« PreviousContinue »
THE PLOUGH/AW MA TCH.
BY M. E. FRANCIS (MRS, FRANCIS BLUNDELL).
THE little village of Oakleigh appeared to be holding a special spring festival of its own when old Robert Inkpen betook himself homewards for the midday meal. The dozen or so of ancient irregularly built houses clinging to the steep hillside were embowered in blossom, while the little gardens to the rear of each were enlivened by patches of wallflowers and early stocks, primroses and forget-me-nots; here and there a few lingering daffodils and jonquils lent a special brightness. Moreover, it being Monday, the budding hedges were bespread with newly washed linen, while from the lines overhead a variety of dangling garments added their share of picturesqueness to the scene. Blue shirts, pink pinafores, here a fine scarlet petticoat, yonder a man's nankeen jacket —the lighter objects occasionally fluttering in the brisk breeze, the heavier ones flapping and swaying; there was colour and activity everywhere. But old Robert's keen blue eyes gazed neither to right nor Ieft; they looked fixedly, almost vengefully, in front of them, out of their network of lines; the mouth, too, was pinched and resolute: it was easy to guess that the old man was evolving some weighty Purpose as he stumped along. Turning in at a battered little wooden gate set midway in a hedge that was partly of privet and partly of furze (the latter all ablaze with bloom), he went quickly up the flagged path bordered with polyanthuses, and throwing open the house door, burst into the kitchen. “What's this I do hear about a ploughin'-match 7' he inquired, throwing his hat on the table. IoMrs. Inkpen, a meek old woman in a faded print dress and limp sun-bonnet, cast a timid and deprecating glance upon her \orū* What ploughin'-match ' she stammered, making the query obviously with the desire to gain time. “Be there more than one 2' retorted Robert sarcastically. ‘Fred Stuckhey telled I to-day all about it. He did stop outside the field where I were hedgin,’ an' he telled I how 'twas all settled an’ the names gived in an’ all. There, to think as I did never hear one word about it ! He could scarce believe it. “Well!” he says, “that be a-servin' of ’ee bad, you as did used to be the champion plougher, too.” But as I did say to en, “I do know very well why ’twas kep' a secret from I,” an’I do know.—Where’s Lyddy?’ ‘She be gone for your beer—she’ll be back in a minute.” Mrs. Inkpen nervously removed her “master's hat from among the plates and knives and forks in the centre of the table, and began to arrange these in orderly fashion. Dinner would be ready in a minute, and Robert had not yet, according to his usual custom, performed his ablutions at the tap, but she did not dare remind him of the fact; he sat with his gnarled, earthy hands folded on the head of his stick, his mouth pursed, and his eyes riveted on the open doorway. Presently the little gate creaked on its hinges, and Lyddy's trim figure came in sight; a slender lassie with a complexion as pink and white as apple-blossom, and hair that flamed in the sunshine. “Halloa, father l’ cried she. “You’m early to-day.” ‘Halloa, hussy l’ rejoined he with terrible emphasis. “I do 'low I be early. I comed home early a-purpose. I’ve a word or two to say to ’ee. You’m fond enough o’ tittle-tattlin' when there be nothin’ to tattle about, but you go an’ keep sich a piece o’ news as this here about the ploughin’ match a secret from your father, what had the best right to know. Come now, what did 'ee do that for 7 ° Lyddy's face became suffused with guilty roses; she glanced appealingly at her mother, but receiving no help from that quarter, endeavoured to carry off the situation by a desperate attempt at unconcern. “There now, didn’t I tell 'ee about the ploughin' match Well, I wonder what I can ha’ been thinkin’ on. It's to be on Thursday week in the big field at back of the Black Horse, an’ the prize be a silver watch. Ye'll like to go an’ look at it, won’t ye, father ?” “I be a-goin’ for to do more nor that,’ rejoined Robert sternly. “I be a-goin’ for to com-pete. That do surprise 'ee, I d' 'low,” he added. “You didn’t think I'd be likely to want to do sich a thing, did ye 2 Else ye mid ha’ chanced to mention it, midn’t ye 2 It wasn't along o' not wantin' me to com-pete that ye kep' it a secret, was it * * He fired off these queries with a mixture of severity and slyness, delivering the last, however, with a kind of roar that was nothing if not terrifying. Both women were loud in protestation against the accusation, but Lyddy grew pinker and pinker, and Mrs. Inkpen's hands trembled over their work. They just hadn’t chanced to think of naming the matter. How could they suppose he'd be that much upset about it Of course if they'd known he'd mind one way or another they would certainly have told him. Robert rose, and marching solemnly across the room, pointed with his stick to three small frames which hung beside the chimneypiece. ‘D'ye see this here ?' he inquired, designating the first. “What do it say? It do say as Robert Inkpen was the winner o’ Oakleigh Ploughin’ Match in the year eighteen hundred an’ fifty-four. I were but a lad then, an’ we ploughed wi' oxen—ah, 'twas a curious sight that. Well, an’ see here again. In eighteen hundred an’ sixty-eight Robert Inkpen won Oakleigh Ploughin’ Match again; an' in eighteen hundred an’ ninety-two, which was the last time there was a ploughin’ match held in Oakleigh, I done the same thing. Folks did allus say I were the Ploughin' Champion o' Oakleigh village. An’ now it seems there's goin’ to be another ploughin’ match in Oakleigh—in memory o’ old times they do tell I Parson do say—an’ if it hadn’t ha’ been for chance the Oakleigh champion 'ud have heard nothin’ about it till 'twas too late to com-pete. There must be a reason for that, an’ I do know the reason very well—you'm afeared as the wold Champion 'ull win the prize again as he did win it afore. There’s somebody else what wou do want to win the prize, Lyddy. A body don’t need the wisdom o' King Solomon to guess that.” Again the duet of protest and denial was renewed, and received by the old man with equal incredulity. “There, no need to tell lies about it,” he remarked, gradually recovering his good humour at the sight of their discomfiture; ‘I do know all about it, an’ there bain't a bit o' use tryin’ for to deceive I. James Fry reckons he'll have it all his own way and carry off the prize same as he do reckon to carry you off, Lyddy, my maid; wi'out enough, nor half enough, to keep ye, an’ a poor match every way. He do think he need only crook his finger at
ye an' ye'll march off wi' he—an' I reckon ye’d be soft enough to do it too, if ye hadn’t a-got your old father to look after ye.” A dead pause ensued, and Robert wagged his head sagaciously. ‘Ye haven’t much to say, have ye?” he cried triumphantly. ‘Ye reckoned ye’d nothin’ to do but hold your tongues about the ploughin' match, an’ Master James 'ud carry all before en; but I’ve put a spoke in his wheel for once. I’ve a-wrote my name down, an’’tis me what'll win the prize, same as I did win the other prizes, an’ Master Jim 'ull jist have to do without it.’ Mother and daughter looked at each other in silence; and after a pause, Mrs. Inkpen, in a small, insinuating voice, informed her husband that dinner was ready. The meal was a somewhat gloomy one, but every now and then Robert cast a triumphant glance at his womenkind, obviously congratulating himself on the skill with which he had asserted his own rights and routed the pretensions of his rival. Even after he had left the house, Mrs. Inkpen spoke in a whisper. ‘He’s altogether unfit for it,” she said. “It’ll fair break his heart if he don’t win.” ‘How can he win 7' returned Lyddy, not without a certain pride amid her discomfiture. ‘He mid ha’ bin able to get the better of a few old folks, but I don't see how he can look to beat Jim. Everybody do say there's never been Jim's match in the parish.’ “If he and your father started out i' the wold days he wouldn't ha’ found it so easy to beat en,” said Mrs. Inkpen, with some indignation. “But at father's time o' life—goin' on seventy, and so scraggled as he be wi' the rheumatics, he must be mad to think on't. An’ what he'll do when he finds hisself beat I can’t think. He never could a-bear to be beat in anything, and he did always reckon hisself champion at the ploughin'.' ‘Well, 'tis a very bad job, I'm sure,” groaned Lyddy. “Father's set enough again Jim as it be, wi'out this—I’d low this’ll about finish his chance.” “Ah, but I’m thinkin’ o' father hisself,’ returned the mother, shaking her head. ‘He be so down on us, along o' thinkin’ we kep' it from him to prevent his winnin', when all we wanted was to prevent his losin’. But you’m right for one thing,” she added, with a certain gloomy satisfaction, ‘it’ll put an end to Jim's coortin’— the poor chap 'ull never be let cross the door again. Dear to be sure, I can’t think whatever put it into Parson's head to start this here match ! I’m sure the menfolks is ready enough to get fightin' an' quarrellin' for nothin’ wi'out the Reverend settin' 'em by the ears. I be sorry for 'ee, Lyddy, my dear, but I be afeard ye'll have to say goodbye to Jim.” Lyddy pondered with a downcast face, as she removed the dinner things; but presently her mother heard her singing in a cheerful voice as she washed them up at the sink. ‘I’m sure I’m glad you be a-brightenin' up a bit, my dear,” she called out. “I’ve got a plan,’ rejoined Lyddy, and hurrying up to her mother she caught her face in her damp hands and whispered in her ear. ‘That’s a good notion, bain't it 2' she ended triumphantly. ‘That'll make it all right.” “It will, conceded Mrs. Inkpen, doubtfully, “if he'll agree.” In the afternoon Lyddy pulled down her sleeves, put on a clean apron over the print that was still crackling in its Monday freshness, and betook herself to the top of the lane to wait till Jim should stroll that way, as he generally did when his work was done. Presently his tall active figure came in sight, swinging along at a brisk pace which quickened as he saw her. ‘You’m in very good time to-day, maidie,” he remarked, after the first amenities. “I thought I was early an’ reckoned I'd have to hang about for a bit.” ‘I made so much haste as I could,’ rejoined Lyddy, disengaging herself. “I’ve summat to tell 'ee.” “No bad noos, I hope 2' said Jim anxiously. “Well, not exactly bad noos, but things have fell out terr’ble ark’ard. Father—there he's got wind o' the ploughin'-match an’ he’ve a-put down his name to take his chance wi' the rest.” Jim Fry whistled. ‘I never heerd o' sich a thing ! Why, he can scarce walk straight, let alone drive a straight furrow ! 'Tis years an’ years since he’ve tried sich a thing. His measter do keep en to light jobs now, don’t he ’ Lyddy nodded. ‘Mother an’ me kep' it from en o' purpose, knowin' it 'ud be too much for en—an' he d' think we done it along o' not wishin’ him to beat you.’ Jim's face relaxed into a slow smile. * Be that what he do think?”