Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 39

A Domestic Mystery.

It was near the end of March, but still bleak cold weather. Ellen Carley had been married something less than a fortnight, and had come to look upon the dismal old farm-house by the river with a more accustomed eye than when Mrs. Tadman had taken her from room to room on a journey of inspection. Not that the place seemed any less dreary and ugly to her to-day than it had seemed at the very first. Familiarity could not make it pleasant. She hated the house and everything about and around it, as she hated her husband, with a rooted aversion, not to be subdued by any endeavour which she might make now and then — and she did honestly make such endeavour — to arrive at a more Christian-like frame of mind.

Notwithstanding this deeply-seated instinctive dislike to all her surroundings, she endured her fate quietly, and did her duty with a patient spirit which might fairly be accepted as an atonement for those inward rebellious feelings which she could not conquer. Having submitted to be the scapegoat of her father’s sin, she bore her burden very calmly, and fulfilled the sacrifice without any outward mark of martyrdom.

She went about the work of the farm-house with a resolute active air that puzzled Mrs. Tadman, who had fully expected the young wife would play the fine lady, and leave all the drudgery of the household to her. But it really seemed as if Ellen liked hard work. She went from one task to another with an indefatigable industry, an energy that never gave way. Only when the day’s work in house and dairy was done did her depression of spirits become visible. Then, indeed, when all was finished, and she sat down, neatly dressed for the afternoon, in the parlour with Mrs. Tadman, it was easy to see how utterly hopeless and miserable this young wife was. The pale fixed face, the listless hands clasped loosely in her lap, every attitude of the drooping figure, betrayed the joyless spirit, the broken heart. At these times, when they were alone together, waiting Stephen Whitelaw’s coming home to tea, Mrs. Tadman’s heart, not entirely hardened by long years of self-seeking, yearned towards her kinsman’s wife; and the secret animosity with which she had at first regarded her changed to a silent pity, a compassion she would fain have expressed in some form or other, had she dared.

But she could not venture to do this. There was something in the girl, a quiet air of pride and self-reliance, in spite of her too evident sadness, which forbade any overt expression of sympathy; so Mrs. Tadman could only show her friendly feelings in a very small way, by being especially active and brisk in assisting all the household labours of the new mistress of Wyncomb, and by endeavouring to cheer her with such petty gossip as she was able to pick up. Ellen felt that the woman was kindly disposed towards her, and she was not ungrateful; but her heart was quite shut against sympathy, her sorrow was too profound to be lightened ever so little by human friendship. It was a dull despair, a settled conviction that for her life could never have again a single charm, that her days must go on in their slow progress to the grave unlightened by one ray of sunshine, her burden carried to the end of the dreary journey unrelieved by one hour of respite. It seemed very hard for one so young, not quite three-and-twenty yet, to turn her back upon every hope of happiness, to be obliged to say to herself, “For me the sun can never shine again, the world I live in can never more seem beautiful, or beautiful only in bitter contrast to my broken heart.” But Ellen told herself that this fate was hers, and that she must needs face it with a resolute spirit.

The household work employed her mind in some measure, and kept her, more or less, from thinking; and it was for this reason she worked with such unflinching industry, just as she had worked in the last month or two at the Grange, trying to shut her eyes to that hateful future which lay so close before her. Mr. Whitelaw had no reason to retract what he had said in his pride of heart about Ellen Carley’s proficiency in the dairy. She proved herself all that he had boasted, and the dairy flourished under the new management. There was more butter, and butter of a superior quality, sent to market than under the reign of Mrs. Tadman; and the master of Wyncomb made haste to increase his stock of milch cows, in order to make more money by this branch of his business. To have won for himself a pretty young wife, who, instead of squandering his substance, would help him to grow richer, was indeed a triumph, upon which Mr. Whitelaw congratulated himself with many a suppressed chuckle as he went about his daily labours, or jogged slowly home from market in his chaise-cart.

As to his wife’s feelings towards himself, whether those were cold indifference or hidden dislike, that was an abstruse and remote question which Mr. Whitelaw never took the trouble to ask himself. She was his wife. He had won her, that was the grand point; whatever disinclination she might have felt for the alliance, whatever love she might have cherished for another, had been trampled down and subjugated, and he, Stephen Whitelaw, had obtained the desire of his heart. He had won her, against that penniless young jackanapes, lawyer Randall’s son, who had treated him with marked contempt on more than one occasion when they happened to come across each other in Malsham Corn-exchange, which was held in the great covered quadrangular courtyard of the chief inn at Malsham, and was a popular lounge for the inhabitants of that town. He had won her; her own sentiments upon the subject of this marriage were of very little consequence. He had never expected to be loved by his wife, his own ideas of that passion called love being of the vaguest; but he meant to be obeyed by her. She had begun well, had taken her new duties upon herself in a manner that gladdened his sordid soul; and although they had been married nearly a fortnight, she had given no hint of a desire to know the extent of his wealth, or where he kept any little hoard of ready money that he might have by him in the house. Nor on market-day had she expressed any wish to go with him to Malsham to spend money on drapery; and he had an idea, sedulously cultivated by Mrs. Tadman, that young women were perpetually wanting to spend money at drapers’ shops. Altogether, that first fortnight of his married life had been most satisfactory, and Mr. Whitelaw was inclined to regard matrimony as a wise and profitable institution.

The day’s work was done, and Ellen was sitting with Mrs. Tadman in the every-day parlour, waiting for the return of her lord and master from Malsham. It was not a market-day, but Stephen Whitelaw had announced at dinner-time that he had an appointment at Malsham, and had set out immediately after dinner in the chaise-cart, much to the wonderment of Mrs. Tadman, who was an inveterate gossip, and never easy until she arrived at the bottom of any small household mystery. She wondered not a little also at Ellen’s supreme indifference to her husband’s proceedings.

“I can’t for the life of me think what’s taken him to Malsham to-day,” she said, as she plied her rapid knitting-needles in the manufacture of a gray-worsted stocking. “I haven’t known him go to Malsham, except of a market-day, not once in a twelvemonth. It must be a rare business to take him there in the middle of the week; for he can’t abide to leave the farm in working-hours, except when he’s right down obliged to it. Nothing goes on the same when his back’s turned, he says; there’s always something wrong. And if it was an appointment with any one belonging to Malsham, why couldn’t it have stood over till Saturday? It must be something out of the common that won’t keep a couple of days.”

Mrs. Tadman went on with her knitting, gazing at Ellen with an expectant countenance, waiting for her to make some suggestion. But the girl was quite silent, and there was a blank expression in her eyes, which looked out across the level stretch of grass between the house and the river, a look that told Mrs. Tadman very few of her words had been heard by her companion. It was quite disheartening to talk to such a person; but the widow went on nevertheless, being so full of her subject that she must needs talk to some one, even if that some one were little better than a stock or a stone.

“There was a letter that came for Stephen before dinner to-day; he got it when he came in, but it was lying here for an hour first. Perhaps it was that as took him to Malsham; and yet that’s strange, for it was a London letter — and it don’t seem likely as any one could be coming down from London to meet Steph at Malsham. I can’t make top nor tail of it.”

Mrs. Tadman laid down her knitting, and gave the fire a vigorous stir. She wanted some vent for her vexation; for it was really too provoking to see Ellen Whitelaw sitting staring out of the window like a lifeless statue, and not taking the faintest interest in the mystery of her husband’s conduct. She stirred the fire, and then busied herself with the tea-table, giving a touch here and there where no re-arrangement was wanted, for the sake of doing something.

The room looked comfortable enough in the cold light of the spring afternoon. It was the most occupied room in the house, and the least gloomy. The glow of a good fire brightened the scanty shabby furniture a little, and the table, with its white cloth, homely flowered cups and saucers, bright metal teapot, and substantial fare in the way of ham and home-made bread, had a pleasant look enough in the eyes of any one coming in from a journey through the chill March atmosphere. Mr. Whitelaw’s notion of tea was a solid meal, which left him independent of the chances of supper, and yet open to do something in that way; in case any light kickshaw, such as liver and bacon, a boiled sheep’s head, or a beef-steak pie, should present itself to his notice.

Ellen roused herself from her long reverie at last. There was the sound of wheels upon the cart-track across the wide open field in front of the house.

“Here comes Mr. Whitelaw,” she said, looking out into the gathering dusk; “and there’s some one with him.”

“Some one with him!” cried Mrs. Tadman. “Why, my goodness, who can that be?”

She ran to the window and peered eagerly out. The cart had driven up to the door by this time, and Mr. Whitelaw and his companion were alighting. The stranger was rather a handsome man, Mrs. Tadman saw at the first glance, tall and broad-shouldered, clad in dark-gray trousers, a short pilot-coat, and a wide-awake hat; but with a certain style even in this rough apparel which was not the style of agricultural Malsham, an unmistakable air that belongs to a dweller in great cities.

“I never set eyes upon him before,” exclaimed Mrs. Tadman, aghast with wonder; for visitors at Wyncomb were of the rarest, and an unknown visitor above all things marvellous.

Mr. Whitelaw opened the house-door, which opened straight into a little lobby between the two parlours. There was a larger door and a spacious stone entrance-hall at one end of the house; but that door had not been opened within the memory of man, and the hall was only used as a storehouse now-a-days. There was some little mumbling talk in the lobby before the two men came in, and then Mrs. Tadman’s curiosity was relieved by a closer view of the stranger.

Yes, he was certainly handsome, remarkably handsome even, for a man whose youth was past; but there was something in his face, a something sinister and secret, as it were, which did not strike Mrs. Tadman favourably. She could not by any means have explained the nature of her sensations on looking at him, but, as she said afterwards, she felt all in a moment that he was there for no good. And yet he was very civil-spoken too, and addressed both the ladies in a most conciliating tone, and with a kind of florid politeness.

Ellen looked at him, interested for the moment in spite of her apathetic indifference to all things. The advent of a stranger was something so rare as to awaken a faint interest in the mind most dead to impressions. She did not like his manner; there was something false and hollow in his extreme politeness. And his face — what was it in his face that startled her with such a sudden sense of strangeness and yet of familiarity?

Had she ever seen him before? Yes; surely that was the impression which sent such a sudden shook through her nerves, which startled her from her indifference into eager wonder and perplexity. Where had she seen him before? Where and when? Long ago, or only very lately? She could not tell. Yet it seemed to her that she had looked at eyes like those, not once, but many times in her life. And yet the man was utterly strange to her. That she could have seen him before appeared impossible. It must have been some one like him she had seen, then. Yes, that was it. It was the shadow of another face in his that had startled her with so strange a feeling, almost as if she had been looking upon some ghostly thing. Another face, like and yet unlike.

But what face? whose face?

She could not answer that question, and her inability to solve the enigma tormented her all tea-time, as the stranger sat opposite to her, making a pretence of eating heartily, in accordance with Mr. Whitelaw’s hospitable invitation, while that gentleman himself ploughed away with a steady persistence that made awful havoc with the ham, and reduced the loaf in a manner suggestive of Jack the Giant-killer.

The visitor presently ventured to remark that tea-drinking was not much in his way, and that, if it were all the same to Mr. Whitelaw, he should prefer a glass of brandy-and-water; whereupon the brandy-bottle was produced from a cupboard by the fire-place, of which Stephen himself kept the key, judiciously on his guard against a possible taste for ardent spirits developing itself in Mrs. Tadman.

After this the stranger sat for some time, drinking cold brandy-and-water, and staring moodily at the fire, without making the faintest attempt at conversation, while Mr. Whitelaw finished his tea, and the table was cleared; and even after this, when the farmer had taken his place upon the opposite side of the hearth, and seemed to be waiting for his guest to begin business.

He was not a lively stranger; he seemed, indeed, to have something on his mind, to be brooding upon some trouble or difficulty, as Mrs. Tadman remarked to her kinsman’s wife afterwards. Both the women watched him; Ellen always perplexed by that unknown likeness, which seemed sometimes to grow stronger, sometimes to fade away altogether, as she looked at him; Mrs. Tadman in a rabid state of curiosity, so profound was the mystery of his silent presence.

What was he there for? What could Stephen want with him? He was not one of Stephen’s sort, by any means; had no appearance of association with agricultural interests. And yet there he was, a silent inexplicable presence, a mysterious figure with a moody brow, which seemed to grow darker as Mrs. Tadman watched him.

At last, about an hour after the tea-table had been cleared, he rose suddenly, with an abrupt gesture, and said,

“Come, Whitelaw, if you mean to show me this house of yours, you may as well show it to me at once.”

His voice had a harsh unpleasant sound as he said this. He stood with his back to the women, staring at the fire, while Stephen Whitelaw lighted a candle in his slow dawdling way.

“Be quick, man alive,” the stranger cried impatiently, turning sharply round upon the farmer, who was trimming an incorrigible wick with a pair of blunted snuffers. “Remember, I’ve got to go back to Malsham; I haven’t all the night to waste.”

“I don’t want to set my house afire,” Mr. Whitelaw answered sullenly; “though, perhaps, you might like that. It might suit your book, you see.”

The stranger gave a sudden shudder, and told the farmer with an angry oath to “drop that sort of insolence.”

“And now show the way, and look sharp about it,” he said in an authoritative tone.

They went out of the room in the next moment. Mrs. Tadman gazed after them, or rather at the door which had closed upon them, with a solemn awe-stricken stare.

“I don’t like the look of it, Ellen,” she said; “I don’t at all like the look of it.”

“What do you mean?” the girl asked indifferently.

“I don’t like the hold that man has got over Stephen, nor the way he speaks to him — almost as if Steph was a dog. Did you hear him just now? And what does he want to see the house for, I should like to know? What can this house matter to him, unless he was going to buy it? That’s it, perhaps, Ellen. Stephen has been speculating, and has gone and ruined himself, and that strange man is going to buy Wyncomb. He gave me a kind of turn the minute I looked at him. And, depend upon it, he’s come to turn us all out of house and home.”

Ellen gave a faint shudder. What if her father’s wicked scheming were to come to such an end as this! what if she had been sold into bondage, and the master to whom she had been given had not even the wealth which had been held before her as a bait in her misery! For herself she cared little whether she were rich or poor. It could make but a difference of detail in the fact of her unhappiness, whether she were mistress of Wyncomb or a homeless tramp upon the country roads. The workhouse without Stephen Whitelaw must needs be infinitely preferable to Wyncomb Farm with him. And for her father, it seemed only a natural and justifiable thing that his guilt and his greed should be so punished. He had sold his daughter into life-long slavery for nothing but that one advance of two hundred pounds. He had saved himself from the penalty of his dishonesty, however, by that sacrifice; and would, no doubt, hold his daughter’s misery lightly enough, even if poverty were added to the wretchedness of her position.

The two women sat down on opposite sides of the hearth; Mrs. Tadman, too anxious to go on with her accustomed knitting, only able to wring her hands in a feeble way, and groan every now and then, or from time to time burst into some fragmentary speech.

“And Stephen’s just the man to have such a thing on his mind and keep it from everybody till the last moment,” she cried piteously. “And so many speculations as there are now-a-days to tempt a man to his ruin — railways and mines, and loans to Turks and Red Indians and such-like foreigners; and Steph might so easy be tempted by the hope of larger profits than he can make by farming.”

“But it’s no use torturing yourself like that with fears that may be quite groundless,” Ellen said at last, rousing herself a little in order to put a stop to the wailing and lamentations of her companion. “There’s no use in anticipating trouble. There may be nothing in this business after all. Mr. Whitelaw may have a fancy for showing people his house. He wanted me to see it, if you remember, that new-year’s afternoon.”

“Yes; but that was different. He meant to marry you. Why should he want to show the place to a stranger? I can’t believe but what that strange man is here for something, and something bad. I saw it in his face when he first came in.”

It was useless arguing the matter; Mrs. Tadman was evidently not to be shaken; so Ellen said no more; and they sat on in silence, each occupied with her own thoughts.

Ellen’s were not about Stephen Whitelaw’s financial condition, but they were very sad ones. She had received a letter from Frank Randall since her marriage; a most bitter letter, upbraiding her for her falsehood and desertion, and accusing her of being actuated by mercenary motives in her marriage with Stephen Whitelaw.

“How often have I heard you express your detestation of that fellow!” the young man wrote indignantly. “How often have I heard you declare that no earthly persuasion should ever induce you to marry him! And yet before my back has been turned six months, I hear that you are his wife. Without a word of warning, without a line of explanation to soften the blow — if anything could soften it — the news comes to me, from a stranger who knew nothing of my love for you. It is very hard, Ellen; all the harder because I had so fully trusted in your fidelity.”

“I will own that the prospect I had to offer you was a poor one; involving long delay before I could give you such a home as I wanted to give you; but O, Nelly, Nelly, I felt so sure that you would be true to me! And if you found yourself in any difficulty, worried beyond your power of resistance by your father — though I did not think you were the kind of girl to yield weakly to persuasion — a line from you would have brought me to your side, ready to defend you from any persecution, and only too proud to claim you for my wife, and carry you away from your father’s unkindness.”

The letter went on for some time in the same upbraiding strain. Ellen shed many bitter tears over it in the quiet of her own room. It had been delivered to her secretly by her old friend Sarah Peters, the miller’s daughter, who had been the confidante of her love affairs; for even in his indignation Mr. Randall had been prudent enough to consider that such a missive, falling perchance into Stephen Whitelaw’s hands, might work serious mischief.

Cruel as the letter was, Ellen could not leave it quite unanswered; some word in her own defence she must needs write; but her reply was of the briefest.

“There are some things that can never be explained,” she wrote, “and my marriage is one of those. No one could save me from it, you least of all. There was no help for me; and I believe, with all my heart, that, in acting as I did, I only did my duty. I had not the courage to write to you beforehand to tell you what was going to be. I thought it was almost better you should hear it from a stranger. The more hardly you think of me, the easier it will be for you to forget me. There is some comfort in that. I daresay it will be very easy for you to forget. But if, in days to come, when you are happily married to some one else, you can teach yourself to think more kindly of me, and to believe that in what I did I acted for the best, you will be performing an act of charity towards a poor unhappy girl, who has very little left to hope for in this world.”

It was a hard thing for Ellen to think that, in the estimation of the man she loved, she must for ever seem the basest and most mercenary of womankind; and yet how poor an excuse could she offer in the vague pleading of her letter! She could not so much as hint at the truth; she could not blacken her father’s character. That Frank Randall should despise her, only made her trial a little sharper, her daily burden a little heavier, she told herself.

With her mind full of these thoughts, she had very little sympathy to bestow upon Mrs. Tadman, whose fragmentary lamentations only worried her, like the murmurs of some troublesome not-to-be-pacified child; whereby that doleful person, finding her soul growing heavier and heavier, for lack of counsel or consolation, could at last endure this state of suspense no longer in sheer inactivity, but was fain to bestir herself somehow, if even in the most useless manner. She got up from her seat therefore, went over to the door, and, softly opening it, peered out into the darkness beyond.

There was nothing, no glimmer of Stephen’s candle, no sound of men’s footsteps or of men’s voices; the merest blankness, and no more. The two men had been away from the parlour something more than half an hour by this time.

For about five minutes Mrs. Tadman stood at the open door, peering out and listening, and still without result. Then, with a shrill sudden sound through the long empty passages, there came a shriek, a prolonged piercing cry of terror or of pain, which turned Mrs. Tadman’s blood to ice, and brought Ellen to her side, pale and breathless.

“What was that?”

“What was that?”

Both uttered the same question simultaneously, looking at each other aghast, and then both fled in the direction from which that shrill cry had come.

A woman’s voice surely; no masculine cry ever sounded with such piercing treble.

They hurried off to discover the meaning of this startling sound, but were neither of them very clear as to whence it had come. From the upper story no doubt, but in that rambling habitation there was so much scope for uncertainty. They ran together, up the staircase most used, to the corridor from which the principal rooms opened. Before they could reach the top of the stairs, they heard a scuffling hurrying sound of heavy footsteps on the floor above them, and on the landing met Mr. Whitelaw and his unknown friend; face to face.

“What’s the matter?” asked the farmer sharply, looking angrily at the two scared faces.

“That’s just what we want to know,” his wife answered. “Who was it that screamed just now? Who’s been hurt?”

“My friend stumbled against a step in the passage yonder, and knocked his shin. He cried out a bit louder than he need have done, if that’s what you mean, but not loud enough to cause all this fuss. Get downstairs again, you two, and keep quiet. I’ve no patience with such nonsense; coming flying upstairs as if you’d both gone mad.”

“It was not your friend’s voice we heard,” Ellen answered resolutely; “it was a woman’s cry. You must have heard it surely, Stephen Whitelaw.”

“I heard nothing but what I tell you,” the farmer muttered sulkily. “Get downstairs, can’t you?”

“Not till I know what’s the matter,” his wife said, undismayed by his anger. “Give me your light, and let me go and see.”

“You can go where you like, wench, and see what you can; and an uncommon deal wiser you’ll be for your trouble.”

And yet, although Mr. Whitelaw gave his wife the candlestick with an air of profound indifference, there was an uneasy look in his countenance which she could plainly see, and which perplexed her not a little.

“Come, Mrs. Tadman,” she said decisively, “we had better see into this. It was a woman’s voice, and must have been one of the girls, I suppose. It may be nothing serious, after all — these country girls scream out for a very little — but we’d better get to the bottom of it.”

Mr. Whitelaw burst into a laugh — and he was a man whose laughter was as unpleasant as it was rare.

“Ay, my wench, you’d best get to the bottom of it,” he said, “since you’re so uncommon clever. Me and my friend will go back to the parlour, and take a glass of grog.”

The gentleman whom Mr. Whitelaw honoured with his friendship had stood a little way apart all this time, wiping his forehead with a big orange coloured silk handkerchief. That blow upon his shin must have been rather a sharp one, if it had brought that cold sweat out upon his ashen face.

“Yes,” he muttered; “come along, can’t you? don’t stand cawing here all night;” and hurried downstairs before his host.

It had been all the business of a couple of minutes. Ellen Whitelaw and Mrs. Tadman went down to the ground floor by another staircase leading directly to the kitchen. The room looked comfortable enough, and the two servant-girls were sitting at a table near the fire. One was a strapping rosy-cheeked country girl, who did all the household work; the other an overgrown clumsy-looking girl, hired straight from the workhouse by Mr. Whitelaw, from economical motives; a stolid-looking girl, whose intellect was of the lowest order; a mere zoophyte girl, one would say — something between the vegetable and animal creation.

This one, whose name was Sarah Batts, was chiefly employed in the poultry-yard and dairy. She had a broad brawny hand, which was useful for the milking of cows, and showed some kind of intelligence in the management of young chickens and the treatment of refractory hens.

Martha Holden, the house-servant, was busy making herself a cap as her mistress came into the kitchen, droning some Hampshire ballad by way of accompaniment to her work. Sarah Batts was seated in an attitude of luxurious repose, with her arms folded, and her feet on the fender.

“Was it either of you girls that screamed just now?” Ellen asked anxiously.

“Screamed, ma’am! no, indeed,” Martha Holden answered, with an air of perfect good faith. “What should we scream for? I’ve been sitting here at my work for the last hour, as quiet as could be.”

“And, Sarah — was it you, Sarah? For goodness’ sake tell the truth.”

“Me, mum! lor no, mum. I was up with master showing him and the strange gentleman a light.”

“You were upstairs with your master? And did you hear nothing? A piercing shriek that rang through the house; — you must surely have heard it, both of you.”

Martha shook her head resolutely.

“Not me, mum; I didn’t hear a sound. The kitchen-door was shut all the time Sarah was away, and I was busy at work, and thinking of nothing but my work. I wasn’t upon the listen, as you may say.”

The kitchen was at the extreme end of the house, remote from that direction whence the unexplainable cry seemed to have come.

“It is most extraordinary,” Ellen said gravely, perplexed beyond all measure. “But you, Sarah; if you were upstairs with your master, you must surely have heard that shriek; it seemed to come from upstairs.”

“Did master hear it?” asked the girl deliberately.

“He says not.”

“Then how should I, mum? No, mum, I didn’t hear nothink; I can take my Bible oath of that.”

“I don’t want any oaths; I only want to know the meaning of this business. There would have been no harm in your screaming. You might just as well speak the truth about it.”

“Lor, mum, but it warn’t me,” answered Sarah Batts with an injured look. “Whatever could go to put it in your head as it was me?”

“It must have been one or other of you two girls. There’s no other woman in the house; and as you were upstairs, it seems more likely to have been you. However, there’s no use talking any more about it. Only we both heard the scream, didn’t we, Mrs. Tadman?”

“I should think we did, indeed,” responded the widow with a vehement shudder. “My flesh is all upon the creep at this very moment. I don’t think I ever had such a turn in my life.”

They went back to the parlour, leaving the two servants still sitting by the fire; Sarah Batts with that look of injured innocence fixed upon her wooden countenance, Martha Holden cheerfully employed in the construction of her Sunday cap. In the parlour the two men were both standing by the table, the stranger with his back to the women as they entered, Stephen Whitelaw facing him. The former seemed to have been counting something, but stopped abruptly as the women came into the room.

There was a little heap of bank-notes lying on the table. Stephen snatched them up hastily, and thrust them in a bundle into his waistcoat-pocket; while the stranger put a strap round a bulky red morocco pocket-book with a more deliberate air, as of one who had nothing to hide from the world.

That guilty furtive air of Stephen’s, and, above all, that passage of money between the two men, confirmed Mrs. Tadman in her notion that Wyncomb Farm was going to change hands. She resumed her seat by the fire with a groan, and accepted Ellen’s offer of a glass of spirits-and-water with a doleful shake of her head.

“Didn’t I tell you so?” she whispered, as Mrs. Whitelaw handed her the comforting beverage.

The stranger was evidently on the point of departure. There was a sound of wheels on the gravel outside the parlour window — the familiar sound of Stephen Whitelaw’s chaise-cart; and that gentleman was busy helping his visitor on with his great-coat.

“I shall be late for the last train,” said the stranger, “unless your man drives like the very devil.”

“He’ll drive fast enough, I daresay, if you give him half-a-crown,” Mr. Whitelaw answered with a grin; “but don’t let him go and do my horse any damage, or you’ll have to pay for it.”

“Of course. You’d like to get the price of a decent animal out of me for that broken-kneed hard-mouthed brute of yours,” replied the stranger with a scornful laugh. “I think there never was such a money-grubbing, grinding, grasping beggar since the world began. However, you’ve seen the last shilling you’re ever likely to get out of me; so make the best of it; and remember, wherever I may be, there are friends of mine in this country who will keep a sharp look-out upon you, and let me know precious quick if you don’t stick to your part of our bargain like an honest man, or as nearly like one as nature will allow you to come. And now good-night, Mr. Whitelaw. — Ladies, your humble servant.”

He was gone before Ellen or Mrs. Tadman could reply to his parting salutation, had they been disposed to do so. Mr. Whitelaw went out with him, and gave some final directions to the stable-lad who was to drive the chaise-cart, and presently came back to the parlour, looking considerably relieved by his guest’s departure.

Mrs. Tadman rushed at once to the expression of her fears.

“Stephen Whitelaw,” she exclaimed solemnly, “tell us the worst at once. It’s no good keeping things back from us. That man has come here to turn us out of house and home. You’ve sold Wyncomb.”

“Sold Wyncomb! Have you gone crazy, you old fool?” cried Mr. Whitelaw, contemplating his kinswoman with a most evil expression of countenance. “What’s put that stuff in your head?”

“Your own doings, Stephen, and that man’s. What does he come here for, with his masterful ways, unless it’s to turn us out of house and home? What did you show him the house for? Nigh upon an hour you were out of this room with him, if you were a minute. Why did money pass from him to you? I saw you put it in your pocket — a bundle of bank-notes.”

“You’re a prying old catemeran!” cried Mr. Whitelaw savagely, “and a drunken old fool into the bargain. — Why do you let her muddle herself with the gin-bottle like that, Ellen? You ought to have more respect for my property. You don’t call that taking care of your husband’s house. — As for you, mother Tadman, if you treat me to any more of this nonsense, you will find yourself turned out of house and home a precious deal sooner than you bargained for; but it won’t be because of my selling Wyncomb. Sell Wyncomb, indeed! I’ve about as much thought of going up in a balloon, as of parting with a rood or a perch of my father’s land.”

This was a very long speech for Mr. Whitelaw; and, having finished it, he sank into his chair, quite exhausted by the unusual effort, and refreshed himself with copious libations of gin-and-water.

“What was that man here for, then, Stephen? It’s only natural I should want to know that,” said Mrs. Tadman, abashed, but not struck dumb by her kinsman’s reproof.

“What’s that to you? Business. Yes, there has been money pass between us, and it’s rather a profitable business for me. Perhaps it was horse-racing, perhaps it wasn’t. That’s about all you’ve any call to know. I’ve made money by it, and not lost. And now, don’t let me be bothered about it any more, if you and me are to keep friends.”

“I’m sure, Stephen,” Mrs. Tadman remonstrated in a feebly plaintive tone, “I’ve no wish to bother you; there’s nothing farther from my thoughts; but it’s only natural that I should be anxious about a place where I’ve lived so many years. Not but what I could get my living easy enough elsewhere, as you must know, Stephen, being able to turn my hand to almost anything.”

To this feeble protest Mr. Whitelaw vouchsafed no answer. He had lighted his pipe by this time, and was smoking and staring at the fire with his usual stolid air — meditative, it might be, or only ruminant, like one of his own cattle.

But all through that night Mr. Whitelaw, who was not commonly a seer of visions or dreamer of dreams, had his slumbers disturbed by some unwonted perplexity of spirit. His wife lay broad awake, thinking of that prolonged and piercing cry, which seemed to her, the more she meditated upon it, in have been a cry of anguish or of terror, and could not fail to notice this unusual disturbance of her husband’s sleep. More than once he muttered to himself in a troubled manner; but his words, for the most part, were incoherent and disjointed — words of which that perplexed listener could make nothing.

Once she heard him say, “A bad job — dangerous business.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31