Read CHAPTER XVI.  A FAIR OFFER of Under the Storm Steadfast Charge, free online book, by Charlotte M. Yonge, on ReadCentral.com.

     “We be content,” the keepers said,
      “We three and you no less,
      Then why should we of you be afraid,
      As we never did transgress.” 
                              Robin hood ballad.

Steadfast was busy weeding the little patch of barley that lay near the ruins of the old farm house with little Ben basking round him.  The great carefulness as to keeping the ground clear had been taught him by his father, and was one reason why his fields, though so small, did not often bear a bad crop.  He heard his name called over the hedge, and looking up saw the Squire, Mr. Elmwood, on horseback.

He came up, respectfully taking off his hat and standing with it in his hand as was then the custom when thus spoken to.  “What is this I hear, Kenton,” said the squire, “that you have been having a prelatist service on your ground?”

Steadfast was dismayed, but did not speak, till Mr. Elmwood added, “Is it true?”

“Yes, sir,” he answered resolutely.

“Did you know it was against the law to use the Book of Common Prayer?”

“There was no book, sir.”

“But you do not deny it was the same superstitious and Popish ceremony and festival abolished by law.”

“No, sir,” Stead allowed, though rather by gesture than word.

“Now, look you here, young Kenton, I ask no questions.  I do not want to bring anyone into trouble, and you are a hard-working, honest lad by what they tell me, who have a brother fighting in the good Cause and have suffered from the lawless malignants yourself.  Was it not the Prince’s troopers that wrought this ruin?” pointing towards the blackened gable, “and shot down your father?  Aye!  The more shame you should hold with them!  I wish you no harm I say, nor the blinded folk who must have abused your simplicity:  but I am a justice of the peace, and I will not have laws broken on my land.  If this thing should happen again, I shall remember that you have no regular or lawful tenure of this holding, and put you forth from it.”

He waited, but a threat always made silent resistance easy to Steadfast, and there was no answer.

Mr. Elmwood, however, let that pass, for he was not a hard or a fanatical man, and he knew that to hold such a service was not such an easy matter that it was likely to be soon repeated.  He looked round at the well-mended fences, the clean ground, and the tokens of intelligent industry around, and the clean homespun shirt sleeves that spoke of the notable manager at home.  “You are an industrious fellow, my good lad,” he said, “how long have you had this farm to yourself?”

“Getting on for five years, your honour,” said Steadfast.

“And is that your brother?”

“Yes, please your honour,” picking Ben up in his arms to prevent the barley from being pulled up by way of helping him.

“How many of you are there?”

“Five of us, sir, but my eldest brother is in Captain Venn’s troop.”

“So I heard, and what is this about a child besides?”

“An orphan, sir, I found after the skirmish at the mill stream, who was left with us till her friends can send after her.”

“Well, well.  You seem a worthy youth,” said Mr. Elmwood, who was certainly struck and touched by the silent uncomplaining resolution of the mere stripling who had borne so heavy a burthen.  “If you were heartily one of us, I should be glad to make you woodward, instead of old Tomkins, and build up yonder house for you, but I cannot do it for one who is hankering after prelacy, and might use the place for I know not what plots and conspiracies of the malignants.”

Again Steadfast took refuge in a little bow of acknowledgment, but kept his lips shut, till again the squire demanded, “What do you think of it?  There’s a fair offer.  What have you to say for yourself?”

He had collected himself and answered, “I thank you, sir.  You are very good.  If you made me woodward, I would serve your honour faithfully, and have no plots or the like there.  But, your honour, I was bred up in the Church and I cannot sell myself.”

“Why, you foolish, self-conceited boy, what do you know about it?  Is not what is good enough for better men than you fit to please you?”

To this Stead again made no answer, having said a great deal for him.

“Well,” said Mr. Elmwood, angered at last, “if ever I saw a dogged moon-calf, you are one!  However, I let you go scot free this time, in regard for your brother’s good service, and the long family on your hands, but mind, I shall put in an active woodward instead of old Tomkins, who has been past his work these ten years, and if ever I hear of seditious or prelatical doings in yonder gulley again, off you go.”

He rode off, leaving Steadfast with temper more determined, but mind not more at ease.  The appointment of a woodward was bad news, for the copsewood and the game had been left to their fate for the last few years, and what were the rights of the landlord over them Stead did not know, so that there might be many causes of trouble, especially if the said woodward considered him a person to be specially watched.  Indeed, the existence of such a person would make a renewal of what Mr. Elmwood called the prelatist assembly impossible, and with a good deal of sorrow he announced the fact on the next market day to Mrs. Lightfoot.  He could not see Dr. Eales, but when next he came in, she gave him a paper on which was simply marked “Ps. xxxvii, 7.”  He looked out the reference and found “Hold thee still in the Lord and abide patiently upon Him.”  Stead hoped that Patience and the rest would never know what an offer had been made to him, but Master Brown, who had recommended him, and who did not at all like the prospect of a strange woodward, came to expostulate with him for throwing away such a chance for a mere whim, telling Patience she was a sensible wench and ought to persuade her brother to see what was for his own good and the good of all, holding up himself as an example.

“I never missed my church and had the parson’s good word all along, and yet you see I am ready to put up with this good man without setting myself up to know more than my elders and betters!  Eh!  Hast not a word to say for thyself?  Then I’ll tell the squire, who is a good and friendly gentleman to all the old servants, that you have thought better of it, and will thankfully take his kindness, and do your best.”

“I cannot go against father,” said Steadfast.

“And what would he have done, good man, but obey them that have the rule, and let wiser folk think for thee.  But all the young ones are pig-headed as mules now-a-days, and must think for themselves, one running off to the Independents, and one to the Quakers and Shakers, and one to the Fifth Monarchy men, and you, Steadfast Kenton, that I thought better things of, talking of the Church and offending the squire with thy prelatic doings, that have been forbidden by Act of Parliament.  What say you to that, my lad?  Come, out with it,” for Stead had more difficulty in answering Master Brown, who had been a great authority throughout his life, than even the Squire himself.

“Parson said there was higher law than Parliament.”

“Eh!  What, the King?  He is a prisoner, bless him, but they will never let him go till they have bent him to their will, and what will you do then?”

“Not the King,” muttered Steadfast.

“Eh! what!  If you have come to pretending to know the law of God better than your elders, you are like the rest of them, and I have done with you.”  And away tramped the steward in great displeasure, while Patience put her apron over her head and cried bitterly.

She supposed Stead might be right, but what would it not have been to have the old house built up, and all decent about them as it was in mother’s time, and fit places to sleep in, now that the wenches were growing bigger?

“But you know, Patty, we are saving for that.”

“Aye, and how long will it take?  And now this pestilent woodward will be always finding fault ­killing the fowls and ducks, and seizing the swine and sheep, and very like slaughtering the dogs and getting us turned out of house and home; for now you have offended the squire, he will believe anything against us.”

“Come, Patty, you know I could not help it.  This is sorest of all, you that have always stood by me and father’s wish.”

“Yes, yes,” sobbed Patience.  “I wot you are right, Stead.  I’ll hold to you, though I wish ­I wish you would think like other folk.”

Yet Patience knew in her secret soul that then he would not be her own Steadfast, and she persuaded him no more, though the discomforts and deficiencies of their present home tried her more and more as the family grew older.  Stead had contrived a lean-to, with timbers from the old house, and wattled sides stuffed with moss, where he and little Ben slept in summer time, and they had bought or made some furniture ­a chair and table, some stools, bedding, and kitchen utensils, and she toiled to keep things clean, but still it was a mere hovel, with the door opening out into the glade.  Foxes and polecats prowled, owls hooted, and the big dog outside was a needful defender, even in summer time, and in winter the cold was piteous, the wet even worse, and they often lost some of their precious animals ­chickens died of cold, and once three lambs had been carried away in a sudden freshet.  Yet Patience, when she saw Steadfast convinced, made up her mind to stand by him, and defended him when the younger girls murmured.

Rusha was of a quiet, acquiescent, contented nature, and said little, as Emlyn declared, “She knew nothing better;” but Emlyn was more and more weary of the gulley, and as nothing was heard of her friends, and she was completely one of the home, she struggled more with the dullness and loneliness.  She undertook all errands to the village for the sake of such change as a chatter with the young folk there afforded her, or for the chance of seeing the squire’s lady or sons and daughters go by; and she was wild to go on market days to Bristol.

In spite of Puritan greyness, soldiers, sailors, gentlemen, ladies, and even fashions, such as they were, could be seen there, and news picked up, and Emlyn would fain have persuaded Steadfast that she should be the most perfect market woman, if he would only let her ride in on the donkey between the panniers, in a broad hat, with chickens and ducks dangling round, eggs, butter, and fruit or nuts, and even posies, according to the season, and sit on the steps of the market-place among the other market women and girls.

Steadfast would have been the last to declare that her laughing dark eyes, and smiling lips, and arch countenance would not bring many a customer, but he knew well that his mother would never have sent his sister to be thus exposed, and he let her pout, or laughed away her refusal by telling her that he was bound not to let a butler’s daughter demean herself to be stared at by all the common folk, who would cheapen her wares.

And when she did coax him to take her to Bristol on any errand she could invent, to sell her yarns, or buy pins, or even a ribbon, he was inexorable in leaving her under Mrs. Lightfoot’s care, and she had to submit, even though it sometimes involved saying her catechism to Dr. Eales.  Yet that always ended in the old man’s petting her.  It was only from her chatter that the old clergyman ever knew of the proposal that Stead had rejected for conscience’s sake.  It vexed the lad so much that he really could not bear to think of it, and it would come over him now and then, was it all for nothing?  Would the Church ever lift up her head again? or would Mr. Woodley be always in possession at Elmwood Church, where everyone seemed to be content with him.  The Kentons went thither.  It was hardly safe to abstain, for a fine upon absence was still the law of the land, though seldom enforced; and Dr. Eales who considered Presbyterianism by far the least unorthodox and most justifiable sect, had advised Stead not to allow himself or the others altogether to lose the habit of public worship, but to abstain from Communions which might be an act of separation from the Church, and which could not be accepted by her children as genuine.  Such was the advice of most of the divines of the English Church in this time of eclipse; and though Stead, and still less Patience, did not altogether follow the reasoning, they obeyed, while aware that they incurred suspicion from the squire by not coming to “the table.”

The new woodward, Peter Pierce, was not one of the villagers as usual, but had been a soldier in one of the regiments of the Earl of Essex, in which Mr. Elmwood’s eldest son had served.

Instead of succeeding to old Tomkins’s lodge in the great wood, he had a new one built for him, so as to command the opening of Hermit’s Gulley towards the village, and one of the Bristol roads.  Could this be for the sake of watching over anything so insignificant as the Kentons?

The copse on their side of the brook was their own, free to do what they chose with except cutting down the timber trees, but the further side was the landlord’s, as they had now to remember; and as, when the brook was at its lowest, their pigs and goats were by no means likely to recollect; though Steadfast was extremely anxious to give no occasion for the mistrust and ill-will with which Pierce regarded him, as a squatter, trespasser, and poacher, almost as a matter of course, and likewise a prelatist and plotter.

Once he did find a kid on the wrong side, standing on a rock, browsing a honeysuckle, and was about either to seize it or shoot it, as it went off in three bounds, when Emlyn darted out, and threw herself between.  It was her darling kid, it should never trespass again, she would ­she would thank him ever more ­if he would spare it this once.

And Emlyn as usual had touched the soft place in the heart of even a woodward.  He told her not to cry, and contented himself with growling a tremendous warning to Steadfast and Patience.

There were several breezes about Growler, who was only too apt to use his liberty in pursuing rabbits on the wrong side, and whom Peter more than once condemned; but Emlyn and Ben begged him off, and he was kept well chained up.  At last, however, he won even the woodward’s favour by the slaughter of a terrible wild cat and her brood, after all Peter’s dogs had returned with bleeding faces from the combat.

The woodward had another soft place in his heart.  He had a pretty young wife and a little son.  Nanny Pierce was older in years, but far more childish than Patience, and the life in this gulley seemed to her utter solitude and desolation, and if Patience had been ten times a poacher and a prelatist, she could not have helped making friends with the only creature of her own kind within a mile.  And when Patience’s experience with Ben and other older babes at rest in the churchyard, had aided the poor little helpless woman through a convulsion fit of her baby’s before Goody Grace could arrive, Peter himself owned that “the Kenton wench was good for somewhat,” though he continued to think Steadfast’s great carefulness not to transgress, only a further proof that “he was a deep one” ­all the more because he refused to let anyone but himself have a search for a vanished polecat in “them holes,” which Peter was persuaded contained some mystery, though Steadfast laid it, and not untruly, on the health of the young stock he kept penned in the caves, which were all, he hoped, of which Peter was aware.

All this was harassing, but a greater trouble came in the second winter.  Good Dr. Eales was failing, and the tidings of the King’s execution were a blow that he never recovered.  Mrs. Lightfoot had tears in her eyes when Stead asked after him, week by week, and she could only say that he was feebler, and spent all his days in prayer ­often with tears.

At last came peace.  He lay still and calm, and sent a message that young Kenton should be brought to him for a last farewell.

And as Stead stood sorrowful and awed by his bed side, he bade the youth never despair or fall away from his hope of the restoration of the Church.

“Remember,” he said, “she is founded on a rock, and the gates of hell shall never prevail against her.  She shall stand forth for evermore as the moon, which wanes but to wax again; and I have good hope that thou wilt see it, my son.  He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.”

Then Dr. Eales pointed to a small parcel of books, which he had caused Mrs. Lightfoot to put together, telling Steadfast that he had selected them alike for devotion and for edification, and that if he studied them, he would have no doubt when he might deliver up his trust to a true priest of the Church.

“And if none should return in my time?” asked Steadfast.

“Have I not told thee never to despair of God’s care for His Church?  Yet His time is not as our time, and it may be ­that young as thou art ­the days of renewal may not be when thou shalt see them.  Should it thus be, my son, leave the secret with one whom thou canst securely trust.  Better the sacred vessels should lie hidden than that thou shouldst show thy faith wanting by surrendering them to any, save according to the terms of thy vow.  See, Steadfast, among these books is a lighter one, a romance of King Arthur, that I loved well in my boyhood, and which may not only serve thee as fair pastime in the winter nights, but will mind thee of thine high and holy charge, for it goeth deeper than the mere outside.”

His voice was growing weak.  Mrs. Lightfoot gave him a cordial, and Stead knelt by his bedside, felt his hand on his head, and heard his blessing for the last time.  The next market day, when he called at the good bakester’s stall, she told him in floods of tears that the guest who had brought a blessing on her house, was gone to his rest.