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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWe And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 2
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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 2 Post by :tinabarr4 Category :Long Stories Author :Juliana Horatia Ewing Date :May 2012 Read :1266

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We And The World: A Book For Boys - Part 1 - Chapter 2


Sable_:--"Ha, you! A little more upon the dismal (_forming their countenances_); this fellow has a good mortal look, place him near the corpse; that wainscoat face must be o' top of the stairs; that fellow's almost in a fright (that looks as if he were full of some strange misery) at the end of the hall. So--but I'll fix you all myself. Let's have no laughing now on any provocation."--_The Funeral, STEELE.

At one time I really hoped to make the acquaintance of the old miser of Walnut-tree Farm. It was when we saved the life of his cat.

He was very fond of that cat, I think, and it was, to say the least of it, as eccentric-looking as its master. One eye was yellow and the other was blue, which gave it a strange, uncanny expression, and its rust-coloured fur was not common either as to tint or markings.

How dear old Jem did belabour the boy we found torturing it! He was much older and bigger than we were, but we were two to one, which we reckoned fair enough, considering his size, and that the cat had to be saved somehow. The poor thing's forepaws were so much hurt that it could not walk, so we carried it to the farm, and I stood on the shallow doorsteps, and under the dial, on which was written--

"Tempora mutantur!"--

and the old miser came out, and we told him about the cat, and he took it and said we were good boys, and I hoped he would have asked us to go in, but he did not, though we lingered a little; he only put his hand into his pocket, and very slowly brought out sixpence.

"No, thank you," said I, rather indignantly. "We don't want anything for saving the poor cat."

"I am very fond of it," he said apologetically, and putting the sixpence carefully back; but I believe he alluded to the cat.

I felt more and more strongly that he ought to invite us into the parlour--if there was a parlour--and I took advantage of a backward movement on his part to move one shallow step nearer, and said, in an easy conversational tone, "Your cat has very curious eyes."

He came out again, and his own eyes glared in the evening light as he touched me with one of his fingers in a way that made me shiver, and said, "If I had been an old woman, and that cat had lived with me in the days when this house was built, I should have been hanged, or burned as a witch. Twelve men would have done it--twelve reasonable and respectable men!" He paused, looking over my head at the sky, and then added, "But in all good conscience--mind, in all good conscience!"

And after another pause he touched me again (this time my teeth chattered), and whispered loudly in my ear, "Never serve on a jury." After which he banged the door in our faces, and Jem caught hold of my jacket and cried, "Oh! he's quite mad, he'll murder us!" and we took each other by the hand and ran home as fast as our feet would carry us.

We never saw the old miser again, for he died some months afterwards, and, strange to relate, Jem and I were invited to the funeral.

It was a funeral not to be forgotten. The old man had left the money for it, and a memorandum, with the minutest directions, in the hands of his lawyer. If he had wished to be more popular after his death than he had been in his lifetime, he could not have hit upon any better plan to conciliate in a lump the approbation of his neighbours than that of providing for what undertakers call "a first-class funeral." The good custom of honouring the departed, and committing their bodies to the earth with care and respect, was carried, in our old-fashioned neighbourhood, to a point at which what began in reverence ended in what was barely decent, and what was meant to be most melancholy became absolutely comical. But a sense of the congruous and the incongruous was not cultivated amongst us, whereas solid value (in size, quantity and expense) was perhaps over-estimated. So our furniture, our festivities, and our funerals bore witness.

No one had ever seen the old miser's furniture, and he gave no festivities; but he made up for it in his funeral.

Children, like other uneducated classes, enjoy domestic details, and going over the ins and outs of other people's affairs behind their backs; especially when the interest is heightened by a touch of gloom, or perfected by the addition of some personal importance in the matter. Jem and I were always fond of funerals, but this funeral, and the fuss that it made in the parish, we were never likely to forget.

Even our own household was so demoralized by the grim gossip of the occasion that Jem and I were accused of being unable to amuse ourselves, and of listening to our elders. It was perhaps fortunate for us that a favourite puppy died the day before the funeral, and gave us the opportunity of burying him.

"As if our whole vocation
Were endless imitation----"

Jem and I had already laid our gardens waste, and built a rude wall of broken bricks round them to make a churchyard; and I can clearly remember that we had so far profited by what we had overheard among our elders, that I had caught up some phrases which I was rather proud of displaying, and that I quite overawed Jem by the air with which I spoke of "the melancholy occasion"--the "wishes of deceased"--and the "feelings of survivors" when we buried the puppy.

It was understood that I could not attend the puppy's funeral in my proper person, because I wished to be the undertaker; but the happy thought struck me of putting my wheelbarrow alongside of the brick wall with a note inside it to the effect that I had "sent my carriage as a mark of respect."

In one point we could not emulate the real funeral: that was carried out "regardless of expense." The old miser had left a long list of the names of the people who were to be invited to it and to its attendant feast, in which was not only my father's name, but Jem's and mine. Three yards was the correct length of the black silk scarves which it was the custom in the neighbourhood to send to dead people's friends; but the old miser's funeral-scarves were a whole yard longer, and of such stiffly ribbed silk that Mr. Soot, the mourning draper, assured my mother that "it would stand of itself." The black gloves cost six shillings a pair, and the sponge-cakes, which used to be sent with the gloves and scarves, were on this occasion ornamented with weeping willows in white sugar.

Jem and I enjoyed the cake, but the pride we felt in our scarves and gloves was simply boundless. What pleased us particularly was that our funeral finery was not enclosed with my father's. Mr. Soot's man delivered three separate envelopes at the door, and they looked like letters from some bereaved giant. The envelopes were twenty inches by fourteen, and made of cartridge-paper; the black border was two inches deep, and the black seals must have consumed a stick of sealing-wax among them. They contained the gloves and the scarves, which were lightly gathered together in the middle with knots of black gauze ribbon.

How exquisitely absurd Jem and I must have looked with four yards of stiff black silk attached to our little hats I can imagine, if I cannot clearly remember. My dear mother dressed us and saw us off (for, with some curious relic of pre-civilized notions, women were not allowed to appear at funerals), and I do not think she perceived anything odd in our appearance. She was very gentle, and approved of everything that was considered right by the people she was used to, and she had only two anxieties about our scarves: first, that they should show the full four yards of respect to the memory of the deceased; and secondly, that we should keep them out of the dust, so that they might "come in useful afterwards."

She fretted a little because she had not thought of changing our gloves for smaller sizes (they were eight and a quarter); but my father "pish"ed and "pshaw"ed, and said it was better than if they had been too small, and that we should be sure to be late if my mother went on fidgeting. So we pulled them on--with ease--and picked up the tails of our hatbands--with difficulty--and followed my father, our hearts beating with pride, and my mother and the maids watching us from the door. We arrived quite half-an-hour earlier than we need have done, but the lane was already crowded with complimentary carriages, and curious bystanders, before whom we held our heads and hatbands up; and the scent of the wild roses was lost for that day in an all-pervading atmosphere of black dye. We were very tired, I remember, by the time that our turn came to be put into a carriage by Mr. Soot, who murmured--"Pocket-handkerchiefs, gentlemen"--and, following the example of a very pale-faced stranger who was with us, we drew out the clean handkerchiefs with which our mother had supplied us, and covered our faces with them.

At least Jem says he shut _his eyes tight, and kept his face covered the whole way, but he always _was so conscientious! I held my handkerchief as well as I could with my gloves; but I contrived to peep from behind it, and to see the crowd that lined the road to watch us as we wound slowly on.

If these outsiders, who only saw the procession and the funeral, were moved almost to enthusiasm by the miser's post-mortem liberality, it may be believed that the guests who were bidden to the feast did not fail to obey the ancient precept, and speak well of the dead. The tables (they were rickety) literally groaned under the weight of eatables and drinkables, and the dinner was so prolonged that Jem and I got terribly tired, in spite of the fun of watching the faces of the men we did not know, to see which got the reddest.

My father wanted us to go home before the reading of the will, which took place in the front parlour; but the lawyer said, "I think the young gentlemen should remain," for which we were very much obliged to him; though the pale-faced man said quite crossly--"Is there any special reason for crowding the room with children, who are not even relatives of the deceased?" which made us feel so much ashamed that I think we should have slipped out by ourselves; but the lawyer, who made no answer, pushed us gently before him to the top of the room, which was soon far too full to get out of by the door.

It was very damp and musty. In several places the paper hung in great strips from the walls, and the oddest part of all was that every article of furniture in the room, and even the hearthrug, was covered with sheets of newspaper pinned over to preserve it. I sat in the corner of a sofa, where I could read the trial of a man who murdered somebody twenty-five years before, but I never got to the end of it, for it went on behind a very fat man who sat next to me, and he leaned back all the time and hid it. Jem sat on a little footstool, and fell asleep with his head on my knee, and did not wake till I nudged him, when our names were read out in the will. Even then he only half awoke, and the fat man drove his elbow into me and hurt me dreadfully for whispering in Jem's ear that the old miser had left us ten pounds apiece, for having saved the life of his cat.

I do not think any of the strangers (they were distant connections of the old man; he had no near relations) had liked our being there; and the lawyer, who was very kind, had had to tell them several times over that we really had been invited to the funeral. After our legacies were known about they were so cross that we managed to scramble through the window, and wandered round the garden. As we sat under the trees we could hear high words within, and by and by all the men came out and talked in angry groups about the will. For when all was said and done, it appeared that the old miser had not left a penny to any one of the funeral party but Jem and me, and that he had left Walnut-tree Farm to a certain Mrs. Wood, of whom nobody knew anything.

"The wording is so peculiar," the fat man said to the pale-faced man and a third who had come out with them; "'left to her as a sign of sympathy, if not an act of reparation.' He must have known whether he owed her any reparation or not, if he were in his senses."

"Exactly. If he were in his senses," said the third man.

"Where's the money?--that's what I say," said the pale-faced man.

"Exactly, sir. That's what _I say, too," said the fat man.

"There are only two fields, besides the house," said the third. "He must have had money, and the lawyer knows of no investments of any kind, he says."

"Perhaps he has left it to his cat," he added, looking very nastily at Jem and me.

"It's oddly put, too," murmured the pale-faced relation. "The two fields, the house and furniture, and everything of every sort therein contained." And the lawyer coming up at that moment, he went slowly back into the house, looking about him as he went, as if he had lost something.

As the lawyer approached, the fat man got very red in the face.

"He was as mad as a hatter, sir," he said, "and we shall dispute the will."

"I think you will be wrong," said the lawyer, blandly. "He was eccentric, my dear sir, very eccentric; but eccentricity is not insanity, and you will find that the will will stand."

Jem and I were sitting on an old garden-seat, but the men had talked without paying any attention to us. At this moment Jem, who had left me a minute or two before, came running back and said: "Jack! Do come and look in at the parlour window. That man with the white face is peeping everywhere, and under all the newspapers, and he's made himself so dusty! It's such fun!"

Too happy at the prospect of anything in the shape of fun, I followed Jem on tiptoe, and when we stood by the open window with our hands over our mouths to keep us from laughing, the pale-faced man was just struggling with the inside lids of an old japanned tea-caddy.

He did not see us, he was too busy, and he did not hear us, for he was talking to himself, and we heard him say, "Everything of every sort therein contained."

I suppose the lawyer was right, and that the fat man was convinced of it, for neither he nor any one else disputed the old miser's will. Jem and I each opened an account in the Savings Bank, and Mrs. Wood came into possession of the place.

Public opinion went up and down a good deal about the old miser still. When it leaked out that he had worded the invitation to his funeral to the effect that, being quite unable to tolerate the follies of his fellow-creatures, and the antics and absurdities which were necessary to entertain them, he had much pleasure in welcoming his neighbours to a feast, at which he could not reasonably be expected to preside--everybody who heard it agreed that he must have been mad.

But it was a long sentence to remember, and not a very easy one to understand, and those who saw the plumes and the procession, and those who had a talk with the undertaker, and those who got a yard more than usual of such very good black silk, and those who were able to remember what they had had for dinner, were all charitably inclined to believe that the old man's heart had not been far from being in the right place, at whatever angle his head had been set on.

And then by degrees curiosity moved to Mrs. Wood. Who was she? What was she like? What was she to the miser? Would she live at the farm?

To some of these questions the carrier, who was the first to see her, replied. She was "a quiet, genteel-looking sort of a grey-haired widow lady, who looked as if she'd seen a deal of trouble, and was badly off."

The neighbourhood was not unkindly, and many folk were ready to be civil to the widow if she came to live there.

"But she never will," everybody said. "She must let it. Perhaps the new doctor might think of it at a low rent, he'd be glad of the field for his horse. What could she do with an old place like that, and not a penny to keep it up with?"

What she did do was to have a school there, and that was how Walnut-tree Farm became Walnut-tree Academy.

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