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The Romance of Brother John by Mrs. Francis Blundell

 

Mrs. Cross was gardening; it was an occupation in which she took great pleasure, not merely on account of her affection for the little plot of ground which she miraculously contrived to render bright at all seasons, but because it afforded her ample opportunities for supervising her neighbours' affairs. While she watered her stocks, or tied up her carnations, she was enabled to throw an occasional keen glance in at the open doorway on either side of her; she knew precisely what Mrs. Barnes had for dinner, and how large was Mrs. Frizzel's wash. Squatting back on her heels in the intervals of her labours, and negligently scratching her elbows or retwisting her untidy coil of hair, she would even hearken discreetly to such scraps of conversation as enlivened meal or toil. She knew all about Mrs. Frizzel's last letter from her daughter Susan, and could give the precise details of young Barnes' encounter with the stalwart yeoman who had supplanted him in the affections of his sweetheart. She would also hail from over the hedge the driver of any passing tradesman's cart, and was thus enabled to possess herself of the latest news from "town" a mile away. By craning her neck a little to the right she could catch a glimpse of the walls and roofs of this centre of activity, and by extending it in the other direction she had a peep of the high road, where sometimes as many as a dozen vehicles passed of an afternoon.

Her eyes were strained towards this favourite point of view on one particularly sultry August evening; her own hedge, even, was sprinkled with dust, while the double row which guarded the glaring stretch yonder was absolutely white.

Mrs. Cross's little garden was, however, a pleasant spot, even on this glowing, breathless afternoon. She had been watering her borders, and a delicious smell of damp earth mingled with the fragrance of the old-fashioned flowers beneath the mellow old walls of her cottage. A fine array of sweet-williams and larkspurs and hollyhocks stood in a row before them; jessamine and honeysuckle clung to the old brick and festooned themselves over the rickety porch. Between the green tendrils one got a glimpse of the picture within--the dresser with its wealth of shining crockery, the log-fire leaping merrily on the hearth, a little brown teapot winking in the glow, the table spread with a clean white cloth and set out for two. It made a pretty picture, yet, as has been said, Mrs. Cross perpetually turned her eyes towards the patch of high road which climbed painfully up between the dusty hedges. At last she was constrained to rise from her knees and take her stand by her little gate, where, with knitted brows and pursed-up lips, she remained on the watch, until at last her patience was rewarded by the sight of a woman's figure, clad in deep black, suddenly rounding the corner. She immediately smoothed her brow and composed her features to a becoming melancholy. Mrs. Cross was ever as ready to sympathise with her neighbours' misfortunes to their faces as she was to declare behind their backs that they were well-deserved. To-day, however, her countenance wore an expression of tempered woe, and her voice was only moderately dolorous, for the trouble which she was about to lament was a vicarious one.

"I've a-been on the look-out for you ever since tea-time, Mrs. Domeny, my dear. Thinks I constant, 'I wonder how Mrs. Domeny be a-gettin' on, and I wonder how the poor widow-man be a-bearin' up.' Come in an' sit ye down, do; ye must be mortal hot and tired, walkin' so far in your deep."

Mrs. Domeny, a chubby, buxom little woman, who found it hard to eliminate from her rosy face all trace of a cheerfulness which, however habitual, would have been unbecoming on the occasion of a sister-in-law's funeral, checked the smile with which she had been about to respond to her friend's invitation, and heaved a sigh instead.

"Well, jist for a minute, Mrs. Cross. There, to tell 'ee the truth, I'm fair wore out, what with a body's feelin's and a-walkin' so far i' the sun, and the dust a-gettin' down one's throat wi' every sob, so to speak. 'Ees, my dear, I'm terrible dry, an' I would like a cup o' tea, jist about! They hadn't nothin' but ham," she added, "yonder at Brother John's. 'Twas a bit salt. I always told poor Sarah as I did think she salted her hams too much; but, there! she be gone, poor soul, and it wouldn't become me to speak ill of her ham now."

"Ah, my dear," groaned Mrs. Cross, pouring out a cupful of the inky-looking fluid that had been stewing on the hob for the last hour and a-half. "Ah, my dear, all flesh is grass, as we do know. She was a dried-up-looking poor body, your sister-in-law; I al'ays did say so, ye mid remember. An' how did ye leave poor John?"

"He was in floods," responded Mrs. Domeny, her eyes filling with sympathetic tears. "In floods, I do assure 'ee. I did feel for en, I can tell 'ee. 'Twas through me as they did first get to know each other. 'Twas a very romantic marriage theirs was, Mrs. Cross; a real romance me an' Robert al'ays did call it."

"Ah!" commented her neighbour, half sympathetically, half interrogatively. She kicked the logs together with her flat shoe, drew a chair close to her visitor's, filled her own cup, and sat down with an expectant expression.

"'Ees, my dear, quite a romance, as you'll say when I've a-told 'ee. When my sister Susannah was laid up wi' her ninth, which was a twin, my dear, an' her husband out of work, and the other eight scarce able to do a hand's turn for themselves, she wrote to me an' axed me to come an' look after things a bit till she got about again. Well, I couldn't say no, ye can understand, so Robert got Janie Domeny, brother Tom's oldest girl, to come of a marnin' to see to en, an' I did go to poor Susannah. Well, 'twas at Susannah's, if you'll believe me," said Mrs. Domeny, with a solemnity which would have befitted the announcement of an event of national importance, "as I first came across poor Sarah."

"Well!" ejaculated Mrs. Cross, pausing with a large bite of bread and butter distending her cheek, and uplifting her hands. "Well, to think of it!"

"'Ees, as I often did say," resumed Mrs. Domeny, "it did seem from the very beginnin' as though 'twas meant to be. She was a-livin' next door to Susannah--hadn't long come, d'ye see, and didn't know any of the neighbours to speak on. But she an' me took to each other fro' the beginnin'. She were a staid women then, an' not over an' above well-lookin'--nay, I can't say as she was. But she was dressed very fayshionable an' nice, an' she was very pleasant to speak to, an' as for me, you know I'm of a very affectionate disposition; 'tis my natur' to cling, d'ye see. 'Ees, as I often do say to my 'usband, I am as clingin' as--as a worm. So, as I tell ye, we did take to each other fro' the first. Well, when Susannah was a-gettin' about, after the ninth day, ye know, I went home along, and Sarah did say to I, 'I'll come and see you, Mrs. Domeny, if I mid make so bold,' she says in her lady-like way.

"'To be sure, Mrs. Maidment,' says I--"

"Oh, she was a widow then?" interrupted Mrs. Cross. "There now, what notions folks do get in their heads. I al'ays made sure and certain as your sister-in-law was a single woman afore she was your sister-in-law."

"No, my dear," said Mrs. Domeny impressively. "She was a widow, Mrs. Cross, that's what she was. She'd a-buried her first poor husband--an' a very fine man he was by all accounts--nigh upon six year afore ever she took up wi' brother John."

"Indeed!" ejaculated Mrs. Cross, in a tone which signified that the fact redounded greatly to the credit of the late Mrs. John Domeny.

"'Ees, indeed," repeated the narrator triumphantly. "But where was I? 'To be sure, Mrs. Maidment,' says I, 'I'll be main glad to see you whenever ye can anyway make it convenient to come.' Well, one Sunday she did drap in just as my husband and myself was a-sitting down to our tea. So of course I did make her so welcome as I could, and did get out the best cups an' heat up a bit o' toast, and we was all as comfortable an' friendly as could be. But I noticed, Mrs. Cross, as how Mrs. Maidment's eyes was a-fixed constant on my husband; there, I couldn't choose but notice it, it seemed as if she had to look at him, d'ye understand. I thought at first maybe he had a spot on his face or some sich thing, but, no, it weren't that; and she did speak to en so respectful, and hearken so interested-like when he did say a word, which warn't often, ye mid be sure, for Robert bain't no talker."

"Dear to be sure, how strange," put in Mrs. Cross, again pausing in the act of mastication, and preparing to listen to further details with heightened interest.

"Strange!" echoed the other. "Wait till ye hear the rest, then ye'll think it strange. By-and-by Robert pushed away his cup, 'I think I'll step out for a bit of a pipe, Mary,' says he to I. 'I wish ye good day, ma'am,' says he, noddin' his head at Mrs. Maidment. The door had no sooner shut behind en," she continued, leaning forward and speaking slowly and with great unction, "than Sarah she looks me full in the face, and says she, 'Mrs. Domeny,' she says, 'I do admire your husband. I think,' she says, 'he be a beautiful man.'"

"T'ch, t'ch, t'ch," commented the listener, clicking her tongue, for her astonishment at the sudden development was too great to find vent in mere words.

"'I do admire your husband,'" repeated Mrs. Domeny impressively. "That was what she said, 'he be a beautiful man.' 'Well,' said I, 'I'll not say nay to that, Mrs. Maidment. Him an' me have been married now goin' on fifteen year, an' all I can say about en is as if I were free to choose again, I'd choose the same.'

"'Ah,' says she, giving a kind of sigh, this way, ye know" (here Mrs. Domeny sighed noisily). "'Ah, I knowed he was good by the very looks of him. I am sure,' says she, 'he must come of a very respectable family.' So of course I did tell her as the Domenys was well known and respected in all the country round, and was real good old Darset stock. 'There never was a Domeny yet,' says I, 'as wasn't a credit to the country.' 'Ah,' says she, sighin' again, 'and I d' 'low, ma'am, they do make very good husbands.'

"'Ye mid be sure they do,' says I; 'I can speak up for my own man, and I think Mrs. Tom and Mrs. Ned can do the same for theirs.'

"'Be they all married?' axes she, very quick.

"Well, I looked at her--it did seem a particular kind of question, so to speak, an' she took a fit of coughin'" (here Mrs. Domeny simulated a genteel and hesitating attack of the infirmity in question), "an' at last, says she, very earnest, 'Bain't there one of them at all as hasn't got a wife?'

"'There is Brother John,' says I; 'his missus died two years ago, come Michaelmas. He's a very quiet man,' says I, 'very quiet.'

"'Has he got a nice place?' says she.

"'Dear, to be sure,' says I, 'Brother John be very comfortable. He's got a good-sized house wi' a big garden, an' he do bring up a sight o' pigs an' chicken.'

"'That 'ud do me very well,' says Sarah. 'I've got a bank-book what is worth lookin' at!' And then she stood up. 'I should like to meet your brother John,' she did say; 'perhaps ye'll think it over, Mrs. Domeny?'

"'Oh, 'e--es, I'll do that,' said I. She did bid me good-bye then, an' so soon as ever she was gone I called Robert in and telled en the whole tale."

"I d' 'low he were pleased," put in Mrs. Cross, "about her admirin' of en, ye know."

"Well, he be a very modest man, Robert be; he didn't take much notice. 'Fancy that!' says he, when I did tell en."

"Fancy that!" had also been Mrs. Cross's inward comment, on first hearing of the effect produced by Mr. Robert Domeny on the impressionable Mrs. Maidment; for if truth be told he was anything but an Adonis. But she wisely kept her surprise to herself, and now once more clicked her tongue in token of appreciation.

"'Now, Robert,' says I," continued Mrs. Domeny, resuming her narrative tone, "'how would it be if we was to write to Brother John?'

"'What 'ud ye tell en?' says he; 'he'd mayhap not quite fancy the notion o' takin' up wi' a woman he did never set eyes on.' 'You just leave it to I,' says I; 'I bain't a-goin' to say nothin' at all about wedlock. I'll jist ax en to come to tea next Sunday, and I'll tell en as a very nice body what we've lately got acquainted wi' be a' a-comin' to tea, too; an' I'll jist set down, careless-like, as she have got a bank-book what is worth seein'. Jist no more nor that.'

"'Ah, that 'ud maybe do very well,' says Domeny, and we did put our heads together, and between us the letter was wrote. Brother John sent us word by the carrier as he was a-comin', and I did send off Janie that same day to let Mrs. Maidment know, and Janie said her face did fair flush up wi' j'y. She kissed the maid so affectionate, an' says she, 'You be another Domeny, my dear. You must favour your Pa, I'm sure, for you be a very vitty maid.'

"Well, Sunday did come, an' I did have a beautiful tea ready; muffins and a bit o' cold ham--not so salt as poor Sarah's--and a pot o' blackberry-an'-apple jam. Brother John were the first to come. He fair give me a start, for I didn't expect en so early; he did put his head in at the door, an' beckon this way, so secret-like." (Here there was the usual accompaniment of appropriate gesture.)

"'Mary,' he whispered, 'Mary, be she come?'

"'Not yet, John,' says I.

"He did squeeze hisself very cautious round the door, lookin' to right an' left, this way" (further pantomime). "'Mary,' says he, right in my ear, 'have 'ee seen the bank-book?'

"'Nay, John,' says I; 'nay; 'twasn't to be expected, but I did hear, John,' says I, 'as it were worth lookin' at.'

"He did sit him down then, an' did begin to whistle to hisself, an' to rub his knees up and down. He had his best clothes on, an' the big tall hat as he'd a-bought for the first poor Mrs. John's funeral. He took it off after a while, and did keep turnin' it round and round in his hands. 'Where's Robert?' says he, all to once.

"'Cleaning up a bit i' the bedroom,' says I.

"'I think I'll go to en,' says he.

"'Not you,' says I, determined-like. 'Sit you there, that's a good man. She'll be here in a minute.'

"But Robert come down first, an' we was gettin' a bit anxious when Mrs. Maidment did tap at the door. She was lookin' real well an' genteel, in a black silk dress, and wi' one o' them little black bags as they did use to call ridicules in her hand. Poor Brother John could scarce take his eyes off it, for he made sure, d'ye see, as she'd a-brought the bank-book inside. Well, the tea did pass off so pleasant as could be, and so soon as it was over I did make a sign to Robert.

"'I've summat to show 'ee' says I, an' so soon as I did get en outside, I did sauce en for bein' so stupid.

"'How be they ever to get things settled wi' us two a-lookin' at 'em?' says I.

"We did stay outside a-kickin' of our heels for above half-an-hour, an' then we did come in--an' there they was a-settin' one on each side of the fire so comfortable as you could wish. Sarah looked up when I opened the door, an' she says straight out, 'We've pretty nigh settled things, but I shan't give my promise until I've had a look round Mr. Domeny's place. I'd like to make sure as it 'ud suit me,' says she.

"'To be sure,' says John, who was lookin' a bit puzzled, but very pleasant. 'To be sure. Next Thursday--now what 'ud ye say to makin' up a party next Thursday, all on ye, an' drivin' over in the arternoon? I'd have kettle bilin',' says he, 'an' all set out so well as a poor lone man can do it, an' maybe one o' you ladies 'ud make tea?'"

Mrs. Cross sucked in her breath in token of intensifying enjoyment, and turned her head yet a little more on one side.

"And so?" prompted she, as Mrs. Domeny paused.

"And so, Thursday come, an' we did get a trap off Mr. Sharpe, an' we set off. Brother John was a-standin' on the doorstep on the look-out for us, and he did lead Mrs. Maidment in and sit her down at the head of the table.

"'Let's hope,' says he, 'it may be your nat'ral place afore long.'

"She jist smiled back wi'out speakin'; an' all the time we was havin' our tea, I could see her eyes a-rovin' round the room, here an' there an' everywhere. The teapot had a chip out of the spout, an' she did jist pass her finger along it.

"'T'ud be easy to get a new un,' says Brother John, for he knowed what she meant. An' then she looks down at the table-cloth--'It wants darnin',' says she. "Tis easy seen as a woman's hands be needed here.'

"'They are, truly,' says he, lookin' at her so wistful-like.

"'Well, we'll see,' says she, noddin' at him very kind."

"An' did she really look over everything Mrs. Domeny, my dear?" interrupted Mrs. Cross eagerly. "She must ha' been a wonderful sensible woman!"

"You'd ha' said so if you could ha' seen her. There! there wasn't so much as a pan as she didn't look into. Behind the doors, and under the bed; she turned over the very blankets, I do assure 'ee. Upstairs an' down she went, an' roun' the yard, an' down the garden, an' into the shed. Poor Brother John kep' a-trottin' after her, an' at last she come back to the kitchen again."

[Illustration: THE ROMANCE OF BROTHER JOHN "Poor Brother John kep a trottin' after her"]

"'Well, Mr. Domeny,' says she, 'if ye'll go to the expense of a few buckets of whitewash, an' give a lick o' paint to the door here, I think it 'ull do very well.' So they settled the day an' everythin' there an' then."

"Well, to be sure!" ejaculated Mrs. Cross. "It do sound jist like a book; an' talkin' o' that, I suppose she did show en the bank-book?"

"She never gave en so much as a sight o' it, Mrs. Cross, if you believe me. Kep' it locked up, she did, and never let him throw his eye over it till the day of her death. I went up to see en so soon as I heard as all were over, an' found en cryin' fit to break his heart.

"'Come, Brother John,' says I, ''tis a sad loss, as we do all know, but you must bear up.'

"''Tisn't only the loss o' poor Sarah,' says he, ''tis--'tis,' an' his 'eart were that full he couldn't say no more, but jist held out the bank-book to me. My dear, there weren't above three pound in it!"

"Dear heart alive!" ejaculated Mrs. Cross, clapping her hands together, "I never heerd o' such a thing i' my life. Why," she added energetically, "it 'ud scarce pay for the whitewash! An' yet he gave her a nice funeral, ye tell me?"

"'E--es, my dear. Ye see, 'tis this way. Brother John be a very just man, an' so soon as he did get over his first disappointment, he did say to I, m'urnful like, but very patient--

"'Mary,' he says, 'it weren't what I did look for, an' it weren't what I were led to expect, but takin' one thing wi' another,' says he, 'I don't regret it. Poor Sarah was a wonderful hand at managin' pigs,' says he, 'an I never see'd her equal for bringin' up chicken. No!' he says, 'I don't regret it.'"

"Well, he couldn't say no fairer than that," commented Mrs. Cross admiringly. "Yes," she added, drawing a long breath, "'tis just what you do say, Mrs. Domeny--it be a reg'lar romance."