In Homespun

Part 5 - Her Marriage Lines

E. Nesbit

Chapter 4

I don't know what you have to do to get an order to open up a grave and look at the poor dead person after it is once put away, but, whatever it was, John knew and did it.

We didn't tell any one except our dear old parson who buried the old man; and he listened to all we had to say, and shook his head and said, 'I think you are wrong - I think you are wrong,' but that was only natural, him not liking to see his good work disturbed. But he said he would be there.

Now, no one was told of it, and yet it seemed as if every one for miles round knew more than we did about it.

Afore the day come, old Mrs. Jezebel up at the farm, she met me one day, and she says, 'You're a pretty puss, aren't you, howking up my poor dear deceased husband's remains before they're hardly cold? Much good you'll do yourself. You'll end in the workhouse, my fine miss, and I shall come to see you as a lady visitor when you're dying.'

I tried to get past her, but she wouldn't let me. 'I wish you joy o' that Harry, cursed young brute!' says she. 'It serves him right, it does, to marry a girl out of the gutter!'

And with that - I couldn't help it - I fetched her a smack on the side of the face with the flat of my hand as hard as I could, and bolted off, her after me, and me being young and she stout she couldn't keep up with me. Gutter, indeed! and my father a respectable labourer, and known far and wide.

There were several strangers come the day the coffin was got up. It was a dreadful thing to me to see them digging, not to make a grave to be filled up, but to empty one. And there were a lot of people there I didn't know; and the parson, and another parson, seemingly a friend of his, and every one as could get near looking on.

They got the coffin up, and they took it to the room at the Star, at Alfreston, where inquests are held, and the doctors were there, and we were all shut out. And Harry and John and I stood on the stairs. But parson, being a friend of the doctor's, he was let in, him and his friend. And we heard voices and the squeak of the screws as they was drawn out; and we heard the coffin lid being laid down, and then there was a hush, and some one spoke up very sharp inside, and we couldn't hear what he said for the noise and confusion that came from every one speaking at once, and nineteen to the dozen it seemed.

'What is it?' says Harry, trembling like a leaf: 'O my God! what is it? If they don't open the door afore long, by God, I shall burst it open! He was murdered, he was! And if they wait much longer, that woman will have time to get away.'

As he spoke, the door opened and parson came out, and his friend with him.

'These are the young men,' says our parson.

'Well, then,' says parson number two, 'it's a good thing I heard of this, and came down - out of mere curiosity, I am ashamed to say - for the man who is buried there is not the man whom I united in holy matrimony to Martha Blake two months ago last Tuesday.'

We didn't understand.

'But the poison?' says Harry.

'She may have poisoned him,' said our parson, 'though I don't think it. But from what my friend here, the rector of St Mary Woolnoth, tells me, it is quite certain she never married him.'

'Then she's no right to anything?' said Harry.

'But what about the will?' says I. But no one harkened to me.

And then Harry says, 'If she poisoned him she will be off by now. Parson, will you come with me to keep my hands from violence, and my tongue from evil-speaking and slandering? for I must go home and see if that woman is there yet.'

And parson said he would; and it ended in us, all five of us, going up together, the new parson walking by me and talking to me like somebody out of the Bible, as it might be one of the disciples.

I got to know him well afterwards, and he was the best man that ever trod shoe-leather.

We all went up together to Charleston Farm, and in through the back, without knocking, and so to the parlour door. We knew she was sitting in the parlour, because the red firelight fell out through the window, and made a bright patch that we see before we see the house itself properly; and we went, as I say, quietly in through the back; and in the kitchen I said, 'Oh, let me tell her, for what she said to me.'

And I was sorry the minute I'd said it, when I see the way that clergyman from London looked at me; and we all went up to the parlour door, and Harry opened it as was his right.

There was Mrs. Blake sitting in front of the fire. She had got on her widow's mourning, very smart and complete, with black crape, and her white cap; and she'd got the front of her dress folded back very neat on her lap, and was toasting her legs, in her black-and-red checked petticoat, and her feet in cashmere house-boots, very warm and cosy, on the brass fender; and she had got port wine and sherry wine in the two decanters that was never out of the glass-fronted chiffonier when master was alive; and there was something else in a black bottle; and opposite her, in the best arm-chair that old master had sat in to the last, was that lawyer, Sigglesfield from Lewes. And when we all came in, one after another, rather slow, and bringing the cold air with us, they sat in their chairs as if they had been struck, and looked at us.

Harry and John was in front, as was right; and in the dusk they could hardly see who was behind.

'And what do you want, young men?' says Mrs. Blake, standing up in her crape, and her white cap, and looking very handsome, Harry said afterwards, though, for my part, I never could see it; and, as she stood up, she caught sight of the clergyman from London, and she shrank back into her chair and covered her face with her hands; and the clergyman stepped into the room, none of us having the least idea of what he was going to say, and said he -

'That's the woman that I married on the 7th; and that's the man I married her to!' said he, pointing to Sigglesfield, who seemed to turn twice as small, and his ferret eyes no better than button-hole slits.

'That!' said our parson; 'why, that's Mr. Sigglesfield, the solicitor from Lewes.'

'Then the lady opposite is Mrs. Sigglesfield, that's all,' said the parson from London.

'What I want to know,' says Harry, 'is - is this my house or hers? It's plain she wasn't my father's wife. But yet he left it to her in the will.'

'Slowly, old boy!' said John; 'gently does it. How could he have left anything in a will to his wife when he hadn't got any wife? Why, that fellow there - -'

But here Mrs. Blake got on her feet, and I must say for the woman, if she hadn't got anything else she had got pluck.

'The game's up!' she says. 'It was well played, too, though I says it. And you, you old fool!' she says to the parson, 'you have often drunk tea with me, and gone away thinking how well-mannered I was, and what a nice woman Mrs. Blake was, and how well she knew her place, after you had chatted over half your parish with me. I know you are the curiousest man in it, and as you and me is old friends, I don't mind owning up just to please you. It'll save a lot of time and a lot of money.'

'It's my duty to warn you,' said John, 'that anything you say may be used against you.'

'Used against a fiddlestick end!' said Mrs. Blake. 'I married Robert Sigglesfield in the name of William Alderton, and he sitting trembling there, like a shrimp half boiled! He got ready the kind of will we wanted instead of the one the old man meant, and gave it to the old man to sign, and he signed it right enough.'

'And what about that arsenic,' says I, - 'that arsenic I found in your corner cupboard?'

'Oh, it was you took it, was it? You little silly, my neck's too handsome for me to do anything to put a rope round it. Do you suppose I've kept my complexion to my age with nothing but cold water, you little cat?'

'And the other will,' says Harry, 'that my father meant to sign?'

'I'll get you that,' says Mrs. Blake. 'It's no use bearing malice now all's said and done.'

And she goes upstairs to get it, and, if you'll believe me, we were fools enough to let her go; and we waited like lambs for her to come back, which being a woman with her wits about her, and no fool, she naturally never did; and by the time we had woke up to our seven senses, she was far enough away, and we never saw her again. We didn't try too much. But we had the law of that Sigglesfield, and it was fourteen years' penal.

And the will was never found - I expect Mrs. Blake had burnt it, - so the farm came to John, and what else there was to Harry, according to the terms of the will the old man had made when his wife was alive, afore John had joined the force. And Harry and John was that pleased to be together again that they couldn't make up their minds to part; so they farm the place together to this day.

And if Harry has prospered, and John too, it's no more than they deserve, and a blessing on brotherly love, as mother says. And if my dear children are the finest anywhere on the South Downs, that's by the blessing of God too, I suppose, and it doesn't become me to say so.