Now it will be said, and I also knew, that there was nothing as yet, except most frail and feeble evidence, to connect that nameless stranger with the crime charged upon my father. Indeed, it might be argued well that there was no evidence at all, only inference and suspicion. That, however, was no fault of mine; and I felt as sure about it as if I had seen him in the very act. And this conclusion was not mine alone; for Mrs. Busk, a most clever woman, and the one who kept the post-office, entirely agreed with me that there could be no doubt on earth about it.
But when she went on to ask me what it was my intention to do next, for the moment I could do nothing more than inquire what her opinion was. And she told me that she must have a good night’s rest before advising any thing. For the thought of having such a heinous character in her own delivery district was enough to unhinge her from her postal duties, some of which might be useful to me.
With a significant glance she left me to my own thoughts, which were sad enough, and too sad to be worth recording. For Mrs. Busk had not the art of rousing people and cheering them, such as Betsy Strouss, my old nurse, had, perhaps from her knowledge of the nursery. My present landlady might be the more sagacious and sensible woman of the two, and therefore the better adviser; but for keeping one up to the mark she was not in any way equal to Betsy.
There is no ingratitude in saying this, because she herself admitted it. A clever woman, with a well-balanced mind, knows what she can do, and wherein she fails, better than a man of her own proportion does. And Mrs. Busk often lamented, without much real mortification, that she had not been “born sympathetic.”
All the more perhaps for that, she was born sagacious, which is a less pleasing, but, in a bitter pinch, a more really useful, quality. And before I had time to think much of her defects, in the crowd of more important thought, in she came again, with a letter in her hand, and a sparkle of triumph in her small black eyes. After looking back along the passage, and closing my door, she saw that my little bay-window had its old-fashioned shutters fastened, and then, in a very low whisper, she said, “What you want to know is here, miss.”
“Indeed!” I answered, in my usual voice. “How can you know that? The letter is sealed.”
“Hush! Would you have me ruined for your sake? This was at the bottom of the Nepheton bag. It fell on the floor. That was God’s will, to place it in your power.”
“It is not in my power,” I answered, whispering in my turn, and staring at it, in the strong temptation. “I have no right even to look at it. It is meant for some one else, and sealed.”
“The seal is nothing. I can manage that. Another drop of wax — and I strike our stamp by accident over the breakage. I refuse to know any thing about it. I am too busy with the other letters. Five minutes — lock the door — and I will come again.”
This was a desperate conflict for me, worse even than bodily danger. My first impulse was to have nothing to do with it — even to let the letter lie untouched, and, if possible, unglanced at. But already it was too late for the eyes to turn away. The address had flashed upon me before I thought of any thing, and while Mrs. Busk held it up to me. And now that address was staring at me, like a contemptuous challenge, while the seal, the symbol of private rights and deterrent honor, lay undermost. The letter was directed to “H. W. C., Post-office, Newport, Sussex.” The writing was in round hand, and clear, so as not to demand any scrutiny, and to seem like that of a lawyer’s clerk, and the envelope was of thin repellent blue.
My second impulse was to break the letter open and read it without shrinking. Public duty must conquer private scruples. Nothing but the hand of Providence itself could have placed this deadly secret in my power so amazingly. Away with all squeamishness, and perhaps prevent more murder.
But that “perhaps” gave me sudden pause. I had caught up the letter, and stood near the candle to soften the wax and lift the cover with a small sharp paper-knife, when it flashed on my mind that my cousin would condemn and scorn what I was doing. Unconsciously I must have made him now my standard of human judgment, or what made me think of him at that moment? I threw down the letter, and then I knew. The image of Lord Castlewood had crossed my mind, because the initials were his own — those of Herbert William Castlewood. This strange coincidence — if it were, indeed, an accident — once more set me thinking. Might not this letter be from his agent, of whom he had spoken as my protector here, but to whom as all unseen I scarcely ever gave a thought? Might not young Stixon, who so often was at Bruntsea, be employed to call at Newport for such letters, and return with them to his master? It was not very likely, for my cousin had the strongest contempt of anonymous doings. Still it was possible, and the bare possibility doubled my reluctance to break the seal.
For one minute longer I stood in doubt, and then honor and candor and truth prevailed. If any other life had been in peril but my own, duty to another might have overridden all. But duty to one’s self, if overpushed in such a case, would hold some taint of cowardice. So I threw the letter, with a sense of loathing, on a chair. Whatever it might contain, it should pass, at least for me, inviolate.
Now when Mrs. Busk came to see what I had done, or rather left undone, she flew into a towering passion, until she had no time to go on with it. The rattle of the rickety old mail-cart, on its way to Winchester that night, was heard, and the horn of the driver as he passed the church.
“Give it me. ‘A mercy! A young natural, that you are!” the good woman cried, as she flung out of the room to dash her office stamp upon that hateful missive, and to seal the leathern bag. “Seal, indeed! Inviolate! How many seals have I got to make every day of my life?”
I heard a great thump from the corner of the shop where the business of the mails was conducted; and she told me afterward that she was so put out, that broken that seal should be — one way or another. Accordingly she smashed it with the office stamp, which was rather like a woman’s act, methought; and then, having broken it, she never looked inside — which, perhaps, was even more so.
When she recovered her leisure and serenity, and came in, to forgive me and be forgiven, we resolved to dismiss the moral aspect of the question, as we never should agree about it, although Mrs. Busk was not so certain as she had been, when she found that the initials were the initials of a lord. And then I asked her how she came to fix upon that letter among so many others, and to feel so sure that it came from my treacherous enemy.
“In the first place, I know every letter from Nepheton,” she answered, very sensibly. “There are only fourteen people that write letters in the place, and twelve of those fourteen buy their paper in my shop — there is no shop at all at Nepheton. In the next place, none of them could write a hand like that, except the parson and the doctor, who are far above disguise. And two other things made me certain as could be. That letter was written at the ‘Green Man’ ale-house; not on their paper, nor yet with their ink; but being in great hurry, it was dusted with their sand — a sand that turns red upon ink, miss. And the time of dispatch there is just what he would catch, by walking fast after his dig where you saw him, going in that direction too, and then having his materials ready to save time. And if all that is not enough to convince you, miss — you remember that you told me our old sexton’s tale?”
“To be sure I do. The first evening I was left alone here. And you have been so kind, there is nothing I would hide from you.”
“Well, miss, the time of old Jacob’s tale is fixed by the death of poor old Sally Mock; and the stranger came again after you were here, just before the death of the miller’s eldest daughter, and you might almost have seen him. Poor thing! we all called her the ‘flower of the Moon,’ meaning our little river. What a fine young woman she was, to be sure! Whenever we heard of any strangers about, we thought they were prowling after her. I was invited to her funeral, and I went, and nothing could be done nicer. But they never will be punctual with burials here; they like to dwell on them, and keep the bell going, for the sake of the body, and the souls that must come after it. And so, when it was done, I was twenty minutes late for the up mail and the cross-country post, and had to move my hands pretty sharp, I can assure you. That doesn’t matter; I got through it, with the driver of the cart obliging, by means of some beer and cold bacon. But what I feared most was the Nepheton bag, having seen the old man at the funeral, and knowing what they do afterward. I could not return him ‘too late’ again, or he would lose his place for certain, and a shilling a day made all the difference to him, between wife and no wife. The old pair without it must go to the workhouse, and never see one another. However, when I was despairing quite of him, up he comes with his bag quite correct, but only one letter to sort in it, and that letter was, miss, the very identical of the one you held in your hands just now. And a letter as like it as two peas had come when we buried old Sally. It puzzled me then, but I had no clew to it; only now, you see, putting this and that together, the things we behold must have some meaning for us; and to let them go without it is against the will of God; especially when at the bottom of the bag.”
“If you hear so soon of any stranger in the valley,” I asked, to escape the re-opening of the opening question, “how can that man come and go — a man of remarkable stature and appearance — without any body asking who he is?”
“You scarcely could have put it better, miss, for me to give the answer. They do ask who he is, and they want to know it, and would like any body to tell them. But being of a different breed, as they are, from all outside the long valley, speaking also with a different voice, they fear to talk so freely out of their own ways and places. Any thing they can learn in and out among themselves, they will learn; but any thing out of that they let go, in the sense of outlandish matter. Bless you, miss, if your poor grandfather had been shot any where else in England, how different it would have been for him!”
“For us, you mean, Mrs. Busk. Do you think the man who did it had that in his mind?”
“Not unless he knew the place, as few know it. No, that was an accident of his luck, as many other things have been. But the best luck stops at last, Miss Erema; and unless I am very much mistaken, you will be the stop of his. I shall find out, in a few days, where he came from, where he staid, and when he went away. I suppose you mean to let him go away?”
“What else am I to do?” I asked. “I have no evidence at all against him; only my own ideas. The police would scarcely take it up, even if —”
“Oh, don’t talk of them. They spoil every thing. And none of our people would say a word, or care to help us, if it came to that. The police are all strangers, and our people hate them. And, indeed, I believe that the worst thing ever done was the meddling of that old Jobbins. The old stupe is still alive at Petersfield, and as pompous-headed as ever. My father would have been the man for your sad affair, miss, if the police had only been invented in his time. Ah, yes, he was sharp! Not a Moonstock man — you may take your oath of that, miss — but a good honest native from Essex. But he married my mother, a Moonstock woman; or they would not put up with me here at all. You quality people have your ideas to hold by, and despise all others, and reasonable in your opinions; but you know nothing — nothing — nothing — of the stiffness of the people under you.”
“How should I know any thing of that?” I answered; “all these things are new to me. I have not been brought up in this country, as you know. I come from a larger land, where your stiffness may have burst out into roughness, from having so much room suddenly. But tell me what you think now your father would have done in such a case as mine is.”
“Miss Erema, he was that long-headed that nobody could play leap-frog with him. None of them ever cleared over his barrel. He walked into this village fifty-five years back, this very month, with his spade upon his shoulder and the knowledge of every body in his eye. They all put up against him, but they never put him down; and in less than three months he went to church, I do assure you, with the only daughter of the only baker. After that he went into the baking line himself; he turned his spade into a shovel, as he said, and he introduced new practices.”
“Oh, Mrs. Busk, not adulteration?”
“No, miss, no! The very last thing he would think of. Only the good use of potatoes in the bread, when flour was frightful bad and painful dear. What is the best meal of the day? he used to reason. Dinner. And why? Why, because of the potatoes. If I can make people take potato for their breakfast, and potato for their supper too, I am giving them three meals a day instead of one. And the health of the village corresponded to it.”
“Oh, but, Mrs. Busk, he might have made them do it by persuasion, or at least with their own knowledge —”
“No, miss, no! The whole nature of our people, Moonstock or out of it, is never to take victuals by any sort of persuasion. If St. Paul was to come and preach, ‘Eat this or that,’ all I had of it in the shop would go rotten. They hate any meddling with their likings, and they suspect doctor’s rubbish in all of it.”
“I am quite of their opinion,” I replied; “and I am glad to hear of their independence. I always used to hear that in England none of the poor people dared have a will of their own.”
Mrs. Busk lifted up her hands to express amazement at my ignorance, and said that she “must run away and put the shutters up, or else the policeman would come rapping, and look for a glass of beer, which he had no right to till it came to the bottom of the firkin; and this one was only tapped last Sunday week. Don’t you ever think of the police, miss.”
Probably this was good advice, and it quite agreed with the opinions of others, and my own impressions as to the arrogant lethargy of “the force,” as they called themselves, in my father’s case. Mrs. Busk had more activity and intelligence in her little head than all the fat sergeants and inspectors of the county, helmet, belt, and staff, and all.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50