English Literature

Mistress Spitfire by J. S. Fletcher

Mistress Spitfire by J. S. Fletcher.jpg


At seven of the clock I turned away from the window, where, for a full hour, I had stood flattening my nose against the pane in a vain attempt to see something of interest in the dripping garden or the dank meadows outside. Sir Nicholas moved in his deep chair by the fire and then groaned, his old enemy catching him afresh and tweaking his great toe. Seeing that his pain had awakened him I went over and stood at his side. I saw the firelight glint on his frosted hair, and it woke in me some sleeping memory of a by gone winter. Yet then it was August, and had been a bright one, but that day we had suffered from a heavy rain which came with the dawn and kept pouring itself upon us without ceasing, so that no man putting his nose out o’ doors could have[2] said with certainty whether he sniffed April or November in the air. As for me, I was heartily sick of it and everything, and when my uncle’s silvery hair reminded me of winter I thought regretfully of the previous Christmas and of Mistress Catherine and the mistletoe that then hung over the very spot where I now stood watching Sir Nicholas making wry faces at his foot.

“Plague!” says he, “Plague on this toe of mine! Let me counsel thee, nephew—but what o’clock is it? God’s body! I must ha’ slept, gout or no gout, why, I must ha’ slept an hour.”

“An hour and a half, sir, by the clock,” says I. “But, by the time that I have watched at the window, a year, at the least.”


“Ha! Dull, eh? Why, nephew, I make little doubt that thou hast employed thyself in some fashion that was not altogether—the devil fly away with my toe!—not altogether without amusement. Thy thoughts, now—what, when I was thy age I could ha’ mused by the day together on something pleasant. Ha! I mind me of a day that I passed under a beech tree—I was then in love—I cut her name and mine—they were enclosed in a heart, and through the thicker part of it I carved an arrow. Cupid, eh, nephew?—and—and——”

“But I, sir,” says I, “have no maiden to think of, seeing that none thinks of me.”

“Why,” says he, with an arch look in his eyes, “that’s but a poor reason, Dick, for God’s faith, there are many men think of maidens that never think of them! Is there—plague take it, nephew! sit thee down like a Christian rather than stand lolling there on one leg like a dancing Frenchman. Is there, I say, no little pastry-cook’s wench in all Oxford that thou hast not set eyes on since Easter, and thought softly of? Ha, Dick, I mind me——”

But in the midst of his memories the pain in his toe seized him so violently that he screamed to me to fetch Barbara, who came leisurely from the housekeeper’s room, and bade me go forth and leave her with him, which I was not loth to do. And being heartily wearied and sick of the rain, and my poor uncle’s gout, and the house, which I had kept all day, I threw my cloak about me and lounged into the porch, and stood there, one shoulder against the wall, staring at the raindrops which pattered in the courtyard, and made a musical tinkle in every pool.


But there was naught in the courtyard or in the land beyond it likely to rouse me out of that dullness of spirit into which I was fast falling. The walls were dripping wet, there were rivulets of shiny water in the road outside, and across that lay the fields, as befogged and gray with the long day’s weeping as ever I saw them in autumn. ’Twas still early in the evening—the previous night I had seen the top of Pomfret church as I leaned against that door at the same hour—but already there was in the air a misty darkness accompanied by a chilling cold that searched its way through my thick cloak. I half regretted that I had not set out that morning for Doncaster, where I had promised to spend a day or two with my college friend, Matthew Richardson. ’Twould have been a wet ride thither, certainly, but what matter when I should have had good company and profitable conversation at the end of it? When Sir Nicholas had a touch of the gout he was neither company nor conversation for any man save in the way of quarrelling, and therefore I had kept away from him most of that day, striving to amuse myself with such books as he possessed in his justice room, or with the old guns and muskets that stood in racks on his walls. I never could[5] abide a wet day in a country house—in a town house it makes little difference, I think, for there are diversions and amusements of one sort and another, let alone a man’s occupation, but in the country I am minded to be abroad, on foot or on horseback, and to be kept inside by a day’s rain is exceeding irksome to me. So I stood in the porch feeling in no very good humour that August evening, and still the rain continued to fall.

There were, perhaps, more matters than one to trouble me that night. Here was I, Richard Coope, a young man of one-and-twenty years, at that time a scholar of Pembroke College in the University of Oxford, destined by my uncle, Sir Nicholas, to be one thing, while I myself mightily desired to be another. Because my father, John Coope, died young, leaving me no fortune, Sir Nicholas had taken me in hand, kindly enough, and had charged himself with my up-bringing and education. He was minded to send me to the bar, for something had persuaded him that I should at least become Lord High Chancellor, and add new glory to the family name. And that had been well enow, had I myself possessed the least liking for the quips and quiddities of the law, which, as a matter of fact, I hated like[6] poison. My taste was for other matters—wholly and first of all for the finer things in literature, such as a rare book or tract, a copy of elegant rhymes, or a page or so of prose that was worth the third reading. I had made verses myself in hours which should have been devoted to what the folk called serious business; and though there were often great law-books propped before me, my eyes took in little of their contents, so long as a broadsheet of ballads or such-like intercepted their gaze. After that—and ’twas a taste that no man need be ashamed of, I take it—I cared for naught so much as the sights and sounds of country life, and the peaceful occupations that are their accompaniment. What I desired for myself was that Sir Nicholas should let me live my own life in his old house, and leave me his estate when he died, so that I, like him, might be a country gentleman, and want for naught. I never could see any objection to that notion—it was not as if I cared for great riches, or had any desire to rise to perilous heights in the world. My uncle, ’tis true, was not a rich man, as some would count riches; but there was his Manor House, with its comfortable surroundings and a thousand pounds a year wherewith to maintain it in quiet dignity; and there[7] was none to whom he could leave it but me and my cousin, Mistress Alison French, who was already provided for, seeing that her own father was alive and a well-to-do man. To my thinking, the life of a country gentleman would suit me well—I should breed cattle and sheep, and occasionally compose a set of well-turned verses after the fashion of Sidney, whom I admired greatly, and more than all, I should have the scent of hawthorn blossoms and of the brown soil, instead of the stink of those musty parchments which I never could abide.

Now, Sir Nicholas and I had talked these matters over that morning, and we had differed, as we always did—at least, upon this particular question. He was all for what he called my advancement—I was for a quiet life after my own fashion.

“’Slife!” said he, after hearing my notions for the twentieth time; “to hear thee talk, boy, one would think that all the life and energy had gone out of us Coopes. And, beshrew me, so it has, for thou and I are the last of the lot, and I am too old to lift finger again.”

“I am willing enough to lift finger, sir,” I answered.[8] “You would not find me wanting if occasion arose to fasten up the doors and stand a siege——”

“Why, faith,” said he, “and that may come ere long, in these times.”

“But in the law, to which you destined me, there is precious little lifting of fingers save with a goose’s quill in them,” said I. “Every man to his taste, sir; ’tis a saying that I learnt from yourself.”

He looked at me meditatively.

“First and last,” said he, “I have laid out as much as a thousand pound upon thee, Dick.”

“Sir,” I said, “you have never doubted my gratitude.”

“Thou art a good lad,” he answered.[9] “I have not. But a thousand pound—’tis a great sum to be thrown away. I think, Dick, the law must occupy thee. What man, a Coope can achieve aught that he sets his mind to! Thy father, now, was Registrar to the Archbishop—I make no doubt he would have been Vicar-General and Chancellor of the Diocese if death had not removed him. As for thee, with all the advantages I have given thee, thou should’st at least become Lord Chief-Justice. ‘Lord Chief-Justice Coope’—’tis a high-sounding title, though I see no reason why not Lord Chancellor Coope. However, when that comes I shall be dead and gone. In the days of thy greatness, Dick, forget not to come here at times. The old place will make a country house for thee—thou canst turn aside to it in journeying ’twixt London and York—’twill be but poor lodging for a Lord Chancellor, but——”

As I stood watching the rain patter on the flags I remembered this, and laughed for the first time that day. Sir Nicholas was so certain of the things of which I was filled with doubt that his assurance gave me vast entertainment. He had regarded me as a future Lord Chancellor from my boyhood, and now it was too late to persuade him that such dignity was beyond my reach and capabilities. I began to wonder whether it was worth while to attempt persuasion upon him. In the very nature of things he could not live many years, being then much beyond three-score: it would therefore become me to follow his behests while he lived, and study my own inclinations when he was dead. I think it was the laughter which woke in me on remembering his prophecies as to my great state that moved me to this sensible reflection—howbeit, some of my gloom shifted itself, and I turned inside to make enquiry after[10] my good relative and see if I could do aught to entertain him until his bed-time.


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