Title: A Slave of the Ring Author: J Monk Foster * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1600711h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2016 Most recent update: June 2016 This eBook was produced by: Maurie and Lyn 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.—SLAVES OF THE BELL.
CHAPTER II.—IN THE WORLD BELOW.
CHAPTER III.—THE WOOING OF MARY STANLEY.
CHAPTER IV.—FIGHTING THE FIENDS OF THE PIT.
CHAPTER V.—AFTER THE DISASTER.
CHAPTER VI.—THE MEMBER FOR ASHLYNTON.
CHAPTER VII.—THE APOTHEOSIS OF PAUL.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE HANDSOMEST WOMAN.
CHAPTER IX.—THE EVOLUTION OF A MAN.
CHAPTER X.—THE WRECK OF A DREAM.
CHAPTER XI.—THE DAY OF THE GALA.
CHAPTER XII.—THE WINNING OF MARGARET.
CHAPTER XIII.—AT MILTON LODGE.
CHAPTER XIV.—THE CALL OF DUTY.
CHAPTER XV.—FIGHTING THE BLACK DAMP.
CHAPTER XVI.—THE MAN AT THE WINDOW.
CHAPTER XVII.—THE EXODUS OF THE STANLEYS.
CHAPTER XVIII.—THE TEMPTATION OF PAUL.
CHAPTER XIX.—THE VOICE OF CONSCIENCE.
CHAPTER XX.—CONFESSORS AND CONFESSIONS.
CHAPTER XXI.—THE LURE OF DELILAH.
CHAPTER XXII.—BENEATH THE WEIR.
CHAPTER XXIII.—WITHIN THE SNARE.
CHAPTER XXIV.—TOWARDS GEHENNA.
CHAPTER XXV.—THE BEGINNING OF THE STORM.
CHAPTER XXVI.—THE LAIR OF CIRCE.
CHAPTER XXVII.—THE BURSTING OF THE STORM.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MARGARET.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE FLIGHT OF CIRCE.
CHAPTER XXX.—THE LAST STRAW.
CHAPTER XXXI.—THE TALK OF THE TOWN.
CHAPTER XXXII.—THE METHOD OF MADNESS.
CHAPTER XXXIII.—THE SHADOW OF THE CRIME.
CHAPTER XXXIV.—THE CORONER'S QUEST.
CHAPTER XXXV.—COMMITTED FOR TRIAL.
CHAPTER. XXXVI.—SENTENCED TO DEATH.
CHAPTER XXXVII.—THE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS.
CHAPTER XXXVIII.—THE TENANT OF THE RED ROOM.
CHAPTER XXXIX.—THE KNELL OF DOOM.
CHAPTER XL.—THE TREASURE HUNTERS.
CHAPTER XLI.—STORMING THE CITADEL.
CHAPTER XLII.—'AND THERE WAS LIGHT.'
CHAPTER XLIII.—'THE OTHER WOMAN.'
It was a sharp morning a few weeks after the advent of the New Year, and the frosty air was filled with the strident screams of the steam whistles, or 'buzzers,' at the neighbouring collieries, announcing to all whom it concerned that the hour of half-past five a.m. had arrived.
Early as was the time, the broad, old-fashioned market square of Ashlynton showed unmistakable evidence of activity. From the various courts, alleys, and thoroughfares leading to and from the square, men and women, youths and maidens, of all ages, from the lowest teens to the period of senility almost, were issuing, to journey in various ways to their various occupations.
Each and all of those early wayfarers were slaves of the bell. Six days out of the seven a steam-whistle with its hoarse, ear-piercing note, or a big bell with its deep-throated clangour, called upon all these units of the 'masses' to shoulder their share of the world's work; and willingly or sullenly, alertly or slowly, they had to respond to the call, or bear the pangs of those who are poor and will not or cannot labour.
Hither and thither in the chill morning air miners and their 'drawers' hurried; their 'Davy' lamps slung on their coat-collars, can in hand, and a pick thrust in a crooked arm. Some of them were cheery as crickets; humming a snatch of a song, or whistling a bar or two of a popular air; others were moody and slunk along in silence, and the thick, heavily-ironed clogs of all rang sharply upon the cold pavement.
Women and lasses, with their heads and faces shrouded in bright, many-coloured shawls, paced along the streets more leisurely. Those were mill-girls—neatly-attired weavers and spinners—and others more roughly dressed who followed less cleanly occupations. And here and there among the knots of females were men and lads, and the fragments of white fluffy material clinging to their caps and jackets denoted that they were cotton operatives also. But the sight that would have appealed most strongly to a stranger was that presented by certain weird hybrid figures visible occasionally among the throng. These were pit-brow girls; but at a hasty glance their sex could not have been declared, so strange was their garb.
These maids and matrons of the pit-bank were all similarly clothed. A soft bonnet or cap covered brow, hair, and ears, and hung to the nape of the neck; each wore a short jacket, probably the cast-off garment of some male; under the jacket was girded a short, strong petticoat, looped up in front over the cord trousers which reached almost to the ankles.
But if the attire of these women-kind of the pits was unattractive, in spite of its picturesque character, there was little fault to find with either their figures or their faces. Most of them were strong, lithe, well-developed creatures, clear of eye and alert of foot; and if all the faces were bronzed to a brown, healthy tone by constant exposure in the open air, many of them were comely, even passing fair.
As the clock in the tower of the parish church of Ashlynton, which stood on one side of the market square, told the half-hour between five and six, a man came out of one of the side streets and walked at a fair pace across the wide space. As he passed by the 'big lamp' which stood in the centre of the 'place,' and cast its bright light around, a voice cried:
'Hello, Paul! Good morning.'
It was a woman's voice, low and pleasantly modulated, and one he knew well. Even the sound of the voice stirred his pulses pleasurably, and with a flushed face and a pleasant light in his eyes, he stopped at once and faced the speaker.
'Good morning, Mary!' he murmured lowly, but in glad accents, as he held out his hand. 'I was busy with my thoughts, and I really didn't notice you.'
'You're not too big already, I hope, Paul,' was the half sarcastic, half serious response, 'to either ignore or forget your old friends?'
There was a mischievous glitter in the girl's eyes as she made that thrust at him, but his face was grave and his tone composed, as he replied,
'I shall never either ignore or forgot you, Mary Stanley!'
'Oh, won't you? I thought the fact that you had been made under-manager at the Myreland Collieries had something to do with it. My word, Paul; you won't be speaking to anyone so commonplace as a mere factory wench now!'
There was a half-jibe running still in the undercurrent of her soft voice, and it appeared to displease him, for his rejoinder was curt, almost angry:
'Nonsense, Mary! And you know it is nonsense to say so. You know—you must know,' he cried lowly, as his face was bent suddenly towards her, 'that there is one handsome factory girl in this town that I like to talk to—one that I wish to talk to nobody else!'
'How unselfish you are, to be sure, Paul,' was the saucy retort; 'and yet you would have gone by without even a "Good morning, Mary," eh?'
'But that was only because I didn't see you,' he retorted. 'Besides you are very early, are you not? See!' and he pointed to the illuminated face of the parish church clock, 'it wants twenty-five minutes to six yet.'
'Yes, I know. I suppose that ramshackle old clock of ours is fast again!' the girl replied in accents of real petulance now. 'Some mornings it has us all up half an hour too soon; another, it makes us too late for work, and then the old chap, my father, swears till he's black and blue. It is just a nuisance, that's what it is, Paul, that anyone should be forced to get up every day at a certain time, and go out to work well or ill, rain or shine.'
'"What can't be cured must be endured," Mary,' he said, philosophically. 'We are all, I suppose, slaves of the bell. Poor people must work if they want to live and eat. You and I are alike, Mary; you have thoughts and aspirations above your station in life.'
'I don't know anything about that,' she replied with quiet sullenness; 'but I do know that it's very nasty to get up on a frosty morning like this and tramp to the mill. What do you say?'
'Things might be worse for us both.'
'Oh, might they? Well, I'll be off now. Good morning, Mr. Under-manager Massilon, and if you can ever do a good turn for my sharp-tempered old father, Job Stanley, who is one of your workmen now, perhaps you'll do it to oblige me.'
'I would do much to oblige you, Mary,' he said, impressively.
'Well, do; good morning, Paul.'
'Good—but a moment, Mary!'
He laid his hand upon her shoulder in his eagerness, and she turned suddenly.
'What is it now?'
'Will you meet me to-night?' he asked, in a tone that betrayed some emotion.
'Meet you! Why should I meet you?' she asked, with her bright eyes on his face.
'I have something to tell you—something I wish to ask you!' he said, with a tongue that faltered through excess of feeling.
'Can't you say it now?'
'Here? No. Besides I have not time now if I am to get to the colliery before the six o'clock whistle blows. Will you meet me, Mary?'
'On the side of the River Douglas, near the weir, at seven o'clock.'
'I may!' was the girl's purposely evasive rejoinder.
'No! Promise!' he demanded, hotly.
'Shan't. I may be there—but I may not. Good morning.'
She ran from him with a merry laugh, and he stared after the graceful retreating figure for a moment or two in silence. Then he turned away also, with a deep breath that was almost a sigh, and quickening his former pace he repaired to Myrelands' colliery.
THE COLLIERIES worked and owned by Mr. Jonathan Myrelands were situated in the suburbs of Ashlynton, and consist of some half-dozen pits, by means of which four or five different seams of coal were wrought. Altogether nearly half a dozen hundreds of men and youths, women and wenches, were employed in or about the different mines, and it was, therefore, one of the most considerable of the mining concerns in the neighbourhood.
When Paul Massilon gained the brow of the White Crow pit, which he had arranged to descend that morning, he found on glancing at his watch that it still wanted a few minutes to six of the clock.
Reaching the bank he seated himself on the edge of on empty tub (small pit waggon), and waited. That was the first morning he had ever appeared in harness as an under-manager of a series of mines, hence the situation was not devoid of some sense of strangeness, although he had worked in the mines for the better half of his seven and twenty years.
Near the gaping mouth of the shaft a huge fire was glowing in a great iron cresset, which stood upon a metal tripod, and the flare of the burning coals threw a vivid light across the length and breadth of the brow, shining on the frosty 'landing-plates' and narrow lines of rails, and casting the shadow of the towering headgear far across the tall engine-house to the stack of coal lying beyond.
Half a dozen 'datallers' and 'galloway' drivers were lounging about the pit top, waiting for the up-coming cage in which they were to descend to their daily toil, the banksman was at his post with his hand upon the lever, which controls the 'catches,' and a few pit-brow girls were standing inside the cabin, ready to spring out when the 'buzzer' cried out the hour of six.
Presently there was a loud rattle as the cage came gliding to the surface and fell back upon the 'catches,' eight miners stepped out upon the brow, the others took their places, and then when the brow-man cried 'Let down,' the huge iron structure and its living freight disappeared in the shaft's unlit depths.
A minute later, when the stridulous screams of half a dozen steam whistles were filling the air with their clangour at every point of the compass, and when Paul was stepping into the cage to descend, Mark Baldwin, the chief manager, came hurriedly upon the brow, and seeing the waiting cage, took his place by his subordinate's side.
'I'm glad I've seen you, Massilon,' the head official began, as they were plunged almost noiselessly along the lightless vertical tunnel. 'I wanted to see you, and I was afraid you might have gone down some of the other pits.'
'But don't you recollect, Mr. Baldwin,' Paul replied, 'that you told me yesterday that I was to pay special attention to the White Crow pit for a few days?'
'So I did; but I wanted to see you so that I could tell you something I could hardly say yesterday in Mr. Myrelands' presence. I'll tell you all about it when we get below.'
'All right, sir,' was Paul's nonchalant response.
A few moments later they alighted at the bottom of the shaft, and emerging from the cage, found themselves in the highly vaulted, far stretching arch called the pit eye. Here flaring red torches were hung from the walls, and the hooker-on and his assistants were getting the full waggons of coal ready for sending up the pit.
At his superior's heels Massilon went towards the office—a small chamber about a dozen feet square excavated in the rock—and here they found a knot of miners, comprising the under-looker, Josiah Simm, a fireman, and several day wage men.
In the course of ten minutes Baldwin and his subordinate were left alone, all the others having departed to fulfil their various duties.
'And now, Massilon,' the chief manager of the Myrelands collieries began, as he pushed from him the reports of the officials of the mine, which he had been reading, and fixed Paul with his keen eyes, 'tell me honestly and frankly what you think of your new position.'
'I scarcely know what to think yet, Mr. Baldwin,' the younger miner made answer somewhat hesitatingly.
'You don't know what to think when you have worked about these pits for a good ten years? You must know, my lad; but I can understand that you don't wish to tell me yet. That's it, Massilon, eh?'
'I have worked here a goodish bit, Mr. Baldwin,' was the answer, 'but not as an official, you must remember. I am new to my duties as yet, and cannot say with honesty what I do think of my position.'
'Oh, that's it, is it?' said the other, with a dry laugh. 'But, my man, you know all the mines well—very well indeed—or I should never have thought of advising Mr. Myrelands to place the under-managership at your disposal.'
'Yes, I know all the mines fairly well, Mr. Baldwin,' Paul answered, as he thought of the years he had spent in them.
'And you know me as well as the mines, I think, Paul?' the other interrogated with a chuckle.
'Quite as well, sir,' Massilon exclaimed readily, as he glanced with admiring gaze upon his burly, white-bearded old friend.
'Nor can you plead ignorance respecting our worthy employer, Mr. Jonathan Myrelands, the Hon. Member for the loyal and ancient borough of Ashlynton. All these things you know well, Paul'—here Baldwin's hand was laid almost paternally upon the young miner's shoulder. 'And yet I know, as if you had told me in so many words, that you are not satisfied—quite—with your appointment.'
Paul made a deprecatory gesture, but the old miner waved it aside.
'Don't prevaricate, Paul. I am telling you the truth because I am fond of you, and because I'd stake my life on your honesty and ability. Tell me why you are not quite satisfied. When I was your age I should have thought it a godsend to drop into the position of an under-manager at a comfortable screw of three pound ten a week.'
'Oh, the salary is all right!' Paul said firmly.
'And am I not all right also?' the chief demanded, with a mock grimace.
'Of course you are! If I had all the mining world to choose from, Mr. Baldwin, you are the man I should select as my chief.'
'Thank you, Paul; but you have not yet said what is the exact cause of your dissatisfaction.'
'I have not said I am disappointed,' the young man said quietly, as his eyes dropped before the other's clear gaze.
'No, but you showed it clearly enough. Why, our master was delighted with the idea of putting you in Burton's place; but you were scarcely thankful to accept it. And I used to think you were ambitious, too.'
'It wasn't that I was not glad to get the appointment,' Paul cried, 'for I was. And I make no secret of my ambition, Mr. Baldwin. If I can rise in the world I mean to spare myself no pains and labour.'
'Yet, now when your chance comes you feel half inclined to resent it.'
'Not the chance, Mr. Baldwin.'
'I hardly care to tell you the reason. You have invariably been so kind to me all these years that I do not wish to utter one word that would offend you. And I cannot speak my honest opinion without doing so.'
'You may speak, Paul.'
'Well, I like you very much, and I like the mines in a way, but I do not like our employer or his methods. That is the whole truth, sir.'
'What fault have you to find with the Hon. Member for Ashlynton?' Baldwin queried in a cynical manner.
'To enumerate all his shortcomings would take too long, sir. Even to mention a few of them, if I am overheard by some sneak, may cost me my place.'
'No one will overhear what you have to say, Paul. Go on, please. Let me know all Mr. Jonathan Myrelands' sins, whether of commission or omission.'
'Our employer's sins are chiefly sins of the latter kind. He has left undone many things he ought to have done—and could have done very easily.'
'For instance,' said Baldwin, suavely.
'Well, he is a wealthy man, and has amassed all his thousands out of the blood and sweat, and perhaps the lives of his workmen. He began life poorer than either of us and now he is said to be worth half a million!' Massilon went on with some heat.
'I do not blame him for being successful, Paul,' the chief manager retorted.
'Nor I. But what of his qualities, and the shady methods he has adopted all his life in order to accumulate a fortune? He is a member of the House of Commons, and in Parliament is looked upon as a great authority on all mining questions. But I wonder what the opinion of the House would be if the honourable gentlemen composing it had only an inkling of our employer's true character. If——'
'More quietly, lad!' Baldwin interrupted as he raised his hand; 'unless you wish to get both of us sent to the devil!'
'I was going to say,' Massilon went on in a lower key, 'that if the world knew what we know about him he would be loathed and abominated, instead of being honoured in the highest degree as an exemplar of all that a man can be!'
'The world is composed of so many millions, mostly fools, you know, Paul!' the elder man broke in with a shrug of his heavy shoulders.
'But the world does not know this master of ours or it would not honour him!' Paul retorted lowly, but passionately. 'If men were aware that men who worked at these pits had been crushed to death through falls of roof, which might have been avoided had they been provided with timber, would they regard this man as anything but a grinding, heartless money-grabber?'
'Probably not, but the man who told them would soon be in gaol. It isn't safe to tell the truth nowadays, my lad!'
'Perhaps not; but if Parliament knew that a certain Hon. Member's mines were scandalously neglected, because he refuses to supply his officials with the necessary funds, would they look up to him as at present? Of course, not. You know, Mr. Baldwin, that this very mine is one of the most gaseous in Lancashire—that the air-ways are nearly choked up, that firedamp is in every place, and that an explosion may happen at any moment!'
'The lives of miners are always in the hands of God, Paul!' Mr. Baldwin answered, reverently. 'We are only poor creatures after all, doomed to burrow in the earth.'
'But no man has a right to endanger our lives recklessly in order to enrich himself. I believe with Robert Browning that God's in heaven and all's right with the world; but the very devil himself must be down below here!' Paul cried, as he rose to his feet and paced about the narrow cabin.
'There would be the devil to play with us both, Paul, if somebody heard you. I hardly expected this when I began talking to you.'
'I have felt it a long time and I am glad it is out!' Paul answered grimly. 'But you know that all I have said is true.'
'I cannot serve two masters, and as Mr. Myrelands pays me my wages I prefer to hold my peace!' retorted the chief.
'Well, you know how I feel!' said Massilon. 'I have often wondered how it was that you stayed here so long when you knew how rotten everything was about the place.'
'I have given hostages to fortune, my lad, and I prefer good wages and a bit of danger to idleness and—perhaps worse!' was the gravely spoken rejoinder.
'I understand!' said Paul quietly.
'But I don't understand you!' was the unexpected reply. 'You are a young man, Massilon, able and ambitious, and have all the world to wander in. If you knew the White Crow pit was so dangerous why remain here so long?'
'Well, I was getting plenty of money, and—and there was something in the town that kept me in it.'
As the young miner spoke his thoughts reverted to the fair factory girl he had encountered that morning. For her sake he had run the gauntlet and hoarded his money, counting the danger as little.
'Well, come along,' said Baldwin, after a momentary silence, as he rose to quit the office. 'After all, Paul, things are not in such a bad state as you make out. So far we have had no really serious calamity, and with God's help we may escape one!'
'I earnestly echo your sentiments, Mr. Baldwin,' Massilon rejoined as he followed his superior from the place. 'But I have heard it said that God helps those who help themselves!'
'Then we must help ourselves. But never a word of all this to any other man about the colliery. Besides, Paul, our master, the member for Ashlynton, has promised to spend a lot of money on improving all the pits.'
'That is good news, sir!'
'Yes. And again, Paul, we mustn't overlook one thing.'
'What is that, Mr. Baldwin?' Massilon asked eagerly.
'If we were not here, somebody else would be, and probably some persons less careful than ourselves. Knowing the dangers of the mine as we do we are in a sense forearmed against them.'
'To some extent that is so,' Paul was compelled to admit.
Then they pressed forward towards the working places of some colliers in the higher parts of the seam, wherein, during the last few days, a somewhat alarming outburst of 'firedamp' had taken place.
A FEW minutes after the time named by Paul Massilon, Mary Stanley made her way at a quiet pace along the wide unpaved footpath which ran alongside the river Douglas. She was going in the direction of the weir which the miner had named as their meeting place, and although she was purposely late she was not afraid that Paul would not be awaiting her coming.
She knew that Massilon was in love with her—had been in love with her for many months, and, although her dearest affections and aspirations were fixed upon another man, Paul Massilon was not aware of it, nor had she any intention of telling him now.
Mary Stanley was perhaps the handsomest of the many handsome girls in Ashlynton. She was a blonde of the most pronounced type, with a clear, creamy complexion, big grayish-blue eyes, soft masses of reddish-gold hair which curled naturally about her wide, white brow, and pretty pink ears; she had pouting red lips that seemed made for kissing, a finely cut nose, and a tall, shapely figure moulded on voluptuously flowing lines.
For the rest she was a little over twenty-two and a born coquette, and never so happy as when she had some of the handsomest and most eligible young fops of the town hanging about her. She was fully aware of her loveliness, and meant to turn it to her own profit in the end.
She was ambitious to marry well and leave her dull, laborious, and somewhat sordid existence behind her. During the past year or two she had had the refusal of many an honest working fellow who had succumbed easily to her rare beauty, but to one and all her answer had been 'No;' and it had been spoken very emphatically.
She was too shrewd a creature to resign her freedom for the sake of becoming the wife of a mere toiler; when she did accept an offer and submit herself to marital bondage her cage must be a gilded one.
But somehow, hitherto the fish she desired to catch had refused to swallow the bait her beauty dangled before their noses. The eligible young swells of Ashlynton—the gilded sons of mine-owners, cotton spinners, brewers, and rich traders—had refrained from asking the question she cared for them to ask.
She was a fine, dashing girl, you know, and no end of fun to flirt with, but not the sort exactly that one cared to marry. Beautiful as Mary Stanley was, she was but a factory lass, after all. That was how the gilded youth of the thriving Lancashire town spoke of the girl to one another in confidence.
The pretty wench was too cunning not to have an intuition of this, and still she did not despair of effecting her purpose some day, and ere long. Even now, she thought as she walked measuredly along the river path, one of the smartest young fellows in the town was in love with her—had asked her to meet him, in all likelihood to ask her to become his wife.
But if Paul Massilon was good-looking and clever, he lacked the riches for which the heart of the girl craved. He had yet to fight for fortune, and she had no over-mastering desire to share his struggles. Perhaps, lacking any better offer, she might accept his hand and heart and home.
'Mary, I thought you were not coming.'
The speaker was the man of whom the girl had been thinking. Turning a corner of the wall which divided the river walk from the adjoining fields, Paul had almost collided with the slowly sauntering figure before he recognised who it was.
'Coming where, Paul?' she queried, in a tone, and with a face which betrayed a mild astonishment. 'I am not aware that I promised to come anywhere.'
'But you have come!' he cried gladly. 'Forgive me for being impatient. I ought to have known that you would come when I impressed upon you so strongly that I had something I wished to tell you, Mary.'
'I remember now, Paul,' she said, airily, 'but I had quite forgotten all about it,' she added, with ready mendacity. 'The fact is that I shouldn't be here at all only I have to see Maggie Rutter, who lives in the houses further up the river beside the old forge.'
'Is that true?' he asked, gravely, a solemn aspect on his fine, dark face, and a fire glowing in his black eyes.
'Of course it is!' she snapped out.
For a couple of moments they stood there, face to face, in silence, the dark shallow stream flowing silently by on one hand, the brown sodden upland stretching out on the other, countless stars scintillating overhead, and a silvery slice of moon climbing the southern sky.
'Well,' he said at last, with an evident effort, 'in that case I will say good night to you.'
'But if you wish so much to tell me something, why not tell me now as I happen to be here?' she demanded, her voice softening suddenly as her face was thrust a little towards him as if in eagerness to know his message.
'May I walk with you as far as Forge Cottages?' he asked quietly.
'Of course you may, if you wish to,' was her alert response, and as she spoke she put her hand upon his arm, and they turned towards the place where he had asked her to meet him a quarter of an hour earlier.
'You must know, Mary,' he began presently, 'that I have always been fond of you since we were almost children together.'
'Of course, Paul; and didn't I always like you as well?' she responded.
'For the last two or three years my liking, Mary, has changed into something very different. You know that, too, I think?'
'What do you mean, Paul?'
'I mean that I love you now, and that I want you to be my dear wife some day. During the last few years I have always thought of you when I was studying and preparing myself for the higher and better position I mean to fill some day. I have succeeded to a certain extent already, Mary, as you know. I have earned a mine manager's certificate, and am already an under-manager. But I have done more. I have won a little distinction in another and even a more difficult field. Some of the little mining tales and sketches I have written have appeared in the London magazines and have been very favourably noticed. Some day, before long, I think I may reasonably look forward to making a name for myself in literature. What I have done has been done for your sake, almost more than my own. Will you help me to succeed further by becoming my wife?'
He had delivered himself of this long speech in a quiet dispassionate way, after the manner of one who is simply stating a scientific truth or philosophic theory; but in the deep undercurrents of his sternly repressed tones she could read all that was in his heart—could almost feel the throb and surge of his strong-willed passionate nature in his carefully syllabled words.
'Paul!' she answered very lowly and tenderly, 'I'm sorry—very sorry, and yet glad.'
'Sorry, yet glad! What do you mean? If you are sorry you do not love me! If glad, why?'
'I do not love you. I like you very much; still, I am glad to know that you love me, Paul!' she cried, and her slim fingers closed tightly upon his arm. 'It may seem selfish—no, it is selfish!' she went on with great frankness, 'but I can't help it. I don't love you, I think—but I am pleased to know that you love me!'
He stared at her mutely for a moment, and his face attested his wonder. She did not love him, and yet was glad that his heart and hopes were centred in her. What could it mean?
'I almost expected this, Mary!' he said in a space with a voice that audibly trembled. 'You are so beautiful, and there are so many in the town who admire, perhaps love, you too. I cannot blame you even if you love some——'
'I love no one, Paul,' she cried warmly. 'I like you very much, but liking is'nt love.'
'You are sure, Mary, that your heart is given to no other man?' he asked eagerly, the ray of hope that was burning now in his heart glowing now in his face.
'I like no one so much as you, Paul! Honestly and truly, I don't,' she cried very earnestly.
'Yet you refuse to be my wife,' he said, without the least tinge of bitterness in his tone.
'Because I shouldn't be true to myself,' she retorted; 'if I promised to become your wife when I am not sure that I love you. It would be wrong, Paul, to do that!'
Her slim fingers tightened again upon his sleeve, and her gloriously fair face was turned appealingly to his own. His heart leapt, his pulses throbbed at her clamant utterance and tender look; and he was satisfied, for he felt that his battle was more than half won.
'Yes, Mary,' he answered, pleasantly, 'if you are not quite sure of your feelings it is better, most assuredly, to say so.'
'But you are not vexed with me, Paul, are you, because I could not give you another and a clearer answer, to your proposal?' she pleaded again with her voice and face.
'I should be a fool if I were!' he cried with deliberation. 'I respect, admire, and love you a hundred times more, Mary, on account of your sincerity. Besides, your answer satisfies me that you do love me although you are not aware of the fact yourself.'
'Don't be too sure of that, Paul,' was her arch retort, and a fair, saucy face was held invitingly up to him as if the pouting red lips were seeking to be caressed.
Probably she would not have been annoyed had he kissed her and pressed her in his strong arms, but he made no attempt upon her maidenly reserve. Paul was a man of serious temperament, and to him love was the holiest of mundane things. A maiden's caresses were too sacred to be stolen by any living being save the man she had voluntarily enshrined in the inmost temple of her soul.
'I am satisfied to wait, Mary,' he resumed, 'until the state of your own mind is no longer a secret to you. And till that time I shall go on working and striving to make myself worthy of the incomparably lovely woman I hope some day, before long, to call by the sacred name of wife!' he said proudly.
'But if after all I do not learn to love you, Paul?' she asked with a mischievous and gratified look in her eyes.
'Don't speak of that, Mary,' he added quickly, and with a thrill of passion in his tones. 'I have said I am satisfied to wait! We will let it end there for the present.' Then he added in an altered voice, 'By the way, Mary, I have managed to do something already for your father and your brother.'
'What is it? They were going to work as I came to meet you,' she cried.
'You were coming to meet me after all then?' he exclaimed, with a little burst of glad mirth. 'You pretty rogue! And you wanted to make me believe that you were only coming this way to visit you friend Maggie!'
'So I am, Paul. Wait here a minute until I come back. Ha! ha! ha!'
She slipped, through his outstretched arms like a lithe snake, and laughing merrily bounded towards the row of houses which stood a score of yards away; and he awaited her return, feeling absolutely assured now, that Mary Stanley's love was won.
When Mary came back after an interval of some minutes' duration a pretty workmate of hers was at her side. Even at that moment the handsome and ambitious factory lassie could not resist the temptation of showing her friend that the new under-manager of Myrelands' collieries was at her beck and call.
A little later Paul and Mary were retracing their steps along the riverside, and he was telling her what he had done that day to further the interests of her father and brother.
On making their way in the morning through a number of places which gave off a considerable amount of firedamp, the chief manager, Mr. Baldwin, had determined to cut a new gallery in order to ventilate in a more effectual manner that portion of the mine. He had told his subordinate to select suitable men for the work and push on with it night and day. Afterwards he, Paul, had sought out Job and Ben Stanley, and offered them the contract of cutting the new gallery at a good price. They had jumped at his offer, and had gone to work that night as she had told him.
'Oh, Paul!' the delighted girl cried in her pleasure, 'how good of you to do it. I don't know how to thank you sufficiently!'
'You are pleased, Mary,' he answered proudly, 'and that is sufficient reward!'
'I do hope that father and Ben will justify your choice, Paul,' she said in a manner that implied her doubt. 'They drink sometimes, you know, neglect their work; and then——'
'I believe they will do justice to themselves, and to me as well, on this occasion, Mary,' Paul replied with a smile. 'I know them both fairly well, I think, and their ways are not unfamiliar to me. After all they are only like other pitmen! They work hard, live hard, and drink hard when they've money. But I told them straight how things stood, and they promised never to touch a drop or lose a shift until the job is finished. After they carry out this job satisfactorily I shall be able to put something good in their way, Mary.'
Again she thanked him with honest and very evident sincerity; and so talking and chatting they gained the street and bridge under which the river ran right through the town. Here they stayed for some time, for neither of them seemed in a hurry to repair homeward, and when at length they were shaking hands and saying good-night they were both a trifle startled to see a miner come tearing along the street.
The man was running past when the light of the street lamp fell on his face, enabling Paul to recognise him.
'Hello! Shannon!' Paul cried out loudly. 'What the mischief's the matter that you are running like that?'
The runner paused as if shot, and drew up hot and gasping beside Paul and the girl, crying excitedly:
'Yo're wanted, Mester Mass'lon at once. Ah were gooin' to yore heawse for yo'!'
'What's up, and where am I wanted?'
'At th' pit—at th' pit!' the man gasped out. 'The White Crow has fired!'
'My God!' Paul exclaimed, with a leaping heart and white face. 'And the men, Shannon, the men! Are they saved?'
'There's nobody saved yet! And the pit is blocked up,' was the solemn answer.
'Run back and say I am coming!' said Paul, and then as the miner sped back he turned to Mary Stanley, who was clinging mutely to his arm.
'Cheer up, Mary,' he said soothingly, as his arm wound itself protectingly around the half-fainting girl's waist. 'Perhaps it is not so bad as it looks.'
'The White Crow, he said, didn't he, Paul?' she asked, with wide fear-filled eyes. 'Oh, Paul! Paul! that is where my father and brother are to-night. What shall I do? What shall I do?'
'Calm yourself, dear!' he urged her, tenderly. 'There is reason to hope for the best yet. Cling to my arm, Mary, and I will see you home.'
'No, no!' she cried firmly, and her limp figure grew suddenly rigid. 'Go to the pit—you are wanted there! But, oh, Paul! do save them if you can. Now kiss me and go!'
He kissed her white cheek with his dry lips, and then hurried away, leaving Mary standing there wide-eyed and commanding.
BY the time Paul Massilon gained the brow of the exploded mine he found that the mouth of the White Crow shaft was surrounded by an excited crowd of people numbering at the least some two or three thousand, drawn thither from the town and the adjacent villages by the evil and swift travelling tidings of the explosion.
With difficulty the under-manager got the excited throng to part and permit him to pass through it, but when he was recognised by someone the folks fell asunder readily enough. On all hands, as he fought his way towards the mouth of the pit, he could hear the perturbed bystanders mutter comments upon the dread disaster, its character, cause, and consequences.
Many of the crowd were miners, not a few of whom had worked at the White Crow pit previously, or were working there still, and the rude comments they made respecting the seam and its dangerous nature, although couched in the rough terse vernacular of the neighbourhood, struck the young under-manager as being very near the truth.
One burly pitman vowed with a strange string of oaths that the mine was a veritable gasometer, and that it had been so for many years; another in equally vigorous terminology swore that little or nothing had been done to make the seam safe, and that he had left in consequence; others still asseverated that it would all come out at the inquiry, and that somebody would be lucky if they did not get sent to prison over the job.
In vain Paul attempted to shut his ears to those running comments upon the very statements he had made early that morning, and to add to the confusion and augment his trouble, the distracted exclamations of those who had relatives down the ill-fated pit rung in the air shrilly, clamantly.
At length he forced his way to the mouth of the shaft, up which a thick sulphurous column of smoke was still belching, as if it were the outlet of some gigantic furnace that burned in the nether regions.
Even on the verge of the yawning gulf the confusion was paramount. Hither and thither the muttering, awe-filled masses of people swayed; old men and lads, shrieking women also, some with children in their arms, eddied to and fro, and the great fire which burnt redly in the tall cresset threw a strange, weird glare over the surging multitude of passion-marked faces.
Sick at heart, and almost on the verge of desperation, he paused for an instant within a pace of the fire, and prayed for a giant's irresistible strength that he might sweep the pit-top clear of the howling host, end the confusion, and make some effort to save the unfortunate beings underground.
Just then someone tapped him sharply on the shoulder. Turning quickly he found himself standing face to face with Joss Simm, the under-looker of the exploded seam.
'What is it, Simm?'
'Come in't th' engine-heawse, Mester Paul,' the man cried, as he thrust his bearded jowl against Massilon's cheek. 'Th' boss is theer, an' he's bin axin' for yo'.'
With a nod Paul sprang to the man's side, and they elbowed a path mercilessly through the blatant mob to the door of the engine-house, which opened at Simm's cry. Inside Paul found Mr. Baldwin, the engine-man, and two or three other miners all attired in their off-work clothes, save the engineer.
The chief manager was sitting on a narrow form against the white-washed wall, and a single glance showed Paul how terribly the explosion had affected his superior. The old man's face was white, and drawn about the eyes and nose, his teeth were continually nipping his nether lip, and his gaze, ordinarily so bright and open, was that of one who was half distracted.
'I am glad you have come, Paul!' Mr. Baldwin began. 'My God! isn't this awful after what you were saying this morning? I only hope——'
'What has been done?' Paul asked, hastening to interrupt his chief, upon whose mind it was evident the under-manager's deliverances of the morning were preying.
'Done! Nothing!' Baldwin cried in impotent passion. 'What can we do? What can anybody do with that awful mob pressing round the shaft, and that infernal current of sulphur coming up it?'
'Something must be done, and at once!' Paul said, in a quiet authoritative manner. 'We must clear the pit top at any cost, and I mean to clear it. You stay here, Mr. Baldwin. This calamity has upset you, and you will perhaps allow me to take your place under the circumstances?'
'Heaven knows,' the old pitman exclaimed feebly, 'that this disaster has nearly unhinged my mind. Do what you think best, lad. I shall be better soon.'
'Someone ought to fetch the police to keep the brow clear. Unless——'
'I have sent to the chief constable of Ashlynton for a dozen constables, Paul!' the chief broke in. 'They may arrive any moment now.'
'That is better,' Massilon answered more cheerfully. 'When they do come we will soon clear the crowd back so as to give us some elbow room. And, now, how long is it since the explosion occurred?'
'I heard the report,' the engine-tenter observed, 'at a quarter-past 8 exactly.'
'And it is now a few minutes after 9,' Paul remarked as he glanced at his watch. 'And since you heard the report of the explosion have you heard any knocking from below, Barlow?'
'No, sir,' said the engine-man, sadly, 'not a single knock.'
'All lost, Paul! All lost! God help them!' Baldwin muttered brokenly.
'Perhaps not!' Massilon cried, still speaking in a cheery way that gave no truthful index to his feelings. 'Anyhow, we must hope for the best, and do our best also, when the moment for work comes. Don't you remember, Mr. Baldwin, that you told me this morning that "the lives of miners are always in the hands of God"?'
The distracted chief-manager groaned in response, and his subordinate turned to the under-looker.
'What time did the night shift men go down, Simm?'
'Between 6 an' 7, Mester Paul.'
'How many of them were there all told—colliers, drawers, and datallers?'
'Three an' twenty, sir.'
'Three and twenty down below, and never a single knock yet from the pit-eye to show that one is alive! But even yet,' cried Paul, doggedly, 'I will not resign all hope. All sorts of things may have happened to keep the men back from the shaft. A fall may have blocked up the way to the pit-eye; the bell rope is perhaps broken.'
Paul paused, and then turning to Barlow, the engine-tenter, asked: 'Are the cages all right, do you know?'
'They are—or seem to be,' was the quick response. 'Mr. Baldwin told me when he came to try the cages, and I run 'em up and down the pit two or three times.'
'And you didn't notice that they stuck or collided with anything at any point?' Paul added.
'Not the least, sir.'
'Thank heaven for that!' Massilon said fervently. Then he exclaimed angrily, 'I wonder if those police from the town are ever going to come; or are we to waste the whole night here—and all those poor fellows below. You will go down, Joss, I suppose?'
'What else? An' there's plenty o' chaps eawt theer ont' brow as'll goo deawn too,' the under-looker said warmly.
'Good! Go on the brow now, Simm, and pick out a dozen of the strongest and most reliable men you can find. If you can get men who know the seam and work in it, don't accept strangers as volunteers. We want helpers in this business, and not men to hamper us. But I need not tell you, Joss; you understand.'
'Ay, ay! ah do. It's not th' first tahme 'at ah've bin in a pit what's fired.'
'Then go and get ready; I'll be with you shortly.'
The under-looker went forth with another miner at his side, and without more ado Massilon began to strip himself for the fray upon which he knew it was absolutely necessary he and others should enter if a solitary one of those twenty-three beings down the pit was to be brought forth alive.
Hanging his hat on a peg in the wall he drew off his coat and vest and placed them under his headgear, then he unfastened his collar and tie and put them away also, borrowed the 'winder's' belt and cap, and was ready for the struggle that lay before him.
Standing there in his scanty attire Paul Massilon presented a striking picture of young, strong, virile manhood. He was three years or so under thirty; was tall, deep-chested, and powerfully-limbed. His strong jaw betokened more than ordinary self-will, his clear, sparkling, dark eyes bespoke his intelligence, while his finely-shaped head, with its closely-cropped black hair, well-moulded throat, olive complexion, and heavy moustache of raven hue, denoted one who was not only fitted to lead men in a crisis such as the present, but a man also of whom any mother might have been proud—a lover whom any woman might have done honour to her taste by loving.
Baldwin glanced up as Paul strode towards the door, and the old miner's eyes glowed with sudden fire.
'By——, Paul I will go with you!' the chief cried as he jumped to his feet. 'I cannot sit here while you all risk life and limb below!'
'You will do nothing of the kind, Mr. Baldwin!' Paul cried firmly, and his voice had an autocratic ring now. 'Your place is here on the surface, and you will be able to see to things that none of us understand. Let us go to the pit mouth together.'
The manager bent his head submissively, as if he and his subordinate had suddenly changed places, and then they went towards the redly flaming cresset, to find that a sergeant and half a dozen constables had just appeared upon the scene, and were already sweeping back the crowd from the mouth of the luckless shaft.
Ten minutes later Paul Massilon, Joss Simm, two of the day-shift firemen, and four other miners stepped into the cage, each bearing in his hand a lighted 'Davy.' Then the word was given to lower them into the dubious depths, and as the great cage and the rescue party vanished from sight a loud cheer rolled up to the dark sky from the throats of the soul-stirred crowd.
Slowly the iron structure sank into the bowels of the earth, and each man in it gripped the crossbars with a grim face and set teeth. To say those eight men carried their lives in their hands would not be stating the truth. Had their existence been in their own keeping it would have been tolerably safe, for each was cool, resolute, daring.
But the fate of them all hung upon a thread, and that thread was beyond their ken. In some remote, unknown, perhaps unreachable corner of the mine the forces of nature—tremendous, terrible, half-known—might at that very moment be acting and interacting upon each other, with the result that a second explosion might ensue unexpectedly and hurl them into eternity, unprepared and unshriven.
Fathom after fathom the black hole soared past them, and still the cage glided along the 'conductors,' easily and freely, without the least perceptible jolt. This was in itself a good sign, and as the bottom of the shaft was approached each man breathed less constrainedly.
It was something to know that when they were venturing into that hell of unknown horrors and dangers their retreat was not cut off. In case they were confronted in the mine with any fresh and insurmountable peril it would be possible for them to rush back to the sanctuary the upper world afforded.
When the cage alighted on the pit bottom Paul Massilon was the first man to step upon the iron 'landing-plates,' being immediately followed by his companions, when a hurried survey of the pit-eye was made.
First of all the under-manager ran to the signalling lever, and finding it intact and uninjured he pulled it five times to notify to those on the surface that the rescue party had arrived at the bottom in safety. Then the men scattered at Paul's command and made a hasty examination of all the adjoining galleries.
In five minutes the eight men were gathered together again. No one of them had anything of importance to relate. Each of the main galleries close to the shaft had been traversed, for the distance of a hundred yards, and no sign of anyone, living or dead, had been seen. Everywhere on all hands there was nothing to be seen or heard save dense blackness, intense stillness.
Then Paul called a council of war, and as he began to speak the cage in which they had descended rose slowly in the air and disappeared. It was apparent that others were coming down to join them, in all probability another set of volunteers which Mr. Baldwin had organised.
'The air current seems all right, Simm,' Paul remarked, as he held his Davy lamp out and watched the deflection of the flame produced by the atmospheric stream that was flowing steadily up the shaft, which happened to be the upcast.
'So it does,' the under-looker replied promptly. 'The fan is working all right, for me an' Mester Ba'din looked at that fust o' a'.'
'And there is no smoke perceptible now, nor even any considerable traces of "choke-damp,"' Massilon continued. 'Those are good signs, my lad, and I think we may save some or all of them yet. As soon as those men now coming down join us we must scatter right and left and search the mine thoroughly. I daresay, Simm, you know where most of the men were working?'
'Ten of 'em were in th' deawn-brow, three or four were on't north level, and th' rest are up th' jig-brow.'
'Well, I'll lead three or four men to explore the jig-brow, Simm; you with three or four others can search the down-brow, and two or three may take the level. We must leave one or two at the pit-eye here, in case anything happens. You understand?'
'Ay, ay, sir!'
As Simm spoke the rattle of the descending cage was heard in the shaft, and in another minute eight more men were standing with the others in the shelter of the vast archway. Every one of the newcomers was attached in different capacities to one or another of the Myrelands pits, and knowing them all more or less intimately, Massilon divided them quickly into three gangs of five men each, leaving only one to take care of the bottom, as other volunteers were expected soon.
With a few whispered instructions to the leaders of the other gangs, in case of emergencies, Paul called cheerily to his own comrades, and they set off at a good pace in the direction of the jig-brow, the under-manager in front, while the other four followed one by one in his wake.
For a number of reasons Paul had elected to take the jig-brow as his portion of the exploded mine. It was there that he and Mr. Baldwin had decided upon constructing the new air-way, and consequently there where old Job Stanley and his son Ben had been set to work that very evening.
In the morning the chief and the under-manager had made a somewhat careful examination of almost every colliers' working place at the top of the jig-brow, and that inspection had driven home to them both the unpleasant fact that firedamp was abundant in each drift, and the ventilation sadly, deplorably, almost criminally deficient everywhere.
Hence, their decision to construct a fresh ventilating gallery without even going to the trouble of consulting their employer respecting the expenditure. In one or other of those gaseous, neglected places, Paul had concluded the explosion had originated.
Five minutes after quitting the pit shaft the small gang of explorers, headed by Massilon, were mounting the jig-brow, and they had not travelled far along the gallery before evidences of the disaster were revealed.
The jig-brow was nine or ten feet wide, and perhaps five feet six inches in height. On either hand irregularly shaped walls of coal rose—straight and hard as granite in places, rotten and crumbling in others—and along the rocky, dust-strewn floor a double line of pit rails was laid.
Hitherto the galleries they had sped through were no dirtier or dirt-covered than was their ordinary wont, the hurtling blast of the explosion having swept through them without tearing down either the roof or sides.
But now matters were assuming a different appearance. At one point they encountered a huge mass of broken rock which had been shaken from the roof; at another great splinters of coal had been riven from the sides of the gallery; here the roadway had been torn up as with a giant's hands, and the rails and sleepers were lying across the brow, bent, riven, broken.
But these matters were merely regarded as trivial things, and they pressed onward, seldom pausing unless compelled, speaking not at all save when necessity demanded, and then, at length, the summit of the jig was gained.
Here Paul threw himself on the floor of the mine, and rubbed his shirt sleeve over his sweating brow. His companions rested also, and all looked around them—half-fearing, half-expecting to see some of the mangled forms of those they were there to discover and aid.
The top of the jig was a wide space with level galleries stretching to the right and left, and a continuation of the brow right ahead under the great jig wheel, which was poised in a horizontal position midway between the roof and floor in order that the miners and the small waggons could pass freely underneath.
In a few moments Paul and his mates were on their feet again and gazing about them, uncertain which of the three galleries to explore first. That they were not far away now from the seat of the explosion was apparent from the confused condition of things about them.
The full and empty 'tubs' which always stood in the jig shunts, were derailed and scattered in all directions. Full waggons had been overturned by the lightning-like rush of flame and air, and the coal lay underfoot thickly as if there had been a hailstorm of coal, while many of the empty waggons had been flung violently against each other and were shattered into matchwood.
And still there was no sign of either dead or living. Away beyond the faint stream of radiance their lamps cast all was black as the darkest night, and save when they addressed each other, the silence around was so intense that it seemed to roar in their ears as the sea roars in an ocean shell.
'Look down that level,' Paul said to the man who had brought him intelligence of the disaster when he was with Mary Stanley, 'and I will go under the wheel; you, Ned, can run along the other level for a few score of yards. Shout if you come across anything, remember, and don't go too far. We must not get out of hail of one another.'
'Ay, ay, sir,' the miner replied, and Massilon stooped low, passed beneath the great, flat wheel, and sped along the gallery beyond. He was wondering with a curious mixture of feeling, how the relatives, of the woman he loved were faring, when a loud shout from his companions caused him to rush back to them.
It was unnecessary to ask questions as to why they had recalled him. The answer to the query which had been in his mind was lying at his feet.
Two men and a youth of eighteen or nineteen were lying together on the floor of the mine as composed in position as if they were sleeping. Each figure was stripped to the waist and bareheaded, but neither their quiet features nor their naked trunks showed the slightest disfigurement, and beside each miner rested a lightless Davy lamp.
'Blackdamp!' Paul said sadly, and his companion responded with a sigh and a nod.
The bodies of the dead were reverently lifted and placed in empty waggons, were covered with slips of rough brattice cloth, and then the four men, with Paul at their head, went along the level gallery; the manager having resolved now to explore that side first ere he returned to the jig-brow.
A couple of hundred yards further they came upon a slight fall of roof, and Paul had sprung over the debris with Shannon at his heels; the next man was following when, with an exclamation of horror, he fell backwards, upsetting the miner behind.
'What's up?' Paul demanded.
'There's somebody under the dirt!' was the gasping answer the affrighted miner returned, 'his arm is bare here.'
A glance satisfied all of the truth. There, protruding from the side of the tumbled heap of rock and shale, was a man's arm, naked, black, brawny, and motionless.
Bidding his men fall to work, Paul set them an example, and in a trice five pairs of eager and willing hands were tackling the fall and flinging the shattered fragments of rock behind them. In ten minutes the dead body was drawn forth from the mass, and conveyed to a place where the roof seemed sound, to spare the poor remains any further mutilation.
Again they ran onward, and soon the far end of the level was gained. Here the leader turned up a narrow gallery hewn out of the solid coal, the sides of which were thickly encrusted with layers of burnt mineral and soot which crumbled under the touch and caked off in their fingers.
And then the fountain head of the lamentable and tragic calamity was reached. First they discovered the fragments of a waggon which lay overturned and broken, then a spade with the broad blade bent double, scattered picks with fractured shafts, and last and worst of all the bodies of a powerfully-formed collier and his drawer, a youth of twenty.
It was a horrible and a sickening sight. The poor creatures were in an indescribable state, being woefully battered and burned out of human semblance almost; the head of the man being crushed to a horrid pulp, while the youth's clothes were torn to shreds.
'We will go back now,' Paul whispered hoarsely, as he shut his eyes and tried to shut that awful scene from his thoughts. 'From what Simms said there were only eight men up the jig, and we have found six of them now. The others are Job and Ben Stanley. They are on the other side of the jig, where we started them cutting a new air-way. Come on, lads. We can do nothing for those poor souls. But the other two may be living, and it is our duty to try to save them.'
He turned from that fearful scene with a deep sigh of relief, and the men followed him with eyes that were dim with unshed tears, and hearts that were throbbing tumultuously with repressed emotion.
Down the fatal drift they sped with flying feet, and though they were all thinking of what they had left behind no one spoke of it. On and on Paul tore, his mind reverting now to the parents of fair Mary Stanley.
Were the two men alive still? If so, what had become of them? If they had escaped surely they would have made their way out before this. It was not inspiriting to remember that every miner they had found so far was past saving, still Paul did not despair. The Stanleys were working so far away from the seat of the explosion that they might have escaped its deadly tongue.
Still, Job and Ben were missing, and it was nearly two hours now since the catastrophe happened. How fiercely—how hungrily he hoped that those two miners were yet in the land of the living, and that he might be the means of saving them.
Down the narrow drift the rescue gang flew, and then along the broader level at the bottom. Soon they were scurrying past the dead body of the man they had dug out of the fall; a little later they were tearing past the tubs containing the rigid figures of the three men who had been smothered by the blackdamp; then they glided across the slippery jig landing-plates, darted into the level beyond, never pausing or abating their pace until the spot where the missing colliers had been set to work was near at hand.
Paul knew the place well. It was he himself who had marked it out, and as he ascended the gallery towards the clearly remembered spot his heart was thumping against his ribs, and the perspiration was streaming down his face and from every pore in his body.
Suddenly he stopped, dropped on his knees, and a wail of pain and disappointment was wrung from his lips. There in front of him was a great fall of roof, and the mountainous heap of rocks made further progress impossible.
What was he to do now? Where were the men he was seeking? A cry from behind caused Paul to turn quickly.
'What is it?' he asked.
'There's meat, and cans and clothes here!' someone exclaimed.
Paul ran back hastily, a prey to a new excitement now. Carefully yet hastily he scrutinised the two packages of meat tied up in cotton handkerchiefs, then he handled the two big cans which were still nearly full of cold tea; next he lifted the garments one by one—the coats, vests, shirts—and tried in vain to identify them.
'Can any of you recognise any of these things?' Paul asked, as he turned to his companions.
'I think,' said Shannon, with some hesitation, 'that they're Job's and Ben's; but I cannot he sartin.'
'I think so, too,' Paul echoed. 'But if that is the case, where are the men themselves?'
'Ay, ay,' somebody cried, 'that's just it. Wheer is Job an' Ben?'
'Behind th' fa',' suggested Shannon.
'By jove, that's it,' Massilon exclaimed, in a glad ringing voice, and in a moment he was running back to the fall.
At the sloping foot of the great mound of fractured strata he knelt down and listened, after commanding the others to remain silent. His ear was placed against the cold hard floor of rock, and his auditive powers were strained to their utmost tension.
For about a minute he remained thus, but not the faintest ripple of sound was borne to his waiting ears. His knowledge of the laws of sound told him that a footfall on the rocky floor beyond the fall would have travelled to his ears at once, clearly, distinctly, rapidly.
But all was still as death. All he could hear was the abnormal beating of his own heart, and when he rose again erect on his knees the face he turned to the others wore a sorely troubled expression.
'Let's sheawt a' together!' suggested Shannon, who had watched Massilon's little scientific experiment without at all understanding it.
'Yes, shout!' Paul cried, half-bitterly.
'Hello! Hello! Hello!'
The voices of the four miners were raised and launched forth in unison, and the single word they emitted flooded the gallery with a deep clangour which rolled and reverberated along the dark passages of the seam.
A moment later and the five men had started to their feet, and were staring at each other strangely, gladly, for an answering cry had reached their unexpected ears. Was it fancy merely, an echo only, or really an answer to the shout?
'Hello!' Paul called out alone.
'Hello!' came back faintly through the fall.
'Who is there?' Paul cried.
'Ben and Job Stanley!'
'Are you safe?'
'All right, but our lamps are out, and the afterdamp is all around us. Be sharp, for God's sake, or we shall be smothered!'
IT was the afternoon of the day following the explosion at the White Crow, and the hero of this plain unvarnished narrative was at home in his own unpretentious, though comfortable lodgings, enjoying a well-earned meal, and as he sat there munching his toothsome dinner, it was but natural that his thoughts should revert to the stirring incidents with which the whole of the previous night had been filled.
First he thought of Mary Stanley and of the undecided answer she had given him; then by an easy channel his reflections flowed to the disaster at the pit and what ensued.
After satisfying himself that old Stanley and his son were really immured behind the fall of roof, Massilon and his comrades lost no time in tunnelling a path to them.
From the colliers' places near at hand tools were readily obtained, and with picks, hammers, and spades such a vigorous onslaught was made upon the fallen mass that in an hour or so a narrow excavation was driven along one side of the heap, sufficiently wide to enable father and son to creep through to freedom.
And while this work of rescue was being so strenuously carried on Joss Simm had arrived upon the scene with the welcome intelligence that all the miners in the down brow and the north level had been discovered uninjured.
Half a score of miners accompanied the under-looker, and to him and them Massilon delegated the sorrowful and unpleasant work of removing the dead lying on the other side of the jig.
It was an hour after midnight when Paul and the other miners again stood on the bank of the White Crow mine. Mr. Baldwin was still there, and eagerly awaiting the reappearance of his assistant manager. The huge crowd had dwindled away, only a few stragglers being left now, and the bodies of the unfortunate sufferers had been placed in one of the sheds in the colliery yard.
The police had departed an hour before, and the rescue parties as they came up the shaft had gone homeward after receiving many thanks and kindly words from the large-souled old miner who ruled over the destinies of Myrelands' collieries.
Then the chief and his lieutenant had repaired to the engine-house together, and when Paul had resumed the garments he had doffed some hours before they went homeward arm in arm.
'I shall never forget what you have done this night, Paul,' Baldwin had remarked in tones of sincerest feeling. 'But for you, lad, I don't know what I should have done. This affair has taken ten years of life out of me, and I feel the strain of it all yet.'
'Don't thank me, Mr. Baldwin,' Massilon answered, warmly. 'Thank the men who helped us so readily and behaved so splendidly. And, after all, things might have been so much worse. Thank God we were able to save seventeen out of the twenty and three.'
'Yes, Paul, yes. That is something to thank God for; but the worst has to be faced yet.'
'The worst?' Paul had queried in amaze.
'The worst! We have to face the inquest on those poor chaps, and the Government inspector of mines. I shall wire to him to-morrow, and till he comes I think it will be as well if we leave the seam as it stands. Of course, there will be no work to-morrow, but I want you to meet me at the office at nine o'clock, and then we can talk things over.'
'All right, I will meet you, sir.'
Then they shook hands very heartily, after saying good-night, and each went home.
Massilon had repaired to his work at the usual hour, to find that all the pits were closed save for the officials and a few datallers.
At the time named Paul had repaired to the office to keep his appointment with his superior, and then he was told that Mr. Baldwin was so poorly that he was confined to bed under his medical man's advice.
Expecting to find his chief back in his accustomed place by dinner, Paul and Joss Simm and one of the firemen had gone down the White Crow Pit; had made a careful survey of all the workings in the vicinity of the drift wherein the two scorched miners were found, and where, in all probability, the gas had exploded; and then on ascending the shaft at one o'clock he had gone to dinner, intending to hurry back to the colliery afterwards.
While he was enjoying his repast, as has been set forth already, Mrs. Hanson, the respectable old widow with whom he lodged, brought him a letter. There was no stamp upon it or postmark, but a glance at the hand-writing on the envelope told him whence it came.
'Who brought this, Mrs. Hanson?' Paul asked.
'Mrs. Baldwin's maid.'
'Will you tell her to wait a moment?'
The widow hurried from the room to detain the messenger, and the young man tore off the cover to find the following brief note.
'Will you come to my house as early as possible?
I cannot get out of doors, and I want to see you very much.
Don't fail to come, Paul.
It was but the work of a minute to indite a reply, saying he would come as desired, and when his answer was written and despatched the young miner resumed his meal.
Half an hour later Massilon was washed and dressed, and was making his way in the direction of the western suburbs of Ashlynton, in which quarter the Myreland Collieries were situate, and not far from which Mr. Baldwin resided.
Paul was effusively received by the handsome old lady who bore his chief's name, and shared his home, his life, his joys and sorrows, and after a brief exchange of regrets regarding the disaster at the White Crow he was shown into the room where Mr. Baldwin was sitting up in bed, looking very ill and harassed.
'I am glad you have come, Paul,' Mr. Baldwin said, eagerly, and for an instant the old buoyant spirit flickered in his fine face and kind eyes. 'Sit here,' he added, indicating a chair near the bed-head, 'and let us talk this deplorable business over calmly.'
'I cannot say how sorry I am, Mr. Baldwin,' Massilon murmured in tones of heartiest sympathy, as he seated himself. 'This sad accident has upset you terribly.'
'It has, my lad, it has!' the old man cried, lowly, and he shook his gray head in a pathetic way. 'Well, well, it is over now; and I have been thanking God all night that matters are no worse. What we have to do now, Paul, is to face our troubles and trials as well as we know how.'
'Yes, sir, that is what we have to do,' Paul made answer. 'I hear that the inquest will be held to-morrow afternoon.'
'That is so, lad. But my doctor tells me that he will not permit me to attend the inquiry on any account unless I am much better to-morrow. And sometimes, Paul, I feel glad that I may not be present; but, again, I feel sorry at others.'
'Why?' Paul asked.
'I am glad because I fear what may come out in cross-examination if the relatives of the deceased miners are represented by a smart and half-scrupulous lawyer; I am sorry when I think that you will say too much in my absence.'
'I can only say the truth, Mr. Baldwin,' Paul answered quickly. 'I cannot say less, nor more.'
'And the truth will damn me as an incapable or a reckless manager!' Baldwin exclaimed, in real distress. 'Besides, it will ruin your career just at the moment it is most promising. And think of the annoyance and expense it will entail upon our employer if the verdict is anything except one of accidental death.'
'I think, Mr. Baldwin,' Paul responded, somewhat curtly, 'that we need not trouble ourselves too much about our employer. He, as you know, has never cared to spend the money absolutely necessary to make his mines safe, and he must stand the racket now of his selfish policy.'
'But the thing is done now, Paul, and no amount of talk will mend it. All we can do is to make the best of a bad job.'
'And let things go on in the sweet old way after this affair has blown over. Are the lives of miners always to be at the mercy of their employer's purse?' Massilon demanded warmly.
'No, no! Not that. But do you not see that we are involved now as deeply almost as Mr. Jonathan Myrelands?'
'I fail to see that.'
'Let me show you, then. I have been manager of those collieries for teens of years, and you have worked in them half a score. If things have been going wrong all these years, and we knew it, people will want to know why neither of us spoke before. What will folks be compelled to think of your own action in the matter? You knew that this mine was a very gassy one, that the air-ways were neglected, that great danger was being run each day, and yet you became under-manager and jointly responsible with me for all the pits.'
'By heaven!' cried Paul, as he half-started from the chair, 'I never thought of that!'
'Nor I, before this morning.'
'And what are we to do, Mr. Baldwin?'
'Make the best of the unpleasant circumstances in which we find ourselves placed,' was the ready answer. 'That is all we can do, for to expose our employer's meanness now would be simply to hold ourselves up to public odium as men who are not fit to be trusted with the charge of a clay-pit, let alone a great colliery!'
Paul had risen quietly from his seat, and was slowly pacing the carpeted apartment with a sorely troubled look upon his strong, handsome face, and his fingers were tugging at his heavy moustache, a little trick he had when annoyed.
'I don't half like this work,' Massilon remarked shortly, 'of burning my fingers for the sake of saving Mr. Myrelands' chestnuts.'
'But you see, Paul, don't you,' the chief queried anxiously, 'that we are involved as much as our employer?'
'Yes, I see that, and I am beginning to see as well that I was a slow-witted, infernal ass when I became one of that gentleman's scullions!' Paul cried passionately. 'But I'll put an end to that the instant this miserable business is over!'
'Unless, Paul?' Mark Baldwin said suavely.
'Unless what, Mr. Baldwin?'
'Unless Mr. Myrelands sees fit to change his policy so far as his mines are concerned. When this sad affair is done with we can go to him with some assurance; can afford to tell the naked truth, and say "Mr. Myrelands, unless you are willing to expend the money necessary to make your mines fit for Christians to work in we resign our positions." What do you say to that, Paul?'
'I say "Amen!" with all my heart, sir,' Paul exclaimed with enthusiasm. 'And you pledge me your word to do it, Mr. Baldwin?'
'In the sight of God I do!' the gray-headed old pitman said, lowly, solemnly, as he raised his right hand to heaven.
'Then I pledge you my word in return that no word shall escape my lips at the inquest that you would not have me utter!' was Paul's equally solemn affirmation.
'Thank you, lad, for that! I feel much easier now, and if I am able to crawl to the place I shall be at the inquest!' the chief manager said with a sigh of relief, and a little of his old aspect of contentment stealing back into his face.
'But,' the younger man remarked, as he reseated himself, 'there is one thing we must not overlook, Mr. Baldwin.'
'What is that?'
'No matter what we may decide upon saying—or rather refraining from saying—the truth may be dragged out of us.'
'That is not at all likely,' Mr. Baldwin answered with a weak smile.
'Because everything is in our favour,' was the immediate rejoinder, 'Mr. Greenford, the coroner, is a new man at the business, and hasn't sat on a mining calamity of this sort in his life, and the jury will be composed of amiable duffers—all very well in their own way, but with no more knowledge of mines than you can expect butchers and grocers, drapers and tallow-chandlers, and such like men to possess.'
'I see,' said Paul, with a thoughtful countenance; 'some day when men are wiser, men of that stamp will not be permitted to sit upon mining accidents. It is simply a gross farce that they should be permitted to do so now.'
'A gross farce, as you say, Paul, but in this emergency rather a good job for ourselves. And again, the inspector of mines for the district, Mr. Railton, has wired me that he will not be able to attend personally at the inquiry.'
'He will send his assistant, I suppose?'
'Of course, and that gentleman will be here first thing to-morrow, so Mr. Railton says. And even if the assistant inspector of mines gets here by 9 or 10 o'clock—and it would be treason to expect a Government official to begin before either of the hours named—he will have little time to prosecute any very lengthy investigations underground, for the inquest will begin at 2 sharp, as the coroner has another inquest to hold elsewhere on the same afternoon.'
'What a pitiful, pettifogging business this all is, Mr. Baldwin,' Massilon cried in unconcealed disgust. 'I am heartily sick of the whole dreadful business, and wish it was ended!'
'I am with you there, heart and soul, lad,' was the answer of the chief. 'It is awful, I know, to smooth over things like this, but we are in the hole ourselves, and helpless.'
'Yes, we are helpless,' Paul said, moodily, 'and the real offender will never even be brought into the public eye. But when this affair is done with I shall have something to say to the worthy member for Ashlynton, no matter what the consequences of my speaking out may be.'
'I wired to him also, this morning, at his London address, and he sent back a message saying that he would get here to-morrow morning, some time before the inquiry opened; and that in the meantime I was to announce through the newspapers of the town that Jonathan Myrelands, Esq., M.P., had opened a fund for the relief of the sufferers with a donation of a hundred guineas.'
'Very generous and thoughtful of him, isn't it?' Paul snarled, with black sarcasm and flaming eyes. 'How the ignorant public will applaud the promptitude and beneficence of the honourable representative for Ashlynton!'
'Oh,' Baldwin said quietly, 'you may trust our employer to do the right thing at the most opportune moment. The announcement of that donation of a hundred guineas will send Mr. Myrelands up in the estimation of many people.'
'But not in ours!' Paul cried.
'Perhaps not; still I am heartily glad that he has given the money. It will solace, to some extent, those who have lost a dear one, and I myself have put down my name for ten pounds.'
'You may put my name down for a similar amount,' the young man said sadly, as his thoughts wandered to the wives and children, the mothers and fathers of those who had perished in the White Crow seam last night.
A little while afterwards Massilon went away, thinking with unmixed bitterness of the man whose servant he had become on the previous morning. How much better it would have been, he mused, if Mr. Jonathan Myrelands had spent his hundred guineas in preventive rather than in curative remedies. Had he but done so those who were now lying dead might have been alive still, and he (Paul Massilon) would not have had occasion to feel so ashamed of himself and his master.
Mr. Jonathan Myrelands, the honourable member for the borough of Ashlynton, was at the time the explosion of the White Crow mine occurred a man of sufficient wealth and importance to maintain no fewer than three separate establishments. Being a member of Parliament he had a residence 'in town,' as an opulent mine-owner he had rented a shooting box and some thousands of acres in Scotland, and as the source of his wealth lay in Ashlynton, and he had occasion to visit the town frequently, he still kept up his old house there.
About the time the inquest on the immolated miners was opening, Mr. Myrelands quitted London, so that long ere he reached the neighbourhood of the disaster the inquiry into the lamentable affair was concluded.
As Mr. Myrelands alighted at Ashlynton station, and, in the street outside, was engaging a hansom to drive him home, he heard the newslads bawling out:
White Crow explosion.
Result of the 'nquest!'
He bought a paper and jumped into the vehicle, telling the cabby to drive him to the General Post Office. Here he alighted, despatched a telegram, and that accomplished he rode home in peace, a single glance at the news-sheet having set his mind at rest.
Half an hour later Mr. Myrelands was in his own snug den at Ashlynton House, which stood in one of the finest residential quarters of the borough, awaiting the appearance of the two men for whom he had wired.
The night had fallen some time ago; the blinds were drawn, a big fire was glowing in the low grate, and the gas was burning brightly. There was an ample assortment of wines, spirits, and liqueurs on the sideboard, and a box of the excellent cigars 'Our Member' affected in his more generous moments lay on the table at his elbow.
Myrelands was a big, heavily-fleshed man of five and fifty, not bad looking, if he had been less vain, more able, and a trifle less pompous in his speech and demeanour. He was a self-made man, and was just a little too proud of his own architectural efforts.
In his youth and early manhood he had felt the pinch of poverty not infrequently, but by dint of struggling, scheming, and restless, unsleeping attempts to better himself, he had contrived not only to make money but keep it.
Shortly before the Franco-German war he and another commercial soldier of fortune had contrived to get possession of a small colliery, near Ashlynton; and in their hands the little place prospered.
The partners had managed the colliery themselves; never spending a penny they could save either by scheming or dodging, paring wages and stooping to all kinds of petty knavery in order to further their own aggrandisement.
And when the flood-tide of prosperity set in they were ready to take advantage of the golden stream. Between the years 1870 and 1875 the coal trade flourished to an extent unprecedented in this country. In mining circles that period is known still as the 'Golden Age' of mining, for then hewers of coal could play at pitch and toss for sovereigns, and their masters were amassing fortunes as rapidly as if they had discovered goldfields.
But the little vices that had distinguished Jonathan Myrelands in his days of stress and struggle, clung to him afterwards when his fortune was secured, as the reader will have gathered from what has been already written. He was rich now, and could afford to be generous, but he still had his old objection to burying money in the earth could it be avoided.
Sitting there with a glass of wine at his hand, and a fragrant weed between his lips, Myrelands turned once more to the copy of that evening's Ashlynton Press, which he had purchased near the station.
The sheet was folded down each side, and the heavy headlines, and heavily-leaded lines, were sufficiently attractive to have caught even the eye of an incurious reader. With complacent unction he read the lengthy paragraph aloud to himself. It ran:—
The borough coroner, Mr. Robert Greenford, held an inquest this
afternoon to inquire into the deaths of the six unfortunate miners
who lost their lives in the lamentable explosion which took place
on Monday evening at the White Crow pit, belonging to Mr. Jonathan
Myrelands, the member for Ashlynton. Owing to the widespread interest
taken in the proceedings it was thought advisable to hold the inquiry
in the old council chamber, which was crowded when the inquiry began.
Besides the coroner the following gentlemen were present: Mr. Lever
Wilson, solicitor for the owner of the colliery; Mr. Thomas Aspindale,
miners' agent, who represented the relatives of the deceased; Mr. Cecil
Clifford, H.M. assistant inspector of mines for the district; Mr. Mark
Baldwin, chief manager, and his under manager, Mr. Paul Massilon; in
addition to several other officials. The proceedings were not expected
to be of a protracted character, and owing to the admirable manner in
which they were conducted, were brief, yet sufficiently exhaustive.
After hearing all the evidence, none of which conflicted, the jury
returned a verdict of 'accidental death.'
Here we may point out that immediately on hearing of the sad calamity, Mr. Myrelands at once suggested that a fund be opened for the relief of those dependent upon the dead miners, and headed the list with the handsome donation of one hundred guineas. Already the fund amounts to over a hundred pounds, and it is felt that this will be doubled. A detailed report of the inquiry will be given in our weekly edition.'
After reading that account of the inquiry, Mr. Myrelands emitted a deep grunt of satisfaction, lay back in his easy chair and puffed away complacently at his cigar. Just then there was a tap at the door, and the head of his serving man was thrust inside the room. 'Mr. Baldwin, sir, an' another gentleman to see you, sir.'
'Show them in, Jones; show them in at once!'
The man disappeared, and shortly afterwards Mr. Baldwin and Paul Massilon were standing in the room, and the mine-owner was greeting them in his most effusive style.
'So glad to see you, Baldwin, and you too, Massilon. Am very sorry, though, that the occasion is such a sad one. Have only just got back from town. Was thunderstruck when I received your telegram. Terrible affair! terrible! But those things cannot be avoided. They will occur, sir; they will occur. I got a paper as I came along, and I see the verdict was in accordance with the evidence. Sad! Sad! But I have done something for the poor people!'
All this was blurted out without an instant's cessation, and while he was speaking the mine-owner was placing his visitors in chairs, was bringing decanters from the sideboard, glasses also, and playing mine host generally with the air of one to the manor born. When they had named their drinks and he had filled their glasses, he pressed his cigars upon them, then he turned to Massilon with a very genial smile upon his not unhandsome countenance.
''Pon my word, Mr. Massilon, would you believe it, but I had no idea you were a literary man when I engaged you as assistant manager to our friend here, Mr. Baldwin? Well, well, they do say one has to go away from home for news; and I am compelled to admit that I was considerably astonished when I read in the newspapers that the Paul Massilon who had led the first party of volunteers into the exploded mine was the Paul Massilon who had written some striking story or other—I forget the name of it.'
'I must confess to the offence, Mr. Myrelands,' Paul remarked quietly.
'Offence, indeed!' the mine-owner exclaimed, with a deprecatory gesture. 'That is rather a singular way of putting it, eh? Well, I was delighted to learn that a workman of mine was able to write anything that was creditable to himself, to me, and the good old town of Ashlynton.'
Paul winced a little, but the member for the borough went on with his harangue.
'Well, well, my lad, I must see what I can do for you in London. I am not without influence, as you may be aware, Mr. Massilon; and if ever I can do anything to advance your interests in any way, you have but to speak and it shall be done.'
'Thank you very much, sir,' Paul answered, thinking at the moment that the Hon. Member would not make a bad character for a story.
'Now, Baldwin,' the master of Ashlynton House broke out again, 'don't spare that whisky, if you please. You are not looking yourself this evening; and you drink, too, my literary manager. I owe you something for the splendid manner in which you behaved the other night.'
Myrelands refilled their glasses, and they drank his health quietly, each of them wondering how he was to approach the subject in his mind. Presently Myrelands remarked in a casual way, 'I suppose the explosion has not done very much damage, Baldwin?'
'I can hardly say,' the chief manager began, weakly evading the issue he had set himself to face. 'The explosion made me so ill that I have not been able to go down to the mine since. But Massilon, here, will tell you.'
The mine-owner shifted his gaze to the young man.
'The explosion has not done a great amount of damage,' Paul said, calmly, as he grappled resolutely with the difficult and unpleasant task his superior had shifted on to his shoulders. 'Fortunately the mine exploded in the night time, and only half a dozen lives were sacrificed. Had it taken place during the day some scores of lives might have been destroyed, and it might have entailed upon you a loss of several thousands of pounds.'
'Yes, yes, that is so, Massilon!' Myrelands ejaculated, without having the least idea as to what Paul's remarks were leading up to. 'It was fortunate, after all, that the pit exploded when so few of the miners were working.'
'A few pounds, Mr. Myrelands,' Paul went on fearlessly, 'will undo all the mischief the explosion has done—barring the loss of those half-dozen lives; but it will take many hundred pounds, sir, to wipe out the mischief to which the disaster was directly traceable.'
'What do you mean?'
'Simply that the air-ways are in a fearful, a scandalous condition.'
'Ah, the explosion has shattered them—made a sorry mess of them, I daresay.'
'I tried to make Her Majesty's inspector of mines believe that the shock of the explosion was responsible for a good deal of the neglect and dilapidation he could not avoid seeing, but I am afraid he did not accept that view of the thing. All he did say was that he would pay us another visit in the course of a few weeks.'
'Are matters really so bad as that?' the mine-owner asked, with a well simulated expression of horrified amaze.
'They are so bad, sir, that another explosion may happen at any time!' was Paul's calm and unflinching reply.
'We must alter this, Baldwin! We must alter all this immediately!' Myrelands exclaimed with a great show of concern. Then he added more coolly, 'Have you any idea, Massilon, what it will cost to set things right?'
'I have been through the White Crow to-day, sir,' Paul replied, 'and have made a careful calculation as to the cost of making the old roads presentable. I believe it could be done for a thousand pounds.'
'A thousand pounds! And what do you say, Baldwin?'
'I say, sir,' the old manager said very gravely, 'that the money ought to be spent, and if spent will be spent wisely!'
'Then you shall spend it. There; that is settled. No one shall say that Jonathan Myrelands refuses to feed the goose that lays his golden eggs. No, no, my friends, I am not a gentleman of that sort. Now, gentlemen, just one more drop before you go. Here Massilon, try another cigar. I say, I will get that book of yours, and if I like it you may trust me for doing something for you among my friends!'
Five minutes later Baldwin and Paul were walking homeward together, well satisfied with the result of their visit to the member for Ashlynton.
'I was afraid to speak, Paul,' Baldwin remarked apologetically, 'and when you began I was afraid you would say too much.'
'So was I, sir; but as it happened I said just enough. That white lie about the inspector of mines was, I think, justifiable.'
A FORTNIGHT had slipped away, and the explosion at the White Crow pit no longer absorbed all the oratorical efforts of the Ashlynton gossips. The dead miners had been laid to rest in the neighbouring cemetery—had all been laid in one grave, over which the generous and considerate member for the borough had erected a handsome and enduring monument of polished granite; the three hundred and odd pounds raised by the relief fund had been distributed with a discriminating hand among the relatives of the deceased, and life was again running in its ordinary channels in the thriving Lancashire town.
The past couple of weeks had been busy ones for Paul Massilon. Knowing how critical was the condition of the exploded seam, the young under-manager had thrown himself heart and soul into the work of reformation.
On the day the inquiry was held work was recommenced at the White Crow, and on the following morning Paul, with the hearty concurrence of his chief, inaugurated the changes both knew were absolutely necessary if the gaseous mine was to be rendered fit and safe for human beings to toil in.
As Mr. Baldwin was still far from being hale and vigorous, the work of constructing new air-ways, repairing the old ones, and renovating the mine generally was practically left in the younger man's hands. The chief manager had unbounded faith in his assistant, and Paul soon proved himself worthy of such confidence.
Ere the week was ended, a dozen men and lads were hard at work, day and night, in the dilapidated galleries upon which the gaseous seam depended solely for its ventilation. The day shift miners were under the superintendence of old Job Stanley, while his son Ben took charge during the night turn.
Paul know both men well. That they were capable and hard working miners when 'off the booze' he was thoroughly aware; and his love for fair Mary Stanley had prompted him to give her relatives a fair and honest chance of making a few pounds by means of a bit of 'contract work.'
Since that evening when he had walked with the girl along the side of the river Paul had not seen Mary, nor had he gone out of his way to put himself in her path. What she had said to him then—the passionate kiss with which she had dismissed him to his work at the exploded pit, had satisfied him almost as much as an open declaration of her affection could have done.
Thinking of those things, he felt he could afford to wait. Besides, had he not two faithful allies now in the girl's father and brother? Although old Job and his son Ben knew nothing of his love for Mary, would not his kindness to them urge them to utter pleasant things about him at home when she was present?
So thinking, Paul went on working, waiting, and hoping, after the manner of men when a great love fills their lives.
One evening Massilon was in the public library at Ashlynton, looking through the catalogue for a good novel, when someone clapped him sharply on the shoulder, and a cheery, a familiar, voice cried at his ear:
'Hello, Paul! How are you, old man?'
Massilon lifted his eyes from the book he was consulting, turned on his heel, and confronted a tall, smartly dressed young fellow of his own age, with a clean-shaven, eager, alert face, prominent nose and chin, gray eyes and fair hair.
'What, you, Philip?' he cried. 'I thought you were settled down in London?' Then his fingers gripped the other's extended hand and shook it warmly.
'I only got back the other day and have been too busy since to look you up before this evening. Perhaps I should not have taken the trouble now but for—something. What are you doing here, Paul?'
'I was looking for a novel.'
'Should have thought, old chap, you had chucked reading novels now that you've taken to writing 'em, Come along, and let's have a drink. You can get a book again.'
Philip Lawrence thrust his arm through Massilon's, and thus linked the old friends walked out of the library. It was nearly ten years since the young fellows first met. At that time both of them were attending the evening classes at the local Science and Art School, Paul devoting himself solidly and strenuously to his work, for then all his ambitions were centred upon becoming a certificated mine manager; but the other was pottering away in a desultory fashion at several sciences and various arts, and equally careless of all.
Lawrence's parents were well-to-do people; his father owned one of the principal breweries in the town, and although the young chap was clever, his people gave him so much of his own way, and furnished him so amply with funds, that he had no necessity to grapple seriously with anything in the way of a profession.
Somehow Paul and Philip had became friends; the latter had taken kindly from the first to the big, handsome, and clever pitman; had shown his liking in many little ways and, now, after a three years' absence in the metropolis, he seemed desirous of renewing the old intimacy.
'And, now, old man,' Philip began when he and the miner were seated in the 'snug' at the Royal Hotel with a couple of glasses of whisky and soda before them, 'tell me straight how you, of all the men in the world, ever thought of trying your hand at scribbling?'
'I can scarcely tell you, Phil,' Paul said, with a reddening face. 'Somehow it struck me one day, some years ago, that one might make a few stories out of the mines and the miners; so I tried my hand, and was not a little astonished, believe me, when my first attempt was accepted, printed, and paid for. That spurred me on and I kept on scribbling.'
'And your book?' Phil queried. 'Don't you call it "The Mystery of the Mine?"'
'That is so; and I am glad to say that it shows fair promise of being a success. The first edition is gone already, and another one is being prepared.'
'Good biz, old chap. Of course I've read it, and like it. Why, do you know, Paul, I imagined I could pick out quite a crowd of people you had in your eye when you wrote that book.'
'Perhaps you could, Phil. I didn't go far afield for my characters.' He smiled, and drank, and the other did likewise. Presently Paul added, 'And what brings you back to Ashlynton, Phil?'
'The governor. He says I've got to earn my bread and cheese henceforth, so he's shoved me into the brewery offices. Beastly work, too; a heap worse than being in London with the uncle.'
'It's a pity, Phil,' Paul said thoughtfully, 'that your people are so well off.'
'How do you reckon that up?'
'Because I think you are clever enough to have done something, Phil, had you been thrown upon your own brains and hands as I was.'
'Bosh, old man! What's the use of struggling when your bread's baked? But look here, Paul, I did not look you up for the special purpose of hearing you talk tommy-rot.'
'I wasn't aware that you had looked me up, Phil. I thought our meeting was a lucky accident.'
'Well, it wasn't. I had been to your diggings before I called at the library. I suppose you have no engagement for to-morrow evening?'
'Then you must go with me to my cousin's.'
'Who is he, and where's his place?'
'He happens to be she; and her place is Milton Lodge, up Ashlynton road. You must know Maggie Heywood. You don't! Well, you don't appear to know anybody worth knowing—barring myself—and it's about time you did.'
'But what excuse have I, Phil?' Massilon asked, with a laugh, 'for intruding myself upon this cousin of yours?'
'She wants to know you, and I promised to bring you with me to her party. I was there this afternoon, and somehow or other we got talking about a book she was reading. By the way, it happened to be that thing of yours, and when I told her that we used to be good chums nothing would satisfy her save my promise to look you up, and drag you, willingly or unwillingly, to her party. But of course you will go, old chap!'
'I don't half care about it, Phil!' Massilon answered. 'Parties are nothing in my way.'
'Not married, eh?'
'Not even engaged!'
'Then you must go. This is only a small private affair, and not more than a dozen of us will be present. We shall be treated to a little music, a song or two—for Maggie can sing—a drop of excellent wine, and perhaps a square dance. They will all be young folk, like ourselves, and, take my word for it, you'll enjoy yourself.'
'But I don't know any of them; and if I go I shall feel like a fish out of water.'
'No, you won't; Mag will see to that. And I'll tell you what, my boy; now's the time you ought to cultivate society a little—even such society as Ashlynton can boast.'
'To study character, I suppose, Phil?'
'To study the devil, Paul. No, old fellow, you must mix in society to make friends. I may be a bit of a duffer, but I know that it is a clever man's business, especially if he is poor—to mix with those who have the "pieces." You know you are the only literary lion Ashlynton has ever been guilty of producing, and the respectable, addlepated, money-grubbing traders will be glad to compliment themselves by patting you on the back.'
'I suppose I shall have to bore your cousin and her friends with my company under the circumstances,' remarked Paul.
'Which means, I can see, that you expect them to bore you, eh? Well, we'll say that's settled. Be here to-morrow evening at eight sharp, and I'll take you up in my hansom.'
The following evening Phil Lawrence took Paul to his cousin's party, and shortly after being shown into the large and very tastefully furnished drawing-room, Massilon was introduced to Miss Heywood and her aunt, who acted as the young lady's chaperon and housekeeper.
The quiet unaffected sincerity and geniality of Miss Heywood's greeting impressed Massilon no less than did her gracious personality. Before he had been in her presence ten minutes he felt that here was a woman of a singularly refined character, deep-souled, tender-hearted, and thoughtful beyond the run of all the womankind he had known.
Margaret Heywood was between three and four and twenty, and seemed a little shorter than she really was owing to the plumpness of her finely-developed figure. She had a flowing bust, soft, small, white hands, which she evidently prided, a clear complexion of an olive tint, masses of dark brown hair, and great starry eyes of softest hazel, though they seemed black in the gaslight.
Almost ere he was aware of it, Paul and his charming hostess were enjoying a tete-a-tete—were chatting together easily, freely, and exchanging confidences and opinions with the freedom of old friends. Save Massilon and Lawrence, none of the expected guests had yet put in an appearance; Phil and his aunt were examining some old prints at the other end of the room, and hence the miner and Miss Heywood were left to themselves.
'Do you know, Mr. Massilon, that I have seen you frequently before this evening?' Miss Heywood remarked pleasantly; 'but, of course, I didn't know you then—not even your name—still I never imagined you were a miner.'
'Why, may I ask, Miss Heywood? Probably because I dressed a little better than my follow miners are accustomed to dress, I suppose?' he said, smiling.
'Hardly that,' she said thoughtfully. 'Somehow it is a difficult matter, even now, to associate you in any way with mines and miners.'
'I am afraid, Miss Heywood,' he said, with a short laugh, 'that I have worked in the mines too long now ever to be mistaken for anything but a pitman by anyone who knows much of miners and their ways.'
She looked prettily amazed, asked leading questions prettily, and soon he found himself telling her of his youthful hardships, and his early struggles to educate himself and fight his way upward.
Then she told him something of her own trials and troubles—of the death of her parents, of her isolation, of her desire for a fuller and a larger life than seemed possible in that dull corner of the world.
Gradually the conversation drifted to books, and Massilon was surprised to find that her reading was much more extensive than his own, and that she seemed to have assimilated not a little of the works she had read. Miss Heywood had decided opinions of her own on all current writers of the day, and whenever she expressed a judgment, had something sensible on which to base it.
Presently Phil Lawrence burst in upon them.
'Hello, Paul,' he cried, 'are you monopolising my fair coz already? Here, Mag, are all your guests, and nobody to receive them save auntie. Come along, old chap, and let me introduce you to all my cousin's friends as they arrive.'
The remainder of the evening passed away very pleasantly and quickly. Miss Heywood's young lady friends were all comely lasses, and were lively enough not to permit their dignity to stand in the way of rational enjoyment. The young fellows were well looking, and amiable also, and Massilon soon felt thoroughly at home with them all.
If anything the united compliments of the party tended to confuse and embarrass him a trifle. He was the lion of the evening—the special guest of the occasion, and everyone allowed him to see that it was so. Those who had not read his book were aware of the leading part he had played on the critical night of the White Crow disaster, hence he was looked up to not only as a merely clever man, but a brave man also, who scrupled not to carry his own life in his hands when the lives of others were at stake.
The entertainment consisted of the programme Phil had sketched. There was music and singing—and the singing of Margaret Heywood was a joy and a revelation to Paul, confirming the deep impression she had made upon him. Some day he thought he would have Mary Stanley as accomplished as the young mistress of Milton Lodge was now. All that the maid of the cotton mill lacked was the other's education and training.
As they drove downward at eleven, in Phil Lawrence's hansom, that young gentleman remarked, as he puffed at his cigar:—
'Well, Paul, old chap, how have you enjoyed yourself? Well, I hope?'
'I never spent a pleasanter evening in my life, Phil. The company was excellent, and your charming cousin beyond all praise!'
'So glad you like Maggie; thought you would. She's fond of you, too, Phil. You might do worse, old fellow, than set your cap at her. She is her own mistress, owns the place, and has four or five hundred a year.'
Paul laughed quietly.
'Why not set your own hat that way, Phil?'
'Have tried, and she only laughed at me. Maggie is much too sensible to pick up with a scallywag like me. You are just her style, Paul. She likes strong men with brains; and by gad, you're the only chap I know to whom I wouldn't grudge her!'
Paul only laughed again. He was thinking of a woman who was fairer even than fair Margaret Heywood.
WHEN Paul Massilon permitted his volatile friend, Mr. Philip Lawrence, to persuade him to attend the infirmary charity ball, he had not the faintest idea that the night that event was celebrated was destined to be one of the reddest of all the red-letter days, or rather, evenings, of his life.
Phil had insisted that it was Paul's imperative duty to be present at that prominent local function; that everybody who was anybody in Ashlynton would be there; that the member for the borough was one of the patrons; that the whole thing was specially got up for the purpose of benefiting a most deserving institution, which every right-minded person ought to support; and, finally, he urged that his cousin, and the party whose acquaintance he had made that night at Milton Lodge, would be in evidence, so that it would be a 'regular jolly do.'
So Massilon went to the ball, and almost one of the first persons of consequence he ran against was his employer, Jonathan Myrelands, Esq, M.P., who greeted the young manager with the warmth and freedom of an old and close friend, linking his august arm in that of his workman, and walking with him the whole length of the ballroom to the refreshment bar, where he insisted on treating Paul and Phil to a bottle of champagne.
That kindly though somewhat ostentatious act on the part of 'our worthy representative' was not without its effect on the mixed assembly. Those present who had not known Massilon previously were almost compelled to know and notice him after he was so markedly singled out.
'Who is that tall, dark, good-looking young gentleman the member for Ashlynton is conversing with so pleasantly?' people asked of one another, and when they were informed that Mr. Myrelands' friend was his manager—the young man who had behaved so splendidly when the White Crow mine exploded the other week, and who had written a book dealing with Lancashire life which everybody was reading—the questioners came to the conclusion that Paul Massilon was a gentleman whose acquaintance was worth cultivating.
Shortly after this Paul and Miss Heywood were sitting in one of the prettily-draped and softly-lighted bays running alongside the ballroom. In front of this little alcove were graceful palms and clumps of evergreen plants, and before their retreat the gay throng was eddying by to the strains of a delightful waltz. They had been dancing, but she had pleaded fatigue, and he had led her there.
'I wasn't aware, Mr. Massilon,' the girl remarked quietly, with the faintest suspicion of a twinkle in her great luminous eyes, 'that you and our member'—with an emphasis on those two words—'were such intimate friends.'
'Nor are we, Miss Heywood,' Paul replied, sharply, and with the flicker of a frown on his strong, dark face. 'The truth is that before this evening I had only spoken to Mr. Myrelands on two occasions.'
'You surprise me. I imagined—as everybody else must have done—that you were old and dear friends.'
'I am happy to say that it is not so, Miss Heywood,' was Massilon's sarcastic reply. 'He is my employer, and a member of Parliament, and I suppose I ought to feel pleased with his public avowal of good feeling.'
'And you are not?' she retorted, with her sweet lips half-framed for laughter.
'Not at all. I am somewhat particular about my friendships, and "our member" is not one of my friends. I suppose all these good folks have votes or influence, and it pleases Mr. Myrelands to take me up just to show them all that he, at all events, recognises merit when he sees it.'
'Why, Mr. Massilon, you are speaking almost bitterly now, and I used to think there wasn't an atom of bitterness in your nature.'
'I hate to be patronised,' he cried, adding quickly, 'by such as he. Perhaps I ought to explain, Miss Heywood, but I think you understand me?'
'I think I do,' she said softly.
'Look at Phil,' he cried, after a momentary silence, 'what a scapegrace he is. I half believe that Myrelands' champagne has affected him already.'
She followed his pointing finger with her eyes, and saw her cousin pinning a label to the coat tails of a very demure and womanly-looking young fop with smooth, round cheeks and fair hair. Another moment and the trick was played, and Phil was chatting affably with his victim, whose black garment bore a white slip with the strange legend, 'On Sale. No Reasonable Offer Refused.'
Miss Heywood giggled, and then her face lighted up suddenly, and her hand was placed upon Paul's sleeve.
'Who is that young lady with Harry Grant?' she cried. 'I declare she is the loveliest woman in the room. Do you know her, Mr. Massilon? Somehow her face seems familiar to me.'
Paul followed her glance and his heart leapt to his throat. It was Mary Stanley, looking gloriously lovely in a sleeveless low-cut dress of fancy muslin, and by her side was a young fellow almost as fair as herself—tall, gracefully moulded, with a handsome, dashing, devil-may-care looking face.
'She is very handsome,' he said quietly; though his blood was at fever heat. 'But who is he?'
'Don't you know Harry Grant?' she asked, and her soft tones had a sneer in them. 'His father owns some cotton mills in the town, and he has a reputation that no woman cares to relate. But the lady! You know her?'
'I know she is a mill girl,' he answered, avoiding her eyes. 'Her father and brother were in that explosion at the White Crow.'
'The two men you saved?'
For a little space they were silent. Each had something to ask the other, but was restrained from saying it. Then they rose together, her hand upon his sleeve, and at the entrance of the alcove she pulled him back shrinkingly.
'Wait a moment, please,' she pleaded. 'Stand there, and don't move till I tell you.'
'What is it, Miss Heywood?' he whispered, smiling. His back was to the ballroom, and his big figure filled the doorway of their retreat.
'A horrid bore whom I wished to avoid,' she explained, with a shrug of her plump white shoulders. 'He pestered me to death almost to promise him a dance, and he is looking for me now to claim it.'
'Who is this awful bogey?' he asked, smiling gallantly, though his heart was with that vision of muslin-clad loveliness he had feasted his loving eyes upon for a moment only.
'Mr. Wedmore, of Wedmore House.'
'Byron Wedmore, the lunatic?' Paul queried.
'Not exactly that, but still too strange and importunate in his ways to be altogether a desirable acquaintance at all times, Mr. Massilon.'
'You should shake him off.'
'What if he refuses to be so treated?' she asked, looking up into his face. 'He is a neighbour, you know; and is harmless enough too, if he wouldn't insist upon pestering me with his attentions.'
'If that is his only offence I can forgive him, Miss Heywood,' he cried airily. 'Surely it is not a sign of lunacy to lay his services at the feet of one so fair and fascinating us yourself.'
'Don't descend to compliments, please,' she said in a voice of displeasure. 'See, there he goes!' she broke out more brightly; 'the last and the most pathetic figure of his weak, half-mad race.'
Paul followed the tall, attenuated figure with his gaze; marked the man's eagle-beak of a nose, his restless, ferret-like eyes, chin that retreated to vanishing point, the sloping, hairless forehead, and wondered no more at his companion's aversion.
'So that is Mr. Byron Wedmore,' he remarked, as the erratic one disappeared in a throng at the farther end of the room. 'I have heard often of his vagaries, but never saw him before. All the family were very strange, I have heard, Miss Hey wood?'
'They were lunatics!' she said, with marked emphasis. 'His father and brother died in the lunatic asylum, and I sometimes think that he ought to be there.'
'He has annoyed you very much I can see, Miss Heywood,' he remarked kindly.
'He has; but one cannot quarrel with a monomaniac. I feel certain that if I am alone with him for a single moment to-night he will lay his heart, which is small, and his fortune, which is considerable, at my feet for the twentieth time.'
'Is this a comedy or a tragedy?' he asked, with eyes wherein laughter and seriousness struggled.
'It is both, Mr, Massilon,' she said, gravely, and a pained look came into her fine eyes. 'It is a comedy to those who only watch the little play, but to those who play it there is sometimes tragedy enough.'
'Pardon me,' he said humbly, as he saw her lips quiver.
'There is Phil!' she cried gaily. 'Take me to him.'
He rose, placed her hand upon his arm, and they walked across the ballroom to where the irrepressible Lawrence was standing, talking suavely and laughing heartily in the centre of a small knot of friends.
And as they glided over the shining floor Paul's eyes roamed hither and thither in quest of the woman who had ensnared his fancy; and the woman on his arm noticed the eager, vagrant glances of her cavalier, divining with her quick intuition their desire, and when the miner's gaze met Mary's and a glad light suffused his handsome face Margaret Heywood sighed softly, and her white even teeth stung her lower lip.
As soon as he could do so gracefully Massilon detached himself from his friends and hurried away. But he did not rush to Mary Stanley's side, greatly as he desired to speak to her; instead, he dropped upon the first empty chair behind the lace draperies which divided the narrow promenade from the ballroom, and there he watched and waited for the coming of the one he loved.
From where he was sitting he had a full view of the wide space set apart for the dancers; he commanded a goodly portion of the refreshment bar also, where he had seen Mary standing with the handsome man whose reputation Miss Heywood had so quickly damned.
Mary Stanley had seen him make his way thither; that she would follow him he felt certain as soon as she was free, and so thinking, he waited, his heart hungering for her presence.
He had not long to wait. Presently he saw Mary glide swiftly from the bar towards him; then she glanced around, saw him, and tripped up to him with outstretched hands and smiling countenance.
'I never dreamt of meeting you here, Mary.'
'I never thought of coming, but a friend sent me a ticket and I came with her. But I never thought of seeing you, Paul.'
She took the seat beside him, and her white, perfectly-moulded arms, and generous half-veiled bust, her glowing flower-like face, little red mouth and bunched-up hair of glistening gold made his pulse leap and his nerves tingle.
'Who was that very pretty woman I saw you with a minute ago? Do you know, Paul, that I felt quite jealous of her? Wasn't it Miss Heywood?'
'Jealous!' he murmured, and emitted a low glad laugh. 'Why, Miss Heywood paid you the highest compliment. When she saw you with that Grant she declared that you were the loveliest woman in the room.'
'Yes; and she only put into words my thought. But what are you doing with that man?'
'I know him—I used to work at his father's mill—and when he asked me to dance, what was I to do, Paul? But what's wrong with Mr. Grant? He seems very nice, and he was very civil.'
'He seems to have a bad name, and you are so beautiful, Mary. But I am forgetting that I have no right to advise you yet. I am waiting until you know your own heart as I know mine.'
She uttered that single word in a tone he had never heard her use before, and the eyes she raised to him were burning softly with the glow of a woman's soul in their depths.
'Mary! What is it to be?' he whispered hotly.
'Need you ask yet, Paul?' her fluttering lips demanded as her eyes fell before his ardent look.
'You will be my wife then, darling?'
'Yes, Paul, yes!'
'You love me, Mary? Love me only?'
'If I had not loved you, dear, should I have kissed you the other night?'
His arm stole round her waist, he drew her gently to him, and his lips touched her satiny check. Had they been elsewhere but in that crowded room he would have crushed her in his arms and covered her radiant face with passionate kisses.
'God bless you, Mary!' he murmured huskily in her pretty pink ear. 'You have made me, my own darling, the happiest man in all the world!'
She did not speak, but he saw that her white bosom was rising and falling upon the tide of her emotion, and from beneath her white heavy-lidded, and half-closed eyes two dew-like drops were stealing.
FOR many years, ages even, the 'unco guid' of the world—the parsons and preachers, the social reformers, and would-be teachers of social ethics—have had much to say respecting the evil influences exerted upon the masses by the cheap literary journals whose aim is to supply the humble working classes with readable and stirring romances dealing with life in all its varied phases.
That the stock arguments of these individuals were platitudes of the most hackneyed order, twaddle of the most specious kind, those who have an intimate knowledge of the cheap literary weeklies referred to need not be assured. Hundreds, ay, thousands of young men and women have derived immeasurable pleasure and profit from reading week by week, year in and year out, such journals as the 'Budget,' 'Chambers' Journal,' and the 'Family Herald,' to name a few of the many papers which catered and cater still to their needs and their purses.
These sons and daughters of toil had a thirst for imagination and entertainment—they hungered to know something of the great world and the multitudes of men and women who lived and wrought, struggled and died beyond the confines of their own narrow, petty, little microcosm. The vast republic of books was quite beyond the reach of their lean purses; and so they had to satisfy their natural longings with the literature which enterprising publishers doled out to them in penny doses.
Paul Massilon, was a striking example of this class of reader. From youth to manhood he had literally devoured all the cheap reading he could lay his hands upon, and as a type of the lower order of readers his experiences are well worth recording.
The reader of this narrative will have already divined that the school in which our hero had graduated was, if somewhat rough, a decidedly wholesome one. It had taught him to know the strength of his limbs, the power of his intellect, and had developed in him that firm and fearless self-reliance without which no man is fairly equipped for the struggle for existence.
He had been sent to work in the coal mines long ere he attained his teens, and at the time when this story opened he had wrought there for sixteen or seventeen years; had filled many positions, and had always filled them well, at all times a zealous and careful worker, always endeavouring to fight his way upward, and doing well as he knew how all matters his hands touched.
Very early in life Paul had resolved that the coal mines should not claim and keep him for the remainder of his days as one of the common herd of toilers, and with beings of such a character to resolve often means to accomplish.
He had received a couple of years' schooling ere he went into the pits, and when he began to earn his own bread and cheese he was just able to read the penny journals his mother was so fond of perusing. Then the sum of three-pence which he received each payday for spending money, was unfailingly expended in cheap literature, and time only increased his passion for reading. Instead of going to the cheap music hall, as his workmates did, he preferred to plod through literature's lowly ways, and an old novel, picked up at some second-hand bookstall, had more interest for Paul than a wrestling match between two famous Lancashire wrestlers.
He was one of the 'unknown public' whose existence caused Wilkie Collins so much amaze—he was one of the three millions, who read the 'unbound picture quarto' and gloated over the literature of the lost literary tribes. He read each week not one, but half-a-dozen penny novel-journals, for he and one or two other lads bought different periodicals and interchanged them. He read them all and loved them, for they constituted then the only reading within his reach.
Knowledge came to him in pieces. From the 'penny novel-journals' he gleaned isolated historic facts, scraps of scientific information, bits of truths, fragments of knowledge of every description and kind. Sometimes he read on the same page a short treatise on Buddhism, and how to make cobblers' wax. Again, a paragraph anent transcendentalism would have as a companion a recipe for removing pimples. Perhaps it would have been better had metaphysics and medicine been less neighbourly, still the information pertaining to each subject was welcome, however it came. He belonged to the knowledge at any price party, and if he learned from the correspondence columns of the 'Budget' or 'Family Herald' that Benjamin Disraeli was in early life, a Radical, and that W. E. Gladstone was once a Conservative, and that his father made a fortune out of the slave trade, the source of the information in no wise lessoned its value to Paul Massilon.
And all this foraging on literature's meanest fields but fed the fire that burned in the young miner's breast. How he longed to be rich that he might obtain the great books he knew only by name. How he longed to know something more than the names of the world's great authors.
When Paul was fifteen he picked up at a second-hand bookstall Hugh Miller's work, 'The Old Red Sandstone,' and no novel ever stirred him as that geological work did. The story of the earth's history was more wonderful and interesting than any of his favourite romances, and he read and re-read the book, and read it again, until he had thoroughly mastered its great principles and broad generalisations. After reading Miller's work, he began to grow tired of his penny novel journals with their eternal sameness. He began to notice that the heroes were all handsome as Adonis, nobly born, terribly wronged, strong as lions, and brave as Spartans; that the heroines were beautiful as houris, models of everything that maidens should be; sweet, loving, tender, and faithful unto death.
At this critical period, when a glimpse of the higher levels of thought had made Paul discontented with the pabulum his penny story papers supplied to him weekly, a great thing happened. This was the death of a local surgeon, a bachelor, who left the great bulk of a considerable fortune towards the formation of a public library for Ashlynton. Then another gentleman erected a suitable building, and the dead surgeon's money filled it with books.
Who shall portray the feeling that stirred Massilon's blood when all this took place? The wealth of a more than fairyland was suddenly opened to him. The greatest works of the greatest writers of all time were now within his reach. So he read, read, and read until he became intoxicated with the juice of the vine that grows only on the hills of literature. For days, weeks, months, years, he literally feasted on the intellectual food thus placed within his grasp. He explored every field of literature, reading poetry, history, science, just as the humour seized him, and getting fresh light and strength from every book he touched.
What an intense tragic beauty the quaint legends of mythic Greece had for him! Like a vast panorama the life of the ancient world, with its stirring events and heroic deeds, passed before him. What intellectual giants Grecian civilisation bred! How varied the fortunes of the classic states! Then the wolf-nurtured built their city on the Palatine Hill, and under the guidance of Gibbon, he watched the little city expand till its walls enclosed almost all the civilised world. Still under the guidance of the great historian, whom Ruskin so lately maligned, he witnessed the gradual disruption of the vast empire, till of its former greatness there was left nothing but the name.
A kind of intuitive perception directed Massilon's reading. The old dramatists, the famous historians, all the poets and most of the modern novelists he read, with such works of Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, and Tyndall as the library possessed. He had an abundance of leisure for reading, as he finished work each day two or three hours after noon, and in six or seven years he had read most of the best works in the library. He was now twenty-two, and though still ignorant of foreign languages he had a tolerable grasp of the language and literature of his own country; and being blest with a retentive memory, an observant mind, and a keen critical intelligence he was pretty well equipped now for any future struggle for either fame or fortune.
Deep down in Paul Massilon's heart one great ambition had for years been burning. His supreme desire was to become an author; and now and again his voracious reading had been suspended during a fit of cacoethes scribendi. At length he had summoned up sufficient courage to despatch a short tale he had written to the office of 'Bow Bells,' and after three weeks' suspense the joyful intelligence of its acceptance reached him, accompanied by a cheque for three pounds.
Paul Massilon will never forget that first literary triumph. He could scarcely restrain himself from crying aloud in his great joy, and so sacred were his feelings that he went forth into the fields that no one might see his tear-dimmed eyes, and that he might sit and dream over his success. When the story appeared it was shown to all his humble friends, who wondered greatly at the cleverness of the chap who could 'mak' a tale.' In a little while he ventured again, and was once more successful. Then he tried his hand elsewhere. He wrote a careful sketch of life in the Lancashire coal mines as he knew, it, and sent it to 'Chambers's Journal.' It was accepted, and paid for immediately, at the rate of a guinea for each printed page; and another sketch that he forwarded to 'Household Words' was also successful.
Then he rested on his laurels for awhile, and turned his studies in another direction. He became a constant attendant at the Science and Art School in the town, where he had made the acquaintance of the volatile and well-cared-for son of the brewer, Philip Lawrence. The classes were held of an evening, a special department being devoted to mining, and after studying earnestly for three years Paul had little difficulty in passing his examination for a mine manager's certificate of competency.
But Massilon soon discovered that to obtain a certificate was one thing and to obtain a situation as manager of a colliery another. In the meantime, however, he remained at his old employment at Myrelands' pits. He was earning fair wages, had an abundance of leisure, the manager of the place had promised him the first vacant post under him, and in the meantime he again turned to the cultivation of letters.
In the course of the year a volume of stories and sketches dealing exclusively with Lancashire pits and pitmen appeared from his pen; and it was favourably received. Paul had the common sense to attempt no great flight. He simply wrote of what he had seen, felt, and lived; and although he made but a small profit, in a pecuniary sense, out of his volume of 'Studies in Clay,' he was satisfied, for the critics generally admitted that his work was good of its kind.
The favourable reception accorded to his first work, spurred the miner on to the making of a greater effort. This time his literary venture took the shape of a one-volume story. It was a sensational romance inspired by 'The Woman in White,' and entitled 'The Mystery of the Mine.'
Several times this was posted to and returned by various noted publishers, being ultimately accepted by one of the smaller fry of the middlemen of literature. There was nothing extraordinary in the novel save, perhaps, its faithful and realistic portraiture of mines and miners—but, somehow, it had caught the fancy of the book-reading public, and was selling well.
This was the book that Paul had published just before he was appointed under-manager at Mr. Jonathan Myrelands' collieries—the little work that had won for him the good word of the member for Ashlynton, the friendship of Miss Heywood, and the love of fair Mary Stanley.
From this brief outline of Paul Massilon's character and career it will be seen that although he had roughed it from his youth up he was no ordinary unit of the masses. Since the death of his parents he had fought for his own existence, and so far had come out of the strife with credit to himself.
In spite of his strong character and emotional nature, his well built figure and his finely moulded face, he was scarcely a 'ladies' man,' yet one that any woman might do honour to herself by loving and winning, wedding and serving; no soft-handed carpet knight, well skilled in the use of fine phrases and drawing-room accomplishments, but a hard-handed, deep thinking, frank spoken man, who hated nothing in all God's world so much as shams and false speaking.
Paul had loved Mary Stanley in secret for a long time, and the thought of winning her had served as a spur when his incessant efforts to improve himself, mentally and socially, became tiresome and monotonous. No thoughts of either the girl's lowly station or her rude kindred were ever allowed to stand between the strong-minded man and the fair woman he adored. Her beauty was not only a lamp to light him on his way, but a talismanic thing which raised its possessor to the level of the best of her sex.
Often, after the memorable evening of the Infirmary Charity Ball, Paul Massilon told himself that he was one of the most fortunate of mortals, for had he not in the course of three short months witnessed the fruition and fulfilment of three of his most dearly cherished ambitions?
In the first place he had succeeded in writing a romance which had caused a pleasant stir in the Republic of Letters; in the second he had been appointed under-manager of Mr. Myreland's collieries; and thirdly, and most gratifying of all, the rarely beautiful girl he loved so devotedly returned his affection, and had promised to become his wife.
Surely the world—and certainly Ashlynton—did not hold another human being so lucky and happy as himself. To some unfavoured mortals the Fates might be unkind, but to him they had assuredly shown all clemency and graciousness.
At Paul's request Mary had left the ballroom at an early hour, and as he conveyed her home the delighted lover had poured into the ears of his sweetheart all his schemes for their future. On the morrow he would tell her parents of their engagement, and in a few months hence they would be married, when he had prepared a suitable cage for the pretty bird he had captured.
To the latter half of these suggestions the fair mill-girl had readily consented. When Paul had got a home ready for her she would be happy and proud to share it with him; but in the meantime—for a few weeks at least—she wanted him to keep their engagement a secret.
Paul would understand why she wished it so. People were so curiously inquisitive; her friends in the mill would be pestering her with all kinds of questions; and to avoid all these things she begged of her lover, with her arms around his neck, and his kisses still warm on her lips and cheeks, to say nothing till she told him.
Of course Paul willingly assented to such a temperate request. He was pleased to think that Mary's modesty impelled her to the avoidance of all unnecessary publicity, and he resigned the matter to her keeping. When she desired their betrothal to become known to their little world he left it with her to speak.
So it had been arranged, and the succeeding days sped by uneventfully. Winter vanished, spring came, and then the glad summer. Paul was still busy at the pits. The work he and his chief had undertaken was an accomplished fact now, and the gas-producing White Crow seam was no longer a thing of terror to Mr. Baldwin and his lieutenant, and a standing menace to the lives and limbs of all the workmen.
Occasionally, Paul and Mary had long walks together, and the girl was never tired of extolling her lover for the reformation he had produced in the habits of her father and brother, who worked regularly now, dressed respectably, drank temperately, and had commenced to save a little money.
Praise from a loved woman's lips is always welcome even to the most cynical of mortals, and Paul felt that next to making Mary happy was the work of lifting her relatives from the slough of low, gross sensuality wherein they had formerly wallowed. Job and Ben were respectable units of working class society now, and by improving their own environment they had improved Mary Stanley's also.
Matters stood thus with Paul Massilon when one of the ordeals of his life came to him. It was on a sunny afternoon, in June, when the bolt fell from the blue. He had been busy all day at the pits, and had come home for the afternoon meal, when his landlady handed him a letter, after placing his repast before him.
He glanced at the envelope casually, and noted that the hand-writing was unfamiliar; then he cast his eyes on the postmark, and noticed that the communication had been posted in the town. So he placed it aside for the nonce, deeming it of no urgency, and did not turn to it again until his meal was concluded.
When he tore it open this is what he found:—
'You love Mary Stanley with all your heart and soul, and because she is beautiful, and says that she loves you, you believe in her absolutely. You pride yourself upon your strength of will and hatred of falsehood, but are you strong enough and true enough to your manhood to desire to learn the plain, unvarnished truth about this woman? If so, the matter is easy. To learn the truth and prove whether Mary Stanley is the innocent girl you think her, all you have to do is to hide yourself in the bushes at the top of the steps, near the old River Mill Forge, at dusk to-morrow evening—Thursday. Then you may learn how the lady conducts herself when you are supposed to be out of the way.
'Some day you will discover that she is a weak, vain, and shallow-hearted creature such as a man like you could never love truly; and it will be well for you if her real character is made clear before you link your life to hers. Her flashy beauty has bewitched your understanding, and you cannot or will not see the uncleanliness that exists beneath her fair milk-and-rose skin.
'Don't ruin your life by rushing into the marriage you are contemplating. Wait at least until you are sure that the woman you love is worthy of your esteem and affection. When you know the real Mary Stanley you will know that she is worthy of neither. You are not the man she has given her heart to, nor is she the pure woman you think her. This is written by one who is really
'A TRUE FRIEND.''
TO go or not to go? That was the question that had simmered in Paul Massilon's brain for four-and-twenty hours and it was lying there still when the next day's work was done, and the falling sun marked the day's drawing-in—lying there and stinging him poignantly.
It was evening now and sunset. The day had been one long fierce blaze of sunlight, but the eventide was cool, delicious, and dreamy in its quiet beauty of soft shadows and lingering lights. With the fall of the sun a faint breeze had sprang up, to strike soft, slumbrous music from every leaf, spike of grain, and blade of grass it touched.
Vivid splashes of crimson and broad bands of golden cloud still lingered in the west to mark where the sun had fallen; but in the wooded valley of the Douglas the shadows were thick, and it would be dark in an hour; already the soft roral rain was forming on each cool, sweet, green, living thing.
On a thick contorted root, that protruded from the soil at the foot of a tree, whose leafy arms spread far and hung low, a man was sitting in the deep shadow. His elbows were dropped on his knees, his face rested on his open palms, and he was staring straight before him, a sullen aspect on his face, and his eyes showing that vacuous stare which marks deep reflection. He sat facing the river, which ran slowly below, for the bank on which he was seated rose steeply, almost cliff-like, from the water's edge. This steep bank extended for a quarter of a mile or so along the river, and was covered with a thick growth of shaggy grass, blackberry brambles, low bushes, and trees.
The farther bank of the Douglas was only a couple of feet higher than the stream, and it was level as a billiard table for some 50 or 60 yards, when it began to rise gently but continuously till it reached the height of the other bank, where the man was sitting. It seemed as if the river at some period long past had been a stream of considerable importance, and that it had dwindled away, leaving the present ribbon of water to cut a channel for itself along one side of the old river bed. The level bed of the old river—if such it had been—was covered with a wild luxuriant tangle of wild rhubarb, burdock, and scores of other herbs, and formed the special hunting ground of all the herbalists in the adjacent countryside.
On the level bank, close to the river edge, a group of buildings stood, fast falling into ruin. Those crumbling walls, rent roofs, silent foundries, and smokeless furnaces, were the remnants of what had once been the most famed workshop in Lancashire. River Mill Forge once made engines and boilers and such-like products in a manner that few workshops could equal and none surpass; but, like all other things, it had to submit to the buffets of adversity, and 'it's day' was past.
It would have puzzled a philosopher to discover a sufficient reason for placing such a manufactory at the bottom of the river valley. The town was over a mile away, the nearest railway half that distance, and the only roadway to the place was terribly steep. It was a fine sight in the days when the old forge was prosperous, to see a score, or a score and ten, powerful horses yoked to a lorry on which was poised a huge iron boiler. What shouts there used to come from the deep throats of the assembled forgemen, as the patient cattle bent low to their work and dragged their massy burden from out the valley in which it had been forged? And there by the roadside one of the long low-built lorries was rotting away, its low, cumbrous iron wheels being slowly but surely eaten away by rust.
At the foot of the tree the man was still seated waiting. But his face had lost its former vacuity, and he had ceased to stare into space. His hand was thrust quickly into an inner pocket, and in a moment he was reading a letter with burning eyes and white set face.
Presently a low curse was forced from his ashy lips, and crumpling up the missive he replaced it, wondering meanwhile who was the author of the infamous lies it contained. Who could dare to utter such falsehoods respecting the fairest and the purest woman in Ashlynton?
Then he relapsed into his former sullen state, and his vagrant gaze wandered over the old ruins below to the opposite side of the valley, where a row of stone cottages nestled in the shadow of the gentle tree-covered hill.
'It's a lie! a lie! a gross, an infamous lie! And yet I am here!' he murmured as if in self-chastisement, and still he crouched in the shadow.
The crimson and gold was fading out of the sky now, and momentarily the gloom of the twilight was thickening. A little further down stream than the ruined forge a wooden footbridge spanned the river, and from this bridge a footpath, consisting of a long flight of rude stone steps, wound up the steep side of the river bank. At the top of these steps the path went along the side of a rich meadow called Sicklefield, which—so tradition said—owed its name to the circumstance that the grass grown there one year was so strong that it had to be cut with sickles. On the other side of the path was a patch of woodland, and here the man was seated.
Several low thick bushes grew close to the one side of the tree at whose foot he was seated, and unseen himself he could both see and hear anyone standing at the top of the steps and speaking there. He sat there patiently awaiting the confirmation or the dispersal of the doubts that now agitated his mind—rent his soul asunder.
It would be dark soon, and already the cottages on the other side of the Douglas were lit up. He resolved to wait another half-hour, and if nothing transpired within that time, he would go away convinced that Mary Stanley had been cruelly maligned. Elbows on his knees, his chin resting in his hands, he waited, silent and motionless as one of the tree trunks beside him. The river slid slowly past, lapping the green banks, and the pleasant roar of the weir a little further up the stream could be plainly heard.
It was dark now—dark as it would be that sweet midsummer night. The night was moonless, but the stars were out in their thousands. The rush of waters tumbling over the weir was subdued by distance into a dreamy murmur. Now and again the bark of a dog at some adjacent farmhouse rang through the air, clear as the stroke of a bell. It was such an evening as irresistibly reminds one of the Elegy that made one poet famous.
Suddenly the solitary watcher became alert. Someone was whistling, 'Oh, love, beautiful love!'—an air very popular just then—in a low, yet clear key, and presently footsteps were heard approaching along the path bordering the meadow.
In half a minute a man was standing at the top of the steps. The man who had been waiting so long had now crept under the bushes that fringed the topmost step, and he could have touched the newcomer's legs by stretching forth his hand. But he crouched there like a wild animal, gazing with fierce eyes on the handsome profile, the shapely, elegantly clad figure he knew so well, and quite unconscious that a living being was within arm's reach, and that he was being watched, the man stood at the head of the rude stairway as if he were awaiting someone's coming.
Emitting his breath as noiselessly as possible, the man under the bushes waited for the worst. He felt certain now that he might expect proof of Mary Stanley's lack of fidelity to himself, for what else could Harry Grant's presence there mean?
The houses on the other side of the valley were now a low black mass against the trees. In every window save one the lights had been extinguished, and the cottage wherein the light burned was the one in which Mary Stanley's workmate lived—the girl Mary had visited that evening when he first spoke to her of his love.
Paul's soul grew sick within him, and he longed for the end. That the woman he loved was there across the river he felt certain. Her visit to her friend was to-night an excuse for meeting the man who was waiting. Under the cover of the darkness she deemed herself safe in meeting the son of her old employer. How he had fooled himself—how she had fooled him! That night at the ball when he saw them together ought to have opened his eyes.
Harry Grant was smoking now, puffing away calmly, as he meant to stay. He had seated himself on the lower rail of the fence, opposite the bushes under which Paul lay, and as he puffed away at his pipe, his foot was beating irregularly on the gravel the while.
Presently other footsteps were heard, a slender womanly figure came bounding up the steps to stop beside the smoker, who still kept his seat on the fence, his pipe between his lips. The watcher's eyes were riveted on the slim, dark-clothed figure standing between him and his rival, and his lips became hot and parched, his brain seemed on fire, for it was Mary Stanley. But he clenched his teeth and prepared to listen, and there was little fear of his presence being detected, for the wind had arisen and was soughing fitfully through the trees.
'So you're here?' she said, almost breathlessly, after her quick ascent of the steps.
'I've been here some time, Mary, and I began to think you wouldn't turn up,' he answered, rising and coolly knocking out the ashes from his pipe on the fence.
'And what do you want now I've come?' she cried sullenly.
'What do I want!' he echoed with a bitter sneer. 'Has it come to that then, Mary? Not long ago you were glad to meet me, at any time, and in any place. Now all seems changed! Why?'
'Because,' she answered lowly, 'I am the promised wife of—another man!'
'Is it true then,' he sneered, 'that you and Paul Massilon are engaged?'
'It is true, and I shall never meet you again!'
'Indeed. And do you imagine that I am going to give you up so easily? Because my father has smashed I am no longer worth keeping. My love and your own is to count for nothing! You want to marry this Massilon now, I suppose, because he is a mine manager and an author; but I remember that you wouldn't look at him months ago when he was a mere nobody!'
'I have promised to marry him, and I mean to keep my word!' was her dogged response.
'If I permit you!' he retorted passionately. 'I wonder what Massilon would say if he only knew the truth. In the sight of God, Mary Stanley, we are man and wife already, and I will never let another man come between us. But you are only jesting, dear. Say that you love me still, and will never marry anyone else!'
'I love you still, Harry, but I have quite made up my mind to marry Paul Massilon. Let me go now, and give me your word that you will never bother me again.'
His voice rang out savagely, and the next moment she was clasped tightly in his arms, and he was crushing her against his breast and raining passionate kisses upon her lips and cheek, in spite of her weak protestations. Then she lay passive in his arms, and Grant's cynical laugh rang out.
'Now,' he cried triumphantly, as he released her, 'tell me the meaning of this talk about you and Paul Massilon.'
'I have told you the truth,' she answered. 'He has asked me to become his wife, and I have promised.'
'You must break that promise! Tell him you do not love him, and he will release you from a promise you had no right to make!'
'No! I will marry him,' she cried.
'Never!' he answered grimly. 'Rather than that should happen I will go to Massilon myself and tell him the whole naked truth. As true as there's a heaven above I will.'
'Not that, Harry! Not that!' she implored him, with her arms about his neck. 'For God's sake spare me that.'
'You are mine, body and soul, for ever!' he exclaimed passionately. 'I love you, and no other man shall call you wife.'
She was sobbing quietly now, and Grant led her away weeping, and as they passed down the rough stone stairway Paul Massilon crept like a wounded beast from the shelter of the bushes.
The miner's faith in womanhood was shattered, his love for Mary Stanley had been transformed into blackest hate; his heart was wrung with the unspeakable torture that they alone feel who are maimed in Cupid's wars; and the winged dream of his life was lying in shapeless, chaotic ruins, like the old forge below.
TEN or a dozen days, perhaps, had gone by since Paul Massilon, crouching like a spy in the shelter of the bushes at the top of the riverside steps, had satisfied himself of the falsity and hollowness of Mary Stanley's lips and heart; and each of those days had been a trial and temptation to him.
Only those who have passed through the scorching fame of a like ordeal can realise his sorrow and despair, his poignant self-torture and utter wretchedness. For the time being all the sweetness and light seemed to have gone out of nature, and life no longer held anything worth the fighting for.
In the days that followed on the heels of his disenchantment a hundred schemes—all of them equally wild and foolish—were decided upon hastily and abandoned almost as hurriedly. Now he would resolve upon writing to Harry Grant, asking for either a confirmation or a denial of all he had overheard that night. But a little reflection had brought forcibly home to him the utter folly of such a proceeding.
Whatever young Grant's shortcomings might he, lack of love for Mary Stanley was assuredly not one of them. The son of the mill-owner, whose failure was then the talk of the town, was devotedly attached to the frail beauty who had at one time worked in his father's mill; and after that thrilling and dramatic scene Paul had witnessed that night near the river there was no reason to suppose that Harry would withdraw one word he said in anger, yet deadliest earnest.
For good or for evil Harry Grant was master of the fair factory lassie—as he had put it so brutally and coarsely, and yet how truly, she was his, body and soul, for ever. After that what man could step between them? Nay, what man who cared for his own manhood and honour would care to do so?
Then Paul had resolved to meet Mary as had been his custom—had determined also to say that he had heard she was with Grant on that memorable night. If he did so how would she meet that statement? Deny it altogether, or attempt to explain away both the meeting and the damning words. Explain those intolerable innuendoes away! No, no! Not even an angel from on high could do that.
Then in a revulsion of passionate feeling he made up his mind to go to Mary, and throw the whole naked truth in her face. But even from that course he withdrew shudderingly. In spite of all his strength of will, his calmness of judgment, and his abhorrence of hypocrisy, he knew that if he met Mary, he would be as wax in her fingers. His great, his overweening affection would make him plastic as unbaked clay in her deft hands.
The upshot of all his tribulation and meditation was that he never saw her for many days. Instead of seeking Mary he avoided all those places where she was likely to be seen. In the morning he went to work so early or so late that the chance of encountering her was reduced to a minimum, and in the evening, when he fared forth at all, his walks took him beyond the places common to her feet.
With the passing of a couple of weeks peace of a kind came back to the sorely-troubled soul of the miner. Deep down in his heart the embers of his ill-starred passion were still smouldering, but he had so far recovered from his enervating heart sickness as to be able to smile grimly, cynically, mirthlessly, at the whole of the miserable serio-comic play.
One day about this time Massilon was sitting in his own little private room at his comfortable lodgings when the kindly fates sent him a visitor to drag him away from his morbid musings. It was an hour after noon, and the warmth and glory of a perfect day in the beginning of July were over the land. Paul was reading, and now and again, as his eyes wandered from his book, they alighted upon many small things that brought back to him the vision of a shapely gracious shape, and a radiantly fair face.
Those ornaments on the mantel, those pictures on the wall, that mahogany bookcase in the corner had been purchased for the home he and Mary were to share—and now! A spasm of pain clouded his fine strongly-marked features, and he turned almost angrily to the book he was reading.
He was poring still over the work in his hands when a quick rat-tat at the street door was heard. Paul paid no heed to the knock; did not even turn his head when the door of his own chamber was opened; but when a cheery voice cried out his own name he turned quickly to find Phil Lawrence at his elbow.
'Hello, Paul, old man, how are you? But what are you doing stewing here over a book on a day like this?'
'There is nothing to go out for, Phil!'
'Isn't there, when the whole of the jolly old town is out of doors; when bands of music are parading the streets and every manner of fun and sport is afoot? Jump up, get you dressed, and let's be off to the Park Gala together.'
'I don't care much for your programme, Phil,' Massilon responded with a yawn. 'Galas are not in my way, and I'd rather pass the afternoon with my book.'
'Nonsense! To doze here on a splendid day isn't living, you know. Chuck that book, and come out and enjoy yourself!'
'But there is nothing at the gala. That sort of thing is only fit for children and old women.'
'Nothing at the gala, eh?' and Phil laughed pleasantly. 'There is someone there you'd like to see.'
'What?' cried Paul with his keen glance upon his friend's face, and wondering for an instant if Phil knew of his affair with Mary Stanley.
'Perhaps I ought to have said,' Lawrence answered with a smile at the other's surprise, 'that there will be someone in the park who will be very pleased to see you, Paul.'
'Who do you mean?'
'Who can I mean but that fair cousin of mine, upon whom you seemed to have produced such an abiding impression?'
'Of course. Maggie tells me that she has seen very little of you lately, and is wondering hugely as to what she can have done to frighten you away from Milton Lodge.'
'I have been out very little lately, Phil.'
'All the more reason why you should go out now on a day and an occasion like this. Don't you think, old chap, that you have just the least tendency to take life a wee bit too seriously?'
'Perhaps I do!' Paul replied slowly, with an introspective shadow in his dark eyes.
'I am quite sure you do; so jump up, get ready, in quicksticks, and come along. I promised Miss Heywood that we would see them at the gala between two and three.'
'See them!' Paul echoed. 'Who will be with Miss Heywood? Someone I know?'
'No! But someone I know,' Phil cried with glad eyes. 'Miss Clifford is an old friend of my cousin's, and some day, my dear Paul, I am hoping to make her my wife. I love her, old chap, and I think she knows it. So you will understand why I want you to come with me.'
'To play gooseberry, I suppose,' Massilon exclaimed, laughingly, 'while you and your inamorata make eyes and soft speeches to each other, eh?'
'Put it any way you like, Paul, so that you hurry up and come.'
'So I will, Phil,' Massilon said, in a sudden fit of resolution. 'Sit down, and make yourself at home, and I'll be ready in a jiffy.'
Lawrence dropped into a chair, and the miner went to dress with a new thought swimming in his brain. Why should he deny himself all the small pleasures of life because of one false woman? Why look upon the world so seriously when there was so much food for laughter? Was she for whom he had fretted his soul worth a passing thought of his?
Half an hour after this Paul Massilon and Phil Lawrence were making their way across the old Market Square, as well-dressed and well-looking a pair of young follows as all Ashlynton could show on that fair gala day. Paul was clad in a suit of gray tweed and brown hat, which set off his shapely figure and dark face to perfection; and the suit of chocolate-hued stuff Lawrence was wearing suited his fair face and slim form nicely.
As Phil had remarked, all the good folks of the town appeared to be out in the sunshine. All the shops in the principal thoroughfares were shut up, and hundreds of people, all attired in their Sunday clothes, were hurrying in the direction of the public park, which lay a short distance westward of the market place.
Gala Day was one of the institutions of Ashlynton. For years it had been customary to hold an open-air fete in the park, and upon the appointed time each cotton mill, workshop, and coal mine in the district was closed, so that the workers might attend the annual summer festival. Sports and pastimes of various kinds were provided for the visitors, who if fine weather blessed the occasion—swarmed in to the number of twenty or thirty thousand.
A small charge was made, but all paid freely, for all the profits of the gala went to the funds of the local infirmary.
The public park at Ashlynton was yet in an embryonic state. It had been in existence for only half a score of years, and had been constructed on a piece of turfy, shrubless, and treeless soil. The park lacked all that grace which massive full-foliaged trees alone can give to a spot, and the pleasure that one may find under such a green leafy shelter. The saplings planted here and there along the edge of the walks were yet but poor unfledged things that afforded about as much shade as a lamp post, but the level lawn-like stretches of grass were green and cool and refreshing to look upon, and the flower-beds set here and there in the sward were masses of vivid colour.
Through the ornamental portion of the park a narrow sheet of water ran for a few score yards, dotted with tiny islands, each one having a separate colony of aquatic fowls. A couple of stately swans swam on the breast of the lake, at one end of which a landscape gardener had set himself to ape nature in the construction of a waterfall; but it would have been a gross piece of satire to have called his effort a success. A short distance from the lake an ornate fountain of painted ore reared itself in the air. It played on gala days and on other occasions, when someone made a mistake and turned on the water. Round the basin of the fountain a spiked iron railing had been placed by order of the corporation, for fear that some desperate urchin might attempt to slake his thirst if the water were left unguarded.
On some rising ground, half a hundred yards from the fountain, stood the pavilion, the ugliest excrescence of brick, iron, and glass that ever an architect spawned. Shaped somewhat after the fashion of a Chinese pagoda, it lacked the airiness and grace one expected to find in such a style of building, and to make up the details of the structure a variety of styles of architecture had been introduced, the result being a mongrel thing, that stood like a huge red scab 'mid the soft green stretches of velvety sward and flower-beds—a perpetual eyesore to every person of taste. A light iron stairway ran up one side of the pavilion to the roof, where one might stand and view Ashlynton's cotton mills and coal pits.
Through each of the four entrances to the park a stream of people was pouring, and all made toward the western side of the grounds, where the sports and amusements were just commencing. The west end of the park was bounded by a railway embankment, and alongside the railway slope was a large stretch of rough grass, unadorned by either flowerbed or tree. At one corner a large platform had been erected, and thereon were to appear the artists from the music-hall in the town, and already 'Prof. Duemain, in his marvellous entertainment of magic and mystery,' was delighting a large crowd of auditors and sightseers.
A great ring of grass had been enclosed by a low fence, and therein were to take place foot, donkey, and bicycle races, jumping and wrestling matches, football games, tugs of war, and pole-leaping; and even now the bell was ringing for the course to be cleared for the first race. A few minutes afterwards half a score of limber youths were bounding fleetly over the grass, each one eager to win the honour of first place and the piece of gold offered as a prize. What shout's greeted the straining lads as they neared the goal. 'Go on, Dick!' 'Wire in, Sam!' 'Good lad, Jack!' the pitmen cried, each exhorting his favourite to further effort.
There were now ten or twelve thousand people in the park. From every district and village surrounding Ashlynton a contingent of pleasure-seekers had come, and the sun seldom blazed upon a more gaily dressed and happier assemblage of people. They who labour hard alone know how to enjoy a holiday. Their tastes may not be so refined, their pleasures so aesthetic, as those of superior folks, but their enjoyment is as real and hearty, and he is the cheapest of all philosophers who sneers, or affects to sneer, at those who 'are out for the day.'
Here and there refreshment tents had been erected, and the gaily-striped awnings lent colour and pleasant effect to the scene. Swings, galvanic batteries, 'Aunt Sallies,' stalls for the sale of nuts, cakes, ices, and lemonade, dotted the grass at intervals, and the laughing, boisterous crowds of young people that filled the interspaces made the park seem like a huge fair-ground. Three bands located in different parts of the ground played selections of music, and there was a mighty grumbling amongst the younger folks because there was to be no dancing till nearly dusk, and the gentleman responsible for it received many blessings, couched in the expressive if rough and quaint vernacular of Lancashire.
Among the great and constantly augmenting gathering of people Paul and Phil made their way leisurely, exciting not a little comment from one and another of the throng they walked amid. Most people appeared to know something of the light-hearted son of the local brewer, and many of the men and youths present at the gala had worked with Paul in the various mines the greater portion of which his working life had been passed in.
Hither and thither the two young men strolled. Phil enjoyed the stir and excitement immensely, he declared, and even Massilon with his lacerated heart found some pleasure in watching the gay crowd at play. Such a day, he knew from experience, was a break in the monotony of their dull lives, and they would bend their necks to the yoke of labour more willingly on the morrow because of that brief interval of pleasure.
Phil's eyes were restless as the fluttering of the wind-shaken leaves. Here, there, his glance darted in quest of his cousin and her friend, and the eyes of Massilon were not less vagrant. But the miner was not looking for Miss Heywood and Miss Clifford. Somewhere among those thousands of human beings scattered about the park he felt that Mary Stanley was moving with her fair face and her false tongue, carrying herself like an uncrowned queen of beauty, and probably wondering greatly as to his own whereabouts and acts.
What interpretation, he wondered, had she put upon his own absence from her side, and his silence respecting the same? Was it possible that she had learned some inkling of the truth, and in consequence had refrained from writing to him and putting herself in his way?
They were strolling on the high ground near the pavilion when that thought struck him, and just then his friend put his reverie to rout by tapping him smartly on the arm.
'What is it, Phil?' Paul asked.
'You know Harry Grant, don't you? His governor went bankrupt the other week, you remember; awfully bad job for Harry, too. Well, there he is down among the crowd; and that splendid-looking girl we saw him with at the ball is with him again.'
With his heart in his throat, and his teeth upon his lip, Paul glanced in the direction Phil pointed. It was Mary Stanley, looking ravishingly beautiful in the palest of pink gowns, which fitted her fine, undulating figure like a glove, and at her elbow was the handsome reckless-looking man Paul remembered so well.
They were standing face to face—as if they had just met—in the middle of one of the broad walks; and the surpassing fairness of the girl and the distinguished appearance of her companion made the well-favoured pair the cynosure of all the eyes about them.
'You know her, I believe, Paul?' Lawrence remarked, as he watched his friend stare at the pair below in silence. 'At least my cousin told me you did.'
'Yes, I know her,' Massilon said impressively, controlling his voice and countenance with a great effort. 'Shall we move, Phil?'
'Not yet, Paul. Maggie and Miss Clifford were to meet me here. See! Harry and the girl have parted, and she is coming this way. You might give me an introduction, old chap.'
'I'd as soon think of introducing you to the devil!' Massilon cried, passionately, his anger mastering his prudence for the moment.
'I mean that I dislike the girl, and do not know her sufficiently to present you. She is only a mill girl—and I happen to know her because her father and brother work under me. That is all, Phil!'
The look Phil bent upon his companion was more pointed than any question could be, but he was discreet enough to say no more just then. Instead he dropped upon one of the long garden seats near at hand, and with a set and slightly disturbed face Paul followed his example.
'Paul,' Phil remarked, after a short silence, 'the young lady is standing at the top of the steps now, and is looking constantly this way. Perhaps she wishes to speak to you.'
Involuntarily Paul's eyes were turned, and in a moment he and Mary were staring at each other. Then she signed for him to approach, and with a hurried word to his friend, he stalked, white-faced and storm-eyed to her side.
'You wish to speak to me, Miss Stanley!'
His tones were dispassionate, though his look was forbidding, and when he looked her full in the face he saw that her lips were ashy and tremulous.
'What is the matter, Paul?' she asked, with a deep catching of her breath.
'Nothing!' he said, coldly.
'Nothing! And yet after asking me to be your wife you have never been near me for a fortnight or more. What does it mean?' she demanded.
'It means that I made a mistake, and that I have rectified it before it is too late. Is that sufficient!'
His keen dark eyes were fixed in a close piercing scrutiny upon her own luminous orbs of soft gray, as if he would look through them into the innermost recesses of her mind, and read all that was written there. She saw his glance, felt it also, and shivered for an instant. Then she was mistress of herself again, and she exclaimed with an exclamation of pain and indignation.
'No! It is not sufficient. I wish to know more. You have changed. Why? Who has been telling you things about me? Tell me, Paul! Give me a chance to explain and defend myself.'
'There is nothing to explain,' he said coldly. 'Only understand this. All is at an end between us for ever. I wish you good afternoon.'
He raised his hat and hurried away, fearful that his courage to be cruel might melt under the glamour of her wondrous beauty and starry eyes. Once he half turned when he heard her whisper his name, but remembering Harry Grant he hurried on as if he were flying from temptation.
THE last glimpses of the dying day were slowly fading on the western rim of the horizon. One of the bands was playing the last dance, and many hundreds of pairs of gyrating figures were footing it merrily on the green sward; and many thousands more were lying and sitting in all postures and directions on the grass, waiting for the last morsel of entertainment—the fireworks, with which display the gala was to conclude.
High up out of the hurly-burly, on a long seat on the green mound whereon the flagstaff towered with its fluttering pennon our friends were seated—Paul Massilon and Miss Heywood side by side, and Phil Lawrence with his eager, earnest, clever face pressed dangerously near the soft satiny cheek of Miss Clifford, his cousin's friend.
After taking leave of Mary Stanley so abruptly, Paul had contemplated beating a complete retreat from the field, desirous of nothing at the moment but the peace of his own room.
But fate, in the person of Phil Lawrence, willed it otherwise. In a minute his friend had him by the arm, and was leading him where his destiny—Margaret Heywood—and her pretty friend, Miss Clifford, were standing.
After that Paul took his courage in his hands, and gave himself up to the joy and gaiety of the hour. Whatever Phil or either of the ladies suggested he agreed to readily, and the whole of the afternoon was spent in rifling the gala of its pleasures.
Here and there the four of them strolled, now watching on the edge of the great arena the running and jumping, pole-leaping, and other sports within. Then they would sit on the grass and witness the clowning of the 'music hall artists' on the rough stage, and later would repair to one or other of the refreshment tents to refresh themselves.
Hither, thither they wandered, happy and careless as any of the huge multitude, and when twilight came and dancing began, Phil and Miss Clifford, Paul and Miss Heywood, had joined in the great eddying circle of dancers, and tripped it lightly and merrily with the best.
Tired now with the heat and restless activity of the day, they were resting themselves a little apart from the fagged host which still crowded the park. Many times during the afternoon Paul had seen the fair woman he had asked to be his wife, and on each occasion the graceful and graceless son of the bankrupt mill owner was at her elbow.
That sight had the effect of making Paul uncommonly attentive to Miss Haywood, and he was not slow to notice the joyful eagerness with which his attentions were received. Her dark eyes lit up wondrously when he whispered some compliment in her ear, and whenever their hands met the velvety olive of her cheeks reddened deeply like the heart of a rose.
Sitting there with Margaret Heywood beside him, Massilon found himself mentally contrasting and comparing the woman he might win with the woman he had lost. In looks alone had Mary Stanley the advantage of Maggie Heywood; in all other respects the beauteous mill-girl was indubitably inferior to the young mistress of Milton Lodge.
One was a woman of education and refinement, was handsome and accomplished, had a comfortable home of her own and a snug fortune which would maintain them in a respectable way—would even enable him to leave the mines and devote himself solely to his well loved literary work. As for Mary, she had little save her beauty, and that she had surrendered to another man.
All those thoughts flitted through Paul Massilon's brain as he lounged there at Margaret Heywood's side, lazily smoking the pipe he had craved permission to light, and now and again exchanging a word with his friends.
Presently a muffled roar rose from the waiting throngs as a dozen rockets soared into the welkin, and bursting at a great height, filled the air with a starry host of luminous, many-coloured, glittering bubbles.
Then the pyrotechnic spectacle began, and for a quarter of an hour the dark masses of expectant people, the railway embankment and shadowed park, were lit up suddenly and then plunged into gloom by the glittering coruscations of fiery projectiles, whose glory was evanescent as the darkness that followed their extinction.
At last the ebb and flow of light and shade ceased, and as the bands began to play 'God Save the Queen,' the satiated thousands flocked homewards.
Then our four friends turned out of the north gate of the park and made their way across the fields towards the home of Miss Heywood, where Miss Clifford had arranged to stay for a week or so. Miss Clifford's home was on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, and Miss Heywood remarked as they walked leisurely through the fields, with the cool delicious air of the sleeping summer lands about them, 'You have been somewhat peculiar in your manner to-day?'
'Peculiar,' he retorted, with a little start. 'In what respect, Miss Heywood?'
'Your strangeness,' she answered quietly, in a tone of apology, 'was much easier to notice than it is to describe. Sometimes you were very thoughtful—depressed-looking almost; at other times you were gayer than any of us—recklessly, unnaturally gay, I thought. You were thinking of something unpleasant I could see?'
'I was!' he said, almost sternly.
'But your trouble has vanished now, Mr. Massilon?'
Her voice was attuned to the deepest note of sympathy, her small hand tightened, perhaps unconsciously, on his arm, and her sweet, dark face turned to him with an appealing look upon it as she voiced that question.
'Not quite, but it is vanishing!' he said, a little bitterly. 'I was thinking of one of your sex, Miss Heywood, whose words were as flimsy as those firework stars, and wondering where one must look to find the true woman one reads about in the pages of fiction.'
'Are true women so rare?'
'Perhaps not, but the man who begins life by making a mistake in a woman is likely to be prejudiced against the whole sex for the remainder of his days.'
'One false woman cannot spoil the world,' she said, very lowly and gravely.
'That is true, and some day an honest woman may wipe out the bitter impression the other one has made.'
She made no reply, and silence fell upon them for a space. Each was thinking and looking ahead where the figures of Phil Lawrence and Miss Clifford were vaguely outlined in the semi-darkness of the fields.
Suddenly Paul spoke, and she noted a new note in his tones.
'Do you know what I am wondering about now, Miss Heywood?' he demanded, almost gruffly, with his eyes upon her fine profile.
'I cannot imagine!' she protested, but her voice was uncertain, and her fingers were gripping his arm again.
'I was wondering,' he said in a strange voice, in which hope, fear, cynicism were curiously blent, 'if you would think me merely an impertinent ass or a mad fool wholly if I asked you to be my wife.'
She had dropped his arm, had stopped suddenly, and was standing before him with a white, wondering face.
'I mean it,' he said grimly. 'Am I ass or fool?'
'Dear Paul, I love you!' she sobbed, and when he took her in his arms and kissed her he saw that she was crying.
IT was a lovely evening in autumn, an hour or so before sunset, and Paul Massilon and the sweet-natured woman he had married were walking arm in arm in the gardens and grounds belonging to Milton Lodge, apparently as happy and contented as newly-married people are supposed to be.
Behind the house the grounds shelved down to the banks of the Douglas, and here and there the rich green sward was dotted by towering, wide-girthed chestnuts, elms, and sycamores, whose leaf-laden, far-spreading branches afforded grateful shade from the sun rays.
On the shallow margin of the water Paul and Maggie paused and seated themselves on a rustic seat built around the hoary trunk of a great tree. It was pleasant to sit there on a quiet evening, to watch the white clouds drift lazily across the blue depths of space, to mark the windings of the stream further up the valley, and let the eyes linger on the undulating expanse of green country dotted here and there with picturesque cottages and rambling white-washed farmhouses.
At the point where Mr. and Mrs. Massilon were sitting the river assumed the dimensions of a small lake. Glancing down-stream they could see the ruins of the old forge, and between them and the decayed and deserted industrial hive they could see the brown waters of the river ere they tumbled over the weir and roared musically as they fell into the stream beneath.
Many years before a strong, high dam of solid masonry had been thrown across the deep bed of the river, and the water thus impounded had formed the lake abutting upon the grounds of Milton House, lending a certain picturesqueness to the spot, while it had served some useful purpose at the old forge in bygone days.
Just half a dozen weeks after proposing in such a strange way to Margaret Heywood, Paul Massilon and she were quietly married, and were away in Wales on their honeymoon ere half of the Ashlynton folks heard of the affair. Apart from the high contracting parties themselves only a very few friends were present at the wedding ceremony—Phil Lawrence, of course, his sweetheart Miss Clifford also, and one or two others Maggie admitted into her inner circle of intimates.
It had been Paul's wish that the engagement should be brief and the marriage as quiet as possible, and loving her affianced as she did with all the strength and fervour of her pure soul and deep nature, Margaret had readily agreed to his desire.
On one point only had Paul Massilon refused to listen to Miss Heywood. A week or so before their union was solemnised she urged him tenderly, strongly, to resign his appointment at the collieries, supporting her plea by showing that her income was ample for all their needs, and pointing out that then he would be able to devote himself solely to his literary schemes.
Massilon had thanked her heartily, had emphasised his words with caresses, but he had remained firm to a decision made long before that he would never think of quitting the mines until his pen would support him in comfort. Besides, he had added, he did not wish anyone to think that he was marrying her to live upon her.
That last argument had silenced Margaret; and when the brief honeymoon was over and he went back to the pits, she made no remonstrance, greatly as she disliked and even feared the perils incidental to his vocation.
Marriage had not brought to Paul Massilon that deep, blissful happiness he had once expected it would bring him when he contemplated a marriage with Mary Stanley; nor had he looked for it when he changed his plans and took another woman to wife.
But when he resolved to submit his judgment to the dictates of cold reason, rather than the promptings of hot passion, he had balanced and weighed all the pros and cons of the matter. Better, he thought, peace and honour and permanent content with Margaret Heywood, than the ecstatic intoxication of possessing Mary Stanley when all those suspicions were in his mind concerning her past.
Of one he felt that he would never have cause to feel ashamed; of the other he had abundant reasons for feeling ashamed already. And so, as the Lancashire folk say, as he had made his bed he must lie upon it; nor did he yet find his couch uncomfortable.
As a wife Maggie proved herself all that her husband could desire. She was a lovable, even-tempered mortal; had an abundance of discriminating common sense, which was not at all common in her sex, had many little accomplishments, was a perfect housewife, and even in mere grace of person was not much inferior to the superb creature to whom her husband had given up his heart.
That Margaret Massilon was devotedly attached to her spouse was evident to all and sundry who came near them. At times her consistent and persistent adoration of himself caused not a few qualms to Paul, when he remembered how little he had to give his wife in return for her measureless affection.
At times Massilon was annoyed at and angry with himself for not being able to love his sweet and charming wife as she deserved to be loved. His admiration and respect for her were beyond all expression in words; but he was conscious that all her graces and her virtues appealed to his reason only; as yet his heart was untouched.
Sometimes he was afraid that her clear eyes and pure soul would force her to see through his shallow pretences at affection. Conscious himself of his lack of real warmth and deep feeling, he feared that she was aware of it also, and occasionally he prayed that the affection he had wasted on a worthless woman might by some means be transferred to her whose due it was.
But however Paul Massilon might feel, the coming and going of the days witnessed no change in her who bore his name. Loving, patient, helpful ever, Margaret lived her life and was content, her soft, melodious voice charged with affection when she addressed him about the most trivial thing, her dark, luminous eyes sparkling when his hand stroked her hair, the red tide of life dyeing her face crimson when his lips touched her lips or cheeks.
His wife's great, ungrudging love stung him sometimes as keenly as the falsity of the woman of unclean lips had done. 'I am unworthy of all this love you are showering upon me,' he would cry mentally to himself in mute despair. 'The idol you worship has feet of clay! I have no heart to give you in return for the one I have taken!'
On other occasions Paul thought of telling his wife the whole naked truth. Passionately as he abhorred every form of hypocrisy in others, he contemned it even more in himself. If he told her the truth she might forgive him, and when there was no longer any secret between them, he might some day learn to love where now he could only admire and respect.
If any suspicion as to her husband's tribulation of spirit ever crossed the mind of Margaret Massilon she was careful never to let him see it. She had won the man out of all the others in the world upon whom she had centred all her affections, ambitions, and aspirations. All that the world, life itself, could give to her now were heirs to his name and fame to himself. Sitting there at the foot of the giant elm, with their backs resting against the fissured bole, man and wife sat and chatted—read a little and conversed again as if they were all the world to each other, and careless of everything else save the comfort of one another.
Paul was sitting squarely on the broad, uncushioned seat, with his legs outstretched on the green sward, and his broad back rubbing against the rough trunk. He had a book in his hand, a pipe in his mouth, from which blue-white smoke wreaths were slowly curling; and now and again his thoughtful gaze wandered over the shimmering surface of the lakelet to the weir, to the foot bridge below and the steep, rude steps up which Mary Stanley had come that night when he lay in hiding.
Maggie Massilon was reading also, and her novel seemed to claim all her attention. She half-reclined in a comfortable posture on the seat, her graceful feet hanging over the grass, while her uncovered head was cosily pillowed against her husband's coat.
Now and again his fingers would leave his pipe stem and play with her cheek, her ear, her hair, and then she would lift her love-filled eyes to him in her soft, caressing way, while he bit his nether lip and called himself brute for not loving her.
Presently the deep bay of a hound, and the shorter and sharper cries of other and smaller specimens of the canine tribe broke the quietness, and Paul and Maggie looked up together.
'What is it?' he asked, coming back slowly out of his thoughts.
'Mr. Wedmore and his dogs, I suppose, Paul,' she answered. 'Yes; there is Sultan and the rest of them; and I daresay their master won't be far behind his pets.'
He glanced incuriously upstream where she was pointing, and saw a great brindled mastiff and half a dozen other dogs—a fine collie, a big Newfoundland, a long greyhound, and a bulldog, with a couple of half-grown pups playing, now in the river, now on the grass.
A moment later the tall, spare figure of Mr. Byron Wedmore hove in sight at the corner of the hedgerow which divided the grounds attached to Milton Lodge from the adjoining fields. The eccentric gentleman, who lived further up the valley, was dressed in a lounge jacket and riding breeches, and he swung a stout whip as he came leisurely along calling to his brutes.
'Do you know, Maggie,' Paul whispered, with his lips at her ear, 'that your old admirer has never forgiven me for carrying you off so suddenly and unexpectedly under his very nose?'
'I think he has forgiven you by this, Paul,' she replied, smiling, 'Poor fellow, one cannot be hard with him when one remembers——' She paused.
'His tendency to insanity?' he queried.
'Not exactly that, dear, but the sad fate of his relatives. He is very harmless, you know, after all is said.'
'But those dogs of his aren't!' Massilon retorted. 'I never meet him when he has that big brute of a mastiff with him without feeling relieved when they are gone.'
'Nonsense, Paul! You are trying to frighten me!' she cried.
'Not at all, Maggie,' said Massilon, half-seriously. 'He hates me like poison, and looks upon me as an interloper and upstart. He never shows it when you are near; but at other times he scarcely takes the trouble to hide or disguise his dislike.'
'Mr. Wedmore is coming, Paul. See, he is signalling to us.'
'Yes, I see; confound the fellow! What is it, Simpson?'
The last sentence was addressed to one of the servants who had approached on the grass unheard.
'A man from the colliery to see you, sir.'
'Who can it be?' Paul grumbled. 'Did he say what he wanted?'
'No, sir. But he's in his black face, sir, and he said I was to tell you to be quick.'
'You had better go, dear,' Maggie suggested. 'I will wait and speak to Mr. Wedmore before I follow you indoors.'
'Yes, I had better go,' Massilon answered as he rose and walked to the house.
He found the miner who wished to see him standing at the side door of the house, and on nearing him Paul recognised his visitor as a smart young fellow of one or two and twenty, who acted as fireman in the five feet mine, and in whom he took a lively interest.
'Good evening, Farrimond,' he said genially. 'I suppose you want to see me? Nothing wrong at the colliery, I hope?'
'There is, sir,' the miner said, quickly. 'There has been a great fall of roof at the far end of the pony brow in the five feet, where we are getting out those "pillars," and two colliers and a drawer are made in.'
'Can't you get to them?' Paul asked, with a serious face.
'I'm afraid, not, sir; but I left the night shift datallers trying to make a way through the fall before I came to tell you.'
'Where's the under-looker of that seam—Jack Bradburn?'
'I called at his house as I ran here, but he was out, and as I didn't know where to find him I thought I had better come to you. You know Mr. Baldwin is away, sir?'
'Yes, I know,' Paul cried hastily, with his fine face bent in deep thought. 'Wait a minute,' he added in his quick way, 'while I change these things and we'll go back together.'
Ere the words were out of his mouth he was running towards the house, and in a couple of moments was inside and tearing off his coat, vest, and cap, to replace them hurriedly with the rougher and more suitable garments he wore usually at the pits.
As he ran outside again he came face to face with his wife and Mr. Byron Wedmore, at whose heels were his string of dogs.
'What is the matter, Paul? Where are you going, dear?' Mrs. Massilon exclaimed, not a little astonished and alarmed by her husband's rapid and unexpected change of dress.
'There is a slight accident at the colliery, Margaret,' he explained in a voice which he made to appear unconcerned. 'I shall be back soon, I hope. If not don't wait up for me.'
'Is it absolutely necessary you should go, Paul?' she asked, with a countenance out of which all the colour was dying. 'Where are the others—Mr. Baldwin, and the rest?'
'They are away, and I must go, dear,' he said firmly, almost brusquely. 'Some men are in danger, and there is no one there to take charge. I must go!'
'Yes,' she answered, with tears in her voice, 'I suppose you must. But for heaven's sake be careful!'
'Oh, there is no danger,' he returned cheerfully. 'With luck I shall be back again in an hour or two. Cheer up, dear! Good evening, Wedmore. Now Farrimond!'
In another moment the two miners were rushing away, and Maggie Massilon was standing there beside her half-crazed admirer and his dogs, with a white, pained face, and her hand pressed to her side.
'Rather silly, don't you think, Mrs. Massilon,' Byron Wedmore remarked, half-sarcastically, as Paul and the miner disappeared, 'for your husband to run away like that?'
He was stroking the few straggling hairs that sprouted over his hard mouth and missing chin, and there was a curious look in his small cunning eyes. Maggie turned upon him quickly—almost angrily—and she asked, coldly:
'Silly! What do you mean, Mr. Wedmore?'
'Well, to run his head into danger when it was quite unnecessary,' he said, with his weak smile.
'It was absolutely necessary!' she retorted, hot now in her husband's defence. 'Didn't you hear the man say that men were in danger—that someone else was out, and that the chief manager was away?'
'Of course,' was the jibing answer. 'But why couldn't your husband say he was away too? I daresay they could have managed without him.'
'Mr. Wedmore!' Her look flashed an insult upon the speaker. Then she said coldly, 'Paul could not do that. He knows his duty and has gone to do it. Heaven keep him from harm. Good evening, Mr. Wedmore.'
Then she swept indoors, leaving the daft one and his dogs standing there.
THE Market Square at Ashlynton, Milton Lodge, and the collieries belonging to Mr. Jonathan Myrelands, M.P., formed a triangle, being almost the same distance apart, as the crow flies, so that by crossing the intervening fields Paul and his companion were able to gain the brow of the five feet mine after a dozen minutes' hard walking.
As they had gone along the under-manager had questioned the young fireman hurriedly, yet closely, respecting the accident, and by the time the pit was reached was in possession of all the details bearing upon the fall and the miners who were shut in among the old workings behind it.
As the discerning reader will have already gathered from what has been recorded, Massilon was more or less acquainted with each of the half-dozen different pits owned and worked by the gentleman who represented the old town in the House of Commons.
The five feet seam was one of the oldest of the various mines wrought under the supervision of Mr. Baldwin and Paul Massilon. The shaft had been sunk before Paul was born, and had, in consequence of its age, always been worked on the antiquated system of 'pillar and stall' work.
Long before Massilon became a colliery manager the seam had been driven to its boundaries, narrow galleries having been excavated in all directions around the shaft, leaving solid blocks of coal on each side of the multitude of narrow tunnels, and when the boundaries had been gained the pillars were wrought, leaving the super-incumbent earth to settle down as it would.
Prior to becoming under-manager, Paul had worked for a month or two in the seam, which then was much more than half finished; and when he was placed in a position of authority it was too late to think of effecting any change in the system then in operation.
In the five feet mine, as in most of the other seams, the ventilation was deplorably deficient and ineffective. Paul had done all he could to improve this matter, but he was able to do but little, seeing that neither his chief nor his employer desired to spend money on a seam that was nearly exhausted.
In three or four years the seam of coal would all be exhausted, and it was useless to sink good coin on a practically dead beast. What had been good enough for the past thirty years would last a bit longer, surely. Besides, there was nothing to be afraid of in the five feet mine. The seam made absolutely no firedamp, and although blackdamp, unfortunately, was plentiful, it was not dangerous, and the miners were accustomed to it.
Something after that fashion Mark Baldwin and Mr. Jonathan Myrelands had argued when Massilon had urged the claims of the old seam upon their attention; and as he was compelled to admit that there was both considerable truth and force in what they stated, Massilon had perforce to remain satisfied.
Not, however, that he was content to let things rest as he found them. Too well he knew how the heavy, crawling blackdamp affected not only the health of the miners, but also—what they seemed to think more about—their wages.
Occasionally, on his peregrinations about the five feet seam, he had come upon colliers and drawers endeavouring, by tilting their lamps on one side near the roof, to keep their faintly flickering lights from being extinguished; and while they were thus engaged their picks and spades were silent—'the tub was stopped,' to quote an expressive phrase of the coal-hewing fraternity—and hence they were earning no money, as they were paid only for the coal sent to the surface.
The five feet seam was at its worst during the occurrence of thunderous or stormy weather. Whenever the barometer fell to any considerable extent the heavy noisome-smelling vapour was exuded from the old goaves, great falls, and abandoned workings, and crept stealthily along the floor foot by foot, rising towards the roof inch by inch as the barometric pressure decreased and the volume of escaping blackdamp was augmented.
Usually there was little personal peril to be apprehended from these incursions of the noxious mixtures of gases, which would support neither light nor life, for their approach was slow and readily perceptible, and the miners could fly before them, and seek safety in the better ventilated portions of the mine.
But now the conditions were altered. A fall of roof had shut the door in the faces of the miners, and there was no gauging the exact peril in which the subsidence of the roof had placed him. The fall would certainly prevent the inrush of the fresh air of the ordinary ventilating current, and in case the old sink was giving off any considerable quantity of blackdamp, the position of the imprisoned miners was indeed critical.
These considerations presented themselves to Paul as he approached the mouth of the five feet shaft, and his face was serious enough as he turned to his companion.
'How many datallers did you say, Farrimond,' he asked, 'were working at the fall?'
'Three, sir,' was the instant reply. 'I couldn't put any more on the job as those were the only datallers down the mine.'
'But there are colliers, I suppose?'
'Only four or five at the end of the south level. I didn't care to ask them to leave the work and assist without any orders.'
'It would have been perfectly right had you done so. Tell Cartwright to pull up the cage.'
The young fireman did as he was commanded; the cage was drawn level with the landing-plates, the pair got in, and soon were plunged into the darkness of the shaft.
When they alighted they ran to the cabin wherein Farrimond's lamp was burning upon the table. Then Paul lit his own lamp, which he had obtained from the colliery lampshop in the yard in passing, and as they left the cabin and stood in the vaulted archway of the pit eye Massilon said quickly:
'You, Farrimond, had better run to those colliers on the south level there, and bring them back as sharp as possible. We may need their help, you know, and if we don't there'll be no harm done. I hope to heaven we shall not require them. Be quick, and I'll be off myself to the pony-brow.'
The miner needed no urging. Ere Paul had completed his commands, the fireman was speeding away on his errand, and then the under-manager set off at a rapid pace in the opposite direction.
The wide level along which he hurried was damp and clammy. Overhead on the roof beads of moisture were pendent, as if the rocky stratum were exuding drops of perspiration, the walls of coal on either hand were perspiring also, and the swelling globules of water, when they burst or run together, formed tiny rivulets that trickled down the shining blocks of mineral.
Under foot the earth was of the consistency of hard clay, firm and ringing to the foot in a few places only, soft and miry as puddle in others where the water had collected and melted the friable shale of which the floor of the seam was composed.
In a couple of minutes Massilon had swerved sharply to the right, and was following the downward trend of the pony-brow. Here the water was drooping audibly from the roof, the sides were as wet as if they had been deluged with a steam jet, and the ground under foot was a sloppy, spongy mass of viscid clay.
All these signs were familiar to Paul, as they are familiar to every old miner accustomed to working in seams within a few score yards of the surface, and he sped on heeding them not. Ten minutes more and he had reached the scene of the fall, was glancing about him, and talking to the men engaged upon the subsidence of roof.
'Have you heard anything of the men and lad?' was his first question as he set himself upon his haunches, miner-fashion, and ran his open palm across his sweating brow.
'Nothin' yet, sir,' the foreman of the datallers answered, as he stepped back from the tangled mass of stones and stood beside his superior. 'We've hearkened mony a tahme, an' sheawted, too; but we've heard nothin'.'
Paul's countenance fell, and jumping to his feet he looked about him. Where the fall had occurred the gallery was three or four yards in width, and another road running to the left at right angles showed that years ago the wide space had formed a shunt.
At the junction of both galleries the subsidence had taken place, blocking up each of the roads completely, and rendering all access to the workings below an impossibility until a way was pierced through the mighty heap of shattered rock.
'It is strange you have heard nothing of any of the three,' Paul muttered, moodily. 'It is not at all likely that any of them are under the fall,' he added, 'and it is practically impossible that they can all three have been trapped by it. They must be somewhere!'
'P'rhaps the blackdamp has——'
The man who commenced that ominous sentence did not complete it, but each man present finished it for himself.
'Yes, the blackdamp may have——' but Massilon stumbled over the dread words, adding firmly, 'No, no; it cannot be yet. I will not believe that they are lost. Fall to again, lads, and try to make a way to the top of the fall. 'Twould be useless to attempt to clear a way through, it will take days to do that, and we must get to those men at all costs!'
The datallers fell to work again with willingness, and he directed their efforts, lending a hand, too, when some huge fragment of rock resisted the joint efforts of the three men to displace it.
The clang of steel pick and heavy hammer falling sharply on the stones rang out clearly for some minutes; masses of debris were torn down and cast aside, and soon between the edge of the solid roof and the fractured mass a hole was pierced, up which Massilon glanced eagerly.
He could see little—hear nothing; so fresh splinters of loose rock were torn away, momentarily the orifice grew wider, and then Massilon glided through the opening and stood upon the crown of the mountainous fall. And just then one of the datallers cried:
'There's somebody comin' deawn th' brow.'
'It's the fireman and some more help,' Paul answered. 'Tell him to wait till I come back or shout.'
'Ay, ay, sir!'
Then he disappeared from view, treading gingerly over the slippery stones, and the next instant there was heard a sharp rending, a thunderous roar, as a new avalanche of roof crashed down, completely damming up the hole through which Paul had crept.
WHILE the thunderous crash of the falling roof was still hanging in the air and the horror-stricken miners were still gazing at each other in shivering awe, Will Farrimond, the young fireman whom Massilon had despatched for help, came tearing down the brow with the other pitmen at his heels.
'What's up?' he cried, with wondering face. 'Where is Paul Massilon? Hasn't he come here yet, Warton?'
'He's come an' gone!' the foreman of the three datallers said huskily.
White-faced and quivering still, Warton pointed with unsteady hand over the fall of roof.
'There? My God! And the fall!'
'He had jus' got on th' top when th' second fa' happent, Will!' was the awed reply. 'He'd jus' towd us to tell thee to wait till he geet back—an' then it crashed deawn an' we jumped back!'
'My God!' the fireman murmured again, and his face was ashy now. Then he ran to the tumultuous heap of rocks, held his lamp aloft and peered here and there among the great crevices. Suddenly his strong young voice rang out in passionate despair, 'Paul! Paul! Massilon! Massilon!'
The roar to his clamant tongue subsided, and was followed by a deathly hush, when each man there could hear the thumping of his own heart. And then out of the solemn stillness a thin far away voice was heard—a voice that they all knew and liked, and which thrilled them with inexpressible gladness.
'Hello!' the voice cried. 'Is that you, Farrimond? The fall just missed me, and I'm all right, thank heaven! Clear the hole over the top as fast as you can. Then follow me, if I am not back. I am going to look for the men and the lad!'
A deep sigh—almost sob—of relief welled from the throats of the miners; then the fireman's voice rang out cheerily, and he and the others fell to on the new pile of debris.
Paul Massilon had narrowly escaped being crushed into a bloody and shapeless mass of human pulp when that second subsidence of roof took place. He was making his way slowly and cautiously across the slippery stones when a thin shower of tiny fragments falling on his head and shoulders warned him of his danger, and in an instant he sprang forward alertly, just in time to avoid the avalanche of massy slabs.
Not until he had travelled the entire length of the fall did Massilon abate his rush. His experience of such subsidences was too extensive to permit him to think he was out of harm's way until he was on the other side and beneath the unbroken roof, and when he paused the bottom end of the fall was behind him, and the sheer walls of coal rose on either hand.
Here he rested panting, and wiped the cold beads of sweat from his forehead, and there he was sitting still when the agonised cries of Will Farrimond broke upon his ears. Having answered them, and explained his own course of action, he prepared to act.
Rising, he went down the gently sloping declivity and presently a vague indefinite figure standing in the centre of the gallery some yards ahead caused his heart to leap. Then he ran forward, and in a moment was laughing loudly at his own surprised trepidation.
The strange object that had startled him was a pony; and it was standing there quietly as if nothing had occurred, its jowl thrust in its nose-bag, and munching stolidly away at its split beans and hay.
Paul remembered that the animal was there for the purpose of dragging up the brow the tubs the missing miners filled with coal, and as he darted past it he again wondered where the men and the lad could be.
Twenty yards further and he had reached the terminus of the pony-brow. There were the ends of the pillars of coal; beyond was the vast sink or 'goaf' out of which all the coal had been extracted ere the super-incumbent earth came down.
And still he could see nothing of those whom he sought. Traces of their late presence there were about him in abundance. On a heap of shattered coal which had crumbled down a dozen paces from the 'face' he saw three cans, as many packages of meat, and several coats. But where, he asked, were those who owned them?
At the 'face' itself he saw a waggon half filled with mineral, saw a collier's spade with the blade thrust into a heap of coal, and against the wall of unwrought coal a couple of picks were lying where they had been hastily flung aside.
What did all these tokens portend? Massilon thought he knew. When the fall happened the men had been at work, and had rushed away in alarm. Finding the brow blocked up they had sought to effect their escape either by going alongside the pillar of coal they were working at or by the opening further up the brow.
First of all Paul went along the coal near which the picks and spades lay. He was soon, however, brought up by a fall which had broken down to the very edge of the pillar and lay in mountainous piles before him far as his glance could carry.
An inspection of the most cursory kind showed him that the missing miners and their drawer could not have gone that way. They must have darted up the brow, past their meat, cans, and clothes, seeking safety by running along the narrow openings cut here and there in the sides of the brow for purposes of ventilation.
Striking back he ascended the brow for a short distance, and gaining the mouth of the 'cut-across,' as the minor galleries between the principal underground roads are styled, he hurried onward feeling assured that if those whom he was seeking had only contrived to reach the air-ways they were out of immediate danger, for as yet the blackdamp he had feared so much had shown no evidence of its presence.
Feeling considerably easier in his mind now, Massilon moderated his pace somewhat, for the excitement and stress he had already gone through were not calculated to reinvigorate one who had done a day's labour, and soon he was in the lower brow, the mouth of which was made up by the subsidence of roof over which he was passing at the moment of his miraculous escape.
Here he paused an instant to listen and gaze about him. The clangour of the iron tools used by Farrimond and his companions at work upon the fall fell faintly upon his ears, but no other sound reached him.
Paul was now standing in the centre of four roads. Behind him was the gallery whence he had come; before him the other 'cut-across' leading to the air-ways; to the left was the fireman and the fall; to the right a pair of pillars which were being wrought in the daytime only. The way to safety was that in front—that way the missing miners must have taken.
Again he forged forward, and in a minute was in the air-ways, travelling along in a narrow, neglected old road that dipped slightly. He was now about a hundred and twenty yards from the huge subsidence upon which he had left the pitmen working, and the gallery he was traversing spoke eloquently of its antiquity and fast approaching dissolution.
Underfoot the earth was clay-like, but fairly hard, for in scores of places the walls of coal had crumbled down in soft showers of slack, which had scattered themselves across the entire width of the gallery and been trampled into the yielding ground by the passage of innumerable pairs of heavy miners' clogs. Here and there also a fall of roof had half blocked up the road, the debris having been scattered this way and that, instead of being removed completely.
Paul had just crawled over one of these petty subsidences when an exclamation of surprise fell from his lips and he paused suddenly, set his light upon the floor, and glanced intently at the object he had picked up.
It was an extinguished Davy lamp with a small padlock attached to the bottom portion, similar to the kind used in the mine. It was in good condition, all the brass work was smooth and untarnished, and the fine, delicate iron network of the lower gauze had the white shimmer of polished steel.
It could not possibly have been there for more than a few hours, for lying upon the damp floor the burnished metal-work would rapidly have tarnished. It had been dropped there recently, and it must have been lost by one of the fleeing miners.
Placing the extinct lamp aside, Massilon turned to lift his own Davy, and what he then noticed brought an angry murmur to his lips. The colour of the light had changed—was changing still under his eyes. The small tongue of flame which had burned white in the pure air was a reddish brown tint now, and each instant it appeared to grow browner and dimmer.
With that single ejaculation he turned and went forward again, guarding his lamp carefully, and holding it, with the shield down, against his breast. Now and again he paused for a moment and lowered his lamp towards the floor; and on each occasion he found the thick, heavy, noisome vapour present, hugging the damp earth in a stratum that thickened with each stride he took.
The dark face of the under-manager grew gloomy as he noted that dire indication. He felt certain the missing ones were ahead of him somewhere, and as the deadly gas increased in potency for evil as he progressed, he could not suppress the grisly forebodings that rose within him.
On and on he went, cautiously and yet not slowly, all his thoughts centred upon the miners he sought and the danger that threatened them, resolved to do all he could to avert the worst, if it was not too late already, and giving small consideration to his own imminent peril. Much farther he knew he could not proceed with a light. Even now the pungent fumes of the mixed gases were stinging his nostrils sharply, and making his breathing thick; while the light he carried almost at his chin threw but a faint glimmer around.
Suddenly Paul's heart leapt, and a hoarse cry escaped him. There at his feet lay a prone form—whether alive or dead he could not tell—for the man lay mute with his head to Massilon, as if he had fallen while trying to escape from the flood of blackdamp into which he had run.
In an instant the under-manager had placed his lamp on a high ledge near the roof, had bent and lifted the man, who was lying face downwards, and forced him into a sitting position with his back to the wall of coal.
The man was warm still, was alive Paul thought, though he could not hear him breathe. There was no time to be wasted in thinking as to what should be done. There was only one thing to do, and Massilon did it forthwith.
Kneeling, he raised the unconscious, slightly-built figure in his strong arms, rested it upon his left shoulder, rose to his feet, grasped his lamp, and then stooping somewhat, he ran as quickly as he could in the direction of the pure atmosphere.
In a couple of minutes after discovering the senseless pitman Paul had returned to the first brow, and there he relieved himself of his inert burden, placing him as before in the posture of one sitting on his outstretched legs with his back placed against the coal.
The rescued man was beginning to breathe audibly again by this time, and as he listened to the heavy, stertorous gasps, Massilon bethought him of the can of cold tea he had noticed in the pony-brow. Instantly he rushed away, and presently was kneeling at the man's side and moistening his parched lips with the cool fluid.
In a little while, after much gasping and sighing, the collier opened his eyes wearily, and stared about him with a drowsy, half-stupefied gaze. Then Paul cried excitedly:
'You are better now, my lad, aren't you?'
'What's been up, mester?' the miner demanded thickly, speaking as a confirmed tippler speaks after a drunken sleep.
'You were lying in the air-way senseless!' Paul replied. 'The blackdamp had struck you, I suppose, and I dragged you here!'
'Ay, ay, sir! That was it. Ah rec'lect neaw!' the man returned a little more clearly. 'Ah were crawlin' eawt, but it was too strung for me; so ah hed to gi'e in.'
'Where are the other two?' Massilon demanded. 'Your mate and your drawer, I mean. They must have been with you. Where are they now? Did you leave them?'
'They're int' th' air-road, if you've not seen 'em!' the pitman responded. 'They were crawlin' behint me when ah were struck!'
'Then listen carefully to me!' Paul exclaimed as he stood erect. 'I am going back to save them if I can! When you are better follow me.'
'Ah've no lamp, Mester Paul!'
'No; but when you feel right again crawl after me on your hands and knees. You can find your way in the dark some way. And you may be of great use. Don't forgot, and if Farrimond turns up tell him where I am.'
With that rejoinder falling faintly on his ears Massilon entered the gallery he had so recently travelled, and even with a swifter pace he covered the declining ground. Soon he had gained the point beside which he had found the unconscious collier, and beyond that spot he discovered that he could not penetrate unless he chose between leaving his lamp or having it extinguished.
But upon going further he was firmly resolved, and yet he had no desire to be plunged in the atrous darkness of that gas-flooded underground labyrinth. So again he placed his lamp on the high ledge, and then with a grim face he stole forth in the dense outstretching silence and blackness, feeling his way after the manner of a blind man who fares along strange ways.
On and on he paced, breathing only when he was compelled, his outstretched hands touching the rough sides of the gallery at every step, with that pungent, stinging sensation burning in his nostrils more keenly than before and a sense of drowsiness stealing over him.
Once only did he glance back, to see his lamp twinkling like a faint star set in an atrous sky. Then he sped on afresh, yard after yard of the black, hellish passage fell behind him, and then he stumbled over some obstacle and came upon his hands and knees.
He did not cry out, though his heart seemed to fly to his lips, and his pulse throbbed wildly, when his palm came in contact with a warm human face; nor did he seize the form of the prostrate one and speed back from out that inferno.
The soft beardless features upon which his fingers rested told him of the identity of the person he had stumbled over. It was the youth—but where was his master, the still missing man?
All this flashed through Massilon's brain in an instant, and almost as he thought he was groping on his hands and knees. How his heart thrilled as he came upon a prostrate figure lying face downward a yard or two away from the youngster; and how firmly his teeth set themselves together as he resolved to save both or perish.
Gripping the man by the stout leathern belt which girded his waist he dragged him roughly and quickly to the spot where the other lay, and then placing his disengaged hand in the belt of the youth, he strove to drag them both away.
For a yard or two he stumbled along, his body swaying, his head beginning to swim, and his overtaxed strength threatening to give way with each tug. Then, realising the impossibility of accomplishing the task he had undertaken, he relinquished his grip upon the man's belt, and bounded forward at a run, the lad's clogs clattering in his wake.
Past his faintly glowing lamp he sped, gulping down the purer air as he ran, and never abating his pace until a loud cry brought him up suddenly.
'Hello! Stop. What's up, mester?'
The voice of the miner he had previously saved caused Massilon to come to a halt, gasping and mortally sick, yet with all his nerves a-tingle with deep gladness.
'I've got the lad!' Paul cried, hoarsely, 'and I know where the man is lying. I'm going back to him now. Here, get hold of your drawer, and carry him to the brow! Then come back to meet me.'
Feeling greatly refreshed by the better atmosphere he was drinking in so greedily, Paul turned again to the far-away star he could just discern in the gallery down below; and the moment the minor seized the unconscious youth, with a muttered 'Ay! ay!' he retraced his steps.
Again he went by the twinkling Davy, which burned now on the high ledge in the midst of a brown fog-like haze, and once more plunged into the pestiferous silence and blackness beyond. Soon he had found the prostrate figure he had been compelled to abandon; as before he gripped the broad belt and prepared for his third and last journey.
Half a dozen paces he took, and then came to a quick stop. The weight he had dragged so easily before had grown mountainous now. Strain as he might it was immovable. His arm seemed rigid as an iron bar; his brain was whirling like a spinning top; strange noises rang in his ears; his open mouth refused to draw in breath; he gasped, choked, and rolled over like a log, his fingers still gripping his companion's belt.
NIGHT, calm and beautiful, starlit and moon-illumined, lay over the town of Ashlynton and the adjacent countryside. It wanted but a few minutes of midnight, and the stillness of the night time was unbroken save by the measured footfall of a policeman who patrolled the Queen's highway, the canorous hum of the multitudinous leaves when the soft winds beat plangently upon them, or the latrant voice of a dog.
Most of the villas that neighboured Milton Lodge were wrapped in darkness and stillness—or such darkness and quietude as the pleasant night made—and Milton Lodge itself was plunged in the general gloom, save for one room wherein bright lights were burning.
This apartment was the cosy little sitting-room which Mrs. Massilon had set apart for her husband. On the tastefully-prepared walls were the paintings in oil and water-colours which he most admired among her small collection; in one corner was the bookcase well filled with his books, which he had brought there after their marriage; and scattered here and there on mantelpiece, sideboard, piano, and brackets were numberless little artistic trifles she had placed there with her own soft, white hands, to make it a delightful retreat for the man she loved so ardently and ungrudgingly and happily.
Paul Massilon's wife was sitting now in that room alone. When he departed with the man from the colliery she had retreated thither in some tribulation of spirit, and since then had not gone from it.
Alone with her misgivings she shut her teeth upon her fears, and made an attempt to appear cheerful. To her kindly-natured relative she had intimated in a quiet matter-of-fact voice that Paul had been called to the colliery owing to some small accident, and would probably be away for an hour or two; and she had compelled herself to play a little on the piano, sing a little also, and read a little too, to show that she had no anxiety respecting her dear husband.
But when all the inmates of the lodge had retired to rest, and she was left to her thoughts, her face no longer wore a mask of quiet contentment, but clearly mirrored the great doubts, fears, suspicions which were biting with fanged teeth at her heartstrings.
Nine o'clock came and passed, ten crept up and went by also, the eleventh hour dragged along wearisome and tedious as the blackest day of a bad winter, and the last of the twelve appeared a veritable cycle of torture, long drawn out and minutely dwelt upon.
It struck twelve, and still he came not!
Mechanically Margaret Massilon arose and paced the carpeted floor with restless, uneven steps. Her fine, dark face was haggard now with the agony of the suspense she had endured and was yet enduring; her soft lips were drawn inward and tightly compressed; her nostrils dilated and fell; while the strange lights that burned and died in her eyes' soft depths denoted a mind that was stretched upon the rack.
Would he never come, she wondered, as her gaze lingered on the tiny clock upon the mantel for the thousandth time? What was he doing? What had happened? Why was he so long? Why had they seen fit to fetch him? Why had he gone?
With questions such as these she perplexed her brain and fretted her soul. She ought to have known that only an accident of an unusual kind would have demanded Paul's presence at the colliery. What could it be? What could it be? God grant that he might come back her safe and well.
Had the loving wife had less knowledge of the perils of the mines it would have been better for her at that moment, but all her days had been spent in the midst of that mining district, and too well she knew of all the myriad dangers to which the underground toilers were subjected.
How often had she shuddered over the details of disasters in the local pits, but never before now had she realised the terror and torture, the stress of mind and anguish of heart the wives and daughters and mothers of miners must feel when some loved one's life was at stake through the firing or flooding of a mine, the falling of the earth, or any other of the uncounted multitude of mishaps.
As the poor woman thought of all these things her courage gave way suddenly, and she flung herself on her knees beside the couch, and poured out her trouble in tears and prayers. And while she wept and prayed there came a soft tap at the French-window, giving upon the lawn, which stanched the flow of prayers and tears, and made her heart bound with inexpressible gladness.
It was Paul! Thank heaven, he had come at last. Seeing the sitting-room lit up he had divined that she was awaiting his coming, and had tapped gently on the window, to attract her attention without arousing the others.
Thus thinking, she ran swiftly across the room, undid the window fastenings, ran up the blinds, and flung open the casement, to see standing there in the flood of light—not the husband she had expected to see and welcome—but the strange, sinister-looking face of Mr. Byron Wedmore, at whose feet the great mastiff was sitting.
That word fell from the startled woman's lips in a low, gasping way, which implied both surprise and disgust. As she spoke she shrank back with her fingers on the casement as if she were half-minded to close it in his face.
'Yes, it is I, Mrs. Massilon,' he retorted quietly and quickly, and his bead-like eyes shone as if their owner was pleased about something. 'I was passing, so I thought I would call and tell you the news.'
'The news! What news?' she cried eagerly. 'Where is Paul? Have you seen him?'
'Yes, I have seen him. When I went away from here some hours ago I thought I would take a walk as far as Myrelands' collieries; just to see what was going on, you know, as I had nothing particular to do.'
'Yes, yes. Be quick, please,' the suffering woman exclaimed in greater suspense than ever now. 'What of Paul? Tell me of him.'
'In a moment, Mrs. Massilon,' he returned, unmoved from his customary cynicism by her evident suffering, while the phantom of a smile flickered over his cunning chinless face. 'Well, as I was about to tell you before you interrupted me, Mrs. Massilon, I went to the pit and was told that a great fall of roof had taken place, and that three of the miners were missing.'
'It was to save them Paul went!' she broke in, a proud ring in her tremulous voice.
'So I heard,' he answered, 'and it seems he did manage to save two of the three—a youth and a collier—and then——'
He paused purposely, intoning the last word in such a way as to stab the suffering woman to the very soul. She seemed to divine his diabolical intent, for instead of cowering before him, or assailing his ears with clamant cries she drew herself up proudly, and asked quietly.
'And then, Mr. Wedmore?'
'Then Massilon, while trying to save the other man, was overpowered by the blackdamp. I was on the pit-top when they were brought up the shaft.'
'Brought up?' she demanded with a shudder.
'Yes, brought up and placed in the engine-house, where Dr. Cranford was waiting to attend upon them.'
'And Paul—Paul?' she pleaded, in a suppressed way which showed that her strength was nearing exhaustion.
'They both appeared dead,' he went on, in the same brutally cynical way; 'and I saw the doctor shake his head gravely. Then I hurried away to break the news, and to tell you——'
She heard no more. Suddenly swaying she fell in a limp heap, and as Wedmore ran forward a new voice at the open window rang out passionately——-
'You——fool! Clear out quick, or I'll kick you through the window!'
It was Dr. Cranford who spoke, and, leaning on his arm, and upon that of the young fireman, was Paul Massilon, who stared about him with a dazed stupefied face. Without a word Wedmore slunk away with his hound at his heels.
ONCE more the pleasant breath of summertide was wandering over the land, and the passage of a dozen months had wrought no great changes either in the characters or fortunes of the people with whom this narrative is mainly concerned.
Paul Massilon and his loving wife were yet domiciled at Milton Lodge, and with one exception matters still remained with them as they had stood in the early days of their wedded lives.
The passing of days, weeks, months had only served to intensify in every way the absolute confidence Margaret had in her husband's native powers—his unflinching honesty of purpose, his broadness of mind, and greatness of heart, his quick sympathy and tender nature, his acute observation and ability.
She had commenced by loving Paul Massilon for his fine presence, strong, handsome face, and uncommon ability as a writer; she ended by adoring the man for his sterling qualities hidden under his comely exterior.
When she won him the fair, tender-souled woman was aware that his heart was not in her keeping, but as she had won his hand and name she had vowed to win his heart also. Even now, when the first year of her wedded existence was fast spending itself, she felt that his love was still unwon. She knew that he gave her respect, admiration, tenderness—everything save his heart, but she did not cavil or despair of ultimate conquest.
With her weapons it would go hard indeed with her if she came out of the heart-fray other than conqueror. She had a strong will and enduring patience; was armed besides with her great affection and personal comeliness. Again, in a little space a babe of hers would call him father, and that link would surely draw their souls lovingly together.
Thinking thus she was happy and contented, with the gifts the gods had sent her. Better a thousand times to have Paul's respect, admiration, and tenderness than the love of any other man in the world. So Margaret argued, like the true wife she was.
THE one exception, to which some slight allusion has been made already, was the change that had been effected in the character of Massilon's professional career. He was no longer in the employment of the Hon. Member for Ashlynton, but was supposed to be devoting all his dreams and schemes to the literary career he had adopted.
This transition was not due so much to Paul as to his wife. The shock she had received that night when her husband was risking his life among the blackdamp had affected her terribly; and to think after such an experience that Paul was to continue working in the mines, and subject himself daily to similar perils, and herself to all the consequent tortures of anxiety, was too awful to be even thought of.
The young manager tried to argue away his wife's morbid terrors, while he lay prostrated for two or three days after his narrow escape. But she pointed out that but for the timely arrival of young Farrimond and the others his life would have been the forfeit of his daring; and on her knees at his side she implored him with kisses and tears and broken sobs to think of himself, of her, and their dear unborn child.
She was able to urge with truth that her own income was more than sufficient for all their requirements; besides, he had his loved literary art to which he might devote himself with every prospect of success; and so in the end Paul Massilon indited his resignation, and permitted his wife to post it.
Half-reluctantly, half-gladly, Paul had severed his connection with the coal mines. His own entrance into the literary arena was so recent, his position in it so uncertain, and lasting success so difficult to win, that he felt a natural reluctance against giving up a valuable appointment in order that he might run after what might prove a will-o'-the-wisp.
And yet his pulses thrilled at the prospect of becoming a man of letters, even if he were only a common soldier in the great army of the Republic of Literature. Besides, he had a comfortable sum standing already to his credit in the local bank; his wife's fortune was ample for all their needs; and in case failure awaited him, if he lacked 'staying power' he could turn to the mines again at any moment.
So it was settled, and Paul began to collect material and make notes for the magnum opus he had in contemplation. This work was to be a novel dealing exclusively with the realistic side of mining life, and its title the appropriate one of 'Slaves of the Lamp.'
Into this book he meant to put all that was best and strongest in him. His own hard life had made him thoroughly acquainted with all the perils and privations of the mining population—he was aware that they were literally thralls of the Davy lamp, which shone on their work day after day for long years, while they wrought on, changing slowly but surely from youths to men, from men to senile dotards, with the great earth above them, the eternal blackness around them, dangers everywhere, and lucky at last to be stowed away with benefit of clergy, with body unbroken by avalanche of rock, limbs not torn asunder by an explosion's lightning tongue, or unchoked by the afterdamp's pestilential miasma.
For many weeks Paul did little but prepare himself for his chef-d'oeuvre; reading, smoking, thinking, jotting down ideas, and doing the hundred other little things which go to make up one's life. Bit by bit the great idea shaped itself, link by link the chain of the grand tragedy of industry was beaten out on the anvil of his brain, and before the winter set in the complete skeleton of his novel lay before him, needing only clothing in words.
Through the short wintry days Paul had devoted himself closely to his work, patiently building up the artistic structure he had so carefully evolved. In one of the numerous upper rooms of the big house he had pitched his tent, and the loving, thoughtful attention of his wife had made his den as cosy and pretty a study as any artist in words could desire.
Paul's sanctum was just under the slates, and its windows commanded a wide view of the brown, sluggishly-flowing river, and the green undulating slopes on either side. In winter he saw the wide expanse of fields carpeted with snow, could note the scattered houses with their white nightcaps of frozen fleece, and when the heavy rains fell he could watch the flooded Douglas as it surged black and turbulent into the little lake and leapt noisily over the weir into the stream below.
Not infrequently Paul spent many hours of inactivity in the quietness of his den, which he might have passed more profitably in the company of his wife and her aunt, who were sitting in the house below. Much as Margaret idolised her husband she was too shrewd and considerate to obtrude too frequently upon his privacy. His den, as he phrased it, was his castle, and he was safe there from her loving heart's assaults.
Thus it came about occasionally that Massilon, when he lacked inspiration, or felt in no mood for writing, would dream with his feet on the fender while he stared into the red heart of the glowing coals, or muse by the window as his eyes roved over the valley below.
From his coign of vantage the lakelet, the tall weir, the ruins of the forge, and the narrow footbridge were all visible; the murmur of the falling waters and the sight of the steep riverside steps never failed to bring before him the picture of the woman he had not married.
Better it might have been for his ill-starred passion, and its worthless object also, had those dumb things not recalled her so often. And with that mad passion out of his heart and thoughts he might have learned to love Margaret as she deserved to be loved, and as he desired to love her, knowing her worth.
Since that day in the public park in the town Paul had never set eyes upon Mary Stanley. In the winter following he had heard that the new under-manager who had stepped into the place he had resigned had been dissatisfied with the Stanleys—father and son—and had dismissed or caused them to be dismissed.
Job and Ben had left Ashlynton, and sought work in another coalfield; had taken the family and Mary with them, so that the whole tribe appeared to have shaken the dust of the place from their feet.
When he heard all this news Paul felt sincerely pleased. It was far better for all concerned, he thought, that the worthless woman he could not tear from his heart was taken away to be no more a temptation to him. With Mary Stanley out of his world, in time his true, pure wife might hope to fill her place in the man's heart whose name she was proud to bear.
Some days after Paul was told of the exodus of the Stanleys he was not a little surprised, even startled, to receive a letter from the fair woman he loved and whom it had once been the most cherished dream of his life to possess. That communication was to the following effect:—
'By the time this letter gets into your hands I shall be a good distance away from Ashlynton, and God knows if ever I shall set foot in it again. But I felt that I could not go away without saying something I have wanted to tell you ever so long.
'What I wish to tell you is this. I am not the vile, impure thing you were made to believe me. Before heaven I swear it, and the truth will come out some day before you and I die.
'I know that you loved me dearly, and I can only guess as to what it was that made you desert me so suddenly and so heartlessly. I know also that you do not care for your wife as you cared for me, and I might have made mischief between you had I chosen to stay and come between you.
'But I see clearly that my duty is to go, and I am going; and now that my mind is made up on that point I will tell you the honest God's truth.
'I did love you, Paul—I do love you still. Love you with all my heart and soul, and as I never loved another man. Oh! if you had only listened to me that day—if you had only come to me after. But you were hot and angry, and I was cold and proud. But I was pure and true and you had been told that I was false and vile.
'Well, it is past now, and we must both suffer. I say both, knowing that what I say is true. You loved me and let me drift away from you. I loved you, and allowed you to marry another woman. My God, I wonder if you understand all that meant, and still means to me! For your own sake, and for your wife's sake, I hope you do not.
'But even now, after what I have endured, I cannot speak or think unkindly of you. Goodbye, Paul, and God bless you. For the sake of three never attempt to find out where I am going. It is better now that you belong to another woman, and that we should never meet again. All I ask is this: When you know the honest truth try to think more kindly of poor
The effect such a letter as the foregoing produced upon Paul Massilon may be easily imagined. Passionate, strong-willed, and highly impressionable, it stirred him to the very roots of his being.
That the burning words Mary Stanley had penned were the truth it seemed impossible not to believe. If it were not the truth she had written, what useful purpose could her writing serve? He was too honest-souled himself to conceive of any woman, ere she disappeared from the little world that had known her, seeking to plant a poisoned dart in the heart of one she had lost, to rankle and fester there.
Verily this she had spoken was the truth! She had been maligned, he had been deceived, an insurmountable barrier had been raised between them, and loving each other they were doomed to pass their lives apart.
Only when she was flying from him to an unknown place had she broken the silence and confessed her weakness. She loved him—knew that he still loved her; and afraid of herself and him, thinking of his wife's peace of mind only, she thought it best that they should never see each other again.
That day of the letter was a black one for Paul Massilon. It was spent entirely in the seclusion of his den. Food was brought to him but left untouched. Afterwards he locked the door, and when Margaret, tender, loving, considerate as ever, tapped at the panels, he told her with a black face and a sore heart, but a soft tongue, that he was wrestling with the great book, the building of which was plucking all his life.
For many days Paul had reason to thank God for the privacy his study guaranteed to him. There he could fret and scowl, brood and gnaw at his heartstrings, and not a soul witness the agony of the battle he was fighting with himself and his passions.
His wife was too pure and honest, too good, and true and loving, to be permitted to know of his woe. Whoever might be to blame dear Margaret was blameless. If his wife but dreamt of the torture he was enduring, and for whom and what, how shocked she would be. His face crimsoned with shame at the thought, and his heart grew cold at the idea of his own iniquity.
His wife was one of the best and dearest women on earth, was fairer than many, loved him as if he were a demigod, and lo! he was fretting away his soul for another. Oh, the pain and shame—the strangeness and mystery of it all!
If Margaret Massilon ever suspected her husband's tribulation at that period her suspicions never found vent in either word, sign, or look. She was the same loving, tender wife, and he tried to show a little warmth towards her to hide the lack of real love in his heart.
With the lapse of days, weeks, and months Paul regained something of his former peace of mind, and then he plunged into his work with an eagerness that put the past out of his thoughts. When the spring came, his book was half finished, and in the summer time, at the time indicated at the beginning of this chapter, only a small portion of the novel remained to be written.
One afternoon Paul and his wife and Margaret's aunt were sitting at tea together, and talking more or less animatedly of the trifling matters which made up the routine of their daily lives. Massilon looked very handsome and distinguished as he sat there in the prime of his manhood, with his dark hair and bright eyes and strong face. Margaret seemed to have gained in loveliness also, although she was more languorous than usual and a trifle paler. But there was something in her soft luminous eyes that drew her husband to her as he had never felt drawn before—something tender, womanly, motherly, even, in her words, her looks, and her caressing touch.
'Would you care for a walk or a drive this evening, Margaret?' Paul remarked in the tender, reverential way in which he invariably addressed his wife.
'I do not think so, Paul,' she replied, with her loving eyes upon him. 'Were you thinking of going somewhere, dear?'
'I had an idea of running over to Abbey Lake this evening,' he said, quietly apologetical, 'but if you don't care to go out it does not matter. I daresay I can manage without going.'
'But you must go, Paul, if you wish,' she cried, more animatedly. 'There is some fete or something of the kind on there this afternoon, isn't there?'
'There is; and that is the reason I thought of going, Margaret. One of the last scenes in my story is laid at the lake, on the occasion of a fete day like this, when the place is crowded with a host of hard-working pleasure-loving Lancashire work-people.'
'I think I understand, dear. You wish to give an accurate picture of the place, and you think your impressions will be more faithful and striking if you renew them?'
'Exactly. Even in such a trifle as local colouring it is best to be realistic.'
'Then you must go, of course. I and auntie will be able to manage until you get back.'
'Then I will go.'
WHEN Paul Massilon made up his mind to visit Abbey Lake in order to refresh his recollections of the spot, he had not the remotest idea that he was taking the first step in a strange dance Fate was destined to lead him. He went thither with a soul at peace; he came away with heart and brain on the rack.
Abbey Lake was a small pleasure resort, situated a couple of miles from Ashlynton on the opposite side of the town to that on which Paul lived, so that to reach it he had a walk of three or four miles, and when he arrived there the summer evening was well advanced. The place was very popular with all the people of the district on account of the boating and dancing to be had there each Saturday afternoon and on special holidays.
The long strip of water dignified by the title of lake was not so extensive in its widest part that a strong thrower could not have spanned it with a stone; still the place was pretty enough in a way.
A goodly growth of fine timber fringed the grassy banks of the water, and it was pleasant in hot weather to paddle a boat slowly along under the green, shady, far-spreading arms of the trees; and on fine evenings the water was dotted with a multitude of boats, many containing a pair of happy lovers.
On the western shore of the lake a dancing platform had been constructed, and on Saturday afternoons a band played for dancing, from three o'clock till dusk. A fine hotel had been erected at the entrance to the place, and just behind the hotel a fine bowling green had been laid out. Taken altogether the little pleasure resort was just suited to the requirements of Ashlynton, and received a fair measure of the public's patronage.
When Massilon arrived the place was looking its best and gayest. It was a fine evening and many hundreds of people were there. The water was covered with small craft manned by collier-lads and their sweethearts—strong-limbed, bonny-faced wenches who enjoyed the fun quite as much as their adorers; and here and there along the green shore, under the veil of the leafy branches, more than one boat lay hidden away from the prying eyes of cynical outsiders.
The dancing platform presented the prettiest picture imaginable. The band was playing a polka and some hundreds of dancers were gyrating to the lively tune. The long platform seemed a moving mass of variegated colour, set in a massive frame of green, for three sides of the boards were flanked by trees resplendent in their summer foliage, and at the other side of the dancers was the grassy bank sloping down to the waters of the lake.
From the dancing platform there were pleasant walks, with here and there leafy arbours; and when the dance was finished the dancers strolled about under the trees or cooled themselves in the leafy summer-houses. Others walked along the side of the water, whilst some allayed their thirst with cooling drinks at the refreshment bar.
Massilon sauntered about the place, thoroughly enjoying the scenes of gaiety he was witnessing, making a note of some interesting feature, and jotting down any idea that suggested itself to him. To many there he was known by repute, with some he was personally acquainted, who had worked with him or for him in the mines, and for all who recognised him he had a smile and pleasant word. There was not an atom of the prig in his character, his hand was ready to grasp that of any poor pitman he knew, and it gave him an especial pleasure to hear his old associates, call him not 'Mr.' but Paul Massilon.
Strolling along the side of the lake near the dancing platform, he turned, passed the edge of the crowd of dancers and struck among the trees. A couple of hundred yards away he could hear the shouts of the bowlers on the green, and thitherward he bent his steps. He was rather fond of playing at bowls; and next to that he loved to watch a good game played.
He could hear the players on the great bowling green, but could not see them; for the belt of timber was dense, and extended from the edge of the lake to the edge of the green. So he walked along the cool green path, threading in and out among the trees. It was rather pretty there; for the sun was setting and big shafts of red sunlight fell here and there through the open spaces between the outstretched branches.
He met many a pair of lovers strolling along the leafy arcades, and now and again saw others lolling on the sward, and as he passed the pretty green arbours he could just hear low voices whispering loving words. Suddenly a twist in the path brought him almost face to face with a familiar figure; and it was only with a great effort he restrained himself from crying out.
He paused suddenly, irresolutely, wondering what he should do. There, within a score of paces of him, was the magnificently beautiful woman, thoughts of whom had wrung his heart so often. It was Mary Stanley in truth, and the passage of a year had only tended to enhance her loveliness.
Mary was standing on the edge of the grassy walk with her face half-averted. She was watching some lads and lasses, who were romping on the grass under the trees, and apparently was unconscious of Paul's presence.
What should he do? he asked himself, with a pale face and wildly heating heart. Walk on and face her or retreat? He glanced round, saw a leafy arbour unoccupied, and in a moment he had darted to its cover.
There he sat and watched her through the green network of leaves. He saw Mary turn and stare about her as if the clatter of his flying feet had fallen on her ears; and while she faced his retreat, he feasted his eyes on the incomparable loveliness of her rare face, and the soft contour and flowing lines of her perfect figure.
Amazed, agitated, passion-tossed, he crouched there in that shady bower and watched Mary as if he were fascinated. Presently he saw her turn and walk at a slowly gliding pace towards him. When she was opposite the arbour his voice broke from control, and a single word fell tremulously, huskily, from his dry lips.
She turned as if stung, stared at him with wide, wondering eyes, and then answered in agitated tones,
'Paul! you here?'
The instant after she spoke he saw her fair countenance harden itself, her eyes gleam ominously, and then she drew herself erect as if to hurry away.
'Mary,' he cried again as he rose, 'I want to speak to you now. I never expected to see you here to-day, but now that I have met you there is something I must and will say!'
She hesitated still at the very mouth of the green nest, and the pale lights and the red ones chased each other across her satiny cheeks. She seemed half afraid of him, and yet undesirous of quitting him; and her evident indecision emboldened Paul to take the fatal plunge.
'Sit down a moment, Mary,' he whispered as he stretched forth his hand, grasped her gloved wrist and drew her inside, and the sweet-smelling branches of elder swung to behind her, almost hiding them both from the world outside.
She remained passive upon the bench where he had gently forced her, and for some moments he regarded her in silence, though his breast swelled tumultuously. Mary's chin was dropped upon her breast, her eyes were on the ground, and her nervous fingers were pulling some wild flowers to minute shreds.
'You remember that letter you wrote to me?' he asked, as he leaned towards her.
'I do,' she answered faintly, and her soft cheek whitened visibly, while her fingers quickened in their play.
'Why did you send it, Mary?'
'Why? Because I——' she paused suddenly, and added in a changed tone, 'Why should we talk of that now? It was wrong of me to send it, but I thought we should never meet again, and——'
'You could not go away without telling me the truth?' he broke in, as she hesitated.
'Yes,' she faltered, as her eyes met his for an instant and then fell again in sweet confusion.
'And what you wrote to me at the moment—you never expected to see me again—was the truth, Mary? God's truth?' he asked, trying to keep his voice even.
'It was!' she cried firmly, and her eyes met his in a defiant challenge. 'If you doubt it, I can prove it all.'
'It is not necessary to prove it at all,' he answered, as their eyes met; 'but there are some things I should like you to verify.'
'What is it I am to prove?' she demanded, her fair velvety complexion crimsoning now, her eyes clear and dauntless in their gaze, her whole manner and hearing cool and reliant. 'Am I to show you that you threw me over because you thought me false and impure—or do you wish me to tell you how we were both tricked by Harry Grant at the top of the riverside steps?'
'My God! Do you know that?' he gasped.
'I know it—have known it ever since you were married. Had I known the reason you deserted me sooner I should have swallowed my pride—everything—and have told you. But it was too late then, so I kept my lips closed, my heart shut, too, until I was going away!'
'Who told you of that?' he said, hoarsely.
'Then he must have written it. By Jove, I see it all now! Harry was in love with you too, and he wanted me out of the way.'
'Harry did not do it. He was urged to do it by someone, but he would divulge no name!'
'Where is he now?' he asked with a grim face.
'In America. He went there because I refused to marry him, when I learned how vile a trick he had played upon us both.'
'Perhaps it is as well for him that he is out of my reach,' he muttered between his closed teeth. Then he added, 'And you, Mary? Why are you back again?'
'I have only come for a day or two. I must go now, or my friends will wonder what has become of me. If they knew I was here——'
'With an old sweetheart and a married man,' he cried in bitter, sarcastic tones, 'what would they think of you?'
'I must go now.'
She held out her hand, and he grasped it in a firm grip, drawing his breath thick and fast.
'Will you come back for one moment, Mary?'
'Paul! I dare not,' she whispered.
'Will you come?' he insisted.
'At dusk. Wait!'
Then she glided away and left him to his thoughts, which tossed him hither, thither, aimlessly, continually, as a frail boat is tossed by tumultuous waves. The tide of passion that surged over him swept away all considerations save one. Mary was here—was near him—had promised to return.
When dusk fell he was sitting there still. Lights shone in the twilight across the water, faint laughter was borne to him now and again, and the plash of oars and the dreamy music of the band. Then he heard a soft footfall, a whisper.
'Paul! Are you there?'
She was standing in the bower now, and his strong arms were around her; he was crushing her madly to his heart and covering her face with hot kisses in spite of her struggles and protestations. Soon she lay passive in his arms, her shapely bust rising and falling quickly, her eyes closed, and tears trickling from beneath the heavy lids, while he poured out the story of his heart in a torrent of passionate words.
He loved her and she loved him. They had been torn asunder by a trick. There was nought in the world save love worth living for, and she was the only woman on the face of the earth worth loving. What were marriage vows to them? A few words mumbled by a priest! For her sake he was willing to lose all. She was his and he would keep her in the face of the world!
IN the days that followed immediately upon that memorable and somewhat adventurous visit to Abbey Lake, Paul Massilon's reflections were of a mixed and not altogether satisfactory character. At one time he glowed with pleasurable feelings when he dwelt upon his meeting with Mary Stanley, their explanatory interview in the pretty arbour, and the half victory he had won when he poured out the tale of his love and sorrows.
Carried completely away by his passionate adoration of the fair woman, he had not scrupled to urge her to join him in taking the fatal step which would have spelled shame and dishonour for them both. Again and again he had declared in a manner too emphatic for doubt:—
'I love you, Mary; have loved you all my life, and I feel that I shall never love another woman while you live and are free. You love me too, and but for the treachery of someone, to-day we should have been man and wife.'
'That is impossible now, Paul!' was her answer, made while her soft cheek was resting on his shoulder and his arms about her. 'Do not speak of it again!'
'I must speak and I will!' he retorted almost savagely. 'We are all the world to each other, darling; and what need we care for the world outside our love, our hopes, our desires, our lives? I am strong-willed enough to laugh at all conventional barriers if you are only loving enough and courageous enough to share my destiny.'
'I dare not do it, Paul!' was her broken reply. 'For your own sake, for mine, for your wife's sake also, we must not do that. It would ruin your career; and even for you I dare not face a life of dishonour and shame. Only think of it—to be pointed at with pity and scorn by all womankind as the woman who had stolen Paul Massilon, the novelist, from his wife. No! No! Not that, dear. Better any suffering than such guilty pleasure.'
'We could leave the country, and go to some place where we were unknown!' he urged, somewhat astonished to find her taking such a high-minded and sensible view of his proposal.
'And there you would have to begin afresh the fight you have already more than half won here, Paul!' was her cogent rejoinder.
'I would willingly work, drudge, slave, do anything for your sweet sake, Mary!' he protested, with vehemence.
'And I should fret myself to death when I thought how I dragged you down. Paul! Paul! Do not ask me to do it. Let me show you how I love you by bearing my suffering in silence. I cannot allow you to ruin yourself for me! If I did that what would you think of me in a year or two?'
'I should always think you the best and most beautiful woman in the world!' he cried.
'You wouldn't, dear, for I am neither,' was her firm answer. 'Let me go my way now, and you go yours. Try to forget me and think only of yourself and your wife. She is a good woman, Paul; a noble-hearted creature, as I know; and if any other woman was your wife there is no telling what I might be tempted to do.'
She spoke with evident warmth and real feeling, and he was silent with amaze. It seemed so strange—it was so unexpected to hear the woman he had lost speaking eulogistically of the woman he had won.
'Yes, Margaret is a noble woman,' he responded with a deep sigh. 'God knows that I am unworthy of her, but I cannot help it. She is true, tender, devoted—all that a woman may be—but I do not love her, Mary! Do you know what that means? Fancy yourself tied to a man you did not love, and I free—eager, thirsting, dying for your love!'
His plaint was uttered in a sad, heartbreaking, despairing moan. She struggled from his clinging arms, and rose to her feet in the semi-darkness of the leafy bower.
'I must go now, Paul,' she said, with her hand extended. 'It is getting late, and I cannot let my friends depart without me.'
'Stay! Don't go, Mary!' he pleaded.
'I must. But I may see you again in a month, when I shall be over here once more.'
'Who knows what may happen in a month's time! Perhaps then I may be mad enough, foolish enough, wicked enough, too, to do anything you wish me to do! Good night, Paul!'
He clasped her to him again almost savagely, and rained kisses on her lips, cheeks, brow, and hair; then he released her suddenly, and as she darted away he sank with a grim face and a desperate soul upon the seat.
That half-promise to resign herself to the fate he had mapped out for her solaced Paul Massilon for a short time while the fever of his unreasoning passion was at its height. In a little time he would see her again, and then he would sway her to his desires—would never rest content until she was his.
But the passing of a few days brought sweet reason and soberer counsels to Massilon's highly-wrought heart and brain. When a week had spent itself his broodings were of a less sombre hue—his inclination's of a more moral tendency.
Left to itself his honest nature had a chance of reasserting its native integrity, and soon he was enabled to see things in their true light and real proportions. Then he was thankful that the woman he loved had refused to countenance his vile and shameful proposals.
He must have been mad, surely, he said, when his passion had cooled somewhat and his logical mind had been swept clean of all erotic cobwebs, to have contemplated the social suicide a flight with Mary Stanley would have meant.
Luckily she had been stronger than he—had perceived more clearly the inevitable consequences of such a hot-brained irrevocable act; had felt more keenly and weighed more carefully the inexorable outcome and end of such folly as he had been cheerfully desirous of perpetrating.
He grew hot and cold as he balanced all these considerations in the mental scales. His face flamed and then grew ashy as he reviewed in cold blood the heinous sin he had resolved to commit and had been saved so far from committing by Mary's scruples.
How vile he must be at heart to have dreamt of abandoning the worthy, noble souled, loving woman he had married, and who, soon, would be the mother of his child! How grossly vicious, too, had been his desires when he had contemplated the social and eternal ruin of another fair woman whose only offence was loving him.
Thoughts such as those made Paul Massilon revile himself as he had never done before. In the fierce, pitiless light thus thrown upon him he was able to see himself in all his nakedness—immoral, criminal, brutally selfish, careless of all things, reckless of everything, save the gratification of his own unreasoning sensuality.
Mentally Paul grovelled in the mire of his own abasement when he realised the true 'inwardness' of the position in which he had been and was still placed. He alone was to blame for it all. His wife and Mary Stanley were to be pitied rather than blamed.
Unfortunately for themselves both women had become entangled in the web of his destiny. As he was a mere creature of circumstance, so were they merely creatures; but how much more nobly had they borne themselves under the fires of adversity.
He had held up his hands to heaven and cried clamantly to all the gods of his woes—had revolted against Fate, winced, squirmed beneath the iron wheels, whereas those two weak women had carried themselves nobly, patiently, heroically even, stoically bending their white necks to the yoke they could not break.
Such was the conclusion at which Massilon arrived after a fortnight's deep thinking, close reasoning, and critical self-analysis, passed principally in the seclusion of his little den, beneath the slates of Milton Lodge.
While his mind was in a ferment he could not bring himself to look his wife honestly and frankly in the face. With his heart and brain full of unholy thoughts respecting Mary Stanley he did not dare to peer into the calm, pure, lucent depths of Margaret Massilon's big brown eyes.
When they chanced to be together, his wife's loving glances shot fanged arrows into his false heart; her tender, wifely words lashed him as if with whips; and when her soft, white, slim fingers loitered, oh, so lovingly, upon his hand, arm, cheek, hair, he felt that he was guilty of desecration in permitting one so spotless to touch one so vile.
At such times he would cower mentally and morally in his chair, until such moment as he could slink away with some show of grace to his den, his excuse being the invariable one of his book, and its validity was accepted as indubitable. There, in seclusion, he would castigate himself afresh; and passing days and repeated scourgings seemed to bring him nearer to such divine grace as he might hope to win.
About a fortnight after his last meeting with Mary Stanley, Paul Massilon was in his study, putting the finishing sentences to the novel upon which he had been so long at work. Night had fallen ere the last words were written, and ere the ink was dry upon them the author was standing at the window, pulling at his pipe, and his strong, dark face wrapped in reverie.
Beneath lay the wooded valley of the Douglas, faintly illuminated by countless stars and a crescent moon, and the soft light fell shimmeringly on the glassy surface of the small lakelet, and the sinuous stream wending its way northward.
Paul's reflections were more calm and contented than they had been for many a day. The sense of delight which follows accomplishment was his at that moment. Whether it meant success or failure his novel was completed, and in a little while would be launched upon the stream of literature to take its chances with the rest of the craft floating thereupon.
He did not hope great things from it. He was too well aware of his own limitations to imagine that he had conceived and executed a masterpiece which would move the world, but his shrewd common sense told him that this work of his was a genuine bit of literature, dealing with a phase of life and portraying a condition of things never before attempted by one whose experience qualified him for the task.
He felt thankful also at that moment that he had put all thoughts of Mary Stanley away from him. When she returned to Ashlynton in a week or two, as she had said she would, there was no fear any longer that he would put temptation in her way. If he avoided her she would understand—if she did not, he would explain.
Massilon's eyes lit up a little, though his lips compressed themselves, as his thoughts flew to his wife. How was she faring in her hour of travail? Heaven grant that she be spared! Thank God she knew nothing of his own tribulation and its cause! Had she but known how unfaithful to her he had been in heart and thought she would scarcely have cared to live through the pangs of labour.
An hour before this he had seen the doctor arrive and then had fled to his castle in incontinent trepidation and haste. Since then he had stolen to the door and listened, but no sound save the passing of soft, slippered feet came from the rooms below.
In feverish anxiety he was waiting now. Sitting down by the window, he puffed fitfully at his pipe, his eyes roaming over the sheeny stretch of winding river and waveless lake, his ears full of the soft monotonous song of the weir, and his heart and thoughts nearer to his wife at that time than they had ever been before.
He had fallen into a sombre reverie when a soft footfall and a low tap at the door aroused him. He sprang alertly to his feet and ran to the door, to meet his wife's aunt on the threshold.
'It is over, thank God, Paul!' the motherly woman cried with a deep sigh of relief.
'Over!' he echoed lowly. 'And Margaret?'
'Alive, thank heaven! But the baby is dead. It was a boy, Paul, and just like you. Come dear; you may see Maggie now.'
'Thank God she is safe!' he murmured a little huskily, and with unshed tears clouding his eyes. 'If Margaret had been taken as well as the baby heaven alone knows what I should have done!'
The kindly-natured woman glanced at him sharply from beneath her lowered eyelids. The warmth and fervour of his muttered words amazed her, for his quietness of manner and reticence of speech had almost convinced her that Paul Massilon's affection for her dear niece was only either a poor weakling of love or more pretence.
But there was no mistaking his agitation now; no misunderstanding his fervent utterance and tear-filled eyes. The poor woman was very glad. She loved her niece beyond words, and was pleased to find that her husband loved her also. 'Still waters run deep,' she said mentally to herself as she followed Paul downstairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, at the end of the corridor leading to Margaret's bedchamber, Paul and Mrs. Bradshaw came face to face with Doctor Cranford, the gentleman who had attended him and brought him home after his perilous adventure amidst the blackdamp.
'Are you going, doctor?' Paul asked, as he came to a standstill for a moment, while the aunt of his wife passed on.
'Yes, I must go now, Massilon. I have another call to make on a patient who is dangerously ill, so you must excuse me.'
'How is my wife?'
'Very weak and somewhat low, but out of all danger, I think. Mrs. Massilon is in good hands with her aunt, but if there is any change for the worse do not waste an instant in letting me know of it.'
'Thank you, I will not. Good night.'
An impulse prompted Paul to hold out his hand, and the other wrung it warmly. Then they parted, and Massilon went to his wife's room.
Massilon was kneeling at the side of the bed whereon his ailing wife lay, silently kissing the soft, white, bloodless-looking hand held out to him, and dropping happy tears of relief and penitence on her fingers and the counterpane.
Weak as a child after the great trial she had passed through so recently, and white as a lily, Margaret Massilon lay there propped up with pillows, looking more beautiful than ever, her husband thought. Her face was weirdly lovely now, with that strange, shadowy, spiritual loveliness which comes to all women alike after the throes of travail are past.
He was contrite and at peace. Kneeling there, with her soft fingers at his lips, he was wondering if his measureless respect and admiration for his wife's noble qualities, pure, big, womanly soul, and deep affectionate nature, were not better than love for any other living creature.
She was at peace also, and happy beyond all utterance of hers. A soft smile illumined her pale face, a glad light glowed in the dark depth of her lucent eyes, and a new joy was thrilling her from head to foot. At last she felt she had won her husband's love. Not in vain had she striven patiently, lovingly, resolutely to win the affection of him whose name she bore.
'Paul,' she said presently, breaking the silence that enveloped them like a soft warm cloak, 'do you know, I wonder, how happy you have made me, dear?'
'Happy! happy!' he murmured, half questioningly, and without raising his eyes. 'I am happy, Maggie, if I have made you so.'
'I have been very happy, Paul, since I became your wife, but—but you always called me "Margaret"—never "Maggie" before now. Why?'
'You were always "Margaret" before to-night. Now you are "Maggie," and henceforth for ever, I hope, dear wife.'
'You were always "Paul" to me.'
They understood and each was silent, and in the silence their hearts seemed to meet and speak to one another for the first time.
'Kiss me, Paul!'
He rose quietly, with a lump in his throat, bent over the bed, and with her cheeks in his palms kissed her passionately as he had never kissed anyone before save Mary Stanley.
'You are crying, Paul. Why do you cry?'
He had sunk on his knees again, and was hiding his face on the bed with her soft fingers pressed to his lips. All the trials and tribulations of the past year were floating past him, and he felt at that moment as one must feel who has come through a great ordeal triumphantly.
'There are tears in your eyes, Paul,' she murmured soothingly. 'Are they tears of joy, dear, or tears of suffering?'
'Both, Maggie—both!' he cried brokenly. 'Joy for the present, sorrow for what is past and done with, thank God!'
'I am not quite sure I understand, Paul,' she said gently, and the white fingers of her other hand were laid lightly and lovingly upon his dark head. 'Won't you tell me, dearest, what your trouble was that thoughts of it bring tears now?'
'I dare not tell you, Maggie,' he muttered, almost savagely, and his head was suddenly raised, and their eyes met for an instant. His shamed eyes fell before her clear innocent gaze, and with bent face he went on. 'If I were to tell you all, wife, you would love me no longer, but would hate and despise me as much as I have hated and despised myself for many days.'
'You know that is impossible, Paul!' was her firm answer as she twined her white fingers among his dusky hair. 'Hate and despise you, indeed! No, no! One can only love, adore, worship, dearest, the idol of her soul.'
'Therein lies the sting, Maggie—the pain, the torture, the tribulation! You made an idol of me, and I hated and despised myself because I knew how vile I was, and how unworthy of your great, ungrudging, ever present affection. Even when I kissed you it was but a hollow pretence. Sometimes I was surprised that my lips did not embitter and soil your own sweet and pure ones. I admired you for your loveliness, respected you for your goodness, revered you almost for your noble qualities—but God knows that I did not love you before now!'
His face was still lowered upon the bed, and there was a poignant ring and quiver in his tones which betrayed his deep agitation. Her face was transfused with a new glory as she listened to his lowly intoned utterances, and her slender finger tips beat approvingly on his glossy locks as she answered:—
'But I loved you, Paul; and when a woman wins the man she loves there is nothing else save heaven worth winning. If I had your admiration, respect, and reverential regard, dear, do you think I could have changed them for the dearest love of any other man alive?'
'But my sin, Maggie,' he responded, lowly and bitterly, 'was not one of omission only. You would perhaps not have contemned me—I should not have contemned myself so much, if my sin had been merely that of not loving you. But when I vowed to love and honour you I loved another woman! When I knelt with you in the church that morning I was a hypocrite and a liar in the sight of heaven; and since then every day I have spent in this house, every night I have slept at your side, I have felt myself to be a living lie!'
Had the offence of which he was guilty been that of murder he could not have denounced his iniquity in more scathing tones as he knelt there at his fair wife's bedside. But his passionate confession did not appear to have either startled or pained Mrs. Massilon. She lay there on the soft white pillows, a look of deep contentment on her sweet, pallid face, her great dusky eyes luminous and inexpressibly tender as they bent themselves lovingly upon the dark head her white fingers were stroking.
'Poor Paul! My poor, dear Paul!' she whispered. 'How you must have suffered all these days. And you never dreamt that I suspected your secret. You never thought I was aware of the great, the bitter fight you were fighting with yourself for my sake and your own sake, my Paul!'
'Maggie!' he cried, looking up suddenly at her last words. 'You suspected my trouble—were aware of its cause?'
'I knew you did not love me with your whole heart when you married me, dearest,' she answered calmly, 'and I suspected that another woman had treated you vilely. But, husband, and father of my poor dead baby, that knowledge gave me neither trouble nor pain. You were mine; I had won you; I bore your name; and I was happy and satisfied to wait till God in His own good time gave me your love. I feel sure now, Paul, that I shall not have long to wait for the fulfilment of my prayers.'
'You are an angel, darling,' he murmured huskily as he bent above her with a countenance that was almost as bloodless as her own, and much more troubled-looking. 'I always wished to love you, Maggie. I have prayed to heaven that I might love you. If I could have torn that other woman's image from my heart and thoughts I would have done so gladly; and then our happiness would have come to us much sooner. I wonder, dear wife, if even you can quite understand me?'
'I think I do, Paul!'
'I mean,' he said, more calmly than he had yet spoken, as he smoothed back the loose masses of hair from her smooth brow, 'that a man is not the master of his ideas, his desires, his passions; he is merely their slave, and they drive him this way and that, draw him here and there at their will. Well, I am glad now that I have unbared my heart to you, Maggie. You must forgive me, and I will sin no more.'
'Forgive you, Paul,' she exclaimed joyously, as she drew his face down to her own, and kissed it with tender, clinging, little kisses. 'My dearly beloved, what is there to forgive? First you make me your confessor, and now you wish me to be your judge.'
'It would be well for many a troubled sinner,' he remarked gravely, as he seated himself at her bedside, 'if he were to be adjudged by one so good, noble, and just.'
She thanked him with a glance of her dark, velvety eyes—a glance that was soft, warm, tender as a caress—and then silence fell upon them for a little while.
Presently he murmured to himself in a tone of infinite regret:
'Poor baby! Poor baby!'
'Oh, Paul, I am so sorry our child is dead,' she cried, as a look of sharp pain shadowed her pale, spiritualised face for an instant. 'It was yourself, my dear husband—with your mouth and eyes. And I prayed that it might live to be a bond between us for ever.'
'I feel that heaven took it from us as a punishment for my sins!' he said solemnly, as he bowed his head on his hands.
* * * * * *
Two days passed, and then the inmates of Milton Lodge were startled by a sudden change for the worse in Mrs. Massilon. Just at the time when Margaret appeared to be gaining strength momentarily the transition came, and the awful intelligence was whispered about the house that its fair young mistress was doomed—that her death was but a mere question of so many hours.
Everything that love and money could do was done gladly, all that medical science could suggest was made use of, but the local doctors and the eminent specialist who had been called in at the last extremity were compelled to admit, with grave faces, that they could do no more, and that the final issue rested with a power higher than themselves.
There was not a dry eye in Milton Lodge when the dread fiat was made known. Miss Bradshaw was almost beside herself with grief; the servants crept about noiselessly, red-eyed and hoarse with weeping; Paul's heart was filled with a stony horror he was too numbed to analyse; and even the hardened men of science were unstrung at the sight of the fair young woman dying.
And Margaret Massilon knew that she was dying. She had insisted upon knowing the worst, and reluctantly the truth respecting her own precarious state had been revealed to her. And that fearful knowledge of her impending dissolution rang in the poor woman's ears with all the unspeakable horror of a funeral knell.
She was happy, and death was horrible. To leave Paul then, just when she had won him. To quit the beautiful world when it was so gloriously lovely and held such peace and joy. Oh, God! to leave her husband and the green joyous earth while she was still so young. With all the fervour of her soul she prayed to God to spare her a little longer.
For a few moments the suffering wife broke down utterly, crying aloud in her deep tribulation upon Heaven, the Lord, and her husband to save her from the black horror of death, and wringing the hearts of those near with her woe. Then she grew calm, seemed to resign herself to the inexorable mandate, and told her husband that she must speak to him alone.
The chamber was cleared, and man and wife were left alone. Paul was kneeling at the side of the bed, white-faced and heart-sore, his tears falling like rain on the coverlet, while a great lump rose and fell in his throat. He could not speak; he only kneeled there in mute agony, and wondered what his wife wished to say to him.
'They say I am dying, Paul, and I believe them!' Margaret began in a quiet, despairing way that was unnatural, 'I do not wish to die. God ought not to let me die now. But if I am to die and leave you, Paul, there is something I must tell you. I dare not die with that on my mind. As you confessed to me I must confess to you. I did intend to tell you the truth some day when we were happy in our love. But God is strange. He will not wait. I must tell you now or perish with my sin upon my soul!'
'Do not agitate yourself, dear!' he whispered huskily, thinking she was wandering. 'What can a pure-souled woman like you have to confess to me? Compose yourself, I pray you. Even now I have hopes for your life in spite of all they say.'
'No, no. I must speak, Paul,' she returned with grim insistence. 'I must confess—I must have your forgiveness; and then I may die in peace. I loved you, dear, more than all the world, but I knew you loved Mary Stanley. I knew she was not fit to be your wife, and I parted you. It was I who wrote that letter—I who schemed with Harry Grant to turn you against Mary. That is my sin. Can you forgive now, my husband?'
He stared at her in silence, his startled eyes alone denoting his amaze. Was this the truth she uttered, or only a figment of her overwrought brain?
'You refuse the pardon!' she cried, and her white hands were lifted in the air.
'No, no, dear. Not that. You do not know what you are saying. But even if it were so I forgive you with all my soul!'
'Will you kiss me, Paul, for the last time? I am happy now. What little fortune I possess I have left to you. When I die, you and Mary—if you think her pure and good and true still—can be happy. Kiss me, dearest.'
He bent over her, and laid his quivering lips upon her burning ones.
MAGGIE Massilon did not die, as the local doctors and the famous medical specialist had predicted, as her husband had thought and feared, and as she herself had most assuredly believed at the moment she made that startling confession respecting her own share in the dramatic incident which had been cunningly devised and realistically executed for the avowed purpose of shattering all Paul Massilon's faith in Mary Stanley's fidelity and purity.
The crisis in her complaint was a time of indescribable torment to husband and wife, and all about them while it lasted; but when the supreme physiological moment was past the prostrated woman still lived, and the prophets of pharmaceutical science declared that all danger was past and her recovery now was only a question of time.
After that the lapse of each sunny summer day added to Margaret's strength, and when the green grain was breast-deep and undulating in rustling sun-kissed fields, when the full-fledged trees and hedgerows were beginning to bronze in the season's ardent heat, and the fruit was slowly colouring on their heavily-freighted branches, Margaret was afoot once more, strong and happy, handsome, loving, and tender, as of old.
While his wife was confined to her chamber, Paul Massilon had regularly visited and lingered near Margaret; but when it became evident to them all that all peril was over, and that ultimate convalescence was merely a tale of so many days more or fewer, his visits grew less frequent, were of shorter duration, and soon he began to bury himself afresh in his study, as he had done prior to her illness.
His finished novel, 'Slaves of the Lamp,' was now in the hands of his publishers, who were to produce it in the forthcoming autumn season; and already he was busy upon a smaller and shorter work. Such was the plea he advanced in extenuation of his repeated flights from his wife's side, and for a while Margaret believed and was contented.
In the earlier days of her recovery Margaret Massilon was happy in believing that her confinement and subsequent illness had been blessings in disguise. But for the happening of those events she and Paul would yet have been groping in the dark respecting each other's feelings. He would not have made that humbled, passionate, heart-sore confession, nor would she have confessed the venial sin of which she had been guilty in order to save him from the snares of a very beautiful, wholly selfish, utterly heartless, designing and impure creature.
Each to the other had made confession, and to the other each had freely and lovingly extended forgiveness. To his wife the troubled husband had laid bare the very core of his soul—to her husband the conscience-stricken wife had confessed the sin with which she had soiled her womanhood only for his dear sake.
Each had spoken and all was well. Now they knew each other, and the coming and going of all the years of their lives would never see anything standing between them again. After this manner the true-hearted woman reasoned with herself; and night and morning she thanked God fervently on her knees for not sending awful death to her but this deep, shoreless happiness.
It was only later that she came to realise the full nature and the real extent of the mistake she had made when she permitted those few penitential words to falter from her weak lips.
In the meantime how was Paul Massilon faring? Had the frank, unfettered avowal of his own passionate desires and moral weaknesses brought peace to his troubled soul? How had the revelation made by his wife at the critical moment of her being, affected his feelings regarding Mary Stanley?
Even before his wife was strong enough to quit her bed of sickness Paul found himself face to face with those vital, searching and far-reaching questions. For many a day those irritating problems stared him in the face, demanding solutions which he was afraid of furnishing.
Despite all that had been thought and uttered by himself he was aware that his unfortunate passion for Mary Stanley was not extinct. His own remorse and his wife's noble qualities were slowly bringing about its extinction when Fate prompted Margaret to unbosom her mind to him.
Better a thousand times, he told himself savagely, that his wife had died unshriven than that she should have confessed a sin which would not alone wring his soul anew, but would lower his spouse in his high estimation, tend inevitably to drive them apart, compel all his sympathies to flow in the direction of Mary, and set flame afresh to all his slumbering desires.
Standing at Margaret's bedside when the truth was revealed to him, he had assured her of his absolute forgiveness, and at that moment he had believed in every word he had uttered. He had looked upon her as a dying woman—as one upon whom the dread seal of death was already affixed; and again, at that time he had only considered her as sinning against himself. Surely her love, devotion, patience, purity, more than expiated such a trivial offence.
But when his wife grew strong again the complexion of his reflections underwent a change. To mutter words of forgiveness in order to ease the mind of a woman thought to be dying was one thing, but to condone the cunning treacherous act of an intriguing creature was another matter altogether.
The first was a generous impulse which any ordinary mortal would do instinctively, and Paul had done it; while the latter demanded extraordinary meekness and mercy on the part of those who had suffered by Margaret's selfish duplicity. And now that his wife was well again, Massilon had no mind to be either meek towards or merciful to her.
After all his self-inflicted torture of remorse, regret, and shame, Margaret had proved herself less noble and angelic than he had thought her. His ideal wife, so often pictured in his self-communings, was very human after all. Her love had made Margaret selfish—even mean. Rather than lose the man she loved she had stooped to a despicable act in order to sweep a dangerous rival from her path. To compass her own desires, Margaret Heywood had not scrupled to betray a woman and deceive a man; heedless of everything save her own wishes, his wife had pitilessly destroyed his own love-dream and that of a rival.
This was the iron logic of the situation, and Paul realised it in all its strength and horror. The woman he loved had been degraded in his eyes and torn from his arms by means of a trick. The woman he had married was the instigator of the plot.
For months past he had been miserably groping in the dark. At first he had tried to mitigate his own sufferings by pouring all the vials of his wrath upon Mary Stanley's unoffending heart and head. They had made him deem her vile, impure, base—all that was unholy and unwomanly—and then in the utter depth of his chagrin and tribulation he had forced himself to believe that he had been thrice blessed in not winning the fair, frail creature he had been unlucky enough to have loved.
And then he had fared forth to Abbey Lake, and met his old flame there, and a little of the truth was made clear unto him. A little later still the whole truth was revealed, and lo! the unknown wretch whose abhorred machinations had torn him and his loved one asunder, and whom he had so often reviled with his deepest and bitterest anathemas, stood confessed in his wife—the gentle, loving, noble-hearted woman, whom he had scourged himself for not loving.
Under these circumstances is it to be wondered at if Paul Massilon once more found himself floundering in the mental and moral quagmires his sullen reflections and his strong, passionate, over-mastering desires dug for his wavering feet?
While his wife was in travail he had made up his mind manfully to put all temptation behind him. For the sake of the woman he had married yet did not love, for the sake of the other woman whom he loved yet could not marry, for his own sake also, he had determined to keep the vows he had sworn at the altar.
He and Mary should bear their cross in noble silence. Their love should count for no more than a sign written on the sea sand, which the ebb and flow of the tides would efface in time. Destiny had torn them asunder, and each must be content with duty and honour.
So Paul had resolved, even when his heart was crying out for the woman whose witchery had ensnared his fancy—the peerless-faced siren whom he had but to stretch out his hands to grasp. But at the moment that resolution was formed, the whole truth had not been disclosed to him, and he still thought his wife the best and truest woman in the world—the purest-souled and noblest-hearted creature God ever made—a being without flaw, above suspicion, to have won whose love was at once both consecration and salvation!
Had Margaret been less holy and noble than he deemed her, Paul might not have consented so readily to the immolation of himself and Mary upon the altar of duty. A month after his wife's confession was made, he had no mind to either sacrifice himself or spare Mary.
And while matters stood thus, a letter came to Milton Lodge. A single glance at the hand-writing revealed the identity of the correspondent, and a look at the postmark, showed that it had come from Yorkshire.
It was from Mary Stanley. What had she to say to him, he pondered, as the colour stole into his cheeks and his pulse quickened? Placing the letter beside his plate unopened, he turned to his other letters with an uneasy feeling, for his wife's placidly curious eyes were upon him.
'Any news this morning, Paul, dear?' Margaret queried pleasantly as she held her poised cup at her lips.
'Just a line from my publishers, that is all,' he replied in an unconcerned tone, as he stirred his tea. 'They are hard at work, they say, upon the novel, and hope to let me have proofs in the course of a few days. I suppose they expect to have the work out at the beginning of the publishing season.'
Then he fell to upon his breakfast, and now and again his glance fell upon that communication from Yorkshire. What had she to say to him? Was she coming to Ashlynton as she had promised? Had she considered the proposal he had made to her four weeks ago? What would she think and say and do when he told her that his wife and Harry Grant had concocted and executed that scheme, the successful issue of which had prevented them from becoming husband and wife?
These thoughts made his face grave while he breakfasted, and when he had concluded his hasty repast he rose with his usual excuse to seek the privacy of his den. At the door of the room his wife's voice arrested his feet.
'When the proofs of the story come, Paul,' she remarked, gently, 'you will let me read them, dear, won't you?'
'Of course, Margaret, if you wish to,' he rejoined gravely, with the half-opened door in his hand.
'Thank you so much, Paul!' Mrs. Massilon returned gratefully. 'I feel sure your novel will be a great success, and I should dearly love to read it before the world sees it.'
'Thank you, dear,' he said, and passed out.
'How quiet and reticent Mr. Massilon is, dear?' the elder woman remarked a moment after Paul's disappearance.
'Yes, Paul is somewhat reserved at times, aunt,' Margaret responded.
'I always thought him strange and cold before the evening you were confined, my dear; and I was almost certain he did not love you so devotedly as you loved him.'
'And now, auntie?'
'Well, now I know him better, Margaret. I shall never forget his agitation that night when I told him the worst was over. Why, the man I thought cold and reserved—careless, even—was quite broken down when I told him you were alive and well, although the poor baby was dead. I saw the tears in his eyes, dear; his voice was husky and trembling; and I am not likely to forget the way in which he spoke of you then.'
'It is the way of such as Paul, auntie,' the wife said, quietly.
Meanwhile overhead Paul Massilon was reading the epistle Mary Stanley had favoured him with. As he mounted the stairs he tore off the envelope, and by the time his study was gained the open sheet lay in his hand. Mary's note ran thus:—
'After all these days I scarcely know what to say to you, and I have often thought since I saw you last that it would have been a good thing for us both if we had never met again! I have not forgotten that I promised to come to Ashlynton for the August holidays. My friends expect me to visit them for two or three days, but I think it will be better for everybody if I stay away.
'I am only a poor, ignorant young woman, I know; and yet I have sense enough to see clearly the course I ought to follow. My duty to myself, first of all, tells me that I should keep away from you now that you are the husband of another woman. My duty to you and your wife tells me the same. What is done is done and past recalling. Think as we will, say what we may, do what we can, we cannot be anything to one another now but secret, clandestine, dishonourable lovers.
'I am only a weak woman, made up of flesh and blood and a heart like other women. I would save myself and I would save you; but I can do neither if I am near you. Here I am safe. You must tell me to stay away, and thus save us both from ourselves. If you say "Come, Mary, to me," I shall not hesitate to place my love, my life, and honour in your hands. For God's sake do not say it.
'Goodbye, dear Paul. If you do not write I shall understand. I love you and am strong enough now to bear my sorrow in silence.
THE FIT of moody taciturnity which settled down upon Paul Massilon after he received that pregnant missive from his old sweetheart seemed to affect each of the inmates of Milton Lodge in turn. Strive as he might to preserve his customary cheeriness of look and speech, Paul found it utterly impossible while his heart was aflame with desire and his mind was filled with the scheme which would wreck the reputation he had wrought so long and arduously to win.
Noticing her better half's constraint and gloom Margaret Massilon was not long in tracing Paul's change of manner to its real origin. He loved Mary Stanley still, could not tear the fair image of the false and vicious woman from his breast, and he was blaming her now for the part she had played in parting them.
The words of forgiveness he had whispered in her ears that night when her life was despaired of were sounds only, carrying no strength with them. He resented her interference strongly, bitterly, passionately, and this chilly, heart-searing sullenness was the reward which she was to receive for her weak confession.
How deeply and sincerely she regretted the few words her faltering tongue had spoken at a period of imminent peril and tribulation! At what a heart-rending cost had that avowal been made, and still the debt her poor petty sin had entailed upon her was not yet half wiped out!
Passionate as was the regret with which she regarded the trick by means of which she had won her husband, there were two other things she regretted more bitterly still. Having won Paul she ought never to have forfeited all chance of winning his love by avowing her sin; or having confessed she ought not to have survived the confession.
Better far to have died then than to have lived for this. To see each day her husband's sombre face; to be able with her intuitive knowledge to read the sore heart beneath; to feel that he was receding further and further from her each day; to be able to elicit his frank smile and cheery word no more; to feel his studious politeness cutting her to the very quick—to see all this and feel her own impotence was misery indeed.
So far not a single word of either reproach or anger had been spoken by Paul or Margaret; but when she noticed how carefully he avoided her it stung the sensitive woman more than a curse or a blow could have done.
Mrs. Massilon had need of all her patience—of all her virtues, in fact, at that time. Never before had she realised what absolute wretchedness meant. A black, bitter ennui had fastened itself upon both her heart and brain, numbing all her nobler faculties, fettering all the finer qualities of her nature, and making each day appear more barren and dreary and God-forsaken than its fellows.
Since that scene at what both had considered the bedside of a dying woman, neither wife nor husband had ever made the faintest allusion to the matter of which Margaret had then spoken. They seldom met save at meal times, and then Mrs. Massilon's aunt was present and the servants also, hence all conversation was necessarily of a commonplace character.
On such occasions Paul was studiously polite and deferential to his wife, to all—every word, look, and act was carefully weighed, but his eyes had lost their wonted frankness, and his deep tones lacked the genuine, manly ring which once she had noticed. The mask her husband wore then in no wise deceived her.
Soon as each meal was done he would hie him away to his study or the country, and seldom show his face again until the next meal was ready. How often she longed to follow him to his den to fling herself at his feet and implore him to be merciful to her.
But with all her deep love of her husband there was mingled now a little fear—fear for her own sin and weakness and his iron nature—and she did not dare to invade his privacy, to break the intolerable silence which was slowly ruining her life and driving her mad.
The disconsolate woman mourned the death of her child with a double sorrow now. Apart from the natural pain she experienced as a mother who loses her first-born, was the deep regret she felt in having lost the dearest and closest tie which can bind man and woman together.
Surely he would have loved his own child, had it lived, and loving it he could scarcely have hated its mother. But her babe was dead, and now she could but hope that God in His own good time would turn her husband's heart towards herself. And for the coming of that time she prayed with all her fervour of soul.
One evening, a couple of days after he received Mary Stanley's letter, Paul chanced to saunter alongside the little lake at the lower end of the grounds attached to Milton Lodge. He was pulling slowly at his pipe, and his dark, handsome face was grim with the thoughts that were running riot in his brain.
At length he had decided upon taking the fatal plunge. For two days almost he had resisted the lure that Mary Stanley's beauty and weakness, and his own consuming passion, dangled temptingly before his eyes. For twenty-four hours he had resolved not to write to Mary. He would be strong, and patient, and good; would save the weak, loving woman from the social and moral ruin and damnation with which his passion threatened her. He would not take her love, and life, and honour in his hands. For her sake he would save her from himself.
Thus was he resolved until a few hours ago, and then his resolutions melted suddenly like wax before the fire. In a minute he had written those fatal words: 'Come, Mary, to me!' had poured out many another passionate avowal; had posted the fateful letter while his brain was still aflame; and now walking up the stream he was grimly pondering the probable march of events during the next half-dozen days.
'Good evening, Mr. Massilon!'
A hard, rasping, half-sneering voice dragged Paul from his reverie, and glancing across the shallow stream he saw the tall, loose figure, hawk nose, chinless face, and ferrety eyes of Mr. Byron Wedmore, who was loitering in the opposite direction on the farther side of the river.
With a surly nod Massilon walked on, in no humour for exchanging compliments with the half-crazed owner of Wedmore House. He knew that he was an object of deep-seated aversion to Wedmore because he had married Margaret Heywood; and a sardonic smile curved his lips as he thought how gladly he would have resigned his wife to the other's keeping.
Presently Paul retraced his steps, still sucking at his pipe, and moodily grappling with his thoughts. Past the rustic seat beneath the big elm he went, pausing not till he gained the lower end of the lakelet, where the brown water was tumbling musically over the tall weir. Here the bank was cliff-like in its steepness—patches of shaggy grass and clumps of gorse, straggling bushes and lean trees gaining a precarious foothold upon the friable soil.
Paul seated himself on a tuft of grass and glanced down stream. The ruinous roofs of the old forge were just visible through the trees. Here and there he caught a glimpse of the white cottages where one of Mary Stanley's old workmates lived, but the flight of rude steps leading from the footbridge was hidden by the intervening timber.
He sat there till the sun set and a dim twilight flooded the river valley. A faint breeze was moaning through the leaves, the river churned itself into foam as it leapt the weir and fell in the deep pool below, and the snowy bubbles roofed the stream for many yards like a thick coat of snow.
Slowly the light faded away in the west, the twilight thickened, and still Paul remained there, so deeply engrossed in his reflections that he did not notice a woman's dark-clad figure stealing along the narrow path that led to the point where he was sitting.
It was Margaret Massilon who stole along the water's edge, and she was at her husband's elbow ere he glanced up. His gaze rested upon her white agitated face for a brace of seconds only, and then, with a black look, he bent his gaze upon the plunging waters at his feet.
Her soft beautiful voice was pitiful in its love and tender entreaty, but his heart was as adamant at that moment. All the amenities of his nature flowed now towards another woman, and he only said coldly,
'Well, what is it?'
'Won't you come in, dear?' She uttered that last word as if she were taking a liberty, and she added quickly, 'Do come in, Paul! It is going to rain!'
'Rain! Well, let it rain. Go in. I will come soon.' Still his face was averted and his tones were icy.
'Do come, Paul!' she pleaded, and stole a step towards him. There were tears in her voice and sweetest concern for himself on her tremulous tongue, but he was steeled then against the melody of her speech, the glamour of her great love, the witchery of her soft warm loveliness. 'Come, dear, to please me. I am afraid to see you sitting here.'
'Go in, I tell you!' he said more gruffly. 'Are you afraid I may commit suicide? Well, it may come to that yet, for heaven knows that I am half mad already!'
He laughed bitterly, but never looked her way, and with a low moan she sank at his feet, her hands clasping his knees.
'Paul! Paul! Do not send me away from you!' she sobbed. 'Curse me, beat me, revile me to your heart's content, but let me stay beside you! I am miserable—you are miserable. In the name of God, will you never forgive me?'
He rose to his feet on the narrow white path, and she grovelled at his feet in the dust.
'I have said already that I have forgiven you!' he cried with suddenly flaring passion. 'If it will please you I don't mind repeating the words. But if I say I forgive you, will it make us all happy? Will it recall the past, or give me and Mary Stanley what we have lost?'
She sprang to her feet and confronted him, grim-faced, white-lipped, wild-eyed. His words had stung her beyond endurance, and she turned upon him with a savage courage begotten of her suffering and despair.
'Some day, Paul Massilon, you will shed bitter tears of regret and remorse for all this!' she cried, in a slow intensely tragic voice. 'The woman for whom you are eating away your heart is a vile impure creature, who would revolt you if the truth were known. I have said this before, and I swear it now. If you doubt my word, put this woman and me face to face.'
'For heaven's sake,' he exclaimed vehemently, 'do not slander the woman you robbed. Go!'
He thrust her from him angrily forgetting in his passion where they stood. She reeled, threw her arms in the air, shrieked suddenly, and then plunged downward ere Paul could stretch out a hand. He heard a loud splash, a yell of fury from the opposite shore, and then he sprang after his wife.
The pool was deep, and Massilon was but an indifferent swimmer; yet when he had clutched Margaret he somehow managed to fight his way into the shallows. Then he waded ashore on the opposite bank, where the land sloped down to the water's edge, his wife lying limp and senseless in his arms, and great patches of foam flecking both their garments.
As he crept up the bank Paul heard someone crashing through the undergrowth, and the next instant Byron Wedmore was beside him, his weird, uncanny-looking face distorted with deadliest passion now.
'Is she alive?' Wedmore cried, savagely, as he peered in the semi-light at the sweet, white face lying on Paul's breast.
'She has fainted, that is all.'
'Good job for you, too, Massilon!' Wedmore exclaimed. 'If she had been drowned, by——you would have swung for it! I saw you push her in, and you only pulled her out again because you heard the shout!'
'You miserable idiot!' Paul hissed. 'Get out of my way or I'll knock your lying empty head off!'
'Touch me if you dare, you dirty upstart!' the other cried venomously, his face made repulsive and malevolent as a demon's with rage. 'Only lay one finger upon me, Paul Massilon, and I will make my hounds tear you to bits!'
Without a word Paul turned away and went up stream with the half-crazed Wedmore snarling at his heels. At the higher end of the lake where the river was shallow, Massilon plunged in afresh, waded across, and marched through the fast-falling darkness to Milton Lodge with his senseless wife in his arms.
'Milton Lodge, Ashlynton,
'July 23rd, 188—.
'MY Dearest Mary,
Permit me to thank you a hundred thousand times for the tender, loving, and thoughtful letter you have been good enough to send me. I need not assure you, I think, that its contents were as troublous and soul-stirring for me to read as they must have been for you to write. You understand me as no other woman alive can possibly understand me; I understand you as no other living man does; both of us thoroughly comprehend the unfortunate situation in which we are placed, owing to no fault of our own, and we are, thank God, prepared to face our situation.
'I love you more devotedly, more passionately, more recklessly now than ever. I have decided that without you life is not worth living; and no matter what the consequences may be I have resolved to take you at your word. In all the solemnity possible to man, I say, to quote almost your own words, "Come, Mary, to me! Place your love, your life, your honour in my keeping, and as long as I live you shall never have cause to regret the step.'"
'I am writing these words in the coldest of cold blood. Since receiving your note I have done nothing but consider what it contains. Perhaps it would be more in accordance with the world's notions of what is right and proper if we submitted to our irreparable wrongs, suffered in silence, and tamely bending our necks to the yoke, agreed never to see each other again. But I have no mind for that kind of martyrdom. God has given me both strength and brains, you have given me your love, and I am not fool enough to deny myself all the joys of life for the empty glory of satisfying Mrs. Grundy.
'Nay more, dear Mary. If it be true that marriages are made in heaven, you and I were wed before I led Margaret Heywood to the altar. But for the damnable interference of others we should have been husband and wife to-day. Most assuredly will the Great Author of all things pardon that which we are about to do.
'As you are outspoken in your letter so will I be in mine. Had one thing not come to my knowledge, I should have decided not to write to you, but let you suffer in silence. But that discovery changed the whole current of my thoughts. What it was I will tell you when you come. Then you will say with me: "If we sin in loving, here is our justification!"
'Now as to our meeting. You will reach Ashlynton on Saturday, I suppose. If so, I will meet you at 9 p.m., at the top of the riverside steps. It is a fancy of mine that we should meet there. Where we were torn apart let us be reunited.
'Goodbye, and God bless you, dearest. I shall count the hours till we meet.
This was the letter our hero had written and posted some hours before he had fished his wife out of the pool beneath the weir; and when it reached its destination the fair woman for whom it was intended received it with undisguised eagerness and gladness.
Mary Stanley had read that impassioned communication of Paul's many hours before the time he had imagined it would get into her hands. In the absence of all information to the contrary, he had assumed that she was still employed as a mill hand; that she would be at work when his epistle arrived at her residence, and that she would not receive it until she came home from the factory in the evening.
As a matter of fact the beautiful woman had not been employed in the cotton mill for some months past—was, in fact, following no vocation at all, and yet contrived to eke out an easy, even luxurious existence.
Shortly after leaving Ashlynton the girl had elected to take leave of her relations, and go her way in life. She was living then in a fairly respectable style with a rather handsome though somewhat shady young widow, who let furnished apartments to professional people—chiefly ladies and gentlemen of the theatres and music halls—and it was understood that the ex-mill girl was in receipt of a comfortable allowance from a well-to-do relative who resided in America.
When Mary received Paul's letter she was still in her bedroom, although the bright yellow rays of the summer sun were flooding through the white lace draperies of the little window.
Mary was reading a novelette in luxurious comfort when the landlady entered. Her fair head was propped up on several pillows, her long, shining, golden masses of hair flowed over her white neck and superbly moulded shoulders, and the unfastened night-dress, revealed just a glimpse of a satiny, grandly swelling, and perfectly modelled bust, while her great lustrous eyes seemed to have imprisoned in their gray witching depths a little of the sun's warmth and light.
No wonder that the woman's magnificent face and figure had caught and held the deep, strong heart of Paul Massilon. Her flashing eyes, lustrous hair, scarlet lips, and rose and cream complexion were lures that few men could withstand. Had she cared to scatter her smiles and favours indiscriminately she might have counted her victims by the score.
'A letter, Mary.'
She took the letter, tore off the cover, and devoured its contents, her eyes gleaming, her bosom rising and falling quickly, as she gathered in the full import of what Paul Massilon had penned. The widow had left the room immediately on placing the letter in her fair lodger's hands, and Mary could permit her real feelings to show themselves in her looks and ways; could allow her thoughts to reveal themselves in slow disconnected words.
'Poor Paul!' she muttered, in a low, half-pitying, half-triumphant voice. 'That last letter has split the solid rock of his manhood. He's wax in my hands! I wonder what he would think, say, do, if he suspected the truth? What am I to do now? Play the game for all it is worth as long as it will last, or still pose as the love-sick, heart-sore, virtuous maiden, who loves madly, yet loves her honour more?'
A low peal of musical laughter flowed from Mary's pouting, red lips, and her glorious eyes glowed with the light of incarnate mischief. Had the man whose heart she now stormed, and whose life and thoughts she filled, but seen her at that moment he might have been spared much of the unspeakable torment and intolerable humiliation he was destined to go through on her account.
Some brief outline of Mary Stanley's character has already been recorded. This rare-face daughter of the people had not been wholly vicious at the beginning of her womanhood, nor was she utterly vile now, when her loveliness was supreme and her love of the wine of life and the fleshpots of the world was deep and strong and soul-absorbing.
She was passing beautiful, and she was fully aware of the power her uncommon personal charms gave her over many men. In her youth she had felt the pinch of poverty; had wrought hard in the mills of her native town for meagre wages; had been consumed with a great hunger for the good things of life, and in the callousness of her maidenhood had given herself to the handsome, graceless, and not altogether scrupulous son of her employer.
Mary had long known of the affection Paul Massilon cherished for her, but until he had lifted himself by strenuous effort above the heads of the other young follows in Ashlynton she had never given him a serious thought. Only when he became under-manager of Myrelands' collieries, and his successful book made him the talk of the little town, did she even consider that she might do worse than become Paul Massilon's wife.
Nature had certainly not intended Mary Stanley for the life of the ordinary, commonplace, humdrum British matron, whose little world is bounded by her husband, her children, her home, and a few equally dull friends.
There was a deep-seated love of the adventurous in the woman's nature. She was romantic in her ideas, passionate in her impulses, luxurious and sensuous in her desires, greedy of the praise to which her splendid face and form entitled her—wished to see all the world, and to let all the world see herself. There must have been a strain of the gipsy in her blood, and her heart was cast in the mould that fashioned the fiery souls of Circe, Helen of Troy, and the sweetheart of Praxiteles.
And this was the woman for whom Paul Massilon was ready, even eager, to risk all his future hopes of happiness; the flower-faced, voluptuous-natured creature for whose sake he was willing to endanger all his chances of a successful career.
Even a strong man is weak and impotent in the hands of the woman who has ensnared him. Believing Mary to be all that his fancy painted her, Paul was willing to go to the uttermost lengths in order to compass his ends. Even if he lost everything for her sake he would count it well lost.
IT was Saturday evening, a few minutes before 9 o'clock, and Paul Massilon was loitering once more near the stile at the higher end of the riverside steps. The sun had set, and the twilight was fast settling down. Under the trees the shadows were thick, and peace and stillness seemed to be brooding over the dim fields, the dark elms and sycamores, the white, dusty footpath leading down to the bridge, and the sluggish river, whose surface shone whitely here and there.
Lying there on the grassy bank Paul Massilon's reflections took him back to another summer evening a year before. How vividly he remembered all that had happened then; and how singularly unchanged everything about him appeared—the quiet fields, the dusking patches of woodland; the ruined forge, the gliding river, and the lights shining in the cottage windows beyond the stream.
Was it really a year or more since he crouched behind those bushes to listen to the interview which had damned in his sight the very woman for whom he was now waiting?
How rapidly the months had fled since that eventful evening! How much he had endured and learned since that time! Bitterly, fiercely, unmercifully he had fought with himself, trying bravely to crush down the passionate craving for the woman who was not his wife, and thinking in the heat of the mental and moral melee that he was nobly crushing down the ignoble longings of his nature.
But he had then deemed Many Stanley all that was vile and false; he had been compelled to see her only in the false light wherein she had been set by Harry Grant and Margaret Heywood; nor had a full knowledge of the truth been vouchsafed him before his wife made what had been thought a dying and conscience-stricken woman's confession.
What would Mary think of all when he revealed the truth? All the affectionate regard she evidently cherished for his wife would vanish, and in its stead would flourish a strong hatred. As he now felt towards the two persons who had schemed to force them apart, so would Mary feel.
Glancing at his watch in the fading light, Paul saw that 9 o'clock had passed five minutes ago, and as yet there was no sign of Mary Stanley's appearance.
Surely she would keep the appointment he had made. His letter must have reached her he thought, although no reply thereto had been sent to him. She would not fail him now. She would come to him after what she had written. Patience! patience! He must wait.
So he waited doggedly, biting his heavy black moustache with his white teeth, his face pale and grim, a hungry fire glowing within his sombre eyes, hot thoughts simmering in his brain, and over him and his feverish unrest the night gathered in the wooded river valley.
Presently the patter of light, quick feet fell on Paul's ears, and he sprang erect. The next moment he saw the shapely, dark-clad figure of a woman climbing the rude steps, and running forward he met Mary Stanley face to face.
Then he took her in his arms and kissed her with a strange, passionate deliberateness on her lips, cheeks, throat and brow. He could see that she was pale as a white rose, that her eyes were full of fear and love and wonder, and that her shapely form was trembling in his grasp.
'You are late, dear,' he began, speaking in a voice that sounded unnaturally cool—oven cold—under the circumstances. 'I was almost afraid that you had not got my letter, or that you had altered your mind at the last moment.'
'No, Paul, no. It wasn't that,' she whispered with fluttering lips. 'I was afraid—it was so light at nine, and I thought you might not wish anyone to see us together.'
'It does not matter much now who sees us in company, Mary,' he remarked gravely. 'My mind was fully made up before I wrote to you. Is yours made up as well now?'
'I am here, Paul, at your bidding,' she answered lowly, as she stood before him with drooping face and twitching lips. 'You said, "Come, Mary!" and God help me, I could not keep away.'
'I am glad you have come, darling,' he cried, his passion beginning to fill his voice. 'My life was becoming too miserable and insufferable to be borne. My thoughts of you, myself, and my wife were driving me mad slowly, but surely and irresistibly. If you had not resolved to come and save me, Mary, heaven alone can tell what foolish thing I might have done.'
'But, dear, it is all so terrible to think of,' she exclaimed faintly and he saw her shudder as her mental vision pictured the future.
'Terrible in thought only, dear one,' he responded, as his arm stole round her supple waist. 'Before you commit yourself to my care try to look at the whole thing calmly,' he went on, and his tones grew suddenly dispassionate. 'We love each other, and it is not our fault that we are not husband and wife at this moment. We were parted by the meanest and most contemptible trick that God ever allowed to be perpetrated upon a couple of lovers. What are we to do? Tamely submit to the wrong, and live the remainder of our days in misery? I say no! Let us face our destinies bravely. With youth and love and hope in our hands what have we to fear?'
'Paul! Paul!' she sobbed with her hands covering her face, 'I am at your mercy! I love you! I love you! Oh, God! why am I not strong and good, instead of weak and loving only, so that I could save us both!'
She broke down completely, wept copiously, lay storm-tossed and quivering in his loving arms, while he kissed and comforted her with soft words. He spoke of his own deep undying affection and her lone and friendless condition; told her of the money he had saved, of the fame and fortune he was going to win for her sake. They would go away where they were unknown, and he would make her life one long golden dream of love and joy.
'I do not fear for myself, Paul!' she said shortly when her composure was regained. 'Nor do I even fear for you. But I cannot—I dare not forget your wife. She is so noble-hearted, dear, and was so good to me years ago. If Margaret were not your wife I should have no scruples!'
'For heaven's sake,' he cried passionately, 'don't speak of my wife in that strain! Do you know what you say, Mary? When you learn the truth you will cease to admire and respect her, as l have done!'
'Why, Paul? Why?' she demanded, clasping her slim fingers on his sleeve and gazing upon his white, distorted countenance with wide eyes. 'You said something in your letter about a discovery which had changed the whole current of your thoughts.'
'I did!' was his quick retort.
'And if you had not made that discovery, Paul, you would not have told me to come here?'
'I would not, as heaven is my judge, Mary!' was his solemn asseveration. 'Before that knowledge was given to me I had resolved to go my way and do my duty—let you go your way and do yours. But for that discovery we should not be here now—would never have met again!'
'In the name of God,' she said in an intense manner, as if she had become suddenly infected by his solemnity, 'what was it? Tell me Paul! You said you would!'
'I will tell you!' he said, trying to speak calmly. 'The part Harry Grant played that night a year since you know; but you do not know who was the originator of the whole vile scheme. Harry was only a tool—my wife was the schemer!'
'Your wife!' she cried. 'Margaret Heywood guilty of such a thing! It is impossible, Paul! I refuse to believe it! Who told you this?'
'My wife told me all.'
'My God, when? How came she to tell you, and where?' Mary Stanley demanded, her beauteous face lighting up with sudden animation, her great eyes flashing with vicious anger, and her limp figure growing rigid with excitement.
He related all the circumstances which had led up to his wife's confession, and she followed him eagerly, intently, her hands still closed upon his arm, her big eyes emitting ominous flashes, her red lips pressed together tightly, her nostrils dilated, her bosom swelling, and the whole aspect of her face vindictive, relentless.
'This is the truth, Paul, you have told me?' she said when he had finished. 'Before God, you swear your wife confessed to this?'
'It is the truth!' he said, quietly. 'If you doubt my word go to her!'
'I believe you! I believe you!' she exclaimed, in tones of suppressed fury. 'And I am glad that I know, Paul. Glad that I know! If I fall now she dare not throw one single stone at me. What is that?'
Her fingers gripped his arm like a vice, and her frightened face was thrust almost against his own. With a muttered word of assurance he drew her to him to find that she was actually shivering with fear. Then he listened, and the clear piping of some wandering whistler intoning a popular tune floated to them on the quiet summer air. Another moment, and footfalls were heard approaching.
'Oh, Paul, he is coming this way!' she whispered in undisguised trepidation. 'Who can it be? Do not let him see me, please!'
He smiled grimly at her fears, and wondered at her agitation, setting it down as being due to her maidenly scruples. For the moment he had forgotten that he was a married man, and that she was not his wife.
Realising the situation, and divining her wishes, he took her arm, and led her through the rank grass to the shelter of some tall bushes. There, safe in the thick gloom, they paused, stooping, and the clear-throated whistler sauntered musically on his way in the gathering darkness.
FOR several days after she received that startling and quite unexpected sousing in the river, Margaret Massilon was confined to the house—almost to her own rooms. Her recovery from that dangerous illness was too recent to justify the poor woman in running any unnecessary risks, and fearing that the slight chill she had caught might result in painful developments, unless guarded against, she had gone forthwith to bed, and had remained there at her aunt's request for the whole of the following day.
But regard for her own personal welfare was not the principal reason for that proceeding. For other reasons Mrs. Massilon was pleased to be out of her husband's sight and way for a little space.
That stormy interview which had taken place between them at the weir, ere her fall and sudden immersion brought it to an abrupt termination, had made plain to the fondly loving wife one very painful truth. All her husband's deepest thoughts and tenderest aspirations were still centred upon the beauteous woman he had loved and lost.
It was clear also that he still regarded his old sweetheart as a pure and noble creature who had been subjected to abominable treatment at her hands and those of Harry Grant; and until she was able to prove that Mary Stanley was otherwise than Paul thought her, it would be useless to attempt any reconciliation between herself and her dear husband.
Hence Margaret was glad to avoid Paul for a space until his passion had exhausted itself. Her faith in his absolute fidelity and honesty was unshaken. She believed, moreover, that she was largely to blame for his present attitude of mind: was quite convinced as well that when he learned the truth respecting the worthless woman he had made an idol of, his common-sense and unbending rectitude would bring him back to her side penitent and loving.
In this spirit now the noble-souled wife took up her cross, resolved to carry it to the end with the fortitude and resignation of one who was herself a sinner. God in his own good time would unmask her rival for her husband's heart, would lift the veil from Paul's eyes, and then the crown of her life would be won.
To account for her drenching Margaret had informed her relative that she had stumbled and fallen into the river, and that statement had been accepted without the least suspicion of its being a falsehood. Mr. Byron Wedmore, with all his shortcomings, was evidently no gossip-monger, for what he had witnessed had so far been kept locked up in his breast.
The days drifted by drearily enough for the patient wife; week after week was swallowed up in the gulf of time, the months came and went, and the autumn slowly merged itself into winter.
The flight of many days, while it had not placed Paul Massilon and his wife upon the friendly—almost affectionate—footing which had marked the earlier days of their married life, had yet sensibly softened the acerbity of the feeling which had characterised the husband's attitude at the time he and Margaret had that stormy passage of arms beside the weir.
He had assumed again his former demeanour of studious politeness, and her love and patience were apparently limitless. It had been a source of deep joy to her to find that his novel had met with decided and immediate success. Many of the most influential literary organs had warmly commended the work; two or three of the reviewers had ventured to predict a successful and even a brilliant career for its author; several editions had been issued and exhausted; at the beginning of the winter the sale of the book was still going on vigorously; and two or three commissions for magazine stories had already been offered to and accepted by Massilon.
With one notable exception Paul's life still moved along its former grooves. The major part of each day was spent in the seclusion of his lofty little den. Here he would read and write in solitude and apparent content while the daylight lasted.
Then when the night fell the author would betake himself to the town, where he would remain occasionally until the small hours beyond the twelve.
But this new feature in Paul's life caused his patient, affectionate, and trusting wife no deep uneasiness. She knew that he had joined one of the best clubs in the town; she understood he was very popular there; and knowing the stress of mind and soul he had passed through, before and after her confinement, she was happy in thinking he was finding an anodyne for his feelings in the society of his fellows.
Not infrequently the neglected but uncomplaining woman heard her spouse stumble up the stairs, after letting himself in with his latch-key, hours after all the other inmates of the house were asleep. Paul's friends were evidently sworn friends of Bacchus; but it was better, she told herself with a sigh, that he should drown his cares in the company of bon-vivants than fret out his soul for the meretricious creature whose physical splendour had ensnared his great heart.
Now and again Margaret had knelt beside her chamber door when his unsteady feet began to mount the stair, fearful sometimes that he might fall and injure himself. As he slouched past her darkened room, unsuspicious of her presence, or regardless of it, mouthing huskily as he staggered by to his lonely couch, she would peer lovingly at his flushed features, and pray to God to save her husband from himself ere it was too late.
Once only had she confronted him when thus in an inebriated state. They had come suddenly face to face in the lighted corridor outside her room. For a moment he had confronted her with a strange wild look of shame in his burning eyes. Then with a hoarse cry he had flung his hands to his face and shambled to his room.
On the threshold of her own chamber she had turned to watch his flight. She saw him sweep open the door, and threw himself in despair on the bed within the room; then the door swung slowly to, and hid him from her gaze.
But something stirring in her breast turned her to his room. Turning down the gas she stole in the darkness towards his door, her naked, little, white feet falling noiselessly on the floor. Silently kneeling, she listened with her heart in her throat, and what she heard stung her to sudden, loving, pitying tears.
Paul was sobbing, praying, cursing like a strong man in agony—sobbing over his own follies, praying for strength and a return to manliness, cursing the weakness which was dragging him down to hell.
Then she crept back to bed, and prayed until merciful sleep came.
A few days after this Mrs. Massilon had an ugly surprise. Going across the market square in the town with her aunt, her eyes fell on a well-remembered face. That face belonged to Mary Stanley, who was wonderfully well dressed, and looked more wondrously beautiful than ever.
Their eyes met as they passed, and Margaret could not avoid noticing and wondering at the look of devilish triumph which burned in Mary's eyes, and hung about her sneering red lips. Later she came to understand.
Suddenly the thunderbolt fell out of the skies the sorely-tried wife had thought were clearing. One morning the following anonymous note came to her hand.
'Do you know or care where your husband spends his nights?
If you do care, and would know, watch Brook Cottage, on Chorley road.
The lady he visits is an old acquaintance of your own.
AFTER reading that anonymous letter, which had been sent to her by someone who only cared to be known for the present as 'A Friend,' Mrs. Massilon, as may readily be supposed, was miserable enough for several days.
Loving her husband as she did with a deep, pure-souled, and abiding affection, her first impulse was to reject with utter scorn the suggestion of his marital infidelity. That he had ample reason for being bitter and morose and even neglectful towards herself she was prepared to allow. She had sinned, had confessed her sin, and his studiously veiled abhorrence of her society was the punishment Paul saw fit to mete out to her.
But that a man such as her husband could permit himself to fall so low as 'A Friend' suggested, was beyond belief. His great heart, his deep, true nature, his unwavering hostility to vice, his unswerving rectitude of purpose, would save Paul from wallowing in the mire of that slough of the swinish multitude.
Such were the thoughts first generated in her mind by the few unsigned sentences, and her resolve at the time was to pay no heed to the gloomy warning of the unknown scribbler. She would treat the note as all such nameless trash should he treated. Even in this bitter hour of her trial she would not resign her faith in the man she called husband.
And then there flashed through her brain the recollection of another warning which had been anonymous. That letter had only revealed the naked truth. Was it possible that 'A Friend's' warning had a grain of truth in it?
Once the distracted wife's cogitations were set flowing in the channel of suspicion there was no resisting their onrush. Now that she came to think of it, all Paul's doings for the last month or two lent colour to the charge levelled against him.
Had all those late hours of bacchanalian revelry been spent at his club, and with his friends, as she had supposed? Or was it possible that Paul had fallen to depths more gross and infamous than that of riotous conviviality?
And this woman at Brook Cottage in Chorley road! If it were true, who could she be? Some old acquaintance of her own, the writer stated. Surely not. What woman she had ever known would stoop to such infamy?
And then suddenly Margaret Massilon's face flamed scarlet, while her heart grew heavy and icily cold. Mary Stanley! Her lips framed that name of evil omen, but were too paralysed to give the words sound.
She covered her tortured face with her hands and moaned like a stricken, dumbly-suffering animal. She understood then. The devilish sneer which had curled Mary Stanley's red lips the other day when they met, the fire of sardonic, unholy triumph which had glowed in her Circean eyes then, were no more a mystery to her. The spells, the witchery of the lovely wanton had prevailed, and Paul was writhing in the serpent's coils.
She understood now the hurricane of passion which had swept across her husband's soul that night when she knelt at his door. His tears of remorse, his clamant prayers, his husky objurgations directed against himself, puzzled her wits no longer. He had realised the truth that night when she faced him—he knew then that he was floundering in the Bottomless Pit, and his perishing soul and lost manhood were crying out bitterly for redemption.
For a week or so the wife's heart bled in silence and secrecy. Vainly for days she suffered and prayed, trying to mark out a course over the tempest-stirred waters around her. At last from the confused tangle of her thoughts one resolve stood out clear.
Proof! proof! At all costs proof! Let the consequences be what they might, she must know where she was standing. As yet she knew nothing but her own suspicions, and the scathing innuendoes of her unknown correspondent.
Even the vilest woman finds no satisfaction in the thought of a husband's faithlessness. To a noble, pure-hearted wife the remotest suspicion of such a thing is an unspeakable torment—a demoniacal torture smacking of hell.
For days Margaret determined to seek out Brook Cottage, to discover the identity of the woman there but her courage failed her, and the veil was not lifted. Many a night she resolved to dog her husband's footstep's, and again the crucial moment found her weak and unnerved.
But one night she took her courage firmly in her hands, when a frenzy of despair filled her from foot to crown, and faring forth in the frosty air she set her face along the quiet, deserted, almost houseless country lane which led in a north-easterly direction towards the thriving little town of Chorley.
It was mid-November now, and the first snowfall of the winter lay thick and white on the whole stretch of countryside, covering the brown, sodden fields with a marvellous carpeting of glistening fleece, hooding the farmsteads and scattered cottages with weird-looking nightcaps, robing hedges and trees with shiny fretwork of hoar, trodden hard and black and slippery in the highways and footpaths.
Before stealing forth from Milton Lodge Margaret had ascertained the fact that Paul was in his dressing-room, and then putting on her heaviest and warmest ulster she went out, telling her aunt she was going to a friend's house across the lane, and would be back before long.
As she strode rapidly along the high road with her back to Ashlynton, Margaret could not avoid wondering as to what would be the outcome of her adventure. Her face was strangely pale and anxious, but her step was firm and her heart was resolute, and as she sped onwards she tied a thick, close-meshed black veil over her features.
Brook Cottage was situated about a mile from her home. Often enough in her youthful rambles Mrs. Massilon had passed the picturesque white-washed cottage, and had admired its pretty situation and surroundings, never dreaming then that its low, sloping roof of slate, tiny hedgerow of box, small patch of flower-beds, and little diamond-paned windows would ever loom largely in her future life.
In ten or a dozen minutes she was hurrying past the low rusty iron gates, let into the stone wall, which marked the neglected entrance to Mr. Byron Wedmore's ancient house; and ten minutes later she was standing in front of the cottage she had come to watch.
The lane was deserved, but a bright light was shining behind the red blind which covered the lower window of the house, on either side of which a tree-dotted meadow extended. Right before the cottage on the opposite side of the high road was a strip of dingy woodland bounded by a tall, ragged hedge of hawthorn.
Sauntering past the house a few paces Margaret discovered a gap in the hedge, and through this she made her way, afterwards quietly retracing her steps, over the crisp, untrodden snow till Brook Cottage and its one bright, balefully-red window shone out like an evil eye in front of her.
Crouching in the cover of the snow-wreathed hedge she awaited developments, her face grim and gray, her dark eyes filled with a feverish fire, her heart leaping under her dark robe, and a curious feeling of self-contempt beginning to live in her brain.
She was there as a spy! The man she had vowed to love, honour, and obey was the object of her espial. Well, she had loved and honoured and obeyed him, she cried out to that feeling that was stinging her with its small still voice—nay, more, she was there only because she loved and honoured him still.
Still she waited, unconscious of the chill air, and presently the sliding clatter of feet striking upon the frozen footpath made her heart jump. She pressed her hands to her bosom, shut her lips tightly, and then laughed a gurgling, hysterical laugh of joyous relief.
The feet that had startled her were those of a young man and woman—sweethearts evidently from their happy prattle, jocund mirth, and closely clasped arms. Soon the grinding sound of their feet melted away, and Margaret still crouched there with her eyes on the red square blotch of luminous colour across the way.
Suddenly the cottage door opened and a woman's tall, shapely figure was silhouetted in the doorway. Behind that dark shape a lamp burned in the corridor, and, although the woman's face was wrapped in shadow, Margaret needed no further assurance as to its identity.
It was Mary Stanley who stood there on the threshold, her eyes sweeping the white highroad as if in quest of someone. Then she stepped back, the door swung to again, and only the redly lit window stared out at the white country and the waiting wife.
The minutes fled, and, again the clangour of feet rang out on the still, frosty air. But now the footsteps were quick and vigorous, each stride ringing clear as the foot struck the icebound path. Then Margaret saw a tall, strong form loom between her and the red blind, and when her eyes cleared she saw her husband at the open door, saw the Circe within welcome him effusively, then the door closed on them both.
For some moments the unhappy woman grovelled there in the snow, where she had fallen prostrate in her agitation, careless now of all that might happen. Her cup of bitterness at last had overflowed and drowned every atom of hope in her heart. What mattered it now what befell her? Paul was lost to her, and all her dreams had vanished like last summer's flowers.
Crushed into the very dust, her spirits broken and weary of life, she lay there moaning in her black woe and deep degradation. And then the crisp crackling of the frozen snow crunched under hasty feet caught her ear, and a man came running to her side.
Dazed, half-blinded with hot, bitter tears, she struggled to her feet and faced the hateful and malevolently-eerie countenance of Byron Wedmore, at whose heels the huge mastiff was standing. His face was almost as white as her own, but his small eyes glowered triumphantly, as Mary Stanley's had glowered that day.
'You've seen him! You've seen them!' he hissed in a low, passionate screech, 'I saw you go by, and I followed. I sent that letter, and I have been waiting every night since then. You didn't come very soon, but I knew you would come at last. So I waited and waited, and now you know all. Now you know what a vile, scoundrelly upstart you married! You must——'
'Hush!' she cried weakly. 'You must not say one word against my husband.'
'Your husband!' He laughed a low, strange laugh that made her shiver. 'What are you going to do now?' he cried.
'Nothing,' she said coldly, as she drew her ulster about her.
'Nothing,' he muttered in amaze. 'You must do something. You are a woman, and you will surely not stand this.'
'I am a woman, and I am going home!' she answered, proudly. 'Good night, Mr. Wedmore!'
'Do not go!' he whispered. 'Come with me and I will knock. If he raises a hand against you I will make Sultan tear them both to pieces!'
'You are mad!' was her firm retort. 'What right have you here at all? How dare you spy upon my husband?'
He gaped at her in open-mouthed wonder, fell aside, and she strode away, slipping through the first gap in the hedge. On the highroad she found Wedmore and the great hound again at her side.
'Pardon me, Mrs. Massilon,' he said, humbly, 'but if you don't mind I will see you home, as the road is rather lonely.' She made no remonstrance at the moment, and he added, 'You will never live with him again. Free yourself, and then I will mar——-'
'Thank you!' she said, in tones that were sharper than the frosty air. 'But I shall never require another husband. Good night! I insist upon going home alone!'
He stopped suddenly, unashamed, yet irresolute, and she swept on.
WHEN Margaret Massilon returned to Milton Lodge she found that her aunt had retired for the night owing to a severe headache, and the troubled woman was pleased that it was not necessary to meet and withstand the questioning fire of her kindly-hearted relative's observant eyes.
Bidding the domestics to retire also, Mrs. Massilon repaired to the small sitting-room, and casting herself wearily into a chair tried to face the situation calmly—to think out clearly and dispassionately her own future course of action. What was she to do now that the worst suspicions had resolved themselves into convictions? How was she to comfort herself in this supreme crisis of her young life? Was there no way of unravelling the Gordian knot into which her own and Paul's life had drifted? Was it imperative even now to cut the horrid tangle?
In a way that was strangely cold and quite unimpassioned, Margaret put those questions to herself one by one, and just in the same cool, reassuring spirit, she endeavoured to puzzle out an answer to each bewildering interrogation.
The tortured woman's attitude at that moment was powerfully indicative of the integrity of her heart—the justness of her judgment. Honestly she could not blame her husband for the present deplorable condition of affairs. She had been directly responsible for the initial blunder in penning that anonymous note to the man she wished to save—the man she loved and desired to win.
Paul was blameless! If he had sinned, his sin was due to the warmth and nobleness of his heart, rather than to any inherent viciousness. He still regarded Mary Stanley as a pure woman who had suffered a monstrous wrong, and to atone for the wrong done had offered himself as a sacrifice.
Some day, when the frail beauty's real self was revealed, he would come to his right mind—would abhor the vice and degradation into which he now so willingly and recklessly flung himself. Till the arrival of that time how was she to carry herself before her husband and the world?
To call the law to her assistance was utterly beyond her thoughts and wishes. To lay bare her heart and her woes to the public and her friends was horrible even in contemplation. Rather would she endure her sufferings in silence—even were they intensified a hundred fold—than fill the papers and the mouths of the brutal gossip-mongers with the tragical story of her married life.
Perhaps if she were to make an appeal to her husband's better nature the manhood in him would assert itself, and he would shake the snares and wiles and witcheries of that dreaded Circe from his limbs.
Even Mary Stanley herself might not have sunk so low as to be beyond the reach of a suffering, heart-broken wife's plea. Surely there was a spark of womanliness in her yet, which would rise in revolt against the unholy work she was perpetrating. For Paul's own sake she would spare and save him.
But Margaret's heart sank when she thought of facing her illegitimate rival. The recollection of those sneering red lips, and balefully shining eyes, filled her veins with ice. To crave mercy at Mary's hands would only be to invite vulgar insults and unsparing contumely.
Sitting there beside the fire, which was fast subsiding into a grate full of white ashes, she reviewed the whole pitiful circumstances of her position, and found no opening through which she could crawl with either satisfaction or dignity.
The house was silent now as the peaceful white night outside. Her aunt and the servants were slumbering in peace, and she alone was miserable. The little toy clock on the mantelpiece was pointing to midnight; in a minute its silvery chimes would announce the beginning of another day of woe.
Save for her bonnet, which she had cast from her on entering the room, Margaret was dressed still as when she went forth on that wretched quest. The folds of her heavy woollen ulster still enveloped her gracious figure, though she had torn it and the dress beneath open at the throat to breathe more freely. Her boots were sodden with the snow, which, clinging to them, had now melted and stained the bright carpet; her heavy masses of dark hair were pouring over her shoulders, for in tearing off her headgear she had disarranged its fastenings, and the black tresses accentuated the pallor of her pale, pure, and weary face.
The midnight hour came and passed, and the silvery tinkle of the minute bell pealed very clearly and eerily through the silent louse. And then, while the musical tremors of the dozen strokes were lingering in the air, the waiting wife heard another sound which sent her lips together, lit up her eyes for an instant, and set her loving heart aflutter.
It was her husband. She could hear the grating sound of his key as he thrust it in the keyhole, could hear the snap of the lock; and then the rustle of his feet as he scraped them on the mat before closing the door again and locking it afresh.
Margaret did not move. She knew that her husband would be there in a couple of moments, and that the sight of her sitting there would astonish, annoy, perhaps enrage him. A kind of resolution, which was queerly compounded of courage and timidity, hope and fear, kept her in her seat, although her soft lips grew tremulous, and her face became more blanched.
Then she caught the sound of measured paces, heard the opening of the sitting-room door, felt rather than saw his surprised stare, but caught clearly the half angry mutter of surprise that dropped from his lips.
For two or three breathless moments Massilon stood in the doorway, with the knob of the door grasped in his palm. He was not drunk on this occasion, was scarcely tipsy; and his early return perchance accounted for his comparatively sober state.
The unexpected appearance of his wife, sitting there with her ashy countenance, sodden boots and ulster, steadied him, and the snatch of song he had been humming seemed to have frozen upon his tongue. He stared at her wonderingly, questioningly, angrily. She felt his eyes, but did not raise her own.
'Good night!' he said, suddenly, as he strode into the apartment. 'You are up later than usual this evening.'
There was a distinct challenge in his voice, which was only half under restraint; and yet it was not unkind in its notes, she thought. He walked to the gas, turned it on fully, and then divested himself of his topcoat, which he threw on the couch. Then he faced her with curiosity in his eyes.
'I have been out,' she said, quietly.
'And have only just returned, I suppose?' he interrogated, in that undecided voice.
'No, I have been home two hours or more.'
She answered his question in a low, matter-of-fact manner, trying to keep her misery out of her tones, and never looking at him or showing any inclination to retire.
'Did your friends bore you?' he queried, as he seated himself calmly. 'Or have you been unwell that you are here and dressed?'
'I saw no friends.'
'Your aunt told me you had gone——'
'My aunt did not know where I was going! I told her a lie to keep the truth from her,' she interrupted quickly, but still coldly. 'I have not been unwell, thank you. Only the usual heartache!'
'May I ask where you have been?' he asked in a new voice.
'If you care to know where I have been.'
'Where have you been then?'
'If I tell you, may I put a like question to you and hope for a truthful answer?'
Her eyes were lifted and rested on his face an instant. She saw him flush, start, and then he cried with a mirthless laugh,
'Then I have been to Brook Cottage. I was curious to know who lived there. As your wife I thought I had a right to know where and how, and in what company, you spent so many of your evenings.'
'And you learned?'
'Was the knowledge pleasant?' he demanded, as he leant towards her, with a half-sneer on his lips and a strange look in his eyes.
'It was unpleasant; but the knowledge may be of use to me. Better to swallow a nasty truth than fondle a pleasant illusion.'
'I trust you are satisfied now!'
'Not satisfied, for I cannot forget that I am your wife in name and deed. Still, I am glad, in a sense, to know the worst. A neglected wife ought to know the woman who robs her.'
'You dare to talk of robbery!' he cried, angry perhaps because she was so cold and apparently impassive. 'Who was the original thief? Tell me that! Was it Mary Stanley or you?'
'I have nothing to offer in extenuation of my sin. What I did was done with a pure heart and good intentions.'
'The road to hell is paved with those things!' he retorted bitterly.
'So I find now I am faring that way. May you, I pray, never realise the same truth. I have sinned, and I am willing to make expiation!' she said lowly, humbly. 'God is still in heaven, I believe, and some day he will tear away the veil that now blinds you!'
'What do you mean?' he hissed, as he rose to his feet, and took one step towards her.
'I mean that the fair-faced devil who is dragging you down to hell is unfit to embrace your feet!'
'Hell is an unknown quantity that puzzles even the divines!' he sneered. 'The hell of one is not infrequently the heaven of another—just as it happens to be in this case. With Mary life is heaven itself. With you existence is becoming an intolerable hell!'
'I know it; and yet I hope and pray for the light!'
'The light! The light!' he cried, in accents of ineffable sadness and despair, as if her words had touched some deeper and softer chord of his nature. 'What is the light? Where is it now? Whence come these maddening, miserable shadows that darken all our lives? Who will burst this horrid tanglement and set us free? I cannot do it, but you must! I am faithless—free yourself, and let me make an honest woman of the one you would not permit me to marry!'
'I shall never try to obtain a divorce!' she said with a cold feeling at her heart, as she groped to her feet.
'You must!' he hissed. 'For my sake and that woman's! For your own sake as well! I beseech you to do this thing!'
'And I refuse to do it!' she returned. 'I am your wife, and I will never leave you. You cannot divorce me, for I have done no wrong. I will never give you up to that woman. Never! never! never!'
'You must—I insist!' he pleaded passionately. 'Do not drive me to despair. For good or ill my life, my heart and soul are bound up in Mary! Spare me—spare us all by setting me free!'
'I shall fly then!'
'Do. And when the madness is past I shall welcome you back. Whatever you do I shall always be your wife. I love you too much to release you now, when release would mean your ruin. She is a bad woman—an ignoble wretch—a base, unprincipled, heartless wanton, who ruins for ruin's sake! My sin stands white before the blackness of her iniquity! She——'
'Hold!' he thundered in living rage. 'By——-you shall not defame Mary in my presence. What she is you have made her. But for your infamous trickery she would have been an honest woman to-day.'
'Honest women are not to be made out of gill-flirts!' she retorted weakly, but uncowed. 'She was another's mistress before you fell to her level, and better women have been stoned to death!'
He took one stride towards her, his eyes on fire with maddest passion, his hand clenched and raised. Then he paused suddenly, awed by the terror in her eyes; she swayed, and emitting a low, piercing shriek, sank a senseless heap at his feet.
He stared at his wife impotently, and then a white-robed, white-faced woman glided into the room.
THE DAY following the night when Margaret Massilon went along Chorley road on her unpleasant work of espial was spent by her husband in the strict seclusion of his study. When his wife fainted and her aunt came forward Paul had slunk away to his room, uttering never a word of apology to the amazed woman, and feeling ashamed of himself in spite of his blazing anger.
Next morning when he awoke he betook himself to his den, in which a cosy fire was already burning, and there he remained all the morning, noon, and evening, never quitting the place even for a meal.
His unusual absence from the breakfast table was not commented upon, but Margaret sent one of her maids to her husband to ask if he would have his morning meal there. His gruff 'No!' had frightened the girl from the door; and when she presented herself afresh at noonday it was with considerable misgivings.
But her master was in a calmer mood then—was hungry, and permitted dinner to be brought to him. Some hours later he had tea there; but never once did he set foot outside the limits of his snug retreat.
That day was perhaps one of the blackest and most wretched Massilon had ever spent within those four walls. At first he sat musing at the fire, his handsome face sullen and grim, his elbows resting on his knees, his cheeks enclosed in his palms, and a whole sea of speculation flowing in his eyes, now black and forbidding, then flashing with sudden fire.
The attitude his wife had seen fit to adopt had staggered Paul. That she possessed unflinching courage and an inflexible will he well knew, and he had expected that those very qualities would have spurred her on to the realisation of her vengeance.
And lo! she refused to move in the matter. She was content to suffer in silence—was satisfied to remain passive and let him run to the devil in his own fashion. But that which he desired her to do she declined doing. He was chained to her with fetters that only herself could break, and she refused to weaken a single link of the chain that bound them together.
Wearying of his barren cogitations he tried to write, and found his brain sterile; then he essayed to read, and caught his vision flying beyond the printed page. In despair he strode to the window and allowed his gaze to wander over the wide, white valley below.
Shortly after noon snow began to fall afresh, and for a long time he stood there watching the eddying flakes that swirled and danced here and there like motes in a sunbeam. But the snowflakes were thin and watery, and when they alighted on the window sill and panes they melted rapidly into liquid.
Then he went back to the hearth, and with his back to the comfortable glow, his eyes bent upon the white curtain of erratic specks, he found himself grappling vainly with the great puzzle of his affairs.
He was chained by Fate to enforced inactivity. His wife would not free him, and his mistress refused to fly with him until he was free. At the last moment Mary's courage had failed her. Despite all his passionate urgings she had taken the cottage, and refused to quit it until he was free to marry her.
Their clandestine intimacy had no terrors for Mary, but she feared to fare forth into the great world at his side until such time as he could make her his wife. How strange were these women, he ruefully soliloquised. Neither of them had done what he had reason to expect. Between them he was impotent as one of those flimsy ice-stars fluttering in the wind.
When night fell Paul dressed hurriedly and went out, striking into the fields where he was not likely to be disturbed. The snow had run into sleet now, and the sleet threatened to turn into rain. Heedless of the driving sheets, which stung his face and drenched his garments, he trudged on, chewing the unsavoury end of his reflections, and smoking doggedly at his pipe.
It was nearly midnight when he returned to Milton Lodge, sodden and weather-beaten, feeling depressed but unrepentant, and still thinking somehow that his trudge through the flying sleet and viscous mire had purged his heart and swept his head clear of many cobwebs.
He had let himself in with his latch-key, and was freeing himself from his saturated hat and coat when Miss Bradshaw came forward, staring somewhat curiously at his stained and battered condition.
'Good evening, Mr. Massilon,' the lady said, politely enough. 'Have you seen Margaret?'
'Of course not. Where is she? I wasn't aware that she was out!' he snapped out not too amiably.
'She went out shortly after you did, and she has not yet returned. I wonder where she can have got to. It is a most unusual occurrence for Margaret to be away from home so late—especially on such a night as this.'
'She is all right somewhere, I daresay,' was his gruff retort. 'Have you any idea, Miss Bradshaw, where my wife has gone?'
'Not the least. She received a letter this afternoon, and I imagine that may have had something to do with her going out.'
'Perhaps!' he snarled, wondering if it were possible that Margaret had bearded Mary Stanley in her den. Then, he added, more pleasantly, 'If you are tired you need not stay up. I will wait for my wife. I daresay she has been detained somewhere and will not be long. Good-night!'
She returned his good night with evident reluctance, and he went into the sitting-room, where a good fire was burning. Here he divested himself of his mud-bespattered boots and soaked apparel, made an onslaught upon the commissariat department, and then, with bread and cheese and ale at his elbow, drew a chair to the fire, stretched his slippered feet to the comforting glow, and refreshed himself inwardly and outwardly also.
As he appeased his hunger and thawed his sodden frame, his thoughts assumed a more healthful and orthodox complexion. The resolution he had half-made during his long, wild helter-skelter through miry lanes and reeking fields, assumed clearer and firmer proportions now.
He was disgusted with himself, annoyed at his wife, and even disappointed with Mary. He was tired of the passionate whirl, the mad, sensuous intoxication of the life he had been leading of late—was sick of the aimless, profitless game he was playing; all that was best in him revolted against it, and he was determined to bring matters to a climax.
His wife had chosen, and Mary must choose. Margaret had denied him the liberty he desired, basing her denial upon the highest and purest motives that could actuate a wife. In his heart he could not, in his sober moments, blame Margaret for taking the course she had resolved to pursue.
But with Mary it was different. She had elected to sin secretly, rather than frankly and openly as he wished. To have faced the world bravely, in scorn of consequence, would have ennobled their ill-starred love and themselves; while this clandestine business only tended to degrade their passion, and place it on a level of a vulgar liaison.
He abhorred it all and it must end. Unless the woman he loved decided to dare all things for his sake he would leave her. His position was a false one and it was repugnant to him. He would endure it no longer. If Mary cared to go away with him he would go; if she would not go he would quit her for ever and stand by his wife.
Storm-tossed and blinded as Paul was by his infatuation he had not lost his reason completely—even where Mary was concerned. Even then as he mused by the fire the scales were falling from his eyes—the light for which his wife had prayed was beginning to dawn, although he did not know.
His illicit love had already cost him dearly. Freely as he had poured out his affection, so had he let his little fortune flow into the maw of the frail insatiate beauty. Mary, who was ever in a state of chronic necessity, had all a vulgar woman's love of fine clothes and showy gew-gaws; and intoxicated by his passion he allowed her to bleed his purse freely, until there was left in it small store of yellow blood to draw.
He regretted her extravagance, chided her gently as to her luxurious tastes, sometimes blamed himself for allowing the golden stream to glide so easily through his fingers; but so far he had never seriously questioned the affection and disinterestedness of his mistress.
Once a transient flare of suspicion had flashed through his soul, rending it with a subtle, excruciating pang. But he had thrust his misgivings behind him with a savage scorn of his own mistrustful nature. 'My God!' he had cried to himself, 'if Mary is not true, can there be such a thing as truth in the world?'
But that shadow of a suspicion was like the tiny mustard seed so loved of allegorists. It sank in his heart and germinated there, bringing forth others of its kind.
Musing by the fire, Massilon fell asleep, and when he awoke the fire was a smouldering heap of gray ash, the tiny clock on the mantel was pointing to the hour of seven, and the day-dawn was showing faintly behind the drawn blinds.
Jumping to his feet hurriedly, Paul turned out the gas, drew up the blinds, and then rushed to the kitchen, where he found the housemaid at work.
'Your mistress, Martha?' he said quickly. 'She has returned, I suppose?'
'No, sir, not yet.'
'And where is Miss Bradshaw?' he demanded. 'Hasn't she come down yet?'
'She has just gone out, sir, to look for Mrs. Massilon.'
'Humph!' he muttered, in a voice of some concern. 'Let me know at once, Martha, when either of them returns?'
He turned away and sought his own room. There he flung himself on the bed, but with no desire to sleep, for his mind was filled now with thoughts of Margaret's disappearance. Where could she have gone, and what had detained her? Was it possible that she had gone to Brook Cottage, and that awkward complications had ensued?
No, that was not possible. His wife would not permit herself to fall to that vulgar depth. Still she was absent—missing without reason. Was her flight due to their last quarrel? Had she fled from him in fear? Did she feel unequal to the task she had imposed upon herself.
The morning post might bring some information. If his wife had sought refuge with some of her friends she would at all events apprise her aunt of her safety, if she did not disclose her actual whereabouts. So thinking, he waited for developments, only vaguely uneasy as yet.
But when the post arrived and without news of Margaret, Paul's interest was aroused. Making his toilet he descended to breakfast to find Miss Bradshaw disrobing herself. The good woman was pale and heavy-eyed and quite cast down. She had visited all their friends in the neighbourhood, but from none of them had she been able to glean the least tidings of poor Margaret. She was terribly afraid that something dreadful had happened, and Paul's weak attempts at comforting her were useless.
In some perplexity now he retreated to his study, still believing and vaguely desirous that Margaret would return soon. Standing at the window he again swept the river valley with his incurious gaze. The morn was chill and gray; a thin sleety rain was falling slowly, the snow was vanishing from the drenched fields, and the black stream was flowing fuller and faster now.
The day spent itself wearily, night fell blackly, and still there was no news of the missing woman. Then Massilon was startled by a knock at the door of his den. He opened it and found his wife's aunt standing there, paler, more weary-eyed and agitated than before.
'You have news?' he cried, half gladly.
'No!' she answered crossly, as she walked past him into the room. 'Nor do I expect any so long as we sit here doing nothing.'
'What can we do?' he queried, as he shut the door and went to the fireplace.
'I know we ought to do something, and we are doing nothing,' she said, with tears gathering in her eyes. 'You are a man, and you ought to know what to do! You are her husband; and you ought not to be brooding here while Margaret is missing, and heaven alone knows what has become of her!'
'What can I do?' he cried, sullenly, stung to the quick by her words.
'What can you do?' she reiterated. 'Do what you should have done sooner. Go to the police and put the matter in their hands at once.'
'She may come home to-night if we wait; and I dislike the idea of making our affairs the gossip of the town. Margaret herself would not like it. She is quite safe, I feel sure!'
'I wish to heaven I could think so!' said Miss Bradshaw, brokenly, and the repressed tears began to flow quickly. 'I am afraid for her! There is something wrong! I can bear this awful suspense no longer. It is killing me, Mr. Massilon. If you will not go to the police at once I must!'
'They can do nothing to-night,' he said, soothingly, moved by her deep distress. 'Let us wait till morning, and if she does not return then, if we hear nothing, I will lay the whole mysterious business before the chief constable. Believe me, my dear Miss Bradshaw, that will be the best course we can pursue.'
She gave a sad and reluctant assent to his suggestion, and went away weeping dolefully.
ONCE more Paul Massilon was making his way across the old Market Square at Ashlynton, and never had he crossed it in a sorrier mood. It was a nasty morning; sleet was swirling through the streets, and the few pedestrians afoot scurried on their way as if eager to be out of the downpour.
Paul was well muffled up, and he breasted the icy rain with a sullen indifference. He had unpleasant business before him—unsavoury work that he could no longer avoid—and his dark face faithfully reflected his thoughts. The past night had brought to Milton Lodge no intelligence respecting its vanished mistress, and Massilon was now on his way to see the head of the Ashlynton police.
Presenting himself at the station, he made his purpose known, was shown at once into Captain Gregg's private room, was pleasantly received, stated the reason of his visit, and was then subjected to a hot fire of pertinent questions by the astute chief, some of which Massilon did not answer as straightforwardly as might have been done.
'You say that Mrs. Massilon,' began Captain Gregg, 'went out on Tuesday evening between eight and nine o'clock without telling anyone where she was going? That, I suppose, was a most unusual thing for her to do?'
'Most unusual,' Massilon replied; 'in fact, I do not remember that such a thing ever occurred before.'
'And that would justify us in thinking that something of an unusual kind had taken place, Mr. Massilon, on that evening.'
'Yes,' Paul assented, with the least trace of hesitation in his manner.
'Now frankly, Mr. Massilon,' said Captain Gregg in his blandest tone, and leaning towards the other in the most confidential way, 'what is your theory as to the cause of your wife's disappearance?'
'I have not yet formulated one,' Massilon answered readily. 'I have no evidence on which to base any hypothesis whatever.'
'But you must have some opinion—some clue that might elucidate what now seems a mystery!'
'No; had I possessed the least clue I should have followed it up before seeking your aid,' was Paul's reply.
The chief did not appear satisfied with the other's answers. He smoothed his thick gray hair with a lean, brown hand, and after a silence of some moments' duration said in an apologetic tone:
'You will pardon me, Mr. Massilon, if I seem impertinent. In a case of this sort plain speaking is necessary, is imperative—and if any cause existed sufficient to make Mrs. Massilon leave home suddenly no one is so likely to know of that cause as yourself.'
Captain Gregg paused, looked at Massilon, who nodded his assent to the other's words, and the chief continued,
'If you cannot assign any reason for Mrs. Massilon's disappearance it will be an extremely difficult matter indeed for any other man, even the most acute detective, to discover one. I suppose you have not even the most remote reason for supposing that your wife would take a fatal step?'
'No!' Paul answered slowly, and with a reddening face.
'She was not unhappy or distressed in any way?'
'She was not quite happy, I think,' Massilon answered, reluctantly, seeing the bog on whose very edge he was staggering.
'May I ask what it was that distressed your wife? Really, I must say again that all this appears grossly impertinent, but, as an uncommonly shrewd man, I ask you to consider the circumstances. Your wife disappears suddenly, and you come to me for assistance. What can I do unless I learn every detail bearing upon the case? You follow me, I think?'
'I do!' Paul said, with a lowering face. 'To tell you the truth, we had a quarrel on the night before she went away.'
'That I cannot tell you!' was Paul's firm reply.
'Is it possible that your quarrel, or the cause of it, may have driven Mrs. Massilon away from home?'
'Possible, even probable, Captain Gregg.'
'I do not think there is any reason to feel seriously alarmed. If you quarrelled, that explains everything. Mrs. Massilon has, in all likelihood, taken refuge with some friends or relatives, and I imagine you will hear from her soon. Has she relatives or dear friends away from Ashlynton?'
'One, a very dear friend, in Cheshire!' Paul cried in accents of gladness as he suddenly remembered Miss Clifford. 'They were schoolmates, have corresponded regularly, and perhaps she is with Miss Clifford at this moment.'
'Probably. Well, you should wire at once, and ask for an immediate reply. If you hear nothing favourable see me again this afternoon.'
Paul thanked the chief constable and withdrew, repairing forthwith to the post office, where he despatched the following message to his wife's old friend:—
'Mrs. Massilon has been missing since Tuesday evening.
Is she with you? Do you know where she is?
We are all alarmed. Wire at once.
When the wire was sent off he returned to the lodge, and apprised Miss Bradshaw of the steps he had taken. Then he walked uneasily about the house, eagerly waiting Miss Clifford's reply. In an hour it came. Hastily tearing the brown envelope asunder he read the pencilled words:—
'Margaret is not here. Have no idea of her whereabouts.
Not seen her since spring. Am greatly distressed.
Wire or write full particulars.
Without a word Massilon threw down the unsatisfactory telegram, and again donning overcoat and hat he sallied back to town, and was fortunate enough to meet Captain Gregg on the steps of the municipal buildings.
'You have received an unfavourable answer I see.'
'I have,' Paul said, moodily, as he followed the chief constable to his room. 'I am uneasy now, and I desire you to act at once.'
'I can understand your uneasiness, Mr. Massilon,' the other returned blandly, 'but I do not think, even now, that you need agitate yourself unduly. Well, if you insist upon placing the matter in my hands at this early stage, I imagine the ordinary course pursued in this sort of case will be sufficient.'
'What course is that?'
'You must furnish me with an accurate description of your wife, and I will have it printed and posted at all the principal police stations within fifty miles. Describe Mrs. Massilon as graphically as you can, giving the garments she wore when last seen, and if you think fit, offer a reward of a few pounds for such information as will lead to her recovery.'
'What amount shall I offer?'
'Ten pounds will be ample.'
'Make it twenty, then,' Paul cried. 'Thank you very much, Captain Gregg. I will not keep you any longer. You shall have all the particulars you desire. Good morning.'
'One moment, please. Have you a recent portrait of Mrs. Massilon?'
'There are several photographs at home.'
'Send the best; and I will have a few dozen copies taken to be distributed with the placards. In these cases a good likeness is really an invaluable aid.'
Quitting the station, Paul walked moodily along the street, his mind filled with thoughts concerning the last queer turn affairs had taken. He was annoyed rather than frightened by the fact of his wife's remarkable vanishment, for that harm had befallen her he could not believe. Her flight was the result of the discovery she had made that night when she awaited his return home.
Paul was crossing the Market Square again on his way homeward, when the rattle of a hansom cab fell on his ears. He turned his head, thinking only of his own safety, and was somewhat surprised when he saw the vehicle pull up almost at his side and Phil Lawrence jump out of it.
'Just the chap I wanted to see, Paul!' Lawrence exclaimed as he wrung Massilon's hand. 'I was off to your place when I chanced to see you. Any news of your wife yet? Ah, I understand all. Was at Miss Clifford's when your telegram got there, and I leave it to you to imagine how it upset Maud and me. What does it all mean, old man?'
'It's a long and somewhat miserable story!' Paul answered rather bitterly. 'I can't tell you here. Shall we drive to the lodge?'
'No! Wait a moment.'
In a minute Lawrence had paid the cabman and sent him about his business, then he and Paul betook themselves for a drink and a chat to one of the hostelries contiguous to the square, ensconcing themselves in a private room where they were at liberty to speak freely.
In a quarter of an hour Lawrence was in possession of all or most of the salient features of his friend's romantic story since he and Mary Stanley were engaged, and up to Mrs. Massilon's disappearance.
Paul was in no humour for sparing either himself or his wife in his narration of the series of events which had led up to the present unpleasant contretemps, and he did not do so. Rightly or wrongly, he yet held to the opinion that his wife and Harry Grant were directly responsible for all that had happened.
To his old friend, Massilon could unbosom himself freely as with a feeling of relief; and when once his words commenced flowing, the recital of his own trials was easy.
Beginning with an avowal respecting his long-cherished love for Mary Stanley, he next spoke of their engagement, and of the brutal manner in which they were parted. Then, in a fit of passion, he had married Margaret Heywood, whose fine qualities had appealed to his intellect rather than to heart. He had believed his wife to be all that was noble and true and good; and for her sake, had tried to uproot and cast away his love for Mary.
And almost at the moment he had conquered his passion, fate had thrown Mary Stanley in his way again. They had spoken, and she had told him of the trick played upon them both. Then his passion had flamed afresh, and now fuel had been cast upon the fire of his desire when his wife confessed to having penned that infamous letter.
Then he admitted his fall, and justified it. He had been sorely tried, and suffered all the agonies a strong, honest-intentioned man could feel when his heart becomes a battle-ground where love and duty are striving for mastery. His infatuation for Mary had told him that she was a deeply-wronged woman who had the strongest claims upon him; his admiration for his wife had been strong also, but the stronger force had swayed him. He had been placed between the devil and the deep sea, and in his choice of evils he had followed the dictates of his heart.
Finally Paul spoke of his last conversation with his wife. She had tracked him to Brook Cottage, had discovered the truth, and yet had stubbornly declined to call the law to her relief—to take the step which would set them both free. Then she had unaccountably vanished.
'By ———, Paul!' Phil Lawrence exclaimed with deep feeling, when his friend had finished. 'You have reason to bless your wife!'
'What do you mean, Phil?' Massilon asked wonderingly, as he wiped his pallid, clammy brow.
'I mean that Margaret's judgment was sounder than your own, my dear old chum. When you find Margaret you will thank her on your knees for the awful pain and indignity her wifely devotion saved you both from.'
'I don't understand.'
'You will in a moment. Heavens, what a fool that woman has made of you, Paul! Mary is a witch. A fair, damnable creature, charged to the very tips of her fingers with vice and devilry. She——'
'Lawrence! Not another word against her. You are my dearest friend, but, by heaven, I will not allow even you to traduce Mary.'
Paul had risen to his feet, and was towering over his seated companion, his face livid, his eyes aflame with fury, his agitation making his clenched hands quiver.
'Sit down, man, and listen. I suppose you know that this woman has left England?'
'Left England!' Paul muttered hoarsely, as he sank upon his seat. 'Mary Stanley left England! What is this you mean, Phil? Have I not told you that she is here in Ashlynton?'
'She has been here, I know; but she left this morning, I fancy,' Phil Lawrence answered with a cynical smile. 'As I came off the Egremont ferry boat I ran against the woman you call Mary Stanley. She recognised me and stopped. She was perfectly dressed, and looked perfectly lovely; was very amiable and confidential. She was to sail for the States that afternoon in the Latronia, where her husband, Mr. Harry Grant, is doing very well.'
'My God!' Paul muttered in an incredulous way. 'Married, and to Grant! Is this true, Phil, or are you doing your level best to drive me mad?'
'I am simply relating what Mrs. Grant was good enough to tell me!' Lawrence rejoined gravely. 'At that time I couldn't quite understand why she should make a confidant of me. But I understand now, old man. She was aware of our old standing friendship, and the information she poured into my ears was really meant for your own?'
'Did you believe her?' Paul asked, sullenly.
'When a very alluring woman assures you that she is married, and insists upon showing you her marriage lines, what can you do but believe?'
'She did that?'
'Certainly! Mary Stanley and Harry Grant were married at St. Dunstan's Church, Huddersfield, about the middle of last May.'
'The lying she-devil!' Paul groaned. 'That was just before I met her at Abbey Lake!'
PAUL Massilon bent his face in his hands, and for a few moments not a word was spoken by either of the young men. The revelation of Mary Stanley's cunning and unscrupulous baseness had wounded him sorely—had struck him with terrible force on the weakest and tenderest part of his nature. What a fool he had been! How easily she had deceived him! How superior his wife's judgment had been to his own; and how prophetic her vision when she had declared, 'She is a bad woman—an ignoble wretch—a base, unprincipled, heartless wanton who ruins for ruin's sake!'
The thought of his own blind, absorbing self-abasement hit him now with venomed fang, and he groaned anew like a goaded beast. For a little space Lawrence did not speak. He knew Paul, understood what he had gone through, and was glad matters were no worse.
'Cheer up, old man!' he said, cheerily. 'Thank God, as I do, that you have learned the truth before it is too late. The worst is now over. We must find Margaret, and then all will be well!'
As he finished speaking, Lawrence rang the bell for the waitress, and the silvery clangour compelled Paul to pull himself together. Then the former ordered two large glasses of brandy and soda, and when the drink was brought in he insisted upon Massilon draining his liquor at once.
Paul obeyed, and in a few minutes was an altered man. The potent stimulant drove the ashen pallor from his remorseful face, lifted his heart out of slough of despondency into which it had fallen, brightened his spirits, and endowed him with courage to look bravely and hopefully before him.
'You are better now, Paul, I can see.'
'Much better, thank you, Phil. I was shaken at first, but I am myself again. I am glad now to know the worst. No!' he cried firmly, 'the best! the best! But,' he added, as his voice fell, and a note of sadness came into it, 'I feel that I shall never be able to look my wife honestly in the face again. But as heaven is my judge I acted as I have done with no evil intent!'
'Margaret must believe the same,' Phil said firmly, 'if what you have told me is correct. But we will not talk of the past any further, my boy. Things will put themselves straight, you will see. What we have to do now is to get my cousin back again. I wonder where she has hidden her pretty self. Of course she has gone away because you quarrelled about the white witch on board the Latronia. Now tell me what you have done in the matter.'
Paul spoke of his two interviews with Captain Gregg that morning and indicated the course they had decided to pursue. Phil listened with a look of displeasure on his florid features, remarking when the other paused:
'This will be a decidedly unpleasant business, Massilon. Those printed things will set all the old women's tongues in Ashlynton wagging. Hadn't you better wait a day or two before you do that? Margaret is all right somewhere, and will turn up, take my word for it.'
'I'd rather suffer the suspense of waiting than endure the scandal, Phil, of placarding the country!' Paul said with emphasis. 'But your aunt insisted upon me seeing the police and urging them to act—threatened to go to them herself unless I did.'
'An advertisement, carefully worded, inserted in half-a-dozen of the morning papers, would have been more effectual and less annoying, Paul! Perhaps my aunt would give way on that point if I were to see her?'
'I am afraid not. She is really alarmed how, and seems to have some deep-rooted faith in the ability of the police to unravel the mystery. Still you can if you like.'
'I will consider the matter, and, perhaps, slip up this evening. The police will not be able to take any decisive steps till to-morrow. I must be off now and write a long letter to my sweetheart. She was awfully put about when she got your telegram, and would insist upon me hurrying here at once.'
Paul drained his glass, Phil did likewise, and they returned to the Market Place together. Suddenly Lawrence placed his hand on his friend's sleeve and his keen face showed that something forgotten before had been remembered.
'Paul, there is one thing I ought to tell you. That mad ass, Byron Wedmore, hates you as the devil hates holy water.'
'I know it, Phil,' Paul answered with curling lips, 'but how did you come to know?'
'I met him as I came off the train, and he buttonholed me, and treated me to a long harangue about yourself and Margaret. What do you think he vowed to me?'
'I cannot imagine!'
'He said that he had seen you deliberately push Mrs. Massilon into the pool under the weir one evening about three months ago, and his madness or his hatred carried him so far as to make him say that you would not have saved her but for the fact of his presence.'
'The miserable fool!' Paul cried passionately. 'Some of these days I shall twist the lunatic's neck.' Then he briefly explained the accident which had befallen his wife.
'Of course I believe you,' Phil said warmly. 'I told Wedmore that he was an ass to circulate such a cock-and-bull tale; but he insisted again and again upon its absolute truth. We all know that the fellow is only about half twisted, but all the same it is infernally annoying to have him telling such a story just now, when your wife is missing.'
A lowly-uttered imprecation fell from Massilon's lips, and his brow darkened thunderously. In a flash he realised his position, and the power his wife's flight had placed in Byron Wedmore's hands. If that erratic individual chose to distort what he had seen, and gossip about it, people would think that he had made away with his wife.
Taking leave of Lawrence, Paul returned home, and told Miss Bradshaw of his meeting with her nephew. He told her also of Phil's strongly expressed desire that the police should not be allowed to take any action for a few days, and said it was probable that Lawrence would come to the lodge during the evening to talk the matter over with her.
Miss Bradshaw retorted by stating somewhat emphatically that both husband and cousin were inclined to underestimate the critical nature of the case. Margaret had disappeared in the most mysterious manner, for upwards of forty hours—for the whole of two nights and almost two days—nothing had been seen or heard of her, and yet Paul and Phil wished to sit still and wait. She was astonished at their apathy and carelessness. Sooner or later the police would be called in, and, surely, it was as well to waste no time.
Paul did not attempt argument with a woman whose fears were thoroughly aroused. He gave way, wrote out a description of his wife's personal appearance, described her attire from the information supplied by her aunt, selected the most speaking likeness of his wife from the various photographs in the house, and then took them himself to the police station.
Later in the evening, when darkness had fallen, Paul Massilon was sitting in his den pondering the two great matters of the moment—his wife's disappearance and Mary's unexpected flight.
That Phil Lawrence had actually met and conversed with his old flame, and had faithfully reported the conversation which had taken place between them Massilon did not doubt for an instant, and yet so strong had been his belief in Mary that he felt that until he had visited Brook Cottage and seen the empty nest of the flown bird he would not be quite satisfied.
He had almost made up his mind to go out when, with a hurried rap on the panels, the door opened, and his wife's aunt entered, pale and excited, with a letter for Paul in her hands.
He took the letter eagerly, feeling that it was from a woman, his absent wife or Mary, and a glance at the hand-writing and postmark was sufficient to indicate its source. He tore open the envelope hurriedly, bestowed a hasty glance upon the written words and appended name, and then said:
'You thought, Miss Bradshaw, that it might be from Margaret, or contain information respecting her? I am sorry to say it does not; it is merely a note from an old acquaintance.'
She went away with a rueful countenance, saying never a word, and when the sound of her retreating feet died away, he spread out the sheet and perused its contents carefully with bent brows and ominously flushing eyes. It was to this effect:—
'Liverpool, Thursday, noon.
'My dear Paul,
'I regret that circumstances shall call me suddenly from Ashlynton, and that we were not permitted to say goodbye before I left. Perhaps it is better as it is. I am going to America to join my husband there. You will be astonished to learn that I am Mrs. Henry Grant, and you will probably do anything but bless me for the little deception I have practised.
'I did want to marry you once, though I never really loved you, and was only prevented from doing so by my husband and your wife. I fancy, however, that I have wiped out any grudge I may have had against them, and I forgive them both. I think it will be as well if you forgive them also.
'I trust to your discretion, and remain your old friend,
IT was the evening of Tuesday when Margaret Massilon quitted Milton Lodge, on that still unexplained errand, which she had not even indicated to her aunt, and before the week was past the fact of her strange disappearance was known to all the inhabitants of the town and immediate neighbourhood.
A sufficiently graphic description of the missing lady had been printed, and was posted at the entrance of every police station within fifty miles of Ashlynton, several dozen copies of her photograph had been taken and distributed in various quarters, and many shrewd constables were doing their utmost to earn the twenty pounds reward.
That this public proclamation of Mrs. Massilon's vanishment caused no end of stir in the old borough, will be readily understood, for during the past score of months no local celebrity had been more talked of than Paul Massilon, the rising author, and the story of his wife's disappearance formed the most absorbing topic of conversation in the barbers' shops and bar parlours of the town, and was eagerly discussed in the bosoms of hundreds of private households.
Mysterious events were of rare occurrence in that prosaic hive of industry; and the local gossips made the most of their unique visitant. The newspapers of the place had seized upon the interesting morsel of news and dished it up spicily for their readers, and by the end of the week everyone had a theory of his or her own invention to account for Mrs. Massilon's going away.
Simple-minded, honest folk were inclined to believe that mystery had nought to do with the affair at all. Mrs. Massilon had met with an accident—had probably been drowned somehow or somewhere, and in time what seemed a puzzle would be made plain as a pikestaff.
But scandal-mongers and mystery-lovers laughed the accidental theory to scorn; and darkly hinted that when the truth came to be revealed, it would be discovered that the missing lady had either committed suicide or met with a worse fate.
Within the last couple of days almost every pond and stretch of water in the town and about it had been dragged. Prompted by the thought of handling those twenty golden coins not a few private individuals took it upon themselves to probe every sheet of water big enough to drown a cat, but their zealous efforts proved fruitless.
In the meantime ugly rumours respecting the marital relationship of Massilon and his wife began to float about the town. Whence the stories originated no one appeared to know, and as to whether they were true or false few people seemed to care.
But the fact remains that several matters of the utmost importance and significance, which Paul Massilon thought were known only to himself, his wife, and two others, were freely talked about and grew in bulk as the gossips bandied them from tongue to tongue.
Presently folks were saying that some fair, unknown woman was at the bottom of the whole affair; that the wronged wife had discovered her husband's illicit love affair; that a quarrel had resulted; and that the flight of Mrs. Massilon was wholly and solely to be attributed to the erotic vagaries of the man she had brought out of the coal pit to share her life and income.
And mixed up with the foregoing rumours was another of even more sinister import. Somehow it became known that Paul and Margaret had quarrelled on the bank of the river near their home; that the cause of the rupture was the fair and frail creature whom no one could name; and that in his passion the author had flung his wife into the deep pool beneath the weir, saving her afterwards only because his murderous act had been witnessed.
These black reports, variously perverted and distorted, according to the medium they travelled through, obtained such currency that they at length drifted to the ears of the chief constable of Ashlynton, who, remembering his first interview with Massilon, and the unsatisfactory way in which he had replied to some questions then, was almost compelled to suspect that Paul knew more of his missing wife than he desired to reveal.
Of course, Massilon was not aware of the ominous suggestions that were being bruited afield concerning him. Since the receipt of that last letter from Mary he had never left the precincts of Milton Lodge, nor was he cognisant of the fact that orders had been issued that all his movements were to be closely watched.
In total ignorance of strong undercurrents of prejudice and distorted facts that were floating through the public mind, Paul brooded in privacy over his own unfortunate blunders and Margaret's inexplicable absence.
Every day—almost every hour—he scourged himself anew for his marital delinquencies deploring the excesses into which his blind, unquestioning passion had hurled him, regretting with a black, bitter, unutterable regret the sins of omission and commission of which he had been guilty.
Each unkind word he had flung at Margaret rebounded now and wounded him sorely; every ungenerous thought stung him poignantly; his very acts, looks, desires, turned into curses, each of which had come home to roost.
If he had sinned grievously, his punishment was no less grievous; if he had entered lightly upon his vicious career his expiation was as heavy as the souls of the damned. Mentally he grovelled in the mire before the accusing God of his own conscience, satisfied that he was accursed beyond all men with an evil heart.
Before the end of that never-to-be-forgotten week arrived Paul found himself practically deserted and abandoned to his own devices at Milton Lodge. Miss Bradshaw had fretted herself into an illness over her missing relative, and had gone to stay with an old friend in Southport; the servants were afraid of staying in the house at nights with their mute, morose master, and although they came to the house in the daytime, were fain to hurry away when night fell, frightened, probably, by the dire rumours friends had whispered in their ears.
Sunday morning came and the dawn broke gray, cold, and wet. Noon passed, the afternoon waned, twilight settled down on the sodden, rain-deluged countryside, and still no news came to hand respecting Mrs. Massilon.
It was the most wearisome, heart-corroding Sabbath Paul Massilon had ever experienced. He was fiercely glad, now that the mad delirium of his illicit love was overpast and done with. If Margaret would but come back to him how joyously he would set to work to erase the black memories of those sad, bad days from her life and his own.
Standing by the window of his study, he peered out in the semi-blackness of the eventide. The rain had ceased, and he could mark the course of the plunging, overcharged stream down in the silent valley—could hear the thunderous roar of the flood leaping the weir.
A weird, rayless feeling of ennui oppressed Paul, seemed to fill his veins, flood his brain, and stifle his heart's action. The gloom of the big house beneath him was intolerable; in the depth of his woe it appeared as if he were alone in the huge, black universe.
He hungered for action, and yet knew not what to do. Suddenly an idea seized him, and he grew alert of eye. Margaret was with her friend, Miss Clifford. It must be so, for where else could she be? They were hiding her from him—were heaping horrors upon his head as a punishment for his untold iniquities.
That idea sank in his brain and stung him into action. Glancing at his watch he saw that he had time to catch one of the evening trains to Liverpool, and hastily attiring himself, he went forth, unaware as he paced the miry high road that a policeman in plain clothes was dogging him.
IT was nearly eight o'clock when Paul Massilon set out from Milton Lodge, and some three or four hours afterwards a man might have been seen walking slowly along the edge of the lake which washed the lower ends of the grounds.
The skies had cleared after the cessation of the rain, and pale stars and a crescent moon were now mirrored in the face of the lake. Sauntering along the man paused occasionally; now regarding the specks of flume that seemed hidden in the bosom of the moving water, then peering at Milton Lodge, looming black and silent amid the denuded trees on the rising ground, a stone's throw away.
The man continued his walk till he gained the bottom end of the lakelet, where the black, rushing stream, swollen by the frequent rainfall, and tumbling over the weir in a thick, glistening sheet, crashing into the pool below with a tremendous roar, which sounded strangely weird and musical in the dimly-illumined, encompassing stillness.
Beside the weir he stood for a few moments, watching the plunging river churn itself into thick brown and white foam, and then he began to retrace his steps up stream, still walking in the same slow, thoughtful way.
Suddenly the solitary walker gave a loud cry, and sank on the very edge of the lake. There, protruding from the water and pointing skyward, was a bare arm—a woman's arm it was easy to discern from the whiteness and shapeliness of the limb with its small tapering hand.
The rest of the body was submerged, being probably fast to the root of the old tree which stood in the water close by the protruding limb. Satisfied that it was a human limb he saw, the man waded into the water up to his knees, then stretching forth his right arm he seized the small wrist of the dead arm and pulled. But the submerged body was fast, and wading a little further in he grasped the arm with both hands and strained with all his strength.
Slowly the dead arm moved towards him; he felt something giving way, and strained harder still. Then the body was suddenly freed, and the man almost fell backward, but he recovered his equilibrium and dragged the dead form upon the sloping bank.
The poor dead creature was almost naked, and it was a woman, as the man had surmised; and a young woman, too, if one might judge from the bare, white, shapely limbs, and the thick tangled masses of dark hair that covered the poor dead face. The man regarded the body at his feet silently for a moment or two, then he bent down and lifted the heavy, wet hair from the face of the dead, muttering:
'Poor devil. I wonder who she is! My God! What is this? Am I mad?' the man cried wildly, sinking on his knees at the dead woman's head. 'It is Maggie! It is Maggie! How can she have got here?'
Then the man jumped up suddenly, ran up the river side at full speed, and disappeared among the trees. For an hour or more the dead form lay alone, its fair face upturned piteously to the wan moon and the silent stars, the trees moaning eerily over it, and the swollen stream rushing by.
Then the man returned at a leisurely pace, and seated himself on a tree root beside the body. The terrible fear that had shown in his countenance when he rushed away had vanished now, and although he appeared to be agitated still, a look of gratification was on his face.
Drawing out his watch he peered at the shining dial, said lowly. 'Just half-past 12; will have a look round,' and then strode leisurely toward the house, pausing not till he was standing on the wet lawn in front of Milton Lodge.
There was not a sign of life about the place. Every window was black as the walls, and not a sound came from within. The Lodge was, of course, empty, now that Paul Massilon had rushed off to the banks of the Mersey, but not knowing that such was the fact, the midnight prowler went carefully about his work.
Approaching the French window, he pressed his hands against the frames, which resisted his pressure, although they shook loosely. Then he thrust his face against the panes, noticed that the inside shutters were not closed, and readily perceived that it would be a matter of no great difficulty to force an entrance.
He had been inside that room on many occasions; had closed the swing windows and opened them at various times, and consequently understood the fastenings. Drawing out his pocket knife he tried to insert the long blade between the timber where the frames joined. But the blade was too thick, the separate portions fitted too closely and resisted the intrusion of the knife.
Annoyed by his failure to reach the catch which held the different halves of the window together, he thrust savagely at the frames, and one gave way suddenly with a loud snap. Like a deft housebreaker the man dropped like a flash to the wet grass and crouched there fearful and panting, ready to dart away if he heard the least alarm from within.
He listened intently, but the only sound that came to his ears was the rustle of the window draperies which swung softly in the wind. Then he crept inside, removed his boots, placed them aside, and stood erect, shod only in noiseless wool.
Creeping to the drawing-room door the man listened again, heard nothing as before, and then he opened it and stood in the corridor outside. Encouraged by the unbroken silence in which the house was plunged, he returned to the room he had forced an entrance into, struck a match and lit the gas, which he turned low.
A sheet of paper lying on the drawing-room table caught his eye, and raising it he read the following words:—
'To Miss Martha Silcock.
'I have gone away to seek my wife, and you need not be alarmed by my absence.
If I do not return before Monday night you can lock up the house as usual.
But perhaps you will stay in the house with the other servant now that I am not present.
'Gone to seek his wife!' the night prowler exclaimed in jubilant tones. 'This is splendid! What luck! There is no one in the house! Now to find a hiding-place for the body.'
Emboldened now by the knowledge that he was master of the situation the man roamed fearlessly about the house, lighting gas jets here and there to facilitate his movements. In ten minutes he had discovered the very object he sought, and then replacing his boots he pulled the window to and stole back to the side of the lake.
The poor dead creature lay there still, white and grisly looking on the black sward. Pulling out his knife again, he cut away the torn, sodden garments bit by bit, and flung them into the rapidly moving stream. When the drowned woman had been divested of every shred of clothing he raised the body in his arms, and staggering under its weight he slowly trudged towards the silent house with his dread load.
Gaining the drawing-room once more he deposited the body on the carpet just inside, removed his sodden foot-gear that he might leave no unsightly traces of his visit, and then, closing the window afresh, he barred it, and closed the inner shutters also.
Then he shouldered the body again, and with it climbed the stairs, pausing not until he was safe inside the den of Paul Massilon. In a corner of the room there stood an old chest, deep and capricious, and evidently many scores of years old.
The ponderous lid was already uplifted, and the coffin-like receptacle was gaping for its tenant. Soon the body was stowed inside, the lid pressed down, and the diabolical work of the nocturnal wanderer was almost completed.
Almost, but not quite. Seeing that the key of the study was inside the lock, he took it out, locked the door on the outside, and placed the key in his pocket. Then the man stole downstairs, regained his boots, and carried them in his hands to the kitchen, after examining the carpet and French window of the drawing-room carefully to see that he was leaving no clue behind.
Pushing up the window of the kitchen the man peered forth into the night. All was black as death outside. Clouds were veiling moon and stars, rain was falling again in a soft shower, and save for the patter of the down-rushing drops there was no sound.
Creeping through the window he dropped lightly upon the gravel, pulled down the window gently, and then stole away in the direction of the river. There he cast the key of Massilon's den into the centre of the black, turgidly flowing lake.
'EVENIN' NEWS! Speshul 'dition!
More 'bout the Ashlynton Mystery.
Discovery of the missing lady.
Arrest of the husband.'
Phil Lawrence was walking along Standishgate, one of the principal thoroughfares that branched out of the Market Square of the town, when the voice of a news-lad vending his wares attracted the attention of our friend.
Phil paused irresolute, half inclined to think that he had misunderstood the declarations of the dirty, ill-clad street arab who was hawking the early newspapers, but again he heard the statements that some missing lady had been discovered, and that her husband was in the hands of the police.
In a tremor, with suddenly roused excitement, he whistled to the lad, purchased a paper, and, standing there in the populous street, he opened the sheet with trembling hands, and his heart flew to his throat, his face grew ash-coloured as he saw those big, staring, foreboding headlines. He gazed and shuddered at those heavy, black lines as if he were staring into the horrid face of Medusa.
Feeling faint and sick Phil Lawrence hastily doubled the paper, afraid of reading more just at that moment, and hurrying onward he made for the hotel wherein he and Paul Massilon had taken refuge a few days before, when Phil had arrived from his visit to his sweetheart.
Telling the waiters to bring him a brandy and soda, Phil seated himself, with the paper lying on the table before him, but not until he had swallowed a good portion of the stimulant did he dare to face those ominous headlines, and the more presageful paragraphs beneath them, which ran in this wise:—
'During, the past week the public mind of the town has been
considerably agitated owing to the sudden and somewhat bewildering
disappearance of a well known and greatly respected Ashlynton lady.
The lady in question is Mrs. Massilon—wife of the local author, Paul
Massilon. Those young people were married about a year and a half ago,
and to all appearance, had lived happily at their residence, Milton
'At this stage of affairs it would perhaps be unjust to all concerned to say too much or take anything for granted. It is, however, manifest that the relations between Mr. and Mrs. Massilon had for a considerable period been strained. On the evening of last Monday or Tuesday matters seemed to have arrived at a crucial stage, for on the latter evening the unfortunate woman left Milton Lodge, telling no one, so far as is yet known, of either her business or destination.
'She left the house between nine and ten o'clock, did not return, and since then her disappearance has been the talk of the town, and an absorbing mystery to everybody. Now, however, the apparent mystery has been cleared up, and the denouement proves to be one of the most awful and tragical character.
'The police authorities had been instructed to take steps for the recovery of the missing lady, a couple of days after she disappeared, and they had employed all the usual means to effect her recovery. But days elapsed and nothing was discovered, and in the meantime many curious rumours began to float about the town and ultimately reached the ears of the police. What those rumours were it is not our business even to indicate at this momentous crisis of affairs. At the right moment, and in the proper place, those stories will be stated and sifted.
'But one thing is generally admitted. On the evening prior to the lady's going away she and her husband had quarrelled seriously, respecting a certain matter which was of the utmost significance to them both, and one that will undoubtedly have a considerable influence in the development of this unfortunate affair. More than this we prefer not to say, at present; but we may say that the matter to which we have referred was sufficient to arouse even the suspicions of the police, and the result would seem to justify those suspicions.
'The police were informed of the quarrel between husband and wife, but were not enlightened as to its cause. They gather, however, that Mrs. Massilon fainted away, and her strange disappearance on the following evening compelled the authorities to set a watch on Mr. Massilon. This watch proved to be the key which solved the whole mystery.
'On the evening of Sunday Paul Massilon was seen to quit Milton Lodge between the hours of seven and eight o'clock. He was tracked to the local railway station; was seen to book for Liverpool, was followed there, tracked across the Mersey, and finally run to earth at the Marlborough Hotel in Egmont where he had put up for the night.
'The constable had sent by wire the information of Massilon's movements, and early this morning a descent was made upon Milton Lodge, the whole house being searched from cellars to attics in order to discover any clue regarding the missing woman or the husband, who appeared to be making his escape. Only the servants were at home, and they placed themselves willingly in the hands of the searchers.
'All the rooms save one were open—that room was Mr. Massilon's, which was found locked—a most unusual occurrence—and the key missing. The door was forced open, a search made, and there, to the horror of all, the missing woman was discovered, lying dead and nude, in a great oak chest in which the body had been placed.
'The overwhelming excitement and consternation produced by this terrible revelation may be conceived more easily than it can be depicted. One of the servants swooned, and the other had an attack of hysteria. In the meantime the dead body was conveyed to more becoming quarters; information of the horrid find was conveyed to the police station; a telegram was despatched to the constable who was tracking Massilon, with instructions to arrest him; and shortly before going to press our representative was informed that Paul Massilon was in custody on suspicion of having caused his wife's death.
'We understand that the inquest will be held this afternoon, and that the prisoner will be brought before the magistrates to-morrow morning, being expected to arrive in Ashlynton this afternoon in charge of the plain clothes officer who effected his arrest. When he was apprehended Mr. Massilon is said to have made no attempt to escape, nor even to have denied the charge brought against him. The result of the forthcoming inquiry into the cause of the unfortunate lady's death is awaited with great anxiety by thousands of persons in the town, and when the prisoner comes forward for formal examination to-morrow the Borough Court will be packed to suffocation—unless precautions are taken to avoid a crush—so great is the public interest in the case.'
The face that Phil Lawrence raised from the news sheet, after perusing that long statement, was very white and agitated, and yet his eyes were glowing with a virtuous indignation.
'My God, this is fearful!' he moaned, in anguish, as he ran his nervous fingers across his burning brow. 'I cannot believe it all! It is so horrible. Maggie found dead in Paul's study! Her body stowed away naked in that gruesome old chest he seemed so fond of, and in which he used to place his writings. Oh, Paul! Paul! my dear old friend, I never dreamed it would all end in this!'
He covered his agonised face with his hands, the tears came, and for a few moments he resigned himself to his deep grief. Then he tried to pull himself together to face the trial of strength and endurance in front of him. Draining his glass he composed his features as well as he could, ordered another brandy, and tossing it off quickly he went forth into the street.
In front of the hotel Phil saw a constable on duty; the man saluted, and a movement of the head brought him to Phil's side. The policeman knew the young man well—as did most of his fellow constables in the town—was aware also that he was in some way related to Mrs. Massilon, and anticipated the line his inquiries would in all likelihood take.
'Has Paul Massilon been brought to Ashlynton yet, Matthews?' Phil asked in as calm a tone as he could command.
'They have just taken him past in a cab towards Milton Lodge, sir,' the constable answered.
'Why there? Oh, the inquest I suppose?'
'Yes, sir; the inquiry opens this afternoon, at three o'clock, I believe. Aren't you going?'
Phil slipped a tip into the man's eager fingers, and then rushed off to the cabstand. In five minutes he was being whirled in the direction of his unfortunate relative's residence.
THE inquiry held at Milton Lodge to inquire into the death of Margaret Massilon had terminated some hours ago, and her husband was now lodged safely in one of the prison cells attached to the police station at Ashlynton.
So far Paul Massilon had not been treated as a criminal. The officer who apprehended him had performed the unpleasant task with a kindly firmness that was tempered by courtesy. The authorities at home had been considerate, even deferential, in their dealings with him, and the most comfortable of the strong rooms had been placed at his disposal.
He had been arrested on suspicion of being privy to his wife's death, and was in durance still under suspicion only. He was still dressed in his own garments, of course, and was not compelled to be satisfied with the plain fare the police regulations put at the disposal of most enforced visitors.
Sitting there in his small dimly-lighted prison, Paul dwelt once more upon the events of that day. They were stamped upon his brain indelibly as if hot irons had branded them into it, and long as life remained with him would never again be effaced.
Had a thunderbolt smitten him, and left him power to think, he would not have been more amazed than was the case when he was arrested and informed that his wife's dead body had been discovered, and that he was suspected of being implicated in her death.
He had submitted to the law, as personified in the man who took him in charge, not even saying that he was innocent, and knew nothing of her decease. Then he had been conveyed to Ashlynton by rail, conveyed to the police station there, and thence hurried away, almost immediately, in a cab, to Milton Lodge, where the inquest was to be held.
That scene in the drawing-room of his home appeared to Massilon like the part of some weird repulsive drama in which he was spectator rather than player. The familiar apartment loomed before him as if he were regarding it through the atmosphere of a dream; the figures with which the place was filled seemed part of the vision also, and he, the dreamer, the only real entity present.
In a numbed, curiously apathetic way he had looked about him and marked the inexpressible change that had come over old, loved faces. White-faced and ill-looking, wrapped up warmly and wan-eyed, his wife's aunt sat at the other end of the room, near the coroner's elbow, her gaze carefully averted from his own and her very attitude betraying her belief in his guilt.
Phil Lawrence was by her side, his clear-cut, florid countenance wearing a pallid look of pain Paul had never seen on it before. Once or twice he tried to catch his old friend's eye, but as with his relative a nameless horror had frozen up the channel of Phil's warm sympathy. Even the housemaid and the cook never looked towards their master when his gaze wandered their way.
Paul had noticed those ominous signs, as he had taken note of everything else, with an eerie, incurious sullenness. And even when the inquiry opened his mental attitude underwent no marked transition. He watched the play, listened to it, still as a mere looker-on.
Briefly, the coroner opened the inquest by making a terse statement to the jury. The deceased had been missing a week under somewhat remarkable circumstances, her body had been discovered in a manner and under conditions which had given rise to suspicions of the gravest kind, and they were there to listen patiently to evidence, which would be produced, as to the immediate cause of death, and deliver a verdict truly in consonance with the same.
First, evidence of identification was taken. Miss Bradshaw testified that the deceased was her niece, with whom she had resided permanently for seven or eight years—since the death of her sister, the late Mrs. Heywood. She knew Mrs. Massilon well, and recognised the rings she was wearing still.
The servants testified to a like effect, and then the police were called. They had been employed to trace the missing lady, and in accordance with instructions received from their chief, Captain Gregg, had proceeded to Milton Lodge. There they had found only the two witnesses then present. They had examined the whole house and found nothing till they burst open the door of a room on the uppermost floor, which they were informed was Mr. Massilon's study. There in an old chest they had discovered the body of the deceased.
A local surgeon was next called. He had made a post-mortem examination of the remains, and he affirmed that death had been produced by drowning. In his opinion the deceased had been dead two or perhaps three days.
That completed the whole of the evidence. The coroner had courteously inquired if Mr. Massilon desired to make any statement, Paul had answered with a muttered 'No,' and then without even retiring the jury returned the open verdict of 'Death from drowning.'
A little later, when the people dispersed, and the minions of the law were preparing to get their prisoner back to the local lock-up, the man in custody begged that he might be allowed to see the body of his wife.
Phil Lawrence, Miss Bradshaw, and the two servants were standing by when the request was made, and a look of wonder was flashed from face to face. Then, after a moment's hesitation, Miss Bradshaw inclined her head to the servant, and Martha the housemaid led her master and the attendant policeman to the sitting-room where the dead woman lay.
Reverently lifting the white sheet the solemn-faced maid disclosed the ashen features of the dead, upon which a strange, ineffable sweetness and holy calm seemed now to rest. The others had followed, and standing on the threshold of the apartment, the blinds of the windows being drawn to exclude the garish daylight—Phil and Miss Bradshaw saw Paul peer at the still face for a moment or two in grim rigidity, then, stooping suddenly, with a hoarse, indistinct cry, he bent and kissed the cold, dead lips.
A moment afterwards he turned away, and when he strode past his former friends they saw that his lips were quivering and that tears were streaming down his livid cheeks. Paul cast no word or look at either his old companion or his wife's aunt; he felt the gap that yawned between them—was too deeply immersed in the black, bitter, apathetic welter of his woe to care to bridge the gulf; and he went to the cab with the plain-clothes officer by his side, vaguely wondering if ever the light of day would break for him again.
Sitting there in his narrow prison Massilon mentally reviewed, not only the dire happenings of that day, but the manner in which he had comported himself from beginning to end. Literally he had not been himself at all—had neither done nor said what he had conceived he would do and say under like conditions. Why? He hardly knew. Something, he knew not what, had fettered his brain and tongue.
He was wearily pondering the question of his lethargy, wondering to what cause his want of feeling, lack of passion, insensibility to pain and general indifference had been due, when the clatter of feet outside the door, and the grinding of the key in the wards of the lock, put his reverie to the rout. When he glanced up Phil Lawrence was beside him.
'Paul! Paul! forgive me for to-day!' Lawrence exclaimed with deep feeling, and his honest face attested the reality of the contrition in his voice. 'Heaven knows that I couldn't rest without coming to see you.'
'I am pleased to see you, Phil,' Massilon responded quietly, his face and his tones betraying no great pleasure or resentment. 'You talk about forgiving you. Why should I? To-day you only showed, as your aunt did, that you cared for Margaret too much to dissemble your real feelings before the man who is supposed to have had a hand in her death.'
'But you, Paul?' Phil cried in trembling tones. 'You could not do it, I know! There is a mystery somewhere, I feel sure. What is it, my dear old chum? If you know anything, suspect anything, tell me in the name of God!'
'In the name of God, Phil, I swear to you that I know nothing!' Massilon asseverated, lowly and without heat. 'As heaven is my judge and hers, I left her alive when I saw her last. We had quarrelled about that woman, she fainted, and I left her in her aunt's charge. Since then I have never seen her alive. If Margaret is in heaven now she knows that I speak the truth!'
'You swear this, Paul?'
'I swear it, Phil! If it is not the truth may I be hanged for her death, and afterwards suffer in hell to all eternity!'
'My friend, I believe you! And yet—and yet! The horror and mystery of it all!' Phil murmured, half-distracted. 'But to-morrow, Paul?'
'What of to-morrow?'
'They will examine you to-morrow. What is your defence? You have engaged no one yet.'
'Nor will I do so. My defence is my innocence, and what I have told you. My fate is in the hands of God now, and I leave it with Him. If they think me guilty, let them condemn! This is a visitation of heaven, Phil. If I am to suffer it will not be for slaying Margaret, but for the sins that went before!'
TWICE Paul Massilon had been brought before the magisterial bench at Ashlynton, had been examined more or less closely, and on each occasion the police authorities had asked for and obtained a remand in order to enable them to complete their case.
Again, 'for the third and last time,' as the phrase goes in Lancashire, Paul was arraigned, and by the time the case came on for hearing, the court was packed with all sorts and conditions of men. There was a general feeling that the case would be disposed of that day,—so far as Ashlynton was concerned—hence all those who had no better way of spending their leisure scrambled to obtain either sitting or standing room in the court.
The elevated platform running alongside the head of the police court was packed from end to end with local magnates—grocers, haberdashers, and leading tradesmen, a mill-owner and a colliery-master, a brewer and master-builder—a dozen in all, who having scraped a little fortune together by hook or by crook were deemed good enough to measure out the law to wrong-doers.
In the centre of the magisterial bench, half-way between the floor and the ceiling, two thick poles jutted from the wall, whereon were suspended heavy curtains of tapestry; and between the curtains, which hung a fathom apart, a ponderous, high-backed chair of state, elaborately carved and richly gilt stood, and inside its capacious arms reclined his worship the Mayor of Ashlynton, conscious of his dignity, and prepared to uphold the law of which he was the chief magistrate for the nonce.
His worship was a stout, well-fed man of middle age, gray-headed, sharp-eyed, and with a white beard trimmed in the fashion which Charles Dickens made immortal. That the Mayor was a shrewd man was evident from the fact that he had made a considerable fortune out of rags and bones, old iron, and the countless other unconsidered trifles appertaining to the commercial doings of a marine store dealer; but that he was a fitting dispenser of the law he did not even understand, was open to doubt.
In the well of the court there was the usual gathering—the town clerk and the clerk to the magistrates, the chief constable and several of his officers, a few local attorneys and their clerks; and prominent among these was Mr. Byron Wedmore, with his high nose, keen, beady eyes, and chinless face.
In the dock Paul Massilon was standing, his hands gripping the spiked iron railing which guarded its front, his dark, handsome face pale and grim, and almost sullen, his whole bearing bespeaking a dull, despairing indifference, which the majority of those who marked his face interpreted as sheer brutal callousness.
The official read out the charge in a glib matter-of-fact tone, and when asked to plead, Massilon answered 'Not guilty!' in a slow, clear, intensely dramatic tone, which rolled through the court and thrilled it.
Then the trial began, and it was not long before it concluded. The prosecution had been intrusted to a local attorney, who had made, and justly, a reputation for conducting criminal cases. He had a strong hand and he played it admirably. When he had finished his opening address there was an ominous whispering on the bench, wise heads were being laid together, gray beards were being wagged woefully, and the result was in sight.
Among the witnesses called for the prosecution there was one whose damning, deliberate declarations caused a real thrill of sensation to eddy through the packed court.
This witness was Byron Wedmore; and the evidence he gave seemed to clinch the nail which had already been driven into the prisoner's plea of guiltlessness. In the calmest manner the gentleman who had the reputation of being 'a bit cracked' narrated what he had witnessed that evening on the banks of the river near Milton Lodge.
He swore that the accused and his wife were quarrelling about some woman unknown, that he had seen him deliberately push the dead woman into the river, at one of its most dangerous parts, and that he had only jumped in to rescue his wife when he, witness, had given the alarm.
The impression produced by such testimony may be imagined. Belief in the prisoner's guilt was written upon every magistrate's face; and when it was made clear that Massilon was undefended—that there was no defence intended—the final issue of that court was never in doubt for a moment.
Then the bench retired, after briefly consulting with the law clerk, and when the magistrates returned, after an absence of twenty minutes' duration, their verdict was to the effect that Paul Massilon be committed to the next assizes at Liverpool, charged with the wilful murder of his wife.
IT was the tenth day of the Liverpool winter assizes, and the general opinion of those interested in the business of the affair was that the whole of the proceedings set down for trial would be concluded on that particular day.
The calendar had been considerably lighter than those usually presented to the judges who came to the great Lancashire seaport to dispense justice and law to the erring children of Adam; and, hence, a few days had enabled 'the powers that be' to hand over to Her Majesty's keeping, for various terms of imprisonment, sundry rogues and vagabonds, malefactors and criminals.
In the list of criminal causes which were set forth for trial there had been only one of wilful murder, and that was the case in which Paul Massilon stood forth as prime offender. The grand jury had found a 'true bill' against him, and in due course he had been placed at the bar of the court to answer the damning indictment.
As before, the prisoner had pleaded 'not guilty!'—a plea which had been rejected on all hands by those acquainted with the case; and the trial had proceeded.
The Criminal Court in St. George's Hall was not inconveniently crowded when the Ashlynton drowning mystery came on for trial. Elevated above all sat the grim-faced judge in his iron-gray wig and silken gown; below were the jury, in whose hands lay the life of the accused; and barristers, solicitors, clerks, police, and witnesses filled the body of the court, among whom might be seen Captain Gregg and a couple of his constables, Phil Lawrence and a veiled lady—Miss Bradshaw—both of them looking as pallid and more agitated than the prisoner, and, lastly, the strange face of Mr. Byron Wedmore.
Paul Massilon had been accommodated with a chair, and he was now sitting there in the dock with a weird, weary, reckless, Sphinx-like expression on his wan dark features that no one could read thoroughly. At times as he listened to the voices of those engaged in the case a black cloud of utterest despair would veil his face; then his eyes would light up almost savagely, and the rigid, reckless aspect of his features would mark the strong tortured soul in arms against the world, and, again, weary indifference would submerge and hide—extinguish all other feelings.
At the last moment Paul had been persuaded by Phil to trust his defence to trained hands and tongues; he had submitted reluctantly, and the defence made in his behalf, even by a really smart barrister, was practically of no avail. He, prisoner, had literally no case; he knew it; his counsel knew it also; judge, jury, all present seemed to be aware of the fact, and the result was no longer in doubt, even before the counsel for the prosecution rose to close his case.
'My lord, and gentlemen of the jury,' the Q.C. began, as be fixed his golden-rimmed pince-nez on his high, arched nose, 'there will be no necessity, I venture to think, to detain you at this period of your labours with either a laboured or an elaborate speech. That being the fact I shall content myself by laying before you, in a brief resume, the principal features of this most deplorable and somewhat uncommon case.
'First of all permit me to indicate the circumstances under which the prisoner at the bar, and the murdered lady, his wife, began their married life. Both were young and attractive, and the future gave considerable promise, not only of happiness, but social distinction also. He was a mine manager in a comfortable position; had literary ambitions as well—in fact had written one or two books which had brought a most gratifying amount of success to their author. His wife was an orphan with a snug fortune of her own—an income sufficient to enable her husband to devote himself to literature without having recourse to the mines at all.
'That, in fact, did come about. Several months after marriage Mr. Massilon left the mines for good, became a professional littérateur, and, as many of you may be aware, a novel he wrote a short time ago made considerable stir. That he had great prospects of becoming a star of some magnitude in the literary firmament seemed assured. But, alas, that promise was not destined to be realised. Here, as in Eden, the serpent came, and the man fell—fell as so many literary men have fallen when tempted by a woman.
'As I have indicated, the future seemed teeming with all the good things of life for the rising author and his beautiful, well-dowered wife, who had brought him out of the mines to share her wealth, her love, and life. For a time they would appear to have been very happy; and then Mr. Massilon fell into the net of this woman who was not his wife. So infatuated did he become that all the dictates of common-sense and prudence—manhood even—were ignored and outraged.
'You have had it stated before you in evidence, my lord and gentlemen, and that evidence has not even been questioned, that the prisoner became so passionately, so foolishly, so madly and criminally enamoured of his mistress that he did not scruple to set up an establishment for her almost within a stone's throw of his own residence. Such an intolerable proceeding as that, so thoughtless, reckless, and vicious in all its bearings, could not possibly produce other than one result.
'That inexorable consequence the prisoner's action did produce. By means made plain to you Mrs. Massilon was made aware of her husband's liaison. But even then the devoted wife shrunk from taking the fatal step which, while it would have set her free from an infidel husband, would have published her woes to the world. That Mrs. Massilon tried to dissuade the prisoner from his evil way of life is evident from the statement of one witness who testified that he heard man and wife quarrelling one evening on the bank of the river near their home, and that the gentleman at the bar of this court was so firmly wedded to his vicious courses, that his loving wife's persuasions were uttered in vain. That he had tired of the woman to whom he was bound by every law human and divine, and desired to rid himself of her, is proved by the fact that on that very evening he threw his wife into the river, where it was most dangerous, and only appears to have leaped in to rescue her when he discovered that his murderous act had been fortunately overseen.
'What follows is, I admit, only a matter of conjecture, but I submit that, in the light of preceding events, it is circumstantial evidence of the strongest possible nature. One evening, Mrs. Massilon quits her home, shortly after her husband. Each goes out alone, but only the husband returns. It is midnight then, and he seems greatly agitated. He is saturated to the skin; he is clearly prostrated by some great trouble; is sullen and uncommunicative, and when apprised of his wife's absence is not surprised or alarmed.
'Another twenty-four hours go by and the missing woman does not return; nothing is heard of her, and still the husband takes no steps to ascertain her whereabouts. Then he is urged to go to the police, and next day he does so reluctantly. But even now his manner is not that of the husband who, having lost his wife, is desirous of recovering her at all costs. He gives information to the police in a most unsatisfactory manner—withholds from them facts of the utmost importance; and generally so conducts himself as to arouse the suspicions of the very people he had unwillingly called to his assistance.
'Several days go by and the efforts of the police are fruitless. Descriptions of the missing woman are scattered broadcast without avail. The streams and ponds in the neighbourhood are dragged in vain, and the proffered reward is not claimed. Sunday comes, and then at nightfall the prisoner makes an attempt to leave the town unobserved. But he is watched, is followed, and his movements made known to the police at Ashlynton.
'Then comes the denouement. Satisfied that the prisoner is seeking to escape, the police make a sudden descent upon Milton Lodge, the house where the accused and his wife resided. They find no one there but the two servants, and the place is subjected to a careful search. Every room is scrutinised in vain. Cellar and attic yield no clue. Then a locked room is found. That room is Paul Massilon's study, where no one is permitted to go save himself. The door is fast, and the key missing. It is burst open, and then the body of the drowned woman is found stowed away in a great chest.
'That, my lord and gentlemen of the jury, is my case. It is, in fact, the only case which you have to consider; for my learned friend, the counsel for the defence, has avowedly no case. I will not trouble you by drawing any inference—that is the work my friends, the jurors, have to fulfil. That they will discharge their work truly and faithfully I am most firmly persuaded. One fact more and then I am done. A few months before this lamentable tragedy occurred the deceased made a will in which she bequeathed all her fortune—something like twelve or fourteen thousand pounds—to the prisoner. He was aware of the provisions of that last will and testament.'
The learned gentleman resumed his seat amid the congratulations of his legal friends. He knew that he had done well, and a thin smile of pleasure was illuminating his clean-cut, eager, intellectual face. He was not an unkindly man; at home he had a wife and children whom he loved dearly; but he loved his profession also, was ambitious to shine among his brethren, and he had no suspicion that the miserable, downcast, shivering creature at the bar was innocent. Like everyone there save Paul and another he believed the prisoner to be guilty and rightly doomed.
Then the judge rose in his place, with a grim austerity on his strongly marked face, and in a few pregnant sentences he summed up the case for the guidance of the jurors.
He dwelt briefly on the enormity of the crime of which the prisoner stood charged. The one he had vowed to love and honour he had deserted and done to death. His crime was not the common one perpetrated by an ignorant member of the criminal classes—was not an act committed in an impulse of passion by one of the lower orders—but was a cool, calculating act of homicide carefully conceived and remorselessly executed by a clever and an educated man, for whose crime no excuse could be found. In the hands of the jurors he committed the fate of the accused, feeling assured that their manhood and their consciences would lead them to the finding of a right verdict.
One by one the jurymen vacated their seats and retired to the chamber set apart for their fateful deliberations, and when they left the inner precincts of the awe-filled court, a sardonic devilish smile lit up the uncanny features of Byron Wedmore.
Phil Lawrence chanced to see that diabolical look of triumph, and his manly heart revolted at the sickening sight. He knew that Wedmore had long loved Margaret, that he had hated Massilon because he had curried her off, but that any human being should rejoice at such a moment over another's downfall was damnably brutal—almost inconceivable.
Sick at heart, Phil turned away, to let his eyes linger an instant upon his relative who was shuddering in her seat. Then he glanced at the dock, vaguely wondering what grisly thoughts were passing at that moment through Paul Massilon's agitated brain.
He could not see his old friend's face. Paul was sitting inside the dock still, with a tall constable at his elbow, whose face was motionless as a stone image. The prisoner's face was dropped on the brass rail, and even his profile was hidden by sheltering hands.
Then the jurors slowly filed back into their places, and a silence that was fearsome in its intensity fell upon the court. All the jurors, save the foreman, seated themselves; he stood erect with a slip of paper in his hand. Then one of the law officers asked a question, and the foreman said in low, clear tones:—
'We find the prisoner guilty, but strongly recommend him to mercy!'
An awed thrill and murmur passed over the assemblage like an unseen wave, but it was subdued instantly as the judge rose to his feet to pronounce the dread words. Looking with merciless eyes at the crouching prisoner at the bar, in cold, clear, ringing words his lordship asked if accused had anything to say why the sentence of that court should not be passed upon him.
The judge paused, and then Paul Massilon rose unsteadily to his feet, staring before him with wild, despairing eyes, like one mad or in a dream. Then he spoke, in a voice that was husky and tremulous, and yet sufficiently distinct to be heard from end to end of the court.
'I have only this to say, my lord,' he cried, looking the judge fearlessly in the face, 'I am innocent, and yet I blame no one for adjudging me guilty. God knows—as my dear wife knows—that her blood is not upon my hands. I have sinned. I have sinned, and this is my punishment.'
Those last words rang out in a blast of self-accusing passion, and then with a hoarse, inarticulate cry Paul fell back senseless in the arms of the attendant policeman.
IT was a bitter morning in early March, and the snow lay thick and white and hard on the fields, the roads, and housetops; every sheet of water in the neighbourhood was sheeted with ice, and the sides and surface of not a few running streams were icebound also, so fierce and persistent had been the wave of Arctic weather.
One morning shortly after daybreak, Mr. Byron Wedmore might have been seen strolling around the great, neglected, tumble-down residence known as Wedmore House. Years before, the house had evidently been one of some consequence. Its plastered front must have been imposing in appearance when the stucco was white and new—now it was the colour of baked clay, and was peeling off in numerous places like a mangy cur casting its coat—and the lawn and flower beds had about them still traces of more prosperous times.
It was a three-storied house with innumerable bayed windows and peaked segments of roof; but now most of the windows were either broken or boarded up; here and there the wooden peaks were shattered, and the slates torn off, and only in a couple of rooms at the front and at one point in the rear, did the big, rambling structure show those traces of cleanliness which would lead one to think the place was still inhabited.
In summer time the house was picturesque enough. Now, on that bitter March day, with the snow-bound country lying around, the place seemed as weird and uncanny as the half-witted man known as its owner. In the front of the house the sloping tree and bush-dotted sward shelved down to the black river; at the back was a patch of dingly woodland; on one side there was an old delph from which the stone had been extracted dozens of years ago; while on the remaining side were the fields running along the Douglas towards Milton Lodge.
This was the home of Byron Wedmore, his dogs, and, his two retainers—a shrivelled-up old fellow and his wife, who had lived at the place for thirty or forty years, and who were in many ways as curious and as cantankerous as their master.
Coming out of the rear of the house, with a great surly mastiff at his heels, Wedmore took his customary diurnal stroll around his neglected residence, visiting one after the other the dozen different kennels surrounding the dilapidated building, and pausing a few moments at each to pat and fondle the mastiff, collie, retriever, bull, and other breeds of the canine race which leaped out of their burrows at his well known approach.
Had the old house been a castle Byron Wedmore could not have guarded it more carefully. He and his retainers had small need to feel afraid of their loneliness and the intruders its isolated position might attract, with that ring of dogs about them.
It would have been a work of danger to have ventured near the place after nightfall, for each animal was fierce and unchained, and at times their latrant roars could be heard on the high road. But the baying of the dogs troubled no one, as the nearest house, Milton Lodge, was a quarter of a mile distant.
Having made a circuit of the house, Wedmore glanced at his watch, saw it was midway between seven and eight o'clock, and then, with the great mastiff trotting at his side, he set off at a smart pace towards the town, his uncanny face again wearing that diabolical smile which had so revolted Phil Lawrence on the day of the trial and sentence of Massilon.
When Byron Wedmore gained the old market place in the centre of Ashlynton the clock in the weather-beaten tower of the church was pointing to the hour of eight o'clock. A few moments later the sonorous strokes of the bell were clanging across the bleak white square and thinly-populated thoroughfares, and as the last chime died away on the frosty air his thin vicious lips emitted a low gurgling ripple of satisfied laughter.
'Gone! gone! Gone to the devil at last!' he muttered under his breath, and stopping an instant to pat the hound's sleek wet muzzle he hurried on, pausing not to retrace his steps until he had reached the entrance to the railway station.
Then he turned on his heel and walked slowly back, his face thoughtful, his eyes gleaming, and his thin bloodless lips mouthing inaudible sentences. Suddenly his face grew alert, his whole bearing quickened, as the dolorous notes of a news-vendor's cry fell on his ears.
'Execution this mornin'!
Last scene on the scaffold!
Dyin' confession of the Ashlynton murderer.
Almost running to the bedraggled urchin in his eagerness, Wedmore seized a paper, tore it open to read the news, forgetting the fact, or careless of it, that he had thrust half-a-crown in the newslad's hand, and hurried off without change.
Darting into the first public-house that offered itself, Wedmore flung himself into the first room with the dogs at his heels, startling the servant who was busy tidying up the place by his sudden entrance, and telling her to bring him 'Whisky hot!'
By the time the girl returned he was deep in the absorbing intelligence, his hawk-like face distorted with fiendish delight, his evil eyes aglow, his thin lips set, and his whole demeanour that of one who had gripped the desire of a lifetime. This is what he read:—
'Early this morning in spite of the frigid bitterness of the weather
the usual sensation-loving, morbid crowd of riff-raff and idle
tatterdemalions began to congregate on the patch of waste land lying
adjacent to the gloomy confines of the frowning gaol. Between seven
and eight o'clock there were perhaps forty or fifty ragged loafers,
slatternly, unwashed women, and dirty, neglected children huddled
together in the snow, all their eyes furtively seeking the tall, bare
flagstaff whereon would be hoisted the ominous banner of ebon hue the
moment the last dread sentence of the law had been carried into effect.
'As the hour of eight slowly approached, the shivering throng of the unwashed was being constantly augmented and conversation was carried on in low awed tones. The last act of the little tragedy that was being enacted within the sombre walls seemed to have thrown its soul-searching influence over the crowd, and the remarks that passed freely respecting the manner in which the condemned man was carrying himself, the personality of the hangman, the doings of the prison chaplain and other gaol officials, were discussed as eagerly as if the speakers had a personal interest in the grisly business.
'Promptly at eight o'clock the halliards running alongside the flagstaff were seen to quiver, and a few moments afterwards the black flag of death was idly flapping in the frosty air, announcing to the outside world that the old Biblical canon of "A life for a life," had been rigidly enforced. Almost immediately the crowd of gossip-mongers melted away, the icy wind and the snow underfoot being more potent than their morbid craving for details of the legal tragedy.
'The Press were not admitted to witness the execution, and we understand that no person was present only those immediately concerned; but from a source which we believe to be reliable, our representative has been enabled to gather various details which will doubtless prove of special interest to readers in this town, where the man who has paid the full forfeit of the law was so well, and at one time deservedly known.
'It would appear, according to the information we have received, that the condemned man behaved in a somewhat remarkable manner from the period of his conviction. From the first hour of his incarceration in the cell of the condemned at Kirkdale, to the moment when he quitted it this morning for the gallows, the criminal conducted himself in a quiet, dignified way, utterly foreign to the cell he inhabited, and the long list of murderers he followed.
'He was moody, yet not sullen; reticent, still not surly; thoughtful to the last degree, and yet not seemingly overwhelmed by his awful position. He appeared to have submitted to the inevitable with a grim strength that nothing could break down, as if he were a martyr suffering for some great and noble cause. When addressed he answered readily, and never showed the slightest traces of the weak, cowardly hysterics so many murderers are prone to.
'To the proferred ministrations of the prison chaplain he was unflinchingly obdurate, absolutely refusing to listen to the clergyman's spiritual admonitions. 'God knows all,' he is reported to have said. 'I have made my peace with Him, and why should you pester me with your barren words? Go where you are needed—where you are admired. I neither need your prayers nor desire them.'
'With regard to the outer world the condemned man was equally indifferent and inflexible, refusing to see some of his old and closest friends who had sought and obtained the requisite permission to visit him in prison. The precise meaning of this unusual proceeding it is difficult to discover. As a rule dying persons are eager to see and take leave of all former intimates, but the condemned man had either no friends sufficiently dear to him, or no weakness that way. Thus it came about that since taking leave of the world outside the prison walls on the day of his conviction Massilon has never been in touch with the world that knew him.
'Marwood, the hangman, arrived at the prison the evening prior to the execution, and, as is customary, expressed a desire to be introduced to his victim. The doomed man, however, strongly resented such a proposal, crying our in a burst of fiery passion that he would never submit to such a gross indignity; and expressing his opinion of Marwood and his bestial vocation in language that was not only very strong, but exceedingly expressive.
'The morning, when the dread crisis came, the criminal permitted himself to be pinioned quietly and afterwards walked steadily and unflinchingly to the scaffold. Ere the bolt was drawn and he was launched into eternity the miserable man motioned to the attendant clergyman, and, when he approached, whispered something in his ear. That he confessed his guilt at the last moment seems evident; but the reverend gentleman's mouth is closed. Later he may choose to divulge what he heard.'
A deep sigh of contempt welled from Byron Wedmore's lips as the last word was perused greedily, and then with burning eyes he folded the paper, put it carefully away in his pocket, drained his steaming glass of grog at a gulp, rose to his feet, called to the hound lying under the seat, and passing out of the hostelry retraced his steps homeward.
It has been already stated in the last chapter of this narrative that Mr. Byron Wedmore's dilapidated residence showed no traces of habitation save in one or two rooms at the front, and an odd apartment at the back where his aged servitors found a domicile for their declining years.
But although the fact was not apparent to the outside world there was one other room which was not only in a habitable condition, but was tenanted as well—had been inhabited by a solitary individual for several weeks lately. But save Byron Wedmore and his tenant no living being was aware of the circumstances, for even old Adam and Nancy May had not been intrusted with the secret.
The room referred to was situated on the topmost story of the house, and prior to the past month or two, had, like the remainder of the place, been disregarded for years. Its only window looked northward on the stretch of wooded dingle, and the stout frosted panes were guarded by sturdy bars of iron sunk firmly into the solid oaken framework.
Many years ago one of the demented Wedmores had been confined in that room for a considerable period, in the days before his hereditary madness grew so hopelessly pronounced as to render the services of a specialist and trained assistants absolutely imperative.
In the very hour of his need the erratic descendant of an erratic race had bethought himself of the red room, with its thickly padded walls against which one might dash the head in vain, the soft heavy coverings on the floor which made the boards impervious to sound, the barred window which would have resisted the onslaught of an armed burglar for some hours, the strong double doors which had been erected specially for the benefit of the dead and gone ancestor of his—he bethought himself of all these things and resolved to put it to use again.
He did so; but on this occasion the new tenant was a sane woman, not a demented man. To cage his prisoner was an easy matter, requiring only a little duplicity, and once caged his victim was as safe as if buried in an old disused coalmine a hundred fathoms under the earth. There his victim might scream, plead, pray vainly, for the position of the red room and the isolated nature of the house shut it off from the world.
Here, on the evening when she stole forth from Milton Lodge, had Margaret Massilon been carried. A cunningly-worded note from Wedmore had swept all the woman's repugnance aside, and she had crept to Wedmore House stealthily under cover of the darkness, hoping that happiness for her husband and herself would be the result of her unpleasant, yet absolutely necessary, visit to her erstwhile admirer's residence.
Bryon Wedmore had stated in his note that Mary would be at the house that evening; that Paul's mistress was willing to quit the neighbourhood at once if his wife would help her to do so; and torn by a score of conflicting emotions the unhappy woman had placed herself unreservedly in the hands of the madman who adored her.
On reaching the entrance to Wedmore House Mrs. Massilon had found Wedmore awaiting her; together they had proceeded to the house; he had shown her into his room, placed wine before her, and then had gone out to bring in Mary Stanley, who was waiting, he said, in another apartment.
Feeling strangely excited by the situation in which she found herself, her heart fluttering and her nerves shattered, Margaret, to steady herself, poured out a glass of wine, tossed it off in feverish eagerness; and when she came to her senses an hour later she found that she was a prisoner in the Red Room.
Then had ensued a stormy scene. Margaret had prayed and pleaded and shrieked aloud in her woe, and the uncanny countenance of her self-constituted guardian and gaoler had never flinched from the grim, dogged purpose written on its weirdly-marked lineaments.
Briefly, almost brutally, he had declared his purpose in decoying her thither. From herself and her unworthy spouse he was resolved to save her at all costs. He loved her as his mastiff loved him; had stolen her by cunning and would keep her by force till such time as Massilon fled with his pretty plaything. Then he would make amends—would marry her, and they would be happy for ever.
She had listened to him in shuddering horror; had prayed to him on her knees till her voice failed her; had screamed hoarsely, cast herself despairingly on the yielding floor but nothing could move her grim janitor from his determination.
The dramatic scene enacted that first night had been re-enacted, with many variations, in the days and nights that followed. At length Margaret was compelled to resign herself to her fate. She soon discovered that her clamant words fell upon an iron heart which was proof against all her pleadings, that her agonised screams could not penetrate to the outer world, and her surroundings prevented her from laying violent hands upon her own life had she been suicidally inclined.
But she loved her husband and life, had hope still, and day after day she prayed incessantly that God would send reason to Byron Wedmore's eerie brain, or strong friends of her own to the prison wherein she was immured.
Apart from the fact that she was a close prisoner, shut out from the world, Margaret had no cause for complaint. Her gaoler was the very personification of kindness, courtesy, and devotion, treating her with the homage, tenderness, and fealty a lowly subject might show to a prisoned queen whom he adored.
He bought her books of many kinds—magazines and illustrated periodicals, but never a newspaper; the rarest wines were at her command, and every delicacy in the way of food she cared to name. He waited upon her himself with the willingness and alacrity of an amorous cavalier.
Often enough during the first week of her incarceration Margaret pleaded eloquently to her captor for information of the doings of her little world since she had been torn from it—had beseeched him on her knees to bring her a copy of the local newspaper. What was her husband doing? What did he and her aunt and the rest of the world think of her disappearance?
For the love of God—for his sake and her own—if he did not wish to madden her completely she must know something. If her remorseless janitor would only enlighten her as to what was being said and done by those who knew and cared for her this intolerable imprisonment would be more easy to bear.
For many days he strove to pacify the caged woman with soft words and many promises. To-morrow, or the day following, he would tell her all there was to tell. Then she would storm at her merciless captor in impotent fury, her dark eyes ablaze, her finely-cut nostrils dilated, her whole form rigid with a consuming passion that broke to pieces on the unyielding rock of his immovable will.
Then she refused the dainty food he brought her ready cooked from the town, flung in his face the wooden goblets of choice wines, raged, prayed, cursed him in a breath, and grovelled at his feet like some strange beast whose fangs and claws had been broken.
She had grown pale and spiritless and weak as one smitten with disease. For many hours she spurned the life-giving drinks he brought her, although her lips and throat were parched with a consuming thirst—kicked away the toothsome morsels he had laid at her side, although her stomach was in ravenous revolt against her self-devouring obstinacy.
Had she had a deadly weapon she would not have scrupled to use it against the madman whose chains enslaved her. If she had had but a knife she would have torn out his vitals in her fury—would have driven a bullet through him had she possessed a pistol, with no compunction, but an ecstatic joy.
Byron Wedmore grew alarmed when he marked her failing strength and her suicidal resolution. To have her ill would endanger everything—to permit her to immolate herself would be to lose the great stake for which he was playing.
To give her a new interest in living he related a perverted account of what had transpired in the world outside, since his had decoyed her to his isolated stronghold. The mistress of Brook Cottage had vanished, the cottage was deserted and empty, but whither Mary Stanley had fled no one seemed to know.
Her husband and aunt were still at Milton Lodge. They had advertised for her and offered a reward. They still believed that she had fled of her own accord, and that she was hiding with friends. Her flight was attributed to Massilon's faithlessness to herself, and the whole town was ringing with the story of his infamy. To that cause probably Mary Stanley's sudden disappearance was due.
Margaret listened and believed. The information Wedmore had vouchsafed so reluctantly was not without its satisfactory side. It was something to know that the woman of her abhorrence had vanished, and that Paul had not fled also. If fears for his missing wife had prevented him from flying with Mary her involuntary detention in that den had not been altogether in vain. The mad, insensate act of the witless creature who had prisoned her might after all work out well in the end.
Wedmore's garbled statement had the immediate effect of nerving his prisoner afresh for the struggle before her. With her illegitimate rival put to the rout and her husband still at hand there was many a reason for living on, and not one for dying.
So she ate and drank, and grew strong again; colour came back to her pallid face, and hope burned once more in her breast. She had need of all her strength and energy now if she were to break from the network that environed her—all her patience and wit would have to be nurtured and displayed if she were to overcome the cunning scheming of her gaoler.
So thinking, Margaret grew more cheery, and her tongue assailed Wedmore no more. There was no time now to be wasted on vain appeals, and ineffective declamations. All her mind was bent upon the one absorbing thought of escape. To break out by sheer force was impossible; only by cajolery and cunning could she hope to recover the liberty she had lost.
Day after day she puzzled her brains for a feasible scheme, and immersed in thoughts of freedom was not more happy, but only a little less miserable, than before. She dwelt in rapt ecstacy on the idea of reunion with Paul. How willingly she would forgive and forget all the black past; and if he were only willing to welcome her back home again her happiness would be complete.
Thus musing and dreaming and scheming she was in a way content. Soon she would be freed. The mad fool would tire presently of his prisoner, or his folly would be torn into tatters by her wondering friends. Had she but known the truth, had a vague idea been vouchsafed her of the tragic way matters were trending in the outer world, most assuredly would she have gone mad.
In the meantime Byron Wedmore was patiently awaiting the ripening of the devilish scheme his half-mad brain had concocted; and on the morning when he so feverishly perused that thrilling account of Paul Massilon's execution the fruit of his diabolical design seemed ripe and ready for gathering.
AFTER hurrying from Ashlynton with his huge mastiff at his heels Mr. Byron Wedmore did not pause again until he was safely housed in his own apartment at home. His old henchman had noticed his master's return, and a little later Nancy May took her employer his breakfast, which consisted of a steaming pot of coffee, a hard-boiled egg, and a slice of dry toast.
The shrivelled old crone placed the different articles on the table in front of her master, busied herself about the room a moment or two, and then at a muttered word and gesture from Wedmore she ambled away, muttering inaudibly to herself as she departed.
Drawing up to his morning meal the master of the crumbling mansion poured out the hot black decoction slowly, helped himself to milk and sugar in a thoughtful, deliberative way, and then munched his toast and cracked the top of his egg in the same moody manner.
Now that his desire was consummated and the prize at his finger ends he almost feared to grasp it. At the last moment the ragged shred of a conscience he possessed was fluttering to life in his breast and upbraiding him softly with his crime.
But he swept the inward monitor from him with a fierce gesture. Why should he trouble himself about the fate of the unworthy rascal who had stolen Margaret Heywood from him? He had had his chance and had deliberately cast it away. After winning the best and most beautiful woman in the world he had deserted her for a frail creature with a fair face and a sordid soul.
No, he would not regret what he had done. Paul Massilon deserved his fate. He, Byron Wedmore, was the instrument heaven had selected to punish the unfaithful husband for his many sins.
But what of Margaret now? Should he go to her at once and reveal the whole truth? Would she be pleased or sorry when she learned of all he had ventured for her sake? But sorry or glad it was done now. The man he detested was swept from his path, and Margaret was in his power to do with as he would.
Ostensibly she was dead to the world, and if she repudiated his advances there was no reason to let the world know that she still lived. Out of that house she would never go alive unless she went as his wife. Rather than give her up now he would kill her and himself also.
When his meagre meal was consumed he went to the window and stared out upon the snow-covered country, and the black river flowing sullenly at the foot of the sloping field. Then he turned away and strode moodily about the room. Presently he was crouching at the fireside with some old newspapers in his hands.
One by one he went over the sheets of news, carefully tearing away the dates from the top of each one. Only one paper did he leave intact, and that was the copy he had purchased in Ashlynton that morning.
It was noonday ere he screwed up sufficient courage to seek the higher rooms. Then he stole up the neglected staircases and along the dim dust-covered corridors like a thief who is contemplating a robbery and fears detection. Many a time as he proceeded towards his destination he paused in his stealthy journey, turned round suddenly and listened intently as if he suspected he was watched or followed.
When the topmost story was gained and he stood in the dusty corridor which led to the Red Room, he paused, pulled off his boots, and placing them aside stole forward noiselessly in his stockinged feet, the thick dust meeting his feet like a carpet.
At the outer door of the room that contained his cherished prize, he came to a standstill, and going on his hands and knees, he thrust his face against the lower edge of the barrier, listening intently.
Then the soft notes of a sweet voice raised in song were wafted to his ears under the bottom of the door. He knew the voice well; had heard it often, but never before had its sweetness and pathos stirred him as it did then. The heart of the sad singer seemed to have melted in her notes; it was like the cry of some caged bird piping of a lost life, lost hope, and freedom.
Noiselessly as possible he rose to his feet, fumbled for the keys, and unlocked the outer door. Then he stooped to the keyhole and viewed the fair occupant of the Red Room. She was sitting on a low buffet in the centre of the apartment, her sad, white face fixed on the window, big tears rolling slowly from her great eyes, and out of her parted lips that volume of heart-moving music was streaming.
With an oath strangled in his throat Wedmore stole away soundlessly, and when he regained his own apartment he went straight to the sideboard, and helped himself freely to the brandy he found there.
Some hours afterwards when he reascended the stairs the darkness of the brief March day had fallen, and his scruples had disappeared. Repeated doses of strong liquor had melted all his doubts and filled him with brave notions. He did not glance back now or listen in apprehension, did not remove his boots and creep noiselessly to the door.
When he unlocked the second door and swung it to behind him his face was flushed, his eyes were aglow, his whole manner betrayed the resolution within him. Margaret had lit the gas, and was lying on the couch, a weary expression on her white beautiful face. She looked at him, but did not speak.
'Are you nearly tired of this, Margaret?' he began almost savagely, and yet with his eyes overcharged with the glow of love.
'Need you ask?' she cried in a low, despairing way. 'God knows that I must go mad soon if this continues! I am sick of praying to you or I would pray to you anew. Why do you keep me here? What good will it do either of us? Release me now and I swear to you that no one shall ever know where I have been imprisoned all these dreary weeks!'
'Release you!' he muttered lowly. 'Perhaps I may release you soon.'
'For heaven's sake do!' she implored him.
'I will set you free to-morrow on one condition.'
'What is that?' she cried, springing to her feet.
'That you marry me!'
'Marry you! How can I?'
'If you were free to marry me, Margaret,' he exclaimed with a passionate eagerness, 'would you marry me then?'
'That is not sufficient.'
'I would then—if I were free!' she cried, temporising—ready to do or say anything almost in order to regain her blessed liberty—to feel the free air of heaven blowing in her face—to see her husband and speak to him again. 'Set me free, and then I will do anything you ask me!'
'You mean it?' he cried. 'Do not say anything you do not mean, for if you mislead me I will kill you, and myself too!'
'I mean it! I mean it!' she cried, sobbing and wringing her hands in despair. 'As true as God is above us I will marry you when I am free to do so!'
'Take care of what you say,' was his grim and resolute retort. 'I mean to put you to the test soon—sooner than you think perhaps. But let me impress one thing upon you. Whenever you quit this room—be it soon or late—it will be to become my wife. Rather than lose you now I would kill you!'
He hissed out those words with a malevolent glare in his wicked eyes, and she shrank from him with a shudder, covering her face with her hands as she sank upon the couch, which had served her so long as a sleeping-place.
'Listen to me!' he commanded, with the savage authority of a sultan addressing a slave. 'You have promised, and I shall keep you to your word. I have hews for you—pleasant news, I hope. Since you have been in my keeping many things have happened. To save you from the vulgar ruffian who stole you from me I have been scheming night and day; have moved heaven and hell to compass my ends. Read that!'
He thrust a slip of newspaper into her trembling fingers and glowered at her with brutal gaze. The strong drink was firing his heart and brain now, making him reckless of all things save the victory he had won. With an affrighted glance at his fierce countenance she rose to her feet and read—read hurriedly, wonderingly, and then faced him fearlessly.
'What does this mean?' she asked. 'My husband arrested! A dead woman found in his room! That woman mistaken for me! My God! I see it all now! This is your work!'
'It is my work!' he cried, proudly. 'I swore to save you and ruin him, and I have done both! I found that woman in the river, and at first I thought it was you. She was your very image, and the sight of her froze my blood. Then an idea suggested itself, and I carried it out. I carried that woman to your husband's study; placed the body in that old chest; put your rings upon her fingers; and then, thinking I had wiped out my grudge against Paul Massilon, I left the remainder of the work to my friends—the police!'
'My God! Oh, you devil! And Paul, my husband! What of him?'
'Read this if you wish to know!' he said, curtly, as he handed to her another newspaper cutting which he had drawn from his pocket. 'Read that,' he added, in a menacing tone, 'and remember what you have promised. And please to recollect also that what I have done has been done for your sake alone. That man, who called you wife, treated you like a beast. You were only dirt in his eyes, to be trampled upon and outraged in every possible way. That other woman was the one he had given his heart to. What I say is only the truth, and, by heaven, you know it!'
She took the slip from him without a word, but with a look of unutterable disgust and loathing on her white face, and as she read the contents of the second cutting her form quivered like a wind-swept sapling, her eyes flashed, and her lips twitched strangely.
That second slip Wedmore had pressed upon Margaret contained more ominous news than the first one had done. It was a summary of the trial at Liverpool, and contained the statement that her husband had been sentenced to death—sentenced to death for her murder, and she alive there and unable to save him! The burning words that Paul had then uttered were quoted, and as she read them with a sinking heart the sentences seemed to emblazon themselves on her quivering heart.
She dropped the paper and faced her companion, ashy hued and rigid as a woman carved out of marble.
'Are you a man or a devil?' she asked huskily with a feeling of suffocation. 'If you are a man with a spark of feeling in you, you will free me at once and let me save my husband! If you are a devil you will keep me here and let an innocent man suffer death! But you will not do that, will you?' she cried as she sank on her knees and grovelled at his feet. 'You will save Paul, won't you? Here on my knees I implore you to save an innocent man who never harmed you! If he dies you will be a murderer. Save him! Save him and do with me as you will. Spare his life and I will be your slave! Save him and I will bless you!'
'It is too late now!' he muttered gruffly.
'No, no! not too late!' she sobbed, with her arms around his knees. 'Only spare his life and I will be your slave for ever. In the name of God save the man your false swearing helped to condemn!'
'It is too late I tell you!' he cried again, shaking himself free from her clutching fingers. 'It is all over now! that paper was printed over three weeks ago. Read this, and then you will know all there is to know!'
He flung down to her the newspaper he had bought that morning, and still grovelling at his feet she picked it up, flashed her distended eyes across the columns till those great staring headlines riveted her gaze and froze her heart within her.
Word by word the pregnant paragraph fell from her tongue, and then with an awful, ear-piercing shriek, such as only a crushed, heart-broken woman could utter, she sank in a senseless heap before him.
DESPITE the reputation for imbecility which Byron Wedmore possessed among his townsmen, and the unquestionable taint of hereditary madness that ran in his blood, that gentleman had conceived and carried out his astounding scheme of villainous deception and cold-blooded vengeance with a tact and a cleverness that would not have discredited the sanest and most astute knave that ever dabbled in crime.
But with him, as with most other daring criminals, one small matter had been completely overlooked or ignored. It was only a thing of the utmost triviality in itself, and yet it led to the revelation of Wedmore's remarkable fraud, and probably saved two precious lives.
When he incarcerated Margaret Massilon in the Red Room that one of his insane race had formerly inhabited, he knew that his fair prisoner was as safely shut out from the world as if she had really been tombed, as her kith and kin believed. The home of his fathers was far away from the haunts of mankind, no visitors ever cared to visit the gloomy spot, those frosted windows blinded all outside eyes, and the crack of a pistol exploded in the Red Room would not have been heard in the grounds three stories below.
The trivial matter Wedmore overlooked was the light he allowed to burn in that room during the long dark evenings. Had the window been shuttered or guarded by an opaque blind the light might not have mattered. But there was neither, and every night that luminous window, just beneath the roof of the gaunt house, had flared forth to be seen and noted by anyone who chanced to be strolling or prowling in the dingle on the north side of the house.
Two prowlers had seen that lighted window and had noted it eagerly. They were two men—a broken-down footman and a disreputable coachman—who sometimes came to chat with old Adam May and beg a mouthful of food from him. The old man had known them in their semi-respectable days, ere their idleness or love of drink had lost them their places in the neighbourhood, and when he could do it Adam supplied them with a copper and a bite and a sup.
These gentlemen were not respectable enough to visit their old friend openly, but stole to his quarters at the back through the dingle. They were mortally afraid of being caught on the premises by the erratic owner of the place, knowing full well that he would not scruple to set his dogs upon them; and for one or two of Wedmore's fierce beasts they cherished a mortal antipathy.
Noting the light night after night, John Thomas Jones and William Henry Smith wondered greatly and talked much to one another about it. Wedmore had the reputation of being a miser; and there was a tradition afloat that none of the mad family had ever trusted a penny in the bank since the smash up of a banking concern in which the then head of the race had lost some twenty or thirty thousand pounds.
Hence after much confabulation our friends, John and William, came to the conclusion that the room up aloft with the frosted windows wherein a dim light burnt so frequently, was the secret place in which Mr. Byron Wedmore stored his treasure. That supposition was turned over till it grew into a conviction, and the thought of handling hidden stores of yellow gold bred schemes.
On the very evening that Byron Wedmore had primed himself with brandy for his last interview with his prisoner, our whilom coachman and footman had resolved upon making an incursion into the territory of the supposed miser.
They were only a pair of scurvy rascals after all, and their courage was in no way commensurate with their greed and general 'cussedness.' Had the storming of the citadel been either difficult or dangerous, the odds are that the attempt would never have been essayed; nor would the idle wastrels have had the right to say that they had done at least one good thing in their otherwise worthless lives.
John and William had crept through the snow-covered patch of wooded dingle that afternoon, shortly before twilight, and seeing old Adam, had made the usual 'call' upon the sparsely stocked larder of Wedmore House. The senile servitor had helped them freely to a hunk of cold beef and bread, and had even furnished them with a jug of his master's ale.
The needy ones had munched the toothsome eatables with many earnest thanks, had washed down their gratitude with the ripe brown ale, and then had muttered a cheery good evening to Adam and Nancy and gone their way.
But they did not go far. When the cover of some straggling bushes was gained they paused slowly, peered around eagerly, and seeing nothing they crouched down and waited for darkness.
Their plans were already drawn, and one part of them had already been set into operation. In their meanderings about the dreary, neglected house they had noticed one window on the ground floor which gave them easy access. But just beneath that dilapidated casement was a huge kennel tenanted by a great Newfoundland dog.
The animal was by no means a savage specimen of his kind. At different times the dog had seen the rascals in the company of old Adam; had tolerated their presence in consequence; had even permitted them to stroke and pat his big slobbering muzzle. As a reward for his friendly tolerance Mr. Jones had dropped a hunch of doctored beef in the snow beside his hut.
When the twilight thickened sufficiently the avaricious pair stole out, tripped quietly and swiftly as possible over the snow-covered ground, and soon were standing with pale faces and throbbing pulses underneath the broken window.
An instant they stood there glancing fearfully about them. But there was no reason for alarm. The poisoned dog was stiffening in the frozen snow at their side. The whole length of the house was plunged in semi-darkness. Not a sound was astir save the monotonous swash of the sluggishly flowing river a hundred paces away.
Crawling on the top of the kennel Smith, who appeared to be the more daring of the two, found himself on a level with the window; and it was only the work of a few moments to thrust a dirty paw through one of the shattered panes, slide back the rusty catch, and then, after a sharp tug, the lower sash moved upwards with a grating sound.
Creeping through the square aperture the leader waited for his comrade, and in another minute both were inside. Then the window was drawn down again, and the ex-flunkeys, who were graduating for gaol birds, prepared for the work before them.
In the angle formed by the floor and wall under the window a match was ignited, a policeman's old battered bull's-eye lamp was lit, and then, Smith still leading, they started on their quest, their minds bent upon that room on the top story.
After not a little fruitless wandering amid dusty rooms and cheerless corridors a fight of broad stairs was perceived, and up the wide, shallow flight of steps the amateur housebreakers made their way gingerly, pausing now and again to listen for any sound which would denote that their presence was known.
In a stooping position the two men crept along, and in a few minutes had gained the foot of a second staircase. This was steeper and narrower than the first one, and Jones was about to ascend it when an object lying in a corner of the stairs caught his eye.
Stooping, he picked up a glove—evidently a lady's from its smallness, and the soft sealskin fur with which it was trimmed. Flicking the dust from the glove, Smith thrust it in his capacious pocket, and then resumed his upward march.
When the top of the stairs was attained a pause was made and a glance cast round. The room they sought could not be far away now. Their steps so far had trended towards the northern end of the house, and this corridor they stood in must lead to the miser's treasure cave.
'The room must be somewhere near 'ere, Bill,' Jones muttered, as he peered about him. 'I wonder which it is, an' whether he's in there now?'
'I didn't see no light, Johnny, when we come in,' the other answered. Then he added in a quick, frightened voice, 'What's that? Don't you hear something? As true as God, we're copped!'
They stood erect and listened, and the clear sounds of approaching feet sent their hearts to their throats and left their craven faces ghostly.
'God's truth, you're right, Bill!' Jones whispered huskily. 'Who is it? Where can we go? Here!'
He pushed at the door beside him, it swung back, and they darted inside. Then the lamp was shaded, and they waited, one with a big murderous-looking clasp-knife gripped in his fist, the other poising a short crowbar which he had drawn from his pocket. On and on those heavy, quick footfalls came, and paused suddenly in front of the door behind which the men were crouching, while a thin jet of light shot through the empty keyhole. Then the jingling of keys was heard, and placing his eye against the keyhole Smith saw Wedmore open one door and pass beyond it, leaving the door open behind him; then he paused at another door, unlocked it also, went through the doorway, plucking the door after him which he relocked.
For a few moments absolute silence reigned between the two rascals and about them. Their courage came back to them when they realised that they had not been detected, that their presence was not even suspected, and that Wedmore was engaged upon business of his own in the mysterious room.
Replacing their weapons, the slide of the lamp was moved, the door slowly drawn back, and then they peered forth. A confused murmur of voices was heard, and increased their wonderment and consuming curiosity. Setting down the lamp on the floor, where its ray shot across the dark corridor and past the open door on the other side, Smith whispered in a dogged voice to his mate:
'He's in that there room, Johnny, an' I mean to see what he's doin'. You stop here an' I creep to the keyhole. He's locked the door, an' afore he can open it again I can run away. He's on'y one, an' there's two on us, eh?'
'All right, Bill, but be keerful, ole man!'
'Trust me for that!'
While he was holding this whispered colloquy with his mate, Smith was unfastening his old shoes, and when he had slipped them off and put them aside he crept out, crossed the corridor, stole past the opened door, and knelt at the closed one with his eye glued to the keyhole.
What he saw startled him more than any piled heaps of glittering gold could have done. It was a miracle he did not scream out aloud in the spasm of amazed horror that seized upon him. With an effort he choked back the rising shriek, resisted the impulse to turn and fly, and remained kneeling with his burning eye glued to the keyhole.
The would-be robber knew well the fair woman he saw in that room. For several years he had been in the service of a neighbouring family, and had seen her innumerable times. He had read all about the Milton Lodge business, and had swallowed all the published accounts of the mysterious affair. He had believed Mrs. Massilon dead and buried, and there she was alive in that room.
Half-inclined to doubt the evidence of his own eyes, the bewildered man turned his gaze from the keyhole, and placed his ear to it. What he heard swept all his doubts away; and as he watched and listened alternately the poor, miserable would-be thief shuddered at the horrible iniquity that was revealed to him. Even in his most desperately vicious moments he had never conceived that such a crime was possible.
With a ghastly countenance he crept back to his accomplice, and began to replace his shoes without a word.
'What's he doin'? What did you see, Bill?' the other whispered in a ferment of curiosity. 'Was he countin' the yellow uns? Shall I go an' have a look at 'im?'
'Hush!' Bill cried tremblingly. 'There's nothin' in that room for us. Not another word now. Let's clear out like lightning, an' I'll tell you all about it outside.'
Johnny stared, gasped, but shut his mouth, for there was a vague, indefinable something in his comrade's voice that alarmed him. Then, when Smith had shod himself they crept away, never pausing in their flight, never glancing back, until they had dropped from the window and stood in the open air.
Then they darted round the corner of the gloomy house, and disappeared among the black-boled leafless trees, running like hares from the place they had been so eager to enter an hour ago.
ALONG the slippery expanse of highway that stretched between Milton Lodge and the Market Square of Ashlynton our young friend, Mr. Phil Lawrence, was making his way on the very evening of the day when the local newspaper had announced the last sad act in the romance of Paul Massilon's career.
Phil's pace was slow and measured, his face was set and thoughtful, as if he were pondering some subject of weighty import, and yet there was a gleam in his eye which was not entirely mournful. He was passing a gas-lamp, beneath which two men were loitering, when an observation fell upon his ears and arrested his feet.
'Good evenin', Mr. Lawrence.'
There was a familiar note in the voice which caused Phil to pause, then turn round, and stare at those two figures standing in the shadow of the lamp.
'Good evening!' he answered slowly, unable to recognise the speaker, and he was resuming his walk when the same voice again addressed him:
'I beg pardon, Mr. Lawrence, but can I speak to you, sir?'
There was a curious mixture of fear and entreaty in the speaker's voice now which stirred Phil's interest, and wondering also to whom those vaguely familiar tones belonged, he went back a few paces to meet the loiterer face to face, where the light fell upon them both.
'Hullo, Smith, that you?' Lawrence cried, not ungenially, and his hand slipped instinctively to his pocket, as he recognised the discharged coachman. 'Out of collar, eh? Well, here's half-a-crown for you and your mate.'
'I'll take the money, an' thank you kindly, Mr. Lawrence,' the other said, as he took the coin and put it away, 'but it wasn't for that I stopped, you, sir.'
'What was it, then? You'll excuse, me, but I'm in a hurry, rather.'
'You're a relation, aren't you, of Mrs. Massilon of the lodge there?' Smith said in an uncertain way, as his chum came forward out of the shadow and joined them.
'Of course—but why ask that?' Lawrence cried somewhat irritably.
'For a good reason, sir,' the man responded readily, and with rising confidence. 'An' wasn't there a reward of £20 offered for the lady?'
'There was. But why talk of that now? Excuse me, but I can't waste my time——'
'Stop, sir! Don't go!' Smith pleaded in a tone that thrilled Phil. 'Mrs. Massilon is alive!'
'Alive! Nonsense! Do you not know that my poor cousin is dead and was buried weeks ago?'
'I know, sir, that she was said to be dead, but she isn't. I've seen the lady this very night, sir! As true as God I have!'
'Are you mad or drunk?' Phil exclaimed, powerfully moved, as he placed his hands upon the other's shoulders, and glared into his face. 'Curse you, Smith! If this is a joke of yours, I'll choke you!'
'S'welp me, it's true! I couldn't believe me own eyes at first, but it's so! I swear to you, Mr. Lawrence, that your cousin is alive; but she's fast, an' has been kep' fast for weeks. If it's not true, ev'ry word, may God strike me dead!'
There was no mistaking the man's vehement earnestness, and Phil stared at him with burning eyes and burning pulses.
'But if this is true—and heaven knows that I hope it is,' Lawrence murmured, 'what are you doing hanging about here? Where is she? Tell me, and I'll——'
'A minute, sir! That's the chief constable over the road there, an' me an' Jones here was jus' thinkin' if it would be safe to tell 'im, when you comes up.'
'Safe! What do you mean?' Phil demanded.
'Well, sir, to tell the truth, when me an' Johnny 'ere made this discov'ry we was on for robbin' the house, sir!'
'Ah! I understand. And you were afraid of your own bones? Well——'
'We wanted to save our own bones, sir, an' get the reward too.'
'I guarantee both,' Phil said, firmly. 'Now tell me where she is! If Margaret is alive, as you say, and we find her, I pledge myself that no harm shall come to either of you, and that each of you shall have fifty pounds! There's my hand on it. Now speak, quick!'
In his own way the leading spirit of the would-be housebreakers narrated that night's adventure, and he rounded off his recital by producing the glove he had picked up on the stairs. Phil looked at the article for a moment, turned down the fur-edged wrist and cried:
'By heaven, this is my cousin's glove? One of the very pair I gave her at the beginning of winter! See, here is her name—"Mrs. Paul Massilon, Milton Lodge, Ashlynton!"'
Phil thrust the glove into his pocket, reflected a moment or two, and then said, as his eye took in the faces of both men,
'I must see the chief constable at once, and you must both go with me!' They nodded, and he added, 'You, Smith, will tell Captain Gregg what you have told me?'—Bill nodded affirmatively—'and then the next step we take must be left for him to decide. Now, come along, and fear nothing. The promise I have made to you shall be faithfully kept. I only hope that Gregg is at home, so that no time will be lost!'
He half-turned, stepped into the roadway, and made for the iron gate set in the low wall which gave access to the head constable's residence. The men followed him readily enough, his repeated assurances respecting their safety and the reward having set their minds at rest.
In five minutes Phil and his companions were sitting before Captain Gregg, and the dismissed coachman was narrating afresh that night's doings inside the old house. William Henry Smith made no secret of the motive which had led him and his comrade to invade Byron Wedmore's residence. He spoke of the gold they expected to find, and of the way in which the dog was poisoned, the window opened, the stairs mounted, and the entrance to the Red Room reached. Then he went on to relate how the approach of Wedmore had startled them, and how, when Byron had disappeared in the mysterious chamber, he had crept to the door, knelt there and heard and seen the madman holding an impassioned conversation with his prisoner.
'I never heard a stranger story in all my life!' Captain Gregg cried wonderingly when Smith had concluded. 'Wedmore must be raving mad to do such a thing. But are you sure, Smith—absolutely positive—that the woman you saw was really Mrs. Massilon?'
'As sure as I'm alive, sir!' Smith replied, in a positive tone. 'Didn't I see her hundreds o' times when I was coachman at the Larches? An' besides, sir; didn't I 'ear Mr. Wedmore speak her name when he gived her the newspapers which told of 'er own death, and Mr. Massilon's arrest, trial, sentence, an' hangin' this mornin'?'
'Come along, you all!' the chief constable cried as he rose and strode from the room. 'There is no telling what that mad fool may do if he suspects that his villainy is discovered. To-night—in an hour—that insane wretch must be lodged in prison, and the poor lady restored to her dear friends!'
About twenty minutes after this five dark figures stood beside the iron gate which barred the carriage drive to the half-ruined mansion. The gate was locked, and after a whispered word the men mounted the wall and dropped on the snow-covered grass beyond. Then they stole quietly, and yet quickly, along the tree-fringed avenue.
Those five prowlers were Captain Gregg and a burly constable picked up on the way, Phil Lawrence and the couple of disengaged menials. As they forged noiselessly along over the scarcely touched snow, the man named Smith said in a low excited voice:—
'I'd forgot the dogs, captain! There's a dozen on 'em at least; an' they're all loose. If we don't mind they'll tear us to pieces.'
'We shall have to risk that now, my man!' Gregg rejoined grimly. 'Still, we may as well pick up anything we see handy in the shape of a cudgel, for that beastly mastiff is as big and as savage as a tiger.'
As he spoke the chief constable picked up a heavy fragment of a jagged branch lying on the snow, and the others, with the exception of the policeman, helped themselves to similar pieces of timber, ere they stole onward.
Presently the small knot of men were standing in front of the gaunt house, which loomed black and grim before them, all the windows dark and deserted-looking save one on the lower floor behind which a light was burning brightly.
'I will knock,' Phil whispered as he moved towards the door. 'I know him well, and he will let me in. Stand in the shadow of the wall so that he will not see you.'
Captain Gregg nodded to Phil, motioned to the others, and as they reared themselves with their backs to the house Lawrence lifted the great brass knocker and let it fall heavily. The hollow boom of the huge clicket was still ringing in Phil's ears when a more ominous roar rang out on the stilly night.
It was the surly growl of the brawny hound in his kennel, and with the lifted hammer of the knocker again raised Lawrence paused irresolute. Just then a footfall within caught his ear, and the clicket fell almost noiselessly.
'Who's there?' came a muffled growl through the door.
'Phil Lawrence! Open the door, Wedmore; I want to speak to you!'
'What do you want?'
'To tell you about Paul Massilon! Haven't you heard the great news? Open the door while I tell you all about it.'
'What of Massilon?' came back in the same husky growl. 'He's hanged all right! Go away now, Phil. I am ill, and want to go to bed. You can call to-morrow.'
'I must tell you now, Wedmore!' Phil persisted in a wheedling way. 'Don't you know that Paul has not been hanged?'
'What! Not hanged?' was hissed in a hoarse scream through the keyhole, and then the key was turned, bolts drawn hurriedly and the door flung open, disclosing Byron Wedmore standing wild-eyed and with a flushed countenance on the threshold with a revolver in his right hand.
The sight of Wedmore's face and the shining barrel of the pistol sent a thrill through Phil and stung him to sudden action. In a flash he sprang upon the armed man, flung his arms around him, and as they fell sprawling on the threshold the sharp report of the weapon rang out again and again on the quiet air.
And mixed up with the flash and clangour of the exploding firearm were the hoarse curses of Wedmore, the clatter of feet, an agonising yell of anguish from John Thomas as a bullet crashed into his calf, and the savage bellow of the great hound as it ran forward to fall brained by the burly constable's loaded truncheon.
In a minute the sharp affray was ended, and the heavy door slammed in the jowls of the baying dogs. Byron Wedmore was lying on the floor with his hands braceleted with steel gyves, John Thomas was nursing his damaged calf, and Phil and Gregg and Smith were setting out for the Red Room, leaving the policeman to guard the mad prisoner.
In a little space the cell of Margaret Massilon was gained, and the doors opened with the keys taken from Wedmore. They found the poor lady lying white and mute upon her couch, and as Phil fell with streaming eyes beside his cousin she came to her senses and gazed wildly around.
'Phil! Phil! Is it indeed you or am I dreaming? But Paul—my husband? Where is he? They have hanged him!'
She flung her arms around her kneeling relative's neck and sobbed aloud in her agony.
'No! No! Maggie! Cheer up, dear soul! Paul is still alive! It was a false report. Instead of being murdered he was reprieved this morning!'
'I thank God!' she moaned, and then fainted away again.
'THE Ashlynton Mystery Case,' as the press, local and otherwise, had come to designate the somewhat remarkable series of events set forth in the latter portion of this narrative, had been productive of startling developments of the most sensational character, if it had proved to be an exceedingly unpleasant business for the principal players in that strange, yet eminently realistic, drama of everyday life.
Of the many thousands of persons who had been interested in the perusal of those small placards wherein Mrs. Massilon's personal appearance was depicted, and a reward for her recovery offered, not one had ever dreamt it possible that a chain of denouements, each more startling than its predecessors, was destined to flow from that commonplace announcement respecting the missing woman.
While the personal friends of Margaret Massilon and the good folks of Ashlynton likewise had been puzzling their brains to account for her evanishment, sensation number one had sprung into being with the finding of the supposed Mrs. Massilon in her husband's study, and the arrest of the suspected husband.
Upon the heels of the first startling sensation many a smaller brother had trudged. First came the finding of the jury at the 'Crowner's Quest,' next each of the different trials to which Paul Massilon was subjected in Ashlynton ere he was committed to the Liverpool Assizes on the capital charge, and then the final trial when he was sentenced to death.
After that matter had been almost quiet for three weeks, or thereabouts, and then, on the morning fixed for the execution of the condemned man, 'The Ashlynton Free Press' had made a most remarkable display in the way of journalistic enterprise.
A few minutes after the passing of the hour fixed for the carrying out of the dread penalty, copies of that go-ahead paper, containing an account of the 'last scene on the scaffold,' were on sale in the public streets of the town, and some thousands of men and women interested in Paul Massilon's fate had purchased and devoured the special edition almost as eagerly as Mr. Byron Wedmore had done.
For an hour at least the local journal had had the market to itself. No other paper contained any account of the execution, hence people rushed for 'The Ashlynton Free Press' alone.
And then the next in the series of sensations had burst upon the town, filling the hearts of a great multitude with feelings of gladness, and sending a burst of side-shaking laughter over the whole place. In its hurry to appear smart, the local print had o'er-leaped itself and fallen on the other side.
At the last moment almost Paul Massilon's sentence had been respited; news of the reprieve had been withheld from the Press; and eager for the coppers of the crowd, and assuming that the execution would 'come off,' the Ashlynton member of the 'fourth estate' had rushed in where its more angelic brothers feared to tread.
The flood of jocundity that swept over the neighbourhood in consequence of the local paper's 'much-too-previous' action may be conceived easily. Folks talked of the singular mistake with their hands gripping their quivering sides; and the copies which had been hawked about in the morning at a half-penny changed hands again for three-pence, six-pence, and a shilling, even, before nightfall.
But all the foregoing sensations, moving as they were in their way, paled into insignificance—were as moonlight unto sunlight—contrasted with the thrilling, almost terrible denouement which stirred the old town to its very core that morning when it was announced, through the columns of the journal laughed to utter scorn on the previous day, that the wife of Paul Massilon was still alive.
Remembering the blunder of the morning before, the majority of intelligent people were not inclined to believe the blunder now. They bought the paper nevertheless, and read the stirring account of last night's doings at Byron Wedmore's residence it contained, and while they perused the startling intelligence gave voice to their doubts.
According to the chronicle in the paper, two unemployed servants, long resident in the neighbourhood, had been induced by the severity of the weather and lack of means to seek refuge in the disused portion of Wedmore House. While cowering in one of the old rooms on the upper floor they had been disturbed by Wedmore; they had watched him enter a room and lock the door behind him, had followed, and through the keyhole had seen that a woman was imprisoned in the room.
That woman was Mrs. Paul Massilon. One of the men knew her well, as he had been for years in the service of a family living in one of the villas near Milton Lodge. Astounded by the sight of the poor imprisoned woman, who was supposed to be dead, the man had crept away unseen, and informed the police, who in forcing a way into the house had to face the proprietor, who was armed with a loaded revolver.
Before an entrance was effected Byron Wedmore had shot one of the disengaged servants, and then Mrs. Massilon was released and conveyed to her home. The lady was very weak owing to her monstrous sufferings and long confinement. Paul Massilon would soon be released, now that it was proved that his wife was alive. As for the cunning wretch who had conceived and almost effected his diabolical scheme, he had been convoyed to the Ashlynton Workhouse, in a condition of raving madness.
When the good folks of Ashlynton read all this and much more, is it a wonder that they doubted the veracity of the news? The blunder of the previous morning made them careful then, and they went about questioning all whom they met, never resting until the truth of the matter was placed beyond all question.
Milton Lodge had been inundated with callers; the police station at Ashlynton was besieged also; and from both these sources confirmation of the glad tidings was spread. Meanwhile our two friends, William Henry Smith and John Thomas Jones, were not hiding their lights under a bushel. Phil Lawrence had enriched the rascals with all the ready money he could lay his hands upon—meaning to fulfil his promise to the letter later—and finding themselves with several pounds in their pockets, Bill and Johnny resorted to their favourite hostelries, and each over his own special poison gave an account of the past night's adventures. Bill was the chap who had 'spotted' Mrs. Massilon at first sight; and Johnny loomed quite as largely in the public's eyes as his chum, for weren't he the gent who had his calf drilled by the wild madman's pistol shot.
While all this was going on at Ashlynton, a scene of a quieter yet much more thrilling and impressive nature was being enacted within the walls of the gloomy prison at Kirkdale.
Shortly after daybreak Mrs. Massilon, Phil Lawrence, and the chief constable of Ashlynton met by appointment at Milton Lodge. On the previous night, ere they parted, after restoring Margaret Massilon to her home, Phil and Captain Gregg had arranged to proceed together to the place where Paul was incarcerated, to lay before the governor of the prison a true record of the past night's, revelations.
And when the chief constable presented himself at Milton Lodge he found not only Lawrence awaiting him, but Mrs. Massilon also. Margaret was white-faced and weak-looking, but their delicately conveyed intimations that it would be better for her to remain at home, considering the weak state of her health, and let them proceed by themselves on their mission, met with a firm denial—almost an angry refusal, delivered point blank.
'Remain here, and Paul in prison on my account!' Margaret cried, with her dark eyes aflame. 'No! no! I cannot! God knows that I have suffered enough; but that would kill me! I must go! I will go! My place is at his side!'
They raised their voices no more in vain persuasion. A cab conveyed them to the local station, and the first train bore them to Kirkdale. Half an hour later the governor of the gaol knew all they had to tell him. A little later still, Paul Massilon and Phil Lawrence met face to face alone in the governor's own room, and gripped each other's hand.
Paul was a picture of the most abject misery—wan, weak, limp; Phil's face was glorious with the glad tidings he carried on his lips.
'This is kind, Phil!' Paul murmured, thickly, with dim eyes. 'They said you had good news for me. I wonder what good news you can have to tell me—save that you still believe me innocent.'
'I do, Paul; but I have better news than that even!'
'The best news, old friend, that ever God allowed one man to tell another!' Phil said, firmly. 'If you had to wish something, knowing that God would grant your desire, what would your wish be?'
'I would wish that my wife were alive, Phil, and that I were more worthy of her love!' Massilon answered, the tears dripping slowly from his bent and averted face.
'And if I were to tell you, Paul, that your wish had been granted?' Phil asked, with an effulgent countenance and tear-dimmed eyes.
'I should—Phil, what is it? There is something in your face I cannot read. Tell me, for heaven's sake, what it means.'
'I dare not tell you. You are not strong. Wait, dear friend—wait.'
'Not strong. I have suffered more than death, and yet I live! See, I am calm now. Speak!'
'Margaret, is alive, Paul. Your inno——'
'Alive! Where is she? For the love of God do not drive me mad. If my wife is living, who was the other woman?'
Paul's form grew rigid, and his dark eyes burnt strangely; then he swayed and would have fallen had not his friend's strong arms gripped him and guided him to a chair.
'Calm yourself. There. You are better now. It is true. Your wife is alive. She is here waiting to see you. But Margaret is weak. It is a mercy she is alive. For her sake and your own do not give way now. Sit here and I will bring her to you.'
Phil stole away, and the stunned man crouched on the chair with his face in his hands. Then a voice—a familiar voice—the voice he had thought hushed for ever, woke him from his dreams. He glanced up and saw his wife standing beside him.
In a moment he was sobbing at her feet like a child. There let us leave them. Within the past twenty-four hours, each had deemed the other dead, and the privacy of such a reunion in life is too sacred for words. The joy of that moment wiped out all the dark past.
IT WAS summer, and the crescent shaped water of Douglas Bay pulsed and shimmered in the soft yellow glow of the June sun. Tiny craft of all kinds glided hither and thither across the sun-kissed and zephyr-swept bow of blue, and far away to the south-east a dark mass, with a far stretched banner of smoke, looming up against the horizon, marked the approach of a Lancashire steamer.
The annual summer exodus had set in, and already the tired and enervated toilers of the northern counties were spreading themselves like a host of hungry locusts over the green valleys and gorse-clad hills of beautiful Ellan Vannin.
The vast colony of lodging-house keepers, restaurateurs, liquor-vendors, cabmen, shop-folk, and general joy-providers were gleefully gathering in the first fruits of the season. Daily the green, undulating sweep of lofty tableland on Douglas Head was stormed and carried by hundreds of men and women, youths and maidens from the Shires of Smoke, to whom that green, sun-smitten, and sea-belted land appeared a veritable land of promise. Hourly the crescent sweep of promenade was inundated by a restless throng of gaily-dressed, bright-eyed, and jocund-voiced joy-hunters, and at night, when darkness fell over the pleasant land, the halls of pleasure nestling at the foot of the hills were like bits stolen from fairyland, with their myriads of electric stars gleaming white amidst the dense masses of shadowy foliage.
Among the army of invaders were numbered four of our friends and amidst the many fair women and the innumerable handsome men who disported themselves about Mona there were very few against whom our quartette might not have been pitted with considerable prospects of winning the apple of gold.
On one of the long garden seats set out on one of the widest parts of the promenade near the Central Hotel our friends were lounging, watching the glistening expanse of water and eddying throng of promenaders, their ears filled now with the babble of the street, then with the not unmusical waltz a band of itinerant musicians were playing.
At one end of the seat Paul Massilon and his wife were sitting, while at the other end Phil Lawrence and his charming week-old wife—whom the reader formerly met as Miss Clifford—were resting; all the members of the quartette seeming as happy and looking comely as if they had never had any quarrel with the world.
Lounging there at the corner of the seat, with one arm thrown carelessly over its curved back, one leg slipped over the other, a pipe between his lips, and a look of deep abiding contentment on his strong, dark, handsome face, no stranger would have dreamt that Paul Massilon had so recently passed through one of the most soul-searing ordeals to which any human being could be subjected.
Nor would anyone to whom Margaret Massilon was unknown have conceived it possible that the lovely woman who was sitting at the swarthy man's side, with a look of infinite love and tenderness glowing in her slumbrous dark eyes whenever they rested on Paul's face, had passed through the fire of a great trial and come out of it unscathed.
Yet that it was so, the reader of this story is aware. Both husband and wife had been sorely tried; in the great balance of life each had been weighed, and ultimately neither of them had been found wanting. At peace with themselves and all the world now they were prepared to face the future hand in hand, and heart linked to heart.
Sitting with his eyes upon the dancing waters of the bay, Paul's mind went back for a moment to the days of his tribulation, and his dark eyes grew sad, his fingers stole to and tenderly grasped the gloved hand of his wife as it rested caressingly upon his knee. His movement drew her eyes upon him; she noted his abstraction, divined its cause, but said nothing, merely returning the pressure of his clinging fingers.
'Did you notice that gentleman, Paul?' Lawrence broke in at this point, as he cast away the fag-end of his cigar and sat erect on his seat. 'I mean that man there, with the low, soft hat and black suit.'
'I didn't notice him, Phil,' Massilon answered. 'Is there anything special about him, that you ask?'
'Nothing remarkable save this. He has passed to and fro several times already, and every time he has glanced at you and Margaret, as if he knew you. Watch him now; and you will see him stop soon and then retrace his steps. When he passes note him closely, but don't let him see that we are noticing him in any way.'
They all looked after the short, thick-set, sombrely-garbed individual Phil had indicated, saw him turn on his heel with his eyes upon them when he had gone a few dozen yards; and then when he repassed the group each felt that the man had been directing his gaze upon Mrs. Massilon.
'I wonder who the man is,' Phil remarked as the unknown one went by. 'I am certain I never set eyes upon him before to-day.'
'Nor I,' Paul assented. 'Suppose we stroll along, to see if he is really interested in any one of us sufficiently to follow.'
The other three assented readily, and rising, they moved in a body along the promenade with their faces towards Derby Castle, walking very leisurely, and making many excuses for pausing in their saunter that they might observe the actions of the unknown man, who was still following in their wake.
'This is getting decidedly interesting, Paul!' Phil remarked with a smile on his florid face. 'I wonder if that fellow is an anarchist who imagines he is on the track of a party of bloated aristocrats; or is he merely a detective who foolishly thinks he has got on the scent of his prey?'
The ladies laughed at Lawrence's sally, but a forbidding frown darkened Massilon's face. Why was that grim-looking, darkly-garmented man following them so doggedly? And why had he peered so anxiously at Margaret? What could he have to do with their lives, either past, present, or future?
'It may be interesting, Phil,' Paul said slowly, as they resumed their walk, 'but it is deucedly unpleasant all the same. I'd give something to know what he is after, by Jove! I've half a mind to stop and ask him!'
'Don't! That would be silly. Look here, old man, I've an idea. Hi, there, cabby!'
Phil held up his hand to the driver of one of the open carriages plying about the sea front, and when the vehicle drew up Lawrence and his companions seated themselves without a word. Then Phil told the driver to take them slowly to the village of Onchan; giving their destination in a loud voice that the man in black, who was just sauntering past, might hear him.
A little later they saw the stranger engage another vehicle, which followed slowly in their wake, yet at a pace which enabled the conveyance with its solitary occupant to pass the barouche containing our four friends just as the top of the steep road leading from the shore was gained. And again as the two vehicles rolled along side by side for some moments Paul Massilon and his wife felt, for they were careful to look another way, that the eager gaze of that grim-faced, cleanly-shaven watcher was riveted upon them.
'The plot thickens, Phil!' Massilon muttered sullenly, as he refilled his pipe. 'This drive is your idea, and perhaps you'll tell us of the next move you contemplate making.'
'There is a quiet little public-house in Onchan, and, as I am rather thirsty, I suggest that we stop there for a drink. If the gentleman in front follows us into the place I think we may venture to ask him why he is so curious regarding ourselves and our movements. What do you say?'
'Just the thing! Now, driver, quicken your speed a little and draw up at the public-house in Onchan village,' Paul responded.
In a couple of minutes they overtook the other vehicle, and the four pairs of bright eyes were openly directed, with challenging looks, upon its tenant, who returned their stare as frankly and much more angrily.
Soon the centre of the small village was gained, and when the carriage drew up before the door of the yellow-plastered hostelry, our friends alighted and made their way to a small bar parlour at the back of the premises, which was cool and shady and looked upon a strip of garden. Here Phil called for four small bottles of Bass, and told the waitress to give the driver at the bar window a pint of beer.
Then Paul and Phil poured out the sparkling amber-hued ale and waited for developments. Nor had they long to wait. The young men had almost drained their glasses and set them on the table, and their wives were sipping the refreshing liquid more leisurely, when the man in black marched boldly into the room, eyed each of the gentlemen and ladies in turn, then seated himself and called for 'a bitter beer'.
Now that our four friends were face to face with the somewhat mysterious stranger—had him almost within arm's reach—they were able to 'take his measure' more calmly and accurately. He was not half bad looking, despite his mournful garments, was powerfully built, and had the big strong brown hands of a workman. He had prominent cheek-bones, a resolute chin, bright gray eyes, and seemed not more than thirty. He had neither the appearance of an anarchist nor that of a detective; and it was evident that the pallor on his face was not normal.
'A fine afternoon, sir,' Phil began airily, as he fixed his penetrating eyes upon the stranger, and nudged Paul to be silent.
'It is,' was the uncompromising retort snapped out by the man as he raised his beer to his lips.
'You will pardon me, I am sure, if I am mistaken,' Phil resumed in his suavest way, 'but I fancy I saw you on the promenade some time ago?'
'You may have done, for I was there.'
'And you were interested in one or all of us so much that you followed us here?'
'May I ask why?' still most suavely.
'Because I thought I saw my wife, who ran away from home some months ago, with your friend. If that lady sitting there is not my wife I must be mad or dreaming!' the man exclaimed loudly.
'Gracious heaven!' Phil ejaculated as he flashed a look of amaze upon his companions. 'And you really watched and followed us because you thought my cousin, Mrs. Massilon, was your missing wife?'
'God knows I did!' the man cried with a look of bewilderment on his face. 'If she is not, then I am terribly mistaken. I could swear even now that the lady is my wife.'
'I think I understand!' broke in the voice of a new speaker—Mrs. Massilon. 'Is it not possible that the lady who was identified as myself by my dearest relatives, and friends also, and was buried in my name, may have been this gentleman's unfortunate wife? Who was the unknown woman whose wonderful resemblance to myself almost cost dear Paul his life?'
'By Jove, that's it!' Phil cried, his face lighting up as if a great revelation had dawned suddenly upon him. The look of amaze on the stranger's face deepened, and he listened without a word, simply staring at the woman who had spoken. 'Shall I tell this gentleman the whole story, Paul?'
Massilon nodded, and Lawrence, when he had persuaded the stranger to sit in their midst, so that it would not be necessary to talk in more than an undertone, briefly related the whole of the strange chapter of happenings between the disappearance of his cousin, Margaret Massilon, and the release of her husband.
'I understand it all, now, ladies and gentlemen,' the stranger remarked sadly when Phil had concluded. 'The woman who was buried in the name of this lady must have been my wife. She had relatives near Adlington, which is not far from Ashlynton, and when she left me, after our quarrel, she was, in all probability, making her way to them when she got into the river.' After a pause he resumed, 'I am very sorry for annoying you all so much, but when you consider my position, and look at this photograph of my lost wife, you will forgive me, I am sure, for the mistake, I made.'
The man's contrition and trouble were so plainly written on his face that they all hastened to assure him of their warmest sympathy, and when the photograph was passed from hand to hand the error into which he had fallen was seen to be a most natural one. Not one in a thousand but what would have sworn that the likeness was that of Margaret Massilon. It seemed to be her very self—the hair, eyes, nose, general contour of features being absolutely identical.
The only detail in which the carte-de-visite and Margaret's face did not correspond was unnoticed even by her three companions. She, however, noticed the disagreement in an instant.
'I am very thankful, sir,' Mrs. Massilon said, as she bent her eyes upon the man, 'that you have shown us your wife's portrait, for I shall be able to direct your attention to a trifle that none of you seem to have noticed. When your wife had this likeness taken she was wearing small gold earrings.'
'True. Lucy always wore them, as she was troubled with weak eyes in her youth.'
'Well, if you will examine my ears you will find that they have never been punctured.'
With a "Pardon me, madam," the man rose and lifted the dainty, pink lobe of each of Margaret's ears in turn and scanned it carefully. It was as Mrs. Massilon had stated. The delicate skin on the lobes of her ears bore not the faintest trace of the indelible indentations the piercing needle makes and which time never effaces completely.
'I am more than satisfied,' the man said with a reddening countenance as he finished his scrutiny, 'and I will trouble you no longer. This is my business card, and if you return to Ashlynton within a week or so I may see you all there.'
He offered his big, strong hand to each of our friends in turn, and each shook it warmly. Then he bowed himself clumsily out, and his card was passed round. It bore these words:—
'I feel half sorry now,' Paul murmured lowly, 'that we permitted the poor fellow to take himself away so hurriedly. We might have told him much that he may desire to know.'
'You will see him again I fancy, Paul,' Phil remarked quietly. 'If I am not mistaken, Mr. Swanston will rush to Ashlynton and learn all he can there. I am afraid he will not be able to learn much more than I have told him already.'
'I am very glad we have met him, Phil,' Paul responded. 'The mystery surrounding that unknown woman is cleared up now.'
'I think it is. This is, I think, the last scene in the strange drama of your life and Margaret's,' Lawrence said thoughtfully; 'and the curtain may be rung down any moment. Poor Wedmore is at rest in his grave, the unknown woman is at last revealed, and you and dear Maggie are alive and happy, thank God!'
'"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together,"' Paul quoted solemnly, as he drew his dear wife to him and kissed her almost reverently with tears gathering in his dark eyes.
'But, dear Paul,' Margaret cried, lovingly, as she returned her husband's caress, 'the end crowns all!'
Then they each whispered, with hushed voices, 'The end crowns all!'
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