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The Girl He Left Behind Him by Mrs. Francis Blundell

 

On one particular Sunday in August, a brilliant sunny, breezeless day, such a day as would under ordinary circumstances conduce to certain drowsiness even in the most piously disposed, the church-goers of Little Branston were preternaturally alert, if not quite so attentive as usual. For behold! Corporal Richard Baverstock, Widow Baverstock's only son, and the father of Matilda Ann, the three-year-old darling of the village, had returned from the wars with a very brown face, a medal, two or three honourable scars, and, it was whispered, a pocketful of "dibs."

Every one knew about Corporal Dick, the sharp boy who had been the general pet and plaything in early years, much as his own "Tilly Ann" was now; the dashing soldier, whose occasional visits to his native place in all the glories of uniform had caused on each occasion a flutter of excitement which had endured long after his own departure; the hero of romance, whose sudden appearance with a beautiful bride, wedded secretly somewhere up the country, had made more than one pretty maid's heart grow sore within her, and caused many wiseacres to shake their heads; the disconsolate young widower whose year-old wife had been laid to rest in the churchyard yonder, immediately after the birth of their child; the boy-father, bending half wonderingly over the blue-eyed baby on his mother's knee; the warrior, wounded "out abroad," whose letters had been passed from hand to hand in the little place, and conned over and admired and marvelled at till old Mrs. Baverstock, when each mail came to hand, found herself raised to a pinnacle of honour to which otherwise she would never have dared to aspire--he had come home now for a brief blissful fortnight before rejoining his regiment at the depot. Not one of the congregation there present but had heard of his return on the previous day, and of how he had almost knocked over the old mother in the vehemence of his greeting, and how he had caught up Tilly Ann and hugged her, and some said cried over her; and how he had almost within the hour walked up to the little cemetery and knelt by his wife's grave, which, the neighbours opined, "howed a wonderful deal o' feelin' in the man as 'twas a'most to be expected he'd ha chose a second by now."

"But they d' say, my dear, as the women out abroad be a terrible ugly lot, and most of 'em black. Tisn't likely as Corporal Baverstock 'ud so much as look at any o' they, arter pickin' sich a vitty maid for his first missis."

It was Mrs. Cousins who made this remark to Mrs. Adlam, as they paced together along the flagged path that led to the church porch; and it is not surprising that both ladies felt constrained to turn their heads when the martial tread of Soldier Dick resounded up the church a few moments later.

Jenny Meatyard nudged Maggie Fripp.

"Do 'ee see his medal?" she inquired in a whisper.

Maggie nodded. "That there korky uniform do suit en wonderful well."

Two village mothers exchanged glances of tender approbation, for, clinging to Corporal Baverstock's hand, and taking preposterously long steps in the endeavour to keep pace with his strides, was Tilly Ann, in her best starched white frock, and with her yellow hair curled in a greater profusion of corkscrew ringlets than her granny had ever yet achieved.

"Bain't it a pictur'?" one pair of motherly eyes seemed to say to the other, and I think many of the good simple folk performed their devotions all the better because of the consciousness of the two happy hearts, the man's and the little child's, beating in their midst.

The service once over, friends and neighbours gathered round the young soldier outside the church door. Those nearest spoke to him; those less fortunate, on the outskirts of the little crowd, contented themselves with admiring comments.

"He d' seem to have filled out, though he have been punished so terrible out yonder."

"My dear, they did tell I as his poor leg was all one solid wownd. D'ye mind how Mrs. Baverstock did take on, pore 'ooman. And well she mid."

"Well she mid, indeed. Ah! 'tis a comfort to see as Corporal Baverstock d' seem able to walk so well as ever. I see Mrs. Baverstock didn't come to church--'tis a wonder."

"Nay, no wonder at all. It bain't likely as the poor body could leave her Sunday dinner the very first day her son be a-comed home. She's busy, that's what she be."

"Ah! to be sure. There, Lard now, look at Tilly Ann! He've a-got her up in his arms. Dear, to be sure, 'tis a beautiful sight, they two faces side by side. The maid doesn't favour her daddy a bit--nay, 'tis the very pictur' o' the pore wife."

"'E-es; she had that yellow hair, and them great big blue eyes. There, I've a-got a china cup at home what be jist the same colour. 'Tisn't nat'ral for a maid to have eyes that blue. I wouldn't mention it to Mrs. Baverstock, nor yet to Dick, but I shouldn't wonder at all if Tilly Ann was to follow her mother afore very long, pore little maid."

"Ah! they do say as when a young mother be took like that, as often as not she'll keep on a-callin' and a-callin', till the pore little thing she've a-left behind fair withers away."

While this cheerful line of prognostication was being followed up beyond her ken, Tilly Ann sat bolt upright in her father's arms, looking round her with a proprietary air, and occasionally patting his cheek with a broad dimpled little palm. She was a tall, well-made child, plump and fair, with rosy cheeks and sturdy limbs that would in themselves have given the lie to any dismal croakings; it was no wonder that "daddy's" eyes perpetually rested on her with a glow of pride.

"And she were quite a little 'un when ye did last see her, weren't she, Corporal?" said some one. (In Branston the good folk were punctilious with regard to titles.) "Ye'd scarce ha' knowed her I d' 'low if ye'd met her on the road."

"Know her," said Corporal Baverstock, "I'd know her among a thousand! 'Tis what I did write to my mother. Says I, 'I'd pick her out anywheres, if 'twas only by the dimple in her chin.'"

The bystanders nodded at each other; they remembered that particular letter well, and had much appreciated the phrase in question.

"To be sure, Corporal, so ye did, so ye did. And the maid have a dimple sure enough. There, 'tis plain for all folks to see."

Tilly Ann turned up her little face, and her father kissed the cleft chin with sudden passion. Then he tossed her up in his arms and laughed.

"Many a time I've a-thought o' that dimple," he observed, in rather an unsteady voice, "and wondered if I'd ever set eyes on it again."

"And look at her curls," said a woman admiringly. "They be a-sheenin' like gold to-day. She thinks a deal o' they curls, don't 'ee, Tilly? If anybody axed her for one she'd al'ays say she was a-savin' on 'em up for daddy--didn't 'ee, Tilly?"

Tilly Ann, overcome with coyness, buried her face in her father's shoulder, and giggled, wriggling her little fat body the while, and drumming on his side with her lace-up boots.

"Hold hard there!" cried he. "Them boots of yourn be so bad as a pom-pom. Come, we must be lookin' up the wold lady. Say Ta-ta, and we'll be off."

One blue eye peeped out shyly from beneath the forest of curls, one little sunburnt hand was waved comprehensively; a smothered voice uttered the necessary "Ta-ta," with an accompaniment of chuckles and wriggles, and the soldier, clasping his burden more tightly, and nodding laughingly right and left made his way towards home.

No one, looking at Mrs. Baverstock as she stood at her doorway in her neat black stuff gown, the sleeves of which were decently drawn down to her very wrists, would have guessed at the magnitude of the culinary labours in which she had been employed. The beef was now done to a turn, the "spuds" boiled to a nicety; she had made pastry of the most solid description, which was even now simmering in the oven--I use the word "simmering" advisedly, for in the generosity of her heart she had not spared the dripping. The tea was brewed, hot and strong, the teapot, singed by long use, standing on the hob. There was a crusty loaf, a pat of butter indented in the middle with one of Dick's regimental buttons, and a plate of cakes, hard as the nether--millstone and very crumbly, having been purchased from the distant town at the beginning of the week in expectation of this auspicious day.

"Well, mother, this be a spread!" cried the soldier, good-humouredly, as he set the child upon her legs. "I haven't sat down to such a meal as this since I left old England. 'Tis fit for a king."

Mrs. Baverstock rubbed her bony hands together; and laughed deprecatingly. She was a little woman, with very bright, beady black eyes, and hair that was still coal-black in spite of her wrinkled face. Her son was like her, but taller and better looking. One had but to glance at the child to realise that she must be the image of her mother.

"Nay, now," said the widow; "I do do my best for 'ee, Dick, but I d' 'low it bain't so very grand. I'd like to do 'ee honour. There bain't nothin' too good for 'ee to my mind, if I could give it 'ee."

"I tell 'ee, mother, some of the poor chaps out yonder 'ud give summat to sit down to this 'ere dinner. Bully beef wi' a pound or two o' raw flour, what you haven't got nothin' to cook wi'--it do make a man feel a bit sick, I can tell 'ee, when it do come day arter day."

"Dear heart alive," groaned his mother, "a body 'ud think they mid manage a bit better! Lard, to think on't! Tis all along o' the poor dear Queen bein' dead, ye mid be sure! There needs to be a woman at the head o' things! I reckon the Government be all made up o' men folks now, and men never has any notion o' doin' for theirselves. There, I did use to say to father many a time, 'If I was to leave 'ee to yourself I d' 'low ye'd go eatin' any kind o' rubbish.' There wants to be a sensible woman or two i' th' Government--no woman 'ud ever think o' sendin' out the poor chaps' bit o' food raw. There bain't a hedger or ditcher but has his bit o' dinner put ready for en, and I reckon soldiers have got stummicks much same as other folks."

Dick had only half attended to this speech; he had been standing by the door intently gazing up the village street, and shading his eyes with his hand.

"Why, I'm blowed!" he exclaimed. "Here's a mate o' mine ridin' this way! Yes, so it be. I thought he was goin' a-coortin'. Hullo, Billy!"

A bicycle wheeled round abruptly, and the rider alighted at the cottage door. A big young man, with the bronzed face which would have announced his recent return from the front, even had not his khaki uniform proclaimed the fact.

"I thought I'd look 'ee up," he explained, shaking hands with his friend with a somewhat sheepish air. "You and me bein' mates, d'ye see, and me feelin' a bit dull over yonder."

"Why, what's become o' she?" interrupted Dick, with a grin.

"Don't talk about her! She be just like the rest--'Out o' sight out o' mind'--took up wi' a civilian soon as my back were turned. I reckoned I'd come and have a look at your maid."

"Yes, to be sure!" cried Dick jovially. "My sweetheart han't a-took up wi' anybody else--she've a-been faithful and true."

"What's that?" inquired Mrs. Baverstock, coming forward, her little black eyes looking ready to start from her head.

"Tis a kind of a little joke what me and Billy have a-got between us about my sweetheart. There, he can tell 'ee the tale while we're eatin'. This 'ere be my mother, Billy. This be Mr. Billy Caines--a Darset man same as myself. Him and me was reg'lar pals out there, wasn't we, Bill?"

"I d' 'low we was," responded Private Caines, after ceremoniously pumping Mrs. Baverstock's hand up and down. "We did fight side by side, and we was wounded side by side, and we was a-layin' side by side for weeks in the field hospital, wasn't us, Dick?"

"I reckon we had a bit too much o' that there hospital," responded the Corporal, drawing forward a chair for his friend. "'Twas there we did have so much talk about my sweetheart. Ha, ha, ye didn't know as I'd a-got a sweetheart, did ye, old lady?" he inquired of his mother. "Billy 'ull tell 'ee about that," and he winked surreptitiously at his friend.

Mrs. Baverstock was evidently in a flutter. What between this sudden arrival of six feet of khaki-clad humanity and the innuendoes which had been recently thrown out, touching a subject on which she felt strongly (the possibility of Dick's marrying again), she actually set the pastry on the table in the place of the beef, and helped the two soldiers to a cake each instead of a piece of bread.

"Why, you be wool-gathering, that you be. You've a-got everything in a reg'lar caddie!" cried her son, as she paused to clack her tongue remorsefully over her mistakes. "Business first and pleasure arterwards. Up wi' the beef! Now then, Billy, fall to! A bit better tasted nor bully, bain't it?"

Billy groaned appreciatively, with his mouth full, and silence ensued, during which Mrs. Baverstock cut up Tilly Ann's dinner, and presented her with a spoon.

Tilly Ann's eyes had been fixed unwinkingly upon the new comer since his arrival, and she had now apparently classified him, for, after successfully piloting one or two spoonfuls of beef and potato to her little red mouth, she paused, drummed on the table with the handle of her spoon, and remarked conclusively:

"Another daddy!"

"Dear, to be sure! Hark to the child," said granny, while the two men laughed uproariously.

"The little maid's sharp, I can tell 'ee," announced Dick; "she do know the difference between soldier and civilian a'ready. Never see'd no soldier but I afore, and now, when another do come, says she to herself, 'This must be another daddy.' Ho! ho!"

"She've a-got more sense nor many a wolder maid," returned Private Caines gloomily; "she do know what's what--I d' 'low she wouldn't ha' gone a-takin' up wi' a (qualified) civilian when you weren't to the fore. She be a bonny little maid, too," he added reflectively, eyeing the chubby pink and white face. "Yes, you've a-got good taste, as you did tell I out yonder."

"Come, don't 'ee spoil the tale," cried the Corporal, laughing; "begin at the right end. My mother here do want to hear about my sweetheart."

"I don't want to hear no sich thing," retorted the old woman, querulously, but anxiously, too. "I do know 'ee better nor to think you'd have any sich nonsensical notions; you as be a widow man, and have a-buried sich a lovin' wife, what have a-left 'ee the darlingest little maid to keep. Us do want no step-mothers; us do want all the love, the wold mother and the little maid."

Dick's face twitched, and his eyes clouded, but before he could answer, Private Billy Caines, who was not endowed with remarkably acute perceptions, began his narrative in a loud and merry voice.

"Him and me was knocked over the same day--I shouldn't wonder but what it was the same shell. I couldn't tell 'ee for sure about that, for I were hit all to flinders, and for a bit they thought I was done for. But when I did get a bit better, and did begin to look about, I'm danged if the first thing I did see weren't poor old Dick's long white face, lyin' there so solemn, wi' his girt hollow black eyes, a-starin' and a-starin' straight i' front of en. I did use to watch en, and he did always look the same--sorrowful and anxious, and one day I did call out to en, soft like, 'What be thinkin' on, man? The us'al thing, I s'pose?' He did scraggle his head a bit round on the pillow and squint back at me. 'What mid that be?' says he. 'Why,' says I, 'the girl I left behind me!' 'Be that what you be a-thinkin' on?' says he. 'O' course,' says I; 'what else?' 'What else, indeed?' says he, and he did sigh same as if he had a bellows inside of en."

"Did he actually say he was a-thinkin' about soom maid?" interrupted Mrs. Baverstock wrathfully.

"Bide a bit," retorted Private Caines, wagging his head portentously; "I be a-tellin' the tale so quick as I can. Well, I did get tired o' watchin' en layin' there, starin' and sighin', so I did begin to tell en about somebody I did think a deal on then, but have a-changed my mind about now; and he did listen and laugh a bit, but I could see he were a-thinkin' about his own sweetheart all the time. So says I at last, 'I d' 'low she be a vitty maid?' 'Who?' says he, scraggling round again. 'The girl ye left behind ye,' says I. 'Ah, to be sure,' says he. 'Yes, she be a reg'lar pictur.' 'Well, you mid tell us a bit about her,' says I; 'I've a-told 'ee all about my maid. Blue eyes, I s'pose?' Seein' as his own be so black as sloes, I reckoned 'twould come naitral to en to take up wi' a fair maid. 'Yes,' says he, 'so blue as the sky at home on a June day!' I made a good shot, I told en. 'A good bit o' colour, I d' 'low!' (Him bein' a sallow man, d'ye see.) 'A pair o' cheeks like roses,' he says; 'and a little neck as white--as the snow--nay, that's too cold--'tis more like the white of a white flower, bless her!'"

Mrs. Baverstock threw herself back in her chair and snorted.

"This here be a pretty kind o' story to tell your mother the very first day as you do come home," she said, in trembling tones. "And the poor, innocent child a-sittin' there a-listenin' to every word."

"Nay, now, ma'am, you must hear me to the end," cried Caines, bursting into a guffaw; while Dick, looking somewhat conscience-stricken, patted his mother's hand and besought her in a loud whisper not to take on.

"Lard bless 'ee, that weren't all!" exclaimed Billy. "You should ha' heerd the chap a-ravin' about her little hands, and her darlin' little feet, and I don't know what all. 'And what colour mid her hair be?' I axed him arter a bit, when he'd a-told me everythink else he could call to mind. 'I s'pose her hair be fair?' 'I s'pose so,' says he, lookin' a bit queer. 'Why, don't ye know?' says I. 'D'ye mean to say ye've forgot the colour?' 'Why,' says he, 'to tell 'ee the truth, mate, she hadn't much hair o' any kind when last I did see her.' 'Bless us!' says I. 'What be talkin' on? Ye haven't been and took up wi' a bald wold maid?' 'She bain't so very old,' says he, and he did pull blanket up o'er his mouth so as I shouldn't see en laughin'!"

Here the hero of the tale startled his mother by suddenly exploding, and she turned upon him indignantly.

"I do really think as we've a-had enough o' this here nonsense. I can't make head or tail on't. You and your friend do seem to be a-keepin' up a regular charm, and I can't make out no sense in it."

"I be very nigh done now, missis," cried Caines jubilantly; "there be but a little bit more. I did sit and stare at en when he did say his sweetheart hadn't no hair, and at last I did ax en the question straight out, 'How old mid she be when you did last see her?' 'About two months,' says he. Ho, ho, ho! 'About two months!' Yes, I've a-been away from England a good bit, an' when I left her she hadn't a hair on her head, nor yet a tooth in her mouth.' And the two of us did laugh and laugh till we did very nigh bust our bandages."

"'Twas the little maid I did mean," explained Dick, as his mother still stared gapingly from one to the other. "'Twas my little maid as I was a-thinkin' on when I did lie on that there wold stretcher what I did think I should never leave again. I did think o' she and wonder what 'ud become o' she if doctor couldn't make a job o' me. Come here, Tilly. You be daddy's little sweetheart, bain't ye?"

The child ran to him, and climbed upon his knee, and he passed his hand proudly through her mass of yellow curls.

"See here, mate; plenty o' hair here now."

He gathered up the thick locks half absently, twisting them clumsily into a kind of knot, and, throwing back his head, surveyed her pensively for a moment; then he kissed her just at the nape of the neck, and let the curls drop again with a sigh.

Mrs. Baverstock's beady eyes became momentarily dim; she did not possess by nature a very large amount of intuition, but love is a wonderful sharpener of wits.

"Dear, yes," she said. "She be the very pictur' of her mother." Then, suddenly bursting out laughing and clapping her hands together, "So that were the girl ye left behind ye!"

[Illustration: THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND HIM 'So that were the girl ye left behind ye']