Benjamin Farjeon.

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



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"I ain't doing no harm, your honour! I'm only having a sleep."

"How dare you sleep here?" demanded Miser Farebrother, in a tone of authority. "You have come to commit a robbery – to rob me! I'll put you in jail for it."

"Don't your honour – don't!" pleaded the lad, still cowering and shrinking. "I ain't done a morsel of harm – upon my soul I ain't! I didn't come here to steal nothink – upon my soul I didn't!"

Miser Farebrother put the pistol into his pocket, and the lad began to whimper.

"Do you know I could take your life, could lawfully take it," said Miser Farebrother, "for breaking into my house as you have done, and sleeping upon my bed?"

"Yes, your honour; but please don't! I didn't break into the house. The door was open."

"Stop that crying."

"Yes, your honour."

And the lad, in default of a handkerchief, dug his knuckles into his eyes. A lad of resource and some decision of character, he cried no more. This fact was not lost upon Miser Farebrother.

"You did not break into the house, you say?"

"No, your honour; upon my soul I didn't!"

"And you found the door open?"

"Yes, your honour."

"Which door?"

"The kitchen door, your honour."

"How long have you been here?"

"Three days, your honour."

This piece of information rather confounded Miser Farebrother, who, himself an interloper, was feeling his way; but he was politic enough not to betray himself.

"Three days, eh – and not yet caught?"

"Nobody wants to ketch me, your honour."

"Not your father and mother?"

"Ain't got none, your honour."

"Somebody else, then, in their place?"

"There ain't nobody in their place. There ain't a soul that's got a call to lay a hand upon me."

"Except me."

"Yes, your honour," said the lad, humbly: "but I didn't know."

His complete subservience and humbleness had an effect upon Miser Farebrother. He judged others by himself – a common enough standard among mortals – and he was not the man to trust to mere words; but there was a semblance of truth in the manner of the lad which staggered him. In all England it would have been difficult to find a man less given to sentiment, and less likely to be led by it, but the lad's conspicuous helplessness, and his ingenuous blue eyes – which, now that the pistol was put away, looked frankly at the miser – no less than his own scheme of taking possession of Parksides by stealth and in secrecy, were elements in favour of this lad, so strangely found in so strange a situation. A claim upon Parksides Miser Farebrother undoubtedly possessed; he held papers, in the shape of liens upon complicated mortgages, which he had purchased for a song; but he had something more than a latent suspicion that the law's final verdict was necessary to establish the validity and exact value of his claim. This he had not sought to obtain, knowing that it would have led him into ruinous expense and probable failure.

These circumstances were the breeders of an uneasy consciousness that he and the lad, in their right to occupy Parksides, were somewhat upon an equality. Hence it was necessary to be cautious, and to feel his way, as it were.

"Where are your people?" he asked.

The lad stared at him.

"My people!"

"Your people," repeated Miser Farebrother. "Where you live, you know."

"Ain't got no people," said the lad. "Don't live nowhere."

"Listen to me, you young scoundrel," said Miser Farebrother, shaking a menacing forefinger at him; "if you're trying to impose upon me by a parcel of lies, you'll find yourself in the wrong box. As sure as I'm the master of this house, I'll have you locked up and fed upon stones and water for the rest of your life."

"I ain't trying to impose upon you," persisted the lad, speaking very earnestly; "I ain't telling you a parcel of lies. Look here, your honour, have you got a book?"

"What book?"

"I don't care what book – any book! Give it me, and I'll kiss it, and swear on it that I've told you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

"You'll have to tell something more of yourself before I've done with you. Where did you live before you lived nowhere?"

"Hailsham, your honour."

"Where's that?"

"Don't know, your honour."

"How far from here?"

"Six days, your honour."

"None of your nonsense. How far?"

"Couldn't tell to a yard, if you was to skin me alive. It took me six days to git here."

"You walked?"

"Yes, your honour; every step of the way."

"Who did you live with at Hailsham?"

"Mother."

"You said you had none."

"More I have. She's dead."

"Father too?"

"Yes; ever so long ago."

"What brought you here?"

"My legs."

Miser Farebrother restrained his anger – for which there was no sound reason, the lad's manner being perfectly respectful.

"What did you come here for?"

"To see grandfather. I heerd mother talk of him and grandmother ever so many times, and that they lived down here; so when she was buried I thought I might do worse than come and see 'em."

"Have you seen them?"

"No, your honour; they're dead too." The lad added, mournfully, "Everybody's dead, I think."

"They lived down here, you say?"

"Yes; 'most all their lives; in this fine house. They was taking care of it for the master."

Some understanding of the situation dawned upon Miser Farebrother, and a dim idea that it might be turned to his use and profit.

"What was their name?"

"Barley, your honour. That's my name, Tom Barley; and if you'd give me a job I'd be everlastingly thankful."

Miser Farebrother, with his eyes fixed upon the lad's face, into which, in the remote prospect of a job, a wistful expression had stolen, considered for a few moments. Here was a lad who knew nobody in the neighbourhood and whom nobody knew, and who recognized in him the master of Parksides. In a few days he intended to enter into occupation, and he had decided not to bring a servant with him. Tom Barley would be useful, and was, indeed, just the kind of person he would have chosen to serve him in a rough way – a stranger, whose only knowledge of him was that he was the owner of Parksides; and no fear of blabbing, having nothing to blab about. He made up his mind. He took a little book from his pocket, the printed text of which was the calculation of interest upon ten pounds and upward for a day, for a week, for a month, for a year, at from five to fifty per cent. per annum.

"Take this book in your hand and swear upon it that you have told me the truth."

Tom Barley kissed the interest book solemnly, and duly registered the oath.

"If I take you into my service," said Miser Farebrother, "will you serve me faithfully?"

A sudden light of joy shone in Tom Barley's eyes. "Give me the book again, your honour, and I'll take my oath on it."

"No," said Miser Farebrother. As a matter of fact, he had been glad to get the book back in his possession, not knowing yet whether Tom Barley could read, and being fearful that he might open it and discover its nature; "I'll be satisfied with your promise. But you can't sleep in the house, you know."

"There's places outside, your honour; there's one where the horses was. That'll be good enough for me."

"Quite good enough. How much money have you got?"

"I had a penny when I reached here, your honour, but it's gone. I spent it in bread."

"Is that all you've had to eat?"

"No, your honour; I killed a rabbit."

"Very well. I take you into my service, Tom Barley. Twopence a week, and you sleep outside. When you're a man I'll make your fortune if you do as you're told. What's to-day?"

"Monday, your honour," said Tom Barley, now completely happy. "The church bells was ringing yesterday."

"On Thursday night," said Miser Farebrother, "at between twelve and one o'clock, I shall be here with a cart. There will be a lady in it besides me, and – and – a child. You understand?"

"Yes, your honour, I'm awake."

"Be awake then, wide awake, or you will get in trouble. I shall want you to help get some things out of the cart. There will be a moon, and you will be able to see me drive up. Look out for me. Here's a penny on account of your first week's wages. You can buy some more bread with it, and if you like you can kill another rabbit. Was it good?"

"Prime, your honour."

"It ought to be. It was my rabbit, you know, Tom Barley, and you'll kill no more than one between now and Thursday. The skins are worth money, and many a man's been hanged for stealing them. You will not forget? – Thursday night between twelve and one."

"No fear of my forgetting, your honour," said Tom Barley, ducking his head in obeisance; "I shall be here, wide awake, waiting for you."

Miser Farebrother saw Tom Barley out of the house, and walked away through the shadows, rubbing his hands in satisfaction at having done a good night's work.

CHAPTER III
THE NEW TENANTS ARRIVE, AND ONE DEPARTS

At the appointed hour a cart drew up at the gates of Parksides, in which, in addition to the driver, were Miser Farebrother and his wife and child. Tom Barley was waiting for them, and he darted forward to assist. Miser Farebrother alighted first, and receiving the child from his wife, looked rather helplessly about him, Mrs. Farebrother not being strong enough to alight without help.

"Can you hold a child?" asked Miser Farebrother of Tom Barley.

"Yes, your honour," replied Tom, eagerly; and he took the child, a little girl scarcely two years old, and cuddled it close to him.

The mother looked anxiously at the lad, and the moment her feet touched the ground she relieved him of the charge. The moonlight shone upon the group, and Tom Barley gazed in wonder at the lady's beautiful face and the pretty babe. Desiring Tom to assist the driver in the removal of the necessary household articles he had brought with him in the cart, Miser Farebrother led the way into the house, which they entered through the door at the back. As he was lighting a candle, Mrs. Farebrother sighed and shivered.

"It is very lonely," she murmured.

"It is very comfortable," he retorted; "a palace compared to the place we have left. You will get well and strong here."

She shook her head, and said, in a tone so low that the words did not reach her husband's ears, "I shall never get well."

"What is that you say?" he cried, sharply. She did not reply. "Instead of grumbling and trying not to make the best of things," he continued, "it would be more sensible of you to light the fire and make me a cup of tea. Here's plenty of wood, and here's a fireplace large enough to burn a ton of coals a day. I must see to that. Now bustle about a bit; it will do you good. I am always telling you that you ought to be more energetic and active."

"Is there no servant in the house?" she asked, wearily. She had taken off her mantle, and having wrapped her child in it and laid her down, was endeavouring to obey her husband's orders. "You said you had one."

"So I have, a man-servant. I engaged him expressly for you."

"The boy at the gate?"

"Yes; and here he is, loaded. That's right, Tom; be sharp and willing, and you'll die a rich man."

Tom Barley was sharp enough to perceive that Mrs. Farebrother was too weak for the work she was endeavouring to perform, and willing enough to step to her assistance.

"May I light the fire?" he asked, timidly.

She nodded, and sinking into a chair, lifted her child from the floor and nursed her. Seeing her thus engaged, and Tom busy on his knees, Miser Farebrother ran out, and he and the driver between them carried in the rest of the things, the most important being the miser's desk, which he had conveyed at once to the bedroom above. His mind was easier when he saw that precious depository in a place of safety.

Meanwhile Tom Barley was proving himself a most cheerful and capable servant.

"When his honour told me," he whispered, "that he was coming here late at night with you and the baby – a little girl, ain't it? – I thought it would be chilly without a fire, so I cleaned out the fireplace and the chimbley, and got a lot of wood together. There's plenty of it – enough to last a lifetime. Don't you move, now; I can make tea. Used to make mother's. Where's the things? In the basket? Yes; here they are. Here's the kittle, and here's the tea, in a bloo' paper; and here's the teapot; and here's two cups; and here's a bottle of milk and some sugar. It's a blazing fire – ain't it? That's the best of dry wood. The kittle'll bile in a minute – it's biling already!"

From time to time the delicate woman gave him a grateful look, which more than repaid him, and caused him to double his exertions to make her comfortable. By the time the tea was made, Miser Farebrother had completed the removal of the goods, and had settled with the driver, after a good deal of grumbling at the extortionate demand.

"You can go, Tom," he said to the lad. "Be up early in the morning and make the fire."

"Good-night, your honour."

"Did you hear me tell you to go?" exclaimed Miser Farebrother.

Tom Barley received a kind look from Mrs. Farebrother as he left the room, and he went away perfectly happy.

In another hour the house was quiet and the light extinguished. Miser Farebrother was in secure possession of Parksides, and he fell asleep in the midst of a calculation of how much money he would save in rent in the course of the next twenty years. Other calculations also ran through his head in the midst of his fitful slumbers – calculations of figures and money, and interest, and sharp bargains with needy men, clients he was bleeding to his own profit. No thought in which figures and money did not find a place did he bestow upon the more human aspect of his life, in which there was to be almost immediately an important change.

Within a fort-night of her entrance into the desolate house Mrs. Farebrother lay upon her death-bed. She had been weak and ailing for months past, and the night's journey from London, no less than the deep unhappiness which, since her marriage, had drawn the roses from her cheeks and made her heart heavy and sad, now hastened her end. As she lay upon the ancient stately bed from which she was never to rise, a terrible loneliness fell upon her. Her darling child was by her side, mercifully asleep; her husband was moving about the apartment; the sunbeams falling through the window brought no comfort to the weary heart – all was so desolate, so desolate! In a trembling voice she called her husband to her.

"Well?" he asked.

"I must see my sister," she said.

"I will not have her," he cried. "You are well enough without her. I will not have her here!"

"I am well enough – to die!" she murmured. "I must see my sister before I go."

"You are frightening yourself unnecessarily," said Miser Farebrother, fretfully. "You are always full of fancies, and putting me to expense. You never had the slightest consideration for me – not the slightest. You think of nobody but yourself."

"I am frightened of this place," she found strength to say. "I cannot, I will not, die here alone! I must see my sister, I must see my sister!"

Still he made no movement to comply with her request.

"If you do not send for her at once," said his wife, "I will get up and go from the house and die in the roadway. God will give me strength to do it. I must see my sister, I must see my sister!"

Awed, if not convinced, and fearful, too, lest any disturbance which it was in his power to avoid might bring him into unfavourable notice, and interfere with his cherished plans, he said, reluctantly, "I will send for her."

"You are not deceiving me? You are not promising what you do not intend to perform?"

"I will send for her, I tell you."

"If you do not," she said – and there was a firmness in her weak tones which was not without its effect upon him – "misfortune will attend you all the days of your life. Nothing you do will prosper."

He was superstitious, and believed in omens; and this sounded like a prophecy, the warning of which he dared not neglect. His wife's eyes followed him as he stepped to his desk and sat down and wrote. Presently he left the room, and went in search of Tom Barley, to whom he gave a letter, bidding him to post it in the village. Grumbling at what he had done, he returned to his wife.

"Is my sister coming?" she asked.

"I have written to her," he replied. "Go to sleep and rest. You will be better in the morning."

"Yes," she sighed, as she pressed her child close to her bosom, "I shall be better in the morning. Oh, my sweet flower! my heart's treasure! Guard her, gracious Lord! Make her life bright and happy – as mine once promised to be! I could have given love for love; but it was denied to me. Not mine the fault – not mine, not mine!"

The day waned, the evening shadows fell, and night came on. Upon a table at some distance from the bed was one thin tallow candle, the feeble flame of which flickered dismally. During the long weary hours Mrs. Farebrother did not sleep; she dozed occasionally; but the slightest sound aroused her. In her light slumbers she dreamt of incidents in her happy girlhood before she was married – incidents apparently trivial, but not really so because of the sweet evidences of affection which made them memorable: a song, a dance, a visit to the sea-side, a ramble in fragrant woods; innocent enjoyments from which sprang fond imaginings never to be realized. Betweenwhiles, when she was awake, the gloom of the room and the monstrous shadows thrown by the dim light upon portions of the walls and ceilings distressed her terribly, and she needed all her strength of mind to battle against them. In these transitions of sensation were expressed all the harmonies and discordances of mortal life. Bitter to her had been their fruit!

An hour before midnight she heard the sound of carriage wheels without, and she sat straight up in her bed from excitement, and then fell back exhausted.

"It is my sister," she said, faintly, to her husband. "Let her come up at once. Thank God, she is here in time!"

Her sister bent fondly and in great grief over her. Between these two existed a firm and faithful affection, but the circumstances of Mrs. Farebrother's marriage had caused them to see very little of each other of late years.

"Attend to my darling Ph?be," whispered Mrs. Farebrother; "there is no female servant in the house. Oh, I am so glad you have come before it was too late!"

"Do not say too late, my dearest," said her sister; but her heart was faint within her as she gazed upon the pallid face and the thin wasted hands; "there are happy years before you."

"Not one, not one!" murmured Mrs. Farebrother.

"Why did you not send for me before?"

The dying woman made no reply, and her sister undressed little Ph?be, and placed her in a cot by the mother's bedside. Then she smoothed the sheets and pillows, and sat quietly, with her sister's hand in hers.

"It is like old times," murmured Mrs. Farebrother, wistfully. "You were always good to me. Tell me, my dear – put your head close to mine – oh, how sweet, how sweet! Were it not for my darling child I should think that Heaven was shining upon me!"

"What is it you want to know, dear? You were about to ask me something."

"Yes, yes. Tell me – are you happy at home?"

"Very happy."

"Truly and indeed?"

"Truly and indeed. We are not rich, but that does not matter."

"Your husband is good to you?"

"There is no one in the world like him; he is the best, the noblest, the most unselfish of men!" But here, with a sudden feeling of remorse, she stopped. The contrast between her bright home and the gloomy home of her sister struck her with painful force; to speak of the joys of the one seemed to accentuate the miseries of the other.

"Go on, dear," said Mrs. Farebrother, gently; "it does not hurt me, indeed it does not; I have grown so used, in other homes, to what you see around you here that custom has made it less bitter than it once was. It makes me happy to hear of your happiness, and it holds out a glad prospect that my dear child, when she grows up, may have a little share in it."

"She shall, she shall; I promise it solemnly."

"Thank you, dear. So you must go on telling me of your good husband. He is still in his bank?"

"Yes, dear; and hopes for a rise before long. He is always full of hope, and that is worth a great deal – it means so much! He thinks of nothing but his home, and those in it. He dotes upon the children."

"The dear children! Are they well and strong?"

"Yes, dear; and they grow prettier and prettier every day."

"You must kiss them fondly for me, and give them my dear love."

"I will be sure to. You must not talk any more just now; you are tired out. Try and sleep."

"I think I shall be able. God bless you, dear!"

"God bless you, dearest!"

In a few moments, the tension of anxious watching and waiting being over, Mrs. Farebrother slept. Her sister gazed at her solicitously and mournfully. At such a time the cherished memories of old are burdened with a sadness which weighs heavily upon the heart.

"She is not so ill as she fancies, is she?"

It was Miser Farebrother who spoke to her. She rose softly, and led him from the bed, so that their conversation should not disturb the sufferer.



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