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THE BLUE JAR.
THE licensed victualler's business at the "Borrowed Plume" was in danger of being transferred -nay, at the time I write the transfer had almost actually occurred. Old John Tilbury, long known in the neighbourhood as an honest man, was dying, and his wife would have to reign in his stead.
And even as in dynasties so in many smaller concerns of life the cry is ever, "Le roi est mort! vive le roi !"
Thus the sequence of things is maintained, and in this case the small round of monotonous duties to the public would remain unbroken. But this external acquiescence only served to throw into sharp relief the very opposite feelings which had paralysed John Tilbury's wife with a sense of the disruption of all things when first she understood the serious nature of her husband's condition. For she was (and I state it apologetically in the face of a pessimistic world) absorbed in her devotion to her husband. She had married when a mere girl, and he was a man past fifty; and in the absence of her parents, who were both dead, she had loved him as a husband and her one great friend.
People had wondered at the time how such a pretty girl, and one so young, could have married a man so much older than herself. But so it had been. Perhaps an anomaly, but never a mistake. And now that she was barely thirty her short spell of contented happiness was to end, for the man who had been a companion and good friend to her for the last nine years had
to leave her; the doctor had told her he was sick unto death and must die.
And all existence had become shrouded with a great cloud, and for days she had cried stealthily to herself when out of his sight.
But with him she was ever. attentive, as for the last time, to those small unexpected thoughts to which the sick man gave expression, and to the simple charity which as ever coloured all his utterances, while she moved about his room and wondered dully why God allowed human hearts to break and her happiness to end. And he, on his part, knowing his end was come, was trying feebly to arrange everything before he left this world. He did not fear death, only the loneliness it would bring on her. So his mind was troubled.
"Mary," he said one day, "I wonder where Biddulph is! Abroad somewhere, I suppose!"
He was referring to an old friend of theirs, a man some years his junior, who was a corn importer, and lived when at home in their neighbourhood. This had occurred once or twice, for a sudden wish had arisen in his heart, and finally, having asked his wife one evening to lift him up in bed, he had murmured
"I wonder where Biddulph is, deary!" Then looking up, he added, "Would you mind marrying him when I am gone?"
Mary started and her colour went. Instinctively she glanced at him; but he was quite coherent, and bending her head down, she writhed under his words.
"Oh, don't, John," she wailed. "But, Mary, you can't remember me always, and you'd be glad then; and he said to me once he thought I was a lucky fellow to have you."
But there was no answer, only a sob. Suddenly she looked up and and said
"John, you and he did not agree at Christmas, do you remember? He was laughing because you thought so much of the blue jar."
"Yes; he ain't no eye for colour. That's what young Mr Jeffrey, who painted here in the summer, called it. And in coorse he would not submit to it. And it's real Saver, and my grandmother got it given her by one of them poor refugees from France." For a moment he paused, for he easily tired, and he lay there gently stroking his wife's hand.
"In coorse he would not submit to it," he repeated slowly, "ef he did not admire it-saw no colour in it, so to speak. Mary," he went on, "you'll never sell or give away that jar? It was in my old mother's parlour ever since I was any height."
She nodded, for she hardly trusted herself to speak.
"He'd want to sell it ef yer married him. Ef he didn't like it. Why did he not like it?" he went on querulously. "We've
The weary months, which dragged on as milestones on the road to despair and utter loneliness, seemed at one time to Mary Tilbury after her husband's death as never to end. She was a young woman still, with all the zest and beauty of youth left, and had known no life except with him, and had had no interests except
known each other twenty-two years come next March, and he always was chaffing about something. And last Christmas 'twas that jar"
"Yes," said his wife, and there was a certain eagerness in her voice.
"But maybe I was cross, and he'll grow older and eppreciate it,” he said, his usual optimism about others showing itself.
"Then yer'll marry him?" he added, with quiet assurance.
"Oh, don't, John; it's cruel." "Oh, Mary dear, it's for you I wants it. Say yer'll marry him if he gets to admire it. He'd stand by yer and love yer."
Evidently the idea had taken full possession of the sick man's mind and he was worrying over it. The woman moved uneasily in her chair, while the ticking of the clock in the silence seemed to be beating time to her swaying thoughts. Then she turned and said gently
"Don't fret, John dear; it shall be as you wish."
And the answer had made the old man happy, and the woman was satisfied it could lead to nothing.
And within a few days of this old John Tilbury passed away, leaving, as far as mortal man can tell, not an enemy behind him.
his. And now that it had ended so suddenly, she could hardly realise to herself sometimes that he was not there. Fortunate it was for her in those days that she had her sister Annie, a girl somewhat younger than herself, staying with her. At least she could get away at times from the bustle of the inn and those guests whose
heedlessness to her loss only made her solitude seem more acute; and her sister would look after them, and perform those duties which would have brought her face to face with people.
But gradually in course of time life and its responsibilities became sweeter to her, dulling her pain as the days went on; but the shock produced on her mind by her husband's dying request did not fade so quickly.
It was very early in her widowhood that one day, when she was in the little parlour with her sister, she had seen the jar her husband had referred to.
"Annie," she said, "do take that thing away; in the cupboard in my room will do."
For it was there as a record of her husband's inexplicable request, and in her eyes was an abhorrence. And her sister had taken it, being ignorant of its fault and somewhat wondering. So in mournful monotony the months rolled by, until spring returned to the sodden fields and warmed them into life. And Mary had become calmer and more reconciled, though her old love and craving for her husband had not ceased. Even that dimly expressed consciousness of the blue jar and its relation to her, which was always lying latent in her mind, seemed as time went on to grow weaker. Certain it is, that one day she had opened the cupboard where it was and had looked at it, and allowed her mind to be flooded with the memory of the curious compact she had made with her husband; and still later on she had deliberately taken it down and dusted it, remembering how John had loved it, and for the time thinking but little of his last request and the influence it might have on her future. For winter had sped its chilly course,
and her husband had been dead now eight months, and Henry Biddulph was forgotten. Spring that year had opened warm and bright, remaining so. and purple woods had reddened before the bursting leaf, which in its turn had given way to fairy and to darkening greens. The copses where the woodmen had been thinning in the winter had sheltered the primroses and anemones, and they had come and gone, and now in this engendering month of May the woods were all azure, carpeted with hyacinths and blue-bells, and ground and sky were mysterious in that great awakening which God does give us year by year. Though tending by the contrast of its beauty to strengthen the shadow through which she was passing, Mary accepted it with the natural love of a country woman, and spent a great part of the day, for the inn was quite empty, in the woods and tending the small garden at the back of the house. On one of these occasions Annie had stayed behind, and while mending a torn curtain in her sister's room she suddenly remembered that the blue jar was still shut up in the cupboard. Thinking it was good for Mary, she had persistently put all the winter things back as they were before John's death, whenever she got the chance; and as Mary had generally accepted their return passively, Annie on this occasion, despite its emphatic removal in the first instance, felt no hesitation in taking the jar out and going down-stairs with it to the parlour, yet wondering with a half smile whether her sister would notice it or not. As she entered the room she saw through the window a dog-cart coming up the hill to the house, and in it a man whom she knew very well by sight.
Giving a jump of excitement, and hastily putting the jar on the dresser, she fled into the garden to tell Mary.
"There's Henry Biddulph coming up the hill in a dog-cart," she panted.
Mary stopped short, for the announcement stunned her. Then pulling herself together and dismissing her first inclination to refuse to see him, she quickened her pace towards the house, feeling very uncomfortable and nervous.
Annie," she said, "he'll go to the stable first, so come and help me put the parlour straight." And she walked on in front of her and went to the window. Looking out, she was just in time to see the dog-cart turning into the yard, and the driver of it was a middleaged man, whose bulk and florid face told her it was Henry Biddulph. The sight of him brought back to her all her pain, and intensified all her embarrassed feelings towards him. Sharply she recalled, as she stood there looking at him, her husband's words, and it almost seemed as if he knew her
Feeling hot and miserable, she turned from the window, and her eye fell on the blue jar. The unaccustomed sight of it startled her, and all her pent-up feelings burst
"Who brought it down, Annie?" she exclaimed passionately. "It's too bad. I've enough to bear without that."
Annie, who was arranging the chairs and books in the orthodox manner round the room, looked up in a frightened manner and gasped.
"I thought" she began.
"Oh, never mind what you thought," interrupted Mary, excitedly; "take it away at once before he comes. You don't know
what you are doing." And not until she saw Annie hurry out of the room with the jar did she calm down, and a minute or two after, Henry Biddulph, the man whom her husband wanted her to marry, and who had been her nightmare for the last eight months, strolled into the room, drawing off his gloves as he did so.
As he stood in the doorway Mary fancied he was taller and bulkier than ever, and her thoughts, as is often the case in sudden emotion, took refuge in some unconnected detail, and she found herself wondering at the size of his feet and the thickness of the soles of his boots. Then as his good-natured face, tempered by an awful solemnity assumed on this visit of condolence, beamed down on her, she felt, almost with a sense of irritation, how glad she would have been to see him under other circumstances. And Henry Biddulph, who had steeled himself for this visit, felt somewhat the same as he took the chair she offered him and gave vent to murmured expressions of sympathy with the air of a funeral mute. After which he put his hat on the table, and then thinking it looked unseemly in that position, he stored it away under his chair, from which soon after, in a moment of restless shyness, he kicked it, so that it rolled into the middle of the room, where it lay for the rest of the interview. After these preliminaries, he remarked in an expressionless voice, as if he were delivering a message
"Mrs Tilbury, I was sorry-I may say I was wretched-that I could not be at poor John's funeral. He was my oldest friend for more than twenty years." Here he sighed so loudly that he woke up a large blue-bottle fly, which buzzed round the room with
protesting energy. "But," he went on, "I was away in America on business-corn-and I wrote to you but got no answer," and he tried to throw reproach into his voice.
"No; I got none," said Mary, feeling wretchedly nervous, and wondering how to get him away from the subject. "You must be glad to get back to England. Did you go about with a bowie-knife and a revolver? America is so uncivilised you've always to go about armed, haven't you?" But the laugh which followed had little joy in it.
Henry looked somewhat scandalised. Was his old friend's wife heartless ?
"Well," he answered, nearly as bad as that. It's a young country. But," relapsing into the mutelike expression of voice, "tell me, did John leave me any message, poor fellow? I am sure he thought of me."
Mary looked up in a frightened way, and she felt she could stand it but a very little longer.
“N’—no,—yes,” and the words came through a haze of restrained tears. "He was very ill-at the last he did not know what he was saying."
"Ah, yes! of course, of course, only natural," said Henry, soothingly. And then the conversation died away, and for some moments there was silence in the room, while Annie's voice could be heard excitedly arguing with some one at the backdoor. But there was something on Henry's mind that he felt he must say, and then he would go. Taking out a notebook and pretending to inspect its leaves, he murmured—
"Poor John, of course not. But," and he leant forward with a confiding air towards Mary, "I've often worried if he was
angry with me. It's been on my mind. Yer know, I think he was angry with me that Christmas?" He stopped, for something in Mary's manner disconcerted him. Then he took courage and went on.
"I would not have hurt him for the world. Only my chafHis words stopped and his ideas fled.
What had he said? What was wrong? For Mrs Tilbury had become very white, and the next minute had put her handkerchief to her eyes, and, murmuring something unintelligible, had hastily left the room.
For fully ten minutes Henry Biddulph sat where he had been left, feeling thoroughly staggered, and more like a whipt hound than an afternoon caller has any right to do. He waited on, half hoping she might return, and, in view of the further embarrassment it might involve, half dreading she would do so. It was all so disappointing.
He blew his nose with a large red handkerchief, and thought what a muddle he had made of the visit. Yet he could not understand why she had changed so and seemed so unfriendly to him, and at last he picked up his hat and left the room, telling himself he had been treated rather badly, and that it was the last time he would try and console disconsolate widows, whether he was their oldest friend or not; and so, looking neither to the left nor right of him, he found his way to the stables, and climbing heavily into the dog-cart, went sadly back down the hill he had so lately climbed. And Mary watched him from her window, and as he went out of sight, overcome by mortification and vexation, she burst into tears.
Now that he was gone, she realised how absurdly sensitive she had become by nursing a self-conscious