Читать онлайн «Nelly Dean»
‘The farmer was somewhat abashed at this response, but he bethought him that, whatever he did now, he had surely lost the Brownie’s goodwill for ever, so if he did not want to sink back into his former penury, he had better demand his wishes, and gain wealth for himself all at once. He told the Brownie that he meant him no harm, and would release him as soon as he agreed to grant him three wishes. “Ah, so that’s what you are about,” said the Brownie. “You are a greedy fellow indeed, if all your comfort and prosperity has bred nothing better in you than a desire for what you have not. But what makes you think I can grant you any wishes at all? I am only a Brownie. If my magical abilities extended so far as that, do you think you could catch and hold me as you have done?”
‘“Do not try to fool me,” replied the farmer, “I have heard enough stories of wishes granted by just such creatures as you that I have no doubt you could give me what I ask. If you refuse, I will just keep you in this cage, and make my fortune by selling you to a huckster at a fair.”
‘“Please, no!” the Brownie howled. “The very touch of sunlight on my skin would burn like a red-hot coal on yours. Take pity on me, sir; remember all my kindness to you, and do not condemn me to such a fate!” Whereupon the Brownie began weeping and rocking back and forth, his whole body trembling and his eyes wide with dread, but the farmer remained adamant in his demands. “Very well,” said the Brownie at last, with an ill grace, “I will give you three wishes. But I tell you again: do not imagine that I am some Arabian genie who can conjure golden coaches and chests of gems from the ends of the earth. You must moderate your wishes, and not ask for more than could be found within three leagues of this place.”
‘Now, the farmer had hoped to wish for just such things as the Brownie mentioned, but he was well pleased to have gained his point at all, and immediately began running over the possibilities in his mind – thinking of one man’s landed estate, another’s bustling woollen mills, and still another’s thriving grocery trade, considering which would bring him the greatest wealth and eminence with the least effort. At last he made up his mind: “For my first wish—”
‘“Wait,” said the Brownie. “You must take time to think of what you will wish for, and I must gather my powers to grant it, for I am sure it will be no small thing. Release me now, and I promise you that when the sun goes down on the next Sabbath, I will grant you your heart’s wish. The same will I do on each of the two succeeding Sabbaths. But after that, you must make the best of what you have gained, for I will be your Brownie no more.”
‘“How am I to be sure that you will keep your promise?” asked the farmer.
‘“I have never betrayed anyone’s trust in me,” the little man said, with a look and tone that clearly showed he thought the same could not be said for his captor. “The same stories from which you gleaned the knowledge to lure me to your house and capture me will have taught you that our promises are sacred to us, and not a word of mine will I abate, I assure you.
‘“After the sun touches the horizon, and before it sinks altogether below it, stand on the hearthstone here and speak your desire. You will not see me, but I will hear you. By sunrise the next day, your heart’s wish will be granted.”
‘Well, the farmer was obliged to be satisfied with this. He cut the cords that tied on the floor of the cage, and pulled on the rope to raise the trap. As soon as a gap appeared, the creature scuttled out through it, and disappeared like a wisp of smoke into the crack between the hearthstone and the floor.
‘The next day, so full was the farmer’s mind of all the good things that were coming to him that he scarcely noticed when the dairymaid came to tell him that one of the cows had borne a dead calf, and another was showing signs of milk fever, or when a labourer came from the fields to say that a trio of wild moor ponies had jumped a stone wall and trampled a fine crop of young oats into the ground. But, as the day wore on, the evidence mounted that the Brownie had not only withdrawn his favour from the household, but called down bad luck upon them: all the poultry were found with their throats torn out by a weasel, and the pig escaped from its pen and ran squealing away over the moors as if it were being chased by a devil. The very coal in the hearth would not light properly, but only smouldered and filled the house with evil-smelling smoke. This rather shook the farmer’s good spirits – he had grown so used to having everything belonging to him go as well as it possibly could do that he had come to think such success was natural to him, so it was painful to be reminded how fragile was the prosperity of his family. “But,” he reflected to himself, “that only shows all the more how wise it was of me to seek for greater security. I shall wish first for a landed estate. Rich men need not fear a few strokes of bad luck – their rents come in all the same, and it is the tenants who must tighten their belts to make up the sum, as I well remember.” So he went about his work in good spirits, disregarding these ominous misfortunes with a cheerfulness that astonished and impressed the servants.
‘When Sunday came, the farmer was far too preoccupied with imagining his coming prosperity to go to church, or even to say prayers at home. He thought of going for a long walk, just to pass the time, for the weather looked fair and sunny, and the heather was all in bloom, but no sooner did he step outside than a powerful wind came up and drew a pall of angry-looking thunderclouds over the whole sky. When he went inside, the sky cleared as quickly as it had clouded before, so out he went again, but the same thing happened. So he resigned himself to pacing about within the house, and thinking about his coming wish. “I wonder how the Brownie will give me what I ask,” he reflected. “Will it materialize all around me during the night, or will I wake the next day to find it nearby, and only waiting for me to move in and take possession?” It then occurred to him for the first time that in either case his neighbours would surely find it strange to have an entire hall appear where none had been before. “It will do me little good to be made master of a fine estate if it makes folk think I have had dealings with the Devil,” he thought; “I must be careful to word my wish so as to avoid that result.”
‘At last the sun touched the horizon. Eagerly, the farmer stepped onto the hearthstone and said the words he had been rehearsing all day: “I wish to be master of an estate just like Morton Hall, which is to come to me without the appearance of magic.” Silence greeted this statement, and then suddenly a strong gust of wind blew down the chimney, sending smoke and ash into the farmer’s face, and forcing him to step back off the hearth and retreat to the far end of the house. “If you meant to prevent my claiming my wish, Brownie,” he called out, “you moved too late. The wish is spoken, and now you must keep your word by granting it.”
‘The farmer had expected a sleepless night, but to his surprise he slept heavily and long, and did not awake until broad day. As he dressed, he looked about the room eagerly, but all seemed just as it had been the day before. The same proved true of the rest of the house. Then the farmer went out-of-doors to see if anything new might be spied, but all he saw was his wife and family at a distance in their pony and trap, returning from their visit, as planned. The farmer set out at a brisk pace to meet them, reasoning that he had best tell his wife of their great good fortune before she learned of the many small misfortunes that had fallen upon them since the Brownie had withdrawn his favour from them. But when he came near, it was his wife who rushed forward. “Such news! Such news!” she gasped. “The most shocking thing has come to pass – the whole town is talking of it – such a terrible thing!”
‘“What is it?” asked the farmer, an ominous chill touching his heart.
‘“Why, just think, the whole family at Morton Hall, all killed at once!”
‘“Killed! All of them! How can that be?”
‘“It came about last night. They all sat down to supper shortly after dark, as usual, the parents and all eight children, but no sooner did they eat it than they were all rolling about in agonies on the floor. The doctor came, but all his labours were in vain: by morning every one of them was dead! It is thought that the food must have been poisoned, and the cook has been taken up on suspicion, though why she would do such a thing I cannot think, for she has a good position, and has been with the family most of her life, and what could she gain by their deaths? The will is to be read tomorrow, as soon as the solicitor can get here from York, and it is hoped that will cast some light on the matter. But why so pale, husband, and why do you tremble? It is a dreadful thing, to be sure, that there could be so much evil in the world, and so near by us. But it is nothing to us – we are all safe and sound, thank God.”
‘But this was small comfort to the farmer, as he turned and walked silently homeward beside the pony and cart. Gone now was any plan of telling his wife about his success with the Brownie. For once, the farmer longed to disbelieve in his own magic.
‘His wife, meanwhile, was clucking the pony forward into a trot, eager to get home and see how her flock, her dairy, and her garden had been getting on in her absence. The farmer lagged behind, preferring to let the servants be the ones to deliver the bad news, and the cries of dismay coming from the direction of the barn soon told him she was in full possession of it. Then his wife herself appeared, tears streaming down her face, for amid all the other losses was that of her favourite dairy cow, Belle, who had been with them since their poorer days, and was like one of the family, and she felt this death of a beloved beast more deeply than the deaths of all the strangers at Morton Hall. “What evil has come upon us?” she sobbed to her husband. “It seems as if all the goodness has gone from the world at once – children murdered in the bosom of their family in town, and here it seems as if all Nature is turned against us at once, my flock destroyed, and the garden trampled, and poor Belle …” Then, seeing her husband trembling like an aspen, she asked more pointedly, “What do you know of this?”
‘“Nothing,” he stammered awkwardly. “We have had more than our share of good luck these last few years, have we not? And now we have a little taste of the bad, to balance it, but we shall weather it all right – we have food in the house, and money in the bank, and soon all will be to rights again, you will see.”
‘“What of the Brownie?” she asked. “I thought our good fortune was his doing?”
‘“I am a little afeared,” said the farmer carefully, “that the Brownie may have, eh, heard me speak of my plan to capture him, and so he has taken offence, bringing these punishments upon us. We must let him know how sorry we are, and leave out better vittles and drink than ever, and we will soon put all to rights, I am sure.”
‘“Perhaps so,” said his wife, “but it seems hard that my own dairy and flock should be the ones to suffer, when he must know that I spoke against your plan, and I hope he will take that into account.” She spoke this last rather loudly, as if hoping the Brownie might be in earshot even then. “And as for you, you should take this lesson to heart, not to be wishing for wealth and idleness when you have prosperity enough already.”
‘“I have indeed,” said the farmer feelingly. He was already resolved that on the following Sunday he would ask the Brownie to reverse all he had done, and then forgo his last wish altogether – which, with some tempting offerings each night, might perhaps appease the Brownie, and return him to his former complaisance. True, it seemed unlikely that the creature’s powers would be great enough to bring the Mortons all back to life again – if indeed he had had anything to do with their deaths – but doubtless relatives would arrive to take possession in their place. As for himself, he thought, he would work with a good heart to the end of his days, with never a complaint, if but the burden of this horror could be lifted from his conscience.
‘But this was not to be. The next morning, while the family were at breakfast, a strange young man on horseback cantered up to the door, and, with pardons for interrupting the family at their meal, introduced himself as a clerk to the Morton family’s solicitor, with urgent business for the man of the house. The family’s eyes widened, as the farmer, with a sinking heart, rose and went outside to speak to the clerk. There he was informed that the solicitor, in going over the papers in Mr Morton’s study, had discovered a will of more recent date than the one he had prepared for his client.
‘“How recent?” gasped the farmer, terror gripping him.
‘“Oh, some two or three years back,” said the clerk, a little puzzled at this response, “but the one my master prepared is older than that, so this newer one, which was prepared by a different solicitor, is the one that will be read this afternoon. And it seems that you are named in it, no doubt for some small bequest, so I am come to bid you be present at the reading.”
‘The farmer went in and told this news to his wife, doing his best to act as if it were the most natural thing in the world, while straining his mind to invent a plausible explanation. “I never mentioned it to you at the time,” he said, “but some years ago I pulled young Master Morton from a bog in which he was stuck fast and sinking. It was a small enough service, but the lad had been badly frightened, and assured me I had saved his life. No doubt he told his father the same, and so Mr Morton has left me a little something in gratitude. You see our luck is turning again already,” he added, forcing a smile.
‘“That is lucky,” his wife said, “and I only hope it is a sum of money you are left and not some useless trinket like a ring or a cane, for I shall have to buy a whole new flock at the next market day, and perhaps another cow as well, and we are pinched already, with all the trouble your foolish talk has brought upon us.”
‘The farmer was glad enough, after that, to escape into town to hear the will. So he found himself sitting alongside a parcel of Morton relations from a nearby town, whose genuine grief at the horrific end of all their esteemed relations at once mingled with anticipation of their own likely good fortune as a result of it. But the contents of the will astonished them all. The farmer’s father, it explained, had been the natural son of Mr Morton’s grandfather by a serving maid, and was hence half-brother to this Mr Morton’s father. This secret had been hushed up by the girl’s marriage to a poor local farmer, and the bastard child himself had grown up knowing nothing of his true parentage. But, on his deathbed, the old man had repented of his neglect, and charged his only grandson and heir with making some amends to the boy’s descendants, should they prove worthy. With eight children of his own to provide for, and the family honour to consider, Mr Morton had not seen fit to do anything in his own lifetime, but upon enquiring after the character of his unknown uncle’s only surviving son, and finding him to be prosperous and held in high respect locally despite poor beginnings, he did alter his will to provide him with a small bequest, and, in the unlikely event that none of his own numerous children survived to inherit, with the reversion of the whole estate, as being the only other living descendant of his grandfather.
‘Great was the amazement that greeted this news, and even the farmer, who had dimly expected something along these lines, knew not what to make of it. After the reading, he hurried up to question the solicitor. Was the will really so old, he wanted to know, and how could they tell it was authentic?
‘“The authenticity of the will cannot be in doubt,” said the solicitor. “It was prepared by a different firm, but I well know the hand and seal of the late colleague who prepared it.”
‘“He died eighteen months ago,” the solicitor replied.
‘“How can that be?” the farmer stammered. “How could the will have been there all those years, and no one know about it at all? And my father, all the time half-brother to Mr Morton – can all this really be true?”
‘“Please sit down, sir,” said the solicitor kindly. “I fear this shock has been too much for you – the more so as it comes on the heels of this strange and sinister tragedy. Here, take a glass of brandy, and try to calm yourself a little.” The solicitor then turned to attend to the disappointed relations, who were as wonderstruck as the farmer, but with whom the solicitor had rather less patience as they were not likely to become his clients, and bustled them out of the room.
‘Thereupon he addressed himself respectfully to the farmer. “Good sir,” he said, “it speaks well of your heart that you show such distress at news that most men would find cause for rejoicing, and that you are so solicitous to assure yourself of the justice of your claim to good fortune. Of course, none of us can know the truth about private events that took place before we were born, and the participants in which are all now deceased. But I have looked into the household and parish records, and they do corroborate what the will says – your grandmother was indeed employed at Morton Hall until just before her marriage, and your father’s birth took place only six months after it. Did you know anything about this?
‘“Nothing,” said the farmer, beginning to recover his wits a little. “I knew that my grandmother had been in service before her marriage, but not where – she never spoke of it. And I am sure my father never had any cause to doubt he was his father’s son.”
‘“Well, I don’t doubt you,” the solicitor replied, “and you may rest assured that no suspicion will attach to you in these strange deaths, for I can attest that nothing could be more genuine than the shock and distress you displayed when the will was read. I watched you closely, given the suspicious circumstances of the family’s deaths, and saw that your face went suddenly ashen, and you began shaking like a leaf, when the revelation of your heritage was made. Expressions and manner may be feigned, as any lawyer knows, but the most thoroughgoing scoundrel could not counterfeit such a response. How and why the family came to be murdered, or whether it was only some horrible mishap, we have yet to learn, but you are innocent of any hand in it – I would stake my life that you knew nothing of that will or its contents before it was read.”
‘“I thank you, sir,” said the farmer. The horror that had struck him when he first heard his wife’s news was now beginning to abate, as it dawned on him that he might actually take possession of Morton Hall without losing the good opinion of his neighbours, or exciting any suspicions in the town, since even his own dismay at the news was taken as evidence of his innocence and good character. “Furthermore,” he thought to himself, “it appears that I am in truth the near relation of the late Mr Morton – for these are matters of record from many years ago, and surely no Brownie’s magic could extend to altering the past.” So the farmer reasoned, and if he could but have felt assured that his wish had played no part in the deaths of all the family, he would have been happy to believe that the inheritance was no more than was due to his parentage and proven merit, but about that his heart misgave him a little. “Even so, though,” he thought, “surely I myself am innocent of these deaths, for I would never have framed my wish in such terms if I had known what would be the result. The evil in this is the Brownie’s, not mine. But I have learned my lesson. I will rest content with what I have, and ask no more of the Brownie than I have already got.” Gone now, however, was his plan of asking the Brownie to revoke the wish he had already made – it would be better, he decided, to leave further wishing alone altogether, for however cautiously he framed his wish, might not the cunning Brownie find a way to turn it to evil? And it would certainly be pleasant to be master of Morton Hall.
‘The solicitor wished him to remain at Morton Hall and send for his family to tell them the news – offering to send his clerk again to carry the message – but the farmer thought it best to inform his wife in greater privacy. But he did have one of Mr Morton’s saddle horses readied, that he might ride home in comfort and style. As he walked the fine beast down the main street of the town he saw fingers pointing and heard on all sides the wondering murmurs in which the news of his inheritance spread. No one turned aside from him or cast looks of suspicion, and if there were a few of the better-born folk who showed a hint of scorn at his sudden elevation, there were many more who smiled, and bowed or curtseyed, already seeking favour with the new master at Morton Hall. All this lifted the farmer’s heart considerably. But it still remained to inform his wife of their change in fortunes.
‘When he came within sight of the cottage, it was his wife this time who hurried down the road to greet him. “So he has left you a horse!” she exclaimed. “Well, it looks like a very fine one. But we will have to sell it of course. These fancy saddle horses take a good deal of care and rich feeding, and we certainly could never hitch him to the plough. Still, it is a start on better times for us, I suppose – and the more cheering that it results from your own good deed to that poor lad.”
‘“The horse is the least of it, wife,” the farmer replied, choosing to ignore her last remark. “You cannot imagine what good fortune has befallen us. I am to inherit all of Morton Hall!” And he went on to explain about the revelations in the will, hoping that news of their elevation to prosperity and position would do away all his wife’s anger and grief.
‘But his wife’s suspicions were roused. She had had a day to discover the full scope of the Brownie’s revenge, and now she remembered too how strangely the farmer had first taken the news of the Mortons’ deaths. “There is something you are not telling me,” she said sharply, “what is it?” The farmer stammered out a denial, but his red face and frightened manner betrayed him. “Do not attempt to hide anything from me,” she added sternly, “you know I always see through your disguises.”
‘The farmer saw then that nothing less than the truth would satisfy his wife, and so, with downcast face and heavy heart, he confessed to her all that he had done. But he stressed also the date of the will and the evidence of the long-ago parish records. “It has all come about very strangely,” he said, “but it seems that I am indeed kin to the Mortons, and rightfully heir to their estate. As for their deaths, I wished no ill on them, nor did them any. If the Brownie has done this evil – which may not even be so – the sin is surely on his head, not mine. And I will make no more wishes, I am resolved.”
‘“What sort of man are you?” cried his wife. “How can you doubt that their deaths are your doing, whether you meant it or not? How did you think you could get possession of an estate of the size of Morton Hall in this neighbourhood without any appearance of magic, unless you were to get Morton Hall itself? And how might that come about, but by disposing of the current inhabitants? Their deaths are on your head, and if we take this ill-gotten inheritance, they will be on mine too! Think of it – first you betray that good little Brownie, who was the author of all our prosperity, and now ten people have died in agony, the youngest but five years old, to satisfy your greed and indolence – oh, it is horrible, horrible!” and his wife threw herself on the ground, sobbing in her grief and dismay.
‘The farmer endeavoured to reason away her distress, but in vain. Her mind was clearer and her heart truer than the selfish farmer’s, and she continued to reproach him with the evil he had brought upon them all.
‘“No,” she said, “I will tell you what we must do. We must tell the whole tale to the vicar in the village, and take his advice on the matter.” This suggestion filled the farmer with alarm. Convincing as he believed his own excuses to be, he had no wish to try their force on an educated clergyman. Who knew what conclusions he might come to? It was not so many years back that there had been trials for witchcraft in the area, tales of which still lingered in those hills, and for all he knew he might still be liable for prosecution. These points he urged on his wife, and, when he saw her resolve weaken a little, followed up with the plan he had formed earlier.
‘“Two wishes yet remain of those the Brownie promised me,” he said. “This Sunday evening I will ask him to undo all he can of my previous wish, and return us to our former condition, and I will forgo the last wish altogether. Then, when we have made what amends we can, we will try to go on as if none of this had happened at all.”
‘At first his wife would not hear of it. “Look how much evil came of your first wish,” she said. “How can you know the second will not bring worse?”
‘“We will guard against it in the wording of the wish,” the farmer assured her, “by telling him that no harm is to come to anyone in the fulfilment of it, just as I told him before that there was to be no appearance of magic.” Reluctantly his wife agreed to this, only stipulating that she should determine precisely what he was to say, and that she might still go to the vicar if the results failed to satisfy her conscience. The farmer then sent word to Morton Hall that his family would take some time to settle their affairs locally before taking possession of the estate. That Saturday, the children were sent to relations in town, and the servants dismissed, that there might be no mishap or interruption when they called upon the Brownie the following evening.
‘Now, when the farmer had suggested that they ask the Brownie to return them to their former condition, he had meant, of course, the condition of prosperity that the Brownie had first brought about on their poor farm. So he was dismayed to discover that his wife, in the sternness of her conscience, had resolved that they must renounce even that, and return to all the poverty of their early years. But he was desperate to silence his wife’s bitter reproaches (which she still made continually), and above all, to prevent her from going to the vicar, and so he agreed to whatever she suggested. His wife was anxious that there should be no mistake in the wording of the wish, so she had the farmer repeat it to her again and again, to be certain he had got it correctly, and she resolved to be present at the crucial moment, to prompt or correct him should it be needed.
‘When the sun began to sink towards the horizon on the appointed day, she stationed herself in the doorway to watch for the precise moment when it touched the earth, while the farmer paced in front of the hearth, muttering bitterly under his breath against his wife’s stubbornness, which would reduce them all to the direst poverty. But when she signalled that the moment had come, he stepped forward onto the hearth, heart pounding, and repeated the form of words his wife had taught him, asking the Brownie to reverse all the magic he had ever done for them that could be reversed without causing harm to anyone. No sooner had he done so than he heard a loud shriek from his wife, and she fell to the ground. He ran to her, and found she was dead!’
‘But how can that be?’ I interrupted in some annoyance. ‘The wish said clearly that no one was to be hurt!’ I disliked fairy stories with morals to them, and this one was shaping up to be of that objectionable variety.
‘If you will but let me finish the story, Nell, you will find out. Now hush.
‘When the farmer found his wife was dead, he cried out at once and reproached the Brownie for breaking his word – see, Nell? – To his surprise, the Brownie himself appeared on the hearth. “I have kept my promise,” he said.
‘“But I said that no one was to be harmed, and here is my own wife, dead!”
‘“I told you to speak a wish, but I did not promise to grant the wish you spoke,” the Brownie replied with a cruel smile. “You spoke the wish of your mouth, but I gave you the wish of your heart.”
‘Then the farmer saw that he had been tricked, and that all the while he spoke the words his wife had taught him, he had longed in his heart for everything that she would deny him while she lived. “Is my heart so evil then, that I could wish her death?” he cried.
‘“Can you deny it?” the Brownie replied.
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