The old lady was very precise and very particular; and as this ceremony had been observed for three successive summers without the slightest deviation from the accustomed form, she was not a little surprised on this particular morning to see the fat boy, instead of leaving the arbour, walk a few paces out of it, look carefully round him in every direction, and return towards her with great stealth and an air of the most profound mystery.
The old lady was timorous--most old ladies are--and her first impression was that the bloated lad was about to do her some grievous bodily harm with the view of possessing himself of her loose coin. She would have cried for assistance, but age and infirmity had long ago deprived her of the power of screaming; she, therefore, watched his motions with feelings of intense horror which were in no degree diminished by his coming close up to her, and shouting in her ear in an agitated, and as it seemed to her, a threatening tone--
Now it so happened that Mr. Jingle was walking in the garden close to the arbour at that moment. He too heard the shouts of 'Missus,' and stopped to hear more. There were three reasons for his doing so. In the first place, he was idle and curious; secondly, he was by no means scrupulous; thirdly, and lastly, he was concealed from view by some flowering shrubs. So there he stood, and there he listened.
'Missus!' shouted the fat boy.
'Well, Joe,' said the trembling old lady. 'I'm sure I have been a good mistress to you, Joe. You have invariably been treated very kindly. You have never had too much to do; and you have always had enough to eat.'
This last was an appeal to the fat boy's most sensitive feelings. He seemed touched, as he replied emphatically-- 'I knows I has.'
'Then what can you want to do now?' said the old lady, gaining courage.
'I wants to make your flesh creep,' replied the boy.
This sounded like a very bloodthirsty mode of showing one's gratitude; and as the old lady did not precisely understand the process by which such a result was to be attained, all her former horrors returned.
'What do you think I see in this very arbour last night?' inquired the boy.
'Bless us! What?' exclaimed the old lady, alarmed at the solemn manner of the corpulent youth.
'The strange gentleman--him as had his arm hurt--a-kissin' and huggin'--'
'Who, Joe? None of the servants, I hope.' 'Worser than that,' roared the fat boy, in the old lady's ear.
'Not one of my grandda'aters?'
'Worser than that.'
'Worse than that, Joe!' said the old lady, who had thought this the extreme limit of human atrocity. 'Who was it, Joe? I insist upon knowing.'
The fat boy looked cautiously round, and having concluded his survey, shouted in the old lady's ear--
'What!' said the old lady, in a shrill tone. 'Speak louder.'
'Miss Rachael,' roared the fat boy.
The train of nods which the fat boy gave by way of assent, communicated a blanc-mange like motion to his fat cheeks.
'And she suffered him!' exclaimed the old lady. A grin stole over the fat boy's features as he said--
'I see her a-kissin' of him agin.'
If Mr. Jingle, from his place of concealment, could have beheld the expression which the old lady's face assumed at this communication, the probability is that a sudden burst of laughter would have betrayed his close vicinity to the summer- house. He listened attentively. Fragments of angry sentences such as, 'Without my permission!'--'At her time of life'--'Miserable old 'ooman like me'--'Might have waited till I was dead,' and so forth, reached his ears; and then he heard the heels of the fat boy's boots crunching the gravel, as he retired and left the old lady alone.
It was a remarkable coincidence perhaps, but it was nevertheless a fact, that Mr. Jingle within five minutes of his arrival at Manor Farm on the preceding night, had inwardly resolved to lay siege to the heart of the spinster aunt, without delay. He had observation enough to see, that his off-hand manner was by no means disagreeable to the fair object of his attack; and he had more than a strong suspicion that she possessed that most desirable of all requisites, a small independence.