Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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Here she cast at me a glance, like a flash of lightning, to see if the hit had told. In a moment I understood all that I had not cared to ask about; why she trembled and shrunk from my hand, why she feared to look at me, and fixed her eyes away so. She believed that I had been burked, and that what she saw walking beside was my spirit come to claim burial. I could not stop to disprove it, any more than I could stop to laugh.
"And his grandfather were a sexton, Miss; and our Charley himself a first-rate hand at the spade."
"Mrs. Shelfer, we are close to the place. Now, listen to what I say. It is not your husband I want, but Farmer Huxtable, whom you saw at the door. Nothing but a question of life and death would bring me among this rabble. No doubt there are many respectable men, but it is no place for a lady. The farmer himself knows that, and has never dared to ask me; though his wife and daughter, in ignorance, have. It is half-past twelve exactly; in a quarter of an hour at the utmost, I must speak to, and what is more, carry off the Devonshire competitor. Your husband is here, and on the Committee, you told me. I expect you to manage it. Go in at once and find him. Stop, here is plenty of money."
In her supreme astonishment, she even dared to look at me. But she feared to take the money, although her eyes glistened at it, for I offered more gold than silver.
"Come back to me at once; I shall not move from here. Mind, if the farmer loses the match through me, I will pay all, and give the money for another."
For once the little woman obeyed me, without discussion. She pushed through a canvass door into the vast marquee, or whatever it ought to be called, and was admitted readily on giving her husband's name. I hung back, but with a sense of the urgency of my case, which turned my shame into pride. Many eyes were on me already of loungers and outsiders. In two or three minutes poor Patty came back, bringing Mr. Shelfer himself, who ever since his ducking had shown me the rose and pink of respect. He even went the length now of removing his pipe from his mouth.
"Very sorry indeed, Miss Vaughan, very sorry, you know. But we darrn't interrupt the men now. Our lives wouldn't be worth it, and they'd kill both the umpires and the referee too you know. Why it's fall for fall, only think of that, Miss Vaughan, it's fall for fall!" And the perspiration stood upon his forehead, and he wanted to run back.
"What do you mean?" In spite of my hurry, I felt deeply interested. How could I help it, loving the farmer so?
"Why, the Great Northern won the first throw by a bit of foul play, a foul stroke altogether, and no back at all, say I, and my eyes is pretty good; however, the umpires give it, and you should see John Huxtable's face, the colour of a scythe-stone; he knew it was unfair you know. And you should see him go in again for the second fall. 'I could ha dooed it,' I hear him say, 'I could ha dooed it aisy, only I wudn't try Abraham, and I wun't nother if can help it now.' None of us knows what he mean, but in he go again, Miss, and three times he throw Sam Richardson clean over his shoulder, and one as fair a back as ever was in sawdust.But the umpires wouldn't give it, till just now he turn him over straight for'ard, just the same as a sod in a spade, and they couldn't get out of that. And now they be just in for the finishing bout, and if you want him, your only way is to come. May be, he'll try Abraham, when he see you. Ah they've catched."
A shout inside proclaimed some crisis; Mr. Shelfer, in his excitement, actually pulled me in without knowing it. Once there, I could not go back; and the scene was a grand and thrilling one.
In the centre of a roped arena, hedged by countless faces, all rigid, flushed, and straining with suspense, stood two mighty forms; the strongest men in England and perhaps in all the world. A loose sack, or jerkin, of the toughest canvass, thrown back clear of the throat, half-sleeved, and open in front, showed the bole of the pollard neck, the solid brawn of the chest, and the cords of the outstretched arm. Stout fustian breeches, belted at waist, and strapped at knee, cased their vast limbs so exactly, yet so easily, that every curve was thew, and every wrinkle sinew. Thin white stockings, flaked with sawdust and looking rather wet, rolled and stood out, like the loops of a mace, with the rampant muscles of the huge calf, and the bulge of the broad foreleg.
As the shout proclaimed, they had caught or clutched; a thing which is done with much fencing and feinting, each foining to get the best grasp. Where I went, or what happened to me, I never noticed at all, so absorbed at once I became in this rare and noble probation of glorious strength, trained skill, and emulous manhood.
Round and round the ring they went, as in musical measure, holding each other at arms' length, pacing warily and in distance, skilfully poised to throw the weight for either attack or defence. Each with his left hand clutched the jerkin of the other, between the neck and shoulder, each kept his right arm lightly bent, and the palm like a butterfly quivering. Neither dared to move his eyes from the pupils of the other; for though they were not built alike, each knew the strength of his fellow. The Northern Champion was at least three inches taller than the Son of Devon, quite as broad in the shoulders and large of limb, but not so thick-set and close-jointed, not quite so stanch in the loins and quarters. But he was longer in the reach, and made the most of that advantage. On his breast he bore the mark of a hug as hard as a bear's; and his face, though a fine and manly one, looked rather savage and spiteful.
The farmer was smiling pleasantly, an honest but anxious smile. For the first time he had met with a man of almost his own power; and on a turn of the heel depended at least four hundred pounds, and what was more than four million to him, the fame of the county that nursed him. Above them hung the champion's belt, not of the west or north, but of England and of the world.
Suddenly, ere I could see how they did it, they had closed in the crowning struggle. Breast to breast, and thigh to thigh, they tugged, and strained, and panted. Nothing though I knew of the matter, I saw that the North-man had won the best hold, and as his huge arms enwrapped my friend, a tremble went through my own frame. The men of the North and their backers saw it, and a loud hurrah pealed forth; deep silence ensued, and every eye was intent. Though giant arms were round him and Titan legs inlocked, never a foot he budged. John Huxtable stood like a buttress. He tried not to throw the other; placed as he was, he durst not; but he made up his mind to stand, and stand he did with a vengeance. In vain the giant jerked and twisted, levered, heaved, and laboured, till his very eyeballs strained; all the result was ropes and bunches in the wide-spread Devonshire calves, and a tightening of the clench that threatened to crush the Northern ribs. As well might a coiling snake expect to uproot an oak.
As this exertion of grand stability lasted and outlasted, shouts arose and rang alike from friend and foe, from north, and west, and east; even I could not help clapping my feeble hands. But the trial was nearly over. The assailant's strength was ebbing; I could hear him gasp for breath under the fearful pressure. By great address he had won that hold, and made sure of victory from it, it had never failed before; but to use a Devonshire word, the farmer was too "stuggy." Now, the latter watched his time, and his motive power waxed as the other's waned. At length he lifted him bodily off his legs, and cast him flat on his back. A flat and perfectly level cast, as ever pancake crackled at. Thunders of applause broke forth, and scarcely could I keep quiet.
With amazement the farmer espied me as he was bowing on all sides, and amid the tumult and uproar that shook the canvass like a lark's wing, he ran across the ring full speed. Then he stopped short, remembering his laboured and unpresentable plight, and he would have blushed, if he had not been as red as fire already. None of such nonsense for me. I called him by name, took his hand, and with all my heart congratulated.
"But, farmer, I want you immediately, on a matter of life and death." Beany Dawe and the children came, but I only stopped to kiss Sally, and motioned them all away. "If you remember your promise to me, get ready for a journey in a moment, and run all the way to my lodgings. We must leave London, at two o'clock, to save my Uncle's life."
Mr. Huxtable looked astounded, and his understanding, unlike his legs, for the moment was carried away. Meanwhile up came Sally again, caught hold of my hand, and silently implored for some little notice, if only of her costume, violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. I could only kiss her again.
"Oh do come, farmer Huxtable, do come at once, I entreat you; or I must go alone and helpless."
"That you shan't, my dearie, dang Jan Uxtable for a girt lout."
"Please, sir, I am sent to tell you that the umpires gives it no fall, and you must play again."
The man looked abased by his errand; even he knew better. In my hurry I had paid no attention to the ominous hissing and hooting around a knot of men on the benches at the end.
The farmer's face I shall never forget; as he slowly gathered the truth, it became majestic with honest indignation. A strong man's wrath at deceit and foul play sat upon it, like a king on his throne.
"For the chillers-" he stammered at last-"ony for the poor chiller's sake-else I'd never stand it, danged if I wud, Miss Clara; it make a man feel like a rogue and a cheat himself."
Then, with all the power of his mighty voice he shouted, so that every fold of the canvass shook, and every heart thrilled fearfully:
"Men of Lunnon, if men you be, no chap can have fair play with you. It be all along of your swindling bets about things you don't know nothing of. You offered me five hunder pound, afore ever here I come, to sell my back to the Northman. A good honest man he be, and the best cross-buttock as ever I met with; but a set of rogues and cowards that's what you be; and no sport can live with you. As for your danged belt, I wun't have it, no tino, it wud be a disgrace to the family; it shan't never go along side the Devonshire and Cornwall leather. But I'll throw your man over again, and any six of you to once as plases."
Then, thorough gentleman as he was, he apologized to me for his honest anger, and for having drawn all eyes upon me, as there I stood at his side.
"But never fear about the time, Miss Clara, I won't kape you two minutes. I'll give him Abraham's staylace this time. They have a drove me to it, as us hasn't a moment to spare."
Proudly he stepped into the ring again, and again the North Country giant, looking rather ashamed, confronted him. No fencing or feinting this time; but the Devonshire wrestler, appealing thus to the public,
"Now look here, Lunnoners, wull e, and zee if this here be a back," rushed straight at his antagonist, grappled him in some peculiar manner, seemed to get round his back, and then spun him up over his own left shoulder, in such a way that he twirled in the air and came down dead on his spine. Dead indeed he appeared to be, and a dozen surgeons came forward, in the midst of a horrible silence, and some were preparing to bleed him, when the farmer moved them aside; he knew that the poor man was only stunned by concussion of the spine. Awhile he knelt over him sadly, with the tears in his own brave eyes:
"I wudn't have doed it, lad; indade and indade I wudn't, ony they forced me to it; and you didn't say nought agin them. It be all fair enough, but it do hoort so tarble. That there trick was invented by a better man nor I be, and it be karled 'Abraham Cann's staylace.' I'll show e how to do it, if ever us mates again. Now tak the belt, man, tak it-" he leaped up, and tore it down, with very little respect, "I resigns it over to you; zimth they arl wants you to have it and you be a better man nor deserves it. And I'll never wrastle no more; Jan Uxtable's time be over. Give us your hond, old chap. We two never mate again, unless you comes down our wai, and us han't got a man to bate e, now I be off the play. There be dacent zider and bakkon to Tossil's Barton Farm. Give us your hond like a man, there be no ill will atween us, for this here little skumdoover." Perhaps he meant skirmish and manoeuvre, all in one. Sam Richardson, slowly recovering, put out his great hand, all white and clammy, and John Huxtable took it tenderly, amid such uproarious cheering, that I expected the tent on our heads. Even Shelfer's sharp eyes had a drop of moisture in them. As for Beany Dawe, he flung to the winds all dithyrambic gravity, and chanted and danced incoherently, Cassandra and Chorus in one; while Sally Huxtable blotted all her rainbow in heavy drops.
Hundreds of pipes were smashed, even the Stoic Shelfer's, in the rush to get at the farmer; but he parted the crowd right and left, as I might part willow-sprays, and came at once to me. Whether by his aid, or by the sympathies of the multitude, I am sure I cannot tell, but I found myself in a cab, with Sally at my side, and Mrs. Shelfer on the box, and the farmer's face at the window.
"Twenty minutes, Miss, I'll be there, raddy to go where you plases. It bain't quite one o'clock yet. I must put myself dacent like, avore I can go with you, Miss; and git the money for the sake of them poor chiller, if so be they Lunnoners be honest enough to pai. Jan Uxtable never come to Lunnon town no more."
With thousands of people hurraing, we set off full gallop for Albert Street.
At the door we found Mrs. Fletcher just returned from Lady Cranberry's, and eager to say a great deal which could not now be listened to. Having proved the speed of our horse, I begged the cabman to wait for a quarter of an hour, and then take us to Paddington at any fare he pleased, so long as he drove full gallop. This suited his views very nicely, and knowing Mr. Shelfer, as every one in London does-so at least I am forced to believe-he fain would have kept me ten minutes of the fifteen, to tell of Charley's knowingness, how he had kept it all dark as could be, you see, Miss, and had won three hundred and twenty-five pounds, without reckoning the odd money, Miss-
"Reckon it then, Mr. Cabman," and I ran upstairs full speed, after telling Mrs. Shelfer the sum, lest she should be cheated.
In five minutes I was ready, and came out of my bedroom into the sitting-room, with my hat in one hand, and a little bag in the other; and there, instead of Mrs. Fletcher, I found, whom? – Conrad!
Very pale and ill he looked, so unlike himself that I was shocked, and instead of leaping to him, fell upon a chair. He mistook me, and approached very slowly, but with his dear old smile: how my heart beat, how I longed to be in his arms; but they looked too weak to hold me.
"Oh, Miss Vaughan, I know everything. Will you ever forgive me?"
"Never, my own darling, while you call me that. Forgive you indeed! Can I ever forgive myself, for the evil I have thought of you? How very ill you look! Come and let me kiss you well."
But instead of my doing that, he had to do it for me; for I was quite beaten at last, and fainted away in his arms. By this folly five minutes were lost; and I had so much to say to him, and more to think of than twenty such heads could hold. But he seemed to think that it must be all right, so long as he had me there.
"Oh, Conny," I said through my tears at last, "my own pet Conny, come with me. Your father is in such danger."
"Life of my heart, I will follow you by the very next train. This one I cannot go by."
I could wait for no explanation, and he seemed inclined to give none. Perhaps this was the reason that he spent all the time in kissing me; which, much as I enjoyed it, would have done quite as well at leisure. Be that as it may, there was no time to talk about it; he said it did his lips good, and I believe it did, they were so pale at first, and now so fine a red. Suddenly in the midst of it, a great voice was heard from the passage:
"Why now, what ever be us to do with the chillers?"
Out I ran, with my hair down as usual, and a great flush in my cheeks, but I did not let any one see me.
"Leave them here, to be sure, leave them here, Mr. Huxtable. They shall have my rooms; and in all London they would not find such a hostess as Mrs. Shelfer."
There was no time to consider it. The throat of hurry is large, and gulps almost any suggestion. Away we went full gallop; the farmer was on the box, – how the driver found room I can't say, – Mrs. Fletcher and I inside, all consulting her watch every minute. Across the Regent's Park, scattering the tame wild ducks, past Marylebone Church, and the Yorkshire Stingo, and Edgware Road-we saved it by just two minutes. Although I had taken his ticket, the farmer would not come with us, but went in a second-class carriage.
"They blue featherbeds trimmed with pig's tails, is too good for the likes of I, Miss Clara; and I should be afeared all the wai that the Missus was rating of me for my leg-room. I paid parlour price coming up, and went in the kitchen waggons, because it zim'd only fair, as I takes such a dale of room."
I knew that none ever could turn him from what he considered just, and therefore allowed him to ride where he pleased. But a dozen times I thought we should have lost him on the way; for at every station, where the train stopped, he made a point of coming to our window, which he had marked with a piece of chalk, and "humbly axing our pardon, but was we all right and no fire? He couldn't think what they wanted, not he, with tempting God Almighty fast." Not fast enough for me, I told him every time; whereupon he put on his hat with a sigh, and said he supposed I was born to it. And yet all the time he seemed to consider that he was protecting me somehow, and once he called me his dearie, to the great surprise of the other passengers, and the horror of Mrs. Fletcher; seeing which he repented hastily, and "Miss Vaughan'd" me three times in a sentence, with a hot flush on his forehead. At Swindon, where we changed carriages, he pulled out very mysteriously from an inner breast-pocket a little sack tied with whipcord, and in which, I do believe, the simple soul had deposited all his hard-earned prize-money. Then he led us to the counter, proud to show that he had been there before, and earnestly begged for the honour of treating us to a drop of somewhat. His countenance fell so on my refusal, that I was fain to cancel it, and to drink at his expense a glass of iced sherry and water; while Mrs. Fletcher, with much persuasion and simpering, and for the sake of her poor inside, that had been so long her enemy, ventured on a "wee wee thimbleful of Cognac." The farmer himself, much abashed at the splendour around him, which he told me, in a whisper, beat Pewter Will's out and out, and even the "Fortescue Arms," would not call for anything, until I insisted upon it; being hard pressed he asked at last, hoping no offence of the lady, for a pint of second cider. The young woman turned up her nose, but I soon made her turn it down again, and fetch him, as the nearest thing, a bottle of sparkling perry.
As always happens, when one is in a great hurry, the train was an hour behind its time, and the setting sun was casting gold upon the old cathedral-to my mind one of the lightest and grandest buildings in England, though the farmer prefers that squat and heavy Norman thing at Exeter-when we glided smoothly and swiftly into the Gloucester Station. I fully intended to have sent an electric message from London, not for the sake of the carriage, which mattered nothing, but to warn my dear uncle; at Paddington, however, we found no time to do it, and so stupid I was that I never once thought of telegraphing from Swindon. To make up by over alacrity, in a case of far less importance, I went to the office at Gloucester, and sent this message to Tiverton, then the nearest Station to Exmoor-"Farmer has won, and got the money. Clara Vaughan to Mrs. Huxtable." The amazement of the farmer, I cannot stop to describe.
No time was lost by doing this, for I had ordered a pair of horses, and they were being put to. Then, stimulating the driver, we dashed off for Vaughan St. Mary. Anxious as I was, and wretched at the thought of what we might find, so exhausted was my frame by the thaumatrope of the last six-and-thirty hours, that I fell fast asleep, and woke not until we came to the lodge. Old Whitehead came out, hat in hand, and whispered something into Mrs. Fletcher's ear. That good old lady had been worrying me dreadfully about her jams, for the weather was so hot, she was sure all the fruit would be over, &c., none of which could I listen to now. As Whitehead spoke, I saw through my half-open lashes that she started violently; but she would not tell me what it was, and I did not want to intrude on secrets that might be between them. The farmer also diverted attention by calling from the box, as we wound into the avenue, "Dear heart alaive; this bate all the sojers as ever I see, Miss Clara, or even the melisher to Coom. Why, arl thiccy treeses must a growed so a puppose, just over again one another, and arl of a bigness too. Wull, wull! Coachman, was ever you to Davonsheer?"
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