The curate had not been a week in the parish, but the autumn morning proving fine he thought he would make a little water-colour sketch, showing a distant view of the Corvsgate ruin two miles off, which he had passed on his way hither. The sketch occupied him a longer time than he had anticipated. The luncheon hour drew on, and he felt hungry.
Quite near him was a stone-built old cottage of respectable and substantial build. He entered it, and was received by an old woman.
"Can you give me something to eat, my good woman?" he said.
She held her hand to her ear.
"Can you give me something for lunch?" he shouted. "Bread-and-cheese--anything will do."
A sour look crossed her face, and she shook her head. "That's unlucky," murmured he.
She reflected and said more urbanely: "Well, I'm going to have my own bit o' dinner in no such long time hence. 'Tis taters and cabbage, boiled with a scantling o' bacon. Would ye like it? But I suppose 'tis the wrong sort, and that ye would sooner have bread-and-cheese?"
"No, I'll join you. Call me when it is ready. I'm just out here."
"Ay, I've seen ye. Drawing the old stones, baint ye? Sure 'tis well some folk have nothing better to do with their time. Very well. I'll call ye, when I've dished up."
He went out and resumed his painting; till in about seven or ten minutes the old woman appeared at her door and held up her hand. The curate washed his brush, went to the brook, rinsed his hands and proceeded to the house.
"There's yours" she said, pointing to the table. "I'll have my bit here." And she denoted the settle.
"Why not join me?"
"Oh, faith, I don't want to eat with my betters--not I." And she continued firm in her resolution, and eat apart.
The vegetables had been well cooked over a wood fire--the only way to cook a vegetable properly--and the bacon was well-boiled. The curate ate heartily: he thought he had never tasted such potatoes and cabbage in his life, which he probably had not, for they had been just brought in from the garden, so that the very freshness of the morning was still in them. When he had finished he asked her how much he owed for the repast, which he had much enjoyed.
"Oh, I don't want to be paid for that bit of snack 'a b'lieve!"
"But really you must take something. It was an excellent meal."
"'Tis all my own growing, that's true. But I don't take money for a bit o' victuals. I've never done such a thing in my life."
"I should feel much happier if you would."
She seemed unsettled by his feeling, and added as by compulsion, "Well, then; I suppose twopence won't hurt ye?"
"Why, my good woman, that's no charge at all. I am sure it worth this, at least." And he laid down a shilling.
"I tell 'ee 'tis twopence, and no more!" she said firmly. "Why, bless the man, it didn't cost me more than three halfpence, and that leaves me a fair quarter profit. The bacon is the heaviest item; that may perhaps be a penny. The taters I've got plenty of, and the cabbage is going to waste."
He thereupon argued no further, paid the limited sum demanded, and went to the door. "And where does that road lead?" he asked, by way of engaging her in a little friendly conversation before parting, and pointing to a white lane which branched from the direct highway near her door.
"They tell me that it leads to Enckworth."
"And how far is Enckworth?"
"Three mile, they say. But God knows if 'tis true."
"You haven't lived here long, then?"
"Five-and-thirty year come Martinmas."
"And yet you have never been to Enckworth?"
"Not I. Why should I ever have been to Enckworth? I never had any business there--a great mansion of a place, holding people that I've no more doings with than with the people of the moon. No: there's on'y two places I ever go to from year's end to year's end: that's once a fortnight to Anglebury, to do my bit o' marketing; and once a week to my parish church."
"Which is that?"
"Oh--then you are in my parish?"
"Maybe. Just on the outskirts."
"I didn't know the parish extended so far. I'm a new comer. Well, I hope we may meet again. Good afternoon to you."
When the curate was next talking to his rector he casually observed: "By the way, that's a curious old soul who lives out towards Corvsgate--old Mrs--I don't know her name--a deaf old woman."
"You mean old Mrs Chundle, I suppose."
"She tells me she's lived there five-and-thirty years, and has never been to Enckworth, three miles off. She goes to two places only, from year's end to year's end--to the market town, and to church on Sundays."
"To church on Sundays. H'm. She rather exaggerates her travels, to my thinking. I've been rector here thirteen years, and I have certainly never seen her at church in my time."
"A wicked old woman. What can she think of herself for such deception!"
"She didn't know you belonged here when she said it, and could find out the untruth of her story. I warrant she wouldn't have said it to me!" And the rector chuckled.
On reflection the curate felt that this was decidedly a case for his ministrations, and on the first spare morning he strode across to the cottage beyond the ruin. He found its occupant of course at home.
"Drawing picters again?" she asked, looking up from the hearth, where she was scouring the fire-dogs.
"No. I come on more important matters, Mrs Chundle. I am the new curate of this parish."
"You said you was last time. And after you had told me and went away I said to myself, he'll be here again sure enough, hang me if I didn't. And here you be."
"Yes. I hope you don't mind?"
"Oh, no. You find us a roughish lot, I make no doubt?"
"Well, I won't go into that. But I think it was a very culpable--unkind thing of you to tell me you came to church every Sunday, when I find you've not been seen there for years."
"Oh--did I tell 'ee that?"
"You certainly did."
"Now I wonder what I did that for?"
"I wonder too."
"Well you could ha' guessed, after all, that I didn't come to any service. Lord, what's the good o' my lumpering all the way to church and back again, when I'm as deaf as a plock? Your own commonsense ought to have told 'ee that 'twas but a figure o' speech, seeing you was a pa'son."
"Don't you think you could hear the service if you were to sit close to the reading-desk and pulpit?"
"I'm sure I couldn't. O no--not a word. Why I couldn't hear anything even at that time when Isaac Coggs used to cry the Amens out loud beyond anything that's done nowadays, and they had the barrel-organ for the tunes--years and years agone, when I was stronger in my narves than now."
"H'm--I'm sorry. There's one thing I could do, which I would with pleasure, if you'll use it. I could get you an eartrumpet. Will you use it?"
"Ay, sure. That I woll. I don't care what I use--'tis all the same to me."
"And you'll come?"
"Yes. I may as well go there as bide here, I suppose."
The ear-trumpet was purchased by the zealous young man, and the next Sunday, to the great surprise of the parishioners when they arrived, Mrs Chundle was discovered in the front seat of the nave of Kingscreech Church, facing the rest of the congregation with an unmoved countenance.
She was the centre of observation through the whole morning service. The trumpet, elevated at a high angle, shone and flashed in the sitters' eyes as the chief object in the sacred edifice.
The curate could not speak to her that morning, and called the next day to inquire the result of the experiment. As soon as she saw him in the distance she began shaking her head.
"No; no;" she said decisively as he approached. "I knowed 'twas all nonsense."
"'Twasn't a mossel o' good, and so I could have told 'ee before. A wasting your money in jimcracks upon a' old 'ooman like me."
"You couldn't hear? Dear me--how disappointing."
"You might as well have been mouthing at me from the top o' Creech Barrow."
"I shall never come no more--never--to be made such a fool of as that again."
The curate mused. "I'll tell you what, Mrs Chundle. There's one thing more to try, and only one. If that fails I suppose we shall have to give it up. It is a plan I have heard of, though I have never myself tried it; it's having a sound-tube fixed, with its lower mouth in the seat immediately below the pulpit, where you would sit, the tube running up inside the pulpit with its upper end opening in a bell-mouth just beside the book-board. The voice of the preacher enters the bell-mouth, and is carried down directly to the listener's ear. Do you understand?"
"And you'll come, if I put it up at my own expense?"
"Ay, I suppose. I'll try it, e'en though I said I wouldn't. I may as well do that as do nothing, I reckon."
The kind-hearted curate, at great trouble to himself, obtained the tube and had it fixed vertically as described, the upper mouth being immediately under the face of whoever should preach, and on the following Sunday morning it was to be tried. As soon as he came from the vestry the curate perceived to his satisfaction Mrs Chundle in the seat beneath, erect and at attention, her head close to the lower orifice of the sound-pipe, and a look of great complacency that her soul required a special machinery to save it, while other people's could be saved in a commonplace way. The rector read the prayers from the desk on the opposite side, which part of the service Mrs Chundle could follow easily enough by the help of the prayer-book; and in due course the curate mounted the eight steps into the wooden octagon, gave out his text, and began to deliver his discourse.
It was a fine frosty morning in early winter, and he had not got far with his sermon when he became conscious of a steam rising from the bell-mouth of the tube, obviously caused by Mrs Chundle's breathing at the lower end, and it was accompanied by a suggestion of onion-stew. However he preached on awhile, hoping it would cease, holding in his left hand his finest cambric handkerchief kept especially for Sunday morning services. At length, no longer able to endure the odour, he lightly dropped the handkerchief into the bell of the tube, without stopping for a moment the eloquent flow of his words; and he had the satisfaction of feeling himself in comparatively pure air.
He heard a fidgeting below; and presently there arose to him over the pulpit-edge a hoarse whisper: "The pipe's chokt!"
"Now, as you will perceive, my brethren," continued the curate, unheeding the interruption; "by applying this test to ourselves, our discernment of--"
"The pipe's chokt!" came up in a whisper yet louder and hoarser.
"Our discernment of actions as morally good, or indifferent, will be much quickened, and we shall be materially helped in our--"
Suddenly came a violent puff of warm wind, and he beheld his handkerchief rising from the bell of the tube and floating to the pulpit-floor. The little boys in the gallery laughed, thinking it a miracle. Mrs Chundle had, in fact, applied her mouth to the bottom end, blown with all her might, and cleared the tube. In a few seconds the atmosphere of the pulpit became as before, to the curate's great discomfiture. Yet stop the orifice again he dared not, lest the old woman should make a still greater disturbance and draw the attention of the congregation to this unseemly situation.
"If you carefully analyze the passage I have quoted," he continued in somewhat uncomfortable accents, "you will perceive that it naturally suggests three points for consideration--"
("It's not onions: it's peppermint," he said to himself.)
"Namely, mankind in its unregenerate state--"
"The incidence of the law, and loving-kindness or grace, which we will now severally consider--"
("And pickled cabbage. What a terrible supper she must have made!")
"Under the twofold aspect of external and internal consciousness."
Thus the reverend gentleman continued strenuously for perhaps five minutes longer: then he could stand it no more. Desperately thrusting his thumb into the hole he drew the threads of his distracted discourse together, the while hearing her blow vigorously to dislodge the plug. But he stuck to the hole, and brought his sermon to a premature close.
He did not call on Mrs Chundle the next week, a slight cooling of his zeal for her spiritual welfare being manifest; but he encountered her at the house of another cottager whom he was visiting; and she immediately addressed him as a partner in the same enterprize.
"I could hear beautiful!" she said. "Yes; every word! Never did I know such a wonderful machine as that there pipe. But you forgot what you was doing once or twice, and put your handkercher on the top o' en, and stopped the sound a bit. Please not to do that again, for it makes me lose a lot. Howsomever, I shall come every Sunday morning reg'lar now, please God."
The curate quivered internally.
"And will ye come to my house once in a while and read to me?"
Surely enough the next Sunday the ordeal was repeated for him. In the evening he told his trouble to the rector. The rector chuckled.
"You've brought it upon yourself" he said. "You don't know this parish so well as I. You should have left the old woman alone."
"I suppose I should?!"
"Thank Heaven, she thinks nothing of my sermons, and doesn't come when I preach. Ha, ha!"
"Well," said the curate somewhat ruffled, "I must do something. I cannot stand this. I shall tell her not to come."
"You can hardly do that."
"And I've half-promised to go and read to her. But--I shan't go."
"She's probably forgotten by this time that you promised."
A vision of his next Sunday in the pulpit loomed horridly before the young man, and at length he determined to escape the experience. The pipe should be taken down. The next morning he gave directions, and the removal was carried out.
A day or two later a message arrived from her, saying that she wished to see him. Anticipating a terrific attack from the irate old woman he put off going to her for a day, and when he trudged out towards her house on the following afternoon it was in a vexed mood. Delicately nurtured man as he was he had determined not to re-erect the tube, and hoped he might hit on some new modus vivendi, even if at any inconvenience to Mrs Chundle, in a situation that had become intolerable as it was last week.
"Thank Heaven, the tube is gone," he said to himself as he walked; "and nothing will make me put it up again!"
On coming near he saw to his surprise that the calico curtains of the cottage windows were all drawn. He went up to the door, which was ajar; and a little girl peeped through the opening.
"How is Mrs Chundle?" he asked blandly.
"She's dead, sir" said the girl in a whisper.
"Dead? ... Mrs Chundle dead?"
A woman now came. "Yes, 'tis so, sir. She went off quite sudden-like about two hours ago. Well, you see, sir, she was over seventy years of age, and last Sunday she was rather late in starting for church, having to put her bit o' dinner ready before going out; and was very anxious to be in time. So she hurried overmuch, and runned up the hill, which at her time of life she ought not to have done. It upset her heart, and she's been poorly all the week since, and that made her send for 'ee. Two or three times she said she hoped you would come soon, as you'd promised to, and you were so staunch and faithful in wishing to do her good, that she knew 'twas not by your own wish you didn't arrive. But she would not let us send again, as it might trouble 'ee too much, and there might be other poor folks needing you. She worried to think she might not be able to listen to 'ee next Sunday, and feared you'd be hurt at it, and think her remiss. But she was eager to hear you again later on. However, 'twas ordained otherwise for the poor soul, and she was soon gone. 'I've found a real friend at last,' she said. 'He's a man in a thousand. He's not ashamed of a' old woman, and he holds that her soul is worth saving as well as richer people's.' She said I was to give you this."
It was a small folded piece of paper, directed to him and sealed with a thimble. On opening it he found it to be what she called her will, in which she had left him her bureau, caseclock, settle, four-post bedstead, and framed sampler--in fact all the furniture of any account that she possessed.
The curate went out, like Peter at the cock-crow. He was a meek young man, and as he went his eyes were wet. When he reached a lonely place in the lane he stood still thinking, and kneeling down in the dust of the road rested his elbow in one hand and covered his face with the other. Thus he remained some minute or so, a black shape on the hot white of the sunned trackway; till he rose, brushed the knees of his trousers, and walked on.