Johnny Ludlow, First Series, by Ellen Wood

6.

Lease, the Pointsman.

It happened when we were staying at our other house, Crabb Cot. In saying “we” were staying at it, I mean the family, for Tod and I were at school.

Crabb Cot lay beyond the village of Crabb. Just across the road, a few yards higher up, was the large farm of Mr. Coney; and his house and ours were the only two that stood there. Crabb Cot was a smaller and more cosy house than Dyke Manor; and, when there, we were not so very far from Worcester: less than half-way, comparing it with the Manor.

Crabb was a large and straggling parish. North Crabb, which was nearest to us, had the church and schools in it, but very few houses. South Crabb, further off, was more populous. Nearly a mile beyond South Crabb, there was a regular junction of rails. Lines, crossing each other in a most bewildering manner, led off in all directions: and it required no little manoeuvring to send the trains away right at busy times. Which of course was the pointsman’s affair.

The busiest days had place in summer, when excursion trains were in full swing: but they would come occasionally at other times, driving the South Crabb station people off their heads with bother before night.

The pointsman was Harry Lease. I dare say you have noticed how certain names seem to belong to certain places. At North Crabb and South Crabb, and in the district round about, the name of Lease was as common as blackberries in a hedge; and if the different Leases had been cousins in the days gone by, the relationship was lost now. There might be seven-and-twenty Leases, in and out, but Harry Lease was not, so far as he knew, akin to any of them.

South Crabb was not much of a place at best. A part of it, Crabb Lane, branching off towards Massock’s brickfields, was crowded as a London street. Poor dwellings were huddled together, and children jostled each other on the door-steps. Squire Todhetley said he remembered it when it really was a lane, hedges on either side and a pond that was never dry. Harry Lease lived in the last house, a thatched hut with three rooms in it. He was a steady, civil, hard-working man, superior to some of his neighbours, who were given to reeling home at night and beating their wives on arrival. His wife, a nice sort of woman to talk to, was a bad manager; but the five children were better behaved and better kept than the other grubbers in the gutter.

Lease was the pointsman at South Crabb Junction, and helped also in the general business there. He walked to his work at six in the morning, carrying his breakfast with him; went home to dinner at twelve, the leisure part of the day at the station, and had his tea taken to him at four; leaving in general at nine. Sometimes his wife arrived with the tea; sometimes the eldest child, Polly, an intelligent girl of six. But, one afternoon in September, a crew of mischievous boys from the brickfields espied what Polly was carrying. They set upon her, turned over the can of tea in fighting for it, ate the bread-and-butter, tore her pinafore in the skirmish, and frightened her nearly to death. After that, Lease said that the child should not be sent with the tea: so, when his wife could not take it, he went without tea. Polly and her father were uncommonly alike, too quiet to battle much with the world: sensitive, in fact: though it sounds odd to say that.

During the month of November one of the busy days occurred at South Crabb Junction. There was a winter meeting on Worcester race-course, a cattle and pig show in a town larger than Worcester, and two or three markets and other causes of increased traffic, all falling on the same day. What with cattle-trains, ordinary and special trains, and goods-trains, and the grunting of obstinate pigs, Lease had plenty to do to keep his points in order.

How it fell out he never knew. Between eight and nine o’clock, when a train was expected in on its way to Worcester, Lease forgot to shift the points. A goods-train had come in ten minutes before, for which he had had to turn the points, and he never turned them back again. On came the train, almost as quickly as though it had not to pull up at South Crabb Junction. Watson, the station-master, came out to be in readiness.

“The engine has her steam on to-night,” he remarked to Lease as he watched the red lights, like two great eyes, come tearing on. “She’ll have to back.”

She did something worse than back. Instead of slackening on the near lines, she went flying off at a tangent to some outer ones on which the goods-train stood, waiting until the passenger train should pass. There was a short, sharp sound from the whistle, a great collision, a noise of steam hissing, a sense of dire confusion: and for one minute afterwards a dead lull, as if every one and everything were paralyzed.

“You never turned the points!” shouted the station-master to Lease.

Lease made no rejoinder. He backed against the wall like a man helpless, his arms stretched out, his face and eyes wild with horror. Watson thought he was going to have a fit, and shook him roughly.

You’ve done it nicely, you have!” he added, as he flew off to the scene of disaster, from which the steam was beginning to clear away. But Lease reached it before him.

“God forgive me! God have mercy upon me!”

A porter, running side by side with Lease, heard him say it. In telling it afterwards the man described the tone as one of intense, piteous agony.

The Squire and Mrs. Todhetley, who had been a few miles off to spend the day, were in the train with Lena. The child did nothing but cry and sob; not with damage, but fright. Mr. Coney also happened to be in it; and Massock, who owned the brickfields. They were not hurt at all, only a little shaken, and (as the Squire put it afterwards,) mortally scared. Massock, an under-bred man, who had grown rich by his brickfields, was more pompous than a lord. The three seized upon the station-master.

“Now then, Watson,” cried Mr. Coney, “what was the cause of all this?”

“If there have been any negligence here — and I know there have — you shall be transported for it, Watson, as sure as I’m a living man,” roared Massock.

“I’m afraid, gentlemen, that something was wrong with the points,” acknowledged Watson, willing to shift the blame from himself, and too confused to consider policy. “At least that’s all I can think.”

“With the points!” cried Massock. “Them’s Harry Lease’s work. Was he on to-night?”

“Lease is here as usual, Mr. Massock. I don’t say this lies at his door,” added Watson, hastily. “The points might have been out of order; or something else wrong totally different. I should like to know, for my part, what possessed Roberts to bring up his train at such speed.”

Darting in and out of the heap of confusion like a mad spirit; now trying by his own effort to lift the broken parts of carriages off some sufferer, now carrying a poor fellow away to safety, but always in the thick of danger went Harry Lease. Braving the heat and steam as though he felt them not, he flew everywhere, himself and his lantern alike trembling with agitation.

“Come and look here, Harry; I’m afraid he’s dead,” said a porter, throwing his light upon a man’s face. The words arrested Mr. Todhetley, who was searching for Lease to let off a little of his anger. It was Roberts, the driver of the passenger-train, who lay there, his face white and still. Somehow the sight made the Squire still, too. Raising Roberts’s head, the men put a drop of brandy between his lips, and he moved. Lease broke into a low glad cry.

“He is not dead! he is not dead!”

The angry reproaches died away on the Squire’s tongue: it did not seem quite the time to speak them. By-and-by he came upon Lease again. The man had halted to lean against some palings, feeling unaccountably strange, much as though the world around were closing to him.

“Had you been drinking to-night, Lease?”

The question was put quietly: which was, so to say, a feather in the hot Squire’s cap. Lease only shook his head by way of answer. He had a pale, gentle kind of face, with brown eyes that always wore a sad expression. He never drank, and the Squire knew it.

“Then how came you to neglect the points, Lease, and cause this awful accident?”

“I don’t know, sir,” answered Lease, rousing out of his lethargy, but speaking as one in a dream. “I can’t think but what I turned them as usual.”

“You knew the train was coming? It was the ordinary train.”

“I knew it was coming,” assented Lease. “I watched it come along, standing by the side of Mr. Watson. If I had not set the points right, why, I should have thought surely of them then; it stands to reason I should. But never such a thought came into my mind, sir. I waited there, just as if all was right; and I believe I did shift the points.”

Lease did not put this forth as an excuse: he only spoke aloud the problem that was working in his mind. Having shifted the points regularly for five years, it seemed simply impossible that he could have neglected it now. And yet the man could not remember to have done it this evening.

“You can’t call it to mind?” said Squire Todhetley, repeating his last words.

“No, I can’t, sir: and no wonder, with all this confusion around me and the distress I’m in. I may be able to do so tomorrow.”

“Now look you here, Lease,” said the Squire, getting just a little cross: “if you had put the points right you couldn’t fail to remember it. And what causes your distress, I should like to ask, but the knowledge that you didn’t, and that all this wreck is owing to you?”

“There is such a thing as doing things mechanically, sir, without the mind being conscious of it.”

“Doing things wilfully,” roared the Squire. “Do you want to tell me I am a fool to my face?”

“It has often happened, sir, that when I have wound up the mantel-shelf clock at night in our sleeping-room, I’ll not know the next minute whether I’ve wound it or not, and I have to try it again, or else ask the wife,” went on Lease, looking straight out into the darkness, as if he could see the clock then. “I can’t think but what it must have been just in that way that I put the points right to-night.”

Squire Todhetley, in his anger, which was growing hot again, felt that he should like to give Lease a sound shaking. He had no notion of such talk as this.

“I don’t know whether you are a knave or a fool, Lease. Killing men and women and children; breaking arms and legs; putting a whole trainful into mortal fright; smashing property and engines to atoms; turning the world, in fact, upside down, so that people don’t know whether they stand on their heads or their heels! You may think you can do this with impunity perhaps, but the law will soon teach you better. I should not like to go to bed with human lives on my soul.”

The Squire disappeared in a whirlwind. Lease — who seemed to have taken a leaf out of his own theory, and listened mechanically — closed his eyes and put his head back against the palings, like one who has had a shock. He went home when there was nothing more to be done. Not down the highway, but choosing the field-path, where he would not be likely to meet a soul. Crabb Lane, accustomed to put itself into a state of commotion for nothing at all, had got something at last, and was up in arms. All the men employed at the station lived in Crabb Lane. The wife and children of Bowen, the stoker of the passenger-train — dead — also inhabited a room in that noisy locality. So that when Lease came in view of the place, he saw an excited multitude, though it was then long after ordinary bed-time. Groups stood in the highway; heads, thrust forth at upper windows, were shouting remarks across the street and back again. Keeping on the far side of the hedge, Lease got in by the back-door unseen. His wife was sitting by the fire, trembling and frightened. She started up.

“Oh, Harry! what is the truth of this?”

He did not answer. Not in neglect; Lease was as civil indoors as out, which can’t be said of every one; but as if he did not hear. The supper, bread and half a cold red-herring, was on the table. Generally he was hungry enough for supper, but he never glanced at it this evening.

Sitting down, he looked into the fire and remained still, listening perhaps to the outside hubbub. His wife, half dead with fear and apprehension, could keep silence no longer, and asked again.

“I don’t know,” he answered then. “They say that I never turned the points; I’m trying to remember doing it, Mary. My senses have been scared out of me.”

“But don’t you remember doing it?”

He put his hands to his temples, and his eyes took that far-off, sad look, often seen in eyes when the heart is troubled. With all his might and main, the man was trying to recall the occurrence which would not come to him. A dread conviction began to dawn within him that it never would or could come; and Lease’s face grew damp with drops of agony.

“I turned the points for the down goods-train,” he said presently; “I remember that. When the goods came in, I know I was in the signal-house. Then I took a message to Hoar; and next I stepped across with some oil for the engine of an up-train that dashed in; they called out that it wanted some. I helped to do it, and took the oil back again. It would be then that I went to put the points right,” he added after a pause. “I hope I did.”

“But, Harry, don’t you remember doing it?”

“No, I don’t; there’s where it is.”

“You always put the points straight at once after the train has passed?”

“Not if I’m called off by other work. It ought to be done. A pointsman should stand while the train passes, and then step off to right the points at once. But when you are called off half-a-dozen ways to things crying out to be done, you can’t spend time in waiting for the points. We’ve never had a harder day’s work at the station than this has been, Mary; trains in, trains out; the place has hardly been free a minute together. And the extra telegraphing! — half the passengers that stopped seemed to want to send messages. When six o’clock came I was worn out; done up; fit to drop.”

Mrs. Lease gave a start. An idea flashed into her mind, causing her to ask mentally whether she could have had indirectly a hand in the calamity. For that had been one of the days when her husband had had no tea taken to him. She had been very busy washing, and the baby was sick and cross: that had been quite enough to fill incapable Mrs. Lease’s hands, without bothering about her husband’s tea. And, of all days in the year, it seemed that he had, on this one, most needed tea. Worn out! done up!

The noise in Crabb Lane was increasing, voices sounded louder, and Mrs. Lease put her hands to her ears. Just then a sudden interruption occurred. Polly, supposed to be safe asleep upstairs, burst into the kitchen in her night-gown, and flew into her father’s arms, sobbing and crying.

“Oh, father, is it true? — is it true?”

“Why — Polly!” cried the man, looking at her, in astonishment. “What’s this?”

She hid her face on his waistcoat, her hands clinging round him. Polly had awakened and heard the comments outside. She was too nervous and excitable for Crabb Lane.

“They are saying you have killed Kitty Bowen’s father. It isn’t true, father! Go out and tell them that it isn’t true!”

His own nerves were unstrung; his strength had gone out of him; it only needed something of this kind to finish up Lease; and he broke into sobs. Holding the child to him with a tight grasp, they cried together. If Lease had never known agony before in his life, he knew it then.

The days went on. There was no longer any holding-out on Lease’s part on the matter of points: all the world said he had been guilty of neglecting to turn them; and he supposed he had. He accepted the fate meekly, without resistance, his manner strangely still, as one who has been utterly subdued. When talked to, he freely avowed that it remained a puzzle to him how he could have forgotten the points, and what made him forget them. He shrank neither from reproach nor abuse; listening patiently to all who chose to attack him, as if he had no longer any right to claim a place in the world.

He was not spared. Coroner and jury, friends and foes, all went on at him, painting his sins in flaring colours, and calling him names to his face. “Murderer” was one of the least of them. Four had died in all; Roberts was not expected to live; the rest were getting well. There would have been no trouble over the inquest (held at the Bull, between Crabb Lane and the station), it might have been finished in a day, and Lease committed for trial, but that one of those who had died was a lawyer; and his brother (also a lawyer) and other of his relatives (likewise lawyers) chose to make a commotion. Mr. Massock helped them. Passengers must be examined; rails tried; the points tested; every conceivable obstacle was put in the way of a conclusion. Fifteen times had the jury to go and look at the spot, and see the working of the points tested. And so the inquest was adjourned from time to time, and might be finished perhaps something under a year.

The public were like so many wolves, all howling at Lease; from the aforesaid relatives and Brickfield Massock, down to the men and women of Crabb Lane. Lease was at home on bail, surrendering himself at every fresh meeting of the inquest. A few wretched malcontents had begun to hiss him as he passed in and out of Crabb Lane.


When we got home for the Christmas holidays, nothing met us but tales of Lease’s wickedness, in having sent one train upon the other. The Squire grew hot in talking of it. Tod, given to be contrary, said he should like to have Lease’s own version of the affair. A remark that affronted the Squire.

“You can go off and get it from him, sir. Lease won’t refuse it; he’d give it to the dickens, for the asking. He likes nothing better than to talk about it.”

“After all, it was only a misfortune,” said Tod. “It was not wilfully done.”

“Not wilfully done!” stuttered the Pater in his rage. “When I, and Lena, and her mother were in the train, and might have been smashed to atoms! When Coney, and Massock (not that I like the fellow), and scores more were put in jeopardy, and some were killed; yes, sir, killed. A misfortune! Johnny, if you stand there grinning like an idiot, I’ll send you back to school: you shall both pack off this very hour. A misfortune, indeed! Lease deserves hanging.”

The next morning we came upon Lease accidentally in the fields. He was leaning over the gate amongst the trees, as Tod and I crossed the rivulet bridge — which was nothing but a plank or two. A couple of bounds, and we were up with him.

“Now for it, Lease!” cried Tod. “Let us hear a bit about the matter.”

How Lease was altered! His cheeks were thin and white, his eyes had nothing but despair in them. Standing up he touched his hat respectfully.

“Ay, sir, it has been a sad time,” answered Lease, in a low, patient voice, as if he felt worn out. “I little thought when I last shut you and Master Johnny into the carriage the morning you left, that misfortune was so close at hand.” For, just before it happened, we had been at home for a day’s holiday.

“Well, tell us about it.”

Tod stood with his arm round the trunk of a tree, and I sat down on an opposite stump. Lease had very little to say; nothing, except that he must have forgotten to change the points.

And that made Tod stare. Tod, like the Pater, was hasty by nature. Knowing Lease’s good character, he had not supposed him guilty; and to hear the man quietly admit that he was excited Tod’s ire.

“What do you mean, Lease?”

“Mean, sir?” returned Lease, meekly.

“Do you mean to say that you did not attend to the points? — that you just let one train run on to the other?”

“Yes, sir; that is how it must have been. I didn’t believe it, sir, for a long time afterwards: not for several hours.”

“A long time, that,” said Tod, an unpleasant sound of mockery in his tone.

“No, sir; I know it’s not much, counting by time,” answered Lease patiently. “But nobody can ever picture how long those hours seemed to me. They were like years. I couldn’t get the idea into me at all that I had not set the points as usual; it seemed a thing incredible; but, try as I would, I was unable to call to mind having done it.”

“Well, I must say that is a nice thing to confess to, Lease! And there was I, yesterday afternoon, taking your part and quarrelling with my father.”

“I am sorry for that, sir. I am not worth having my part taken in anything, since that happened.”

“But how came you to do it?”

“It’s a question I shall never be able to answer, sir. We had a busy day, were on the run from morning till night, and there was a great deal of confusion at the station: but it was no worse than many a day that has gone before it.”

“Well, I shall be off,” said Tod. “This has shut me up. I thought of going in for you, Lease, finding every one else was dead against you. A misfortune is a misfortune, but wilful carelessness is sin: and my father and his wife and my little sister were in the train. Come along, Johnny.”

“Directly, Tod. I’ll catch you up. I say, Lease, how will it end?” I asked, as Tod went on.

“It can’t end better than two years’ imprisonment for me, sir; and I suppose it may end worse. It is not that I think of.”

“What else, then?”

“Four dead already, sir; four — and one soon to follow them, making five,” he answered, his voice hushed to a whisper. “Master Johnny, it lies on me always, a dreadful weight never to be got rid of. When I was young, I had a sort of low fever, and used to see in my dreams some dreadful task too big to be attempted, and yet I had to do it; and the weight on my mind was awful. I didn’t think, till now, such a weight could fall in real life. Sleeping or waking, sir, I see those four before me dead. Squire Todhetley told me that I had their lives on my soul. And it is so.”

I did not know what to answer.

“So you see, sir, I don’t think much of the imprisonment; if I did, I might be wanting to get the suspense over. It’s not any term of imprisonment, no, not though it were for life, that can wash out the past. I’d give my own life, sir, twice over if that could undo it.”

Lease had his arm on the gate as he spoke, leaning forward. I could not help feeling sorry for him.

“If people knew how I’m punished within myself, Master Johnny, they’d perhaps not be so harsh upon me. I have never had a proper night’s rest since it happened, sir. I have to get up and walk about in the middle of the night because I can’t lie. The sight of the dawn makes me sick, and I say to myself, How shall I get through the day? When bed-time comes, I wonder how I shall lie till morning. Often I wish it had pleased God to take me before that day had happened.”

“Why don’t they get the inquest over, Lease?”

“There’s something or other always brought up to delay it, sir. I don’t see the need of it. If it would bring the dead back to life, why, they might delay it; but it won’t. They might as well let it end, and sentence me, and have done with it. Each time when I go back home through Crabb Lane, the men and women call out, ‘What, put off again!’ ‘What, ain’t he in gaol yet!’ Which is the place they say I ought to have been in all along.”

“I suppose the coroner knows you’ll not run away, Lease.”

“Everybody knows that, sir.”

“Some would, though, in your place.”

“I don’t know where they’d run to,” returned Lease. “They couldn’t run away from their own minds — and that’s the worst part of it. Sometimes I wonder whether I shall ever get it off mine, sir, or if I shall have it on me, like this, to the end of my life. The Lord knows what it is to me; nobody else does.”

You cannot always make things fit into one another. I was thinking so as I left Lease and went after Tod. It was awful carelessness not to have set the points; causing death, and sorrow, and distress to many people. Looking at it from their side, the pointsman was detestable; only fit, as the Squire said, to be hanged. But looking at it side by side with Lease, seeing his sad face, his self-reproach, and his patient suffering, it seemed altogether different; and the two aspects would not by any means fit in together.

Christmas week, and the absence of a juror who had gone out visiting, made another excuse for putting off the inquest to the next week. When that came, the coroner was ill. There seemed to be no end to the delays, and the public steam was getting up in consequence. As to Lease, he went about like a man who is looking for something that he has lost and cannot find.

One day, when the ice lay in Crabb Lane, and I was taking the slides on my way through it to join Tod, who had gone rabbit-shooting, a little girl ran across my feet, and was knocked down. I fell too; and the child began to cry. Picking her up, I saw it was Polly Lease.

“You little stupid! why did you run into my path like that?”

“Please, sir, I didn’t see you,” she sobbed. “I was running after father. Mother saw him in the field yonder, and sent me to tell him we’d got a bit o’ fire.”

Polly had grazed both her knees; they began to bleed just a little, and she nearly went into convulsions at sight of the blood. I carried her in. There was about a handful of fire in the grate. The mother sat on a low stool, close into it, nursing one of the children, and the rest sat on the floor.

“I never saw such a child as this in all my life, Mrs. Lease. Because she has hurt her knees a bit, and sees a drop of blood, she’s going to die of fright. Look here.”

Mrs. Lease put the boy down and took Polly, who was trembling all over with her deep low sobs.

“It was always so, sir,” said Mrs. Lease; “always since she was a baby. She is the timorest-natured child possible. We have tried everything; coaxing and scolding too; but we can’t get her out of it. If she pricks her finger her face turns white.”

“I’d be more of a woman than cry at nothing, if I were you, Polly,” said I, sitting on the window-ledge, while Mrs. Lease washed the knees; which were hardly damaged at all when they came to be examined. But Polly only clung to her mother, with her face hidden, and giving a deep sob now and then.

“Look up, Polly. What’s this!”

I put it into her hand as I spoke; a bath bun that I had been carrying with me, in case I did not get home to luncheon. Polly looked round, and the sight dried the tears on her swollen face. You never saw such a change all in a moment, or such eager, glad little eyes as hers.

“Divide it mother,” said she. “Leave a bit for father.”

Two of them came flocking round like a couple of young wolves; the youngest couldn’t get up, and the one Mrs. Lease had been nursing stayed on the floor where she put him. He had a sickly face, with great bright grey eyes, and hot, red lips.

“What’s the matter with him, Mrs. Lease?”

“With little Tom, sir? I think it’s a kind of fever. He never was strong; none of them are: and of course these bad times can but tell upon us.”

“Don’t forget father, mother,” said Polly. “Leave the biggest piece for father.”

“Now I tell you all what it is,” said I to the children, when Mrs. Lease began to divide it into half-a-dozen pieces, “that bun’s for Polly, because she has hurt herself: you shall not take any of it from her. Give it to Polly, Mrs. Lease.”

Of all the uproars ever heard, those little cormorants set up the worst. Mrs. Lease looked at me.

“They must have a bit, sir: they must indeed. Polly wouldn’t eat all herself, Master Ludlow; you couldn’t get her to do it.”

But I was determined Polly should have it. It was through me she got hurt; and besides, I liked her.

“Now just listen, you little pigs. I’ll go to Ford’s, the baker’s, and bring you all a bun a-piece, but Polly must have this one. They have lots of currants in them, those buns, for children that don’t squeal. How many are there of you? One, two, three — — four.”

Catching up my cap, I was going out when Mrs. Lease touched me. “Do you really mean it, sir?” she asked in a whisper.

“Mean what? That I am going to bring the buns? Of course I mean it. I’ll be back with them directly.”

“Oh, sir — but do forgive me for making free to ask such a thing — if you would only let it be a half-quartern loaf instead?”

“A half-quartern loaf!”

“They’ve not had a bit between their lips this day, Master Ludlow,” she said, catching her breath, as her face, which had flushed, turned pale again. “Last night I divided between the four of them a piece of bread half the size of my hand; Tom, he couldn’t eat.”

I stared for a minute. “How is it, Mrs. Lease? can you not get enough food?”

“I don’t know where we should get it from, sir. Lease has not broken his fast since yesterday at midday.”

Dame Ford put the loaf in paper for me, wondering what on earth I wanted with it, as I could see by her inquisitive eyes, but not liking to ask; and I carried it back with the four buns. They were little wolves and nothing else when they saw the food.

“How has this come about, Mrs. Lease?” I asked, while they were eating the bread she cut them, and she had taken Tom on her lap again.

“Why, sir, it is eight weeks now, or hard upon it, since my husband earned anything. They didn’t even pay him for the last week he was at work, as the accident happened in it. We had nothing in hand; people with only eighteen shillings a week and five children to feed, can’t save; and we have been living on our things. But there’s nothing left now to make money of — as you may see by the bare room, sir.”

“Does not any one help you?”

“Help us!” returned Mrs. Lease. “Why, Master Ludlow, people, for the most part, are so incensed against my husband, that they’d take the bread out of our mouths, instead of putting a bit into them. All their help goes to poor Nancy Bowen and her children: and Lease is glad it should be so. When I carried Tom to Mr. Cole’s yesterday, he said that what the child wanted was nourishment.”

“This must try Lease.”

“Yes,” she said, her face flushing again, but speaking very quietly. “Taking one thing with another, I am not sure but it is killing him.”

After this break, I did not care to go to the shooting, but turned back to Crabb Cot. Mrs. Todhetley was alone in the bow-windowed parlour, so I told her of the state the Leases were in, and asked if she would not help them.

“I don’t know what to say about it, Johnny,” she said, after a pause. “If I were willing, you know Mr. Todhetley would not be so. He can’t forgive Lease for his carelessness. Every time Lena wakes up from sleep in a fright, fancying it is another accident, his anger returns to him. We often hear her crying out, you know, down here in an evening.”

“The carelessness was no fault of Lease’s children, that they should suffer for it.”

“When you grow older, Johnny, you will find that the consequences of people’s faults fall more on others than on themselves. It is very sad the Leases should be in this state; I am sorry for them.”

“Then you’ll help them a bit, good mother.”

Mrs. Todhetley was always ready to help any one, not needing to be urged; on the other hand, she liked to yield implicitly to the opinions of the Squire. Between the two, she went into a dilemma.

“Suppose it were Lena, starving for want of food and warmth?” I said. “Or Hugh sick with fever, as that young Tom is? Those children have done no more harm than ours.”

Mrs. Todhetley put her hand up to her face, and her mild eyes looked nearly as sad as Lease’s.

“Will you take it to them yourself, Johnny, in a covered basket, and not let it be seen? That is, make it your own doing?”

“Yes.”

“Go to the kitchen then, and ask Molly. There are some odds and ends of things in the larder that will not be particularly wanted. You see, Johnny, I do not like to take an active part in this; it would seem like opposing the Squire.”

Molly was stooping before the big fire, basting the meat, in one of her vile humours. If I wanted to rob the larder, I must do it, she cried; it was my business, not hers; and she dashed the basting spoon across the table by way of accompaniment.

I gave a good look round the larder, and took a raised pork-pie that had a piece cut out of it, and a leg of mutton three parts eaten. On the shelf were a dozen mince-pies, just out of their patty-pans; I took six and left six. Molly, screwing her face round the kitchen-door, caught sight of them as they went into the basket, and rushing after me out of the house, shrieked out for her mince-pies.

The race went on. She was a woman not to be daunted. Just as we turned round by the yellow barn, I first, she raving behind, the Squire pounced upon us, asking what the uproar meant. Molly told her tale. I was a thief, and had gone off with the whole larder, more particularly with her mince-pies.

“Open the basket, Johnny,” said the Squire: which was the one Tod and I used when we went fishing.

No sooner was it done than Molly marched off with the pies in triumph. The Pater regarded the pork-pie and the meat with a curious gaze.

“This is for you and Joe, I suppose. I should like to know for how many more.”

I was one of the worst to conceal things, when taken-to like this, and he got it all out of me in no time. And then he put his hand on my shoulder and ordered me to say who the things were for. Which I had to do.

Well, there was a row. He wanted to know what I meant by being wicked enough to give food to Lease. I said it was for the children. I’m afraid I almost cried, for I did not like him to be angry with me, but I know I promised not to eat any dinner at home for three days if he would let me take the meat. Molly’s comments, echoing through the house, betrayed to Mrs. Todhetley what had happened, and she came down the road with a shawl over her head. She told the Squire the truth then: that she had sanctioned it. She said she feared the Leases were quite in extremity, and begged him to let the meat go.

“Be off for this once, you young thief,” stamped the Squire, “but don’t let me catch you at anything of this sort again.”

So the meat went to the Leases, and two loaves that Mrs. Todhetley whispered me to order for them at Ford’s. When I reached home with the empty basket, they were going in to dinner. I took a book and stayed in the parlour. In a minute or two the Squire sent to ask what I was doing that for.

“It’s all right, Thomas. I don’t want any dinner today.”

Old Thomas went away and returned again, saying the master ordered me to go in. But I wouldn’t do anything of the sort. If he forgot the bargain, I did not.

Out came the Squire, his face red, napkin in hand, and laid hold of me by the shoulders.

“You obstinate young Turk! How dare you defy me? Come along.”

“But it is not to defy you, sir. It was a bargain, you know; I promised.”

“What was a bargain?”

“That I should not have any dinner for three days. Indeed I meant it.”

The Squire’s answer was to propel me into the dining-room. “Move down, Joe,” he said, “I’ll have him by me today. I’ll see whether he is to starve himself out of bravado.”

“Why, what’s up?” asked Tod, as he went to a lower seat. “What have you been doing, Johnny?”

“Never mind,” said the Squire, putting enough mutton on my plate for two. “You eat that, Mr. Johnny?”

It went on so throughout dinner. Mrs. Todhetley gave me a big share of apple pudding; and, when the macaroni came on, the Squire heaped my plate. And I know it was all done to show he was not really angry with me for having taken the things to the Leases.

Mr. Cole, the surgeon, came in after dinner, and was told of my wickedness. Lena ran up to me and said might she send her new sixpence to the poor little children who had no bread to eat.

“What’s that Lease about, that he does not go to work?” asked the Squire, in loud tones. “Letting folks hear that his young ones are starving!”

“The man can’t work,” said Mr. Cole. “He is out on probation, you know, waiting for the verdict, and the sentence on him that is to follow.”

“Then why don’t they return their verdict and sentence him?” demanded the Squire, in his hot way.

“Ah!” said Mr. Cole, “it’s what they ought to have done long ago.”

“What will it be! Transportation?”

“I should take care it was not, if I were on the jury. The man had too much work on him that day, and had had nothing to eat or drink for too many hours.”

“I won’t hear a word in his defence,” growled the Squire.


When the jury met for the last time, Lease was ill. A day or two before that, some one had brought Lease word that Roberts, who had been lingering all that time in the infirmary at Worcester, was going at last. Upon which Lease started to see him. It was not the day for visitors at the infirmary, but he gained admittance. Roberts was lying in the accident ward, with his head low and a blue look in his face; and the first thing Lease did, when he began to speak, was to burst out crying. The man’s strength had gone down to nothing and his spirit was broken. Roberts made out that he was speaking of his distress at having been the cause of the calamity, and asking to be forgiven.

“Mate,” said Roberts, putting out his hand that Lease might take it, “I’ve never had an ill thought to ye. Mishaps come to all of us that have to do with rail-travelling; us drivers get more nor you pointsmen. It might have happened to me to be the cause, just as well as to you. Don’t think no more of it.”

“Say you forgive me,” urged Lease, “or I shall not know how to bear it.”

“I forgive thee with my whole heart and soul. I’ve had a spell of it here, Lease, waiting for death, knowing it must come to me, and I’ve got to look for it kindly. I don’t think I’d go back to the world now if I could. I’m going to a better. It seems just peace, and nothing less. Shake hands, mate.”

They shook hands.

“I wish ye’d lift my head a bit,” Roberts said, after a while. “The nurse she come and took away my pillow, thinking I might die easier, I suppose: I’ve seen her do it to others. Maybe I was a’most gone, and the sight of you woke me up again like.”

Lease sat down on the bed and put the man’s head upon his breast in the position that seemed most easy to him; and Roberts died there.

It was one of the worst days we had that winter. Lease had a night’s walk home of many miles, the sleet and wind beating upon him all the way. He was not well clad either, for his best things had been pawned.

So that when the inquest assembled two days afterwards, Lease did not appear at it. He was in bed with inflammation of the chest, and Mr. Cole told the coroner that it would be dangerous to take him out of it. Some of them called it bronchitis; but the Squire never went in for new names, and never would.

“I tell you what it is, gentlemen,” broke in Mr. Cole, when they were quarrelling as to whether there should be another adjournment or not, “you’ll put off and put off, until Lease slips through your fingers.”

“Oh, will he, though!” blustered old Massock. “He had better try at it! We’d soon fetch him back again.”

“You’d be clever to do it,” said the doctor.

Any way, whether it was this or not, they thought better of the adjournment, and gave their verdict. “Manslaughter against Henry Lease.” And the coroner made out his warrant of committal to Worcester county prison: where Lease would lie until the March assizes.

“I am not sure but it ought to have been returned Wilful Murder,” remarked the Squire, as he and the doctor turned out of the Bull, and picked their way over the slush towards Crabb Lane.

“It might make no difference, one way or the other,” answered Mr. Cole.

“Make no difference! What d’ye mean? Murder and manslaughter are two separate crimes, Cole, and must be punished accordingly. You see, Johnny, what your friend Lease has come to!”

“What I meant, Squire, was this: that I don’t much think Lease will live to be tried at all.”

“Not live!”

“I fancy not. Unless I am much mistaken, his life will have been claimed by its Giver long before March.”

The Squire stopped and looked at Cole. “What’s the matter with him? This inflammation — that you went and testified to?”

“That will be the cause of death, as returned to the registrar.”

“Why, you speak just as if the man were dying now, Cole!”

“And I think he is. Lease has been very low for a long time,” added Mr. Cole; “half clad, and not a quarter fed. But it is not that, Squire: heart and spirit are alike broken: and when this cold caught him, he had no stamina to withstand it; and so it has seized upon a vital part.”

“Do you mean to tell me to my face that he will die of it?” cried the Squire, holding on by the middle button of old Cole’s great-coat. “Nonsense, man! you must cure him. We — we did not want him to die, you know.”

“His life or his death, as it may be, are in the hands of One higher than I, Squire.”

“I think I’ll go in and see him,” said the Squire, meekly.

Lease was lying on a bed close to the floor when we got to the top of the creaky stairs, which had threatened to come down with the Squire’s weight and awkwardness. He had dozed off, and little Polly, sitting on the boards, had her head upon his arm. Her starting up awoke Lease. I was not in the habit of seeing dying people; but the thought struck me that Lease must be dying. His pale weary face wore the same hue that Jake’s had worn when he was dying: if you have not forgotten him.

“God bless me!” exclaimed the Squire.

Lease looked up with his sad eyes. He supposed they had come to tell him officially about the verdict — which had already reached him unofficially.

“Yes, gentlemen, I know it,” he said, trying to get up out of respect, and falling back. “Manslaughter. I’d have been present if I could. Mr. Cole knows I wasn’t able. I think God is taking me instead.”

“But this won’t do, you know, Lease,” said the Squire. “We don’t want you to die.”

“Well, sir, I’m afraid I am not good for much now. And there’d be the imprisonment, and then the sentence, so that I could not work for my wife and children for some long years. When people come to know how I repented of that night’s mistake, and that I have died of it, why, they’ll perhaps befriend them and forgive me. I think God has forgiven me: He is very merciful.”

“I’ll send you in some port wine and jelly and beef-tea — and some blankets, Lease,” cried the Squire quickly, as if he felt flurried. “And, Lease, poor fellow, I am sorry for having been so angry with you.”

“Thank you for all favours, sir, past and present. But for the help from your house my little ones would have starved. God bless you all, and forgive me! Master Johnny, God bless you.”

“You’ll rally yet, Lease; take heart,” said the Squire.

“No, sir, I don’t think so. The great dark load seems to have been lifted off me, and light to be breaking. Don’t sob, Polly! Perhaps father will be able to see you from up there as well as if he stayed here.”

The first thing the Squire did when we got out, was to attack Mr. Cole, telling him he ought not to have let Lease die. As he was in a way about it, Cole excused it, quietly saying it was no fault of his.

“I should like to know what it is that has killed him, then?”

“Grief,” said Mr. Cole. “The man has died of what we call a broken heart. Hearts don’t actually sever, you know, Squire, like a china basin, and there’s always some ostensible malady that serves as a reason to talk about. In this case it will be bronchitis. Which, in point of fact, is the final end, because Lease could not rally against it. He told me yesterday that his heart had ached so keenly since November, it seemed to have dried up within him.”

“We are all a pack of hard-hearted sinners,” groaned the Squire, in his repentance. “Johnny, why could you not have found them out sooner? Where was the use of your doing it at the eleventh hour, sir, I’d like to know?”

Harry Lease died that night. And Crabb Lane, in a fit of repentance as sudden as the Squire’s, took the cost of the funeral off the parish (giving some abuse in exchange) and went in a body to the grave. I and Tod followed.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30