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Title: The Watchman of Orsden Moss Author: J Monk Foster * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500731h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2015 Most recent update: June 2015 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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CHAPTER I.—THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE.
CHAPTER II.—PEACE WITH HONOUR.
CHAPTER III.—A FAMILY GATHERING.
CHAPTER IV.—AARON SHELVOCKE EXPLAINS.
CHAPTER V.—THE NEW SQUIRE OF ORSDEN GREEN.
CHAPTER VI.—A FAIR YOUNG WAYFARER.
CHAPTER VII.—THE MAIDEN IN TROUSERS.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE OFFER OF LINDON PATTINGHAM.
CHAPTER IX.—THE WINNING OF THE MOSS.
CHAPTER X.—"THE WAY THE WIND BLOWS."
CHAPTER XI.—"ONLY A PIT BROW LASSIE."
CHAPTER XII.—THE WOOING OF LEVI.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE MEETING ON THE MOSS.
CHAPTER XIV.—AN UNINTENTIONAL EAVESDROPPER.
CHAPTER XV.—LEVI BECOMES MYSTERIOUS.
CHAPTER XVI.—AN UNCOUSINLY COMPACT.
CHAPTER XVII.—TRIFLES LIGHT AS AIR.
CHAPTER XVIII.—LETTICE IS HUMILIATED.
CHAPTER XIX.—THE RIFT IN THE LUTE.
CHAPTER XX.—NAOMI TAKES MAT INTO HER CONFIDENCE.
CHAPTER XXI.—AARON WARNS HIS NEPHEW.
CHAPTER XXII.—THE GATHERING OF THE STORM.
CHAPTER XXIII.—ACCIDENT OR MURDER?
CHAPTER XXIV.—WHERE THE DEAD MAN SLEPT.
CHAPTER XXV.—THE FINDING OF THE JURY.
CHAPTER XXVI.—THE NEW MASTER OF ORSDEN MOSS.
CHAPTER XXVII.—THE FLIGHT OF THE HEIR.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—THE NEW WATCHMAN.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE FIRST LINK IN THE CHAIN.
CHAPTER XXX.—THE WOMAN IN BLACK.
CHAPTER XXXI.—PASSING THE LOVE OF WOMAN.
CHAPTER XXXII.—THE COMING OF MR. VARNIE.
CHAPTER XXXIII.—BEHIND THE WALL.
CHAPTER XXXIV.—MINING AND COUNTER-MINING.
CHAPTER XXXV.—THE PROSTRATION OF LETTICE FORRESTER.
CHAPTER XXXVI.—THE WATCHMAN TURNS KIDNAPPER.
CHAPTER XXXVII.—THE MESSAGE OF THE TRAMP.
CHAPTER XXXVIII.—THE VANISHMENT OF LETTICE.
CHAPTER XXXIX.—AN UNDERGROUND PRISON.
CHAPTER XL.—THE RAT IN THE TRAP.
CHAPTER XLI.—NAOMI'S FINAL ANSWER.
CHAPTER XLII.—THE SPIDER AND THE FLY.
CHAPTER XLIII.—MAT SHELVOCKE EXPLAINS.
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!"
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!"
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."
"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?"
"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."
"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?"
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.
"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."
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,
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!"
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?"
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.
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.
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."
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."
"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.
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!"
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.
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?"
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?"
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?"
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!" she iterated. "The girl who came here that day alone and friendless?"
"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."
"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.
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.
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!"
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?"
"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?"
"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."
"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.
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.
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."
"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:—
"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.
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.
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?
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:—
"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,
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.
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."
"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."
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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?"
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."
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."
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.
"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!"
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.
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!"
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
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.
"That you, Blackshaw? Where are you?"
"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.
"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.
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."
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.
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!"
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?"
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.
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?"
"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.
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.
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.
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
"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.
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