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Giles in Luck by Mrs. Francis Blundell

 

Giles Maine sat in the middle of the ward, his hands crossed on his new umbrella, while his fellow-inmates gathered together in knots and stared at him, some curiously, some enviously, some a little regretfully, though all were ready to wish him God-speed when the moment of parting came.

By a strange turn of Fortune's wheel, Giles Maine, the oldest inmate of Branston Union, who had in truth for twenty years known no other home, now found himself, at the age of seventy-eight, a comparatively wealthy man. A distant relative, a relative so distant indeed that Giles had been unaware of his existence, had recently died intestate, and Giles proved to be his next-of-kin.

It had taken him some time to grasp the situation, and to understand that he was now free to live where he would, in a position of comfort, not to say affluence. Everybody had taken him in hand, however; the master had ordered a brand-new suit of clothes for him; the matron had engaged rooms in the village, and had put him under the charge of his future landlady, who was a motherly sort of woman, and could be trusted to look after him; the clergyman had given him much kind advice, and many friendly warnings; and at length the old man found himself ready to depart. He was now, in fact, only waiting to say good-bye to the matron before turning his back for ever on the bare room where he had spent so many monotonous hours.

The prospect ought surely to have elated him, yet his face wore a very blank expression as he sat awaiting the expected summons; his new clothes felt strange and stiff, the high collar of his fine white shirt hurt his neck, his shiny new boots pinched his feet, the knobby handle of his massive umbrella was not so comfortable to grasp as the familiar crook of his battered old stick.

"First turn at the end of the lane, then third house on the right, and ax for Mrs. Tapper," he repeated to himself from time to time. "First turn, and third house--'e-es I can mind it right enough--third house and ax for Mrs. Tapper."

"'Tis a pity," said some one for the fortieth time that day, "'tis a pity, Mr. Maine, as you ain't got no folks o' your own. Ah, 'tis a pity, sure. 'Twould ha' been more cheerful like if you'd ha' been going home."

"'E-es," agreed Giles, also for the fortieth time, "'e-es I d' 'low it would, but I ain't had no folk--there! I can scarce mind when I had any. I never so much as heerd the name o' this 'ere chap what has left me his fortun'. Never heerd his name--never so much as knowed he were born."

"Dear to be sure! It seems strange, don't it? And him to leave ye his money and all. I wonder where ye'll go, Mr. Maine. P'r'aps ye'll go to Lunnon?"

"To Lunnon?" gasped Giles, his jaw dropping. "What should I go to Lunnon for?"

"Oh, I don't know--ye can go where ye like, d'ye see. I reckon I'd go to Lunnon if I was in your shoes."

"Would 'ee?" queried Giles, interested, but still aghast. "Nay now, ye see, I never was one for travellin'--I've never been so far as Darchester, not once all the time I were"--he jerked his thumb over his shoulder--"outside."

"Well, your lodgin' be only took on trial, so to speak, to see how ye do like it," said another man. "Ye can change it so soon as ye please, and move here and there just as ye fancy. A fine life--I'd give summat to be you."

"I never was one for movin' much," said the old man, uneasily. "Nay, movin' weren't in my line. I did use to work for the same master pretty near all my life, till I were took bad wi' the rheumatiz. 'E-es, he were a good master to I. I could be fain to see en again, but he's dead, they tell me, and the family ha' shifted. There bain't nobody out yonder as I ever had acquaintance wi' in the wold times. Nay, all 'ull be new, and a bit strange."

"A pleasant change, I should think," a gruff man was beginning--an unattractive person this, with a week-old beard and a frowning brow, when an old fellow, who had been sitting disconsolately in the corner of the room, suddenly struck in:

"I d' 'low, Giles, ye'll be like to miss we when ye're all among strangers, I d' 'low ye will. 'E-es, ye'll be like to miss we just so much as us'll miss you."

Giles rolled his eyes towards him with a startled expression, but said nothing for a moment or two; then he remarked, in a somewhat dolorous tone:

"I d' 'low I'll miss you, Jim; you and me has sat side by side this fifteen year--'tis fifteen year, bain't it, since ye come?"

"Ah! fifteen year," agreed Jim. "I'll be the woldest inmate in th' Union when you do leave."

"'E-es, Jim, thee 'ull be gettin' all the buns and all the baccy now," cried one of the others, laughing. "He'll have to stand up and say 'Good marnin'' to the gentry when they comes round, and tell his age, and how long he've a-been here, and all. I d' 'low he'll do it just so well as you."

Giles gazed at the speaker frowningly; he did not seem to like the idea, but if he meditated a retort he was prevented from uttering it by the advent of a messenger from the matron, which was the signal for his own departure. He stood up, and went shuffling from one to the other of his former cronies, shaking hands with them all, but without speaking. He gripped Jim's hand the hardest, and pumped it up and down for so long a time that the messenger grew impatient; and then he went stumbling along the passage, and down the stone stairs to the door, where the master and matron both stood awaiting him. He received the money which had been placed in the master's hands for his actual needs, and scraped his rickety old foot, and pulled his forelock, after a forgotten fashion, as he listened to their kindly words. Then they, too, shook hands with him, and accompanied him to the gate, looking after the feeble old figure until it disappeared.

"I do hope Mrs. Tapper will look after him," said the matron. "He's no more fit to take care of himself than a baby."

Giles tottered on down the hill, his eyes roaming vaguely over the landscape, which was looking its fairest on this mellow June afternoon. Yonder rolled the downs, all golden green in the light of the sinking sun, nearer at hand lay the meadows, very sheets of buttercup gold; every leaf and twig of the hedgerow was a-glitter, too--all Nature, it seemed, had arrayed itself in splendour to correspond with the old pauper's sudden access of wealth. Not that any such fancy crossed his dazed mind. As he shuffled along he thought of how he had walked this way last year, with Jim at his side, on one of their rare outings. They had, in fact, been on their way to the parsonage, and Jim, who had been a farm labourer in a previous state of existence, had called his attention to the "for'ardness" of the potatoes which were growing where the hay grew now.

Giles paused mechanically, and gazed at the billowing grass; and then he went on a little, and stopped again at the next gap in the hedge, where Jim had pointed out the splendid view of Branston.

"I could wish," he muttered, as he turned away, "we was goin' to tea at the rectory now."

Farther down the road was a bench where it was the old paupers' custom to sit awhile on their return journey, before beginning the steep ascent of the hill; Giles sat stiffly down now, and once more stared about him. By-and-by the town clock struck seven and he instinctively rose to his feet, and began hurriedly to retrace his steps, but pulled himself up of a sudden.

"Seven o'clock! It 'ud seem more nat'ral to be goin' up-along. I was nigh forgettin' I be comed away! Mrs. Tapper 'ull think I bain't a-comin' if I don't hurry up."

This time he made up his mind to continue his journey without further interruptions, and very soon arrived at the end of the lane, and even at the third house on the right, where he was duly received by Mrs. Tapper. She was most civil, not to say respectful; called him "Sir" and "Mr. Maine," hustled her children out of his way, installed him in the elbow-chair in the corner, and waited upon him at tea-time as though he had been a gentleman born.

At first Giles rather enjoyed it, but presently the feeling of loneliness and strangeness, against which he had been struggling all day, returned with redoubled force; and when he was finally ushered into his clean tidy little room, and Mrs. Tapper, after calling his attention to the various preparations she had made for his comfort, left him to himself, he sat down on the side of the bed and groaned aloud.

[Illustration: GILES IN LUCK "Waited upon him at tea time as though he had been a gentleman born"]

They would just be about "turnin' in" at the Union, and Jim, laying himself down on the pallet next to his, would be making the time-honoured joke about the absence of spring-mattresses and feather-beds, with which he was usually wont to regale the other inmates at this hour. As Giles turned down the spotless lavender-scented sheets he thought longingly of the workhouse twill.

A week later Giles was permitted to visit his former friends, laden with such a store of buns and baccy as would have ensured his welcome, even had not most of his cronies been genuinely glad to see him.

"Dear heart alive!" cried Jim, receiving his modicum of twist with a delighted chuckle, "these be new times, these be. Who'd ever ha' thought o' Giles Maine walkin' in like a lard wi' presents for us all?"

But Giles was looking round with a foolish wavering sort of smile.

"It'd seem real homely in here," he remarked. "Ah! it do fur sure. There be the papers as us'al, I see--I do miss papers awful out yonder."

"Why, to be sure," cried one of the younger men, "you can buy 'em for yourself now. I'm blowed if I wouldn't have all the papers as comes out if I was you."

"I did go to a shop onest," said the old man, "and I did ax, but they didn't seem able to gi' me the right 'uns. 'I want pictur's o' the snow and folks huntin' and that,' says I. 'Not this time o' year,' says the young lady; 'them's in Christmas numbers.' 'That's what I've bin used to,' says I. 'Well, we can order 'em for you,' says she, but I couldn't mind the names. I knowed one did begin 'G--r--a--p--' so I did ax if they had one about 'Grape--summat,' and they did give I the Gardener--ah, that was what they did call it; but there weren't no pictur's in it at all, only flowers and mowing machines, and sich-like."

"Why, ye mean the Graphic" cried some one with a laugh; "no wonder the maid couldn't make out what you was a-drivin' at."

But Giles did not heed him; he was gazing hungrily at the greasy pack of cards which lay on the deal table.

"It d' seem a martal sight of time since I've had a game," he exclaimed. "Light up, Jim; you and me 'ull jist have time for one afore tea."

When the bell rang for this last-named meal Giles rose with the rest, and was preparing to walk with them down the well-known stairs, when he was astonished by receiving an invitation to tea with no less a person than the matron herself.

He smoothed his hair with the palms of his hands, pulled up his shirt-collar, and followed the messenger with an odd mixture of pride and reluctance. It was no doubt highly gratifying to be thus honoured before all his former mates, but he was conscious of a secret yearning to sit down once more in the old place, and munch his allotted portion of bread and cheese with a friend at either elbow.

The matron received him cordially.

"Come in, Mr. Maine, and sit down; I am glad to have an opportunity of chatting with you. It would never do for you to have tea with the others now, you know."

"No, to be sure," agreed Giles blankly.

"Well, and how are you, Mr. Maine? Most comfortable and happy, Mrs. Tapper tells me."

"'E-es, mum," returned Giles mournfully.

"Sugar and milk, Mr. Maine?"

"Thankee, mum, I likes it best pure naked. I'd be thankful to 'ee, mum, if ye wouldn't call me Mr. Maine; it don't seem naitral like."

"Perhaps not," agreed the matron, with a kindly laugh. "Well, Giles--I'll say Giles, then--Giles, do you know that you are quite a remarkable person? They have been writing about you in the papers. 'A lucky pauper,' they call you."

"Have they now, mum?" returned Maine, staring at her over the rim of his cup.

"Yes, indeed, and people have been writing to me to know the particulars. 'Tis not often, you see, such a stroke of good fortune befalls an inmate of the Union."

"I s'pose not," he agreed, between two gulps of tea.

The matron continued to speak in this congratulatory vein while the old man ate and drank; but though he occasionally muttered a word or two which would seem to endorse her statements, his countenance was far from wearing the joyful self-satisfied expression which she had anticipated.

All at once he pushed away plate and cup.

"Mum," he said, "if I mid make so bold I'd like to say summat. I've been a-thinkin'--couldn't I come back here?"

"Here!" echoed she in astonishment. "Here! to the workhouse?"

Giles nodded.

"Why, are you not happy at Mrs. Tapper's?"

"'E--es, oh, 'e--es, I haven't got no fault to find wi' she nor naught; but I--I'd like the Union best."

"Well, but you see, my dear Giles, the Union is meant for people who cannot live anywhere else. You have got plenty of money now, and--"

"I'd be willin' to pay," said Giles.

"Good gracious!" exclaimed the matron.

The old man looked at her stolidly, but made no further remark.

"I'm sure I don't know what to say," she went on, after a pause. "I don't suppose such a thing has ever been heard of--I'm sure the guardians would never allow it."

"I'd pay handsome," said Giles. "You ax 'em, mum."

"Well, I will if you like; but don't you think you are very foolish? There you are, a man of property, who can hold up your head with the best, and pay your way, and you want to come back here among a lot of miserable paupers."

"I've a-been twenty year here," observed Giles, making the statement in a dispassionate tone. "I know 'em all here, and I'm used to the ways. I couldn't never get used to no other ways, and no other folks. I'd sooner bide, mum, if ye'd ax 'em to let me. I'd not give no trouble--no more n' I ever did, an' I'd pay for my keep."

"Well, well," said the matron, staring at him in puzzled amazement.

"Can I go up to 'em again for a bit?" queried the old man. "Me and Jim was in the middle of a game."

"Oh, yes, you can go up to them."

He rose, scraped his leg and pulled his forelock as usual, and backed out of the room, leaving his fine new hat on the ground beside his chair.

Coming upon it presently, the matron decided to return it herself to the owner; perhaps she was a little curious to see how he comported himself among his mates.

She opened the door of the old men's ward so quietly that no one noticed her entrance; the room was full of tobacco smoke, and the inmates were sitting or standing about as usual. Giles sat in his old corner, with Jim opposite to him; both had removed their coats, and the grizzled heads were bent together over the battered cards.

"You be in luck, Jim," Giles exclaimed as the matron closed the door. "You've turned up a Jack!"