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backwards; the wooden Flitch making a tremendous clatter as it reached the ground.
"Why the deuce did you leave go?" he observed, in an angry whisper to his wife, as she assisted him to rise.
"You're such a weight, I couldn't help it," she replied. "But do take care. Captain Juddock's looking at us." Then with an air of infinite concern, she added aloud, "Bless his dear little heart! I hope he's not much hurt. How sorry I am, to be sure. It was all my fault. Let me rub his poor back, and make it quite well." "All right again, now," Jonas said, shaking himself. "Lend a hand, ducky, to put this model by in the cupboard. I hope a fall isn't a bad omen," he ruminated, as he went along.
"I believe, Mr. Roper, you are steward of the Manor of Little Dunmow?" said Juddock. May I inquire, as matter of curiosity, how many successful applications have been made for the Flitch in your time?"
"Not one, I'm sorry to say, captain," the steward replied with a smile. "But our conditions are so hard that few can subscribe to them. Besides, the witnesses are very strictly examined."
"Udsbores! witnesses are necessary-ha?" Juddock ejaculated.
"Certainly. Corroborative testimony is required by the Court Baron in support of the application; and witnesses are heard per contra; both sides being cross-examined. Then the verdict of the Jury of Bachelors and Maidens must be unanimous. One dissentient voice would be fatal to the demandants. A severe ordeal, I assure you, captain, for married folk. Few are able to brook it."
"You hear all this, landlord?" Juddock remarked. have you no misgivings?"
"None whatever, captain," Jonas replied. "Have we, ducky ?" "Oh! none at all!" she said, quite confidently.
"Numerous demands have been made," the steward pursued; "but they have all been rejected on some plea or other. I happen to have the Register of the Court Baron in my pocket, containing a list of the claimants, and the objections made to them, and with the Squire's consent, I can read you a few extracts from it."
"You will oblige me eternally, sir, if you will," Juddock rejoined. "I shall be glad of any information I can obtain on the subject."
"What makes him so curious, I wonder?" Jonas muttered. "The rascal must have some dark design against me."
"I'm sure his honour won't refuse us!" Nelly cried, looking entreatingly at the Squire. "It will be so entertaining to hear how many deluded creatures there are-fancying themselves happy and devoted to each other-won't it, Jonas."
"Very entertaining, indeed! very!" he replied, trying to force a laugh, but with indifferent success. "That won't be our case-oh! no."
"Read what you please from the Register, Roper," the Squire said. "All claims being publicly made, there can be no reason for any secrecy."
Permission being thus accorded, the steward took from his pocket a clasped volume, bound in white calfskin, and, opening it, observed, "The Register of the Court Baron commences with the year 1702,
in the same month, and pretty nearly on the same day that Queen Anne ascended the throne. The first entry is as follows: Roger Appleton of South Bemfleet in this county, Tailor, and Tabitha his wife. Not allowed, because it was proved by a credible witness that the said Tabitha, on one occasion, had styled her husband 'the ninth part of a man."
"Served Snip right," Juddock cried, laughing. "Udsbores! If Dame Tabitha had had nine tailors for husbands, she would only have been as well off as any ordinary married woman, eh, Mrs. N.?"
Mr. Roper read on: "John Trott of Thaxted, Baker, and Prudence his wife. Approved; recited the oath; and received the Flitch; but words ensuing between them as they got into the chair, the prize was held to be forfeited, and they were deprived of it accordingly !"
"How very foolish!" Nelly exclaimed.
Why foolish?" Juddock asked.
"To quarrel at all, to be sure," Nelly quickly rejoined.
"No more demands were made in that year," Mr. Roper continued, turning over a leaf," but in the next there were several, amongst which was one on the part of Sir Conyers de Gaunt of Waltham, and Dame Arabella, his spouse; and owing to the importance of the parties, and the peculiarity of the circumstances, this application excited much attention. Considerable disparity it appears existed between the pair in point of age-Sir Conyers being nigh seventy and described as a battered old beau, while Lady de Gaunt was a very beautiful young woman, of three-and-twenty, who had been an actress, and was well known by her maiden name of Bell Fairbank, but not a whisper had been breathed against her fair fame. Twenty witnesses examined. All proved the entire happiness of the parties; and some declared they had never seen such a couple before. This phrase, appearing ambiguous, was explained by the witnesses to mean that they had never known two wedded persons so much attached to each other. Twenty-first witness (a female) declared she had once heard her ladyship say, 'Better be an old man's darling than a young man's warling.' Held an objection; but might be overruled, if nothing stronger appeared. Next witness (a discharged housemaid) swore she had given her ladyship a note, which had been hastily concealed as Sir Conyers was heard approaching. Mr. Humdrum, the head valet-de-chambre, had given witness the letter. Mr. Humdrum recalled, reluctantly admitted the truth of the statement, and being further interrogated, confessed that the note was from Charles Clipsby, her ladyship's cousin, who had been forbidden the house by Sir Conyers. Why was Charles Clipsby forbidden the house? To this demand from the Court, Mr. Humdrum professed utter inability to reply. The next and last witness, Juliana Clipsby, wife of the before-mentioned Charles, declared that her husband was neither cousin nor relation in any degree to Lady de Gaunt, but had been passed off as such as a blind, for purposes which would be apparent to the Court when she read a letter from her ladyship, which she had taken from her husband's pockets, wherein Sir Conyers was described as an old dupe and dotard, with sundry other epithets by no means complimentary to him, or expressive of affection on the part of his lady. The Court declined to hear the letter read in full, and at once rejected the application. Memorandum to this Case. Sir Conyers not only lost the Flitch, but his wife into the bargain; for separating from
her in consequence of the disclosures made in the course of the investigation, he subsequently obtained a divorce."
"But he got another wife, for he married Mrs. Clipsby, who was likewise divorced from her husband, as I perfectly recollect," said the Squire. "Proceed, Roper."
"The next demandants are Nehemiah Wagstaff and Margery his wife of Chipping Ongar," the steward said, "and in this case the lady was thirty years older than her husband; a fine strapping young fellow, six feet four in height, and two and a half broad from shoulder to shoulder." "'Slife! a proper young fellow-eh, Mrs. N. ?" Juddock cried, slapping his leviathan thigh.
"In addition to this, Mrs. Wagstaff had only one eye," pursued the steward.
"Then Wag got on her blind side, it is to be presumed," the giant remarked, with a loud guffaw.
"But she was very well off," Roper continued-" very well off, indeed. And so folks generally supposed Nehemiah had married Margery Gimcrack for her money; but to all appearances, no couple could be happier than they were. Mrs. Wagstaff doted on her spouse, and her spouse seemed to requite her affection. When the Oath was recited, Wagstaff was observed to hesitate a little at the second line, where the jurants declare that
'They ne'er made nuptial transgression,'
while his wife fixed her single eye rather sharply upon him. Required to repeat the line, he hurried quickly over it, upon which Mrs. Wagstaff insisted on its being pronounced a third time, and more deliberately; adding loud enough to be heard by the Jury, that she began to think her suspicions in regard to her housemaid, Susan, must be correct. Claim hereupon refused."
"That oath has proved a sad stumbling-block it must be owned," the Vicar observed, "but I hope the guilt of false-swearing has not been incurred by any of the parties."
"Your reverence cannot be too impressive on that point," Juddock said, glancing at Jonas.
"Peter Proby and his wife of Coggeshall, who stand next on the list," the steward pursued, "shared the fate of the Wagstaffs, for they could not affirm they had never offended each other
Since they were married man and wife
By household brawls or contentious strife.'
But Humphrey Chickweed of Romford, brewer, and Lettice, did very well till they came to the couplet
'Or since the parish clerk said Amen
Wished yourselves unmarried again.'
Hereupon Lettice remarked that people could not help their thoughts. Being questioned as to the meaning of the expression, she replied that she might sometimes have thought she had better have remained single; but she had never given utterance to the wish. Rejected. Mrs. Trinket of Bellericay said she could not positively swear that she loved her hus
band Timothy as fervently as she did on the day of her marriage, and therefore desired to omit the lines
'But continued true and in desire
As when they joined hands in holy quire.'
Claim disallowed. But the hardest case of all appears to be that of Dick Honeymoon of Braintree, and Theriaca his wife, who lived in perfect love and amity for a whole twelvemonth, and then as appeared, on inquiry, had words on the day over."
"Mind that, landlord," Juddock remarked.
"In short," the steward said, closing the Register, and putting it into his pocket, "insuperable objections have been raised to every demand. Unless the applicants can take the required Oath fully and unreservedly; unless their own declaration can be supported by unquestionable evidence; they are certain of refusal. Ours being a time-honoured custom, we are determined to maintain it in its integrity, and to carry it out in the spirit in which it was conceived. And as the reward we give is intended as a testimonial of the highest domestic merit, so nothing but decisive proofs of the existence of such merit will satisfy us. Accordingly, we are obliged to adopt unusual means of arriving at the truth. Every circumstance connected with the parties is inquired into, and we pierce somewhat inquisitorially, it may be, into private affairs. But this is unavoidable. Every thought, word, and deed, must be laid open to us. A cross look would be sufficient to nullify a claim."
"And all this gives you no uneasiness, landlord?" Juddock inquired. "You are prepared for these searching inquiries—eh ?”
Fully prepared, captain," Jonas answered, with something of a quaver in his tones.
'Well, you're a bold man that's all I can say," the giant rejoined. 'Sir, I have good reason to be bold," Jonas returned, plucking up his courage as he took his wife's hand, and looked tenderly into her face. "And so would you be if you were in my shoes."
"I wouldn't stand in your shoes for a trifle," muttered Juddock; adding aloud, "Well, Mr. Roper, I thank my stars I'm not married, and am not therefore likely to trouble you with any application on behalf of self and spouse; but I must say your conditions are too hard. 'Sblood! sir, they act as a prohibition."
"The greater the difficulty the greater the honour," the steward replied. "Our ordeal is strict, and very properly so, since we do not profess to reward common cases of domestic happiness, but such as are exceptional, and worthy of honour. Without referring to the loving couple here, who I trust are in a fair way of success, I may express my belief that Frank Woodbine and his wife will have no difficulty in substantiating their claim. I am quite aware that Jonas is of a different opinion, and means to produce evidence reflecting upon Frank's perfect fidelity to his wife; but I am pretty sure it will be explained away."
"I am glad to hear you say so, Roper," the Squire observed. "Here, Paul," he added to the old huntsman, "take another glass of punch, man. I'm not angry with you now. My curiosity is quite stimulated about this Rose Woodbine and her perfections. Where can she have
hidden herself that I have never caught a glimpse of her? I thought I knew every pretty girl in the neighbourhood, but, by all accounts, I have missed the prettiest."
"Just as well for Frank your honour has missed seeing her, in my opinion," Nelly said roguishly in his ear.
The Squire laughed, and remarked, "She was Mrs. Leslie's niece, I believe, Roper?"
"It is said so, sir."
"Said so! Why, isn't it the case? subject ?"
"Some other time I will explain myself," the steward replied; "but I always thought it strange your honour never chanced to behold her." Why it is strange-exceedingly strange!" the Squire cried, after a moment's reflection. "Often as I have been at Mrs. Leslie's during the good old curate's lifetime, and since, I never once came across the niece. It would almost seem as if she had been kept out of the way purposely.” "It looks very like it, indeed," Nelly remarked, in an under tone. "What was Rose's maiden name ?" the Squire asked.
Mildmay," the steward answered. "She came from Cumberland, I
"From what part of the county ?" the Squire said.
"From Penrith, I have heard," was Mr. Roper's reply.
"Penrith!" the Squire exclaimed, in surprise. "Why my niece comes
"Yes, sir-I know it," the steward answered evasively. "Mrs. Leslie I understand had a sister-a sister who died in that part of England." "Oh! yes, I recollect," the Squire interrupted somewhat hastily; "but she died unmarried, Roper."
"Then of course, she can't be Rose Woodbine's mother," Nelly observed. The little hussy had been listening attentively to what was said. "I can't pretend to say whether the lady was married or not," the steward rejoined " but I believe Rose to be her daughter."
"You do!" the Squire exclaimed. "Zounds! we must talk this over to-morrow. Why was it never mentioned to me before ?"
"I had no idea you took any interest in the matter, sir," the steward rejoined.
"Tut-tut-Roper-you know better. How dare
trifle with me,
I never meddle with other people's affairs-least of all with sir," the steward replied, in an apologetic tone.
"But there was nothing to meddle with in this case," the Squire cried, angrily. "You neglected your duty in not acquainting me with it." "I hope not, sir," the steward rejoined; "but at all events I acted for the best."
Squire Monkbury got very red in the face, and seemed to have some difficulty in controlling his passion. Mr. Roper, too, looked uneasy, and fidgeted in his chair.
"I wonder what all this means," Nelly muttered. "It quite passes my comprehension. But I'll try and find it out."
"Well, I must see her, and without delay," said the Squire. "It's too late to go to the cottage to-night."