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NETTY SARGENT'S COPYHOLD



'She continued to live with her uncle, in the lonely house by the
copse, just as at the time you knew her; a tall spry young woman.
Ah, how well one can remember her black hair and dancing eyes at that
time, and her sly way of screwing up her mouth when she meant to
tease ye! Well, she was hardly out of short frocks before the chaps
were after her, and by long and by late she was courted by a young
man whom perhaps you did not know--Jasper Cliff was his name--and,
though she might have had many a better fellow, he so greatly took
her fancy that 'twas Jasper or nobody for her. He was a selfish
customer, always thinking less of what he was going to do than of
what he was going to gain by his doings. Jasper's eyes might have
been fixed upon Netty, but his mind was upon her uncle's house;
though he was fond of her in his way--I admit that.

'This house, built by her great-great-grandfather, with its garden
and little field, was copyhold--granted upon lives in the old way,
and had been so granted for generations. Her uncle's was the last
life upon the property; so that at his death, if there was no
admittance of new lives, it would all fall into the hands of the lord
of the manor. But 'twas easy to admit--a slight "fine," as 'twas
called, of a few pounds, was enough to entitle him to a new deed o'
grant by the custom of the manor; and the lord could not hinder it.

'Now there could be no better provision for his niece and only
relative than a sure house over her head, and Netty's uncle should
have seen to the renewal in time, owing to the peculiar custom of
forfeiture by the dropping of the last life before the new fine was
paid; for the Squire was very anxious to get hold of the house and
land; and every Sunday when the old man came into the church and
passed the Squire's pew, the Squire would say, "A little weaker in
his knees, a little crookeder in his back--and the readmittance not
applied for: ha! ha! I shall be able to make a complete clearing of
that corner of the manor some day!"

''Twas extraordinary, now we look back upon it, that old Sargent
should have been so dilatory; yet some people are like it; and he put
off calling at the Squire's agent's office with the fine week after
week, saying to himself, "I shall have more time next market-day than
I have now." One unfortunate hindrance was that he didn't very well
like Jasper Cliff; and as Jasper kept urging Netty, and Netty on that
account kept urging her uncle, the old man was inclined to postpone
the re-liveing as long as he could, to spite the selfish young lover.
At last old Mr. Sargent fell ill, and then Jasper could bear it no
longer: he produced the fine-money himself, and handed it to Netty,
and spoke to her plainly.

'"You and your uncle ought to know better. You should press him
more. There's the money. If you let the house and ground slip
between ye, I won't marry; hang me if I will! For folks won't
deserve a husband that can do such things."

'The worried girl took the money and went home, and told her uncle
that it was no house no husband for her. Old Mr. Sargent pooh-poohed
the money, for the amount was not worth consideration, but he did now
bestir himself; for he saw she was bent upon marrying Jasper, and he
did not wish to make her unhappy, since she was so determined. It
was much to the Squire's annoyance that he found Sargent had moved in
the matter at last; but he could not gainsay it, and the documents
were prepared (for on this manor the copy-holders had writings with
their holdings, though on some manors they had none). Old Sargent
being now too feeble to go to the agent's house, the deed was to be
brought to his house signed, and handed over as a receipt for the
money; the counterpart to be signed by Sargent, and sent back to the
Squire.

'The agent had promised to call on old Sargent for this purpose at
five o'clock, and Netty put the money into her desk to have it close
at hand. While doing this she heard a slight cry from her uncle, and
turning round, saw that he had fallen forward in his chair. She went
and lifted him, but he was unconscious; and unconscious he remained.
Neither medicine nor stimulants would bring him to himself. She had
been told that he might possibly go off in that way, and it seemed as
if the end had come. Before she had started for a doctor his face
and extremities grew quite cold and white, and she saw that help
would be useless. He was stone-dead.

'Netty's situation rose upon her distracted mind in all its
seriousness. The house, garden, and field were lost--by a few hours-
-and with them a home for herself and her lover. She would not think
so meanly of Jasper as to suppose that he would adhere to the
resolution declared in a moment of impatience; but she trembled,
nevertheless. Why could not her uncle have lived a couple of hours
longer, since he had lived so long? It was now past three o'clock;
at five the agent was to call, and, if all had gone well, by ten
minutes past five the house and holding would have been securely hers
for her own and Jasper's lives, these being two of the three proposed
to be added by paying the fine. How that wretched old Squire would
rejoice at getting the little tenancy into his hands! He did not
really require it, but constitutionally hated these tiny copyholds
and leaseholds and freeholds, which made islands of independence in
the fair, smooth ocean of his estates.

'Then an idea struck into the head of Netty how to accomplish her
object in spite of her uncle's negligence. It was a dull December
afternoon: and the first step in her scheme--so the story goes, and
I see no reason to doubt it--'

''Tis true as the light,' affirmed Christopher Twink. 'I was just
passing by.'

'The first step in her scheme was to fasten the outer door, to make
sure of not being interrupted. Then she set to work by placing her
uncle's small, heavy oak table before the fire; then she went to her
uncle's corpse, sitting in the chair as he had died--a stuffed arm-
chair, on casters, and rather high in the seat, so it was told me--
and wheeled the chair, uncle and all, to the table, placing him with
his back toward the window, in the attitude of bending over the said
oak table, which I knew as a boy as well as I know any piece of
furniture in my own house. On the table she laid the large family
Bible open before him, and placed his forefinger on the page; and
then she opened his eyelids a bit, and put on him his spectacles, so
that from behind he appeared for all the world as if he were reading
the Scriptures. Then she unfastened the door and sat down, and when
it grew dark she lit a candle, and put it on the table beside her
uncle's book.

'Folk may well guess how the time passed with her till the agent
came, and how, when his knock sounded upon the door, she nearly
started out of her skin--at least that's as it was told me. Netty
promptly went to the door.

'"I am sorry, sir," she says, under her breath; "my uncle is not so
well to-night, and I'm afraid he can't see you."

'"H'm!--that's a pretty tale," says the steward. "So I've come all
this way about this trumpery little job for nothing!"

'"O no, sir--I hope not," says Netty. "I suppose the business of
granting the new deed can be done just the same?"

'"Done? Certainly not. He must pay the renewal money, and sign the
parchment in my presence."

'She looked dubious. "Uncle is so dreadful nervous about law
business," says she, "that, as you know, he's put it off and put it
off for years; and now to-day really I've feared it would verily
drive him out of his mind. His poor three teeth quite chattered when
I said to him that you would be here soon with the parchment writing.
He always was afraid of agents, and folks that come for rent, and
such-like."

'"Poor old fellow--I'm sorry for him. Well, the thing can't be done
unless I see him and witness his signature."

'"Suppose, sir, that you see him sign, and he don't see you looking
at him? I'd soothe his nerves by saying you weren't strict about the
form of witnessing, and didn't wish to come in. So that it was done
in your bare presence it would be sufficient, would it not? As he's
such an old, shrinking, shivering man, it would be a great
considerateness on your part if that would do?"

'"In my bare presence would do, of course--that's all I come for.
But how can I be a witness without his seeing me?"

'"Why, in this way, sir; if you'll oblige me by just stepping here."
She conducted him a few yards to the left, till they were opposite
the parlour window. The blind had been left up purposely, and the
candle-light shone out upon the garden bushes. Within the agent
could see, at the other end of the room, the back and side of the old
man's head, and his shoulders and arm, sitting with the book and
candle before him, and his spectacles on his nose, as she had placed
him.

'"He's reading his Bible, as you see, sir," she says, quite in her
meekest way.

'"Yes. I thought he was a careless sort of man in matters of
religion?"

'"He always was fond of his Bible," Netty assured him. "Though I
think he's nodding over it just at this moment However, that's
natural in an old man, and unwell. Now you could stand here and see
him sign, couldn't you, sir, as he's such an invalid?"

'"Very well," said the agent, lighting a cigar. "You have ready by
you the merely nominal sum you'll have to pay for the admittance, of
course?"

'"Yes," said Netty. "I'll bring it out." She fetched the cash,
wrapped in paper, and handed it to him, and when he had counted it
the steward took from his breast pocket the precious parchments and
gave one to her to be signed.

'"Uncle's hand is a little paralyzed," she said. "And what with his
being half asleep, too, really I don't know what sort of a signature
he'll be able to make."

'"Doesn't matter, so that he signs."

'"Might I hold his hand?"

'"Ay, hold his hand, my young woman--that will be near enough."

'Netty re-entered the house, and the agent continued smoking outside
the window. Now came the ticklish part of Netty's performance. The
steward saw her put the inkhorn--"horn," says I in my oldfashioned
way--the inkstand, before her uncle, and touch his elbow as to arouse
him, and speak to him, and spread out the deed; when she had pointed
to show him where to sign she dipped the pen and put it into his
hand. To hold his hand she artfully stepped behind him, so that the
agent could only see a little bit of his head, and the hand she held;
but he saw the old man's hand trace his name on the document. As
soon as 'twas done she came out to the steward with the parchment in
her hand, and the steward signed as witness by the light from the
parlour window. Then he gave her the deed signed by the Squire, and
left; and next morning Netty told the neighbours that her uncle was
dead in his bed.'

'She must have undressed him and put him there.'

'She must. Oh, that girl had a nerve, I can tell ye! Well, to cut a
long story short, that's how she got back the house and field that
were, strictly speaking, gone from her; and by getting them, got her
a husband.

'Every virtue has its reward, they say. Netty had hers for her
ingenious contrivance to gain Jasper. Two years after they were
married he took to beating her--not hard, you know; just a smack or
two, enough to set her in a temper, and let out to the neighbours
what she had done to win him, and how she repented of her pains.
When the old Squire was dead, and his son came into the property,
this confession of hers began to be whispered about. But Netty was a
pretty young woman, and the Squire's son was a pretty young man at
that time, and wider-minded than his father, having no objection to
little holdings; and he never took any proceedings against her.'

There was now a lull in the discourse, and soon the van descended the
hill leading into the long straggling village. When the houses were
reached the passengers dropped off one by one, each at his or her own
door. Arrived at the inn, the returned emigrant secured a bed, and
having eaten a light meal, sallied forth upon the scene he had known
so well in his early days. Though flooded with the light of the
rising moon, none of the objects wore the attractiveness in this
their real presentation that had ever accompanied their images in the
field of his imagination when he was more than two thousand miles
removed from them. The peculiar charm attaching to an old village in
an old country, as seen by the eyes of an absolute foreigner, was
lowered in his case by magnified expectations from infantine
memories. He walked on, looking at this chimney and that old wall,
till he came to the churchyard, which he entered.

The head-stones, whitened by the moon, were easily decipherable; and
now for the first time Lackland began to feel himself amid the
village community that he had left behind him five-and-thirty years
before. Here, besides the Sallets, the Darths, the Pawles, the
Privetts, the Sargents, and others of whom he had just heard, were
names he remembered even better than those: the Jickses, and the
Crosses, and the Knights, and the Olds. Doubtless representatives of
these families, or some of them, were yet among the living; but to
him they would all be as strangers. Far from finding his heart
ready-supplied with roots and tendrils here, he perceived that in
returning to this spot it would be incumbent upon him to re-establish
himself from the beginning, precisely as though he had never known
the place, nor it him. Time had not condescended to wait his
pleasure, nor local life his greeting.

The figure of Mr. Lackland was seen at the inn, and in the village
street, and in the fields and lanes about Upper Longpuddle, for a few
days after his arrival, and then, ghost-like, it silently
disappeared. He had told some of the villagers that his immediate
purpose in coming had been fulfilled by a sight of the place, and by
conversation with its inhabitants: but that his ulterior purpose--of
coming to spend his latter days among them--would probably never be
carried out. It is now a dozen or fifteen years since his visit was
paid, and his face has not again been seen.

March 1891.



The End






Life's Little Ironies by Thomas Hardy
Category:
19th century fiction

Short stories
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