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Then came along the old soldier to Little Sherberton, and he never left it again till five year' ago, when he went out feet first.
To this day I could n't tell you much about him. His character defied me. I don't know whether he was good or bad, or just neither, like most of us. But on the whole I should be inclined to say he was good. He was cast in a lofty mold, and had a wide experience of the seamy side of life. I proved him a liar here and there, and he proved me a fool, but neither of us shamed the other in that matter; for I said, and still say, that I'd sooner be a fool than a rascal; while he, though he denied being a rascal, said that he 'd sooner be the biggest knave on earth than a fool. He argued that any self-respecting creature ought to feel the same, and he had an opinion to which he always held very stoutly, that the fools made far more trouble in the world than the knaves. He went further than that, and said if there were no fools, there would n't be no knaves. But there I did n't hold with him; for a man be born a fool by the will of God, and I never can see 't is anything to be shamed about; whereas no man need be a knave, if he goes to the Lord and Father of us all in a proper spirit, and prays for grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the dowl.
Bob Battle he called himself, and he knocked at the door of Little Sherberton on a winter night and asked to see Mary, and would not be put off with any less person. So she saw him and heard how he had been tramping through Holne, and stopped for a drink and sang a song to the people in the bar. It happened that Mr. Churchward, the innkeeper, wanted a message took to my sister about some geese, and none would go for fear of snow; so the tramp, for Bob was no better, said that he would go if they'd put him in the way and give him a shilling. And Churchward trusted him, because he said that he reminded him of his dead brother. Though that was n't nothing in his favor, seeing what Henry Churchward had been in life.
However, Bob earned his money and came along, and Mary saw him and took him in and let him shake the snow off hisself and eat and drink. Then began the famous blizzard, and I 've often thought
old Bob must have known it was coming. At any rate, there was no choice but to let him stop, for it would have been death to turn him out again. So he stopped, and when the bad weather was over, he would n't go. There's no doubt my sister always liked the man in a way; but women like a man in such a lot of different ways that none could have told exactly how or why she set store on him. For that matter, she could n't herself. Indeed, I axed her straight out, and she tried to explain and failed. It was n't his outer man, for he had a face like a rat, with a great, ragged, gray mustache, thicker on one side than t' other, and eyebrows like anybody else's whiskers. And one eyelid was down, though he could see all right with the eye under it. Round in the back he was, and growing bald on the top; but what hair he had was long, and he never would cut it, because he said it kept his neck warm.
He had his history pat, of course, though how much truth there was to it we shall never know in this world. He was an old soldier, and had been shot in the right foot in India along with Lord Roberts in the Chitral campaign. Then he'd left the service and messed up his pension, so he said. I don't know how. Anyway, he did n't get none. He showed a medal, however, which had been won by him or somebody else; but it had n't got no name on it. He was a great talker, and his manners were far ahead of anything Mary had met with. He'd think nothing of putting a chair for her, or anything like that; and while he was storm-bound, he earned his keep and more, for he was very handy over a lot of little things, and clever with hosses and so on, and not only would he keep 'em amused of a night with his songs and adventures, but he 'd do the accounts, or anything with figures, and he showed my sister how in a good few ways she was spending money to poor purpose. He turned out to be a very clean man and very well behaved. He did n't make trouble, but was all the other way, and when the snow thawed he was as busy as a bee helping the men round about the farm. He made his head save his heels, too, and was full of devices and inventions.
So when I got over, after the worst was past, to see how they 'd come through it, there was Bob Battle working with the
others; and when I looked him up and down and said, "Who be you, then?" he explained, and told me how Mary had took him in out of the storm and let him lie in the linhay; and how Noah had given him a suit of old clothes, and how much he was beholden to them all. And they all had a good word for the man, and Mary fairly simpered, so I thought, when she talked about him. There was no immediate mention of his going, and when I asked my sister about it, she said:
"Plenty of time. No doubt he'll get about his business in a day or two."
But of course he had n't no business to get about, and though he talked in a vague sort of way concerning his home in Exeter and a brother up to Salisbury, it was all rubbish, as he afterward admitted. He was a tramp and nothing more, and the life at Little Sherberton and the good food and the warm lying of nights evidently took his fancy. So he stuck to it, and such was his natural cleverness and power of being in the right place at the right moment that from the first nobody wished him away. He was always talking of going, and it was always next Monday morning that he meant to start; but the time went by, and Bob Battle did n't. A very cunning man, and must have been in farming some time of his life, for he knew a lot, and all worth knowing, and I 'm not denying that he was useful to me as well as to my sister.
She was as good as a play with Bob, and me and my wife, and another married party here and there, often died of laughing to hear her talk about him, because the way that an unmarried female regards the male is fearful and wonderful to the knowing mind.
Mary spoke of him as if she 'd invented him, and knew his works, like a clockmaker knows a clock. He interested her something tremendous, and got to be her only subject presently.
"Mr. Battle was the very man for a farmer like me," she said once, "and I'm sure I thank God's goodness for sending him along. He's a proper bailiff about the place, and that clever with the men that nobody quarrels with him. course he does nothing without consulting me; but he 's never mistaken, and apart from the worldly side of Mr. Battle, there's the religious side."
I had n't heard about that and did n't expect to, for Mary, though a good, straight woman as would n't have robbed a lamb of its milk, or done a crooked act for untold money, was n't religious in the church-going or Bible-reading sense, same as me and my wife were. In fact, she never went to church save for a wedding or a funeral; but it appeared that Mr. Battle set a good bit of store by it, and when she asked him, if he thought so much of it, why he did n't go, he said it was only his unfortunate state of poverty and his clothes and boots that kept him
"Not that the Lord minds," said Bob; "but the church-goers do, and a pair of pants like mine ain't welcomed except by the Salvationists, and I don't hold with that body."
So he got a suit of flame-new clothes out of her, and a new hat into the bargain; and then I said that he 'd soon be a goner. But I was wrong, for he stopped, and went down to Huccaby Chapel for holy service twice a Sunday; and what 's more, he kept it up. And then, if you please, my sister went with him one day; and coming to it with all the charm of novelty, she took to it very kindly, and got to be a right-down church-goer, much to my satisfaction, I 'm sure. And her up home five-and-sixty years old at the time!
To sum up, Bob stayed. She offered him wages, and he took them. Twentyfive shillings a week and his keep he got out of her after the lambing season, for with the sheep he proved a fair wonder, same as he done with everything else. And nothing was a trouble. For a fortnight the man never slept save a nod now and again in the house on wheels, where he dwelt in the valley among the ewes. And old shepherds, with all the will to flout him, was tongue-tied afore the man, because of his excellent skill and farreaching knowledge.
Mary called him "my bailiff," and was terrible proud of him, and he accepted the position, and always addressed her as "Ma'am" afore the hands, though "Miss Blake" in private. And in fullness of time he called her "Miss Mary." The first time he went so far as that she came running to me all in a twitter, but I could see she liked it at heart. She got to trust
him a lot, and though I warned her more than once, it were n't easy to say anything against a man like Battle, as steady as you please, never market-merry, and always ready for church on Sundays.
When I got to know him pretty well, I put it to him plain. One August day it was, when we were going up to Princetown on our ponies to hear tell about the coming fair.
"What's your game, Bob?" I asked the man. “I'm not against you," I said, "and I'm not for you. But you was blowed out of a snow-storm, remember, and we 've only got your word for it that you 're a respectable man."
"I never said I was respectable," he answered me; "but since you ask, I'll be plain with you, Rupert Blake. 'T is true I was a soldier, and done my duty and fought under Lord Roberts; but I did n't like it, and hated being wounded, and was glad to quit. And after that I kept a shop of all sorts on Salisbury Plain till I lost my little money. Then I took up farm-laborer's work for a good few years, and tried to get in along with the people at a farm. But they would n't promise me nothing certain for my old age, so I left them, and padded the country for a bit. And I liked tramping, owing to the variety. And I found I could sing well enough to get a bed and a supper most times; and for three years I kept at it and saw my native country-towns in winter it was, and villages in summer. I was on my way to Plymouth when I dropped into Holne, and Mr. Churchward offered me a bob if I'd travel to Little Sherberton. And when I arrived there, and saw how it was, I made up my mind that it would serve my turn very nice; then I set out to satisfy your sister and please her every way I could. For I'm too old now for the road, and would sooner ride than walk, and sooner sleep in a bed than under a haystack."
"You fell into a proper soft thing," I said; but he would n't allow that.
"No," he answered; " 't is a good billet, but nothing to make a fuss about. Of course for ninety-nine men out of a hundred it would be a godsend and above their highest hopes or deserts; but I'm the hundredth man-a man of very rare gifts and understanding, and full of accomplishments gathered from the ends of
the world. I'm not saying it ain't a good home and a happy one; but I 'm free to tell you that the luck ain't all one side; and for your sister to fall in with me in her declining years was a very fortunate thing for her, and I don't think that Miss Blake would deny it if you was to ask her."
"In fact, you reckon yourself a proper angel in the house," I said in my comical tone of voice. But he did n't see nothing very funny in that.
"So I do," he said. "It was always my intention to settle down and be somebody's right hand some day; and if it had n't been your sister, it would have been some other body. I'm built like that," he added. "I never did much good for myself, owing to my inquiring mind and great interest in other people; but I've done good for others more than once, and shall again.”
"And what about church-going?" I asked him. "Is that all ‘my eye and Betty Martin,' or do you go because you like going?"
"'T is a good thing for the women to go to church," he answered, "and your sister is all the better for it, and has often thanked me for putting her in the way."
'T was more than I could do, though I 've often been at her," I told the man, admiring his determined character.
And then came the beginning of the real fun, when Mary turned up at Brownberry after dark one night in a proper tantara, with her eyes rolling and her bosom heaving like the waves of the sea. She'd come over Dart by the steppingstones, a tricky road for an old woman even by daylight, but a fair marvel at night.
"God 's my judge," began Mary, dropping in the chair by the fire-"God 's my judge, Rupert and Susan, but he 's offered marriage!"
"Bob!" I said; and yet I were n't so surprised as I pretended to be. And my wife did n't even pretend.
"I've seen it coming this longful time, Mary," she declared. "And why not?" "Why not? I wonder at you, Susan!" my sister answered all in a flame. "To think an old woman like me, with white hair and a foot in the grave!"
"You ain't got a foot in the grave," answered Susan. "In fact, you be peart
as a wagtail on both feet, else you 'd ne never have come over they slipper-stones in the dark so clever. And your hair 's only white by a trick of nature, and sixty-five ain't old on Dartmoor."
"Nor yet anywhere else," I said. "The females don't throw up the sponge in their early forties nowadays, like they used to do. In fact, far from it. Did n't I see Squire Bellamy's lady riding cross-legged to hounds but yester-week, in male trousers and a tight habit, and her forty-six if a day? You 're none too old for him, if that was all."
"But it ain't all," answered Mary. "Why, he offered me his brains to help out mine, and his strong right arm for me to lean upon. And he swears to goodness that he never offered marriage before because he never found the woman worthy of it, and so on, and all to me! Me-a spinster from my youth up, and never a thought of a man! And now, of course, I'll be a laughing-stock to Dartymoor, and a figure of fun for every thoughtless fool to snigger at."
"I looked in where he sleeps," said my son, after he came back again, "and Bob was in his shirt, quite calm and composed, saying his prayers."
"Trust him for being calm and composed," I said. "None ever saw him otherwise. He's a ruler of men for certain, but whether he 's a ruler of women remains to be seen; for that's a higher branch of l'arning, as we all know."
Next day I went over and had a tell with Bob, and he said it were n't so much my business as I appeared to think.
"There's no doubt it flurried us both a lot," he told me. "To you, as an old married man, 't is nothing; but for us, bachelor and spinster as we are, it was a great adventure. But these things will out, and I was sorry she took it so much to heart. 'T was the surprise, I reckon, and me green at the game. However, she 'll get over it, give her time."
He did n't offer no apology nor nothing like that.
"Well," I said, in two minds what to say, "she 've made it clear what her feel"You could n't help his doing it," I ings are, so I'll ask you not to let it occur said. ""T is a free country."
"And more could he help it seemingly," she answered. "Anyway, he swore he was driven to speak; in fact, he have had the thing in his prayers for a fortnight. 'T is a most ondacent, plaguy prank for love to play; for surely at our time of life we ought to be dead to such things."
"A man's never dead to such things, especially a man that 's been a soldier or a sailor," I told my sister; and Susan said the same, and assured Mary that there was nothing whatever ondacent to it, silly though it might be.
Then Mary fired up in her turn, and said there was n't nothing whatever silly to it that she could see. In fact, quite the contrary, and she dared Susan to use the word about her or Mr. Battle, either. And she rattled on in her excited and violent way, and was on the verge of the hystericals now and again. And for my life I could n't tell if she was pleased as Punch about it or in a proper tearing rage. I don't think she knew herself how she felt.
We poured some sloe gin into her and calmed her down, and then my eldest son took her home; and when he came back, he said that Bob Battle had gone to bed.
"She made it clear her feelings were very much upheaved," answered Bob; "but she did n't make it clear what her feelings were, because she did n't say yes and she did n't say no."
"You don't understand nothing about women," I replied to him, "so you can take it from me that 't is no good trying no more. She's far too old in her own opinion. In a word, you shocked her. She was shaking like an aspen when she ran over to me."
Bob Battle nodded.
"I may have been carried away and forced it on her too violent, or I may have put it wrong," he said. "It 's an interesting subject; but we'd better let it rest."
So nothing more was heard of the affair at the time, though Bob stopped on, and Mary never once alluded to the thing afterward. In fact, it was sinking to a nine-days' wonder with us when be blessed if she did n't fly over once more, this time in the middle of a January afternoon.
"He 's done it again!" she shouted out to me, where I stood shifting muck in the yard. "He 's offered himself again, Rupert! What's the world coming to?"
This time she 'd put on her bonnet and cloak and, Dart being in spate, she'd got on her pony and ridden round by the bridge.
She was excited, and her lip bivered like a baby's; but on the whole she took it a thought cooler than before. To get sense out of her was beyond us, and after she'd talked very wildly for two hours and gone home again, my wife and me compared notes about her state; and my wife said that Mary was n't displeased at heart, but rather proud about it than not, while I felt the contrary, and believed the man was getting badly on her nerves.
""T is very bad for her to have this sort of thing going on, if 't is to become chronicle," I said. "And if the man was a self-respecting man, as he claims to be, he would n't do it. I'm a good bit surprised at him."
"She 'd send him going if she did n't like it," declared Susan, and I reminded her that my sister had actually talked of doing so. But it died down again, and Bob held on, and I had speech with Noah Sweet and his wife, and they said that Mary was just as usual and Bob as busy as a bee.
However, my sister spoke of it on and off, and when I asked her if the man persecuted her, and if she wanted my help to thrust him out once for all, she answered:
"You can't call it persecution," she told me, "but often he says of a night, speaking in general-like, that an Englishman never knows when he 's beat, and things like that; and when he went to Plymouth, he spent a month of his money, and bought me a ring with a blue stone in it for my sixty-sixth birthday. And nothing will do but I wear it on my rheumatic finger. In fact, you can't be even with the man, and I feel like a bird afore a snake."
All the same she would n't let me speak a word to him. She wept a bit, and then she began to laugh, and, in fact, went on about it like a giglet wench of twentyfive. But my firm impression continued to be that she was suffering, and growing feared of the man, and would soon be in the doctor's hands for her nerves, if something were n't done.
I troubled a good bit and tried to get a definite view out of her, but I failed. Then I had a go at Bob, too; but for the
Then another busy spring kept us apart a good bit, till one evening Noah Sweet came up, all on his own, with a bit of startling news.
"I was n't listening," he said, "and I should feel a good bit put about if you thought I was; but passing the parlor door last Sunday, I heard the man at her again. I catched the words, 'We 're neither of us growing any younger, Mary Blake,' and then I passed on my way. And coming back a bit later, with my ear open, out of respect for the missis, I heard the man kiss her. I'll swear he did, for you can't mistake the sound if once you've heard it. And she made a noise like a And so of course I
doing less than my
kettle bubbling over. kettle bubbling over. felt that it would be duty if I did n't come over and tell you, because your sister's eyes was red as fire at supper-table, and 't was very clear she'd been weeping a bucketful about it. And me and my wife feel 't is an outrageous thing, and something ought to be done against the man."
Well, I went over next morning, and Mary would n't see me!
For the only time in all our lives she would n't see me. And first I was properly angry with her, and next, of course, I thought how 't was, and guessed the man had forbidden her to speak to me for fear of my power over her. Him I could n't see neither, because he was gone to Plymouth. Of course he 'd gone for craft, that I should n't tackle him, neither. So I left it there, and walked home very much enraged against Bob Battle, because I felt it was getting to be a proper struggle between him and me for Mary, and that it was about time I set to work against him in earnest.
The climax happened a week later, when the Lord's Day came round again, and we went to church as usual. Then a proper awful shock fell on me and my wife.
For at the appointed time, if the Rev. Batson did n't ax 'em out! "Robert Battle, bachelor, and Mary Blake, spinster, both of this parish," he said; and so I knew the old rascal had gone too far at