Thursday, March 15th, 2018
“Why are the gates closed, Thomas?”
“I was about to come and tell you, Ma’am. Master William told us we might expect a visit from the elder Thackeray today, and suggested that while he was away in London on business, that we should keep the gates closed and to keep Thackeray off the property until tomorrow when William might deal with him.”
“Yes, William took off early for London before anyone else was up and about, after that letter came last evening, and he said he would need to go today as it seemed urgent. He said nothing about Mr. Thackeray being in the area.”
“No, Ma’am, he just found out about it himself and asked me to let you know. He said we would need to find a way to keep him out.”
“Then we must do that, Thomas.”
“Yes, mum. William said he would be back by this evening no matter how things might go. He doubted that Mr. Thackeray would dare to try and force his way in with me and Ned close by, but he warned us not to say anything to him but to just put him off whichever way we could. Maybe it’s time to take that other old tree out too, and lay it across the drive a bit, to be sure he cannot get in, and tell him the family is not at home until tomorrow, and I was told that no one was to come in while you were away.”
“That sounds like an excellent suggestion, Thomas. Give us warning if you see him coming, and I will make sure that the girls stay in the house and out of the way until he’s gone, and you can put him off however you can.”
She stopped with an afterthought. “Thomas?” He turned. “Perhaps you would not mind going over to the Davenports and see if we might borrow Sir Licksalot for a while. That might do the trick as well as anything would.”
He laughed at her suggestion and walked off toward the Davenport house as she had suggested.
Some hours later, Thomas saw a carriage approaching down the lane and knew who it had to be. He gave instructions to the lad with the ax and went off to the house to warn the ladies to remain out of sight and then returned into the stable where he might hear everything that would go on. The lad was clever enough that he could be sufficiently gormless when required, to put off even the most determined visitor. He could not help chuckling to himself. How true it was that a clever man might easily play a fool, but a fool will never be able to convince anyone that he is a clever man. Ned was a clever lad.
The horses pulled up in the lane as the gentleman driving them realized he could not turn into the driveway with the gates closed, and a tree lying across the drive. He watched the lad wielding his ax for some moments, realizing that it was not likely that he would be finished any time soon. They should have hitched a horse or two to the fallen trunk and dragged it out of the way, but that seemed to be beyond them.
“Ho there. I am paying a formal visit.” He raised his voice and attracted the lad’s attention. The lad looked up at him, rested for a few moments on the handle of the ax, and then returned to his work as though he had not heard him.
“I am here to visit the Barristows.” He had spoken in a louder voice.
The lad stopped what he was doing again and then spoke. “Not possible, sir. No one is allowed in.” The lad was standing on the trunk, lopping branches off with an axe, but had paused when he heard the man speak again. “Mistress is away at the moment, and I was told to get this old tree out of here while they were away.”
“When is she expected back?” He decided patience with the youth might achieve more than any more determined an approach.
“Not till tomorrow at least, sir. Yes, tomorrow.” The lad seemed to fall into deeper thought as he argued with himself. “At least tomorrow if today is Wensday, but if it isn’t, then I dunno what she might have said.” He seemed confused.
“Today is Wednesday.” He watched the lad grapple with that thought but was not inclined to believe any of what he might say. He would assume she was home and had given instructions not to admit him or anyone else.
“You can tell Mrs. Barristow that I am here to convey my condolences over her recent losses and to meet with her. You might consider doing it now. I am a close relative and in the area from London, and I desire to speak with her on a matter of some considerable importance and benefit to her.”
The lad did not move. He was up to the tricks of gentleman to try and bypass what they did not like. “Not possible, sir.”
“Oh. Why not?”
He looked at the gentleman as though his questioner were stupid. Fortunately, the lad was on the other side of the gate and out of reach of his crop so was inclined to be braver than he might have been. “You must be deaf not to have heard what I said the first time.” He raised his voice a few notches and spoke slowly. “I already told you. Its a’cause they’s not here. And besides, the entire house is in mourning and undergoing renovation, and it’s getting a good clean out today too while they are gone.”
The older man decided not to take offense at the lad’s impudence just yet. He looked about and could see laundry hanging out over lines extending from the house to the corner of the barn. There were carpets hanging over the hedge nearby and being soundly beaten with a broom, kicking dust up into the air and drifting toward him. He was well aware that others might be listening out of sight and was not about to invite more than he needed to invite by trying to enter the property and laying his crop across the impudent lad’s shoulders. He had seen his son’s condition, and he nurtured a burning desire to correct that wrong, but this lad had not done it, for he was too small, and there was not a mark on him. And not only was he too stupid to live, but also his description did not match the one his son had given.
“Well, where are they?” He sounded impatient to be learning nothing that he wanted to know.
“Not my place to say, sir, even if I knew, and I don’t ’cause they don’t confide in me with their plans for me to blab to them as arsks. Besides I have me hands full with this tree and then the stable to muck out again, never ending, that. And then lor’ knows what after that. Seven days of the week all the same to me, so why should I fratch over whether it’s Wensday or Friday or whatever?”
“I do not need a list of your chores. Then I shall leave a message.”
“They wun’t get it, sir.”
“Cause I can’t remember me own name at times, sir. Ma says that if my ’ead wasn’t nailed on good and ’ard, I’d lose that too. No point arsking me to ’member anything. I have difficulty wiv my own name at times.”
“Is there no one else about with more wit?” He was rapidly losing patience with the lad.
“Oh yes, sir. Everybody here has more wit than me, which is why I ’ave the job of cleaning out the stables and not them. I’ll let t’gaffer know you’re here, if you like.” He let out a bellow for Thomas.
Thomas appeared with a pitchfork out of the stable as though he had been pitching hay to the livestock. There was a blank smile on his face as though he were as simple as the vacuous youth.
“I seem unable to penetrate the fog about this fellow’s brainbox. I am going to break my journey here.” He decided that it would not be open for discussion. But Thomas was wise to this gentleman and his ways.
“Oh. I don’t see as how that’s possible, sir.”
“Of course, you can see it. You can also see to my carriage. There must be somewhere you can put it out of the way and then you can bring my bags in.” He began to dismount from the seat of the carriage.
“Oh no, sir. I wouldn’t do that, sir, if I was you.”
A large brindle-colored dog, previously unseen, had raised himself from the ground in the shade of the barn, where he had been gnawing on a large bone that looked suspiciously like a human thigh-bone and eyed up the visitor attentively as he let out a low growl. Fortunately, he was restrained by a chain.
Their would-be visitor regained his seat on the carriage, despite the dog’s wagging tail.
Thomas spoke harshly to the dog. “Down, you devilish brute.” The dog settled himself again with the bone, and his tail wagging, but watched the visitor.
“He’s already broken free once this morning. No end of trouble is that dog. I daren’t let you in here, sir. It’s more than my life’s worth to disobey my mistress. She’d turn me off just like that. It is more than your life’s worth if you try to come in, with that brute. You can’t stay here, sir, with no one home. Not possible today, sir. When mistress says no one is to be admitted, she means it, sir. Told us to keep our eyes open for gypsies and to shoot ’em off the property if we need to, for they’d steal the coppers off a dead man’s eyes, they would. That’s why we have the dog here too. He doesn’t care who he latches himself onto, but he seems to prefer gentleman after children.” He turned to the lad standing on the tree. “I told you not to give him that bone just yet, Ned.”
“I didn’t. I’ve still got that one h….” The lad lost his speech for a second or two, and there was a pale look on his face. “Ooh. Then where’d that one come from?”
“Say no more, Ned. Don’t want to scare anyone needlessly now, do we? I’ll check in the shrubbery later.”
“I am not a gypsy.” The older man did not like to be put off in this way. “Perhaps you should shoot the dog if he is that vicious. Perhaps I should.”
“I think maybe I can see that you are not a gypsy, sir. He’s only a bit awkward like with those he don’t know, and that makes him the more valuable. But we are doing a lot of cleaning out today while everyone’s out of the way, so the house is in a turmoil, and the dog keeps an eye on house and barn both, where he is. Too good an eye, I’m thinking. The inn down in the village could see to you, sir. Highly recommended, now that they have mostly got rid of their bed bugs, though their fleas might still be a problem. Mistress will be in tomorrow. If you was to come back at noon tomorrow, you’d catch her home then.”
“Well, where is she now? I would like to see her today.”
“Not my business to say, sir.”
He was not impressed, and he did not like the belligerent or blockish attitude of either of them. But he could also see a fowling piece laid nearby and was not about to argue with the hired help or the dog.
He was not at all suited. “Very well. Tell your mistress I shall call tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir. Very wise. Noon tomorrow, sir. You can turn your carriage down the lane a’piece.” He decided not to warn him that the mud puddle where he might turn was quite deep and likely to cause him some difficulty.
After Mr. Thackeray had managed to turn himself around and head back toward the village, Mrs. Barristow appeared from the house.
“You did well, Thomas, and you too, Ned. I was having difficulty holding my laughter in at all of the whiskers you were telling. It’s a good job he did not know what a great daft dog that one is and would be inclined to lick him to death, and he has breath that would knock a post over. I am sure the wolves in Ireland left when they saw a dog like that. He must eat enough to feed two men.”
“And some, Ma’am.” He scratched the dogs belly as it put its paws on his shoulders, almost knocking him off his feet and licked at his face as it drooled down his front. He grimaced. “Ooh. You were right about the breath, Ma’am. Maybe that was why those wolves left.”
“Perhaps we should have the gate closed all of the time and get an Irish wolf hound of our own.”
Mr. Devane arrived back that evening shortly after dark, mud flecked and tired and hungry, but with good news.
He smiled and was relieved to hear of Thomas’s and Ned’s successful efforts to keep Mr. Thackeray off the property. They could now return the dog, aptly nicknamed Sir Licksalot, to the neighbor’s house with his marrow bone from that butchered cow.
After the girls had been sent off to bed, amidst some complaints from Annis, William sat down in the parlor with Mrs. Barristow and related his day’s accomplishments at some length.
He took her hand in his. “One last thing, Ma’am. You should be away tomorrow when Thackeray visits again.”
“It will not get out of hand, will it, William? Not as it did with his son?” she looked and sounded concerned for him.
He frowned and then smiled. “Yes, I thought you would eventually get a full account of that. But no, I shall try to ensure that it does not, Ma’am, but I can offer no guarantees. He is worse than his son if reports of him are correct, but then I suspect age may have slowed him down, and he is more cautious than he used to be, but the more dangerous for it. I think I shall deal with him gently if I can—more gently than I was initially inclined to be.”
“It is to be hoped so. I do not want anything to happen to you after what you have done for us.”
“There shall be nothing happen to me Ma’am. I know him and what he is capable of, and I do not doubt that he now knows something of me, unfortunately, from his son, so he will also be forewarned and forearmed as I will be. I learned enough of him in town that I think he will easily be convinced of the wisdom of leaving you all alone. Although those papers I brought back with me should do that well enough.”