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Title: The Watchman of Orsden Moss
Author: J Monk Foster
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Watchman of Orsden Moss
Author: J Monk Foster

* * *


THE WATCHMAN OF ORSDEN MOSS.


BY


J. MONK FOSTER,

Author of "The Slaves of Fate," " A Miner's Million," "Children of
Darkness," "Through Flood and Flame," "Queen of the Factory," "A Pit
Brow Lassie," "The White Gipsy," "The Mine Masters Daughter," &c., &c.



Published in the Adelaide Observer, South Australia, in serial
format commencing Saturday 7 August, 1897.(this text). 

Also in the Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, commencing 6 July, 1897,
and in the Bendigo Advertiser, commencing 24 July, 1897, and in The
Capricornian (Rockhampton) commencing 10 July, 1897, and in the Otago
Daily Times (N.Z.) commencing 8 January, 1898.


* * *


CHAPTER I.--THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.

When the tram rumbled slowly into the little station of Orsden Green
the only passenger that alighted was a stranger to the pompous,
red-faced, thick-girthed little Stationmaster, standing on the
platform, and the poor-looking, attenuated porter who was hovering
about the white gate leading from the platform, to collect tickets if
any were forthcoming.

As he stepped out of the carriage the solitary passenger glanced
around him with the air of one unaccustomed to the place, stared at
the new red-brick station-house in a quietly curious way, regarded the
pursy, uniformed official as if he were half-inclined to venture some
enquiries, and then seeing the waiting, would-be collector of tickets
and the open gate, walked slowly towards them, drawing his voucher from
his waistcoat as he went forward.

"How far is the village of Orsden Green from here?" the man queried, as
he handed his railway ticket to the porter.

"About a mile, sir," the long-legged, anaemic-looking railway servant
answered readily. "When you get to the highroad turn to the left and
you can't miss it if you go right on. You are a stranger about these
'ere parts, sir?"

"You are right, my man, I'm a stranger," the traveller returned, with
the ghost of a repressed smile flickering for an instant about the
corners of his eyes. "I suppose now there will be no place in the
village where one could put up for a day or two?"

"There's only the Black Boar, sir; but both the landlord and his wife
are nice folk, an' I daresay they'd make you comfortable. Anyway, if
you was thinkin' of stoppin' you might see, sir."

"Thank you, I will. Very warm, isn't it? Here's a drink. Good
afternoon, my man."

"Thanks. Good day, Sir; turn to the left, mind."

Passing through the open gate the stranger went along the downward
slope of smooth cinders, and in a few moments was standing in the
country lane over which the railway ran. Without pausing the man set
out at a rapid pace to the left, went beneath the stone archway, and
passing a newly whitewashed farmstead, gave a hearty "Fine afternoon,
Mr. Brodrick," to a burly, grey-bearded farmer he met coming out of the
farmyard.

The farmer stared hard at the stranger, grunted back some indistinct
response, and then turned to follow the other with his eyes. But the
man who had come by train to the small station at Orsden Green trudged
on in stolid unconcern, drawing an old briar from his vest pocket,
ramming down the dust and tobacco with a thick, brown finger, and soon
big puffs of pungent smoke-wreaths were rising from his lips to eddy
and melt away on the summer air.

The stolid wayfarer was a common enough looking individual. He seemed
to be about five-and-fifty years of age, was of medium height and
goodish build, with blunt, intelligent features, whitish hair, and
iron-grey beard. He had fine eyes of greyish-blue, and they were keen
and clear as those of a man in his twenties; and his garments and
general bearing were such as one might expect to find in a respectable
member of the working classes.

Still smoking stolidly, and trudging measuredly, the pedestrian came
to the summit of a gentle brow up which he had been pacing. Here he
paused, drew out a red cotton handkerchief removed his soft felt hat,
and mopped his perspiring countenance.

Then his eyes swept the whole of the surrounding countryside, and the
altered look in the depths of those grey-blue eyes betokened some
regret and much quiet enjoyment. He appeared at that moment as a man
might be expected to look when at length, after years of dreaming, the
Land of Promise lay before his eyes.

The view upon which the stranger was gazing was a somewhat fair one
to find in the heart of Lancashire, within a score of miles of the
greatest seaport in the world, and about a similar distance from the
Capital of Cotton.

Before the man, as he paused there, pleased and perspiring, the white
dusty highway stretched away in a gentle declivity, between tall,
straggling, blossom-laden hedgerows, behind which were pleasant
expanses of cultivated fields. A quarter of a mile away, where the road
vanished from his sight, knots of scattered houses marked the centre
of the village of Orsden Green, and the square tower of grey-brown
stone, rising high above the tallest chimneys in the place, denoted the
whereabouts of the sacred ground wherein "the rude forefathers of the
hamlet" slept in peace.

To the east of the village the green lands swept upward for half a
mile or more, slowly at first, then sharply, till the crest of the
Bispham Hills was reached. Almost on the top of the green ridge a
white farmhouse stood out clearly, and the great sails of the slowly
revolving windmill were vividly silhouetted against the blue of the
summer skies, and could be seen in Coleclough, the nearest town, which
was just five miles away.

On the highest point of the undulating sweep of green upland a low,
roughly constructed pile of unhewn stones indicated the site of the
old Bispham Beacon, whereon, in days long fled, watch-fires had flared
forth when danger had threatened the land.

The whole of the countryside lying on the western side of Orsden Green
was flat, and only commonly interesting. There were many fields and a
few farmhouses, a green lane or two, and paths across the wheat-fields
and grass lands, and here and there a clump of trees.

Orsden Moss and Orsden Hall were close by the village. The former was
a barren stretch of turfy moor upon which nothing grew save rushes,
marsh marigolds, and a hundred other vagabond plants useless to the
husbandman. Now and again, in past years, ineffectual attempts at
cultivation had been made, and in times more remote still the moss had
supplied the villagers with peat for their cottage fires.

Orsden Hall was situated on the edge of the moss, where the ground rose
somewhat and the soil was better. It was a tumble-down affair now, but
had been a residence of some pretensions and consequence when a few of
the Orsden Green folks were lads and lasses. There were clumps of trees
about the house, a big, rambling old orchard behind it, a neglected
lawn and flower patches in front, and the whole was surrounded by a
tall, ragged, untrimmed hedge of hawthorn and hazel, over and about
which the fragrant, yellow-blossomed honeysuckle and the white-chaliced
bindweed clambered still and flourished in their seasons.

Standing there on the summit of the high-road the upper windows of the
Hall were just visible to the resting and reconnoitring wayfarer, and
as his keen grey eyes swept over them for an instant a most forbidding
scowl blackened his countenance. Then his gaze was hurriedly withdrawn,
and flashing eastward to the foot of the green shelving upland rested
upon the only really black spot in that wide expanse of summery
greenness.

This was the Orsden Green Colliery; but one might have peered about in
vain for the towering head-gear of heavy baulks of timber that usually
guards the entrance to a mine. The colliery was worked by means of a
tunnel, or "day-eye," driven under the range of hills, and for twenty
or thirty years had furnished more or less--generally less--employment
to the male portion of the villagers.

The wayfarer's eyes rested on the engine-house, office, heaps of coal
and dirt, the tram-line running northward to the railway siding, with a
look of recognition in them. It was evident he knew the old-fashioned,
antiquated colliery, and it was evident also that the recollection
revived no bad memories such as those the sight of the Hall had
recalled.

"Just the same old spot that I have carried with me all these years,"
the man murmured to himself as he pursued his way villagewards. "Not a
single thing seems to have changed. There's not a new house added to
those I recollect--not one of them missing. But what of the folk who
lived in the cottages when I went away? Are they unchanged too? And is
that miserable-natured, flinty-souled old scoundrel still alive and at
the Hall? Well, well, I shall learn soon enough now. And the others?
What has become of them--Matthew, Luke, and poor Judith?"

The man's voice trembled just a little as those names fell slowly one
after the other from his tongue, and a generous moisture gathered in
his sharp eyes. The sight of the peaceful-looking village had sent his
thoughts back with a rush to the incidents and happenings of many years
before--the little delights and petty annoyances which then made up the
sum of his life, and the one foolish adventure which had driven him
outlawed and outcast abroad.

And now he was back again in the green, sleepy village wherein he first
drew the breath of life, and the ban which had been placed on him in
early manhood hung over him still, now that he had topped the hill of
life and was slowly and gracefully sliding towards the black gulf of
men named Death.

But thoughts of the ban gave our friend no deep concern. If the face
of the land had changed imperceptibly, he knew that he might expect
changes in those who had known him in his youthful days. Of all
those whom he had left behind, and remembered still, how many were
in the land of the living now? Not many, he felt assured; and, if a
few remained, would they be able to recall his name even, much less
recognise him?

Thinking of these things, the man went down the falling high road, and
when the first cottage was at hand he came face to face with the first
of the villagers. He knew that cottage well, and paused a score of
yards away to take stock of it again. It was a low house of stone, and
stood by itself, with a strip of garden surrounded by a closely trimmed
hedge of privet, in which was set a small white wicket. Then he noticed
a tall, girlish figure at the little gate, and he resumed his walk.

The girl was at the wicket still when he approached. Somehow the
pedestrian was minded to speak to the village maiden, and when he
was opposite her he drew up, and with a clumsy attempt at civility
half-raised his hat, saying--

"You must excuse me, my girl, but isn't this Orsden Green?"

"It is, Sir," the girl said, readily.

"And where is the Black Boar?"

"Just a few strides further on. You can't miss it, for there's a big
drinking-trough for the horses before the door."

"Thank you very much!" He lifted one foot to take himself away when
another thought stayed his progress. "You'll excuse me," he said,
awkwardly, "but perhaps you can tell me if any one of the name of
Shelvocke lives in the village?"

"Shelvocke!" she cried, and her eyes sparkled, her lips parted with a
smile. "Yes, Sir; there are several in the village. I myself am one of
them!"

"You?"

His eyes lit up with a new, a sudden interest, and he regarded the
budding specimen of womanhood critically. She was dark-haired,
dark-eyed, and olive-skinned, had good features, and a tall, graceful,
well-developed figure for one of seventeen. In a few years she would
be a beauty of the dark, imperious type. While he regarded her he was
speaking.

"The Shelvocke I had in my mind, miss," he said slowly, "was a man of
the name of Aaron--Aaron Shelvocke. Perhaps you wouldn't know him. He
was a mate of my own once, but that was some twenty-five or thirty
years since."

"Oh, he's been dead ever so long," Miss Shelvocke answered lightly, as
she ran a brown lissom hand along the sheaf of dusky tresses hanging
down her back.

"Dead! Well, well! I thought I'd look him up as I was passing this way,
miss. Surely he wasn't related to you in any way, was he?"

"I believe he was, Sir," she replied. "Of course I never knew him, but
I have heard my father talk about him. Uncle Aaron was a bit wild, as
you must know, if he was a friend of yours; and when he went away to
Australia or New Zealand they never heard from him afterwards."

"But how did they get to know that Aaron was dead?"

"Somebody brought the news of his death. He was killed, I believe, by
somebody at the gold-diggings."

"Poor old Aaron! Poor old Aaron!" the man said sympathetically. "To
think that I should only think of looking you up after all these years
to find you dead--dead and buried in a foreign country. And so he was
killed at the gold-diggings? Well, well; Aaron always was a wild roving
sort of chap. But I was fond of him for all that. Your Uncle Aaron
wasn't a bad sort, my girl!"

"Perhaps not, but he got a bad name, didn't he?"

"Nothing worse than poaching! Nothing worse than that!" the stranger
exclaimed warmly. "And so your father was one of my old friend's
brothers, was he? Now, which of them, miss, for I believe there were
two or three brothers?"

"My father's name is Luke Shelvocke," the girl answered, not without
some pride; "and he is, or was, the Underlooker, and Manager as well,
of the Orsden Green Colliery over there."

"I don't remember him; but I'm glad to hear that one of poor Aaron's
relatives is alive. And so, Miss Shelvocke, I understand that your
father isn't the Manager of the old colliery now?"

"No, Sir!" And a faint frown flickered across the girl's strong and
darkly handsome face.

"Retired, I dare, say, through age?"

"Oh, no! The colliery is stopped for good, and folks are saying it will
never be reopened again."

"Indeed! How's that?"

"The people who owned it--the Vanshaws--have all gone to wreck and
ruin, and the whole of the place is to be sold up. That is the reason,
Sir; and I believe the sale is to take place on Monday next."

"How sad! How sad, to be sure!" the man muttered commiseratingly, and
the girl, whose eyes were on the speaker, wondered how it was that the
look on his face was entirely out of accord with the tones in which he
spoke. "That will be a bad job for all the villagers, I suppose?" he
said.

"It will, Sir; but I for one shall be glad to get away from this dull
place!"

"Is your father thinking of moving, then?"

"He hasn't said so yet, but I hope he will! Why should he stay here
when there is no further work for him!"

"Just so. I dare say he is in the house now."

"Oh, no; he is at the colliery, where they are paying off all the
work-people for the last time. I must be off now to get his dinner
ready or I shall catch it. Good afternoon, Sir." She half-turned from
the gate.

"One moment, my girl," he cried. "Tell your father, will you, that an
old friend of his brother's was enquiring about Aaron. I may see him
before I go away, as I intend to stay in the village for a day or two.
I shall put up at the Black Boar, don't you call it?--if I can get no
other place."

"Shall I give him your name?" she queried, with her fine black eyes
fixed full on his own grey ones.

"Of course--I'd quite forgot. Say Mr. Brown--Mr. Israel Brown, of
Preston--was asking about his brother Aaron."

She nodded her bare, dusky head quickly, he nodded more gravely, and
then they parted; she made her way to household affairs, he went
thoughtfully towards the village inn.

"A bonny wench that, and a smart one, too," he murmured to himself as
he went along. "And so Luke is alive and kicking yet. I wonder if he is
as miserly and religious as he used to be? And those other Shelvockes
the wench spoke of? Who are they? Very likely some of the children of
Matthew and Judith. Well, well!"




CHAPTER II.--PEACE WITH HONOUR.

The man who had called himself "Mr. Israel Brown," and given his
address as Preston, had made his way to the Black Boar, and, as the
obliging porter had suggested, had succeeded in obtaining apartments
there for such time as he might require them.

The inn was of the low, roomy, rambling character so often encountered
in village hostelries of an antique date, for the Black Boar had been a
fully-licensed house when stage coaches were common and railways were
just being talked of. It stood by itself, and back from the highway
a score or more of yards, the space in front being paved with the
slippery round-topped cobbles to be met with now in country places only.

Behind the house was a great expanse of greensward, kept carefully and
set apart for the lovers of the gentle art of bowling; and the "green"
was much frequented not only by the villagers, but by driving parties
from Coleclough. Beyond the bowling green was a pleasant orchard,
and pretty stretches of cultivated land; and as the green itself was
surrounded on three sides by a tall hedgerow, white with blossom, the
place looked attractive enough when, some hours after his arrival, Mr.
Israel Brown, of Preston, sauntered out of his quarters for a smoke in
the open air.

Sauntering round the green our friend came upon a bench set under a
low, thickly-foliaged sycamore. Here he seated himself and proceeded to
fill his pipe, and, that object accomplished, he lit it and puffed away
placidly, his eyes following the movements of the "trundlers of the
woods," whose cheery voices raised in play floated to him on the soft
summer air.

Mr. Israel Brown had been sitting there for perhaps a dozen minutes
when his glance, straying around the wide square of green turf, chanced
to fall upon the figure of a new-comer, a man, who was standing at that
end of the green nearest to the public-house.

Instantly Mr. Israel Brown became very excited in his quiet way, and
deeply interested. His keen, greyish-blue eyes were riveted upon
that tall, gaunt, stooping, one-armed figure, with its ragged beard
of whity-red tint, and its general air of indigent age. His pipe was
withdrawn from his lips, and allowed to expire, the air of placid
contentment had flown from his face and left it almost pallid, and
his whole demeanour bespoke one who had been surprised greatly and
considerably alarmed.

Almost as quickly as he had lost his spirits Mr. Brown regained them.
With a low laugh at his own discomposure he put his fears away, struck
a match, relit his pipe, and smoked away stolidly as before. But his
eyes were still bent upon that gaunt, dilapidated-looking figure; and
even as he dropped the glowing match he was aware that the man who had
attracted his notice was coming his way.

He waited wondering, but no longer fearful, and nearer and nearer
the man drew on the narrow path of gravel which ran alongside the
bowling green. Then he was near at hand, was standing with a servile,
apologetic bearing near the wooden bench upon which Mr. Brown was still
smoking.

"I beg yore pardin, Sir," the one-armed man began, "but may I ax if you
might be Mester Brown?"

"I might be, my man," said the man addressed merrily, "and may I ask
who you may be?"

"Owd Dan Coxall, at yore sarvice, sir!"

"And what can I do for you, Mr. Dan Coxall?"

"Well, sir," the older man replied, as he seated himself on the vacant
end of the bench with the slow stiffness of a rheumatic subject,
"Mester Challis, th' landlord, were tellin' me that you was askin' a
lot of questions abeawt O'sden Green, sir!"

"So I was; and the landlord was good enough to suggest to you, Mr. Dan
Coxall, that you were the very man to tell me all I wanted to know
about the place and its folks?"

"That's jus' it, sir."

"Well, I shall be much obliged if you will. But suppose we have a drink
first?"

"Thanky, sir! Mahne's a pahnt o' ale--here, Betsy, wench!"

The servant came at Coxall's call, took their orders, supplied the
refreshments, and then, when the liquid had been sampled, and each
other's health toasted, Israel Brown remarked,

"And now, Dan, let me begin my questioning by asking how long you have
lived at Orsden Green?"

"A' my life. I were int' village nigh on sixty-nine 'ears, an' I never
was eawt on't."

"You must have known a few of the Vanshaws then--the Squires of Orsden
Green, as they were called?"

"I should think I did know some on 'em! Why, sir, I were gamekeeper for
Squire Vanshaw ten 'ears afore I lost this 'ere arm in his sarvice; but
it's more nor fahve an' twenty 'ear sin' neaw! Th' fust Squire Vanshaw
I knowed were Mester Drake Vanshaw, him as nearly ruint th' estate
wi' racin' an' gamblin'. Then there were his brother, as was cawd
Miser Vanshaw, and when he deed" (died) "soon after I lost this 'ere
limb"--here the speaker held up the remnant of the stump--"his son,
y'ung Mansford Vanshaw, came on, and he were a rare plucked un he were."

"What was there remarkable about this Mansford Vanshaw, Dan?" Brown
asked, as the old gamekeeper paused and buried his face in the mouth of
his pint pot.

"Well, sir," Dan resumed, as he wiped his lips with his knotted brown
knuckles, "it were lahke this 'ere. The Miser Squire was a reg'lar
stric' soart, an' he made his son Mansford to toe th' mark jus' lahke
a pore ev'ryday Christian. The y'ung felly stood it gradely weel, too,
till his fayther popped off, an' then begun to shake a loose leg, an'
no mistake abeawt it. He took after his uncle, Drake Vanshaw; an', bit
by bit, ev'rythin' owd Miser Vanshaw left behint him his son has made
ducks an' drakes on! The last bit or two will be getten shut on nex'
Monday afternoon. But there's not much neaw, Sir. Once, I've heerd mi
fayther say, that the Vanshaws ownt ev'rythin' for two miles on every
sahde o' O'sden. An' neaw----"

"And now," the other broke in with an oath, "the whole cursed race of
them is wiped out of the country. Well, let them go. Why should you
and I grumble, Dan? They were no good to anybody. Even you, who, you
say, lost a limb in their service, are left now to live upon your old
friends or die in the workhouse."

"Oh, th' owd Squire didn't trate me so badly," Coxall returned with a
wag of his head. "When I lost mi arm he fo'nd me a job up at th' ha',
an' when Ben Rufford cocked up his toes I geet his place as watchman at
th' colliery, which I kept till to-day."

"And now that the colliery is stopped you are thrown out of work, I
suppose, Dan?"

"That's so, mester; but if some'dy buys th' place I dersey I may get my
owd shop back again."

"I hope so, Dan! Are you empty? Well, tell your friend, Betsy, to
repeat our dose."

A little later, Mr. Israel Brown returned to the attack he was making
on Dan Coxall's stores of village lore.

"And this Mansford Vanshaw, Dan--what has become of him? Is he dead, or
alive still?"

"He's kickin' yet, they say, somewheer in Lunnun; but he went to smash
a few months sin', an' those as he was owin' money to has bin' carryin'
th' place on. They're tired on't it seems; an' th' whole job lot will
swap honds nex' Monday."

"Well, if the place is sold, I hope the colliery will be restarted, and
that you are put back in your old shop as night-watchman."

"Thanky, Sir! Yore good health."

"I suppose, Dan," after a pause, the man resumed, "that you wouldn't
remember a family of the name of Melvocke--no, Shelvocke, I am sure it
was--that once lived in the village some twenty or thirty years ago?"

"I should think I do!" was the emphatic rejoinder. "Why, Mester Brown,
it was one o' that theer very fam'ly that caused me to looas this arm."

"Indeed!"

"It were so. That was a rare plucked 'un, and they ca'ed him Aaron--big
A, little a r o n. He weren't a'together a bad soart, wasn't Aaron, but
he geet mixed up wi' a bad lot o' pooachers, had a row wi owd Miser
Vanshaw, was sacked fro' the colliery, an' went to the devil afore he
flew his kite."

"And was this same Aaron Shelvocke, as you call him, really responsible
for the loss of your arm, Dan? How did it happen?"

"Oh, easy enough. Aaron an' a gang o' his mates were after conies, an'
me an' a lot o' lobs were after them. We dropt across 'em, an' there
was a row. One o' th' pooachers were kilt, an Aaron smashed my arm a'
to smithers wi' a stake. But they a' geet away excep' th' deeud un, an'
noan on e'm were seen again."

"And what became of Aaron Shelvocke?"

"He went to th' goold diggin's an' deed theer."

"And the other Shelvockes?"

"Th' livin' or deeud uns?"

"Those who are still living at Orsden Green!"

"Oh, there's four on 'em. Owd Luke an' his dowter, an' two y'ung
fellays--Mat and Levi Blackshaw."

"Levi Blackshaw! He is not a Shelvocke?"

"He is Judith Shelvocke's son!"

"Oh! I see, Dan. And these young chaps? Do they live in the village
still?"

"They done!"

"And what do they do?"

"Y'ung Mat is a coaler, an' he were workin' at the O'sden Green
Colliery afore it stopped. He's a rayther wild card, an' he takes after
his uncle Aaron, but he's a gradely dacent lad for a' that. Yo'll lahke
him when you see him, he's such a pratty brown lad, wild, hot-tempered,
an' devil-may-care. Jus' lahke his Uncle Aaron. Mat pays for me mony a
gill o' ale, he does!"

"And this Levi Blackshaw. What is he like, Dan?"

"Oh, he's a lot too good for O'sden Green folk. Levi takes after
another uncle--owd Luke Shelvocke; and he's jus' as mealy-mouthed, as
miserly, and as personified as his mother's brother. I don't care much
for Mester Levi; he never gied me a penny in his lafhe."

"Is Levi a collier also?"

"Nowe, he isn't; he does summat in a office in Coleclough. He's quahte
a gent in his way, is Mr. Levi; with a shute o' black on Sundays, an' a
collar an' tie ev'ry day."

For some time silence was permitted to rest unbroken between the
two men. Dan had "bottomed" his second jug of ale, and was vaguely
wondering if another pint would be bestowed upon him, while his
companion was wrapped in thoughts engendered by the conversation.
Meanwhile, the lovers of the wooden spheres were disporting themselves
and displaying their skill on the sward, filling the pleasant air with
ejaculations, and the July sun was sinking in the west.

"I've enjoyed our conversation very much, Dan," the younger of the two
men remarked presently as he lifted his eyes and looked straight at his
companion. "When one talks about old times it seems to bring them back
again, doesn't it?"

"It does that, Sir?"

"Well, here's something for your trouble, Dan. I shall be glad if you
will drink my health once out of it."

"Of course I will. But--why, Mester Brown, it's a sov'reign!" and the
old man gazed with sparkling eyes at the gold coin lying in his crooked
palm.

"Yes, I know. If it is more than you expected drink Aaron Shelvocke's
health also. He wasn't a bad sort, if he caused you to lose that arm,
Dan, and thought he had killed you."

Coxall made no immediate rejoinder. For some moments he stared quietly
at the coin he held. Then he turned suddenly to his companion and
surveyed him critically from head to foot.

"You will know me again, Dan, when we meet?"

"I think so, mester. I were bothered a bit at fust, but I con see it a'
neaw."

"See what?"

"Who yo' are, an' why yo' are ere! Gi'e me thy hond, Aaron Shelvocke! I
forgi'e thee, lad! If I hadna seen that little finger on thy left hond
which is missing, I couldn't ha towd thee!"

They shook hands heartily, and each laughed a little. Then the younger
man said meaningly, as his alert eyes rested on the other--

"If you will forget for a week or so who I am, Dan, I shall have
another sovereign to spare next Saturday."

"Thanky, Sir! Thanky?"




CHAPTER III.--A FAMILY GATHERING.

On the morning following the arrival of the stranger at Orsden Green
that interesting gentleman had several small commissions to entrust to
his now sworn friend and ally, old Dan Coxall. Shortly after half-past
12 on Sunday the ex-gamekeeper and watchman had sauntered into the
Black Boar, as was his custom; but instead of lounging into the common
room or vault, where beer was served to the miners and the poorer class
of villagers at a penny a glass, Dan marched into the bar parlour and
called for a "bitter beer."

While he was drinking it with a conscious dignity the landlord entered
and told Dan that "Mester Brown" wanted to see him at once in his room.
Coxall nodded, tossed off the remainder of his ale, and then, without a
question, went to the apartment of Mr. Israel Brown, who was waiting to
receive him.

"I saw you enter the house, Dan, and if you are not otherwise engaged I
shall be obliged if you will do me a few errands this afternoon."

"Suttinly, Mester Shel----" Dan was saying.

"Brown--Brown! Israel Brown yet, Dan, if you are not too rich already
to care for that other yellow 'un I mentioned."

"Brown be it then, Sir!" the old man said with a smile. "An' what is it
yo' want me to do neaw?"

"You can read, I think?"

"Oh, yes, I'm a bit o' scholard."

"And you know where Luke and Matthew Shelvocke live, and Levi
Blackshaw, too?"

"Ev'ry one on 'em. Young Levi lives wi' his uncle an' his cousin Naomi
at th' top eend o' 'th' village theer; and Mat only lives a bit lower
deawn here, in lodgin's."

"Well, I want you to take these notes for me at once. This is for Luke
Shelvocke, this for young Mat, and this for Blackshaw. You can read the
different names?"

"Suttinly, Sir, suttinly! An' beawt specs, too!" Coxall answered, as he
turned the three closed and addressed envelopes in his hand.

"An' is there annythin' else, Mester Brown?"

"You will wait for a reply in each case, Dan, and come back with it to
me straight away."

"Ay, ay, Sir! An' if they axen me anny questions what am I to say?"

"Tell the truth, Dan; that is all you need to do. These people I am
writing to are all near relations of mine, and I have told them what
you were smart enough to find out for yourself!"

Dan nodded and went on his errands. An hour or so later the
ex-gamekeeper returned to the Black Boar, and that he was the bearer of
affirmative replies to the other's notes may be inferred from the fact
that "Mr. Brown" had an interview with the landlord shortly afterwards,
when he gave orders for the preparation of the most sumptuous tea for
five persons that the inn or the resources of the village could furnish.

Shortly after 6 o'clock, when the doors of the village hostelry were
thrown open to the public, Miss Naomi Shelvocke, her father, and Levi
Blackshaw presented themselves at the bar of the Black Boar. Luke
Shelvocke was a thin, sparsely built man of fifty-seven, sharp-eyed and
cleanly shaven, sharp-tongued and close-fisted.

Although Mr. Luke Shelvocke had spent all his days--or at least so
many of them as had been devoted to work--at Orsden Moss, he had never
before crossed the threshold of the village inn. His father had been
an unbending teetotaller during the latter half of his days, and the
example set him by his parent the miner rigidly followed.

Luke's impulse on receiving that note from the hands of old Dan Coxall
was to refuse the invitation of his brother. He was surprised to learn
that his long-absent relative was alive and back again in the place
of his birth, and was not, perhaps, so mightily over-pleased by the
intelligence as one might have expected.

To old Luke and his nephew, Dan had delivered the two notes at the same
moment, and while waiting for their answers had heard the young man and
the older one discuss the situation in which they found themselves so
unexpectedly placed.

"It would have been better, uncle," Levi had said, "if the gentleman
had come here to see us. I have decided scruples about entering the
house of a publican, even to see a long-missing relative."

"Them's jus' my 'pinions, Levi," Old Luke had replied, proud of the
young man, in whom he had inculcated the doctrines of total abstinence.
"I think Aaron might ha' known as we would rayther ha' had him come
here nor go theer."

"Then suppose we send Mr. Aaron Shelvocke word, through Coxall here,
that we had rather he would come here, uncle?" Blackshaw had ventured
to suggest.

"Nonsense, Levi!" Naomi Shelvocke had broken in here. "You and
my father ought to be ashamed of yourselves. I feel ashamed of
you, anyway. Here is my long-lost Uncle Aaron turned up after all
these years, and because he asks you to meet him in a respectable
public-house your teetotal fads make you consider whether you should go
or not. Very kind and brotherly behaviour that, I am sure!"

Both the old man and the young one winced a little under the whip of
the merciless young maiden's tongue. She was hot-tempered and fearless,
and never spared either her father or her cousin, whose joint weakness
and personal failings were obvious to her. At this juncture old Dan
Coxall joined in the discussion.

"If yo' dunnot care to goo to th' Black Boar, Mester Shelvocke, I'll
tell yore brother," said Dan. "But you needn't ax me to tell 'im to
come here, for he connut."

"How's that?" Levi demanded.

"Cause he's some'dy else to meet at the inn."

"Who has Aaron to see, Dan, besides eawrsels?" old Luke enquired.

"Young Mat Shelvocke."

"Tell Mr. Aaron Shelvocke," said the girl with deliberation, "that we
shall all be pleased to accept his kind invitation. And you needn't
tell him, Dan, that my cousin and my father had to consider seriously
whether they would accept his hospitality or not."

Dan laughed at the girl's sarcastic sally, nodded to her, and went his
way, for neither Luke nor Levi had ventured a word in opposition to
Naomi's definite statement. Probably both of them desired to go to the
Black Boar, and were willing that the girl should afford them an excuse
for doing so.

And thus it came about that shortly after the hour of 6 p.m. Mr. Aaron
Shelvocke found himself sitting at tea with the whole of his surviving
relations--his brother, his niece, and two nephews. Of Luke Shelvocke
and his handsome daughter some description has been given, and a few
words may be devoted to the two young men.

The cousins, Mat Shelvocke and Levi Blackshaw, were as dissimilar in
appearance and nature as their uncles. As old Dan Coxall had shrewdly
declared, Mat took after his Uncle Aaron; was wild, hot-tempered
and reckless, but generous withal, and for the rest was a handsome
brown-faced and blue-eyed young chap of twenty, with crisp,
reddish-brown curls. Levi Blackshaw was many shades darker than his
cousin Mat, and not by any means so good-looking or attractive, despite
his being much better dressed, and having a suaver and more polished
tongue. Levi had a certain curious resemblance to his Uncle Luke, which
even old Dan Coxall had been quick enough to notice. Levi, like his
uncle, was sparely built, and somewhat undersized; had black piercing
eyes, that reminded one of a cunning and fierce animal, dark eyebrows
that met on the bridge of the nose, a thin, highly arched nose, and
thin lips that could be drawn tight and white when passion moved their
owner.

In spite of these trifling personal shortcomings Levi was not what
one would call a bad-looking youngster. At the first glance his dark
face did not repel, and when he cared to ingratiate himself his smooth
tones were musical enough. He was a few months older than Mat, and was
supposed to be a much more reputable character in every way. Perhaps
this supposition was due to the fact that he shunned the public-house
and attended the Sunday-school and the village Church with decent
regularity.

A sumptuous tea was awaiting the old and the new generation of
Shelvockes when the party of five entered the room set apart for the
repast, and after a few words of grace, which Aaron had insisted upon
his brother saying, they all fell-to upon the comestibles mine hostess
had provided.

Not before the meal had been done full justice to did Aaron Shelvocke
turn to the business which he had in his mind when he decided upon that
family gathering. He had greeted all his four relatives in an easy
manner on their arrival; they had professed to be pleased beyond words
to meet him--one after an interval of many years--the others for the
first time in their lives, and Aaron had received the greeting of each
one with a curious look in his clear, bluish-grey eyes.

There had been no mistaking the genuineness of the pleasure that filled
his face when the returned wanderer wrung the hands of the frank,
open-faced, sturdily built Mat, and that of his sprightly gipsy-faced
niece; but the pressure of his fingers when they clasped his brother's
palm, and Levi's also, was only that of the man who scarcely cares to
veil his indifference.

"I daresay, Luke," Aaron Shelvocke began, as he toyed with his
half-empty teacup, "that you and all these youngsters have been
wondering what caused me to bring you all here to-day?"

"That's true, Aaron!" the elder answered,

"'Twould ha' bin more seemly lakke if tha'd come to thi tay at ewer
heawse."

"Perhaps it would," was the half-smiling answer. "But I had a fancy,
brother, to entertain you all when we met. The usual thing is, I know,
for the rambler to ask forgiveness for his ramblings when he gets back
home again--especially if he has to fly for life as I had to do--but
that sort of thing wouldn't suit me. But for one of two things, Luke,
I should perhaps never have left Australia after spending more than
one-half of my life there."

"An' what were those things, Aaron?" the elder brother queried, with
his eyes watching the other closely.

"I am going to tell you all. That is why I wanted to get you all
together to-day. Now, listen!"

Four pairs of eager eyes were fixed upon the speaker, who, after the
last word, coolly proceeded to drain his cup. But no one spoke; each
one was waiting for Aaron to explain.




CHAPTER IV.--AARON SHELVOCKE EXPLAINS.

"Several reasons, my dear brother," Aaron Shelvocke resumed
complacently, "induced me to come to the village of Orsden Green."
Though he began by addressing Luke personally, his eyes were roving
slowly over the other three as he went on. "Ten years ago I had quite
made up my mind that the country I had been forced to fly to, through
the Squire of Orsden Hall, his gamekeepers, and the outrageous game
laws of Old England, was about good enough for me, and that I would end
my days there. I thought the matter over many a time, and could really
find no excuse for deserting my quarters."

"You must have prospered then, sir?" Levi Blackshaw ventured to
enquire, as his uncle paused, for a moment.

"I'd made a few thousands, was comfortably settled down, and I was not
at all certain that my return to Orsden Green would be at all a matter
for rejoicing. First there was that keeper and his assistants whom we
had mauled; then there were my own relations, who, no doubt, were glad
to be rid of me for ever, and would be sorry to see me again; and,
finally, there was no one in England that I even cared a rap about."

"And yet you've returned, uncle?" Mat Shelvocke remarked, his brown
face and his fine eyes lit up with pleasure as he followed every word
his relative uttered.

"Yes, I've returned, lad," was the quiet answer. "I am glad now I have
done so, if it were only for old Dan Coxall's sake. When I ran away I
was afraid we had killed him, and that was why I came to the village
under another name. Perhaps if it had not been for thoughts of the old
gamekeeper I might never have thought of coming back at all."

"The sin weighed upon your conscience, Aaron!" Luke cried, with a wag
of his head, "an' yo' couldn't rest till yo' coom back an' repented.
Well, it's better to mend late i' the day than never."

"Yes, brother; it's decidedly better late than never. Old Dan will
think so when he knows what I am going to do for him. Through myself,
or one of my wild, reckless companions, Dan lost his arm and almost his
life; and the loss of that limb deprived him of the situation he held.
He is poor now and old, and has a strong claim upon me, Luke; and I
intend to take care that he never wants so long as I have funds. Don't
you think, Luke, and you also, Levi, that as a Christian and an honest
man, I ought to provide for the poor fellow I nearly killed?"

"Dan Coxall is a drunken owd good-for-nothin'!" the little old chap
exclaimed with acerbity; "and if yo' han anny money to throw away yo'
could do better nor give it to Dan."

"I have no money to throw away, Luke. If I had come home five or ten
years since I could have brought back with me the better part of seven
thousand pounds. Now--but that's nothing to do with the question of
providing for old Dan. His sons and daughters have all families of
their own to look after, and they can't be expected to do anything for
the old man now that the Orsden Green Colliery has been closed and
he is out of work. What do you say, Levi? I ask you because you are
a young man--a temperance advocate, and a Sunday-school teacher, I
believe."

"I appreciate the motives, Sir, which impel you to make some provision
for the old man you once were the means of injuring; but I believe,
with my Uncle Luke, that if you give Dan money it will all be wasted in
drink."

"You do! Well, thanks for your opinion, nephew, which is not exactly
mine," Aaron Shelvocke said, drily. "And now give me your opinion, Mat."

"My opinion, uncle!" the young miner cried, with some confusion, as
the colour mounted his checks. "I'm not quite sure that I have any
opinion on the matter. All I know is this, sir. If you have anything
to spare give it to owd Dan. He's not a bad sort, anyway. I've heard
him talk scores of times about you when you were a wild young man and
a poacher, but I never heard him give you a bad name, though he always
did maintain that you were the ringleader of the gang that night when
he got hurt so badly."

"Quite true that, too!" was Aaron's pleased rejoinder, and his eager
eyes flashed a look of triumph at his brother and his dark-visaged
nephew. "Well, I have quite made up my mind so far as Dan Coxall is
concerned. We are very good friends already, as you have all seen, and
I think we shall remain so. I have a thousand pounds, and the interest
of it will keep the old chap in bread and cheese and a glass of ale for
the remainder of his days."

"Does to meean to sey, Aaron," old Luke broke out with some warmth,
"that tha intens to bank o theawsand peynd--"thousand pound"--an' let
owd Dan draw a' th' money it makes?"

"That is my intention, Luke," was the ready response, "and I fail to
see why you should be displeased about it. If I sinned in the past,
surely I ought to make some atonement now?"

"If I understand my Uncle Luke rightly," Levi Blackshaw broke in at
this point, "he does not object so much to your making expiation for
wrong done, as in the manner in which you are going to make it. He
thinks that this man will not only not be benefited by your generosity,
but even degraded. That----"

"Enough, Levi!" Aaron cried authoritatively, as he raised his hand.
"This money is mine, and I suppose I can do with it as I wish? But we
need not discuss that further. My mind is made up. Dan is old and a
cripple; I am young and strong yet, comparatively speaking. Even if I
come to need through my generosity I feel sure that I shall always be
sure of aid from my brother and my relatives."

The speaker's eyes fell with a questioning look first upon his brother,
then upon Levi Blackshaw, next upon Naomi, and last of all upon Matthew
Shelvocke. The first two were silent and gave no sign; but the girl
nodded emphatically, and Mat said energetically--

"I'm only a collier, Uncle Aaron, and a collier out of work at that;
but if ever you need anything I have, or can get, you shall have it
as freely as if you were my own father. If things come to the worst,
uncle, I daresay I could manage to keep us both."

"Well said, lad; I thank you with all my heart. Whenever I need a bite
and a sup I shall not hesitate to come to you."

Aaron Shelvocke had jumped to his feet and was wringing the young
miner's hard, brown hand heartily; while the other two men looked on
with displeased faces.

"Some folks," old Luke muttered sulkily, "are readier wi promises than
penny-pieces! Afore a chap talks abeawt keepin' or helpin' to keep
annybody else he owt to keep hissel, an' then----"

Luke Shelvocke stopped suddenly in his snarling, and all eyes were
riveted upon his unfavoured nephew. Mat had jumped angrily to his feet,
his handsome florid face flushed with feeling, for no one present could
mistake the person upon whom the vials of the mine Manager's wrath had
been poured.

"I am not aware, Uncle Luke, that I ever troubled you for any favour,"
the young pitman cried, with gleaming eyes bent upon his aged relative;
"and if I ever wanted anything you are the very last man in all the
world I should think of going to. Perhaps I am not all I might be; I'm
rough and ready, I know; but there's no canting hypocrisy about me, and
what I say I mean. I say now what I said before. My uncle here is doing
right by helping Dan Coxall, and if ever I can help him--if he needs
it--he can try me."

"There, Mat; that will do lad," Aaron said, not unkindly, as his
hand patted his nephew's sturdy shoulder. Then he added in a lighter
vein, as the irate pitman resumed his seat, "Come now, let us have no
quarrelling! This is a family gathering--a sort of family reunion,
which I hope we shall all live long to remember and be proud of some
day. You were going to say something, Luke."

"I were goin' to sey that if yo' han some money to throw away, Aaron
it's yore own business, an' I'm sorry I interfered," the late Manager
of the Orsden Green Colliery remarked in a more pacific tone. "An' I am
goin' to sey, too," with a dogged shrug of his round shoulders, "what
ev'ry other sensible chap would say. If yo've plenty of money, help Dan
a bit, but don't forget number one. The Lord tak's care o' thoose as
tak's care o' theirsel's. That's my motty, Aaron."

"And you, Levi? What do you think? I should like to have the benefit
of your advice, as you seem neither so reckless nor passionate as Mat
here; nor so cynically selfish as my brother."

"Well, to be frank with you, Mr. Shelvocke," the swarthy young clerk
began, "I am bound to confess that there is golden advice in what Uncle
Luke has said. Generosity like charity ought to begin at home. Now if
you had only returned to Orsden Green five or ten years ago when you
had 5,000 you might have spared 1,000 to a man you considered had
claims upon you."

"Still I am glad now that I didn't come then," Aaron cried.

"Glad! Why?" Levi queried, with a puzzled expression on his shrewd,
dark countenance.

"Because the seven thousand pounds I had a few years ago have grown
considerably since then. When I set foot in Coleclough on Friday last
I was able to open an account with a bank there with something over
twenty thousand pounds."

"Twenty theawsand peynds!" old Luke Shelvocke muttered avariciously,
as his almost toothless jaws ground themselves together, noiselessly,
while his shining beady eyes ran over his brother from top to bottom.

"That's the amount, Luke!" Aaron cried gaily. "What do you think of
that? Better, isn't it, than vegetating like a cabbage or a rhubarb
root at Orsden Green?"

"Some folk has luck!" the older brother muttered, in a voice which
meant that those folk had luck who least deserved it. "But yo're only
makin' gammon on us a', Aaron?"

"If you care to see my bankbook, brother, perhaps I may show it to
you," was the smiling answer. "I daresay it seems a lot of money to you
stick-in-the-mud villagers. Sometimes you see, Luke, in spite of all
your old saws, a rolling stone does gather moss."

"Twenty theawsand peynds!" the old pitman kept muttering to himself in
a wondering way. "Only to think o' that! An' here I've bin workin' an'
schaymin', scrapin' an savin', a' may lahfe for a hondful o' hunderds!
It's a queer warld after a's said an' done!"

"They who venture much sometimes win heavily!" Aaron cried lightly.
"You who stop at home and take things easily can't expect to gain much.
As a rule the chaps who get the dollars deserve them. What do you say,
Mat?"

"I think they do," was all the young miner answered.

"I am sure I have the greatest pleasure in the world, Uncle Aaron, in
congratulating you on your good fortune," Levi Blackshaw said, blandly,
as he rose and held out his hand. "You must have striven hard to amass
so much money, and I sincerely hope you may live long to enjoy it."

"Thanks," Aaron said, drily. He had noticed that his dark nephew had
called him uncle just then for the first time, and the thought of it
did not please him. Then he turned airily to the gipsy-faced girl.
"What do you think now, Naomi, of your scapegrace of an uncle?"

"I am perfectly delighted," she cried, frankly. "I am sure every woman
must like a rich uncle. I am only afraid that, having found you so late
we shall lose you again very quickly."

"Perhaps not, my dear," he returned thoughtfully.

"I suppose, Aaron," Luke said, in his old grumbling way, giving
utterance to an idea his daughter's words had suggested, "that now
you've turned up again, like a bad penny which somehow or other has
getten' hanged into a gowd sov'rin, you'll be off again an' set up
somewheer in a big way as a gentlemon?"

"I had some thought of staying in the village, Luke," was the quite
unexpected rejoinder.

"Staying here, Aaron?"

"Yes. I like the place, or I should hardly have come back to it
after all these years; and if I could only buy a decent house in the
neighbourhood I would do so."

"There's Osden Ha'!" Luke cried.

"Orsden Hall!" Aaron iterated reflectively. "So there is, and it would
be a striking illustration of Time's vengeance--of the grim, inevitable
irony, of Fate, if the one time poacher, rapscallion, and general
ne'er-do-well were to slip into the shoes of the worthless Squire who
drove him out of the village!"

Aaron Shelvocke had risen to his feet, and was walking to and fro with
a strangely illumined countenance. A new--a striking idea seemed to
have sprung up in his brain, and it was evident to those about him that
he was pondering somewhat deeply.

"I suppose the Hall will go for an old song," Levi Blackshaw said
quietly, with his eyes upon Uncle Luke's eyes.

"The whole job lot--Ha', Moss, cottages, an' colliery--will be gi'en
oway to someb'dy!" Luke cried. "That's if there's anny buyers," he
added quickly, "which I much misdoubt."

"I have half a mind to go in for the business!" Aaron murmured aloud,
yet speaking to himself. "It would be something, wouldn't it, Luke, to
become Squire of Orsden Green? You wouldn't be ashamed of your wild,
reckless, and sinful brother then, would you?"

He threw himself into his seat with a loud laugh, and stared at his
companions with his keen, alert, grey-blue eyes, as if to mark the
effect his words had produced upon them.

"I hope, uncle," a soft, melodious voice, murmured at that moment,
"that you will stay among us, no matter what else you do."

"Thank you, Naomi," he answered gravely. "But why do you wish me to
stay at Orsden Green?"

"I scarcely know," the girl answered, and her soft, dark cheek mantled
under his close gaze. "Somehow--I can't tell why--I like you very much!"

"So do I," Mat exclaimed brusquely.

"I thank you two young people very much. If it is only to please you
both I think I will remain in the village. Now, you youngsters had
better go and have a good long walk," Aaron Shelvocke added, as he rose
to his feet again, "I want to have a bit of a private chat with my
brother. But there is one thing I want you all to remember."

"What is that?" Blackshaw enquired, as he put on his hat.

"That my name yet is Mr. 'Israel Brown.' If my real identity were to
be made public just at this moment certain plans of mine might be made
more difficult to carry out."

The young men nodded in assent. Naomi gave her word to keep the other's
secret, and then the three passed out, leaving the two brothers
together.

"A most singular man that, Matthew," Levi Blackshaw remarked in his
patronising way, as they gained the paved space in front of the Black
Boar.

"Singular, is he? I call Uncle Aaron a gradely nice chap," was Mat's
answer. "And, what's more, Levi, he's as straight-forward as he is
decent."




CHAPTER V.--THE NEW SQUIRE OF ORSDEN GREEN.

Again it was Saturday afternoon, and once more the warmth and grace and
glory of a perfect summer day was making the whole of the country-side
about Orsden Green bright to the eye and comforting to the mind. Just
a week had gone by since Mr. Aaron Shelvocke returned to his native
place; and in those seven days much that was new, wonderful, and
unexpected had taken place in the village.

Up at Orsden Hall great preparations were being made for a rustic
feast, such as were common in the good old days; and down in the hamlet
the villagers were attiring themselves in their best, and talking in an
eager wondering way of the good things they would enjoy--of the deep,
heart-satisfying draughts of joy and fun they would take before the day
was ended.

The new Squire of Orsden Green was already living among his people,
although a week had not yet passed since he had stepped into the shoes
the last squire had tossed off his feet, and to make his incoming a
red-letter day in the lives of the Orsden Green folks the "new mester"
had resolved to feast every man and woman, youth and lassie, and all
the children, also, on the lawn in front of Orsden Hall.

Before we proceed to describe the village festival let us briefly
indicate the incidents that preceded and led up to it.

After the departure of their young relatives, Aaron and Luke Shelvocke
had a lengthy and a very earnest conversation, in the course of which
the former questioned the latter closely respecting every item of the
property which was to be offered for sale at 2 o'clock on the following
afternoon.

Drawing from his pocket a copy of the previous Saturday's Coleclough
Observer, Aaron had gone carefully over the advertised list of
articles and properties to be sold--the Hall, the Moss, the cottages in
the village, and finally the colliery--and had questioned his relatives
as to the value of each item.

"What about the colliery, Luke?" the younger brother had said. "It has
been at work for over thirty years now, and must be almost exhausted.
It was at work, you know, when I went away."

"It will last two or three years yet, Aaron," the pitman had replied.
"We were workin' the lower Mountain Seam when it were stopped last
week."

"How many men and lads were employed?"

"Abeawt thirty altogether."

"And how many tons a day were you raising?"

"A hundred tons a day or moor."

"Had you a good sale for it?"

"We could sell moor nor we could raise."

"Is it worth buying?" That is the question.

"If yo' can get it at anny figure under two theawsand peynds, I'll
undertake to make it pay for yo'."

"You shall have the chance, then? And now, about the Moss, the Hall,
and the houses in the village. What are they worth?"

"I know now't abeawt th' Ha' an' th' Moss--one is barren an' th' other
is lahke a big barn; but the fifty odd cottages are wo'th--we'll you
con reckon for yoresel when I tell yo' that they only let at two
shillin's a week."

"Have you never thought, Luke, that there might be coal under the
Moss?" Aaron queried.

"There's no coal theer, lad!" the Manager cried, emphatically. "We've
bored for it a tahme or two, but never fo'nd nowt."

"I wonder what the whole lot will fetch. Have you any idea, Luke?" the
younger brother queried, with a look of deep reflection on his face.

"I connot tell thee that. But I con tell thee somethin' else as may be
better," the older man whispered with a wink, and a shrewd look on his
cunning face.

"What is that?"

"T'other day th' auctioneer were lookin' o'er th' place wi' a strange
gentlemon, and I heard him tell th' stranger that the reserve price
fixed for a' th' lot--Ha', Colliery, Moss, an' ev'rythin'--were
fourteen theawsund fahve hunderd peynds!"

"Fourteen thousand five hundred pounds!" Aaron repeated slowly. "I
could manage that. And what reply did the strange gentleman make, Luke?"

"He said it were some theawsunds too much, an' that he would stop away
fro' th' sale."

"Good! If I buy the place you will have your old shop. Now, remember,
Luke, not a word of this to a living soul. First thing to-morrow morning
I'll be off to the town, and bring some one back with me whose advice
it will be safe to follow."

On the following morning Aaron Shelvocke was astir betimes, and before
the village was thoroughly awake he was in Coleclough. A couple of
hours later he was back again at Orsden Moss, and with him was one
of the cleverest auctioneers and land valuers in the neighbourhood.
Together they went carefully over the ground, and the opinion of the
expert was that the Orsden Hall Estate was worth fifteen or sixteen
thousand pounds.

With this estimate, Aaron Shelvocke was satisfied, and he intimated as
much to his companion, whom he instructed to remain, on the spot until
the sale took place, when he was authorized to bid for him then to the
extent of the higher amount he had named.

There is no occasion to dwell upon the details of the sale. At the hour
announced the usual crowd of moneyed men, bargain-hunters, brokers,
dealers, and the scores of villagers attracted by feelings of curiosity
assembled on the neglected lawn in front of Orsden Hall, and after the
orthodox harangue from the glib-tongued knight of the hammer the whole
of the estate was offered in one lot at the fictitious offer, made by
the auctioneer himself, of 10,000.

There was a general feeling among the crowd that the property would
have to be broken up into lots and sold piecemeal, and even the
gentleman on the rostrum who wielded the tiny mallet of ivory seemed
somewhat astonished when his brother professional, Mr. Healey, the
expert whose services Shelvocke had retained, promptly called out,

"I offer eleven thousand!"

Instantly all eyes were centred upon the bidder, and those who knew the
man and were aware of his calling divined immediately that Mr. Healey
was acting for some one who preferred to keep in the background. Then
some one offered an additional five hundred pounds, and after a few
minutes' pause Mr. Healey again spoke, saying,

"Twelve thousand!"

In the course of half an hour the bidding crept up slowly but surely
towards the price fixed as the reserve. The first bid was the
respectable advance of one thousand pounds, the next two were half
that amount each; then two hundred and fifty was offered and taken;
another two hundred and fifty also; and then the grim-faced Mr. Healey
again rushed in with a bid of five hundred, bringing up the bidding to
thirteen thousand pounds.

People smiled and paused and wondered more than ever as to the person
or persons for whom the noted auctioneer and appraiser was acting.
Then some one made a hesitating advance of a solitary hundred,
half-expecting that an advance of such a small amount would not be
received. But the bid was taken with some observations of gentle irony;
other bids of a like amount were made; fifties were offered also and
taken; and at last, when the crowd appeared to have offered all it was
worth, the reserve price of fourteen thousand five hundred pounds was
reached.

Then the arbiter of the sale spoke.

"Gentlemen," said he, with a smiling countenance, "I may tell you that
the reserve price has now been reached, and if I am favoured with
another bid--even of five pounds or five thousand--the property will be
sold. Now, who is the buyer?"

"Fourteen thousand seven hundred and fifty pounds!" rang out the cold,
clear voice of Mr. Healey.

Some of those present gasped a little, stared at one another, and at
the last bidder; not a few of the villagers were inclined to give vent
to a cheer. The inhabitants of Orsden Green had an idea that if the
whole of the property passed into the hands of one purchaser it would
be better for themselves.

Again the wielder of the hammer spoke, briefly reviewing the property
for which the wholly incommensurate sum named by his friend Mr. Healey
was offered. The Orsden Hall estate was in the market now; the last bid
made its sale certain; he would take any advance now--even in pounds.
No one offered any more pounds, and the ivory mallet fell.

Half an hour afterwards the deposit-money was paid, and then it became
generally known that the new squire of Orsden Green was a gentleman
named Aaron Shelvocke, who had lately returned from Australia, where he
had amassed a huge fortune at the gold diggings.

Before that eventful day expired not a few of the "old stagers" of
Orsden Green had learned that the new owner of Orsden Hall and the
adjoining estate was the very man who had left the village so suddenly
a score and some odd years before--the man who had been staying at the
Black Boar, and the long missing brother of their old Manager, Luke
Shelvocke.

On the morrow all doubt was set at rest, for then Aaron Shelvocke
took possession of the hall, and with him were his nephew, Matthew
Shelvocke, and his brother, the late Manager of the Orsden Green
Colliery.

The excitement and curiosity engendered in the breasts of the village
folk by the re-appearance of Aaron Shelvocke under such altered
conditions may be easily conceived. Everybody who had known the
ex-coalminer and erstwhile poacher in the old days was glad to recall
his recollections now; and not a few of these had the hardihood to
address Aaron and remind him of their former acquaintance.

Nor was the new master of Orsden Hall in any way annoyed or abashed
when any of his former workmates and old associates took the liberty of
"jogging his memory" regarding the dead-and-gone days. Many of them he
was able to remember when they recalled some incident he had forgotten,
and then he would laugh pleasantly, speak freely, and shake his former
friends heartily by the hand.

On the evening of the day after the sale an announcement was made which
gave rise to much pleasure. After a conversation with his nephew Mat
and his brother Luke, Aaron decided to restart the colliery, and the
announcement alluded to was to the effect that every one who had been
formerly employed in the mine or upon the surface was to recommence
work as quickly as the necessary arrangements could be made.

When that matter was settled Aaron had broached another business to his
relatives. Said he:

"Do you know, Luke and Mat, that I think I ought to do something for
the village and the villagers, just to mark my new position in the
place?"

"You've done something already, Uncle Aaron," Mat replied emphatically.
"If you hadn't made up your mind to restart the colliery at once there
would have been a good deal of idleness in the village; and play would
have meant suffering and want for men and women and children. The
nearest pits are two or three miles away, and they are full of hands
already, as I know, for I went to look for a 'shop' as soon as Uncle
Luke told me the Orsden Green Colliery was going to stop."

"You've done plenty, Aaron," Luke said less snarlingly than was his
habit; "but what were yo' thinkin' o' doin neaw?"

"What do you say to giving the whole of the villagers a spree on
Saturday afternoon? It wouldn't cost much, and I think I'll do it. A
dozen barrels of beer, a score of cheese, and a load or two of loaves
would do the trick nicely. It wouldn't cost more than forty or fifty
pounds to find feed and sup for all the men and women, the lads and
lasses in the village."

"But what's th' use o' throwin' twenty or thirty peynds away to guzzle
a lot o' O'sden Greeners?" Luke grumbled, thinking, doubtless, that if
his erratic relative had presented himself with the money he could have
put it to a more profitable use. "It'll turn th' place upsahd deawn,
an' cause no eend o' ructions."

"I don't think so!" Aaron said earnestly. "These folk don't get so much
free fun and pleasure, and they shall have a bit now at my expense.
Besides, Luke, think of the fine set-off it will give me in my new line
as Squire of Orsden Green. The old family took all they could squeeze
out of the village, and the least I can do now is to show the folk from
whom I have sprung that I can spend money as well as I can make it. Eh,
Mat?"

"If you can afford the few pounds, spend it, Uncle," Mat replied. "You
have made a very good impression in the village already, and this
suggested feast of yours will simply make you popular with everybody."

"So it will, lad. Well, we'll do it. You, Mat, know the village from
end to end, and you shall go round and invite everybody to the picnic
at Orsden Hall on Saturday. You will have an idea how many we may
expect, and then we can provide accordingly."

"When shall I start, Uncle?"

"At once. Make a list of all who promise to come, and bring it to me
here!"




CHAPTER VI.--A FAIR YOUNG WAYFARER.

If the new master of Orsden Hall, and the rank and file of the
inhabitants of Orsden Green, had made a special plea to the Clerk of
the Weather a finer afternoon could not have been vouchsafed to them
than the one they had on the day fixed upon for the celebration of the
village festival. The sun rode high in all the effulgence of his summer
glory, the heavens were blue as the seas which lave Oriental lands,
here and there masses of fleecy cloud dotted the azure spaces of the
sky and a soft western breeze, redolent of all the sweet odours of the
countryside, tempered the heat of the day.

At four o'clock in the afternoon the village of Orsden Green seemed
deserted. Standing in front of the Black Boar, one might have glanced
hither and thither along the white, dusty, rambling highway, with its
scattered dwellings on either hand, and scarcely have seen a single
human being. Almost all the villagers were up at Orsden Hall, and the
only ones left behind were those who could not go owing to age, youth,
or infirmity.

Behind the Hall, where so many generations of the Vanshaws had lived
and died, there was a goodly expanse of pasture land, bounded on one
hand by the highroad, on the other by the edge of Orsden Moss, and
dotted here and there by clumps of trees.

Here it was that the rustics of the village were disporting and
enjoying themselves. A big marquee had been erected close by a clump of
sycamores, and inside the tent was an abundance of good, rough, strong
fare, such as simple working people love to regale themselves with, and
such quantities of ripe, brown, sparkling ale as made the pitmen and
the other labourers thirsty.

There was ample store of everything, and there was no occasion to stand
upon ceremony. Those who were hungry went to the long tables inside the
great canvas building, and helped themselves without stint to the hunks
of bread and cheese and beef sandwiches; those who were thirsty had but
to repair to the rough counters behind which were stillaged a long row
of casks, and drink their fill of the brown beer they loved so well.

Outside, the village band was playing a lively air, and the green sweep
of grass was sprinkled with the gaily delighted forms of men and women,
youths and maidens, and young children. The band was playing a dance,
and those who had mastered the steps were circling over the sward in a
ring beneath the trees.

At the higher end of the field Aaron Shelvocke and his relatives were
gathered together, and a big cluster of villagers was around them.
The master of the Hall had just been suggesting to his nephews that
some kind of sports should be organized for the younger portion of the
merry-makers; he had placed five pounds in Mat's hands to be distributed
as prizes, and Mat and Levi had readily fallen in with Aaron's
suggestion.

Old Luke Shelvocke was attired in all the pomp and dignity of his
Sunday go-to-Church garments, and the dingy black suit, with its
infinitude of creases and crinkles and multitude of bagginesses, fitted
him, as one miner put it, "a good deal too much." But the Manager of
the Orsden Green Colliery carried himself as became the Manager of his
brother's mines; he was somebody of consequence again now, and he knew
it, and was determined the villagers should not forget it, hence he had
donned the old top-hat which was twenty-five years old at the least,
and which he usually kept for great events, such as burials, weddings,
christenings, and occasions similar to the present festival.

Perhaps the prettiest of the comely lasses in the field was the dashing
brunette, Naomi Shelvocke. Her slim, shapely figure was garbed in a
princess robe of some dark-blue material, which set off her fine figure
admirably; and the big straw hat that rested on her shining tresses of
raven hue, sheltered her soft olive face from the too ardent kisses
of the sun. The girl's oval face was full of animation; there was the
sparkle of pleasure in her black eyes, and her whole bearing denoted
that Naomi Shelvocke was plucking as much delight from the passing hour
as any maiden there.

Mr. Levi Blackshaw, too, was enjoying himself, like his uncle Luke,
in a quiet, dignified manner, in consonance with his opinions, his
acquirements, and his training. Levi felt that he was considerably
above the crowd he found himself amidst; he was a superior kind of
young man, who had little sympathy with the rude, unlettered miners and
their wives and families. Their tastes didn't run on all fours with
his own, and he only tolerated the festival, and honoured it with his
presence, because he had sense enough to see that his moneyed uncle was
a gentleman whose favour was well worth seeking and winning.

Although young Blackshaw had lived at Orsden Green all the days of
his life, he did not consider himself a mere villager, such as they
were whom he saw about him. He had always worked in the adjacent town
of Coleclough, going there each morning and returning at even, and
he was, he felt, in every sense a townsman, and not a mere rustic
clodhopper. Even between his cousin Mat and himself there was a great
gap which Uncle Aaron would certainly perceive in time; and for that
time Levi intended to wait patiently. A relative with twenty thousand
pounds--with neither a wife nor a family to inherit his wealth--was a
gentleman worth cultivating and conciliating.

Mat Shelvocke had thrown himself heart and soul into the festive
proceedings that day. Perhaps he had done more than any one else to
make the affair a success. He had gone to every house in the village
with an urgent invitation from his uncle, had given the orders for all
the provisions and drink, had engaged the village band also, and was
now dispensing those five pounds among the village children in prizes,
of half-crowns and shillings to the victors in the races and leaping
matches.

In a word, Aaron Shelvocke had taken a great fancy to Mat, and had
constituted him his right-hand man in the festival. On the previous day
the Orsden Green Colliery had been reopened, and the bulk of the miners
had gone back to their former places. Mat had prepared to go back like
the rest, but his uncle had told him not to do so, as he required his
assistance. "And," Aaron Shelvocke had added, "now that I am the owner
of the colliery, I can't think of letting my favourite nephew resume
his former employment as a hewer of coal. When things have settled a
bit, Mat, we must see what we can find you to do."

Mat Shelvocke was not by any means the best dressed young fellow at the
village festival, but there was no youth present to whom he yielded the
palm for comeliness. As a rule Mat only rose to the dignity of a collar
and tie on Sabbath days, or when he visited the neighbouring town on
Saturday evenings. Like the simple, honest-hearted lad he was, he felt
much easier when his throat was not encircled by a stiff linen collar;
and to-day, as he roved here and there among the villagers, nodding to
that miner, exchanging greetings with another, he told himself he would
be more comfortable if he were to toss away his starched neckband.

Unknown to himself, poor, unsophisticated Mat was already the object
of his dark-visaged cousin's enmity; Levi Blackshaw had been quick
to note the interest Aaron took in Mat, and he hated his brown-faced
crisp-haired relative for it. But he was too astute to display the
resentment that was burning in his breast. At Mat's side he paced the
sward, a smile on his dark countenance, and glib words on his tongue,
wondering the while how it was that everybody seemed so fond of Mat.
As for himself Levi could see nothing in his cousin, save his handsome
florid face and his well-built figure.

Presently Aaron Shelvocke strolled away from the immediate vicinity
of the merry-makers. Lighting his old briar-root pipe he sauntered
across the short grass, reflecting on the happenings of the last score
and a half of years. Then he was a ne'er-do-well--a common work-a-day
pitman--a poacher even on the very land he how trod upon as master.

After all, he was inclined to think now it had been for the best that
a certain poaching affray had driven him abroad. But for that event
he might have remained in the village all his days, and have been no
better off than some of his old comrades, who were at that very moment
enjoying themselves heartily at the other end of the field at his
expense.

A quarter of an hour later Aaron was returning towards the marquee,
walking alongside the low fence which divided his domain from the
highway, when he came upon a young girl who was standing in the road
with her eyes upon the festive throng. He had gained her side before
she turned and noticed him.

"Now, my little woman," he cried pleasantly, "how is it that you are
not enjoying yourself with the rest of the villagers?"

"I beg your pardon, sir," the lass answered with some hesitation, as a
blush suffused her face, "but I don't belong to these parts."

"Oh, indeed," Aaron cried. "Then in that case I must beg your pardon,
my dear. I imagined you belonged to Orsden Green, and that by some
means or other you had been overlooked or forgotten in the general
invitation."

As the master of Orsden Hall spoke, his keen, inquisitive eyes were
taking stock of the maiden beside him. She was a slip of a girl with
a pale, refined-looking face, and not more than fifteen or sixteen
years of age. She had a sweet, little red mouth, well-defined chin,
a delicately modelled nose of the Greek type, and above her wide
white brow little tendrils of lemon-coloured hair clustered. Somehow
Shelvocke felt interested in the young stranger.

"Orsden Green!" the lassie repeated quickly. "Is that the village down
the lane there?"

"Yes, that is the village of Orsden Green, miss. If you are a stranger,
as you say, and I can help you in any possible way, I shall be only too
glad to do so."

"Perhaps you can tell me where a man named John Forrester lives, sir?"
the girl replied.

"John Forrester!" Aaron repeated reflectively. "No, I cannot say that I
know the name. What business does he follow, miss?"

"He is a collier, sir."

"And you are quite sure he lives at Orsden Green?"

"He did live here, but it is some months now since we last heard from
him. He is my uncle, and I was coming here to live with him."

"Then he must have expected you?"

"I can hardly tell you, sir," the girl answered in a slow uncertain
way, and her eyes were almost timidly raised to Shelvocke's. He noticed
that her eyes were very large and dark blue, and that there was an
appealing uneasy light in them. "I wrote to him a week ago telling him
of my father's death," here her voice trembled and her eyes filled,
"but I got no answer; and so I came here hoping to find him."

"You have not walked?" he questioned as he glanced down at her
dust-covered boots.

"Only from Gathurst Bridge, sir. I made a mistake in the station, and
got out a station too soon; but as there was no other train for an hour
or more to Orsden Green I thought I would walk."

"And that meant nearly four miles on a broiling day like this. Well,
wait a moment while I think. I am a native of the village, but have
been away from it for many years--only came back a week ago, in fact,
so am almost a stranger myself to many of the people. But if your uncle
is a collier at Orsden Green we will soon find him. There is but one
mine here, and my brother is the Manager. He will know all the miners,
and he is here among these people. I will find him, and he will tell
you all you wish to know."

"Thank you, sir, very much," she said slowly, and her blue eyes were
more grateful than her words.

"Pardon me, miss," he said, as he half turned away to seek his brother,
"may I ask how far you have travelled this morning?"

"From Birkenshaw, near Leeds."

"Then you must be both tired and hungry. There is an abundance of meat
and drink in the tent there if you will come with me."

"No! No! Thank you! I am a stranger to all those people, and I----" She
glanced down at her travel-stained boots, and then at her garments, her
refined countenance flushing the while in a confusion he understood.

"Well, I will not press you--but you will wait till I return?"

"Yes, sir."

He hurried away, but had not taken many paces ere he saw his two
nephews and Naomi Shelvocke emerge from a small throng of merry-makers.
He paused, caught the attention of his relatives, and the trio of young
people hurried to his side.

"There is a young lady here from Yorkshire, Mat," Aaron explained, as
they went to the fence near the highway, where the pretty stranger was
still standing. "She has come to Orsden Green to look for her uncle,
a miner named John Forrester. Perhaps you can tell her, Mat, where to
find her relative."

"I know John Forrester very well, uncle, but I'm sorry to say I don't
know where he has gone!" Mat answered.

"He's gone, then? When did he leave?"

"About a fortnight ago--as soon as the men got notice that the Orsden
Green Colliery was to be closed."

"And you did not hear him say where he thought of going, Mat?"

"Forrester talked about several places--the North of England,
Yorkshire, and Wales, I believe."

"This is very awkward," Aaron mused, in a sympathetic tone, with
his gaze upon the white face of the young girl, who seemed greatly
disturbed by Mat's intelligence that her relative had disappeared.
"I hope that you will not permit yourself, my young lassie, to be
distressed over-much because your uncle has left the village. Perhaps
some of the other miners may know where he has gone; and, in the
meantime, we must try to make you comfortable. Why, I daresay," Aaron
added, as an idea occurred to him, "that I can find you something to
do. I want a servant or two at the Hall, and if you care to----"

"I am not accustomed to service, sir," the girl replied, as her moist
blue eyes were lifted in thankfulness to the speaker. "I have been used
to working on the pit brow, and I thought when I came here that I might
obtain a place as a pit-brow girl."

"And so you shall!" Shelvocke cried, earnestly. "That is my colliery
over there, where your uncle used to work, and I will see that you have
a place at once. You may consider yourself engaged now, if you please,
and start work on Monday morning."

"I thank you, sir, very much, Mr.----"

"Shelvocke--Aaron Shelvocke--and your name?"

"Is Lettice Forrester," she answered, dropping her soft blue eyes
before the scrutinizing stare of Naomi Shelvocke's ardent black orbs.
Then she resumed, "I cannot tell you, sir, how much I thank you for
what you have done for me."

"And you avail yourself of my offer to find you a situation?"

"Yes, sir. I will say good afternoon now, for I must go into the
village to see if any one will take me in."

"The village is empty, Miss Forrester," Aaron rejoined. "All the men
and women are here," waving his hand over his shoulder. "This is my
niece, Naomi Shelvocke, and these young men are my nephews. Here,
Naomi, take charge of this young lady, and take her to the Hall to
refresh herself and rest a little. Then you can join the festive crowd
and find some one who is willing to take Miss Forrester as a lodger.
Now, Mat and Levi, come along with me, as I have something I want to
have your opinion upon."

The young men walked away at their uncle's side, and Naomi Shelvocke
and Lettice Forrester were left together.




CHAPTER VII.--THE MAIDEN IN TROUSERS.

Three months have passed since Mr. Aaron Shelvocke returned to the
place of his birth, and the passing of a quarter of a year has done
much to confirm the good impression his re-appearance among the scenes
and acquaintances of his earlier days had created.

The mine at the foot of the range of green hills had been reopened
almost immediately, as the reader already knows; all the former
work-people--manager, underlooker, firemen, and miners--had been
re-instated in their former positions; as far as was possible under the
circumstances the old mine had been developed, and employment found for
a few additional colliers and datallers; and in every way the miners of
Orsden Green, and the whole of the little village generally, had reason
to be thankful that the reign of the vanished Vanshaws was over and
done with, and that a new master--one of their own class--was reigning
in their stead.

No man knew old Luke Shelvocke's failings and petty weaknesses better
than did his brother Aaron. Of old the present master of Orsden Hall
had had reason to dislike some of the things his relative had thought
fit to do. Old Luke was too prone to exercise his authority as an
official. The miners under his sway were never too leniently treated.
He was a hard taskmaster, and never lost an opportunity of cutting down
the wages of those under him.

Knowing this, Aaron "took the bull by the horns," and treated his
avariciously minded kinsman to a little plain speaking.

"Look here, Luke," Aaron said, pleasantly. "I think we had better
understand one another at the beginning. You have not got the best of
names among the workmen, and I think you know why. Your policy has
always been a cheeseparing one. For the sake of your masters you were
always a bit hard on the men, and they don't like you in consequence,
in spite of all your teetotalism and religious inclinations. I only
tell you this because I should prefer the work-people to be treated
somewhat differently now."

Old Luke had made some snarling rejoinder to the effect that if his
brother was bent on setting up some sort of a charitable institution
or workhouse in his mines, it didn't matter to him so long as somebody
else paid the piper. Any fool of a Manager knew how to spend his
master's money, but hardly any knew how to save it.

"I fancy I know, Luke," Aaron had replied unruffled, "how to spend
money as well as save it. I only want you to treat the men and all the
others decently--just as you would want to be treated if you were still
getting your living by hewing coal."

Those plain hints had not been wasted. Very soon the miners of Orsden
Green began to tell one another that "Owd Luke" was a better chap than
he used to be before their Aaron came home; and somehow it had come
about that the wages of the hardy pitmen were no longer put down, as
formerly had been the case.

Between midsummer and August Aaron Shelvocke had spent considerable
time, trouble, and money on the improvement of Orsden Hall. The old
carriage-drive leading from the high road just outside the village to
the front entrance had been regravelled, set straight and renovated,
the lawn and patches of flower-beds before the hall had been trimmed
up, the house itself had been overhauled from roof to basement, and the
old-fashioned orchard and vegetable garden behind the hall had bean
restored somewhat.

In all those improvements Aaron Shelvocke had taken the liveliest
interest. Here and there he had wandered about his demesne with his
nephew Mat at his elbow, marking defects and dilapidations, and
suggesting improvements, and remarking continually that he would make a
vastly different place of his home in the course of a year or two.

It was owing to no expressed wish, nor even a felt desire of Mat
Shelvocke's that he was kept dangling in a kind of pleasant idleness at
his uncle's side. Day after day Aaron had kept his young kinsman near
him; evening after evening he would tell Mat, ere he dismissed him for
the day, to meet him at such a time on the morrow, when they would do
so and so.

Of course Mat obeyed--what else could he do? His uncle was his master,
and his business was to carry out the other's behests. The man who paid
him his wages each Saturday had a right to nominate the labour to which
he should devote himself, and if the work he was doing--or supposed to
be doing--was ridiculously easy, in contrast to that which he had been
accustomed to in the mine, why should he grumble so long as his uncle
was satisfied?

And yet Mat Shelvocke was not quite easy in his mind. If Aaron
Shelvocke was content with matters as they stood there were two others
who made not the least attempt to conceal their dissatisfaction at
Mat's continual idleness. Those two were his uncle Luke and cousin
Levi; and although he paid little attention to their sarcastic
enquiries as to when he intended to return to work, he felt that it
would be better if he were back at the colliery.

One afternoon in mid-August Mat spoke to his uncle. They had been
making an exploration of the sodden tract of barren land known locally
as Orsden Moss, and the elder man was full of schemes for reclaiming
the wide stretch of bog. As they returned towards the Hall the young
fellow said suddenly--

"And when may I think of returning to work again, uncle?"

"Return to work, Mat!" Aaron cried in accents of astonishment, as he
paused in his measured walk and stared at his nephew. "Why, my lad,
aren't you working now?"

"Of course, but I meant my old work at the colliery."

"Oh, I see! And would you rather go back to your own old work
underground than help me here on the surface?"

"No, I can't say honestly that I would."

"Then why want a change? Isn't the money enough?"

"The wages are all right, sir, but----"

"But what, Mat?"

"Well, my uncle and cousin seem to think that I ought to do something
besides hang about you day after day for weeks--even months," Mat
replied somewhat sheepishly.

"Oh, I see how the land lies, my lad. Luke and Levi think I am making
just a little too much of you, eh? But I am glad you have spoken, Mat.
If either of them mentions the matter again will you tell them to mind
their own business? Curse their impertinence! Can't I do as I like with
my own money, and my own brother's son?"

Then they resumed their walk, and Mat could perceive that his companion
was still turning over in his mind the matter of which he had spoken so
angrily. Presently he said--

"Do you ever think of the future, Mat? Your own future I mean."

"That is a question Uncle Luke has sometimes put to me," Mat answered
with a half smile on his brown face.

"I daresay," with a frown, "but I mean in another sense. Have you no
ambition? What would you like to be?"

"Oh, I understand. Well, I have often thought that I should like to
become a mine manager, uncle."

"You would, eh? And have you done any reading or studying in that
direction?"

"Only a little. I did think of attending the School of Mines at
Coleclough, but it was rather too expensive to go to town every night
during the winter; and then there were the fees and the books, and all
the other things."

"But if I found everything?"

"Then I would throw myself heart and soul into the work, and never
rest until I had passed my examination and taken my certificate of
competency. I've had plenty of practical experience of coal mines, and
I think I'm not too thick-headed to pick up all else that I require in
a year or two at the school."

"I think so too, and you shall have the chance," Aaron said in a
decisive tone. "When you see your uncle again, Mat, tell him, will you,
that you have done hewing coal. If you go into the mine again it must
be in some official position which will learn you things, and prepare
you for the situation which you will, I trust, one day fill."

"I will tell him," the young man said with a flushed face, and a heart
that was wildly throbbing. "If you send me to school, uncle, I will do
my best not to discredit your faith in me."

"There is no fear of that, Mat--at least, I have no fear of it. And
while we are talking of this business, there is another matter we might
as well settle now as hereafter. When you get home, tell your landlady,
will you, that you will be leaving her in a week or so."

Mat stared at his relative, but made no observation. What did his uncle
mean, he wondered. Aaron Shelvocke soon put his mind at rest.

"You can tell Mrs. Stockley, Mat, that you are going to live with me at
the Hall in future. Naomi and her father are comfortably situated in
their cottage, which is, I understand, Luke's own property, and Levi
Blackshaw has been with them both so long now that he is just like
one of the family. There is no occasion to disturb them in any way;
but with you it is quite different. It strikes me as being hardly the
thing that you should be in lodgings in the village while your uncle is
living by himself in a big rambling place like Orsden Hall."

"You are much too good to me, uncle," Mat exclaimed greatly elated and
yet a little distressed by his kinsman's words. "I never expected this,
and I----"

"Don't talk nonsense, Mat," Aaron cried as he placed his big brown hand
affectionately on his nephew's shoulder. "Why shouldn't you live with
me? I'm a lonely old curmudgeon of a bachelor, and you have no nearer
relative than myself. It would be a good thing for both of us, don't
you think."

"It will be a good thing for me, uncle," Mat said, with a smile
illuminating his handsome face.

A few minutes later they parted, Aaron taking his way towards the
Hall, while his nephew went in the direction of Orsden Green, his face
glowing still, his pulse beating quickly, and his young mind filled
with dreams of his future. What a splendid chap this uncle of his was!
How generous, homely, straight-forward, and unconventional. Just the
very kind of uncle one desired. Well, he would show that he was not
quite unworthy of his kinsman's generosity. When he began his studying
he would bend himself resolutely and willingly to his work.

"Good afternoon, Mat!"

A low, pleasantly modulated voice brought young Shelvocke out of the
clouds, and, half-turning, he recognised the pit-brow girl, who was
walking just behind him, and a pleasant light glowed in his blue eyes
and fresh face.

"Good afternoon," he returned genially, as he resumed his walk at the
girl's side. "You are getting home early to-day."

"Yes, Mat; all the colliers had finished at four o'clock."

"And how do you like Orsden Green yet, Lettice?"

"I like it very much. Everybody has been so kind to me, and the work is
so easy. I shall stay in the village now."

"I am glad to hear it," Mat rejoined, as he stole another admiring
glance at the picturesquely garbed miner lassie at his elbow.

Lettice Forrester was attired after the fashion of the females who work
about the Lancashire mines. A soft print bonnet rested on her fair
hair, and fell on her shoulders, which were covered by a loose blouse
of some dark stuff; and under this jacket a short skirt hung, being
looped up in front, and displaying a pair of cord trousers, which,
coming down to within a few inches of her dainty little clogs, with
their bright buckles of brass, afforded a glimpse of a pair of finely
moulded ankles, clad in dark blue hose.

The girl's soft refined features bore only faint traces of the grime
which occasionally covers the faces of pit-brow girls when they labour
in the screens and shootes among the black dust of the coal; and her
few months' residence in the village had driven that sick pallor from
her comely countenance which had rested upon it on the day of the
rustic festival. Her slim, graceful figure was alert, lissome, and easy
moving now as any maiden's could be.

From the first Mat had been attracted to the fair young lassie,
probably on account of her youthfulness and lonely position, and she
did not seem ungrateful for his attention and consideration. Since that
memorable afternoon Mat and Lettice had met very frequently--sometimes
at Orsden Hall, where the girl had been dispatched to clean some of the
many apartments; occasionally at the colliery, when Mat strolled about
the surface there on business of his uncle's, and very often in the
village, where both of them lived.

Hence they had got to be very friendly. The lass was intelligent and
refined in manner far beyond the usual run of her class, and Mat
derived no small pleasure from conversing with her. That they would
ever become more than friends neither of them dreamed as yet. She was
too young to understand what love was, and he was scarcely aware of
the real feeling which prompted him to treat Lettice Forrester as he
treated no other village maiden.

As Mat Shelvocke and Lettice Forrester went along the village street
they were noticed by Naomi Shelvocke, who happened to be standing in
front of the cottage, and a look of black displeasure swept across the
girl's strong, dark face as she watched them chatting a moment ere they
went their ways. "Surely her cousin couldn't care for that pale-faced,
yellow-haired chit of a stranger!" she cried to herself, almost
passionately. And yet why did he walk with Lettice from her work, and
stand gossiping there with her in sight of all the folks of Orsden
Green?

She watched the young folk until they parted, and then, with that scowl
on her handsome gipsy face, and a seed of bitterness planted in her
impulsive, hot young heart, she slammed the garden gate behind her, and
went into the house, wishing even then that Lettice Forrester had never
set foot in the village.




CHAPTER VIII.--THE OFFER OF LINDON PATTINGHAM.

It was evening, a few hours after Aaron Shelvocke told his nephew
to arrange for moving his quarters to Orsden Hall, and the "New
Squire"--as some of the miners, half in earnest and half in jest, were
minded to call the successor of the Vanshaws--was leisurely strolling
in the direction of the village.

It was a warm, misty eventide. A luminous, leaden-coloured haze covered
the whole of the visible heavens, save in the occidental quarter, where
the slowly sinking sun could be perceived behind the vapourous bank of
cloud. The distant range of hills on the Bispham side of the village
rose up clearly in dark-green masses, and the colliery, the clusters
of rambling houses, the adjacent fields, and the white highway, seemed
steeped in an odorous calm.

Shelvocke was nearing the entrance to the carriage drive, with his
mind dwelling upon the Black Boar, where he was thinking of passing an
hour or so on the bowling green, when he noticed the figure of a man
standing at the iron gate near the high road. The man was a gentleman
evidently from his dress and bearing, and scarcely a villager or one
who lived near, or Aaron would have known him, he reflected.

Beside the half-opened gate the stranger remained, still-standing in an
expectant attitude, and presently Shelvocke joined him.

"Good evening," the gentleman said affably. "You are Mr. Shelvocke, I
believe, of Orsden Hall?"

"Quite right, sir," Aaron answered easily. "Was I right in thinking
that you wished to speak to me?"

"You were; but permit me to introduce myself."

He handed to Aaron a card he had drawn from his pocket as he was
speaking, and upon the oblong slip of white pasteboard Shelvocke read
as under--


"MR. LINDON PATTINGHAM,
"Gathurst House, Gathurst Bridge."


"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Pattingham," our
friend remarked, suavely, as he twirled the card in his brown fingers
and looked the tall, well-dressed, good-looking man of forty-five in
the face. "And what is it you wish to see me about?"

"Oh, nothing particular, Mr. Shelvocke," the other answered; "at least
it is nothing of a very pressing nature. I chanced to be strolling
past, enjoying the fine evening very much, when I happened to see you
coming along the drive; then it struck me that I might as well stop and
speak to you."

"Of course; but what about?"

"Well, if you are at liberty for half an hour or so I can tell you as
we walk along the lane here; but if you are engaged I can wait and call
again."

Shelvocke hastened to assure Mr. Lindon Pattingham that he was
absolutely at liberty for any reasonable time that gentleman might care
to claim; and as he said so they turned along the lane with their backs
towards the village, strolling leisurely in the direction of Gathurst
Bridge. Mr. Pattingham had drawn a cigar-case from his pocket, and
insisted upon the master of Orsden Hall helping himself to a weed; and
as they both lit up and paced along Pattingham remarked in a quiet,
matter-of-fact manner--

"You'll pardon me for saying, Mr. Shelvocke, that although you didn't
know me, and had never met me before this evening, I have lived in
these parts for some tens of years. My place, Gathurst House, is a
rather comfortable sort of shanty, and as I have resided there for a
dozen years you will understand that I don't half like leaving it."

"Are you thinking of leaving Gathurst House, Mr. Pattingham?" Shelvocke
enquired with a faint show of interest.

"I am, worse luck, and unwillingly, as you may gather," was the answer
made in a tone of gentle chagrin. "The fact is, Mr. Shelvocke,"
Pattingham went on with an airy movement of the two forefingers between
which his smoking cigar was held, "that my lease will terminate in
the course of a very short time, and my landlord has expressed his
unwillingness to renew it. I imagine he wants the house for his own
residence. He is a well-to-do tradesman in Coleclough, and is thinking
of retiring from business at an early date, you understand?"

"Yes; I understand, Mr. Pattingham," Aaron responded readily, and yet
wondering as to the nature of his companion's business with himself.
"And in what way, may I ask, does the determination of your tenancy of
Gathurst House affect me?"

"That is exactly what I am going to tell you, Mr. Shelvocke. You know
Mr. Bryham, of Orsden Mount?"

"I have met him several times; and we have had some little conversation
together," Aaron answered.

"Well, Mr. Bryham was telling me a week or two ago that you were not
at all enamoured of your purchase of the Orsden Hall estate," Mr.
Pattingham remarked, as his eyes met Shelvocke's.

"That is quite true. I imagine that I paid a fairly big price for the
few cottages in the village there, the farm or two about it, the mile
or so of useless moss and an old colliery which is almost worked out,"
Aaron cried.

"I understood Bryham to say that you half repented of your bargain. Is
that so?" Pattingham queried, as he flipped the ash from his weed.

"Yes, I did half repent, but not wholly. I am settled down here now,
and I imagine that, with ordinary care, I need not lose very much over
the transaction."

"Still, if you were thinking of getting it off your hands at a fair
price, Mr. Shelvocke, I feel inclined to help you in that way,"
Pattingham suavely responded.

"I hardly follow you, Mr. Pattingham," the master of Orsden Hall
ejaculated, with a little start of surprise. "Do you mean to say that
you are prepared to take my doubtful bargain off my hands--or that you
know some one else who would do so?"

"That is it exactly! For certain reasons, which I need not trouble you
by stating at this moment, I do not desire to quit the neighbourhood,
and Orsden Hall would suit me exactly if I could arrange terms with you
on a fair and equitable basis."

"I am rather attached to the Hall now, and should be somewhat loth to
leave it. If the house is all you require----"

"Oh, I would take everything as you found it," Pattingham broke in
eagerly; "that is, at a fair price."

"And your notion of a fair price is what, Mr. Pattingham?"

"The sum you paid."

"Humph!" Aaron Shelvocke murmured reflectively, and his brown fingers
were run over the sheaf of grizzled hair on his chin. "That seems fair
enough, I must admit," he added. "But you see, my dear sir, I didn't
purchase this estate as a sort of speculative concern, out of which I
hoped to make money. I merely wanted a comfortable home in my native
place; and now that I am planted here I dislike the idea of moving."

"Quite natural! Quite natural!" Pattingham rejoined. "But perhaps we
might overcome that difficulty. You might retain possession of the Hall
if you were prepared to dispose of the other property you acquired--the
moss, the farms, and the colliery."

"And if I decided to retain the Hall alone, Mr. Pattingham, what sum
might you offer me?" Aaron queried.

"A round sum of fourteen thousand!"

"Thank you. I will think about your offer."

"And let me know your decision when?"

"Before the end of the week--that will be early enough, I suppose?"

"I should prefer an answer to-morrow, if you could contrive to let me
have it then."

"Perhaps I might," Shelvocke said slowly; then he added in a more
sprightly manner, and his keen, grey-blue eyes scanned his companion's
features closely, "But I thought, Mr. Pattingham, that you only desired
a new residence, as you had to leave Gathurst House?"

"My words may have given you that impression, Mr. Shelvocke," the
gentleman answered, with a half-smile.

"And my impression was not the right one?" Aaron questioned, his face
grave now, and his whole manner one of suspicion.

"Frankly, my friend, you have hit it," the man from Gathurst Bridge
exclaimed with an air of great frankness. "I think I can trust you, and
I will do so. All I desire to purchase from you is Orsden Moss, and----"

"Orsden Moss! That barren bog!"

"Which I think I can make some thousands of pounds out of. To tell
you the whole truth that is my secret. For years I have been hard at
work upon an invention, and at length have succeeded in perfecting
and patenting it. This invention is one that is designed to convert
the huge tracts of peat and turf scattered about the kingdom into a
valuable substitute for coal; and that my discovery, or invention,
whichever you care to call it, is of the utmost commercial value I am
so thoroughly satisfied that I wish to purchase Orsden Moss from you
in order to commence operations at once. Now you understand me, Mr.
Shelvocke?"

"Completely! And I congratulate you heartily on your invention, which I
hope may prove equal to your expectations," the master of Orsden Hall
cried warmly.

"Thank you; and you will let me have an answer as soon as possible, Mr.
Shelvocke? I am quite eager to get to work at once, right here in the
heart of Lancashire."

"You shall have my answer to-morrow, Mr. Pattingham."

"Again I thank you; and I sincerely trust that your answer may be
a favourable one," the man of inventive mind murmured in tones of
unconcealed concern.

"I think you may hope for the best, sir," Aaron made answer. "The Moss
is neither of use to me nor anybody else, so far as I can see; and if
you are able to turn it into use, I don't see why you should not do so."

"Of course not. Well, I will trouble you no further at present, Mr.
Shelvocke," Pattingham said pleasantly as he drew up in the gathering
dusk. "I cannot say how pleased I am to have met you. Of course, you
will keep what I have told you to yourself for the present. And you
will not omit to send me that answer to-morrow?"

"Without fail you shall have it."

"You needn't post your message. Any of your servants can find my place;
and I will repay your messenger for the trouble of walking over to
Gathurst House. Now, you will excuse me. Good evening."

"Good evening."

They shook hands vigorously, parted in the best of spirits, and as Mr.
Lindon Pattingham disappeared in the dusky shadows of the green-hedged
lane, Aaron Shelvocke struck a match and relit the cigar he had
permitted to expire. Then as the white volumes of fragrant smoke were
curling upward from his mouth, and he set his face homewards he heard a
familiar voice call his name.

"Hello, uncle! That you? Been having a stroll?"

"Just a stroll and a smoke and a chat, my lad," Aaron answered genially
as he turned to his nephew. "And you, Mat--where may you have been?"

"To the village of Gathurst Bridge to see an old chum of mine," the
young man replied.

"Gathurst Bridge!" Aaron said thoughtfully; "I dare say you will know
Gathurst House then?"

"Of course I do."

"Well, I may want you to go there to-morrow."

"I met Mr. Pattingham just this moment in the lane there," Mat
exclaimed.

"You would. I had been with him. And so you know Mr. Lindon Pattingham,
Mat?"

"What else? Everybody knows him for a few miles round here. If you
hadn't turned up a month or two ago and restarted the Orsden Green
Colliery it was my intention to go to his place and ask for a job."

"His place! What do you mean?"

"Don't you know that Mr. Pattingham is the biggest shareholder and
managing Director of the Red Moss Colliery, which lies just beyond
Orsden Moss?"

"Ha!" That exclamation fell from Shelvocke's lips ere he could repress
it. In his usual voice he added. "I wasn't aware of the fact, Mat,
although I have made that gentleman's acquaintance this very evening.
That is the colliery, isn't it, where several of the mines were lost
some time ago through a fault which threw them out?"

"The same. They have been boring and tunnelling ever so long in search
of the lost seams."

"I hardly think now, Mat," Aaron responded, turning the conversation
suddenly, "that I shall proceed with my plans for draining the Moss and
putting it under cultivation."

"How's that?" the lad blurted out in amaze. "Why it was only to-day
that we were over it together, and you were full of all sorts of
schemes and plans for turning it into valuable land."

"Well, I find, Mat," Aaron answered with a smiling face, "that it is
valuable without spending anything upon it."

"I hardly understand you, uncle," the youth rejoined with a sorely
puzzled look.

"Of course not. But the fact is that I have had offered for it a sum as
large--within a few hundreds--as that which I gave for the Hall and the
whole of the estate."

"You have?" Mat gasped incredulously.

"I have; and this very evening."

"Then I know who made you the offer, uncle," the young fellow said
earnestly; "and I can tell you as well why he wants to buy it now."

"Not so fast, my young man. Not so fast," Aaron replied half-jocularly.
"It was a mistake to tell you what I have done, but I think I can trust
you. And now the name of the would-be buyer, Matthew?"

"Mr. Lindon Pattingham!" was the firm and ready answer.

"Perhaps you are right--mind, I only say perhaps. And now, assuming
that you have guessed the right name--and you only guessed that
name because I told you that Mr. Pattingham had been with me this
evening--why does he want Orsden Moss? If you can guess that, my smart
youngster, I shall be ready to admit you are in Pattingham's confidence
also."

"I have never spoken to Mr. Pattingham; still, I can guess why he
is after Orsden Moss!" Mat affirmed, emphatically. "He wants it now
because he knows or suspects there is a thick and valuable seam of
cannel right under it."

"Nonsense!" and Aaron Shelvocke's hearty laugh rang out on the warm and
quiet summer air. "Cannel under the Moss, Mat! What are you thinking
about, my lad? Don't you know that your Uncle Luke spent scores of
pounds boring for coal on the Moss, and never found anything?"

"Yes, I know that. But I know something else as well. They have found a
seam of cannel to-day at the Red Moss Colliery in one of the tunnels.
That is why Mr. Pattingham has been to you."

"Is this true, Mat?" Shelvocke whispered, as he paused abruptly in the
lane, and stared closely into his nephew's countenance.

"It's as true as I am here."

"How did you get to know?"

"The mate I spoke of--young Dick Fleming--told me. He is working in
the tunnel, and was there when the seam of cannel was laid bare this
morning."

"It is strange we did not hear of this sooner, Mat," Aaron muttered.

"Not strange at all. If I hadn't happened to be an old chum of
Fleming's he wouldn't have told me."

"How's that?"

"Because every man was warned under penalty of instant dismissal to say
not a word of the cannel. For Dick's sake we must keep this information
to ourselves."

"I understand. Where does this Fleming live?"

Mat told him.

"Will you fetch your friend to the Hall, Mat. If this is true, I will
see that he never requires a place under any one but myself. Turn back
at once and tell him I wish to see him. If he will answer me half a
dozen questions I will give him 5."

"Right! I'll be back as quick as possible."

With that Mat Shelvocke hurried back in the direction of Gathurst
Bridge, and Aaron strode thoughtfully homeward.




CHAPTER IX.--THE WINNING OF THE MOSS.

A year had gone by since the return of Aaron Shelvocke to Orsden Green,
and remarkable as had been the changes his presence there had effected
almost immediately, much greater changes still were produced by him
before many months were past. Now, just twelve months after his arrival
in the village, so remarkable an alteration had been made that the
place scarcely appeared the same.

The old "day-eye" mine on the eastern slope of the village was still
working as in olden days; the grey old Church still reared itself above
the green fields and small cottages; Orsden Hall lifted its dun mass
beside its trim lawn and improved walks and gardens; and the white,
dusty, highroad yet wound its way through the heart of the hamlet.

It was on the western side of Orsden Green that change was most
evident. There, a few yards back from the highroad, stood a row of
brand new dwellings of bright-red brick, with neat strips of flower
gardens in front, while behind was a decent patch of cottage garden set
aside for each house. What was perhaps more singular than the erection
of these five-and-twenty new cottages was the fact that each one of
them was tenanted, although none of the older dwellings were tenantless.

Whence had come the new villagers? Why had they come?

The wide expanse of moss stretching away behind the new tenements
afforded an answer to both those questions. There in the centre of the
level stretch of barren land rose the headgears of a couple of newly
sunken shafts; and the long mounds of slate-coloured debris, the lines
of rail running here and there, the coal wagons scattered about the
place, the tall engine house of red brick, from which steam was issuing
in white jets from the roof, the whirr of the pulleys as they spun
round, the deep hum of the swiftly gliding steel ropes as they sped
up and down the shafts with the heavy cages attached, and the other
numerous sounds and clamour of a busy colliery yard, explained the
presence of that new colony at Orsden Green.

Since that fair evening in August, when Mr. Lindon Pattingham
introduced himself to Aaron Shelvocke, there had been great and
unexpected developments in the village. From the young miner who worked
at the Red Moss Colliery, whom his nephew had brought to the Hall,
Aaron had received all the confirmation he required respecting the
discovery of the seam of cannel.

Next day he had given Mr. Pattingham an answer, as he had promised,
but not in the affirmative, as he had certainly led that gentleman to
expect. Mr. Shelvocke did not condescend to explain why he declined to
dispose of Orsden Moss, but in the course of a week or so it was no
longer a secret.

After very little reflection, Shelvocke decided to keep the Moss and
work it for his own behoof. There must be something underneath it, or
why should the Managing Director of the Red Moss Colliery desire so
much to acquire it now? Three months ago he might have purchased the
whole of the estate for the sum he was now prepared to pay for the
Moss. Why the sudden change? The seam of cannel must be the explanation.

Thus Aaron Shelvocke reasoned, and he wasted no time in putting his
reasons to the proof. On the following day he took his brother into his
confidence, told him that he intended to commence boring operations on
the Moss immediately, and together Aaron and Luke surveyed the tract
of boggy land at those particular points where the surface had been
pierced previously in ineffectual attempts to discover coal.

Of course, the cool and plodding Manager threw cold water in his
grudging cynical way upon his kinsman's warm hopes. If coal and cannel
existed underneath the Moss, he averred, they would have been found
long before. But Aaron had ready a complete answer to such an argument.
Years ago the bore holes had only been sunk to a depth of a hundred and
fifty yards, whereas at Red Moss, which was only two or three miles
away, a seam of cannel three feet in thickness, had been proved at a
distance of three hundred and twenty yards from the surface.

In a week's time gangs of men were working night and day without
cessation. The latest and most improved boring tackle was obtained; the
best and steadiest pitmen in the district were put upon the job; the
old bore holes were cleared out, greatly expediting operations; deeper
and deeper the small circular orifice was driven into the earth's
crust, and at a depth of three hundred yards a thin seam of coal was
discovered.

But Aaron Shelvocke did not rest content with that find. It was a seam
of cannel he desired, and the finding of a coal seam sufficient in
thickness to pay for winning, only tended to stimulate him to further
effort and expense. His perseverance and pluck had their reward. One
night when the boreholes were driven fifty yards deeper another vein of
mineral was found.

But on this occasion it was not coal that the refuse from the boreholes
revealed, but the bright, shining, close-grained particles which
indicate cannel. Then Aaron Shelvocke felt that his time and money had
not been expended fruitlessly--that his anxiety had not been endured in
vain. Even if he had to spend the last available penny he possessed he
was determined to win and market the rich black mineral his sinkers had
revealed.

Not a single day was lost in the great work. True to his nature and
traditions Aaron Shelvocke treated his borers to a royal feast and
gave each of them gold. Forthwith the engine-house was erected and the
sinking of two shafts commenced. Almost at the same time the Master
of Orsden Hall caused to be built on his own land, not far from the
pits, those five and twenty cottages, and by the time the shafts were
"bottomed" every dwelling was tenanted.

Autumn, winter, and spring were consumed in these operations, and by
the time the different "turns" of "cannellers" were at work down the
Orsden Moss Colliery, glorious and bounteous summer was laughing over
the country-side.

The tale of those three seasons was in many ways a stirring and a
memorable one. There had been no lack of excitement during the coming
and going of those nine months, and into the work Aaron Shelvocke had
thrown himself zealously. When the work was done the Squire of Orsden
Green felt that he had done well, and that he had not lived in vain.

Now, if never before, had he wiped out and expiated all the sins and
follies of his early days. The money he had amassed overseas he had put
to a use which would profit not only himself and his kin, but every
man, woman, and child who lived in his dear old native place. The mines
he had already laid bare would find employment for men and lads for
many years to come. Other seams still were almost certain to be found
beneath the cannel; and so the villagers might look forward with good
reason to a new and long-lived era of prosperity.

When the great work was accomplished Aaron Shelvocke was a very wealthy
man--prospectively. But he was rich only in that sense. The boring
of the trial holes, the sinking of the shafts, the erection of the
engine-house and engines, the building of the houses for his future
workmen, the construction of a railway siding, and the purchase of the
multitude of other odds and ends incidental to a mining undertaking,
swallowed up almost all the thousands he had at his banker's when the
Orsden Hall Estate was purchased.

But if his stock of ready cash had fallen almost to vanishing point,
the immediate future was pregnant with rich possibilities--nay,
probabilities. Every golden coin he had spent so freely was like unto
a prolific seed planted, and the coming years would furnish him with a
succession of prosperous harvests.

Hence the completion of the greatest undertaking of his not unromantic
and stirring career found Aaron Shelvocke contented and at peace with
himself and all the world.

In his nephew, Mat Shelvocke, the new squire of Orsden Green had found
a comrade and a helpmate after his own heart. At the time agreed upon
the young miner had quitted his village lodgings and moved himself and
his scanty belongings to the Hall; and if his Uncle Luke and his cousin
Levi had found occasion to remark before on the fact that he was being
made over-much of, they had additional reason then.

But Mat paid no heed to either one or the other; nor did old Luke or
young Levi go out of their way to irritate the young miner any longer
by the open expression of their envious innuendos. Mat was a power now
to be conciliated, rather than estranged, hence their real feelings
were dissembled.

Although the development and winning of Orsden Moss swallowed no
inconsiderable amount of Mat Shelvocke's waking hours, he did not
forget or omit to carry out the resolution he had made that day when
his uncle spoke to him about his future career. While the boring was
going on he took his part manfully at the rods, devoting an hour or two
occasionally to his books; and when the sinking of the two pits began
he paid the closest possible attention to all the details of sinking,
such as the drilling, ramming, and firing of the shots in the rock, the
bricking of the shaft, and the putting in of the "water rings."

To a smart, intelligent young pitman like Mat, the boring and sinking
and opening out of the new mines on Orsden Moss was in itself a sound,
practical education of the highest value. He had eyes for everything
that went on around him; the methods adopted by the skilful miners his
uncle employed were noted eagerly, and treasured up in his memory; and
being a strong, willing youngster, who could handle a pick, spade,
hammer, and drill cleverly, and being, moreover, a born worker, without
an idle bone in his body, he was greatly liked by all the pitmen, who
would have done anything for him.

No man took more pride in the changes which were being wrought at
Orsden Green than our old friend, Mr. Dan Coxall. The ex-gamekeeper
had been reinstated as watchman when the Orsden Green Colliery, on the
other side of the village, was reopened, and there he remained until
operations were commenced on Orsden Moss.

Then when the seams of coal and cannel were found, Dan's head-quarters
were transferred from the small tunnel-pit at the foot of the hill to
the new colliery on the Moss. Prompted by an impulse of generosity, the
Master of Orsden Moss had built for his old foe, whom he had maimed so
many years ago, a small, one-storeyed cot, within a stone's throw of
the pits, so that night and day, on duty or off, the old watchman could
be near his post.

That Dan took an especial glory in his wardenship and his new home,
passes without chronicling; and night and day when he could get a
willing listener he never tired of singing the manifold excellencies of
his master.

"Yo dunnot know Aaron Shelvocke as I do!" old Dan would say on those
occasions referred to. "He's th' chap what's done a' this, an' Orsden
Green owt be gradely preyhd"--proud--"o' him. Aaron's a gradely good
sooart, he is! It was Mester Shelvocke what caused me to loyse this
here limb, but that were 'ears sin'. He were a reg'lare daredevil
then; but th' lad picked up, went abrode, dug up gowd"--gold--"as easy
as diggin' new pratoes, an' neaw yo' seen what he is. An' he's not
forgotten me, nayther. I've a sovereign a week as lung as I want to
work, an' when I'm tired there's a pension o' ten shillin' a week for
lahfe. That's the chap Aaron Shelvocke is!"




CHAPTER X.--"THE WAY THE WIND BLOWS."

In one of the comfortably furnished rooms at Orsden Hall "the family"
were sitting at tea. It was a fine afternoon in summer, and outside
the house, and all around it, the woods and fields, the great sweep
of moss, and the lanes and meadow paths, were wearing their annual
garniture of rich soft green tints.

The day was the Sabbath, and the peace and glory of the day of rest
seemed to enswathe the village. The pits on the Moss had put away for a
brief space the bustle and clangour that resounded around them during
the six working days of the week; the great iron wheels hung motionless
over the shafts; gangs of full and empty wagons stood here and there in
the colliery-yard; from the roof of the engine-house a thin vapourish
spray was exuding at the end of a narrow pipe, showing that the steam
was up, although the mines lay idle; and at the door of his little
shanty in the shadow old Dan Coxall was sitting, quietly smoking the
pipe of peace and contentment.

At the end of the table Aaron Shelvocke was sitting, and as he sipped
his tea the old man's gaze wandered with a satisfied expression over
"his family," as he was wont to call the three surviving members of his
race.

Opposite Aaron, Mat Shelvocke was placed, his fine face browner than
of old, and handsomer too, but frank and winning as in the days when
he was first introduced to the reader. Mat seemed taller now, and his
figure might have served as a model for an artist in stone, so well
developed, lithe, and muscular did it appear.

The young miner's face had a more thoughtful and intelligent
expression upon it now, as if his studies, new duties, and added
responsibilities had drawn out and expanded the intellectual side of
his character. His soft, blue eyes, too, had a new light in them, as if
his added knowledge of life had awakened deeper sympathies and finer
affections. In other respects he was the same warm-hearted Mat as of
old--cheery-natured, honest-tongued, and half-careless as to his attire.

On the right hand of her uncle, Naomi Shelvocke was seated, attired in
a most becoming costume in some dark shade of blue, with a glint of
white linen showing at her tender wrists, and a lace ruffle encircling
her fair throat. The latent promise of her youth had been fully
developed in the last few years.

From a slender girl with a striking olive face, Naomi had changed into
a splendid woman, whose dark, proud type of beauty was almost regal in
its general appearance. Her dusky hair was piled in a great black mass
at the nape of her shapely neck, her well-cut features had filled up
and taken on soft lovely contours, while the warm glow of her smooth
cheeks, and the flash of her big, bold, black eyes, were splendidly
alluring, like those of a southern-blooded beauty.

And Naomi's figure was as gracious as her countenance. She was taller
than the common run of womankind; had a full and flowing bodice,
suggestive of all that was womanly and graceful; had a waist that her
cousin Mat's outstretched, big, brown hands might have belted; and her
soft, gliding motions--so easy, quick, and yet so full of grace, were
curiously suggestive of the walk of an untamed animal.

That Naomi was shrewd beyond her years all her relatives were aware
in different ways; that she was proud of her personal attractions the
very way in which she carried herself attested; but of her ambition
and desires no one was aware save herself. With all her fire she could
envelope herself in the impervious mantle of reserve.

Mr. Levi Blackshaw appeared to have undergone little external change.
He was as swarthy skinned as of yore, as alert-eyed and glib-tongued as
when we first made his acquaintance; dressed himself with a scrupulous
nicety, and of late had assumed airs when in the presence of those he
considered his inferiors. The superior manners of the callow youth had
become dignified pomposity in the man.

Aaron Shelvocke's perceptive glances took all these changes as he
coolly and half-critically scanned his relatives. He remembered them
all as he had first seen them, and he was indolently contrasting that
time with the present. All round an improvement was visible, and the
master of Orsden naturally and without vanity set down a great portion
of the change to himself.

If he had not returned to the village these nephews and niece of his
would scarcely have fared so well. Naomi would have been comfortable
with the little fortune her father had left her at his death; Levi
would still have been grinding away in the semi-obscurity of a
pettifogging attorney's office; while poor Mat--well he would probably
have been worse off than either of his cousins--would in all likelihood
have been neither better nor worse off than any of the other young
pitmen in the village.

"I wonder," Aaron Shelvocke remarked quickly as he rose from the table
and went towards the window, "if any of you young folk recollect what
day this Sunday is?"

"I remember," Mat answered lightly, "that it is just a week and a
day short of two years since I passed my examination and took my
certificate, and a little more than half that time since I became the
Manager of the Orsden Moss pits. Nor am I likely to forget, uncle, that
folks said at the time that I was the youngest colliery Manager in
England; and not a few, so I heard, had doubts about your wisdom when
you placed me in that position."

"I have seen no occasion so far, Mat," Shelvocke answered pleasantly,
"to doubt my judgment, nor am I likely to see it, my lad."

"I hope not," said Mat earnestly.

"There is something remarkable about the day, Uncle Aaron," Blackshaw
remarked as he toyed with his teacup. "What is it now, I wonder? Not
the sinking of the pits on the Moss, for that was in the winter; nor my
appointment as your head clerk and cashier, for that was in the spring;
and it can't be poor Uncle Luke's death, last Christmas but one, when
Naomi and I came to reside at the Hall."

"I think I know," Naomi broke in. "It was June when you purchased the
Orsden Hall Estate, dear uncle."

"So it was; but that was not the particular event, Naomi, of which I
was thinking when I spoke. This is the last day of June, and it is the
fifth anniversary of my return to my native village. Only five years,"
he went on thoughtfully, "and yet how much, and how many remarkable
things, have happened since then. Do you remember that Saturday
afternoon when I spoke to you, Naomi, as you stood at the gate?"

"I think, dear uncle, that I shall never forget it," the comely
young woman returned promptly, and with some feeling. "Even then I
half-suspected who you were. I ought to have guessed the truth at once
when you made those enquiries about my poor father."

"Poor Luke! Poor old Luke!" he rejoined, half-mournfully. "Had he been
spared there would have been nothing to regret in the events of the
past five years. To me they seem dearer now than all the other years of
my life."

"It has been a good time for us all, uncle," Mat interposed, "and a
deuced good thing for the village as well, that you turned up just
in the nick of time to step in the empty shoes of the Vanshaws. If
any other person had bought the estate it would have been worse for
everybody concerned. What do you say, Levi?"

"What can I say, Mat? What can anybody say who has brains enough to
consider the question rationally in all its bearings?" Blackshaw
responded, somewhat more loudly than it was necessary to speak, and
in his most decisive way. "The return of Uncle Aaron to his native
village was the first sign of the return of the tide of prosperity to
Orsden Green. May it long continue. Why, if the village makes the same
proportionate progress in the course of the next dozen years as it has
done in the past five, we shall have to turn the place into a town."

"Well, I am pleased if you are all contented," Aaron replied with
the least dash of gratified vanity in his voice. "It is something to
think--to know--that one has done a little for his birthplace."

"That is so, dear Uncle, and you have done much," Naomi said, as she
went to her relative and laid her hand affectionately upon his arm. "My
only regret is that my dear father did not live longer to share our
common contentment."

They all echoed her last words, and for some minutes conversation was
carried on near the window besides which the four of them were now
standing.




CHAPTER XI.--"ONLY A PIT BROW LASSIE."

About an hour after Mat Shelvocke and his kinsman had that chat in the
garden attached to Orsden Hall, the young Mine Manager made his way
though the village of Orsden Green, with a somewhat unusual look of
deep thoughtfulness on his fine sunny face.

Despite his refreshing lack of coxcombry Mat made as presentable a
picture of a comely, well-built, and frank-natured young fellow as one
could have desired to meet. The well-cut suit of brown tweed sat well
on his lithe, finely-modelled figure; his steps were alert and graceful
in their easy movements; the soft hat that rested on his head of crisp
brown curls set off his oval face to perfection; and altogether he gave
one the impression of being a warm-hearted, handsome fellow, whose
frank, intelligent face reflected a nature open and clear as the summer
air he was inhaling.

Striking through the struggling village lane, out of which several
other short streets now ran, Mat went his way with that thoughtful
expression on his face. Here and there the villagers were lounging on
the whitely-stoned thresholds of their homes, and for those whom he
knew--and Mat knew almost every man, woman, and young person in the
place--he had a genial nod and a cheery word or two of greeting.

Passing the Black Boar he nodded to the landlord, who was lounging at
the door of the inn in his shirt sleeves, with a strong black cigar in
his mouth, and then, passing the little cottage wherein his cousins
had formerly lived, he turned to the right and went down a narrow lane
bounded by tall hedges, narrow ditches, and flanked here and there by
clumps of trees.

Half a mile from the village Mat paused and seated himself on a green
sloping bank in the shadow cast by a full-foliaged, smooth-boled beech.
Glancing at his watch he noted that it was yet a quarter short of 8
o'clock, and his pleasant face lit up as if the time had brought some
sweet memory before his mind.

Lounging there on the soft sward, with his gaze upturned to the
glossy leaves and graceful, pendulous boughs that quivered gently in
the sun-smitten atmosphere, his thoughts went back once more to the
problems his uncle's quietly uttered remarks had originated an hour and
a half ago.

If Levi Blackshaw won his handsome cousin it would be because Mat
didn't care to win her. Such in substance was the quite unexpected
observation his uncle had made; and although at the time the Mine
Manager had expressed his doubts on that point, it was not because he
felt assured that his relative's judgement was at fault.

For many months Mat had felt that Naomi took a more than ordinary
interest in himself and his thoughts and doings. In a thousand little
things she had shown how greatly she prized his regard and esteem; in
divers fashions she had half unveiled her heart and aspirations to him.

But the consideration and tenderness his clever-headed, quick-tongued,
bright-faced cousin showed him at all times had never quickened Mat's
pulse by a single throb. He felt, with the trained intuition of one who
loved already, that Naomi was half in love with him, but that feeling
had not awakened in him the least trace of reciprocal passion.

He knew that Naomi was loved, and that it was Levi who adored the very
ground she walked upon. That Blackshaw might be successful in his
wooing he hoped, in spite of the fact that he and Levi had never been
dear friends, and were not likely to become so.

He admired Naomi very much--was proud of her dark, imperious southern
beauty and quick wit; but that was all. There was another--a much more
simple and far less showy woman, though not a whit less handsome and
loveable--whom he had had in his eye for many a day, and by whom, he
thought, he was not disliked.

Once he had resolved to bare his heart to his uncle and tell him how
matters stood. Then he had hesitated, thinking he would speak first
to the woman he loved, in order to ascertain if his affection was
returned. If fortune favoured him, and his love was reciprocated, he
would tell his uncle the truth. His kinsman was reasonable always, and
he would be prepared to sink his desires for the sake of two loving
young hearts.

"Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred
therewith," he muttered after the manner of the man who loves much.
Then he added thoughtfully, "There can be no talk of hatred where Naomi
is concerned; still, if I have to choose between love in a cottage with
her and Orsden Hall with Naomi as my wife, I know which I shall select.
No, no, Uncle Aaron; if the dark beauty marries one of her cousins I
think she will have to change her pretty name."

Then he lapsed into meditative silence, pulled out pipe and pouch,
filled the former, replaced the latter in his pocket, struck a match,
and puffed away in peace, his eyes still watching the shimmering glow
of the tremulous leaves overhead towards which the grey smoke wreaths
were rising.

Mat smoked on undisturbed till there was little in his pipe save a bowl
full of ashes. Then he caught the patter of light feet in the lane,
and a glimpse of a shapely figure--a woman's gracious figure clad in
silvery-grey--arrested his eyes.

His heart bounded a little, and his blue eyes sparkled with a generous
fire, but he did not alter his position in the least. She for whom
he had waited so long was approaching--would be abreast of him in a
moment, and was alone. He knew all this, yet desired to know more.
If he pretended to be unconscious of her presence would she pass on
without speaking?

It was a problem such as lovers are fond of putting to themselves, and
it filled his mind for the moment. Surely, if she cared for him as he
imagined, her heart would fetter her feet and make them linger near him.

Still he moved not, but puffed away composedly on his slowly
smouldering pipe. Would she pass or stay?--speak or speak not? Then
his heart gave a bound as a low, pleasantly intoned voice, raised in
surprise or excellent simulation, fell upon his waiting ears.

"Mr. Shelvocke!--you here?"

"Good evening, Miss Forrester," he said with a glowing countenance as
he jumped to his feet and joined her in the centre of the old lane. "I
was so wrapped up in my pipe and my thoughts that I didn't notice your
approach."

He held out his big brown hand as he spoke, looking ardently into her
big, soft, blue eyes meanwhile, and her own slim fingers were put into
his palm. He pressed them warmly, detaining the well-formed although
toil-hardened hand just a little longer than was absolutely necessary.
Her eyes were veiled by their white lids, and his gaze was fastened on
her white, satiny cheek.

"I hope your day-dreams were pleasant ones, Mr. Shelvocke?" she said
pleasantly as he released her fingers.

"They were very pleasant indeed," he said, allowing his voice to assume
a graver tone, "for they were fixed upon yourself, Miss Forrester."

"Indeed! What a compliment!" and the heavy white lids rose suddenly as
the blue eyes flashed an arch, a challenging look at him.

"Why, a compliment, pray?"

"Well, you are my master, and I am only a pit-brow lassie. Surely it
is a compliment of the highest kind to have you thinking of my humble
self."

"Nonsense!" he cried, half-vexed by her lack of seriousness. "I am
only one of the workers, like yourself. You are one of the most lovely
girls in the village; and, but for my uncle, I should have been still a
common pitman."

"It is a good thing, Mr. Shelvocke, to have a rich uncle," she rejoined
lightly. "I know that I should like one very much, and I am very glad
that you are more fortunate."

"You are flattering me now," he cried.

"And my flattery is based upon a very solid fact, while yours is only a
matter of opinion."

"I declare there is no other woman in Orsden Green half so good-looking
as you," he urged hotly.

"That is your opinion only. What of your really beautiful cousin, Miss
Naomi Shelvocke?" Her eyes flashed upon his face an instant, then fell
as suddenly; her voice was still as bantering as before.

"She is--but I will tell you soon what I think of my cousin," he
rejoined earnestly. "It was partly on Naomi's account that I came here
to meet you."

"To meet me?" she murmured in altered tones, and her open look
expressed an honest amaze.

"Yes, I came here knowing I should see you. I heard yesterday that you
were to have tea with a friend of yours who works on the brow of the
Orsden Moss pits, and knowing you would come back this way, I made up
my mind to wait for you."

"But why?" she faltered, dropping her soft blue orbs before the fire of
his bright ones. "Shall we walk on towards the village?"

"No. Come this way, through the fields. I have much that I want to tell
you. Don't be frightened, please. I only want you to assist me with a
little honest advice."

He held out his arm for her to take, and after a quick glance, in which
wonder, doubt, hesitation were curiously blended, the small brown hand
was placed upon his sleeve. Then they turned, went along the lane a
few yards, and turned through a stile which led through the fields to
Orsden Moss.

The passing of five years had wrought great changes in Lettice
Forrester. She had been a slim-built, pretty, white-faced, delicate
looking maiden of fifteen or so when she first appeared at Orsden
Green. Now she was a well-developed woman of twenty. The work on the
pit top had made her lithe and graceful in her movements as one trained
in calisthenics; her figure was slim at the waist and flowing at the
bust; and the pure cream and pink of her cheeks and neck, the clear-cut
chin and fine nose, the masses of lemon-coloured hair, would have been
highly treasured by many a belauded society beauty.

For some moments they paced along the green hedge in silence, her hand
on his sleeve, and pressed to his side, against which his heart was
pulsing more tumultuously than ever it had done before. His gaze was
upon her cheek, and he noticed that it had paled a little. Did she
divine his secret, or was she afraid of him, he wondered.

"You cannot possibly guess, Miss Forrester," he began somewhat awkward,
"what my uncle was kind enough to suggest to me this evening, not more
than two hours ago."

"Of course not," she said, with a weak attempt to regain her former
lightness of tone and spirit. "I am a poor hand at puzzles, Mr.
Shelvocke."

"He spoke of my 'really beautiful cousin,' as you were generous enough
to call her, and he hinted pretty broadly that he would be pleased if I
were to marry her."

"That was very wise and becoming on his part," she answered, in a tone
of cold restraint. "She is an orphan, is very beautiful, is fairly
well-off, so they say, and she would make a man in your position a good
wife."

"So he seemed to think," he went on. "And Uncle Aaron was also kind
enough to suggest that when he died he would like to think that I and
Naomi were reigning at Orsden Hall in his stead."

"And your answer to him, was what?" she asked, as her hand slid from
his arm.

"I gave him none!"

"And you want my advice? This was why you came to see me?"

"Partly--as I said before."

"Then marry Naomi! She is worthy of you in every way."

"I would but for one thing--perhaps two."

"Indeed. What is your objection?" she queried faintly, and almost
stumbling, when he grasped her arm and drew her to a standstill before
him.

"I don't love her, and am not sure she loves me. Besides, I love
another woman, whose little red mouth I'd rather kiss than be the owner
of all Orsden Green! In that case, Lettice, what am I to do?"

"Mat! Don't!"

He had crushed her in his arms, and with his mouth to her lips he
whispered hotly--

"I love you, Lettice? Love you alone! Love you more than all the world
beside. Will you be my wife some day?"




CHAPTER XII.--THE WOOING OF LEVI.

About the time when Mat Shelvocke and Lettice Forrester were exchanging
civilities in the pleasant old lane just outside the village of Orsden
Green, Miss Naomi Shelvocke and Mr. Levi Blackshaw were returning from
evening worship at the little Church which stood on the higher side of
the village.

The beautiful niece of the master of Orsden Hall looked more than
ordinarily charming that evening. The period set down by convention as
appropriate to the wearing of mourning habiliments was past, and still
the rich dark stuffs she wore were not alone respectfully reminiscental
of her late bereavement, but were adroitly calculated to accentuate her
particular style of loveliness.

As she came forth from the old-fashioned stone porch with her cousin at
her side, she excited no inconsiderable amount of attention and remark.
Naomi was beautiful in a dark, regal manner, which harmonized well with
her stately carriage, and the sombre garments she elected to wear at
evening service lent an indescribable air of chastened sorrow and ultra
respectability to her.

Walking measuredly at his lovely kinswoman's elbow, Levi Blackshaw
stole occasional glances at her fine strongly-moulded, olive profile,
telling himself mentally all the while that she alone of all the women
in the world was the one who reached his ideal and fulfilled all his
desires. She was a lady to be admired and respected--adored and won.

He admired, respected, adored Naomi--that he would win her was the
dominant note of his life; nor was the woman herself entirely unaware
of the trend of his feelings, and the colour of his deeply cherished
desires.

Levi Blackshaw himself made a most striking picture of the higher order
of the genus Respectable Young Man. Probably he would have preferred
to be called "gentleman" rather than "man" merely. He was attired in a
suit of faultless black, which hung creaseless from shoulder to heel,
his boots reflected the sheen of the falling sun, his linen was as
immaculate as his own moral code, and his perfectly brushed top-hat
shone like a bright cupola set upon and finishing up some fair edifice.

Levi was not bad-looking, as has been elsewhere recorded, and his skin,
black hair, carefully trained moustache, and alert eyes gave one a fair
impression of the man as he was--cool, calculating, clever, but, above
all other things, respectable.

"What a magnificent evening it is, Naomi," Levi remarked, with his dark
eyes on the west, as he and she filed into the village thoroughfare.

"It is very lovely, Levi," she answered readily, but without the least
trace of enthusiasm in her placid tones, as she cast her dark flashing
orbs westward, where the sun was veiled by a blaze of golden mist.

"It seems almost a shame to go indoors, Naomi," he added, "on such an
evening. Suppose we turn up the lane, stroll as far as Gathurst Bridge,
and return home across the fields?"

"That will take us a couple of hours almost, Levi."

"What if it does? The night is our own, and we can spend it as we
choose, I suppose, just as Uncle Aaron and Mat do."

"Of course; but I had no idea of venturing upon such a long walk this
evening. Still, if you wish it, I----"

"I do wish it!" he cried quickly, adding, in his natural voice of
studied intonation, "It is so seldom we get a good long walk in each
other's company now. Besides, if you feel fatigued at any time we can
return. Shall we go, Naomi?"

"Yes."

Without more ado they turned and went leisurely along the white
dust-covered road, choosing the western side, where the hedge was
tall and green, and the entrance to Orsden Hall stood. The Church was
situated just beyond the northern end of the village; and presently the
cousins were strolling past the fence beside which five years before
Aaron Shelvocke had first spoken to the young wayfarer who had called
herself Lettice Forrester on the occasion of the village festival.

From this point the Hall was clearly visible beyond the hursts of trees
and stretches of grass, and instinctively almost Naomi's gaze wandered
towards the old pile she now called home. Almost at the same moment
her thoughts flew back to that Saturday afternoon just a handful of
summers ago, and her handsome face took on a displeased, nearly sullen,
expression, as she remembered the pretty lemon-haired lass she had met
then.

In an instant her charming face cleared as if by some magical process.
She had felt rather than seen Levi's eyes upon her, and instantly she
turned to him smiling.

"I wonder," she remarked indifferently, "if Uncle Aaron and Cousin
Matthew are at home?"

"It is not at all likely, my dear cousin," he said, in his usually
smart voice, though his sharp black eyes were peering furtively at his
kinswoman.

"Not at all likely," she rejoined, quickly. "Why, Levi?"

"Don't you recollect, Naomi, that Mat said something about an
appointment he had this evening? I have not the least doubt that he
would be careful to keep it," he added, as they sauntered along the
highway, purposely infusing some hidden meaning into his tones. "As
for Uncle Aaron, I suppose he will be pottering about the pits on the
Moss, and probably smoking a pipe with the old watchman, and exchanging
reminiscences with Coxall."

"You know the person Mat has to meet?" she interrogated, flashing her
bright eyes upon him for a moment, with a curiously inquisitive look in
their luminous depths.

"I do not exactly know," he answered, with measured emphasis; "I only
imagine that I do."

There was a momentary silence. A rigid look of indifference masked
the feeling she entertained; and although she restrained herself so
admirably, she knew that Levi had some unpleasant information to
communicate to her respecting her cousin. She was aware also that Levi
desired to tell her, and she felt that she must know.

"Perhaps," she said, coldly, "Mat had to meet some of the young men who
work under him at the pits."

"I imagine it is someone who works at the pits, Naomi, but--well,"
he added, after a pause full of subtlest meaning, "I don't think his
friend is a man at all."

"Who then?" she demanded, warmly.

"One of the pit-brow girls."

"Nonsense. Mat wouldn't stoop to that. You must be mistaken, my dear
Levi."

"It is possible, Naomi," he murmured, coolly. "But Mat has peculiar
notions of his own concerning the work-people. He mixes among them, and
fraternises with them just a trifle too freely to suit my taste; and as
to the stooping, I am not quite certain that this cousin of ours would
agree with you on that point."

"But to meet a pit-brow girl by appointment," she answered. "Surely he
would never do what you suggest."

"I may be wrong, of course, and you will remember that I only put
forward an opinion. One, however, cannot ignore all he may chance to
overhear. My work places me more or less in contact with all uncle's
work-people, and I do know that Mat's name has been used pretty freely
in connection with one of the pit-brow girls."

"Indeed!" Her voice was cold and hard now, and the ominous sparkle of
her black eyes was veiled by their drooping lids. "And the girl? Who
is she? Some graceless, impertinent wench, or she would never dare to
raise her eyes to him. Of course, I shall not know her."

"On the contrary, you know her very well. And that Mat knows her, and
considers her the loveliest young woman for ten miles round Orsden
Green I am certain, because I have it from his own lips. He is frank
enough at all events."

"And the woman? I really must know her! There is quite a pretty romance
of the true idyllic pattern being developed in our midst, and I not to
suspect it. It reminds one of a romance in three volumes, doesn't it?
The handsome, impulsive, true-hearted mine manager stooping from his
lofty position to woo one of his own pretty be-trousered mine maidens.
And the woman, Levi! I am curious as to her identity."

Her voice was cold and hard still--cynical even--and the short, dry
laugh she trilled forth was mirthless as a circus clown's jocosity. He
noted her mental attitude and was pleased, murmuring two words in his
oiliest tones.

"Lettice Forrester."

"Lettice Forrester!" she iterated. "The girl who came here that day
alone and friendless?"

"The same."

"And Mat is with her?"

"I only suggested that it was probable, having heard what I have told
you from Mat and from others."

She made no immediate rejoinder, and they paced the dusty footpath
side by side in silence. He was silently jubilant; she was as quietly
perturbed. Presently she turned to him, and remarked in a cold tone of
positiveness,

"You had a purpose, Levi, in telling me this?"

"I had, Naomi."

"What could it be?"

"You scarcely need ask, I think, dear cousin."

"I ask."

"Well, I must answer. Knowing what you think about Mat, I thought you
had a right to know about this girl."

"Because I was his cousin?"

"No! Because you have been dreaming of becoming some day a nearer and
dearer relation still. I don't even crave your pardon for giving you
the naked truth, Naomi!"

"Especially when I ask for it, Levi!" was the sharp rejoinder.

He nodded gravely.

"But don't you think you assume too much, my dear Levi?" she queried,
as she poised her small dark head on one side and scanned his face
critically.

"Not at all, and you know it!"

"Still I am not aware that I ever uttered the slightest word which
would lead you or any other being to assume that I cared a rap of my
little finger for my cousin."

"Quite true; but some women can speak without using the common organs
of speech. You have spoken in that way. My attentions and proposals
were rejected; hence I conclude from that, and other things, that Mat
is more favoured."

"You cannot expect me to reply to that."

"No! I know the answer, and refrain from troubling you. But you are
aware of the truth now, and unless I am gravely mistaken in your
character you will hardly go out of your way to win the smiles and
attentions of one who prefers the company and love of a mere pit-brow
wench to yourself."

"Hush! Not another word!" she commanded imperiously, and with a little
gesture of annoyance. "Even you, Levi, have no right to speak of such a
matter to me."

"You know, Naomi, that I would shrink from alluding to such a thing in
the presence of another," he said firmly yet suavely. "You are the only
person to whom I would dream of speaking on such a subject. Besides, I
have the right to do so. I never made a secret of my love for you, and
I never will. But it stings me to the quick when I see you giving all
your sweetest dreams to one who never, unless by accident, gives you a
single thought."

"Enough," she said more gently. "Perhaps you and the others are
mistaken about Mat and--that girl."

"The wish is mother of the thought, Naomi," he retorted. "You hope so;
I don't. When you are satisfied that what I have told you is neither
more nor less than the solid truth, you will perhaps rearrange your
thoughts in respect to Mat and myself. When you discover that Mat is
madly infatuated with Lettice Forrester, and that he means to make her
his wife in spite of everything, you may come to think a little more
charitably of my own deeply rooted affection."

"Levi! You once promised to let that matter rest. I gave you my answer
a year ago. I can give it you again if you wish it. But am I to go on
repeating it once a year?"

"Yes! I cannot give you up, Naomi," he cried, warmly, breaking away
from his fetters of restraint for the first time. "I love you," he
said, more soberly, "and I shall never try to stifle my affection. I
could not even if I would. I shall go on loving you to the end, even
if I never have a chance of winning you; but I shall never resign all
hope, no matter what you say or do."

"You weary me, Levi," she cried, petulantly. "Let us return."

"This way then," he said, blandly, as they came to an opening in the
hedgerow. "The way is so much pleasanter through the fields, and we may
meet Uncle Aaron about the Moss."

She made no answer, and he helped her over the stile.




CHAPTER XIII.--THE MEETING ON THE MOSS.

Handsome Lettice Forrester was silent for some moments after Mat
Shelvocke made that fervent declaration of his love and proposal of
marriage. His arms were still around her, and his bright, comely face
yet hovered dangerously near the girl's own. That he was in downright
earnest Lettice knew, although she could not see his countenance. The
honest ring of affection in his voice would have satisfied one much
more sophisticated than the simple pit-brow girl, and she had listened
to his expressions of devotion with a deep sense of overwhelming
gladness.

"Have you nothing to say to me, Lettice?"

He half released the clinging clasp of his strong hands, and held her
at arm's length, scanning her shapely, undulating figure and lovely
face the while with ardent eyes. The colour had fled from her cheeks
and left them white as milk and downy as a fair babe's; the fingers
that pressed her waist told him that she was trembling.

"Lettice!"

She glanced up shyly, and he knew his answer from the look in her
glorious blue eyes, the dilation of her delicately cut nostrils, and
the quivering of her red lips. Then she looked down again, and was
still silent.

"Have I frightened or pained you, dear one?" he asked tenderly, and his
hands fell from her waist.

"No, no, Mat!" she cried impulsively, as she held out her hands. "I was
not frightened or pained; why should I be either? I was only surprised.
I never thought you cared for me in that way."

"Then you do love me a little?" he said, with his arms around her once
more, and his lips touching her satiny cheek.

"Not a little--much!" she faintly whispered. "I always seem to have
loved you, Mat, ever since I came to Orsden Green. Do you remember that
Saturday afternoon when I first came to the village?"

"I shall never forget it!" he exclaimed tenderly. "I cannot tell you
how much I pitied you that day, Lettice."

"Well, somebody says that pity is akin to love, Mat," she responded,
her charming face aglow now with the light of a great happiness. "What
a poor little friendless mite I must have seemed that day," she added,
with a grave reminiscental look in her lovely eyes. "And you were all
so kind and thoughtful that I appeared to have found a host of new
friends on the day I missed my uncle."

"It was a good thing that you met my uncle instead of your own,
darling!" he said earnestly. "Had you come to Orsden Green a few weeks
earlier, before your uncle went away, he would have taken you with him,
in all likelihood, and then we should never have met. And again, if you
had spoken to any one except my uncle there is no saying what you would
have done."

"It is scarcely likely I should have remained in the village," she
responded feelingly, "if Mr. Aaron Shelvocke had not been so kind to
me. Fancy all he did for me that day when I was tired and hungry,
footsore and cast down. He gave me food, and found me friends,
lodgings, and employment. I have thanked God many a time for all I
received that day among strangers."

"He's a jolly, good-hearted old chap!" Mat said with enthusiasm.
"Luckily we both have reason to thank him--I especially. It almost
appears, dear, that we were fated to meet."

"May we never be fated to part again till death comes to either of us,
dear Mat," she said, in a tender tone and reverential spirit.

He echoed her loving words, sealed them with a long, clinging kiss that
seemed to bring their spirits together, and then they sauntered slowly,
happily, through the green fields, pleased to harbour the loving
conceit that Fate had had something to do with their coming together.

Presently she turned to him with a half-anxious look upon her sweet,
winsome face, and the slim brown fingers that lay on his sleeve closed
upon his arm impulsively.

"What is it, dear Lettice?"

"We are forgetting your uncle, Mat."

"In which way?"

"You recollect what he said to you this evening?"

"About my cousin? Yes; but I think we need give ourselves no great
concern on that account."

"Still, it seems a poor way of repaying him for all his consideration
and kindness. Both of us are setting ourselves deliberately against his
plainly spoken wishes."

"True; but we could not help that, could we? Nor would I help it if
I could!" he ejaculated in a sudden burst of mingled affection and
resolution. "If the worst happens, we have little to fear. With love
and youth in our hands, what need we care for the world?"

"Still, it would have been better if Mr. Shelvocke had not set his
heart on this match between your cousin and yourself."

"Better, certainly; but I am not certain yet that his heart is set that
way. Don't let thoughts of that trouble your pretty head, Lettice. My
uncle is one of the most reasonable men in the world, and he will not,
I am confident, try to spoil my life by parting us in order to gratify
a mere whim of his own."

"I am sure I hope not, dear Mat!" she murmured lowly; "yet, somehow, I
cannot help feeling uneasy."

"Nonsense, darling!" he cried cheerfully, feeling no uneasiness
himself, and fearing nothing. "There is absolutely no ground for fear,
I assure you. Uncle will give way, I feel sure. The interest he took in
you, Lettice, from the very beginning, justifies us in thinking so, at
least in the absence of any knowledge to the contrary. And even if he
cuts up nasty about it, we shall manage to live through his opposition."

"Yes, yes; I know that, dear," she answered readily. "With your hand
in mine, Mat, I should not fear to face anything. But I am thinking of
your prospects now, and not my own. If Mr. Shelvocke's mind is fixed on
this match, as your words have almost compelled me to believe, there is
no telling what he may do."

"Come, now, now, dear!" he answered, with a low laugh. "Uncle Aaron
isn't one of the stern, unbending uncles one reads about in romances.
He is just about as good as they make them, and there's not the least
use in talking any more about it."

"Just as you please, Mat," she said, meekly. "But I couldn't bear to
think that you had lost anything, or suffered in any way, through
having me for a sweetheart."

"You dear little goose," he cried, ecstatically, "what have I to lose?
If Mr. Aaron Shelvocke disapproves of our engagement I shall be very
sorry, but by no means broken-hearted. Sometimes it is quite as well
for young people like us, Lettice, to strike out for themselves, stand
on their own resources, and face the world with the heads, hearts, and
hands God has given them."

"But if he were to stop you from managing the collieries, unless you
gave me up, Mat?"

"I should resign my place with no reluctance, knowing how worthy my
sweetheart was of any sacrifice!"

"Then he would cast you off altogether--disinherit you as well--all on
account of poor me."

"Even then I could not grumble, having you left, dear Lettice. You see
how fortunately placed I am. I have everything to win and nothing to
lose worth troubling about. As I said before, I'd rather own this sweet
little red mouth than be owner of all Orsden Green! This is the honest
truth!"

She thanked him with a look which was sweeter and more satisfactory to
the proud lover than any words could have been. He kissed her tenderly
again, glad, as fond lovers are, of any excuse for kissing, and then
they went along in silence, feeling as if the earth was theirs and that
their feet were winged.

"Mat," said she, in a little while, "there is one thing I wish you to
promise me."

"Anything, dear. What can I refuse you?"

"If your uncle----"

"Bother my uncle!" he interpolated, in mock anger. "Are we to discuss
impossible difficulties--troubles that will never arise--till it is
time for us to say good-night? What else can you possibly find to say
yet, Lettice?"

"Only this, Mat, and then I will close my 'little red mouth,' as you
were good enough to call it. In case your uncle does speak to you about
me----"

"Nonsense! I shall not wait for that," he interrupted. "I shall speak
to him about you, dear, in a plain, straight-forward manner. After
what he hinted to me, and what I have said to you to-night, he must
understand how I stand in relation to you."

"And if he objects to our keeping company, Mat, as he may," she urged,
"I want you to promise me to do nothing rash or hasty until you have
seen me and told me all about it."

"Why? What use will that be?" he murmured. "If he objects he objects,
and there's an end of the business, Lettice."

"Perhaps!" she retorted. "In any case I don't mean to let you ruin all
your future prospects for my sake. Promise me, Mat, dear, and then I
can rest satisfied."

"Well, yes! There!" he cried. "Now kiss me for being so amenable to
your discipline, and, in the name of goodness, give my dear old uncle a
rest."

She laughed pleasantly at his sally, then held up her ripe, red lips,
and he kissed them with all an ardent young man's zest.

* * * *

The sun had just fallen below the rim of the occidental horizon, and
gloaming tide was beginning to settle down upon the countryside. Under
the trees the shadows were already gathering, and in an hour or so the
warm semi-darkness of the glorious summer night would enwrap the land.

It was Sunday evening--the identical evening on which Mat Shelvocke had
adroitly waylaid Lettice Forrester and poured his tale of love into her
pretty ears--and Mr. Aaron Shelvocke, as Levi Blackshaw had shrewdly
guessed, was sauntering about the brow of the Orsden Moss pits with old
Dan Coxall at his side.

A few minutes ago two or three gangs of miners--datallers and metalmen,
whose special work it was to repair the roads and prepare the places
for the ordinary colliers--had descended the shafts in charge of the
attendant night fireman; and before going home Aaron was exchanging a
few words with the old ex-keeper.

"A splendid night, Dan, isn't it?" Shelvocke remarked, as he and the
old watchman came to a stop beside the strong wooden fence which
guarded the edge of the elevated pit-brow. "The heat almost reminds me
of the nights I spent camping out in Queensland."

"It's a reg'lar scorcher, Mester Shelvocke," Dan replied, as he leant
upon the fence and glanced over the wagons and lines of rails scattered
about the colliery yard below.

"Yes, it's much warmer than usual for England," the master responded,
as he wiped his perspiring forehead and then proceeded to light his
pipe. As he puffed away complacently his eyes roamed round the horizon,
taking in the quiet village and the range of dark grass-clad hills
beyond, then lingering upon the Moss and the fruitful fields lying
around it on all sides. Then he added, thoughtfully, "I've made a bit
of a change, Dan, since I came back."

"That's so, Mester!" Dan cried, with a shake of his grey head, "and a
gradely good job for ev'rybody, too!"

"Don't you think, Dan, that it will soon be nearly time for you to
chuck up work and retire on your pension? The pension is waiting for
you whenever you like to claim it, you know."

"Ah know that, Mester, an' ah'll claim it in a rattle when a'hm too owd
for watchin'."

"Well, suit yourself, and you suit me," Shelvocke returned with a smile
as he puffed at his pipe.

A few minutes passed, and with the passing of each one the twilight
slowly thickened. Leaning there against the fence Shelvocke's gaze
still wandered over the level sweep of country lying around the pits,
his thoughts busy with the events and developments of the last few
years.

Presently his eyes were arrested by the sight of two persons--a man
and a woman--who were approaching the colliery yard from the direction
of Gathurst Bridge. For a few minutes he was unable to recognise them,
although they seemed familiar; then, as they came nearer, he identified
them as his nephew and niece--Levi and Naomi.

As Blackshaw and Miss Shelvocke drew near they noticed him standing on
the brow, waved their hands to him, and he signalled back to them in a
similar fashion. Then he waited for his young kinsfolk to join him on
the pit top. Meanwhile his glance roved in the other direction, and a
cry of surprise fell from his lips.

"What is it, Mester?" Dan asked.

"Isn't that my nephew Mat over there with that young woman coming from
Maydock-lane way?"

"It's Mat, sure enough!" Coxall answered, as he followed his master's
pointing finger.

"And the young woman with him. Who is she? Somehow I seem to know her
face."

"Ah should think yo' do know her," Dan grunted. "That bonny lass is the
pit-brow wench, Lettice Forrester, yo' trayted so gradely weel some
'ears sin'."

"Humph! I ought to have known," Shelvocke muttered half to himself.
Then he added in the same key, "Mat seems to be treating the lass very
well, too!"

When he glanced down again he saw that Mat and Miss Forrester, Levi
and Naomi, were exchanging greetings, the two couples having come face
to face on the confines of the yard. A grim, ironical smile swept over
the man's face as he noted that meeting. Then he turned suddenly away,
crying.

"Good-night, Dan. All my relations are down below there, and I am going
to join them. Good night!"

"Good neet to yo', Mester Shelvocke!"




CHAPTER XIV.--AN UNINTENTIONAL EAVESDROPPER.

It was the half-hour between 11 o'clock and midnight, and Miss Naomi
Shelvocke was sitting in her bedroom beside the opened window, staring
straight before her, in a grim, thoughtful fashion, into the soft humid
semi-blackness of the summer night.

Naomi's room overlooked the garden at the back of Orsden Hall, and
beneath her the trees and bushes, the flower patches, grass and
gravelled paths lay vague and silent. A few stars twinkled in the heat
of the moonless night, the odours of sweet green living things hung in
the waveless atmosphere, and the spirit of peace seemed resting upon
the gloom-swathed earth.

For nearly an hour the dark, beautiful niece of Aaron Shelvocke had
been crouching there by her lightless window peering intently into
space, with strange, vacuous eyes, as if the air contained some
mysterious problem she was determined to solve.

The lower half of the window was thrust up, her chair was drawn close
against the outer wall of the room, her elbows rested on the sill, her
face was lowered on her open hands, and with her black, glowing eyes,
grim dark face, and masses of dusky hair floating over white neck and
softly gleaming shoulders, she appeared like some fair witch of ancient
romance reading the night to pluck some mystic secret from its heart.

The evening had been one of the most trying that Naomi had ever been
compelled to face in the course of her young life. More successfully
than she had thought possible under the circumstances, she had grappled
with the difficulties as they had arisen, and now she was mentally
reviewing the incidents of that fateful evening, and dumbly wondering
what the upshot of it all would be.

Her cousin and admirer, Levi Blackshaw, had raised the curtain on the
little drama which had been enacted that night, when he spoke of Mat
Shelvocke's love for Lettice Forrester, of her own secretly cherished
affection for her miner cousin, and of his deep and unflinching
adoration of herself.

She had managed to control herself admirably in Levi's presence, in
spite of his penetrating, diabolical intuition. She knew that her
secret was no secret to him, with his fox-like eyes and cunning brain;
but she had repulsed all his advances without permitting him to wring
any admission from her lips; had turned his keen thrusts easily enough,
when they were meant to evade her guard and lay bare her heart.

Levi had made the most destructive stroke of all when he had spoken
in such a deliberate and authoritative manner of Mat's affection for
the pit-brow girl, Lettice Forrester; and although she had indignantly
repudiated and scouted the idea of such a thing, the mere announcement
of such a contingency had filled her passionate heart with a hundred
fearful misgivings.

For many months her heart's greatest affection had been bestowed
unasked upon her handsome, open-hearted cousin. He was her ideal of all
that a lover should be, and the dream of her life was to become his
wife. In a hundred different ways she had shown her preference for him,
and, while unwilling to do anything that would have made her appear
forward or unmaidenly in his eyes, she had done all a maiden could do
to lure him to her side and win his love.

Naomi was fully cognisant of her own personal attractions, and had
often wondered how it was that Mat was so impervious to the charms
Levi extolled so freely and unendingly. Still she had never despaired
of winning and keeping her cousin's affection some day. When the right
moment came he would awaken suddenly to the grace and allurements of
her presence, would realize his fate, declare his love, and make her
happy.

So thinking, she had been content to wait, accepting Levi Blackshaw's
compliments and attentions airily, yet never giving grounds for even
hope of success. And then she was told that Mat was in love with
another woman--a mere pit-brow wench, who toiled on the brow of her
uncle's pits.

Naomi had concluded that the story told by Levi respecting Mat and
Lettice Forrester was an invention of his own. For the sake of setting
her against Mat and turning her affections towards himself, Blackshaw
had not scrupled to invent a falsehood. Luckily she understood the
tale-bearer, and was on her guard against all unpleasant intelligence
coming from such a quarter.

With such thoughts as these Naomi had tried to fortify herself as
she and her cavalier turned homeward on that Sunday evening; but she
found it difficult to satisfy herself on all points when she calmly
considered the indifference to her personal attractions her cousin had
manifested hitherto; nor were her feelings of uneasiness allayed when
she remembered the wondrously fair face of the woman whose name Levi
had connected with Mat's own.

When nearing the Moss, across which their return journey took them,
Naomi was the first to notice the forms of her uncle and the old
watchman as they chatted on the pit brow. She had drawn Levi's
attention to their kinsman's presence, and then, as they quickened
their steps to join Aaron Shelvocke, Blackshaw had caused Naomi's heart
to leap to her throat by exclaiming in a quick, low, intense whisper:--

"By heaven, Naomi! Mat and Miss Forrester are here. Yonder they come on
the other side of the wagon-road!"

One hurried, breathless glance had satisfied the girl that Levi
Blackshaw was not lying. There, on the other side of the wagon road
they were approaching; not more than a hundred yards distant was her
cousin, and by his side walked a shapely figure in grey whose face
Naomi had cause to remember.

With a supreme effort Miss Shelvocke had controlled herself
sufficiently to stifle back the exclamation of pained astonishment
which had risen to her lips; but it was impossible to repress a slight
start, and her colour was beyond her control.

"Yes, Levi," she said, a trifle huskily, "it is Mat and Miss Forrester.
I daresay they have met quite accidentally."

Levi Blackshaw had retorted only by emitting a low, cynical chuckle of
laughter, which stung his cousin more keenly than a blow, so brutal did
it seem to her in that moment of tribulation. Before then Levi had only
been indifferent to her--at that instant she abhorred him. But she was
powerless as a child in the grip of circumstances. She could not fly
without making herself look ridiculous; to do anything to avoid the
approaching couple of lovers or friends--whichever they might be would
be to confess her secret to all.

So Naomi had strolled on at Levi's side, and in a little while the
three cousins and the other woman were all standing together in the
colliery yard and chatting with one another as if that momentous
meeting had nothing strange or uncommon about it. And almost
immediately Aaron Shelvocke had come forward to join them, with a
sphinx-like look on his face that Mat and his inamorata vainly essayed
to riddle.

But the Master of Orsden Moss had been equally agreeable to each of the
four young people. If he harboured any resentment against either Mat
Shelvocke or Lettice Forrester he did not display it. Nay, more, he had
gone out of his way to be very pleasant to the pit-brow girl.

Then they had all strolled away--Aaron, Levi, and Naomi turning in the
direction of Orsden Hall, while Mat and Lettice had sauntered towards
the village. On arriving at home Miss Shelvocke had hurried to her own
apartments, and there she had remained for the remainder of the night.

Sitting there by the window, with her eyes fixed on the gloom-flooded
air, and the cool breath of the night touching her hot brow, Naomi
wrestled with the phantom that raised itself before her, striving
dumbly, blindly, despairingly, to put to rout the fears that assailed
her strong, passionate, young soul.

Vainly she tried to persuade herself, even yet, that Mat and Lettice
were not lovers, but friends only. They had met by accident, not by
design, and there was still a chance of winning him. But the way
in which Mat had behaved at that crucial moment made sport of such
an idea; and the shy, downcast, shamefaced manner in which Lettice
Forrester had looked at them all, with the colour fluttering in her
smooth, white cheeks, told its own tale.

"She shall not have him! She shall not have him!" Naomi muttered
passionately to herself as she crouched there in the darkness, her
white hands clenched and her teeth compressed together. "How I hate her
for her white beauty! What must I do to drive her away and bring him to
me?"

She laid her burning forehead on the cool woodwork of the window, and
just at that moment the crunch of feet on the gravelled path beneath
her window, and the sound of a familiar voice, raised in a tone of
interrogation, came through the quiet semi-darkness to her ears.

"You were saying, Uncle Aaron, that you had something to say to me?"

It was her cousin's voice, and instinctively she shrank back a little
and listened intently.

"Yes, I want to speak to you very seriously, Mat," Aaron Shelvocke's
voice spoke back. "Sit down here, and I'll tell you what I wish to say."

She heard them stop suddenly, settle themselves on the garden-seat
beneath her room, and then her uncle's voice was raised again.

"You will recollect, I suppose, Mat, what I told you this evening
shortly after your cousins went to Church together?"

"Of course I do," Mat answered. "You were kind enough to suggest that
you would not be displeased if I and Naomi were to make a match of it;
and you were generous enough also, I remember, to intimate that it
would please you to think that when you had passed away my cousin and I
should reign at the Hall in your place."

"As master and mistress."

"Yes, as man and wife."

"And you gave me no inkling then that I was fooling myself with an
impossible fancy. You did not even tell me that there was another woman
you loved and was keeping company with."

"Because I had never spoken to Lettice Forrester then, and I was not
sure, uncle, that she returned my love."

"But I saw you this very night together, and I assumed you were old
lovers, Mat."

"This night is the first we ever walked out together."

"But it will not be the last by many, I suppose."

"No; I love Lettice, and she has promised to be my dear wife some day,"
was the cool, clear answer that floated upon the still air to Naomi's
intent ears.

"My hints, my wishes, Mat, are useless, then?"

"Now it is impossible, uncle."

"Why not have told at once that it was so?"

"Because if Lettice had not cared for me I thought I might try to win
my cousin's love. Perhaps it was a foolish thought, but you have been
so good to me in every way that I should have liked to fall in with
your wishes."

"And now, Mat?"

"Now it is impossible, uncle."

"You mean to marry this pit-brow girl, then?"

"I do."

"But with your prospects--with the future my promises would have
opened out to you, lad, don't you think that Naomi, with her beauty,
her ambition, her education, and her cleverness, would have made a
more suitable wife for the position you might have looked forward to
filling?"

"I admit it," was the reluctantly uttered response; "but I love Lettice
and don't love Naomi."

"I am sorry--very sorry, Mat, that you should choose the pretty
pit-brow wench rather than your uncle's niece. I'm afraid you haven't
carefully considered all you may lose by this choice."

"I have considered everything, uncle, and my mind is made up. I have
given my sweetheart my solemnly-pledged word as an honest man, and I
must keep it."

"Still, if this is the first night of your lovemaking, you might
retreat without much loss of dignity. For the sake of promoting one of
my dearly cherished schemes, you might practise a little self-denial,
my dear lad. After all, it is not much that I ask of you when you
consider what inducements I offer in return."

"I cannot do it, uncle. Really I cannot," Mat said, in a voice that was
filled with distress despite its firmness. "I would give my life to
please you; but this I cannot do. If you loved a woman like this girl
you were once so kind to, and she loved you as well, would you give her
up, play her false, for all the world? I feel that you wouldn't."

"But if you have to choose between Lettice Forrester and my wishes?"
Shelvocke interrogated sharply.

"I must go the way love leads me," was the quiet, yet firm, response.

"Even at the risk of ruining all your expectations from me?"

"Even so."

"And you would leave the Hall, the pits also, rather than do as I
desire you."

"Yes, if you compel me to choose between the woman I love and all the
things you have named."

"Mat, you are a mad young fool!" Shelvocke cried.

"Uncle, I am your brother's son, and I have never had reason to feel
ashamed of myself yet; but if I did this thing you wish me to do I
should be worse than a fool. Good night, uncle. I had better go now."

"Stay, Mat."

"What is it, uncle?"

"I want you to forget all that has passed between us to-night."

"I cannot forget, but----"

"Well, try to think it was said in jest only. But understand this, my
dear lad. No matter what you may do in this matter, nothing can come
between us. I admire and respect you more now, Mat, than ever I did in
my life. You understand me?"

"I think I do."

"That's right, my lad. Now we will seek our virtuous couches. Come
along."

There was a rattle of feet on the gravel as the men shuffled away, and
the white-faced woman at the window pressed her hands firmly on her
palpitating breast.




CHAPTER XV.--LEVI BECOMES MYSTERIOUS.

A few weeks spent themselves in an uneventful manner, and matters
at Orsden Green and the characters of this plain narrative remained
very much in that condition which preceded that memorable Sunday
evening when Mat Shelvocke declared his affection for charming Lettice
Forrester, having to stand in consequence the brunt of his uncle's not
very devastating wrath.

After the closing of the interview beneath Naomi's window Aaron
Shelvocke had never again referred in the slightest way to the cause
of their contention. If Aaron had ever felt any resentment towards his
nephew on account of his avowed resolve to stand by his sweetheart
in the face of all opposition and probable loss, it appeared to have
vanished as quickly as it had arisen. Mine Master and Mine Manager
stood in their former genial relationship to each other, and no living
being, save themselves and Miss Naomi, ever dreamt that there had even
been the least sign of a rupture between them.

Perhaps Mat's second walk with the girl he loved proved more enjoyable
than his first one had been. Most certainly he looked forward to seeing
her a second time with more confidence than he had possessed when
awaiting her coming in Maydock-lane; and Lettice herself was quite
anxious to hear what Aaron Shelvocke had had to say concerning their
company-keeping.

Mat thought it wise, as it certainly was modest, to refrain from making
his sweetheart acquainted with the details of his midnight interview
with his kinsman. He contented himself with saying that, although his
uncle had grumbled a little at first because he--Mat--had not spoken
of his affection for her--Lettice--at the outset, he had wound up by
saying that he could please himself without injury to their mutual good
feeling.

That Lettice was delighted to hear such good news will be easily
understood, for the highly sensitive and really sensible lass had been
afraid that either she and Mat would have to break their newly-formed
engagement, or that Master and Manager would be compelled to part
company. Luckily, both contingencies had been avoided, and she was glad
with the consuming gladness of a love-filled maiden when the future
stretches before her and her lover clear and unclouded.

"Dear Mat," cried Lettice, when her lover had finished, "but for one
small thing I think I should be the proudest and happiest young woman
in all England!"

"And what may that small one thing be?" he asked gaily. "Perhaps I may
be able to obtain it."

"You have it, I fear, Mat."

"What can you mean?"

"Your cousin's love. I felt it instinctively the other night when we
were all together. She hates me, dear, and I fear her ever so much.
Your other cousin I hate because he hates you. He knows, too, that
Naomi loves you, and he hates you on that account also, for he is in
love with the woman your uncle wanted you to marry."

"What nonsense, my dear little woman, you are talking!" Mat exclaimed.
"To hear you talk, one would imagine that we were the two people of
most consequence in all the world."

"You may laugh, Mat, but I feel certain of what I say. I cannot tell
you why or how I know these things; but I do know."

"And if you do, what then, sweetheart? What does it matter to either of
us so long as we have each other? Let my cousins love and hate who and
what they choose!"

She was about to reply, but he closed her sweet lips with a long,
clinging kiss. Somehow, Mat did not wish to discuss the matter further.
Like Lettice, he had a feeling that without seeking it or desiring it
he had won the affection of one of his cousins and the dislike of the
other.

The lapse of several weeks had wrought little change in Naomi Shelvocke
either inwardly or outwardly. If anything, the luckless affection she
had been so unfortunate as to conceive and cherish for her handsome
kinsman had become augmented and intensified by the circumstances
surrounding it.

Now that doubt respecting his love for her had resolved itself into
unquestionable proof of his love of and fidelity to another, her
passionate desire for him burnt fiercely within her breast like a
baleful consuming fire. To dream of winning Mat now seemed hopeless;
and yet she hungered for him more wildly than before, when her wishes
were more hopeful.

And strangely enough, there was blent with her deep, hungering
adoration a feeling of bitter hatred that she was not the chosen one
of the one she had chosen. At times a black despairing hatred of all
things filled her proud breast. She hated herself then for loving
Mat; hated Lettice Forrester because Mat loved her; hated both her
cousins--one for not giving her his heart, the other for having done so.

Even when her eyes showed her Mat and Lettice side by side, Naomi had
not given up all hope. The fancy he had taken for the milk-and-rose
loveliness of the girl's face might die speedily, or be routed by more
solid considerations. Her own snug patrimony might have some weight
with her cousin when he came to consider from a worldly point his own
career. Again, as a favourite of her wealthy kinsman she was well worth
wooing and winning.

But such ideas as those had vanished into the thinnest of thin air
after she played the card of an unintentional eaves-dropper upon her
uncle and cousin. On that thrilling occasion she had been able to
plumb the depth of Mat's affection for her rival. Her young kinsman's
affection was one passing that of common men--a love of which she had
read and of which the poets sang.

With her own ears she had heard Mat declare that rather than break off
his engagement with Lettice he would resign his expectations, position,
everything. When she realised that she shuddered, knowing that nothing
short of a modern miracle could allure the faithful lover from his
sweetheart's side.

Such love was proof against all the fair and legitimate weapons she
had at command. Still, it was urged that all things were fair in love
and war; and hence she immediately set her clever brains to work at
inventing some scheme to tear asunder and keep apart for ever the mine
manager and the pit-brow girl.

For many days Naomi avoided the company of both her cousins when she
could do so without exciting comment. She dared not trust herself too
much in Mat's presence, and she shrunk from facing the cool, critical
glances and cynical, jibing tongue of her cousin Levi. That Blackshaw
was as familiar now with the miserable secret she so carefully guarded
as if she had taken him into her fullest confidence she felt assured,
hence her desire to avoid him as much as possible.

But the time came when Naomi could no longer evade either Levi's keen
eyes or sharp tongues. One evening, about a month or so after the
girl overheard that pregnant conversation carried on by her relatives
beneath her window, Naomi chanced to be sauntering in the garden when
she came suddenly upon her swarthy-faced kinsman.

Aaron Shelvocke and Mat had gone to the neighbouring town about an hour
before; Levi had gone out also at the same time, and his return so
early took Naomi by surprise. She divined instinctively that he wished
to speak to her again on that subject she had laid an embargo upon, and
his manner showed her that he meant to have his say.

"Have my uncle and cousin returned, Levi!" she queried, in as
matter-of-fact a tone as she could assume, as she paused in the green
narrow bush-fringed alley his form almost filled.

"No; they will not be back, I expect, for some hours yet," he answered,
still blocking up the path, and his alert black eyes drinking in every
detail of her face.

"Indeed. Well, you must excuse me, Levi, as I have some small matters
to see to in the house."

"Stay, Naomi!" he cried. "I have come back specially to speak to you;
and, if you are wise, you will hear what I have to say."

"Some other time I shall be pleased to hear you; now I must really go
indoors." And she went forward a step, although he moved not.

"If not now, then never," he said decisively, and in an authoritative
manner he had never before adopted towards her.

"What is it you wish to say to me?" she questioned, half petulantly, a
little curious respecting his change of front. "If it is to be about
the old story, with your own variation, I may as well say at once that
I am heartily sick of it all!"

"I am sorry. Go if you will then, but----"

He stepped aside with a grave face and a dignified bearing, and yet
she did not rush away. That last word of his had aroused all her
latent curiosity and chained her feet. What was the nature of the
communication he desired to make to her? Why was he so grave and
mysterious in his bearing?

"But what, Levi?"

"You will probably regret it all the remainder of your life!" he added,
still standing where he had stopped aside.

"Tell me--give me at least some idea as to what you desire to tell me,"
she implored, softening visibly.

"I cannot--I dare not here!" he answered, dropping his voice and
peering around the shrub and tree planted green space with furtive,
half-apprehensive glances. "If I speak to you at all, Naomi, it must be
in some quiet spot where nobody can possibly overhear what I have to
tell you."

"But what is it all about?" she again questioned him, not a little
excited by his strange manner. "Does it concern Mat and that woman,
Lettice?"

"It concerns them and ourselves also," he answered gravely. "Perhaps
I ought not to take you into my confidence at all. Certainly, had I
suspected how coolly my kindness and thoughtful consideration would be
received by you, Naomi, I should have spared myself some trouble."

"I am ready to listen, Levi!" she exclaimed eagerly, drawn on now by
his half-implied willingness to withdraw. "Perhaps I was mistaken in
being so suspicious of you. See--I am ready now to go where you wish."

"Come, then. At the other end of the garden we shall be safe. No one
will see us or hear what we say there."

He stepped forward, and side by side they paced the garden path,
Naomi's mind thirsting for the momentous information her cousin had to
convey to her.




CHAPTER XVI.--AN UNCOUSINLY COMPACT.

Feeling vaguely conscious that her cousin's communication would have
to deal with the three or four personages with whom her own young life
was surrounded and intimately connected, Naomi Shelvocke permitted
Levi Blackshaw to lead her without further questioning to the remote
confines of the northern end of the garden, where a large, roomy, and
picturesque-looking summer-house had been constructed at her uncle's
suggestion.

Red and white rose-trees grew about the entrance of the shady,
open-air retreat; sweet smelling gaudy-flowered climbing plants twined
themselves in and about and over the interlacing network of laths
forming the hive-shaped bower; patches of greensward, clusters of
fruit bushes, clumps of posy beds lay before it; and inside a bench
of horseshoe shape ran round the sides of the alcove, in the centre
of which stood a little rustic table, constructed entirely from the
unbarked branches of trees, cunningly interwoven.

Here Levi Blackshaw led his cousin, and when she had seated herself
quietly on one side of the table he dropped on the form opposite,
his face grave still, and his whole bearing yet bore that mysterious
and inscrutable appearance which had aroused all the curiosity lying
dormant in his fair kinswoman's breast.

"Now, Levi," Naomi began, as she placed her ungloved hands on the table
in front of her and leaned with an eager face towards her cousin. "Now
you can speak freely."

"So I can, and you shall hear all," he responded, as he fumbled for his
handkerchief and wiped his face and brow. "And now it dawns upon me,
Naomi, that in my excitement I may have been inclined to exaggerate
this matter. At least I may have troubled myself somewhat more about it
than you may consider necessary."

"I shall be better able to judge of that when I know to what you are
alluding. If it concerns myself and that woman so nearly--yourself, my
uncle and Mat also--there is reason to feel alarmed, Levi."

"So I think--but you shall hear all. In the first place, there is room
for believing that our cousin has been very indiscreet, unfeeling--I
may almost say brutal--in his sayings and doings lately, if one is to
believe what I have heard in the village."

"What have you heard?"

"That Mr. Aaron Shelvocke wished you and Mat to marry, and that my
cousin absolutely declined the match on any terms."

"You heard that, Levi?" the girl demanded, as her slim hands, laid on
the table before her, clenched themselves involuntarily, while her face
hardened and grew paler.

"If I did not hear it how should I know?" he muttered unamiably, with
his keen eyes upon her. "And if I did hear it, who but Mat could have
set the rumour afloat?"

"Lettice Forrester may have done so."

"But the information must have come through him!" he cried in sullen
anger. "And it was sheer brutality in Mat to degrade you, his cousin,
in the sight of this mob of ignorant villagers, in order to glorify
himself and that pit-brow wench."

"Is this all?" she queried quietly, though a black tide of bitterness
was surging within her heaving breast.

"All!" he cried. "It is but the prelude--the comic prelude, I might
say--to the tragedy that is to follow. We are both to be sacrificed
to the pomp and vanity, the love and glory, the peace and eternal
happiness of our fortunate cousin and the woman he is to marry!" he
muttered in hoarse and uncontrolled passion.

"You are angry now, Levi, and I do not follow you?" she retorted in
some wonder. "In which way are we to be sacrificed?"

"You will be angry also when you hear!" he cried. "And let me impress
this upon you most clearly, Naomi. What I have to put before you now
is not mere village gossip, but information of the highest possible
urgency to ourselves, which has been supplied to me from the most
reliable source!" he said very earnestly.

"When I gather the import of your news, cousin, its fountain head may
interest me," she rejoined. "Now for your news."

"It is this. You and I are to be dispossessed--practically set aside
and disinherited--in favour of Matthew Shelvocke and this white-faced
woman of the pit-bank. Mat is to have sole possession of Orsden Hall,
the collieries, and all the rest of it; you and I are to be cut off
with a few paltry thousands."

"Nonsense, Levi!" she exclaimed, half-starting from her seat.

"It may seem so, but nevertheless it is true. My cousin is to succeed
my uncle as Squire of Orsden Green, and the pit-brow girl is to become
the Lady of Orsden Hall. This, of course, is all contingent upon the
death of Aaron Shelvocke, and when he passes away in the fullness of
time--or its emptiness--we shall have the privilege and felicity of
seeking a home elsewhere, unless our fortunate kinsman and his charming
wife choose to permit us to remain here."

"Levi! You cannot really mean all you say!" she murmured lowly,
staring straight before her with eyes that were filled with strange
speculations. "I can scarcely believe that uncle will do this thing."

"Like myself, you do not wish it," he retorted, with a cynical twist
of his thin lips; "and like myself, also, you will be prepared to move
heaven and earth to alter what has been done, unless I am greatly
mistaken. The picture of Lettice reigning here in your place can
scarcely be more pleasant for you to contemplate, Naomi, than the
thought of someone else standing in my uncle's shoes is palatable to
me."

"But are you sure of all this, Levi?" she demanded, with dilating
nostrils and ominously flashing eyes, as she mentally viewed the
picture he had indicated. "Are you absolutely certain that what you
state will take place some day?"

"Most assuredly, unless Mr. Aaron Shelvocke takes it into his head
to make another will--or alter the one he has already made," was his
emphatic reply. "That gentleman has a mind of his own, as you may
happen to know, and I have no idea how he is to be brought to a more
satisfactory mood. I should hardly care to talk to him on the subject;
and even you, Naomi, would shrink from such a task. Besides, after
all, our kinsman has a perfect right to do as he likes with his own
possessions."

"Certainly--but to think of that woman coming here!"
she exclaimed in a venomous outburst of chagrin. "It is
preposterous--absurd--unreasonable! Why should uncle do such a thing?"

"It is less preposterous--absurd, and unreasonable than you think
it, my dear cousin," he answered gravely. "I fancy this uncle of
ours wishes to leave one of his own name behind him. My name is not
Shelvocke, you see, Naomi; and your name is hardly likely to be so,
unless you marry your cousin, and that is not very likely to happen
now, I should imagine."

She made no immediate response, and a black scowl settled upon the
girl's strong, handsome features, reflecting as in a mirror the colour
of her bitter thoughts. In imagination she had leapt forward into the
future, and was scanning the alterations time had wrought. Her uncle
was laid away with his fathers in the village graveyard, and, in his
uncle's place, her cousin was reigning, and by his side was her comely
rival--the white-skinned, yellow-haired, pit-brow girl.

She dropped her heavy lids over her eyes to shut out the hateful
picture, and her teeth came together with a vicious snap. Then
she turned again to her cousin, with a breast surcharged with all
the worser qualities of her nature, and all the better and softer
attributes of her character drowned beneath the black flood.

Levi had watched her attentively; had marked the fitful play of each
passion as it flamed in her face, glowed in her eyes, twitched in her
restless fingers, and pulsed in her surging breast. He saw, noted,
understood, and waited calmly for her to speak.

"You tell me all this about this will, but how am I to know that it is
the truth?" she asked calmly, looking him straight in the eyes.

"Give me your solemn promise never to divulge either your information
or its source, and you shall have names that shall satisfy you," he
replied almost as calmly.

"Fetch your Bible from the house, cousin, and I will take my oath upon
it," she replied, "if my bare word is not thought sufficient!"

"I will take your word, Naomi!"

"I give it to you then."

"You remember James Wadsworth?"

"Only faintly. I know he used to be a fellow-clerk of yours before you
were brought to work at Orsden Green, but I have only seen him with you
once."

"He is my informant. He is managing clerk for Messrs. Scott & Burgess,
solicitors, of Coleclough. Uncle's will was drawn up there, and it
was Wadsworth himself who drew out the document from the rough notes
of one of his principals. Wadsworth was kind enough to offer me his
congratulations--under a solemn pledge of secrecy--and I had to pretend
to be gloriously delighted with the couple of thousands, free of legacy
duty, with which my uncle sees fit to recompense my relationship to him
and my labours on his behalf."

"Indeed! And I?"

"You are treated more handsomely, Naomi. Five thousand pounds is your
portion; the remainder goes to Mat. I suppose we ought to congratulate
each other on our expectations?" he wound up with a dry, raucous laugh.

"I would willingly give away my expectations," she cried in a thinly
veiled wrath, "if one woman were dead or out of the way!"

"And I," he broke in gaily, "would be perfectly agreeable to make a
present of mine to some one for the reversion of something my cousin
has seen fit to throw away."

She stared at him, and hot words rose to her lips, but she suppressed
them. Then silence came upon them both for a space. Presently he
remarked quietly--

"What are we to do, cousin?"

"What can we do?" she asked blankly.

"One might do much if it were worth one's while to be energetic," was
his pregnant response. "I pray for no change save one, and my uncle
and his will have nothing to do with that. Only a woman--one who is
without kin in the village--stands in your way; in mine is a blood
relation--who is my rival, too."

"Levi!" she began passionately, but the uplifting of his hand stayed
the outburst of words.

"I was going to say, Naomi, that one could do and venture much were
the reward held out in proportion to the venture. Why should I move a
hand to make you and Mat happy and myself miserable? Better let things
slide, as they are sliding now, and take my chance in the end."

"Levi! This is madness! I can never marry you!"

"Then Mat will marry this pit-brow girl, and she will be the mistress
of Orsden Hall. You have to choose between the least of two evils--I am
one, Lettice Forrester is the other. If you prefer to make Mat and his
sweetheart happy, and yourself and me miserable, you will have your own
way, I suppose."

"What can I do?" the miserable, heart-stricken woman ejaculated in
despair. "I do not love him now. I hate him--hate them both! Help me
to part them, and there is nothing I will not do, Levi. I swear it, I
swear it."

"If I prevent their marriage, you promise to become my wife?" he cried
as he rose to his feet.

"I promise!" she answered faintly, as her dark head sank upon the rough
table.

"Then," he cried with a tragic solemnity as he bent across the table
until his lips touched her black, shining hair, "I swear to win you,
Naomi, even if I lose my soul."




CHAPTER XVII.--TRIFLES LIGHT AS AIR.

"A couple of letters for you, Mat; one for you, Naomi; one for you,
also, Levi; all the rest are mine. Here you are."

Mr. Aaron Shelvocke distributed the missives which had arrived by post
that morning at the Hall, and he and his relatives began the morning
repast. The master of the house was in ordinary attire, as was his
handsome niece Naomi; Blackshaw was dressed in the neat suit of prim
black tweed he affected during business periods, while the more homely
Mat was garbed in the suit of strong dark-blue "pilot cloth" he wore in
the mines and about the pits.

The mine manager had been astir that morning a couple of hours ere
his relatives left their beds. Each day he made it a strict point of
duty to put in an appearance at the pits on the Moss on the stroke of
6 a.m. to receive, either above ground or below, the reports of his
subordinates, the underlookers and firemen, respecting the condition of
the mines.

On this particular morning he had been to work as usual, and had paid
a visit to the Cannel Mine, remaining below until half-past 7, when he
had ascended the shaft to repair to the Hall for breakfast.

On going down the pit in the early part of the morning Mat had missed
his sweetheart from her accustomed place; but, thinking she might be
engaged elsewhere, he thought no more of the matter. When he ascended
the shaft an hour and a half later, he made his customary perambulation
of the pit brows, the shunts and shoots under which the wagons were
loaded, went across the stacks of coal and about the wagon roads lying
around, but saw nothing of Lettice Forrester's gracious figure and
handsome face.

She was nowhere to be seen. She had evidently not come to work that
morning. When he went on the pit head again he questioned the surface
foreman, and found that Lettice was at home. Probably, the foreman
suggested, Lettice had overslept herself or was poorly.

That suggestion coincided with Mat's opinion, and he thought no more of
the matter until he took up and glanced carelessly at the two letters
his uncle had tossed him. With the handwriting on the envelope of one
he was quite familiar. It was that of a friend in the neighbouring
town, a young mine manager like himself, whom he met occasionally.

The writing on the other epistle was unknown to him. It was a woman's
hand, he thought, and the writing was that of an unpractised writer.
Could it be Lettuce who was the latter correspondent? Thinking it might
be so he put the letter in his pocket, and turned to his breakfast.

A little afterwards, after bidding his kinsfolk good morning he
returned to the pits. On the verge of the Moss he took the puzzling
missive from his pocket, tore off the cover, and to his amazement found
the following curious and somewhat annoying communication:--


"Orsden Green.

"To Mr. Matthew Shelvocke.

"Dear Sir--I takes the liberty of telling you about some things which
I do think you should know without any delay. The young woman Lettice
Forrester is not just everything you may think her, because she has
done things on the quiet, and is still carrying on in a way that would
open your innocent peepers if you knew everything I could tell you. But
I am not going to tell you anything. If I did tell you I shouldn't be
believed, and, besides, I might lose my place. But I daresay you can
put trust in your own eyes and what they show you. If you can, be on
the Moss Wagon-road, near the stile that leads towards Maydock-lane,
to-night, soon after it is dark. I beg to sign myself for the present,

"A Friend and an Honest Woman."


Something in the nature of an oath fell from the young fellow's mouth
as he gathered the contents of the note he had so passionately crumpled
up in his hand. His hand was raised to fling the note away, but he
thought better of it, and placed the offensive communication in his
pocket.

Then he laughed lowly to himself in derision. What fool was this writer
of anonymous nonsense who imagined that his faith in his sweetheart
was of such a brittle and unstable character that the first breath of
slander would shatter it to pieces?

Well, whoever the unknown slanderer might be, he or she should find how
fruitless labour had been. He loved Lettice too implicitly to pay the
slightest heed to such mean innuendoes, and instead of doubting her,
such underhand work would but have the effect of increasing his love of
and faith in her a hundredfold.

Such were the thoughts Mat turned over in his trusting mind as the
immediate outcome of the anonymous missive. Like all fond lovers he
scorned the idea of believing that there were spots upon the face of
the sun he worshipped. Other women might not be perfect--might have
flaws innumerable--but the lovely girl he loved was all he could desire
her to be. How he wished she might be at work when he returned to the
pits, that he might show her the note he had received, and assure her
of his undisturbed faith and fidelity.

On regaining the bank of the Moss Colliery Mat did not care to ask the
surface foreman again respecting Lettice Forrester. To have done so
would have been to display the anxiety he felt concerning her, and he
preferred that their joint affairs should not become the common gossip
of the work-people at the pits.

Instead of making any further enquiries Mat sauntered hither and
thither about the brow and screens, nodding pleasantly to this pit-brow
woman or that surface labourer, as was his habit, exchanging a word now
and again with the banksman, engine tenter, or the men in the weighing
cabin, his thoughts all the while centring on the letter and his
sweetheart.

Presently as he lounged against the fence that guarded the edge of the
high brow, gazing across the wide stretch of partly redeemed moss, he
heard a step behind him, and on turning faced Ted Hayes, the surface
foreman.

"Oh, Mester Shelvocke," the latter cried as he paused for an instant
at his superior's elbow, "you were axin' this mornin' abeawt Lettice
Forrester?"

"So I was, Ted," Mat responded. "I was merely wondering why she was not
at work, that's all."

"Well, Nance Farley, who lives nex' door, has just browt me word as
Lettice is ill. Ah thowt somethin' o' th' soart was up wi' her."

Mat nodded and the other went about his business. Then the Manager
descended one of the shafts, and remained below until noonday was past.
But while underground he had done no more than simply pay various
visits of inspection to different parts of the seam, and all the time
he was trudging along the subterranean galleries his mind had busied
itself with the subject that had claimed his attention ere he left the
surface.

Do what he would he could not dismiss the anonymous communication from
his thoughts for more than a few moments at a time. He was foolish he
knew to bother himself with such a trivial affair, yet he could not
avoid it.

Ere noon came he had asked himself many times who could the writer be?
What object had prompted its writing? Was the writer man or woman! It
couldn't be Levi Blackshaw, for he had everything to gain and nothing
to lose by Mat's engagement to Miss Forrester. And surely his cousin
Naomi would never descend to such meanness.

He concluded that neither of his kinsfolk was responsible for the
contemptible scribble. It must be some one he did not know--probably
one of Lettice's workmates, some of her companions on the brow, or in
the village, whom she had offended, and who wished to be revenged upon
her by breeding ill-will and a quarrel between herself and her lover.

Before the shades of evening began to fall on Orsden Green and the
surrounding country Mat had never dreamt of carrying out one suggestion
the writer of the anonymous letter had made; only at dusk did he begin
to ask himself should he do so or not.

"Be on the Moss Wagon-road, near the stile, that leads towards
Maydock-lane, to-night soon after it is dark."

He read those words again and again, and again and again laughed at the
unknown scribbler. Why should he go when he was so absolutely confident
of his sweetheart's probity and immaculate fidelity?

And yet, he reasoned, not to go would almost seem to indicate that he
was afraid of what he might discover. Perhaps, after all, it would be
better if he went. He had nothing to fear. His dearly beloved was, like
the wife of Caesar, above suspicion, and to hide himself near the place
mentioned and watch for results would simply be to arm himself doubly
and at every point against the traducers of Lettice.

Yes, he would go!

An instant after his mind was fully made up he left the Hall and
made his way by a circuitous route towards the stile he and his love
had passed through on that ever memorable Sunday evening when he and
Lettice Forrester had met Levi Blackshaw and Naomi Shelvocke face to
face.

By the time Mat arrived at the stile the sun had set, and night was
taking the place of twilight. Low on the edge of the western horizon
a long, narrow band of dark red burnt dimly, and every moment the dim
clouds above sank downward, slowly extinguishing the last flicker of
day.

It was a warm, quiet evening, with scarcely a whisper of wind in the
air. In half-an-hour the night would be as black as an autumn night
could be. Rapidly passing the stile Mat went forward for half a hundred
yards, then he dived suddenly through a gap in the hedge, and stooping
low, returned to the spot he had left.

Here in the rank grass he crouched, sheltered from the footpath by
the intervening hawthorn hedgerow. He was near enough to the stile to
have been able to spit upon it had he stood erect, and the environing
gloom was not too dense to prevent him from recognising any one passing
through it.

Ten minutes, twenty passed, and just when Mat was beginning to think
that some one had been playing a harmless practical joke upon him a
voice and the noise of feet fell upon his intent ears.

He dropped lower still, listened more intently, and the footfalls grew
clearer, the voice more distinct. The feet were approaching, and in
another moment he was able to identify the tones of the speaker.

It was his cousin, Levi Blackshaw, who was speaking, and although
Mat could not catch his words, there was no mistaking the voice. He
had heard it too often--was too familiar with its every note and
modulation--to be mistaken. A hasty glance through a thin place in the
hedgerow showed him that a woman's figure was walking at Blackshaw's
side.

In an instant the figures came nearer, and then Mat could hear his
kinsman addressing soft percussive words to the woman!

"Do not give way, dear Lettice!" Blackshaw was saying tenderly. "No one
knows that there is any bond between us, and no one will ever know. You
must marry him even though you do not love him; and even then we may be
able to see each other now and again. Now kiss me, dear Lettice, and
promise to do as I wish you."

With a heart that seemed suddenly frozen into stone Mat Shelvocke
crouched in the grass and listened. He heard the feet stop abruptly
opposite him, could hear the choking sobs of the woman, heard warm,
clinging kisses also, and then half-reckless he rose and stared across
the hedge.

The woman had her arms round Blackshaw's neck and was kissing him
passionately. The face was that of Lettice Forrester. He knew it too
well to mistake it in the semi-darkness. Who else save Lettice had such
a lovely complexion and beautiful hair? Who else in the village had
such a figure and such a low melodious voice? And she was even wearing
the pretty hat and jacket he had presented to her when he placed the
engagement ring upon her finger.

With a stifled groan he sank back on the rough tangle of ragged
grasses, and he heard them pass on in the direction of the colliery. A
minute or two he crouched there, overwhelmed by his woe; then he sprang
erect and burst through the hedge. In an instant he was standing at the
style and peering about him.

They had disappeared; he could neither see nor hear them. Which way had
they taken? Had they gone through the colliery yard in the direction of
Orsden Green? Or had they crossed the wagon road, passed through the
other stile, and proceeded towards Gathurst Bridge?

For some moments, he knew not how many, poor Mat paused there, savage
and irresolute. Suddenly he turned, and went towards his uncle's pits.
A footfall met his ear, and quickening his pace he met the old watchman
of Orsden Moss going measuredly on his rounds.

"Good neet, Mester Matthew," old Coxall sang out cheerily.

"Good night, Dan. Have a man and woman passed you?"

"Ay--a minute sin'."

"Did you know them?"

"Ah did. It was yore cousin Levi and a pit-brow wench they ca' Lettice
Forrester, ah think."

Mat gasped, and with an effort he choked back the exclamation on his
tongue. Then he pulled himself together, laughed a dry, hard, mirthless
laugh, bade the watchman good night, and passed slowly, thoughtfully
homeward.




CHAPTER XVIII.--LETTICE IS HUMILIATED.

The days that followed immediately upon that evening excursion of
espial to the stile on Orsden Moss were anything but periods of
enjoyment to young Mat Shelvocke. That his first conception of Lettice
Forrester's character had been utterly wrong appeared absolutely
positive now, and dearly as he desired to clear the lovely pit-brow
girl's reputation from all taint and stain, no way of doing so
presented itself to the Mine Manager.

What he had managed to overhear while crouching behind the hedge had
amounted to only a few sentences, and yet how completely those few
words had lowered the woman in Mat's eyes and damned her character in
his estimation.

In his smooth hypocritical tones Blackshaw had tried to cheer up the
despondent girl; had said that no one knew of the bond that existed
between them, and that no one need ever know; had urged, almost
commanded her, to marry some one, though she did not love him; and
hinted broadly that their guilty relationship need not cease even when
the woman had become the other man's wife.

Those words had struck home to Mat Shelvocke's warm, loving young heart
sharply as daggers, and like poisoned blades had rankled there long
afterwards, diffusing a baleful influence through his whole system.

And what he had really witnessed with his own eyes had wounded him
more grievously, if that were possible, than what he had overheard.
To think that Lettice's plump, soft arms had been wound around his
cousin's neck, that her sweet, ripe, red lips had been pressed against
Blackshaw's cruel, cynical mouth was well nigh maddening to ponder over.

He had thought--had been prepared to wager his life if necessary--that
those pliant arms and luscious lips were his own alone, to the
exclusion of all the world. And now! His face grew pale to the lips,
his frame quivered with suppressed passion, while a wave of bitter
feeling surged through him as he thought again of all he had seen and
heard. Well, luckily, he had narrowly escaped being made a deplorable
dupe of. Thanks to his unknown correspondent, his eyes had been forced
rudely open, and he had just managed to avoid a step that would have
ruined his whole life.

As he strolled thoughtfully towards the Hall, after encountering the
old watchman, a hundred ways of revenging himself upon Levi Blackshaw
and Lettice Forrester ran through Mat's troubled brain. His first
impulse was to wait for his cunning cousin that very night and charge
him at once with his cruel, cold-blooded double-dealing before his
uncle and Naomi.

Mat was well aware by this time that Levi Blackshaw's consuming
desire was to win the heart and hand of his passionate-souled and
handsome-faced cousin, and he knew also what small chance Levi would
have of accomplishing that purpose were he to speak without reserve of
that night's doings.

As for the frail and lovely girl he had given his affection to so
joyously and spontaneously, there were numberless ways of dealing with
and harassing her, in return for the pain and indignity she had heaped
upon him.

As Manager of the Orsden Moss Colliery, he had sole charge of every
person who worked about the pits. Between the work-people and himself
his uncle never dreamt of interfering, and his cousin Levi dared not do
so.

If he wished to do so he could subject Lettice to innumerable petty
annoyances and humiliations. He had only to whisper a word or two in
the ears of Ted Hayes, the surface foreman, and that worthy would
readily carry out his behests with respect to the erring woman.

Hitherto Lettice Forrester had been favoured in a way which had given
rise to some comment among her fellow pit-brow girls. One of the
cleanliest and least laborious tasks about had been given to her, at
Mat's suggestion--though it was unknown to herself--and that act of
loving forethought had been greatly esteemed by the handsome woman.

The particular work Lettice had been set to do was that of running the
full tubs of coal and cannel upon the weighing machine, which stood a
dozen yards or so from the mouth of the shaft, and when each tub was
being weighed to shout out the number of the tally it bore, in order
that weighman and checkman might know to whom the mineral was to be
booked.

This task was only such as a lass of fourteen or fifteen might have
easily discharged. It was an easy matter to catch the tubs as they were
pushed down from the cage, slide them over the smooth plates of iron
sheathing the brow, bring them to rest on the machine, and, after they
were weighed, to deliver them to another girl, who ran them to the
screens.

The work had been chosen by Mat because he was so proud of his
sweetheart's loveliness, and did not desire to have her beauty
tarnished and besmirched by the clouds of fine, black coal-dust which
hung about the screens, shoots, and wagons where the tubs of coal were
overturned.

It had been a continual source of pleasure to the young Mine Manager
to feast his eyes on Lettice's comely face and finely modelled figure
when he came up the shafts or went down them. She was always nattily
attired, and in such good taste as to lend an additional force to her
charms.

Her neat little clogs were always brightly polished each morning she
set foot on the brow; her trim ankles were always covered by the
brightest of dark-blue hose; and the short trousers, which revealed a
few inches of a most shapely leg, were never torn or ragged or covered
with patches as those of some of the other girls were.

Above her neat breeches of fine corduroy Lettice wore a petticoat of
dark-striped wincey, looped up in front and hanging down behind like
the tails of a long dress coat. A short jacket and a big soft bonnet
of light print, such as country-women wear, completed her work-a-day
attire, and in it the girl looked as charming a specimen of lovable and
kissable womanhood as any young man could desire to call his own.

By the time Mat Shelvocke had reached home and demolished his supper he
began to alter his mind respecting his schemes of retaliation. Instead
of openly confronting Blackshaw with his villainy, he would hold his
peace and so comport himself as to lead the cunning rascal to believe
that his scheming was neither known nor suspected.

But he was inclined to treat the erring pit-brow girl in a less merciful
manner. Next morning he made it an especial point to proceed to the
brow of the Moss Pits a quarter of an hour or so earlier than usual,
and as he stood at one side of the brow watching the colliers and
datallers descend into the cannel mine he saw his subordinate, Ted
Hayes, come sauntering upon the bank.

He was just thinking of calling the surface foreman to him, to instruct
him on a certain matter, when Hayes caught sight of and came towards
him.

"What is it, Hayes?" Mat queried in his usual way.

"There's a new wench startin' work this mornin'," the man answered,
"an' ah were just wonderin' wheer ah should put her. It's some wench
Mester Aaron took on yesterday, an' ah thowt ah'd ax yo' what ah should
do with her."

"You can put her into Lettice Forrester's place, Ted," Mat replied,
coldly. "Even if she is a stranger to the business this new hand,
I suppose, will be able to shout out the numbers of the different
tallies?"

"A' reet, sir! An' Lettice Forrester, Mester Matthew. Wheer shall ah
put her this mornin' if hoo comes?"

"Anywhere you please, Hayes," was the indifferent response. "Forrester
has had an easy time of it long enough, and you can put the woman
anywhere where an extra hand is needed. You understand, Hayes?"

"Ay, ay, sir!" the other rejoined, with a wondering look in his eyes as
he walked away to attend to his duties.

The surface foreman, like almost every other man and woman at the
colliery, was cognisant of the engagement which was said to exist
between the Manager and the handsome brow-woman, hence his wonder at
being told to put the new-comer in her place and transfer Lettice to the
shoots, screens, or any other post where an extra hand was required.

Hayes whistled softly to himself when he was beyond the reach of Mat
Shelvocke's eyes and ears. The foreman was rather pleased with the
instructions he had received, for some months ago he had been rather
passionately enamoured of the remarkably lovely pit-brow girl--had
not scrupled to tell her as much also; and as Lettice Forrester had
rejected his amorous advances in a cold, contemptuous manner, he felt
justified in cherishing a grudge against her.

But hitherto he had deemed it unsafe to take the least advantage of
the cold scornful beauty. Mr. Aaron Shelvocke took a certain interest
in Lettice Forrester, he knew. Mat Shelvocke was said to be casting
sheep's eyes at her as well, and to have tampered in any way with
either the girl or her work might have cost Ted Hayes his situation.

As the foreman had a good shop, and didn't wish to lose it, he held
his hand and waited. And now at last his opportunity seemed to have
arrived. The young master had grown tired of his pretty sweetheart, and
he--Hayes--was at liberty to use her as he would. That he would fail to
repay her for her scorn there was little likelihood now.

Quickening his pace as he quitted his superior's side, Ted Hayes
descended the farther side of the brow, turned along the wagon road
beneath the screens, and came to a standstill at the bottom of the
steps leading up to the pit-bank, which faced Orsden village.

While he lingered there several of the pit-brow girls and surface
labourers went by. To some he spoke, to others he nodded merely like an
amiable autocrat, which he chanced to be in a sort of petty fashion,
and then at last the one for whom he waited came tripping daintily
along, looking fresh and sweet, and lovely as a flower in the soft glow
of the autumn morning.

"Come here a minute, Lettice," he cried to her, with a tilt of his head.

"What do you want?" she asked, coldly, almost haughtily, as she paused
with one polished clog resting on the lowest step in the flight. She
detested the man, and never was at any great pains to hide her real
feeling towards him.

"Ah've a fresh job for yo' this mornin'," he cried bluntly.

"Am I not to go to the weighing-machine as usual?" she asked, in
undisguised amaze and indignation.

"You're not. There's a new wench goin' theer, an' yo'll go wheer ah
send yo'!" he answered with a smile of satisfaction.

"Whose doing is this?" she demanded. "Because I am away a day ill, is
some one else to be put in my place?"

"That's it, my wench!" he cried curtly. "Mester Mat towd me to put th'
new wench in yore place, an' he said ah could put yo' into th' screen
or annywheer else. Yo' can wait on th' brow for my orders. Do yo' hear
me?"

"I hear you," she answered with a coldness that cut him as deeply as
her scorn could have done.

"That's reet then, my wench."

Then he turned away without more ado, a look of gratified malice
irradiating his coarse, commonplace visage, and with a sorely puzzled
expression on her fresh young face, Lettice Forrester slowly ascended
the steep flight of wooden steps leading on to the brow.




CHAPTER XIX.--THE RIFT IN THE LUTE.

Ten or a dozen days have gone by since Mat Shelvocke had received that
anonymous letter which induced him to play the role of eavesdropper on
the Moss, and, looking back upon them, he thought those days covered
the most miserable period in the whole of his quiet, uneventful career.

At the outset of his love troubles he had been so foolish as to imagine
that in a few days the affection he cherished for a worthless woman
would dwindle away, die utterly, and leave him as he had been in
the days ere he cared for Lettice Forrester. Having had such a rude
awakening from his sweet dreams, he had assumed that all was over
between himself and Lettice, and that in a few days his wounded heart
would be healed, and that the girl herself would be no more to him than
the rest of womankind.

But in these imaginings Mat had jumped to certain conclusions somewhat
prematurely. To tear the woman of his love from the holy of holies
wherein he had enshrined her was less easy to accomplish than he had
thought.

At the end of the period named he discovered that his heart was sore
as at first, that his mind was still racked by a thousand conflicting
thoughts and emotions, and deep down in his breast there lived the
strong, unconquerable wish that this thing had never happened. If
Lettice had only been pure and faithful to him, how happy they might
have been.

So far the girl had not made an attempt to break down the barrier his
anger and bitter reserve had set up between them. He had seen her
several times lately--had been quick to notice that Lettice's old place
beside the weighing-machine had been taken by another girl, a stranger;
and once or twice he had passed the screens for the especial purpose of
seeing his lost sweetheart toiling there.

His young heart had been touched with pity, and some qualms of
conscience had smitten him, when he caught a glimpse of Lettice working
in the screens, among the other girls, with a long iron rake in her
hands.

When the tubs were overturned in the shoots, and the coal slid down
the iron grating towards the wagons standing beneath, a cloud of fine,
almost impalpable dust rose in the air, filling the sloping covered
shed wherein the girls worked; and as this operation was repeated
every minute during the day the workers were literally drenched from
head to foot with the grimy showers, and before the labour of the day
was past the girls were black as any child of Africa, and often much
grimier-looking than the men who hewed the coal.

Momentarily Mat repented that he had displayed his chagrin by
transferring the offending woman to such uncongenial surroundings,
and the next instant the regret was swept away by a fierce wave of
resentment.

Why should he trouble himself about Lettice for a single instant? She
had shown herself unworthy of his consideration. She was not a whit
better than those among whom she was working--nay, was she not worse by
far than any of her work-fellows?

He hurried away in passionate disgust, carrying in his memory a fresh
and less-alluring picture of the comely girl. Hitherto she had always
appeared to him sweet and clean and handsome. With her soft cheek's
and fair hair deluged with coal-dust it had been no easy matter to
distinguish Lettice Forrester from the other pit-brow girls.

Carry himself bravely and as stoically as he could, Mat Shelvocke was
not exactly the person his friends and intimate acquaintances had
formerly known. A melancholy that was foreign to his bright and sunny
nature had settled down upon him; his frank and joyous laugh rang out
much less frequently than of yore; his handsome florid face wore a
thoughtful expression almost always; and unless he was addressed he
spoke but seldom even to his own kinsfolk.

At times Mat ridiculed himself roundly for taking his trouble so
seriously. He felt that his demeanour was arousing the attention of
Uncle Aaron; and the covert glances he occasionally detected Levi
Blackshaw and Naomi Shelvocke bending upon him warned him that they
suspected the cause of his distemper, even if they did not actually
know of its origin.

Just a couple of weeks after the coming of that peace-destroying,
unsigned communication, another letter reached Orsden Hall, addressed
to "Mr. Matthew Shelvocke, Mine Manager, Orsden Hall, Orsden Green." On
this occasion the missive was signed, and the name at the foot of the
short but pregnant note was that of his discarded sweetheart.

The letter was to this effect:--


"23, Winnard's Houses, Orsden Green.

"My Dear Mr. Shelvocke--It is now more than a fortnight since I last
saw you or heard from you, and I am wondering painfully what I can have
done to justify your absence and quietness. Have I done something to
offend you, or can it be possible that you are tired of your 'Village
Queen' already?

"LETTICE FORRESTER."


A muttered objurgation was wrung from Mat's lips by the perusal of
those few pertinent words. She had not resigned all hope of netting
him yet, it appeared, and was case hardened enough to dare to brazen
the matter out. Well, he would end the business once and for all. If
she was priding herself upon the thought that the double-dealing was
unknown to him, perhaps it would be as well if he took steps to open
her eyes on that point. That night he penned and posted the following
sententious note:--


"Orsden Hall.

"My dear Miss Forrester--Your note to hand, for which I thank you. I
would rather say nothing, at present, as to what you may have done to
account for my absence and quietness. It is certain that I have already
grown tired of my 'Village Queen.' Some day, if you are curious, I may
tell you more. All I care to say now is this--never trouble me again,
and you will confer a lasting obligation on--

Yours most respectfully,

Matthew Shelvocke."


The writing and posting of that stinging epistle gave Mat a little
trumpery and evanescent satisfaction. His note would show the foolish
woman that he was not to be dragged at her heels like a soft-hearted
and shallow-pated zany; and the emphatic manner in which he had
declared himself tired of her, and the lack of reasons given as an
excuse would put her upon the very tender-hooks of curiosity.

That she would trouble him further he could not believe--but then there
were other things he could not have believed possible of her once.
Still, if she did insist upon knowing why he had thrown her aside
so suddenly and irredeemably, well, he was willing to lay bare her
iniquity.

So thinking, poor Mat endeavoured to squeeze what consolation he could
out of the situation in which he found himself placed. His first
adventure in the Love god's domain had proved but a scurvy affair after
all, bringing him stress of soul, searching of heart, and no glory, and
it would be long ere he ventured forth on such another expedition.

A day later another envelope and enclosure found their way into the
young Manager's hands. The address was in Lettice Forrester's hand, but
the only thing the envelope contained was the daintily jewelled ring
Mat had insisted upon the girl accepting and wearing as the outward
token of their love and engagement.

He placed the little trinket in his pocket with a thoughtful
countenance and a curious mixture of feelings. He felt pleased in a
way that all was over between himself and the fair girl who had proved
herself so unworthy of his affection, and yet he was somewhat chagrined
to find that Lettice had taken the final step in the severance of their
engagement so promptly and in such a dignified manner.

He had expected both a letter from her and a visit--had fully persuaded
himself that she would write, demanding an explanation of his conduct
and insisting upon another meeting. Instead of that she had simply
returned to him, without a word, the gage of his affection, apparently
careless of the heart whose esteem she had so suddenly lost.

The appeal he had anticipated was not forthcoming; the excuses and
explanations he had assumed would be offered were not even alluded to;
she had quietly taken him at his word, and broken instantly, at his
suggestion the troth he had intimated he no longer desired to keep.

Her readiness to fall in with his wishes ought to have gratified Mat,
but somehow it did not. The rupture must have cost her neither trouble
nor pain, else she would not have brought it about so readily at a
word from him, and this silent acquiescence on her part only tended to
confirm all he had heard, seen, and suspected.

On the evening when the discarded engagement ring was returned to
him, the miner chanced to be sauntering in the wide stretch of grass,
flower-beds, fruit-bushes, and trees behind Orsden Hall, when he
chanced upon his handsome kinswoman, Naomi Shelvocke.

The sun was just plunging beneath the horizon, and the west was still
illumined with patches of lurid cloud. The leaves had begun to fall,
and the flowers were withering on their stems.

The cousins came face to face almost in front of the big roomy
summer-house wherein Naomi and Levi Blackshaw had made that singular
compact not many weeks before; and as they paused to exchange
greetings, and the trivial common-places each thought necessary to the
moment, one thought presented itself to the mind of each.

She was thinking that her handsome kinsman was graver now, and more
wearied and anxious-looking than ever she remembered to have seen him.
Why? she wondered. Had Levi already taken steps to bring about that
which he had sworn to accomplish even at the risk of his eternal soul.

Mat's thought was very similar. An aspect of settled melancholy
seemed to have worn itself into the girl's proud and darkly beautiful
countenance, and the fire of youth, the indomitable vigour of her
character, was no longer apparent in her every movement, gesture, and
look, as of old. Why this marked change? He was still wondering when
she asked suddenly,

"I daresay that Uncle Aaron will have told you that we are to go away
to-morrow."

"Indeed! No. But I have not seen him to-day--at least not since this
morning, Naomi. But where are you going?"

"Only to Wales for a few days," she answered quietly, "and heavens
knows whether I shall ever come back again."

"Nonsense, Naomi!" he cried in some amaze. "What makes you talk like
that, my dear cousin?"

"Do you really care to know, Mat?" she asked, slowly raising her fine
dark eyes in a strange way to his own.

"Of course I do," he cried with real feeling.

"Then I will tell you, Mat!" she answered gravely, as she seized his
arm and turned towards the remoter end of the big garden.




CHAPTER XX.--NAOMI TAKES MAT INTO HER CONFIDENCE.

For a moment or two Mat Shelvocke and his cousin paced along the
gravelled path without speaking, and the expression in the face of
each attested that thoughts of no ordinary nature were engaging the
attention of both. There was something in his cousin's handsome
countenance that Mat could not quite fathom--an indefinite something
that not only surprised the young fellow, but also aroused feelings of
anxiety within him.

Presently they were at the entrance to the arbour, which was still
embowered in green and russet-hued leaves, and without a word the woman
strode inside and dropped upon the seating running around it. Mat
seated himself also, and with a glance at Naomi's sphinx-like face,
remarked in his most matter-of-fact voice:--

"I am not surprised, Naomi, to hear that you and uncle are thinking
of spending a holiday in Wales, for he told me some time ago that he
intended to do so. But, as he hasn't mentioned the matter lately, I
imagined he must have changed his mind."

"Perhaps he had changed his mind," she answered without looking at him
as she spoke, "and now you mention it, I don't believe he would have
made up his mind so readily if I had not spoken of going away."

"Of going away!" he cried again, examining her averted face critically
with his frank, keen eyes. "You mean going away just for a holiday,
Naomi?"

"No, I mean going away from Orsden Green for good and all; going away
to come back no more, Mat!"

"Naomi! You cannot mean it!"

"I do! And mean to go!" was her firm retort.

"But why?" he asked, wonderingly, although some suspicion of the truth
was floating in his brain. Suddenly his memory had flown back, and he
was thinking as he spoke of all that had passed between himself and
Aaron Shelvocke that night in the garden 'neath Naomi's window. "I am
surprised to hear that," he added.

"Why surprised?" she asked sharply, and her great black eyes flashed
upon him for a moment.

"Because you--and all of us--seemed to be so comfortable here. I really
thought you were one of the happiest women in the village; that you had
all a woman could desire. A fine home, ample means, a dear old uncle
who thinks all the world of you, and Levi and myself, who would do
anything to make you happy."

"I have all that, Mat," she said lowly, speaking in a tone of
restraint, "and yet I am not satisfied. But there is something a woman
needs--hungers for--besides money, a comfortable home, a dear old
uncle, and--friends!"

"I don't understand you, Naomi."

"You don't, I know; and yet you ought!" she exclaimed, with a sudden
little gesture of despair. "I am sick of this dull, prosaic village
life--am tired of this place, myself, everything! I want to go away
altogether and live my life out elsewhere."

"Naomi!" was all he could cry, with a blank countenance. "And you have
told Uncle Aaron this?'

"I have told him, Mat."

"What did he say?"

"What I expected him to say. He is like you. He does not understand, or
he will not. He thinks that a week or so at the sea-side will bring me
to my senses, and I am going with him to Llandudno. Bit I feel, Mat,
that when I take leave of the Hall I shall not come back again."

"He does not know that?"

"He refuses to believe it."

"And Levi?"

"Levi! What is he to me? Levi knows nothing, nor will he ever know from
my lips. I hate him, Mat! Hate him as ardently as if he had done me
some deadly wrong!"

"And yet I believe that my poor cousin thinks very highly of you
indeed, Naomi."

"Perhaps," she murmured, with indrawn lips, "that is why I abhor him so
much."

"I am sorry, dear Naomi," he muttered, in his sympathetic, cousinly
way. "If there were anything I could do to alter your decision in this
matter, you know I would do it."

Her head was suddenly lifted, and there was that in her eyes and face
which, had he chosen to read their message aright, would have told him
what he might have done to detain her in the village of Orsden Green.
Her look troubled him only, and he said merely--

"Still I hope, Naomi, that a few days by the sea and among the hills of
Wales may change your mind. I am sure we shall all miss you and deplore
your absence. I cannot believe that you mean to forsake your birthplace
altogether."

She turned upon him again with that little gesture of despair. Was her
cousin blind, she wondered bitterly, or was it only that he refused
to see? Thoughts were rushing through her brain, words were hovering
on her lips, that no woman might give utterance to and retain her
self-respect, and by a great effort she managed to restrain herself.

"I have thought the matter over carefully," she said after a slight
pause, "and I have decided that it is for the best."

"The best?" he questioned.

"Yes, the best! I cannot stay, and I will not. If you cannot see the
impossibility of the thing I do not know how to tell you; but if the
circumstances of life removed one very dear to you--Lettice Forster,
for instance--to another corner of England, could you remain here, Mat?"

"Easily!" he said readily, but with a wan smile. "She is nothing to me
now."

"Now?"

There was a question in that single word, in the manner of its
intonation, he could not avoid, and her eyes, her dark face, the very
carriage of her figure were queries in themselves, all bearing on the
same point.

"That is the simple truth, Naomi," he answered with a sober face. "Once
I did imagine--but what need is there for words? I made a mistake, that
is all."

He was properly master of himself as he told her of his renunciation
of his sweetheart, and as he stared at her half-averted profile he
wondered if he had to thank his fair cousin for opening his eyes. Was
it possible that Naomi had penned that anonymous letter?

"We all make mistakes, Mat," she said sadly. "I have made mistakes
also. But I found out my mistake the other night when you and Uncle
Aaron were discussing me and that pit-brow girl in such a frank manner."

"Who told you of that?" he cried, half-rising to his feet in his
surprise and agitation. "It must have been my uncle, I suppose."

"No one told me."

"Then how could you learn?"

"Because I could not avoid it. My window was open and you were
underneath it."

"Naomi!" he cried in deep contrition. "I am heartily sorry for any pain
my words may have caused you. I had no idea that any one could hear us.
If I said anything that was rude, I hope you will pardon me."

"There is nothing to pardon, Mat," she said frankly, and with much
feeling, as she rose and extended her hand. "You know the old saying
about eavesdroppers never hearing aught good of themselves. It wasn't
my fault, and, after all, it was perhaps better that I should learn the
truth from your own lips."

"Still I am sorry--more sorry than I can say," he rejoined, as he
grasped her hand for a moment.

"And I am sorry also, my cousin--sorry for you, inasmuch as your noble
stand was made in vain, or, at least, made for one who didn't deserve
it, and sorry for myself also. Let us return to the house now."

He followed her from the arbour slowly, thoughtfully, all the current
of his reflections setting in a fresh direction now. As he gained
her side, and they paced abreast towards the Hall, he asked, in a
tremulous, uncertain voice--

"But, Naomi, that is not the reason, I trust, why you are going away
from us all?"

"Perhaps it is," she responded, after an instant's reflection. "But,"
she added, after another momentary pause, "we had better not speak of
that now. I was an idiot, Mat," she concluded passionately, "to have
mentioned these things to you!"

He was about to retort when a new voice broke in upon them out of the
gathering twilight--was on the point of returning a soft, an unexpected
answer to her impassioned declaration, which might have changed the
whole current of their lives--when Aaron Shelvocke's cheery tones rang
out:--

"Hello there, Mat and Naomi--is that you? I was wondering where you two
had got to."

The master of Orsden Hall came bustling up to his relatives out of a
sidewalk, and the trio strolled along in company towards the house.
Aaron was full of the morrow's journey to the Welsh coast, and Mat
and Naomi joined in readily. Perhaps the young miner was glad that
his kinsman's unexpected arrival on the scene had prevented those
half-formed words from leaving his lips; and probably the proud,
hot-tempered beauty who walked so dutifully at her uncle's elbow was
chagrined because her cousin had not been permitted to speak.




CHAPTER XXI.--AARON WARNS HIS NEPHEW.

Next morning when Mat Shelvocke came from the colliery to his breakfast
at the Hall he found his cousin and uncle preparing to depart from it
on their holiday. Their luggage was already piled on the top of the
carriage standing in front of the house, the driver was on his box, and
Naomi was entering the vehicle in front of Aaron Shelvocke when the
Manager strolled up.

"Just in time, Mat, to see us off," the elder man exclaimed, as his
nephew went forward to shake hands with his cousin and wish her a
pleasant journey. Then Aaron drew the younger man aside for a parting
word in private.

"We may be away, Mat, a week or a fortnight--just as Naomi thinks fit
to come back or stay." Shelvocke began.

"I understand, and I'm sure that I hope you may have a very pleasant
time of it," Mat cried gaily.

"Thanks, lad; and in the meantime you understand that I leave you
in complete control of everything," Aaron resumed, with a gravity
Mat thought peculiar at the moment. "If anything happens out of the
ordinary which you think requires my word on it you will write or wire
me?"

"Of course; but I expect there will be nothing I and Levi won't be able
to manage all right."

"Levi! That's just what I wanted to speak to you about, Mat," and the
elder man's shaggy brows lowered and wrinkled in an unpleasant way.
"Keep an eye on him, will you, while I am away, eh?"

"Keep an eye on Levi?" Mat blurted out in some amazement, as he fixed
his uncle with his frank blue eves. "What can you mean? I hardly follow
you, Uncle Aaron."

"I mean exactly what I say," was the somewhat puzzling answer,
impatiently delivered. "I said, 'Keep an eye on Levi,' and I want you
to do it, Mat."

"What necessity is there for doing that?" the Mine Manager murmured,
with an aspect of displeasure on his handsome brown features.

"I've no time to tell you now, my lad," was the answer, hurriedly
whispered. "But do it all the same, and we can compare notes when I get
back."

"But it is a most unpleasant thing, Uncle Aaron, this you have asked
me to do. To set one cousin spying on another is work that I dislike,
and I must say I have no intention of taking up the part of private
detective."

"Don't be foolish, Mat," Aaron Shelvocke cried, almost angrily. "I
simply want you to keep your eyes open, that is all. And if you will
consider, you will haply recollect that I seldom do anything without
good reason. Now, Mat," he added, raising his voice loudly, "we must be
off. Good morning. Perhaps at the week-end you will run over to see us."

Then Aaron Shelvocke hurried away, bustled into the conveyance, and as
it moved off slowly the young fellow nodded pleasantly in response to
Naomi's hand, which waved him a good-bye.

As he turned indoors he met one of the maids coming from the
breakfast-room, and to her he addressed an enquiry respecting the
whereabouts of his cousin Levi.

"Mr. Blackshaw went to the office early, sir," the girl answered. "I
heard him tell your uncle that he had some work to see to at once."

Over the matutinal meal, which he consumed alone, Mat's reflections
turned, naturally enough, to first one and then another of his absent
relatives, and each of the trio furnished him with material for
earnest, if not anxious thought.

First of all he thought of Naomi, who had informed him on the previous
evening that her departure from Orsden Hall, ostensibly on a brief
holiday, marked in reality the termination of her home life there. That
she would stand fast to that resolution he scarcely anticipated, nor
was he certain now in his heart that he desired her return.

He was able then to consider dispassionately the incident of the
preceding night. With an abandon that was utterly foreign to her
nature, Naomi had taken him into her confidence unasked--had spoken
freely of her desire to quit the neighbourhood, and half revealed the
reasons which were prompting her to take such a remarkable step.

His heart was very sore still over the affair of Lettice Forrester, and
moved to deep pity and strongest sympathy by Naomi's revelation, there
was no saying what he might not have done had not his uncle appeared so
unexpectedly upon the scene, just at the instant when he had resolved
to take the plunge.

He was sincerely thankful now for his uncle's timely, although quite
unwitting intervention. He knew now that he did not love his fair
cousin--how could he care for her when that other false one held his
heart fast in her hands? And to have pledged himself to her out of pity
merely could only have brought disaster to them both in the end!

After all, it was for the best that his cousin had gone away. Time
would bring peace to Naomi's troubled soul, as he hoped it would to his
own, and in the meantime, they were better apart.

Having arrived at that conclusion, Mat next turned to his kinsmen.
What had arisen between the master of Orsden Moss and Levi Blackshaw?
Something, he felt assured; or Aaron Shelvocke would never have dreamt
of urging him to keep an eye on his cousin.

He threw his mind back to the very day on which his uncle had returned
to Orsden Green, and from that point he worked his way mentally up to
the present moment, seeking some incident or act which would justify
Aaron Shelvocke's overt distrust of Blackshaw.

But he found nothing. Beyond the small matter of idiosyncratic
differences, Mat had no fault to find with Levi Blackshaw. Their
differences were due to their different temperament and characters, and
Mat saw no reason to distrust a man simply because they did not take a
like view of things.

Finding his attempts to probe the little mystery profitless, our
friend soon tired of his task, and when he returned to the colliery he
found himself more interested in the subject of his late sweetheart's
delinquency than in all the troubles and foibles of his relations
combined.

All the same Mat could not avoid keeping an eye on his relative when
they met, and he was compelled to notice that in some way Levi was
different from of old. Meeting, as they were almost forced to do,
morning, noon, and evening, the Mine Manager, as they partook of their
meals in company, marked the change in his cousin.

Blackshaw had never been remarkable for either high spirits or frank,
effervescent geniality; still, he had been easy enough to get along
with conversationally; but now it was no uncommon thing to see him
plunged in a sea of moody taciturnity, and occasionally Mat saw his
dark features wearing an expression of deep anxiety such as could
originate only in a soul grievously troubled.

Why was Levi ill at ease? Had his unrest aught to do with Aaron
Shelvocke? Was it possible that uncle and nephew had quarrelled, and
that the worldly-minded young man was mentally agitated because he had
annoyed or crossed a wealthy relative, and in consequence had ruined or
endangered his expectations in that quarter?

Half-believing that he had discovered the reason of Levi's
discomposure, and quite scornfully resenting the nature which allowed
itself to be perturbed by such a pecuniary matter, Mat cudgelled his
brains no further over the business, merely wondering now as to the
cause of the unpleasantness between his relations.

But almost as soon as that conclusion was reached it was cast aside
again. A sudden inspiration revealed what, he felt almost positively
certain, was the truth. It was not any thought of his kinsman's money
that was agitating Levi Blackshaw; a matter of far greater gravity than
that was responsible for the despondency of his highly respectable
cousin.

Levi was in love with Naomi, had made proposals for her hand, and had
been repulsed. He knew why she was leaving Orsden Green; was aware that
she had gone forth with the intention of returning no more, and hence
his moody countenance and dark thoughts.

That must be it, Mat concluded, and it was singular, he considered,
that such an explanation had not suggested itself to him at first.

After that the Mine Manager's mental attitude towards his cousin
underwent a change. Levi was to be pitied, rather than blamed, on
account of his love troubles. Having suffered himself in a like manner
during the past few days Mat Shelvocke was prepared to tender all his
deepest sympathy to a fellow sufferer.

Matters stood thus when Aaron and Naomi Shelvocke had been away the
better part of a week. The day after their departure Mat had received
a letter of the briefest kind from his uncle advising him of their
arrival, and again urging him to remember his parting words.

Mat had responded to that communication with only the most formal
acknowledgment, and his answer had been penned with some feeling of
resentment. He thought it a little ungenerous on his uncle's part to
remind him afresh of that obnoxious request to pry into Blackshaw's
private affairs, and was sorely tempted to say so in plain unmistakable
English.

He restrained himself, however, and, instead of keeping an eye on his
cousin, he took his revenge by ignoring the command altogether. His
sympathies were now set in a strong current towards Levi, and whenever
Mat did approach him it was with a kindness of feeling, and a courteous
considerateness, that had not previously characterised his demeanour.
Levi, however, appeared to be oblivious of the slight change in his
cousin--at all events, he did not remark upon it--and matters went on
at Orsden Green very much as before.

When Aaron Shelvocke and Naomi had been away a week another letter
reached Mat. The envelope bore the Llandudno postmark, and ere he broke
it open he divined that his correspondent was his handsome cousin.
Wondering what Naomi could have to say to him, he tore away the cover,
to find the following somewhat perplexing note:


Queen's Hotel, Llandudno.

"My dear Mat--I want to see you ever so much, and if it is possible I
ask you to come over here at once. I have something to tell you about
my uncle and cousin which you ought to hear without delay. I might have
written, but I was afraid to do so for fear the letter might be seen
by Levi. You must not say a word about this to him, nor even hint that
you are coming here to see me. Several matters have arisen which have
caused and are still giving me much anxiety. So I trust you will not
fail to join me without loss of time. You need not tell any one. If you
start early this afternoon you can get here in time to have a chat with
me and return the same evening. Do not come to the hotel. I will wait
beside the entrance to the railway station at seven o'clock, eight, and
nine,--

Your affectionate cousin,

Naomi Shelvocke."


Fortunately Levi Blackshaw was not at the breakfast table when Mat
read the foregoing epistle; he had gone to the colliery offices as the
Mine Manager came from the pits, and so Mat could read the strange
missive and ponder over it to his heart's content without fear of being
subjected to any close scrutiny.

The young fellow was glad of this. Had his cousin been present he
must have noted the startling effect that letter from Naomi had upon
its recipient, and awkward or unpleasant questions might have been
forthcoming. The jealousy of a rejected suitor would have forced Levi
to ask at least how his kinswoman was faring.

Mat made up his mind at once to go to Wales in response to Naomi's
urgent appeal. What was causing her grave anxiety he could only vaguely
conjecture; nor could he understand how his presence at her side for a
little time was going to decrease her uneasiness or afford her relief.

Perhaps it was her intention to make another covert appeal to him;
or perchance she only desired to make him cognisant of some new and
unexpected development in their affairs.

Making a hasty breakfast he returned to the colliery, not forgetting to
carry with him Naomi's letter. He hurried through his work as speedily
as possible, making visits to only those portions of the different
seams and their officials which he deemed it absolutely necessary to
visit, and when he had completed his task and returned to Orsden Hall
it was still early in the afternoon.

Half an hour or so afterwards he had swallowed his mid-day repast
and was attired for his journey. Ere he left the Hall he said to the
housemaid, speaking to her in his everyday matter-of-fact way, "If
any one calls to see me, Edwards, you must say that I have gone to
Coleclough on business, and shall probably not get back before late
to-night."

The servant responded suitably, and he went out, walked quietly to
Orsden Green Station, and booked there only to the adjoining town. Mat
felt some interest in the undertaking, but no conception of the great,
the pregnant changes that would face him on the morrow, ever crossed
his mind then. If it be true that coming events cast their shadows
before, he somehow failed to notice them.




CHAPTER XXII.--THE GATHERING OF THE STORM.

It was evening, and the soft warm shadows of the coming night were
clinging closer and closer to the face of Mother Earth. All the fiery
lines were dying out in the heavens, the slumbering waters of the
Irish Sea were gently rising and falling and shimmering faintly in the
subdued light, here and there a loving couple or a solitary visitor
perambulated the strip of dull sand uncovered by the waxing tide, but
the wide stretch of esplanade was bright and gay and inundated by a
flowing tide of pleasure seekers.

Not far from the entrance to the railway station, Mat Shelvocke was
sauntering, his sharp eyes peering hither and thither among the stream
of passers-by in quest of a familiar face and figure.

At length he observed the one he desired to see, and when the tall,
slender form, robed quietly in some dark shade of blue, came gliding
rapidly towards him, he knew it was his cousin Naomi, although her face
was closely veiled. Presently she was beside him, and was the first to
speak.

"Mat! How glad I am you have come. Have I kept you waiting long?"

"I have been here twice, Naomi," he said quietly, as he seized the hand
she had thrust out to him in an impulsive way. "I got here shortly
after six, and thought I should see you at seven, as you mentioned that
hour in your note. As you didn't put in an appearance then I went for a
stroll, and got back here ten minutes ago."

"I'm so sorry," she cried, "but I never dreamt you would arrive before
eight. Why didn't you telegraph to me the time of your arrival?"

"I did think about it, but when I remembered that you urged me not to
come to the hotel, I thought you would not care to receive a telegram
there from me."

"Well, perhaps it is as well you didn't wire. And, oh, Mat, I cannot
say how thankful I am to you for coming all this way to see me."

"Your note was of such an urgent nature that I could not avoid coming,
Naomi."

"And you told no one--not even Levi?"

"Of course not," he answered half smilingly. "At the present moment I
am supposed to be engaged on pressing business of some character at
Coleclough, and my return to the hall is not expected before a late
hour."

She had thrust her gloved hand through his arm by this time, and as
they turned from the station approach and paced slowly side by side,
she said, with a scrutinising look in his face--

"Did my note astonish or alarm you?"

"It astonished me somewhat," he answered, "but I cannot say with
honesty that I was in any way alarmed by it. What was there to feel
alarmed at? Still, I must admit that I was greatly interested--perhaps
abnormally curious; and I am waiting very eagerly for your news, Naomi."

"Patience! Wait till we are out of this crowded place and then I will
tell you all----"

"All?" he muttered, breaking in suddenly upon her.

"All I know, and all I fear and suspect. This way. In a minute we shall
be away from the multitude."

He said nothing, merely inclining his head gravely, but her words,
while revealing nothing, hinted at much, and further piqued his
curiosity. Presently the more thronged thoroughfares were left behind
them, and as they ascended a quiet, deserted way which led to the dark
uplands fronting the sea, Naomi broke the silence by asking suddenly:--

"Have you noticed anything lately, Mat, about Levi, which struck you as
strange or peculiar?"

"Not at all," he replied, after a momentary hesitation, during which he
thought of his uncle's singular command to watch his cousin. "Why do
you ask? Had you reason to think that his conduct or his manner would
so strike me?"

"I had. There is something wrong between him and uncle. I feel certain,
although I know nothing. They must have quarrelled, or there is
something worse still behind their disagreement."

"You surprise me," was his thoughtful yet scarcely exact response. "I
was not aware that they had even disagreed. You know something, Naomi!
Was that why you asked me to come here?"

"Partly--and partly only. There is more than that I wish to tell you.
And so you know nothing. Well, I know little more of anything definite.
But uncle has had much to say of an unpleasant nature respecting my
cousin since we came here?"

"For instance," he suggested.

"I don't find it easy even to give you an instance of any clear and
definite kind," she rejoined slowly, as she threw up her veil and
looked at him steadily. "Perhaps you will understand what I mean when
I say that uncle has never missed an opportunity since we came here
of speaking of Levi in an offensive way. He has continually heaped
ridicule on his extreme respectability, his too goody-goodness and
general immaculateness. In a word, he made no effort to hide his doubt,
distrust, even hatred, of Levi Blackshaw, and I was wondering if you
could have said anything to lead him to form such an unworthy estimate
of our cousin's character."

"Naomi!" Mat cried, almost angrily, as he faced her abruptly, "What
could I say against Levi? Even if I knew ought, is it likely I should
carry it, like a mean contemptible sneak, to my uncle?"

"No, no, Mat!" she exclaimed, laying both her gloved hands appealingly
on his sleeve. "It was foolish of me even to suggest the possibility of
such meanness. But I hardly knew what to think, and I did not dare to
ask Uncle Aaron outright. And last evening, ere I wrote that note to
you, my uneasiness was increased a hundredfold."

"Why?" Mat asked, as she paused in evident agitation.

"Because before he went out he told me that when he returned he thought
he would be able to tell me something that would ruin Levi for ever in
my eyes."

"Strong language that," Mat murmured, "and I can understand how it
would disturb you. I suppose you did not ask uncle to explain himself?"

"Of course not. I was afraid to do so."

"And when he returned? What had uncle to say then in justification of
his statement?"

"He did not return, Mat."

"What! Not return?"

"No. Has not returned even yet. That was the real reason why I wrote to
you."

"You must have some idea where he is. Did he not say where he was
going?"

"No. But an hour or so after he left me a man brought a note for me to
the hotel. It was from my uncle, and in it he said that I wasn't to
upset myself about him if he did not return before bedtime, or even if
he didn't return during the night. That note frightened me greatly, and
the note you received was the consequence of his strange departure."

"It is a most remarkable thing," Mat murmured, in a somewhat anxious
voice. "And to-day have you heard nothing of him?"

"Not a word."

"But you have caused enquiries to be made?"

"Not even that. To whom was I to go? Besides, in his note, which is
here, you will find he says that in case he is not able to get back
to-day I am not to feel uneasy, but to enjoy myself. It is very curious
altogether."

"It is much too curious to be pleasant," the young fellow rejoined,
with drooping brows. "I daresay, under all the circumstances of the
case, we ought not to trouble ourselves, but one cannot easily avoid
doing so. And how have you explained his absence at the Queen's Hotel?"
he added, as they came to a stop at the shoulder of the hill, and
turned to look down on the dark sea and brightly-lit promenade.

"I simply told them that Mr. Shelvocke had been called away on business
of importance, and might not return for a day or two. What else could I
do?"

"Nothing. But how was it that you did not desire me to come to you at
the hotel?"

"Because I did not wish my uncle to know anything of the anxiety his
departure had caused me; and if you had visited me there he was almost
certain to learn of your visit."

"Yes, that is so," he said, musingly. Then he added, in a changed tone,
"I hate these mysterious proceedings, Naomi. In the meantime we can
only fold our hands and wait, and torture ourselves with a suspense he
might have spared us both."

"That, Mat, is all we can do," she answered, in a spirit of resignation
that was new to her. "Perhaps I may find him at the hotel when I
return."

"Let us hope so."

"Must you return to-night?"

"I must. The last train to Chester leaves at about ten, and it will be
midnight by the time I reach Orsden Green."

They strolled leisurely back towards the town, and for some moments
had nothing to say to each other. Each was busy thinking of the little
events which had arisen to interest and agitate them--the small chances
of life or destiny which had drawn them together for some years, and
now seemed about to drive them asunder for all time.

So far no word had been spoken on either side regarding Naomi's
determination to shake the dust of Orsden Green from her feet for ever.
He had been afraid that that subject would be the one of which his
cousin would desire to speak to him, but her intelligence had driven it
into the background.

"If he returns to-night or to-morrow I will wire you immediately," she
said, presently.

"Yes, do, either if uncle gets back or you hear anything definite
about him. And I will do likewise if any information concerning his
whereabouts comes in my way. And there is Levi. What am I to say to him
when I reach home?"

"Is it necessary that you should say anything?" she queried, sharply.
"If he knows nothing of your visit he will have no questions to ask, I
suppose? Unless you desire to tell him of your coming here there is no
occasion to do so, I think."

"Perhaps not," he made answer. "'Twas only thinking that it would
appear singular to others not to inform him of our uncle's strange
absence."

"So it might; but we must not forget that his absence may be due in
some way to Levi himself--if we are to believe what he told me," she
retorted.

"Just so."

They went along for a few paces in silence, and as they drew near the
more frequented streets, Naomi drew down her veil again. Just then Mat
was courageous enough to put a question he had often asked himself
within the course of the last few days.

"Pardon me, cousin," he said in his pleasantly apologetic way, "but may
I ask if Levi is aware that you did not contemplate returning to the
Hall when you left it?"

"He does not know. For reasons of my own I did not care to tell him,"
she answered, coldly.

"If you wish it I will tell him," he suggested, amiably.

"Don't, I beg of you, Mat! Perhaps after all I may go back to Orsden
Green. So much depends now upon my uncle. When he comes back I will let
you know soon what I decide to do."

"Thank you, Naomi," he muttered, in a somewhat surprised tone. "To
learn that it is possible you may come back among us all is good news
indeed."

Her black eves flashed a swift look of enquiry upon him as if to
read the thoughts underlying his lightly spoken words. His face was
composed, and revealed nothing, so she responded with a low laugh.

"It is a satisfaction to me, my cousin, to know that you will be
ready to welcome me back again. Perhaps the thought of receiving that
greeting may influence me when I am trying to arrive at a dispassionate
decision."

He made a light answer of no import, and they went leisurely towards
the station. A little later Mat was being whirled in the train
homeward, and Naomi was sauntering, with a multitude of thoughts in her
mind, towards her hotel.




CHAPTER XXIII.--ACCIDENT OR MURDER?

It was nearly an hour past midnight when Mat Shelvocke reached Orsden
Hall, owing to slow trains and a couple of changes he was compelled to
make, and when he let himself in the house with his latchkey none of
the inmates were astir. But supper had been left for him, and after a
hasty snack he hurried off to his bedroom.

Next morning he was aroused much earlier than usual by a great clatter
at his chamber door. Springing up in bed, he ran his knuckles in his
slumbrous eyes, for it appeared to him that he had not been asleep for
more than a couple of hours, when that sharp, persistent rapping on the
panels again fell on his ears.

"All right! I'm awake, Sharrock!" he cried to the maker of the row.
"What time is it?"

"Five o'clock, Sir," called back the man, whose business it was to wake
his young master each day. "You're wanted at once below. Be quick, Sir,
for they say something 'as 'appened at the pits."

"What's that?" Mat cried, wide awake now, as he sprang to the floor.

"Something wrong, sir. There's somebody from the colliery waiting to
see you."

"I shall be down in a minute."

The groom hurried away, and the excited young Manager threw on his
ordinary work-a-day attire. In a couple of minutes he had left the
room, torn down the stairs, and was standing in the large old-fashioned
kitchen in front of George Wells, the underlooker of the cannel mine.

"What's up, Wells?" Mat exclaimed, almost breathlessly. "What can have
happened at the colliery?"

"The pits are all right, thank goodness, but it's the old watchman, Dan
Coxall, who's been found dead in his cabin," the man cried.

"Found dead! Poor old Dan!" Mat rejoined in sympathetic tones, yet with
a feeling of considerable relief. From the manner in which the servant
had sprung the intelligence upon him, he had been afraid that some
serious calamity had occurred at one or other of the mines.

"He is dead, sure enough," the underlooker went on, "and I am sorry
to tell you that it nearly looks as if the old chap had met with foul
play."

"What makes you say that, Wells?" Mat demanded, as he found his
leathern mining cap, and thrust it on his head preparatory to going to
the pits.

"You will see when you go with me to the old chap's shanty," was the
answer. "Everything is upset, as if somebody had been playing at a
rough-and-tumble game in the shop, and the cause of death would appear
to be a big wound in the back of the head, from which a lot of blood
has run."

Shelvocke turned away abruptly, with a sickening sensation thrilling
him from head to foot, and the underlooker followed his superior
without a word. They had walked some distance in the direction of the
Moss, with the cool, sweet breath of the late autumn morning playing on
their faces, before the Manager spoke again.

"The miners and the pits?" he cried, interrogatively. "If the men know
of this sad business they will not work to-day, Wells."

"Knowing that, I have done my best to keep the matter from the
colliers. It was Jem Gore the fireman who first discovered that Coxall
was dead. He passes the cabin on his way to work, and seeing the door
open he chanced to look in just to have a word or two with Dan. That
was about half-past 4, and the watchman was quite cold then, as if he
had been dead some hours."

"And what steps did Gore take?" Mat queried anxiously. "I suppose he
would rush off and rouse the whole village?"

"No, he didn't do that, but he might have done it I hadn't come on the
scene just in time to prevent it. Gore went to the engine-house, and
was telling the engine-tenter of the affair when I walked in. I heard
the tale, and went to the cabin with Jem, after warning the engine-man
to keep his mouth shut, if he didn't want all the men to go back again.
Then I rushed off to the Hall, Mr. Shelvocke, to tell you."

"You did quite right, Wells," Mat cried, warmly. "We are too busy just
now to lose a day's work; and even if all the work-people about the
Moss played them it wouldn't bring poor old Dan to life again."

"That's just how I looked at it, Sir," the other answered, "when I told
Gore to lock the door of Dan's place, and then go on the brow and see
the men going down, as if nothing had happened, while I came to tell
you all about it."

"But you didn't tell him to go down the shaft?"

"No. I told him to put somebody else on to his work, and to wait till
we came."

"That's right," said Mat, and they went forward.

As they drew near to the colliery on the Moss, Shelvocke paused
suddenly and turned to his companion with an alacrity that showed some
new thought had struck him. "Wells," he said, "I think the right thing
to do at this point will be to call in the police immediately. You know
where Sergeant Roberts lives, I think?"

"Of course; almost opposite the Black Boar."

"Well, go there straightaway, and tell him all you have told me. Bring
him back with you, and I will wait on the pit bank with the fireman
till you come."

The underlooker nodded, and without more ado hurried back in the
direction of the village, while Mat pursued his way leisurely and
thoughtfully towards the colliery. When he gained the brow of the two
pits the Manager found things proceeding in their ordinary course. By
this time it was midway between 5 and 6 o'clock. Many of the miners had
already descended the shafts to their employment, and those standing
about the mouths of the pits seemed utterly unconscious of the little
tragedy which had been so lately enacted near at hand.

Strolling to the engine-house in a manner as unconcerned as he could
assume, Shelvocke found the fireman, Jem Gore, and the night-winder
there. He nodded to them both, seated himself on the narrow form
running along one side of the lofty engine-house, remarking--

"It is a sad business about poor Coxall. I have just left Wells, who
told me all about it, Gore, and I've sent him off for Sergeant Roberts.
Neither of you have said anything to any one about it, I suppose?"

They assured him that save himself and the underlooker no one was aware
of Coxall's death, and he rejoined--

"It is better to keep it quiet yet, you know. When Roberts comes the
news will spread through the village like wildfire; but it won't matter
then when all the men are at work."

They nodded affirmatively, and then Mat and the fireman fell to talking
about the dead man, while the other attended to his engines. Slowly the
minutes wore away one by one, cageful after cageful of men and lads
were lowered into the different seams, about the pit-brow the figures
of the brow women were seen preparing for the coming day's work, and
once when Mat's eyes were peering through the window his gaze fell on a
fair face and graceful figure.

It was Lettice Forrester. He could see her plainly, although he was
invisible to her, and his heart smote him a little somehow, as he noted
the sweet face that had grown unwontedly pale of late days, while her
lithe, graciously-moulded figure, once so alert and buoyant, seemed to
have lost much of its old grace and springiness.

Just then the new-comer darkened the doorway; it was the day-turn
engine-tenter coming to relieve his mate; and shortly afterwards a
steam-whistle screamed out the hour of 6 o'clock.

A minute later Mat, Gore, and the night-winder left the engine-house
together, and halfway across the brow they came upon the underlooker
and the police officer from the village. Then they went in a body
towards the small building wherein the dead watchman lay, just as he
had fallen when death seized him.

The little dwelling-place which the master of Orsden Hall had caused to
be erected specially for the comfort and convenience of his workman was
but a stone's toss from the colliery, and within the confines of the
colliery yard; and in a few moments the five men were standing before
the locked door.

An instant later they were inside the place, and were staring about
them with hushed tongues and grave countenances. A little round table,
a small dresser, and a couple of chairs comprised almost all the
furniture in the living room. Both chairs were overturned, and between
them lay the dead watchman.

He lay on his back with his arms outstretched, and a calm look on his
grisly features. Under his head a crimson, coagulated pool had spread
itself, and stiffened his thin tufts of reddish-white hair. On the
three-legged, circular-topped table stood a small bottle and a tumbler,
and as he lifted the glass to his nose the officer said--

"Whisky! Poor Dan had been making a night of it, I'm afraid."

"I seed (saw) him at 12 o'clock, Sergeant," the night engine-tenter
broke in, "an' he seemed sober enough at any rate then."

"That may be," was the quiet reply. "He'd plenty of time to empty the
bottle after that, hadn't he, Mr. Shelvocke?"

"Perhaps; who can say?" Mat returned, in a low voice.

Then the police officer bent over the still form, but did not touch it,
and gazed into the composed ashen face.

"He's been dead some hours. I'd better lock up the place and send some
constables to take charge of the body. You, Mr. Shelvocke, will not
require to trouble either yourself or your uncle about the matter. I
will do all that is necessary."

As the sergeant spoke the door flew open, and an excited miner burst in.

"What do you want?" Mat cried almost passionately, as he glared at the
intruder.

"Aaron Shelvocke is dead--killed! They've just found him down the pit."




CHAPTER XXIV.--WHERE THE DEAD MAN SLEPT.

"What!" Mat exclaimed loudly, as he took a stride towards the miner who
had dropped that startling intelligence from his hot lips and faltering
tongue. "You say my uncle is lying dead and killed down the pits?"

"It's true, Mester Mat! It's true!" the man cried again. "God knows
I'm but telling you the truth. It was me as found him, and at first I
couldn't believe my own eyes."

"But there must be some mistake somewhere, I tell you!" the
half-distracted Manager cried, as he turned with a wild despairing
gesture to those about him, who looked silently on with white alarmed
faces.

"Everybody knows that my uncle is away at Llandudno. He----"

Mat paused suddenly, and his jaw fell. Suddenly he remembered his visit
to Wales on the previous evening, when Naomi had told him of Aaron
Shelvocke's strange disappearance. The sergeant of police noticed the
change in him, as did all the others, but none spoke save the pitman
who had brought the alarming news.

"I'm sorry Mester, but I've only said what's true. If that isn't owd
Aaron Shelvocke that's lying dead as a doornail in the airways of the
cannel seam I never knowed him, and I've known him ever sin' he come
back to O'sden Green."

"God help me if it is!" Mat ejaculated. "It may be as you say, but I
cannot believe it yet. How did he get down the pit? How did he come by
his death? Tell me that, man! Tell me that!"

"I can't do that, sir," the miner said lowly and earnestly. "I can only
tell you how we happened to come across him. The fireman, Sam Kay, sent
me and two other datallers into the airways to clean up a fall at the
top of No. 1 jig, and it was close to the bottom of the fall that we
found him."

"Killed, you say! But what do you mean, Baxendale? Do you mean that he
has lost his life accidentally, or that he has been----"

Mat paused ere he uttered that awful word, and the others pressed
nearer to the questioned miner. The rigid form of the old watchman was
forgotten, or ignored, for the time being, and even the sergeant strode
forward to hang upon the newsbearer's next words.

"I don't know, Mester, and that's all I can tell you. The gaffer were
lying on his breast, and a big slab o' rock was on the top of his head
and shoulders. It just looked as if it had tumbled on him!"

"There is some terrible mystery about this, Sergeant Roberts,"
Shelvocke muttered hoarsely, as he turned to the constable. "My uncle
was supposed to be taking a holiday on the Welsh coast, as you probably
are aware--no one knew that he was within some scores of miles of
Orsden Green, and now you hear what this man says. My God, this is
awful! I feel as if I were mad or dreaming? What am I to do?"

"Go down the mine at once," the officer suggested. "Perhaps it is some
one else who has been mistaken for Mr. Shelvocke. If there is any doubt
in your mind when you have seen the dead man you can easily settle that
matter by sending a telegram to the place where your uncle is supposed
to be staying. That's my advice, Shelvocke."

"I thank you, and will act upon it at once," Mat exclaimed, earnestly,
as he pulled himself together. "But you, Roberts, had better come with
me, hadn't you?"

"No, I can't do that, with poor old Coxall lying dead here."

"Ah! Poor Dan! I'd forgotten him!"

"Go at once, then, and--if you will pardon me for saying so--take
particular notice of everything. I've never been down a pit in my life,
and should only be in your way. Besides, as I said before, I have my
work here."

The officer jerked his hand over his shoulder, and the eyes of the
others followed his sign. The latest tragedy had quite overshadowed
the poor old watchman's untimely and singular end, and all minds were
centred now on the Master of Orsden's fate.

"I will go," Mat murmured. "And you, Wells, Gore, and Baxendale,
come with me. All work must be suspended at once, and the miners
brought out. You, sergeant, will stay here, I suppose, till I send you
assistance from the pit-brow."

The officer replied in the affirmative, and then Shelvocke strode forth
with a gloomy perplexed countenance and a sorely troubled mind, while
his three workmen followed silently at his side.

In a few moments the brow of the Cannel Mine was gained, and, after
giving orders for some of the surface men to join Sergeant Roberts in
Coxall's cabin, a descent was forthwith made into the mine.

Even as he strode forward along the tall arched way forming the pit
eye, towards the cabin, the agitated manager could not avoid noting the
unmistakable change which had settled down over the whole place since
his visit the day before. The "hooker-on" and his assistants--the lads
who drove the shaggy ponies and attended to the bottom of the jig, went
about their labours with hushed voices and an expression of expectant
wonder on their besmirched faces.

In the cell-like cabin cut out of the living rock, young Shelvocke
divested himself of his coat, lit his "Davy-lamp," and then turned to
his three companions, saying quietly, in a voice that betrayed his deep
feeling--

"You, Wells and Baxendale, will come with me; you, Gore," turning to
the fireman, "will take steps at once to see that all the men are
'knocked out.' Colliers, datallers--everyone must cease work, you
understand!"

The official cried, "Ay, ay, sir!" and rushed off to attend to his
instructions, while Mat and his companions proceeded at a quick pace
in the direction of the No. 1 jig. Here the underlooker said a few
whispered words to the young fellow in charge of the jig, and then the
trio hurried forward again on their gruesome errand.

In ten minutes more they had entered the old galleries forming the
airways, and a few minutes afterwards they came upon the two labourers
who had been with Baxendale when the lifeless form of Aaron Shelvocke
was discovered.

The two datallers were crouched on their haunches, after the peculiar
manner of their kind, a score of yards from the spot where the dead man
lay, and, ere passing on, Shelvocke paused some moments to question the
men, and compose himself for the trial awaiting him.

Then he stole forward with the others at his heels and soon was
crouching on his knees beside the rigid, recumbent figure, with the
light of his Davy falling upon the grizzled beard and mute, emotionless
features of his uncle.

"My God! it is Uncle Aaron!" Mat sobbed hoarsely, and the pent-up
feelings of awe, pain, and mystery found vent in a sudden gush of manly
tears. "How has this happened! How has he got here? I will know. I will
know, if I spend all my life in the work!"

He knelt there with his hands clasped above the grim face of the
dead, his fine young face deluged with bitter tears, and his whole
frame vibrating with intense excitement. His companions looked on
silently, pityingly, for the horror of the incident and its apparently
inexplicable mystery had gone home to their hearts.

Presently Mat's emotion vanished--was swept abruptly from his
countenance and manner and speech by an iron inflexible resolution that
was born of the solemn vow he had taken in the presence of the dead and
the living.

Then, placing his lamp in the hands of the underlooker, and bidding
the others to look on, he plunged his hands one after another into the
pockets of his poor kinsman. From the trousers pockets he drew forth a
handful of gold, silver, and copper coins, all mixed up together; from
the vest pocket he drew the gold watch still attached to the heavy gold
albert; and out of the inner pocket of the coat he fished what proved
to be his uncle's chequebook.

All these articles he placed one by one in the keeping of the
underlooker, and turned to seek afresh. But nothing else was found upon
the body. Mat had imagined that some note might reveal why his kinsman
had rambled so far from the pleasure resort where he had gone to spend
his holidays.

There was, however, nothing to show how the dead mine-owner had drifted
there. How he had got down into the mine seemed unknown to any one. Why
he had entered the seam was a greater mystery still. Had he made that
last journey alone? If not, who had been his companion?

Those questions ran riot in the young man's mind even as he examined
his relative's garments for any scrap of evidence that would throw a
light on the inscrutable puzzle, and when his search was concluded
and his hands were still empty of any clue, he turned away with an
expression of dissatisfaction on his comely face, and a feeling of
painful wonder in his breast.

Going forwards towards the fall of roof Mat bade the others follow him,
and when the sloping foot of the tumbled heap of shattered roof was
gained he asked for precise information as to the exact spot where the
dead man was found, how he lay, and what stone or stones were upon his
body.

"There was only one stone on the top o' him," Baxendale replied
readily, "and that slab o' rock theer," pointing as he spoke, "was it.
Isn't that so, Joe, and Ben?"

The miner's companions hastened to confirm their comrade's affirmation,
and then Shelvocke and Wells examined the fragment of rock carefully,
yet not without a faint shudder of horror.

The piece of fallen roof in question had the appearance of one of the
flat slabs of sandstone used for ordinary pavements in the public
streets. It was between 3 and 4 ft. in length, almost as wide,
and perhaps 6 or 8 in. in thickness. The slab consisted of heavy,
close-grained, slaty shale, such as is usually found a foot or two
above the cannel seam, and on one side of it was a big red splotch
where the life-tide of Aaron Shelvocke had stained it gory.

The fragment of rock was sufficiently ponderous to have crushed a man's
skull, falling upon it even from a short height only; and yet, somehow,
Mat had a strange unaccountable feeling that the splinter of roof had
not fallen upon the dead man in the ordinary course of nature.

Turning away from the fatal lump of shale, Mat crept on all fours about
the tail end of the fall, his lamp held close to the surface of the
sloping heap, and his eyes glancing here, there, and everywhere, in
search of he scarcely knew what. His quest was pursued for a minute or
two in vain, and when he straightened himself he asked suddenly, with
his feverish gaze first on the onlooker and then on Baxendale--

"Do any of you know when this fall of roof took place?"

"It had fallen yesterday, before noon, when I and Gore came through the
airway," said Wells.

"You are sure of this?"

"Absolutely positive!" was the underlooker's firm reply. "It was then I
told Gore to send men to-day to have the fall cleared away."

"That's so, Mester," the dataller joined in. "And the fireman told
me and my two men to come here and make the necessary repairs this
morning."

Baxendale nodded earnestly as he spoke, his mates did likewise, and
then Mat cried,

"And so this stone must have fallen many hours after the rest had
fallen--if it fell last night upon my uncle and killed him!" None of
them answered--they did not appear to divine the trend of this thought,
and he added, "Whenever this fall of roof is 'cleaned up' see, all of
you, that this blood-smeared stone is placed aside and left untouched.
You all understand me?"

They understood him now--had some faint conception of his meaning so
far as the block of rock was concerned, and they promised what he asked.

A little while afterwards the dead body of the unfortunate minemaster
was conveyed to the surface, where a crowd of excited villagers were
awaiting it. The news of the double tragedy, or accident, had spread
like the wind through Orsden Green, and rumour was already busy weaving
a thousand accounts of the dual disaster.




CHAPTER XXV.--THE FINDING OF THE JURY.

A dozen of the soberest and sanest of the good men of Orsden
Green--three farmers, as many shopkeepers, a blacksmith, a wheelwright,
an insurance agent, a publican, and a couple of nondescripts--had been
gathered together in solemn conclave for an hour at the Black Boar
for the purpose of discovering how Daniel Coxall, late watchman and
ex-gamekeeper, had come by his sudden death.

In their deliberations, these grave and reverend seignors had been
not a little assisted by the County Coroner, an astute, suave-tongued
attorney; and, after calmly considering all the facts of the case, and
the evidence placed before them, our twelve villagers had found that
poor old Dan's decease was the result of a fall brought about by an
overdose of whisky.

All the circumstances immediately surrounding the old man's sad end
supported such a verdict, and no one had anything to urge against
such a finding. The old chap had no foes, and, in the absence of all
information to the contrary, it was only reasonable to assume that
Dan's death was easily explained by the empty whisky bottle found on
his little table.

Having completed their work at the village hostelry and earned their
humble shillings, the twelve men and their captain proceeded in the
direction of Orsden Hall, where a similar task awaited them, although
it was surrounded with more elements of mystery.

It had seemed so easy to understand how the poor old watchman had
stumbled alcoholically to his fate within the confines of his own
little cabin, but it was passing strange, when one came to consider
it, that a wealthy mineowner had crept by stealth down one of his own
mines, under cover of the night, to meet the grisly scytheman, just
like the poorest of all his workmen.

The intense excitement which had prevailed in the village on the
discovery of Aaron Shelvocke's dead body had subsided to a great extent
a couple of days afterwards when the inquest was to be held. At first
the air of impenetrable mystery environing that most remarkable event
had given origin to every imaginable kind of rumour.

But the passing of forty or fifty hours had enabled people to consider
the matter calmly, and by the time the Coroner and his Jury were making
their way to the dead man's house most folks were agreed that Aaron
Shelvocke's fate lay at his own door. It was wonderful how he had been
able to enter the mine without being seen, but that his death was due
to a singular ill-chance seemed certain.

The twelve good men and true were quietly received at Orsden Hall by
the two nephews of the deceased and his beautiful niece. A telegram
from Mat, written in the depth of his tribulation, had brought back
Naomi with fevered haste to the village, and the descendants of the
dead master ushered the visitors into the large drawing-room where the
enquiry was to be held.

In an adjoining apartment the mortal remains of the late mineowner
were laid out awaiting the last sad rites, and those of the Jurymen
who cared to inspect the remains were at liberty to do so. On the
previous day a couple of doctors belonging to the district had made a
post-mortem examination of the body, and were present when the enquiry
was opened. Half a dozen of the workmen completed the company, save
and excepting a couple of pressmen who represented the Coleclough
newspapers.

The Coroner began the proceedings by briefly narrating the
circumstances of the case. It was a very sad and most simple affair,
and need not detain them long. The deceased had been found dead in
one of his own mines, and the whole of the facts pointed to death by
misadventure. But they would hear the evidence of the witnesses and
the testimony of the medical gentlemen, and then would be able to form
their own opinions. He concluded by calling on the first witness.

The miner, Thomas Baxendale, stepped to the end of the long table and
gave his evidence clearly. On the morning of the past Tuesday he had
gone, according to instructions received, into the airing of the cannel
mine on the Moss for the purpose of repairing the gallery. With him
were two other miners then present, and on reaching the fall of roof
they were to remove they found the body of Mr. Aaron Shelvocke lying
there with a large stone covering his head and shoulders.

"Was your late master quite dead when you liberated, the body?" the
Coroner enquired.

"Quite dead, sir. The body was quite cold when I touched it, and seemed
to have been dead for several hours."

The Coroner asked if any of the Jury had questions to put to the
witness, and as there was no affirmative response Baxendale was told he
might stand back. Then the two miners were called, but were detained
merely a few moments. All they could do was to substantiate the story
of their foreman.

After this Mat Shelvocke was called upon, and his version of the matter
differed in no essential particular from the version of the first
witness. He could not tell how his uncle had entered the mine; he
believed he was spending his holidays in Wales. Nor could he suggest
any reason for his relative coming unawares to the village and entering
the mine. In his opinion the stone must have fallen on his uncle when
he was about to cross the fall.

The young mine manager was somewhat pale and agitated, but he gave his
evidence in a quiet satisfactory way. Then the doctors were called
upon to detail the result of their post-mortem investigation. They
both spoke of the health and strength of the deceased gentleman's
constitution. Had he not met with his mishap he might have lived for a
score or more of years. Death was certainly due to concussion of the
brain produced by the fracture of the cerebellum or hinder part of
the skull. A fragment of rock such as the one Mr. Matthew Shelvocke
had described falling from the height of a few feet only would be
sufficient to produce death.

The medical men gave way and the presiding functionary proceeded to sum
up. That, he began, seemed to be the whole of the available evidence,
and meagre as it was, it was ample to account for the cause of death.
It was remarkable that there was nothing to show why the unfortunate
man had gone down the shaft and entered the airways; and perhaps more
singular still that no one was aware of his fatal visit until the sad
result was discovered.

But they were there, not so much to learn why Mr. Aaron Shelvocke had
gone into the mine, as to find out how he had come by his death there.
After what they had heard they would have a little trouble in deciding
that point.

The Coroner had resumed his seat and the farmers, shopkeepers, and
the rest of the Jury were "putting their heads together" when some
commotion was caused by the standing forward of Luke Stanforth, the
night engine-tenter at the Moss Colliery. In a moment the Coroner had
caught sight of the man, and divined that he had something to say.

"What is it, my man? You wish to offer some additional evidence, I
believe?"

"Yes, sir."

The man was sworn, with the eyes of all present bent eagerly, almost
expectantly upon him, and then the night-winder began in a shamefaced
way.

"I want to say, sir, that I was present, I believe, when Mester Aaron
Shelvocke went down the pit."

"You believe? Are you not certain?"

"No, sir. It happened in this way. On Monday night, about 12 o'clock, I
was in the engine-house when Dan Coxall came to me, saying as the owd
mester and his nephew was on the brow and wanted to go down."

"And you let them down?"

"Yes, sir; and an hour or two later I pulled 'em up again, as I
thought--at least I pulled somebody up."

"Did you not see who went down the pit and came up again?"

"No, sir. I couldn't see from the engine-house on the pit-brow, as it
was very dark that night, and there was only one lamp lit beside the
shaft."

"So that you cannot swear who it was you let down and afterwards pulled
up?"

"No, sir. I only know what owd Dan Coxall told me. And when Dan went
away I ne'er seed (saw) him again alive."

A murmur of wonder had swelled through the room, and as Luke Stanforth
fell back the Coroner recalled Mat Shelvocke.

"I am sorry to trouble you again, Mr. Shelvocke, but you will pardon me
asking a few questions under the circumstances. You have heard the last
witness declare that the dead watchman told him that your uncle and a
nephew wished to descend the pit. Have you any knowledge of that event?"

"Absolutely none," Mat cried firmly, his head erect now and his frank
face turned fearlessly upon his questioner. "I was away that evening in
Wales, visiting my cousin, Miss Naomi Shelvocke, and I did not leave
Llandudno before 10 o'clock. When I returned to Orsden Moss it was
between 12 and 1, and I went straight home. I had no idea that my uncle
was so near home, and I had never seen him for some days."

"Thank you. That will do. Perhaps Mr. Levi Blackshaw will come forward."

Without a word Blackshaw took his cousin's place, his dark face
composed and grave. Quite calmly he announced that he was at the
service of the Coroner.

"Can you throw any light upon this matter, Mr. Blackshaw? Were you with
your relative that night when he went down the shaft?"

"Most assuredly not! I have never been down a pit in my life, and I
should not select midnight to begin."

"You did not see Mr. Aaron Shelvocke on the night in question?"

"I did not. On that night I was never out of Orsden Hall. I was reading
in the sitting-room till nine or half-past, and then I retired for the
night, having a severe headache."

Blackshaw went away, and the Coroner addressed himself to his
coadjutors, who, after a deliberation of five minutes' duration
returned a verdict of "Found Dead."




CHAPTER XXVI.--THE NEW MASTER OF ORSDEN MOSS.

A week or two had passed away, and matters in the village of Orsden
Green were flowing along very much in the channels they had pursued
prior to the sudden death and inquest upon Aaron Shelvocke and the old
watchman.

The three relatives of the late Master of Orsden Hall were residing
together at the big house, and, save for the absence of their uncle's
genial presence, there was little change perceptible. Still there was
a difference between Mat and Levi and Naomi--a difference which each
individual of the trio felt most clearly, and yet endeavoured neither
to see nor feel.

Shortly after the interment of Aaron Shelvocke the "last will and
testament" of the deceased mineowner was produced by Mr. George Scott,
the Coleclough solicitor, whom the testator had constituted his legal
adviser. That document was duly attested and proved, its validity was
never questioned, and Matthew Shelvocke, Esq., stepped practically into
the shoes of his dead kinsman.

To his niece, Naomi Shelvocke, Aaron had bequeathed the comfortable
sum of five thousand pounds free of legacy duty; to his nephew,
Mr. Levi Blackshaw, two-fifths of that amount; all else, with the
exception of small legacies, to old friends and servants, became the
absolute property of "My dear nephew, Matthew," to have and to hold
unconditionally for ever.

Thus the young Mine Manager found himself suddenly lifted from a
comparatively obscure position to one of considerable importance,
influence, and wealth. The exact amount of the fortune he had inherited
was difficult to estimate; it could not be less than twenty thousand
pounds, and probably might run to five or ten thousand more.

But for many days Mat did not trouble his brain much with thoughts of
his newly acquired affluence and dignity. He was surprised that his
uncle had treated him so generously; was delighted to have placed in
his hands such undying and indisputable proof of Aaron Shelvocke's
goodwill and esteem, and while he felt sorry in a sense that his two
cousins had less cause to remember their dead kinsman affectionately,
there were other matters that pressed upon him for attention.

The day after the burial of his uncle's remains Mat proceeded to the
colliery as usual, descended the mines, and discharged the ordinary
duties of the position to which he had grown accustomed. To all the
miners his manners and methods remained unchanged; he was still their
Manager, and they were his co-workers, and a stranger to the pits would
never have imagined that Mat was lord and master of all he surveyed.
He was quieter than of old, more reticent and thoughtful, but not less
kindly and considerate to the workers on the Moss. His finely marked
brown face had grown paler and graver, as if his outlook upon life
had undergone some deep change; and the look of introspection and
speculation which had become habitual with him now gave rise to many
surmises.

The defection of Lettice Forrester was still a thorn in his side, and
strive as he would to put all thought of her behind him the ghost of
his strong young love refused to be laid. Every time his eyes rested
upon the fair woman the wound bled anew; and sometimes, when he caught
her sadly reproachful, soft, blue eyes upon him, he felt inclined to
question the truth of what he had seen.

And apart from this trouble of the heart he had other, and perhaps
graver anxieties. There was the mystery surrounding his uncle's strange
end; Naomi's sudden resolve to quit the village for good--a resolution
Aaron's death seemed to have swept away; and finally, the unknown
trouble which appeared to have arisen between his uncle and Levi
Blackshaw.

Why Aaron Shelvocke had deserted Naomi in Wales, and come back secretly
to Orsden Green, was a riddle to which Mat in vain sought the key. The
more he cudgelled his brains for a solution of the puzzle the more
enigmatical the mystery became; and still, even when the fog around
him seemed thickest, Mat felt most positive that there was much to be
discovered.

On various occasions Mat had visited the never-to-be-forgotten spot in
the airways where his uncle's dead body was found. Sometimes he had
taken the underlooker or fireman with him, and together they had tried
vainly to disentangle the Gordian knot.

Even when alone he was not more successful in his mental gropings. He
was like a man struggling blindly in the dark; and turn which way he
would, peer here and there as he might, no ray of light came to him.

The stone that had been found resting on Aaron Shelvocke's broken
skull still remained intact, propped against the side of the repaired
gallery. Again and again the young man had bent his gaze upon the slab
of rock, into the grain of which some portion of his uncle's life blood
had sunk, and wondered what story it would have unfolded could it but
speak.

When Mat had ordered the massive fragment to be placed aside and
preserved, he had thought that the texture of the rock would reveal
from which part of the roof it had fallen; but examination of
the various layers of slaty shale composing the roof had proved
fruitless, and he was still unable to say whether the stone had fallen
accidentally on the buried man, or been flung there purposely.

On the night following the inquest at Orsden Hall, Mat had made his
way to the colliery on the Moss with the intention of speaking to the
night-winder, Stanforth, who had volunteered to give information before
the enquiry terminated.

Mat had been strongly impressed by what the man had stated; had
wondered greatly that the important point he had raised was not
considered more carefully by the Coroner and Jury; and it was to
satisfy himself more thoroughly on the matter that he sought his
workman.

It was nearly midnight when Mat crossed the back of the pits and
entered the engine-house, the door of which stood ajar. He found
Stanforth alone with that evening's paper in his hand, and the anxious
look on the man's face showed the Manager how matters stood. The
following conversation took place between them:--

"Good-night, Luke," he cried genially in order to set the engineer at
his ease. "I dare say you can guess why I have called to see you?"

"I think I can, sir," Stanforth had answered. "I'm sorry--very sorry,
sir, but I thought it was my duty to speak."

"Of course it was, and I'm glad you did your duty," Mat rejoined
frankly; "but there is one thing I want you to do first of all, Luke.
Rid your mind of all uneasiness on my account, will you? So far from
blaming you for what you said, I am only sorry that you didn't speak
out sooner."

"I ought to ha' done so, mester, but I didn't like," the man said
slowly.

"That's it. You didn't like, Luke; and I know why you didn't like. You
kept your mouth closed on my account, and you only opened it because
you were half afraid of what might happen to you if you kept back what
you happened to know."

"That's God's truth, sir," Stanforth exclaimed, fervently.

"I know it is. I could see how reluctant you were to come forward--how
disagreeable it was to tell what you knew--and I knew also why you were
so uneasy about it all. You thought, were compelled to think, that if
old Dan Coxall spoke the truth to you, when he said my uncle was going
down the pit with his nephew, the nephew in question was myself."

"What else could I think, sir? I knowed you went down the pits at a'
hours, an' who else----?"

"Yes, I see it all, Stanforth," Mat broke in. "God knows I didn't go
with him. How could I when I was travelling all that night between ten
and twelve o'clock? But some one went down with my uncle, and what I
have to discover is, who that man was."

"That's it, mester," Stanforth replied. "But on'y owd Dan Coxall can
tell yo' that."

"And he is beyond speaking," Mat rejoined, with a low, dogged
vehemence. "But," he added with sparkling eyes, "I will find out--I
will find out, if I spend the whole of my life and my uncle's fortune
in the work."

The man did not make any rejoinder, but his face showed that Mat's
words and manner had made an impression upon him. Whatever he might
have thought before, it was easy to see that he no longer believed that
his young master had accompanied his old employer when he went into the
mine that night.

Feeling still far from satisfied Mat made it his business on the
following day to call upon Sergeant Roberts, to whom he explained his
own feelings of uneasiness concerning the manner of his kinsman's
death. The suspicious circumstances surrounding the tragedy demanded
the most earnest and careful investigation, and if the officer deemed
an enquiry necessary, he was prepared to employ one of the smartest
detectives that could be found in England.

The officer listened patiently, and when Mat had concluded spoke
freely, yet with the caution peculiar to a shrewd policeman. It was, he
admitted, a singular thing that Aaron Shelvocke should steal away from
Wales and go into his own mine under cover of the night; but singular
things were happening every day in the world, if one only cared to take
note of them.

As Mat knew, his uncle had his own way of looking at things, and,
probably, when he paid that unexpected and secret visit to the
colliery he was only doing so to satisfy himself that everything was
being properly attended to in his absence. Unfortunately, his perhaps
excusable curiosity had cost him his life.

As for old Coxall's statement to the man at the engines that Shelvocke
was accompanied by one of his nephews, that could be easily understood
and explained. Aaron and the watchman were old friends, and the master,
in all probability, had taken Dan into his confidence. Hence the
statement that two were seen to go down the pit, when in reality only
one man wished to go.

"But who came up the pit some time afterwards?" Mat queried,
unsatisfied.

"No one came up," was the answer. "Luke Stanforth only imagines
somebody did. But as no one was working that night I suppose he would
have plenty of time to dream of things, wouldn't he?"

Feeling that it was useless to argue the point further, Mat desisted.
Besides, the only basis he had for argument was suspicion, which might
prove groundless. Hence he returned to the Hall with a mind still
filled with vague misgivings and intangible doubts.

In the days that followed there was no exchange of opinion between
either two of the three cousins regarding the remarkable way in which
their joint benefactor had come by his death. Various matters which
had happened prior to that sad event had set a seal upon the lips of
Mat and Naomi, and Levi Blackshaw never alluded to the tragedy in the
remotest way.

Occasionally the new master of Orsden Hall wondered why the dead man
had set him on watch and guard against Levi, and although Mat and Naomi
had spoken of that matter in Wales neither had ever ventured to renew
the discussion.

And thus two or three weeks wore away, the trio of cousins living under
the same roof, eating often at the same table, conversing with each
other with apparent freedom, yet with an unseen but quite palpable
cloud of restraint hanging over them all.

Sometimes Mat attributed this lack of heartiness and good feeling to
his own great fortune. Levi and Naomi were inclined to resent the
undoubted partiality his uncle had shown him at their cost. He was
nearer than they were to the dead man, and it was unnatural that one
should take almost all, to the exclusion of others who were also his
own flesh and blood. Thus Mat thought at times, and then he would smile
in a grave, forgiving way. In time he would show them he was far from
mercenary; for the nonce there was more to think of than mere worldly
gear.

One morning about this time Mat Shelvocke found among the batch of
communications the earliest post brought him a letter which startled
and annoyed him not a trifle. Almost the first glance at the missive
aroused a keen interest in his breast, and when he turned to the
anonymous signature appended to the note he thrust the sheet into his
pocket, with an effort to appear indifferent, which did not escape the
prying eyes of his cousins who were at breakfast with him.

Half an hour later when he was alone--Blackshaw had gone to the
colliery offices, and Naomi was attending to the duties of the
household--Mat turned to the letter again, read it through carefully,
and pondered its contents deeply.

This was what he read:--


"Dear Sir--What I am about to tell you will most likely annoy you very
much, but as I think you ought to know what is going on around you, and
being said, more or less openly, every day about you, I intend to speak
frankly even brutally if need be. Hence, I wish you to consider most
carefully what I say. I dare not give you my name, but you may without
much difficulty satisfy yourself that what I warn you against is true.

"Perhaps I do not need to tell you that the events of the past two or
three weeks have made you the most prominent man in all the village. As
the new master of Orsden Hall, the new owner of Orsden Colliery, you
have become a public character, and the sudden way in which you have
leaped, or been thrust, into a position involving importance, riches,
dignity, and responsibility, has made you a public target at which one
and all may shoot their poisoned arrows.

"That is the plain truth. You are the target, and shafts of envy,
malice, hatred, and spleen are being shot day by day at you. If you
care for your good name you will see to this matter at once. While all
kinds of venomous innuendoes are flying about from one gossip's tongue
to another you have no right to sit idly by with folded arms doing
nothing.

"Do you know what folks are saying? They are saying that Aaron
Shelvocke's death was not the mystery it appears; that one man could
say something about it if he cared to speak; that the mysterious death
was a fine thing for the man who stepped into his uncle's shoes; that
it was remarkable Mat Shelvocke should be away in Wales that night
when the night engine-tenter thought he had gone down the pit with
his uncle; that the engine-tenter sheltered his new master as far as
possible; that the Coroner did the same thing.

"Nay, more than this. It is being whispered about that there is some
connection somewhere between the deaths of the mine master and his old
watchman--each had a bloody end within an hour or two of each other;
and it is even said that the police, though apparently asleep, are
working quietly.

"All these things, I repeat, and a thousand others are being said, and
at your expense. Of course, you know nothing. The talkers dare not talk
when you are by. Even those who respect and admire you are compelled to
listen to the gossip, if they don't join in it.

"I have told you all this that you may act. Someone is working against
you in the dark. I have my suspicions, but I will not name them. You
are a man, and strong to think and do where your honour--perhaps your
life--may be at stake.

"I finish now. This letter has cost me much pain to write. For your
sake alone I have written it. But you may rest assured that I shall
continue to watch. I sign myself,

"ONLY A FRIEND."




CHAPTER XXVII.--THE FLIGHT OF THE HEIR.

For a day or two after the receipt of the letter given in the foregoing
chapter Mat Shelvocke went about Orsden Green, and his manner was in no
apparent way different from that to which his kinsfolk, work-people and
fellow-villagers, had become accustomed since the passing away of his
uncle.

He went down the mines less frequently than before; spent more of his
time in hanging about the pit-top or sauntering through the village
streets; was absent occasionally from his meals at the Hall; and for
the rest his countenance was graver than of old, as if he were under
the ban of some ever-present trouble.

But that anonymous communication that revealed to him how the winds of
village gossip were blowing had affected him more strongly mentally
than physically; and under its paleness and gravity his handsome
face had a sternness, a resoluteness and doggedness, which only two
women--Naomi Shelvocke and Lettice Forrester--of all the crowd, were
keen-visioned enough to notice.

Probably those two only were able to read Mat's countenance and its
signs, not through their eyes alone, but by means of their hearts.

That the statements set forth in the missive were true, both in
substance and in fact, Mat never dreamt of doubting for an instant. The
letter was a revelation to him, and still when his eyes were forced
open he was surprised and angry even that he had not seen things in
that light before.

The writer, whoever she might be--he knew it must be one of two
women--had seen the facts with naked eyes, and had sent him her living
impressions of what was simmering under the surface of things around
him.

Slanderous brains were busy coining innuendoes to arm the unthinking
crowd, the tongues of gossip-mongers were busy circulating the base
metal; and his honour, even his life might be at stake unless he proved
he was a man strong to think and do, as "Only a Friend" had stated.

What could he think? What ought he to do? How easy to ask those
questions. How difficult to frame unto them a sufficient answer.

In the depth of his perplexity Mat hurried to the colliery on the
Moss for the purpose of speaking to his old sweetheart. Lettice
Forrester must be the author of that letter; Naomi would have spoken,
not written; and since their estrangement the pit-brow girl had been
debarred by his action from addressing him orally.

Within a dozen yards of the screens wherein Lettice was at work the
young fellow paused irresolute. How could he speak to the girl in the
presence of her workmates? And to call her away, after the action he
had deemed it absolutely necessary to take, would only be to subject
them to the notice and remarks of many.

He went away with his questions unuttered. Going across the line of
rails he turned to the Moss, and struck for that portion of it which
within recent years had been drained and cultivated. An hour later he
reached the Hall tired and weary, meeting his cousin face to face as he
entered the house.

"What is the matter with you, Mat?" Naomi cried sympathetically, as her
fine black eyes flashed a look of concern upon her kinsman. "You look
quite white and ill. What is disturbing you, dear?"

"I can hardly tell you, Naomi," he answered grimly. "This affair of
uncle's has upset me terribly; but I daresay I shall be all right again
in time."

"I am sure I hope so, Mat," was her tenderly voiced response. "You are
really looking very ill, and you ought to see some one, and take a long
rest. Why should you go down the mines at all now? Give it up at once,
and let some one else do the work. Now you must come and take a cup of
tea with me."

He followed his cousin into the prettily garnished apartment she
affected of an afternoon, and, as he helped himself to the tea she had
pressed upon him, he remarked in a quiet, resolute tone--

"I will take your advice, Naomi. I need a rest badly, and I will take
one. To-morrow I will go somewhere for a week or two. A change will do
me good, I daresay."

"Of course it will!" was the handsome woman's heartily uttered reply.
"And where do you think of going?"

"I cannot say yet, but I will let you know. You must tell Levi if I do
not see him. Wells, the underlooker, holds a Manager's certificate, and
he can take my place. I will see him to-night."

On the morrow Mat Shelvocke left Orsden Green without a formal
leave-taking of his cousins. The day following they heard from him. He
was in Liverpool then, but was about to journey elsewhere, he said, and
would write them again. He wrote later, saying he was bound for London,
which he had never visited, and expected to remain there for a week or
two. In case his relatives did not hear from him again for some time
they were not to feel uneasy on his account, as he was half-minded to
pay a visit to Paris.

After Mat's last letter reached Orsden Hall, ten days went by ere Levi
and Naomi heard from him again. One morning--it was Sunday--the cousins
met at breakfast. The face of each was eager and alert, and in the
eyes of both there burnt a light which bespoke strange and unexpected
intelligence.

They greeted each other formally, as was their custom, fell to on the
morning meal with a relish and alacrity that was scarcely natural, and
for some moments partook of the repast in silence, stealing covert
glances across the table as if to read one another's thoughts.

"Naomi," Levi said suddenly, with his cup poised in his hand, "don't
you think it is strange we haven't heard from our cousin for so
long--ten days, I believe?"

"Perhaps it is, Levi," she answered readily enough. "But ten days seems
a short time indeed when one is away in a delightful country spending a
holiday."

"You speak as though you knew exactly, my dear, where Mat is at the
present moment," he said slowly, watching her closely the while.

"Of course I know. Didn't Mat say he thought of going to Paris? And
that he is there, and finds the gay French capital to his taste, we are
bound to conclude from his remissness in not writing."

"Perhaps!" he said gravely, and with a marked emphasis on the word.
"Do you know," he went on in the same deliberate tone, "I conclude
something else? I don't believe he is in Paris, and I fancy he never
dreamt of going there."

"You astonish me, Levi," she cried, with well-simulated surprise. "At
least we had his word for it."

"His word!" he said, sneeringly.

"Yes, his word!" she retorted warmly; "and until I see reason to doubt,
I may believe it, I suppose?"

"Women go on believing in many things that can never possibly take
place," was his cutting rejoinder. "He never went to Paris; never
intended to go. He is----"

He drew himself up abruptly, feeling that he was allowing his heat to
carry him too far, and as he paused she said in her quietly sarcastic
way--

"You appear to know a lot about poor Mat, Levi. I was not aware that he
took you into his confidence before he went away. I had imagined that
you knew nothing until I told you that, at my suggestion, he decided to
indulge in a long holiday. I believe he went without even bidding his
dear cousin good-bye."

"I know this, Naomi," he exclaimed in sullen anger. "When a young man
goes for a jaunt upon the Continent he doesn't usually carry off a
small fortune with him. Within three days of his leaving the village
our excellent cousin withdrew from the Bank no less a sum than 2,000!"

"I believe the money belonged to him," was Naomi's ironical answer.

"So I suppose."

"He didn't overdraw his account, I imagine."

"No. But a couple of thousand pounds spoils a good deal, if you
understand it. I take it to mean a very long absence from home--an
absence, moreover, which was carefully designed, premeditated, and
carried out."

"If so, what then?" she demanded, setting down the dainty cup of
porcelain with which she had been toying, and leaning over the table
towards him, with her great eyes following his own. "I understood that
Mat was his own master, that he could go and come as he would; and the
two cousins he graciously permits to reside in his house rent-free,
and board-free as well, are hardly the people to take umbrage at his
doings."

"There is none so blind," he said oracularly, "as those who will not
see. If you do not care to see I am not over wishful to show you."

"You have something to tell me, I can see, Levi. You wish me to hear
it, and I am waiting."

"Mat has gone away--is abroad, and will never return!" he cried, with
the ring of triumph in his voice, the gleam of satisfied longing in his
furtive, dark eyes.

"Never!" she said, unastonished, and still bending her unflinching gaze
upon him. "Never is a somewhat lengthy period, and I can hardly believe
that my cousin will prolong his holiday to that extent. But you use the
tone of assurance. Do you honestly believe what you say?"

"I do! Mat is in America; he has sought safety in flight. How can he
return? If you doubt my word, perhaps you will read that."

He threw an envelope and its enclosure across the table. She took it up
coolly, scanned the foreign-looking stamp and postmark carefully, then
drew out the sheet the slit envelope contained, and read its contents
aloud. The note ran thus:--


"Metropolitan Hotel, New York,

November 16th, 188--.

"My Dear Levi--I scarcely know what you will think of my somewhat
unceremonious departure from Orsden Green, and perhaps what you may
think will not trouble me over much. All I care to say to you at
present is this. My position at home was getting unbearable, hence
I deemed it desirable to change my quarters. The curious manner in
which Uncle Aaron met his death involved me in a particularly odious
manner, and although I am perfectly innocent of my connection with, or
knowledge of, his secret visit to the pits, people think otherwise. God
knows I am guiltless of his murder, if he was killed by human hands;
but until I can prove it, I will never again show my face in my native
village.

"I have placed the estate in the hands of my solicitor, and you will
be responsible to him. Some day, when the mystery is cleared up, I may
return.

"MATTHEW SHELVOCKE."


"Well!" Levi demanded, as she threw back the letter. "What do you think
of that?"

"I am not surprised at your news. I had a letter from Mat myself this
morning, and had read it fully half an hour before you came down to
breakfast."

He glared at her savagely, and an oath was stifled on his lips. She
bore his glare with a taunting composure, as she helped herself to a
fresh cup of tea.

"You did not tell me, Naomi."

"Nor should I have told you now if Mat had not told you all himself. I
can keep a secret in spite of the spiteful saying to the contrary. Some
men are not blessed in that way."

"You are as beautiful as a witch!" he cried, half angrily, half in
admiration; "and as deep as the Bottomless Pit. What had Mat to say to
you?"

"Very little, save what your letter contains. He was kind enough to
offer me a thousand pounds in addition to my uncle's bequest, and he
desires me to remain mistress of Orsden Hall until he returns to claim
his own."

"You will be mistress long, then!" he muttered, with half a hiss in his
tones. "But about that I shall never grumble, my dear Naomi, so long as
I am master," he added, in a meaning way.

"Till Mat returns I am willing to call you by any name that pleases
you, cousin," was her careless response.

"He will never return, I tell you. He has fled from----" A tap at the
door closed his lips. The next instant the maid came in, saying that
Sergeant Roberts had called.

A meaning glance flashed between the cousins; and then Naomi, who was
the cooler, said quietly:--

"Bring Sergeant Roberts here, please."

A minute later the officer walked in, dressed in plain clothes. He
nodded to both somewhat stiffly, and then remarked--

"I'm sorry to trouble you, Miss Shelvocke and Mr. Blackshaw. But
perhaps you will oblige me by giving me Mr. Matthew Shelvocke's present
address. I understand he is enjoying a holiday somewhere."

Levi was about to speak, but Naomi stopped him with an imperious
gesture.

"Why do you want Mat?" she demanded.

"I have a warrant for his arrest. He is suspected of having something
to do with Aaron Shelvocke's death."

"Thank God he is gone!" she cried.

"What does Miss Shelvocke mean?" the Sergeant asked, as he turned to
Blackshaw.

"She means that Matthew Shelvocke has managed to escape to America,"
was Levi's reply. "Here is a letter from him which I received this
very morning. Read it, Sergeant, and then you will know all about the
absconder that we can tell you. My cousin has gone a long way afield to
spend his holiday!"




CHAPTER XXVIII.--THE NEW WATCHMAN.

In the snug little two-chambered shanty, formerly tenanted by old
Dan Coxall, his latest successor was sitting one afternoon early in
November. During the day the rain had fallen in a thick, drenching,
incessant sheet, washing the village thoroughfares clean and sweet,
converting the undrained portions of Orsden Moss into a great wet
sponge, and deluging the pit-brow girls and other workers on the bank
of the Moss Colliery.

As the day closed in and the early twilight gathered, the downpour
slackened, then ceased altogether, and now, when the ear-piercing
scream of the steam whistle at Orsden Moss pits was ringing out clear
and long on the damp air, telling the surface labourers that the end of
the day's work had come, the atmosphere had cleared, and gave promise
of a fair night.

Rising from his rush-bottomed armchair, old Adam Bannister, the new
watchman, walked slowly to the doorway of his dwelling, and lounging
there on the threshold he cast his eyes this way and that. Perhaps the
fresh man was only wondering if the spell of dry weather would continue
until his nightly vigil and nocturnal meanderings about the colliery
were ended.

Standing on the little step he could see the scattered village now
enveloped in the shadow, could mark the rough sweep of land lying
between the pits and the houses of the workers; and the pit bank, the
lines of the wagon road, brow, screens, and engine-house were within
easy reach of his vision.

Adam Bannister appeared midway between the half-century and three score
of years, but seemed hale and powerful still, being tall and sturdy
limbed in spite of his slight stoop. He was coarse-voiced, had a thick
tangle of iron-grey hair, and to aid his impaired sight wore a cumbrous
pair of blue glasses.

Presently the pit-brow girls and women, the surface labourers and
banksmen, came dawdling or hurrying past in ones and twos and threes,
all glancing at the figure in the doorway, and not a few commenting
upon him.

"Th' new watchman!" some whispered audibly to their friends as they
went by. "Ah wonder if he'll stay no lunger than th' last chap did?"
others remarked, and one or two made reference to old Coxall's sudden
end.

To none of these comments did Adam Bannister pay the slightest heed.
But once his strong figure drew itself together instinctively, and the
eyes behind his coloured spectacles flashed, as a pit-brow girl with
an easy gliding step, a gracefully moulded form, finally cut face, and
sunny hair drew near.

It was Lettice Forrester; and as she came along, alone, she glanced
incuriously at the old man as the others had done. She was passing when
the watchman's harsh voice, softened a little, caught her ears.

"Yo'l excuse me, my pratty wench, but wot tahme does th' pit whistle
blow ev'ry neet?"

"Half-past 5, sir, except Saturdays," the girl answered as she paused a
moment; "then it blows at 2 o'clock."

"Thank yo'! Thank yo'! Ah'm th' new watchmon, yo' known, an' ah'm a bit
strange yet."

She nodded her fair head and went on her way, and, after lingering a
few moments longer at the door, he strode inside, raked the bars of
his small grate, and placed a shovelful of coal on the fire, and took
off the old cap he had been wearing, hung it methodically on a nail in
the wall, put on a big, weather-beaten, soft-felt hat, with wide brim,
donned an old big coat also, and then, taking a good stout oaken stick
from the corner near the fireplace, went forth, locking his little
castle behind him.

Here a few sentences may be penned respecting what had gone on in the
village of Orsden Green in the interval between the flight of Matthew
Shelvocke and the installation of the new watchman, Adam Bannister.

Within an hour or two of Sergeant Roberts's visit to Orsden Hall every
man and woman in the village, and a small multitude outside it, knew
that the police official had gone there for the purpose of laying the
hands of the law upon Aaron Shelvocke's nephew and heir.

By some means the whole of the circumstances of the case leaked out and
were spread broadcast. Every pitman was full of the news by the time
the village public-houses threw open their doors at noonday; and over
their pots of ale and their tumblers of whisky and rum the hard-fisted
winners of coal discussed with breathless interest the extraordinary
sequel to their "Owd Boss's" death.

On the pretext of taking a holiday young Mat had escaped to
Yankee-land, taking with him in solid cash many a thousand pound--how
many the Lord alone knew; some said it was only five thousand, others
swore they had heard it was ten, and one or two said they believed that
when the truth was known fully twenty thousand wouldn't be far wide of
the mark.

That Sergeant Roberts's visit to the Hall explained Mat's flight all
the gossips were agreed; and that the absconding man had not flown
without serious reasons only a few were prepared to assert.

Even the miners who had known the Mine Manager all his life, who had
received many tokens of consideration at Mat's hands, were at a loss
how to defend their favourite when some one demanded to know why, if he
were innocent, he had "hooked it," and taken all that money with him?

That question was a puzzler; and those who felt that Mat was guiltless,
but could not back their belief with proof, were compelled to sit
silent and hear him adjudged guilty.

The sensation had soon subsided, and in the meantime the work and life
of the place went along the old channels, for although Mat Shelvocke
was away his spirit still directed the undertaking to which his uncle's
will had made him heir.

The solicitor in the neighbouring town kept a tight hand and a
watchful eye on his absent client's interests; the underlooker, George
Wells, had stepped into Mat's managerial shoes, and was filling them
fairly well; Levi Blackshaw was cashier still, and no more, and the
limitations of his position annoyed him beyond expression.

At times Mr. Blackshaw's dissatisfaction found expression. To his
cousin Naomi, when their talk drifted to the absent one, Levi would
give his tongue the rein, and declare in the most open way that Mat
Shelvocke had treated both his relatives unfairly by acting as he had
seen fit to do.

He didn't blame his cousin for flying, if he thought his neck or
his liberty were endangered by remaining at his post; but when the
exigencies of the case compelled him to vanish from the scenes that
had known him all his life, he ought to have placed more confidence in
those who were bound to him by ties of blood.

When Mr. Blackshaw talked in that strain Naomi did not scruple to lash
her cousin with her biting tongue and contemptuous glances. She knew
that Levi hated to be tied down as he was, and compelled to act under
the directions of another, as if he were merely a servant and not the
nephew of Aaron Shelvocke, and first cousin to the missing master.

Levi's ambition was to fill the throne Mat had deserted; he desired
to have the whole of the mines and miners in his hands--to wield
the destiny of the estate according to his own wishes. He felt it
humiliating that he, a prince of the royal blood, so to speak, should
be called upon to do other than command.

"I can quite understand, my dear Levi," Naomi would remark on these
occasions, when the discontented man aired his grievances, "that it
would have suited you much better if poor Mat had handed over to you
the reins of government instead of entrusting them to that legal
gentleman in Coleclough."

"In spite of the half-sneer underlying your remark, Naomi," he would
retort, "what you say is simply a matter of fact. What can Mr. Attorney
Scott know about mines and miners? After all, he has to act upon my
advice."

"Then why grumble, if you are the real director of things after all? I
suppose you want the glory of the game as well as the power of shaping
it, eh? In a word, you aim at becoming the Squire of Orsden?"

"Perhaps you are right, cousin. I imagine it will come--must come to
that soon! When we have reasonable grounds for believing that our
excellent relative intends to show his face in England no more, when
legally at all events, we may assume that he is dead, what will happen
then, think you? Fortunately our cousin couldn't take the Hall, the
Moss, the pits, and the remainder of the estate with him."

"I have no knowledge of the law," she answered, "and in consequence
cannot imagine what may happen in the event of Mat's continued absence.
Mat, however, seems to have considered that point. Perhaps that is why
he elected to leave his affairs in Mr. Scott's hands."

"Perhaps; but even lawyers have to submit to the requirements of the
law. I am positive that Mat will never return, and equally assured that
I shall not be content to remain in Mr. Scott's leading strings for the
remainder of my days."

"But Mat will return!" she cried positively. "He must return! It is
absurd to imagine he will never come back."

"It is easy to believe what one desires to believe, Naomi. You wish him
to return," he suggested, with his keen gaze upon her.

"Perhaps I do!" she replied stolidly, meeting his inquisitive gaze
unflinchingly.

A sharp retort was on his tongue, but he withheld its utterance. Her
manner was one of defiance, and he was strongly tempted to remind
her of a certain pact they had entered into. Now that he was winning
the great game upon which he had staked so much was she desirous of
breaking the pledge she had given him?

He was suspicious, and yet unwilling to put her to the supreme test at
that moment. Events were not yet ripe for that master stroke. So he
restrained himself, held his peace, and left her in possession of the
field.

He, at all events, could afford to wait a little longer. He had much to
win, and was almost certain of the game.




CHAPTER XXIX.--THE FIRST LINK IN THE CHAIN.

It was between 10 and 11 o'clock at night, and the night watchman was
again seated within his snug little domicile, consuming his frugal
repast. He was sitting beside the small table fully dressed, as he had
just come in from his solitary round.

His old soft hat was pushed back from his brow, about which a tangled
mass of iron-grey hair hung; he had not even removed the big coat
which he had donned some hours earlier in the evening; his strong,
heavily-soled boots were stained with patches of black mud; and the
eyes that burned brightly behind his blue spectacles had in them
something which told of a mind plunged in speculation.

The door of the hut was standing half-open, and through the doorway the
bright glow of the oil lamp shot a broad ray of light into the outer
blackness of the silent Moss and adjacent colliery.

Suddenly Adam Bannister's head was raised alertly, and he ceased
munching his chunk of bread and cheese. A footfall had come to him out
of the silence, and he was waiting to see who came. He did not stir,
and he quietly resumed his meal.

Then the footsteps were heard again on the smooth, damp cinder path
outside, and some moments later a man's form was framed in the doorway.
It was Levi Blackshaw, well attired, sharp of eye, suave-tongued,
smooth-faced, and inquisitive as usual.

"Good night, my man," Blackshaw cried pleasantly, as he took a step
forward. "And so you are the new watchman, are you?"

"Ah reckon ah am, mester," was the bearded man's response, and his
voice had harsher and harder notes in it than when he addressed Lettice
Forrester earlier in the evening. "Ah felt jus' a bit 'cowd' wi'
trampin' through th' damp an' weet, an' ah thowt a bit o' a snap an' a
drop o' werm tay would liven me up lahke."

"I daresay it will, and I am sure I hope so, my man. By the way, I have
forgotten your name. Wells told me about you, and I trust you will stay
with us longer than the last man did."

"My name is Bannister, sir--owd Adam Bannister. Ah s'pose yo'll be th'
y'ung Mester, what Mester Wells towd me abeawt?"

"That is so, Bannister. My name is Blackshaw. I was just having a
stroll round the place before turning into the Hall for rest, and when
I saw your cabin-door open it struck me that I might as well drop in
and have a word or two with you, Bannister."

"Thanky, sir," and the watchman's hand was jerked up to his grizzled
beard. "Things do seem to get a bit lonely lahke on th' Moss in th'
middle o' th' neet."

"Yes, that is so. Orsden Moss is not the liveliest of spots on a night
like this. But you will soon get used to it, and you will seldom be
left quite alone on the Moss, you know, for there is generally a man on
the brow in the engine-room."

"So ah reckon. Ah con drop in theer neaw an' again when I want a smook
an' a chat."

"Of course," Levi remarked, and then, after a momentary pause,
he added, "You're a Lancashire man--I can tell from your tongue,
Bannister--not an Orsden Greener, I think?"

"That's reet, Mester Blackshaw," was the ready response. "Ah were born
an' bred up Owdham way, but when ah was a young chap ah coom deawn
here, an' ah lived at Hindley an' Ince a goodish bit."

"You worked in the pits. I suppose?"

"Reet yo are, mester. Ah worked i' th' pits as lad an' mon for o'er
forty 'ear; an' when ah geet too owd for that theer soart o' wark ah
had to do some'at, you known."

"Of course, of course. And is this your first visit to Orsden Green--I
mean the first time you have ever stayed here or worked here?"

"That's so, mester. Ah'd heer'd abeawt O'sden Green mony o' tahme, but
ah connut say that ah were ever here afoor t'other day, when Mester
Wells took me on."

"You would hear all about the remarkable way in which my uncle, the
late Aaron Shelvocke, died, I daresay?" Blackshaw remarked.

"Well, sir, ah did hear some'at. Ah connut read, yo' known, an' what ah
did get to know abeaut it was jus' what ah heer'd t'others readin' int'
pappers."

"Well, it was strange, to say the least; and perhaps stranger still
that the former watchman, whose place you now fill, should have died in
a drunken fit the same night."

"Neaw, that was strange," the old watchman cried with some show of
interest, as he finished his meal and proceeded to fill an old clay
pipe with cut twist. "But," he added philosophically, as he lit a scrap
of paper at the fire and held it above his blackened cutty, "ah s'pose
we a' han to gooa when eawr tahme comes."

"The last watchman we had," Levi broke in, with a faint smile
irradiating his dark face, "went before his time had come. He was an
old soldier, too, and one would have thought he was afraid of neither
the living nor the dead. But he did not stop many weeks; was afraid of
ghosts, so I have heard some of the villagers say, and you got his job.
I hope you are not afraid of ghosts, Bannister?"

"Ghosts, eh!" the watchman cried, as he puffed noisily at his pipe.
"Not me, Mester, I've a lump o' oak in't corner theer as'll shift
annythin', ah reckon."

Levi laughed aloud as his glance followed the old chap's finger. Then,
as he buttoned his overcoat up to the throat, he said--

"Well, I'll say good-night to you, Bannister, and finish my stroll.
May drop in again some other night, as I often take a turn about the
colliery and the Moss. Good night."

"Good neet, sir. Shall be gradely fain to see yo' again anny tahme
yo're this way."

Blackshaw nodded, drew back, and went into the night, closing the door
after him; and when the patter of his feet had died away the watchman
sprang erect and glided softly, lightly, across the flags with which
the small room was paved.

Between the corner of the room and the door he paused and bent low,
where a small object scintillated in the interstices of the rough
flags. That glistening spot had attracted his eyes for the first time
some moments before. Then he might not have seen it had not he followed
Blackshaw's wandering gaze as it roamed here and there over the place.

He tugged at the object with his fingers for a moment or two in vain.
It was hard, smooth, of metal, and had been crushed between the flags
with some force as if a heavy heel had pressed it home. In an instant
he had whipped out his clasp-knife, inserted the strong blade beneath
the object, and prized it forth.

Then he went back and stood beneath the lamp examining his find. The
shining article in his palm was a small disc of gold about the size of
a three-penny piece, and evidently a portion of a broken sleevelink. On
the upper surface was a small shield, on which were graven ornately the
two letters "L. B."

On the under surface was soldered a crushed and twisted link of a thin
gold chain. It had evidently been snapped from its fellow by force, and
a greater force still had wedged the disc between the flags.

"L. B." the watchman muttered lowly. "Those are the initials of my
visitor. This is a portion of the sleevelink Aaron Shelvocke presented
to Levi Blackshaw last Christmas. How came it here? How long has it
been wedged in between those flags? Did he lose it here? And was he
looking for it when I caught his eye? I will find out."

He crossed the floor again, and in a moment had pressed back the disc
in its former place. Then turning down the lamp a little he went forth
upon his nightly vigil.

Passing the narrow flight of steep steps by which the brow was reached,
the watchman went along the wagon road beneath the screens. As he
passed a half-filled wagon he heard footsteps, saw a man's form loom up
in front of him, and again he and his late visitor stood face to face
in the semi-darkness of the place.

"Good night, Bannister. I'm just returning," cried Levi, genially, as
before. "By the way, have you a match or a light? I want a smoke, and
have forgotten my matchbox somewhere."

"My lamp has gone eawt, sir," the watchman replied; "an' ahm jus'
gooin' to th' fireholes to leet it again. But yo'll get a leet in my
cabin, Mester Blackshaw, if yo're gooin' that way. Th' door isn't
locked, sir."

"Thanks; good night. Am sorry to trouble you further."

They went their ways, and an hour later Adam Bannister returned to
his den. Slamming the door, his eyes glanced along the narrow space
of flags. The shining spot was no longer visible. A low laugh fell
pleasantly from the watchman's hairy mouth.

"Good! good! That is something won already. Mr. Levi Blackshaw has
found his property and carried it off. That bit of gold may mean much!"




CHAPTER XXX.--THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

It was a fine clear night in November, and Orsden Moss was plunged in
the silence which usually brooded over it from the full of the night
to the breaking of day. There was a nipping touch in the breath of the
air, and the starry hosts of the firmament sparkled and scintillated as
they alone do when the Frost King rides abroad.

Along the wagon road which led from the colliery in the railway
embankment some half mile away, the watchman of the Moss was pacing
measuredly. Presently the solitary vigil-keeper came to a spot on the
line of rails which appeared to engross his attention, for he paused
suddenly and gazed about him as if in deep thought.

The night was far from being a dark one, although the clock in the
tower of the village Church had some time ago chimed the hour prior
to midnight and no moon was visible, but the joint effulgence of the
countless stars flooded the sharp air with a faint radiance.

Standing there, Adam Bannister gazed first on either hand and then
straight ahead of him. On each side of the wagon road a stile was
visible; a couple of hundred yards away the lights on the brow of the
pits were to be seen, and further still the gas-lamps in the streets of
Orsden Green shone star-like through the intervening gloom.

First at one side and then at the other the shaggy-bearded watchman
glared, his thick stick tapping the iron rail underfoot, and an
exclamation falling from his lips. That the spot was reminiscent in
some way of unpleasant things seemed apparent from the old man's
manner, and he was about to turn away with an angry shrug, when
something caused him to drop quickly on his hands and knees and creep
into the shadow and shelter of some thick low bushes growing on the top
of the siding near one of the stiles.

Some moments later the reason for the watchman's sudden act was
apparent, when the tall, darkly-clad and heavily-veiled figure of a
woman glided up to the stile near the hidden watcher, and remained
motionless there, with her veiled countenance directed upon the empty
wagon road.

From his hiding-place Bannister could see the outline of the woman's
face clearly enough, but the black network veiling her features was
proof against his curious eyes. For a while he crouched there in eager
expectancy, and the stranger stood rigid at her post.

She was waiting for some one, that was certain. For whom did she wait,
at such an hour, and in such a spot? Why was she so carefully veiled?

Those questions arose unasked in the watchman's brain, and he would
have given much to gratify his ardent curiosity. If she would but
lift her veil for an instant, either to satisfy his doubts or confirm
his hopes, he might crawl away and leave her and her absent lover in
peaceful possession of the scene.

While those thoughts were running through the crouching man's mind, the
soft patter of hurrying feet was borne to his ears, and a few moments
afterwards a man was facing the silent woman on the opposite side of
the stile.

Then lowly muttered questions we're asked and answered, the woman's
veil was flung upwards from her face, and the sound of lips pressed
together and drawn asunder lovingly floated on the quiet, frosty air.

When the lovers drew apart the woman's unveiled countenance stood
revealed to the hungry-eyed watcher, and a low, sharply strangled moan
of pain fell from his tongue. Luckily at that moment the other man's
voice was raised in clear and angry protest.

"What is the meaning of this, Clara? It is madness, and you know it,
to ask me to meet you here. If we were seen together it would mean the
ruin of us both!"

"I know, I know Levi!" the woman half-sobbed. "But I wanted to see you
so much before he returned."

"Returned! Your husband is away from home, then?" the man beside the
style asked in a tone of evident relief, as he vaulted over the stile.

The watchman, huddled amidst the bushes, breathed softly and listened
intently. He had seen the woman's face, and was ready to swear then
that she was no other than the fair-faced and sweet-voiced pit-brow
girl, to whom he had spoken on the first evening when he commenced his
duties as the watchman of Orsden Moss.

Now he was mystified and less positive. He had heard Blackshaw address
her as "Clara;" had heard him ask if her husband was from home; and,
feeling that he was on the verge of some great discovery, he strove to
calm his leaping pulses, to stem the rush of his wild thoughts, and
listen in patience.

"Yes; Mr. Farnell is away," the woman went on when Blackshaw had
dropped lightly by her side, "and I have sometimes wished he might
never come back again. Why did you ever persuade me to marry him? I
feel now, Levi, that I never shall be happy again!"

The woman's voice had the ring of bitterness, pain, and hopeless misery
in it, and the tone in which her companion made answer was careless,
flippant, even cynical. Whoever the woman was, and whatever might
be the ties that bound them secretly together, it was evident that
Blackshaw had tired of her, and was glad she was tied to another.

"Come, come, my dear," he said lightly, "you must be sensible now, and
look at the matter in a business-like way. What more can you desire
than you have gained? Farnell loves the very ground you walk on; he is
comfortably off, and can give you all you need; besides, which is most
important of all, he is a comparatively old man, and may set you free
in a few years."

"A few years," the woman murmured, as if she were speaking of an
eternity. "And in the meantime, Levi?"

"Oh! In the meantime you live your life, and take all the enjoyment
that comes your way. It is far better, you know, to be a rich old man's
darling, my dear Clara, than to be a poor young man's slave."

His manner appeared to hurt the woman more than his unsentimental
words. She shrank back from him, held him at arm's length with her
gloved hands resting against his shoulder, and stared earnestly and
mutely into his face.

"I understand it all now. I understand!" she exclaimed with a
passionate outburst, as her hands fell from him. "I might have known
when you pressed me to marry him that you had tired of me. What a fool
I was! What a fool I am still!"

"Hush!" he commanded sternly. "Do you want some one to hear you in
the village?" Then he added in a softer and more winning way, "Calm
yourself, my dear, and do try to behave like a woman of common sense.
What is done can never be undone; and I shall never tire of you so long
as you are satisfied with what is possible."

"The possible will never satisfy me now!" she cried defiantly. "I will
go now and never trouble you again. May God help and forgive me for
what I have done!"

She turned angrily from him, but he caught her arm, and, whispering
eagerly in her ear, he walked along at her side in the direction of
Maydock-lane. When the sound of their feet died away, the watchman
crept out of his hiding-place, stood beside the stile, and gazed after
the dim retreating figures.

"God knows that I never dreamt of this!" the watchman exclaimed to
himself in a voice that was tremulous, yet glad, and filled with
wonder. "I know now who penned that damnable letter against Lettice
Forrester, but I have yet to learn what motive he could have in parting
her and me. Patience! Patience! Heaven willing, I shall know everything
some day. What I have to do now is to make all the atonement in my
power to that poor, dear, sweet, and sorely tried girl."

With his lips still moving, and his brain still in a whirl, the
watchman of Orsden Moss turned from the stile and went about his duty.
All night long he trod to and fro between his little abode and the pit
brow; and once, before the day broke grey and chilly in the east, he
tramped slowly through the sleeping village, pausing awhile in front of
one small cottage wherein the woman of his dreams slept.

When morning came, and the iron-tongued steam-whistle was flooding the
frosty air with its strident scream, telling all whom it might concern
that the half-hour between 5 and 6 o'clock had come, Adam Bannister
stood at the door of his hut watching the workers go past.

Shortly before 6 a tall girl, with a sweet face, drew near the
watchman. She was passing by with a pleasant smile and nod, when his
raised hand arrested her feet and drew her to his side.

"Read this! Be careful. Good morning!" he whispered.

She went on, wondering, and gripping fast the square, often doubled-up
piece of paper he had forced into her little brown hand. When she
gained the cabin on the bank there were others present, and under some
pretext she slipped off her clog and thrust the note inside.

At breakfast-time, when she had half an hour to herself, Lettice stole
away to a quiet place, and there, taking off her wooden-soled foot
covering, she recovered the paper and perused it. The following were
the brief but pregnant sentences it contained:


"If you wish to hear news of Mat Shelvocke meet me in my cabin between
eleven and twelve to-night. There is good news for you. You must bring
no one with you, nor must you breathe a word to any living being either
about this note or your visit. For Mat's sake and your own, come and
trust

"ADAM BANNISTER."




CHAPTER XXXI.--PASSING THE LOVE OF WOMAN.

Ding Dong! Ding Dong!

The clock in the tower of the village Church was again chiming the
half-hour before midnight, and while the soft musical chimes were still
pulsing in the cold air a woman's form stole from a shadowy doorway,
softly closed the door behind her and locked it, and then crept swiftly
away along the darkest side of the thoroughfare.

Coming to the way which led on to the Moss the woman paused an instant
as if irresolute, glancing around her the while, and then gathering
courage from the silence, she sped onward.

Myriads of astral-lamps shone like rare jewels in the blackly-blue
firmament overhead, and a waxing moon was beginning to climb the great
arch with slow steps. Before and about her all was quiet as a place of
the dead--all she could hear as she slipped along was the patter of her
own swift, light feet, and the hammer-like throbs of her heart.

Presently she was standing white-faced and breathlessly eager at the
door of the watchman's house. The small red-curtained window told her
there was light and warmth inside, and she had raised her hand to beat
upon the panels when the door swung back and revealed the burly form of
the watchman standing inside.

"It's yo' Miss, ah see," the old man remarked, in his harsh, croaking
voice. "Ah thowt yo' would come. Well, step insahde, wench, an' werm
yore pretty fingers whahle ah just tak' a look reawnd."

She passed in rapidly, seated herself on the chair he indicated, and he
tramped heavily out closing the door behind him. A minute later he was
back again, and sitting on the opposite side of the cheerful fire.

He was fully dressed in the stout rough garments in which, as watchman,
he had to face all weathers. Flinging his wideawake hat on the table,
he turned to the woman with the pale sweet face, regarding her closely.
She had drawn her shawl from her head and face, and was waiting for his
words.

"Weren't yo' frikent" (frightened), "my pratty wench, to come eawt here
so late?" he began.

"Not when I remembered you had news--good news for me of Mat
Shelvocke," she answered, readily, and with sparkling eyes. "You know
where he is? You are his friend? You will tell me where he is, and that
he is innocent of all they say?" she added, her soft eyes and beauteous
face eloquent with her feelings.

"That's true, ev'ry word, wench!" He answered, less gruffly than was
his wont to speak. "Th' poor lad's as innaycent as a little babby. Ah'm
here to watch his enemies as weel as to watch the Moss."

"Yes, yes! But your good news?" she demanded. "Tell me something of
Mat. Is he safe and well?"

"He's safe enough, an' weel enough, too, wench! Isn't that somethin'
for yo' to know. He's innaycent, too, an' wants yo' to believe it."

"Believe it!" she cried hotly. "I always believed it. If you know where
he is, and have means of reaching him, will you tell him so?"

"Ah'll tell him, never fear, my wench. It'll hearten him up to know
there's one wench who thinks weel o' him yet, though he's gone o'er the
say," he said, with his spectacled eyes upon her.

"You have something else to tell me, Mr. Bannister?" Lettice Forrester
exclaimed interrogatively, as, with her fingers lying linked in her
lap, she leant towards him.

"Somethin' else, wench?" he rejoined musingly, as if he were thinking.

"Yes; you have more news for me," she answered, with her stary eyes on
the old man's face. "What you have told me already makes my heart glad
to know, but there is more, is there not? You could have told me all
this in your note--you would not have brought me here at such an hour
simply to tell me that Mat is safe and well and innocent. What is it?
You must tell me."

The fair girl was so earnest in her plea and so agitated in its
utterance that she rose to her feet, and with outstretched hands and
appealing face took a step towards the old watchman.

For a moment he stared at her in silence; once he half-started to his
feet, and then, restraining himself with an effort, he said slowly and
huskily:--

"Ay, ay, wench. There is some'at moor to tell. Mat Shelvocke axed me to
thank yo' for what you had done for him, an' he towd me to ax yo' to
forgie him for the way in which he misjudged an' condemned the truest
and prattiest wench in a' O'sden Green."

"Mat said those things?" she demanded, half incredulously, as she
took another step towards the old man. "For the sake of heaven do not
mislead me now. Once we were sweethearts, and I loved him with all my
heart and soul. Then, without any apparent reason, he threw me off,
ignored me, broke our engagement, made me the target at which all
who knew me could throw their offensive remarks. I was alone in the
village, without friends or relations; was groping blindly in the dark,
not even knowing why Mat scorned me!"

"It was a shame, wench!" the watchman asseverated, with husky
sternness. "It's no wonder yo' should get to hate the mon yo' once were
so fond o'!"

"No, no! Not that!" she cried. "Even now I do not blame him. There must
have been some reason for what Mat did. He had foes, as I had. They
were against us both. I love him still--shall love him till I die. If I
only knew where to find him, and thought he cared for me still, I would
follow him to the end of the world."

With a gesture of loving despair she flung herself back on her chair,
and covered her agitated face with her hands. Adam Bannister watched
her in silence for some moments, but when he noted the suppressed sobs
that shook the girl from head to foot, when he marked the convulsive
rise and fall of her bosom, and saw the warm tears trickling through
her brown fingers, he jumped erect, crossed the floor, and tried to
comfort her.

"Poor wench! Poor wench!" he muttered thickly, as his hands stroked
Lettice's fair hair. "Cheer up! Don't give way. Mat Shelvocke loves you
yet!"

Suddenly the crying woman grasped the big hands fondling her tresses,
her sobs ceased, and she struggled to her feet, an aspect of great
amazement and overpowering gladness on her face. An instant she stared
at the watchman, and then her voice broke forth--

"Mat! Mat! Thank God you are here!"

Then her strength gave way, the little room whirled round her, and but
for his strong grasp she would have fallen. When the girl's eyes grew
clear again she found herself lying closely clasped in Mat Shelvocke's
arms, with his lip's to her own.

The tangled mass of shaggy grey hair and beard was lying on the flags,
where he had thrown it.

White-faced and tearful, yet happy beyond the telling in cold words,
the pit-brow girl nestled in her lover's arms while they talked of the
trials and troubles of the past few months. With all his old faith in
Lettice restored, and his love for her blazing anew like a fire unto
which fresh fuel has been added, Mat took his sweetheart into his
confidence and told her all there was to tell.

First, he spoke of the causes which had impelled him to end their
engagement. He told her of the anonymous letter he had received, of his
visit to the stile on the Moss when he had seen her, he thought and
firmly believed, with Levi Blackshaw.

He spoke of the wonderful resemblance the unknown woman bore to her, of
the compromising conversation he had overheard, hence, the course he
had pursued in reference to herself.

Then he alluded to the troubles that followed; his flying visit to
Llandudno, at Naomi's request; his uncle's mysterious death; the
engine-man's statement at the inquest which seemed to have drawn so
much suspicion upon himself; and, finally, he mentioned the receipt
of the second anonymous communication, signed "Only a Friend," in
consequence of which he had gone away, not to appear again in the
village till he came as "Adam Bannister."

"I wrote that letter, Mat," Lettice said, quite proudly. "I heard
scores of things you could not hear, and knowing how innocent you were
of all the evil things imputed to or suggested against you, it maddened
me almost. But when I heard that you had run away to America, and taken
all that money with you, I was sorry I had written that letter."

"Not sorry to know that I had placed myself beyond the cunning schemes
of my enemy or enemies, dear sweetheart;" he whispered with a loving
kiss.

"Not that, Mat!" she cried. "But to go away to America at such a time
seemed an acknowledgment of guilt. That hurt me beyond all else."

"But I was cornered and helpless. If there was guilt anywhere I know I
was innocent of it, but I couldn't fix it on any one else. I knew also
that I had some crafty and merciless foe to fight against, and I took
crafty and merciless steps for my own sake."

"But to fly away, and then come back here, dear?" she queried, in
loving alarm. "Have you not heard that a warrant was issued for your
arrest?"

"Yes, I know; perhaps that is why I am here. But, Lettice, you may
rest assured that I am in no danger. What have I to fear? Nothing. But
someone else may have reason to hope the truth will never come out."

"But if Levi Blackshaw should see you, Mat," she asked, as her little
hands tightened apprehensively round his neck. "He is a bad man, I feel
sure. He hates you too, I am sure, and would not spare you."

"I do not fear him. I have seen him since I came here--spoken to him
several times, and he seems to suspect nothing. He has much more reason
to feel afraid of me, darling. I owe him one debt and will not forget
to pay him when the time arrives. He wrote that slanderous letter which
drove me from you, dear; but why it was written I have yet to discover."

Then he told Lettice of the previous night's discovery when he played
the part of eaves-dropper upon his cousin and the unknown woman.

"This is where you must help me, sweetheart," he added. "It is not
pleasant work to pry into the secrets of Levi Blackshaw's private life,
little cause as we have to consider him. But there may be more in
this clandestine love affair of his than appears on the surface, and
situated as I am at present I can afford to neglect no possible clue.
You will help me, dear?"

"Need you ask, Mat?" she answered readily. "Tell me what I am to do and
I will do it if it is possible!"

"My position here as watchman, while it enables me to see much--almost
all that transpires on the Moss, prevents me from seeing what goes on
beyond my ken. You must come to my aid, Lettice."

"I only await your instructions, dear Mat!"

"Well, in the first place, you must cease work entirely at the
colliery, and devote yourself to the work I shall mark out for you. Now
that you are my promised wife, you will not scruple to avail yourself
of all means to establish your future husband's innocence?"

"Certainly not, Mat!" she affirmed firmly and solemnly. "I will spare
nothing for your sake!"

"I knew I could depend upon you, Lettice. And now as to our plans.
I have plenty of means at my command still, and you must use them
ungrudgingly when there is anything to be gained. To-morrow you can
tell the Manager, or send word to him, that you are leaving your
work----"

"And then, Mat?" she asked eagerly,

"Then, dear one, you will find out who is this woman I mistook for
you. Her name is Clara, and that of her husband is Farnell. He is an
old man, I imagine they have only been recently married, and I fancy
they reside in the neighbourhood somewhere. You follow me clearly?" he
queried, with glowing eyes.

"I understand, Mat," she said slowly. "The work is not of the
pleasantest kind, but we cannot afford to be over nice about that now.
I hate this Blackshaw, and if he went out of his way to lower me in
your eyes, dear--to utter base lies about me in order to part us, I
will do anything a woman may do to unmask the sneering hypocrite."

"Do what I suggest, then, Lettice," he said, proud of her enthusiasm,
as he kissed her. "And when you have discovered who this woman is
I shall have other and, perhaps, more difficult work for you to
undertake."

"I shall not be afraid," she answered, bravely. "Now that I know, Mat,
that you do not despise me, I would lay down my life for your sake."
She nestled closer to him as she added in more tremulous accents, "If
I were only satisfied that you were safe here, dearest, I should be
happier than ever I dreamt of being again."

"Then let we tell you more in order to give you that satisfaction,
Lettice," he hastened to say. "Do you know that I have never been out
of England, though two letters of mine posted in New York reached my
cousins. These two letters were written for the purpose of throwing my
foes off the scent; and that they succeeded in achieving their purpose
my presence here and our reconciliation proves."

"But the letters. How did you arrange about them, Mat?" she questioned,
with a woman's curiosity.

"Oh, that was easy enough, as you will see in a moment. As I hung
about Liverpool undecided what course to pursue, I chanced to make the
acquaintance of a gentleman who was going out to the United States.
It was then the idea came to me of those letters to Miss Shelvocke
and Levi Blackshaw, so I vamped up some story which satisfied the
gentleman, wrote the letters, and got his promise to post them in New
York."

"I see! I understand. But that explanation scarcely satisfies me that
you are safe here, Mat," was the girl's reply. "If Levi Blackshaw were
to penetrate your disguise? If the village sergeant were to learn of
your masquerading! What then, dear?"

"Blackshaw cannot injure me further," Shelvocke cried proudly; "and I
have reason for believing that Sergeant Roberts wouldn't try. More than
that I prefer not to say at present."

"But the other and more difficult work you spoke about, Mat?"

"Yes, there is that to consider. If possible I want you to become a
resident in Orsden Hall. I want you to be located there for a time as a
housemaid, servant, anything, so long as you can watch my cousins and
their doings, goings, and comings, Lettice!"

"It will be easy to get inside the Hall, Mat," she rejoined quickly,
"but not pleasant, for I hate that man like poison, and Naomi hates me
as a woman only can hate a successful rival."

"You surprise me, dear, when you say it would be easy to establish
yourself in my old quarters. How could you manage that?" Mat asked.

"By accepting the offer Miss Shelvocke has been kind enough to make me
several times lately. She went out of her way one day to tell me that I
was much too pretty and refined for the pit-brow, and she desired me to
accept a situation as her maid."

"The devil!" fell from Mat's lips in amaze. "Naomi hates you, Lettice!
Hates you because I love you; and when she made such an offer she had
some deep-laid and carefully considered scheme in view. What could it
be, I wonder? After hearing that, I can hardly ask you to go."

"I scorned to go before, Mat," Lettice responded quickly, "but I am
eager to go now. If I can assist you, it is my duty to enter the Hall;
and you have but to say the word. With you near to counsel me, I shall
come to no harm."

"You are right. You shall go. Remember, to-morrow you leave the
colliery."

He rose and kissed her, and then replaced the masking hair and beard
and spectacles. Glancing at his watch, he saw that the midnight hour
had passed long ago, and together they passed forth into the night.

A quarter of an hour later Lettice Forrester had crept back unobserved
to her lodgings, and was stretched on her couch, tired, wondering,
and supremely happy. Heaven in its mercy had sent Mat Shelvocke back
to her, and she was glad with a gladness too deep and sacred for mere
speech.




CHAPTER XXXII.--THE COMING OF MR. VARNIE.

Another week had drifted by, and the passing of that little number
of days had provided another item of interesting talk for the
gossip-loving folk of Orsden Green. The handsome pit-brow girl, Lettice
Forrester, had resigned her employment at the colliery on the Moss, and
while the curious among her acquaintances were still wondering why she
had taken that step, and what she intended to do in future, they were
rather startled to hear that the girl had already entered the service
of Miss Naomi Shelvocke, and was even then under the roof of Orsden
Hall.

That unexpected occurrence did much to revive the old interest in
the young woman. The majority of the grown-up villagers could still
recollect the way in which she had drifted to Orsden Green, and settled
down there at the urging of old Aaron Shelvocke; and it was only a
matter of recalling the events of yesterday to remember that Miss
Forrester had once been engaged to the late master of Orsden Hall's
favourite nephew.

And now the handsome lass had seen fit to leave the pit-top and accept
service as a menial under the banner of the proud and beautiful Naomi.
All this struck the simple and curious village folk as being singularly
remarkable, and hence they discussed the event with alacrity and
eagerness.

Among those who heard of the fact with some wonder was Levi Blackshaw
himself. Coming into the hall one day at noon he had found Lettice
Forrester domiciled there, tripping about the old house in the smart
trapping of a lady's maid, which set off her lovely face and splendid
figure to perfection, and evidently at home amid her new surroundings.

The mere sight of Miss Forrester had stirred in his mind a host of old
thoughts--the sight of her walking calmly, graciously, and prettily
about the place had aroused all his curiosity, and the instant he met
his cousin his feelings of inquisitiveness found a ready vent for
themselves.

It was evening, and the cousins were sitting in the drawing-room
together, Naomi amusing herself at the piano, while Levi was turning
the pages of an illustrated magazine. Suddenly looking up from the
periodical, Blackshaw remarked, half-flippantly--

"I was surprised, Naomi, to see your new maid."

"Indeed. Why?"

"Some women would not have proved themselves so generous and forgiving
as you have done," he retorted, with a sneer curving his hard lips.

"You amaze me now, Levi. I was not aware that there was anything
especially generous or forgiving in employing a very handsome and
well-mannered girl as my maid."

"I didn't think of it in that way. For the moment I only thought of her
as the pit-brow girl our cousin loved, and once intended to marry. If I
was amazed it was only because I imagined you two were sworn enemies,
between whom all friendship was impossible!"

She quailed a little beneath his naked thrust, bit her lower lip in
silent chagrin, then she plucked up spirit suddenly, saying, as she
stared at him with flashing eyes,

"You must be an idiot, Levi, not to see why I have brought her here!"

"I do not see!" he said, doggedly.

"Then let me tell you. You may have been successful, my dear cousin, in
driving a pair of fond lovers asunder, but I am not yet assured that
your cleverness enables you to make them love one another the less.
Sometimes I imagine that there may be some truth in the song which says
in such apathetic strain,

Absence makes the heart grow fonder,

but of that you are, undoubtedly, a better judge than myself, my dear
Levi."

"How dare you taunt me with that?" he hissed. "If I contrived to part
Mat and Miss Forrester, who was it to please. Myself or you?"

"Pardon me, but that is not the point we began to discuss," Naomi
responded, with suave sarcasm. "I understood that we were debating the
wisdom or unwisdom of bringing that woman here. I think it a wise step,
and I am about to tell you why I think so."

"That is exactly what I desire to know, Naomi," he snapped out sharply.

"Then listen. Even if the seas divide our cousin and my maid, how do
we know that they are not in reality closer to one another--in more
intimate acquaintance with each other than we are, living under the
same roof?"

"You imagine they are friends again?" he queried, with an incredulous
sneer.

"I imagine it may be possible. Mat's position might drive him to do
strange things, and as I am firmly assured as I live that this woman
knows where our relative is, and what he is doing."

"By heaven, Naomi, that may be so," he whispered in an excited
undertone. "I never dreamt of looking at the matter in that light."

"There are so many things possible, Levi," she rejoined, sarcastically,
"that are not dreamt of in your philosophy. I have brought Lettice
Forrester into this house not to wait upon myself so much as to watch
her."

"Well, you cannot have discovered much yet, as she only entered your
service so recently," he sneered, hurt not a trifle by her success in
their logomachy.

"I have discovered much--or at least noted one small thing which must
mean much."

"Indeed! You interest me now."

"Note the appearance of the woman carefully next time you see her. A
week or two ago she was white-faced and wan, sad-eyed and troubled
in spirit, like one who had passed through a severe illness which
afflicted both her body and soul. Look at her now and you will find her
bright-eyed and radiant, with a tongue as light as her foot--in a word,
a perfect picture of healthy and handsome womanhood. Need I tell you
what that means?"

He shut his mouth firmly, and the lines about it grew hard and
merciless. He thought a moment or two before he spoke. Then he remarked
with affected indifference.

"It may mean one of several things, Naomi. She has perhaps cured
herself of her fancy for our absent friend, and solaced herself, after
the manner of her kind, with a new lover."

"Nonsense! I know a woman when I meet one, and she is not one of the
sort who mistake a bundle of weak nerves for a heart. The change in
her simply means that your neat experiment failed. In some way Mat has
communicated with his sweetheart."

"His former sweetheart, you mean?" he corrected her.

"No; I mean his present one," she insisted.

"Well, we must watch!" he said, slowly, giving way to her pertinacity.
"If letters come to her here we shall know what steps to take."

"You would open them?" she whispered.

"Why not. Having gone so far are we to become qualmish now at this
state of events?"

She did not respond. She had turned on the stool and was bending over
the ivory keys of the piano, with a strange expression on her finely
moulded features. That proud-souled, passionate-hearted woman was not
all bad, nor even bad by preference; and at that moment the nobler and
the baser elements of her nature seemed to have chosen her beauteous
face as a battle-ground.

Levi watched her, understood, and wondered. Then he said with a low,
hard, cynical laugh--

"You are thinking deeply, cousin, but it is not necessary to offer you
a penny for your thoughts!"

"Why?" she cried, turning round swiftly upon him with a completely
changed face. "Are my thoughts so valueless as that?"

"It is not that they are valueless, Naomi, but that they were plainly
written on your face a moment ago for any one to read them."

"And you read them?" she asked coldly.

"I did--I think."

"Let me hear what you were able to read?"

"You were thinking of an impossibility; you were picturing, mentally,
yourself and Mat throned here in love and power; and myself and that
maid of yours elsewhere--anywhere, so long as we were out of the way,
as you merely looked upon us as disturbing elements."

"And you imagined I was foolish to brood over such an idle fancy?" she
queried, with a curious smile lighting up her handsome features.

"Yes, foolish. That is the right word. If two cousins ever reign here
they will never be Mat and yourself. I thought that dream of yours was
over and done with."

"Perhaps it is; still it is pleasant to dream, is it not? Even you,
Levi, cold-blooded and calculating as you are, cherish your dreams.
What if they should prove foolish and idle as well as mine?"

A temptation to make a stinging retort stirred him; but he quelled it
and said blandly: "Forgive me, Naomi, if I have wounded you in any way.
We cannot afford to quarrel. We must not quarrel. After all you must
admit that the head and front of my offending is that I cannot forget
that I love you."

"There is nothing to forgive, Levi," she said most amiably. "Perhaps
we are both to blame at times. Anyhow, I do know that I sometimes feel
sorry for us both."

She extended her soft fingers, and he wrung them warmly. To him she was
still, as ever, the very queen of womankind, and in her the best and
dearest of his desires were bound up.

"Shall I take you to the theatre, Naomi?" he asked tenderly. "There is
an opera company at Coleclough this week."

"Not to-night, thank you. I have an engagement at Bispham Grange this
evening at 9. Perhaps you will take me there. The Farnells invited you,
I know."

"No! no! Not there!" he cried. "I hate those people and abhor their
displays."

She nodded graciously to her cousin, and went to her rooms to attire
herself. A little afterwards she drove away in the carriage, leaving
Levi Blackshaw standing on the threshold, watching her away. He was
turning from the door of the Hall, to make his way back through the
great vestibule, when a man's form came forward out of the darkness,
and called to him--

"Mr. Blackshaw. I must see you!"

"You, Varnie, and here!" Blackshaw exclaimed in a low tone of chagrin.
"Curse you for an ass! Didn't I tell you never to show your face here?"

"You'd better see me, sir," the man whispered. He was swarthy-skinned,
black-haired, bleak-eyed, and a sheaf of jetty beard enveloped his chin
and throat; had beady shining eyes and a nose of the true Jewish cast.

"Why see you? Go----"

Levi stopped suddenly and muttered words died in his throat as the door
of the vestibule opened, and a maid's head peered forth. She muttered
a hasty apology on seeing her master there, and he extricated himself
from the dilemma by saying aloud in his pleasant tone.

"Come in, Mr. Varnie. I will talk the matter over with you in my
private room."

The dark-visaged man hurried into the Hall smilingly, and at
Blackshaw's side passed into the house. As they went up the broad,
shallow, old-fashioned staircase with its ponderous balustrade of
shining dark oak, a woman's fair face peered after them from one of the
rooms below.

It was Lettice Forrester. Standing beside one of the windows--which
chanced to be slightly open--to watch the departure of her mistress,
the new maid had seen the swarthy individual start forward, had heard
him call to Blackshaw, had caught Levi's angry exclamation, and now
was watching them ascend the stairs with a wondering expression on her
sweet face.

Where before had she seen that man Varnie? Why was Blackshaw afraid of
him coming there? Why had Blackshaw changed his tone so suddenly and
taken him to his room?

A moment she wondered, and then with a grave, a resolute face, she
followed them up the stairs, treading softly as a bird.




CHAPTER XXXIII.--BEHIND THE WALL.

Noiselessly as some velvet-footed creature of the woods, Lettice
Forrester tripped up the great staircase, and by the time her fair head
was on a level with the first landing, she caught a glimpse of Levi
Blackshaw and his visitor ere they vanished in the private sanctum of
the former, and the door was shut swiftly behind them.

Without pausing an instant she went forward, the carpeted corridor
giving back no sound, the solid flooring emitting no creak, and almost
as soon as the two men were seated in Levi's room the ex-pit-brow girl
was safely sheltered in the suite of apartments set apart for her
mistress and herself.

There were four rooms in all, each communicating with the other by
means of inner doors. Passing first into Naomi's dressing-room, Lettice
fastened the door behind her with the bolt, and then, slipping off
her boots, she crept forward stealthily to her own room, which, by a
happy inspiration, she remembered was wedged in between her mistress's
sitting-room and Levi Blackshaw's den.

With nothing to guide her but her suspicions and her woman's intuitive
perception that something shady was afoot, and with no clearly defined
plan in her mind, she stole along through the dim light with which the
suite of rooms was filled, and presently was kneeling against the wall
dividing her sleeping-place from Blackshaw's study.

And even as she knelt there the faint, indistinct murmur of voices fell
on her ears. What were they saying? How was she to hear? Perhaps the
very secret Mat Shelvocke had sent her to Orsden Hall to ferret out
might be revealed to her now could she but contrive to overhear the
conversation of Levi and his sinister-looking companion.

While that thought ran through her brain she suddenly recollected when
and where she had seen that black-visaged Mr. Varnie before. It was
in the colliery yard on the day Mr. Aaron Shelvocke's dead body was
brought up the shaft of the cannel seam.

Lettice had formed one of the group of pitbrow girls and surface
labourers who had stood near the pit mouth when the blood-stained
remains of the late owner of Orsden Hall and Orsden Moss were carefully
and reverently carried from the cage, and it was at that moment she
first set eyes on Mr. Shadrach Varnie's evil-looking countenance.

That gentleman stood apart from all the others on the brow. There were
other strangers present at the time, drawn thither by the dread news of
Shelvocke's tragic end and morbid curiosity, but while the latter mixed
freely with the men and women workers, and talked with them about the
sad business, that black-haired, forbidding Jew kept apart, his tongue
silent, but his cat-like eyes everywhere.

The manner in which the oily-faced foreigner isolated himself had
drawn upon him the eyes and remarks of the villagers. Some said he was
a newspaper man, who had come to gather information about the poor
gaffer's strange end; others thought he was a detective seeking a clue;
but the surface foreman, Ted Hayes, declared that he'd seen the man
many a score of times in Coleclough, where, he had heard, he carried on
a money-lending business.

The moment she recollected where she had first seen Mr. Shadrach
Varnie, all the details here recorded flashed again through Lettice's
brain, and the sinister impression her young mind had received on the
pit-bank only tended to increase her feeling now that Mat's cousin and
the Jew were in league some way, and that a knowledge of their pact
would be of use to her lover.

But it was not sufficient to know merely that Blackshaw and Varnie were
bound together by some secret covenant. It was something, but she must
learn more! Kneeling there, the girl in the depth of her impassioned
desire to serve her lover prayed mutely to God to help her.

If the solid wall would but open and give her eyes and ears access to
their communing. If she could only see their faces she might gather the
tenor of their speech. One word--one word alone might give her the key
to all that was hidden beneath the open chagrin with which Blackshaw
first addressed Varnie, and his eager willingness to give him private
audience an instant afterwards.

Pressing her ear and the side of her face against the wall the confused
murmur of tongues grew a little clearer, but even then not a single
word or syllable came to her clean cut and distinct through the stout
partition of brick and mortar and paper.

The speakers were evidently some distance away from the reclining
woman, who listened so intently with her heart at her lips; they seemed
to be a yard or two nearer the outer wall of the Hall, and then Lettice
remembered that earlier in the evening while passing Blackshaw's room
she had seen through the open doorway one of the housemaids kindling a
fire.

Blackshaw and Varnie would be sitting near the fireplace, as the night
was uncommonly chilly; her own fireplace and that in the adjoining
room stood back to back; probably there was some connection in the two
chimneys, and as her own fire was, fortunately, not alight, she might
overhear something by placing her ear against the brickwork at the back
of the grate.

Those thoughts ran through her heated brain in a trice, and in another
instant, careless of the dust and grime, and the ashes of dead fires,
she was kneeling inside the fender and her fair, velvety cheek was
pressed closely to the soot-covered bricks, which the fire in the other
room had warmed.

For a little space she could hear nothing; then the former murmur smote
on her hearing; afterwards one word clear and distinct, then another
confused blur of sound, followed by three clearly enunciated words as
clearly heard.

"Money! . . Cannot wait!"

The speaker was the Jew, and his tongue had the tone of one who uttered
a threat.

Then the listening girl was able to distinguish Blackshaw's voice,
but what he said was only a faint stream of sound unbroken by a plain
syllable, so lowly did he speak. Before he ended her patience was
rewarded when half a dozen distinct, yet totally incoherent words came
to her through the intervening mass of brickwork.

"Money, Varnie, . . . I swear! . . . Morrow night!"

The Jew's voice was next raised, and more from its particular
inflection than anything heard, Lettice understood that a question
was being put to his companion. Waiting tremulously for the rejoinder
the woman held her breath, tried even to stifle the loud beating of
her heart, and managed to catch or fancy she caught three words of
Blackshaw's reply.

"Hut!--Moss!--Midnight!"

There ensued more confused jingle of words, in which the voices of both
men intermingled, and then the rattle of chairs being pushed back, and
the clatter of feet on the floor was clearly distinguishable.

The interview was at an end. The stranger was about to depart. Both men
were making for the door of Blackshaw's study. In an instant she jumped
to that conclusion, and without thought or pause she acted upon the
impulse it originated.

Leaping lightly to her feet Lettice darted through the faintly lit
rooms, turned out the gas in her mistress's sitting-room as she glided
by, and throwing open the door, cast herself full length on the
threshold, her head protruding a few inches, and oblivious utterly of
her besmirched face and hands, stared forth.

A dozen yards away Blackshaw and his visitor were standing, shaking
hands with apparent amiability, and conversing volubly of nothing
in particular. Then the Jew, with a satisfied leer on his unctuous
countenance, remarked with a meaning that only the initiate could
comprehend.

"Well, good night, Mr. Blackshaw. I can find my way out, thank you. I
shall never forget your kindness. Good night, sir, and thank you very
much!"

"Good night, Varnie! Glad to oblige you."

Lettice Forrester saw the man with the smiling face and leering eyes
descend the staircase slowly--saw the other man stand there at the
open door, rigid as a statue, watching the departing figure; and when
Varnie's black head was on a level with the landing a swift, a devilish
change manifested itself on Blackshaw's face.

The smiling amiable look vanished; and its place was taken by the face
of a dark, an incarnate fiend. Never before had the woman seen such an
aspect on a human face. It was that of one out of whom all the softer
and nobler elements of humanity had been torn--the face of a devil in
its fiery, consuming malevolence, despair, and black, merciless hatred.

She shrank back shuddering, feeling that the man in the corridor would
tear out her heart ravenously, as a wild, conscienceless beast might
do, did he but suspect that she was crouching there on the verge of his
secret.

As she stood erect and bolted the door afresh with trembling fingers
she heard him turn into his room with a muttered oath. For the moment
she felt physically and mentally unstrung by the vivid picture of
bestial depravity she had looked upon, and the courage and deliberation
that had sustained her hitherto seemed oozing from her fingers.

Presently her coolness and nerve returned, and then in a flash of
inspiration she glided back to her former position at the fireplace.
She only knelt there a few moments. Levi Blackshaw was pacing about his
den and breathing unprintable curses that drove her hence.

Then she flung herself down on her bed, lay still, and thought
carefully over all she had heard and seen. In five minutes she was
alert again, had turned up and relit the extinguished light; then she
washed herself, put on a pair of heavier boots, and sat down at her
dressing table to write.

She had not very much to write, was in a great hurry to get written
what was still fresh and burning in her mind, and yet nearly an hour
went by before she arose from the table and replaced Naomi Shelvocke's
writing apparatus.

First of all she had set down carefully and exactly every clear word
spoken by Blackshaw and Varnie that had travelled to her ears, setting
down the few words opposite each of the speaker's names, and adding, by
way of comment, her impression of the mood in which the individual was
at the moment of each utterance.

Then, as concisely and vividly as lay in her power, Miss Forrester
described the sudden and unexpected appearance of Varnie at the Hall
door; the reception of Blackshaw; the sudden change in the latter's
demeanour towards his visitor; their retreat to the study upstairs when
ensued the conversation, incoherent fragments of which had floated
through the wall to her ears.

Finally, Lettice attempted to depict the parting of the two men, the
horrifying expression of deadliest and most venomous hatred which had
disfigured Blackshaw's face the moment he was alone, her own shuddering
horror, and the passionate curses of the caged beast pacing his room.

At length the work was done--most ineffectively the girl felt--and
then donning her hat and heavy ulster she prepared to sally forth. At
the bottom of the great staircase Lettice and Levi Blackshaw came face
to face. He had just come from the sitting-room; was quite collected,
smooth-faced, urbane, and oily-tongued as ever, wearing about him not
a trace, ever so faint, of the mental storm he had so lately passed
through.

"Good evening, Miss Forrester," he cried in his most ingratiating
manner as he came forward. "May I ask if you are going to the village?"

"Yes, Mr. Blackshaw," she answered quietly, growing cold and strong
in his presence when she had feared to face him. "I am going to pay a
little visit to my old landlady, Mrs. Mason. I shall be back before my
mistress returns, sir."

"I wasn't thinking of that, Miss Forrester," he replied politely. "I
was only wondering if I might ask you to take the trouble of posting a
letter in the village for me?"

"Of course I will, with pleasure, Mr. Blackshaw," she cried, readily.

"Thank you so much."

He placed the letter in her gloved hand, nodded urbanely, and she
passed on her way. Not before she had left the Hall some way behind her
in the darkness, and was standing under a lamp in the high road near
the entrance to the big house, did she pause and glance behind her.

Somehow when Levi Blackshaw placed his letter in her hand she had felt
there was more in his trifling commission than was apparent to the eye;
and now, with the envelope and its contents clasped in her gloved palm,
the same feeling stirred her still as she glanced along the deserted
lane and quiet carriage-drive.

Almost mechanically she bent her eyes upon the white oblong square in
her fingers, caught a glimpse of a familiar name and address, started
violently, and shivered. Then she pulled herself together, and read the
name and address slowly. No wonder Lettice was surprised, for it ran:--


"Levi Blackshaw, Esq.,
Orsden Hall, Orsden Green."


And so Levi Blackshaw was taking the pains to send a letter to himself.
Why? Pondering that interesting problem she walked briskly into the
village.




CHAPTER XXXIV.--MINING AND COUNTER-MINING.

Half an hour after she quitted Orsden Hall for the purpose, according
to her own statement, of visiting the good dame with whom she had
formerly resided, and to deposit in the village post-box that missive
of Blackshaw's, Miss Lettice Forrester was again walking quietly
through the keen October air.

She had not come from the big mansion on the outskirts of Orsden Green
with the special intention of revisiting her old home, but having said
so to her lover's cousin she had deemed it wise to put her words into
effect, and had spent ten or a dozen minutes in an agreeable chat with
the respectable widow under whose roof she had spent all her life
between her coming to the village and her change of vocation.

But Blackshaw's singular commission was not executed, nor did she drop
his letter into the receptacle for such articles when she sauntered
past the little post-office. She did pause a moment or two in front of
the box beside the closed shop, and had taken the precaution to glance
around to see if anyone was near to observe her.

But the street was almost empty. Near the entrance to the Black Boar
she could perceive a few men hanging about, and when she went by one
or two nodded and spoke to her civilly. Some minutes later she had
retraced her steps and was making her way towards the pits on the Moss.

She had no appointment with the watchman, had neither seen nor
communicated with him since their meeting already recorded, and when
they parted then no arrangement had been come to as to their future
meetings. But she felt that she must see him that night. He must know
without delay all she had to tell him.

She went bravely and hopefully on her way, and when halfway to the
colliery a man's form loomed up in the semi-darkness of the road. A few
more eager, hasty strides and her hand was clasped in her lover's.

"I wanted to see you so much," he whispered, as his strong fingers
crushed her small hand lovingly. "Go forward and wait for me in my
place. You will find the door on the latch. Don't turn up the lamp
until I come. I must see that no one is following you."

She resumed her walk without a word, and he went towards the village.
In a couple of minutes she had lifted the latch of the cottage, and was
crouching on the fender in the twilight-filled room, warming herself at
the fire. Ten minutes later the watchman joined her, carefully barring
the stout door behind him.

In a moment she was in his arms, the disguising tangle of hair was
flung aside, and their hearts were beating together as closely as their
warm young lips clung lovingly.

"Something told me you would come to-night, dear Lettice. I was
hungering to see you again. You are at the Hall now--are living under
the roof that sheltered me for years. How do you like the place? Does
your new mistress please you? Have you yet learned why she desired to
have you near her? And Levi? And that woman? You must have news for me,
sweet!"

"Yes, I have news, Mat. But let me think quietly for a few moments. And
are we quite safe here? Can no one either see or hear us, Mat?"

"I think not. Look at the window. No one can see through that blind;
and we need not turn up the lamp, or do more than whisper to each
other."

She was sitting on his knee, with his arms around her, her fair head
pillowed on his breast, his brown face pressed close to her velvety
cheek. She was happy there, and for a little did not speak, thinking
over all she had to tell him, and wondering where she should begin.

"Levi and that woman Lettice?" Shelvocke whispered presently. "Have you
learned anything?"

"But little, dearest," she answered in the same undertone, "but all
there is to learn, I think. That woman, Clara Farnell, has nothing
to do with this mystery which keeps you here. Formerly she was a
schoolmistress at Coleclough, and Blackshaw must have met her there.
Now she is the wife of an old gentleman named Robert Farnell, and they
live at Bispham Grange, some three or four miles away. Mr. Farnell was
formerly in some business at Manchester. That is all I could get to
know. Your cousin Naomi is visiting there to-night. Had she not gone I
might not have been here--might have had much less to tell you, Mat."

"What have you to tell me, dear one?"

"Something that may mean much to you. First look at this letter."

She handed him the letter Blackshaw had given her to post, and he read
the address in some wonder.

"Who gave you this?"

"Blackshaw himself. As I came from the Hall he asked me to post it in
the village."

"Strange! What can it mean? Is it possible that he already looks with
suspicion on your presence at the Hall?"

"I almost imagine so," she answered with a dry laugh, "and if he knew
what I do know I should never dare to meet him again face to face and
alone."

"What do you mean?" he cried earnestly.

"Wait till I show you something I have written to-night, specially for
your eyes alone. That will tell you much--the remainder I will explain."

He permitted her to slip from his arms and stand erect. Then she
thrust her hand into the pockets of her enveloping ulster, and as her
fingers came back empty a little astonishment showed on her face. But
it was not until she had flung open her outer garment, searched her
dress-pocket and breast in vain, that an exclamation of pain and amaze
was wrung from her.

"Oh, Mat, I have lost it! Lost it! Lost it! What shall I do now? I
shall never--no, never--forgive myself! What a stupid thing I must be!
And I was considering myself so clever a moment ago!"

"What is really the matter, Lettice?" he asked, as he rose to his feet
in some wonder and gazed into the girl's puzzled and chagrined face.
"What is this you have lost, dear? Nothing of any importance, I hope!"

"It was of the utmost importance, Mat!" she cried, lacing her fingers
in impotent anger with herself, and half-inclined to give way to tears.
"I had written it for you alone! Had put down those words so that I
could not possibly forget them! And now I have lost them. Oh, Mat, you
will never forgive me for my great stupidity!"

She put her hands to her pale face in real distress that touched him at
once, and taking her in his arms he kissed her again and again.

"Hush, dear," he urged soothingly. "What is there to upset yourself
about? What you had written for me your own sweet lips can tell me now."

He drew her down to his seat and kissed away the tears that
were welling slowly from her starry eyes. But she would not be
comforted--could not forget so easily the negligence she had been
guilty of.

"It was a serious thing dear," she sobbed. "A precious secret that I
had discovered. And now what I have written may have fallen into that
man's hands and ruined everything."

Thoroughly aroused now by her evident trouble, he urged her to tell him
all, and presently she was relating what she had heard and seen that
night. He listened in silence and amaze, and when her narrative was
finished he said gravely--

"Lettice, this is great news indeed. It seems as if we were on the
verge of some great discovery. If Levi is in league with, and at the
mercy of, such a man as this you tell me about, there is something
behind it all. May God bless you, darling, as I do, for the courage and
promptitude you have shown this night. I love you a thousand times more
than ever now."

He kissed her passionately, although his face was very solemn still,
and with his caresses still warm upon her lips, she murmured--

"But if Blackshaw finds that paper he will be on his guard at once;
will suspect me, even ferret out your secret, and almost certainly put
the man Varnie on his guard also."

"Varnie! Who can he be?" he mused.

She told him all she knew--spoke of the man's presence at the colliery
on the day when Aaron Shelvocke was brought forth dead, and the rumours
his appearance there had given rise to.

"Those three last words you were fortunate enough to overhear, 'Hut!
Moss! Midnight!' almost compel one to conclude that they were arranging
another meeting; and saving this little shanty, I only know of one
other place on the Moss which is called a hut. Levi must have meant
the points-man's hut on the further side of Orsden Moss, where the
wagon-road joins the main line."

"That is it," the girl cried in joyous accents. "I have been trying
ever so long to imagine where the hut could be, but I could not bethink
me."

"And the time is to-morrow night," Mat responded. "Well, whether this
meeting may mean much or nothing, I will be there. After all you have
done for my sake, Lettice, I must miss no opportunity."

"But you will promise to be careful, Mat?" she queried tremulously.
"They are both villains, dear, and would not scruple to take your life."

"There is little fear of that, Lettice. Perhaps I shall not go alone,
and if I do I shall carry a loaded revolver. I am thinking now of your
return to the hall. I would give something to know where those notes
you penned have got to. Even if Levi has got hold of the writing there
is nothing upon the sheets of paper to incriminate either of us, I
suppose?"

"Neither of our names figures on the sheets, and I imagine that
Blackshaw does not know my handwriting. But I used the notepaper I
found in Miss Shelvocke's writing-desk, and the words 'Orsden Hall,
Orsden Green,' are embossed in dark blue on the paper."

"That will only go to prove that the notes were written by some one in
the house, Lettice. Even if Blackshaw found your notes he might not
suspect you as the author."

"I am afraid he would when he remembered that we were once engaged.
Besides, he must know that my room is the only one adjoining his study;
and my going to the village so shortly after the other man went away
would certainly strike him as suspicious."

"It would. Well, we can only hope for the best, and work and wait. If
you feel that you do not care to return to the Hall to-night do not do
so. Some excuse----"

"I must return, Mat, and at once!" she broke in sharply. "Not to go
back now would be to play into his hands. I will go. I am not afraid of
him now. Kiss me, dear old Mat, and let me run away."

"A moment, dear," he said, as she sprang to her feet and prepared to
hurry away. "In case your forebodings are realized, what then? If Levi
has found that note and suspects you? If he says a word about it you
must let me know at once."

"I will. At all risks you shall know if anything untoward happens. And
Blackshaw's letter, Mat!" she asked, as her eyes turned to the little
table whereon he had placed it.

"I will post that. There can be nothing in it that I should care to
learn, or Levi Blackshaw would not have written it, and afterwards
handed it to you. Now good-night, darling, and heaven bless you!"

He strained her to his breast for an instant, kissed her again, and
then she hurried away, the watchman following like a faithful dog, a
little in her rear, until the village highroad was gained.

The silent, dimly lit thoroughfare was quite deserted by this time,
and the girl sped homeward in safety, while the watchman followed her
with his eyes till her loved form was swallowed up by the darkness, and
the echo of her light, quick feet was lost on the frosty air. Then he
turned, and with an anxious face resumed his lonely vigil.

The moment Lettice gained admission to the hall, where she found one of
her fellow-servants awaiting her coming, she hurried to her own room.
Naomi was not expected before midnight, and as it was now past 11, the
girl sought eagerly for her missing notes.

Hither and thither she turned in her eagerness, tripping noiselessly
on the carpeted floors in her stockinged feet about her own and her
mistress's apartments. Believing she had dropped the incriminating
sheets somewhere on the floor she examined every square foot of the
different rooms in vain, and was giving up the quest in despair, when
her glance fell on her own dressing table.

With a low cry she ran forward and caught up the white packet she
perceived, smoothing it out with trembling fingers, sparkling eyes, and
leaping heart. Then she caught sight of her own handiwork, ran her eyes
hurriedly over the familiar sentences, and dropped upon the nearest
chair with a sigh of relief.

The tell-tale document she had written was safe in her hands once more.
How stupid of her to have left it there on her table where any one
might have discovered it. How glad she was to have returned before her
mistress. Even Naomi Shelvocke was not to be trusted with the secret
she and her lover possessed.

Then, as she sat there waiting for Naomi, with her brain filled with
thoughts of that night's stirring incidents, other and less comfortable
reflections began to suggest themselves to her vivid fancy.

Was it safe, after all, to assume that Levi Blackshaw had not seen what
she had penned? Had she in her excited condition really placed the
notes where she had just found them?

She endeavoured to recollect clearly, but somehow could not do so.
Her impression was that she had put the writing in the pocket of her
dress, and yet on her return she had found the folded sheets lying
unexpectedly upon her dressing table. Was it possible that other
fingers than her own had placed those damning sheets there? What if
the cunning Levi Blackshaw had found her notes, read them carefully,
and then returned them in order to drown her suspicions and give her a
false feeling of security.

That thought stung Lettice sharply, and crowded her breast with
unnumbered fears. It was so like what Blackshaw might be expected to
do when he found himself standing on the brink of exposure, and the
very probability of the thing almost satisfied the wretched girl of its
truth.

Blaming herself grievously for her criminal negligence, and feeling
sick at heart and faint, Lettice rose to her feet, poured out a little
water from the carafe which stood upon the table, and lifting the glass
to her dry lips, drank the cold fluid eagerly.

Then she reseated herself, strove to calm her thoughts, and presently
a strong sense of drowsiness stole upon her. Intending to steal a few
minutes' sleep she struggled to her feet to throw herself dressed
as she was upon her bed, but she stumbled to her knees, and lay an
unconscious heap on the carpet.

A minute later the chamber door was pushed slowly open, and Levi
Blackshaw's dark leering countenance appeared. In an instant he had
caught up the senseless form and placed it on the bed; then, with the
glass, papers, and water-bottle in his hands, he crept away, that
black, bestial look which had shocked Lettice earlier in the evening
again showing on his face.




CHAPTER XXXV.--THE PROSTRATION OF LETTICE FORRESTER.

On the morning following his unexpected meeting with Mr. Shadrach
Varnie on the threshold of Orsden Hall, Levi Blackshaw made his
appearance at the breakfast table at the accustomed hour, and,
apparently, in his usual frame of mind; but a shrewd observer might
have noticed that his swarthy countenance was the least trifle more
pallid than was customary, that his keen, prying eyes had a restless
look about them, and that his mask of reserve covered a deep-seated
anxious unrest.

For some reason or other his cousin had not yet come down, and Levi ate
his meal alone, so pleased that Naomi was not present that he omitted
to make the least enquiry as to her absence. He had much to think
about, and was thankful to be able to give rein to his thoughts without
having Miss Shelvocke's sharp glances upon him.

As he sat there quietly munching his toast and egg the young man
permitted his mind to run over in detail all the extraordinary
incidents of the past night--the sudden appearance of the Jew,
their interview in his private room, the rascal's dogged insistence
in extorting blackmail for holding his tongue, and the midnight
appointment they had made.

In these matters alone there was ample ground for feeling seriously
disturbed. So he had thought on the previous night when the wretched
son of Israel departed; and then shortly afterwards a new pitfall had
opened beneath his very feet--within the dwelling he had called his
home for years and had schemed to make his own for life.

He had another besides Shadrach Varnie to fear now. Naomi's maid--the
ex-pitbrow girl and Mat's old sweetheart--was on the trail of his
fearsome secret. The written words that he had seen her drop proved
that the woman knew much, and, in all likelihood, suspected much more.

He cursed his cousin in his heart for ever thinking of bringing Lettice
Forrester among them. From the outset he had sniffed disaster in the
presence of the woman whose heart was in the keeping of his uncle's
heir. In returning the damning notes to Lettice's room, and destroying
them after she fell senseless, he had done all he could at the moment
to avoid being suspected and afterwards exposed.

But his mind was stirred still to its very core by a horrible dread.
Why had that woman made all those careful notes of all she had seen and
overheard? For whose eyes were the incriminating sheets intended? Was
it not possible that Lettice was in communication with Mat, and that
the visit to the village was an excuse framed to enable her to forward
the information to him?

The mere possibility of such a thing crowded the brow of the schemer
with fine beads of clammy sweat. He felt as one must feel who is
chained to the edge of a living crater. At any instant a volley of
fiery spume might overwhelm him in horrid ruin--or the threatening
storm might subside, clear away, and leave him unharmed and at peace.

Ere his solitary morning meal was concluded Blackshaw had calmly
reviewed all the difficulties, uncertainties, and dangers of the
situation, and had grimly resolved to face the worst. Prudence and the
love of his own skin prompted him to fly while he was yet free. Greed,
ambition, love of Naomi, and the desire of realizing his own aims,
dragged him back and nerved him to face his fate.

When he went forth his mind was as fixed as his dark features were
forbidding and grim. Come weal, come woe, he would remain and face
the situation he had done so much to create. He had disarmed Lettice
Forrester, was safe for the time being, and to fly now meant, not only
to play the part of an arrant coward, but to avow his own guilty shame
and bring back Mat in glory.

During the day Blackshaw had occasion to pay a visit to the
neighbouring town; and to account for his absence from home at the
noonday repast, he sent one of the office boys with a note to Naomi,
explaining that business of an urgent nature called him to Coleclough,
and that he would not be able to get back to the Hall before evening.

It was dusk when Levi returned home, and immediately on entering the
Hall he encountered his cousin. As he stood in the hall divesting
himself of overcoat, hat, and gloves, the warm, radiant face of Naomi
appeared at the doorway of the room wherein they usually took tea.

"So you have got back, Levi?" she queried amiably. "I was just about
to have a cup of tea, as I thought you might not return before dinner.
Will you join me--you must be half-famished, I suppose?"

"Not at all, thank you," he returned, in glad accents, pleased not a
little by her genial greeting. "I lunched in town, but I am quite eager
for a cup of your tea, Naomi."

With an inclination of her shapely dark head she went back into the
room, and in a couple of moments he followed her. He stood on the thick
rug with his back to the fire warming his hands, watching the graceful
picture his lovely kinswoman made as she busied herself at the table,
pouring out "the cup that cheers but not inebriates," and wondering the
while as to how the great game of life would end for them both.

As she turned to him with a word he seated himself, and sipped the
warm, comforting liquid. He had a question to put to his cousin,
did not dare to put it in a plain, straight-forward manner, and was
cudgelling his brains for an excuse for introducing the subject.

"Did you enjoy yourself last night, Naomi, at the Farnell's party?" he
queried, in an indifferent tone.

"Considerably well," she replied. "Mrs. Farnell was kind enough to
enquire after you, and there were ever so many nice people present.
By-the-way, I did not see you when I returned to the Hall."

"I retired rather earlier than usual," he answered, as he raised his
cup to his lips. "A gentleman from Coleclough called to see me shortly
after you drove away, and we had a chat and a smoke in my den. After
he went away I did nothing but read in my room until I felt drowsy, so
I turned in to sleep, knowing I should have a somewhat busy time of it
to-day."

"Any one I know?" she questioned incuriously, although he felt her eyes
were looking him through.

"Oh, no! at least I should say not. Merely an outsider with whom I did
a little business some months ago."

"A Mr. Varnie, a Jewish money-lender," she began.

"How can you know?" he interrupted sharply.

"Some of the servants seem to have recognised the man, that is all,
Levi," she rejoined urbanely. "I will admit that my curiosity was
piqued by that item of news."

"Why, pray, my dear cousin?" he asked, and his sharp eyes followed her
face now.

"Well," she said, with a little, hard laugh, "I was only wondering
what you could have to do with such a man now that you are so well off
yourself."

There was a half-query, half-taunt in her softly-muttered answer, and
for a moment he glared at her with a frown of displeasure on his dark
face. Suddenly the frown melted away, and he cried--

"But I may remind you, Naomi, that I wasn't always so moderately well
off as I may justly lay claim to be now. My uncle never tried to ruin
me by giving me an extravagant salary, and sometimes I found myself
short of a few pounds when I needed them."

"Uncle Aaron would have given you the money at a single word, Levi."

"Perhaps he might, but I didn't care to run the chance of putting
myself lower in Mr. Aaron Shelvocke's estimation than I already stood,
so I went to the Jew instead."

"And so, as the man stood by you in your need, you give him your
friendship in return?"

"Not at all!" he cried in his hardest voice. "This Varnie is nothing to
me. I detest the man and his business. Were it otherwise I might have
accepted the offer he was kind enough to make me last night."

"Indeed."

"Yes. He lacks capital, and promised me twenty or thirty per cent, if I
cared to invest a thousand or two in his highly lucrative if somewhat
disreputable business."

He drained his cup hastily, pushed it towards her, and she refilled it
without a word. Presently she turned to him again, her proud, beautiful
face grave enough now, and her voice that of concern.

"I suppose Miss Forrester went out last evening, shortly after I went
away in the carriage?"

"Yes; she said she was going as far as the village to see some one she
formerly resided with, and I remember that I asked her to post a letter
for me."

"About what time would this be, Levi?"

"I am sure I cannot say with exactness, Naomi," he replied, with an
affected carelessness he did not feel. "My visitor had departed, and
I was just thinking of walking down to the village post-office myself
when Miss Forrester appeared on the scene fully robed for going out."

"I suppose you did not see her when she returned?"

"No. I must have retired then, I suppose. But the other servants will
tell you, Naomi. Why all those questions, my dear?" he went on, with
a low, forced laugh. "You are surely not tiring of your new maid so
early?"

"I feel really anxious now, Levi, about Miss Forrester," she responded
with a troubled countenance; "and I would give much to know what
happened last night."

"What do you mean, Naomi?" he cried in real wonder. "I cannot even
surmise at what you are driving. Again, I ask you are you satisfied
that you made a mistake in bringing such a woman here?"

"What nonsense!" she cried with a gesture of annoyance. "You don't
understand. I am alarmed for Miss Forrester's health; she is seriously
ill, and I cannot imagine what has caused her illness."

"You amaze me, Naomi!" he ejaculated, with an expression of
bewilderment on his face. "Miss Forrester seriously ill! How? Why? What
can have happened? When I spoke to her last evening about taking that
letter for me, I thought she never looked more handsome and healthful."

"She was in capital health and spirits when she assisted me in dressing
for the Farnells, but when I returned I found her lying asleep, fully
dressed, on her bed, and snoring heavily, like a drunken woman. I tried
to rouse her, but failed, and left her without calling any one. Perhaps
I was not displeased at the thought that she had been guilty of an act
of indiscretion which would render her odious in the eyes of every
sensible man."

"But you say she is seriously ill yet?" he said eagerly.

"So it would appear," she answered more quietly. "When I awoke this
morning I found her in much the same condition as before; and even when
I had succeeded in arousing her she was so weak as to be helpless, and
almost speechless."

"And what account had the woman to give of herself and her condition?"
he questioned with a severity of tone that was mixed with a certain
amount of interest.

"No account at all; and that makes the affair much more remarkable
still, Levi," she rejoined quietly, as she stirred her second cup
of tea, and allowed her great shining eyes to rest in a curiously
questioning way upon her cousin's sombre countenance.

"But you insisted upon some explanation?" he cried, dropping his eyes
to his cup. "In your place no feeling of consideration for the woman
would have prevented me from demanding what I had a right to know."

"She is speechless--is unable still to either utter a word or think
clearly, I believe--so what could I do? Dr. Molyneux, whom I sent for,
declares that she has sustained some great shock, and he urges that
perfect quietness alone may bring back her scattered senses. It is all
very strange, and very annoying, Levi," she concluded, with a little
grimace of displeasure. "I regret now that I brought her here."

"Our own troubles were sufficient without shouldering those of others,"
he answered moodily, as he rose and stood on the hearth rug, and stared
almost sullenly into the glowing mass of red coals. "I have already
expressed my disapproval, Naomi, of your action in bringing her here,
and I am afraid we may both have reason to regret it."

"What do you mean?" came sharply from the woman's lips.

"Well, here you have Miss Forrester ill upon your hands, and, if the
worst happens to her, I leave you to imagine how the tongues of the
gossips will be set wagging. Her connection at one time with Mat gives
the woman an additional interest, you know, in every one's eyes."

"That is nothing!" she exclaimed, firmly. "What is the opinion of these
wooden-headed gossips to me--or to you? There is one thing I would give
much to discover!"

"What is that, Naomi?" he asked, as he turned from the blaze and faced
her calmly.

"Why did she go to the village? Only an hour or so previously she had
said she was not going out last evening."

"I imagine I could make a fair guess," he murmured, as a cynical smile
flickered about his hard mouth.

"And your guess?"

"That she knows where Mat is in hiding; that she is in communication
with him; and that she went out for the purpose of sending some message
to him?"

"What could she have to tell him?" Her gaze was upon him, but he met it
unembarrassed.

"Heaven alone knows, but that is what I think."

There was an interval of silence between them. He had seated himself in
an easy chair near the fire, and she was toying with a silver spoon,
with which she drew soft waves of music from the empty cup of china at
her hand. Suddenly she turned to her cousin, remarking--"If you have
quite finished tea, Levi, perhaps you would like to see Miss Forrester?"

"Not at all, Naomi!" he said, quickly, almost brutally. "She is nothing
to me, and I don't care to feign an interest in her I do not feel."
Then he added, in an altered tone, "If you wish me to see her----"

"Why should I desire that?" she retorted, with a challenging toss of
her glossy head.

"Naomi," he said tenderly, after a moment's pause, "I often wonder
why you do not give me more of your confidence. Why should we two be
eternally fencing one against the other? Surely our interests and hopes
are identical now!"

"Perhaps!" was her laconic and unsympathetic reply. "I am sure I meet
your wishes--study your desires in every way, Levi?"

"In every way save one. You know what the great desire of my life is.
Have I not done much for you already? All my dreams have you for a
pivot."

"No, no, not quite that," she said, laughingly, and her flippant manner
stung him keenly. "At the most, my dear Levi, I am but one of your
dreams."

"Naomi, I have sworn----"

Her raised hand stopped the flow of his impassioned words. Still
smiling, half maliciously, she said:--

"Why repeat your indiscretions, cousin? I know all you have vowed--and
more. But do not our absent cousin's shoes loom as largely in your
dreams as does the woman you swore to win even at the cost of your
soul?"

He stared mutely at the proud, wilful face of the woman he had resolved
to own and master, and felt, despite his chagrin, that she was his
equal in many ways. He did not attempt to answer her last thrust;
instead he said angrily:--

"I am going out to dinner, and may not return until after midnight. You
will excuse me, Naomi?"

He left the room as she inclined her head, and sought his own
apartments.




CHAPTER XXXVI.--THE WATCHMAN TURNS KIDNAPPER.

The clock in the tower of Orsden Green Church had rung out the
half-hour beyond 7, and not a soul in the village seemed afoot or
astir. The high road was deserted, save for one solitary "Bobby," who,
ensconced in a narrow entry, was solacing himself with a quiet smoke.

The skies were black as the sable goddess Young painted in his "Night
Thoughts;" a thin mist-like rain was falling with a slow, tireless
persistency; the wet thoroughfare shimmered faintly around the gas
lamps; not a sound broke the deep stillness; and the dim lights burning
low in the upper rooms of some of the scattered cottages spoke only of
tired toilers recuperating their strength for the morrow's work.

The colliery on Orsden Moss seemed as cheerless and forsaken as the
slumbering village. Near the black mouth of each shaft a lamp burnt
red in the faintly pattering downpour; inside the engine-house another
light was burning more brightly, and casting its rays on the engineer
who was dozing on a form; in the watchman's hut Adam Bannister was
sitting, and through the half-closed door one might have seen him
munching his midnight meal.

A few minutes before, a heavily-coated and closely muffled-up figure
had peered upon the guardian of the night from the vantage ground of
the long row of empty wagons which stood within a stone's-cast of the
little dwelling, and seeing the watchman inside, had disappeared in the
blackness and the rain.

The man who had felt curious as to the old watchman's whereabouts was
our young friend, Mr. Levi Blackshaw; and on quitting the shelter of
the empty coal trucks he set his feet towards the western end of the
Moss, keeping away from the footpath used by the miners as much as
possible till the colliery was left behind, and pausing occasionally to
listen intently as if he feared pursuit.

In a few moments he had gained the wagon-road where the stiles stood on
either hand, and then he marched boldly forward. In a few minutes more
he was standing near the point where the Orsden Moss Colliery siding
debouched on the local railway.

There a large low gate guarded the entrance to the siding, and close by
was the large wooden hut used by the signalmen and shunters. Passing
the hut Levi strolled onward to the closed gate, leant upon it some
moments, listened intently, and peered around.

All was still about him save the soft clatter of the incessant rain.
Then he turned, went back to the hut, and crouched in its shelter,
leaning lightly against the post of the doorless doorway.

Some minutes passed by uneventfully, yet never for an instant did the
tireless vigilance of that grim watcher and waiter relax itself. His
nerves were tensely strung, and his resolve firm. He had disarmed the
only one he feared, and was prepared for anything.

The hand that was thrust into his coat pocket gripped a loaded
revolver, and, if necessity--his own safety--demanded the spilling of
blood, the taking of life, he was not afraid of doing it. Nay more,
even at that moment he was considering if it would not be safer to
close for ever the mouth of the man whose silence he was there to buy.

Suddenly a low exclamation of annoyance broke from Blackshaw's lips,
and he turned from the post he leaned against. A man was coming along
the wagon-road, but Levi did not see him. He was thinking how stupid he
had been neither to glance into the hut nor around it.

First he made a hasty detour of the building, and seeing nothing passed
inside. Here he drew out matches and struck one, held it aloft, and
glanced in every corner. The place was ten or a dozen feet square, the
height of a man's extended arm, with a rude wooden bench around it, and
a small open firegrate on an iron tripod in the centre, with a mound of
white ashes beneath.

The place was empty, and casting the dying match away Levi strode to
the doorway. Then his eyes fell on the vague black form approaching,
and he crouched down and held his breath. Opposite the hut the man
paused, looked around, took a step backward, as if to retrace his
steps, when a voice came out of the blackness.

"Varnie!"

"That you, Blackshaw? Where are you?"

"Here!"

"Curse the darkness and the rain!" the man muttered, as the other drew
him inside the hut. "Why couldn't you settle up last night, and save me
all this infernal trouble?"

"Speak low, you miserable fool!" Blackshaw whispered passionately,
between his half-closed lips. "I told you then, didn't I, that I hadn't
got the money?"

"As if I were ass enough to believe that tale!" the man said sullenly.
"Well, I am here now, and I expect you've got the money ready."

"The money is here, and I sometimes think that I must be both a
miserable coward and fool to let your threats squeeze money out of me,
Varnie!"

"We've talked that part of the business over before, and I thought it
was settled with, Blackshaw. You know very well why it pays you to pay
me."

"About anything in reason I wouldn't grumble. You have had five hundred
already, but, like a blood-sucker, mean to drain me dry."

"A bargain is a bargain, my friend. You pay, and I hold my tongue--you
don't pay, and I----"

"Curse you! Here's the money in notes. You said five hundred pounds, I
think----"

"I said one thousand pounds, and not one penny less," the Jew broke
out. "If you offer me one penny less I say, keep it, and I will speak
what I know."

"Curse you! There! Hold a minute! If I give you this money now, what
assurance have I that you will never trouble me again, Varnie?"

The Jew laughed in a croaking way.

"I love my own body if I care nothing for your neck, my dear friend. In
a fortnight, or less, I shall be over in America. If you were not so
foolish you would fly too!"

"Why shouldn't I crush out your miserable soul now, and have done with
it forever!" Blackshaw hissed in the face of the man who had grasped
the bundle of notes, and was examining them one by one by the light of
a small lamp he had drawn from his pocket.

"I thought of that also, Mr. Blackshaw, last night when you asked me
to meet you here." He chuckled again, adding, "If I don't turn up safe
and sound before morning the gentlemen of the police will want my dear
friend."

"What do you mean, curse you!"

The lamplight fell on Levi Blackshaw's sinister face and on the
glistening barrel of the loaded weapon he held in his hand. But the Jew
neither shrank from him nor uttered a cry of affright. Instead he put
the notes away in his pocket and laughed coolly in the other's face.

"This is just what I was expecting, Mr. Blackshaw. Before I left my
office to-night I said to myself 'The gentleman who offers to pay me
one thousand pounds, and demands that I shall meet him at midnight at a
lonely spot in a wild country to receive it, may not be honest. He may
frighten me with a pistol and offer to take my life.'"

"That being so, what do I do? Make my will, insure my life, or buy a
pistol also? Oh, no; I do something better. I remember a play at your
theatre some time ago. I steal the little plot; sit down in my office;
write a long letter to my clerk; tell him where I go; what I go for;
all the story--you comprehend?--and tell him to open the letter if I do
not come before noon. That is how I prepared to meet you, my friend."

"You cursed Israelite!" Blackshaw groaned. "If an accident prevents you
from reaching your office before the time you have named what becomes
of me?"

"That is so. You will go with me now and see me destroy that letter?
Ha! ha! Come!"

"Go! I will trust you. And, look here! When you reach America let me
know, and I will send you five hundred pounds more!"

"Thanks. That is good. To-morrow I shall dispose of my business to a
friend, and then I go. Come along."

"Stay. We had better separate here. Neither of us must go along the
line here, or we might be seen. If you cut across those fields, they
will bring you out in Maydock Lane. I will go this way home. Now, good
night, and remember."

"I will not forget, my friend."

They parted, each climbed the fence on a different side of the
wagon-road, and soon the darkness swallowed up the pair of knaves.

Then, after the lapse of some moments, a man's form slid from the
flat sloping roof of the hut, and dropped lightly on the wet soil. He
crouched a moment or two in the doorway with intent ears, and then
crept silently, swiftly, in the darkness towards the colliery on the
Moss.

He had passed the stiles, was hurrying along towards a row of wagons,
and had slipped by the end one when a bearded face and a slouch hat
popped up, like a Jack-in-the-box, from the foremost truck.

"Roberts!"

"Quick, Shelvocke!" In a trice the old watchman had vaulted over the
side of the wagon, and was standing beside the local Sergeant of
Police, whom he was plying with eager questions.

"What have you seen and heard? Did they come? Tell me everything,
Sergeant?"

"Come along. We've not a moment to lose if we are to intercept the Jew.
I can tell you everything as we go along. The man is making his way
over the Moss to Maydock Lane. If we wait there we shall catch him."

The officer was dragging the other along even as he delivered himself
in excited tones, and without another word the watchman sped on at
his side. And then the Sergeant related all he had overheard while
crouching on the roof of the hut. When he concluded his graphic, yet
hurried recital, Bannister asked:--

"You intend to arrest him to-night?"

"Of course. What else can I do? To allow such a slippery customer to
slip through my fingers now would be giving him a chance of getting
clear away."

"You think you will be able to extort a full and satisfactory
confession of his secret from him."

"I mean to try. Men don't pay fifteen hundred pounds and promise five
hundred more for nothing. The rascals are as good as trapped now."

"But you will be running a great risk yourself, Sergeant, if you arrest
this man without a warrant. Even what you have heard and I suspect, is
not sufficient to justify his detention. If the Jew refuses to give his
secret away how are you to make him?"

"That is true, but I think we can frighten him into doing it. Besides,
there's the incriminating letter he wrote to his clerk. That will tell
all."

"Perhaps. What if he wrote nothing, and only said so to 'bluff'
Blackshaw? I have thought of all this. Now, listen to my scheme. If it
fails and gets out I will guarantee you against everything."

The watchman lowered his voice and whispered something in the
Sergeant's ears.

"By heaven! That's the very thing!" the officer cried in a tone of
jubilation. "Go on, Mat, I am with you. In a few minutes, if he hasn't
slipped us, we'll have him safe as a rat in a trap."

Five minutes later they were in the lane, and the Sergeant was standing
under a gas lamp. A few yards away the watchman was huddled up under
the hedge, on the outlook for the Jew who possessed the secret he had
received so much to keep dark.

The hearts of both men were throbbing furiously. In the nineteenth
century, in the heart of Christian England, an officer pledged to
maintain the peace and the heir to many thousands were playing the role
of footpads.

They had not long to wait. Presently the sound of hurrying feet came
along the dark lane, and soon the dark-visaged Israelite passed the
crouching watchman. The next moment the Sergeant stepped out, called by
his name the surprised wayfarer, and while they were converging, and
Mr. Varnie was explaining his late faring, a pair of strong arms were
thrown round his neck, a handkerchief dipped in a powerful narcotic was
pressed to his mouth and nose, and in less time than it takes to tell
it the Jew was lying unconscious in Mat Shelvocke's arms.




CHAPTER XXXVII.--THE MESSAGE OF THE TRAMP.

It was the morning following the midnight tryst which Levi Blackshaw
and Mr. Shadrach Varnie had kept in the hut on Orsden Moss, and Miss
Naomi Shelvocke was sitting in her daintily-garnished room gazing
thoughtfully through the curtained window on the snow-covered country
outside. In the early hours of the new day the white fleece of winter
had fallen heavily, was falling slowly still, and now all things far as
the eye could reach were robed in coldly-glistening garments.

Sitting there at the window Naomi permitted her mind to dwell freely
on the past and the present. Her cousin Levi had left the Hall two or
three hours ago, departing somewhat earlier than usual in order to
visit the town for the purpose of engaging a nurse to attend to the
ailing woman, Miss Lettice Forrester.

The ex-pit-brow girl seemed considerably improved that morning. When
Naomi visited her before breakfast she had found Lettice awake and
quite conscious--even able to speak low and clearly, and to express her
regret for the annoyance she was causing her young mistress.

But when Miss Shelvocke tried to question the sufferer as to the reason
of her sudden seizure, a look of sudden fear had come into Lettice's
face and eyes that had instantly aroused all Naomi's curiosity. But she
did not press her further. Immediately she jumped to the conclusion
that some mystery lay at the bottom of the whole business, and resolved
to probe it.

In some vague, chaotic way she connected her maid's illness with
both of her cousins. She knew that Lettice loved Mat still, and was
wondering if she could have heard from or seen him the other night.
Since then, also, her sharp eyes had detected a certain difference in
Levi which it was not easy to define.

Hence, she pondered the business, and waited as patiently as she could
for developments. That matters could remain as they were for long she
thought impossible. That Mat had gone away in fear to stay she doubted.
Whoever might be responsible for Aaron Shelvocke's strange end, she
felt assured it was not the man she still loved with all the ardour and
tenacity of her strong, passionate soul.

Naomi's chief reason for bringing Lettice to the Hall was her fear that
the old lovers might be in communication still. Mat's trouble might
drive him back to the refuge of his former sweetheart's sympathy. While
he was away he might desire her to watch after his interests.

So thinking, Naomi had engaged Lettice, and each post-time had kept a
sharp eye on every message delivered at the house. She had satisfied
herself that her maid had really paid a visit to her old landlady on
the evening of her attack, but what had preceded Lettice's visit to the
village, or followed that event, she could not divine.

Staring with vacant eyes on the snowbound country, she wondered what
Mat was doing at that moment. Why had he skulked away like a criminal,
and left his scheming cousin in possession of the field? He would come
back--but when? And when he came back, what would the "denouement" be?
Perhaps if that woman were out of the way Mat might----

Her thoughts were interrupted by a tap at the door, and a servant
entered, saying that a lady--the new nurse--had just arrived, and was
waiting to see Miss Shelvocke.

Naomi repaired at once to the room below where the new-comer was. She
found Miss Rawlings to be a prim, neatly attired, hard-faced woman of
thirty, soft-voiced, quiet-mannered, sharp-eyed, and soft-footed, as
the trained attendant on ailing people should be.

She did not care for the look of the woman--would have preferred a
softer-visaged female to attend upon herself, had she been indisposed,
yet she felt, somehow, that Levi had shown judgment in selecting Miss
Rawlings to minister to a woman she hated.

In a minute Naomi had welcomed the nurse and had said all that
was necessary--was taking her to the ailing woman's room, and was
explaining the nature of her business to Miss Forrester. Five minutes
afterwards she had robed herself in her warmest garments and was
trudging through the snow towards the village.

She had passed the length of the carriage drive, and was passing
through the entrance gate into the high road when a hard voice arrested
her walk and caused her to turn sharply round.

"I beg yer pardin, ma'am; but p'raps you wouldn't mind tellin' me if
that there place is Orsden Hall?"

Naomi was glancing with thinly-veiled contempt and disgust at the
disreputable tramp before her, with his totally wrecked boots, tattered
clothes, battered bat, ragged hair, dirty, unshaven face; but at the
mention of the Hall her face softened instantly.

"Yes, it is Orsden Hall, my man," she replied, not unkindly.

"Thanky, ma'am," the dilapidated outcast muttered. "An' p'r'aps you
might tell me if Miss Shel--Shel---Shelstock!" he said suddenly, as he
thought he had found the right word, "is at the Hall?"

"Miss Shelvocke, you mean, I suppose?"

"That's it, ma'am."

"I am Miss Shelvocke."

"Miss Nay-ho-my Shelvocke?" he questioned ponderously, as his bleared
eyes twinkled cunningly.

"Certainly. There is no other Miss Shelvocke," she answered, with some
asperity of tone.

"Well, you may be all right, ma'am; but I promised the gent I'd be
keerful. I've a letter here which I 'aven't got to deliver up to
no one but Miss Nay-ho-my Shelvocke, an' if you were only bluffin'
me--chaffin' like--it would be rale narsty."

"I tell you I am Miss Naomi Shelvocke!" she cried, with a quickened
pulse and altered face. "If you have a letter it is for me!" Still the
tramp hesitated, and she exclaimed angrily, "If you doubt my word walk
on to the village and I will follow. Ask the first person you meet who
I am. That will satisfy you. Then you----"

"Here. I'll trust you, ma'am!"

He thrust his hand inside his grimy coat, and drew forth a soiled and
crumpled envelope, which he handed to the eager-eyed woman. She seized
the packet readily, tore away the dirty cover, and ran her shining eyes
over the note, oblivious or careless of the presence of the wandering
vagabond.

"Who gave you this note for me?" she demanded, speaking quietly with an
effort.

"A young gent, ma'am."

"What was he like?"

"He was a big, fine, handsome young feller, with a brown moustache an'
blue eyes. He was a kind-hearted chap, too; give me a arf-crown, ma'am."

"Take this--good morning."

With that she hurried back towards the house, leaving the broken-down
knight of the road staring with satisfied face at the two shining
half-crowns lying in his dirty palm. He watched the gliding slender
figure for a few moments, and then with a chuckle of joy made for the
village.

Not until she was within the precincts of her own comfortable room did
Naomi Shelvocke re-peruse the note, which she had placed in her purse.
There, with the door closed and safe from all eyes, she re-read the
following communication:--


"My Dear Naomi--You will be astonished to learn that I am so near you,
yet not displeased, I trust, to hear I have come back to claim my own.
I want to see you this evening on a matter of the utmost importance to
us both. Sometime between nine and eleven to-night I shall be waiting
near Gathurst Bridge Station, and at all cost and hazard I wish you
to meet me. In the meantime I urge you to get the Hall clear for me
to-night. I must search the house to-night, and I do not desire to be
seen by any one save yourself. Get the servants and Levi out of the
place by some means or other. Pack them all off to the theatre in the
town--give them money to go with; do anything so long as you meet me
and clear the Hall. I shall be waiting. Do not fail me, dear Naomi, at
this crisis of my life. All my future now depends upon your dear self."

MAT.




CHAPTER XXXVIII.--THE VANISHMENT OF LETTICE.

Orsden Hall was plunged in the silence of the countryside and the
half-hour before midnight. Around the house the white carpet of snow
extended far and wide, and shone with a faint glow like phosphorescent
waters. Overhead the stars scintillated in the clear, dark depths of
space, and a pale cock-boat of a moon rode low in the heavens.

Save for a couple of tenants--the nurse and indisposed maid--the big
house had been deserted for more than two hours; and for an hour or
more now the Hall had been occupied only by Miss Rawlings, who was
comfortably snoring on a couch in an upper chamber.

As the clock in the tower of the village Church chimed out the
half-hour between 11 and 12 a woman's figure glided through the open
entrance gates, and stole quickly along the broad path towards the
house.

It was Naomi Shelvocke. She was heavily veiled and warmly garbed; and
the thick silk-veil covered a dark beautiful face that was clouded and
distorted by many evil feelings and much passionate annoyance.

She had kept tryst with Mat Shelvocke near Gathurst Bridge Station,
and was returning disappointed. She had carried out every behest he
had urged upon her in his note--had got rid of the servants as he had
suggested, and faring forth had waited in the bitter cold for the man
who never came.

At last, wearied out, cold, dispirited, and chagrined beyond all
telling, she hurried homewards, wondering why her cousin had not kept
the appointment he had been at such pains to secure. Had he been
watched and followed? Was he afraid of being arrested? Why had he
desired to see her? What was his object in desiring to search the Hall?

All these puzzling questions simmered in her brain as she re-entered
the house, and took off her outer garments in the big, comfortable
kitchen, where a huge fire was burning awaiting the absent domestics'
return. Well, she concluded, she would learn all in time. To have a
note from Mat inviting her co-operation and assistance was something
to be glad of. On the morrow, probably, her cousin would write to her
again.

Just at that moment the front door bell rang out shrilly in the silence
of the big house. Who could be ringing at that hour? Not the servants
surely. They would come round to the back, and it was too early to
expect them yet.

Again the shrill tingle chimed forth, and Naomi went to answer it. She
had forgotten Levi for the moment. It must be he. So thinking she went
to the front door, undid the fastenings, flung it back, and confronted
Levi Blackshaw and Sergeant Roberts.

Surprised but silent--for momentarily Naomi was too amazed to
speak--she led the way, without a word being spoken on either side,
into the kitchen. Then Levi Blackshaw proceeded to explain the
situation.

"I was coming home through the village, Naomi, when I chanced to meet
the Sergeant here, who was, it seems, coming to the Hall. He will tell
you why he intrudes upon us at such an unearthly hour."

"It is this way, Miss Shelvocke," the officer began, with an apologetic
smile. "I have reason to believe that your cousin, Mr. Matthew
Shelvocke, is lurking somewhere in the neighbourhood of the village,
and I wish to lay hands on him if I can manage it. I believe also
that your new maid, the late pit-brow woman, Lettice Forrester, knows
all about his hiding-place; so I thought I'd come and put a few plain
questions to her. You understand me, I hope, Miss Shelvocke?"

"I understand," Naomi answered with an increasing sense of wondering.
"But Miss Forrester has been very ill--is greatly indisposed still--and
at such a time I think it is pressing the matter too far to attempt to
see her."

"I am extremely sorry to hear that she is not better yet, but I must
see her!" the Sergeant returned.

"But to-night--at this hour? Probably she is asleep now, and to arouse
and agitate her with your questions could only have the effect of
endangering further her health. Why not come to-morrow?"

"It might be too late then," Roberts returned, in an authoritative
voice. "I have come specially to see her now, and I must."

"If you must, Mr. Sergeant," Naomi began, with her proud lips curling
scornfully.

"I must, Miss Shelvocke. If necessary I have authority to arrest her at
once."

"Indeed! A bed-ridden woman is less difficult to capture than some
criminals I have heard of!" was her contemptuous rejoinder. "Well, if
you must see my maid, permit me to show you to her chamber."

She turned from the room, and they followed her up the staircase. At
the door of Lettice Forrester's room Naomi paused, tapped sharply on
the panels with her knuckles, and entered, to find the nurse fast
asleep on the couch in the darkened apartment and the bed of the
invalid empty.

The eyes of all three had sought the bed in concert; each of the
surprised trio glanced at the other two now. Naomi was the first to
act. In a couple of moments she had dashed to the side of the nurse,
and was shaking her vigorously, even roughly.

"Miss Rawlings! Miss Rawlings! Where is Miss Forrester? The bed is
empty! Where is your charge?"

"When I dozed over a moment ago Miss Forrester was sound asleep!" the
nurse exclaimed with a bewildered face, as she started to her feet and
stared at the empty bed. "She can't be far away. Perhaps she has gone
into one of the adjoining rooms."

In another moment Levi, Naomi, and Miss Rawlings were hunting over the
house in vain. When they returned the Sergeant was standing near the
empty bed with a sheet of notepaper in his hand.

"You needn't look any further, Miss Shelvocke," he said, with a broad
smile on his face. "The bird has flown, and you have lost your maid,
while I have missed a fine opportunity. Read this; it will explain
things. I found it on the dressing-table."

Naomi seized the sheet and devoured it with her burning eyes. This is
what it contained:--


"My Dear Miss Shelvocke--I thank you very much for the many kindnesses
you have conferred upon me, and hope you will pardon my sudden
departure. I should have liked to bid you good-bye, but under the
circumstances that was quite impossible. I go to join my sweetheart,
Mat Shelvocke, and perhaps we may never see each other again.

Good-bye,"

"LETTICE FORRESTER."


A lowly-intoned oath fell from the lips of Sergeant Roberts, and his
face was a study of disappointment, as Naomi read the last word aloud.

"Gone! Clean gone! I've lost the reward and all hope of promotion. A
few hours too late! Had I come this afternoon I should have nabbed her."

"You are uttering sheer nonsense, Sergeant Roberts!" Naomi cried
indignantly. "What has my maid to do with any reward or your promotion?"

"If I had caught her I should have squeezed information out of her
which would have enabled me to find your runaway cousin, Mat Shelvocke!
And then----"

He paused, but the damning meaning of his aposiopesis was clear.

"And then," she retorted, with cutting sarcasm, "you would have
succeeded in finding as pretty a mare's nest as ever a smart policeman
discovered! I bid you good evening, gentlemen!"




CHAPTER XXXIX.--AN UNDERGROUND PRISON.

About the time that the incidents set forth in the previous chapter
were being enacted, another episode of a much more striking and
dramatic character was being experienced by some of the personages who
have figured more or less prominently in this narrative.

Shortly after eleven o'clock the door of the old watchman's dwelling
opened and three men stole forth. Without a word they made their way
over the slippery, hard-trodden snow, and gaining the brow of the
Orsden Moss Colliery, descended the shaft up which the dead body of
Aaron Shelvocke had been borne a few weeks before.

Those three men were all miners. The first was the old watchman
himself--Adam Bannister; the second was the present Manager--George
Wells, who had stepped into Mat Shelvocke's shoes when our hero
disappeared; while the third was the underlooker--Jem Gore.

Reaching the bottom of the pit the three men went into the cabin, where
they removed their heavier garments and hats, donned their pit caps,
trimmed their Davy lamps, and then set forth in Indian file towards
that portion of the airways in which the late owner of Orsden Moss was
discovered dead.

By that time Mat Shelvocke had removed the disguising beard,
spectacles, wig, and slouch hat, which transformed him into Adam
Bannister when he filled the watchman's place, and he now appeared as
his companions formerly remembered him.

There were no miners working in the mine that night. In the morning the
Manager had given orders to that effect; and as the three men trudged,
along the dim, silent, and deserted galleries, the hard rock underfoot
rang out eerily under their pattering feet.

Presently the men gained that particular spot in the airways where the
final scene in Aaron Shelvocke's career had been played, and where the
last pulse of his life had ebbed out in the darkness.

Here Mat and his friends paused a few moments, and three pair of eyes
were turned involuntarily upon the massive slab of rock which had been
found resting on the dead minemaster's cracked skull.

"If this stone could only speak, my lads," Shelvocke remarked sadly
to his companions, "I'm afraid it would have to tell a sorrowful and
terrible story. At all events, it would be able to settle for ever the
puzzle I have set my very life upon solving."

"That is so, Mr. Shelvocke," Wells replied thoughtfully, "but I fancy
we shall hear the Jew speak the truth before the stone does."

"He shall!" Mat hissed through his clenched teeth. "Now that I have
the rascal in my grip he shall never leave this pit until he has given
up his secret. What it may be I can only guess; but whatever it may be
he shall have it wrung from him! Levi Blackshaw doesn't pay a fellow
like this Shadrach Varnie fifteen hundred pounds for keeping his teeth
closed tight on a mere trifle. Well, we shall see!"

The young fellow rose to his feet as he ceased speaking, and the others
followed him along the low, dust-covered gallery, until a point was
reached where the level passage was intersected by another gallery
running up brow and down at right angles to the other.

Here Mat paused again, and with a whispered "Hush!" dropped on his
knees in a listening attitude. The other two did likewise, and the eyes
of all were directed along the ascending road. For a moment the death
stillness of the mine seemed unbroken, and then out of the blackness
came the deep stentorious breathing of a human being.

"My prisoner is asleep!" Shelvocke whispered with a cynical sneer on
his handsome face. "Now put on those masks I gave you, and we will have
a look at him. This is my game entirely, and I do not wish any one to
run the least risk save myself. Sink or swim, win or lose, I mean to
frighten the secret out of the rascal."

The Manager and underlooker covered the upper portion of their faces
with pieces of black crape, and that done, they all went up the gallery
with Mat at their head. He had not attempted to hide his features or
disguise himself in any way. As he had said, it was his game, and he
meant to play it fearlessly, and shoulder all the attendant risks.

A few more strides and then the men were standing inside a great
cavernous place. Four or five yards overhead hung the dark rocky
ceiling; on either hand, six or seven yards apart, the walls of rock
arose, and ponderous logs of timber were poised, like rows of pillars,
along each side of the cave, while on them, to support the roof, great
baulks of wood were thrown.

From one of the massive props a burning Davy lamp was suspended, and
its faint glimmer served, not to illuminate the great cavern so much,
as to disclose the walls of blackness hanging all round. And behind and
around all the atrous blackness of the mine was the deep, palpitating
silence of the grave.

Between two of the ponderous wooden pillars the form of a man was
stretched, silent and motionless, his arms outspread, his breast on the
stone floor, and his face hidden from those who bent near him. Lying
there black and rigid the man might have been thought dead but for the
thick, heavy snoring gurgle he made in his sleep.

"He sleeps as soundly as an honest man!" Shelvocke muttered, almost
savagely, as he bent over the sleeper with his Davy and examined the
shackles that kept him prisoned there under the earth.

Around the man's waist a thin, supple chain had been tightly wound
several times, and securely fastened at the back with a couple of heavy
padlocks. The other end of the iron cable was wound round one of the
massive pillars supporting the roof, and there heavy locks secured it.
His hands and feet were free, but he was as safely pinioned to the spot
as if one of the great logs of timber had been set on his chest.

That sinuous series of metal links belting his body would have defied
the strain of the Samson of sacred story, and only a heavy hammer and
keen chisel of steel would have enabled the captive to rend asunder his
strong fetters.

Satisfied with his examination, Mat Shelvocke drew back, motioned his
companions back also, and the trio stood in a group at a fathom's
distance from the sleeping man, each of their lamps held breast high in
its owner's hand.

Then Mat Shelvocke's deep, strong, voice rang sonorously through the
rocky cavern, reverberating weirdly along the dark, silent, far-away
recesses of the mine.

"Varnie! Varnie! Shadrach Varnie! Awake!"

At the first cry the man ceased snoring and moved uneasily on his
hard resting-place; at the second a hoarse, muttering sound fell from
his mouth, at the third he turned round suddenly, scrambled to his
knees, and straining at the chain, stared mutely, with a horrified
countenance, at the two masked men and their handsome, resolute-faced
leader.

For a moment or two there was absolute silence. Instinctively the
captured Israelite had divined that he was at the mercy of that
unmasked grim-faced young man, and fear held his tongue fettered.

"Well, Mr. Varnie," Mat began coldly, "how does your prison suit you?"

"In the name of God, sir, why am I prisoned here, and chained up like
a wild beast? This is Levi Blackshaw's work; and you can tell him that
unless I am set free at once it will be worse for him!"

"It is not Blackshaw's work, Varnie. It is mine; and unless you do what
I wish you will end your days in this place!"

"What have I done? What do you wish me to do? Take all my money, but
let me go at once! I am nearly frozen to death. I am dying of hunger!
For the love of God, where am I? And why am I here?"

"Listen and I will tell you!" Mat exclaimed in a hard and intensely
dramatic voice. "Your prison is some hundreds of yards under Orsden
Moss. You are buried here--chained to a prop in the heart of an old and
disused part of the mine. If I say the word no living being will ever
set foot here where we are now! If I care to give orders this part of
the pit will be sealed up and closed for ever! You will make it your
tomb unless you reveal one thing!"

"Who are you?" the Jew cried, as he scrambled to his feet. "What am I
to reveal?"

"The secret Levi Blackshaw has paid you one thousand five hundred
pounds to keep!"

"God in heaven, I know you now! You are Blackshaw's cousin--the young
man who ran away to America!"

"Yes, I am his cousin! You know now why you are here. And, mark me, it
is not a question of dirty blood-money now, but a matter of life and
death for you! Which is it to be?"




CHAPTER XL.--THE RAT IN THE TRAP.

For some moments the Jew did not speak when Mat Shelvocke concluded his
grisly declaration. Straining like a fettered beast at his chain, he
stood there, his knees bent a little, his hands uplifted with the palms
turned outward, as if in awed supplication, while his dark cunning face
was strangely distorted, half fearsome and part joyful.

Then suddenly the man fell backward, seated himself on the cold-stone
floor, and a queer harsh grating chuckle came from his black, heavily
bearded lips.

"Ha! ha! Mr. Shelvocke," he exclaimed, with a hollow pretence at mirth.
"You are jesting, surely. I am glad to know, for at first I was much
afraid. I have heard before of you mining men catching people and
bringing them down the pits just to frighten them very much. It was a
very good joke, too, I thought; but I don't like it, and if you have
done with me I shall be glad to go. Ha! ha! It was a very good joke,
but I'm tired of it. Mr. Shelvocke."

"You infernal, black-souled scoundrel!" Mat hissed, passionately, as he
took one step towards the Jew, lifting his fist in his anger, as if he
meant to smite the sitting man. "This is no joke, as you will find out
in the course of a few days. You are here, and by heaven here you shall
stay till you rot, unless you render up to me the secret Levi Blackshaw
has paid you handsomely to keep. Shadrach Varnie, I swear it before
God, who sees us both!"

The crouching man stared at the speaker as he stood there in the faint
light cast by the lamps, whose glow fell on his animated face and
uplifted hand. Slowly Varnie answered:--

"If you are not jesting you are romancing then, my young friend. What
secret have I of any man's, my dear Mr. Shelvocke?"

"You know, and before you leave this place I shall know as well. Rest
assured of two things, Varnie. No subterfuge or false speaking will
save you now. I am a desperate man, fighting for my honour--perhaps
my life. You know something that will clear the one and put the other
beyond all danger. If you do not choose to speak you shall perish here
of hunger and cold--shall be buried here also--and the world above will
never learn what your end was. I swear it!"

The young man went down on his knees, clasped his hands together as if
invoking Divine audience, cast his eyes to the great beams spanning the
roof, and cried solemnly--

"Here on my knees, in the sight of God, who knows I am innocent, I
swear to sacrifice this man's life unless he delivers the murderer of
my poor uncle up to justice! So help me, heaven!"

Those words uttered with all the dramatic force he could summon, Mat
rose quietly to his feet, and turned as if to depart, when Varnie's
voice broke the stillness suddenly.

"What can I tell you, Mr. Shelvocke? I know nothing. I have no secret
of Blackshaw's!"

"Lies will not avail you now, scoundrel!" Mat said sternly. "If you are
resolved not to give your briber away, you had better pray. I am going
now; and when I return in twenty-four hours' time, you may have changed
your mind."

"Mr. Shelvocke, for the love of God have mercy! On my soul, I tell you
I know nothing."

"You know much, and I know you know! What were you doing at Orsden Hall
the other evening? Why did Levi Blackshaw give you a thousand pounds in
Bank notes when you met him at midnight in the hut on Orsden Moss? Why
did he talk of shooting you because of the secret you held? Why did you
tell him that you had left a letter behind you setting forth where you
were going and why? Tell me the reason of all these things, and then I
may believe you, Mr. Varnie."

"My God, we were watched!"

"Watched and overheard. You know Sergeant Roberts, the officer who was
talking to you in the lane when I seized you? He was at the hut, on the
roof, and heard everything. Even if I were to free you, he would arrest
you as an accomplice."

"He dare not. Let me go! You will suffer for keeping me here."

"I have taken the law into my own hands, and am prepared to stand the
consequences," Mat said firmly. "In desperate cases desperate means
must be resorted to, and I have done that, which seemed best to me.
When the law fails to reach such as you and others, men must seek
justice for themselves. My life is at stake as well as your own. Do you
wonder that I use the whip when I grasp it?"

"Mercy! For God's sake do not go!" the Jew wailed.

"I am going. It is midnight now, and I shall return to-morrow at
midnight. In the meantime you will have an opportunity of thinking
calmly over it all. Before I go let me tell you something. This lamp
will go out in a hour or two. Then you will have the darkness and
silence and your thoughts for company. A little distance from you is
the spot where the body of my poor uncle was found. Perhaps his shade
may visit you in the quiet watches of the night. Good-night. Now, men,
come along."

The three men turned, and as they strode away the Jew's courage gave
way, and his appalled exclamations made the cavern ring.

"Come back! Come back! For heaven's sake stop, and I will tell you all.
Release me. Take me out of this hell, and I will tell you all."

"When you have spoken I will free you, and not a moment before," was
the unflinching reply. "Go on, if you have decided to speak."

The three men seated themselves in a cluster near the chained man, who
began by asking:--

"If I tell you all, will you guarantee that I shall not be harmed in
any way?"

"All that I can do for you shall be done. If you are guiltless in
everything save a knowledge of the real criminal no harm can befall
you. Now, be quick and speak!"

Then in his own fashion the wretched Jew disgorged the secret he had
been paid so well to keep.




CHAPTER XLI.--NAOMI'S FINAL ANSWER.

It was the morning following the strange disappearance of Lettice
Forrester, and the two cousins, Naomi Shelvocke and Levi Blackshaw,
were seated at breakfast, to which each was paying but an indifferent
attention.

Levi's swart countenance was more than ordinarily pale on this morning,
was more than usually thoughtful also; and at times, as if aware of
the change in his appearance and manner, he made an effort to appear
at his ease, and to deliver himself of the customary common-places of
conversation in his habitually indifferent fashion.

But his endeavour was much less than successful, and his failure
irritated him. He was afraid of his handsome relative's penetrating
eyes, more afraid still of her shrewd brain and caustic tongue; and at
such a time, when the crisis of his destiny was approaching, and almost
at hand, he felt he had need to be complete master of himself and all
his cunning.

Without seeming to notice his cousin's demeanour Naomi noticed every
shade of feeling in his face--every change of mood and thought.
She herself was somewhat disturbed that morning. She was looking
brilliantly lovely as ever, but her eyes had no rest in them.

The happenings of the previous day afforded her matter for much
cogitation. There was the note purporting to come from Mat which the
unknown vagrant had brought to her; the unexpected vanishment of
Lettice, while the Hall was practically deserted, and she was hovering
in the vicinage of Gathurst Bridge; and, last of all, the arrival of
the local sergeant of police on a mission the real intent of which she
could not fathom.

"It was really a most singular thing, Levi," she remarked in a tone of
indifference which the sparkle of her half-veiled eyes belied, "that
Miss Forrester should have taken it into her head to disappear so
abruptly last night."

"Most singular, as you say, Naomi," he responded, with a show of real
interest. "There was another singular thing in connection with your
maid's going away which struck me last night, although I did not care
to mention it in the presence of the sergeant."

"Indeed! What was it?"

"That the servants were all away at the time, that you and I were out
also, and that only the nurse, Miss Rawlings, was at the Hall with your
maid."

She bit her lower lip involuntarily, and shot a keen scrutinising look
at his averted face, detecting the flicker of a cynical smile hovering
around the corner of his closed mouth. Suddenly her heart gave a leap
and her beauteous face hardened. In a flash of inspiration she divined
what had puzzled her all morning.

"Levi," she cried in an altered voice that drew his gaze upon her,
"permit me to compliment you on the admirable way in which you fooled
me yesterday, and all of us last night. It was you who sent that tramp
with the letter!"

"Perhaps," he said laconically.

"And you also wrote that note which bore Lettice Forrester's name!"

"Maybe you are right; but what matters is who wrote them both so long
as they served their purpose so effectually, my dear Naomi?"

"I hate to be hoodwinked and used as a tool to further the schemes of
others!" she said, harshly. "Even to push on your schemes I decline to
be made a fool of!"

"I was working in our joint interest, Naomi," he said, quietly and
unabashed. "I had reason for fearing Miss Forrester as much as you have
had cause to hate her. Why grumble when I have succeeded in sweeping a
stumbling-block out of our way?"

"You are working in the dark, Levi, and I cannot follow your
movements," she answered more amiably. "I can only wonder and guess as
to what the end of it all will be."

"The end," he echoed with drawn mouth. "I cannot tell you that--I can
only tell you what I want it to be, Naomi."

He had risen as he spoke--had lowered his voice meaningly while
speaking, and had bent forward across the table as he devoured her
splendid face with his ardent eyes. Something in his attitude and
manner suggested a summer day in an arbour when he had registered a
solemn vow, and she shuddered involuntarily at the recollection.

"I would rather not know, Levi, what the end is to be," she murmured,
faintly. "Providence is wise in keeping too much from us."

"Providence!" he almost hissed. "A fine thing that, Naomi, when the
world is with one--a sorry matter when the world is against you. You
have not forgotten the bargain we made."

"Why speak of that now?"

"Because I must. For your sake I have done much that would otherwise
have remained undone. You promised to be mine, and now, when everything
is pointing to the realization of our aims, why should I not speak of
the great aim of my life?"

"Not now! Not now!" she pleaded. "It was a huge mistake. Besides,
everything is so unsettled and uncertain still."

"It is almost a certainty," he cried. "A day or two may make it so. In
the name of God, do not talk, look, and think as if you mean to cry off
our compact now when I have----"

"Stop!" She rose and faced him over the table. "I have said it was a
mistake. It was. Can I help the facts of life? My love is not mine to
give. I am sorry, Levi, but I shall never be your wife."

"And you expect me to be satisfied with your sorrow?" he sneered. "By
all that is holy and dear to me I swear, Naomi----"

Again Blackshaw was interrupted in the full flow of his speech. A tap
at the chamber door stilled his passionate whisper, and the moment
after a maid entered saying, as she held out a brown envelope to him--

"A telegram, Mr. Blackshaw."

He took the message from her, tore off the cover, and read the telegram
with a muttered oath. Then with a hard face, and in a hard tone he
asked--

"Is the boy waiting?"

"Yes."

"Tell him to stay a moment."

It was but the work of a minute to scribble an answer; in another it
was on its way, and then Blackshaw turned to Naomi.

"I must say good morning, cousin. Business of an urgent nature demands
my immediate attention. Some time soon we will discuss this matter
further."

"You have received bad news, Levi?" she queried, her fine dark eyes
kind now, and her soft voice sweetly sympathetic.

"Yes, it is a somewhat unsatisfactory message, Naomi. The other day I
sank a thousand pounds in a certain speculative business, which I need
not name, and I am not sure I haven't thrown the money away. That is
all."

"I'm so sorry."

"Thank you. Good morning, Naomi."

"Good morning, Levi," she responded, with a feeling of relief as he
passed quickly from the room.

A minute later she was at the window and watching him pace along the
snow-covered drive. He had the telegram in his hands again, and was
reading it anew. What was the intelligence it contained, she wondered.

The telegraphic message which had disturbed Levi Blackshaw so much, and
which had aroused all his charming relative's feelings of curiosity,
hailed from a gentleman with whom our friend had transacted certain
important matters of business at various times. It was to the following
effect:--


"Moot Hall Chambers, Coleclough.

"I must see you immediately. Come to my office at once without delay.
Have something to tell you which you must know before I depart from
England. There is danger in the air. For your own sake, come.

"VARNIE."




CHAPTER XLII.--THE SPIDER AND THE FLY.

When Levi Blackshaw entered the office of the Lancashire Reliance
Advance Company, of which our friend Mr. Shadrach Varnie was supposed
to be Manager only, whereas he was in fact the sole proprietor, he
found that gentleman sitting alone, and evidently anxiously awaiting
his arrival.

Underneath his jet-black whiskers and beard, about his prominent
cheekbones and bushy brows, the Jew's skin wore a greenish white
pallor which instantly caught Blackshaw's alert eyes, and the palpable
disquietude of the money-lender showed his visitor that the telegram had
not been dispatched without some reason.

"Anybody in besides ourselves?" Levi asked with a curt nod as he took a
vacant chair near the small fireplace.

"Not a soul!" was the thick, unsteady response. "My clerk is away in
the country making some enquiries respecting a client, and the office
boy will not get back before afternoon. You got my wire?"

"Of course I got it. Should I be here if I hadn't? What the deuce
does it mean?" Levi demanded angrily. "I've had just enough of this
business, Varnie; and by----I don't mean to stand any more humbug."

"You have treated me very handsomely, Mr. Blackshaw," the Israelite
said warmly, "and I swear I'll never trouble you again after this
morning. It was for your own sake, as well as my own that I wired you.
What I had to say I was afraid to write."

"What is the nature of this danger you alluded to in the telegram?"
Levi asked sullenly.

"Your cousin is back again!" the Jew exclaimed.

"That doesn't surprise me very much."

"But he has never been away. That pretence of going to America was only
part of a deep-laid plan to throw us both off our guard."

"Perhaps--if it is true; but he will never catch me napping, I think!"
Blackshaw sneered savagely. "And is this what you are frightened about."

"I have something much worse to tell you," was the firm rejoinder. "Mat
Shelvocke is back at Orsden Green--he has never been away for more than
a few days; and for the last few weeks he has been actually living
under your very nose and meeting you constantly."

"What infernal nonsense you are talking," Levi cried in contemptuous
tones. "What ass has been foisting such a cock and bull story upon you?
If I had thought this was what I was going to hear I should certainly
not have taken the trouble to come here."

"It is true, I tell you!" Varnie exclaimed in tones of deadliest
earnestness. "Both our necks are in danger, and if you are wise, you
will clear out when I do. Do you know that your cousin knows now that
you went down to the pit that night with Aaron Shelvocke, and that
you were in the old watchman's cottage on the very night the man, Dan
Coxall, met with his death?"

"What arrant rubbish. Have you been dreaming? Or has your coward heart
given you away before these imaginary fears?" was the scornful retort.
"To put the whole matter in a nutshell, Mr. Varnie, what reason have
you for thinking all this?"

"The very best reasons, as you will admit soon," was the Jew's answer,
as he shifted uneasily in his chair, with his black beady eyes on
his companion. "Did it never strike you that the new watchman, Adam
Bannister, was your cousin carefully disguised?"

"My God! Is that true?" Levi exclaimed, as he jumped excitedly to his
feet.

"It is an absolute fact, and I leave you to guess why he assumed
such a disguise. For many days he has been working, like a rat in
the dark, after our secret. And he has had another--a woman, and his
sweetheart--working to the same end inside your very home!"

"I suspected that, and I have taken steps to stop the woman's tongue,"
Levi said, gravely. "She will tell nothing, Varnie."

"But you took your precautions too late!" was the agitated reply. "That
night when I visited the Hall, and had that conversation with you in
your room, the woman overheard enough to put her lover on our trail."

"But what she wrote never reached him. She lost what she had written,
and I took care that it never reached its destination."

"But the woman reached the man and spoke. I tell you again, Blackshaw,
that we are in danger. We were watched and overheard that night in the
hut on the Moss when you gave me that thousand pounds."

"Who could watch us? I saw the night-watchman at home, before I went
there to wait for you, and the woman was powerless then. Besides, I
examined all the hut and around it."

"But forgot to look on the flat roof of the hut, where a police
officer--Sergeant Roberts, of Orsden Green--was lying eagerly listening
to every word we had to say to each other that night."

An oath fell from Levi Blackshaw's lips, and his dark face grew paler
and grimmer. For a moment or two he sat there brooding sullenly, and
then he looked up with a suspicious look in his eyes and a dangerous
glitter in their depths.

"If what you say is true, Varnie," he asked, his hard mouth curving
sneeringly, "how is it that you are still in England?"

"I wished to warn you."

"To warn me at your own risk, eh! No, no! Not that. With your white
liver, and the money you have got out of me I cannot believe that. We
are in the same boat, you know, and if the worst happens it would mean
penal servitude for you."

"Yes, I know. That is why I stayed to urge you to clear out at once.
Let us go away this very afternoon together," the Jew cried, in
supplicatory tones.

"Wait a moment. There is another question I want to ask now. How did
you get to know all these things you have told me? It almost looks
as if my cousin and the policeman had taken you kindly into their
confidence, or"--he paused an instant, and that baneful light gleamed
afresh in his eyes--"perhaps you were condescending enough to take them
into yours?"

"I was hardly likely to do that, Mr. Blackshaw, considering the risk I
ran," Varnie asserted with a deprecatory gesture of innocence.

"How did it come about then?" Levi said, sternly. "Remember, I want the
truth! Hitherto you have found me yielding enough when you put your
infernal pressure upon me, for I knew I was at your mercy. But if I
thought you were capable of betraying me now I would shoot you, like
the rat you are!"

"No! No! Mr. Blackshaw," the Jew cried, in accents of fear, as he
cowered before the desperate man. "I have done nothing! I will tell you
all. Sit down, and don't touch me, and I will tell you all!"

"Out with it, then!"

"Your cousin and the Sergeant came to me last night, and told me all I
have told you. They tried to bribe me--offered me a pardon if I would
tell the whole truth, and I refused. Then I sent the telegram to the
Hall. On my soul, that is God's truth!"

"Humph!" Blackshaw muttered, grimly. "I wonder if I can believe you.
And you are here still. That looks strange!"

"I am going away--you go too! Even now the officers are after you--at
Orsden Green! Go! Quick! In the name of heaven, go!"

"You swear this is the truth, Varnie?"

"On my soul I do!"

"I will go, then."

Without more ado Blackshaw turned away, strode towards the door and
found it locked. Instantly he turned with a hoarse cry of rage, to
find that Varnie had disappeared, and that his Cousin Mat and Sergeant
Roberts and another policeman were striding towards him from the open
doorway of an inner room.

"Trapped, by----!"

In an instant Levi had whipped out a revolver and was holding it
towards his hated cousin; the next, three reports rang out in quick
succession, and Mat Shelvocke was flung backward with a shattered
shoulder, while the desperate man was lying on the floor with the roof
of his mouth and skull torn away.




CHAPTER XLIII.--MAT SHELVOCKE EXPLAINS.

The attempted murder of his cousin, and the completely successful
act of suicide with which Levi Blackshaw had so dramatically closed
his earthly career, sent a thrill of horrified wonder and excitement
through the busy town wherein the tragedy was played out, and caused no
small stir in the village of Orsden Green.

Many an hour before Mat Shelvocke presented himself at Orsden Hall
the grim intelligence of the tragic occurrence preceded him, and when
he set foot now in his old home he found that the fateful news had
completely prostrated his cousin Naomi, who was even then confined to
her room with the local doctor in attendance upon her.

Mat made no attempt to force his presence upon his suffering relative.
Intuitively he felt that she could have no desire to see him just
then; he himself had no overpowering wish to converse with Naomi on a
matter so embarrassing and painful to them both; so, although he busied
himself about the house, and assumed instant and complete charge over
everything, he avoided his cousin's apartments.

On the morrow a new man was filling Blackshaw's vacated position,
and Mat had made his re-appearance at the Colliery on the Moss, to be
welcomed back honestly and heartily by all his old friends, workmen,
and servants.

The happy-natured and handsome-faced young fellow had ever been on the
most popular footing with every one who earned a livelihood under his
uncle's sway and his own, and there were not a few who were glad to
know that Levi Blackshaw's threatened reign was disposed of for ever.

On the morning of the second day following the self-destruction of
Blackshaw, Mat was getting ready to visit Coleclough, where the inquest
was to be held that afternoon, when one of the servants brought him
word that Naomi desired to see him before he left the Hall.

Shortly afterwards Shelvocke knocked at the door of his cousin's
room, her voice bade him come in, and when he entered he found Naomi
sitting in a low chair near the fire, wrapped up in shawls, and looking
wan-eyed and grievously ill.

"You desired to speak to me, Naomi?" he said, kindly, as he noted
her altered appearance. "I am deeply troubled to find you looking so
poorly."

"Thank you, Mat," she said lowly, letting her great black eyes rest
lovingly on his handsome face for a moment. "I daresay I shall be all
right in a few days. You are going to town?"

"Yes; the inquest is to take place to-day."

"Poor Levi!" she murmured, and he saw her lovely eyes fill with tears.
"Do you know, Mat, I have been afraid of late that it would end in this
way?"

"It is a terrible business," he replied, finding words difficult of
utterance. "Of course, I am glad to get myself right in the eyes of the
world, but all the same I am honestly sorry for poor Levi's fate."

"You do not blame me, Mat, for anything?" she asked with suppliant
voice and eyes.

"Certainly not. Why should I?" he exclaimed with unfeigned warmth. "I
should like to thank you very much for all your kindness to Lettice
Forrester."

"Ah, Lettice! Where is she? Safe, I hope?"

"Quite safe, thank you, Naomi. The cab that conveyed her away from here
was followed."

"You are--friends again?" she asked, with a painful effort to maintain
her composure.

"More, cousin," he answered firmly. "When this painful matter is over,
we are to be married. May I tell her that you will welcome her home,
and remain to share the Hall with us?"

"No. No. That is impossible!" she cried out weakly, and her hands flew
to her white face. "Leave me now, Mat. When you return I will speak to
you again."

He bowed and left her--left her heartbroken and utterly crushed. She
had played the game and lost it.

Some hours after this, one of the largest rooms in the municipal
buildings at Coleclough was crowded by a big and expectant audience
of people, who were interested in the enquiry to be conducted that
afternoon.

The "Crowner" and his empanelled Jurors were present. Prominent among
those who were accommodated with seats near the Borough Coroner
were Sergeant Roberts and the policeman who had accompanied him to
Varnie's office; near were Mat Shelvocke and Lettice Forrester; but
the money-lender, in whose den the grim drama had been enacted, was
"conspicuous by his absence."

By some means or other the crafty and frightened son of Israel had
given the police the "go-by," had disappeared beyond all finding, and
hence it was deemed well to carry on the investigation without his
assistance.

Of the four witnesses present who had evidence to offer bearing
directly on Levi Blackshaw's suicide, or the remarkable series of
events leading up to it, only the full and particular statement set
forth by Matthew Shelvocke need be recorded here.

It was a remarkable statement in many ways. It explained many things
that the curious was athirst to know; was a complete justification of
the man that made it; and from beginning to end was followed with an
almost breathless interest. The deliverance of Matthew Shelvocke was to
the following effect:--


"I identify the remains of the deceased as those of Levi Blackshaw,"
Mat began. "We were cousins, and, prior to the last few weeks we
resided together at Orsden Hall, Orsden Green, formerly the residence
of my uncle, the late Mr. Aaron Shelvocke. I was present when the
deceased shot himself, after shooting me in the shoulder and firing at
Sergeant Roberts.

"The suicide took place in the office of Mr. Shadrach Varnie, Moot
Hall Chambers. Sergeant Roberts and Police-constable Ryan were there
for the purpose of arresting the suicide on a charge of murder. I
was with them, and we were all there in an inner room in hiding. The
money-lender, who appears to have absconded, was privy to our purpose.
He put us into the inner room so that we might overhear a conversation
between himself and the deceased.

"I believe Levi Blackshaw's suicide to be the direct outcome of another
tragedy which took place some months ago at Orsden Green. I allude
to the death of my uncle under circumstances surrounded by gravest
suspicion. It will be remembered that the late master of Orsden Moss
Colliery was found dead in one of his own mines, at a time when he was
supposed to be spending a holiday in Wales.

"At the inquest held on my uncle's remains one singular fact was sworn
to. The night engine-tenter, Luke Stanforth, stated that when Aaron
Shelvocke went down the pit about midnight, he understood, from what
the watchman, Dan Coxall, told him, that one of Aaron's nephews--Levi
Blackshaw or myself--accompanied the mineowner.

"As my honour is involved in the matter, still as we are here to
enquire as to why the deceased laid violent hands on his own life as
well as to throw light upon the manner in which Aaron Shelvocke and the
watchman, Dan Coxall, met their deaths on the same night, I claim the
indulgence of the Court, Mr. Coroner and Jurymen, while I relate the
whole of my experiences since the double tragedy at Orsden Moss took
place.

"On the morning of my uncle's departure for Wales, he took me aside and
told me to watch Levi Blackshaw. He did not explain why I was to watch
him. He departed, some days passed, but I never watched the deceased. I
had no reason to suspect him of doing anything wrong and, consequently,
I declined to play the part of spy upon my relative.

"I ought to explain that another cousin of mine, Miss Naomi Shelvocke,
accompanied my uncle on his holiday. One day I received a letter from
her. It was the day of the night on which the two men died. That
letter stated that the writer wished to see me at once on business of
importance. I went, found my uncle was missing, talked the matter over
with Miss Shelvocke, and returned to Orsden Hall about midnight.

"Next morning my uncle was found dead in the mine, and Dan Coxall was
found lifeless in the cottage in which he lived near the colliery.
At the inquest what I have mentioned was stated in evidence. The
engine-tenter I have named was morally certain that Levi Blackshaw or
myself had gone down into the mine with the dead mineowner.

"But the only man who could prove who it was that stepped into the
cage with Aaron Shelvocke on that fatal night was dead also. Had Dan
Coxall lived he could have explained the mystery; as it was, I was the
man suspected, for I was Manager of the colliery. I went down into the
pits regularly, whereas Levi Blackshaw swore at the inquest that he had
never been down that or any other mine in his life.

"I will not dwell upon the annoyance and pain I endured at this period.
My uncle had bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to myself, and that
fact may have had something to do with the sinister rumours that began
to be bruited about the neighbourhood. At last, stung beyond endurance,
and feeling myself utterly powerless to disprove the vile charges and
innuendoes circulated concerning me, I resolved upon taking a bold step.

"First of all I went to my solicitor, Mr. John Scott, of this town,
and laid my scheme before him. He agreed with me as to the feasibility
of my plan; and then I went and explained the whole matter to Sergeant
Roberts, who is present at the inquest. A day later I disappeared from
Orsden Green and went to Liverpool; there I wrote letters which I
handed to a man who was about to cross the Atlantic, with instructions
to post them when he arrived at New York.

"By seeking safety in flight I had voluntarily taken upon my shoulders
all the odium of the criminal who was flying from justice. My letters,
supposed to have been written in America, had that effect which was
exactly what I desired. I desired above all else to throw the real
criminal off his guard, and my ruse succeeded.

"But I did not leave England at all, and in the course of a week or
two I was back at Orsden Moss, where I had obtained the situation of
night watchman of the colliery--the very situation the dead Dan Coxall
had formerly filled. Of course I was carefully disguised, and none of
my former associates and work-people knew me--save two or three I took
into my confidence. Perhaps I ought to add that Sergeant Roberts was in
my confidence also.

"On the very night I acted as watchman at the Orsden Moss Colliery I
received a visit from Levi Blackshaw. He did not recognise me, and we
conversed together for some time. I noticed that his eyes were slyly
sweeping the floor of the cottage, as if in search of something, and
when my visitor went away I found what he had been seeking.

"It was a portion of a gold sleeve-link belonging to Levi Blackshaw,
and it was lying in the crack between two of the flags with which the
watchman's dwelling is paved. I had no difficulty in recognising the
ornament at once, for it bore Blackshaw's initials, and I was aware
that the links were a present from Aaron Shelvocke.

"I did not keep the piece of gold link. Instead, I replaced it in the
crack, for I thought my visitor had seen it, and would obtain it by
some means. So thinking I left the cabin and purposely left the door
unlocked. In the colliery yard I again encountered Levi Blackshaw, and
he asked for a light. I told him my lamp had gone out, but that he
could get a light in the cottage, where a fire was burning.

"He thanked me, went away, and when I returned to the cottage shortly
afterwards, I found that the piece of gold link had disappeared. Of
course, I cannot swear that Levi Blackshaw removed it; but his visit
to the cottage so late in the evening, his furtive glances about the
floor that I noticed, the fact that it belonged to him, and that
it disappeared after his second visit that night to the dwelling,
compelled me to think he took it.

"Some time after the occurrence of the incident I have related Miss
Lettice Forrester, who is now present, had to become an inmate
of Orsden Hall. That lady is my affianced wife. She knew that I
was playing the part of watchman in order to clear up the mystery
surrounding the death of Aaron Shelvocke and Dan Coxall, and it was to
aid me in my schemes that she entered the service of my cousin, Miss
Naomi Shelvocke.

"To Miss Forrester I attribute the successful unravelling of the whole
black business. One night the absconded witness and accessory after
the fact, Shadrach Varnie, met Blackshaw at Orsden Hall. They had an
interview, some words of which Miss Forrester contrived to overhear.
The two men were evidently in league, and Varnie was blackmailing the
other on account of some secret he possessed.

"My sweetheart brought the information to me the same evening, and
told me that Varnie and Blackshaw were to meet the following evening
at midnight, at some hut on Orsden Moss. Next day I communicated with
Sergeant Roberts, and when the appointed time arrived the Sergeant was
lying on the top of the hut, at the entrance of Orsden Moss railway
siding, and there he saw Blackshaw and Varnie meet, and overheard every
word of their conversation.

"The Sergeant will tell you all he heard then; all I need say about that
meeting is this. Blackshaw, after talking about shooting Varnie, handed
him a thousand pounds in notes, on the understanding that he was never
to reveal a certain fact he knew, and clear out of England immediately.
When they parted they avoided the railway siding, and struck across the
Moss in different ways.

"Five minutes later I met the Sergeant, and he told me all. I had
already formed a plan of operations and was resolved to carry it out in
spite of everything. My life and honour were at stake, and if I allowed
Shadrach Varnie to escape, and to fly from England, I could not hope to
establish my innocence.

"I was a desperate man driven in a corner, and I carried out a
desperate scheme. Luckily it was a complete success. Varnie was seized,
drugged, and taken down the very mine where my uncle's dead body was
discovered--was chained to a prop not many yards away from the spot
where Aaron Shelvocke was found with his skull battered in.

"There he was left for four-and-twenty hours, and then I and two
others paid a visit to the man imprisoned underground. I threatened to
starve the man to death unless he revealed the secret Levi Blackshaw
had bribed him so heavily to keep; swore a solemn vow on my knees
before him that unless he disclosed the whole truth to me, and enabled
me to establish my innocence before the world, he should be buried
there alive, and left to rot away in the silence and darkness of that
deserted part of the mine.

"At last the man's courage gave way, and he revealed all. He admitted
that he was present on the Moss when Levi Blackshaw and my uncle went
down the pit--that he was near at hand also when Blackshaw returned
alone. Why the two men went down the pit, he could not tell me; nor did
he know till next day that Aaron Shelvocke had been found dead in the
mine.

"But Shadrach Varnie was able to throw some light on the cause of
old Dan Coxall's death. After coming up the pit alone Blackshaw went
straight to the watchman's cot, where Coxall was sitting with a glass
and a bottle of liquor before him. Through the window he watched all
that took place inside. There was some talk, a quarrel, and then Dan
Coxall was struck down, never to rise again alive.

"What he had witnessed that night gave the Jew his power over
Blackshaw, and that Blackshaw had reason to feel mortally afraid of
Varnie is proved by the fact that altogether he paid the man no less a
sum than fifteen hundred pounds.

"When Varnie was released from the mine he was prompted to inveigle
Levi Blackshaw to his office, where I, Sergeant Roberts, and
Police-constable Ryan, were secreted. There the Sergeant and the
constable will tell you the suicide practically confessed that he was
responsible for the death of the two men; and that when he saw escape
was impossible he shot himself."


There was a loud and continuous murmur of excited conversation when
Mat Shelvocke finished his long statement and resumed his seat. After
a while order was restored, and further evidence was taken; but Mat's
graphic sketch of the whole of the circumstances of the case had stolen
the interest out of all that Miss Forrester and the two policemen had
to say, and they were listened to with indifference almost.

For once the Jury did not make asses of themselves by declaring that
the dead man had committed suicide in a fit of temporary insanity;
instead, they found that Levi Blackshaw had taken his own life rather
than be arrested, tried for, and convicted of a double murder. Their
verdict gave general satisfaction.

Just one month later Mat Shelvocke and Lettice Forrester were married
in the little Church at Orsden Green. The sacred building was densely
packed with the villagers, and after the ceremony was concluded there
was great feasting and merry-making at Orsden Hall.

Next day the bride and bridegroom left the village to spend their
honeymoon in the New England across the Atlantic.


THE END.


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