Read CHAPTER XXXIV - THE RIDDLE BAFFLES ME! of Frank Fairlegh Scenes From The Life Of A Private Pupil , free online book, by Frank E Smedley, on

“Your riddle is hard to read.”

’"Are you content? I am what you behold. And that’s a mystery.” The Two Foscari.

THE post next morning brought a letter from Mr. Vernor to say that, as he found the business on which he was engaged must necessitate his crossing to Boulogne, he feared there was no chance of his being able to return under a week, but that, if it should be inconvenient for Mrs. Coleman to keep Miss Saville so long at Elm Lodge, he should wish her to go back to Barstone, where, if she was in any difficulty, she could easily apply to her late hostess for advice and assistance. On being brought clearly (though I fear the word is scarcely applicable to the good lady’s state of mind at any time) to understand the position of affairs, Mrs. Coleman would by no means hear of Miss Saville’s departure; but, on the contrary, made her promise to prolong her stay till her guardian should return, which, as Freddy observed, involved the remarkable coincidence that if Mr. Vernor should be drowned in crossing the British Channel, she (his mother) would have put her foot in it. The same post brought Freddy a summons from his father, desiring him, the moment he returned from Bury with the papers, to proceed to town immediately. There was nothing left for him, therefore, but to deposit himself upon the roof of the next coach, blue bag in hand, which he accordingly did, after having spent the intervening time in reviling 265~ all lawyers, clients, deeds, settlements, in fact, every individual thing connected with the profession, excepting fees.

“Clara and I are going for a long walk, Mr. Fairlegh, and we shall be glad of your escort, if you have no objection to accompany us, and it is not too far for you,” said Mrs. Coleman (who evidently considered me in the last stage of a decline), trotting into the breakfast-room where I was lounging, book in hand, over the fire, wondering what possible pretext I could invent for joining the ladies.

“I shall be only too happy,” answered I, “and I think I can contrive to walk as far as you can, Mrs. Coleman.” “Oh! I don’t know that,” was the reply, “I am a capital walker, I assure you. I remember a young man, quite as young as you, and a good deal stouter, who could not walk nearly as far as I can; to be sure,” she added as she left the room, “he had a wooden leg, poor fellow!”

I soon received a summons to start with the ladies, whom I found awaiting my arrival on the terrace walk at the back of the house, comfortably wrapped up in shawls and furs, for, although a bright sun was shining, the day was cold and frosty.

“You must allow me to carry that for you,” said I, laying violent hands on a large basket, between which and a muff Mrs. Coleman was in vain attempting to effect an amicable arrangement.

“Oh, dear! I’m sure you’ll never be able to carry it-it’s so dreadfully heavy,” was the reply.

Nous verróns,” answered I, swinging it on my forefinger, in order to demonstrate its lightness.

“Take care-you mustn’t do so!” exclaimed Mrs. Coleman in a tone of extreme alarm; “you’ll upset all my beautiful senna tea, and it will get amongst the slices of Christmas plum-pudding, and the flannel that I’m going to take for poor Mrs. Muddles’s children to eat; do you know Mrs. Muddles, Clara, my dear?”

Miss Saville replied in the negative, and Mrs. Coleman continued:-

“Ah! poor thing! she’s a very hard-working, respectable, excellent young woman; she has been married three years, and has got six children-no! let me see-it’s six years, and three children-that’s it-though I can never remember whether it’s most pigs or children she has-four pigs, did I say?-but it doesn’t much signify, for the youngest is a boy and will soon be fat enough to kill-the pig I mean, and they’re all very dirty, and have never 266~ been taught to read, because she takes in washing, and has put a great deal too much starch in my night-cap this week-only her husband drinks-so I mustn’t say much about it, poor thing, for we all have our failings, you know.”

With suchlike rambling discourse did worthy Mrs. Coleman beguile the way, until at length, after a walk of some two miles and a half, we arrived at the cottage of that much-enduring laundress, the highly respectable Mrs. Muddles, where, in due form, we were introduced to the mixed race of children and pigs, between which heads clearer than that of Mrs. Coleman might have been at a loss to distinguish; for if the pigs did not exactly resemble children, the children most assuredly looked like pigs. Here we seemed likely to remain for some time, as there was much business to be transacted by the two matrons. First, Mrs. Coleman’s basket was unpacked, during which process that lady delivered a long harangue, setting forth the rival merits of plum-pudding and black draught, and ingeniously establishing a connexion between them, which has rendered the former nearly as distasteful to me as the latter ever since. Thence glancing slightly at the overstarched night-cap, and delicately referring to the anti-teetotal propensities of the laundress’s sposo, she contrived so thoroughly to confuse and interlace the various topics of her discourse, as to render it an open question, whether the male Muddles had not got tipsy on black draught, in consequence of the plum-pudding having overstarched the night-cap; moreover, she distinctly called the latter article “poor fellow!” twice. In reply to this, Mrs. Muddles, the skin of whose hands was crimped up into patterns like sea-weed, from the amphibious nature of her employment, and whose general appearance was, from the same cause, moist and spongy, expressed much gratitude for the contents of the basket, made a pathetic apology to the night-cap, tried to ignore the imbibing propensity of her better half; but, when pressed home upon the point, declared that when he was not engaged in the Circe-like operation of “making a beast of hisself,” he was one of the most virtuousest of men; and finally wound up by a minute medical detail of Johnny’s chilblain, accompanied by a slight retrospective sketch of Mary Anne’s departed hooping-cough. How much longer the conversation might have continued, it is impossible to say, for it was evident that neither of the speakers had by any means exhausted her budget, had not Johnny, the unfortunate proprietor of the chilblain above alluded to, seen fit to precipitate himself, head-foremost, into a washing-tub 267~ of nearly scalding water, whence his mamma, with great presence of mind and much professional dexterity, extricated him, wrung him out, and set him on the mangle to dry, where he remained sobbing, from a vague sense of humid misery, till a more convenient season.

This little incident reminding Mrs. Coleman that the boiled beef, preparing for our luncheon and the servants’ dinner, would inevitably be overdone, induced her to take a hurried farewell of Mrs. Muddles, though she paused at the threshold to offer a parting suggestion as to the advisability, moral and physical, of dividing the wretched Johnny’s share of plum-pudding between his brothers and sisters, and administering a double portion of black draught by way of compensation, an arrangement which elicited from that much-wronged child a howl of mingled horror and defiance.

We had proceeded about a mile on our return, when Mrs. Coleman, who was a step or two in advance, trod on a slide some boys had made, and would have fallen had I not thrown my arm round her just in time to prevent it.

“My dear madam,” exclaimed I, “you were as nearly as possible down; I hope you have not hurt yourself.”

“No, my dear-I mean-Mr. Fairlegh; no! I hope I have not, except my ankle. I gave that a twist somehow, and it hurts me dreadfully; but I daresay I shall be able to go on in a minute.”

The good lady’s hopes, however, were not destined in this instance to be fulfilled, for, on attempting to proceed, the pain increased to such an extent, that she was forced, after limping a few steps, to seat herself on a stone by the wayside, and it became evident that she must have sprained her ankle severely, and would be utterly unable to walk home. In this dilemma it was not easy to discover what was the best thing to do-no vehicle could be procured nearer than Hillingford, from which place we were at least two miles distant, and I by no means approved of leaving my companions in their present helpless state during the space of time which must necessarily elapse ere I could go and return. Mrs. Coleman, who, although suffering from considerable pain, bore it with the greatest equanimity and good nature, seeming to think much more of the inconvenience she was likely to occasion us, than of her own discomforts, had just hit upon some brilliant but totally impracticable project, when our ears were gladdened by the sound of wheels, and in another moment a little pony-chaise, drawn by a 268~ fat, comfortable-looking pony, came in sight, proceeding in the direction of Hillingford. As soon as the driver, a stout, rosy-faced gentleman, who proved to be the family apothecary, perceived our party, he pulled up, and, when he became aware of what had occurred, put an end to our difficulties by offering Mrs. Coleman the unoccupied seat in his chaise.

“Sorry I can’t accommodate you also, Miss Saville,” he continued, raising his hat; “but you see it’s rather close packing as it is. If I were but a little more like the medical practitioner who administered a sleeping draught to Master Romeo now, we might contrive to carry three.”

“I really prefer walking such a cold day as this, thank you, Mr. Pillaway,” answered Miss Saville.

“Mind you take proper care of poor Clara, Mr. Fairlegh,” said Mrs. Coleman, “and don’t let her sprain her ankle, or do anything foolish, and don’t you stay out too long yourself and catch cold, or I don’t know what Mrs. Fairlegh will say, and your pretty sister, too-what a fat pony, Mr. Pillaway; you don’t give him much physic, I should think-good-bye, my dears, good-bye-remember the boiled beef.”

As she spoke, the fat pony, admonished by the whip, described a circle with his tail, frisked with the agility of a playful elephant, and then set off at a better pace than from his adipose appearance I had deemed him capable of doing.

“With all her oddity, what an unselfish, kind-hearted, excellent little person Mrs. Coleman is!” observed I, as the pony-chaise disappeared at an angle of the road.

“Oh! I think her charming,” replied my companion warmly, “she is so very good-natured.”

“She is something beyond that,” returned I; “mere good-nature is a quality I rate very low: a person may be good-natured, yet thoroughly selfish, for nine times out of ten it is easier and more agreeable to say ‘yes’ than ‘no’; but there is such an entire forgetfulness of self, apparent in all Mrs. Coleman’s attempts to make those around her happy and comfortable, that, despite her eccentricities, I am beginning to conceive quite a respect for the little woman.”

“You are a close observer of character it seems, Mr. Fairlegh,” remarked my companion.

“I scarcely see how any thinking person can avoid being so,” returned I; “there is no study that appears to me to possess a more deep and varied interest.”

“You make mistakes, though, sometimes,” replied 269~ Miss Saville, glancing quickly at me with her beautiful eyes.

“You refer to my hasty judgment of last night,” said I, colouring slightly. “The mournful words of your song led me to conclude that, in one instance, high spirits might not be a sure indication of a light heart; and yet I would fain hope,” added I in a half-questioning tone, “that you merely sought to inculcate a general principle.”

“Is not that a very unusual species of heath to find growing in this country?” was the rejoinder.

“Really, I am no botanist,” returned I, rather crossly, for I felt that I had received a rebuff, and was not at all sure that I might not have deserved it.

“Nay, but I will have you attend; you did not even look towards the place where it is growing,” replied Miss Saville, with a half-imperious, half-imploring glance, which it was impossible to resist.

“Is that the plant you mean?” asked I, pointing to a tuft of heath on the top of a steep bank by the roadside.

On receiving a reply in the affirmative, I continued: “Then I will render you all the assistance in my power, by enabling you to judge for yourself “. So saying, I scrambled up the bank at the imminent risk of my neck; and after bursting the button-holes of my straps, and tearing my coat in two places with a bramble, I succeeded in gathering the heath.

Elated by my success, and feeling every nerve braced and invigorated by the frosty air, I bounded down the slope with such velocity, that, on reaching the bottom, I was unable to check my speed, and only avoided running against Miss Saville, by nearly throwing myself down backwards.

“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed I; “I hope I have not alarmed you by my abominable awkwardness; but really the bank was so steep, that it was impossible to stop sooner.”

“Nay, it is I who ought to apologise for having led you to undertake such a dangerous expedition,” replied she, taking the heath which I had gathered, with a smile which quite repaid me for my exertions.

“I do not know what could have possessed me to run down the bank in that insane manner,” returned I; “I suppose it is this fine frosty morning which makes one feel so light and happy.”

“Happy!” repeated my companion incredulously, and in a half-absent manner, as though she were rather thinking aloud than addressing me.

270~ “Yes,” replied I, surprised; “why should I not feel so?”

“Is any one happy?” was the rejoinder.

“Very many people, I hope,” said I; “you do not doubt it, surely.”

“I well might,” she answered with a sigh.

“On such a beautiful day as this, with the bright clear sky above us, and the hoar-frost sparkling like diamonds in the glorious sunshine, how can one avoid feeling happy?” asked I.

“It is very beautiful,” she replied, after gazing around for a moment; “and yet can you not imagine a state of mind in which this fair scene, with all its varied charms, may impress one with a feeling of bitterness rather than of pleasure, by the contrast it affords to the darkness and weariness of soul within? Place some famine-stricken wretch beneath the roof of a gilded palace, think you the sight of its magnificence would give him any sensation of pleasure? Would it not rather, by increasing the sense of his own misery, add to his agony of spirit?”

“I can conceive such a case possible,” replied I; “but you would make us out to be all famine-stricken wretches at this rate: you cannot surely imagine that every one is unhappy?”

“There are, no doubt, different degrees of unhappiness,” returned Miss Saville; “yet I can hardly conceive any position in life so free from cares, as to be pronounced positively happy; but I know my ideas on this subject are peculiar, and I am by no means desirous of making a convert of you, Mr. Fairlegh; the world will do that soon enough, I fear,” she added with a sigh.

“I cannot believe it,” replied I warmly. “True, at times we must all feel sorrow; it is one of the conditions of our mortal lot, and we must bear it with what resignation we may, knowing that, if we but make a fitting use of it, it is certain to work for our highest good; but if you would have me look upon this world as a vale of tears, forgetting all its glorious opportunities for raising our fallen nature to something so bright and noble, as to be even here but little lower than the angels, you must pardon me if I never can agree with you.”

There was a moment’s pause, when my companion resumed.

“You talk of opportunities of doing good, as being likely to increase our stock of happiness; and, no doubt, you are right; but imagine a situation, in which you are unable to take advantage of these opportunities when 271~ they arise-in which you are not a free agent, your will fettered and controlled on every point, so that you are alike powerless to perform the good that you desire, and to avoid the evil you both hate and fear-could you be happy in such a situation, think you?”

“You describe a case which is, or ought to be, impossible,” replied I; “when I say ought to be, I mean that in these days, I hope and believe, it is impossible for any one to be forced to do wrong, unless, from a natural weakness and facility of disposition, and from a want of moral courage, their resistance is so feeble, that those who seek to compel them to evil are induced to redouble their efforts, when a little firmness and decision clearly shown, and steadily adhered to, would have produced a very different result.”

“Oh that I could think so!” exclaimed Miss Saville ardently: she paused for a minute, as if in thought, and then resumed in a low mournful voice, “But you do not know-you cannot tell; besides, it is useless to struggle against destiny: there are people fated from childhood to grief and misfortune-alone in this cold world”-she paused, then continued abruptly, “you have a sister?”

“Yes,” replied I; “I have as good a little sister as ever man was fortunate enough to possess-how glad I should be to introduce her to you!”

“And you love each other?”

“Indeed we do, truly and sincerely.”

“And you are a man, one of the lords of the creation,” she continued, with a slight degree of sarcasm in her tone. “Well, Mr. Fairlegh, I can believe that you may be happy sometimes.”

“And what ami to conjecture about you?” inquired I, fixing my eyes upon her expressive features.

“What you please,” returned she, turning away with a very becoming blush-“or rather,” she added, “do not waste your time in forming any conjectures whatever on such an uninteresting subject.”

“I am more easily interested than you imagine,” replied I, with a smile; “besides, you know I am fond of studying character.”

“The riddle is not worth reading,” answered Miss Saville.

“Nevertheless, I shall not be contented till I have found it out; I shall guess it before long, depend upon it,” returned I.

An incredulous shake of the head was her only reply, and we continued conversing on indifferent subjects till we reached Elm Lodge.~272~~