‘Jesse, lad,’ he would say, ‘I cannot unravel the weft o’ it. I’ve made and helped make a sight of victual in my day, and now there’s nought for me but a handful of oat-meal night and morning, with a bit of meat and soup like kennel stuff. Parson says there must be rich and poor all our days on earth. You and me’s meant to be poor, and the Squire to be rich all along, seems like it.’
‘I don’t believe that,’ I hollered out one day, ‘and Jane says she don’t neither. Anyhow, we’re a going beyond the seas one of these days. We’re not going to stay here for ever.’
‘Take thee care, boy,’ said father; ‘them places beyond seas is wild, they tell me. I doubt Old England’s safest biding yet, though I can’t say as how I’ve found it any too good.’
‘We’re going to try New England, then,’ I said. ‘There’s too many of us here; that’s why the bread and beef won’t go round. We’re going to find out a new country where the land’s cheap and men and women dear. That’ll suit us better than this old one.’
‘I doubt thou’st rash,’ said father, shakin’ his head; ‘but thou was always a stubborn whelp, and I canna blame thee for going to seek thy fortune. Happen, thou’lt make a better outcome than I’ve done. If it werena for the rheumatiz that’s racking the old bones of me, I’d go with thee. I’m tired of this dog’s kennel life, and would as lief hang myself as not if it wasna for thy mother, and to grieve thee and Jane.’
You may be sure we saw poor mother regular. Jane went every Sunday of her life, and any other time that she could spare. Besides that, we fetched her what little things we could get—tea and the like of that. It was the only treat as she’d ever allowed herself when she was at home. She didn’t care for anything else much now. She grudged our buying it out of our bit of money, but when she saw how it pleased Jane and me, she left off chiding us for it.
‘The Lord left me you two good children in my old age,’ she said. ‘I should have been dead if it had not been for you. A hard life I’ve had, God knows, but I’m not quite forsaken. May He see fit to prosper you both some day, when father and I am dead and gone.’
We used to try and liven her up, telling her of all the things we saw and heard in our small way. Sometimes she would smile and look as she used to do in old times, and then again, when she thought we’d have to leave, and the gates be locked on her, she’d cry and bemoan herself till it nearly broke our hearts. But she tried mostly to bear up, and always told us to be good children and read our Bibles, and we might be sure we should be helped and taken care of.
I don’t know how she could think so, seeing that nothing of the kind had happened to her and father; and if ever a woman deserved it she did. But it comforted her to believe what she had been taught, and to teach us the same. She thought it might come right for us, I suppose.
Still and all, we could see that she was getting weaker and weaker day by day. She could hardly walk up and down at last, and when she rested it seemed such a trouble getting up again—and so-and-so. (Here the bluff, hearty, old man stopped, and turned his head away. It was a minute or two before he could go on.) When the winter came again—how we feared it—she had to take to her bed, and one day, a dark, bitter winter day it was, just after Christmas, we followed poor mother to the village churchyard. It wasn’t much of a funeral, poor thing, but it was a better one than most of the poor creatures had that died there. Some of the village people that knew her in her good days made shift to follow her, and did their best to comfort us and father. But it was a sad sight for all that—the snow all over everything, as if the earth was dead and ready to be buried too—the shabby hearse and only the undertaker’s man to drive it, who was in a hurry to get home. When the curate came to the part, ‘our beloved sister,’ I thought to myself, ‘No one took much care of her in this world; I hope she’ll have better treatment in the next.’ But I kept them thoughts to myself, for Jane wouldn’t hear anything of the sort, and scolded me if I said a word. ‘We must be patient and do our duty and trust in God’s providence,’ she always said. ‘We had no right to judge what was best for us. God knew all things, and we must have faith in Him.’ She was right, as it turned out. She always was. But a little thing would have started me on the wrong road then of careless ways and unbelief—a road, boys, that always leads to ruin.
I was doing a bit of garden work—cleaning up the orchard for a farmer towards the end of September next year—didn’t get much wages either, you be sure. Farmers never give a penny more than they can help in England for labour. They’ve some reason, too, for rents are high, or used to be in my time. I hear they’re lower since, and well they may be, for what with Australian wheat and mutton coming in, and beef from America, not to mention cheese and butter, farm profits have gone down so, that the squires have had to lower the rents or take the land themselves. However, that wasn’t so in my time.
Well, as I was saying, I heard the farmer say to his wife, ‘Who do you think’s come down for the season’s hunting?—why, Ned Buffray.’
‘And who’s Ned Buffray?’
Says the farmer, ‘If you fetch me in a mug of cider, while I sit down for a spell, I’ll tell you it all easy and comfortable.’
She brought him the cider, and they sat down in the porch, and as I was doing some little thing close handy, I couldn’t help hearing what they said.
‘Don’t you never remember to have heard tell of Mr. Buffray, of Barndown Farm on Stone Meadows? It’s nigh half a hundred years ago, but I heard my father tell many a time of how old Stephen Buffray, after he couldn’t pay the rent on his farm no longer, packed up his things, and took all his family with him to Australia. Cheddars got the farm then, and they’ve had it ever since.’
‘Oh yes, now I do seem to remember. Aunt Tilly used to tell us how they was such a big family, twelve or thirteen, and how Mrs. Buffray didn’t want to go, but old Stephen, he was always that masterful and impatient that no one dared cross him. He said the country where a man that worked hard and never wasted a penny couldn’t pay his rent and had to be turned out of his farm, where his father and his grandfather had lived all their lives, was no country for him, and it was time to try another, as his ancestor did, as he always swore was a soldier with Billy the Norman hundreds of years agone.’
‘I see you’ve got it all quite pat. That old aunt of yours, I might ha’ known, would be sure to have it and all the other stories of the neighbourhood at her fingers’ ends.’
‘Don’t you say a word against Aunt Tilly,’ says she. ‘A better woman never stepped, and listening to her kept us girls from reading those silly books that all the young people spoil themselves over nowadays.’
‘Mayhap, mayhap,’ says the farmer, ‘but I must get on with my story, or I shall never get back to the Fifteen Acre in time to see what the men’s done. Well, this is a son, the youngest but one, of old Stephen.’
‘You don’t say so?’ says his wife. ‘And what’s he like, and what’s he come here for?’
‘He’s come down here for the hunting; brought six horses, a groom, and a boy. He looks to have plenty of money—a free-spoken, off-handed chap, they tell me—favours his mother’s side, being square built and middle framed. Not long and lean, like old Steve, with his hawk face and fierce eyes, that used to frighten all the folks when he was in a rage, I’ve heard tell.’
‘And how does he ride?’ asked Mrs. Hedges.
‘Rides like the devil; the day I saw him out cub-hunting, never saw a man go straighter to hounds. Capital hands and seat. Looks as if he’d been born atop of a horse.’
‘And what’s he a doin’ of here? Going to buy a farm?’
‘Wants to see the country, I reckon, like any other gentleman of fortune; besides, he’s been to the old farm, they tell me, and Westerham churchyard, where his great grandfather, old Francis Buffray, lies buried, and has a carved tombstone with a coat-of-arms on it.’
‘How did he make all his money? It’s easy picked up in them parts, I expect.’
‘Nobody asked him how he made his money that I know of. ’Taint our business, anyhow. He looks like a chap that’s been middlin’ well off all his time. Not but what he could work on a pinch if he was wanted, I daresay.’
‘Well, I never!’ said Mrs. Hedges. ‘Who’d a thought of old Steve Buffray’s son turning up here again like that? We all thought they were lost or eaten by blacks or summat.’
You may depend on it I thought a deal of this bit of talk, after all the years I had been studying where I should go to begin the world away from Applegate. I didn’t want to end it there, you may be sure; and here was a whole bookful of knowledge. I had seen the tombstones of ever so many of the Buffrays in the old grass-grown churchyard at Westerham; heard, too, that the whole family had gone away to foreign parts somewhere about fifty years since; couldn’t say whether it was ‘Horsetralyer,’ as most of them called it, or not. All they knew was that it was a long way off. Whether it was in Africa, America, or the Indies, none of them cared to know.
Well, by poor Jane’s help and teaching, I had been saved from this state of ignorance. I was sharp about geography, so I looked out Australia, and found that there were divisions or colonies with large cities and houses, just like other places.
I made up my mind, once for all, to see this wonderful Mr. Buffray as all the village was in a state of curiosity about.
So I managed somehow to knock up an acquaintance with the boy who helped to look after the horses. A pennorth or two of lollies, and a lot of gossip about the stable, and I soon heard all he had to say, which was not much.
Mr. Buffray was a ‘very nice gentleman,’ as he put it. ‘Pretty free with his half-crowns, but would have his work done, very partickler about his hosses, and knew in a minute if you’d not been usin’ elber-grease up to the mark. He believes he came from South Australia, or them parts over the sea. Didn’t see any difference in him, except in his ridin’, which he always went like as if he’d got a spare neck in his pocket. There wasn’t a man in the hunt that could get away from him once he had a start. He’d be like to get a baddish fall some day, he was so bold and careless like.’
This only set me more and more on the task of finding all out about Mr. Buffray. Here was what I wanted to know. If a large family could go to the far country after having lost all their money in England, and in forty or fifty years be so well off that one of the sons should come back to the old place able to hold his own with the gentlefolk about, why, what a wonderful country it must be, and why couldn’t I, Jesse Claythorpe, go and do the same.
The next thing to do was to get Mr. Buffray to tell me something about this wonderful place. I knew it was more that ten thousand miles off. It couldn’t be so foreign and strange like, because I had heard one of the gentlemen at the hunt, one day, when I went to see them throw off, say you couldn’t tell Mr. Buffray from any other Englishman, except by his being a good deal tanned with the sun, and that might happen to any born Englishman that had been away from home. He looked like one and spoke like one. He wasn’t above five foot eight in height, and he weighed over thirteen stone. So what was there in going out to Australia that so many folk and all the old women made such a bother about? This man knew most things about fox-hunting, and rode to hounds as if he’d done it all his life. He was mighty severe about his top-boots and leathers; depend upon it they were pretty English in all their ways where he came from.
I went over with this to Jane. I always told her everything then, and for many a year after. She knew all about Mr. Stephen Buffray’s story, and we went next Sunday and saw the gravestone of Francis Buffray in Westerham churchyard. She told me of the young ladies of the Hall, who seemed to take a deal of notice of it, and showed her a book of the old records of the county, and there it was set down that the old name of these Buffrays was Beaufray, or Beaufrere, which means something about brother in French. She got some one to point him out one day as he sat on his horse Bondi, a great, fine, Irish hunter, the best of his string, and that could jump anything. And she said it was a pleasant sight to see an Englishman of a good old stock come back to the place where his ancestors had lived and died, and show himself as good a John Bull as any of them, though he had been born and reared on the other side of the world.
‘I begin to think you’re a clever girl after all, Jane,’ she said. ‘Steady workers like you and Jesse, with a spice of ambition, have a better chance in a new country than we can give you, but be prudent and careful.’
Jane said there was no likelihood of her being anything else, and that I only wanted to have the chance of getting on in the world. She only hoped I might get a word with Mr. Buffray some day.
Miss Walsingham said she would ask her brother, who spoke to him in the hunting field sometimes, to mention my name.
Anyway it didn’t come off. English gentlemen are not fond of talking about anything but the business in hand out hunting, especially to people they don’t know all about. And though Mr. Walsingham knew him well enough to pass a remark to now and then about the line the fox was heading, or that the take-off at the brook was sound near the pollard willow, yet he didn’t feel like going into the emigration question with him.
But I waited. The season was all before us, and till it was over Mr. Buffray was safe. My turn would come. And one day, sure enough, towards the end of the season it did come. The Mid-Kent hounds were not altogether a crack out-and-out pack like those in the flying counties, as they call them, or the shires, yet the fencing was none so foolish. There were a many double ditches where the banks were rotten in places. Then you couldn’t always tell which side of the hedge the ditch was. It wanted a horse that could poke and creep, and kept a bright lookout for all the traps and drains and drops that a free-goer might break his back over. And one day Mr. Buffray did; that’s to say he had an awful fall. He looked like a dead man when I lifted up the head of him. ‘Jesse,’ says he, afterwards, ‘if I’d died then I should never ha’ known what dyin’ was like.’
It was a mighty long time before the breath came back to him, I can tell you, and many a month before he could mount a horse again.
The way it happened was this. He always used to ride very fast at his jumps and take everything just as it came. This day he had taken two or three flights of rails, one after the other, when his hounds crossed a field with a thorn hedge and a big ditch. He rode at a weak place in the hedge, thinking to bore through. It was a regular bullfinch, one of those hedges a man puts his arm in front of his eyes and rides at as hard as he can like. Of course he’d have got through all right, but what had the farmer done but had what they call a ‘cow hurdle’ put there—you never see one in this country. A great, heavy, awkward thing stuck in about five feet high, made of strong round oak waste, tough enough too. Well, the old horse never looked for this, never saw it of course, and, hitting it hard, carried it out into the field. There he got his legs into it, and, going the pace he was, couldn’t stop himself, and came a terrible cropper, head over heels, and rolled right over Mr. Buffray. Then they both lay as if they were dead. I happened to be close by, as luck would have it, and ran up. I got the horse off him, which staggered and rolled about half stunned. Mr. Buffray lay still as if he was dead, and I had to fetch water in my hat and dash it over him for some time before he looked up and could speak.
‘A deuce of a cropper,’ he said, trying to get up, and falling back again. ‘What’s your name, boy?’ ‘Jesse.’ ‘Well then, Jesse, you ride my horse Bondi up to that farm-house and ask them to send a cart down for me. I don’t know what bones are broken or what ain’t. Then you take him over to the Barley Mow, where I put up. Now, don’t ride him fast, mind that, and leave word with the doctor that I’m badly smashed, and am at Farmer—what’s his name?’
‘Hopsley, sir,’ says I.
‘Well, I’m at Farmer Hopsley’s and he’s to come and see me and mend me up again. Now then, don’t forget, don’t ride him too fast, and come back to-night, however late it is. I shan’t be asleep, I’ll be bound.’
I rode away as pleased as Punch on the big bay horse. I could ride pretty well, and was handy with horses. I’d had plenty of practice at odd times, as I hoped to get taken on as helper in one of the hunting stables.
Anyhow, I did what I was told, and the doctor was out in quick time. He said that Mr. Buffray had broken his collar-bone and two ribs, besides giving himself a pretty good shaking all over. Mr. Buffray took a fancy to me from that day, and on that day my good fortune set in.