a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Collected Stories Author: Ellen Wood * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0606621h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2006 Date most recently updated: August 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg of Australia HOME PAGE
Table of Contents
Ketira the Gipsy
Reality or Delusition?
"I TELL you what it is, Abel. You think of everybody else before yourself. The Squire says there's no sense in it."
"No sense in what, Master Johnny?"
"Why, in supplying those ill-doing Standishes with your substance. Herbs, and honey, and medicine--they are always getting something or other out of you."
"But they generally need it, sir."
"Well, they don't deserve it, you know. The Squire went into a temper to-day, saying the vagabonds ought to be left to starve if they did not choose to work, instead of being helped by the public."
Our hen-roosts had been robbed, and it was pretty certain that one or other of the Standish brothers was the thief. Perhaps all three had a hand in it. Chancing to pass Abel Carew's garden, where he was at work, I turned in to tell him of the raid; and stayed, talking. It was pleasant to sit on the bench outside the cottage-window, and watch him tend his roots and flowers. The air was redolent of perfume; the bees were humming as they sailed in the summer sunshine from herb to herb, flower to flower; the dark blue sky was unclouded.
"Just look at those queer-looking people, Abel! They must be gipsies."
Abel let his hands rest on his rake, and lifted his eyes to the common. Crossing it, came two women, one elderly, one very young--a girl, in fact. Their red cloaks shone in the sun; very coarse and sunburnt straw hats were tied down with red kerchiefs. That they belonged to the gipsy fraternity was apparent at the first glance. Pale olive complexions, the elder one's almost yellow, were lighted up with black eyes of wonderful brilliancy. The young girl was strikingly beautiful; her features clearly cut and delicate, as though carved from marble, her smooth and abundant hair of a purple black. The other's hair was purple black also, and had not a grey thread in it.
"They must be coming to tell our fortunes, Abel," I said jestingly. For the two women seemed to be making direct for the gate.
No answer from Abel, and I turned to look at him. He was gazing at the coming figures with the most intense gaze, a curious expression of inquiring doubt on his face. The rake fell from his hand.
"My search is ended," spoke the woman, halting at the gate, her glittering black eyes scanning him intently. "You are Abel Carew."
"Is it Ketira?" he asked, the words dropping from him in slow hesitation, as he took a step forward.
"Am I so much changed that you need doubt it for a moment?" she returned: and her tone and accent fell soft and liquid; her diction was of the purest, with just the slightest foreign ring in it. "Forty years have rolled on since you and I met, Abel Carew; but I come of a race whose faces do not change. As we are in youth, so we are in age--save for the inevitable traces left by time."
"And this?" questioned Abel, as he looked at the girl and drew back his gate.
"She is Ketira also; my youngest and dearest. The youngest of sixteen children, Abel Carew; and every one of them, save herself, lying under the sod."
"What--dead?" he exclaimed. "Sixteen!"
"Fifteen are dead, and are resting in peace in different lands: ten of them died in infancy ere I had well taken my first look at their little faces. She is the sixteenth. See you the likeness?" added the gipsy, pointing to the girl's face; as she stood, modest and silent, a conscious colour tingeing her olive cheeks, and glancing up now and again through her long black eyelashes at Abel Carew.
"Likeness to you, Ketira?"
"Not to me: though there exists enough of it between us to betray that we are mother and daughter. To him--her father."
And, while Abel was looking at the girl, I looked. And in that moment it struck me that her face bore a remarkable likeness to his own. The features were of the same high-bred cast, pure and refined; you might have said they were made in the same mould.
"I see; yes," said Abel.
"He has been gone, too, this many a year; as you, perhaps, may know, Abel; and is with the rest, waiting for us in the spirit-land. Kettie does not remember him, it is so long ago. There are only she and I left to go now. Kettie--"
She suddenly changed her language to one I did not understand. Neither, as was easy to be seen, did Abel Carew. Whether it was Hebrew, or Egyptian, or any other rare tongue, I knew not; but I had never in my life heard its sounds before.
"I am telling Kettie that in you she may see what her father was--for the likeness in your face and his, allowing for the difference of age, is great."
"Does Kettie not speak English?" inquired Abel.
"Oh yes, I speak it," answered the girl, slightly smiling, and her tones were soft and perfect as those of her mother.
"And where have you been since his death, Ketira? Stationary in Ai--"
He dropped his voice to a whisper at the last word, and I did not catch it. I suppose he did not intend me to.
"Not stationary for long anywhere," she answered, passing into the cottage with a majestic step. I lifted my hat to the women--who, for all their gipsy dress and origin, seemed to command consideration--and made off.
The arrival of these curious people caused some commotion at Church Dykely. It was so rare we had any event to enliven us. They took up their abode in a lonely cottage no better than a hut (one room up and one down) that stood within that lively place, the wilderness on the outskirts of Chanasse Grange; and there they stayed. How they got a living nobody knew: some thought the gipsy must have an income, others that Abel helped them.
"She was very handsome in her youth," he said to me one day, as if he wished to give some explanation of the arrival I had chanced to witness. "Handsomer and finer by far than her daughter is; and one who was very near of kin to me married her--would marry her. She was a born gipsy, of what is called a high-caste tribe."
That was all he said. For Abel's sake, who was so respected, Church Dykely felt inclined to give respect to the women. But, when it was discovered that Ketira would tell the fortune of any one who cared to go sumptitiously to her lonely hut, the respect cooled down. "Ketira the gipsy," she was universally called: nobody knew her by any other name. The fortune-telling came to the ears of Abel, arousing his indignation. He went to Ketira in distress, begging of her to cease such practices--but she waved him majestically out of the hut, and bade him mind his own business. Occasionally the mother and daughter shut up their dwelling and disappeared for weeks together. It was assumed they went to attend fairs and races, camping out with the gipsy fraternity. Kettie at all times and seasons was modest and good; never was an unmaidenly look seen from her, or a bold word heard. In appearance and manner and diction she might have been a born lady, and a high-bred one. Graceful and innocent was Kettie; but heedless and giddy, as girls are apt to be.
"Look there, Johnny!"
We were at Worcester races, walking about on the course. I turned at Tod's words, and saw Ketira the gipsy, her red cloak gleaming in the sun, just as it had gleamed that day, a year before, on Dykely Common. For the past month she had been away, and her cottage shut up.
She stood at the open door of a carriage, reading the hand of the lady inside it. A notable object was Ketira on the course, with her quaint attire, her majestic figure, her fine olive-dark features, and the fire of her brilliant eyes. What good or ill luck she was promising, I know not; but I saw the lady turn pale and snatch her hand away. "You cannot know what you tell me," she cried in a haughty tone, sharp enough and loud enough to be heard.
"Wait and see," rejoined Ketira, turning away.
"So you have come here to see the fun, Ketira," I said to her, as she was brushing by me. During the past year I had seen more of her than many people had, and we had grown familiar; for she, as she once expressed it, "took" to me.
"The fun and the business; the pleasure and the wickedness," she answered, with a sweep of the hand round the course. "There's plenty of it abroad."
"Is Kettie not here?" I asked: and the question made her eyes glare. Though, why, I was at a loss to know, seeing that a race-ground is the legitimate resort of gipsies.
"Kettie! Do you suppose I bring Kettie to these scenes--to be gazed at by this ribald mass?"
"Well, it is a rabble, and a good one," I answered, looking at the crowd.
"Nay, boy," said she, following my glance, "it's not the rabble Kettie need fear, as you count rabble; it's their betters"--swaying her arms towards the carriages, and the dandies, their owners or guests; some of whom were balancing themselves on the steps to talk to the pretty girls within, and some were strolling about the enclosed paddock, forbidden ground but to the "upper few." "Ketira is too fair to be shown to them."
"They would not eat her, Ketira."
"No, they would not eat her," she replied in a dreamy tone, as if her thoughts were elsewhere.
"And I don't see any other harm they could do her, guarded by you."
"Boy," she said, dropping her voice to an impressive whisper and lightly touching my arm with her yellow hand, "I have read Kettie's fate in the stars, and I see that there is some great and grievous peril approaching her. It may be averted; there's just a chance that it may: meanwhile I am encompassing her about with care, guarding her as the apple of my eye."
"And if it should not be averted?" I asked in the moment's impulse, carried away by the woman's impressive earnestness.
"Then woe be to those who bring the evil upon her!"
"And of what nature is the evil?"
"I know not," she replied, her eyes taking a gain their dreamy, far-off look. "Woe is me!--for I know it not."
"How do you do, Ludlow? Not here alone, are you?"
A good-looking young fellow, Hyde Stockhausen, had reined in his horse to ask the question: giving at the same time a keen glance to the gipsy woman and then a half-smile at me, as if he suspected I was having my fortune told.
"The rest are on the course somewhere. The Squire is driving old Jacobson about."
As Hyde nodded and rode on, I chanced to see Ketira's face. It was stretched out after him with the most eager gaze on it, a defiant look in her black eyes. I thought Stockhausen must have offended her.
"Do you know him?" I asked involuntarily.
"I never saw him before; but I don't like him," she answered, showing her white and gleaming teeth. "Who is he?"
"His name is Stockhausen."
"I don't like him," she repeated in a muttering tone. "He is an enemy. I don't like his look."
Considering that he was a well-looking man, with a pleasant face and gay blue eyes, a face that no reasonable spirit could take umbrage at, I wondered to hear her say this.
"You must have a peculiar taste in looks, Ketira, to dislike his."
"You don't understand," she said abruptly: and, turning away, disappeared in the throng.
Only once more did I catch sight of Ketira that day. It was at the lower end of Pitchcroft, near the show. She was standing in front of a booth, staring at a group of horsemen who seemed to have met and halted there, one of whom was young Stockhausen. Again the notion crossed me that he must in some way have affronted her. It was on him her eyes were fixed: and in them lay the same curious, defiant expression of antagonism, mingled with fear.
Hyde Stockhausen was the step-son of old Massock of South Crabb. The Stockhausens had a name in Worcestershire for dying off, as I have told the reader before. Hyde's father had proved no exception. After his death the widow married Massock the brickmaker, putting up with the man's vulgarity for the sake of his riches. It took people by surprise: for she had been a lady always, as Miss Hyde and as Mrs. Stockhausen; one might have thought she would rather have put up with a clown from Pershore fair than with Massock the illiterate. Hyde Stockhausen was well educated: his uncle, Tom Hyde the parson, had taken care of that. At twenty-one he came into some money, and at once began to do his best to spend it. He was to have been a parson, but could not get through at Oxford, and gave up trying for it. His uncle quarrelled with him then: he knew Hyde had not tried to pass, and that he openly said nobody should make a parson of him. After the quarrel, Hyde went off to see what the Continent was like. He stayed so long that the world at home thought he was lost. For the past ten or eleven months he had been back at his mother's at South Crabb, knocking about, as Massock phrased it to the Squire one day. Hyde said he was "looking out" for something to do: but he was quite easy as to the future, feeling sure his old uncle would leave him well off. Parson Hyde had never married; and had plenty of money to bequeath to somebody. As to Hyde's own money, that had nearly come to an end.
Naturally old Massock (an ill-conditioned kind of man) grew impatient over this state of things, reproaching Hyde with his idle habits, which were a bad example for his own sons. And only just before this very day that we were on Worcester race-course, rumours reached Church Dykely that Stockhausen was coming over to settle there and superintend certain fields of brick-making, which Massock had recently purchased and commenced working. As if Massock could not have kept himself and his bricks at South Crabb! But it was hardly likely that Hyde, really a gentleman, would take to brick-making.
We did not know much of him. His connection with Massock had kept people aloof. Many who would have been glad enough to make friends with Hyde would not do it as long as he had his home at Massock's. His mother's strange and fatal marriage with the man (fatal as regarded her place in society) told upon Hyde, and there's no doubt he must have felt the smart.
The rumour proved to be correct. Hyde Stockhausen took up his abode at Church Dykely, as overseer, or clerk, or manager--whatever might be the right term for it--of the men employed in his step-father's brick operations. The pretty little house, called Virginia Cottage, owned by Henry Rimmer, which had the Virginia creeper trailing up its red walls, and flowers clustering in its productive garden, was furnished for him; and Hyde installed himself in it as thoroughly and completely as though he had entered on brick-making for life. Some people laughed "But it's only while I am turning myself round," he said, one day, to the Squire.
Hyde soon got acquainted with Church Dykely, and would drop into people's houses of an evening, laughing over his occupation, and saying he should be able to make bricks himself in time. His chief work seemed to be in standing about the brick-yard watching the men, and in writing and book-keeping at home. Old Massock made his appearance once a month when accounts and such-like items were gone over between them.
When it was that Hyde first got on speaking terms with Kettie, or where, or how, I cannot tell. So far as I know, nobody could tell. It was late in the autumn when Ketira and her daughter came back to their hut; and by the following early spring some of up had grown accustomed to seeing Hyde and Kettie together in an evening, snatching a short whisper or a five-minutes' walk. In March, I think it was, she and Ketira, went away again, and returned in May.
The twenty-ninth of May was at that time kept as a holiday in Worcestershire, though it has dropped out of use as such in late years. In Worcester itself there was a grand procession, which country people went in to see, and a special service in the cathedral. We had service also at Church Dykely, and the villagers adorned their front-doors with immense oak boughs, sprays of which we young ones wore in our jackets, the oak-balls and leaves gilded. I remember one year that the big bough (almost a tree) which Henry Rimmer had hoisted over his sign, the "Silver Bear," came to grief. Whether Rimmer had not secured it as firmly as usual, or that the cords were rotten, down came the huge bough with a crash on old Mr. Stirling's head, who chanced to be coming out of the inn. He went on at Rimmer finely, vowing his neck was broken, and that Rimmer ought to be hung up there himself.
On this twenty-ninth of May I met Kettie. It was on the common, near Abel Carew's. Kettie had caught up the fashion of the place, and wore a little spray of oak peeping out from between the folds of her red cloak. And I may as well say that neither she nor her mother ever went out without the cloak. In cold and heat, in rain and sunshine, the red cloak was worn out-of-doors.
"Are you making holiday to-day, Kettie?"
"Not more than usual; all days are the same to us," she answered, in her sweet, soft voice, and with the slightly foreign accent that attended the speech of both. But Kettie had it more strongly than her mother.
"You have not gilded your oak-ball."
Kettie glanced down at the one ball, nestling amid its green leaves. "I had no gilding to put on it, Mr. Johnny."
"No! I have some in my pocket. Let me gild it for you."
Her teeth shone like pearls as she smiled and held out the spray. How beautiful she was! with those delicate features and the large dark eyes!--eyes that were softer than Ketira's. Taking the little paper book from my pocket, and some of the gilt leaf from between its tissue leaves, I wetted the oak-ball and gilded it. Kettie watched intently.
"Where did you get it all from?" she asked, meaning the gilt leaf.
"I bought it at Hewitt's. Don't you know the shop? A stationer's; next door to Pettipher the druggist's. Hewitt does no end of a trade in these leaves on the twenty-ninth of May."
"Did you buy it to gild oak-balls for yourself, sir?"
"For the young ones at home: Hugh and Lena. There it is Kettie."
Had it been a ball of solid gold that I put into her hand instead of a gilded oak-ball, Kettie could not have shown more intense delight. Her cheeks flushed; the wonderful brilliancy that Joy brought to her eyes caused my own eyes to turn away. For her eighteen years she was childish in some things; very much so, considering the experience that her wandering life must (as one would suppose) have brought her. In replacing the spray within her cloak, Kettie dropped something out of her hand--apparently a small box folded in paper. I picked it up.
"Is it a fairing, Kettie? But this is not fair time."
"It is--I forget the name," she replied, looking at me and hesitating. "My mother is ill; the pains are in her shoulder again; and my uncle Abel has given me this to rub upon it, the same that did her good before. I cannot just call the name to mind in the English tongue."
"Say it in your own."
She spoke a very outlandish word, laughed, and turned red again. Certainly there never lived a more modest girl than Kettie.
"Is it liniment?--ointment?"
"Yes, it is that, the last," she said: "Abel calls it so. I thank you for what you have done for me, sir. Good-day."
To show so much gratitude for that foolish bit of gilt leaf on her oak-ball! It illumined every line of her face. I liked Kettie: liked her for her innocent simplicity. Had she not been a gipsy, many a gentleman might have been proud to make her his wife.
Close upon that, it was known that Ketira was laid up with rheumatism. The weather came in hot, and the days went on; and Kettie and Hyde were now and then seen together.
One evening, on leaving Mrs. Scott's, where we had been to arrange with Sam to go fishing with us on the morrow, Tod said he would invite Hyde Stockhausen to be of the party; so we took Virginia Cottage on our road home, and asked for Hyde.
"Not at home!" retorted Tod, resenting the old woman's answer, as though it had been a personal affront. "Where is he?"
"Master Hyde has only just stepped out, sir; twenty minutes ago, or so," said she, pleadingly excusing the fact. Which was but natural: she had been Hyde's nurse when he was a child; and had now come here to do for him. "I dare say, sir, he be only walking about a bit, to get the fresh air."
Tod whistled some bars of a tune thoughtfully. He did not like to be crossed.
"Well, look here, Mrs. Preen," said he. "Some of us are going to fish in the long pond on Mr. Jacobson's grounds to-morrow: tell Mr. Hyde that if he would like to join us, I shall be happy to see him. Breakfast, half-past eight o'clock; sharp."
In turning out beyond the garden, I could not help noticing how pretty and romantic was the scene. A good many trees grew about that part, thick enough almost for a wood in places; and the light and shade, cast by the moon on the grass amidst them, had quite a weird appearance. It was a bright night; the moon high in the sky.
"Is that Hyde?" cried Tod.
Halting for a moment in doubt, he peered out over the field to the distance. Some one was leisurely pacing under the opposite trees. Two people, I thought: but they were completely in the shade.
"I think it is Hyde, Tod. Somebody is with him."
"Just wait another instant, lad, and they'll be in that patch of moonlight by the turning."
But they did not go into that patch of moonlight. Just before they reached it (and the two figures were plain enough now) they turned back again and took the narrow inlet that led to Oxlip Dell. Whoever it was with Hyde had a hooded cloak on. Was it a red one? Tod laughed.
"Oh, by George, here's fun! He has got Kettie out for a moonlight stroll. Let's go and ask them how they enjoy it."
"Hyde might not like us to."
"There you are again, Johnny, with your queer scruples! Stuff and nonsense! Stockhausen can't have anything to say to Kettie that all the world may not hear. I want to tell him about to-morrow."
Tod made off across the grass for the inlet, I after him. Yes, there they were, promenading Oxlip Dell in the flickering light now in the shade, now in the brightest of the moonbeams Hyde's arm hugging her red cloak.
Tod gave a grunt of displeasure. "Stockhausen must be doing it for pastime," he said; "but he ought not to be so thoughtless. Ketira the gipsy would give the girl a shaking if she knew: she--"
The words came to an abrupt ending. There stood Ketira herself.
She was at the extreme end of the inlet amid the trees, holding on by the trunk of one, round which her head was cautiously pushed to view the promenaders. Comparatively speaking, it was dark just here; but I could see the strangely-wild look in the gipsy's eyes: the woe-begone expression of her remarkable face.
"It is coming," she said, apparently in answer to Tod's remarks, which she could not have failed to hear. "It is coming quickly."
"What is coming?" I asked.
"The fate in store for her. And it's worse than death."
"If you don't like her to walk out by moonlight, why not keep her in?--not that there can be any harm in it," interposed Tod. "If you don't approve of her being friendly with Hyde Stockhausen," he went on after a pause, for Ketira made no answer, "why don't you put a stop to it?"
"Because she has her mother's spirit and her mother's will," cried Ketira. "And she likes to have her own way: and I fear, woe's me! that if I forced her to mine, things might become worse than they are even now: that she might take some fatal step."
"I am going home," said Tod at this juncture, perhaps fancying the matter was getting complicated: and, of all things, he hated complications. "Good-night, old lady. We heard you were in bed with rheumatism."
He set off back, up the narrow inlet. I said I'd catch him up and stayed behind for a last word with Ketira.
"What did you mean by a fatal step?"
"That she might leave me and seek the protection of the Tribe. We have had words about this. Kettie says little, but I see the signs of determination in her silent face. 'I will not have you meet or speak to that man,' I said to her this morning--for she was out with him last evening also. She made me no, reply: but--you see--how she has obeyed! Her heart's life has been awakened, and by him. There's only one object to whom she clings now in all the whole earth; and that is to him. I am nothing."
"He will not bring any great harm upon her: you need not fear that of Hyde Stockhausen."
"Did I say he would?" she answered fiercely, her black eyes glaring and gleaming. "But he will bring sorrow on her and rend her heart-strings. A man's fancies are light as the summer wind, fickle as the ocean waves: but when a woman loves it is for life; sometimes for death."
Hyde and Kettie had disappeared at the upper end of the dell, taking the way that in a minute or two would bring them out in the open fields. Ketira turned back along the narrow path, and I with her.
"I knew he would bring some ill upon me, that first moment when I saw him on Worcester race-ground," resumed Ketira in a low tone of pain. "Instinct warned me that he was an enemy. And what ill can be like that of stealing my young child's heart! Once a girl's heart is taken--and taken but to be toyed with, to be flung back at will--her day-dreams in this life are over."
Emerging into the open ground, the first thing we saw was the pair of lovers about to part. They were standing face to face: Hyde held both her hands while speaking his last words, and then bent suddenly down, as if to whisper them. Ketira gave a sharp cry at that, perhaps she fancied he was stealing a kiss, and lifted her right hand menacingly. The girl ran swiftly in the direction of her home--which was not far off--and Hyde strode, not much less quickly, towards his. Ketira stood as still as a stone image, watching him till he disappeared within his gate.
"There's no harm in it," I persuasively said, sorry to see her so full of trouble. But she was as one who heard not.
"No harm at all, Ketira. I dare answer for it that a score of lads and lasses are out. Why should we not walk in the moonlight as well as the sunlight? For my part, I should call it a shame to stay indoors on this glorious night."
"An enemy, an enemy! A grand gentleman, who will leave her to pine her heart away! What kind of man is he, that Hyde Stockhausen?" she continued, turning to me fiercely.
"Kind of man? A pleasant one. I have not heard any ill of him."
"No. Perhaps he will be rich some time. He makes bricks, you know, now. That is, he superintends the men."
"Yes, I know," she answered: and I don't suppose there was much connected with Hyde she did not know. Looking this way, looking that, she at length began to walk, slowly and painfully, towards Hyde's gate. The thought had crossed me--why did she not take Kettie away on one of their long expeditions if she dreaded him so much. But the rheumatism lay upon her still too heavily.
Flinging open the gate, she went across the garden, not making for the proper entrance, but for a lighted room, whose French-window stood open to the ground. Hyde was there just sitting down to supper.
"Come in with me," she said, turning her head round to beckon me on.
But I did not choose to go in. It was no affair of mine that I should beard Hyde in his den. Very astonished indeed must he have been, when she glided in at the window, and stood before him. I saw him rise from his chair; I saw the astounded look of old Deborah Preen when she came in with his supper ale in a jug.
What they said to one another, I know not. I did not wish to listen, though it was only natural I should stay to see the play out. Just as natural as it was for Preen to come stealing round through the kidney beans to the front-garden, an anxious look on her face.
"What does that old gipsy woman want with the young master, Mr. Ludlow? Is he having his fortune told?"
"I shouldn't wonder. Wish some good genius would tell mine!"
The interview seemed to have been short and sharp. Ketira was coming out again. Hyde followed her to the window. Both were talking at once, and the tail of the dispute reached our ears.
"I repeat to you that you are totally mistaken," Hyde was saying. "I have no 'designs,' as you put it, on your daughter, good or bad; no design whatever. She is perfectly free to go her own way, for me. My good woman, you have no cause to adjure me in that solemn manner. Sacred? 'Under Heaven's protection?' Well, so she may be. I hope she is. Why should I wish to hinder it? I don't wish to, I don't intend to. You need not glare so."
Ketira, outside the window now, turned and faced him, her great eyes fixed on him, her hand raised in menace.
"Do not forget that I have warned you, Hyde Stockhausen. By the Great Power that regulates all things, human and divine, I affirm that I speak the truth. If harm in any shape or of any kind comes to my child, my dear one, my only one, through you, it will cost you more than you would now care to have foretold."
"Bless my heart!" faintly ejaculated old Preen. And she drew away, and backed for shelter into the bean rows.
Ketira brushed against me as she passed, taking no notice whatever; left the garden, and limped away. Hyde saw me swinging through the gate.
"Are you there, Johnny?" he said, coming forward. "Did you hear that old gipsy woman?" And in a few words I told him all about it.
"Such a fuss for nothing!" he exclaimed. "I'm sure I wish no ill to the girl. Kettie's very nice; bright as the day; and I thought no more harm of strolling a bit with her in the moonlight than I should think it if she were my sister."
"But she is not your sister, you see, Hyde. And old Ketira does not like it."
"I'll take precious good care to keep Kettie at arm's-length for the future; make you very sure of that," he said, in a short, fractious tone. "I don't care to be blamed for nothing. Tell Todhetley I can't spare the time to go fishing to-morrow--wish I could. Good-night."
A fine commotion. Church Dykely up in arms. Kettie had disappeared.
About a fortnight had gone on since the above night, during which period Ketira's rheumatism took so obstinate a turn that she had the felicity of keeping her bed. And one morning, upon Duffham's chancing to pay his visit to her before breakfast, for He was passing the hut on his way home from an early patient he found the gipsy up and dressed, and just as wild as a lioness rampant. Kettie had gone away in the night.
"Where's she gone to?" naturally asked Duffham, leaning on his cane, and watching the poor woman; who was whirling about like one demented, her rheumatism forgotten.
"Ah, where's she gone to?--where?" raved old Ketira. "When I lay down last night, leaving her to put the plates away and to follow me up when she had done it, I dropped asleep at once. All night long I never woke; the pain was easier, all but gone, and I had been well-nigh worn out with it. 'Why, what's the time, Kettie?' I said to her in our own tongue, when I opened my eyes and saw the sun was high. She did not answer, and I supposed she had gone down to get the breakfast. I called, and called; in vain. I began to put my clothes on; and then I found that she had not lain down that night; and--woe's me! she's gone."
Duffham could not make anything of it; it was less in his line than rheumatism and broken legs. Being sharp-set for his breakfast, he came away, telling Ketira he would see her again by-and-by.
And, shortly afterwards, he chanced to meet her. Coming out on his round of visits, he encountered Ketira near Virginia Cottage. She had been making a call on Hyde Stockhausen.
"He baffles me?" she said to the doctor: and Duffham thought if ever a woman's face had the expression "baffled" plainly written on it, Ketira's had then. "I don't know what to make of him. His speech is fair: but--there's the instinct lying in my heart."
"Why, you don't suppose, do you, that Mr. Stockhausen has stolen the child?" questioned Duffham, after a good pause of thought.
"And by whom do you suppose the child has been stolen, if not by him?" retorted the gipsy.
"Nay," said Duffham, "I should say she has not been stolen at all. It is difficult to steal girls of her age, remember. Last night was fine; the stars were bright as silver: perhaps, tempted by it, she went out a-roaming, and you will see her back in the course of the day."
"I suspect him," repeated Ketira, her great black eyes flashing their anger on Hyde's cottage. "He acts cleverly; but, I suspect him."
Drawing her scarlet cloak higher on her shoulders, she bent her steps towards Oxlip Dell. Duffham was turning on his way, when old Abel Crew came up. We called him "Crew," you know, at Church Dykely.
"Are you looking for Kettie?" questioned Duffham.
"I don't know where to look for her," was Abel's answer. "This morning I was out before sunrise searching for rare herbs: the round I took was an unusually large one, but I did not see anything of the child. Ketira suspects that Mr. Stockhausen must know where she is."
"And do you suspect he does?"
"It is a question that I cannot answer, even to my own mind," replied Abel. "That they were sometimes seen talking and walking together, is certain; and, so far, he may be open to suspicion. But, sir, I know nothing else against him, and I cannot think he would wish to hurt her. I am on my way to ask him."
Interested by this time in the drama, Duffham followed Abel to Virginia Cottage. Hyde Stockhausen was in the little den that he made his counting-house, adding up columns of figures in a ledger, and stared considerably upon being thus pounced upon.
"I wonder what next!" he burst forth, turning crusty before Abel had got out half a sentence. "That confounded old gipsy has just been here with her abuse; and now you have come! She has accused me of I know not what all."
"Of spiriting away her daughter," put in Duffham; who was standing back against the shelves.
"But I have not done it," spluttered Hyde, talking too fast for convenience in his passion. "If I had spirited her away, as you call it, here she would be. Where could I spirit her to?--up into the air, or below the ground?"
"That's just the question--where is she?" rejoined Duffham, gently swaying his big cane.
"How should I know where she is?" retorted Hyde. "If I had 'spirited' her away--I must say I like that word!--here she'd be. Do you suppose I have got her in my house?--or down at the brick-kilns?"
Abel, since his first checked sentence, had been standing quietly and thoughtfully, giving his whole attention to Hyde, as if wanting to see what he was made of. For the second time he essayed to speak.
"You see, sir, we do not know that she is not here. We have your word for it; but--"
"Then you had better look," interrupted Hyde, adding something about "insolence" under his breath. "Search the house. You are welcome to. Mr. Duffham can show you about it; he knows all its turnings and windings."
What could have been in old Abel's thoughts did not appear on the surface; but he left the room with just a word of respectful apology for accepting the offer. Hyde, who had made it at random in his passion, never supposing it would be caught at, threw back his head disdainfully, and sent a contemptuous word after him. But when Duffham moved off in the same direction, he was utterly surprised.
"Are you going to search?"
"I thought you meant me to be his pilot," said Duffham, as cool as you please. "There's not much to be seen, I expect, but the chairs and tables."
Any way, Kettie was not to be seen. The house was but a small one, with no surreptitious closets or cupboards, or other hiding-places. All the rooms and passages stood open to the morning sun, and never a suspicious thing was in them.
Hyde had settled to his accounts again when they got back. He did not condescend to turn his head or notice the offenders any way. Abel waited a moment, and then spoke.
"It may seem to you that I have done a discourteous thing in availing myself of your offer, Mr. Stockhausen; if so, I crave your pardon for it. Sir, you cannot imagine how seriously this disappearance of the child is affecting her mother. Let it plead my excuse."
"It cannot excuse your suspicion of me," returned Hyde, pausing for a moment in his adding up.
"In all the ends of this wide earth there lies not elsewhere a shadow of clue to any motive for her departure. At least, none that we can gather. The only ground for thinking of you, sir, is that you and she have been friendly. For all our sakes, Mr. Stockhausen, I trust that she will be found, and the mystery cleared up."
"Don't you think you had better have the brick-kilns visited--as well as my house?" sarcastically asked Hyde. But Abel, making no rejoinder, save a civil good-morning, departed.
"And now I'll go," said Duffham.
"The sooner the better," retorted Hyde, taking a penful of ink and splashing some of it on the floor.
"There's no cause for you to put yourself out, young man."
"I think there is cause," flashed Hyde. "When you can come to my house with such an accusation as this!--and insolently search it!"
"The searching was the result of your own proposal. As to an accusation, none has been made in my hearing. Kettie has mysteriously disappeared, and it is only natural her people should wish to know where she is, and to look for her. You take up the matter in a wrong light, Mr. Hyde."
"I don't know anything of Kettie"--in an injured tone; "I don't want to. It's rather hard to have her vagaries put upon my back."
"Well, you have only to tell them you don't in an honest manner; I dare say they'll believe you. Abel Carew is one of the most reasonable men I ever knew; sensible, too. Try and find the child yourself; help them to do it, if you can see a clue; make common cause with them."
"You would not like to be told that you had 'spirited' somebody away, more than I like it," grumbled Hyde; who, thoroughly put out, was hard to bring round. "I'm sure you are as likely to turn kidnapper as I am. It must be a good two weeks since anybody saw me speak to the girl."
"I shall have my patients thinking I am kidnapped if I don't get off to them," cried Duffham. "Mrs. Godfrey's ill, and she is the very essence of impatience. Good-day."
Thoroughly at home in the house, Duffham made no ceremony of departing by the back-door, it being more convenient for the road he was going. Deborah Preen was washing endive at the pump in the yard. She turned round to address Duffham as he was passing.
"Has the master spoke to you about his throat, sir?"
"No," said Duffham, halting. "What is amiss with his throat?"
"He has been given to sore throats all his life, Dr. Duffham Many's the time I have had him laid up with them when he was a child. Yesterday he was quite bad with one, sir; and so he is this morning."
"Perhaps that's why he's cross," remarked Duffham.
"Cross! and enough to make him cross!" returned she, taking up the implication warmly. "I ask your pard'n, sir, for speaking so to you; but I'd like to know what gentleman could help being cross when that yellow gipsy comes to attack him with her slanderous tongue, and say to him, Have you come across to my hut in the night and stole my daughter out of it?"
"You think your master did not go across and commit the theft?"
"I know he did not," was Preen's indignant answer. "He never stirred out of his own home, sir, all last night, he was nursing his throat indoors. At ten o'clock he went to bed, and I took him up a posset after he was in it. Well, sir, I was uneasy, for I don't like these sore throats, and between two and three o'clock I crept into his room and found him sleeping quietly; and I was in again this morning and woke him up with a cup o' tea."
"A pretty good proof that he did not go out," said Duffham.
"He never was as much as out of his bed, sir. The man that sleeps indoors locked up the house last night, and opened it again this morning. Ketira the gipsy would be in gaol if she got her deservings!"
"I wonder where the rest of us would be if we got ours!" quoth Duffham. "I suppose I had better go back and take a look at this throat!"
To see the miserable distress of Ketira that day, and the despair upon her face as she dodged about between Virginia Cottage and the brickfields, was like a gloomy picture.
"Do you remember telling me once that you feared Kettie might run away to the tribe?" I asked, meeting her on one of these wanderings in the afternoon. "Perhaps that is where she is gone?"
The suggestion seemed to offend her mortally. "Boy, I know better," she said, facing round upon me fiercely. "With the tribe she would be safe, and I at rest. The stars never deceive me."
And, when the sun went down that night and the stars came out, the environs of Virginia Cottage were still haunted by Ketira the gipsy.
YON would not have known the place again. Virginia Cottage, the unpretending little homestead, had been converted into a mansion. Hyde Stockhausen had built a new wing at one end, and a conservatory at the other; and had put pillars before the rustic porch, over which the Virginia creeper climbed.
We heard last month about Ketira the gipsy: and of the unaccountable disappearance of her daughter, Kettie: and of the indignant anger displayed by Hyde Stockhausen when it was suggested that he might have kidnapped her. Curiously enough, within a few days of that time, Hyde himself disappeared from Church Dykely: not in the mysterious manner that Kettie had, but openly and with intention.
The inducing cause of Hyde's leaving, as was stated and believed, was a quarrel with his step-father, Massock. It chanced that the monthly settling-day, connected with the brickfields, fell just after Kettie vanished. Massock came over for it as usual, and was overbearing as usual; and perhaps Hyde, already in a state of inward irritation, was less forbearing than usual. Any way, ill-words arose between them. Massock accused Hyde of neglecting his interests, and of being too much of a gentleman to look after the work and the men. Hyde retorted: one word led to another, and there ensued a serious quarrel. The upshot was that Hyde threw up his post. Vowing he would never again have anything to do with old Massock or his precious bricks as long as he lived, he packed up a small portmanteau and quitted Church Dykely there and then, to the intense tribulation of his ancient nurse and servant, Deborah Preen.
"Leave him alone," said Massock roughly. "He'll be back safe enough in a day or two."
"Where is he gone?" asked Ketira the gipsy: who, hovering still around Virginia Cottage, had seen Hyde's exit with his portmanteau.
Massock stared at her, and at her red cloak: she had penetrated to his presence to ask the question. He had never before seen Ketira; never heard of her.
"What is it to you?" he demanded, in his coarse manner. "Who are you? Do you come here to tell his fortune? Be off, old witch!"
"His fortune may be told sooner than you care to hear it--if you are anything to him," was the gipsy's answer. And that same night she quitted Church Dykely herself, wandering away to be lost in the "wide wide world."
Massock's opinion, that Hyde would return in a day or two, proved to be a mistaken one. Rimmer, at the Silver Bear, got a letter from a lawyer in Worcester, asking him to release Mr. Stockhausen from Virginia Cottage--which Hyde had taken for three years. But, this, Rimmer refused to do. So Hyde had to make the best of his bargain: and every quarter, as the quarters went on, the rent was punctually remitted to Henry Rimmer by the lawyer: who gave, however, no clue to his client's place of abode. It was said that Hyde had been reconciled to his uncle, Parson Hyde (now getting into his dotage), and was by him supplied with funds.
One fine evening, however, in the late spring, when not very far short of a twelvemonth had elapsed, Hyde astonished Deborah Preen by his return. After a fit of crying, to show her joy, Deborah brought him in some supper and stood by while he ate it, telling him the news of what had transpired in the village since he left.
"Are those beautiful brickfields being worked still?" he asked.
"'Deed but they are then, Master Hyde. A sight o' bricks seems to be made at 'em. Pitt the foreman, he have took your place as manager, sir, and keeps the accounts."
"Good luck to him!" said Hyde, drinking a glass of ale. "That queer old lady in the red cloak: what has become of her?"
"What, that gipsy hag?" cried Preen. "She's dead, sir."
"Yes, sir, dead: and a good riddance, too. She went away the very night you went, Mr. Hyde, and never came back again. A week or two ago Abel Carew got news that she was dead."
(Shortly before this, some wandering gipsies had set up their camp within a mile or two of Church Dykely. Abel Carew, never having had news of Ketira since her departure, went to them to make inquiries. At first the gipsies seemed not to understand of whom he was speaking; but upon his making Ketira clear to them, they told him she had been dead about a month; of her daughter, Kettie, they knew nothing.)
"She's not much loss," observed Hyde in answer to Deborah: and his face took a brighter look, as though the news were a relief--Preen noticed it. "The old gipsy was as mad as a March hare."
"And ten times more troublesome than one," put in Preen. "Be you come home to stay, master?"
"I dare say I shall," replied Hyde. "As good settle down here as elsewhere: and there'd be no fun in paying two rents."
So we had Hyde Stockhausen amidst us once more. He did not intend to take up with brickmaking again, but to live as a gentleman. His uncle made him an allowance, and he was going to be married. Abel Carew questioned him about Kettie one day when they met on the common, asking whether he had seen her. Never, was the reply of Hyde. So that what with the girl's prolonged disappearance and her mother's death, it was assumed that we had done with the two gipsies for ever.
Hyde was engaged to a Miss Peyton. A young lady just left an orphan, whom he had met only six weeks ago at some seaside place. He had fallen in love with her at first sight, and she with him. She had two or three hundred a-year: and Hyde, there was little doubt, would come into all his uncle's money so he saw no reason why he should not make Virginia Cottage comfortable for her, and went off to the Silver Bear, to talk to Henry Rimmer about it.
The result was, that improvements were put in hand without delay. A wing (consisting of a handsome drawing-room downstairs, and a bed and dressing-room above) was added to the cottage on one side; on the other side, Hyde built a conservatory. The house was also generally embellished and set in order, and some new furniture brought in. And I think if ever workmen worked quickly, these did; for the alterations seemed no sooner to be begun than they were done.
"So you have sown your wild oats, Master Hyde," remarked the Squire one day in passing, as he stood to watch the finishing touches, then being put to the outside of the house.
"Don't know that I ever had many to sow, sir," said Hyde, nodding to me.
"And what sort of a young lady is this wife that you are about to bring home?" went on the pater.
Hyde's face took a warm flush and his lips parted with a half-smile; which proved what she was to him. "You will see, sir," he said in answer.
"When is the wedding to be?"
"This day week."
"This day week!" echoed the Squire, surprised: and Hyde who seemed to have spoken incautiously, looked vexed.
"I did not intend to say as much; my thoughts were elsewhere," he observed. "Don't mention it again, Mr. Todhetley. Even old Deborah has not been told."
"I'll take care, lad. But it is known all over the place that the wedding is close at hand."
"Yes: but not the day."
"When do you go away for it?"
"Well, good luck to you, lad! By the way, Hyde," continued the Squire, "what did they do about that drain in the yard? Put a new pipe?"
"Yes," said Hyde, "and they have made a very good job of it. Will you come and see it?"
Pipes and drains held no attraction for me. While the pater went through the house to the yard, I strolled outside the front-gate and across to the little coppice to wait for him. It was shady there: the hot midsummer sun was ablaze to-day.
And I declare that a feather might almost have knocked me down. There, amidst the trees of the coppice, like a picture framed round by green leaves, stood Ketira the gipsy. Or Ketira's ghost.
Believing that she was dead and buried, I might have believed it to be the latter, but for the red cloth cloak: that was real. She was staring at Hyde's house with all the fire of her glittering eyes, looking as though she were consumed by some inward fever.
"Who lives there now?" she abruptly asked me without any other greeting, pointing her yellow forefinger at the house.
"The cottage was empty ever so long," I carelessly said, some instinct prompting me not to tell too much. "Lately the workmen have been making alterations in it. How is Kettie? Have you found her?"
She lifted her two hands aloft with a gesture of despair: but left me unanswered. "These alterations: by whom are they made?"
But the sight of the Squire, coming forth alone, served as an excuse for my making off. I gave her a parting nod, saying I was glad to see her again in the land of the living.
"Ketira the gipsy is here, sir."
"No!" cried the pater in amazement. "Why do you say
"She is here in the coppice."
"Nonsense, lad! Ketira's dead, you know."
"But I have just seen her, and spoken to her."
"Then what did those gipsy-tramps mean by telling Abel Carew that she had died?" cried the Squire explosively, as he marched across the few yards of greensward towards the coppice.
"Abel did not feel quite sure at the time that he and they were not talking of two persons. That must have been the case, sir."
We were too late. Ketira was already half-way along the path that led to the common: no doubt on her road to pay a visit to Abel Carew. And I can only relate what passed there at second hand. Between ourselves, Ketira was no favourite of his.
He was at his early dinner of bread-and-butter and salad when she walked in and astonished him. Abel, getting over his surprise, invited her to partake of the meal; but she just waved her hand in refusal, as much as to say that she was superior to dinner and dinner-eating.
"Have you found Kettie?" was his next question.
"It is the first time a search of mine ever failed," she replied, beginning to pace the little room in agitation, just as a tiger paces its confined cage. "I have given myself neither rest nor peace since I set out upon it; but it has not brought me tidings of my child."
"It must have been a weary task for you, Ketira. I wish you would break bread with me."
"I was helped."
"Helped!" repeated Abel. "Helped by what?"
"I know not yet, whether angel or devil. It has been one or the other:--according as he has, or has not, played me false."
"As who has played you false?"
"Of whom do you suppose I speak but him?" she retorted standing to confront Abel with her deep eyes. "Hyde Stockhausen has in some subtle manner evaded me: but I shall find him yet."
"Hyde Stockhausen is back here," quietly observed Abel.
"Back here! Then it is no false instinct that has led me here," she added in a low tone, apparently communing with herself. "Is Ketira with him?"
"No, no," said Abel, vexed at the question. "Kettie has never come back to the place since she left it."
"When did he come?"
"It must be about two months ago."
"He is in the same dwelling-house as before! For what is he making it so grand?"
"It is said to be against his marriage."
"His marriage with Ketira?"
"With a Miss Peyton; some young lady he has met. Why do you bring up Ketira's name in conjunction with this matter--or with him?"
She turned to the open casement, and stood there, as if to inhale the sweet scent of Abel's flowers, and listen to the hum of his bees. Her face was working, her strange eyes were gleaming, her hands were clasped to pain.
"I know what I know, Abel Carew. Let him look to it if he brings home any other wife than my Ketira."
"Nay," remonstrated peaceful old Abel. "Because a young man has whispered pretty words in a maiden's ear, and given her, it may be, a moonlight kiss, that does not bind him to marry her."
"And would I have wished to bind him had it ended there?" flashed the gipsy. "No; I should have been thankful that it had so ended. I hated him from the first."
"You have no proof that it did not so end, Ketira."
"No proof; none," she assented. "No tangible proof that I could give to you, her father's brother, or to others. But the proof lies in the fatal signs that show themselves to me continually, and in the unerring instinct of my own heart. If the man puts another into the place that ought to be hers, let him look to it."
"You may be mistaken, Ketira. I know not what the signs you speak of can be: they may show themselves to you but to mislead; and nothing is more deceptive than the fancies of one's imagination. Be it as it may, vengeance does not belong to us. Do not you put yourself forward to work young Stockhausen ill."
"I work him ill!" retorted the gipsy. "You are mistaking me altogether. It is not I who shall work it. I only see it--and foretell it."
"Nay, why speak so strangely, Ketira? It cannot be that you--"
"Abel Carew, talk not to me of matters that you do not understand," she interrupted. "I know what I know. Things that I am able to see are hidden from you."
He shook his head. "It is wrong to speak so of Hyde Stockhausen--or of any one. He may be as innocent in the matter as you or I."
"But I tell you that he is not. And the conviction of it lies here"--striking herself fiercely on the breast.
Abel sighed, and began to put his dinner-plates together. He could not make any impression upon her, or on the notion she had taken up.
"Do you know what it is to have a breaking heart, Abel Carew?" she asked, her voice taking a softer tone that seemed to change it into a piteous wailing. "A broken heart one can bear; for all struggle is over, and one has but to put one's head down on the green earth and die. But a breaking heart means continuous suffering; a perpetual torture that slowly saps away the life; a never-ending ache of soul and of spirit, than which nothing in this world can be so hard to battle with. And for twelve months now this anguish has been mine!"
Poor Ketira! Mistaken or not mistaken, there could be no question that her trouble was grievous to bear; the suspense, in which her days were passed, well-nigh unendurable.
This, that I have told, occurred on Thursday morning. Ketira quitted Abel Carew only to bend her steps back towards Virginia Cottage, and stayed hovering around the house that day and the next. One or another, passing, saw her watching it perpetually, herself partly hidden. Now peeping out from the little coppice; now tramping quickly past the gate, as though she were starting off on a three-mile walk; now stealing to the back of the house, to gaze at the windows. There she might be seen, in one place or another, like a haunting red dragon: her object, as was supposed, being to get speech of Hyde Stockhausen. She did not succeed. Twice she went boldly to the door, knocked, and asked for him. Deborah Preen slammed it in her face. It was thought that Hyde, who then knew of her return and that the report of her death was false, must be on the watch also, to avoid her. If he wanted to go abroad and she was posted at the back, he slipped out in front: when he wished to get in again and caught sight of her red cloak illumining the coppice, he made a dash in at the back-gate, and was lost amid the kidney beans.
By this time the state of affairs was known to Church Dykely: a rare dish of nuts for the quiet place to crack. Those of us who possessed liberty made pleas for passing by Virginia Cottage to see the fun. Not that there was much to see, except a glimpse of the red cloak in this odd spot or in that.
"Stockhausen must be silly!" cried the Squire. "Why does he not openly see the poor woman and inquire what it is she wants with him? The idea of his shunning her in this absurd way! What does he mean by it, I wonder?"
Now, before telling more, I wish to halt and say a word. That much ridicule will be cast on this story by the intelligent reader, is as sure as that apples grow in summer. Nevertheless, I am but relating what took place. Certain things in it were curiously strange; not at all explainable hitherto: possibly never to be explained. I chanced to be personally mixed up with it, so to say, in a degree; from its beginning, when Ketira and her daughter first appeared at Abel Carew's, to its ending, which has yet to be told. For that much I can vouch--I mean what I was present at. But you need not accord belief to the whole, unless you like.
Chance, and nothing else, caused me to be sent over this same evening to Mr. Duffham's. It was Friday, you understand; and the eve of the day Hyde Stockhausen would depart preparatory to his marriage. One of our maids had been ailing for some days with what was thought to be a bad cold: as she did not get better, but grew more feverish, Mrs. Todhetley decided to send for the doctor, if only as a measure of precaution.
"You can go over to Mr. Duffham's for me, Johnny," she said, as we got up from tea--which meal was generally taken at the manor close upon dinner, somewhat after the fashion that the French take their tasse de café. "Ask him if he will be so kind as to call in to see Ann when he is out to-morrow morning."
Nothing loth was I. The evening was glorious, tempting the world out-of-doors, calm and beautiful, but very hot yet. The direct way to Duffham's from our house was not by Virginia Cottage: but, as a matter of course, I took it. Going along at tip-top speed until I came within sight of it, I then slackened to a snail's pace, the better to take observations.
There's an old saying; that virtue is its own reward. If any virtue existed in my choosing this circuitous and agreeable route, I can only say that for once the promise was at fault, for I was not rewarded. Were Hyde Stockhausen's house a prison, it could not have been much more closely shut up. The windows were closed on that lovely midsummer night; the doors looked tight as wax. Not a glimpse could I catch of as much as the bow of Deborah Preen's mob-cap atop of the short bedroom blinds; and Hyde might have been over in Africa for all that. could be seen of him.
Neither (for a wonder) was there any trace of Ketira the gipsy. Her red cloak was nowhere. Had she obtained speech of Hyde, and so terminated her watch, or had she given it up in despair? Any way, there, was nothing to reward me for having come that much out of my road, and I went on, whistling dolorously.
But, hardly had I got past the premises and was well on the field-path beyond, when I met Duffham. Giving him the message from home, which he said he would attend to, I enlarged on the disappointment just experienced in seeing nothing of anybody.
"Shut up like a jail, is it?" quoth Duffham. "I have just had a note from Stockhausen, asking me to call there. His throat's troubling him again, he says: wants me to give him something that will cure him by to-morrow."
I had turned with the doctor, and went walking with him up the garden, listening to what he said. But I meant to leave him when we reached the door. He began trying it. It was fastened inside.
"I dare say you can come in and see Hyde, Johnny. What do you want with him?"
"Not much; only to wish him good luck."
"Is your master afraid of thieves that he bolts his doors?" cried Duffham to old Preen when she let us in.
"'Twas me fastened it, sir; not master," was her reply. "That gipsy wretch have been about yesterday and to-day, wanting to get in. I've got my silver about, and don't want it stolen. Mr. Hyde's mother and Massock have been here to dinner; they've not long gone."
Decanters and fruit stood on the table before Hyde. He started up to shake hands, appearing very much elated. Duffham, more experienced than I, saw that he had been taking quite enough wine.
"So you have had your stepfather here!" was one of the doctor's first remarks. "Been making up the quarrel, I suppose."
"He came of his own accord; I didn't invite him," said Hyde laughing. "My mother wrote me word that they were coming--to give me their good wishes for the future."
"Just what Johnny Ludlow here says he wants to give," said Duffham: though I didn't see that he need have brought my words up, and made a fellow feel shy.
"Then, by Jove, you shall drink them in champagne!" exclaimed Hyde. He caught up a bottle of champagne that stood under the sideboard, from which the wire had been removed and would have cut the string but for the restraining hand of Duffham.
"No, Hyde; you have had rather too much as it is."
"I swear to you that I have not had a spoonful. It has not been opened, you see. My mother refused it, and Massock does not care for champagne: he likes something heavier."
"If you have not taken champagne, you have taken other wine."
"Sherry at dinner, and port since," laughed Hyde.
"And more of it than is good for you."
"When Massock sits down to port wine he drinks like a fish," returned Hyde, still laughing. "Of course I had to make a show of drinking with him. I wished the port at Hanover."
By a dexterous movement, he caught up a knife and cut the string. Out shot the cork with a bang, and he filled three of the tumblers that stood on the sideboard with wine and froth--one for each of us. "Your health, doctor," nodded he, and tossed off his own.
"It will not do your throat good," said Duffham, angrily. "Let me look at the throat."
"Not until you and Johnny have wished me luck."
We did it, and drank the wine. Duffham examined the throat; and told Hyde, for his consolation, that it was not in state to be trifled with.
"Oh, it's nothing," said Hyde carelessly. "But I don't want it to be bad to-morrow when I travel, and I thought perhaps you might be able to give me something or other to set it to rights to-night. I start at ten to-morrow morning."
"Sore throats are not cured so easily," retorted Duffham. "You must have taken cold."
Telling him he would send in a gargle and a cooling draught, and that he was to go to bed soon, Duffham rose to leave. Hyde opened the glass-doors of the room that we might pass out that way, and stepped over the threshold with us. Talking with Duffham, he strolled onwards towards the gate.
"About three weeks, I suppose," he said, in answer to the query of how long he meant to be away. "If Mabel--"
Gliding out of the bushy laurels on one side the path, and planting herself right in front of us, came Ketira the gipsy. Her face looked yellower than ever in the twilight of the summer's evening; her piercing black eyes fiercer. Hyde was taken aback by the unexpected encounter. He started a step back.
"Where's my daughter, Hyde Stockhausen?"
"Go away," he said, in the contemptuous tone one might use to a dog. "I don't know anything of your daughter."
"Only tell me where she is, that I may find her. I ask no more."
"I tell you that I do not know anything of her. You must be mad to think it. Get along with you!"
"Hyde Stockhausen, you lie. You do know where she is; you know that it is with you she has been. Heaven hears me say it: deny it if you dare."
His face looked whiter than death. Just for an instant he seemed unable to speak. Ketira changed her tone to one of plaintive wailing.
"She was my one little ewe lamb. What had she or I done to you that you should come as a spoiler to the fold? I prayed you not. Make her your wife, and I will yet bless you. It is not too late. Do not break her heart and mine."
Hyde had had time to rally his courage. A man full of wine can generally call some up, even in the most embarrassing of situations. He scornfully asked the gipsy whether she had come out of Bedlam. Ketira saw how hard he was--that there was no hope.
"It is said that you depart to-morrow to bring home a bride, Hyde Stockhausen. I counsel you not to do it. For your own sake, and for the young woman's sake, I bid you beware. The marriage will not bring good to you or to her."
That put Hyde in a towering passion. His words came out with a splutter as he spurned her from him.
"Cease your folly, you senseless old beldame! Do you dare to threaten me? Take yourself out of my sight instantly, before I fetch my horsewhip. And, if ever you attempt to molest me again, I will have you sent to the treadmill."
Ketira stood looking at him while he spoke, never moving an inch. As his voice died away she lifted her forefinger in warning. And anything more impressive than her voice, than her whole manner--anything more startlingly defiant than her countenance, I never wish to see.
"It is well; I go. But listen to me, Hyde Stockhausen; mark what I say. Only three times shall you see me again in life. But each one of those times you shall have cause to remember; and after the last of them you will not need to see me more."
It was a strange threat. That she made it, Duffham could, to this day, corroborate. Pulling her red cloak about her shoulders she went swiftly through the gate, and disappeared within the opposite coppice.
Hyde smiled; his good humour was returning to him. One can be brave enough when an enemy turns tail.
"Idiotic old Egyptian!" he exclaimed lightly. "What on earth ever made her take the fancy into her head, that I knew what became of Kettie, I can't imagine. I wonder, Duffham some of you people in authority here don't get her confined as a lunatic!"
"We must first of all find that she is a lunatic," was Duffham's dry rejoinder.
"Why, what else is she?"
"She is; and a dangerous one," retorted Hyde.
"Nonsense, man! Gipsies have queer ways and notions; and--and--are not to be judged altogether as other people," added the doctor, finishing off (as it struck me) with different words from those he had been about to say. "Good-night: and don't take any more of that champagne."
Hyde returned indoors, and we walked away, not seeing a sign of the red cloak anywhere.
"I must say I should not like to be attacked in this manner, were I Hyde," I remarked to Duffham. "How obstinate the old gipsy is!"
"Ah," replied Duffham. "I'd sooner believe her than him."
The words surprised me, and I turned to him quickly. "Why do you say that, sir?"
"Because I do say it, Johnny," was the unsatisfactory answer. "And now good-evening to you, lad, for I must send the physic in."
"Just a word, please, Mr. Duffham. Do you know where that poor Kettie is?--and did you know that Hyde Stockhausen stole her?"
"No, to both your questions, Johnny Ludlow."
Everybody liked Hyde's wife. A fragile girl with a weak voice, who looked as if a strong wind would blow her away. Duffham feared she was not strong enough to make old days.
Virginia Cottage flourished. Parson Hyde had died and left all his fortune to Hyde: who had now nothing to do but take care of his wife and his money, and enjoy life. Before the next summer came round, Hyde had a son and heir. A fine little shaver with blue eyes like Hyde's, and good lungs. His mother was a long while getting about again: and then she looked like a shadow, and had a short, hacking kind of cough. Hyde wore a grave face at times, and would say he wished Mabel could get strong.
But Hyde was regarded with less favour than formerly. People did not scruple to call him "villain." And one Sunday, when Mr. Holland told us in his sermon that man's heart was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, the congregation wondered whether he meant it especially for Stockhausen. For the truth had come out.
When Hyde departed to keep his marriage engagement, Ketira the gipsy had again disappeared from Church Dykely. In less than a month afterwards, Abel Carew received a letter from her. She had found Kettie: and she had found that her own instincts against Hyde Stockhausen were not mistaken ones. For all his seeming fair face and his indignant denials, it was he who had been the thief.
"Of all brazen-faced knaves, that Stockhausen must be the worst!--an adept in cunning, a lying hypocrite!" exploded the Squire.
"I suspected him at the time," said Duffham.
"You did! What were your grounds for it?"
"I had no particular grounds. His manner did not appear to me to be satisfactory; that was all. Of course I was not sure."
"He is a base man," concluded the Squire. And from that time he turned the cold shoulder on Hyde.
But time is a sure healer of wounds; a softener of resentment As it passed on, we began to forget Hyde's dark points, and to remember his good qualities. Any way, Ketira the gipsy and Ketira's daughter passed out of memory, just as they had passed out of sight.
Suddenly we heard that Abel Carew was preparing to go on a journey. I went off to ask him where he was bound for.
"I am going to see them, Master Johnny," he replied. "I don't know how they are off, sir, and it is my duty to see. The child is ill: and I fear they may be wanting assistance, which Ketira is too proud to write and ask for."
"Kettie ill! What is the matter with her?"
Abel shook his head. "I shall know more when I get there, sir."
Abel Carew locked up his cottage and began his pilgrimage into Hertfordshire with a staff and a wallet, intending to walk all the way. In a fortnight he was back again, bringing with him a long face.
"It is sad to see the child," he said to me, as I sat in his room listening to the news. "She is no more like the bonnie Kettie that we knew here, than a dead girl's like a living one. Worn out, bent and silent, she sits, day after day and week after week, and her mother cannot rouse her. She has sat so all along."
"But what is the matter with her?"
"She is slowly dying, sir."
"A broken heart."
"Oh dear!" said I; believing I knew who had broken it.
"Yes," said Abel, "he. He won her heart's best love, Master Johnny, and she pines for him yet. Ketira says it was his marriage that struck her the death-blow. A few weeks she may still linger, but they won't be many."
Very sorry did I feel to hear it: for Ketira's sake as well as Kettie's. The remembrance of the day I had gilded the oak-ball, and her wonderful gratitude for it, came flashing back to me.
And there's nothing more to add to this digression. Except that Kettie died.
The tidings did not appear to affect Hyde Stockhausen. All his thoughts were given to his wife and child. Old Abel had never reproached him by as much as a word: if by chance they met, Abel avoided looking at him, or turned off another way.
When the baby was six months old and began to cut his teeth, he did not appear inclined to do it kindly. He grew thin and cross; and the parents, who seemed to think no baby ever born could come up to this one, began to be anxious. Hyde worshipped the child ridiculously.
"The boy will do well enough if he does not get convulsions," Duffham said in semi-confidence to some people over his surgery counter. "If they come on why, I can't answer for what the result might be. Fat? Yes, he is a great deal too fat: they feed him up so."
The surgeon was sitting by his parlour-fire one snowy evening shortly after this, when Stockhausen burst upon him in a fine state of agitation; arms working, breath gone. The baby was in a fit.
"Come, come; don't you give way," cried the doctor, believing Hyde was going into a fit on his own account. "We'll see."
Out of one convulsion into another went the child that night: but in a few days it was better; thought to be getting well. Mr. and Mrs. Stockhausen in consequence felt themselves in the seventh heaven.
"The danger is quite past," observed Hyde, walking down the snowy path with Duffham, one morning when the doctor had been paying a visit; and Hyde rubbed his hands in gleeful relief, for he had been like a crazed lunatic while the child lay ill. "Duffham, if that child had died, I think I should have died."
"Not a bit of it," said Duffham. "You are made of tougher stuff."
He was about to open the garden-gate as he spoke. But, suddenly appearing there to confront them stood Ketira the gipsy. A moment's startled pause ensued. Duffham spoke kindly to her. Hyde recoiled a step or two; as if the sight had frightened him.
"You may well start back," she said to the latter, taking no notice of Duffham's civility. "I told you, you should not see me many times in life, Hyde Stockhausen, but that when you did, I should be the harbinger of evil. Go home, and meet it."
Turning off under the garden-hedge, without another word, he disappeared from their view as suddenly as she had come into it. Hyde Stockhausen made a feint of laughing.
"The woman is more mad than ever," he said. "Decidedly, Duffham, she ought to be in confinement."
Never an assenting syllable gave Duffham. He was looking as stern as a judge. "What's that?" he suddenly exclaimed, turning sharply to the house.
A maid-servant was flying down the path. Deborah Preen stood at the door, crying and calling as if in some dire calamity. Hyde rushed towards her, asking what was amiss. Duffham followed more slowly. The baby had got another attack of convulsions.
And this time it was for death.
When these events were happening, Great Malvern was not the overgrown, fashionable place it is now; but a quiet little spot with only a few houses in it, chiefly clustering under the highest of the hills. Amid these houses, one bright May day, Hyde Stockhausen went, seeking lodgings.
Hyde had not died of the loss of the baby. For here he was, alive and well, nearly eighteen months afterwards. That it had been a sharp trial for him nobody doubted; and for his wife also And when a second baby came to replace the first, it brought them no good, for it did not live a week.
That was in March: two months ago: and ever since Mrs. Stockhausen had been hovering between this world and the next. A fever and other ailments had taken what little strength she had out of her. This, to Hyde Stockhausen, was a worse affliction than even the loss of the children, for she was to him as the very apple of his eye. When somewhat improving, the doctors recommended Malvern. So Hyde had brought her to it with a nurse and old Deborah; and had left them at the Grown Hotel while he looked for lodgings.
He found them in one of the houses down by the abbey. Some nice rooms, quite suitable. And to them his wife was taken. For a very few days afterwards she seemed to be getting better: and then all the bad symptoms returned. A doctor was called in. He feared she might not rally again; that the extreme debility might prevent it: and he said as much to Hyde in private.
Anything more unreasonable than the spirit in which Hyde met this, the Malvern doctor had never seen.
"You are a fool?" said Hyde. "Begging your pardon, sir, I should think you don't know your profession. My wife is fifty pounds better than she was at Church Dykely. How can you take upon yourself to say she will not rally?"
"I said she might not," replied the surgeon, who happened to possess a temper mild as milk. "I hope she will with all my heart. I shall do my best to bring it about."
It was an anxious time. Mrs. Stockhausen fluctuated greatly: to-day able to sit up in an easy-chair; to-morrow too exhausted to be lifted out of bed. But, one morning she did seem to be ever so much better. Her cheeks were pink, her lips had a smile.
"Ah," said the doctor cheerfully when he went in, "we shall do now, I hope. You are up early to-day."
"I felt so much better that I wanted to get up and surprise you," she answered in quite a strong voice--for her. "And it was so warm, and the world looked so beautiful. I should like to be able to mount one of those donkeys and go up the hill. Hyde says that the view, even from St. Ann's well, is charming."
"So it is," assented the surgeon. "Have you never seen it?"
"No, I have not been to Malvern before."
This was the first day of June. Hyde would not forget the date to the last hour of his life. It was hot summer weather: the sun came in at the open window, touching her hair and her pale forehead as she lay back in the easy-chair after the doctor left, a canary at a neighbouring house was singing sweetly; the majestic hills, with their light and shade, looked closer even than they were in reality. Hyde began to lower the blind.
"Don't, please, Hyde."
"But, my darling, the sun will soon be in your eyes."
"I shall like it. Is it not a lovely day! I think it is that which has put new life into me."
"And we shall soon have you up the hill, where we can sit and look all over everywhere. On one or two occasions, when the atmosphere was rarefied to an unusual degree, I have caught the silver line of the Bristol Channel."
"How pleasant it will be, Hyde! To sit there with you, and to know that I am getting well!"
Early in the afternoon, when Mabel lay down to rest, Hyde went strolling up the hill, for the first time since his present stay at Malvern. He got as far as St. Ann's; drank a tumbler of the water, and then paced about, hither and thither, to the right and left, not intending to ascend higher that day. If he went to the summit, Mabel might be awake before he got home gain; and he would not have lost five minutes of her waking moments for a mine of gold. Looking at his watch, he sat down on a bench that was backed by some dark trees.
"Yes," he mused, "it will be delightful to sit about here with Mabel, and show her the different points of interest in the landscape. Worcester Cathedral, and St. Andrew's Spire, and the Bristol--"
Some stir behind caused him to turn his head. The words froze on his tongue. There stood Ketira the gipsy. She had been sitting or lying amidst the trees, wrapped in her red cloak. Hyde's look of startled dread was manifest. She saw it; and accosted him.
"We meet again, Hyde Stockhausen. Ah, you have cause to fear!--your face may well whiten to the shivering hue of snow at sight of me! You are alone in the world now--as you left my daughter to be. Once more we shall see one another. Till then farewell."
Recovering his equanimity when left alone, Hyde betook himself down the zig-zag path towards the village, calling the gipsy all the wicked names in the dictionary, and feeling tempted to give her into custody.
At his home, he was met by a commotion. The nurse wore a scared face; Deborah Preen, wringing her hands, burst out sobbing.
Mabel was dead. Had died in a fainting-fit.
Leaving his wife in her grave at Malvern, Hyde Stockhausen returned to Church Dykely. We hardly knew him.
A more changed man than Hyde was from that time the world has never seen. He walked about like a melancholy maniac, hands in his coat-pockets, eyes on the ground, steps dragging; looking just like one who has some great remorse lying upon his conscience and is being consumed by the past. The most wonderful thing in the eyes of Church Dykely was, that he grew religious: came to church twice on Sunday, stayed for the Sacrament, was good to the poor, gentle and kindly to all. Mr. Holland observed to the Squire that Stockhausen had become a true Christian. He made his will, and altogether seemed to be tired of life.
"Go you, Johnny, and ask him to come over to us sometimes in an evening; tell him it will be a break to his loneliness," said the Squire to me one day. "Now that the poor fellow is ill and repentant, we must let bygones be bygones. I hear that Abel Carew spent half-an-hour sociably with him yesterday."
I went off as directed. Summer had come round again, for more than a year had now passed since Mabel's death, and the Virginia creeper on the cottage walls was all alight with red flowers. Hyde was pacing his garden in front of it, his head bent.
"Is it you, Johnny?" he said, in the patient, gentle tone he now always used, as he held his hand out. He was more like a shadow than a man; his face drawn and long, his blue eyes large and dark and sad.
"We should be so glad if you would come," I added, after giving the message. "Mrs. Todhetley says you make yourself too much of a stranger. Will you come this evening?"
He shook his head slightly, clasping my hand the while, his own feeling like a burning coal, and smiling the sweetest and saddest smile.
"You are all too good for me; too considerate; better far than I deserve. No, I cannot come to you this evening, Johnny: I have not the spirits for it; hardly the strength. But I will come one evening if I can. Thank them all, Johnny, for me."
And he did come. But he could not speak much above a whisper, to weak and hollow had his voice grown. And of all the humble-minded, kindly-spirited individuals that ever sat at our tea-table, the chiefest was Hyde Stockhausen.
"I fear he is going the way of all the Stockhausens," said Mrs. Todhetley afterwards. "But what a beautiful frame of mind he is in!"
"Beautiful, you call it!" cried the pater. "The man seems to me to be eating his heart out in some impossible atonement. Had I set fire to the church and burnt up all the congregation, I don't think it could have subdued me to that extent."
Of all places, where should I next meet Hyde but at Worcester races! We knew that he had been worse lately, that his mother had come to Virginia Cottage to be with him at the last, and that there was no further hope. Therefore, to see Hyde this afternoon, perched on a tall horse on Pitchcroft, looked more like magic than reality.
"You at the races, Hyde!"
"Yes; but not for pleasure," he answered, smiling faintly; and looking so shadowy and weak that it was a marvel how he could stick on the horse. "I am in search of one who is growing too fond of these scenes. I want to find him--and to say a few last words to him."
"If you mean Jim Massock"--for I thought it could be nobody but young Jim--"I saw him yonder, down by the shows. He was drinking porter outside a booth. How are you, Hyde?"
"Oh, getting on slowly," he said, with a peculiar smile.
"Getting on! It looks to me to be the other way."
Turning his horse quickly round, after nodding to me, in the direction of the shows and drinking booths, he nearly turned it upon a tall, gaunt skeleton in a red cloak--Ketira the gipsy. She must have sprung out of the crowd.
But oh, how ill she looked! Hyde was strangely altered; but not as she was. The yellow face was shrivelled and shrunken, the fire had left her eyes. Hyde checked his horse; but the animal turned restive. He controlled it with his hand, and sat still before Ketira.
"Yes, look at me," she burst forth. "For the last time. The end is close at hand both for you and for me. We shall meet Kettie where we are going."
He leaned from his horse to speak to her: his voice a low sad wail, his words apparently those of deprecating prayer. Ketira heard him quietly to the end, gazing into his face, and then slowly turned away.
"Fare you well, Hyde Stockhausen. Farewell for ever."
Before leaving the course Hyde had an accident. While talking to Jim Massock, some drums and trumpets struck up their noise at a neighbouring show; the horse started violently, and Hyde was thrown. He thought he was not much hurt and mounted again.
"What else could you expect?" demanded Duffham, when Hyde got back to Virginia Cottage. "You have not strength to sit a donkey, and you must go careering off to Worcester races on a fiery horse!"
But the fall had done Hyde some inward damage, and it hastened the end. He died that day week.
"Some men's sins go before them to Judgment, and some follow after," solemnly said Mr. Holland the next Sunday from the pulpit. "He who is gone from among us had taken his to his Saviour--and he is now at rest."
"All chance and coincidence," pronounced Duffham, talking over the strange threat of Ketira the gipsy and its stranger working out. "Yes; chance, I say, each of the three times. The woman, happening to be at hand, must have known by common report that the child was in peril; she may have learnt at Malvern that the wife was dying; and any goose with eyes in its head might have read coming death on his face that afternoon on Pitchcroft. That's all about it, Johnny."
Very probably. The reader can exercise his own Judgment. I only know it all happened.
This is a ghost story. Every word of it is true. And I don't mind confessing that for ages afterwards some of us did not care to pass the spot alone at night. Some people do not care to pass it yet.
It was autumn, and we were at Crabb Cot. Lena had been ailing; and in October Mrs Todhetley proposed to the Squire that they should remove with her there, to see if the change would do her good.
We Worcestershire people call North Crabb a village; but one might count the houses in it, little and great, and not find four-and-twenty. South Crabb, half a mile off, is ever so much larger; but the church and school are at North Crabb.
John Ferrar had been employed by Squire Todhetley as a sort of overlooker on the estate, or working bailiff. He had died the previous winter; leaving nothing behind him except some debts; for he was not provident; and his handsome son Daniel. Daniel Ferrar, who was rather superior as far as education went, disliked work: he would make a show of helping his father, but it came to little. Old Ferrar had not put him to any particular trade or occupation, and Daniel, who was as proud as Lucifer, would not turn to it himself. He liked to be a gentleman. All he did now was to work in his garden, and feed his fowls, ducks, rabbits, and pigeons, of which he kept a great quantity, selling them to the houses around and sending them to market.
But, as every one said, poultry would not maintain him. Mrs Lease, in the pretty cottage hard by Ferrar's, grew tired of saying it. This Mrs Lease and her daughter, Maria, must not be confounded with Lease the pointsman: they were in a better condition of life, and not related to him. Daniel Ferrar used to run in and out of their house at will when a boy, and he was now engaged to be married to Maria. She would have a little money, and the Leases were respected in North Crabb. People began to whisper a query as to how Ferrar got his corn for the poultry: he was not known to buy much: and he would have to go out of his house at Christmas, for its owner, Mr Coney, had given him notice. Mrs Lease, anxious about Maria's prospects, asked Daniel what he intended to do then, and he answered, 'Make his fortune: he should begin to do it as soon as he could turn himself round.' But the time was going on, and the turning round seemed to be as far off as ever.
After Midsummer, a niece of the schoolmistress's, Miss Timmens, had come to the school to stay: her name was Harriet Roe. The father, Humphrey Roe, was half-brother to Miss Timmens.
He had married a Frenchwoman, and lived more in France than in England until his death. The girl had been christened Henriette; but North Crabb, not understanding much French, converted it into Harriet. She was a showy, free-mannered, good-looking girl, and made speedy acquaintance with Daniel Ferrar; or he with her. They improved upon it so rapidly that Maria Lease grew jealous, and North Crabb began to say he cared for Harriet more than for Maria.
When Tod and I got home the latter end of October, to spend the Squire's birthday, things were in this state. James Hill, the bailiff who had been taken on by the Squire in John Ferrar's place (but a far inferior man to Ferrar; not much better, in fact, than a common workman, and of whose doings you will hear soon in regard to his little step-son, David Garth) gave us an account of matters in general. Daniel Ferrar had been drinking lately, Hill added, and his head was not strong enough to stand it; and he was also beginning to look as if he had some care upon him.
'A nice lot, he, for them two women to be fighting for,' cried Hill, who was no friend to Ferrar.
'There'll be mischief between 'em if they don't draw in a bit. Maria Lease is next door to mad over it, I know; and t'other, finding herself the best liked, crows over her. It's something like the Bible story of Leah and Rachel, young gents, Dan Ferrar likes the one, and he's bound by promise to the t'other. As to the French jade,' concluded Hill, giving his head a toss, 'she'd make a show of liking any man that followed her, she would; a dozen of 'em on a string.'
It was all very well for surly Hill to call Daniel Ferrar a 'nice lot', but he was the best-looking fellow in the church on Sunday morning--well-dressed too. But his colour seemed brighter; and his hands shook as they were raised, often, to push back his hair, that the sun shone upon through the south-window, turning it to gold. He scarcely looked up, not even at Harriet Roe, with her dark eyes roving everywhere, and her streaming pink ribbons. Maria Lease was pale, quiet, and nice, as usual; she had no beauty, but her face was sensible, and her deep grey eyes had a strange and curious earnestness. The new parson preached, a young man just appointed to the parish of Crabb. He went in for great observances of Saints' days, and told his congregation that he should expect to see them at church on the morrow, which would be the Feast of All Saints.
Daniel Ferrar walked home with Mrs Lease and Maria after service, was invited to dinner. I ran across to shake hands with the old dame, who had once nursed me through an illness, and promised to look in and see her later. We were going back to school on the morrow. As I turned away, Harriet Roe passed, her pink ribbons and her cheap gay silk dress gleaming in the sunlight.
She stared at me, and I stared back again. And now, the explanation of matters being over, the real story begins. But I shall have to tell some of it as it was told by others.
The tea-things waited on Mrs Lease's table in the afternoon; waited for Daniel Ferrar. He had left them shortly before to go and attend to his poultry. Nothing had been said about his coming back for tea: that he would do so had been looked upon as a matter of course. But he did not make his appearance, and the tea was taken without him. At half-past five the church-bell rang out for evening service, and Maria put her things on. Mrs Lease did not go out at night.
'You are starting early, Maria. You'll be in church before other people.'
'That won't matter, mother.'
A jealous suspicion lay on Maria--that the secret of Daniel Ferrar's absence was his having fallen in with Harriet Roe: perhaps he had gone of his own accord to seek her. She walked slowly along. The gloom of dusk, and a deep dusk, had stolen over the evening, but the moon would be up later. As Maria passed the school-house, she halted to glance in at the little sitting-room window: the shutters were not closed yet, and the room was lighted by the blazing fire.
Harriet was not there. She only saw Miss Timmens, the mistress, who was putting on her bonnet before a hand-glass propped upright on the mantelpiece. Without warning, Miss Timmens turned and threw open the window. It was only for the purpose of pulling-to the shutters, but Maria thought she must have been observed, and spoke.
'Good evening, Miss Timmens.'
'Who is it?' cried out Miss Timmens, in answer, peering into the dusk. 'Oh, it's you, Maria Lease! Have you seen anything of Harriet? She went off somewhere this afternoon, and never came in to tea.'
'I have not seen her.'
'She's gone to the Batleys', I'll be bound. She knows I don't like her to be with the Batley girls: they make her ten times flightier than she would otherwise be.'
Miss Timmens drew in her shutters with a jerk, without which they would not close, and Maria Lease turned away.
'Not at the Batleys', not at the Batleys', but with him,' she cried, in bitter rebellion, as she turned away from the church. From the church, not to it. Was Maria to blame for wishing to see whether she was right or not?--for walking about a little in the thought of meeting them? At any rate it is what she did. And had her reward; such as it was.
As she was passing the top of the withy walk, their voices reached her ear. People often walked there, and it was one of the ways to South Crabb. Maria drew back amidst the trees, and they came on: Harriet Roe and Daniel Ferrar, walking arm-in-arm.
'I think I had better take it off,' Harriet was saying. 'No need to invoke a storm upon my head.
And that would come in a shower of hail from stiff old Aunt Timmens.'
The answer seemed one of quick accent, but Ferrar spoke low. Maria Lease had hard work to control herself: anger, passion, jealousy, all blazed up. With her arms stretched out to a friendly tree on either side,--with her heart beating,--with her pulses coursing on to fever-heat, she watched them across the bit of common to the road. Harriet went one way then; he another, in the direction of Mrs Lease's cottage. No doubt to fetch her--Maria--to church, with a plausible excuse of having been detained. Until now she had had no proof of his falseness; had never perfectly believed in it.
She took her arms from the trees and went forward, a sharp faint cry of despair breaking forth on the night air. Maria Lease was one of those silent-natured girls who can never speak of a wrong like this. She had to bury it within her; down, down, out of sight and show; and she went into church with her usual quiet step. Harriet Roe with Miss Timmens came next, quite demure, as if she had been singing some of the infant scholars to sleep at their own homes. Daniel Ferrar did not go to church at all: he staved, as was found afterwards, with Mrs Lease.
Maria might as well have been at home as at church: better perhaps that she had been. Not a syllable of the service did she hear: her brain was a sea of confusion; the tumult within it rising higher and higher. She did not hear even the text, 'Peace, be still', or the sermon; both so singularly appropriate. The passions in men's minds, the preacher said, raged and foamed just like the angry waves of the sea in a storm, until Jesus came to still them.
I ran after Maria when church was over, and went in to pay the promised visit to old Mother Lease. Daniel Ferrar was sitting in the parlour. He got up and offered Maria a chair at the fire, but she turned her back and stood at the table under the window, taking off her gloves. An open Bible was before Mrs Lease: I wondered whether she had been reading aloud to Daniel.
'What was the text, child?' asked the old lady.
'Do you hear, Maria! What was the text?'
Maria turned at that, as if suddenly awakened. Her face was white; her eyes had in them an uncertain terror.
'The text?' she stammered. 'I--I forget it, mother. It was from Genesis, I think.'
'Was it, Master Johnny?'
'It was from the fourth chapter of St Mark, "Peace, be still."'
Mrs Lease stared at me. 'Why, that is the very chapter I've been reading. Well now, that's curious. But there's never a better in the Bible, and never a better text was taken from it than those three words. I have been telling Daniel here, Master Johnny, that when once that peace, Christ's peace, is got into the head, storms can't hurt us much. And you are going away again tomorrow, sir?' she added, after a pause. 'It's a short stay?'
I was not going away on the morrow. Tod and I, taking the Squire in a genial moment after dinner, had pressed to be let stay until Tuesday, Tod using the argument, and laughing while he did it, that it must be wrong to travel on All Saints' Day, when the parson had specially enjoined us to be at church. The Squire told us we were a couple of encroaching rascals, and if he did let us stay it should be upon condition that we did go to church. This I said to them.
'He may send you all the same, sir, when the morning comes,' remarked Daniel Ferrar.
'Knowing Mr Todhetley as you do Ferrar, you may remember that he never breaks his promises.'
Daniel laughed. 'He grumbles over them, though, Master Johnny.'
'Well, he may grumble tomorrow about our staying, say it is wasting time that ought to be spent in study, but he will not send us back until Tuesday.'
Until Tuesday! If I could have foreseen then what would have happened before Tuesday! If all of us could have foreseen! Seen the few hours between now and then depicted, as in a mirror, event by event! Would it have saved the calamity, the dreadful sin that could never be redeemed?
Why, yes; surely it would. Daniel Ferrar turned and looked at Maria.
'Why don't you come to the fire?'
'I am very well here, thank you.'
She had sat down where she was, her bonnet touching the curtain. Mrs Lease, not noticing that anything was wrong, had begun talking about Lena, whose illness was turning to low fever, when the house door opened and Harriet Roe came in.
'What a lovely night it is!' she said, taking of own accord the chair I had not cared to take, for I kept saying I must go. 'Maria, what went with you after church? I hunted for you everywhere.'
Maria gave no answer. She looked black and angry; and her bosom heaved as if a storm were brewing. Harriet Roe slightly laughed.
'Do you intend to take holiday tomorrow, Mrs Lease?'
'Me take holiday! what is there in tomorrow to take holiday for?' returned Mrs Lease.
'I shall,' continued Harriet, not answering the question: 'I have been used to it in France. All Saints' Day is a grand holiday there; we go to church in our best clothes, and pay visits afterwards. Following it, like a dark shadow, comes the gloomy Jour des Morts.'
'The what?' cried Mrs Lease, bending her ear.
'The day of the dead. All Souls' Day. But you English don't go to the cemeteries to pray.'
Mrs Lease put on her spectacles, which lay upon the open pages of the Bible, and stared at Harriet. Perhaps she thought they might help her to understand. The girl laughed.
'On All Souls' Day, whether it be wet or dry, the French cemeteries are full of kneeling women draped in black; all praying for the repose of their dead relatives, after the manner of the Roman Catholics.'
Daniel Ferrar, who had not spoken a word since she came in, but sat with his face to the fire, turned and looked at her. Upon which she tossed back her head and her pink ribbons, and smiled till all her teeth were seen. Good teeth they were. As to reverence in her tone, there was none.
'I have seen them kneeling when the slosh and wet have been ankle-deep. Did you ever see a ghost?' added she, with energy. 'The French believe that the spirits of the dead come abroad on the night of All Saints' Day. You'd scarcely get a French woman to go out of her house after dark. It is their chief superstition.'
'What is the superstition?' questioned Mrs Lease.
'Why, that,'said Harriet. 'They believe that the dead are allowed to revisit the world after dark on the Eve of All Souls; that they hover in the air, waiting to appear to any of their living relatives, who may venture out, lest they should forget to pray on the morrow for the rest of their souls.' 1 'Well, I never!' cried Mrs Lease, staring excessively. 'Did you ever hear the like of that, sir?' turning to me.
'Yes; I have heard of it.'
Harriet Roe looked up at me; I was standing at the corner of the mantelpiece. She laughed a free laugh.
'I say, wouldn't it be fun to go out tomorrow night, and meet the ghosts? Only, perhaps they don't visit this country, as it is not under Rome.'
'Now just you behave yourself before your betters, Harriet Roe,' put in Mrs Lease, sharply.
'That gentleman is young Mr Ludlow of Crabb Cot.'
'And very happy I am to make young Mr Ludlow's acquaintance,' returned easy Harriet, flinging back her mantle from her shoulders. 'How hot your parlour is, Mrs Lease.'
The hook of the cloak had caught in a thin chain of twisted gold that she wore round her neck, displaying it to view. She hurriedly folded her cloak together, as if wishing to conceal the chain.
But Mrs Lease's spectacles had seen it.
'What's that you've got on, Harriet? A gold chain?'
A moment's pause, and then Harriet Roe flung back her mantle again, defiance upon her face, and touched the chain with her hand.
'That's what it is, Mrs Lease: a gold chain. And a very pretty one, too.'
'Was it your mother's?'
'It was never anybody's but mine. I had it made a present to me this afternoon; for a keepsake.'
Happening to look at Maria, I was startled at her face, it was so white and dark: white with emotion, dark with an angry despair that I for one did not comprehend. Harriet Roe, throwing at her a look of saucy triumph, went out with as little ceremony as she had come in, just calling back a general good night; and we heard her footsteps outside getting gradually fainter in the distance. Daniel Ferrar rose.
'I'll take my departure too, I think. You are very unsociable tonight, Maria.'
'Perhaps I am. Perhaps I have cause to be.'
She flung his hand back when he held it out; and in another moment, as if a thought struck her, ran after him into the passage to speak. I, standing near the door in the small room, caught the words.
'I must have an explanation with you, Daniel Ferrar. Now. Tonight. We cannot go on thus for a single hour longer.'
'Not tonight, Maria; I have no time to spare. And I don't know what you mean.'
'You do know. Listen. I will not go to my rest, no, though it were for twenty nights to come, until we have had it out. I vow I will not. There. You are playing with me. Others have long said so, and I know it now.'
He seemed to speak some quieting words to her, for the tone was low and soothing; and then went out, closing the door behind him. Maria came back and stood with her face and its ghastliness turned from us. And still the old mother noticed nothing.
'Why don't you take your things off, Maria?' she asked.
'Presently,' was the answer.
1 A superstition obtaining amongst some of the lower orders in France.
I said good night in my turn, and went away. Half-way home I met Tod with the two young Lexoms. The Lexoms made us go in and stay to supper, and it was ten o'clock before we left them.
'We shall catch it,' said Tod, setting off at a run. They never let us stay out late on a Sunday evening, on account of the reading.
But, as it happened, we escaped scot-free this time, for the house was in a commotion about Lena. She had been better in the afternoon, but at nine o'clock the fever returned worse than ever. Her little cheeks and lips were scarlet as she lay on the bed, her wide-open eyes were bright and glistening. The Squire had gone up to look at her, and was fuming and fretting in his usual fashion.
'The doctor has never sent the medicine,' said patient Mrs Todhetley, who must have been worn out with nursing. 'She ought to take it; I am sure she ought.'
'These boys are good to run over to Cole's for that,' cried the Squire. 'It won't hurt them; it's a fine night.'
Of course we were good for it. And we got our caps again; being charged to enjoin Mr Cole to come over the first thing in the morning.
'Do you care much about my going with you, Johnny?' Tod asked as we were turning out at the door. 'I am awfully tired.'
'Not a bit. I'd as soon go alone as not. You'll see me back in half-an-hour.'
I took the nearest way; flying across the fields at a canter, and startling the hares. Mr Cole lived near South Crabb, and I don't believe more than ten minutes had gone by when I knocked at his door. But to get back as quickly was another thing. The doctor was not at home. He had been called out to a patient at eight o'clock, and had not yet returned.
I went in to wait: the servant said he might be expected to come in from minute to minute. It was of no use to go away without the medicine; and I sat down in the surgery in front of the shelves, and fell asleep counting the white jars and physic bottles. The doctor's entrance awoke me.
'I am sorry you should have had to come over and to wait,' he said. 'When my other patient, with whom I was detained a considerable time, was done with, I went on to Crabb Cot with the child's medicine, which I had in my pocket.'
'They think her very ill tonight, sir.'
'I left her better, and going quietly to sleep. She will soon be well again, I hope.'
'Why! is that the time?' I exclaimed, happening to catch sight of the clock as I was crossing the hall. It was nearly twelve. Mr Cole laughed, saying time passed quickly when folk were asleep.
I went back slowly. The sleep, or the canter before it, had made me feel as tired as Tod had said he was. It was a night to be abroad in and to enjoy; calm, warm, light. The moon, high in the sky, illumined every blade of grass; sparkled on the water of the little rivulet; brought out the moss on the grey walls of the old church; played on its round-faced clock, then striking twelve.
Twelve o'clock at night at North Crabb answers to about three in the morning in London, for country people are mostly in bed and asleep at ten. Therefore, when loud and angry voices struck up in dispute, just as the last stroke of the hour was dying away on the midnight air, I stood still and doubted my ears.
I was getting near home then. The sounds came from the back of a building standing alone in a solitary place on the left-hand side of the road. It belonged to the Squire, and was called the yellow barn, its walls being covered with a yellow wash; but it was in fact used as a storehouse for corn. I was passing in front of it when the voices rose upon the air. Round the building I ran, and saw--Maria Lease: and something else that I could not at first comprehend. In the pursuit of her vow, not to go to rest until she had 'had it out' with Daniel Ferrar, Maria had been abroad searching for him. What ill fate brought her looking for him up near our barn?--perhaps because she had fruitlessly searched in every other spot.
At the back of this barn, up some steps, was an unused door. Unused partly because it was not required, the principal entrance being in front; partly because the key of it had been for a long time missing. Stealing out at this door, a bag of corn upon his shoulders, had come Daniel Ferrar in a smock-frock. Maria saw him, and stood back in the shade. She watched him lock the door and put the key in his pocket; she watched him give the heavy bag a jerk as he turned to come down the steps. Then she burst out. Her loud reproaches petrified him, and he stood there as one suddenly turned to stone. It was at that moment that I appeared.
I understood it all soon; it needed not Maria's words to enlighten me. Daniel Ferrar possessed the lost key and could come in and out at will in the midnight hours when the world was sleeping, and help himself to the corn. No wonder his poultry throve; no wonder there had been grumblings at Crabb Cot at the mysterious disappearance of the good grain.
Maria Lease was decidedly mad in those few first moments. Stealing is looked upon in an honest village as an awful thing; a disgrace, a crime; and there was the night's earlier misery besides. Daniel Ferrar was a thief! Daniel Ferrar was false to her! A storm of words and reproaches poured forth from her in confusion, none of it very distinct. 'Living upon theft!
Convicted felon! Transportation for life! Squire Todhetley's corn! Fattening poultry on stolen goods! Buying gold chains with the profits for that bold, flaunting French girl, Harriet Roe!
Taking his stealthy walks with her!'
My going up to them stopped the charge. There was a pause; and then Maria, in her mad passion, denounced him to me, as representative (so she put it) of the Squire--the breaker-in upon our premises! the robber of our stored corn!
Daniel Ferrar came down the steps; he had remained there still as a statue, immovable; and turned his white face to me. Never a word in defence said he: the blow had crushed him; he was a proud man (if any one can understand that), and to be discovered in this ill-doing was worse than death to him.
'Don't think of me more hardly than you can help, Master Johnny,' he said in a quiet tone. 'I have been almost tired of my life this long while.'
Putting down the bag of corn near the steps, he took the key from his pocket and handed it to me. The man's aspect had so changed; there was something so grievously subdued and sad about him altogether, that I felt I as sorry for him as if he had not been guilty. Maria Lease went on in her fiery passion.
'You'll be more tired of it tomorrow when the police are taking you to Worcester gaol. Squire Todhetley will not spare you, though your father was his many-years bailiff. He could not, you know, if he wished; Master Ludlow has seen you in the act.'
'Let me have the key again for a minute, sir,' he said, as quietly as though he had not heard a word. And I gave it to him. I'm not sure but I should have given him my head had he asked for it.
He swung the bag on his shoulders, unlocked the granary door, and put the bag beside the other sacks. The bag was his own, as we found afterwards, but he left it there. Locking the door again, he gave me the key, and went away with a weary step.
'Good-bye, Master Johnny.'.I answered back good night civilly, though he had been stealing. When he was out of sight, Maria Lease, her passion full upon her still, dashed off towards her mother's cottage, a strange cry of despair breaking from her lips.
'Where have you been lingering, Johnny?' roared the Squire, who was sitting up for me. 'You have been throwing at the owls, sir, that's what you've been at; you have been scudding after the hares.'
I said I had waited for Mr Cole, and had come back slower than I went; but I said no more, and went up to my room at once. And the Squire went to his.
I know I am only a muff; people tell me so, often: but I can't help it; I did not make myself. I lay awake till nearly daylight, first wishing Daniel Ferrar could be screened, and then thinking it might perhaps be done. If he would only take the lesson to heart and go straight for the future, what a capital thing it would be. We had liked old Ferrar; he had done me and Tod many a good turn: and, for the matter of that, we liked Daniel. So I never said a word when morning came of the past night's work.
'Is Daniel at home?' I asked, going to Ferrar's the first thing before breakfast. I meant to tell him that if he would keep right, I would keep counsel.
'He went out at dawn, sir,' answered the old woman who did for him, and sold his poultry at market. 'He'll be in presently: he have had no breakfast yet.'
'Then tell him when he comes, to wait in, and see me: tell him it's all right. Can you remember, Goody? "It is all right."'
'I'll remember, safe enough, Master Ludlow.'
Tod and I, being on our honour, went to church, and found about ten people in the pews.
Harriet Roe was one, with her pink ribbons, the twisted gold chain showing outside a short-cut velvet jacket.
'No, sir; he has not been home yet; I can't think where he can have got to,' was the old Goody's reply when I went again to Ferrar's. And so I wrote a word in pencil, and told her to give it him when he came in, for I could not go dodging there every hour of the day.
After luncheon, strolling by the back of the barn: a certain reminiscence I suppose taking me there, for it was not a frequented spot: I saw Maria Lease coming along.
Well, it was a change! The passionate woman of the previous night had subsided into a poor, wild-looking, sorrow-stricken thing, ready to die of remorse. Excessive passion had wrought its usual consequences; a reaction: a reaction in favour of Daniel Ferrar. She came up to me, clasping her hands in agony--beseeching that I would spare him; that I would not tell of him; that I would give him a chance for the future: and her lips quivered and trembled, and there were dark circles round her hollow eyes.
I said that I had not told and did not intend to tell. Upon which she was going to fall down on her knees, but I rushed off.
'Do you know where he is?' I asked, when she came to her sober senses.
'Oh, I wish I did know! Master Johnny, he is just the man to go and do something desperate.
He would never face shame; and I was a mad, hard-hearted, wicked girl to do what I did last night. He might run away to sea; he might go and enlist for a soldier.'
'I dare say he is at home by this time. I have left a word for him there, and promised to go in and see him tonight. If he will undertake not to be up to wrong things again, no one shall ever know of this from me.'
She went away easier, and I sauntered on towards South Crabb. Eager as Tod and I had been for the day's holiday, it did not seem to be turning out much of a boon. In going home again--.there was nothing worth staying out for--I had come to the spot by the three-cornered grove where I saw Maria, when a galloping policeman overtook me. My heart stood still; for I thought he must have come after Daniel Ferrar.
'Can you tell me if I am near to Crabb Cot--Squire Todhetley's?' he asked, reining-in his horse.
'You will reach it in a minute or two. I live there. Squire Todhetley is not at home. What do you want with him?'
'It's only to give in an official paper, sir. I have to leave one personally upon all the county magistrates.'
He rode on. When I got in I saw the folded paper upon the hall-table; the man and horse had already gone onwards. It was worse indoors than out; less to be done. Tod had disappeared after church; the Squire was abroad; Mrs Todhetley sat upstairs with Lena: and I strolled out again. It was only three o'clock then.
An hour, or more, was got through somehow; meeting one, talking to another, throwing at the ducks and geese; anything. Mrs Lease had her head, smothered in a yellow shawl, stretched out over the palings as I passed her cottage.
'Don't catch cold, mother.'
'I am looking for Maria, sir. I can't think what has come to her today, Master Johnny,' she added, dropping her voice to a confidential tone. 'The girl seems demented: she has been going in and out ever since daylight like a dog in a fair.'
'If I meet her I will send her home.'
And in another minute I did meet her. For she was coming out of Daniel Ferrar's yard. I supposed he was at home again.
'No,' she said looking more wild, worn, haggard than before; 'that's what I have been to ask. I am just out of my senses, sir. He has gone for certain. Gone!'
I did not think it. He would not be likely to go away without clothes.
'Well, I know he is, Master Johnny; something tells me. I've been all about everywhere.
There's a great dread upon me, sir; I never felt anything like it.'
'Wait until night, Maria; I dare say he will go home then. Your mother is looking out for you; I said if I met you I'd send you in.'
Mechanically she turned towards the cottage, and I went on. Presently, as I was sitting on a gate watching the sunset. Harriet Roe passed towards the withy walk, and gave me a nod in her free but good-natured way.
'Are you going there to look out for the ghosts this evening?' I asked: and I wished not long afterwards I had not said it. 'It will soon be dark.'
'So it will,' she said, turning to the red sky in the west. 'But I have no time to give to the ghosts tonight.'
'Have you seen Ferrar today?' I cried, an idea occurring to me.
'No. And I can't think where he has got to; unless he is off to Worcester. He told me he should have to go there some day this week.'
She evidently knew nothing about him, and went on her way with another free-and-easy nod. I sat on the gate till the sun had gone down, and then thought it was time to be getting homewards.
Close against the yellow barn, the scene of last night's trouble, whom should I come upon but Maria Lease. She was standing still, and turned quickly at the sound of my footsteps. Her face was bright again, but had a puzzled look upon it.
'I have just seen him: he has not gone,' she said in a happy whisper. 'You were right, Master Johnny, and I was wrong.'
'Where did you see him?'
'Here; not a minute ago. I saw him twice. He is angry, very, and will not let me speak to him; both times he got away before I could reach him. He is close by somewhere.'
I looked round, naturally; but Ferrar was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing to conceal him except the barn, and that was locked up. The account she gave was this--and her face grew puzzled again as she related it.
Unable to rest indoors, she had wandered up here again, and saw Ferrar standing at the corner of the barn, looking very hard at her. She thought he was waiting for her to come up, but before she got close to him he had disappeared, and she did not see which way. She hastened past the front of the barn, ran round to the back, and there he was. He stood near the steps looking out for her; waiting for her, as it again seemed; and was gazing at her with the same fixed stare. But again she missed him before she could get quite up; and it was at that moment that I arrived on the scene.
I went all round the barn, but could see nothing of Ferrar. It was an extraordinary thing where he could have got to. Inside the barn he could not be: it was securely locked; and there was no appearance of him in the open country. It was, so to say, broad daylight yet, or at least not far short of it; the red light was still in the west. Beyond the field at the back of the barn, was a grove of trees in the form of a triangle; and this grove was flanked by Crabb Ravine, which ran right and left. Crabb Ravine had the reputation of being haunted; for a light was sometimes seen dodging about its deep descending banks at night that no one could account for. A lively spot altogether for those who liked gloom.
'Are you sure it was Ferrar, Maria?'
'Sure!' she returned in surprise. 'You don't think I could mistake him, Master Johnny, do you?
He wore that ugly seal-skin winter-cap of his tied over his ears, and his thick grey coat. The coat was buttoned closely round him. I have not seen him wear either since last winter.'
That Ferrar must have gone into hiding somewhere seemed quite evident; and yet there was nothing but the ground to receive him. Maria said she lost sight of him the last time in a moment; both times in fact; and it was absolutely impossible that he could have made off to the triangle or elsewhere, as she must have seen him cross the open land. For that matter I must have seen him also.
On the whole, not two minutes had elapsed since I came up, though it seems to have been longer in telling it: when, before we could look further, voices were heard approaching from the direction of Crabb Cot; and Maria, not caring to be seen, went away quickly. I was still puzzling about Ferrar's hiding-place, when they reached me the Squire, Tod, and two or three men. Tod came slowly up, his face dark and grave.
'I say, Johnny, what a shocking thing this is!'
'What is a shocking thing?'
'You have not heard of it?--But I don't see how you could hear it.'
I had heard nothing. I did not know what there was to hear. Tod told me in a whisper.
'Daniel Ferrar's dead, lad.'
'He has destroyed himself. Not more than half-an-hour ago. Hung himself in the grove.
I turned sick, taking one thing with another, comparing this recollection with that; which I dare say you will think no one but a muff would do.
Ferrar was indeed dead. He had been hiding all day in the three-cornered grove: perhaps waiting for night to get away--perhaps only waiting for night to go home again. Who can tell?
About half-past two, Luke Macintosh, a man who sometimes worked for us, sometimes for old Coney, happening to go through the grove, saw him there, and talked with him. The same man, passing back a little before sunset, found him hanging from a tree, dead. Macintosh ran with the news to Crabb Cot, and they were now flocking to the scene. When facts came to be examined there appeared only too much reason to think that the unfortunate appearance of the galloping policeman had terrified Ferrar into the act; perhaps--we all hoped it!--had scared his senses quite away. Look at it as we would, it was very dreadful.
But what of the appearance Maria Lease saw? At that time, Ferrar had been dead at least half-an--hour. Was it reality or delusion? That is (as the Squire put it), did her eyes see a real, spectral Daniel Ferrar; or were they deceived by some imagination of the brain? Opinions were divided.
Nothing can shake her own steadfast belief in its reality; to her it remains an awful certainty, true and sure as heaven.
If I say that I believe in it too, I shall be called a muff and a double muff. But there is no stumbling-block difficult to be got over. Ferrar, when found, was wearing the seal-skin cap tied over the ears and the thick grey coat buttoned up round him, just as Maria Lease had described to me; and he had never worn them since the previous winter, or taken them out of the chest where they were kept. The old woman at his home did not know he had done it then. When told that he had died in these things, she protested that they were in the chest, and ran up to look for them.
But the things were gone.
What I am going to tell of took place before my time. But we shall get down to that by-and-by, for I had a good deal to do with the upshot when it came.
About a mile from the Manor, on the way to the Court (which at that time belonged to my father) stood a very old house built of grey stone, and called Sandstone Torr: "Torr," as every one knew, being a corruption of Tower. It was in a rather wild and solitary spot, much shut in by trees. A narrow lane led to it from the highway, the only road by which a carriage could get up to it: but in taking the field way between the Court and Dyke Manor, over stiles and across a running rivulet or two, you had to pass it close. Sandstone Torr was a rambling, high, and ugly old building, once belonging to the Druids, or some ancient race of that kind, and said to have been mighty and important in its day. The points chiefly remarkable about it now were its age, its lonesome grey walls, covered with lichen, and an amazingly lofty tower, that rose up from the middle of the house and went tapering off at the top like an aspiring sugar loaf.
Sandstone Torr belonged to the Radcliffes. Its occupier was Paul Radcliffe, who had inherited it from his father. He was a rather unsociable man, and seemed to find his sole occupation in farming what little land lay around the Torr and belonged to it. He might have mixed with the gentry of the county, as far as descent went, for the Radcliffes could trace themselves back for ages--up to the Druids, I think, the same as the house: but he did not appear to care about it. Who his wife had been no one knew. He brought her home one day from London, and she kept herself as close as he did, or closer. She was dead now, and old Radcliffe lived in the Torr with his only son, and a man and maid servant.
Well, in those days there came to stay at Dyke Manor a clergyman, named Elliot, with his daughter Selina. Squire Todhetley was a youngish man then, and he and his mother lived at the Manor together. Mr. Elliot was out of health. He had been overworked for the past twenty years in the poor London parish of which he was curate; and old Mrs. Todhetley asked them to come down for a bit of a change. Change indeed it brought to Mr. Elliot. He died there. His illness, whatever it was, took a sudden and rapid stride onwards, and before he had been at Dyke Manor three weeks he was dead.
Selina Elliot--we have heard the Squire say it many a time--was the sweetest-looking girl that ever the sun shone on. She was homeless now. The best prospect before her was that of going out as governess. The Elliots were of good descent, and Selina had been thoroughly well educated; but of money she had just none. Old Mrs. Todhetley bid her not be in any hurry; she was welcome to stay as long as she liked at Dyke Manor. So Selina stayed. It was summer weather then, and she was out and about in the open air all day long: a slight girl, in deep mourning, with a shrinking air that was natural to her.
One afternoon she came in, her bright face all aglow, and her shy eyes eager. Soft brown eyes they were, that had always a sadness in them. I--a little shaver--can remember that, when I knew her in later years. As she sat down on the stool at Mrs. Todhetley's feet, she took off her black straw hat, and began to play nervously with its crape ends.
"My dear, you seem to be in a heat," said Mrs. Todhetley; a stout old lady, who sat all day long in her easy-chair.
"Yes, I ran home fast," said Selina.
"Home from whence? Where have you been?"
"I was--near the Torr," replied Selina, with hesitation.
"Near the Torr, child! That's a long way for you to go strolling alone."
"The wild roses in the hedges there are so lovely," pleaded Selina. "That's why I took to go there at first."
"Took to go there!" repeated the old lady, thinking it an odd phrase. "Do you see anything of the Torr people? I hope you've not been making intimate with young Stephen Radcliffe," she added, a thought darting into her mind.
"Stephen? that's the son. No, I never saw him, I think he is away from home.
"That's well. He is by all accounts but a churlish lout of a fellow."
Selina Elliot bent her timid face over the hat, smoothing its ribbons with her restless fingers. She was evidently ill at ease. Glancing up presently, she saw the old lady was shutting her eyes for a doze: and that hastened her communication.
"I--I want to tell you something, please, ma'am. But--I don't like to begin." And, with that, Selina burst into unexpected tears, and the alarmed old lady looked up.
"Why, what ails you, child? Are you hurt? Has a wasp been at you?"
"Oh no," said Selina, brushing the tears away with fingers that trembled all over. "I--if you please--I think I am going to live at the Torr."
The old lady wondered whether Selina was dreaming. "At the Torr!" said she. "There are no children at the Torr. They don't want a governess at the Torr."
"I am going there to be with Mr. Radcliffe," spoke Selina, in her throat, as if she meant to choke.
"To be with old Radcliffe! Why, the child's gone cranky! Paul Radcliffe don't need a governess."
"He wants to marry me."
"Mercy upon us!" cried the old lady, lifting both hands in her amazement. And Selina burst into tears again.
Yes, it was true. Paul Radcliffe, who was fifty years of age, if a day, and had a son over twenty, had been proposing marriage to that bright young girl! They had met in the fields often, it turned out, and Mr. Radcliffe had been making his hay while the sun shone. Every one went on at her.
"It would be better to go into a prison than into that gloomy Sandstone Torr--a young girl like you, Selina," said Mrs. Todhetley. "It would be sheer madness."
"Why, you'd never go and sacrifice yourself to that old man!" cried the Squire, who was just as outspoken and impulsive and good-hearted then as in these latter years. "He ought to be ashamed of himself. It would be like June and December."
But all they said was of no use in the end. It was not that Selina, poor girl, was in love with Mr. Radcliffe--one could as well have fancied her in love with the grizzly old bear, just then exhibiting himself at Church Dykely in a travelling caravan. But it was her position. Without money, without a home, without a resource of any kind for the future, save that of teaching for her bread, the prospect of becoming mistress of Sandstone Torr was something fascinating.
"I do so dislike the thought of spending my whole life in teaching!" she pleaded in apology, the bitter tears streaming down her face. "You cannot tell what it is to feel dependent."
"I'd rather sweep chimneys than marry Paul Radcliffe if I were a pretty young girl like you," stormed the old lady.
"Since papa died you don't know what the feeling has been," sobbed Selina. "Many a night have I lain awake with the misery of knowing that I had no claim to a place in the wide world."
"I am sure you are welcome to stay here," said the Squire.
"Yes; as long as I am here myself," added his mother. "After that--well, I suppose it wouldn't be proper for you to stay."
"You are all kindness; I shall never meet with such friends again; and I know that I am welcome to stay as long as I like," she answered in the saddest of tones. "But the time of my departure must come sometime; and though the world lies before me, there is no refuge for me in it. It is very good of Mr. Radcliffe to offer to make me his wife and to give me a home at the Torr."
"Oh, is it, though!" retorted the Squire. "Trust him for knowing on which side his bread's buttered."
"He is of good descent; he has a large income--"
"Six hundred a-year," interrupted the Squire, slightingly.
"Yes, I am aware that it cannot appear much to you," she meekly said; "but to me it seems unbounded. And that is apart from the house and land."
"The house and land must both go to Stephen."
"Mr. Radcliffe told me that."
"As to the land, it's only a few acres; nothing to speak of," went on the Squire. "I'd as soon boast of my gooseberry bushes. And he can leave all his money to Stephen if he likes. In my opinion, the chances are that he will."
"He says he shall always behave fairly by me," spoke poor Selina.
"Why, you'd have a step-son older than yourself, Selina!" put in the old lady. "And I don't like him--that Stephen Radcliffe. He's no better than he should be. I saw him one day whipping a poor calf almost to death."
Well, they said all they could against it; ten thousand times more than is written down here. Selina wavered: she was not an obstinate girl, but tractable as you please. Only--she had no homestead on the face of the earth, and Mr. Radcliffe offered her one. He did not possess youth, it is true; he had never been handsome: but he was of irreproachable descent--and Selina had a little corner of ambition in her heart; and, above all, he had a fairly good income.
It was rather curious that the dread of this girl's life, the one dread above all other dreads, was that of poverty. In time earlier days of her parents, when she was a little girl and her mother was alive, and the parson's pay was just seventy pounds a-year, they had had such a terrible struggle with poverty that a horror of it was implanted in the child's mind for ever. Her mother died of it. She had become weaker and weaker, and perished slowly away for the want of those comforts that money alone could have bought. Mr. Elliot's stipend was increased later: but the fear of poverty never left Selina: and now, by his death, she was again brought face to face with it. That swayed her; and her choice was made.
Old Mrs. Todhetley and the Squire protested that they washed their hands of the marriage. But they could only wash them gingerly, and, so to say, in private. For, after all, excepting that Paul Radcliffe was more than old enough to be Selina's father, and had grizzly hair and a grown-up son, there was not so much to be said against it. She would be Mrs. Radcliffe of Sandstone Torr, and might take her standing in the county.
Sandstone Torr, dull and gloomy, and buried amidst its trees, was enough to put a lively man in mind of a prison. You entered it by a sort of closed-in porch, the outer door of which was always chained back in the daytime. The inner door opened into a long, narrow passage, and that again to a circular stone hall with a heavy ceiling, just like a large dark watch-box. Four or five doors led off from it to different passages and rooms. This same kind of round place was on all time landings, shut in just as the hall was, and with no light, except what might be afforded from the doors of the passages or rooms leading to it. It was the foundation of the tower, and the house was built round it. All the walls were of immense thickness; the rooms were low, and had beams running across most of them. But the rooms were many in number, and the place altogether had a massive, grand air, telling of its past importance. It had one senseless point in it--there was no entrance to the tower. The tower had neither staircase nor door of access. People said what a grand view might be obtained if you could only get to the top of it, or even get up to look through the small slits of windows in its walls. But the builder had forgotten the staircase, and there it ended.
Mr. Radcliffe took his wife straight home from the church door. Selina had never before been inside the Torr, and the gloominess of its aspect struck upon her unpleasantly. Leading her down the long passage into the circular hall, he opened one of its doors, and she found herself in a sitting-room. The furniture was good but heavy; the Turkey carpet was nearly colourless with age, but soft to the feet; the window looked out only upon trees. A man-servant, who had admitted them, followed them in, asking his master if he had any orders.
"Send Holt here," said Mr. Radcliffe. "This is the parlour, Selina."
A thin, respectable woman of middle age made her appearance. She looked with curiosity at the young lady her master had brought in: at her wedding-dress of grey silk, at the pretty face blushing under the white straw bonnet.
"Mrs. Radcliffe, Holt. Show your mistress her rooms."
The woman curtsied, and led the way through another passage to the stairs; and into a bedroom and sitting-room above, that opened into one another.
"I've aired 'em well, ma'am," were the first words she said, "They've never been used since the late mistress's time, for master has slept in a little chamber near Master Stephen's. But he's coming back here now."
"Is this the drawing-room?" asked Selina, observing that the furniture, though faded, was prettier and lighter than that in the room downstairs.
"Dear no, ma'am! The drawing-room is below and on t'other side of the house entirely. It's never gone into from one month's end to another. Master and Mr. Stephen uses nothing but the parlour. We call this the Pine Room."
"The Pine Room!" echoed Selina. "Why?"
"Because it looks out on them pines, I suppose," replied Holt.
Selina looked from the window, and saw a row of dark pines waving before the higher trees behind them. The view beyond was completely shut in by these trees; they were very close to the house: it almost seemed as though a long arm might have touched them from where she stood. Anything mere dull than this aspect could not well be found. Selina leaned from the window to look below: and saw a gravel-path with some grass on either side it, but no flowers.
It was a week later. Mr. Radcliffe sat in the parlour, busily examining some samples of new wheat, when there came a loud ring at the outer bell, and presently Stephen Radcliffe walked in. The father and son resembled each other. Both were tall and strongly built, and had the same rugged cast of features: men of few words and ungenial manners. But while Mr. Radcliffe's face was not an unpleasing one, Stephen's had a most sullen--some might have said evil--expression. In his eyes there was a slight cast, and his dull brown hair was never tidy. Some time before this, when the father and son had a quarrel, Stephen had gone off into Cornwall to stay with his mother's relations. This was his first appearance back again.
"Is it you, Stephen" cried Mr. Radcliffe, without offering to shake hands: for the house was never given to ceremony.
"Yes, it's me," replied Stephen, who generally talked more like a boor than a gentleman, particularly in his angry moods. "It's about time I came home, I think, when such a notice as this appears in the public papers."
He took a newspaper from his pocket, and laid it before his father, pointing with his fore-finger to an announcement. It was that of Mr. Radcliffe's marriage.
"Well?" said Mr. Radcliffe.
"Is that true or a hoax?"
Stephen caught the paper up again, tore it in two, and flung it across the room.
"What the devil made you go and do such a thing as that?"
"Softly, Ste. Keep a civil tongue in your head. I am my own master."
"At your age!" growled Stephen. "There's no fool like an old fool."
"If you don't like it, you can go back to where you came from," said Mr. Radcliffe quietly, turning the wheat from one of the sample-bags out on the table.
Stephen went to the window, and stood there looking at that agreeable prospect beyond--the trees--his hands in his pockets, his back to his father, and swearing to himself awfully. It would not do to quarrel implacably with the old man, for his money was at his own disposal: and, if incensed too greatly, he might possibly take the extreme step of leaving it away from him. But Stephen Radcliffe's heart was good to turn his father out of doors there and then, and appropriate the money to himself at once, if he only had the power. "No fool like an old fool!" he again muttered. "Where is the cat?"
"Where's who?" cried Mr. Radcliffe, looking up from his wheat.
"The woman you've gone and made yourself a world's spectacle with."
"Ste, my lad, this won't do. Keep a fair tongue in your head, as I bid you; or go where you may make it a foul one. For by Heaven!"--and Mr. Radcliffe's passion broke out and he rose from his seat menacingly--"I'll not tolerate this."
Stephen hardly ever remembered his father to have shown passion before. He did not like it. They had gone on so very quietly together, until that quarrel just spoken of, and Stephen had had his own way, and ruled, so to say, in all things, for his father was easy, that this outbreak was something new. It might not do to give further provocation then.
He was standing as before in sullen silence, his hands in his trousers' pockets and the skirts of his short brown velveteen coat thrown back, and Mr. Radcliffe had sat down to the bags again, when the door opened, and some one came in. Stephen turned. He saw a pretty young girl in black, with some books in her delicate hands. Just for an instant he wondered who the young girl could be: and then the thought flashed over him that "the woman" his father had married might have a grown-up daughter. Selina had been unpacking her trunks upstairs, and arranging her things in the drawers and closets. She hesitated on her way to the book-case when she saw the stranger.
"My son Stephen, Selina. Ste, Mrs. Radcliffe."
Stephen Radcliffe for a moment forgot his sullenness and his temper. He did nothing but stare. Was his father playing a joke on him? He had pictured the new wife (though he knew not why) as a woman of mature age: this was a child. As she timidly held out the only hand she could extricate from the load of books, he saw the wedding-ring on her finger. Meeting her hand ungraciously and speaking never a word, he turned to the window again. Selina put the books down, to be disposed in their shelves later, and quitted the room.
"This is even worse folly than I dreamed of," began Stephen, facing his father. "She's nothing but a child."
"She is close upon twenty."
"'Why, there may be children!" broadly roared out Stephen. "You must have been mad when you did such a deed as this."
"Mad or sane, it's done, Stephen. And I should do it again to-morrow without asking your leave. Understand that."
Yes, it was done. Rattling the silver in his pockets, Stephen Radcliffe felt that, and that there was no undoing it. Here was this young step-mother planted down at the Torr; and if he and she could not hit it off together, it was he who would have to walk out of the house. For full five minutes Stephen mentally rehearsed all the oaths he remembered. Presently he spoke.
"It was a fair trick, wasn't it, that you should forbid my marrying, and go and do the same thing yourself!"
"I did not object to your marrying, Ste: I objected to the girl. Gibbon's daughter is not one to match with you. You are a Radcliffe."
Stephen scoffed. Nobody had ever been able to beat into him any sense of self-importance. Pride of birth, pride in his family were elements unknown to Stephen's nature. He had a great love of money to make up for it.
"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," he retorted, plunging into a communication he had resolved to make. "You have been taking a wife on your score, and I have taken one on mine."
Mr. Radcliffe looked keenly at Stephen. "You have married Gibbon's girl?"
"In Cornwall. She followed me there."
The elder man felt himself in a dilemma. He did care for his son, and he resented this alliance bitterly for Stephen's sake. Gibbon was gamekeeper to Sir Peter Chanasse, and had formerly been outdoor servant at the Torr; and this daughter of his, Rebecca--or Becca, as she was commonly called--was a girl quite beneath Stephen. Neither was she a lovable young woman in herself; but hard, and shy, and bony. How it was that Stephen had fancied her, Mr. Radcliffe could not understand. But--having stolen a march on Stephen himself, in regard to his own marriage, he did not feel much at liberty to resent Stephen's. It was done, too--as he had just observed of his own--and it could not be undone.
"Well, Stephen, I am more vexed for your sake than I care to say. It strikes me you will live to repent it."
"That's my look out," replied Stephen. "I am going to bring her home."
Mr. Radcliffe was silent; perhaps the assertion startled him.
"I don't want Gibbon's daughter here, Stephen. There's no room for her."
"Plenty of room, and to spare."
So there was; for the old house was large. But Mr. Radcliffe had not been thinking of space.
"I can't have her. There! You may make your house where you like."
"This is my home," said Stephen.
"And it may be still, if you like. But it's not hers. Two women in a house, each wanting to be mistress, wouldn't do. Now no noise, Ste, I won't have Gibbon's girl here. I've not been used to consort with people who have been my servants."
It is one thing to make a resolution, and another to keep it. Before twelve months had gone by, Mr. Radcliffe's firmly spoken words had come to naught; and Stephen had brought his wife into the Torr and two babies--for Mrs. Stephen had presented him with two at once. Selina was upstairs then with an infant of her own, and very ill. The world thought she was going to die.
The opportunity was a grand one for Madam Becca, and she seized upon it. When Selina came about again, after months spent in confinement, she found, so to say, no place for her. Becca was in her place; mistress, and ruler, and all. Stephen behaved to her like the lout he was; Becca, a formidable woman of towering height, alternately snapped at, and ignored her. Old Radcliffe did not interfere: he seemed not to see that anything was amiss. Poor Selina could only sit up in that apartment that Holt had called the Pine Room, and let her tears fall on her baby-boy, and whisper all her griefs into his unconscious ear. She was refined and timid and shrinking: but once she spoke to her husband.
"Treat you with contempt?--don't let you have any will of your own?--thwart you in all ways?" he repeated. "Who says it, Selina?"
"Oh, it is so; you may see that it is, if you only will notice," she said, looking up at him imploringly through her tears.
"I'll speak to Stephen. I knew there'd be a fuss if that Becca came here. But you are not as strong to bustle about as she is, Selina: let her take the brunt of the management off you. What does it matter?"
What did it matter?--that was Mr. Radcliffe's chief opinion on the point: and had it been only a question of management it would not have mattered. He spoke to Stephen, telling him that he and his wife must make things pleasanter for Mrs. Radcliffe, than, as it seemed, they were doing. The consequence was, that Stephen and Becca took a convenient occasion of attacking Selina; calling her a sneak, a tell-tale, and a wolf in sheep's clothing; and pretty nearly frightening her into another spell of illness.
From that time Selina had no spirit to retaliate. She took all that was put upon her--and it was a great deal--and bore it in silence and patience. She saw that her marriage, taking one thing with another, had turned out to be the mistake her friends had foretold that it would be. Mr. Radcliffe, growing by degrees into a state of apathy as he got older, was completely under the dominion of Stephen. He did not mean to be unkind to his wife: he just perceived nothing; he was indifferent to all that passed around him: had they set fire to Selina's petticoats before his eyes, he'd hardly have seen the blaze. Now and again Selina would try to make friends with Holt: but Holt, though never uncivil, had a way of throwing her off. And so, she lived on, a cowed, broken-spirited woman, eating away her heart in silence. Selina Radcliffe had found out that there were worse evils in the world than poverty.
She might have died then but for her boy. You never saw a nicer little fellow than he--that Francis Radcliffe. A bright, tractable, loving boy; with laughing blue eyes, and fair curls falling back from his pretty face. Mr. and Mrs. Stephen hated him. Their children, Tom and Lizzy, pinched and throttled him: but the lad took it all in good part, and had the sweetest temper imaginable. He loved his mother beyond telling, and she made him as gentle and nearly as patient as she was. Virtually driven from the parlour, except at meal-times, their refuge was the Pine Room. There they were unmolested. There Selina educated and trained him, doing her best to show him the way to the next world, as well as to fit him for this.
One day when he was about nine years old, Selina was up aloft, in the little room where he slept; which had a better view than some of the rooms had, and looked out into the open country. It was snowy weather, and she caught sight of the two boys in the yard below, snowballing each other. Opening the window to call Francis in--for he always got into the wars when with Tom, and she had learnt to dread his being with him--she saw Stephen Radcliffe crossing from the barn. Suddenly a snowball took Stephen in the face. It came from Tom; she saw that; Francis was stooping down at the time, collecting material for a fresh missive.
"Who flung that at me?" roared out Stephen, in a rage.
Tom disclaimed all knowledge of it; and Stephen Radcliffe seized upon Francis, beating him shamefully.
"It was not Francis," called out Selina from the window, shivering at the sight; for Stephen in his violence might some time, as she knew, lame the lad. "Its touching you was an accident; I could see that; but it was not Francis who threw it."
The cold, rarefied air carried her words distinctly to the ear of Stephen. Holding Francis by one hand to prevent his escape, he told Mrs. Radcliffe that she was a liar, adding other polite epithets and a few oaths. And then he began pummelling the lad again.
"Come in, Francis! Let him come in!" implored the mother, clasping her hands in her bitter agony. "Oh, is there no refuge for him and for me?"
She ran down to their sanctum, the Pine Room. Francis came up, sore all over, and his face bleeding. He was a brave little lad, and he strove to make light of it, and keep his tears down. She held him to her, and burst into sobs while trying to comfort him. That upset him at once.
"Oh, my darling, try and bear! My poor boy, there's nothing left for us both but to bear. The world is full of wrongs and tribulations: but, Francis, it will all be made right when we get to heaven."
"Don't cry, mamma. It didn't hurt me much. But, indeed, the snowball was not mine."
At ten years old the boys were sent to school. Young Tom, allowed to have his own way, grew beyond every one's control, even his father's; and Stephen packed him off to school. Selina besought her husband to send Francis also. Why not, replied Mr. Radcliffe; the boy must be educated. And, in spite of Stephen's opposition, Francis was despatched. It was frightfully lonely and unpleasant for Selina after that, and she grew to have a pitiful look on her face.
The school was a sharp one, and Francis got on well; he seemed to possess his grandfather Elliot's aptitude for learning. Tom hated it. After each of the half-yearly holidays, it took Stephen himself to get him to school again: and before he was fourteen he capped it all by appearing at home uncalled for, a red-hot fugitive, and announcing an intention of going to sea.
Tom carried his point. After some feats of skirmishing between him and his father, he was shipped off as "midshipman" on board a fine merchantman bound for Hong Kong. Stephen Radcliffe might never have given a consent, but for the certainty that if he did not give it, Tom would decamp from the Torr, as he did from school, and go off as a common seaman before the mast. It was strange, with his crabbed nature, how much he cared for those two children!
"You'll have that other one home now," said sullen Stephen to his father. "No good to be paying for him there."
And most likely it would have been so; but fate, or fortune, intervened. Francis had a wind-fall. A clergyman, who had known Mr. Elliot, died, and left Francis a thousand pounds. Selina decided that it should be spent, or at least a portion of it, in completing his education in a more advanced manner--though, no doubt, Stephen would have liked to get hold of the money. Francis was sent up to King's College in London, and to board at the house of one of the masters. In this way a few more years passed on. Francis chose the Bar as a profession, and began to study law.
"The Bar!" sneered Stephen. "A penniless beggar like Francis Radcliffe! Put a pig to learn to spell!"
A bleak day in winter. The wind was howling and crying round Sandstone Torr, tearing through the branches of the almost leafless trees, whirling the weather-cock atop of the lofty tower, playing madly on the window-panes. If there was one spot in the county that the wind seemed to favour above all other spots, it was the Torr. It would go shrieking in the air round about there like so many unquiet spirits.
In the dusk of evening, on a sofa beside the fire in the Pine Room lay Mrs. Radcliffe, with a white, worn face and hollow eyes. She was slowly dying. Until to-day she had not thought there was any immediate danger: but she knew it all now, and that the end was at hand.
So it was not that knowledge which had caused her, a day or two ago, to write to London for Francis. Some news brought in by Stephen Radcliffe had unhinged and shocked her beyond expression. Francis was leading a loose, bad life, drinking and gambling, and going to the deuce headlong, ran the tales, and Stephen repeated them indoors.
That same night she wrote for Francis. She could not rest day or night until she could see him face to face, and say--Is this true, or untrue? He might have reached the Torr the previous day; but he did not. She was lying listening for him now in the twilight gloom amidst the blasts of that shrieking wind.
"If God had but taken my child in infancy!" came the chief thought of her troubled heart. "If I could only know that I should meet him on the everlasting shores!"
She started up with a yearning cry. It was Francis. He had arrived, and come upstairs, and his opening of the door had been drowned by the wind. A tall, slender, bright-faced young fellow of twenty, with the same sunny hair as in his childhood, and a genial heart.
Francis halted, and stood in startled consternation. The firelight played on her wasted face, and he saw--what was there. In manners he was still almost a boy; his disposition open, his manner transparent.
She made room for him on the sofa; sitting beside him, and laying her weary head for a moment on his shoulder. Francis took a few deep breaths while getting over the shock.
"How long have you been like this, mother? What has brought it about?"
"Nothing in particular; nothing fresh," she answered. "I have been getting nearer and nearer to it for years and years."
"Is there no hope?"
"None. And oh, my darling, but for you I should be so glad to die. Sitting here in my loneliness for ever, with only heaven to look forward to, it seems that I have learnt to see a little already of what its rest will be."
Francis pushed his hair from his brow, and left his hand there. He had loved his mother intensely, and the blow was cruel.
Quietly, holding his other hand in hers, she spoke of what Stephen Radcliffe had heard. Francis's face turned to scarlet as he listened. But in that solemn hour he could not and would not tell a lie.
Yes, it was true; partly true, he said. He was not always so steady as he ought to be. Some of his acquaintances, young men studying law like himself, or medicine, or what not, were rather wild, and he had been the same. Drink?--well, yes; at times they did take more than might be quite needful. But they were not given to gambling: that was false.
"Francis," she said, her heart beating wildly with its pain, "the worst of all is the drink. If once you suffer yourself to acquire a love for it, you may never leave it off. It is so insidious--"
"But I don't love it, mother; I don't care for it--and I am sure you must know that I would tell you nothing but truth now," he interrupted. "I have only done as the others do. I'll leave it off."
"Will you promise me that?"
"Yes, I will. I do promise it."
She carried his hand to her lips and kissed it. Francis had always kept his promises.
"It is so difficult for young fellows without a house to keep straight in London," he acknowledged. "There's no good influence over us; there's no pleasant family circle where we can spend our evenings: and we go out, and get drawn into this and that. It all comes of thoughtlessness, mother."
"You have promised me, Francis."
"Oh yes. And I will perform."
"How long will it be before you are called to the Bar?" she asked, after a pause.
"So much as that?"
"I think so. How the wind howls!"
Mrs. Radcliffe sighed; Francis's future seemed not to be very clear. Unless he could get on pretty quickly, and make a living for himself--
"When I am gone, Francis," she said aloud, interrupting her own thoughts, "this will not be any home for you."
"It has not been one for me for some years now, mother."
"But if you do not get into work soon, and your own funds come to an end, you will have no house but this to turn to."
"If I attempted to turn to it, Stephen would soon make it too hot for me, I expect."
"That might not be all; not the worst," she quickly answered, dropping her voice to a tone of fear, and glancing around as one in a fever.
Francis looked round too. He supposed she was seeking something.
"It is always scaring me, Francis," she whispered. "There are times when I fancy I am going to see it enacted before my eyes. It puts me into a state of nervous dread not to be described."
"See what enacted?" he asked.
"I was sitting here about ten days ago, Francis, thinking of you, thinking of the future, when all at once a most startling prevision--yes, I call it so--a prevision came upon me of some dreadful ill in store for you; ill wrought by Stephen. I--I am not sure but it was--that--that he took your life," she added, scarcely above her breath, and in tones that made Francis shiver.
"Why, what do you mean, mother?"
"Every day, every day since, every night and nearly all night, that strange conviction has lain upon me. I know it will be fulfilled: when the hand of death is closing on us, these previsions are an instinct. As surely as that I am now disclosing this to you, Francis, so surely will you fall in some way under the iron hand of Stephen."
"Perhaps you were dreaming, mother dear," suggested Francis: for he had his share of common sense.
"It will be in this house; the Torr," she went on, paying no attention to him; "for it is always these rooms and the dreary trees outside that seem to lie before me. For that reason, I would not have you live here--"
"But don't you think you may have been dreaming?" repeated Francis, interrupting the rest.
"I was as wide awake as I am now, Francis, but I was deep in thought. It stole upon me, this impression, without any sort of warning, or any train of ideas that could have led to it; and it lies within me, a sure and settled conviction. Beware of Stephen. But oh, Francis! even while I give you this caution I know that you will not escape the evil--whatever it may turn out to be."
"I hope I shall," he said, rather lightly. "I'll try, at any rate."
"Well, I have warned you, Francis. Be always upon your guard. And keep away from the Torr, if you can."
Holt, quite an aged woman now, came in with some tea for her mistress. Francis took the opportunity to go down and see his father. Mr. Radcliffe, in a shabby old coat, was sitting in his arm-chair at the parlour fire. He looked pleased to see Francis, and kept his hand for a minute after he had shaken it.
"My mother is very ill, sir," said Francis.
"Ay," replied the old man, dreamily. "Been so for some time now."
"Can nothing be done to--to--keep her with us a little longer, father?"
"I suppose not. Ask Duffham."
"What the devil!--is it you! What brings you here?"
The coarse salutation came from Stephen. Francis turned to see him enter and bang the door after him. His shoes were dirty, his beaver gaiters splashed, and his hair was like a tangled mop.
"I came down to see my father and mother," answered Francis, as he held out his hand. But Stephen did not choose to see it.
Mrs. Stephen, in a straight-down blue cloth gown and black cap garnished with red flowers, looking more angular and hard than of yore, came in with the tea-tray. She did as much work in the house as a servant. Lizzy had been married the year before, and lived in Birmingham with her husband, who was curate at one of the churches there.
"You'll have to sleep on the sofa to-night, young man," was Mrs. Stephen's snappish salutation to Francis. "There's not a bed in the house that's aired. "
"The sofa will do," he answered.
"Let his bed be aired to-morrow, Becca," interposed the old man. And they stared in astonishment to hear him say it.
Francis sat down to the tea-table with Stephen and his wife; but neither of them spoke a word to him. Mr. Radcliffe had his tea in his arm-chair at the fire, as usual. Afterwards, Francis took his hat and went out. He was going to question the doctor: and the wind came rushing and howling about him as he bore onwards down the lane towards Church Dykely.
In about an hour's time he came back again with red eyes. He said it was the wind, but his subdued voice sounded as though he had been crying. His father, with bent head, was smoking a long pipe; Stephen sat at the table, reading the sensational police reports in a low weekly newspaper.
"Been out for a stroll, lad?" asked old Radcliffe--and it was the first voluntary question he had put for months. Stephen, listening, could not think what was coming to him.
"I have been to Duffham's," answered Francis. "He--he--" with a stopping of the breath, "says that nothing can be done for my mother; that a few days now will see the end of it."
"Ay," quietly responded the old man. "Our turns must all come."
"Her turn ought not to have come yet," said Francis, nearly breaking down.
"I have been looking forward at odd moments to a time when I should be in work, and able to give her a happy home with me, father. It is very hard to come here and find this."
Old Radcliffe took a long whiff; and, opening his mouth, let the smoke curl upwards. "Have a pipe, Francis?"
"No, thank you, sir. I am going up to my mother."
As he left the room, Stephen, having finished the police reports, was turning the paper to see what it said about the markets, when his father put down his pipe and began to speak.
"Only a few days, he says, Ste!"
"What?" demanded Stephen in his surly and ungracious tones.
"She's been ailing always; and has sat up there away from us, Ste. But we shall miss her."
"Miss her!" retorted Ste, leaving the paper, and walking to the fire. "Why, what good has she been? Miss her? The house'll have a good riddance of her," he added, under his breath.
"It'll be my turn next, Ste. And not long first, either."
Stephen took a keen look at his father from beneath his overhanging, bushy eyebrows, that were beginning to turn grey. All this sounded very odd.
"When you and me and Becca's left alone here by ourselves, we shall be as easy as can be," he said.
"What month is it, Ste?"
"Ay. You'll have seen the last o' me before Christmas."
"Think so?" was Stephen's equable remark. The old man nodded; and there came a pause.
"And you and Becca'll be glad to get us out, Ste."
Stephen did not take the trouble to gainsay it. He was turning about in his thoughts something that he had a mind to speak of.
"They've been nothing but interlopers from the first--she and him. I expect you to do what's right by me, father."
"Ay, I shall do what's right," answered the old man.
"About the money, I mean. It must all come to me, father. I was heir to it before you ever set eyes on her; and her brat must not be let stand in my way. Do you hear?"
"Yes, I hear. It'll be all right, Ste."
"Take only a fraction from the income, and how would the Torr be kept up?" pursued Stephen, plucking up his spirits at the last answer. "He has got his fine profession, and he can make a living for himself out of it: some o' them counsellors make their thousands a-year. But he must not be let rob me."
"He shan't rob you, Ste. It will be all right."
And covetous Stephen, thus reassured and put at ease, strolled into the kitchen, and ordered Becca to provide his favourite dish, toasted cheese, for supper.
The "few days" spoken of by Mr. Duffham, were slowly passing. There was not much difference to be observed in Selina; except that her voice grew weaker. She could only use it at intervals. But her face had a beautiful look of peace upon it, just as though she were three parts in heaven. I have heard Duffham say so in many a time since; I, Johnny Ludlow.
On the fifth day she was so much better that it seemed little short of a miracle. They found her in the Pine Room early, up and dressed when Holt went in to light the fire, she was looking over the two books that lay on the round table. One of them was the Bible; the other was a translation of the German tale "Sintram," which Francis had brought her when he came down in the last summer. The story had taken hold of her imagination, and she knew it nearly by heart.
Down went Holt, and told them that the mistress (for, contradictory though it may seem, Selina had been always accorded that title) had taken a "new lease of life," and was getting well. Becca, astonished, went stalking up: perhaps she was afraid it might be true. Selina had "Sintram" in her hand as she sat: her eyes looked bright, her cheeks pink, her voice was improved.
"Oh," said Becca. "What have you left your bed for at this early hour?"
"I feel so well," Selina answered with a smile, letting the book lie open on the table. "Won't you shake hands with me?--and--and kiss me?"
Now Becca had never kissed her in all the years they had lived together, and she did not seem to care about beginning now. "I'll go down and beat you up an egg and a spoonful of wine," said she, just touching the tips of Selina's fingers, in response to the held-out hand: and, with that, went away.
Stephen was the only one who did not pay the Pine Room a visit that day. He heard of the surprising change while he was feeding the pigs: for Becca went out and told him. Stephen splashed some wash over the side of the trough, and gave a little pig a smack with the bucket, and that was all his answer. Old Radcliffe sat an hour in the room; but he never spoke all the time: so his company could not be considered as much.
Selina crept as far as the window, and looked out on the bare pines and the other dreary trees. Most trees are dreary in November. Francis saw a shiver take her as she stood, leaning on the window-frame; and he went to give her his arm and bring her back again. They were by themselves then.
"A week, or so, of this improvement, mother, and you will be as you used to be," said he cheerfully, seating her on the sofa and stirring up the fire. "We shall have our home together yet."
She turned her face full on his, as he sat down by her; a half questioning, half-wondering look in her eyes.
"Not in this world, Francis. Surely you are not deceived!" and his over-sanguine heart went down like lead.
"It is but the flickering of the spirit before it finally quits the weary frame; just as you may have seen the flame shoot up from an expiring candle," she continued. "The end is very near now."
A spasm of pain rose in his throat. She took his hands between her own feeble ones.
"Don't grieve, Francis; don't grieve for me! Remember what my life has been."
He did remember it. He remembered also the answer Duffham gave when he had inquired what malady it was his mother was dying of. "A broken heart."
"Don't forget, Francis--never forget--that it is a journey we must enter on, sooner or later."
"An uncertain and unknown journey at the best!" he said. "You have no fear of it?"
"Fear! No, but I had once."
She spoke the words in a low, sweet tone, and pointed with a smile to the book that still lay open on the table. Francis's eyes fell on the page.
"When death is drawing near. And thy heart shrinks with fear. And thy limbs fail. Then raise thy hands and pray To Him who cheers the way Through the dark vale. "Seest thou the eastern dawn? Hear'st thou, in the red morn. The angel's song? Oh! lift thy drooping head. Thou who in gloom and dread Hast lain so long. "Death comes to set thee free; Oh! meet him cheerily. As thy true friend; And all thy fears shall cease. And in eternal peace Thy penance end."
Francis sat very still, struggling a little with that lump in his throat. She leaned forward, and let her head rest upon him, just as she had done the other day when he first came in. His emotion broke loose then.
"Oh, mother, what shall I do without you?"
"You will have God," she whispered.
Still all the morning she kept up well; talking of this and that, saying how much of late the verses, just quoted, had floated in her mind and become a reality to her; showing Holt a slit that had appeared in the table-cover and needed darning; telling Francis his pocket-handkerchiefs looked yellow and should be bleached. It might have been thought she was only going out to tea at Church Dykely, instead of entering on the other journey she had told of.
"Have you been giving her anything?" demanded Stephen, casting his surly eyes on Francis as they sat opposite to each other at dinner in the parlour. "Dying people can't spurt up in this manner without drugs to make 'em."
Francis did not deign to answer. Stephen projected his fork, and took a potato out of the dish. Frank went upstairs when the meal was over. He had left his mother sitting on the sofa, comparatively well. He found her lying on the bed in the next room, grappling with death. She lifted her feeble arms to welcome him, and a ray of joyous light shone on her face. Francis made hardly one step of it to the bed.
"Oh, my darling, it will be all right!" she breathed. "I have prayed for you, and I know--I know I have been heard. You will be helped to put away that evil habit; temptation may assail, but it will not finally overcome you. And, Francis, when--" Her voice failed.
"I no longer hear what you say, mother," cried Francis in an agony.
"Yes, yes," she repeated, as if in answer to something he had said. "Beware of Stephen."
The hands and face alike fell. Francis rang the bell violently, and Holt came up. All was over.
Stephen attended the funeral with the others. Grumbling woefully at having to do it, because it involved a new suit of black clothes. "They'll be ready for the old man, though," was his consoling reflection: "he won't be long."
He was even quicker than Stephen thought. On the very day week that they had come in from leaving Selina in the grave, Mr. Radcliffe was lying as lifeless as she was. A seizure carried him off. Francis was summoned again from London before he had well got back to it. Stephen could not, at such a season, completely ignore him.
He did not foresee the blow that was to come thundering down. When Mr. Radcliffe's will came to be opened, it was found that his property was equally divided between the two sons, half and half: Stephen of course inheriting the Torr; and Squire Todhetley being appointed trustee for Francis. "And I earnestly beg of him to accept the trust," ran the words, "for the sake of Selina's son."
Francis caught the glare of Stephen as they were read out. It was of course Stephen himself, but it looked more like a savage wild-cat. That warning of his mother's came into Francis's mind with a rush.
It stood on the left of the road as you went towards Alcester: a good-looking, red-brick house, not large, but very substantial. Everything about it was in trim order; from the emerald-green outer venetian window-blinds to the handsome iron entrance-gates between the enclosing palisades; and the garden and grounds had not as much as a stray worm upon them. Mr. Brandon was nice and particular in all matters, as old bachelors generally are; and he was especially so in regard to his home.
Careering up to this said house on the morning of a fine spring day, when the green hedges were budding and the birds sang in the trees, went a pony-gig, driven by a gentleman. A tall, slender young fellow of seven-and-twenty, with golden hair that shone in the sun and eyes as blue and bright as the sky. Leaving the pony to be taken care of by a labouring boy who chanced to be loitering about, he rang the bell at the iron gates, and inquired of the answering servant whether Mr. Brandon was at home.
"Yes, sir," was the answer of the man, as he led the way in. "But I am not sure that he can see you. What name?" And the applicant carelessly took a card from his waistcoat-pocket, and was left in the drawing-room. Which card the servant glanced at as he carried it away.
"Mr. Francis Radcliffe."
People say there's sure to be a change every seven years. Seven years had gone by since the death of old Mr. Radcliffe and the inheritance by Francis of the portion that fell to him; three hundred a-year. There were odd moments when Frank, in spite of himself, would look back at those seven years; and he did not at all like the retrospect. For he remembered the solemn promise he had made to his mother when she was dying, to put away those evil habits which had begun to creep upon him, more especially that worst of all bad habits that man, whether young or old, can take to--drinking--and he had not kept the promise. He had been called to the Bar in due course, but he made nothing by his profession. Briefs did not come to him. He just wasted his time and lived a fast life on the small means that were his. He pulled up sometimes, turned his back on folly, and read like a house on fire: but his wild companions soon got hold of him again, and put his good resolutions to flight. Frank put it all down to idleness. "If I had work to do, I should do it," he said, "and that would keep me straight." But at the close of this last winter he had fallen into a most dangerous illness, resulting from the draughts of ale, and what not, that he had made too free with, and he got up from it with a resolution never to drink again. Knowing that the resolution would be more easy to keep if he turned his back on London and the companions who beset him, down he came to his native place, determined to take a farm and give up the law. For the second time in his life some money had come to him unexpectedly; which would help him on. And so, after a seven years' fling, Frank Radcliffe was going in for a change.
He had never stayed at Sandstone Torr since his father's death. His brother Stephen's surly temper, and perhaps that curious warning of his mother's, kept him out of it. He and Stephen maintained a show of civility to one another; and when Frank was in the neighbourhood (but that had only happened twice in the seven years), he would call at the Torr and see them. The last time he came down, Frank was staying at a place popularly called Pitchley's Farm. Old Pitchley--who had lived on it, boy and man, for seventy years--liked him well. Frank made acquaintance that time with Annet Skate; fell in love with her, in fact, and meant to marry her. She was a pretty girl, and a good girl, and had been brought up to be thoroughly useful as a farmer's daughter: but neither by birth nor position was she the equal of Frank Radcliffe. All her experience of life lay in her own secluded, plain home: in regard to the world outside she was as ignorant as a young calf, and just as mild and soft as butter.
So Frank, after his spell of sickness and reflection, had thrown up London, and come down to settle in a farm with Annet, if he could get one. But there was not a farm to be let for miles round. And it was perhaps a curious thing that while Frank was thinking he should have to travel elsewhere in search of one, Pitchley's should turn up. For old Pitchley suddenly died. Pitchley's Farm belonged to Mr. Brandon. It was a small compact farm; just the size Frank wanted. A large one would have been beyond his means.
Mr. Brandon sat writing letters at the table in his library, in his geranium-coloured Turkish cap, with its purple tassel, when his servant went in with the card.
"Mr. Francis Radcliffe" read he aloud, in his squeaky voice. "What, is he down here again? You can bring him in, Abel--though I'm sure I don't know what he wants with me." And Abel went and brought him.
"We heard you were ill, young man," said Mr. Brandon, peering up into Frank's handsome face as he shook hands, and detecting all sorts of sickly signs in it.
"So I have been, Mr. Brandon; very ill. But I have left London and its dissipations for good, and have come here to settle. It's about time I did," he added, with the candour natural to him.
"I should say it was," coughed old Brandon. "You've been on the wrong tack long enough."
"And I have come to you--I hope I am first in the field--to ask you to let me have the lease of Pitchley's Farm."
Mr. Brandon could not have felt more surprised had Frank asked for a lease of the moon, but he did not show it. His head went up a little, and the purple tassel took a sway backwards.
"Oh," said he. "You take Pitchley's Farm! How do you think to stock it?"
"I shall take to the stock at present on it, as far as my means will allow, and give a bond for the rest. Pitchley's executors will make it easy for me."
"What are your means?" curtly questioned old Brandon.
"In all, they will be two thousand pounds. Taking mine and Miss Skate's together."
"That's a settled thing, is it, Master Francis?"--alluding to the marriage.
"Yes, it is," said Frank. "Her portion is just a thousand pounds, and her friends are willing to put it on the farm. Mine is another thousand."
"Where does yours come from?"
"Do you recollect, Mr. Brandon, that when I was a little fellow at school I had a thousand pounds left me by a clergyman--a former friend of my grandfather Elliot?"
Mr. Brandon nodded. "It was Parson Godfrey. He came down once or twice to the Torr to see your mother and you."
"Just so. Well, his widow has now recently died; she was considerably younger than he; and she has left me another thousand. If I can have Pitchley's Farm, I shall be sure to get on at it," he added in his sanguine way. For, if ever there was a sanguine, sunny-natured fellow in this world, it was Frank Radcliffe.
Old Brandon pushed his geranium cap all aside and gave a flick to the tassel. "My opinion lies the contrary way, young man: that you will be sure not to get on at it."
"I understand all about farming," said Frank eagerly. "And I mean to be as steady as steady can be."
"To begin with a debt on the farm will cripple the best man going, sir."
"Oh, Mr. Brandon, don't turn against me!" implored Frank, who was feeling terribly in earnest. "Give me a chance! Unless I can get some constant work, some interest to occupy my hands and my mind, I might be relapsing back to the old ways again from sheer ennui. There's no resource but a farm."
Mr. Brandon did not seem to be in a hurry to answer. He was looking straight at Frank, and nodding little nods to himself, following out some mental argument. Frank leaned forward in his chair, his voice low, his face solemn.
"When my poor mother was dying, I promised her to give up bad habits, Mr. Brandon. I hope--I think--I fully intend to do so now. Won't you help me?"
"What do you wish me to understand by 'bad' habits, young man?" queried Mr. Brandon in his hardest tones. "What have been yours?"
"Drink," said Frank shortly. "And I am ashamed enough to have to say it. It is not that I have been a constant drinker, or that I have taken much, in comparison with what very many men drink; but I have, sometimes for weeks together, taken it very recklessly. That is what I meant by speaking of my bad habits, Mr. Brandon."
"Couldn't speak of a worse habit, Frank Radcliffe."
"True. I should have pulled up long ago but for those fast companions I lived amongst. They kept me down. Once amidst such, a fellow has no chance. Often and often that neglected promise to my mother has lain upon me, a nightmare of remorse. I have fancied she might be looking down upon earth, upon me, and seeing how I was fulfilling it."
"If your mother was not looking down upon you, sir, your Creator was."
"Ay. I know. Mr. Brandon"--his voice sinking deeper in its solemnity, and his eyes glistening--"in the very last minute of my mother's life--when her soul was actually on the wing--she told me that she knew I should be helped to throw off what was wrong. She had prayed for it, and seen it. A conviction is within me that I shall be--has been within me ever since. I think this--now--may be the turning-point in my life. Don't deny me the farm, sir."
"Frank Radcliffe, I'd let you have the farm, and another to it, if I thought you were sincere."
"Why--you can't think me not sincere, after what I have said!" cried Frank.
"Oh, you are sincere enough at the present moment. I don't doubt that. The question is, will you be sincere in keeping your good resolutions in the future?"
"I hope I shall. I believe I shall. I will try with all my best energies."
"Very well. You may have the farm."
Frank Radcliffe started up in his joy and gratitude, and shook Mr. Brandon's hands till the purple tassel quivered. He had a squeaky voice and a cold manner, and went in for coughs and chest-aches, and all kinds of fanciful disorders; but there was no more generous heart going than old Brandon's.
Business settled, the luncheon was ordered in. But Frank was a good deal too impatient to stay for it; and drove away in the pony-gig to impart the news to all whom it might concern. Taking a round to the Torr first, he drove into the back-yard. Stephen came out.
Stephen looked quite old now. He must have been fifty years of age. Hard and surly as ever was he, and his stock of hair was as grizzled as his father's used to be before Frank was born.
"Oh, it's you!" said Stephen, as civilly as he could bring his tongue to speak. "Whose chay and pony is that?"
"It belongs to Pitchley's bailiff. He lent it me this morning."
"Will you come in?"
"I have not time now," answered Frank. "But I thought I'd just drive round and tell you the news, Stephen. I'm going to have Pitchley's Farm."
"Who says so?"
"I have now been settling it with Mr. Brandon. At first, he seemed unwilling to let me have it--was afraid, I suppose, that I and the farm might come to grief together--but he consented at last. So I shall get in as soon as I can, and take Annet with me. You'll come to our wedding, Stephen?"
"A fine match she is!" cried cranky Stephen.
"What's the matter with her?"
"I don't say as anything's the matter with her. But you have always stuck up for the pride and pomp of the Radcliffes: made out that nobody was good enough for 'em. A nice comedown for Frank Radcliffe that'll be--old Farmer Skate's girl."
"We won't quarrel about it, Stephen," said Frank, with his good-humoured smile. "Here's your wife. How do you do, Mrs. Radcliffe?"
Becca had come out with a wet mop in her hands, which she proceeded to wring. Some of the splashes went on Frank's pony-gig. She wore morning costume: a dark-blue cotton gown hanging straight down on her thin, lanky figure; and an old black cap adorning her hard face. It was a great contrast: handsome, gentlemanly, well-dressed, sunny Frank Radcliffe, barrister-at-law; and that surly boor Stephen, in his rough clothes, and his shabby, hard-working wife.
"When be you going back to London?" was Becca's reply to his salutation, as she began to rinse out the mop at the pump.
"Not at all. I have been telling Stephen. I am going into Pitchley's Farm."
"Along of Annet Skate," put in Stephen; whose queer phraseology had been indulged in so long that it had become habitual. "Much good they'll do in a farm! He'd like us to go to the wedding! No, thank ye."
"Well, good-morning," said Frank, starting the pony. They did not give him much encouragement to stay.
"Be it true, Radcliffe?" asked Becca, letting the mop alone for a minute. "Be he a-going to marry Skate's girl, and get Pitchley's Farm?"
"I wish the devil had him!" was Stephen's surly comment, as he stalked off in the wake of the receding pony-gig, giving his wife no other answer.
No doubt Stephen was sincere in his wish, though it was hardly polite to avow it. For the whole of Frank's life, he had been a thorn in the flesh of Stephen: in the first years, for fear their father should bequeath to Frank a share of the inheritance; in the later years, because Frank had had the share! That sum of three hundred a-year, enjoyed by Frank, was coveted by Stephen as money was never yet coveted by man. Looking at matters with a distorted mind, he considered it a foul wrong done him; as no better than a robbery upon him; that the whole of the money was his own by all the laws of right and wrong, and that not a stiver of it ought to have gone to Frank. Unable, however, to altar the state of existing things, he had sincerely hoped that some lucky chance--say the little accident of Frank's drinking himself to death--would put him in possession of it; and all the rumours that came down from London about Frank's wild life rejoiced him greatly. For if Frank died without children, the money went to Stephen. And it may as well be mentioned here, that old Mr. Radcliffe had so vested the three hundred a-year that Frank had no power over the capital and was unable to squander it. It would go to his children when he died; or, if he left no children, to Stephen.
Never a night when he went to bed, never a morning when he got up, but Stephen Radcliffe's hungry heart gave a dismal groan to that three hundred a-year he had been deprived of. In truth, his own poor three hundred was not enough for him. And then, he had expected that the six would all be his! He had, he said, to work like a slave to keep up the Torr, and make both ends meet. His two children were for ever tugging at his purse-strings. Tom, quitting the sea, had settled in a farm in Canada; but he was always writing home for help. Lizzy would make her appearance at home at all kinds of unseasonable times and tell pitiful stories of the wants of her scanty ménage at Birmingham, and of her little children, and of the poor health and short pay of her husband the curate. Doubtless Stephen had rather a hard life of it and could very well have done with a doubled income. To hear that Frank was going to settle down to a sober existence and to marry a wife, was the worst news of all to Stephen, for it lessened his good chances finely.
But he had only the will to hinder it, not the power. And matters and the year went swimmingly on. Francis entered into possession of the farm; and just a week before Midsummer Day, he married Annet Skate and took her home.
The red June sunset fell full on Pitchley's Farm, staining the windows a glowing crimson. Pitchley's Farm lay in a dell, about a mile from Dyke Manor, on the opposite side to Sandstone Torr. It was a pretty little homestead, with jessamine on the porch, and roses creeping up the frames of the parlour-windows. Just a year had gone by since the wedding, and to-morrow would be the anniversary of the wedding-day. Mr. and Mrs. Francis Radcliffe were intending to keep it, and had bidden their friends to an entertainment. He had carried out his resolution to be steady, and they had prospered fairly well. David Skate, one of Annet's brothers, a thorough, practical farmer, was ever ready to come over, if wanted, and help Francis with work and counsel.
Completely tired with her day's exertions, was Annet, for she had been making good things for the morrow, and now sat down for the first time that day in the parlour--a low room, with its windows open to the clustering roses, and the furniture bright and tasty. Annet was of middle height, light and active, with a delicate colour on her cheeks, soft brown eyes, and small features. She had just changed her cotton gown for one of pink summer muslin, and looked as fresh as a daisy.
"How tired I am!" she exclaimed to herself, with a smile.
"Frank would scold me if he knew it."
"Be you ready for supper, ma'am?" asked a servant, putting in her head at the door. The only maid kept: for both Frank and his wife knew that their best help to getting on was economy.
"Not yet, Sally. I shall wait for your master."
"Well, I've put it on the table, ma'am; and I'm just going to step across now to Hester Bitton's, and tell her she'll be wanted here to-morrow."
Annet went into the porch, and stood there looking out for her husband, shading her eyes with her hand from the red glare.
Some business connected with stock took him to Worcester that day, and he had started in the early morning; but Annet had expected him home earlier than this.
There he was, riding down the road at a sharpish trot; Annet heard the horse's hoofs before she saw him. He waved his hand to her in the distance, and she fluttered her white handkerchief back again. Thorpe, the indoor man, appeared to take the horse.
Francis Radcliffe had been changing for the better during the past twelvemonth. Regular habits and regular hours, and a mind healthily occupied, had done great things for him. His face was bright, his blue eyes were clear, and his smile and his voice were alike cheering as he got off the horse and greeted his wife.
"You are late, Frank! It is ever so much past eight."
"Our clocks are fast: I've found that out to-day, Annet. But I could not get back before."
He had gone into the parlour, had kissed her, and was disincumbering his pockets of various parcels: she helping him. Both ware laughing, for there seemed to be no end to them. They contained articles wanted for the morrow: macaroons, and potted lampreys, and lots of good things.
"Don't say again that I forget your commissions, Annet."
"Never again, Frank. How good you are! But what is in this one? It feels soft."
"That's for yourself," said Frank. "Open it."
Cutting the string, the paper flew apart, disclosing a baby's cloak of white braided cashmere. Annet laughed and blushed.
"Oh, Frank! How could you?"
"Why, I heard you say you must get one."
"Yes--but--not just yet. It may not be wanted, you know."
"Stuff! The thing was in Mrs. What's-her-name's window in High Street, staring passers-by in the face; so I went in, and bought it."
"It's too beautiful," murmured Annet, putting it reverently into the paper, as if she mistook it for a baby. "And how has the day gone, Frank? Could you buy the sheep?"
"Yes; all right. The sheep--Annet, who do you think is coming here to-morrow? Going to honour us as one of the guests?"
At the break in the sentence, Frank had flung himself into a chair, and thrown his head back, laughing. Annet wondered.
"Stephen! It's true. He had gone to Worcester after some sheep himself. I asked whether we should have the pleasure of seeing them here, and he curtly said that he was coming, but couldn't answer for Mrs. Radcliffe. Had the Pope of Rome told me he was coming, I should not have been more surprised."
"Stephen's wife took no notice of the invitation."
"Writing is not in her line: or in his either. Something must be in the wind, Annet: neither he nor his wife has been inside our doors yet."
They sat down to supper, full of chat: as genial married folks always are, after a day's separation. And it was only when the house was at rest, and Annet was lighting the bed-candle, that she remembered a letter lying on the mantel-piece.
"Oh, Frank, I ought to have given it to you at once; I quite forgot it. This letter came for you by this morning's post."
Frank sat down again, drew the candle to him, and read it. It was from one of his former friends, a Mr. Briarly; offering on his own part and on that of another former friend, one Pratt, a visit to Pitchley's Farm.
Instincts arise to all of us: instincts that it might be well to trust to oftener than we do. A powerful instinct, against the offered visit, rushed into the mind of Francis Radcliffe. But the chances are, that, in the obligations of hospitality, it would not have prevailed, even had the chance been afforded him.
"Cool, I must say!" said Frank, with a laugh. "Look here, Annet; these two fellows are going to take us by storm to-morrow. If I don't want them, says Briarly, I must just shut the door in their faces."
"But you'll be glad to see them, won't you, Frank?" she remarked in her innocence.
"Yes. I shall like well enough to see them again. It's our busy time, though: they might have put it off till after harvest."
As many friends went to this entertainment at Pitchley's Farm as liked to go. Mr. Brandon was one of them: he walked over with us--with me, and Tod, and the Squire, and the mater. Stephen Radcliffe and his wife were there, Becca in a black silk with straps of rusty velvet across it. Stephen mostly sat still and said nothing, but Becca's sly eyes were everywhere. Frank and his wife, well dressed and hospitable, welcomed us all; and the board was well spread with cold meats and dainties.
Old Brandon had a quiet talk with Annet in a corner of the porch. He told her he was glad to find Frank seemed likely to do well at the farm.
"He tries his very best, sir," she said.
"Ay. Somehow I thought he would. People said 'Frank Radcliffe has his three hundred a-year to fall back upon when he gets out of Pitchley's': but I fancied he might stay at Pitchley's instead of getting out of it."
"We are getting on as well as we can be, sir, in a moderate way."
"A moderate way is the only safe way to get on," said Mr. Brandon, putting his white silk handkerchief corner-wise on his head against the sun. "That's a true saying, He who would be rich in twelve months is generally a beggar in six. You are helping Frank well, my dear. I have heard of it: how industrious you are, and keep things together. It's not often a good old head like yours is set upon young shoulders."
Annet laughed. "My shoulders are not so very young, sir. I was twenty-four last birthday.'
"That's young to manage a farm, child. But you've had good training; you had an industrious mother"--indicating an old lady on the lawn in a big lace cap and green gown. "I can tell you what--when I let Frank Radcliffe have the lease, I took into consideration that you were coming here as well as he. Why!--who are these?"
Two stylish-looking fellows were dashing up in a dog-cart; pipes in their mouths, and portmanteaus behind them. Shouting and calling indiscriminately about for Frank Radcliffe; for a man to take the horse and vehicle, that they had contrived to charter at the railway terminus; for a glass of bitter beer apiece, for they were confoundedly dry--there was no end of a commotion.
They were the two visitors from London, Briarly and Pratt. Their tones moderated somewhat when they saw the company. Frank came out; and received a noisy greeting that might have been heard at York. One of them trod on Mr. Brandon's corns as he went in through the porch. Annet looked half frightened.
"Come to stay here!--gentlemen from London!--Frank's former friends!" repeated old Brandon, listening to her explanation. "Fine friends, I should say! Frank Radcliffe,"--laying hold of him as he was coming back from giving directions to his servant--"how came you to bring those men down into your home?"
"They came of their own accord, Mr. Brandon."
"Friends of yours, I hear?"
"Yes, I knew them in the old days."
"Oh. Well--I should not like to go shouting and thundering up to a decent house with more aboard me than I could carry. Those men have both been drinking."
Frank was looking frightfully mortified. "I am afraid they have," he said. "The heat of the day and the dust on the journey must have caused them to take more than they were aware of. I'm very sorry. I assure you, Mr. Brandon, they are really quiet, good fellows."
"May be. But the sooner you see their backs turned, the better, young man."
From that day, the trouble set in. Will it be believed that Frank Radcliffe, after keeping himself straight for ever so much more than a year, fell away again? Those two visitors must have found their quarters at Pitchley's Farm agreeable, for they stayed on and on, and made no sign of going away. They were drinkers, hard and fast. They drank, themselves, and they seduced Frank to drink--though perhaps he did not require much seduction. Frank's ale was poured out like water. Dozens of port, ordered and paid for by Briarly, arrived from the wine merchant's; Pratt procured cases of brandy. From morning till night liquor was under poor Frank's nose, tempting him to sin. Their heads might be strong enough to stand the potions; Frank's was not. It was June when the new life set in; and on the first of September, when all three staggered in from a day's shooting, Frank was in a fever and curiously trembling from head to foot.
By the end of the week he was strapped down in his bed, a raving madman; Duffham attending him, and two men keeping guard.
Duffham made short work with Briarly and Pratt. He packed them and their cases of wine and their portmanteaus off together telling them they had done enough mischief for one year, and he must have the house quiet for both its master and mistress. Frank's malady was turning to typhus fever, and a second doctor was called in from Evesham.
The next news was, that Pitchley's Farm had a son and heir. They called it Francis. It did not live many days, however: how was a son and heir likely to live, coming to that house of fright and turmoil? Frank's ravings might be heard all over it and his poor wife was nearly terrified out of her bed.
The state of things went on. October came in, and there was no change. It was not known whether Annet would live or die. Frank was better in health, but his mind was gone.
"There's one chance for him," said Duffham, coming across to Dyke Manor to the Squire: "and that is, a lunatic asylum. At home he cannot be kept; he is raving mad. No time must be lost in removing him."
"You think he may get better in an asylum?" cried the Squire, gloomily.
"Yes. I say it is his best chance. His wife, poor thing, is horrified at the thought: but there's nothing else to be done. The calmness of an asylum, the sanatory rules and regulations observed there, will restore him, if anything will."
"How is she?" asked the Squire.
"About as ill as she can be. She won't leave her bed on this side Christmas. And the next question is, Squire--where shall he be placed? Of course we cannot act at all without your authority."
The Squire, you see, was Frank Radcliffe's trustee. At the present moment Frank was dead in the eye of the law, and everything lay with the Squire. Not a sixpence of the income could any one touch now, but as he pleased to decree.
After much discussion, in which Stephen Radcliffe had to take his share, according to law and order, Frank was conveyed to a small private asylum near London. It belonged to a Dr. Dale: and the Evesham doctor strongly recommended it. The terms seemed high to us: two hundred pounds a-year: and Stephen grumbled at them. But Annet begged and prayed that money might not be spared; and the Squire decided to pay it. So poor Frank was taken to town; and Stephen, as his nearest male relative--in fact, his only one--officially consigned him to the care of Dr. Dale.
And that's the jolly condition things were in, that Christmas, at Pitchley's Farm. Its master in a London madhouse, its mistress in her sick-bed, and the little heir in Church Dykely churchyard. David Skate, like the good brother he was, took up his quarters at the farm, and looked after things.
It was in January that Annet found herself well enough to get upon her legs. The first use she made of them was to go up to London to see her husband. But the sight of her so much excited Frank that Dr. Dale begged her not to come again. It was, he said, taking from Frank one chance of his recovery. So Annet gave her promise not to do so, and came back to Pitchley's sobbing and sighing.
Things went on without much change till May. News came of Frank periodically, chiefly to Stephen Radcliffe, who was the recognized authority in Dr. Dale's eyes. On the whole it was good. The improvement in him, though slow, was gradual and Dr. Dale felt quite certain now of his restoration. In May, the cheering tidings arrived that Frank was all but well; and Stephen Radcliffe, who went to London for a fortnight about that time and saw Frank twice, confirmed it.
Stephen's visit up arose in this way. One Esau D. Stettin (that's how he wrote his name), who owned land in Canada, came to this country on business, and brought news to the Torr of Tom Radcliffe. Tom had every chance of doing well, he said, and was quite steady--and this was true. Mr. and Mrs. Stephen were almost as glad to hear it as if a fortune had been left to them. But, to ensure his doing well and to make his farm prosperous, Tom wanted no end of articles sent out to him: the latest improvements in agricultural implements; patent wheelbarrows, and all the rest of it. For Stephen to take the money out of his pocket to purchase the wheelbarrows was like taking the teeth from his head; but as Esau D. Stettin--who was above suspicion--confirmed Tom's need of the things, Stephen decided to do it. He went up to London, to buy the articles and superintend their embarkation, and it was during that time that he saw Frank. Upon returning to the Torr, he fully bore out Dr. Dale's opinion that Frank was recovering his mind, was, in fact, almost well; but he privately told the Squire some other news that qualified it.
Franks health was failing. While his mind was resuming its tone, his body was wasting. He was, Ste said, a mere shadow; and Dr. Dale feared that he would not last very long after complete sanity set in.
How sorry we all were, I need not say. With all his failings and his instability, every one liked Frank Radcliffe. They kept it from Annet. She was but a shadow herself: had fretted her flesh to fiddlestrings; and Duffham's opinion was that she stood a good chance of dwindling away till nothing was left of her but a shroud and a coffin.
"Would it be of any use my going up to see him, poor fellow?" asked the Squire, sadly down in the mouth.
"Not a bit," returned Stephen. "Dale would be sure not to admit you: so much depends on Frank's being kept free from excitement. Why, he wanted to deny me, that Dale; but I insisted on my right to go in. I mean to see him again, too, before many days are over."
"Are you going to London again?" asked the Squire, rather surprised. It was something new for Stephen Radcliffe to be a gad-about.
"I shall have to go, I reckon," said Stephen, ungraciously. "I've to see Stettin before he sails."
Stephen Radcliffe did go up again, apparently much against his will, to judge by the ill words he gave to it. And the report he brought back of Frank that time was rather more cheering.
The Squire was standing one hot morning in the yard in his light buff coat, blowing up Dwarf Giles for something that had gone wrong in the stables, when a man was seen making his way from the oak-walk towards the yard. The June hay-making was about, and the smell of the hay was wafted across to us on the wings of the summer breeze.
"Who's that, Johnny?" asked the pater: for the sun was shining right in his eyes.
"It--it looks like Stephen Radcliffe, sir."
"You may tell him by his rusty suit of velveteen," put in Tod; who stood watching a young brood of ducklings in the duck-pond, and the agonies of the hen that had hatched them.
Stephen Radcliffe it was. He had a stout stick in his hand, and his face was of a curious leaden colour. Which, with him, took the place of paleness.
"I've had bad news, Mr. Todhetley," he began, in low tones, without any preliminary greeting. "Frank's dead."
The Squire's straw hat, which he chanced to have taken off, dropped on the stones. "Dead! Frank!" he exclaimed in an awestruck tone. "It can't be true."
"Just the first thought that struck me when I opened the letter," said Stephen, drawing one from his pocket. "Here it is, though, in black and white."
His hands shook like anything as he held out the letter. It was from one of the assistants at Dale's--a Mr. Pitt: the head doctor, under Dale, Stephen explained. Frank had died suddenly, it stated, without warning of any kind, so that there was no possibility of apprising his friends; and it requested Mr. Radcliffe to go up without delay.
"It is a dreadful thing!" cried the Squire.
"So it is, poor fellow," agreed Stephen. "I never thought it was going to end this way; not yet awhile, at any rate. For him, it's a happy release, I suppose. He'd never ha' been good for anything."
"What has he died of?" questioned Tod.
The voice, or the question, seemed to startle Stephen. He hooked sharply round, as if he hadn't known Tod was there, an ugly scowl on his face.
"I expect we shall hear it was heart disease," he said, facing the Squire and turning his back upon Tod.
"Why do you say that, Mr. Radcliffe? Was anything the matter with his heart?
"Dale had some doubts of it, Squire. He thought that was the cause of his wasting away."
"You never told us that."
"Because I never believed it. A Radcliffe never had a weak heart yet. And it's only a thought o' mine: he might have died from something else. Laid hands on himself, maybe."
"For goodness' sake don't bring up such an ill thought as that," cried the pater explosively. "Wait till you know."
"Yes, I must wait till I know," said Stephen, sullenly. "And a precious inconvenience it is to me to go up at this moment when my hay's just cut! Frank's been a bother to me all his life, and he must even be a bother now he's dead."
"Shall I go up for you?" asked the Squire: who in his distress at the sudden news would have thought nothing of offering to start for Kamschatka.
"No good if you did," growled Stephen, folding up the letter that the pater handed back to him. "They'd not as much as release him to be buried without me, I expect. I shall bring him down here," added Stephen, jerking his head in the direction of the churchyard.
"Yes, yes, poor fellow--let him lie by his mother," said the Squire.
Stephen said a good-morrow, meant for the whole of us; and had rounded the duck-pond on his exit, when he stopped, and turned back again to the pater.
"There'll be extra expenses, I suppose, up at Dale's. Have I your authority to discharge them?"
"Of course you have, Mr. Radcliffe. Or let Dale send in the account to me, if you prefer it."
He went off without another word, his head down; his thick stick held over his shoulder. The Squire rubbed his face, and wondered what on earth was the next thing to do in this unhappy crisis.
Annet was in Wales with her mother at some seaside place. It would be a dreadful shock to her. Getting the address from David Skate, the Squire wrote to break it to them in the best manner he could. But now, a mischance happened to that letter. Welsh names are difficult to spell; the pater's pen put L for Y, or X for Z, something of that sort; and the letter went to a wrong town altogether, and finally came back to him unopened. Stephen Radcliffe had returned then.
Stephen did not keep his word. Instead of bringing Frank down, he left him in London in Finchley Cemetery. "The heat of the weather," he pleaded by way of excuse when the Squire blew him up. "There was some delay; an inquest, and all that; and unless we'd gone to the expense of lead, it couldn't be done; Dale said so. What does it signify? He'll lie as quiet there as he would here."
"And was it the heart that was wrong?" asked the pater.
"No. It was what they called 'effusion on the brain,'" replied Stephen. "Dale says it's rather a common case with lunatics, but he never feared it for Frank."
"It is distressing to think his poor wife did not see him. Quite a misfortune."
"Well, we can't help it: it was no fault of ours" retorted Stephen: who had actually had the decency to put himself into a semblance of mourning. "The world 'ud go on differently for many of us, Squire, if we could foresee things."
And that was the end of Francis Radcliffe!
"Finchley Cemetery!" exclaimed Mr. Brandon, when he heard it. "That Stephen Radcliffe has been at his stingy tricks again. You can bury people for next to nothing there."
Poor Annet came home in her widow's weeds. In health she was better; and might grow strong in time. There was no longer any suspense: she knew the worst; that was in itself a rest. The great doubt to be encountered now was, whether she could keep on Pitchley's Farm. Mr. Brandon was willing to risk it: and David Skate took up his abode at the farm for good, and would do his best in all ways. But the three hundred a-year income, that had been the chief help and stay of herself and Frank, was gone.
It had lapsed to Stephen. Nothing could be said against that in law, for old Mr. Radcliffe's will had so decreed it; but it seemed a very cruel thing for every shilling to leave her, an injustice, a wrong. The tears ran down her pale face as she spoke of it one day at Pitchley's to the Squire: and he, going in wholesale for sympathy, determined to have a tussle with Stephen.
"You can't for shame take it all from her, Stephen Radcliffe," said the Squire, after walking over to Sandstone Torr the next morning. "You must not leave her quite penniless."
"I don't take it from her," replied Stephen, rumpling up his grizzled hair. "It comes to me of right. It is my own."
"Now don't quibble, Stephen Radcliffe," said the Squire, rubbing his face, for he went into a fever as usual over his argument, and the day was hot. "The poor thing was your brother's wife, and you ought to consider that."
"Francis was a fool to marry her. An unsteady man like him always is a fool to marry."
"Well, he did marry her: and I don't sea that he was a fool at all for it. I wish I'd got the whip-hand of those two wicked blades who came down here and turned him from his good ways. I wonder how they'll answer for it in heaven."
"Would you like to take a drop of cider?" asked Stephen.
"I don't care if I do."
The cider was brought in by Eunice Gibbon: a second edition, so far as books went, of Mrs. Stephen Radcliffe, whose younger sister she was. She lived there as servant, the only one kept. Holt had left when old Mr. Radcliffe died.
"Come, Stephen Radcliffe, you must make Annet some allowance," said the Squire, after taking a long draught and finding the cider uncommonly sour. "The neighbours will cry out upon you if you don't."
"The neighbours can do as they choose."
"Just take this much into consideration. If that little child of theirs had lived, the money would have been his."
"But he didn't live," argued Stephen.
"I know he didn't--more's the pity. He'd have been a consolation to her, poor thing. Come! you can't, I say, take all from her and leave her with nothing."
"Nothing! Hasn't she got the farm-stock and the furniture? She's all that to the good. 'Twas bought with Frank's money."
"No, it was not. Half the money was hers. Look here. Unless she gets help somewhere, I don't see how she is to stay on at Pitchley's."
"And 'twould be a sight better for her not to stay on at Pitchley's," retorted Stephen. "Let her go back to her mother's again, over in the other parish. Or let her emigrate. Lots of folks is emigrating now."
"This won't do, Stephen Radcliffe," said the Squire, beginning to lose his temper. "You can't for shame bring every one down upon your head. Allow her a trifle, man, out of the income that has lapsed to you: let the world have to say that you are generous for once."
Well, not to pursue the contest--which lasted, hot and sharp, for a couple of hours, for the Squire, though he kept getting out of one passion into another, would not give up--I may as well say at once that Stephen at last yielded, and agreed to allow her fifty pounds a-year. "Just for a year or so," as he ungraciously put it, "while she turned herself round."
And it was so tremendous a concession for Stephen Radcliffe that no one believed it at first, the Squire included. It must be intended as a thanksgiving for his brother's death, said the world.
"Only, Ste Radcliffe is not the one to offer thanksgivings," observed old Brandon. "Take care that he pays it, Squire."
And thus things fell into the old grooves again, and the settling down of Frank Radcliffe amongst us seemed but as a very short episode in Church Dykely life. Stephen Radcliffe, in funds now, bought an adjoining field that was to be sold, and added it to his land: but he and his wife and the Torr kept themselves more secluded than ever. Frank's widow took up her old strength by degrees, and worked and managed incessantly: she in the house, and David Skate out of it; to keep Pitchley's Farm together. And, the autumn drew on.
The light of the moon streamed in slantwise upon us as we sat round the bay-window. Tod and I had just got home for the Michaelmas holidays: and we sat talking after dinner in the growing dusk. There was always plenty to relate, on getting home from school. A dreadful thing had happened this last quarter: one of the younger ones had died at a game of Hare and Hounds. I'll tell you of it some time. The tears glistened in Mrs. Todhetley's eyes, and we all seemed to be talking at once.
"Mrs. Francis Radcliffe, ma'am."
Old Thomas had opened the door and interrupted us. Annet came in quietly, and sat down after shaking hands all round. Her face looked pale and troubled. We asked her to stay tea; but she would not.
"It is late to come in," she said, some apology in her tone. "I meant to have been here earlier; but it has been a busy day, and I have had interruptions besides."
This seemed to imply that she had come over for some special purpose. Not another word, however, did she say. She just sat in silence, or next door to it: answering Yes and No in an abstracted sort of way when spoken to, and staring out into the moonlight like any one dreaming. And presently she got up to leave.
We went out with her and walked across the field; the pater, I, and Tod. Nearly every blade of the short grass could be seen as distinctly as in the day. At the first stile she halted, saying she expected to meet David there, who had gone on to Dobbs the blacksmith on some errand connected with the horses.
Tod saw a young hare scutter across the grass, and rushed after it, full chase. The moon, low in the heavens, as autumn moons mostly are, lighted up the perplexity on Annet's face. It was perplexed. Suddenly she turned it on the Squire.
"Mr. Todhetley, I am sure you must wonder what I came for."
"Well, I thought you wanted something," said the Squire candidly. "We are always pleased to have you; you ought to have stayed tea."
"I did want something. But I really could not muster courage to begin upon it. The longer I sat there--like a statue, as I felt--the more my tongue failed me. Perhaps I can say it here."
It was a curious thing she had to tell, and must have sounded to the Squire's ears like an incident out of a ghost story. The gist of it was this: an impression had taken hold of her mind that her husband had not been fairly dealt with. In plain words, had not come fairly by his end. The pater listened, and could make no sense of it.
"I can't tell how or when the idea arose," she said "it seems to have floated in my mind so long that I do not trace the beginning. At first it was but the merest shadow of a doubt; hardly that; but it has grown deeper and darker, and I cannot rest for it."
"Bless my heart!" cried the Squire. "Johnny, hold my hat a minute."
"Just as surely as that I see that moon in the sky, sir," she went on, "do I seem to see in my mind that some ill was wrought to Frank by his brother. Mrs. Radcliffe said it would be."
"Dear me! What Mrs. Radcliffe?"
"Frank's mother. She had the impression of it when she was dying, and she warned Frank that it would be so."
"Poor Selina! But--my dear lady, how do you know that?"
"My husband told me. He told me one night when we were sitting alone in the parlour. Not that he put faith in it. He had escaped Stephen's toils until then, he said in a joking tone, and thought he could take care of himself and escape them still. But I fear he did not."
"Now what is it you do fear?" asked the Squire. "Come." She glanced round in dread, and then spoke with considerable hesitation and in a how whisper.
"I fear--that Stephen--may have--murdered him."
"Mercy upon us!" uttered the Squire, recoiling a step or two. She put her elbow on the stile and raised her hand to her face, showing out so pale and distressed under its white net border.
"It lies upon me, sir--a great agony. I don't know what to do."
"But it could not be," cried the Squire, collecting his scared senses. "Your imagination must run away with you, child. Frank died up at Dr. Dale's; Stephen Radcliffe was down here at the time."
"Yes--I am aware of all that, sir. But--I believe it was as I fear. I don't pretend to account for it; to say what Stephen did or how he did it--but my fears are dreadful. I have no peace night or day."
The Squire stared at her and shook his head. I am sure he thought her brain was touched.
"My dear Mrs. Frank, this must be pure fancy. Stephen Radcliffe is a hard and griping man, not sticking at a trick or two where his pocket is concerned, but he wouldn't do such a thing as this. No, no; surly as he may be, he could not be guilty of murder."
She took her arm off the stile, with a short shiver. David Skate came into sight; Tod's footsteps were heard brushing the grass.
"Good-night, sir," she hurriedly said; and was over the stile before we could help her.
When the rumours first began, I can't tell you. They must have had a beginning: but no one recollected when the beginning was. It was said that curious noises were heard in the neighbourhood of Sandstone Torr. One spoke of it, and another spoke of it, at intervals of perhaps a month apart, until people grew accustomed to hearing of the strange sounds that went shrieking round the Torr on a windy night. Dovey, the blacksmith, going up to the Torr on some errand, declared he had heard them at mid-day: but he was not generally believed.
The Torr was so remote from the ordinary routes of traffic, that the noises were not likely to be heard often, even allowing that there were noises to hear. Shut in by trees, and in a lonely spot, people had no occasion to pass it. The narrow lane, by which it was approached from Church Dykely, led to nowhere else; on other sides it was surrounded by fields. Stephen Radcliffe was asked about these noises; but he positively denied having heard any, except those caused by time wind. That shrieked around the house as if so many witches were at work, he said, and it always had as long as he could remember. Which was true.
Stephen's inheritance of all the money on the death of his young half-brother Francis--young, compared with him--seemed to have been the only signal for him and his wife to become more unsociable, and they were bad enough before. They shut themselves up in the Torr, with that sister of hers, Eunice Gibbon, who acted as their servant, and saw no one. Neither visitors nor tradespeople were encouraged there; they preferred to live without help from any one butcher or baker or candlestick maker. The produce of the farm supplied ordinary daily needs, and anything else that might be wanted was fetched from the village by Eunice Gibbon--as tall and strapping a woman as Mrs. Stephen, and just as grim and silent. Even the postman had orders to leave any letters that might arrive, addressed to the Torr, at Church Dykely post-office to be called for. Possibly it was a sense of their own unfitness for society that caused them to keep aloof from it. Stephen Radcliffe had always been a sullen, boorish man, in spite of his descent from the ancient Druids--or whatever the high-caste tribes might be, that he traced back from; and as to his wife, she was just as much like a lady as a pig's like a windmill.
The story of the queer noises gained ground, and in the course of time it coursed about pretty freely. One evening in the late spring--but the report had been abroad then for months and months--a circumstance caused it to be discussed at Dyke Maner. Giles, our groom, strolling out one night to give himself an airing, chanced to get near the Torr, and came home full of it. "Twere exactly," he declared, "like a lot o' witches howling in the air." Just as Stephen Radcliffe had said of the wind. The Squire told Giles it must be the owls; the servants thought Mr. Radcliffe might be giving his wife a beating; Mrs. Todhetley imagined it might be only the bleating of the young lambs. Giles protested it could come from neither owls nor lambs: and as to Radcliffe's beating 'Becca, he'd be hardly likely to try it on, for she'd beat back again. Tod and I were at school, and heard nothing of it till we got home in summer.
"Johnny! There's the noise!"
We two had been over to the Court to see the Sterlings; it was only the second day of our holidays; and were taking the cross-cut home through the fields, which led us past Sandstone Torr. It was the twilight of a summer's evening. The stars were beginning to show themselves; in the north-west the colours were the most beautiful opal conceivable; the round silver moon sailed in the clear blue sky. Crossing the stile by the grove of trees that on three sides surrounded the Torr, we had reached the middle of the next field, when a sort of faint wailing cry, indescribably painful, brought us both to a standstill.
"It must be the noise they talk of," repeated Tod.
Where did it come from? What was it? Standing on the path in the centre of the open field, we turned about and gazed around but could see nothing to produce or cause it. It seemed to be overhead, ever so far up in the air an unearthly, imploring cry, or rather a succession of cries faint enough, as if the sound spent itself before it reached us, but still distinct; and just as much like what witches might be supposed to make, witches in pain, as any cries could be. I'd have given a month's pocket-money not to have heard it.
"Is it in the Torr?" exclaimed Tod, breaking the silence. "I don't see how that could be, though."
"It is up in the air, Tod."
We stood utterly puzzled; and gazing at the Torr. At as much of it, at least, as could be seen--the tops of the chimneys, and the sugar-loaf of a tower shooting up to its great height amidst them. The windows of the house and its old stone walls, on which the lichen vegetated, were hidden by the clustering old trees, in full foliage then.
"Hark There it is again!"
The same horrible, low, distressing sound, something between a howl and a wail; enough to make a stout man shiver in his shoes.
"Is it a woman's cry, Tod?"
"I don't know, lad. It's like a person being murdered and crying out for help."
"Radcliffe can't be tanning his wife."
"Not he, Johnny. She'd take care of that. Besides, they've never been cat-and-dog. Birds of a feather that's what they are. Oh, by Jove! there it comes again! Just listen to it! I don't like this at all, Johnny. It must be witches, and nothing else."
Decidedly it must be. It came from the air. The open fields lay around, white and still under the moonlight, and nothing was on their surface of any kind, human or animal. Now again! that awful cry, rising on the bit of breeze there was, and dying away in pain to a faint echo.
"Let us go to the Torr, Johnny, and ask Radcliffe if he hears it!"
We bounded forward under the cry, which rose again and again incessantly; but in nearing the house it seemed to get further off and to be higher than ever in the air. Leaping the gate into the lane, we reached the front-door, and seized the bell-handle. It brought Mrs. Radcliffe; a blue cap and red roses adoring her straggling hair. Holding the candle above her head, she peered at us with her small, sly eyes.
"Oh, is it you, young gentlemen? Do you want anything? Will you walk in?"
I was about to say No, when Tod pushed me aside and strode up the damp stone passage. They did not make fires enough in the house to keep out the damp. As he told me afterwards, he wanted to get in to listen. But there was no sound at all to be heard; the house seemed as still as death. Wherever the cries might come from, it was certainly not from inside the Torr.
"Radcliffe went over to Wire-Piddle this afternoon, and he's not back yet," she said; opening the parlour-door when we got to the hall. "Did you want him? You must ha' been in a hurry by the way you pulled the bell."
She put the candle down on the table. Her work lay there--a brown woollen stocking about half-way knitted.
"There is the most extraordinary noise outside that you ever heard, Mrs. Radcliffe," began Tod, seating himself without ceremony on the old-fashioned mahogany sofa. "It startled us. Did you hear it in here?"
"I have heard no noise at all," she answered quietly, taking up the stocking and beginning to knit standing. "What was it like?"
"An awful shrieking and crying. Not loud; nearly faint enough for dying cries. As it is not in your house--and we did not think it was, or could be--it must be, I should say, in the air."
"Ay," she said, "just so. I can tell you what it is, Mr. Joseph: the night-birds."
Tod looked at her, plying the knitting-needles so quickly, and looked at me, and there was a silence. I wondered what was keeping him from speaking. He suddenly bent his head forward.
"Have you heard any talk of these noises, Mrs. Radcliffe? People say they are to be heard almost any night."
"I've not heard no talk, but I have heard the noise," she answered, whisking out a needle and beginning another of the three-cornered rows. "One evening about a month ago I was a-coming home up the lane, and I hears a curious kind o' prolonged cry. It startled me at the moment, for, thinks I, it must be in this house; and I hastens in. No. Eunice said she had heard no cries: as how should she, when there was nobody but herself indoors? So I goes out again, and listens," added Mrs. Radcliffe, lifting her eyes from the stocking and fixing them on Tod, "and then I finds out what it really was--the night-birds."
"The night-birds?" he echoed.
"'Twas the night-birds, Mr. Joseph," she repeated, with an emphatic nod. "They had congregated in these thick trees, and was crying like so many human beings. I have heard the same thing many a time in Wiltshire when I was a girl. I used to go there to stay with aunt and uncle."
"Well, I never heard anything like it before," returned Tod. "It's just as though some unquiet spirit was in the air."
"Mayhap it sounds so afore you know what it is. Let me give you young gentlemen a drop o' my home-made cowslip wine."
She had taken the decanter of wine and some glasses off the sideboard with her long arms, before we could say Yes or No. We are famous for cowslip wine down there, but this was extra good. Tod took another glass of it, and got up to go.
"Don't be frighted if you hear the noise again, now that you know what it is," she said, quite in a motherly way. "For my part I wish some o' the birds was shot. They don't do no good to nobody."
"As there is not any house about here, except this, the thought naturally arises that the noise may be inside it--until you know to the contrary," remarked Tod.
"I wish it was inside it--we'd soon stop it by wringing all their necks," cried she. "You can listen," she added, suddenly going into the hall and flinging wide every door that opened from it and led to the different passages and rooms. "Go to any part of the house you like, and hearken for yourselves, young gentlemen."
Tod laughed at the suggestion. The passages were all still and cold, and there was nothing to hear. Taking up the candle, she lighted us to the front-door. Outside stood the woman-servant Eunice, a basket on her arm, and just about to ring. Mrs. Radcliffe inquired if she had heard any noise.
"Only the shrieking birds up there," she answered readily. "They be in full cry to-night."
"They've been startling these gentlemen finely."
"There bain't nothing to be startled at," said the woman, roughly, turning a look of contempt upon us. "If I was the master I'd shoot as many as I could get at; and if that didn't get rid of 'em, I'd cut the trees down."
"They make a queerer noise than any birds I ever heard before," said Tod, standing his ground to say it.
"They does," assented the woman. "That queer, that some folks believes it's the shrieks o' the skeleton on the gibbet."
Pleasant! When I and Tod had to pass within a few yards of its corner. The posts of the old gibbet were there still, but the skeleton had mouldered away long ago. A bit of chain, some few inches long, adhered to its fastening in the post still, and rattled away on windy nights.
"What donkeys we were, Johnny, not to knew birds' cries when we heard them!" exclaimed Tod, as we tumbled ever the gate and went flying across the field. "Hark! Listen! There it is again!"
There it was. The same despairing sort of wail, faintly rising and dying on the air. Tod stood in hushed silence.
"Johnny, I believe that's a human cry!--I could almost fancy," he went on, "that it is speaking words. No bird, that ever I met with, native or foreign, could make the like."
It died away. But still occurred the obvious question, What was it, and where did it come from? With nothing but the empty air above and around us, that was difficult to answer.
"It's not in the trees--I vow it," said Tod; "it's not inside the Torr; it can't rise up from under the ground. I say, Johnny, is it a case of ghost?"
The wailing arose again as he spoke, as if to reprove him for his levity: I'd rather have met a ghost; ay, and a real ghost than have carried away that sound to haunt me.
We tore home as fast as our heels could take us, and told of the night's adventure. After the pater had blown us up for being late, he treated us to a dose of ridicule. Human cries, indeed? Ghosts and witches? I might be excused, he said, being a muff; but Joe must be just going back to his childhood. That settled Tod. Of all disagreeable timings he most hated to be ridiculed.
"It must have been the old birds in those trees, after all, Johnny," said he, as we went up to bed. "I think the moon makes people fanciful."
And after a sound night's rest we woke up to the bright sunshine, and thought no more of the cries.
That morning, being close to Pitchley's Farm, we called in to see Mrs. Frank Radcliffe. But she was not to be seen. Her brother, David Skate, just come in to his mid-day dinner, came forward to meet us in his fustian suit. Annet had been hardly able to keep about for some time, he said, but this was the first day she had regularly broken down so as to be in bed.
"It has brought on a touch of fever," said he, pressing the bread-and-cheese and cider upon us, which he had ordered in.
"What has?" asked Tod.
"This perpetual torment that she keeps her mind in. But she can't help it, poor thing, so it's not fair to blame her," added David Skate. "It grows worse instead of better, and I don't see what the end of it is to be. I've thought for some time she might go and break up to-day."
"Because it is the anniversary of her husband's death, Master Johnny. He died twelve months ago to-day."
Back went my memory to the morning we heard of it. When the pater was scolding Dwarf Giles in the yard, and Tod stood laughing at the young ducks taking to the water, and Stephen Radcliffe loomed into sight, grim and surly, to disclose to us the tidings that the post had brought in--his brother Frank's death.
"Has she still that curious fancy in her, David?--that he did not come by his death fairly."
"She has it in her, and she can't get it out of her," returned David. "Why, Master Johnny, it's nothing but that that's killing her. Ay, and that's not too strong a word, sir, for I do believe she'll die of it, unless something can be done to satisfy her mind, and give her rest," he added earnestly. "She thinks there was foul play used in some way, and that Stephen Radcliffe was at the bottom of it."
We had never heard a word about the fancy since that night when Annet first spoke of it at the stile, and supposed she had forgotten it long ago. The Squire and Mrs. Todhetley had often noticed how ill she looked, but they put it down to grief for Francis and to her anxiety about the farm.
"No, she has said no more since then," observed David.
"She took up an idea that the Squire ascribed it to a wandering brain; and so has held her peace since."
"Is her brain wandering, do you think?" asked Tod.
"Well, I don't know," returned David, absently making little cuts at the edge of the cheese with the knife. "In all other respects she is as sane as sane can be; there's not a woman of sounder sense, as to daily matters, anywhere. But this odd fancy has got held of her mind; and it's just driving her crazy. She says that her husband appears to her in her dreams, and calls upon her to help and release him."
"Release him from what? From his grave in Finchley Cemetery?"
"From what indeed!" echoed David Skate. "That's what I ask her. But she persists that, sleeping or waking, his spirit is always hovering near her, crying out to her to avenge him. She declares that it is no fancy. Of course it is, though."
"I never met with such a case," said Tod, forgetting the good cider in his astonishment. "Frank Radcliffe died up at Dr. Dale's in London. Stephen could not have had anything to do with his death: he was down here at the time."
"Well, Annet has the notion firmly fixed in her mind that he had, and there's no turning her," said David. "There will be no turning her this side the grave, unless we can free her from it. Anyway, the fancy has come to such a pitch now, and is telling upon her so seriously, that something must be done. If it were not that just the busiest time has set in; the hay cut, and the wheat a'most ready to cut, I'd take her to London to Dr. Dale's. Perhaps if she heard the account of Frank's death from his own lips, and that it was a natural death, it might help her a bit. "
We went home full of this. The Squire was in a fine way when he heard it, and brimming ever with pity for Annet. He had grown to like her; and he had always looked on Francis as in some degree belonging to him.
"Look here," said he, in his impulsive good nature, "it will never do to let this go on: we shall have her in a mad-house too. That's not a bad notion of David Skate's; and if he can't leave to take her up to London just now, I'll take her."
"She could not go," said Tod. "She is in bed with low fever."
"Then I'll go up by myself," stamped the Squire in his zeal. "And get Dr. Dale to write out all the particulars, and hurry down again with them to her as fast as the train will bring me. Poor thing! her disease must be a sort of mania."
"Now, Johnny, mind you don't make a mistake in the omnibus. Use your eyes; they are younger than mine."
We were standing at Charing Cross in the hot afternoon sun, looking out for an omnibus that would take us westward. The Squire had lost no time in starting for London, and we had reached it an hour before. He let me come up with him, as Tod had gone to Whitney Hall.
"Here it is, sir. 'Kensington,--Hammersmith,--Richmond.' This is the right one."
The omnibus stopped, and in we got; for the Squire said the sun was too fierce for the outside; and by-and-by, when the houses became fewer, and the trees and fields more frequent, we were set down near Dr. Dale's. A large house, standing amidst a huge grass-plat, shut in by iron gates.
"I want to see Dr. Dale," said the pater, bustling in as soon as the door was opened, without waiting to be asked.
The servant looked at him and then at me; as if he thought the one or the other of us was a lunatic about to be left there. "This way, sir," said he to the Squire and put us into a small square room that had a blue and drab carpet, and a stand of plants before the window. A little man, with deep-set dark eyes, and the hair all gone from the top of his head, soon made his appearance--Dr. Dale.
The Squire plunged into explanations in his usual confusing fashion, mixing up many things together. Dr. Dale knitted his brow, trying to make sense of it.
"I'm sure I should be happy to oblige you in any way," said he--and he seemed to be a very pleasant man. "But I do not quite understand what it is you ask of me."
"Such a dreadful thing, you know, if she has to be put in a mad-house too!" went on the pater. "A pretty, anxious, hard-working little woman she is, as ever you saw, Dr. Dale! We think the account in your handwriting might ease her. I hope you won't mind the trouble."
"The account of what?" asked the doctor.
"Only this," explained the Squire, laying hold, in his zeal, of the doctor's button-hole. "Just dot down the particulars of Francis Radcliffe's death. His death here, you know. I suppose you were an eye-witness to it."
"But, my good sir, I--pardon me--I must repeat that I do not understand. Francis Radcliffe did not die here. He went away a twelvemonth ago, cured."
"Goodness bless me!" cried the Squire, staggering back to a chair when he had fully taken in the sense of the words, and staring about him like a real maniac. "It cannot be. I must have come to the wrong place."
"This is Dale House, and I am Dr. Dale. Mr. Francis Radcliffe was under my charge for some months: I can't tell exactly how many without referring to my books; seven or eight, I think; and he then left, cured, or nearly so."
"Johnny, hand me my handkerchief; it's in my hat. I can't make top or tail of this."
"I did not advise his removal," continued Dr. Dale, who, I do believe, thought the Squire was bad enough for a patient. "He was very nearly, if not quite well, but another month here would have established his recovery on a sure basis. However, his brother insisted on removing him, and I had no power to prevent it."
"What brother?" cried the Squire, rubbing his head helplessly.
"Mr. Radcliffe, of Sandstone Torr."
"Johnny, I think we must all be dreaming. Radcliffe of the Torr got a letter from you one morning, doctor--in June, I think; yes, I remember the hay-making was about--saying Francis had died; here in this house, with you: and bidding him come up to see you about it."
"I never wrote any such letter. Francis Radcliffe did not die here."
"Well, it was written for you by one of your people. Not die! Why, you held a coroner's inquest on him! You buried him in Finchley Cemetery."
"Nothing of the sort, Mr. Todhetley. Francis Radcliffe was taken from this house, by his brother, last June, alive and well."
"Well I never--this beats everything. Was he not worn away to a skeleton before he went?--had he not heart disease?--did he not die of effusion on the brain?" ran on the Squire, in a maze of bewilderment.
"He was thin certainly: patients in asylums generally are; but he could not be called a skeleton. I never knew that he had heart disease. As to dying, he most assuredly did not die here."
"I do think I must be lost," cried the Squire. "I can't find any way out of this. Can you let me see Mr. Pitt, your head assistant, doctor? Perhaps he can throw some light on it. It was Pitt who wrote the letter to Mr. Radcliffe."
"You should see him with pleasure if he were still with me," replied the doctor. "But he has left."
"And Frank did not die here!" commented the Squire. "What can be the meaning of it?"
The meaning was evidently not to be found there. Dr. Dale said he could tell us no more than he had told, if he talked till night--that Francis Radcliffe was taken out by his brother. Stephen paid all charges at the time, and they went away together.
"And of course, Johnny, he is to be believed," quoth the pater, turning himself round and round on the grass-plot, as we were going away, like a teetotum. "Dale would not deceive us: he could have no object in doing that. What in the world does it all mean?--and where is Francis? Ste Radcliffe can't have shipped him off to Canada with the wheelbarrows!"
How the Squire whirled straight off to the train, finding one on the point of starting, and got down home again, there's no space to tell of. It was between eight and nine, as the station clock told him, but he was in too much excitement to let the matter rest.
"Come along, Johnny. I'll have it out with Stephen before I sleep."
And they had it out in that same gloomy parlour at the Torr, where Tod and I had been a night or two before; frightfully gloomy to-night, for the dusk was drawing on, and hardly a bit of light came in. The Squire and Stephen, sitting opposite each other, could not see the outline of one another's faces. Ste brazened it out.
"You're making a hullabaloo for nothing," said he, doggedly. "No, it's true he didn't die at the mad-house; he died within a week of coming out of it. Why didn't I tell the truth about it? Why, because I knew I should get a heap o' blame thrown back at me for taking him out--and I wished I hadn't took him out but 'twas no good wishing then. How was I to know that the very self-same hour he'd got his liberty, he would begin drinking again?--and drink himself into a furious fever, and die of it? Could I bring him to life again, do you suppose?"
"What was the meaning of that letter you brought to me, purporting to come from Dr. Dale? Answer that, Stephen Radcliffe."
"I didn't bring you a letter from Dr. Dale. 'Twas from Pitt; Dr. Dale's head man. You read it yourself. When I found that Frank was getting unmanageable at the lodgings, I sent to Pitt, asking if he'd be good enough to come and see to him--I knew no other doctor up there; and Pitt was the best I could have, as he understood his case. Pitt came and took the charge; and I left Frank under him. I couldn't afford to stay up there, with my grass waiting to be cut, and all the fine weather wasting itself away. Pitt stayed with him; and he died in Pitt's arms; and it was Pitt that wrote the letter to tell me of it. You should ha' gone up with me, Squire," added Stephen, with a kind of sneer, "and then you'd have seen where he was for yourself, and known as much as I did."
"It was an infamous deceit to put upon me, Stephen Radcliffe."
"It did no harm. The deceit only lay in letting you think he died in the mad-house instead of out of it. If I'd not thought he was well enough to come out, I shouldn't have moved him. 'Twas his fault," sullenly added Stephen. "He prayed me to take him away from the place; not to go away without him."
"And where was it that he did die?"
"At my lodgings."
"The lodgings I stayed at while I was shipping off the things to Tom. I took Frank there, intending to bring him down home with me when I came, and surprise you all. Before I could come he was drinking, and as mad again as a March hare. Pitt had to strap him down to his bed."
"Are you sure you did not ship him off to Tom also, while you were shipping the things?" demanded the Squire. "I believe you are crafty enough for it, Stephen Radcliffe--and unbrotherly enough."
"If I'd shipped him off, he could have shipped himself back again, I take it," returned Stephen, coolly.
"Where are those lodgings that he died at?"
"Whereabouts in London? I didn't suppose they were in New York."
"'Twas near Cow Cross."
"Cow Cross! Where in the name of wonder is Cow Cross?"
"Up towards Smithfield. Islington way."
"You give me the address, Stephen Radcliffe. I insist upon knowing it. Johnny, you can see--take it down. If I don't verify this to my satisfaction, Mr. Radcliffe, I'll have you up publicly to answer for it."
Stephen took an old pocket-book out of his coat, went to the window to catch what little light came in, and ran his finger down the leaves.
"Gibraltar Terrace, Islington district," read he. "That was all the address I ever knew it by."
"Gibraltar Terrace, Islington district," repeated the pater. "Take it down, Johnny--here's the back of an old letter. And now, Mr. Radcliffe, will you go with me to London?"
"No. I'll be hanged if I do."
"I mean to come to the bottom of this, I can tell you. You shan't play these tricks on honest people with impunity."
"Why, what do you suspect?" roared Stephen. "Do you think I murdered him?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you did," retorted the pater. "Find out a man in one lie, and you may suspect him of others. What was the name of the people, at these lodgings?"
Stephen Radcliffe, sitting down again, put his hands on his knees, apparently considering; but I saw him take an outward glance at the Squire from under his grey eyebrows--very grey and bushy they were now. He could see that for once in his life the pater was resolute.
"Her name was Mapping," he said. "A widow. Mrs. Mapping."
"Put that down, Johnny. 'Mrs. Mapping, Gibraltar Terrace, Islington district.' And now, Mr. Radcliffe, where is Pitt to be found? He has left Dale House."
"In the moon, for aught I can tell," was the insolent answer. "I paid him for his attendance when we came back from the funeral--and precious high his charges were!--and I know nothing of him since."
We said good-night to Stephen Radcliffe with as much civility as could be called up under the circumstances, and went home in the fly. The next day we steamed up to London again to make inquiries at Gibraltar Terrace. It was not that the Squire exactly doubted Stephen's word, or for a moment thought that he had dealt unfairly by Frank: nothing of that sort: but he was in a state of explosion at the deceit Stephen Radcliffe had practised on him; and needed to throw the anger off. Don't we all know how unbearable inaction is in such a frame of mind?
Well. Up one street, down another, went we, in what Stephen had called the Islington district, but no Gibraltar Terrace could we see or hear of. The terrace might have been in Gibraltar itself, for all the sign there was of it.
"I'll go down to-morrow, and issue a warrant against Ste Radcliffe," cried the Squire, when we got in, tired and heated, to the Castle and Falcon--at which inn, being convenient to the search, he had put up. "I will, Johnny, as I'm a living man. It is infamous to send us up here on a wild-goose chase, to a place that has no name, and no existence. I don't like the aspect of things at all; and he shall be made to explain them."
"But I suppose we have not looked in all parts of Islington," I said. "It seems a large place. And--don't you think, sir--that it might be as well to ascertain where Pitt is? I dare say Dr. Dale knows."
"Perhaps it would, Johnny."
"Pitt would be able to testify to the truth of what Stephen Radcliffe says. We might hear it all from him."
"And need not bother further about this confounded Gibraltar Terrace. The thought did not strike me before, Johnny. We'll go up to Dale's the first thing after breakfast."
The Squire chartered a cab: he was in too much of a fever to look out for an omnibus: and by ten o'clock Dr. Dale's was reached. The doctor was not at house, but we saw some one that the servant called Mr. Lichfield.
"Pitt?" said Mr. Lichfield--who was a tall, strong young man in a tweed suit of clothes, and had black hair parted down the middle--"Oh, he was my predecessor here. He has left."
"Where's he gone?" asked the Squire.
"I don't know, I'm sure. Dr. Dale does not know; for I have once or twice heard him wonder what had become of Pitt. Pitt grew rather irregular in his habits, I fancy, and the doctor discharged him."
"How long ago?"
"About a year, I think. I have not the least idea where Pitt is now: would be happy to tell you if I knew."
So, there we were again--baffled. The Squire went back in the cab to the Castle and Falcon, rubbing his face furiously, and giving things in general a few hard words.
Up to Islington again, and searching up and down the streets and roads. A bright thought took the pater. He got a policeman to show him to the district sorting-house, went in, and inquired whether such a place as Gibraltar Terrace existed, or whether it did not.
Yes. There was one. But it was not in Islington; only on the borders of it.
Away we went, after getting the right direction, and found it. A terrace of poor houses, in a quiet side-street. In nearly every other window hung a card with "Lodgings" on it, or "Apartments." Children played in the road: two men with a truck were crying mackerel.
"I say, Johnny, these houses all look alike. What is the number we want?"
"Stephen Radcliffe did not give any number."
"Bless my heart! We shall have to knock at every one of them."
And so he did. Every individual door he knocked at, one after the other, asking if Mrs. Mapping lived there. At the very last house of all we found her, A girl, whose clothes were dilapidated enough to have come down from Noah's Ark, got up from her knees, on which she was cleaning the door-flag, and told us to go into the parlour while she called Mrs. Mapping. It was a tidy threadbare room, not much bigger than a closet, with "Lodgings" wafered to the middle pane of the window.
Mrs. Mapping came in: a middle-aged, washed-out lady, with pink cheeks, who looked as if she didn't have enough to eat. She thought we had come after the lodgings, and stood curtsying, and rubbing her hands down her black-silk apron--which was in slits. Apparently a "genteel" person who had seen better days. The Squire opened the ball, and her face took a puzzled look as she listened.
"Radcliffe?--Radcliffe?" No, she did not recollect any lodger of the name. But then, nine times out of ten, she did not know the names of her lodgers. She didn't want to know them. Why should she? If the gentlemen's names came out incidental, well and good; if not, she never presumed to inquire after them. She had not been obliged to let lodgings always.
"But this gentleman died her--died, ma'am," interrupted the Squire, pretty nearly beside himself with impatience. "It's about twelve months ago."
"Oh, that gentleman," she said. "Yes, he did die here, poor young man. The doctor--yes, his name was Pitt, sir--he couldn't save him. Drink, that was the cause, I'm afeard."
The Squire groaned--wishing all drink was at the bottom of the Thames. "And he was buried in Finchley Cemetery, ma'am, we hear?"
"Finchley? Well, now yes, I believe it was Finchley, sir," replied Mrs. Mapping, considering--and I could see the woman was speaking the truths according to her recollection. "The burial fees are low at Finchley, sir."
"Then he did die here, ma'am--Mr. Francis Radcliffe?"
"Sure enough he did, sir. And a sad thing it was, one young like him. But whether his name was Radcliffe, or not, I couldn't take upon myself to say. I don't remember to have heard his name."
"Couldn't you have read it on the coffin-plate?" asked the Squire, explosively. "One might have thought if you heard it in no other way, you'd see it there."
"Well, sir, I was ill myself at the time, and in a good deal of trouble beside, and didn't get upstairs much out of my kitchen below. Like enough it was Radcliffe: I can't remember."
"His brother brought him--and lodged here with him--did he not?"
"Like enough, sir," she repeated. "There was two or three of 'em out and in often, I remember. Mr. Pitt, and others. I was that ill, myself, that some days I never got out of bed at all. I know it was a fine shock to me when my sister came down and said the young man was dead. She was seeing to things a bit for me during my illness. His rantings had been pitiful."
"Could I see your sister, ma'am?" asked time Squire.
"She's gone to Manchester, sir. Her husband has a place there now."
"Don't you recollect the older Mr. Radcliffe?" pursued the Squire. "The young man's brother? He was staying up in London two or three times about some shipping."
"I should if I saw him, sir, no doubt. Last year I had rare good luck with my rooms, never hardly had 'em empty. The young man who died had the first-floor apartments. Well, yes, I do remember now that some gentleman was here two or three times from the country. A farmer, I think he was. A middle-aged man, sir, so to say; fifty, or thereabouts; with grey hair."
"That's him," interrupted the Squire, forgetting his grammar in his haste. "Should know the description of him anywhere, shouldn't we, Johnny? Was he here at the time of the young man's death, ma'am?"
"No, sir. I remember as much as that. He had gone back to the country."
Mrs. Mapping stood, smoothing down the apron, waiting to hear what we wanted next, and perhaps not comprehending the drift of the visit yet.
"Where's that Mr. Pitt to be found?"
"Law, sir! as if I knew!" she exclaimed. "I've never set eyes on him since that time. He didn't live here, sir; only used to come in and out to see to the sick young man. I never heard where he did live."
There was nothing more to wait for. The Squire slipped half-a-crown into the woman's hand as we went out, and she curtsied again and thanked him--in spite of the better days. Another question occurred to him.
"I suppose the young man had everything done for him that could be? Care?--and nourishment?--and necessary attendance?"
"Surely, sir. Why not? Mr. Pitt took care of that, I suppose."
"Ay. Well, it was a grievous end. Good-morning, ma'am."
"Good-day to you, gentlemen."
The Squire went looming up the street in the dumps; his hands in his pockets, his steps slow.
"I suppose, Johnny, if one tried to get at Pitt in this vast London city, it would be like looking for a needle in a bottle of hay."
"We have no clue to him, sir."
"No. And I don't know that it would answer any purpose if we did get at him. He could only confirm what we've heard. Well, this is fine news to take back to poor Annet Radcliffe!"
"I should think she had better not be told, sir."
"She must know it some time."
The Squire sent for David Skate when we got home, and told him what we knew; and the two marched to the Torr in the blazing June sun, and held an interview with Stephen Radcliffe. Ste was sullen and reserved, and (for him) haughty. It was a mistake, of course, as things turned out, his having taken Frank from the asylum, he admitted that, admitted he was sorry for it, but he had done it for the best. Frank got drinking again, and it was too much for him; he died after a few days of delirium, and Pitt couldn't save him. That was the long and the short of the history; and the Squire and Skate might make the best and the worst of it.
The Squire and Skate were two of the simplest of men; honest-minded themselves, and unsuspicious of other people. They quitted the Torr for the blazing meadows, on their road home again.
"I shall not say anything about this to Annet," observed David Skate. "In her present frame of mind it would not do. The fever seems better, and she is up, and about her work again. Later perhaps we may tell her of it."
"I wish we could have found Pitt," said the Squire.
"Yes, it would be satisfactory to hear what he has to say," replied David. "Some of these days, when work is slack, I'll take a run up to London and try and search him out. Though I suppose he could not tell us much more than the landlady has told."
"There it is," cried the Squire. "Even Johnny Ludlow, with his crotchets about people and his likes and dislikes, says he's sure Mrs. Mapping might be trusted; that she was relating facts."
So matters subsided, and the weeks and our holidays went on together. Stephen Radcliffe, by this act of deceit, added another crooked feather to his cap of ills in the estimation of the neighbourhood; though that would not be likely to trouble him. Meeting Mr. Brandon one day in the road, just out of Church Dykely, Stephen chanced to say that he wished to goodness it was in his power to sell the Torr, so that he might be off to Canada to his son: that was the land to make money at, by all accounts.
"You and your son might cut off the entail, now poor Francis is gone," said old Brandon, thinking what a good riddance it would be if Stephen went.
"I don't know who'd buy it--at my price." growled Stephen. "I mean to got shut o' them birds, though," he added, as an afterthought. "They're not entailed. They've never cried and shrieked as they do this summer. I'd as soon have an army of squalling cats around the place."
"The noise is becoming a subject of common talk," said old Brandon.
Ste Radcliffe bit his lips and turned his face another way, and emitted sundry daggers from his looks. "Let folks concern themselves with their own business," said he. "The birds is nothing to them."
Four weeks had gone by, and the moon was nearly at the full again. Its light streamed on the hedges, and flickered amidst the waving trees, and lay on the fields like pale silver. It was Sunday evening, and we had run out for a stroll before supper, Tod and I.
On coming out of church, Duffham had chanced to get talking of the cries. He had heard them the previous night. They gave him the shivers, he said, they were so like human cries. This put it into our heads to go again ourselves, which we had not done since that first time. How curiously events are brought about!
Leaping the last stile, the Torr was right before us at the opposite side of the large field, the tops of its chimneys and its towering sugar-loaf tower showing out white in the moonlight. The wind was high, blowing in gusts from the south-west.
"I say, Johnny, it's just the night for witches. Whirr! how it sweeps along! They'll ride swimmingly on their broomsticks."
"The wind must have got up suddenly," I answered. "There was none to-day. It was too hot for it. Talking of witches and broomsticks, Tod, have you read--"
He put his arm out to stop my words and steps, halting himself. We had been rushing on like six, had traversed half the field.
"What's that, Johnny?" he asked in a whisper. "There"--pointing onwards at right angles. "Something's lying there."
Something undoubtedly was--lying on the grass. Was it an animal?--or a man? It did not look much like either. We stood motionless, trying to make the shape out.
"Tod! It is a woman."
"Gently, lad! Don't be in a hurry. We'll soon see."
The figure raised itself as we approached, and stood confronting us. The last puff of wind that went brushing by might have brushed me down, in my surprise. It was Mrs. Francis Radcliffe.
She drew her grey cloak closer round her and put her hand upon Tod's arm. He went back half a step: I'm not sure but he thought it might be her ghost.
"Do not think me quite out of my mind," she said--and her voice and manner were both collected. "I have come here every evening for nearly a week past to listen to the cries. They have never been so plain as they are to-night. I suppose the wind helps them."
"But--you--were lying on the grass, Mrs. Francis," said Tod; not knowing yet what to make of it all.
"I had put my ear on the ground, wondering whether I might not hear it plainer," she replied. "Listen!"
The cry again! The same painful wailing sound that we heard that other night, making one think of I know not what woe and despair. When it had died away, she spoke further, her voice very low.
"People are talking so much about the cries that I strolled on here some evenings ago to hear them for myself. In my mind's tumult I can hardly rest quiet, once my day's work is done: what does it matter which way I stroll?--all ways are the same to me. Some people said the sounds came from the birds, some said from witches, some from the ghost of the man on the gibbet: but the very first night I came here I found out what they were really like--my husband's cries."
"What!" cried Tod.
"And I believe from my very soul that it is his spirit that cries!" she went on, her voice taking as much excitement as any voice, only half raised, can take. "His spirit is unable to rest. It is here, hovering about the Torr. Hush! there it comes again."
It was anything but agreeable, I can assure you, to stand in that big white moonlit plain, listening to those mysterious cries and to these ghostly suggestions. Tod was listening with all his ears.
"They are the very cries he used to make in his illness at the farm," said Mrs. Radcliffe. "I can't forget them. I should know them anywhere. The same sound of voice, the same wail of anguish: I could almost fancy that I hear the words. Listen."
It did seem like it. One might have fancied that his name was repeated with a cry for help. "Help! Frank Radcliffe! Help!" But at such a moment as this, when the nerves are strung up to concert pitch, imagination plays us all sorts of impossible tricks.
"I'll be shot if it's not like Frank Radcliffe's voice!" exclaimed Tod, breaking the silence. "And calling out, too."
"Thank you," said Mrs. Francis. "I shall not be able to bear this long: I shall have to speak of it to the world. When I say that you have recognized his voice also, they will be less likely to mock at me as a lunatic. David did, when I told him. At least, I could make no impression on him."
Tod was lying down with his ear to the ground. But he soon got up, saying he could not hear so well.
"Did Stephen kill him do you think?" she asked, in a dread whisper, drawing closer to us. "Why, else, should his poor unquiet spirit haunt the region of the Torr?"
"It is the first time I ever heard of spirits calling out in a human voice," said Tod. "The popular belief is, that they mostly appear in dumb show."
He quitted us, as he spoke, and went about the field with slow steps, halting often to look and listen. The trees around the Torr in particular seemed to attract his attention, by the lengths of time he stared up at them. Or, perhaps, it might be at the tops of the chimneys: or perhaps at the tapering tower. We waited in nearly the same spot, shivering and listening. But the sounds never came so distinctly again: I think the wind had spent itself.
"It is a dreadful weight to have to carry about with me," said poor Annet Radcliffe as we walked homewards. "And oh! what will be the ending? Will it be heard always?"
I had never seen Tod so thoughtful as he was that night. At supper he put down his knife and fork perpetually to fall into a brown study; and I am sure he never knew a word of the reading afterwards.
It was some time in the night, and I was fast asleep and dreaming of daws and magpies, when something shook my shoulder and awoke me. There stood Tod, his nightshirt white as snow in the moonlight.
"Johnny," said he, "I have been trying to get daylight out of that mystery, and I think I've done it. "
"What mystery? What's the matter?"
"The mystery of the cries. They don't come from Francis Radcliffe's ghost, but from Francis himself. His ghost! When that poor soft creature was talking of the ghost, I should have split with laughter but for her distress."
"From Francis himself! What on earth do you mean?"
"Stephen has got him shut up in that tower."
"Alive! Go along, Johnny! You don't suppose he'd keep him there if he were dead. Those cries we heard to-night were human cries; words; and that was a human voice uttering them, as my ears and senses told me; and my brain has been in a muddle ever since, all sleep gone clean out of it. Just now, turning and twisting possibilities about, the solution of the mystery came over me like a flash of lightning. Ste has got Frank shut up in the Torr."
He, standing there upright by the bed, and I, digging my elbow into the counterpane and resting my cheek on my hand, gazed at one another, the perplexity of our faces showing out strongly in the moonlight.
Mr. Duffham the surgeon stood making up pills and powders in his surgery at Church Dykely, the mahogany counter before him, the shelves filled with glass bottles of coloured liquids behind him. Weighing out grains of this and that in the small scales that rested beside the large ones, both sets at the end of the counter, was he, and measuring out drops with a critical eye. The day promised to be piping-hot, and his summer house-coat, of slate-coloured twill, was thrown back on his shoulders. Spare and wiry little man though he was, he felt the heat. He was rather wondering that no patients had come in yet, for people knew that this was the time to catch him, before he started on his rounds, and he generally had an influx on Monday morning.
Visitor the first. The surgery-door, standing close to the open front one, was tapped at, and a tall, bony woman entered, dressed in a big straw bonnet with primrose ribbons, a blue cotton gown and cotton shawl. Eunice Gibbon, Mrs. Stephen Radcliffe's sister.
"Good-morning, Mr. Duffham," she said, lodging her basket on the counter. "I'm frightfully out o' sorts, sir, and think I shan't be right till I've took a bottle or two o' physic."
"Sit down," said the doctor, coming in front of the counter, preparatory to inquiring into the symptoms.
She sat down in one of the two chairs: and Duffham, after sundry questions, told her that her liver was out of order. She answered that she could have told him that, for nothing but "liver" was ever the matter with her. He went behind the counter again to make up a bottle of some delectable stuff good for the complaint, and Eunice sat waiting for it, when the surgery-door was pushed open with a whirl and a bang, and Tod and I burst in. To see Eunice Gibbon there, took us aback. It seemed a very curious coincidence, considering what we had come about.
"Well, young gentlemen," quoth Duffham, looking rather surprised, and detecting our slight discomfiture, "does either if you want my services?'
"Yes," said Tod, boldly "Johnny does: he has a headache. We'll wait, Mr. Duffham."
Leaning on the counter, we watched the progress of the making-up in silence, Duffham exchanging a few words with Eunice Gibbon at intervals. Suddenly he opened upon a subject that caused Tod to give me a private dig with his elbow:
"And how were the cries last night?" asked Duffham. "Did you hear much of them?"
"There was no cries last night," answered Eunice--which brought me another dig from Tod. "But wasn't the wind high. It went shrieking round the Torr like so many mad cats. Two spoonfuls twice a-day, did you say, sir?"
"Three times a-day. I am putting the directions on the bottle. You will soon feel better."
"I've been subject to these bilious turns all my life," she said, speaking to me and Tod. "But I don't know when I've had as bad a one as this. Thank ye, sir."
Taking the bottle of physic, she put it into her basket, said good-morning, and went away. Duffham came to the front, and Tod jumped on the counter and sat there facing us, his long legs dangling. I had taken one of the chairs.
"Mr. Duffham, what do you think we have come about?" began Tod, dropping his voice to a mysterious key. "Don't you go and faint away when you hear it."
"Faint away!" retorted old Duffham.
"I'll be shot if it would not send some people into a faint! That Gibbon woman has just said that no cries were to be heard last night."
"Well, there were cries; plenty of them. And awful cries they were. I, and Johnny, and Mrs. Frank Radcliffe--yes, she was with us--stood in that precious field listening to them till our blood ran cold. You heard them, you know, on Saturday night."
"Well?" repeated Duffham, staring at Tod.
"Look here. We have found it out--and have come over to tell you--and to ask you what can be done," went on Tod earnestly, jumping off the counter and putting his back against the door to make sure of no interruption. "The cries come from Frank Radcliffe. He is not dead."
"What?" shouted Duffham, who had turned to face Tod and stood in the middle of the oil-cloth, wondering whether Tod was demented.
"Frank is no more dead than I am. I'd lay my life upon it. Stephen Radcliffe has got him shut up in the tower; and the piteous cries are his--crying for release."
"Bless my heart and mind!" exclaimed Duffham, backing right against the big scales. "Frank Radcliffe alive and shut up in the tower! But there's no way to the tower. He could not be got into it."
"I don't care. I know he is there. That huzzy, now gone out, does well to say no cries were abroad last night; her business is to throw people off the scent. But I tell you, Duffham, the cries never were so loud or so piteous, and I heard what they said as distinctly as you can hear me speak now. 'Help! Frank Radcliffe! Help!' they said. And I swear the voice was Frank's own."
"If ever I heard the like of this!" ejaculated Duffham. "It is really not--not to be credited."
"The sound of the cries comes out on the air through the openings in the tower," ran on Tod, in excitement. "Oh, he is there, poor fellow, safe enough. And to think what long months he has been kept there, Stephen's prisoner! Twelve. Twelve, as I'm alive. Now, look you here, Duffham! you are staring like an unbeliever."
"It's not altogether that--that I don't believe," said Duffham, whose wide-open eyes were staring considerably. "I am thinking what is to be done about it--how to set the question at rest."
Tod left the door unguarded and flung himself into the other chair. He went over the whole narrative quietly: how Mrs. Frank Radcliffe--who had been listening to the cries for a week past--had first put him into a puzzle, how he had then heard the words and the voice, and how the true explanation came flashing into his mind later. With every sentence, Duffham grew more convinced, and at last he believed it as much as we did.
"And now how is he to be go out?" concluded Tod.
Holding a council together, we decided that the first step must be to get a magistrate's order to search the Torr. That involved the disclosure of the facts to the magistrate--whosoever he might be. Mr. Brandon was pitched upon: Duffham proposed the Squire at first; but, as Tod pointed out, the Squire would be sure to go to work in some hot and headlong manner, and perhaps ruin all. Let Stephen Radcliffe get only half an inkling of what was up, and he might contrive to convey Frank to the ends of the earth.
All three of us started at once, Duffham leaving his patients for that one morning to doctor themselves, and found Mr. Brandon at breakfast. He had been distracted with face-ache all night, he said, which caused him to rise late. The snow-white table-cloth was set off with flowers and plate, but the fare was not luxurious. The silver jug held plenty of new milk, the silver tea-pot a modicum of the weakest of tea, the silver rack the driest of dry toast. A boiled egg and the butter-dish remained untouched. One of the windows was thrown up wide to the summer air, and to the scent from the clustering flower-beds and the hum of the bees dipping over them to sip their sweets.
Breaking off little bits of toast, and eating them slowly, Mr. Brandon listened to the tale. He did not take it in. That was check the first. And he would not grant a warrant to search the Torr. That was check the second.
"Stephen Radcliffe is bad enough in the way of being sullen and miserly," said he. "But as to daring such a thing as this, I don't think he would. Pass his brother off to the world for dead, and put him into his house and keep him there in concealment! No. No one of common sense would believe it."
Tod set on again, giving our experience of the past night, earnestly protesting that he had recognized Frank's voice, and heard the words it said--"Help! Frank Radcliffe!" He added that Annet Radcliffe, Frank's widow--or wife, whichever it might turn out to be--had been listening to the cries for days past and knew them for her husband's: only she, poor daft woman, took them to come from his ghost. Mr. Brandon sipped his tea and listened. Duffham followed on saying that when he heard the cries on Saturday night, in passing the Torr on his way from the Court, he could then almost have staked his existence upon their being human cries, proceeding from some human being in distress, but for the apparent impossibility of such a thing. And I could see that an impression was at length made on Mr. Brandon.
"If Stephen Radcliffe has done so infamous an act, he must be more cruel, more daring than man ever was yet," remarked he, in answer. "But I must be more satisfied of it before I sign the warrant you ask for."
Well, there we sat, hammering at him. That is, they did. Being my guardian, I did not presume to put in a word edgeways, so far as pressuring him to act went. In all that he thought right, and in spite of his quiet manner and his squeaky voice, old Brandon was a firm man, not to be turned by argument.
"But won't you grant this warrant, sir?" appealed Tod for the tenth time.
"I have told you, no," he replied. "I will not at the present stage of the affair. In any case, I should not grant it without consulting your father--"
"He is so hot-headed," burst in Tod. "He'd be as likely as not to go off knocking at the Torr door without his hat, demanding Frank Radcliffe."
"Mr. Todhetley was Frank Radcliffe's trustee, and he is your father, young man; I do not stir a step in this matter without consulting him," returned old Brandon, coolly persistent.
Well, there was nothing for it now but to go back home and consult the pater. It seemed like a regular damper--and we were hot and tired besides. Tod in his enthusiasm had pictured us storming the Torr at mid-day, armed with the necessary authority, and getting out Frank at once.
Mr. Brandon ordered his waggonette--a conveyance he did not like, and scarcely ever used himself, leaving it to the servants for their errands--and we all drove back to Dyke Manor, himself included. To describe the astonishment of the pater when the disclosure was made to him would take a strong pen. He rubbed his face, and blustered, and stared around, and then told Tod he was a fool.
"I know I am in some things," said Tod, as equably as old Brandon could have put it; "but I'm not in this. If Frank Radcliffe is not alive in that tower of Stephen's, and calling out nightly for his release, you may set me down as a fool to the end of my days, father."
"Goodness bless us all!" cried the poor bewildered Squire. "Do you believe this, Brandon?"
Mr. Brandon did not say whether he believed it or not. Both of them shook their heads about granting a warrant: upon which, Tod passionately asked whether Francis Radcliffe was to be left in the tower to die. It was finally decided that we should go in a body that night to the field again, so as to give the two doubters the benefit of hearing anything there might be to hear. And Mr. Brandon stayed with us for the day, telling his coachman to come back at night with the small pony-gig to take him home.
The moon was just as bright as on the previous night, and we started on our expedition stealthily. Tod and I went first; Duffham came strolling next; and the Squire and Mr. Brandon afterwards. Should Stephen Radcliffe or any of his people catch sight of the whole of us moving together, he might suspect there was something in the wind.
Annet did not make her appearance, which was a great relief. For we could talk without restraint; and it would never have done to let her know what we suspected: and so raise wild hopes within her that might not be fulfilled. We knew later that her mother was at Pitchley's Farm that evening, and it kept Annet at home.
Was Heaven interfering in Frank's behalf? It does interfere for the oppressed, you know; ay, more often than we heedless and ungrateful mortals think for. Never had the cries been so plain as they were this night, though there was no wind to waft them downwards, for the air was perfectly still; and the words were distinctly heard. "Help! Help! Frank Radcliffe."
"Mercy upon us!" exclaimed the Squire, under his breath. "The voice does sound like Frank's."
Mr. Brandon was standing with his hand to his ear. Duffham leaned on his gold-headed cane, his face lifted upwards.
Tod stood by in dudgeon: he was angry with them for not having believed him at first.
"I think we may grant a search-warrant, Squire," said Mr. Brandon.
"And send old Jones the constable, to execute it," assented the Squire.
Tod flung back his head. "Old Jones! Much use he'd be! Why, father, Eunice Gibbon alone could settle old Jones with his shaky legs. She'd pitch him out at the first window."
"Jones can take help, Joe."
It was the breakfast hour at the Torr, eight o'clock. The meal was being taken in the kitchen. Less semblance of gentility than even in the former days was kept up; all usages of comfort and refinement had departed with old Mr. Radcliffe and Selina. Stephen was swallowing his eggs and rashers of bacon quickly: Tuesday is Alcester market-day, and he was going in to attend it, expecting to sell some of his newly-gathered crop of hay. Mrs. Stephen sat opposite him, eating bacon also and Eunice Gibbon stood at the dresser, mixing some meal for the fattening of fowls. Miserly though Stephen was by nature, he liked a good table, and took care to have it.
"Could you bring some starch home, master?" asked Eunice, turning her head round to speak.
"Why can't you get your starch here?" retorted Stephen.
"Well, it's a farthing less a pound at Alcester than it is at Church Dykely," said Eunice. "They've rose it here."
Farthings were farthings in Stephen's eyes, and he supposed he might as well bring the starch. "How much is wanted of it?" he growled.
"We'd better have a pound," interposed Becca. "Half pounds don't get the benefit of the farthing: you can't split a farthing in two. Shall you be home early?" she continued to her husband.
"Don't know. Not afore afternoon."
"Because we shall want some of the starch to-day. There's none to go on with, is there, Eunice?"
"Yes, there's a bit. I can make it do."
"You'll have to wait till you get it," remarked Stephen as he pushed his plate away and rose from table, "And mind you don't forget to give the pigs their dinner."
"What'll be wanted up there to-day?" inquired Becca, pointing towards some invisible place over-head, possibly intending to indicate the tower.
"Nothing but dinner," said Stephen. "What should there be? I shall be back afore tea-time."
He went out at the back-door as he spoke, gave a keen look or two around his yard and premises generally, to see that all was right, and presently trotted away on horseback. A few minutes later, Jim, the only regular man kept, was seen to cross the yard towards the lane with the horse and cart.
"Where be you off to, Jim?" demanded Becca, stalking to the door and speaking at the top of her voice.
"Master ordered me to go after that load o' manure," called back Jim, standing upright in the cart and arresting the horse for a moment.
"What, this morning?"
"It's what he telled me."
"Well, don't go and make a day's work of it," commanded Mrs. Stephen. "There's a sight o' things a-waiting to be done."
"I can't be back afore two, hasten as I 'ool," returned Jim, giving the horse his head and clattering off.
"I wonder what the master sent him to-day for, when he's away himself?" cried Becca to her sister, returning to the table in the kitchen.
"Well, he got a message last night to say that if he didn't send for it away to-day it wouldn't be kept for him," said Eunice. "It's a precious long way to have to go for a load o' manure!"
"But then we got it for the fetching; there's naught to pay," returned Becca.
She had begun to wash up the breakfast-things, and when that was done she put the kitchen to rights. Eunice seemed to be at all sorts of jobs, indoors and out, and went stalking about in patterns. The furnace had been lighted in the brewhouse, for Eunice had a day's washing before her. Becca went up to make the beds, and brought down sundry armfuls of clothes for the wash. About ten o'clock she appeared in the brewhouse with her bonnet and shawl on. Eunice was standing at the tub in her patterns, rubbing away at the steaming soap-suds.
"Why, where be you going?" she exclaimed in evident surprise.
"I'm a-going over to Dick's to fetch Beccy," replied Mrs. Stephen. "It's a long while since she was here. Ste don't care to see children about the place. The child shall stop to dinner with us and can go home by herself in the afternoon. What's the matter now, Eunice Gibbon? Don't it please ye?"
"Oh, it pleases me well enough," returned Eunice, who was looking anything but pleased, and splashing both hands desperately about in the water, over one of Stephen's coloured cotton handkerchiefs. "The child can come, and welcome, for me. 'Tain't that."
"It's some'at else then," remarked Becca.
"Well, I'd wanted to get a bit o' talk with ye," said Eunice. "That's what it is. The master's safe off, and it was a good opportunity for it."
Eunice Gibbon took her hands out of the soap-suds and rested them on the sides of the tub, while she answered--coming to the point at once.
"I've been a-thinking that I can't stop on here, Becca. I bain't at ease. Many a night lately I have laid awake over it. If anything comes out about--you know what--we might all of us get into trouble."
"No fear," said Becca.
"Well, I says there is fear. Folks have talked long enough; but it strikes me they won't be satisfied with talking much longer: they'll be searching out. Only yesterday morning when I was waiting at Duffham's while he mixed up the stuff, he must begin upon it. 'Did ye hear the cries last night?' says he--or something o' that. 'No,' says I in answer; 'there was none to hear, only the wind.' Them two young goats from the Manor was there, cocking up their ears at the words. I see 'em."
Rebecca Radcliffe remained silent. Truth to tell, she and Stephen were getting afraid of the cries themselves. That is, of what the cries might result in.
"He ought to be got away," resumed Eunice.
"But there's no means o' getting him away."
"Well, I can't feel comfortable, Becca; not safe, you know. So don't you and the master be put out if I walks myself off one o' these here first fine days. When I come here, I didn't bargain for nothing o' this sort."
"There's no danger of ill turning up," flashed Becca, braving out the matter with scorn. "The cries is took to come from the birds: who is to pick up any other notion, d'ye suppose? I'll tell ye what it is, Eunice: that jaundiced liver of yours is tormenting you. You'll be afeared next of your own shadda."
"Perhaps it is," acknowledged Eunice, dropping the argument and resuming her rubbing. "I know that precious physic of old Duffham's is upsetting me. It's the nausiousest stuff I ever took."
Mrs. Stephen stalked out of the kitchen and betook herself across the fields, towards her brother's. Richard Gibbon had succeeded to his late father's post of gamekeeper to the Chavasses. The gamekeeper's lodge was more than a mile away; and Mrs. Stephen strode off, out of sight, unconscious of what was in store for the Torr.
Eunice went on with her washing, deep in thought. She had fully made up her mind to quit the Torr; but she meant to break the fact by degrees to its master and mistress. Drying her hands for the temporary purpose of stirring-up and putting more slack on the furnace fire, she was interrupted by a gentle ring at the front-door bell.
"Why, who on earth's that?" she exclaimed aloud. "Oh, it must be Lizzy," with a flash of recollection: "she sent word she should be over to-day or to-morrow. How early she have got here!"
Free of all suspicion, glancing at no ill, Eunice went through the passages and opened the front-door. Quite a small crowd of people stood there, and one or two of them pushed in immediately. Mr. Duffham, Tod, I, the Squire, old Jones, and old Jones's man, who was young, and active on his legs. The Squire would come, and we were unable to hinder him.
"In the Queen's name!" cried old Jones--who always used that formula on state occasions. And Eunice Gibbon screamed long and loud.
To oppose our entrance was not to be thought of. We had entered and could not be thrust back again. Eunice took to her heels up the passage, and confronted us at the parlour-door with a pair of tongs. Duffham and Tod disarmed her. She then flew to the kitchen, sat down, and went into hysterics. Old Jones read out the authority for the search, but she only screamed the louder.
They left her to get out of the screaming at her leisure, and went up, seeking the entrance to the tower. It was found without much difficulty: Tod was the one to see it first. A small door (only discovered by Stephen Radcliffe since his father's death, as we heard later) led from a dark and unused lumber-room to the narrow stairs of the tower. In its uppermost compartment, a little, round den, sat Frank Radcliffe, chained to the wall.
Not at once could we take in the features of the scene; for, all the light came in through the one long narrow opening, a framed loophole without glass, that was set in the deep round wall of the tower. A mattress was spread on the floor, with a pillow and blankets; one chair stood close to a box that served for a table, on which he no doubt eat his meals, for there were plates and food on it; another box, its lid open, was in a corner, and on the other chair sat Frank. That was every earthly article the place contained. It was through that opening--you could not call it a window--that Frank's cries for help had gone forth to the air. There he sat, the chain round his waist, turning his amazed eyes upon us.
And raving mad, you ask? No. He was all skin and bone, and his fair hair hung down like that of a wild man of the woods, but he was as sane as you or I. He rose up, the chain clanking, and then we saw that it was long enough to admit of his moving about to any part of the den.
"Oh, God bless you, Frank!--we have come to release you," burst forth the Squire, impetuously seizing both his hands. "God help you, my poor lad!" And Frank, what with surprise and the not being over stout, burst into joyous tears.
The ingenious scheme of taking possession of Frank, and representing him as dead, that he might enjoy all the money, had occurred to Stephen Radcliffe when he found Frank was recovering under Dr. Dale's treatment. During the visits Stephen paid to London at that time, he and Pitt, Dr. Dale's head man, became very intimate: and when Pitt was discharged from Dr. Dale's they grew more so. Stephen Radcliffe would not perhaps have done any harm to Frank in the shape of poison or a dagger, being no more of a killer and slayer of men than were his neighbours; but to keep him concealed in the Torr, so as to reap the benefit himself of all the money, he looked upon as a very venial crime indeed--quite justifiable, so to say. Especially, if he could escape being found out. And this fine scheme he perfected and put in practice, and successfully carried through.
How much of it he confided to Pitt, or how much he did not, will never be known. Certain it was, that Pitt wrote the letter announcing Frank's death; though we could not find out that he had helped it in any other way. But a very curious coincidence attended the affair; one that aided Stephen's plans materially; and but for its happening I do not see that they could have succeeded when inquiries were made. In the London house where Stephen lodged (Gibraltar Terrace, that I and the Squire had a two days' hunt to find) there came to live a young man, who was taken ill close upon his entrance with a malady arising from his habits of drinking. Pitt, coming often to Gibraltar Terrace then with Stephen Radcliffe, took to attend on the young man out of good nature, doing for him all that could be done. It was this young man who died, and was buried in Finchley Cemetery; and of whose death the landlady with the faded face and black silk apron spoke to the Squire, thereby establishing in our minds the misapprehension that it was Francis Radcliffe. Stephen did not take Frank to the lodgings at all; he brought him straight down to the Torr when he was released from Dr. Dale's, taking care to get out at a remote country station in the dusk of evening, where his own gig, conveyed thither by Becca, was in waiting. He laid his plans well, that crafty Stephen! And, once he had got Frank securely into that upper den, he might just have kept him there for life, but for that blessed outlet in the wall, and no one been any the wiser.
Stephen Radcliffe did not bargain for that. It nearly always happens that in doing an ill deed we overreach ourselves in some fatal way. Knowing that no sound, though it were loud enough to awaken the seven sleepers, could penetrate from that upper room through the massive walls of the house, and be heard below, Stephen thought his secret was safe, and that Frank might call out, if he would, until Doomsday. It never occurred to him that the cries could get out through that unglazed window in the tower wall, and set the neighbourhood agog with curiosity. They did, however: and Stephen, whatever amount of dread it might have brought his heart, was unable to stop them. Not until Frank had been for some months chained in his den, did it occur to himself to make those cries, so hopeless was he of their being heard below to any good purpose. But one winter night when the wind was howling outside, and the sound of it came booming into his ears through the window, it struck him that he might be heard through that very opening; and from that time his voice was raised in supplication evening after evening. Stephen could do nothing. He dared not brick the opening up lest some suspicion or other should be excited outside; he could not remove Frank, for there was no other secret room to remove him to, or where his cries would not have been heard below. He ordered Frank to be still: he threatened him; he once took a horsewhip to him and laid it about his shoulders. All in vain. When Frank was alone, his cries for release never ceased. Stephen and his household put it upon the birds and the wind, and what not; but they grew to dread it: and Stephen, even at this time of discovery, was perpetually ransacking his brains for some safe means of departing for Canada and carrying Frank with him. The difficulty lay in conveying Frank out of the Torr and away. They might drug him for the bare exit, but they could not keep him perpetually drugged; they could not hinder him coming in contact with his fellow-men on the journey and transit, and Frank had a tongue in his head. No: Stephen saw no hope, no safety, but in keeping him where he was.
"But how could you allow yourself to be brought up here?--and fastened to a stake in this shameful fashion?" was nearly the first question of the Squire when he could collect his senses and he asked it with just a touch of temper, for he was beginning to think that Frank, in permitting it, must have been as simple as the fool in a travelling circus.
"He got me up by stratagem," answered Frank, tossing his long hair back from his face. "While we were sitting at supper the night we arrived here, he began talking about the wonderful discovery he had made of the staircase and opening to the tower. Naturally I was interested; and when Stephen proposed to show it me at once, I assented gladly. Becca came with us, saying she'd carry the candle. We got up here, and were all three standing in the middle of the floor, just where we are standing now, when I suddenly had a chain--this chain--slipped round my waist, and found myself fastened to the wall, a prisoner."
"But why did you come to the Torr at all?" stamped the Squire, while old Jones stretched out his hands, as if putting imaginary handcuffs on Stephen's. "Why did you not go at once to your own home--or come to us? When you knew you were going to leave Dale's, why didn't you write to say so?"
"When events are past and gone we perceive the mistakes we have made, though we do not see them at the time," answered Frank, turning his blue eyes from one to the other of us. "Dr. Dale did not wish me to quit his house quite so soon; though I was perfectly well, he said another month there would be best for me. I, however, was anxious to get away, more eager for it than I can tell you--which was only natural. Stephen whispered to me that he would accomplish it, but that I must put myself entirely in his hands, and not write to any one down here about it. He got me out, sooner than I had thought for: sooner, as he declared, than he had thought for himself; and he said we must break the news to Annet very cautiously, for she was anything but strong. He proposed to take me to the Torr for the first night of my return, and give me a bed there; and the following day the communication could be made to Annet at Pitchley's Farm, and then I might follow it as soon as I pleased. It all seemed to me feasible; quite the right way of going to work; in fact, the only way: I thanked Stephen, and came down here with him in all confidence."
"Good patience!" cried the Squire. "And you had no suspicions, Frank Radcliffe!--knowing what Stephen was!"
"I never knew he would do such a dastardly deed as this. How could I know it?"
"Oh, come along!" returned the Squire, beginning to stumble down the narrow, dark stairs. "We'll have the law of him."
The key of the chain had been found hanging on a nail outside the door, out of poor Frank's reach. He was soon free; but staggered a little when he began to descend the stairs. Duffham laid hold of him behind, and Tod went before.
"Thank God! thank God!" he broke out with reverent emotion, when the bright sun burst upon him through the windows, after passing the dark lumber-room. "I feared I might never see full daylight again."
"Have you any clothes?" asked Duffham. "This coat's in rags."
"I'm sure I don't know whether I have or not," replied Frank, "The coat is all I have had upon me since coming here."
"Becca's a beast," put in Tod. "And I hope Stephen will have his neck stretched."
Eunice Gibbon was nowhere to be seen below. The premises were deserted. She had made a rush to her brother's, the gamekeeper's lodge, to warn Becca of what was taking place. We started for Dyke Manor, Frank in our midst, leaving the Torr, and its household gods, including the cackling fowls and the dinnerless pigs, to their fate. Mr. Brandon met us at the second field, and he took Frank's hand in silence.
"God bless you, lad! So you have been shut up there!"
"And chained to a stake in the wall," cried the Squire.
"Well, it seems perfectly incredible that such a thing should take place in these later days. It reads like an episode of the dark ages."
"Won't we pay our Master Radcliffe for 't!" put in old Jones, at work with his imaginary handcuffs again. "I should say, for my part, it 'ud be a'most a case o' transportation to Botany Bay."
Frank Radcliffe was ensconced within Dyke Manor (sending Mrs. Todhetley into hysterics, for she had known nothing), and Duffham undertook the task of breaking it to Frank's wife. Frank, when his hair should have been trimmed up a little, was to put himself into a borrowed coat and to follow on presently.
Pitchley's Farm and Pitchley's roses lay hot and bright under the summer sunshine, Mr. Duffham went straight in, and looked about for its mistress. In the sitting-rooms, in the kitchen, in the dairy: he and his cane, and could not see her.
"Missis have stepped out, sir," said Sally, who was scrubbing the kitchen table. "A fearful headache she have got to-day."
"A headache, has she!" responded Duffham.
"I don't think she's never without one," remarked Sally, dipping her brush into the saucer of white sand.
"Where's Mr. Skate?"
"Him? Oh, he be gone over to Alcester market, sir"
"You go and find your mistress, Sally, and say I particularly wish to speak with her. Tell her that I have some very good news for her."
Sally left her brush and her sand, and went out with the message. The doctor strolled into the best parlour, and cribbed one of the many roses intruding their blooming beauty into the open window. Mr. Duffham had to exercise his patience. It seemed to him that he waited half-an-hour.
Annet came in at last, saying how sorry she was to have kept him: she had stepped over to see their carter's wife, who was ill, and Sally had only just found her. She wore her morning gown of black and white print, with the small net widow's cap on her bright hair. But for the worn look in her face, the sad eyes, she was just as pretty as ever; and Duffham thought so.
"Sally says you have some good news for me," she observed with a poor, faint smile. "It must be a joke of yours, Mr. Duffham. There's no news that could be good for me."
"Wait till you hear it," said he. "You have had a fortune left you! It is so good, Mrs. Frank Radcliffe, that I'm afraid to tell you. You may go into a fit; or do some other foolish thing."
"Indeed no. Nothing can ever have much effect on me again."
"Don't you make too sure of that," said Duffham. "You've never felt quite sure about that death of your husband, up at Dales, have you? Thought there was something queer about it--eh?
"Yes," she said. "I have thought it."
"'Well, some of us have been looking into it a little. And we find--in short, we are not at all sure that--that Frank did die."
"Oh!"--her hands lifting themselves in agitation--"what is it, sir? You have come to disclose to me that my husband was murdered."
"The contrariness of woman!" exclaimed Duffham, giving the floor a thump with his cane. "Why, Mrs. Frank Radcliffe, I told you as plainly as I could speak, that it was good news I brought. So good, that I hardly thought you could bear it with equanimity. Your husband was not murdered."
Poor Annet never answered a word to this. She only gazed at him.
"And our opinion is that Frank did not die at all; at Dale's, or elsewhere. Some of us think he is alive still, and--now don't you drop down in a heap."
"Please go on," she breathed, turning whiter than her own cap. "I--shall not drop down."
"We have reason to think it, Mrs. Frank. To think that he is alive, and well, and as sane in mind as you'd wish him to be. We believe it, ma'am; we all but know it."
She let her head fall back in the chair. "You, I feel sure, would not tell me this unless you had good grounds for it, Mr. Duffham. Oh, if it may but be so! But--then--what of those cries that we heard?" she added, recollecting them. "I am sure they were his."
"Very likely. Stephen may have had him shut up in the tower, and Frank cried out to let the world know he was there. Oh, I dare say that was it. I should not wonder, Mrs. Frank, but your husband may be here to-day."
She rose from her seat, face lightening, hands trembling. She had caught sight through the window of a small knot of people approaching the house door, and she recognized the cut of Frank's fair Saxon face amongst them, and the gleam of his golden hair. Duffham knew no more till she was in Frank's arms, sobbing and crying.
Ring! knock! shake! Shake! knock! ring! It was at the front-door of the Torr, and old Jones was doing it. He had gone there to apprehend Stephen Radcliffe, a whole posse of us at his tail--where we had no business to be--and the handcuffs in his side-pocket.
By the afternoon of the day just told of, the parish was up in arms. Had Frank Radcliffe really risen from the dead, it could scarcely have caused more commotion. David Skate, for one, was frightened nearly out of his senses. Getting in from Alcester market, Sally accosted him, as he was crossing the yard, turning round from the pump to do it, where she was washing the summer cabbage for dinner.
"The master be in there, sir."
"What master?" asked David, halting on the way.
"Why, the master hisself, Mr. Frank. He be come back again."
To hear that a dead man has "come back" again and is then in the house you are about to enter, would astonish most of us. David Skate stared at Sally, as if he thought she had been making free with the cider barrel. At that moment, Frank appeared at the door, greeting David with a smile of welcome. The sun shone on his face, making it look pale, and David verily and truly believed he saw Frank's ghost. With a shout and a cry, and cheeks all turned to a sickly tremor, he backed behind the pump and behind Sally. Sally, all on the broad grin, enjoyed it.
"Why, sir, it be the master hisself. There ain't nothing to be skeered at."
"David, don't you know me?" called out Frank heartily; and came forth with outstretched hands.
But David did not get his cheeks right again for a good quarter-of-an-hour. And he was in a maze of wonder all day.
A warrant had been issued for the apprehension of Stephen Radcliffe of the Torr, and old Jones started off to the Torr to execute it. As if Stephen was likely to be found there! Ringing the bell, knocking at the door, shaking the handle, stood old Jones; the whole string of us behind burning to help him. It was not answered, and old Jones went at it again. You might have heard the noise over at Church Dykely.
Presently the door was drawn slowly back by Stephen Radcliffe's daughter--the curate's wife. She was trembling all over and looking fit to drop. Lizzy had come over from Birmingham and learned what had taken place. Naturally it scared her. She had always been the best of the bunch; and she had, of course, not known the true secret of the cries.
"I want to see Mr. Radcliffe, if you please, ma'am," began old Jones, putting his foot inside, so that the door should not be closed again.
"My father is not here," she answered, shaking and shivering.
"Not here!" repeated old Jones, surreptitiously stealing one hand round to feel the handcuffs.
"There's no one in the house but myself," she said. "When I got here, an hour or two ago, I found the place deserted."
"I should like to see that for myself, ma'am," returned incredulous old Jones.
"You can," she answered, drawing back a little. For she saw how futile it would be to attempt to keep him out.
Old Jones and some more went in to the search. Not a living creature was there but herself and the dog. Stephen Radcliffe had never been back since he started for Alcester in the morning.
In fact, Stephen was not to be found anywhere, near or distant. Mrs. Stephen was not to be found. Eunice Gibbon was not to be found. They had all made themselves scarce. The women had no doubt contrived to convey the news to Stephen while he was at Alcester, and he must have lost no time in turning his back on Warwickshire.
In a day or two, a rumour arose that Stephen Radcliffe and his wife had sailed for Canada. It proved to be true. "So much the better," said old Jones, regaling himself, just then, with cold beef in the Squire's kitchen. "Let him go! Good shut of bad rubbish!"
Just the sentiments that prevailed generally! Canada was the best place for Stephen the crafty. It spared us further sight of his surly face and saved the bother of a prosecution. He took only his own three hundred a-year with him; the Squire, for Frank, had resumed the receipt of the other three. And Lizzy, the daughter, with a heap of little ones at her skirts, remained in possession of the Torr until it should be taken. She had charge to let it as soon as might be.
Pitchley's Farm resumed its bustle and its sounds of everyday, happy life. The crowds that flocked to it to shake hands with Frank and welcome his wonderful resuscitation were beyond telling. Frank had sworn a solemn oath never to drink again: he never would, God helping him. He knew that he never should, he whispered one day to Mr. Brandon, a joyous light in his face as he spoke. His mother praying for him in dying, had told him that he would overcome; she had seen that he would in that last solemn hour, for the prayer had been heard, bringing her peace. He had overcome now, he said, and he would and should overcome to the end.
And Mr. Brandon, reading the faith and the earnestness, felt as sure of it as Frank did.
Frank kept his word. And, two years later, there he was, back at the Torr again. For Stephen had died of a severely cold winter in Canada, and his son Tom had died, but not of cold, and the Torr was Frank's.
Mrs. Stephen came back again, and took up her abode at her brother's. She would enjoy the three hundred a-year for life, by Stephen's will; it would then go to her daughter Lizzy--who would want it badly enough with her flock of youngsters. Becca and Eunice turned their attention to poultry, and sent rare fowls to shows, and gained prizes for them. Eunice returned long before Mrs. Stephen. She had never been out of England at all; and, finding it safe for her, put in an appearance, one winter day, at the gamekeeper's lodge.
Frank began to make alterations at the Torr as soon as he entered it, cutting down trees, and trying to render it a little less gloomy. Annet, with a calm face of sweet content, was much occupied at that time with a young man who was just getting on his legs, propelling him before her by the help of some safety reins that she called "backstrings," a fair child, who had the frank face and the golden curls of his father. And in all the country round about, there was not a gentleman more liked and respected than Francis Radcliffe of Sandstone Torr.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia