Chapter VI. . The Wind in the Crabapple Blossoms

About a week later, Mistress Hempen received the following letter from Luke:

Dear Auntie, – I trust this finds you as well as it leaves me. I’m remembering what you said, and trying to look after the little master, but this is a queer place and no mistake, and I’d liefer we were both safe back in Lud. Not that I’ve any complaint to make as to victuals and lodging, and I’m sure they treat Master Ranulph as if he was a king – wax candles and linen sheets and everything that he gets at home. And I must say I’ve not seen him looking so well, nor so happy for many a long day. But the widow woman she’s a rum customer and no mistake, and wonderful fond of fishing, for a female. She and the doctor are out all night sometimes together after trout, but never a trout do we see on the table. And sometimes she looks so queerly at Master Ranulph that it fairly makes my flesh creep. And there’s no love lost between her and her granddaughter, her step-granddaughter I should say, her who’s called Miss Hazel, and they say as what by the old farmer’s will the farm belongs to her and not to the widow. And she’s a stuck-up young miss, very high and keeping herself to herself. But I’m glad she’s in the house all the same, for she’s well liked by all the folk on the farm and I’d take my oath that though she’s high she’s straight. And there’s a daft old man that they call Portunus and it’s more like having a tame magpie in the house than a human man, for he can’t talk a word of sense, it’s all scraps of rhyme, and he’s always up to mischief. He’s a weaver and as cracked as Mother Tibbs, though he do play the fiddle beautiful. And it’s my belief the widow walks in fear of her life for that old man, though why she should beats me to know. For the old fellow’s harmless enough, though a bit spiteful at times. He sometimes pinches the maids till their arms are as many colours as a mackerel’s back. And he seems sweet on Miss Hazel though she can’t abear him, though when I ask her about him she snaps my head off and tells me to mind my own business. And I’m afraid the folk on the farm must think me a bit high myself through me minding what you told me and keeping myself to myself. Because it’s my belief if I’d been a bit more friendly at the beginning (such as it’s my nature to be) I’d have found out a thing or two. And that cracked old weaver seems quite smitten by an old stone statue in the orchard. He’s always cutting capers in front of it, and pulling faces at it, like a clown at the fair. But the widow’s scared of him, as sure as my name’s Luke Hempen. And Master Ranulph does talk so queer about him – things as I wouldn’t demean myself to write to an old lady. And I’d be very glad, auntie, if you’d ask his Worship to send for us back, because I don’t like this place, and that’s a fact, and not so much as a sprig of fennel do they put above their doors. – And I am, Your dutiful grandnephew, LUKE HEMPEN.

Hempie read it through with many a frown and shake of her head, and with an occasional snort of contempt; as, for instance, where Luke intimated that the widow’s linen sheets were as fine as the Chanticleers’.

Then she sat for a few minutes in deep thought.

“No, no,” she finally said to herself, “my boy’s well and happy and that’s more than he was in Lud, these last few months. What must be must be, and it’s never any use worrying Master Nat.

So she did not show Master Nathaniel Luke Hempen’s letter.

As for Master Nathaniel, he was enchanted by the accounts he received from Endymion Leer of the improvement both in Ranulph’s health and state of mind. Ranulph himself too wrote little letters saying how happy he was and how anxious to stay on at the farm. It was evident that, to use the words of Endymion Leer, he was learning to live life to a different tune.

And then Endymion Leer returned to Lud and confirmed what he had said in his letters by his accounts of how well and happy Ranulph was in the life of a farm.

The summer was simmering comfortably by, in its usual sleepy way, in the streets and gardens of Lud-in-the-Mist. The wives of Senators and burgesses were busy in still-room and kitchen making cordials and jams; in the evening the streets were lively with chattering voices and the sounds of music, and ‘prentices danced with their masters’ daughters in the public square, or outside taverns, till the grey twilight began to turn black. The Senators yawned their way through each other’s speeches, and made their own as short as possible that they might hurry off to whip the Dapple for trout or play at bowls on the Guild Hall’s beautiful velvety green. And when one of their ships brought in a particularly choice cargo of rare wine or exotic sweetmeats they invited their friends to supper, and washed down the dainties with the good old jokes.

Mumchance looked glum, and would sometimes frighten his wife by gloomy forebodings; but he had learned that it was no use trying to arouse the Mayor and the Senate.

Master Nathaniel was missing Ranulph very much; but as he continued to get highly satisfactory reports of his health he felt that it would be selfish not to let him stay on, at any rate till the summer was over.

Then the trees, after their long silence, began to talk again, in yellow and red. And the days began to shrink under one’s very eyes. And Master Nathaniel’s pleached alley was growing yellower and yellower, and on the days when a thick white mist came rolling up from the Dapple it would be the only object in his garden that was not blurred and dimmed, and would look like a pair of gigantic golden compasses with which a demiurge is measuring chaos.

It was then that things began to happen; moreover, they began at the least likely place in the whole of Lud-in-the-Mist – Miss Primrose Crabapple’s Academy for young ladies.

Miss Primrose Crabapple had for some twenty years “finished” the daughters of the leading citizens; teaching them to sing, to dance, to play the spinet and the harp, to preserve and candy fruit, to wash gauzes and lace, to bone chickens without cutting the back, to model groups of still life in every imaginable plastic material, edible and non-edible – wax, butter, sugar – and to embroider in at least a hundred different stitches – preparing them, in fact, to be one day useful and accomplished wives.

When Dame Marigold Chanticleer and her contemporaries had first been pupils at the Academy, Miss Primrose had only been a young assistant governess, very sentimental and affected, and full of nonsensical ideas. But nonsensical ideas and great practical gifts are sometimes found side by side, and sentimentality is a quality that rarely has the slightest influence on action.

Anyhow, the ridiculous gushing assistant managed bit by bit to get the whole direction of the establishment into her own hands, while the old dame to whom the school belonged became as plastic to her will as were butter, sugar or wax to her clever fingers; and when the old lady died she left her the school.

It was an old rambling red-brick house with a large pleasant garden, and stood a little back from the high-road, about half a mile beyond the west gate of Lud-in-the-Mist.

The Academy represented to the ladies of Lud all that they knew of romance. They remembered the jokes they had laughed at within its walls, the secrets they had exchanged walking up and down its pleached alleys, far more vividly than anything that had afterwards happened to them.

Do not for a moment imagine that they were sentimental about it. The ladies of Lud were never sentimental. It was as an old comic song that they remembered their school-days. Perhaps it is always with a touch of wistfulness that we remember old comic songs. It was at any rate as near as the ladies of Lud could get to the poetry of the past. And whenever Dame Marigold Chanticleer and Dame Dreamsweet Vigil and the rest of the old pupils of the Academy foregathered to eat syllabub and marzipan and exchange new stitches for their samplers, they would be sure sooner or later to start bandying memories about these funny old days and the ridiculous doings of Miss Primrose Crabapple.

“Oh, do you remember,” Dame Marigold would cry, “how she wanted to start what she called a `Mother’s Day’, when we were all to dress up in white and green, and pretend to be lilies standing on our mothers’ graves?”

“Oh, yes!” Dame Dreamsweet would gurgle, “And mother was so angry when she found out about it. `How dare the ghoulish creature bury me alive like this?’ she used to say.”

And then they would laugh till the tears ran down their cheeks.

Each generation had its own jokes and its own secrets; but they were always on the same pattern; just as when one of the china cups got broken, it was replaced by another exactly like it, with the same painted border of squills and ivy.

There were squills and ivy all over the Academy, embroidered on the curtains in each bedroom, and on all the cushions and screens, painted in a frieze around the wall of the parlour, and even stamped on the pats of butter. For one of Miss Primrose Crabapple’s follies was a romantic passion for Duke Aubrey – a passion similar to that cherished by high-church spinsters of the last century for the memory of Charles I. Over her bed hung a little reproduction in water-colours of his portrait in the Guildhall. And on the anniversary of his fall, which was kept in Dorimare as a holiday, she always appeared in deep mourning.

She knew perfectly well that she was an object of ridicule to her pupils and their mothers. But her manner to them was not a whit less gushing in consequence; for she was much too practical to allow her feelings to interfere with her bread and butter.

However, on the occasions when her temper got the better of her prudence she would show them clearly her contempt for their pedigree, sneering at them as commercial upstarts and interlopers. She seemed to forget that she herself was only the daughter of a Lud grocer, and at times to imagine that the Crabapples had belonged to the vanished aristocracy.

She was grotesque, too, in appearance, with a round moon face, tiny eyes, and an enormous mouth that was generally stretched into an ingratiating smile. She always wore a green turban and gown cut in the style of the days of Duke Aubrey. Sitting in her garden among her pretty little pupils she was like a brightly-painted Aunt Sally, placed there by a gardener with a taste for the baroque to frighten away the birds from his cherries and greengages.

Though it was flowers that her pupils resembled more than fruit – sweetpeas, perhaps, when fragrant, gay, and demure, in muslin frocks cut to a pattern, but in various colours, and in little poke-bonnets with white frills, they took their walk, two and two, through the streets of Lud-in-the-Mist.

At any rate it was something sweet and fresh that they suggested, and in the town they were always known as the “Crabapple Blossoms.”

Recently they had been in a state of gleeful ecstasy. They had reason to believe that Miss Primrose was being courted, and by no less a person than Endymion Leer.

He was the school physician, and hence to them all a familiar figure. But, until quite lately, Miss Primrose had been a frequent victim of his relentless tongue, and many a time a little patient had been forced to stuff the sheet into her mouth to stifle her laughter, so quaint and pungent were the snubs he administered to their unfortunate schoolmarm.

But nearly every evening this summer his familiar cane and bottle-green hat had been seen in the hall. And his visits they had learned from the servants were not professional; unless it be part of a doctor’s duties to drop in of an evening to play a game of cribbage with his patients, and sample their cakes and cowslip wine.

Moreover, never before had Miss Primrose appeared so frequently in new gowns.

“Perhaps she’s preparing her bridal chest!” tittered Prunella Chanticleer. And the very idea sent them all into convulsions of mirth.

“But do you really think he’ll marry her? How could he!” said Penstemmon Fliperarde. “She’s such an old fright, and such an old goose, too. And they say he’s so clever.”

“Why, then they’ll be the goose and the sage!” laughed Prunella.

“I expect he wants her savings,” said Viola Vigil, with a wise little nod.

“Or perhaps he wants to add her to his collection of antiques,” tittered Ambrosine Pyepowders.

“Or to stick her up like an old sign over his dispensary!” suggested Prunella Chanticleer.

“But it’s hard on Duke Aubrey,” laughed Moonlove Honeysuckle, “to be cut out like this by a snuffy old doctor.”

“Yes,” said Viola Vigil. “My father says it’s a great pity she doesn’t take rooms in the Duke Aubrey’s Arms, because,” and Viola giggled and blushed a little, “it would be as near as she’d ever get to his arms, or to anybody else’s!”

But the laughter that greeted this last sally was just a trifle shame-faced; for the Crabapple Blossoms found it a little too daring.

At the beginning of autumn, Miss Primrose suddenly sent all the servants back to their homes in distant villages; and, to the indignation of the Crabapple Blossoms, their places were filled (only temporarily, Miss Primrose maintained) by the crazy washerwoman, Mother Tibbs, and a handsome, painted, deaf-mute, with bold black eyes. Mother Tibbs made but an indifferent housemaid, for she spent most of her time at the garden gate, waving her handkerchief to the passers-by. And if, when at her work, she heard the sound of a fiddle or flute, however distant, she would instantly stop whatever she was doing and start dancing, brandishing wildly in the air broom, or warming-pan, or whatever domestic implement she may have been holding in her hands at the time.

As for the deaf-mute – she was quite a good cook, but was, perhaps, scarcely suited to employment in a young ladies’s academy, as she was known in the town as “Bawdy Bess.”

One morning Miss Primrose announced that she had found them a new dancing master (the last one had been suddenly dismissed, no one knew for what reason), and that when they had finished their seams they were to come up to the loft for a lesson.

So they tripped up to the cool, dark, pleasant loft, which smelt of apples, and had bunches of drying grapes suspended from its rafters. Long ago the Academy had been a farm-house, and on the loft’s oak panelled walls were carved the interlaced initials of many rustic lovers, dead hundreds of years ago. To these Prunella Chanticleer and Moonlove Honeysuckle had recently added a monogram formed of the letters P. C. and E. L.

Their new dancing-master was a tall, red-haired youth, with a white pointed face and very bright eyes. Miss Primrose, who always implied that it was at great personal inconvenience and from purely philanthropic motives that their teachers gave them their lessons, introduced him as “Professor Wisp, who had very kindly consented to teach them dancing,” and the young man made his new pupils a low bow, and turning to Miss Primrose, he said, “I’ve got you a fiddler, ma’am. Oh, a rare fiddler! It’s your needlework that has brought him. He’s a weaver by trade, and he dearly loves pictures in silk. And he can give you some pretty patterns to work from – can’t you Portunus?” and he clapped his hands twice.

Whereupon, “like a bat dropped from the rafters,” as Prunella, with an inexplicable shudder, whispered to Moonlove, a queer wizened old man, with eyes as bright as Professor Wisp’s, all mopping and mowing, with a fiddle and a bow under his arm, sprang suddenly out of the shadows.

“Young ladies!” cried Professor Wisp, gleefully, “this is Master Portunus, fiddler to his Majesty the Emperor of the Moon, jester-in-chief to the Lord of Ghosts and Shadows