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Title: Perris of the Cherry-trees
Author: J S Fletcher
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0800631.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: June 2008
Date most recently updated: June 2008

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Title: Perris of the Cherry-trees
Author: J S Fletcher



I


Pippany Webster, handy-man and only labourer to Abel Perris, the small
farmer who dragged a bare living out of Cherry-trees, the little holding
at the top of the hill above Martinsthorpe, came lazily up the road from
the village one May afternoon, leading a horse which seemed as fully
inclined to laziness as Pippany himself. Perris had left home for a day
or two, and had apportioned his man a certain fixed task to accomplish by
the time of his return: Pippany, lid it so pleased him, might have
laboured steadily at it until that event happened. And for the whole of
the first day and half of the next he had kept himself to the work, but
at noon on that second day it was borne in upon him that one of the two
horses, which formed the entire stable of the establishment, required
shoeing, and after eating his dinner, he had led it down the hill to the
smithy near the cross-roads in Martinsthorpe. There, and in the kitchen
of the Dancing Bear, close by, where there was ale and tobacco and
gossip, he had contrived to spend the greater part of the afternoon. He
would have stayed longer amidst such pleasant surroundings, but for the
fact that supper-time was approaching.

It was difficult, looking at man and horse, to decide as to which most
suggested helplessness and incompetence. The horse showed itself to be a
poor man's beast in every line and aspect of its ill-shaped, badly-fed
body, in the listless droop of its head, in its ungroomed, rough-haired
coat, in the very indecision with which it set down its oversized,
sprawling feet. It had a dull, listless eye, the eye of an equine
outcast; there was an evident disposition in it to stop on any
provocation, to crop the fresh green of the grass from the broad
stretches of turf on the wayside, to nibble at the tender shoots of the
hedgerows, to do anything that needed little effort. It breathed heavily
as it breasted the hill, following the man who slouched in front, his
head drooping from his bent shoulders, his lips, still moist and sticky
from the ale he had drunk, sucking mechanically at a foul clay pipe. He
was a little more fully attired than the scarecrows in the neighbouring
fields, but there was all over him the aimlessness, the ineptitude, the
purposelessness of the unfit. His old hat, shapeless and colourless,
shaded a face which suggested nothing but dull stupidity, and was only
relieved from utter vacancy by a certain slyness and craftiness of
expression. He shambled in his walk, and his long arms, the finger-tips
of which reached below his knees, wagged and waved in front of him as he
forged ahead, as though they were set loose in their sockets, his small,
pig-like eyes fixed on the few inches of high-road which lay immediately
before his toes. From the foot of the hill to its crest those eyes were
never lifted.

And yet, the crest of the hill once gained, a landscape presented itself
over which most folk would have gazed with pleasure and appreciation. On
all sides the country stretched away in a great plateau, thickly wooded,
and just then smiling in the clear light and fresh, unsullied tints and
colours of spring-tide. The place to which the unkempt man was leading
the unkempt horse was in itself a picture. It stood, a small but very old
farmhouse, with a high sloping roof, dormer windows, and tall chimneys,
in t he angle made by the meeting of two roads; before i t lay a
flower-garden, in one corner of which rose an ancient cedar-tree; behind
it stretched a wide-spreading orchard, filled, for the most part, with
cherry-trees, just then in the full glory of pink and white blossom. I
immediately in front of it, on the opposite side of the highway, rose a
great grove of chestnut-trees; they, too, were in bloom, and the wax-like
clusters made little pyramids of light against the, glossy green of the
widespreading leaves. And over everything was the clear blue of the May
sky, and in the hedgerows and the coppices were the first signs of the
flowering of the hawthorn.

Pippany Webster saw nothing of all this. He shambled slowly round the
corner of the high-road into the lane which led towards the woods, and
made a boundary on that side to Perris's farmstead, into which he let
himself by a ramshackle door that opened on a range of dilapidated
buildings. These buildings stood between the old house and the cherry
orchard; the lane ran at the back of them; a farm-fold lay in front of
them, fenced off from the rear of the house by a low stone wall. Against
this wall, on the fold side, was a stone trough; above it a leaden spout
projected through the wall; on the other, the house side of the wall, was
a pump, which communicated with the well below. The human animals in the
house and the brute animals in the field both drank water from a spring
thirty feet beneath them, into which the runnings of fold and byre and
stable percolated in some indefinite degree about which neither ever
speculated.

The range of buildings into which Pippany Webster dragged the newly-shod
horse was characteristic of what is usually seen on a small holding when
the holder is poor and more or less shiftless. Between it and the house
stood a dilapidated Dutch barn, empty of aught but a mess and litter of
straw on the earth flooring almost as empty was the range of buildings
itself when entered and inspected. The lower part was stable, cow-house,
piggery so far as one-half was concerned; above these offices was a
granary, and next it a chamber wherein wool might be stored; the other
half of the range, unfloored from earth to roof face, made a barn which
was nearly as destitute of straw as its Dutch substitute outside. Two
horses in the stable, three cows in the byre, a few pigs in the sty,
constituted Perris's live stock; but outside in the fold, and in the
adjoining orchard, his wife kept a pretty good establishment of
poultry--fowls, ducks, and geese--and at various times made a little
money out of it. It was well that she had some such stand-by, for the
evidences of prosperity at Cherry-trees were few. An observer, skilled in
matters of farming, having taken due stock of the animals, the condition
of the fold, the emptiness of barns and granary, the poor bits of dead
stock, ploughs, harrows, and the like, which lay rusting and woe-begone
of appearance in a lean-to shed, would have sniffed and turned up his
nose with a remark as to the folly of trying to work even fifty acres
without capital.

Pippany Webster unceremoniously turned the horse into a stable as
destitute of straw on the bouldered floor as it was empty of aught to eat
in the broken mangers. The horse looked into the manger, and at the rack
fixed in the wall above it, and turning its head gazed at Pippany. It
knew as well as Pippany knew that it and its stable companion would
presently be cast forth for the night into the adjoining grass meadow,
and that as the spring nights were still nipping cold it was only right
and just that something more warming to the belly than buttercups and
daisies should be served up before the casting forth took place. And
Pippany recognised the look and wagged his head.

"Then ye mun wait till I can cut some o' yon owd clover," he said.
"Theer's none so much left, and when it's done wi' ye'll hev' to depend
on what ye can pick up--if so be as ye're alive. There's nowt much of owt
left about this here place."

As if in proof of this assertion he lifted the lid of the old
stable-chest in which the horse-corn was kept, and gazed meditatively at
its contents. In the depths of the chest lay two or three bushels of
meal: Pippany remembered that there was none left in the granary above
the stable; he remembered, too, that he had only enough pig-meal left
wherewith to feed the pigs that night. He scratched his head dubiously.

"This is a bonny come-up!" he soliloquised. "If t' maister doesn't come
home to-morrow and bring soome brass wi' him these here animals 'll go
fro' bad to worse--if such is possible! Howsomever, I mun cut some o' yon
clover for t' hosses and t' cows."

From a nook behind the corn-chest Pippany brought forth a hay-cutting
knife, and proceeded to put an edge on it with a whetstone which he took
from a hole in the wall. And at last, armed with this and with a stable
fork whereupon he meant to impale the chunk of dried clover which he
intended to carve out of the old stack at the end of the orchard, he went
forth into the fold and crossed over to the orchard gate.

In the orchard, amidst the pink and white of the cherry-trees, two women
were hanging out the last results of a day's family washing. The lines to
which they suspended the various articles of clothing, drawn wet and
heavy from the wicker basket which they had just set down on the grass,
were fastened here and there to the trunks or branches of the trees, here
and there to certain ancient posts which were shaky in their foundations,
and looked as if a little extra weight on the lines would pull them down
altogether. There was scarcely any movement of air in the orchard; the
lighter garments stirred but feebly when they were safely pinned to the
line, the heavy ones hung straight down, motionless and inert.

Of the two women thus employed when Pippany entered the orchard, one, the
elder, Tibby Graddige, general odd-job woman to the parish, was a tall,
spare, athletic female whose every action indicated energy and strength.
When she moved, every muscle and sinew of her body seemed to be brought
into play; hands moved in unison with feet, and elbows with knees. Just
as active were the motions of her thin, straight lips and her coal-black
eyes; the way in which her hair, equally black, was drawn in straight,
severe fashion from her forehead and hidden behind an old cap fashioned
from the remains of some shred of funeral crape indicated her views of
life and of a day's work, which were to keep going at both until both
were over. She passed now from basket to line and from line to basket as
if everything of importance in the world depended upon the swiftness with
which the wet linen was hung out to dry.

The other and younger woman, Rhoda Perris, wife of Pippany's absent
master, was of a different order of femininity. She looked to be about
two-and-twenty years of age; the print gown which she wore did little to
hide a figure which sculptors would have had nothing to find fault with
had it been suggested to them as a model for the statue of something
between a Venus and a Diana. Above the medium height, generous of bosom
and hip, there was yet a curious suggestion of lissom slenderness about
her which was heightened by the print gown. Her uncovered hair, catching
the glint of the westering sun, revealed tints of gold and red and brown
accordingly as her head was turned; it fell away to her ears in natural
undulations from a centre parting, and was carelessly bound up into a
heavy coil at the nape of her neck. Beneath the low, square forehead
which the ripples of this elusively-tinted hair shaded were a pair of
large eyes, the colour of which was as elusive as the hair--at times they
seemed to be violet, at times grey, at times green. Always there was in
them a strange sleepy seductiveness and a curious steadiness of gaze when
they fixed themselves upon the object of their possessor's thoughts. The
nose was in the slightest degree retrousse, the mouth inclining to
largeness but perfectly shaped, the chin firm and rounded. As for the
woman's colour it was that of the healthy, full-blooded human animal
whose surroundings from infancy have been those of the woods and fields,
and into whom the spirit of free air and the strength of the earth has
entered with all the stirring nourishment of mother's milk.

Rhoda Perris, idly hanging a garment on the clothesline, looked round as
Pippany shambled through the rickety gate. She took a clothes-peg from
between her strong, white teeth, and smiled sideways at Tibby Graddige.

"Seems to me it takes a nice long time to put one shoe on a horse
nowadays, Pippany Webster," she remarked. "You took that horse down to
the crossroads at one o'clock, and it's past five now."

"T' smith weren't theer when I landed," said Pippany sullenly. "He were
away up to Mestur Spink's about summat or other. An' when he came back
theer wor another man afore me 'at had browt two hosses--leastways a hoss
an' a mare. Ye can't shoe a beast i' five minutes. An' I worn't going
down there to wait all that time for nowt."

"No, and I'll warrant you didn't!" remarked Tibby Graddige. "T' Dancing
Bear mek's a good waiting-room for such-like as ye when ye go to t'
smith's!"

"Ye ho'd yer wisht!" retorted Pippany. "Nobody's given ye onny right to
order my goings and comings, Mistress Graddige. I know when a hoss wants
its shoes seeing to as weel as onny man."

"We'll see what your master says when he comes home," said Rhoda. "You'd
no need to take the horse to-day--it was naught but an excuse to go and
drink."

"I care nowt for what t' maister says nor what nobody else says,"
retorted Pippany, lurching forward past the women. "If Mestur Perris has
owt to say to me he can pay me mi wage and let me go. I'm stalled o' this
job--there's nowt left about t' place, and t' animals 'll be starvin'
afore to-morrow neet. I'm none a fooil, and I can see how things is goin'
wi' Mestur Perris--so theer!"

Tibby Graddige shot a swift look out of her black eyes in Rhoda's
direction.

"There's imperence for yer!" she said softly. "But he allus were a bad un
wi' his tongue, were that there Pippany Webster--used to miscall his poor
mother, as were bedridden, shameful. Eh, dear--when the cat's away the
mice will play, as it says in the Good Book. If I were Mestur Perris I
should show t' way to the back door to yon theer."

Pippany shambled on to the old clover-stack, which stood at the end of
the orchard. There was little of it left: what little there was made a
dusky tower which rose some eighteen or twenty feet in air from a base
of two square yards. It was already shored up on three sides with stack
props; on the fourth a ladder led to the particular elevation at which
Pippany on the previous day had cut sufficient provender out of the
tightly compressed mass to serve for the animals' supper. Round the base
of this remnant many inroads had been made upon the clover by the
depredations of the cattle which had been allowed to pull at it; when
Pippany, carrying his hay-knife and the stable fork, proceeded slowly to
climb the ladder, the stack began to tremble and to sway; it was obvious
that it would have tottered over but for the support which it received
from the poles. But Pippany gave no heed to these signs; he steadily
mounted to the top, plunged his fork into the side, and kneeling down
proceeded to drive his knife into the edges of the portion which he
desired to cut out.

To drive an imperfectly edged cutting-knife into the compressed mass of
an old clover-stack which has been standing, as this stack had, for at
least three years, and had accordingly become almost solid, requires no
small expenditure of might and strength. At every downward thrust which
Pippany gave to his knife the stack shook and tottered on its insecure
base, and if he had not been muttering threats and anathemas against
Tibby Graddige to himself, he might have heard an ominous cracking and
crunching below him. Pippany, however, heard nothing but the harsh voice
of his knife crunching through the clover. And suddenly one of the
supporting poles, already rotten when it was put up, snapped off short,
the reeling stack gave way, and flinging Pippany, knife still in hand,
headlong from it, heeled over after him and enveloped him in the debris
of its destruction.

The two women looked round from the clotheslines with scared faces.

"God ha' mercy on us, missis!" exclaimed Tibby Graddige. "What's yon
atomy done now? Oh, Lord, Lord, that owd stack's fallen on him! And us
wi'out a man about the place!"

When they reached the scene of disaster there was no sign of Pippany. The
fine dust caused by the fall of the stack was clearing away, but neither
leg nor arm protruded from it.

"He's buried under it!" whispered Tibby Graddige. "Oh, Lord, whatever mun
we do?"

Rhoda was already silently tearing at the clover, seizing great heaps of
it in her powerful arms and casting it aside. The elder woman joined her,
but ever and anon loudly lamented the absence of a man. And suddenly she
looked up, listening.

"There's somebody a-horseback riding past the corner!" she said. "Eh, I
mun call to him, whoever he is!"

She ran swiftly through the cherry-trees to the low hedge which separated
the orchard from the lane, and craned her neck above the green branches.
The next instant Rhoda heard her voice, shrill and insistent.

"Hi, mestur! Mestur Taffendale! Mestur Taffendale!"

The man thus hailed, who was slowly riding along the highway at the end
of the lane, drew rein, and, turning in the saddle, looked in Tibby
Graddige's direction. Seeing that she was frantically waving her bare arm
to him, he turned his horse's head, and rode towards her.

"What is it, missis?" he said as he drew near. "Anything wrong?"

Tibby Graddige panted out her reply.

"Oh, Mestur Taffendale, sir, th' owd clover-stack's fallen on Pippany
Webster, and he's buried under it, and there's nobody about but me and
the missis. Come over and help us wi' it, if you please, sir!"

Taffendale's first thought was that if the clover-stack had buried
Pippany Webster once and for all the Martinsthorpe community would have
experienced no great loss. But without making audible reply to Tibby
Graddige's supplication, he forced his horse through one of the many gaps
which abounded in the hedge of Perris's orchard, dismounted, and tied the
bridle to the lower branch of a cherry-tree.

"Where is he?" he said, speaking in the tones of a man who is asked to do
something in which he has no personal concern and about which he is
utterly indifferent.

"This way, sir; the missis and me's pulled some of it offen him already,"
replied Tibby Graddige. "But there's more on it than you'd think."

When they turned the corner of the hedgerow behind which the fallen
clover-stack lay piled in a shapeless mass, Taffendale saw Rhoda Perris
for the first time. He himself lived on his farmstead a mile and a half
away across the plateau behind the woods; he rarely visited the village
or passed Cherry-trees, and though he had heard of Perris's wife as what
the country-folk called a bit of a beauty, he had never seen her since
she and her husband had come to the place two years before. Now, as she
stood up, flushed and panting from her exertions, he gave her one swift
glance and as swiftly looked away. He had not been prepared for what he
had seen.

By that time Rhoda had torn away a good deal of the fallen clover, and
had uncovered the handle of the stable fork. Taffendale threw off his
coat and seized the fork, at the same time jerking his head at the two
women.

"Stand aside!" he said half-roughly.

He went to work carefully and systematically, but with sureness and
swiftness. Tibby Graddige volubly gave forth her fears for Pippany and
her admiration for Mr. Taffendale's cleverness and strength; Rhoda, her
hands planted on her hips, stood by, watching in silence.

"Here he is!" said Taffendale at last, throwing aside the fork and
resorting to his hands. "And, by George, he looks like a goner!"

He turned the crumpled-up Pippany over on his back, swiftly untied his
neckcloth, and moved his head. Pippany's throat gurgled, and his lips
emitted a long breath.

"He's alive, but he's unconscious," said Taffendale quickly. "We'll carry
him into the house. Here, Mrs. Graddige, get hold of his legs and I'll
take his shoulders. Have you got any brandy?" he continued, turning and
looking squarely at Rhoda.

"No, but there's some whisky," answered Rhoda.

"Whisky will do," said Taffendale. "Now then, Mrs. Graddige, come on.
He's no weight."

Rhoda ran on before them to the house, and was ready with the whisky
bottle when they arrived and laid Pippany on the settle in the
house-place. Taffendale took the bottle from her, poured some of its
contents into a saucer which he caught up from the table, and some into a
teacup. He handed the saucer to Tibby Graddige.

"Here, rub that on his forehead," said he. "Have you got a spoon handy,
Mrs. Perris?"

Rhoda gave him a teaspoon, and he slowly poured small quantities of the
raw spirit between Pippany's lips. Pippany began to stir and to moan; in
a few minutes and under the influence of the whisky he opened his eyes.
He gazed vacantly around him.

"Where--what--?" he began. "Where--?"

"Hold your tongue!" said Taffendale. "You're all right. You've saved your
neck this time. Here, drink this, and then let's see if you've broken any
bones."

A generous dose of whisky-and-water enabled Pippany to move his four
limbs and to convince his interested helpers that he had not broken his
back. Taffendale smiled grimly, and turned to Rhoda.

"He's all right, Mrs. Perris," he said. "Let him rest a bit and then send
him home."

And again he smiled, looking at her inquisitively behind the smile.

Rhoda, in her turn, looked at Taffendale. She, too, was seeing him for
the first time. She had often heard of him as the rich farmer and
lime-burner across at the Limepits, but she had never met him. Now she
viewed him with curiosity. He was a tall, loosely-built man, evidently
about thirty or thirty-two years of age, dark of hair, eye, and
complexion; there was a curiously reserved, self-reliant air about him
which unconsciously impressed her. Just as unconsciously the sense of his
masculinity was forced upon her; she was sensible of it just as she was
sensible of his good clothes, his polished boots and fine cloth Newmarket
gaiters, his white stock with the gold horseshoe pin carelessly thrust
into its folds. And she compared him, scarcely knowing that she did so,
with her husband, Abel Perris, and something in the comparison aroused a
curious and subtle feeling in her.

"I'm much obliged to you, Mr. Taffendale," she said. "And so ought you to
be, Pippany. You'd have been dead by now if Mr. Taffendale hadn't chanced
to be riding by."

"I'm deeply obligated to Mestur Taffendale," mumbled Pippany, eyeing the
whisky bottle. "I'm allus obligated to them as does good to me. But I'm
worth a good many dead 'uns yet, and if Mestur Taffendale theer ever
wants a friend--"

Taffendale gave Rhoda another grim smile, and moved towards the door. He
had bestowed a swift circular glance on his surroundings, and he was
marvelling at their poverty. The house-place in which they stood was
little superior in its furnishing to any day-labourer's cottage; through
an open door he caught a glimpse of a parlour that looked cold and bare.
It seemed to him a poor setting for a woman as good-looking as he had
found Perris's wife to be.

"Well, good-day," he said. "You go home, Webster, and get to bed."

Rhoda made a motion of her hand towards the whisky bottle.

"Won't--won't you take anything, Mr. Taffendale?" she said diffidently.

"No, no, nothing, thank you," replied Taffendale hurriedly. "I'm pressed
for time. Good-day, Mrs. Perris."

He walked quickly through the fold, observing things to right and left of
him without turning his eyes in either direction. And he saw the evident
poverty of the place, and mentally appraised its value, and when he had
got his coat and mounted his horse, and was riding away, he shook his
head to the accompaniment of another of his sardonic smiles.

"That looks to be in a poorish state!" he thought. "And it's rent-day
next week. I wonder how Perris stands for that? It's a pity for that wife
of his--a fine woman!"

Rhoda and Tibby Graddige went back to the orchard to finish hanging out
the clothes. Both were in meditative mood, brought about by the event of
the afternoon.

"So that's Mr. Taffendale, is it?" said Rhoda. "For all we've been here
two years I never saw him before. Well off, isn't he, Tibby?"

Tibby Graddige jerked her head.

"Well off!" she exclaimed. "I'll warrant! What with his big farm, and his
lime-kilns, I should think he were well off, yon! Why, his father, old
Mestur Taffendale, left him thirty thousand pound. An' isn't it fair
shameful?--he's never yet shown sign o' tekkin' a wife to share it wi'
him!"

Rhoda made no answer. She was wondering what so wealthy a man had thought
of the palpable poverty of Cherry-trees.


II


About the time that Mark Taffendale and Tibby Graddige carried Pippany
Webster into the house-place, Abel Perris got out of a train at the
little railway station, Somerleigh, which stood four miles away along the
high-road to the north of Martinsthorpe. A tallish, bony man, somewhat
uncertain at his knees and rounded of shoulder, with a sharp, thin face,
a weak chin, and a bit of sandy whisker cropping out in front of each
over-large ear, he looked almost pathetically desolate as he stood on the
platform, mechanically feeling in one pocket after another in the effort
to find his ticket. His attire gave no force to his naturally colourless
personality.' Having been on a visit to his relations he had worn his
best clothes--garments rarely brought out of the chest which had been
their place of repose for several years. The sleeves of the black coat
were too short, and exposed the prominent, fleshless bones of the
wearer's wrists; the legs of the grey trousers had been shortened by much
creasing and bagging at the knees, and revealed the rough grey stockings
which terminated in unpolished lace-up boots; the waistcoat, loose and
baggy, was crossed by a steel watch-chain, bought in youth, a great
bargain, at some forgotten statute-hiring fair. A much frayed collar,
dirty and crumpled by its two days' wearing, and at least a size too
small for the neckband of the coarse shirt on which it had with
difficulty been fastened, formed a striking contrast to the gaudy necktie
of blue satin, which was wound about it and had worked itself out of
place until its knot lay beneath the wearer's left ear. The necktie, like
the watch-chain, was the result of a visit to some fair or other; it
expressed Perris almost as eloquently as the useless switch of ashplant
which he carried aimlessly in his great raw hand--a switch that was of no
use for anything in a pedestrian's hand but to snick off the heads of the
flowers and weeds by the wayside.

Perris was the only person who left the train; a solitary porter was the
only person who emerged from the station buildings to greet and speed it.
The train went on slowly, and Pen-is made for the exit at the end of the
platform with equal leisureliness. He found and gave up his ticket, and
went out on the high-road. Opposite the station stood a wayside inn,
meagre and poor of aspect, but dignified with the title of Railway Hotel;
Perris, having moved a few yards in the homeward direction, paused and
looked at its open door uncertainly. His feet began to shuffle towards
it; eventually he crossed the road with shambling gait and bent head.

"I may as well take an odd glass," he muttered. "There's nowt 'twixt here
and our house, and it's a good four mile."

The parlour into which he turned on entering the inn was close and heavy
with the smell of rank tobacco and stale beer. Sawdust, strewn about
three days before, and now littered and foul with the accumulations
brought in from the road outside, covered the floor; the rough tables of
unpolished wood were marked with the rings made by the setting down upon
them of overflowing pots and mugs; the walls, originally washed in some
indefinite tint of yellow or drab, and now stained and discoloured by
damp and neglect, were relieved from sheer bleakness by framed
advertisements of ales and spirits, and here and there by a grocer's
fly-blown almanack. One side of the room was filled up by a bar, covered
over with zinc sheeting, out of which projected three beer-pulls standing
up like ninepins; behind it, on shelves ranged against the walls, were
displayed a few bottles of spirits, an ancient cigar-box or two, and some
rows of cloudy glasses. The whole place was down at heel and
disconsolate: Perris, however, noticed nothing of its shabbiness: his
eyes were no more offended by the squalor and the untidiness than his
nose was vexed by the unpleasant atmosphere. He sat down heavily at the
table nearest to the bar, and tapped on its surface with his ash switch.

A man emerged lazily from an inner apartment--a gross-habited, bloated
man, about whose thickly-jowled face coarse black hair grew in sparse
tufts. The silence with which he advanced to the bar was due to the fact
that although the afternoon was merging towards eventide, he still
retained the slippers into which he had thrust his feet on rising; it
needed no particular observation to see that so far he had performed no
ablutions nor made his toilet. His trousers were kept in place by a
single suspender; between them and his open waistcoat, almost destitute
of buttons and greasy from much spilling of fat meats, large rolls of
coarse linen forced themselves and suggested that he considered an
allowance of one shirt a week ample for his requirements. He wore neither
collar nor necktie: his unbuttoned shirt revealed a thick bull neck, and
beneath it a chest covered as with the pelt of an animal.

"Day," said Perris, nodding mechanically. "I'll take a drop of Irish, if
you please."

He reached up to the counter and laid a sixpenny-piece on it, and the
landlord turned to a bottle behind him and poured some of its
muddy-looking contents into a glass.

"Happen you'll take a drop o' summat yourself, like?" suggested Perris
generously.

"Well, I'll just take a twopennorth o' gin," replied the landlord,
helping himself from another bottle. "Here's my best respects."

"Best respects," murmured Perris. He picked up the penny which the
landlord pushed across the counter, and dropped it into his pocket.
"Quietish about here, isn't it?" he said.

The landlord leaned across the counter and stroked his sparse beard.

"Aye, there's naught much doing," he said. "This place is over far out o'
the village, and them as comes by train doesn't turn in here very oft.
It's naught to me--I was only put in to manage it, like: it's a tied
house. Which way might you be going?"

"Nay, I come fro' Martinsthorpe yonder," answered Perris, nodding his
head towards the south. "Least-ways, fro' Cherry-trees Farm--I been
farming there this last two year. I don't oft come this way--it isn't in
my direction for anywhere."

"How's things out your way, like?" asked the landlord.

"Middlin', middlin'," answered Perris, tapping his switch on the floor.
"There's naught much to be made at it. It's naught but scrattin' a livin'
out o' t' land."

"Why, it's summat to do that," observed the landlord. "There's some as
can't scrat that much. And there's some as can. I'll lay yon neighbour o'
yours at Martinsthorpe Limepits scrats more nor a livin'."

"Mestur Taffendale?" said Perris, looking up. "Ah, yes, but he were one
o' them 'at's born wi' silver spoons i' their mouths, accordin' to what I
understand. Yes, I understand that he's part brass, has Mestur
Taffendale."

The landlord held out his hand for Perris's glass and replenished it and
his own.

"Aye, he has so!" he observed. "And them that has aught, always gets more
to put to it. I'll lay Taffendale could buy up all t' farmers i'
Martinsthorpe."

Perris sipped his whisky and laughed feebly and foolishly.

"I'll lay he could buy me up!" he said. "It's our rent-day next week, and
I'm sure a body's hard put to it to raise t' rent nowadays. There'll have
to be some reductions or abatements, or summat, or else us little farmers
'll be sore tried."

The landlord made no reply to these remarks. He glanced the caller up and
down, and drew his own conclusions. And Perris presently drank off his
whisky, and rising to his feet looked indefinitely about him.

"Well, I must be off," he said. "It's four mile to my place. I think I'll
take a sup o' whisky in a bottle, like, as there's no callin' place on t'
way."

"Shillingsworth?" asked the landlord.

"Aye, shillingsworth or eighteenpennorth, it makes no difference,"
replied Perris, fumbling in his pocket and producing a florin. "Here,
there's two shilling--make it eighteenpennorth, and we'll have another
glass out o' t' change. And there's another penny, and I'll have a
twopenny smoke."

With a rank cigar between his teeth, and a small bottle of bad whisky in
the tail of his coat, Perris set out homeward along the highway. He had
pushed his last coin across the zinc-covered counter, and his purse and
pockets were now empty, yet he laughed as he shambled on beneath the
wayside trees and the high hedgerows, carelessly swishing at weed or
flower with his ashplant. But when he had gone a mile he paused, and
leaning over a gate he drew out and took a long pull at his bottle and
shook his head.

"I mun tell Rhoda how things is," he muttered. "She's a sharp un, is
Rhoda; she'll happen be able to make out a bit. She might be for sellin'
t' cows, and very like she's gotten a bit put away out o' them cocks and
hens--women contrives to save a shillin' or two here and there where us
men can't. Aye, I mun hev' a word or two wi' Rhoda."

Rhoda was alone when Perris came slowly in at the side gate and shambled
along the cobble-paved path which lay between the fold and the house. He
had drunk all his whisky and had thrown away the bottle, but the stump of
his twopenny cigar still remained between his teeth, and he smiled weakly
around it as he turned the door.

"I've corned, ye see, my lass," he said, dropping into the nearest chair.
"Aye, and I didn't aim at gettin' back till to-morrow, but there were
naught no more to do over yonder, so I thought I might as well be
steppin', like. I could do wi' a bit o' supper, Rhoda, my lass."

Rhoda, who had got rid of Pippany, and having just seen Tibby Graddige
depart, was trying to reduce the untidy house-place to something like
order, turned from the hearth, looking at her husband with anything but a
friendly glance. She instinctively compared his careless and forlorn
appearance, his weak and fatuous face, with the vastly different
impression which Mark Taffendale had left upon her, and she was suddenly
conscious of an intense dislike, a fierce loathing of something which was
not exactly Abel Perris, but with which he was somehow inextricably mixed
up. Her glance lighted on the bright blue satin necktie, and she felt an
almost insane impulse to snatch it from Perris's long, thin neck and
stamp on it.

"How do you expect me to have any supper ready, or likely to be ready,
when I didn't know you were coming?" she exclaimed. "You should come home
when you say you're coming--there isn't so much as even a bone in the
larder--yon there Pippany finished up what there was for his supper."

Perris, who was making vain attempts to relight the sucked and soddened
stump of his cigar, looked up to where the shrunk shank of what had been
a ham dangled from the rafters. There was little flesh left on it, but
from the adjacent hooks hung a respectable piece of a flitch of bacon.

"Ye could fry a bit o' that bacon, my lass," he suggested. "And happen a
egg or two wi' it."

"I can't spare any eggs," said Rhoda. "I want all the eggs I have for
market. And if you must have some tea, you'd better go and fill that
kettle. I wish you'd stopped away till to-morrow."

Perris took the kettle out to the pump, filled it, came back and placed
it on the fire, and having reseated himself again tried to induce the
cigar to burn.

"I didn't see no use i' stoppin' away when I'd done mi business," he
remarked suddenly. "When business is done, it is done, and so there's an
end on 't."

"And I hope you did whatever it was you set off to do," said Rhoda, who,
mounted on a chair, was cutting slices off the flitch of bacon and
tossing them into the frying-pan which she had placed on top of the oven.
"And if it's aught to do with money I hope you've brought some home, for
if ever there was a place where it was wanted, this is it! There was Mr.
Taffendale here this afternoon, and I'm sure I was fair ashamed that he
should see such a starved looking hole!"

Perris looked up with a faint gleam in his pale grey eyes.

"What might Mestur Taffendale be wantin' on my premises?" he asked.

"Your premises? Lord, you talk as if the place was a castle or a hall!"
exclaimed Rhoda. "What did he want? Why, yon fool of a Pippany Webster
pulled that old clover stack over on himself, and Mr. Taffendale happened
to be passing, and helped Tibby Graddige to carry him in here--he'd have
been suffocated if it hadn't been for Mr. Taffendale."

Perris slowly rose, and going to the door craned his long neck in the
direction of the orchard.

"Ah, I see t' clover stack's down," he said, coming back. "Did he bre'k
any bones, Pippany?"

"No, he didn't break any bones, nor his neck neither," replied Rhoda. "A
good job if he had--idle good-for-naught! He'd been down at the Dancing
Bear all the afternoon. It's worse nor a puzzle to me that you keep such
a shiftless gawpy about the place. Why don't you go and clean yourself?"
she suddenly burst out, turning upon him from the fire, where she was
endeavouring to accommodate both kettle and frying-pan. "You look as if
you'd never been washed since you went out of that door. And for
goodness' sake take that necktie off--you look like one of those country
joskins that's used to naught decent."

"Mi Aunt Maria, over yonder, thought it were a very fine tie," said
Perris, unconsciously fingering the adornment. "She remarked that it
were, as soon as ever she set eyes on it."

"Then your Aunt Maria's a fool!" remarked Rhoda. "Go and wash yourself,
do!"

Perris went into a scullery beyond the house-place; when he returned, the
dirty, crumpled collar and the blue necktie had disappeared, and his face
shone with brown soap, and his neutral-tinted, damp hair was smoothly
plastered over his forehead. He hung up his coat on a peg that projected
from the end of the tall dresser, and sat down in his shirt-sleeves.
Rhoda had cleared a place for him at the deal table, and had set out a
cup and saucer, a plate, and bread on the hare board. While the bacon
frizzled in the pan she folded the damp clothes which lay piled about,
sorting them into heaps against the morrow's ironing.

"And what did you go away for?" she asked suddenly, glaring at Perris,
who sat awaiting his supper, with his hands folded under his baggy
waistcoat.

"I weern't talk no business till I've had mi supper," he answered. "I've
had neither bite nor sup since I left yon place, and I'm none goin' to
talk business on an empty belly."

Rhoda gave him another swift glance.

"You mayn't have bitten, but you'll none make me believe you haven't
supped," she retorted. "You were stinking of spirits when you came in."

"That's neither here nor there," said Perris. "I might have taken an odd
glass or two on t' way--all travellers does that. But I want summat to
eat, and I'll none talk till I've had it."

Rhoda gave no further attention to him. When the bacon was cooked she set
it before him, made him a pot of tea, and went on with her work. In the
silence that ensued she was increasingly conscious of a growing dislike
to her husband's presence; it seemed to her that the mere fact of his
being there was setting up in her some sort of nausea which she could not
explain. And once more she thought of Mark Taffendale, of his good
clothes, his fine linen, his suggestion of power and prosperity and
money, and a certain uneasiness grew and stirred to increasing activity
within her.

Perris ate up every scrap of the food which his wife had set before him,
and finished his supper by cleaning the grease off his plate with a piece
of bread, which he then swallowed with evident satisfaction. He turned
his chair to the fire with a grunt of animal contentment, and proceeded
to light his pipe. Rhoda whisked away the earthenware he had used into
the scullery, and washed it up; having come back to the house-place she
silently went on with her work amongst the clothes. For a time Perris sat
and smoked, silent as she was, but at last, after some preliminary
scraping of his feet and clearing of his throat, he addressed her.

"There's a matter that I think we'd best have a bit o' talk about, Rhoda,
my lass," he said diffidently. "It's gotten to be talked about some time
or other, and we may as well table it and have done wi' it."

"Well?" she said.

"Ye're aware, my lass, ye're aware that the rent-day's close at hand,"
continued Perris. "Early next week it is."

"Well?" she said again.

"Aye, well, the fact is, my lass, that I'm not ready for it," he said.
"I've nowt i' hand!"

Rhoda put down the garment which she was just then folding and looked
round at her husband.

"You don't mean to say that you can't pay your rent?" she demanded in
sharp tones.

"I've nowt i' hand," Perris repeated stolidly. "Nowt! Times has been that
there bad that I haven't been able to make no provision. It made a deal
o' difference to me losing that young horse last back-end, and ye know as
well as I do, my lass, that I made nowt out o' what bit o' stuff I had to
sell all winter. No, I've nowt i' hand for no rent-days."

Rhoda was still standing idle, still gazing at him as if she scarcely
comprehended what he was telling her.

"What did you go away for?" she asked suddenly. Perris shook his head.

"I went to see if so be as I could raise t' rent money among mi
relations," he answered. "I went to see mi brother John William, and mi
Uncle George. I considered that they were t' likeliest people to make
application to, ye see, my lass. Howsomever, they could do nowt, for
times is as bad wi' them as what they are wi' me. Mi Uncle George has had
sad losses, and our John William's suffered a deal o' sickness in his
family, and now his wife's been thowtless enough to go an' have twin
bairns on t' top on it. No! they couldn't do nowt to help, howsoever
willin' they might ha' been. An' so, of course, that's where I'm
sittiwated, Rhoda."

Rhoda had neglected the contents of the clothes baskets ever since Perris
began to talk. She was leaning over the table at which he had eaten his
supper, her knuckles resting on the ledge, her body bent slightly forward
as if she wanted to meet every word that came from him. Her eyes, hard,
cold, questioning, never left his face.

"Where's the five hundred pound you said you had when we got married two
year ago?" she demanded suddenly.

Perris looked up quickly, and as quickly looked away again. He shuffled
his feet uneasily on the stone floor.

"Why, why, my lass!" he answered deprecatingly. "Five hundred pounds is
none so much to start housekeepin' and farmin' on. There were furniture
to buy and stock to buy, and there's been rent to pay, and--"

"Then it's all gone?" she said. "There's naught in the bank?"

"Aw, there's naught in t' bank," he admitted. "At least, nowt much--not
beyond a pound or two. Ye see, I've made nowt o' this farm. What I've
scratted out on it's just about kept us, my lass."

"Fine keeping!" she exclaimed scornfully. She turned to the
clothes-basket again, and began to sort out the garments with nervous,
spasmodic movements. "And what's to come if you don't pay that rent next
week?" she demanded again, pausing in her work. "What's going to happen,
I say?"

Perris shook his head.

"Nay!" he replied. "I don't know, my lass. T' steward's none over
friendly inclined, as it is. Last time he were round this way he threw
out some hints about me not having over and above much amount o' stock.
Happen he'll sell us up. There's about enough on t' place to pay t' rent,
anyway."

"And we should go out on the road--beggars!" said Rhoda.

Perris rubbed the end of his chin and stared about him.

"It's a poor game, bein' a little farmer," he observed. "I never had
enough capital, as they call it. If I had a hundred pound now I could
pull things round. But as mi Uncle George and our John William says--"

"I want to hear naught about your Uncle George nor your John William
neither!" said Rhoda. "What's going to be done! You sit there, and do
naught but talk."

"Happen I could persuade t' steward to wait a piece," suggested Perris.
"He's given other men time to pay. I can happen talk him round."

"And happen you can't! He knows as well as you do that there's naught
about the place," said Rhoda. "Where he does give time to pay, it's where
a man has something to show. You've naught to show."

Perris hung his head and blinked at the fire.

"I can sell t' beasts and t' pigs," he said. "That 'ud make summat
towards t' rent."

"And leave the place barer than what it is! You'll not do aught of the
sort. What's wanted," Rhoda continued, "isn't taking stuff off this
place, but putting stuff on."

"I could soon put some stuff on if I'd brass to do it with," said Perris.
"But I've never had no luck. I expect ye haven't a bit o' money put aside
out o' them cocks and hens, my lass?"

Rhoda darted a look at him which made him shrink instinctively into his
chair. She vouchsafed no answer to his question, but went on mechanically
folding and wrapping. Suddenly she turned on Perris and snapped out a
command.

"Off you get to bed!" she said. "If all's as bad as you say it is, you'll
have to stir yourself to-morrow, so you may as well get your rest. It's
past nine o'clock now."

Perris obeyed this order at once. He slipped off his boots and lumbered
heavily up the chamber stairs. Hours after he had gone his wife worked at
her task, her face clouded and her eyes sombre with thought. It was near
midnight when she turned out the lamp, wrapped herself up, fully dressed,
in an old rug, and lying down on the settle, fell instantly fast asleep.


III


Rhoda wasted no words on her husband next morning until he had finished
his breakfast, which meal he took in company with Pippany Webster,
sitting at the same table, and making no distinction or difference
between his man and himself. But that over, she drove Pippany out of the
house-place with a look and a word, and turned on Perris, who, if she had
not been between himself and the door, would have slipped away and
escaped her for the rest of the morning.

"Now, then, what're you going to do?" she demanded.

Perris looked at her furtively.

"Why, there's a bit o' fencin' wants attendin' to away i' yon five-acre,"
he answered. "I were thinking that you could happen give as a bit o'
dinner to carry along wi' us, and then we'd make a full day's job on it."

"You'll get your dinner here, and at the proper time," said Rhoda. "And
you answer my question. I say--what're you going to do?"

"Do about what, then?" Perris asked sullenly.

"This rent. You're got to do something," she said. "I'm not going to be
turned out like a beggar, if you are!"

"There's nowt that I can do," replied Perris, scratching his head.
"Leastways, not to-day. I might sell them beasts and pigs to-morrow when
I go to market, but--"

"You'll sell neither beasts nor yet pigs," declared Rhoda. "You're the
sort that 'ud sell fifty pounds of stuff for twenty. You don't take a
thing off this place!"

Perris muttered, and scratched his head again.

"Have it yer own way!" he said. "Have it yer own way, my lass!"

"I wish I had had it my own way!" she retorted. "We shouldn't have been
in this mess. Just you listen to me, Abel Perris! As like as not, the
steward 'll be turning up here on Monday morning, first thing, just as he
did last year. What's this place look like for him to peep and spy about
in? Now then, you and that there Pippany set to work and put things to
rights, and if you want your dinners at noon, and your suppers at six
o'clock, mind you've something to show for 'em! I know what wants doing,
and I know how much two of you can do, and if you haven't done what you
ought to have done by twelve o'clock there'll be no dinner on this table.
So now you know."

Perris shambled out, muttering comments on his own folly in telling his
affairs to a woman.

"You can grumble and chunter as much as you like," Rhoda called after
him, "but there 'll be neither bite nor sup, when dinner-time comes, if
all them buildings aren't straight and this fold tidied up. There 'll be
plenty for you to do to earn your supper after that."

Perris murmured, but made instant preparation for obedience. He knew that
Rhoda would be as good as her word; he also knew that she was right in
what she said. The steward had a nasty habit of descending upon the
smaller tenants when he came on his half-yearly visits, and when he did
make such a descent the poked his long nose into every corner of
farmstead and field. Perris felt himself to be an inject of suspicion
already, and he knew that the steward would have no mercy upon him if he
found things going to rack and ruin. He summoned Pippany from a lazy
contemplation of the pigs, and entered unwillingly upon a day of hard
work. By noon the buildings had been tidied up and made presentable;
Rhoda came out from her ironing and looked them over; her approval was
manifested in the fact that she gave each man a pint of ale with his
dinner of boiled bacon. Experience had taught her to preserve the key of
the barrel in her own possession, and Perris had known all the morning
that there would be no beer unless her commands were obeyed. Similar
conclusions made him and Pippany toil hard all the afternoon. By
supper-time a great change had come over the place: Perris, indulging a
certain foolish optimisim which was ingrained in him, felt it to be a
pity that the steward could not drive up at that moment.

Rhoda, having accomplished a long day's ironing, gave master and man
their suppers and disappeared upstairs. When she came down again she was
wearing her Sunday finery, and Perris, stretching his legs before the
fire, stared at her.

"Aw, where 're ye goin', mi lass?" he inquired.

"Going?--I'm going to chapel, of course," answered Rhoda. "Isn't it the
monthly week-night service?"

"Nay, I didn't know," said Perris. "Well, I weern't offer to accompany
yer, my lass--I'll just bide at home and smoke mi pipe. I'm over tired to
go chappillin' when I've done mi day's labour but of course them 'at's
religious is different."

Rhoda made no reply. She opened the top drawer of the old bureau which
stood in one corner of the house-place and took out a hymn-book and a
handkerchief. From a gaily-decorated bottle she sprinkled a few drops of
cheap scent on the handkerchief; carrying it and the hymn-book in her
left hand, and taking her ivory-handled umbrella in her right, she went
off without further word to her husband. The key of the beer-barrel was
in her pocket; the last drop of whisky had been wasted in restoring
Pippany Webster to consciousness; she had made herself assured that
Perris had no money on him, and therefore could not visit the Dancing
Bear. Accordingly, he could come to little harm during her absence at the
religious exercises which she made a point of never missing.

In addition to her charm of face and figure, Perris's young wife
possessed a fine voice, of the quality of which she was by no means
unconscious. If she had been less gifted she would have attended the
parish church, but the church possessed a surpliced choir of men and
boys, and had no need for a particularly strong soprano; and, moreover,
anything beyond the most modest congregational singing was not much
desired by its authorities. This sent Rhoda, who had no idea of allowing
her talents to go unused, to the Methodists. These good people, a little
time before the coming of Perris and his wife to Cherry-trees, had bought
a second-hand American organ for their chapel, and had consequently
turned their attention to something better in the way of music than they
had previously attempted. They welcomed Rhoda with great enthusiasm, and
immediately installed her as leader of the choir. It would have been
difficult, indeed, to make her anything else, for her voice was strong
and clear, and she led and controlled the hymn-singing in more senses
than one. On summer evenings, when the doors of the chapel stood open,
her powerful notes were heard far across the meadows outside, and the
non-religious part of the surrounding population lounged over garden
gates, or sat on the edge of the causeway, to listen with surprise and
pleasure.

Whatever might be going on at home, Rhoda never missed any of the chapel
services or the weekly choir-practices. She had come to be sovereign
mistress of the young men, maidens, and children who sat with her in the
singing-pew beneath the pulpit, and though the ministers and preachers
chose the hymns, it was Rhoda who settled upon the particular tunes to
which they should be sung. Consequently she was something of a power, and
had already begun to consider the chapel in the same light in which an
opera-house is viewed by a prima-donna who sings in it season after
season. The heads of the little congregation deferred to her in
everything relating to the musical part of the services; the young man
who walked out from the market-town to play the American organ, and who
cultivated his hair after the fashion of a plaster cast of Beethoven
which he had purchased from an itinerant vendor of busts, worshipped her,
and presented her every Sunday afternoon with a paper of strong mint
lozenges, to be consumed during the sermon. These attendances at the
chapel were therefore Rhoda's sole diversion in an otherwise grey and
colourless life; she would not have missed one of them for any reason
whatever, and she was always in her place winter and summer, fair weather
or foul.

But on this particular evening Rhoda had an additional reason for going
down to the chapel. On one night of the month one of the regular
ministers came to preach; the minister for that night was an old man who
had a reputation for prudence and sagacity; she wanted to ask his counsel
and advice on the difficulty in which Perris by his incompetence had
placed his wife and himself. All through the service she was scheming and
planning as to what might be done; of the sermon she heard nothing; she
sang the hymns mechanically. And when the service was over and the
congregation had departed she curtly dismissed the organist, who usually
walked with her as far as the Dancing Bear on their homeward way, and
following the old minister into the little vestry, she asked for an
interview with him. With a plainness and directness which made him regard
her as an eminently business-like and practical young woman, she put the
situation before him.

"You see, Mr. Marriner," she concluded, "it's this way. Abel, he's not a
bad farmer, but he's weak and shiftless, and if things begin going wrong
he loses heart and then he goes from bad to worse. I'm sorry to say I've
little good opinion of him as a manager for himself. But I know what I
can do. If I'd a bit of money I'd manage that place myself, and I'd make
him work. I'd manage it, and I'd manage him--I've managed him to-day to
some purpose, I'll warrant you, Mr. Marriner! I'm none going to stand by
and see everything go to naught but failure if I can help it. But the
thing is--where am I to find the money? My poor father's a big family of
his own, and it's all he can do to keep it--he can't do aught for me.
What would you advise, now, Mr. Marriner?"

The old minister, who had a sufficient knowledge of Abel Perris to make
him aware that in this case the grey mare was much the better horse,
considered matters for a few minutes.

"Well, Mrs. Perris," he said at last. "I dare say there are plenty of
people who would lend you money in preference to lending it to your
husband. Now, supposing you could get money and pull things round, do you
think you could manage him?"

Rhoda drew her fine eyebrows together, and screwed up her eyes, and Mr.
Marriner gained a new impression of her. He laughed softly, nodding his
head.

"I see--I see!" he said. "Well, now, aren't there any of your neighbours
that would help? I understand that some of the big farmers hereabouts are
pretty well to do--some of them very well to do. Can't you think of one
of them?"

A sudden hot flush burned into Rhoda's cheeks. She was quick to make
excuse for it.

"I don't like the idea of going cap in hand, as they say, to neighbours,
Mr. Marriner," she said. "I've never been used to asking favours, though
I came of poor folks. And I don't know any of the big farmers hereabouts;
they look upon us little farmers as so much dirt beneath their feet! I've
never spoken to one of them--except to Mr. Taffendale."

"Why, Mr. Taffendale's the very man!" said the old minister. "I know him
to be a wealthy man. He's on a committee of which I'm a member, so I meet
him now and then. I'll tell you what I'll do, Mrs. Perris, if you like.
I'll write him a note, saying that you've told me your troubles, and that
I'm sure he won't be disappointed if he helps you. How would that be?"

"Thanking you kindly, Mr. Marriner, it would be a good help," Rhoda
answered. "I should feel less what you might call ashamed and frightened
about it if I had some writing of yours to show."

"All right, all right!" said the old man. "I'll write it now. I think
you'll find Mr. Taffendale a likely man to apply to. Tell him all you've
told me; let him see you mean business. He'll see then, I'm sure, that
you know what you're talking about."

"Oh, I know what I'm talking about, Mr. Marriner!" said Rhoda, with quiet
confidence. "I don't talk for talking's sake. And I know what I can do if
I set out to do it."

Ten minutes later, when the old minister had mounted his horse and ridden
away, Rhoda, holding the note which he had given her, stood in the
darkness outside the chapel, thinking. Once she turned in the homeward
direction, only to pause before she had taken many steps. And after the
pause she suddenly turned in the other direction and began to walk
rapidly down the village street, already deserted and quiet.

"Since it's got to be done, I'll do it now," she muttered to herself.
"I'll do it, and get it over."

Martinsthorpe was a long, straggling village lying in a valley which ran
from east to west. It was divided into two halves by a high-road running
north and south, and transecting the one street at the point where the
Dancing Bear looked down from his swinging sign upon the cross-roads
formed by the intersection. In the western half of the village stood the
church, the school, the principal farmsteads, and the great house of the
place; in the eastern there was nothing more pretentious in the way of
human habitation than the smithy, the carpenter's shop, a general store
kept by an old woman, various clusters of labourers' cottages, and the
little chapel. Beyond lay open and uninhabited country which stretched,
wood, meadow and arable land, for many a mile before the next village
showed itself through its ring of ash and elm. But just beyond the chapel
a footpath ran across the valley and up the hillside in the direction of
the Limepits, Taffendale's place on the uplands, and this Rhoda took, and
followed with swift steps. Having made up her mind on the question
which--in spite of her silence upon it during her conversation with the
old minister--had been agitating it all day, she was resolved on a plan
of action, and she went with firmness and resolution to its first
beginnings.

The great stretch of flat land on which the Lime-pits Farm stood like
some giant ship in the midst of an otherwise lonely sea, was silent
almost to oppression as Rhoda passed across it in the dusky night. Long
before she reached it she saw the gaunt farmstead outlined against the
stars. Something in its vast solidity, its bulky mass of house and
outhouse, barn and granary gave her a curious sense of power, wealth,
security--it seemed to typify Taffendale and his money. And as she drew
nearer the sense deepened, for opposite the farm lay the famous limepits,
from which the bulk of that money was drawn, and from the burning pits a
dull glow of fiery red was rising to the night. She stood for a moment
between the two sources of wealth which were in this one man's control,
and she felt the glow of the burning pits play over her face, and caught
the pungent odour of the lime in her nostrils. Then, with a quick
catching of her breath she turned boldly to the farmhouse and knocked
firmly at its door.


IV


Taffendale, always a man of action, and supremely interested in his
numerous affairs, had been out and about during the whole of a long day.
From an early hour of the morning until close upon noon he had been
busied with the demands made upon him by his farm and his lime quarry;
after dinner he had galloped into the market-town to attend the weekly
auction sale, and had subsequently gone to a special meeting of the Board
of Guardians; on his return home he had had his correspondence to deal
with; his early supper over, he had given two hours to his account books.
And when Rhoda's knock sounded at his door, he had just put on his
slippers, lighted his pipe, mixed himself a glass of whisky-and-water,
and was about to spend a quiet hour over the newspaper before going to
bed. That last hour at night, he was accustomed to say, was the only one
he ever really got to himself.

The sound of the firm, decisive knock, reverberating through the
stone-walled passages of the big house, caused Taffendale to take his
pipe out of his mouth and to look vaguely around him. His farmstead was
so isolated in the midst of the lonely land, so far away from any other
habitation and from the nearest high-road, that it was a rare thing for
any person to come there at any time except by invitation or on business;
that any one should call there at such a late hour of the night was
something quite out of the common. He sat for a moment wondering if he
had heard aright; then he remembered that his housekeeper and servants
always went to bed at nine o'clock, and that there was no one to answer
this unusual summons. With the unwillingness of a man who dislikes
disturbance all the more because its cause is unknown to him, Taffendale
slowly raised himself out of his chair and went down the hall to open the
front door. In the light of the swinging lamp he recognised Rhoda Perris.
The rustic porch in which she stood made a sort of setting and frame
around her; behind her the red glow of the burning lime-kilns, across the
garden and the road, conspired with the deep blue of the night to form a
background to her figure and to the warm tint of her hair. Taffendale
felt himself start at the unexpected sight of her.

"Mrs.--Mrs. Perris?" he said questioningly.

"Good evening, Mr. Taffendale," she replied in tones which were curiously
suggestive of timidity and yet of assurance. "You'll excuse me for
calling at a time like this, but can I have a word with you?"

Taffendale stood aside and motioned her to enter.

"Come in--come in!" he said. "Yes--yes; certainly, Mrs. Perris."

Closing the door, he led the way back to his sitting-room, wondering
greatly what had brought Perris's wife there. No reason for her visit
suggested itself to him; he was still speculating about it in a vague,
indefinite fashion when he led her into the room and pushed forward the
easy-chair from which he had just risen. And as Rhoda took it he plunged
his hands deep into the pockets of the riding-breeches in which he had
been going about all day, and had been too busy to take off before his
supper, according to his usual practice, and stood looking down at her
with the doubtful expression of a puzzled man. As he looked, the
consciousness of the woman's attractive and compelling femininity forced
itself upon him; he felt, rather than saw, the healthy glow of her
cheeks, reddened by the rush of the wind across the uplands over which
she had walked, and the clearness of her grey eyes and the warmth of her
hair, and something stirred within himself and troubled him. He withdrew
one hand from a pocket and rubbed his chin as if in perplexity.

"It's--it's rather cold to-night," he said suddenly. "It--it turns cold
of a night. Will you take anything, Mrs. Perris?"

He glanced at the spirit-case which stood on the table, and he made a
move towards it with the zest of a man who finds relief from
embarrassment in action.

Rhoda raised her head and shook it.

"Oh, no, thanking you kindly, Mr. Taffendale," she hastened to say. "I
never touch spirits."

"A glass of wine, then," said Taffendale. "Come--a glass of port won't do
you any harm. And if you're afraid of drinking it without eating, there's
a cake somewhere. My housekeeper's gone to bed, but I know there's always
a plum-cake at hand."

He had turned to a sideboard as he spoke, and had begun fumbling about in
one of its recesses. Rhoda made no answer to this second invitation
except to murmur something inarticulate which might be taken as
acquiescent; she sat in front of the blazing fire, instinctively
appreciative of its warmth and cheeriness. And Taffendale's back being
now turned, she glanced round about her with swift comprehension of the
details of her host's surroundings. She was quick to notice the comfort
and even luxury upon which she had entered out of the night; her woman's
eyes realised the significance of the fine old furniture, the thick
carpet, the silver and glass on the sideboard, the family portraits on
the walls, the books and papers, the little evidences of the possession
of money in plenty. And as swiftly as she took all this in, she
visualised with equal swiftness her recollection of her own house-place
at Cherry-trees--poverty-stricken, cheerless, and Abel Perris, unkempt,
toil-stained, sitting, hands crossed on stomach, and heavy with sleep,
before a dying fire in a badly-polished grate.

"Aye, here it is," said Taffendale, turning to the table and setting upon
it a plum-cake which stood in a silver basket. "My housekeeper prides
herself on her cakes, Mrs. Perris. Now you'll take a glass of port--it'll
do you no harm after your walk."

Rhoda let him help her without further demur on her part; it was a long
time since anybody had offered her hospitality, or waited upon her. She
crumbled a piece of the cake and sipped at the red wine, and Taffendale,
feeling less embarrassed, drank off his whisky and mixed himself another
glass. He was still wondering why the woman had come to see him, but no
explanation of her presence suggested itself to him.

"How's that man of yours?" he asked suddenly. "Any the worse?"

Rhoda shook her head.

"No, he's no worse, Mr. Taffendale, thank you," she answered. "He's done
his work to-day." Taffendale laughed gently.

"I should think Pippany Webster's day's work isn't worth much," he said.
"He was always a shammocking sort." Rhoda nodded.

"He isn't worth what little he gets," she answered. "But--"

She paused suddenly and looked up from the plate on her knee to gaze with
resolute steadiness at her host, who had taken a chair on the other side
of the hearth, and had re-lighted the pipe which he had laid down on her
entrance.

"Mr. Taffendale," she said, "you're wondering what I came for?"

Taffendale, surprised by the directness of her look and tone, nodded.

"Just so," he answered, with equal directness, "I am."

Rhoda put the tip of a finger on a crumb and began to move it round and
round the rim of the plate.

"I always believe in saying things straight out," she said, after a brief
pause. "The truth is, Mr. Taffendale, I've come to see if you'll lend me
some money."

Taffendale's brows knitted, but Rhoda was quick to see that the
alteration arose not from resentment but from surprise.

"Oh!" he said. "Why, what is it? What's it all about? Of course, I
couldn't think why you'd called."

"No," she said. "Of course, you couldn't, Mr. Taffendale. Well, you see,
it's this, to put it shortly. Perris, he hasn't the money for the rent."

Taffendale smiled quietly.

"Did he send you?" he asked.

"No," she answered quickly. "No, he didn't, Mr. Taffendale. Perris
doesn't know that I'm here. I'm not asking you to help him--I'm asking
you to help me. I wouldn't ask anybody to help Perris. He's--he's--well,
he's not fit to be trusted with money."

Taffendale frowned, and began to rub his chin with the back of his
hand--a habit of his when he was puzzled.

"Make it clear, Mrs. Perris," he said. "Take your time, but make it
clear."

Rhoda put her plate on the table and faced her host.

"Well, it's like this, Mr. Taffendale," she said. "I'll make it as clear
as I can. You see, when we came there to Cherry-trees, two years ago,
Perris and me had just been married, and he said he'd five hundred
pounds, and he could do well on that bit of farm, and of course I
believed him. But it didn't take so long to see that he wasn't doing
well--I knew that plain enough, because I come of farming folk. All the
same, I never knew that he was doing as badly as it turns out he was. I
thought he'd some--a good deal--of that five hundred pounds left in the
bank. Then the other day he went off, saying that he'd business with some
of his relations, and last night, after you'd gone away, he came home,
and he out with the truth. He'd been to try to borrow money for the rent,
and he couldn't borrow it, and he's naught but a pound or two in the
bank. That's where it is, Mr. Taffendale."

"Aye," said Taffendale. "Aye--I see. And the rent-day's early next week."

"And the rent-day's early next week," repeated Rhoda. "And what's more,
Mr. Taffendale, the steward 'll have no mercy on Perris. You saw what
there was about the place."

Taffendale laughed softly and nodded.

"I saw," he said. "Um! And if I did lend you the money for the rent, Mrs.
Perris, you'd be no better off than before. You'd--"

Rhoda interrupted him with a quick turn of her head.

"Wait a bit, Mr. Taffendale," she exclaimed. "I said I'd ask you to lend
the money to me, not to Perris. I've considered matters. I've been
considering all day long. I've talked matters over with Mr. Marriner, the
minister. It was Mr. Marriner advised me to come to you. He wrote me this
letter to give to you. Perhaps you'll read it, Mr. Taffendale."
Taffendale took the note which Rhoda held out to him, and read its
contents carelessly.

"Yes," he said, laying the note on the table, "I know Mr. Marriner, of
course. But supposing I lend you this money, Mrs. Perris, what are you
going to do afterwards?--after the rent-day, I mean?"

Rhoda involuntarily straightened her figure, and Taffendale, covertly
watching her, gained an impression of strength and purpose.

"Do?" she exclaimed. "Do? I know what I'd do, Mr. Taffendale. I'd keep a
tight hand on Perris. I said--I've been considering matters all day, and
I've explained my notions to Mr. Marriner. That Cherry-trees farm can be
made to pay, and I can make it pay--if only I'm master! If I'd had the
management of the money it would have been paying now, and there'd have
been no need to ask help from anybody. Once let me get that rent paid,
and perhaps have a bit of money to go on with, and then I shall have
Perris under my thumb, and there I'll keep him. Oh, he's a good farmer,
and a good worker, is Perris, so long as he's made to work, and I can
make him. I made him work like a nigger to-day, I can assure you, Mr.
Taffendale."

Taffendale laughed delightedly. His neighbour's wife was beginning to
amuse, as well as interest, him.

"How?" he asked.

"I told him if there wasn't so much work done by dinner-time there'd be
no dinner," answered Rhoda, with a flash of her grey eyes and her white
teeth; "and if there wasn't so much more done by supper-time there'd be
no supper. He worked right enough, did Perris, after that, for he knew I
meant what I said. But that's Perris all over. He wants a master. Let me
get the chance, and I'll master him: I'll keep him at it till he's made
that farm pay, or I'll know why. He's weak, is Perris, and he's let
things slide, and I was that silly that I didn't see how it was all
going. But I see now, and I see how I can right 'em. It's never too late
to mend, Mr. Taffendale."

Taffendale laughed again. He had risen from his chair, and, hands plunged
in his breeches pockets, was standing at an angle of the fire-place,
looking down at his visitor with the amused eyes of a man to whom
something new and entertaining is presented. And suddenly he blurted out
the thought that was in his mind.

"However came a woman like you to marry a man like Perris?" he exclaimed.
"How was it?"

Rhoda looked quickly up and met his inquiring gaze with eyes of childlike
candour.

"Well, you see, Mr. Taffendale, it was like this," she answered. "My poor
father, he had the foolishness to have a very big family--there's eleven
of us, all alive, and I was the eldest of the lot. And he's naught but a
little farmer, and, as you know, Mr. Taffendale, little farmers is sore
put to it to make ends meet, and to scratch a living, at the best of
times; and, of course, when there's a family as big as that you can guess
what it's like--shameful, I call it, for folk to have such families!
However, that's neither here nor there--eleven of us there was, and eight
of us girls, which made it all the worse; and, of course, it was about
all we could do to scrape along And then when I grew up it came to it
that the older ones had to go out to work. And what can such-like as we
do, Mr. Taffendale? We never had any education, except such as there was
at the village school, so there was naught for it but going to service.
Well, I was in service at the Squire's for three or four years, and I
didn't like it because I wanted to be my own mistress--I've a good deal
of pride about me, Mr. Taffendale. And then when I was nineteen, Perris
yonder came along, and he said he'd taken this Cherry-trees farm at
Martinsthorpe here, and he'd five hundred pounds in the bank, and he
wanted a wife, and--and so, well, I married him, Mr. Taffendale. That's
how it was."

Taffendale, who had watched Rhoda closely while she gave him this history
of her career, nodded his head.

"Aye, I see, I see," he said. "You've never had any children?"

Rhoda, who had kept her eyes fixed on his while she talked, turned them
swiftly away, and he saw a curious flicker play for an instant around the
corner of her lips.

"No," she answered quietly. "We've had no children, Mr. Taffendale."

Taffendale took his hands out of his pockets and his pipe out of his
mouth, and moved across the room to an old bureau which stood, filled
with books and papers, in one corner. He sat down, turning the papers
over.

"Let's see, Mrs. Perris," he said. "How many acres is that Cherry-tree
farm?"

"It's sixty-seven acres, Mr. Taffendale," answered Rhoda.

"And what's the rent?" he asked. "I used to know, but I've forgotten."

"It's twenty-six shillings an acre, Mr. Taffendale," she replied.

Taffendale made a rapid calculation.

"Eighty-seven pounds, two shillings a year," he said presently. "And
there's how much rent owing, Mrs. Perris?"

"Only half a year's, Mr. Taffendale," she answered. "This last half-year.
All's clear up to then. And, what's more, I made sure to-day that there's
naught else owing."

Taffendale turned his back upon her, and for the next minute or two
occupied himself in writing. When he turned round again, he rose and
handed her a slip of pink paper.

"There's a hundred," he said carelessly. "Now, mind, Mrs. Perris, I'm
lending that to you, not to Perris. You'll observe I've made the cheque
out to 'cash'--you cash it yourself to-morrow when you go to market.
Give Perris the exact amount that is needed when he goes to pay his rent
at the Dancing Bear next week, and take care of the rest yourself. And
you run that place as you've told me you would, and you'll make it pay."

Rhoda stood up, trembling. Her cheeks flushed and her eyes shone, and
Taffendale suddenly grasped the fact that she was a very handsome woman.
Affecting unconcern, he picked up his glass and nodded to her.

"Here's good luck to you!" he said laughingly. "You seem a good hand at
business, Mrs. Perris." Rhoda's flushed cheeks deepened in colour.

"I don't know what to say to thank you, Mr. Taffendale," she said in a
low voice. "It's hard to find the right words, and--"

"Then don't bother to find them," Taffendale broke in. "I'm glad to help
you. There's one thing--if I were you, I should tell your husband who's
helped you. And then, perhaps, you could just have that bit of talk with
him--eh?--about pulling things round."

Rhoda's eyes flashed back her recognition of his meaning.

"Oh, I'll tell him!" she answered. "I'll tell him, Mr. Taffendale!
And--I'll talk to him. You'll see I'll straighten things up down there.
And now I'll go--and thank you, again."

"You aren't afraid of going home alone?" he asked, looking at her
narrowly.

"I'm afraid of nothing," she said quietly. "I've walked lonelier roads
than this, and later at night."

Taffendale walked down to the garden gate with her, and lingered there
for some time listening to her retreating footsteps. When at last he went
back to the parlour he looked at the chair in which his visitor had sat,
and for a moment he seemed to see her still sitting there, and the
parlour was warm and alive with the remembrance of her womanhood.


V


Perris, hearing next morning just as much as Rhoda chose that he should
hear, was conscious of only two feelings--the first, of relief at the
knowledge that the half-year's rent was going to be paid; the second, of
unbounded admiration at his wife's cleverness in raising a loan. He began
to laugh foolishly.

"Gow, but that were a rare clever notion on your part, Rhoda, my lass!"
he exclaimed, slapping his bony knees. "Ecod, I should never ha'
conceived that there notion as long as I lived! I mun express my
obligations to Mestur Taffendale when I meet him at t' rent dinner, and,
of course, we mun aim to repay him his loan as soon as we can. I expect
he'd hand yer t' amount in a cheque--what?--so I can get t cash for it
when I go t' market to-day. I'll get myself cleaned up, and be off afore
noon."

"You're going to no markets to-day," said Rhoda.

"I'm going; and I can do all that wants doing: I know what's wanted as
well as you do. What you'll do, is to stop at home, and go on with
getting this place put to rights against the steward coming round.
There's enough for you and that there Pippany Webster to do even if you
work your hardest all day long. You'll get that fencing put right in the
orchard, and there's two big gaps wants seeing to in the garth, and when
all that's done you can spend the rest of your time in the front garden.
You'll find your dinners on the oven top, and two pints of ale in a
bottle; and if you've done all you should have done by the time I get
home there'll be something extra for your supper, and maybe a drop of
whisky before you go to bed. So you get to work, and don't stand idling
there any longer!"

Perris, whose lean face had grown longer and longer during this address,
shook his head wonderingly, and began to comprehend that in some fashion
his wife had got the whip hand of him.

"Well, I never heard tell of a chap not going to market on a market-day,"
he said. "It seems summat right out o' t' common, does that there! No, I
never heard tell--"

"Well, you've heard tell now, then," exclaimed Rhoda. "And what do you
want to go to market for? You've naught to sell, and what bit of horse
corn and pig meal there is to buy I can order as well as you, and better.
You get to your work, and mind what I say, else there'll be no supper,
and no drop of whisky after it."

"Why, my, lass, why!" said Perris. "I expect ye mun have your own way.
But what about Mestur Taffendale's cheque?--'cause I expect it is a
cheque--ye'll have to--"

"Never you mind about Mr. Taffendale's cheque, nor aught else," answered
Rhoda commandingly. "It's enough for you to know that there'll be the
rent ready for you to take down to the Dancing Bear on Tuesday morning.
Off you go to your work--and mind you look after that good-for-naught
Pippany Webster!"

Perris, chiefly appealed to by the thought of the promised supper and the
drop of whisky thereafter, shambled to the door.

"Well, it's summat to know that t' rent's provided for," he said, as he
went out. "Ye mun have t' exact amount, my lass, in notes and--"

Rhoda shut the door in her husband's face, and went up to her chamber to
make herself ready for her walk to the market-town. She had little doubt
as to the effect of her warning to Perris, and when she came back late in
the afternoon she found that her orders had been faithfully carried out,
and that more than she had stipulated for had been done. And Perris had
his reward in his supper, and in one stiff glass of grog before he went
to bed, and he told Rhoda that he always knew she was clever. He
endeavoured to turn such conversation as there was between them to the
subject of Taffendale's loan, but Rhoda repulsed him whenever he did so.
She made him go twice to chapel next day, and on the Monday morning she
had him up and at work at a bright and early hour. And in the forenoon,
without any warning, the steward descended upon Cherry-trees, and looked
carefully about him, and at the end of an hour went away obviously
surprised and gratified with what he saw. He took off his hat to Rhoda
when he left, and Rhoda gave him a cool nod. The steward, who, from
information received, had fully expected that Perris would not be able to
pay his rent that half-year, smiled as he drove off in his smart
dog-cart.

"Perris 'll turn up with his money all right tomorrow," he said to
himself. "And I'll lay a pound to a penny-piece that his wife's got it
hidden away in some corner at this very minute!"

The half-yearly rent audit was held at the Dancing Bear, and the day was
one of the most important in the village calendar. At half-past nine in
the morning the steward drove over from the market-town with his clerk,
and took up his quarters in a room which for that occasion only was
converted into an office. At ten precisely the door of this room was
opened, and the cottagers filed in to pay their rents of ninepence, a
shilling, or fifteen-pence a week. As each discharged his or her due, he
or she received a present of two shillings in lieu of a dinner, and each
was sent out to the kitchen to take modest refreshment in the shape of
bread-and-cheese and ale. By eleven o'clock these humble folk were
cleared off; they were good and ready payers all, and it was very rarely
that any of them were short of their rent or had to ask for grace. Then
came the turn of the blacksmith, the carpenter, the shopkeepers, and the
small farmers; when they were disposed of, the big farmers, solid and
important men, entered and handed over their cheques. By noon the audit
was over, and the steward, his clerk, and the farmers, big and little,
and the tradesfolk sat down to meat in the club-room. The steward tarried
long enough to eat this ceremonial dinner, to propose the usual loyal
toasts and the health of the lord of the manor, and to make a little
speech on agriculture in general and the state of the village in
particular: these duties performed, he and his clerk departed with their
money-bags, and the company either dispersed or gave itself up to
conviviality for the remainder of the afternoon.

If Rhoda could have had her own way she would have gone down to the
Dancing Bear and paid the rent herself. But she knew that that was
neither possible nor proper; such a proceeding would only have aroused
comment, and her policy was to pursue her new course quietly. All that
she could do was to warn and exhort Perris, and to send him on his errand
decently equipped. She had pressed and brushed his best suit, and had
bought him a new necktie; she saw to it that he was scrupulously clean
and neat when he set out, and to put a finishing-touch to his appearance
she took his ashplant switch away from him and gave him her own
ivory-handled umbrella to carry, being herself utterly unconscious that
it suited him about as incongruously as a pink parasol would suit an
elephant. But the attiring and bedecking of him was the least part of
Rhoda's troubles. Since their coming to Cherry-trees Perris had attended
three rent dinners, and he had come home from each in a state of foolish
intoxication. Rhoda had her own reasons for wishing him to keep sober on
this particular occasion, and she meant to use such methods of prevention
as she could. She knew that Perris had no money on him, and so, when he
was all ready for departure, and dangling the ivory-handled umbrella in
his big red hand in a fashion which showed how seriously it incommoded
him, she counted out the exact amount of the rent on the parlour table,
and made no offer to supplement it with a modest sum for himself.

"There you are," she said, again enumerating the notes, gold and silver,
"forty-three pounds, eleven shillings. And you take good care you don't
touch a penny of it, after you button it up in that pocket, until you
hand it over to the steward, and mind you get your proper receipt. And
now, then, get off, and come straight home as soon as the dinner's over."

Perris slowly put the money in a much-worn leather purse, which he
carefully buttoned up in his breeches pocket. He looked at his wife
doubtfully.

"I shall want a bit o' brass for misen, like, my lass," he said, with
almost pathetic reproach. "I spent up when I went to see mi Uncle George
and our John William. I've nowt left. I mun have summat mi pocket, Rhoda."

"What do you want aught in your pocket for?" demanded Rhoda. "You've
naught to spend it on. Isn't there a good dinner provided for you, and as
much to drink as ever you like, and cigars and all? There's no call to
spend a penny!"

"Aye, but ye, see, mi lass, a chap feels strange, like, if he's nowt in
his pocket," said Perris. "I know 'at all's provided, but then there's
allus a bit o' waitin' time before t' dinner, and ye can't sit i' company
wi'out takin' an odd glass, and happen treatin' a neighbour. I should
feel ashamed to go into company wi'out owt mi pocket."

"Well, you'll get naught here," said Rhoda. "You ought to feel thankful
that I've borrowed that rent money. You couldn't borrow it!"

Perris gazed at his wife furtively, and his dull eyes narrowed and a
faint spot of red came into each lank cheek.

"Ye weern't gi' me nowt to go wi'?" he said. "No!" she answered. "I
won't!"

Perris flung down the ivory-handled umbrella.

"Then I'm none goin'!" he said. "T' steward can come and fetch his
brass. I weern't go into company wi'out a penny in mi' pockets."

Rhoda glanced at the clock. It was already time that Perris was off. From
some recess of her gown she hastily drew forth some loose silver and
flung it on the floor.

"There, then!" she said sulkily. "But you mind this--come home as you did
last time, and you'll see what you'll get, Abel Perris. You'll find no
supper to-night if you don't behave yourself."

Perris grinned as he stooped and picked up the coins.

"If I eat as much as I mean to at yon dinner, I shan't care whether
there's owt for t' supper, or whether there isn't, mi lass," he said. "I
know how to fill mi belly when it costs nowt to do it."

And, triumphant in his knowledge of possession of money, he once more
resumed his grip on the umbrella and went off, heedless of Rhoda's shrill
reminder that even if he did not want supper that night, he would be sure
to want his dinner next day. For Perris the coming day had no terrors; he
had his rent in his pocket, and the prospect of a banquet of gross food
and a sufficiency of drink before him, and he laughed fatuously as he
descended the hill to the village.

The Dancing Bear was as busy as a hive of bees. The cottager folk were
eating and drinking in the kitchens; the small farmers and the tradesmen
were in one parlour; the big farmers in another; outside the inn numerous
idlers and hangers-on lounged against the walls, or stood about the
cross-roads, hoping that something in the way of good cheer might come
their way. Perris walked into the sanded hall and met the carpenter
emerging from the temporary office. He nodded his head at the door.

"Anybody wi' him?" he asked carelessly.

"Nay--I think you're t' last o' us little 'uns," answered the carpenter.
"Ye'll hev' a bit o' good news in theer, Mestur Perris--I hear there's a
rebate for such as ye. We don't get it."

Perris pricked his ears. He knocked boldly at the door of the room in
which the steward sat, and, having entered, marched up to the receipt of
custom as confidently as if he had a large balance lying at his bankers'.
A moment later he laid down the borrowed money as proudly as if it had
been his own. The clerk began to make out the receipt, and the steward
glanced at Perris through his gold-rimmed spectacles.

"You'll be glad to hear that there is a rebate to come to you, Mr.
Perris," said the steward. "In consideration of last year's wet harvest,
his Lordship has very generously made a reduction of ten per cent. on the
rental. So we must give you back--"

"Four pound, seven, three-halfpence," broke in the clerk, who had a mind
above niceties in fractions. "There you are, Mr. Perris, and there's your
receipt. I think Mr. Perris is the last of that lot, sir," he added,
turning to his principal.

Perris picked up the money and the receipt with ill-concealed pleasure.
He grinned widely at the steward.

"Why, I'm sure I'm deeply obliged to his Lordship," he said. "Deeply
obliged, sir. Yes, sir, it were a very bad time, last harvest, and it
didn't improve nowt at t' back end o' t' year, and--"

"Doing all right, Mr. Perris?" asked the steward, cutting him short.

"Why, you were pleased to say we looked very well, yesterday, sir,"
replied Perris, still grinning. "Of course--"

"I thought you looked very tidy, and I'm glad to see you're attending
well to your fences," said the steward, "but I also think you want more
stock on your farm."

Perris's face grew solemn, and he looked at the ceiling. Then he looked
at the steward with a mysterious air, and bent to him across the ledgers
and the papers.

"Pigs, sir!" he said in a hoarse whisper. "Pigs is what pays, sir! I'm
a-goin' to do summat big in pigs."

"Oh, I see!" said the steward. "Pigs, eh? All right. You're stopping to
the dinner, of course."

Perris intimated that such was his intention, and made his bow. He went
out of the room chuckling to himself as he jingled the money which the
clerk had handed him. And as he lingered for a moment in the hall,
previous to joining his fellow small farmers and the carpenter and
blacksmith in the room set apart for them, Mark Taffendale rode up to the
door of the Dancing Bear on his smart cob, and, dismounting, threw the
bridle to a lad who stood near.

Taffendale was both an owner of land and a tenant of land. The lime
quarry, and much of the land which he farmed, was his own freehold
property, and so was his farmstead. But on the Martinsthorpe side of the
Limepits he rented some two hundred acres of the estate whose steward was
now collecting the rents, and he made a point of always attending the
audit, to pay his rent in person, and to share the rent dinner with his
neighbours of the village. He had seen Perris at these dinners, but he
had never spoken to him, for Rhoda had been right when she said the big
farmers regarded the little ones as so much dirt beneath their feet; and
now, as he came into the Dancing Bear, he merely gave the tenant of the
Cherry-trees a careless, cold nod. But Perris was in his path, and
Taffendale had to stop, for the man pulled off his hat and made a servile
obeisance.

"Good-mornin', Mestur Taffendale," said Perris, He favoured Taffendale
with one of his weak smiles, and looked around him with his air of
mystery. "I--I were hopin' to speak to you, sir. I'm deeply obliged to
you, Mestur Taffendale, for your kindness, and--"

Taffendale made to brush past him.

"All right, all right!" he said brusquely. "No need to say anything,
Perris: that's enough. Look to your farm--you can do well on it if you
are careful."

He passed on and entered the steward's room, and closed the door behind
him, and so shut out Perris, who was vainly trying to say more. And
Perris, again grinning, and again jingling the unexpected money, made for
the little parlour wherein his own set awaited him. There was still a
full hour before the serving of dinner, and naught to do but to make
merry in it: Perris drew silver out of his pocket as he joined the
company. He bestowed one of his fatuous grins on the other small farmers.

"I think we mun as well spend a bit o' that rebate money--what?" he said.
"Ecod, I weren't expectin' owt o' that sort this mornin'! Now what's it
to be, gentlemen, while t' big nobs is payin' up and t' dinner's gettin'
ready, like? Speyk the word!"

Four hours later Perris shambled away up the hill from the Dancing Bear.
He, the blacksmith, the carpenter and the little farmers had kept
conviviality up when all else were gone. The steward and his clerk,
Taffendale and the better-to-do men, had left as soon as the dinner was
over; the men who could least afford to spend money had lingered to waste
what they had. And Perris, once clear of the inn and the crossroads,
became conscious of his misbehaviour, and a great fear fell on him.

"I misdoubt I've ta'en overmuch o' yon sherry wine," he muttered to
himself. "I'm over and above market-merry. I moan't face t' missis like
this here--she'll gi' me bell-tinker if I do! I mun lie down a bit
somewhere, and sleep t' drink off--that's what I mun contrive."

He remembered a quiet spot behind a wheatstack in a corner of one of his
own fields, and with a view to reaching it unobserved he climbed the
hedge a little further on and made towards it. But in climbing the hedge
he slipped and broke off the handle of the highly prized umbrella, and
further visions of Rhoda's wrath arose before him. Moaning and whimpering
over his bad luck, he made his way beneath the shelter of the hawthorns
to the quietude of the wheat-stack; and there, clutching the fragments of
the umbrella to him, he cried himself into unconsciousness.


VI


When Perris lay down to sleep behind the wheat-stack he was unaware that
Pippany Webster was watching him from the vantage-point of a convenient
hole in the adjacent hedge. The man-of-all-work had been spending a
leisurely day in hoeing turnips, and, secure in the knowledge that his
master was at the Dancing Bear, and likely to remain there, he had varied
his peregrinations up and down the rows of fresh green plants by long
rests in the welcome shade of the hawthorns. It was during one of these
vacations that he saw Perris lurching across the next field. Pippany saw
at once that the farmer was drunk, and, drawing back into the hedgerow,
he followed his crab-like movements with interest. He watched Perris gain
the wheatstack and disappear behind it; seeing that he made no
reappearance, Pippany decided to approach with caution, and to ascertain
for himself what had happened. The wheatstack stood in the angle of the
field; it was an easy matter to creep along the hedge and to see what was
going on in the angle which Perris had sought as a refuge from Rhoda. In
a few moments the man was gazing at the master, who by that time was
oblivious of everything.

"Drucken!" Pippany muttered, as he peered through the undergrowth of the
hedge. "Reight drucken! He's come theer to sleep t' drink off. I wonder
what our missis 'ud say if shoo set ees on him?--shoo'd be for takin' t'
skin offen his back. It 'ud be a rare fine thing if I went and telled her
'at he wor liggin' theer!--I could like to see her beltin' him."

Pippany was so taken with the notion of beholding Rhoda thrash her
drunken husband that he was minded to set off in the direction of the
farmstead there and then, and to fetch her to the scene of Perris's
slumbers. But just as he was about to turn away his small eyes caught
sight of a shining object which lay on the ground at the unconscious
man's side. The shaft of sunlight which streamed down between the
wheatstack and the hedgerow fell full upon it, and Pippany noticed that
it was glinting upon a golden sovereign.

Visions of great possibilities stole across Pippany's mental field at the
sight of that piece of gold. He rose from his hands and knees, trembling
in every limb, and looked fearfully and cautiously about him. There was
not a soul in sight anywhere; the ground on which the wheatstack stood
lay in something of a dip in the land, and it was impossible to see it
from the farmstead. Close by there was a convenient gap in the hedge;
Pippany presently crept through it, and cautiously approached the
recumbent figure. A slight inspection convinced him that Perris was not
to be aroused by anything short of violence, and he picked up the
sovereign and bestowed it in his own pocket. Then it struck him that
where the sovereign had been other sovereigns might be, and he presently
summoned up courage to insert his hand into his master's pocket and to
draw forth what he found there. And, stealing quietly round to the other
side of the wheatstack, Pippany counted his gains. There were three
sovereigns and a half sovereign, and some small silver; the silver
Pippany put in his breeches, the gold he placed in his metal tobacco-box,
snugly stuffed in amongst the tobacco.

"I mud just as weel hev' it as let him hev' it," he said to himself.
"He's niver paid me fair, and this here 'll do to mak' up. Gow, but
Mistress Perris, shoo would be mad an' all if shoo knew I'd takken his
brass away thro' him!"

This reflection so cheered Pippany that he crept back through the gap in
the hedge, picked up his hoe, and worked steadily at the turnips until it
was time to discontinue his labours for the day. At a quarter to six he
shouldered his hoe and made off to the farmstead. His supper was due to
be served at a quarter past six, but he was indifferent as to whether it
was ready or not; he was already promising himself a supper of his own,
later on, when he returned to his cottage in the village.

Rhoda was in a temper when Pippany walked into the house-place. She had
expected Perris to return home by four o'clock at the latest, he would
even then have had quite two hours for his conviviality and recreation.
When five o'clock arrived and there were no signs of him she began to
exhibit symptoms of anger, and her temper was not improved by the remarks
of Tibby Graddige, who had come to assist at the weekly wash, and was
full of suggestions as to what happened when a parcel of men got talking
and drinking after the rent dinner. And just before Pippany's arrival she
had sent Tibby down to the Dancing Bear with a message to the effect that
Mr. Perris was urgently wanted at home.

"Have you seen aught of your master?" she demanded, as Pippany lurched
into the house-place and made for the seat whereat he took his meals.
"Has he been with you since dinner-time?"

"I hevn't seen nowt o' no maisters," answered Pippany, seating himself.
"I hevn't set ees on Mestur Perris sin' braikfast, when he telled me to
start on them tonnups. An' a rare hard day I've hed on it, an' all--t'
sun wor that hot this efternoon 'at ye could ha' fried that theer bacon
by it!"

Rhoda made no reply. She had no cause of complaint against Pippany, and
she set his supper and his pint of ale before him. As he began to eat and
drink Tibby Graddige came back, black-browed and mysterious. She gave
Rhoda a swift glance as she entered.

"Now then?" said Rhoda.

"They say 'at Mestur Perris left t' Dancin' Bear at just after four
o'clock," said Tibby. "Mistress Pycock, t' landlady, she says she see'd
him walkin' as straight and sober as a judge up t' road--he shakked hands
wi' her afore he quitted t' premises."

"Then where's he gone?" said Rhoda. "It doesn't take more than a quarter
of an hour to walk up from the cross roads."

Pippany Webster looked up, his cheeks bulging with bread and bacon.

"It's i' my mind, missis," he said, "it's i' my mind 'at our maister
said summat this mornin' about goin' over to Lowcroft yonder some time
to-day to see about some young pigs 'at Mestur Turbey hes to sell. Happen
he's gone theer when he come away thro' t' rent dinner?--killed two birds
wi' one stone. I' that case he'd go across t' fields at t' back of the
village. I know he wor wantin' some o' Mestur Turbey's young
pigs--they're reight 'uns, is them young pigs--what they call Berkshires.
I lay that's wheer he's gone."

Rhoda considered this suggestion in silence. She and Tibby Graddige sat
down to a cup of tea at the little table near the fire. Tibby, who had
taken a drop of something comforting at the invitation of Mrs. Pycock,
began to tell the news.

"They've hed grand doin's to-day down at t' Bear," she said. "Mistress
Pycock, she tell'd me what they hed to eat. Theer were a noble sirloin o'
beef--t' biggest, she said, 'at they iver put on t' spit i' their
kitchen--and a boiled leg o' mutton, wi' t' usual trimmin's, and a boiled
ham--a grand 'un!--and roast fowls and boiled fowls, and plumpuddin's,
and berry-pies and custards. I'll lay some on 'em weern't want their
bellies fillin' for another week. And theer wor wine to sup, an'
all--port wine and sherry wine, same as t' quality sups when they get
their dinners. And Mistress Pycock, she says 'at they all did full
justice to it, and t' steward complimented her varry high afore all t'
company. And of course all t' farmers hed good reasons to be i' reight
fettle for their meat, an' to rejoice an' all, 'cause theer were a
reduction o' t' rents."

"A what?" exclaimed Rhoda.

"A reduction o' t' rents, as they call it," answered Tibby. "A rebate,
like--givin' 'em all back summat out o' what they paid, 'cause his
Lordship had pity on 'em on account o' t' wet harvest last year."

"How much?" demanded Rhoda.

"Why, Mistress Pycock, she said it wor what they term ten per cent.,"
replied Tibby, "an' I'm sure I don't know what that means, 'cause I'm no
scholard; but she said, did Mistress Pycock, 'at it meant 'at wheer a
farmer paid, as it weer, say fifty pound, t' steward handed five on it
back to him. An' a varry nice surprise an' all, and I don't wonder 'at
they hed a good heart for atein' their dinners. I could ate as much as
iver were set afore me if I hed a few golden pounds i' my pocket 'at I
hedn't expected to find theer!"

"Aye, an' so could I!" said Pippany Webster. "Theer's nowt gives a man
such a appetite as knowin' 'at he's gotten a bit o' brass on him!"

Rhoda had sufficient mathematical knowledge to be able to make a rough
mental calculation. If a man who paid fifty pounds in rent had five
pounds returned to him, a man who paid over forty must receive at least
four. So that, in addition to the small silver change which she had flung
on the hearthrug at his feet that morning, Perris before noon must have
been put in possession of over four pounds in gold. Where was he? What
had he done with it? What was he doing with it? She knew his weakness; if
he had gone to look at Turbey's pigs, it was quite probable that he and
Turbey had adjourned to a certain roadside inn at the other end of
Martinsthorpe, and that they would sit there drinking until the landlord
turned them out. And for the hundredth time that day she wished that she
had done what she had wanted to do--made an excuse for Perris's
nonattendance and gone down to pay the rent herself.

Pippany Webster finished his supper and went off, turning his tobacco-box
over and over in his breeches pocket; Tibby Graddige remained long enough
to wash up the crockery, and then she went, too, and Rhoda was left
alone. By that time she was furiously angry, and her anger increased
because of her powerlessness to deal with the situation. Had she known as
a certainty that Perris was at the Dancing Bear, she would have gone down
there and raked him out of parlour or kitchen without shame or ceremony.
But by that time she did not know where he might be. He might be at
Turbey's--Turbey was fond of the bottle himself--or he might be at the
wayside inn beyond Lowcroft; he might even have gone into the
market-town. There was nothing for it but to wait, and in the gathering
dusk she waited, chafing and resentful.

The dusk changed to darkness, but Rhoda had no thought of lighting the
lamp. The wood fire died down until it was no more than a handful of
smouldering ash; she let it sink unregarded. Nine o'clock had come and
gone when she heard an uncertain step on the cobble-stones of the
farmyard. She sprang up then, and lighted a tallow candle which stood on
the table; as its feeble light slowly spread over the cheerless scene the
door opened, and Perris came in, to meet his wife's accusing and angry
eyes.

Perris was sober by that time--sober enough, at any rate, to be in a
state of dire dejection, repentance and fright. He had awakened with a
violent start, to find himself on his back behind the wheatstack, with a
starlit patch of sky over his head, the hedgerow swaying in the night
wind, and his clothes damp with the rapidly gathering dew. He had there
and then set off home, having some vague notion in his muddled head that
there was a bad time before him, and that he had better get it over, But
he was unconscious of the loss of his money; the only catastrophe of
which he was aware was that of the ivory-handled umbrella. And when he
walked into his house, he grinned at Rhoda with the ingratiating and
benevolent smile of one who brings good tidings.

"Now, my lass!" he said, with a fine attempt to carry matters off in a
good style. "I'm a bit late, as it were--I hed a bit o' business that
okkeypied me when t' rent dinner were over. Ye'll be glad to hear, mi
lass, 'at his Lordship thowt well to make a reduction on t' rents, and so
accordin'-ly--accordin'-ly, I say--"

Rhoda suddenly uttered an exclamation of horror. She had caught sight of
the broken umbrella, and she darted forward and snatched it out of
Perris's grasp.

"Aw--aye-I hed an accident wi' t' umbrella," said Perris apologetically.
"It's ower weak for a grown man to walk wi'. We mun hey' it mended, mi
lass, or we mun buy a new 'un. Howsomiver, as I were observin', mi lass,
his Lordship were so disposed--"

Rhoda suddenly slapped her open palm on the table.

"Where's the money?" she demanded. "Where's the money?"

Perris began to fumble in his pockets. His wife's sharp eyes detected the
bits of straw and grass on his clothes; he looked as a young colt looks
that has been rolling itself in field and fold; she saw, too, that his
billycock hat was crushed in, and that he had torn a considerable rent in
the tail of his coat. And as she watched him she saw his face, drawn and
dirty from his out-of-doors sleep, turn pasty with wonder and fear. His
hands shook as they strayed from pocket to pocket.

"It's--it's none there!" he stammered. "I--I mun ha' been robbed!
Robbed!"

Rhoda's bosom heaved up in a great throb of passionate rebellion. Her
face, too, turned white around her blazing eyes and drawn lips as she
shook her fist at the amazed man who stood swaying and sweating before
her.

"You damned, blasted liar!" she burst out. "Robbed! You've drunk it, and
lost it. You--"

But there speech failed her. For an instant Perris shrank back, thinking
she was going to strike him, but the lifted hand dropped to the table,
crashing the tin candlestick and its feeble light to the ground. In the
darkness he heard Rhoda rush past him, the door open and close with a
bang: he knew himself then to be alone. For a few moments he stood
muttering to himself, as he again searched pocket after pocket; at last
he groped about his feet for the fallen candle, and, having relighted it,
set it on the table and wonderingly stared around the house-place. And,
crossing over to the door, he pulled it open with a jerk and looked out
on the night. The night was as silent as the house, but somewhere in the
road outside his straining ears caught the faint patter of hurrying feet.


VII


For the second time within that week, Taffendale, smoking his last pipe
before going to bed, heard a knock at his door, and again he started in
his chair, wondering who could come at such a late hour. But when he
opened the door he was not surprised to see Perris's wife; something had
told him as he walked down the hall that it was she who stood on his
threshold.

Rhoda had fled away from the Cherry-trees in the linen gown in which she
had worked all day. The wind had blown the red-gold hair about her face;
her cheeks were flushed; her eyes were unnaturally bright; her lips were
parted; one hand was clutching the bosom of her gown. And though he was
not surprised at the sight of her, Taffendale started as the light of the
lamp fell on her face.

"Mrs. Perris!" he exclaimed.

Rhoda 'stepped in without ceremony.

"Let me come in, Mr. Taffendale," she said. "I--I've come on purpose."

Taffendale silently motioned her to go forward to the parlour; he closed
the front door, and soon followed her there.

"What is it?--what's wrong?" he asked. "You haven't come across the
fields like that?"

Rhoda was tugging at something which she kept within the bosom of her
gown. In her excitement she tore the gown open, revealing more of herself
than she was aware of; Taffendale saw that she was unconscious of what
she was doing. She pulled out a canvas bag, and laid it on the table
between them.

"I've brought your money back," she panted. "At least, what there is left
of it. I--I never ought to have come and borrowed. It's no good, Mr.
Taffendale--no good! It'll only be wasted. I wish I'd never troubled you.
But I'll work myself to skin and bone to pay you back."

Taffendale laid his hand on her arm, and gently pushed her into the chair
which he had just quitted.

"Sit down," he said. "Come, now, what's it all about? What's gone wrong?
Is it--Perris?"

Rhoda yielded unconsciously to his touch, and sank into the chair. He saw
a look that was not far from intense hatred cross her face, and her eyes
flashed as she gave him a swift glance.

"Perris!" she exclaimed. "Who else should it be but Perris? I wish to God
I'd died the day I set eyes on him! It's no use trying to help a thing
like him--he isn't a man, that!"

"Take your time, now," said Taffendale. He went over to the sideboard and
brought her a glass of his old port. "Drink it." he said authoritatively.

"Drink it--it'll do you good. And now--what's it all about?"

Rhoda poured out her story to him, gaining relief in confession. Help
Perris any further she would not. He could go to the dogs for all she
would do to stop him. And when she had made an end of her story she leapt
to her feet looking very determined.

"Anyway, I've brought your money back, Mr. Taffendale--what there is left
of it, and I'll repay you the rest," she said. "I'll leave that man,
and--"

"Stop a bit, stop a bit!" Taffendale broke in. "I lent that money to you,
not to Perris. Now then, take that bag back, Mrs. Perris, and just--try
again. A man's apt to forget himself at a rent dinner. Take it back, and
I'll come and have a talk to Perris to-morrow. Here, put the money in
your pocket again."

Rhoda stared at him.

"Do you mean that?" she said suddenly.

"Of course I mean it," answered Taffendale quietly. "It's you that's
going to pull things round, don't you see? Come, now, do as I say--put
the money up again."

Rhoda hid the canvas bag in her bosom, still staring at him.

"That's right," said Taffendale. "Now, then, I'm going to see you home.
And so you came out without anything; here's an old shawl of my
housekeeper's--put it on."

But instead of waiting for Rhoda to take the shawl, he wrapped it round
her himself. Then he picked up his cap and his stick, and together they
went out of the house and into the silence of the night.


VIII


Perris, who had slunk off to bed when he found himself left alone, awoke
next morning with anticipations of further trouble: he knew his wife well
enough by that time to feel assured that she would give him the benefit
of her tongue all that day, and the next day, and for many days. He went
downstairs quietly in his stockinged feet, and peeping into the
house-place, saw Rhoda fast asleep on the old settle. Perris stole over
to the hearth, secured the boots which he had left there the previous
night, and let himself out into the yard. Sitting on the edge of the
well-trough he put the boots on, and then made swiftly in the direction
of the field wherein he had slept off his drink. His brain was still
clouded and heavy from the previous day's debauch, but he was sensible
enough to know that there was a strong probability of his having lost his
money at the wheatstack.

"I mun ha' rolled ower i' my sleep, and then it slipped out o' mi
pockets," he muttered, as he went over the dew-laden grass. "There's
nowhere else where I could ha' lost it, and I mun find it, or else
there'll be t' Owd Lad to play wi' Rhoda. It mun be theer!"

But when Perris came to the wheatstack, fully expecting to find his gold
and silver on the spot where he had lain, he found nothing, though he got
down on hands and knees and examined every foot of the space between the
stack and the hedgerow. Then he retraced the path which he had followed
from the high-road, and he went down the high-road itself until he was in
sight of the Dancing Bear. He went back by the same way, and again
examined his resting-place of the day before; in the end, as
breakfast-time was drawing near, he returned to the farmstead,
empty-handed as he had set out. If it had been possible he would have
fled to the ends of the earth he knew well what was in store for him.

Pippany Webster, very red about the eyes and tremulous about the lips,
was feeding the pigs when Perris crossed the fold on his way to the
house. Perris stopped and looked at him.

"Ye were hoeing turnips i' yon five-acre yesterday afternoon?" he said,
without preface.

"I wor hoein' turnips theer all t' day," answered Pippany. "Niver did
nowt else."

"Did ye see onnybody about i' t' afternoon?" asked Perris. "Any strange
folk, like, goin' over yon footpath across t' fields?"

"Noe!" replied Pippany. "I niver seed nobody--leastways, I did see t'
parson governess, and t' parson two childer, walkin' across theer wi'
their dog. About three o'clock that there wor."

"Did yer see me?" asked Perris.

Pippany looked at his master with the surprise of innocence.

"Ye?" he exclaimed. "No, I niver seed owt o' ye, maister. I thowt ye wor
at t' rent dinner."

Perris rubbed his chin and walked into the house. It was in his mind that
he would let Rhoda storm while he himself held his peace. He expected to
hear her tongue as soon as he crossed the threshold, and he hung his head
and rounded his shoulders as he stepped in. After all, he was saying to
himself, she was bound to give him his breakfast, and after that he could
escape to the fields.

But to Perris's intense surprise no storm of anger and reproach burst
upon him. The house-place was tidied up more neatly than was usual; the
breakfast table was set in the window: two places were laid for his wife
and himself, and one for Pippany Webster; there was a fragrant smell of
hot coffee; and Rhoda was frying bacon at the fire. She half-turned
towards him as he entered, and Perris, dull of comprehension as he was,
noticed that she was very pale, that there were dark shadows under her
eyes, and that in the quick look which she gave him there was some
expression which he had never seen there before. He sat down, staring at
her, and as he stared he saw her face suddenly suffused with colour.

"Breakfast 'll be ready in a minute," she said, turning away from him to
bend over the frying-pan. "The bacon's nearly done."

"Ye're none looking so well this morning, my lass," remarked Perris, not
unkindly. "It's a soft thing to lig yerself down and fall asleep on that
there old settle as ye've got into t' habit o' doin'. What's t' matter,
like, my lass?"

"It's naught," replied Rhoda. "I've a headache."

"Happen a cup o' coffee 'll improve it," said Perris. "Gow, ye were as
white as a mork when I come in, and now ye've turned as red as a rose I
I've no doubt," he continued, rubbing his bony knees with his great
hands, and still lost in his surprise that Rhoda should be so quiet,
"I've no doubt 'at ye were upset yesterday, my lass, 'cause I didn't come
home, and again last night because o' that matter o' losing t' rebate
money. Now, that there rebate money--"

"What's the use of talking about it?" said Rhoda. "It's done now. All the
talking in the world won't alter that. When a thing's done--it's done!"

"I'm none so sure about that there," said Perris, gaining confidence
because of his wife's unusual placability. "I'm none goin' to lose my
brass wi'out an effort to find it. You see, my lass, it's true 'at I were
a bit overcome wi' t' drink--ye know what these here rent dinners is, and
I'm none used to drinkin' sherry wines and suchlike--and t' truth is 'at
I went to yon owd wheatstack to sleep it off a bit. But I had that there
brass i' my pocket when I went there, and it weren't i' my pocket when I
comed home. That's t' truth, Rhoda. An'--"

The scraping of feet outside the door announced the arrival of Pippany
Webster for breakfast. He came in and took his accustomed place, and
Rhoda, putting the fried bacon on the table, nudged her husband's elbow.

"Say no more now," she whispered. "Wait a bit."

Perris made no answer beyond a stare: he pulled the dish of bacon towards
him and began serving the rashers while Rhoda poured out the coffee.

"You needn't give me any bacon," she said suddenly. "I don't want any."

And instead of sitting down at the table, she drank her coffee as, she
moved about the house-place, doing one small job after another. Perris,
unobservant as he was, noticed that she finished her first cup quickly,
and helped herself to another before he had done little more than taste
his own.

"Ye seem uncommon dry this morning, my lass," he said. "I hope ye're none
goin' to be badly."

"I'm all right," she answered. But she finished the second cup as if she
was still thirsty as when she first drank: that done, she went upstairs,
and they heard her moving about in the bedchamber. When she came down
Pippany Webster had finished his breakfast and was going out. Rhoda
stopped him with a word. "I want that cow-house cleaning out," she said,
turning to Perris. "It wasn't touched yesterday."

"Theer wor no chance o' cleanin' t' cow-house out yisterda'," said
Pippany. T' maister theer said I wor to stick to t' tonnups all day."

"Now then, away and get it done wi'," commanded Perris. "Do it t' first
thing."

When Pippany had gone into the farmyard, Rhoda closed the door and turned
to her husband. She sat down at the end of the table, between the door
and the window, and in such a position that her face was in the shadow of
the window curtain. Perris, lighting his clay pipe with a live coal from
the fire, looked at her curiously.

"Ye're still paleish, like, my lass," he remarked. "I hope--"

"I'm all right, I tell you," she said hurriedly. "Now then, what about
this money. I didn't want you to say aught before Pippany Webster. Where
do you say you lost it?"

Perris, always ready to be garrulous, sat down contentedly in the
easy-chair by the fire and sucked at his pipe.

"Now, ye see, it were this here way, Rhoda, my lass," he began. "Ye see,
there's no denyin' 'at I were the worse for a drop o' drink. And so,
thinks I, I'll away and lie down for a piece behind yon owd wheatstack t'
Four-Acre and sleep it off. And certain sure I am 'at when I went there I
had that brass i' my pocket."

"How much?" asked Rhoda.

"There 'ud be three sovereigns and a half-sovereign, and a lot o' silver
money," answered Perris. "I werrn't that overcome 'at I didn't know what
I spent down at t' Bear. I know it were there--it must ha' been there.
Why, now then, I slept a lot longer nor what I thowt to do, and when I
wakkened I come straight home. And then when I were goin' to bring t'
brass out to hand over to ye, my lass, it werrn't there! Didn't I say at
t' time 'at I must ha' been robbed? An' I must ha' been!--there's no two
ways about it."

Rhoda made no answer. She was sitting with her hands folded in her lap,
and she watched Perris in a dull, apathetic fashion, as if he talked of
something in which she had no immediate concern or special interest. And
Perris went on, glad to hear himself talk.

"Ye see, my lass, there's a footpath across yon fields," lie said. "It
goes, as ye're aware, reightaways up fro' t' chappil across my land and
over t' high ground as far as Mestur Taffendale's place at t' Limepits.
Ye know it, my lass."

Rhoda started.

"Yes," she said in a low voice "I know it."

"Well, ye see, if there's tramps about they might take that there
footpath," continued Perris. "And if so be as a feller o' that sort
chanced to see me lyin' down at t' back o' yon wheatstack, he could ha'
picked my pocket while I were asleep."

Rhoda got up from her seat and began to clear the breakfast things away.

"Wasn't yon Pippany hoeing turnips in the near field to that wheatstack
yesterday afternoon?" she asked suddenly.

"He wor, he wor, my lass," replied Perris. "Yes, he were there, were
Pippany. He were i' t' Four-Acre and I were i' t' Five-Acre. But he see'd
nobody crossin' them fields, 'ceptin' t' parson childer, an' their
governess, and t' dog. I axed Pippany about that there this mornin'."

"You'd a deal better have asked him if he'd robbed you," said Rhoda. "If
you were so far gone as all that, what had he to do but put his hand in
your pocket? He was there, and I'll lay aught he saw you. And I'll lay
aught he's got that money."

Perris, at first hearing this suggestion with an incredulous stare,
suddenly leapt to his feet and banged the table.

"By Gow, I niver thowt o' that, Rhoda!" he exclaimed, "Of course, he
were there i' t' next field. I'll break every bone i' his body, t'
thievin'--"

"Stop a bit," said Rhoda. She pushed Perris back as he made for the door,
and motioned to him to sit down again. "I'll call him, and we'll see what
he has to say to me. You hold your tongue till I give you the word."

She opened the door, and, going out into the yard, called Pippany from
the cow-house. Pippany came slowly across the fold, resentful and grumpy.

"Now then, what is it?" he demanded, as he came inside. "I no sooiner get
agate on one job nor I'm called off to another."

Rhoda, who had remained by the door, shut it and set her back against it.
She folded her arms and fixed Pippany with a stern look.

"Where's that money you took out of your master's pocket yesterday
afternoon when he was asleep?" she demanded. "Hand it out!"

Pippany's jaw dropped, and his weak knees suddenly assumed a new degree
of weakness. He was amazed by the directness of Rhoda's charge, and the
first thought which flashed into his brain was that he had been watched.

"Now, then, none of your lies!" said Rhoda, quick to detect the signs of
Pippany's guilt. "Out with it!"

Pippany recovered his wits. He would brazen matters out.

"Out wi' what?" he demanded. "I've nowt o' t' maister's--I niver set ees
on t' maister fro' yisterda' mornin' till this mornin'."

"You set eyes on him when he was asleep behind that old wheatstack, and
you took his money out of his pocket," asserted Rhoda. "You thought
nobody was watching you, but other folks can look through hedges as well
as you. Now then, out with it!"

"I wish I may be struck down dead if ever--" began Pippany.

Rhoda nodded to Perris. Perris sprang up and seized his man in a firm
grip. Rhoda advanced on Pippany as he began to kick and scream.

"Hold him tight while I see what he's got in his pockets," she said.
"We'll soon find out what he has about him."

"I'll hev' t' law on both on yer!" yelled Pippany, struggling in Perris's
firm grasp. "Ye can't stand to 'sault a body i' this way! I'll summons
both on yer afore afore t' magistrates I'll--"

Rhoda went through Pippany's pockets in thorough fashion, laying their
contents on the table as she drew them out. She found some copper and
silver in his breeches: in his waistcoat pocket she discovered the
tobacco-box. A sudden inspiration prompted her to open it. From the
tightly compressed tobacco she produced three sovereigns and a
half-sovereign, and at the sight of them Perris shook Pippany until his
teeth chattered in his jaws.

"There!" said Rhoda. "You'll go to prison for that, you thief! I knew
you'd got it."

"It's--it's mine, I tell you!" screamed Pippany. "It's mi savin's, and ye
can't stand to rob a body like that there! I'll--"

In the midst of Pippany's vociferation and moans the door opened.
Taffendale, spick and span, walked in, and stood astonished at the sight
which presented itself.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "I--I couldn't make anybody hear, so I came in.
What's the matter?"

Rhoda, who had turned very pale at the sight of Taffendale, and had as
suddenly flushed crimson, gave the visitor a swift look from beneath her
eyelids.

"Pippany Webster's been robbing his master," she said in a low voice.
"We've just found the money on him."

Perris gave Pippany another savage shake.

"Ho'd yer wisht!" he commanded. "Aye, he's been robbin' me, Mestur
Taffendale. Theer's t' money--Rhoda there found it i' his bacca-box. What
would you do wi' him, sir?--would you take him down to t' policeman?"

"For the present I should kick him out," said Taffendale, bestowing a
careless look on Pippany. "He can't get far away."

Perris wasted no time in carrying this counsel into effect. He ran
Pippany to the open door and kicked him into the fold with a force which
landed his victim on all fours in the manure. That done, he came back,
grinning all over his face.

"Ecod, that'll learn him a lesson!" he said, panting. "Aye, robbed me o'
summat like four pound, did t' feller. Sit you down, Mestur Taffendale,
sir: we'm proud to see you i' our house, an' I hope--"

"No, thank you," said Taffendale. "I promised your wife the other day
that I'd give you a bit of advice about your farm, so if you like, we'll
walk round it, and see how things are--I've an hour or so to spare this
morning."

Perris picked up his old hat and clapped it on. "Why, I'm sure it's very
good on your part, sir," he said. "We'm deeply obliged to you i' many
ways. Well, we'll step out then, sir."

Rhoda stood in the window and watched the two men go down the fold
together and into the fields. When they were out of sight, she sat down
in Perris's chair, and for a long time stared listlessly into the fire.
But she was busy enough when Perris came back at noon, rubbing his hands
and chuckling.

"He's a reight un to help a body, is yon Mestur Taffendale," he
exclaimed. "He's goin' to help us reight: we'm goin' to hey all sorts o'
benefits fro' him."

Rhoda made no comment. She was not thinking so much of the benefits which
Perris spoke of as of the fact that she and Taffendale had fallen in love
with each other.


IX


Pippany Webster, summarily discharged by Perris on Taffendale's advice,
went away from the Cherry-trees vowing vengeance on Rhoda. He was
keen-witted enough to know that it was Rhoda who had detected him in his
wickedness; Perris, he felt sure, would never have suspected him from
then till Doomsday. He made off to the ramshackle cottage in which he
lived at the far end of the village, and there found Tibby Graddige, who,
for the consideration of eightteenpence a week, entered upon his domain
now and then to set things to rights.

"And what ha' ye come home for at this time o' day?" inquired Tibby
Graddige, staring at Pippany in astonishment. "Ha' yer gotten t'
belly-ache, or what?"

"I gotten neyther t' belly-ache, nor t' head-ache, nor onny other aches,"
answered Pippany. "I've comed home. I can dew as I like i' my own house.
I'm t' maister here, onnyway."

By way of proving his lordship Pippany went to a locked cupboard, and
produced from it a bottle of rum. He looked round at his neighbour.

"Will yer sup?" he asked. "Ye're welcome, if yer will."

Tibby Graddige affected well-bred reluctance.

"Well, just t' leastest drop i' t' world," she answered.

"Ye needn't be feared," said Pippany handsomely. "I hey another bottle
putten away i' t' cupboard."

He poured Mrs. Graddige a liberal allowance of rum into a cracked
tea-cup, and gave himself a stronger dose in a mug; Mrs. Graddige
produced hot water from the kettle. They pledged each other kindly, and
Pippany sat down in his easy-chair and lighted his pipe.

"Aye, I done wi' yon lot," he said. "No more trapesin' up yon hill for
me. Mestur Perris, he thinks as how he can dew wi'out me, and he can
try--I can dew wi'out him. He'll never find another man to rive his guts
out for twelve shillin' a week as I've done."

"No, I'm sure!" assented Tibby Graddige. "I allus said 'at ye weren't
properly paid. Of course, you did hev' your meat."

"It wor allus bacon," said Pippany. "If it worn't fried it were boiled,
and if it worn't hot it were cowd, and it were bacon whether it wor cowd
or yit hot. It wor varry rarely I iver set tooth into fresh butcher meat
i' yon house--I niver had such poor atin' i' my life."

"They're poor," remarked Tibby Graddige, sipping her rum-and-water, and
shaking her head reflectively. "They're poor, I hey eyes i' my head, and
I've noticed a thing or two. They've gone fro' bad to worse, hey Mestur
and Mistress Perris."

"Aye, an' they'll go to still worse," said Pippany. "They've stalled this
here last rent-day off, seemi'ly, though it wor held i' t' village 'at
they'd niver be able to raise t' brass. But I'll lay owt 'at he'll nošn
last long, weern't Perris. Theer's nowt on t' place. I wodn't gi' fifty
pound for all 'at t' man hes!"

"An' what made yer fratch, like, i' 't' end?" inquired Tibby Graddige.
"Wor it summat sudden?"

Pippany mixed himself another mugful of rum-andwater, and wagged his head
over the first mouthful of it.

"It wor what ye might call a disagreement," he said. "It wor t' woman's
fault. It appears 'at when Mestur Perris went to pay t' rent yisterda' he
gat overcome wi' drinkin' sherry wine, and he ligged hissen down to sleep
behind t' wheatstack t' Foweracre, and he lost his brass, and this
mornin' t' woman accused me o' steylin' it."

"Nay!" exclaimed Tibby Graddige. "Ye don't say And your poor mother were
well known to be t' honestest woman i' all Martinsthorpe!"

"Hey a drop more rum," said Pippany, pushing the bottle across the table.
"Aye, we allus had a high character for honesty, all our fam'ly had.
Howsomiver, yon woman accused me o' steylin' Mestur Perris's money, and
afore I could dew or say owt, t' two on 'em set on to me and 'saulted me
shameful, and he varry near squeezed t' life out o' me while shoo felt i'
my pockets--I niver were so tret i' my life!"

"And did she find t' brass on yer, then?" inquired Tibby Graddige,
greatly excited. "Ye don't say 'at she did!"

"Aye shoo fun' t' brass on me, reight enough," answered Pippany. "There's
no denyin' that theer. But, ye see, it wor i' this way--I fun' that theer
brass as I were crossin' t' fields to mi wark this mornin', and I put it
i' my 'bacca-box for safety, and I wor goin' to ax Mestur Perris's advice
about it; but before I'd t' chance o' doin' so, I tell yer they set on to
me and knocked me about shameful and crewel, and they accused me o'
steylin' it. And so, of course, I left 'em, an' I don't know 'at I shan't
tak t' law on 'em. Theer's law for poor folk as well as for onnybody
else, and I've a good mind to hey 'em up t' 'Sizes, and see what t' judge
says to 'em."

"Aye, but poor folk is sore trodden down!" sighed Tibby Graddige. "They'd
sweer theirsens black and blue at ye'd takken t' money. Ye should ha'
made safe on it afore they could ha' laid hands on yer."

This was exactly what Pippany was thinking himself; it was poor
consolation to reflect that all he had got out of his haul was a couple
of bottles of rum, and he wished by that time that he had hidden the gold
away in some safe place. But under the influence of his great
indignation, and the rum-andwater at his elbow, the future just then
looked rosy.

"Neer mind," he said, shaking his head threateningly. "I'm nošn done wi'
yon lot--I'll mak' Mistress Perris suffer for treatin' me as shoo did
this mornin'. There's nobody can dew as they like wi' me. I'm nošn
dependent on Mestur Perris for a job o' work--theer's other folk i' t'
parish 'at'll employ me besides him. And I'm nošn wi'out a hit o' brass,
neyther."

"What, ye gotten summat put by like?" asked Tibby Graddige, instantly
curious. "Of course, bein' a single bachelor, ye will hey'."

Pippany wagged his head with mysterious intent.

"Now, then, niver ye mind," he answered. "I'm nošn such a fooil as some
folks think--I know a thing or two, I can tell yer. I'm happen as weel
off as what Mestur Perris is, and I'm nošn goin' to be insulted by
neyther him nor her."

Thus thrown out of his regular employment, Pippany gathered together a
living during the next two or three weeks by following the
threshing-machine from farm to farm. It was quite true that he had some
money hidden away in a corner of his cottage, but he had a liking for
rum, and the store began to diminish. Pippany, however, was a man of
infinite resource, and he knew many ways of eking out a living. He grew
his own vegetables in his own garden; he fed, killed, cured and sold a
pig every year, but reserved one flitch and one ham for his own
consumption; he knew how to abstract a fat chicken from the neighbouring
farmsteads now and then; he knew how to get fresh eggs without the
trouble of paying for them. And upon occasion he knew how to snare a
rabbit, and in the proper season his pot was not innocent of the presence
of a hare. Appetising odours sometimes hung about Pippany's cottage, and
if the gamekeeper had smelt them he might have been suspicious as to
their cause; but the cottage was out of the way, and when Pippany cooked
it was behind a jealously-locked door.

His weekly revenue being somewhat shorn by his peremptory dismissal from
Cherry-trees, Pippany's predatory instincts were aroused, and he began to
poach a little in a quiet and cautious fashion. There was no great danger
in following this illegal method of obtaining food. The lord of the manor
was an absentee, who never came near the village save at long intervals;
the tenant of the house was an old gentleman who was too much of a
recluse to care for sport; and although a gamekeeper was kept, he was
more for ornament than for use. The gamekeeper certainly went to his bed
at a proper and seasonable hour, and did no night patrolling of the woods
and coverts which were under his care: Pippany, therefore, had little
difficulty about getting a couple of rabbits when he wanted them. Now and
then he gave a couple to Tibby Graddige: Tibby took them and asked no
questions; it seemed to her a reasonable thing that a single gentleman
who is obliged to buy bread and groceries and rum should eke out his
living by appropriating ground game or anything else which costs him
nothing.

Eastward of the village, and in the dip of the valley which lay beneath
the uplands, whereof Taffendale's farm and lime-quarry formed the centre
point, was a thick stretch of old woodland which covered a considerable
expanse of country. This was Pippany Webster's favourite hunting-ground;
he knew every yard of it, every turn of the tracks in it; he could have
gone through it blindfold, or on the darkest night. In its very midst was
a valley within a valley--a quiet, lonely dingle known to the village
folk as Badger's Hollow. Tradition had it that a man had been hanged
there in chains, and it was true that from an ancient oak in its midst
there still depended some rusty scraps and links of iron which clanked
and clinked in the wind when it penetrated through the wood. Therefore,
of course, Badger's Hollow was haunted; no Martinsthorpe man or woman
would ever have dreamed of venturing near it after nightfall. But Pippany
Webster had no fear of ghosts, and he knew Badger's Hollow to be a rare
place for rabbits, and when the rest of the village folk were asleep he
might have been found making his way through the wood to a favourite spot
in this retired place, whereat he had set a snare on the previous night.
There had been times when Pippany had returned from these midnight
maraudings with a cock-pheasant in his company.

On the third week after his dismissal from Perris's employ Pippany found
no work to do beyond one day's threshing. The three shillings which he
received for that was not enough to provide him with rum for the week's
consumption, and he had to dip into his secret store. The fact that this
was diminishing induced Pippany seriously to consider a proposition which
had recently been made to him. During that spring a certain itinerant
vendor of fish had started coming round Martinsthorpe and the
neighbouring villages; getting into conversation with Pippany in the
kitchen of the Dancing Bear, what time no one else was about, he had
asked him if he ever had a few rabbits to dispose of. Pippany had
returned an evasive answer at the time, but he and the fish-seller had
foregathered again, and at last Pippany had a definite offer. After all,
there seemed to be small danger about the matter. The country was so
lonely, so houseless, about Martinsthorpe, that it would be an easy thing
for the man to meet Pippany at an appointed place in some solitary by-way
to receive a consignment of dead rabbits, and to pay cash for them on the
spot. Pippany decided to commence business on these lines.

And so it came about that one evening, after such darkness had fallen as
an early summer night brings, Pippany was in the woods on his way to
Badger's Hollow, where he hoped to find a dozen rabbits in his snares. He
had traversed those woods hundreds of times o' nights, and had never
encountered human being in them. But on this night, as he went
noiselessly along, he suddenly became aware of two human beings who were
coming his way, and, with the rapidity of a weasel, he slipped beneath
the neighbouring undergrowth and became as quiet as the motionless twigs
and leaves which shrouded him. The figures which his sharp eyes had made
out came nearer, passed in front of him, passed by him, went on their way
into the deeper shades of the wood and disappeared. And Pippany crawled
out of his shelter, muttering to himself, and as delighted as he was
surprised.

"Taffendale and Perris's wife!" he said. "An' he wor makkin' love to her;
he had his arm round her waist. An' her a respectable wed woman! Weel,
theer is some wickedness i' this here world. Gow, I wonder what Mistress
Graddige 'ud say to that theer?"

But before he returned home in the grey light of morning Pippany had
resolved not to communicate his news to Mistress Graddige or to anybody
else. He would keep the secret to himself: he was already beginning to
see vaguely that it might be profitable. But there was no need to trade
on it yet; he had carried out a good transaction with the vendor of fish,
and rabbits ran by thousands in the woods.

"But shoo's a bad 'un, is yon Mistress Perris!" reflected Pippany. "An'
her that theer religious an' all! I'll go to t' chappil o' Sunda' and
hear her sing i' t' choyer."

He carried this design out on Sunday, and heard Rhoda sing a solo at each
of the services. She sang better than ever, and the old women wiped tears
off their cheeks, and Pippany listened with his mouth wide open. But that
night he watched her and Taffendale meet again, and he went home wiser
than ever.


X


The immediate result of Taffendale's visit of advice and suggestion was
that Perris suddenly turned over a new leaf and began to mend his ways.
He kicked Pippany Webster clear of Cherry-trees, and engaged a more
capable man who happened to be out of work at the time. He forswore the
Dancing Bear and all other hostelries, and he never went to market unless
it was really necessary that he should go there, nor stayed longer in the
market-town than his business demanded. He was up early, and he worked
hard, and Rhoda had no fault to find with him. He followed out
Taffendale's hints: Cherry-trees began to look prosperous. The
under-steward reported to his superior that new stock had been put on the
farm, and that Perris appeared to be doing well; the neighbouring
farmers, looking over the hedges as they rode by, saw that the land was
being properly treated, and came to the conclusion that its tenant had
got a bit of money from somewhere. But nobody suspected Taffendale of
generosity, and only Perris and his wife knew whence this help had come.

"I'm sure we owt to feel deeply obligated to Mestur Taffendale, Rhoda, my
lass," Perris would observe, as he sat smoking his pipe at his hearth of
a night. "He just come i' the nick of time, as it weer. Now, ye see, my
lass, all them there bits o' good advice as he gev' me have all turned
out well, and ye'll see 'at there 'll be no need for us to go to him nor
to any other for help about t' next half-year's rent. He's what I call a
reight friend, is yon there man, and I hope ye feel as grateful to him as
what I do, my lass."

And Rhoda always replied that she felt very much obliged to Mr.
Taffendale, and that it was very kind of him to take so much interest in
them. She was more than surprised that Perris had developed such a strong
line of good purpose and endeavour, and sometimes she found herself
looking at him wonderingly, and speculating as to whether he was not a
better man than she thought him. All his thought and attention was now
given to his work; he appeared to have no time for anything else, and it
was an easy matter to hoodwink and deceive him. He never asked questions
of his wife when she seemed to be unduly late home from the chapel; he
was, in fact, usually fast asleep in bed when Rhoda came in from her
meetings with Taffendale, and he had forgotten by next morning whether
she had been out or not. The new interest in his farm which Taffendale's
friendly intervention had given him had driven all other matters out of
Perris's mind; his one idea now was to make things pay, and Rhoda found
that, instead of being obliged to goad him to work, she had nothing to do
but to stand by and see him ceaselessly labouring. She and Taffendale
looked on at Perris's new line of conduct from a detached point of view;
it suited them both that his attention was fully occupied; careful to the
finest degree about their assignations, they believed that the secret
between them was their own, and that they were safe from discovery.
Taffendale never came to the little farmstead; now and then, riding past,
he exchanged a few words with Perris over the top of the hedgerow;
sometimes he talked to husband and wife together at the orchard gate: it
was his idea to keep the world from knowing that he was in any way mixed
up with them. The folk of the village in the valley, who rarely went up
the hillside to the uplands, knew nothing of the links between the rich
man at the Limepits and the Penises of the Cherry-trees.

Pippany Webster kept his knowledge of the love affairs of Mr. Taffendale
and Mrs. Perris to himself during the summer that followed his summary
dismissal from Perris's employment. He had got another regular job; he
could always add a half-sovereign to his week's wages by his transactions
with the itinerant fish-vendor, and there seemed to be no immediate
reason for turning his knowledge to account. At that time, indeed, being
in full feather as regards money, he had no idea of profiting pecuniarly
by that knowledge: his great idea was to revenge himself on Rhoda. He
became an adept in tracking her; many a night when she went away from the
choir-practice he followed her to lonely parts of the adjacent woods, and
was witness to her meetings with Taffendale, and he chuckled to himself
as he thought of the time when he would expose her treachery to Perris
and let the small world around them know what manner of woman she was.

"It'll be a nice come-down for mi lady, will that theer!" he mused. "An'
a bonny come-up for t' Methodisses to hear 'at their fine leadin' singer
i' t' choyer-pen's carryin' on wi' Taffendale same as if shoo wor one o'
them leet wimmen 'at they talk about. Nobbut wait a bit, mi lass, and
I'll mak' ye as ye'll repent takkin' that bit o' brass out o' my
pocket--I will so!"

Although he told her nothing in return, Pippany extracted all the news
that he could get from Tibby Graddige. He heard of the altered condition
of things at Cherry-trees; of the reformation of Perris himself; of the
growing prosperity which was manifesting itself in various ways. And his
ferret-like wits began to put two and two together; he suddenly saw where
the help had come from, and he developed long fits of thinking and
scheming, all with a view to Mrs. Perris's discomfiture. But he would
bide his time--yon there Taffendale, he reminded himself, had said, when
he counselled Perris to kick him out: that he, Pippany, couldn't get far
away--no, and neither could Taffendale nor Mrs. Perris get far away. He
would wait--but he would be down on them when the right time came.

It was Tibby Graddige who brought Pippany news which made him think that
possibly the right time had come. Entering his cottage one evening
towards the end of that summer, in order to put things to rights, and
incidentally to partake of the drop of rum to which its lord and master
was always ready to treat her, she revealed a countenance suggestive of
important tidings.

"It wodn't surprise me to hear 'at Mestur Perris is goin' to come into a
bit o' money," she observed.

"Wodn't it?" said Pippany. "Aw! An' wheer might it be comin' fro', like?"

Mrs. Graddige wiped her lips with the edge of her apron, and Pippany
pushed the rum bottle over to her, and motioned her to the cracked
tea-cup out of which she usually took her refreshment.

"This afternoon as ever were," said Mrs. Graddige, having tasted her
drink and made a face over it, me and Mistress Perris bein' engaged in
hingin' out the clothes i' that theer orchard wheer you come by your
accident--and a rare mercy it were as you didn't meet wi' yer death, as
I've remarked many a time and oft, and shall agen--theer come a
tallygrapht, which I never remember nowt o' t' sort ever comin' theer
afore while I've known that place, and of course gev' me t' spasms i' mi
insides. Mestur Perris, he were down t' little field t'other side o' t'
orchard, a-talkin' to Mestur Taffendale over t' hedge top, so Mistress
Perris, she oppened it.--Mercy on us V she says, just like that beer.
"Mercy on us, Mestur Perris's 'Uncle George is dead!'"

"Who's his Uncle George?" asked Pippany.

"His Uncle George were a draper, at Fenford. away there i' t' low
country, and had money, bi what I heard," answered Tibby Graddige. "I've
heerd speyk of him afore. Howsomiver, he were dead, accordin' to t'
tallygrapht, and Mistress Perris she waved t' paper to Mestur Perris to
come, and Mestur Taffendale, he rode his horse up t' hedgeside wi' him.
Yer Uncle George is dead, and they want you to go at once,' says Mistress
Perris. Ye'd better change yer things and set off,' she says. 'An' you
won't lose no time,' she says, ''cause there's none so many trains that
way, and it's gettin' on for five now, and the station's four mile off.'
Here, I'll tell you what,' says Mestur Taffendale, friendly like, 'I'll
lend yer my horse, Perris, and ye can leave him at t' inn at Somerleigh
station, and I'll send one o' my men over for him to-night.' 'Why,
thankin' you kindly, Mestur Taffendale,' says Mestur Perris."

"'Aye,' he says, 'I'd best go,' he says. 'I shouldn't wonder if mi Uncle
George hes left me a bit o' money,' he says.--He allus promised 'at he
wod,' he says.

"'Why, then, be off and see after it,' says Mestur Taffendale, and he rode
t' horse into t' orchard, and gat off it, and they all then went into t'
house. An' i' less than a quarter of an hour Mestur Perris rode off on
Mestur Taffendale's horse, to go and fetch his fortune."

"Did it say owt about t' fortune i' t' tallygrapht?" inquired Pippany.

"Why, no, not as Mistress Perris read it out," replied Mrs. Graddige.
"But, of course, theer's allus a fortune or summat o' that sort when
folks sends tallygraphts. An' varry lucky it were, as I said to Mistress
Perris, 'at Mestur Taffendale happened to be theer to gi' t' poor man a
lift on his horse. It 'ud ha' been dowly wark, walkin' four mile to t'
station wi' a load o' grief on yer back, and wonderin' all t' way how
much money t' dead man had left yer."

"Aye, it wod so!" agreed Pippany. "He'd feel t' matter less when he wor
mounted on hossback. An' so Mestur Taffendale 'ud hey to walk home on his
own feet, like?"

"Why, it's none so far fro' t' Cherry-trees to t' Limepits," observed
Tibby Graddige. "Aye, he went his ways when Mestur Perris had ridden off.
'I hope yer husband 'll hey' some good news, Mrs Perris,' he says, when
he went away. 'An' bring home a handsome fortun',' he says,
laughin'--that's what he said, did Mestur Taffendale."

"He'll hev' to stop till t' buryin's over," said Pippany. "They niver
part wi' a dead man's brass till t' corpse is i' t' grave--that's t' law,
so they tell me. Them 'at's appointed to look after t' corpse's money
niver pays it out until all's overed and done wi'--t' way o' buryin'."

"Eh, an' I wonder what t' reason o' that is?" inquired Tibby Graddige.
"Theer mun be a reason, of course."

"It's so 'at t' dead body can't hear what t' relations says about it when
they hev' t' brass 'livered up to 'em," replied Pippany. "Theer's allus
some on 'em 'at isn't satisfied wi' what they receive, an' then they say
foul things about t' dead corpse, and, of course, it wodn't be reight for
it to hear owt said agean it, so they allus mak' away wi' it afore sham'
t' brass out--that's t' law, as they call it. So Mestur Perris 'll be
away for a day or two, like?"

"Aye, and she'll be left alone all by hersen i' that lonely house,"
answered Mrs. Graddige. "I made offer to go and stop wi' her, but she
said she were none afraid."

"Shoo's afraid o' nowt, isn't that theer," observed Pippany. "Shoo's as
strong as onny man, shoo is. And I reckon theer's nowt 'at's worth
steylin' t' place now, whativer there may be when Mr. Perris brings his
Uncle George's fortune back wi' him."

But whether there was anything that was worth stealing or not at
Cherry-trees, Pippany Webster could not refrain from visiting the little
farmstead that night. He sat by his own fireside for a long time after
Mrs. Graddige had finished her charing work, drunk her second drop of
comfort, and gone away with a present of a couple of rabbits, and when he
at last turned out his lights, damped his fire, and locked up the front
door it was only to let himself out at a back window and to slink away in
the darkness. By various quiet and devious ways he made his way up the
hillside, and to the outbuildings at Cherry-trees. The clock in the
church tower was striking ten when he looked cautiously round the corner
of the barn and saw that a light was still burning in the house: he saw,
also, that it did not proceed from the house-place, but from the parlour,
a room which, according to his experience of them, the Perrises scarcely
ever used.

Knowing every nook and corner of the premises, Pippany had no difficulty
in finding a convenient vantage-point in the outbuildings from whence to
keep observation on the house. Taking advantage of the darkness he stole
up the steps of the granary, and took up his post at a slatted window
which commanded the door. The night was warm, and Pippany was well
accustomed to long vigils in the woods. He had an instinctive notion that
he would be rewarded for his trouble in spying upon Mrs. Perris. and he
was prepared to keep watch until the coming of the morning would make it
impossible for him to remain longer in his hiding-place. But he had not
been very long in the granary when he heard footsteps on the road
outside, followed by the opening and shutting of the orchard gate. A
moment later the figure of a man covered the lighted window, and Pippany
hugged himself with joy.

"Yon's Taffendale!" he muttered to himself. "Gow, I thowt I should see
summat!"

For a time he was half-minded to hasten down the hill, to wake Tibby
Graddige from her slumbers, and to hurry her back with him, and thus to
provide a further witness of Mrs. Perris's misdoings. But on second
consideration he thought it best to keep his knowledge to himself, for he
was as yet uncertain as to what use he should put it. With a patience
which had been steadily perfected by his poaching habits, he settled down
to watch; if it were necessary, he said to himself, he would watch
throughout the night, for he was determined not to leave his post until
Taffendale had gone away from Cherry-trees.

"I wonder what Perris 'ud say if he see'd a leet i' t' best parlour?" he
mused. "Him an' her niver sits i' t' best parlour--t' house-place is good
enoo for them when they're by their two sens. I reckon shoo thinks 'at it
wodn't do for a gentleman like Taffendale to sit hissen down i' t'
house-place--that's what shoo's gotten t' best parlour ready for."

In the silence and darkness of the granary Pippany waited while the slow
hours passed. Now and then a rat scampered across the floor behind him;
sometimes the horses in the stables stamped their feet; at intervals an
owl in the neighbouring woods hooted dolefully across the sleeping land,
eleven and twelve and one and two struck from the church clock at the
further end of the village. And just as the first grey of the approaching
day stole across the line of the eastern world the watcher's long vigil
came to its end--Taffendale left the house and went quietly away through
the orchard. With equal quietness and precaution Pippany quitted his post
and went home.


XI


Perris had gone away on a Wednesday to attend the obsequies of his Uncle
George; on the following Saturday afternoon he returned home, looking
lost and disconsolate. Rhoda learnt at once from his face that the
deceased draper had not remembered his nephew in his will.

"I might as well ha' stayed at home," said Perris, sinking into his
easy-chair. "There were nowt to be gotten by it."

"Do you mean to say that he didn't leave you anything?" exclaimed Rhoda.
"Not--anything?"

"Nowt!" replied Perris. "An' he didn't leave our John William owt,
either. He left nobody nowt. 'What brass he did leave were left to start
a almshouse, as they call it, for t' townsfolk o' Fenford. It seems a
queer thing to me 'at they can stand by a will like that theer,
considerin' 'at he hed rellytives; but t' lawyers says it's all
reight--nobody can upset it. T' man hed a reight, they say, to leave his
brass as he liked."

"And how much had he to leave?" asked Rhoda.

"A matter o' five or six thousand pound," replied

Perris, shaking his head dolefully. "I wodn't ha' cared if he'd left me a
thousand on it--I consider 'at me an' our John William were entitled to
as much as that apiece. Howsomiver, theer it is--t' owd feller's left us
nowt. It's a varry great disappointment to me, Rhoda, my lass--I'd aimed
to repay Mestur Taffendale his money out o' that theer."

"Mr. Taffendale will wait," said Rhoda. She began to bustle about, and to
prepare some supper for Perris, and, greatly to his surprise, she
produced a bottle of whisky and mixed a glass for him. "It's no use
taking it to heart, Abel," she said, as she handed him the glass. "We've
managed without your Uncle George's money so far, and we can manage
without it now."

Perris took the glass of whisky-and-water from her with a humble
expression of thanks. He was tired and weary, and life had looked very
drab to him during his four miles' walk from the station.

"Aye, but I could ha' done wi' a bit o' money," he said. "And so could
our John William. Howsomiver, I suppose it's as you say, Rhoda, my
lass--it's no use takin' t' matter to heart. I mun put mi shoulder to t'
wheel a bit more. After all, we've gotten a roof over our heads, and t'
farm's lookin' up i' promisin' fashion--thanks to Mestur Taffendale. All
t' same, I wor a good deal cast down when t' lawyer read t' will out."

That night Rhoda was unusually attentive to her husband. She gave him an
appetising supper, and mixed him another glass of whisky before he went
to bed. Next day, being Sunday, she roasted one of her spring chickens
for dinner, and Perris began to forget some of his troubles. He went with
her to the chapel in the afternoon, and listened with great pride to her
singing. The preacher went home to take tea with them, and Perris
listened to him and to Rhoda as they discussed chapel affairs. But when
it was time to return for the evening service he announced his intention
of staying at home.

"I think I shan't go down to t' chappil agen tonight, my lass," he said.
"I'm feeling a bit tired, like, wi' trailin' about this last two or three
days, and I'll bide at home, quiet, 'cause I've a hard day afore me
to-morrow."

"All right," said Rhoda. She went into the parlour, and came back with
the key of the cupboard in which she kept certain things rigorously
locked up. "I might be a bit late," she continued, "because I promised
to go see Mrs. Simpson after chapel--their Mary Jane's not well. So you
can get your supper when you want it, and there's the key if you want
aught else."

"Very good, my lass, very good," said Perris. "I shall away to mi bed
early."

He watched Rhoda and the preacher set out across the fields, and for a
time after their departure occupied himself in feeding the pigs and fowls
and in looking round the fold. And he was just thinking of settling down
to his pipe, and to the study of a tract with which the preacher had
presented him, when, happening to look through the window, he caught
sight of Pippany Webster's horse-like countenance peeping over the wall
which separated the farmyard from the orchard. As Perris looked,
Pippany's face disappeared, as though he had suddenly ducked behind the
wall; in another moment it appeared again. Pippany was evidently taking a
view of the house.

"What's yon repscallion doin' about t' place?" thought Perris. "Happen he
thinks we've all gone to t' chappil, and he wants to steyl summat. He's
up to no good, anyway."

He caught up his ashplant switch from its cornor and made for the door,
but when he opened it Pippany had disappeared again. Perris strode across
the fold, and looked over the wall just as Pippany, who had not heard him
approaching over the litter, once more lifted his head. The two men
stared at each other across the wall.

"What are ye doin' on my premises?" demanded Perris.

Pippany grinned sheepishly, but he looked at his late employer with a
species of sly defiance. He was not afraid of Perris, and he knew that
Rhoda was safe in the singing-pew at the chapel.

"Didn't I warn yer niver to set foot o' my land agen?" continued Perris.
"Ye're up to no goodye're for steylin' t' fowls or t' eggs, or summat."

"I'm for steylin' nowt," retorted Pippany. "Theer's no 'casion for me to
steyl, Mestur Perris. I'm better off nor I were when I worked for ye."

Perris flourished his ashplant.

"What are yer theer for, then?--sneakin' behind t' wall," he asked. "I
expect ye thowt we were all gone to t' chappil, did yer?"

"I knew ye hedn't gone to t' chappil," answered Pippany, grinning. "I
see'd t' missis go wi' t' preycher chap. I--I wanted to hev' a word wi'
ye, mestur."

Perris vouchsafed no reply; he continued to glare angrily at his visitor.

"A quiet word, like," said Pippany. "I gotten summat to tell yer,
mestur--summat 'at ye owt to know."

Perris looked steadily and searchingly into Pippany's shifty eyes. And
Pippany grinned anew.

"I want to hev' nowt to do wi' t' likes o' ye," said Perris slowly. "Tak'
yersen off my premises, afore I lay this here ashplant across yer
shoulders!"

But Pippany stood his ground, and he grinned again.

"If I don't tell what I hev' to tell I can go an' tell som'dy else," he
said. "I come i' a friendly way, mestur. Ye'd better hear what I gotten
to say."

Perris meditated awhile. His fingers itched to give Pippany a sound
belabouring, but he saw that the man had some deep design, and his
curiosity was aroused.

"What ha' yer gotten to say?" he asked dubiously. "I reckon it'll be nowt
but a pack o' lies when all's said and done."

"It's no lies, mestur--it's t' Gospil truth," answered Pippany, with
great eagerness. "It's summat 'at ye owt to be made aweer on--I'll tak'
my 'davy it is!"

"Well?" said Perris.

Pippany, who had edged away a little from the wall which separated them,
drew nearer.

"Will yer promise not to meddle on me wi' t' ashplant if I tell yer?" he
asked. "It's nowt varry pleasant 'at I hev' to tell, but it's none my
fault, mestur."

"Go on," said Perris. "An' no lies!"

"I wish I may be struck down dead this varry minute if I tell ye owt 'at
isn't t' truth!" exclaimed Pippany, with pious fervour. He came up close
to the wall and thrust his face over it. "Mestur!" he said in a low
voice, "do ye know 'at your missis is carryin' on wi' Taffendale?"

Perris's first instinct was to slash Pippany across the face with the
ashplant, and Pippany saw the intention in his eyes and started back from
the wall with a cry of alarm. But Perris's left hand seized the other end
of the ashplant. The switch, supple and yielding though it was, snapped
in two as if it had been as brittle as a glass rod, and for a moment he
stood staring stupidly at the two halves into which it had broken. Then
he looked up and at the man who was shrinking away from him.

"If ye're tellin' me a lie," he said, in a voice that made Pippany shake
in his Sunday clothes, "by God, I'll tear t' tongue out o' yer throat!"

"It's not a lie, mestur. I wish t' Lord may strike me blind and dumb and
dead an' all this varry instant if it's a lie!" said Pippany excitedly.
"It's as true as--as 'at you an' me's here. It's all true, mestur."

Perris stared at Pippany for a full moment without speaking. His face had
become of a curious grey colour, but there was a bright spot of red
burning on each high cheekbone, and his eyes blazed with a strange light.
And suddenly he thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his breeches,
and, turning his back to the wall, leaned against it, and fixed his gaze
on the open door of the house.

"Say what ye hev' to say," he said over his shoulder.

Pippany realised that he was safe from assault. He stole up to the wall
and addressed himself to Perris's averted head. And as if he were making
confession of his own misdeeds, he spoke in a low voice, occasionally
hushing it to a whisper.

"Well, ye see, mestur, it were i' this way 'at I found it out," he began.
"Ye see, one night, at after ye sent me away, I wor t' woods yonder down
theer by what they call Badger's Hollow--ye know how quiet it is theer,
mestur--an' yeer missis and Taffendale come along--sweetheartin'. Theer
was no doubt about it, mestur, 'cause I see'd 'em--I see'd more nor what
they'd ha' liked me to see. An' I seed 'em many a time at after
that--gen'lin's o' Sunday nights, and t' choyer practice nights, when
yeer missis hed come away thro' t' chappil. Used to meet i' them woods,
they did, mestur--ye know as weel as I do 'at nobody iver goes there o'
nights. Ye mun ha' known 'at shoo wor out late, mestur?"

Perris made no answer. He was still staring at the open door of the
house. But he had withdrawn his hands from his pockets, and had folded
them tightly across his chest, as if there was something there that he
must repress and keep from breaking loose. And Pippany, getting no answer
to his suggestion, went on with his story.

"An' I wor minded to come an' tell ye at t' time, mestur," he said, "but
then I thowt it ovver and ovver, and I didn't reightly know what to do.
Howsomiver, t 'other day, Mistress Graddige, shoo telled me 'at ye'd hed
news o' yer Uncle George deŽath, and 'at ye'd gone away to bury him and
tak' up yer fortune, and so I thowt to misen 'at I'd find out if mi
suspicions wor reight about Taffendale and yeer missis; and so that night
'at ye went off--last Wensda' night it wor, as yell rek 'lect--I come up
here and watched t' house. I got into t' granary theer, and posted misen
wheer I could see t' door yonder. It wor ten o'clock then--I heerd it
strike fro' t' owd church clock i' t' village. An' afore varry long I
see'd Taffendale come--I see'd him pass t' leeted window."

Still Perris gave no response and made no sign. He heard every word that
was being whispered behind him, and something told him that it was all
true.

"But t' leet worn't t' house-place theer," continued Pippany. "It wor t'
best parlour. I thowt that wor queer, mestur, because ye and t' missis
niver used t' best parlour 'at I remember on. An' of course theer wor
nowt for it then but waitin'. An' I waited while t' clock struck eleven,
and twelve, and one, and two, and it wor gettin' on to three and t' light
wor just comin' when Taffendale let hissen out and went away. An'--an'
that's all, mestur, and as I say, ye owt to know about it. An' if I've
towd ye onny lies, ye're welcome to rive my tongue out o' mi throat
wheniver ye like! But I hevn't--I've telled ye t' Gospil truth."

For a time Perris made no movement. His thoughts had shifted themselves
to the chapel down in the valley. He knew that Rhoda was going to sing a
solo that night as an anthem; she had been practising it all the week,
and the preacher had talked about it with eager anticipation while they
had tea together. It was about time for the anthem: he imagined her
standing up in the shabby little conventicle, and holding spellbound the
congregation huddled together on the rudely fashioned benches and the
folk who listened at the gates and fences of the adjoining cottages. It
was a beautiful anthem; Perris knew nothing of music, but he had found
himself rapt and motionless more than once as Rhoda moved about the house
singing it without accompaniment. Yes, she would be just about singing it
now--little imagination as he possessed, he could see her, and see, too,
the last beams of the westering sun shining in through the chapel windows
and gleaming on her hair...

"T' Gospil truth," repeated Pippany Webster, at the other side of the
wall. "Nowt but t' Gospil truth, Mestur Perris, sir."

Perris started and shivered.

"Ha' you said a word o' this to onnybody else?" he asked in a voice that
seemed to himself to be a long way off. "Ha' you, now?"

"Not a word, mestur!" asserted Pippany. "Not a word to nobody. I've kep'
it to myself."

"Nowt to yon Tibby Graddige?" asked Perris.

Pippany uttered a snort of derision.

"Her?" he said. "Noe!--not likely, mestur. I wodn't trust no woman wi' a
secret like that theer. I tell yer, I've said nowt to nobody."

Perris remained leaning against the wall, his eyes always fixed on the
open door of the house. Behind him, Pippany, waiting for him to speak,
began to pick off the moss and lichen which had grown on the old masonry.

"When ye been i' them woods," said Perris at last, "when ye been i' them
woods yonder, at nights, ha' you iver seen onnybody else hangin' about?"

"No, mestur. There's nobody goes into them woods at nights," replied
Pippany, with decision. "Nobody wo'd go. Ye know 'at yon theer place
wheerwheer I see'd them--is what they call haunted--there's a sperrit
walks theer. No--I never seen nobody about them woods--'ceptin' them."

"What about t' gamekeeper?" asked Perris. Pippany laughed with further
derision.

"T' gam'keeper niver goes theer," he answered. "He's ower fond o'
stoppin' indoors, is t' gam'-keeper. If he iver goes that way he niver
gets no forrarder nor t' Dancin' Bear. I been all ower them woods at
night, an' I niver seen nobody--'ceptin' them."

Perris moved away from the wall. Without looking at Pippany, he flung him
a word over his shoulder.

"Show me wheer ye posted yersen i' that granary t' other night," he said.

Pippany moved round to the gate of the fold with alacrity. He was
convinced by that time that Perris would do him no hurt, and he had the
fervour of the born busybody, and was delighted at the prospect of
showing his cleverness in playing the spy. He shambled across the litter
of the fold and up the steps of the granary, with Perris at his heels. As
they entered, a big grey rat scuttered across the floor, stopped at the
mouth of its hole in one corner, looked at them a second out of its beady
eyes, and disappeared. To Perris the place seemed strangely quiet and
unfamiliar.

Pippany went over to the slatted window and pushed the slats aside. He
pointed a crooked forefinger towards the house.

"Here's wheer I stood, ye see, mestur," he said eagerly. "Ye can see t'
house i' full fro' here. Yon's t' best parlour window wheer t' light wor
burnin' when Taffendale cam' at ten o'clock. Aye, he were wi' her in
theer a good four hours, an'--"

Perris had walked close behind Pippany as they entered the granary, and
he was still closer as Pippany leaned into the window-place, thrusting
his fingers through the slats. And suddenly, obeying an uncontrollable
impulse, he lifted his hands, and, seizing Pippany by the throat, twisted
him round and threw him on his back across a pile of wheat which had been
emptied on the floor of the granary at a recent threshing. And Perris,
conscious now of no other desire than to kill, fell heavily upon his
victim, his hands tightly clutching the man's gullet, and slowly and
surely squeezing the life out of him in a grip which never relaxed. He
gave no attention to the convulsive struggles of the body beneath him, to
the kicking of the legs, the frantic beatings and tearings of the arms
and hands: all that he knew was that he had his man by the throat, and
that he must hold on there until all was quiet. It seemed scarcely a
minute before the last unconscious struggle faded into a mere movement, a
tremor which ran through the body and shivered into his own; but when the
limbs relaxed and the eyelids slowly dropped across the bulging eyes he
still held on, pressing his long, sinewy fingers more tightly into the
dead man's throat. And the granary grew so quiet, so silent, that the
grey rat put its head out of the hole in the corner, and Perris saw its
black eyes gleaming like tiny sparks of fire in the gloom.

He got up at last, and unconsciously wiped away the flecks of white froth
that had gathered on his lips. He lifted his right hand higher and
brushed off the sweat from his forehead; then he looked at both hands
curiously as if he expected to see something on them. And as if they were
numb, or hurt him, he began to rub them together. All this time his eyes
strayed anywhere but to the body which lay twisted up on the heap of
yellow wheat at his feet; when he finally turned to it, there was a look
of curiosity and speculation in his face. He stretched out his foot and
touched it gingerly with the point of his boot. Something in the contact
made him start, and he looked round about him with a quick, searching
glance. The grey rat, watching him stealthily, vanished affrighted into
the blackness behind it.

Perris's glance lighted on a pile of old sacks which lay on the further
side of the granary. He went over and tore the pile apart; returning to
the body, he dragged it across the floor into the shadow and covered it
with the sacks. Then, taking up a broom, he carefully swept the boards
clear of the grains of wheat which had been scattered broadcast in the
brief struggle; there was a deep depression in the heap itself, and he
smoothed it over with the head of the broom. And just as the sun sank
behind the ridge of the house he went down from the granary and entered
the door which he had left open only half-an-hour previously.

Some instinct made Perris go to the sink in the kitchen and wash his
hands, and as he washed and dried them he again looked at them with
strange inquisitiveness. When they were dried he thrust them into his
pockets; one hand encountered the key which Rhoda had handed to him
before she set out for the chapel. With another instinctive notion Perris
went over to the cupboard in the parlour in which his wife kept the
whisky, and, taking out the bottle, helped himself to a stiff dram.
Something told him, as he slowly drank it, that there was no fear of his
getting drunk that night--not all the whisky in the world would have made
him drunk. And, setting the glass down on the table in the house-place,
he took his pipe from the mantelpiece, and filling it from the old leaden
tobacco-box which stood on a shelf by his easy-chair, he lighted it with
a coal from the fire, and began to smoke as calmly as if nothing had
happened. The tract which the preacher had given him just before leaving
for the chapel lay on the table where Perris had thrown it, and he picked
it up and read some paragraphs of it between his gulps of the
whisky-andwater. The tract was all about the terrors of hell; he began to
wonder in vague fashion if Pippany Webster was already experiencing them.

It was dusk by that time, and Perris knew that there was work before him,
but he finished his drink and his pipe leisurely. When both were done, he
knocked the ashes out of the pipe and put the whisky bottle away, before
going outside the house and turning the corner into a strip of neglected
ground which lay beneath the gable end. It was neither garden nor
orchard, though an apple-tree shaded it and neglected gooseberry bushes
grew rank in it. Once upon a time some former tenant of the Cherry-trees
had conceived the notion of sinking a well there, and had penetrated into
the soil to a considerable depth, only to give up the attempt. The cavity
so made had never been filled up; its mouth was protected by rough
planking; over the planking there had stood for the past year a derelict
reaping-machine, one of the many ancient wrecks which had congregated
about the farmstead. Perris looked at it musingly as he stood beneath the
apple-tree in the rapidly gathering gloom. It would be easy to move; it
would be easy to move two or three of the rotting planks on which it
stood; the unfinished well beneath them would do well enough for Pippany
Webster's grave. But the darkness must come first.

Perris knew that there was no fear of interruption. Few people ever came
by the Cherry-trees at night; if they did, you could hear their footsteps
on the road before they were anywhere near. The desolate bit of ground
was thickly shielded from the lane which ran behind it; in the darkness
no one could see what was happening there. And it was not likely that
Rhoda would be home before half-past ten; he knew her Sunday night habits
of late, though until that night he had never known the reason of them.

So Perris waited, leaning over the wall of the fold and watching the
familiar shapes about him grow less and less distinct in the gathering
darkness. At last, when night had fairly settled over the land, he set
about his task. It was a plain and an easy task, and in a few minutes it
was all over; the dead man was in the ooze and slime at the bottom of the
unfinished well, the planks were in their place again, and the crazy
reaping-machine was pushed back upon them. And in the silence which
always brooded over the uplands at night, Perris went back into his house
and lighted the lamp and his pipe, and, helping himself to another glass
of whisky, sat down again and resumed his reading of the tract. And more
than once, as the writer described the torments which those who are lost
must needs experience, Perris again thought of Pippany Webster, and
wondered if what he read was true. He possessed the countryman's almost
superstitious reverence for printed matter, and knowing the preacher who
had given him the tract to be a worthy man, he came to the conclusion
that the account now presented to him was founded upon fact. And as he
drank off his whisky, preparatory to unlacing his Sunday boots, he shook
his head.

"Well, he wor a reight bad 'un, wor yon Pippany Webster," he muttered,
"a reight, rank bad 'un!"

He lay awake after he had gone to bed, and listened for Rhoda's return.
She had taken to occupying the spare chamber, and Perris had never
troubled himself about her likes or dislikes. As a strict rule he fell
asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, but on this night he
remained purposely alive to all sounds until he heard her come in and
presently enter the opposite room. Then he slept, and remained sleeping
soundly until he suddenly awoke to find the morning sun shining, and to
hear Rhoda moving about in the house-place. When he went down and met her
it was only to begin the ordinary routine of his everyday life, and she
observed nothing in his manner or conduct then or thereafter to show her
that he had passed through any unusual experience.


XII


On the second day after Pippany Webster received his dismissal from this
world at the hands of Perris, Uscroft, another small farmer of
Martinsthorpe, who had given Pippany a regular job at thatching, knocked
at Tibby Graddige's door, and, when she opened it, looked doubtfully at
her.

"Don't ye clean up, like, for yon Pippany Webster?" he asked.

"I do what bit o' cleanin' t' man needs, mestur," answered Tibby
Graddige. "It's none so much, 'cause he's one o' t' sort that likes to do
things for theirsens."

"Ha'you seen aught on him this last day or two?" said Uscroft. "Yesterda'
or to-day, like?"

"Yesterda' were Monday, and to-day, of course, is Tuesday," remarked Mrs.
Graddige, reflectively. "No, mestur, I seen nowt on him sin' Sunday
afternoon. I gen'lins go in to clear up o' Tuesdays and Fridays
afternoons or nights, as the case may be. There's nowt wrong, mestur?"

Uscroft scratched his head, and put his thumbs in the armholes of his
waistcoat.

"T' man's never been to his work either yesterda' or to-day," he
answered. "I gev' him a job at thacking my stacks, and I'm afraid t'
weather's goin' to break."

Mrs. Graddige looked across her garden in the direction of Pippany
Webster's cottage, which stood, lonely and half derelict, higher up the
side of the hill.

"Ha' you been to t' cottage then, mestur?" she asked. "He's happen been
ta'en badly--not 'at I've heard owt about it. But then, ye see, mestur,
nobody ever goes near him--he's such a queer 'un 'at he'll bear nobody to
step inside his premises, 'ceptin' when I go to do a bit of cleanin'."

"I've been to t' place," replied Uscroft. "It's locked up, and I looked
through t' front window; but I could see naught, except 'at there were no
fire in t' grate."

Tibby Graddige rubbed her elbows, which she had just withdrawn from the
washtub.

"Well, I'm sure I couldn't say where he is, Mestur Uscroft," she said.
"Of course, he's that queer, is Pippany, 'at I should never be surprised
at owt he did, in a way o' speakin'. As I say, I never set eyes on him
sin' Sunday afternoon--I dropped in then when he were takin' a cup o'
tea. He said naught to me about goin' away, nor nowt o' that sort. But,
of course, he has relations livin' over yonder at Stone-by, and he might
ha' taken it into his head to go there. I know he hasn't been to see 'em
for a long time."

Uscroft turned in the direction of Mrs. Graddige's garden gate.

"Well, if ye see aught on him when he comes back," he said, "ye can just
tell him 'at he needn't trouble hisself to come near my place again. I'm
none goin' to hey t' likes o' him playin' fast and loose wi' me. Here's a
day and a half's work lost at yon thackin'. I should ha' been seekin' him
yesterday, only I were away all t' day. Ye tell him what I say, missis--I
want no more on him."

"I'm sure ye don't, mestur," said Mrs. Graddige, who was always ready to
agree with everybody. "Oh, I'll tell him, right enough, but he's that
queer, is Pippany, 'at he doesn't care what trouble he occasions."

"Well, he'll 'casion me no more," growled Uscroft. "So ye can tell him,
straight."

He went away up the lower part of the village, and, it being then eleven
o'clock, turned into the Dancing Bear, at the door of which stood the
cart of the itinerant vendor of fish and secret purchaser of poached
rabbits. Within the kitchen the fish-man himself sat in a corner near the
fire, eating bread-andcheese and pickled onions with the help of a
clasp-knife; in the window-place, reading the local newspaper, sat
Justice, the gamekeeper, dividing his attention between the news and a
pint of ale. His dog, a wicked-looking lurcher, which bore the traces of
a hard and warring life, sat with one ear cocked before the fish-man,
expectant of occasional charity. Us-croft called for a drink, and,
sitting down against the opposite wall, looked fixedly at the fish-man.

"Don't ye come through Stoneby on yer way here?" he asked brusquely. "It
runs i' my mind 'at I've seen yer there of a mornin'."

The fish-man, whose cheeks bulged with breadand-cheese, nodded.

"That's right, sir," he said, when he had made several swallows. "I was
through there this morning. It's my first stopping-place, is Stone-by."

"Ye didn't happen to see aught o' that Pippany Webster?" asked Uscroft.
"Ye know him--a shammockin' sort o' chap--I've seen you talkin' to him i'
this kitchen."

The fish-man dropped his eyes and inclined his face towards the table at
which he sat. He lifted his mug of ale, and hid most of his countenance
with it. When he set it down he had collected his ideas.. He would have
been glad to have seen something of Pippany Webster, for since three
o'clock on Monday morning, when Pippany should have met him with a supply
of rabbits and had failed to do so, thereby causing him much
inconvenience, he had been wondering where his recently-made business
connection was. But his face was blank, and his eyes were innocent as he
faced Uscroft and shook his head.

"No, I saw naught of no Websters," he answered. "I know the man you
mean--slack-set sort o' chap, as you say. What should he be doing over at
Stoneby, Mister?"

"Nay," said Uscroft indifferently, "it's naught. Only I gave t' man a
job o' thackin last week, and he's never been near it neither yesterday
or to-day, and a neighbour of his just said to me that he'd very like
gone to Stoneby to see his rellytives; and, as ye come through there, I
thought ye might ha' seen him there, in t' street or in t' public."

"No," said the fish-man. "I see naught of him at Stoneby, neither in
street nor public-house."

Uscroft glanced across to the other side of the kitchen and caught the
gamekeeper's eye.

"I reckon ye've seen naught of him i' yer peregrinations?" he said, with
a sly movement of an eye-lid. "Ye chaps is supposed to cover a deal o'
country."

"Not to look for such as him, sir," answered the gamekeeper promptly.
"Something better to do than that, Mr. Uscroft."

Uscroft turned and winked at the fish-man.

"Why, I don't know, keeper," he said, with the half-sneering intonation
of a man who wishes to tease another. "I don't know. I reckon yon Webster
could snare a rabbit or two as well as anybody else. What do ye say,
fish-seller?"

The fish-seller hastily drank what remained of his ale and rose,
tightening the waist-belt of the blue-and-white apron which covered his
trousers.

"I've no doubt he could, mister; I've no doubt he could," he answered.
"Like a bit of nice fish leaving at your places, gentlemen, as I go by?
Fine piece of codfish this morning."

Neither farmer nor gamekeeper made any response to this attempt to do
business, and the fish-man accordingly retreated, and was presently heard
vociferating his wares as he drove his pony and cart up the street.
Uscroft laughed.

"I'll lay yon man takes more nor a few o' rabbit skins out o' t' village,
Justice," he said. "More rabbits nor what ye and us farmers shoots,
what?"

"And I dare say you farmers give your men a rabbit or two now and then,"
retorted the gamekeeper.

Uscroft rubbed his chin.

"I don't," he answered. "But it so chanced 'at I were ridin' home down
yon Spittle Lane one day, and I come across t' fish-seller yonder sortin'
rabbit-skins on t' roadside, and it struck me 'at there must be a deal o'
rabbits eaten i' Martinsthorpe. No doubt ye know more about that nor what
I do."

The gamekeeper, a sturdy, black-bearded man of fifty, who had the
reputation of caring much more for his ease than for rigorous carrying
out of his duties, threw down the newspaper and picked up his gun.

"I don't tell everybody all that I know, Mr. Uscroft," he said, "There's
such a thing as professional secrets, sir."

"Same as what lawyers talks about," sneered Uscroft. "Aye, I expect there
is. It's a good term, is that. Professional secrets, say you?--aye, a
good term."

The gamekeeper made no answer. He marched heavily out of the inn, with
the lurcher following closely at his heels, and turned up the high-road
which led away from the village in a southerly direction. Pre-. sently he
passed through a gate, and began to cross the fields towards the eastward
until he came to the brow of the hill beneath which lay Pippany Webster's
isolated cottage, and the clusters of little houses which were gathered
around the chapel. Then, leaning over a fence, he lighted his pipe, and
stared at the scene below him, thinking of what he had just heard. There
was a strong vein of fussy inquisitiveness in his nature, and it was not
long before he got over the fence and made his way behind protecting
hedgerows to the cottage at which he had been gazing. And as he passed
out of a gap in the hedge close to it he became aware of the presence of
Mrs. Graddige, who was peering through the window with a manifest desire
of seeing as much as possible of the interior.

Justice made a clicking sound with his tongue which caused Mrs. Graddige
to leap hurriedly from an inverted flower-pot on which she had elevated
herself. She uttered a sharp scream, and clapped a hand to her bosom.

"Massy on us, mestur, how ye did frighten me!" she exclaimed. "Ye've
given me a real turn."

The gamekeeper laughed. Not a native of those parts, but from a southern
county, he had a contempt for the Martinsthorpe folk which he was unable
to repress, and delighted in showing his superior wit.

"Thought it was the policeman, I expect, missis," he said, coming up to
the window. "What 're you wanting to break into your neighbour's cottage
for?"

"I'm none wantin' to break in nor to break off," retorted Tibby Graddige.
"I've a better place o' mi own nor what this is, mestur. I were lookin'
in to see if there's owt to be seen o' that poor man. He's mestur--niver
been to his work to-day nor yesterday, so Mestur Uscroft's been tellin'
me, as came to seek him. An' after Mestur Uscroft had gone, it occurred
to me 'at happen Webster had been ta'en wi' fit o' appleplexy, or summat
o' that sort, and were lyin' here helpless, d'ye see, mestur?"

Justice stepped on the flower-pot which Mrs. Graddige had so suddenly
vacated, and looked through the dirty, uncurtained window. By moving his
head about from one pane to another he obtained a full view of the
interior of Pippany Webster's living-room. On the table in the centre
stood the crockery which Pippany had used for his Sunday afternoon tea;
in the rusty fire-grate were the grey-and-white ashes of the fire which
had burnt itself out after his departure. Everything looked lost and
desolate, and suggestive of something which the gamekeeper, a
sharp-witted man, could not exactly define. He stepped down from the
flower-pot and looked up at the bedroom window.

"There's nothing but that one room up there, missis, is there?" he asked.
"Or is there another at the back?"

"No, there's naught but t' one sleepin' cha'mer," answered Mrs. Graddige,
who was already under the influence of a delightful sense of mystery.
"Eh, dear, mestur, what a dreadful thing it 'ud be if t' poor man wor
lyin' on his bed theer, passed away!"

The gamekeeper looked about the bit of garden in which they stood,
hopeful of seeing some sort of a ladder lying beneath the fruit-trees or
the hedgerows. Seeing nothing, he went round to the back of the cottage,
Mrs. Graddige and the lurcher in close attendance. And then, casting an
upward glance, he saw that there was a window at the back as well as at
the front of the cottage, and that beneath it was a lean-to shed which
formed a sort of scullery. He laid aside his gun.

"Now we can get a look in," he said, and began to climb to the roof of
the lean-to. "We'll soon see if he's in there, missis, dead or alive."

While Mrs. Graddige watched and waited in breathless expectancy, the
lurcher, relieved of attendance upon his master's heels began to inspect
the back-garden. He ran about here and there, sniffing and investigating,
until he came to a small and ancient cucumber frame, half-hidden in a
corner of the privet hedge. Most of the glass was gone, and what remained
was broken; within there appeared to be nothing but a pile of straw, upon
which two or three old guano sacks were carelessly tossed. The lurcher,
thrusting his scarred muzzle between the cracked panes of glass, changed
his sniffing to a whine, and his whine to louder complainings.

"Nothing to be seen here," announced the gamekeeper from the roof of the
lean-to. "There's the bed, and it's made, in a fashion, but there's
nothing either in or on or under it. No, nothing to see, missis,
so--what's that dog up to?"

The lurcher turned his disreputable head towards his master, lifted a
paw, and complained more loudly than ever. Justice came slowly down, and
went across to the cucumber frame, still followed by Mrs. Graddige. He,
too, began to sniff. And, suddenly brushing the dog aside and lifting up
the lid of the frame, he turned away the sacks and revealed, lying in
rows upon the straw, the carcasses of a quantity of rabbits. The lurcher,
unreproved, thrust his nose into them: Justice and Tibby Graddige moved
further back.

"Phew!" exclaimed Justice. "I thought he smelled something. These must
have been here a couple of days or more. Six--twelve--eighteen--two dozen
of 'em. Poached, of course. Ah!"

Mrs. Graddige, who had held her nose in the corner of her apron, released
it.

"Well, did ye iver see the like o' that, mestur!" she exclaimed. "The
idea of a peaceable-behaved man like yon theer goin' out o' nights
a-powchin'! Eh, theer is a deal o' wickedness i' this world! I expect
this'll be a lockin'-up job for him, mestur, weern't it? I suppose they
can't hang him, same as they did i' t' good owd days, can they?"

The gamekeeper made no immediate reply. He had picked up a stick, and was
turning the dead rabbits over, examining their feet, looking at the
lighter coloured fur under their bodies. There was a good deal of soil on
both fur and feet, and he knew at once from what particular part of the
parish the rabbits had been brought.

"They'll very likely hang, draw and quarter him, missis," he answered.
And, still using the stick, he replaced the sacks, and drove away the
lurcher. "That is, if he's caught. Now, when did you see him last?"

"As I telled Mestur Uscroft, o' Sunday afternoon, when he were drinkin'
his tea, which t' pot is still  on t' table" replied Mrs. Graddige. "An'
since then I've neither heard nor seen owt o' t' man. An' I'll tell you
what I'm thinkin', mestur--if so be as he went out powchin' o' nights,
which is what I should never ha' given him credit for, happen he's gotten
hissen caught fast in a snare, or happen he's tumm'led down a hole in t'
woods, and can't get away fro' neyther one nor t'other, and there he's
starvin' to death, and him wi' nowt to eat sin' Sunday!"

Justice picked up his gun and moved off.

"You keep your mouth shut, missis," he said over his shoulder, as he went
out of the garden. "Say nothing to anybody about these rabbits, nor about
me, either. Or happen you'll get hanged, too, as an accomplice after the
fact."

He went away, laughing, down the lane which led to the street. But as he
returned to his house at the other end of the village, Justice thought
seriously of what he had discovered--and, knowing that the rabits had
come from the sandy-soiled retreats of Badger's Hollow, he determined on
beginning an all-night vigil there that very evening. It appeared to him
that Pippany Webster had probably some refuge in the woods, whereat he
was finding it convenient to remain hidden for a day or two. And having a
profound belief in his own cleverness and sagacity, Justice kept his
knowledge to himself, and said nothing of his strangely-acquired
information even to the policeman, and it was by himself, and
unaccompanied by his dog, that he set out that night, by devious ways, to
the lonely spot where Taffendale and Rhoda Perris were in the habit of
keeping tryst.


XIII


Whoever, strange to the district, had come upon Taffendale's Limepits in
the darkness of the night, might well have been excused if for the moment
he had fancied himself dreaming of the bivouac which follows a long day's
battle, when camp-fires are lighted, and spirals of smoke-stained flame
wind upwards to a silent sky. Taffendale's Limepits were out of the
world; there was a high-road within a mile and a half of them and an
occupation road which communicated with it; there was also a railway near
at hand, but the railway only touched the pits by a deep-sunk siding; the
occupation road was equally sunk between high banks and thick hedgerows;
the Limepits, unlike Taffendale's farm, which stood high on the uplands
above, were hidden and unsuspected until you came to where the air,
whether of a spring morning or a winter night, was always sharp with the
acrid pungency of the burning lime. You perceived that pungency in your
nostrils before you came to Taffendale's; however strong the scent of the
new-mown hay in the adjacent meadows might be, however fragrant the
freshness of the new-blown roses in the hedge, the clear, keen smell of
the lime was paramount. Yet you saw nothing of this place until it
suddenly showed itself at your feet; then you found yourself confronting
a great, wide-spread cavity in the surface of the land; a sort of
waterless lake sunk deep down beneath the level of the fields and woods,
and all around its seamed and scarred sides the masses of limestone which
men had forced out with pick or explosive, and in its midst conical heaps
of the stone, built up symmetrically, like great beehives, with a bright
fire glowing and crackling at the base of each, and from the apex a
curling shaft of blue-grey smoke winding, day and night, while the lime
burned, into the upper air.

This was Taffendale's Limepits--a little world in itself. To look more
closely into its geography was to see that it had two hemispheres, like
the greater world on whose surface it made so minute a speck. Men had
delved and dug and scratched and burrowed into this quarry for so many
generations that one-half of it had become exhausted; the womb once so
generous in gift could give no more. And in that half Nature had asserted
herself in her usual fashion. The scarred sides had become covered over
with shrub and plant and flower; the burnt-out kilns had been transformed
into mounds and knolls, whereon silver daisies and golden buttercups made
stars in the grass; the uneven floor of the quarry was no longer a
wilderness of stone and rubble, but luxuriant enough of rye grass and
clover to afford cropping-ground for a donkey here and a goat there. And
here, in rudely-fashioned, one-storeyed cottages, built out of the stone,
the lime-burners lived. This worn-out, fully-worked scar, now given over
to green things, was the barracks of the tiny army which ceaselessly tore
wider and deeper scars into the unworked land beyond.

In the eyes of the folk who lived round about them in the neighbouring
villages Taffendale's lime-burners were a strange lot. They were a people
within a people. They kept themselves almost exclusively to themselves.
There were not very many of them: some seven or eight families in all. As
a rule they married amongst themselves; if a young lime-burner brought in
a wife from outside she was a long time on approbation; whenever a young
woman went away to service, or married one of the village lads (an
unusual circumstance, seeing that villagers and lime-burners were always
at variance), she left Taffendale's for ever. Now and then the men
visited one or other of the inns and ale-houses in the district, or
repaired to the market-town; on these occasions they went in a gang--no
lime-burner was ever known to go on such an expedition by himself. And if
they were aroused by villager or townsman at such times, they were more
than quick to fight--and then it was ill work for the men who were
adventurous enough to stand up to them. They were big, brawny,
great-boned fellows, half-savage, wholly careless, good-looking in a
devil-may-care fashion, and their isolated lives bound them as closely
together as the ties of blood which were already theirs. And their women
were of the same sort--fine, strapping, Amazon-like creatures, who had a
wild beauty of their own, and were not unconscious of it, but were much
prouder of the strength that enabled them, if it were necessary, to take
a place alongside their men-folk with pick and shovel, or to wheel
heavily-weighted barrows up the long planks which led to the
newly-building kilns.

On the morning following Justice's visit to Badger's Hollow, Taffendale
was standing on the edge of the quarry, watching his men build a new
kiln. He was in something of a dour mood; the entanglements with Rhoda
Perris, into which he had fallen with a species of ease and
inevitableness for which he could not account, was beginning to assume a
certain seriousness which he did not care to face. On the previous
evening Rhoda had told him that she could not understand Perris's conduct
during the past two or three days. He had gone about his work in silence;
eaten his meals in silence; had behaved as if he were indifferent to her
comings and goings; once or twice she had caught him looking at her as if
he were thinking or speculating about her. That afternoon he had gone
into the market-town to sell his new wheat; he had not returned home when
she set out in the evening to meet Taffendale. And she was vaguely
suspicious that there was something wrong, she said; maybe Perris had
heard something; maybe it was unsafe for them to meet. For the first time
she had been afraid of the woods, dark and quiet and lonely though they
were, and her sense of unseen trouble had communicated itself to
Taffendale. He had gone home uneasy and dissatisfied, and had passed a
restless night, and now as he stood looking down at his lime-burners,
building the new kiln layer by layer, he was wishing in his mind that
Perris's wife had never come near him for help, and more than all that he
had never walked home with her on that warm spring night which had found
her so excited and emotional and susceptible. He saw now how easily Fate,
or Destiny, or mere Chance had changed the direction of three lives.

As Taffendale stood there, gloomily ruminating on these matters and
wondering how they could be put right, he heard a heavy step behind him,
and looking round saw Justice coming in his direction, his slouched hat
set at a rakish angle, his gun resting in the crook of his arm, his hands
thrust negligently in the pockets of his cord breeches. Taffendale turned
his head away after the first sharp glance, and then walked a few yards
further along the edge of the quarry, as if to put some distance between
himself and the gamekeeper. He had no liking for Justice; he regarded him
as a lazy fellow who traded on the fact that he served an absentee
master; he fancied him to be sly and designing and a busybody, and he
never exchanged more than a nod with him. He was not pleased to see
Justice about his property, but there was a right-of-way across the land
at the lip of the quarry, and he could not object to his taking it. At
the same time he knew of no obligation upon him to take any notice of the
gamekeeper, and he walked slowly along, watching the operations beneath
until he was some distance from the path. Then, to his astonishment, he
found that Justice had left the path and was following him. Taffendale
turned sharply, and stared at the intruder in cold surprise. Justice saw
the coldness and the surprise, and smiled, as he took one hand out of his
pocket and touched the brim of his slouched hat with a gesture which
somehow insinuated a lack of respect.

"Good-morning, Mr. Taffendale," he said, with an attempt at ease which
Taffendale inwardly cursed for his familiarity. "A fine autumn morning,
sir."

"Good-morning," answered Taffendale. He had faced Justice by that time,
and he continued to regard him with disfavour. "Do you want to speak to
me?" he asked.

Justice smiled again, and taking out his pipe from an inner pocket of his
velveteen coat, made a show of lighting it. Taffendale, keenly observant,
noticed that his hands trembled a little.

"Well, that's the truth, I did, sir," replied Justice, with an assumption
of frankness. "That's what I stepped across for, Mr. Taffendale."

"Well?" said Taffendale.

Justice threw away the match and blew out a cloud of 'smoke. He watched
it float upward as if its gyrations were of vast interest.

"That's a queer business about this man Webster, Mr. Taffendale," he said
suddenly.

Taffendale, who had again turned to the quarry, glanced sharply round. He
had found Justice eyeing him narrowly.

"What about Webster?" he said.

"He's disappeared," replied Justice. "Never been seen since Sunday. And
this is Wednesday. He's a good job of work, too, at Mr. Uscroft's.
Thatching."

Taffendale again turned away.

"It's of no interest to me where Webster is or isn't," he said.

Justice coughed. The sound was intended to convey doubt.

"Well, maybe it isn't, but maybe it is, Mr. Taffendale," he remarked.
"You see, sir, when there was a bit of inquiry as to Webster yesterday, I
made it my business to take a look round the cottage and garden, and I
found out that he's been poaching. I found two dozen rabbits in an old
cucumber frame under some sacking."

Taffendale made no reply. But he was beginning to understand that Justice
had not come up to the Limepits for nothing, and he was listening with a
greater intentness than he would have cared to betray.

"Aye, two dozen rabbits!" the gamekeeper continued. "Now, I'm a bit of a
hand at going into details and forming conclusions, Mr. Taffendale, and
when I'd looked those rabbits carefully over I knew where Webster had
snared them. Those rabbits, sir, had come from Badger's Hollow, down
there in the woods yonder."

Still Taffendale made no sign and no answer, and Justice, watching him
closely, saw no flicker of eyelid or twitch of lip. But Taffendale in his
heart knew what was coming.

"So last night," continued Justice, "last night, sir, I went to Badger's
Hollow on the chance of seeing if Webster was lying hidden there, and had
anybody in with him at this job. I was there a good while, sir. And--I
didn't see Webster. But--I saw you, Mr. Taffendale."

Still Taffendale remained silent. But his right foot had begun to scrape
the gravel at his feet, and he suddenly kicked a pebble out into the
quarry, where it went rattling across the shelving limestone.

"And," said Justice, in a lower voice, "I saw Perris's wife."

In the silence that followed up there on the lip of the quarry the
deadened sound of the picks and shovels at work deep down below seemed to
come from some far-off world. Justice broke the silence by striking a
match. And as the rasping sound died Taffendale turned on him in a deadly
quiet fury that made the gamekeeper start back.

"Damn you!" said Taffendale through his closed teeth. "For less than you
think I'd pitch you neck and crop into that quarry!"

Justice drew still further back. He cast a significant glance at his gun.

"No you wouldn't, Mr. Taffendale! No, you wouldn't!" he said quietly.
"This gun's loaded, sir, and if you'd to offer me any violence I'd use
it. As you've spoken plain, I'll speak plain, too, Mr. Taffendale."

Taffendale thrust his hands in his pockets, to conceal the trembling that
had come over them. He turned his back on the gamekeeper, and walked
forward along the edge of the quarry. And justice, with a smile on his
face, refilled his pipe, and this time took his leisure about lighting it
with steady hands. Taffendale came back at last, master of himself again.
He looked at Justice with his usual cold air of distasteful inspection.

"Well, I suppose that's what you came to say?" he remarked.

"That's about all, Mr. Taffendale," answered the gamekeeper.

"About all?" sneered Taffendale. "I can guess the rest, Mr. Keeper. The
rest is--how much am I going to give you to hold your tongue?"

Justice looked at the rich man sharply, and with a sudden feeling of
uneasiness. Rich folk, he knew, are apt to be independent.

"Well, it wouldn't be a pleasant thing for you, Mr. Taffendale, if the
truth came out," he said. "I reckon nothing of Perris--he's a poor,
feckless sort, from what I've seen of him, and I should think he's
inclined to submit to anything. But there's such a thing as public
opinion, sir, and--"

"And there's such a thing as blackmail, and there's such a thing as law,"
said Taffendale. "You're hinting at one, and you're bringing yourself
within reach of the other. Who was with you last night?" he demanded,
turning sharply on Justice.

"Nobody, sir, nobody!" replied the gamekeeper, taken unawares. "Nobody at
all, Mr. Taffendale." Taffendale laughed.

"You're a fool!" he said. "Where're your witnesses? You come here, and
threaten me with a cock-and-bull story, and all for what? To get money
out of me. Mind I don't put the police on to you, my man!"

Justice suddenly realised that he was dealing with a cleverer man than
himself; that he had been too confident, that he had been too hasty. His
countenance betrayed his disappointment.

"I know what I saw," he muttered sulkily.

Taffendale laughed again, showing his white teeth, and the gamekeeper was
suddenly reminded of an animal that bares its fangs when it comes to a
life-anddeath fight. And as he laughed, he waved his hand in the
direction of the village.

"Go down to the pot-house yonder in Martinsthorpe," said Taffendale
severely, "and tell your cronies what's in your mind, and I'll have you
in the hands of the police before a day's over. And now, then, get off my
land!"

Justice stood for a moment looking uneasily at the man in whom he had
thought to find an easy victim. Then he nodded his head, and turned off
towards the path.

"All right, Mr. Taffendale," he said. "I see, sir! But there's more ways
than one. And I don't think Badger's Hollow 'll see you and Mrs. Perris
again."

Taffendale made no answer. He remained watching Justice until the
gamekeeper had gone down the path and away towards the village. For
half-an-hour longer he watched his men, and his eyes were dark and sombre
with thought, and now and then he muttered his thoughts half-aloud. He
was beginning to understand why Rhoda had felt some curious prevision of
coming trouble.

He went slowly back to the farmstead as noon drew near, and just as he
reached his garden gate he met the young labourer whom Perris had hired
when he discharged Pippany Webster. He held out to Taffendale a cheap
envelope, which bore plentiful impressions of his own fingers.

"T' missis hes sent this 'ere letter," he said bluntly. "And shoo said
wo'd you please to read it as soon as it were 'livered?"


XIV


Taffendale took the cheap envelope from the lad without comment, and
tearing it open, drew out a crumpled sheet of equally cheap notepaper, in
the top left-hand corner of which a crude representation of a pansy was
stamped. He remembered as he unfolded it that he had never seen Rhoda's
handwriting; there was no surprise aroused in him when he saw that it
resembled the caligraphy of a school-boy who has been taught nothing but
formal and elementary penmanship. He stared at the two or three lines
traced hurriedly across the front page.

"Will you please come here as soon as you can. I am afraid something is
wrong."

Taffendale crushed the note in his hand, and turned to the lad, who was
staring open-mouthed at the signs of well-to-do-ness which distinguished
the lime-burner's house and garden.

"All right," he said curtly. "Tell Mrs. Perris I'll ride round
presently--half-an-hour or so."

The messenger nodded his head, and set off by the path which led across
the fields, and Taffendale went into the house. He was wondering what it
was that had made Rhoda send for him; what she meant by her use of the
term "wrong." Going to the sideboard in his parlour he poured out a
glass of sherry, and sipped it slowly as he stood ruminating on the
events of the morning. First Justice and his blackmailing demand; now
this urgent message from Rhoda--it seemed strange, he thought, that they
should come together. And yet there was, perhaps, nothing strange in it;
there had always been a consciousness in Taffendale's mind that he and
Perris's wife had been skating on thin ice which might at any moment
crack beneath them. And all this, he said to himself with a grim smile,
might be the first sign of the crack.

Taffendale's farm-men were crossing the fold to the dinner awaiting them
in the kitchen, and he threw open the window and bade one of them saddle
his horse. He himself never dined until two o'clock; he would have ample
time to ride to Cherry-trees and back before his dinner-hour arrived,
unless something unforeseen awaited him there. And again he fell to
wondering why Rhoda had sent for him with such evidence of urgency.

There was nothing in the appearance of Cherry-trees, when Taffendale rode
up to it a little while later, to show that anything unusual had
happened. The lad who had been sent to fetch him was just turning in at
the orchard gate as Taffendale came in sight of it; he had evidently
taken his time as he traversed the footpath way. At the sound of the
horse's ringing feet he glanced round before vanishing into the house.
Rhoda came out at once, and on seeing her, Taffendale drew rein. She
hurried down the orchard to meet him, stopping at the very place where
Tibby Graddige had stood when she called him to render assistance to
Pippany Webster. Taffendale saw at once that she was alarmed and uneasy;
there was a sense of some unknown fear in her eyes, and she kept looking
from him to the house.

"What is it?" he asked, drawing his horse along side the hedge and
bending from the saddle. "What's the matter?"

Rhoda, as with an effort, concentrated her attention upon him.

"It's Perris," she said in a low voice. "He's--gone."

"Gone!" exclaimed Taffendale. "Gone?" Rhoda inclined her head and made no
answer in words.

"You don't mean he's left home--run away?" asked Taffendale. "What is it
you mean? Speak out!"

Rhoda nervously began breaking bits of twigs and leaves off the top of
the low hedge behind which she stood. She looked at Taffendale as if she
scarcely knew what to say.

"I'm--I'm frightened," she said at last. "There's something wrong, and I
don't know what. He wasn't at home when I came in last night--he'd gone
to town to sell that new wheat, you know. And--he never came home."

"Well, but that's not so extraordinary," said Taffendale. "There might be
reasons."

Rhoda shook her head.

"No!" she said. "I know him. He'd have been home last night if--if there
wasn't something wrong. But he didn't come--and there is."

The persistent harping upon this feature of the matter began to irritate
Taffendale. He repressed an exclamation of impatience, and drew his horse
closer to the hedge.

"But--what do you think is wrong?" he said. "You're thinking something,
you know. What is it?"

Rhoda gazed full at him for a moment, and made no answer.

"Come, now!" he said insistently.

But she only shook her head again and continued to stare at him. Suddenly
she broke into more voluble speech.

"And he never came back this morning," she said, "and then, just before
noon, a man came with a wagon and horses, and said that Perris had sold
the wheat yesterday to Mr. Mawson, and that he'd come to fetch it--he'd a
written order for its delivery, had the man, signed by Perris, and he
said he'd seen his master pay Perris for it. There were seventy quarters,
and they agreed at thirty shillings a quarter."

"Hundred guineas," muttered Taffendale. "Well, has the man taken it?"

"No," replied Rhoda. "I asked him to wait until I'd seen you. He's put up
his horses, and gone down to the Bear for an hour."

"Well, he'll have to take it," said Taffendale. "It's Perris's, and
nobody can stop him from selling it. You say the man saw him paid?"

"Yes, Mr. Mawson paid him in cash," answered Rhoda. "But--that's not all.
After--after the man had gone down to the Bear I bethought myself of the
money I had put away. There was some left of what you lent, and there was
some of my own, out of the fowls and such like, and there was some that
Perris got last week for pigs. You see, he's been so steady, and all that
of late, that I let him know where I kept the money, and he gave me
whatever came in to put with it. It was in a secret drawer in that old
bureau, in the parlour. And when I'd heard from Mr. Mawson's man about
the wheat I went to look in the drawer, and the money was all gone. He
must have taken it yesterday before he went off."

"How much was there?" asked Taffendale. He was beginning to see now that
there was something out of the common in all this; and Perris was
carrying some design into execution, and he grew vaguely fearful of what
its meaning might be.

"How much?" he repeated.

Rhoda hesitated as if she feared to answer. She was still nervously
plucking at the twigs and leaves of the hedge, and alternately glancing
from Taffendale to the house.

"I'm afraid it was a foolish thing to keep so much there," she said, at
last. "We'd been talking about putting it in the bank only last Sunday."

"How much was there?" asked Taffendale, impatiently.

"There was between fifty and sixty pounds," she answered.

Taffendale screwed up his lips.

"So that, if he has gone away, he's carried at least a hundred and fifty
pounds with him," he said, presently. "Well--I'm afraid he's off. It
looks like it--it looks very like it!"

Rhoda pushed herself forward over the top of the hedge. Her face flushed
as Taffendale bent nearer to her.

"Mark!" she said. "Mark! Do you think it's because--because he'd heard
aught about--you and me?"

Taffendale frowned. But when he remembered his interview with the
gamekeeper that morning he felt that Rhoda's suggestion was probable.

"I don't know--I don't know!" he said hastily. "There's time enough to
think about that. I'm afraid he's gone, though. I shouldn't have thought
anything at all about his selling the wheat and being away for a day or
two; it's the taking of the money from the drawer that seems to settle
it. He hasn t left a scrap of writing about, saying anything?"

Rhoda shook her head.

"I never thought to look, but I'm sure he hasn't," she answered. "No,
it's just what he would do, Perris, to go off in that quiet, sly way.
He--here's the man coming back for the wheat."

At sight of Mawson's wagoner coming round the corner of the garden,
Taffendale edged his horse away from the orchard fence and rode on to the
gate.

"I'll speak to him," he said, over his shoulder.

"Of course, he'll have to take it."

The wagoner, who knew Mr. Taffendale well enough, touched his cap as the
limeburner rode up to him.

"Now, my lad," said Taffendale, pleasantly.

"Mrs. Perris tells me you've come for that wheat. Mr. Perris isn't at
home, but I suppose it's all right--you've got an order for delivery?"

The wagoner pulled out a scrap of paper.

"Aw, it's all reight, Mestur Taffendale, sir," he replied. "Here's t'
order--I were there when our maister bowt t' wheat, and I see'd him pay
Mestur Perris for it. And they 'greed that I should fetch it this
mornin'."

"All right--all right," said Taffendale. He entered the little enclosure
at the corner of the house, and having dismounted from his horse, tied it
up to a tree. Going into the house-place he bade the young labourer
finish his dinner quickly and go to help the wagoner. "That's all in
order," he said to Rhoda when they were alone. "Of course, as I said just
now, he'll have to take the wheat. That's settled. Now--is there anything
to show that he meant to be off?"

"There's nothing," replied Rhoda, looking helplessly around her. "He just
went out as he always did when he went to market--he'd his second-best
suit on, and it's not over new. You don't think--"

She paused, and looked at Taffendale with eyes in which he read some fear
that had not come to full expression.

"Think--what?" he asked.

"Think that--that aught's happened to him?" she murmured.

"What could happen to him?" said Taffendale.

"Well, if he'd all that money on him," she said. "He might have been
followed, and--"

"Who knew that he'd all that money on him?" Taffendale retorted, with an
impatient laugh. "No--he's gone. He'd planned it out. The thing is--where
has he gone?"

Rhoda shook her head. She glanced around her and lowered her voice.

"That's not it, Mark," she said. "The real question is--why has he gone?
He's--heard something."

Taffendale made a sound and a movement indicative of impatience and
vexation.

"Supposing he had heard something, why should that make him go?" he
exclaimed. "No, I tell you, he's planned it. I always considered him a
deep and a sly customer, for all his softness. He's planned it all, and
he's got a nice start and money in his pocket. And if he was deep enough
to do that, he'll be deep enough to disappear altogether."

Rhoda darted a swift look at him.

"You think that?" she said quietly.

"If you're asking me what I think," answered Taffendale, "I'll tell you
straight out, my girl--I think Perris has been sharp enough to get
together all the money he could, and that he's probably off to Canada or
New Zealand or--somewhere. That's what I think."

Again Rhoda gave him a swift glance.

"And--me?" she said.

Taffendale's face flushed, and he thrust his hands in his pockets and
began to pace the room.

"Just so!" he said. "And--me. And--a good many other folks. It's no use
trying to make light of it There's going to be trouble, Rhoda. Or,
rather, not going to be. It's here. And--"

Just then a man passed the window, stumping heavily over the cobbles. The
sharp rap of a stick sounded on the door, which Taffendale had closed
when the young labourer went out. As Taffendale stood near the door, he
opened it, and found himself confronting a man whom he knew as a drover
employed by one of the market-town butchers. The man grinned.

"Day, Mestur Taffendale, sir," he said, lifting his stick to his cap.
"Anybody at home here, sir?"

Taffendale made no answer. He beckoned Rhoda to the door, and the man
again touched his cap.

"Day, mum," he said. "I come for them two bullocks 'at Mestur Perris
selled to our gaffer, yesterday. Here's t' order for 'livery."

Rhoda took the greasy scrap of paper, and stared at Perris's handwriting
as if she scarcely comprehended its meaning.

"He said, did Mestur Perris, 'at he mightn't be at home this afternoon,"
continued the drover, "so I were to show that bit o' writin' to eyther
you or t' lad, mum. I know t' bullocks when I see 'em, mum."

Rhoda glanced at Taffendale. Taffendale nodded. "Very well," she said to
the man. "You'll find them in the fold."

Taffendale followed the drover down the yard. "How much did your master
give Mr. Perris apiece for these bullocks, Tom?" he asked with affected
carelessness. "I've got a few to sell if prices are decent."

"He gev' sixteen-ten for one, and fifteen for t'other, sir," answered the
drover. Then he laughed softly. "But yeer stock's a bit diff'rent fro'
what this is, Mestur Taffendale," he said, slyly. "This is nobbut poor
stuff, sir."

Taffendale went back to the house, where Rhoda still stood staring about
her as if she neither saw nor understood anything.

"That's another thirty pounds he's got with him," he said, with a harsh
laugh. "So he's gone off with nearly two hundred capital. And--and I
don't see what's to stop him."

"He found something out," said Rhoda. "He found something out. I'm sure
that was it. He found something out!"

Taffendale made no answer, and Rhoda presently turned to the window, and
leaning over the sill looked over the flower-pots into the fold without.
The wagoner was carrying away the wheat out of one gate, and the drover
was driving off the bullocks from another.


XV


Justice went away from the Limepits with a determination to hold his
tongue. He would bide his time. He had made a mistake: he had been
over-hasty. But he would wait; he would watch. He had more then an
ordinary share of commonsense, and he believed that he would win more in
the end by waiting than by making a hurried attack. He walked home
thinking over his future plans: there was a friend of his, a sharp-witted
attorney's clerk, in the market-town, whom he would consult; they would
put their heads together over this affair, with a view to the utter
confounding of Mr. Mark Taffendale. In the meantime he would not say a
word of what he knew to any man or woman in Martinsthorpe; he would
preserve such a silence as he was rarely accustomed to keep. But when the
gamekeeper went down to the Dancing Bear that evening for his nightly
recreation, he speedily became aware that there was something afoot. At
the cross-roads, in front of the inn, the groups of men and lads which
congregated there when the day's work was over were obviously moved and
excited by unusual news; a buzz and cackle of gossip hovered round and
ran from one to the other. The young labourer who had replaced Pippany
Webster had known no reason for keeping his tongue quiet, and he had
talked freely since his return to the village from the scene of his
labours.

Justice stopped a man who was slouching across the open space to the
back-door of the inn.

"What's the matter, Jack--what're they talking about?" he asked.

The man shrugged his shoulders and laughed.

"Nay, they say 'at Perris, yonder, up at t' Cherry-trees, has run away,"
he answered. "Bill Tatten, him 'at works theer since Pippany wor' turned
away, browt t' news. Selled all t' stuff offen t' place, and seemin'ly
ta'en his departure, as it wor."

Justice said nothing in reply to this, and the informant, finding him
silent, passed on to the kitchen wherein those labourers who had twopence
to spend congregated around the deal tables. The gamekeeper wanted time
to think before joining his own coterie. He began to wish more ardently
than ever that he had not been in such haste to wait upon Mr. Taffendale
that morning. And before he went into the Dancing Bear out of the
darkness which was fast stealing over the village, he had resolved to
know nothing and to have heard no more than what had just been told him.

In a certain room of the inn, between parlour and kitchen, the room in
which Perris and his companions had made merry on the rent-day, a select
assemblage of the Martinsthorpe men met every evening. At that hour of
the day the kitchen was given up to the labourers; the parlour was
reserved to one or two of the better class of farmers, and to folk who
chanced to be riding or driving along the high-road. In the intermediate
room assembled the blacksmith, the carpenter, the miller, and the farmers
of Perris's standing; with these the gamekeeper, at first received with
some reserve and shyness because of his south country origin and vastly
different speech, had finally made himself at home through his habits of
good-fellowship and his ability to tell a good tale and sing a good song.
There were four or five of the usual fraternity there when he walked in
on this occasion, and he saw at once they were discussing Perris's
disappearance as eagerly as the men and lads outside. Justice, not
wishing to show himself entirely ignorant, threw out a question as he
dropped into his accustomed seat.

"What's all this about Perris, gentlemen?" he asked. "I just heard that
he's made himself what the Latin scholars term non est; which means that
he isn't where he should be--at home."

The blacksmith, who by virtue of seniority occupied the best seat by the
fire, took his churchwarden pipe out of his mouth and spat into the
glowing coals.

"Ne'er mind what t' Latin scholards says, nor t' Greek scholards,
neyther," he observed. "I know what t' English on it is. Happen I heerd
summat about it before onnybody Martinsthorpe."

"Well, what?" asked Justice, leisurely filling his pipe.

"I were i' t' kitchen theer hevin' a glass when yon man o' Mestur
Mawson's come in for a bit o' bread-and-cheese," continued the
blacksmith. "An' sits hissen down at t' side o' me. An' he says, says
he, 'I think theer's summat queer up yonder at t' Cherry-trees,' he says.
'How so?' says I. 'Why,' he says, 'Perris, he sell'd our maister his new
wheat yesterda', and it wor settled 'at I should fetch it to-day,' he
says, 'and when I got theer just now,' he says, 'Perris worn't theer, and
his wife knew nowt about it, and I made out 'at she's niver set ees on
him sin' yesterda',' he says. 'An' she wodn't let me tak' t' wheat till
she'd sent for Mestur Taffendale to tak' his counsel on t' matter.' 'Did
yeer maister pay for t' wheat?' says I. 'Aye, he did, an' i' my
presence, over a hundred pound,' he says, 'an' I hev Perris's orders for
t' delivery i' case he worn't at home, an' here it is,' he says, showin'
t' bit o' paper. 'Why, then, ye're all reight,' I says, 'whatever
Taffendale counsels or doesn't counsel.'"

"Aye, it's reight, is that," observed the carpenter, with an air of great
wisdom. "So long as Mestur Mawson hed paid for t' stuff, his man hed a
reight to fetch it."

"An' did Taffendale come to t' Cherry-trees then?" asked the miller. "An'
what hed he to do wi' it, when all's said an' done? I niver heerd 'at t'
Perrises wor owt to Taffendale."

The blacksmith again spat into the fire and wagged his head.

"Now, then, ye wait a bit!" he said. "I hevn't tell'd all t' tale yet.
That's nobbut t' first chapter, like. I heerd what happened when Mestur
Mawson's man went back to t' Cherry-trees. Taffendale was there, talkin'
to t' wife ower t' orchard hedge. An', of course, theer wor nowt to be
said--t' man wor in his reights to carry t' wheat away wi' him, and so
Taffendale said. An' while he wor agate, this here man o Mestur Mawson's,
gettin' t' wheat out o' t' granary, wi' yon theer Bill Tatten to help
him, up comes a chap to drive off two young beasts, bullocks, 'at he said
Perris hed Belled to his gaffer, Claybourne, t' butcher, t' day afore.
An' they hed to go an' all, 'cos they'd been duly settled for. So Perris
wor none wi'out brass i' his pocket, wheeriver he's gone. An' that's t'
reight truth about t' tale, 'cos I hed it all fro' Bill Tatten hissen--he
come into my place wi' a brokken ploo-share as he wor goin' home to-neet,
and he telled me all about it. An' he said 'at Taffendale an' Perris's
wife wor talkin' t' house for hours 'at after t' men had gone away wi' t'
wheat and t' bullocks."

In the silence which followed this deliverance, Justice rang the bell and
ordered a glass of whisky.

"I expect Mrs. Perris sent for Mr. Taffendale because he's their nearest
neighbour," he observed, when the whisky had been brought and the door
closed again upon the conclave. "His place isn't so far off theirs."

The blacksmith snorted, and gave Justice a look expressive of North
Country contempt for South Country inability to see through brick walls.

"Ah!" he said. "Du yer? Well, I expect nowt o' t' sort. I can see a bit
further nor t' end o' mi nose, I can!"

"Well, and what do you see?" asked Justice, taking his snub
good-humouredly. "Let's be knowing."

The blacksmith leaned forward and looked slyly round the circle of
expectant faces.

"I know nowt!" he said. "But I'll tell yer what I think. I think 'at
Taffendale's been helpin' them theer! That's what I think. Helpin' 'em, I
say."

"What, wi' brass?" exclaimed the miller. "Wi' brass?"

"Wi' brass! What else should he help em' wi'?" replied the blacksmith.
"Now, ye look here. Theer's more nor one i' Martinsthorpe knows how it
wor wi' Perris just afore t' last rent-day. Them as iver looked ower a
hedge-top at t' Cherry-trees knows 'at he'd scarce owt left on t' place.
And only two days afore t' rent-day itself, yon theer Pippany Webster
browt a hoss to be shod at my place, and he tell'd me 'at theer worn't
more nor one feed left for t' horses and t' pigs, and nowt much beside,
and at' so far as he could see, Perris wor on his varry last legs for
brass. And yit, on t' rent-day, down comes Perris as large as life, and
pays up as if he wor a millionaire Ye see'd him, all on yer."

"Aye, it's reight, is that," murmured the conclave in unanimous chorus.
"He 'livered his brass up, reight enough, did t' man."

The blacksmith thumped the table.

"Aye, but wheer did 'a get t' brass!" he demanded. "Now, I'll tell yer
summat 'at'll happen oppen yer ees! Yon theer dowter o' mine, Lucilla,
wor Mestur Taffendale's sarvice at that time, and a neet or two afore t'
rent-day, she heerd som'dy knock loud at t' front-door, when her and t'
housekeeper, and t' other sarvent lass had gone to bed. And she thowt to
hersen 'at it were a queer time o' night for onnybody to call.
Howsomiver, she heerd Taffendale go and open t' door and she heerd him
let som'dy in, and after some time she heerd him let som'dy out, and she
looked out o' t' cha'mer window, did our Lucilla, and then she
see'd--cause t' parlour lamp and t' hall lamp shone full on 'em--who'd
yer think she see'd walkin' down t' garden path wi' Taffendale?"

The conclave shook its collective head in wondering silence, and the
blacksmith wagged his own in triumph. He again thumped the table, and
bent forward to smile more knowingly.

"It wor Perris's wife!" he said. "Perris's wife! Ye mind that theer.
Perris's wife!"

The company sighed deeply. Nobody seemed inclined to speak. But Justice
presently found his voice.

"It's a bit dangerous, saying things like that, isn't it?" he said. "I
mean--in a public way?"

The blacksmith turned on his commentator with scorn.

"Dangerous! What's dangerous?" he demanded. "Theer's nowt dangerous about
speykin' t' truth, is there?--we don't reckon it so i' Yorkshire,
onnyway, whativer ye South Country folk may do! We speyk t' truth, and
shame t' Devil--that's what we do, keeper, an' ye tak' a bit o' notice.
My dowter's free to say what she saw wi' her own ees, isn't she? I tell
yer 'at she see'd Perris wife i' Taffendale garden that neet, and she'd
been hafe-an-hour alone wi' him i' t' parlour. An' that my dowter 'll
stand to, if need be. So theer!"

"Shoo's a truthful young woman, is Lucilla," observed the carpenter, with
great solemnity. "Shoo wodn't say nowt 'at worn't reight."

"Noe!" said Lucilla's father stoutly. "If I found onny dowter o' mine
sayin' owt 'at worn't reight, I'd gi' her bell-tinker wi' my strap! Of
course, shoo said what wor reight. An' that worrn't t' only time 'at
Perris's wife wor theer at t' Limepits late at neet, 'cause she wor theer
agen a piece after, and our Lucilla see'd Taffendale go out wi' her, and
he didn't come home for two houis that neet, and then it wor after twelve
o'clock when he did come home. An' if ye ax me, I say 'at Taffendale's
been helpin' them theer wi' brass, and I could like to know what's he's
hed i' exchange for it--now then!"

Justice's sly spirit was rejoicing with him. A little more talk of this
sort in the village, a little more frank, and brutal, and eminently
Yorkshire expression of opinion, and Taffendale would find a hornets'
nest about his ears. Even if he, Justice, gained nothing by it himself in
a pecuniary sense, he would have the gratification of knowing that he was
revenged for the coldness and insolence with which Mr. Taffendale of the
Limepits had always treated him. So he drank his whisky and smoked his
pipe, and for once played the part of quiet listener.

"All t' same," observed the miller, after a pause, "all t' same, I don't
see what all that's gotten to do wi' this sudden disappearance o'
Perris's."

"Don't yer?" said the blacksmith. "Happen yer don't. But ye wait a bit,
mi lad. Theer's summat 'll come out. A man doesn't lig his hands on all
t' brass he can sam up, and then tak' hissen off wi'out a word to
onnybody, unless he's some reason. Ye mind that."

One of the small farmers, who had steadily consumed cold gin, and
preserved an attentive silence while the blacksmith talked, now broke in
upon the discussion, prefacing his remarks with a sly smile.

"Why it seems a varry queer thing to me, gentlemen, 'at Perris an' yon
theer Pippany Webster should ha' disappeared 'at about t' same time," he
observed. "Theer is, of course, what they terms coincidences, but I niver
heerd tell o' one occurrin' i' a little out-o'-t'-way place like
Martinsthorpe before."

"Didn't yer?" grunted the blacksmith contemptuously. "A'but, them things
occurs onny wheer. T' size o' t' place hes nowt to do wi' it. An' I don't
believe 'at it is onny coincidence, as t' term goes, i' this case. It's
my opinion theer's a plot o' some sort--a consperracy."

The miller started.

"What, summat like t' Gunpowder Plot!" he exclaimed. "Ye wodn't go so far
as to say it resembled that theer?"

"Niver ye mind," said the blacksmith. "Ye'll see 'at we're nobbut at t'
beginnin' o' this here mystery."

"That's t' reight word," said the carpenter. "Aye, it's indeed t' reight
word, is that theer. Mystery! That's t' reight word, gentlemen--Mystery!"

To make some endeavour to solve the mystery, there presently appeared at
Cherry-trees John William Perris, to whom Rhoda had written asking if he
had any news of Abel. He arrived in the mourning garments which he had
put on in the expectation of hearing that his Uncle George had left him
at least a thousand pounds, and his countenance was doleful and
perplexed. And after he had spent an hour with Rhoda, who had taken Tibby
Graddige into her house to keep her company, he walked across to the
Limepits to call upon Taffendale. Taffendale chanced to meet him outside
and took him into the parlour and gave him spiritual refreshment,
inwardly wondering if it would be possible to find anywhere in the world
two brothers who looked so slackly set up and so obviously unfit as Abel
and John William Perris. He offered John William a cigar, and left him to
open the conversation.

"I'm sore put to it to understand how it is that my poor brother's
disappeared like this here, Mr. Taffendale, sir," said John William
Perris. "Us Perrises has always been a very straight-livin' lot, sir,
ever since I can remember, and by all I can gather o' what happened to us
i' previous ages. It's a very surprisin' matter, sir, is this here. Of
course, I understand, Mr. Taffendale, that you've been uncommon good to
'em, and that Abel was beginnin' to prosper a bit, thanks to you, and it
makes it all the more unaccountable, as it were. How would you be for
reckonin' of it up, sir?"

"I'm not for reckoning it up at all," answered Taffendale. "The facts are
plain enough. Your brother realised as much money as he could on what he
had to sell, and off he went with the money. That's the long and the
short of it."

John William Perris rubbed his sandy stubble which grew on his weak chin
with the tip of a black-gloved finger.

"Yes, I expect that's the long and the short of it, sir," he said. "You
couldn't put it no straighter, Mr. Taffendale. But--what's to become of
Abel's wife, sir?"

Taffendale made no answer.

"Because, you see, Mr. Taffendale, things can't bide as they are,"
continued John William. "They'll develop, as it were, in some way."

Taffendale was as well aware of that fact as his visitor, and when he had
gone he repeated the phrase to himself, and cursed the evil of
unfortunate circumstances, which was growing tighter and stronger. He
felt that there was trouble in the air. But he knew nothing definite,
until an old farmer from Martinsthorpe drew him aside one day in the
market-town.

"Mark," he said, "I'm afraid there's going to be unpleasantness for you.
Do you know what they're saying?"

Taffendale turned on him in a fury of irritation.

"Saying? Who's saying?" he exclaimed. "What're they saying?"

"They're saying that you and Perris's wife were carrying on before he
went off, and that that's why he went off," said the old man, eyeing him
steadily. "It's all over the village."

Taffendale turned white with anger.

"Damn them!--let them talk!" he said. "Do you think I care what
Martinsthorpe folk say? Let them talk!"

But as he went down the market-place he caught sight of Justice, as he
walked across and confronted him.

"Now, then, you!" he said, with concentrated fury in his tone. "You've
been talking. I warned you I'd break you if you talked. You've been
talking, I say, damn you!"

Justice drew himself up and looked the lime-burner squarely in the face.

"I've never opened my lips on the matter, Mr. Taffendale," he said. "There
was no need, sir. I found out that others knew more than I did."

And he passed on, leaving Taffendale more furious than ever.


XVI


When the gamekeeper had remarked to Taffendale at their meeting on the
lip of the quarry that there was such a thing as public opinion,
Taffendale had laughed acornfully. Public opinion, as represented by the
ideas and feelings of Martinsthorpe, was naught to him. He was not of the
Martinsthorpe community: he never mixed with even the better sort of its
members, except on the half-yearly rent-day. Leaving out two or three of
the principal farmers he could buy up the whole of Martinsthorpe with
ease. He had no Martinsthorpe folk in his employ; his lime-burners were a
separate and peculiar race; his farm-labourers, who all lived in his
house, were invariably engaged by him at distant statute-hiring fairs.
Between the people of Martinsthorpe and himself there had always been a
gulf. He never went to church; never attended any parish meeting or
social gathering; never identified himself with the village in any way.
And when he heard Justice's veiled hint he said to himself that he was
not going to begin the practice of regarding the public opinion of
Martinsthorpe. Let its people think what they liked, and say what they
thought: he cared not.

Nevertheless, early on the morning following his meeting with the old
farmer in the market-town, Taffendale, white-hot with temper and rage,
rode his horse into the cobble-paved yard which lay in front of the
blacksmith's forge, and called loudly to the two apprentices for their
master. The blacksmith, just then eating his breakfast in his cottage
beyond the forge, heard the loud and insistent voice, and emerged from
his porch, calmly wiping his lips with the back of his hand. He leaned
over his garden gate, and stared Taffendale hard and full in the face.

"Mornin', Mestur Taffendale," he said quietly. Taffendale glared angrily
at the blacksmith from between the ears of his panting horse.

"Now, then," he said, not condescending to any greeting or preface, "what
were you saying about me at the Dancing Bear the other night?"

"Nowt but what's true," retorted the blacksmith. Taffendale set his
teeth, and with a touch of his spur urged the horse a yard or two nearer.

"Damn you!" he said. "Do you know there's such a thing as law in this
country?"

"Aye, I do!" said the blacksmith. "An' what bi' that?"

"You'll find yourself in its clutches if you don't mind what you're
doing!" replied Taffendale threateningly. "And your daughter, too. Do you
hear what I say?"

"Aye, I do hear what ye say, and I don't care one o' them damns 'at ye're
so fond o' throwin' about for what ye say," answered the blacksmith
stoutly. "An' I'll tell ye to your face, Mestur Taffendale, what I said
at t' Dancin' Bear. I said 'at when my dowter Lucilla wor in your service
she were made aware 'at Perris's wife visited you late at night on two
occasions, and were alone wi' you in your parlour, and 'at on one
occasion ye went out wi' her and wor away fro' your house for over two
hour. And that's t' truth, Mestur Taffendale, and ye knows it's t' truth,
and it can be proved. An' ye can ride into t' town and tak' t' law o' me
as much as ye like. I know who's t' most to lose. I don't carry on wi'
other men's wives, onnyway."

Taffendale stared at the man who could show such bold defiance. The
isolated and lonely life which he lived had given him something of an
exaggerated sense of his own importance, and he was puzzled to find that
the blacksmith did not offer to eat humble pie at the mere sight of him.
He whipped his horse round.

"You'll get no more trade from me," he said. "Send in your bill for aught
that's owing."

The blacksmith laughed, and drawing himself erect, tightened the strings
of his leather apron.

"I'm none dependent on ye'er bit o' wark, mestur," he said. "Ye seem to
think 'at theer's nobody but yersen Martinsthorpe. Mind 'at ye don't find
out 'at theer is som'dy else! If I were ye, I should be ashamed to show
misen i' t' place."

Out of sheer bravado and contrariety, Taffendale rode boldly through the
village street. At the crossroads there was the usual group of loafers;
its members stared blankly at him, and the cripple to whom he sometimes
gave a shilling made no offer to touch his ragged cap. The women at the
cottage doors glanced at him curiously and made no sign, but twice, as he
rode along, he heard stifled bursts of laughter break out behind him. He
met one or two of the Martinsthorpe farmers; they passed him with no more
than a nod: coldness and aloofness were in their eyes. Taffendale set his
lips and sneered.

"Damn 'em, let 'em think and say and do what they like!" he muttered.
"What does it matter to me?"

That it mattered to anybody else had not yet entered into Taffendale's
comprehension. That it did, never dawned upon him until a few days later,
when, amongst his morning's budget of letters, he found a rude scrawl
which made him knit his brows. It was hurriedly written across a sheet of
the whitey-brown paper in which village shopkeepers wrap small wares, and
the penmanship was elementary. Taffendale read it twice over, while he
read cursing the hint that it conveyed.

"Dear sir," it ran, "you had best to get yon woman away from Perris's
place before too late because there is going to be trouble so no more
from A WELL-WISHER."

Taffendale threw the letter into the fire with a further hearty curse.
But when he had breakfasted he mounted his horse and rode round to
Cherry-trees. He had kept away from the place as much as possible since
Perris's disappearance, and when he had called there it had been only to
talk to Rhoda over the gate of the orchard, where they were in full view
of Tibby Graddige from the house and of anybody who happened to be
passing along the road. She came out to him now, careworn and haggard
with the uncertainty and anxiety which had so unexpectedly come upon her.
And Taffendale, suddenly observant of the dark shadows under her eyes,
and the nervous turn of her head, was for the first time minded not to
curse other folks, but to utter a malediction on himself.

"You haven't heard anything?" she said, as she came up to the gate. "I
thought, perhaps, you had when I saw you coming along the lane."

"No, I've heard nothing," he answered. "I don't think we shall hear
anything. Look here, Rhoda, I've been thinking--"

He paused as if at a loss for words, and Rhoda looked up at him as if she
had some intuition as to what was coming.

"Don't you think you'd better go away for a while?" he said. "I don't
believe Perris'll ever come back, and things can't go on like this. Go
away--close the house, and let me get affairs settled up. I'll write to
the steward. It's the best thing to do."

Rhoda bowed her head for a moment. When she lifted it again he was
surprised to see that her expression was acquiescent. The old, stubborn
spirit seemed to have been driven out of her.

"Very well," she said. "I'll go. I shall be glad to go. I know what
they're saying down in the village. And--and last night I got a letter
from the chapel people saying that I'm not to sing in the choir again,
though they say I can attend the chapel if I choose. It's likely I should
do that!"

"Damn them for a set of canting hypocrites!" snarled Taffendale. "It's
like 'em! Ready to judge and condemn when they've only heard half a
tale."

Rhoda looked up again.

"But I don't know where to go," she said. "I won't go to my father and
mother--not for anything! Nor to John William's. Where can I go?"

Taffendale thought quickly. And he thought of the wrong thing.

"You shall go to the seaside for a while," he said. "I--I could run over
and see you. Listen, because we must settle at once. Tell Tibby Graddige
you won't want her after to-night, and pay off that lad this afternoon.
Pack your box and have all ready for eight o'clock to-morrow morning.
I'll order a cab to be here, for you, and you can drive to Somerleigh. Go
to Cornchester, and book from there to--where? Anywhere will do--anywhere
that's quiet. Say Filey. Write to me from there when you've found a
lodging. And, look here, I've some notes in my pocket that you'd better
take. There's thirty pounds. And here's some gold to pay off the woman
and the lad. It's the only thing to do, Rhoda. Get away."

"Very well," she answered, taking the money which Taffendale crumpled up
in a careless handful and passed across the gate. "I'll do what you wish.
I'm getting nervous about being here. I'll go--yes, to-morrow morning."

"To-morrow morning at eight a cab will be here," said Taffendale. He
looked at her as if there was more to be said, yet he said nothing.
"I'll--I'll be sure to see you within a week," he added. "Write when you
get there."

Rhoda inclined her head, but made no answer, and Taffendale turned his
horse round and rode back to the Limepits. After all, he said to himself,
it was best that Rhoda should go away. There was nothing to be done;
Perris had disappeared as completely as if the grave had swallowed him,
and nobody believed that he would ever return. Perhaps with Rhoda gone
the feeling in the village would die down; certainly there was no need
that she should ever return to the Cherry-trees. As to the future,
Taffendale did not then concern himself with it. Nor did he again think
of the anonymous letter which had warned him of some nebulous
eventuality.

Since Perris's flight Rhoda, at Taffendale's instigation, had kept Tibby
Graddige constantly with her. Tibby, well paid for her services, had
accepted the post of companion with equanimity. There had been little to
do, and plenty to eat, and all that she missed was the village gossip.
She had tried to wheedle as much news as she could get out of Bill
Tatten, but there had always been an uneasy conviction in her mind that
Bill Tatten was not telling her all that he knew. Nevertheless, he tried
to extract news from Tibby herself before he left the Cherry-trees on the
evening of his dismissal. Tibby had left the house to feed the fowls, and
Mr. Tatten, fingering in his breeches-pockets the money which Rhoda had
paid him in lieu of notice, and further conscious of the fact that she
had made him a present of ten shillings out of pure goodwill, waylaid her
at the gate of the fold and showed a disposition to converse.

"Is Mistress Perris aimin' to go away i' t' mornin'?" he asked, gazing at
Mrs. Graddige with an expression which implied his assurance of her
complete knowledge of Rhoda's movements. "Is she?

"What for do ye want to know what Mistress Perris is goin' to do?" said
Tibby Graddige. "It's nowt to ye."

"Happen not," replied Mr. Tatten. "An' happen it is. An' I reckon shoo is
goin', cause I noticed 'at ye an' her ha' been gettin' her clothes ready,
and 'at shoo wor packin' things i' a box."

"Well, I say it's nowt to ye," repeated Tibby Graddige. "An' nowt to
nobody. If Mistress Perris thinks well an' good t' go a-visitin' her
rellytives, theer's nobody can say owt agen it, can they?"

"Aw, it's reight enough, is that theer," replied Mr. Tatten. "Shoo's a
reight to go wheer shoo pleases, hes t' woman. Theer's no law agen it,
'at I know on. So shoo's off i' t' mornin'--what?"

"I say it's nowt to ye when she's off nor when she isn't off," answered
Tibby. "Ye've gotten yer brass, and summat ower and above, 'cause I see'd
t' young missis gi' it t' yer, and ye've hed yer supper an' all, and yer
pint o' ale, so off yer go home, for I'm sure ye've been well done to,
Bill Tatten."

"All reight," said Mr. Tatten. "I'm goin'. All t' same, I reckon 'at
Mistress Perris is aimin' to be away to-morrow mornin'."

And instead of going straight to his own home in the lower part of the
village, he went across the fields to a certain nook and corner behind
the church, where, in a cottage tenanted by one Sal Bennett, the door of
which was open to callers when that of the Dancing Bear was closed, and
wherein many gallons of ale were consumed at hours when they could not be
obtained on licensed premises, all the mischief of the village was
concocted and all the best gossip and scandal discussed amongst a certain
section of the baser sort.

Sal Bennett's only occupation in life, beyond that of wife to her
husband, a meek and inoffensive old shepherd, who always retired to bed
before the nightly orgies which were carried on in his cottage began, was
the making of toffee, which she rolled up in long sticks of the thickness
of the stem of a churchwarden pipe, and sold, carefully wrapped in fancy
paper with a twirl at the end, to the children at the price of a
halfpenny a stick or three sticks for a penny. She was engaged in the
manufacture of this confection when Mr. Tatten entered the cottage, and
she turned a crimsoned face upon him from the glowing fire whereon lay a
frying-pan in which the ingredients of the toffee were fizzling and
spitting. She was a gaunt and formidable female, and she ruled her
satellites with an influence which none of them understood, though all
felt it.

"Now then, what do ye want?" demanded Sal Bennett, regarding the visitor
speculatively. "Hes owt happened, or what?"

"I cam' here afore I went home," Mr. Tatten said, in explanation of his
presence. "If so be as ye're goin' to carry out what it were decided to
do, like, up yonder at t' Cherry-trees and t' Limepits, ye'll hey' to do
it to-neet. 'Cause I've fun' out 'at shoo's off first thing t'-morrow
mornin', is t' woman."

Sal Bennett took her iron spoon out of the frying-pan, and, planting her
great hands on her hips, looked Mr. Tatten searchingly in the face.

"Is that reight?" she asked. "Ha' yer made sure?"

"I'm as sure as I am 'at I see ye," answered Mr. Tatten. "Her and Tibby
Graddige hes been gettin' her clothes ready all t'-day, and I see'd her
packin' her box misen, and I gathered 'at shoo's goin' away to stop wi'
rellytives, and shoo's paid me off, and g'ien me ten shillin' for misen,
so theer. If it's goin' t' be done, it'll hev' to be done to-neet.

"Why, now, then!" said Sal Bennett. "It shall be done, reight enough.
We'm all ready. T' images is already made, and they're in our shed at t'
back theer, and theer's nowt to do now but to tell t' lads and them 'at's
goin' t' tak' part. Ye mun go round, Bill, and give 'em t'word to be here
as soon as t' darkness sets in. And tell 'em to bring as many owd cans
and pans and tea-trays, and owt o' that sort as iver they can lay fingers
to--it's no use wi'out theer's plenty o' noise."

"All reight," said Mr. Tatten. "I'll round 'em up. It's a rare good job
'at I fun' out shoo wor goin' t' mornin'."

"Well, as I say, all's ready," said Mrs. Bennett. "An' we'll gi' mi lady
an' her fancy man summat to mak' 'em bethink theirsens."

When the darkness came on that night Rhoda and Tibby Graddige had just
finished the labours of the day and were sitting down to supper. They had
been ironing most of the afternoon, and the house-place was so hot from
the bright fire which they had found it necessary to keep up that Rhoda
had opened both door and window. Outside the house the night was very
still, but a gentle wind was springing up from the south-west. And as it
stole in, soft and warm, through window and door, it suddenly brought
with it a strange and discordant sound which increased in volume with
every passing second. It was a sound that seemed to be made up of various
incongruous elements--the shouting of human beings, maddened or frenzied,
the blowing of horns, the thumping of a drum, the beating of metal
surfaces. And underneath and around it was the tramp of human feet.

Tibby Graddige, knowing old country woman that she was, was quick to hear
and understand the first murmur of the approaching storm, and rose to her
feet, white and trembling.

"Oh, missis, missis!" she gasped. "Oh, missis!

"What is it?" exclaimed Rhoda, rising just as hastily and upsetting the
tea-pot which she was about to handle. "Tibby! What is it?"

Tibby Graddige listened for one brief second. The blare and the babel
sounded more clearly with the next puff of wind. She gazed at Rhoda with
horror-filled eyes.

"It's the stang!" she whispered hoarsely, "they're ridin' the stang for
you and Taffendale. Eh, good Lord, what mun we do?--two helpless women! I
heerd--I heerd a rumour 'at they would, but I never thought they'd do
it: it's a good twenty year sin' it were ridden i' Martinsthorpe. Lord,
ha' mercy on us!"

Rhoda scarcely comprehended the woman's meaning. But before she had time
to speak Tibby Graddige clutched her by the wrist and dragged her up the
stairs to a window which looked out upon the high-road. She pointed a
finger to the vengeance which was coming, hydra-headed and brutal,
through the night.

Rhoda looked fearfully out. The mob, led by Sal Bennett, had reached the
top of the hill, and was sweeping forward on Cherry-trees in irregular
formation. Some of its members carried torches; their yellow light glared
upon two rudely-fashioned effigies, one of a man, the other of a woman,
which were tied together, back to back and carried upon a short ladder
supported on the shoulders of bearers. Around these things, mere bundles
of straw stuffed into old garments and provided with masks, and swaying
foolishly to and fro, a crowd of men, women, and young folk, lads and
lasses, danced, leaped, skipped and ran, some beating old pans, kettles,
tea-trays, some blowing horns and whistles, one at least thumping a drum;
all screeching, howling, yelling, singing at the highest pitch of their
voices. And now and then the sputtering torches threw into clear vision
faces such as those folk saw in plenty who made a short journey from
prison to guillotine in the times of the Terror.

"Lord, ha' mercy on us!" exclaimed Tibby Graddige for the second time.
And she dragged Rhoda down the stair and out of the house and through the
orchard. Hand-in-hand, sobbing from fright, the two women hurried into
the fields in the direction of the Limepits.


XVII


That night Taffendale had been called into the stables to look at a
sickly horse; coming away from the fold in company with his foreman, he
heard the uproar which the stang-riders were creating around
Cherry-trees. At his side the foreman uttered a sharp exclamation, and
turned in the direction of the unholy sound.

"What's that?" asked Taffendale, with a sudden premonition of approaching
trouble.

The foreman, an old Martinsthorpe man, made a noise in his throat, which
was half a groan and half a laugh.

"I'm afraid they're up to summat down yonder, sir," he answered. "I know
what yon row means. They're ridin' t' stang! It's many a year sin' that
were done hereabouts. But I know t' sound. It'll be that theer Sal
Bennett and her lot."

"But--where?" exclaimed Taffendale. "Where?"

Without further word the foreman climbed the steps of the granary,
beneath which he and his master were just then walking, and looked out in
the gloom across the darkening surface of the uplands. Taffendale
followed him. He knew what the answer to his question would be. Standing
at the foreman's side, he, too, gazed at the glare of the rude torches
which the stang-riders carried. The points of light whirled and eddied
hither and thither, but as the two men watched they became concentrated
upon one spot in the darkness.

"They're at Cherry-trees," muttered the foreman. "Cherry-trees!"

Taffendale swore under his breath. He gripped the rail which protected
the head of the granary steps, and stared at the yellow patch of light
with straining eyes. In the silence of the countryside the blare of the
horns and the trumpet, the metallic clatter of the pans and kettles, the
insistent thumpthump-thump of the drum, grew louder and louder; his
nerves began to grow raw under the irritation.

"If there's anybody at home, there," remarked the foreman, "it'll be a
bad job for 'em."

"There's Mrs. Perris there," answered Taffendale.

The foreman drew in his breath with a hissing sound.

"I didn't know, sir," he said quietly. "Well, happen they'll leave her
alone, though yon lot o' Sal Bennett's is a wild lot. They'll stick at
nowt when they're once stirred up, and--"

"We'd better get the men together and go down," said Taffendale. "There's
Mrs. Perris and Tibby Graddige in the house. We can't leave them
unprotected. I'll get the men from the pits."

But the foreman laid a hand on his master's arm, as Taffendale turned to
hurry down the steps.

"Don't, maister!" he said. "If yon lads from t' quarry meets wi'
Martinsthorpers on a 'casion like this, there'll be murder done. Ye know
what happens when they meet on ordinary 'casions. Don't, sir!"

"But the women?" exclaimed Taffendale.

The foreman looked out again across the level fields. "Best let yon lot
get tired o' shoutin' and rampin' round there," he said. "Then they'll go
away. Unless--"

"Unless what?" asked Taffendale.

"Unless," replied the foreman slowly and in a low voice, "unless they
come on here, maister. Ye mun excuse me, but they've been talking and
gossipin' down in t' village theer about you and Perris's wife, so I
understand, and I'm a good deal mistaken if they don't come here."

"I'll make them repent it if they do!" said Taffendale between his teeth.
"If they set foot on my land I'll--"

He paused as the foreman uttered a sharp cry, and seizing his master with
one hand stretched the other out towards Cherry-trees.

"God!" he shouted, "Fire! Yon's fire!"

Out of the yellow glare which hung about Perris's holding, a shaft of
bright flame suddenly shot up towards the stars. Another and another
followed it; overhead the sky and the stars were rapidly blotted out by
rolling clouds of flame and smoke.

"It's on fire--all t' place is on fire!" cried the foreman.

With a simultaneous impulse he and his master turned and hurried down the
steps to the fold. The foreman began to shout loudly for the men and lads
who hung about the stables, or lounged in and out of the farmstead
kitchen.

"Murder or no murder, we'll have the quarrymen now," said Taffendale. And
as the farm men came running up he seized the foremost by his shoulder.
"Run to the Limepits and tell them to come. Cherry-trees is on fire!" he
shouted. "The rest of you come on with me--come on!"

From the corner of Taffendale's garden a field-path ran straight across
country to Cherry-trees; the path by which Taffendale had taken Rhoda
Perris home on the occasion of her second visit to him. It crossed two or
three widespread fields, and then came to a dip in the land wherein was a
thickly-wooded hollow, through which ran a narrow stream. It was in that
hollow that Taffendale and Rhoda had confessed their love, and it was
there that he and Rhoda now met, as he hurried on at the head of his men.
She and Tibby Graddige came panting down the path at one side of the
hollow as the party from the Limepits ran down the other; on the little
bridge which crossed the stream they encountered; the two women sank
against the rails, fighting for breath. And Taffendale, regardless of
what his men should see in such light as there was, put his arm round
Mrs. Perris and supported her.

"You're not hurt?" he demanded. "They didn't interfere with you?"

Rhoda could only shake her head. Tibby Graddige found her tongue first.

"I dragged her out and away, just i' time, mestur!" she panted. "A minute
longer, and they'd ha' been on to us. Howsomiver, we 'scaped 'em. But oh,
mestur, they've setten fire to t' place!"

"I know--I know!" answered Taffendale. "You and Mrs. Perris must go on to
my house. We'll hurry on to Cherry-trees."

But the foreman made an inarticulate sound of disapproval, and Tibby
Graddige spoke again.

"Yell do no good, Mestur Taffendale," she said. "Ye can't save naught,
sir. An'--they'll be comin' to your place. I heerd tell o' this, but I
never thowt they'd carry it out. Ye'd best go home and see to yer own
premises."

"Aye--shoo's reight, sir," counselled the foreman. "We can do no good at
Cherry-trees. If they're coming to t' Limepits, we'd best see to our
stackyard."

"They'll not dare!" exclaimed Taffendale. "They'll never--"

"Mestur, they'll dare owt!" said Tibby Graddige. "They'll be half-mad wi'
drink and glory. It's yon rabble o' Sal Bennett's--theer's a hundred or
more on 'em. Go back, mestur, and save yer own bit o' property."

"Aye, let's away back," said the foreman.

Taffendale made no further opposition. He followed his men out of the
hollow, still supporting Rhoda, who clung trembling to his arm. At the
top of the path the little party turned to look at Cherry-trees, now
separated from them by only the hollow and one field. House, barn and
stackyard were all blazing merrily, and through the clouds of
dun-coloured smoke great flecks of flame and showers of burning sparks
flew upward to the blackness above.

"They'll never dare to come to Limepits now," said Taffendale, bending
down to Rhoda. "After that," he continued, pointing to the scene of
devastation, "after that they'll all be for running away as fast as they
can. That means prison for some of them."

But as he spoke, he and those about him became aware that the mob was
already quitting Cherry-trees.

The torches came together; the horns and the drum and the tin-pans were
sounded with renewed fury; and in the glare of the burning farmstead the
watchers saw two straw-stuffed effigies lifted high above the heads of
the howling and yelling crowd. Swaying and lurching, they were moved on
again--not back to the village, as Taffendale had expected, but along the
road which wound round by the fields and the corner of the woods wherein
lay Badger's Hollow in the direction of the Limepits. Tibby Graddige
uttered a loud exclamation.

"Didn't I tell yer!" she cried. "I said they'd come up to yeer place,
Mestur Taffendale. They're i' that condition o' pomp and vanity 'at they
care for nowt nor nobody. I know what they're aimin' to do. They mean t'
burn t' stuffed images i' front o' yeer house, mestur, and to say t'
stang warning."

"Come on, sir, let's get back," said the foreman.

But as they turned to hurry over the fields, the quarrymen came running
through the darkness, ten or twelve great fellows, only too eager to come
to grips with the mob. They were for crossing the land, and intercepting
the stang-riders before they reached the woods. But the foreman, wise in
his knowledge, counselled otherwise.

"Keep off comin' to blows wi' 'em!" he said. "I know what they want.
Mistress Graddige here's reight. Let 'em come up t' road to t' farm,
maister, and let 'em burn t' images and shout t' warning, and then
they'll go away satisfied with what they've done. What we want to do is
to keep 'em offen t' premises. Theer's five-and-forty cornstacks i' our
stackyard, ye know, maister."

Taffendale knew that well enough; he knew also what he had in his
granaries, and stables, and barns, and byres, and sties. If the Limepits
got on fire thousands of pounds' worth of property would go. And he
thought quickly and clearly for the needs of the moment.

"All right," he said sharply. "Quick, lads--back home! We'll surround the
place and keep them off. When we get there every man and lad lay hold of
a good stick, and don't be afraid to use it if there's any need arises.
Now hurry!"

The mob was surging up the lane, more riotous and loud of lung than ever,
when Taffendale and his men reached the farmstead. He hurried the two
women into the house, and then posted the quarrymen and the farm hands
along the front of the garden and entrance to the outbuildings.

"Do naught till I give the word!" he shouted, springing on the horseblock
at his front gate in order to overlook his little army. "Keep in the
background. If they'll go away quietly when they've finished with their
damned ceremonies, let 'em go! But if they try to come in, drive them
back and lay on hard."

The mob came along with the rush and roar of a horde of savages. The
light from the flaring and guttering torches and naphtha lamps fell full
on Taffendale, who remained standing on the horseblock watching his
persecutors over a set mouth and folded arms. And as they swept up to his
very feet he saw that every man and lad in the crowd either had his face
blackened beyond recognition, or was masked by a piece of cloth in which
eyelets had been cut. As for the women, they looked more like wild beasts
than human beings, and their unbound hair concealed all that was to be
seen of their features, save glittering eyes and shining teeth.

A storm of execration and obscene abuse burst over Taffendale as the
crowd came to a halt and faced him. It suddenly died down into a low
continuous growl as he lifted a hand.

"Not a foot do you set on my property, you scoundrels!" he shouted.
"You've done enough harm for one night down yonder, and some of you'll
find yourselves in gaol before the week's out. Be off before you get your
heads broken."

A further roar of abuse followed Taffendale's admonition, and one of the
masked men forced himself to the front and shook his fist at the figure
on the horseblock.

"None o' yeer advice!" he shouted, with a foul epithet, at which the
crowd burst into a shriek of derisive laughter. "We know what's t' law
and what isn't t' law. We're on the public highway, and ye can't put us
offen it. We'm boun' to burn t' images o' ye and yer fancy woman afore
yer faces--what, lads?"

In the midst of another storm of abuse some hand in the crowd threw a
rotten egg at Taffendale with well-directed aim. The egg struck him full
on the breast of his buttoned-up coat, burst, and bespattered the coat
with its stinking contents. The mob yelled delightedly: Taffendale calmly
divested himself of the coat and tossed it over the garden hedge behind
him.

"Any more violence and you shall have something to yell for," he said. "I
shan't warn you. Keep quiet, men!" he shouted, as some of the
lime-burners started forward, cudgels in hand. "Keep quiet, I say! Let
them have their play out."

The mob retreated a few paces to the broad strip of grass on the opposite
side of the road. To the accompaniment of the blaring horns, the
insistent thumping of the drum and beating of the pans and kettles, the
leaders made their preparations for burning the stuffed effigies, which
still swayed and nodded in ridiculous fashion on the ladder. Some of the
men carried bundles of straw; others armfuls of sticks and dry wood; a
lad came forward with a tin bottle of paraffin. Facing the horseblock, on
which Taffendale kept his position, defiant and watchful, they built up a
pyre of straw and wood, on the apex they placed the figures, still tied
together at the waists. To the accompaniment of an increased volume of
objurgation the fire was lighted, and black smoke and bright flame shot
upward above the glow of the lime-pits in the background. And Taffendale,
looking round, saw in the windows of his house the white faces of the
frightened women, and further away the last dull light of the fire at
Cherry-trees--burnt out.

The masked leader who had answered Taffendale's challenge with defiance,
sprang upon a heap of stones at the side of the burning effigies. As the
flames roared and sputtered upwards he began to shout the words of the
doggerel nominy, his followers of the mob dancing and leaping about him
and the quivering tongues of red fire--


"Rang a dang-dang! Rang a dang-dang
It's not for you nor for me that we ride this stang!
But for--"


Taffendale felt a hand pull at his knee. He looked down and saw the
foreman's face beneath him, full of anxiety.

"Maister!" he said. "Maister! Look wheer them sparks is flyin'!"

Taffendale glanced at the shower of sparks sailing gaily away before the
wind. A south-east breeze had been steadily rising and increasing in
force all the evening, and now as the flakes of fire rose from the
smoking mass on the roadside it was carrying them across the corner of
the garden towards the great stackyard which lay at the side of the
farmstead. And, as the foreman had remarked in the hollow, there were in
that stackyard five-and-forty stacks of wheat and barley and oats, the
yield of the recent harvest. Taffendale, a wealthy man, had no need to
thrash his corn, as most farmers did--almost as soon as it was got from
the land. He could afford to keep it, and keep it for months he always
did. No thrashing machine had entered his yard that autumn, nor would
enter; there stood the forty-five stacks, stoutly thatched and neatly
trimmed, not to be touched before the end of the next spring. And now the
sparks were flying that way; as Taffendale and the foreman gazed
anxiously into the blackness above them, they saw a scurrying lump of red
fall on the roof of the pigeon-cote and continue to glow fiercely and to
shoot out tiny sparks of flame over the surrounding tiles.

Taffendale snapped out one fierce exclamation and leaped from the
horseblock. He snatched a stick from one of his own farm lads, and waved
his arm to his men.

"Out with that fire!" he shouted, above the roar of the flames and the
strident voice of the nominy caller. "Quick, men! Out with it! Lay on!"

The lime-burners leaped on the crowd with a fury that sent its members
flying as sparrows fly before the sudden onset of a hawk. Up rose the
cudgels and down they fell, on heads, arms, shoulders, and on the burning
figures and the red mass of straw and wood beneath. But the beating in of
the fire only sent a fresh shower of sparks whirling and eddying into the
sky, to be seized and carried onward by the wind, and suddenly, high
above the yells and oaths of the men and the screeching of the women,
they heard the voice of Tibby Graddige screaming from an upper window of
the house.

"The stackgarth's on fire! The stackgarth's on fire!"

Taffendale slashed the leader of the mob heavily across the face with his
cudgel, saw him sink down into the bonfire like a dead man, and calling
on the lime-burners and his farm hands, ran like one demented round the
garden and the outbuildings to the stack-yard. And as he turned the last
corner he groaned and sobbed from very despair and helplessness because
of the sight that met him. Three of the closely ranged stacks were well
alight, and blazing furiously, and the wind was carrying the fire amongst
the others in wide, curling sheets of flame.

For a moment Taffendale halted, staring at the fierce, never-ceasing
onslaught of the terrible force which was tearing its way through his
safely-garnered produce. Already the flame was licking a hundred new
paths from stack to stack; as the men hastened up, it hastened before
them; as they beat it out in one place it burst out anew in another.
Before his very eyes the side of a great wheatstack caught and harboured
a spark, was transformed into a sheet of glowing red, and sent up a
circling pillar of smoke, through which the fire flashed like a live
thing. He stood dazed, trembling, utterly bewildered. He saw one of his
lads dash out of the stable-yard on his own horse, and go careering madly
over the meadows, leaping hedge and ditch as they came, and he knew that
he was riding to call the firemen from the market-town, five long miles
off. He saw the lime-burners and the farm hands tear down branches of
trees wherewith to beat out the spreading flames; he saw the flames set
fire to the branches and go on eating their way to the hearts of the
stacks. He saw the foreman and others dragging tarpaulins over the sides
of the stacks which the fire had not yet reached; the fire swept on and
set the tarpaulins alight, and more volumes of black and oily smoke
rolled away to mingle with the flames. He saw the men driven back, driven
away, until at last, smoke-grimed and singed and sullen they stood
gathered about him, silently watching the great glowing mass of straw and
grain, worth many a thousand pounds, mould itself into a mighty furnace,
the glow of which was spread widely over the sky and was seen for miles
upon miles by many a wondering town and village.

"That's done for!" said Taffendale at last. "There's naught can save it.
Every stack 'll go. No use any fire brigade coming--they can do naught.
But there's one good job--the wind's blowing it away from the buildings
and the stables. Some of you go and quiet those horses. Let them out into
the garth--they're worse than the women!"

The horses were screaming in the stables, and when the lads released them
they rushed out into the homegarth and galloped wildly away across
country, to round up at last in a shaking, quivering mass and, closely
huddled together, to stare back in wide-eyed affright at the horror which
had driven them close to madness. And Taffendale stared, and the men
gathered about him stared, and the women, clustering in the farmhouse
windows, stared, until in the grey morning the great fire burnt itself
out, and where the stacks had stood in their prim neatness and ordered
lines, thatched and trimmed and shaven, there was nothing but shapeless
heaps of blackened refuse, through which evil tongues of feeble flame
darted at every puff of wind.

And in that grey light Taffendale went back to the road outside the
farmstead and looked at the place whereat the evil had originated. There
were patches of blood on the yellow of the roadway, showing where the
lime-burners' sticks had cracked the villagers' crowns. And across the
ruins of the bonfire, still tied together and only partially consumed,
lay the straw-stuffed effigies which had represented Rhoda and himself.


XVIII


Taffendale went back to the house, stripped off his smoke-blackened
clothes, and plunged into a cold bath. An hour later, the sun being then
well risen above the woods, he walked into the kitchen, spick-and-span,
from his well-groomed head to his polished boots, to find the
lime-burners and the farm hands busied over the breakfast which he had
told his housekeeper to prepare for them. The occasion might have been
one of rejoicing rather than of sorrow, for Taffendale had been prodigal
in his orders, and the men were feasting royally. They stared
open-mouthed at him as he strode up to the top of the long table at which
they sat.

"Now, my lads," he said, "its no use crying over spilt milk. What's done
is done, and it can't be helped now. What's more important is what is to
be done. I want every sign and vestige of that fire cleared out of my
stackyard to-day. Set to work on it as soon as you've had your
breakfasts, and go at it with a heart and a half! There'll be drinkings
for you morning and afternoon, and there'll be your dinner at one o'clock
and your supper at six. Go at it, all of you--lime-burners and all. And
when it's done there'll be a sovereign apiece for every man and lad. What
I want," he paused as a murmur of gratification rolled round the the
table--"what I want is to see my premises cleared of every trace of what
happened last night. As for those that caused it to happen--leave them to
me."

Then he strode out of the kitchen followed by voluble promises, and went
to the parlour, where Rhoda, cowed and terrified by the events of the
night, sat awaiting him. Before she could speak he laid his hand firmly
on her shoulder.

"Now, my girl," he said, with a note of purpose and sternness in his
voice which she had never noticed before, "I want you to listen to me.
Maybe this has all come about because--well, because we didn't think,
because we let our feelings get too much for us. But I'm not the man to
be beaten down by what they call public opinion. When I decide to go on
with a thing I go on with it against the likes or dislikes of anybody.
And--you'll stay in this house."

Rhoda stared at him with amazed eyes.

"After--last night?" she faltered.

"Because of last night," said Taffendale. "Because of last night. I'll
let whoever's interested see that I care naught for what anybody says.
You're burned out of house and home, and here you'll stay. My
housekeeper's also my cousin, and she'll play propriety and act chaperone
and all the rest of the damned nonsense. And if anybody says a word, then
they'll have to settle with me. Now I'm going to begin my reckoning with
those devils in Martinsthorpe, and before I've done with them they shall
wish that they'd died before ever their mothers bore them!"

Without more words Taffendale went away, saddled his horse with his own
hands, and set out for the market-town and his solicitor. And so that he
might fill his mind full of the enormity of the misdeeds of the
stang-riders, he went round by Cherry-trees, to see the exact amount of
damage they had done there.

Early as the hour was, Cherry-trees was surrounded by an eager and
exicted crowd. There were men there who should have been at work in the
fields, there were whispering and awe-struck women, there were children
whose mothers had roused them from their slumbers with news of a great
event. And there, talking gravely with the Martinsthorpe policeman, was
the under-steward, one of the more considerable farmers of the village,
who turned a troubled face on Taffendale as he rode up. He and his
companion advanced to meet him; the other folk gathered in knots and
stared at him furtively, wondering at his set face and the glitter in his
eyes.

"This is a bad job, Mr. Taffendale," said the under-steward. "A bad, bad
job, sir."

Taffendale made no immediate answer. He reined in his horse and looked
around him. The picture of his own devastated stackyard was fresh in his
mind, but here was one of still greater desolation. For Cherry-trees was
burnt to the ground. House, outbuildings, sheds, all were destroyed; the
very trees in the garden and orchard were shrivelled and twisted and
blackened. There was naught to be seen in the triangle which Perris's
holding had filled but heaps of seared masonry and grey ashes. And from
the low murmurs and chance words which he had heard as he sat watching,
he knew that such live-stock as had been left on the place had perished
in the flames.

"Aye, it's a bad job, indeed!" said the village constable, desirous of
showing his agreement with the under-steward. "I never heard tell o' such
doin's."

Taffendale looked down at both men with scornful eyes and a curling lip.
He laughed and they glanced at him wonderingly.

"And I suppose you could do naught to stop it?" he said, looking the
policeman up and down.

"Me, sir! What could I do?" the man asked, genuinely surprised. "What's
one man against a lot such as was out last night? They'd have knocked me
on the head as soon as look at me!"

"But you represent the majesty of the Law," said Taffendale, sneeringly.
"I should have thought they'd all have run away if you'd held your hand
up."

The policeman's face became sullen, and the under-steward looked
displeased.

"This isn't a time for joking, Mr. Taffendale," he said. "The constable's
right--one man couldn't do aught against a mob like that. No, nor six men
neither!"

"And I suppose there weren't any peaceable and law-abiding folk in
Martinsthorpe village to stop those that were riotous and lawless?"
exclaimed Taffendale. "You don't mean to tell me--and I shouldn't believe
you if you did--that all the men and lads in Martinsthorpe joined in
burning this place down and in burning my stacks? Why didn't you two get
the better-disposed together, and stop the badly-disposed? If you'd
liked, you could have prevented them from even coming up that hill."

The policeman looked uncomfortable, but the under-steward's face glowed
to a dull red of resentment.

"It's not my place to keep order," he said. "It was none of my business!"

"No, it was nobody's business," sneered Taffendale. "Men like you were to
sit at home, doing naught, while rascals and scoundrels were burning your
neighbours' property Your business By God!--I'll tell you what's going to
be my business. Come here you!" he cried, raising his voice, and waving
his hand to the folk gathered about the grey heaps. "Come here, and hear
what I've got to say, and go down to Martinsthorpe yonder and tell
everybody. Tell them that Mark Taffendale says he'll neither rest day nor
night till every man, woman, lad, lass, that had hand or part in last
night's work has smarted for it! Tell them that he'll spend every penny
of the sixty thousand pound he's worth to bring them to justice Tell them
that he'll sell his land and lime-pits if need be to find money to punish
'em! Tell them that when the law's done with them he'll start in with his
punishment--he'll follow them wherever they go; he'll make 'em marked men
and marked women; he'll make them so that they'll be thankful to be
thrown into a gaol for shelter, and a poorhouse for food; he'll make them
wish that their right hands had been cut off before ever they set out up
yon hill last night! Tell them that if there's a halter about, they'd
better use it before Mark Taffendale's hand is on them--tell them--"

The under-steward lifted his arm, and laid trembling fingers on
Taffendale's wrist.

"Hush, Mr. Taffendale, hush!" he said, "Haven't you--haven't you heard?"

"Heard--what?" demanded Taffendale, shaking off the hand.

"We were going to tell you. There was a man killed last night. Young John
Robey. And," continued the under-steward, lowering his voice, and gazing
fearfully around him at the wide-eyed and open-mouthed crowd, "they say,
Mr. Taffendale, they say it was you killed him. You were seen to strike
him down."

Taffendale started. He remembered the blow which he had dealt out to the
ringleader; he remembered the savage delight with which he had felt it go
home, and had seen the man crumple up across the glowing fire over which
the effigies were burning. And he remembered, too, the stain of blood
which he had found on the road when he had set out in the growing light.

"He was a wild young fellow, young John Robey, it's true," said the
under-steward, "but he was the only support his mother had, and they say
he was always very good to her. However, they carried him away dead from
your place, Mr. Taffendale."

"There'll have to be an inquest," observed the policeman.

Taffendale turned his horse's head.

"You always know where to find me," he remarked.

Without further word or sign he rode slowly off towards the market-town;
behind him arose growls and murmurs of resentment. And one woman more
defiant and courageous than the rest, raised her fist, and shook it in
his face as he passed a group which stood at the corner of the high-road
glaring at him from under their close-drawn shawls.

"This is what's come o' carryin' on wi' Perris's wife!" she shouted.
"Tak' yer black face out o' honest folks' sight, ye ugly devil!"

Taffendale rode on and made no sign. He had no doubt that he had killed
Robey, and the news had sobered him. But he had no fear of any
consequences; he had struck the man in defence of his own life and
property, and he knew he would go scatheless. If twenty Robeys and Sal
Bennetts had been killed he would still have gone forward in his mission
of vengeance until every participant had been made to feel his power. And
when he walked into his solicitor's office in the market-town he was
still as angry and as resolute in his determination to punish the
stang-riders as when he rode off from the Lime-pits.

The solicitor let Taffendale pour out his wrath and utter his
denunication before he himself said a word. He even jotted down
Taffendale's instructions without comment. They were plain and precise
instructions, for Taffendale always had clear notions of his own. At
once--that very day if possible--there must be printed and posted bills
in big type, offering considerable rewards for information which would
lead to the conviction of all persons concerned in the affair of the
previous evening. Taffendale, in his anger, named ridiculous sums; the
solicitor said nothing, and made a memorandum of them.

"I know the breed!" said Taffendale, savagely. "Most of 'em would sell
their own mothers for a pint of ale. Offer that reward, and they'll all
be tumbling over each other. I'll have 'em hunted down till I've laid
every Jack and Jill by the heels!"

The solicitor, an old school-mate of Taffendale's, turned in his chair
and put the tips of his fingers together.

"Finished, Mark?" he asked quietly.

"I've finished," answered Taffendale.

"Then let me talk awhile. War," observed the solicitor, "is a bad thing
between enemies, but it is worse between friends. It is horrible between
nations, but it is hell between two halves of one nation."

"Talk plainly," growled Taffendale.

"The internecine war in the United States," continued the solicitor,
"was necessarily much more dreadful than any war between the United States
and say, Spain, could be, because it is, I say, hell, and very bad hell
for war to spring up in a community, whether that community is large or
small. Well, in its way, Mark, a war in a village is as bad as a war
between two halves of a nation."

"Damn it, why all this jargon?" exclaimed Taffendale. "What are you
driving at?"

The solicitor tapped the sheet of paper on which he had scribbled his
memoranda.

"I think it would be foolish to carry out these instructions," he said.
"Now, just be quiet and listen to me. Who started all this?"

Taffendale frowned

"It's no good denying it, Mark--you've been foolish about Mrs. Perris. I
don't want to know the truth about your private affairs, but"--he paused
and shook his head--"there'd have been no stangriding at Martinsthorpe
last night if it hadn't been for you. That's true!"

"Before God, she's as innocent as--as I am!" exclaimed Taffendale.
"Foolish we may have been in meeting, but there's naught wrong."

"All the same, Perris left home," said the solicitor. "And folks talked.
And as I say, the stangriding would never have taken place if it hadn't
been for you. There's nothing illegal in riding the stang--it's an
ancient custom. And if you want my opinion, the fires resulted not from
design but from accident. The places were not set on fire deliberately."

Taffendale's face darkened, and his mouth became more obstinate.

"I know what I've lost," he said sullenly.

"And I know that you're insured to whatever amount you've lost," said the
solicitor, with quiet firmness. "Take my advice, Mark. Don't set all
Martinsthorpe against you because of your sheer desire for revenge. Let
the law deal with these people: don't you interfere. Remember, there's a
man dead."

"They couldn't prove that I killed him," muttered Taffendale. "It was a
mixed-up fight by that time. I have bruises on me."

"I don't think there 'll be any need to prove anything or disprove
anything. But I know what the people will think and say," replied the
solicitor. "Come, there's enough bad blood--don't make more. Let things
quieten down. Just remember--village folk have a rough and rude sense of
justice, and they wouldn't have carried out that old Pagan practice of
stang-riding if they hadn't felt they were bound to protest against your
carrying on, as they call it, with another man's wife."

"You'd better throw up the law and take to the pulpit," sneered
Taffendale.

"Not I! I'm no preacher, and I'm telling you what's best for you. Now,
Mark, be sensible. Let things quieten down. And, Mark, take a bit more
advice. Get Mrs. Perris home to her own people. You say you've taken her
into your house. That's foolish. Get her away from it!" said the
solicitor. "Come, be sensible."

Taffendale smote the desk at his side with a heavy fist.

"By God, then, I won't!" he cried. "The woman came to me for help, and I
helped her. It wasn't my fault nor hers that we--that we fell in love
with each other. She was in trouble then, and she's in trouble now--she
hasn't a roof above her head--I won't turn her away from mine. Let folk
say what they choose--there's my housekeeper there, and she's cousin of
mine as well as housekeeper. Evil to them that think it! She stays there,
I tell you."

"And--for how long, Mark?" asked the solicitor.

"Till--till I hear that that fellow Perris is dead, or till seven years
is up," answered Taffendale, in a low voice.

"Ah! Then--you'd marry her?"

"I'd--I will marry her if the chance comes!" said Taffendale. "But--no
talk of turning her out of Limepits. I'll go out myself first. I'm not
going to see a defenceless woman treated that way--especially if--well,
if I've been anything like the cause of it."

The solicitor made no reply, and Taffendale suddenly stretched across the
table, and seizing the memoranda tore the paper to shreds.

"Very well, I'll take your advice," he said. "I'll do naught against the
villagers. But there's one matter you can attend to--you'll do it better
than I shall. See that yon young Robey is properly buried, and pay all
expenses, and let his mother know that there 'll be a pound a week for
her as long as she lives. I wish to God it hadn't happened--but it's done
now, and there's naught can undo it."


XIX


On the second morning after the night of the stangriding Taffendale rose
at an earlier hour than usual--rose, indeed, before any of his men and
maids had left their beds--and going out to his stackyard looked about
him. The great, square enclosure, flanked on one side by the long line of
farm buildings, and on the other by a row of tall poplars which formed a
well-known landmark over a wide stretch of the surrounding country, had
been so carefully and zealously tidied up and set in order by the farm
hands and the lime-burners that ii looked as if the departing tenant had
left it swept and garnished for the incoming of his successor. There was
not a grey ash nor a wisp of smoke-grimed straw left on all the wide
surface; the men, in their zeal to carry out Taffendale's instructions,
had even washed and brushed all trace of smoke and fire from the walls of
the outbuildings and had lopped away from the poplars those lower
branches which had been scorched by the leaping flames. Over all this
erninently spick-and-span scene, which would now remain an empty space
until the next harvest, ten months hence, refilled it, hung the clear
blue of a frosty October morning sky, in the far horizon of which a red
sun was slowly rising. And Taffendale, looking round again, laughed
grimly, reflecting that where, only a few hours before, the whole yield
of a good harvest, carefully garnered and housed against winter, had
stood proudly under its thatch, there was now nothing but a neat and tidy
stackyard--empty.

"But there's a different scene down at Cherry-trees, I'm thinking," he
muttered to himself, with another cynical laugh. "Nobody 'II take the
trouble to tidy things up there yet awhile."

And, half-unconsciously, he walked slowly up the steps of the granary and
stood where he and his foreman had stood when the unholy shoutings of the
stang-riders had been carried by the freshening wind to their ears. From
the head of the steps Taffendale had often looked out across country, and
had more than once noticed that from that elevation--the highest about
the Limepits--there were only three signs of human habitation to be seen.
To the south-west the square, battlemented head of Martinsthorpe church
appeared over the tops of the elms and beeches which shut in the village;
far away on the eastward the spire of another village church, renowned
for its height, rose above the thick woods beyond Badger's Hollow. And in
the middle foreground of the landscape stood Cherry-trees, a mean group
of poor buildings when seen close at hand, but when viewed from some
distance forming a pleasant patch of red and yellow against the prevalent
green and grey.

This piece of colour was now gone. Taffendale saw the sturdy square tower
in the near right, the sharp, slender spire in the far left, but the
little farmstead was brought down to the level of the land on which it
had stood: there was not so much as a ruinous wall, a shattered mass of
gable-end to rise above the hedgerows. As he lingered there, he pictured
the scene--the blackness, the litter, the refuse, the general untidiness
and sense of squalor, and some dim and vague notion came into his mind
that somewhere, at some time, he had read something about the abomination
of desolation.

Desolate and black Cherry-trees lay until the nine days' wonder of its
downfall was well-nigh over. Such participants in the stang-riding as
could be identified had been duly prosecuted and lightly punished; the
dead had been sat upon by a Coroner and a jury, and consigned to a quiet
grave, and like all country matters the affair was beginning to simmer
down from boiling point to a stagnant surface. The steward came upon the
scene, and with the under-steward and various other folk of officialdom
viewed the wreckage of the small homestead. And when he had viewed it he
began to wonder what to do about the question presented to him. Was it
worth while to rebuild the place? Cherry-trees, under Perris's tenancy,
had some fifty or sixty acres of land attached to it; it so chanced that
running alongside that land there was a holding of similar size which had
been untenanted for half-a-year, and was not easy to let because the
small house upon it was little better than an outbuilding and the
outbuildings were ramshackle sheds. There was no possibility that Abel
Perris would ever come back, and it was out of the question that his
wife, or widow, whichever Rhoda might be, should continue to farm land on
which she could not live; why not, then, reflected the steward, throw the
two small holdings into one and make a farm of a hundred acres and build
a new farmhouse? After all, little farms and little farmers are a
nuisance to themselves and to everybody.

While the steward, gazing on the black desolation of Cherry-trees, was
reflecting on these things, Taffendale rode up the lane and paused to
exchange greetings. He inquired what the steward's plans were, and the
steward told him what was in his mind, and knowing him to be a practical
man, asked his advice. Taffendale turned in his saddle and gazed across
the acres which Perris had farmed and those of the holding adjacent to
them. A sudden notion occurred to him.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said, with the directness of a man who
makes up his mind quickly but once for all. "I'll take those hundred
acres--at once."

The steward stared, and suddenly felt glad that Taffendale had come
along. Then he laughed a little.

"Not content with all the land you've got?" he said pleasantly.

Taffendale shook his head in a fashion that signified neither assent nor
dissent.

"It's not that," he said. "You know, I have land on this side of these
two holdings, and I have land on the other side of them. I'll take
both--the hundred odd acres of them--and link things up. I shall farm
them better than any small farmer."

"Little doubt of that," observed the steward. "Very good. That shall be
attended to at once. They're yours."

"But there are certain things you must do," said Taffendale. He turned
again in his saddle and pointed to the ramshackle place which lay on the
holding next to Cherry-trees. "That'll have to come down--every stick and
stone," he added.

"Oh, of course. We'll have it down and the ground cleared at once,"
replied the steward.

"And as for this place, Cherry-trees," continued Taffendale, looking
around him, "you'll build me here three good cottages for married
labourers. I've three real good men now that want to marry, and if I've
cottages for them I shall be able to keep them on. Real good cottages,
mind you, with proper outhouses, and accommodation for pigs and fowls."

"Very well," said the steward, who knew what sort of tenant he was
dealing with. "That shall be done, too. It's a capital idea to keep men
that you know."

"And there's another thing," remarked Taffendale, edging his horse nearer
to the ruins, "you'll have to see that there's a proper water supply
here. Now, the situation of the old house was a good one; facing south,
and convenient for the garden at the back, but I always noticed when I
came here that the well was set between the yard and the fold--there's
the remains of it, sticking up out of that pile of rubbish--and I'll lay
anything that the water's not what it ought to be. I once did taste it,
and it was my opinion that it was badly contaminated. You'll have to sink
a new well, at a proper distance from the houses."

"Yes," replied the steward. "We'll do that also. In fact, as you take the
whole lot, everything shall be thoroughly overhauled and put in order.'

"I'm particular about my men," said Taffendale. "If you want a model for
the cottages, go and look at my lime-burners' places at the Limepits.
But," he added, with a laugh, "they're on my own property."

"We'll make these as good," answered the steward. And he drove off,
saying to the under-steward that Taffendale was a particular man and that
they must be particular to please and humour him, for having once taken
the land he would hold it as long as he lived, and they would be as sure
of its proper and generous cultivation as of the rent, and, furthermore,
be saved the troubles which arise from having little farmers of no
capital, who put no money into their land and have hard work to pay for
it, however much reduction they get.

"I'll have no more men of the stamp of Perris on this estate," said the
steward, with decision. "I wonder where the man is!"

"That's what a goodish many hereabouts wonders, sir," replied the
under-steward. "But," he added, with a sly chuckle, "we all know where
his wife is--up yonder at the Limepits."

The steward, however, was not to be drawn into any discussion of local
scandal or gossip. He remained indifferent to his satellite's obvious
desire to talk.

"Mr. Taffendale's private affairs," he said, "are his--private affairs.
If he chooses to give shelter to a woman who was burnt out of house and
home, it is his own business. But Perris's disappearance is a public
affair. It has a queer aspect."

"Aye, sir, and it isn't the only queer thing that's happened in this
place of late," observed the under-steward. "There's a many folk
hereabouts still asking themselves every day where yon Pippany Webster's
disappeared to."

"Oh, the man ran away!" said the steward. "He just ran away."

The under-steward uttered inarticulate sounds of respectful dissent.

"Well, it's a queer thing if he did," he said. "I'll lay a crown to a
penny piece yon Pippany Webster, sir, had never been five mile from
Martinsthorpe since he was born, unless his mother ever carried him off
for a jaunt, like, when he was a young child, for I'm very certain that
he's never been away very far since he was a lad old enough to scare
crows or lead a harvest cart. And besides that, his cottage has been
examined by the police since he vanished, and they found what you might
call a bit of a hoard in a secret place in an old cupboard--naught much,
but two or three pieces of gold, and a matter of silver. A man like him
would have taken his brass with him if he'd meant running away, sir."

"Well, that's certainly strange," said the steward. "Yes, yes, that seems
very remarkable. But--where is he, then?"

"Nay, that's it," answered the under-steward. "Some, they thought he'd
gone to his sister's, but his sister's heard naught of him. And he
couldn't have 'listed, for they wouldn't have such a chap. And, of
course, sir," he added, sinking his voice to a tone of dark and
mysterious significance, "there is some in Martinsthorpe that thinks
he's come to a bad end--happen done away with."

"God bless my soul!" exclaimed the steward. "You don't mean to say that
the people think the man was--murdered?"

"Well, done away with--put out of the way, like," replied the
under-steward. "Yes, there's some goes far enough to say that."

"But--by whom?" asked the steward. "By whom?"

The under-steward, however, was not going to be definite; he had been
brought up on the good old village principle that a hint and a suggestion
are better than a direct charge, and that the wise stab folk in the back
and only fools present honest weapons face to face. So he contented
himself by remarking that no doubt there were those who could speak if
they were minded to, and relapsed into silence until he and the steward
reached the Dancing Bear and the pleasures of an afternoon dinner.

There are always folk in a village who can find time to lounge and idle
away their time around whatever unusual operation is going on, and when
the building operations began at Cherry-trees (to be rapidly pushed
forward in view of the approaching winter) every fine afternoon found
such gentlemen of leisure as the gamekeeper and the policeman, the
village idler--by profession--and as many old gaffers as were past work
but had strength to climb the hill, hanging about the place to see how
masons and carpenters progressed. And there, too, but with different
motives, constantly came Taffendale, intent on the due carrying out of
his wishes in respect to the proper housing of his labourers.

The fine, dry weather of that autumn continued throughout October and
November, and great progress was consequently made by the masons. It was
a crisp day in December, and the walls were up and the carpenters at work
on the roofs, when the sanitary inspector came with an expert in
well-sinking to meet Taffendale and the under-steward in order to decide
about the water-supply. Taffendale, on his own initiative, had caused the
well which the Perrises had used to be examined and analysed; the result
of the chemical investigations had proved its water to be contaminated by
long filtration from the fold. That well, then, must be filled up, and
another sunk. And the under-steward suddenly remembered that there had
once been an attempt to sink a well at the side of the old house, in the
little orchard which was still there, and he remarked that according to
his recollection, the work was not carried to any great depth, and that
possibly, if it were now continued, water might be found at a lower
level.

"Here's the place," he said, leading the party around him to the spot
where the remains of the old reaping-machine which Perris had placed
above the well-cover still lay amidst a mass of bricks and mortar. "It
might be a good idea to clear this off and see if it promises aught."

The expert in well-sinking agreed; water, he said, might have collected
by that time, and if it had that would show that there was a likely
spring. The under-steward called to some labourers and bade them clear
away the rubbish. And so, for the first time since the night on which
Perris had lifted it in the darkness, the cover of the old well was again
laid bare.

The cavity beneath was black enough and odorous enough of damp and mud
and slime when the rotting boards were lifted, and Taffendale turned up
his nose.

"A likely place to get good water out of!" he said, with a sneer. "Better
have it filled up like the other."

But the well-sinker shook his head. That was nothing, he said; the well
must needs be like that, having been closed up for so many years; it
could be made sweet and wholesome very quickly by exposure. The main
thing was to find out if water was there, and he asked for a man, a
ladder, and a lantern. The ladder and the lantern were quickly procured;
the man not so readily. But suddenly one of the masons' labourers, a
Martinsthorpe lad, stepped forward, smiling sheepishly.

"Here, gi' us ho'd o' t' lantern--I'll away down." he said. "I'm none
afeard o' no owd wells."

The men standing about watched the youth of no fear descend rung by rung
of the ladder into the blackness beneath. Although it had never been
finished the well was of considerable depth, and those whose olfactory
sense was not too delicate to prevent them from hanging over the brink
saw the yellow light dwindle to a spark. Suddenly they heard a loud yell;
the brave explorer came up the ladder with the speed of a sailor of the
old days, and presented a white face and staring eyes as he flung himself
on the lip of the cavity.

"Theer's--theer's a man down theer!" he gasped, with trembling lips. "A
deešd man! A--a body!"

Taffendale could not repress a sharp exclamation. He had suddenly thought
of Perris, and the colour rushed into his face and out again, leaving him
pale. Could it be that this was--Perris? And if so--

"What?" he said, pulling himself together. "A dead man! Nonsense--you're
dreaming."

"Go down yoursen, then, mestur," said the explorer, who was still
trembling. "I know what I saw. Onny on yer can see it, if ye'll tak' t'
lantern and go down as far as I did. It's liggin' theer at t' bottom o'
t' ladder--it's a wonder ye didn't set t' ladder on it."

The gamekeeper and the policeman, who usually appeared at the building in
company, had just joined the group. Justice, who had heard Taffendale's
sudden exclamation and seen him change colour, gave him a sharp glance.

"Now, I wonder whose body it is, Mr. Taffendale?" he said in the familiar
fashion which Taffendale so much resented. "It'll be very interesting to
find that out, sir."

Taffendale's cheek flushed angrily.

"Whosever body it is, it must be brought up," he said. "Here, policeman,
this is your job. Go down and see what you can make out."

The policeman, who had just donned his carefully-brushed uniform and put
on his white wool gloves, hung back, looking down his nose.

"I shall make a fine mess of myself going down there," he remarked
grumblingly.

"You're paid to make a fine mess of yourself if occasion arises," said
Taffendale sharply. "Here, give him that lantern."

When the policeman came up again his face had assumed an expression of
official importance. He stepped off the ladder and rubbed his hands clear
of mud.

"There's a body down there, right enough," he said. "It's a man's body.
But its head and shoulders are in the slime at the bottom, so I couldn't
see the features."

"It'll have to be brought up," said the under-steward. "Now, then,
men--who'll go down with a rope?"

Half-an-hour later such folk as sat in the kichen of the Dancing Bear
were galvanised into life by rare news.

"They've foun' Pippany Webster's body i' t' owd well at Cherry-trees! An'
them 'at's seen it say 'at he were murdered first and thrown in
afterwards. He were foun' stickin' t' mud, and he wor deešd. An' they're
bringin' t' corpse down here for t' Crowner's 'quest!"


XX


The gamekeeper, carrying his gun in the crook of his arm, followed the
little group of corpse-bearers down the hill at a slight distance. He was
thinking. He had watched Taffendale's face when, the body having been
brought up from the well, everybody had recognised it as Pippany
Webster's. He had watched it again as Taffendale mounted his horse to
ride home. He had wondered at the obvious agitation in Taffendale's
manner and expression; at the pallor in his countenance. He had kept
apart, watching. Once Taffendale had given him a swift glance, and he had
replied to it with a steady stare. Now Taffendale was gone, and the body
was being carried, according to law, to an out-house of the nearest inn,
and Justice was very deep in thought, so deep that he started to hear his
name suddenly called behind him in a loud voice. He turned and saw the
young labourer who had first discovered what lay at the bottom of the
well. He was still pale of face and excited, and he gesticulated as he
came running up to the gamekeeper's side.

"Well?" said Justice.

The lad lifted his hand and wiped his forehead.

"God!" he ejaculated. "I--I wish I'd niver seen that theer! It's given me
a reight turn. I shall see it agen to-neet when I get to bed. I wish I'd
niver set ees on it, Mestur Justice. A reight bad turn!"

Justice began to walk on. The young labourer walked at his side,
obviously glad to have living flesh and blood near him.

"Why should it give you a right bad turn any more than anybody else?"
asked the gamekeeper presently. "Other folk saw it as well as you, you
know, young fellow."

"Aye, but I were t' first to see it," answered the lad. "I were t' varry
first. An' ye see, Mestur Justice, bi all accounts, I were t' last to see
yon theer Pippany Webster alive. But theer's noabody but me knows that."

The gamekeeper's ears pricked themselves instinctively, and his heart
gave a smart bound. He made no reply, and showed no sign of special
interest for the moment, but after they had walked on a little way
further down the hill, he turned and looked at his companion with an
affectation of concern and sympathy.

"Dear, dear!" he said. "Aye, I see you do look bad, Moreby, my lad. Here,
let's turn across this meadow to my cottage, and I'll give you a drop of
something to pull you round. You'll do with it."

"Why, thankin' you kindly, Mestur Justice," replied Moreby. "I were just
thinkin' o' turnin' into t' Bear, like, to hey' a drop o' summat--I feel
like I did once when I fainted when t' doctors were settin' a brokken arm
'at I happened."

"I'll give you some better stuff than you'd get at the Bear," said
Justice. "Here, come on."

He opened a gate by the wayside, and conducting his companion across a
meadow, which lay at the back of the village street, took him through the
garden of the gamekeeper's cottage into Mrs. Justice's best parlour by a
side door. Mrs. Justice was just then in the kitchen preparing tea;
Justice passed on to her, obtained a lamp, water and glasses, and telling
her to leave him alone for as long as he remained in the parlour, went
back and took down a bottle of whisky from a corner cupboard. He poured
out a liberal dose for Moreby, and helped himself to a smaller one.

"There, drink that, my lad," he said, with friendly hospitality. "That
'll pull you round--that's better stuff than you'd get at the Bear for
love or money. It's some whisky, this, that my lord sent down a month or
two since--six bottles of it for a present: it's what he drinks himself,
is this."

Moreby gazed at his glass with awed interest.

"Well, here's my best respects, sir," he said, and drank. The colour
came back to his cheeks, and his eyes sparkled. He set down his glass,
drawing a long breath. "Aye, I wanted summat like that, Mestur Justice--I
felt all dithery, like. Ye see, mestur, it come over me all of a sudden
when t' body were browt up and we knew 'at it were Pippany Webster 'at
just as I believe I were t' last to see him alive, so I were t' first to
find him dead--what? Summat like what my owd mother, if she'd been alive,
wo'd ha' called a judgment, mestur."

"Aye, just so," observed the gamekeeper, calmly lighting his pipe and
passing his tobacco over to his guest. "Here, I see you've got a pipe in
your waistcoat pocket there--have a bit o' bacca--that'll do your nerves
good. And so," he continued, when Moreby had begun to smoke, "and so you
think you were the last to see Webster alive, were you, my lad?"

Moreby took another pull at his glass and grinned.

"Well, I niver heard o' nobody i' t' village 'at iver did see him after I
did," he answered. "I niver said nowt about it, 'cause ye see, Mestur
Justice, I hed mi reasons for sayin' nowt. But I'll tell you what it wor,
'cause it doesn't matter now--me an' t' young woman's concluded to break
t' affair off, mutual, ye see, sir."

"Oh!" said Justice carelessly. "So there was a young woman in it, was
there?"

Moreby grinned again, wagging his head.

"It were t' blacksmith dowter, ye see," he said, with a wink. "Her an'
me, we wor doing a bit o' courtin' at that time, but we didn't want
nobody to know, 'cause her father 'ud ha' been on to us. Howsomiver, one
Sunda' evenin' a while back, her an' me hed met i' one o' them fields o'
Perris's, near t' Cherry-trees, and we wor in a nice comfortable place i'
t' hedgerow, wheer nobody could see us, and we see'd Pippany come across
t' fields and mak' for Cherry-trees, and we see'd him sort o' spyin'
about t' outside o' stackyard, and lookin' ower t' wall, and at last he
went behind t' stacks, and then we niver see'd him agen, tho' we were
theer till t' dark come on. And I niver heerd tell o' nobody ever seein'
t' man efter that, sir--at least not i' Martinsthorpe. I kep' mi ears
oppen, but I niver heerd 'at he wor seen bi onnybody. An' now then, I
shan't mind who I tell, nor yit will t' blacksmith dowter."

Justice rose and put away the whisky bottle.

"Don't you say a word, my Tad, just yet," he said, laying his hand on
Moreby's shoulder. "Keep it to yourself till I tell you to speak. Pippany
Webster was murdered!--and somebody'll swing for it. Keep quiet till I
come to you."

Then he sent Moreby home, bidding him to eat a good supper, to drink no
more, and to go to bed early, and Moreby, much impressed, promised, and
went. When he had gone Justice ate and drank heartily, and with another
curt word to his wife mounted his pony and rode off to the market-town
and the police.


XXI


On the Friday of Cattle Show week in London that year a man, dressed
after the fashion of a fairly well-to-do countryman and carrying in his
hand an ash-plant stick, stepped off a tram-car in the neighbourhood of
Pentonville Prison, and after staring about him for a moment entered a
public-house and asked for a glass of ale. And waiting until the
white-aproned barman appeared to have a temporary cessation from his
duties, he summoned him with an apologetic grin and a shy nod.

"I say, mister," he said, leaning over the bar in a confidential
attitude. "You'll excuse me, but I'm a stranger hereabouts. Where's that
place or whatever it is that they call the Cal--Cal summat or other? Sort
o' market, ye know."

The barman, from sheer force of habit, picked up a glass and begun to
polish it vigorously.

"Caledonian Market," he said carelessly. "Third street on your left as
you go up the road--you can't miss it."

"I'm much obliged, mister. Is there aught much to see there, like?" said
the stranger. "I expect you'll know it, living so near."

"Plenty to see for such as likes that sort of thing," answered the barman
shortly.

The stranger tapped the side of his boot with his ashplant and looked
still more inclined to be confidential.

"Aye--why, ye see," he said, in the lazy fashion of a man who, making
holiday, feels that time is of no consequence, "ye see, I come up to t'
Cattle Show yonder at t' Agricultural Hall, and of course there's naught
to see theer on a Friday, and my ticket isn't up till Sunda', and there
were a man I met theer yesterday he says, If you want to see one o' the
most remarkable sights o' London,' he says, go an' see t' Caledonian
Market to-morrow morning. It's near Pentonville Gaol,' he says. 'Get out
o' t' tram-car there, and any 'll tell you just where t' spot is.' And so
I thowt I'd just tak' a glass o' ale and ask mi directions, an'--"

"Third street on the left," repeated the barman, and moved off to another
part of the counter with a jerk of his head in the direction indicated.

The countryman drank off his ale and went slowly out, musing on the
strange fact that never ever seemed to be inclined to have a hit of
friendly talk. He lounged leisurely up the road, staring at the unlovely
lines of the great prison on the opposite side, and marvelling at the
groups of idlers who hung about its gates and at the street corners. And
suddenly he was aware of streams of folk making up the incline of another
street towards pillared gates about which was gathered a thickening
concourse of men, women, lads, children, horses, carts, donkeys. He
paused and rubbed the crook of his ashplant against his chin.

"This'll be t' market," he said to himself. "Gow! they're a queer looking
lot this here to be goin' to market. They look more like as if they'd
come out o' t' gaol yonder. I'm glad I took advice and left mi watch and
chain and mi brass wi' t' hotel folk. Howsomiver, Roger Mallins, mi lad,
here we are, and in we go!"

Once within the vast, four-square enclosure Roger Mallins eyed everything
which presented itself to him with curiosity and wonder. He wondered who
the people could be who wanted to buy furniture so old and decrepit that
it seemed only fit for firewood; carpets so worn out that they were only
fit for dust heaps; odds and ends of china and earthenware that appeared
to have been collected from middens. He stared at the booths on which
cheap haberdashery and glittering jewellery were displayed; at the men
who, having no booths, spread out on the grass-grown surface of the
market-ground all manner of flotsam and jetsam from heaps of scrap iron
to books and pamphlets in the last and most woeful stages of neglect and
decay. He marvelled at the people who thronged about him; at their
speech, their manners, their attire; himself, in his good suit of honest,
substantial stuff; his great coat of stout Melton cloth, through which no
wind, whether of December or March, could penetrate, seemed to be of a
vastly different world to that in which these human scavengers hung about
the refuse heaps in which they took such obvious interest. That there was
some merchandise of value in this strange Vanity Fair the Yorkshire-man's
shrewd eye was quick to perceive, but that fact afforded him no
amusement; what tickled his curiosity and aroused his senses was the
other and newer one, that here were folk--hundreds, thousands of
folk--who hovered about piles and spreads of mere rubbish as the foulest
flies of the hedgerows hover around a dung-heap on a hot day.

"Ecod, this is t' rummest market I iver set ees on!" he said, with a
chuckle of contemptuous laughter. "I wonder what they'd say to this i'
our part o' t' world? Market, say ye? Gow, wheer's t' cattle, and t'
sheep, and t' pigs, and t' hosses? An' by mi soul, theer is a hoss, and a
bonny hoss an' all--wo'th about a fi'-pun note!"

Between two rows of the unused stalls, in a quiet part of the market in
which a few miserable horses, vagabond donkeys, and certain goats of both
sexes gave something of an agricultural touch to the scene, a
gipsy-looking fellow was showing off such paces as an ill-bred and
ill-fed cob still possessed. Round about lounged a number of men who
appeared to have some connection with horses by the fact of their wearing
billycock hats, large-pocketed coats, and very tight trousers, and
cultivated a habit of carrying bits of straw between their lips. Amongst
them was a man somewhat better dressed than the others, a
fresh-complexioned man who carried, as Mallins did, a genuine ashplant,
and had upon him a rustic air which betokened comparatively recent
acquaintance with country life. Mallins at first glanced carelessly at
this man; then he suddenly started, and looked carefully, then more
carefully still; eventually, edging his way amongst the other men, he
scrutinised him from head to foot. He drew back, screwing up his lips to
a whistle.

"Psu!" he hissed between his teeth. "Yon's that theer Perris, 'at
disappeared fro' Martinsthorpe yonder a piece back--I'll be dall'd if it
isn't! He's grown a beard, but it's him. By Gow! him here, an' all that
theer talk about his wife--"

The men around the miserable cob moved further away, chaffering and
babbling, and Perris was left standing a little apart. Mallins hesitated
a moment, and then went up to him.

"Ye'll excuse me, sir," he said, with an apologetic smile, "but aren't
ye Mestur Perris, 'at used to farm at Martinsthorpe? I farm at
Woodbridge, a few o' miles away fro' Martinsthorpe, but I'm sewer I've
met ye, Mestur Perris, at market and auction days,"

Perris's face had flushed at Mallins's first words, and he edged away,
eyeing the stranger defiantly. His eyes grew sullen and threatening.

"Ye've made a mistake," he said. "Ye've--" But there he paused, and
walked a step or two into the throng. Turning, he looked back at Mallins
with a glance which seemed to say, "Don't you interfere with me, because
I won't be interfered with."

Mallins stood where Perris had left him, still watching. He shook his
head, and presently taking off his flat-topped billycock, produced a
highly-coloured handkerchief and polished his forehead. By the time he
had replaced handkerchief and hat his thoughts had collected themselves
and his mind was made up. He advanced towards Perris, who was again left
outside the crowd, and he boldly tapped him on the shoulder.

"It's no use, Perris," he said. "I know yer--ye're t' man. I know yer,
for all 'at ye've grown that theer beard. An' I don't want to shove misen
on to ye, nor onny other man, but--hevn't ye heerd t' news about ye're
wife?"

Perris, who had averted his face at Mallins's second approach, turned
sharply.

"I've heerd nowt," he muttered. "Nowt! An' didn't want!"

Mallins opened his mouth in sheer astonishment. Unconsciously he laid a
hand on Perris's arm and drew him aside.

"What!" he exclaimed. "D'ye mean to tell me 'at ye don't know? Don't ye
read t' newspaper?" Perris shook his head sullenly.

"I niver read t' newspaper," he replied. "I know nowt."

Mallins drew him still further away, and his voice sank to a whisper.

"What!" he said. "Don't ye know what's happened to ye're wife?"

"Tell yer I know nowt," repeated Perris, with stubborn insistence.

Mallins drew back and looked at Perris in undisguised wonder. Then he
advanced again, speaking in a loud whisper.

"She's i' danger o' bein' hanged!" he said.

Perris frowned. He had begun tapping the stones at their feet with the
ferrule of his ashplant, and the tapping grew more insistent.

"For why?" he asked.

"Why, for t' murder o' yon Pippany Webster, 'at used to work for ye!"
answered Mallins sharply. "Gow niver heerd t' like o' this here! I
couldn't ha' believed 'at ye'd niver heerd on it. It's all t' talk o.' t'
countryside, man. But I reckon 'at them as lives i' London niver hears
nowt o' what's going on down i' our parts. Howsomiver, Perris, that's t'
Gospil truth. Gow!--I niver knew owt like this--it fair caps me!"

Perris stood like a man who has just awakened from some strange and
unnatural sleep. He stared about him--at the people, the houses round the
market, at the great tower in its centre, at the sky, the ground;
finally, he turned to Mallins.

"Tell about it," he said dully. "I know nowt."

Mallins again took off his hat and rubbed his head.

"I'll tell ye all I know," he replied, "if ye'll come and tak' a glass
somewhere, quiet, like. I'm fair moydered wi' this here--niver hed such a
surprise in mi life. I'm ditherin'!--wheer can we tak' a glass i' comfort?"

Without answer Perris made a sidelong motion of his head, and began to
make his way through the crowd. He led Mallins across the market to one
of the great taverns which stand at its corners, and passing into its
recesses with the knowledge of one well accustomed to them, piloted him
into an empty room. He maintained his silence until he and his companion
had been provided with a generous measure of spirits; even then, he
waited for Mallins to speak.

"Well, it's a reight dinger is this, Perris!" said Mallins at last. "Ye
tell me 'at ye know nowt o' t' matter?"

"I've heerd nowt o' that part o' t' world sin' I left it," answered
Perris. "An' didn't want to, neyther."

Mallins settled himself comfortably in his chair, his lips close to
Perris's ear.

"Well, ye've a deal to learn, then," he said. "Ye see, it's o' this way.
Of course, ye'll understand 'at as I don't farm i' Martinsthorpe, I only
hear t' countryside gossip, as it weer, when I go to market, but I think
I've gotten t' tale reight. Ye see, Perris, mi lad, efter ye went away
theer sprang up a deal o' talk about ye're wife an' yon theer Mestur
Taffendale o' t' Limepits Farm, an' it was set about 'at her an' him wor
ower friendly. It wor established 'at she'd visited him late at night at
his house, when all t' rest wor i' bed, and so on, and so on--ye
know--an' t' village folk talked, as they will, and finally it wor
decided to ride t' stang for 'em."

"Aye?" exclaimed Perris wonderingly. "An' did they?"

"Did they? Aye, I should think they did an' all!" answered Mallins. "They
tell'd me 'at such a do was niver known i' Martinsthorpe. They went up to
t' Cherry-trees first, and somehow or other t' place wor set on fire, and
it wor burnt to t' ground. If ye went back theer, Perris, ye wodn't know
t' place. All 'at wor on t' premises wor burnt--t' live stock an' all."

Perris made no remark. He sat with his hands clasped on the top of his
stick, his drink untasted at his side, staring at a framed advertisement
on the dingy wall opposite--listening.

"An' then," continued Mallins, "then they went on to t' Limepits. One
o' t' stang-riders wor killed dead theer--some said bi Taffendale
hissen: howsomiver, nowt came o' that. An' Taffendale's stackgarth got o'
fire, and ivery stack wor burnt--over forty on 'em. Aye!--such a night
theer niver wor i' Martinsthorpe, so they say."

"Well?" said Perris, as Mallins paused to drink. "An'--efter?"

"Why, efter that things seemed to settle down a bit," said Mallins.
"Ye're wife wor taken in bi Taffendale and his housekeeper, as is some
sort o' relation to him, and there she bided. Then Taffendale took that
land 'at ye hed, and another lot next to it, and t' steward agreed to
build some labourers' cottages wheer ye're place wor. An' theer wor a
deal to do about t' water supply, and one day they opened out an owd
well--"

Perris turned to his glass and suddenly drank off its contents. He got up
and rang the bell.

"Here, ye mun tak' a glass wi' me, Mestur Mallins," he said, as a barman
appeared. "Two more o' t' same, young man. Aye," he continued, when the
barman had served them and had disappeared again, "aye, an owd well, ye
were sayin'?"

"An owd well," repeated Mallins. "An' theer they foun' t' body o' this
Pippany Webster. An' of course theer wor the Crowner's 'Quest on it, an'
all sorts o' what they call evidence started comin' out. It were proved
'at this Pippany wor i' possession o' facts about ye're wife an'
Taffendale. Then it were proved 'at Pippany wor seen to go to ye're house
on a certain Sunday night and wor niver seen efter bi onnybody t'
village. An' one thing an' another come up--more nor I know on--and now,
all t' talk is 'at it wor your wife 'at murdered Pippany Webster, and got
rid o' t' body, and they do say 'at t' police may arrest her onny minute.
But theer's more nor that, Perris, mi lad."

Perris looked round: Mallins's voice had grown serious.

"Well?" he said. "What more?"

Mallins bent neaer.

"T' theory, as they call it," he whispered, "t' theory is 'at ye're wife
not only killed Webster, but 'at she killed ye an' all, and 'at ye're
body's somewheer about t' Cherry-trees theer! That's what they think i'
our part o' t' country, mi lad. An' theer ye are, sittin' and takkin' yer
glass, as large as life! Gow! but it's t' queerest do, is this, 'at iver
I heerd on!"

Perris made no immediate remark. He continued to stare at the opposite
wall.

"What are ye goin' to do about it?" asked Mallins.

Perris began to scratch the floor with the point of his ashplant. To the
man sitting at his side his apathy and unconcern seemed strange and
unaccountable.

"I been doin' a bit o' horse-dealin' sin' I came to London," he said at
last. "I were goin' to meet a man this afternoon. But of course, seein'
'at things is as serious as what they are, I suppose summat mun be done.
So they what they call suspect her o' killin' me, like?

"Aye, that's so," answered Mallins, still mystified. "Ye hed some
transactions about sellin' some corn and some beasts t' day afore ye
disappeared--what? Well, this here theory is 'at ye did go home that
night, an' 'at she made away wi' yer, and then gev out 'at ye'd
disappeared. An' theer is them--a many on 'em an' all--'at says 'at
Taffendale's known summat about t' matter, and 'at he happen helped to
dispose o' ye're body, d'ye see? But so far, they can't get what they
call evidence agen him. How-. somiver, as I say, she couldn't ha' killed
ye, Perris, 'cause theer ye are!"

"Aw, I'm here reight enough," agreed Perris.

"Well," said Mallins, after a short pause,"I expect ye'll hev to let
'em know 'at ye're alive?"

"I expect so," replied Perris.

"All t' same," observed Mallins, "that'll none settle up t' matter o'
Pippany Webster's murder."

"Happen he worn't murdered," said Perris. "Happen he tummled head first
into t' owd well and brok' his neck. He wor a reight bad 'un, wor that
theer, for meddlin' wi' things 'at he'd nowt to do wi' Happen he wor
prowlin' about t' place and looked down t' owd well, and fell in. Like
enough."

Mallins laughed and gave his companion a queer, sidelong glance.

"Aye, and happen he pulled t' well coverin' ower t' top when he'd tummled
in, and then set t' owd reapin' machine ower that!" he said with a sneer.
"Nay, come! Besides, they foun' marks on t' man' throat. He'd been
throttled. Murdered, wi'out a doubt."

Perris scratched the floor again, making strange marks on it with his
ashplant.

"Why, I'm sewer it's a varry bad job," he said. "I'm afraid I mun put mi
business off, and go down theer and see about it. How's t' time goin'?
Aw, it's none twelve o'clock yit. I think I shall tak' a bit o' dinner;
an' then go t' station, and catch the afternoon train. When are ye goin'
back that way?"

"Not till Sunda'--I hey an excursion ticket," answered Mallins. "I'm
goin' to see some relations o' mine 'at lives i' Kent this afternoon, and
I shall bide wi' them till Sunda' mornin'. Aye, well, I'm sure it's t'
best thing ye can do, Perris, is that theerye can't see t' woman pointed
at all ower t' countryside as a murderess! Ye're presence theer 'II clear
that mystery up, onnyway. An' as for t' other, why we mun hope some light
'll be thrown on t."

"Why, it's one o' them things 'at seems t' need a bit o' summat thrown'
on it," answered Perris, as he rose. "Will yer tak' another glass?--I
mun be off if I'm goin' to catch t' afternoon train."

But Mallins declined; he, too, would go, he said. They shook hands
solemnly outside the tavern, and each man went his way. And Mallins, left
to himself, was full of soliloquy.

"Ecod, but it's a rum 'un, is this here!" he said. "I wor wonderin' at
one time if he'd hed owt to do wi' t' matter hissen, but a man 'ud none
offer to go straight down theer, as he did, if he had. That 'ud be
rammin' ye're head into t' lion' mouth wi' a vengeance, and--"

But then a sudden thought occurred to Mallins, which brought him to a
sharp halt in the middle of the pavement, and made several less stoutly
fashioned pedestrians eye him with unfriendly glances. Did Perris really
mean to go down to their district, or was he only tricking him, meaning
all the time to disappear once more?

"Gow, I owt t' ha' kept watch on him!" said Mallins. "Dang me for a
butter-brained fool! How do I know wheer he lives i' London, or wheer
he's gone?"

A little exercise of Yorkshire shrewdness and Mallins recovered his
equanimity. He could, at any rate, assure himself as to whether Perris
really went off to Yorkshire or not. He was well acquainted with King's
Cross Station, and he proceeded there, and after eating and drinking,
posted himself at the third-class ticket office to wait, if need be, till
midnight. And at three o'clock up came Perris, carrying his ashplant,
unconcerned and lackadaisical as ever. He seemed to attach no particular
importance to the fact of Mallins's presence. They drank together at the
refreshment-bar, and Mallins accompanied Perris to the train. They shook
hands through the window.

"Well, I hope ye'll be able to put matters reight," said Mallins.

"Aye!" replied Perris curtly. "Aye!--I hope so."

Mallins walked away when the train was gone. He was still musing, still
puzzled. But at last he lifted his head and nodded at the grey London
sky.

"Yon man hed nowt to do wi' it!" he said, with firm decision. "Nowt! I'd
tak' mi solemn 'davy o' that--he'd nowt to do wi' it at all!"


XXII


That afternoon, while Abel Perris was being carried on the final dreary
stages of his journey northward, Taffendale rode into the market-town,
and leaving his horse at his accustomed house of call, strode off to his
solicitor's office. Every mile that he covered of the dull December
landscape increased the anger, the resentment, the hopelessness of
fighting against Fate. which ever since the episode of the stang-riding
had been making his life a misery. He knew what was being said; he knew
that there were many folk of the countryside who would not say, never
would say, being wise, what they thought. He knew that men had changed to
him personally, that those who had once been only too proud to get a nod
of his head, a shake of his hand, were now quick to turn down a by-lane
or to cross the street in order to get out of his way. Ever since the
discovery of Pippany Webster's body he had ceased attendance at market,
at auction, at the various committees on which he sat; it was not that he
was afraid of showing himself, but that he was too proud to go where
suspicion and covert looks awaited him. Now, as he strode out of the inn
yard he could not avoid the bitter reflection that all was changed with
him. Before this came to be he would have flung his bridle to the stable
lads and have turned within the house, to pass the time of day in cheery
fashion with the landlady behind her well-provisioned bar, maybe to have
spent half-an-hour in friendly gossip over a glass and a cigar with such
of the local worthies as might be gathered there. He had no heart for
such things now; he already felt a pariah; it seemed to him that in every
face he met he read the question, "What do you and that woman know of
this mystery?"

Taffendale knew that he himself knew nothing, and it was not from mere
chivalry or loyalty that he believed Rhoda to be as innocent as himself.
He it was who had carried to her the news of the discovery of Pippany
Webster's body, and he knew with the knowledge of absolute conviction
that her blanching cheeks and dilating eyes meant innocence. He felt,
with invincible certainty, that that was the first she had ever heard of
the matter; she had been keeping no secret. And he knew, too, that she
had told him the truth when she had sent for him to tell him that Perris
had disappeared and that she never set eyes on him since the hour in
which he set out from Cherry-trees to sell his wheat. And yet, certain as
he was of the innocence of both of them, Taffendale was just as certain
that all around them all over the countryside folk were putting heads
together and whispering in corners, and some declaring openly, and some
only saying to themselves that Perris's wife was a murderess, and that
he, Taffendale, was in some fashion her accomplice.

He strode into his old schoolmate's private office and threw his gloves
and his riding-whip on the solicitor's desk with the gesture of a man who
is being hunted to desperation.

"Look here, Wroxdale," he said, as he dropped into a chair; "this has got
to stop. Understand me--it's got to be stopped!"

Wroxdale shifted the papers before him with a gesture which signified
helplessness.

"How, Mark?" he asked quietly. "How?"

"That's for you," replied Taffendale brusquely.

You re a lawyer. Isn't there any law for me? Isn't there any for this
poor woman? D'ye think we're both made of stone? I tell you the air's
full of this poison. God--I seem to smell the very stink of it wherever I
go!"

"You can't go to law with a rumour, Mark. You can't tackle suspicion as
you'd tackle a man in the flesh," said Wroxdale.

"D'ye mean to tell me the law won't help me to make some of these lying
scoundrels eat their own words?" demanded Taffendale. "Won't the law help
me to crush down a damned lie?"

"Let anybody make a definite libel or slander on you, Mark, and the law
will be there," answered Wroxdale. "But you can't put law into action
against whisperings, gossipings, abstract things. As you say, the whole
air is charged with this. Very well--you can't fight the air. This
thing, Mark, is like all things of the same nature--it will have to
pursue its natural course until its natural event is reached."

"And that?" growled Mark. "That?"

"The truth will come out," answered Wroxdale. "That's all."

Taffendale smote the desk at his side.

"Will? Aye, but when?" he exclaimed. "When? Are we to be under this vile
suspicion for ever? I'm conscious that there's something going on all
round us that I don't know of, that

Wroxdale lifted a finger.

"Stop, Mark," he said. "I'll tell you all I know. I get to hear things,
you understand. I believe matters are coming to a head. Mark, you needn't
be surprised if Mrs. Perris is arrested before long."

Taffendale's anger suddenly cooled. He made an effort to keep himself
within strict control, and after a moment's thought he spoke quietly.

"Now, then, Wroxdale," he said, "just tell me, between ourselves, what,
in your mind, they can have against her? Speak straight. Straight!"

The solicitor looked searchingly at his old schoolmate.

"Very well, Mark," he answered. "Quite straight, mind. Nothing, then, I
think, that is direct. But try to be dispassionate and to consider plain
facts. It is matter of common knowledge that Mrs. Perris did not care for
her husband. They had frequent scenesquarrels--or, perhaps, one should
say, she, to use countryside parlance, often let him hear her tongue. She
was ill-advised enough, foolish enough, to let other people know that she
despised him--she said more than she should have said about him to the
woman who went to work there--Mrs. Graddige. She came across you--she
made your acquaintance. She was known to spend some time with you in your
house when the rest of your household had retired--this happened on two
occasions. It is known that on the second of these occasions you left the
house with her late at night, and were absent nearly two hours. It is
known--by the curious piecing together of things by that gamekeeper,
Justice--that you and she used to meet in Badger's Hollow, and that the
man Pippany Webster became cognisant of the fact. Now, consider--Pippany
Webster is seen to enter the premises at Cherry-trees and he is never
seen again. Shortly afterwards Perris leaves his house one day, tells his
wife he is coming here to town to sell his spring wheat. He does that,
and he also sells some stock. He tells the people to whom he sells these
things that he may not be at home next day, and gives them written
authority to take away their purchases. Next day his wife sends for you
and shows surprise, genuine or affected--"

"It was real!" exclaimed Taffendale. "Real, I say!"

"Genuine or affected," continued Wroxdale coolly, "that her husband has
not returned home. But it is now established, on the testimony of two
good witnesses, that Perris was seen near Cherry-trees at twelve o'clock
that night, and the presumption is that he did return home, to a house in
which there was no one but his wife. From that day to this Perris has
never been seen or heard of. Rumours begin to spread--the conduct of Mrs.
Perris and yourself is discussed, and the village tongues wag. Mrs.
Perris's position becomes painful, and she feels that she must leave the
place. Here you make a foolish step. Instead of insisting on her
returning to her friends, her relations, you arrange that she shall go to
a seaside place and you furnish her with funds. Mrs. Perris is again so
ill-advised as to make a confidante of Mrs. Graddige, to whom she tells
this--"

"She trusted the damned old harridan!" growled Taffendale. "She'd no one
else to confide in."

"--and, who, woman-like, was quick to remember what she had been told
when the time came for remembering it to some purpose," continued
Wroxdale. "Now, before Mrs. Perris could leave, the affair of the
stang-riding took place. That, through a series of events into which we
need not go, led to the discovery of the body of Pippany Webster. And it
is impossible to deny, Mark, that here is a body of evidence which must
needs make Mrs. Perris an object of suspicion. All sorts of theories
might be evolved out of it. Pippany Webster might have threatened her
with exposure--she is a strong, muscular young woman, and she could kill
him easily. She might have quarrelled with her husband on his return the
night he sold that stock--he was probably the worse for liquor--and
killed him, possibly accidentally, in the course of the quarrel."

Tatfendale threw up his head and laughed sneeringly.

"Where's the man's body, then?" he asked.

"I said I would tell you plain facts," said Wroxdale. "Well, one plain
fact is that there is a theory abroad that she concealed Perris's body
somewhere on the premises, and that it was burned in the course of that
fire. A wild theory, you may say--but a possible one, Mark, a very
possible one. Remember, in all cases like this, cases of mystery,
everybody will theorise. I dare say the wildest, the most extravagant
theories have been made in the various bar-parlours, and round the inn
kitchen fires. Folks will talk."

Taffendale picked up his gloves and his riding-whip.

"I wish it was all over," he said "I wish something would bring it to a
head. It's like fighting something in the dark, a shadow, something that
you can't get hold of. It's--awful!"

He rose to his feet, turning to the door, and Wroxdale rose, too. The
solicitor trifled with the papers on his desk for a while before speaking
again.

"Well, Mark," he said, at last, "perhaps it may come to a head sooner
than you think. Between you and me, I've heard that there's been a
Scotland Yard man down here for a week or two. My information may be
wrong, but I have heard that he's working disguised as a labourer at
Cherry-trees, on the cottages you're building If he and the local police
get anything like a decent clue, a line to follow, they 'll act. And
then--well, then a great deal of suspense will be over. At any rate, Mrs.
Perris will know what she's called upon to face."

"Man, she's as innocent as a child!" exclaimed Taffendale. "Whatever her
faults are or may have been, I'd stake all I've got in the world and
whatever I hope for in whatever there is to come on her innocence. She
knows no more of the death of that man Webster, nor where Perris is, dead
or alive, than you do! By God!--I'm sure she doesn't. And see here,
Wroxdale--supposing she is tried, and found innocent, as she must
be--there's lots of 'em round here 'll go on saying she's guilty. Bah!--I
wish I could shoot most of 'em--a pack of canting hypocrites!"

"Human nature, Mark, human nature! But you're right," said Wroxdale,
"you're quite right. Nothing will make this matter clear, white, plain
again until two things can definitely be proved--who killed Pippany
Webster, and where is Abel Perris, dead or alive? That's the truth."

Taffendale turned to the door and hesitated before he had taken more than
a step. He turned again, laughing bitterly.

"You see what a coward I've become, Wroxdale!" he said. "I hate the
thought of going to the George for my horse, although it's dark, for I
know that the very stable lads look at me with curiosity."

"Then don't go," said Wroxdale kindly. "I'll send for your horse round
here, to my garden gate."

But Taffendale shook his head and put on his hat with a firmer pressure.
No, he was going to keep a stiff upper lip through it all. And he strode
away to the inn and got his horse and rode off into the darkness,
breathing more freely when the lights of the little town were left
behind.

It was half-past five o'clock when Taffendale reached the Limepits, and
the land was lying under a wintry pall of drear blackness around the
solidly built farmstead and its long range of gaunt buildings. There was
not a sign of a star in the sky, but from the quarry a circling shaft of
flame was shooting up to the night from a newly-lighted kiln. It made a
pillar of fire in the gloom, and as Taffendale glanced that way, previous
to passing in at his yard gate, he saw a dark figure standing outlined
against it on the edge of the quarry at the spot where he and the
gamekeeper had talked that morning which now seemed so far off. There was
something curiously sinister in the sight of that figure, made
preternaturally tall and spectral by the flame behind it, but Taffendale
gave it no more than a glance. He took his horse to the stables, and
going through the house went to the parlour, where he expected to find
his housekeeper and Rhoda at tea. The housekeeper was alone, and as the
door opened she looked up with something of anxiety.

"Where's Mrs. Perris?" asked Taffendale.

The housekeeper, an elderly woman, who had managed Taffendale's domestic
affairs for many years, shook her head.

"I don't know," she answered. "She's been out nearly all this
afternoon--at any rate, since long before it was dark. And, Mark--I'm
beginning to get frightened about her."

"Frightened?" said Taffendale. "Why?"

"I don't know. She--she seems strange, abstracted in her manner," replied
the housekeeper. "She never talks now, and she sits staring at--nothing.
She oughtn't to be left alone, Mark. And I didn't mean to leave her alone
this afternoon--she slipped off when my back was turned."

Taffendale stood for a moment trying to realise this new trouble. He
suddenly remembered the dark figure outlined on the edge of the quarry,
against the leaping pillar of flame.

"I'll go out and see if I can find her," he muttered.

He went across the garden and the land which separated the farmstead from
the lime-pits with new sensations of fear in his heart. He was not
unobservant and he had long known what Rhoda was suffering. She talked
little: she never smiled; she had begged to be allowed to take part in the
house-work, and the housekeeper, like a wise woman, had kept her fully
employed. But Taffendale had seen that she was every day becoming more
and more melancholy, and a vague dread, which he could not analyse, was
springing up in his heart about her. What if--but at the first prompting
of what was in his mind he tightened his hold upon himself and strode on.

The figure which he had seen on the edge of the quarry was no longer
there, no longer, at any rate, between him and the leaping flame. He
hurried on until he came to the very edge of the great chasm which many
generations of the Taffendale lime-burners had made in the land; the
yellow light from the newly-built kiln gleamed on the uneven flooring far
below. And glancing anxiously about him, he was suddenly aware of a dark
figure which sat, huddled up, in a little alcove cut out of the bank, and
with a stride he reached and touched it.

"Rhoda!" he said fearfully. "Rhoda!"

And with a quick leaping of something that he could not explain, he
dropped on his knees at her side and felt for her hands. In the light of
the flame beneath them she lifted her face, and Taffendale groaned at the
pain in it.

"Oh, Rhoda!" he cried. "What's this? Why are you here? Your
hands--they're like ice. You'll catch your death of cold sitting here.
Come away, Rhoda, come away!"

For a moment she made no answer, and in the stillness Taffendale heard
two sounds. One was the cheery crackle and splutter of the fire burning
merrily in the quarry; the other the onward rush of an express train
tearing its way across the level land some miles off across country. In
that train sat Perris, sucking stolidly at his pipe--but of that
Taffendale knew nothing. He only knew that Rhoda was in the grip of a
power beyond him.

She turned her face full upon him presently, and he saw that it was white
and drawn, and that her eyes were full of something that he had never
seen there before. And suddenly she disengaged one of her hands, and
lifting it, smoothed the hair away from his forehead. Until then he had
not realised that he had hurried out of the house without hat or cap.

"Mark!" she said quietly. "Mark!--I came out here to kill myself."

Taffendale, overwrought already by the conversation which he had had with
Wroxdale, felt a great sickness break over him on hearing these words,
spoken so calmly as to carry conviction of a sure purpose. He never
afterwards heard the crackling of a kiln fire nor the roar of a distant
train without remembering them and his own terrible sense of helplessness
to answer them. He could say nothing, but he bent his head on the woman's
shoulder and groaned.

"I didn't see aught else to do," Rhoda said, after a long silence. "I've
laid awake at night and seen no other way. It's come up before me as I
went about the house and did what bit of work I could find to do, and
still there seemed nothing else--nothing. I know what they're all saying,
and how they look at you and I've thought that if--if I was out of the
way things might be different."

"No!" said Taffendale. "No!"

"And there's another thing," continued Rhoda, as if she had not heard
him. "I've thought that it was all my fault. I did wrong to Perris. I
never ought to have married him. I treated him had--now and then. And I
did wrong to you--only I got fond of you all of a sudden, before I knew,
and without thinking. I--I treated Perris better after I loved you,
because I was sorry for him. And though I'm as innocent as can be about
these things, still it's been my fault, and I've thought that perhaps if
I died all might come right. I don't know why I thought that--my head
gets so queer--but I thought it. And when I came out this afternoon I
meant to go, Mark. I'd reckoned it all up--I'd wait till dark and then
I'd walk along the edge of the quarry here--there's a bit of old paling
just there that's rotten: I meant to lean against it, and I should have
fallen over when it broke under my weight, and then, you see, everybody
would have thought it was an accident. And I came here and stood a long
time, watching the kiln burn, and something was always telling me to
wait, to wait!"

Taffendale put his arm round her with a strong grip. His resolution had
come back to him as he listened to the confession of feminine weakness.

"Come away, Rhoda!" he said. "Come away--now! You're innocent, and God
knows it, and I know it--come, be brave. Perhaps you're to wait for
something that's going to prove it. Come away!"

Rhoda sighed heavily, but she made no resistance when he raised her to
her feet. For a moment he took her into his arms and drew her face to
his.

"Promise me you'll never think of that again," he said. "Or that if you
do you'll come to me."

"I'll come to you," she answered quietly, "be sure to come to you."

Taffendale led her across to the house in silence and into the parlour.
He gave the housekeeper a look and a nod as they entered, and the
housekeeper understood and began to bustle around the tea-tray. And
Taffendale, with a heart as heavy as lead, endeavoured to make
conversation over the tea and the toast, and while he chattered was
thinking vaguely of something which he had once read about some man or
other who played the fool and made merriment on the stage while his heart
was torn within him because at home a child lay dying. He knew that that
cosy parlour, with its evidences of prosperity, made a warm and
attractive picture; he knew also that on the hearts of two people who sat
in it the fear of the unknown lay heavy and cold.

"There's a gentleman at the garden door wants to see the master, if you
please," said one of the maids, entering the room as Taffendale was
talking for talk's sake. "Shall I take him into the little room, sir?"

"Aye, take him into the little room," replied Taffendale. He made a
pretence of lingering to drink his tea, and he murmured something about
having expected a customer for a supply of lime. But he knew that Rhoda
had started when the maid tapped at the door, and that for the first time
in his life his own hands were trembling. And when he rose and left the
parlour he was careful to avoid the woman's eyes.

There was a small room near the garden door, which Taffendale used as a
sort of office. He braced himself as he opened the door and walked in,
for he had a curious presentiment of what he was about to face. And
suddenly he was within the room, and the door was shut behind him, and he
was mechanically shaking hands with the district superintendent of
police--an elderly, bearded man, whose face expressed anxious concern.

"Yes?" said Taffendale.

The superintendent glanced at the door.

"Mr. Taffendale," he said in a low voice, "I'd rather this had been
anybody's job than mine. Mrs. Perris--you understand, sir?"

"There's been a warrant issued?" said Taffendale dully. "Eh?"

The superintendent tapped the breast of his overcoat.

"Just so, sir," he answered. "I have it here. And down the lane there I
have a very comfortable two-horse cab from the George. Now, Mr.
Taffendale, I want to do all this with as little trouble to Mrs. Perris
as ever I can. She's here, of course, sir?"

"She's here," said Taffendale.

"Well, now, now, sir, I've no doubt she'll do anything that you suggest,"
said the superintendent. "How would it be, Mr. Taffendale, if you just
prepared her and asked her to come with us, and we'll put off the formal
business until we get to the office? Then I needn't bother her just now,
you see. I've no doubt she's ready to meet this charge, and she'll be
glad to get it over."

"Yes," said Taffendale. "Yes--that will do. Thank you--it's good of you.
I'll prepare her, and then we'll go with you. I may come, I suppose?"

"Certainly, certainly, Mr. Taffendale--there's plenty of room in the cab
for you, sir," replied the superintendent. "Oh, certainly, come by all
means."

"And another thing," said Taffendale; "on our way to the police-station,
may we call at Mr. Wroxdale's, my solicitor, and take him on with us? I
want him to be there."

"Certainly you may, sir, with pleasure. I'll give orders to the driver,
who, between ourselves, is one of my men," said the superintendent.
"Yes--anything to make matters pleasant."

"We shall be ready in a few minutes," said Taffendale. He crossed the
room to a cupboard and brought out whisky and soda and glasses. "You'll
take a drink?" he said. "Well!" he went on, as he helped the
superintendent and poured out a glass for himself. "I'm glad it's come at
last--the suspense was killing her."

"Poor thing--poor thing!" said the superintendent sympathetically. "I've
no doubt it was. Yes, it's best to get at these things and be done with
'em, one way or the other. Your health, sir. Now, you'll bring her here
to me all ready, Mr. Taffendale--you'll understand that after I've once
seen her I can't lose sight of her again. There shall be naught said now,
sir, beyond a pleasant word or so--a 'good evening,' eh?--and we'll
drive straight to Mr. Wroxdale's and he shall go on with us. And--and
tell her not to be afraid, sir."

Taffendale nodded and left the room. He stood in the hall for a minute,
thinking. Then from an old chest he took out two thick carriage rugs and
laid them in readiness; near them he placed a heavy travelling cloak,
which had been his mother's. That done, he opened the parlour door and
called the housekeeper, and in a word or two explained what had happened
and bade her keep out of the way for a few minutes. And then he opened
the door again and went in to Rhoda. She gave him one quick look and
rose, and the colour flushed into her pale cheeks. He saw that she knew.

Taffendale took her hands.

"You wanted this to be settled, Rhoda?" he said.

"Yes--yes!" she breathed quickly. "Yes--oh, yes!"

"Then--it's going to be settled now," he said.

"They've--come for me?" she whispered. Taffendale nodded.

"I'm ready--and I'm glad," she said. "Now--tell me what to do. But
first--"

She threw her arms about him passionately and kissed him. And Taffendale
asked himself as their lips met if that was for the last time.

Five minutes later Taffendale opened the door of the little room, and
cried cheerily and bravely--

"Now, Mr. Superintendent, here's Mrs. Perris--all ready for you, and well
wrapped up for a cold drive!"


XXIII


There were three railway-stations in the market-town; that at which
Perris arrived lay in a valley, far out from the centre of the place, and
during his two years' acquaintance with the neighbourhood he had never
seen it or its immediate surroundings before, never having had occasion
to travel by the small branch line which had brought him to it from the
main line at the big junction twelve miles off. Only himself and one more
passenger left the train; on the wind-swept platform there was no one to
be seen but a porter; the station itself was poorly lighted by a couple
of oil-lamps; outside it the winter night was cheerless and black. Within
a minute or two of his leaving the train, Perris was standing outside the
station in the midst of a darkness that seemed all the denser because of
his recollection of the brilliantly lighted scenes amidst which he had
often wandered at night, lonely and wondering, during his residence in
London. High above him, but some little distance away, he saw the lights
of the market-town, the approach to which was by a winding road, lighted
at long intervals by feeble and flickering jets of gas that shivered in
their lamps; in a dip in this road he saw more lights which seemed to
betoken the presence of a small, outlying hamlet, or cluster of cottages;
amongst those lights was one which shone through red curtains. Perris
felt cheered at the roseate glow.

"I'll lay yon's a public," he muttered. "Publics has red blinds as a
rule. I'll call in and tek an odd glass afore I walk up to t' town--I
could do wi' sum-mat after that theer journey, and wi' a bite o' sum-mat
to eat an all."

Moving forward along the ill-lighted road, he came to a small inn which
stood on an open space surrounded by a half-score of old cottages. It was
no more than a wayside ale-house, and in the dim light of the one lamp
which stood in front of it Perris regarded it doubtfully. But hunger
overcoming his doubts he eventually pushed open the door and walked into
a sanded passage, on either side of which were rooms meanly furnished
with rough tables and benches of unpainted wood. There was a heavy scent
of stale liquor and of pungent tobacco in the atmosphere, and as Perris
closed the door behind him, he heard the loud voices of men in what
appeared to be an argument of a spirited nature.

These voices came from the room on the left hand side of the passage, and
Perris instinctively turned into the opposite one and was thankful to
find it empty, for he was in the state of mind that makes a man desire
loneliness. He sat down at one of the rough tables and rapped on its
surface with his ash-plant. An elderly woman, hard-bitten, tall, gaunt,
appeared from some interior part of the place, drying her hands on her
rough apron, and looked an inquiry in silence.

"I'll tek a glass o' Scotch whisky, if you please," said Perris.

The woman shook her head.

"We've no licence for spirits, mister," she answered. "Only for ale and
porter."

"Then a pint o' ale," said Perris. "An' happen ye could let me hey a
plate o' bread-an'-cheese with it."

"Yes," replied the woman. "We've some good cheese just now. Happen you'd
care for a pickled onion?"

"I shouldn't hey no objection," Perris answered. "Ye needn't be sparin'
wi' t' bread-an'-cheese--I'm a bit hungry, like."

The landlady went down the passage, and Perris laid aside his ashplant
and stared at the brewers' advertisements and grocers' almanacks which
adorned the dingy walls.

In the other room across the narrow passage its occupants were continuing
their loud-voiced debate; since Perris's entrance two of them had been
speaking at the same time, and he had paid no attention to them, being
more intent on his own affairs, but now one man had obtained a proper
hearing and his voice came loud and clear into the room in which Perris
sat alone. And Perris suddenly caught a word and a name, and he sat erect
and listened.

"--an' I tell yer 'at our Jack's been workin' at yon theer Cheery-trees
ever sin' they started building them cottages for Taffendale, and as he's
been on t' spot all t' time 'at this has been goin' on, who's more likely
to know all about it than what he is? He were present when t' body o' yon
man 'at they called Pippany Webster were found--he helped to draw it up
out o' t' well, and he heerd what they said 'at rekernised it, and I tell
yer he's been theer ever sin,' and of course he's seen all and heerd all
'at there were to hear an' see. Our Jack's more likely to know all about
t' matter than what ye are, and that he'd prove to yer if he were i' this
company--now then!"

"Well, an' as ye're Jack isn't in this comp'ny ye can tell us what ye're
Jack knows--I mean summat 'at folk like us doesn't know," said another
voice, somewhat scornful and sceptical in tone.

"Our Jack knows what t' opinion o' them 'at's on t' spot is, mi lad, and
ye're not on t' spot, any more nor what any on us here present is. Them
'at's been theer has drawn their own conclusions. It's t' common opinion
'at t' woman, Mrs. Perris, not only did away wi' yon Pippany Webster, but
'at she did away wi' her husband an' all. That's what t' common opinion
is, so theer!"

"Well, I don't believe it!" said the scornful voice, with unrestrained
contempt. "I don't believe 'at she killed Perris, nohow!"

"Then wheer is Perris? Ye tell me that! Wheer is t' man? Has he gone up
above, as them theer owd pateriarks did 'at ye hear tell about i' t' Good
Book, or has he been spirited away bi t' Owd Lad, or what? Men doesn't
disappear same as if they were t' smook out o' this here pipe--"

"A' but don't they? Don't ye mek no mistak's! Theer's been many a man
disappear 'at's never been heerd on agen--many a man, I say. I' my
opinion yon theer Perris just took hissen off, quiet like, an--"

The landlady brought Perris his supper, took his money, and vanished. And
Perris, with a queer smile, drank of his ale, crammed his mouth with
food, and continued to listen attentively. The conversation in the other
room had reached another point.

"Then ye tell me this--if t' woman did mak' away wi' Perris, what did she
do wi' t' body? Now then, there's summat for yer to answer. What's ye're
Jack say to that theer, now? Come!"

"Our Jack says what t' common opinion says about theer. It's supposed,
d'ye see, 'at t' woman, when she'd made away wi' her husband, concealed
t' corpse somewheer on t' premises, which is what she could easily do,
theer bein' a good deal o' opportunity about a farmhouse. She could ha'
hid him i' t' hay-cham'er, or i' t' barn, or i' t' granary, or--"

"An' d'ye mean to tell me 'at a woman could lift a man' corpse an' carry
it away to eyther barn or hay-cham'er, or granary, or onnywheer else? A
dead corpse, as everybody knows, is heavier nor when it's alive."

"Aye, varry like it is so, but yon Mrs. Perris, she's a reight fine,
strong young woman, and as like to lift owt heavy as what ye are. I've
seen her here at market--she's a strappin' woman. So that's no
objection."

"Well, an' supposin' she did hide him i' t' haycham'er, or i' t' pig-sty,
or wheer else, wheer is he now--wheer's t' body?"

"That's t' gre't point. Accordin' to what our Jack tells me, it's t'
common opinion 'at that theer dead corpse were destroyed i' t' fire when
Cherry-trees were burnt down bi them stang-riders. Destroyed, ye
understand? In--that--theer--fire!"

For the first time since Perris's entrance there was a lull in the
argument across the passage, and when the next contribution was made, it
was by a new speaker whose voice was tinged with awe.

"It's a fearsome thing to think on, is that theer; a corpse bein' burnt
up i' a fire and not able to stir hand or foot to do owt to help itsen.
I've never heerd o' owt o' that sort i' mi life. But wodn't nowt ha' been
found--no bones, nor nowt o' that sort?"

"Nowt. T' fire 'ud ha' destroyed 'em all."

"What about t' buttons on t' man's clothes. Most men has brass buttons on
their breeches. Wodn't them ha' survived t' perils o' t' fire? An' happen
he might ha' hed money i' his pocket."

"Brass, gold, or silver, t' fire 'ud destroy all t' lot. I once had t'
misfortune to drop a shillin' into t' fire, and t' wife raked t' ash-nook
out next mornin' but ye could mak' nowt out. No--fire's a very powerful
instrument, as ye might term it, and if t' body were hidden away i' t'
hay-cham'er, or elsewhere, it 'ud soon be dissolved into what they call
t' elements--which means nowt--when that fire came."

There was another spell of silence as a result of this speech, and in its
midst Perris finished his supper, drank off his ale, and filled his pipe.
As he began feeling in his pockets for a match, and realising that he had
struck his last in the train, the conversation broke out again.

"Aye, well, who knows wheer t' man be? Did ye ever see him?--ye say ye've
seen t' wife."

"I seen him more nor once. A tall, bony man, loose t' joints and
shammocked in his walk. Allus carried an ashplant stick wi' him--I seen
him slappin' his leg wi' it many a time up yonder i' t' market. A
sandy-coloured feller, wi' a long nose--no beauty. Aw, aye, I seen him!"

Perris could not find a match in his pockets, nor in the room in which he
sat, and the fire had died down to black ash. But there was a vase of
paper-spills on the mantelpiece, and he took one out and, still smiling
the queer smile, deliberately walked across the passage into the room in
which the men were talking, and coolly lighted his pipe at the fire round
which they sat. Then, drawing steadily at it, and slapping his leg with
his ashplant, he looked calmly round at their dilating eyes and parting
lips and walked out of the house.

The company left behind let a full minute elapse before speech returned.
Then with a mutual gasp of astonishment all spoke together.

"By Gow! what if yon wor t' man?"

"It mun ha' been t' man! I felt it when he walked in!"

"It wor his ghost. Lord ha' mercy--I'm fair ditherin' wi freet!"

The man who had seen Perris spoke after the others. "It wor t' man! He's
grown a beard, but it wor him. Yon's Perris!"

Then, with a common consent, they made for the door and ran outside to
the open space in front of the inn. But by that time the night was black
and starless and the feeble gas-lamp made but a mockery of illumination.
There was nothing to see, and nothing to hear, not even the sound of
retreating footsteps.

For Perris was already round the corner of the little cluster of
cottages, and striding quickly up the long hill that led to the centre of
the town. He knew quite well where his destination lay, and now that he
had supped and was smoking his pipe, he meant to go to it direct.

"Mestur Wroxdale's t' man for me," he muttered as he strode along. "A
varry pleasant, reight-dealin' gentleman, is Mestur Wroxdale. He's t' man
for my money."

The ancient market-place was in its usual half-lighted state when Perris
turned into it. Now he passed across the front of a lighted shop; now he
was lost in the shadow of some old building. He walked rapidly along,
looking neither to right nor left, always sucking stolidly at his pipe
and tapping his leg with his switch. And as he passed one shop, more
brilliantly lighted than the rest, and its light fell full upon him, a
man coming out of it saw him, glanced at him sharply, looked more
searchingly, and turned to follow him.

In the shadow of the great church in the marketplace Perris felt a tap on
his elbow, and turning, found himself face to face with Justice, the
gamekeeper from Martinsthorpe. Justice held out a hand. Perris stared at
it, making no offer to take it.

"So you're not dead?" said Justice.

"What's that to do wi' ye?" asked Perris sullenly. Justice smiled
unpleasantly.

"It's had a good deal to do with a good many people lately, at any rate,"
said Justice. "Why, where have you been, man?"

Perris stooped and thrust his lean face closer to the gamekeeper than the
gamekeeper liked.

"Look here!" he said. "Ye go your own ways, and I'll go mine. I want none
o' your interference." Justice stepped back a pace.

"I mean to see where you're going," he said.

"If ye want to know where I'm going," said Perris, slowly, "I'm going to
pay a call on Mestur Wroxdale, t' lawyer, as lives i' that house, theer.
If ye foller me, I'll gi' yer summat to carry away wi' yer--d' yer
understand?"

Justice made no answer. He moved away into the shadows, and from a
convenient point watched Perris go up to the solicitor's house and ring
the bell of the front door. A moment later he saw him admitted. Then
Justice went away, and hurried to the police, with whom he had recently
been cultivating friendly relations. It seemed to him that a new and
interesting stage of his connection with what he was now accustomed to
call the Cherry-trees Mystery, was being developed in surprising fashion,
and he meant to have his share in it.

Perris, having the solicitor's door open to him, lost no time in setting
to business. He walked into the hall without invitation, and without
ceremony addressed the maid who had answered his summons.

"I expect Mestur Wroxdale 'II be at home at this time?" he said, slapping
his leg with his ashplant. "Ye might just tell him 'at I could like to
have a word wi' him,--I've done business wi' him before now--name o'
Perris--Abel Perris."

While the maid hesitated, knowing that her master made no business
appointments after office hours, Wroxdale came into the further end of
the hall and caught the end of Perris's request. Without showing
surprise, he walked towards the door.

"Good evening, Mr. Perris," he said quickly. "Come this way."

Perris followed the solicitor down the hall to a room at the end which
Wroxdale used as a study. He took off his hat as he entered, and stood
waiting while Wroxdale turned up the reading-lamp which stood on his
desk.

"Sit down," said Wroxdale, pointing to one of the easy-chairs which
flanked the hearthrug. He took the opposite one himself, and gave his
visitor a keen glance. "So you want to see me, Mr. Perris?" he added.
"Business, eh?"

Perris laid his hat and stick on the floor at his side, and folded his
big hands, thumbs up, across his knees.

"Why, ye see, Mestur Wroxdale," he began, "you did a bit o' business for
me once or twice, and I thowt I'd liefer come to you nor to any other,
sir. Ye're no doubt aware, Mestur Wroxdale, 'at I've been away fro' this
neighbourhood for a piece?"

"Some time, I think," answered Wroxdale.

"Aye, some time," continued Perris. "Ye see sir, I had mi reasons for
leavin' this part o' t' country. Aye, I went to London and started on a
bit o' horsedealin', and I were doin' nicely at it an' all. Howsomiver,
this mornin' I were at t' Caledonian Market as they call it--it's a
queerish place, but ye can now and then pick up a bargain o' sorts
theer--and I chanced across yon there Mestur Mallins--Roger Mallins, him
as farms out yonder at Woodbridge--and of course, we took a glass
together, and he telled me some news o' t' owd neighbourhood, and
'specially this news about all t' recent goin's on at Cherry-trees. An',
of course, it were all reight news to me, 'cause I'd niver heerd word on
it afore."

"You'd heard--nothing?"

"Nowt, sir! I'm not one for readin' t' newspapers," replied Perris, "and
ye see, I'd done--or wanted to ha' done wi' this part o' t' country an'
t' owd life. Howsomiver, this feller Mallins, he telled me a deal, and I
understand 'at they foun' t' body o' yon theer man, Webster--Pippany, as
they called him--'at were once employed by me, and 'at now my wife's
accused o' killin' the chap, and of getting rid o' me an' all. Is that
reight, or is it wrong, Mestur Wroxdale?"

Wroxdale inclined his head.

"Right!" he answered.

Perris looked at the ceiling and sniffed.

"Well, sir," he said slowly, "it's a varry 'queer thing to me how folk
gets mista'en notions into their heads. Howsomiver, as you say it is so,
it is so, I reckon. Then--my wife's i' danger, Mestur Wroxdale?"

"Your wife is in serious danger," replied Wroxdale. She is in such
serious danger that she may be arrested at any moment."

"Aw!" said Perris. "Aw! Why, then, sir, it's as well I came back. I
think, as she's charged wi' t' matter, we mun as well hev' it cleared up
reight. 'Cause it were not my wife, Mestur Wroxdale, 'at made away wi'
Webster. It were me!"

For a full moment Wroxdale made no answer. He had wondered, when Perris
presented himself, if the man was intoxicated and had speedily decided
that he was not; now he wondered if Perris had lost his reason. He let
Perris speak again before he himself spoke.

"Not her at all," said Perris. "She's nowt to do wi' t' matter. It were
me!"

Wroxdale picked up the poker and stirred the fire: the mere act of doing
something physical was a relief to his nerves. He sat up again and
regarded Perris steadily.

"You say that you killed Pippany Webster?" he said.

"Aye, I killed him!" answered Perris. "I made away wi' t' chap reight
enough."

"You know what you're saying?" asked Wroxdale. "You're quite sure you
know what you're saying?"

"I know what I'm saying, sir, and I'm going to say, it to t' police, if
you'll tell me how to act about it," replied Perris stoutly. "We'll clear
t' matter up."

"But--do you realise what it means to you  asked Wroxdale earnestly. "It
may be--death."

"I know that an' all," said Perris. "An'--I don't care."

Wroxdale rose from his chair and paced the room. He had never known an
experience of this sort in the whole course of his career, and he was
puzzled beyond measure.

"Was it--was it accidental?" he asked, suddenly stopping in front of
Perris and staring down at him in wonder. "It was, eh?"

Perris shook his head.

"No, sir, it were nowt o' t' sort," he answered. "It were what I
understand--I'm no gre't scholar--what I understand they term deliberate.
I meant to kill t' feller, and I did kill him."

"But--why?" asked Wroxdale.

Perris's face suddenly became sullen, and he shook his head.

"I shalln't tell nobody why I killed t' man," he answered. "That's my
business. But," he added, his face clearing again, "I'll tell you, and
I'll tell t' police how and where it wor 'at I made away wi' him. It were
one Sunda' night--I can't reightly fix t' exact date, but our Rhoda were
singing a new piece that night down at t' chappil, and t' preacher had
been to tea wi' us. When they'd gone, I wor alone, d'ye see, an' this
Webster he come moochin' round like, and I led him into t' granary, and
as I say, I hed mi reasons for makin' away wi' him, and I made away wi'
him. An' later on, I put t' body away i' t' owd well."

Wroxdale sat down and stared at the man who had voluntarily made this
extraordinary confession. Was he sane? He could see no sign of insanity
in him; he talked coherently, intelligently--and yet, what sane man would
boldly appear and give up his liberty, life, in this fashion?

"You want to make a confession to the police?" he asked suddenly.

"That's what I come to you about, sir," answered Perris. "I know naught
about no confessions to t' police--I want to tell t' truth. If so be 'at
my wife's i' danger--why, then, she mun be putten out o' danger, an'--"

Wroxdale gave way to a sharp feeling of humanity. He rose impulsively
from his chair, and laid his hand on Perris's shoulder.

"Perris!" he exclaimed. "Tell me the truth! You're not making all this
up, not inventing it, to shield your wife? Out with the truth, now?"

Perris looked up wonderingly, and the solicitor knew at once that he had
listened to the naked truth.

"Eh, Lord bless you, no, sir!" he answered. "I telled you just how it all
were. My wife knew naught about it. Nobody knew naught about it. It were
nobody but me--nobody!"

Wroxdale took away his hand, and turned to his desk. But before he could
sit down, the maid who admitted Perris knocked at the door and called him
out.

"Wait a moment, Perris," he said, as he left the room.

Perris folded his hands and twiddled his thumbs.

"As many as is agreeable to you, sir," he answered.

Outside in the hall Wroxdale confronted Taffendale, the inspector, and,
behind them, half-hidden in the shadows, a cloaked and hooded figure
which he instinctively guessed to be Rhoda's. And with a quick
recognition of the situation he raised his hand in the gesture of
silence, and beckoned the two men aside out of earshot of the woman.

"Hush!" he said. "I've an idea why you've come. But--there'll be no
proceedings against Mrs. Perris. Her husband is in that room, and he's
just told me the truth. She's innocent of everything--it was he who
killed Webster! But why, only himself and God know I--I doubt if men ever
will."


XXIV


Throughout the dreary and sordid weeks which elapsed between the making
of his confession to the police and the holding of the ensuing Winter
Assizes Perris maintained the attitude which he had shown to Wroxdale
with a firmness and stolidity that nothing could break down. Having once
made the confession nothing moved him from it or whatever purpose it was
that had impelled him to make it. How and when he killed Pippany Webster
he would and did tell; why he killed him he would not tell. It was
nobody's affair but his, he said; repeated attempts on Wroxdale's part to
get him to tell more, warnings as to his fate, only produced sullenness
on his part and eventually silence. Once committed for trial and placed
in prison on remand he fell into the prison routine with ready acceptance
and a curious equanimity. They said of him that nothing affected his
appetite nor his ability to sleep; he made no complaints and received
Wroxdale's visits with indifference. And at last, when the Assizes were
near at hand, he gave the solicitor a plain intimation that he wanted to
see him no more.

"I can't see what's t' use o' your comin' here so oft, Mestur Wroxdale,"
he said, showing for the first time some signs of testiness. "It's only
wastin' your time and it's doin' no good. I've telled t' truth about t'
matter and theer's an end on it. At least, I know what t' end 'll be, and
t' sooner it comes t' better."

"So you mean to let yourself be hanged without an effort to save your
neck?" said Wroxdale, feeling it necessary to speak with brutal
plainness. "Remember, you're not playing at this--you're in the hands of
the Law."

"T' Law and t' lawyers can do wi' me what they like," answered Perris.
"I've spokken. I've telled t' truth, and I'll tak' t' consequences. I
thowt it all out when I were travillin' down i' t' train that day I come
to see you, sir. I tell you I've spokken. An' nowt 'll alter what I've
said."

Wroxdale shook his head.

"You've still a duty to yourself, Perris," he said. "You see, if you
could only show me that there were extenuating circumstances--"

"I don't know what them words means, sir," replied Perris, with more
signs of testiness. "I've telled what t' circumstances were, an'--"

"Wait a moment," said Wroxdale, "and try to remember that I'm doing my
best for you. I don't want to see you go to the scaffold if I can save
you. By extenuating circumstances I mean that perhaps you lost your
temper--"

Perris made a gesture of impatient dissent.

"I lost nowt o' t' sort, then!" he exclaimed. "I werrn't likely to lose
mi temper wi' t' like o' that theer. I killed him same as I'd ha' killed
a weasel or a rat-ten. An' I've telled ye once for all, Mestur Wroxdale,
I've said my say and I shall say no more. Ye mean well, sir, but it's no
use comin' to this place agen on that business. What I've said, I'll
stand to."

Then Wroxdale played his last card.

"There's somebody besides yourself to think of, Perris," he said.
"There's your wife. You don't want her to go through the rest of her life
branded as a murderer's widow?"

The look of sullen obstinacy which Wroxdale had begun to know so well
came over Perris's face, and settled there as if it would never move.

"I've said my say, Mestur Wroxdale," he answered. "I've nowt no more to
remark, sir."

And Wroxdale left him and troubled him no more. But he contrived, with
the co-operation of the authorities, to have Perris examined, unknown to
himself, by mental specialists, for he had doubts as to the man's sanity.
And the mental specialists gave it as their convinced opinion that Perris
was sane enough on all points, and then Wroxdale knew that things would
have to take their course.

That course was short and sharp enough, once the weeks of weary waiting
were over. In a crowded court, in which he himself seemed to be the most
unconcerned person present, Perris, called upon to plead, reiterated his
guilt as calmly and firmly as he had confessed it before the magistrates.
Advised by the presiding judge to withdraw his plea and to take his
trial, he answered that he should do no such thing.

He had already told the police and the magistrates all the circumstances
of the crime he was charged with and in the telling he had spoken the
truth. He was not going to take back what he had said to please anybody.
And just as he had been deaf to all that Wroxdale had urged, so he was
deaf to all that grave judicial advice could put before him. Forms of law
were naught to him, and he shook his head impatiently at the mention of
them and the advantage to himself and the public of a fair trial.

"I've answered that theer question you axed me," he said. "An' I'll
answer it agen--Guilty!"

So there was no more to be done or said, the prisoner having been proved
to be a perfectly sane man, and presently Perris heard himself sentenced
to death. He stood for a moment after the last words had fallen on his
ears, and he looked round the court, in which we many faces that he must
have known, but if he was searching for any particular face he showed no
sign. And with every eye fixed on him, he presently turned and walked
steadily down the stairs behind him, and so disappeared.

There were many in the court who believed that Perris's last look round
had been for his wife. But Rhoda had not been in court, though she
was close at hand. At the time of Perris's sudden reappearance she
had broken down, and it had been necessary to remove her from
Wroxdale's house to an adjacent nursing home where she had ever since
remained. Only the best medical skill and the closest attention had
restored her sufficiently to be in a condition to face the prospect of
entering the witness-box, and the doctor who had accompanied her to the
Assizes was thankful for his patient's sake when he heard that there
would be no call upon her.

"All the same," he said to Wroxdale, who with Taffendale had come across
from the courts to the hotel in which Rhoda and a nurse were waiting in a
private room, "somebody's got to break the news to her. She'll be better
when she hears it."

Wroxdale looked at Taffendale.

"That's your duty, Mark," he said quietly.

Taffendale's face showed signs of agitation, and he turned away from the
other two. But they suddenly saw him draw himself up and square his
shoulders and he turned to them with a firmly-set jaw.

"If you think so, and the doctor thinks so," he said.

The doctor nodded.

"Yes, I think so," he said. "Tell her quietly and briefly. I'll call the
nurse out and we'll stay near the door in case we're wanted. Come away as
soon as you've told her, and then we'll get her away again. Come at
once--the sooner she knows the better."

When Taffendale walked through the door which the doctor held open for
him he felt that he was dealing with the most critical episode in his
life. He knew what would result from the carrying out of the sentence
which had just been passed on Abel Perris. Rhoda would be free, and she
was already cleared of the suspicions which had gathered about her. And
yet he felt a strange certainty that at this moment she was further away
from him than ever; that there was a vast gulf between them which nothing
could bridge. And as he crossed the room all thoughts of himself and of
her went out of his mind and he only saw her as a trembling and agitated
woman waiting to know the worst.

She sat in an easy-chair in which the nurse had placed her, facing the
fire, and she was staring at the flames with abstracted eyes when
Taffendale went up and touched her shoulder. She looked up at him with a
start and her hands clasped themselves nervously.

"You won't be wanted, Rhoda," he said gently. For a moment she searched
his face with a long look.

"Then--it's over?" she whispered.

"It's over."

"He--he wouldn't say--more?"

"Nothing more."

"And so--"

Her voice sank to a whisper and her eyes finished the question. And
Taffendale inclined his head and turned away without speaking. But he
quickly turned to her again and laid his hand on her arm.

"There's hope yet," he said. "Wroxdale says there'll be a petition, and
all that. Now, Rhoda, you must go back with the nurse and the doctor. Be
brave."

She rose obediently and stood for a while looking through the window at
the gloomy facade of the great hall which Taffendale had just left. Then
she turned to him.

"If--if naught's any good," she said quietly," will they let me speak to
him before--the end? There's things--I want to say. You'll see to that,
Mark?"

"I'll see to that," replied Taffendale. "Now, Rhoda, you must go."

He picked up her cloak from the table close by and put it round her
shoulders, remembering as he did so how, not so many months before, he
had rendered her the same service when she had come to his house at the
Limepits, little dreaming of what lay before herself and him. And with
this thought in his mind, and without another word, he called in the
nurse and the-doctor and left her with them.

Taffendale and Wroxdale travelled from the Assize town in company, and
for a time neither spoke of the event of the morning. But at last
Taffendale started out of a long reverie, which his companion had taken
care not to break in upon.

"What chance will this petition have?" he asked abruptly.

Wroxdale looked out of the window of the compartment which they had
secured to themselves, and stared at the grey landscape for some time
before he answered.

"Well, Mark," he said at last, "if you want to know the truth, I'm
afraid very little. Remember the summing-up or, rather, the judge's
remarks. There's no denying the fact--this, on Perris's deliberate
confession, was a particularly cold-blooded and brutal murder. You know
that there doesn't seem to be a single extenuating circumstance. He
deliberately killed that poor fellow. Now, his Lordship of this morning
is well known as a very stern and severe judge--he's a thoroughly upright
man, but a staunch upholder of the Law, and if we send up a petition the
Home Secretary will depend upon what he, who heard the case, has to say,
and I fail to see what he can say in Perris's favour--with the exception
of one thing."

"What's that?" asked Taffendale sharply.

"Why, that when he heard of all this he returned at once--at once,
mind!--and gave himself up to justice," replied Wroxdale. "A certain
percentage of criminals do that, but it's a small one. Another thing
though really part of the same thing--is that all through, from the time
he made his voluntary confession to the police to the time of the trial
this morning, he showed a firm desire to tell the truth, regardless of
the consequences to himself. That is all, so far as I can see, that would
be likely to weigh with the authorities. And yet, there is another
feature of the case which might be taken into consideration."

"Well?" asked Taffendale.

"This," said Wroxdale thoughtfully. "The absence of any known motive.
Perris is such an obstinate, pig-headed fellow that it has been, and, in
my opinion, always will be impossible to get out of him what his motive
was. But one may reasonably suppose that he didn't kill that man with
premeditation. I'll stake my life he didn't, Mark! Therefore, the
presumption is that he did kill him on the spur of the moment, whatever
Perris himself may say. Perris has stuck consistently all through to the
same tale: I meant to kill Webster, and I did kill him.' Yes quite so! but
how long had he meant to kill him? A month, a week, a day, or five
minutes. My own belief is that when Pippany Webster entered those
premises at Cherry-trees, Perris had no more idea of killing him than I
have of killing you."

Taffendale, who had been listening with close attention, nodded.

"Couldn't all that be put in a petition?" he asked.

"Certainly it could, and we'll have a petition, and it shall be put in,"
replied Wroxdale. "I'll draft that petition at once, and we'll do all we
can with it, and we'll make a great point, too, of the mystery that
overhangs the case yet. Yes, we'll have a petition, and run it for all
it's worth."

"And whatever it costs I'll stand to," said Taffendale. "Never mind what
the amount is."

Wroxdale made no answer to that beyond a nod. He drew out and lighted a
cigar, and smoked for awhile in silence. Then he turned to his companion
with an enigmatic smile.

"Human nature is a queer thing, Mark Taffendale," he said. "There's no
particular personal reason why any one should sign that petition in
favour of Abel Perris. He's not a very lovable personality, poor fellow;
the folk above him will say that he's best out of the way, and the folk
below him will remember that he killed one of themselves. But I can see
one reason why Martinsthorpe folk would sign it--sign it, to a man no
doubt."

Taffendale knitted his brows and looked suspiciously at the solicitor.

"What are you driving at?" he asked. "Some of your quibbles, no doubt."

"No quibbles, Mark, plain facts," answered Wroxdale. "They'll sign it to
spite you and Mrs. Perris. Village folk never forget. They know that if
Perris is hanged, his wife will be free--and the probability, nay the
certainty, is, that if they know there's a chance of saving his life,
they'll hurry to sign their names or make their marks. Do you follow
that, Mark?"

"Let them sign for whatever reason they please," replied Taffendale
quietly. "I'm only speaking the truth when I say that I want to see
Perris's life saved. And I don't care what folk may say about me, they've
said so much already that they can't say much more, nor hurt me much
more."

What folk were saying Taffendale knew that very night. As he rode his
horse out of Wroxdale's yard on his way home, one of a mob, that had
somehow heard of his presence at the solicitor's and had gathered in the
darkness to see him go, flung out a loud-voiced gibe--

"Well, ye'll be able to marry t' widder when t' man's hanged, Mr.
Taffendale, so all 'll end well for all on yer!"

Then came another and more strident voice: "Aye, but Perris isn't
hanged yet!"

Wroxdale heard those cries, and knew that he had been right in what he
had said to Taffendale in the train. And he had further proof of the
correctness of his conclusions when copies of the petition in favour of
Perris were circulated around the country side. For the signatures came
fast and thick, and Wroxdale was soon aware that amongst the people there
was a fierce desire to prevent the capital sentence from being carried
into effect. And from the immediate neighbourhood the movement in favour
of Perris's reprieve spread over the county, and to places further
afield, and Wroxdale recognised that one of those unaccountable national
impulses had set in which begin in an obscure corner and quickly cover a
kingdom.

"It will be one of the most numerously-signed petitions ever known," he
said to Taffendale, when a fortnight had gone by and the time was drawing
short, "and we could get thousands of signatures yet. But it must go up
to-morrow. We've done all that can be done, now."

Perris, in his condemned cell, knew nothing of what was being done for
him. Wroxdale, knowing his frame of mind on the matter, had thought it
best to tell him nothing. For Perris appeared to be fully content and in
a certain way happy. They said that he talked and read; he ate well and
slept well, and was deeply and almost humbly grateful because he was
allowed to smoke his pipe. And he expressed no desire to see anybody.

But when it came to the last day but one of his life, Perris, early in
the morning, sent for Wroxdale, and the solicitor, when he arrived, saw
something in the man's eyes which he had never seen there before.

"Mestur Wroxdale," he said, "ye know what's to happen day after
to-morrow. Now, sir, to-morrow I want to see--my wife. An' I want to
see--Mestur Taffendale. An' I want to see 'em together. Can it be done? I
want it to be done--it mun be done if it can. I've--summat to say to t'
two on 'em--together."

And Wroxdale promised that it should be done, and asked no questions, but
hurried away to make arrangements, and as he left the cell he said to
himself--

"At last he is going to tell the truth!"


XXV


To the man and woman to whom Abel Perris wished to speak his last words,
the preliminaries of their visit to him seemed like the stages of some
hideous dream from which, struggle as he may, a dreamer has no power to
awake. In after years neither had any clear conceptions of the events
ofthat day. It was a jumble of confused recollections. There was the
journey to the town in which Perris lay in prison; there was the sight of
the prison itself; of its towers, from one of which the black flag would
be displayed next morning about the time that the townsfolk would settle
to their business for the day; there were locks, and bolts, and bars, and
formalities, and rooms and places which were strangely unlike all other
rooms and places; there were men with keys, and dismal corridors to be
traversed; there was a curious odour, which they were never again to
forget; there was a feeling that the busy life of the town through which
they had just passed was so far off that Heaven or Hell seemed nearer.
And there was the awful realisation of the fact that it was the eve of
the day on which Perris was to die, and that no news had come of a
reprieve, and that Wroxdale's hopes had fallen to the lowest degree, and
that they were going to hear words from a living man, who in a few short
hours would be dead and buried. And then there was the further and more
horrible realisation that the man himself was there before them; caged,
like some wild animal, behind bars before which his keepers sat; they
caged too, as if they also were wild animals that must be kept from the
other. There was to be no touching of hands, then, nothing but an
exchange of sight and sound?--why, truly, then, this was to show indeed
that between the man who was to die and the folk who were to live there
was a gulf fixed which nothing could bridge.

The man and woman who were to live, who were presently to walk out of
that awful place free to breathe the air, to see the sun, to hold
converse with their fellow-creatures, stared at the man who was going
into the darkness as if he were something that they had never seen before
and could not comprehend. There was no word in them; they could only
look-and marvel with a terrible fear. But the man beyond the bars spoke,
and there was little of fear or trouble in his voice.

"Well, Rhoda, my lass, I tek' it kind of you that yer should come here,
and you too, Mestur Taffendale," said Perris. "It seems a queer place to
meet in, but theer's a deal o' queer things i' this world, and I expect
we mun put up wi' 'em. Theer were summut I wanted to say to both on you
before--well, before to-morrow--so I had to ask Mestur Wroxdale to get
yer to come. Ye see, both on yer, I've thought and studied matters a deal
since I were in this place, havin' naught else to do, and I come to t'
conclusion 'at I owt not to--to go away, as it weer, wi'out tellin' yer
summat 'at I think I owt to tell. I wouldn't tell nowt to Mestur
Wroxdale, nor to t' judge, nor to t' clergyman, but I'll tell you
two--I've a sort of feelin', a conviction like, 'at I mun tell yer! Ye
see, I want yer to know why all that theer occurred, an'--"

Rhoda cried out and tried to speak, and could not, and Taffendale
suddenly heard his own voice as if it had been somebody else's and
wondered at the horror in it.

"Don't tell us anything, Perris, that'll hurt you! Never mind anything,
Perris, but--"

"It'll none hurt me, Mestur Taffendale! T' hurt 'ud be if I didn't tell
now I feel I owt to tell you two. I understand 'at what I say to you two
here is for yourselves--theer's no lawyers here. Ye see, Rhoda, and you,
Mestur Taffendale, I wanted to tell you why I made away with yon Pippany
Webster. An' I'll tell you t' truth, as I've told it all along this
matter. Listen well to what I say, and happen you'll understand."

The men sitting between the double sets of bars became conscious of two
white, strained faces pressed close to one set staring at the other face,
not so white, which confronted them from across the narrow space.

"Ye see, it were that Sunda' night, Rhoda, my lass, 'at ye were singing
that grand solo piece down at t' chappil, and ye and t' preacher hed
setten off, and ye'd left me at home, all by misen. An' then come yon
Pippany Webster, sneaken' round t' place, and I see'd his head poppin' up
first i' one place and then in another, and at last I went out and
tackled him, and axed him his business on my premises. And then he tell'd
me--and yell both excuse me for mentionin' t' matter--'at he'd been a
deal o' late in that theer Badger's Hollow, and he'd seen you two keepin'
company. An' then he went on to tell me 'at one night when I were away
he'd spied on t' Cherry-trees, and he'd seen you, Mestur Taffendale, come
theer late and stop a long time wi' Rhoda theer. An' all t' time he were
talkin' and tellin' his spy tales I were thinkin' o' two things at once,
in a manner o' speakin'. One were this--'at I'd been a fool, and 'at I
niver owt to hey expected 'at a young woman like you, Rhoda, my lass,
could ha' cared owt for a poor sort of a chap like me, an'--"

Again Rhoda cried out inarticulately, and Taffendale standing at her
side, could feel her shaking in agony. But Perris went quietly on.

"--an' I owt to hev had t' sense to see 'at sooner or later she'd meet
some man 'at were more suited, like. An' t' other thowt were this--how
many folks i' t' village knew what that theer rascal, Pippany Webster,
knew? So I set to work to pump all t' knowledge 'at I could out on him,
and I very soon convinced misen, 'at nobody but him did know, and 'at he
hadn't telled a soul, not even theer owd Tibby Graddige. An' so then I
thinks to misen, 'I'll soon keep thy tongue quiet, mi lad!' and I 'ticed
 him up into t' granary, and theer I choked him."

Taffendale, gripping the bars at which he stood, bent his head on his
hands and groaned. He understood now, and he saw the uselessness, the
utter purposelessness of what this poor, dull intellect before him had
meant to be so purposeful, so useful.

"Oh, Perris!" he cried. "Why did you do it for that! I'd rather the whole
world had known than it should have brought you to this!"

In the dull light Perris smiled.

"Aye, but ye see, I thowt different, Mestur Taffendale," he said. "I were
none goin' t' hey' a chap like that theer carryin' his tales round t'
countryside, as he would ha' done. I knew he wouldn't keep his tongue
quiet. So, as I tell yer, I quietened him. An' then I made away wi' him
down t' owd well--but theer's no need to go into that theer. Rhoda, my
lass, theer's no call to cry."

"Let her cry," said Taffendale; "it's the best thing for her. Oh,
Perris, you made a great mistake!"

"Aye, but I tell yer 'at I considered different!" said Perris. "Happen I
think in a way o' mi' own, Mestur Taffendale. Howsomiver, I want to tell
ye both why I went off. Ye see, I studied a deal after I'd made away wi'
Webster--I were allus thinkin' about t' matter. An' I thowt to
misen--well, I'm nowt and nobody, nowt but a poor uneddicated chap 'at
'll niver mek' owt on't, and if so be as Rhoda and Mestur Taffendale's
fallen i' love--ye'll excuse me for mentionin' such things--why, t'
sooner I'm out o' t' way the better for all parties; it doesn't matter
what comes to me, and they'll be free to please theirsens. Ye see, theer
were a chap 'at I used to know--a chap 'at reads books--as told me many a
year ago 'at if a man run away fro' his wife she could very soon wed
agen, and so I considered to be off. But mind yer, I were not goin'
wi'out money, and so I selled what I could, and got t' brass i' hand and
away I went. I niver meant a soul to hear tell o' me agen: I were goin' to
Canada, but I came bi chance to do a bit o' horse-tradin' i' London.
Howsomiver, ye know how things has turned out. It never struck me 'at yon
theer owd well 'ud iver be opened agen; I thowt 'at wi' Webster quietened
and me gone ye'd hey plain sailin'. But I niver were nowt but a fool."

Taffendale felt that words were useless. He looked in dumb misery at the
floor of the open space which lay between him and Perris, and thought
that the stones were more likely to speak than he was. And above the
sound of Rhoda's quiet weeping Perris spoke again.

"Howsomiver--to-morrow 'll settle all. An' then ye'll be free enough.
Ye'll be good to her, Mestur Taffendale. An', Rhoda, my lass--"

But Rhoda's weeping suddenly ceased, and she stopped Perris with a fierce
gesture that made Taffendale start.

"Don't!" she said in a tense voice. "I can't bear it! Mark--tell
him--he's a dying man--tell him that, however foolish we may have been,
there never was aught wrong between you and me--if he dies thinking that
there was I shall--"

Perris lifted his hand quietly.

"I niver thowt theer were owt wrong, my lass," he said, with a simple
dignity. "That were why I killed t' man 'at were sayin' theer were,
before he could go an' say it to others. But I knew ye loved each other,
and so--"

And the scene came to an end, for Rhoda fell in a heap at the foot of the
bars, and while Taffendale helped to carry her away in one direction,
Perris was taken off by his custodians in another.


There were women in the prison who took charge of Rhoda, and when
Taffendale had seen her into their care he went, half-fainting himself,
to the room where he had left Wroxdale. There were others there
officials, and when he entered they were talking VI Wroxdale, and
Wroxdale turned hastily from them to him.

"Taffendale--it's come!" he exclaimed. Taffendale stared at him vacantly.

"What's come?" he asked dully.

"What? The reprieve, man! They're just going to tell him. It came--"

But Taffendale, for the first time in his life, had fainted, and the
warder who had brought him to the room caught him as he reeled and fell.
And only Wroxdale of all the men around knew that the message which saved
Perris's life had also saved Taffendale from a long future of ceaseless
torture and a hell of remorse.

"It's true?" he said, when he came round and found Wroxdale at his side.
"He's--not to die?"

"It's true, Mark. He's not to die. And he's a young man, remember. He'll
be a free man yet," replied Wroxdale.

Taffendale rose unsteadily to his feet.

"Let me get into the air," he said. "And--leave me alone a minute or two,
Wroxdale."

There was a dismal little garden outside the room, and on a bench which
stood against a blank wall Taffendale sat down and stared at the patch of
grey sky, which was all that he could see of the outer world. His mind
was growing calmer and clearer and he began to see the future. For him
and Rhoda, as human minds linked together, there was no future; he knew,
had known ever since the hour in which he found her on the edge of the
quarry, that whatever might chance, Perris, dead or alive, would always
stand between them. And now Perris was alive and was to live, and was to
atone for his sin, and hers would be to wait until the years of that
atonement were over, and then to give him what cheer she could in the
days that would yet be left. And his owni--his, Taffendale's?

"She shall never want for aught until he's free," he said to himself.
"And when he's free they shall have a new life. But from to-day she and I
shall never meet again."

Then he went within, and found Wroxdale, and gave him instructions as to
Rhoda's care, and himself went away. And as the wicket-gate closed upon
him with a harsh clang, he lifted his head and drew a deep and long
breath. He knew that he had passed out of a worse prison, a harder
captivity, than any Abel Perris would ever know.



THE END




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