Here’s the third chapter of Longmeadow, a recent novel of mine. I invite you to begin at the beginning–that is, chapter one–but you do as you please. Thanks for reading.
“Grady, my boy,” said I, “come in and have a cup of tea. Perhaps Mrs. Johnston will give you a bite.”
Grady sat with us at the table. He’s right silent lots of times, which his mother never was so I guess he got it from his father. He’s quick, though. He was but a young man when Mr. Charles died but there wasn’t nobody more helpful to Miss Maria than my Grady. Miss Maria learned to depend upon him and gave him the job of groundskeeper when it came up. He ain’t never given her a reason to regret it for which we are all very proud.
Mags, who was his mother and Nancy’s too, was my only child, and she died of the cancer when they was both tiny. If you wish to know something for certain, it is this: if you could take your child’s pain into your body to rid them of it, why, you would in a instant. But I could do nothing for her. She scratched at her poor belly to shreds to get at what was gnawing at her there. And all the while—every hour–she begged me to look after Grady and Nan when she was gone. She fretted something fierce, for Dick was a drinker and a mean one. She could hardly breathe for the pain and yet still she was afraid to die and leave them little ones alone with him. And so I promised her over and over that I would take them and raise them and see that no harm came to them, for I loved them too. But she died worrying it, pleading with me like I was denying her that one deathbed wish, though I smoothed her and kissed her and told her I would, yes I would, of course I would. But she could not hear me say it. She died in grief and fear and that’s what.
And then, after she died, it was very terrible, for Dick would not let me have them babes, though I bribed and begged. And I am a person who usually gets what I am after. But this—this thing which was more important than any other thing I’d set my mind to, ever in my life—was the thing I could not get. Not right away.
“I’m feared something awful about them gypsies,” said Mrs. Johnston as she set down Grady’s sandwich in front of him. I noticed she cut the bread nice and thick for which I was grateful for it meant she’d come around from her pouting. When Grady didn’t want her daughter Sheila, them sandwiches got scant for a while. Sheila’s married now to Bob Greene and as big as a barn with child and Mrs. Johnston’s so proud you’d think that girl was carrying the Duke of York hisself.
“Why’d they have to choose Longmeadow to stop at?” complained Mrs. Johnston. “Everybody knows that gypsies kidnap babies. I told my Sheila: don’t you never let them catch sight of that baby of yours when it’s born. You keep that cradle on the hearth where you can see it and when you must use the privy, you just take the baby with you. It’s a juggle, but it can be done.”
I looked at Grady quick like, but he just sat quiet and let her talk.
“Can you not convince her?” pleaded Mrs. Johnston. “She listens to you. Can you not convince her to make them go?”
Grady shifted his long body in his chair. “Now, Mrs. Johnston,” he said, “you know how Miss Maria feels. She means to help them if she can.”
Mrs. Johnston shook her head. “They’re beyond help,” she said. “They ain’t civilized, they ain’t clean, they ain’t Christian. And what’s more,” she said (and I saw that sharp look she gave him) “I ain’t the only one who thinks so, no indeed.”
I recall the day, not two months before, when them gypsies arrived in their painted carts. Grady found them stopped on the outskirts of the estate, but it being vast, even he couldn’t tell whether they was fully inside Longmeadow’s property line. He had to check the charts to see.
“What said she?” I asked when he first told me about them.
“I told her I thought we might ask ‘em to move on,” said Grady. “But she asked me what harm they’d done.”
“And you said what?”
“I told her that they hadn’t done no harm that I knew of,” he said.
“Yet,” said I.
He nodded. “I told her that they seemed a quiet bunch but that it’s likely they won’t much care for ‘em.”
He meant the Longmeadows. I saw the problem. It’s her passion, Miss Maria’s, to get them Longmeadows to open their minds. She’d like to crack their heads open for them, and pour in a little human kindness, but it ain’t easy to make them listen. She has to talk to them over and over ‘til she’s hoarse to make them see anything a new way.
“I told her poaching might be a problem…” suggested Grady.
“What do they eat?” I asked. “If they don’t poach?”
“Hedgehogs and badgers, mainly,” he said, “is what I’ve heard.”
“How did she answer?” I asked the question though I knew the outcome.
“Oh, but we must let them stay,” I could hear her say. “We must be generous and civil. They live in harmony with nature, which is something we should all strive to do. I shall ride down to them tomorrow and welcome them and tell them that if they are fair to us, we shall be fair to them. The people of Longmeadow will accept them after a time, I am sure of it.”
“She said we ought to welcome ‘em,” said Grady. “She said to, so I guess we’ll try.”
“Them Longmeadows’ll take it ill,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re right about that.”
“Perhaps not,” said Grady. I cast him a glance, but he looked away.
Now, if you was to ask me, I would tell you as quick as a flea: Mrs. Johnston is exactly right. Them gypsies do no good at all for us here at Longmeadow. They make people jumpy and they ought to be cleared off quick. Yes indeed, Mrs. Johnston has a point.
However, I can’t tolerate a mutiny from the staff.
“Now Ellen,” I said to Mrs. Johnston as we sat at the table, “I should think that you of all people would trust Miss Maria to know what’s best. After Milly, and all.”
I hate to bring up a sad incident, but people forget to be grateful.
Milly was Mrs. Johnston’s sister who there was something wrong with. They grew up nice enough, Milly and Ellen, but when they got to be of a age, why, Milly she went bad. She’d been a modest girl, like Ellen, but soon men from inside and outside Longmeadow Village came asking for her and she’d go with them just like that. Her daddy beat her for it, but then he died and she was free to do whatever she liked. It was a nasty business. Ellen came to cook at the manor house but she was right haunted by her sister’s doings, you could tell.
One day, things went too far. Two strangers fought over Milly and one of them ended up in the middle of Longmeadow Village at midday with his belly slit. When the constable went to ask Milly about her part in the business, he found her behind her house.
“She was naked from the waist down,” he said to Ellen as I sat with her right here in the manor kitchen holding her hand. “Her body down below was covered in pig slops and she was laughing and smearing, laughing and smearing. I had to call Tom Brady to help me get her, for she threatened me with a stick. She’s in the gaol right now and she’ll go to the asylum unless you can take her.”
“Don’t worry, Ellen,” I remember saying to her as she sat in front of him and wept, “Mr. Charles and Miss Maria will know what to do.”
And they did. Milly went to the asylum, to be sure, but only for a fortnight. In the meantime, Mr. Charles found a house a ways north of town with no one living in it and had it cleaned up until it was quite comfortable. Miss Maria hired two sturdy nurses and they brought Milly back and she lived in that house until she died of a fever some five years later. Others lived there too and live there still, like old William Patterson who wanders at night, and Mrs. Raper’s bent daughter who never did learn to dress herself, and Nally Christmas, who lost so many babies that she lost her mind too, and others besides that. The doctor visits regular with injections to calm the patients and the nurses tend them day in and out. The house remains a deal better than the madhouse down in Hillard which Lord, you shold hear the stories. It’s paid for by the revenues from Longmeadow’s shops and its visitors. It’s called The Longmeadow Sanitary Institution and people throughout England hold it up as a model of its type. Seems to me that his success there, is what might’ve give Mr. Charles the taste for improving Longmeadow yet more.
“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you about them gypsies,” sighed Mrs. Johnston but she refilled my cup, which showed me that my reminder about Milly had worked just as I’d meant it to.
I nodded at her. “That’s right, Ellen,” I said. “Grady, will you come to my rooms for a moment? My wardrobe needs a bit of shifting and you can do it in a trice, I daresay.”
“All right, Laddie,” I said once we were alone, “Come, Grady, and sit for a bit and tell Granny what’s wrong. Trouble? Not them gypsies, or not just them, right?”
He sat his long body hard down in a chair and stared out the window and said nothing. I saw that stare. I thought I knew what might be the matter. I thought it had to do with Arum House and them ruffled ladies.
“Now my dear,” I said, “sometimes we don’t care for what we must do. Nothing’s truer. But you want to hold onto your post now, don’t you? That we’re all so proud of you for?”
Grady cast me a dark look from where he sat but nodded all the same.
Arum House ladies hail mostly from money and from London. They holiday here at Longmeadow for a week or a month in order to sample what Miss Maria says is rustic country life but that ain’t no country life like none of us have ever heard of, no indeed. Them ladies might dress up in white frocks and stand for a quarter of an hour holding a beribboned staff, to watch a lamb in a field. Or perhaps they might give a newborn piglet a bath in buttermilk. Or churn a bit of butter for no longer than it takes to get bored by it. Now, is that like any farm life you ever heard of? Lord, you should hear Miss Juliet on them ladies; it’s like to make you cry for laughing. But there’s more to Arum House than just playacting. I wish there wasn’t, but there is.
I looked at Grady as he sat there in that chair in my room but he wouldn’t look back.
“Tell me, my dear,” I said again. “Tell Granny the problem.”
Sometimes Grady needs a little push to talk about this or that. This has been his way since childhood. I have learned to be patient and let him take his time, though patience ain’t my strong suit, believe you me. But, though oftimes I’ve wished to reach down his throat and drag them words right out, it don’t work that way. God gave him to me to teach me tolerating which I have tried my best to learn.
“You know what it is already, don’t you,” he said.
“Well, yes,” I admitted. Not much I don’t see here at Longmeadow. “You took care of it?”
He nodded, very dark.
“Was it Mike?” said I.
Again, a nod.
“How did you make him see, my love?” I said.
Grady huffed. “Gran,” he said, “I cannot talk about this with you. You know that. For it’s filthy.”
I nodded to show him I understood him, for I did.
“But you fixed it?” I asked.
Grady shrugged. “I told him it was part of the job.”
“What was his worry, I wonder,” said I.
Grady shrugged again. “Maybe he thinks Mrs. Bartlett’s too fat.” As soon as he said it, he got up out of his chair. “I shouldn’t have told you. It ain’t right. I wish I hadn’t of said it to you.” He quick gave me a peck on my cheek and was gone.
I had a pang for him, having to think about such nasty things, for I knew how he felt. Many a time I’ve had to do some such here or there that didn’t sit well—especially down to Arum House. But that’s the way of things, I suppose. Us having to do what we know is wrong for them that’s higher up. It ought not to be so, especially here at Longmeadow where we’re all supposed to be equal to one another, but it is. You’d be stupid if you thought it wasn’t.
In truth, it shocked me to hear Mike’s reason. I sat on my bed and thought about it. “Arrogance,” said I to myself. “Arrogance is what that is. Maybe Mike would prefer the fields.”
It ain’t Grady’s way to give a threat, but perhaps he’ll come to it over time.