fireside – for the warmth of which she expressed herself humbly thankful – the little fellow in her lap fell asleep.

"What is his name?"

"Tom – after his poor father," said the woman.

Gossip Number One looked at Gossip Number Two, who nodded, and going to the cupboard took therefrom a teapot, a tea-caddy, and a loaf of bread. A full kettle was steaming on the hob. As the woman raised her head, her hostess saw tears glistening in her eyes.

"There, there, my dear," she said, "we none of us know what we may come to. A cup of tea'll warm your inside. And, I declare! it's left off snowing again!"

Half an hour afterward the woman, having thanked her entertainers, resumed her journey, and the gossips stood on the doorstep and gazed at her vanishing form until a turn in the narrow lane hid her from their sight. Comforting food and human sympathy had strengthened her, and she was carrying her child, who, as his mother declared, was almost "dead with sleep." Strange and subtle are the invisible links which connect life with life and already one was spiritually forged between the slumbering lad and men and women who will play their parts in this story of human love and passion and suffering and desire.

In the ancient decayed house yonder old Mr. and Mrs. Barley were talking in quavering tones of their Jane, who had paid them her last earthly visit.

"She'll marry agin, mother, will our Jane," piped the old man; "she was always a taking lass. It's only yesterday she was in pinafores."

For three years longer the Barleys remained tenants of Parksides, and then departed for another bourne. It was bruited about the neighbourhood that they had been found dead in the kitchen, clasped in each other's arms. So little had been seen of them during the last years of their tenancy that but small interest had been taken in them. They troubled nobody, and nobody troubled them. But being dead, the case was different; popular fancy placed them on a pinnacle, and they became distinguished.

"So the Barleys have gone," was said. "Who'll be the next?"

No records are to hand throwing light upon what was done with their bodies; among the uninformed the general belief was that they were not buried, but that they "disappeared." Of course their spirits remained, to the comfort of superstitious souls still in the flesh. There was a talk of "ghosts," and the ball, being set rolling, grew apace. The natural consequence was that Parksides acquired the reputation of being a haunted house. The ghosts of the old people were seen by many persons of all ages – who were ready to testify to the same in the witness-box – standing at the windows, or moving familiarly about the grounds, or seated on the roof top; always very lovingly arm in arm. Not in the memory of the oldest inhabitant had such an enjoyable excitement been furnished, and the superstition caused Parksides to be avoided at night-time. Those who were fearsomely courageous enough to make a special excursion to "see the ghosts" always went in company, and always came back with white faces and trembling limbs. Children would huddle together in a shrinking heap, standing so for a few minutes, and then, startled into active movement by a sudden cry from one among them, would scream: "There they are! Oh! oh! They're coming after us!" and would scamper off as fast as their legs would carry them; until, at a safe distance, they would pause, breathless, to compare notes.

Here was a chance for the imagination, and it ran riot. No speculation was too extravagant.

"Did you see them? I did! What did they look like? Like what they are, you dunce – ghosts! Old Barley had a night-cap on. So had she. They were all in white. He was smoking a pipe. Did you see the fire coming out of his mouth? He blew it at us. Yes, and when they saw we didn't go away they got up, and grew and grew till they were higher than the trees! Johnny, come home with me to mother. She wouldn't believe me when I told her. Oh, didn't they look awful!"

Uninteresting as old Mr. and Mrs. Barley had been during their lifetime, it cannot be denied that their ghosts supplied an entertainment better than any theatre.

CHAPTER II
MISER FAREBROTHER RECONNOITRES THE GROUND AND RECEIVES A SHOCK

This condition of affairs favoured Miser Farebrother, when, in pursuance of a cunningly-formed plan, he took possession of the estate. Already he claimed to have a hold upon it, and who had a better right than he to live there rent free? There was a fascination in the prospect. To live rent free! To have a house and land all one's own! There would be a claim for Queen's taxes, perhaps, and rates. Well he would pay a little – as little as possible. The government receipts would go a long way to strengthen his hold upon the property. The rent of his house in London was ruinous. In so many years he would be so much money in pocket – a fortune. Then, he had heard and read that if a man lived in a house for a certain time without paying rent, it became legally and lawfully his own, to sell or do what he liked with. It was a bold step, but the prize was so valuable that he would risk it.

He made two preliminary investigations of the property, and as everything depended upon secrecy, these visits were paid in the night when nobody was about. He knew nothing of the popular belief that the place was haunted.

On the first of these visits he was undisturbed. He crept into the grounds within a few minutes of midnight, and made his way to a back door. It yielded to his touch. He lit a candle which he had brought with him, and entered. All was still and lonely; not a sound reached his ears; there was not a crumb in the mansion upon which even a rat or a mouse could live. Stealthily and warily he made a tour of the rooms, shading the light with his hand when he was near a window. There was small need for such a precaution, but he took it, nevertheless.

"Safe and sure!" he muttered – "safe and sure!"

He was gratified and amazed to discover so many pieces of old furniture in the house; and he made out a list upon paper of what it would be necessary to bring with him when he actually took possession: his desk, containing his private papers and account-books, in which were entered his precious transactions; a few pots and pans, and some sheets and blankets; the personal clothing his wife would attend to. These things could be put into a cart, and a single horse would be sufficient to convey them from London. He had ascertained the distance – between fifteen and sixteen miles. He and his wife and child could ride in the cart. So much saved!

Determining to come again before the final step was taken, he left the house at two in the morning as secretly and quietly as he had entered it.

His second visit was paid in the course of the following week, at about the same hour of the night. He entered the house, again without being disturbed, and lighting his candle, made another tour of the rooms. He stood in one which had been a principal bedroom, and he resolved to turn it to the same use. On this occasion he made a more careful examination of the furniture, which, in consequence of the craze for the antique, he knew to be worth a great deal of money; and he was rubbing his hands with glee, having placed the candle on a table, and was thinking, "All mine! all mine!" when a sound from the bedstead almost drove the blood from his heart. It was a sound of soft breathing.

He stood for a few moments transfixed; his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth; his feet seemed fastened to the floor. The sound of soft, regular breathing continued, and presently, as nothing more alarming occurred, he began to recover himself. His feet became loosened, his limbs regained their power of action. Noiselessly he took from his pockets two articles – one a revolver, which he always carried about him; the other a bottle of water. He moistened his throat, and returned the bottle to his pocket; and then, holding the pistol, without any distinct idea of the use he might put it to, he tremblingly approached the bed. There, fully dressed, lay a lad of some thirteen or fourteen years of age.

A common-looking lad, sleeping very peacefully and calmly.

Miser Farebrother, seeing before him an enemy whom he could easily overcome, shook the lad roughly, and cried, "Now, then, what are you doing here?"

The lad jumped up, and slid from the bed to the floor.

"Do you hear me?" cried Miser Farebrother. "What are you doing here, you vagabond?"

That the lad was terribly frightened was clear by his movements; he shrank back and cowered at the sight of the pistol, but he managed to blurt out:



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