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The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn
by Henry Kingsley
MY FATHER AND MOTHER
THIS BOOK, THE FRUIT OF SO MANY WEARY YEARS OF SEPARATION, IS DEDICATED WITH
THE DEEPEST LOVE AND REVERENCE
Near the end of February 1857, I think about the 20th or so, though it don’t much matter; I only know it was near the latter end of summer, burning hot, with the bushfires raging like volcanoes on the ranges, and the river reduced to a slender stream of water, almost lost upon the broad white flats of quartz shingle. It was the end of February, I said, when Major Buckley, Captain Brentwood (formerly of the Artillery), and I, Geoffry Hamlyn, sat together over our wine in the veranda at Baroona, gazing sleepily on the grey plains that rolled away east and north-east towards the sea.
We had sat silent for some time, too lazy to speak, almost to think. The beautiful flower-garden which lay before us, sloping towards the river, looked rather brown and sere, after the hot winds, although the orange-trees were still green enough, and vast clusters of purple grapes were ripening rapidly among the yellowing vine-leaves. On the whole, however, the garden was but a poor subject of contemplation for one who remembered it in all its full November beauty, and so my eye travelled away to the left, to a broad paddock of yellow grass which bounded the garden on that side, and there I watched an old horse feeding.
A very old horse indeed, a horse which seemed to have reached the utmost bounds of equine existence. And yet such a beautiful beast. Even as I looked some wild young colts were let out of the stockyard, and came galloping and whinnying towards him, and then it was a sight to see the old fellow as he trotted towards them, with his nose in the air, and his tail arched, throwing his legs out before him with the ease and grace of a four-year-old, and making me regret that he wasn’t my property and ten years younger;–altogether, even then, one of the finest horses of his class I had ever seen, and suddenly a thought came over me, and I grew animated.
“Major Buckley,” I said, “what horse is that?”
“What horse is that?” repeated the major very slowly. “Why, my good fellow, old Widderin, to be sure.”
“Bless me!” I said; “You don’t mean to say that that old horse is alive still?”
“He looks like it,” said the major. “He’d carry you a mile or two, yet.”
“I thought he had died while I was in England,” I said. “Ah, major, that horse’s history would be worth writing.”
“If you began,” answered the major, “to write the history of the horse, you must write also the history of every body who was concerned in those circumstances which caused Sam to take a certain famous ride upon him. And you would find that the history of the horse would be reduced into very small compass, and that the rest of your book would assume proportions too vast for the human intellect to grasp.”
“How so?” I said.
He entered into certain details, which I will not give. “You would have,” he said, “to begin at the end of the last century, and bring one gradually on to the present time. Good heavens! just consider.”
“I think you exaggerate,” I said.
“Not at all,” he answered. “You must begin the histories of the Buckley and Thornton families in the last generation. The Brentwoods also, must not be omitted,–why there’s work for several years. What do you say, Brentwood?”
“The work of a life-time;” said the captain.
“But suppose I were to write a simple narrative of the principal events in the histories of the three families, which no one is more able to do than myself, seeing that nothing important has ever happened without my hearing of it,–how, I say, would you like that?”
“If it amused you to write it, I am sure it would amuse us to read it,” said the major.
“But you are rather old to turn author,” said Captain Brentwood; “you’ll make a failure of it; in fact, you’ll never get through with it.”
I replied not, but went into my bedroom, and returning with a thick roll of papers threw it on the floor–as on the stage the honest notary throws down the long-lost will,–and there I stood for a moment with my arms folded, eyeing Brentwood triumphantly.
“It is already done, captain,” I said. “There it lies.”
The captain lit a cigar, and said nothing; but the major said, “Good gracious me! and when was this done?”
“Partly here, and partly in England. I propose to read it aloud to you, if it will not bore you.”
“A really excellent idea,” said the major. “My dear!”–this last was addressed to a figure which was now seen approaching us up a long vista of trellised vines. A tall figure dressed in grey. The figure, one could see as she came nearer, of a most beautiful old woman.
Dressed I said in grey, with a white handkerchief pinned over her grey hair, and a light Indian shawl hanging from her shoulders. As upright as a dart: she came towards us through the burning heat, as calmly and majestically as if the temperature had been delightfully moderate. A hoary old magpie accompanied her, evidently of great age, and from time to time barked like an old bulldog, in a wheezy whisper.
“My dear,” said the major; “Hamlyn is going to read aloud some manuscript to us.”
“That will be very delightful, this hot weather,” said Mrs. Buckley. “May I ask the subject, old friend?”
“I would rather you did not, my dear madam; you will soon discover, in spite of a change of names, and perhaps somewhat of localities.”
“Well, go on,” said the major; and so on I went with the next chapter, which is the first of the story.
The reader will probably ask:
“Now, who on earth is Major Buckley? and who is Captain Brentwood? and last not least, who the Dickens are you?” If you will have patience, my dear sir, you will find it all out in a very short time–Read on.
THE COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE OF JOHN THORNTON, CLERK, AND THE BIRTH OF SOME ONE WHO TAKES RATHER A CONSPICUOUS PART IN OUR STORY.
Sometime between the years 1780 and 1790, young John Thornton, then a Servitor at Christ Church, fell in love with pretty Jane Hickman, whose father was a well-to-do farmer, living not far down the river from Oxford; and shortly before he took his degree, he called formally upon old Hickman, and asked his daughter’s hand. Hickman was secretly well pleased that his daughter should marry a scholar and a gentleman like John Thornton, and a man too who could knock over his bird, or kill his trout in the lasher with any one. So after some decent hesitation he told him, that as soon as he got a living, good enough to support Jane as she had been accustomed to live, he might take her home with a father’s blessing, and a hundred pounds to buy furniture. And you may take my word for it, that there was not much difficulty with the young lady, for in fact the thing had long ago been arranged between them, and she was anxiously waiting in the passage to hear her father’s decision, all the time that John was closeted with him.
John came forth from the room well pleased and happy. And that evening when they two were walking together in the twilight by the quiet river, gathering cowslips and fritillaries, he told her of his good prospects, and how a young lord, who made much of him, and treated him as a friend and an equal, though he was but a Servitor–and was used to sit in his room talking with him long after the quadrangle was quiet, and the fast men had reeled off to their drunken slumbers–had only three days before promised him a living of 300L. a-year, as soon as he should take his priest’s orders. And when they parted that night, at the old stile in the meadow, and he saw her go gliding home like a white phantom under the dark elms, he thought joyfully, that in two short years they would be happily settled, never more to part in this world, in his peaceful vicarage in Dorsetshire.
Two short years, he thought. Alas! and alas! Before two years were gone, poor Lord Sandston was lying one foggy November morning on Hampstead Heath, with a bullet through his heart. Shot down at the commencement of a noble and useful career by a brainless gambler–a man who did all things ill, save billiards and pistol-shooting; his beauty and his strength hurried to corruption, and his wealth to the senseless DEBAUCHEE who hounded on his murderer to insult him. But I have heard old Thornton tell, with proud tears, how my lord, though outraged and insulted, with no course open to him but to give the villain the power of taking his life, still fired in the air, and went down to the vault of his forefathers without the guilt of blood upon his soul.
So died Lord Sandston, and with him all John’s hopes of advancement. A curate now on 50L. a-year; what hope had he of marrying? And now the tearful couple, walking once more by the river in desolate autumn, among the flying yellow leaves, swore constancy, and agreed to wait till better times should come.
So they waited. John in his parish among his poor people and his school-children, busy always during the day, and sometimes perhaps happy. But in the long winter evenings, when the snow lay piled against the door, and the wind howled in the chimney; or worse, when the wind was still, and the rain was pattering from the eaves, he would sit lonely and miserable by his desolate hearth, and think with a sigh of what might have been had his patron lived. And five-and-twenty years rolled on until James Brown, who was born during the first year of his curateship, came home a broken man, with one arm gone, from the battle of St. Vincent. And the great world roared on, and empires rose and fell, and dull echoes of the great throes without were heard in the peaceful English village, like distant thunder on a summer’s afternoon, but still no change for him.
But poor Jane bides her time in the old farm-house, sitting constant and patient behind the long low latticed window, among the geraniums and roses, watching the old willows by the river. Five-and-twenty times she sees those willows grow green, and the meadow brighten up with flowers, and as often she sees their yellow leaves driven before the strong south wind, and the meadow grow dark and hoar before the breath of autumn. Her father was long since dead, and she was bringing up her brother’s children. Her raven hair was streaked with grey, and her step was not so light, nor her laugh so loud, yet still she waited and hoped, long after all hope seemed dead.
But at length a brighter day seemed to dawn for them; for the bishop, who had watched for years John Thornton’s patient industry and blameless conversation, gave him, to his great joy and astonishment, the living of Drumston, worth 350L. a-year. And now, at last, he might marry if he would. True, the morning of his life was gone long since, and its hot noon spent in thankless labour; but the evening, the sober, quiet evening, yet remained, and he and Jane might still render pleasant for one another the downward road toward the churchyard, and hand-in-hand walk more tranquilly forward to meet that dark tyrant Death, who seemed so terrible to the solitary watcher.
A month or less after John was installed, one soft grey day in March, this patient couple walked slowly arm-in-arm up the hill, under the lychgate, past the dark yew that shadowed the peaceful graves, and so through the damp church porch, up to the old stone altar, and there were quietly married, and then walked home again. No feasting or rejoicing was there at that wedding; the very realization of their long deferred hopes was a disappointment. In March they were married, and before the lanes grew bright with the primroses of another spring, poor Jane was lying in a new-made grave, in the shadow of the old grey tower.
But, though dead, she yet lived to him in the person of a bright-eyed baby, a little girl, born but three months before her mother’s death. Who can tell how John watched and prayed over that infant, or how he felt that there was something left for him in this world yet, and thought that if his child would live, he should not go down to the grave a lonely desolate man. Poor John!–who can say whether it would not have been better if the mother’s coffin had been made a little larger, and the baby had been carried up the hill, to sleep quietly with its mother, safe from all the evil of this world.
But the child lived and grew, and, at seventeen, I remember her well, a beautiful girl, merry, impetuous, and thoughtless, with black waving hair and dark blue eyes, and all the village loved her and took pride in her. For they said–“She is the handsomest and the best in the parish.”
THE HISTORY OF (A CERTAIN FAMILY LIVING IN) EUROPE, FROM THE BATTLE OF TRAFALGAR TO THE PEACE OF 1818, CONTAINING FACTS HITHERTO UNPUBLISHED.
Among all the great old commoner families of the south of England, who have held the lands of their fore-fathers through every change of dynasty and religion, the Buckleys of Clere stand deservedly high among the brightest and the oldest. All down the stormy page of this great island’s history one sees, once in a about a hundred years, that name in some place of second-rate honour at least, whether as admiral, general, or statesman; and yet, at the beginning of this present century, the representative of the good old family was living at Clere House, a palace built in the golden times of Elizabeth, on 900L. a-year, while all the county knew that it took 300L. to keep Clere in proper repair.
The two Stuart revolutions had brought them down from county princes to simple wealthy squires, and the frantic efforts made by Godfrey Buckley, in the “South Sea” scheme to retrieve the family fortunes, had well nigh broke them. Year by year they saw acre after acre of the broad lands depart, and yet Marmaduke Buckley lived in the home of his ancestors, and the avenue was untouched by axe or saw.
He was a widower, with two sons, John and James. John had been to sea from his earliest youth, and James had joined his regiment a year or more. John had been doing the state good service under his beloved Collingwood; and on the 19th October 1805, when Nelson and Collingwood made tryst to meet at the gates of hell, John Buckley was one of the immortals on the deck of the “Royal Sovereign.” And when the war fog rolled away to leeward, and Trafalgar was won, and all seas were free, he lay dead in the cockpit, having lived just long enough to comprehend the magnitude of the victory.
Brave old Marmaduke was walking up and down the terrace at Clere uneasy and impatient. Beside him was the good old curate who had educated both the boys, and wearily and oft they turned to watch down the long vista of the ancient avenue for the groom, who had been despatched to Portsmouth to gain some tidings of the lieutenant. They had heard of the victory, and, in their simple way, had praised God for it, drinking a bottle of the rarest old wine to his Majesty’s health and the confusion of his enemies, before they knew whether they themselves were among the number of the mourners. And now, as they paced the terrace, every moment they grew more anxious and uneasy for the long delayed intelligence.
Some trifle took them into the flower-garden, and, when they came back, their hearts leapt up, for the messenger was there dismounted, opening the gate. The curate ran down the steps, and taking a black-edged letter from the sorrowful groom, gave it into the trembling hands of the old man with a choking sob. He opened it and glanced over it, and then, throwing it towards his friend, walked steadily up the steps, and disappeared within the dark porch.
It was just three hasty lines from the great Collingwood himself. That brave heart, in the midst of the din of victory, had found time to scrawl a word to his old schoolmate, and tell him that his boy had died like a hero, and that he regretted him like a son.
The old man sat that evening in the western gallery, tearless and alone, brooding over his grief. Three times the curate had peeped in, and as often had retreated, fearful of disturbing the old man’s solemn sorrow. The autumn sun had gone down in wild and lurid clouds, and the gallery was growing dark and gloomy, when the white figure of a beautiful girl entering silently at the lower door came gliding up the darkening vista, past the light of the windows and the shadow of the piers, to where the old man sat under the high north window, and knelt at his feet, weeping bitterly.
It was Agnes Talbot, the daughter of his nearest neighbour and best friend, whom the curate had slyly sent for, thinking in his honest heart that she would make a better comforter than he, and rightly; for the old man, bending over her, lifted up his voice and wept, speaking for the first time since he heard of his bereavement, and saying, “Oh, my boy, my boy!”
“He is gone, sir,” said Agnes, through her tears; “and gone the way a man should go. But there is another left you yet; remember him.”
“Aye, James,” said he; “alas, poor James! I wonder if he knows it. I wish he were here.”
“James is here,” said she. “He heard of it before you, and came posting over as fast as he could, and is waiting outside to know if you can see him.”
The door at the lower end of the gallery opened, and a tall and noble-looking young man strode up and took his father’s hand.
He was above the ordinary height of man, with a grand broad forehead and bold blue eyes. Old Marmaduke’s heart warmed up as he parted his curling hair, and he said,
“Thank God, I’ve got one left still! The old house will not perish yet, while such a one as you remains to uphold it.”
After a time they left him, at his own request, and walked out together through the dark rooms towards the old hall.
“Agnes, my beloved, my darling!” said James, drawing his arm round her waist; “I knew I should find you with him like a ministering angel. Say something to comfort me, my love. You never could love John as I did; yet I know you felt for him as your brother, as he soon would have been, if he had lived.”
“What can I say to you, my own?” she replied, “save to tell you that he fell as your brother should fall, amongst the foremost, fighting for his country’s existence. And, James, if you must go before me, and leave me a widow before I am a bride, it would render more tolerable the short time that would be left me before I followed you, to think that you had fallen like him.”
“There will be a chance of it, Agnes,” said James, “for Stuart, they say, is going to Italy, and I go with him. There will be a long and bloody war, and who knows how it will end? Stay you here quiet with the old man, my love, and pray for me; the end will come some day. I am only eighteen and an ensign; in ten years I may be a colonel.”
They parted that night with tears and kisses, and a few days afterwards James went from among them to join his regiment.
From that time Agnes almost lived with old Marmaduke. Her father’s castle could be seen over the trees from the windows of Clere, and every morning, wet or dry, the old man posted himself in the great north window of the gallery to watch her coming. All day she would pervade the gloomy old mansion like a ray of sunlight, now reading to him, now leading him into the flower-garden in fine weather, till he grew quite fond of flowers for her sake, and began even to learn the names of some of them. But oftenest of all she would sit working by his side, while he told her stories of times gone by, stories which would have been dull to any but her, but which she could listen to and applaud. Best of all she liked to hear him talk of James, and his exploits by flood and field from his youth up; and so it was that this quiet couple never tired one another, for their hearts were set upon the same object.
Sometimes her two sisters, noble and beautiful girls, would come to see him; but they, indeed, were rather intruders, kind and good as they were. And sometimes old Talbot looked round to see his old friend, and talked of bygone fishing and hunting, which roused the old man up and made him look glad for half a day after. Still, however, Agnes and the old curate were company enough for him, for they were the only two who loved his absent son as well as he. The love which had been divided between the two, seemed now to be concentrated upon the one, and yet this true old Briton never hinted at James’ selling out and coming home, for he said that the country had need of every one then, more particularly such a one as James.
Time went on, and he came back to them from Corunna, and spending little more than a month at home, he started away once more; and next they heard of him at Busaco, wounded and promoted. Then they followed him in their hearts along the path of glory, from Talavera by Albuera and Vittoria, across the Pyrenees. And while they were yet reading a long-delayed letter, written from Toulouse at midnight–after having been to the theatre with Lord Wellington, wearing a white cockade–he broke in on them again, to tell them the war was well-nigh over, and that he would soon come and live with them in peace.
Then what delightful reunions were there in the old gallery window, going over all the weary campaigns once more; pleasant rambles, too, down by the river-side in the sweet May evenings, old Marmaduke and the curate discreetly walking in front, and James and Agnes loitering far behind. And in the succeeding winter after they were married, what pleasant rides had they to meet the hounds, and merry evenings before the bright wood-fire in the hall. Never were four people more happy than they. The war was done, the disturber was confined, and peace had settled down upon the earth.
Peace, yes. But not for long. Spring came on, and with it strange disquieting rumours, growing more certain day by day, till the terrible news broke on them that the faithless tyrant had broke loose again, and that all Europe was to be bathed in blood once more by his insane ambition.
James had sold out of the army, so that when Agnes first heard the intelligence she thanked God that her husband at least would be safe at home during the storm. But she was soon to be undeceived. When the news first came, James had galloped off to Portsmouth, and late in the evening they saw him come riding slowly and sadly up the avenue. She was down at the gate before he could dismount, and to her eager inquiries if the news were true, he replied,
“All too true, my love; and I must leave you this day week.”
“My God!” said she; “leave me again, and not six months married? Surely the king has had you long enough; may not your wife have you for a few short months?”
“Listen to me, dear wife,” he replied. “All the Peninsular men are volunteering, and I must not be among the last, for every man is wanted now. Buonaparte is joined by the whole army, and the craven king has fled. If England and Prussia can combine to strike a blow before he gets head, thousands and hundreds of thousands of lives will be spared. But let him once get firmly seated, and then, hey! for ten years’ more war. Beside the thing is done; my name went in this morning.”
She said, “God’s will be done;” and he left his young bride and his old father once again. The nightingale grew melodious in the midnight woods, the swallows nestled again in the chimneys, and day by day the shadows under the old avenue grew darker and darker till merry June was half gone; and then one Saturday came the rumour of a great defeat.
All the long weary summer Sabbath that followed, Agnes and Marmaduke silently paced the terrace, till the curate–having got through his own services somehow, and broken down in the “prayer during war and tumults,”–came hurrying back to them to give what comfort he could.
Alas! that was but little. He could only speculate whether or not the duke would give up Brussels, and retire for reinforcements. If the two armies could effect a union, they would be near about the strength of the French, but then the Prussians were cut to pieces; so the curate broke down, and became the worst of the three.
Cheer up, good souls! for he you love shall not die yet for many long years. While you are standing there before the porch, dreading the long anxious night, Waterloo has been won, and he–having stood the appointed time in the serried square, watching the angry waves of French cavalry dash in vain against the glittering wall of bayonets– is now leaning against a gun in the French position, alive and well, though fearfully tired, listening to the thunder of the Prussian artillery to the north, and watching the red sun go down across the wild confusion of the battle-field.
But home at Clere none slept that night, but met again next morning weary and harassed. All the long three days none of them spoke much, but wandered about the house uneasily. About ten o’clock on the Wednesday night they went to bed, and the old man sleeps from sheer weariness.
It was twelve o’clock when there came a clang at the gate, and a sound of horses’ feet on the gravel. Agnes was at the window in a moment.
“Who goes there?” she cried.
“An orderly from Colonel Mountford at Portsmouth,” said a voice below. “A letter for Mr. Buckley.”
She sent a servant to undo the door; and going to the window again, she inquired, trembling,–
“Do you know what the news is, orderly?”
“A great victory, my dear,” said the man, mistaking her for one of the servants. “Your master is all right. There’s a letter from him inside this one.”
“And I daresay,” Mrs. Buckley used to add, when she would tell this old Waterloo story, as we called it, “that the orderly thought me a most heartless domestic, for when I heard what he said, I burst out laughing so loud, that old Mr. Buckley woke up to see what was the matter, and when heard, he laughed as loud as I did.”
So he came back to them again with fresh laurels, but Agnes never felt safe, till she heard that the powers had determined to chain up her BETE NOIR, Buonaparté, on a lonely rock in the Atlantic, that he might disturb the world no more. Then at last she began to believe that peace might be a reality, and a few months after Waterloo, to their delight and exultation, she bore a noble boy.
And as we shall see more of this boy, probably, than of any one else in these following pages, we will if you please appoint him hero, with all the honours and emoluments thereunto pertaining. Perhaps when I have finished, you will think him not so much of a hero after all. But at all events you shall see how he is an honest upright gentleman, and in these times, perhaps such a character is preferable to a hero.
Old Marmaduke had been long failing, and two years after this he had taken to his bed, never to leave it again alive. And one day when the son and heir was rolling and crowing on his grandfather’s bed, and Agnes was sewing at the window, and James was tying a fly by the bedside, under the old man’s directions; he drew the child towards him, and beckoning Agnes from the window spoke thus:–
“My children, I shan’t be long with you, and I must be the last of the Buckleys that die at Clere. Nay, I mean it, James; listen carefully to me: when I go, the house and park must go with me. We are very poor as you well know, and you will be doing injustice to this boy if you hang on here in this useless tumble-down old palace, without money enough to keep up your position in the county. You are still young, and it would be hard for you to break up old associations. It got too hard for me lately, though at one time I meant to do it. The land and the house are the worst investment you can have for your money, and if you sell, a man like you may make money in many ways. Gordon the brewer is dying to have the place, and he has more right to it than we have, for he has ten acres round to our one. Let him have the estate and found a new family; the people will miss us at first, God bless ’em, but they’ll soon get used to Gordon, for he’s a kindly man, and a just, and I am glad that we shall have so good a successor. Remember your family and your ancestors, and for that reason don’t hang on here, as I said before, in the false position of an old county family without money, like the Singletons of Hurst, living in a ruined hall, with a miserable overcropped farm, a corner of the old deer park, under their drawing-room window. No, my boy, I would sooner see you take a farm from my lord, than that. And now I am tired with talking, and so leave me, but after I am gone, remember what I have said.”
A few days after this the old man passed peacefully from the world without a sigh.
They buried him in the family vault under the chancel windows. And he was the last of the Buckleys that slept in the grave of his forefathers. And the old arch beneath the east window is built up for ever.
Soon after he was gone, the Major, as I shall call him in future, sold the house and park, and the few farms that were left, and found himself with twelve thousand pounds, ready to begin the world again. He funded his money and made up his mind to wait a few years and see what to do; determining that if no other course should open, he would emigrate to Canada–the paradise of half-pay officers. But in the meantime he moved into Devonshire, and took a pretty little cottage which was to let, not a quarter of a mile from Drumston Vicarage.
Such an addition to John Thornton’s little circle of acquaintances was very welcome. The Major and he very soon became fast friends, and noble Mrs. Buckley was seldom a day without spending an hour at least, with the beautiful, wilful, Mary Thornton.
SOME NEW FACES.
The twilight of a winter’s evening, succeeding a short and stormy day, was fast fading into night, and old John Thornton sat dozing in his chair before the fire, waiting for candles to resume his reading. He was now but little over sixty, yet his hair was snowy white, and his face looked worn and aged. Anyone who watched his countenance now in the light of the blazing wood, might see by the down-drawn brows and uneasy expression that the old man was unhappy and disquieted.
The book that lay in his lap was a volume of Shakespeare, open at the “Merchant of Venice.” Something he had come across in that play had set him thinking. The book had fallen on his knees, and he sat pondering till he had fallen asleep. Yet even in his slumber the uneasy expression stayed upon his face, and now and then he moved uneasily in his chair.
What could there be to vex him? Not poverty at all events, for not a year ago a relation, whom he had seldom seen, and of late years entirely lost sight of, had left him 5000L. and a like sum to his daughter Mary. And his sister, Miss Thornton, a quiet good old maid, who had been a governess all her life, had come to live with him, so that he was now comfortably off, with the only two relations he cared about in the world staying with him to make his old age comfortable. Yet notwithstanding all this, John was unhappy.
His daughter Mary sat sewing in the window, ostensibly for the purpose of using the last of the daylight. But the piece of white muslin in her hand claimed but a small part of her attention. Sometimes she gave a stitch or two; but then followed a long gaze out of the window, across the damp gravel and plushy lawn, towards the white gate under the leafless larches. Again with an impatient sigh she would address herself to her sewing, but once more her attention would wander to the darkening garden; so at length she rose, and leaning against the window, began to watch the white gate once more.
But now she starts, and her face brightens up, as the gate swings on its hinges, and a tall man comes with rapid eager step up the walk. John moves uneasily in his sleep, but unnoticed by her, for she stands back in the shadow of the curtain, and eagerly watches the new comer in his approach. Her father sits up in his chair, and after looking sadly at her for a moment, then sinks back with a sigh, as though he would wish to go to sleep again and wake no more.
The maid, bringing in candles, met the new comer at the door, and, carrying in the lights before him, announced–
“Mr. George Hawker.”
I remember his face indistinctly as it was then. I remember it far better as it was twenty years after. Yet I must try to recall it for you as well as I can, for we shall have much to do with this man before the end. As the light from the candles fell upon his figure while he stood in the doorway, any man or woman who saw it would have exclaimed immediately, “What a handsome fellow!” and with justice; for if perfectly regular features, splendid red and brown complexion, faultless white teeth, and the finest head of curling black hair I ever saw, could make him handsome, handsome he was without doubt. And yet the more you looked at him the less you liked him, and the more inclined you felt to pick a quarrel with him. The thin lips, the everlasting smile, the quick suspicious glance, so rapidly shot out from under the overhanging eyebrows, and as quickly withdrawn, were fearfully repulsive, as well as a trick he had of always clearing his throat before he spoke, as if to gain time to frame a lie. But, perhaps, the strangest thing about him was the shape of his head, which, I believe, a child would have observed. We young fellows in those times knew little enough about phrenology. I doubt, indeed, if I had ever heard the word, and yet among the village lads that man went by the name of “flat-headed George.” The forehead was both low and narrow, sloping a great way back, while the larger part of the skull lay low down behind the ears. All this was made the more visible by the short curling hair which covered his head.
He was the only son of a small farmer, in one of the distant outlying hamlets of Drumston, called Woodlands. His mother had died when he was very young, and he had had but little education, but had lived shut up with his father in the lonely old farm-house. And strange stories were in circulation among the villages about that house, not much to the credit of either father or son, which stories John Thornton must in his position as clergyman have heard somewhat of, so that one need hardly wonder at his uneasiness when he saw him enter.
For Mary adored him; the rest of the village disliked and distrusted him; but she, with a strange perversity, loved him as it seldom falls to the lot of man to be loved–with her whole heart and soul.
“I have brought you some snipes, Mr. Thornton,” said he, in his most musical tones. “The white frost last night has sent them down off the moor as thick as bees, and this warm rain will soon send them all back again. I only went round through Fernworthy and Combe, and I have killed five couple.”
“Thank you, Mr. George, thank you,” said John, “they are not so plentiful as they were in old times, and I don’t shoot so well either as I used to do. My sight’s going, and I can’t walk far. It is nearly time for me to go, I think.”
“Not yet, sir, I hope; not yet for a long time,” said George Hawker, in an offhand sort of way. But Mary slipped round, kissed his forehead, and took his hand quietly in hers.
John looked from her to George, and dropped her hand with a sigh, and soon the lovers were whispering together again in the darkness of the window.
But now there is a fresh footfall on the garden walk, a quick, rapid, decided one. Somebody burst open the hall-door, and, without shutting it, dashes into the parlour, accompanied by a tornado of damp air, and announces in a loud though not unpleasant voice, with a foreign accent–
“I have got the new Scolopax.”
He was a broad, massive built man, about the middle height, with a square determined set of features, brightened up by a pair of merry blue eyes. His forehead was, I think, the finest I ever saw; so high, so broad, and so upright; and, altogether, he was the sort of man that in a city one would turn round and look after, wondering who he was.
He stood in the doorway, dripping, and without “Good-even,” or salutation of any sort, exclaimed–
“I have got the new Scolopax!”
“No!” cried old John, starting up all alive, “Have you though? How did you get him? Are you sure it is not a young Jack? Come in and tell us all about it. Only think.”
“The obstinacy and incredulity of you English,” replied the new comer, totally disregarding John’s exclamations, and remaining dripping in the doorway, “far exceeds anything I could have conceived, if I had not witnessed it. If I told you once, I told you twenty times, that I had seen the bird on three distinct occasions in the meadow below Reel’s mill; and you each time threw your jacksnipe theory in my face. To-day I marked him down in the bare ground outside Haveldon wood, then ran at full speed up to the jager, and offered him five shillings if he would come down and shoot the bird I showed him. He came, killed the bird in a style that I would give a year’s tobacco to be master of, and remarked as I paid him his money, that he would like to get five shillings for every one of those birds he could shoot in summer time. The jolter-head thought it was a sandpiper, but he wasn’t much further out than you with your jacksnipes. Bah!”
“My dear Doctor Mulhaus,” said John mildly, “I confess myself to have been foolishly incredulous, as to our little place being honoured by such a distinguished stranger as the new snipe. But come in to the fire, and smoke your pipe, while you show me your treasure. Mary, you know, likes tobacco, and Mr. George, I am sure,” he added, in a slightly altered tone, “will excuse it.”
Mr. George would be charmed. But the Doctor, standing staring at him open-eyed for a moment, demanded in an audible whisper–
“Who the deuce is that?”
“Mr. George Hawker, Doctor, from the Woodlands. I should have thought you had met him before.”
“Never,” replied the Doctor. “And I don’t–and I mean I have had the honour of hearing of him from Stockbridge. Excuse me, sir, a moment. I am going to take a liberty. I am a phrenologist.” He advanced across the room to where George sat, laid his hand on his forehead, and drawing it lightly and slowly back through his black curls, till he reached the nape of his neck, ejaculated a “Hah!” which might mean anything, and retired to the fire.
He then began filling his pipe, but before it was filled set it suddenly on the table, and drawing from his coat pocket a cardboard box, exhibited to the delighted eyes of the vicar that beautiful little brown-mottled snipe, which now bears the name of Colonel Sabine, and having lit his pipe, set to work with a tiny penknife and a pot of arsenical soap, all of which were disinterred from the vast coat-pocket before mentioned, to reduce the plump little bird to a loose mass of skin and feathers, fit to begin again his new life in death in a glass-case in some collector’s museum.
George Hawker had sat very uneasy since the Doctor’s phrenological examination, and every now and then cast fierce angry glances at him from under his lowered eyebrows, talking but little to Mary. But now he grows more uneasy still, for the gate goes again, and still another footfall is heard approaching through the darkness.
“That is James Stockbridge. I should know that step among a thousand. Whether brushing through the long grass of an English meadow in May time, or quietly pacing up and down the orange alley in the New World, between the crimson snow and the blazing west; or treading lightly across the wet ground at black midnight, when the cattle are restless, or the blacks are abroad; or even, I should think, staggering on the slippery deck, when the big grey seas are booming past, and the good ship seems plunging down to destruction.”
He had loved Mary dearly since she was almost a child; but she, poor pretty fool, used to turn him to ridicule, and make him fetch and carry for her like a dog. He was handsomer, cleverer, stronger, and better tempered than George Hawker, and yet she had no eyes for him, or his good qualities. She liked him in a sort of way; nay, it might even be said that she was fond of him. But what she liked better than him was to gratify her vanity, by showing her power over the finest young fellow in the village, and to use him as a foil to aggravate George Hawker. My aunt Betsy (spinster), used to say, that if she were a man, sooner than stand that hussy’s airs (meaning Mary’s), in the way young Stockbridge did, she’d cut, and run to America, which, in the old lady’s estimation, was the last resource left to an unfortunate human creature, before suicide.
As he entered the parlour, John’s face grew bright, and he held out his hand to him. The Doctor, too, shoving his spectacles on his forehead, greeted him with a royal salute, of about twenty-one short words; but he got rather a cool reception from the lovers in the window. Mary gave him a quiet good evening, and George hoped with a sneer that he was quite well, but directly the pair were whispering together once more in the shadow of the curtain.
So he sat down between the Doctor and the Vicar. James, like all the rest of us, had a profound respect for the Doctor’s learning, and old John and he were as father and son; so a better matched trio could hardly be found in the parish, as they sat there before the cheerful blaze, smoking their pipes.
“A good rain, Jim; a good, warm, kindly rain after the frost,” began the Vicar.
“A very good rain, sir,” replied Jim.
“Some idiots,” said the Doctor, “take the wing bones out first. Now, my method of beginning at the legs and working forward, is infinitely superior. Yet that ass at Crediton, after I had condescended to show him, persisted his own way was the best.” All this time he was busy skinning his bird.
“How are your Southdowns looking, Jim?” says the Vicar. “Foot-rot, eh?”
“Well, yes, sir,” says James, “they always will, you know, in these wet clays. But I prefer ’em to the Leicesters, for all that.”
“How is scapegrace Hamlyn?” asked the Vicar.
“He is very well, sir. He and I have been out with the harriers to-day.”
“Ah! taking you out with the harriers instead of minding his business; just like him. He’ll be leading you astray, James, my boy. Young men like you and he, who have come to be their own masters so young, ought to be more careful than others. Besides, you see, both you and Hamlyn being ‘squires, have got an example to set to the poorer folks.”
“We are neither of us so rich as some of the farmers, sir.”
“No; but you are both gentlemen born, you see, and, therefore, ought to be in some way models for those who are not.”
“Bosh,” said the Doctor. “All this about Hamlyn’s going out hare-hunting.”
“I don’t mind it once a-week,” said the Vicar, ignoring the Doctor’s interruption; “but FOUR TIMES is rather too much. And Hamlyn has been out four days this week. Twice with Wrefords, and twice with Holes. He can’t deny it.”
Jim couldn’t, so he laughed. “You must catch him, sir,” he said, “and give him a real good wigging. He’ll mind you. But catch him soon, sir, or you won’t get the chance. Doctor, do you know anything about New South Wales?”
“Botany Bay,” said the Vicar abstractedly, “convict settlement in South Seas. Jerry Shaw begged the judge to hang him instead of sending him there. Judge wouldn’t do it though; Jerry was too bad for that.”
“Hamlyn and I are thinking of selling up and going there,” said Jim. “Do you know anything about it, Doctor?”
“What!” said the Doctor; “the mysterious hidden land of the great South Sea. Tasman’s land, Nuyt’s land, Leuwin’s land, De Witt’s land, any fool’s land who could sail round it, and never have the sense to land and make use of it–the new country of Australasia. The land with millions of acres of fertile soil, under a splendid climate, calling aloud for some one to come and cultivate them. The land of the Eucalypti and the Marsupials, the land of deep forests and boundless pastures, which go rolling away westward, plain beyond plain, to none knows where. Yes; I know something about it.”
The Vicar was “knocked all of a heap” at James’ announcement, and now, slightly recovering himself, said–
“You hear him. He is going to Botany Bay. He is going to sell his estate, 250 acres of the best land in Devon, and go and live among the convicts. And who is going with him? Why, Hamlyn, the wise. Oh dear me. And what is he going for?”
That was a question apparently hard to answer. If there was a reason, Jim was either unwilling or unable to give it. Yet I think that the real cause was standing there in the window, with a look of unbounded astonishment on her pretty face.
“Going to leave us, James!” she cried, coming quickly towards him. “Why, whatever shall I do without you?”
“Yes, Miss Mary,” said James somewhat huskily; “I think I may say that we have settled to go. Hamlyn has got a letter from a cousin of his who went from down Plymouth way, and who is making a fortune; and besides, I have got tired of the old place somehow, lately. I have nothing to keep me here now, and there will be a change, and a new life there. In short,” said he, in despair of giving a rational reason, “I have made up my mind.”
“Oh!” said Mary, while her eyes filled with tears, “I shall be so sorry to lose you.”
“I too,” said James, “shall be sorry to start away beyond seas and leave all the friends I care about save one behind me. But times are hard for the poor folks here now, and if I, as ‘squire, set the example of going, I know many will follow. The old country, Mr. Thornton,” he continued, “is getting too crowded for men to live in without a hard push, and depend on it, when poor men are afraid to marry for fear of having children which they can’t support, it is time to move somewhere. The hive is too hot, and the bees must swarm, so those that go will both better themselves, and better those they leave behind them, by giving them more room to work and succeed. It’s hard to part with the old farm and the old faces now, but perhaps in a few years, one will get to like that country just as one does this, from being used to it, and then the old country will seem only like a pleasant dream after one has awoke.”
“Think twice about it, James, my boy,” said the Vicar.
“Don’t be such an ass as to hesitate,” said the Doctor impatiently. “It is the genius of your restless discontented nation to go blundering about the world like buffaloes in search of fresh pasture. You have founded already two or three grand new empires, and you are now going to form another; and men like you ought to have their fingers in the pie.”
“Well, God speed you, and Hamlyn too, wherever you go. Are you going home, Mr. Hawker?”
George, who hated James from the very bottom of his heart, was not ill-pleased to hear there would be a chance of soon getting rid of him. He had been always half jealous of him, though without the slightest cause, and to-night he was more so than ever, for Mary, since she had heard of James’ intended departure, had grown very grave and silent. He stood, hat in hand, ready to depart, and as usual, when he meant mischief, spoke in his sweetest tones.
“I am afraid I must be saying good evening, Mr. Thornton. Why, James,” he added, “this is something quite new. So you are going to Botany without waiting to be sent there. Ha! ha! Well, I wish you every sort of good luck. My dear friend, Hamlyn, too. What a loss he’ll be to our little society, so sociable and affable as he always is to us poor farmers’ sons. You’ll find it lonely there though. You should get a wife to take with you. Oh, yes, I should certainly get married before I went. Good night.”
All this was meant to be as irritating as possible; but as he went out at the door he had the satisfaction to hear James’ clear honest laugh mingling with the Vicar’s, for, as George had closed the door, the Doctor had said, looking after him–
“Gott in Himmel, that young man has go a skull like a tom-cat.”
This complimentary observation was lost on Mary, who had left the room with George. The Vicar looked round for her, and sighed when he missed her.
“Ah!” said he; “I wish he was going instead of you.”
“So does the new colony, I’ll be bound,” added the Doctor.
Soon after this the party separated. When James and the Doctor stood outside the door, the latter demanded, “Where are you going?”
“To Sydney, I believe, Doctor.”
“Goose. I mean now.”
“No, you ain’t,” said the Doctor; “you are going to walk up to Hamlyn’s with me, and hear me discourse.” Accordingly, about eleven o’clock, these two arrived at my house, and sat before the fire till half-past three in the morning; and in that time the Doctor had given us more information about New South Wales than we had been able to gather from ordinary sources in a month.
IN WHICH THE READER IS MADE ACCOMPLICE TO A MISPRISION OF FELONY.
Those who only know the river Taw as he goes sweeping, clear and full, past orchards and farmhouses, by woods and parks, and through long green meadows, after he has left Dartmoor, have little idea of the magnificent scene which rewards the perseverance of anyone who has the curiosity to follow him up to his granite cradle between the two loftiest eminences in the West of England.
On the left, Great Cawsand heaves up, down beyond down, a vast sheet of purple heath and golden whin, while on the right the lofty serrated ridge of Yestor starts boldly up, black against the western sky, throwing a long shadow over the wild waste of barren stone at his feet.
Some Scotchmen, perhaps, may smile at my applying the word “magnificent” to heights of only 2,100 feet. Yet I have been among mountains which double Ben Nevis in height, and, with the exception of the Murray Gates in Australia, and a glen in Madeira, whose name I have forgotten, I have never seen among them the equal of some of the northern passes of Dartmoor for gloomy magnificence. For I consider that scenery depends not so much on height as on abruptness.
It is an evil, depressing place. Far as the eye can reach up the glen and to the right it is one horrid waste of grey granite; here and there a streak of yellow grass or a patch of black bog; not a tree nor a shrub within the sky-line. On a hot summer’s day it is wearisome enough for the lonely angler to listen to the river crawling lazily through the rocks that choke his bed, mingled with the clocking of some water-moved boulder, and the chick-chick of the stonechat, or the scream of the golden plover overhead. But on a wild winter’s evening, when day is fast giving place to night, and the mist shrouds the hill, and the wild wind is rushing hoarse through tor and crag, it becomes awful and terrible in the extreme.
On just such a night as that, at that time when it becomes evident that the little light we have had all day is about to leave us, a lonely watcher was standing by the angry swelling river in the most desolate part of the pass, at a place where a vast confusion of formless rocks crosses the stream, torturing it into a hundred boiling pools and hissing cascades.
He stood on the summit of a cairn close to the river, and every now and then, shading his eyes with his hand, he looked eastward through the driving rain, as though expecting some one who came not. But at length, grown tired of watching, he with an oath descended to a sheltered corner among the boulders, where a smouldering peat-fire was giving out more smoke than heat, and, crouching over it, began to fan the embers with his hat.
He was a somewhat short, though powerful man, in age about forty, very dark in complexion, with black whiskers growing half over his chin. His nose was hooked, his eyes were black and piercing, and his lips thin. His face was battered like an old sailor’s, and every careless, unstudied motion of his body was as wild and reckless as could be. There was something about his TOUTE ENSEMBLE, in short, that would have made an Australian policeman swear to him as a convict without the least hesitation.
There were redeeming points in the man’s face, too. There was plenty of determination, for instance, in that lower jaw, and as he bent now over the fire, and his thoughts wandered away to other times and places, the whole appearance of the man seemed to change and become milder and kindlier; yet when some slight noise makes him lift his head and look round, there is the old expression back again, and he looks as reckless and desperate as ever; what he is is more apparent, and the ghost of what he might have been has not wholly departed.
I can picture to myself that man scowling behind the bayonet line at Maida, or rapidly and coolly serving his gun at Trafalgar, helping to win the dominion of all seas, or taking his trick at the helm through arctic iceblocks with Parry, or toiling on with steadfast Sturt, knee-deep in the sand of the middle desert, patiently yet hopelessly scanning the low quivering line of the north-west horizon.
In fifty situations where energy and courage are required, I can conceive that man a useful citizen. Yet here he is on the lone moor, on the winter’s night, a reckless, cursing, thrice convicted man. His very virtues,–his impatient energy and undeniable courage,–his greatest stumbling-blocks, leading him into crimes which a lazy man or a coward would have shrunk from. Deserted apparently by God and man, he crouched there over the low fire, among his native rocks, and meditated fresh villanies.
He had been transported at eighteen for something, I know not what, which earned transportation in those days, and since then his naturally violent temper, aggravated instead of being broken by penal discipline, had earned him three fresh convictions in the colony. >From the last of these sentences he had escaped, with a cunning and address which had baffled the vigilance of the Sydney police, good as they were, and had arrived home, two years before this time, after twentyone years’ absence, at his native village in the moor.
None there knew him, or even guessed who he was. His brother, a small farmer, who would have taken him to his heart had he recognised him, always regarded him as a suspicious stranger; and what cut him deeper still, his mother, his old, half-blind, palsied mother, whose memory he had in some sort cherished through the horrors of the hulk, the convict-ship, the chaingang, and the bush, knew him not. Only once, when he was speaking in her presence, she said abruptly,–
“The voice of him is like the voice of my boy that was took away. But he was smooth-faced, like a girl, and ye’re a dark, wrinkled man. ‘Sides, he died years agone, over the water.”
But the old lady grew thoughtful and silent from that day, and three weeks after she was carried up to her grave,–
“By the little grey church on the windy hill.”
At the funeral, William Lee, the man whom I have been describing, pushed quietly through the little crowd, and as they threw the first earth on the coffin, stood looking over the shoulder of his brother, who was unconscious of his existence.
Like many men who have been much in great solitudes, and have gone days and weeks sometimes without meeting a fellow-creature, he had acquired the habit of thinking aloud, and if anyone had been listening they would have heard much such a soliloquy as the following, expletives omitted, or rather softened:–
“A brutal cold country this, for a man to camp out in. Never a buck-log to his fire, no, nor a stick thicker than your finger for seven mile round; and if there was, you’d get a month for cutting it. If the young’un milks free this time, I’ll be off to the bay again, I know. But will he? By George, he shall though. The young snob, I know he daren’t but come, and yet it’s my belief he’s late just to keep me soaking out in the rain. Whew! it’s cold enough to freeze the tail of a tin possum; and this infernal rubbish won’t burn, at least not to warm a man. If it wasn’t for the whisky I should be dead. There’s a rush of wind; I am glad for one thing there is no dead timber overhead. He’ll be drinking at all the places coming along to get his courage up to bounce me, but there ain’t a public-house on the road six miles from this, so the drink will have pretty much died out of him by the time he gets to me, and if I can get him to sit in this rain, and smoke ‘backer for five minutes, he won’t be particular owdacious. I’ll hide the grog, too, between the stones. He’ll be asking for a drink the minute he comes. I hope Dick is ready; he is pretty sure to be. He’s a good little chap, that Dick; he has stuck to me well these five years. I wouldn’t like to trust him with another man’s horse, though. But this other one is no good; he’s got all the inclination to go the whole hog, and none of the pluck necessary. If he ever is lagged, he will be a worse one than ever I was, or Dick either. There he is, for a hundred pounds.”
A faint “halloo!” sounded above the war of the weather; and Lee, putting his hand to his mouth, replied with that strange cry, so well known to all Australians–“Coee.”
A man was now heard approaching through the darkness, now splashing deep into some treacherous moss hole with a loud curse, now blundering among loose-lying blocks of stone. Lee waited till he was quite close, and then seizing a bunch of gorse lighted it at his fire and held it aloft; the bright blaze fell full upon the face and features of George Hawker.
“A cursed place and a cursed time,” he began, “for an appointment. If you had wanted to murder me, I could have understood it. But I am pretty safe, I think; your interests don’t lie that way.”
“Well, well, you see,” returned Lee, “I don’t want any meetings on the cross up at my place in the village. The whole house ain’t mine, and we don’t know who may be listening. I am suspected enough already, and it wouldn’t look well for you to be seen at my place. Folks would have begun axing what for.”
“Don’t see it,” said George. “Besides, if you did not want to see me at home, why the devil do you bring me out here in the middle of the moor? We might have met on the hill underneath the village, and when we had done business gone up to the publichouse. D—-d if I understand it.”
He acquiesced sulkily to the arrangement, however, because he saw it was no use talking about it, but he was far from comfortable. He would have been still less so had he known that Lee’s shout had brought up a confederate, who was now peering over the rocks, almost touching his shoulder.
“Well,” said Lee, “here we are, so we had better be as comfortable as we can this devil’s night.”
“Got anything to drink?”
“Deuce a swipe of grog have I. But I have got some real Barret’s twist, that never paid duty as I know’d on, so just smoke a pipe before we begin talking, and show you aint vexed.”
“I’d sooner have had a drop of grog, such a night as this.”
“We must do as the Spaniards do, when they can’t get anything,” said Lee; “go without.”
They both lit their pipes, and smoked in silence for a few minutes, till Lee resumed:–
“If the witches weren’t all dead, there would be some of them abroad to-night; hear that?”
“Only a whimbrel, isn’t it?” said George.
“That’s something worse than a whimbrel, I’m thinking,” said the other. “There’s some folks don’t believe in witches and the like,” he continued; “but a man that’s seen a naked old hag of a gin ride away on a myall-bough, knows better.”
“Lord!” said George. “I shouldn’t have thought you’d have believed in the like of that–but I do–that old devil’s dam, dame Parker, that lives alone up in Hatherleigh Wood, got gibbering some infernal nonsense at me the other day, for shooting her black cat. I made the cross in the road though, so I suppose it won’t come to anything.”
“Perhaps not,” said Lee; “but I’d sooner kill a man than a black cat.”
Another pause. The tobacco, so much stronger than any George had been accustomed to, combined with the cold, made him feel nervous and miserable.
“When I was a boy,” resumed Lee, “there were two young brothers made it up to rob the ‘squire’s house, down at Gidleigh. They separated in the garden after they cracked the crib, agreeing to meet here in this very place, and share the swag, for they had got nigh seventy pound. They met and quarrelled over the sharing up; and the elder one drew out a pistol, and shot the younger dead. The poor boy was sitting much where you are sitting now, and that long tuft of grass grew up from his blood.”
“I believe that’s all a lie,” said George; “you want to drive me into the horrors with your humbugging tales.”
Lee, seeing that he had gone far enough, if not too far, proposed, somewhat sulkily, that they should begin to talk about what brought them there, and not sit crouching in the wet all night.
“Well,” said George, “it’s you to begin. What made you send for me to this infernal place?”
“I want money,” said Lee.
“Then you’d better axe about and get some,” said George; “you’ll get none from me. I am surprised that a man with your knowledge of the world should have sent me such a letter as you did yesterday, I am indeed–What the devil’s that?”
He started on his feet. A blaze of sudden light filled the nook where they were sitting, and made it as bright as day, and a voice shouted out,
“Ha, ha, ha! my secret coves, what’s going on here? something quiet and sly, eh? something worth a fifty-pound note, eh? Don’t you want an arbitrator, eh? Here’s one, ready made.”
“You’re playing a dangerous game, my flash man, whoever you are,” said Lee, rising savagely. “I’ve shot a man down for less than that. So you’ve been stagging this gentleman and me, and listening, have you? For just half a halfpenny,” he added, striding towards him, and drawing out a pistol, “you shouldn’t go home this night.”
“Don’t you be a fool, Bill Lee;” said the new comer. “I saw the light and made towards it, and as I come up I heard some mention made of money Now then, if my company is disagreeable, why I’ll go, and no harm done.”
“What! it’s you, is it?” said Lee; “well, now you’ve come, you may stop and hear what it’s all about. I don’t care, you are not very squeamish, or at least, usedn’t to be.”
George saw that the arrival of this man was preconcerted, and cursed Lee bitterly in his heart, but he sat still, and thought how he could out-manoeuvre them.
“Now,” said Lee, “I ain’t altogether sorry that you have come, for I want to tell you a bit of a yarn, and ask your advice about my behaviour. This is about the state of the case. A young gentleman, a great friend of mine, was not very many years ago, pretty much given up to fast living, cock-fighting, horse-racing, and many other little matters which all young fellows worth anything are pretty sure to indulge in, and which are very agreeable for the time, but which cost money, and are apt to bring a man into low society. When I tell you that he and I first met in Exeter, as principals in crossing a fight, you may be sure that these pursuits HAD brought the young gentleman into VERY low company indeed. In fact, he was over head and ears in debt, raising money in every way he could, hook or crook, square or cross, to satisfy certain creditors, who were becoming nasty impatient and vexatious. I thought something might be made of this young gentleman, so finding there was no pride about him, I cultivated his acquaintance, examined his affairs, and put him up to the neatest little fakement in the world, just showed him how to raise two hundred pounds, and clear himself with everybody, just by signing his father’s name, thereby saving the old gent the trouble of writing it (he is very infirm, is dad), and anticipating by a few years what must be his own at last. Not to mention paying off a lot of poor publicans and horse-dealers, who could not afford to wait for their money. Blowed if I don’t think it the most honest action he ever did in his life. Well, he committed the–wrote the name I mean,–and stood two ten-pound notes for the information, quite handsome. But now this same young gent is going to marry a young lady with five thousand pounds in her own right, and she nearly of age. Her father, I understand, is worth another five thousand, and very old; so that what he’ll get ultimately if he marries into that family, counting his own expectations, won’t be much less I should say than twenty thousand pounds. Now I mean to say, under these circumstances, I should be neglecting my own interests most culpably, if I didn’t demand from him the trifling sum of three hundred pounds for holding my tongue.”
“Why, curse you,” broke in Hawker, “you said two hundred yesterday.”
“Exactly so,” said Lee, “but that WAS yesterday. To-morrow, if the job ain’t settled, it’ll be four, and the day after five. It’s no use, George Hawker,” he continued; “you are treed, and you can’t help yourself. If I give information you swing, and you know it; but I’d rather have the money than see the man hanged. But mind,” said he, with a snarl, “if I catch you playing false, by the Lord, I’ll hang you for love.”
For an instant the wretched George cast a hurried glance around, as if considering what wild chance there was of mastering his two enemies, but that glance showed him that it was hopeless, for they both stood close together, each holding in his hand a cocked pistol, so in despair he dropped his eyes on the fire once more, while Lee chuckled inwardly at his wise foresight in bringing an accomplice.
“By Jove,” he said to himself, “it’s lucky Dick’s here. If I had been alone, he’d have been at me then like a tiger. It would have been only man to man, but he would have been as good as me; he’d have fought like a rat in a corner.”
George sat looking into the embers for a full half minute, while the others waited for his answer, determined that he should speak first. At length he raised his head, and said hoarsely, looking at neither of them,–
“And where am I to get three hundred pounds?”
“A simple question very easily answered,” said Lee. “Do what you did before, with half the difficulty. You manage nearly everything now your father is getting blind, so you need hardly take the trouble of altering the figures in the banker’s book, and some slight hint about taking a new farm would naturally account for the old man’s drawing out four or five hundred. The thing’s easier than ever.”
“Take my advice, young man,” said Dick, “and take the shortest cut out of the wood. You see my friend here, William, has got tired of these parts, as being, you see, hardly free and easy enough for him, and he wants to get back to a part of the world he was rather anxious to leave a few years ago. If he likes to take me back with him, why he can. I rather fancy the notion myself. Give him the money, and in three months we’ll both be fourteen thousand odd miles off. Meanwhile, you marry the young lady, and die in your bed, an honest gentleman, at eighty-four, instead of being walked out some cold morning to a gallows at twenty-two.”
“Needs must where the devil drives,” replied George. “You shall have the money this day week. And now let me go, for I am nearly froze dead.”
“That’s the talk,” said Lee; “I knew you would be reasonable. If it hadn’t been for my necessities, I am sure I never would have bothered you. Well, good night.”
George rose and departed eastward, towards the rising moon, while Lee and his companion struck due west across the moor. The rain had ceased, and the sky was clear, so that there was not much difficulty in picking their way through the stones and moss-hags. Suddenly Lee stopped, and said to his comrade, with an oath,–
“Dick, my boy, I didn’t half like the way that dog left us.”
“Nor I either,” replied the other. “He has got some new move in his head, you may depend on it. He’ll give you the slip if he can.”
“Let him try it,” said Lee; “oh, only just let him try it.”
And then the pair of worthies walked home.
GEORGE HAWKER GOES TO THE FAIR–WRESTLES, BUT GETS THROWN ON HIS BACK SHOOTS AT A MARK, BUT MISSES IT.
Lee had guessed rightly. When George found himself so thoroughly entrapped, and heard all his most secret relations with Lee so openly discussed before a third man, he was in utter despair, and saw no hope of extrication from his difficulties. But this lasted for a very short time. Even while Lee and Dick were still speaking, he was reflecting how to turn the tables on them, and already began to see a sparkle of hope glimmering afar.
Lee was a returned convict, George had very little doubt of that. A thousand queer expressions he had let fall in conversation had shown him that it was so. And now, if he could but prove it, and get Lee sent back out of the way. And yet that would hardly do after all. It would be difficult to identify him. His name gave no clue to who he was. There were a thousand or two of Lees hereabouts, and a hundred William Lees at least. Still it was evident that he was originally from this part of the country; it was odd no one had recognised him.
So George gave up this plan as hopeless. “Still,” said he, “there is a week left; surely I can contrive to bowl him out somehow.” And then he walked on in deep thought.
He was crossing the highest watershed in the county by an open, low-sided valley on the southern shoulder of Cawsand. To the left lay the mountain, and to the right tors of weathered granite, dim in the changing moonlight. Before him was a small moor-pool, in summer a mere reedy marsh, but now a bleak tarn, standing among dangerous mosses, sending ghostly echoes across the solitude, as the water washed wearily against the black peat shores, or rustled among the sere skeleton reeds in the shallow bays.
Suddenly he stopped with a jar in his brain and a chill at his heart. His breath came short, and raising one hand, he stood beating the ground for half a minute with his foot. He gave a stealthy glance around, and then murmured hoarsely to himself,–
“Aye, that would do; that would do well. And I could do it, too, when I was half-drunk.”
Was that the devil, chuckling joyous to himself across the bog? No, only an innocent little snipe, getting merry over the change of weather, bleating to his companions as though breeding time were come round again.
Crowd close, little snipes, among the cup-moss and wolf’s-foot, for he who stalks past you over the midnight moor, meditates a foul and treacherous murder in his heart.
Yes, it had come to that, and so quickly. He would get this man Lee, who held his life in his hand, and was driving him on from crime to crime, to meet him alone on the moor if he could, and shoot him. What surety had he that Lee would leave him in peace after this next extortion? none but his word,–the word of a villain like that. He knew what his own word was worth; what wonder if he set a small value on Lee’s? He might be hung as it was; he would be hung for something. Taw Steps was a wild place, and none were likely to miss either Lee or his friend. It would be supposed they had tramped off as they came. There could be no proof against him, none whatever. No one had ever seen them together. They must both go. Well, two men were no worse than one. Hatherleigh had killed four men with his own hand at Waterloo, and they gave him a medal for it. They were likely honest fellows enough, not such scoundrels as these two.
So arguing confusedly with himself, only one thing certain in his mind, that he was committed to the perpetration of this crime, and that the time for drawing back was passed long ago, he walked rapidly onwards towards the little village where he had left his horse in an outhouse, fearing to trust him among the dangerous bogs which he had himself to cross to gain the rendezvous at Taw Steps.
He rapidly cleared the moor, and soon gained the little grey street, lying calm and peaceful beneath the bright winter moon, which was only now and then obscured for a moment by the last flying clouds of the late storm hurrying after their fellows. The rill which ran brawling loud through the village, swollen by the late rains, at length forced on his perception that he was fearfully thirsty, and that his throat was parched and dry.
“This is the way men feel in hell, I think,” said he. “Lord! let me get a drink while I can. The rich man old Jack reads about couldn’t get one for all his money.”
He walked up to a stone horse-trough, a little off the road. He stooped to drink, and started back with an oath. What pale, wild, ghastly face was that, looking at him out of the cool calm water? Not his own, surely? He closed his eyes, and, having drunk deep, walked on refreshed. He reached the outhouse where his horse was tied, and, as he was leading the impatient animal forth, one of the children within the cottage adjoining woke up and began to cry. He waited still a moment, and heard the mother arise and soothe it; then a window overhead opened, and a woman said–
“Is that you, Mr. Hawker?”
“Aye,” said he, “it’s me. Come for the horse.”
He was startled at the sound of his own voice. It was like another man’s. But like the voice of some one he seemed to know, too. A new acquaintance.
“It will be morn soon,” resumed the woman. “The child is much worse to-night, and I think he’ll go before daybreak. Well, well–much sorrow saved, maybe. I’ll go to bed no more to-night, lest my boy should be off while I’m sleeping. Good night, sir. God bless you. May you never know the sorrow of losing a first-born.”
Years after he remembered those random words. But now he only thought that if the brat should die, there would be only one pauper less in Bickerton. And so thinking, mounted and rode on his way.
He rode fast, and was soon at home. He had put his horse in the stable, and, shoeless, was creeping up to bed, when, as he passed his father’s door, it opened, and the old man came out, light in hand.
He was a very infirm old man, much bent, though evidently at one time he had been of great stature. His retreating forehead, heavy grey eyebrows, and loose sensual mouth, rendered him no pleasing object at any time, and, as he stood in the doorway now, with a half drunken satyr-like leer on his face, he looked perfectly hideous.
“Where’s my pretty boy been?” he piped out. “How pale he looks. Are you drunk, my lad?”
“No! wish I was,” replied George. “Give me the keys, dad, and let me get a drink of brandy. I’ve been vexed, and had nought to drink all night. I shall be getting the horrors if I don’t have something before I go to bed.”
The old man got him half a tumbler of brandy from his room, where there was always some to be had, and following him into his room, sat down on the bed.
“Who’s been vexing my handsome son?” said he; “my son that I’ve been waiting up for all night. Death and gallows to them, whoever they are. Is it that pale-faced little parson’s daughter? Or is it her tight-laced hypocrite of a father, that comes whining here with his good advice to me who know the world so well? Never mind, my boy. Keep a smooth face, and play the humbug till you’ve got her, and her money, and then break her impudent little heart if you will. Go to sleep, my boy, and dream you are avenged on them all.”
“I mean to be, father, on some of them, I tell you,” replied George.
“That’s right, my man. Good night.”
“Good night, old dad,” said George. As he watched him out of the room, a kinder, softer, expression came on his face. His father was the only being he cared for in the world.
He slept a heavy and dreamless sleep that night, and when he woke for the first time, the bright winter’s sun was shining into his room, and morning was far advanced.
He arose, strengthened and refreshed by his sleep, with a light heart. He began whistling as he dressed himself, but suddenly stopped, as the recollection of the night before came upon him. Was it a reality, or only a dream? No; it was true enough. He has no need to whistle this morning. He is entangled in a web of crime and guilt from which there is no escape.
He dressed himself, and went forth into the fresh morning air for a turn, walking up and down on the broad gravel walk before the dark old porch.
A glorious winter’s morning. The dismal old stonehouse, many-gabled, held aloft its tall red chimneys towards the clear blue sky, and looked bright and pleasant in the sunshine. The deep fir and holly woods which hemmed it in on all sides, save in front, were cheerful with sloping gleams of sunlight, falling on many a patch of green moss, red fern, and bright brown last year’s leaves. In front, far below him, rolled away miles of unbroken woodland, and in the far distance rose the moor, a dim cloud of pearly grey.
A robin sat and sung loud beside him, sole songster left in the wintry woods, but which said, as plain as bird could say, could he have understood it, “See, the birds are not all dead in this dreary winter time. I am still here, a pledge from my brothers. When yon dim grey woods grow green, and the brown hollows are yellow with kingcups and primroses, the old melody you know so well shall begin again, and the thrush from the oak top shall answer to the goldentoned blackbird in the copse, saying–‘Our mother is not dead, but has been sleeping. She is awake again–let all the land rejoice.'”
Little part had that poor darkened mind in such thoughts as these. If any softening influence were upon him this morning, he gave no place to it. The robin ceased, and he only heard the croak of a raven, an old inhabitant of these wild woods, coming from the darkest and tallest of the fir-trees. Then he saw his father approaching along the garden walk.
One more chance for thee, unhappy man. Go up to him now, and tell him all. He has been a kind father to you, with all his faults. Get him on your side, and you may laugh Lee to scorn. Have you not the courage to tell him?
For a moment he hesitated, but the dread of his father’s burst of anger kept him silent. He hardened his heart, and, whistling, waited for the old man to come up.
“How is he this morning?” said his father. “What has he got his old clothes on for, and such fine ones as he has in his drawer?”
“Why should I put on my best clothes this day, father?”
“Aint’ee going down to revils?”
“True,” said George. “I had forgotten all about it. Yes; I shall go down, of course.”
“Are you going to play (wrestle)?” asked the father.
“Maybe I may. But come in to breakfast. Where’s Madge?”
“In-doors,” said the father, “waiting breakfast–mortal cross.”
“Curse her crossness,” said George. “If I were ye, dad, I’d kick her out in the lane next time she got on one of her tantrams.”
A tall woman about forty stepped out of the house as he uttered these words. “Ye hear what he says, William Hawker,” she said. “Ye hear what ye’re own lawful son says. He’d kick me out in the lane. And ye’d stand there and let him, ye old dog; I don’t doubt.”
“Hush, George,” said the old man. “You don’t know what you’re saying, boy. Go in, Madge, and don’t be a fool; you bring it on yourself.”
The woman turned in a contemptuous way and walked in. She was a very remarkable looking person. Tall and upright, at least six feet high, with swarthy complexion, black eyes, and coal-black hair, looped up loosely in a knot behind. She must have been very beautiful as a young girl, but was now too fierce and hawkish looking, though you would still call her handsome. She was a full-blooded gipsy, of one of the best families, which, however, she totally denied. When I say that she bore the worst of characters morally, and had the reputation besides of being a witch of the highest acquirements,–a sort of double first at Satan’s university,–I have said all I need to say about her at present.
These three sat down to breakfast, not before each of them, however, had refreshed themselves with a dram. All the meal through, the old man and Madge were quarrelling with one another, till at length the contest grew so fierce that George noticed it, a thing he very seldom took the trouble to do.
“I tell thee,” said the old man, “ye’ll get no more money this week. What have ‘ee done with the last five pounds?”
George knew well enough, she had given it to him. Many a time did she contrive to let him have a pound or two, and blind the old man as to where it was gone. The day before he had applied to her for some money and she had refused, and in revenge, George had recommended his father to turn her out, knowing that she could hear every word, and little meaning it in reality.
“Ye STINGY OLD BEAST,” she replied, very slowly and distinctly, “I wish ye were dead and out of the way. I’ll be doing it myself some of these odd times.” And looking at him fixedly and pointing her finger, she began the Hebrew alphabet–Aleph, Beth, &c. from the 119th Psalm.
“I won’t have it,” screamed the old man. “Stop, or I’ll kill you, I will–! George, you won’t see your father took before your eyes. Stop her!”
“Come, quiet, old girl; none of that;” said George, taking her round the waist and putting his hand before her mouth. “Be reasonable now.” She continued to look at the old man with a smile of triumph for a short time, and then said, with a queer laugh:
“It’s lucky you stopped me. Oh, very lucky indeed. Now, are you going to give the money, you old Jew?”
She had carried the day, and the old man sulkily acquiesced. George went up stairs, and having dressed himself to his taste, got on horseback and rode down to the village, which was about three miles.
This was the day of the Revels, which corresponds pretty well with what is called in other parts of England a pleasure fair; that is to say, although some business might be done, yet it was only a secondary object to amusement.
The main village of Drumston was about a mile from the church which I have before noticed, and consisted of a narrow street of cob-houses, whitewashed and thatched, crossing at right angles, by a little stone bridge, over a pretty, clear trout-stream. All around the village, immediately behind the backs of the houses, rose the abrupt red hills, divided into fields by broad oak hedges, thickly set with elms. The water of the stream, intercepted at some point higher up, was carried round the crown of the hills for the purposes of irrigation, which, even at this dead season, showed its advantages by the brilliant emerald green of the tender young grass on the hill-sides. Drumston, in short, was an excellent specimen of a close, dull, dirty, and, I fear, not very healthy Devonshire village in the red country.
On this day the main street, usually in a state of ancle-deep mud six months in the year, was churned and pounded into an almost knee-deep state, by four or five hundred hobnail shoes in search of amusement. The amusements were various. Drinking (very popular), swearing (ditto), quarrelling, eating pastry ginger-bread and nuts (female pastime), and looking at a filthy Italian, leading a still more filthy monkey, who rode on a dog (the only honest one of the three). This all day, till night dropped down on a scene of drunkenness and vice, which we had better not seek to look at further. Surely, if ever man was right, old Joey Bender, the methodist shoemaker, was right, when he preached against the revels for four Sundays running, and said roundly that he would sooner see all his congregation leave him and go up to the steeplehouse (church) in a body, than that they should attend such a crying abomination.
The wrestling, the only honest sensible amusement to be had, was not in much favour at Drumston. Such wrestling as there was was carried on in a little croft behind the principal of the public-houses, for some trifling prize, given by the publicans. In this place, James Stockbridge and myself had wandered on the afternoon of the day in question, having come down to the revel to see if we could find some one we wanted.
There was a small ring of men watching the performances, and talking, each and all of them, not to his neighbour, or to himself, but to the ambient air, in the most unintelligible Devonshire jargon, rendered somewhat more barbarous than usual by intoxication. Frequently one of them would address one of the players in language more forcible than choice, as he applauded some piece of FINESSE, or condemned some clumsiness on the part of the two youths who were struggling about in the centre, under the impression they were wrestling. There were but two moderate wrestlers in the parish, and those two were George Hawker and James Stockbridge. And James and myself had hardly arrived on the ground two minutes, before George, coming up, greeted us.
After a few common-place civilities, he challenged James to play. “Let us show these muffs what play is,” said he; “it’s a disgrace to the county to see such work.”
James had no objection; so, having put on the jackets, they set to work to the great admiration of the bystanders, one of whom, a drunken tinker, expressed his applause in such remarkable language that I mildly asked him to desist, which of course made him worse.
The two wrestlers made very pretty play of it for some time, till James, feinting at some outlandish manoeuvre, put George on his back by a simple trip, akin to scholar’s-mate at chess.
George fell heavily, for they were both heavy men. He rose from the ground and walked to where his coat was, sulkily. James thinking he might have been hurt, went up to speak to him; but the other, greeting him with an oath, turned and walked away through the crowd.
He was in a furious passion, and he went on to the little bridge that crossed the stream. We saw him standing looking into the water below, when a short light-looking man came up to him, and having spoken to him for a few minutes, walked off in the direction of Exeter, at a steady, rapid pace.
That man was Dick, the companion of Lee, (I knew all this well afterwards). George was standing as I have described on the bridge, when he came up to him, and touching him, said:
“I want to speak to you a moment, Mr. Hawker.”
George turned round, and when he saw who it was, asked, angrily,
“What the–do you want?”
“No offence, sir. You see, I’m in trouble, there’s a warrant out against me, and I must fly. I am as hardup as a poor cove could be; can you give me a trifle to help me along the road?”
Here was a slice of good luck; to get rid of this one so easily. George gave him money, and having wished him farewell, watched him striding steadily up the long hill towards Exeter with great satisfaction; then he went back to the public-house, and sat drinking an hour or more. At last he got out his horse to ride homeward.
The crowd about the public-house door was as thick as ever, and the disturbance greater. Some of the women were trying to get their drunken husbands home, one man had fallen down dead-drunk beside the door in the mud, and his wife was sitting patiently beside him. Several girls were standing wearily about the door, dressed in their best, each with a carefully folded white pocket-handkerchief in her hand for show, and not for use, waiting for their sweethearts to come forth when it should suit them; while inside the tap all was a wild confusion of talk, quarrelling, oaths, and smoke enough to sicken a scavenger.
These things are changed now, or are changing, year by year. Now we have our rural policeman keeping some sort of order, and some show of decency. And indeed these little fairs, the curse of the country, are gradually becoming extinct by the exertions of a more energetic class of county magistrates; and though there is probably the same amount of vice, public propriety is at all events more respected. I think I may say that I have seen as bad, or even worse, scenes of drunkenness and disorder at an English fair, as ever I have in any Australian mining town.
George Hawker was so hemmed in by the crowd that he was unable to proceed above a foot’s-pace. He was slowly picking his way through the people, when he felt some one touching him on the leg, and, looking round, saw Lee standing beside him.
“What, Lee, my boy, you here!” said he; “I have just seen your amiable comrade–he seems to be in trouble.”
“Dick’s always in trouble, Mr. Hawker,” replied he. “He has no care or reason; he isn’t a bad fellow, but I’m always glad when he is out of my way; I don’t like being seen with him. This is likely to be his last time, though. He is in a serious scrape, and, by way of getting out of it, he is walking into Exeter, along the high road, as if nothing was the matter. There’s a couple of traps in Belston after him now, and I came down here to keep secure. By-the-bye, have you thought of that little matter we were talking about the other night? To tell you the truth, I don’t care how soon I am out of this part of the country.”
“Oh! ah!” replied George, “I’ve thought of it, and it’s all right. Can you be at the old place the day after to-morrow?”
“That can I,” said Lee, “with much pleasure.”
“You’ll come alone this time, I suppose,” said George. “I suppose you don’t want to share our little matter with the whole country?”
“No fear, Mr. George; I will be there at eight punctual, and alone.”
“Well, bye-bye,” said George, and rode off.
It was getting late in the evening when he started, and ere he reached home it was nearly dark. For the last mile his road lay through forest-land: noble oaks, with a plentiful under-growth of holly, over-shadowed a floor of brown leaves and red fern; and at the end of the wood nearest home, where the oaks joined their own fir plantations, one mighty gnarled tree, broader and older than all the rest, held aloft its withered boughs against the frosty sky.
This oak was one of the bogie haunts of the neighbourhood. All sorts of stories were told about it, all of which George, of course, believed; so that when his horse started and refused to move forward, and when he saw a dark figure sitting on the twisted roots of the tree, he grew suddenly cold, and believed he had seen a ghost.
The figure rose, and stalked towards him through the gathering gloom; he saw that it held a baby in its arms, and that it was tall and noble-looking. Then a new fear took possession of him, not supernatural; and he said in a low voice–“Ellen!”
“That was my name once, George Hawker,” replied she, standing beside him, and laying her hand upon his horse’s shoulder. “I don’t know what my name is now, I’m sure; It surely can’t remain the same, and me so altered.”
“What on earth brings you back just at this time, in God’s name?” asked George.
“Hunger, cold, misery, drunkenness, disease. Those are the merry companions that lead me back to my old sweetheart. Look here, George, should you know him again?”
She held up a noble child about a year old, for him to look at. The child, disturbed from her warm bosom, began to wail.
“What! cry to see your father, child?” she exclaimed. “See what a bonnie gentleman he is, and what a pretty horse he rides, while we tread along through the mire.”
“What have you come to me for, Ellen?” asked George. “Do you know that if you are seen about here just now you may do me a great injury?”
“I don’t want to hurt you, George,” she replied; “but I must have money. I cannot work, and I dare not show my face here. Can’t you take me in to-night, George, only just to-night, and let me lie by the fire? I’ll go in the morning; but I know it’s going to freeze, and I do dread the long cold hours so. I have lain out two nights, now, and I had naught to eat all day. Do’ee take me in, George; for old love’s sake, do!”
She was his own cousin, an orphan, brought up in the same house with him by his father. Never very strong in her mind, though exceedingly pretty, she had been early brought to ruin by George. On the birth of a boy, about a year before, the old man’s eyes were opened to what was going on, and in a furious rage he turned her out of doors, and refused ever to see her again. George, to do him justice, would have married her, but his father told him, if he did so, he should leave the house with her. So the poor thing had gone away and tried to get needlework in Exeter, but her health failing, and George having ceased to answer all applications from her, she had walked over, and lurked about in the woods to gain an interview with him.
She laid her hand on his, and he felt it was deadly cold. “Put my coat over your shoulders, Nelly, and wait an instant while I go and speak to Madge. I had better let her know you are coming; then we shan’t have any trouble.”
He rode quickly through the plantation, and gave his horse to a boy who waited in front of the door. In the kitchen he found Madge brooding over the fire, with her elbows on her knees, and without raising her head or turning round, she said:
“Home early, and sober! what new mischief are you up to?”
“None, Madge, none! but here’s the devil to pay. Ellen’s come back. She’s been lying out these three nights, and is awful hard up. It’s not my fault, I have sent her money enough, in all conscience.”
“Where is she?” inquired Madge, curtly.
“Outside, in the plantation.”
“Why don’t you bring her in, you treacherous young wolf?” replied she. “What did you bring her to shame for, if you are going to starve her?”
“I was going to fetch her in,” said George, indignantly; “only I wanted to find out what your temper was like, you vicious old cow. How did I know but what you would begin some of your tantrums, and miscall her?”
“No fear o’ that! no fear of pots and kettles with me! lead her in, lad, before she’s frozen!”
George went back for her, and finding her still in the same place, brought her in. Madge was standing erect before the fire, and, walking up to the unfortunate Ellen, took her baby from her, and made her sit before the fire.
“Better not face the old man,” said she; “he’s away to the revels, and he’ll come home drunk. Make yourself happy for to-night, at all events.”
The poor thing began to cry, which brought on such a terrible fit of coughing that Madge feared she would rupture a blood-vessel. She went to get her a glass of wine, and returned with a candle, and then, for the first time, they saw what a fearful object she was.
“Oh!” she said to George, “you see what I am now. I ain’t long for this world. Only keep me from worse, George, while I am alive, and do something for the boy afterwards, and I am content. You’re going to get married, I know, and I wish you well. But don’t forget this poor little thing when it’s motherless. If you do, and let him fall into vice, you’ll never be lucky, George.”
“Oh, you ain’t going to die, old Nelly,” said George; “not for many years yet. You’re pulled down, and thin, but you’ll pick up again with the spring. Now, old girl, get some supper out before he comes home.”
They gave her supper, and put her to bed. In the morning, very early, George heard the sound of wheels below his bedroom window; and looking out, saw that Madge was driving out of the yard in a light cart, and, watching her closely, saw her pick up Ellen and the child just outside the gate. Then he went to bed again, and, when he awoke, he heard Madge’s voice below, and knew she was come back.
He went down, and spoke to her. “Is she gone?” he asked.
“In course she is,” replied Madge. “Do you think I was going to let her stay till the old man was about?”
“How much money did you give her, besides what she had from me?”
“I made it five pounds in all; that will keep her for some time, and then you must send her some more. If you let that wench starve, you ought to be burnt alive. A MAN would have married her in spite of his father.”
“A likely story,” said George, “that I was to disinherit myself for her. However, she shan’t want at present, or we shall have her back again. And that won’t do, you know.”
“George,” said Madge, “you promise to be as great a rascal as your father.”
The old man had, as Madge prophesied, come home very drunk the night before, and had lain in bed later than usual, so that, when he came to breakfast, he found George, gun in hand, ready to go out.
“Going shooting, my lad?” said the father. “Where be going?”
“Down through the hollies for a woodcock. I’ll get one this morning, it’s near full moon.”
All the morning they heard him firing in the bottom below the house, and at one o’clock he came home, empty-handed.
“Why, George!” said his father, “what hast thee been shooting at? I thought ‘ee was getting good sport.”
“I’ve been shooting at a mark,” he replied.
“Who be going to shoot now, eh, George?” asked the old man.
“No one as I know of,” he replied.
“Going over to Eggesford, eh, Georgey? This nice full moon is about the right thing for thee. They Fellowes be good fellows to keep a fat haunch for their neighbours.”
George laughed, as he admitted the soft impeachment of deer-stealing, but soon after grew sullen, and all the afternoon sat over the fire brooding and drinking. He went to bed early, and had just got off his boots, when the door opened, and Madge came in.
“What’s up to now, old girl?” said George.
“What are you going to be up to, eh?” she asked, “with your gun?”
“Only going to get an outlying deer,” said he.
“That’s folly enough, but there’s a worse folly than that. It’s worse folly to wipe out money-scores in blood. It’s a worse folly if you are in a difficulty to put yourself in a harder one to get out of the first. Its a worse–“
“Why, you’re mad,” broke in George. “Do you think I am fool enough to make away with one of the keepers?”
“I don’t know what you are fool enough to do. Only mind my words before it’s too late.”
She went out, and left him sitting moodily on the bed. “What a clever woman she is,” he mused. “How she hits a thing off. She’s been a good friend to me. I’ve a good mind to ask her advice. I’ll think about it to-morrow morning.”