THE Mugginses had owned the local carrier’s business between Ockley and Leith Hill for several generations, but “old” Muggins had never been much of a favourite. Very little was known of him except that he delivered parcels punctually and regularly.
Now, “young” Muggins had been quite another sort, and had been ready for a chat with anyone who was willing to listen to his wonderful tales. And “young” Muggins could spin yarns, and no mistake, of press-gang and buccaneering, of Nelson, or of Waterloo, for all the world as if he had seen everything with his own eyes.
“And we did rush at them, I can tell you,” he would say; “we saw Bony’s white charger straight before us, and heard the Iron Duke’s cheering voice ringing above the din of musketry and cannon, and I, in the foremost rank——”
At this point of the thrilling narrative Timothy Hooker, who kept the grocery store, remarked drily that the battle of Waterloo had been fought eighteen years ago, and that “young” Muggins, who was not twenty, must have been a very precocious soldier. But then Coldharbour and Ockley always had asserted that Timothy Hooker was jealous of “young” Muggins’ popularity, and his oracles were not always held to be infallible.
ONE day “young” Muggins was not in his accustomed place at the Abinger Hatch, nor was he there the next day, nor the day after that. Where he had gone to, no one could conjecture, and Mat Hookins remarked over his glass of ale: “I wonder now where be that young Muggins?” Then other matters cropped up, the death of Jane Kelsall’s cow, the fire at Upcher’s barn, and “young” Muggins was speedily forgotten.
One fine day a parcel addressed to “old” Muggins was handed to the old man by the Dorking carrier; the parcel was wrapped in a shabby brown coat; it had tiny feet and a fair, very curly head. It had come all the way from London, and did not seem altogether unexpected.
After that, when anyone happened to pass “old” Muggins’ cart, there was no longer silence beneath the hood as of old; an excited little voice would be heard shouting: “Whoa! Jemima! Whoa! Steady, old girl!” accompanied with such merry peals of laughter as did one’s heart good to hear.
Once, when Timothy Hooker was talking to “old” Muggins about the little lad, the latter said in an awed whisper: “What did he say, grandpa?”
From which remark it was necessarily concluded that the “little ’un” was “old” Muggins’ grandson.
No one thought of calling the new member of the Muggins family “young” Muggins. That name belonged to a vanished hero; but for seventeen years he was called “the little ’un,” though by that time he was close on six feet high. At the end of that time “old” Muggins went to the land where there are no carriers and no parcels, and “the little ’un,” whose name happened to be Pete, carried on the business after him.
He was then a fine-grown lad, not quite twenty-one, a little foolish, perhaps, and shy, but very steady and punctual in business. With the advent of the railway came one or two visitors to the village, artists mostly, and with them had come a great increase in business. “Pete Muggins must be doing well,” said one or two of the old oracles. “Milly Hooker might do worse,” added the women.
Milly Hooker, the pretty, fair-haired daughter of Timothy, the grocer, was then a very prepossessing young woman, and no one knew better how to take a parcel from the carrier than she did, with those nice dimpled hands of hers.
ONE day Pete met Miss Milly in the pretty beech lane outside Coldharbour. She had a basket on her arm, and was walking fast, for it was very cold. It was within a week of Christmas Day, and the great branches of the beech trees glistened with the frost, while cheeky robins, with bright red breasts, hopped merrily on the great gnarled roots, and cocked their little heads on one side as they watched Pete Muggins’ mare walking leisurely along.
“Let me put that basket in the cart, Miss Milly; it’s too heavy for you,” said Pete awkwardly.
The snow, crisp and hard, crackled beneath the wheels and the hoofs of the nag. Milly laughed, such a pretty, chirpy laugh, as made all the robins’ breasts pale with envy.
“Well, Mr. Pete,” she said archly, “I must tell you that I am a wee bit tired myself; perhaps Jemima won’t mind taking me part of the way along, too.”
“Oh, Miss Milly!” was all that poor Pete could say.
He jumped down from his cart and helped to make her comfortable on the narrow seat. It was obviously not his fault that, whenever Jemima gave a feeble jerk to the reins his right arm brushed against her left one, which sent a rush of blood to his head, and made him feel as if he could scream for very joy.
It was wonderful how well Jemima understood things. It seemed as if nothing on earth that was alive could get along so slowly as that knowing old mare. She eyed the passing snails in a sleepy fashion, as much as to say: “Sorry to see you are in such a hurry; I have got to kill time in this here road.”
Jemima managed to cover two miles in half-an-hour, during which time Miss Milly spoke of the coming Christmas and the approaching New Year; whilst poor Pete could only contrive to say a few “Oh, Miss Millys” and “No, Miss Millys,” for which he could have laid his whip across his own back, so foolish and clumsy did he feel.
But Jemima was a knowing old mare, who had seen a thing or two in her day, and no doubt she thought that matters were progressing even more slowly than her own clumsy gait.
As it was close on three o’clock, there was every palpable excuse for her, and she really was not accustomed to seeing stoats darting across the road in front of her.
She shied, and with dexterous cunning contrived to throw Miss Milly violently against her neighbor. Pete put out one arm, the left one, to save her from falling out of the cart; and his right arm, heedless of the Scriptures, immediately followed its example. So that Miss Milly found herself very tightly pinioned, and, wonderful to relate, she seemed in no hurry to extricate herself.
Jemima, satisfied with her performance, allowed a couple of snails to pass her; then she stopped altogether.
“Oh, Miss Milly! Miss Milly!” was all poor Pete could say.
Strangely enough, Miss Milly’s eloquence also seemed to desert her, for she merely sighed “Oh, Pete!”
A robin hopped into the hood and peeped down beneath it.
What he saw was evidently perfectly intelligible to him, for he winked a bright, knowing little eye, and went home for the night.
“Miss Milly! Milly, darling! I had no idea. I couldn’t guess.”
“That you—that you—would care for me at all—that is—you do care for me, then, just a little, Milly—Miss Milly, I mean.”
“Yes, Pete,” said Miss Milly, burying a very red face on the broad shoulder of the carrier.
“That’s all right!” thought Jemima, as she started off again at a very slow trot.
“Goodness gracious me! and here’s Ockley Post-office, I must get down Mr.—I mean Pete.”
“Not yet, Milly—wait a bit, do. Whoa! Jemima, whoa! Milly, it seems wonderful, I—I can’t quite believe it; tell me that this is all real, Milly, and that you have actually said that you care for me.”
“It’s all real, Pete.”
“And do you care for me enough, Milly, to—to marry me?”
“I will marry you, Pete, if you wish it.”
“If I wish it? Oh, Milly! Jemima, old girl, do you hear that? Why, Milly, for years and years, there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought of you, and talked to Jemima of you, but I didn’t hope—how could I? When shall we get married, Milly?”
“You must ask father, Pete.”
“I can’t keep you in luxury, Milly; though I have got £30 put by for furnishing and that. We would hire Mrs. Elms’ cottage, it has a nice stable for Jemima and I have earned as much as £1 a week during the summer, when visitors are about. Can we get married on that, do you think, Milly?”
“I think so, Pete; you see, we could let two of the rooms off to visitors during August and September. But, goodness me, here’s three o’clock just striking, and you won’t get home by daylight.”
“Milly, I want it to be night soon.”
“I want to sit in the dark and think.”
Jemima looked round in astonishment. She had never seen anything like it in all her life. There was that big, hulking fellow standing there, holding Miss Milly’s hand, and no one in sight.
“You may kiss me if you like!”
“That’s much better,” thought Jemima, as she discreetly looked another way.
HOW Pete Muggins ever got home that night he really never could have explained. That Milly should agree to marry him, make a home for him bright and lovely with her merry laugh and her pretty, dimpled face, was a vision of happiness of which honest Pete had never allowed himself even to dream too often. And now it was real—she had said so. God is good and the world is beautiful.
It was only when, having seen to Jemima’s comforts, he was alone in the little room which he hired from Mrs. Brown at The Camp, that he remembered a letter addressed to himself which had been handed to him at the Ockley Post-office. He had recognised the writing and put it in his pocket.
But now he snuffed the candle, drew a chair close to the table, and broke open the envelope. “From the dad!” he murmured quietly.
“Young” Muggins had not been translated to a better sphere, as his admirers in the village had supposed. He had merely at twenty-two years of age sought a wider field for his talents.
Apprenticed to a London builder, he soon learnt the business, and then married the daughter of his master. Four years later saw him a widower, father of a pretty boy not four years old. Remembering his home in the Surrey Hills, he sent the child to its grandfather, and continued to build houses, together with a fairly substantial fortune. From time to time Pete heard from his father; the letters never contained money, and were never prepaid, but they helped to keep father and son in close touch with one another. This one was very short, and it began:
Things have gone with me from bad to worse, this terrible war in the Crimea has been the ruin of trade. It has been my ruin, my boy! and at the close of my laborious, independent life I now stand, poor, ruined, a miserable creature, dependent on others for daily subsistence. What am I to do, my boy? I am too proud to beg; I am, they tell me, too old to work. I would not appeal to you but that I am starving. I have not tasted food for two days.Your despairing father,
JOHN PETER MUGGINS.
LONG did Pete sit there, with the letter in his hand, the candle smoky and snuffy, flickering faintly in the tiny room. Then, with a heavy sigh, he blew out the light, took off his clothes, and threw himself on the bed.
The next morning at ten o’clock, he was outside Mr. Hooker’s shop in Ockley. From the whole length of the street Pete could see a bright bit of colour in the doorway, and his beating heart told him that Milly was watching for him.
He threw the reins across Jemima’s back; his feet seemed like lead when he wanted to jump off the cart.
He took Milly’s little hand in his rough brown one, and looked at her as one looks at a cherished picture which is about to fade away. He could not speak then as his throat felt swollen and stiff.
“What’s wrong with you, Pete?” she asked.
He wouldn’t break down before her, in the open street; he took his father’s letter out of his pocket and gave it to her.
When she had read it, she asked very quietly: “What are you going to do, Pete?”
“I was going to ask you, Milly, what I should do.”
“Don’t you know? You wouldn’t see your father want, Pete?”
“What can you do for him, Pete?”
“You see, Milly, I am only earning twelve shillings a week in the winter and a sovereign, perhaps, in the summer, and if I have father to live with me then—”
“I see,” said Milly quietly.
She seemed suddenly to have grown a great deal older. She stood there before him, so serious and so still, with an infinity of sadness in her blue eyes. He passed the back of his rough hand across his eyes, and in a minute, womanlike, she placed her small, podgy hand on his sleeve.
“We must wait, Pete,” she said cheerfully. “That’s all.”
“Yes! wait a few years. We are both very young. Who knows? the next few years might make a lot of difference, and you could afford to think of your father and not to forget me—that is,” she added with the sweetest of arch smiles, “if you still wished not to forget.”
“Wait, Milly darling! Do you mean to say that you would wait for a fellow like me, and—” Pete had spoken in the fulness of his heart, but here he checked himself, drew his great, gawky figure bolt upright, and added:
“No, Milly. I would not be such a wretched coward as to spoil your life for you. But, Milly, whatever may befall, I shall never marry now, for I shall never love anyone as I love you.”
“I shall always love you, Pete,” she said earnestly, “and whenever you come to claim me for your wife I shall be ready and waiting for you!”
STRANGELY enough, the return of “young” Muggins to his old, familiar haunts was not greeted with that overwhelming joy which his heroic reputation should have insured for him. On the whole, the little group of villagers resented more than enjoyed the home-coming of their hero. In their sleepy way, they preferred to think of him as translated to a brighter sphere; they had hugged the belief that he had only left them to consort with dukes and princes, and to give forth his world-wide wisdom in the halls of the great.
To think that that ill-clothed, ill-fed, unwashed creature, who was seen one Christmas Eve, wearily lifting his shrivelled body into “Pete” Muggins’ cart, to think that that was “young” Muggins who had fought at Waterloo and held dying Nelson in his arms, was a shock from which the inhabitants of Coldharbour and Ockley never quite recovered.
As for Leith Hill, it looked on with a sleepy eye at the preparations Pete Huggins made for his father’s comfort. He hired Mrs. Elms’ cottage, furnished two rooms and a kitchen comfortably, and got Susie Elms to “do” for him and for his father, for all the world as if the latter were an artist who came to spend the summer in the hills.
Leith Hill shrugged its shoulders, and communicated its views to Ockley, and at Ockley Mr. Timothy Hooker was an oracle, possessed of certain indisputable rights to mind other people’s business. He met Pete in the Coldharbour lane one day, when the first tiny green buds peeped out on the graceful branches of the beech, and the first swallow had been spotted making for the eaves of the little village church.
Pete looked old; his tall figure seemed more gawky than ever.
“Pete Muggins,” said Mr. Hooker, “I hear you and your father are living like gentlemen up there at Mrs. Elms’. Do you think you are wise to spend every penny of your earnings and not be putting by against a rainy day?”
“You see, Mr. Hooker,” said Pete cheerfully, “my father has lived all his life as a gentleman. It would not do for him not to have all the comforts he has been used to, not now that he is giving me, as it were, the pleasure of living with me.”
“But it isn’t right that your father should live on your earnings, and prevent you getting married and settled yourself.”
“Business is getting very brisk, Mr. Hooker,” said Pete evasively.
Business certainly seemed brisk with Pete. Coldharbour was beginning to be a noted place, and visitors had begun to book rooms weeks in advance.
ONE Christmas Day Pete walked home with Molly from church. She was no longer the fresh young girl of eighteen. Her complexion was not quite so rosy as it was, and her figure had lost a little of its roundness. Still, she was a good-looking girl, and had had one or two offers of marriage in the past few years.
“Milly,” said Pete cheerfully, “another couple of years like the one I have just had, and I shall have another £30 put by and be making my £1 a week quite regular.”
“I shall only be thirty next birthday, Pete,” replied Milly, with some of her old archness. “You won’t think me too old a bride, will you?”
“Milly,” said Pete, “don’t, for goodness’ sake, talk like that or I shall make an ass of myself.”
“Then you still care for me, Pete?”
“More than earth or Heaven, Molly,” he replied, with simple earnestness.
THE following autumn Ockley was much surprised one morning to see Pete Muggins knocking at six o’clock at Dr. Jones’ door, and a quarter of an hour later the latter worthy hastily mounting into Pete’s cart and driving away with him in the direction of Leith Hill.
Leith Hill was the first to know that “young” Muggins was very ill. Some spoke of “rheumatiz,” others of “failin’ ’ealth.” Dr. Jones called twice in one day at Mrs. Elms’ cottage, and Pete looked pale and anxious.
Then Dr. Jones’ visits became less and less frequent, and finally ceased altogether, and one day a bundle of rags—a pallid shred of humanity—sat outside the cottage door, shivering beneath the still warm rays of a beautiful October sun.
There were many kind inquiries for Pete about his father whenever the carrier delivered his daily load of parcels.
“He is still ailing a bit,” was Pete’s uniform quiet comment.
And day after day, from year’s end to year’s end, that same pallid shred of humanity sat, a hopeless invalid, wrapped up in shawls, outside the cottage door. Dr. Jones came at times frequently, at others he stayed away for weeks on end, but from Dorking regularly there was a bottle of medicine, or perhaps a box of powder or pills, or even a jar of potted meat, waiting for Pete Muggins at Ockley railway station.
“Must cost him five shillings a week in drugs alone,” said Mr. Hooker.
“And Heaven only knows what the doctor’s bills will come to at the end of the year,” added Mat Kelsall sententiously.
Pete still walked home from church with Milly Hooker, who now wore a bonnet at morning service with strings tied under her chin, and who did not curl her hair any more since she had discovered a grey one in it.
“Milly, the last of the £30 went yesterday, and I owe twenty-five shillings to the Dorking chemist, and I have put nothing by for two years.”
“I know, Pete, you are a good son. How is your father to-day?”
“Just the same, Milly, just the same. The doctor says that with good food and proper care he may last for years. Good food is very expensive, but I do what I can.”
And then for the first time he spoke that which had gradually eaten into his heart, and made him lose all joy in life.
“It’s no use, Milly, not a bit of use. You are young yet. Can’t you think of some nice fellow you could make happy, Milly? It’s no use with me; I am getting old. I can never manage it now.”
“I am getting old, too, Pete, and I cannot think of some nice fellow. I know it’s no use, but I should never marry anyone else, and I don’t mind being an old maid.”
Sometimes “young” Muggins was ever so much better, but at others age seemed to creep very rapidly over him, still more shrivelling up his wretched body; but Dr. Jones’ verdict remained the same—“With good food and care he can last for years.”
Pete Muggins, too, was ageing fast. One day Jim Hooker, Milly’s brother, who was carrying on his father’s business, referred to the local carrier as “old” Muggins. After that “old” Muggins stuck to him. He was “old” Muggins to the young generation of Coldharbour and Ockley, as his grandfather had been before him. Silent and taciturn now, he would sit smoking all the day beneath the hood of his cart. Every seven or eight years he bought a new mare, which he invariably called “Jemima.” He had had four new mares since the day when he had first driven Dr. Jones from Ockley to Leith Hill, and it was the fourth mare which took the simple deal coffin which contained all that was left of the once heroic “young” Muggins to its final resting place in Ockley churchyard.
“Old” Muggins stood beside his father’s coffin, and among the crowd there was a pleasant-looking old woman dressed all in black, with a neat bonnet tied over her snow-white hair.
That afternoon, when Pete returned to his little cottage on Leith Hill, he found a large sealed packet on the table in his parlour.
“I found this in Mr. Muggins’ old coat pocket,” said Susie Elms. “You know, Mr. Pete, the one he always used to wear.”
Old Pete turned the packet over, fumbled for his spectacles, and at last managed to slowly spell out the superscription:
“To my son Pete, when I am dead.”
Puzzled, but strangely excited, the old man with trembling fingers broke open the many seals, and from out the packet there fell a letter and a bundle of something crisp and white which made old Pete’s heart stop beating. He opened the bundle first. It contained Bank of England notes, of a date nearly half-a-century ago. There were a hundred and fifty of them, for Pete counted them, and they were for £10 each.
Half dazed, not understanding, the old fellow gazed at the bits of paper, not taking in quite what they meant. They seemed to mock him with their crisp crackling, as he fingered each one in turn.
Then he thought of the letter; mechanically he unfolded it and began to read. It was dated thirty years previously, and began:
I hope that the inclosed will console you a little for your father’s death. I know it will come unexpectedly, and therefore you will enjoy it all the more. At first, when I came to live with you, my boy, I wanted to know if you would be a good son to me. If you had turned me away when I told you I was starving, this money would never have become yours. I had meant to let you know I had it, and then, perhaps, you and I might have lived comfortably together, but to-day, when you thought I was asleep, I heard you and Dr. Jones talking together, and he said to you “With care and good food he may last for years.” And then the thought came to me, that though you are a good son, all men are liable to temptation. Who knows, perhaps, if you expected to finger £1500 after my death, you might not always have given me that care which the doctor says is necessary in order that I should live for years.
But when I am gone you shall have the money. It may be to-morrow, it may be ten years hence, that is, if you continue to be the good son to me, and give me all the doctor prescribes for me.
May you make good use of this money, my boy.Your affectionate father,
JOHN PETER MUGGINS.
October 18th, 1869.
THE letter fell from “old” Muggins’ hand.
“It may be to-morrow, it may be ten years hence,” he repeated, and a great sob broke from his shrivelled old throat, while a tear began to glisten beneath the spectacles.
“Thirty years ago,” he murmured. “Milly was so pretty then.”
THE visitors who were at Ockley that summer, artists mostly, said they had never seen such a quaint wedding. The little church was decorated with heather, and there was a triumphal arch outside the porch.
An artist afterwards painted a picture of the scene as the bride and bridegroom advanced hand in hand through the little churchyard. The bridegroom was a tall, gawky old fellow, with iron-grey hair and a face furrowed by years, by wind, and by weather. The bride’s hair was snow-white, and her old face was rendered quite beautiful by the look of peaceful, serene happiness. Milly Hooker had waited for Pete, and when he came, grey-headed and old, to claim the promise she made him long ago, she had quietly placed her hand in his.
“I am ready, Pete,” she said.
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